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October 05 2010

CIO: Chief Inspiration Officer?

Earlier this year, as a member of a panel speaking before IT leaders from various industries, I was asked what single, most important piece of advice I would give a chief information cfficer (CIO).

Just prior to the question, I was struck by how our discussion had been rather sobering in nature. We were dwelling on some of the more negative issues facing our profession: shrinking budgets in the face of a difficult economy; excessive and increasing demand to deliver more with less; and overworked and under appreciated staff. Deep inside the discourse on the state of any profession, it's understandable that the pain points often get all the attention. While careful discussion of current issues is vital, it's also incumbent on leaders to balance debate with positivity. To focus entirely on challenges in this forum risked the potential to miss the complete story: a CIO has the ability to lead important and meaningful business change; to create enormous value; and to impact staff and customers in positive ways.

When the master of ceremonies turned to me to address the advice I would give CIOs, I wanted to directly speak to what had been on my mind. I responded, “The CIO should not think of him or herself as the chief information officer, but rather as the chief inspiration officer of the technology organization.”

I went on to explain that in an environment where it can be easy to be dragged down and feel beaten by some of the realities of the job, it was essential to find ways to keep staff focused on the business value of technology and the magic it can create. My point was that to inspire could complement a CIO's arsenal of genuine leadership behaviors.

After the meeting I considered whether what I had said made any sense at all. I didn't think of it again until just a few weeks ago.

As I anticipated, in my role now as CIO of O'Reilly Media, there are a lot of pressing priorities, and demand for my attention is high. But more visibly I can see that team members feel the burden of delivering increasingly more complex solutions with less available capacity and in faster time. It is only now that I can reflect on the advice I had given to other CIOs. What I said may have actually made some sense. It turns out that inspiring staff by creating a vision and strategy for technology is one of the lowest costs, yet most effective activities a CIO can do. A vision that produces positive results reminds everyone why we do this work in the first place.

It's hard to learn inspiration, but if you find a great way to express your passion and have it connect with the audience, that will usually get you to the right place. It's also fair to say inspiration is not limited to the CIO. Regardless of your role, inspiring others has considerable value and it feels great.

Often we each need a reminder of the core behaviors that make great leaders. I'm taking my own advice and making inspiration my own job requirement.


August 16 2010

Geeks at work

Career guides try to distill jobs into basic components. "Work hard and get ahead." "Be your own advocate." That sort of thing.

But anyone who's been in an office for a while knows that human interaction undermines those components. The real trick -- and it takes a long time to learn this -- is realizing the work system isn't a system at all. It's an arbitrary and ever-changing rule set that often pushes reason to the sidelines.

That's a rough conclusion for "system thinkers," a category of worker Michael Lopp, author of "Being Geek" and the blog Rands in Repose, puts himself in. Lopp is a geek. He's a guy who likes order and predictable outcomes. And he understands that system thinkers can face unique pressures in the office.

In the following Q&A, Lopp passes along the nuggets of workplace wisdom he's acquired, including: how geeks can communicate with non-geeks, why geeks and managers don't get along, and how to know when it's time to move on.

What is a system thinker?

Michael Lopp: Michael LoppNerds are system thinkers. We have this clever illusion that the world is a knowable place. With think with enough work and enough time and enough effort, we can find a set of rules about everything. That is totally not true.

Our favorite tool is the computer. And the computer is a system that does a predictable thing. Since that tool is omnipresent in our lives, it gives us the impression that everything's like that.

Do system thinkers put too much faith in management?

ML: I think it's the exact opposite. What are the top three things that managers do? They organize things. They communicate. They're supposed to be leaders. Leadership is really interesting to folks, inspiring people and being strategic. But those first two, organization and communication, sometimes turn into power trips for a lot of managers. They use information as a weapon. That is a huge violation to the geek ethic, where you're supposed to be transparent and knowable and systematized. This is where I think managers get bad reputations, hiding information or doling it out as he or she sees fit.

