Why “7 rules of smth.” should be 1 of the 7 deadly sins

clip_image002“We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. “No right on red” is a rule. Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly” is an observation.”
―Howard Mittelmark,How Not to Write a Novel

Oh no, I don’t hate rules like “look to your right on a crosswalk” or “never kick a tiger in his ass”. Wait… I hate those too. But not because you shouldn’t follow them (I’m almost 100% sure my readers have obeyed the second one). I hate the rules because they give me an excuse to oversimplify the situation. That’s like what mr. Taleb was talking about in his book: platonification. And that’s the primary reason I don’t read article and books titled like “N rules/habits/signs of great/good/bad/excellent leader/scientist/plumber”. Ok, I try from time to time to pick up a book with such a title, but to the moment I haven’t succeed in finishing any. One day, may be… (and articles are a total taboo for me).

Still wonder what I mean? Let’s look at issue at hands. As I said, the rules above are good to follow. You must never kick any tiger in the butt (not even dead ones: it’s not respectful, after all). But that doesn’t mean you can kick the same animal in his nose or belly. I haven’t tried this, but somehow I understand that the results will be not different enough and even faster than with his rear end. So, is the rule I’d think good enough to follow “don’t kick a tiger at all”? Well… No. Because there is also a possibility of punching him. Or putting a needle in his paw. Or… Well, you name it. So, what I believe to be a much better rule (but still not perfect) is, say, “don’t upset a tiger”. But the rules in all those books and articles is close to the first one: like kicking and rear end are the most important things in all the story. In a good book we are getting “don’t hit a tiger”. In a “philosophical book” there will be sort of “be a good person” which is totally unhelpful. In a life saving book we get something like “don’t upset a wild animal, especially predators” plus several examples, including punching a bear in the nose and playing peekaboo with venomous snakes. And in some extremely rare kind of books, I believe, the previous example would be prefaced with explaining, how wild animals react to stimuli, what kind of trouble it may cause with their claws, teeth and other “instruments”.

Why is it important to have not too specific rules? Let’s see what’s going on, when we are following the stupid rule? We tend to stop thinking. I see the path, I don’t see any obstacles. When the rule is clear, our brain is just trigger-happy to oblige, because it doesn’t spend resources. It is SIMPLE. Thinking of

А) Is upsetting a wild cat dangerous?

B) May your next action upset the wild cat?

is not easy. Remembering that there was no “wild cat” and “slap across the head” in “never kick a tiger in his ass” – easy. Of course there is no harm in slapping our wild cat across its head!

If we’re talking real world (ok, not real, what I see around), then some of the often occurring scenarios are

1) implementing some process, or framework, or something. Say, ITIL, Lean, Kanban, whatever.

2) trying to become a Jobs or Gates (or Trump for that matter) people read books about what qualities do the guys have.

What many people do? They go easy way: read a book, get tools and use them (Well, I’m a bit idealising here: most people don’t do anything after reading. Heck! Most people don’t read at all!😉 ). That’s it. You want to be successful? Great, you should sleep 4 hours a day, like Napoleon and get expelled from school like Einstein. Want great IT? Get ITIL Library and to put to work every processes with all the controls it describes.

clip_image004Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. If someone is good at what he does, and everyone agrees, then I’m almost sure, he sticks to all the rules from the book. But if we just take those rules and implement them to our own life, it won’t guarantee anything. Say, there is the Pomodoro technique. It is great, but most people talking about it usually refer to the pomodoro timer as the necessary and enough condition for the technique to bring most value. It doesn’t work, because there is much more to it. Well, working in pomodoros may help. But it won’t help near so much as if you read the book and understood, why there are elements of planning and retrospective in it.

So, what I say is that it’s not enough to read some rules from a book and apply them in a straightforward fashion. They usually are too specific, and life is rich on events and diverse. What you need to get (and it is possible to get from almost any kind of books) is understanding of what and why is going on when your boot meets some bottom side. And what and why is going to happen next. And what and why one should do to avoid all those commotions.

