Category Archives: Life

Why being an expert is a problem

Frustrated baby

Shoshin is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind“. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

Most of us are quite good at what we do for a living, basically because we do it almost every day. This knowledge and expertise comes with several problems. As agile practitioners, we know that one of the big problems with big, up front planning of projects, is that we don’t know what we don’t know – so our plans for the future can never be perfect. One of the big problems with being an expert, is that we’re not actively aware of what we do know either.

Who would you rather hire to solve some complex business problem – an expert in the field, or a young, inexperienced person with no domain knowledge? The truth is, they can both provide valuable contributions. Without preconceived judgement, the beginner may ask strikingly efficient questions, turning the problem (and maybe the solution) upside down.

But here you are. Unfortunately you’ve become an expert in your field – jumping to conclusions and solving problems at an impressive pace. Now what?

You need to practice having a beginner’s mind. Believe it or not, it’s actually a lot more fun. It’s also a bit scary. You’re used to coming across as the person who has all the answers. Now you will have to behave and feel like you don’t really know much at all. The interesting thing about asking questions, is that you tend to get answers. Even when you think you know the answer already, it often turns out that you don’t.

The thing about beginners, is that they fail a lot. Even the very feeling of not knowing can feel like failure. You’re the expert, right? The cold stare of a boss or a customer when you ask a question you’re supposed to know the answer to. I should know this. I do know this! This beginner’s mind bullshit is going to cost me my job. Then they answer. Perhaps with a sarcastic tone.

And the answer isn’t what you expected.

You’re immediately kicked behind the knee by the feeling of surprise and (yet again) failure that you actually didn’t know. A second later, your feet barely touch the ground as the consequences of this new information floods your brain, mixed with the baffling realisation that the you of 1 minute ago, knew far less than you do right now.

Suddenly you remember what learning feels like.

I know you’re an expert, but why would you want to stop learning? My youngest son is 7 months. He fails a lot. He learns even more.


Reference “Beginner’s mind”:
Photo: Macrorain
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Wait, If you think I am wrong.. Maybe I am?

There are a lot of simple “life lessons” out there. When you hear one for the first time you may feel like you knew it already, you just never really thought about it. 

I’ve decided to try to write short posts whenever I get some small revelation about something or other. Here is the first one.

I recently watched an interview with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and something Larry said created one of those “Aha” moments. They were discussing wether he and Sergey had any fundamental disagreements during their time as founders of Google. Since they know each other well and have great respect for each other, Larry commented that

“(..)if we are disagreeing about something, it is probably because it isn’t obvious what to do”

When you think about it, that’s actually quite profound. During the heat of an argument, most people are quite convinced they are right. But if an argument is heated, someone else are equally convinced that you are wrong. So any time an argument escalates, it could be a useful red flag indicating that the answer probably isn’t that clear cut.

If someone you know and trust thinks you are wrong, chances are you’re at least not 100% right. So instead of butting heads (for too long), give them space to explain and elaborate their point of view. Acknowledge that whatever you’re discussing probably doesn’t have an obvious right or wrong answer, and you may need time and input from other people to come to a conclusion.


I’m in the business of a little bit better

So, what’s it all about, this software business? Making money? Isn’t any business? Figure out how to bleed the customer of as much money as humanly possible, while doing as little as you can get away with. It’s a bit of an art, really.

It doesn’t matter if you’re buying software services for your company, or a carpenter to remodel your house. They strip you naked and hang you out to dry. That’s just the way modern business works, I guess.

Or is it?

At Revio we have a set of core values. One of them is Proud. By the end of the day, we need to be able to stand up straight, and be proud. Proud of who we are. Proud of what we accomplished.

Proud of how we have treated others, and proud of what we have delivered to you.

As much as we would like to be flawless, we are not. There are times when we look at the result of a project, a system update or some other deliverable, and must admit that it falls short. We ask ourselves if we can be proud of that delivery, and the answer is No, we can not.

I hold both myself and the rest of the team to high standards, so when that happens I feel really, really bad. Then our COO looks at me and says:

“Meanwhile in Africa..”

What he means is that sure, our server is down, our customer is furious, and it sucks. But while the customer may very well be furious, he’s not dead. He is not being killed in front of his wife and children in Libya, and luckily – neither are we.

When we’ve reminded ourselves that no matter how bad we screw up, most of the planet is still doing quite a bit worse than we are, it’s time to get back to work. Whatever was wrong must be put right, and whatever the customer is expecting, we must try to achieve.

Our way of conducting business may not be saving lives. However, by being honest, dependable and proud of what we do – we hope we are able to make yours at least a little bit better.


I hate it when we suck

I’ve been around my fair share of useless people, I’m sure you have as well.
I don’t know about you, but I hate it.

I can handle people who are genuinely useless, but useless people who are actually intelligent and could have been competent, those guys I really hate. I hate it when people do a crap job even though I know they could do so much better. It’s amazing how much you can’t get done when you’re armed with a lack of motivation combined with a healthy dose of ignorance.

I hate leaders and managers who think they are doing a great job, but actually suck at it, and blame their employees for their own shortcomings.

