Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pointless Work

During the infamous 27-year gig my group provided the IT infrastructure including desktop
software and hardware, telecommunications, support, etc.  The general opinion of the 'C' level people was that we were expensive.  Now we were remarkably lean in staff costs, a fraction of industry standards, and I think we did a yeoman's job.  During my tenure everything ran despite the lack of support.  Following my departure the obvious has failed...network downtime and application deployment late and far above budget forecasts.  The real cost is the loss of intellectual capital and motivation.  It's a tsunami just over the horizon.  The real test is 1) what happens when the power goes off? and 2) what happens when the intellectual capital is gone?  Electronics and software without electricity is magnetic encoding slowly eroding.

During this transition to another kind of work there have been many diversions.  When I find a few (I tried to spell 'few' as 'fue' just  now) I know that the next work involves work that lasts.  My goal is to produce work that continues even when the electricity goes off.

Two recent events have reinforced this perspective.

I ordered a novel by Elizabeth Strout which I will enjoy and remember as long as I'm able to remember things. On a shelf, the book will wait for my first or second reading for years. I'll probably lose the electronic version with the next Kindle upgrade. Additionally I ordered a backup charger for my phone which will certainly fail within the next couple of years and which I will probably throw away or certainly forget within the same 24 months.  The charger works for my iPhone 5.  Already I own two car charges for the 'i' thing and at least two wall chargers.  None of those work for my older iPhone 4 which I use for non-phone things.  My wife also has an iPhone 4 but it's always without charge.  I could have bought a supplemental charger for her phone but that would require that someone charge the supplemental charger.  That would be me and it would also involve more adapters.

The second reinforcement started with "I can't get the computer to work!" Midnight is a good
 time to troubleshoot an aging box. USB drives are notoriously prone to failure w/o warning. Never start a plumbing projects on SAT afternoon and never get your screwdrivers out at midnight. Await at 6 AM the carbonated caffeine drink got me started on diagnostic work. Once again cheap Chinese junk with a US brand name caused me to ponder the future of world. By 7:30 I'd ordered a new PC and was on my way to retrieve it w/ another caffeine drink in hand. Believe it or not, thirty people were waiting at the door of Micro Center. Where is my IBM Selectric?

Now the new PC is running.  There was a good backup from mid-July and a recent upload to "the cloud" (www.dropbox.com) with a few critical files.  Still it seemed prudent to attempt a recovery.  Pulling the drive from the PC I found my direct IDE USB and power cables and attempted to read the disk...nothing.  Contemplating bad tools I tested the cables on two other drives and all was good.  Later I brought the drive with me to the small business where there is a computer hack guy in an adjoining office.  With the offer of a reasonable barter he hooked up his cables and the drive powered up.

For whatever reason I failed to say "copy that" and I'm sure his assumption was that I did not know how to hook up a drive and it was all fine.  Later at home the drive powered up.  I copied about 30% of the contents and then the infamous "grrrrrr" and "thunk" apparently defined the Seagate Barracuda drive's end of life.  What did I expect from a ten year old drive made in China?

In the midst of all this attempts at ressurection I ordered a new identical drive on eBay for $20 which I planned to put back in the USB enclosure.  Of course when it arrived my failure to read all the details made the SATA connectors rather than IDE jump into the portion of my brain that makes mistakes.  Attempting to dig our of this I ordered two replacement Seagate Barracuda IDE drives on eBay for what I'd spent on one drive a couple of days earlier.  Staring at the SATA drive I also ordered a $25 USB SATA drive enclosure.   Given my propensity to use cloud backup solutions (e.g.  www.backblaze.com & www.mozy.com ) I'm not sure what I'm going to do with two or three USB drives.  Perhaps this was all an attempt to undo my lack of a good backup since July.

Regardless of you backup, nothing electronic is lasting.  Who's going to know your passwords or pay your domain and cloud bills when you are ...

