With a number of US states (including my own state of Texas) starting to re-open, we are at what will probably be seen, looking back, at a point of inflection.
The states opening up are desperate to re-start many economic activities that almost ceased during initial lockdown, since many of the activities most affected are ones that employ a LOT of people.
The fundamental issue, which the political leaders, in their usual fashion, have avoided discussing where possible, is that increasing activities relying on personal interaction is bound to lead to an increase in Covid contagion, unless a significant percentage of the population has already been infected by the virus. My blunt question would be whether they have actually performed any mathematical analysis about how many extra deaths they are prepared to accept. That would be regarded as a taboo subjects, but that really is one fundamental question.
The other fundamental question is: how far down the contagion path is the region of the USA that a governor controls?
The problem is that nobody knows the general level of infection in any local population anywhere in the USA. This is because testing has been a severely constrained resource, only used for individuals who are regarded as highly essential or important, or people who are suspected of having contracted Covid-19. So the population for testing, instead of being random, is highly pre-selected, making it useless for any statistically valid estimation of overall infection rates.
Absent useful information on overall infection rates, opening up high-social interactions within the economy is an uninformed gamble, not a sensible, measured decision. Everybody needs to realize this.
We will know by the end of next week whether the decision in Texas was a wise one.
Personally, I would rather be accused of being cautious rather than excoriated after the fact for being reckless.
I underwent an epiphany a few years ago about how to respond to a question about what you and your organization can do to meet a request.
Many many times, you will be asked “Can you do/deliver X?” when “X” represents a solution or capability which you either do not possess, or which you possess, but incompletely or in a different form.
An instinctively honest person will often react to that sort of a question by saying to themselves “hmmm, we do not really do or deliver X”, but maybe we could if we can figure out how to”. So then they will formulate an answer that goes like this:
“No, but <insert explanation of what we can do here>”
This is, in truth and semantic terms, a perfectly correct answer.
The problem is that the people listening to the answer on the other side of the table are going to hear the big bad word NO first.
One thing we know about communications, is that if a falsehood is uttered, and then subsequently corrected by the person who uttered the falsehood, many people will not even notice that the falsehood was corrected. They may see it, or hear about it, but they tend to remember the original falsehood long after it has been corrected or debunked. This is the origin of the famous quote “a lie can be half way around the world while the truth is still putting its pants on”. While the origin of the quote is in dispute, the truth of the quote is fairly well-known. As a species, we are vulnerable to “first thing heard on a topic” preferential memory.
So, returning to our person who was asked “can you do X?” and who replied honestly and truthfully “No, but we can do <something else that they hope will be equivalent to X”. There is a good chance that the people on the other side of the table heard the response as “NO…” and then tuned out all or part of the rest of the response.
There is one situation that modifies this dynamic, where the question is a bad-faith question i.e. one designed to elicit the answer No. I have been in meetings where questions like this were asked, and we knew in advance that the question was a rhetorical trap, laid in the certain knowledge that we would have to respond No. A scenario like this probably requires advance preparation to determine how the entire team on your side should respond. Sometimes the appropriate response is to refuse to even engage on the question, on the grounds that it is a transparent rhetorical bad-faith tactic. I have seen leaders respond “I am not answering that question because you and I know this is BS” in an attempt to put the other team on the defensive. Other responses may be required.
Leaving bad-faith rhetorical traps out of the discussion…here is what people need to do instead of “No…but…”.
The answer formulation needs to be re-sequenced to something like this:
“<restatement of understanding of question>+ <statement of your current capability> + <statement of suggested solution that you can deliver or statement of willingness to explore a deliverable solution>”
Restating the understanding of the question has no downside. Sometimes the statement by the questioner was poorly or incorrectly formulated (I have seen this from leaders at all levels), and re-stating it results in a qualification or change. Best case, the people on the other side of the table will nod vigorously “Yes”, and you improved your credibility by showing that you understand what they are requesting.
Stating your capability and then explaining how you think you can meet the requirement shows you are answering in constructive good faith to meet the requirement.
And…the word NO is no longer present in your response. The positive psychological impact of the absence of No cannot be over-estimated.
