looking for the canary

For our evolutionary accomplishments as humans — opposable thumbs, complex social structures, reality television, etc. — we are remarkably clueless when it comes to our own behavior. Self awareness is prized, but as Robert Sutton mentions in one of the first chapters of his book “Good Boss, Bad Boss“, whatever you think you know you are good at or bad with, it is probably something completely different.

So, it’s rare, even with an open door policy of management, that one of the “troops” is going to enter and tell you that you’re being a schmuck. ( And if they did, it would be even rarer for you to take it well. )  So, then, how are we to know when something is wrong with the department, group or team that we are leading?

It has been my experience that in any organization, large or small, the most junior of employees are the first one to notice that things aren’t going well. They may not be able to articulate the problem but things that are irking them tend to be symptoms of the issue. If they’re not sure what they should be doing day-to-day, try looking at project management. Maybe they don’t feel collaborative work environment; perhaps more senior team members are arguing or not being communicative. They might be perplexed as to the rationale behind project priorities; perhaps, the project is being influenced by unnecessary politics or is more complex than it needs to be.


those nasty bugs

For today’s post, an article on software engineering techniques. And if you don’t have a background in technology, this first article is background which should make it accessible to you as well 1.

Often dependent on other mathematical calculations (eg. how many times does X or Y occur in this set of data), these structures must cover ALL possible cases2. A bug, for simplicity sake, is when a situation that is not handled causes, either because the developer didn’t think of it or didn’t think it was possible to happen. When this occurs, the software can, hopefully, minimize the impact by, let’s say, opening a dialogue box and telling you something wrong happened. If it can’t, worse things happen depending how significant the missing case(s) were; software crashes, corrupted files and even computer shutdowns completely3. While operating systems have gotten much better at preventing the latter, there is not a day that goes by that one of us runs into these problems. What are we to do then?

As with many things, there is no one solution and certainly very few that are even easy.  And as with any improvement techniques, one runs into the law of diminishing returns4. As my first job out of college was as a verification engineer (( quality assurance for hardware )), this is a topic that I often think about. Over the next few posts, will share you my thoughts on various techniques, their usefulness and hopefully share some new ideas in approaching product development.

  1. always good for leaders and managers to know what those pesky engineers are brewing up in the lab 
  2. Boolean logic (George Boole)(, (1815–1864) calculations are at the heart of all hardware and software. If some conditions is true, do this, otherwise do that. Or do this over and over until that value is reached. Or combine two signals and only turn on if and only if one is on. 
  3. eg. the MS Windows blue screen of death 
  4. Economic principle that can be applied to many other disciplines. 

how high should I jump?

After a recent experience at a large home improvement store, I began to wonder, given that I’m in the professional services industry, should I be a more “enlightened” consumer than others? Shouldn’t I understand that a services business is a difficult business to be in and I should be a better customer? And yet, I still find myself just as frustrated as anyone else would be when I can’t accomplish what I wanted to.

A short digression to illustrate…

I purchased a cordless drill about a year ago and after light use, the rechargeable batteries were no longer charging, rendering the drill completely useless. So, I checked the manufacturer’s website for warranty information: lifetime warranty on the mechanical components and three years on batteries. Simple then, find where to send the old batteries, get new ones. Called the manufacturer and the person who answered said they contract with a local home improvement store to do their service. I could find a service center either in their Manhattan or Queens location.

Perfect. Hopped the subway, walked into the manhattan store. Asked the folks in power tools where to go. They said rental desk. The rental desk said professional services. Professional services said customer service.  I explained that I had been sent there by the manufacturer. They got annoyed, were none too polite and said, we don’t have a service center at this location, go to the Queens store. You can see where this is going…

And I have been on their side of the service counter before as a consultant delivering on a project or similar. I should have known how these situations happen. The customer did everything  right; gathered information on what was supposed to happen. Followed the directions given. The person at each stage did their best in answering the question presented to them. But in the end, there was misinformation at each part of the process and the customer became increasingly frustrated. And by the time the last interaction happened, the person who was really supposed to be able to handle the question got a tired and grumpy customer. So it is no surprise that the reaction to the customer was terse, indignant and completely not helpful.


I should be a more patient as a customer. I should be more patient when I’m in the customer service role. But it’s hard to remember that in the moment. Instead, the reaction on both sides have in their mind… they want me to do what? No way, no sir.

I’ve witnessed customers in stores asking (and demanding) unreasonable requests of sales people, waiters and store managers. I see those same people be dismissive of customers. Have we just been trained that it is going to be an adversarial situation? And therefore our flight/fight response kicks in as if we were our ancestral hunters defending our kin against a predator?

A day later I found myself in the Queens store and at the customer service desk. With the salesperson explaining that they don’t have a repair center either. Still exacerbated. But instead of an indignant response, the customer service person was overly nice, listened and said, “let me see if I can find someone to help.” And in the moment I knew that there wasn’t really anything he could do. He couldn’t repair the drill. He couldn’t figure out why the manufacturer and others had sent me to his store.

The customer may not always be right. The customer may not always have the power. And the person in customer service need not jump at every demand of the customer in order to make sure that the interaction is a positive one.

motivating on resolutions

After a long hiatus, I have resumed writing. Although that would imply that I had been in a routine to do so before. And, no, it’s not a new years resolution. If it had been, I would have failed for every year for the past several. And as I watched my friend at post four cartoons and four blog entries a week for the past four years, I always felt behind with no way to catch up. The math ran through my head. “If only I had posted one a week, then I would have had 200 entries. Or had I posted one a month, then I would have had at least 50 entries.”

So many have been stifled by these kind of thoughts. And rationally, the argument is easy: if you don’t start now, you’ll never get there. But emotionally, not a chance; completely irrational.

I recently read this by Dan Ariely, former professor of mine at Duke University when asked do you believe in new years resolutions? “Yes”, he said, “Each year for about a week. Five days before New Years. And two days afterwards.” ((WSJ: Ask Ariely))

My thoughts exactly. Resolve to do something different at any point of the year. At any time you want to make a change. ((And, yes, I’m not missing the irony that I have started to write again just around the start of the new year. And, oh yeah, started to be more regular in exercising on a weekly basis.)) But no matter what time of year it is, breaking with routine and changing habits is so difficult. In fact, people who’s lives depend on the change, such as altering diet because of a heart attack, are equally as likely (as in not likely at all) to maintain the change (( Are we in control of our own decisions? )).