Mar 292013
 
Justin Bieber at the 2010 White House Easter E...

Justin Bieber at the 2010 White House Easter Egg roll. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So you’ve discovered that the community attention and critique of being a thought leader isn’t for you.  You’d like to get out of the game, or you want to avoid becoming a thought leader in the first place.  I, Phil, noted Thought Leadership Avoidance Expert (TLAE), am here to help with some tips to get you started on the road to recovery.

1. Tell People You’re a Thought Leader

This might seem counterintuitive.  If you don’t want people to think of you as a thought leader, why would you tell everyone that’s what you are?

Well, telling people you’re a thought leader is like telling them that you’re cool, funny, or handsome.  If you have to tell people that’s what you are, it probably means you aren’t.  Justin Bieber’s LinkedIn profile doesn’t say “Pop Culture Phenomenon.”  At least, I assume it doesn’t.  I don’t actually network with Justin Bieber for business purposes.

Thought Leadership is something that people recognize about you, not something you declare about yourself, so labeling yourself this way is a good signal that you aren’t a real thought leader.

Put it on your LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.  Use other synonyms like “(Your Industry Here) Disruptor.”  Make sure every opportunity you have to present yourself to the world, you put up a big, neon sign that says, “You’d never think I was this unless I specifically told you.”

2. Claim Your Employees’ Expertise for Your Own

Business owners hire employees who are better at them than something.  The person at the top of a business typically doesn’t know the most about every aspect of their business.  You can be the successful owner or CEO of a cat food company without having in-depth knowledge of every aspect about how cat food is made.  Your focus is on the successful operations of your business, not being a subject matter expert in every facet of your industry.

Because of this, it’s very common to have business owners who have a basic understanding of their field at a high level, but their employees are actually the ones with very deep knowledge of the area in which that employee works.

If you want to avoid being a real thought leader, pretend that your employees’ expertise is actually your own.  Repeat things in conversation you’ve heard them say.  Write blogs that are nonsensical combinations of terms and concepts you’ve gotten from them.  Have a two hour meeting with all of them to educate you on a particular topic, then write a blog about it pretending like you came up with it all yourself.

Sort of like telling everyone you’re a thought leader, this might initially make you look like one, but in the long run, you’re doing irreparable damage to your credibility.  For every one person who doesn’t know any better who says, “Wow, you’re so insightful,” there will be a dozen people who actually understand your field going, “This makes no $&%@# sense.”  People will be laughing about you behind your back in no time, and your status as a No Thought Non-Leader will be secure.

3. Read a Book and Pretend to Be an Expert

You know that friend of yours who watched celebrity poker tournaments for a week and now considers themselves a professional-grade Texas Hold ‘Em shark?  Everyone knows they’re full of it, because on what planet does a small injection of knowledge make you an expert at anything?

You can do the same thing to torpedo your reputation as a thought leader!  It’s easy!  Just read a book and start talking as if you could have written it, yourself.

Having trouble picking the right book?  Here’s a good starter list for software development:

  • Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan et al
  • Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber
  • Anything by Mike Cohn

These are ok books, but we don’t care about that for our purposes.  We’re looking for books we can read and then fake being an industry expert.  These books and others are ideally suited for that, and people have become industry pariahs overnight by reading books like this and then pontificating about the issues discussed in them.  Everyone will know you aren’t a real expert, and this will drop your Thought Leadership Index (TLI) rapidly.

4. Don’t Have Thoughts

The most effective way to get out of or stay away from the whole thought leader thing is to avoid having any actual innovative or useful thoughts.  If you are already using techniques 1-3, you are probably already doing this step by default.

One time-honored way to practice not having thoughts is becoming a Zen Buddhist.  But the next best thing is to highlight problems or issues without having better ideas.

  • “Most companies approach software development all wrong,” but damned if you can show them how to do it right.
  • “Companies need to change their culture,” but you have no idea how to actually change a company’s culture.
  • “We need to disrupt our industry,” but don’t disrupt your industry.

Constantly highlighting problems without offering any solutions is a Grade A path to not being a thought leader.  You aren’t actually thinking of anything or leading anyone.  It’s perfect.  It’s like giving a big middle finger to the concept that leaders, innovators, and disruptive thinkers actually have to come up with anything.

Finally, to sum up and give you a set of principles to live by (because let’s face it, there’s no way you’re coming up with any), I offer the Anti-Thought Leadership Manifesto:

We are uncovering better ways of making fools of ourselves in our fields by doing it and helping others do it.  Through this lack of actual work, we have come to value:

  • Style over substance
  • Rhetoric over content
  • Criticism over solutions
  • Books and blogs over experience

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

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Mar 272013
 
English: Picture taken from the Liberty Memori...

English: Picture taken from the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, MO. High Resolution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The flip side of the education coin are the employers.

Regardless of the causes or who thinks what about how we got here, the fact is that employers in Kansas City are having a hard time finding and retaining talented IT people.