NOTE – This is especially true for cultures where No is a very bad word, for social standing reasons.
Bill pulls the ring off another Miller Lite and pours it into his sole remaining beer glass.
Next to him, mutt stirs, looks at him with one eye open, then settles back down again.
Bill is bored. He also weights 15 pounds more than he did 2 months ago. He is pissed off because the baseball season is not starting, so he cannot watch the Pirates. His parents were born in Pittsburgh, and family loyalty, you know how that is.
Bill is also fed up, because the bar is closed. Those damn social distancing rules. Who the hell does that stupid damn governor think he is anyway? Screwing over honest working people like himself to allow all of those suburban folk to behave like scared wimps. Did the United States win World War I and World War II after helping all of those wimp countries, so that those people can cower in their expensive houses?
Bill takes a big gulp of his beer. As he does so, his back speaks to him once more, and not in a good way. Bill was told over a year ago that he had herniated disks in his lumbar spine once again. Haha, your spine is made of wood now, said barman Dave. More like a set of carving knives, said Bill. Some days getting up from this sofa is a struggle. This is one of those days.
Bill spoke to his son last month. It was an odd conversation. His son and his daughter in law are hiding out in New York, unable to go out because of the damn virus. Bill doesn’t understand all of those big city folk. New York was supposed to be all brave and resilient (that’s the word that barman Dave uses when he is being snarky about somebody for being a wimp). Now they are all either hiding indoors or supposedly dying like flies.
Something does not add up. This is not America. This country is supposed to be great. Those New Yorkers are clearly wimps. Tucker said so. Bill remembers that his son was not pleased when he told him he intended to go shopping without a mask. Something about him catching Coronavirus, or as barman Dave calls it, Chinese Flu. Dave thinks it is an invention of the Democrats working with the Chinese, and Bill agrees. It was the usual conversation with his son, who seems to have gone totally liberal.
Bill idly flips to another news channel. More guff about Covid this Covid that. Everybody seems scared of this. He rang barman Dave the other day to ask when the bar was re-opening, and was amazed when Dave said “possibly never”. Apparently the owner is out of state, because his mother is in the hospital with Covid.
Bill wants to be in the bar now, instead of here. This is no fun. At the bar he can shoot the breeze, talk with Dave, who seems to be able to sum up the people who are not patriots with a single word or short sentence. Bill thinks Dave should run for political office. We need more plain-talking folks like Dave and Donald Trump.
Bill doesn’t understand what has happened to Donald. He does seem to be talking in circles a lot these days. But those silly women asking him damn-fool questions. Why don’t those bitches just shut the fuck up and go visit a kitchen, or something. Donald is clearly upset by the Chinese Flu. He is showing he cares about us. They should give him a break and back off. Sheesh.
Bill moves to get up to go get another beer. His knee says “Hello Bill, I am still here and I think you need to know that”. Bill curses under his breath as his knee objects to the walk. This damn body is falling to pieces. Some days he can barely move. He hobbles to the kitchen with mutt following. Bill looks down at mutt. Mutt is everything a dog should be. Faithful, obedient, knows his place, and barks up a storm whenever strangers approach the house. Mutt looks out for others. What happened to that? All Bill was hearing at the bar before it closed was the story about the developers now building townhouses on the site of the furniture factory. Great. More of those damn yuppies with their Priuses and cats. Goddam it. Cats. Horrible creatures. You can’t get them to do anything. Use ’em for target practice. That’s what Bill and his buddies used to do in high school.
Bill opens the fridge door. Hmm. Not much there apart from the beer. He will have to go shop tomorrow. The only good thing is that he was able to put gas in the car for almost no money last week. The bad thing is that everybody in the supermarket will look like they are about to go rob a bank. Those damn masks.
Bill takes another can of Miller and walks back into the living room. Just in time. Sean is on talking about disloyal Democrats. Geez, those guys are scum. Still taking their orders from that bitch Hillary and Hussein Obama. It is time for a clear-out. They released a lot of prisoners from jails. Time to put the real criminals away.
