Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thoughts on Thanksgiving 2009

Saw this e-card in referenced in an e-mail newsletter today. I couldn't help but laugh and share the sentiment.

This Thanksgiving, cherish the time spent with your family as a reminder of why you moved very far away from your family

Before I descend into the navel gazing stuff, I want to offer up a list of things for which I am thankful this year:

  • My older daughter has had a good transition to grade school and finds joy in learning from a teacher she loves.

  • Both of my daughters find so much joy in being creative.

  • My dog of eight years is still as healthy and happy as ever.

  • I received a promotion that has given me a chance to grow and provide better for my daughters.

  • My department has continued to do so well in getting projects done on time with high quality code.

  • I have public transportation nearby that can get me to work.

  • The DJs of WTTS-FM have helped me keep my sanity, especially Todd Berryman and Brad Holtz.

  • Amazon MP3, for making it so easy to locate and purchase music that I hear on my satellite radio.

  • The Mozilla Foundation, Yahoo, and Google, for providing tools that make web development fun.

  • Web comics like Basic Instructions, xkcd, and Dinosaur Comics, for giving me reasons to smile.

  • For a number of friends, who shall remain anonymous, who have helped put smiles on my face.

As I did last year, I took a trip up to the north burbs to visit with my brother and his family. I wasn't all that enthusiastic about going.

I can't seem to get past this mental energy barrier that makes the thought of any family gathering extremely painful. It's not that I dislike my relatives, but there are some things about their behavior patterns that make interaction as grating as it is predictable, especially my mother and my aunt. Add to that the continuing cloud of my marital breakdown, and there's not a lot to get excited about.

Fortunately, so much of the conversation centered around my cousin's wedding next weekend that some of the old patterns were disrupted for this year. My aunt didn't seem to be as ready to rehash the old stories about my behavior as a two year-old for the umpteenth time. My mom wasn't ranting about how biased the Peacock Network's commentators are against the collegiate football team of Universitas Dominae Nostrae a Lacu and whether they should fire the coach.

Still, after everyone had left, my sister-in-law tried to get me to talk about the divorce, wondering where things stood. I gave some basic information... we were still technically married... we'd be filing in the new year... STBX is taking a unit secretary class... we were still civil.

She asked me if I had done any dating and whether anyone had tried to fix me up with someone. I told her that I hadn't and that I had intentionally stayed off of the social networks because I am not ready to reconnect with old acquaintances. I'm pretty sure that if I did have a profile, it would show my status as "It's Complicated". Moreover, I don't think I would respond well to one of those retrosexual, "You know, I had a thing for you way back when... but I never said anything about it."

I think she's still very curious about why the marriage broke down. I have been very quiet on the events leading up to it. Last year she told me that my mother had speculated about the sexual orientation of STBX, so I can only imagine what sorts of narratives that they have constructed since then.

My daughters are staying with me tonight because I have the day off tomorrow, and STBX has to get up early for her class. I'm not sure what we'll do. I've thought about taking them to the light ceremony show downtown tomorrow evening, but it's supposed to be cold and yucky, and for the most part they would be cooped up in my office until it was time for the lights to be switched on, so we might have a movie night instead. Once they are a bit bigger, I'd love to take them to see that show.

There has been less tension with my team than there was a few weeks ago. We managed to get commitments worked out for the "clean up" development cycle, and out of that came the fulfillment of all but the dumbest requests. Still, there are times when my employees express concern about where the company is headed. One thing that left the team rankled was that in lieu of our standard company meeting, where there is a recap of goals and how we met them, the President decided to make it a form of a quiz show, with questions created by managers based on things that their departments did for the month of October.

My boss has assured me that we as a company will dig deeper into that question at the beginning of the year when we do a strategic planning session. The CEO is very interested in opening up the architecture so that third parties can develop widgets and apps that integrate with the application. The President is fixated on totally revamping the system that is used to adjust the look and feel of content pages.

Nov. 17 was an awful day for the systems engineer and I as we had the worst outage that we've ever seen in our collective experiences. He was careless with the management of directories checked out under revision control. Instead of using the appropriate deletion command and committing the change, he used a standard file system command to delete the files. When he updated with the repository, the obsolete files were restored and pushed into production, causing a failure in our caching and bringing the application to a cascading failure. After getting things fixed, we had a long post mortem and worked on some systems and code level changes to keep that component from being a single point of failure.

The past couple of weeks have included budgeting meetings, and I have seen some tension between the CEO and the President there as well. The CEO, noting that we are getting a total of a million in funding from a state-sponsored fund, said we should aim for the fences and try to grow aggressively. The President is fixated on the goal of being in the black, which was a goal that we missed in November. I don't know all the details of why we missed that, but I suspect that it was because we hired on some new people in the customer service end of things.

