Afterthoughts on Hive Minding

It’s a powerful thing to understand how your brain works, what motivates you, and what you don’t care about. There are so many things that can distract, but at the end of the day, there are very few things measurable immediately worth having done. Shipping myself to Europe until next week, for example, has already had measurable personal and professional impact.

One thing I experienced this week after injecting a little disruption to conformity yesterday was what I now call “hive minding”, or otherwise assisting independent contributors in rowing in the same direction. The classical stereotype of “herding cats” infers that actors only care about themselves, but unlike cats, a bee colony shares an intuitive, survival imperative to build and improve the structure that ensures their survival. Each bee might not consciously think about “lasting value”, but it’s built into their nature.

Be Kind, Rewind

I’m always restless, every success followed by a new challenge, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it does lead to a growing consideration about plateauing. Plateauing is a million times worse than burning out. There are plenty of people and companies that have burned out already but are still doing something “functional” in a dysfunctional industry, and if the decision is to flip that investment, it’s an easy one to make. Fire them, trade or cut funding; but what do you do with a resource when they plateau?

I think you’ll know you’ve plateaued when you find yourself without restlessness. If necessity is the mother of invention, restlessness is the chambermaid of clean mind. Al least for me, like a hungry tiger in a cave, I must feed my restlessness with purposeful and aligned professional work. The only problematic moment with me…I like to get ahead of the problem of someone telling me what to do by figuring out what we (everyone, me and them) should be doing before someone dictates it with less context.

The sweet spot of this motion is to do this together, not in isolation and not dictatorially, but coalescing the importance of arriving at the “right” goals and in alignment at the same time. The only surprises when you’re riding the wave together is what comes next, and when you engineer this into the process, surprises are mostly good.

It took a while to arrive at this position. I had to roll up sleeves, work with many different teams in multiple organizations, listen to those whose shoes I don’t have the time or aptitude to fill, figure out how to synthesize their inputs into cogent and agreeable outcomes, and do so with a level of continuity that distinguishes this approach from traditional forms of management and group facilitation.

Don’t Try This On Your Own

The cost of adaptability is very high. If I didn’t have an equally dedicated partner to run the homefront, none of this would work. She’s sought out the same kind of commitment and focus on raising the kids as I do with what goes into pays the bills. There are very few character traits and creature comforts we share, but in our obsession over the things that make the absolute best come out of what we have, she more than completes the situation.

In this lifestyle, I have to determine day by day and week by week what net-new motions/motivations I need to pick up and which I need to put down, either temporarily or permanently. This can feel like thrash to some, but for me, every day is a chance to re-assess based on all the days before now; I can either take that opportunity or not, but it is there despite whether I do or not take it. If my decisions are only made in big batches, similar to code/product releases, I inherit the complexities and inefficiencies of “big measurement”…namely, granularity in iterative improvement.

Feedback Loops, Everywhere

As I explore the dynamics of continuous feedback loops beyond software and into human systems, a model of frequency in feedback and software delivery not as separate mechanisms, but as symbiotic, emerges. The more frequently you release, the more chances there are for feedback. The more feedback you can synthesize into value, the more frequently you want to release. One does not ‘predict’ the other; their rate bounds each other, like a non-binary statistical model.

What I mean is that a slow-release cycle predicts slow feedback and slow feedback predicts low value from releasing frequently; a fast feedback mechanism addicts people to faster release cycles. They share the relationship and depending on how extreme the dynamics feeding into one side of the relationship, the other one suffers. Maybe at some point, it’s a lost cause.

An example from the performance and reliability wheelhouse is low/slow performance observability. When you can’t see what’s causing a severe production incident, the live investigation and post-mortem activity is slow and takes time away from engineering a more reliable solution. Firefighting takes dev, SRE, ops, and product management time…it’s just a fact. Teams that understand the underlying relationship and synthesize that back into their work tend to use SEV1 incidents as teachable moments to improve visibility on underlying systems AND behavioral predictors (critical system queue lengths, what levels of capacity use constitute “before critical”, architectural bottlenecks that inform priorities on reducing “tech debt”, etc.).

The point is that feedback loops take time and iterative learning to properly inject in a way that has a positive, measurable impact on product delivery and team dynamics.

Going from Feedback Loops to Iterations…Together

All effect feedback loops have one thing in common: they measure achievement levels framed by a shared goal. So you really have to work to uncovered shared goals in a team. If they suit you and/or if you can accept the awesome responsibility to challenge and change them over time, it’s a wild ride of learning and transforming. If not, find another team, company, or tribe. Everyone needs a mountain they can traverse and shouldn’t put themselves up to a trail that will destroy them. This is why occasionally stepping back, collaborating, and reporting out what works and what doesn’t is so important. Re-enter the concept of “team meetings”.

Increasingly, most engineers I talk to abhor the notion of more meetings, usually because they’ve experienced their fair share of meetings that don’t respect their time or where their inputs have not been respectfully synthesized in a way they can see. So what, meetings are a bad thing?

Well, no, not if your meetings are very well run. This is not one person’s job, though scrumbags and mid-level management with confirmation bias abound, and especially so because they don’t have built-in NPS (net promoter score). A solution I’ve seen to the anti-pattern of ineffective meetings is to establish common knowledge of what/how/why an “effective” meeting looks like and expect these behaviors from everyone in on the team and in the org.