It’s very easy to say that there aren’t that many talented developers out there or look to some cause external to yourself.  Obviously, per yesterday’s blog, I think there are things that training institutions could be thinking about differently to try to address this shortfall.

However, like I tell my teams, spending your time complaining about external causes has very low value.  Whether you’re right or wrong is irrelevant – you can’t control external causes.  The economy is what it is.  The market is what it is.  Kansas City is what it is.  You’ve been dealt a deck of cards, and that’s the cards you have to play.

The high value activity is looking at yourself – doing the hard, painful work of being self-critical.

Why should I come work for you?

There is no New Economy.  It’s now officially just The Economy.  You probably don’t have the funds to golden handcuff a squad of dream employees to your organization.  You may want Brett Favre, but you have the money for Matt Cassel.

If you do have those funds, then don’t hold back.  Don’t be “competitive” with your salary.  Blow everyone else out of the water.  Be disruptive with your compensation.  You compete in every other area; why not compete in this one?  But, honestly, it’s not usually about vast differences in salary.

It’s usually about what life will be like for your employees.  Do you put your developers in fabric-lined jail cells and saddle them with meaningless deadlines, tedious processes, and a culture that is basically designed around the idea that your employees are lazy and can’t be trusted?  Do you have unclear priorities?  Do you align your development projects and your developers with your company’s objectives?  Are they a part of something bigger than themselves?  Or are they a machine where requests come in and product comes out?  What are employees getting into?

If you have a scenario where no one would want to live in it for more than a year, don’t expect to attract and retain top talent.  Don’t dehumanize your developers and then complain about how hard it is to find people.  Kansas City has lots of exciting things happening, but in terms of its ecosystem, it has a small town dynamic to it.  Everyone knows everyone else.  Every developer has six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon and someone who left your company.  What stories do they have to tell?

But here’s the other big one.

Are you giving new folks a chance?

Just for the sake of argument (I’m not necessarily granting this point), let’s say that Kansas City’s available hiring pool is light on the experienced hotshots who have mastered a wide array of technologies, and let’s say it’s heavy on recent grads, career-changers, and junior level devs.  Let’s say the perception is reality.  Let’s say, for every twenty resumes you get, only one or two seem really shiny.

What are you going to do about it?  These are your cards.  You can’t change them.  What’s your play?

Well, you can poach heavily, and while you might attract some high-end talent that way, why would you think those same people couldn’t be poached by someone else offering a 10% increase in salary?

Or you can deal with reality.  Instead of trying to fight the trend, why aren’t you harnessing the trend?

  • Do you have an actual plan to turn junior developers into senior developers over time?
  • Do you pair up your superstars with your newbies on projects so they can work on each other’s code and have a true mentoring / apprenticeship relationship?  Or do you silo your developers and just give the junior levels the “easy stuff” or maintenance tasks?
  • Why aren’t you giving new devs a chance, knowing that, sure, it won’t work out for some of them, but some of them will be gold?  Some of them will be the backbone of your efforts for years to come.
  • Why isn’t hiring new grads or career changers part of your strategy to get ahead of your competition instead of something you are trying to avoid at all costs?
  • Why don’t you give recruiters a list of personal characteristics that you want to shape your teams and your culture and draw your line in the sand there instead of pre-packaged technical knowledge or an arbitrary number of years of experience?
  • Why aren’t you open to hiring someone who works outside of your technology stack to see if they can bring innovative ideas or problem solving abilities that your current stack might not foster?  I’d hire a passionate, thoughtful Java developer for a .NET shop over a “this is just my job and I’ve coded the same way for ten years” C# developer any day of the week.
  • When you hire a senior level developer, are you asking about their mentoring abilities?  Are they someone who can help the more junior level developers grow?  Will they build your team into a high performance nightmare for your competition, or will they just crank out your code and take their paycheck?

Now, I’m not suggesting you just randomly hire a pack of people with no experience and no knowledge of your development base, but what I’m saying is this: instead of whining about the lack of experienced developers, why not proactively work with the reality on the ground?  Why not intentionally plan to hire junior level people with a very deliberate plan to grow them into your future team leaders?  Can you imagine how attractive that would be to job seekers?

As a long time developer myself, I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  Being a good or a bad developer has virtually nothing to do with experience, education, or anything else you’d find on a typical resume.  It has everything to do with passion, drive, and a self-generated commitment to learning and continuous improvement.  Isn’t that what you want your company to look like?  Wouldn’t you love a team of people spurring each other on to greater and greater performance?  Hire for that.

If you can plan for that – if you can design your hiring process that way – you might find that it’s not as hard to hire good developers as you thought, and you’ll find yourself looking at a crop of eager new hires ready to show you what they can do and having a vested loyalty in the companies that believed in them.  While your competitors are still behind looking for the next superstar or trying to steal her, you’ll be getting your projects done and growing your own superstars.

