Archive: September, 2019

Managers and makers

posted by Jeff | Friday, September 20, 2019, 5:36 PM | comments: 0

My time working at Microsoft was extraordinary. There was so much change, so fast in my life then, with the getting married, procreating and moving 2,500 miles to a new city all in the course of one year, that I'm not sure I really was able to take everything in. The seeds of the amazing transition that the company would make were already planted then, even before Satya took over as CEO. I saw it here and there, and it was exciting.

One of the lingering problems at the company was its stupid stack ranking system for its employees. The short version of the story was that it deliberately looked at churning the "bottom" 15% or so in terms of performance reviews, where managers would fight for the people they thought were the best. I don't have to explain to you why this was toxic and gave people incentive not to collaborate with their peers. It didn't really adversely affect me in my two years there, but I saw how it could if I didn't find an ideal path for myself. This was made worse by the expectation that if you weren't moving up in the company, you were destined to be in the bottom of the stack rank. What that meant, essentially, was that you had to eventually be a manager if you wanted to keep in it.

There was a program manager (a title that means a million different things) that I worked with who was enduring this kind of nonsense, and eventually he left the company. He enjoyed his job, he was good at it, and he had no interest in managing other people. He was a maker, not a manager, and that was OK. It wasn't so great for his career within the company in that scene. They did ditch the stack ranking after I left, and from what I understand, there is room for makers to be productive contributors for the long haul now.

Still, that observation really affected my world review. Year's later, when I read The Manager's Path, it became even more clear that there's a larger cultural expectation that you have to be a manager to succeed and advance. Heck, some professions arbitrarily pin "manager" on the title of beginners, even, when frankly they don't really manage anything, they just do a job.

There are a couple of problems. People advance in their career and often are promoted to a manager position arbitrarily. We do this in technology constantly (something Path points out plainly). How often does an amazing sales person get promoted to sales manager, and they suck at it? We do the same thing with software developers. And then we pin the failure on the person, who frankly may not have wanted to do that. Indeed, they are makers, not managers.

I struggled with this for the better part of 10 years. I've been in software for nearly two decades, so if you're doing math, yeah, that's half of my career. At some point, I had to think very hard about what I'm good at. As an in-the-weeds software developer, at least with the technologies and platforms that I'm intimately familiar with, I'm a slightly better than average developer. It took me a long time to get there. Back in 2009-ish, I discovered that I was really good at assembling a small team and delivering stuff. Since then, I've bounced back and forth between maker and manager, sometimes doing both, until I landed where I am now, and have to be mostly manager with a much larger team. It hasn't been easy, but I can see now that it's the right future.

This doesn't change what I learned in Redmond, though. In any profession, we have to respect that makers are vitally important to the success of any organization. We put a lot of faith and emphasis on managers to deliver, as we should, but I wouldn't go as far as to say that they're more important than makers. It's just a different role. You can't have one without the other.


Build and deploy and cloud magic

posted by Jeff | Thursday, September 19, 2019, 10:58 PM | comments: 0

I've really got a drive to build out a software project that I've been thinking about for awhile. I've been committing a lot of time to it because I now have a practical use for it. One of the early steps you get into on these kinds of projects is setting up all kinds of automation to build and deploy it all. That's particularly relevant because we're doing some of the same things at work right now on some new and replacement stuff (when I say "we," I really mean my team).

This kind of set up seems like something I do only once a year at best, and usually it's even less often. Even when I was working consulting gigs, most of the time all of the magic was set up for me already by a previous team, so it's like I have to relearn it every time. It changes a lot, too, so the infrequency adds to the friction. But once you get it all done, you feel good pretty much every time it runs. For the non-technical, what this work really means is to write some code, and when you save it, it triggers all kinds of magic that makes it run on the Internets.

The coolest thing about this is that it's all pretty much free. I use a product called Azure DevOps, and it can literally do anything that I need it to do to get bits on the air. In fact, the lack of constraints is one of the things that sometimes makes it hard to learn, because without a box you have to really think through what you intend to do. But now, when I commit code, within about three minutes, the web app, the functions and the database update are all done with no manual intervention. We live in the future!

I'm also amazed at how far we've come in terms of the cost of the technology, and the speed with which you can start using it. I can provision all of the databases that I need, and my code runs on Linux, which is a big deal for a guy who specialized on tech that used to only run on Windows. And even then, it doesn't really matter, because with cloud services, all of the underlying details are abstracted from you anyway. All I know for sure is that it lights up way faster.

I'll share more about the project when it gets further along. I've been so excited about it that I've actually asked a designer to make a new logo for me!


Six years of Fitbit

posted by Jeff | Friday, September 13, 2019, 10:00 AM | comments: 0

About six years ago, I bought the tiny little Fitbit One. Moving to Orange County, Florida, was something of a life reboot, and holding myself accountable to regular movement was something that I felt strongly about. I really wanted to improve my eating habits as well. The little fitness tracker and the app where I could log food made it non-ambiguous about how I was eating and moving. Two months in I could demonstrate weight loss.

