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The Password is....

It was pretty simple... the first day of junior high school. You showed up, got your locker assignment and combination, twisted the dial, back and forth, and wha–la… it opened. You successfully “logged in” to your “locker account”. “Do not share your combination with anyone, and store it in a safe place” we were instructed. I do not think anyone actually wrote down their locker combination, but rather just committed it to memory. The manipulation of the lock, and opening of the locker became a subconscious activity. The next year you just started all over again.
It got a bit more complex with the introduction of the automated teller machine (ATM). This amazing little machine could dole out money at any hour and in many convenient locations. The price for such convenience? Well, one must be able to provide proof of identity in the form of the very secret personal identification number (PIN). This number must be remembered (you do not want to carry it around with you and your ATM card). Ok, so one little four digit number, not a big deal. Next, it was the answering machine. It used to be that only really important people, like doctors and lawyers, had answering machines. But soon, we all jumped on the bandwagon. For the convenience of getting your messages remotely, one only had to pay the small price of remembering another four-digit code.

The technology revolution had begun, and before you knew it, we had codes for our keyless entry cars, garage doors, security systems and office buildings. With the introduction of computers into our lives, the world was about to change. In 1983 we watched Mathew Broderick use a secret password to gain access to his school’s computer in War Games. It was a password, not a number. This conjures up memories of Allen Ludden hosting a game show on TV… where we hear a whispering voice say, “The password is …” - Why did he whisper? It was a voice over; it was not like they might accidentally hear him… I digress.

Before long the Internet exploded. We had to “log in” to our Internet accounts. Once on the Internet, a host of convenient applications tempted us: on-line banking, brokerage accounts, bill pay, cell phone accounts, voicemail, email, on-line shopping (each vendor has their own login), social networking sites, blog sites, iTunes, Netflix … You name it. The price for this convenience? Almost every site requires us to “log in”. This process doubles the problem because one must not only have a password, but also a unique username identifier.

Just stop for a moment and consider the number of different tasks in your life that require a username and password. I stopped counting at 100. We have all tried to consolidate as best we can – you know...reuse, recycle. The problem is that what may be a unique username at one site may not be unique at another. Thus we start creating a password with a number following to find a unique combination. The more adventurous mix letters and numbers and even punctuation to create "meaningful "usernames. These can be hard to remember: Was it 3lvisRox or E1visroc$ ?
Another problem is that each application may have a different security policy and require a different number of characters, caps, numbers and or symbols in the password. What works for one may not work for others.

It turns out that all this convenience is actually quite cumbersome and challenging to my memory. I have to regularly request my password be e-mailed to me…. Now, if only I could remember the password to my e-mail account.

Oh, and by the way. Experts agree that for security reasons you should change your passwords at least every six months. Good luck.

Me, Myself, and I

It was during a hot summer spent abroad working in Japan. I was always thirsty to learn about the culture and looked for opportunities to interact as with the local people both at work and during time off. Early one day, following the morning calisthenics, during our team communication circle, one beaming co-worker proudly announced that he had won 5000 yen (about $50) the night before playing Pachinko. Many oohhs and aahhs followed. This little exchange left me perplexed; gambling is illegal in Japan. Moreover, one cultural observation already booked was the amazing respect shown toward the rules. Few seemed to question the rules, and very few ventured across the line out of respect for the rules themselves as well as respect for those one might embarrass if they were caught. So this quandary remained, everyone in the circle seemed to condone this remarkable feat of winning money gaming, yet the rule was clear: no gambling.
I turned to my close Japanese friend for an explanation.
“I thought gambling was illegal in Japan.” I began.
He quickly and strongly replied “Oh, yes. Gambling is against Japanese rule.”
“A guy today said he won money last night at a pachinko parlor, how is that possible?” I shot back.
“Oh.” He seemed to understand my query. “You can win pencils when you play pachinko.”
“Pencils?” I repeated, “But he said he won money last night, nothing about pencils.”
“He sold the pencils.” He explained.
“Huh? He sold the pencils at the pachinko parlor?”
“No, no, not at the pachinko parlor… at the, um... other place.”
This was getting interesting. “Where is the ‘other place’?” I continued to press.
It turns out that in the parking lot of every pachinko parlor there is a little hut. One can take pencils they have won playing pachinko and sell them for cold hard cash to the pencil aficionado out in the hut. Interestingly enough, those same pencils somehow end up back in the pachinko parlor the next night.
Anyway, everyone seems perfectly fine with the arrangement. Technically speaking, no rules were broken.

