Change Management, Part II

Following up on the earlier post, as I have had Spare Time TM courtesy of a bout of COVID.

The Ripple Effect

I failed to mention previously that Big Changes tend to have ripples, and much like when you throw a rock into a pond and then another rock shortly after it the ripples sort of crash into each other, creating other ripples, is how post-major-change ripples go. For example: you have broad reorganization A – let’s say whole departments move, charters move, Big Changes happen. That’s the first rock.

As the ripples from the first rock stretch out to other parts of the water, things in that part of the water get impacted — in this case, there’s the tactics of administrating to a reorganization (changing of cost centers, migrating of resources, identifying process or people gaps, revising projections, etc.) and then there’s the tactics of reacting to a reorganization (I had guaranteed funding from your team to do X, you have gone through a reorganization, is my dependency on you at risk). After enough buildup of these ripples, it often comes to management’s (correct) mind that another reorganization is needed, to account for the things that weren’t immediately derived or attended to with the first one. This “aftershock” reorganization is typically smaller, more nuanced, and often has better details worked out (direct reporting lines, accounts for previously identified gaps, etc.). Perhaps pedantically, this aftershock can breed additional, smaller aftershocks (or, additional, smaller ripples) that eventually calm down as they extend through the system. Depending on what time of year The Big One hit, the Little Ones can extend 3 to 6 months afterwards.

Driving To Clarity

The unloved but absolutely necessary job of the shitbird.

I’m sorry, there’s no better way to put it, although LinkedIn me wants to change “shitbird” to “change facilitator” or something; the bottom line is that oftentimes the people who have to drive through the stickier parts of the ambiguity pursuant to a reorg (particularly when we are talking about things like charter, support, keeping programs running, transfer of knowledge, transfer of understanding (those are indeed two different things), and so forth) are incredibly unpopular because we are often the ones pointing out the un-fun things to be done. For example, if the reorganization of people and charter does not equate to a clean reorganization of resources, there’s typically a lot of tedious work in identifying which resources go where, which ones can’t move until they’ve been reviewed, etc. In a world where development teams are already stacked with features and fundamentals work, the tactics of a reorg often present an unfunded mandate and are not usually expressed in cost of hours (e.g., this reorganization equates to N developer hours spent on the tactics of the reorg).

Note I do not say “wasted”. The time spent inspecting and enabling a reorganization to be successful is *not a waste* if done transparently, with understanding of the purpose of the reorganization, and in good faith. Like any effort, there are costs to that effort; the overall reorganization ostensibly results in greater long-term efficiencies, development or productivity. There is a short-term cost, however, and I’ve yet to see any reorganization actually attempt to size the cost and get better at sizing and predetermining the costs associated.

Tactics vs Strategy

Thus far all of my conversation here has been about “tactics” because the reorganization itself is the output of a strategy decision, and the implementation and administration of the reorganization is all tactics. But should it be?

I’m fairly certain that my company is not the only company to regularly shift resources, assets and charter in a near-constant effort to get better: we are a for-profit company and like sharks you either swim or die. We spend money on things, we want to be as efficient as possible for the best possible outcome, and ostensibly every reorganization is made with that goal in mind.

In a world where this is the case then it occurs to me that, by now, there should be a playbook for these things: how to determine the lines of the reorganization, how to pre-identify some of the impacts (both proactive and reactive), and most of all size the costs associated. Those costs need to be juxtaposed with the previous planned expenditures and weighed accordingly – you cannot absorb the impact of moving a thousand people around with no delay in production or productivity; to do so is either specious or obtuse.

One could argue that we cannot get to the impacts of the proactive/reactive tactics to a reorganization because the people who tend to understand these pieces best are too close to the ground – they cannot be trusted, in advance, with the knowledge of the pending changes enough to provide sizing of impact, and so it’s better to let the reorg roll and then “just deal with it”.

If you cannot trust your team to size things in advance, that’s probably a signal to pay attention to. Let’s ignore that for now, because that’s not what we’re talking about here (but we will, later).

You can have some aspect of both worlds.

The Strategy of Shuffle

Working with the fait accompli that a reorg is coming, you cannot (for whatever reason) pre-plan the reorg transparently with your organization, and you have to land the message and then pick up the pieces: approach it as strategy.

Because this isn’t the first one of these you’ve done, and it won’t be the last.

Playbook

If you don’t have a playbook, build one. Literally start building one by capturing the experience of the pain of the tactics of this reorg:

  • What were the hardest parts of the implementation?
  • What were the things you didn’t plan for?
  • What were the things you planned for that didn’t actually happen? Or didn’t turn out the way you thought?
  • How much time did your team actually spend implementing the reorganization?
  • What projects for that period ended up being delayed (either directly or indirectly)?
  • Did any of your KPI’s suffer?
  • Did your OKR’s have to change?
  • How did your employee satisfaction scores change before/after/6months after 12 months after (for those who were part of the cohort before and after)?
  • What volume of attrition could you directly or indirectly tie to the reorg?

You’re already having to absorb the tactics of the specific reorg you’re undergoing right now, you may as well track this while you’re at it.

Sharing

As you’ve captured all this information, be transparent with it – share it with your team, share it with your management, share it with your impacted peers, share it with your leadership. None of these things should be sensitive and every single one of them is useful.

“None of these should be sensitive? What if my KPI’s suffered? What if our employee satisfaction scores suffered?”

I would argue that it’s likely anyone seeing this data already has access to it — it’s not unusual for employee health scores to be shared out semi-or-annually, OKR’s and KPI’s by their very nature are shared in a Measure What Matters context, and I guarantee that regardless of what they wrote on their “going away/changing roles” email everyone knows why someone left the team or company.

The transparency and sharing of the data facilitate conversation, they facilitate awareness, and most of all they facilitate the ability to identify areas to improve *next time* — because there will be a next time.

Benchmarking

If you’re thinking, “hey it looks like you’re gearing up to say now that I’ve measured all this and documented it, I should benchmark and improve” then ding! go to the head of the class. Because that is exactly what you (I, anyone in this) should do. If for no other purpose than your own for the next time you go through one of these, to better set expectations and understand the volume of work, and to better approach the tactics of *that* reorg, record what it took last time and use it to inform your experience the next time.

