31 December 2007

Financial house cleaning

I find money compelling. Good thing, considering I’m planning on entrepreneurship. I think, and overthink, about money quite a bit more than most folks I know, including those who are strapped for cash or need to be especially careful. Unsurprisingly, I keep a meticulous budget. I started my budgeting to promote and maintain rigorous financial discipline. It was a difficult and unpleasant habit to form. But budgeting is in my blood now.

When I first began to seriously budget, I had very little disposable income and a near-pathological debt aversion*. As a result, I have an up to date plan that lets me tell to the cent the full valuation of my estate. [This is only a slight exaggeration as anyone who has seen my budget can attest.] That visibility into my financial position is important to me, but not as important as the ability to look at trends in my spending behavior.

At the end of every year, I examine how I spent my money. I view it against what and how I spent in previous years. I look at whether, how, and why I met my goals. Then I make notes on which behaviors I should keep and which I should attempt to change. Thankfully, I only need to aggressively revisit my retirement projections once every four or five years – it is an awful pain to crawl that data and tweak it to accommodate reality.

This year, several things are clear to me:

  1. Provided that I continue to meet or exceed my savings goals, I will retire˚˚ 10-15% earlier than I anticipated – at about age 45 for simple living or at 55 for comfort.
  2. As I earn more money, I grow increasingly casual about luxury spending. Ten years ago, I would have saved for a year to buy myself a liter of my favorite Sicilian olive oil. I bought four this year. While I have never spent beyond my means, I have taken to blowing windfalls on straight luxury.
  3. As my standard of living rises, I have a very hard time imagining lowering it, even in lieu of any need to do so. I know, it’s ever so shocking.

A finance site I started following this year is My Open Wallet. The blogger there keeps her identity a secret. This isn’t a bad idea considering her premise and content. Though I am generally against anonymity and secrecy, there is a certain degree of crazy around publishing one’s personal finances online¹. I know from experience that I run a company’s budget very like I run my own. So without revealing any specific dollar-by-dollar breakdowns, here’s a high level [jargon] peek into my 2007 books:

  • 63.3% Savings (401k, 529, IRA, other investment)
  • 12.2% Rent and utilities (including phone)
  • 6.4% Travel (Argentina/Uruguay, China/Hong Kong)
  • 4.3% Entertainment (restaurants, media, events)
  • 3.9% Groceries and supplies
  • 3.8% Cuisine-related luxuries (coffee, wine, dinner parties)
  • 3.1% Owning and operating a car
  • 1.8% Giving
  • 1.2% Health and fitness

I did well with overall fiscal responsibility…

  • I increased both my income and my wealth over the previous year beyond the rate of inflation. This has been consistent every year but one since I entered the workforce full time.
  • I met my long term savings goal for the year. Actually, I exceeded it well beyond the figures above due to market appreciation and 401(k) matching. In fact, I saved so well that I managed to reduce my anticipated retirement age by a full year (provided that the dollar returns to something like its pre-2004 valuation).
  • I kept my housing expenses under my target – by more than a full point – while living alone in Bellevue. Next year, my utilities cost will fall by nearly half (I dropped my cell in favor of VoIP. I will also be moving back into Seattle, sharing an apartment or house. This will reduce my rent and slightly reduce overall utilities.).

…but I did not correct the spendy habits I picked up.

  • I took two vacations. Provided I can afford this extravagance, I am fine with spending a significant portion of my disposable income on experiencing global culture. However, I failed to plan for or adequately track my expenses on my trips. Also, excepting Hong Kong and Uruguay, I chose to go to places I ended up generally disliking.
  • I lavished 8.1% of my net income on restaurants, music, movies, parties, and what largely amounts to narcissism. It doesn't seem like a lot of money while I'm spending it. It certainly does though when I add up expenses at the end of each month. I did the same thing last year, took a note on it, and failed to change the behavior at all. Provided I'm meeting my savings goals, I do an abysmal job of saying no to entertainment.
  • For someone who is supposed to be using a bicycle as his primary mode of transportation, I spent far too much time in my car and money on gas. With a bit of luck, I should be able to halve figure in 2008. Bonus: for every hundred miles I ride rather than drive, I lose about a pound. There’s also that global warming thing.

I’ll close with a couple of ethical dilemmas I have the privilege of wrestling with. Feel free to weigh in if you’d like.

I am now within the bracket of the top 1% richest people on Earth². Of all the money I spent, less than 1/50th of it went toward charitable purposes. I can say with verifiable certainty that less than a third of that went to anyone genuinely poor. Of the money I invested in assisting truly resource-starved people, I suspect that most of it actually ended up (or will end up) back in the pockets of resource-rich people. I did some good, but not in an especially sustainable manner. Troubling.

I continuously struggle with my savings strategy. I intend to be independently wealthy, sufficiently so that I do not have to work except as I freely choose. However, in pursuing this strategy I am effectively stockpiling capital resources. I'm not likely to suffer the claim that I did not earn what I've got. But a strong argument can be made that many will endure hardship or die, explicitly as a result of my stockpiling [My savings strategy is investment-oriented, so I while am accumulating wealth, I am not hoarding]. I am going forward anyway. Once free to do as I please, I can apply as much of my excess income as is reasonably available, a sum that will be increasingly larger than anything I could have achieved without venturing down this path. Or so I tell myself.

Oh yes, one last thing. Welcome back, dear readers.

* An aversion I continue to enjoy.
˚˚ I can’t retire any more than anyone else in my family can. We work. Once "retired", I will simply choose my avocation to align most perfectly with what is uncompromisingly most satisfying for me.

¹ Though I’m leery of publishing them on the web, I probably have no problem sharing my personal finances with you. If you want a closer look at my numbers, feel free to ask. I may still say no, but I’ll have a suitably good reason.
² According to www.globalrichlist.com, which I don’t think has been updated since 2004.

24 October 2007

Sorry about all the cobwebs and dust

It is unnerving to have a month flash past. It’s not like nothing happened and then it was gone. It’s that all too much happened and what got put to the side simply had to wait its turn. Hi, blog! I’m almost back on my routine, so I am finally able to reincorporate the writing into that apparatus. And that grinding sleeves-rolled-up work I was talking about? It’s about time to get back to that as well.

Here’s a tantalizing morsel before I retire this post. I’ll be starting two companies, not just the one. The additional one will be a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. It’s kind of a gift, though how much of a mitzvah it will be remains to be seen. More on this in December.

So. You’ve had a month to think about what I’ve written to date. Maybe we’ve spoken. Even so, I invite you to comment about what you’ve been mulling over while I’ve been sorting things out on my end.

p.s. Of this past month’s crazinesses, the funniest bit for me is the notion that NASCAR is fake*.
p.p.s. Really, it’s fake˚˚.

* NASCAR is not fake.
˚˚ You have no idea how tempting it is to add (you know, add, not vandalize) this as one of the Criticism passages in the NASCAR Wikipedia article.

25 September 2007

It’s like a romance… only, completely unromantic*

I got a little spun around by the fun of this blog thingy and got distracted by the excitement I feel when planning and designing. While it’s cool and fun for me to research, ultimately there are parts where it takes banal and unglamorous work. Gradual incremental effort – though punctuated by gushing moments of breakthrough – but generally grinding sleeves-rolled-up work. Sometimes it is effortlessly let-the-sparks-fly leaping forward and sometimes it just plain takes work.

I’m forcing myself to go into just such a work phase right now. I’ve got many weeks’ worth of speculations, so I’m overdue for a period of knuckling-down. Simple pragmatic milling out of flour from corn: clarifying the articles of incorporation; establishing most of the specifics of the operating agreement. Speculative posts will likely take a back seat to status and retrospect. This is just as well as the day job is heating back up a bit and I’m trying to attend to my goal of being more sociable.

Next step: a practical accomplishment and then a post.

* And without the kissing.

20 September 2007

Scaling back

Based on my experience so far, posting thoughtfully takes two to five hours per day. Thus, doing that five times a week is a ten to twenty-five hour effort. That’s fine – enjoyable even – when I'm not, say, up to my neck in random work,* unexpected travel,˚˚ or any number of time-intensive domestic adventures. Oh, and I also like having a social life and maybe be able to carve out some time to aller à bicyclette. Well, with enough distraction and time compression, I end up writing rushed. I’m not happy with the resulting rambling, lack of research, or degradation in the overall clarity of my communication.

Rather than scramble to keep up (or catch up), I think that the more sane tack is to blog less frequently. A few folks have told me that keeping up with five posts a week is a bit much anyhow. When people are commenting, it’s certainly a bit much for me. So I am scaling back to roughly three posts per week.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a teensy bit like this:
Natalie Dee PSA-style self portrait with text, I'm a Quitter
But all things considered, The sheer volume of posting I was doing really was excessive unless blogging was going to become a cornerstone of the business. Which it almost certainly isn't.