How to Encourage Effective Collaboration in Meetings

Learn to listen, synthesize, and articulate back in real-time. Too much time goes by, delay and context evaporate like winter breath. Capture as much of this context as you can while respecting the flow of the conversation. This will help you and others with remembering and respecting the “why”, and will allow people to see what was missing (perspectives, thinking, constructs), afterward. Examples of capture include meeting minutes, pictures of post-its, non-private notes from everyone, and even recordings.

But in just about every team and organization there’s a rampant misconception that ALL meetings must produce outcomes that look like decisions or action items. These are very beneficial, but I’ve seen people become anti-productive when treating themselves and others as slaves to these outcomes. Taking decisions too early drives convergent attitudes that are often uninformed, under-aligned, and often destructive.

Some of the most effective meetings I’ve had share the following patterns:

  • know why you’re meeting, provide context before, and set realistic expectations
  • have the “right” people in the room
    • who benefit from the anticipated outcomes and therefore are invested in them
    • who bring absolutely critical perspective, where otherwise invalidates outcomes or cause significant toil to refactor back in afterward; not to few
    • who contribute to functional outcome (as opposed to those who are known to bring dysfunction, don’t respect the time of others, argue over align); too many
  • agree on what positive and negative outcomes look like before starting in
  • use communication constructs to keep people on track with producing outcomes
  • have someone to ensure (not necessarily do all the) capture; note and picture taker
  • outcomes are categorized as:
    • clear, aligned decisions (what will happen, what worked, what didn’t, what next)
    • concrete concerns and missing inputs that represent blockers to the above
    • themes and sense of directional changes (i.e. we think we need to change X)
    • all info captured and provided as additional context for others

Trust AND Verify

One thing I keep finding useful is to challenge the “but” in “trust, but verify”. In English, the word “but” carries a negating connotation. It invalidates all that was said before it. “Your input was super important, BUT it’s hard to understand how it’s useful”…basically means “Your input was not important because it was not usable.”

My alternative is to “trust and verify”, but with a twist. If you’re doing it right, trust is easy if you preemptively provided an easy means to verify it. If you provide evidence along with your opinion, reasonable people are likely to trust your judgment. For me, rolling up the sleeves is a very important tool in my toolbelt to produce evidence for or against a particular position. I know there are other methods, both legitimate and nefarious, but I find that practical experience is far more defensible than constructing decisions based on shaky foundations.

All this said, even if you’re delivering self-evident verification with your work, people relationships take time and certainly take more than one or two demonstrative examples of trustability to attain a momentum of their own. Trust takes time, is all.

Takeaways and Action Items from This Week

Democratic decision processes are “thrashy”. Laws and sausages: no one wants to know how they’re made. In small teams going fast, we don’t have the luxury of being ignorant of outcomes and the context behind them. For some people, “democracy” feels better than dictatorial decisions being handed down without context; but for those who still find a way to complain about the outcomes, they need to ask themselves, “did I really care enough to engage in a functional and useful way, and did I even bother to educate myself on the context behind the decision I don’t like?”

Just like missing a critical perspective in a software team, in a global organization, when one region or office dominates an area of business (U.S. on sales, EU on security, for instance), this will inevitably bias outcomes and decisions affecting everyone. As the individual that I report to puts it, “scalability matters to every idea, not just when we’re ready to deploy that idea”. Make sure you have the right “everyone” in the room, depending on the context of your work and organizational culture.

Someone I once met and deeply respect once told me “it’s not enough to be an ally, you need to be an accomplice“. In context, she was referring to improving the epic dysfunction of modern technology culture by purposefully including underrepresented persons. Even if we make a 10% improvement to women’s salaries, hire more African-American engineers, create a safer place for LGBTQ, I still agree with the premise that doing these things isn’t good enough. Put it another way, receiving critical medical treatment for a gushing head wound isn’t an “over-compensation”, it’s a measured response to the situation. The technology gushing head wound, in this case, is an almost complete denial from WGLM (white guys like me) that there is a problem, that doing nothing continuously enables the causes of the problem, that leadership on this doesn’t necessarily look or think like us, and that this isn’t necessarily needed now.

Bringing it back to the wheelhouse of this article, true improvement culture doesn’t just take saying “sure, let me wave at you as an ally while you go improve the team”. It takes being an accomplice (think a getaway driver), we should ALL be complicit in decisions and improvement. Put some skin in the game, figure out how something truly worth improvement and your effort maps to your current WiP (work in progress) limits, and you may find that you need to put something less worth your time down before you can effectively contribute to improvement work. Surrounding yourself with folks who get this too will also increase the chances that you’ll all succeed. This is not an over-compensation, it is what everyone needs to do now to thrive, not just survive.

This is Why #DevOps

Since well before 2008, DevOps as a keyword has been growing steadily in mindshare. This post is my version of a landing page for conversations I have with folks who either know little about it, know a lot about it, or simply want to learn why DevOps is not a hashtag buzzword.

TL;DR: if you’re not interested in reading a few paragraphs of text, then nevermind. If you really must jump to my own articulation of DevOps, click here.

DevOps Is a Question, Not an Answer

The word “DevOps” is a starting point in my conversations with folks along the journey. Whether it’s over obligatory beers with local community members after a monthly meetup, in a high-pressure F100 conference room, in my weekly meetings with the IEEE, or internally in organizations I work with and accept benefits from, “DevOps” is often the start of a really important dialog. It’s a question more than a statement, at least the way I use it day to day, spiked with a small challenge.

It’s a question of “what are you doing now, and where do you want to be”. It’s a question of “how are the things you’re doing now incrementally improving, maybe compounding, your efforts”. It’s a question about how you remove both your backlog of toil and resolve the inbound toil that daily changes to software systems represents. It’s a question of “how do you chose to think about your work as you’re doing it?” DevOps is an improvement mindset, not just about code and configuration, but about organizational cohesion, communication, collaboration, and engineering culture.

DevOps Is More than “Developers and Operations”

Unlike those whose staunch opinions limit the scope of DevOps to refer to activities of developers and operations engineers, though managing scope creep is important, the agency and effect of DevOps are clearly intertwined with an organizations capability to also foster a set of core values and principles. For over a decade, we’ve seen some teams going so much faster than others that it doesn’t matter who’s slower, the result out to production is buggy, insecure, and unscaleable systems. This very common and dysfunctional clock speed mismatch also extends to testing, risk and compliance, budgeting (i.e. part of planning), architecture, and proper monitoring/telemetry/measurement practices.

Similarly, an ‘agile’ team find it very hard to be ‘agile’ without the buy-in of leadership, support from finance and legal, alignment with marketing and sales, and deep connection to its customers/stakeholders as well as a whole slew of other examples that underline how agile can’t be just a dev-centric worldview.

I hesitate to invent more terms such as ‘DevBizOps’, ‘DevTestOps’, and ‘DevSecOps’ simply to segment off these augmented versions of DevOps when these areas of concern should be integrated into systems delivery lifecycles, to begin with. I don’t want to conflate concepts, yet so many elements overlap, it’s hard to know how to have one conversation without having three others too. At the end of the day though, it’s as arbitrary to me that people invent new terminology as it is that some others chose to dig their fundamentalist heels in about exclusively keeping the scope of DevOps to two traditionally distinct groups, particularly when we see modern interpretations of DevOps blends skills and responsibilities to the point that we highly value (pay) SREs and “10x developers” because they defy narrowly scoped job opportunities in favor of cross-functional roles.

What are *My* Core Values and Principles of DevOps?

Again, this is a question you should seek to answer in your own way, but after only five years of immersion and purposefully seeking out other perspectives daily, a few key elements seem to hold:

  • Transparency
    • Observability
    • Traceability
    • Open Systems
    • Great Documentation
  • Inclusivity
    • Collaboration
    • Swarming / Blameless Fault Handling
    • Customer/User-focus
    • Prioritization to Value
  • Measurement
    • Building Quality In
    • High-value Feedback Loops
    • Useful Monitoring and Telemetry
    • Clear SLA/SLO/SLIs
  • Improvement
    • Automate AMAP and by default
    • Continuous Learning
    • Coaching and Mentoring
  • Alignment
    • Small Batches, Short-lived Change Cycles
    • Clear Processes (Onboarding, Approvals, Operationalizing, Patching, Disposal)
    • Work Contextualized to Biz Value/Risk
    • All Stakeholders Represented in Decisions

DevOps Is Inclusive by Nature

When dialed in, the values and principles of DevOps foster an environment of high-trust and safety, synthesize perspectives without losing focus, and balance personal and team capacity to compound individual contributions rather than burn out talented professionals. DevOps is not, as Audre Lord (via Kelsey Merkley) puts it, our “master’s tool”, so long as we don’t make it such; rather, if we decide that DevOps must not inherit the meritocracy and exclusivity of corporate management and Agilista methodology, it must be a truly better alternative than that which came before.

This is how DevOps can change things, this is why it must. New thinking and new voices provide a way out of tech monoculture. In order to improve a system, you need more than the one option you’ve already found faulty. This is why I personally support local non-profits like Resilient Coders of Boston. DevOps values and principles offer a far better chance for new voices to be at the table, at least the version I’m advocating.

DevOps Improves Organizations In-Place

Imagine if your teams, your colleagues, your leadership really internalized and implemented the core values and principles defined above. Doing so in finance, human resources, marketing, sales, and even [dare I say] board of trustees groups would cause a natural affinity for supporting systems engineering teams. Conversely too, developers about to change a line of code would be more likely to ask “how does this impact the customer and my organization’s goals?”, “what documentation do customers and sales engineers need to effectively amplify the new feature I’m developing?”, and “how could this process be improved for everyone?”.

There is an old stereotype of programmers being bad at “soft skills”, resulting in miscommunication, disconnect of work from business value, “not my problem” mentality, and throw-it-over-the-fence mindset. My perspective on DevOps is that none of these things would have the room to materialize in organizations that put processes in place to ensure the above values and principals are the norm.

Everyone can do these things, there’s nothing stopping us, unicorn to F100. Importantly, transitioning from what is currently in place to these values takes time. Since time is money, it takes money too. DevOps advocacy isn’t good enough to make the case for these changes and the spend that comes attached. No one developer or even team can change an organization, it takes Gestalt thinking and demonstrated value to get people ‘bought in’ to change.

Facilitating DevOps Buy-In

The first thing to get straight about DevOps is that it takes conversation and active engagement. This is not and never should be something you go to school or get a certificate for; it is a journey more akin to learning a martial art like Uechi-ryu than a course you pay thousands of dollars for at some tech industry Carnivale.

Collect those in your organization is interested in having a conversation about cultural implications of DevOps values and principles, using something lightweight like a lunchtime guild, a book club, or even a Slack channel. Listen to people, what they think and already know, and don’t assume your perspective is more accurate than theirs. Be consistent about when/what you do together to further the dialog, hold a local open spaces meetup (or find someone who does this, like me), and invite people from outside the engineering team scope, such as a VP or member of product management at your organization, and ASK THEM afterwards what they thought.

Once you have people from different levels engaging on similar wavelengths about DevOps, ask them to help each other understand what are some first tangible and tactical steps to improve the current situation based on some of the core values and principles either defined above or further crafted to fit your circumstances. Get a headline name in one or more regional DevOpsDays organizing committees to come visit as an outside perspective to what you’ve got going. And importantly, make time for this improvement. SEV1 incidents aside, there’s always some weekly space on everyone’s calendar that’s an optimal time to get together.

Or you can just ping me [at] paulsbruce [dot] io or on Twitter and we can figure out a good way for you to get started on your own DevOps journey. I’m always happy to help.

Three, Sixty, Five

In less than three days, I recently passed through five airports using six planes to meet with three very important teams. Not a single Uber (because fuck Uber), 14 meetings/calls later, and a collective 9 hours of sleep. Before I let the normal hurricane of work-life sweep these events away, I want to distill learnings.

First…Context:

In 2017 after an exhaustive job search, I found myself talking with an SMB CEO about what my goal was. I said then, as I still say now, that one of my primary goals is to “be in the room”. Rooms where decisions are made; not only internal decisions, external ones too. You have to prove your value at the table in these rooms, and this is what I do.

Three

During these past three days, three very meaningful things happened.

One: an F100 customer I’ve invested a ton of effort in for the past 6 months demonstrated how impactful that work has been to their strategic quarterly planning in front of two very important people in the full-time company I work with. This took me by surprise, but is exactly what happens when you’re doing things right (I think). People benefit so much they want to share it with others. I see this as a positive characteristic of humanity.

Two: another F100 prospect I’ve invested a ton of time with confidentially shared how the internal dynamics of their big-picture financial strategy over technology funding underscores the importance of having a flexible approach to the acquisition process for software vendors and GSI partnerships. I would never have had the opportunity to learn this in school, at prior software jobs, or without the support of an amazing business team (incl. key individuals in leadership, partner channel, sales, and product management).

Three: I got another very private F100 customer to discuss patterns, practices, and industry trends with a senior researcher at a major analyst firm. Early in my career and for many people in what I refer to as ‘shallow engagement work patterns’, this would be impossible; but I believe in value-first relationships, referring to how Tim O’Reilly puts it: “create more value than you consume”. Really doing this with your customers takes more than an ask, it takes gives which make asks pale in comparison.

Sixty

These and other things happened the past almost-three days, but took sustained efforts. The same statement applies every day inside my day job. Some things happen overnight. Some things aren’t under your control. That leaves the universe of possibility to things that happen over time and are totally under your control. This is very good news for us “busy brains”.

Self-control is a characteristic people pick up on subconsciously, but lack thereof most certainly triggers conscious flags. I have a few habits…nail-bitten fingertips, post-its written everywhere, late-night emails…that I think qualify for the latter. In contrast to the last sixty hours, I’m going to scale back these and other habits over the next sixty days. This will take effort, sustained and supported with the help of others.

A colleague said to me last month: “don’t wait for your doctor to tell you”. Habits are something that can be changed. Trust takes time to build and can be lost overnight. Observing people’s habits can accelerate identifying trustworthiness. Being someone I know is trustworthy, I want to seek ways to accelerate others’ trust in me. Controlling habits is my immediate actionable.

Five

If you’re ambitious, curious, and capable, tech is a fantastic sector to be in. Things move very fast, money too. Five years ago, I very deliberately pivoted my career from writing code all day to observing and directing the code that people operate by. In retro, I could have done this in my early twenties, but at least it’s happening now.

Since 2018, the rooms I’ve gotten really good at working in are typically at an F100. Under the surface, things in F100s are so complicated and fucking messy…I love it when things are messy…but on the shiny topside in rooms with egos and initiatives and collateral on the line, dialogs have to be squeaky clean. The trick is how to bring the room together with anything but the mundane, with active listening, informed point of view, inspiring next-challenges, and most importantly, sincerity. Effective communication and collaboration takes experience, and experience takes doing. This is what I’m doing all the time now, honing and refining.

Engineering Is About More Than Code

Curiosity is what drives engineers, and is equal parts curse and companion. An engineer isn’t limited to development or operations. An engineer would be a problem-solver in both areas, probably more. Curiosity is a surprisingly rare quality in people, even in technology.

If you want to know how something works, take it apart and observe. My first digital systems disassembly was a Sony Discman in 1989. Whatever I did, I fixed it. The feeling was powerful. It just took me 25 years to realize that there are many broken things in the world and to prioritize which one’s I involve myself with. Understanding the problem is crucial.

