Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Christmas. . .

That's right, Merry Christmas!

Not "Happy Holidays" or have a "Great Holiday Season"... It is Christmas after all!

Oh... a belated Happy Hanukah to all of my Jewish readers as well!

I really don’t like the trend towards removing the symbolism from the holiday and attempting to make it a ‘generic’ holiday… maybe it’s because I grew up with all of the symbols, Christmas trees, manger scenes and so on, that without them it just doesn’t ‘feel’ the same to me.

No, I’m not going off on a holiday rant, just stating my position on it all. I think that the meaning, and symbols, of a holiday are an integral component of the celebration. The next thing you know Easter will be up for grabs.

Anyway… I know I’ve been absent, missing in action… the truth is, I’ve just not been inspired to write much lately… a lot going on here, not the least of which is the end of my current contract without an extension, or a finalized employment offer.

Yeas, I’ll still be working, but now it’s a ‘day-to-day’ thing, with no timeline in place. Normally, I would have had a new contract in place back in November. I should have pushed the issue, but, with so much to deal with on the personal front, I just let it slide.

I know I shouldn’t have, but, the truth is, I’m not worried, and I don’t really care. I’m more focused on my wife, and helping her get through what ever she has to go through, that every thing else is pretty much secondary.

That said, we had a wonderful Christmas… we spent it relaxing, and cooked a prime rib roast for dinner, man was that good!! Tonight Nina is stopping in for a visit as she’s home for the holiday and we’re looking forward to seeing her and catching up on everything that’s happened since she moved to Charleston, SC.

So, for those of you who’re still stopping in, thanks!! Please accept my wish that you, and your families have had a very Merry Christmas, and enjoy a Happy, safe, and prosperous New Year!!

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Welding Project. . .

Ok.. so I know I've continued to be a very bad blogger... long absences... but honestly I've been very busy.

Work has been absolutely crazy busy. We're deploying the second phase of a year long development effort next Tuesday. This is an application used across the rail industry to not only track but to also aid in maintaining the health of all of the 1.8 million (that's right *million*) pieces of active railroad equipment on the tracks today.

Testing this application, identifying issues, suggesting improvements and writing the user guides has pretty much occupied my every waking moment for the month of November.

I'm doing web casts next week to demonstarte all of the new features to our customers as well as running internal demonstrations and training for our customer service folks. So I had to develop all of thos scripts this month as well.

Now I could have started earlier, but the application didn't exit development until the 9th and I wanted to include only the most current screen images in the documentation.

So that's my excuse for not blogging... but, I did take about a day and a half out to build myself an 'extension' for my welding cart. (Hence the title of this post)

Anyway... when I got my new MIG welder a couple of years ago, it came with a small cart. It was nice that they included it in the 'package', but a couple of things have always bugged me about that cart.

First, while it rolls quite easily, there was no handle so it was always an adventure navigating it to where I wanted to use it in the garage.

Second, there were no built in 'hooks' to hang the various cable and cords, or the welding helmet from.

So, when I recently acquired a used Plasma cutter (I traded a woodsplitter I had for it) I decided that instead of getting a separate cart for the cutter, I'd build an extension for the existing cart, and, while I was at it fix the two things that always bugged me.

Before I started in on this project the cart looked like this...

The first thing I did was to build the outside frame rails. The trick here was to make them exactly the same size, with perfectly square corners and such that the top edges were level to the rest of the cart.

Once that was done, I added two cross braces. One in the front, and one in back. The only real trick here was keeping the outsides aligned and making sure I had room to open the side access panel on the welder so I'd be able to change the wire without removing the welder from the cart.

In the second picture below you can also see the difference in the length of the front and rear 'legs' of the frame rails. While having these unequal sides made aligning everything a bit more difficult it allowed me to better balance the additional load of the plasma cutter on the cart.

Then I added a handle. I angled it forward about 30 degrees, to ease access to the front panel of the plasma cutter, and just to lower the handle height a bit.

After I had everthing tack welded and lined up, I attached the 'legs' to the existing cart and finished welding all of the seams. Securing the legs to the cart helped keep everything aligned during this final welding as one of the problems in welding up a 3D object like this is the tendancy for the tubing to warp as it's heated and cooled.

I also added the 'pan' that the plasma cutter will sit on.

Once everything had cooled, I removed the new frame from the cart, ground the welds, cleaned and sanded all the steel and painted it a satin black to match the rest of the cart.

In these next two pictures you can see the four 'hooks' I added to allow me to hang the cables and cords when they're not in use.

Once the paint had dried overnight, I reassembled the frame to the cart and began storing the cable and cords on the 'hooks' I'd installed.

So there you have it... one customized welding cart...

Interestingly enough though, I hardly had it all put away before I started thinking about a couple of other 'enhancements' I should have made!!

Oh, and lest you think I'm so talented that this all went together without a hitch... the truth is it took me two tries, the first try warped during the final welding as I'd forgotten how steel will do that if it's not prevented from doing so byt being held in place!!

I've missed you all and I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!! With any luck, starting towards the end of next week I'll have time to blog on a more regular basis.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

I’ve Been Busy… Still..

In all honesty though, I’m really happy and having fun, even if I am exhausted.

Maryan had a total Thyroidectomy last week (on Wednesday) so I’ve been tending to her, on top of tending to all ten of the new puppies, the two cats, and attempting to keep the house in some sort of order close to the way she keeps it!

I took Wednesday-Friday off from work, and while I did log a few hours, despite all the work, mostly while Maryan was sleeping, it was probably less than 12 total.

I’ve been having so much fun with the puppies, that it’s difficult to treat this as any sort of ‘chore’. They’re walking pretty well now, and are so sociable and friendly that feeding and watering them becomes a ‘pet’ fest.

I’ll admit that the cleanup after all of these little guys is among my least favorite tasks; even that task will get me giggling as they try to “help” by attacking the end of the rake or shovel.

It seems that at this age they actually grow a little (visibly) each day… and that growth is evidenced by how much they can eat. We’re going through about 40 pounds of dog food a week… its tough some days keeping food available to them all!

Maryan is doing pretty well, she’s still in some post-surgical pain, but it’s been diminishing with each passing day and that’s been a blessing in and of, it self.

She struggled with a Thyroid ailment called “Hashimoto’s disease” for about three years. When it was first discovered one of the doctors recommended a partial thyroid removal, which would not have ended the progression of the disease, simply removed the effected tissue. In the end, this disease destroys the entire thyroid, so she opted to wait until such time as a complete removal was called for.

Hashimoto’s is an immune system disorder. In short, the immune system decides the thyroid is “foreign” and attacks it in much the same way it attacks the flu virus. When you have Hashimoto’s, you feel like you have the flu, all the time. No on knows exactly what causes the disease, and there’s no ‘cure’ short of removing the thyroid.

If you’ve ever battled a case of the flu, you know how she’s felt, everyday, for about three years.

The surgeon seems fairly confident that this procedure will have her feeling ‘normal’ again, but the return to normalcy will take place over several months, slowly, but steadily.

She may never get back to her ‘old self’, but, she should end up feeling much more like her old self than she has in quite some time.
Initially, I thought us adopting a pregnant dog, and keeping the puppies until they’re weaned was a crazy idea. However, when I see her face light up when she’s watching them play, or when I bring one or two in the house for her to hold, it’s all worth every second of time, and every bit of effort they take each day.

I’ve actually found myself wishing we could keep all ten puppies as they’re so cute, and loving. I know though that us having eleven dogs, and two cats is just not realistic, or even within our realm of possibility.

I do wish though that we’d find some homes for these little guys… I hate the though of taking them back to the shelter… I know they won’t get the kind of care they’re getting now, and there’s a possibility they won’t all get adopted.