At this time, my department will likely get everything I requested, which included big increases for professional development and reference materials. But I've also heard that some departments will get much less than what they requested because they asked for some pretty ungodly increases in their budgets.

The President floated an idea suggested by the company's advisory board -- eliminating salary increases for the entire year, replacing it with a company wide collective bonus based on whether the company met its targets, to be awarded at the end of the year. Given that none of the other departments meet their targets, or do so in a way that is laden with asterisks, I wasn't about to buy into this. I told them that moving the goalposts out from under my team when they have been working under a different compensation reward system would most likely motivate them to look for employment elsewhere.

On the recruiting front, we interviewed someone on site a couple weeks ago, and decided that there were enough red flags to not extend him an offer. I phone interviewed a couple of others who have proved to be promising, but one of them gave up on the sample code exercise when he couldn't get the software working on his computer. The other submitted a good result, so we will probably bring him in either next week or the week thereafter.

Another amusing item from the marketing end of things... Our marketing team decided it wanted to revive dead leads for whom we had offered a price quote. The package essentially offered twice the amount of priced units for the original price quote. All I could think of was some annoying informercial guy screaming, "Check this out! Well give you more of what you didn't want at the price you weren't willing to pay!"

Word came to me late last week that upper management was in the process of putting together an offer to a guy for a VP of Ops. According to the President, he was working for another start up in town that was crumbling because of a bad funding plan, and they saw a real opportunity by "scooping him up."

Never mind that they bypassed the rest of the company's managers in vetting him through a formal interview process. My guess is that this guy is connected in some sense and had the job handed to him. As someone who had to interview and earn jobs without the convenience of connections, I can't imagine just getting a job handed to me, much less feeling good about getting a job like that. Since this role currently doesn't exist within our organization, it's not clear what the org chart will look like this. I did some Google stalking and found out he was not technical, so I hope he won't have jurisdiction over our department.

On a completely unrelated note, I got a promotion from my cell phone carrier for an early upgrade, and being a fan of Do-No-Evil, I am falling prey to the siren song of getting a Droid.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Late Night Listening XXXIV: Of Boiling Points and Breakdowns

Before I do the big information dump, let's pull out something out of the ordinary. I heard this unlikely cover on WTTS-FM's Over Easy a month or so ago. I was reminded of it last week while listening to a WICR-FM's Have You Heard?, where they had Sean Baker, a local jazz musician talking about vocal groups, and he brought up his soft spot for the Andrews Sisters.

Yeah, I'm a sucker for those harmonies, too. :-)

The last few weeks haven't been very easy on me.

On the work front, my team and I spent most of October working furiously on the last phase of a larger project that has consumed most of our development time since I took over the helm of my department.

It all started last summer when one of our sales reps got in touch with the purveyor of aftermarket vehicle accessories. This guy had a vision for using our application in ways we hadn't envisioned, and scale of some of the usage requirements would tax both the user interface and the back end so heavily that it would surely break both.

The development roadmap was rapidly shifted toward meeting these goals. What we envisioned at the beginning wound up being much of what we implemented, save for one administrative interface and one standard user interface item. We swapped those out for a couple of additional changes requested by the customer, so things balanced out.

The good news is that we met the letter of our commitments to upper management, so we were able to collect on a bonus funded out of money that had been budgeted originally for the employee we let go in early Sept. That money will be coming our way later this month.

The bad news is that one of the changes we made removed a feature that we warned management would go away, and it was explicitly listed in our work items, but the client management person who is the point person with our demanding customer didn't communicate this to him, so he wasn't happy.

Moreover, despite my advice to the President that she needed to communicate this change to Sales in advance, she chose not to follow through with this, so the sales team continued to plug this feature in their demos right up through the day of its removal.

Pile on top of that various observations and complaints for customers to a dysfunctional client management team that doesn't know how to manage such situations effectively, and all of the sudden our department was under pressure from upper management to restore the old feature.

It suffices to say that my team was not happy with this. I pushed back and negotiated a compromise. The old feature would remain dead, but we would extend an existing feature, currently available only to administrator roles, to regular roles but limited to viewing things rather than having the ability to make changes that administrators could.

Of itself, that exchange wasn't awful, but a number of other events started to strain my relationship with the President. We have a standing brief 1:1 status meeting in the afternoon. Normally it's small administrative items that can be taken care of in short order. A new pattern started to emerge last week, where she started to ask me about changes to the application and whether we could fit them in before taking on the next big project.

For about a year and a half, our department has used a project management style that has proven to be very effective. We let management set strategic priorities from an ongoing wish list, and we gradually work down that list developing concrete lists of work items and time commitments. We also have a shorter term planning process that lets us respond to tactical issues, like bugs.

