Monday, August 29, 2016

Reflecting Upon a Turning Point.

My Philosopher's journey continues
This week marks a bit of a turning point for me.  I have been part of R.R. Donnelley for three years.  This week as part of a complicated stock split, I am joining LSC Communications.  I am excited like a child going to a new school but I am also a bit scared by the unknown.  This week, I want to reflect on my agile journey and where it is taking me.

Three years, I left a consumer foods company as a programmer to become an architect.  My credentials as a scrum master gave me a leg up from the other candidates.  Quickly, I noticed that my new leadership had other plans for me.  Soon, I was leading a team of developers as a scrum master.  I was certain that change would come quickly and that the team would be kicking butt and taking names.  I was wrong.

I had to drop a few authoritarian traits I had picked up over the years.  I had to read numerous pieces of literature helping me expand my knowledge about agile and scrum.  I spent plenty of late nights working with the developers fixing bugs.  Finally, I had to confront the reality that I did not have all the answers.  It was humbling and a necessary experience.

Today, I am a few years older and wiser.  I am a much better scrum master than I was three years ago. Joining LSC Communications, I will not only be a scrum master but also coach for other teams in the organization.  It should be a valuable experience.

The philosopher Heraclitus said we could never set foot in the same river twice.  As I am about to cross over into another unexplored territory, I can say that I am not the same scrum master I was three years ago and I am ready for the challenge ahead of me.

Until next time.

Monday, August 22, 2016

I Can't Believe I was Being this Dumb

I can learn a few things from this guy.
A scrum master is a leader without any authority.  They are someone you follow because they help you become a better developer and help you finish projects in a timely manner.  It is not for everyone.  I spend much of my time in self-reflection and attempting to improve my skills.  I also have to control my autocratic and curmudgeonly nature when I am dealing with individuals who are not pulling their weight.  On twitter, I had an interesting interaction with someone I respect in the user experience field Gail Swanson and I think there are a few lessons to be shared.

Like many of us, she uses twitter as a place to vent frustrations, test out ideas and share knowledge.  I respect her and follow her because she has plenty of things to say about being a good user experience person.  Then she shared this on twitter.

I responded with the following
Finally, Angela Dugan chimed in and she might as well have dropped a mike.

It took some time for this to sink in but it dawned on me that words and behaviors matter.  What I consider being respectful to my developers comes off as condescending and superior.  How I spoke to them effected their performance and it need to change right away.  I was being dumb.  So now, I use the terms “everybody”, “team” or “folks” to refer to the people I am working with.  I was doing something dumb and it took people I respected to point it out to me.

A contemporary scrum master has to interact with numerous people.  They work with off shore teams and on shore teams.  They are mixed by gender and religious affiliation.  I have Sikh, Muslims and Hindus working for me off shore.  On shore, I deal with evangelical Protestants, Neo-Pagans and Atheists.  What unites all of us is that we know how to code and that we are working on the same project.  I as the scrum master need to respect these cultural differences and keep everyone focused on the end goal.  My personal feelings or prejudices need to called out and controlled if I am going to guide these individuals to their goal.

It also means that the macho cruft that you see in software development needs to go away.  I am fortunate enough to work at an organization where women are incorporated into all of the development teams.  I think that has improved the development teams.  The testers, technical leads, developers, and QA people who are female are regular members of the teams and because of their skills have earned the respect of their male colleagues.  For our organization, diversity produces better results.

So there you have it; a scrum master needs to change and adapt.  The increase of off-shore development and the number of woman in the profession, has made me confront some of my own prejudices and make changes. I hope others can learn from my example.  I am just trying to be a better scrum master and guy.

Until next time.

Monday, August 15, 2016

If it isn't broke you better fix it.

This didn't have to happen.
I have been off line for a week as I attended the Gen-Con game fair in Indianapolis and tried to get back into the swing of things at work.  While I was away, I had a chance to recharge my batteries and have a good time playing board games with friends.  I also got to have a little fun with the people at Big Potato Games which is seems like a fun group of people who are making a big splash in the industry.  When I came back two things happened which got my attention which illustrated the paradox of contemporary business and modern technology.

The first was the problem with Delta Airlines and its reservation system which grounded the company for two days.  The second was a small article in the technology press about Windows 10 updates.  Both articles illustrate to me that the business maxim, “…if it isn’t broke don’t fix it,” is seriously wrong.  If you are a company in the 21st century if you want to remain in business it is your responsibility to upgrade your technology infrastructure and applications.

First, Delta airlines relies on its reservation system to be managed on AS/400 systems and mainframes using the IBM Transaction Processing Facility software.  The software was last upgraded by IBM ten years ago and the only people who can fix something if anything goes wrong are IBM consultants.  If something goes wrong a CIO and their company is forced to call IBM to make changes and corrections.  In the same ten year span, Microsoft has had four operating systems; Windows 7, Vista, Windows 8 and Windows 10.  Presently, there is an entire ecosystem of developers outside of Microsoft who can alter, improve or fix these systems.  So if an airline wants more availability to labor and more up to date systems they should go with a Microsoft solution.

