On Wednesday I attended a long workshop from home. A few of us were dialled in via BlueJeans, while the vast majority of attendees were physically present in the room. It struck me that being a remote participant must be a teeny tiny bit like having a disability; it was difficult to hear, difficult to see and I had to work extra hard to participate. We spent a significant amount of time staring at an empty lectern, hearing voices fade in and out but not seeing anyone on screen.
There’s a big push to ‘crack hybrid’. I know that the technology will inevitably improve to make these meetings better, reducing the friction between being in the room and out of it. But for now, if the meeting is a workshop, or just the kind where you want to democratise participation and involve everyone (as opposed to talking at them webinar or lecture style), then it makes sense to me to have everyone join in the same way.
Elizabeth Stokoe puts it better than me:
10. This is why hybrid models generate problems. Having half of a meeting’s participants dial in while the rest are co-present around one camera+screen+microphone generates the worst of all worlds because the participants have unequal access to the resources we use to interact.
I picked up Mark Schwartz’s A Seat at the Table as I have recently been thinking about how we can move away from the perception of our IT team as the people who ‘turn up and fix the Wi-Fi’ to one where we are seen as true business partners. The book took me by surprise in being less of a self-help manual and more of a well-articulated argument as to why the old ways in which we did things no longer apply in the digital age. It is brilliant.
Schwartz has a way of encapsulating key concepts and arguments in short, smart prose. The book contains the best articulation of the case for Agile, Lean and DevOps that I have read. There is so much wisdom in a single sentence, for example:
One of the books referenced heavily in A Seat at the Table is Lean Enterprise by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky and Barry O’Reilly which I read some time ago. Lean Enterprise goes into more detail in terms of the concepts and mechanics used in modern software development such as continuous integration, automated testing etc. and brings them together into a coherent whole. Schwartz does not cover these topics in detail but gives just enough information to make his case as to why they are the sensible way forward for developing software.
A company may typically engage their IT department as if they are an external supplier. They haggle and negotiate, they fix scope and cost and they then the work starts. This approach does make some sense for working with a truly external vendor where they are taking on some of the financial risk of overrunning and you are able to specify exactly what you want in detail, for example where physical IT infrastructure is being delivered, installed and configured. It makes little sense when you are creating a new software system. It makes even less sense when the IT team are colleagues in the same organisation, trying to work out what investments will make the biggest impact on the company. We win and lose together.
First of all, we came to speak about “IT and the business” as two separate things, as if IT were an outside contractor. It had to be so: the business was us and IT was them. The arms-length contracting paradigm was amplified, in some companies, by the use of a chargeback model under which IT “charged” business units based on their consumption of IT services. Since it was essentially managing a contractor relationship, the business needed to specify its requirements perfectly and in detail so that it could hold IT to delivering on them, on schedule, completely, with high quality, and within budget. The contractor-control model led, inevitably, to the idea that IT should be delivering “customer service” to the enterprise—you’d certainly expect service with a smile if you were paying so much money to your contractors.
For readers who are familiar with why we use Agile software development methods, the arguments against the old ‘waterfall’ approach are well-known. What is more interesting is that Schwartz also points to issues that advocates of the Agile approach have exacerbated. Agile people can be suspicious of anyone that looks like a manager, and want them to get out of the way so that they can get on with the job. Schwartz argues that the role of managers and leadership is to remove impediments, many of which the Agile team cannot easily deal with on their own:
When the team cannot accomplish objectives, I am forced to conclude that they cannot do it within the given constraints. The team might need members with different skills. It might need permission to try an experiment. It might need the help of another part of the organization. It might need a policy to be waived. But if the task is possible and the team cannot achieve it, then there is a constraining factor. My job is to remove it.
What if someone on the team is really just not performing? Perhaps not putting in his or her share of effort, or being careless, or uncooperative? Well, then, dealing with the problem is simply another example of removing an impediment for the team.
The critical role of middle management, it would seem, is to give delivery teams the tools they need to do their jobs, to participate in problem-solving where the problems to be solved cross the boundaries of delivery teams, to support the delivery teams by making critical tactical decisions that the team is not empowered to make, and to help remove impediments on a day-to-day basis. The critical insight here, I think, is that middle management is a creative role, not a span-of-control role. Middle managers add value by contributing their creativity, skills, and authority to the community effort of delivering IT value.
He makes a clear case for getting rid of ‘project thinking’ completely. If you want a software delivery initiative to stay on budget, the only way to do that is through an agile project. The team will cost the organisation their run rate which is almost always known in advance. Work can be stopped at any time, preserving the developments and insights that have been created up to that point.