And that’s in short, why I hate reading certain texts =)

Cutting corners.

blog не обходи процессыOne day a following story occurred: a friend of mine (whom I respect very much to the current day) approached me and asked to help one of his then subordinates to fulfil some task faster. “Why don’t you guys go and submit a ticket to the service desk system and then come back to me and give me a number? It’ll be fast enough”. But in vain: their belief in me was strong.

Well, as it happens, a bit too strong😉 It took me almost twice as long to finish the task as a similar one which was just submitted to our service desk. The guys were disappointed. But then, I let them know beforehand that giving the task not through the working process was a risky task. And the task was late not because I tried to convince them that I was right. I definitely knew something.

My knowledge was as following:

1) I was really overburdened at that time and scarcely could manage my own list of tasks

2) We really had an established process in the house.

The effect of those two? First, If I cannot manage my own task list, any new task which is not formal enough will change the things for the worse. Second, a mature process is better than a task-overwhelmed man. Why? It’s simple: processes are written to make things happen as identically as it is possible. Men aren’t. What does it mean? It means that in the process we had back then there were included various controls to manage tasks, remind people that they have to do the tasks, remind the people’s managers that the people haven’t done the tasks in time and so on. It is repeatable, it is controllable and it mitigates many faults of an individual. And I, at that point, didn’t have any decent process of my own, so it was better to rely on the company’s ones.

So, for me, going around some mature process isn’t worthy in almost all situations. If you don’t follow the process, you usually:

· Lose feedback on what’s going on. You need to go to the guy you’ve asked to do something, and he may be absent/ill/busy. You cannot use standard controls because there is nothing standard, when a person is controlling the task, not a process.

· Break rhythm of work. Hey, you really think that all that backlog is just for fun? Nope, they’d like to have their tasks done fast too. And we promise them some level of service. If you inject too much tasks into pipeline, some of the “usual” tasks may linger in the list infinitely.

· You set a bad example. Especially, if you are a manager. Going around a process looks like going against the rules. And it corrodes morale in the unit.

Still, sometimes, going around is ok. For example:

· You really have a very urgent task. It is so urgent that both you and the implementer are able to control the task flow daily or even hourly. Manually, without a process. Just be sure that you aren’t wrong and it is urgent.

· The process seems to have a drawback, which you may hope to fix. Then what you do is actually putting the task through the new, not established yet process and again control everything. After you finished, you make sure the existing process is changed to the new standard.

Do you know other cases when it’s ok to work around a process?

Book: Dreamland by David K. Randall

imageHave you seen a dream about a monkey and an elephant?

No.

You should, it’s great!

Ok, compensating for the long reading of the previous book, I started reading fast. At the moment, I’ve almost got three more, but will be writing in English only on one of them (one is Russian and one is fiction – who wants to know what I think about 1984? No one wants!). The book is David Randall’s Dreamland.

First of all, I started this reading not because I cannot sleep but because I thought, maybe the quality of my sleep was rubbish. See yourself: 4-5 hours a day wasn’t enough for me. And even when I started sleeping 6 to 7 hours it was better, but still not perfect. Well, I can’t sleep 8 to 10 hours, can I?! That’s waste of my time! Ok, as far as I understand it now, I can, actually. For now. And I better do it, while I can.

The most amazing thing I learned from the book, is that nobody knows anything about the subject. There are various experiments on this piece of the picture and that, but nothing can tell you what is sleep and why you need it exactly (yeah, like rest, learn, and something else, probably…). But we’d better were sleeping better and more than we do.

The book, then, just tells us some separate facts about sleep, dreams and some stuff around it. So there is not much thought except that it is important, and I won’t do any reasonable report on the book, just several facts from the book:

1) We are constructed to sleep in two parts. Go to bed early, then wake up in the night, do something (there are some pretty spicy suggestions in the book), then sleep till morning. And, sure, don’t forget about siesta! The day dreams are in our specifications. That’s what we are supposed to do biologically, even though we don’t need that in the modern world. Just no one cared to tell your organism about it.

