Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Glancing back, charging ahead

If you know me (or read this blog), then you know that I'm not much for new year's resolutions.  My feeling is, if you want to make a positive change in your life, then just do it.  Don't wait for a particular date, a specific birthday, or a traumatic life event.  Lost your groove?  Stop whining about it and go get it back, or else accept that you now live a grooveless existence and find the peace in that.  Feeling bad about your thighs?  Go for a walk, hit the gym, or go buy some sweatpants.  Want more adventure in your life?  Ask a Bostonian for directions from Cambridge to Roxbury.  Let's not pretend that there's something magical about the middle of winter that makes us all more likely to stop, start, quit, join, lose, or gain.  There's no Fountain of Self-Improvement that only gushes at midnight, January 1.

That said, there is something about this time of year that makes me stop and take stock of my life.  Maybe it's wrapping up budget season that makes me want to think about three-year goals.  Maybe it's my late-December birthday that adds a double whammy to the turning of the year, making me listen more carefully to the clock ticking away my hours on earth.  Maybe it's just that it's too cold to go outside and the last week of the football season is really lame.  Whatever the reason, I like to take a few minutes to stop and think about the year that has passed and the year to come.

This year had some amazing moments:
  • Visiting a high school friend whom I hadn't seen for 25 years and having him show me and my family around the thousand-year-old French village where he lived while his 4-year-old schooled me in French.
  • Going for a jog around Buckingham palace, then drinking a pint of English bitter in a local pub.
  • Looking out at Paris from the top of Notre Dame.
  • Skiing the back bowls of Vail with my son and reveling in the beauty of God's creation on every run (God loves the pow)
  • Exploring Bend, OR, with my dad and brother and learning that the best beer comes from the back of a gas station convenience store.
  • Seeing my daughter prepare to speak at Denver Comic-Con about the short movie she made.
  • Listening to my wife play her newest songs for me, before anyone else gets to hear them on her new CD.
  • Publishing my book after ten years of writing, editing, and sharing it with friends and family, then actually selling 40 or 50 copies.
  • Joining my family in blessing and bringing joy to friends and strangers alike, wherever the Spirit led us.  There are moments throughout the year when I got to watch my wife do her magical blessing/gift-giving thing, but the most precious memories are when we all did it together, whether it was packing backpacks full of school supplies for kids in our community or stripping every remaining tag off of the local Giving Tree this Christmas. 
There were some challenging moments as well:
  • The trip to the emergency room after I shredded my elbow on my first mountain bike ride of the year ("Woo-hoo!!!  Ow, ow, ow...")
  • Working through mysterious and not-so-mysterious health issues and wondering why I chose this year to try out that new high deductible plan
  • Raising teenagers.  Remembering what it was like to be a teenager, and then realizing that my dad actually was right most of the time. Then sending my son outside to run laps around the house until he could get his body under control.
  • Trying to figure out how to keep a team together, motivated, and away from each other's throats while helping a company grow faster than it's every grown before.
Looking at this list, there are a few things that I notice that I want to carry into 2015, as well as a few things that I want to leave behind.

1. It's all about the stories we tell.
Life isn't about things.  It's about stories.  I will never tell a story about my car or a suit that I bought (except about how much I look like a trained bear when I wear it).  I'll never regale my friends with a scintillating tale of how big my house is.  I will tell them about walking the twisty streets of Ile de la Cite and having my first full conversation in French with a crepe vendor, or about the family in Nemours whose 4-hour garage dinner outstripped the 3-hour extravaganza that we experienced with my friend John.  My son and I will wax philosophical about Shangri-La in Vail's China Bowl, not because we want you to be impressed that we've skied Vail, but because it is so magical to lose yourself in the trees, with nothing but the quiet shushing of your skis and the joyful shouts of your companions to keep you company.  These are the moments that we remember, that we share with others, that we want to relive over and over.  