Stay tuned, if the weather holds out we’re planning on taking all of them out in the yard to play later this afternoon… and taking some pictures… which I’ll post as quickly as I can get them uploaded.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Annual Gasoline Engine Maintenance Party. . .

Or maybe, it’s just an annual ‘pity party’ as the only one usually invited… is me.

Now I know I should start, and run all of my various gasoline powered pieces of lawn and garden equipment once a month or so… fire them up, and then let them run 15 or 20 minutes each.

Then, depending on who you ask, you should either let them run out of fuel (or close the fuel shutoff and wait for the engine to die), or, place some fresh ‘stabilized’ fuel in the tank.

So, depending on my mood, or the particular piece of equipment, I’ve done both.

It doesn’t seem to make much of a difference… eventually; one or more pieces will refuse to start, especially if I’ve neglected to give them their monthly ‘attention’.

I suppose it’s because of my upbringing. A time when gas, fresh from the pump was already ‘stable’, or as stable as a highly volatile liquid ever is, and didn’t turn into some sort of sludge resembling dried varnish, in as little as 30 days.

Maybe it’s because I have ‘too much’ gasoline powered equipment… Naaa, that can not possibly be it!!

I have fond memories of firing up the tiller in the spring, burning a tank or two of fuel tilling the gardens and then returning the tiller to the shed until it was used once more to turn the garden in late fall. Between those two uses, it sat, quietly in the back of the shed, having just been shut off and wheeled there.

No ceremony, no ritual, just hit the kill switch and roll it into the shed until you needed it the next time. It was always ready the next time, one or two pulls and it would be ready to go to work again.

The same was true for everything, the mower(s), chain saw, snow blower, tractor and every other piece of gasoline powered equipment I’ve owned. Despite not being used for close to a year, they'd always, or almost always, start on the second or third pull.

These days, despite using a fuel stabilizer and following the aforementioned ‘rituals’, I’ve discovered it’s still about a 50/50 shot as to whether any one piece of equipment will start, or not.

All the small engine shops tell me it’s the gas, and that I must use a fuel stabilizer (I do) and follow the procedures (I do)… and make sure to run each piece of equipment at least once a month for 15 or 20 minutes (I don’t)…

So, each fall I spend at least one day (this particular day actually) trying to start everything that hasn’t been used, and fixing the ones that refuse to start.

Normally I wait until a bit later in the fall, but, as I have a fellow who’d like to trade me a plasma cutter for my wood splitter (I know I’d use a plasma cutter far more than I do the splitter) I decided to fire everything up this weekend, including the splitter.

As expected some didn’t start, namely the splitter, the push mower and the generator. Fortunately, these little one or two cylinder gas engines are pretty simple.. no real complicated electronics… they need three things, fuel, air and a spark at the proper moment.

I eliminate the fuel question by placing a small amount of fuel directly into the carb (you should never use “starting fluid” especially with two stroke engines) and attempting to start it, if it fires, and quickly dies… there’s definitely a ‘gas shortage’. If it still doesn’t fire I replace the spark plug, if there’s still no response if heads to the small engine shop.

I used to be intimidated by the carburetors on small engines… yep, me… a guy who could pretty much rebuild a Holley with my eyes closed… I was once baffled by the little carburetor on a small engine.

No more though…

I owe it all to a fellow who was a co-worker of mine. He’d been given an older John Deere riding lawn mower, and while short of money he needed to mow his lawn and was offering beer in exchange for my help. In those days the lure of a cold beer would get me almost anywhere!

You see I was the only ‘gear head’ he knew and he was counting on my help. I wasn’t about to confess my inhibitions with respect to small engines… so I sucked up my fears and told him I’d be glad to help.

It turned out that they’re extremely simple, one ‘jet’ and one fuel passage… if the jet and the fuel passage are clear, they’ll work… if not, they don’t. I took his new prize apart in his driveway discovered the ‘blockage’, cleared it, reassembled it and the little mower roared back to life.

I also discovered that day, that unlike the big Holley’s I knew so well, I didn’t, and don’t, have drill bits small enough to use for cleaning… instead I’ve taken to using strands of small copper electrical wire.

Cheap, and something I always have handy in the shop, a couple strands of fine copper wire works wonders. Soft enough it won’t damage the passageways, strong enough to clean things up nicely.

I’m done with my annual ritual, all the equipment is running… and I only had to replace one fuel line. Yep one of the fuel lines was actually turning into ‘goo’ from contact with what passes today for gasoline.

I don’t remember ever having to replace fuel lines before… except when they became so old and cracked they’d began to look like they might start leaking. These days though, the fuel we’re being sold is eating up parts. I know it’s not just me, as I helped a friend fix a mower a while back and at the root of his problem was a rubber ‘seat’ on the float valve… it had been entirely dissolved by the fuel.

You’d think that with the price of fuel, and technology, what it is… we’d have better, not worse, fuel today than we did 20 years ago. The sad fact is, we don’t.

Each year, around this time I begin to question my addiction to all things powered by internal combustion engines… but, as each of those little marvels roars back to life, I’m reminded of ‘why’ I’m so addicted. For anyone who has brought one ‘back to life’, that feeling needs no explanation… to the uninitiated though, I don’t know if I can actually describe it, except to suggest that you think back on any profound feeling of accomplishment you’ve ever had, and then you’ll have a sense, a taste, of how I feel when ever I bring something mechanical ‘to life’.

Despite hating the ‘ritual’… I love the end result.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Another Trip "Home". . .

I say home, because every time I make the trip, it is truly like I’m going home. While I love living, and working (especially *having work!!) here in North Carolina, I really do miss living in Upstate NY.

There’s a lot to miss, and I’ve certainly gone on, and on, about the aspects I miss here before. The fact remains though, that unless there’s a turn around in the economy, moving back is not in my immediate future.

I left for ‘home’ after work on a Thursday, the plan being to get as far as I could, find a Hotel/Motel for the night and drive the rest of the way in the morning. It was close to 11 though before I stopped, about 2 hours later than I’d planned. It seems the folks in DC had heard about my trip and arranged an early traffic snarl up just to make my drive interesting (and give me something to complain about).

Other than that though, the trip was pretty uneventful.

I arrived at Mom and Andy’s place right around noon, we spent a very nice afternoon sitting around, talking, catching up and, in general, just enjoying one another’s company.

As it was the week of Mom, and Andy’s birthday, as well as their anniversary… I’d told them dinner was on me, where ever they wanted to go, and to invite who ever they’d like to join us.

I’d been expecting that Kathy and her husband would join us, but hoping some of the other siblings might as well. As it turned out, we had a slight communication gap, and Mom thought I was coming in a day earlier, and as such we had a smaller dinner party than I’d expected. Just the five of us, but, regardless, we had a great time, great food, and even better conversation!

Here are the dinner guests....

Mom and Andy.....

My Sister Kathy and her husband Joe. . .

and of course me... with the guests of honor. . .

The next day, I headed over to North Bay to visit my buddy Whit. You may recall that Maryan and I made a trip up last summer to attend his daughter’s (my goddaughter’s) graduation party and stayed the week to visit with friends and relax a bit. Well Whit and I have stayed in touch over the past year or so, and while I didn’t have a lot of time, I took some to hang out with Whit, and his family.

On Saturday he and I hung out in the shop, I lent a hand where I could, but the truth is these guys don’t need much help, they’re pretty much on top of the ‘game’.

Here’s an updated shot of the shop (that was under construction last year) and some activities…

THe outside of the now completed shop. . .

Whit doing a little "bizness" on the phone. . .

and of course, a shot of the dog!!

Saturday night we went out to dinner at a great little Italian restaurant, Maryan will be forever sorry she wasn’t there for that meal… excellent food, and once again great company and conversation.

On Sunday, we had a leisurely start to the day, a nice (but hearty) breakfast, did a little maintenance on a family members car, and then Leslie and Jake headed out to the market for the day.