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Mar 262013
 
The Careers Day poster they rejected

The Careers Day poster they rejected (Photo credit: Alun Salt)

DISCLAIMER: I will use specific examples throughout this post without naming any names.  I want to make it clear that this is not picking on any one particular institution or form of IT training.  I have been a trainer for one of Kansas City’s largest IT training firms.  I have taught college classes.  I have made training DVDs.  I have subcontracted to teach with other training companies who span the globe.  These issues are in lots of places, so please don’t take any specific example and assume I’m trying to come down on a particular institution or practice or favor one over the other.

In doing the research for this post, I started going through the websites of various “career changer” programs.  You know, the programs where someone wants to make a big change and get into an IT career, but they have no real background or experience, so they sign up for a multi-week program to teach them foundational skills that, ideally, is enough to get them an entry-level job to start them down a new career path (incidentally, I totally believe in this model if done well).  I was looking for success stories.

What I discovered was that most success stories were several years old.  In fact, one institution led with a great success story in their marketing materials for their program.  That story was five years old.

Think about that for a second.  All the students that pass into and out of this program, month after month, year after year, and the best results they’ve gotten so far were five years ago.

Despite the current fad of people with no real knowledge of the field inventing statistics to try and prove there’s a developer shortage in Kansas City, the reality is far more complicated.  If there’s any shortage, it’s a shortage of highly qualified developers in Kansas City.  If you post a job opening in IT right now, you’ll have no shortage of applicants.  You’ll still have a hard time finding someone.  In fact, just a couple of months ago, a friend of mine who is responsible for hiring for a very large organization here in Kansas City told me point blank, “We’re getting lots of applicants, but most of them are graduates from Institution X and don’t know s***.”

There’s a disconnect.  Four-year institutions, two-year institutions, and training companies continue to churn people out into the market, but the market doesn’t seem to be buying.

On the other side of the fence are the pundits who just flat out say that colleges and/or career-change programs just don’t work.  This doesn’t seem right either, because there are successes and, quite frankly, it’s hard to think of another model that can accommodate the quantities and speed of the market right now along with the depth of knowledge required to write good software.  If you don’t have organizations dedicated to making this happen, the odds are good it won’t happen at all.

My premise, which of course may be wrong, is this:

Organizations who train IT careers, specifically development, need to ditch their current models and adopt ones that are market-responsive and student-first.

Curriculum

Most IT training organizations are not matching their curriculum to demand.  This is a known issue with two and four year institutions, but it is a staggeringly huge issue with IT training companies and career-change programs in specific, and it has been this way for a very long time.  I’m not talking about the specific manuals they use or whatever; I’m talking about the actual topics covered.

Every so often, I’ll see an update somewhere that looks something like this, “Getting ready to learn design-time data binding to datagrids.  Whole new world!” or “Finally creating DataSets.  This stuff is awesome!” and I die a little inside, because these are the functional equivalents of someone training for the medical field and tweeting about leeches and hacksaws.

Nobody wants that stuff because nobody is doing that stuff.  No company is trying to hire someone for web technologies and methodologies that are now 12 years old (NOTE: Ok, obviously, occasionally people do hire for very old technologies because they need to support old products or simply refuse to change, but I’d say that’s not where most of the technical demand is).

In researching this post, I pored over job openings in Kansas City for .NET web development, and they were asking for MVC, HTML 5 and JavaScript, NoSQL, ORMs, TDD, MVVM, and design patterns.  I found two that asked for ADO.NET (along with the other things on this list).  If the whole purpose of your company is to release people into the field who can perform a trade, why isn’t the taught curriculum aligned with what people are asking for?

Teaching Methodology

PowerPoint slide.  Explanation.  Demo.  Lab.  Not.  Ideal.  For.  Career.  Building.

That way is ok-ish for getting across a specific technical topic to a specific kind of audience and background: namely, the kind of audience who already knows how to build applications and practically apply their knowledge in the field.

But if you want to teach someone how to build applications, then you build applications and instill the requisite knowledge as you go.  And when I say “build applications,” I don’t mean labs that have been specifically designed around a particular concept.  Those are notoriously unrealistic and often actively teach bad practices and bad ways of solving problems, because the focus is on that specific concept and not the other parts of development around that concept.

“But if I’m trying to teach someone data access, I don’t have time to teach things like proper separation of concerns in the class layers or HTML 5.”

Exactly.  That’s exactly the problem right there.  You’re trying to teach someone data access instead of teaching someone how to build an application and talking about data access in the context of building that application.  People leave your training (even if it’s a four year program) knowing a ton of isolated, bad examples of various technologies, but they do not understand how to solve problems with these tools, how these tools interconnect, or when these tools are bad decisions.  And because you are so focused on teaching them a technology, they probably have never even seen a realistic example of it.

