Tuesday 31 August 2010

The Abstraction Trap

Abstractions exist so that we can take shortcuts when building stuff.  They readily implement some of the messy necessities behind things like, for example, network access in distributed systems – but too often they’re used as an alternative to in-depth understanding rather than a reusable way to render a system.

Staying with our distributed system example; understanding the latency between nodes, synchronisation and blocking (and their impact on concurrent work), transport overhead and reliability, and what the behaviour will be if you don’t hear back from the remote service are all critical to the success of a complex project.  Without having to explicitly program these things it’s too easy to just drop something into a pipe or throw it at a web service and merrily continue on with life having never even considered those neatly masked complexities.  Until go live.

It’s the difference between something that functions on the bench and something that will work reliably in real life’s volatile conditions.

On the infrastructure side I see the same pattern emerging with virtualisation – we’ve now got this nifty and easy to use platform which takes us another step further away from the metal.  On the plus side we can stamp out more nodes really quickly and move instances of a server around from hardware to hardware to accommodate growth and failure, but on the minus side correlating what’s happening on pretend CPUs with a real CPU and oversubscribing hosts makes capacity planning a degree harder.

All these environments are designed to abstract things away from us so that we don’t have to worry about them or recreate them every time – but that’s not the same as saying we no longer need to understand the basics of what happens under the hood.

You’ll always have better product when your engineers have the low level knowledge (primitives and patterns) needed to design and build systems and understand how they will behave.  That’s different to simply knowing how to drive the tools.

Friday 13 August 2010

5 Less Obvious Leadership Qualities

There is so much material out there on leadership and management – the basics of the topic are generally well covered and so I’d like to add some of the less obvious ingredients to the mixture:

1 - Do what needs done, not what you’re familiar with

When under pressure or dealing with unfamiliar situations people will often reach for the tools and techniques that they’re comfortable with – regardless of whether or not those things will have an impact.  We have to avoid falling into this trap and look at what the circumstances and the data are telling us needs to be done.  Those are the actions that will turn a situation around – even if they’re a little foreign and uncomfortable to begin with.

2 – Don’t get swept along with the tide

Change is often hard because most organisations (especially large ones) are great big machines that are good at assimilating new parts and reluctant to part with old habits.  Making a difference can sometimes feel like the only person rowing south on a boat full of people rowing north – it’s hard work and you have to be strong and you have to expect it to take some time.  Organisational culture pop quiz; what’s the street address of Microsoft’s headquarters?  One Microsoft Way.  Is there something there beyond the literal?  Try changing the culture there and then you tell me…

3 - Create the right environment

Put a piece of paper with some questions on it face down on a table and, with no further rules of instructions, ask a group of people to turn over the pages and answer the questions.  They’ll all do it silently and individually and studiously avoid even the slightest peek at each others papers (the honest ones anyway).  Take that same sheet with the same questions and place it face down on the floor in front of chairs arranged in a circle and, again with no further rules or instructions, you’ll find that people will discuss the questions openly and compare answers and debate choices.  I’ve tried this experiment myself and it goes down exactly like that; but why?

It’s because we’re all programmed to behave in certain ways in certain environments and those responses are sometimes so deeply wired in that they’re automatic.  You can fight this all you like but it is just the human condition.  As a leader you are better off acknowledging this universal constant and turning it to your advantage by creating the environment which produces the behaviours you are trying to bring out.

4 – Deal with opportunities first and problems second

Why are humans so naturally drawn to problems and so blind to opportunity?  Perhaps it’s because problems are right here and now and in our faces demanding our attention and opportunities are off in the distance somewhere, shy and subtle and just waiting to for us to make the first move.  It’s easy to get sucked down into the issues of the present – and in any case there are usually a multitude of people already doing this is most companies - but the most successful organisations I know didn’t get where they are today because their teams of execs sat around dealing with day to day issues.  You can’t ignore problems – they won’t just go away – but you have to accept that your big leaps forward will come from your ability to see opportunity rather than fix something broken.

5 – Do what serves the outcome, not what serves yourself

Obvious on the surface however I mean it in a more intimate and everyday way.  Do I get disappointed about stuff?  You bet.  Do I feel mad when some things go wrong?  I’m only human.  The difference between good leadership and average leadership isn’t what happens and how you feel about it, its how you respond to those events.  Would I like to go nuts and shout at a few people from time to time?  You bet.  While that might make me feel better I have to ask myself if it will improve the situation and help the rest of those involved cope – whatever does that is the response I owe the team.

6 - Use role power sparingly

Reliance on role power is lazy management and breeds unengaged, dispassionate, dependent teams.  People always perform better – and add more value beyond the basics of their role – when they are bought into what they’re doing, understand the value and the part they play, and believe in the vision and the goals.  That’s harder work than simply telling people what to do (you have to invest in sharing a vision and collaboratively coming up with plans that the whole team can feel that they own and identify with) but then again we’re here to do what’s effective, not what’s easy.

7 - Make decisions not choices

When faced with options most people can choose between ones they favour more and ones they favour less.  But making a decision is making a choice and then seeing to it being carried it out.  Drucker’s definition of a decision is that a choice has been made and then:

  • someone has been made accountable for it’s implementation
  • a deadline has been established
  • people involved or affected have been communicated with

When making decisions what really matters is that you recognise that your role as an executive is to create the necessary action rather than just pick from a menu.

I said I would share 5 of the less obvious leadership lessons I’ve learned over the years and the more astute reader will note that I have given 7.  Overdelivery – that’s the final lesson!