Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hockey Sticks & Flywheels

Yesterday's post regarding a split life, I feel, cleared the way to talk freely about all aspects of my life. It represents the knee in my personal hockey stick. What? You know the inflection point where it takes off up and to the right. A past boss described my performance that way. He wasn't sure for the first couple months about his hiring decision and then he just watched the progress unfold.

The past few months have been spent churning things around internally about an online presence. While at the same time I have been following people; 140+ on Twitter and 30+ blogs. This has given me an decent lay of the land in Web2.0 space and created a good foundation or base from which to speak from. During this time an outsider would have seen little of significance from me. This being the blade of the stick; nearly horizontal with some slight positive slope.

Concentrating on the foundation develops a stable platform to launch everything else from. I have personally experienced this from iron distance racing. Iron-distance athlete, Jim Collins uses a similar example of a flywheel in his book "Good to Great."

"Then at some point - breakthrough! The momentum of the thing kicks in in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn...whoosh! its own heavy weight working for you!

Being a closet triathlete artificially limited the amount that I felt I could say. Jim Collins points out that "good-to-great transformations never happen in one fell swoop." Acknowledging all dimensions of my life enables me to more efficiently spin the flywheel. I still see work in front of me. I also don't think that if I had a posted this four months ago the other work could have been ignored. The base is still needed.

Each year the base needs to be rebuilt. This is true in either triathlon or business. December is the end of the year and the typical time for reflection. It also offers the opportunity to look forward to the New Year and the changes that are necessary.

How big is your base? What would it take to knock you off balance? What are you going to do differently in the upcoming year to improve?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


ConvergenceDo you lead dual lives? Work vs. Personal? Public vs. Private? Do you find common themes between the two? This post is about all that and bringing both worlds into the same light. (Oh no, worlds colliding...)

I am a closet triathlete. Not your typical person that enters a race here or there to celebrate a life milestone, but what some would call crazy. I have been doing an Ironman a year for the past 10 years. During this time, I have downplayed what many consider a tremendous achievement. Why? Because there tends to be a stigma associated with someone that exercises to that degree. People are skeptical about how I can manage that and a full time job. When I tell them it is easy I can see their faces fall. That is not what they want to hear. Don't get me wrong, doing an Ironman takes commitment and discipline. I will be the first to admit it is not for everyone.

When I say "it is easy" I am referring to mastering the basics. Most people have done it, they just don't realize it or don't like doing it. Daily everyone prioritizes things and makes sacrifices for the higher priority items. Exercising and being able to cover 140.6 miles in a day is higher on my priority scale than watching a football game or an evening sitcom.

That is some of my personal life. On the professional side, I am an engineer most recently working as software product manager / marketing person. I enjoy it because there are continual challenges. Priorities are constantly shifting. You have to be thinking ahead to make it all work within the allotted time. You are constantly working towards milestones or release dates. If you are not, then you are critiquing the product, evaluating its performance through the customers eyes and planning the next improvements among other things.

Notice how professional life mirrors personal life? I do not sign up for an Ironman race one week and show up to race the following. There is planning and challenges to overcome. One of the first one's is to even get into one of these events. Believe it or not, they sell out in hours. Once you are successful at getting into the race then you have to plan your time. There are macro cycles and micro cycles to be considered. As part of the "training plan" various milestones are incorporated such as a half marathon or a 100 mile bike ride. These enable you to checkpoint your progress. Am I on track to do the full Ironman race or does one sport need improvement. What goal times were set for these milestone events. This is my "customer" feedback. I may not like what the clock says when I cross the finish line but it is very real and undeniable feedback.

Crossing the finish line after an Ironman race is an indescribable feeling. A mixture emotions flood through your weary body and mind; elation at having completed the race within the allotted time; either joy or sorrow depending on race result; there is also some disappointment because that is it. You are truly finished. Some Iron-athletes talk about a post race funk because they feel they no longer have a purpose to train.

One other benefit is the knowledge that I was able to set a large goal and achieve it. Over time I have found that this is my main reason for doing these races. The self confidence to face most any challenge is very empowering. For example, 24 hours before the expo and the new product demonstration just fell apart - no problem, there is plenty of time.

