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I went to India!

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

I just got back from a trip to India and thought I’d share my thoughts and some pictures.

I had only 17 days in India itself, as getting there and back took a couple days out of the three weeks of vacation that I had available. My itinerary evolved throughout the trip as I made adjustments on the fly, but I ended up flying into Delhi, then to Kerala, the tropical area in the south of India, then to Aurangabad to see the Ellora and Ajanta caves, then to the region of Rajasthan, where I traveled from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer to Udaipur to Sawai Madhopur (tiger safari!) to Agra (Taj Mahal) back to Delhi for my flight out. I packed way too much in, as I just barely saw the tourist highlights of each city (like coming to SF and only seeing Fisherman’s Wharf), and I wore myself out, but I feel like I got a nice flavor of India.

Udaipur PalaceWhile I was there, I decided to skip Delhi and Mumbai from my original itinerary, as other travelers said that they were more globalized cities and less specific to India – I disagree based on the two evenings I spent in Delhi, as I enjoyed observing the specifics of Indian interactions as an amateur anthropologist, but it was definitely not as scenic as the rest of my visit.

Kailash temple at Ellora CavesThe most amazing thing I saw was the Ellora caves – these are temples and monasteries carved out of the side of a mountain in 500-700 AD (1500 years ago!) that have amazing sculptures carved into almost every available surface. It was jaw-dropping to think of them doing all of these carvings perfectly, as they couldn’t start over with a fresh piece of stone if they made a mistake.

I'm on a camel!I also really enjoyed the camel trek I went on in Jaisalmer – we rode camels out to the sand dunes, ate dinner over an open fire while watching an amazing sunset, slept under the stars (more stars than I’ve ever seen in my life!), woke to an amazing sunrise, and rode back in the morning.

The different forts I saw were a highlight of the trip as well – the picture below is from Kumbalgarh, but I also saw Jaisalmer Fort, Meherangarh Fort in Jodhpur, and Daulatabad Fort near Aurangabad, of which Meherangarh Fort was probably my favorite (partially because it had the best audio tour).

Detailed journal posts I made to Google+ while I was over there below, along with hundreds of pictures, in case you want to read or see more:I'm at Kumbalgarh

The Anthropology of Innovation panel

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Last week, the Computer History Museum hosted a panel on “The Anthropology of Innovation”. I had to attend since I’m a fan of anthropology, I’m fascinated by corporate culture and how it leads to goals like innovation, and the panel featured Genevieve Bell of Intel, who Jofish and Janet interned with in Portland one summer. I discovered once I got there that the panel also featured George Kembel, a co-founder of the Stanford d-school, which is an institution I admire. I wasn’t as impressed with the third panelist, Laura Tyson, despite her impressive resume including being Clinton’s Chief Economic Advisor

This post is mostly a transcription of my scribbled notes so I have a searchable way of referring to them in the future. It will be even less coherent than my normal posts, as my notes are mostly quotes I found interesting. C’est la vie.

Gillian Tett, the moderator, is an anthropology major turned journalist. She started off the evening with a few remarks on her observations of innovation in society and in companies:

  • Every society has a cognitive map.

  • “The blank spaces are important.” I think this referred to the idea that the things we don’t talk about provide clues to the assumptions that are taken for granted and could be fertile areas for questioning.
  • Companies are organized by silos – increasingly interconnected but also increasingly fragmented
  • Innovation is about silo busting.

George Kembel then spoke from his perspective as a former entrepreneur turned educator.

  • He said innovation is “thinking freely in the presence of constraints”. The constraints are important as they bound the problem and create the opportunity for innovation. No constraints means you could do anything.

