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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Local Optima: Girl versus Woman in IT

A colleague of mine recently sent out a request for comments on the topics of "women-only" technical conferences, and asking how we female colleagues felt on being called a "woman" rather than a "girl."  Most interestingly to me, she asked the question, "Should we stop moaning about men and just get on with striving to do our jobs well?"

I couldn't quite remember which second wave feminist gets credit for banning the word "girl" when one is referring to a female person of childbearing age or older.  (Lately the interweb is not the friendly, omnipotent companion it used to be.  I suppose we should just go ahead and blame Simone de Beauvoir and be done with it.)  What I did find, as I searched, was Tabby Biddle's wonderful third-wave feminist-friendly blog post entitled "Girl vs. Woman."  As Biddle says,
I think my occasional turn toward calling other women (myself included) “girl” is a way to reclaim some of my own girl power. To me, this means a person who is fun, adventurous, exploratory and bold. A woman to me is strong, confident, responsible, nurturing and global in her thinking. Probably the most important piece to all of this is the integration of girl power with woman power in each woman herself, allowing a dance between the two.
Biddle is exactly right, at least in the local context of "woman" versus "girl" as used in upper middle class, light-skinned, Western society, although possibly the rightness would be stronger for Generation X, and weaker when applied to women who paid a high personal price to move women's rights forward in the 1960s through the 1990s.

The problem with attempting to find a globally optimal solution to problems like "women in technology" is, as Gertrude Stein says, "there's no there there."  (she was speaking of her childhood home in Oakland, California, actually, but no matter).

Women's experiences in technology do not appear to have enough in common, even in the United States, so that the question of how to optimize "the experience" can be answered with simple dichotomies like male-female or woman-girl.  When you bring in the difference between "woman" and "girl" in a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-gender-identity world, it only gets worse.

"Afghan Girl, by Steve McCurry.  http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2002/04/afghan-girl/index-text"
Does that mean we need to give up on trying to do anything at all?  If you're a wealthy, white, male fundamentalist on the right or post-structuralist French philosopher on the left, quite possibly.  It is, as Patricia Hill Collins says, a "matrix of domination," where politicians find strange bedfellows on opposite ends of the socio-religious spectrum, and not (always) in an entertaining way involving whips and leather chaps.

But what is the way forward when you are tired of being stuck between obvious boors on the right who call women "sluts," like Rush Limbaugh, and and people on the left who worry that
"While having at heart a genuine concern for women's conditions throughout the world, Western feminism may inadvertently gloss over other forms of resistance and rebellion that do not match the standard of out loud, self-assertive, and aggressive protest."   (Alina Sajed, McMasters University:  http://globalautonomy.ca/global1/glossary_pop.jsp?id=CO.0062)
We seem to have fretted ourselves into a corner.

As always, when faced with a tough problem like this, I turn to StackOverflow.com.  In a handy post entitled "When locally optimal solutions equal global optimal," I find the helpful comment:
"A given problem can often be solved in many ways, depending on how one chooses to represent it" (Ted Hopp, speaking of "Greedy Algorithms," but no matter)
When you can't find a global optimum, you need to look for a local one first.  The great thing about bringing in the math at a time like this is that you get a chance to show your thinking visually.  Here are local optimizations, also known as "local search attraction basins:"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Local_search_attraction_basins.png
Those are concave, people, not convex.

If you are a woman for whom the problem of bringing more female peers into technology is an active issue, then just as any person facing any problem must do, you need to figure out what you want, how to get it, and how you will measure success.  You need to treat your assault on this problem as a "lean startup" and do experiments to find out what works and what doesn't, enshrining your wins as a routine part of your daily operations, and pivoting when things do not work the way you want.
  • Should you attend an all-women's conference?  It depends.  Who will be there?  What will be discussed?  What will you gain from being there that is applicable to your personal life's work?  Does that fact that it's all-women make the conference better for you than a similar conference which would include men?  If the answers are yes, then attend!  If no, don't.
  • Should you run an all-women's conference?  It depends.  Who will be there?  What will be discussed?  Will it be something other than "wow, it's great to be at an all-women's conference?"  Will you provide tools for women to move them forward on their career paths?  Who is your target audience, and how do you want to help them?  A "5 Whys" analysis can help you a lot here, in determining the gender parameters of your next conference.
  • Should you call your 50-year-old Black lesbian colleague a "girl"?  Your white 23-year-old graduate school roommate?  Your child's teacher?  It depends.  Who are you to them? How well do you know the person?  Are they a bra-burning refugee from the 1970s who will react to the "g-word" by hitting you over the head with their Helen Reddy album (on vinyl)?  Even with the additional demographic data I have provided, there are no set answers here.
  • Should we, as my colleague asked, stop moaning about men and just get on with striving to do our jobs well?  Here my answer is an unequivocal "no."  No, we should not stop asking these questions.  What does it mean that "Equal Pay Day" in the United States is in April?  What is "Equal Pay Day" for those we actually know and understand who are women in IT?  What can be done about it?  What combination of local, state, and national action can we make?  How can we involve the private sector?  How can we own this problem and help ourselves, not just doing a good job, but getting the right attention for doing a good job?
People are complicated, facts are friendly, and passion has to be turned into action for something to change.  If you have enough passion and data to move something in particular forward which seems like it would do somebody some good, then please, do that.