Prior to this post, I tried to maintain some separation between the private and professional worlds. Having gotten back into some low level training I have had time to reflect on that and how it was not truly healthy. They balance each other out nicely and enable a high level of performance across both. I can feel a writer's block being unplugged and look forward to combining the experiences going forward.

Back to the original question: Do you lead a dual life? Are there common elements in both that support the whole person? Why do you continue to keep them separate?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Blogging Renewed

Today I read Andrew Sullivan's article "Why I Blog" from November 2008 Atlantic. Andrew draws a comparison to jazz explaining the difference between formal writing and blogging:

To use an obvious analogy, jazz entered our civilization much later than composed, formal music. But it hasn’t replaced it; and no jazz musician would ever claim that it could. Jazz merely demands a different way of playing and listening, just as blogging requires a different mode of writing and reading. Jazz and blogging are intimate, improvisational, and individual—but also inherently collective. And the audience talks over both.

It was with these thoughts loose in my brain that I went for a morning run. Exercise, for me, always breaks the thought jam and results in creative ideas. The end result was a new found perspective on blogging and several topics that wanted to come out. Rather than being worried about correctness and credibility I felt compelled to just get them out. (at least this one is a start)

Of course this is a familiar path that I have said to myself more than twice over the past month. One time was after reading Taylor Graves' post titled "Risk: What is the value?" One quote from the article was "You don’t become an innovator by playing it safe." That was like looking in the mirror. I had never been risk adverse but in the blogosphere I am finding that I wasn't too anxious to post an opinion without checking the sources and verifying my correctness. After reading Andrew's article the reality is that the blog is more or less spontaneous. That is part of the beauty of blogs and developing the conversation. Procrastinating has caused many topics to fall by the wayside. This has also led to me straying from my original intent with the blog to join the conversation.

How do you manage to generate interesting content and keep the conversation going? Do you worry that a post is interesting or not?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Combating Rogue Development

Following on from the previous post - The Cranky Product Manager's Imposition: WTF Refactoring?

Scene: War Room. 2 days until Code Freeze.

So, unfortunately, we’re going to have to pull FavoriteFeature out of the release in order to meet the schedule.

Huh? That feature’s been in the product for 3 releases now. Customers love it. Why do we have to pull it?

Well, we had to refactor the code, but unfortunately we just don’t have the time to write unit tests.

Fast forwarding...

Well, I, uh…. Well, …while the guys were in there modifying, you know, the CODE, well, they, uh, figured they could, uh…, well…, add some stuff to create some WICKED cool Hologram broadcasting stuff. It affected the old tests.

First, Hologram what? That’s not in the backlog!

We thought it would be cool.

This is a situation or something similar that happens too often. Engineering wants to do something "cool" and may at best slip the release date. At worst, as in this example, product quality and features may be compromised. What is a Product Manager to do? The development effort happens at too many levels and areas to keep track of and still performing all the other Product Management functions. So what can be done about this?

Several things, the choice of which depends on your development atmosphere and program maturity.

One of the buzzwords gaining traction since 2001 is "Agile Development." Agile development encourages frequent inspection and adaptation. It is a leadership philosophy that encourages team work, self-organization and accountability. The weekly team meetings may have revealed that the "unit tests" were failing well in advance of code freeze. There is also less of a reliance on a true code freeze. Features are implemented in small bite size and scoped chunks over iterations. These iterations last from one to four weeks. Because of the frequency of these iterations the code / product has less of a chance of deviating too far from the code's projected path. It also has the ability to change direction and focus as the market needs evolve.

Agile development emphasizes people and interactions over tools. The original incarnation was to use sticky notes on a white board or wall. With time, tools became an inevitable out growth. They do help automate and manage the process. Also, sticky notes do not work for remote teams. Free tools such as Agilefant and XPlanner can be used from the open source community. ( If you have the budget, subscription based services can be had from Rally Software or VersionOne. There is a whole ecosystem building up to support this development need so I won't belabor the point.

