Archive for October, 2010

A co-worker of mine told me of an ongoing contest at my office: a contest centered on me. The winner would be the person who could get me to say “Hello” to one of them. Someone would see me go for some coffee or popcorn, and they’d queue up to go into the break room and try to talk to me.

It wasn’t that I was intentionally unfriendly… I was just… focused. This was back when I was coding every minute of every day, cranking out applications at a rapid rate. My fellow programmers joked that I must type with my feet, too, since I was so fast. That speed was, in part, enabled by my ability to focus. Even necessary activities like restroom breaks or a snack were unwanted intrusions, an opportunity for my attention to drift away from the next line of code, the next bug to resolve.

My concentration was such that I would acknowledge other people, but often only in my mind. I said “Hello”, it was just so low-pitched, and sometimes no-pitched, that it was simply not there. So the only winners in that contest were the ones who happened to catch me at a transition, like finishing a bug sheet or a major part of code.

When I joined the Intuit Innovation Lab in 2002, some of that… lack of social grace… was necessarily overridden by the nature of my new work: I had to visit customers and talk to them. Or at least listen closely and ask the right follow up questions. I talked more to my co-workers, with my co-workers, and I learned how to connect with customers.

But all that change was just an unthoughtful response, not a deliberate difference compared to my “contest” days. It certainly wasn’t enough. I still had a lot of friction with my co-workers, viewed as “smart, fast, creative, and hard to work with”. It came to head when I locked horns with a co-worker, pushing things “my way” and not allowing a different opinion into the room. I didn’t like working that way, and neither did people like working with me when I was that way.

Fortunately, my boss at the time, Tara, suggested and supported me with a plan to change. She hired an executive coach for me. With his insights and help, I transformed how I interact with people – everyone, from my family, to my co-workers, to customers and just to everyone I meet.

I first took a personality test called an Enneagram. There are many such tests out there, and the Enneagram is probably one of the best. It has 3 person types, and 3 sub-types. The three types are Body, Mind and Feeling. I’m a Body type, with a sub-type of 1 – the Reformer. I want to solve problems, to make everything better. At my worst, I’m a perfectionist, plowing ahead with my own solution and pushing everyone else to the side.

The key to my transformation was to take the worst stereotype of a Reformer and apply that to myself. In every situation, I would laugh at that stereotype picture and refuse to fit into it, even as I knew that my normal mode would fit into it! I became a listener, a peacemaker, able to get things done as a team, as part of a team. I could let other ideas join my own without feeling like the solution would be “worse off”.

I can feel the difference, and it usually astonishes me. I’m happier, friendlier. I can connect with almost anyone. I get onto a plane where a flight attendant is greeting people. She didn’t look particularly happy, saying “Hi, welcome aboard.” I said, “Hi, thanks! How are you?” It was amazing – her face brightened, she talked some more, told me thanks for asking. I could hear her behind me greeting others with a smile! That’s why I’m astonished – I really had no idea before that I could personally, individually, brighten someone’s day just by, well, caring about them, to be honest. It’s more than just a “friendly” hello, rather I actually mean it when I ask, “How are you?” I talk to people about their day, their work, their feelings.

Those of you who know how I was “before” will, I believe, be pleasantly surprised at how I interact with you and those people around you. It’s a world full of people out there, and they’ve had all kinds of days: good and bad and indifferent. Open up ye engineers and explore the people around you. We’ll all be happier for it!

Software is… hard. There are so many things to think about, even when creating an offering as simple as an automated email message. Click on the image on the left and you’ll see what I mean. Notice the link in the bottom status bar and the highlighted link in the text. It’s for Hertz.com, but the actual link reference is for Hertz.com. – an added “.” period. Note that it is also an SSL secure website, which means that the security certificate needs to exactly match the URL if you don’t want the browser to pop up a scary “security exception” notice. Someone at Hertz.com didn’t get it right. More likely several someones.

Creating good software takes an attention to detail that the “engineering” discipline attempts to enforce. But unlike many traditional engineering tasks, there are many different ways of accomplishing the same task, and they can all be valid at one point or another. The number of systems, concepts, languages, end customer environments… it’s staggering how much a programming “maven” needs to keep in his or her head.

