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The Strange Role Of Traffic Cops

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(Photo Credit: On Plan)

Have you ever seen someone physically accosted with nothing more than a voice? Have you seen them accosted from 35 feet away simply by words spoken?

It’s a pretty impressive sight.

The art of project management is getting people who owe you nothing to do things for you. In my current role, I have no one who reports to me directly. I have no technical processes or programs that I’m responsible for. I’m not sure I even have the skills to maintain technical programs if they were given to me. (The Day I Realized I Had No Skills.) And yet, if anything goes wrong at my current project. . .from a server crashing to the lights going out, I’m responsible.

In a lot of ways, I’m like a traffic cop. While a missionary in Chicago I occasionally encountered a traffic cop. And their role and their skills were not what I expected. However, their role reminds me a lot of a project manager.

The first misconception about traffic cops is that they are there to direct traffic, as in vehicular traffic. They are not. They are there to direct people traffic. During rush hour in a major city the streets get jammed with people. People who are in a hurry. People who are trying to catch a train, a bus, or grab a cab. People who just want to get home after a long day at work, or get to their dinner reservation before their table gets given away. Whatever is driving people, they are all in a hurry.

Have you ever jay walked? Me too. I’ve been known to cross against the light. But, if there is traffic, that’s a dangerous endeavor in my little town. However, in a big city, during rush hour, there are hundreds and thousands of people around me who are also willing to jay walk. When the light turns yellow, we hurry across, chasing those in front of us. And there are those behind us chasing us. When the light turns red, people will continue to stream across the street, because the people in front stopped the traffic. And behind the jay walkers, are hundreds more, and behind them additional thousands.

What to do?

A traffic cop. The traffic cop in a city like Chicago, or New York is not there to direct the cars. She is there to make people get back on the sidewalk. During my years in Chicago, I saw traffic cops physically push someone back on the sidewalk with her voice. . .and a whistle. The whistle is important.

Without the traffic cop, no cars would ever move. There are simply too many people.

Not every aspect of a traffic cop’s role translates to a project manager, but more than a few do. The PM’s role is not to actually maintain any of the systems, or stage any of the computers, or configure any firewall rules. But, the PM has to know about all of that. The PM plays traffic cop when he pushes Telecom to get additional phone circuits. When he makes a call to keep the network team from blowing the schedule because we missed counting switches.

The PM, like the traffic cop keeps everyone else moving smoothly, and coordinates the work of multiple teams so they deliver on time. It’s a role I relish, but recognize that like the traffic cop, I don’t have the ability to physically do much of anything. I don’t yell at people to get them to do what I need. But, my success is directly linked to my ability often to get people to move simply by persuading them.

Unfortunately, I don’t get a whistle. The traffic cop has me beat on that score.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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Getting Schooled By A Group Of Teenagers

Hey guys, put them away.

What?

You’re phones. Give me your attention for a few minutes.

But, that’s what we were doing.

Come on. I was 17 once too. Let me see what’s on your phones.

Every year I tell my family I want a Dilbert desk calendar. Every year my kids fail to get me one for Christmas. Every year, I go and buy a Dilbert desk calendar for myself in January.

I like Dilbert because he talks about my world. I’ve been in the IT world for a long time. I consider myself one of the “in” crowd. I’ve built my own computer. I can analyze network traces just using a copy of notepad.exe. I can tell the baud rate of a modem just by listening to its handshake protocol.

And that is when I realized I wasn’t as hip as I thought. Most people entering the workforce today don’t care about building a computer. In fact, they don’t much care about the computer at all. If they need to look at network traces, products like Wireshark do all the heavy lifting. And no one uses modems. No one cares.

A Dilbert cartoon last week showed the young intern Asok asking the title character about the “Grandpa box.” Tablets and smartphones are much more the tools of the younger generation.