To be clear, I am not quitting this project! I'm just blogging less. This will actually give me more time to do some of the administrative stuff to get this thing up and running within a reasonable timeframe.

Now I’m going to have a lovely cup of tea, ride the bike to Seattle and back, and then learn something called “Xcelsius.” I am assured that, despite the moniker, it is not a comic book villain. That is actually a little bit disappointing.

* The word design is in your title, so I’m sure you do graphic design also, right? No? Really? But… but “design.” Well, do it anyway.
˚˚ Hey there Tennessee, how’s the meat? Still in everything? Thought so. And yes, in case you haven’t been, in addition to being rich in antioxidants, vegetables are also rich in meat in the South.
Fun with geometry! Pack a 400 ft² studio with 800 ft² of stuff. It can be done using only ordinary third order n-dimensional Euclidean space. Also? Check your messages. Sometimes your mother thinks you’re dead when you don’t return calls for a week. Surprise! Still alive!

Updated 20 September to correct word-choice typos and add the Natalie Dee image with accompanying paragraphs.

16 September 2007

Money and risk and the value thereof

I have never wanted for money. This is not to say that I haven’t been poor. [Social activist friends: please note that I am fully aware that even as a very poor American I would live far beyond the standard of living of most of the rest of the world. It is not lost on me that I’ve never truly known poverty.] I have been very poor, my family having had to live with my maternal grandparents for a short time when I was very young, living for a year on strange negotiations and about two thousand dollars in my late teens, eking out a livable though low-key existence on eighteen thousand a year in arts management when I was wrapping up college. Until recently, money has always been a terminal limitation on whether I had control over my life. And my valuation of money has changed across that span.

Even when things have been tight, I made good budgets and reasonable plans. I was able to graduate from college without debt (and then art school with a minor and manageable short-term debt). I was able to afford several bargain trips to Europe. I kept my expectations low, my obligations negligible, and my expenses minimal. I learned to be DIY wherever possible and to like it. My simple living and good planning let me take a lot of risks that I otherwise would not have been able to make. Fools Play afforded me a free education in business. The dotcom crash gave me a lasting object lesson [initial Freudian typo: lesion] in investment. I learned to manage risk and calculate the return on my aggressive investment.

Unchecked risk makes my skin crawl. Educated risk though, has been pretty easy – not painless, but easy – for me with my few obligations, unburdened by debt. I have taken carefully considered risks that have been sometimes expensive in the short term but always high-yielding in the long run for me. Risks that have wildly expanded my experience, broadened my skill set in surprising directions, raised my expectations around what is possible, and doubled my income every three years on the average.

I assume that there is a boundary somewhere around improving experience and skills, though I’ve not found it (and I’m not particularly worried that I’m about to run up against that barrier anytime soon). I seem to find it plenty easy to ratchet up my expectations as I come near meeting them so that I’m always hungry and a little uncomfortable. But in any realistic terms, I’m going to hit a ceiling within two years inside of the tech sector that will slow my income doubling trend by a factor of three. The next doubling will be the last for a decade or more… as an employee, that is. As someone with ownership, the rules change. The risk factor goes up but the rewards can be scalar as well.

Money isn’t zero sum. In a world where ideas can translate into resources, there is always room to generate new money where there was none before. All the same, I am underwhelmingly happy on ethical grounds about presiding over a steadily growing nest egg. Without skin in the game, it is arguable that this is in practical terms all I am doing right now. There can be a fine line between saving and hoarding, and it’s well established* that hoarding has a poisonous effect on the world around the hoarder, both directly and indirectly. If I can generate strong revenue and therefore (presumably) much higher incomes, I can continue accelerating fiscal control over my life and help others to achieve the same sort of result. That definitely helps convince me that I’m no partner to hoarding and that this is the right direction to go.

* Look at me not citing this “well established” fact. Feel free to challenge me if my unsupported proclamation is insufficiently convincing and I’ll spend the time to go fetch the research.

13 September 2007

Bonus bad habit: overcommit

  1. Help out a friend in Tennessee? Sure, no sweat.
  2. Work off-hour from an improvised home and mobile office at the same time? Yeah, okay.
  3. Do lots of stuff in town and push most work into the evening? Doable, but starting to sound inadvisable.
  4. Keep blogging as usual, several hours a day? This is a bad idea.
  5. Fill evenings with restaurants and cooking? Okay, now I’m just being dumb.
  6. Sacrifice almost two days to travel and then play a loser’s game of mad catch-up on a Friday? Sounds great, and for good measure add a dose of “my mother thought I was dead because I wasn’t answering my phone” and now we’re talkin’!
  7. Plan to spend the weekend sick or maybe just exhausted? Yeah. Plan for that.

12 September 2007

Bad habit: sainthood

Advance apologies for any offense to my saint-revering Christian readers. In my [non]defense: I knew it was wrong.

Everywhere I’ve been in the tech sector, I’ve been told that the rock stars of the field are the ones who go so far beyond what’s expected that it looks like they are able to perform miracles. The bigger the pond I’m in, the bigger the expected miracle. So if you really want to be that star performer, rake in the Big Bonus and get promoted once every other year, skipping a pay grade every other promotion until you are right up there with the top brass of middle management, then you’d best get your miracle on.

Except it’s a terrible idea.


The project careens and careers toward unmitigated disaster and miraculously your climax-of-Spice-World*-like intervention saves the day. Cue applause and cheers (if you’re lucky). But your first miracle may be a fluke. The venerable candidate of office sainthood shall be investigated thoroughly in the postmortem [jargon, deliciously appropriate jargon]. Further miracles pending review, your current efforts are venerated; thou art a good dude to have on the team.

Phew – Your first miracle might be a fluke! Hopefully you didn’t put yourself out to make the miracle happen, hopefully it is just a fluke.


Your works continue to be reviewed and it is seen that they are mighty and that you are blesséd in the eyes of the office. Your services and participation will assuredly be in high demand. Now, we don’t want you bored or lacking in challenge and, as you are such a very high performer, we are certain that you don’t want that either. Well then, what could be less boring and more challenging than being asked to work another miracle? Here, take this miserable derelict charred hulk of a product and make it the next Furby or Tickle Me Elmo or Pokémon. As thy many blessings are shewn, so shall thy work pile be increased.

Gasp – The inverse of once bitten twice shy is going on now. Are you a lucky rabbit’s foot or maybe, just maybe, you can pull the whole rabbit out of your hat whenever you want. Maybe you can be depended on to work miracles. Let’s find out, shall we?


Third time’s the charm. Working three miracles means you’ve just established miraculous job performance as a routine. A standard has been set. Hopefully just for you, but maybe for your whole team. I won’t be getting that sweet 20% bonus you’re getting for performing at 400%.˚˚ Shucks. Some people are just geniuses, I guess. Some people really know how to hit the home runs. I’ll just have to make do with my base hits. After all, I’ve got this family and these hobbies and those friends, and they all take up so much of my free time. But you? You’ve got my admiration and that sexy title on your business card and a bit more cash on hand.

Shudder – “Congratulations” on your beatification. Saints have a special relationship with god, and that’s got to be one of the most rewarding experiences possible. Oh, wait though. You’re not a saint, hangin’ with el hefe J and playing bocce with angels. You’re a smoke-jumping wildcard talent or a nose to the grindstone obsessive. Probably both.

Could we sharpen and hone that talent and get you onto a saner and predictable schedule? Because you’ve disrupted the way the company operates with your productive mania. Most companies will be all too happy to be disrupted in this way. But now the company needs you to churn out miracles. It needs it, but it probably doesn’t even know that it’s become dependent – it just takes your golden eggs for granted. Your workmates also come to depend on your Herculean efforts. And maybe they resent you for it too. But also, maybe no one at all really appreciates or understands your ability and potential. Maybe success is assumed and you’ll go the distance to get us all there instead of letting the reasonable failure come about from launching out on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. You make even the most harebrained schemes possible. When you’re gone (you’ve probably imploded), your reckless and imprudent bosses will expect your coworkers to pick up the slack. They might even think they can. Sometimes a bad project or idea or boss or team has got to hit bottom before a happy ending can come about.

You don’t actually need to be officially canonized – informal habitual sainthood is just as bad as the recognized variety. At least try not to get caught personally performing your miracles. Here's my last bit of well-meaning hyperbole, because I like you – we should hang out more. Soon. Because you don't have a lot of time left. Saints technically need to be dead. Don’t worry, you’ll be dead soon enough. Dead tired, dead to the world, looking like death warmed over. Until one of the big four stress-induced killers actually does shuffle you off.