I received some great advice from a pastor years ago.  He said, "Don't spend your money on things.  Spend it on people and on experiences.  This will make you rich."  He was right.  Whenever I make a major purchase, I ask myself, "Am I buying a thing or am I buying an experience?  What stories will we tell about this?"  My season ski pass isn't just a pass for outdoor activity: it's an investment in my relationship with my son.  The long drives to the mountains, the rides up on the lift, and the runs back down are creating memories we'll cherish for years.  The conversations we have as we sit in traffic would never happen any other time, because we'd never have that much time with nothing else to do. I'm receiving an enormous dividend on that investment, with a return that's measure in decades.

2. I need to care more about people and less about what they think.
Last week, I had a sublime moment on Facebook.  I was looking at pictures posted by my family and saw one from my dad's family, labeled, "The Hammer family, in their Christmas hats."  Sure enough, there were my aunt, uncle, cousins, and significant others, all wearing floppy sun hats.  It was a sweet, silly picture, and the caption made it perfect.  Sure enough, there they were, in hats.  I don't know if my aunt was going for the laugh with her perfectly factual caption, but knowing her dry sense of humor, I suspect that she was.  Whether she meant it or not, she made me laugh.  She also made me proud.  That picture said, "We're wearing our silly, practical hats, we're together, and we're happy about it.  And we wanted to share it with you."  They didn't care if you thought their hats were silly, they liked them.

When you spend most of your energy worrying about what others think, you become one of two things: a neurotic mess or a control freak.  In response to what you think others are thinking, you spend all of your energy either worrying about what's coming next and trying to change your behavior or trying to control your environment so that you can always put on the best face. The neurotic ones make themselves miserable, but I think that the control freaks are worse, because they make everyone miserable.  In both cases, you're trying to control something that's uncontrollable, because it doesn't belong to you.  You're trying to control other people's brains.

I need to be more like the Hammer family.  To be clear, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what impression I'm making.  In fact, my boss would say that I should probably be a bit more concerned about it, since I have a tendency to say what I think -- politely, mind you -- whether it's what people want to hear or not.  I've always been a big believer in truth.  But while I'm not concerned with falsely impressing people or putting on a show to make people like me, I do spend a lot of time letting people stress me out.  I worry about what they'll do tomorrow, or how someone is going to make my life difficult, and then I try to decide what I'll do about it.  In other words, I try to control them by anticipating them, then countering their moves with my own to try to get the best outcome.  It's well-intentioned: I'm not maneuvering for my own advantage, but for what I perceive to be the best outcome for my team, organization, and company, but it's exhausting.  I spend hours holding meetings in my head, arguing with people who aren't there, and rehearsing 20 different scenarios, most of which are unpleasant in some way, just to make sure I'm ready.  When the real conversation comes along, my first response is an annoyed, "This again?  Haven't we already talked about this 10 times?" before I realize that all of those other conversations only took place in my imagination.

The problem with this is that, after a while, these people stop being people to me: they've become positions in an argument, and annoying ones at that.  I'm less concerned about how they feel and how I can show them that I value them and more concerned about removing them as obstacles.  I hate being treated that way myself, but in some cases I've fallen into a trap and taken them down with me.  

This year, I need stop seeing people as problems to be solved.  This won't magically make the problems go away, but I need to separate the person from the problem.  One can be solved, the other needs to be loved.  Chances are, if I can get back to that, then the problems will get smaller, too, or at least we'll outnumber them when we work together to solve them.

3. I need to find more ways to have fun.
Having fun has always been a primary value in my life.  We only have so many seconds on this earth, and I want to hate as few of them as possible.  Unfortunately, an honest look at last year's memories points out one glaring truth: I didn't have much fun at work last year.  I worked hard, and my team and I accomplished things that I'm proud of, but not one of my fun memories came from the place where I spend the vast majority of my waking hours.  Some people are fine with that: work is what they do to pay for the things that they'd rather be doing.  I can't live like that, for one simple reason: that math doesn't work.  If more that half of my waking hours are spent at work, then there's no way I can pack enough fun into the remaining hours in a year to make the majority of the year fun if my work life isn't.  I need to inject some fun into every day or I'm falling behind.  

