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Theo's Contributions to Technological Surreality
Business is king. Customers rule. Service is everything. Yet every organization I go into has an engineering group that can't see outside their bubble. Perhaps they can, but they certainly choose not to.
I'm an engineer, I write code. I've written approaching 100k lines of C code in my life time, I've administered tens of thousands of systems in my career and I've help plan some of the largest customer-facing infrastructure ever built. I've learned a tremendous amount about technology and the hubristic nature of engineering teams. The most important take away from all of this? The technology doesn't mean anything unless it enables business by providing better service to customers.
Now, I realize that when I rant about this to technology folk, they emphatically agree. But, I'm tired of the lip service. People today in architecture, engineering and operations say again and again that their focus on enabling better customer experience. It's a nice sentiment, but every time I dive into someone's instrumentation and monitoring, I see an absolute vacuum when it comes to non-IT data.
The obvious things like financial and customer service metrics are missing, but so are all the more subtle things. Hiring is hard; finding and retaining talent is challenging; providing good benefits that add value and increase job appeal is a competitive task. All of these things are critically important to the organization as a whole (and specifically engineering and IT) and yet they are completely absent from the "monitoring" within the organization.
The truth is that there is absolutely critical telemetry coming from every facet of your organization. All of this telemetry is either directly related to providing better service to customers or directly related to providing better service to your organization itself which, in turn, stabilizes the platform on which you deliver products and services. Of this, I shouldn't have to convince you and I find that no convincing of the general population is required. Yet, here we are with almost every organization I see standing blind to this vital information.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think technology isn't a first-class component of today's (and tomorrow's) organizations. In fact, I think the technology group has been applying radically advanced techniques to telemetry data for years. It's high time that these techniques and tools were applied to the organization unabridged.
There is a profound shift in data transparency and accountability coming to the organization to tomorrow. If you don't buy in, you'll simply fail to achieve the agility and efficiencies of your competition. I'm here, with Circonus, to make that happen.
Business is king, not engineering. The difficult (but exceptionally simple) shift of engineering's focus from serving itself to serving the business as a whole will remake IT as the engine of the organization. As soon as you embrace this shift, technology will be the most powerful tool your organization has at its disposal.
I've built a few successful products and looking back on their success, I think that the mantra that drove product development is what separated our products from the rest of the market: "products built from pain." All of the products we've built were done so to relieve acute pain. Not pain we researched; pain we experienced. We built products and changed the world of software because our lives sucked.
I've read a lot of books lately on new ways of running organizations and different methods of motivating people and many of them focus on studies around jobs that require a tremendous amount of creativity or "thought workers." I think these books are interesting, exciting and I'm interested in carefully applying some of the research at my places of work. Thinking is critical, creativity is what enables you to innovate. Now, I'll say something highly unpopular: get over yourself.
Inspiration to drive innovation is what we're looking for and most innovation happens through punctuated equilibrium. Inspiration, by its very nature, is tied to a punctuated result because it is sudden. We often speak of "flashes" of inspiration and one definition of the word is even "a sudden, brilliant or timely idea."
If you've ever had a stroke of genius, there is a decent chance it happened in the shower. The place where you relax, zone out, and cannot escape ideas for implementations. What I see now I find sad: people restructuring their lives to have lots and lots of what I call "shower time."
If you write code, which many of my readers do, I'm about to piss a vast majority of you off. We're not thought workers. Innovation in code is a rare thing and coding is a tedious task. Until the day when we can merely think of inputs, outputs and algorithms and the computer will simply codify them on our behalf, we all will spend a lot of time meticulously telling a computer what to do. It might be challenging. It might require focus. It requires a perfect vocabulary, impeccable grammar and a mastery of common idioms and colloquialisms, but at the end of the day 99% of it is writing a set of instructions for a deterministic system to follow. Bottom line, it is largely not a creative process. I know that many of us (myself included) like to think of new and clever ways to do something -- it's good mental exercise. But, almost every time someone shows me a new and exciting approach to solving a problem, I can find an almost identical reference implementation of the same solution published either academically or commercially.
