Friday, October 23, 2009

Hasn't the world ended yet?

We Americans have a unique talent for narcissistic hyperbole. Every problem we face, every political statement or person we disagree with, seems to portend the end of the world, or at least the end of the American Way of Life as we know it. Regardless of color, creed, or political persuasion, this one thing unites us: I want to proudly do what I want to do without interference, but if you're allowed to do what you want, well, that's it: the world's gonna end. And I will loudly complain to anyone within earshot about your plans for world domination and/or destruction of my way of life until I run out of breath, in the hopes that they will join my revolution against the forces of darkness.

I'm tempted to say that this is a recent phenomenon brought about by the Clinton administration, but as that would just be another example of this problem, it feels a bit redundant. The fact is, we've been railing at each other since before we were a country, when the Whigs and the Tories were convinced that each was about to lead the other off a precipice and take the new world with them. If anything, we've gotten more polite about it, because no matter how much Rush Limbaugh's words may hurt, I have to think that having hot tar and chicken feathers poured over your naked body has to hurt a little bit more. I can always turn off the radio, after all.

Why do we expect the world to end whenever we don't get what we want? Are we still toddlers at heart, crying because Mommy wouldn't give us another lollipop? A quick look at history -- even recent history, if you're too lazy to scan more than a couple of decades -- shows that everything happens in cycles. Even my short lifetime has been marked by a steady pendulum of conservatism and liberalism, Republican and Democrat, for the past thirty-some years. LBJ gave way to Nixon and Ford, who gave way to Carter, who gave way to Reagan, et cetera, et cetera. Tick, tock; restrict, relax; tax, rebate; segregate, integrate. And life goes on, and the world doesn't end.

I applaud passion. I myself am passionate about many things: my family, my work, my faith. A seashore or a mountainside at sunset can bring tears to my eyes. But passion without reason is the fuel of mobs and the tool of unscrupulous demagogues. We need to look at our passions, our outrage, through the lens of history and realize three things:

  1. Our problems are no bigger than anyone else's have ever been: they're just ours.
  2. No one person or group has the power to irreparably break the world. It's too big and we're too small.
  3. Nothing is permanent, not even [insert your favorite bad-decision-made-by-someone-else here]. All things come to an end.

As the wise man said and the mop-topped singers reiterated: to everything there is a season, and if there is one constant about seasons, it's that they change. To paraphrase Mark Twain: if you don't like the political climate, wait four years and it will change. In the meantime, could you please stop yelling?

Our lives are but a breath, and I for one choose not to waste that breath in an angry shout.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Unemployment, Interrupted

Well, there go all of my semi-retirement plans: I got a job! Now I have to put on pants and go back to the office, which really throws a wrench in my previous plans to ride my bike, walk around in shorts and sandals, and spend every morning smiling serenely over my newspaper at everyone as they rushed in and out of Starbucks. I even considered taking my laptop down there so I could pretend to be working on another book!

[Sigh], I suppose I shouldn't complain too much. After all, the job came to me before I even got around to looking for one, while other people can do nothing but look. I guess God has his first assignment ready for me already. Exploring Boulder County by bike will have to wait.

Friday, August 28, 2009

My New KPIs

Working as a financial services consultant for the last six years, I learned to love metrics. We measured everything: the site's performance, response times, down time, up time, wait times, peak times. We measured return on investment, return on capital, expenses, revenues, client satisfaction, and call volumes. If you could assign a number to it, we tracked it, and if you couldn't, we made one up (they call those "composite metrics"). But the most important numbers were the KPIs, Key Performance Indicators. If you wanted to call yourself a project manager, then you had to get yourself a set of those.

KPIs measure the success of a project. They tell you whether the last six months of meetings, late nights, arguments, and design debates were worth it. They also tell your boss (or in my case, your client) whether you're worth the money they're paying to keep you around. You watch those numbers pretty closely.

Now that I'm voluntarily unemployed and living in Greenland -- er, Boulder -- I find that the old metrics no longer apply. I need a new set of numbers to measure my job satisfaction. Allow me to present my new KPIs:

  • Miles biked: 183
  • Books read: 2 1/2
  • Pounds lost: 4 (need to work on this one)
  • # of days where I walked my kids to/from school: 9
  • Mornings spent at Starbucks reading the paper while other people rushed in to get their coffee to go: 7
  • Hours spent writing: 1 (definitely need to work on this one)
  • Days since I saw a Dilbert cartoon that directly applied to my day: 35 (this one makes me excessively happy)

So far, I'm pleased with my performance, though I can see some room for improvement. We'll see what I can do over the coming weeks.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Into Thin Air

So this is it. We're really leaving Boston after 12 years to move to Boulder, Colorado, a place we've visited exactly once, for a long weekend. This would seem stupid if it didn't almost exactly mirror the move to Boston 12 years ago. Of course, last time it was just me and my wife, moving from a small rental house in Tacoma to an even smaller hotel room in Harvard Square. That time, we had only visited Boston once, overnight. But it felt right, and other than the bitter cold (-40 wind chill the night we arrived) and a mild case of pneumonia for the first couple of weeks we were here, it all worked out amazingly well. Who needs planning, or lists of pros and cons, or… housing?

Yeah, we're moving to Boulder without a place to live -- though I'll settle that before the family arrives -- without a job, and without really knowing anyone in the area. We're going because it feels right, like our time in Boston has come to an end and God has a new assignment for us in Boulder. We don't know what exactly that is yet, but I suspect that mine has something to do with helping young software companies grow, with making work a fun place to be, and with sharing the experience I've gained in the last 12 years with a bunch of new people who need it. I suspect that my wife's job, as usual, will be to bless the heck out of a new group of friends, to remind them that they are special, unique, and loved, and to organize some parties that make people say, "Wow, you really didn't need to do all of this for us!" Because that's what we do. It also happens to be something that we seem to be uniquely gifted to do, so we'd better do it to the best of our ability, no matter where we are.

I expect this to be an adventure. I expect to see God do amazing things for us. I suspect that it will scare the heck out of me whenever I stop to think about what we're doing over the next few weeks. But it will be the good kind of scared, the kind you feel when you look down from the top of a mountain after climbing up a narrow trail, where you see the whole world laid out before you and a voice in the back of your mind says, "Hoo, boy, if you slipped now, you wouldn't stop falling for days!" But that voice is drowned out by the sound of creation singing before you, the trees waving their arms in joy, the rocks shining with light, and the clouds dancing across the sky. It's thrilling. It's terrifying. It's life, and we're embracing it to the fullest.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ride to Wingaersheek

Here's what I'm doing this weekend:



Gotta get my beach time in before we head to the mountains for good.

We leave for Boulder in 17 days! Woo-hoo!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Pics from the 2009 Best Buddies Hyannisport Challenge

Best Buddies just posted a bunch of photos from this year's Hyannisport Challenge. You can view the entire set here.

Highlights:

Clearly, everyone had a fun time. It's nice to look at these pictures and not think, "Ugh, I'm glad I survived that one." Let's hear it for nice weather, and go Best Buddies!