This dovetails with another issue, that most IT instructors/professors in Kansas City are not developers or haven’t been for a long, long time.  They are just as incapable of teaching a class driven by actual development as their students, and their knowledge and experience is just as limited by the curriculum as the students.  It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard to learn a trade from someone other than a tradesman.

Economics and Risk

Most IT training programs require the student to pay regardless of the result.  Some companies are thankfully breaking away from this model, but it’s still the most common model.  Students pay tuition to the training institution no matter what.

Two problems here.

On the student side, it puts them at enormous risk.  They have to pony up (or taxpayers have to pony up, in some cases) several thousands of dollars that may ultimately result in nothing.  Although I’m way more concerned about the students than the institutions who train them, this is actually not the biggest problem.

The biggest problem is that, on the institution’s side, their primary motivational force now becomes getting people into their program.  Not preparing them for jobs.  Not getting them jobs.  Getting them in the door.

When the training company I worked for started doing career change programs around late 2000, they made all prospective students take a short test.  It was things like pattern recognition, etc.  Nothing heavy duty, but it did look at their ability to spot patterns, think symbolically, etc.  At the time, a student had to score a 90% or above to be admitted to the program.

Over time, it got lowered to 80%.

Then 9/11 happened and the training market tanked big time.  60%.

Eventually, the test was completely done away with.  We got people in our program who were great people, smart people, and very gifted in many ways, but coding at an in-depth, professional level was just not something well-suited to their way of thinking and gifts.  But we took their money, gave them their diplomas, and sent them out the door.  And I quit.

The thing is, the success of our students only indirectly affected our prosperity (by way of marketing).

How would it transform things if institutions only got paid if and when their students got their first IT job?

Holy crap, right?  Now, I have an interest in helping students find their proper niche here or elsewhere.  I’m only interested in putting the student in a web development program if I think the student has the chops to be a professional web developer instead of the chops to secure a $12000 loan.

I’m motivated to make sure my curriculum reflects what business owners want and need.  I’m motivated to make sure all my students are solid.  I’m motivated to make sure anyone who learns how to develop from me can go into a team of experienced developers and play at or above their level, because if they can’t, I don’t make my money.

Before I close, I just want to say that deep within the chocolatey-good depths of my cynical heart, I am warmed to see some amount of rising to the occasion.  The Disruption Institute, for example, shows a real initiative in looking not only at what the market needs today, but will need in the very near future, and organizes their curriculum around that – curriculum that has been put together by actual developers in the field.

I believe in training companies.  I believe in two year and four year computer science programs.  They all have their place for different people and different goals, and it’s a poorly thought through plan that would advocate getting rid of any of them.  But you have got to step it up.  If you align yourselves with market needs and commit yourselves to the students’ welfare first, the money will follow.

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Mar 202013
 
"Respect My Authority" Cartman T-Shi...

“Respect My Authority” Cartman T-Shirt
at Target spotted by Scringy
(Photo credit: JeepersMedia)

Your Quote to Original Thought Ratio is Too High

Take a look at your tweets, your blogs, your online discussions, your presentations – all the collective information you present to the world or to a specific audience and ask yourself, “Could a well-filtered RSS feed have done the same thing?”

Remember that employee who always used to cut out magazine and newspaper articles and route them around, but never actually led any initiatives?  The modern equivalent of that is a high volume of “contributions” that are actually links to thoughts someone else had.  That does not make you an authority; it makes you a less-efficient headline aggregator.

Instead of looking for other people’s material all the time, why not try writing your own?

Your Quote to Original Thought Ratio is Too Low

We all stand on the shoulders of giants.  I did not write the Agile Manifesto.  I did not invent Scrum or Kanban.  I have not worked for every type of client in every type of situation, and my personal experience or “what makes sense to me” is not the final arbiter of truth or wisdom.

Sometimes, in our efforts to avoid dogmatic regurgitation of someone else’s work, we act as if it doesn’t exist.  If something is old, traditional, or in some other way not directly thought of or experienced by you, then it’s worthless.

I want to be clear that traditionally held views or a the opinion of Everyone Else But You can be wrong, but they are not wrong simply because they’ve been around a long time or they come from other people.  A true authority is able to think critically about other sources without completely disregarding them just because they happen to be traditional, commonly held, or disagree with your own views.

You Think Rebuttals Are Personal Attacks

One unfortunate aspect of our education system is that we’ve been taught from a very early age that wrong answers are unacceptable and our ratio of wrong to right answers are the primary determining factor of our intellectual ability and rate of success.  It’s no wonder that, when someone tells us that we’re wrong, we automatically feel like someone is basically saying we’re inept or a failure.

Sometimes, rebuttals can contain personal attacks, but people who are authorities view rebuttals with curiosity and interest rather than disdain or dismissal.  When someone tells you that you’re wrong, do you get on a soapbox to pontificate on why you absolutely must be right, or do you think that rebuttal is interesting, worth hearing out, and worth investigating?

