One wouldn’t normally relate Valentine’s Day to the office life of developers, designers, QA people and other guys involved in software development process. Such qualities as love, compassion, care and empathy do not obviously stand out as prevailing in our work. It’s mostly rough and tough. The word SCRUM is actually derived from rugby, a guys-only sport where the winner is the one who stands tough and pushes hard. As people work to create software, they quite often tend to be unyielding, protective of their opinions; they’re used to pushing, and sarcasm often comes out as closest to ever having any empathic perspective on your colleagues.
Have you ever been in such a situation, as a designer or as a writer or as a developer that you’re given a task, you work on it all alone, you come out with more and more drafts, and everyone seems to be criticizing your work? It takes stamina and a good deal of emotional stability to be able to withstand sometimes pushy remarks. No, I don’t mean to say that colleagues intentionally want to make you feel resented. All they want is to get work done, and their comments have the sole purpose of helping you complete whatever you’re doing as best as you could. They’re beta-consumers, the first to take a look at what you’ve created, before you shoot your design or a piece of text to the outer world.
Here’s the point. Like I mentioned in one of my previous posts, we’re a company with trust established as one of the signature values. I’m not showing off, just citing the fact. So, a possibility that someone is saying something to hurt another person, is totally left out. However, even in this healthy environment, and with all the love for the work that people have, the universal laws of biology have a life of their own. The work is demanding, creative, and even as rewarding as it seems – your brain and your neurons just get tired. It’s purely physical. People are made of flesh and bone, they’re not made of hardware. With this tiring, people become hypersensitive to the remarks about their work, and may start taking them personally. One can’t get away with it. So, I’d like to highlight the need of awareness about this quality of human psyche.
If a colleague is fatigued, stressed out about some work, or if some personal factors add up to the stress, what if we try to feel the challenge that our fellow human is undergoing, and instead of being purely work-focused, give a little bit of personal attention and some help to each other? It’s not that hard really. Sometimes, if someone is stuck with a design draft or something of that kind, instead of giving some remarks on what this person does, wouldn’t it be wise and nice to switch the focus from judging to helping? At the end of the day, it’s not only about helping your colleague. It does contribute to the task at hand. You can save your colleague by dropping in new fresh ideas, or see if there’s any other way to help him or her. If you don’t know how to brighten up the life of someone who spends their days near you in the office space, go ahead and find out. Wipe the dust off of your right brain hemisphere or the heart chakra or whatever other scanners and sensors you could put to test for the other folks . This would also provide a side balancing effect for your own brain, giving it some rest from analytical tasks for a change. Maintaining the culture of compassion in a geeky environment might look like a weird idea, but what your company is worth if it’s not about people? People are the greatest asset, but somehow they’re not usually treated as such. So, is there any other better day than February 14, 2013, to emphasize the need for human relating, as well as the need to be more loving, compassionate and non-judgemental about others?
Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!
I’d like to talk about 3 aspects of knowledge: span, depth and connections between the disciplines. I’ve come up with a good metaphor to bring these aspects together, and it looks very to the point. Though, I don’t like metaphors that much, as they’re misleading quite often.
Basically, my metaphor stems from another metaphor according to which people can be broken down into two types. The first type is someone who likes to go over many things in their learning and research. The people of the second type pick just one or two disciplines and dig into them. The first type are foxes, the second type are hedgehogs.
To me, learning looks very much like a geological field research. Imagine that you’re facing a new mysterious continent. You know nothing about it. Of course, you can see mountains, forests, rivers but you have no idea of what’s in there. You don’t know what’s over the horizon, is there a sea, how cold this continent is on the north and what’s the temperature in the south.
So, you start putting the map together. You send expeditions everywhere and you sketch the local maps. Then you drill surface holes to identify the soul texture and composition. Then you discover oil, gold, diamonds, and you start mining.