* I'll tell you what, if it’s good enough for Stephen Fry and Elvis Costello, then it’s well good enough for me.
˚˚ You get paid $100,000 a year and perform at 400%. You get a 20% bonus of $20,000. My question, if I were you, would be “could I have the other three years’ worth of salary instead for performing adequately as four people? Because while I like $20,000 and the prestige of getting a juicy merit-based bonus, last I checked, $300,000 is (A) fifteen times as much as $20,000 and (B) a great heaping gob of money.”

11 September 2007

How would you like your bonus paid?

I should say bonuses, since that’s what I’m about to argue for. An annual bonus encourages you to keep your mouth closed about your issues with the team and with the company until you get your bonus and then walk, suddenly (and looking like a mercenary), having now stewed in your smoldering dissatisfaction for four or six months.

When I get my receipt from the grocery store, it usually indicates on it how much I saved [okay okay, or “saved”]. It’s like every time I buy groceries I get a little bonus. Admittedly, it’s a bit of marketing flimflam. But it’s still a nice little hook, this reward for my fish- and bread- and wine-acquiring accomplishments. The part I like about the flimflam – the part that’s not flimflam at all – is that the grocery store genuinely does appreciate my contribution. If possible, they’d like me to know that I’m appreciated each and every time I deal with them.

I can’t say I’m not motivated by getting a bonus.* The two bonuses I like the best?
  1. Spot bonus. That thing I just did that was particularly beneficial got noticed and now suddenly I’ve got a trivial gift in hand. That trivial gift is directly related to something I like: dinner at the Stumbling Goat; credit at the Triple Door; an Amazon gift certificate (well, hard to go wrong there with anybody…). A spot bonus, even a little one, says that my good work is recognized and has instant gratification attached as well.¹
  2. Launch bonus. The project I just finished was a success. A small bonus goes a long way when acknowledging success. And success should always be celebrated. Sure, I am expected to succeed. But when I do, I should still be praised. Respectable success? A bottle of the Albariño I like. Admirable success? A bottle of 16 year Lagavulin. Marvelous success? A century-old Delamain cognac.²
When it comes to the annual bonus, I can’t say that on the balance I wouldn’t trade it for a raise. I am a sucker for stability and predictability.³ But I’m not going to say no to cash money. In fact, why make me wait? If the company is doing well enough to pour an overflow of cash into my cup, why not do it semi-annually? A bonus split in fourths looks a bit smallish, so quarterly is probably out. The semi-annual bonus is a good partner to a mid-year review with ye olde boss – which should be comforting news to an employee, not disconcerting. [What? You haven’t had a boss skillful or trustworthy enough that you looked forward to your review? Why not?] Formal bonuses and reviews, alternating quarterly. So you’ve always got either a bonus or a purposeful conversation coming up every three months. You can be sure that you will be regularly recognized for your efforts and that there will be a routine forum for your input.

It’s not so hard to ask you how you’d like to be bonused and then reward you in accordance with your express preferences. Mightn’t you be inclined to be more loyal then? More productive? More forward with your issues? More patient with management’s foibles?

You might, rabbit. You might.

* Though I am a few standard deviations off the norm since I calculate investment:reward ahead of time wherever possible when it comes to bonusing. I’d like to determine the real value of those bonus dollars in exchange for the time, effort, and possible crazymaking incumbent upon earning them. Sometimes the money just ain’t worth it. Sometimes those extra hours are getting paid out at less than half of what I’m normally getting paid. Sometimes those extra hours are getting paid out at less than minimum wage. And gosh, I surely would love to work for less than minimum wage! Thoinx! And could you also punch me in the groin? I love that too!

¹ If I’m not in a position to give you a monetary reward, I am going to write you up and send that recommendation off to you and your boss.
² So, I’ve actually been criticized for recognizing success. I pointed out the people who worked on the project and mentioned them as necessary to the success of the project. That’s it. Apparently, that’s a “love fest” worthy of public scorn. Ouch. No wonder I don’t work for that company anymore. On the same project, I was told that success is assumed so only home runs were worthy of recognition – this from a group that consistently failed across a big board o’ projects on the books.
³ Which is a better executive? The one prepared to take a big risk and goes for it, shooting from the hip? Or the one prepared to take a big risk and goes for it, having planned to adjust for the danger ahead?

10 September 2007

I am (not) my job

Is it reassuring or discomfiting if an executive's identity is obviously, intrinsically, and inseparably tied to their position? No one is going to be bowled over by my saying that your own identity shouldn't be wrapped up in your job. But what about the top tier bosses?

I know what I believe. I'll post it in the comments section, probably Friday morning.

09 September 2007


Just Trust The Monkey's Judgment*

A great friend of mine has been working on a series of film projects. One of the very old drafts dwells on a post-apocalyptic society ruled by an oracle-king with a staff of acolyte government ministers. These people interpret the king's communications and enforce the resulting rule of law. Ordinary citizens, for a number of contextually reasonable motives, enthusiastically follow the lead of this unseen and inaccessible divine font. You will not be shocked to find that the rules create a compelling and barely functional dystopia. Oh, and the king happens to be a captive monkey.

Fascinating, Edward. So… what are you talking about?

Well, now that I've written a short explication of how I think a company should aspire to act, I don't expect that to be the end of it – even if everyone says that yes, those comprise a great bunch of principles. It would not surprise me to find that doing only that invites the creation of a JTTMJ-like scenario. The acolytes abstract meaning from a monkey’s gestures; a standalone document is open to abject interpretation.

I should perhaps draw a conclusion here. Alas, all I’ve got at the moment is a cautionary sense that if the standards to which a company holds itself are not aggressively and wisely supported, it’s an invitation to disaster. So then, how about a tangent instead?

It has been pointed out to me that the set of people who can both agree to the spirit of my list of corporate principles and put those principles into practice is a narrow set indeed. At the same time, I don’t think that any of those people would be inclined to just trust the monkey’s judgment, so to speak. They're already going to be resistant to building up byzantine bureaucracy or cruelly adhering to the letter of dogma. If it’s just a few people, then that's the way it'll have to be. Actually, I think that could be a good thing. It is, maybe, a challenge to growth and scalability. But folks of that stripe should be drawn to a cluster of their peers. Exclusivity can be a strength, and a crowd draws a crowd, even a small crowd. It strikes me that a few committed people are better off by far than a large group of uncommitted people.

Ladies and gentelmen, I give you Kool-Aid Man* I’m using JTTMJ in a similar sense as drink the Kool-Aid. I think The Big Man would approve, though.

[Please note that this post will be radically altered if the originator of "JTTMJ" objects to its use here.]

06 September 2007

Call to comment

“One is happy as a result of one’s own efforts, once one knows of the necessary ingredients of happiness - simple tastes, a certain degree of courage, self-denial to a point, love of work, and, above all, a clear conscience. Happiness is no vague dream, of that I now feel certain.”
—George Sand

I've been sitting on that George Sand quote for a while, and it seems apropos today. Tremendously despairing dreams last night, essentially just thinky disaster movies. Unremarkably, much of the same terrain I've been travelling in the past three posts was covered albeit from an inverted view. So now that I've obviously been thinking too much about corporate virtue, I'm going to back away from it over the weekend.

Since you're not actually dreaming about it, perhaps you can think about it on my behalf. This is an area in which I do not want to act in a vacuum. I've had a few good discussions with folks in this vein - that list didn't just appear like Athena - but not enough for me to feel comfortable with moving forward yet. So this is a call to comment. Anyone care to chime in on the four corporate principles posts? See something I've left out? Duplicated? Think that a principle I included is not that important? Is not well described? Is just hype? Like the flower presentation? Hate it? Confused by anything? I'm not asking for necessarily fully formed thoughts. Even shoot-from-the-hip reactions or impressions will be of great value.

05 September 2007

Good habit: punctuality

It's so kids' stuff to harp on punctuality, but here I go anyhow.

Lateness costs money
Imagine a meeting with ten people. The meeting cannot begin until everyone is there. These people cost the company about a hundred dollars an hour to employ. The meeting starts fifteen minutes late. The price tag on that one time delay is $250. If that's a weekly event, it's about $12,500/year. Once daily? $62,500/year. I had that meeting at least three times a day every day while at Microsoft. Microsoft spent $200,000 for my team to wait over the course of a year. Just my team alone.

Lateness costs productivity
The same scenario as before yields the following lost work hours: 2.5 hours vanish for a one-time event. A little over three work weeks vanish over a year for a once weekly delay. That delay daily vanishes about a month (distributed across the team) during a year. My team lost about a full quarter of productivity in a year. By waiting. I should mention that my team was directly responsible for helping (or hindering) all other groups release their software out to the market.