Whit and I took a ride around the area, checking out some of our old haunts, he was showing me things that have changed… what hasn’t changed (it’s nice to know some things haven’t!!) … and in the midst of all of that I got him to drive by my old house, and the lot Maryan and I sold a year or so ago….

Here’s the old North Bay homestead. . .

The new house going up on the lot we sold. . .

Sunday evening I made dinner. My adaptation of Justin Wilson’s Catfish Creole. Instead of Catfish we used Shrimp.

Whit and I went grocery shopping, grabbed a little of everything I remembered I’d need.

Of course I forgot a couple of items… and was having so much fun talking and laughing while I was cooking that I actually forgot to add a couple of ingredients… but in the end it was edible… and once again it was the company and the conversation that was the star of dinner anyway.

At some point Saturday or Sunday I’d used the phrase “Cowboy Up”… we got to talking about it and I mentioned it was one of my favorite phrases, and heard it in the movie “Tears of the Sun”… Whit hadn’t seen the movie, so while we were out, we rented it, and relaxed in front of the TV Sunday night.

All too soon it was Monday morning and I was loading up the car and hitting the road to go home….

I have only two regrets about the trip… I regret I didn’t have more time, and that I didn’t do it sooner.

One way or another, I’ll be making more trips in the months to come. I know for sure I need at least a week to do, and visit with, everything and everyone, I’d like to.

Mom, Andy, Kathy and Joe... Thanks for having dinner with me, it's been too long between visits!!

Whit, Leslie and Jake… thanks for having me up, and for your wonderful hospitality!!

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

I know I've been gone awhile. . .

First, let me say I’m sorry for not posting in such a long time.

Second, thanks to everyone who dropped me a note and asked if I was Ok… I was truly flattered that each of you took the time to do that.

Last, why the absence?

Well, to make a long story short, I’ve just been very; very busy, both, at home, and with work.

It’s the busy at home aspect I’d like to share with you today.

About four weeks ago Maryan and I adopted a dog from the local shelter. Not a big deal, in and of itself, as folks do that every day. The ‘big deal’ part is that she was pregnant, and within a couple of weeks of delivering the puppies.

Maryan fell in love with Lulu, and wanted her, pregnant, or not. The pressing issue was that if she stayed at the shelter and delivered the puppies, they were going to put her down once the pups were weaned. That’s right, regardless of us wanting to adopt her; after she gave birth she would have been deemed ‘un-adoptable’ and put down.

So, the only real choice to Maryan was to take the dog home, then and there, with the stipulation they would take the puppies back after they were weaned.

That’s exactly what she did.

I had a trip up to New York planned, for the next weekend, and sure enough, while I was gone, Lulu delivered all ten (that’s right TEN!!) of her puppies. So, I went from a no dog, to an eleven dog, household overnight.

With that came the need for some ‘housing’… two reasons actually, one to provide a warm, dry and safe environment for the puppies, and second, to protect Lulu’s ‘honor’. While the corner of our patio was working nicely, we both felt a more permanent and secure place was needed, especially when we both had to be away from the house.

You see, she got pregnant at the pound (that’s right, those same folks who preach on, and on, about spaying your pets, placed an un-neutered male, in the same pen with an un-spayed female… go figure), and she can’t be spayed until after she’s finished weaning the puppies.

Soooo… I built her this little place for her and the puppies….

Of course I can’t end this without showing you some more pics ofthe puppies… and the new space I built for her and the ‘kids’…

and, last, but certainly not least... there's still our two cats.

So... that's part of what's been keeping me busy... helping to tend to the "dog pound" and the two cats.. Not to mention work has been a flurry of activity as well.

More on the work scene in a couple of posts, in the next post I'll share some pics of my visit to see some friends and family in Upstate New York!

Anyone want a puppy? Or two, or three??

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Sunday, September 10, 2006


International Brotherhood of Software Developers….
International Brotherhood of Information Workers….
International Union For Geeks…..
International Brotherhood of Computer Workers ….
International Brotherhood of Data Professionals….

A union for folks who work in the IS/IT field, that’s the topic.

I wrote this on Labor Day; the following is from the US Department of Labor,

“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

First celebrated in New York City in September of 1882, New York State was the first to make it a State Holiday in 1887, several other states followed, but it took until June of 1894 for it to become a national holiday in the US.

Like most holidays, it too was born of bloodshed. The early days of the labor movement were not only turbulent but complete with suffering and even bloodshed.

Today, we’re shedding jobs more than blood. The new global information infrastructures have turned the world into a marketplace for IS/IT talent, and those of us in this business, in the US, are especially feeling the pinch.

We all felt fairly secure as we watched textile jobs being ‘outsourced’, confident that our skills and abilities would keep us from suffering the same fate. We know now though, that when competing in a global economy, no one, not even highly skilled workers are safe from other, lower cost, competitive markets.

One of the suggestions has been to unionize, to band together and exert pressure on companies to hire ‘onshore’ talent. I have some thoughts about why that hasn’t, and isn’t likely to happen.

First, many, many, corporations are already involved in outsourcing projects. The ‘low cost’ incentive to try is just too high for them not to do so. We can argue all we want about less talented/skilled workers, language and time barriers, communication issues with respect to project specifications and more, it’s pointless though. The stone fact is that companies believe they can accomplish almost as much, for far lower costs, via outsourcing than they can via internal departments.

Second, the average IS/IT worker is far too independent to even want to join a ‘union’. We’ve enjoyed a more than fair wage, a robust job market and built a good career without any union help, thank you very much.

Last, the edge unions once had is gone. The union, as we know it, is a dying concept. Only those jobs which can not be outsourced, moved off shore, can still benefit. Even those jobs, where unions have made huge concessions in an attempt to help a company regain its competitive advantage, financial footing have seen those same companies demand more, and more in the way of concessions (think airlines here folks).

The best thing IS/IT workers could do for themselves today, is to band together and form a ‘service core’. A single organization owned and run by the workers that brokers onshore IS/IT talent to companies. Remove the need for a company to interview a dozen or so candidates for a contract, instead they simply send off the project spec and get it done. (It’s the off-shore model, brought on-shore)

We have a semblance of that today with contract houses, but there’s still the interview process, the recruiting process and getting the worker to the company. In this new model, everything is done off-site except those tasks requiring an on-site, hands on effort like hardware installation/repair.

Personally, I think, that to have a career with longevity, in the IS/IT field today, in the US, something like this needs to emerge. Or, we can simply wait 10, maybe 15 years for the cycle to reverse itself and companies begin to build internal IS/IT groups again.

Let’s face it folks, we live, and work, in a global economy. That trend is not going to reverse itself anytime soon. We need to address that head on, and make some changes to allow ourselves to be competitive, to take back the work that’s headed off shore.

There’s only one way to do that. Be better, faster, and more productive, than everyone else.

I believe strongly, that even if onshore talent was 15, maybe even 25 percent more costly than an off shore source, companies would prefer to work with that group, than with an offshore group.

How do we do that? It’s not going to be easy but it can be done. There would be a need for project managers, lead developers, coders and entry level folks. We’d need a huge, well organized and accessible ‘code base’, in several languages, as well as several development frameworks to build applications around to allow development of features not infrastructure.

Also, and possibly most importantly, we’d need the ability to bring the right mix of top, middle and entry level people together for any project. Blending skill (and therefore pay) levels together to provide a competitive pricing structure. Not simple, not easy, but possible.

So, we’d be building a union of sorts, yes, but not a “union” in the traditional sense. A uniting of skill, talent and people, but not to pressure or force corporations to meet our demands, but instead to provide the best possible mix of people in a way that their competitive advantage would be negatively effected if they chose to ignore it.