One of the reasons there's a chasm between geeks and mangers is that managers sometimes forget who they are and what they did. They get lost in the politics and people and the process. There are good managers out there, obviously, but I think that's where geeks are a little suspect of managers. They'll wonder, "Why don't you speak my language anymore?"

What are the early signs that it's time to move on from a job?

ML: I don't know if you're like this, too, but you sort of decide before you decide. You don't necessarily make a deliberate choice. You just find yourself wandering.

For example, I never answer my phone. I don't even have a phone in my current gig. But whenever the phone used to ring I'd think, "It's a recruiter or it's a lawyer." And sometimes I'd wonder "What else is out there?"

Also, nerds get a high out of building stuff. When you stop getting that high because you understand the people and you've delivered the product three times, that's a sign. For me, when I stop learning, when I realize I haven't been scared in a while, that's when I start wandering.

Programming jobs sometimes incorporate brain teasers or problem solving during the interview process. Is there a way to prepare for those tests?

ML: As someone who's hiring, you want to see how a prospective employee thinks on his or her feet. There's probably ways to find the top 20 most interesting brain teasers. But the point is to see how the interview subject thinks.

As a system thinker who wants to understand the rules, It would be great to walk in and know the questions. But that's cheating. You're trying to learn about each other in this interview process. Great interview questions reveal not just what you know but also how you're reacting to this information.

How many interview callbacks is too many? When does it become a red flag?

ML: If you're coming back for the third time, what does that say about the organization? Can they assess and can they execute? Do you want to work at a place where they can't make a call? That's the first thing that comes to mind.

But sometimes you can discern a theme from each interview. There's the getting to know you interview. Then the next one is the deep technical interview. And then there's the cultural fit interview. The question to ask is: Is there progress being made? A healthy interview process has a sense of progress.

Interviews go both ways. You're learning as much about them as they're learning about you.

How can system thinkers communicate with non-system thinkers?

ML: There's a lot of instincts that we nerds have that are going to confuse the heck out of the non-nerd crowd. One of those things is specificity. You ask me, "How long is it going to take to do this feature?" What you're looking for is a t-shirt size: small, medium, large. But I'm going to give you the three-minute answer about the state of the architecture, why the code is brittle, and what I'm going to need. And this annoys the hell out of you. All you want are the broad strokes.

My advice is to know your audience. Engineers learn this over time. They can read a room and understand the type of answer those people are looking for.

You use the term "nerd" on your blog, but your book is titled "Being Geek." Is there a difference"?

ML: The intro to the book actually addresses that. I picked "nerd" as the word years ago to describe this demographic. But we called the book "Being Geek" because that sounds great. "Being Nerd" doesn't roll off the tongue.

I did a lot of research into figuring out the difference between nerd and geek. There really isn't one. The Venn diagram completely intersects. For every great definition of nerd, you can find the same definition of geek.

The etymologies of the words are interesting. "Geek" is the circus guy who bites the head off of live animals. "Nerd" comes from a Dr. Seuss book. That's the only big difference I could find.

This interview was condensed and edited.


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July 19 2010

In defense of games in the workplace

We're hardwired to play games. We play them for fun. We play them in our social interactions. We play them at work.

Dave GrayThat last one is tricky. "Games" and "work" don't seem like a natural pairing. Their coupling in the workplace either implies goofing off (the fun variant) or office politics (the not-so-fun type).

Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo, co-authors of the upcoming book "Gamestorming," have a different perspective. They contend that an embrace and understanding of game mechanics can yield benefits in many work environments, particularly those where old hierarchical models are no longer applicable.

In the following Q&A, Gray discusses the collaborative power of games and how they can cut through increasing workplace complexity.

What is Gamestorming?

Dave Gray: Gamestorming is a set of collaboration practices that originated in Silicon Valley in the 1970s and has been evolving ever since. It's an approach that emphasizes quick, ad-hoc organization of teams so they can rapidly co-design and co-develop ideas. As my co-authors and I observed these practices, they seemed to look more like games than any other form of work we were familiar with. Hence the term "gamestorming."

