Birthdays, Mortality, and Warren Zevon

Birthdays, Mortality, and Warren Zevon

I spent the better part of yesterday working from a Panera Bread restaurant while waiting for my power to be restored after Tropical Storm Fay decided to move from my front porch.

While working, more times than not, I am listening to Pandora.  And, as often happens, a song played that brought back many memories – good and bad.  The song yesterday was “Back in the High Life Again” as sung by Warren Zevon.  Warren Zevon died in 2003 of lung cancer, and was responsible for much of the soundtrack of my teens and twenties.

Coincidentally, yesterday was my mom’s birthday (still living) and today is – or was – my dad’s birthday (deceased 2004).

When my dad passed away, I listened to Warren Zevon’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and is still on an iPod playlist that I made that day of the songs I listened to while getting ready to fly back to Nashville following the news of my dad’s passing.

Listening to the Warren sing also brought back memories of another friend, Eric Martin, with whom I used to listen to Zevon quite a bit back in the late 80s and early 90s.  Eric was a former sideman (a drummer) for Slim Whittman (yes – THAT Slim Whittman).  I gave Eric his first programming job back in 1988, and worked with Eric until his premature death in 1998 of a brain tumor.

What do all of these things have in common?  Nothing really, other than Warren Zevon.

I wish I had something profound to say to neatly tie up all of the memories and feelings that come flooding back every time certain Zevon songs play – remembering Jr. High girlfriends, camping out with friends, late night drinking with buddies.  I’m just not equipped as a writer.

This morning I perused You Tube looking for Warren Zevon clips and was immediately reminded why I love his music so – the guy was a freakin’ genius and talented as hell.  As David Letterman commented, he was “the real deal.”

So, as I listen to Warren Zevon sing about raking leaves with Liza and Liz cleaning up the yard, I’ll be thinking of these people and many other happy memories.

And wondering what I’m gonna feed the family for breakfast.

Technical Populism

Technical Populism

Many of you experience the desire daily to become a Technical Populist – you know, someone who knows that using certain tools or technologies at work among the Borg are verboten, but does so anyway, because it makes your life and job easier than arbitrary rules set up by your company to try and establish a sense of control and containment among the ranks.

Technical Populism is completely understandable.  We all desire to be able to do what we want, when we want, using what we want.  Having your employer tell you what you can and can’t do through the firewall is just another way for “The Man” to keep you down, right?

Let’s face it – today’s ubiquitous PC in the workplace is largely because of the Technical Populists of the 1980s who refused to be satisfied with the months long delays in getting to their data because of the dictums from the guys in the air-conditioned, raised floor data centers in the basement.

Without those early adopters, peer-to-peer networks never would have found their way into corporate America and we’d still be talking SNA rather than TCP/IP.

However – and this is a big however – there are hard and fast limits as to when and where corporate firewalls and limits need to be heeded, because the consequences of not doing so are very punitive and socially irresponsible.

For example, if you work at a health care enterprise housing and dealing with patient data, you are NEVER to leave the premises with patient data, by statute (HIPAA).  Failing to do so carries civil penalties and is ethically irresponsible.  That far outweighs your desire to “conveniently” sneak a thumb drive to work because it’s easier to copy files that way.

Likewise, if you deal with personal data like Social Security numbers, you should never copy them to any portable device that is not secured to the nines.  Yet, every few months one reads of government agencies and private companies where laptops go missing or stolen containing hundreds and thousands of social security numbers, bank accounts, PINs, other other damaging identifaction artifacts because of lax – or worse, ignored – policies and procedures.

Look – no one is more frustrated than I when I see a department within a large concern being held back from doing their job or getting to their data because of someone building a little empire or withholding the tech goodies simply because they can.  It is maddening to see employees resorting to above the flow means (such as Excel Spreadsheets, Visio Drawings, or Word Documents) to circumvent the inadequacies of corporate online systems because the online systems are not responsive to their needs and keep them from getting their jobs done.  I get it.

I deplore it because of the duplication of effort and overall drain on what everyone is trying to accomplish – but I absolutely get it.

In fact, my life as an independent consultant and contractor depend upon it – but that’s a different post for a different day.