Monday, June 29, 2009

2009 Best Buddies Hyannisport Challenge Ride Report

At last, here's the promised ride report. It's a few weeks late, but hopefully entertaining for all that. If you haven't seen the previous reports, you can find a full list of links here. Enjoy!


So, here we are: my fifth Best Buddies Hyannisport Challenge! Looking back over the past five years of ride reports, I notice that the content has changed. The first couple of years were all about the pain: riding a long distance was a visceral challenge (much like living in Arlington) full of trials, cramps, and long, painful climbs. Just to finish was a victory, whether I did it alone or with others. The fact that I finished the first couple of rides alone, trailing behind many of my teammates, may have had something to do with that. Then I figured it out: new bike, new training regimen, new ability to maintain a paceline (did I mention new bike?). Suddenly, the tone of the ride logs shifted: it wasn’t about survival anymore, but rather camaraderie. The pleasure of riding with others for long distances replaced the animalistic joy of survival, so the story of the ride changed accordingly. We still had the physical challenges (bad weather, road grit, the occasional stomach cramp), but the personalities of my fellow riders began to dominate the storyline.

This year continues and extends that trend, with a little old-fashioned pain thrown in for good measure. The miles flew by in a blur (most of them, anyway), the people provided the entertainment (until they dropped me), and I expanded the team to include an audience of thousands (at least in theory) via the magic of cellular technology, Twitter, and Facebook. So, let us begin our journey:

5:30 AM:
We gather at Danny’s house before driving to the Kennedy Library together. Morris will meet us here this year, so we don’t have the usual rented pickup to carry everyone’s bikes. This time, I’m driving, with Bob and Tyler’s bikes joining mine on the rack on back of my car. Bob and Tyler join me in the car as well, with Tyler assuring me that he knows how to get there. Holding the ride two weeks later already has one side benefit: the sun is already up. Previous years had the air of a secret meeting held by an incredibly inept group of conspirators, with 10-15 people muttering to each other in the dark, knocking over bicycles, and generally making a racket. Now it just feels like we’re going on a nice day trip. Except for the rain, of course, which tells me that it really is Best Buddies time.

6:45-7:30 AM, Mile 0:
My first status update to my legions of followers (all 95 of them):

6:53 AM: “At registration for the Best Buddies Challenge. Got my jersey, my bagel, & my coffee. Did I mention it’s RAINING?!?”

Yep, it really is Best Buddies time. The Buddies band is performing on the bandstand, the registration tables are humming, and riders are milling around, eating bagels, sipping coffee, and stretching. The line for the bathroom grows longer by the minute. Tyler, always ready with the pro cycling tips, is trying to explain the finer points of Vaseline usage to Bob:

Tyler: This is why I shave my legs.
Bob: Are you sure that you want to be telling me this?
Tyler: It’s for days like this.
Bob: You shave in case it rains?
Tyler: Yeah, because then you can just put Vaseline on your legs and you don’t have to worry about wearing rain pants. If you did that with hair on your legs it would just be gross.
Bob: And that’s the only use for the Vaseline?
Tyler: Very funny. Actually, I know a few other lube tricks. Want to hear them?
Bob: I have to go register now.

Registration over, we linger in the dry lobby until the second call to the start, then troop out into the light drizzle. It’s warm enough that most people have decided to leave the rain gear behind, but there are a few dubious glances at the sky as we line up. This year, our captain Danny, along with a few other top fundraisers, is invited to the honorary “pole position” at the front of the pack. The rest of us are well back from the starting line, so we can’t hear most of what’s said. I snap a picture of the crowd and send a quick update, anticipating an imminent start:

7:09 AM: And we're off!

Whoops! I forgot that, like Danny Time, Event Time bears little relationship to the rest of the world. In Event Time terms, “We’re about to start” means, “Get on your bikes and stand still while we talk for another15 or 20 minutes. If you could try to get your muscles to stiffen up completely by the time we fire the starting gun, that would be most appreciated.”

And so we stand. And stand. And sing the national anthem, and stand. And now it’s time for the traditional Parade of Waving Celebrities. David Spade steps up and Anthony Shriver thanks him for donating $50,000 to Best Buddies. Anthony also thanks him for getting up so early to come out and be with us, but from the look of him, I’m not sure he ever went to bed. Miss Teen USA and her fellow teen, Miss Massachusetts, wave prettily. Finally, Verne Troyer (AKA Mini-Me), trots up to fire the starting gun, and:

7:27 AM: “OK, NOW we're off...”

Finally, the 2009 Best Buddies Hyannisport Challenge has begun. 100 miles to go!

7:30-8:45 AM, Miles 0-17:
The first miles roll by easily, with the pack following our police escort at a leisurely roll. We seem to be moving faster this year, but I fail to catch the foreshadowing and instead enjoy the fact that I don’t have to concentrate to stay upright on my bike. Bob and Tyler and I find each other in the crowd and stick together, keeping a lookout for the rest of the team but not finding anyone. Tyler offers to stay with us this year, saying, “Last year I rode with the guys at the front of the pack, the racers. Those guys were fast! They were flying, going 30 miles an hour or faster on the flats, and everyone has to take a turn in the front. I kept up with them for the first 50 miles or so, but I knew I wouldn’t make it more than 70 miles at that pace.”

“Only 70 miles, huh?” I ask, thinking, that’s about 50 more than I could do at that speed. “We’ll try to take it easy on you, then.”

“Yeah, this should be a fun ride today. We’re just out here to enjoy ourselves, right?”

After about twelve miles, our escort drops off and we are free to set our own speed. The racers quickly pull away, never to be seen again. Bob, Tyler, and I find a comfortable rhythm and the miles fly by. It isn’t long before we reach the first rest stop.

8:45-9:00, 1st Rest Stop:

8:47 AM: “1st rest stop. Miss Mass and Miss Teen USA are here to greet us. I forgot my water bottles, but Tyler hooked me up.”

8:51 AM: “Sign on one rider's back – ‘I'm OK, just slow.’"

The first stop is chaotic, with riders rolling in and out and celebrities and other notables milling around. Maureen McCormack (of Marcia Brady fame) is there, as always, smiling and chatting with riders. Anthony Shriver comes over to say hello to Danny, and we reintroduce ourselves. He rode the first segment, but he’ll be needed at the 50- and 20-mile ride starts, so he’ll continue on by car from here. Verne Troyer is here again, sitting in a lawn chair and shouting encouragement to the riders as they start the second leg, and the Miss Teens are posing for pictures with a lot of men who are old enough to know better.

About 45 minutes into the ride, I realized that I had left my water bottles packed in my bag, so Tyler loaned me one of his. Now, we are both riding with one bike bottle and one PowerAde bottle. I stuck them both in my bottle cages, but Tyler doesn’t trust an odd-shaped bottle to stay put at the speeds he travels, so he stuck it in his back jersey pocket, along with some fruit and several free samples of nutrition bars. As we prepare to leave, he looks like he just robbed a grocery store.