Is each of us playing some sort of game all the time?

DG: In a sense we're always playing games of one sort or another. "Game" is a big word that can have many meanings. For example, "game-playing," "gaming the system," "getting your head in the game," and so on.

In this context, games are simply a way to put structure around the chaos of creative work. The game rules are a way of distributing information into the space you are working in, and distributing power equally among the people in a group. They are a method for flattening hierarchy, increasing engagement, and just generally speeding things up.

Does Gamestorming require specific skills?

DG: Gamestorming is primarily a mindset. It's an approach to work that's about engaging people in collaboratory activities. It's not a game if people are forced to play, so you need to have people and projects that stir people's curiosity and emotion. The Gamestorming skills are synthesizing and social skills, like visualization, improvisation, good listening and language skills.

Can games apply in any organization? Or, are there jobs and industries where it's less effective?

DG: Gamestorming is a great approach when you are entering into unknown territory, when you need to imagine or design for the future, and when you need to tap creative energy. What games are best at is facilitating collaboration and innovation. Where the work is predictable, or where you want consistency, games are not the solution. You don't want people playing too many games in the accounting department.

What is the relationship between complexity and game mechanics?

DG: The world is only getting more complex, and the more complex a system gets the less predictable it is. Games are a way to create simplified systems that mirror the real world. Plus, they're a safe place to try out various scenarios and see what kinds of results are possible. You can tweak one or two variables and see how that affects the system.

Illustration from Gamestorming

How has workplace motivation changed as we've moved into a knowledge economy?

DG: In a traditional industrial setting, say, a factory, it's easy to see what everybody is doing and how what they do fits into the bigger picture. It's easy to see when people are working and when they are slacking off.

But in a knowledge economy, where people are all moving symbols around on screens, and many work from home or the road, it's harder to coordinate the work. Fundamentally, in a knowledge economy, you want people to be creative. That means you need them to be interested, passionate and engaged. The modern cubicle layout and the intangibility of the work makes it difficult. You need to find ways to make it easier for people to share their work and the excitement they have for it. You need to fan the flames.


June 14 2010

A constellation you should know

IMG_0133.jpgThis blog post has been sitting on my computer’s desktop for a few weeks now.... I’m finally getting around to telling you about a great week I had at the end of May. It started off with a brief trip to Northern California with stops at Dale’s amazing Maker Faire (equally impressive were his sprinting skills as he leapt into action when a tent nearly blew over), various technology companies and a local high school to visit friends and business colleagues. I even had the opportunity to meet my fellow Edu 2.0 bloggers, Betsy and Marie, for an Afghani dinner and conversation before heading back to Chicago on a red-eye flight. I left Silicon Valley, inspired as always by innovation and ideas, and admittedly, a little envious of general Northern California life.

At the end of that week, though, I had an experience that made me realize that there’s innovation happening in my Chicago backyard, too. Invited by executive director Sandee Kastrul, I participated in a weekly high tea ritual at i.c.stars, a work force readiness program that prepares young people for IT careers in business. My subsequent visit really got me thinking about how we’re supporting adults’ education needs.

I first met Sandee this spring when we both were presenters for a TEDx event at the National School Boards Association Conference in Chicago. As a former science classroom teacher with a background in theatre, Sandee artfully told the compelling story of her journey to create i.c.stars. She basically started her organization after seeing the limited opportunities her high school students upon graduation. Call me jaded, but I’ve grown skeptical of educational programs in general as some seem to pay lip service to notions about affecting change. I was intrigued Sandee’s story, and when she consequently invited me to high tea at i.c.stars, I saw this as an opportunity to see if her work was the real deal.

i.c.stars started about 11 years ago with the primary goal of preparing high school graduates for careers and leadership in business and technology-related professions. The screening process to participate is rigorous according to the i.c.stars web site, "Using multiple interviews and written assessments, candidates are screened for experience overcoming adversity. Our participants have developed a set of resiliency skills that create a profound sense of purpose and ambition for long term community leadership. The same resiliency skills that form the basis of community leadership, also form the basis for business leadership. Our participants stand out from their competitors in the job market as a result of their ability to overcome adversity and thrive in the high pressure, high stress environment of technology and the internet."

During their time in the program, participants learn a variety of skills through team managed projects. After their 16 week cycle is completed, graduates of the program find employment with the help of i.c.stars staff. The organization notes that 100% of its graduates during the last four cycles have found employment with firms such as Allstate, Grainger, Accenture and Microsoft. i.c.stars also serves as a temporary employment agency for corporations and part of the fees charged for these services returns to the organization in order to sustain its programs.

IMG_0131.jpgHigh tea at i.c.stars is a daily ritual where members of a cycle gather to network and learn from a visiting professional. A selected team member greets the invited guest and interviews them briefly before introducing the visitor to the rest of the cycle. Tea and cookies are served and following the lead team member’s introduction of the featured guest, everyone takes a turn introducing the person next to them and pouring them a cup of tea.

Walking into the board room at i.c.stars on my appointed day was slightly like what I imagine it's like to be on the set of the Apprentice. Approximately a dozen friendly business-clad young adults were seated around the table, and I had the guest of honor spot at its head. Introductions began and were fairly lengthy, giving insight into the character of each team member. In nearly every single introduction, examples of perseverance were given, ranging from how one person helped another during “Geek Week” to another expressing appreciation for a colleague who came through on projects when other teammates were notably absent. Pictures of work and relationships developed through this introduction ritual, but more importantly, group members were affirming the personal characters and work ethics of their colleagues. It seemed like such a positive, uplifting, and beneficial practice; not only were team members boosted through thoughtful, positive words, but they were also learning to give effective feedback. There’s an art to this for sure, and explicitly teaching and practicing interpersonal skills is important, particularly for young adults who might not have always heard kind words at home or in school.

After introductions, I explained my education and career path, reflecting on the choices I’ve made along the way. I particularly ranted about the current state of American education and my belief that we’re providing unequal experiences for students, particularly in our urban schools. While I’m probably not the typical high tea guest in that my background is rooted in K12 institutions and not corporations, these participants seemed really interested in public school policy. i.c.stars graduates are charged with becoming community leaders; effective leaders know that education systems affect business, so I think my observations might have given them some perspective.

My visit to i.c.stars was memorable for a variety of reasons. First, it makes me contemplate work force readiness, a topic that has not previously held a great deal of interest for me. After hearing Sandee’s stories and meeting her current set of students, I’m wondering how our society is supporting young adults once they graduate (or don’t graduate) from high school. How are we trying to boost people who might have been disengaged from formal education? There seems to be a real need for more scalable programs like i.c.stars when addressing this overlooked niche within education.

A small portion of my day was spent at i.c.stars, but it yielded a big impact on myself and the i.c.stars students. Not only did I stop to contemplate my own life and career paths, but the students practiced skills necessary for business success and potentially learned from my experiences. Just think how powerful it would be for other busy people to take time just hang out with those who are new to a profession. This makes me think of the concept of reverse mentoring and of Google’s 20% time. How is your place of work giving back to others? Being professionally generous with your time and expertise can be mutually beneficial.

Finally, I was struck by the i.c.stars students’ general smarts and motivation. With a tad more confidence mixed with a bit of fearlessness, I think they will be ready for action once they’ve completed their 16 week cycle. Clearly, Sandee and her team have taken a vision and made it happen teaching people to stand on their own two feet and take on the world; they are well on their way towards their goal of creating 1000 community leaders by 2020. What I’d love to see beyond this, is 1000 more strong programs like i.c.stars in place by 2020. What are you willing to do about workforce readiness? What other stellar programs currently exist? How are we tapping into the potential of young adults?

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