perspective programming

Team Balance

There’s a lot to be said for flexible work hours. They’re all the rage but they can be tricky when you need to collaborate on something meaningful. Maturing teams understand this and introduce “core” hours. That is, everyone -must- be in the same space for a set number of hours during the day; you get some flexibility to decide where to put the rest: on the head, or the the tail of that day. And then you have overtime….

An experienced team will undervalue overtime. The productivity gains are superficial and short-lived. The latent bugs and burnout issues which crop up down the line are way harder to solve. And that realisation, unfortunately, takes experience. Sometimes, more than you need. And sometimes, even when you have that experience, you doom yourself to repeat the same mistake under the illusion of end-of-the-world-pressure. But it’s not just the team you need to look out for; it’s also the individual within a greater team…

The output of any team is not merely the sum of individual contributions. It’s a collective output which is the combination of a number of quantifiable, but difficult-to-measure, actions: hallway conversations, peer pressure dynamics, inter-personal relationships, email:work ratios, extra-office activities… and on and on. For the most part though, a team result requires that the team move together at the same pace. Which is why they can either be really funky, or really frustrating, depending on your own personality.

So when you have one individual burning faster and more than the average pace of the team, you need to be cautious. Yes, leaders will put in more than normal: that’s what gives the team acceleration; impetus; momentum; drive. You have to start somewhere, sometime. But at some point, everybody should work roughly at the same pace. I.e. given a particular skillset and competence, the task should be completed by two different individuals on the team within the same business delivery time frame.

What happens when one cog spins more than the rest? For a start, that project plan (which you mostly ignore) gets even more muddled. The expectation for delivery timeframe changes (not just for current workload, but for future reference too). The inter-personal dynamics change (competition). The path of least resistance shifts and the workload tips in favour of the “Doer of More”. The rest slack off and you have this horrible elastic stretch in your execution plan. It will snap. 75% of the time. The other 25% of the time, it also snaps.

Now, you have to stretch that elastic from time to time. A balanced and measured test of that is a good thing. Shake things up and stir the pot. It’s healthy if controlled properly. Sometimes you get an unexpected organic boost of productivity which shifts everything into a neater gear: run with it. Recognise that and facilitate it. But don’t let it run out of steam “naturally”. The human spirit is strong: just watch the finish to any massive endurance test. People will push themselves beyond what’s probable and into a state of “cannot-do-anything-for-3-weeks-until-I-am-recovered”. So unless that’s what you want to achieve, nip it in the bud. And that takes a skilled project leader.

But as a peer, you are more intimately aware of when the pace changes. You have a responsibility to highlight that and bring transparency through to the fore. That’s what standups are for, right? Talking about the technical hurdles and objective progress of a project is EASY. You can go through 100 standups without challenging yourself or anybody else. Another path of least resistance. So how about using standups to bring attention to more important matters- issues that bug you in the soul but are hard to talk about?

Again, a good leader will cut short any ad-hominem or diatribe and schedule a time and space for it to be dealt with properly. The nice thing about using the standup for that is that you have the opportunity every day to voice your concerns. You even get to sleep on it for one night, to shift your ego away from the team’s greater good, before raising it.

Balance is not something we can always achieve on our own; despite our ingrained philosophies. That’s where East and West are remarkably similar. Both focus on the individual achieving his/her own internal balance and striving for that. But there’s nothing like pitching in and helping each other achieve balance.

You’re not walking on that tightrope alone. And yes, you work hard at making sure you’re not the one that causes the fall. But help others at the same time. In the wise words of Oogway: “One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it”

Business perspective Technology

Brand Invasion

Online social spaces are a quagmire. While they were primarily created for people to engage and share ideas, the prevailing subtext is less noble. You can start a revolution, join a collaboration or just be human inside that virtual world- with real-world effects, or you can spend waste hours watching fake videos.