Will it happen? I doubt it. There’s no immediate advantage to the individual, it’s not like every IS/IT worker can walk off the job tomorrow and step into this new paradigm. There’s just too much ‘front end’ work to do, and not much in the way of a profit incentive for folks to do so. Let’s face that too, we’re all trying to feed our families, attempting to reinvent IS work in America isn’t going to pay many bills, up front.

I’d sure like to give it a try though… but I’d need a ton of help, folks from all walks of the IS/IT realm, to put a mechanism together, eventually find our first project(s) and bring them in, on time, and on budget. I strongly believe that once a few projects were successfully completed, things would begin to roll forward very, very quickly. We’d need to be prepared for that as well.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those original labor organizers; they eventually brought management, and workers, together for a common goal, mutual profitability.

That’s still the goal… mutual profitability... without it there’s no common ground. Workers were seen as expendable resources before the labor movement. Through it, management found a work force (initially) as committed to the company’s success as they were, and became willing to pay a little more for that focused and well trained work force.

Until the IS/IT workers are able to prove their competitive advantage, I don’t see any slowdown in the move to offshore as much of the IS/IT effort as is possible.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Tales from the road. . .

I read this today… I’m not sure if you’ll be able to see it, but it’s an interesting read if you can.

It has me thinking about my 2 hours (or more) on the road each day and some of the things I’ve seen just in the past few months.

Take Friday morning for example. I’d been driving, in the same line of cars, for at least ten miles. When I’d slipped into the line it was moving at about 72, maybe 73mph. I noticed a car that had pulled from the line and was coming up very fast on my right. I looked at the dash and saw we were moving at almost 85mph now, and this clown was attempting to pass the entire line and had to be doing close to 95 when he passed me.

About three months ago, I was driving in the ‘slow lane’, moving at a little over 70 (the speed limit on this road is 65),, there’s a semi behind me and a line of cars in front of me… Suddenly this pickup truck passes me on the right, yep he’s on the shoulder… he went by me so fast, I’m guessing he was doing close to 100 that he was out of sight nearly as fast as I realized I was being passed.

This summer, as I’m heading into work, the weather is switching between a light rain to heavy, torrential type, downpours. As I’m approaching one of the really heavy traffic areas I notice there’s been an accident on the other side of the interstate… Someone in an SUV had tried to ‘slip in’ in front of a semi, but, hadn’t quite cleared the front of the big truck… that SUV was wrapped around the front left corner of the semi… and the semi was still on the ‘on ramp’!

Everyday, there’s a driver that makes me wonder, where they could possibly be going at 6:30am and be in that big a hurry! Take those types of chances with not only the lives of others, but, with their own life as well!

I’d like to say that every single one of them has also been yacking on their cell phone, but, only about half are. Most of the cell phone talkers have trouble maintaining a ‘steady speed’… At least once a day, one of these mobile communications obsessed drivers will pass me on the right, pull in front of me and then promptly slow down 5, or more miles an hour, prompting even more folks to attempt a ‘right pass’…

Earlier this week, one nearly rear ended me as traffic came to an abrupt halt… I stopped, and checked the rearview mirror… I could see her closing on my at speed, and was trying to decide to stay put, or pull around the car in front of me and on to the shoulder, when I saw her drop the phone, grab the wheel with both hands and the nose of the car drop as she hit the brakes… she eventually came to a stop, alongside me as she’d pulled on to the shoulder to avoid hitting me.

The cars behind her, were all over the place as well, but, as far as I know, no one hit anyone…

So… what I’d like is you folks to share with me some stupid things you’ve seen on the road… this week, last week, when ever… the worst, the best, anything… I just want some tales of yours… from the road!!

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Monday, September 04, 2006

More Thoughts on Management (Pt #3). . .

I’ve been thinking about management quite a bit lately. I’m not sure why as there’s nothing particularly remarkable going on ‘management-wise’ around me at the moment, but, at least a couple of times a day I find myself thinking about management, and managers.

I’ve been fortunate, or unfortunate depending on your particular viewpoint, to have had several managers over the years.

I watched a show a few nights back where they indicated that in previous generations it was unusual for a man to work for more than two different companies in his career. They went on to say that today, a man can expect to work for, on average, seven different companies in his career.

When they said that, I realized I’d worked for at least seven before I was 35, and there’s been at least a dozen since then. There was one year where I received W-2’s from three different companies, and each job was a pretty good one!

So, as a result of all of this turmoil I’ve certainly seen more than my share of managers.

My first real job was working in a large retail store. This was in the mid-60’s and the company, while having a primarily ‘Auto parts’ theme, also sold a variety of other items, like Sporting goods, house wares, tools, lawn mowers, big ticket electronics like refrigerators, Window Air conditioners, TV’s and stereos. They also sold furniture, kitchen cabinets and roofing materials.

I still remember my first day there.

I arrived for work at about 8:45am as the store opened at 9:15am. When I arrived the manager told another guy and me that he was expecting a truckload of roofing that morning, and that while we were waiting for the truck to go down in the cellar and straighten up the stock that was there and make room for the new shipment.

The truck arrived about 11:00, a full flatbed truck with 20 ton, 40,000 pounds of “roofing”. Rolls of felt and ‘half lap’, as well as a more cans of asphalt roof and driveway coating than I’d ever seen on one place before.

We unloaded that truck, by hand, on to a freight elevator, down the one and a half stories into the basement and then carried it, again by hand to the area where this stuff was stored.

It was a little before 12:30 when we finished, and when we got back into the store, the manager urged us to go directly to lunch and to be back by 1:00 as there was another truck expected at that time.

That truck arrived, and was a full load of kitchen cabinets, another 40,000 pounds, this time into the elevator up to the second floor. This time however, while we unloaded the truck by hand, we had 4 wheeled carts to pull the cabinets to their storage area about half way across the building.

We finished that truck shortly after 2:00, and as it was pulling out, another was pulling into the alley, this one was full of toys for the Christmas holidays (keep in mind this was June!)… Once again, off the truck by hand, up the elevator, only this time the toys were stored in the same room as the freight elevator. That truck took us until 3:30 as I recall, and when we came downstairs, the manager greeted us with a couple of cokes and told us there was another, but smaller truck on its way and to wait there, in the ‘back room’ for it.

When it arrived it was smaller, a 20, maybe 25 foot ‘straight job’, packed floor to ceiling, nose to tail with sleds and toboggans (no, not the hat, the curved wooden things you’d slid down a snow covered hill on). I swear that truck was so tightly packed a butterfly would not have fit.

It was about 5:00 when we finished, the sleds also went upstairs, however this time we used a conveyor belt, Joe and I would trade off one of us unloading the truck and loading the conveyor, and the other unloading the conveyor and stacking the goods. Again this was a hand operation, and the sleds where in pairs as were the toboggans. I remember that last pair felt heavier than anything I’d lifted all day.

The next morning, the manager seemed genuinely surprised to see me, ready and willing to work, he even commented on how he’d thought I would bail on the job.

I didn’t, and I continued to work for that company, and him, throughout high school.

I found out, after observing similar days with other ‘new guys’ that this was all part of his plan. He’d hire folks to start on what would most likely be the toughest work the job would ever require, if they came back, he made a place for them. Most, the vast majority, bailed after that first day.

Years later, when I remarked to him that I thought another ‘new guy’ was going to work out, he responded by saying “A new broom, always sweeps clean.” I didn’t understand the meaning behind that, initially, but it eventually sunk in. He avoided making judgments about a ‘new guy’ until they’d had a chance to settle in a bit, and show their ‘true colors’.

As I think back on that job, over the 4 or 5 years I had it, only one or two guys hung in there. Most stayed a little while, but the manual work was more than they wanted to do. Me, I was just happy to be earning enough money to keep my car repaired and in gas, and to date on Friday and Saturday nights!!

