Refactoring Leadership

A geek struggles to become a leader

The Living Room Floor

Over the years, I have struggled to describe the frustration of building on top of systems full of technical debt to my non technical friends. I have never cared for drawing comparisons between building, say, a bridge and software. I'll give it a try for once with someone more personal than a bridge: your living room.

No one sets out to build an unusable living room. It just happens. We find ourselves with an inexperienced builder, or a builder who usually builds tree houses, or two builders who disagree with each other and we eventually find ourselves in a living room with problems. The floor looks as though it's designer was attempting to pay homage to Picasso and Pollack at the same time. Rather than floor joists on standard centers covered with OSB, there's a bizarre pattern of joists held up by columns in the basement and some areas are not covered with flooring at all: gaping holes straight to the basement.

Now the painters show up and they complain. They can't put the ladders just anywhere (since there are holes in the floor) but they lay down some boards and they get the living room painted. Next the carpet company shows up. After complaining to the general contractor (who tells them to find a solution, not complain) they grudgingly stretch carpet over the gaps in the flooring. 

Here's where the real fun begins. Some children can walk across the floor no problem, but adults sink in and trip. 

Occupancy is granted and the owners arrive. They try to place their couch and their nice modern LCD TV stand in the most natural places. Things fall over. The TV gets a crack in it. The builder, having detailed knowledge of how the floor looks underneath, shows them precisely where they can place the couch and the TV stand. Things are stable, as long as the owners stop changing the living room layout. It's really hard to never change the living room, though. When you have some friends over to watch The Sportsball Game, you have to sheepishly inform your guests that depending on where everyone sits and stands, the experience may be less than ideal.

Technical people will understand the frustration of the painters and the carpet layers. You show up hoping to do good work, and you just can not. There's no easy way to re-do the floor while also allowing people to use the living room either. You obviously can't go back in time and make the floor builders plot a new course.

My heart goes out to the poor owners. They had no say in how the floor was built. I suspect and I hope that no one would claim that efforts to fix the floor were inspired by the ego and the laziness of the carpet layer. Sure, the carpet layer does want to do good work, but it's the suckers who have to live in the house who really have it bad.

And yet I can't overstate the frequency with which I encounter this in businesses. The users are suffering. The business has a huge support team. Sometimes the support team has to help fix an obscure issue caused by the latest Windows 10 update, but more often they have to help perform rudimentary tasks for the users because the system just doesn't work. The business has to budget a painful amount of the development team to help support, creating a drag on forward progress. Releases are not predictable because it's really difficult to build on top of the mysterious living room floor. Releases are difficult to test and impossible to roll back. Engineers leave the team for green field projects. They'd like to do their best work and they hope to get in on new construction before someone decides to build the floor out of rope and glue.

With tangible and quantifiable evidence of the cost of difficult to maintain software all around, the business will often tell a developer something along the lines of "I'm not paying to rewrite that piece just so your life can be easier." Well, I'm sorry that's how you see it. My advice is to never re-arrange the living room again, but if you do it's going to cost you.

Thoughts on Getting Fired

I recently read this article on The Atlantic: . While I am not one of the majority discussed in this article*, the ideas about the shame revolving in talking about money were not lost on me. I've been thinking about another secret shame that we are not supposed to discuss: the shame of being fired.

In March of this year I got fired for the first time in my professional career. Not "laid off", not "right-sized", just good ole "This isn't working out so we're getting rid of you.", fired.  The actual details are seldom up for discussion for legal reasons, but as I began the dance of having meetings and interviews, I realized there is tremendous stigma around even simply admitting that there was an abrupt change and I wasn't the one who initiated it. I have collected a few thoughts around this:

Given the ever-increasing recognition of the power of Culture in business, it should shock no one to admit that not every person is a fit for every culture. Saying that there was a lack of alignment should be accepted as a serious issue, but not one that means you're an untouchable troublemaker.

Don't try to un-pull the trigger. During my meeting, thousands of thoughts quickly went through my head around how this action wasn't right, how I was doing what I needed to be doing, how much value I was adding, this must be a mistake, etc. No matter how you got there, if you find yourself with HR in the room looking at walking papers, the time for negotiating is past. Walk out respectfully with your dignity as intact as you can.

