Monday, March 31, 2014

Encouraging Aggressiveness

What happens when a Marine loses equipment in combat?

One of my jobs in the Marines was as a supply officer for an infantry battalion at Camp Pendleton, CA. The majority of our warehouse was stocked with "782 gear" (/seven-eighty-two/) which is individual combat equipment and field gear such as helmets, canteens, ammo pouches, flak jackets, etc. A Marine would check into our battalion and he'd receive his standard issue of gear.

In the mid-1990s a standard issue was worth about $1,800. If any equipment became damaged or unserviceable due to routine use then it could be surveyed (one for one exchange) for a new piece of gear.

The odd part was if a Marine lost a piece of GI gear he didn't have to pay for it, even during peacetime. It may seem strange that someone entrusted with tax payer equipment didn't need to pay for losing it but it makes sense. The idea is to promote aggressiveness. Or, more specifically, to not encourage passivity in combat. We don't want Marines to find themselves discouraged from attacking an objective if they get a bill for equipment lost in the attack. After all, we're talking about combat. And we fight like we train so the same rules, along with a high degree of safety, should be applied in peacetime.

The formal process of filing a missing gear statement included having the Marine counseled by an officer outside his chain of command. During a counseling session the Marine would be encouraged to reimburse the government for the lost gear, but he was specifically told that he had no obligation. The Marine would make a written statement and the officer would certify his counseling session. During an audit, I'd have to produce this paperwork to certify the adjustment to our inventory records. There's a fair amount of paperwork involved in maintaining a chain of custody for government equipment.

My Experience  

When I was a second lieutenant at Quantico (TBS) I lost an expensive pair of Gore-Tex gloves during a night attack. Out of a sense of duty I moseyed over to the supply section and wrote a $120 check made payable to the U.S. Treasury. The sad part is the Marine Corps doesn't recover any of these funds – my money went directly to Uncle Sam and, in return, I was told it came with the uniform. Semper Fi.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Common Sense Can Be Misleading

Even simple theories need to be tested.

Yesterday, I heard a piece on NPR where a simple premise was tested: pairing academically weak students with strong students has an overall positive effect due to peer pressure. This is formally known as peer effects.

Duh! I thought. After a written test at Parris Island, my drill instructors would make a list of all the recruits in my platoon based on how well they scored. Then, they'd pair the top performer with the bottom performer, number two with the second from the bottom, and so on. It seemed brilliantly simple. This social engineering theory was recently tested at the Air Force Academy over a two year period. But the results weren't as anyone expected.

Creating a squadron by pulling out the middle-of-the-pack cadets and having the strongest cadets live in the same squadron with the weakest had a negative effect. It splintered the squadron into two different social groups where the good students hung out with the other good students and the weak students hung out with fellow weak students. This resulted in a decrease in performance of the weak students and the experiment was ended to prevent further harm.

It turned out the average performers were the glue between these two groups. I also found it surprising that the average performers did better in a squadron of all average performers and worse in the mixed group. From the NPR interview...

... this presents a dilemma, because it suggests that in regular squadrons where everyone is mixed together, the performance of the middle students is actually adversely affected. You pull them out, they start to do better. But when you pull them out, the weakest students start to do worse.

Let's hear it for mediocrity. ;^D

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Twitter's Single Point of Failure

Dave Winer has repeatedly pointed out that Twitter is, in itself, a single point of failure since it's centralized. No one can argue with that. But, the upside is that it's fast – very fast. The only noticeable latency is the time it takes for a tweet to be uploaded from a client to Twitter's servers. When considering distributed infrastructures like SMTP and DNS it's obvious how much slower they are due to propagation. The upside of these fundamental Internet services is no one owns them which means no one can inherently stop them or advertise against them, yet they're cheap enough that companies can provide them for free. But, just because no one owns these protocols, doesn't mean they can't go down, at the end points.

So, it begs a couple questions. Is a fast, free, Twitter, better than the alternative? More importantly, is Twitter a key, fundamental, Internet service worthy of an RFC?

Author: Joe Moreno

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Karcher Infomercial

Infomercial in the making.
I saw a group offering free car washes in the parking lot at my local grocery store. It turns out it was a film crew making an infomercial and doing research for Karcher's yet-to-be-marketed new power washer. Since I had time on my hands I said to myself, "Why not give it a try?"