Honesty and integrity get thrown around as imperative attributes of doing business. While few disagree, there does seem to be a pretty big gray area around how far the truth can be stretched and still be considered honest. Wordsmithing has become a valued art, not just in politics, but business as well. It can come down to what the definition of “is” is.

In a competitive business, companies strive to beat the competition to market with new products. Corporations call press conferences, stage demonstrations, and issue press releases to brag about the release of new products ahead of their competitors. This of course is to impress analysts to upgrade or increase price targets for the stock. Of course, announcements must be true. Enter the gray area of truth:
A company wants to announce that it is shipping a product on a certain date, but the product is not ready. They cannot lie in the announcement. What can they do?
If only there was a customer to which the product could be shipped before it was ready; a customer that would overlook the shortcomings of the product. Then some executive says “Hey, what if we become our own customer. We could ship the product to ourselves, hold the product in inventory, and then when it is finally ready we can exchange the inventory.” Brilliant…wink wink.

Oh, that reminds me, I have to call myself to see if I want to play tennis with me today.

Second Hand Crack

The Surgeon General has long declared that smoking is hazardous to your health. Over the last two decades the awareness of the harms of second hand smoke, also know as involuntary smoking, have increased. The Surgeon General has further declared that second hand smoke is harmful as well.

Through the works of organizations such as the “Americans for Non–Smokers Rights", many public areas, dining establishments, and workplaces have become smoke free. It has been a long time since ashtrays graced the desks of the workplace and smoke filled the air. We now have air purifiers; humidity controlled and air conditioned workspaces. Ahhhh.

Now, a new addiction has taken over the workplace. More importantly, this addiction has worked its way into the family lives and personal lives of many workers. The addiction is to e-mail read and responded to via handheld devices. The junkies can be found plucking away with their thumbs on Pearls and Curves throughout the day, evening, and into the wee hours of the night. The virtual workday never ends.

Those that have resisted the temptation look on with pity at the addicted and afflicted. Many made pleges to themselves to not get caught up in this ubiquitous e-mail craze. However, as with the secondhand smoke, just because you do not partake, does not ensure that you will not be inflicted with the effects of the vice.

Returning Monday morning, after the first real spring like weekend of the year, the effect was evident. Apparently, while I had been out doing yard work, running, and barbequing with friends, my addicted co-workers were tapping away with their thumbs at every chime, beep or vibration from their crack pipe phone. Further evident is the apparent inability to modify the copy list (cc) from these high tech devices. I fired up my e-mail Monday morning and opened my inbox to find it overflowing with plumes of second hand crack. The copies of all the instant jibber jabber messages from the crackberry users over the entire weekend filled my in-box; half of which were unreadable due to the tight placement of the keys and the relative fat fingers of the addicted.

We now must turn to the likes of the “Americans for Non-Blackberry User Rights” to lobby for, and promote a work environment free from second hand crack-berry messages that litter and inflict stress on the non-users. After all those of us that are crack free still have a life.

Final Frontier

Everyone has their favorite geek or nerd. There was Michael Anthony Hall in Breakfast Club, Anthony Edwards in Revenge of the Nerds, and of course Dilbert. We can all remember that kid in school that absolutely hated physical education class: the one that was much more comfortable finding prime numbers with the math club than “playing”, or more appropriately “being the main target” in dodge ball. Sure, they were laughed at and made fun of, but now they are the decision makers and power brokers of the new millennium. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak – geeks by most accounts, founded Apple Computer. Bill Gates, clearly a geek, held the title of richest man in the world for many years. The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are now arguably two of the most powerful people in the high tech industry. When kids head off to college, the cool kids go Greek; the not so cool kids go geek.

Engineering is based on logic, and for many years was quite predictable and mundane. That all changed in the 1960s when Hollywood introduced the world to the dramatic side of engineering. James Doohan portrayed Montgomery Scott (“Scotty”) the chief engineer aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise on the television series Star Trek. For many, this was a first glimpse into engineering. Many young, some-day engineers took note. The dramatic flare forever changed engineering methodology and process. This has evolved to the widely accepted “Scotty Process” of engineering. It goes like this:
1. Receive request.
Requests can come from customers, marketing, or internally from other functions in the organization.
“Scotty we need warp drive right away.”
2. Review the request.
(usually this includes significant body language, sighs and exasperated breathing)
3. Explain how the request is impossible.
Set the bar of expectation such that there is no hope of delivery of such an outlandish request. The only way this could be accomplished was if a miracle occurred. Anyone that could pull it off would certainly be a genius… if not a miracle worker.
“Captain, all warp engines are down, best case will be two weeks to repair and get them back on line”
4. Accept the request expressing low confidence.
“We will take a look and see what we can do.”
5. Provide a response.
Response should be well crafted, positive enough to keep the request from being withdrawn, but with significant concerns in order to keep expectations down.
“Aye, Captain we’re given you all we got.”
6. When the need is at a critical point, provide the solution, maximizing the dramatic effect.
“Now, Scotty ...We need warp drive now or we all die.”
“Right away, here you go Captain.”