Monday, October 13, 2014

Simple Work...Air Hose Test

Yesterday was Sunday.  In the small business world and during most of my 27-year gig there really were not days off, and that day like most others had a really long list of tasks assigned to it..  At the request for coffee from my better half we headed off.  I've never really felt totally at home in the Starbucks and Caribou and Dunn Brothers coffee places.  It's always a challenge to order and people in front of me are always ordering some elaborate coffee with two of these and do this and do that.  It was a major disappointment to my Norwegian relatives, including my mother, that I really did not drink coffee.  They were simple coffee people...black, hot, perhaps with an egg at Christmas.

As in my whole life I was not really in the mood for coffee but the Holiday Gas Stations do have a remarkably good old fashioned doughnut which is also quite unhealthy so that is where I headed.

When I left the building my son in Denmark called so we sat in the car drinking our coffee and eating our four doughnuts.  It goes without saying, but I will, that the coffee and the doughnuts cost less than even a simple coffee, much less a complex one of these and extra whatever coffee at one of the status coffee places.  The phone conversation was pleasant and covered the standard topics of weather, food, politics, jobs and the future.

Parked in front of the "Free Air" sign and air hose reminded me of the diversity of practical knowledge and work ethics we face.  The hose was all over the ground when we arrived.  A young guy drove up and put air in a couple of tires on his Honda.  Being a typical twenty-something he had the look, including the backwards baseball cap.  When he finished filling his tires he took all the remaining hose off the holder and and re-wound the air hose.  It made me think that he had just gotten out of the military where order, tidiness and standardization makes the work of war and defense and offense much simpler.  The Armed Forces figured out Lean Process Improvement a long, long time ago.  Debates about toilet paper coming off the top or the bottom of the roll or whether the air hose should be would right to left or left to right have all been standardized so that you can do your real job.

Despite the suggestion of my better half I did open the window and compliment the young man on his work.  He smiled.  Were I in a position of hiring he would have had a job immediately.  Microsoft asks interesting questions of applicants, things like "why are manhole covers round?"  Certainly that probes the realm of logic and conceptualization but leaving an unraveled air hose at the front door might identify the workers who do the work that needs to be done when presented, not just the work assigned and who think of the future without thinking.

The next car was a nice SUV driving by a woman in her late 30's or early 40's with a ten year old boy in the passenger seat.  She got out of the car carrying a pressure gauge, unraveled about half of the hose and then simply stared at the coupler that you push on the tire stem.  Apparently she knew there needed to be some sort of pressure test given the gauge but that's where it ended.  She bent over and looked at an outside water faucet handle perhaps thinking that turned on the air.  Finally she went to the door of the repair portion of the Holiday station which was dark, closed and locked and pulled on he door, then returning and holding the gauge up to the air hose coupler.  Finally she threw one loop of hose over the hanger and left the rest as a mess on the ground.  The ten year old boy remained in car throughout this staring at either his phone or handheld video game.

Farm kids are driving tractors, dealing with livestock and repairing equipment by this age.  When I was a kid, and I was not a farm kid, we'd ride out bikes a mile or two to put air in our tires all the the time, not just because we had lousy, bad tires and tubes but because the gas station mechanics would talk to us and we'd ask what they were doing and we'd watch.  I felt bad for the kid.  A parent or grandparent should have taught him by this age to put air in a tire and he should have helped his mom.  The mom's parents should have made sure she knew this skill, too.  Maybe she was at a loss.  Perhaps her husband was a war casualty or currently deployed.  I was twitchy with the urge to get out of the car and help but that would not have really been help, it would have been me doing work she should have known how to do or she should have logically figured it out.  Leaving the hose all akimbo was wrong.  Certainly her kitchen or living room is not a place where she leaves her tools and utility stuff all about.  I would not hire her and it's unlikely that her son will be employable either and he's not going to make it as a video game programmer or NBA star as many futureless kids believe.

Get your stuff in order is the mantra of the day.  Leave your tools, intellectual and physical, as they need to be for the next time you need them.  Expect the same of your subordinates, your team and your managers.