So what does that mean for 2015?  Should I start hopping jobs until I find a place that's fun all the time?  That way lies insanity, my friends.  Every job has good and bad elements, and from what I've seen, the places that value fun and excitement over making money only last as long as they can find investors to pour money into their "vision."  But that doesn't mean that work has to be miserable, either.  You have to find the balance between doing what needs to be done, finding satisfaction in the challenges, and making time to just be silly on occasion.  Looking back at last year, there were some properly silly moments -- the time that I dressed in a Flashdance outfit to present the quarter's accomplishments through interpretive dance stands as a high point -- but probably not enough.  Last year, I lost my balance; this year, I'll get it back.  

What were your moments from last year?  What stories will you tell, and to whom?  When you look back at this time next year, what new stories will be waiting?

I can't wait to hear them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Sacred Outcome

It's the end of the year, which means that, at work, we've already spent the last month or two talking about what we want to do next year.  We have big plans: bringing on a batch of jumbo clients, moving into a new building, advancing our products, and making our organization faster and more nimble than it's ever been (we're going to have to, if we want to bring on all those clients).  As we've talked about all of these big ideas, we've also talked about what might keep us from achieving those goals.  Over and over, we come to the same conclusion: we can't keep doing what we've done before, or we won't make it.  My company's been in business for over 25 years, and our software division has been around for 6 years.  In technology time, that's like 30 years when you look at how much has changed, and how some decisions we made 5 years ago look like the crazed ramblings of a drunken lunatic when we look at them now.  More than once, I've heard one of my engineers say, "What idiot wrote this feature? Oh, wait, that was me."

Change is continuous in our business, but this year the need is greater than usual.  We need to get serious about this if we're going to succeed.  So we came up with a phrase to guide us:

Nothing is sacred except the outcome.

If we're going to change, really change, the way we do business, we have to let go of everything that got us here.  We can't hold onto that great idea that solved a big problem last summer, nor the "best practices" that took years to develop, nor even the new process that we finally finished polishing last month.  If any of these things stand in the way of our goals, they have to go.  If they still make sense in the new world, then they can stay.  If they have no bearing on the new solution but still have value of their own, then they don't need to be touched; we have bigger fish to fry.  But if these things become and obstacle, then they'll be demolished.  Even the best idea grows old and tired over time.

This is a hard concept to embrace.  We talk about building a culture of continuous improvement, and we even practice it in small ways, but we still become attached to our ideas, our way of doing things, over time.  I'm fine with tweaking your development process every few weeks, but keep your hands off of my code branching strategy!  Do you know how many whiteboards I had to fill before everyone agreed to that?  And what about your support ticket management?  Maybe we should look at that before we get all handsy with another person's source code archive.

Too often, I've had conversations like this:

Me: So why do we do it that way?

Engineer: Well, three years ago, there was this problem, and after we worked really hard we came up with this solution.  We've been doing it that way ever since.

Me: Has anything changed since then?

Engineer: As far as I know, we're all still living in a uni-directional time flow, so yes, some things have changed.

Me: Then why are you thinking like it's still three years ago?

A lot of my engineers are smart-asses.  But they're smart smart-asses, which is why I like them.

When I solve a problem, I want it to stay solved.  That's why I put so much energy into coming up with the best answer in the first place.  That tendency to push beyond an answer to the best answer has annoyed a lot of people in my life, from my parents and teachers on to my colleagues and bosses, but it's also gotten me to where I am.  I don't settle for kicking the problem down the road.  I want that problem dead.  I want its family dead, I want its house burned to the ground, I never want to hear about it or its little problematic friends again.  That takes a lot of work.  This is great when I first come up with a solution, but what about when circumstances change?  When the context of the problem no longer applies, what then?  That solution took a lot of work, but now it no longer fits.  What was a great answer to a problem is now nothing more than baggage.  As difficult as it is, I have to let it go.  We have to let it go.  We have to leave the past effort behind, grateful for the value it provided, but not clinging to it past its useful life.

We all have sacred things in our lives, whether at work or otherwise, that were purchased at a great price, whether measured in dollars or hours.  These things might have brought us great success in the past, or they might have just been so difficult to attain that we can't imagine letting them go now.  But too often, the sacred object becomes the one thing that holds us back from success, from moving on to the next goal.  When we say, "I'll change anything except for that," we wall off entire areas of our lives, forcing us to take lengthy detours to achieve our goals, if in fact we can attain them at all.  The great prize becomes a weight around our neck, dragging us down even as we seek to climb higher.