Note: It is not necessary to deliver a perfect solution on first delivery. High value is placed on individuals that can “fix” things not necessarily those that engineer them properly the first time. Especially, when time critical.
7. Sit back and enjoy the thanks and respect of miracle worker status.
“Well done Scotty.”

A Clean Igloo

Many years ago, just recently married and into our new home, my wife and I naively bit on the phone call. “We will be in your area and would like to give you a voucher for a free vacation! All we ask is that you, with no obligation, give us a few minutes of your time to hear about our revolutionary new product.” Wow, a free vacation! That should be worth a few minutes of our time. As it turned out, the representative (salesman) did not have any vacation vouchers left, but he would see to it that we would be sent one in the mail. The revolutionary new product turned out to be a dorky looking vacuum cleaner. After trying desperately to impress us with demonstrations using a bowling ball, several rolls of pennies, and a jar of sand, we ultimately agreed with him on one thing: It really sucked. The guy acted surprised when we told him we were not interested. “Is money the issue? We can offer easy financing.” Was he kidding…financing for a vacuum cleaner?
The problem quickly became: how to get this unwanted person out of our home. He was pulling every trick in the book. “People usually do not refuse such an outstanding offer. Can I use your phone? I need to call my boss.” Finally, I let him use the phone, to distract him, as I set his incredibly pricey “revolutionary cleaning system” out on my driveway. That did the trick. He left. I must admit, he worked hard to sell me something I did not want.

Some say that a great salesperson could sell ice to Eskimos.

In business there are often complaints that the sales team puts forth little effort. We do not see them working the customer with bowling balls, pennies and such to sell our new ideas or products. The problem is that many people confuse the roles of sales and marketing. In a large company, sales and marketing fill very different roles.

Marketing is focused on product (what to sell), price (how much to sell it for), promotion (making customers aware of the product), and placement (how product compares to others). Marketing can itself be divided into two parts, strategic marketing and operational marketing.

Strategic marketing is the process of identifying what customers want or need. This involves taking customers out to an expensive lunches and compiling lists of all their wildest dreams. The wish lists from each customer are collated to create a master list covering all desires of every possible customer. This becomes the product requirement document for engineering. It generally looks like the following: best-in-class performance, best-in-class reliability, best-in-class durability, lowest power, and lowest cost in industry. Oh, and we definitely need to have it out before any competitor. This challenging “work” apparently takes great skill; no wonder the budget is so big.

Operational marketing attempts to attract customers and raise awareness of the company and its products and or services. This involves hosting and participating in lavish golf tournaments and “meetings” in sky suites at professional athletic events. Of course these outings come with neat logo laden gifts such as polo shirts and duffle bags. Talk about a big budget.

Finally, there is the sales team. The sales team is responsible for taking the customer’s purchasing representative out for drinks, and then accepting a purchase order. The sales job is really limited to just taking orders. They do not actually “sell” anything. It is up to marketing to define products that sell themselves and to butter up the customer. Sales representatives simply swoop in, take the order, and then celebrate their impressive commission.

Ironically, it is engineering that must innovate to actually deliver a product. Unfortunately for them, there are no fancy lunches, golf tournaments, drinks, or commission checks.

Of course ….they may get pizza if they work over the weekend.

Game On

It was October 17, 2004. The American Conference Championship series was on the line. The Boston Red Sox were in a tough spot: down three games to none in a best of seven series. Things were not looking good as the bottom of the ninth inning began. Behind four runs to three, it looked like the season was over. In sports however, you never give up until the game is over. As it turned out, Bill Mueller’s single in the bottom of the ninth allowed Dave Roberts to score; tying the game and sending it into extra innings. It took twelve innings, but the Boston Red socks pulled out the win. Then, with intense tenacity, went on to sweep the remaining games and win the series.

Sports are big business. Actually, sports are part of the entertainment business. Sports themselves, unlike business, have a well defined set of rules, typically have referee or fairness judge, and a clear start and finish. Due to a finite end to the event, and well established rules, high risk maneuvers may become reasonable as the consequences become limited. Even in blowout contests, losing participants still play hard throughout the event and never give up until the event is over. Spectators and fans expect nothing less.

