Archive for the 'The Journey' Category

Ben, the CFO

June 18, 2008

Ben, the CFO here at Ideal, is an interesting, complex guy. He is a Certified Public Accountant, which is a pretty big deal in bean counter circles, and at first glance he’s very much an accountant. He’s small, a little geeky, and greying. He speaks clearly, but softly, and the care that goes into his communications is obvious. He is very cautious in what he says, and very sensitive to not upsetting anyone.

That’s dimension number one.

Other Dimensions

He’s also very well-read, and actually has written a book I’m currently reading. It’s about how ridiculous the modern world is, and it has a heavy dose of (dorky) humor. That’s dimension number two. He’s funny, and unflappable, which I really like. He doesn’t like nonsense, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. In his author bio he listed all the busboy and dishwasher jobs he’s ever had — he says there is dignity in all professions. I can dig that.

Here’s dimension number three:

Knowing that he is sensitive, I had to apologize to him once. During my ordeal trying to get the software system that Walter was dragging ass on in place, I was in a meeting with Ben, Walter, and a sales guy named John. John was a rep for the vendor Ideal had been dealing with before I arrived.

Like most sales guys, John waved his hands lot and was very light on substance. I asked him a few pointed questions and believed that I made him visibly uncomfortable at times. I do not feel bad about this, it’s my job to sort out the technical bullshat that vendors try to throw at medium companies.

After the meeting, I spoke to Ben privately. I told him I know he likes to walk softly, and apologized if I had been more aggressive than he’s used to.

He laughed at me.

“Someone needs to kick ass around here, I’m glad you’re the one doing it,” he said.

Ben is going to make an excellent ally.

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Information Addiction, or Maintaining Focus

June 16, 2008

I was reading my favorite blog, Overcoming Bias, when a background thought I’ve been toying with for the past few days was thrust into the spotlight by Hal Finney.

My thought went something like this: I don’t need to consume so much information. I read too much and it’s distracting. At even the slightest hint of downtime, I’ll fire up Google Reader, and see if there anything new on Slashdot, Seth Godin, Overcoming Bias, Paul Graham, Steve Pavlina, JJ Astor — anything to fill my brain.

Sexy Librarian

Hal calls this Information Porn. It’s titillating, and it fills some chemical need in my brain, but it’s distracting and ultimately not very useful. Before reading his post, I had limited my reading time to once in the morning — spend half an hour reading all the material on all the sites I aggregate into my reader, then turn it off for the rest of the day.

I had taken steps toward limiting my time on any IM services, or checking E-mail as well. When one is in the habit of checking for new information continually, it becomes like breathing. Need oxygen? Breathe! Have a spare half second? Check for new information!

In fact, I checked Google Reader this morning, and dutifully closed it when I was finished. Then as I wrote the sentence above, I realized I hadn’t checked a forum I frequent. So I checked it. It’s now 25 minutes later, and I’ve read about 23 minutes of totally useless information, even while the topic of not wasting my time on information overload is on my mind and at my fingertips — such is the power of habit. New rule: Only check that forum once per day, and only click external links from it during the weekend.

Incremental Approach

Meaningful change is wine that one has to be truly prepared to drink, or he’ll choke it down to be polite, then it’s back to Budweiser. It’s often better to take sips rather than gulps, and to that end I recommend two tactics you can use to acquire the taste for change:

  1. Make small, incremental changes. Not long ago I limited my time on google reader. Today I realized that forum of mine was a problem, so I made a small change to solve it. Maybe in the future I’ll eliminate it entirely, but for now, I’ll take small sips.
  2. The 30 day trial is a strategy I learned from Steve Pavlina. In a nutshell, he says that making a change in your life is difficult, so create a window of 30 days that you will use to maintain self discipline. Make the change for 30 days, and 30 days only. The goal will be close enough to achieve, but long enough to have meaningful results so that you can decide whether to stick with your change at the end.

Jesper the Frenetic Problem Solver

June 13, 2008

All the successful people I’ve met personally have a wild streak. They are attention deficit poster children.

