Friday, October 29, 2004

Computers and Children

applematters and Mrs. du Toit
have a interesting take on children and computers. My daughter is the same age as his and while I let her play with the computer a little it is not a big deal. In 16 years when she graduates High School it won't have mattered much which platform she used as a toddler.

There are few programs around now that share anything but name with the programs available 16 years ago.
Sixteen years ago we had desktop computer in the low tens of MHz, harddrives were new and only in the 10s of MB. Now we have GHz laptop computers and GB harddrives that fit in our pockets and play music and PDAs with more power then the desktops of 16 years even imagined. A car now has 100 microprocessors in it, back then car were just beginning to be modeled on the computer and were completely mechanical.
In all likelihood there will be some kind of disruptive change that will completely change how we do things in the next 16 years. I have no idea was it could be but that isn't the problem.

The problem is to teach our children to think so they can handle the fast coming changes. They need to be able to have a chance to play with and explore these things without fear. True freedom comes from being able to make mistakes. The problem with school is that most students learn the lesson of "Don't make mistakes." This is the wrong lesson. The right lesson is "Recover from your mistakes quickly."

There is so much that is learnable, I keep being amazed at the things I never even knew that are out there. People made fun of the Administration when they talked about known-knowns, known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns, these people are the stupid ones. While I know a lot about computers, I know that I don't know how to make a fab for making them. While I know that econometics exists, I know nothing at all about ancient Mongolian philosophy or even if there was such a thing. To think you know everything is arrogant at best and abjectly stupid at worst.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

A bunch of Mac stuff

Linux Insider has a pair of stories about the Mac being less expensive and faster then the equivalent PCs.

On the other hand I think the intuitive bottom line on the Macintosh versus PC productivity debate is actually pretty simple: I've never met a PC user whose focus on the job he or she was supposed to be doing wasn't significantly diluted by the need to accommodate the PC and its software, but I've never met a business Mac user who considered the machine anything other than a tool, like a telephone or typewriter, for getting the job done.

That really boils it done for me. With my Mac I stop thinking about the machine and I just get things done. The only time I end up thinking about the Mac itself is when I find that I have 12-15 applications open all at the same time because I haven't quit anything in the past week or so. And this is with a 4 year old 366MHz G3 iBook machine. With a PC I was always quitting programs since I wasn't sure if opening a new one would crash it. Or something that worked yesterday stopped working today for no reason and I would have to track it down if a reboot didn't fix it. I never really trusted a PC with my important stuff without a floppy or Zip disk to hold a backup.

Apple has also released a set of new iPods.
I have a 20GB 3G iPod mostly filled with audiobooks, backups and some inspirational and quiet background music.

The audiobooks fill in those not so productive times: like driving and yardwork.
I also keep a copy of my latest files on the iPod as a fast backup.
If I wanted too I could set the iPod up to be a bootable drive.

Sure, PC are cheap and common but too often I have felt that they just were not quite the right tool for the job. I would have to think about how to do the job instead of just doing that job.

Monday, October 25, 2004

On Goals

I have been encouraged to have goals most of my life and while having goals is good, they never taught me a good way to setup my goals so that I could actually accomplish them.

Goals are end-states. Places you want to be when you are done. They need to be something that has caused growth within you as you attained the goal.

Goals need to be written down if they are to be of any good. An unwritten goal is just a wish. A USA Today poll tracked people with New Year's Resolutions and it was found that those people who wrote them down where more then 10 times as likely to achieve them then if they did not write them down. Write them down in the present tense as if they had already happened and revisit them everyday.

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, talks about BHAGs or Big Hairy Audacious Goals. and he talks about good ones and bad ones.

Bad BHAGs, it turns out, are set with bravado; good BHAGs are set with understanding.

Bad goals can be very dangerous. For example, something I learned long ago was that some anorexics do set goals but there goal is to loss a certain amount of weight, like: "lose another 10 pounds." It didn't matter that they were 20 pounds under-weight. This is not a good goal because when you lose too much weight you become unhealthy. A better goal is "I am healthy, strong and flexible."