Monday, April 9, 2012

How Do You Vote Someone Off of Your Agile Team?

One of the conundrums of agile conversion is that although you are ordered by management to "self-organize," you don't get to pick your own team.  You may not have pictured it this way, but your agile team members are going to be the same people you worked with before, when you were all doing waterfall!  I know I wasn't picturing it that way for my first agile team, so I thought I should warn you.  (I thought I was going to get between six and eight original Agile Manifesto signers.  That didn't happen.).

Why "warn" you (as opposed to "reassure" you, say)?  Because the agile process is going to reveal every wart, mole, quirk, goiter, and flatulence issue on the team within a few hours.  In the old days, you could all be eccentric or even unpleasant in your own cube, communicating only by document, wiki, email, and, in extreme situations, by phone.  Now you are suddenly forced to interact in real time, perhaps in person, with written messaging as the last resort.  And because this is new to all of you, you will feel stressed out, and you will not be at your best.  I guarantee that your first thought is going to be:  "how do I vote someone off the island," Survivor-style?

From starpulse.com

When this thought occurs to me, and I am sad to admit that it does occasionally, I always turn first to Mike Cohn's blog post on "Removing Team Members."  As Cohn says, no, you don't get to vote members off.  All of the great things that you are going to do as a team are purposely set up for you by management, following the Glenda Eoyang "CDE Model" of
  • Constraint (team members, room, time frame, budget), 
  • Differences between team members to generate productive discussions, and 
  • Exchanges, which is where the real work gets done.
So the decision to remove one or more team members from a team is always a management decision, not a team decision.

What is good about this?
  • Agile Zealots will tell you that in most cases, the self-organizing team frees you to do the right things in the right way.  Software developers of the world, unite into 8-10 person teams and throw off your TPS report cover sheets!  Spend your time doing something worth while! This is the real reason you should be cautious about removing people too frivolously.  Additionally, though,
  • Research shows that once you get over the "storming" part and move on to "norming" and "performing," your agile team is actually less likely to generate a "social loafing" problem than its waterfall counterpart.  In other words, collocation, information radiators, quick feedback, and other agile practices create teams with fewer "free riders," and less of a "sucker effect," where people don't work because they see that nobody else is.
  • Finally, empirically, you're likely to vote off the best collaborators first, because they "make the rest of you look bad."  Sad but true.  Agile team members are humans first.
So it's a good thing you can't vote anyone off.

But let's say things aren't going as planned.  Let's say you are saddled with one or more person on the team who is toxic in some way.  You wonder who they are blackmailing and for what, given that there seems to be no other reason for them to keep their job.  As a team, you quickly notice at the daily stand-up meetings that this person does not make progress on a day to day basis.  What is she doing, you all wonder, silently, then aloud to each other over beers and non-alcoholic equivalents.

Your scrum master is on the lookout for team problems, and he talks with the person's manager.  The manager explains that Ms. Mooch is "new," although others on the team were hired much more recently.  Can you really be "new" longer than a couple of months, your scrum master asks.  The manager reiterates that this employee is "new," and explains condescendingly that since this is an agile team, this one tiny questionable staffing decision should be no problem.  "An agile team," this manager declares, "should be like a 'family' where the 'strong ones carry the weak ones.'"

Okay, stop right there, Father Flanagan.  This is not a family.  "She ain't heavy, she's my sister" doesn't play here.  This is a work place.  Agile is not an excuse to force the strong to carry the weak.  That is cynical and it is just wrong.  There's a difference between "diverse" and "incapable," and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  Just as it's management's prerogative to support agile by providing support to teams through carefully balanced constraints, differences, and exchanges, it is also a management responsibility to remove toxic people from the team as soon as it appears that there are serious problems.