I loved the end of this article ( about presenting to Jeff Bezos, particularly where he surveys the room and realizes how terrified the VPs are of losing their position; they wouldn't laugh, smile, or offer an original thought until they were given permission by The Dread Pirate Bezos. If, like me, you agree that that sounds like a horrible way to live, then you have to accept that by taking strong positions and defending them, you may eventually get fired if the organization doesn't come around to your way of thinking. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Don't give in to the scarcity mentality that you'll never have it this good someplace else.

Resist bitterness, especially public bitterness. Letting bitterness leak out just makes you look like poison. The first thing I did was go to Facebook and LinkedIn to let my network know that I was suddenly on the market, and wish the company and the senior leadership well. Despite irreconcilable differences in perspective, the business was undeniably on a vastly improved trajectory compared to the previous owners. I have no desire to see anyone, let alone an entire business fail. Don't embrace the scarcity mentality that someone has to fail for someone else to succeed: find your success out there.

Resist gossip and ask that your contacts do the same. This one was hard for me. Obviously you have to be curious as to how things are going and what's being said about you. Don't be, nothing healthy can come from it. After a while I had to just gently ask my friends and colleagues to stop sharing their concerns with me or asking for my advice regarding the company or specific efforts I had been involved in. While this is a normal activity among friends in the same line of work, it seriously interferes with a clean break and your ability to focus on healing and looking  for what's next for you. Let it go.

Don't unfriend, unfollow, or blacklist people. Again, don't do things that make you look like a bitter crazy person. Don't send people the message that just because they're not on your team anymore they have no value as a human. 

Look for the lesson: There may be a lesson. If you are not naturally an introspective person, this may be a wake-up call that you need to start evaluating yourself and try to gain the ability to self-correct. If you are naturally an introspective person, you may need to think about what has been missing from your habit of self-inspection. You may decide that you had improperly weighted the relative importance of priorities, that you had misjudged the political landscape, or just said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Search for the teaching moments.

Give yourself permission to be right: This is a hard one, and I hope no one misinterprets this point as arrogance (or self-delusion). There may be lessons learned that you can internalize and learn from moving forward. There may not be

Give yourself permission to be hurt: Let's face it, in America our sense of self worth is often closely tied to working, making money, and what our title is. Even if you've been wise enough to save enough that this doesn't hurt you financially, it will probably hurt you emotionally for many of the same reasons I listed  under "don't try to un-pull the trigger." No matter how appropriate the action may be, it's going to affect you, and that's OK.

How much stigma is associated with being let go? It took me five months to finally press "publish" on this article. 

*I have, however, made it a point to be a little more open when discussing money with close friends and family, to do my part to normalize these discussions.

Culture is The Economy

Depending on where your political beliefs fall, you may smile or cringe when a politician or the chair of The Fed announces they are going to do something about the economy. Altering the law or changing the overnight rate to banks does not directly change the economy in America. Rather, hundreds of millions of individuals make decisions based on the new rules for themselves and their business interests. The laws are not the economy, the trillions of individual decisions and actions are the economy.

Culture in your business is the same way. The leadership can't simply declare "We value honesty." "Work/life balance is important to us." "Everyone's ideas have merit."
Walk around, read your email, listen in meetings, observe what's going on. That is your true culture. Your culture is the aggregate of every action, communication, and decision made by the people that make up your business. You can change or support the culture not by simply declaring it to be what you want it to be, but by actually doing the hard work of evaluating your own actions against your ideals. Constantly, Publicly, with humility. Engage your coworkers with Radical Candor when they are not acting according to the business's principles. When a company declares one set of values but people observe contradictory actions being rewarded, it creates the worst kind of rot in your culture. Principles that should have real meaning come to be viewed as worthless platitudes.

In the past year I've got myself changing course on a decision when I realized I had just done what I've always done, or let emotion cloud my judgement. It's OK to be wrong and backtrack. Culture has to come from the top, and then be individually adopted. It has to be defended and reinforced or it will be ruined, and it has to start with you.