What do you want to achieve in your life?  What "sacred things" are keeping you from doing it?  Maybe it's time to shift the focus from what has come before to what is yet to come.  Let's leave behind those entangling threads, recognizing that last year's efforts are sunk cost, not to be counted in our future plans, and let's reach for new things.  Let's feel free to change, to strike out anew, and to achieve that sacred goal.

Nothing is sacred except the outcome.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ahead of My Time

I was just going for the joke.

In Hollywood.bomb (now available on Amazon), I have a character named Stu.  He's the new guy: a little odd, but who isn't in the software world?  He rides a recumbent bike to work, doesn't own a cell phone, and grows most of his own food.  It isn't until the guys get to know him better that they learn that there's a purpose behind these choices.  He's a Neo-Luddite, someone who resists the steady advance of technology.  In his case, he's chosen to only use technologies invented before 1920 as a way to simplify his life.  The fact that he makes his living as a computer programmer is only one of the many complexities hiding under the quiet surface of Stu.  The fact that it provides many opportunities for entertaining dialogue as his colleagues quiz him on which technologies he will and won't use is why I love this little character quirk.

The joke?  Be patient, little ones, we're getting to it.

In Chapter 9, Stu is confronted about his self-proclaimed beliefs by Frank, the resident curmudgeon, who's been doing a little research:

"OK, Mr. Techno-Ambivalence.  I researched this Luddite thing on the web, and there are no rules that say you can use some technology and not others.  It’s butter churns and wooden pegs or nothing.  So what’s the real story?"
Stu looked up at him calmly.  "I’m Reform."

"We're Reform."  The punch line of countless jokes told by my Jewish friends and in-laws, the explanation for decades of bizarre and unorthodox behavior.

"But Bubbe,  I don't understand, why did you wrap the baby in bacon?"

"Don't worry, dear, we're Reform."

Trust me, that joke killed at my son's Bar Mitzvah.

So, while exploring what it would be like to live as a technological holdout in a high-tech company, I thought I'd throw in a little in-joke for my friends and family, and they enjoyed it.  Imagine my surprise today when one of my readers emailed me to let me know that she was Googling "Reform Luddism" after reading that chapter in my book.  My response was, "That's a thing?  I thought I made it up!"

So, yeah, it's a thing.  Who knew?

Not only that, but if you read the description of Reform Luddism in this Huffington Post article, you'll find that it pretty much describes our friend Stu to a T.  So not only did I make this thing up, apparently I guessed pretty accurately how a person who decided to become a Reform Luddite would live.  Minus the 1920 cutoff, of course: that's my conceit, though there's nothing to say that a Reform Luddite couldn't decide that 1920 marked the demarcation between helpful and intrusive technology, so I guess that Stu still fits the mold.

It's fun to see how the same idea can evolve in two completely different places, even for very different reasons.  I wanted a laugh, they want a more genuine lifestyle.  But as columnist Blake Snow says in the article:
"They still appreciate the conveniences of the information age. But they favor analog, offline experiences more. They distinguish simulated from authentic life, and recognize the importance of both, while striving for the latter."
 So as long as we can agree that not all technology is bad, then I think we'll all get along.  I, for one, am extremely grateful for new publishing technologies like blogs and the Amazon Kindle, so that I can share these ideas with you (and hopefully provide some entertainment in the process).

And those rumors of violence in the recent history of the Neo-Luddite movement, do those affect Stu?  Well, you'll just have to read the book to find out.

Monday, September 01, 2014

The end of an odyssey (and the start of a new adventure)

For the past 10 years, I've been working on a little side project that has come to be known in our house as "The Book."  I've committed regular "writing nights" (Tuesdays, if you're curious) to it to force myself to complete chapters even when I wasn't feeling particularly creative or funny.  I've washed dishes until my hands cracked to give me something to do while my mind wandered and tried to find its way around obstacles in the story.  Then, after several years of nights and weekends, breaks and restarts, I finished the last chapter, only to realize that now I had to go back and edit it.  I printed out a copy and put it away, because I couldn't bear to look at it anymore.

