Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rise to the Challenge

"I love a challenge!"

How many times have I heard that in an interview?  Usually, this is said in a chirpy voice, as though the interviewee does a little dance of joy every time a problem comes their way.  What I've often found, though, is that when someone says, "I love a challenge!" what they really mean is, "I love doing things that other people think are hard, as long as I already know how to do them really well!"  Ask them to do something really difficult, though, something that doesn't play to their strengths, and many of them disappear with a muttered, "that's not really in my wheelhouse."

Somewhere along the way, we forgot what a real challenge is, and in doing so we've lost a crucial catalyst for our own personal growth.

In nearly every story that human beings have ever told, the hero faces a test of his prowess, his intellect, or his skills and experience.  Rarely do these challenges play to the hero's innate capabilities or strengths.  Hercules wasn't sent to enter a bodybuilding contest, but to clean a gigantic stable.  Harry Potter was the Chosen One, but he wouldn't have survived his first year at school without the help of his friends.

As we celebrated Passover last night, I thought about Moses and the story of the Exodus (a classic example of the Hero's Journey, by the way).  This was a challenge if ever anyone faced one, and it struck at every weak spot Moses had.  What were his strengths when he stumbled upon the burning bush?  True, he was educated as a prince of Egypt, but so far the only skills he had exhibited were:

  1. A strong sense of justice coupled with the ability to lose his temper in dramatic fashion
  2. Hiding bodies
  3. Herding sheep

His known weaknesses included:

  1. Public speaking
  2. Convincing anyone other than sheep to follow him
  3. Keeping track of his sheep (since he wandered away from them to look at a burning bush)

Now he was being asked to go before the greatest leader in the known world and convince him to free a valuable slave labor force, then to lead that obstinate group of slaves through a desert to a place he'd never seen before.  Like any sane person, he refused, citing the very weaknesses that this challenge would require him to overcome.  Essentially, he looked God in the eye (or at least in the flame) and said, "Not my job."

Like any good boss, God wasn't willing to let a strong candidate go just because he didn't feel like he was up for the job.  He gave Moses a partner, his brother Aaron, and let him delegate the speaking duties until he was comfortable taking the lead himself.  But he didn't let him off the hook.  To paraphrase, he said, "I know that you're the man for the job and that you'll take care of my people.  You're up to the challenge."  Then he sent him off with a couple of magic tricks and the promise that more instructions were forthcoming.

I can only imagine what Moses thought as he walked off to find his sheep and start on his new assignment.  He had to be wondering how a stuttering shepherd could stand up to the most powerful man in the world.  He probably also flashed back to his last disastrous attempt at freeing a slave, which ended in a shameful flight through the desert and forty years of self-imposed exile.  The temptation to flee again had to be nearly overpowering.  But of course, that's not what heroes do.  When heroes, even reluctant ones, face a challenge, they rise to it, and in doing so they are changed forever.

Challenges, real challenges, shape us.  They make us grow.  Under normal circumstances, we hide or compensate for our shortcomings, focusing instead on what we do well.  When a challenge strikes in our area of weaknesses, we can no longer hide.  We are forced to acknowledge and finally overcome those weaknesses, and in so doing we steal their power over us.  We emerge from the challenge stronger, more capable, free of fear.  In the language of the Hero's Journey, we have become "the master of two worlds."

This doesn't mean it's fun, of course.  Sometimes, the hero dies.  At a minimum, he always faces the risk of death, the feeling that something could be lost forever if he continues on this perilous course.  The hero's journey is not an easy one.  But it is transformative.

Now, I don't think that this means that every day needs to be a challenge.  In fact, if you wake up every morning thinking, "Here comes another day of struggling through my weaknesses!" then you might want to take a moment and reexamine your life choices.  There's a lot to be said for using the gifts God gave you to make the world a better place.  He gave them to you for a reason, after all.  But when the challenges come -- and they will come -- embrace them.  Seize the opportunity to learn what you're made of and shore up those weak spots in your character, your skill set, or your experience.  Resist the temptation to say, "Not my job," and flee.

In other words, be the hero.

When it's over, you'll look back and say, "Wow, look what I did!" and you'll know that, whether it was fun or not, you could do it again if the need arose.  You'll emerge stronger, more confident, and free of fear.  You'll be better for the experience, as will the people who depend on you, because now they'll know that their trust was well placed.  After all, everyone needs a hero.

By the way, there's another definition for the word "challenge."  It's "a sentry's call for a password or other proof of identity."  Your challenges are calling you out.  Who will answer?

(cross-posted from "The Lion and the Bull")

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 14

Chapter 14

It was a long plane ride back to Boston.  It wasn’t the impending sense of failure hanging over the heads of the three passengers from ADD, nor was it concern over leaving their comrades behind in LA.  It was because David simply wouldn’t shut up.

Stephen and Ricky had tried everything short of physical violence to make him stop, though that time was coming soon. In self-defense, Stephen feigned sleep while Ricky tried watching the movie, but David, who was not watching, kept reaching over to lift up his headphones and ask him what was happening.  After the eighth such interruption, Ricky finally ripped off the headphones and jammed them onto David’s head, growling, "You tell me!"

David had been like this ever since returning from his rejection-induced odyssey, the tale of which had been told and retold enough times in the past three days that Stephen was starting to think it had happened to him.  Ricky, ever the fan of oral history, had begun reciting key passages along with David under his breath, as though preparing to pass the legend on to his children some day.  Somewhere over Ohio, the twenty-third retelling began anew, inspired by the color of the frozen earth below, or possibly the shape of a passing cloud.  No one was really sure.