Bulldozer

Jesper is a case in point. This guy is full bore ahead 100% of the time. He speaks so quickly he trips over his own words 10 times before he gets them out. He has this bulldozer mentality that makes every path clear ahead of him. He told me the other day that a while back he wanted to lose some weight. His solution? “I just stopped eating,” he said, as if it were obvious. He didn’t stop to consider the long term health ramifications, or worry about his blood sugar, or whether his muscle was metabolizing before his fat.

He had fat, food makes fat, he stopped having food for a couple weeks, he stopped having fat.

A Leaf

It’s really not my style, but I think there’s something to Jesper’s mentality. I think he tends to be short-sighted because he’s not organized and he has no plan for the future (which is a big reason for my employment at Ideal), but he’s fantastic at breaking through that initial ceiling of possibility. He threw together a company that now brings in $40m+ in revenue per year, and now, from atop his seven figure throne, he can stop to worry about how to fix the path of destruction he’s left. It’s the opposite of over thinking.

Over thinking is my vice, and the vice of many people who want to be successful. Instead of bulldozing through the issues as they come like Jesper does, I sit around worrying that I might run into some and planning for that eventuality.

Open Book

Maybe I need to use my self-discipline to simply bust through the first barrier — the barrier of all these systems that I need but don’t have, the barrier of getting a working model of Emerald out the door before people get antsy. Does that mean working more? Working smarter? Being more pushy? Maybe I shouldn’t worry about it.

PS. Sorry for the delay in posting this week, I lost my rhythm, over thought the problem, then eventually bulldozed it by writing a whole bunch!

Winning Big

June 6, 2008

I had scheduled a meeting with David, our CEO, several times in the past weeks, but on Monday, after being stood up on all those occasions, I finally just walked in to his office and started talking, which worked out in an interesting way.

It turns out that many of the concerns that Walter had were echoes of David’s concerns. Also, as I thought, Walter had been under pressure to complete other tasks he had, so it was all a bit overwhelming to him.

The particular concerns he had are a topic for another post.

The interesting thing was that I got to explain, in my view, what was going on to David, and without prompting, David asked me if I wanted to take ownership of the project, which was one of my goals for the meeting anyway.

He asked me what the cost of the system would be, and how much time it would take. When I told him, he said, “Ken, I want you to win big on this, but I need to know that it will happen.” Then he asked me if I’d bet my paycheck on it — and he meant it.

Overconfidence

Climb with Care and Confidence

To answer him, I looked him in the face and I told him I would, yes. Even though I know that nothing is certain, I also know that bosses prefer overconfident managers. Using that knowledge, I knew not to equivocate– “Well, sort of… I guess, if…”

I said, yes, I would. Given the choice between betting my paycheck on Slomo or AwesomeSoft, I choose to bet on AwesomeSoft.

In response, he gave me the responsibility for the project. What is the risk in telling him to fire me if the project doesn’t go as planned?

Let’s play a little game theory.

Take Responsibility Reject Responsibility
Project Fails I lose my job, and I get another one. I continue to suffer under the onerous burden of not having any infrastructure for my team.
Project Succeeds I “Win Big.” Nothing happens to me. I get the system I want, and I am in roughly the same political position.

Let’s explore what that matrix means

  • If I have utterly misstepped, and in my arrogance recommended a system and a vendor that are going to fail, I risk being fired. If that happens, I may not be able to find a job at my current salary level, but I will be able to find one at an acceptably high level, so the stakes are fairly low here.
  • If I do not take responsibility, the project will fail. The path that Walter is headed down is a dead end. He’s considering going with a scuzy, proprietary vendor to get mediocre software that will not fit the needs of all departments, and will not scale for the future. That means the scenario of my not taking responsibility for the project ends the same way every time: I still have my job, but it’s doomed. I will not have the tools to build a strong team, or to meet the regulatory requirements that the government has set for the software I’m tasked with building. If I let this project go by the wayside, I will lose my opportunity to become the technical leader at Ideal because I’ll be bogged down indefinitely.

So, what looked like a risky proposition — staking my career at Ideal on something that is uncertain — actually turns out to be the only reasonable alternative to beginning an active job search. If I didn’t take the risk, I’d be almost certain to fail at my job, that same way that taking the risk is almost sure to save it.

