Blog Fiasco

December 16, 2014

Calling people people. What’s in a name?

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , , — bcotton @ 11:12 pm

My IT service management professor once told the class “there are only two professions who have users: IT and drug dealers.” It’s interesting how the term “user” has become so prevalent in technology, but nowhere else. Certainly the term “customer” is better for a series organization (be it an internal IT group or a company providing technology services). “Customer” sounds better, and it emphasizes whose needs are to be met.

For a free Internet service, though, it’s not necessarily an apt term, if for no other reason than the rule of “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” That’s why I find Facebook’s recent decision to call their users “people” interesting.

Sure, it’s easy to dismiss this as a PR move calculated to make people feel more comfortable with a company that makes a living off of the personal information of others. I don’t doubt that there is a marketing component to this, but that doesn’t make the decision meritless. Words mean things, and chosen the right word can help frame employees mindsets, both consciously and subconsciously.

In Fedora, contributors have been actively discussing names, both of the collected software (“products” versus alternatives) and the people involved (“contributors”, “developers”, “users”). Understanding what the general perception of these terms are is a critical part of selecting the right one (particularly when the chosen term has to be translated into many other languages). A clear definition of the people terms is a necessary foundation of trying to understand the needs and expectations of that group.

“People” may be too broad of a term, but it’s nice to see a major company forego the word “user”. Perhaps others will follow suit. Of course, “user” is just such a handy term that it’s hard to find a suitably generic replacement. Maybe that’s why it sticks around?

November 10, 2014

Open source is about more than code

The idea of open source developed in a closed manner is hardly new. The first real discussion of it came, as best as I can tell, in Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar. A culture of open discussion and decision making is still a conscious act for projects. It’s not always pretty: consensus decision making is frustrating and some media outlets jump on every mailing list suggestion as the final word on a project’s direction. Still, it’s important for a project to make a decision about openness one way or the other.

Bradley Kuhn recently announced the copyleft.org project, which seeks to “create and disseminate useful information, tutorial material, and new policy ideas regarding all forms of copyleft licensing.” In the first substantive post on the mailing list, Richard Fontana suggested the adoption of the “Harvey Birdman Rule,” which has been used in his copyleft-next project. The limited response has been mostly favorable, though some have questioned its utility given that to date the work is almost entirely Kuhn’s. One IRC user said the rule “seems to apply only to discussions, not decisions. The former are cheap and plentiful, but the latter actually matter.”

I argue that the discussions, while cheap and plentiful, do matter. If all of the meaningful discussion happens in private, those who are not privy to the discussion will have a hard time participating in the decision-making process. For some projects, that may be okay. A ruling cadre makes the decisions and other contributors can follow along or not. But I see open source as being more than just meeting the OSI’s definition (or the FSF’s definition of free software for that matter). Open source is about the democratization of computing, and that means putting the sausage-making on public display.

October 9, 2014

The UX of a microwave

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , — bcotton @ 8:34 pm

I’m not a UX expert except in the sense that I have experience using things. Still, I spend a lot of time at work serving as a proxy for users in design discussions. It’s hard to get UX right, even on relatively simple experiences like a microwave oven.

Years ago, my systems analysis professor got on a tangent about user interactions. He pointed out that it can be faster to enter a minute on a microwave as 60 seconds instead of one minute, that 111 seconds is faster to enter than 110. Design choices (including the design of instructions and documentation) that seem obviously correct are sometimes incorrect for non-obvious reasons.

It took a little while, but I eventually discovered that the “Quick Set” menu doesn’t have pre-programmed settings, it just adds a zero to whatever code is entered. So the quick set to cook two slices of bacon (20) simply sets the time to 2:00. In that sense, it functions less as a shortcut and more as a list of cook times.

On a whim today, I tried to warm a cup of coffee by using a quick set code of 6 instead of 10. It didn’t work. Apparently the microwave requires quick set codes to be exactly two digits. For a one-minute cook time, the quick set is hardly any quicker than a manual entry.
My microwave came with the house, so while I don’t know exactly how old it is, I know it’s at least seven years old. Maybe recent microwaves have a more sensible UI. Or maybe it’s a problem that will never quite be solved.

September 7, 2014

FAQs are not the place to vent

Filed under: HPC/HTC,Musings,The Internet — Tags: — bcotton @ 2:42 pm

I’ve spent a lot of my professional life explaining technical concepts to not-necessarily-very-technical people. Most of the time (but sadly not all of it), it’s because the person doesn’t need to fully understand the technology, they just need to know enough to effectively do their job. I understand how frustrating it can be to answer what seems like an obvious question, and how the frustration compounds when the question is repeated. That’s why we maintain FAQ pages, so we can give a consistently friendly answer to a question.

You can imagine my dismay when my friend Andy shared an FAQ entry he found recently. A quantum chemistry application’s FAQ page includes this question: “How do I choose the number of processors/How do I setup my parallel calculation?” It’s a very reasonable question to ask. Unfortunately, the site answers it thusly: “By asking this question, you demonstrate your lack of basic understanding of how parallel machines work and how parallelism is implemented in Quantum ESPRESSO. Please go back to the previous point.”

The previous question is similar and has an answer of of “See Section 3 of the User Guide for an introduction to how parallelism is implemented in Quantum ESPRESSO”. Now that’s a pretty good answer. Depending on the depth of information in Section 3, it might be possible to answer the question directly on the FAQ page with an excerpt, but at least pointing the visitor to the information is a good step.

I don’t understand getting frustrated with a repeated FAQ. If the answers are so similar, copy and paste them. Or combine the questions. FAQs, user guides, and the like are great because you can compose them in a detached manner and edit them to make sure they’re correct, approachable, and not jerkish. FAQs are an opportunity to prevent frustration, not to express it.

August 28, 2014

Job requirements: often counterproductive

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 7:53 pm

My friend Rikki Endsley shared an article from Quartz entitled “job requirements are mostly fiction and you should ignore them“. Based on how quickly my friends re-shared the post, it seems to have resonated with many people. The article is targeted at job applicants and the TL;DR is “apply for the job you want, even if you don’t think you’re qualified. Job postings are written to describe ideal candidates, even if they’re not realistic, and most hiring managers would gladly take someone who meets some of the requirements. When a characteristic is listed under “requirements” instead of “preferred”, potential applicants assume that they shouldn’t bother applying.

This isn’t true in all cases, of course. In some places, the requirements are well-written and the hiring manager doesn’t consider any applications that don’t meet the requirements. Other times, the initial evaluation is done by the human resources department and they apply the requirements strictly (as an anecdote, I know I’ve been rejected for more than one position because my degree was in the wrong field. This despite that I had experience in the position and the hiring manager asking HR for my resume specifically). In many cases, though, the “requirements” are a high bar. The Internet is full of (possibly apocryphal) stories of job postings wanting 7 years of experience in a 5 year old programming language.

Hiring managers aren’t addressed directly in the article, but there’s a lesson here for you: be careful when writing job requirements. Apart from scaring away people you might have otherwise ended up hiring (especially women, who are more likely to pass on jobs where they don’t meet all of the qualifications), you’re robbing yourself of a good way to weed out the truly unqualified. Especially when someone else is pre-screening applicants, I prefer to craft job postings as broadly as possible. I would much rather spend extra time reviewing applicants than miss out on someone who would have been a great hire. It’s a low-risk, high-reward decision.

It’s not cheap to hire people. Especially in small organizations, you don’t want to risk hiring someone who you’ll have to get rid of in six months. But turnover isn’t cheap, either. I haven’t studied this, but speaking from my own experience, I’m much more likely to leave a position when I feel like I’ve stopped growing. By hiring someone who is 80-90% of the way there instead of 100%, you buy yourself more time with this person, reducing turnover. Sure, you get less productivity initially, but allowing an employee to grow is a cheap way to keep them interested in their work.

Likewise, I don’t want to apply for a job where I could step in on day one and do everything. If I wanted a job that I could do easily, I’d still be in my first job. I bet I’d be really good at it by now, but my skills wouldn’t have expanded. As a friend-of-a-friend said “I don’t think I’ve ever applied for a job that I was qualified for.” If employers can write job requirements aspirationally, then potential applicants should be aspirational in job applications.

August 4, 2014

How I keep organized despite being an unorganized person

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 8:45 pm

I am not, by nature, a well-organized person. I’ve known people who are always on top of what they need to do and where things are. I can’t do that. And even though I generally do my best to make sure I meet my responsibilities on time, I’ve been known to let things languish too long by accident.

When my wife became pregnant with our second child, I was forced to adapt. Although the pregnancy ended with a healthy, full-term baby, it was a rough one for my dear wife. She was, much to her dismay, effectively confined to the couch for the better part of nine months (at least to the degree that one can remain stationary while parenting a two year old). This left me responsible for the bulk of the housework, in addition to working, grad school, and trying to be a husband and father.

Clearly, I needed to step up my organizational game. For a long time, I used TuDu to manage my todo list. It’s still, from a feature perspective, my favorite such tool, but the fact that mobile access required SSHing to my desktop was not the best user experience. I found Wunderlist and soon decided it was not only a great application, but also worth paying for.

Wunderlist soon became my crutch. Everything I had to do went into Wunderlist. With due dates, categories, and hashtag searches, I could easily see only what I needed to see. I knew the only way I would do things like clean the bathroom on a regular basis was if I had a gentle reminder, so I loaded up with recurring events. During a particularly hectic April (a major project at work had me working almost every night and weekend), I completely outsourced my days to Wunderlist. Whatever the list said, I did. I’m fortune that no one compromised my account,  because I’m not sure I would have paused to consider a “give me all your money” task.

Wunderlist, and more importantly my regular and dedicated use of it, has helped my organization tremendously. Gone are the days of accidentally forgetting to pay a bill because it wasn’t due at the same time as the rest (yes, yes, autopay. I only do that for bills that are semi-regular.) Despite being a one man show, the house is probably cleaner than it was with both of us able to contribute simply because things were regular and scheduled.

Another tool that I’ve fallen in love with, though I haven’t yet started making full use of is Trello. I was introduced to Trello at work. It’s what we use to track development work and large projects. I recently took my list of blog post it was out of Wunderlist and put them into Trello. Now I can have various posts in a variety of states and see at a glance where they are. I’ve introduced it to a community blog I contribute to and to a local free/open source software group I’m a part of.

Of course, I still use TaskJuggler for some things, but it’s not necessarily well-suited for managing my entire life. If I were to attempt to put all of my personal and work projects into a single TaskJuggler project, my computer might explode.

The downside to having everything I need to do mapped out for me is that it’s all so damn visible. When I get sick or tired (as of this writing, I’m a little bit of both), this wall of todo can be incredibly overwhelming. But I am disorganized and lazy by default,  so the fact that I have tools available to help me overcome these traits is generally a life-improver. Now if only there were an app that would clean my office for me…

July 29, 2014

Who’s competing with whom?

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 7:33 pm

In Sunday’s Lafayette Journal & Courier, the USA Today section included an article by Matt Krantz comparing Microsoft and Apple. He treats the two companies as arch rivals, comparing them to the Cola War participants and to the longstanding animosity between fans of Ford and Chevy pickups. And he wasn’t wrong 20 years ago, but he is now. The OS wars are, if not entirely over, at least in a state of permanent cease-fire. Microsoft has very clearly won in volume; Apple turns a handsome profit. With the move toward a browser-based world, the OS on desktops and laptops is becoming increasingly irrelevant to mainstream consumers.

Indeed, the desktop and laptop are becoming less relevant (though not irrelevant, despite the slower sales in recent years). Over half of Apple’s Q3 2014 revenue came from iPhone sales. Macs (and the attendant Mac OS X) were a mere 15% of revenue. Apple could completely abandon the PC market tomorrow and still be fine. They’re clearly in the mobile device (and services) business today. Sure, Microsoft has a mobile offering. I’ve used a recent Windows Phone and it was pretty nice. But Microsoft is competing with Apple in the mobile space the same way that Apple is competing with Microsoft in the desktop OS space. As a hint, it’s the same way that this blog competes with Ars Technica.

If Apple is a mobile company, then who are they competing with? The obvious answer is Google. While Google doesn’t really do devices, they control the Android ecosystem (although the degree of control is debatable). Steve Jobs was willing to declare “thermonuclear war” on Android. I’m not aware of him harboring a similar hatred for the Windows Mobile devices that existed many years before.

I mentioned this on Twitter, and Krantz argued that Google is an ad company, whereas Apple and Microsoft are “technology companies”. The distinction is lost on me. Technology is such a broad term that it is effectively meaningless. And while Google may derive most of its revenue from advertising, it’s only capable of generating that revenue because of the technology it produces and acquires.

There’s just not much meaningful competition between Apple and Microsoft these days. Both of these companies compete with Google, but in different spaces. The recently-announced partnership between Apple and IBM may bring Apple back into competition with Microsoft, but that remains to be seen.

So what are the lessons here? First: just because a guy has a money column in USA Today, that doesn’t mean he understands the technology (overly-broad term used intentionally) industry. Second: just because you were once bitter rivals with a company (or a person), you may not stay that way forever. Third: it is very important to be aware of who is in the space you want to be in so you can do it better than they do.

 

July 15, 2014

Humans as investments, not resources

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , , — bcotton @ 10:24 am

As I last week, two tweets on Sunday morning lead me to a lengthy pontification about HR and how organizations treat employees. In part two, I focus on an article shared by Mrs. Y in which we find that the longer you stay in your position, the more money you’re robbing from your future self. I’m approaching the eight year anniversary of the start of my first professional job and just passed the one year anniversary of the start of my fourth. I just ran the numbers: assuming a 2% annual raise (which is probably generous), I’m making nearly 60% more than I would had I stayed in that first job.