I’m telling you this, because, to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a better, natural manager.

He also taught me at least one, very valuable, lesson that I continue to utilize to this day, nearly 40 years later.

“Never leave work today, without having a plan for tomorrow.”

Now, I’ve used nearly every excuse myself, and heard the excuses I didn’t use from others, as to why it’s impossible to plan tomorrow, today.

To some degree, all of the excuses make sense. It seems that no matter how hard you plan, something always happens during the day, to derail your plan.

However, that ‘derailment’, and knowing it’s a virtual inevitability, is precisely the reason you need the plan! So, that each and every time you come back from that sidetracking event, you know exactly what you’d intended to do, in the order you’d intended to do it

That way, before anything takes you off plan; you can hit the door running and have a shot at getting some things accomplished, without having to make those decisions first thing in the morning. Instead, you made them yesterday when the sense of urgency of each task was fresh in your mind.

My last activity, every day, is to make a short, prioritized, list of the things I intend to accomplish tomorrow. Often it’s nothing more than a list of things I couldn’t finish today. Some from yesterday’s list, others that were assigned to me during the day. It takes no more than 10-20 minutes, but in the morning, I’m working, productively, about as fast as I can get logged in.

Can you say that? Or are you spending the first 15-45 minutes in the morning ‘getting organized’? Reading email to determine the ‘hot list’ from over night… reacting to that, rather than adjusting your plan to place those things properly on your priority stack?

I have more of these thoughts, and I’ll be sharing them as I can get them written up.

As always, please leave me a note, let me know if I’ve struck a chord, if what I’ve said hits home for you, or is totally off base from your perspective.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Employee, Contractor, or Self-Employed…

That folks is the eternal question, for me anyway.

I’ve got about equal experience in all three, and while each has advantages, there are unique drawbacks as well.

As an employee, I almost automatically slip into that ‘comfort zone’ I recently wrote about. Especially as the length of time I’ve been with the company grows. As that first year turns into a second, then a fifth and a tenth or more, I begin to ‘settle in’ and begin to allow myself a shot at believing retirement from “this” job might even be possible.

In my experience however, that just doesn’t seem to be the case, usually. Somewhere along the way, the markets shift, management changes bring on changes in corporate direction, and ultimately some folks are let go in the transition.

I personally think this is about the toughest situation to be in. Out of work after a long time at the same company and finding yourself woefully ill equipped for a job search!

As a contractor, you know the length of the contract. So you, in effect, know the day to expect you’ll be out of work. While for some, this knowledge is more than a little unsettling, to me, it’s far less anxiety producing than that “We’re eliminating your position” speech.

Also, given that you know, with reasonable certainty, you’ll be looking for work again in the near future, you’re far more likely to keep your resume ‘tuned up’, and current with the various job boards. You’ll also reply to emails from headhunters, and in general keep those avenues of communication open, so when the contract ends, you’ll have current names, phone and other contact information readily available.

Being self-employed on the other hand, may be the worst of all possible avenues. While I’ve loved being the owner, the ‘boss’ and having a fairly large say in the direction the company went, I’ve also been at the mercy of the customers.

You’re constantly looking for that next ‘project’, either from existing customers, or attempting to find new ones. The time you spend doing that is rarely productive, in the sense you’re not ‘earning’ while doing that.

Now, instead of one boss, you have several, or in the case of my last venture, several hundred. Each customer with their own agenda, time frames and cost model, which is rarely the same as yours, is. It’s not for the faint of heart folks, if you have trouble budgeting money and building a ‘set aside’ to cover you through the inevitable up, and down, cycles, you’ll find yourself in some very tough financial, and anxiety producing, spots over time.

As I see it there’s no perfect scenario. I have one in my head where I get hired, get paid what I deserve/need, and continue to work (on challenging projects) there, until I decide I’d like to retire. I’m just not so sure it’s not just a fantasy, as opposed to a possible scenario.

Even the possibility of doing what I love until I can retire seems, at times, a fantasy.

I do keep hoping though, that I’ll be able to… I can’t imagine what I’d do, work-wise, if I can’t… I’ve tried just about everything else in the IS/IT field… and frankly, programming, building applications and systems, is what really fires me up.

I do a considerable amount of data ‘mining’, and statistical generation, and I like that, but I need the development aspect to stay enthused.

So, knowing this, I’ve decided to start taking on ‘extra’ projects again. I met with some folks this week about a web project, and from the way things went, it appears I’ll be getting the project. It’s not huge, maybe a week or two in length, but the fellow who brought the project to me, had a number of web clients, and I can see that he might want to have someone like me available to his customers.

I’ll let you all know how the project goes (if, in fact, it materializes). It should be interesting, a mix of Java, PHP, MySQL and CSS. Something I’ve never combined into one project before.

The difference is that this time I don’t intend to go directly to the customer, but, instead to utilize other vendors who already have a relationship with the customer. Leverage that relationship and let them earn some money for bringing me into the customer. Earn from not only the original project, but from everything I (we) ever do with that client.

It’s a new model for me, but I’m hoping it will evolve into something sustainable. At the moment, it seems about the only way I’ll get to do, what I love to do, for as long as I want to do it!!


On a related, but different topic…..

Jaro Winkler revisited. . .

About fifteen or twenty folks a week, stop by here looking for free code in either VB.Net, or Visual FoxPro to implement the Jaro-Winkler algorithm.

I’ve got a small application done that illustrates the string comparator’s actions and the results it returns. I’ve also finished a DLL, in Visual FoxPro that can be used in a .Net application to deploy my POL (Percentage of Likeness) utility.

I intend to place both tools on the new ASP.Net website when I get them finished, but in the interim I’ve been thinking I’d like to make the code more easily available, at least for the JW algorithm.

I want to make the code available for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not “my” code; it’s simply my implementation of someone else’s code. Considering that William Winkler was generous enough to share his code with me, I feel it’s only fair I share my implementation to anyone else who might want it.

If I knew more about Sourceforge, and I’m thinking more and more in that direction, I think I’d like to post it there with an open license.

Does anyone reading this know what the process is to do that?

Along those lines, while I love SourceForge and all of the available open source software, there’s a distinct shortage (in my mind) of available VFP code available there. There’s some, but considering the huge amount of code written in Visual FoxPro, I wonder sometimes why there isn’t more there.

In the middle of my pondering, it struck me that it’s probably for the same reason(s) I’ve never placed any out there.
  1. I’ve always considered my ‘tool kit’ something proprietary to me, my ‘edge’ if you will in the marketplace.
  2. Is my code ‘strong enough’ to hold up under the scrutiny of the open source community?
  3. Does anyone else really want, or have use for, these utilities I consider crucial to my development efforts?
  4. Can I stand the scrutiny of others going over my code and critiquing it?
I’m going to put all of that aside and look into posting some code there.. I guess we’ll see what happens.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Management? Not me, not any more. . .

Now that I’ve had my little (Ok, verbose) management rant, I need to say that I have no interest in ever managing, anything or anyone, ever again.

A recruiter called me this week, and while we were talking he wanted me to explain to him how it was possible for me to be ‘just a contractor’ after having been a CFO and a CIO.

There were a couple of seconds of silence from my end as I pondered the question, yet again, and before I answered.

In those few seconds, a couple of things became very clear to me, in fact you could say I had a genuine “moment of clarity”, one is that I'm not "just a contractor", the other had to do more with what it is that gets me out of bed each day.

I’ve never sought out a management position, not once, in any of my various careers.

In each and every case, management was 'forced' on me. You might be thinking that forced is a strong word, but in retrospect, there really was no other choice if I wanted to stay employed.

By the way, to set the record straight, I’ve never considered myself a great, or even a good manager. Hell, I’d fail my own tests!

Regardless though, in every job I’ve ever had, eventually there was the conversation where I’d be told I was being moved, or asked to move, into management. Early on, I was flattered (impressed with myself even) and leapt at the opportunity. Initially I’d “set the house on fire” making changes. I would work hard to make things more efficient, better organized and to foster a better sense of ‘team’ within the department.

Once I got through that process however, I’d find myself bored. Anything that remained to do seemed only incremental; inversely proportionate the effort required to bring the change about… in short, it just wasn’t worth the effort, to me, or to the company.

For quite some time, when that happened, instead of simply finding a new job, I’d find a whole new career.

Then, in the early 80’s I discovered computers, and in particular, programming. There’s been no turning back for me since.

Most would say, or think, that I hit the pinnacle of my career when I became CIO. It’s the top gig in the IS/IT field, when you’re CIO, you’re definitely the top dog in the yard.

What I found though is that despite being the top dog in ‘my world’ I was still not the top dog. Also, once I would make the jump from actually doing, to managing, for me all the fun was gone.

Well not all the fun, but a big chunk of it anyway. I’ve tried, in every management role I’ve had, to take pride in leading my team, and I’ve had some great teams. Most were not comprised of stars, but of folks who had a passion for software development, or infrastructure building and simply needed a place to exercise that passion.

While I’d like to think I provided that, within either my abilities, or the available funding. I do know for certain that I’ve seen some folks, who couldn’t catch a break job-wise, shine once they were given an opportunity.

It wasn’t what I wanted though. I’d find myself envious of their being able to be ‘doing’, to be building the things I’d (or we’d) designed. To be pushing the envelope, finding new and innovative ways to utilize not only new technology, but even the tools we already had.

So, to me, the pinnacle of my career was when I had my little company, in Upstate NY, and Ken and I developed software, together. I never ‘managed’ Ken, he didn’t need managing. Like me, all he ever really needed was to know what was needed; he’d take care of the rest. I definitely wasn’t making much money, in fact most years I paid him more than I had left for myself. It never mattered though, because the truth is, I loved, and I mean loved, going to work!!

If I’d been born with any athletic ability, I would have been a player, not a coach. I know, given my track record I might have coached, but I would have always wanted to play the game.

There’s been some talk recently, of having me manage a project or two at work. While once again I’m flattered that I’m being considered, I’m pretty sure I’d decline the offer. Even if it meant I’d have to find a new gig. I don’t want to manage anything, any more. I want to be doing, building, troubleshooting, debugging, data mining, data manipulation, inventing… I don’t want to manage anything, people or processes, I want to design, and then build them.

I could be happy just building teams, but once they were built, I’d want to be able to turn them over to someone else to manage, and move on to building another.

I’m a builder, not a manager. It’s taken me a while to discover this about myself… I’m almost embarrassed at how long it’s taken… when I look back, I can see, and very clearly, that the points in my life where I was happiest, involved building things. Cars, trucks, buildings, software... it really hasn’t mattered, it’s been the building, the creating, that’s always ‘lit my fire’.

Along with that, has been the team, Ken and I were a team, at times it was difficult for folks to know which sections of an application Ken, or I, wrote. We’d often arrive at the same solution to a problem, at times with nearly identical processes. We had a synergy that I’ve rarely had since. The times I did have it again, we were always following someone elses agenda, so it wasn't quite the same.

So, as I look forward to the closing years of my career, I’m seeking to back up, not move up. I’m trying to get back to doing those things that bring me joy and happiness. I find myself wondering if it’s a good plan, as ‘common sense’ says I should be looking to maximize my earnings now, not seeking ‘fulfillment’…

But, in the end, what good is status, or money, if the price you paid for it was not doing what you love, or enjoying the process of obtaining it?

So.. what is it that gets you out of bed each day and headed for work? Is it just the money, the paycheck? Or is it the "what", of what it is you do?

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Management, Managers, Part#2

Before I get started, Tamar left a link in her comment and I followed it. Joel definitely has some interesting things to say on management. I definitely like his take on things. His company and their basic business plan sound solid as well. I hope he finds all the success he hopes for. You can read his Identity Management piece here.

Here’s the short version of his business model. You can read more about how he puts it into practice here.

Best Working Conditions Best Programmers Best Software Profit!

So… back to qualities of a good manager… or at least those I think are found in great managers.

The last three items on my list are:

  • Knowledge not only of those being managed, but their jobs as well
  • An understanding of the company, it’s revenue sources, and how their department aids in revenue development
  • Remembering that everyone, including their ‘stars’ makes mistakes, often at the worst possible times.

Knowledge of those being managed, and their jobs

This is something that never ceases to annoy me. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve poured over requirements, tweaked functional design to arrive at what I truly believe is a realistic time line, only to have some non-technical manager toss it back to me with a “It can’t possibly take that long” dismissal of the project timeline.

I don’t care what the ‘job’ is, there are always hidden, often costly (especially in terms of time) needs in getting the job done.

In software development, one of the biggest is integrating new features into an existing application. In order to accurately estimate that, the person (or better yet, persons) responsible for the estimate, must have an excellent understanding of the existing application, the proposed new features, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the development team.

It takes all of that knowledge to properly estimate the project.

Now I’m not talking about shifting a deadline a day, or even a week… I’m talking about a project that has say a 6 month timeline, and management cutting into 3 months to fit some budget number they invented prior to actually scoping the project.

In my experience, this is a classic means to development disaster. Initially, the development group will take on the challenge, as most love a challenge. However, as things progress, and about 30 days into the project the realization will hit them, that, regardless of what they do, they’ll never hit the target.

Inevitably, there’ll be some adjustment, attempts to better allocate the right individual to the right tasks, possibly add two weeks, maybe even a month to the deadline… but eventually, if the original estimate was properly done, everyone will see the ‘light’.

What happens next can often demoralize a previously productive team, and their manager. In order to focus ‘blame’ the other managers will often cite the developers, or their manager as being inept, unable to code to the requirements, or worse as totally incompetent.

Eventually, after things shake out, depending on how mission critical the project was, it will be scrapped, or the developer team will be scrapped and the project restarted. I’ve actually been called in to projects that were on their 3rd iteration of this cycle.

How their department aids in revenue development

Believe it or not, I’ve met managers, especially IS/IT managers who had no idea what the company’s primary revenue source was, or, the belief they did have was about as far from reality as it could have been.

Let’s face it, every company (yes, even a ‘not-for-profit’ company), is in business to make money. It’s not an altruistic endeavor, it’s a money making process.

It’s a huge mistake for anyone, especially a manager, to not fully understand what drives the company’s cash flow, how’s it’s gathered, how it’s spent and how much is left over as profit each year.

It’s an even bigger mistake to not fully comprehend where you, and your team, fit into that equation.

  • Are you helping drive revenue generation?
  • Are you providing tools to the sales folks to facilitate revenue production?
  • Is your group seen as an expense, or a capital investment?
If you’re in a situation where your efforts are viewed simply as a business expense, you’ll be subject to the same cost cutting strategies used to cut the cost of coffee in the break room. On the other hand, if you’re group is seen as an investment in the future of the company, and you produce as though the life of the company depends on it, you’ll be treated as the valuable asset you are.

It’s that simple really… Act like an asset, get treated like one. Behave like an expense, and you’ll be treated as a cost to be minimized where ever possible.

To be treated as an asset, you have to understand the fundamental difference between assets and expenses, to not do so, is corporate suicide.

Remember that everyone makes mistakes, usually at the worst possible time

This item, while it’s last, is certainly not least. I’ve seen some stellar performers just beaten into the ground over a single mistake. I’m talking about someone who’s produced quality work, day in, and day out, for say six months. Then, usually trying to meet one of those imposed deadlines, they miss a crucial test step, and a bad piece of code makes it out of development and into production.