As a former PMO head, and with my current responsibilities of running a portfolio of change initiatives, it was interesting to see the approach to ‘business cases’ recommended in the book. Instead of signing off on a set of requirements for a particular cost by a certain date, you should be looking to assess the team on what they want to achieve and whether they have the skills, processes and discipline to give you confidence that they will:
manage a robust process for determining the work they will do,
make good decisions,
Schwartz gives a brilliant example of how difficult it is to articulate the value of something in the IT world, which gave me flashbacks to the hours I have spent wrestling with colleagues over their project business cases:
How much value does a new firewall have? Well … let’s see … the cost of a typical hacker event is X dollars, and it is Y% less likely if we have the firewall. Really? How do we know that it will be the firewall that will block the next intrusion rather than one of our other security controls? How do we know how likely it is that the hackers will be targeting us? For how long will the firewall protect us? Will the value of our assets—that is, the cost of the potential hack—remain steady over time? Or will we have more valuable assets later?
The word ‘requirements’ should go away, but so should the word ’needs’; if the organisation ‘requires’ or ‘needs’ something, what are the implications for right now when the organisation doesn’t have it? Instead of using these terms, we should be formulating hypotheses about things we can change which will help bring value to the organisation. Things that we can test and get fast feedback on.
Schwartz also argues against product as a metaphor, which was a surprise to me given how prevalent product management is within the industry today:
But the product metaphor, like many others in this book, has outlived its usefulness. We maintain a car to make it continue to function as if it were new. A piece of software, on the other hand, does not require lubrication—it continues to operate the way it always has even if we don’t “maintain” it. What we call maintenance is really making changes to keep up with changes in the business need or technology standards.
Senior IT leaders are ’stewards’ of three critical ‘assets’ in the organisation:
The Enterprise Architecture asset — the collection of capabilities that allows the organisation to function, polished and groomed by the IT team.
The IT people asset — ensuring that the organisation has the right skills.
The Data asset — the information contained in the company’s databases, and the company’s ability to use that information.
Much of the book comes back to these three assets to emphasise and elaborate on their meaning, and the work required to “polish and groom” them.
The author makes the case that CIOs should take their seat at the table with the rest of the CxOs through being confident, bold, and simply taking the seat in the same way that the others do. To talk of IT being ‘aligned’ to the business is to imply that IT can be ‘misaligned’, doing its own thing without giving any thought to the rest of the organisation. The CFO, CMO or any other CxO does not need to continually justify their existence and prove their worth to the business, and neither should the CIO. The CIO needs to have deep technology knowledge — deeper than the rest of the people around the table — and bring this knowledge to bear to deliver value for the organisation, owning the outcomes instead of just ‘delivering products’.
It follows that the CIO is the member of the senior leadership team—the team that oversees the entire enterprise—who contributes deep expertise in information technology. I do mean to say deep expertise. Increasingly, everyone in the enterprise knows a lot about technology; the CIO, then, is the person who knows more than everyone else. The CIO should be more technical, not less—that is how he or she contributes to enterprise value creation; otherwise, the role would not be needed.
The age of IT organizations hiding behind requirements—“just tell me what you need”— is gone. IT leaders must instead take ownership, responsibility, and accountability for accomplishing the business’s objectives. The IT leader must have the courage to own outcomes.
IT investments are so central to corporate initiatives that it is hard to make any other investment decisions without first making IT decisions. This last point is interesting, right? Perhaps it suggests that IT governance decisions should be made together with or in advance of other business governance decisions. Instead, in our traditional model, we think first about “business” decisions, and then try to “align” the IT decisions with them. But in our digital world—if we are truly committed to the idea that that’s the world we live in—IT should not follow business decisions but drive them.
CIOs and their staff have an excellent “end-to-end understanding of the business, a discipline and mindset of accomplishing goals, and an inclination toward innovation and change.” They bring a lot to the table.
Schwartz makes a case for the rest of the organisation becoming digitally literate and sophisticated in their use of technology. This may extend to people from all parts of the organisation being able to contribute to the codebase (or “Enterprise Architecture asset”) that is managed by IT. This should be no different to developers on an open source project making changes and submitting a ‘pull request’ to have those changes incorporated into the official codebase. We should embrace it, fostering and harnessing the enthusiasm of our colleagues. We should care less about who is doing the work and more about whether the company’s needs are met.