Processes and project roles are a big help. A project manager to plan and maintain the big picture, designers who sweat the details, developers who are experienced and focused, quality assurance folks who nitpick every little comma and period. Every one of those roles has a responsibility to catch that “Hertz.com.” error.

  • Did the project manager ensure that the wording in the email is correct?
  • Did the designer check the text, the fonts, the highlighting colors?
  • Did the developer know how to construct a link in both HTML and Text formats?
  • Did the QA folks actually click the link – and clicked it using a “clean” environment?

I remember a tester who worked on my EasyACCT stuff back at Tax and Accounting Software Corporation (TAASC) in Tulsa – Brian Anderson. He was a superb tester, and later became a developer as well. He owns Hostek.com, where this website (and my others) are hosted.

He would sometimes come up with the craziest sequences to duplicate an error – press Ctrl-Shift and then down arrow five times, type “Q-2″ and press Enter, and you see this error message. Maddening. But if Brian tested it, then I was confident that my application was thoroughly tested and working as good as mortal man could make it.

A great tester is worth his or her weight in gold, as is a nit-picky designer, a thorough and knowledgeable project manager, and a careful and experienced developer. Don’t skimp on your people, and always have at least one truly experienced person in your project team. Programming is an art, not a science. You put chlorine onto gold, you’ll get dissolved gold and a very unhappy investor. There aren’t variations when those two elements are mixed. You design an application, and there are dozens if not hundreds of ways that things could be mixed to create the working application. Experience is absolutely necessary if you want Quality.

I feel very fortunate to have grown up closely with my cousins. While living in Texas, we visited family almost every weekend – my mom’s family most of the time… sometimes my dad’s. After my dad moved to Reno, I spent my summers, and many a Christmas season, in Reno. I also lived there for a little while.

I don’t remember exactly when or how Mark and Nancy became my favorite cousins… probably it was all the time we spent together either at their house or at The Lake – Lake Lahontan. We learned to water ski together, to fish together, to ride motorbikes together. We spent nights looking at the stars and days swimming in the lake, or in the swimming pool and hot tub back at the “Compound” – a group of 4 motor homes with a boathouse on some land just outside the Lahontan park area.

I was able to spend some extra time with them last week, along with their mother – my Auntie Pearl. My Uncle Jim recently died, and I really wanted to be there. At least I was able to take a few days and hang out. I’ve greatly missed them – they aren’t terribly active online or on social websites, although I’ve watched and looked for them over the years.

Fortunately, Nancy has an iPhone and likes to communicate via texting, and Mark will text and watches his email. I’m like a “tornado in a trailer park” now – happy as can be that I’ve found them again, connected again! They live super close to where I often travel for work (although super far away from my home). I plan on making a side trip to visit them every time I travel to the San Jose area for work — if I can swing it.

I spent a day and a night with my Auntie Pearl and cooked dinner (my simply grilled swordfish recipe… except we used ahi tuna), plus some vanilla creme brule. Then I spent a day with Nancy. The highlights were getting my hair cut (Nancy is a stylist), watching some movies and meeting one of her cats, Peaches (left). They are apparently very shy, and it was raining and thundering, so they hid under her bed. But Peaches eventually came out and we made friends. I’ve only seen her other cat in pictures. By the way, if you need your hair cut, styled, colored, or anything else – and you are in the Reno area, Nancy is the best. Call Bellissima and ask for her. She’ll make your day simply by smiling at you!

Mark lives out near the Moon Rocks and is an avid motocross rider with plenty of trophies in his career. As you can see in this picture, I geared up and went riding with him! I have my motorcycle license, although I don’t currently own one. I spent many summers puttering around Lake Lahontan on mini-bikes and a small motorcycle. I don’t think I ever wore a helmet back then! We did some four-wheeling until the rain stopped, then rode bikes for a little while, played some darts. Mark is now giving tours around the very special and little known trails in the area. Check it out and reserve a slot! You won’t be disappointed!

I love my extended family dearly, but Mark and Nancy hold a very special place in my heart, and I love them with all that I am!