Hello, brand invasion. Like the Portugese traders of yesteryear, the brands arrived bearing trinkets we couldn’t refuse. A pair of sunglasses for a “like”. A T-Shirt for a “follow”. Some even trade comments, page visits, emails, photos or simply a click-through. And so we trade happily and frivolously, indulging the offerings and running back to the village boasting our “gains”. It’s playful. What we never counted on was the brands taking it too seriously.

Facebook today is a mess as a result (and trying to recover). Twitter is fast going the same route- with the brakes on. People like, follow, talk, share and get entertained by brands- not so much by people anymore. But in the real world, we don’t talk about brands really- unless there’s a strong emotional event attached to the brand. And the brands with their agencies love it. They see the effect and keep pumping the same strategy because, well, it’s working. Can you say viral? That’s codeword for success. But I think they’re confusing correlation and causation…

In the real world, people engage with people. When last did you go down to your favourite brand’s spot and just enjoy the company of their people- not their product? Hang out with the VP, shoot the breeze with the software guy, have coffee with the secretary….? You see, it’s not really a meaningful relationship. I mean, you don’t invite BrandX to dinner ever, do you (as a consumer)? And if you did, who/what would you invite anyway?

I can understand the economic models around social media; online presence and returns (and dangers). What you do with money makes the world go twirly-wirly and we all benefit in the long term (or supposed to at any rate). In much the same way the Portugese traders arriving could be argued as a good thing (well, at least it wasn’t on the same scale as the Spanish strategy of “submit or die”), the brand-invading-social event can be a good thing. We do need to remind ourselves though: who ended up ruling the land?

I used to see ordinary people having meaningful conversations about love, life, the universe- academic revolutions, religious and philosophical debates- the “essentials” of living- on social spaces. Now we share a TED video for that. Like it. Follow someone. (I still see those conversations, but not in the spaces where you’d think they’d be)

People are having conversations about how a brand’s t-shirt changed their lives- competing to win a freebie; vying for position of “influencer”- for more freebies. Their motives are ulterior, emotions cliched, strategies shallow. The brand invasion changed the way people engage and altered the energy distribution: they changed the game. Even the big issues; a war in Somalia? Don’t worry, retweet this and BrandX will donate $1 to aid…

In the social spaces, the revolutions were organised by people. The masses were mobilised by people. Action was effected by people. The real conversations took place between people. Brands can’t do that. They risk segmenting their market and losing revenue if their position is too strong on one side (and the market is 50/50): the quintessential diplomat.

And yes, this is a general discussion. And yes again, there is an example out there which can be used as an argument to counter any one of the points above. It’s easy to pick out one example because it stands out as one example against the norm. And that’s the point really- it’s an outlier. Cult-brands aside…

Ultimately, there is a space and a place for brands online- even on Facebook. Some will invade the popular mediums and behave like a weed, others will grow in harmony. Some will appeal to the base and primitive needs of online-man and continue to trade likes for product. Economically, there is only so much you can give away before you realise you have a fanbase of 100000 followers who only want a freebie- and are not interested in actually paying for your product. The Groupon effect. Others will make a real difference.

In the meantime, social spaces will struggle to be personal and meaningful. When they don’t succeed on the whole, the people will move into another space where they can touch base with the personal and meaningful; the stuff that makes them human. Maybe one day we’ll all be back chatting on ##family… or on BBM.

And that’s precisely why a relevant and meaningful social space can’t be invaded (in the offensive sense) by a brand. The energy inside a relevant space is dynamic, powerful, unpredictable. It demands a constant stream of energy. Brands need constraints, constructs, predictable returns and an efficient communication mechanism relative to their budgets. The inefficiency and chaos of a real conversation is what makes it beautiful and adds dimension, frustration, inspiration, colour and emotion.