This is how I approach many conversations, navigating purposely and politely until there’s a useful reframing. People aren’t things, so be kind, be sensitive, and be patient. When you engage, learn about their biggest challenges, how they approach things, and what drives them. Just start with that.

[If my 80’s discman was still around, it would be like “yup, those were the days”. My 8086 XT clone next to it would splutter out some op codes. My Mega Man game watch would be waterlogged and stuck in a loop. Which all lead me to the next action…]

Put things back together again so that they work, hopefully, better than before. It’s just courtesy. In commit-worthy code that’s called hygiene. In conversation, that’s called maintaining a shared view or vision. Do these things enough and you’ll find that the way to a common goal is easy easier than with clutter obscurring your journey, and for others’. When you can row in the same direction, you get to your destination a whole lot faster.

Put it with other things to see where it doesn’t work. That’s integration and it’s not always easy, especially if it’s your own code or new auto-scaling configuration that causes unforeseen things to blow up. Get to know what your thing does before and after you put it out in the wild. Be honest with yourself and others about the time this takes.

There are some things you can take apart, and some things you can’t. If you can’t or if it’s too much effort for not enough value, move on to another learning tool, but remain committed to your goal. In the light of fundamental flaws in how we think about security, privacy, and basic human welfare right now, seek something you’re proud and grateful to do. [There are some very worthy things happening in Boston right now.]

Socratic Method for Advocacy

In disassembly of how I approach a zero-knowledge situation, a few key dynamics emerge. The goal of this simple framework is to accelerate the bond-forming process of dialog between individuals.

Not everyone has an appetite for the full menu of techniques here, and right-fitting takes sizing up others in real-time, which itself takes practice. If you’re really interested in how to have more effective conversations that leave all parties feeling positive, this is what I can currently offer.

  • Introductions
  • Exploratory Listening
    • Open-ended questions (a.k.a. “double-clicking”)
    • Challenging to understand how topics relate and handling skills
    • Confirming what was shared with close-ended questions
    • Synthesizing the crucial point
  • Identifying the “as-is” current state
    • Share “the Summit”
    • Assess the journey to date
    • Materialize motivations (unearth drive)
  • Planning the “to-be” desired state
    • Identify milestones, past and future
    • Hunt for and prioritize gaps in order of risk to reach the summit
    • Summarize approach and obtain permission
  • Co-develop a plan of action
    • Goal-Strategy-Objective-Tactic
    • Visualize the timeline to reverse-engineer milestones
    • Socialize with key stakeholders

Introductions

Be cordial, clear about your role, short about your background, and quickly move to questions that help the other person(s) engage about themselves.

Present well. Shave, brush your teeth, wear a bit of a smile. Smell like someone you’d want to be around. Be attentive, particularly in the eyes, and suppress the urge to look like you’re anywhere else but this conversation right now.

Make sure that the person has time to talk a little. If not, politely ask when. If so, ask them how they arrived here, where they’re headed, and what’s got them going this direction. Build a basic rapport in the first few moments. Start off well and build on the previous moment at every opportunity

Exploratory Listening

Ask far more questions than the number of statements you make. Extroverted learning prefers information you don’t know over suppositions you could make alone.

Use open-ended questions when you want to explore directions. If you don’t know enough about what someone’s describing, open more windows. When the way of conversation is unknown, let them talk and learn how they communicate. There’s a lot of ‘meta’ information in human speech.

It’s important to challenge people, in no abrasive manner, but through asking how the current conversation point or branch relates to another topic or branch. The dichotomy of human behavior is that what is unknown represents simultaneously a source of both intrigue and fear. Questions can either encourage people to engage or to retreat, and our job is to engage.

Asking a question that someone doesn’t have an answer for leads to insight no matter what. How someone deals with unknowns will become useful later. When the question is right-timed and right-fit to the context, people without an answer are likely to explore with you. Poorly-timed or out of context, a question where no one has the answer feels awkward and often causes people to retreat.

When something seems very important, narrow down the scope of the questions you ask, never coerce. Close-ended questions confirm that what you think you heard was actually what was said. Don’t ignore non-verbal cues. Look for expressions of emotion surrounding quantities. Form a mental map of how these points affect their recipient and which seem relevant to them, not just you. Verify their relevance to others with close-ended questions.

Once a branch of exploration is sufficiently developed, synthesize the crucial point uncovered back into the main theme of the conversation. By understanding it’s impact, you can bring the point of the branch back to the goal of the conversation: to understand and support what the person is currently working on, suffering from, or driving towards.

Anyone can voice the crucial point, but it’s better if it’s someone else. You don’t have to be the one with an answer. This is why being curious about their perspective is so incredibly effective. Questions (open or closed) guide the conversation, even though people tend to think that an idea is original and their own simply because they voiced it. When someone thinks the idea is theirs, they tend to champion it with banners and bugles. Questions help steer champions in the right direction.

Identifying the “as-is” current state

The first move in any consultation should be to gain situational awareness. In other words, qualification of what dynamics and decisions are currently in place. Before a hypothesis and plan of action can be formed, observation.

To make broad and holistic observations, you must share the summit. As the landscape of context emerges from your listening expedition and as you process that landscape together into a shared construct, a key state will emerge, “what we have accomplished so far.” This is often coupled with pains and challenges regarding where the person currently is in their journey. Point and click with the camera in your mind because later we’ll be doing a before-and-after photo collage. The highest point achieved is a summit, even if it’s not the tallest peak visible.

You may need to know more about how they arrived at their current summit in order to fully flesh out gaps in context. This sense is highly subjective and experientially developed, so practice earning the right to get to this point. It’s important to step back and assess their journey every so often. This helps to uncover information gaps.

These gaps of context, though you may be the one to bring them up, must be accepted by others before they can be addressed. You can’t convince someone of a solution if they don’t think there’s a problem. And if something really isn’t a problem, it’s important for you to know that too. This is just another form of permission. The best way to ensure people show up to a party is to bring them with you.

Equal parts collected context and ‘meta’ (appetite, capabilities, deficiencies) makes for a very good peep into what motivates someone, either to stay in the current state, migrate to a future state, or even drive a future state. Motivations are imperative to materialize about others. An accurate understanding of someone’s motivations is worth more than developing a trust between you and them.

Planning the “to-be” desired state

Moving from what is to what could/should be the summit, start with our friend, an open-ended question, about where they want to be. In a group, this may get complicated; everyone communicates differently, and everyone has a different perspective. Quantize. Start with one person at a time. Give them non-verbal cues about length, but let them finish. The smaller the group, the easier this process is.

With a shared vision of the future summit, ask what it would take to get there. Searching for important, measurable future achievements is called identifying milestones. Again, not something everyone knows up front, and while some people have immediate intuitions or ideas, others take time to form their thoughts and answers. Since humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future, extrapolating future milestones may be difficult. If stuck, revisit past milestones, the ones that brought them to the current summit. This will help form a ‘meta’ understanding about how people categorize just-busy-work from notable achievements.

Make sure that the flow of questions to answers at this stage is 100% you questioning to 100% them answering. Questions may come up, but anything can be put in the “parking lot” provided it is suggested politely by you and agreed to by them.

With a set of milestones laid out, reorder them based on which events are dependent upon others. Ask about which milestones enable other milestones. Build the most efficient decision tree. As always, pause at junctures that feel important to obtain agreement. For those that don’t obtain consensus, circle back once, but otherwise parking lot it to keep the conversation flowing in the forward direction.

Now that you have a map of the landscape and have sketched out a path to the new summit, hunt down gaps (unstated objections, parking lotted details, well-known deficiencies) to arrive at MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) on a list of variables that exist between knowns. There will always be another iteration, so “exhaustive” simply means when people seem like they are happy with moving on.

With this list of gaps, ask how people would prioritize them. Root the conversation in terms of establishing priority based on relative risk to achieving the milestones and accomplishing the goal, getting to the summit.

There is no one right answer so long as those in the conversation express their perspectives on what order things should be prioritized. The how and the why they prioritize things the way they do is not key to this logistics exercise. Though useful meta information about individuals, justifications and disputes drag down the goal, which is alignment and on an approach to confidently arriving at positive outcomes together.

With a sense of how to prioritize milestones and gaps, circle back verbally to summarize the approach to moving from the old summit to the new one. This should take no more than 60 seconds. By now you should have mentally wordsmithed the goal, the milestones, and the approach such that you can do this. Those involved in the conversation up to this point will very likely unanimously agree because the summary incorporates their perspectives and terminology. When you do this effectively, you fade into their view of how to accomplish the goal. You are part of their team. You’re in.

Co-develop a Plan of Action

With all this context and alignment under your belt, it’s time to whip out some artisan management tools and have at it.

Crystalize the new summit into a single statement/slide/executive summary structured as a Goal-Strategy-Objective-Tactic (GSOT) framing. This progression properly organizes information in an approachable hierarchy that stakeholders and sponsors can grok quickly. Everything in it will be defensible because it came from the people that know how to accomplish the new goal and they’re already aligned with the details.

There typically should be only one goal, otherwise, the approach serves more than one master and the purpose of the objectives become muddied. An approach (or strategy) should express a strong point-of-view about the objectives that is fundamentally different from the prior approach which led to the current summit, even if the prior approach was good at decision time.

Every leg of the journey requires a pivot to ensure the direction is correct. Once a GSOT is constructed, make it easy for humans to visualize the timeline of objectives and key tactical events that support forward motion. These should be expressed in relative timeframes. Ranges, not absolute dates/times, are best at this point.

Reverse-engineer where/when to place milestones progressively. Start by placing the biggest rocks in dependent-events order, then layer in tactics that support various objectives. Adjust as necessary when tactics are tight (risk of slippage) or clustered too closely together (work bottlenecks). Do this with one slide, and you have the most effective meeting with an executive sponsor you’ve ever had.

Finally, with your ducks in a row, with everyone aligned, it’s time to socialize with stakeholders one at a time. Don’t present an idea for the first time in a boardroom. Objections are a fixture of the boardroom, so make it hard for them to maximize negative impact. Start with individual stakeholders. Do this under the auspices of collecting feedback, but then actually incorporate the feedback so you’re not a liar.