The entire crew was enthusiastic and outgoing. When I pulled up for the wash I took them up on their offer to try out their equipment for myself. It was similar to a self-serve car wash with multiple attachments that hooked up to their sprayer. My favorite was a tapered triangular brush that cleaned the inside of my tire rims. I couldn't help but notice the camera and boom mic operators following me like a shadow while staying out of my way and never saying a word or offering any direction.

Once I finished they dried my car and asked if I'd sign a testimonial release. No problem, I told them as they took my photo so they could match their footage with my name. Who knows, maybe I'll be in their infomercial.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

When Reel Life Clashes with the Real World

The bearded barista in the background served my coffee.

I've watched several episodes of Jerry Seinfeld's web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The interview that captured my attention is the one with Jay Leno since they drove to Jones Coffee Roasters, in Pasadena, to drink the world's most exotic coffee. If you can spare 93 seconds then watch a clip of this episode starting at the 10:00 mark. (You'll have to endure the embedded advertisement, first.)

The coffee is called kopi luwak, better known as civet coffee. If you don't know how it's made then you probably shouldn't ask.

The happy bride and groom.

Last weekend I traveled to L.A. for the wedding of my closest high school classmate, Andy. The wedding and reception were at the beautiful Langham Huntington Hotel, a few minutes drive from Jones Coffee Roasters. I figured this was a perfect opportunity to try a cup of this "crap." It turns out I was wrong.

The Tisa Adamson band.

I bellied up to the counter and asked about the civet coffee I saw Leno and Seinfeld drink. The barista told me they don't stock it or sell it. The owner, Chuck Jones, brought in his personal stash of civet coffee for the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee episode. That was a bit of a bummer, but not a total loss since a cup would probably sell for at least $25. Their regular, cold brew, coffee was good – it was strong – but still good.

This cafe had a lot of character and the live band, Tisa Adamson, sounded great. I even saw one of the baristas from the episode, but, alas, no civet coffee. Sometimes... actually, most of the time... the reel world just isn't the real world. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Writing Words, Writing Code, Hemingway Style

One thing that motivates me to write is reading great writing. Whether I'm writing words or writing code, the ability to capture an idea and write it in an impactful way is powerful.

Hemingway – much like Apple – knew how to pare away the cruft to get to the heart of the experience.

When I first began writing fiction I read Hemingway's short stories for inspiration. The first one I read was The Snows of Kilimanjaro where he vividly described a scene without explaining the details.

...he and the British observer had run too until his lungs ached and his mouth was full of the taste of pennies...

This description hit me like a ton of bricks. In this single sentence I understood Hemingway's writing style. When someone's shooting at you the adrenaline deep in your throat tastes exactly like copper pennies. Hemingway had seen combat – he knew what adrenaline tasted like – so there's no need for him to explain it.

The West Wing: "You tasted something bitter in your mouth.
It was the adrenaline. The bitter taste was the adrenaline."
A reference to the bitter taste of adrenaline is also seen in an episode of The West Wing. Josh Lyman is in denial about his PTSD after being shot. A Yo Yo Ma performance triggers a PTSD episode and a psychologist jump starts Josh's counseling session by telling him about the bitter taste.

Hemingway left out details which pulls in the reader rather than shuts them out. That's hard to do. And Hemingway knew exactly what he was doing which he described in his essay, The Art of the Short Story:

A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.

Writing workshop

It's pure chance I came across Joyce Maynard's writing workshop, last spring, that lead me to her home in Mill Valley to work on my writing. There's nothing better than being taught by a woman who's earned her living as a writer her entire adult life. I'm writing this piece, today, because, yesterday, she pointed out that even the best writers have to handle rejection. And it's through Joyce I feel a connection to Hemingway since she lived with J.D. Salinger and Salinger met with Hemingway during WW II.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Damn XO: Give every order as if it were your own

When I was at the Naval Academy we were taught a lesson called Damn XO (Section 2.9 on page 11 of this PDF).

In a nutshell, orders and directives should be stated as if they are your own and not as originating from someone else (and particularly from someone senior).