  • To answer the question of “how do you innovate?”, he observed that design thinking is not just about designing products – you can be creative in everything you do, whether it’s designing business models, new processes, etc.
  • He thinks of d.school as a “school crossing” where they can integrate different points of views, existing outside of the traditional “schools” of engineering, science, arts, etc.
  • He mentioned that when they started, they were looking for faculty support for their interdisciplinary school, and they had expected the young up-and-coming professors to be their advocates. But those younger professors were all trying to establish themselves in their field and earn tenure, so they couldn’t take risks by going outside their field. Surprisingly, it ended up being the long-established tenured professors who were more willing to take the risks of crossing between fields. Interesting observation of incentives and constraints there.
  • Pay more attention to people, not technology.
  • When you’re not sure of what to do, try lots of experiments.
  • On the topic of how the d.school encourages innovation, he said that the focus is on the student as an innovator – it’s getting the person to innovate, not about creating a process of innovation. Teaching students to break barriers, to find new ways of looking at the problem, that’s where the innovation will come from. The teacher does not have all the answers, but is more of a coach and facilitator. I like the human-centered approach, which recognizes that each person is dealing with unique situations, so no standard process will work for all of those situations, but teaching the person techniques will allow them to address their own individual situation.
  • One suggestion was for students to get a “shared experience of the user whose life they wanted to make better”, as “the biggest barriers to innovation are our own biases and assumptions.” A great story here – the man leading the GE MRI division was really proud of the great technology he had built that saved lives. After going to the d.school, he realized he had never seen an MRI machine in a hospital, so he visited his local hospital. He saw the machine and it was glorious and a shining beacon of technology. And then he saw the little kid who was the next patient, who shrieked in terror at this ginormous scary instrument and sobbed and wouldn’t let go of her parents. And he realized that technology wasn’t the only factor to consider. After some more work, he developed a program with the hospitals where they turned going to the MRI into a camping adventure, with camp counselors instead of nurses, and with the MRI machine decorated as a tent for them to hide in. This program, while it was better for the kids, also improved his bottom-line instrument throughput, as the kids were eager to get in and didn’t hold up the process. Nifty story to demonstrate how a user-focused approach can lead to breakthroughs in how you perceive a problem.
  • To innovate, you must be “willing to invite discomfort into your life” as you realize your biases and assumptions might be wrong. “Don’t just accept the problem as it’s framed.”
  • “Our experts are our liabilities”
  • On K-12 education, he said the question isn’t how to teach innovation, it’s how to preserve the creativity of kids – they have it, we just have to not crush it out of them.

Genevieve Bell’s comments:

  • She started with the great story of how when she was hired at Intel, she asked her manager what she was supposed to study. Her manager said “Women.” Genevieve said “Um, women? You mean, all 3.2 billion of them?” “Yes, we don’t think we understand women.” “Okay….anything else?” “ROW” “What does ROW mean?” “Rest of World.” “So….World in this case means?” “The US” “Oh, okay, so everybody on the planet outside the US, plus women. No problem!”

  • One of her rallying cries is “That may be your world view, but it’s not everybody’s”
  • She said one of the reasons she was successful was “sheer stubbornness”, and that “people measure me by my being difficult”. One such story was where she told Paul Otellini, the CEO of Intel, that he was just wrong at a meeting. She could feel everybody around her internally gasping at her audacity, but Otellini asked her why, and she provided him with her data and supporting arguments and changed his mind. Yay anthropology!

I submitted a question that was selected by the panel moderator which was that in an increasingly specialized world where companies are looking for a specific skill set, and with innovation depending on busting silos, where does the generalist fit in? Genevieve had a great response, which was that a “generalist” adds value if they can “curate the conversation from multiple points of view”. She suggested that I was limiting myself by calling myself a generalist, and needed to re-brand and re-imagine my role to create an specialization that companies would value (e.g. “curator”). George said something similar, where he recommended thinking of myself as an integrator, not as a person outside of specialization. Another point he brought up when I approached him after the panel was that the idea of being T-shaped, with both a broad awareness and a deep area of specialization, is somewhat outmoded – we actually need more people who can integrate different viewpoints by having a certain level of depth in multiple fields, rather than just a shallow awareness in several and a deep expertise in one.

The final discussion was interesting, where an audience member asked about how to apply these ideas to health care. Laura suggested taking George’s viewpoint of focusing on the patient, and re-centering everything in the business around the patient. Instead of having specializations where each doctor was only responsible for their area leading to patients getting passed all around the hospital from doctor to doctor, re-design the whole process around making the patient experience better. George expanded upon that by suggesting that we don’t think of patients as sick, but as healthy people who are temporarily un-well, and thinking of medicine as the process to accelerate them back to their normal selves as quickly as possible.

Genevieve then blew my mind by asking if we could take a similar approach to government, where we put the citizen in the middle and organize the government around enabling the citizen. She didn’t exactly know what that would mean, and it depends on the idea that citizens embrace their role as representing their country. People would have to go beyond thinking of themselves as tax-payers who get services from their government (police, army, social security, etc), towards being citizens who embrace their role as representing the government. It was an interesting thought-experiment and a great way to end the night.

Nifty ideas all around. Fun thought-provoking evening, and I’ll have to think more about my generalist branding given the feedback from the panel.

Incremental steps towards uselessness

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Last night, I attended the Mountain View Linchpin Meetup, inspired by Seth Godin’s blog post (speaking of which, I need to review Godin’s book Linchpin at some point). Spending an evening with a group of people following their passion inspired me to take a swing at restarting this blog yet again.