Bill’s son was talking about how they cannot visit Europe this year. Based on what he is seeing, who would want to visit Europe anyway. Bill does not understand why people want to leave the United States. The rest of the world definitely is a shithole. Especially China. Those guys are trying to screw us over. Cheap goods, now this damn virus. Donald should just nuke them. Time for a clean-out.
Bill tries to get comfortable on the sofa, but his back keeps talking to him. Mutt curls up next to him.
Bill puts his hand on mutt’s back. Warm, soft, fluffy. Bill remembers the time when life was good, when the furniture factory paid good money, before he wrecked his back, when his wife was still being nice to him. What happened to all of that?
He takes another big gulp.
This is the rate of increase graph for Covid-19 cases for Dallas County. As you can see, the rate of increase has plateaued in the last 4 days at around 250 new cases a day.
I expect this rate to jump at the end of this week or the beginning of next week as the effect of the loosening of lockdown and stay-at-home works its way through into infection rates. The only way that we will not have a steep increase will be if a significant percentage of the population is already infected with Covid-19. This is possible, but since testing is confined to people suspected of having the virus, and no generalized testing of the population is being conducted, no information exists to determine the current general level of infection.
Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts about what will happen in the wider world.
Any business model that relies on packing people into a confined space will either adapt to packing in fewer people, or the business will not survive. This means that any and all businesses relying on human contact for sales will, in order to survive, have to raise prices significantly. This will ripple through the economy in nearly all countries. Food supplies, eating out and other social interaction events, travel and vacations will all substantially increase in price.
Doomed Business Sectors
1. Commercial real estate
Apart from when I am on the road doing consulting with clients, I work from home, and I have done so since 2007. My wife’s employer has moved all of their employees to home working in Dallas since Covid-19 showed up. That is 500 people no longer commuting to work in Farmers Branch, most of whom will not need office space in the future. This is happening all over the business world. Many service industries that do not require human contact for the delivery of services do not need to have everybody working in the same physical space. The idea of co-locating people is a historical relic from before telecommunications.
I expect massive drops in the value of commercial real estate over the next 2-5 years, with associated bankruptcies and the calling in of bulldozers to eliminate old buildings. Many business districts will shrink in size.
2. Large commercial jet manufacturers
Boeing and Airbus, in their current form, are doomed. They will need to adapt current and future designs to include better air quality management (including micro-particle scrubbing) and re-configure seating to allow for physical separation. Right now, any pending orders for new jets are highly likely to be cancelled. There are no airlines with the money to buy new planes. It would not surprise me if they are already looking at Ultra-Wide-Body design changes. The move in recent decades has been away from wide-bodies (747, A380) back to narrower-body planes. Airlines (those that survive) may want wider planes so that they can impose wider separation between passengers. It would not surprise me, for example, to see a radically reconfigured A380 with only 200-250 seats total.
3. Cruise Line companies (except the eco-nichers)
Despite the trumpeting of cruise lines about late Summer bookings, their business model has just been holed below the waterline. A lot of smarter people are going to regard the idea of sharing a virus incubator with 3500 other people as…not smart. Your $10k cruise to the Galapagos Islands on a 50-cabin luxury liner will still be available, but the $599 dash down to Cancun for a week on Leviathan Of The Seas? Not likely to be available any more.
I expect many current cruise ships to be laid up by the beginning of 2021, and scrapped by 2025. The cruise lines, like the airlines, will need to retrofit their vessels to implement the concept of social distancing. That will, at the very least, reduce the number of passengers, and will increase cruise costs substantially.
4. Sports bars
Many city restaurants and conventional bars have been transformed into sports bars, because people tend to drink more standing up, and alcohol sales are more profitable compared to food sales. Those venues are going to rapidly disappear. They can clearly be seen as proximity incubators.
5. Major sports and entertainment stadiums (especially NFL)
Any large-capacity venue of this type has a major challenge. The worst impacted will be the NFL, where the economic case for a permanent stadium for a team guaranteed less than 10 home games a year has always been tenuous. The leap-frogging of stadiums (bigger and better) has always been driven by owner vanity rather than proven practical need. Baseball ballparks do at least have a significant number of home games a season. The NFL…nope. Most of the venues have other facilities to try and make them economic. Those other facilities such as conferencing and concerts are going to be doomed (see 1 above).
