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Personal Reflections: Agile, Leadership, Technology, and Life

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lessons-learned

Know when Working Harder isn’t going to Work

A dedicated employee who will work harder, with a greater sense of urgency (and maybe some extra hours when needed) is great.  But what’s much more valuable than someone with that work ethic, is someone who can see when working harder isn’t going to work, and they need to change their approach.

Think about someone using a dull saw to cut a huge pile of wood to build a house — they’ll look at the schedule and say “I don’t have time to sharpen my saw”, which is ridiculous to think about.  But we do it all the time when we try to shift into a higher gear and work harder to “dig out” of a busy season/project instead of thinking about what should we change.

It is so valuable as a leader to determine when a situation can be surged over, and when you need different resources/capacity/people/tools to overcome the situation.  Years ago, I was helping a Project Manager whose team was continually well below the needed velocity to get to the project’s finish line on time.  He kept trying to work nights and weekends to get back on the track, but simple math made it very clear that he could not single-handedly get the project back on track.  So we had to investing in both a technology and some additional people to help his team finish — it was easy to easy for those investments on his project; but it was much better to ask for them early in the project’s life as opposed at the end when he would be doomed to fail.

Think about if you need better processes/checklists, or a tool (e.g. software application) to help you be more efficient), or more people on your team, or something else.  Take the time to step back and think about how to change the game you’re playing so you can actually win.

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Don’t Point at Problems, Attack Them!

There should be a word for people who have the annoying tendency to point at problems and talk about them, instead of trying to actually improve the situation (or maybe there is, and I just don’t know it).  I don’t know if you’ve been in a meeting with one of these people, but it’s so frustrating to listen to someone pontificate on and on about some problem and how it’s SO horrible, without trying to come up with any ideas, or asking someone to help them solve the problem, or just stop talking about it so someone else can try to solve the problem.

I’m not saying you should wait to bring a problem to your boss until you have a solution — for some teams/problems that’s a good idea, and for others that’s a horrible idea, and you need to get help for problems.  But what I am saying is that you should focus your attention and energy on fixing the problem, or removing the problem, or getting around the problem, or changing the situation so it’s not a problem anymore, or something else productive.

Don’t Sleep in your Contacts… and the Importance of Communicating Risk Well

I went to the eye doctor recently, after my eye was bothering me.  I had slept in my contact lenses for several nights (which I’m prone to do), and my eye started bothering me.  In the past, when this happens, I take my contact lenses out, throw them out, and take a few days off of contacts.  This time however, my eye was bothering me much more than usual, so I went in to see the eye doctor.  I’m glad I did — I had a corneal ulcer, where bacteria had been stuck inside my contact lens. The eye doctor got me a prescription for some antibiotic eye drops and explained how lucky I was, since the ulcer wasn’t on the pupil itself (which can cause people to lose partial sight the rest of their lives!!!)!

The doctor asked me “Do you know you’re not supposed to wear your contacts overnight?” and I explained that I certainly did, but I had no idea what the real risks were — I assumed eye doctors said that, but that my approach to taking a break when my eyes bothered me was fine.

This is a great reminder of how important it is to communicate risks in a tangible, clear way.  It’s easy to say “That’s risky” or “This is not a best practice” or “It’s better not to do that”; but if we don’t take the time to truly articulate the possible impacts, explaining both the likelihood of something happening and the impact (severity) if it does happen, very bad things can happen.

Edward Tufte’s book Visual Explanations provides a powerful case study of this concept:  Engineers recommended the Space Shuttle Challenger not be launched based on specific weather conditions, but the launch was approved due to a lack of clearly communicating risk.

Baby Advice

I’m no expert, but here’s some baby advice for anyone about to have a child:

  1. Read the book “Baby Bargains” — it will pay for itself many times over with saving you money on what to register for and what to buy (it keeps it simple with a value recommendation and a luxury recommendation in each category
  2. What “Happiest Baby” DVD, because it will save you countless hours of sleep when you have a newborn, and no one with a newborn has the time to actually read the book
  3. The Baby Owner’s Manual book looks little silly, but it’s funny and has some great content — I really love how they explain bottle feeding for the dad
  4. You should know — newborn diapers have a stripe that changes color from yellow to blue or green to show when they have a wet diaper
  5. Take one of those 2-4 hour classes at your local hospital on how to diaper and other essentials (unless you’re already a baby expert)
  6. Ask other parents for suggestions on baby registry — there are so many things people register for that you don’t actually need
  7. Have someone professional trained double-check your baby seat installation — I hope you never have a car crash with a baby in the car, but if you do; you want to make sure it’s correct.  Most local police or fire departments offer this service scheduled every month or so
  8. As you get closer to your due date, don’t wait too long to have your home setup and your “go bag” packed and by the front door — we’ve had several fronts whose babies have come very early (1-2 months), so you don’t want to wait until the last minute
  9. Don’t buy used cribs or car seats — the safety of a new, modern item is well worth the cost of those new
  10. Sleep Sacks are so amazing — it’s good to learn how to swaddle your baby like a tiny burrito, but as they get bigger, sleep sacks save so much stress