ADD is the new Black

ADD/ADHD has steadily been getting a lot of press lately. So much so that it’s pretty hard not to have an opinion on it as it is variously linked with spiraling morals and the inability of the future generation to harness what they’re about to inherit. Aside from all that fuzziness, there still is the reality that kids growing up today are bombarded/distracted at every turn. Internet, media, BBM, chat, billboards, games, entertainment, mags, highly publicized trends, politically revolutionary times and just general 24×7 sensory overload greets our kids every day. So we blame the kids’ inability to focus on ADD/ADHD.

Go figure.

Kids are growing up in probably one of the most radical times in our short history- and just responding to that. Even, as working professionals, there’s a strong link between our survival/success rate and our (in)ability to multitask efficiently. And by that, I don’t mean just our working life. I’m also talking about overall life balance. Note: highly specialized and focused work is mutually exclusive to multitasking and not to be confused.

My suggestion would be to adapt curricula and more importantly, the mechanisms for delivering educational content rather than drug our kids into a state of submission and destroy their creativity. Spend two minutes reading, then interrupt that with some writing for a few moments, then interrupt that and start a different thread. Sounds like a regular day in the office, doesn’t it? And therein lies a clue. We want our kids to be “successful” in the future, for a career/calling/job which doesn’t exist yet, in an economy not yet finalized. One thing we can guess with a fair amount of certainty is that it’ll contain a fair amount of flux and dynamism. And if anything, the ability to adapt and evolve with trends. My guess is that kids who exhibit a high degree of ADD/ADHD will cope extremely well. Those that resist those changes and expect things to come to them in an orderly fashion will lose out.

So why not guide and lead the kids through a structured program of content, one which might seem haphazard and chaotic; dynamic even, but has un underlying goal and overriding author steering the objectives and the outcomes?

Let’s harness this new found ability kids have to effectively multitask, stop calling it a disorder (due largely to our own ineffectiveness), and embrace it as a super power of sorts, one which is preparing kids for a future we have no real control over. Moreover, let’s help our kids understand and work with this talent, to help them to use it responsibly.

I don’t think the issue lies with kids unable to focus, but rather on outdated 20th century industrialized techniques suddenly finding themselves completely inadequate and at a loss as how to cope with the changes and distractions…

perspective Technology

Mobile Zealots

What’s with the flame wars? As a human race we seem to be hard-wired into living in a state of binary. Good vs Evil. North vs South. Black vs White. iPhone vs BlackBerry. PHP vs ASP.NET. Java vs C++. Mac vs Windows. Israeli vs Palestinian. Russian vs American. East vs West. Ad tedium.

Bigger problem is it’s so easy to stir because the triggers and responses are so predictable. Which is why, I guess, it’s so tempting for anyone who’s bored and has the motivation to go “watch-what-happens-when-i-do-this”. Sometimes you don’t need an intentional agent though; things just happen by chance. When things do, the stuff that crawls out the woodwork never ceases to astound me…

Today was definitely a BlackBerry vs iPhone day. The BB service was out and just like that, all the “jokes” come tweeting out. Some even tried roping in the recently deceased to flesh out their attempts at humour like an amateur stand-up comedian high on bad drugs. Ugly.

Different technology, different software, different hardware- in fact different anything- exists for a reason. It’s just different. It does stuff differently. Not better, or worse necessarily (economics *should* weed out the bad over time). Just different. Some folk like iPhone, others Android. Others BlackBerry. Some don’t like any of the above. It doesn’t really matter. Each have their own purpose and fit their own- it’s why they all have *a* market share. Who really cares whose is bigger? It seems the classical jock envy pervades all facets of life and is gender-immune.

But if getting into a flame war, trolling or just stirring the pot is your thing, then so be it. I do think though, if we had to harness the collective creative energies of our generation (less the amateur stand-up comic wannabe’s maybe?) and directed it towards solving problems, rather than trying to trump each other on points, we would more than likely be half way to a half decent sustainable world.

But then again, going by what Batman said: “we’re defined by our actions”; I’m not sure it’s what we really want. Maybe being “in” with the #1 technology is more important…?