Concert venues are most likely doomed. Those arena rock stars are going to have to find other sources of income in the next 1-2 years. Major venue owners have to pray that the pandemic fizzles out before they have to close, unless they can figure out how to go drive-through (see below).
Impacted Business Sectors
Any venue relying for its business model on packing people in close proximity for lenghty periods of time either adapts or will not survive. A lot of smaller restaurants are going to disappear. The economics of restaurants in most countries have always been marginal.
The move to a two-tier travel world (see below) is going to reduce the size of the tourist sector in many countries.
Boomed Business Sectors
- Aircraft scrapping and recycling
Many airlines are going out of business, and we can expect major reductions in routes, especially internationally. Companies that recycle old airliners are going to enjoy a boom.
2. Drive-in cinemas
Suddenly, the idea of driving into a location in your car and watching a movie sealed in your car or, at the very least, physically distanced from others, looks rather smart.
3. Home delivery services
For people who can afford it, having items delivered instead of engaging in superfluous human contact will look very attractive.
4. Immunization registries
Any IT corporation selling an Immunization registry product is going to…become very busy. I expect immunization records to become an essential document in the pandemic era. We will all need an immunization record, and if we do not have one, our movements will be restricted. This may apply inside and outside of the USA.
Two tier global travel
There is evidence that countries who regard themselves as having successfully managed Covid-19 contagion are already forming alliances with other countries. This is rapidly going to create a two-tier travel world. The Tier 1 countries will allow residents from other Tier 1 countries to enter with normal travel documents. Any traveler from a Tier 2 country who arrives will either be rejected and told to go elsewhere, or will be admitted only under strict quarantine rules (usually a 14 day lockdown). The same conditions will apply in reverse. Travelers from Tier 1 to Tier 2 countries will be admitted, but when they return to their country of origin, they will probably be forced into quarantine, which means that unless they work from home, foreign travel will become logistically impossible for many.
(NOTE: This will eliminate a lot of tourism).
Right now, the USA and the UK would be Tier 2 countries. The majority of European countries, with the exception of Sweden, are likely to be Tier 1. Most Eastern countries are comfortably Tier 1.
Note that the Tier classifications of countries could change. Countries that relax lockdown too soon and too much may suddenly find themselves hit by a second wave of virus contagion, and if the virus mutates sufficiently to eliminate all prior human immunity, the entire contagion cycle could begin all over again.
Karen Sehlke was a married woman living in Harris County, Texas, most of which is part of the Greater Houston city area.
She entered the news in early April 2020. A Facebook post supposedly posted by her, where she ranted against the stay-at-home rules, and made comments dismissive of Covid, was posted on the wider internet by people essentially saying “Gee, look at this wackadoodle”. The posting soon became a bit of an internet pile-on, as numerous internet news outlets re-posted all or part of the story, with sometimes blunt commentary.
The reason was obvious. In the last week of March, friends of Sehlke had posted that she was sick and had been admitted to hospital. Further postings and commentary seemed to suggest that she had been diagnosed with Covid-19.
On April 2nd, announcements appeared on Facebook that Karen Sehlke had passed away. Initial announcements seemed to suggest that she had died of complications caused by Covid-19.
A GoFundMe appeal was launched by one of her friends, ostensibly to pay expenses associated with her death and to help her family. The fund swiftly collected nearly $36,000 dollars in donations, at which point it was closed.
Needless to say, the news that a person who had ranted dismissively about Covid-19 had apparently died of the virus ignited a firestorm of commentary, ranging across the spectrum from sadness, through schadenfreude, to smugness, and into the spectrum of crowing “the sniveling hypocrite deserved it”. In other words, a lot of people came out to comment.
However, the question soon began to be asked; was the original posting by Karen Sehlke actually a real artifact on the internet, or had it been invented by mischief-makers? In other words, was there a post hoc effort under way to create a nice story about a hypocritical person being horrifically terminated by the very virus that they had sarcistically minimized? A modern morality tale that could be used for months as a “Har Har Har, that’s what happens to stupid people” teaching aid?