From an IT management perspective dealing with Technical Populism is a lot like parenting a teenager – you know certain behaviors are going to happen, because long term consequences are downplayed in favor of instant gratification.  It’s your job to instruct and educate your technical populists on the valid business, statutory, and ethical reasons behind your corporate policies and infrastructure decisions.  This is not 1950 – if you don’t try and have this dialog with your tech savvy peers, they’ll simply go somewhere more conducive to their talents.

And for you would be tech rebels out there – it is your responsibility to insure that you are not putting yourself and the people who put food on your table into legal jeopardy because you don’t feel like adhering to a policy that seems stupid to you, but maybe took a team of people many months and man hours to negotiate and settle upon.

Believe it or not, most companies want to do the right thing with their stewardship of infrastructure, resources, and policies.

In honesty, I can’t believe I’m even writing this post.  I left corporate America many years ago because I realized that constitutionally I am just not a great employee and focus more on results rather than the Kabuki Theatre that working in a larger setting requires everyone to play within.

But I have seen first hand the harm that neglecting hard won and carefully considered network and computing policies can cause.

Technical Populism can move the ball down the field with regard to introducing new concepts (such as Social Networking and Blogging) into the rigid confines of enterprise computing, and can inject new life into organizations listening to their own echoes.

But it needs to be done responsibly, ethically, and with an eye on the overall good of the company – and not simply the personal convenience of the individual employee.

First Day of Pre-School

First Day of Pre-School

My wife and I shared a funny little moment this morning.  She had just returned from dropping my youngest son off at his new day (well, half-day) school.

She observed that all of the little girls were dressed to the nines and had mom AND dad in tow, taking pictures and generally fawning over the first day hoopla.

The parents of little boys, however, were practically dropping them off at the curb with mostly the “see ya later, have fun” send offs.

Having two sons, we both had a good laugh.  It’s not that you don’t love ’em… but it would be less than truthful to say that you weren’t looking forward to that little bit of quiet time for mom and dad when Jr returns to school, day school, pre-K, whatev.

It will be interesting to see how well our intensive emphasis on potty training fares today.  He had a very good weekend – hoping for the best but expecting – well, you know.

Report from First Day of School – Success!

Report from First Day of School – Success!

My newly minted third-grader finished the first day of school with a smile on his face and swag in tow – a new recorder for music class, plus swag from grandpa from the swim team and medals from the Nashville City Meet.

This morning my wife was dropping my son off, with my toddler in tow.  Our van usually looks like hell on great days, and since we moved last week, cleaning the car is like priority number 999.

Naturally, today is the day that the President of my son’s school is opening car doors to greet returning students… with a photographer on hand.

My wife is used to chronically being in a state of embarrassment – she’s been married to me for twenty-two years – and she took it all in stride.

Plus, Macgregor is extremely photogenic, so maybe our craptacular car won’t be so noticable if any of the pics are used for publication.

Just another day in paradise.

Why Do Companies Wait Till You Get Pissed Off and Leave Before “Making Nice?”

Why Do Companies Wait Till You Get Pissed Off and Leave Before “Making Nice?”

As I am wont to do, this morning a tweeted a complaint about a customer service issue I had with a company that I had spent several thousand dollars with over the past eight years.  Essentially over a matter of $75.

And as so happens many times on Twitter, a very helpful friend offered to hook me up with someone at the company in question who could make things better for me.

I politely –  and hopefully, very gratefully – declined to take this person up on the offer.

Why?

Because I believe when customers expend capital and energy in developing loyalty and relationships – especially over months and years – that they deserve to be treated commensurate with their dedication to the company / brand / relationship.

And that they deserve this treatment BEFORE you piss them off to the point of leaving.

This latest incident represents the second time in the past year I have essentially “fired” a company over customer service, and each time the relationships went back almost to the beginning of the origins of my company.

Which really goes to show several things:

  1. I usually will stick with a company on the premise that my relationship and loyalty matter, even putting up with mild inconvenience in return for a modicum of consideration of my loyalty,
  2. That it takes a lot to piss me off,
  3. And when you DO piss me off, it’s usually for good.

Coincidentally enough, in both cases I was approached AFTER the ill will and bad feelings were entrenched with offers to “make things right.”

