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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.

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.

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.

The Power of Talk March 15, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I have a confession (not really). While ostensibly a techie, I have two degrees in psychology.  I may have learned something in the process.  I am currently reading MIT researcher Sherry Turkle’s fascinating Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in The Digital Age.  The book is about how a flight from conversation undermines our relationships, creativity, and productivity.

It is an amazing book. It sends you in so many different directions.  Let me start with this.  We like to think that automation frees us from routine, boring tasks so that we may be creative.  Except that automation is also causing us to be automatons, dependent upon constant stimulation from the web, from Facebook, from tweeting, from texting, to prevent ourselves from feeling alone.

As we text, IM, and email to maintain connections, she believes that we have lost the ability to hold face to face conversations, with all of the spontaneity they hold. Instead, we avoid such encounters, instead wanting to edit our responses to make sure they are perfect and neutral.

All of us will recognize the behavior that she describes. For most of us, it is not pathological (I hope).  For some of us, it undoubtedly is.  Does it affect our creativity, and our authenticity?  I think it might.

If you read one serious book this year, this is the one.

I am decidedly not anti-technology. Yet any functioning adult who has spent time with themselves will intimately understand her message.  It is a sobering one.  It is not anti-technology either, but it shows, starkly, how technology may be changing us.

Homo superior? Or homo inferior?  At this point, I have more doubts than ever.

About SXSW, Gaming, and Free Speech March 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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So you may have heard about the gaming harassment summit that is a part of the highly attended South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, TX this week. And that it was poorly attended.

Well, at least a part of the reason it was poorly attended is that it was geographically remote from the main conference. And the SXSW organizers had already cancelled several sessions on similar topics, ostensibly because of the threat of violence.

I’m reading comments on LinkedIn on a couple of articles that talk about this summit. Professional people are actually attaching their names to screeds that advocate that threats of violence against participants is free speech, or that female gamers are getting what they deserve.  To be fair, it seems like LinkedIn quickly took down these posts, but that doesn’t change the thoughts and beliefs of the majority of commenters.

I am disgusted. Free speech in no conceivable world includes the right to make threats of violence or death against others.  I repeat: that is not free speech.

And what does this say about the environment that the SXSW conference is promoting and supporting? I know people who think this event is the best thing since hot buttered rum.  The President of the United States was at this conference, speaking on the government’s right to hack our phones.

That is wrong in so many ways, by the President (that’s you, Mr. Obama), and by people who believe that this event is in any way benign and supportive, and most especially those that make threats.

Free speech is letting those who disagree with us have a platform for doing so. Without fear of violence or retaliation.  It is not threatening them, and those who cannot discern that difference are wrong.  I wonder how this can possibly happen in the USA, in this day and age.

Bank of America is Pure Evil March 3, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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All I wanted to do was pay a couple of bills online, as I have done for years.  Suddenly I could not even reach a website that I had used for years.

I never wanted to bank at Bank of American to begin with.  About 25 years ago, I started my self-employment odyssey, and wanted to open a SEP (self-employment pension plan).  The only bank in my area offering such an account at the time was Nashua Federal Savings and Loan.  Well, in the interim, Nashua Federal became NFS, got bought by Baybank, which got bought by Bank of Boston, which became BankBoston, which got bought by Fleet, which was bought by Bank of America.

And here I am.  I would very much prefer not to be; service at Bank of America has at best been uneven, as they have failed to follow through on promises and churned the service people I was in the middle of dealing with.

And do you know what my real problem is?  “Our website has not changed, it’s your computer.”  I call bullshit.  I am using the same computer, and same browser version, as I did when I successfully logged on a few days earlier.  And, by the way, no OS updates either.

And it was incredibly insulting.  I tried to explain that I was a computer expert.  It may sound egotistical and self-serving, but I was trying to level-set my experience so that I might get assistance that was appropriate to that experience.  No dice.  They have one protocol, and they use it to the point of wearing it out.

I tolerated their protocol.  Now my IE configuration is completely screwed up, and I cannot log into anything right now.

I repeat:  All I wanted to do was pay a couple of bills.  Perhaps two minutes total.  I am now at an hour and a half, with no resolution on the horizon.

Bank of America, you are pure evil.