As much as I enjoyed the book, there were points where I disagreed. Schwartz argues strongly against purchasing off-the-shelf software — ever, it seems — and advocates building things in-house. He makes the point that software developed for the marketplace may not be a good fit for our business and may come with a lot of baggage. My view is that this completely depends on where the software sits in the stack and how commoditised it is. It makes no sense to implement our own TCP/IP stack, for example, nor does it make any sense to develop our own email client. (Nobody ever gained a new customer based on how good their email system was. Probably.) But I do agree that for software that is going to give us a competitive edge, we want to be developing this in-house. I think that something along the lines of a Wardley Map could be useful for thinking about this, where the further along the evolution curve a component is, the less Agile in-house development would be the preferred choice:
LeanKit is my favourite productivity tool. Our team has been using it for the past couple years to manage our work across a series of Kanban boards. It is super easy to use, and offers a massive amount of flexibility compared to the implementation of Kanban boards in Jira, Trello or Microsoft Planner. You can configure both vertical and horizontal swimlanes, instead of just the vertical columns of tasks that the other tools offer. It is easy to represent your team’s workflow as it feels like the tool is working with you instead of against you.
Recently we have also started to use LeanKit to manage our department’s risks. At our company, we have an Operational Risk framework used across the organisation that looks like this:
The first job is to reproduce this layout in LeanKit so that everyone can relate the board back to the model. The board editor makes this super easy.
Here the typical Kanban setup of ‘to do’, ‘doing’ and ‘done’ is represented by the ‘New Risks’, ‘Current (Residual) Risk — After Mitigation’ and ‘Closed — Ready To Archive’ lanes respectively:
In the ‘New Risks’ column we have a space for a template as well as a ‘For review’ section which has been allocated as the drop lane. By default, new risks will go here when we think of them; we then periodically review them as a team and drag them to the appropriate place on the board.
We then need to configure the board. The Board Settings tab can be used to set a title, description, custom URL and specify who gets access:
In this example, I’m not yet ready to let anyone else use it so I have set the default security to ‘No Access’:
In the Card Types section we define three types of card. The main one is ‘Risk’ but we also create ‘Theme’ to group our risks together. We also left ‘Subtask’ as one of the defaults in case someone wants to use the on-card mini-Kanban board to manage the tasks relating to an individual risk. We pick some colours we like, and delete all of the other default types of card:
We also set up a Custom icon so that we can see at a glance which of our risks are mitigated/accepted, those that we are working on and those where we need to give them attention.
We ensure that every card has one of these custom icons when we create it. During a review we can then filter the board so that, for example, only the red-starred cards appear.
Next we create the template card. First, we set the Card Header to allow custom header text. With templates, I like to leave the board user with instructions such as ‘Copy me!’:
We then create the template card itself. This goes some way to ensuring that all of the new risks get created in a similar way, with similar information. This card will be put into the ‘Template’ section of the board:
In order to distinguish one risk from another, and report them to wherever they need to go, we want each risk to have a unique identifier. We can now go back to the Card Header in the board’s settings and select ‘Auto-incremented Number’ with a header prefix of ‘Risk ‘. This means that new cards added to the board will be called ‘Risk 1’, ‘Risk 2’, ‘Risk 3’ etc.:
The ‘Risk ‘ prefix does have the effect of changing the name of the template card, but this isn’t too confusing:
We can now start adding risks to the board, and linking them to themes as shown below:
Having a visual representation of our risks in this way is so much better than the usual spreadsheet with one risk per row. It’s allowed us to incorporate risk management much more into our day-to-day work. We can assign owners to each risk, and use all of the rich features of LeanKit such as adding comments, due dates etc.
If we decide a risk needs to be reclassified in terms of its likelihood or severity, we simply drag the card to the new location on the board. The card itself will keep a history of its journey in its audit log. If we absolutely have to submit our risks in a spreadsheet somewhere, we can export the board contents as a CSV file and format it in Excel.
The best thing about managing the risks in this way is that we can link any mitigation work directly to the risks themselves. Where we agree a follow-up action, we create a task cards on the appropriate team Kanban boards and then link each of those cards to the risk — the risk card becomes the parent card of the task. In this way, we can see at a glance all of our risks and track the work as it gets completed across the organisation.
A close friend of mine recently asked, out of the blue:
In a word, the answer is yes. For the past few years I’ve been using micro.blog, which I’ve come to think of as the loveliest place on the Internet. It isn’t lovely by chance, it has been deliberately designed that way, and is lovingly nurtured to keep it full of positive vibes across its wonderful community.