Learning follows exactly the same scenario. Let’s say you’re studying maths. In the beginning you know very little about it. Okay, you count to 10, and you see how three red balls are different from five blue balls. Step by step you’re discovering some new territories. You learn multiplication tables, and you’re amazed as you get to know the real numbers, or as you find out that it’s impossible to divide by zero. You briefly touch upon differential calculus, and for some unknown reason you learn how to take integrals. By the time you’re 16, you’ve got the map of the nearby territories on your hands, but most likely you have no idea of the set theory, topology and functional analysis. It’s very unlikely that you’ve acquired in-depth knowledge in any of the fields in mathematics. Just scooped and scratched the tidbits off of the surface.
High school doesn’t provide solid knowledge. You only sketch your map at school as you get ready to drill the surface holes.
Choosing your field can be easy … or difficult. One way or another, there you are at a university. Your teachers rightly assume that you know nothing. The truth is: most of the teachers don’t really care where you start your drilling. They deliver their lectures in a boring or in a fun way, and they rarely put any emphasis on the connections between disciplines. Take physicists: they grab differential calculus and use it to solve their problems. No one cares to trace mathematical analysis to physics and to check if it can be used there. Any given scientific field is an island on your map. For some reason, the common belief states that it’s your job to build bridges between the islands – or at least to set up a ferry service.
Your map abounds in the white patches of seas and oceans that can hardly be drilled, except for the shelf areas.
The islands of knowledge build up clusters as they become one integral whole for you, and instead of the bridge an archipelago emerges. That’s the time when you lay down the foundation for cross-field connections. As these connections take shape, the archipelago transforms into a solid land, good enough to host a highway. For example, you’ve got this distinct knowledge of what derivatives are, and how they can be applied to mechanics. Bang, there you go, now you definitely see a connection between the motion of bodies and differential calculus.
Why differential calculus is a standalone subject in the school curriculum? Why no one ever says how it can be applied to solving practical tasks?
The contemporary education, at least in this country, does help if you’re set to discover and develop the new islands… but not the new continents. Too little attention is paid to the connections, as well as to the paths and the logic of discoveries. That’s too bad.
Foxes and Hedgehogs
Back to knowledge span vs. knowledge depth. When you set out to some new field, it’s better to put together a map first, that is, to acquire a span of knowledge. That’s the only way to be able to dig deep into the subject later and identify the spots for drilling.
You must be a fox first, to be able to shape-shift into a hedgehog later. That’s the problem of today’s world: it’s much easier to end up being a fox forever, than to become a hedgehog. I feel it myself; it’s a lot harder to get deep down into your chosen field of knowledge. You always want to read just one more blog post, check Twitter, take a look at this interesting article or book. When all the world’s information is at your fingertips, it’s soo tempting to be a fox.
The spot is selected, and the drill sharpened. So, how to drill now? Watch out for interesting soil layers and horizons. If you reach those layers, you’d never roll back. Beware the space in between the layers – that’s where the rocks might crumble. You dig deep into the subject, you read, you do something, and there’s a moment when things fall into place. Congrats! You’ve found the gold.
There’s one more good metaphor, I’ve picked it up in some book. In the beginning you find yourself in the dark room, and you’re using touch and feel to discover what’s in this room. Then there’s an instant, when the lights turn on, and you see very clearly what is where. The same is going on in your head. The light is suddenly on, and all the standalone concepts get precisely aligned. You will never forget that moment, and this clear alignment will always be there. The lights will be on at all times. The overhead lights might dim with time, but they won’t go out completely.
At times it’s very hard to make yourself keep on drilling. When you see that nothing changes, and you’ve been pecking this subject for several months with no evident progress, you just want to give up everything and get away to some sunny beach. What are you supposed to do in this case? The answer is the same – keep on doing it. If you give up once, give up twice – you’d lose your self-confidence, that’s it. You’d obsess over the thought that you’re good for nothing and get stuck at your current layer forever. You have to keep on drilling. You have to get to the first precious layer and experience the “aha!” moment. You have to turn on the lights to see what’s in the room.
What’s the difference between brilliant programmers and average programmers? It might well be about just one thing: with brilliant programmers, this faith is there all along. They just believe they can’t be anything else but brilliant programmers, whereas average programmers never conjure such things and give up on the drilling eventually. The power of faith and self-confidence can work wonders.