The Riddle of the Suit

My company recently took professional pictures of all employees. I really appreciate this. It's fun for most people, and it's fun to observe the squirming objections of those who don't want their photos taken. For personality, they asked everyone to be prepared with Props or Poses that were clues to your personality.  Here are my pictures, which have earned me some interesting responses.



I really like my motorcycle. It's one of the ways I deal with stress, and I put a lot of miles on. Over 11,000miles on two wheels last year probably puts me beyond most people's definition of "casual rider". 

One of the responses that gave me pause was "Well, which person is the real you?" The implication here is that one of these is an act. Well I am definitely Director of R&D at Edgenet, and I definitely earned my Iron Butt Association patch on my vest.
What does that say about the commenter, myself, and Business? I actually started wearing a sport coat years ago because I currently live in Wisconsin and it gets cold during the winter and maybe my metabolic rate isn't typical. I've grown to like it because I do like to look better sometimes.

Given the choice, most people today will choose to dress more casual more of the time. Dressing up, we are told, is the "Uniform of Business" and must be done to be taken seriously by other Serious Business People. One dear colleague has even said his goal is to be so good at his job that he can wear shorts & flip flops into the board room. Given the cultural shifts brought about by the Internet age, the connection between appearance and performance seems ever more tenuous. If Vice Presidents and CEOs and venture capitalists all want to be wearing shorts why are we still participating in this costume ball?

I am reminded of an old story explaining why there were so many Vice Presidents at Hewlett Packard. Why so many VPs with no direct reports? Without that title, they found that they couldn't get meetings with the right people during customer engagements. If your company is so geeky cool that your business card says "Analytics Jedi Master" and I'm not a Star Wars geek, I guess I'm not really sure if I want to accept a meeting from a Jedi Master.  On the other hand, my employees don't treat me any differently on a sport coat day vs. a millennium falcon t-shirt day. What gives?

I'm convinced that business attire is like that VP title. It's the correct thing that makes you safe and appropriate. I don't need to wonder if your Legend of Zelda shirt is a band or a cartoon. For every person who will appreciate it, there are hundreds who won't get it, won't appreciate it, or will even tell you your hometown sports team sucks. Yes, some will even assume incorrectly that you're not taking this meeting seriously because of your retro Atari shirt and matching socks.

Unfortunately being safe still pays off most of the time. As for me I'll keep wearing sport coats to stay warm in my freezing office, and otherwise treat the suit like an overly rehearsed first date: once you see I'm not a broke, sloppy axe murderer I can cautiously reveal a little more "me" next time.

The Future of Retail: Revised

Nearly 3 years ago I wrote an article entitled The Future of Retail, which I just republished here. Amazon has just opened a physical book store, and I predict this will evolve into more than just books as time goes on. I'm going to call this a successful prediction, though I still think that a company like Best Buy has the most to gain from adopting this model.

What I didn't see coming to retail, though, is 3D Printing. With companies experimenting with custom printing parts on-demand for customers, we have to ask ourselves what this means. What does this mean for those of us who deal with the data for SKU based and configurable products? 

What does this mean for the intellectual property of traditional manufacturing companies? If my company develops an improved drill bit and Lowe's can print a titanium one, the 3D definition of how to make that drill bit becomes all important. It's possible that the ship has already sailed on this point. I can't share too much more right now, but it's my job to figure this out.

Culture is JiuJitsu

"Culture eats strategy for lunch
-Peter Drucker

I was sitting in a meeting and could not recall the commonly understood academic reasoning behind this famous quote, so I had to improvise and talk about what I know.