Lateness costs good will
It may just be adding insult to injury, but this insult can lose sales, impair relationships, and sometimes even scuttle whole businesses. The signal that you send by making me wait - knowing that it costs my company and knowing that it hampers my productivity - is that your time is above those concerns and above my own concerns as well. At best, being late can be forgivably rude. Being on time is easy, so it had better be worth it to wait.

04 September 2007

Three posts about fifteen things [ iii ]

I feel like this last set of traits are practically gimme’s. Not to say that they aren’t worth mentioning, but that I felt like I needed to have a good justification for the other two sets, especially the Greek¹. But they’re not gimme’s: it is not often that I see these qualities demonstrated at work. I think that’s because acting (especially acting publicly) on these qualities can make an employee particularly vulnerable to predation. So if I intend to keep these on the board, I’d better make it easy and safe for people to be decent to one another and unpleasant for them to not.

Passion (Integrity ∩ Arete ∩ Eudaimonia « Sustainability)
This is why I don’t need to care whether you are having fun at work. If you enjoy what you are doing, find it satisfying and fulfilling, can muster genuine enthusiasm, then fun is an incidental bonus. Part of what makes this principle cool to me is that in order to adhere to it, an employee and a company have to reach a consensus about role and action. As usual, anything like this requires a high degree of trust and skilled managers of people. Frankly, I find that more often than not, passion is what leads good people away from a company – not deeper into it. That’s broken, mostly on the management side of the equation.

Optimism² (Arete ∩ Sustainability » Eudaimonia ∩ Family)
If Pierre Reverdy can assert that love doesn’t exist – only proofs of love³ – then I’m comfortable making the less contentious observation that optimism without evidence is no different than delusion. I must admit that optimism has gotten me in trouble: A company not worthy of your optimism is sure to be a source of your dismay. It’s worth the risk for me anyhow. When my optimism wanes, it’s a strong indicator that I am not long from the door. Like passion, optimism begs a constant negotiation between company and employee with management as the facilitator. Obviously it also helps to have peers that are optimistic. Optimism isn’t hopefulness. Hope is passive. Optimism needs to be active, agreed upon in context and willed into being.

Stewardship (Sustainability » Eudaimonia ∩ Family ∩ Phronesis « Wisdom)
You can have a pet if you can take care of it. You can have a project for the same reason. I expect you to be able to think through to the logical conclusion of taking care of a project. [What happens to the waste exhaust from a car? The waste heat? The scrap materials when the consumer is done with it? Someone wasn’t grown up enough to have had a project, I’d say.] The logical starting point as well! [An ounce of design is worth a pound of revision. Interesting discussion at One Man Hacking.] This extends to relationships as well as projects.

Agility (Family ∩ Wisdom » Phronesis ∩ Integrity)
One can’t just act or respond quickly. That’s going to be chaos. So agility has to be tempered by pragmatic forethought and lucid consideration of what the right thing to do may be. And then also act or respond quickly.

Transparency (Wisdom » Phronesis ∩ Integrity ∩ Arete)
Again, Wikipedia comes in so handy in not having to reinvent the wheel. “Transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability. It is a metaphorical extension of the meaning used in the physical sciences: a ‘transparent’ object is one that can be seen through… Transparency cannot exist as a purely one-way communication though… [it] creates an everyday participation.” Structurally, corporate transparency has a peripheral benefit springing from the participatory opportunities – employees are always at least passively involved in the business. It’s a step closer to partnership than most senior management folks seem to be comfortable with. In my view, if I can’t trust the people in my company with even passive involvement, then I don’t want the people. Or maybe the company.

¹ I’m still torn about using the actual Greek words. Plenty of time to think it through yet.
² I’m sticking with optimism over sustainability. The conventional notion of sustainability should be sufficiently covered by stewardship.
³ "Il n'y a pas d'amour, il n'y a que des preuves d'amour."

03 September 2007

Three posts about fifteen things [ ii ]

I shall now tread into dangerous jargon infested waters. Vision and Diversity are such loaded words - loaded with baggage that drains them of meaning when employed in the office. So I'm not at all opposed to trading up to something less ruined. Fit Judgment, while not jargon, is awkward twice over: it stumbles off one's tongue like the phrase "it stumbles off one's tongue" and it contains the word judgment which scares people. I would be excited about someone capturing a better term for this principle.

Accomplishment¹ (Integrity ∩ Arete)
Git 'er done is insufficient. Accomplishment includes ethical behavior, looking out for everyone's best interests, follow-through, etc.; I think it's fairly clear where this is going. This is the quality of being able to generate a set of desired results whilst exercising the personal valor to do it rightly.

Vision (Arete ∩ Eudaimonia « Sustainability)
To have vision is to posses (a) the knowledge required fulfill a worthy purpose or function, and (b) the ability to articulate how to apply that knowledge in order to fulfill it. So it’s both being able to conceptualize the problem (and the domain in which the problem lies) as well as being able to describe how to approach a reasonable resolution.

Diversity (Sustainability » Eudaimonia ∩ Family)
Giving lip service alone to diversity is dumb. A group that doesn't respect and respond to diversity actively ignores opportunities aplenty. People think wildly differently, bring many perspectives and skills to bear, have unexpected and occasionally thunderously useful experiences that don't immediately appear to have a practical application but may very well end up being the keys to unlock particularly unruly problems. Failure to seek out diversity promotes the aggregation of like minds with like failings and universal blind spots. Dumb. I don't have the data on me, but I recall having come across research on diversity being a little more expensive [Observe either all or no religious holidays, not just the Christian ones.] and stressful [Different people? But I fear and resist what is different!] in the short term but considerably more cost-effective over the long term and especially valuable in creating advanced communication mechanisms (e.g. cross-cultural fluency), problem solving efficiencies (e.g. greater variety in brainstorming ideas and how to make them workable), and casual mentoring practices (e.g. even casual mavens want to give away help).

Creativity (Family ∩ Phronesis « Wisdom)
You should be able (and encouraged) to explore a body of ideas and possibilities, from the obvious to the arcane. From there, you can iterate through the applications of your ideas, look down the pathways they open, and recognize and explore the unconventional tools at your disposal. I hope to imply within the broad notion of creativity additional specific notions of inspiration, flexible thinking, versatility, and so forth.

Fit Judgment² (Wisdom » Phronesis ∩ Integrity)
Make well-considered and defensible decisions. The marriage of knowing (or figuring out) the right thing to do and being strong enough to do it (or make a plan around how to do it) strikes me as a bit of critical thinking and basic sensibility that, if lacking, is going to impede your progress and that of everyone around you. Nonetheless, I have never seen this or anything like it as a publicly acknowledged corporate practice (Part of that might come from HR [or the "People Department" in some places; trust us, you're not an interchangeable human resource - that would be dehumanizing and set you up for comparable valuation to a self-administrating machine] since independent judgment is a FLSA exemption criterion.).

Updated 04 September to correct punctuation, improve phrasing, and clarify declarations under Vision, Diversity, and Fit Judgment.

¹ Wiktionary has a sweet secondary definition of accomplishment: "That which completes, perfects, or equips thoroughly; acquirement; attainment; that which constitutes excellence of mind, or elegance of manners, acquired by education or training." Nice!
² A momentary side note on judgment as a charged term. People judge all the time. It’s a basic survival instinct and it’s a bedrock component of good decision making. And it’s fundamentally neutral. The application of judgment, once it leaves your brain and is turned into real-world action, is not neutral. The application of judgment is charged with good, bad, or otherwise. We shouldn’t be reluctant to judge but we should be reluctant to judge and then act rashly.

02 September 2007

Three posts about fifteen things [ i ]

The intersection of fifteen virtuous business princliples, requiring you to read at odd angles and upside downThree weeks, three days, or nothing? Three weeks would be fifteen daily postscripts. Three days would be three dedicated articles, three sets of five principles each. Nothing would be, well, nothin’ at all. Out: three weeks and nothing. Three weeks means I don’t get to talk about anything else until the end of September. I’m not writing a book on corporate standards of conduct, so that’s too much anyhow. Nothing just was never going to happen. So here goes: three posts about fifteen things, part one.

People conducting business on the up-and-up should adhere to a common and discernible code of right and wrong.¹ It’s not a coincidence that I placed integrity on the top. Integrity is at the crown as the controlling virtue. For a framework that supports a group of people, I have a hard time conceiving that there is a more necessary underpinning. Go right ahead and argue with me: it may just be that I, personally, have no interest in you if you lack integrity and I’m allowing that very strong bias to bleed into my business theory.