This did not happen for a few reasons.  First, airlines for all their talk of customer service and being high tech are notoriously stingy with money to upgrade and improve their technology infrastructure.  So what they did is graft other technology systems on to their old IBM infrastructure.  If the AS/400 went down, it would create a cascading effect which would shut down the airline.  According to the news, that is exactly what happened as numerous technology professionals scrambled to get the systems back up and running.  It also lead to the CEO of the company publicly admitting they are doing the best they could to fix the problem without knowing exactly what went wrong.    Next, the people who make the decisions about the funding felt this risk was so unlikely that they decided that the system was not broken and so they did not need to make improvements.

This kind of thinking is foolish.  Software is like any other machine but it manufactured out of ones and zeros instead of steel.  Machinery needs to be maintained or it will break down.  Fail to change the oil in your car and see what happens after 100,000 miles.  That is the exact situation which happened at Delta. The people driving the organization put off or ignored routine maintenance to its systems because it would cost money to do so.  As long as everything was working, there was no need to do maintenance and upgrades.  As you can see, this cost the company millions of dollars when the system failed and hurt its reputation for quality service.

The other new item I saw this week was a brief blurb about how Windows 10 updates are not an iron clad guarantee that a system will not be compromised by hackers because people generally do not upgrade the other software on their machines.  As a technology professional we have seen people with Windows 10 machines with copies of Office 2007 on them.  This mixing and matching of software in the real world is common because people don’t have the money to upgrade everything.  This creates openings for hackers and people willing to do bad things.

This is short sided like a person not changing the oil in their car.  When you upgrade an operating system you should be able to update the software which is on that operating system.  This is why I am a big fan of Google Documents and Microsoft’s Office 365 software because these cloud based systems update automatically and do not rely on the user purchasing and installing upgrades.  The burden is no longer on the consumer but on the company providing the software which is what it should be.

So in one week the world witnessed an object lesson in why the phrases, “…if it isn’t broke don’t fix it,” is wrong.  Old and outdated software which was not maintained properly failed spectacularly.  The only people who could fix the software was a third party vendor which was not responsive.  The pennies saved on upgrades and improvements became millions of dollars in technical debt which shut down the company.  Finally, the reputation of the company was hurt by this kind of thinking.

It is also clear that just upgrading operating systems is not enough the applications which run on those operating systems need to be improved.  I understand that in the world of technology bragging about your new data center or software upgrades to your core business is not as glamorous as web application or phone app but it is just as important because when those systems fail they fail in an embarrassing and spectacular fashion.  So it is up to everyone from the largest company to the personal consumer to pay attention to how they maintain their software.  If not, expect to be grounded.

Until next time.

Monday, August 1, 2016

When your office resembles high school

We grow up but never out of high school
When I was a high school student, I had an irrational fantasy about being an adult.  I truly believed when I left school, I would enter an adult world and be surrounded by grown-ups acting in grown up ways.  In the thirty years since high school, I have been bitterly disappointed. This week a few thoughts about how your office resembles high school.

Any American who attended a public high school knows that the students live in a social and cultural limbo. Over achieving strivers are wedged together with cheerleaders.  Hard rock students in black concert shirts walk the hallways with people into hip-hop wearing track suites.  The public high school is one of the few places where people from different economic circumstances, races, and levels of educational acumen are forces to interact with each other.  Naturally, they self-separated and create tribes.

As a dorky kid, I was both outcast and court jester for the insular and sad world.  Eventually, I found a niche in forensics to develop my public speaking and in JROTC to improve my self-discipline. The formative time shaped me into what I am today.

To my surprise, the mean girls who tormented me in school would resurface as marketing, human resources, and project management professionals.  The homecoming kings and athletes would transform into sales professionals and executives.  The dorky people who said not to drugs, studies hard, and developed insane technical skills.  We still answer to these monster in corporate environments.  No wonder so many of us become entrepreneurs.

The first thing I have learned is that mean girls grow up to be mean woman.  I have also learned that mean people are not worth your emotional energy.  They are going to remain mean so the best strategy is to ignore them or treat them with the contempt they deserve.  Telling someone they are being a jerk is the first step in getting them to change.  It is also good to point out to their bosses that the mean person’s attitude is why projects are not getting done on time or on budget.  You will be pleasantly surprised what happens next.  A good leader will fix that situation immediately.

As for the athletes and popular people who become executives, I have found listening to sports radio and watching ESPN sports center gives me enough knowledge to talk sports without sounding totally clueless.  It also allows you to use sports metaphors to describe technical situations.  For instance, I was building a web site and running into problems with the corporate active directory.  I told a boss that the situation was like a basketball team with a player who won’t pass the ball.  A few phone calls later my issue was fixed.

I am not suggesting that you become a tattle tale but I have discovered that when interpersonal issues prevent a project getting completed leaders behave like a high school principle and step in.  It is not pretty but in a world where dollars and cents count.  The person who gets work done is always going to receive preferential treatment over the person preventing that from happening.

So none of us really escape high school but hopefully as adults we can deal with the people who act like they are still in it.

Until next time.