If you step back, the large applications and services we all are building are new and different. It took vision, whimsy, courage and maybe a fair share of batshit-crazy inflated self-confidence to pursue them in the first place. I applaud this, but find it paramount that one stay grounded in the fact that executing on that vision is 99% blood in the mud. It's hard, it's often not creative, it rarely resembles "thought work."
I see more and more people trying to avoid the sweat and focus on constructing halcyon environments where they have the freedom to think differently and be creative. Here's the deal, you're a human being and as such, you don't need a special environment to arrive at freedom of thought; nothing and no one can take that away from you but you. It is the constraints that result in true creativity. It's wading through shit for 18 hours, suffering your own bad decisions and those of others, arriving at a moment of painful failure and tears that ultimately requires a shower. It's not the shower you took yesterday or the day before. It won't be the shower you take tomorrow. This shower is truly "shower time." In this shower, maybe (just maybe), you've set the stage for sudden, brilliant or timely idea - because you've earned it.
Peaches and pecans on vanilla ice cream is a wonderful thing, but get some perspective on how you came to enjoy it. I have heard (and have told others), “life is too short to do something you don’t enjoy,” but the truth is there is no way to revel in everything you do at every moment; not even the most ambitious and determined hedonist can achieve this. While I don’t think he was right about everything, I feel confident Sigmund Freud nailed this one: “We are so made, that we can only derive intense enjoyment from a contrast and only very little from a state of things.” So, not only can we not enjoy everything, that which we do enjoy is aided by the lack thereof in other things. Pitting the peaches, cracking the nuts, even making the ice cream heightens the experience of its ultimate, decadent demise.
How does this relate to work? In more ways than you’d think. Most things we do have small parts that we don’t enjoy; it is part of being complete. I’ll give a few examples of regular things I do that are nowhere near the pinnacle of my excitement and satisfaction curves.
I am an engineer and I love to solve problems. The more difficult, the more rewarding. Increasing the difficulty increases the likelihood of failure, in turn making success more exultant. I write code; I’m good at it. Part of writing code includes considering aspects of who owns the code, how it is licensed, and who protects the user from claims of intellectual property infringement. That’s right, I said “part of writing the code.” If I am skipping these tasks, I am increasing the risk for every consumer of my code. It’s part of my job, and (for me) is certainly not the most enjoyable part.
Not everyone has these responsibilities, but I’d bet if you think about your job for a few minutes you can name a handful of responsibilities that, for lack of a more eloquent description, suck. That’s just one example. I also have to manage people, review financials, work with banks and lawyers, hire, fire, interact with clients, market and sell... oh yeah, and solve technical problems. Which of these do I enjoy the least? That’s my secret and if I do my job well, you’ll never know. I try to embrace the parts of my job that do not resonate with my strengths and leverage them to become stronger.
Parts of your job are going to suck, that’s just how it is. Now, you might be able to delegate some of these various tasks, but I have found that embracing some of these things and making them truly a part of what you deliver increases the quality of your work, makes your successes more satisfying and generally makes you better at what you do. We tend to not enjoy tasks that aren’t in our wheelhouse. Things that make us uncomfortable are the things that make us grow.
Here’s the rub: you can grow up or grow out. Growing “up” is challenging yourself to harder and harder tasks in your hyperfocused discipline. Growing “out” is pursuing and accepting challenges that are related to your business, but not “your job.” Upward growth makes you better, more expert, and more elite. Outward growth makes you better, more instrumental in overall success and an invaluable player in the business as a whole. Upward growth is far more comfortable and less intimidating; it’s the known unknown and failure is less likely. To be the best you need to invest in both.
Life truly is short and not enjoying what you do (at all) is a vast waste of life itself and so it is a balancing act. How much of your day-to-day job should be the stuff that you don’t like (outward growth that makes you uncomfortable)? The idealists out there are simply going to hate this answer: non-zero. I’ll get more specific for those that are still reading. “Let me do what I do. I’m good at it and that’s what you hired me for.” Sound familiar? I say bullshit. I didn’t hire you to do X. I might have hired you because you demonstrated that you were competent at doing X, but I hired you to make my team a better team, my product a better product, and my business a better business.