For the most part, we hit our targets, and the execution is the envy of other departments in the organization. Some of the departments have established "cargo cult" style practices that emulate what we're doing but they lack some key ingredients -- one is they don't make actionable commitments, and the second is that there is no accountability for failure to meet them.

Anyway, the nature of the requests from the President started to look like ways to circumvent that process because they asked for specific things rather than asking us to solve classes of problems. Almost all of the requests were specific to either a single customer or a small group of customers. At least two of them were driven either by personal connections between the President and the client. She also seemed to be pushing for commitments to resolve them without me discussing the details with my team.

After about five days of this, my team was starting to wonder what the deal was with upper management. Were they abandoning longer term roadmap items for revenue chasing one-offs? Two of my three charges were seriously concerned about the future of the company because they had seen similar patterns in prior jobs and weren't happy about it.

On Wednesday this past week, I met with the President and had a long talk about what I was seeing, offering a willingness to work with her to meet company goals but needing a better sense that these smaller items were going to be addressed through our usual procedures, which ensure accountability on both sides. It was a useful discussion, and I got in writing a concrete plan for dealing with both the short term issues that had been occupying her as well as the need for longer term vision.

The week ended with a timetable for getting these things straightened out, which left both my team and I in a better emotional state.

Another recurring battle I have been dealing with is the influence of consultants who claim to know how to get search engine rankings. This is field that is rife with poseurs, hacks, and quacks. Advice is dispensed with handwaving and minimal statistical backing, sometimes justified by claims that they got high rankings for their clients. Most of these people have no background in computer science, let alone understanding of network protocols and indexing algorithms.

My employer has been very concerned with how consultants view our application, be it as something that is of no use to them or as a direct competitor. Nonetheless, local and national consultants both have weighed in and given bad advice with authoritative voices. As a result, I've spent more time than what I would have liked researching claims and determining their credibility.

It's gotten to the point where I think we need to invest resources on our own independent research using controlled experiments. Much of the more exotic advice we have received would require major application modifications, and if the techniques were later ruled as disreputable by the search engines, all that work would have been for naught.

I've also decided that my next dream job would be to go work for the spam detection folks at Do No Evil and work to ferret out the shady tactics these guys ply and destroy them, but that's just my Aspiness showing through.

Job applications have started to come in over the past month, and I've been doing phone interviews. The quality of developers around here is really hit-and-miss. Out of four candidates, there has been only one which has been worth bringing in on site. (side note to Drunken Housewife: I suspect that I might be just as picky as Sober Husband about screening, which could make this painful)

STBX started a six-week Unit Secretary training class with a local hospital a couple weeks ago. The hope is that this will help her get hired on there, but there is no guarantee of employment, and the cost of the training is being paid entirely by her.

On the kids front, our older daughter is doing well in school. Some days she has problems with some homework items if the task is unfamiliar, but once she gets familiar she does really well. She is really into writing. This weekend, she has been working a composition about what Thanksgiving foods she likes.

I took off early on the Friday before Halloween to attend both kids' Halloween parties. Their trick-or-treat choices for the older and younger daughter were Batgirl and Daphne from Scooby Doo respectively.

This morning, I took the girls up to a dinner theater on the northwest side of town for a children's performance of Jack and the Beanstalk. One of the preschool moms works at the theater and arranged for a good discount on admission. They both loved the watching the show, and they got to get the cast's autographs afterward.

Had a bit of a scare earlier this past week with my car. I drove out on Monday evening to get something from the grocery, and my car started running really rough, so badly I feared that I wouldn't make it home. I took it to the mechanic, and it turned out to be ignition issues. I needed a new coil and new plugs. I also had them fix a slow coolant leak I had been deferring for several months. It turned out to be a bad hose. Set me back about $480, but the car is really running well now.

To speak to Anais' recurring question on my sex life. I'm still keeping a low profile on such things until we get the divorce taken care of, modulo a few encounters of the type described by ChelseaGirl, which happened back in early February (blushes).

I've been dealing the lack of touch by getting massages, which have become much more affordable with my increased income. That's been especially helpful in dealing with the stress, but it doesn't entirely address the loneliness anxiety that crops up from time to time.

I also wanted to thank everyone who commented on my post about the "I would be honored to be your first" woman. It was good to get some other perspectives and finally get that whole story out there. It's a secret I had carried around in my mind for some time. Bonus points go to Desmond for pointing out that the song is a cover.

Speaking of secrets, I was amused by a post from Tech Crunch a few weeks back. There is now a microblogging site for people to post about their relationships. The site's tag line pretty much sums up the nature of the Diggersphere -- "It stays between us (and the web)." :-)