Now writing, "I am healthy, strong and lean," isn't good enough. you need to create a goal plan to define what those words mean. Clarity is the most important thing you can have with any goal. To increase your clarity you need to create a goal plan.
A goal plan is just an outline of objectives that need to be reached and measures that you will use to determine if you are getting closer or further from your goal. What you are trying to do with the plan is to create a system of feedback. By creating a plan it clarifies your thinking and your goal. You are creating a list of objectives that build on one another getting you closer to your goal. It also let's you see if there are skills or equipment you need to get at some point. It will also show you where things might need to be changed. If your goal plan requires, at some point, a major technological breakthrough, someone "discovering" you, or some other miracle occurring, then you need to revise your goal to something more realistic. An old military adage is that "The plan never survives first contact with the enemy." and that is true everywhere. As soon as you do something, everything changes. People react differently then you anticipated, you learn something new that you didn't know before, some new product reaches the market, your or someone else makes a mistake, or something happens that throws your goal plan for a loop. That is okay, be clear about your goal, but flexible about how you get to your goal. You need to revisit and rewrite you goals often, daily is best, weekly is good.

Feedback is very important, in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, there are two important factors in creating optimal experience: Immediate feedback and a sense of control. If you have immediate feedback you can tell if you are getting closer or further from you goal. You don't want to wait for the feedback to come days or weeks later that dissipates the power of the feedback. This depends on what is important to you so you have to put some thought into what motivates you that can give you feedback immediately or at least in a few minutes of the action you took. You aren't going to weight yourself right after some exercise it just wouldn't tell you anything, but an objective of "I weight 180 pounds." is just fine.

Objectives are milestones along the way you use to check if you are getting closer to your goal. They are objective measures you will use to check your progress. For example, if you are trying to lose weight and you weigh 220 pounds and you want to weight 180 pounds you will need to reach 210, 200 and 190 pounds along the way. To define strong objectively you can write "I bench-press 150 pounds" you can set up a series of measures from where you are now to that level. To define flexible objectively you can state "I can reach my toes and sit Indian-style."

To give yourself a sense of control you need to create a Next Action. In Getting Things Done by David Allen, a Next Action is the next physical action you need to take to get closer to completing a goal. This is something that goes on your To Do list that you can do. There are two kinds of Next Actions, things that take less then 15 minutes and those that take more then 15 minutes. David Allen uses a 2 minute rule to say if you should do it right away or not. I don't think it is such a good idea to do everything that way. You need to ask the question that Brian Tracy asks in Victory!, "What is the highest and best use of my time?" To achieve flow, it takes about 15 minutes of uninterrupted concentration, so you need to group similar tasks together. If you group your Next Actions together you might be able to get into flow, since you are doing similar things over and over again.

In Summary
Create a Goal that will take you to a place you want to get to.
Create a Plan to learn what it will take to achieve your goal.
Create Objectives that provide immediate feedback to tell you if you are getting closer to your goal.
Create a Next Action to meet objectives on the way to your goal.
Revisit and revise your goals everyday.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Planning for disaster

Fresh inc. has a good article on business disaster planning.

Marketing vs Engineering has a fun little article about how marketing and engineering are often at odds.

I have run across an attitude of "Don't let the engineers talk to the customers they always ruin the deal."
It comes about because engineers are problem-solvers and marketers are deal-makers. The problem is that they are not cross-trained, engineers don't get any marketing training in school and the marketers don't care about how the technology works.

There are plenty of stories out there where a engineer talks to a potential customer and when the problem comes up the engineer solves it in 5 seconds by recommending a mechanical product from another company that has nothing to do with his companies electronic products. Marketing forgets to tell engineering that just because you come up with a solution doesn't mean you blurt it out at the table. You just have to say, "We believe a solution is possible." and if you can get them the solution the next day you can charge them an arm and a leg for it.

And it is true that engineers tend to come down hard on people who ask us to break the laws of physics. Just remind the engineer that the customer is always right and that we can fix that little hitch in negotiations later.

Engineering and Marketing can be a very powerful combination, but they need to learn how to talk each others jargon and see the others sides' goals. Once that happens the engineers can explain in normal terms just how great the product is and marketing can turn that into an education campaign that rocks.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Sometimes they go too far

Don't Analyze This is one of those articles that drive me nuts, because it goes too far in dealing with something people don't do very well at all.