2) We learn and create new stuff in our sleep. That’s the fact. Everyone heard about quite sane scientists, who made their discovery while dreaming. That. Is. Fact. So, after learning something while you’re awake, the best course of action is to practice the stuff (that improves the overall result) and make sure this night your sleep is long (more than 6 hours) and undisturbed.

3) BTW, your mattress doesn’t matter if it’s not worn-out. I mean, you shouldn’t care if it is hard or soft. You should care you like it, and you are accustomed to it. Your habits are more important than a mattress vendor’s marketing.

4) Quantity of sport activity doesn’t matter too. At least not directly. What you think about your achievements – matters. Like, if I ran 1km in 15 minutes and think “I’m so cooooool”, I’ll be sleeping well. If you ran a marathon in 2:30 and believe that your result sucks, you’ll be tossing about all the night and scaring away flocks of sheep with your beta waves. The most important not to screw your own brains. Be calm, be cool. And sleep well.

A book: Black Swan by Nicholas Taleb

image– What’s the probability of meeting a dinosaur in the street?

– Around 50/50: you either see one or you don’t.

One of the most long-lasting books in my library: I’ve spent almost three months reading it. Not that it’s not interesting, or it’s very large, or something like that. It’s just that I needed to stop and think over what I’ve just read. Well, there was one thing which made it hard for me to read the book (I’ll tell about it later), but other than that it’s just abnormal. And, while there is little in the book I haven’t thought about myself there was much food for thought.

I’m not going to recapture the book for you, the main idea is that judging many events in our life with standard statistics, based on the normal distribution is futile if not plain stupid (well, NNT believes it’s stupid). Aaaand, that, actually, gets quite a range of subsequences. From unpredictability of what’s action will bring you success to “(almost) all Nobel prize winners from Economy are idiots”. You’d better read the book, because it seems to be quite close to the truth.

Meanwhile, here’s what I found out to be interesting aside of what I’ve mentioned already:

1) Taleb says we cannot forecast our future. Actually, we cannot even tell what and why happened long ago. It’s even more difficult. More distinctly it’s described with some kind of test: it is nearly possible to predict what kind of pool will create an ice cube. But it is totally impossible to judge the form of the cube, basing on the pool.

2) There was a mention of quite popular story about Umberto Eco’s ant library. Well, as attractive idea as it is, beware or else you’ll be buying books, but not reading them at all.

3) Why cannot we “predict” our own history? Well, even leaving aside what was described in Orwell’s “1984”, our brain is quite lazy and we are susceptible to the following fallacies when dealing with history:

a. Illusion of understanding. Everyone thinks he knows what goes on. Nah, we don’t.

b. Retrospective distortions. We see the past more organized than it was. It’s way too easy to find absolutely solid-state explanation of what just happened. Solid-state and incorrect. (I like a joke about it: during one of major financial crisis one economist calls his friend: “Hi Steve, do you understand what’s happening?”. “Sure, listen I can explain it to you…” starts Steve, but is interrupted: “No I can explain it myself. Do you understand what’s happening?!”).

c. Simplification of the reality (Taleb calls it “platonification”). We cannot take in, save comprehend, the whole complexity of the world. Our brain immediately starts creating models. As in “leave out nonessential details”. And often we don’t really know what’s nonessential in this particular situation.

4) Induction is, generally not the only and the safest way of forecasting the future. The central example of Taleb’s is a turkey which receives its food 100 days in a row, gaining wait. But on 1001 day there comes a butcher:

(illustration from the book)

Besides the fact that we cannot successfully predict the particular events, there is one more law I already mentioned in my blog (Russian): negative results don’t give us any answer in sense “the thing we don’t know don’t exist”. Just one observation of isolated fact or event will ruin the whole 2000 years’ experience.