Forecasting

Obviously if every impacted team did exactly this then that would be a heck of a conversation with leadership about (and accrued body of data to inform) the strategy of reorganizing. Armed with the data of the costs pursuant to a reorganization (in time, developer productivity, attrition) vs. the benefits (in strategic pursuit, overarching delivery, etc.) leadership can make better informed and more surgical reorganization decisions. Specifically, armed with data about implementation times — e.g., if Reorg A took a really long time to implement because the volume of entrenched and shared resources was particularly gnarly to tease apart — then when approaching the next reorganization leadership can cast an eye in that direction and ask their middle management (who will be better informed on this aspect but also ostensibly in the Circle of Trust, or at least enough to help message the reorg) to size the effort for this bout and/or adjust their reorganization plans accordingly (move more/fewer people, move more/less charter, etc.).

In turn, much like any development effort, the management team can identify predictive costs of the reorg (if we do X, it will use up about Y productivity, and potentially impact Z project, to N degrees), avoiding many of those unpleasant conversations (or worse, handwavy conversations without any actual data attribution) that happen 6, 8, or 12 months down the line when we’re collectively trying to figure out why something did or did not happen.

Perfect vs Good

A quick note here about perfectionism: it’s good in small doses to get you directionally better at things. It is not a good management philosophy or philosophy to apply to any sort of “benchmarking and improvement” endeavor, which I would posit the Strategy of Reorgs as. Which is to say:

  1. Your first round of reorganization benchmarking will not solve for All the Cases.
  2. Your first or even second set of impact metrics will not be enough data to create a predictive model, but will be enough potentially to suggest correlation.
  3. The practical upshot of this exercise is to fractionally minimize the pain and/or volume of expense with each go.

It’s not going to be perfect, ever. You are welcome to aim for perfection; understand you will oft settle for good.

Which is better than settling for nothing at all.

Change Management

Author’s note: I had to go back and read through this blog a bit because I was certain I had already talked about this, but it turns out I’ve only dallied around the edges. Time to hit it head on.

I’ve been at my current company for about 8 years, meaning that if I stick around for another year (likely) it will be the longest time I’ve ever been at one company (and, should I stick around another year after that, the longest time I’ve been consecutively in the same approximate management chain/position). We just underwent the largest reorganization I’ve ever been through.

When a reorg happens, one or more of at least three things can happen:

  1. Your manager changes.
  2. Your reporting chain changes.
  3. Your charter changes.

Any one of these can be disruptive and when they happen it’s a good idea to go through and do that risk assessment, “Do I want to be here/Do I want to do this”. I advocate doing that assessment on a twice annual basis (or however often you have formalized reviews/checkpoints of your career at your company) anyway, so in my case, this assessment was about a two-minute exercise.

Once you’ve picked your stance, you then have to pick how you’ll approach it. As a manager, my first responsibility is to my team to make sure they have what they need to 1. do that risk assessment and 2. act on their plans outbound from their risk assessment. It’s also to make sure they get the answers they need to the questions they have, and to make sure they are supported. My second responsibility is to my charter: I am here to do a job (and it is not volunteer work, I am well paid) so let me focus on that job.

Which is why when a major reorg happens, I am probably not the best person to ask about “how I am feeling right now”. I put that in quotes not because I don’t feel anything, but because any emotional reaction I am going to have about the change will not hit until all of the change is managed and is *complete* — meaning, until we are all comfortably in our new place doing our new things as defined the new way, I am still in “change management” mode and my focus is to *get things done*. One of the defining criteria of leadership at this company is the ability to manage through ambiguity and my ability for that is to work consistently until there isn’t any.

This is all well and good until you work with someone who expects you to want to talk about the emotional reaction to the reorg, to have sentimental lookbacks, to “wallow” in the unknown a bit, or (and this is the one that grates the most) you have to work with someone who is “ostriching” — ignoring the change and hoping that things will just “stay the same”. That last shows up in things like being willfully obtuse, or pretending like the decision today will not make a larger impact four weeks from today; it’s the opposite from “I see the vision of the future and I want that future right now” (which to be fair is also pretty annoying — you have to traverse the interim between the two, you have to *do the work* to close out the old world and prepare for the new one).

Unfortunately, the way many folks deal with change are to either ostrich or to do that “assumptive time jump”, and so when you are the person who points out you can’t really do either and you must traverse the A, B, C, and D between the two, it can be perceived as unfriendly or adversarial. Which sucks, because the intent is to get through that sludge as quickly and efficiently as possible, not to reinforce the discomfort people are feeling with that change.

The problem is even though I’m aware of it I can’t really turn it off, for two reasons: 1. I’m literally paid to make sure we actually do the things we’re supposed to do, and 2. I’m fundamentally wired this way. Case in point: when my mom died. My mom died of vascular dementia and acute arteriosclerosis in April 2020. We found out she had this in December 2019, her having hid the dementia (and associated health issues) behind an alcohol problem and a refusal to share any health information with us. By the time she got through the first of two surgeries it was clear that we were in the end of the book, and by the time we had to engage Hospice there wasn’t any pretending anymore. This is change and that change bridges between the old world (Mom is “fine”) and the new world (Mom will not be here). And in that world, I felt helpless, because unlike this in-between space I have at my job, I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t a doctor, a nurse, a hospice person; I had no job to do in this space except sit and wait. I could bring blankets and chocolates and have nonsensical discussions and on the side work through the endless paperwork; but these were things I could manufacture for myself to do to at least feel like somehow, I was contributing.

It’s a pretty stark comparison to take a major life event and compare it to something so trivial as a job; I draw it only to reinforce that this is a “me” thing and not a “me at work” thing and it’s a thing I have to balance.

I’m therefore in this weird space between Old World and New World where I want to focus on the steps to get from A to Z but I’m dealing with folks who want to pretend we’re in “A” for ‘just a little longer’ and folks who want to get to Z ‘right now’ and I’m the shit bird who has to point out there’s 25 steps to do first and the more time people insist on wallowing the less time there is to do those effectively.