Life perspective

Preamble To The Constitution of South Africa (or the best thing I’ve read in a while)

We, the people of South Africa, Recognize the injustices of our past; Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to

* Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
* Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
* Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person
* Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

May God protect our people.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso. God seen Suid-Afrika. God bless South Africa. Mudzimu fhatushedza Afurika. Hosi katekisa Afrika.

There’s more to that over here


Boringly Smart

Being smart and being boring are not the same thing. In fact, quite the opposite. What does amaze me is just how strong the lie/myth/legend/stereotype is. And what worries me is how this myth roots itself into the minds of our youth because the consequences are huge. Add to that, the greater public fostering (even encouraging) this image and you end up with a society continuously making not-so-smart life choices.

Being smart means you engage your own thinking in a sustainable way. Not just your own thinking to satisfy the whims and needs of now- but also to satisfy the more basic needs later on. There’s a measure of self-control there (which is a product of both personality, character and perhaps even environment), but if your thinking is on cue, you’ve won half the battle.

Making a not-so-smart choice means you lose a lot of energy down the line engaging with peripheral damage as a result of that choice. It’s those side-skirmishes which drain your soul and stop you from being and accomplishing all your hopes and dreams. They bleed your time, energy and money. The potential of you making another not-so-smart-choice grows since your senses are wounded and pretty soon, you end up in a lifetime spiral of chaos and “stuff” with “no time or money” and a suitcase of regrets.

Let’s look at the smart, “boring” people. We’ve all heard the phrase “be nice to geeks, one day he/she will be your boss”. Those geeks, the smart people, who’ve made smart choices (which, by the way means you need to sacrifice popularity, image, status-quo, maybe even a hot boy/girl friend along the way) live pretty under-the-radar boring lives. They travel to exotic locations, always starting charity drives, good health plans, lead a fulfilled lifestyle, are always busy yet never “mad-busy”, live in a decent neck of the woods, drive a Volvo :p and never seem to be clouded in drama. I think that’s where the boring part fits in?

Yes, there are exceptions to everything and this is not applicable to every smart (or even not-so-smart decision maker) out there- and don’t confuse smart and rich and poor or not-so-smart. If you are, it’s probably because of the feedback, experience and associations you have (which in a cruel and sad way echo exactly what I stated in the beginning). It’s just, if you’re thinking to yourself that smart is a tad boring (or otherwise but similarly described), think twice, think it through.

The thing about a choice is this: you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Caveat: That could also imply that what looks like a smart decision today, is not so smart down the line, but if you’re thinking smart you’ll accommodate that change in plan when and if it does happen.


BlackBerry AutoText

The BlackBerry OS is filled with features and configurations that would make any advanced geek user drool. That is if you really wanted to jump into the depths of what is available. Fortunately, BlackBerry also comes pre-configured in a very reasonable and intuitive kind of way so that you don’t actually need to- it just works (or at least, that has been my experience- others may differ). Even Grandma can use one “as is”. One of the really cool features that is worth spending some time on is the AutoText.

On your BlackBerry go to: Options > AutoText

The AutoText feature is useful for two situations, out the box: typos and macros. Typos such as ‘hte’ become ‘the’ and ‘acn’ become can. Let me guess, you thought it was a built-in spell-checker, right? Then there are other macros like ‘mypin’ or ‘myver’ which automatically become replaced with your BB pin number or OS version and device model. Well, these are both possible thanks to the AutoText application.

In a world filled with SMS-speak abounding with abbreviations, there is now no reason to communicate ambiguously or without vowels. SMS-speak taught us (out of necessity) to limit our characters and given the nature of language, “a sntnc abbvd cn stil mk sns” (sic), we could get away with it- mostly. Evidently, Twitter is re-inforcing this new dialect. Of course, there is also the other issue of actually physically typing out all the required vowels and letters which just takes too long. However, on the BlackBerry, you can both have your cake and eat it. You can still type SMS-speak while actually communicating “proper” native tongue.