"After those Philistines so cruelly mistreated my work, I walked for miles through the barrios of Santa Monica," David began.  Stephen wasn’t sure which was more surprising:  the idea that Santa Monica had slums, or hearing David say "barrios."  He suspected that David had walked past some corporate housing and mistaken it for a housing project.  "I wandered, not caring where I went or what happened to me, only knowing that I must walk off this pain like an emotional stitch in my side.  My feet carried me to a wide boulevard that reminded me of the Herculean task of pleasing these beasts, like bringing fire down from the heights of Olympus only to have the men below spit upon it and douse it.  This called to my spirit, so I followed the call.

"This Olympic road took me through many strip malls, offerings to Mammon, the god of crass commercialism, and my heart shrank within me.  How could I hope to bring my elegant vision to these people, when all they wanted were pastel simplicities?  I could not.  I walked on.

"Eventually, I grew tired, so I bought an iced coffee.  But that is not important to the story.  I simply tell you in the interest of completeness."  David’s interest in completeness had become quite wearing in recent days.  "My body was revived by the dark elixir but my spirits were not.  Not even whipped cream could give me solace.  I continued on my quest for the peace that continued to elude me.

"I came to a street known as Highland.  It spoke to me, as I aspire to achieve the heights of artistic expression in everything I do, from my clothing (obviously), to my work (also obviously), to my free time activities (again, without question).  I turned and followed it, hoping that it would bring me to the peaks of enlightenment.  For a long time, it brought me nothing but houses with gaudy pink roofs.  I assume that they serve some utilitarian purpose, for they are an offense to the eyes such as has not been seen since David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust phase.  I persevered, however, as my pain drove me on.  Somewhere, I knew that I must find comfort in this rainless wasteland.

"My pain knew no bounds, and I sweated great drops of sweat under my burden.  Or perhaps it was my scarf and Nehru jacket.  Regardless, even the sun seemed to mock me as I toiled onward.  I shook my fist at it inwardly and put on my stylish designer shades, determined not to let it see how it stung me to the core with its derision.  It wasn’t until the palm trees began swaying and chanting a French schoolyard taunt with a slight Provencal accent that I realized perhaps I was suffering mild heat stroke.  I sat down somewhat abruptly under one of the taunting trees to contemplate this and decided that fashion should give way to practicality, just this once.  I removed the jacket but kept the scarf, which I fashioned into a stylish headdress suitable to the wilderness through which I traveled.

"After a few minutes of rest, I continued my odyssey.  I came eventually to a strange sight:  a Chinese pagoda in the middle of Los Angeles.  I could not determine what it meant, but the aesthetic dissonance drew me.  I advanced and found myself walking a pathway of stars.  I had no time to reflect upon what this might mean, for I was immediately greeted by a girl in a blue gingham dress.  I complimented her on her bold fashion choice and she told me that her name was Dorothy, and that she always dressed this way.  I did not catch the name of her little stuffed dog.  She complimented me on my outfit, especially my makeshift headdress, and asked me if my name was Bob, Bing, or Lawrence.  When I introduced myself as David, this seemed to confuse her, but she let it pass.  She introduced me to her friend Darth, a tall gentleman in black armor with a bright red sword.  I assume he was a knight of some sort, on a quest similar to my own.  

"They had other friends, all similarly creative in their attire.  I asked Dorothy what they were doing, and she replied that they were always there.  ‘We come to guide them,’ she said, and waved her hand around us.  I looked around for the first time and saw that we were surrounded by people.  Fat people, skinny people, people from distant lands.  All were different, yet all had something in common: they were sunburned, and they appeared to be looking for something they had dropped.

"I asked Dorothy the meaning of this.  ‘What are they seeking?’ I asked.  ‘They are looking for their favorite stars,’ she replied.  ‘We help them.’  

"I thought about this for a moment.  ‘So you show each person his way through the stars, guiding them to their destinies?’  She shrugged and replied, ‘Sure, something like that.’

"I looked around at these people who had come from all over the world to find the answers, and it all became clear to me: why I had to come here and be so terribly mistreated, the purpose of my pain, the force that had drawn me on through the heat of the day, everything.  My entire life up until now had led me to this place so that I could see what I was made to do.  

"I am supposed to help these people, these poor, stupid, sunburned souls wandering around with their eyes downcast.  I have been called to reach out to them, to bring culture and enlightenment into their benighted lives.  I already have all the tools:  the creative mind, the eye for design, the brilliant wit.  All I was missing was a purpose.  Now I have it!  I will bring America out of its overfed stupor and launch a cultural awakening.  When I am through with this country, it will have achieved the cultural heights of, if not France, at least Switzerland!"  Here, as always, he stood and closed with a flourish, swinging his scarf, which he now considered mystical, around his neck until the tassels ended up beneath his chin.  This time, however, he was immediately asked to return to his seat by the irritated stewardess, who reminded him for the fourth time that the “Fasten Seat Belts” light was still lit.

The first time David told this story, Stephen tried to explain to him where he had walked.
"It’s called Grauman’s Chinese Theatre," he explained.  "They put the names of movie stars in the stars on the pavement, and people come there to find the names of their favorite actors."

"I can’t believe you got to go to Grauman’s!" Ricky had chimed in glumly.  "I wanted to go, but I never made it over there."  At Stephen’s questioning look, he explained, "I got distracted by the tar pits."

Stephen had continued to try to explain.  "It’s not a particularly spiritual place, and I’m pretty sure those people you met weren’t spirit guides.  In fact, I’m not even sure they worked there.  They might just be as crazy as—" he had caught himself before he finished the sentence with "you."

David had just looked at Stephen and sadly shaken his head.  "Stephen, Stephen," he clucked his tongue, "I would not have expected you to mock what you did not understand, but I forgive you.  One man cannot comprehend another man’s vision quest, so you cannot be expected to grasp the depth of what I saw.  Fear not, my friend:  it will all become clear to you in time."

Now, as the twenty-third recitation of the ever-more-elaborate tale wound to its end, Stephen reflected that, if nothing else, it was nice to see David passionate about something instead of sulking about his rejection.  If this new purpose made David happy, so be it.  