On the surface, micro.blog is selling blog hosting. For $5/month, you can sign up and host your blog posts there. The monthly fee makes sure that your site isn’t cluttered with any adverts. You can post using apps for iOS, iPadOS, MacOS and Android as well as via the web. Blog posts can be ‘micro’ status updates of 280 characters or less, and if you go over this limit, the official apps and web interface reveal a ‘title’ field to accompany a more traditional blog post. You can syndicate your posts to Twitter, Medium, Mastodon, LinkedIn and Tumblr, with the full text being posted if it can fit in a tweet, and a title and link posted if it is longer. Photo uploads are included; the official apps helpfully strip out any EXIF metadata, such as where the photo was taken, in order to protect your privacy. A $10/month plan gives you the ability to host short videos or even podcasts (‘micro casts’), which you can record using the Wavelength iOS app.
But this is just where the magic starts. You don’t actually need to host your content on micro.blog. I’ve had my own blog for many years, and have recently started to take my content off of other platforms such as Instagram and Goodreads and host it myself — I want my content on my own platform, not somebody else’s. If you have an existing blog like I do, you can create an account and link it to your existing website via an RSS feed. Any post you write on your own blog then gets posted to your micro.blog account, and syndicated to wherever you want it to go. You can even set up multiple feeds with multiple destinations for cross-posting:
I post at my own blog and micro.blog picks up the feed
Once you have an account set up, you can start to use the main micro.blog interface. Here’s where you will see posts from everyone that you have ‘followed’, whether they have a micro.blog hosted account or syndicate from their own site. It’s a bit like a calmer, happier version of Twitter:
Here’s where some of the thoughtfulness of the design comes in. Discovering people to follow actually takes some effort. You can click on the Discover button to see a set of recent posts from a variety of users, lovingly hand-curated by the micro.blog Community Manager Jean MacDonald. If one of these posts catches your eye, you can click on the username or profile photo and press ‘follow’. That person’s posts will now appear in your timeline. By default you will also see their ‘replies’ to other members of the community. You can click on a button to view the whole conversation thread, which can lead you to explore and discover more people. This effort means that the emphasis is on quality over quantity, with gradual discovery.
You can also discover people by selecting someone’s profile and clicking through to see who they follow that you aren’t following:
One of the best design choices made on the platform is that there are no follower counts. I have no idea how many other users follow me, or anybody else. There are also no ‘likes’, just a button to privately bookmark a post for you to access again easily in the future. Reposts (or ‘retweets’) don’t exist either — if you like a post that you read and want to amplify it, you need to create a new post of your own. Hashtags are also not supported. Again, the emphasis is on quality and not quantity, on conversations instead of engagement metrics. This works to reduce people posting content just to ‘go viral’, and keeps the noise down.
So far, so straightforward. But there’s more magic.
The creator of micro.blog has authored an iOS app called Sunlit, which allows the creation of photo posts on your blog, whether you are hosting your content on micro.blog or externally. You can also see posts from other people that you follow on micro.blog. It’s like viewing the micro.blog content through an Instagram-type lens. The photos you see are from the same timeline that you see in micro.blog. You can comment on and bookmark posts, and switch between the Sunlit app and the main micro.blog apps or web interface. I love an occasional browse through the timeline using this app if I’m in the mood just to see some wonderful photos.
So, this means that all of your content sits on your own blog. No more silos of posts on different platforms.
But here’s the thing that feels most magical to me. If someone reads a post of yours on micro.blog, they can reply to it. But in the spirit of you owning your own content, these replies get posted as comments on your original blog post, even if the blog is hosted on your own independent website. Every time this happens, it blows my mind a tiny bit. Here’s an example — I recently posted about how exhausting the Clubhouse app is, which sparked a few comments and conversations. People responded on micro.blog and these ended up as comments on the post on my site:
It really is a wonderful place to spend some time. If you’re looking for an alternative to the noisy, regularly hostile place that the traditional social media platforms have become, and/or owning your content is important to you, it is well worth checking out. It’s been a source of joy over the past couple of weeks to see a real-life friend regularly posting there, and I know from talking to him that he’s loving it.
After trying a few different apps, I switched to ExactScan Pro on macOS given that Fujitsu no longer support my scanner. Expensive, but not as much as buying a whole new piece of hardware to achieve the same result. I’ve only scanned a few thousand pages and it seemed tragic to get rid of it when it was working perfectly well.
The saddest thing was the way the old Fujitsu software died. It still seemed to work, but created PDFs with the pages out of order. I was scratching my head as it was almost like someone had deliberately sabotaged the code so that it wouldn’t work properly.