By invoking integrity, I do not mean to imply subscription to any crypto-religious moral code. Admittedly, it’s a sticky wicket splitting hairs between morals and ethics. You can’t test for integrity. Literally, actually: in several states it’s against the law. It’s tantamount to a religious test which is outright banned… kinda.

Not the mountain ridge landform. I don’t think I can put it better than Wikipedia: “In its earliest appearance in Greek this notion of excellence was bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function; the act of living up to one's full potential.” Arete is part and partner with strength of character and personal drive. It’s one of the arm positions because it’s inseparably tied in with action.

Sustainability » Eudaimonia
Sustainability was in the base position for obvious symbolic reasons. But I’m still infatuated with eudaimonia. And since I can swap out optimism with sustainability, I might just be able to have my cake and eat it too.

At the base of the flower image, I want two strong and nurturing pillars to support the active wings and to make the crown an easier weight. Eudaimonia, the quality of knowing what is needed to achieve and maintain a state of positive resolution, speaks strongly to purpose. We trade our skills and passions and time for reward and meaningful work and personal growth. Much of work can become a necessary evil, taking us away from the good things we value in our lives. We are all too often jilted of valuable reward, thwarted by make-work tasks, diverted from progressive development. Work should not only respect what is good in our lives but should be indivisibly part of that good itself.

The office demands that you be a part of the team, investing a chunk of your identity the idea of the company, interacting directly and indirectly with a gang of sometimes seriously weird and inscrutable strangers, and spending a third of your waking life immersed in the corporate culture [jargon]. “Team” my ass - that’s an extended family. A company should have the guts to cop to the implicit demand to belong to its fam. [You could even argue that there's an implicit social contract there. And by you, I mean I. And by implicit I mean definite.]

Not only am I copping to it, I’m asserting that it can be a positive and supportive thing. So the company - and everyone in it - is going to be a part of your extended family. In your patchwork family of corporate orphans, you get to be exposed to many traditions and backgrounds. These people want to succeed and want you to succeed as well, if for no other reason than we will all probably do better if each of us does better. Even an extended family group can be close-knit, united in a common goal and in so doing, endeavor to protect and promote one another. Families learn to navigate one others’ foibles and failings and like any other well-functioning group, the sum can exceed the value of the parts. Companies even have a sometime advantage: How many family families have the luxury of rigorous architectures to help them relate and interact to encourage harmony and unity?

Wisdom » Phronesis
As honesty is consumed whole by integrity, so wisdom is swallowed up by phronesis. Phronesis is the mindful elder sibling of action, extemporaneous ability tempered by experience and forethought. It is a consciously pragmatic approach to problem solving. Phronesis advocates leaving the problem space changed for the better. Oh, am I ever a sucker for personal responsibility.

¹ a common and discernible code of right and wrong – How explicit does this code have to be? I can’t hire or fire based on integrity, can’t discipline or reward on it either. I suspect a lawyer would tell me that codifying integrity in company documentation is tantamount to a contract or a test. Additionally, I want to avoid paternalism wherever possible. Google got away with the elegantly vague “don’t be evil.” So then how specific, detailed, and code of conduct-y do I need to get?

30 August 2007

Augh, distracted again

I'm obviously dragging my feet on a writeup of my corporate principles. I got partway through and then utterly sidetracked into Fred Astaire as stylemaker. While not attendant to business practices, it's definitely still up the alley of this blog. In fact, it relates directly to an earlier posting.

I'll actually be doing a lot more research into Astaire's careful fashion choices and risks. The key hooks for me into his look has to do with his being referred to in terms like distinctively casual, classlessly aristocratic, groundbreakingly mid-Atlantic. Fred Astaire as a model for style not a blueprint, mind you. The mid-Atlantic bit is particularly interesting considering I'm mulling over a mid-Pacific equivalence.

While I can readily appreciate his mastery of dance and film, I never thought of him as groundbreaking, but from what I've been reading, that's because I'm (1) young and ignorant and (2) not learned enough when it comes to fashion to have paid the right kind of attention. But there's always the library, the internets, and my fashion-forward friends to lean on.

It's just as well that I'm slow to post definitions and justifications. Now I'll have the weekend to write the required novella length article. Or reconsider altogether. Perhaps a picture like that needs to stand or fall of it's own merit.

Astaire is wearing a tie for a belt

29 August 2007

Virtue ethics

I had intended to outline a paragraph or so on each of the corporate virtues I proposed yesterday. I still intend to do that. Not today. Today, I managed to sidetrack myself while nitpicking explication clarity. And what a lovely sidetrack: virtue ethics. It's like stepping on a hornets' nest and getting stung. Then wanting to get stung some more. I've got a chunk of the classical world in my blood, so virtue ethics aren't new to me. But there's just so much to sink one's teeth into.

Practicality, legality, and [luckily] personal preference necessitate that I keep my descriptors firmly grounded in the secular and humanistic. So, carving away any religiosity carried in the two Greek terms I'm about to throw down, I am sorely tempted to make three replacements in yesterday's pretty picture:
  1. Wisdom out, phronesis in. Phronesis is practical wisdom, the ability to think about how and why we should act in order to change things, and especially to change our lives for the better.¹
  2. Sustainability out, eudaimonia in. Eudaimonia is fun to say. Oh, and also human flourishing, the knowledge that is required to reach the ultimate good.²
  3. Optimism out, sustainability in. Sustainability, despite being something of a buzz word, is a studied principle I am loathe to part with. Optimism is sufficiently captured within eudaimonia that it freed up a section and sustainability wedges in nicely as the intersection of arete, eudaimonia, and family.
If anyone I know has a well considered and erudite opinion on this, it's Todd. Somebody just got hisself called out. Snap. And probably Nathe as well. Snap!

¹ Taken from Wikipedia, of course.
² ibid.

28 August 2007

Ooh, pretty! ~or~ Business principles expressed in pentalateral¹ symmetry

I thought that you might like to see some actual progress. Visibility into the machine – a tenet of solid interaction design. I’m still going to make you wade through a whole lot of words first.

Did you know that I’m a math nerd? I’m no wonk, but I went pretty far in my studies before flipping out (number theory). I never really appreciated my mathematics intuition as a kid, but as a grownup, the knack has helped me shortcut a great many problems (money management, mapmaking, making interdisciplinary leaps: carrying capacity equilibrium can be expressed as a formula!).

So it will then come as no surprise that the way I order my aspirational list of corporate values is as a set of rotating circular pentagonal intersecting sets. Okay, okay: it’s still a surprise.* Just think of it like a Spirograph. If you rotate a sequence of circles around another circle and you get a Spirograph. I rotated five circles around a central circle and dropped the outermost edge. Then I assigned a shortlist of related principles to each section. The outermost principles intersect to generate the interior principles (e.g. Integrity Arete = Accomplishment). I had a tiered values list sketched out in my head but I thought, I bet I can represent this idea in a way that indirectly calls on the lotus characterization of the noble eightfold path. I was probably also inspired by Indexed.

Here goes. You can click on the image below to pop up a larger version.

The intersection of fifteen virtuous business princliples, requiring you to read at odd angles and upside down
First tier principles:
  • Integrity
  • Arete
  • Sustainability
  • Family²
  • Wisdom
Second tier principles:
  • Accomplishment = Integrity ∩ Arete
  • Vision = Arete ∩ Sustainability
  • Diversity = Sustainability ∩ Family
  • Creativity³ = Family ∩ Wisdom
  • Fit Judgment = Wisdom ∩ Integrity

Third tier principles:

  • Passion = Integrity ∩ Arete ∩ Sustainability
  • Optimism = Arete ∩ Sustainability ∩ Family
  • Stewardship = Sustainability ∩ Family ∩ Wisdom
  • Agility = Family ∩ Wisdom ∩ Integrity
  • Transparency˚˚ = Wisdom ∩ Integrity ∩ Arete
* If it’s such a surprise then why did I use this form? I wanted to strongly imply relation between the values, ostensibly imply that much thought had gone into the principles, and subtly imply that this is an enlightened perspective on corporate values. And it’s pretty.
˚˚ For all the harping I do on honesty, I didn't include it in the fifteen principles. Transparency under the auspice of Integrity necessarily assumes and includes honesty as a core value. There's actually quite a lot of that going on in the diagram. I wrote out more than five dozen candidates for inclusion. Many were eliminated after being subsumed by the relational implications of the fifteen finalist principles.

¹ There seems to be no consensus on whether it is pentalateral or pentilateral. Google shows more hits for the former, so that's what I went with. In the off chance anyone cares.
² I mean "family" in the sense of a close-knit unit that shares a common goal and endeavors to protect one another. I do mean to also imply the weathering of various minor snits.
³ This is the only one that I think is patently unintuitive. Thoughts?
I do not like the phrase “fit judgment” but have yet to settle on a suitable synonym.