Big Tom and Little Tom are here, too, but not for long. They stick around long enough to greet the first few Patriot Pedalers and then head out. We’re eager to keep going, too, and we establish what will be our pattern for the rest of the day: Tyler, astride his bike, waits for me to round up the rest of the team. After several minutes of shouting, “Danny! We’re leaving!” I give up and get my bike as well, at which point Danny begins to gather his things. Eventually, we grow tired of waiting and leave with whoever’s ready. This time, however, there’s some confusion: Tyler thinks we’ve left without him, so he sprints ahead while the rest of the team is still gathering. We won’t see him again until the next rest area.

9:00-10:05, Miles 17-37:
Bob, Danny, and I, plus Pete, a new member of the team, ride out together and quickly settle into the best paceline we can manage on the gritty roads. The rain has stopped, but the roads remain sloppy, forcing us to stay out of each other’s spray and take corners carefully. Still, we make good time and I can feel my muscles starting to loosen up as I look forward to a pleasant day of riding. Danny, Bob, and I are used to riding together, so we keep the line tight and chat even as we ride quickly through the rolling hills of the South Shore. Pete is still getting used to riding in groups, so he joins us in spurts, sprinting up beside someone and falling back again.

This is one of my favorite sections of the ride. We breeze past beaches and cranberry bogs, always trending downhill. The pace is quick, our muscles are fresh, and I am optimistic that this will be the easiest ride yet. I miss having Big Tom to draft behind, but Bob is a reasonable substitute, if a bit skinny to present a reasonable slipstream. Danny, as usual, invites other riders to join in behind me, calling, “Come on, there’s room for at least one more person back here, and you barely have to pedal at all!” I’d like to think that he’s complimenting my strength as a rider, but we all know that it’s the barge-like width of my shoulders that he really appreciates, and the vacuum that they create behind me. Oh well, you take your compliments where you can get them.

Last year, we averaged about 20 mph on this section of road, and cruised through some sections at a steady 25 mph. This year may not be quite that fast, but we still set a sizzling pace. We pass group after group, calling out friendly greetings and the occasional request for space on the way by. I take the lead for much of the time, knowing that I need to serve my time while my legs are fresh. If the past is any guide, I’ll need someone else in front of me later.

Towards the end of the segment, I realize that Pete hasn’t led at all yet. Not wanting him to miss out on the experience, I call him up to the front. He sprints up from the back and… keeps sprinting. I pedal furiously to catch him, calling, “You’re supposed to drop back to our pace when you get to the front!” Pete looks over his shoulder, shrugs apologetically, and slows down so that the others can catch up. Within minutes though, he is back to sprinting. Maybe he just has a fast song on his iPod. We do our best to keep up, but the paceline is gone. It’s every man for himself, at least for the moment.

Our disjointed version of the town line sprint ends a few minutes later as we sight the second rest stop. Pete looks back and grins. “That wasn’t too hard!”

10:05-10:20 AM, 2nd Rest Stop:

10:05 AM: 2nd rest stop. Just caught up to Tyler. No sign of Big or Little Tom. Sun's out now and it's getting steamy.

Beautiful Duxbury, how I love to stop and rest in the shade of your trees. I know that we’re only one third of the way through the ride, but this is where it starts to feel like we’re on the Cape, so it feels much closer to the end. The Toms have ridden on, but Tyler is already here and waiting for us so we make a quick turnaround. After a few minutes of wandering in the shade, eating a little, and rehydrating, we start trying to leave. As usual, this involves a few seconds of strapping up and getting on the bikes and several minutes of yelling, “Danny! Let’s go!” Finally, after we threaten to ride on without him, we gather Danny into the fold and start moving: Bob, Tyler, Danny, Pete, and me.

10:20-11:50 AM, Miles 37-64:
Tyler is clearly feeling his oats now. In a burst of cheerful sadism, he leads us out at a 20+ mph pace. Danny and Pete quickly drop off to find their own speed, but Bob and I hang in there. Even drafting behind someone, I can feel myself pushing to keep up. There is none of the usual sense of resting in the back, then working when it’s my turn to pull: it’s work a little, then work a lot. Yet I press on, determined that if Bob can do it, so can I. Given the set of Bob’s shoulders, I’m willing to bet that he’s thinking the same thing.

At this point, we must pause and consider Bob. At age 53, Bob is one of the older riders on our team. Among the “fast” crew, he’s the oldest, something he never lets us forget. With age comes a variety of maladies, or so we frequently hear, so with his back, neck, knee and assorted joint problems, it’s a miracle that Bob even gets on a bike, much less rides 100 miles. At least that’s what he says, right before he takes off and leads the pack for most of a 45 mile ride. Among the sandbaggers on the team, Bob is the baggiest.

This year, Bob wasn’t sure if he was even going to do the ride at all. He injured his foot over the winter, so badly that he could barely walk on it. He saw a variety of specialists and received recommendations ranging from drastic surgery requiring a six-month recovery period to the medical equivalent of “rub some dirt on it and get back in there, kid.” Still, Bob rode when he could, testing the foot to see how much it could take and extending his already legendary pain threshold to new levels. A couple of weeks before the ride, after several 70-mile training sessions to make sure he could take it, Bob finally decided to join us. He wasn’t sure he would make it, of course, and assured all of us that he would need to stop at the 50-mile point to make sure that he was able to continue. We smiled politely because we had been taught to respect our elders, but we all knew that we would be following Bob to the finish line.

So here we are at the 50-mile mark. Specifically, blowing through the new 50-mile rest stop that was added this year to provide a starting point for the new half-century ride. We wave as we fly through the parking lot, but we have no intention of stopping, because four stops were good enough for us last year, so doggone it, they’ll be good enough for us this year too. I look longingly at all the happy people at the refreshment tables, but keep pedaling. Bob makes no mention of stopping to see how he’s doing, as I knew he wouldn’t. He only hunches his shoulders further and speeds up. Halfway there.

This is, in some ways, the hardest part of the ride. Somewhere in this segment, I always reach the point where I leave my training mileage behind and roam into that special territory between training and the Big Event. Here is where I must take stock, reminding my body that we have only begun to suffer together, and there are many more miles to come. I must dig into those reserves that I have built up over all of those training rides and say, “I did it before and I can do it again.” Then I must say it again, because I don’t always believe myself the first time.

This year, that process is a little bit easier because they have changed the route. Now we get to go around some of the worst roads in Miles Standish State Park, trading the joy of riding uphill over frost heaves and potholes for a series of rolling hills on the perimeter of the park. We are still setting a blistering pace though, so I am grateful for the change. As we finally charge into the park, past the two ponds in the middle, and on to the 3rd rest stop, I am amazed by how early it is and by the fact that I am still with both Bob and Tyler. Bob looks like I feel: tired but still able to keep going. Tyler looks like he’s saving himself for the real race later on.

11:50 AM-12:00 PM, 3rd Rest Stop:

11:50 AM: 3rd stop. Between Tyler's blistering pace and Bob's competitive nature, we left everyone else behind. Caught the Toms, too.

Our hard charge through the middle of the ride has a couple of benefits. First, there’s still plenty of food and free swag waiting for us at the rest stop, and we stock up on both. Second, we caught up with the even faster portion of our team: The Toms and another one of Tyler’s Quad Cycle racing teammates. Tyler’s teammate assures me that, no, he doesn’t hate me or Bob. He just always rides like that. I guess that’s good to know.

The Toms have already rested, so they’re raring to go. I quickly refill my water bottle and grab a bite to eat. Since it’s lunch time, this stop has small sandwiches. I grab one that turns out to be turkey and eggplant and, after a moment’s hesitation, wolf it down. I haven’t always had the best results when mixing heavy foods and long rides, but it smells delicious and a man can only eat so many bagels before they lose their appeal. I’m sure I’ll be fine.

A little more wandering reveals a miniature convenience store/trade show set up on some tables near the food tent. One table holds ChapStick, sunscreen, and various sundries (all free), and another holds – oh joy! – free water bottles! I quickly grab two and return Tyler’s loaner to him. He’s grateful for the opportunity to stop carrying a PowerAde bottle in his jersey pocket, since that leaves more room for him to stuff in free samples from the drugstore table. To be polite, I fill one of the bottles with Cytomax, which is the company that’s giving the bottles away. After one drink, I discreetly dump it out, since it tastes like chilled horse urine.

Ten minutes after we arrived, we’re off again. My legs aren’t thrilled with the quick turnaround, but I’m glad to be riding with my team again.

12:00-1:02 PM, Miles 64-80:

12:48 PM: That turkey sandwich at the last rest stop was a bad idea...

Some people learn their lessons the first time. Others require a repeat. And then there are the stubborn ones, the ones who repeatedly think, “That was a fluke, it won’t happen again. The circumstances are completely different now.” These people are often known as knotheads, stubborn old cusses, or just plain fools. Or in this case: me.

I smelled those sandwiches and I thought, “Remember what happened a couple of years ago when you ate one of those?” I reminded myself of last year, when I fought stomach problems for forty miles. I told myself that even a regular breakfast sits like a cannonball in my stomach when I ride. Then I smelled the sandwiches again and thought, “Oh, it will be fine. What harm can a little sandwich do?” The more fool I.

The first few miles are fine, as I settle in behind Big Tom and enjoy both a slightly slower pace and the chance to draft behind a man who rides like a steam engine, steady and unwavering. At the first big hill, though, when I get out of my saddle and stand on the pedals to climb, I feel the first grumblings, that unexpected weight bouncing in my belly, and the pangs of food that requires more attention than my straining system can provide at the moment. I strain to keep up, but soon I must make a choice: drop back and take it slowly or pull over and puke. For the moment, I choose the former. I hate throwing up.

Bob takes pity on me and hangs back while the others chug away into the distance. Whether or not he’s using me as an excuse to rest himself, I’m grateful for the company. I tell him what I’m dealing with and he makes sympathetic noises as he pulls in front of me to let me draft. We ride like this for a while in silence until we get to another section of brutal hills approaching the Sagamore Bridge. I tell Bob to go ahead as I slow to a crawl, maintaining just enough speed to keep my bike from wobbling. It’s gravity vs. digestion, and I must concentrate to find the balance between the two. Once again, I seriously consider pulling over and forcefully ejecting the turkey sandwich from my system, but decide to hang on until I get to the bridge. If necessary, I can always hurl it into the Cape Canal when I get there. I even have a new tweet prepared for my followers on Twitter: “I have thrown up, and I feel better.”

I reach the bridge without tossing anything other than a few epithets and gratefully dismount for the walk across. Bob is waiting for me, but Tyler and the rest have gone ahead. I can just see Tyler’s green Quad Racing jersey halfway across the span. I take it easy as I walk, allowing my tummy to settle. By the time we reach the other side, I have decided to tough it out. The fish in the canal will have to find other food.

A few miles later, Bob and I coast into the final rest stop, where I gratefully park my bike and wobble over to the tents where the rest of the group awaits.

1:02-1:30 PM, 4th Rest Stop:

1:04 PM: 4th and final rest stop. 20 mi to go! I'm ready to be done. Tyler says I just need a soda.

This will not be a quick rest, not if I want to finish this thing. I take Tyler’s advice and have a soda, followed by two Tylenol from the medical tent and a cup of warm coffee. Besides my stomach, my neck and back are really starting to hurt. I gingerly nibble a little bit of bland food, then take the rest of into the shade beneath some trees and sit down. The rest of the team leaves without me after I assure them that I’ll just be a few minutes behind them. Then I lie down in the grass.

1:19 PM: Lying on the grass felt so good. Maybe I'll stay here for another 5 min or so...

Ten minutes later, I feel restored enough to continue. I check my phone one last time for updates from my wife, who is texting me updates from our son’s baseball game, then send out one more update of my own before I hit the road again.

1:29 PM: Stomach cramps are over. Time to man up, saddle up, and finish this thing!

1:30-2:52 PM, Miles 80-100:
This all feels so familiar: riding alone on the rolling hills of the Cape, wondering where everyone went. One of these days, I’m going to have to come down and start a ride down here, so that I can see what it feels like to ride without pain on Cape Cod. I hear it’s nice.

Fortunately, familiarity has bred, not contempt, but comfort. I know these roads, these hills, that access road. I know what they have in store for me, and I know how long it lasts. I also know how to beat them: ride fast, as fast as you can, and let gravity do the rest. You can beat these hills if you attack first. I cruise over the hills, setting the best pace my legs can sustain, and start passing people again. Not many, of course, not like last year or the year before, but still, I’m passing, not being passed. That’s what counts.

After ten miles, I feel the familiar fatigue wash over me. I’m ready to be done, standing in a hot shower and looking forward to a hamburger and a massage, not necessarily in that order. I’m not done, though, so I force my legs to keep churning, over the last few hills and into Hyannis proper. I nod to the well-kept inhabitants, who wave back and cheer me on. As I ride past the Kennedy complex I see a man and some children playing catch. I don’t know which one he is, but that’s definitely a Kennedy. He has the teeth. Soon, I’m pulling through the final loop before Craigsville Beach, expecting to see the rest of my teammates coming the other way. They’re probably already done by now, but a guy can hope.

Finally, the finish line comes into view. I stand on tired legs and race to the finish, where my bike is whisked away to the parking corral almost before I can dismount. Before I relinquish the bike, I check my cycling computer. I did the ride in 5:57, my fastest time ever by about 15 minutes. Even stomach cramps couldn’t completely erase the speed at which we raced through the first 2/3 of the ride.

2:54 PM: DONE!!! 100 miles in just under 6 hours. I'm ready for a shower, a massage, and a beer. Go Patriot Pedalers!

The finish line

2:52-7:15 PM, The Party:

3:57 PM: Happiness is a six-hand massage. By the time those 3 ladies were done w/me I barely felt like I'd ridden.

There is no better feeling than a massage after riding 100 miles, especially when it’s given by three people at once. I shower, and then receive my first ever “six-hand massage.” One woman works on my back while two others work my legs, all three of them pausing occasionally to pull my limbs in three different directions. It feels heavenly, and after fifteen minutes I feel like I can walk again without limping.

I wander into the food tent and find Tyler and Bob, who update me on their own finishes. Tyler, who dragged all of us along with him for the entire ride, cramped up from dehydration in the last couple of miles after deciding that he was tired of the taste of sports drinks. Bob, the guy who wasn’t sure if he’d even ride this year, finished ahead of all of us. The next time he tells me that his leg hurts, I’m going to kick him in it so I can get a head start.

The rest of the team rolls in a while later, and we all join at our team tables for the post-ride party. As I wander through the tent looking for a good beer and some dinner, I spot a few more celebrities walking around and update my friends:

4:21 PM: Verne Troyer is here, and I think I just saw Ryan from The Office. Oh, and a bunch of Patriots players.

The New England Patriots linemen, Nick Kaczur and Stephen Neal, are both friendly and polite. We chat with them for ten minutes or so and they are full of appreciation for what we all have done. “I like to ride, but I don’t think I could do what you guys just did,” says Neal, right before he is tackled by Danny’s son, Aaron, who is a Buddy himself. Aaron knows all of the Patriots players who come to the Best Buddies events, and is always eager to renew his acquaintance with them.

Tom Brady is here, too. As the honorary chairman of the event, he presents the awards for fastest riders, best fundraisers, and top teams before doing some fundraising of his own. This year, he has 40 footballs up on the stage with him, and for $1000 will sign one and throw it to people in the crowd. As the bidding begins and the balls start flying through the air, I seriously consider whether $1000 is worth it to be able to tell my 9-year-old son that I caught a Tom Brady pass. Fortunately, my son is very practical and I know what he’ll say. “Daddy, that’s a lot of money. You could have bought three Xboxes for that.” So I refrain, because no one wants to get an economics lesson from someone who still asks for help tying his shoes.

For the concert this year we get the Bangles, who still rock surprisingly well for ladies who, in their own words, “now qualify for AARP.” I am a little concerned, though, because we’ve now gone through most of the early 80’s pop bands still in existence. Unless Loverboy or Earth, Wind, and Fire get back together, I don’t know who’s going to perform next year. Still, it’s a fun concert, and I do enjoy a good rendition of “Manic Monday.”

5:41 PM: The Bangles can still rock.

With the music still blasting, I slip out the back of the tent to catch my ride home with Tyler and Bob. Tyler’s wife Robin came down to meet him, and they have graciously offered to bring us home so we don’t have to take the bus. As Robin roars down the highway, I realize that we are finishing our day just as it began: with Tyler in the front and me and Bob holding on for dear life behind him.

The afternoon sky slowly darkens as the SUV quickly eats up the miles that took us so long to travel earlier in the day. I watch the signposts bearing the names of the towns that we passed through, flashing by in reverse in the lowering twilight, and I send out one last note to the friends who have shared this journey with me:

7:15 PM: Heading home for a well-deserved rest. Farewell for now Buddies!

It's not too late to support these great kids. Click here to support me and Best Buddies.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Slowest. Ride log. Ever.

Again, my apologies for how long it's taking to get this thing written. I hope it's worth the wait. If you're wondering why it's taking so blasted long to write a simple ride report, here's a hint.

I told my family that all I wanted for Father's Day was some time to write, so I hope to get this done before the end of the day and posted soon after.

Thank you for your patience, cycling fans!

Monday, June 08, 2009

It's coming, it's coming...

Several people have asked about this year's Best Buddies ride log. All I can say is: it's coming, don't get your bike shorts in a bunch. I started writing, but it was a busy weekend and I didn't get the couple of hours alone that I need to finish it. So hang in there, faithful readers, and it will be here soon.

In the meantime, here's a tidbit to tide you over:

Tyler, meanwhile, is using the weather as an opportunity to convert others over to his freakish practices and sees a potentially willing convert in Bob:

Tyler: Rainy days like this are why I shave my legs
Bob: What?
Tyler: Yeah, you see, when it's wet like this, you can coat your legs with Vaseline. It works as well as wearing rain pants, but you don't have to worry about taking them off later! If I didn't shave my legs, then that would just be gross.
Bob: Are you sure that's the only thing you're using the Vaseline for, Tyler?
If you need a bigger fix, you can go here for links to previous years' ride logs.

More to come (soon, I promise!).

Friday, May 29, 2009

I still won't grow up!

I just came back from a visit to Boulder, CO, and I was blown away by a couple of things:

  1. About 53,000 people think that running a 10K (the Bolder-Boulder) at 5400' elevation is a great idea.
  2. A whole community of passionate people has gathered there to build cool software and have fun doing it.

I thought that idealists like this died out in the Great Technology Ice Age of 2001, when it suddenly became uncool (or maybe just unprofitable) to enjoy your work. I guess a few survived, or maybe these folks are just too young to remember those dark days.

Well, thinking about this on the plane ride back reminded me of a piece I wrote a few years ago. Since I'm probably the only person who ever read it, I figured I'd bring it out of cold storage and share it again.

I Won't Grow Up!

I have to say, I am so grateful for the grownups in the business world. They have taught me so much and helped me to mend my foolish, childish ways. You see, I used to actually think that people were supposed to enjoy their work: imagine that! What did I think this was, college? As it turns out, to be a successful, mature company, you must put such silly notions out of your head and realize what business is really all about: obligations, responsibility, and the burden of respectability.

Young companies and entrepreneurs are allowed to play for a while, but the grownups demand their due in the end. Eventually, the press and the other experienced business leaders start saying the things that all grownups say to young adults: "You can't keep playing around like this forever, you know. Eventually, you'll have to start recognizing your responsibilities. You have a duty to the board, to your shareholders, and to the market that must be shouldered. There are bills to pay, reports to deliver, five-year plans to assemble. You've had your fun, but now it's time to start acting like an adult."

Adulthood, according to our wise gray mentors, is a collection of obligations: to family, to country, to employer. There is no room for fun, because that implies that we have some energy left to spend on ourselves. Grownups live a life of dull daily sacrifice, and are glad, in their gray way, to do it. They protect what they have, risk little, and ensure that their obligations will always be met. If they have a little extra time, they pull weeds.

If this is adulthood, then I'm with Peter Pan:

I won't grow up,
I don't want to wear a tie.
And a serious expression
In the middle of July.

And if it means I must prepare
To shoulder burdens with a worried air,

I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up
Not me!

Here's my childish manifesto:

I will cling to the belief that work can be fun, fulfilling, and profitable, all at the same time. I will refuse to accept that a happy employee is an inefficient one, or that money spent on quality of work life is wasted. I will continue to expect that, if I challenge people to rise beyond what they have done before, to push their boundaries and to push each other, they will rise to the challenge and smile while doing so.

I will not accept the belief that in order to get the most out of people you must beat them down first. I will never allow the frowning grownups with their clucking about "obligation" to convince me that life is only meant to be survived.

I may have to spend the rest of my life as an adult, but I refuse to spend it as a grownup! And,

If growing up means
It would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree,
I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up
Not me!

Let's get ready to ride!

It's that time again: time to roll with my Best Buddies to Hyannisport! This will be my fifth year riding with the Patriot Pedalers (and Senator Kerry, of course). As usual, we plan to have more fun on the ride than we do at the clambake afterwards, but that, as they say, is just how we roll.

We're expecting good weather for once, which makes for great riding but a slightly less entertaining ride log. I'll try to make up for it by getting lost or crashing into someone famous (maybe the senator again, if he doesn't have those Secret Service guys with him: they have no sense of humor!).

I'll also be posting updates to Twitter and Facebook throughout the ride, so click on the box at the right to follow me if you want to feel like you're part of the joy, pain, grease, and grit of a 100-mile bike ride.

For those bike geeks who want to see the route, it's available below:

View Interactive Map on MapMyRide.com

To quote Hopper in A Bug's Life: Let's ride!



PS - It's not too late to support me and Best Buddies. Just go to http://tinyurl.com/bbhpc-jc to make a donation.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Time to go the distance

Spring is in the air (finally), and this young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of... mileage.

It's time to dust off the bike shorts, grease up the chain, and start riding. Actually, it's been that time for about a month now, but now is when it gets fun because now it gets real. The Best Buddies Hyannisport Challenge is only five weeks away, and I'm preparing to ride 100 miles on May 30 to raise money for Best Buddies International. This weekend, my weekend training distance will be 45 miles, and I'll be adding another 5 miles every week until the end of the month.

This will be my fifth year riding with the Patriot Pedalers in the Best Buddies Hyannisport Challenge, and I've recorded the experience here on this blog:

Best Buddies is a non-profit organization founded by Anthony Kennedy Shriver in 1989, dedicated to helping people with intellectual disabilities form friendships and find jobs in their community. It has been integral to the lives of our team captain, Danny Watt, and his family for years. Their son Aaron, who is mentally challenged, has been blessed by Best Buddies in his school and in his life, and I am thrilled for the opportunity to help them reach out to other families in the same way.

If you're interested in supporting my own special brand of crazy, please do. This year, I'm hoping to raise $2,500. I am looking for donations of all sizes, either a predetermined amount or a per mile amount. I know that times are tougher this year for many people than they have been in the past, but in tough times the people on the margins of society often suffer the most, so I feel that it is more important than ever to support the great work that Best Buddies is doing.

Ideas:
$0.50 a mile = $50.00
$1.00 a mile = $100.00
$2.00 a mile = $200.00 (This entitles you to a letter from Anthony Shriver, and one raffle ticket for a chance to win two tickets to the Victory Celebration on May 17 in Hyannis Port)

Follow this link to visit my personal web page and help me in my efforts to support Best Buddies International

Unlike many fundraisers, 100% of the funds I raise will go directly to Best Buddies. Any contribution you can spare will go a long way to my achieving this goal.

As in previous years, my supporters get an added benefit: everyone who supports me will receive a personal bound* copy of my ride log before it's posted to the blog, allowing you to share the pain, humor, and pathos of 100 miles and 6+ hours spent on a very narrow seat. The worse the weather gets, the more entertaining the read, or so I'm told, so pray for rain if you want to be entertained.



* - if you print out the email, take it to Kinko's, and ask them to bind it for you

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lessons from the road

I haven’t had the chance to play road warrior much in the past few years -- what with having children and all -- so the past couple of weeks have been a refresher course for me in the joys and frustrations of business travel. Here are a few things that I have learned about the new world of the business traveler.

  1. Take the power outlet whenever you can get it. You never know when it will be available again.
  2. Ditto for the wireless network.
  3. A cellular modem is a lifeline, but it’s a slow, painful one. Remember AOL circa 1995? It’s like that, but without all the fun sound effects.
  4. People with iPhones like to make fun of people who still need a computer to get their mail. Fortunately, you can get revenge on them by asking how their battery’s doing around 4:30 in the afternoon.
  5. Even an iPhone can’t help you find the right office building in Brooklyn if you don’t know which way you’re facing.
  6. There’s a big difference between being treated like a passenger and being treated like cargo. I greatly prefer the former, which is why I’m sitting on the Acela Express train as I type this, and not a plane.
  7. Dining out every night is fun for approximately four days. After that, it’s just fattening.
  8. No matter how cold it is outside, you will always feel sticky after more than 45 minutes sitting on a train or plane. It’s one of the unwritten laws of physics: grime adheres to the traveler at three times the normal rate of a person sitting still. I think it has something to do with friction.
  9. Meeting new people is fun, but going home to your family is better.
  10. Nothing beats going home a day early.

Monday, March 30, 2009

You've Got Mail (Like it or Not)

One major difference between "pure Agile" (the idealized process with its roots in small software companies) and Agile for the Enterprise is the necessity of managing distributed teams. In a multinational company with thousands of employees, it's nearly impossible to get an entire project team -- not to mention that ubiquitous cloud of stakeholders -- to work in one place. In this environment, asynchronous communication (through email, wikis, discussion forums, etc.) is critical to project success. To be a truly effective force for good in your projects, you need to be able to use these tools – and the short written message – to clearly communicate, coordinate, and collaborate with your project team.

So what’s the big deal about email? We’ve all used it for years and some of us can barely remember a time when it didn’t exist. Can’t we just send email at work just like we do everywhere else? Well, that’s the problem: some people do write emails at work just like the ones they write at home: unintelligibly.

Communication in any form is a two-edged sword. A well-written phrase can instruct, uplift, and inspire its readers. A poorly worded statement, whether spoken or written, has just as much power to confuse, distract, and annoy. How you use your communication skills comes down to a simple question: do you want to serve the dark or the light? For now, let’s assume you chose light. The next question is, “How can I make sure that my emails are helping to move my project in the right direction? How do I avoid being one of those people who elicit groans every time their email hits someone’s inbox?” Here are a few tips:

Know your audience
In order to have any impact at all, your message has to reach its intended audience. To do that, you have to make it through their filters, and that means tailoring your message and style to the needs of your readers. It also means resisting the urge to copy the entire world on every email, since it’s impossible to reach everyone with the same presentation. Your message should meet the needs of your audience, not the other way around.

So, to whom are you writing? Is it a group of analysts or a QA team, looking for detailed technical answers? Then send them specific details, organized in a manner that lends itself to easy review. Are you writing to a busy executive? Then make sure that the subject line is clear and all of the relevant information is in the first two paragraphs, because there’s a good chance that he or she won’t read any further. Are you broadcasting a status report to large group of project team members and stakeholders? Then format your message so that it can be easily scanned, using bullet points, short sentences, and bold type to highlight key points.

Keep it short
Save the long, rambling descriptions for your novel. Business email is about providing relevant information in the most condensed format possible so people can get what they need and get back to work. Your emails should be short and to the point, and that point should be clear.

This doesn’t mean that all emails should be no more than 500 characters long; some topics require a bit more space, and email may still be the best way to present them to a group. Just understand that email inherently encourages short attention spans, so your 2-page missive will likely never be read in its entirety. Prepare to be skimmed:

  • Keep your paragraphs short and use bullet points and headings to organize the information. Give your readers the visual cues to get the information that they need now and to find the other information in a second pass.
  • Place your critical points at the top of the message, rather than saving them for a grand and stirring conclusion.
  • Be prepared to calmly send people back to your message when it’s clear that they didn’t read it.
Of course, a bias toward brevity can also be taken to an unhealthy extreme, resulting in a barrage of one-sentence emails running back and forth between people as one person’s cryptic replies only lead to more requests for information. Keep it brief, but make sure that you provide all of the information that your readers need in a way that they can comprehend it.

Think before you send
There are times when the temptation to blast someone off the face of the earth with a cleverly phrased flame mail is so strong that you can taste it. At other times you may just be annoyed enough to send an intentionally unhelpful response without being overtly unpleasant. You may also want to complain to one person about someone else (all in the interest of “team-building,” of course). Before you hit send, remember two things:
  1. These words are about to leave your control and could be sent to anyone in the world
  2. This message will live forever on various email servers and archive tapes, the living legacy of your presence on this project

Are you still ready to release your thoughts into the wild? Then go for it. Otherwise, you might want to close that email window and go take a walk.

Know when to kill the thread
We’ve all been part of it: the Thread That Wouldn’t Die. Usually it’s the offspring of one or two people hitting the Reply to All button like genetically enhanced lab rats trying for one more food pellet, spewing multicolored questions and responses and “see my comments below” back and forth through the ether while the rest of the world looks on in frustration.

Don’t feed the beast. As a general rule, if you find yourself writing your third reply to the same email thread then it’s probably time to settle things in person. Pick up the phone, walk over to someone’s desk, or schedule a meeting with the people who still have questions. If the emails keep coming, send a polite reply saying, “I’ve set up a meeting to discuss this. Let’s kill this thread for now and I’ll publish the results after we meet.”

The written word will never die out as long as email and its compatriots are around to keep it alive. Harness its power today and make life better for everyone on your project.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Go forth and be Agile!

As Thomas Hobbes observed in the 17th century, “Life under mob rule is solitary,
poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Life on a poorly run software project is
solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and hardly ever short enough.
- Steve C
McConnell, Software Project Survival Guide
Everyone who has worked in software for more than a few years can probably relate to this observation. Software projects seem to lend themselves especially well to two things: fantasy-based planning and painful and repeated collisions with reality. Smart development organizations, tired of hitting their heads against the same wall over and over again, are looking at a new way of building software: Agile development. But life on an Agile project is different, and people need new skills to succeed when the easy stages of the waterfall are stripped away and they dive into the Agile whirlpool. Here are the five Agile commandments that every team member should know (we had ten, but we broke them into two releases):

I. Thou shalt prioritize
In a waterfall project everything is high priority, until it isn’t. When you take that big pile of work and break it into iterations, though, you need to distinguish between “kinda high priority,” “really high priority,” and “really REALLY high priority.” For best results, you should rank all of your requirements from 1 to n and work through the queue in order.

Prioritization is a rare skill. It requires you to find the balance between two factors – value and cost – and to not only quantify them but understand and be able to describe them in detail to a variety of audiences. Value means different things to different people. To the marketing person it means, “I could sell that to our customers in a moment.” To the business user it means, “That would finally make it possible to do my job painlessly.” To the technical architect it means, “Until I get that, I can’t build any of this other stuff they want.” You have to be able to capture all of those definitions and translate them into a simple statement: “This element of the application is more important to us than that one.”

Cost is both simpler to describe and harder to specify: it’s the effort required to build a component, but no one knows exactly how long that is until it’s done. You can get a relatively close estimate once an application is designed, but it’s nearly impossible to make accurate estimates early in a project when you need to set priorities. Usually, it’s good enough to say, “That’s easy, and that’s hard. And that? Just thinking about it makes my head hurt.” Balance that with the value, and priorities emerge. Do the easy-but-valuable stuff first and save the interesting-but-nearly-impossible features for later.

Of course, before you can prioritize things you need to know what they are, which brings us to…

II. Thou shalt break it down
Waterfall projects, even relatively short ones, are monolithic by nature. You gather all the requirements, then you design the whole application, then you build all of the features for the release, then you test the whole application at once. Throw in a few stage gates and signoffs for good measure and you’ve got yourself a project! Agile development breaks this concept down, in more ways than one. Rather than assuming that we can know all of the requirements before we even start, we assume that we will learn as we go. Rather than requiring formal signoffs and then locking down any further changes, we build in checkpoints to review the application and add any new features that we feel will make it better. Rather than building everything at once, we build the most valuable features first and let people start using them as soon as possible.

In order to build this way, you need to be able to take large problems and break them down into small ones, a talent that is surprisingly rare in today’s business environment. We all know how to take small problems and make them into crises – thirty minutes watching CNN will show you that – but we struggle when asked to make something simpler. Just as a run-on sentence can be broken into shorter and clearer sentences, so a convoluted system requirement can be broken into its functional components. Learn to do this and you are on your way to (capital A) Agility.

III. Thou shalt communicate wisely
In a waterfall project, formal communication is the rule. Agile development, however, replaces static documentation and formal handoffs with person-to-person communication and collaborative problem-solving. If you jump directly from one to the other, significant chunks of important information will be lost. You need a strategy to broadcast the results of meetings, to capture decisions where everyone can see them, and to maintain a living documentation set that accurately reflects the current state of the application. Rather than relying on giant documents set to educate latecomers, newcomers, and drop-in stakeholders on what you’re building, you need to create 10-, 20-, and 30-minute pitches that present the project in varying levels of technical detail.

Agile works best when everyone knows what everyone else is up to. In the absence of a hive mind, however, you must be mindful of the information that you possess. After every decision, ask yourself, “Who needs to know this, and how should I share it?”

IV. Thou shalt go with the flow
Waterfall projects are like marching band music: regimented, slow-moving, predictable, and often ending with a noisy crash. An Agile project is like jazz: within a tight structure, the players are free to improvise to make the end product as beautiful as it can be. To succeed in this environment, you need to let go of your concepts of how things should go and concentrate on getting to the destination. The important thing on an Agile project is not what we thought we were doing yesterday, but what we need to do today to reach our goal. Once you are able to make that mental adjustment, to focus on that target on the horizon even as you make minute course corrections, you will be able to increase your personal efficiency and your team’s velocity.

As Stephen Covey says, “Start with the end in mind.”

V. To thine own self be accountable
On an Agile project, there’s nowhere to hide when you don’t meet your commitments. You meet with your team every day to discuss what you did yesterday, what you plan to do today, and where you need help. When you miss a deliverable, the person sitting next to you is immediately affected. The traditional waterfall excuses – “That wasn’t in the spec,” “The requirement was unclear,” “I’m waiting for the documentation signoff,” etc. – don’t work, so you have to actually do what you said you would do.

Believe it or not, this is shocking to some people, who find the long silences that greet their daily status reports increasingly uncomfortable and must decide to either start working or go find another project to hide in. High performers find this environment invigorating, though, as they are finally able to just do their jobs with a minimum of obstacles. If you are ready to take the credit and the blame for what you do every day, then you’re ready to go Agile.

So, there you go. As the Lord said on the eighth day, when he created programmers by mixing silicon, Doritos, and coffee: “Go forth and be Agile!”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Brother, Can You Spare Some Change?

Jumping off the waterfall and moving to an Agile approach is an exercise in organizational change, and let's face it: human beings hate change. From the earliest caveman to his modern equivalent in the ratty "Evolve or Die" T-shirt, the whole of human history is a long, losing battle against change. Empires rise and fall, civilizations are built up and ground into the dust of the ages, but one constant remains: there's always someone at the top trying to get everyone to knock it off and be satisfied with the way things are.

Of course, few people will admit this dirty little secret, even to themselves. We like to think of ourselves as dynamic go-getters, innovators -- dare we say it? -- change agents! No one wants to be accused of perpetuating the status quo, making the same old mistakes in the same boring ways. The truth, though is that we like things in their places: this always goes there, my project dashboard is always green, and I always do that on Tuesdays at 11:00. It's simple, it's clean, and it means that we don't have to think about it anymore. Change it and you're making us work.

So what's a consultant to do? Our entire industry is built upon the myth that change is good, even desirable. We've convinced people that, not only do they need to change, but that they would enjoy it if they had any sense. We're supposed to thrive on change, to drive progress into organizations, to innovate as easily as breathing. We're catalysts in khakis.

So how do you do it without everyone hating you, or for that matter, without hating it yourself? Consultant, consult thyself.

First, acknowledge the change-hater within. Even the most dynamic people have to struggle not to let their minds grow stale. The innovation becomes the process, which becomes the best practice, which becomes "the reason nothing ever gets done around here." Most people are good for one truly disruptive innovation per decade; the rest of the time is spent polishing the message. Even professional catalysts can fall into a pattern of how they implement change that can be as inefficient as any static process. Recognize that you, too, are inclined to seek your own personal status quo, and then you can do something about it.

Use your experience, but don't live by it. Please, put the cookie cutter away. Your experience should be a foundation upon which you build to reach greater heights, not a pattern that you mindlessly repeat in every situation. Every new environment calls for a new approach, so before you whip out that template from your last project or start telling that long story about the last data warehouse you built in COBOL, ask yourself, "What's different about this situation and what's the best way to solve this problem this time?" Now you're ready to…

Start every day with a blank sheet of paper. Yesterday's best practice is tomorrow's case study for failure, so don't let the routine lull you to sleep. Every morning, look at what you're doing and ask yourself, "Isn't there a better way to do this? Can I make this simpler, faster, cleaner? Why are we doing all of this? What purpose is it supposed to serve, and is it serving it?" Even when you don't find anything to improve, the very exercise will keep your mind alert for new opportunities.

Take baby steps. The resistance you face will increase exponentially with the amount of disruption you cause, so start slowly. Remember, not everyone is as dynamic as you are. Even if your ultimate goal is to remake the company in your own image, start small and be prepared for resistance. As a sculpture is shaped by a thousand blows of the chisel, so an organization can be remade with a thousand small tweaks.

Finally, recognize that not all change is good. Change for its own sake may increase billable consulting hours, but it doesn't necessarily make things better for the company. Weigh the cost of your innovations before you make them and be humble enough to recognize that not all of your ideas are brilliant. If the pain of the change outweighs the immediate benefit, then let things be. You'll have another blazing flash of insight tomorrow.

Our friend in the ratty T-shirt is right: we must constantly improve if we plan to survive, in business as well as in life. But we want evolution, not revolution, and we want everyone to come along for the ride.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Jumping off the Waterfall - An Intro to Agile Development

This is the first in a series of articles I plan to write on Agile development, software development in general, and generally getting things done in the workplace. Hope you enjoy.

For decades, the waterfall project model has been the accepted way to build software in large companies. In this traditional approach, every phase of a project follows logically after the previous one, building upon the work that has gone before in a nice orderly flow. At the end of every phase, the entire extended project team gathers together to review the results of that phase, nod together in agreement that the deliverables are satisfactory, and sign off on those deliverables before moving on to the next phase. It is a calm, rational approach that appeals to project managers, CIOs, and accountants. And if everything goes as planned, it truly is the most efficient, predictable, and repeatable way to work.

Of course, if everything were that predictable, you could hire a precisely calculated number of monkeys, equip them with laptops, and develop the code base that runs the space shuttle in just under 3.26 years (I have the calculations from Wikipedia if you want to try this on your next project).

The fact is, once you leave the tidy world of 1000-line Gantt charts and look around you, reality quickly intrudes. The stakeholders refuse to sign off on the requirements until halfway through the development phase, and then only if you agree to add three more "tiny" requirements that they forgot to mention earlier. The technology that you chose to implement the core of your system doesn't do everything you expected it to do, so you have to write custom code. Your QA lead goes on maternity leave two weeks before testing is scheduled to begin. By the time you're done, your soothing waterfall has become a raging cataract of inefficiency and missed opportunities.

This realization has led even the most staid companies to consider their alternatives, the most attractive of which is Agile development.

Agile is not a single unified methodology, but rather an umbrella that covers several different approaches to software development, all guided by the principles of the Agile Manifesto, a statement of purpose that was created by some of the leading minds in software development in 2001, which says:


We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

This simple statement strikes fear in the hearts of order-loving managers everywhere while simultaneously energizing their teams. What if you actually believed this? The possibilities open up:

  • Developers could spend their time writing code instead of documents
  • Analysts could actually talk to customers instead of guessing what they might want
  • Stakeholders could actually see an application in action before code freeze (or, in some cases, launch)
  • The most important features in a project could be live in production and serving the customers in half the time it would otherwise take, with additional features following at regular intervals
  • The inevitable change requests and additional features could become a point of conversation instead of conflict
  • Business people and technical people could work together on the same team, instead of lobbing paper grenades at each other over a wall of organizational dysfunction
Of course, there’s a potential dark side: endless release cycles, a never-ending feature list, constantly changing code with no credible launch date in sight, foosball, skateboards, hacky sack in the halls and ripped T-shirts worn to work on Thursdays… it could be a horror show! Even the names of some of these programming methodologies sound scary: Scrum, Extreme Programming, Non-Linear Management. It sounds like what you’d get after a Star Trek convention mounted a hostile takeover of a neighboring management consulting summit.

No wonder the managers in those big companies are nervous. The potential competitive advantage is clear, but they have no desire and little authority to turn the world upside down in the name of better software. Software isn’t their livelihood; it’s just a tool to get the real work done. So how can they get there from here?

Fortunately for them, there is an answer: Agile for the Enterprise. The trick here is to recognize that a large financial services firm can't pretend that it's a small software startup, nor should it. The answer lies in fitting the Agile methodology to the environment, not in making the environment Agile-friendly. When you recognize an organization's constraints -- distributed teams, offshore resources, separate teams for development and maintenances, project audit requirements, etc. -- then you can craft a solution that fits within the culture, or even takes advantage of it. Rather than saying, "Build your business around our development efforts," you say, "Let's make our development efforts actually serve our business." It's still a change, and it's still scary, but it's no longer doomed to fail.

Get ready: we’re taking the plunge.

Want more information on Agile Development? Start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agile_development
http://www.agilealliance.org/
http://www.versionone.com/Resources/AgileDevelopment.asp