I got to discussing this with an online chat friend of mine this evening. My own take is that we will know that there is a sustained economic recovery in the USA when two things happen:
1. Tech employers start to lobby the Federal Government to increase the temporary visa caps
2. Employers start whining publicly about employees being "greedy", having "no loyalty", "ungrateful" etc. etc.
(1) will occur, because employers will find themselves under wage and salary increase pressure as employees, after an extended period of time where they were at the mercy of employers, will suddenly find themselves in demand once more.
(2) will be the response of employers who seem to think that they are owed loyalty by employees. In reality, most of them will have no right to expect loyalty, given the tendency of many employers to fire employees in the blink of an eye when they fear a loss of profitability. Every employee of a large employer also knows about the various tactics that employers have long adopted to circumvent inconvenient items of law such as the WARN Act, in order to reduce their costs or eliminate their responsibilities to laid-off workers.
When it comes to treating employees badly, the old saying "revenge is a dish best eaten cold" applies. Most employees will bide their time and act when it is convenient to them, sometimes many years later.
Anybody in the USA who has not just landed from Mars will know what I am about to write about…for those of you outside of the USA, suffice it to say that a major government initiative’s web site is currently a train-wreck, with inadequate performance to support more than a fraction of the expected number of visitors. This is leading to all sorts of what I term Light Heat and Sound, and since we are dealing with real Politics (not just organizational politics), it is getting ugly.
I wrote this posting earlier today to my personal Facebook page. I am adding it here also. I would also recommend that Twitter users watch Clay Shirky for insight. He has already made some telling comments.
I am reading that various parties to the healthcare.gov debacle are blaming ‘lack of testing’. This is BS. As some readers may know, I am an Enterprise Testing Consultant in my day job. Let me expound on this debacle in general terms.
It is clear to me from what little I have read about healthcare.gov that the site is currently unable to handle the volume of users and transaction rates. This is not a “testing problem”. It is probably not a “coding problem”. It is a potentially multi-faceted root cause, involving some combination of poor design, poor decisions on runtime architecture, inadequate or poorly configured infrastructure, or inadequate connectivity bandwidth.
“lack of testing” cannot be a root cause. and here’s why. Testing is not part of the process of building a solution, although it can be (and should be) integrated into that build process. It is a major part of the process of Validating a solution (i.e. did we build the right solution, does it function correctly as per its detail specification, and does it meet or exceed user or leadership expectations?).
Testing is a Risk Management activity. if properly defined, planned and executed, Testing allows leadership to make informed decisions about whether to/when to implement a solution, based on clearly defined functionality and performance criteria, the same criteria that should have been input to the solution definition and design process.
Full and properly structured testing, involving Integration Testing and Performance/Throughput testing, would have demonstrated the existence of performance and accessibility issues. In fact, enough testing may have shown up some of those issues in the past. However, at some point, a leadership individual, a number of individuals, or even one or more committees (we are, after all dealing with government) made the decision to Go Live with the site. If those decision-makers knew at the time that they made the decision to Go-Live that the site could not meet the requirements, then they made a defective decision and the accountability for that decision is theirs.
Now…there are two possible ways in which the Testing organization could have contributed to the defective decision:
(1) the scope of Testing might have been inadequate to show up the underlying issues. This is common in high-pressure projects, and most of the time it is the result of leadership decisions to reduce the scope of Testing. Bluntly, having to cope with a shower of bugs from a Testing team if you are a Development or Delivery leader is an emotionally wrenching event, on a par with somebody saying to you “your child is ugly”. Leaders have a natural desire to reduce the risk of Bad News from any direction, and they tend to regard Testing teams as sources of Bad News.
(2) If the information that the site was defective was known to the Testing team but that team withheld the information, then the Testing team is also culpable and accountable. However, no truly professional test manager or test director that I have ever worked with would try to withhold that sort of information. It would be like a doctor knowingly poisoning a patient. It’s a line you do not cross.
The underlying root causes of the poor performance in healthcare.gov in all probability have nothing much to do with Testing. The root causes lie elsewhere, with one of a combination of design, architecture and infrastructure provisioning teams.
At this point I need to make a statement that may seem blindingly obvious to many of us in I.T. but which appears to not be easy to communicate to either legislators or electorates.
Requiring government bodies that commission an I.T. solution to nearly always accept the lowest bid will nearly always result in the delivery of a low-quality solution.
This seems to be a statement of the obvious, but history shows that key decision-makers cannot process it.
One final comment about the aftermath. In a situation like this, public hearings dominated by table-thumping, publicity-whoring Congressmen are unlikely to find the underlying answer. Nobody with half of a functioning brain is going to make any substantive statement in public to those kinds of vultures if they can avoid it. As a general rule, the sorts of questions asked by Congresscritters are not primarily designed to discover root causes. They are designed to Make Some Guys Look Bad and to engage in ritual public humiliations of The Bad Guys. In other words, a half-baked investigation without most of the checks and balances (such as due process, verification of facts and evidence) that would really yield a useful result.
Sometimes the right answer to a debacle like this is tough but fair behind-the-scenes investigations. Public floggings may make some people feel better, but like all pissing contests, they never achieve anything.
From one of my favorite authors, Al Bernstein, comes this excellent compendium of signals that your workplace might be dysfunctional...I am stuck in Charlotte waiting for a connecting flight to Washington Dulles, and found this in my Twitter feed.
See this story about an incident at a developer conference. Briefly, after two male developers were heard loudly making off-color sexist jokes, a woman admonished them, then named-and-shamed them on Twitter. Result: an Internet firestorm, and within days one of the developers was fired from his employer, and the woman was fired from her employer.
I have no firm views about the rights and wrongs of this situation, except that I believe that both employers behaved like a collection of weaselly cowards, showing no leadership whatsoever. I can, however, based on a reading of some of the comments across the internets, safely conclude that there are a lot of people out there with a very mean-spirited worldview and no damn clue about how to treat other human beings properly. There also seem to be a lot of people out there who are proving the wisdom of the old saying that Empty Vessels Make The Most Noise.
This article does a very good job of re-working a concept from economics to apply to social media. It has caused me to think about where I am spending my effort in social media, and has also made me wonder whether there is a third level beyond "Stock", which is more durable artifacts (like books, podcasts, music, artworks etc.).
For my wife, who runs a glass business, the split would look like this:
For myself, it is slightly more complicated:
Descended from Doublespeak, CorporateSpeak is a subject that I have learned to love, mainly for the endless amusement that it offers when the latest euphemism-ridden email makes its way down the corporate food chain. I used to think that I would parody the communication style in response, but it would be way too easy - as a colleague of mine pointed out last week, it is no challenge whatsoever.
Daniel Pink has written about this subject recently in the Daily Telegraph. I also found this blog posting on the subject at 37Signals.
CorporateSpeak is one of the key reasons why many senior leaders in large corporations have limited credibility. Its use reinforces suspicion that the leaders live in a bubble, a parallel universe where plain language has been discarded, replaced by a bizarre language that obfuscates, de-personalizes all decisions and diffuses accountability. The net result is that most readers of CorporateSpeak communications briefly scan the communication, either laugh out loud or shake their heads, and promptly consign it to the trash bin. Whatever objective lies behind the communication remains unfulfilled. Of course, that assumes that the objective was to actually say something useful. The cynic in me wonders if the underlying objective is indeed to say nothing, while justifying the existence of the "stone tablet" style of communication.
This article eloquently explains why leaders can command respect by their actions and values, but demanding respect is likely to get them nowhere fast...
I have been seeing a small-picture example of this at my current employer, where at least two Vice Presidents who run blogs have been having their Admins. moderate comments in order to make sure that they are "respectful" and "constructive". The challenge with this is that any pointed comments get screened out (and, with the senior leadership remuneration off the charts while layoffs continue at the sharp end, there were some people who were inclined to draw attention to this reality gap).
The demand for "respect" is totally at odds with social media precepts, where the initiator of a conversation doesn't get to control it, at least not if the idea is to have a conversation. Sure, it is their blog so they could argue that they can do what they like. However, just because you can do something does not mean that you should. Especially not in a social media landscape.
My conclusion is that the VPs in question have not worked out how to engage in a dialogue in any social media sense. They want to control the conversations, and have limited interest in any comments that they perceive as negative or at odds with their worldview. The result of their approach and attitude is that their blog traffic has dropped over the last 18 months as they have driven away a number of commenters, including myself. While it is tempting to personalize their lack of willingness to move out of their comfort zone, there is a bigger issue here. If this is representative of the attitudes of senior leadership on a broader front, it has the potential to damage the corporation by only exposing leadership to people who merely reflect their own opinions back to them. Experience shows that many great innovators and creative thinkers are regarded as pains in the ass by many people that they come into contact with. Al Bernstein is on record as saying that there is often a very small difference between "gifted" and "having a bad attitude" for creative people in corporate situations. As Robert Sutton observes, corporations need to be hiring people who make them uncomfortable...Circling back to the respect angle...one of the worst managers I observed from a distance was a newly-promoted project manager whose mantra (he was fond of it, so he said it frequently) was "I would rather be respected than liked". His challenge was he was neither. His demands for obeisance and conformity fell on stony ground with his team, who saw him as a bully, and his team members fled for other jobs inside or outside of the corporation. Eventually his leader informed him that he either needed to change his approach or go ply his trade somewhere else, and he wised up and stopped hectoring and bullying his team. However, I concluded that his pervasive need for "respect" was merely code for his need to have everybody do what he said, a leadership style that generally only works in wartime, and then only for short periods of time.