What if you don’t like the drilling location that you’ve previously selected? You have to get busy with something else then. If you take no delight in the studies, if you unconsciously register the count of pages in a new book the moment you open it – this subject or this discipline is not for you. Go over your map one more time and find another location. Maybe you’d get interested in UX, or automation, or marketing. With one or two trial drillings you will locate the spots worth putting your effort into.
So, how we learn? What should we do to make the learning process more efficient?
- Turn on “the fox mode” and sketch your map. Identify some starting points for a more in-depth look into the subject.
- Try to make sense of the connections between disciplines and order the studies logically. It’s quite easy on the high-level.
- Turn on “the hedgehog mode” and dig deep. You’ll have to interrupt the focused digging though to jump to the related subjects, otherwise you won’t be able to reach the even deeper layers.
A great teacher would disclose his map to the students, guiding their way and showing implicit connections between the disciplines. Students will never lose their way if they have such a map.
Unfortunately, I haven’t come across a teacher who would have done that to his students. So I have to break through the jungle all by myself, working with my machete and carrying my torch, as I put new territories on the map. Hopefully, my children will have better luck.
P.S. Translated from Russian by Olga Kouzina.
Michael has published a post called “Curious Company” the other day. I swirled with reactions as I read it. Whereas it was mostly delight, I’d like to apply a bit different focus to the subject.
Let’s see. The common concept about businesses and corporations is that they should have a goal. TargetProcess as a company has the goal to develop the best project management tool in the world for small to medium companies. Some businesses have rather boring goals such as adding 20% to their profit, breaking through to new markets, selling more copies of their products, getting more clients to outsource their work to them. We’re very familiar with this traditional lingo of corporate culture.
I want to put an emphasis on some other, more important things. Best people, best place to work at, comforting environment, learning, letting people make important decisions on their own. Does it ring any bells with you?
It might sound weird and totally groundbreaking, but the new paradigm for companies and corporations is not the “correct goal-setting”, whatever this is, but the optimal experience. There’s a classical book on this subject. What is this “optimal experience” put in plain words?
It’s about enjoyment. Loving what you do. Do you have fun running like a squirrel in circles over again, hating your week-days for boring and unrewarding activities? I bet, no. Do you have fun when you spend time with your friends, people who share your passions, people who empathize with you, who understand your discoveries, chime in to your explorations, and are just there for a friendly, live, human talk and smile? (and a hug :)
Recently I talked to one of my former associates. He is an upper-level manager in an IT outsourcing company. Their job is to run two times faster to stay in the same place. They do time and material contracts, custom development jobs, they hunt for new clients, and mostly behave like brides in an oversaturated bride market (we know a zillion faceless IT outsourcing companies, whose only message to the world is “I’ll do HTML for food” or something similar to this). His point was that with that many developers (they’re a 100-500 company), and with that many contracts and clients they have a higher profit margin compared to a product company with 35 people (that is, us). I asked him: “Do you feel that you like what you’re doing? Balancing all those human resources (that’s derogatory, sorry), behaving very much like a farmer who is trying to get the best out of his herd? ” His answer was a bummer. He said: “Work is work, friends and fun are outside work”.
What he said is, unfortunately, the mainstream belief for many more people than we can imagine. And this means, that many more people than we can imagine are spending even more than half of their conscious lives, not living their lives actually, not experiencing what they do, but looking forward to some other better times when they retire, or when they go on a vacation.
I wanted to explain so many things to him. One of them was that people are born to be creative, to live up to their dreams. That’s a bit metaphysical point, but it eventually gets down to solid ground. What are the most successful companies? Why this nation is now booming with the lean startups cult? It seems that the enlightenment is taking the lead, and this instills hope.
If we talk figures and growth forecast, a lean team is able to do a higher profit margin than an average IT outsourcing 100-500 company. It’s very much similar to Archimedes’ “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” The lever is the company of passionate explorers and achievers. The fulcrum is the culture of creativity and enjoyment – come on, let’s just call this a friendly environment.