The Myths Behind Technology and Productivity February 26, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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There was a period of about 15 years from 1980 to 1995 when productivity grew at about half of the growth rate of the US economy. To many of us, this was the Golden Era of computing technology.  It was the time when computing emerged from the back office and became an emergent force in everyone’s lives.

When I entered the workforce, circa 1980, we typed correspondence (yes, on an IBM Selectric) and sent it through the postal system. For immediate correspondence, we sat for hours in front of the fax machine, dialing away.  Business necessarily moved at a slower pace.

So as we moved to immediate edits, email, and spreadsheets, why didn’t our measures of productivity correspondingly increase? Well, we really don’t know.  I will offer two hypotheses.  First, our national measures of productivity are lousy.  Our government measures productivity as hours in, product out.  We don’t produce defined product as much today as we did then (more of our effort is in services, which national productivity measures still more poorly), and we certainly don’t measure the quality of the product.  Computing technology has likely contributed to improving both of these.

Second, it is possible that improvements in productivity tend to lag leaps of technology. That is also a reasonable explanation.  It takes time for people to adapt to new technology, and it takes time for business processes to change or streamline in response.

Today, this article in Harvard Business Review discounts both of these hypotheses, instead focusing on the fact that we are communicating to more people, for little purpose.  Instead, this article focuses on what it calls the dark side of Metcalfe’s Law.  Metcalfe’s Law (named after Ethernet inventor and all-around smart guy Bob Metcalfe) states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

The dark side is that we talk to more people, with little productivity. I will acknowledge that technology has contributed to a certain amount of waste.  But it has also added an unmeasurable amount of quality to the finished product or service.  It has enabled talented people to work where they live, and not have to live where they work.  It has let us do things faster and more comprehensively than we were ever able to do in the past.

To say that this is not productive is simply stupid, and does not take into account anything in recent history.

Warning: I am not an economist, by any stretch of the imagination.  I am merely a reasonably intelligent technical person with innate curiosity about how things work.  However, from reading things like this, it’s not clear that many economists are reasonably intelligent people to begin with.

Apple, Your Argument Has Suddenly Become Lame February 25, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Like many, I tend to lean toward the side of Apple in its current travails with the Federal constabulary in cracking a singular iPhone with an eye toward getting information on terrorist networks, in the US and beyond. But your latest legal move has changed my mind.  Let me tell you why.

On the surface, this seems to be a relatively innocuous request to help find out who a terrorist was in contact with. That is a reasonable goal.  But I appreciate Apple’s argument.  Once you let the camel poke his nose into the tent, the rest of the camel will inevitably follow.  That is not meant as disparagement against anyone; rather, it means that once you open a door to a relatively minor exception, that makes larger exceptions inevitable.  And that is true.

And I strongly believe that our law enforcement authorities have become lazy. Sure, there in fact may be information available on many cell phone calls.  Why should I do real police work when I can issue warrants to tech companies?  But instead they are using this as an excuse to not do real police work, the kind of legwork and research for which our constabulary should be justifiably proud in the past.  As a principle, what our constabulary is doing is wrong.

But in legal filings, Apple is now arguing that they are being required to write code to comply with this court order. With that argument, I call bullshit.  Yes, Apple does have to write some code in order to deliver on the search warrant.  Is it a hardship?  Heck (hell) no.  Is it wrong?  I’m sorry, witnesses and even jury members make some significant sacrifices to support what is (mostly) a fair and honest legal system.  Why can’t Apple?  No, why won’t Apple?

A confession. I don’t necessarily have information on all of the technical nuances.  But with the filing that I cite, I don’t think that matters.

I fully realize that this is a legal argument that is relatively divorced from the larger issues within our Constitution. But I’m sorry, if Tim Cook stands in principle for anything at all, he should never have let this argument be advanced in court filings.  You either stand on principle, or you weasel-worm.  Tim Cook and Apple are now weasel-worming.  I don’t like it, and I don’t think they have to.

At this point, I have to strongly disapprove of Apple. And it brought it on itself.


Update:  On the other hand . . .

But Comey insists that there are no broad implications of the FBI’s request. It is simply trying to get into this one particular iPhone. But he said the FBI believes that hypothetical scenario to be an unreasonable argument against Apple’s cooperation.

“What if Apple engineers get kidnapped?” Comey asked rhetorically.

I had to certify that I didn’t use illegal drugs before joining the Air Force. I would have thought that the same requirement applied to the head of the FBI.


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