I just wish he would shut up about it for a few hours so I can get some sleep. 


"You said on the phone that she was singing.  Why won’t she do it now?"  Stephen looked down at his infant daughter lying on the floor and happily testing the absorbency of a handmade quilt.  It was holding up well so far, but he had a suspicion that Sarah’s fluid capacity was higher than the blanket’s.  After all, she had the advantage of refilling every few hours.

"I said that Mommy said she was singing.  That was why I had to go, remember?"  Jennifer lay on the couch, a pillow over her head.  It was only midday but she was ready for a nap.  Stephen eyed her appreciatively.  No matter how much she might complain, she was quickly regaining her figure, with some nice enhancements.  Two cheers for breastfeeding, he thought.  

Aloud, he said, "Oh, you meant your Mommy.  I thought you were referring to yourself in the third person.  I’ve heard that women start to do that after the first six months.  ‘Mommy would like Daddy to change the baby’s diaper.  Mommy wants to leave the house for just a few stinking minutes.  Mommy needs another drink.’  Things like that."

Jennifer threw the pillow at him and made a face.  "Funny guy.  Mommy thinks Daddy should try this for a few days and see how coherent he sounds."

"I have my own infants to take care of, thank you," Stephen rubbed the bristle on his chin.  It was always nice to get back from the client sites and not have to shave every day.  "So tell me what your mom said our little diva was doing."

"I heard it too, or at least the tail end of it.  She and Mommy were in the living room listening to music.  She seems to like Barbra Streisand, but only the old stuff.  Barbra was singing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again," and Sarah started singing along."

"She sang ‘Happy Days Are Here Again?’  Not ‘Melancholy Baby?’"

Jennifer had grabbed another pillow, which she now put back over her head.  Her muffled voice replied tartly, "Mock if you want, but we both heard it.  She was singing.  Not the actual words, of course, but sort of cooing along."

Stephen lifted the pillow and looked at his wife skeptically.  "You actually heard her sing along, in tune, with the melody."

"Harmony, actually."  Jenny stuck out her tongue and pulled the pillow back down.  

Stephen turned back to his daughter.  "Hey.  How come you do all the fun stuff when I’m not here?"  He nudged her with his foot.  "Do something."

"Stephen!  What are you doing?"  Jennifer sat up and punched him on the arm.  "Don’t poke her with your foot!  She’s not a dog!"

"Ow!"  Stephen rubbed his arm.  "I just want to see all of these amazing things she can do.  All she ever does when I’m here is drool and poop, and occasionally throw up.  Hel—"  Jennifer raised her fist again, and he changed mid-word, "—ck, a hamster can do that."

"Well, maybe if you were around more you would see all of these tricks.  You could even teach her some yourself.  I think she’s about ready to sit up, and she could probably learn to play dead, too."  She stopped and crossed herself.  "Oh, God forbid.  Forget I said that."

"What was that?" Stephen laughed.  "You’re not even Catholic!"

"I picked it up from your Mom, and now it’s like a nervous twitch.  Now that I’m a mother, I can see why someone would do it all the time.  I feel like I need all the help I can get."

Stephen pulled her toward him and leaned his head against the back of her neck.  "Well, the way this project is going, you may have me around to help a lot more."  He sighed.  "Maybe full-time, at this rate."

Jennifer twisted around to give him a worried look.  "Is it really that bad?"

"Yes.  No.  Not really.  It just feels like it’s all about to blow up in my face, is all.  I’m sure it’s not really that bad.  I’ll talk to Jack tomorrow and see what he suggests.  No doubt he’s seen worse."


"I’ve seen worse."  Jack sat across the table from Stephen, chewing on a pen in between sips of coffee.  "Hell, I’ve been worse.  Do you have any idea how many times we were fired -- or almost fired -- from my projects?"

"Is that counting the ones where you physically assaulted the client?" Stephen asked glumly.  Sarah was only getting up twice a night now, but he’d gotten used to a full night’s sleep.  He wasn’t awake enough for this conversation yet.

"Not counting those.  And there were only two.  Wait… three.  But she started it."

"So what did you do?  You know, besides—" 

"Attacking people?  Sometimes we walked away from the job if it couldn’t be salvaged, preferably before we were fired, but I don’t think that’s necessary here.  You said that they’re still happy with the engineers’ work, right?"

"Only because he hasn’t seen it."

"Is it that bad?"

"Bad?  No!  It’s fine.  I just expect that they’ll find something wrong with it too.  These guys don’t make any sense."

"They never make sense, Stephen," Jack reminded him.  "If they thought like us they wouldn’t need us.  And if we thought like them we wouldn’t be doing what we do.  We’d be working for one of our clients and wondering why the consultants are always so uptight."

Stephen tilted his head and gave Jack a hard look.  "I can’t decide whether that was insightful or complete bull— fewmets."

"Fewmets, huh?  Going the synonym route now?"

Stephen shrugged, "It’s worth a try.  The alternative is sounding like the father on a Fifties sitcom."

"That’s not such a bad thing.  I really liked the dad on My Three Sons.  Actually, I think he used ‘fewmets’ once."

"Stop it!  You aren’t old enough to have seen that show, any more than I am!"

"I saw it on Nick at Nite, OK?"

"Whatever, this is not helping me with my problem.  What do we do about CouldBU?"

Jack shrugged and slurped some more coffee.  "Hell if I know.  What would you do if you were taking this project over from someone else?"

"I’d start by roundly cursing the moron who let it get this way."

"I think we’ve covered that.  What else?"

Stephen sighed and walked through his mental checklist.  "Make sure the team is OK, deal with any personnel issues, and get everyone focused on the things that are under our control."

Jack sipped his coffee, eyeing Stephen over the rim of his ADD-branded mug.  "So, how’s the team?"