Then, after taking a year or so to work up the courage to dive back in, I started the editing process.  That, too, took a couple of years, as my children grew up and my job became more demanding.  I had to update the technology references.  I looked for places where the main character "flipped his phone open" and made sure he was swiping instead of pushing buttons.  I agonized over particularly funny sequences that slowed the story down and I groaned over particularly unfunny sequences that seemed like a good idea at the time.  As I worked, I found typos made by tired fingers, misnamed characters caused by toddler interruptions, and plot points that needed tightening.  I also found a bunch of scenes that still made me laugh, as well as sequences that had become so embedded in my brain that I had started to think that they were real memories until I saw them on the laptop screen again.  I enjoyed visiting my characters again and helping them tell an even better story.

Somewhere in the midst of this, I also did what every writer is supposed to do: I tried to find a publisher.  I wrote and rewrote my query letter and sent it to friends asking, "Would you buy this book?"  Or course, they're my friends, so most of them said, "Yes!"  Unfortunately, the publishers and book agents weren't so friendly.  I received polite form letters in some cases, echoing silence in most. The book industry wasn't ready for my masterpiece.  Just for fun, I reached out to a friend in the film industry who had connections with a studio or two.  He submitted my manuscript for consideration to be turned into a movie, mainly as a way for me to get some semi-professional feedback.  I was unsurprised when the studio passed on the opportunity to adapt it for film, and I chose not to be offended that the studio's reader put the word "humor" in quotes in his evaluation.

Somewhere along the way, Amazon offered an alternative for aspiring authors, and I chose to take it. Kindle Direct Publishing gave me the chance to put my book in readers' hands without the need for a publisher, so I decided to take it.  I know that there's some stigma associated with self-published books, and I've read enough of them to know why.  I don't know whether my book is good enough to rise above the noise, and in some ways I don't care.  All I want is for people to read it, to share in a story that has kept me and my close friends and family entertained for years, but with the added benefit of being able to read the whole thing at once rather than chapter by chapter.  I want to share it, with the hope that it will entertain, that readers will laugh a little, chuckle a few times, and maybe even guffaw once or twice when a phrase take a surprise swipe at their funny bone.

I also want to share this crazy world that I've inhabited for the last 15 years or so, full of intelligent, quirky, and painfully honest people who are more interested in solving problems than making anyone feel good about them.  Software development is a world where nudists can work the night shift, where cursing someone out in Russian is just the prelude to a stirring debate on application design, and where it doesn't matter how you look or how you sound, as long as you can build cool stuff.  I love this industry, and I expect I'll spend the rest of my career here, solving incredibly complex problems with a group of hyper-logical oddballs who challenge me every day to deal with the fact that I'm not the smartest guy in the room (although I'll still force them to prove it).  I can't bring everyone into the office, but I want to give them a glimpse -- albeit a satirical, exaggerated one -- into this amazing industry that I call home.

Here's my book.  I hope you enjoy it.

Hollywood.bomb, the novel, now available on Amazon.com

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"A Passionate Drama for the Ages"

Passion: it's a good thing.  I, for example, am passionate about caring for my family, about living out my faith, and about building great software products (that last one's even on my resume, so it has to be true).  I also really enjoy biking, hiking, writing, reading, and, sometimes, just sitting in the dark by myself, but I wouldn't say that I'm passionate about those things.

Passion is food and light, fuel and fire.  It sustains us, it drives us, it consumes us.  It's the difference between "YEAH!" and "meh...."  If you're passionate enough about something, we're told, then you can do anything, be anything, achieve anything.  It's like a one-way ticket to the stars, with an unlimited supply of rocket fuel.

In my years (OK, decades) working with startups, I've heard the same phrase in almost every company pitch: "We're passionate about waste management/online book sales/mobile crowdsourced snipe hunting, so there's no way we can fail!"  In the early years, I thought, "Exactly!  That's what it takes to make this sort of dream a reality!"  Now, I think, "Well, maybe.  What else have you got?"