But, I have a smartphone. Nearly every blog post I’ve ever written, close to 400 of them, have been written on my iPad. Scott Adams wasn’t talking about me as one of those “granpa box” users. . .was he? Sure, I am a grandpa, but I’m a technology guy. I understand this stuff. I’m still relevant!

The teenage boys in my Sunday School class all turned their phones around. Each phone had a scripture app loaded and they were all following along with the lesson I was teaching.

At least they didn’t complain I was using a grandpa box.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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Just Pour The Drinks

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Hey Lloyd, there’s a problem with the order for table 3.

What do you need?

See, I thought they had ordered rum and coke, but it turns out the guy was just talking to his friend about other drinks they had here and he wasn’t actually. . .

What do you NEED!

Oh. . .ah. . .return on a rum and coke. Corona with lime.

In addition to being a professional gambler (Looking For The Answer In The Back Of The Book) my dad was also a bar tender at one point in his life. He’s been gone for 5 years, but I had a chance to talk to my mother about him this weekend. (I Never Again Had Friends Like When I Was Twelve…Does Anyone?)

At work, I get involved every time something breaks. Ironically I cannot fix it. But, I provide two important functions. First, I bring the right people together. Secondly, because I am familiar with all aspects of the customer installation, I often get involved in drive for a return to service.

I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me how to drive for resolution or results. But, I must have picked it up simply by growing up in my house. My brothers and I are really good at managing in a crisis.

I’m sure there’s a some official name for it. Personally I call it “Tank driving.” If you are in a tank, you don’t really have to worry about whats going on around you. You can point your tank at the objective and drive straight for your goal.

A good tank driver can boil a situation down to its essential elements. Like a couple of weeks ago when I had a problem with Baking Pans and Wiring Closets, I didn’t really care about the look. I just needed it to be functional.

However, there’s a problem with tank driving. You miss the niceties. You tend to be viewed as arrogant, or insensitive. And your arrogance factor is directly related to how fast your drive your tank. If you have the luxury of time, you can build consensus. This method hands down beats every other method of decision making. But, it takes a long time. Sometimes a REALLY long time.

I was part of a team that was rolling out Microsoft Lync. However, our telecom team really wanted to go with Cisco’s instant message product. As the engineering manager, I knew we were going to go with Lync. The project manager knew we were going to go with Lync. But, he refused to announce that as our decision. Instead, week after week we met with the telecom team, talking about their concerns and working toward a consensus opinion. It was maddening. However, after several months the telecom team was on board and the PM moved forward confident that he had turned telecom from a potential stumbling block to an ally.

It’s a skill I still struggle to master.

What does all of this have to do with my dad the bar tender? My mother related the above story to me. Typically during a rush a bar tender might be filling 300 per hour. That’s one order every 12 seconds. He doesn’t have time for a lengthy explanation about why the order was screwed up. Like Officer Joe Friday on Dragnet, he just wants “the facts.” The story can wait for a time when it’s not busy. In the middle of the rush he just needs enough information to pour the drinks.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

What My Kids Taught Me About Participation Trophies

I didn’t even realize they had done it. I’m not sure they realized they had done it.

This is a picture of our “trophy shelves.”

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It took me a while to realize the significance of the placement of the trophies.

Participation trophies are a controversial topic. Some people think that the “trophication” (Thanks to my friend Caleb for the word) of America is a big part of what’s wrong with our society.

When everyone’s special then no one is. – Dash

When everyone is super, no one will be – Buddy/Syndrome

If everyone gets a trophy then getting a trophy isn’t special, it’s boring. It’s expected. My kids have picked up a few participation trophies along the way. I still have a couple from when I played peewee football.

And yet, There’s something to be said for rewarding effort. Microsoft used to hand out trophies pretty freely. Here are a couple of my Microsoft Ship It! awards.

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I worked my butt off for the EST awards, but the product Ship It awards? I got those because I sat in the Exchange building. True, I was writing courseware on Exchange, but I had a buddy down the hall who was writing Windows NT courseware. He got an Exchange Ship It award. He kept the trophy but didn’t stick on the Exchange sticker.