I was a newly hired team lead at one company, and a couple of the developers gave a presentation on a piece of an application they’d put together.  After the presentation, I said, and I quote, “Why did you choose to do it that way?”  And, no, it had no sarcastic emphasis or anything.  Just a matter of fact question.  They reacted as though I’d basically asked, “Why did this company hire morons like you?”  They got mad.  Really mad.  It was as though the very act of questioning their reasoning was the same as condemning it.

Debate is good.  And if someone expresses a view contrary to yours, they can certainly be wrong.  They may even be really really wrong.  But an authority comes to that conclusion after actually entertaining the notion rather than assuming that the “opposition” is wrong by default or deliberately trying to make them look bad.  Take them as opportunities to find out rather than a personal attack.

You Don’t Check Your Sources

Fairly recently, one of Kansas City’s more prominent agile charlatans tweeted an article written a couple of years ago by Michael Sahota where he said that Scrum was more suited to a collaborative, personal development culture, and Kanban was more suited to a control culture that minimized the importance of the person.

What this person obviously did not know is that, today, Sahota has a very different view about Scrum and Kanban and uses Kanban as his default for helping an organization become more agile.  In fact, he said so in the comments on this very blog.  This person is not the only person to have made this mistake, but it is perhaps the most recent example.

What does this have to do with authority?  Don’t we all make mistakes?  Well, sure, but in this case, this person had not been actively engaged with his sources (who are still very much alive and writing) or the community that uses them.  It doesn’t help that most of this person’s perceived authority depends on a ludicrously high Quote to Original Thought ratio, so if your sources actually disagree with you, that’s bad news for your authority.

Authorities don’t just comb the Internet looking for things that sound good.  They use source material as support and inspiration for their own thoughts.  They are engaged with the communities that are using this same source material.

You Aren’t Actively Engaged with Colleagues

I’m pretty active in LinkedIn discussions/debates with other agile consultants.  Some doofus once challenged this behavior, saying that clients don’t care about our internicene debates.

That’s true, they don’t, but that’s not why I do it.  I’m not trying to create the illusion of authority for marketing purposes; I’m actually trying to be competent in my field.  Being actively engaged with other authorities in my field keeps the saw sharp, keeps me learning, challenges my current notions, and keeps me abreast of innovations.  Despite the Internet making this easy, true authority does not come from a client-driven marketing façade.  If you know your stuff, clients will stay with you, and knowing your stuff means being engaged with other leaders, malcontents, gadflies, and straight shooters in your own field.

You Mistake Criticism for Contribution

I have a Philosophy degree.  One of the interesting things about the history of ideas is that people are often very correct in their criticisms, but not so great in their recommendations.  Karl Marx points out a lot of valid challenges inherent in how capitalism works out in history.  His alternate recommendations are not so great.  The fact is, it’s a whole lot easier to point out what’s wrong with a proposal than to propose something of your own.  Almost anyone can do the former; only the truly insightful can do the latter.

Any authority needs to engage in the activity of criticism, but if that’s virtually all you do, there’s no difference between you and the guy yelling at the football coach through his TV screen.  If everyone else is so wrong, where are your bright ideas?  What are your alternate recommendations?  What would you do instead?

That’s harder, isn’t it?  And that’s the difference between being an authority in your field and being a poser.  Criticism is not contribution.  Destruction is not creation.

Most of Your Contributions Can Fit in Tweets

Twitter is cool.  Unfortunately, it also automates a lot of unclear thinking.  It’s very easy to use Twitter to simply link to an article without supporting thoughts, criticize without alternatives, or pose koan-like “reflections” that really make no sense.

The problem isn’t Twitter.  The problem is that thinking, articulating thoughts clearly, expressing arguments, engaging viewpoints, and all the things that actual authorities do takes time and space.  If the vast majority of your “insight” has been communicated through Twitter, you might think about how insightful your insight really is.  Your contributions to the history of human thought can fit in 140 odd character increments.

I’m not saying everyone who could rightfully be considered an authority in their field needs to be writing blogs or publishing articles, but whether they express themselves in public writings or in one on one discussions that no one ever finds out about, there needs to be the kinds of substance that can only come from a deep internalization and synthesis of wisdom.

It’s fine not to be an authority in your field.  If everyone were an authority, no one would be an authority.  But if this is your aspiration, or you wonder why people just don’t care very much what you think, just keep in mind that deep, valuable contributions are a lot more work and take a lot more time to acquire than it might seem.

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Mar 192013
 

Want to know about the most recent updates to SimCity?  Keep checking back for patch updates.

Update 3/20/2013 – Update 1.7b

General:

  • Your city’s fire department will now attempt to extinguish fires with water instead of the default kerosene.
  • Hospitals will no longer be constructed purely from asbestos.
  • Crime will no longer only be committed by Sims with poor education. It will now also be committed by Sims who ride skateboards or listen to loud rap music at intersections.
  • We are no longer coating the boxed edition of SimCity with poison ivy.
  • Sims will no longer plot your real life murder when game is minimized.
  • Plate tectonics no longer throws your city into the sun.
  • Sims will no longer jump off cliffs to shorten commute to work.
  • Trains traveling on intercity railroads now occasionally stop.
  • Airline pilots no longer spontaneously Harlem Shake while in flight.
  • Size of railroad stations reduced to 500 city blocks.
  • Parks and Recreation advisory dialog no longer incorporates meta-style humor.  Purely observational a la early Seinfeld.
  • Jets replaced with actual jets.  Dancing Caucasian street gangs are no longer a valid transportation option.

Traffic Improvements:

  • Sims no longer make their commute entirely in reverse.
  • Mobility added as feature to cars.
  • Streetcar operators now contact AAA for assistance in turning corners.
  • Traffic patterns now governed by zoning, time of day, and availability of public transport as opposed to vengeful whims of Jor-Kryton, Lord of Traffic.
  • Cars now correctly allied with Autobots and will engage in 20% fewer instances of open warfare.
  • Emergency vehicles now run on internal combustion engines instead of sails.

Server:

  • Servers now available two days a week.
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Feb 282013
 
SITH-03

SITH-03 (Photo credit: Lupin Tyde)

It’s been a while since I last condensed my wisdom into useful proverbs suitable for framing, preferably under a photo of a soaring eagle or a sunrise over a snowy mountain.  I can’t hold it in anymore, however, so put on your boots and get ready for condensed wisdom!

Before you ask others to change, change yourself. Specifically, change yourself into someone who doesn’t really care if anyone else changes, because then it’s, like, a win-win.

I wanted to live a life that others only dream about, so I showed up at my old high school in my underwear and took a test I hadn’t studied for.

The currency of Viet Nam is the dong, so the next time you’re around a bunch of high-powered investors, tell them you’ve been buying a lot of Vietnamese dong, lately, then sip your brandy and nod smugly.

Before you blame someone for failure, choke them with the Force. If you’re a Sith Lord. If you’re not, then, um… so… have you thought about being a Sith Lord?

Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. And 100% stealing from Nikolai Tesla.

If you are sharing a planet with a people group known as “Decepticons,” the odds are good they’re going to screw you over at some point. Plan ahead.

Every business mogul tells you how much you should focus on being disruptive until you show up at their son’s briss.

If I wrote Chinese fortune cookie fortunes, I’d try to make them ominous and specific like, “Watch out for Steve,” or, “The blue one is more prone to catch fire.” They wouldn’t hit very often, but when they did, it’d be absolute gold.

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Dec 212012
 
Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919)

Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

FORD: Behold! The automobile!

(FORD unveils automobile)

FORD: The driver sits here and maneuvers the car with this wheel. He uses this pedal to accelerate, and this pedal to decelerate. It is an amazing new way to travel.

SHIRLEY: Where does the saddle go?

FORD: Pardon?

SHIRLEY: I don’t see a place to fit a saddle.

FORD: This doesn’t need a saddle. You sit in the seat, instead.

SHIRLEY: No saddle? Sounds unsafe. I can’t imagine traveling without a saddle.

BRIAN: Seriously, Ford, is this some kind of joke?

FORD: No, see…

BRIAN: You can’t travel without using a saddle.

FORD: Yes, if you’re riding a horse, but this is a car, you see. The paradigm is completely different.

BRIAN: I don’t see a place for a bridle, either.

FORD: But there is no need.

SHIRLEY: Oh, right. We just use bridles to control direction. No big deal.

FORD: But this uses a wheel to control direction.

SHIRLEY: Of course. That’s why everyone else uses a wheel to control direction.

BRIAN: Ford, nobody uses a wheel to control direction.

FORD: That’s because everyone else rides horses. This is a car.

BRIAN: There’s a reason everybody rides horses, Ford.

FORD: Yes, because they don’t have cars. This is a car.

SHIRLEY: We have a lot of money sunk into a saddle-based infrastructure. Do we just throw all that away?

FORD: Well, I guess you could make something else out of the leather, or use the saddles decoratively.

BRIAN: DECORATIVELY?!

FORD: I don’t know. The point is, you don’t need saddles.

SHIRLEY: All our laws regarding travel are built around horse riding. If you can’t feed this car or tie it to a post or saddle it, how are we supposed to control it?

FORD: Well, there will have to be new laws.

BRIAN: So, we’ll just scrap a bunch of old laws and make new ones. That sounds safe.

FORD: It’s not like murder will be legal, it’s just that new paradigms mean lots of things have to change.

BRIAN: So, murder will be legal.

FORD: No, there’s no reason to change that law.

BRIAN: I don’t see why not. That’s basically what you’re proposing. All the laws and saddles and hitching posts that have served us so well up to this point are just stupid compared to YOUR idea. Your one single idea that nobody else is actually doing.