In terms of energy expense, I think the main difference is that for these other folks, their mental energy expenditure is the stress surrounding the change and what that could mean for them/their charter/their vision; for me, the mental energy expenditure is the practical approach to get it done. Which is why on my Insights profile I get things like “Bobbie needs to be reminded of the humanity in others.”

So really, I have to manage myself through this change.

To Link or Not to Link, That…

… is really a decision that gets made on an individual basis, if I’m being honest.

Having ranted about What LinkedIn Is Not For, let’s talk about what LinkedIn *is* for, at least as I understand it:

  • To create connections between yourself and people you have worked with,
  • To create (potentially) connections between yourself and people you have worked withs’ connections, to expand your network (e.g., in order to reconnoiter on employment prospects, places of work, specific candidates, etc.),
  • To identify potential candidates for your open role (if you’re a recruiter or hiring manager),
  • To share your work/discipline achievements with your peers and potential recruiters/hiring managers,
  • To share news/media/thought leadership/anecdotes around your area of occupation or expertise,
  • To find candidates or indicate interest in candidacy for nonprofit or volunteer positions (board or otherwise),
  • To vet skills and/or educational achievements

It also gets used by consultants and service providers to find potential provide-ees, which I find questionable, but I’d totally roll with (if there were an option to opt out, see previous). With that, here’s my criteria for linkage.

  • We worked together, either in the same group or in the same company on a given project or product
  • We served board or volunteer time together (yes even PTSA)
  • You have provided goods/services in a professional capacity (the very best traffic lawyer in Washington is one of my links, you’re welcome)
  • You reach out and identify how we are linked (“I see you worked with Princess Buttercup, I did too back before she started working at Dread Pirate, Inc.”) AND you identify how a link would help either or both of us (“I’m looking to transition into program management from engineering; do you have time to talk about your experience?”/”I see there’s an open role in your organization that I think would be a perfect fit for me…”)
  • You reach out and do not identify how we are linked and/or aren’t really specific about why we should be linked (e.g., I can see from the tooling that you’re linked to Inigo Montoya, and I remember working with Inigo Montoya on that project for Vizzini, so I can infer that that’s how you found me; but I’m not really sure if you’re just clicking “link” to have a bigger network count or because you want something from me or what.)
  • You are “cold mailing” me out of nowhere (as part of your mail you don’t share how you found me/why you think the linkage is worthwhile),
  • You are using InMail to sell me stuff, and want to link me so you can sell my links stuff,
  • You are one of those aforementioned service providers with whom I haven’t actually transacted any business,
  • You are just trying to expand your network via searching for keywords/key organizations and clicking “link all”
  • You do things that make me question your judgement, either on LinkedIn or at work. This includes conspiracy theories, derogatory comments about others, grind shaming, self-care shaming, or just generally being a d*ck.

Linked Out

I have, as of right this moment, reached my tipping point with some Bad Behavior on LinkedIn — from “professionals”. I’m not talking about your coworker who posts political stuff or that link from 3 jobs ago who posts pictures of their kids’ graduation — spare me the “LinkedIn is not Facebook” drama; I understand that but can scroll by those posts just fine on the “let people live” principle.

I’m talking about proactive outreach that is ostensibly about opportunities, that is not in fact about opportunities. These actually really waste time, and not just the recipients’ time. They waste your time, recruiters and business opportunists. They make me think less of your organization. They make me less likely to consider your company and/or “opportunity”, ever.

I’ve grouped these broadly into four categories. If you’re thinking about doing any of these, please count me out.

The “Come Apply for This Completely Irrelevant Role” In Mail

In this one, you get the semi-form letter that says “Dear [your name here], I was looking across your resume/LinkedIn profile and think you’d be perfect for [their job title here]…” and then goes on to list the benefits of their organization and how to get in touch with them. So far, so good. Here’s where the red flags come in:

  1. You are pitching me for a level that I have exceeded by at least 3 stages and/or haven’t been at in 7 years.
  2. You are focusing on a skill set or keyword that is not in the last 10 years of my job history.
  3. You sent me this same mail 30 days ago, 60 days ago, 90 days ago, etc. and at that time I sent you a polite, “thank you, love where I’m at right now, might consider new options *next year*”.
  4. You are identifying a role or a skill set that appears nowhere, not anywhere, and in no way in my history. Like ever.

Looking at you, Major Seattle Tech Company, Major California Banking Company, Major Seattle Tech Company, Major Seattle Tech Company, and Major Silicon Valley Tech Company.

When I get these, they tell me either your algorithm is borked and coming from a tech company that’s probably not a good sign, or that you aren’t using an algo and your recruiters are so desperate they’re legit just looking for any name whatsoever to send a mail and make some sort of number/incentive, which is also not a good sign.

The “Come Join Our Advisory Board as a Way to Give Us Cash” Opportunity

Admittedly I fell for that this morning, and it wasted 30 precious minutes of my life and also probably someone else’s. Here’s how this one happened: I have, on my LinkedIn, that I’m looking for opportunities in the nonprofit sector specifically in board support – either as member of a board or of committees (as I already am and have). Life is precious, time is precious and so I’d like to spend my ephemeral existence trying to help improve things. In this case, I got a mail for an advisory board role opportunity linked to a local educational endeavor, one I’m actually close to. I accepted the 7:30am call (because sure!) and the day before the call I got a link to “more information”.

Cue the red flags.

The first three pages of “more information” is/was the usual stuff around board support — this is what we do, this is what we need, these are the kinds of support. Then it got into phrasing like, “Work with the design team to select the format best suited for your organization and budget. Each activity and discussion will focus on your industry and company needs. Start your corporate program with as few as 30 employees…” which… somehow read as a sales pitch? For a board role? I responded to the invitation asking for clarity and, got none.

Here’s where I made my mistake: I attended the call. I should have taken the non-response as “we don’t want to answer that right now”, either because it would mess up people’s target call numbers or perhaps the plan is to get people emotionally invested in the first five minutes. Regardless, I attended the call. The inviter was five minutes late (fine) and after some initial small talk when I brought up my question about the “hey what kind of board role is this”, after some very scripted speech the ask was to start talking more about me and what I’m interested in. I was frank, “That’s another red flag for me; you shouldn’t need to know more about me or what I do in order to let me know how the board advisory opportunity squares with the language around organization and budget.” After some initial clarification, what came out is that prospective board members are expected to actually participate in the program the board advises on, to the tune of $5k (oh! but for special people it’s only $2.5k).