Other awards, no matter how cheesy, if they are personalized tend to mean more. My current boss awarded me this trophy.

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He gave it to me because we had a bet on whether I (or anyone, but I was the only one volunteering) could climb up through a gap in our turnstiles. A gap that is covered with spare ceiling tiles in this picture.

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I’m not as small as I once was, (Up Through The Rabbit Hole) but, I was willing to venture $5 that I could make it. I did, he paid up and threw in a trophy to commemorate the event.

I’ll keep the trophy on my desk. But, the fact that it was for something that I did, something that he didn’t think I could do and then did anyway, means that it’s more important than a simple department wide trophy.

I’m not opposed to the Ship It award type rewards. I was part of a team. And, I really like team awards. In fact, I like them so well that I started awarding Ship It awards anonymously when my department at Microsoft decided to discontinue them. (They Switched To A Cash And Totally Blew It.)

But, I’m still concerned with the message that participation trophies send my kids. And then I realized what the trophy shelves were showing me. If you look at the top shelf of the above picture, the first trophy is 1st Place in Beginning Chess. Next to it is the 2nd Place in Beginning Chess trophy. (My sons were in a tournament and could beat everyone except each other.) The round trophy on the end is awarded when a kid reads 50 books in a summer. The two medals on ribbons say, 2nd Place Lindon Mini-Marathon 2012 and 3rd Place Grovecrest Mini-Marathon 2013. And the son who won them assures me that next year he’s going to take 1st.

The trophies on the third shelf? They are participation trophies.

My kids literally put the trophies they earned on the top shelf. While they may not even be able to articulate it, they see value in the top shelf trophies and don’t consider the participation trophies all that important.

I think they “get it.”

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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The Danger Of The Unloaded Gun

Mind if I look at it?

Sure. Keep it pointed in a safe direction. . .Oh, and pull the slide back and verify there isn’t a bullet in the chamber.

That last bit wasn’t necessary, was it?

I have an uncle who turned 72 this week. I don’t see him as much as I’d like. Last week was an exception. (I Never Again Had Friends Like I Did When I Was 12. . .Does Anyone?) My uncle is retired. He was a dam builder, a highway patrolman, a sheriff and various other professions. Now he mostly hangs out at his house on Lake Coeur d’Alene and drives the bus for the Shriners.

He’s also a bit of a gun nut. His collection includes various handguns, shotguns and even a hunting rifle that he built. Over the weekend, he picked up a handgun at a yardsale. Here’s picture of the type he had, although his was in a hard plastic carrying case.

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(Photo Credit: Impact Guns)

We’ll leave the morality, or wisdom of bringing a firearm to a family reunion with little kids to another day. I was thinking about his safety warning. He made the same warning to everyone who wanted to hold the gun.

Why? He KNEW the gun wasn’t loaded. In fact, we didn’t even have any 9mm ammunition available. And after the first person or two checked the chamber, why continually make people check?

Everytime something breaks at work, I have to get involved. And with software and users, something breaks a lot. One of the most important parts of my job is to determine who was responsible for the breakage; us or the client. It’s not always an easy choice. But, sometimes it is.

Two months ago, we had an outage that was our fault. All our agent phones went dead. They computers, the phones, everything. As you can imagine this is a major incident that gets high visibility. We traced the problem down to a piece of computer equipment that one of our engineers thought was a test device. They didn’t know we had any production calls going through it. But, messing up a production device wouldn’t have caused an outage if we hadn’t done some changes in the middle of the day.

We failed that day because the engineer failed to check to see if there was a bullet in the chamber.

A few weeks later there was another outage. Similar symptoms. The root cause of this second outage was one of our suppliers. They scheduled their maintenance, but neglected to tell us. In other words, they forgot to say, “Check to make sure there isn’t a round in the chamber.”