SHIRLEY: I mean, I could understand cars working on a small scale, but they’d never work here.

FORD: What do you mean?

SHIRLEY: Well, there’s no saddles, for one thing.

BRIAN: I’m not saying the whole idea is bad. I like those lights in front.

SHIRLEY: Yes! Maybe we should take the best of both worlds. Ford, could you stick those lights on a horse?

FORD: Not really. You kind of need a power source.

BRIAN: You could harness the horse’s motion.

SHIRLEY: I like where this is going.

FORD: So, you want me to rig up an elaborate structure that will most definitely slow the horse down for the purpose of attaching lights to its head.

BRIAN: I thought you said cars were faster than horses.

FORD: Yes, but….

BRIAN: So, which is it? Are cars faster or are horses faster?

FORD: Cars.

BRIAN: So, what’s the problem?

SHIRLEY: Why don’t we just try the light thing, and if it makes our horses faster, then maybe we’ll consider using more of the car.

BRIAN: And see if you can figure out how to fit a saddle and bridle on it.

SHIRLEY: That would be ideal.

[curtain falls]

 

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Nov 302012
 
H&R Block's new oblong headquarters in downtow...

H&R Block’s new oblong headquarters in downtown Kansas City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday was another event in Kansas City’s non-stop train of entrepreneurship events – Novel Day. You had speakers, you had entrepreneurs, you had presentations of new ideas, more about Google fiber – you know the drill. These days, you can’t pull out of your driveway in Kansas City without driving into an entrepreneurship event, which is nice because, if you only have, say, three hours of free time between 3AM and 6AM on a Tuesday morning, someone is running InnovoStart 2012 or MidwestDisruptiCon or Hack-a-Build or whatever during that time slot.

In broad strokes, this is a good spirit to have. Innovation and entrepreneurship are how one thrives in the new economy, and inspiring to people to think in this way – wherever they’re at and whatever they’re doing – is key to keeping Kansas City business lifeblood flowing. I sometimes think we take too narrow a view of innovation and entrepreneurship and how that gets applied (i.e. the focus is almost exclusively on people starting new businesses), but overall, it’s a good trend.

One of the potential problems, however, is that we’re also creating a shadow industry with virtually no substance behind it. This is a cyclical path to economic destruction. Remember the .COM bubble? Remember the housing bubble? An economic “bubble” comes from a lot of money flowing into something that doesn’t actually deliver real value. It makes a lot of money initially, and then BOOM! The wheels fall off because everyone liked the money and apparent success, but nobody liked to ask tough questions about the undergirding until this edifice everyone put their hopes and investments into collapsed. I fear we might be creating a startup bubble.

At Novel Day, Ron Green made the comment that Kansas City was “positioned to become the global leader in digital storytelling.”

It was a popular comment, live tweeted by a few different people – a nice quotable soundbite. The only problem is that nobody knew what the hell this even means. I asked around. They don’t.

I mean, we know what digital storytelling is – it’s people making short, multimedia bits that share a slice of their life. Since “life” is a rather large umbrella, these short bits portray all kinds of things from struggle with disease to visiting foreign cultures to local events. Interesting stuff.

Here’s what people didn’t know: What it meant to be the global leader in this, what it meant to be positioned to become the global leader in this, and why anyone would particularly care about being the global leader in this. But, by Thor, with some hard work and a little luck, Kansas City will be… that… thing. Move over, BBQ and jazz – KC is gunning for the ambiguity market! I guess the Chiefs suck so badly this year that we’re just ready to be the global leader in something.

I’m picking on this one comment just because it was recent, but it’s hardly unique. I think it just serves as one of a thousand examples of how excited we’re getting about investing in anything that sounds entrepreneur-y. The point of innovation, entrepreneurship, “disruption,” startups, and all the other buzzwords that are en vogue right now starts and ends with the value these things bring. They are not ends in and of themselves. Hitler was a disruptive entrepreneur. Mustard gas was an innovation. Russian Roulette is taking a risk. But those things all arguably made the world much worse when they came along. What’s the value of all this? What’s the endgame? What are we trying to accomplish for Kansas City?

Being the global leader in anything has no inherent value. We have to ask ourselves, “What are we getting by working toward being the global leader in X? If we become a startup hub, what will that give us? If we become known as disruptors of the tech world, what value does that have?”

Establishing real value is the difference between a bubble and true economic growth. I am genuinely concerned for the city that I love in this regard. I’m not hearing enough questions and (healthy) criticism. I’m hearing a lot of vague terms and statements and declarations. I’m hearing a lot of sexy excitement and not a lot of boring thoughtfulness. I’m worried that, when the smoke clears, we will have poured a lot of time, money, and effort into a project that ultimately delivered very little.

I genuinely hope I’m wrong about that.

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Nov 272012
 
Zero sexism?

Zero sexism? (Photo credit: Johannesen)

I don’t know what’s in the air (Mercury in retrograde?), but there’s been a lot of discussion the past couple of months on Twitter regarding women in traditionally male-dominated activities and fields, ranging all the way from comic book conventions to programming to the gaming industry (check out the #1reasonwhy hashtag). Ok, so, obviously you can see where my interests are.

The stories range all the way from horrific, first-person accounts of ostracism and abuse all the way to systemic inequities. Male response has been heavily polarized, as you might expect. I’ve been pretty amazed at displays of sexism and views of women expressed that are so demeaning that it makes me wonder what year it is. I’ve been likewise amazed at the (ironically, also sexist) Chivalry Is Not Dead camp that, in their zeal to express their support of women, end up still treating them as exceptions to the rule.

It’s that rule that I want to talk about and, as a white male, I hope perhaps other white males might be willing to reflect on it coming from within the camp.

White Male Privilege

You get the word “privilege” out of your mouth and the defenses go up. This is probably because there’s an implication of blame and guilt behind it, like white males alive today are personally responsible for the conditions that have created this privilege and ought to be punished for it. I don’t believe that. I didn’t control the race, gender, or socioeconomic class I was born into, and I can’t control the institutional behavior and mistakes of my ancestors that have brought us to this point and, in many respects, keep us there.

But I am firmly to blame if I try to act in society as if white male privilege is not a reality that needs to be taken into account formally, informally, politically, economically, culturally, and a lot of other -ally words.

As a white upper-middle class male, I never have to worry about the following:

  • “Proving” anything besides what I put on the resume
  • People complaining that they can’t tell dirty jokes because I’m there
  • Assumptions that I got a job based on my looks or sexual activity (no jokes from my friends, please)
  • People being in awe that I have the interests and profession that I do
  • Being told that I should be proud for representing my race or gender in my profession and being good at it
  • Wondering if the stranger who complimented my appearance is a rapist
  • Having my choices restricted or at least made astronomically more challenging to obtain because of poor education, poverty, or dangerous environments
  • People questioning my legitimacy as a geek and wondering if I’m doing it just to get attention or acceptance (I know – it sounds completely ridiculous, but it’s only ridiculous because I’m male)

There are other things I could put down, but you get the point. There are huge hurdles and barriers to entry for some groups that simply did not exist for me. For me, the job market was a meritocracy. The playing field was level. The only things that mattered were my skills, experience, and failure to offend anyone in the interview process. In nerd circles, the only thing that mattered was shared interest. And here’s where we get to one of the most insidious problems with privilege:

If one does not have to worry about sexism or racism, one tends to assume nobody else does, either. I mean, we have laws, right? Racism and sexism is socially uncool, right?

Leaving aside the fact that cultural attitudes embedded in hundreds of years of reinforcement do not magically dissipate because of laws, even if this wonderful event happened, that still doesn’t change the fact that these views have shaped our institutions, our government, our culture, and our economy. You might not be racist or sexist, but if you are American, you are living in a world that was built that way, and that inertia doesn’t change simply by everyone stopping being racist or sexist.

You are participating in a government formed with the idea that women and minorities do not “count” politically in the same way white landowners do. You are in a job market that claims to be a meritocracy where a large chunk of the participants did not have access to the money, education, and environment that you did. The irony of all this is that people who keep shouting that race and gender shouldn’t be issues and that we should just talk about merit are also usually the people defending the institutional status quo. Well, the institutional status quo favors you, white male geek. It does. It favors me, too.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that women and minorities never succeed in this climate. Some of your best programmers are black, right? The point isn’t that success is impossible; the point is that there are numerically significant groups of people in society who have to struggle and fight ten times harder than I do to get opportunities and respect that came to me relatively easily by comparison.

We will never be able to be a meritocracy as long as the basic playing field is so skewed. White males should not feel they are personally to blame for the current condition. Most of us try hard (although we often fail in various ways) not to be racist or sexist, and we look at the blatant crimes and inequities in our history and consider them to be exactly that – crimes and inequities. We’re anti-that stuff and aren’t personally responsible for it. We’re not the creeps making sexual advances at conventions. We’re not the slimy employer who tells an applicant that, if they’d date him, they’d have a much easier job.

But we live in a world where that exists and those attitudes have been prevalent for a long, long time. We are responsible if we aren’t thinking about this with an open mind, talking about it, and working together to undo these effects where we can.

If this sort of thing interests you, two organizations I support are The Ada Initiative and Black Girls Code. There are certainly other good organizations dedicated to addressing issues like this.

If you are a white male in America, I encourage you not to use your own frame of reference as a paradigm for understanding everyone else’s experience. Listen to the stories people are telling you. They aren’t making this up. Be part of solving this problem, not because you’re personally responsible for it, but because it’s a collective, societal problem that should not exist for anyone.

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