I have stuck with the movement tracking, but have wavered in commitment to exercise and eating. The last year in particular was bad, because I did a whole lot of stress eating. That means that the measurement mostly serves to shame me, which doesn't feel good, but I'm getting to a point where I can simply treat it as self-awareness. I really like having it, because even on relatively inactive days, I know what it means to be truly sedentary, as I often was in my early 30's. I'm never like that anymore.

This tiny thing cost $90 back in 2013, and I struggled for days about whether or not to buy it. But a few weeks ago, it had very suddenly given me a low battery warning just two days after charging it, which was unusual because I used to go three weeks between charges. Then the other day, it outright died the same day that I charged it. It appeared that six years was the limit. Diana, who bought hers about six months after I did, lost hers a few months ago. She replaced hers with one of the newer models, now $70 and with a wristband and some notifications sent from your phone. I was reluctant until I found they had an optional belt clip this week so you didn't have to wear it on your wrist. I bought the replacement.

In six years, I might have had one or two days tops that I wasn't wearing it. In that time, I logged 13,047,796 steps, or 5,814 miles. It also includes 18,945 floors (I'm sure hundreds of which include cruise ship climbs). Unfortunately, the new one does not track stairs, but that's OK.

These trackers are valuable, because as they say in business, you can't improve what you can't measure. A lot of technology has questionable value (like 90% of the time wasters on smartphones), but there's little question in my mind that these devices and software are valuable.


Going to a different school is different

posted by Jeff | Friday, September 6, 2019, 10:11 PM | comments: 0

We're a couple of weeks into school now, after Simon missed the entire first week due to illness, and already, it's like a completely different world. What a difference the principal makes in setting the tone. He switched schools this year because the constant growth had us rezoned to yet another new building.

First off, there isn't any homework. Well, not technically... there is some social studies reading and writing they have to do on Fridays, and if they don't finish it, they can take it home. But that's it. He gets to come home and be a 4th grader and do kid stuff instead of more school stuff. I'm not categorically against homework, but having it every day in grade school strikes me as silly and there's no real proof that it changes outcomes.

More importantly though, there is zero emphasis on standardized testing at this school. It's just not a thing. We were incredibly fortunate that the new principal agreed to attend Simon's IEP at the end of last year, at the previous school, and she was in total advocate mode. In the course of that conversation, we talked about his anxiety, to the extent that he's medicated for it, and how the FSA testing pressure kind of wrecked him for the better part of several weeks. This was not the fault of his teacher, mind you, it was a school-wide thing. The new principal, maybe as a dig to the previous school, said something to the effect of, "We don't use the letters 'FSA.'"

If you're wondering, Simon got a 3 for the reading part of the FSA, the average and the automatic pass beyond having to prove other ways to be promoted. For math, he got the maximum 5. So explain to me again why all of that fucking pressure is necessary and comes at the cost of real learning.

The net result is that he at least seems to be pretty engaged, and even excited to learn. He has his subject preferences, for sure, but we know they're never going to cut science time to teach test taking strategies. He still has his social challenges, as I'm sure he always will given the ASD, but there's little doubt in my mind that hating school the way he did last year, despite having the sweetest, most caring teacher, would do him harm.

Now if we could just find kids that he really identified with. I know it's hard. I had very few friends in school. It's still hard for me to form deep friendships.


Old hardware doesn't have to be obsolete

posted by Jeff | Thursday, September 5, 2019, 10:07 PM | comments: 0

Android 10 came out today, so I updated my phone once I was done for the day. I haven't quite had it for two years, but I seem to recall it shipped with 8, so I'm glad that it's current. Unfortunately, that's not the case with stuff as it gets older, and I'm kind of annoyed with that.

First off, I went to get the Lego Powered Up app to put on Simon's iPad, because it controls all of the new train models. I went to install it, and it couldn't because it doesn't support the version of iOS on it. I wasn't paying attention, but it looks like it stopped updating the OS quite awhile ago. This iPad came out in 2012, so yes, it's 7-years-old, but so what? The thing about computing devices is that, computationally, they tend to last way longer than they did back in the day. This is especially true for tablets and phones.

While I'm picking on Apple, I also flattened our aging first iMac, as it's getting close to 10 years now. It's been on Simon's desk for years, but since I built a desktop I wanted to pass down my 2015 iMac to him. I couldn't update that older iMac to any remotely recent version of MacOS, and that's super annoying. That computer is still viable considering almost everything you'd do with it these days is in a browser anyway. If you don't develop software or play games in 4K, you don't need a ton of hardware. (And soon, you won't need it even for those tasks.) Stop making stuff disposable!

I complain about Windows and all of the baggage it still carries, but I hilariously still use QuickBooks'99 to keep the books for the business, so there's something to be said for that. We don't have to throw away technology all of the time. Phones aren't making any serious improvement year to year. Computers last five to ten years. I think this unnecessary upgrade cycle is forced by the companies who sell the gear and our irrational consumerism. That's gotta be legit if me, the technologist, feels that way.


All the feelings, as an artist and human

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, September 4, 2019, 3:00 PM | comments: 0

One of the cool things about spending a lot of time seeing musicals is that the people in them tend to be interesting, and often young artists. In the last year, we've started following a number of people who were on the Hamilton #PhilipTour, and pretty much most of The Prom original Broadway cast. A number of people from the Ham tour just peeled off (those guys are endlessly entertaining on Instagram), and Prom just ended entirely, prematurely, if you ask me. That group in particular was pretty emotional about it, because it was an important, almost universally loved show. I was catching up on my RSS feeds and found a blog post from one of the women there who found that closing the show was pretty much the worst. There's a lot of intense feelings there. I imagine that working on a show is a lot like a really long summer camp, sometimes for years. Making a movie seems like that too, only shorter in duration as far as the actual shooting goes.

Art makes us feel, for sure. For me it can be pretty intense, and I'm just consuming it, not making it (most of the time). The thing is, I love that feeling, and it's the thing that makes me feel alive. Certainly live musical theater does this better than anything, in my opinion, but even a good 4-minute song can have that effect. If this feels so good, or bad, as the case may be, and that's what makes us feel the most human, do we try to find it in everything we do? These musical theater folks, they're a wreck, a lot, but not in a bad way. I'd love it if my day job made me feel that intensely. (I think... maybe it would be a bit much.)

Some parts of life are inherently prone to intense feelings, starting with parenting. Sometimes, when I put Simon to bed, and we're lying there for a minute talking about our day or whatever, I run the whole range of feels, from the wonder that he quite literally did not exist ten years ago, and now he has opinions, to the reality that he won't want to talk like that for many more years. Then as I'm walking away, I wonder if the things I did today helped him, or just irreparably fucked him up. There's stress or psychic weight around that, for sure, but I'd rather have it than not.

Work was this way more when I was doing more creative work, in radio and video back in the day. When I flipped to software developer, getting laid-off two years into it, I was guarded for a very, very long time and cautious not to get too emotionally invested in the work. In more recent years, I've injected more of that into it, but almost to a fault in some cases. Being more manager than technologist makes this even worse, because I'm responsible for the livelihood of a bunch of people. That's weird, having the intense feelings without the primarily creative intent.

This is a weird thing to ponder, because I'm simultaneously frustrated with the willful ignorance that people engage in, especially with science, and a general lack of critical thinking. But deep feeling is good when it makes us better people, to ourselves and others. I'd like to have more of that.


Dodging Dorian, and the different rules inland

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, September 3, 2019, 8:08 PM | comments: 0

We got pretty luck with this hurricane, largely at the expense of the northern islands of the Bahamas. Had the track from last week stuck, we probably would have seen a direct hit on the coast in the category 3 range, which is really bad news for the coast, but for us would have just been bad... -ish.

When Irma hit almost two years ago, I confirmed what I already kind of knew. The highest recorded sustained wind speed in Orlando proper was about 86 mph in 2004, with Hurricane Charley. That was pretty serious, certainly, and I remember seeing all of the blue tarps on houses on my next trip here. But while roof damage is possible, maybe even likely if you have an aging or poorly built roof, new construction since 2010, as a result of that year's hurricanes, prompted higher standards for much of the state. Andrew already in 1992 prompted higher standards. For us in most of Orange County, new houses have to be able to withstand 3-second bursts of wind at 130 mph. The science suggests this is a "700 year" scenario, where sustained winds would likely be around 100 mph. Again, the recorded history tops out at 86 for Orlando (presumably measured at MCO).

That's why Walt built his theme parks here. There's a good trade-off between the risk of serious weather and endless summer. Heck, if things were to get super serious, I'd consider a stay on-property, because they have their own power company and it's unlikely that their Internet would go down. They also happen to be in the business of feeding tens of thousands of people at a time.

So it's not really a place that you evacuate from. It doesn't mean your house, even if it's new, won't take damage, but having built two of them now down here, I understand some of the fundamental design considerations that make them pretty durable. The roofs are tied down all the way to the foundation with a series of beams, straps and such. The first floor is all concrete block, the exterior is stucco. The difference compared to a Midwest house is staggering. You also don't need to stock up on gas and food this far inland, because it's unlikely that you're going to go weeks without. This is the opposite of being on an island. There won't be shortages or any real delay longer than two or three days. Heck, the Amazon Prime delay would be even shorter.

That said, you don't want to be cavalier about the safety or short-term potential for pain. Power can and will go out, maybe for days, so you have to plan accordingly. You could lose water as well for a few days, so you fill a tub up so you can at least flush your poop. You definitely bring in everything from your patio or porch. Plan on being inside for at least 24 hours, maybe 36, because it's not the wind itself that's dangerous, it's the stuff that gets airborne.

For Irma, I believe our sustained winds were in the mid 50's, gusts in the 70's. That was certainly "exciting." A direct hit from Dorian would've likely been a little more intense than that, but not seriously so.

We have a beautiful sunset right now, with the clouds moving by incredibly fast. Our sustained winds are about 20 mph, and it's gusty on top of that. Morning will bring the peek, probably not more than mid-20's. We got lucky this time.