Interview with Tom Cagley re: Scaling Agile

I recently chatted with Tom Cagley on the Software Process and Measurement Podcast (SPaMCAST) about some of my experience helping scale operations at Halfaker using best practices from various business books (e.g. Good to Great), frameworks (e.g. CMMI), techniques (e.g. Agile Scrum), and tools (e.g. JIRA).  I really enjoyed our discussion on why I was excited to JIRA, a tool that is not very opinionated, so we could configure it in some specific ways for individual Halfaker departments and projects.

The SPaMCAST is a great resource for learning more from great thought leaders in the Agile, Process Improvement, and Software Engineering world. Check out the interview at:

And if you’re looking for a Podcast app recommendation, check out Castro for iPhone/iPad.  It has this great “Inbox” concept (works like an Agile backlog, where you can accept things into the backlog and then prioritize/re-prioritize them.

Are you Running in the Right Direction?

Early in my career, I was a leadership development conference (through Lockheed’s great Engineering Leadership Development Program), where we played a game called Gold of the Desert Kings  — it was a group game, in a big event space ballroom packed with engineers from all over the country.  I don’t remember the rules of the game, but I do remember that it was a powerful reminder of how important it is to plan before you start working.

 

It’s easy to say we should plan before we start doing work — people say things like that all the time:

  • Look before you leap
  • Measure twice, cut once
  • Cal Newport made this point on Ramit Sethi’s blog a while back
  • Agile Scrum “forces” people, every few weeks, to stop and assess where they’ve been (sprint demo), where they’re going (sprint planning), and how they could improve (sprint retrospective)

But while we talk about this often, most people often regress back to a tendency of “jumping in” under pressure, instead of taking a breath and investing the energy of actually building a plan.

At the individual level, people are very quick to start working, trying to “make progress” and “feel productive” without investing the time to validate that they’re working on the most valuable thing. When groups of people (teams) are involved, we’re even worse at this — not only does the team want to jump in to avoid the plan of group planning and not feeling productive, everyone wants everyone else on the team to be productive (busy) so they feel they’re not the only one working hard.  This creates this nasty culture where the team is trying to keep everyone busy (Instead, Goldratt’s The Goal teaches that we need to optimize the entire system, not at the individual person or machine level).

Yes the plan will change, but it’s not the first version of the plan is not the valuable part — it’s the exercise of pulling together all the different pieces of a project and thinking about them together that is valuable.

While making progress on some new task feels more rewarding and productive than building a plan, whether it’s an Agile backlog; a resource-leveled Microsoft Project file; and/or a few quick PowerPoint slides summarizing major activities, schedule, resources, and budget; INVEST the time to make a plan — make sure before you start sprinting in some direction that you’ve actually checked to see if that’s where you should be running.

Engineer Grandpas are Pretty Cool

My grandfather, a NASA engineer who worked on telecommunications systems for many of the Apollo missions was always coming up with things I never saw anyone else doing.  Some of that came from having engineering education and skills, but much of it came from a willingness to learn new things — he was never intimidated to do something new.

2010_07_04_11_29_090001He loved telling the story of his father wanting to keep squirrels off his grape vines, so he
ran electrical wire through the trellis the vines were on, and put a button by his back door.  When he pressed the button, it would give the squirrels a zap and they didn’t come back to try new grapes.  (Apparently you could tell which squirrels were new to the neighborhood, because each squirrel tried to eat his grapes exactly once.)
When my father was in college, his 1960’s VW Beetle was having significant engine 2010_07_04_11_50_000003problems.  My grandfather didn’t want my dad worrying about the car when he should be focused on school, so my grandfather bought a mechanic’s book on the VW bug and over a weekend he rebuilt the entire engine in his garage and brought it back to my dad.  I heard this story while helping my grandfather adjust the spark plug timing on an old 1970’s Plymouth in his driveway — it was a fun afternoon learning how engines run.
My grandfather came over to our house when I was a kid to help us hang a bird feeder in our backyard.  Instead of some more boring options, he came over with a bow and arrow (pretty cool way to show up at your son’s house), fired an arrow over a tall branch with a rope attached, and used the line to hang the birdfeeder with an anti-squirrel dome over it, far enough from the tree that the squirrels couldn’t jump from the ground, tree, or branch to get to the food.  We had that birdfeeder for at least 15 years, and a squirrel never managed to get on it.
My grandfather installed counterbalancing weights on strings and pulleys for all his sliding screen and glass doors, so you could open and close them with a tiny touch — it wasn’t necessary, but it was a constant touch reminder that with a little effort, creativity, and patience, you can do some cool stuff (and this was long before you could Google, YouTube, or Quora search something).