Here is an anecdotal observation; in the last 3 years, all of the delivery groups that I have supported in my employer have seen a drop in delivery and support maturity.
The drop is (I believe) being enabled by a highly competitive market, where corporations are buying only on price.
First example: on a recent sales pursuit I was involved in, I had to sit and listen to the sales architect intoning the mantra "if that is your price point we will not be competitive" every time we presented a testing team model for inclusion in the deal. The consistent demands that we reduce our base cost led to us solutioning an unbalanced team, with few experienced resources and a lot of new and barely skilled resources. We won the deal, and began to transition work from the client to the offshore team. However, given that this was an offshore team, we also ended up with the predictable attrition issues appearing within a matter of months, with one of the experienced team members leaving and two others moving to better paid jobs. This was apart from the dubious quality of a lot of the work that the team was producing.
Second example: On a more recent delivery program, I soon discovered that several major roles for a delivery team of that size were totally missing. We had no Business Analysts, no Configuration Management team, no Requirements Management process (a colleague and I had to rapidly create one), and no Testing team, until myself and a colleague were parachuted in after the client had spent 2 months beating up the temporary Testing Manager (who must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time when that role was assigned to him). I phoned up a delivery manager on the program who I knew from a previous life, and told him that I could not see the roles in the team anywhere. His response was a long sigh, followed by "I know...", then he told me the sorry story of how the roles had been in the original delivery model, but had been removed prior to the signing of the contract with the client. Clearly the intent was to save money, but all it did was deflect essential work to other resources, who in some cases were not equipped to bridge the gap. For example, the use of technical team leads instead of Business Analysts did not work at all well when dealing with the client. Client Business Analysts would ask questions about the solution to the SME's who would reply with technically-focussed answers. I would then spectate as the two sides realized they were fluent, but in different languages, and a dance ensued as both sides attempted to reach a mutual understanding, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully. The delivery program in question morphed into a "death march" program marked by hideous over-work, failures in testing and QA due to missing fundamental processes, and continual delivery delays due to lack of agreement on requirements and schedules with the client. Eventually so many people became burned out that finding people who would just answer the phone became difficult. It was not a happy delivery.
I remarked to several people on that program that it looked and felt just like a 1980's era delivery. In the UK at that time I became wearily familiar with out of control projects where fundamentals were not being addressed, and as a result the projects seemed to become endless sinkholes of continually expanding timelines, costs and burnout. We are back in that era, if my recent experiences are representative of the delivery landscape, at least in the USA.
The more interesting question is whether delivery maturity will rise again as we leave the recession. The current fashion for offshoring just to save money in the short term is likely to remain a powerful driver for IT decision-making in the near future.
I see little prospect for wide improvements until corporations stop offshoring just to save money. That approach reminds me of the infamous client-server boom in the 1990's. Supposedly expensive dinosaur mainframes were going to be replaced by cheaper "snap-fit" small-server solutions. On paper, the cost savings looked impressive. That was, until mainframe costs fell dramatically, and the terrible truth dawned on I.T. departments that the new infrastructures were expensive and complex to build, manage and support, and the "snap fit" ideas didn't really work too well. Snap-fit is still not really here either.
An awful lot of work still takes place on those pesky "dinosaur" mainframes. In the meantime, I see a lot of delivery programs lurching from one crisis to another, caused by lack of proper delivery process modeling at the outset, optimistic timeframes, and a desire to keep costs down to remain competitive. In other words, we are building down to a price, not up to a quality level. With some of the defective staffing models I am seeing, I am not convinced that the teams could build to any quality level anyway - they have no effective Quality Measurement processes in place.
Robert Sutton, author of "The No Asshole Rule" (among other books), has an excellent article in the McKinsey Quarterly (free registration required) that talks about how good leaders can create a better climate in their corporations. The article appears to be an extract from his most recent book.
As a previous post explains, I am a night owl - I like to get up late, go to bed late, and I work best in the afternoon and early evening.
Accepting that this is a fundamental part of my DNA (and as this article in the New York Times explains, it is probably that this runs in families; my sister is also a night owl), I determined a while ago that rather than making myself miserable by trying and failing to address all of my weaknesses, I would instead focus on playing to my strengths. The NYT also has an amusing blog posting by a father who is a Night Owl, as he wrestles with the conflicts of dealing with small children who get up really really early...
Right now, I have some opportunity to play to the Night Owl part of my DNA, since my current client is headquartered in California, which is 2 hours behind Central Time, thus allowing me to commence work later in the morning. Murphys Law suggests that I will soon get a client working on EST, which will increase my stress and allow me to engage in a futile attempt at addressing one of my weaknesses...