Many people interested in real self defense will find themselves training at a traditional TaeKwonDo/Hapkido academy, where the Americanized Hapkido portion focuses on situational street self defense tactics. The situations play out like so:
  • The attacker will swing a knife at you like this (Overhand, over the top downward strike)
  • You will block forearm to forearm like so, take the knife, and sweep the attacker to the ground like so
For visual demonstrations of what I'm talking about, I recommend my good friends over at Technique Tuesday. I have trained and memorized a few hundred of these situational exercises. When the instructor leaves to take a phone call or purposefully lets go of the reigns, we start to see issues. People get hurt when practicing with full speed and strength. More often than not, slight variations in how the techniques are performed when you start trying to use them for real turns what was beautiful orchestration into a hot mess. The two opponents are on the ground wrestling and all the amazing techniques can't address the situation*. This is strategy and tactics at work. Our rules, processes, and tools fail to address violent reality.

Training Brazilian JiuJitsu, though, is different. There are certainly techniques to learn, but the focus in most academies is on:
  • Training at full speed, full resistance from day one.
  • Learning about angles, leverage, weight, and space.
With these fundamental principles, the BJJ practitioner, even at fairly novice levels, is not necessarily a fish out of water when a new situation is encountered**. I can fight a wrestler or a Judoka and not be completely bewildered: I know when I need more space and when I need to close space. I know where to put my weight to "be heavy" and what my opponent might be trying to do based on where their weight is.

When your team understands and has internalized the fundamental values of the business, you don't need a rule for every possible situation. When the business goes off the rails, your teams can make appropriate decisions by returning to the fundamentals: what is the right outcome in this situation, and how do I use the "weight, angles, leverage, and space" of the organization to reach that outcome? This is culture at work, your organizational Brazilian JiuJitsu.

Culture eats strategy for lunch.

* To be fair, some people get incredibly good at this and can decisively lock out an opponent. Very few practitioners will ever reach this level of muscle memory with the hundreds of techniques needed to handle common situations.
** Sam Harris has a great write-up on BJJ

The Future of Retail: Republished

{In December of 2012 I wrote the following article, republished here in it's entirety:}

The Future of Retail
TL;DR – The retail industry should look closely at current and future reality. Many retail businesses should accept that consumers like “kicking the tires” at brick-and-mortar locations, but want the prices and service of etailers like Create a hybrid model where you go try that TV out at a Best Buy a few miles away, but it nearly always ships from a warehouse rather than you taking it home that instant.
Over the past 15 years I have watched industry after industry fight the advance of technology.

Let's think about some industries in the age of the Internet:

Real Estate.

The way we’re doing things now are profitable, proven, known, safe, comfortable.

Some of these battles are still going on; some of them are clearly over. I’m sure I’m not the first person to observe that each of these industries faced a challenge, a choice, and an opportunity. The challenge is that old models are clearly going to be attacked. Consumers want something new. Consumers can see that the technology exists for them to get what they want in the way they want it. The choice and opportunity is to either fight the new way, or to own it. The music industry could have owned digital content distribution. They chose to fight it instead, and now Apple is eating their lunch. I have a few contacts in all areas of the music business and related fields including artists, studio owners, and electronics manufacturers. They all live in fear of Apple. Apple says how high to jump. Apple owns it, because they waited too long and fought too hard.

Listing your home, inexpensively, using the Internet works. Your local Realtor would surely rather you pay them a 6% commission to do the same job. In my state and others, they spend a lot of money lobbying state legislatures to craft incredibly ridiculous laws that make some parts of the business models of Zillow, Trulia, or our own, illegal: under the guise of “protecting consumers” of course. The truth is these are all distortions of reality. It is reality that consumers want and can get music electronically: one way or another. It’s reality that when I sold my last house I paid $500 and a real estate attorney $400 and saved a fortune in commissions. When you tell consumers to ignore the man behind the curtain so you can keep doing what you have always done, you eventually lose.

What Year Is It?

 I have, many times, been standing in a Best Buy needing help. For a long time. Maybe I need an employee to scan this iPad to tell me if it’s the new retina display model (it’s not indicated clearly on the box). Maybe I need to know if this TV is in stock. I’ve also had a 16 year old who doesn’t realize they’re talking to a life long Audio/Video nut try to tell me what this amazing Monster Cable is going to do for my sound system. I feel like Best Buy is practically pushing me out of their stores towards online sellers.