Either of these outages could have been easily avoided. And the amount of time it took to correct them was minimal. Still, I really strive for perfection in my job and these type of unforced errors make me go crazy.

It would have been easy for someone walking up to my uncle, especially if they had just seen someone else handle the pistol and check the barrel, to say, “I don’t need to check the barrel. I know it’s empty.” And they would be correct. But, far too many firearm deaths in this country are a result of someone getting shot with a gun that was unloaded. . .or at least the shooter thought it was unloaded.

My uncle made everyone check, because each of us when we picked up that firearm were responsible to handle it in a safe manner. That is not a responsibility that we could pass off to someone else, or trust someone else to complete.

In computers, especially complex systems that involve multiple departments, it is the responsibility of the engineer to check and double-check themselves to ensure that their changes won’t impact production.

For me, personally, my uncle didn’t need to warn me to check the chamber. I already had the slide pulled back and was checking it.

Safety is my responsibility.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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Stay Off The Grass

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College campuses are generally beautiful places. Lots of brick buildings, picturesque views and large grassy expanses. All of those things take upkeep, of course.

My own alma mater, Brigham Young University is no different. It’s a gorgeous campus, nestled at the foot of the Wasatch mountain range. I enjoyed my time there for many reasons, not the least of which was that I dated and married my lovely wife while we were both students there.

Just because I loved my school doesn’t mean I think they were always the smartest administrators. Every year they had to replace large sections of the grass. Utah’s frigid winters and torrid summers take their toll, but 27,000 students walking on the grass will wear out the sod as well.

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One year the school decided to address the issue by taking it straight to the students. At least in my case, their logic completely backfired.

Among my interests is studying Global Warming. It’s fascinating that we hare inside this big Petri dish and we are trying to figure out how it works from the inside. In computer science there is a concept that a computer system cannot check itself. In other words, you need to test software from a perspective outside the program. It’s part of the Turing Tests.

And yet with the earth, we are trying to do exactly that. But, I’m getting off track. If you’ve read about Global Warming at all you know that carbon dioxide is a big part of the equation. Scientists are concerned we are putting too much into the atmosphere.

This really isn’t a Global Warming post, except I have a question for you: What percentage of the earth’s atmosphere is carbon dioxide, also called CO2?

Sure, you don’t know, but just take a guess before you read on.

If you guessed that CO2 makes up somewhere between 25% and 33% of the atmosphere you would be right in line with the guesses my friends have suggested when I’ve asked them.

Okay, ready for the actual number?

400 ppm. . .that’s 400 parts per million. Put a different way, if you have 1,000,000 molecules from the atmosphere, 400 of them would be CO2. Let’s look at that ratio in a different way. If you had $1M, CO2 would be like $400 worth. That seems like a bunch. But, if you do the math, it works out to if you had $100, you would have $0.04 worth of carbon dioxide. Four cents on a hundred bucks.

So, what’s this have to do with the grass at BYU? When people find out that CO2 makes up just .0004% of the atmosphere, it changes their perception of the problem. A friend responded

Well, if it’s that low, I’m going to go start up my fireplace. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is the idea that knowledge can hurt your cause.

The year BYU attempted to get the students involved in reducing the landscaping costs they did it by sending out an announcement:

BYU spends $30,000 per year replacing worn sod. Put another way, each student has to contribute $1 just to replace grass.

They were trying to impress upon us the magnitude of the problem. They failed. I looked at that statistic and thought,

Okay. I’m willing to pay $1 per year to get to my classes a little quicker by walking across the grass.

What’s this have to do with business and computers?

Lots.

I’ve always been a manager who overshares. (Fortune Favors the Bold) And yet there are times where too much information simply creates more questions than it answer. Or worse yet, someone, after hearing your reasoning decides the reason for the decision isn’t valid. Just as I decided that $1/year to walk on the grass was well worth the cost to me.

