Wednesday, 31 October 2012

I Don't Believe in Gold Stars

This is going to be half rant and half blowing hot air up my own rear end, so if that's not your cup of goose, well, tough. You've been warned.

I don't like job titles.

With the exception of a few professions like midwives, pilots and doctors, where not playing it safe and forcing everyone practicing these to go through a rote learning routine can lead to adversity, I think job titles do more harm than good.

People don't use job titles to define what they do. In my humble experience, 99.9% of the time they use them to define what it's not their bloody job to do. And that goes so hard against the grain of what I perceive my role in any organisation to be that it makes me want to toss the whole titles notion away.

Your job is to make the organisation you work for do its thing. Do it good. Do it betterer. It's not to sit at a goddam desk and in meetings, or clock N hours a day in an office.
I don't care how bloody senior you are. I don't care how many gold stars people gave you. I don't care how many years you've been around, how many academic or personal development certifications you completed, or what your net worth is. NONE of these is a measure of merit. The only thing that counts is how much sense you talk, and the magnitude*quantity of the problems you succeed at solving.

My pet peeve in the IT outsourcing industry is monkeys (pardon derogatory language, technical term) who think their job is to pull a trigger rather than to hit a target, who neither know nor care to know why they were asked to press the button, and what the success criteria of the whole exercise is. Their job is to press the button.

When I'm dealing with a 3-year-old, I'll praise her/him for trying.
When I'm dealing with a 30-year-old, I'll praise her/him for succeeding (I may rarely thank her/him for trying, if resources to try were limited and she/he nevertheless took the risk and tried anyway).
If, on broader things where you get more than one go and can try and try again, you're not succeeding  when you're 30, in my book you do not deserve praise until you either bother trying, or succeed at figuring out what it is that you've doing wrong.

Harsh? Maybe. I can already hear the fingernails of some of my friends. But from my angle - if I can encourage a person to aspire to something, it will be to aspire to be somehow, in his own way, useful.

And mind you, we're not all equally crazy, and the bar I hold the person's achievements up to is not mine. I do care that it exists and has a usefulness score above zero (some people just don't care to achieve anything, which I find sad), but it is his own bar first, environment second. Walking might seem trivial to me, but may be a colossal problem to solve for someone involved in an accident. I recognise this.

I've had this realisation while re-reading my newly-overhauled resume.  I realised some interesting things. First - I didn't bother completing the final bits of my bachelors degree, my RHCE exam or my MAICD exam. Yes, only now have I connected the dots. I came. I learned. And on reflection, the reason I didn't bother with that last bit is that for each one of the above, time was scarce, and I just didn't perceive it as important enough. It didn't solve any problem I cared to solve. I genuinely couldn't give a flying toss about what the people who taught me thought about what I've learned. I didn't feel they contributed value, and in the spirit of lean, that which does not contribute value is waste. I didn't feel I needed their acclaimed gold stars for anything.

(Mind you, where there is value to be gained from a certification - access to further education, a license to practice, a hard criteria for hire, a pre-requisite to publish or the credibility of a specialist - Where tangible value is involved, I'm all for getting certification).

Here's the funny bit. So far - despite armies of people having told me how important gold stars will be in life, starting from my parents in my "You are a Russian Jew, you need to have a degree" indoctrination, I seem to have been right, and they seem to have been brainfeeding me utter shite on this one. I keep discovering every few years that my dreams of what I wanted to tick off in life were too goddam modest.

Being able to understand and apply what my official and unofficial educators and mentors taught me  has so far gotten me through every single door I've ever tried to walk through. Talking sense, critical analysis, a modicum of self-awareness and an acute disregard for the sanctity of rules, together form a magic ticket. And I've been walking through some damn interesting doors.

In some places I've worked we've had a running joke about there being two kinds of people in any organisation - everyone else, and the secret police.

The "secret police" is my home.

These are women and men of many hats, who have the capability to switch these hats more often than they change socks. They often move around an awful lot in an organisation, and often stop and stay in one place for a long time, tasked with solving a big, hairy problem others don't even know how to begin to tackle.

Rank to them is a meaningless, interchangeable means to an end, like a username to some software application. Their rank is what military rank is to a CIA operative. You need to be a corporal for what you need to do today? Pin the corporal badge on. Need to be a general? Just pin four stars on your lapel before you leave home. Low or high, it doesn't matter. It's just a gold star.

