Yearly Archive: 2019

A story from my first professional job search

In 1977 I decided to change careers, or more correctly I decided that after 18 months of working in a factory making screen printing inks, after trying and failing to land a job in Geology, it was time to swap a dead end job for a “proper job”, preferably one involving the continual deployment of intellect.
After consultations with a career counsellor, I applied for a job as a computer operator with a brewing company in London. I was advised that computing was “the next big thing”. Since I couldn’t even get in the door to get interviewed by any corporation looking to hire geologists, I decided that I had nothing to lose.
At an appointed time, I took part in a phone interview with a company recruiter.

I apparently passed the interview, because I was then summoned to an interview in London with the data centre manager for the brewing company.
Respendent in a newly-purchased suit that did not really fit me properly (having high shoulder points, a short torso and long legs, one of my mistakes that Iwould rectify later in his life as I actually learned something about clothing deportment), bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I set off for London to attend the interview.
Underestimating journey times, he arrived 20 minutes late. Black mark. 
The interview with the data centre manager was going well, or so I thought. Then the interviewer set a trap.
“Do you consider yourself to be well-organized?” he asked. 
“Yes”, I replied blithely.
“Then why were you 20 minutes late for this interview?” He ostentatiously settled back in his seat and stared across the table at me.
I considered my options. One of the options was to bullshit, but my primitive DNA did not want to embrace it.
“I underestimated the journey time to this location” I said. “I learned something”.
The data centre manager smiled slightly. He nodded.

Then the line of questioning went in a different direction.
The following week, I received a phone call from the recruiter.
“The company does not want to hire you as a computer operator” he began. 
Uh oh, I thought, the lateness to the interview has doomed me.
“They do however want to hire you as a computer programmer”. 

The job was in a different location, and at a higher salary.
In due course, I arrived in London and took up the job as a programmer. A few months later, I actually met the data centre manager who had interviewed me. In a hallway conversation with him, he told me that he did not hold the lateness against me, because I had not attempted to bullshit my way out of the predicament. (They had also decided that I would be a better fit for the programmer job).

Life Lessons
1. Never bullshit. It catches up with you…sooner (probably) or later
2. You may not get the job you originally applied for. You might get a different job instead. You might even get a better job. 


Two great confusions in IT delivery

In my lengthy time in IT solution delivery, I consistently see two great confusions that, on many delivery and support teams, impede, prevent and degrade delivery quality.

The two confusions are a result of the inability of many people to conceptualize and abstract solution spaces.

  1. Process vs. Procedures

I consistently get asked to review or revise process documentation. When I examine the documentation, it rapidly becomes apparent that the documentation spends almost all of its time defining HOW an activity is performed, not WHAT activity is performed. In addition, the documentation does not specify any other essential activity that I would expect to find in a process definition such as Pre and Post-conditions, Inputs and Outputs etc.

Normally, when I point out that the document is really a procedure document, I am greeted with one or a combination of 2 responses:

  • The document is a process document, and what am I talking about (Confusion of process with procedure)
  • Why write a process document anyway? People just need to be told what to do (I want to cut corners)
2. Requirements vs. Design

I am often given documents that purport to be Requirements Definition documents, only to rapidly find that the document contains references to UI design, report design, operational procedures etc.

None of those artifacts and content items are anything to do with Requirements. They are the implementation of the requirements. When I try to explain this, the most common response I get is “that is what the client wants”. It then becomes apparent that, in most cases, the delivery team are order takers for the client, so if the client says “I want you to create a document that supposedly covers everything we need to know”, they obediently create a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none document that is not only difficult to read, but also fails to properly elicit Requirements, jumping straight into solution design.

So What Are the Causes?

In both of the above scenarios, there are two underlying drivers for the mindset that led to the creation of mutant many-headed documents that are not what they purport to be.

  1. Inability to conceptualize and abstract

This is a classic blind spot. Like critical thinking, abstraction and conceptualization are “soft” skills that are often overlooked, in the same way that people management skills are often overlooked when promoting technical contributors to leadership roles. They are not easy to teach, and then it takes time for people to develop and hone them. (DISCLOSURE – I learned on the job as i became a business analyst).

2. Impatience to get to “working code”

I once became involved in a rather spiky dispute with a Project Manager on a new development project. From the very beginning of the project, it was clear that the PM was not a fan of Analysis at all. He was constantly pushing me to end Analysis and move to Design. When I moved to Design, he was pushing me to move to coding. In the process he engaged in some rather juvenile sniping, including quips like “you clearly don’t want to actually do any work on this project”.