Today’s topic – the danger of the slippery slope, as represented by me having given up on following Facebook, or my RSS feeds, or Twitter, mostly.

Why?

Because there’s too much to follow in each of them. It takes too much time each day to stay “up-to-date”. And once I fall behind, it’s hopeless to catch up, and I have trouble letting the bits go, so I just give up entirely.

How did I get here?

By being tempted by the deceptive value of “just one more”. On Twitter, when I met or heard about somebody, I would look at their Twitter feed and if they looked marginally interesting, I’d start following them. And that was my mistake. I was comparing the value of following their Twitter feed to nothing – so long as I liked even a couple entries in the feed, I added it. But that doesn’t properly value my time – the time it takes to read those extra Tweets adds up. And because I have not been ruthlessly curating the people I follow, I’m not excited to skim through all the dross to find the gems that can appear in my Twitter stream.

In other words, a number of thoughtless incremental decisions have led me to a situation where the entire system has become useless.

The same was true of my RSS feeds – once it got to the point where it felt like a burden to keep up because I’d added too many low-marginal-value feeds, then I stopped checking, even though there are still several truly amazing people whose work I want to track.

I’ve noticed the same trend for me at work over the years. I’ll agree to take on a “quick” task, 10-30 minutes, because how can I turn down being helpful if it will take me less than a half hour? And yet, those “quick” tasks, in aggregate, add up to a significant burden.

What does this mean?

For me, it means I need to re-examine the choices I make. I need to realize that adding even a seemingly trivial task or input to my life can, over time, add up to quite a drag. I need to learn that unless my answer is “Hell, yeah!”, my answer should be no. I need to be stop wasting my limited energy on small things, and focus on what’s important.

Of course, that means deciding what’s important for myself, which is a whole separate problem, but let’s start by clearing out the unimportant stuff out first.

Thanks again to all the great people I met last night, and let’s see if I can stop making excuses and start writing blog posts again.

Coaching and feedback

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

In my last post, I talked about getting the reps to improve oneself on desired skills. But it’s difficult to make the time for practice, especially for deliberate practice where we are always dancing on the edge of failure. And I think that’s where I think Coyle’s observation that coaching is an integral part of talent development comes in.

One of the keys to being able to stay in the productive zone of deliberate practice is to create a tight feedback loop. Deliberate practice is about pushing oneself beyond one’s capability, failing and then figuring out how to do it right. However, a key aspect of this is getting immediate feedback on both failure and on getting it right. My theory is that part of mastery is repeating techniques until they are built into the unconscious part of the brain, and getting to that point requires consistent and useful feedback.

Fast feedback is also essential. Imagine a thought experiment where you had to wait a minute to find out if your previous action had worked or failed – you would never be able to stay in a zone of productivity because in that minute, you’d get distracted, and maybe even start on a different task (this is the experience of software engineers in languages without a REPL). To keep yourself driving forward, and experimenting with new techniques that may or may not work, instant feedback is a necessity. And that’s what a good coach can provide.

Coaches provide the immediate feedback necessary to stay in the mode of deliberate practice. This is especially necessary at the beginning of the path towards mastery, before the student has developed their own self-awareness so they can detect their own errors. Coyle described two researches watching John Wooden coach the UCLA basketball team; they were surprised to find that so little of his communication was in the form of praise or disapproval, but instead 75% was in the form of information transfer. He was watching his players and offering them instant feedback on what they were doing right and wrong. That accelerated their path to mastery, as they did not have to do trial-and-error experimentation to learn what worked and what didn’t.

One key aspect of coaching is that it’s not just objective feedback, but also why things happened. I could learn how to shoot a basketball better by just shooting a lot of baskets, where my objective feedback would be whether I made the basket or not. But when I missed a basket, I wouldn’t know why. And when I made a basket, I wouldn’t know how so I couldn’t repeat it. I would try a number of different things, and only a few of them would work, so I’d be wasting a lot of time in experimentation. However, if I had a coach, they could watch me, tell me what I was doing right, and more importantly, why it worked, so I could start to internalize the correct techniques. My improvement would happen much faster, because I would be able to integrate the “story” of the right way to do things into my self story.

As an aside, I was thinking about this last week during a discussion on a random Google mailing list discussing an ethnographer’s observations about Google in China. A couple engineers were dismissive, saying that objective data was better than these subjective stories. My point was that these stories help us interpret the data – data can tell us that market share is changing or that Chinese users are using instant messenger over Gmail, but social scientists can help tell the story of _why_ these trends are happening.