I spent hours trying to debug why Ulysses wouldn’t post my latest weeknotes to WordPress from my iPad. I kept getting an error that the document contained unsupported HEIC-format images but I couldn’t see which, as the image filenames are hidden in the Ulysses sheet. The post took ten minutes or so to upload, and each time I found I had to go to the WordPress media library and delete the images that did upload successfully so that they weren’t duplicated on my next attempt.
Eventually I found a way to view them, by dragging the images one by one from Ulysses into Gladys where the filenames became visible.
It turns out that the root cause was my having dragged-and-dropped enhanced images directly from the lightbox in Camera+ 2. Saving them to Photos first and then dragging them in from there got around the problem.
What started with a Troy Hunt-inspired investigation into how I can enforce HTTPS on my Bitnami/AWS-hosted personal website turned into a full-on migration over to a new hosted web provider. After some initial teething problems related to the fact that my new site would be hosted at andrewdoran.uk and my old site was already at that same address, I managed to get it up and running with minimal hassle. Support from the staff at Siteground was excellent, answering my questions quickly and pointing me to exactly the resources I needed to get going.
Once I had everything in place the migration itself only took a couple of hours. I started with an export and import of my site using the WordPress-provided tools but found that this only transferred the basics — mainly the text. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years tweaking different aspects of the site and didn’t want to go through trying to reassemble it again. The All-in-One WP Migration plugin came to my rescue — this exports pretty much every aspect of a WordPress site including media, plugins, customisations etc. and lets you drag and drop the exported file to its new home. In order to export the data I had create a new folder on the server and grant write permissions to it, but I didn’t need to make any customisations for the upload to work on the new site. Exporting is free but importing a file of over 512Mb means that you need to buy a licence for USD 69 (about GBP 50). My export file was 1.4Gb so I had to pay; in my mind this was money well-spent considering the alternative of spending hours making all the customisations, reinstalling plugins and uploading all of my old media again.
Uploading my own static HTML content was as simple as can be, again making reference to the many straightforward Siteground tools and reference pages on how to create a key pair to enable an SFTP connection.
Once the content was uploaded and I’d tested it out I had to make a few tweaks to the variables so that it recognised itself as the canonical andrewdoran.uk and then repointed the DNS entries to the new site. I know that DNS is meant to take up to 48h to propagate but the change seemed almost instant from where I was connecting from. I also made a simple change to redirect ‘www’ requests to the non-www equivalent.
Having got the site up and running it was exceedingly easy to use the Siteground-provided tools to not only install a valid Let’s Encrypt SSL certificate but also to get any requests to HTTP pages redirected to the HTTPS equivalent on the site.
As far as migrations go it was exceptionally straightforward. It’s great to know that not only am I now able to serve up site content over HTTPS but also that I don’t need to worry about maintaining the operating system on my web server, as the host will do that for me.
I could be overly-sensitive after having just read The Internet Is Not The Answer, but this just reinforces the point raised in the book that the Internet has led to many terrible unintended consequences. We are literally paying to burn fossil fuel and hasten our own destruction through climate change in the real world in order to gamble on being lucky enough to obtain a slice of currency in the digital one.
I love technology where it brings enjoyment or helps us to be better at what we do. But whenever I read something like this, as I have mentioned here before, Bill Joy’s words are never far from my mind:
Now, as then, we are creators of new technologies and stars of the imagined future, driven – this time by great financial rewards and global competition – despite the clear dangers, hardly evaluating what it may be like to try to live in a world that is the realistic outcome of what we are creating and imagining.
I’m starting to think his article is the most important thing I’ve ever read. It’s certainly something that has shaped my worldview and continues to pop back into my mind again and again.
Interesting impact of the move to watching time-shifted TV shows over recent years. With the exception of the odd sporting event, I can’t remember the last time I watched anything live.
Spark is absolutely killing it with these new features. I switched from using Microsoft Outlook as my primary email client a while ago on both macOS and iOS and it does pretty much everything that I need. Recent updates have included Integrations with a whole bunch of third-party applications and massive improvements to search.
I remain concerned that Spark is free, but Readdle seem to have a game plan where it will earn them an income at some point.