The real underlying issue, as I soon realized, was that he saw the only useful deliverable of the project as code that appears to work. Nothing else mattered a damn as far as he was concerned. I never determined whether this was a result of his client stakeholders having the view that code was all that matters, since he never let me spend enough time with the client to form a view. He was definitely a controller.

This viewpoint, I have realized, is very common in a lot of IT delivery contexts. “Screw Analysis and Design, let’s just code” or “they’re paying for code, not documents” are common attitudes, made worse by the move to Agile and DevOps, which appears to many IT teams to eliminate All The Upfront Shit that they hate. Like requirements elicitation, analysis and planning. Many coders hate anything that gets in the way of coding.

The mindset of “let’s just code” may make developers happy, but it ensures that the ceiling on delivery quality is limited, since failure to understand the scope and depth of solution domains is precisely the sort of failure that causes projects to go way beyond budget and timescale, as the terrible truth dawns “shit, this is much more complicated than we thought”.

So What Do We Do?

Training in abstraction and conceptualization is not common, especially in the business analysis domain, which is where Requirements elicitation resides in a lot of sequential development organizations. Business Analysts are often selected on the basis that they are solution SMEs, not necessarily based on actual analysis skills. Process vs. Procedure is a fundamental conceptual lens that ought to be taught also. However, it also falls into the same blind spot as Requirements vs. Design, for the same reasons.

Training in these skills forms part of a process-focussed delivery organization, which values WHAT is done as much as HOW it is done. This is not common, in an era where the first response to cost-cutting demands is often the axing of process and QA teams, on the grounds that the projects can do all of the work. This usually leads to a long slow deterioration in delivery quality, which then requires at least as much time to repair.

Get it right upfront, by valuing processes and the skill of conceptualization, and you will be rewarded in the medium-term. You will also be able to impress the client. Clients tend to respond to IT vendors who have clearly done their analysis homework, as long as it is well-presented.


What Fernando Alonso just told us about leadership

Today, Fernando Alonso failed to qualify (for sure) at the Indianapolis 500. He finished in 31st place after trying no fewer than 4 times to post a 4-lap qualifying time fast enough to make him one of the top 30 qualifiers, which would have given him a grid place for the race. By finishing 31st, he has to come back tomorrow (Sunday) or Monday (depending on weather) to see if he can win one of the remaining 3 grid places. There are 6 drivers trying to win the 3 places, so on paper he has a 50% chance.

Unsurprisingly, Fernando was not exactly thrilled with his day at the office. In 2017, driving an additional car being run by Andretti Autosport, he qualified well, and even led the race before eventually retiring with engine failure (he was using a Honda engine, of which more later). This year, he is running with a brand new McLaren indycar team. The only running he and the team had done with the car was 1 test day at Texas Motor Speedway. McLaren has a technical alliance with Carlin Motorsport, which is fielding 3 cars at this year’s race. Coincidentally (but maybe not), two of Carlin’s drivers, Max Chilton and Patricio O’Ward, are also in the 6 car shootout, having failed to qualify fast enough today.

Fernando Alonso is, by common consent, one of the great drivers of the modern era. He won two Formula One world championships, and could easily have won more…if he had made better decisions.

Which brings us to today. After the qualifying session had ended, the media wanted to know what Alonso thought of the day’s events.

Well, unsurprisingly, Fernando was not exactly thrilled. No top-flight race driver likes to be struggling to merely get his car into the Indianapolis 500. However, the way that he chose to express his thoughts provides several telling leadership lessons. Here is the quote from him:

“That didn’t help,” Alonso said of the puncture after his first qualifying run, “but, obviously, our performance has been quite bad all week. Quite poor.”
When asked how disappointing it has been to that points, Alonso said, “It is disappointing but I guess it’s more a question for McLaren.”
Alonso added that his team was “not ready for the challenge.”
“We’ve been slow,” he said. “You see (Juncos Racing) crashing yesterday and being ready at 6 (a.m.). That’s impressive. For us, we’ve been a little bit slow slow on everything.”

Firstly and most obviously; Fernando Alonso violated a fundamental rule of leadership: Never throw your team under the bus in a public forum.

The rule should be: praise in public, chastise in private.

Secondly, Fernando was speaking the truth. He crashed his primary car in practice early on Wednesday afternoon. The team had run few laps on Tuesday due to a recurrence of electrical issues that had cut a previous Rookie Orientation run short. The car was badly damaged, but the chassis was apparently re-usable. McLaren, a well-funded team, had a spare car, or more correctly, it said it had a spare car. However, it later emerged that the spare car was not built up and ready to roll. It was in fact a spare chassis with a pile of parts in the Carlin workshop. So Mclaren had to make a decision; either rebuild the primary car, or build up the spare chassis. They decided to build up the spare chassis.