Certainly they didn’t do it ‘on purpose’, if that’s suspected it’s an entirely different matter. No, in this situation it was a mistake, pure and simple, an oversight, a lapse in judgment, or even possibly the incorrect assumption that there was someone else doing sufficient testing ‘down stream’.

I’ve heard the same manager who last week was recommending this same person for a bonus, or some other company perk… screaming the next that “I don’t know why I let you stay on the team!”, “Why is it you never get anything right?”, “You’re damn lucky I’m not firing you over this!”, and on an on…

Look folks (especially if you’re a manager) let’s just set the record straight.

People, make mistakes.

It’s that simple, no one, not even the greatest of the great are ‘perfect’ every single day, at every single thing they do. Jerry Rice is arguably one of the best receivers to ever play professional football. Even he dropped the occasional pass, misread a signal and ran the wrong route… it happens.

A great manager knows this, and works with it, adjusts. Even the best of plans can’t include every single possibility, cover every aspect of potential failure, or test every possible key stroke a user might enter within an application.

The best managers I’ve worked for used every failure as a learning opportunity. They adjusted their overall plan, from start to finish to take this new knowledge into account and to minimize the chance it could happen again.

Notice I said ‘minimize’, not prevent, it from happening. There is no plan that’s 100% perfect in eliminating possible points of failure. The best plans though, are constructed to be flexible, and to look for, and catch as many as possible before they can leave the ‘shop’ and get to a customer.

I’ve got some more to say on management in general, but let’s just say for now, that I believe that having the right working environment, the right staff, and clear well defined (and communicated) goals are the core to making people productive.

Once again, I invite you to share your experiences, and thoughts, good or bad. If you’d rather not post them publicly, go to my profile and drop me an email.. If you email me, put “CCW Management” in the subject line so it doesn’t get caught in my spam filter!!

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Management Style….

Is that sort of like “Jumbo Shrimp”? A classic oxymoron?

At times I think so.

Most managers have about as much ‘style’ as a laundry bag.

I talk (or write) a lot about bad management, so I thought it was about time I put some words together about what I think makes a good manager. What separates the good from the bad, those with style from the ugly?

It’s a combination of elements actually, not simply one thing.

  • staying cool in the midst of disaster
  • fostering teams, as opposed to superstars
  • ability to see both the big picture, and the details as well
  • an understanding that while deadlines are important, so are resources to meet them
  • knowledge not only of those being managed, but their jobs as well
  • an understanding of the company, it’s revenue sources, and how their department aids in revenue development
  • Remembering that everyone, including their ‘stars’ makes mistakes, often at the worst possible times.
Stay cool

One of the best Unix guys I’ve ever known used to compare working at a client site to being a concert pianist. That regardless of the obstacles or set backs, you could never let the client wee you sweat.

The idea behind it was if the client saw that you, the ‘expert’, were concerned, or flustered, it would affect their confidence levels. That if they lost confidence, it didn’t much matter what happened next, you were doomed with respect to any ongoing client relationship.

I felt it was a pretty apt analogy, one that also applies to managers. Workers look to the manager in times of trouble to gain a perspective, to understand the extent of the emergency and to be reassured that everything will get resolved. Not only that it will get resolved, but what they need to do to aid in that resolution.

A good manager will rally the troops around a problem, hand out assignments (to everyone not just one or two key players), as well as assist where they can, and monitor the progress. In short, involve the entire team in achieving a resolution, giving each team member a stake in solving the problem.

There won’t be any yelling, screaming or finger pointing. There will be an ability to focus on the problem, and how to fix it, rather than finding an individual to ‘blame’ for it.

There’s plenty of time, after the problem is resolved to take those involved in creating it aside and determining what went wrong, and if there’s a ‘responsibility’, to determine where the breakdown was that created it. Once that’s done, to act swiftly to do what’s required to ensure it will not be repeated.

Foster teams, as opposed to superstars

This one is tough for many managers. It seems that anyone can manage superstars, but it takes a real manager to turn a group of average or above average folks into a superstar team. I suppose if it was easy, there be a league wide tie every year in the NFL.

Any manager can shine with ‘superstars’… the fact is though, that for every one true superstar, there are 100 maybe a 1,000 of the rest of us. If you want to manage people, to do it effectively you need to learn how to play to the strengths of each of the individual players. Learn to maximize their efforts, and therefore their contributions, to their strengths, not their weaknesses.

That might seem like a no brainer, but I’m willing to bet everyone of you has seen a manager assign a task to someone not at all well suited to it, simply because there was ‘room on their plate’. The harder call is to reallocate some of the existing tasks, to get the right person on the right tasks, so that everyone is playing to their strengths where ever possible.

Fostering teams, also means doing more than just saying you want everyone to work as a team. It means encouraging team meetings, both formal, and informal. Encouraging, no, expecting, that the team members talk to each other, toss around ideas, argue, and find the best solutions, together, not as individual components.

I’ve seen too many managers focused on the ‘head down’ mentality, and in virtually every case, the team suffered. The results of their efforts where diminished, and deadlines loomed, had there been a little more communication, a lot more could have been accomplished, with a lot less stress.

See both the big picture and the details as well

Most managers can see the big picture; the best managers see each of the details as well. They understand the whole model, front to back, end to end and everything in between.

Some managers focus solely on one, or the other, the best give appropriate focus to both the overall plan, and the details involved in achieving that plan as well.

I’ll admit it’s a delicate balance, and often a tenuous one at best. Regardless though, to be a truly great manager, that person has to strike the balance, often rebalancing several times a week, or even a day, as events dictate. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the plan itself and lose sight of the obstacles facing your team. Those little details that seem fairly unimportant today, if left to resolve themselves, can end up tripping up the entire team’s progress. The good managers know this and attend to not only the big issues, but the details as well.

This does not involve ‘micro-management’ however. It’s more a role of facilitator, spotting those obstacles as they arise, listening to the team when they talk about the issues their facing. In fact, it’s a culture of encouraging these issues to be raised. Not simply accepting the “no problems” response, but actively looking for and eliminating roadblocks to the team’s success.

While deadlines are important, so are resources to meet them

I wish I still had a dollar for every ‘deadline’ centric manager I’ve worked for. I could retire now.

I don’t want to diminish the importance of deadlines, and meeting them. Rather to point out that a team can’t meet their deadlines if they don’t have all the resources they need to do so.

One of my favorite sayings is:

“I’ve done so much, with so little, for so long, that now, I can do anything with nothing.”

That, unfortunately, is the plight of the average worker these days. Increasingly tight deadlines, diminishing resources, more pressure for flawless performance and increasing expectations for the finished product.

The great managers see all of these changes, weigh them and determine the best way to meet them. Either head on, or in a flanking maneuver, one way or another they must be met, and overcome. They understand how to most effectively deploy the team, maximizing their strengths, and minimizing their weaknesses as they address every obstacle to success.

It’s another delicate balance this mix of deadline commitments and resources, but one a manager has to master to be good, or even great. Without mastering it, they’ll just be another manager, who’s managing, to get by. They’ll never be one of those managers who always seem able to rise to the challenge, and where everyone is striving to get on their team.

That’s it for today… next up, the rest of the list!
As always, leave me a comment, tell me what you think. What made your best managers, the best, or the worst, the worst?

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Living, on the edge, of security. . .

Firehawk mentioned in a recent comment that he’s been feeling like employers enjoy keeping their employee’s, on edge, perpetually uncertain about what tomorrow will bring.

I find myself holding typically, for me, diametrically opposing views on this.

I’ve had the experience of working for employers who seemed almost fixated on getting employees to feel very safe and secure, others, who definitely liked everyone to be concerned about their job security, and yet others who seemed not to care either way.

Admittedly, the bulk of my career has been spent either as an independent contractor, or working for smaller, family owned operations, so my take on things is probably a little skewed as a result.