5) Markowitz tricked everyone and wasn’t too right. Hey, I wrote a paper in my university on Markowitz! Hands off Markowitz! =)

6) Sometimes NNT uses metaphors in otherwise mathematically sound proofs. That’s rubbish and makes some places a bit less convincing. We see it Nassim, stop doing that😉

7) For me the book has finally explained, why all the predictions are rubbish (from Gartner to everyone else). I felt it deep in my guts but wasn’t able to explain why.

8) Still I’d say a couple words in support of all those “predicting guys”. Average human like me should have some model to act. It’s better to do something according to the model which may not work (or may work for that matter) than looking for the absolutely correct model all your life without doing anything. And having at least some model is much easier psychologically. Just remember: there is day 1001. After all someone should have done all that stupid stuff on which Nassim Taleb made his observations.

9) One important consequence of the previous item: «Forecasting by bureaucrats tends to be used for anxiety relief rather than for adequate policy making». And it is sometimes really important and useful to know how to use it. Just be careful to use it fully understanding what and why you are doing.

10) We cannot predict future technological advances. Even theoretically. It’s all somewhat random.

11) We’re all lucky people. Why? I just cite the book here: “Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. So stop sweating the small stuff. Don’t be like the ingrate who got a castle as a present and worried about the mildew in the bathroom. Stop looking the gift horse in the mouth—remember that you are a Black Swan.”

Have fun reading it even though it’s somewhat tough because it seems like mr. Taleb is very offended by the leading economists and their getting Nobel Prize. A bit too much venom for my taste, Mr. Taleb😉

Crouching manager, hidden engineer

clip_image002Late last year I won Kaspersky Lab’s own “Oscar” for best cinematography. And quite recently I walked away with a “Golden Globe” of sorts (the best bla-bla-bla expert on the company’s intranet portal). I believe this could mean that I have almost succeeded as a manager. Ergo, it is high time I wrote about the trials and tribulations of being one. After four years since I last worked as an engineer, I am in a position to say the following: being a manager is more challenging. And more interesting. But more challenging. Aaaaaand more interesting😉

Judge for yourself:

1) Clarity of objectives:

a. Back in my engineer days, I could tell the managing director of an entire region that business did not need that new-fangled thing he came up with. That’s how I earned my moniker “Business Does Not Need This”.

b. Now I no longer have any idea what business needs: the old clarity of business vision is gone. Business now seems like something complicated and arcane, and I’ll be damned if I knew what it really needed.

2) What we manage:

a. Equipment (even computer hardware) is a simple and understandable thing most of the time. If something gets broken, it’s the fault some ham-handed Indian halfway across the globe, and the support team will get it fixed. If not, support will tell you it’s your own fault and ask you “not to do it again.”

b. On the other hand, from our enlightened point of view, regular people are not only hard to understand but sometimes are also real nutjobs. How can a mature and mentally competent person having a legal license for software that needs to be installed on one of the directors’ workstations go and download this software from a torrent tracker? Or, for that matter, after one of the cluster nodes crashes because he did something, he goes to “try it out” on the other three.

3) And the relationships? That’s something altogether unthinkable!

a. When I was an engineer, I could simply tell a person that he was an imbecile.
This was an obvious thing to a point where it did not require any supporting arguments and even helped you get your work done: the guy just left and let you get on with your work.

b. When you’re a manager, it may suddenly turn out (texts are in Russian) that the imbecile is not necessarily the person on the remote end of the conversation. What’s more, even if that person is the actual fool, saying this to his face does not necessarily mean that this would help your work move along. Rather the opposite: your work will hit a dead end because now your job is not interacting with a server (which is much easier when you are left alone to whatever you’re doing) but with that particular hypothetical “imbecile”. So when you call him like that to his face, he will lose all interest in you and stop listening, and will instead be mulling on the insult and thinking of a way to get back at you.

4) Selection of toys. This is very similar to the first item on this list, and all sorts of product managers will be able to relate to this.

a. Engineer: “OMG! Check out the features! This coffee maker can also wash your dirty socks!” This is where absolutely anybody who wants to buy a different coffee maker for a third of the price but without the sock washing feature is looked upon like a total idiot.

b. The manager (who was an engineer quite recently and would also like a coffee machine with sock washing functionality) observes all of this with sadness and remembers the requirements of the customer, who clearly said he needed a cheap coffee machine that will not make coffee with an aftertaste of dirty socks, because the customer is allergic to socks.

