Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Would You Mind Communicating That?

To sum up then, Fred Brooks said "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later."

Web sites are visible software.

Instead of saying manpower (which is valid) you can also say words (also valid). As in: "Adding words to improve communication makes communication impossible." True. Sort of. Sort of not. When in doubt, assume the worst. We're talking communication here.

The main problem is that there are no simple, clear, unvarying rules. This is an art. If software development were surgery then those involved would end up in pieces. Mommy and Daddy would never come home from work. There would be blood on the tracks and everywhere else.

Web sites are communication. Web development, communication, are not mechanical processes. People keep trying that approach though. You've seen the results. Those $10 web sites that you can't understand or navigate. The ones that look and work just like all the other ones you can't figure out.

And they expect you to trust them with your credit card?

Fred Brooks worked in a different world than we do. He was a manager at IBM when IBM was betting the business on OS/360, an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful operating system for their mainframe computers. Those were huge beasts that could barely be steered. Imagine a woolly mammoth on a leash of dental floss. Like that.

IBM thought they could do better so they took a running leap off a cliff. Everyone learned on the way down.

They made the beast fly, but only by luck and sweat and swearing and lack of real competition. Partly luck, it's true.

Here's a central concept: your communication channels increase by the square of the numbers involved.

Say you have three people working. Three communication channels. Say you have 10 people working. More like 100 communication channels. IBM had hundreds of people on that one project.

Makes you dizzy.

Now instead of people think words. Same deal. The more you say, the more you have going on, the less you communicate. The opposite is also true though. Nice pickle to be in, right?

Say too much, or in the wrong way, and you have a confused mess. You need footnotes and outlines. Study guides, dictionaries. Tutors. You have to call in people with degrees (and lawyers too) to untangle the mess.

But say too little and you have nothing at all. Imagine a bouquet of flowers that's all stems and no blossoms. Ineffective. Pointless. Embarrassing. Scratchy.

All this is true.

Communication is hard. You have to work at it. It is a professional discipline. It has rules. There are pitfalls. It takes constant vigilance. There is no certified plan, no glory road to success. What works, works, and vice versa. But it isn't always easy to figure out which is which. You are never done.

Say what everyone else says, in the same way, and you vanish in the noise. Bad move. Don't sound like someone else. You need words that identify you, excite you, express your dreams, prove your expertise, shout with joy, electrify others, reel them in.

So study the best. Read. Let yourself stumble upon delight in the world. You will be better, your words too. Don't copy. Don't pretend. Work at finding out who you are and what you really do. Then say that.

See if it works. Keep trying.

You will know when you're getting close. People won't leave you alone.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

An Echo Of Milton Glaser's 10

For the original, see "Ten Things I Have Learned", by Milton Glaser

1 You can only work for people that you like.

This depends on what you mean by work, but it seems like the key word here is "for". I prefer "with". It's possible to work for almost anyone, but possible only to work with those whom you trust, admire, feel comfortable with, and are inspired by. And then it isn't work anyway.

2 If you have a choice never have a job.

There is a quick test for job security. If someone can walk up to you any day, at any time, and say "You're fired", then you have a job. If you have a job you can lose it. And in this case it's worse, since any random drone can take it away. Go back to item one, look at it, and try to find the place and the people that make you want to sing.

3 Some people are toxic. Avoid them.

Think about it. Are you spending your time with people who are sore losers, and also sore winners? Are they obsessed with fear, hate, and greed? Toxicity always revolves around those qualities. Toxic people focus on the past and fear the future. They're always gnawing on an old bone and growling. There is no hope, and never even a feeling of freedom. Being with them is being in prison.

4 Professionalism is not enough or the good is the enemy of the great.

To the novice anything is possible, but to the expert, at best, only one thing is. I've worked with people who defined professionalism as being what clothes you wore, or even better, the act of wearing a tie. Professionalism in its best sense spins off of what people do but never inspires their actions. Procedures are for drones. Policies define broad guidelines within which humans can be human and use their own judgement.

5 Less is not necessarily more.

Sometimes less is only less. Sometimes more is only more. It's best to start by knowing what you are doing and what you need to get done. Then you can add or delete to sharpen your point.