 As I consider myself an ethical person, I feel downright slimy on the (extremely few) cases where I have “kicked the tires” on an item in a store and simply bought it for less online. In other cases, like Best Buy, I feel they had a chance to earn my business and failed miserably. In still other situations, I went to Kohl’s to buy a pair of shoes and they didn’t have my size in stock. The salesperson dutifully offers to order them and they’ll be in in a week. A week? What year is it? Amazon will have these to me in two days, thank you very much. Now Amazon is even working on Same Day Delivery!

So What Should Retail Do?

 Admit to reality and work witin reality?

There are obvious benefits from being able to walk into a brick and mortar location and kick the tires on electronics, clothing, etc. The cost of having a big enough store to have hundreds of TVs and 300 of the latest Xbox in stock is huge. The models for how the stores are ran and laid out are ancient. is just going to undercut you anyway. Consumers want to kick the tires and then buy online, so embrace this model.
I can envision a future where I walk into an branded electronics store. They have ONE of various models of TV, ONE BluRay player, etc. I can kick the tires. Only the most obvious new release movies & music are there for me to carry out of the store. Only the most current game releases are in stock. They have close to zero shipping/fulfillment because there’s essentially no inventory, no more in the back. There are kiosks positioned throughout the store where I can sign in and order the TV I was just looking at. I get my Amazon points, my Amazon Prime shipping, and everything else I’ve grown accustomed to since first becoming a customer in 1997 or so.
Best of all, I have not a shred of guilt. The store manager isn’t looking at me sideways, knowing I’m going to go home and shop around for the best deal on that wine ‘fridge. Retail will only exist in its current form in Boutique settings.


Last year at Edgenet, we switched from PTO to DTO. Under Discretionary Time Off you don't accrue a certain promised amount of vacation. You and your manager work out what you need with no set limit. This seemed like a progressive move to me but I got a lot of negative feedback. The reservations were:
  1. If I quit or get fired, I no longer have a cushion of PTO to help me transition.
  2. I don't like the fact that a new employee has the same vacation as me, since I've been here for X years and now accrue at a higher rate.
I don't necessarily have a great answer for issue #1, things like terminating someone is handled on a case by case basis. Issue #2 seems to betray a lack of trust in management: Damon will hire someone fresh out of college and let them take six weeks their first year. There are a couple of reasons why I like this policy.

While Edgenet has a codified list of our Values, when people ask me about our my management style I usually start with a very basic elevator speech: I strive to focus on the things that are important and ignore the things that aren't. Whatever vacation quotient The Almighty HR Gods came up with doesn't mean as much to me as whether or not you are meeting your commitments. I have long seen good managers unofficially throw extra vacation at someone who's been going the extra mile, and this just makes that my official policy.

This also gives me a unique way to take care of people. While I will argue that workaholics are bad for your culture, some people just can't help it. Maybe they are not truly committed workaholics, but they suffer from the notion that they are such a Lynchpin that Bad Things™ will happen if they take rest.

Someone may also be looking at a calendar year and budgeting their vacation. "Ok, I have X days for this trip during the summer, X days around Thanksgiving, X days after Christmas, so I really can't take this 4 day weekend..." With DTO I'm able to force someone to take the mental health days they may need. I have actually threatened to turn off someone's access fob and VPN for a few days if they don't voluntarily take some time for themselves to rejuvenate.

What do you think? A good tool or a trendy bit of nonsense?

Refactoring Leadership

You probably haven't heard of me. If you have, I'm not that guy anymore. I don't do those things anymore. I probably won't post my machine learning code in C# or Python. I probably won't be showing you amazing Reflection Emit metaprogramming tricks or showing you how to harness GPU computing from managed code.

I won't make any claims about being the best RockstarNinjaUnicorn developer, but I was successful as a developer and even more so as a software architect. To become successful, I cultivated various habits. These habits involve how I work, how I learn, and how I improve. Most importantly, I am hard-wired for constant introspection. I am my worst critic, and I'm always on.

This is the story of a life long geek who became a manager and hopes to become a leader. I manage developers, software architects, DBAs, and IT infrastructure pros. I want to be great at this.