Again, it might be that some people don’t have this ability to create. They’re not able to invent and explore. I think you’re either born an explorer, or you are not. But if you’re an explorer, if this creative spirit is burning in you, then your colleagues (and friends) can’t be anything else but passionate explorers. In whatever domain. Being an explorer is a pretty universal thing, and one of its incarnations is in software product development.
Now getting back to Michael’s article, to the part on friendly environment and passion. You can’t have 50, 100 or 500 friends. But you can have 8-12 friends, and each of them will have their 8-12 friends. (I borrowed these figures from King Arthur and Danny Ocean. And from my own experience). That’s the way the bright company builds itself, and that’s what Michael calls “there’re a few people that push the train forward”. Once your company is build-up of those nodes, or mini-teams, persevering one goal and dream, and passionate about it, sky is the limit.
A gentle reminder, in our case the dream is the best agile project management tool, and we’re living up to it by everything we do.
Friends, keep me company.
Last week at the mini-conference, one of our guys had no time to do a nice visual wrap-up for his presentation and sufficed with showing portraits of authors while just reading the extracts from their works. The topic was lean basics, and he was talking about Deming and Taylor. While everyone seemed to get bored with listening, as there was no nice visual stuff like we’re all used to now, I suddenly caught myself visualizing the talk of the boss and this worker. The story was about the boss who was convincing the worker to bring 47 tons of iron instead of 12 or something like that.
This got me to thinking that sometimes visualization is doing lip service to us. We’re sitting comfortably, watching TV or watching presentations with nice stylishly UX’ed data, and we are losing the ability to make visualisations with our own brain! The picture is brought to us, so we make no use of the imagination “muscles” and our imagination weakens.
I’m not saying that everyone who watches animated drawings from RSA Animate is doomed. But there always should be a balance between perceiving someone else’s visualizations and creating your own. The power of creative imagination is above everything. No speaker or agile champion, or TV presenter will draw a vision of your business, your product or some function of the software you’re crafting. There’s always a time to look at someone’s visualizations, and time to create your own. Each and every “how-to” about creativity includes this magic word called “vision”. Have you ever thought why any business starts with a vision? It’s exactly for this reason.
There’s a paradox: on the one hand, visual media is everywhere. Lots of visual channels deliver the dish to any, even the laziest perception. The problems is that the legion of those watching produces too few creators.
We’ve got 1 more day left in the year 2010. It’s time for New Year miracles. So let’s devote this day to our creativity, to cleaning the debris of anything we don’t want or need any more, and let’s visualize a
Our company is quite small (25 people). Most companies of this size focus on rapid growth and don’t pay much attention to learning. We are different. Fortunately, learning is very important in our company. We boost it in all possible ways:
- We highly encourage people to try and learn new things.
- Every employee can dedicate up to 12% of their time to unstructured learning (5 hrs per week).
- We organize internal trainings twice per months.
- We organize so-called Friday Shows every other Friday where we watch and discuss some interesting videos about UX, development, business, etc.
About a month ago we decided to structure our trainings in a better way. The resulting idea was internal mini-conference. Mini-conference is a full-day event dedicated to sessions and discussions. All sessions are prepared internally. The idea is to have a very focused learning event instead of several trainings over 2 months.
Our first conference will take place this Friday. Here is the program
10:00 Registration, “wake-up” coffee
10:15 Data Visualization Alex Tsayun /45 min
11:00 coffee break /15 min.
11:15 Node.js intro Vadim Gaidukevich /30 min
11:45 MongoDB (NoSQL) intro Oleg Seriaga /30min
12:15 coffee break
12:30 Exploring Good Experience Seth Godin (guest video) /20min
13:00 History of Kanban Anton Marchenko /30 min
14:30 Performance Metrics Alex Fomin /1h
15:30 coffee break
16:00 Marketing and Sales @ TargetProcess Andrey Mihailenko /1h
17:00 free discussions.
I am really curious about the outcome. Wil people like it? Will we keep this practice? Not sure. But we are trying new things :)
Read first part of the review.