It was really interesting to read Michael Lopp’s latest blog post showing his relative probability to respond to an incoming communication based on the medium through which it is sent:
…I realized that I had updated the prioritized hierarchy to how likely I will respond to a piece of communication. From least likely to most likely, this is the hierarchy: Spam < LinkedIn < Facebook < Twitter < Email < Slack < Phone < SMS < Face to Face
This struck a chord with me. A while ago I wrote down a list of all of the electronic inboxes that were playing a part in my life as I needed to take a step back and see it all. Discounting the ones that are both from and to myself (namely my unprocessed Drafts entries and my Evernote inbox), my own response hierarchy today looks something like this:
Spam < Flickr comments < LinkedIn < Voicemail < Facebook Messenger < Blog comments < Personal email < Goodreads/Strava comments < Facebook mentions < School governor email < Work email < Phone < Twitter < Skype for Business < Telegram/WhatsApp < SMS < Face to Face
Maybe I am over-thinking it as the comments and mentions don’t always require a response (although the notifications do nag at me on my phone and I have a lingering guilt about not looking at them as often as I perhaps should). Anyway, let’s remove those:
Spam < LinkedIn < Voicemail < Facebook Messenger < Personal email < School governor email < Work email < Phone < Twitter < Skype for Business < Telegram/WhatsApp < SMS < Face to Face
Lopp’s analysis of each form of communication is interesting. I’m impressed that he manages to get to Inbox Zero every day both at work and home. I get there sometimes, but it isn’t as frequent as I would like.
My hierarchy isn’t always consistent. Voicemails on my mobile from strangers get much less attention than voicemails from people I know, but even then iOS doesn’t do a great job of nagging me about the ones that I have listened to but not actioned. Occasionally I’ll flick across to voicemail and find six or seven that stretch back over the past few months.
I don’t answer the phone to external numbers on my work phone as 95% of the time it is a sales call; unfortunately for those callers I have also removed my work Voicemail so I don’t need to deal with changing the security PIN every month. The value of voicemail is far outweighed by the inconvenience of accessing it — most of the time my missed calls list is sufficient for me to know who to get in contact with. People who really need to contact me in a work context from outside my company will have my email address or mobile number.
Email is fine for business type things but completely broken for ‘proper’ correspondence in that the more important a personal note is to me, the longer I’ll tend to leave it until I find the time to sit down and write a considered, meaningful response. I fully understand that this may be no more email’s fault than it is the fault of the letter-writing paper that also goes untouched in our house. Perhaps the long-form two-way personal communication is dead in the era of instant responses, or only useful when you have a lot to say to the other person and don’t want to be interrupted or get a reply.
We use Skype at work for instant messaging but it is almost completely on a 1:1 basis with barely any shared channels. It feels like a missed opportunity but multiple attempts to get it started have never caught on. Perhaps our company is too small, or we don’t have enough geeks.
Slack doesn’t feature at all as an inbox for me yet — I’m a member of three ‘teams’, none of which are directly linked to my employer. I mainly lurk and therefore don’t get many communications that way.
Twitter used to occupy a giant amount of time but my usage has tailed off significantly over the past couple of years. For a long while it felt like a real community and that I was part of something — I even organised a small handful of well-attended ‘tweetups’ in our town for everyone to meet — but over time I had subconsciously given up trying to keep up and have gone back to reading blogs and books. I get very little direct communication from it and when I do I’m pretty responsive. The main role it plays in my life now is as an aggregation source of interesting things to read via the wonderful Nuzzel app.
It’s interesting to me to write this down as it gives me a realisation of how complicated things are these days and how much of a cognitive burden it is to keep up with it all. It’s no longer sufficient to get to Inbox Zero with my three email accounts and feel that I am ‘done’; all of the others need to be checked and drained as well on a regular basis.
Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to attend the Gartner Project Portfolio Management (PPM) and IT Governance summit. I approached the event with some trepidation—this is my field and it would clearly be useful to be amongst peers and understand what the latest thinking is, but I expected it to be full of vendors voraciously pushing their wares and lots of attendees who were wrestling with nuances of Microsoft Project and getting ‘resources’ to work with the processes they had rolled out. Although there was indeed some of this, 80% of the content over the two days was extremely valuable. Many of the sessions had big overlaps with topics covered in Lean Enterprise, a fantastic book I read earlier this year which has really honed my thinking about the right way to approach IT and product development work within a large organisation.
The final keynote presentation of the day was extremely thought-provoking. Donna Fitzgerald and Robert Handler gave a talk called ‘Gartner Predicts the Future of PPM’ but it was so much more than just a talk about project portfolio management. The key issue is on how fast the world is changing around us and how quickly we will need to adapt. Early on, they quoted Ray Kurzweil in saying that:
“Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference.”