When I started out as a manager (and to a certain extent even today), I always took the blame for anything my employees did wrong. When you made an error, so did I. Why is that? Because I hate it when we suck. I try to do my very best, every day, all day. I seldom succeed, but at least I try. I want you to try too. Hard.

So when I take the blame for your mistake, that isn’t right, is it? I don’t want to take responsibility for your mistakes, I want you to take responsibility. Own up, move on, do better next time.

You’re at the office doing whatever it is you do most of your waking hours anyway, so you might as well be passionate about it, right? It wouldn’t kill you, would it? If it did, at least you’d die doing something you were passionate about. It sure beats being bored to death.

The next time someone gives you feedback (that’s a nice word for someone shouting at you and telling you that you suck), hold back on that excuse for just a minute. Because they already know the specification wasn’t perfect. They know the customer is a jerk. They know you have a cold. And deep down you both know that you are capable of doing a better job. That’s probably why the guy is shouting at you in the first place. It’s no use shouting at an idiot, but he knows you can do better. So why the hell didn’t you?

I’d love for us to just get rid of all the terrible excuses and blame games (even though I still catch myself participating in them from time to time). And just. Get. Better.

So whenever you get yelled at, tell them that yes sir, you are exactly right. It was my responsibility to identify that the specification was incomplete. It was my responsiblity to figure out what the customer really wanted. It was my responsibility to make sure this new feature didn’t break anything else. I will go out of my way to do better.

I for one, will love you for it. And I will do my best to follow your lead.


Developers hate making phone calls

Leave me alone!

Leave me alone!

“Did you contact our third party vendor about that critical issue as I asked you?” “Sure, I sent them an email last week.” 

One thing I noticed hanging around developers for many years, is that the majority resent making phone calls. They’d much rather write an email than pick up the phone. From a managers point of view, it may appear ineffective to send an email and then sit on your hands for a week while waiting for a reply.

You see, most managers, sales persons (and apparently the world at large) are a part of the most popular breed of people: The extrovert. The extrovert thrive on being around other people and loves talking (on the phone and elsewhere). They love teamwork and socializing in general.

Having a minimum of extrovert behaviour is the expected norm in our society, and from kindergarden and beyond, any introvert behaviour is frowned upon. So what is an introvert then? In contrast to the extrovert, the introvert actually enjoys being alone. She needs some time for herself to charge her batteries. Also, she’s usually not so fond about talking on the phone..

So what am I saying here? Most developers are loners and misfits? Well, sort of. Except that somewhere between one third and one half of the population are introverts. They may be loners, but they are certainly not alone. That may sound like a high number to you. That’s because there are a lot of fake extroverts out there.

Having society kick you in the head all your life (including teachers, parents, other teenagers, TV-shows and magazines) insisting that there is something wrong with you if you don’t enjoy partying all night and holding long speeches in front of a crowd the next day, many introverts cave in. They start being extrovert even though it goes against their nature.

Introverts think before they take a decision. They listen before they talk. They create for the sake of creation, not fame. And they invent the most amazing things, all by themselves. They share the label of introvert with Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, Mahatma Ghandi, Al Gore, Isaac Newton and countless more.

So the next time your employee sends an email when he obviously should have called, or says he needs some time to think something through, be grateful. You’ve got a guy on your team that is probably creative, plans things out, loves to concentrate and focus on a single task.

And given space, quiet and time to do something right, he will do just that.

Somehow the extroverts have managed to make their version of the world the norm. But wether you’re an extrovert or an introvert – you share your personality with almost half of the planet. And there’s nothing wrong with you.

Read more about introverts in Susan Cains excellent book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” or see her TED Talk.


Are you bored at work?

On my way to work today, I almost got a hard lesson in the evils of multitasking. I was doing maybe 70km/h on the highway during rush hour, and for some reason I looked out the side window for a few seconds. When I looked back on the road, the cars in front of me was standing still. And I was still doing 70.

Being a certified ninja driver, I instantly hit the brakes and ended up partially sideways about an arms length away from the nearest car. I also had time to peek in the rear view mirror, where I was able to share a look of panic with the guy in the car behind me. Luckily for me, his braking skills was as amazing as my own.

I guess that should have made me want to write something profound about life. About not wasting your life in the office, perhaps. And it kind of did.

When driving a car, you should really pay attention to what you’re doing. But it’s easy to get distracted when you’re sleepy, as I was. It’s also easy to get distracted when you’re bored.

People who really love what they do are often portrayed as being really focused. They may appear single minded, driven towards a goal. You’d probably not hear anyone describe them as distracted.

At the moment I drive a “family car”. It’s so boring to drive that I’m both distracted and sleepy before I even get out of my driveway. A few years back I had a purpose built sports car. Something about it seemed to demand my full attention at all times.

Sure, I drove more aggressively when I had it, but I was also a lot more focused behind the wheel. Driving to work was no longer a task, it was fun. I was focused on driving the car, and never got distracted by random objects along the road. Driving a sports car actually made me a better driver. I was doing something fun. And part of what made it fun, was that I was a part of a well functioning system. So if you are easily and often distracted at work, why is that?