Pick your early stakeholder reviews carefully. A troll will turn around and proclaim your incompetence, but people with the most to gain will become your champion army when it comes time to fight the trolls. I wish you zero trolls, but living under bridges makes it hard to see them in advance.

On a Personal Note

The narrative above is a reflection of my observations and collaboration with technical engineering teams, boardroom executives, investors, sociologists, bartenders, and wolves. I broke my finger pretty badly two months ago which helped me deeply understand what would really hurt someone else. Likewise, as we exercise empathy and effective patterns of communication, we better understand how they improve us and their importance in our work together.

Thank you for your time, and as you may guess, I’m also on a journey. We all are. If you found anything in this post useful, connect with me so we can journey a bit together.

What a Site Reliability Engineer Really Does…in DevOps

We really, really build ourselves into a corner with the internet and mobile and cloud and Agile “at scale”. Good news is, we’re engineers that can invent ourselves out of anything, or at least that’s what’s made all this money so far.

What Is a Site Reliability Engineer?

Srsly. Wikipedia. Too lazy? Fine, from Wikipedia (please donate):

Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) is a discipline that incorporates aspects of software engineering and applies that to IT operations problems. The main goals are to create ultra-scalable and highly reliable software systems. According to Ben Treynor, founder of Google’s Site Reliability Team, SRE is “what happens when a software engineer is tasked with what used to be called operations.”[1]

What kind of this ninja trickery is this? Using common sense to make learn how to hire the best people in technology? Why would Google spill the beans on this hiring secret? Maybe they’re sick of dealing with our broken shit.

Our digital systems are ALL distributed and complex now. How can we still expect that having some ignorant code-jockey in a cubicle who never uses what they make control the entire business with the stroke of a keyboard? Because: we are cost-accounting brainwashed and forget that the job to do needs the right experience and skill to do it well. Meanwhile, we keep under-hiring operations and over-hire developers such that there’s a 1-to-who-knows ratio between the people that press one button and the people that press another.

If You’re Offended By What I’ve Described, Congratulations!

I am too. Things that are so complex no one person can understand them, those things are dangerous. Banking apps that aren’t secure, mapping apps that get us lost and late, social media apps that show our kids their first porn, CGM devices that cost more in maintenance fees than their worth…it offends me when these things don’t work. Technology that works is how I make sure I have money for a family, sponsored, biological, or otherwise.

Our tech industry should be hiring people that can comprehend the things they deliver. People pay for things that work. If you don’t care about others, at least you’ll care about making money, and “right” software in a customer-obsessed market makes the most money.

It’s particularly offensive when the hybrid phoenix of a job title that ‘Site Reliability Engineer’ embodies goes largely unnoticed in high tech corporate mindsets. “What the hell is that, your latest professional title advancement scheme? Just because you mashed these words together doesn’t mean you deserve a raise!!!” If you know the following things, you deserve a salary that rivals an enterprise VP of marketing:

  • What your software should do
  • How your software does what it does
  • How to communicate the value of the things you’re working on
  • Don’t mind being woken up when it’s broken for someone
  • Ignore those around you that don’t think the above is relevant to do their jobs

Go forth and make your first salary million in a few years, y’all who can. Do this well and grow.

Why Do We See Site Reliability Engineering on the Rise?

The tech industry is now at the point where we completely forgot that the persons who build software should know how to operate that software when it other people depend on it. Big money, consumer insatiability, customer centricity, and digital transformation has skyrocketed the imperative to make the modern enterprise business engine their engineering teams. We build shiny, complicated, and highly profitable things. What did we expect?

We, the nerds, lured jocks in with our shiny things such as the Altair, BBS, and the entire mobile revolution…and they brought their friends. CFOs, ‘professional CEOs’, and other people that look at a hoodie like its pajamas that violate the corporate dress code. We allowed things to get this way #waterfall #agile #WomenInTech by being egotistical, lazy, impatient, and unkind. These are our chickens coming home to roost.

And now we have to reinvent a way out of the ‘shallow engineering’ tech culture that looks skeptically at #DevOps as a management problem. I don’t mean that everyone on your engineering team has to code, but the people who do code should understand the impact of what they do. This is ethical and this is practical. This is how you make your next billions.

This is the new horizon for impactful, profitable, and scalable tech culture:

On #InternationalWomensDay, I guess that is all for now.

 

FUEL for Your Brain: On Focus, Usefulness, Execution, Learning

I hate acronyms. My dad used to use them far too much, the kind of guy that was more smart in retrospect than the kind of boy I was understood at the time. Kind, thoughtful, quiet, and invested in people around him.

My current thought product is an acronym, “FUEL”, based on a few key practices that I find are valuable to my current line of work as a Change Agent. These practices take time to develop and are only truly useful when used in parallel.