The basic messages that I took away from the presentation were as follows:
Things that yesterday we generally believed were impossible to automate are being automated (e.g. self-driving trucks, textual analytics etc.—this table from this paper was reproduced in the Gartner slide deck)
Only the very highest-level cerebral work will be left, to be done by good people who are seasoned experts.
Applying this to PPM, classic project management will be a generic skill, versatility of skills will be a necessity and the role of the PM will be to enable the team to get things done and shift obstacles out of the way.
As I sat there in the audience I couldn’t help but drift away from the PPM world and think back to an article I read in Wired magazine fifteen years ago. The article had such a profound effect on me that I can still remember exactly where I was as I read it—on a Northern Line tube train, heading to work one morning. It’s called Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us and is by Bill Joy, then Chief Scientist at and one of the founders of Sun Microsystems.
My main memory of the article was that humans pursue technological and scientific progress for its own sake, because it is in our nature to explore and discover. Out of this could come unintended consequences such as self-replicating nanotechnology that takes over the world in a horrendous ‘grey goo‘ scenario. Over the past fifteen years, this quest for scientific progress has become synonymous in my mind with the quest for continual ‘economic growth‘.
On my way home from the conference, with thoughts from the keynote still fresh in my mind, I decided to re-read the article. Two things surprised and struck me when I did so: (1) first part of the article focused on Joy’s meeting with Kurzweil so the keynote and the article seemed to have a common thread or root and (2) the article didn’t just focus on technology but also economic growth:
“Now, as then, we are creators of new technologies and stars of the imagined future, driven – this time by great financial rewards and global competition – despite the clear dangers, hardly evaluating what it may be like to try to live in a world that is the realistic outcome of what we are creating and imagining.”
“I believe we must find alternative outlets for our creative forces, beyond the culture of perpetual economic growth; this growth has largely been a blessing for several hundred years, but it has not brought us unalloyed happiness, and we must now choose between the pursuit of unrestricted and undirected growth through science and technology and the clear accompanying dangers.”
I tweeted that the keynote had got me “worried about our drive to automation and the unemployed masses” and a friend responded, stating that I should read about the so-called ‘lump of labour fallacy‘.
@adoran2 you should read about the so-called 'lump of labour' fallacy
I did look into this, and found out that this basically says that the following line of thinking is fallacious:
There is a finite amount of work to be done.
Where work is automated, the overall pool of work is decreased, so the people unemployed by automation will not be able to find new jobs.
The reason it is ‘widely accepted’ as a fallacy is that historically, through technological, economic and societal change there is new work to be done and over time the labour force shifts to having these new skills. Think about the industrial revolution and the jobs that were lost because of the changes and how the population developed new skills over time for new jobs that had previously never existed.
Of the various excellentarticles I have read on this, three things make me think that this historically has been a fallacy but may not be in the future:
The speed of technological change. As per the Kurzweil quote at the top of this post, progress is not linear and it is getting faster. The speed of progress means that people may not have time to re-skill within their own lifetime.
If it is true that “Only the very highest-level cerebral work will be left, to be done by good people who are seasoned experts” then how do you become a seasoned expert if there are no lower-level tasks to be done that allow you can learn the ropes? Will your field still be un-automated by the time you get to be a seasoned expert with a couple of decades of experience behind you?
I think there are genuine reasons to be concerned. Personally, I do not understand how we blindly accept ‘economic growth’ through capitalism as a singular goal that is commonly agreed on as being an aim for a company, a society, a country or humanity. Expanding populations and finite resources surely mean that there are limits to continual ‘growth’. I know that many people much smarter than me must have examined this question and that people can point me towards countless texts where this is considered. What I do understand is that even through something as gigantic as the recent financial crisis we did not come up with anything better than what we have today—even though many great minds were questioning it and reasoning as to where we should go from here—and that while our current configuration is still in place, it is not an option for an organisation to avoid seeking growth in the form of increased revenues and lower costs through technological innovation, automation etc. If you are participating in capitalism and not striving to be the best that you can be then someone else will take your customers and you will be out of business. The pace at which this is happening is accelerating. 50 years ago, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company was 75 years; as of 2014 it was less than 15 years.
“50 years ago, the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 was around 75 years. Today, it’s less than 15 years” http://t.co/1JQpCsVJP3
I don’t have any conclusions right now. I know that as an individual with a family to look after, a mortgage to pay etc. I am very much an active participant in this process. But as per Bill Joy’s article that I read all those years ago:
“My continuing professional work is on improving the reliability of software. Software is a tool, and as a toolbuilder I must struggle with the uses to which the tools I make are put. I have always believed that making software more reliable, given its many uses, will make the world a safer and better place; if I were to come to believe the opposite, then I would be morally obligated to stop this work. I can now imagine such a day may come.