6 Style is not to be trusted.

Style is like professionalism. It comes from the work but doesn't create the work. If style was really important then there would never be a new style. Styles would be immutable. Style is a byproduct of creativity and simply falls out. Not everyone can create a style or even follow one, and anyway it is a result of reflection and analysis and not inherent.

7 How you live changes your brain.

This is subtle but obvious. The only requirement is to pay attention and then you'll see it happen. Until I began photographing with transparency film did I not notice how blue shadows are. That was years ago, and it's still with me. If you aren't a photographer or a careful painter you won't see this. The same applies to any creative endeavor. It takes constant work to be creative, and then after some while it continues to take effort, but the paths are well known.

8 Doubt is better than certainty.

I remember hearing Anne Lamott say that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. Certainty equates to hubris. Hubris equates to aggressive stupidity. Stupidity is not good. Doubt is a gentle guide which can lead one to unexpected and wonderful places. Doubt is better than certainty. Any day.

9 On aging.

It doesn't matter, as Glaser says. Noting matters. We're all dead. Cemeteries are full of indispensable people. Even if age did matter, what are you going to do about it? Really. Stop to think for a while and you realize that life itself is horrific. No matter who you are or what's going on, you get to this conclusion. The next step is to ask yourself what you're going to do about it. It doesn't matter. You can go on and see what happens next, or not go on. You'll get to the "not go on" soon enough no matter what. No one really knows what life is or if it's got a point. The universe does not care. If it cared then everything wouldn't be eating everything else. Did it ever occur to you what a huge waste it is for one animal to be eaten by another, or for millions of plants to be eaten before they reproduce? The universe doesn't care. It's overflowing with waste and loss. Therefore it must not be waste and loss. Somehow. Or else we have no clue at all. I don't think we have a clue. It doesn't matter. This is a rich place. It can throw us away, all of us, and never notice.

10 Tell the truth.

Lie to others and you are lying to yourself. Lie to yourself and you are lost. Therefore do not lie. There will be trouble because of the truth, but trouble is all life is anyway. It's idiots all the way down. Euripides: "Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish." Right?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

I Was Once A Drone Too

Easy target. Gummint. Drones.

I heard last night that someone I know is going to lose his job. He works for the state Parks and Recreation Commission. They're getting hit hard.

He seems to be an OK person. Don't know him well. Didn't hear this from him.

The new state budget was announced about a week ago. Everyone is figuring out what to do between the beginning of May and the beginning of July, when the new budget kicks in. Apparently some places had it figured out in advance, and were only waiting to hear the official details. So the Parks people kicked in right away. They need to give 90 days of notice and all.

I can't say if he deserves to keep his job or not, but the Parks system is obviously not high on anyone's list of essentials. Not like schools, not like highways, not like law enforcement. Just one of those things that is so important until it's time to save money.

I spent a lot of years working for state governments. Two governments, about 20 years. In a way it was an advantage. I didn't earn all that much but over all it's more secure than some places, and I'm frugal. And beyond that, it gives you a great perspective on large organizations.

It's easy to criticize government but it's no different from any large company. Not that much. Aside from never ever being in danger of closing there really isn't much difference.
Even bureacrats need something to read.

"If you take two parts pathological aversion to risk, mix it together with one part apathy and a jigger of laziness, what you get is the government workforce culture" applies all around. *

I've seen it.

Over the years I developed a rule of thumb. Of the people you work with, one third do the work, one third do nothing, and one third actively screws things up.

The corollary is that incompetence is rewarded and competence is punished. Do good work, work hard, be dependable, and you'll be given someone else's work to do as well. Management prefers to avoid those who are completely undependable or who cannot be awakened. So they pick up the work of those people and dump it on the good ones, who feel guilty that they can't get it all done.

And then they get angry.

And then they get bitter.

And then they leave.

Guess who gets left on the job?

I have to say that I can sum up all of my experience and all of the problems of a large organization in two words: incompetent management.

I don't know if this guy I heard about was good or bad at what he did, but it isn't his fault. When the current governor came in, she was planning to improve things. It isn't all her fault. All of them are to blame.

The legislature meets for a month or two, passes laws, and goes home. The governor passes instructions to the heads of the various agencies, and then goes back to glad handing and planning for the next campaign. And whatever else governors do. Then the heads of the various agencies turn to their lackeys and pass the instructions along, and go back to lying to each other and continuing political knife fights. And so on down the line.

The best people in the system are at the bottom. They take things seriously. They believe in what they are doing and keep things running. And they make the least and have no power.

After a while, a year or two, or five, everyone gets to a common level. No matter who you are, what your talents are, how good you are, how much ambition you have, all you want to do is to live long enough to retire. You just want to get through today, and tomorrow and so on, and get that never ending basket of fruit and sit down and wait to die.

This is not good.

I've looked around a few times and decided that things could be run with almost no staff, compared to what I've been in the middle of. I realized this pretty clearly when I was in an office of 50 programmers and analysts and managers and so on and heard that Borland Delphi was built and maintained with fewer than 10 people. A product that worked well and was sold world wide.

All of us could barely keep our bag of rats working from day to day. It took weeks to get a meeting, and then no one made decisions. We had no contact with our customers or understanding of what they did. No training, no tools, no incentive. We were all hoping to get in enough years to retire, wave goodbye with one finger, and retreat to lawn chairs where we could finish our days swearing to ourselves about our wasted lives and talents.

So the governor came in four years ago and had a big plan and nothing happened. It could have but it didn't. Then the next election came. Then the economy tanked. Then the legislature met, and cut. Now people are wondering how long they can live in their cars, and when they will have to eat their pets or sell their children.

You can bet that almost everyone in management at any level of management, is going to stay. Because they are so important. They will have to keep the flame and pass along the secret knowledge about how to mumble, shuffle, obfuscate, intimidate, delay, and dodge.

The watchword was always "wait". Can't do that now, wait. Not ready for that, wait. We don't have the resources, wait. Not enough staff, wait. You're way ahead of everyone, wait.

In 2003 I was pushing to switch to Microsoft's .Net technology. I ran an agency's internet site. Though web stuff was new to me I had experience in other platforms, and two degrees. I taught myself HTML, CSS, ASP. I became good. Then I sent myself to .Net training and paid for it with my own money. And they didn't care. Six years later they're still running the web site on ASP. They don't care.

If the budget collapses they'll just shed a few expendables. They don't care.

Things won't get done. They don't care.

A few children will die. They don't care.

They never have.

Every six months or so a child dies in this state in foster care, or from an abusive parent. Big news, big time. In all the papers. On all the broadcast stations. Gigantic fuss.

Six weeks later everyone has forgotten. Management waits. Wait long enough and every problem solves itself by being forgotten.

Then another child dies. Same story. Wait. Wait. Wait.

Everyone forgets. Nothing happens. System continues on autopilot.

I worked with some intensely intelligent people. People who knew the whole social worker system, the laws, right and wrong, knew what was good and bad. Too bad they didn't run the place.

I had quit a permanent job to come aboard as a temp just so I could make a difference. Worked hard. Did things no one else could do, or was trying to do. We were on a project to rebuild the whole old mainframe system as modern software.

Then after a while we saw some contractors. Then more. Before too long the contractors were running everything. They didn't even talk to us. I managed to switch to web work, and after a while longer got on at another agency doing data warehouse work.

The original project continued, ever inflating. Two of us, with another four or five well chosen people, could have finished a bare bones but rock solid implementation in a year. Guess what. Everyone liked all those contractors buzzing around, looking important, using big words, making $200,000 a year compared to our $40,000. Obviously, since we were making less we were not as good, so more contractors appeared and pushed out all the regular staff. One guy played online poker at his desk. Others read the newspaper. And so on.

About two years after I left the whole thing collapsed. Only a small glitch, about $12 to $14 million, I guess. Throw it away and start over for the third time. Or was it the fourth? No one cared. Too little money to fuss over.

So now people are losing their jobs. Too many people, too little money.

Nobody thought ahead. No one who was important. Funny how they never do. They just wait. This will blow over too, and then they'll celebrate with another coffee break and hire more staff because they're so overworked.

Right. It's true. They get so fatigued thinking about all the things they'll have to do someday that they want to go and take naps to recover in advance. To nap, perchance to dream. To dream, perchance to see all those fresh compliant staffers whose head count alone indicates how important you are. Just wait. They'll be flowing in the doors one day, and we'll all be important again. And then, after one last coffee break we'll get to retire and finally switch off for good.


* The Register