"The engineers are fine.  In fact, they seem to feel a strange sort of justification through all this, as though the client finally realized who does the real work around here.  They seem to think that they have all they need to build the whole application now.  Minus a user interface, of course, but they seem to prefer that, too.  Frank said something about ‘getting all those fruity widgets out of the way.’"

"And Ricky and David?"

"David’s on some sort of crusade to bring culture to Middle America, which seems to have distracted him from feeling dumped, and Ricky’s fine, as usual.  As far as I can tell, he’s just glad that he doesn’t have to do any work.  Last time I checked in on him, he was searching through the archives of some old church in France that just came online, looking for more ancestors."

"But they’re both still billing, right?"

"Oh sure; no one told us to take them off the project, so if they want to pay for us to wait that’s fine with me.  I assume that works for you, too?"

"It works just fine."  A good part of Jack’s compensation was based upon the utilization rates of his consultants.  "So the team’s doing as well as can be expected.  What about the things that are under our control?"

Stephen was calming down now that he had settled into the familiar rhythm of his status reports to Jack.  There was comfort in the routine.  "Like I said, the engineers are working on the underlying code that will support the application, and building it so that they can plug it into whatever UI we end up with.  For now, they’re just building dummy screens without any design elements so that they can test the code.  As long as the eventual design has the same features that we’re building, they should be able to hook it up with a minimum of fuss.  The question is, where will that UI come from, if not from us?"

"And is that under our control right now?"

"No, I suppose not."

Jack tipped his mug upside down to let the last few drops of coffee fall into his mouth.  "So what do you need to do?"

Stephen sighed again and put his chin in his hands.  "Wait."

Stephen’s email alert chimed.
From:  2BFrank@add.com
To:  PMStephen@add.com
Subject:  RE:  How’s it going? 
everything is still fine, mom.  we’re wearing our slickers in the rain -- or would if it ever rained here -- and playing nicely with the other kids.  in fact, since the cbu developers have a working prototype of their portal up and running now too, we challenged them to a race.  first group to completely prototype all features wins.  they don’t all drink beer (wackos), so we bet dinner instead.  i’m already scouting out expensive restaurants, which seem to be abundant here.  now i have to get kelvin to stop adding features so we can finish.  have i mentioned that you should have made me tech lead?
 timothy has turned out to be a decent designer, by the way, putting some sharp graphics on their portal.  apparently he can do something besides comic book drawings when he wants to:  not a ‘kapow’ in sight.  with any luck they’ll get distracted by his pretty pictures while we zip by them in the home stretch.
 stu’s recliner bike -- or whatever you call that thing he rides - arrived yesterday, so now he’s learning how to navigate la by pedal.  he’s probably the only person on a bike, so i hope that the cars can figure out what to do with him.  if they don’t drive off the road laughing, that is.
 don’t tell him i said that.
 mark and connie have spent every lunch together for the last two weeks.  he says she’s teaching him to meditate, but i would swear that i heard them discussing makeup tips.  is it me, or is that a pretty slimy move, pretending to be interested in makeup just to get close to a woman?  nonetheless, if mark shows up to work wearing blush, i’m on the next plane home.  maybe i’ll see if i can distract connie before it’s too late.  think dinner would do it?
 later, - f.
Stephen read the message once, then scanned through it again to make sure that he understood everything.  He could hardly blame Frank for his jealousy:  that first hug from Connie was probably the most action he’d seen in years.  He hoped it didn’t become an issue between the Brothers Grim, though, of for the team in general.  The last thing he needed was infighting within the ADD team on top of the general craziness at CouldBU.

Managing an entire team long-distance was a new experience for him, and it was making him nervous.  He didn’t want to drive everyone crazy by checking in too frequently -- and Frank’s unsubtle jabs told him he was getting close -- but he needed some substitute for walking by their desks to gauge their moods.  The time difference wasn’t helping, either:  add three hours to a developer’s traditional 10:00 AM start and you only had a few hours of overlap with an East Coast business day, and Stephen didn’t feel like working until 11:00 at night. 

So, time to be a pest.  He clicked over to his instant messaging client to ping Frank for a quick chat now that he knew he was in the office.  This was the next best thing to walking by, and less intrusive than a phone call, especially since the entire ADD team was still sharing one phone.  In fact, engineers sitting across from each other at a pod of desks would sometimes use IM rather than talking for quick questions, since it allowed them to keep their headphones on and stay in the typing flow.  Stephen opened a chat window: 

PMStephen:  Tell me again why you refuse to use capital letters? 
2BFrank:  caps are a waste of keystrokes, much like emoticons.  if you can’t parse my meaning from context, i can’t help you. 
PMStephen:  Right.  Which also reminds me why we don’t have you write client communications.  ;-)  (That emoticon was especially for you, big boy) 
2BFrank:  see?  everyone wins. 
PMStephen:  Hey, I’m sorry to keep checking up on you guys, but I just want to make sure everything’s going smoothly.  We’ve never gone two weeks w/o a problem there before and it’s making me nervous. 
2BFrank:  don’t be.  they’re just ignoring us, which is why we’ve been so productive.  the big heads seem to be too busy keeping an eye on each other to bother with us. 
PMStephen:  Maybe it’s better that I’m *not* there then. 
2BFrank:  definitely.  in fact, don’t come out here again.  we’ll just see you at thanksgiving. 
PMStephen:  Nice.  Everyone else in now, too? 
2BFrank:  yep.  i think mark’s wearing eyeliner.  talk to him about that, will you? 
PMStephen:  Um... OK.  Later. 
2BFrank:  bye
Not sure what to make of Frank’s last comment, Stephen decided to go directly to the source.  He was pleased to see that Mark, Kelvin, and Stu had logged in since he started chatting with Frank.  He popped open a window for Mark.