Money isn’t everything, of course. I’ve never left a job because I wanted more money (though I’ve never complained about getting more money). Every time I left a job, it’s because I ran out of room to grow my skills and responsibilities or because I was dissatisfied with the organization. In those cases, throwing more money at me would have been at best a short-term inducement to stay. Still, it has been my experience that the best way to get what you want is to leave and go get it elsewhere. This is fundamentally broken. How much productivity does an organization lose when years of experience walk out the door? How much frustration does a person gain when they have to re-learn a new job, a new employer, and often a new city?

The basic issue is that all too often, organizations treat employees as resources to extract value from. Viewed properly, employees are investments that will help the organization grow. I’ve heard managers say “why should I send you to that training? You’ll probably end up leaving.” Of course, the manager is sure he’s right when the employee does leave. But maybe they’d have stayed if the organization was willing to invest.

When an employer gives a big raise or other consideration to an employee, it tends to be in reaction to the employee receiving an offer from somewhere else. “If I give you more money, will you stay?” is a losing proposition. At that point, the employee is already heading for the door. It’s far better to keep the good employees sufficiently happy such that they don’t get those offers in the first place. Of course, some people will always leave, and there’s no stopping that. Prolonging the period of mutual benefit is the best possible outcome.

The notion of loyalty to an employer strikes me as being misplaced. When an employer won’t take proactive steps to aid the development of an employee, why does the employee owe any loyalty? There are good organizations out there that really do try to keep employees on an upward trajectory when it comes to pay and skills. Those that don’t aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re not doing themselves any favors.

Of course, the blame isn’t entirely on the shoulders of the employer. Employees have to understand that their bosses aren’t mind readers. My major regret from my last job is the fact that I wasn’t more vocal about what I wanted from the position along the way. Maybe something could have been done that would have made me want to say “no thanks” when I was offered my current job. Or maybe not. But at least then I would have had to choose.

July 7, 2014

Organizational silos in the 21st century

My friend Joanna shared an interesting Harvard Business Review article yesterday morning entitled “It’s Time to Split HR“. Along with another link article that was shared by someone else a few minutes later, I found myself making a rather lengthy pontification about how organizations treat employees, particularly with respect to pay. Originally, I was going to focus on that, but the more I thought about it, the more I think there are two separate-but-related posts. So in this one, I’ll focus on the HBR article.

Ram Charan lays out an interesting argument for bifurcating the traditional Human Resources department into administration (e.g. compensation, hiring, etc.) and leadership (e.g. personnel development) roles. It’s certainly a proposal worth considering. As commenter Jonathan Magid pointed out, the two roles of HR are essentially to protect the organization from its employees and to develop those same employees. HR effectively has to serve two masters. In most cases where there’s a conflict of interest, HR will side with the organization. That makes sense, since the organization is the one writing the pay checks.

Charan, however, doesn’t really address this. His main concern seems to be the lack of strategic understanding within the ranks of HR leadership. Chief Human Resources Offices (CHROs), he writes, are too specialized in HR functional areas and lack understanding of the larger organization. This is true of all areas, though. Especially those that are not core to the business. Too often, IT leadership is painted (appropriately) with the same brush. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the area needs to go away.

The best employees are familiar with other areas of the business, not just those under their direct purview. This is true of all functional areas and at all levels. In a previous job, we frequently lamented that HR wasn’t as helpful as they could be in vetting resumes because they didn’t understand technology. Go on any forum where technical people gather and eventually you’ll find disparaging remarks and advice to game keywords because that’s all HR will understand. In my experience, the issue isn’t that HR staff are terrible human beings, it’s that they’re just too siloed.

Everyone “knows” that silos are bad. Bureaucratic fiefdoms tend to be self-reenforcing and lead to reactionary, defensive tactics like information hoarding in order to keep justifying their existence. What I find so interesting is that organizations can’t seem to avoid forming silos. Siloization is like an organizational version of entropy: left alone, it will increase over time.

There are certainly benefits to silos. They make the organization easier to understand. They allow for deep specialization. Knowledge transfer is simplified. But they’re a losing prospect in the longer term.

A good friend of mine directs the IT support organization for a large academic unit within a large midwestern university. This group is notable because it provides excellent customer service (according to their internal measures, the opinions of the customers, and their reputation on campus) and actively suppresses silo formation. He told me that silo suppression is “extremely expensive, and very difficult to explain/justify to people.”