I have no problem donating money to nonprofit organizations and do so, on the regular, for ones that I do and do not participate in directly as a board member or advisor or committee member. This bait and switch, however, means that I would re-think any fiscal donation to the educational institution whose name shares this “opportunity” because this “invitation” feels like a scam, and frankly if anyone comes asking me about it, I will share with them my concerns and experience. I mean, if you’re looking to drum up cash just say so, don’t obfuscate it with a theoretical opportunity to actually advise or help.

The Come Use Our Irrelevant or Superfluous “This As A Service” Service

I work for a Very Large Company. There are a few Very Large Companies on my resume and that’s normal as I like the stability of Very Large Companies – you can move around within them without having to renegotiate health insurance sign ups, for example. When I get a LinkedIn email asking me if I want to consider using your HR services to administrate my HR needs, though, it sounds really tone deaf. Like somehow, I’d have the power or the inclination to bypass my existing company Human Resources organization (which is pretty darned great) and just– somehow use your company for my team? I understand when people offer contracting services — that makes sense, I’ve hired contract services before so that is normal — but when I get solicited for things like payroll services it is just a time waster — the precious minutes of life gone, reading that email.

The “Here Let Me Help You Even Though You Didn’t Ask for it and I Don’t Know You or Anyone You’re Linked To” Service

Executive Coaching. Financial Management and Estate Planning. I do not know or understand what the algo is here but I get one about once a month of someone offering to be my coach or manage my money. On one hand, good for you! Go get ’em. On the other hand, I wish LinkedIn offered us the ability to flag that we are not open to business opportunities. We have for example the ability to say we are “Open To Work” (for recruiters — which is not the case for me and I still get the pings), it would be great to opt out of “business opportunities” or better yet opt in to the ones we are looking for.

Bring the Pain

Learning is hard.

I’m not talking about casual, “oh that’s how Bob Ross turns that odd-shaped line into a tree” learning; or even “hey I was listening to my podcast the other day and they let me know that there’s actually only 8 species of bear in the world”; I’m talking about “you need to learn this new thing and be able to *do* it within a given period of time”, usually with a flavor of “for your job” or “for your life”. Requisite learning, not-necessarily-your-idea learning.

I’ve previously blogged about how I had to stumble through and learn a new query language and I hated every minute of it. It was such an unpleasant experience that the running joke with my teammates for about 6 or 8 months was how much I hated it. I use that query language every day though, and it allows me to do all kinds of analysis and make all kinds of cases that I would not be able to, or would be hyper-dependent on others to do. No pain, no gain.

The company I work for, like most major companies that hire a ton of engineering talent, looks for drive, initiative, and potential. The entire review system is based on ‘and what else could you do?’; you are measured on impact rather than delivery. (You can work all day and not deliver. You can deliver all day and have no impact. You are measured on impact.) The set of humans surrounding me are all people who are very used to being *good at a thing right away*, or getting good at it quickly.

When you’re in an environment with that level of expectation, and the culture is one of “growth mindset” (e.g., yes learning is hard but we lean into it), it can feel lonely. One is often looking across the Teams chat to identify if the person who is talking just naturally knows all that stuff (query language, given service architecture, etc.) or if they had a painful time drilling through it, too. Not unlike high school, where there was some subset of people who looked like they got effortless A’s (because you didn’t see the late nights, the weekends, the tutoring sessions, the agita. You saw the A’s.) You question if it’s just you, if you’re the odd person out, and this (unfairly) leads to impostor’s syndrome. I don’t belong here, I can’t do what these people do, how did I get here, etc.

There’s actually two things at work here: first, the invisible mountain those folks climbed or climb that you do not see (e.g., all the studying, or head banging, or side meetings with all kinds of other people to ask all of the questions), and second, comparing your step two to someone else’s step six. Or sixteen.

The only way to “get over” the idea of unseen investment is to acknowledge it exists regardless of admission. That is, not everyone shares their investment effort — some prefer to come off as “naturally good at things” and they may as yet be, or they may come from a culture where that is the expectation. I come from one where you share the investment and that potential embarrassment is the price of entry; I ask smart people stupid questions (thanks Ologies) and I share that I asked smart people stupid questions. The questions aren’t stupid and if it wasn’t evident to me/not easy to self-serve and find the information, there are others who are having the same problem. If there are others having the same problem they need to see that they aren’t the only ones. The struggle is real but it does not have to be lonely.

As a result, without knowledge of the hill that person climbed (the investment they had to make), it’s easy to assume they are on step 2 just like you; in fact they are on step 6. This sets up for unfair self-comparison and expectation, which can bleed into other areas (so and so got a promotion and it was *just so easy* for them).

I’m not saying there are not people who are just naturally good at things. There are, of course. Some of us though are “naturally good” at a thing because we have been doing it so long it is no longer painful: when I started in the corporate world (in 1994) I was not “naturally good” at anything. Now I am “naturally good” at organizing and streamlining things, making shiny power points and anvil-spotting, because I have spent 27 years doing that (in various capacities). It would be unfair for me-of-’94 (or ’98, or 2000, or even 2007) to compare myself to me-of-now, because me-of-now has literal years of investment, experience, embarrassment and failure to build on.

There are areas I’ve doggedly tried to learn and have not mastered — and that is what growth mindset is. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to suck, and I’m going to pursue it anyway because I will learn and grow, and I know that I can because I have done it before. I’m “naturally good” at “A”, but I still am learning “B” (and I frankly have no clue about “C”). The phrase “A Jack of all trades is a master of none” is only a partial quote: the actual quote is “A Jack of all trades is a master of none, but oft better than a master of one.” In our careers (and in our lives) we have the opportunity to sit tight and do just one thing, or go out and do and learn many things. In both there is opportunity to learn, and expand, and learn more — and it’s going to hurt. No pain, no gain.

