Monday, December 01, 2003

Did you get enough to eat on Thanksgiving?

Some people didn't. If you're looking for a good cause this season, or at least have some tax-deductible charity money burning a hole in your pocket, I recommend The Boston Rescue Mission (www.brm.org). They give people a place to stay while they help them get back on their feet. It's more than just a shelter from the cold, though I'm sure its residents appreciate that, as well. If you don't want to give here, that's fine, just give your money and/or time somewhere.

The blessings you receive will turn sour if you keep them to yourself, just as a river that stops flowing grows putrid.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Write as clearly as you think (I'll take what I can get).

I have found my new Style Bible.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Mother, brother, sisters, and me

(Cross-posted to Applied Laziness. Look there for more.)

Every company is, in essence, an extended family. We have the parental figures, the sibling rivalries, and the uncle no one likes to talk about. We also have all of the emotional connections that people used to form only with family and neighbors. Some companies embrace this fact, creating an “Us against the world” mentality, or welcoming their new employees into “the Globalcorp family.” Other companies try to “keep things on a professional level,” maintaining that employment is nothing more than a fiscal contract to provide labor in return for wages, and it’s never personal.

The fact is, it’s impossible for work to not be personal. People are emotional creatures, instinctively seeking connections with everyone we meet. It is impossible to spend 8 (or more) hours per day with a group of people and not form a bond with them, which is why it is ludicrous to me to see managers and human resource professionals try to deny this basic fact: we are family.

50 years ago, companies still acted like families, with all of the positive and negative results that you would expect. Workers felt a sense of belonging, of commitment, of brotherhood with their employers and fellow employees. The overriding career goal was to find a company where you could spend your whole working life, working your way up through the ranks until it was time to take your gold watch and retire. This was a direct descendant of the family trades of the previous centuries, where the son either learned his father’s trade or apprenticed in another trade and likely married into his master’s family. There was both emotional and financial security in this model, and people mixed work and family much more freely than they do today.

Of course, not every family gets along, and the bitterest feuds are among blood relations. These same expectations for a stable career and a lifelong commitment to a corporate parent were the fuel behind the union riots and other violent management/labor clashes of the early and mid-1900s. Had the arrangement been merely a financial one, perhaps tempers wouldn’t have flared so brightly.

Recent trends of the last two decades -- job-hopping, a highly skilled technical work force, exaggerated boom/bust cycles in business -- have reduced the sense of family at work and have encouraged the notion that “it’s nothing personal.” Now we think that it’s best to go where the money is, exchanging one job or one work force for another when the price is right. While this attitude is financially convenient for both sides of the employment contract, I would argue that the hidden cost is much greater than the financial benefit.

Whether or not it is logical, people need to feel a sense of camaraderie with their fellow workers. They need to feel that they are working for something bigger than themselves, be it a greater cause or a larger group. They work harder and feel more satisfaction from their work when they see others benefiting from it. If you take that away from them, make it all about me, my job, my paycheck -- essentially reducing them to numbers on a balance sheet -- they quickly lose motivation and their work suffers.

It is considered common knowledge in HR circles that you can’t motivate someone with a paycheck. Money is a necessary part of the equation (a man’s got to eat), but it should be treated as a reward for work well done, not the reason for doing the work in the first place. People have even been willing to forgo their paychecks during tough times when they believed in their company. Why, then, do we so quickly reduce people to cost centers when times are tight? Why do we make it so easy for them to jump ship the moment that a slightly better offer comes along?

I believe that we need to recapture that sense of family in our workplaces. We need to stop trying to draw the line between “work” and “home,” as though there were some way to bifurcate our personalities into “Work Joe” and “Home Joe.” We need to take the same principles that we rely upon to build strong families and use them to build strong companies. If we do that, we can recapture that sense of dedication that leads to such great leaps in creativity and productivity. We can build an atmosphere where, even when things go wrong, everyone pulls together to make them right. We can harness all that energy that is currently being wasted in 8-, 10-, or 12-hour days and give people their lives back, without sacrificing excellence.

This isn’t a dream: I’ve seen it happen, albeit on a small scale. It is possible to build relationships and products at the same time, if we are willing to make the effort to hire the whole person, not just the skill set.

Unfortunately, this is no grass roots movement. The attitudes and practices that make this possible must start at the top and trickle down. Unless the leaders of a company are willing to also be the heads of the family, any mid-level effort at building the family/team will eventually be sabotaged by rapid growth, reorganization, layoffs, or just plain poor management. It has to be a family affair.

More to come…


Friday, November 14, 2003

The other day, I heard this quote from the new VP of Product Development at a software company:

"I fully expect that 75% of the engineers working here today will leave, because this place isn't a country club anymore."

And this man is in charge of software development!

Now, I will grant you that the company where he now works once had a reputation for having achieved the pinnacle of "work hard, play hard" existence, with flexible hours, foosball tables, and an emphasis on having fun at work. During the gloriously excessive dot-com boom, this company prided itself on throwing the best parties around (“Not the most expensive, just the best”).

The thing is, though, all those flexible hours usually added up to far more than 40 per week, and this company’s engineers built the most innovative software products in their space. They also managed to fend off bigger and richer rivals and stay six months to a year ahead of fierce competition for more than five years. The company had a cockiness about it that said to the competition, “We’re smarter than you and we can prove it.” To its customers, though, this company was a best friend, and its people bent over backwards to make sure they were happy.

The thing that set this company apart from its competition -- as is often the case in technology -- was the quality of its staff. Not only were they incredibly smart, but they also took pride in the practical value of their work. No monuments to technology here, no contests to see who could write the longest command statement without a break. These folks wanted to build something that worked, and they did it. Now, many of those people are being shown the door, either through layoffs or through the not-so-subtle proddings of a management team that sees them as expensive factory workers.

I am always shocked by the sheer ignorance of people who fail to recognize the fact that -- in every industry -- a happy employee is a productive employee. Even people who want to squeeze every cent of productivity out of the people in their company should realize by now that they can get more effort from someone who feels that he and his work are valued. This "be grateful you even have a job" attitude only works when the job market is slow, and even then only on the surface.

When people are treated as "resources" and shuffled at will, the best, most creative workers will usually leave at the first opportunity, and those that don't will lose focus and, hence, reduce productivity. Even the most conscientious workers will eventually start mailing it in when it's clear that management believes anyone could do their jobs.

You can't feed a one-way relationship like that forever. As a friend of mine pointed out, “If you believe that everyone working for you is lucky to have a job, you will soon have a company full of people who are lucky to have a job.”

The manufacturing industry learned this the hard way when they started seeking the lowest common denominator in staffing their assembly lines. When workers knew they were essentially replaceable parts in management’s eyes, they started acting like it. Quality dropped, and with it sales. It took a major threat from Japan, where workers were treated like family, to break the trend. Remember Gung Ho?

If this is true in manufacturing, where the labor is both physical and routine, then it is especially true in an industry like software development, where the work is primarily mental and ever-changing. There, a loss of focus can kill days’ or even weeks’ worth of effort. When you are solving complex problems every day, you have to be motivated and committed to do it well, because it's hard. These are abstract, challenging puzzles that take creativity and tenacity to solve. If the developer corps cares about what they are doing, the product shows it. If they are working for a paycheck, the product shows that too. The primary reason that large software companies have fallen behind their smaller rivals is because they lost sight of this fact and started treating software development like manufacturing.

