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)." :-)
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