I think the other aspect of deliberate practice that a coach can help with is in helping with the motivation necessary to stay on the edge of failure. It’s so much easier to keep on doing what we are already good at than it is to consciously decide to do something that we know we’ll fail at. So having somebody there to encourage us to keep going past our existing competencies is helpful. Even in something as prosaic as weightlifting, I will never be as strong as I was in grad school, when I had a lifting partner who would push me to lift more than I thought I could – and it turned out I could do it. Now when I go to the gym, I don’t push myself anywhere near that hard, and therefore am not getting anywhere near the benefits.

Note that both feedback and motivation will eventually be internalized, and have to be internalized if one is to achieve mastery. Once I reach a certain point in skill development, I know what I’m doing right and wrong, and what I have to do to correct my mistakes. I also can get to the point where I don’t need external motivation because I am doing the skill for myself and can see how my practice and mistakes lead to improvement. But, boy, it’s difficult to get there, and having a coach to help with those aspects make it easier, especially at the start.

I realized as I was writing this that one of the challenges for me in my quest to become a generalist is the lack of coaching. There is nobody that can offer me instant feedback on what I’m doing, so I am in the inefficient mode of trial-and-error experimentation. And while I have been fairly committed to this path for several years now, it’s still difficult for me as I have few role models (Jerry Weinberg notwithstanding), and little in the way of formal encouragement. I don’t have a career path that I’m following, and while my position at work is enhanced by my generalist skills, they are not formally recognized, which is frustrating. I’m not sure what to do about this, but perhaps being aware of the difficulty will let me at least address the problems more directly.

Sorry for the long post – I originally had planned to split this post into one on tightening the feedback loop and another on coaching, but I feel like they work better together. Coyle’s framework is a useful way for me to think about these questions of mastery, and it integrates well with my previous thoughts on the subject. It also helps me to recognize that lessons might be the way to get me started on a new skill, rather than beating myself up for not having the discipline to start something on my own. Food for thought.

Getting the reps

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Seen on Twitter: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

Both Drive and The Talent Code make the same point: Becoming a master isn’t about natural talent or improbable achievements – it’s about getting a little bit better every day, and practicing until what is now challenging becomes unconsciously automatic.

I like Pink’s 2 questions: “What’s your sentence?” (in other words, what do I want to be known for?) and “Am I better today than yesterday?” The first question must be answered before the second can be asked; otherwise, the definition of “better” is undefined.

Once you’ve decided on the answer to the first question, Coyle’s book provides a guide as to how to execute on the second question of getting better. It’s about having the emotional desire (what Coyle calls ignition) to spend the 10,000 hours necessary for expertise in deep practice. To put it in colloquial terms, it’s about getting the reps. We can’t improve without practicing the skills we want to acquire and building them deep into our neural system.

I should note that it’s not simply about repetitively practicing skills – it’s about continually pushing the edges of what we can do so that we can continue improving. In weight lifting, if you can slam through your reps without slowing down, you’re not getting stronger; strength is built by pushing the muscles to the point where they slightly tear, so that they get re-built stronger. Pushing oneself to that edge is difficult – I was only in that zone when I had a lifting partner (which I’ll address in a followup post about the benefits of coaching).

I don’t feel I have good answers to Pink’s questions at the moment. While the tagline of “Unrepentant Generalist” is descriptive, it doesn’t make a good answer to Pink’s first question in that it’s difficult to say what I should be practicing on a daily basis. I have a number of 2,000 hour skills, but I think it’s clear that 5 sets of 2,000 hours is not the same as 10,000 hours. So I’ve been reflecting on what the skills I need to be practicing on a daily basis are. Candidates include communication, synthesis and pattern building, which are all skills exercised by blogging, hence my attempts to get back into blogging regularly.

I leave you with these questions: what skills are you getting the reps in right now, where you’re pushing yourself to improve and get better each day? And are those skills the ones that are part of your vision of who you would like to be? And if not, what are you going to do about that? I wasn’t happy with my answers a couple weeks ago, but I think I’m starting to move in the right direction by blogging more, and spending more time reading books. Reinforcing these habits will hopefully move me in the direction of excellence, as described by the Aristotle quote above. We’ll see.

P.S. Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t reference this 2007 post on mastery, since it hits several of the same points – I discovered it while working on my next blog post but decided to add the link here, as it’s entirely relevant.

The Paradox of Self-Discipline

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

I was listening to the Fresh Air interview with Jonah Lehrer, author of
How We Decide, and he mentioned an experiment that seems relevant to me right now.