How does it feel when you sit behind your desk at the office, does it feel like you’re driving a Porsche? Or are you actually bored and frustrated? Are your boss, your co-workers or the processes and policies of your company preventing you from doing a good job?

If that is the case, please let me remind you that you are spending nearly half of your waking hours at that desk. That’s a lot of time spent not having fun.

Just saying.


Trick question: What’s the problem?

Maybe the problem goes away if I close my eyes?

Let’s say you witness a boy fall off his bike. What do you see? What do you do? If you help the kid back up on his bike, most would argue that you’ve solved the issue at hand. But isn’t it likely that the boy will soon fall off again? And if that is the case, did you really solve the problem?

If we scratch the surface, there’s a whole range of other problems hidden behind the most obvious one. Why did the child fall off the bike? He probably needs more training in order to reliably control a bicycle. He certainly lacks basic risk management skills. Do we have an equipment problem? Perhaps the bike is of the wrong type or size for the child?

Riding a bike is basically a process. I don’t know about you, but when the rider of the bike ends up face down in a ditch  more often that not, I see room for improvement.

Let’s leave the kid and his bike for now. Say a customer reports a bug in your software. What do you do? Fix the bug, of course! Problem solved, right? Wrong. Why wasn’t the bug discovered before the software was released to the customer? Your test team (if you even have one) should have prevented that from happening. So improving your test and QA process will do the trick, surely? The QA manager raises his hand: Wait a minute, isn’t the developer supposed to test his work before releasing it to us? A lazy developer must be the real problem here!

At this point you’re probably on to me. “I see what you did there,” you say with satisfaction in your voice. These are all reactive solutions to the real problem. The real question. Why did the bug occur in the first place? Lazy or incompetent developers? Maybe. Someone has created a piece of software that doesn’t work as intended. You may guess my next question: WHY?

When I find myself in a similar situation, I often find that the developer wasn’t given enough information to make the right choices during development. Let’s all say it together: Shit in, shit out. If I had a better developer, he may have recognized the turd when I shit in his hand, but I can hardly argue the origin of the turd itself.

So we have established that I’m full of shit, but how did we do that? We did a (somewhat informal) root cause analysis. As a fan of Lean and the heritage from the Toyota Production System, I like the 5 Why’s. – It’s a process where you basically keep asking why until you arrive at the real source of whatever problem you need to resolve.

The kid fell off his bike – Why?
He doesn’t really know how to ride a bike all that well – Why?
His dad doesn’t have time to teach him – Why?
He works all the time – Why?
He thinks making money for his family is more important than being there for his kid.

So there you go. Not only did you learn how to solve problems (instead of just removing symptoms), you also got a life lesson. No worries, you can thank me later. Now put down your laptop and go be with your family. And never solve another problem without asking WHY at least five times!


Work and Play, Night and Day?

Having an interesting and challenging job usually comes with a price. Any unfinished business you may have at the end of the day, stays with you when you leave work. Even if it’s difficult, you should always try to separate work and free time. Or should you?

Where do you draw the line between work and home? Wherever you are, you are still connected to people via email and a range of social networks. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn? You name it, there is a digital device within ten feet that’s got it. Chances are your contacts blend into a cocktail of friends, work related connections and a few that are somewhere in between.

The hard line between work and play was always an artifical one, and now more than ever. How do you expect your brain to understand if a thought “belongs” at work or at home? It just can’t. Your mind worries about your business problems and the fact that your house needs to be painted on equal terms.

So what to do? Use GTD or similar systems to ensure that you can put a placeholder for unfinished work in a system you trust. Wether it’s related to work, home or family doesn’t really matter. Talk to your significant other about work. “How was work today?” should be more than a polite greeting. Take interest in, and talk about work related problems as well as personal issues. It’s easier for both of you to move on and “let go” of work, if you take time to discuss it with someone who has a healthy distance to your daily challenges.

I’m not saying you should think about work 24/7. It’s important to maintain some kind of balance, and preserve the sanity of both yourself and those around you. Spend some time with familiy and friends. Get around a bit by walking the dog or mowing the lawn. Maintain coordination by playing darts (on your xbox kinect of course) or building model airplanes.

I’m not telling you to actively work from home during the evening. Make sure that spending your evening hours on office problems is a choice YOU make, and not a requirement set by your boss. My main point is that you can’t expect your brain to shut down all work related thought processes the minute you park the car outside your house. Don’t beat yourself up about checking your email or being excited about an important meeting tomorrow. Hopefully you have a job you enjoy, it’s only natural for your mind to keep solving problems when you come home.

Most of us have an increasingly result oriented job. It’s less about where and when, and more about what and how. Seeing as you solve the problems of tomorrow while watching CSI in the evening, your boss surely won’t mind that you check Facebook or answer a personal email during the day. Flexible work arrangements done right, means weight off your shoulders both at home and at work.

Juggling work and play “correctly” so that you avoid stressing out yourself or your family isn’t easy. You need to figure out what works for you, within the boundaries set by both your boss and your spouse.

The bottom line is that we can’t focus eight hours straight anyway, so if you think about it: Maybe a little bit of work at home – and a little bit of play at work – isn’t such a bad thing after all?