PMStephen:  Eyeliner? 
MarkMoore:  Excuse me a moment while I yell at Frank.
After a long pause, during which Stephen checked his email, wrote a status report, and got coffee, the chat window blinked to show that Mark had returned:
MarkMoore:  I’m back 
PMStephen:  Should I call an ambulance? 
MarkMoore:  Oh, sorry.  I didn’t spend that whole time yelling at Frank.  We had to change offices again. 
PMStephen:  Again?  Where else can you go? 
MarkMoore: This time they moved us to the broom closet.  It’s a good thing we have laptops and they have wireless.  
PMStephen:  The broom closet?!?!  You have to be kidding me.  I’ll call Thomas. 
MarkMoore:  He was the one who moved us.  It’s only for today, while they set up his office to accommodate us. 
PMStephen:  Why’d they move you this time? 
MarkMoore:  They gave our war room to two new VPs, who are *not* happy about sharing, by the way.  When we left, they had their secretaries building a dividing wall from reams of paper.  Good thing there are two doors to that room or there might have been bloodshed. 
PMStephen:  This is ridiculous. 
MarkMoore:  Don’t worry about us.  We’ll be fine as long as our batteries hold out.  There’s only one outlet in here and they’re out of power strips, so we have to take turns plugging in. 
PMStephen:  I’ll talk to Thomas anyway, but I’ll make it clear you’re not complaining.  Now, about that eyeliner... 
MarkMoore:  Gotta go:  my batteries low so I have to shut down any unnecessary applications.
Mark quickly logged out.  Shaking his head, Stephen picked up the phone and called Thomas.  Connie answered on the third ring, speaking over the sound of hammering and various heavy thumps.
"Hello, Mr. Antorelli’s office."  

"Mr. Antorelli?" Stephen asked in amusement.  "Did they replace Thomas?"

Lowering her voice to a whisper, Connie said, "He makes me answer that way now.  I think he’s jealous of all of the VPs we have and wants to remind them that he was here first." 

In the background, a querulous voice said, "I heard that!"

"He’s in a bad mood, too, because we just hired two more," Connie added.  "Fair warning." 

There was a click as she transferred the call to Thomas, who began speaking before the phone was all the way to his mouth.  "Can’t talk for long, Stephen.  Lots going on here and plenty of meetings to attend.  I can only spare a few minutes."

"Maybe you can make some time, since it sounds like we’re both annoyed by the same thing," Stephen replied.  "Any chance you could stop moving my team around long enough for them to get some work done?"

"Believe me, I’m not thrilled about moving all of them into my office, either.  It’s a good thing you’re not here, too, or else you’d have to sit in the hallway with Connie’s assistant." 

"Who are all these new people, anyway?"  Stephen began, but Thomas interrupted him to yell at someone.

"No, face that desk the other way!  I don’t want them all staring at me all day!"  Thomas heaved a put-upon sigh.  "Sorry, you were saying?"

"I was asking what all of these new VPs do.  You must have about one VP for every two normal people by now."

"Thanks for rubbing it in," Thomas replied bitterly.  "As one of the ‘normal people,’ I don’t get all of the information anymore, but from what I have been told, most of them are concerned with member acquisition."


"Meaning that they have connections with casting or modeling agencies, record labels, dance schools -- "

Now it was Stephen’s turn to interrupt.  "Dance schools?"

"Oh, didn’t they tell you?  We’ve added dancers to the list of potential customers.  Apparently, Rod has a contact at the Bolshoi Ballet who thought this was a great idea.  We’re also considering comedians."

"Stand-up, sketch, or improv?"

"Possibly all three."

"Oh.  Well, that could work, I suppose."

"So anyway, these new hires are supposed to bring in the subscribers.  Did I mention that we were moving to a subscription model?"

"You want people to subscribe to an online contest?  How does that work?"

"Um, well, I guess we’ll have a whole series of contests, one every month or… something.  To be honest, I’m not sure.  I’m not involved in the business side much anymore.  We have a whole marketing department for that."

"How many VPs do they have?"

Thomas coughed.  "Three."

"So are they all judged against each other, or do you judge by category?"

"What, the VPs?"

"No, the comedians."

"Oh.  Category, I guess.  I mean, how do you decide whether one guy telling prepared jokes is funnier than a whole troupe doing improv?  Improv’s a lot harder.  And would you give the same prize to a whole troupe as you gave the one stand-up guy and tell them to split it, or do you give every member of the troupe the same amount as the individual contestants get?  Hmm, maybe we should choose a Most Humorous Player in a troupe and give the prize to him.  You know, I’ll bet we don’t even have a data model for this…"  Thomas trailed off, and Stephen heard typing.

"I’ll let you ponder that.  Just make sure you update Kelvin on any changes so he can work them into the technical design.  Can I assume that this will be the last move, once everyone’s in your office?"

Thomas stopped typing.  "Unless they take my office away, yeah.  No danger of that, as far as I know."  Stephen could hear him knocking on the wood top to his desk.

"Oh, one more question," Stephen added.  "If you’re growing this quickly, why don’t you just get a new office instead of cramming everyone into that one?"

"We did, in New York."

"Tough commute."

"It’s only a branch office to help with recruiting.  There are plenty of models and comedians there, as well as some musicians.  Oh!  That reminds me," Thomas lowered the phone and called, "Connie!  I’ll need another clock for the wall, set to New York time.  What?  I don’t care; just get one, will you?  Make it white this time, so I can tell it apart from Boston.  Because it’s my system and it works for me, OK?"  He raised the phone and spoke to Stephen again.  "Boy, I give her her own assistant and she starts getting uppity with me."

"What color’s her hair these days?"

"Annoyingly bright red."

There was a loud click as Connie came on the line.  "It’s Red Rum, I’ll have you know, so don’t push me!"  She hung up again, forcefully.

Returning to a thought that had occurred to him earlier, Stephen said, "By the way, I’m surprised that Brad didn’t volunteer to help with the model recruiting."

"He did.  I think that’s why they opened the New York office:  so that Brad would stop giving women the address of his New York apartment and inviting them up for an ‘interview.’  That man has no shame."

"That must be why he fits in so well in LA."


"Never mind.  Good luck getting everyone moved in."  Stephen hung up and saw that his IM window was blinking again.  This time it was Kelvin:

ZeroKelvin:  Hey, are you still in the office? 
PMStephen:  Yeah.  I was on the phone.  What’s up? 
ZeroKelvin:  Did you hear that they’re adding more customer categories? 
PMStephen:  Just now, yes.  Is it a problem? 
ZeroKelvin:  Not really.  My architecture is flexible enough to accommodate it, almost. 
PMStephen:  Almost? 
ZeroKelvin:  I have a problem with comedians 
PMStephen:  Why am I not surprised? 
ZeroKelvin:  Was that you being funny?  I missed it.  Could you put a smile on the end of the funny sentences so I know when to pretend to laugh? 
PMStephen:  OK, I deserved that.  Now what’s the problem? 
ZeroKelvin:  I just wish they would decide whether comedians are one group, three groups, or some kind of hybrid subcategory.  I need to know before I make any changes. 
PMStephen:  They’ll figure it out soon.  In the meantime, you have other things to work on, right? 
ZeroKelvin:  Yes, but I’m starting to suspect that the CBU engineers keep adding features to make sure that we lose the race. 
PMStephen:  Has anyone noticed yet that they aren’t even working on the same project as we are? 
ZeroKelvin:  Not so far.  They make sure to send someone to all of the team meetings, and no one has asked to see our work yet, so there’s no way to tell what they’re doing.  If anyone asks, though, Craig is prepared to tell them that his team is working on the administration interface.  That should scare any non-techies away. 
PMStephen:  All right.  It would be nice to have some help, though, wouldn’t it? 
ZeroKelvin:  Not really, because then I’d have to spend all my time babysitting them.  This way I get to write code, at least. 
PMStephen:  I really hope this doesn’t blow up in our faces 
ZeroKelvin:  Frank said you were worrying and saying that things were going too smoothly.  Do the new categories make you feel better?  Now something has gone wrong. 
PMStephen:  No, that’s just normal scope creep.  In fact, it almost makes me more nervous, because they’re acting like normal clients.  I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. 
ZeroKelvin:  You’re like one of those rats that’s been shocked too many times.  Don’t worry; sometimes the food pellet isn’t booby-trapped, and sometimes there is no other shoe. 
PMStephen:  Hang on, my phone’s ringing
Stephen answered the phone.  It was Thomas again.

"I thought you had meetings," Stephen said half-accusingly.

"Just one, actually.  That’s why I called you back:  I forgot to mention one thing when we spoke.  We hired one more VP today:  my new boss."  Stephen could hear Thomas’ lips twisting into a sneer on the word.  "He’s Rod’s son-in-law, and I’m fairly certain he’s never written a line of code in his life, much less managed a team of engineers.  I’m meeting him this afternoon to give him a status on the project and he’ll probably call you tomorrow.  I haven’t told your team.  I wanted to tell you first."

There it is.  Stephen felt a now-familiar twisting in his gut as he reached for his newly purchased box of Alka-Seltzer.  "What’s his name?"

"Richard Jolley."

"I assume that he only goes by his full name."

"How did you guess?  Although he will also answer to ‘Sir,’ I’m told.  Apparently he’s ex-Marines."
Stephen grabbed two more tablets from the box.  "Uh-huh.  Well, thanks for letting me know.  I’ll tell my guys."

"Thanks," Thomas’ relief was palpable, even over the phone.  "I really do need to go now and prepare for that meeting.  Do you have an updated status report I can use?"

"Already on the way."

"Thanks again.  I can’t believe they did this, but I’ll make the best of it, as usual."

Stephen rolled his eyes.  "Right.  Tomorrow, then."  He hung up and turned back to his computer screen.

PMStephen:  I’m back. 
ZeroKelvin:  What was that? 
PMStephen:  The other shoe.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Do Bears Scrum in the Woods? An Agile Fable

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Agile hiking club!  I see that we have a few new members today, so let me go over the rules before we recite our creed and head out for another outdoor adventure.  First, while we recommend that you stay with the group, we are (of course) self-managed, so you're free to wander off for a bit as long as you catch up to the group before the end of the hike.  Second, please notify your hike master if you get stuck in the underbrush, forget which trail we're on, or forget why you're out in the woods altogether.  We're here to make your hike successful!  And finally, please remember that this is your hike.  If you have a better idea for a destination, or if you think that some of those flowers at the side of the trail would make the hike look better, please bring your ideas to the group and we'll consider them.

Before we start our hike let's recite our Manifesto:

"People over processes.
Function over documentation.
Collaboration over contracts.
Responding to change over following a plan."

Very good!  And don't forget the Corollaries:

"There is no boss. The best hike is a self-guided hike.
Writing things down is for the weak-minded.
Collective thought rules over individual genius.
We'll get there when we get there."

OK, I think we're ready.  As you know, per the Second Corollary, we don't have any trail maps because the trails could have changed since the last time we were here, so we'll go from memory, as always.  Follow me, or don't, whichever feels most valuable to you!


Hello again, everyone, and thank you so much for coming back!  Our last Agile hike was quite an adventure, wasn't it?  During the post-hike retrospective, we decided that it would be wise to purchase maps for the most well-known trails in light of the incident with Hike Master Bill.  We appreciate his sacrifice, and the heroic way that he charged that bear before it could get to the rest of the team.  His final words were, "Impediment removed."  Amen, brother, amen.  However, we do recognize the irony in the fact that the whole incident could have been avoided if Hike Master Bill had remembered which trail led home and which one led to the nature preserve.  You remain in our hearts, Bill, faulty memory and all.

The team has reviewed the metrics from the last hike and agreed that, in order to get our feet back under us, we will take a shorter route today and try to build up some momentum for our next hike.  If anyone feels that they need a longer hike, you're welcome to climb some extra trails after the rest of the group goes home.  We appreciate your energy levels and we don't want to stifle your creativity.  If you wouldn't mind sketching some maps for the rest of us to follow next time, we'd appreciate it.


Welcome back, everyone!  Last week's hike went so well, we've decided to kick it up a notch this week!  We'll be leaving the intermediate trails behind and heading straight up to Dead Man's Notch.  Now, I realize that we've never attempted a climb this challenging before, but we finished last week's hike in record time, so I'm sure that we'll be back well before dark.  Plus, Tom and Jim mapped some of the lower levels last week during their free time, so we'll have a huge head start.  They got as far as the bottom of the first cliff and are pretty sure that we can free climb it, so in the interest of traveling light we won't bother bringing any safety equipment.  Ready?  Let's go!


OK, well, last week we might have bitten off a little more than we could chew.  The good news is that Jim and Bob will recover from their injuries in 6-8 weeks and Susan's blood loss looked much worse that it actually was.  It would have been much worse if Hike Master Terry hadn't broken their fall.  He will be missed, and we have agreed to display his hiking boots in the Agile Hiking Hall of fame.  He was a true hike master, always willing to put his team's needs ahead of his own, making sure that everyone was properly hydrated and that there were enough snacks at hike planning meetings.  It's unfortunate that no one heard his warnings about the rockfall, but we really thought that Jim and Bob knew what they were doing when they chose that path.

To make sure that we avoid future incidents like this, we’ve decided to rope everyone together for all future hikes.  We realize that this will limit your ability to explore off trail, but we feel that the team's safety is more important than exploration right now.  Please put on these harnesses and clip onto the guide rope, and we'll get started.  In order to keep us from getting tangled, I'll go first on the trail, but please don't take this as me "leading the group" or telling anyone where they have to go.  This is no command-and-control hiking group, after all!  If you want to go a new direction, just pull on the rope and we’ll all stop to discuss your suggestion.

All right, everyone have your maps?  All roped in?  Let’s go!


Now, really, everyone, I’m a little disappointed in you.  Look, I don’t want to impose my best practice views on anyone, but your behavior on last week’s hike was not exactly in line with our principles.  Getting into a tug-of-war with the guide rope was bad enough, but I would have hoped that someone would have noticed that it was wrapped around Hike Master Rick’s arms and given him a chance to get untangled before you started pulling.  At least you could have stopped when he started screaming!  They tell me he’ll recover, but those were the nastiest rope burns I have ever seen.   Please remember that there are better ways to settle our differences.

I see that we’ve lost a few members this week, and not just to injury.  I recognize that last week’s retrospective got a little bit heated, but I would hope that people wouldn’t give up on our grand hiking vision so easily.  I need buy-in, people!

We’re going on a difficult hike today.  I was hoping that we’d have more people to take with us for this one, but we’ll just have to make do with what we have.  There will be some narrow trails, so please make sure your ropes are tight.  Follow me closely, and no pulling this time!  We have some goals to meet with this hiking club, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to let a few whiners keep us from meeting them!

I’m sorry.  That was uncalled for.  I’m just feeling a lot of pressure these days, and I’m not sure we’re ever going to get to the top of this mountain.  Let’s just get going.  I’m sure if we push hard we can get there and back by dark.



Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why aren't you here yet?

While I often write about work in general on this blog, I rarely mention anything about my workplace specifically.  There's a reason for this: I don't want anyone reading my posts to say, "Hey, he's writing about me!" and either punch me or hug me the next day (either of which eventually means a trip to HR).  Today, though, I want to take a few moments to talk about why I moved to Boulder and why you, dear reader, should be here, especially if you like building software.  "Here" being the Boulder/Denver area in general, but also my company, Reed Group, in particular.

First, why Boulder/Denver?

  1. 300 days of sun. That's right: the best-kept secret of life on the Front Range is that the weather in the shadow of the Rockies is awesome. You can ride your bike in December, hike in shorts in January, and go golfing and skiing in the same weekend. And when it snows here, it melts in a day or two so you don't even have to shovel! Think about that while you wait for your lawn to reappear from under the Boston ice (don't worry, May is just around the corner). 
  2. Outdoor activities year-round. (See above for why this is possible) Denver attracts healthy, active people who want to work hard, then take off for a bike ride before dinner. Mountain or road biking, skiiing, hiking, running, swimming, you name it and we do it all year. Plus, when the weather's this nice you can even stay inside on a sunny day and do nothing without feeling guilty!
  3. High tech is a way of life here. The Denver/Boulder corridor is the top second-tier location in the US for new technology startups, and it's closing in on Boston and San Francisco as the place that's driving innovation. The community behind that innovation is open, supportive, and friendly, a place where people are genuinely excited to see someone else succeed. The attitude and the opportunities are drawing people from all over the world. 
  4. The secret is out and you're falling behind.  People are starting to hear about what's happening here, and they're coming.  Top city for startups?  We got that.  Best places to live? Nailed that, too.  Hot towns for tech talent?  Most educated cities?  Men's Health healthiest places to live?  Check, check, check.  Let's face it: you need to get here before the housing prices go up.
Now, why Reed Group?

  1. We're growing.  Reed Group is one of the fastest growing software companies in the Denver area, with over 150 people in the software and technology division and more than 20 open positions right now.  If our corporate marketing had been better, we would have been in the "fastest growing companies" list for the past several years, and we're accelerating.  We're fixing the marketing thing this year, too.
  2. We do it without pulling all-nighters.  I've been in the startup world for 20 years now, and while I love the excitement of a new company, I also love my family.  At Reed Group, we work hard for 8(-ish) hours a day, then we go out and enjoy the beautiful country around us.  We get a lot done, but we do it without killing ourselves or burning out our teams.  That's been a core principle of mine for years, and I've made it a reality here.  Do we still work in software?  Yes.  Does that mean that sometimes we have to put in extra hours?  Duh, yes.  But it's not a way of life, and that's not going to change.
  3. We have some of the smartest, nicest people you'll ever have the pleasure of working with.  I love not being the smartest guy in the room.  When I worked at Art Technology Group, we had a motto: "We hire smart, nice people and we let them build cool stuff."  I loved that, and to this day ATG is still one of the best places I've ever worked.  I've worked hard over the past four years to rebuild that culture at Reed Group, and I was fortunate enough to start with a core of really intelligent, high-performing peopleto build upon. We continue to hire smart people who want to work with other people to solve really hard problems, so if you're lucky enough to get in the door here you'll be challenged every day.
  4. Our products are the leaders in their markets and we're widening the gap. Our software is our competitive differentiator, and we continue to make major investments to ensure that it stays that way, even as we look for new markets and new opportunities.  This year, we're standing up two brand-new product teams, rebuilding one product from the ground up, and building another new product for a future launch.  You won't find that kind of scale at a venture-funded startup, and you won't get that kind of innovation at a larger company.  We're right in the sweet spot.
You can see the boring job descriptions on our web site or you can just get in your car and start driving.  You really need to be here.

Come play with us!

Monday, December 30, 2013

I got your resolutions right here!

Like it or not, New Year's Day is upon us, and it's time to start thinking about how you can be a better person in the year to come.  Whether you make new year's resolutions or not, you have to admit that the middle of winter is a perfect time for self-reflection.  It's dark, it's cold, and there's really very little else to do.  Plus, assuming that you follow a solar calendar of some kind, there's that whole end of the year thing.

It's not easy, it may not even be fun, but this is the time: you need to become a better you.  But this year is different!  No, you're still going to break that promise to eat healthily by halftime of the Rose Bowl.  This year is different because I've done the work for you!  I've already figured out what all your resolutions need to be.  All you have to do is keep reading.  You can thank me in the comments.

Now, before we get into what we will do to become better, more enlightened, and healthier people in 2014, let's talk about what we won't resolve to do.

1. We will not resolve to exercise.

Let's be honest: you and I both know that winter is the worst possible time to start a new exercise regimen.  You can't go outside because it's too cold and wet, so the only option is the gym, and those exercise machines are boring.  You won't last a month.  Plus, I don't need all your pudgy butts clogging up my gym.  It was just fine without you the other eleven months of the year, so let's not punish January.  If you want to start working out, do it in May when you can get outside.  Riding a bike is much more interesting when the scenery changes.  As an added bonus, if you start then you can make your kids do it with you.  Trust me: nothing shuts up a hyper 13-year-old like the words, "Let's go for a run!"

2. We will not resolve to eat more healthily.

Again, could you pick a worse time for this resolution?  The only "fresh" fruits and vegetables have to be flown in from South America, your body's in fat-storing mode because of the weather, and it's playoff season.  Let's be honest with ourselves: the healthy diet can wait until soccer season, whenever that is.

3. We will not resolve to stop drinking, smoking, or cursing.  

Save it for Lent.

OK, on to the positive side of things.  Here are your resolutions for the new year.  If it helps, you can read them out loud, especially if you're sitting in a crowded room.  That makes them stick better.

1. We resolve to be civil, to try to see things from a different point of view (if only for a second), and to think before we speak, type, or text.

Look, I enjoy a smart-ass comment as much as the next guy (see the entire contents of this blog for reference), but we all could stand to take it down a notch.  There's a difference between humor and abuse, just as there is between healthy debate and mindless bashing.  In our race to be the funniest, smartest, and most correct person in the room, we've forgotten that the creature on the other side of the conversation is a human being just like us.  We also seem to have forgotten that the speck in the other guy's eye is a lot smaller than the 2x4 sticking out of our own eye, and in our haste to rush over and point out his flaws we risk injuring ourselves and everyone around us.  This year, let's take a moment to think before we speak.  Let's remember that we aren't perfect, and even if we were that would only make us more insufferable to be around.  Let's stop, take a deep breath, and think about what we would like someone to say to us, then let's try to say that to the other guy.  And if he insists on being a jerk, you know what we're going to do?  We're going to walk away, because putting him in his place, while it might feel good for a moment, just escalates the verbal arms race.  You and me, we're going to be the better men and women in the conversation for once.

2. We resolve to stop making each other crazy.

Speaking of races, we're also going to stop living life like it's a 100-meter dash, or maybe a series of them.  We're going to stop racing to be the first to arrive at work and the last to leave, as though they gave out attendance awards at the end of the year.  We're going to recognize that the work will still be there tomorrow (and the next day, and the next…), but that our spouses, our kids, our health, and our passions might not.  We're going to give ourselves and each other permission to set the work down today and pick it up tomorrow, so that we can go home and enjoy those perishable treasures of family, exercise, and non-salary-earning interests.  You know what?  We're even going to let each other go on vacation without making a single joke about how the dedicated people are staying at the office.  Then we're going to come back to work, refreshed from the break, and kick the competition's ass together.

3. We resolve to leave everything better than we found it.

This year, every day, in every situation, we are going to figure out how we can make things better because we were there.  And when we say everything, we mean everything: our work, our families, our places of worship, our social gatherings, everywhere we go.  We will not be content to just pass through.  At the end of the day, we are going to ask ourselves, "In even a small way, did I make someone's life better today?" and we're going to be disappointed in ourselves if we can't find a way to say yes.

In spiritual terms, we call this "being a blessing."  In practical terms, you can call it "not being a waste of life."  Life is a team sport, and if you aren't contributing to the team then you're headed for the bench.  This year, we will be superstars at the game of life, and we will change the world one tiny moment at a time.

There, feel better?  I'm glad that I could help you with this little chore so that you can get down to some serious celebrating.  Happy new year!