How to be a Code Monkey

May 12, 2008

In my line of work, the pejorative term for a drone is “code monkey.” Yours may have a different parlance: desk jockey, shyster, George W, whatever. They all mean the same thing: you are a warm body, expected to keep your head down, and do what you’re told. You have no ideas, no input, and if you rock the boat, you’re expendable.

There is a reason this is the first step of working your way up the ladder. It reinforces the notion from school that you are not good enough or smart enough to think or act independently. It instills fear into your thought process and conditions you to follow orders from up the chain.

Don’t get me wrong. There is no evil overlord carefully planning the subjugation of your independent mind. We’re not in the tinfoil hat brigade here. What I’m talking about is the status quo, and this is one mechanism by which it is maintained: those who climb ladders are likely to be conditioned to force other people to climb ladders, and they are conditioned to think this is right and proper. I’m here to tell you, it’s not. Companies are not machines used to rank human beings, they are groups of people out to make a profit. If you add value, good, if you don’t, you’re dead weight.

Deal with Reality

Code Monkey

But here we find ourselves, under the crushing weight of tradition and the status quo. People occasionally get lucky and accidentally steal a social networking script and start FaceBook. Chances are that at some point you’ll have to be the code monkey somewhere, even if it’s just for a little while. So here’s how to make the best of it.

  1. Do your work as well as you can. Excelling in whatever you do is a good way to learn a lot about it. Think critically about your work, the work of your peers, and that of your bosses as well. Constantly strive to do better work than you did before.
  2. Treat your boss like a peer. Careful with this one, bronco. You have to navigate the waters of ego with a keen eye to pull this off, but the idea is to carry yourself in such a way that your boss thinks of you as a peer. Speak his language, let him know you understand his job and situation. See #1 to be the perfect employee, but go beyond that by being able to mentally handle your boss’s job as well. It will become a forgone conclusion that you are in the next in line for promotion, or special assignments, or perks, or what have you.
  3. Branch out to other areas of the company.When I worked for Acme, I was always talking to people outside my department, and above my pay grade. I knew a lot about the business that others in my department had no idea about, not even my superiors. My boss’s boss’s boss had a policy of keeping a boundary up around people below the VP pay grade, but his boss had no such compunction. I called him, an Executive Vice President, who people in my department cowered under the shadow of, and I asked him out for lunch. We talked about a lot of things, but my point to him was that the department was headed for trouble. I told him that based on his plans for growth, the department would buckle in about a year and no one there could do anything about it, no matter how smart they were. It was dire, but I was speaking his language. He didn’t think of me as the pleb I was, because I was interacting with him in a neutral place, in the tone of a peer. That’s how to create opportunities to move up… if that’s your goal.

The secret of being a code monkey is to pretend you aren’t one. Use that wasted brain power to learn and grow, and expand your network, with an eye the future, and to your goals.

Get your Foot in the Door

May 7, 2008

This is the story of how I jumped from young guy with no experience, to Senior Developer at a Fortune 500. You should go back and read the Lessons of the Fast Track if you haven’t already, it’s good primer material.

As I mentioned, I had been working with technology seriously for 8 years when I started college. I faced the issue of doing work that was better than the market average, but not having the documentation to prove it. I also was a full time student, so working a 9 to 5 wasn’t in the cards (not that that’s a great idea anyway). The obvious answer was to continue what I had been doing, but bring it to the next level.

I had been freelancing for clients, using my parents as a point of contact when necessary to provide the fictional context that clients need to feel confident. Now I was old enough to pull off the contact myself without pretense. I was fortunate to meet a guy who is a very bright business man, and we went into business together full time when I was about 20.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend going into business for yourself at least once. It doesn’t matter what market you target, just come up with something you think will be profitable, and go for it. You’ll learn at a ridiculous rate. I learned to handle the paperwork of a business, deal with clients of all stripes, sell services, design increasingly complex software systems, discover the joy of due diligence, and find that the business I was in wasn’t really for me. It was an extremely valuable period for me.