I have never been part of anything in engineering that has had too much practicing, usually there is no practicing at all, everything is real all of the time.
I have been part of a lot of projects where there was no practice at all, the prototype was the final product. That does not lead to very good products since we learn a lot trying to get everything together in the first place.
Look at the software industry, how often have we seen version 1.0 software that seems like it had never been tested, it usually comes together as something useful for version 3.
The only thing I can think of that practices a lot is the military and It doesn't look like they overdo it.

Make it real.

When you practice, replicate real-world circumstances as much as you can. Actors hold dress rehearsals in front of a live audience. You should too. You don't want to practice your big speech alone in your office. You want to give it in front of people to get used to the pressure of performing.

This I totally agree with. The military is doing this more and more with their training centers that recreate various types of towns.

As for not setting goals, I think that is stupid, if you don't set goals you won't get anywhere.
Setting goals that are not very well defined or not particularly hard are not good goals.

You need to set hard, pushing-the-envelope type goals, write them down in the present tense and what the next physical action is will make the biggest difference in the world.

I am going to write more about goals in a little bit.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Getting Organized

I have been reading Getting Things Done. It is a really good book on doing just that. The most valuable technique I have gotten from it is that if a task takes ~2 minutes you should just do it and get it out of the way. I don't agree that you should check you in-box 400 times a day, that is almost once a minute (480 minutes in 8 hours), I long ago changed to checking my email only 3-4 times a day rather then reacting every time an email comes in. Having recently read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience it takes longer then 2 minutes to get into the zone, about 15 minutes or so.

So it would be best to use the Getting Things Done technique a few times each day to deal with the small things and use the rest of the time to get into flow for the big things. Most engineers have gone into work early so we could get some things done before everyone else showed up and started distracting us. We were there looking for flow.

We were at the Cannery again yesterday. We canned pears halves and it was great to see the upgrades they had given the Cannery, they can handle 1,000,000 cans per year now. It was fun though tiring. It is interesting to see how the volunteers self-organize given only simple instructions and a clear goal. Some people have strong take-charge personalities and others and happy enough to just follow along. Doing little tasks are important but it is having a clarity of goal that lets you allocate the people into the areas they are needed. At first we had most people moving the pears from the crates to the washer, but then we ended up stopping the line often because we did not having enough splitting and coring the pears. but once everyone saw where the problems were each moved in to places where they thought they could help and things balanced out pretty well.

It definitely shows that people want to do a good job and have a good understanding of what they could be good at and will move to that position if they have a chance to move and try it.

I wonder that in the case of businesses that they don't allow enough internal mobility. And an attitude that will allow people to try on different roles to get things done within the company. Okay, most companies have very unclear goals and that holds them back, but with very clear goals internal mobility can be a good thing.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Lawyers and Business Advice has a great little article about keeping Legal advice and business advice separate.
I think that also goes for most other things as specialists are trained to think within their domain. You get good at your specialty and then you think you are good at other things too.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Life After Engineering School is an article I wish I had read years ago.

Setting priorities can be particularly difficult for young engineers. “Engineers are less equipped than the average professional to deal with their lives,” says Selinger. “When students finish engineering school, their lives have been so ordered with courses, they’ve been, in effect, buried alive in the boot camp of engineering school. They must be weaned from the days when professors set their priorities—to the real world, where they need to know how to sort their tasks.”

It isn't so much being weaned but not taught how to do these thing. In school we never had to practice any of this. Teachers and professors gave you something to do and you did it. School has never taught real-world skills and if the parents are too busy to teach them at home they never are taught.

Every engineer has to live through school and come out the other end, according to Selinger. “Engineers have very prized technical skills,” he notes. But the engineers who do well will know how to handle those soft skills like dealing with budgets, and interacting with lots of different kinds of people.

It reminds me of a great quote from "We Got Fired!":

"Lesson one: The person who knows "how" will always have a job.
Lesson Two: The person who knows "why" will always be the boss."