Don’t get Stuck in the Past, Present, or Future

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how each person has different tendencies.  Some of us are introverted.  Some are analytical.  In addition to personality axes like introverted vs. extroverted, thinking vs. feeling (see Myers-Briggs); people often have a tendency to either live in one of these times instead of balancing their time among them:

  • Past – Looking back at what has happened in your life, learning from mistakes and reflecting on what happened and what they learned about themselves through those experiences
  • Present – Engaging in the present, connecting with people and experiences as they happen
  • Future – Looking down the road and making plans, setting a vision and goals for your life

Each of these perspectives is important in moderation, but people sometimes get into trouble by being too focused one view — they can get stuck reliving the past (they miss life entirely, always looking behind them), living only in the moment (reacting to the present without looking down the road and making any plans) so life happens to them instead of creating the life they want, or only focusing in the future, so life passes them by while they make and refine plan after plan.  Don’t get stuck in only one of these — make time to look at all 3.

To quote the cinematic classic Spaceballs, which is almost partially relevant to this discussion:

Colonel Sandurz: Try here. Stop.

Dark Helmet: What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?

Colonel Sandurz: Now. You’re looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now, is happening now.

Dark Helmet: What happened to then?

Colonel Sandurz: We passed then.

Dark Helmet: When?

Colonel Sandurz: Just now. We’re at now now.

Dark Helmet: Go back to then.

Colonel Sandurz: When?

Dark Helmet: Now.

Colonel Sandurz: Now?

Dark Helmet: Now.

Colonel Sandurz: I can’t.

Dark Helmet: Why?

Colonel Sandurz: We missed it.

Dark Helmet: When?

Colonel Sandurz: Just now.

Dark Helmet: When will then be now?

Colonel Sandurz: Soon.

Dark Helmet: How soon?

Life Advice from a Man of Many Skills

My dad was full of lots of great advice — he was raised by polar opposite parents, a reserved NASA engineer and a high-energy, life-of-the-party mother who was always a great hostess.  His wisdom comes from a diverse career that includes working at McDonald’s, selling microwaves when they were first available, selling real estate, teaching sixth graders, working in the tax industry (H&R Block), providing customer service at Home Depot, delivering car parts anywhere they were needed, and mentoring teenagers who made some bad choices early in their life:

  1. Prepare for big purchases long before you need them:  I remember going car shopping when my father when I was about 12 years old.  Our car was running fine, but my father wanted to know what car he would buy if one of our cars died suddenly on us; so he wouldn’t have to rush into a decision.  And I think he was excited to try to convince the salesmen that his young son was really the car purchasing decision maker, which was pretty amusing.
  2. Whenever I was competing in something, my father was quick to find ways for me to observe others to learn what to do, and what not to do.  When I was taking swim lessons, we’d go early and watch other kids jump off the diving board.  When I played sports, we’d come early or stay late to watch other kids play.  When we went to the boardwalk at a beach, we’d want other kids play carnival games to figure out if you could win and if so, what the trick was.  My father is also always quick to ask recommendations and tips from people, like waiters at restaurants (“What’s your most popular dish?  What’s your favorite?”)
  3. Think through the total cost of ownership of things — he loved to remind me that he thought dual exhaust was so cool when he was shopping for his first car, but his father reminded him that he’d have to buy twice as many mufflers when they failed.  And those 17″ allow wheels means your tires will just cost that much more to replace.
  4. There’s no such thing as extra credit in this house“:  You might think this means we didn’t have to do extra credit when it was offered in school.  You’d be wrong — this meant that extra credit in any form, when offered, was required; just like completing all our required assignments.
  5. Never be a afraid to try:  I remember several times as a child where my dad would encourage me to do something that seemed impossible to do or win.  In elementary school, there was an annual egg drop contest where kids would build contraptions to protect an egg that was dropped from an extended fire engineer’s ladder.  My father encouraged me enter both the standard category and the category where the entire egg-holding-contraption could only be made from toothpicks and glue.  It sounds like a crazy mission, but we created a football-looking thing with a little egg compartment, and I was the only kid to even try to make anything for that category.  It’s a great lesson to teach:  You can’t win if you don’t show up and try

Growing up, my dad loved to quote Mark Twain — it was frustrating at the time, but I appreciate him reminding me:

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

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