All you need to do is add AutoText options like:
tx = thank you
cn = can
e = the
ha = hahaha
btw = by the way

And so on, as you require and pretty soon, you will type out:
tx! btw, cn you pop pick it up 4 me? ha
But be communicating:
Thank you! By the way, can you pick it up 4 me? Hahaha

Of course, when it comes to SMSs you might get slightly annoyed at having to correct the abbreviations again- but why would you need to SMS? Oh, wait. Let me guess. You still have friends on iPhone, right? 😉


Media Influence On Education

There’s always a lot of debate (and hence opinion) on the “standard of education”. From politicians to parents, teachers and taxpayers, everyone (including Grandma) has something to say about (generally) the decline in the standard of education. Problem is, all this negative media is very public.

If I was a school-going kid today and all I heard on the radio, saw on television and endured at the dinner table was complaints about:
* ill-equipped teachers
* low standards
* education “crisis” after “crisis”
* decay in the moral fibre of the education system at large
* incompetence of the government to execute decent delivery of education

And so on…

Would I be enthusiastic about going to the same place everyday which everyone else drums up as a “hole”? Hell, no. And more- pay attention?

And then we exacerbate the situation when we bemoan the lack of attitude and performance of the learners. Really? We actually expect them to ignore our very public and negatively distorted opinions on education and apply themselves?

What if we told our kids that going to school was:
* fun
* exciting
* filled with opportunities
* a time to create and invent -yourself-
* all-round just plain awesome

Because truth be told, it is all of the above.

perspective Technology

Phishing Is Fraud

Words are powerful, no argument there. Words shape what we see (not just what we look at) and words shape our understanding of the world around us. Some words have been beautifully chosen while others remain questionably in existence only to serve confusion and engender ambiguity. Once such example is the word “hacker”.

In days of old, ok, not that old, a hacker was someone who lived, eat and breathed binary. They were the geeks of the day and relished their 10000 hours on the computer with zeal. They were not necessarily deviant or trying to overthrow governments, banks or universities. They just (mostly) coded. And then somewhere between 1980 and 2000, the meaning of the word changed and now a hacker is largely understood to be a “bad” person. And I use the term “bad” loosely because one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Heck, these days, just participating in a DDoS (even unknowingly- ha!) can get you labelled a “hacker”. Oooo…

Phishing is another one. I have trouble with the word phishing. Just coming up with the term and calling ‘it’ by something else robs the essence of what ‘it’ is. Let’s face it, phishing is fraud- on so many levels.

If someone knocked on your door, dressed as a policeman, claiming to be a policeman, flashed a policeman badge and requested to enter your house on the premise of official police business (but he wasn’t a policeman)- he would be arrested, tried, found guilty and sent to jail for doing only that. He wouldn’t even need to enter your house to make new chums in the block. He just needs to pretend to be someone he’s not in order to gain something that’s not his. He’s a conman. A fraud. A liar. A cheat. A decepticon.

Do this online (or via text) and you’re only phishing. Happily, justice departments see through the thin veil that the word phishing tries to hide. They apply existing criminal codes which match the behaviour of the phishing agent(s) and go to trial based on that but we tend to be blasé about the word despite very real consequences. Only when there’s a consequence do we upgrade our language and start calling it for what it is: fraud.

Hopefully, with time, the word phishing will convey a stronger sense of immorality. That way, when we are confronted with phishing emails, sms, phone calls, we take them a little more seriously. Not just, “Oh. Spam. Delete”. If some “policeman” was walking around your neighbourhood knocking on everybody’s door, asking to come in, would you just: “Oh. Fake. Close door.” and carry on as you were? Or would you: “Uh-oh. Call the real cops. There’s a phony on the prowl”?

Continuing with cliche abuse, evil reigns when good men do nothing. With Data Protection Day coming up (28 January 2010), think for a moment about your contribution to the battle against fraud.

