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Some Hard Questions About Building a Team April 23, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.
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I feel a certain kinship with Pieter Hintjens.  From his blog, it sounds like his diagnosis was similar to mine, last year.  My diagnosis was wrong, and I declined surgery.  In the same universe, he had the Whipple procedure, and has had at least several years of life tacked onto the end of his existence.  And they seem to have been productive years, in a professional and personal sense, although it sounds like he may have little time left on the mortal plane.

But, reading other posts of his, I would hesitate to place myself firmly in his camp. Among his posts, on the viability of GitHub moving forward:

>> . . . a climate in which political outsiders use the weapons of gender and race against meritocracy.

So what is meritocracy? And what are the weapons of gender and race?

There was a time when I believed in strict meritocracy, like it was something that was easily definable and measureable. Age and experience have cured me of that delusion.  In fact, we can’t define meritocracy in any way that doesn’t include our own biases.

Let me explain. Certainly, we can devise a test to determine who is the best at a particular skill.  Or can we?

I spent my formative years studying psychology, which is where I was introduced to the concept of bias. We have these things called IQ tests, which purport to measure innate intelligence.  Or something like that.  But whatever we are measuring is the end product of our own biases of what comprises intelligence.  There is a question on the standard IQ Test:  What color is a banana?  Seems straightforward.  But to someone growing up with spoiled bananas, or no bananas at all, or even is color-blind, the question becomes problematic.  Irrespective of intelligence.

I would not bet on a team that had the ten best programmers. I would bet on a team that worked as a team, with strengths and weaknesses.  To compensate for the weaknesses, we need different points of view.  To get different points of view, we need team members that are different, yet are cohesive.  That is harder, and we shy away from harder.

Yes, there are people, who in their ignorance or incompetence, brandish gender and race maxims as teleology. And yes, they are wrong in a fundamental sense.  And it is unfortunate that we have to endure them.

But that doesn’t mean that there is not value here. We are lazy.  We ascribe success to intelligence, or ability.  I say no.  Success means having teams with complementary skills, not the best skills necessarily, but skills that offer the best chance of working effectively together.

How can we tell the difference between real value and political one ups-man-ship? Ah, that is the rub.  I won’t pretend to be able to do so.  But I do know that choosing the ten best pure coders is a recipe for failure.

Life is a Marathon April 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am truly disturbed when I hear politicians and pundits talk about reclaiming the American Dream.  Like it is something that got lost at some point.

So let me start here. I am of the Boomer generation, yes, obviously we had everything go our way, throughout our careers, and we exploited the system and our Fellow Man to grab as much as we could.  We are the fat cats, and had an exceptionally great life.

Except that the year I graduated college, unemployment was the highest it had ever been since the Great Depression. And at a high of 11 percent, it was even higher than it was in the Great Recession of the late 2000s.  And inflation topped out at over 17 percent annually in the next year or two.  We have never seen that in the last century, except for my coming of age.  Our greatest earning years were interrupted by 9/11 and the Great Recession, and I won’t even get into the milder recession in the Boston area in the early 1990s.

Yup, many of us were out of work. I’m not sure about you, but I went into the military.  The pay was low even by the standards of the day, but I had an effective start to a professional career.

My parents, card-carrying members of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, lived as children through the Great Depression. Many barely got by, and many more migrated in the vain hope that they could feed their families.  Millions of Americans were killed or wounded in World War II.  My father stormed Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, but was only wounded, so I am here today.

Later, 58,000 young American men and women were killed in a far-away country called Vietnam (and I won’t even get into the Vietnamese losses). Several of them were my elder peers, growing up.  Tens of thousands of others were scarred for life by the horrific experience.  In between was Korea, which cost tens of thousands more lives.

Yup, they lived the American Dream.

I could go back further (not necessarily with my family), but why bother? My point?  I don’t believe that the idealized American Dream ever existed as it is portrayed in myth and legend, in the media and by the politicians and pundits.

And that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Well-meaning but terribly misguided people like Starbucks’ Howard Schultz (linked to above) seem to think that a vision was lost, a reality that existed and was banked on no longer does.

I’d argue that his so-called vision was a hallucination that never existed. Sure, maybe for some people, who had everything to begin with, or those for whom all of the breaks went in a positive direction.  People like, well, Howard Schultz.

We cannot measure ourselves by the circumstances by which we come of age. We can’t look back at 24 and say that circumstances have treated us poorly in life.  We cannot take our measure of life until it is over.  And we are all individuals, with individual needs and desires in our lives, our careers, our emotional connections, and our fulfillments.  Everyone’s goal is different.

Howard Schultz, you are more than wrong; you are dangerous.

Graduating and the Cult of Organizational Culture April 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’ll confess right at the beginning that I’ve been reading Dan Lyons, a.k.a. Fake Steve Jobs, and more recently with HubSpot. He notes that it, and other companies, promote a culture that those of us who have been around for a while may find strange.  One telling example is that when a person is fired (let go, laid off, or whatever you want to call it), they are euphemistically referred to as having “graduated”.