This all leaves me not angry but at least a bit melancholic. Henceforth, for me, progress will be somewhat bittersweet.”
Mat has generously given me some space on his web server to host a copy of the project I completed in the final year of my degree about ten years ago. It’s called An Implementation of Donald Knuth’s MIX and is a Java applet version of a mythical computer that Knuth wrote about in The Art of Computer Programming Vol 1. I’ve added the source code to the page which has never been out in the big wide world before. Hopefully someone will find it interesting!
UPDATE – 29 October 2014: I now have my own web space and am hosting this directly.
I installed IE7 this morning. Even though I don’t really intend to use it, I like to keep my computer up-to-date with the latest software. The problem with the Windows update mechanism is that once it’s done the business and installed whatever security fix, software or patch that you required, Mr Naggy-Pants doesn’t stop nagging you to reboot. Why can’t you just silence it and reboot when you really do feel like it? Well, now you can.
This caught my eye – standard-sized batteries that you can plug into USB ports to recharge! Rechargable batteries are great but you always have to have the clunky charger around – this solves the problem. Quite expensive but then so are good-quality AA batteries these days; I’d imagine that these would work out cheaper in the long run.
I’ve had my new phone for quite a long time now and although in general it’s a pretty good mobile, there is a little thing that’s been niggling me since I got it and a major fault that has developed in the past week.
First of all, the niggle. My old T610 had a great feature whereby you could ‘reply and delete’ to a text message so that you didn’t have to worry about your inbox filling up. It’s a little thing, but why oh why does this phone not have the same feature? I thought that the W800i was a logical progression from the K750i which itself was bourne out of the T610, so I don’t see why any of the features should regress. Disappointing.
The major fault is to do with the camera lens cover switch on the back of the phone. It’s a tiny little thing that sometimes gets caught when you pull it out of your pocket, turning the camera on. Not the biggest deal when the phone’s working okay, but the switch has recently developed a fault whereby it is as sensitive as a bad tooth. This means that the camera switches on at any given opportunity – when you pick it up, when you put it down, when the alarm rings, when you go to make a call, and even when you’re doing absolutely nothing and the phone is a hundred paces from the closest moving thing but it has just decided that the lens cover is now open. This would just be a big annoyance if it wasn’t for the fact that the lens cover being open also means that they keypad is then unlocked – if the phone is sitting in your pocket it can then decide, seemingly randomly, to do other things. For example, over the past week it has sent a photo message to somebody that I haven’t spoken to in a long while (sorry, Tijen!) and tried sending two massive video files so somebody else. So now I’m looking forward to a lovely big data bill from O2. I’ve now blu-tacked and sellotaped the button so it’s permanently open and the phone has gone from looking like a sophisticated and sleek orange machine to Jack Duckworth’s glasses. Great.
If you’re thinking of getting one of these phones – and if when it’s working well it is pretty good despite all of the above – go for the K750i, which is the same phone but with slightly older software (the Walkman functionality is crap anyway) and a much better camera lens cover switch.
I’ve had my iPaq for a few years now and for most of the time I’ve been disappointed with it. Many moons ago I used to use a Psion 5mx which, although it had a monochrome display, was a fantastic piece of kit – a ‘proper’ keyboard, applications that worked and a slot for AA batteries so that if you ever ran out of power you could just pop to the shop and buy more. The iPaq is colour but it slows down for no reason, used to crash on occasion (until I upgraded the firmware), is in portrait mode (which isn’t so great for reading PDF files) and has a crappy battery life – when the battery goes you actually lose all of the information and have to restore from the last backup! At the time I bought it I thought it was the way forward, with its colour screen, bluetooth connection and the fact that it was supported at work so I could sync all of my business appointments. Syncing things up was never straightforward, however, as I wanted to sync both at home and at work and home computer kept telling me that it had found a new device and wanted to sync everything every time – not great. When my Pocket Outlook started to retain ghost messages that no longer existed and my bluetooth connectivity failed to work with my new phone I kind of gave up on it. I had searched Google far and wide for solutions for both problems but couldn’t find anything.
That was, until I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done book last week. The book is fantastic, but more on that in another post. I wanted to get my iPaq back up and running so that I could get my task lists in order and start to get them done. I made a ‘final push’ on Google and came up with the following two gems… Continue reading →