It was doubly so because I was able to parlay that learning experience into a Senior Dev position at what it reputed to be the best technology employer in my city.

Think Deeply

Think Deeply

This goes back to my thoughts on getting started early. If your formative years have been spent passively consuming media, then that is what you’re likely to want to do as an adult. You will attend class in college expecting to be passively educated. You will get a job by passively seeking interviews until someone accepts you. You will spend your career passively doing your job, and passively earning small raises and promotions along the way.

On the other hand, if your world is filled with opportunities and interests, waiting to be grabbed and explored, then that world is your oyster. During my time freelancing, I learned everything I could about my craft – I was always thinking about how to improve in technology and in business.

I tried many things that turned out to be miserable failures. I poured my heart into projects that were poorly researched, ill conceived, and turned out to be shitty. I’m really glad I did all that – I understood what I was doing far more deeply than most people in the profession do. I wasn’t just thinking about how to get through the day, I always thought about the skills I’d need in the future. What if I got a bigger client? What if I had to hire a person to help me with my growing workload?

I thought about that, and learned about it before it ever came to pass. That’s how I work on everything – I work with an eye to the future.

Foot, meet Door

I had a resume that listed my undocumented experience in a context that made sense to corporate recruiters and hiring managers. I sent it to everyone I knew, and put it on job boards far and wide. I looked for about a month, I went to dozens of interviews, sometimes up to three per day.

By the time I was sitting in the three part interview with the guy who would later be my boss’s boss, I was ready. I was primed to rock the interview because I had been practicing nonstop for a month, but I had no corporate experience. I emphasized my team management experience. I told him all about the exciting projects I’d worked on, and about how comfortable I was with all kinds of technology. I had researched the company, and I knew how I could help him achieve his goals. I set the right tone, and in his mind, he had already hired me.

The other two parts of the interview were more technical, but that was no problem. I answered most of the questions without a hitch, and for those that I couldn’t answer, I took the opportunity to explain with total honesty that I wanted this job because I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was sure there were things I didn’t know, and I was hungry to learn everything I could. I didn’t know how clustered indices were implemented in SQL Server 2005, but I damn well would find out. There was no need to inflate my knowledge.

I got that job making $75,000 base salary when I was 22 years old, in a city with very low cost of living. But I didn’t do it for the money. I did it because I genuinely believed that I would learn a tremendous amount while I worked there, and it was my plan to use that knowledge and corporate experience to jump to my next job within a year or two.

Start Early, and Don’t Screw Around

May 5, 2008

One of the most important gifts you can give yourself when you want to get ahead is to start early. Kids over eight years old spend almost 7 hours a day watching TV, giving way only to other worthwhile activities like youtube and newgrounds. The data suggests an average child spends 38 hours per week consuming media passively.

I was an exception to this rule. From the time I was 10 years old, those 40 hours (or more) per week were spent on productive activities. I taught myself everything from HTML, to 3D geometry. Don’t get me wrong: I led a balanced life with friends and girls and the occasional peace pipe, but during all that time that you spent watching MTV and screwing around, I was working. I was thinking. I was building.

The earlier you show up to the game, the sooner you start practicing, the better off you’ll be. By the time I was 18, I was competent to design large web based applications, because I had a few under my belt. I could design a workable data model in several different RDBM Systems. The point is that I had marketable skills in a few disciplines, so I was years ahead of my college peers.

The Tradeoff

Throw your TV away, it\'s worse than worthless

I think it’s worth mentioning that way of living requires trade offs. First, I had consistently poor grades until I (barely) graduated from high school. My grade in any given class was inversely proportional to the amount of homework I had for it. I didn’t do homework: I didn’t have time and I wasn’t interested.

That’s a choice I made, and sometimes it made my life difficult. I applied for, and was rejected from, CSU. I had to write a long letter to the dean of admissions. Through some combination of writing skill and luck I convinced him to reverse his decision, but it didn’t have to play out that way, and you can’t bank on that happening.