I’ve also been giving some thought to the simply incorrect concepts that are unquestioningly accepted in many tech companies regarding culture. Cultural fit is probably at the top of that list.  Dan cites the “culture code” that Netflix published in 2009, where Netflix views itself as a sports team, always looking to have “stars in every position”.

Um, no. That is not a sports team.  No sports team has stars at every position.  What they have are people that can contribute complimentary skills that, taken as a whole, make the team strong.  I seem to remember a professional football team from a few years ago that declared itself to be a “Dream Team” based on the quality of individual players.  That dream team went 4-12, resulting in the firing of the coach and dismantling of the team.

I feel safe in saying that Netflix is wrong, on so many levels.

As it happens, I know the Moneyball concepts fairly intimately, thanks to a series of presentations and articles I did. The Oakland Athletics didn’t consist of stars by any means.  In fact, it had no stars.  Instead, it had people who had well-defined results in specific areas that were highly correlated with winning games.

We can’t define what wins games in software, because there is a broad range of outcomes between being wildly successful and filing for bankruptcy. And that conclusion can change surprisingly fast.  It is a marathon, not a sprint with a defined winner and loser at the end of each day.  But we can build a team to thrive through good times and adversity.  And that team might have stars, but it also has journeymen, older and younger contributors, and contributors with different societal perspectives.

Organizational culture is not a unique value proposition, nor a competitive advantage. It is a filter through which the organization views and makes decisions about hiring, working conditions, benefits, and interaction with employees.  Not all filters are bad, although many are.  By filtering, we are limiting the scope (and I would argue the value) of information that the organization will consider and act on.

I think it’s pretty clear that what Lyons describes is an unhealthy work environment, mentally and likely physically. I doubt that it has anything but a negative impact on the long-term success of HubSpot.

So what are the things that make organizations unhealthy rather than healthy? The GE forced ranking and yanking system of the 1980s that was widely praised and copied is today considered stupid and counterproductive.  Accepted thinking changes, although any reasonable assessment of what GE was doing must acknowledge that it hurt more than helped.

Ultimately, it may boil down to the Potter Stewart rule of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”  Ultimately, we will build a better company, and a better culture, if we set those filters broad rather than narrow.  Disagreements in strategy and tactics can, and should, be healthy.

I Have a Semi-Political Story to Tell April 7, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Shortly before I turned 18 years old, it turned out that 18-year olds were granted the right to vote. Up until then, you could be drafted into the Army at 18 (and I narrowly missed the draft), but couldn’t vote until you were 21.  Some powers raised an eminently reasonable objection to that, and 18 year olds could vote.  So I was about 18 at this time, and registered to vote.

I was a full time student in college, registered to vote absentee, and did so, legally.

But my vote, my first vote, didn’t count. It was tossed out.  And here is why.  My father, with whom I share a given name, voted in person, in our old rural fire station.  He gave his name, “Peter Varhol.”  The poll checker looked him up in the roles, and asked “Peter D.”?  My father took that to mean he was a registered Democrat (which he was), and replied in all honesty, “Yes.”

I am Peter D., not my father. So I (we) voted twice, and because mine was the one that came in via mail (yes, the US Postal Service), it lost out.

Today, I have to show a photo ID in my state to vote. I understand that it is this way in most states today.  Now, throughout my life, I was told that showing ID discouraged those who couldn’t vote in the past.  It made sense.  To anyone who has read recent history, that makes a lot of sense.

But I remain sad that I lost my first vote, because of the requirement to not show ID.

I don’t know what the right answer is here. I would like to see everyone who can vote do so.  At the same time, I wish my vote, now 40 years ago, had not been tossed aside because of an error that could have been easily rectified.

I am not political, and will support any candidate and official who doesn’t break anything.  We tend to make a lot out of our voting and election process. In the grand scheme of things, we will make mistakes.  From a personal standpoint, it remains a disappointment to me.  I don’t think there is any easy fix to something like this.  So let’s figure out how we can let every who is eligible to vote do so.

My Manifesto for Human Interaction April 5, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I resolve:

To treat everyone I meet, however casually, with politeness and respect, no matter what the circumstances.

To judge people by the value that they deliver, rather than the color of their skin, their gender, their appearance, their age, their religious beliefs, or anything else that doesn’t affect our interactions.

And that that value may be intellectual, physical, emotional, commercial, spiritual, or any other measure that lets both of us live in the way that we do. It is a very big world, after all.

That while I may disagree with others, I do so knowing that they believe that their point of view is valid to them, and that I should seek to understand.

And that while I may understand, I also realize that disagreement may place us into conflict. I regret that, but if you should choose to physically or emotionally harm others, I will not be on your side.

And I hope they will see me in a similar way. And that I might be worthy of such treatment.  To be fair, I’m not sure that I am.  It is an ongoing process.