From the hilarious blog post at:  http://www.halfassedproductions.com/the-island-of-misfit-toys/


That said, however, what do you do back on the Island of Misfit Toys once management shoots you down and asks you not to come back unless you have a REAL problem?  The same thing you would do on a waterfall team:  isolate and document.  Track each task the problem person commits to or has assigned, and whether it gets done correctly and on time.  If necessary, do the same tracking for the rest of the team to show you're not singling anyone out unfairly.  Once you can document a pattern, and you will be able to, then report and escalate the pattern to whatever level of management it takes.  It's no fun, but it's the only way.  Even on an agile team.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

W.A.I.T.: Crucial Consulting Advice

So you want to be a consultant.  You probably think this will involve yourself talking and your client respectfully listening.  Your client will put you in front of her team to present a PowerPoint deck outlining how Everything Will Be Different Now.  You will then distribute copies of your Initiative Plan to each of her subordinates.  Once you have given everyone their marching orders, they will do exactly what you outlined in orderly fashion.

But just to make sure, you personally will visit offices in New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Tokyo to double-check that everyone is doing what they should.  You will shop in Rome, buy gadgets at the Seattle Space Needle, have some fabulous meals along the way, and you will reach 1K Status this year.  That is why you want to be a consultant--you want to be consulted!

Not so fast, El Guapo!  Overbearing, meddling, quick to take offense and quicker to offend:  you aren't James Bond.  You are everyone's...mother in law.  Yes, even if you are a guy.  Guys are the worst mothers in law.
http://www.bizcrecise.com/lifestyle/what-your-mother-in-law-is-trying-to-tell-you/

How, you ask, is an enterprise hiring a consultant like a family facing a visit from the in-laws?

Put yourself briefly on the receiving end of your own advice.  Enterprise employees are seasoned professionals who have been hired, retained, and promoted within the intricate, familial dance of relationships and roles that constitutes company culture.  They know who to seek out for help, who they trust, who they don't trust, and how to get things done.  Like a family which has figured out how to handle school mornings with only one bathroom, a company arranges itself to avoid unneeded confrontations.  Any visible pattern of behavior has a reason behind it.

Now you stomp in with your big mother-in-law boots.  Your first thought is that this isn't how it's done.  Why is the mustard in the refrigerator door?  Why is Brittney allowed to eat nothing but white rice?  When did your daughter stop exercising?  The husband must weigh 300 pounds, and she's not getting any thinner.  YOU have the knowledge.  YOU have run a family for an entire generation before these amateurs were born.  Literally!  You'll get those condiments whipped into shape.  The family just needs to lead, follow, or get out of the way.  You will use your visit to get everyone to shape up, and hopefully your reforms will stick until your visit next week.  If you get invited next week.

Here's a pro tip.  The best consultants will not give advice when they first arrive at a new site, even when begged.  They will ask questions and they will listen.  As social media expert Alison Cummings says, "nothing you say is as important as what you will hear."  You may even have the answer on the first day or in the first hour, but the last thing you want to do is trot it out too early.  Ideally, you want the client herself to come to the same conclusion you did, or even a better one, and for you to therefore share ownership of the plan.  You are there to build up local leaders at all levels, give them techniques, give them mastery, and give them self confidence.  You are not there to start running the company yourself.

The inimitable Anne Lamott has released a new book about becoming a grandmother, entitled Some Assembly Required.  In a recent interview she described how she has to take really good care of herself when she visits her son and his small family, because nobody in that house is worried about her needs--they're all just focused on themselves and the new baby.  There isn't room in that house to give her the care and attention she is used to.  But of course, that's how it should be.

Lamott's advice to new mothers in law is to embrace the helpful acronym WAIT:  "why am I talking?"  And indeed this Four Letter Acronym is one that should underlie every single day you spend at a client site.  As business blogger Gary Cohen says, "start by writing WAIT on your notepad before your next meeting."  Practicing what Lauren Ekroth calls "mindful" conversation isn't just good for business--it's good for you!

I once won a high school speech contest at the Appleton Rotary Club, and the prize was a pen that had a little window in the side, and every time you clicked the pen open or closed, the saying in the window changed.  In rotation, the pen said the immortal Henry Babcock words:

-Is it true? 
-Is it kind? 
-Is it necessary? 
-If not, let it be left unsaid.

Sadly I don't have that pen any more. But instead, I have "WAIT," which is easy to remember.  I encourage all of you to remember it as well.