Agile development can be a bit of shift in thinking for some development teams. Another approach is to modify the code check in process and have the development team itself monitor what is being produced. One model that I have seen used with good success is a two tiered code submission process.

Individuals work in their own private "sandbox." When the feature they are working on is complete they check that in to a sub-system location. A sub-system integrator (SSI) takes the code that was checked in and builds it as a unit. Regression tests can be run on that unit before it is checked into the main code base or 'head'. The whole purpose of this exercise is to ensure that the main code line remains stable. Members of a subsystem team can be rotated through the SSI role. This way everyone gets the responsibility for ensuring sub-system's stability and no one is ever always the policeman.

With code in various stages of development, acceptance and testing it may sound like a management nightmare. It does not have to be though. Establishing a holistic approach to software development can smooth out potential problems and keep everyone informed as to the release's status. Treating the process of specification, development, testing and deployment as a continuously repeating cycle frees teams up to focus on what goes into the software rather than how to get the software out. This is referred to as Application Lifecycle Management (ALM). Now instead of treating each piece as a separate entity if you can tie them together the entire team is aware of where the code is in the development cycle and what is in the product.

Referring to the CPM's example from above and using a rudimentary example to finish the story out; a specification is created with some identifier. This is agreed upon with engineering and work begins. The code, when ready for testing, is checked into the release branch using the earlier assigned ID. A flag is set to indicate the ID's status as "checked in." This can be seen by the various team members (i.e. Prod. Mgr., QA, docs, etc.) The other members can then begin taking care of their part of the development process. As they complete their functions associated flags are also set until finally the feature is deemed complete. Repeating this process for all the features assigned to a release finally culminates in the release with known entities. No last minute surprises should occur.

Of course, this is all in a perfect world and everything works flawlessly. I have also managed to shorten book length topics to a single paragraph or two. I would be interested in how you have managed to reign in rogue development work? And what was the effect on the team's creativity? Let me know.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Jumbled Thoughts

Today's entry is about writer's block. We all get it. Sometimes because we don't have anything to say. My problem lately is I have to much to say but it all cannot come out in a coherent manner. So like 2 large individuals trying to pass through a doorway at the same time it gets stuck.

Combating this situation today I went for a bike ride at lunch. After 25 miles things started to break free and by mile 30 I was starting to get the makings for a decent commentary.

The break through in my log jam came by thinking about two posts nearly simultaneously. Brad Feld's "Running and My Professional self" and Taylor Graves "Layoffs." What do they have in common? Nothing until they wind up in my consciousness.

Here I was exercising while during a stint of unemployment. I was trusting that clarity would come as it has so often in the past. The past few months I have been not allowing myself the usual lunch time ride. My thoughts were that this was a guilty pleasure that I couldn't afford. Today I took it because it was obvious that nothing was happening on my end this morning. My hope was that the fresh air would clear my head like Brad's runs. The fact that it took so long showed how out of practice I was at clearing my head.

Taylor's post was good because it struck a cord that someone still so early in her career could have a positive and mature outlook on her situation. I am not sure I could have been so positive 10 years ago. Today, after several months of fruitless searching I am still relatively up beat and optimistic despite everything that the economy seems to be throwing at me. While I found her post refreshing, it tended to put some pressure on me to get my act together. Then, in that Aha moment I had remembered, I got my inspiration.

My mind turned to yet another blog post by the Cranky Product Manager. She was ranting about code refactoring and product features.

Having been in her situation, I can sympathize with her. Witnessing the impact on the product quality and team moral I applaud her upfront method of calling BS. What now? Well, the tactical implications are the lead is probably going to be pulling a few all nighters or the schedule may slip. It depends on how hard line she gets. My guess is that they schedule will slip over her dead body. (I cannot wait to read about the carnage)

This may or may not be the first time this has occurred on her team. It sounds like a seed of doubt has been planted and future excuses are going to be easily dismissed. Are there things that can be done to restore happiness in development land?

Let me know your thoughts.