What I've learned over the years is that passion by itself isn't enough.  You also need focus, you need skills, and you need help.  I can jump up and down all day, shouting, "I'm passionate about restoring classic Maseratis!!!" but that's not going to rebuild an Italian carburetor.  Nor does my passion guarantee my success if I actually open the hood and start poking around.  If I don't know what I'm doing, then blindly following my passion is more likely to get me hurt than to help me accomplish anything useful.  If I can focus that energy over time, though, then I can probably gain the skills and the help I need. Focused passion becomes vision, and vision inspires others to make your passion their own.

Passion is like a fire hose: if you focus it and direct it toward a goal, then you can do a lot of good.  If you just let go of it and let it spray all over the place, then you'll make a mess and probably hurt someone in the process.

So, passion plus focus equals success.  What does passion without focus lead to?


Drama is the dark side of the passion coin.  It's what you get when you let your passion run unchecked, when you make the feeling more important than the outcome.  It's the mess you make when you measure people based on their "commitment" instead of their output.  It's why so many personal and business relationships don't just fall apart, they explode in a conflagration of misery, lawsuits, and recriminations.  Passion was why I joined several startups.  Drama was why I left.

Every teenager knows this, because they have all kinds of passion and nowhere to put it.  What are your teenage years other than a chance to "find yourself," to take all those things (and people) that you're interested in and decide whether or not you want to spend your life pursuing them?  What is a first date other than an experiment in focused passion, and what is a first fight if not the logical dramatic conclusion of that experiment?  For teens, life is hyperbolic.  Everything is "the best thing in the world" or "the worst thing ever," sometimes in the same day.  That song you couldn't stop playing yesterday is so overplayed today, and the person you were planning to spend eternity with last week is a stuck-up jerk this week.  Teens are full of passion and bursting with drama, usually more than one house can contain.

This is a natural part of growing up, but the problem is that some people never leave those teenage tendencies behind.  Instead of finding a balance between passion and drama, they let go of the firehose and look for ways to turn up the water.  "More passion!" they cry, but more drama results.  Instead of pointing them toward a solution, their passion creates more problems, to which they respond with more passionate demonstrations, which lead to more drama.  Eventually, unfocused passion always turns inward, and instead of inspiring others to join you, it isolates and alienates.

I once worked for someone I'll call "Jack," who had more energy than any three other people combined.  He was brilliant, insightful, and he rarely slept more than a few hours a night.  The rest of us were convinced that he was also clinically insane.  But boy, was he passionate.  He could see what was coming in software over the next few years and he knew what products people would want.  He just couldn't build them, because when it came time to do the necessary work he got bored and moved on.  He left a trail of half-built and broken product behind him, each of which would make someone else rich in a few years.

Or as one of his long-time colleagues put it, "Jack's successfully predicted every technology trend for the last ten years, and has f***ed up every one."

Jack had passion, but he lacked focus.  He had energy to spare, but he wasted most if it jumping from place to place, idea to idea, team to team.  He drew people in with his energy, then he drove them away with his drama.  When projects failed, he told us we "lacked commitment" because we slept more than 3 hours a night.  When people questioned his ideas, he yelled.  When no one else was around, he called them at home to tell them that they were the reason that the company was struggling.  Needless to say, we had a lot of turnover at our little company.  Drama comes with a high recruiting budget.

I worked for another company who said, "We want to do one thing and do it better than anyone else." One of the founders of that company owns half an island now, and he's pursuing other passions.  They had focus.

So what's ruling your life: passion or drama?  Are you focused on the goal or worrying about the obstacles?  Are you drawing people into your vision or telling them that they couldn't possibly understand it?  Do you spend your days drawing new and better ideas out of the people around you or telling them why yours is the only one that will work?

Passion finds the positive.  Drama obsesses about the negative.
Passion includes.  Drama alienates.
Passion inspires.  Drama tires.
Focused passion created the automobile, the electric light, and the computer.  Drama created the anti-anxiety pharmaceutical industry.

I'll take focused passion any day.  You can keep your drama.