Engineering is a lot of fun, because solving problems is fun, but I realize that I have never been given all the information needed to actually solve the problem. Beyond known knowns of the technical side of the problem, there are the known unknowns is the budget side, the political side and the business side and probably a couple of unknown unknowns.
The trouble is the lack of information and context. Engineers like to design the best possible solution to the problem, but if we don't know about several large issues, given nothing more then a trade-show deadline that obfuscates the real issues, then we cannot bring our full creativity to bear on the problem. Essentially, we are working with several key assumptions that based on incorrect data.

I wonder if this might be why small startups do so much better then big companies because the goals and vital information are out in the open and everyone knows what they are. In large corporations "need to know" is popular but no one really knows what someone really needs to know to get the job done.

Review: We Got Fired! Harvey Mackay

Harvey has interviewed quite a few people who have become successful after being fired. There is life after being fired.
He doesn't say this outright, but after you have been fired you are going to mourn the loss of that job. That's okay, do it and accept it, then move on and do something.

He does give some really good pieces of advice.
Set goals.
Get a team of advisors and a mentor, even if it is virtual.
Work towards your dreams.
Keep a list of personal wins on your wall to build yourself up.
If you are in a position to fire someone how to do it better.

One piece of advice is contradictory. He says, near the beginning, that you should find out why you were fired, but almost every other story after that talks about how the reason they given that were fired had nothing to do with why they were fired. He even gives a statistic that 82% of companies do not do a sufficient job of sharing candid job performance review information with employees. As Jim Collins talked about in Good To Great you might have been in the wrong seat of the wrong bus. And while you may have been making great time you were going the wrong way. Get over it. You will never know the real reason you got fired but you do know some area of your life that you can improve and now is a good time to work on it, it may or may not be related to your firing but that doesn't matter you need to improve yourself in any case.

I have been reading a lot about how important integrity is to business. If integrity is at all important to you or your company firing someone is the one place where it will really count, because this is the hard place. If you cannot be up front and honest with people when you fire them then don't go into business. This is the about the hardest thing you will do and if you cannot imagine doing it right now then you won't be able to do it right later.
I am looking for the best books for people who want to start their own business. This is one of those books but not in the way you think. These are exceptional people here but you can help your people when, not if, when you will need to fire them. Take these lessons and start applying them right now, practice, visualize and role-play the firing, imagine the worst things that can happen, yes even the "going postal" scenario and work you way though them. You cannot plan for everything but planning is an essential step in being prepared.

"Honest input is something you absorb, not always something you dish out."
Integrity or honesty is the most important thing for a business, but tact is the most important thing for an employee.
"If you're in learning mode, always ask why, rather than be judgmental."
Again, this is about being tactful and communicative. Everyone builds their worldview on what they have experienced and they have experienced different things from you, so don't knock them you, didn't life their life.

Conclusion: This is good book to read if you are fired. It gives you some perspective on what has happened. You will mourn the loss of that job and you have to work through that.
2 biggest issues
It looks to me as though the biggest issue in all of these was the topic of communications. Doing it badly is so easy and sometimes you are looking at very different parts of the elephant and it is hard to overcome that, and of course there is the boss that isn't being honest that you can do nothing with so it is just something to get over and get on with your life.
The other issue is goals and goal setting. This is something you need for yourself, it will improve your life by a thousand percent. Only about 4% of people make and write down goals and of those, 80% get them accomplished in the most remarkable way.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Book Review: Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experince

I first came across flow on wikiwiki and I recognized it immediately. So getting the book was something I have wanted to do for a while.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a really interesting book. He seeks to define what it is that makes some experiences enjoyable. I think he hits the nail on the head with his descriptions.

Like reading a good book and you find yourself happy that you finished, unhappy that you are done and amazed that it is now 4 am.
It happens in sports all the time, but they call it being in the zone.

It only takes 5 things to setup the conditions for a flow experience:
1) A challenge activity that requires skill.
2) An environment that allows us to concentrate on the activity.
3) Clear goals for completing the task.
4) Immediate feedback.
5) Concentration of the task at hand.
Then you see these results while you are in flow:
6) A feeling of control in doing the task.
7) Losing self-consciousness.
8) A lose of time sense.

I have found flow while debugging electronics, programming a computer, playing Star Fleet Battles, a very complex game. I am pretty sure it also happened while studying math and science in school.

Most hobbies are designed to help you find enjoyment so flow is easy there, on the job is more difficult.