27 August 2007

Dude, this isn't a blog

It's a forum. My bad, as the cool kids say. And I really should have known better from the get-go. I was going to omit the next several paragraphs, but I’ve had several discussions with folks who wanted clarification around blogs versus forums.

A blog is an ordered series of articles, typically sorted chronologically. Interaction is limited to comments, which are aptly named since the blogger posts and readers then respond. The blog format is not especially conducive to much interaction. A blog is also really easy to set up and maintain.

A forum is a threaded written discussion, open to a wide audience and moderated by a central authority. Forums are sometimes, though not often, facilitated as well. They typically don’t need facilitation as there is presumably a large user base generating new discussion topics.

In general…
  • Blogs are centralized, quickly developing a strong sense of character. Unfacilitated forums are decentralized and often lack that character or have a diffuse tone from all the divergent voices.
  • Forums are keenly collaborative while blogs are inclined to be narrative.
  • When it comes to the ideas expressed in the content, blogs promote dissemination and forums promote discussion.
Frankly, I expected to be musing here on this blog for a few months before anyone much bothered to read it. I’m thrilled to see that that impression was way wrong-o. But is does mean that the interface I selected was similarly wrong-o. So now I've got a forum masquerading as a blog, which is slightly awkward. I’m going to keep with it for a while at least as I am still trying to build the habit of posting on a schedule. Disrupting that to switch interface idioms strikes me as foolhardy.

I am treating this blog essentially like a facilitated (if rigid) forum. Any time someone comments, I get a notification. And I am active in the comments of these posts [for which I also get a notification, since computers are a very dumb sort of magical animal]. I suppose that once the comments section gets too bulky or my site metrics show something like a critical mass of users, I’ll activate the blog’s Wonder Twin powers and make it take the shape of a forum. And presumably the form of a floodgate.

26 August 2007

I'm tired, I'm curious, this is short

Does a company need to be good for you to want to be a part of it? Does this strike you as a vanity project or a pipe dream?

I'm not fishing for reassurance, so don't feel like you need to console me on this point.

23 August 2007

Good faith

If you are not being negotiated with in good faith, do you yourself need to continue to act in good faith to remain righteous, even if that means you will be exploited?

Here’s one example that I’ve run up against a number of times. I know plenty of other folks who have as well, so I’m not being especially facetious or arrogant in positing this as a case study.

You can do your job, week in and week out, in just one day (yes: for whatever reason, you are many times over as effective at the job as the job ["job"] warrants). All your commitments are met, no one has cause to complain about your performance, it actually would reasonably take someone else a full week to do what you can do in a day. There is either no indication, or it is explicitly clear, that you will not be compensated in kind for your performance.

Here is how I have reacted:
  • Specifically not do more for the benefit of the team [I should describe in full why I think this option is important to consider - perhaps I'll update this post when I've more time].
  • Do more anyway to fulfill some personal need.
  • Do more anyway because I thought I could somehow use my demonstrated superior performance to leverage some kind of alternate compensation.
  • Negotiate a strange deal with my boss and do an additional day or two more.
  • Do my one work day and invest the remaining four days elsewhere.
  • Quit.

The first and last are the only ones that have satisfied me for more than a very short duration.

22 August 2007

Bad habit: gossip to more than one person

Now, I'm not saying that gossiping to one person is a great idea. Gossip at your own peril, Cap'n Chatty. But if gossiping is in your nature then plan well, be discreet, make no records (yes, please do assume that IM recorded everything you typed and served it up to your boss and the whole of the internet), and please only gossip to one trusted confidante (preferably not a coworker). If you gossip to blow off steam – find another outlet because you are greatly increasing the chance that you are headed for a fall. At least don’t lie or exaggerate. When you get caught gossiping, at least be able to back up your slander with fact or some kind of evidence.

When you gossip to multiple people, you greatly increase the chance of spreading the gossip. You are implying that it is not a secret, and each of your vectors can point to one another to say they’re not the one. Secrets are a burden on others anyhow, so that cat’s probably coming out of the bag.

If you are gossiping to more than one trusted confidante I’ll go out on a limb and say that there’s a good chance that you don’t have even one confidante. But you do have poor judgment in where to place your trust.

If you told two people something, one of them is going to tell me. They will tell me because gossiping is a social lubricant and a guilty pleasure. They will tell me because today you made them mad. They will tell me because you badmouthed me and I’m a standup guy. They will tell me because you haven’t told them anything juicy lately and they are bored and I brought in cookies today and they are really good and did I know that… They will tell me because I said something interesting and they want to say something interesting too. They will tell me because what if I flip out: trainwrecks are fun to rubberneck at. They will tell me because they can’t stand gossipers, but…

Seriously, they are going to tell me. They do tell me. I wouldn't be writing this if there hadn't been a decade-long flow of people into and out of my office to drop off dirty laundry.

You’ll be lucky if I’m the first or only person they tell. Because I like to gossip and I know full well that it’s a terrible idea. So if I’m feeling strong and virtuous, I’ll tell them to kindly not go any further. And then I’ll tell you.

21 August 2007

A bad idea


"Hey, we can get twice as much out of this candle by lighting the wick on the other end as well!"

Today I enabled the bizdev [jargon] team at my current employer to compose marketing documents designed to generate contract work in SharePoint Server 2007 (a.k.a. “MOSS”) and user experience. Why is this a bad idea?
  • There are two people on staff qualified to perform advanced SharePoint Server 2007 and user experience work; that is, one of each.
  • The MOSS guy is committed to a contract that keeps him 100% busy through the end of the year. This contract is likely to be renewed through at least next June, possibly longer.
  • There is an industry-wide shortage of qualified MOSS devs, so it is difficult to hire more people with those skills.
  • I'm the sole user experience/product design guy and my calendar is a wreck. I'm always double or triple committed and the slate of projects I saw headed for my plate the last time my boss and I spoke showed no real letup on into winter.
  • It has been made clear that no other product designers of any flavor will be hired unless there is a pressing business need. My being double or triple booked cannot be considered a pressing since the company only sometimes charges clients for product design services(!).
My principled stand was that it is foolhardy to promote services we cannot supply or support. Summarily overruled.

This is standard procedure here. In-demand practitioners are taxed with greater than 100% project time commitments while a backfill candidate is searched for and hired – however long that takes. In the meantime, don’t get sick or try to go on vacation. And do please make sure you get both jobs done. “People here want to work hard” is what I was told by way of excusing this employee-hostile policy.

I do like working hard at challenging and rewarding projects, but not into extremes and not at the expense of a healthy life. I have made it known that I won’t work beyond the reasonable expectation for what is possible for one – and only one – product designer. The MOSS guy will have to fight his own battle, I guess. Perhaps not responding to the query for ad copy was just that.

Will I be here long enough to tell the bosses, again, that I will not accept project work that exceeds one talented person’s capacity? I guess that depends on how aggressive our sales staff is. I am confident that despite my protestation, if we win a bid for user experience work there will be an insistence that I step up to greater than 100% commitment. Again.

20 August 2007

Executives from an arm’s length

Anyone feel strongly about what they want or explicitly don’t want out of how the leaders in their companies look and act? I know I do.

I always want an executive to…
  • look comfortable, professional¹, and approachable.
  • speak to me with knowledge, insight, and respect², prepared to change course based on new info.
  • defend an employee publicly and refuse to embarrass an employee privately.
  • be measured in any response.
  • step up to owning responsibility.
I don’t ever want to catch an executive…
  • acting like they are superior to me or my peers.
  • badmouthing the company or a client – justified criticism is a-okay though.
  • clueless about what I do for the company (even if the company is big, a few seconds of conversation should yield a sense of familiarity or at least comprehension).
  • exposing me for a failure of leadership that comes from above me.
  • lying, no exceptions³.
Those are the first five of each that came to me. More ideas?

¹ I've got long hair and don't own a suit. I drive a moderately beat up sedan. Some of that will necessarily change to be taken seriously by clients. What about by members of my own company? I've long been considering moving to more formal attire. My personal taste when it comes to formal dress decidedly favors a fusion of Western Europe / South Asia and Western Europe /East Asia. I can wear that and look good, but I also look markedly different from everyone else in the room… in any room, really. When I drive my car into the ground (or perhaps before), I'm not going to buy a by-the-numbers luxury car. I'd vastly prefer a green vehicle, and if I must have a luxury car then I prefer a well-maintained older model BMW - or something in that vein.
² It mystifies me that anyone with a high-level title would be anything other than respectful. Respect starts with getting what you give, and someone who has earned high position can readily afford initial extension of respect. Show me an exec that thinks they warrant obeisance from the gravitas of their title and I'll show you someone who has forgotten that the active life's blood work of the company is done by other people.
³ NO EXCEPTIONS. If an exec finds that they have misstated, I expect them to correct as soon as is reasonably possible. If an exec places an employee in a position to present a falsehood, I expect that exec to intervene at the earliest possible time to correct and hold the employee as blameless as can reasonably be justified (e.g. an employee that knowingly lies on behalf of an ignorant leader is not off the hook).