5) Communication. In our industry, managers traditionally grow out of the best engineers. While this may not be totally right, it is what it is. And what is a good engineer most likely? Right: an introvert (no matter how anti-scientific this may sound).

a. I was the kind of engineer who kept addressing my superior formally for half a year even though everybody else was on a first name basis in the company. I never went to team-building events because “WhatTheHeckAmISupposedToDoThere”. I got to communicate with others a couple times in a year: while speaking at MCP Club or other events. Excellante!

b. Now I’m a manager. As one of my subordinates aptly said: “You’re a manager. For you, shutting up is like cleaning up your desk.” Communication takes up to 80% (and sometimes 100%) of my time now: phone, email, meetings, simply walking down the corridor. As a manager, you learn to communicate so that even your simple “yes” would not sound like “get lost”. You learn to communicate even when there is no topic for communication. You have to master this darned smalltalk. And you keep on communicating in such manner as to be heard. Incidentally, this is important because:

6) It does not matter what you say; what matters is what they hear.

a. An engineer says what’s on his mind and thinks that’s enough. “But I told you that the firmware had to be upgraded. What do you mean it doesn’t read “downtime” for you?”

b. In reality, people lose some of the information even before we start talking to them. In lieu of an explanation, here’s this old meme:

clip_image004

Those who consider this a joke never had to take 40 minutes to write a four-line email.

7) Last but not least: both a good engineer and a good manager read a text all the way through before forming an opinion on it. This article is not about an engineer or manager, but about a good high-earning employee as opposed to a bad low-earning employee who is bad for the team. It’s no simple task being a good professional in whatever you do. Take care😉

Decisions, decisions

clip_image002(2*beer) V !(2*beer)

William Shakesbeer

Ok, I don’t believe there is someone around here who doesn’t already “know” that the leadership style one should embrace should be determined by the situation, you are in. Say, in some situations a manager decides what to do next himself, and instructs his subordinates what to do step-by-step. In some situations, you have to outline what kind of a solution do you need, let your team to discuss solutions and accept what they designed. Sometimes (my favorite) you just don’t care: they’ll do it better without you😉 Ahhh, possibilities, possibilities.

The question is: “what to do in an exact situation?”. Should I be a “deciderer”, or just “don’tcarer”? I, to be honest, usually just do whatever seems to be right. Ok, I believe that I do what is right (don’t you?) and select the course of action properly, but there is still a hope within me that management is a science, not magic (hocus pocus, I wish my team to be happy and productive one, BIG salary for everyone… Ok, I should stop now).

Well, looking for such a model, I came across some stuff called Vroom-Yetton decision model (sometimes Vroom-Yetton-Jago). You may read about it on Wikipedia, or just google it. In short, there is a model, with questions you have to answer about your task at hand. Like “should the task be completed with high technical quality?” or “is conflict among subordinates over preferred solutions likely?”.

Naturally, you just get the task, ask the questions (see the graphic representation of the model to track the solution):

1) How important is the technical quality of the decision? – Not very (that’s “low” for us);

2) How important is subordinate commitment to the decision? – Not very (“low” again);

3) Voila – here you are at the AI – autocratic node of the model: Leader solves the problem along using information that is readily available to they.

clip_image004

Fig.1: Vroom-Yetton model (got it from http://faculty.css.edu/dswenson/web/LEAD/vroom-yetton.html)

Quite easy, and, I must say, impressive solution to our problem, isn’t it? Ok… Probably. I see here a couple of problems:

1) There are questions, some people cannot answer “no” to. Say, the first one: “Is there a quality requirement?”. Are you kidding me? What do you mean “there could be a situation, when the quality isn’t a must”???!!! There are more perfectionists in the world, than I can imagine!