Their job is everywhere and everything. It has no clear boundaries, only clear objectives, and clear problems on the way to these objectives. They follow process when it makes sense, but challenge their way through it and fix it when it doesn't. They have one mandate: Understand what's happening, and fix what's broken. A key way to spot them: These guys can't sit on their hands. Literally, cannot.
On their first day of work, before you gave them a laptop, they're already working out what needs their attention, if not already outright fixing it.

One organisation I often lionise is Valve Software. Yes, the guys who make Steam. Valve is a company with a 10-figure revenue. Big shit. The unique thing is how Valve is run. People at valve have no job titles or rank (except on some unique occasions when facing the outside world requires them to pin something to their shirt). No, really. These guys, in essense, only ever hire secret police people. And it works.

Artificial boundaries on what one should care about, set by a narrow definition of what your "job" is, set by what your rank allows you to do, set by longevity, set by someone with rank who cannot defend his views with common sense, these make my brain explode. Twice in my life I've worked in such places, and twice I passionately despised every moment of being there.

Looking at my new resume, I've made a few more interesting observations that tell me how aligned with this view I was even years and years ago, long before I had the ability or desire to articulate any of it. Almost anywhere I worked, from the very start, my work resulted in something tangible that I built or a real problem that I solved. I did not get educated to be an engineer. I just solved problems, someone noticed, called me engineer and threw money at me. And so did the guy after him.

My resume keeps saying not "I was a part of a team that did _", but "I identified a problem, architected a solution, convinced people it's worth the resources by hook or by cook, with what people I harnessed around me, got that bloody shit sorted".
In many positions, I listed many hats that I wore, many unofficial positions whose responsibilities I carried.
More interestingly, if I play at "hide the job title and read the paragraph about that job", an intriguing game ensues. Is this guy the executive, the architect or the most junior operational guy at the bottom rung? Is he the Project Manager? It becomes very hard to work out. Looking at what I got done, and ignoring what I remember and know, I can't always tell.

It wasn't just stuff getting done. It was the blatant nonconformism. Mind you, I play by the rules within sense. I'm not an anarchist. I understand the role of rules or processes, understand how in many cases we're better off with them than without, I understand the adverse affects of people ignoring them and respect rules to a sensible limit.

But I'm the one who draws that limit. And then I don't care what people think. I don't care about the negative opinions, and I don't care about the good. For years, my line to my colleagues above, below and beside me was the same. This is me. This is the problem. Come join me if fixing it, it'll be awesome. That, or get the fuck out of my way. Bad managers fired me for it. Good ones gave me a machine gun and a crateful of ammunition, and promptly proceeded to hunker down.
I didn't feel compelled to get a gold star, a pat on the shoulder or even official recognition. I didn't have a vision of a raise in front of me. I just wanted to go home knowing I made something broken better.

Some people told me they found behaving this way scary. I usually reply that I'm not scared of a moving train that's 50cm away from me when I'm on a platform, because I can predict its behavior - it won't move sideways (a good analogy, because usually, they don't fear the train hitting them either).  That works equally well with being afraid of government, a policeman, your boss, your CEO, corporate culture or "the system" for any definition thereof. When you understand the fundamental physics that make something tick and can stay out of its way, it simply stops being a threat.

So what is it I see? Is it "An Engineer"? "An Executive"? "An Entrepreneur?" "Secret Police?" "An obnoxious meritocrat?" "A guy who just really gives a shit?" "A crazy guy?" "An asshole?" "A guy with a borderline ENTP/ENFP personality type?"

Does the label we give it matter?

I don't think so.

I don't care what you call it, or the cursing or the praise that may ensue. I don't need the compliment, except maybe one specific type.

The one that I try and give, as often as can be justified, to my team.
One that makes them want to drop their other tasks and join whatever cause the next day. One that makes them genuinely believe they're part of the glue that holds the universe together.
I'll take that one any day myself.

It's the one that says, in the words of my business partner:

"We fixed the shit out of that shit."

Yeah. I'll take that.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Making Awesome By Having Impact

What is awesome?

If we want to set it as a shining beacon for people, we need to define and quantify it.

I've observed some attributes, but that's no definition.

To define it, I've looked closer at what creates it.