That’s How it’s Done

I use Flipgrid to consolidate inbound tech and economics news; along with a few podcasts and my weekly Economist that represents the bulk of my news media intake.  This time of year it’s a particular minefield, of course, with politics. But for the most part it’s my regular vegetables of tech and economics that get me what I want to know.

I was reading an article about how Amazon is launching an Alexa service for property management — e.g., the property manager pays for/owns the Alexa that lives in the residence with the renters, using it as a de-facto localized presence to control smart home things and, essentially, as an “added service/feature” of renting the place. (So much as you’d look to see if there was that extra half-bathroom or if there was a walk-in closet, you’d see if they included Alexa, too).

For the record, I read articles, because a pet peeve is when you get the poster who forwards an article that they clearly haven’t read (e.g., using the article to make a point that the article actually counterpoints). This is a case of me reading two separate articles, coming to a conclusion, and that conclusion was wrong.  It’s a better case of a colleague gently educating me.

Firstly, to the other article.  Granted, this NYT article is about a year old but we all remember the news that made the rounds about how Alexa is always listening. It’s true, she is: she *has* to.  Obviously she can’t start your timer or add your biodegradable pet waste bags to your Amazon cart if she can’t hear you.  In the NYT article, it’s about what she has done, and where that data goes, once she hears you. There is a sentence from that article, however, that did not stick in my brain from last year, so when I read the TechCrunch article, I made a comment on Twitter/Linked In.

My comment, quoted, is here:

“Two things: 1. interesting way to make IoT accessible to a broader base and 2. I would not at all be reassured the data is truly deleted (and isn’t, say, shipped off in snippets for “logs”/“troubleshooting”, for example). Also, the hand waving over who’s data it is needs to stop. Alexa has to listen to everything in the first place to trigger on her name.”

For the record, I still think #1 is true, and most of #2 is still an open question for me. I’m not at all clear on what happens to the data (yes, deleted at the end of the day, but… is it? What part of it is deleted? Is it every command, every call; or for example is there a record still in the smart thermostat (or a downstream reporting service) of all the changes I made, for example? And so forth.) Or who owns it (e.g., if something happens in the home, and the home belongs to the property manager, and the Alexa belongs to the property manager, but I’m the one renting the home, is that day’s data mine or the property managers?)  However, this post is to talk about someone who reached out to address the last point:  “Alexa has to listen to everything in the first place to trigger on her name.”

Now, it’s true that she does have to listen. However, a generous colleague reached out — privately, via LinkedIn messenger — to reassure me that Alexa does listen in for her name, but that listening happens only on the device… she doesn’t “trigger” until she hears her name, so no data leaves her until she does.  Or put the way they put it (bold is mine):

“Wake word detection is done on device in a closed loop, that is no audio sent to Alexa (aka. the cloud). Only when the on-device model detects the wake word with a high confidence, the audio of the wake-word it sent to the cloud for additional verification (besides false-positives this handles for example “Alexa” being said in ads).  No audio is ever sent to Alexa without a visual cue (the blue light).”

(Incidentally, the NYT article has this in a sentence that didn’t stick in my brain at all (bold is mine):

“…it’s true that the device can hear everything you say within range of its far-field microphones, it is listening for its wake word before it actually starts recording anything (“Alexa” is the default, but you can change it to “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “computer”). Once it hears that, everything in the following few seconds is perceived to be a command or a request, and it’s sent up to Amazon’s cloud computers…”)

I wanted to share my colleague’s message because *this is exactly how it is done, folks*.  While I would’ve been just fine with them pointing this out as a comment to my LinkedIn post, they’re being polite and careful, because not everyone would be and frankly, they and I had one lunch at one time and that’s about all we know of each other.

My larger point — because I know that not everyone is in to public correction and many could find it disconcerting — is that we need to be better at private correction, at accepting new data, and at assimilating it or at least making the sincere attempt.  You will read articles and they will be carefully constructed on the part of the author — either attempting to be scrupulously fair or attempting to sway you one way or another — but what you don’t get to see is what was omitted, either via editorial jurisprudence or a required word count or assumed common knowledge.  What you don’t get to realize is what your brain has omitted, either via convenience, or simply the wear of time.

So thank you. I happily sit corrected :).

Hustle: How to Get Things Done

In Empire Records, Liv Tyler’s character is this seemingly perfect human who is a straight A student, cool, works in a record store, and gets a lot of things done. When her friend comes to pick her up for their shift at the store she’s got fresh-baked cupcakes and her friend marvels at her productivity: her answer is that there are 24 useable hours in a day. (Sure, later on we find out she’s been on amphetamines but we all know someone like this who isn’t. Or probably isn’t.)

Increased productivity is an economic expectation (and/or desire) for a given population but it’s also an expectation we put on ourselves, and our kids, coworkers, volunteers, etc. The “always busy” culture celebrates the hyper-productive person who, when you ask them how their day was, will inevitably reply “busy”.

In my career (which sounds really great as a tag for a series of only vaguely tethered job choices) I have developed a set of practices to live in that world and get a lot of things done. While it’s true that there’s no such thing as multitasking you can learn to recover from switched contexts faster, when to shove the ball into someone else’s court, and how to pursue the answers you need (to unblock your course of action) doggedly.

Getting Someone to Respond

Most offices work in an email-enriched environment (maybe too enriched) for primary communication.  Some have Slack or Teams as an augment or replacement. Then there’s meetings and conference calls.  Within these, there’s usually the need to either disseminate information and the need to acquire information. Getting someone to respond is the need to acquire information: either to get them to acknowledge a given topic or to provide a missing piece of data so you can go about your day. Example: I need to know if there already exists a security protocol/practice on a system I’m thinking about using. I’ve read the provided documentation* and still don’t have an answer.  At this point I reach out to the name responsible for the documentation (or the name responsible for the product, or indeed anyone I can find related to it) and send an email or Slack@. When the inevitable non-response occurs (email is good for that), I set a meeting.

Why?