Silo suppression is expensive because it’s a long-term investment in the organization. Rotating senior personnel through phone duty is expensive as compared to putting the newest, cheapest hire on that task all day. Requiring all knowledge to be shared among at least one colleague requires a larger staff. Hiring and retaining people who buy into the organizational philosophy is a slower and more expensive process. All of this looks terrible in a short-term view.

Where silo suppression pays off is in the long term. Vacations, illnesses, and employee turnover are less disruptive because the knowledge is retained. Someone else in the organization can pick up dropped issues without a long spin-up time. Employees develop a broader view of their work and can make useful suggestions for areas outside of their main expertise.

There are undoubtedly psychological and sociological reasons that we gravitate toward developing silos. Organizational leaders must be aware of this tendency and actively work to counter it. The problem with HR isn’t that the people or the functions are bad. The problem is that HR is not out “among the people.” Embedding HR representatives within other functional areas of an organization is almost certain to improve HR’s understanding of the larger business. In addition, it may help make HR more approachable and better understood by the rest of the organization, allowing employees to make the best use of the HR resources available.

Organizational silos are interesting. We know that they’re bad, but we always end up reverting to them over time. Maybe just we need better silos. Silos built around projects that can easily be torn down and put up somewhere else may give us the best of both worlds.

June 20, 2014

Is storm chasing unethical?

Filed under: Musings,Weather — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 8:03 pm

Eric Holthaus wrote an article for Slate arguing that storm chasing has become unethical. This article has drawn a lot of response from the meteorological community, and not all of the dialogue has been productive. Holthaus makes some good points, but he’s wrong in a few places, too. His biggest sin is painting with too wide a brush.

At the root of the issue is Mark Farnik posting a picture of a mortally wounded five-year-old girl. The girl was injured in a tornado that struck Pilger, Nebraska and succumbed to the injuries a short time later. To be perfectly clear, I have no problem with Farnik posting the picture, nor do I have a problem with him “profiting” off it. Photojournalism is not always pleasant, but it’s an important job. To suggest that such pictures can’t be shared or even taken is to do us a disservice. 19 years on, the picture of a firefighter holding Baylee Almon remains the single most iconic image from the Oklahoma City bombing.

None of this would have come up had Farnik not posted the following to Facebook: “I need some highly photogenic and destructive tornadoes to make it rain for me financially.” That’s a pretty awful statement. While I enjoy tornado video as much as anyone, I prefer them to occur over open fields. Nobody I know ever wishes for destruction, and I’d be loath to associate with anyone who did. This one sentence served as an entry point to condemn an entire hobby.

Let’s look at Holthaus’ points individually:

  1. Storm chasers are not saving lives. Some chasers make a point to report weather phenomena to the local NWS office immediately. Some chasers do not. Some will stop to render assistance when they come across damage and injuries. Some will not. In both cases, my own preference is for the former. Patrick Marsh, the Internet’s resident weather data expert, found no evidence that an increase in chasers has had any effect on the tornado fatalities. In any case, not saving lives is hardly a condemnation of an activity. Golf is not an inherently life-saving avocation, but I don’t see anyone arguing that it’s unethical.
  2. Chasing with the intent to profit… adds to the perverse incentive for more and more risky behavior. Some people act stupidly when money or five minutes of Internet fame are on the line. This is hardly unique to storm chasing. Those chasers who put themselves or others in danger are acting stupidly. The smart ones place a premium on safety. What’s more, the glee that chasers often express in viral videos is disrespectful to people who live there and may be adversely affected by the storm. Also true. The best videos are shot from a tripod and feature quiet chasers.
  3. A recent nationwide upgrade to the National Weather Service’s Doppler radar network has probably rendered storm chasers obsolete anyway. Bull. Dual-polarization radar does greatly aid the radar detection of debris, but ground truth is still critical. Radar cannot determine if a wall cloud is rotating. It cannot determine if a funnel cloud is forming. It cannot observe debris that does not exist (e.g. if a tornado is over a field). If you wait for a debris signature on radar, you’ve already lost. In a post to the wx-chase mailing list, NWS meteorologist Tanja Fransen made it very clear that spotters are not obsolete. To be clear, spotters and chasers are not the same thing, even if some people (yours truly, for example) engage in both activities.

The issue here is that in the age of social media, it’s easier for the bad eggs to stand out. It’s easy to find chasers behaving stupidly, sometimes they even get their own cable shows. The well-behaved chasers, by their very nature, tend to not be noticed. Eric Holthaus is welcome to not chase anymore, that’s his choice. I haven’t chased in several years, but that’s more due to family obligations than anything else. I have, and will continue to, chase with the safety of myself and others as the top priority.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress