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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Wed, 25 Aug 2004

Management by numbers
This week at work we were asked to start using timesheet software to track the hours that we work on various projects. I hate timesheet software. Hate with a fiery passion. But when a coworker asked me why, I had to confess I really didn't know. He pointed out that it only takes a couple minutes each week to fill out. That it's useful for budget allocation and making sure that projects are being appropriately resourced. That it can provide an indication to management of when people are spending time on things they shouldn't be. So where's the downside? Why does it upset me so?

After some reflection, I think I have an answer. And it gets back to a common theme I've been on with regard to being treated as a person. The thing that bothers me about the timesheet method of management is that it treats me as a resource. Not a person. The timesheet reduces me to a number to be crunched into budget allocations and project management. And I think I find that fundamentally degrading. One of the commonalities among the management structures I find interesting was that they were people-based. In fact, the Gore management structure was set up specifically because Gore the founder realized that he didn't know everybody at his plant any more.

I understand that larger organizations need some sort of process and bureaucracy to be able to function. But I believe somewhere in my little idealistic brain that the process can be used to serve the people, rather than having people be crunched down to fit the process. I hate going through the exercise of trying to reduce the work that I'm doing down to the over-broad categories that other people have made up. Eventually, of course, I do what everybody else does, and just make up numbers. Which is fine if the numbers were then treated as the fictions that they are. But as soon as such numbers are entered in a timesheet, they take on a life of their own, where they are treated as the reality that define the budget process, and I am but a flimsy shadow of the numbers. And I think that is what I don't like.

If you want to know what I'm doing, take the two minutes and ask me. Or I can write up a paragraph summarizing what I'm doing that will take you 30 seconds to read. But don't ask me to fit my work into arbitrary categories for the sake of a budget process that fundamentally ignores the realities of employees as people. It mischaracterizes and trivializes the work I'm doing by reducing it to a category that you have defined. "Oh, you're doing research. Okay. Well, that's not important. You should be spending your time doing product development instead." What does that even mean? If you recategorize my work into a different budget bin, does that change what I'm doing? No. Because I feel that I have the best perspective on the question of how I can use my skills to advance the project. No amount of budget-fiddling will change that. The way to get me to change what I'm doing is to talk to me and convince me that my skills could be better used elsewhere, not to change a budget number.

There's a better management model hidden here someplace. I'm sure of it. I feel like I'm skirting around the outside of it. But, as usual, it may not be realistic for the world we live in. There's too many people who treat rules as immutable laws of nature, and budgets and numbers as realities rather than representations, who don't understand the concept of abstraction. The map is not the territory. And confusing the two only leads to anger and confusion, because any representation will necessarily be incomplete. And bad representations, which is the category I feel things like project codes and timesheets fall into, are especially inadequate at describing what they are supposed to represent. And then when the managers get upset because their representations are inadequate, they take it out on the representees (aka their employees) for not being like the reductive confining simplified representations.

And I think that is why I hate timesheets.

The map is not the territory - Speaking of which, I read the Eschaton section of Infinite Jest this morning. Unbelievably hilarious. I picked up Infinite Jest from the library before my trip last week, after really liking the book of David Foster Wallace essays. In this particular case, the way Wallace constructs the game of Eschaton to illustrate the philosophical point that the map is not the territory, which one of the characters screams at the top of his lungs, is absolutely brilliant. The book overall is kind of uneven so far, though. And really large. I'm about 350 pages in, a third of the way through, and I've had to start an index page to keep track of what scenes happened where so that when a scene references something that happened or some other background material, I can flip back and figure out what's going on. Through about 300 pages, I could do it by keeping it all in my head, but it's too much now. But among this morass of plot and characters, there are these asides that are incisive observations of people and how they think. I really liked the one about why videophones will never achieve mass market appeal, for instance. Or this one about Eschaton. I think I'll eventually get a copy of it, and dogear the digressions I really like, and pretty much skip all the rest of this stuff. Or maybe it all makes more sense when it gets tied together. Certainly a possibility.

posted at: 16:09 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Innovation and optimism
A couple weeks ago, a coworker of mine and I were talking about outsourcing and how it will affect the economy and things like that. It arose out of a humor bit that somebody apparently posted at Slashdot about how they told their boss they were telecommuting, outsourced their work to a guy in India working for $12k/year, and got paid a nice salary to do nothing but pass bits around. My coworker's question was what happens when places like India and China have caught up to America in standard of living. He felt that it would have to be a zero-sum game where if they're getting brought out of poverty, our standard of living would inevitably have to suffer. I made up a counterargument on the fly, but I like it, especially because it's abnormally optimistic for me, so I'm going to share yet another crackpot theory with you all.

Here goes. Why do we think outsourcing is bad? Because jobs that go overseas means less jobs here means less work here. Now it's possible that I've been reading too much of The Economist, but I tend to believe that outsourcing will result in a reallocation of jobs rather than a removal. What are the jobs that are going away? Typically jobs that are manual labor intensive, or drudge work in other ways. What do all these jobs have in common? They are well on the way to being automated in some form or another. Even the programming jobs going overseas are generally pretty standard bolt-together-parts type coding rather than innovative system architecture.