Friday, October 10, 2014

High Road vs. Low Road

Small business is the backbone of America, so I've heard.  During my pass through the outplacement organization there was much talk about starting your own business.  "Franchise" was the hot word.  You just buy a franchise and make money.  The downside is that you pay 3-8% directly to the corporate entity and you buy all your products from them or their preferred vendors and you pay a certain amount of fees to use their systems, etc.

LHH encourages you to focus on identifying the organizations with whom you'd like to work, what positions they have available and the values and culture you desire.  There's a dark side to organizations that's hard to uncover before you are inside.  Sites like www.glassdoor.com and others solicit feedback from employees about weaknesses (and strengths) of organizations but it appears that employees are unwilling to share.  Perhaps we'd all be better off if we were honest about the dishonesty of organizations and people.  There are many petty thieves and miscellaneous low-lifes with and without jobs.

We've had small businesses on and off for three or four decades.  None of the franchise deals or "how to start a small business" books or seminars deal with the unpleasant things that come around.  Everyone understands shoplifting and employee theft and you can deal with that.  The challenging ones are the robberies and the burglaries.

This morning I stopped by the retail operation at 6:30 AM to pick up products for a Farmer's Market.  The outside lights of the multi-tenant were all off and it was remarkably dark outside.  Parking outside the front door I left the truck running with the lights on and opened things up.  After opening the front door I went in and out about six times hauling boxes.  Before leaving I decided to use the rest room and turned on the lights.  Apparently someone did not like our normal business hours or using the front door.

Certainly it's invasive.  Fortunately I believe they exited as they had entered as I re-arranged things outside before coming in.  The take was $59 in small change.  I spent all day with three or four insurance people and two visits from the sheriff and then a trip to Home Depot for materials to secure this before the actual repair.  I lost several hundred in sales at the market I was attempting to visit and about five hours of my time cleaning up and securing the space.  Repairs and the lost $59 will be covered by insurance but there will be a $500 deductible and a series of unpleasant negotiations with the building owner over who is responsible for what.

You work hard, treat people fairly and simply try to a nice person and professional about your craft or crafts.  During my 27-year gig there were a few times when someone threw a 50 pound hunk of concrete through me or at me.  That's difficult or impossible to avoid in the executive suite.  Recovery from a hit or near-miss is often impossible (note my unemployment).  In our businesses we've had lots of shoplifting.  That's sort of like people simply not being honest.  We've had one robbery.  Being face-to-face with a bad person is sort of straight forward.  They tell you what they want and you more or less respond and then it's over.  Burglaries leave me uncomfortable.  People have been places they are not supposed to be.  You don't know what they've done outside of the obvious.  Were I not so tired there would be chapter written about organizational robberies and burglaries, people who do deceitful, dishonest work right in front of you and those executing likewise behind the scenes.  I've worked with both and glad to be done with those who take the low road.

Comments of the day:
  • Landlord:  That's your problem.  It's part of the tenant space.
  • Sheriff:  Why don't these people just get a job.
  • Neighbor:  I hate people
  • Customer & fellow tenant:  I just don't understand how people do this.
  • Customer & retired detective:  I'm sure the Sheriff will be on this.
  • Naive customer:  I hope they catch them.
  • Another fellow tenant:  What's with people.  They are all lowlifes.
On the positive side:
  • I was close, but did not have  to be face-to-face which would have turned this into something else.  I'm no longer interested in having street or organizational robbers or burglars dictate my life.  Someone would have gotten hurt.
  • It was a beautiful fall day.
  • I'm not sure, but I don't think anyone really offered to help.  It's like when someone dies and people say let me know what I can do.  Today someone could have just brought a sheet of plywood.  That's what I expect of landlords and insurance companies.  Fortunately I've been done this route and expected nothing from either of those parties and that's what I received.
  • The business partners were helpful and supportive and did not complain when I covered them in dust from the circular saw and one of them did not complain that they were probably breathing toxic dust from plywood glue and bonding products.
  • My son was supportive and understanding from the other side of the planet.
  • I probably disturbed the perps and that kept anything from freezing out with the cold air blowing through the whole.
  • The 50 pound concrete block did not hit the toilet which would have resulted in a major mess.  Shutoff valves are normally stuck or absent.
  • In my own form of destruction I loved affixing a plywood cover to a large broken window with construction adhesive knowing I would not be the person attempting to remove the broken window.
  • Three sheriffs came for lunch.  We gave them a deal.  They'll be on the watch for someone who can fit between sixteen inch on center 2x4 studs.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


