Archive for October 7th, 2004

Management by conversation

Thursday, October 7th, 2004

I’ve been going in circles on my current assignment at work for close to a week. Somebody else was assigned to the project today, and we sat down and I started talking through what I thought needed to get done. And it all just flowed right out. It always kills me when that happens; I sit and “think” and get nothing done, but when I talk to somebody, it all comes together. Which reminds me of two stories.

One is of an IT support organization at a college someplace (I don’t remember any details). The room where all of the techs sat had a teddy bear at the front counter. The rule was that before you could talk to any of the techs, you first had to explain the problem you were having with your computer to the teddy bear. About half the time, the person would start talking through the problem, and say “Oh, I forgot to do…” and walk out. It’s a pretty clever system.

The other is of my days at TEP. My junior year at TEP, I was Rush Chair. Rush was a big deal at MIT at that time, because freshmen chose where they wanted to live in their first four days at MIT. And once they moved into a place with similar-minded people, they tended to get comfortable and never move again. So if you didn’t make an impression in those first four days, you didn’t get freshmen. No freshmen, no pledges. No pledges, fewer brothers, bigger housebills, eventual financial devastation. Anyway.

So Rush was a big deal. At TEP, we’d worked out a system where the Rush Chair was generally a junior, so that the Rush Chair Emeritus was available as a senior to help them survive the experience. One year after I graduated, I decided to go back and hang out for Rush, and participate in the Crock Opera. Except my leisurely vacation was not to be, because the Rush Chair Emeritus had decided to transfer, leaving the current Rush Chair without a sage to appeal to. So I filled that role.

And I learned something about “leadership”. My role basically consisted of hanging out at TEP. Underclassmen would run up to me and say “Perlick, what should I be doing?!” I’d say, “Well, what do you think you should be doing?” “I think I should be doing this!” “Okay, then, go do that.” “Great! Thanks!” I probably offered occasional refinements, but mostly my role was to be an external authority to validate their perceptions of what needed to be done.

And that’s what happened today when talking to my co-worker. I didn’t really need him to straighten things out. I would have done almost as well talking to the teddy bear. It was just the process of laying things out in words that helped me to clarify priorities.

This is part of why I started writing this blog – to take ideas that are running in circles in my head, and see if the very process of trying to write them up makes them clearer. Sometimes it does. Other times, it’s at least a good forum for venting.

I’d relate this observation to some larger point about managers needing to learn that their job isn’t to control, but to facilitate and empower their employees, but it’s late, and it’s obvious, anyway.

Productivity and existentialism

Thursday, October 7th, 2004

I’ve been tossing this post around in my head for close to a month now, and it’s not coming together, so I’m just going to get down what I have and invite feedback to see what others think. Be warned, it’s a long one, with lots of whining.

It starts with my tendency to procrastinate. A lot. It’s one of the tendencies that I like least about myself. I’ll put off something, and keep on putting it off, until it absolutely has to be done, and then I do a half-assed job on it. For some reason, it’s just really hard for me to get started. This was made even more evident when Christy and UBoat were staying with me, because they’re good at starting on things.

Christy said at one point, “Are there any projects that you’ve been meaning to do around the house that you haven’t gotten around to?”
I said, “Well, I’ve been thinking about tearing down the ugly gold wallpaper in my bathroom, and painting the walls instead.”
Christy said: “Great! Let’s get started!”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Christy pries up an edge of wallpaper and rips down a strip.
Christy: “There, now you have to do it!”

And a couple weeks (and several trips to Home Depot) later, I had a refinished bathroom. It’s not like it was hard. It just took somebody to get me started. I’d been thinking about doing this project for three years. And now, it was done.

Just get started. I think that’s the key. Joel on Software would say Fire and Motion. I’ve been trying to do this recently; this is why my blog page finally got the redesign with a cool sidebar and stuff, why I finally upgraded my computer to Win2k and installed the 80GB hard drive I bought last year, why I finally moved the living room light fixture last weekend. And that’s a huge improvement. If I can just get one such project done, or even started, in a weekend, I’m doing well.

I think that part of my problem personally is from a tendency to set my goals too big. I get spun up into worrying about this huge big problem and stress about how I’m ever going to get it all done, instead of breaking things down into manageable chunks, and just launching into them one by one (like Christy ripping down that strip of wallpaper). So I’m trying to be better about that as well; just making lists of small chunks to do, and start on one of them when I’m not doing anything. We’ll see if I can keep this up; this weekend, I have to finish fixing up the ceiling after cutting holes in it last weekend to install the new living room light fixture, as well as replace the guest bathroom faucet if I have time – we’ll leave the list at that in the interest of keeping things achievable.

And I could end this post right here, except that it leads to a whole different set of questions. Which is, what’s the point? Am I a better person for having done these projects?