Any job can become a place to find flow, though some are more prone to it then others. Being able to create the goals internally for yourself will help those mind-numbing jobs but if the job is designed to be conducive to flow it makes it easier.
Too many jobs, even businesses, have no clear goal and don't provide a setting for concentration. I once had a job in a lab that was set to 63 degrees F and had an environmental chamber clanging on and off several times an hour. Concentrating there was almost impossible.

Flow, Feedback and Goals

A big thing here is setting clear goals for the activity and setting up a feedback system. This is a very hard thing to do well, at least for the first try. If you give yourself permission to fail and learn and try again you will do better. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a great book on creating good goals, but it isn't good enough by itself.

Flow has crystalized for me what is so wrong with New Year's Resolutions and goal setting in general: A lack of feedback. Setting a clear goal is one thing and that is difficult enough by itself, but the real thing you need for success is a feedback loop or a way to tell if you are succeeding or failing at any given time.

Deming said said that where performance is measured performance improves, Somewhere else I read something that expounded and expanded on that to include: if performance is reported back on the improvement accelerates.

I have studied feedback loops in electronic systems and key there is to take a little bit of the output and return it to the input to modify the input. Often you just want the output to be in a certain range and if it starts to move too high then you reduce the input or too low and increase the input.

In the public speaking realm if you are asked to speak often and are paid a lot each time that means you are doing well. If you are an entrepreneur measuring what your actual hourly rate every week tells you if you are doing well. If you are a businessman measuring your daily cash flow is a good measure of how well your company is doing. If you are a rock climber you are doing well if you are not falling.
Basically you need to answer the question: how do you measure 'doing well'? The more immediate the better.

It should also measure something useful, this is rather difficult, and don't be surprised if you select the wrong thing first. For example in programming it was fashionable at one point to measure the productivity of programmers by the number of lines of code they had written. This lead to a lot of very verbose and long-winded code that was rather difficult to understand and didn't necessarily work because working didn't count.

Flow, School and Education

"Socialization, or the transformation of a human organism into a person who functions successfully within a particular social system, cannot be avoided. The essence of socialization is to make people dependent on social controls, to have them respond predictably ti rewards and punishments. And the most effective form of socialization is achieved when people identify so thoroughly with the social order that they no longer can imagine themselves breaking any of its rules." -Flow. p17.

"During the first few years of life very child is a little "learning machine" trying out new movements, new words daily. The rapt concentration on the child's face as she learns each new skill is a good indication of what enjoyment is about. And each instance of enjoyable learning adds to the complexity of the child's developing skill.
Unfortunately, this natural connection between growth and enjoyment tends to disappear with time. Perhaps because "learning" becomes an external imposition when schooling starts, the excitement of mastering new skills gradually wears out." -Flow. p47.

2 things that make flow difficult to achieve
Anomie: lack for rules, condition where the norms of behavior had become muddled.
Alienation: it is a condition in which people are constrained by the social system to act in ways that go against their goals. -Flow. p86.

"... there are few things as entropic as unskilled work done under compulsion." -Flow. p143.

Learning something can be a wonderful experience. I love to learn new things and hate to be interrupted while doing it. Flow will make learning go faster and be more fun and deeper. School however does not provide the circumstances for flow at all.

I suggest reading
The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher


William Torrey Harris

A lot of people say, "You get out of school what you put into it." It is more true that you get out of your education what you put into it then it follows that going to a place that inhibits learning is not a smart thing to do.

Flow and Business
Something I have really gotten out of this is to business has to be structured a little differently to maximize flow, which will maximize productivity. After a quick, stand-up report-back meeting of "this is what I did yesterday and this is what I will do today(limit 4)" reporting and some motivation. then have at least a 2 hour block of flow time or whatever you want to call it. It is closed door time where everyone concentrates on getting into flow and getting-things-done.
Something that PeopleWare said is that in an office setting workers get interrupted about every 7 minutes, and since it takes about 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to get into flow they never get into flow and never get fully productive. Having a 2 hour block of closed-door time to yourself can make a 10 fold increase in productivity. That seems very worthwhile to me, how about you?

Flow is a very good talent to cultivate, it has some real benefits. Now to spend time on it more often.