Because people hate meetings. It’s a massive disruption, they’re stuck on the phone or in a conference room when they could be doing something else, and it means they’ll have to (gasp) talk to you in real time.  The reason why texting has taken off and voicemail is dead is because, for the most part, people don’t actually want to interact with you unless they have some social basis for it.  By creating a meeting and pushing the point it gives them one of three options:

  1. To unblock you by responding to the meeting request/your original email and giving you the data you need or some other poor sop to go after.
  2. To actually meet with you, in which case you get not only the answers you’re after but you can pelt them with more questions.
  3. To ignore your meeting request.

For that last: it does happen, but rarely.  When it does, and *if you’re truly blocked*, you request a meeting with their lead.  At some point up the chain, meeting requests and emails can’t afford to be ignored.  This is a somewhat nuclear option, so use sparingly.  You can also branch out and forward the meeting/email to others in the same group/product.

Carving out Time

This may seem silly, but actually carving out time on your calendar (“booking yourself”, as it were) will make sure you have the unblocked time you need to get whatever-it-is done, and that you don’t accidentally overlap incompatible things.  I can clear out my email while dinner is in the oven, and I can go for a run on the treadmill while listening to a podcast, but I can’t clear out email while listening to a podcast (because the brain gets confused). Some folks use this to actually make sure they remember to eat (e.g., “lunch” as a 30-minute block) and some folks do this so they can catch up on training or get focus time to diagram something out. Bottom line: book your time, because if you don’t someone else will.

Also, this includes personal stuff: I have calendar time carved out for housecleaning, for laundry, for grocery shopping, for trimming the kitten’s nails, for blood donation, etc. It keeps me straight. Sure, I could try to keep it all in my head, and I used to try to do that.  In 10th grade I double booked a friends’ house sleepover (super-rare for me to get to do those back then) and a babysitting job.  I was devastated because I had to do the job (you do what you say you’re going to do. Period.)  Keeping it written down reduces unpleasant double bookings.

Finally: carve out time to do nothing.

That’s right. Do nothing. Give yourself a night a week if you can afford it. Block it off so it can’t be consumed by other things (unless you really want it to).

Prioritize your Backlog

In the Hyper-productive Expectation World, you will always have more to do that can be done. Always. There’s not enough caffeine, amphetamines, or hours to accommodate everything.  You can either ruthlessly trim things (which is very effective but requires a strong will to say “No” sometimes) or you can prioritize things (which means you still have them on your list, they’re just much farther down).  Look at the Volume of Stuff, and figure out which are most important to least.  Some things will be of related importance (you can’t do A until you do B, but A is really important, so get B done now) and some will be compatible or a two-birds-one-stone situation (I can walk at an incline on the treadmill and read that latest set of whitepapers). I recommend having prioritized lists for Work and Non-Work (and if you have other commitments — PTA, Scouts, Church, Nonprofit, Clubs, etc.– prioritize within those).

Use Technology To Help You

Use your calendar and reminders. Use a list/task tracking app. Use OneNote. Use the alarm on your phone. Use sticky notes. Use whatever works for you to remind you if/when you need to do stuff and what it is.  For example, we have a running One Note grocery list broken out by the stores we use (because Trader Joes doesn’t have all the things and Costco doesn’t either). We update it through the week.  I have an Outlook task-tracking list of the things that are most important for a given week. My friends use a Trello board to organize household responsibilities and projects.  Another friend uses their inbox to prioritize.

The thing to determine here is what set of technologies work *for you*, because some folks like to leverage their mobile for keeping their brains straight and some people prefer tactile things like sticky notes and highlighters.  There’s no one *right* way, just the way that works for you.  You may have to try a few things before you hit on the right combination.

Eat Your Frogs First

In any prioritized list of things to do, there’s the thing you don’t really want to do but have to do.  Maybe it’s the cat-pan change out. Maybe it’s reorganizing under the bathroom sink.  Maybe it’s collecting all of the papers for your tax return. Maybe it’s going line by line through an excel spreadsheet until you find that the issue with line 943 is in fact that the value that should be a decimal was in fact a text and it broke your import. You know, that thing.

Do that thing first if faced with it and another 3 things of the same priority. You’ll get it out of the way, the other things will feel (and be) easier, and you’ll feel all kinds of virtuous.

Wash your hands when you’re done, though.

 

An Illustration of Live Site Practice, Featuring My Eyeballs

Congratulations to me, as I’ve got a new job, and I’m in a new team here at the ‘soft. Specifically, I’m in Azure, in the Internet of Things space, working on a Thing. I can’t talk about the Thing. Some day I will talk about the Thing. But not now.

This means I’m back on a live product (or a product that will be a live product, it’s all very complicated) and that means I am on a Live Site team and I’m pretty happy about that. I enjoy the Live Site process because it’s basically enforcing a culture of learning from mistakes.

What is Live Site Practice

Generally speaking, Live Site means that your site is… live. Meaning when something goes wrong (and there are varying levels of wrong to Wrong to WRONG to WRONG!!!) you have a person responsible to fix it, you have expectations of how quickly it gets fixed, you put a plan in place to make sure it never happens again and monitoring to catch it when it inevitably does. Live Site incidents can be singular (this one experience happened this one time) or multitudinous (cascading incidents, parallel problems, etc.) or chronic (a liberal application of the philosophy of Live Site could categorize a series of data breaches or questionable data sharing practices by a given company, for example, as a very large Live Site Incident).

Measuring the Live Site Response

There are four major ways to measure the response to a Live Site Incident. These are: Time to Detect (how long it took you to figure out something is wrong from the time something actually went wrong), Time to Engage (how long it took you to start trying to fix it from the time it was detected), Time to Mitigate (how long before the customer stopped having the negative experience), and Time to Resolve (how long before the actual problem was fixed).

General prudence means I don’t illustrate this with an Actual Thing From Work because I like my job and I want to keep it, so I’ll use a recent personal experience to illustrate.

At about 8am on August 25th I went to the gym and my contacts clouded over. It was annoying so when I got home I took them out and put them in a fresh solution/case and went about my day in glasses.  At night we had friends to dinner so I wore my contacts with no trouble. At about 9am on August 26th I went to the gym and my contacts clouded over. It wasn’t horrible, just annoying, and so when I got home I took them out and put them in a fresh solution/fresh case and ran around with my glasses.  No problem.

  • By 4pm that afternoon my eyes were itching. Because we’d had smoke issues lately coming in from the Canada and Eastern Washington fires, I figured my eyes had got irritated from that, and put some drops in.
  • By 5pm my eyes were uncontrollably watering and itchy.
  • By 8pm I had to stop watching Aliens, one of my very favorite movies, because the following hurt: opening my eyes, closing my eyes, and having my eyes closed. Thinking that eye irritations usually resolve themselves with a good night’s sleep (hello, morning eye crud) I went to bed (yes, at 8pm). The software equivalent of this is turning the machine off and turning it on again.
  • By 10:30pm I woke from a dead sleep feeling like someone was stabbing me in my eyeballs and asked my husband to drive me to the ER.
  • By 11pm they had put numbing drops in my eyes. Ensuing investigation showed my corneas had all kinds of pitting all over them and possibly dual infection in both eyes.
  • By 12:30pm they discharged me with a Percocet (to help me sleep and ignore the pain), antibiotics (for my eyes) and an instruction to see an eye doctor the next day.
  • By 10:30am the next day the eye doctor confirmed the infection, noted some abrasions, and said I’d self-heal in about five days.

Time to Detect

This one is tricky, because on one hand you can say I “detected” it at 9am when my contacts clouded over… but on which day? As nothing hurt and I wasn’t inconvenienced and I carried on with my day.  So I’ll say I detected it at 4pm.  But it’s likely the problem actually started at 9am on the Saturday, so my Time to Detect was 31 hours.

Time to Engage

Again, it’s not a clear line (and I’ll point out these things are hashed over in the Live Site world a lot as well). I started “engaging” with eye drops at 4pm. I didn’t request professional help though until 10:30pm when it got really bad. I’m calling it 6.5 hours (4pm-10:30pm).

Time to Mitigate

Mitigation is all about the customer’s perspective. How long from the time the problem started actually happening (and the customer was inconvenienced) to the time it got fixed from the customer’s perspective. For me, that’s from 4pm (eyes watering) to 11pm when I got my first numbing drops. Seven hours. If you want to be really specific, my eyes had stopped hurting mostly by the next day, *without* numbing drops, so a more conservative mitigation time would be from 4pm Sunday to 10:30am Monday – 18.5 hours.

Time to Resolve

Resolution is about the actual problem being fixed (perspective or otherwise). In this case, five days from Monday the 27th, or September 1st. Time to Resolve: a little over six days.  As part of resolution I had to throw out all open saline/lens solution containers, contact lenses, etc.  As a “customer” of this experience I also took the added step of “re-architecting” my framework: I went and got a different brand of contact lenses (that change out more frequently), and started wearing my glasses more often.

Measuring the Impact

Money

The Emergency Room is not cheap, although by comparative standards I got off easy. My bill, after insurance, was roughly $700 (not including the follow-up eye doctor visits, new contact lenses, replaced makeup, etc.).  The bill sent to the insurance company was roughly 3 times that amount.

Time

Money isn’t everything, and time is more precious: I lost about 4 hours’ sleep, I lost 6 hours’ quality time with my husband and a favorite movie. I lost another 2 hours or so to the ER and another 2 to/from the eye doctor.

Peripheral Impacts

I had to work from home on that Monday, and that meant even though it was my last week with my old team they didn’t have me right there to help with my transition; that’s 4 people impacted. My husband had to take time from his evening and next day to take me to appointments, which he was super supportive of and insisted upon, but it also meant he couldn’t do whatever it is he should have been doing during those hours.  Rarely is it just one customer who is impacted in Live Site.

Post Mortem

Yes, post-mortem means “after death”, and no one died. In the Live Site world, no one dies. (Well, we hope no one dies). The Post Mortem is when you look over what and how it happened, figure out how to keep it from happening again, and figure out how to detect if it does.

What Happened – also known as the Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is the review of what instigated the problem. In this case, what happened was that I somehow (?) got either smoke between my contact lenses and cornea, creating a corneal abrasion that then lead to dual infection, OR the I got an infection, which led to corneal abrasion. The experts weren’t really worried about which came first, and if I had wanted to spend lab money to dig into which came first, I don’t know that they would have been able to figure that out. It is, in fact, a moot point.  If it was smoke from the environment, that’s how that could have happened. Or it could be infection from saline solution, eye rubbing, random bacteria, etcetera.  It could have been from contact lens over-use. If they would have been able to tell me definitively the root cause that would be great, because it would impact my next two steps, but rarely do you get a clean root cause.

How to Keep it from Happening Again

As we read up above, I trashed all of my eye-based items (including, incidentally, my mascara, every one of my eyeliners, etc.).  I washed all of my makeup brushes and sterilized them. I got a new brand of contact lens that is changed out more frequently.  I got new glasses and wear them more often than I used to. This may be overkill, but it is everything I can do to ensure I don’t have to miss one of my favorite movies.

How to Detect if it Happens Again

In this case, my first clue was my contact lenses clouding over on the Saturday. At that point I should have quit wearing contacts for a few days and thrown those lenses out instead of trying to disinfect them. My second detect point was the second day of clouding lenses — those two combined should have sent me to the urgent care or an eye doctor, which would certainly have been more cost-effective than the ER.  Uncontrollable eye watering, foggy lenses, and/or gritty pain when opening, closing, or having closed eyes are all reasons to see a professional right away.

Coda

You’ll notice in most of this I’ve not beaten myself up about being stupid, making poor choices, etc.  That’s because it wouldn’t help (either me or the situation) and it’s entirely beside the point. I can’t go and change what happened, so the best practice is to learn from it and ensure others do, too. *That* is what I like about Live Site. If your Live Site culture feels like a giant finger-pointing exercise, then it isn’t being implemented properly, and it’s time to do some Root Cause Analysis.

Off

Greetings from my week off.  This is what it takes to get blogging time.

I have discovered that you really and truly can over-commit yourself, but more often what actually happens is you don’t manage the commitments you have very well. When I went to take this week off — which started at 3:30pm Friday April 1st, something heralded as an April Fool’s Day joke by those that know me — I would have said “I’m over committed and I need to step back”.

Three days in and I’ve already discovered part of my problem: my phone.

In order for this week off to “work”, I had to do two things: I had to arrange for Outlook (my mail service for work) to *not* automatically open when my laptop boots (done) and I had to detach my work email from my iPhone. The last time I did the latter was my wedding week in August of 2014.

I have had the most fulfilling, relaxing yet-personally-productive, best-sleep weekend. I had no insomnia Friday, Saturday, or Sunday nights. I got a bunch of projects done around the house, I have taken time to actually thoroughly read my Economist (instead of jumping to the bits I usually read and then, if time permits, reading the rest). The best part of this is knowing that if I had had to go to work today, it would have been okay: I actually unplugged this weekend.

Here’s how this has worked historically: I use my phone the way many of us do; I have my Evernote for shopping lists and recipes etc., and my fitbit tracker, and my weather app, my stock market ticket and texting (the tether to my offspring these days). I use it for a variety of things, the least of which appears to be actually as a phone, and most prevalent is for email. Being the checklist-y, anal-retentive person I am, I really do not want to see the little red notification bubble on my mail that I have unread mail. It bothers me. It’s less clean looking. I could turn off the notification badging for email but that would be problematic during work hours (or on working days). So I roll over in the morning, check the phone and oh, there’s email: better answer that. I stop at the grocery store on my way home, and there’s email: better answer that. I pop open the laptop to get that recipe for dinner tonight and there’s email: better answer that. On weekends it would be get up, go to the gym, check in to the gym with my app and there’s email: better answer that. Stop by Home Depot, get those plants I need, let me cross that off my Evernote and there’s email: better answer that.

All of this email of course is not in a vacuum: answering email is step 1 and usually steps 2-48 involve updating some documentation, or sending another email to another person about the email you just got, or doing a power point presentation based off of the email you just received or the email that is due in a couple of days, or updating the excel spreadsheet so you can email the person with that and a link to the other thing about this particular thing, which reminds you about a third thing that you’d better send an email about.

It is a seemingly ceaseless stream if ingress and egress, with me as the human compute between the two; normally I like this but I’ve realized just how much it has taken over my life.  My first inkling was in checking my Delve numbers — my first instinct after seeing them was to be upset my coworkers aren’t as responsive as I am and my second was to realize I could never share these numbers with my husband else I’d get lectured.

The lesson of all of this is that I will make an effort to detach work email from my phone on weekends — or at least occasional weekends — going forward. I can commit to email — but I need to re-establish ground rules.

 

Listening Ears

The last month or so has been an exercise in emotional control and perseverance: there are the usual challenges (it’s the last productive month before people start to serially take off for holidays, trying to eat healthily when people bring in baked goods is difficult, etc.) and new and unwelcome ones (a dear friend has passed on, the car decided I needed to spend some serious cash on it, a coworker is leaving which in turn throws into sharp relief just how much I can separate work and life). As such I haven’t had time to blog or really reflect on much: I’ve spent most of the month reacting and creating contingency plans.

As November is gone and I find myself firmly in the twelfth month, I have either got better at dealing with these challenges or I’ve become numb to their effect. The result is that I can finally take some time to concentrate on a (relatively) new concept: being self-aware and open-minded during challenging times (especially meetings).

We’ve had some training on this recently at the ‘soft, and courtesy of a side-program I’m getting a larger tutorial in how perspective can shape an entire interaction for the better (or worse). Traditionally I am not one to necessarily assume the best of intentions in dealing with someone during conflict — it’s something most people do not default to. (I know of one person who I think can honestly say that during a contentious debate can keep her “opponent” in a positive light; it’s fitting that she is the extremely patient Executive Director of a nonprofit devoted to helping schoolchildren (and teenagers alike)).

The idea of unconscious bias is not a new one, it’s the reason I assume the teenager in the brand new Porsche in front of me is spoiled rotten (instead of thinking they may be enjoying a ride with Mom or Grandma in their car), that the guy who cut me off on the freeway is a jerk (instead of hoping that whatever emergency they’re rushing off to is quickly resolved), that the person at work who hasn’t got back to me is a slacker (instead of positing that their workload is just as heavy as mine). It’s the reason some bosses assume it is ill-advised to hire single mothers (and some deliberately hire them), why some tourists raise their voice to speak English increasingly loudly to the people who don’t understand them, and why most people think NPR listeners are Loony Lefty Libs. (Hi.)

Nor is the concept of self-awareness a new one, if not practiced terribly often. In an era of “selfies” and Kardashians, you’d think self-awareness abounds, but alas it does not. The next time you think you are self aware, check how long it takes you to calm down after an argument with your spouse: that is, once the issue at hand has been resolved and how long until your autonomic nervous system chills out (e.g., your tone of voice changes, your heart rate slows down, you stop grimacing and feeling like you’re still arguing but aren’t really sure about what anymore).

In other words, it’s hard, when the guy has just cut you off and your latte has landed in your lap, to stop and think “gosh I hope he gets there in time”. It’s equally hard to sit in a meeting with someone who is disparaging your product or questioning your priorities to believe they are coming from a positive (or even just productive) space. It’s a skill set to practice and a useful one at work and at home, to be sure.  It’s harder still when the media (“social” and otherwise) is screaming you about the impending Armageddon (be it ISIL or Climate Change or Global Economies or Airbags or Guns or Presidential Candidates), to be positive about much.

The suggested approach (from training, shortly to be invoked in different ways) is to practice active listening: in other words, to let the other person say what they need to say NOT with a view to “how much longer do I have to listen to this drivel” but with an earnest attempt to understand where they are coming from, and acknowledge that position. This, combined with assuming the best of intentions, should serve to deter the impression that the other person is wasting your time/out to get you. The other tool provided includes essentially a “so what are we going to do about it?” mechanism — it’s perfectly fine to air an issue, but come ready to solve it or to commit to solving it. This should serve to ensure that conflict — when it does arise — is used in a positive and productive fashion. These things sound practical and practicable, but I suspect in the heat of the moment they aren’t that easy to call upon. I think, however, it is better to try, in these trying times.