My former staff is slowly departing my 27-year gig company.  My focus looking forward continues to clarify as the past becomes more distant.  I'm pleased with that.  My LHH guy, who I still need to visit again, talks about just focusing and doing what you need to do.  Of course I like to turn that on him and ask when the book will be done.  Apparently he added a chapter from my suggestion(s).    If he can't get it done soon I may have a second chapter for him.

A couple of years ago as energy drinks hit the market I found my energy waning with the some of the organizational stuff.  Clearly Red Bull is a devious drink so I started trying the energy drinks, one-by-one
starting with Monster and Rock Star, working my way through all the permutations.  After about two weeks my staff asked me to stop.  Perhaps that was their concern for my health...or as I suspect it was concern for their own health.  Today I found a Monster Loca Moca and consumed it, too fast.   Over the course of the last hour and a half I've accomplished quite a bit but I need to take a break and get something to eat.  A glass of wine might help.

While departing that gig the reality of age sort of kicked in.  I had just hired a guy older than me but I also realized that breaking that 60+ glass wall for myself would take some effort.  I know that I'm now focused on my own creative work but have shown the discipline (w/o Monster) to apply that creativity to other people's work.  The age issue struck me as I ponder the recent article by that Emanuel character that wants to die at 75 and as I read articles that seem to like to mention the age of someone whenever they are over 60 and actually do something.  My plan is to die at the keyboard with whatever creative tools I can still grasp in whatever appendage I have available.  Amidexterity is advantageous.  I'm certain what I do today comes with age and that the quality and value is improving.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

369 Days into The Last 4000

Several people alluded to an article they'd read recently about avoiding all the end of life issues we see our parents struggle with.  When I think of my mother I'm reminded of the last eighteen months.  While I'm not sure how much I really want or need to remember from all the years before that, I know that the last year and a half pretty much blew.  Ezekiel Emanuel, noted scholar, recently penned an article entitled "Why I hope to Die at 75" in which he laments the extra effort to keep us going, but is really concerned that he does not want to perform at a lower scale.  He states that almost everyone starts to lose their creativity, their gifts and abilities of all sorts at 7.5 decades.

I am a few days into year two after leaving my 27-year gig.  Generally this is feeling pretty good, but Ezekiel did get me thinking which resulted in the calculation ((75-63)*365)+((9/12)*365)= the number of days left before my creativity is gone.  Now in the context of sitting in an office or working on "strategic plans" or "business continuity plans" or "capacity planning" or "system change management" or .... none these is getting me excited at the moment and I've just wasted another few minutes of the remaining of the 4000 or so days before I'm left to be as creative as nothing, or as my kids say...being just a tool.

This was all somewhat alarming so I immediately did 1) the preceding calculation to confirm how little time I
had left (I'm sure there is NOT and iPhone app that pulls your birth date from some public record and starts
a shot clock timer showing your diminishing potential minute and second by second until you turn to mush at 12:01 AM on your 75th birthday) and 2) bought a lottery ticket to fund my remaining time.  Also selected were a few Zombie scratch-offs which won't cover the remaining 4000+ days but could fund the next tire(s) that I blow since it's now been a month without a tire repair or replacement.

The small business did a trade show today and it was quite successful with much cross-marketing and some actual sales.  We feel quite comfortable in the accomplishments within that framework and also for the potential going forward.