With that said, I think there are definitely three distinct employer types.

Those who:

- Use ‘fear’ to manage the person, and the job
- Attempt to only manage the work, not the person
- Build in a ‘secure’ feeling to manage the person, and the job

I would like to think that the second out numbers the 1st and 3rd combined, but I’m not so sure that’s true. I do know that those companies I’ve been involved with who limited their efforts to managing the work, were better run over all, than those who fell into category 1 or 3.

The folks I’m currently contracted to fall into that 2nd category. They waste little time attempting do much more than what I’d consider standard things with respect to managing the ‘fear’ factor. When they went through a fairly large directional change, they notified all employees by email of the change. They’ve continued to hold informational meetings every other week as the new directions for the company are mapped and decided upon.

I’ve had the misfortune to also be employed by companies in categories 1 and 3 as well though.

I think the worst of those was the company in category 3. One of the favorite sayings of the owner involved the phrase “job for life”. He would tell people as they were hired that there had never been, and most likely would never be, a ‘lay-off’, that once they were ‘on board’ the company would work to ensure they’d always have a job.

Today, that company is a part of history. Although I don’t doubt the sincerity of the words; they still served to build a false sense of security in everyone who worked there. I know from talking with those folks who’d been let go as various divisions closed, that they’d never expected to be told they were no longer needed, or that their jobs were being eliminated. I say worst, because there was no anticipation, no expectation that ‘they’ would ever be effected, it was only happening to other people.

Category 1, the ‘fear’ folks however, in my mind, are the real management disaster.

The fear they attempt to keep alive, tends to be tied to several other management idiosyncrasies as well. But, the real problem is that in perpetuating the fear, they also hamper the very productivity they really are trying to improve.

It’s my contention that people, in general want to be secure, and feeling like they’re doing a good job, and are a valuable resource to the organization, are key to that security. That a culture of uncertainty takes workers focus off the job at hand, and places it on staying out of ‘harms way’. Avoiding any behavior that might ‘rock the boat’ or bring them into the spotlight.

The ‘fear’ managers, actively work to disrupt that secure feeling, preferring instead to keep the employee feeling like they’re ‘not quite there’ yet. There’s always one more thing the person needs to do, one more effort to be made, one more something. I’ve actually had this done to me, at different levels, by the same company.

When I first went to work at the company, I was constantly being told how ‘important’ my contribution was… interestingly enough, I was also renting a home at the time. The fact that I was able to simply pick up, and move, with no tangible ‘roots’, unsettled the employer.

Once I’d purchased a home however, things changed, and rapidly. Within a week, I started what I called “my turn in the box”, the same work that had been great a month ago, was now not enough. Phone calls on weekends, demanding requests that always had to be done before Monday… impossible end of day demands… requiring me to stay (like a lot of others) after the end of the regular work day to achieve them.

I doubt that I would have ever put it together, had my 1st wife and I not separated.

When I was temporarily renting again… amazingly enough… all of that stopped. Suddenly I was the ‘Golden Boy’ again and the accolades returned. Initially, I thought I’d somehow just earned my way back into the ‘good graces’… However, over the course of the next year or so, I began to see a pattern in the bosses behavior, and began to think that as long as he thought I could just pick up and leave, I’d be ‘safe’.

Now I would have thought it was all in my head, if, it hadn’t happened, all over again when I once again purchased a home. I left shortly after that, as I realized that success there, was fleeting (at best) and my temperament did not lend itself to those conditions.

I respond much better to thanks than to threats, in fact a threat is very likely to be met with me calling out the person making the threat. In fact, one of my favorite memories is the expression on a boss’ face as he yelled “Tell me! Who should I fire over this!?”

I replied simply, “If you think that firing someone, will solve anything, just go ahead and fire *me*.” In the end, he didn’t fire anyone; he was just looking to create fear that he would.

I liken what’s happening out there in the workplace today; to times most folks think are long past… what I like to call the “Ebenezer Scrooge” style of management. There was so much progress in ‘management theory’ in the 70’s and 80’s it looked like there would be only stories to remind us of how things once were.

Unfortunately, once folks stopped looking closely at management styles again, all the old ways began to creep back in. The difference is, this time; they’re being applied by folks with a lot of psychological behavior exposure.

My advice? Pay attention, know what you will, and will not accept. Always be prepared to walk away, have a cushion, a set aside, for those times you do walk away. The one thing I’ve discovered is that, for me, there’s no amount of money that will compensate me for bad working conditions.

Tell me what you see… what kind of boss do you have? What kind of boss are you? What’s the corporate culture where you are?

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Friday, August 18, 2006

One more old friend deserves a mention. . .

I’ve mentioned my good friend, collaborator, business associate, antagonist, instigator, and fellow revolutionary Greg Gusse here before.

The adventures he, and I, have had could fill a small book… then again if either of us wrote it, it would be a large book.

Why Greg today you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. I was on line last night IM’ing with some of the developers from the job when Greg messaged me… About the first thing he typed was “take a look at this http://npca.org/alaska/wildlife/ .

So, of course I did.. and so should you! There’s a link on the page to a report on Alaska, and while there’s a ton of information on the state in the report. There are a number of beautiful pictures that capture the natural beauty of the place as well. Many of them were taken by Greg in his travels around the state.

If you find you like the pictures, visit his photography pages, listed under the ‘Some Friends Sites’ section in the right sidebar. There’s a ton of great pictures there.

He was as excited as I was last year when my first article got published… it was great to see him that excited.

We did a lot of great work together back in the day… we had a synergy… a synergy that fueled my creative side… and caused me to write some exceptional pieces of code. Well, actually he called them exceptional, and as we chatted I found myself agreeing with him.

He mentioned one piece specifically that I’d nearly forgotten, a tool that allowed the storage of formatted SQL (sequel) statements in a database for later retrieval and execution. It wasn’t exceptional, in and of, itself, but for what it made possible.

At the time I wrote it, it was more of a work around, than a crafted masterpiece. I hated trying to read long strings of SQL that had no format, or ‘structure’. So I wanted to build and test the SQL, assign it a name, and store it in a table for later retrieval.

The problem was, that with the line feeds, carriage returns and ‘tab’ characters, it would choke the runtime. So, I wrote a small, fast little ‘c_ClnStr’ routine that would remove all the unacceptable characters and then hand it off for execution.

Greg used that piece, in a project for a large bank in New York, and that app has been running, everyday now for six and a half years.

Today, with the fast rise in affordable databases, complete with triggers and stored procedures, it’s probably not nearly as useful as it once was. At the time though, it was a solution, to a problem, most folks hadn’t yet contemplated, at least in FoxPro.

There was also a report generation process I had, that allowed multiple ‘bands’ within a report, much in the same way you can drop multiple ‘frames’ in a CSS template today. Back then though, you had a Header, a detail and a footer band. That little app allowed multiple sections within the detail band and really let you treat data very differently and dynamically.

Almost all of that code is stored away somewhere, untouched in many years, mostly because the features available in the languages, became much better, and there were now simpler ways to do those things.

Many of the smaller functions that were part of those tools are still in my code “tool box”, and I still use many of them nearly every day. I guess I’m still a mechanic at heart, because there’s not a mechanic I know who would part with one of his favorite tools, unless it flat out did not work any longer.

I use some of them, so often; I sometimes forget they’re not part of the Visual FoxPro language. Most of those I’ve also ported to VB and C# .Net, or placed in my VFP library for .Net.

Talking to Greg, is almost always good for my soul… it was a rough week at work… long days, lots of pressure. It was made a bit easier because of the great team… but running into Greg, just as we were putting the finishing touches on a new deployment really was a nice finish to a long day!

So, if you haven’t yet… click the link to either his photography site or go check out the Report on Alaska, and make his day!

As always…. Thanks for stopping by!!

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