This isn’t about treating top programmers like prima donnas. My rallying cry is not, “Aeron chairs for everyone!!!” In fact, I think that the crazy money that was spent in the software sector during the dot-com boom actually hurt the quality of the products that were developed then. This is about being intelligent enough to recognize how to get the best from everyone in your employ without letting prejudices about what constitutes “real work” get in the way.

A flexible and fun environment encourages creative thinking and entrepreneurialism, while a tense and pressure-filled one encourages taking shortcuts to meet demands (think USSR and five-year plans). A successful software company isn't a country club, it's a think tank.

People like this VP made companies like Microsoft possible, by being at IBM at the time.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Thought for the Day:

"Common wisdom" is occasionally the former, rarely the latter, and often neither.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

The great (s)capade

For the past two days, a debate has raged over the electronic frontier of my workplace. It has to do with three little characters, but boy, are they important.

We’re performing the final tests on a new software feature, and our new feature changes the layout of some screens for those people who are lucky enough to see it. We have been testing this feature for 6 weeks now, and somehow we missed something that our client team picked up on immediately.

When this feature appears, it causes the text next to it to wrap. For one client in particular, that makes things look a little odd. For you see, modern English is not flexible enough for our needs, so we saw fit to extend it in our application. The extension looked something like this: "Please review your number and the other number(s) below." (not actual text, but you get the idea). We just wanted to make sure that, in case there was more than one number below, we were covered. Of course, when you actually look below, the heading clearly says, "Your other number," but still, we’re covering all our bases.

Unfortunately, the creators of Web browsers and, well, any other software that deals with words played it safe, too, and stuck with the plain vanilla English rules, which state that any symbol in the middle of a word should be treated as part of another word when you run out of space. So, our little "(s)" dropped down to the next line, much to the horror of all demonstrators at the client meeting. In the words of one presenter, they were "mortified" to see the errant "(s)," and swore a blood oath to their client that they would eradicate it.

Their mission begun, our hardy folk sent forth a blurring volley of electronic messages, imploring the help of one and all to rid the world of this scourge. The impending launch of this product only increased their fervor. It would mean their heads if the "(s)" ever made it out to the world at large. We understood their concern, shook our heads and clucked our tongues sympathetically, then set out in search of a solution. One brave soul (OK, it was me) noticed that, not only was the "(s)" unnecessary, but it wasn’t even used later on the same screen to describe "Your Other Number." Perhaps we could just remove it and the errant formatting problem from the screen?

Well, this is what we in the software world call a "global change," meaning it would affect all users of this application. As such, it must be treated with appropriate gravity. The mere suggestion of such a change this late in the game set off another flurry of e-missives. No less than three Vice Presidents, a Legal Counselor, a Director of Technology, a Senior Technical Lead, and assorted Other Interested Parties and Stakeholders discussed this radical proposal for 36 hours. As the deadline drew near, they gathered virtually, nodded exhaustedly, and agreed to take the leap. The "(s)" had to go.

With moments to spare, our crack team leapt into action, opened the file, and deleted the three offending characters. The launch was saved!

Estimated cost: $5,000 per character.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Making a hard ride harder

Today, I tried something that I read about in Bicycling magazine. They call it "Bonk Training." I call it making a hard ride harder. For the non-athletes out there, the name comes from "bonking," the sound you make when you "hit the wall," or reach the end of your energy on a ride. I don't know if Powerbar invented the phrase "bonking," but they did a very amusing series of ads a year or two ago featuring the slogan, "Don't bonk." That's where I first heard it, though I've been familiar with The Wall for years.

The Wall is that place where, suddenly, you can't go any more. Your legs suddenly double in weight, you slow down, and your body basically says, "Stop! I've had enough!" Physiologically, it's the point where your body's demands for glycogen have completely outpaced both its glycogen stores and its ability to manufacture more. You're out of gas.

Bonk training, then, is intentionally exercising when you have little or no available glycogen stored, forcing your body to convert fat to glycogen for energy. The best time to do this is first thing in the morning, sice your glycogen levels are already low from going without food for eight hours or more while you slept (sleepwalkers excluded). This accelerated fat-burning process is supposed to last for the rest of the day, so this training regimen is supposed to be a highly efficient way to drop excess weight. One warning, though: you can't exercise for more 60-90 minutes or your body will start cannibalizing muscle instead of fat. For more on how that feels, see "My Climb to the Clouds."

So, basically, instead of hitting the wall, you are picking it up and carrying it on the back of your bike for the entire ride. It didn't sound fun, but I figured I'd try it. I'll have to get back to you on the weight loss, but I can say this: it was hard. 30 minutes in, my stomach started growling, and I spent most of the ride dreaming about the omelette I was going to buy myself for breakfast when I got to work.

I survived, though -- and admirably, I thought -- until I crossed the Marlborough border. Then I remembered why the ride into town is so much harder than the ride out. I call them the Three Sisters: three progressively taller hills that lead into town on Route 20. The first, Bianca, is a sweet little thing; not bad to look at and a lot easier to climb than you'd think. The middle sister,Gertrude, is nowhere near as attractive, presenting a steep face that dares you to get on top of her. And finally, there's Kate. She looks at you, laughs, and says, "You may have climbed my sisters, but you're not beating me, little man!" My calves agreed, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor and cramping viciously in an attempt to get a break. But they're only muscles, and have no pride. I do, and also a brain that realizes there are no showers at the intersection of Routes 20 and 85. I kept pedaling anyway.

After the sisters comes Big Brother. He's nowhere near as steep as Kate, but he presents a long, slow grind that makes you glad to see the back of him. By this time, half of a smushed banana was looking welcome. Once over him, though, it was a nice swift drop in to work. I made it, and was ready to eat.

Read on the Road

Another entertaining message from Route 20:

Monday Luck of the Draw
Free Darts Night

Man, I'd hate to be the guy who loses the draw: "OK, Herb your turn. Up in front of the dart board and bend over."

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Bullfighter

At last, something to help me in my ongoing battle to understand what the heck the people around me are saying! I'm almost afraid to apply it to my last two companies' sales and marketing literature, for fear my computer will overheat. Now, how can I secretly install this on everyone's computers?

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Why tyranny doesn't scare me

CNN.com - Source: Tenet admits never seeing final draft of Bush speech - Jul. 17, 2003

Here is a great example of why everyone who says President Bush will drive America into an untenable global position is wrong. No individual will ever gain enough power to force this country to go where it doesn't want to go, because his peers will never let him. The moment that anyone gains a disproportionate amount of power in American politics, his political cronies immediately beat him back down. It's called "checks and balances," and it makes our political system both the ugliest and the most fair and effective form of government in the world.

No other country -- with the possible exception of Great Britain -- is so adept at airing its dirty laundry to the rest of the world, and while I am often disgusted by the tactics our politicians use, I now realize that they are an unpleasant necessity to preserve the balance of power. I also believe that this is exactly what our founders had in mind when they crafted the Constitution, with its three-headed monster of a government. While none of them could have envisioned global media, 24-hour news, or C-Span (well, maybe Ben Franklin could have imagined it), they certainly understood using public opinion to limit individual power. If you think our political battles are ugly, try cracking open that high school history textbook that's rotting in your attic. The political cartoons and editorials from 100 and 200 years ago make Matt Drudge look like Cindy Brady.

Of course, all of the complainers are part of the process, too, and fortunately there always seem to be an equal number of them, no matter which party is in power. So keep complaining if you want, but stop worrying and spare me the doomsday scenarios.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Oh, were you still using that?

