Archive for June, 2009

My Mac is a detail-enabler – ouch!

June 24, 2009

I am a detail-oriented engineer and business owner. Aside from the fact that I can spell better in Russian than in English, I religiously dot every “i” and cross every “t” and try to make everything I do “letter-perfect”. The computer makes this attention to detail all encompassing: perfect Word docs, perfect Excel spreadsheets, perfect Powerpoint presentations, perfect drawings, etc.

With enough time, the computer can help me make every document I create “perfect” – if I am not careful, I may focus too much on the “details” and miss an important piece of the “big picture”. If only my software limited my ability to deliver detail, I might deliver better “substance”. But alas, my software can let me do marvelous, little, intricate things…

OUCH!

I caught myself going “deep” into detail mode with a drawing today. Ever mindful that my computer display has a resolution of 100 pixels per inch (actually 101…), and my drawing was for a webpage on my website, I found myself working to a precision of 0.1 mm – about 2.5-times the resolution of the displayed image… What was I thinking?

Well, I am an engineer. And my drawing was “eye candy”. And I am “precisely” sure that I spent several “precision” hours that no one but me would ever appreciate.  My drawing was “precisely perfect”! Thanks to my Mac software – and some hard work…

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Programmers are like lawyers

June 17, 2009

I work closely with a number excellent software programmers and also with a number of shrewd attorneys. I think that these two careers draw upon many of the same skills, and the best performers in each field have remarkably similar personalities.

“Huh,” you say? “What have you been smoking?” Well, let me “peel the onion” for you.

The law is additive – software is additive. No foundation of law or software really becomes obsolete. The body of knowledge increases continuously, and the best in law and software just “soak it up.”

The law is based upon precedence – modern software that is object oriented relies upon inheritance. While the authors of law have never adopted a rigor to continuously define and document the inheritance (and programmers have), the interpreters of the law are ever mindful of the principles of inheritance in the law.

The lawyer refers to libraries of pleadings and rulings, and the programmer refers to libraries of functions – both do a terrific amount of research in their jobs day to day, and both are detail oriented to the extreme.

Lawyers and programmers communicate with their peers openly and honestly, and they both seriously regard a similar code of ethics.

Both lawyers and programmers are annoyingly sure of themselves.

Yes, in many ways, I think that an excellent programmer would have made a shrewd lawyer in an alternative universe – their brains are much alike.

The Metric system before I die, please?

June 12, 2009

When I was working in the Middle East and would walk outside on my way to work, I would see a big thermometer hanging on our perimeter wall. When it read 35 deg at 7:30 AM, I knew that we would be pushing 50 at close of business – man, it was already hot, and it was going to be HOT-HOT-HOT! I had that figured out in, like, one day. No sweat (being funny). 100KM was an hour’s drive down the highway – that’s easy to figure… One liter of water weighs 1 Kg, and I weigh 100 Kg – that’s easy too… My little finger is 1 CM thick. Yes, I like this metric system! I’m “metric”…

Upon my return to the US, my employer Rockwell International was just then officially adopting the Metric system in its manufacturing operations. To my chagrin, the first Metric manufacturing drawings I ever saw absurdly showed what used to be 0.75 inch +/- 0.02 inch to now be be 19.050 mm +/- 0.5 mm – well, rules of precision didn’t quite translate across like they should, I guess, but more to the point, I wondered why that dimension wasn’t 20.0 mm +/- 0.5 mm – that would really have been metric. At that point in time almost 25 years ago, adoption of the Metric system in the US was really just a charade – an appeasement mostly by Government contractors that lacked any meaningful commitment. Today in manufacturing, that corner has been fully turned though,and it happened gradually over 25 years – probably because the US stopped manufacturing a lot of things, and Asian manufacturers produced Metric designs and products…

Societally, though, I am afraid that we have taken a few steps away from the Metric system in that time – “rats” I say. Ask the nurse at your doctor’s office what is your normal temperature in deg c, and they may wonder where you come from – They probably have no idea how to answer (the answer is 37.0 deg C, and 40 deg C is “burnin’ up). Banks get phone calls from well meaning folk to say that their thermometer on their sign is wrong when it rolls over to deg C. In the grocery store, a lady asked me once how many 2-liter Pepsi’s were in a quart (I wondered why not how many in a gallon), but why would you want to know? And if I had answered 1.9 2-liter bottles in a gallon,, would she even have comprehended?

Maybe if we try very hard to educate and excite school aged children about the metric system, we will adopt it before I die!

DTV – next the Metric system

June 12, 2009

Change is hard – yes, everyone say that one more time in unison with me:

“Change is hard.”

OK, perhaps I am being just a little bit facetious, but the US is painfully slow to change on some things. Finally, though, we have a significant transition under our belts – a change from analogue TV to digital TV. Whew!

In 1977 or so – maybe it was 1978, I installed and commissioned some of the first digital microwave systems that conveyed two DS3 signals or 1344 56Kb/s digital telephone calls (in 64 Kb/s data frames) simultaneously. The impact on the rural communities that “hopped” onto these DS3’s to digital telephone switches in the nearest large city was accommodation of modern push button DTMF dial phones in lieu of rotary dial phones, and the ability to place long distance calls directly without requiring an operator to “place” the call for you. This was a great advance for these small communities, and it put the entire country uniformly in the modern age of digital telephony. Looking back, that was exciting for me, and I was helping to make it happen – to push the high tech envelop in telephony to the very “edges of civilization” in the US.

Today, the entire country uniformly enters the modern age of digital television. No more fuzzy pictures or interference bars from overhead airplanes or from reflections off of large buildings – just a picture-perfect picture – if you are lucky to have enough signal to detect and decode… I wonder just how many television sets will actually receive their signals over the air? My suspicion is a small number – maybe less than 5 percent. Unless you are one of those few, you will probably wonder what all the hubbub was about… But change is hard, and the very words “change to digital TV” is a hard sell even if you receive your video service from Comcast or DirecTV or AT&T (Uverse) or Verizon (FIOS) or a number of other players in this industry – for you so served, well, nothing really happened today – but the change was still hard…

What’s the next big change? I am hoping for the Metric System. With the digital TV transition behind us now, maybe we can tackle the Metric system again, and make it stick to us all! Give me an M, an M, an MKS – give me a C, a C, a CGS!

Microsoft agreed with me – no problem.

June 9, 2009

That was a Tweet!

My dispute with Microsoft has been resolved – they agree with me completely. No Problem – they are even sending me back some money (a very small amount)!

To my surprise, their registration records are now complete and correct, too. I sent a FAX of prior registration records, and someone added it all to my customer records. Also in the records is a note on what was done and why.

So, Microsoft responded to a customer issue correctly after some time and added context to their records. Good for them!

That’s the “story” – more than a tweet allows, isn’t it…

Finally, validated data sets to “crunch”!

June 9, 2009

I am excited by the announcement of WolframAlpha. Wolfram claims that this new dataset database will be validated, and therefore more valuable to the user. My hope is that the validation helps me “make a measurement, and not just a “reading”. For WolframAlpha to be truly validated, I think that four elements are necessary:

  1. the source of the data must be known and published;
  2. the actual data must be verified correct and accurate;
  3. other similar datasets must be identified as well, and it must be clear why they are similar, and also how they are different; it will be essential to know the complete and explicit schema; and
  4. some data may be missing from the dataset; for example, certain US Census datasets may omit responses from rural areas and towns smaller than a certain threshold population – in other words, there may be “context” to consider, and this is the real challenge for Wolfram – to explain the context of the dataset completely enough.

If Wolfram is “religious” about this kind of validation, their WolframAlpha data services will be tremendously valuable to researchers and analysts – these users can be more confident that they are making “measurements”!

Twitter part 2 – still don’t get it…

June 9, 2009

Time magazine’s June 15, 2009 issue arrived in today’s (snail) mail. The cover feature article: Twitter “… how Twitter is changing the way we live – and showing us the future of innovation.” I had no idea this was coming from Time when I made my earlier post- this was quite a surprise! I read the article, and I still don’t get it… In fact, I think that Twitter may be an impediment to communicating effectively after all is said and done – give us ten years to see what happens.

Let me expand on this a bit – I get it – I get the “draw” to this chatting tool…

You can tell your friends something – you can say anything that fits in 140 characters – to anyone who is interested in hearing from you – even to people you have never met or received a communication of any sort from. You “broadcast” – you don’t deal with people one to one, but one to many. You don’t wait for them to answer the phone, say hello, chit-chat a little and then get on with your announcement – you “tweet” and Twitter waits for the other person to read your “tweet” at their convenience without any inconvenience on your part. It’s not for “mission-critical” communications, but you can say anything you want from the mundane to the Earthshaking. And you don’t have to linger to hear the other person’s response – they can “tweet” back to you, and if you are registered to receive their “tweets”, you read their response at your convenience – but only if you want to hear from that other person, and only when you have the time.

Twitter – Great! No confrontation, no waiting, no wasted time – it just takes a moment! Simpler than e-mail. Like SMS on the desktop – you only “tweet” a line at a time… You are always short of time, so that’s still great! And Twitter gives you a control panel and dashboard that SMS doesn’t offer in any way. I get the draw to Twitter.

But I think Twitter will do us some harm – Twitter will change the way we live by making casual communication less nuanced and less intimate, and I for one won’t like it. Let me “peel the onion a layer” and illustrate why with an actual experience of a client of mine whose company failed, and there was nothing I could do to rescue them. My client contact asked me to facilitate a meeting on what steps would salvage his failing product line. He wanted a 15 minute presentation to his CEO, CTO, and several direct reports followed by a working lunch to discuss the strategy. I have done this before – seven senior managers – no problem… I asked everyone to power their phones off, but I was sure that most if not all just put their phones in silent mode – that’s common. During the 15 minute presentation, each person was continuously reaching into their pocket for their phone to read its display – it was a continuous chorus of quiet buzzing coming from around the table and a lot of flying thumbs. I was unable to maintain eye contact with any of these managers as they responded to the distraction to read their tweets and as some sent out their own tweets in reply.

Lunch conversation was just as awkward. “what do we do?” “let’s diversify the product.” “we need a plan” “no we don’t, not enough time” “Brian has some good ideas” buzz. buzz, buzz, tweet, tweet, tweet – it was continuous. As we were talking, it dawned on me that this management team was in “tweet mode” with each other – one sentence expressed each thought – they didn’t wait for another’s response to build a synergy of ideas into a plan. When lunch was over, everyone walked out, most looking at their phones and thumbing away on their keyboards. I was left alone with my presentation equipment and my laptop – and the cookies…

What I saw was “Twitter Culture” – live and up close:

  • short attention spans,
  • continuously interrupted thinking,
  • poor conceptualization, compromise and planning skills,
  • poor synergy and a tendency for false consensus.

This is how Twitter may change our world, and I don’t think that I like this Twitter culture…

Twitter – OK, maybe I DON’T get it…

June 6, 2009

This is a tale of a job interview a while back that left my brain spinning. No company names disclosed here – no sour grapes, either. The bottom line – the hiring manager wanted all status reports via an enterprise Twitter tool – “If you can’t put a status in 140 characters or less, you’re not thinking concisely enough.” the manager explained. I don’t get it…

I interview for a “real job” once every few years – I frankly enjoy being self employed – a lot… But once in a blue moon, a job opportunity surfaces that is so intriguing that I apply for it. This particular job was essentially a product manager with financial responsibilities and a small staff to communicate requirements and administer internal commitments with software development, manufacturing, support, sales and marketing organizations and external commitments with a hardware manufacturer partner and the primary customers. The job was “right up my alley” with a product that I was passionate about and an expert on in the industry. I recall thinking that I had this “in the bag”. NOT.

In the interview, the hiring manager posed a hypothetical situation and asked me to send him a sample status report by e-mail over lunch. I sent a one-page report with one significant accomplishment, two significant problems that were “under control”, and one small issue that posed a risk of become something much bigger if circumstances changed in a particular way. The hiring manager said, “I won’t have the time to read this – this is too much information… I will want you to Twitter the status.” What? I don’t get it… I asked, “How many tweets a day do you look for?” “Oh, sometimes none, maybe one or two – no more than that…” the manager said. “How often do you like to talk about status?” I asked. “Only when there’s a real problem, but I don’t want problems, just solutions.”

Huh? Risk and opportunity hide in nuance. How can you communicate nuance in a one-liner? I just don’t get it… At this point, I am telling myself that this is a disaster in the making – one I can rescue this company from, but one that may come with a lot of grief. I put on my “product face” and focus our conversation after lunch on the pertinent relationships I have in the industry particularly with the hardware partner and the proven expertise I have with this particular product area. I’m going for this job – I want this job – I live for a challenge! I really do!

I don’t get the job. I am REALLY disappointed.

A recent chance meeting with this hiring manager after a year or so had past gave me an opportunity to ask what soured him in my interview? His frank answer – “You weren’t using Twitter – you weren’t even using FaceBook. You would have been difficult for me to manage.” On its face, I understand that answer – a manager has a style, and a direct report in a key position has to accommodate the manager’s style. A direct report’s communication style can be crucial to the success of a working relationship – I get that.

But I don’t get Twitter as a management tool – Twitter is a casual “chatting” tool focused on “one-liners”. Tweets can convey context – who, what, when and where in real time, and there may be some real value in that, but a tweet doesn’t convey nuance. You have to mine for nuance if you are going to win the war – you have to look past the context and dig into the underlying “story” in order to step past risk and jump on your opportunities before the competition does.

OK, maybe I DON’T get Twitter, but on this one, I don’t think the hiring manager got it… I still don’t “tweet”, but, well, I AM on FaceBook now!

Bum – bumbumbumbum

June 5, 2009

Ring a bell?  It’s the Intel “chorus”.  I think the recent Intel commercials on the TV are GREAT! It’s OK to be smart, and it’s OK to be a little eccentric, and its OK to be passionate about what you do. In fact, it is more than just OK – it is essential for a technology company.  

Nerds are valuable, and Intel knows it! Without intellectual talent pushing the envelop, a tech company need only employ bean counters – until the till is empty…

Bum – bumbumbumbummmmmmm