Business perspective

How to Write A Job Spec

So your company is looking to hire (again). The (dis?)advantage to the online space is that you don’t have to write an ad (carefully and though-provokingly) that needs to be circulated in print. However, it’s only an advantage if it translates into an opportunity to be as creative as need be (pictures! videos! woohoo). Sadly however, it seems that no matter how drunk the opportunity might be, it will never get taken advantage of.
Seriously. When last did you see a job ad that included *at least* one (non-stock) picture- or even some gratuitous colour?

Let’s say you’re looking to hire a developer/marketing guru/insert-job-title-here…
First question: who would be the best possible candidate (within your organisation) to strike a chord with other potential developers/marketing gurus/insert-job-titles-here out there seeking gainful employment?


Surely not?

I’ll talk from a developer’s perspective to illustrate my point.

Does HR really know how to communicate with another programmer better than a fellow of the realm? (unless of course that HR has had a career change, which is not unlike a sex change apparently)
I’m guessing not.

Does HR (or is this marketing’s influence?) also not realise that phrases like “fresh, dynamic company” apply to 99.99999% of all job ads out there. After all, who would advertise:

Boring, staid company seeks equally dull individual to maintain lack of office vibe.

So you’re effectively writing without really communicating when you drop phrase du jour into your ads.

Now also keep in mind that programmers, like any other jobseeker out there, are accustomed to reading 1000s of job ads. After a while, you can’t help but pick up the patterns, which, evidently is what a programmer is born, trained, paid, skilled and schooled to do. It’s like staring at those hidden pictures…

So the last thing you want to do is sound just like every other ad out there- unless the first thing you want to do is attract anybody who calls themselves a programmer. And in this day and age, it *is* scary at exactly what does flock towards the job title of programmer.

So here’s an approach: distributed problem solving. Get your developers to write the spec. Heck, get as many people in your company to write the spec.

Use HR for editing and to correct the offered renumeration. If your developers come back with…:

come slave away in our luxury offices overlooking the ocean with so much coffee on tap it would kill an elephant (seriously, George (UI) was taken to hospital twice last year with caffeine poisoning).
the pay is “ok” but the pointy-eared bosses don’t have a clue about things technical so you can just BS your time away and put up with the occasional demand.
overtime sux. at least the lan is wicked fast and we have uncapped ADSL with no firewall 🙂
p.s. my christmas leave just got cancelled thanks to an unreasonable deadline. bastards will pay!

Maybe you need to rethink hiring another head and spend some time “fixing” first?

But wait. You’ve also gained some valuable insight into the current group dynamic. That is an entirely different post altogether, needless to say, you can discern the inherent value therein yourself.
Oh, and one important tip: don’t give the task of writing their own job ad to your programmers with the air of a pointy-eared boss. At best, you’re going to get a copy-paste version. At worst, a one-liner: software developer required. apply within.

Done right, your devs communicating and reaching out to their peers works “better”. it’s more viral, more accessible, more appealing. It’s why the techie companies attract all the “cool” people because they speak the same language. But it doesn’t mean that just because your company doesn’t have a tech focus that it can’t do the same.

So here’s what i would like to see in a job ad:
It’s posted on youtube (for starters). It includes a view of the offices and some insight to the people i’m going to be working with; kinda like a:
“hi. my name is Martin. I’m head of engineering here at insert-company-here. looking forward to meeting you. bye.” and so on with key people.
and please include the receptionist. i’d also like to see footage of the coffee machine (in working order).
i would like to see/feel the buzz/vibe on a normal day. don’t go overboard with editing; candid is good.
and of course, i wanna see hardware. that’s important too. and workspaces, collaboration spaces and chill spaces.
you don’t have to give any secrets away, but if you can capture your ogranisation, it sells itself.

and if you can’t… erm… yes, well.. erm… right. look! ooooh. shiny.