I had a true Dilbert moment at work yesterday. One of the guys I work with went to get a cup of coffee and read some papers, and when he came back he found a guy trying to make off with his computer. Seems my friend had put in a request for a new computer, since his current doorstop -- er, "desktop" -- wasn't nearly powerful enough to handle the corporate-mandated Windows XP upgrade. The purchase request had been delayed, I'm assuming because that would require spending money, but the maintenance order to remove his old machine was approved. Had he come back ten minutes later, he would have been reduced to sending emails by writing them on a piece of paper, folding them into airplanes, and throwing them at people.

The funniest part of this, to me, is that he wasn't even surprised by this. He just shrugged and said, "You'd be amazed how often this happens."

Believe me, I'm amazed that we're even in business.

Monday, July 14, 2003

My Climb to the Clouds: Stubbornness, Pain, and Gatorade

I did the Charles River Wheelmen's Climb to the Clouds yesterday, and I never want to look at my bike again. I rode 105 miles in 8 1/2 hours, with a climb to the summit of Mt. Wachussett (elevation 2000') in the middle. Turns out that this is, if not the hardest, then the second hardest ride in New England, and I chose that for my first (and possibly last) century. I will attempt to recreate the feeling for you.

Arrival (7:45 AM) - I expected that there would be a good group of people, but I pictured maybe 50 riders getting together and taking off around 8:00. So I was completely unprepared for the sight of a parking lot full of cars, with over 250 riders getting their bikes ready, hobbling around in their bike shoes eating bananas, or riding in circles around the lot to warm up. And since bikers have the fashion sense of color-blind punk rockers, it looked like a flock of large tropical birds had landed. I was at once excited and intimidated, with a touch of envy over some of the fine machines I saw wheeling around. The bikes were nice, too.

I registered, was handed my cue sheet for the 105-mile ride, and got on my bike. The ride leader told everyone which markers to watch for on the road (nice of them to mark the entire route) and made a joke about all the pain and suffering the new people were about to experience. We laughed. It was 70 degrees and sunny, with low humidity. Oh, what a glorious day for a ride!

And now, my thoughts as the miles passed by.

Miles 1-20 - Riding in a large group of people is an incredible rush. I’ve never done this before and the sounds surround me and suck me in: wheels humming over the pavement, gears clicking, riders talking and relaying signals.

“Right turn!”
“Car back!”
“Car up!”
“Stopping!”
“Hole!”
“Hole!”
“This road is crap!”

One group, wearing yellow “Team Fred” jerseys, takes off in a paceline and leaves everyone else behind. They clearly have a different agenda than everyone else on this ride.

I feel like I could ride like this forever. How fast am I going? 18 mph! That’s great! We’ll be done by 2:00!

Miles 21-26 - First stop, at a convenience store. I buy some Gatorade to fill the one bottle I have emptied so far, then get back on the road. Nothing to eat yet, I’m not hungry. The pack is spreading out a little bit now, but I still find people to ride behind. I want to draft the entire way if I can.

I'm not hungry yet, but I have to keep eating and drinking. Hmm, which color Gatorade? I think I'll go with the purple this time. It will mix well with the yellow stuff already in there. Still some room? Might as well pour in this free Red Bull those girls gave me at the start. What a lovely shade of brown! That ought to set some of the other riders wondering.

Miles 26-38 - We hit our first real hills, and now I see the difference between the hammerers and the casual riders. The hammerers take off up the hill in high gears, standing up when they must to keep moving. The casual riders drop down to the lowest gear possible and just try to keep moving. The joking begins:

“Is this the mountain? That wasn’t so bad!”
“Wait until you see the real hills.”

Another 250 riders join us from Bolton, riding routes that vary between 35 and 60 miles. They are fresh, but they quickly blend into the rest of the pack, which is now spread out over several miles.

I climb better than that old guy, anyway, and this still feels pretty good! I’m leaving everyone behind on the downhills without even pedaling. There’s no way I’m hitting the brakes now, so maybe I’ll pick it up a little and see if I can catch the lead group…. OK, the lead group’s too fast and I lost the main pack. Well, a little time to myself isn’t so bad. Whew, I can feel the breeze for the first time today! Was it this windy before? Why did all those guys stop there? Oh, I see. Man, is this a hill or a cliff? I hope this is the beginning of the real climb.

Miles 38-43 - Second stop, at another convenience store. They’re ready for us, and nearly everyone stops. I grab a Propel vitamin water and some Sun Chips, then stand outside, refill my bottle, and eat about half the bag before moving on. I leave at the same time as “Phat Tuesday,” another team training for the Pan-Mass Challenge, and end up riding with Andrea after her teammates leave us in their dust. She tells me that the Climb is the biggest training ride for the PMC, since, compared to this, riding 192 miles in two days feels easy. I am not encouraged by this. We are now following signs to Mt. Wachussett State Park, past Wachussett Reservoir. The scenery is beautiful; the crosswind is not.

Is this the real climb yet? I can’t let Andrea get too far ahead of me. Is this the real climb yet? What does a 9% grade look like, anyway? Oh. That’s what it looks like. See you at the top, Andrea.

Miles 43-46: The Real Climb - We were warned at the beginning that the approach to the Mt. Wachussett includes a one-mile stretch at a 9% grade, but I thought nothing of it. I had climbed steep hills before, so this was just one more, right? Riiiiight. We turn onto the access road and suddenly the road stands on its head in front of me. I drop down to my lowest gear immediately: no stupid pride about “granny gears” here. I want to be able to keep moving my pedals.

Keep pedaling, and don’t think about how far you have to go. You’ll get there when you get there. How fast am I going? Don’t look! 4.5 mph? Aaargh! It doesn’t matter, as long as I don’t fall over. I could walk faster! Keep pedaling. Gravity is a harsh mistress. I will not stop moving or get off and walk this bike! I am going to ride to the top of this mountain even if I have to be carried off of it!

Halfway to the visitor center, there’s a lovely scenic lookout. A couple of riders are there, enjoying the view. On my way by, I ask, “Are we there yet?” Their response: “I think it’s a little further on.” Liars. It is a lot further on.

I stop at the visitor center for water and a trip to the bathroom, glad that I’m hydrated enough to pee. Eric would be so proud! You take what you can get on these rides, and any sign of normal bodily functions is positive. I eat a Power Bar then hop back on the bike to finish the ride to the top. Andrea slipped her chain halfway up the access road, but she catches up and leaves me behind again on the way to the top. The visitor center is about 3/4 of the way up the mountain, and the road dips and weaves all the way to the top. A couple on a tandem passes me several times as we work our way upward, with me passing them again on the downslopes. On the last one, I save them the trouble and pull aside before we start climbing again.

OK, this is hard, but I’m still going. My legs aren’t burning, which is good, I think. Of course, I can’t really feel them either. At least they’re still moving, so I’ll assume they’re still receiving signals from my brain. Is this it? There’s the parking lot! Ugh, why do they always make the last 30 yards the steepest? Do the cars stop on the road instead of in the lot? I mean, seriously, this is like a 45-degree angle!

Mile 46: The Summit - The view from the top of the mountain is nice, but not worth the trip. The best part is the sign that said, “Summit – 2000 feet.” That doesn’t qualify as a mountain on the West Coast, but then, you rarely start at sea level when you ride there, either. I’ll take it. I get my picture taken by the sign with my bike, though I’m not sure she deserves to be in the picture. I’m doing all the work.

Yes, my bike’s a “she,” and she’s a high-maintenance, cranky wench, always wanting me to spend money on her. Thank God my wife’s the exact opposite. I’m no dummy. Shh, they can hear you! Oh, sorry.

Now, for the trip back down the mountain. Brakes on, balls out.

Whee!!! Oof! Whee!!! Oof! Oof! Oof! Man, those frost heaves will shake your fillings loose! Whee!!!

Miles 46-59 - One rider lost it at the bottom of the road and there is a crowd gathered around him waiting for the ambulance. I stop for a moment to see if I can help. He is smiling and joking, so I guess it’s nothing worse than some skin left on the road. Andrea stops there to wait with the group, but I continue on after seeing that I have nothing to add to the 10-15 people already gathered there. I stop again at the visitor’s center for a couple of minutes to stretch, top off my water bottles, and finish the Sun Chips. Still not really hungry, but I know I need to eat something. On to the second half!

It is mostly downhill on the way back out of the park, so the next 10 miles go by quickly. I am on my own again, though I catch up with one guy on the downhills and ride with him for a little way. He isn’t very talkative.

The next stop is an official CRW water stop that apparently had food at one point, though now all it has is water. All I see are empty cookie and banana boxes and bags that once might have held bagels. Between getting 100 more riders than they anticipated and having to send the support truck out to three accidents, they ran out of food. I eat the other food bar I brought, fill up my water, and continue on.

I’m getting a little hungry. Wish someone had left some cookies behind. Oh good, more hills.

Miles 59-65 - The hills just keep coming, and I’m starting to get tired. The route goes all the way around Wachussett reservoir, and the wind whips across the open water to try to push you off your bike. I can’t enjoy the scenery because I just want to get back in the trees. I’m all alone now. Mr. Talkative dropped me as soon as we both left the water stop.

I’m not sure this is fun anymore. Do I have enough water? Look, more hills!

Miles 65-77: BONK!!! - At mile 65, I hit the wall and I want to go home. My legs suddenly seem to weigh 100 pounds each, with my bike adding another 100. My helmet feels like it’s too tight and my head is throbbing. I am in a deserted stretch of the ride, with no stores in sight. Even though I can always see other riders ahead of me, there’s no hope of catching them unless they all get flats. Then, maybe. I have finished one bottle of water and, even though I have another full one, I somehow become convinced that it’s almost empty, too, so I stop drinking. I’m not hungry anymore. In fact, I’m faintly nauseous.

At one point, after not seeing the marker arrows for several intersections, I decide I’ve missed a turn and stop to check the cue sheet. A couple of other riders stop, too, and even though it turns out we were going the right way, I am just glad for the excuse to stop for a few minutes.

Hey, hills!!! There’s a change of pace! Maybe I could just lie down on that lawn there. Think those people would mind? I’m getting thirsty, that’s not good. Hey, look, I have another bottle of water! I thought I was out. Downhill, thank God! Lord, let it keep going down-- Gaa! Another hill! I wish I could find somewhere to fill up: I’m almost out of water. Wait, no I’m not! Man, I’m thirsty. Why did I want to do this, again? I am not going to give up, no matter how much my butt hurts. Where are all the stores? I just want to lie down, but there’s no way I’m going to just collapse here on the side of the road. I am not going to let anyone see that!

Miles 77-85 - The last stop is another CRW water stop, this one with food. I eat 1 1/2 raisin bagels, drink a bottle of water, and lie down in the shade to rest for about 15-20 minutes. After my little catnap, I feel better, though it only lasts until the next hill. Only the desire to get this over with keeps me going.

I am going to kill the son-of-a-#@$% who designed this route! What did he do, take a topographical map and draw a line across every fold in the land? Come on, another hill? What, there were no flat roads in the entire county? Just keep pedaling and you’ll get there eventually. Don’t look at the speedometer. It doesn’t matter. 14 mph?!? Aaaaahhh!!! The only way I will even consider speeding up is if I find a group that’s going a little faster than I am, and I can draft. Hmm, no one in sight. Maybe if I sing it will take my mind off of things.

Songs from Chess, the musical, get me through exactly two miles before I give that up, too.

Miles 85-104 - In a direct answer to prayer, I catch up with a group that was going my speed. Actually, I catch up with their laggard, and the others are, fortunately, waiting for him. Nathan, Steve, and Eva pick up a couple of us along the next mile or so, and we form a ragged pace line. Without them, I don’t know when or if I would have finished. Eva, who leads much of the time, sets a wicked pace once she gets going: 21.5 mph consistently. We all churn like mad to keep up with her, and the miles start flying by. We drop several of the orphans we just picked up after a couple of miles; they just can’t keep up with Eva, who is, as far as I can tell, a machine disguised as a 5’ 2” woman. I fall behind on every hill, but they wait for me and gravity – for once -- is on my side on the downhills. I stay with them.

Thank God for this line! We are flying! I can’t feel my legs again, but I can live with that. Oh good, another hill. How can they not be as tired as I am? I will not be dropped, I will not be dropped, I’m going to be dropped. I wish they didn’t have to wait for me. It’s embarrassing. Better that than going it alone, though. What is that woman on? She’s inhuman! I can’t do this much longer. Is this ride really 105 miles, or 100? Oh, I hope it’s 100. Nope, we’re still not there. Keep pedaling.

Mile 105: The Last Mile - My trio of angels drop off one mile before the end to go back to their friend’s house, where they parked their car. I ride the last mile alone, just pushing one pedal down at a time. Finally, Concord Carlisle High School swings into view, along with my family, waiting for me in the parking lot. The van is decorated with signs and balloons, and my wife has the video camera out. I try not to puke on camera as I pull into the lot.

I made it! Have I ever been this sore or tired before in my life? What about during daily doubles, when they had us hitting each other all morning and running all afternoon, then ended with 240s around the goalposts and back? Nah, that wasn’t as bad as this. At least I got to hit people then.

The End (4:30 PM) - After I kiss my wife and kids and smile tiredly for the camera, I roll over to put my bike back on the car and drive home. The urge to hurl slowly subsides now that I have stopped moving, and someone tells me to keep eating so I don’t get sick. I don’t want to even look at food, but a quart of Gatorade would be a good start. The guy parked next to me is just packing up, too. He did the Ironman triathlon, and he says that ride was nothing compared to this. Then he says, “Congratulations, you’re a Century Man!”

Yeah, I guess I am.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

What do you think? Well, you're wrong!!!

I don't usually write or talk about politics or world events, because I have found that, in any given group of people, more than half will disagree with whatever I have to say. But I saw a couple of things online today that inspired me to write a little bit.

First, there was this, courtesy of LT Smash. Then there was the response from this twerp.

The first story gave me hope for the people of Iraq and for this world, because I saw good people facing daunting odds to bring about a better life for themselves and their communities. I also caught a glimpse of that human spirit that everyone's always talking about, that spark of the divine that knows what is right and strives to do it, even when it's hard. It was encouraging to me to see people naturally seeking an orderly form of government, without being told how to do it and without immediately seeking to use power for their own personal gain. The fact that they did this in the face of gangster tactics and a total lack of promised monetary support is only more impressive.

Of course, there's always the other side of things to look at, too, dramatically illustrated in this story. Wherever there is opportunity, someone will step up and attempt to use any power for their own benefit. Only when all people in a society feel free to speak up and oppose those abuses will they stop. To me, the interesting dichotomy between these two stories lies in what these two men wanted. The first man only wanted the necessities for himself and his neigbors: food, water, air conditioning. The other wanted money. One man's desires were so humble, so simple, that the other could have paid for them with the money he made in half a day of swindling his neighbors. Think about the proportions! One man gathered money only for himself, yet had enough of it to meet the needs of a hundred neighborhoods. Sound familiar? I'd say that the Iraqis are more similar to us than we'd like to think.

***

Another thing that strikes me when I read about what's going on now in Iraq and Afghanistan is that it feels more like a Sopranos episode than an international event. Abdullah says something he shouldn't, so Saddy and the boys gotta teach him a lesson. Then someone else encroaches on someone else's turf, so there's hell to pay. Meanwhile, the federal authorities are just trying to keep everything under control so everyone else can get back to their lives. All we're missing is a subplot about some spoiled kids. In some ways, I think this makes it harder for the US to deal with the mess there, because we went in expecting Josef Stalin and got the Godfather. We need cops there more than we need soldiers.

***

I should also explain why I try to avoid talking about politics and world events. The advice for generations has been, "Don't bring up politics or religion in polite conversation," and I subscribe to that. Unfortunately, many other people don't, and now the same bore who would gladly corner you at a party and drone on about tax laws can get himself his very own web site and expostulate to the world at large. There's something about these two topics that makes everyone an expert and everyone else an idiot. I think I've figure out what it is: there are no real, provable answers, and we hate that. We, in our human pride, can't stand the idea of not being able to put something in a neat little box and stick a label on it. Uncertainty drives us crazy. Even people who claim that there are no absolutes in the world, that everything is shades of gray, do it so insistently that they leave no room for disagreement.

Just as you can't scientifically prove that God exists, you cannot empirically prove that any given course of action on a global or national scale will inevitably lead to a single conclusion. We can't see the future, no matter how certain we claim to be about it. Heck, we can't even predict the weather a day in advance with absolute certainty, yet we all claim to know how to solve the problems in the Middle East!

This uncertainty and our resultant discomfort with it cause one of several reactions in people:

  1. Utter inflexibility. This is the "I'm right, and unless you agree with me, you're wrong and probably stupid" approach that so many people on the Internet take. In the safety of our dark rooms, where we don't have to actually look in the face of the people we are calling "mouth-breathers," "fascists," or "liberal monkey-lovers," otherwise polite people become real jerks. This retreat into absolutes in the face of uncertainty may be comforting, but it makes for boring conversation after the first lap around the rhetorical circuit.

  2. Intellectual arrogance. The close cousin of inflexibility is intellectual arrogance. I see this more from those who consider themselves liberal, which only makes the elitism more fascinatingly ironic. These people think that, because of their high-priced educations, or by virtue simply of time served in the rarefied air of academia, they should have all the answers, so they pretend that they do. Their response usually sounds like, "If you had read everything I have/really thought about it/were willing to accept complexity, you'd understand why I'm right." They also tend to get more offended by disagreement, as though their credentials should be enough. I find this group to be the least practical and the most insecure.

  3. Withdrawal. When faced with overwhelming complexity, many people simply withdraw. They turn off the TV news, they only read the sports and the comics in the paper, and they stick to the polite topics in conversation. While this may be easier on the individuals, they are essentially forfeiting the race to the zealots on either side who do care. We get into the worst messes in the world when people would rather look away than deal with unpleasantness.


Allow me to propose what I believe to be the better choice: acceptance. We're never going to know the eventual repercussions of any action, so I suggest that we stop trying to guess, do the best we can, and expect others to do so as well. There is only one being in this world who knows the future, and in general, He isn't telling. So acknowledge that the world is an unbearably complex system, that everything impacts everything else, then put your head down and make sure that your impact is a positive one. Don't worry about what anyone else is doing: that's not your job. And for heaven's sake, stop complaining about people you've never met!

Take care of your business, the people who are put into your care, and the strangers who cross your path needing help. Find the unique mission that was set aside for you to do and make sure that you leave this world a better place than it was when you got here. Treat others with the respect that you would like them to show you. That's how you work this system, and that's how things will get better.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Thoughts From the Road

This morning was my first sunny morning bike commute, and it made a difference. From my average speed (16.2 mph) to my general attitude to my water intake, everything was up from last week's gray trudge. I was soaked again when I got to the office, but at least it was my own sweat and not rain and road goo.

It's still not the most exciting ride, though, so I have to find ways to keep myself entertained and stop the first three lines of "Unwell" from endlessly repeating in my head. Today's game was "What was that before it was roadkill?" the game where you try to identify the original owner of the various chunks of fur and goop on the side of the road. Hey, I figure that I have to look at them to dodge them anyway. I might as well make it fun. Here's an excerpt from today's game:

Squirrel.... Squirrel.... Opossum?... Frog. Hey, little guy, what were you doing so far from water? Besides getting squished, I mean.... Raccoon.... Jogger. Hmm, maybe I should report that to someone....

Who says you can't have fun while you exercise?

Read on the Road

You have a lot more time on a bike to read the signs on the side of the road than you do in a car, as well as a lot more time to ponder their meaning. Here's a few things I read today:

On a reader board:

Buy 1 L PIZZA
GET 2 SM FREE
PROPANE AT G CUES


My thought: I didn't realize things were that tough for the propane industry. Regardless, is it a good idea to give propane away as a meal freebie? What's next: Happy Meals with a working miniature gas grill for the toy?

Another sign:

Hot Loc's
picture of scissors


I had a little trouble telling what the owner of this establishment was trying to communicate. I can only assume from the inclusion of the scissors on the sign that this Loc fellow is a very attractive Vietnamese hairdresser.

On the side of a HMV in big blue letters:

"Still In Business"


Two thoughts:
  1. You know cars are getting too big when people start naming them like boats.

  2. Maybe that's his office, and he's just trying to let his customers knwo that he's still working. There's certainly enough room in there to host a small meeting.


The Climb to the Clouds is in 2 1/2 weeks, so I need to keep hitting it hard for another week or so.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

"Why ask why?" I'm glad you asked. I'll tell you.

Friday, June 20, 2003

I read a blog by a former coworker of mine, and it started me thinking about the different faces we put up to the world. This guy's a decent guy at work who clearly likes to have fun in the office, but he can also be a real -- how to put this nicely? -- hardass. He scared the heck out of almost everyone when he first started at our company, and has a reputation -- self-proclaimed, I might add -- for cleaning house as the first order of business in every new job. But when you read his blog you see a tender-hearted dad who's concerned about how nervous his girl will be at the recital and who has picnics after church. Is this the same guy?

Men are famous for compartmentalizing their lives. Work goes here, home over there, and ne'er the twain shall meet. I have been accused of forgetting that I have a family when I am at the office, so I know whereof I speak. But why do we do that? I can understand trying to put on a good face to the world, but the faces that we put on at work are often far worse than the ones we wear at home. What good does that do?

Let me point out that, while men are accused of it more often, I see women doing the same thing. I'm not sure they separate the emotions as neatly as we do, but they certainly have different faces for different situations, and often save the toughest one for the office. So if you're female, don't just laugh and say, "Oh those boys, with their hunter instincts! They're so ridiculous!" Look at your reflection in the monitor, sister, and ask yourself who's looking back at you right now.

I have always been a great advocate for leaving your baggage at the door, whether at work or at home, but I also believe that we all have to be internally consistent if we are to ever be happy. You should forget about work problems when you're at home, and vice versa, so that you can focus on what's in front of you at the time. Those emotions can be separated, but the person having them should remain the same wherever he or she is. Your role may change -- brave leader at work, helpful spouse at home -- but you should still recognize the person in each role to be the same.

Too many people use either their work or home environment as an excuse to do things they wouldn't otherwise do, or at least in ways they wouldn't do them if their family/coworkers/pastor could see them. That's bad, and it always catches up to you. If you're putting on a mask at work or at the office, I urge you to take it off. If you're ashamed of the person behind the mask, then start working to improve that person rather than hiding. We'll all be glad you did.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Did another ride the other day. It's hard to get up at 6:00 knowing you have a 90-minute ride before spending the day at work, but it's not so bad once you're on the road for a while, especially when the sun is (finally) shining. The afternoon ride was glorious, though, and far better than sitting in the Mass Pike for 45 minutes.

I have more proof on the "Massachussets tilts" theory, too:

My average speed going east in the afternoon: 18.8 mph
My average speed going west the next morning: 15.2 mph

And no, I don't believe that this can solely be attributed to the fact that I hate mornings, though it certainly feeds that sentiment.

My century comes up in four weeks, so I have to amp up the mileage, morning blues or not.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Pennsylvania Gazette: Alumni Voices (The Deluxe Edition)

Today I posted a memory of my time at the University of Pennsylvania. I'll put it here, too, for posterity's sake:

My memories of my time at Penn are a collection of sensations: the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells (oh, the smells!) of Penn:

My first sight of Hill House when the taxi dropped me and my huge boxes off in front. It took me five minutes to figure out where the front entrance was.

The sound of someone saying who-knew-what in Irvine Auditorium. The acoustics in that place were so bad, you could be 20 feet from someone and not be able to understand them, never mind catching a word of Dennis Miller's rants from the top of the balcony.

The taste of my first Sophie's cheesesteak. I don't care what anyone else says, that truck served the best steaks in town and, therefore, the world.

The slightly sweaty smell of Franklin Field on a hot spring day, the rough feel of the twine on the javelin grip in my hand, and the thrumming "thwing!" of a good release. What better way to spend a spring afternoon?

The smell of Icy-Hot and the feel of rugburns on my knees after every intramural football game.

The sight of the magical transformation of the Harold Prince Theatre from a big box with seats to some other place, whether New York, Berlin, or the imaginary mindscape of Pink Floyd's The Wall. The smell of makeup and spirit gum in the dressing rooms, and the sound of the women changing on the other side of the dressing room we all shared, where we weren't supposed to be looking.

The smell of desperation and competition in Steinberg-Dietrich during Dead Week, the crackling sound of my Finance text book opening for the first time, the faint whiff of ozone on a new bulk pack, and the frighteningly blank blue WordPerfect screen in the Wharton computer lab.

The taste of a chocolate chip muffin eaten on Locust Walk between classes, accompanied by the sound of students shilling tickets for their shows.

The sound of panhandlers calling out for change, especially the guy who sat on the bench at 40th and Locust every day: "You got a quarter? Howwwwyadoin'?"

The sour-sweet funnel cake/beer/pot/vomit smell of the Quad during Spring Fling. My freshmen year, I kept asking, "Is someone burning rubber?" until someone explained to me what that smell was.

Gingko berries.

The "eau du Philly" aroma that rose from the steam grates on the street, or the so-thick-you-could-taste-it reek of the subways in summer.

The sweet burn of the freshly washed trays that I stacked and ran back to the front of the Hill House dining hall for three years. Hey, it paid better than sitting in the library sorting books.

The sight of a wall of toast cascading down from the upper decks of Franklin Field or a sheet of streamers from the top of the Palestra. No other school that I have ever seen had such unique and fun athletic traditions as Penn, nor such a well-endowed band.

The slightly moldy smell of the ironically named House Of Happiness, the house on 41st Street that I shared with seven other unique personalities for two years. We were far more real than "The Real World" ever dreamed of being, and we had a lot of fun when we didn't want to kill each other.

The sound of my wife-to-be signing a love song in Houston Hall Auditorium in the world premiere of BEYOND CONTROL. Directing that show was the first and most important step in the rest of my life, because that is where I met her.

Friday, June 06, 2003

Thought for the day

If everyone in a meeting agrees on a decision, half of them aren't paying attention.

No Regrets

My recent grumpy posts may leave you, gentle reader, with the impression that I regret leaving my old job, or feel I may have made a mistake. While I must admit that I do miss certain aspects of my old company, and I certainly miss my friends there, I have no regrets. In terms of my career, this was the right move to make. I have a much greater ability to make a positive impact now than I did before, both within the small consulting startup that pays my salary and for the clients we serve. I expect that we will someday set the standard for how to get things done, and I want to be in the forefront of that effort. Working at a "grown-up" organization is part of the price of this new reach, as well as part of the learning process. Until I see what it is like to work for a company, I can't effectively suggest improvements in that environment.

This has always been my biggest complaint about consultants: they zoom in, hold a few interviews, then drop a binder of standard "customized" recommendations on some VP or CEO's desk and stand their with their hands out, waiting for a huge check. After they collect it, they leave the poor souls to figure out how to make those recommendations work. They never make a lasting impact, and they rarely stick around to see if their "improvements" stuck. Given the inertia of organizational culture, I would argue that they rarely work. In fact, I would argue that most consulting is built upon the fact that that model doesn't work, so they have to come back with a bigger team to do it again. That, to my mind, is cheating, and I want to find a way to actually help people accomplish something at their jobs again. We're all here for a third or more of every day; we should have something to show for it.

Oops, sorry: got sidetracked there for a moment. Back on the subject of regrets. Whenever I remember all the great things about my old job, I also remember that many of those memories are several years old. The company that I left was not the company that I joined, and it didn't fit me anymore. Like the wedding tux that seems to have shrunk in the intervening years, my old job both pinched and chafed. It still looks good from a distance, but I remember the discomfort. It was time to get a new suit. Who knows, though? Maybe someday the tux can be altered and I'll find that it fits again. Until then, I'll keep working to make this new one fit.

They paved Paradise and put up a "No Parking" sign

To quote Joni Mitchell (or the Black Crowes now, I suppose): "You don't know what you got 'til it's gone." I can't believe that I ever complained about restrictive policies or things that kept me from getting my job done when I worked at a small company. That was paradise, from a freedom to do my job point of view, compared to large company life. I already mentioned the total lockdown of my desktop, the filtering of "dangerous" Internet sites (profiles.yahoo.com? Watch out!), and the strictly enforced conformity. But did I mention that, unless the computer was ordered by IT, built by the IT-approved vendor, and installed by an IT tech, it's not allowed on the network at all? This in a company where -- by my scientific technique of walking around and looking at the color of everyone's badges -- an estimated 20% of staff are contractors.

My consulting company issued me a laptop, for which I will be eternally grateful. It's brand new, really shiny, and three times faster than the antique sitting under my desk at work. After three years of exclusively using a laptop, my level of efficiency is pretty tightly tied to the mobility of my computer. I use it to take notes in meetings (of which there are many here), I break up the monotony of my environment by moving around when I work, and I can work at home. I would say that it is the single most effective productivity tool in my work life.

The thing is, security policy prevents me from getting network access of any kind with my laptop at the office. This places my wonderful productivity tool on an electronic island, so that the only way I can use it to communicate with my fellow worker bees is to take it home and send email from there. It's a 45-minute drive home, so that kind of negates the benefit, you know? It's hard to sit in a meeting taking notes, impressing everyone with my technological savvy, then say, "OK, I'll get those to you by 9:00 tonight!" It's kind of like sending email by telegraph.

Which brings me back to Joni Mitchell. In my old office, people complained bitterly (and are still complaining) about replacing open-source email and calendaring tools with Microsoft Exchange, about being "forced" to use Outlook if they wanted to schedule a meeting easily on the new system. They argued that their productivity would drop by 5% or more if it took them a second longer to read each email. But they still have the freedom to choose to use any email client they want, if they are willing to figure out how to make it work with Exchange. They'll even get help from their IT guys if they need it, even though their email client isn't officially supported. They're still walking around with their laptops on a wireless network that extends to the patio out back and the courtyard in the middle of the building, assuming it's ever sunny enough to use them.

When I worked in my small company, I agreed that everyone should have the freedom to choose the tools that worked best for them, as long as they adhered to some sort of standard that the IT group could support. I still do. But to anyone who complains that they can't get their job done because Opera 1.0 doesn't work with the company intranet, I say, take a look around. I'm looking at what used to be Paradise, and now it's a big blacktop covered with "No Parking," "Tow Zone," and "Visitor Parking Only" signs, and I'm still trying to figure out what they did with my car.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

N.Y. Post: Writer plagiarized from National Enquirer - May. 21, 2003

I think the Post really should have caught this. I mean, Madonna hasn't been seen canoodling with a two-headed cow since her 'Material Girl" phase.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

The Long Ride Home

Last night and this morning, I made my first bicycle commute between Marlborough and home, a 48-mile round trip. That means that in the past 15 hours I commuted further than I did in most weeks when I worked in Cambridge. I don't think I'll be doing this every day, but once a week isn't so bad. I drove the bike out here yesterday morning, along with a change of clothes and anything else I might need today, then rode home last night and back out this morning. Thank goodness for the fitness center and its towel service, so all I had to do was drag my sweaty carcass into the locker room and shower, without having to pack all the toiletries in and out on my bike.

For the record, I thought of doing this to make my long commute manageable before Bicycling magazine suggested it. And while I realize that Bike to Work Week was last week, I opted for Bike to Work in the Sun Week, instead. I am a fair-weather activist, at best.

I learned a few things on my long ride there and back again, which will be presented, as always, in bulleted form:

  • 24 miles is a long way to go first thing in the morning.

  • While Route 20 may be the only east-west route from Marlborough into Boston, it is not the prettiest. It's like riding on the edge of a highway. Wait, it is a highway! That would explain some of the honking when I took the lane.

  • All of Eastern Massachusetts slopes down toward the ocean. This may not sound profound, and I know that all land masses tend statistically downward from the mountains to the ocean. Eastern Mass, however, has a perceptible tilt to it.

  • When you're hungry, you forget that a Clif Bar looks like a foil-wrapped turd and you start to think of it as the greatest treat you could put in your mouth. Not that this makes it any easier to choke down when you have no saliva left. (Hey, I didn't promise these would all be pretty.)

  • The Sudbury River stinks, especially when it has been left out in the sun all day. Ditto for large raccoons.

  • There is a lot more roadkill out there than you notice going by in a car.

  • Big trucks would rather crowd a bike than oncoming traffic. I guess I already knew this, but the lesson is driven home in a new way when the truck in question is going 50 mph (don't tell my wife that one).

  • A reverse commute is not as advantageous on a bike as in a car. At least when the traffic is heavier, it also moves more slowly. I suspect that many of the cars on my side of the road were so enjoying taunting their jammed brethren with their speed that they forgot to look ahead. That, or people are idiots no matter which direction they are driving.


I also got to see some interesting scenery. Until now, I had the impression that the further west you went, the nicer the towns were, by virtue of a sort of general suburban effect. Turns out I was wrong, and there is a fairly seedy section sandwiched between the historic burbs of Sudbury and Marlborough. According to the map it's part of Marlborough, but you wouldn't know it from riding through it. They even spell the name of the town differently: "Marlboro." I figured that either Philip Morris (pardon me: "Altria") got a sweet endorsement deal or else the folks on the lo-rent side of town couldn't afford the extra silent letters. Either way, I plan to stop in at "Psychic Readings by Cindy" on my next ride and ask her if she can sense a more scenic route that won't take me 10 miles out of my way.

Monday, May 19, 2003

Now I know why the caged bird sings...

...it's to keep from going mad! The environment at my new job is so enervating that, regardless of how much sleep I had the night before, I am ready to pass out on my keyboard by 2:30 every afternoon. The quiet hum of the fluorescent lights, the bland beige of my cube walls, and the utter lack of any kind of conversation anywhere in this vast, cavernous maze all conspire to sap my will to live! Can hazardous levels of blandness qualify as a hostile work environment?

My old job may have had underwater stock options, constantly shifting direction, and a sense that all that was good about the company was steadily being replaced by what was expedient, but at least it had human contact! At least there, on the rare occasions that I was bored, I could launch a Nerf dart at someone to get their attention. Here, I'd have to get a Nerf mortar to get it over the walls, and I'd have to attach a homing beacon so I could find it in the maze.

Speaking of mazes, I still get lost in this building every day. If I ever get cocky and stray from one of the two known routes to my desk, I usually have to go back downstairs, or possibly even outside, to get back to the front door or the cafeteria and start over again. The mind-boggling combination of hundreds of exactly identical cubicles in slightly different configurations leave my admittedly poor sense of direction screaming for mercy. I wander from room to room, looking for some landmark: a conference room that I've seen before, a printer with a familiar-looking printout on it, even some small desk toy left above wall level by some adventurous soul. I've taken to using the toys and the names on the cubes as my favorite landmarks ("Left at the foam snowman, then a right at Jocelyn Miramino and straight on till morning.").

I don't think it's this bad everywhere. I have been in other big companies and managed to walk around without getting so totally lost. This place is so bad, I expect to see graffiti on the walls from previous captives:

Theseus was here. I hate my Dad.
Watch out fer Injun Joe. He almost got me an Becky --T.S.
Keep smelling the cheese, then find new cheese. But don't use it for shampoo, or try to make shoes from it. I'm really sick of cheese.

I'm going to take a pack of Post-its with me on my next explore and leave them on the walls to mark each turn. As long as I get back before the cleaning crew comes through, I should be OK. But I'm bringing a Balance bar, just in case.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

I've got a new blog (yeah, like I was doing such a bang-up job keeping this one going). It's about work, in general, and my theories on how to do it better. Separating it from this blog kept this space free for continued random (but deep) thinking.

Check it out, if you want. Or don't, if you want to keep spinning your wheels. It's up to you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Busy few weeks. New job, new environment. I'm a consultant now, which means that not only do I get to experience all the different ways that companies try to fix things, now I get to tell them how they should do it! The side effect of this is that now I get to see the inside of some much bigger companies than I have worked with in the past. I've always preferred the more dynamic environment of the small or startup company. Now, I'm part of a startup, but I report every day to a Fortune 500. Strange mix.

Now, I expected life to be a little bit different in a larger company, and obviously understood that the Dilbert factor was going to go way up, but I was still unprepared for the sheer level of bureaucracy that I encountered when I walked in the door. I continue to be amazed by the number of people who receive a paycheck for essentially making other people follow instructions. I'm also shocked by the amount of freedom that people are comfortable giving up in order to have a job.

Things that annoy me about my new engagement:

  • I have no admin access on my computer, so I can't install anything without either: a) wading through a byzantine ticketing system to (hopefully) file a ticket with the right IT sub-department to give me access, or b) waiting on the phone for 30 minutes to get a live person and walk them through the installation on my computer. I just want to synch my Palm!!!

  • Restricted access to the Internet. The official explanation is "security," but really, where's the security risk in The Onion? I've run into the Red Screen of Rejection so many times just in the course of trying to find information, I'm surprised that an IT SWAT team hasn't descended upon my cubicle to confiscate my keyboard. Actually, I can't believe that Blogger isn't on their restricted list.

  • In the same vein, employees here are not allowed to access external email, again in the name of security. POP3 is just plain blocked, and every major Web mail site is restricted. I'm beginning to suspect that "security risk" is a synonym for "personal time." It took me almost an entire day to figure out a way around that one.

  • Meetings. Nothing happens without a minimum of two meetings, and generally a pre-meeting conference to plan for the meeting. As far as I can tell, email is only a way to send meeting invitations, pre-meeting documentation, and meeting minutes. I like to talk as much as the next guy, but occasionally I like to actually think on my own, too. It's so bad here that people will insist on scheduling a meeting to discuss something, then not show up. Apparently, just the act of scheduling was enough.


It's not all bad, though. There are a few perks here:
  • Fitness center on site, for under $20/month. That's a third of what I paid for the one near my house.

  • Cafeteria in the building, complete with a grill, pizza, deli, and nice salad bar. Friday is Buffalo Chicken day, and which everyone gets excited about.

  • Someone always leaves a full newspaper on the bathroom stall floor, so if I time it right I can read the sports and the comics during my "break."

  • Oh yeah, and it's temporary. Six to nine months from now, I'll be learning the idiosyncracies of a different company. That -- plus the significant pay raise -- is why I took this job.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

I start a new job in two weeks. Last Friday, I told my team that I was leaving, and there was a stunned silence for a couple of minutes. While it made me sad, that also made me proud, because they didn't want me to leave. It seems better than variations on, "Well, duh! I mean, when was the last time you did anything other than surf the net, anyway?"

I also realized that this was the first time anyone had voluntarily left in a very long time. I think people had forgotten you were allowed to do that.

This got me thinking about the various reactions you could get from people when you announce that you're leaving a job:

The Boss:

Good: "This will be a great loss to the company. Is there anything I could do to convince you to stay?"
Bad: "All right! I met my quarterly goals 2 months early!"

Your peers:

Good: "I'm sorry for us, but glad for you. Good luck!"
Bad: "Can I have your chair?"

Your direct reports:

Good: "I don't know how anyone could be a better manager than you have been."
Bad: "Does this mean I don't have to pretend to like you anymore?"

Your wife:

Good: "I'm so proud of you!"
Bad: "What a coincidence! I'm leaving, too!"

Monday, April 14, 2003

Thought for the day:

"Revenge is not a rifle. It's a shotgun. You just want to get the person who hurt you, but you end up hurting everyone around them, sometimes for generations."

-- Pastor Steve Schell, Northwest Church, Federal Way, WA.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Redo

What if you were given three "do-overs," chances to go back to any point in your life and start over again from there. What would yours be? Would you kiss the girl, take the risk, do the work? Every life has turning points, where a decision opens one door and closes another, where we look back and say, "If I had just...." Do you have doors that you wish you had opened, or ones you wish you had left closed? If you had three do-overs, would you have had the patience to save them, or would you have used all three of them trying to get that one girl into bed your junior year in high school?

What would your do-overs be? Tell me.

To be honest, I don't know what I would do over. I'm pretty happy with where I've ended up so far, the individual annoying details of any given day notwithstanding. I wonder if, were I to go back and do something over, I'd wish I had stayed with the original plan, after all.

Friday, April 11, 2003

Painfully funny link of the day:

Frank Lingua and Buzzwords

It's funny because I hear language like this every day. It's painful, well, because I hear language like this every day. Why do we feel compelled to constantly make up new ways to say the same thing, only less clearly? I suspect that it's because the concepts we deal with daily, especially in the high-tech world, are so abstract that we have to resort to metaphors to try to make ourselves understood. This process has gone completely out of control, however, to the point where I don't even understand what my coworkers are saying anymore, and it takes them forever to say whatever it is.

So, as part of my one-man effort to rescue professional communication, I hereby swear to cull the following phrases from my daily conversation:

  • "Hone in on...."

  • "Flush out the details." I will, however, be glad to flesh them out, since that sounds so much more positive.

  • "Get our arms around it," or, "Throw a rope around it." (I especially like the imagery of this one when used to describe either an executive decision-making process or a problem with a large server.)

  • "Make it transparent."

  • "Going forward...."

  • "Take it offline," unless, of course, I'm actually talking about taking something off of a network.

  • "Eating our own dog food."


Some things I can't bear to part with yet, but will promise to use sparingly:
  • "Herding cats." Too apt to my current role. Plus, not being a big cat fan, I kind of like the image of driving them across the range. And the branding.

  • "Proactive." I realize that this was made up because it sounded better opposite "reactive," but saying, "be active about it," just doesn't cut it. Maybe I'll try "plan ahead."


In general, I pledge to say what I mean, mean what I say, and be satisfied with using the old words in interesting ways rather than making up new ones. Maybe the refreshing change will get people's attention.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Living and working in Boston/Cambridge is kind of like being in college forever, except the money flows in the opposite direction. You still interact with all the same personality types:


  • The software engineer who's really a musician/author/stand-up comic, and is just hanging in with this programming thing until the other career takes off.

  • The guy who everyone assumes must be a genius, because why else would he show up to work dressed like Robin Hood/the Borg/Batman?

  • The brooding, perpetually upset libertarian/vegetarian/human secularist who will protest anything as long as the majority of America agrees with it, and who demands her/his right to free speech as long as it agrees with his/her views.

  • The throwback who still thinks the 60's and early 70's were the greatest time in history, mainly because back then he wasn't the only one still smoking pot.


You get to have all the same conversations, too, only now it's by email, generally in front of a large virtual audience of people who wish you would just shut up and go away:

  • Should [fill in the blank] be allowed in the workplace, even if it offends someone (as everything always does)?

  • Is it morally right to support a government that allows [fill in the blank]?

  • What's really in that burrito?

  • Who will be the first to go on a berserker killing spree first, the guy who never makes eye contact and only eats cold rice, or the one who keeps shouting at his chair? And when they snap, will they kill the guy who always sings along with Culture Club on his headphones first?


OK, maybe that last one is only at my office.

Things I have learned about myself in recent weeks:


  1. While I like the idea of starting to write again, I don't necessarily sit down to do it, especially if I get a new game to play.

  2. Icewind Dale, while lacking the depth of the Baldur's Gate series, can be just as addicting.

  3. Given the opportunity, I will go for a week or more at a time on fewer than six hours of sleep a night, to guarantee that I get some time to myself.


Trying this blogging thing again, and hoping that this time I keep it up...

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Watch this spot. I guarantee it will be worth it.

OK, I can't really guarantee it. I mean, how do I know how you measure worth? For all I know, you might not consider anything worthwhile unless it includes a killer recipe for apple strudel, which I don't have. But, to be honest, this isn't really for you, it's for me. I want to have somewhere to write, just to capture random thoughts and snippets of ideas and to practice writing for an audience. This may never be seen by anyone else, but at least I can pretend to have an audience. Even that's a start.

And that's what this was: a start. So watch this space, and there will be more. And I'll see if I can get you that strudel recipe.