Despite the persistent desire to relate business situations to sports and the constant use of sports metaphors and analogies, what works in sports does not work in business. It does however raise the interesting thought of work as a spectator sport.

Imagine the live broadcast.
“Hello and welcome to the All Work Network. I am Al Michaels here in the booth along with former G.E. CEO Jack Welsh. Jack, fill us in with the current situation.”

“Well, Al, the company has several projects going at one time. There really are not enough people to cover all the projects. Two projects in particular are behind schedule. One of those is in a dire state, with way too much work to do in the remaining time.”

“Thanks Jack. It seems like they should give up on that one task to shore up the other project that is behind. But it looks like instead they are pulling their proverbial goalie from the program that is behind to attempt a hail-mary of sorts on the program destined for failure.”

“Yes, that is going to cost them both programs”

“Lots of activity is going on now. The sales organization is complaining that they do not have the right project to sell, engineering counters that the requirements were not defined, the business development team jumps in demanding additional features. Not to be left out, finance complains that the bill of materials is too high. Everyone is getting into the fray”

“Al, everyone is working really hard. Not toward success of the other projects, but with a noticeable shift to defense. Clearly, they are aware that both programs are going to fail. No one wants to be fingered as the reason for failure, so a lot of work is going into finding fault in the other groups.”

“Oh, out of the blue, a serious allegation of failure to deliver. Looks like some tough questions coming. Yep, it looks like a full investigation is underway to determine who is at fault.”

“Quite a battle. It is an impressive competition with a lot of energy, blood sweat and tears.”

Impressive alright, until you realize that there is no competitor in sight. All this fighting is internal. The competitor already delivered.

Pass It On

We all played the “telephone game” when we were in elementary school. Whisper a message in someone’s ear. They then pass the whispered message to the next person’s ear and so on until the repeated, and now morphed, message reaches the last person. The last person then announces to the group the received message. A lot of laughter and disbelief ensues as the message does not even resemble the original dispatch. This little grade school illustration points out how difficult transparent communication can be when it is interpreted and re-transmitted.
Big business brings out the grade schooler in all of us, as layers and layers of management interpret and add their own bias (or more appropriately “spin”), to the message as it is communicated up the ladder. A complicating factor is the conditioned response throughout the management layers to give positive news. It is a short learning cycle for a manager to realize that negative news does not result in needed help, but instead becomes additional work (“fix it and report regularly on your progress”). Reported news gets filtered through rose colored lenses all the way up the chain. “Atta-boys” are passed out and everyone is happy….except for those people in the trenches that cannot seem to understand why.
This is how it works.
A team leader collects status from the trenches. The team is concerned that they are:
“Way behind schedule, experiencing technical issues, and need more people.”
The team leader passes this on to the first level Manager. This “can do” manager knows that they have overcommitted. In order to save face and not loose the confidence of upper management, he softens the message to being:
“A little behind schedule, technical issues are being worked, but could use some additional resources.”
Of course, the Sr. Manager gets this message while contemplating the boat payment he needs to make and how a bonus would surely help. The message is passed on up:
“Schedule is tight, technical issues are under control and resources are all working hard.”
Mostly pleased, the Director receives this message, knowing he would like to attend the achievement recognition boondoggle in Hawaii, and has his eye on a new convertible roadster. Hmm, that bonus is only a few months away. He passes the message on up:
“Things are on schedule; here is a little picture to prove it. Technical issues are being closed; here is a nice little chart to show that. Resources are all executing well, although more would help.”
The Vice President, who has been under pressure to reduce headcount, knows he cannot mention the sensitive headcount issue without jeopardizing the next bonus - which is already calculated in his retirement plans. So the message is communicated up:
“Everything is going according to plan, no technical or resource issues.”
This, of course, is great news to the Executive VP who is bucking for President and has his eye on that new place in Vail; he assures the president that:
“Things are going so well it will likely be completed ahead of schedule.”
On to the board of directors, the good news is calculated into the expected bottom line.
The good news is communicated at the all hands communication meeting that the next quarter looks really good. All that is needed is for the troops to “execute” to the plan to pull in the schedule. Good job!