Which leads me to ask the obvious: why, when I was trying to make things right and your representatives were holding to the index card scripts and not budging an inch, was THAT not the time to recognize my loyalty?  Why is it only after your brand is irreparably damaged with me, and someone up the chain looks and says “holy shit, this customer has spent a few grand with us over the years!” (if indeed that EVER happens) that you THEN make the attempt to address the bad customer service experience?

Why not use common sense and EMPOWER your customer service departments to do the right thing from the start PROACTIVELY, not REACTIVELY?

The answer is obvious – money.  It must be cheaper to go out and simply get new customers than retain old ones in some industries.

That, or the accountability of customer retention is so far up the food chain that no one ever really feels the brunt of losing high value (i.e., customers who pay their bill on time for extended periods of time) customers.

I can tell you this – I personally feel the sting of every one of my customers who was unhappy with us, even years later.  Call it a personal failing.

Over time, the marketplace becomes the great equalizer of these customer service wrongs.

Sprint / Nextel, Comcast, Dell… all of these have paid a price in the marketplace because of poor customer service practices.  They certainly aren’t unique in this regard – just look at what is happening in the airline industry (aside from the ravages of high energy costs).

Customers eventually DO vote with their feet, given the opportunity.  Don’t give them the opportunity.  Treat them like the valued assets that they are – you know – the people that pay your salaries, enable your kids to be fed and clothed, and who make your day to day existence possible.

Corporate Development and The Cowboy Coder

Corporate Development and The Cowboy Coder

I’ve been fairly heavily involved in a corporate development environment for the past few weeks, on-site for a large part of that time.

This differs from my normal modus operandi, in that usually I’m doing a half-dozen different projects in various stages of completion at any given time of day, and from various venues around town.

Having to report to a set place – in this case, a cubicle – to do one thing and one thing only for a predetermined set of fixed hours was needless to say a bit of a challenge for me.

Not because of the office in which I found myself or the people that I worked with – all great, by the way – but because after twelve years of self-determination and self-direction, it is very hard to let someone else “drive” and to sit in the passenger seat.

Plus, I’m someone who can’t stand inactivity.  In a corporate development environment, there is often lots of slack space between the bouts of activity.

Most of this slack time is dictated by process (approvals, specifications, version control, build cycles, testing) and really can’t be hurried along – it takes what it takes to get certain things done.  And I mean this in a very GOOD way.

I don’t really consider myself to be a “Cowboy Coder” – that is to say, a developer who prefers working alone, or goes “dark” disappearing for days on end and magically appearing with working solutions, eschewing things like documentation, process, and code reviews.  On the contrary, I have been the director at a couple of companies where I walked the corporate development “walk” for years on end.

If I say which mode of development I believe to be the best I’ll surely start a shit-storm of protests from each side.

All I’m really doing here is just observing that I noticed how much my own personal perspective has veered over the years, because of how my development business operates, versus working in a large company where personal accountability is secondary to development process in general.

And I must say, I prefer being able to hold a single developer accountable, present company included, for their code and development practices.  It is how I judge my own effectiveness, and how I judge the merits of other developers I engage for hire or work with.

I’m certainly not saying that this doesn’t happen in larger companies – it does.  Over time, developers in larger shops know who produces great working code and who the dead wood developers are.  It’s just that the consequences of being a dead wood developer in a large shop are usually not very punitive and in many cases largely ignored owing to the fear of losing even the smallest of productivity garnered by the under-performers.

As a result, over time, most companies wind up with a large cadre of very average developers.

Gerald Weinberger wrote about this some twenty years ago (I’ll have to find the reference – brain too addled at the moment) and I have found it to be true in my first hand experience.

Having a large group of Cowboy Coders (or even one in most cases) on your team is also less than desirable.

Who wants to work with a team of guys and gals who thinks they are right 100% of the time and everyone else are idiots? (OK – those of you who work with Doctors and / or Lawyers really don’t have to answer that – it’s a rhetorical question).  High maintenance employees, while capable of spectacular results, often are the Barry Bondses of the Corporate World.

Sometimes, it’s just not worth it to put up with their shit just to meet a deadline (sometimes it is – knowing the difference is what makes great businesses and business models).

If I get a little time later in the month, I’ll try to wrap my head around making this a more cogent exposition.  For now, you poor mugs are left with this mess.

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My Little Olympian

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Murphy, watching the Olympics

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