However, there was no Mclaren car ready to run on Thursday morning, as might have been expected. In fact there was no car available for Fernando to drive all day Thursday When he should have been out on track accumulating laps, circuit and car set-up knowledge, he was sitting on the pit wall. As a result, Mclaren entered “Fast Friday” (where the turbo boost is turned up and lap speeds increase by 2 mph) with very little accumulated track time.

Fernando’s comment about Juncos Racing was on the money. Juncos is a team without a sponsor, running, money-wise, on fumes. They crashed their primary car on Friday, and many observers thought that was the end of their participation, especially since the chassis was damaged. However, Juncos pulled their road course car out of storage, and, with some help from other teams who loaned them spares, had the car ready to roll out of the garage, in superspeedway specification, by 06.00 on Saturday. When Fernando Alonso said his team was “not ready”, he was speaking a truth. Despite an alliance with Carlin Motorsports which was supposed to pool data on car set-up and engineering support, McLaren has not looked agile in track operations, nor has the car looked quick enough on track. The loss of track time on Tuesday and Wednesday was a major issue. When you are struggling to find speed on a high-speed oval, you need time to try different set-ups, and run lots of laps to determine what works. Changing weather conditions also make it essential to run all day to ensure that when qualifying and race day come along, you have a set-up for the car that works. Despite pooling data with Carlin, Mclaren and Carlin collectively are not able to make their cars fast enough. Fernando Alonso was, in his wording, being upfront, blunt and candid. He was not engaging in euphemism or personal excoriations. He was pointing out organizational failures. This was actually good leadership – in what should have been a private forum.

Now this is not a new situation for a team at Indianapolis. In 1995, Team Penske failed to qualify any cars, despite winning the race the previous year. Their final hours of qualifying actually looked more desperate than Mclaren’s, as the team showed up with unpainted cars borrowed from other teams in a desperate attempt to qualify their drivers, then waved off one qualifying run that might have qualified one car, before finally running out of time. The team looked totally lost. Indianapolis can reduce teams of smart people to headbanging impotence in hours.

So, here we have a frustrated driver whose team is not in command of the situation, being forced to hang it out (as in, drive a poorly-sorted car that could leave the track at any moment) four times in order to sort-of (but not quite) qualify. So, yes, he was correct in his observations. But, he did a Fernando Alonso thing, something he has done in the past, by publicly slamming his team.

Thirdly, those of us who have followed Fernando Alonso nodded with that “deja vu” nod. Because, you see, has a habit of publicly chastising his employers and component suppliers. Alonso is using Chevrolet engines this year at Indianapolis. He used Honda engines in 2017, when his formula 1 team (McLaren) was using Honda engines. Alonso, in a race while driving for Mclaren in formula 1, once likened his Honda Formula1 engine to the engine in a GP2 car. This was said loudly and publicly over the radio to his team. Engine suppliers, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on supplying engines to a team, do have a valid expectation that their employees will not make such comments in public. Especially a Japanese corporation. Had Fernando Alonso been more diplomatic in his comments about Honda, he might have been able to use Honda engines at this year’s race, and McLaren might have been partnering with Andretti Autosport again, who do know how to be quick around Indianapolis. There are two engine suppliers in IndyCar, but Alonso’s past public comments probably ensured he only had one choice.

Public excoriations like that just issued by Fernando Alonso are difficult for any organization to handle. While it is probable that Mclaren is already aware that their performance has been inadequate (if not, they have an even bigger issue called Denial), these sorts of outbursts are unlikely to positively motivate team members who are probably already working under a lot of pressure.

We wait to see if tomorrow allows Mclaren to find more speed in the car. If they can find 2 mph, then Alonso will probably qualify, and will be all smiles. However, behind the scenes, the issues will linger. Fernando Alonso had his original Mclaren-Mercedes contract terminated in 2007 after a dispute with team management, and left Ferrari in 2014 after another dispute over a contract extension. So we are seeing a recurrence of a pattern of behavior that helps to explain why such a talented and competitive driver only won two Formula 1 championships. The talent, drive and command are all there. The ability to consistently follow fundamental leadership principles is lacking.

UPDATE – Alonso did not qualify on Bump Day. He was, as he probably feared, bumped from the race by Juncos Racing, with the team failing to find any more speed in the car.

UPDATE 2 – McLaren apparently tried to explore buying their way back into the race by buying another team’s qualified entry (in the Indianapolis 500, it is the car that qualifies, not the driver). However, nothing came of it.

UPDATE3 – Bob Fearnley, the team manager for the McLaren effort, has left the team.