Lehrer describes the experiment in a Wall Street Journal article about New Year’s Resolutions:

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

In other words, the brain is not capable of making good decisions when overtaxed. For instance, if one were working long hours at Google, one’s ability to come home and exert the self-discipline necessary to write a blog post instead of flipping on the TV would be impaired. Just as a theoretical example.

The unfortunate implication of this, and the basis for this post’s title, is that it is those times when one is stressed that one most needs the ability to make good decisions. When I get overloaded at work, I get tunnel vision and start focusing mechanically on the tasks assigned to me, rather than taking the time to figure out what’s actually important and working on that. I also make other bad decisions like drinking more soda, skipping the gym, eating chips and cookies at work, and watching TV instead of sleeping. And, of course, those behaviors make me even less efficient, which means work takes even longer, which means the behavior perpetuates itself.

As an aside, breaking the cycle required a full two weeks of doing nothing over the holidays plus a couple weeks of a “normal” work week for me to rebuild my reserves to where I felt capable of blogging again. Now that I’m keeping more reasonable hours at work, I go to the gym, I’m eating better, and I’m even excited about blogging in the evening.

So how do we avoid this paradox? It seems to me that the bad behaviors like TV and junk food are always lurking in temptation for me, and the good behaviors like hitting the gym and writing blog posts require self-discipline. Part of it is building desired behaviors into habits that I do without questioning: successful examples of that for me include biking to work and flossing while unsuccessful ones include daily situps and pushups, hitting the gym regularly and blogging. Others have success by using a game of sorts where badges are earned for performing the desired behaviors, but I have trouble taking such games seriously.

Another weapon I have is simply self-awareness. If I consciously remind myself that I’m making bad decisions when I’m overloaded, it will hopefully make me question those decisions as I’m making them e.g. putting back the Oreos from the snack area at work and grabbing an apple instead. It’s helpful for me to treat my mind and body as systems that I can learn to optimize and compensate for, like having a tool that one has learned to use despite its quirky tendencies.

An extension of that last tactic is the one the WSJ article suggests, which is building up the muscles of self-discipline. Rather than doing lots of things at once, it would be better to focus my energy on building one habit, and only start on a new behavior when the first has become automatic. Right now, I’m splitting that self-discipline energy between work, going to the gym a few times a week, and blogging more regularly, so if I find myself slipping, I’ll have to prioritize more effectively. I need to recognize that my self-discipline is limited and deploy it in the most effective way until it gets stronger, rather than exhausting it to the point where I don’t do anything.

Anyway, given my struggles with work-life balance, I wanted to mention this experiment and how I perceive it as being relevant to my life. What tactics do you use to develop new habits?

P.S. I’ll be in Boston from Feb. 6-10 and New York from Feb. 11-14, with the timing chosen so that I could attend Grant McCracken’s Chief Culture Officer Boot Camp, but that’s just the cover reason for me to catch up with friends on the East Coast. Let me know if you want to meet up.

Learning from jerks

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

As usual, it’s been a couple months since I posted, so I’m lowering the standards again, and posting a ramble through some topics that are on my mind this morning. I want to get back into the habit of posting, although that will depend on me actually taking a stand on work-life balance, which I have woefully failed to do for a year and a half, so no promises.

It’s interesting reading Clay Shirky’s rant about how women should “behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks” when I identify more with the women in his rant than the men.

My 2004 rant about self promotion describes that jerk behavior and how I don’t want to be a jerk like that, but in the several years since then, I continue to struggle with under-selling myself and the impact that has on my career.

It’s particularly funny at the moment since a couple people in my group at work have started a self-deprecation watch on me and call me out when I dismiss my work as I habitually do. I need to learn to value myself more, or at least correctly, rather than under-valuing what I do because it seems easy to me.

I think there’s another element in play that Shirky alludes to, which is the willingness to make mistakes. Carol Dweck’s research, as described by Po Bronson, describes two different viewpoints towards approaching the world: one is that our skills are innate, genetic gifts (the “fixed” view), and the other is that we can improve anything we do with focused effort (the “growth” view). The two viewpoints have very different reactions to failure; in the first, failure is a sign that our innate talents are insufficient so we should give up, whereas in the second, failure is a sign that we need to try harder or try a new approach. Dweck’s research indicates that children with the first viewpoint tend to take fewer risks, as each risk has the potential to be a failure, exposing their limits.

More broadly, I think there’s a spectrum of comfort with failure, and how willing I am to take on tasks based on what I know before I start:

  1. Tasks where I know I can deliver the desired results
  2. Tasks where I should be able to deliver the results, but there is some amount of uncertainty in the outcome
  3. Tasks where I don’t think I’ll be able to deliver the results, but hope that I can learn enough on the way to make it work – this is like Shirky’s brazen claim that he could do drafting well when he had no experience
  4. Tasks where I won’t be able to deliver (aka outright lying)

My tendency has been to focus only on category 1 – being unwilling to commit to doing anything where I wasn’t sure of the results so that I would be seen as absolutely reliable.

However, reliable isn’t good enough. People who are willing to aim high, even at the risk of failing, attain more than the people like me who only attempt what is already in their grasp. My Columbia mentor, Jon Williams, once told me that if I weren’t failing spectacularly at work at least once or twice a year, I was not pushing myself enough. That means taking on more of those tasks in category 3 where it’s a big risk, but it will push me to achieve more than I would have otherwise.

Of course, creating a work environment where people can make mistakes and learn from them is still not the norm, as Scott Berkun described in a recent blog post. It’s a challenge to design a flexible culture where taking risks is encouraged so long as learning is taking place, a challenge which is often ignored if not completely unacknowledged. But there are people out there thinking about this – I’m reading a book by Roger Martin called The Design of Business which describes companies like RIM, P&G, and Herman Miller to see how they have infused an iterative design approach into their cultures.

So it’s a two part problem to encourage more of this sort of risk-taking ambitious behavior.

  • Changing the people to be more like “jerks” in pushing them towards those category 3 tasks, as Shirky is hoping to encourage, and I’m starting to work towards in myself.
  • Changing the environment – creating companies and support structures where failure is seen as a badge of honor rather than, well, a failure. It means moving more towards a world based on Carol Dweck’s “growth” theory, where failure is seen as the path to improvement, rather than the “fixed” theory which says that we succeed or fail based on our innate abilities.

Figuring out concrete steps towards that second world is something I’d love to work on, if I could only figure out where to begin.

P.S. I’m amused to realize that the books I currently have out from the library are all in this theme of management and motivation: Daniel Pink’s Drive and Johnny Bunko Career Guide, Po Bronson’s NurtureShock, Mintzberg’s Managing, and the aforementioned Roger Martin’s The Design of Business. Now I just need to make the time to read them all.

AYE Conference Notes

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I wanted to jot down some passing observations about my experience at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference.

  • From the warm-up tutorial, it was interesting seeing how some of the personality preferences were demonstrated by Don Gray and Steve Smith.
    • I particularly liked the I vs. E demonstration – they asked the I’s and E’s to meet up and decide how many people constituted a “large” group. The consensus of the I’s was 8-10 people, the consensus of the E’s was 50. Although I tend to be an I, I had a slightly different take – the group feels large to me if there are more people I don’t know than people I know – so if I’m in a group with 5 strangers, it feels large, but a group of 40 people where I know 30 is fine. And one of the nice things is that as the conference has continued, I have grown more comfortable with the folks here so the groups feel smaller.
    • Another nice demonstration was asking people to situate themselves on a continuum between “Work before Play” and “Always Play Time”. The J’s tended towards the “Work Before Play” end and P’s on the other side. Sadly, despite identifying as a P, I had to place myself more towards “Work Before Play” given my total lack of work-life balance at the moment.
    • One interesting thing for me was that when I took the quick preference test, I identified as an INFP, instead of the INTP I used to. But when they described the F’s as making value-based judgments and thinking about people consequences, and the T’s making “objective” judgments, I had to admit that I’m leaning more towards the F side these days (as evidenced by the air quotes I put around “objective”).
    • The demonstration clinched it for me: they had T’s and F’s decide on how they would execute a layoff of 12% of a company’s workforce. The T’s said use a rating system, cut the bottom 12%, and done. The F’s talked about a number of different factors (key skill sets to keep, personal circumstances), and gave consideration to how to keep the remaining 88% of the company motivated in the face of this distressing news. Admittedly, the F’s had the advantage that several of us had been involved in layoffs either from the employee side like me, or the manager side.
    • The N vs. S demo was entertaining also, as Don separated us into groups and said “Write down uses for this object” while holding up a pair of scissors. The N’s started brainstorming and had an “anything goes” attitude, so ideas like “Rock paper scissors” and “Pacman” (think of opening and closing the scissors as it moves forward) were included. The F’s ended up with fewer and more quotidian uses on their list.
  • Both of Jerry Weinberg‘s sessions that I attended were outstanding.
    • One was on being able to say no when needed – lots of interesting fodder for me to consider, including the idea that one can avoid the yes/no question entirely by providing other alternatives (shades of avoiding positional negotiations as described in Getting to Yes).

    • The other session was on not letting a four-year-old run your life. The theory is that we learn certain behavior patterns as children and ingrain them so deeply in our psyches that we don’t even question them, even if they no longer make sense for us as adults. He worked with one woman in the class who had a “rule” of “I must never ask for help”. Through the session, he worked with her on transforming that into “I must always be self-sufficient” to “I can always be self-sufficient” to “I can sometimes be self-sufficient” to “I can sometimes be self-sufficient, such as when:” (listing out scenarios like “It does not cost me too much to do so” or “I have the resources available”). Really interesting for me as I have difficult asking for help as well, so I may have to do some hacking on my own ingrained rules.
  • I also attended Esther Derby’s session on implementing ideas, which was interesting. We talked through different characteristics of successful and unsuccessful implementations in small groups, put together a list of successful characteristics, and one thing that stood out was organizational support. So Esther had us map out influence networks within our own companies around some idea we were trying to implement – who were the different people involved, how did they influence each other, and what was their relation to our idea. The process of drawing it out was useful to me in making it clear where I was fuzzy on influences and relationships. And then when I explainied it to another participant, he asked me questions that revealed I was making certain assumptions that may not be justified. So I’ve got some things to check on my understanding of why I’m having trouble implementing this idea.
  • I did not get as much out of Johanna Rothman‘s session on project portfolios as I had hoped. I was looking for some techniques to balance conflicting priorities when they’re coming from all directions and are generally requests that appear to be small, whereas the class was more focused on larger scale project prioritization with iterations of two weeks or a month. But another attendee overheard me asking Johanna about this afterwards, and he offered me several potentially useful ideas over lunch, so it was still beneficial.
  • I also managed to volunteer at one of Don Gray’s sessions on how to get unstuck when problem solving to get free consulting on a couple issues I’m facing at work. So I sat in the center of the room, and several other attendees asked questions about the situation and offered potential solutions and it was really helpful to be able to do that sort of brainstorming.
  • Steve Smith’s session on selling ideas to management was also helpful – he posited that the three key elements of a pitch to management are “What does the manager need to do?”, “What are the benefits for the manager of doing that?” and “What are the costs of the manager doing nothing?”. Then we ran through some role-playing with four people trying to pitch ideas to somebody role playing their manager, which was particularly helpful because we could ask the “manager” afterwards what worked and what didn’t, a benefit we almost never get in real life.

Overall, I enjoyed the conference and learned a lot. I met several like-minded people, have some new perspectives and tools with which to approach problems at both work and in life, and am starting to remember to value myself again. Now if I can only manage to integrate these ideas into how I approach my everyday life…

Jerry Weinberg

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

As many of you know, I’m off at the AYE conference, and one of the major attractors for me personally was Jerry Weinberg. I’ve read books of his like Becoming a Technical Leader and The Secrets of Consulting, and his systems thinking approach is an inspiration to me (his second “law of consulting” is “No matter what they say, it’s always a people problem”).

I attended his first session yesterday afternoon, on being able to say “No” and mean it. It started off somewhat slowly, but things picked up when he requested a volunteer to talk about a situation where they should have said “No” but didn’t. The volunteer discussed a time when he had given an outsized raise to an employee in the early days of his company. Jerry had the conversation role played out in the middle of the room, and a few lines into it, he called freeze to discuss what he saw going on.

He’s a freaking people ninja. In this particular case, he explained how the volunteer was defending his position of not wanting to give a big raise, without ever testing how serious the raise request was. As somebody else pointed out, it’s okay for others to want whatever they want, including a big raise, but we have to recognize those wants as being requests, and treat them as such, rather than treating them as demands to be defended against, subjugating our own opinions in the process. As Jerry asked the volunteer, “Why don’t you value yourself?”

It reminded me of a passage from Speaker from the Dead, where Miro sees Ender clearly for the first time, and says something like “It was as if he knew people at such a deep level that he just brushed past the surface illusions” (the real quote is better but I don’t have it with me). That’s what it felt like watching Jerry parse these conversations. He just ignored the artifice, said what he thought was going on, and was totally present and congruent. Inspirational.