I meanwhile will share mine in tomorrow's post since that bike ride was so good at getting things sorted in my head.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Defrag 2008

Defrag 2008 delivered on the promise to “augment the pace at which we achieve insights on raw data.”

Being a casualty of today’s economic climate (aka unemployed) I have been following the web advances and coming up to speed on Web 2.0 and beyond with my extra time. Due to location and a last minute ticket from Ross Mayfield (@Ross) with SocialText, I was able to get a front row seat to some very eye-opening information. It certainly fed my data addiction for two days.

Charlene Li gave an enlightening presentation on Harnessing the Implicit Value of the Social Graph. Starting off with a statement like “Social Networks will be like air” can get your attention. Charlene then went on to show how traditional corporate “Walled gardens are breaking down.” Later in the presentation as she was looking towards the future and making use of the technology we have available to us she encourages the audience to “Prepare for the demise of the org chart.”

I would ordinarily say such lofty ideas are great, but we are a long way from realizing them. Ordinarily that is, except, I happened across a blog on Obama's Seven Lessons for Radical Innovators by Umair Haque today. Umair independently validates Charlene’s ideas by pointing out how Barrak Obama did just this; “By tapping the game-changing power of self-organization. Obama's organization was less tall or flat than spherical - a tightly controlled core, surrounded by self-organizing cells of volunteers, donors, contributors, and other participants at the fuzzy edges.” This was very similar to the notion that Charlene was expressing.

Rich Hoeg and Neeraj Mathur illustrated how their Fortune 500 companies can be seen as leaders in the new social web era. Both individuals are in the process of establishing extensive social networking operations inside Honeywell and Sun respectively. This network enables their companies to leverage the collective brain power they have access to in order to efficiently perform their corporate functions. Having come from such an environment, I was truly impressed that these large corporations could be so forward thinking. It gave me a boost to be free of my previous employer and hope looking forward to the next one.

The opening presentation - Strategic Intuition and Defrag by Professor William Duggan from the Columbia Business School and author of Strategic Intuition was entertaining and informative. Prof. Duggan used examples from history to show where the “Aha” moment comes from. He pointed out that Carl von Clausewitz gave us four steps to get this which are:

  1. Use examples from history – how did someone prior achieve greatness?
  2. Presence of mind - Enter the situation and clear your mind of all preconceptions (what the solution is etc.)
  3. Flash of insight - shows you what to do. With a clear mind you now know what is needed.
  4. Taking off and putting flash into action.

Professor Duggan also pointed out that “great artists steal” using examples from Picaso and Thomas Edison. He also related these individual’s accomplishments to the above steps in order to achieve the Aha moment. In summary, steal a concept that was used earlier and apply it to your need today. For example, Larry Page (Google) developed Page Rank. This idea is an adaptation from an earlier concept of using academic citations and how often they are cited to rank university researchers. From this, why not apply to web pages?

The final presentation of note was Brian Oberkirch’s “Under Sousviellance: Personal Informatics & Techniques of the Self.” This was informative because Brian showed “What happens when you can make those invisible life patterns visible?”

Brian presented viewing the web as a stream of data as opposed to distinct web pages. Objects in the world are being automated and enabled to “throw off data.” Many services and ideas are coming about with how to more seamlessly make use of this data. Brian cited and gave many examples of such companies and devices like:

  • - Annual report for himself, very interesting minutia
  • – Chart your life using Twitter
  • Xobni - email analytics
  • Dopplr - business traveler tracking and carbon footprint information
  • Fuelly - track data for your car
  • RescueTime - Ridiculously easy time management

These services and many others like them begin putting much information about you and your life out in the open. It raises a host of questions along with providing a wide array of services.

So when you have a quite moment, think about your past year. What would you do if you new how many web pages you visited, how many miles you traveled, how often you communicated with a loved one. Now, with that information, what would you do differently in your life going forward?

Did you have any revelations?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Chicken Little Syndrome

With all chatter about the "dire economic situation" and the "bleak horizon" I have to chime in to advise some sanity. I am not trying to belittle the situation any and the position many businesses and business owners find themselves in. As everyone states, it is bad. Accordingly, it will probably get worse before it gets better. So with that understanding, the question you should be asking yourself is how to come out of it not only in one piece, but also positioned to capitalize on the market's eventual return?

I had lunch with a friend a month ago. Before "all hell broke lose" on Wall St. During our conversation he mentioned impending layoffs due to the cyclical nature of his business. Below is a follow up e-mail to him. Hopefully it provides some food for thought and spurs some more creative ways to face the tough times ahead without breaking out the hatchet for something that can be carved using a pairing knife.

Hi J---,

I was replaying some of the conversation in my head last night and thought I might be able to offer you some food for thought on the downsizing topic. At X----, during the 2001 recession, the CEO at the time, promised to try and make it through that without having layoffs. His inspiration was a book called Shakelton’s Way.

[The CEO] explained the situation to the employees. He also laid out the options and his intentions to try and not have layoffs. As an employee, I could see the predicament the company was in and appreciated his desire to have everyone make it through it. His options were the following:

1.Voluntary severance. I forget the amounts and time offered, but it was attractive. (The worry with this one is the top performers may take it since they can find a job anywhere else easily enough)

2.Because vacation time came out of a different accounting bucket than operating expenses everyone was asked to a mandatory 3 days off initially. These generally were before or after traditional holidays so it gave more time for employees to be with the families. (e.g. Friday after Thanksgiving or the Christmas week 12/25 – 1/1)

3.Offer a year sabbatical to those who wanted to take it. There was no guarantee their job would be there when they came back, but the company would make every effort to find a position when they returned. During this time, health care, profit sharing, employee stock purchase were all discontinued. Any stock options continued to vest though. Note: Some people took this option, allowed their stock to vest and then came back only long enough to sell it off. Many people also took this time to get additional education (MBA) or try to start their own business. It was a win-win all the way around.

4.Things got a little worse, so another 5 days / quarter were asked to be taken as either vacation or time off without pay. Many opted for the time off without pay. This people up to get used to what they may need should pay cuts come into play. This was scheduled as every other Friday in order to minimize business impact.

5.The situation as you know did get worse and [the CEO] came back and asked everyone to take a graduated pay cut. "Looking in the mirror he took the biggest cut" of 20%. VP’s took 17%, Directors 15%, Managers / Sr. Managers 10%, individual contributors 5%, mail clerk types since they had the lowest pay and probably least disposable income they didn’t get a pay cut. (This also did a good job of keeping the most amount of money with the company and impacting the least number of people too hard) Seeing that upper management was giving just as much as the rank and file while not having layoffs made it more palatable.

We retained a large part of the personnel and IP that had been accumulated. This put us in a good position once the tide turned to ramp things up quickly. There was no rehiring or retraining needed. The outcome of this was a very committed work force. The downside was that some dead wood was left. Layoffs allow corporations to purge some of that. Since we didn’t, these people had to be worked around or processed out. As a recent casualty of downsizing though, sometimes the wrong people are let go in that purge process.

Listening to you yesterday, it sounds like you are in touch with who is on the bus and should remain on the bus. You probably also have a good idea of who might benefit from getting off at the next stop. The alternatives suggested may make someone voluntarily get off and not have it be your decision.

Good Luck,

Am I saying these are the only creative ways to handle a difficult situation? Hardly. Each situation is unique. What worked at a 2500 employee company may not work at a 25 employee company. What I would like to advise though is you communicate the situation with your employees and work to develop a mutually beneficial solution. You may be surprised with the suggestions you receive and the willingness to work through it to the greater good of all involved.

I would like to hear what suggestions you do end up coming up with. Share so others may benefit as well.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Today I went riding with the guys at lunch. One topic of conversation that came up was a blog post about the "company" and its competitor. One sentence caused some mixed emotions amongst the riders - [competitor] "is growing faster, has slightly better gross margins, and most significantly better employee morale." And then if you didn't fully grasp the concept of that sentence it went on to say [company] "work-force with a lot lower employee morale." Having worked as well as riding with existing "company" members there were some mixed views on the previous sentences.

