What Does It Take?

With three kids, one wife (thank God!), four companies, two cats and a love of Blues, it’s hard to find time to settle down and crack a book! I admire my voracious wife for reading at a clip that may get her to 100 books in 2018 but have modest hopes of getting through 1/10th of that volume.

But two books I’ve picked up recently have really caught my interest. The first was Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance. Intrigued by how Musk’s story might compare to that of other mega-unicorn entrepreneurs, I picked up The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone.

These guys have a similar backstory — a childhood with a broken family, repaired with a second marriage. Unexceptional middle-class upbringing. Recognition as exceptional children. Burning ambition and a desire to do something special, something world-changing. There are personal qualities (intelligence, focus, vision, intensity) that are both fired and impeded by their childhood experiences.

Both also found success relatively early in their careers with a venture that then gave them the financial freedom to pursue a larger dream. Musk invented Zip2, a company that created city directories in the early stages of the Internet. Bezos earned a substantial salary working on Wall Street. Each invested substantial personal wealth in incubating his vision.

Both are also seen as very tough bosses with a rough and often biting style of criticism when their extremely high expectations are not met. Each has created a culture of sacrificing personal life to the professional — and has led by example. (Bezos seems unusual among the high-end entrepreneur set, still being married to his first wife.) They motivate extraordinary effort and results out of their key employees, but at the cost of a trail of broken relationships and bitter stories from employees unable or unwilling to participate in the culture.

The companies each have created are also competitively ruthless, taking out targets with a mix of severe financial pressure, talent poaching and a mean streak.

See a theme here?

There are other examples — think of the reputation of Steve Jobs, or Jack Welch, or Steve Ballmer. It’s easy to come up with a long list of intense, focused and just plain brutally tough business leaders. But are there counter-examples? Who are the “nice guys” who’ve built billion-dollar businesses?

Anyone? Anyone….?

Google Maaaaaaps

I grew up in rural Kansas, where the gravel roads and laid out in arrow-straight mile-square grids. It’s always pretty easy to understand where you are and where you’re going.

I was always confused by the transition from Kansas City, KS to Kansas City, MO, where the numbered streets shift suddenly from North-South to East-West — and especially by Westport, KS, where streets suddenly head off at odd angles.

So the transition to Connecticut, where the roads wind around like deer who’ve overindulged, and where trees cover every square inch right up to the pavement, was disorienting. Even after four years of driving around Fairfield County, Google Maps is my constant companion. Drop me in the middle of a neighborhood in Norwalk and I’m just as likely to end up in New York City as I am to make it home.

That’s why I completely identify with Durita Andreassen of the Faroe Islands. Durita was frustrated that Google hadn’t yet made it to her home to create Google Street View, so she took matters into her own hands. She picked up a few 360 degree cameras — and strapped them to her sheep.

Google allows individuals to contribute to Street View, and she started pumping content to Google. They noticed — shocker — and have now partnered with Durita and her friends to get the Faroe Islands…on the Map!

(Trigger warning — if you hate puns, DO NOT read the Google blog post linked above. Or, for that matter, this blog post.)

Durita is now crowd-sourcing the mapping to people on horses, and bikes, and kayaks, and even wheelbarrows (who knew the wheelbarrow is a common mode of Faroe Island transport??). And, of course, she continues “herd-sourcing” the mapping as well.

What’s next, Google? Sloth cams to map Central American jungles? Reindeer cams for the snowy north? A Dolphin cam to map the ocean’s depths? Watch this chaaaaaaanel to find out!

The Difficulty of Planning Software Development Timelines

As a project manager, my job is often to bridge the gap between the business or client on the one hand, and the development team on the other. Business users define what functionality or features they want in software, and developers are tasked with building it. The business wants it all — NOW! — and developers want time to think carefully, to build strategically, and to approach challenges flexibly.

They’re both right, of course. Software needs to move at the speed of business. And, good quality software takes time and effort to build.

I can make the process simpler by generating detailed, high-quality requirements. I force the business to really think through how they want the software to work, to put their needs into a broader context, and to always “ask the next question” until there aren’t any more questions to ask.

Requirements written this way help ensure developers have full information before they begin designing solutions. Good requirements take a long time to document — but they shorten the development cycle and result in less rework and higher-quality code.