Today’s quickies – April Fools’ day

Initial Confession: I have no smartass April Fool to spring upon you.

  1. The wonderful world of signalling loyalty

When Barack Obama was POTUS, i had to read all manner of subtle (and sometimes decidedly non-subtle) allegations against him.
One of the more insidious dog-whistle type allegations was that he had “divided loyalties”. This was, of course, a coded language way of saying “he is not one of us”. One Of Us, in turn, was whatever judgmental shade you cared to throw on his character, be it that he was possibly a Muslim, or that he was The Wrong Color, or even that he wore a tan suit. Pick the symbol.

Shane Morris over at Twitter has been looking out at the US world, and..Lordy Lordy..what did he notice way back in 2017?

The thing about NASCAR is they always respect the flag.— Shane Morris (@IamShaneMorris) September 26, 2017

It seems that a lot of folks out there, who seem to like flag-waving A LOT, are displaying the battle flag of a defeated secessionist army.

Hmmm. Sure looks like divided loyalties to me.

2. The UK Electoral Commission is bullshitting the public

The UK Electoral Commission just issued a report about infractions committed by Leave supporting organizations. This thread from Jolyon Maugham neatly dissects the mind-boggling bullshit level of the report. Essentially, the Electoral Commission is saying that even if Vote Leave has committed further infractions, it does not intend to investigate them. This is supine twaddle.


Things people tell me – 1

Many years ago, when I was on one of my periodic rants about the general level of economic and political literacy in electorates, the person I was talking to remarked “you don’t seem to think much of the intelligence of electorates do you?”

He was dismayed when I cheerfully said “No I don’t”.

More recently, my sister, exasperated that I thought the decision by the UK electorate to Leave the EU was one of the stupidest decisions ever made by an electorate, said to me “so are you saying that all the Leave voters were wrong?” She was further dismayed when I said Yes.

Both of those responses are examples (if any were needed ) that my chances of being elected to political office in any current Western political system are somewhere between zero and none.

Yes, I am not impressed by the decision-making capabilities of electorates. They have shown for a long long time that they are quite capable of making bad decisions, both for their own interests, and those of the country they live in, if they are convinced by a combination of media blitzing, bullshit masquerading as fact, and men and women in sharp suits talking in resonant well-modulated voices.

There is some fundamental math to back up my cynicism. Starting with the reality that 50% of the population, by definition, is of below-average intelligence.

Then there is everyday evidence. Like the evidence in this thread about the voters in Missouri.

Despite deteriorating metrics of economic and medical health, electors are electing the same people over and over again.

Now, before people accuse me of “picking on the heartland” or some such, let me point out that I am not that much more impressed by voters in other states. California, for example, voted for the infamous Proposition 13 in the 1970s, which has led to endemic property tax distortions in the state. Effectively, many electors voted themselves a perpetual property tax break. The continual move towards deciding major strategy directions in governance by voter propositions has led to a situation in California where the Governor of the state is actually not in control of most of the state budget. Around 1/3 of it is mandated by propositions, 1/3 is controlled by Federal mandates, and the remaining 1/3 is controlled by the legislatures. This, of course, creates the paradox where the legislators have less and less power to effect change, which in turn pisses off the voters, who vote for yet more Propositions, which in turn restrict what politicians can do…you can see where that is headed. It is actually direct democracy by stealth, and I am not a fan of direct democracy, especially after watching the unhinged way in which many Americans behaved and talked after 9/11. An electorate in charge of the political process at that point in time would probably have nuked the 4th amendment, and destroyed the 1st and 5th Amendments. (We got the PATRIOT Act instead, which is bad, but not THAT bad).

The tendency of electors to vote against their own best interests is one of the paradoxes of modern Western democracy. However, when you analyze it through the lens of human psychology, the underlying reasoning becomes more apparent. Most of the people voting non-sensibly are frightened by something. Fear is a great motivator, but not necessarily for good decisions or actions. (Neither is anger, another voting motivator).

The most sensible explanation I ever read about voting patterns in poor states started by pointing out that the people at the bottom, such as the long-term unemployed and people on welfare, seldom vote. They are already alienated from the political system. The trope peddled by the GOP that the Democratic Party is supported by the non-working spongers (or skivers as they call them in the UK) is total bullshit. But it sure does sound good to the people on the next rung up the ladder, who are insecure and worried that they will fall down into that zone. Those frightened people vote in large numbers.

In an ideal world, voters would vote in a visionary fashion not based on reflexive responses to fear or self-interest. Alas, I now understand that this is unlikely in the current political climate. We will see a lot more Missouri-type trainwrecks unfold in the next few years.

Healthprose pharmacy reviews