There are time where you should simply tell people the way it will be and don’t go into detail. (Sometimes The Best Answer Is “It’s Magic.”)

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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Dress To Impress? No. Dress To Not Be Noticed

Before you all leave, can I see just the men over here for a second.

Sure, Blake, what’s up?

I just wanted to go over the dress code for tomorrow’s Quarterly Business Review. No one from the client side will be wearing a tie. You can wear one if you’d like, but it’s not expected. I won’t be wearing one.

Blake was the Executive Vice President of our company and the third ranking member of our delegation. We were going to be meeting with very senior members of the client organization. I appreciated Blake’s comment about the tie. I would definitely be wearing one, but I was happy I hadn’t overdressed.

In the 1986 movie Quicksilver Paul Rodriguez’s character asks Kevin Bacon’s character for advice on getting a loan from a bank.

Wear something nice,

was Bacon’s advice. Rodriguez then shows up in a powder blue tuxedo with a full ruffled shirt. Realizing his mistake, Kevin’s character says,

Tell them you just came from a wedding or something.

If nice is good, isn’t nicer gooder? (I may have misspelled one of those words.) Why not wear the best you have?

Because, just as Every Job Has a Uniform Even If It Doesn’t Have A Dress Code, you can go overboard on the uniform. In telling about The Creepy Mini-Me, I explained how a programmer started wearing a suit everyday. It was odd. . .and slightly creepy. A programmer’s uniform is not a suit. If you want to dress as an impressive programmer, you follow the formula:

1. Establish the dress code baseline
2. Dress one step above that

You don’t really want people to notice your clothes. Paul Rodriguez’s character got people to notice his clothes, but it didn’t help. In fact, it hurt his changes to be taken seriously.

Recently, my company awarded a special t-shirt to agents who meet a certain quality bar on their calls. As a thank-you for the work I’ve done they also awarded me the t-shirt.

I don’t wear t-shirts to work.

I wear slacks and dress shirts. In the summer I will opt for an occasional polo shirt, in the winter I add a sports jacket. And I try to always have polished shoes.
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In this case, I wore the special t-shirt with my slacks and polished shoes.

Yeah, yeah, I get it Rodney, this is part of that “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have thing, right?

Not really. The Vice President’s that I travel with often wear blue jeans and t-shirts in our office, and one of them wears shirts with logos at the client offices. And the logo if for a former company.

Clothes lend credibility. Clothes affect the way you feel and act when wearing them. They can be a help to your career, but they can also be a hindrance. The late great Payne Stewart might have been able to get away wearing outlandish outfits to work, but for most of us, our goal is to have our clothes not be noticed.

My goal when it comes to clothes is for people to not remember what I wore, but to remember that they thought I looked nice. That means if the office culture is jeans and t-shirts, you should wear jeans and a dress shirt, or slacks and a polo.

If the dress code is business casual, then you want to make sure you are wearing pressed pants and a starched shirt.

(Sorry, ladies. I have no idea how to write about clothes in a gender neutral way.)

If you move too far up the clothes ladder, you become too noticeable. You become the guy in the wedding tuxedo going in for a car loan.

But, if you move just a single step up, jeans to slacks, t-shirts to polos, polos to starched shirts, starched shirts to ties, you give people several impressions:

1. You are smart – You figured out how to properly dress. It’s not an inborn trait. You had to learn it.

2. You care about the job and the client – Nothing says, “I’m listening” to you as much as voluntarily wearing a tie at a client site.

3. You might be in need of a promotion – In most companies, promotions are not a willy-nilly decision. If you look the part, it’s easier for them to give you the part.

When Blake explained that none of the client folks would be in ties, it made it easy to decide to wear one. No one probably remembers today, a week later, what I wore. But, I’ve heard enough comments from people who talked to the client about it, that the client knows I value the business, I’m reasonably intelligent, and I just might be promoted at some point.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

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