2) I’m not sure, I see where to get correct answers to all this questions. No, really, how do you know that your decision, if taken exclusively by you, will be accepted by all your subordinates. Yeah, I know all this “good manager must know their people” mantra, but let’s be honest: people are people, they will surprise you from time to time. And all other questions are the subject to the same fault: you never can be sure that you know the right answer.

So, that seems to be a great tool to model your decision-making style, if we don’t think about those two flaws. Unless, of course, there is an explanation and methodology in the works of Victor Vroom. Unfortunately, I failed to find a place to buy the books by this scientist in a digital format, so if you know the place, please let me know and I’ll follow up.

And just for quick reference to use with the figure above, here are the questions and resulting decision-taking models:

Questions:

1) Quality Requirement (QR): How important is the technical quality of the decision?

2) Commitment Requirement (CR): How important is subordinate commitment to the decision?

3) Leader’s Information (LI): Do you (the leader) have sufficient information to make a high quality decision on your own?

4) Problem Structure (ST): Is the problem well structured (e.g., defined, clear, organized, lend itself to solution, time limited, etc.)?

5) Commitment Probability (CP): If you were to make the decision by yourself, is it reasonably certain that your subordinates would be committed to the decision?

6) Goal Congruence (GC): Do subordinates share the organizational goals to be attained in solving the problem?

7) Subordinate conflict (CO): Is conflict among subordinates over preferred solutions likely?

8) Subordinate information (SI): Do subordinates have sufficient information to make a high quality decision?

Models:

Decision Making Style

Description

Autocratic l (Al)

Leader solves the problem along using information that is readily available to him/her

Autocratic ll (All)

Leader obtains additional information from group members, then makes decision alone. Group members may or may not be informed.

Consultative l (Cl)

Leader shares problem with group members individually, and asks for information and evaluation. Group members do not meet collectively, and leader makes decision alone.

Consultative ll (Cll)

Leader shares problem with group members collectively, but makes decision alone

Group ll (Gll)

Leader meets with group to discuss situation. Leader focuses and directs discussion, but does not impose will. Group makes final decision.

Path of YeahManager

clip_image002One of the main drivers for my professional life was my passion to do my job well (luckily, I’m quite lazy, or I would dominate the world by the time Winking smile )

While being an IT Pro I hadn’t any problem with it. The path is clear: MCP – MCSA – MCSE – one more MCSE – MVP – you’re toast. Since I became a manager the world turned to be a bit more complex. what do you do to make your job better? How to stay on top? what are the general principles? What are the criteria? It seems absolutely clear what you have to do to be SharePoint infrastructure Guru: TechNet, MSDN, hands-on labs, several years of doing stuff, somewhat good knowledge of nearing fields (IIS, .NET, networking, HA clastering, NLB/HLB, AD, PKI, you name it). You can do it? Your services get several 99.99% of uptime? Well, let’s go speak about it on TechEd or just get your respect and other money.

The list to study for a manager is large too, still (I believe so) is finite. However, what will tell you if you are a good one? What principles one have to set for himself so that not to turn into stinker?

I’m not a Guru, who comprehended everything, I’m not able to answer all the questions. But I know the way! found some high-level description what should be a good manager from my point of view. In 2010 some Harvard MBA students apparently were concerned with the same question I am, solved the problem when created MBA Oath. That’s the set of high-level high-level principles I think I have to share and follow. Some of them aren’t realizable on my current level just because I don’t have powers over them as a first line manager, but others can and will be part of my motto, backbone for my life and studies including this blog. As I find it tedious and boring to mention the Oath every time, I made up a fictional character: Yeah Manager. It’s such a guy, who is anxious about everything around, who tries and helps his organization to move forward, while coping with converting introversive IT Pros into the people who are loved and valued by this organization.

Here he is:

final 24.05.2014

I’m, obviously, no artist, but the picture will du for the time being (Yeah Manager isn’t always a perfectionist Winking smile). Probably, I’ll have it remade later.

Hello, new blog, that is =)