I think I have mostly delivered on this in my life, but now this is my stake in the ground.

Plane Spotting April 2, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I didn’t know a lot about airliners back in the day, but perhaps a couple of times a year, starting in the late 1960s, my father used to take me out to a road at the end of Greater Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) to watch planes take off. I suppose this is an acquired taste, but to me, a homebound youth with a travel bug, it was how I connected to a larger world at the time.

I wasn’t good at identifying planes, now 40-plus years ago. There were few resources for youth and aviation at that time.  I think I might be marginally better today, at least with the aircraft manufacturers in the Western Hemisphere (okay, Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, and Embraer; I can even do an occasional Gulfstream and LearJet).  I probably know something of the general aviation craft too, but those have changed substantially from the basic Piper (no longer in business), Cessna (mostly commercial), and Bellanca (no longer in business).  Many are now of European origin; it has become prohibitively expensive to produce small planes in the US these days.

I grew up near Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. It had a small airport where the high-wing Volair 4-seaters were manufactured.  I understand from my decades-long subscription to Flying magazine that it was an early progenitor to the Rockwell Aero Commander.

I also became a pilot. In fact, I soloed the day after I got my driver’s license, at 16, in a Piper Cherokee 140 (for those of you who are counting, this was 1973).  I got the license, but rarely flew after that.  My eyesight precluded flying for the Air Force, and somewhere along the line I lost the bug.  I did have one wonderful afternoon with a commercial Britten-Norman Islander in the Caribbean in my 20s, where the pilot let me fly right seat and take the controls.

Today, I primarily engage in plane spotting when I travel.  Sometimes (I live close to one of the final legs of MHT Runway 36) I can pick out the Southwest 737s coming in, mostly because of their distinctive paint schemes.  And in the summertime, when it’s light out and I’m jogging in the early morning, I can see the old yellow DHL Boeing 727 or the FedEx Airbus 318 as they come in around 5AM.

I care about commercial aircraft in part because I want to know where to sit when I fly. But I will also sit in the Delta Sky Club in DTW, or ATL, or wherever my travels take me, and watch planes taxi, take off, and land.  I lost the car bug early in my adulthood, but the plane bug still holds a grip on me.

We Don’t Understand Our Numbers March 27, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I recently bought The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Cost Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives, by Stephen T. Ziliak and Deidre N. McCloskey.

Here’s the gist. Statistics is a great tool for demonstrating that a difference found between two sampling results is “real”.  What do I mean by real?  It means that if I measured the entire population, rather than just took samples, I would know that the results would be different.  Because I sample, I have uncertainty, and statistics provide a way to quantify the level of uncertainty.

How different? Well, that’s the rub.  We make certain assumptions about what we are measuring (normal distribution, binomial distribution), and we attempt to measure how much the data in each group differ from one another, based on the size of our sample.  If the two types of results are “different enough”, based on a combination of mean, variation, and distribution, we can claim that there is a statistically significant difference.  In other words, it there a real difference in this measure between the two groups?

But is the difference important? That’s the question we continually fail to ask.  The book Reclaiming Conversation talks about measurements not as a result, but as the beginning of a narrative.  The numbers are meaningless outside of their context.

Often a statistically significant difference becomes unimportant in a practical sense. In drug studies, for example, the study may be large enough, and the variability low enough, to confirm an improvement with an experimental drug regimen, but from a practical sense, the improvement isn’t large enough to invest to develop.

My sister Karen, a data analyst for a medical center, has pointed out to me that significance can also be in the other direction. She collects data on patient satisfaction, and points out that even minor dissatisfaction can have a large effect across both the patient population and the hospital.

That’s just one reason why the measurement is the beginning of the conversation, rather than the conclusion. The number is not the fait accompli; rather, it is the point at which we know enough about the subject to begin talking intelligently.

Testing and the Aftermath of Brussels March 26, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development.
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My collaborator Gerie Owen and I had the honor and privilege of speaking twice at the Belgium Testing Days conference.  We are very familiar with the areas that suffered from indiscriminate terrorist bombings earlier this week, and our hearts go out to the victims and survivors.

Much can be said about this. I will limit my comments to its impact on the testing community in Belgium and in Europe in general.  While the organizers of Belgium Testing Days have confirmed to us that they and their loved ones are well and safe, it seems like any organization that is trying to bring people together in Belgium, and to perhaps a lesser extent in other parts of Europe, is at risk.

And that sets back the testing community immensely. One of the important things that we do as a profession is to gather people of similar interest and enthusiasm to exchange knowledge and ideas to advance the field.  It has been my perception that Belgium Testing Days was an important part of that exchange in the European testing community.

No matter where we work or live, we are influenced by outside events. In this case, these events can stunt the growth of our community, and the professional development of individuals.

Gathering in large groups may not be what we want to do right now, because of the risk of being involved in a terror attack. We all make our own decisions, of course.  But I am going to continue to participate in testing and DevOps conferences, in Europe and beyond.


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