There are two important aspects of design process: generative and reductive. We generate a set of alternatives, then we restrict this set based on various criteria. It is impossible to evaluate a solution without its alternatives.
The best way to a good idea is to have lots of ideas — Linus Pauling
I can’t critique just one thing — Richard Sewell
That is one more reason why sketching is so powerful. It helps to generate and evaluate various alternatives. I’ve read in one article that Apple creates a dozen alternative designs for any product. Good enough…
One of the most positive form of criticism is a better idea
Acquiring positive attitude to criticism is a hard change. People don’t like to be criticized in general. You can’t get the correct reaction to criticism out of the box, but should apply every possible effort to make it a part of team’s culture.
People on a design team must be as happy to be wrong as right. If their ideas hold up under strong (but fair) criticism, then great, they can proceed with confidence. If their ideas are rejected with good rationale, then they have learned something. A healthy team is made up of people who have the attitude that it is better to learn something new than to be right
Built to Last
Without appropriate design, yesterday’s success is tomorrow’s failure, since today’s great applications are tomorrow’s legacy systems
Some design decisions live for about 20 years if product is successful. For example, Photoshop has been on the market for 20 years, and some parts of its initial architecture still exist. Can you now imagine how important architectural decisions are? On to entities framework in TargetProcess that was designed 4 years ago. How long will it live? Definitely we did not consider a 20 year time frame back then…
We should assume that technology that is going to have a significant impact over the next 10 years is already 10 years old!
My takeaway lesson is that we should pay more attention to new technologies and think ahead at the same time. This may sound impossible, but it is worth trying.
Learning is a very important thing. No, I will re-phrase it. Learning is the most important thing in your company. Surprisingly, Bill has given an interesting perspective on learner’s experience levels:
I haven’t seen this concept of levels before, and I like it very much. If we take agile, I am in transition between levels 9 and 10 (I think). In UX, I am between levels 5 and 6. This model is a good guide and may help understand and plan personal or even corporate learning process. Is it possible to apply it to the whole company? Maybe.
Story-telling and Play
A good story is worth thousands of pictures
That one is true. For example, Steve Jobs told 3 stories from his life at Stanford Commencement Speech in 2005. And this speech was remarkable indeed. I remember all the 3 stories, despite the fact that I heard them only once.
Without play imagination dies
and one more:
Stories, and more importantly, story-telling and play, are critical part of design
Ever been on a boring brainstorming session? Fun is an essential part of any creative activity. It should be encouraged, not suppressed.
Finally, some outstanding quotes on design:
Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. To design something really well, you have to ‘get it.’ You have to really grok [understand] what it’s all about — Steve Jobs
The last thing that you should do when beginning to design an interactive system is write code
The role of design is to find the best design. The role of usability engineering is to help make that design the best.
If we think about conferences in general, the traditional understanding is: people come together to share their knowledge, to learn, to discuss, to network etc. Some people expect that if they attend a conference they for sure must learn something totally new, something that will change the way they work or even their lives. Some people come to see who’s out there, to network and to have some fun. In a nutshell, as many people as many reasons to attend conferences :)
I tend to think that with all the information we’re consuming, it’s very hard to come up with something totally new to a thinking and knowledgeable audience. If you’re engaged in agile community, and if you’re a thinking person, you thrive in the blogosphere and you practice agile - it’s hardly that something will be totally new to you (“totally” is the keyword).
Recently we attended Agile Central Europe conference in Krakow. I’d say that my #1 enjoyment about this event was live cross-twittering. Broadcasting Agile CE to the Twittersphere has really been fun. I liked tweets by Andy Brandt, Marc Loeffler (aka scrumphony), Pawel Brodzinski and Robert Dempsey (for the two latter, it’s not only tweets, but their presentations that I enjoyed) . As opposed to most attendees, I didn’t very much like the closing show by Gwyn Morfey and Laurie Young. The guys have done a great show, but it was more about dramatic presentation of what’s going on in any dynamic agile team :) I’ve seen a bit of those “paper sword fights” :)
After attending Agile 2009 in Chicago, I’ve really got a little bit skeptical on the conferences overall because what I’ve seen was people talking about simple truths but with such an air as if they were uttering epiphanies. So, when going to Agile CE I wasn’t expecting epiphanies. It was more about going out there with our team, watching people and taking every opportunity to enjoy everything that comes up on the way (including live jazz night in Krakow).