I then got the even greater bonus of going out to dinner with Jerry afterwards – in the session, he said he wanted to meet some of the new conference-goers and five of us immediately volunteered. We talked about a lot of different things, but I particularly liked it when he got into the war stories of old-time hacking. Fun fact of the day – Jerry said that six of the twelve programmers that originally wrote Fortran spent their time developing a single keyword, and he asked me what I thought that was. I took a couple guesses, and he enjoyed telling me the answer was FREQUENCY, and seeing the puzzled look on my face as I had never even heard of it (it was the first thing removed from the language after release). In some sense, he’s a generalist role model for me, as he’s done software, psychology, systems thinking, writing, etc. (he talked about his PhD in systems, where he had to satisfy professors in a number of different fields from linguistics to engineering, even though none of them could pass each others’ tests).

Unfortunately, Jerry announced via Twitter yesterday that he has been diagnosed with fatal thymic carcinoma and this will be his final public appearance for the foreseeable future.

I’m glad I decided to go this year to the conference. The rest of the conference has been good, but meeting Jerry has definitely been a highlight and I’m glad I got the opportunity.

Why am I doing this?

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Anybody that’s been following my Twitter feed knows I’ve been working long hours recently. I’m actually working harder now than I was last year when I was working full time while finishing my master’s degree at Columbia. This would come as a surprise to, well, pretty much anybody that’s ever worked with me, given my tendency to do just enough to get by and no more. So what’s different about working at Google for me? My current answer to that question requires a detour through some other things I’ve been thinking about.

I really liked Po Bronson’s book What Should I Do With My Life? when I first read it (his original Fast Company article is a nice introduction). Trying to find a place for myself in the professional world has been an ongoing struggle, as while I have the capability to do anything, I have often found myself in situations where I was stuck doing the “wrong things”. Bronson recently published an update article with his perspective since publishing the book, and a couple quotes from that resonated with me:

“All jobs have things you hate about them. But real people feel fulfilled by the overall purpose of their organization that the shitty parts are worth putting up with. It’s not what you do, it’s what you’re working towards. …you know the feeling you desire — fulfillment, connection, responsibility, and some excitement.”

I think these last four characteristics he describes are absolutely key for me. I don’t define myself by the specific work tasks that I have to do, as I have the flexibility to do any number of tasks. I aspire to define myself with the meta-work of being a generalist. I want to feel that I am getting to use my unique potential and abilities in the course of doing my job. I need to find some sort of meaning in what I’m doing, or at least be working towards both personal and company goals.

As Bronson observes, there are annoying parts of every job – the question is whether the goal towards which one is working is worth the annoying parts. To put in a larger sense, it is important to know the answer to the question of “Why am I doing this?” In a similar vein, when I have friends considering grad school, I argue strenuously against it and try to dissuade them from going. This is not because I don’t value education – it’s because grad school is really hard, and the only way to get through it is to know exactly why you are going. My arguing against grad school is a way for me to get them to articulate their core reason for going to grad school.

To get back to my original question of what makes my job at Google different than other jobs I’ve had in the past is that I can see how I am contributing to making the company work better. I do genuinely believe that Google is making the world a better place, all things considered, as it provides us all with tools that are astonishing in their ability to put information at our fingertips. I can see a future for myself where I get to use all of my skills and talents in that goal. The only obstacle between me and that future is myself – I have the opportunity, the skills, the support to get there.

So while the long hours are irksome, they are not morale-destroying – we were joking this week about who in our group would be the first to snap, and I was surprised to realize that I wasn’t anywhere near snapping. I have hit my limits before and know what that feels like. But in this case, while I am tired and occasionally cranky, I feel like the work I am doing is recognized as meaningful, both to the company and to my future, and that’s far more sustainable for me than working even half the hours on dead-end tasks like technical support.

This has tremendous implications for managers. In a free agent world, getting the top people is no longer about paying them the most (beyond a certain point, I don’t think it makes a difference) or showering them with perks – it’s about giving them challenging, meaningful, interesting work. Managers need to find ways to engage their employees by framing the work that needs to be done in a narrative that propels the employee forward into a desired future. Getting back to Bronson, managers need to work with their employees to answer the question of “Why am I doing this?” And the answer doesn’t have to be existential – it can be as simple as earning the money to support one’s family. But there needs to be an answer, because without that answer in place, the annoying parts of the job will wear anybody down.

Anyway. We’ll see how I feel in another month if things don’t slow down, but for now, it was interesting to think about how this job has given me the belief that I can finally stretch myself in the directions I want to go with my career and life, in terms of building on my interests in interdisciplinary collaboration. It’s not a Great Cause ™, but the belief that I have found a good fit for my skills and talents is exciting enough to me to keep me going through the long hours. That being said, it sure is nice to take a weekend off and actually have time to write down some of my thoughts :)

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