Four thousand days:  as I posted in the short version of this nonsense on Facebook it "is time to get cracking" and move the imagery, products and services out of my head into their artistic (although diminishing creative) form.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

One Year + Three Days: Squirrels, Nuts & Honesty

Time Passes

The one-year recap and look forward is in-process.  It's clear that I'm working more now that I'm working less.  Working for yourself is far more complex than being employed.  In an organization you set strategies and goals and work within budget constraints and the often limited human resources available.  As an executive I spent most of my time mentoring my staff, keeping them aware of what they needed to know and isolated from the distraction of useless information or no information and I spent much repetitive, unproductive time in planning meetings with bosses and peers.  Working for yourself everything is in flux and there is no end of the day wrap-up or weekend.

Squirrels & Nuts

Spring arrived very late in MN this year.  The snow seemed to never end.  Hot weather never arrived either and now with an early frost the honey and crop production has ended, also disappointing.  The northern suburb where we spend our weekday time is heavily forested with oak trees, white, red, burr, etc.  The red oaks are afflicted with oak wilt and we've lost many from our yard at great cost, financial and esthetic.  The lawns are covered in acorns allowing for non-stop browsing by the deer and perpetual carrying and burying by the squirrels.  Mice also seem to fill every niche with the half chewed shells.  It's not clear to me how a mouse carries something so large.  Apparently mice can enter our hose through a 1/4" hole.  That almost  a David Copperfield act with a 5/8" nut in your mouth.

There are a few black walnut trees around and the squirrels seem to carry these for blocks from the source.  It seems a non-stop effort this time of the year.  Pick up a huge walnut, carry it a couple of blocks and bury it and then repeat.  In my yard squirrels die frequently.  In the wild, without any marksmen about they can live seven or eight years.  They have three litters per year and seem to spend a fair amount of time making litters but what about the nuts.  Of all the acorns and walnuts and whatever nuts are about that they bury, what becomes of them?  Is some squirrel keeping track of the the 2009 nut stash, know that was a particularly good one or making sure it's secure?  It seems that on any given day squirrels go out and look for something to eat.  Never have I seen one dig up a nut that was buried.

Red squirrels are another opportunity to attempt and organizational metaphor.  The red guys chew on everything.  This past year they chewed up $3,000 of my cars.  While they did manage to take parts (insulation) from one car and build cozy nests in two others, much of their chewing was of little purpose.  It's unclear to me why you would eat plastic or oil-covered wire.  They also ate the handles off my garbage cans.  That might be a presumption that the handles were eaten.  They might have chewed off hunks and buried them in anticipation of some future time when the parts could be re-purposed or re-assembled (sort of a Ted Williams deal).  Much organizational work is red squirrel work.  I'm not going to bother to attempt metaphor completion.

This is what concerns me when I consider going back to working for someone else.  My experience in organizations was that we spend a lot of time burying nuts.  Whenever there was a crisis no one said "go dig up the nuts we put aside."  We looked for new nuts.  The really good nut-gatherers moved on to nut-gathering organizations where they were appreciated; we struggled.  The reserve organizational nuts must have all been consumed by the stockholders.  Many plans were written, proposals put together and meetings and seminars conducted where we talked about what we'd done in the past rather than looking to the future.  The word of the the half-decade is innovation.  Everyone is attempting to put together innovation programs...with documents, plans, goals, budgets, constraints, management, innovation czars, etc.  It seems that organizations only focus should be evolving production driven by innovation.

Moving forward I want to manage my own nuts.


Watching the clock caused me to stop short of the honesty theme.  Given the opportunity and constraints of the market good workers will do what needs to be down.  Flatter organizations do that better than those more hierarchial. Heirarchy creates the needs for plans, budgets, management, and all that.  It's easier to be honest in the flatter organization.  Often c-level executives consider their vision to be more clear.  More time needs to be spent listening to those doing the work.  Not listening to your employees is a compromise of honesty and that undermines the most valuable resource...the employees.

I'm going to have to work on this honesty section.  The clock is driving me crazy.  The chainsaw needs to come out and a large limb come down before the squirrels move into the attic.