I’ve spent a good deal of my time searching for balance and here’s what I found. Everyday that I spend time doing the things that I love and the things at which I feel most capable I feel awesome; I feel successful and satisfied... in the short run. A week goes by and I reflect on all that I’ve accomplished and I see that the business would profited more had I focused on those things that made me uncomfortable, required focus and personal growth (that which I was less confident about executing flawlessly).
As a contrapositive, when I don’t focus on upward growth and instead focus on all the various places I can add value outside my core expertise, I see the future brighten by the hour. I add value. I add real, tangible value to initiatives through my learning and unique perspective. Business is better, teams are stronger, and clients are happier. The goals are great, but I can’t always walk a path whose journey does not yield deep personal satisfaction; I become uninspired, my passion drops, I lose my perspective and become ineffective.
It’s a balancing act indeed and for me that balance is 80/20. I find, looking back at the last several years, that when I fall below 20% of my time in outward growth I lose potential value and perspective. If I fall below 80% upward growth, I lose passion and perspective. Notice that? The thing I always lose when I lose balance is perspective. This 20% may not be the right number for you, so you should strive to discover your own balance -- just don’t lie to yourself, because you’ll lose in the long run. I said I learned this through failure. I never seem to achieve a consistent 20/80 split and my moments of equilibrium are fleeting, but I feel them as they slide by.
I’m not saying that pitting peaches (which I truly hate) or shelling pecans (which I find devoid of mental stimulation) or making ice cream (which is good fun) is necessary for the enjoyment of a most wonderful peaches and pecan sundae. I’m saying that if I do it 1 out of 5 times, I am more discerning, more moderate in my consumption and derive far more satisfaction from every dessert I eat.
Peaches and pecans on vanilla ice cream is a wonderful thing, but get some perspective on how you came to enjoy it.
Advice is useful. Advice is guidance on future actions usually given by someone that is considered knowledgable. However, over a global and impersonal network in a one-way communication channel (as the Internet tends to be despite social networks), advice suffers from the consultant's dilema.
The consultant's dilema is that any advice based on a given situation will not apply cleanly because of the propensity for change due to situation fluidity. Businesses are dynamic, market conditions are always changing, laws and regulations are changing, etc. The advice consultants give is "point in time" advice around which recipients too often form an intransigent mindset. At OmniTI, we always find ourselves and our clients more successful when we form long, lasting business relationships. We get to see the changes: intramural changes as well as those of the marketplace and that of competition. With that information, advice can fluidly respond and remain effective. This should "just make sense."
The problem I see is with advice given to individuals: how to be a better coder, how to run a company, how to be a better entrepreneur, how to do just about anything from the strategic to the tactical. All this advice (in the one-too-many forum of the Internet) is given based on a highly complex set of circumstances that are rarely disclosed well and often positioned as "the best choice for many situations." I call bullshit.
Your job as a reader is to understand what the advice is and play through that scenario which is yours. Don't be blinded by the shine or the glimmer or the success of the advisor.
All that said, I'm thinking of sharing a lot more advice going forward. I'm a technologist and entrepreneur and I have been building successful companies for 15 years (both lifestyle and not). I've learned a lot over these years about running companies, managing people, building products, building software, selling software, dealing with VCs, etc. Don't you dare confuse "learning" and "being good at" something; I have no illusions of being good at many of these things. One thing I find is that most of the advice I read online is short-sighted, naive, poorly-qualified or just plain bullshit.
So now, here is my first bit of advice:
Advice is evil. As you receive advice on a daily basis from sources everywhere, think critically. About once a week, choose at least one piece of advice you like and you dislike and spend at least 60 minutes completely focused on developing a rebuttal. Do the research that the advisor failed to disclose. Redo the research that they did disclose. Find the counter research. Ask peers (always include peers from other places who have different ideas from you). Take input from your boss and/or direct reports in your research. Do it hard. Don't lie to yourself. Don't be popular with it. Be complete.
Now, throw it away.
It's not the destination, it's the journey. This is a scale. The best pianists in the world spend countless hours doing scales that no one ever hears. Fingerwork, fingerwork, fingerwork. Do your scales.
In a few months, you will find yourself a much more capable critical thinker. You will be able to see through the layers of glitter and bullshit coating other people's advice. Most importantly, you might even be able to see through your own glitter and bullshit.
-- Do your scales.
And this is it ... OmniOS.