  • Focus: ability to right-size activities to close the task(s) currently underway
  • Usefulness: ability to gauge effectiveness of work and reprioritize based on new ideas/objectives/activities
  • Execution: ability to match skill to task, collaborate the plan, and resolve blockers as they arise
  • Learning: ability to observe outcomes and refactor them into useful ways to improve all of the above

Real-time Example of FUEL

Last night after a meetup, I had a beer with someone I’d met before at a local conference but hadn’t dived into. The opportunity presented itself, so I stayed a little later than I normally would. They are a CTO for a 50-person startup in town. Net-net:

Paul: “What’s weighing on you right now man, work related?” (L)
Them: “Kind of glad someone asked…we have people issues.” (E)
Paul: “You’re not alone…what kind?” (E/F)
Them: “There are a few ‘senior’ engineers that don’t produce like others.” (U)
Paul: “What’s your plan for them and the rest of your team?” (U)
Them: “We just laid off one after giving him a path, but the other two, I don’t know…maybe add metrics, visibility…they’re kind of SPOFs.” (U)
Paul: “…so you can quantify what you already know? How did we arrive here?” (U/L)
Them: “They were here at the beginning, hence ‘senior’, but one guy hasn’t committed code since Sept (5 months)!” (E)
Paul: “Got it, they don’t ‘git’ it. [laughs] How are you and the leadership team  helping to coach other junior engineers?” (L)
Them: “Well that’s the problem maybe. We don’t exactly have a culture yet, but our C-level relationships with each other are solid.” (U/E)
Paul: “I once heard that great leaders define their success by fostering other leaders. Do you know who your real ‘senior’ engineers are?” (F/L)
Them: “Well I kind of already know who deserves the chance to step up.” (E)
Paul: “That’s good, but not enough. People often hesitate on new things simply because they haven’t experienced how it works yet. Your coaching needs to help those people get over any blockers to proving one way or the other if they can do the job well/right/better.” (FUEL)
Them: “I’m going to talk to our CEO about this. Can I get your card?”
Paul: “Only if you intend to use it.”

Good enough exercise and learning for me for one night.

 

Technical Recruitment 101 – Advocates vs. Evangelists

What’s the difference between a technical evangelist and an advocate? What are these terms even? If you’re a technical recruiter, I encourage you to know the answer to all of these questions by reading this piece for the next 4mins.

What is a “Technical Evangelist”?

A way to simplify the definition of an evangelist is to onboard people to their particular topic, do whatever it takes (hackathons, sponsorships, contribution, enablement sessions, flights…lots and lots of flights…blogging, interviews, code samples, research, t-shirt design, customer support, server setup). They wear all the hats, usually at the same time.

What is an “Advocate”?

An advocate defines their job based on the success of the customer (or anyone really) at the job they most need to do. Deep listening, directed dialog, metrics extraction, change impact quantification, being kind, and work framing are all tools in an advocate’s toolbelt. It’s caring about the other person first, then of course yourself secondly.

Advocacy vs. Evangelism

Advocates are good facilitators. Unlike evangelists, they don’t assume that because a hat needs a wearer, that it must be them to wear it. They see the whole field, not just the ball in-front of them. Advocates identify what needs to be done cross-functionally and help to match people who want to and can do a thing to get that done. They think about the problem that people are trying to solve, and put resources into motion to reach that goal.

Naturally, when I frame advocacy this way, it’s easy to see why evangelism leads to burnout. Advocacy leads to faster burndown (e.g. sprint burndown charts) because facilitation, a scalability reinforcer, is at the core of advocacy. What problem are you trying to solve? What’s required to get there? What challenges will arise? How can we most effectively help each other?

How to Qualify Who Should Apply For Which Role?

If someone demonstrates that they can differentiate between facilitating needs over taking on things as a personal responsibility to accomplish, you may just have the potential for an advocate. If a candidate lists off all the things they do without a clear definition of why first, you’re better off funneling them into an evangelist role so they can either learn a better balance or burn out and find something else.

Advocates build plans and often play a significant role in driving those plans to completion. Internal, external, independent, or consultative. When they do take ownership over a goal, you know that it will get closed, even if it wasn’t achieved to expectation, it will get closed and retro’d.

In Practice, I Say “Advocacy over Evangelism”

Evangelists talk about their product and rarely take full responsibility for anything. They are often driven by others to do things, go places, speak under sponsored time, build samples, and be engaged with customers. It’s right in the job title. “Evangelism” in Latin can be translated as “messenger”. In other words, they have been told to deliver a message. Usually the messenger has nothing to do with the crafting process of the message, and would you want someone whose job is to talk rather than listen involved in what your message to people should say? I wouldn’t.

Put another way, an evangelist mindset attempts to frame the problems of the world into terms that their product can solve. Their focus is the product that they’re incentivized to proliferate. If it doesn’t quite fit a customer’s situation, too bad, we’ll make it fit. I don’t know the job you’re trying to accomplish because I didn’t bother to ask, but I’m going to offer you a random solution anyway. And naturally, introducing a wrong-fit solution produces negative consequences (like lost time, lost money, and lost opportunity).

An advocacy mindset exfoliates information required to make decisions about how to best accomplish a customer’s true goal. Your product is not your software. Your product is a right-fit of people, process, and technology for a customer to successfully accomplish their goal. Your overlap to their situation in strictly wheelhouse terms might only by 10% or just one specific job. But if you can understand how important (or not) what you do is to completing the job they have at hand, then you can quickly fit what you offer to their needs.

This is the heart of the way product teams should “go to market”. They proceed as explorers and caretakers, not “disruptors” simply because it sounds cool. In this world, caring about how to help someone with their job better every day is disruptive. It’s honestly disruptive, to sales, to marketing, to product management, and to vision holders in technology.