There are three categories of awesome I've observed people use. There may be more.
Something can be awesome through impact, emotion or quality. Wikipedia, Pink Floyd and Lamborghini, respecitvely.

In many cases, people got there from two or even three directions at once.

I want to explore awesome through impact in this piece.

When we think of something that has positively impacted the world at scale, we say it's awesome.
Fire. The wheel. Electricity.  The Internet. Google. Wikipedia. Cars with internal combustion engines.

Wait, cars? Sure. They allowed us a level of personal mobility we never had before. They allowed us to prosper as a society. Check out the 20th century, at least in that latter half, once we got tired of shooting each other.
But they addicted us to oil on a global scale, propped up petrodictators and contributed meaningfully to trashing our environment. Are cars awesome?

My answer is that in examples like cars, where one lacks a choice, it doesn't matter.
Cars are there and nobody is going to dis-invent them without providing a viable alternative. Nobody really knows how the world would have evolved without them. There's no real choice today, so it's moot, pointless speculation. It only matters at that point in time when you face the choice of inventing the car. And when they were introduced, they were absolutely awesome. Far more awesome than the alternatives none of us actually remember. Alternatives like this.
It is on the day we are faced with choice, that we need to ask "If I make this, will the universe be better?"

For everyone, not just for your narrow interest. This is a qualitative question, easier to answer using simple human intuition. It's often not quantitative. This is because it directly ties into our values.
Lots of slaves may have seemed to make the universe better several centuries ago. So would non-empowered women. This question must be asked with our current moral code in mind.
And it must be asked first of him or those who choose to create something new.

If only Ron Hubbard asked himself that one simple question before he set off.

In some cases, it absolutely becomes quantitative.
A $40bn government project would be a project gained, but $40bn of community money and other projects it could have funded - spent. Is it net gain or net loss? Accountable governments have controls to ensure this debate is had, and that specialists are used to contribute to the discussion. And no, not everyone will always agree.

Note I avoid using the word "welfare". "Welfare" carries too much specific local context. We can increase our welfare by invading another country and stripping it of its resources. Does doing this make the universe better?

This "does it make the universe better" question is just the pre-decision hurdle. It's not the metric by which we actually measure ourselves. Once we decide to act, we should revisit it occasionally, but there are two more concrete ones:

One is "How much inertia do you create acting out your idea?" or in its simpler form, "Will you grow?"
Note I used "inertia", not "money". This is because while money is one form of inertia, it is by no means the only form. An army of free contributors (take the Salvos or Wikipedia as examples) is another form. Non-paying users, say if you're a social network, is yet another. Voters is yet another.

This holds equally true if you're an individual, a company or even a government.

If you're bleeding inertia to do what you do, you're doing it wrong. It's killing you.
Remember they tell you on airplanes to always put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping a child? You're no use to the universe if you're a liability, impaired or dead.

We hope for any vision of ours that it generates inertia, and the more the merrier.

The third and last question is a controversial one. It reads "What does your environment think about you?"

Linkedin have figured this out. They figured that what you think about yourself is biased. Instead, they now ask your mates and past colleagues what they think about you.

Apply this question to a new idea, enterprise, cause or government program.

Group 1 - How many people think what you're doing is awesome?
Group 2 - How many others think that it's not for them but there's nothing wrong with it?
Group 3 - Last, how many think you're outright bad?

Go ahead. Put yourself in the shoes of a board member in Philip Morris. What do your metrics look like?

If that last "bad" percentage is particularly high, especially if it's far higher than the aggregate of the first two... then somewhere, somehow, there's a good chance you're stepping on people. And while they may be conservative bigots with no vision, that doesn't make stepping on them right.

Some of the time, it means you failed at the task of building a rich, multi-faceted value proposition.
If people (other than your competitors) actively oppose your idea, it means you haven't solved for them too. It means someone will mount a campaign against you. It means your idea's value proposition needs more panelbeating.

When the Australian federal government passed the carbon tax, they avoided making lots of ordinary people oppose it by directly compensating them for costs passed down to them by affected providers, like their utility. That's a multi-faceted value proposition right there.

The best way to keep your idea on the tracks of awesome is to make enemies become friends, and engineer a value proposition in advance for those who will otherwise block your path.