The question was being asked by fact-checking websites on the internet. It was also asked of me by a commenter at NextDoor when I posted the story from a social media platform. He was an ex-journalist, and pointed out that not everything on the internet is correct, factual or well-researched. He seemed somewhat skeptical of the veracity of the story.
So, in the interests, not of defending my posting, but ensuring its veracity, I set to work to try to find out.
My efforts led me down a couple of blind alleys, and down the path of researching a more cynical hypothesis.
Looking at the possibilities, it seemed there were quite a few. In the interests of not converting this into a novel, here are the main ones:
- Karen Sehlke did post the comments attributed to her, and she contracted Covid-19 and died of the virus in the first week of April 2020.
- Karen Sehlke never posted the comments attributed to her, but she did die of Covid-19 in the first week of April 2020.
- Karen Sehlke died in the first week of April 2020, but died from another disease or problem, not Covid-19.
- Karen Sehlke did not die, was still alive, and the entire story was a heist to gain money by faking a death and running a GoFundMe campaign on the back of it.
- Karen Sehlke was not a real person, and the rest of (4).
Yes, I know. (4) seems overtly cynical. But there are plenty of instances of GoFundMe campaigns that ranged from misleading to deceitful. So I thought I owed it to myself to look at whether that was a possibility.
As for (5), well, when cats run Facebook and Twitter and Instagram accounts, and people routinely operate under false IDs all over the internet, it has to be considered.
So, I began looking into the possible scenarios. Let’s go in reverse.
Q5. Is/was Karen Sehlke a real person?
The answer appears to be Yes. Apart from her Facebook page, which was a fairly typical “Texas married suburban woman with children” page, she also has a LinkedIn profile here. The picture on the profile is a match for images from her Facebook page, and the rest of the profile information appears to match her name, age, location and occupation.
Q4. Did a Karen Sehlke die in early April in the Houston area?
This is the question to which I was unsure of the answer for a lengthy period of time. There can be a lag of up to a week or more before a death notice appears in the local media in Texas. Most commonly, a funeral home posts an obituary online on their website. If the person is a well-known community figure, local media may precede that with the news of the person’s death and a written obituary.
I monitored the local funeral home websites in and around Houston to see if a death notice appeared. It took nearly 2 weeks, but finally this death notice appeared. Yes, it looks like a match for Karen Sehlke.
So hypotheses 5 and 4 can be disposed of.
So now we get to the most interesting questions: did Karen Sehlke die of Covid-19 complications, and did she really post the rant attributed to her on Facebook?
Here is part 1 of the rant, snapshotted into a Twitter posting:
And here is part 2:
A couple of fact-check websites have taken a run at trying to determine whether Karen Sehlke actually created and published this rant attributed to her on Facebook.
Snopes took a run at it. Now, normally I have a lot of time for Snopes. They do investigate questions in some depth. So I was eager to read their analysis.
The article states that Karen Sehlke did die (seemingly) from Covid, and that a message stating that she had been diagnosed with Covid had been posted on Facebook by a family friend.
Snopes dug into the question of the authenticity of her supposed Facebook rant, and found that it appeared to date from March 13th, but…it had been written by somebody else.
Which leads to the obvious question: If the text actually appeared on Karen Sehlke’s Facebook page or wall, HOW did it appear? Did Sehlke herself re-post it, either with or without comment? Did somebody post it(or a link to it) on a comment thread on her Facebook page?
Snopes provides no insight on this topic, and it seems that nobody else has tried to analyze the posting in that way and context either. Since the posting has now disappeared, further analysis may be impossible.
The bottom line question: Was I, like a lot of other people, fooled by the easy-to-like Karen Sehlke tragi-comedy story?
The short answer: I still do not know. Most of the story appears to be well-established. That Karen Sehlke was a real person who tragically contracted Covid-19, and died from complications, seems to be a fact. She was not the author of the posting generally attributed to her, but whether she re-posted it (almost word for word) because she agreed with it, or whether a friend posted it and she left it on her page because she agreed with it, is not clear. It is not possible to establish with certainty whether she posted it herself in mid-March 2020, effectively agreeing with its contents.
Which leaves me frustrated.
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).
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.
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.
- 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)
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.
- 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.
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.