Huh? Guess who is going to be working extra? Let me know how the skiing is in Vail

Anatomically Speaking

It is interesting that when accounting for organization size we consider headcount. However, when everyone is to attend a meeting it is called an all hands meeting. At first thought there should be twice as many hands as heads. Although after further thought, one realizes that someone could have paid an arm and a leg for something, in which case there might be fewer hands.
It is interesting the amount of focus we put on body parts, even at the office. Anatomical metaphors make up a considerable part of the business vernacular. This reminds me of a recent incident at work:
This guy who is a brown nose and a real pain in the neck, had bitten off more than he could chew. He was able to wave his hands for sometime, but after several months of pulling his hair out and biting his nails, eventually he took his eye off the ball, and his mistake became apparent; a mistake that could bring the company to its knees. When confronted about it he spoke out of turn and ended up putting his foot in his mouth. Management responded by giving him a tongue-lashing.
Fortunately the manager’s right hand man, a guy who is head and shoulders above the rest, came to the rescue. For several months, despite being knee deep in alligators, his ear had been to the ground so he was able to put his finger on the problem. Change was afoot. The industry was changing. The company could exploit the Achilles heel of the competition if they would dip their toe in the water and develop a new technology. He presented his plan to the group to kick around. He was confident it could stand on its own, but he wanted to get another set of eyes on it and for everyone to go in with their eyes wide open.
No one thumbed a nose at the plan. In fact, it was decided, hands down, that they must act quickly in order to get their foot in the door. To this end, they agreed to go after a bare bones implementation and once underway management must be hands off so that engineering can really sink their teeth into the development without distraction. It was going to be tough and require a lot of elbow grease, but if everyone put their nose to the grindstone, they could pull it off.
The plan breathed new life into the team. They were tired of twiddling their thumbs waiting for change. Many had wanted to speak up but had bitten their tongues instead. Now they were motivated because they knew if they poured their hearts into it that they would succeed. In the end, it all turned out well and a huge weight was lifted off their shoulders.

I cannot seem to remember right off the top of my head, what that new technology was… but it is on the tip of my tongue.

Tuna Burgers

I remember one summer morning when I was a child, discussing the day ahead with my mother. She said that we would be going to the McDonald's for lunch. I was stoked. What a treat! We did not go "out" for many meals, so I was pretty pumped. All morning long the thoughts of hamburgers and french fries danced around in my mind, not to mention the pavlovian watering going on in my mouth. Around lunch time, I got ready to go, planning on the twenty minute drive into town. I was perplexed however, as we headed out walking down the road. My little kid brain kicked in doing the math; I quickly concluded that something was amiss. If we walked to town it would be dinner that we would be eating, not lunch. We had never walked into town before. The panic began to set in. I asked my mom what in the heck was going on. She patiently reminded me that she had explained that morning that we were going to the MacDonald’s for lunch. It turns out that the MacDonald’s were the neighbors that lived about a quarter mile down the road. Oh man. What did this mean? No hamburgers, no fries.
Imagine how disappointed I was in the tuna fish sandwiches and celery sticks. I never really liked tuna fish sandwiches. I was more of a peanut butter and jelly guy.

Children are often served food that does not look appetizing. This usually leads to the so called "playing" with the food. I have never witnessed a child “playing" with their hamburger, pizza, mac and cheese or other kid food. They "play" with food they do not like. The "playing" really amounts to the rearranging of the food to make it appear as though more has been consumed that really has. This is a trial and error process. Try hiding the peas under the mashed potatoes, spreading the food out flat, piling it up. Whatever makes the story look better. The goal is to fool their parents, when the fact is that they have not eaten their food.

This same behavior can be observed regularly in business today. Executives request a report, data is collected and the facts presented.
Unfortunately, the data in the report may not look appetizing. Hoping for hamburgers, the reality is tuna fish. Rather than accept the data at face value, saving face becomes the daily special. Since hamburgers and fries were promised upward, the request (read: additional work) is passed down. "Change the way the tuna fish is served. Rather than sandwich bread, put it on a bun....And point out that celery sticks are roughly the same shape as fries."

Reports are generated, reworked, twisted, and spun in everyway possible to make the tuna fish look like hamburger. How many different ways can the data be presented? Try a pie chart. Try a line chart. How about a bar graph…. maybe just tablature data? Show it as a percentage instead of raw data. Do whatever it takes. The requests for the same data keep coming, with different format requests. The expectation is that if the request is made often enough or the format is changed enough, that the data itself will change. Rearranging the food on the plate does not get it in our bellies.

The most interesting realization about this whole process is that the amount of effort to actually improve is dwarfed by the effort poured into saving face and monkeying around with the data. Progress is slowed.

Oh, speaking of slow, my car really needs a tune up.... I am painting it red.

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