This is something I’m struggling with. I often feel like I’m not accomplishing anything. I mean, by many people’s standards, I do a lot of things. I have a full-time job, I sing in a chorus, I play ultimate frisbee, I hang out with my friends, I read, I post in this blog, I occasionally cook, etc. But none of these things are really lasting – they’re purely experiential. I don’t really feel like I’m building anything of importance.

To put the question another way, is it “enough” to just take care of myself and my stuff? Many people consider it a victory just to make it through each day. They go to work, maybe hang out after work with their buddies at the bar or sit at home and watch TV, and go to sleep, to repeat it all the next day. It’s all kinds of hubris for me to think that I should be accomplishing more than that kind of mere survival, but there it is.

I should probably start doing volunteer work. After all, if I don’t think it’s “enough” just to take care of myself, then clearly I should be helping others. (or, yes Mom, starting a family, but we won’t go there) (except to say that having children is one way in which people achieve the goal of building something that is more than themselves). But how should I contribute? Where can I be best used? And that opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms, because I feel like I should hold out for something where I can contribute something more than just a warm body, because there are plenty of warm bodies out there. Which is, again, selfish and egotistical. I should just get over myself, and go do something. It’s just the procrastination problem in another form, I suppose.

Here’s another question: Is it better to do something poorly than to not do anything at all? I hate doing a poor job on something – it’s so demoralizing that it makes me just want to give up. On the other hand, if I avoid doing anything I’m bad at, I’ll never get better, never improve. And, by being so scared of failing, I’m procrastinating myself into paralysis. It all comes back to just getting out there and trying stuff.

In other words, I’m having an existential mid-life crisis. Yay turning 30, and realizing that I’m pretty much who I’m going to be for the rest of my life. I’m not magically going to turn into a creative genius at this point. I’m not the type of person who’s filled with an overabundance of ideas. I’m not a glass half full type, who sees the world as a blank slate, ready to be filled with my creations. I like to think I’m a moderately competent analyst (in the dictionary sense of analysis – “The separation of a whole into its constituent parts for individual study”), somebody who can break things down, find the cracks, and generally play devil’s advocate. This makes me an adequate programmer and debugger, thankfully, but I’ll never be a great hacker because I don’t have that spark of creativity, that sense that something is wrong with the universe that must be fixed right now.

So I’m trying to find my niche. Where can I make a difference? What can I do? Is just getting through life enough? It doesn’t feel like it to me. It’s odd – I’ve probably been more productive in my personal projects over the past few months than I have been in years, and yet it feels even more pointless than ever. So what’s missing? The obvious answer is making a difference in other people’s lives, to feel like I’m having some sort of an effect. Does that mean doing volunteer work? Or spending more time with my friends? I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t even be aspiring to anything more; just accept my life for what it is. Anybody have thoughts?

Links of the day

Thursday, October 7th, 2004

A few quick links that I thought were interesting.

  • After thinking about it, I did sign up to go to the Accelerating Change conference. If you’re interested, the Early Bird rate has apparently been extended to this Sunday, with a $50 discount thrown in if you read this post. At some point, I’m planning on writing up a participant statement, which I’ll share here, of course.
  • I really liked this Salon article (you’ll have to get a Salon day pass to read the whole thing), pointing out “Thanks to the Net, we’ve all got access to poll numbers, fundraising figures and endless political gossip — and we all know exactly what the candidates need to do to win.” I’m certainly as guilty of it as anyone. Does this ability of anybody with an internet connection to get informed about politics and offer ideas make for a better democracy? I’d like to think so. Even if all the ideas aren’t accepted, just having an active idea marketplace with more participants leads to better informed citizens, I think. Now if only more people were actually interested in thinking about this stuff
  • I also liked this VentureBlog article detailing the demise of mass marketing, and the rise of the “long tail”. It refers to this Wired article which goes into the idea in more detail, but the basic idea is that in a world of scarce attention and mass production, products are aimed at the lowest common denominator; since you can only produce a few things, you need them to appeal to the most people possible. This explains the pablum we see on our televisions (broad comedy has, well, broad appeal), hear on our radio stations (mass-marketed teen pop idols), etc. Only the 20% of products that will appeal to 80% of the population are worth pursuing. In the new world of personalized inventory, vendors can target the long tail – the 80% of the products that will only appeal to small subpopulations. Amazon and eBay are the obvious leaders of this trend – one of the reasons I tend to buy from Amazon rather than supporting my local bookstore is that Amazon has _everything_. The most obscure book I can think of, that probably only a few hundred other people want to read? It’s there, and will show up on my doorstep in a few days, whereas my local bookstore would never have it, and would have to special order it at extra cost, etc. eBay does the same thing. It’s an interesting idea. And one that appeals to me, since my tastes tend not to overlap with the mass market.
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