19 August 2007

/fʌn/ ≠ /wɝk/ = /ɛnˈdɛvɝ/


I don’t care if you’re having fun at work.

Wouldn’t it be stellar if we went to fun Monday through Friday? Weekends kind of a letdown, families and friends such a drag – better just to go back to those giddy office good times. Now is where I’m supposed to huff and crassly say that they call it “work” for a reason. Except I think that’s cynical and a bit thick. It is not called work because the effort is to drag yourself through it, day on day. It is work because a job worth being paid to do requires your concerted effort. Work is an endeavor, specifically one with an appreciable external value.

While I find no compelling reason for work to inherently be fun, I brook no issue with work serendipitously being fun. Sometimes I have a blast doing work. It’s fun to test a design hypothesis and more fun still to defend it to a skeptical client or team. It’s hugely fun to help factions come together in unanticipated agreement. Insinuating narrative theory into negotiation may as well be ecstatically enjoyable to me. My favorite work-related anecdotes are stories about the stories I helped people tell [it’s also the fastest hook to sucker me to gossip]. If I can immerse my work in that source, then it’s almost all fun all the time. Thankfully, it’s also exhausting, so there is no temptation to make that my whole life.

So many places to which I can diverge from here. What is an executive’s work (and why should you essentially shoulder the cost of that work)? How can work be made fun and should that be the ideal? Why do we spend time at work as though it were spending time at fun, sacrificing time with family and non-work? Since I opened with an attack, I suppose I should redirect that thrust to close with what I do care about respective¹ to work/fun.

I don’t care if you’re having fun at work: I care that you enjoy your work; that you find it stimulating personally; that you see it as valuable or rewarding; that you feel you are getting a fair exchange; that you are satisfying an elemental need to make a mark on the world. I do want you to have fun. At the very least outside of work you should have amply fun, if not directly or providentially at work. But I am not concerned whether your work is fun chiefly because fun hasn’t got anything to do with work. Ultimately, it is enough that you want to be doing it [and that I am able to play a part in you wanting to do your work] for more than just a check.

¹ Specificity is sexy.

16 August 2007

Themes and comments

As I get more comfortable writing on a schedule, it strikes me that I'm obviously going to be revisiting a mainstay set of themes. Since lists and routines appeal to me, ascribing broad topicality to regular days strikes me as a reasonable way to structure my thoughts.
  • Sunday - structure and theory
  • Monday - style and presentation
  • Tuesday - principles and interaction
  • Wednesday - behavior and practice
  • Thursday - no recurring theme?
  • Friday & Saturday - guest or null
If I have time Sunday, I'm going to tag the hell out of the posts so far. Joel recommended opening it up to a folksonomy (though I think he was kidding on the square). Supposedly I'll get as many as 70% more tags if I ask for help. Of course, I'll have to figure out a mechanism since I don't think blogger has a tool resembling folksonomy support. Does Josiah want to write one?

While I'm yammering about comments, would it be of interest for me to compile a weekly summation of comments on Thursdays or Sundays? RSS readers don't seem to deliver the comments or notify anyone when new comments are posted. There have been great comments so far. In fact, it's looking like 20-30% of my posts are going to come directly out of reader comments.

15 August 2007

Good habit: accept praise graciously

I am about to reveal my gross American point of view bias.

Even in completely broken organizations, I have had the pleasure of working with folks who were really able to perform. They were rarely singled out for recognition and on the unusual event of being praised, my experience is that most people dismiss it: It would be immodest to agree; It can be uncomfortable to have a spotlight on you; Acceptance might raise or lower your status away from where you want it; You might not be sure whether you warrant the recognition. I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate or reasonable explanations for dismissing praise. I’m saying that even when praise is offered it can be hard to make it stick.

To my mind, people don’t hear how appreciated they are often enough. Or often at all. I have heard some arguments for being stingy with praise, but I have not found any compelling. If you are one of these practicing praisemisers, please comment. I’m prepared, if leery, to be convinced. Simple devil’s advocates needn’t bother – it’s going to take both rationality and passion to sway me.

When I say praise, I mean a merit-based compliment or token supported by evidence, cited or personally verified. Giving praise necessarily forces me to invest myself twice in delivering it.
  1. I am singling myself out as having paid attention, so I am expected to know what I am talking about. I need to be a credible source.
  2. When I provide evidence, I cannot help but tie my reputation to my comments. Since my comments have to do with your actions, I stake a piece of my rep on your past and future actions. The stronger the praise, the more of my rep I am staking.
So while I’m (probably) more likely to give praise than the next person, I also (probably) consider it a bigger deal. Prior to skilling up, I have allowed myself to get combative over accepting praise [hi, Geoff!].

I am not kidding around when I recognize praiseworthy work. When receiving praise, dismissing or deflecting it peripherally impacts the giver. You don’t have to be graceful, just gracious. If you would like to deflect the attention, accept and build: “Thanks for that. The real hero here is Amelia. Without her…” Notice the conspicuous lack of the word but tying the two sentences together. But is an inelegant acceptance limiting mechanism. Don’t try to sneak in a dismissal or deflection with a lazy language convention.

Even if you disagree with the praise, be gracious: “Thank you. In this instance, I find myself obliged to point out that all the credit belongs with…” Is my example graceful? Not even vaguely. It's practically all face saving disclaimer. Keep in mind that your refusal to accept praise can impact the giver personally and professionally.

Am I guilty of refusing praise? You bet. And when I catch myself unintentionally refusing it, I suck up my discomfort and accept the recognition. In fact, I’m about to do that shortly. It's not like I'm modest.

14 August 2007

Of managers and lightbulbs, blind men and elephants

I think a manager of people cannot feasibly manage more than three dozen. And we're talking truly gifted at that level. Thirty plus directs under active management – I’m not sure where the time to do that would come from (thus the truly gifted bit). I’d expect a competent manager to be able to work with about a dozen or fifteen independent-minded folks and a talented or seasoned one up another six or nine. I think it’s safe to say that a manager, even a green one, who is not able to handle less than a dozen is in the wrong line of work. A manager of people with fewer than six directs should be able to lavish attention on them. That manager should be facilitating those people’s successes with grace and largess. Grooming them or training them, or perhaps it's a hybrid people manager / expert skill practitioner role.

Maybe being a manager is a similar to being a teacher in the need and amount of rationed attention. Or a waiter. That's an interesting notion. In the standard business-as-a-kitchen metaphor, I typically hear managers cast as line chefs. But that's completely wrong! Line chefs are expert practitioners. The wait staff moves between diners and kitchen staff, pacing the kitchen work and upselling or downselling to keep the kitchen effort on keel.

I'm going to have to put that in my brain and shove it somewhere near the top.

13 August 2007

Permission to err

I don't remember the last time someone at work took responsibility for a mistake.

I take that back – the last time, it was me. I reported that I went forward in a project without the support I needed, knowing that I would just have to make do with being shorthanded, overworked, and very nearly overwhelmed. Alright, I halfway take that back – I did this in front of bosses who long knew of the issue and who, in my opinion, should have been quick to say that the responsibility was shared between us with the lion’s share belonging to them for allowing the mismanagement of my time and effort on their behalf. [I’m dropping a lot of context, so I guess you’ll just have to take my word for accuracy.] I’m taking it back because raising my hand to accept responsibility was in no uncertain terms a MacGuffin I played to see where the bosses’ lines were in protecting employees in the future and to see if they would step up to taking the buck.

When I make a mistake, I learn from it. When I learn from a mistake, I am likely to have just become better at what I am doing. In most instances, I think it should be okay for me to admit to an error; especially as I am expected to (at least attempt to) correct my mistakes. Failing to mention a trivial mistake is likely trivial, likewise failing to mention a catasprophic mistake is likely catasprophic. People who don’t make errors are dishonest. They are dishonest since no such infallible person exists. Public admission of errors can admittedly be dangerous, so I’m not advocating that we go about shouting out our foibles willy-nilly. But I do expect that within a team, with one’s manager, and with one’s direct reports it should be reasonably safe to expose one’s stumbling.

Am I off base? Am I asking too much of a team/manager/direct? Is there a different standard applied to, say, women versus men or senior staff versus junior staff?

12 August 2007

Sunday wrap-up

First bit

Your comments have been remarkable so far! This past week of writing-reading-researching-responding consumed far more of my time than I had anticipated. I also enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I went from nervous and excited to just excited. I have a list several dozen items deep for upcoming posts. If I’m composing four to five times per week, that will easily take me through September. Despite the fact that I’ve got plenty to write about, don’t hesitate to request subjects.

I’m going to attempt to post once per day, Sunday through Thursday. I’ll be replying to comments wherever (I think I need to) + (I think I have time to) = (true). If I don’t reply to a post that you think I should within a few days, feel free to alert me to my oversight.

Does anyone have any strong feelings about edits to existing posts? I figure that if I make a change within an hour of posting I'm under no obligation to notify anyone. Anything beyond that, I thought I'd add a notation such as "Updated at [time]." Should I indicate where I have somehow added, subtracted, or otherwise modified text?

Second bit

Apparently, I need to be a bit less coy. I made a lot of progress forward in setting up this company before ever starting this blog. The company is already named, articles of incorporation are loosely drafted, many sections of the operating agreement are at least identified if not described in detail. I don’t have a business plan, but it’s not like I haven’t written them before. I’ve started looking into the tempest of licenses, taxes, benefits, funding, et al.

To some degree, I’m being intentionally coy. I want to understand what’s at the root of a good company, not just a given specific good company (like a USAA, REI, Motley Fool, pre-IPO Google, or Gore Industries) that I might be able to start up right now.

Intersection of business practices, visually represented by cell division maybe or possibly a stylized MetroidThe work I’m trying to squeeze out of this blog is sussing out where the overlap is between what I want [image: the pink circle] out of a company, what you want [image: the blue circle] out of a company, and what is unavoidably required [image: dark purple oval] in having a company at all. What nobody cares about gets chucked. What folks specifically want to avoid gets guarded against. What everybody seems to want [image: both purple figures] gets more thorough investigation and then undergoes translation into business practices or corporate structures [image: interrobang icon]. The tough part will be accommodating whatever irreducible delta [jargon] is leftover – what only some people want, what only most people will tolerate, what I have to give up in order to get something more important.

I don’t know yet how much detail I’ll have to go down to in order to get what I’m after. I don’t know yet where the guess/know threshold is either. Do I need to feel like I’m 50% sure? Do I think Machiavelli is wrong and I can beat that threshold? I also don’t know how formal I’ll have to make this effort. Any part with paperwork has at least some formality built in. But will I need to make personas? Build an experience tree? Perform other analysis/synthesis exercises? I don’t know the answer to that at all. And I’m about to find out.

Updated on 13 August 2007 to include the image, add a few image descriptors inline in the text, and fancy up the jargon aside as a non-linking anchor tag.

09 August 2007

Means and ends

I’ve been asked to speak a little more explicitly about where I’m going with this blog and why. I’m a little punchy and informal this evening, so bear with me.

I am an adherent to the philosophy of user centered design. This is easy when the user and designer are both me. It mostly involves being honest with myself, articulating the problem clearly, and then exercising good judgment in solving the problem. A reasonably astute kid can do this. But I make a pretty comfortable living because it gets progressively, possibly geometrically, more difficult as you increase the complexity of the problem space beyond simple and expand the consumer base of the solution beyond self. I can readily design a corporate structure that makes me cheerful and productive and makes scads of money. I can do that for myself with relative ease, even if it takes a few tries.

Cheerful and productive and scads of money are all lovely. But I’m already cheerful and productive and [certainly compared to the rest of the world, I] have scads of money [and access to resources I take for granted that are so far beyond the pinnacle of conceivable luxury to most people on Earth that I am frankly uncomfortable at what that implies]. Did you get all of that aside? There’s an implication buried next to the globalized post-industrial guilt. It’s that for me to be happy – not just feelin’ okay – I have to positively impact other people. With rare exception, at the companies I’ve worked for I have only been able to do this peripherally or trivially.

So I started ticking off a list:
  • I likes me some UCD.
  • I want to make a difference for people.
  • Of my many talents, one of the things that I am very bestest at is getting elegant concepts to ground complex processes and then marry those mechanisms to messy relationships in order to make a planned thing happen.
  • I am consistently astonished that companies are ill conceived, badly engineered, hostile to employees, incorporate disincentives for honesty, and encourage a long list of other mean pathologies. It strikes me as counterproductive and wasteful to do business this way, expensive in terms monetary and metaphoric.
  • I am sufficiently puffed up with me'self that I think I can do something about the toxicity I perceive in the contemporary corporate form.
Running through that list, it strikes me that my skills and passions are unusually well aligned with building a capital G good company. I'm sure that such animals are already out there in the wild, but they are rare. And there should be more of them.

If I’m utilizing UCD to generate a suh-weet interface to the problem space of the ugly company, and that interface is a company that benefits not only me, but other people who want to do meaningful (if not life-altering, though wouldn’t that be ducky) work, then I need to reach out to the possible consumers of my solution: you. Then I use my self-styled bestest talent to transpose what I learned from you onto the template of the aweXXome company that makes a bunch of us happy. So that’s the target. A company that feels good to work for, filled with people I (we) like and admire, doing work that makes me want to go out big-talkin’ about the place.

Then we go steal the other villages' mead benches. Good times!

08 August 2007

Bad habit: jargon

To some degree, immersion in Microsoft culture has resulted in some bad habits I have when it comes to communication. I take responsibility for my own communication mien, so I don't mean to ascribe any blame to Microsoft in particular. Corporate jargon, which I generally refer to as bizspeak, extends well beyond the borders of the MSFT fiefdom. I staunchly resisted bizspeak for years. This involved careful navigation around the usage of acronyms; elaborate dancing about loaded words like critical, orthogonal, authoring; refusal to use corruptions such as irregardless¹ and actionize (not a recognized word…yet) – I'm sure you get the picture. I’m no slouch with language, so I doubt that many “managers²” caught on. If they did, they probably just thought I was a novice, which I was.

But after a while, it was easier by far just to talk in bizspeak than it was to speak lucidly in layman English. I could get ideas to the table more quickly, especially in meetings, and I was taken more seriously when pushing those ideas with jargon. So I embraced acronyms – sometimes to the obscure degree of using acronyms nested in acronyms (e.g. WEI = WYSIWYG Editor Interface = What You See Is What You Get Editor Interface). I adopted the careful use of buzzwords, though I refused to take useful words like conflate and discrete out of my casual speech. I am pleased to say that, except when invoking irony or contempt, I don’t use horrorwords in the vein of descope and vaca (well, mostly true: I say anonymize and mean it).

What I’m getting at is that bizspeak is practically second nature to me now. I am liable to slip into it without even knowing. I make an effort to review what I write here, but I’m not going to get myself into a lather over every lazy turn of phrase. That said, bizspeak has a tendency to drift away from clarity, sometimes butchering meaningful interpretation with obfuscation. And I can do that well enough on my own, thanks. So I will try to write in non-bizspeak English. I will not, however, attempt to omit my ten dollar words. I talk like that for reals: which is to say, like the smartest ten year old brat in the neighborhood, circa 1985, who read the dictionary for fun. For fun, I say! Stephen Fry sends me to the dictionary, so I’m not too concerned about sending you. Anyhow, if I’m not being clear about anything, feel free to call me to task.

While I’m dedicating column inches to indirectly related topics, I’ll take a moment to talk about the right column. Starts with my name, email, self-styled title, and region. I’ll change my picture when it’s significant that I do so. Below the pic is a set of four images Google is serving. That’s always going to be material that fascinates me. Usually it will be negligibly connected to the content in the main body. The mechanism is awkward anyway, making it easy to display four Émilie Simon videos but difficult for me to choose which four (Fleur de Saison just won’t stay up!). The long list of links will get longer and, when I get around to it, broken into sensible units. The treemap Archive by date will be succeeded by an Archive by label once I figure out my taxonomy.

I’ll close with a link to a fascinating post by Charlie Stross. This was brought to my attention by Jonathan Korman. Jonathan will try to convince you that it is the year of the ascot, or at least very nearly so.

¹ a word that the default Microsoft Word dictionary recognizes as a misspelling of regardless but that the NOAD now lists as a legitimate, albeit informal, synonym for regardless
² blue collar : white collar :: labor : management. The scare quotes around manager are there because managers used to manage people. Nowadays, the vast majority of managers in the corporate workplace are managers in name only, managers of intangibles, of information or processes or services, managers namely because they are white collar. Managers so that they can feel – or at least position themselves as – superior to non-managers? I suspect so. Permit me a further speculation. The retreading of manager as a catch-all white collar title has stripped focus from the real and necessary skill set behind managing people, especially as it applies to managing idea-managing-managers, resulting in an overall degradation of the quality of people-managing managers in the corporate workplace.