Still, business users want to know when they’ll have access to all the great stuff they’ve conceived. They want predictable timelines, understandably, so they can plan their own work including all the tasks that surround deploying new software, like process change, training, and, oh yeah, revenue.

Geeking out this evening with the top-notch blog written by the folks at Assembla, I came across this quote:

“The best that has worked for us is that we say we’ll do something and then we start doing it – as it gets closer to completion, we know if it’ll be out this month or next. It may sound funny but in reality, that’s how it always ends up! Bugs are different – but with features, the reality is that you don’t really know until 80% into the task how long it will take to finish it.”

This really does sum up the developer perspective on the issue, and I think it may be something I’ll use regularly with business users to help them understand why I’m so…squishy…when it comes to committing dates, especially several releases down the timeline. Software development is as much an art as it is a science, and great art doesn’t deliver on a schedule.

When Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,

“…he was hampered by the urgency of the pope, who asked him one day when he would finish that chapel, and when Michelangelo answered, ‘When I can,’ the pope, enraged, retorted, ‘You want me to have you thrown off the scaffolding.'”

While it’s generally the business users who are paying the bills, I have to admit that my heart generally lies with the developers.

Clueyness

The Internet is the world’s greatest procrastination machine.

I’m sitting here on a Sunday night, knowing I really need to build a workplan and line out some requirements and do a weekly report and plan out my week and and and…so I pull up my email and see what interesting reading material I can find, and bingo — the Internet comes through and allows me to put it all off for another 20 minutes or so.

This one comes courtesy of Tim Ferriss’ 5-Bullet Fridays email. He refers to a favorite blog by Tim Urban called “Wait Buy Why”. I click on over and sure enough I stumble across a post called “Clueyness“, which describes that aching feeling of regret you have about some incident in your past where you did something self-centered and jerk-y, and even though you stew about it years later, the person you wronged has probably never even given it a second thought.

His goes all the way back to when his dad and siblings left their father sitting in front of a freshly-laid-out Clue board to play outside with some friends who just showed up. The grandfather was probably pretty happy that his kids decided to get some exercise outside instead of sitting down to a board game, but his dad had guilt for years over abandoning that family game night for some mindless physical fun.

This brings to mind an incident I’ve regretted for years. Way back in college, I invited a girl I had just started dating to the movies, and I was determined to be chivalrous and pay for the movie. As we approached the ticket counter she started rummaging in her purse, so I blurted out something like, “I’ll get the tickets, and you can get the refreshments.” Crisis averted — I was paying for the movie so it was a date. We had a few minutes to kill so we wandered down to the other end of the mall where she pulled some cash from the ATM and then she bought the popcorn.

It was only years later, on reflection, that I realized the fact that she didn’t have cash meant that she hadn’t intended to pay for the movie at all. (This was back in the dark ages when we actually used cash.) She was probably just looking for her ID so we could get into the R-rated movie — and I had gone and stuck her with the bill for the refreshments. Cue the guilt, and the admiration for the grace she’d shown that had avoided me even noticing the faux pas at the time.

She probably promptly forgot about it, and she certainly never mentioned it to me, but LJ if you’re reading this, I apologize for my clueless behavior.

Phew. That’s off my chest, and thank you to Tim Urban for helping me articulate that awful “Cluey” feeling I’ve been carrying around ever since.

Okay, back to the workplan. Or maybe I’ll take a look at the second bullet in this week’s 5-Bullet Friday…

Moore’s Law — and Printed Pancakes

I came across an article this morning that caused me some concern. The Semiconductor Industry Association has published a new report saying that Moore’s Law — which states that computing power will double every 18-24 months as technological advances allow for ever-smaller memory chips — will be “repealed” around 2021 as chip makers run up against a constraint based on the sheer size of atoms. While there are still some options to explore, such as 3D design for chips, a slowdown in the rate of growth of computing power could have real implications for our ability to solve technical challenges.

I was relieved, then, to discover that humans appear to have already solved all outstanding technical challenges. The final technological hurdle — one not even on my radar — was crossed with the launch of the first pancake griddle that allows a home cook to “print” custom-designed pancakes.

Folks, if we’re now printing our pancakes we’ve clearly reached the end of our need for constant improvement in computing power. Moore’s Law can now gracefully retire.

Time for breakfast!