What I found more interesting was reading the comments made by a "competitor" employee and their view of moral. This came with a layoff story as well. Reading the thread there were many similarities to what I had observed and or experienced at the company. Regarding the layoff element, they are never fun or expected by the individual. When it does happen to you it is easy to fall into the trap of negativity. However, if you keep in mind the data associated with the economy today of on the order of 1M laid off and more predicted.

With that background, the topic of layoffs was on my mind. I came across some interesting numbers from Denise Palmieri as well as an assessment of the economy. In her commentary on pe HUB, she mentions several large numbers about the macro economic situation and how it may relate personally. Basically, we are all 1 or 2 degrees away from a layoff. She also talks about a Gen-E sentiment (for entitlement and what they are "entitled to" just for showing up).

I have seen the Gen-E mentality growing. I am not sure where it comes from. Maybe it something that originated from the media and what appears to be an "all about me culture" it seems to cultivate. I tend to believe that there is some karma in the world and that some point everyone get's their just rewards. If you work hard and support the team in the end you will be happier. This can take on a monetary recognition, but it can also be as simple as fostering a good work environment.

What price can you put on that? I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Irrational Exuberance

This week was a roller-coaster ride on the lessons to be learned in life (and reviewed often). The last time I had dabbled in the land of start ups was over 10 years ago. At that time, it seemed that Boulder was getting a few, but that they were few and far and between. Of course the Internet at that time did not offer the level of connection possible today. You had to be in the know of someone at one of these "places". If you wanted to be part of a start up you needed to head to Silicon Valley (SV).

Fortunately for me, the trade-off of SV did not beat out the benefits of living on the front range (Den - Ft. Collins). I put my head down and acquiesced to the larger company and its stability. Learning a new craft (product marketing / management) and new techniques for developing software provided enough of a challenge to limit my scope.

Fast forward to today. The Denver-Boulder New Technology Meetup I attended this past Tuesday had an infectious high-energy quality. One would assume that money and opportunity was flowing like the Boulder creek in June. Reading more about various start up opportunities this week perpetuated this thinking in my mind. Start-up opportunity had arrived and it was just around the corner, figuratively speaking of course.

This morning after my usual swimming workout a casual locker room conversation about my perceived state of things met with reality. I entered a conversation with a video entrepreneur and fellow swimmer. We got to talking about the state of business being. He relayed that he was in the process of closing down his office since they were unable to raise an initial round of funding. This was despite of lots of sweat equity, prototypes, and interest from several prominent names.

The locker room is not the place to get into the gory details of why and what have you tried, etc. Suffice to say, it offered some reality to the week's earlier storybook reading. I then met with another gentleman for coffee and a discussion on his start up perspective. He shared some of his past experiences and failures. Listening was a good review of what not to do and what to avoid.

In all, I am optimistic about the state of things here in Colorado. It no longer appears that you have to head to a coast for high quality start up action. At the same time, we are not immune to the realities present with a start up. At the end of the day, you have to have a viable revenue stream and solid business model.

Maybe I have been out of the loop for too long. I think that new opportunities are coming - or have they been here and I have just missed them for the past couple of years?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Initial Post

"And on the Web, if you're not in Google and the blogosphere, you're not in the conversation"
From the Long Tail blog

I tried this a few years ago to document and rail on what I thought was a pitiful situation. I got one meek post out and thought better about the derogatory intents. The site dropped by the wayside and I found other ways to amuse myself and spend the excess energy.

Due to life changing circumstances I find myself with a little bit more time. The more I read/click the more I realize that I have been on the sidelines. You can delude yourself that you are in the conversation, but as the saying goes, you don't know what you don't know.

Fortunately, I have been on a steep learning curve for the past month. I attended the Denver - Boulder New Tech Meetup earlier this week and didn't feel too out of place. Actually, it was refreshing to find a support group for what is becoming a bad habit - new tech.

So, without further delay, I post my first blog and join the conversation. I look forward to future submissions. Suggestions are always welcome.