From the Damn XO leadership guide:

There is a natural tendency, when faced with implementing directions that may encounter “push back” (objection or disagreement) from subordinates or peers, to phrase them as coming from someone else and thereby mitigate the situation for oneself. Responsibility for the directive is deflected to the originator rather than taking personal ownership. Sometimes characterized as “lazy orders” or “Damn Exec” syndrome (i.e., “Damn XO says ___________”). Giving orders to subordinates and attaching the originator’s name to them does not support the chain of command and has long term adverse effects on attitude, performance and unit integrity.

Issues with the “Damn Exec” approach:

– Demonstrates lack of ownership and “buy-in” to organizational goals.

– Subordinates may see you as only a puppet or mouthpiece of higher authority, lacking personal authority and responsibility.

– Subordinates may question decisions you make/ orders you originate.

Personal ownership of orders/directives is a fundamental responsibility at each level in the chain of command. “Damning the Exec” may be subverting your leadership role through loss of respect and support of your crew.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Let Him Fail

I learned a lot at Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, VA.

Before you can lead you first need to learn how to follow. In boot camp, at Parris Island, my drill instructors taught me how to follow. At OCS, the goal was to see how well I could lead.

I was one of the only prior enlisted Marines in my OCS platoon, so my sergeant instructors assigned me as the platoon commander. The candidate assigned under me, as my platoon sergeant, was a subpar performer. Pairing top performers with subpar performers was a common tactic at OCS. It’s a learning experience for both.

Two things stick out in my mind when I was the platoon commander.

Non sibi

First was the fact that I ate last. The Marine Corps is a big believer in taking care of your Marines’ needs before your own. My platoon would file into the chow hall before me and we’d all leave at the same time.

Stay in Your Lane

Second was the fact I had to supervise and lead without intervening or interfering. As the platoon commander, I didn’t march in formation with my platoon. The problem was my platoon sergeant kept making mistakes. He’d make mistakes marching the platoon, taking muster, organizing his reports, etc. When this initially happened, I jumped in and took over. The third time I did this my senior sergeant instructor pounced on me with a loud and resounding, “Let him fail, Moreno! You can’t do his job for him. He needs to learn for himself.”

In a flash I learned a valuable leadership lesson. It’s hard to sit back and watch someone learn from their mistakes at your expense even though it’ll pay off in the long run. Give your subordinates a little buffer and breathing room to try new things so they learn what works and what doesn’t. This is a key principle when transitioning from an individual contributor to a leader as it builds trust and confidence in the team.

Band of Brothers
You can see this leadership lesson in action at the 4:00 mark in this clip. Dick Winters is the battalion XO (although this scene portrays him as the battalion CO) and he tries to step in to lead a company that's pinned down due to poor leadership under fire. In the heat of battle Winters's commander stops him to remind him it's not the battalion commander's place to lead a company. That's a tough lesson to learn when people you know are being killed before your eyes and you can fix it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Proper Scrum in Agile

I once had a consulting gig in Austin with a software firm that told me they implemented Agile and Scrummed every morning. I sat in on their Scrum with about six software engineers and it lasted more than 45 minutes. That's not a Scum.

A proper scrum should last about 90 seconds per person. The person seated or standing to the left of the Scrum Master starts off and each person addressing three points:

1. Tasks I've done since we last met.

2. Tasks I'm going to do before we next meet.

3. Any blockers that require outside help.

Pigs & Chickens

There are pigs and chickens in the Scrum. Only the pigs (engineers, producers, etc. i.e. the workers) are allowed to speak. Any chickens (managers, etc) get to talk after the Scrum is over.

Real World Practice

At Apple, I worked with fellow engineers and managers who had formal Agile training. They were masters at sticking to the three points I mentioned above. The key to keeping the Scrum from turning into a working session was, anytime a person veered away form these three points, someone would say, "Sidebar." At that point, the person who veered off track would either correct him/herself or s/he would list their Sidebar issue on the whiteboard.

After the Scrum was done, anyone could leave the meeting if none of the Sidebars concerned them. More often than not, we made it though a Scrum without any Sidebars.

Sticking to these three Scrum principles is harder than you'd think, especially when people have questions or you've accomplished a task you want to brag about. But, if you're a well disciplined Scrum, you can simply list your self-congratulatory attaboys as a Sidebar. There's nothing wrong with tooting your own horn now and then – just don't do it during the Scrum.

There's more to Agile/Scrum then this, but this is the key to running a successful daily Scrum meeting.