But asking the environment is also dangerous. It assumes a shared moral code. It assumes people can think... and actually bother to do so. The movie "The Wave" made a strong point of this.
Asking the environment also assumes nobody has unfair power over the measuring tool (and measuring tool isn't just Putin scoring a 107% election turnout - it's an industry that sells facebook likes and youtube watches).

Gauging public sentiment can yield very healthy warning signals for when something has stopped being awesome. But it has time and again become a killing ground of personal freedoms when satisfying a vague definition was required by law. One must tread carefully, and ensure public sentiment systems, in whichever form they come, have the adequate failsafes.

Most current societies have some tools - from legislators that will draw boundaries around you if you step on too many people, to class action lawsuits that will be thrown at you if you break laws, hurt others or pollute.

The GFC, our deteriorating environment and some unstoppable, abusive multinationals suggest this is not done well enough in our world today.

So the next time you have an idea, ask yourself -
Am I making the universe better? Am I part of the solution or part of the problem?
Can I make my inertia grow? Will I be an asset to the good guys, or a liability?
And ultimately, how can the universe be made to appreciate the idea?

Thursday, 4 October 2012

What's Your Leadship Worth?

Two iconic leaders were let go from their job this week.
One came from my wife's shortlist of life mentors.
The other came from mine.

Rosa Storelli, Principal of MLC - one of the most acclaimed girl schools in the southern hemisphere and an inspiring figurehead to her students and colleagues, was sacked after two decades of leadership. The school board is owned by itself and answers to nobody. Some of her compensation was based on a decade-old verbal agreement with a previous board. An audit didn't like it, and they sacked her to cover their own ass.

Having never felt particularly passionately about any of my school-days educators,  I was surprised to find myself saying this in her support:

My name is Miki, I have one daughter aged 3 and am married to an MLC alumni. I use this forum as the means available to me to send a message to you. I hope it reaches you.

Over the past two years, my wife has been working hard to convince me this is the school for our daughter. It was not until this storm that a realisation struck me.

On one hand, if you are not reinstated, I do not want to commit my daughter and my money to a school that operates in this way.

On the other hand, I have witnessed the fire in the eyes of my wife as, in the most intensive part of our already crazy year, she committed the time and energy to passionately stand up for what you, both as a person, a leader and a figurehead of a beloved institution, have come to mean to her.

For about a week I've been watching this, and then I came to the event two nights ago. My wife was not alone. SIX HUNDRED people rallied, passionately rallied, around you.

Those parents, patrons, alumni and colleagues, those of past, those of present and those yet to be, who fiercely closed ranks around you, those people who trust you more than any other person alive to architect something as important as their children's educational environment, this is the hallmark of a true leader.

I don't know what my wife experienced in her years at MLC, but if what you've done there invoked such a reaction, in her and in others... then bluntly put, I'll have what she is having. If you come back, I would like my daughter to get it too.
Something in me stirred. A few days later, the following (with some minor corrections from the original) randomly popped out on my behalf on Storelli's fairness forum:


The stage we are all privy to is a blackboard, and what will get written on this blackboard will likely be the single most important message that will be inscribed into the minds of children attending MLC and others.

One side to this fiasco has decreed that the blackboard will read:
FAIRNESS is meaningless.
MERIT is futile.
TREATING YOUR PEOPLE RIGHT is a hollow slogan.
ACCOUNTABILITY is to be escaped from.
The ONLY thing that matters is that you COVER YOUR ASS, and CARRY A BIG STICK.

Have no illusions.
This is the take-home message that the MLC board will have the girls carry with them. For life.
Look your children in the eyes. Look at yourself in the mirror.
Picture yourself answering to YOUR CHILDREN, when they ask what YOU did when that message was put in front of them.

I firmly believe that in such a situation, dissent is a duty, not a right.

I believe FAIRNESS is the fabric that makes us the amazing society that we are.
I believe MERIT through achievement is a cornerstone of happiness in any walk of life.
I believe ASPIRATIONAL LEADERSHIP is rarer than hens teeth, and should be lionised, not demonised.
I believe no organisation can be truly great at its game if it doesn't TREAT ITS OWN PEOPLE RIGHT.
I believe ACCOUNTABILITY is the only cure and antidote to the abuse of power.

And I believe that people whose sole contribution is shifting blame and using a BIG STICK have no bloody business running a school, lest we breed a generation of bullies who believe their way is the only way and the right way to get things done.