This approach worked better than huge expectations. Strangely, this small cosy conference has become an unexpected source of inspiration. In a sense, that it’s not always you have to come up with an excellent new topic or idea no one else knows about. The main thing about conferences is confidence and freedom to express yourself, share your personal experience and absorb experience of others. Somehow someone will find it useful. There’s no need to be afraid to appear too simple. People will listen and admire even if this is your first experience as a speaker.
And.. it’s great that there’re many more agile conferences to come :)
There’s so much room for observations and analogies in the evolution of production trends. Analogies are not merely a candy for the brain. They bring along a deeper understanding of phenomena and ultimately are one of the greatest aides to align (or misalign) with mainstream.
If we look back, to the 18-19th century – mass production was a dream. The philosophy was: produce more. Lavish architecture designs, garments, gardens – everything created by people was about going more massive and taking much space. Standards of innovation have been changing over the centuries - what’s been innovative and massive, has been becoming obsolete. Minimalism is the new innovative. Is it because humans subconsciously feel they’ve taken too much terrain and sky on this planet for industrial experiments and now are trying to compensate for that by being minimalistic in everything? Or simply finding ways to fit in?
Hardware/software as well as visual designs and interfaces are meekly following the same trend. This just shows how subtly the “new innovative” standards are taking over. We remember huge PCs. Now we’ve got all kinds of minimalistic devices the names of which start with “i“. We remember waterfall. CMMI standards with their tons of rigid rules, regulations, documented processes. Now we’re going “lean” and “agile” – the same minimalistic tendency.
People have managed to stuff the overproduced artifacts not only all over the planet but all over themselves. Fatness is the problem. Again, what a shift in standards – as late as in the beginning or even middle of the 20th century it was considered trendy to be fat. Well, not obese, but hearty fat. Now, we’re all about lean. Off with plump beauties. Straighten up now, lean is the philosophy of minimalism in production.
P.S. I truly believe that all the fat folks are hiding the “lean” insignia deeply inside them. It just takes some effort to peel off the layers :)
Recently I’ve come across a post on harmfulness of analogies with martial arts. Indeed, there’s a handful of posts comparing software development, or agile adoption, or product development with martial arts - Aikido, Karate, Judo etc.
If you make a direct analogy of software product development and mastering some martial art, it would not be exactly accurate. I guess people revert to the analogies as they try to project their copies as romantic martial arts disciples into their usual lives as software developers, managers etc. Perhaps, they’re making the image of their lives more mission-filled this way since there’s not too much space for showing primeval qualities of warrior in software development. But the need to exercise this attitude is still there, as it turns out.
We don’t have beasts to fight, bloody battles and mortal combats. This wrap-up for courage, strong will, persistence in achieving goals and readiness to fight has remained in the past largely. With no wrap-up, people forget that there’s lots of space to exercise these qualities in their usual life.
Let’s go back to analogies. Roger Federer is an unbeatable specimen of mastered elegant performance to me. Look at the way he plays. No waste. He knows, what to do, he knows when to do what. It’s a perfect flow, the model for effective lean production with no waste and – the model for perfect warrior in our modern life. Elegant, no blood on his hands, but he fights, has pitfalls on the way, stands up, recovers, marches on and wins gracefully.
But he’s just a guy in red T-Shirt. As many software developers :)
Another point is that it’s much harder to fight, win and achieve goals when there’s no immediate physical danger involved as in tennis. Soo much room for elegant warriors, isn’t it ?
The point I’m trying to make is – let people compare their lives and their jobs to whatever they want. If it inspires and motivates them, makes them feel good about their lives and their work – and makes them feel like warriors, achievers, believers, fighters, winners.
P.S. February 23 is a perfect day for such a blog post :) Wish you well, guys!