College was a different matter. I did phenomenally well — I had a 4.0 for the first 4 years or so, and only broke it with an A- (that I didn’t deserve, grr!). The new problem was that it was a horribly easy. Imagine getting a degree and working for 8 years, then coming back and doing undergrad college again. That was my situation, and that’s why I still don’t have my degree. I eventually couldn’t take the slog anymore. I still take classes one or two at a time because I want to get a couple more advanced degrees eventually.

My point is that it’s not realistic to get fired up about being productive without something else giving. Here are some ways you can squeeze more time:

  • Get rid of your TV
  • Limit your time on filler sites like the onion, fark, other nonsense
  • Limit your time on social networking sites
  • Put less effort into your dead end job

If you cut those first three things out, you’ll hardly miss them. Putting less effort into your current job is one of those trade offs that you have to make with your eyes open: there will be consequences, and you have to be sure the benefit is worth it.

One thing you should not do is neglect yourself. Do not stop exercising, do not spend less time with your significant other, do not eat crappy food. These things are actually important, so when eliminating distractions in your life, choose wisely.

Don’t be a Sucker

May 2, 2008

Americans are suckers. There’s no doubt about it — we work harder than any other society in the first world, and we aren’t any better off. We suffer lilliputian vacations, long working hours, and we do it because somewhere in our cultural psyche, we think it’s a good idea.

I’m here to tell you that it’s a terrible idea, and that you’re a sucker for doing it. Money doesn’t matter, your life matters. Your family matters. Your friends matter.

My fellow wage slaves at Acme would grind themselves into the ground for that sweat shop. They worked until the wee hours of the morning to make sure some data entry application was deployed to the Quality Assurance environment before some totally arbitrary management deadline, then they’d come in bright and early after catching a short nap and a shower. For what?

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Be a Miser

April 30, 2008

Consumerism is a killer. It’s so heavily ingrained in us that it can be hard to think in terms other than consumption, but I think it’s important to try.

Money is an Instrument

Pinch Pennies

The first important thing to realize is that money is not an end, it’s a means. Money has negligible intrinsic value. You could sell a dollar bill for a couple pennies as some of kind of recycled scrap cloth. You might be able to find a couple uses for a 3.5×2 inch plastic card. Basically, they aren’t worth accumulating in and of themselves.

This may seem obvious to you, O enlightened one, but there are people who live their whole lives without the faintest clue that money is not a valid motivator.

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The Death Bed Test

April 17, 2008

When I was 12, I decided in a creepily conscious way to do good things with my life. I reflected on how I wanted to live: I knew I could be a scam artist and a liar. I also knew I could live well, and spread joy. How would I decide which path to take?

That’s when I first came up with a method I use to this very day to make important decisions, especially ones of conscience: the Death Bed Test.

There I was, 12 years old, imagining myself as an ancient man, lying in a hospital bed, with breathing tubes all around me like the plumage of some dystopian mutant. Vague shapes oscillate in my blurred vision that may be my children, their children, and all my friends. I gasp to draw air into my aching lungs. As I lay dying, a distant memory floats into my mind. It’s of myself, only 12 years old, thinking about my future…

Death Bed

The test is this: on my death bed, as I draw my final breath, will I look back at this moment and think “I’m so glad I…” or will I look back with regret and think “I wish I hadn’t…”

That’s how my decision is made: I choose the path I’ll be glad I took when I look back, moments away from the end. This method has a profound effect on my thought process in different ways.

Don’t be a Jerk

It reminds me to treat people with respect, and try to touch their lives in positive ways. It reminds me that even if no one ever finds out that I’ve done something rotten, I will forever know, and I will die with regret in my mind. It guides my actions to be consistently helpful and productive.

Keep Important things Important

It allows me to put decisions in context. If I can’t imagine being concerned about something on my death bed, then I know the decision is trivial and I don’t worry about it. In the same light, it’s a good way to evaluate whether events are important or not.

Grab life by the horns

It also teaches me that I will regret not trying things far more than I’ll regret failing at them. This guides my ballsy approach to relationships, and to business. Who would call their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss to tell them the business isn’t being run properly? A person who knows he would regret it on his death bed if he didn’t try.

Don’t ever regret anything, ever again!