This goes well beyond Ms Storelli. It goes beyond the board and its chair. It goes beyond MLC.
It's about the deep, core message, that we chose to put in front of Aussie kids.
Either way it pans out, this time it will be written in blood.
It's about us going to the pain of ensuring that message is the right one, and cannot be tainted by loose cannons in the educational system with no checks and balances to keep it sane.

I believe the MLC board has collectively forgotten that they represent an EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION.

They have forgotten that as representatives of such an institution, every single one of them is an EDUCATOR, whether they work in a classroom or not.
They stand on a platform directly tapped into the brains, the attitudes and mentality of our next generation.
Like an airline pilot that decides to play games with a plane full of people, they forgot to be careful with their choices whilst driving such a sensitive platform.

I believe that through their actions, they have violated their core duty as educators, with an intense vulgarity suggesting they do not fundamentally understand what it is they were entrusted to drive.
It's a gross violation of the fiduciary duty towards an institution that underpins any directorial role, doubly so an educational one. This will leave a scar on their career sitting on boards.

And this is potentially a cornerstone of the message we should carry to our friends, colleagues, parents, support groups, the media, potential mediators and any political person or organisation that has the courage to take a stand.

We are not the audience, watching how this will unfold.
We are the actors.
We ourselves carry an ultimate duty towards our children.
Each one of us will one day be called upon to answer to them. Where were we when this went down? Did you just sit there, or did you get up when they would teach me these things, draw a line in the sand and say 'NO'?
We, the broader Australian public, should not permit criminally negligent educators to teach our kids the wrongest possible things.
As a human being who got kicked in the head, Rosa is in a very tough spot. The way she was dismissed after a lifetime of achievement would shatter any one of us emotionally. But I'm no pessimist. I'm not an oracle either, but something tells me that five years from now, she'll be just fine. If I was her, failing reinstatement, I'd disappear for a while, re-emerge four months later with $100mn I found from investors, and use her ironclad (and now very well advertised) personal brand to jump-start her own girl school, carrying forth her vision to architect such an institution. I'd wager she could find that money.

A week apart, one of my own mentors was deposed in an equally brutal dismissal. Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Better Place, was sacked from his role as CEO in the company he founded and spent five years building.
Not much is publicly known about the circumstance, except that Better Place is a year or so behind schedule, and nearly a billion dollars worth of investors are awaiting their returns. But what I want to mention here is the effect he had on people.

I think the word 'inspiring' doesn't do Shai justice.

Shai led two distinct groups of people.

He led a large group of people who worked with him directly - employees, business partners, investors. He was a general who cast aside a CEO opportunity in a fortune 500 company (after they invested hell knows how much in grooming him for it) and tasked himself with solving a stupidly hard problem - finding a way to take an entire country off oil. He commanded admiration (albeit perhaps not so much from everyone in that investor mob, lately) in his slow yet unstoppable advance. Better Place Australia alone had some 16,000 unsolicited resumes in 2010.

But Shai led another group. These guys. And these guys. And if you speak Hebrew, her. And them.
I know, because I'm one of them.
These guys weren't focused at what Better Place can sell them.
They were focused on the possibility horizon Better Place would prove to be in the realm of the possible.
They would smile at the hoards of "why-bother" nay-saying pessimists it would prove dead wrong.
They pay attention because each one of them is wrangling his own problem, or has a burning desire to find himself one.

These are not Agassi's troops. 
These are current and would-be generals. They raise and lead their own armies.

Shai's rallying call merely said "Our world can be fixed", and here is how: do awesome, and find a way to bloody make it viable.
Anything you think is broken, no matter how daunting or big. Ultimately, everything. 

And That, as it turns out, is an incredibly powerful proposition to those not afraid to get up, wrap their head around a challenge and try.

In a few years time, Better Place will have proved that made viable, you can do virtually infinite Awesome, in a way we've seen companies like Google or Facebook do.
Read this post again in five years and tell me I was wrong.

I have few concerns for Shai himself. He's got new ideas popping out of his ears, he's made out of Chuck Norris, and he lives in a perpetual state of seeing opportunity. Plus, he's already made more money than he can ever spend. Like Storelli, he too will be just fine.

Looking at these last two weeks, I've become ever more convinced that some people might choose to lose aspirational leaders, but aspirational leaders never, ever lose their people.