America has been doing this sort of job reallocation for over a century now. Something like 3% of the American population works on a farm at this point. And yet American farms produce more than enough food for the entire country. I don't know what the percentage a century ago was, but I'm pretty sure it was a lot higher. However, as labor-saving machinery such as tractors became prevalent, as well as irrigation and fertilizers and other yield-enhancers, the productivity of our farms per farmer grew by enormous leaps and bounds. Where did all those former farmers go? Into the city to work at factories is my guess.

Now that the factory jobs are disappearing, partially due to outsourcing and partially due to the automation of routine labor-intensive tasks, people are going to have to adjust again. And I think they will (despite tendencies to cling to the industrial way of doing things).

The common theme I see here is innovation. This is my wild-eyed technology-is-great optimistic side talking. And I'm not even a Singularity believer. But I look at the last century and am amazed by the incredible strides we have made in our standard of living in that time. Working-class people today have access to amenities that the nobility could only dream of a century ago, even with hordes of servants at their beck and call. We have increased our productivity to such a large extent that most of us are not involved with the satisfaction of our basic needs like food and shelter. What have we evolved to? I think that Richard Florida nailed it with his book The Rise of the Creative Class. America is now an innovation society. And I think that's a good thing.

Innovation is what breaks us free from the zero-sum game of economics. In a normal transaction, no new value is created, so the pool of wealth remains constant. Innovation increases the value pool by increasing the efficiency with which products are made, as well as enabling totally new products that raise the standard of living.

So here's the totally starry-eyed optimist answer to my coworker's question. As more and more jobs disappear off the low end of the scale, either due to outsourcing or due to automation, that means more and more resources available to devote to innovation. Less muscle power, more mind power. The more minds you have working on a problem, the better. So more minds working on innovation means more productivity gains, which in turn frees up even more people to work on innovation, and we're in a nice little virtuous circle where the standard of living keeps on increasing for everyone.

Interestingly, while I was kicking this idea around in my head and trying to find the time to write it up, I saw another blog post about innovation. I have to agree with his assessment of the value of the Internet to society (c.f. the end of my rant about the internet), and I'm definitely not a change for change's sake kind of person, but I can definitely see ways in which my life is materially better than somebody's fifty years ago. Maybe not spiritually. But materially. And as more people have more time to spend finding solutions to the problems that vex them (which is what the open source movement is all about, really), I think that the virtuous circle of innovation will only continue to benefit all of us.

Don't worry, I'll snap out of this optimism shortly. In fact, I've got another rant lined up that I'll probably write up in just a minute that will demonstrate my normal misanthropic negative tendencies. But I figured the unaccustomed optimism about the future would be a nice change of pace...

posted at: 16:02 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Flying business class
In case any of the three readers I have was wondering why I didn't update last week, it was because I got called unexpectedly to visit the home office in Toronto for training. I walked into work on Friday the 13th, and was told to call the company's travel agent because I was flying to Toronto on Monday the 16th for a four day trip. The only upside? The coach ticket on such short notice was actually more expensive than business class, so the travel agent put me in business class.

It was weird. On so many levels. Room to spread out a bit. A decent amount of leg room. The flight attendant came through a bit after takeoff and said "Will you be joining us for our dinner service this evening, Mr. Nehrlich?" I said, "Um, excuse me?" The question was so foreign to me I literally couldn't process it the first time she asked. After the repetition, I said "Um, sure!" so she followed up with "Would you like the chicken breast or the salmon?" I mean, yes, you get asked that in coach, but only when they get to you with a box full of preheated trays. Getting asked in advance was just kind of weird.

Other differences:

The entire experience was kind of surreal. I have my routine for airplane flights pretty well down. I tuck into my window seat, I put on my headphones, listen to music and read my book, occasionally exchanging monosyllables of preference with the flight attendants as they serve me. This whole getting actual service thing messed with my head.

It was also bizarre to me to see how the other business class fliers treated this as normal. They felt entitled to this level of service. In fact, I overheard a couple of them complaining about the slow response of the flight attendants to their beck and call. They didn't say thank you or acknowledge the extra service, just accepted it as their due. I guess if you fly enough up there, you get jaded to it. But after a while of watching them treat the attendants rudely, I almost wanted to move back to coach and say "I'm not like that! I'm not a white middle-aged executive jerk like these other guys! I fly coach all the time!" But I didn't. Legroom is too precious.

Anyway. Odd experience. Figured I'd share.

On a somewhat unrelated note, the flight had another new experience in store for me. As we were flying through the Midwest, we flew next to some thunderstorms. Thunderstorm clouds are immense - they went up past our altitude of 40,000 feet or so. The neat part was that the clouds were basically at eye level, and huge lightning storms were going on. The clouds would be illuminated from within by lightning, and I could see the streaks flash down towards the ground. Very cool visual. When I saw the first strike, I involuntarily said "Wow!" out loud. Fortunately, the executive next to me was too absorbed in his spreadsheet to even look up. Lightning's cool. I miss thunderstorms - one of the few bits of weather I miss here in California.

posted at: 14:07 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal