Is writing software more like Building a Bridge or Making a Painting?

Several weeks ago, my friend and colleague Dan Calinescu asked and answered (on LinkedIn) this question:

Is software development more like building a bridge or more like painting a painting?

Dan had asked me this question a few years ago, on the day we met, in the first meeting we had together. I had arrived in Romania (from Seattle) for the first time, to meet with the team (which included Dan) that I had just started to manage. In his post, Dan says that most people he asks (primarily in software development) says it’s more like building a bridge. Dan argues (as he did that day in Romania) that it’s the latter, stating that

Software development is more like painting than it is like building a bridge. A lot more like painting. A lot as in 80%-90%.

He’s wrong. Although Dan makes many valid points in his article, he’s wrong on the basic premise. He’s right that creative people can make excellent software developers. He’s also correct that it’s valuable to have developers who challenge requirements that don’t accurately describe the problem to solve but, instead, define a solution.

Here’s the truth:

Software must do something. That is it’s primary purpose – to serve a need; to meet a requirement.

Similarly, a bridge serves a purpose – to cross a body or water (or some other gap). It has a function and, more than anything, it has to fulfill that function successfully. It might have multiple purposes (like the Tower Bridge in London, now serving car traffic and also housing a museum). But, more than anything, it must do what it is intended to do.

ID-100111093

Once that purpose is met, other factors are important and must be considered. Bridges are seen by lots of people, so it’s valuable for them to be visually appealing. They represent (and can become an iconic symbol of) the communities where they are built, so it can be important for them to be creative. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is a well-known example.

ID-10015226

Like a bridge, once a software product meets its requirements, it must also have artistic considerations. Ugly software is worse than beautiful software. In fact, ugly software can make it fail to fulfill its purpose. Users are unable to use software if they can’t locate its features. Further, a beautiful, elegant user interface enhances a software product (or website) (or mobile app) and makes it “better”, even if its only virtue is its appearance.

A painting, unlike a bridge or a software offering, has no primary function other than its appearance. It may be intended make a political statement or engender an emotional reaction or portray an individual or a scene. However, it doesn’t (by itself) do anything.

And that’s the difference. Like a bridge and unlike a work of art, software must do something.

What do you think?

I first wrote this post to be published on LinkedIn – you can find that here.
Tower Bridge image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Golden Gate Bridge image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Share
Posted in General, Management | Leave a comment

Daryl’s 2016 Election Predictions

Prior to the first actual primary voting in New Hampshire (but after the Iowa Caucuses), I thought I’d show my forecasting ability (or lack thereof) by making some predictions on the outcome of the US presidential election process. Note that I’m not saying what I want to happen, just what I think will happen.

I wrote the first draft of this back in November, a year before Election Day 2016 in the US. [For those not in the US, yes, Americans really do spend more than a year getting ready for an election!] There have been some changes since then. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’ candidacy has been growing in strength, but he still seems like a long-shot to defeat Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, for the Republicans, Donald Trump continues to lead in the polls, while Ben Carson has faded and Ted Cruz has been rising. Still, I’ll stick with the same (unpublished) predictions I had in November.


 

Presidential / Vice Presidential nominees

Democratic – Hillary Clinton / John Hickenlooper

Clinton is still the obvious choice and heavy favorite. There seems little chance (to me) that she won’t get the nomination. Sanders is likely to win in New Hampshire, but Clinton will, I think, win the nomination.

Forecasting her choice for VP is trickier. Conventional wisdom says that she should choose someone younger, possibly non-white, and likely from a “battleground” state. [See explanation at the bottom about this.] It’s unlikely that she’ll find someone who matches all three of those. John Hickenlooper is currently the popular governor of Colorado and he’s my guess for her choice. Others I considered include Julian Castro, Cory Booker, and Tom Vilsack. I’ll consider myself moderately prescient if any of those is actually the choice.

Republican – Marco Rubio / Nikki Haley

I don’t think Donald Trump is likely to get the nomination. When actual voting starts in many states, I think that he will fade (though I’ve thought this since last summer and it isn’t really happening yet). In addition, the nomination process makes it fairly difficult for a candidate with extreme positions to get nominated, even if that candidate gets the most votes in the primary.  [This article describes the process and how it benefits a moderate candidate.] That makes it unlikely (in my view) that Ted Cruz will get the nomination. Jeb Bush seems to be a really poor national candidate with little strong support. Chris Christie, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina are struggling to get any sustained support.

That leaves (in my opinion) a battle between Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Kasich has struggled to get media attention (or strong poll results), but that may turn-around soon. Meanwhile, Rubio has been recognized (at least in the media) as a preferred choice for the Republican establishment. Rubio has gotten some criticism in the past week for his robot-like adherence to talking points and it’s possible that will drag him down. However, I expect the visibility of that to fade and be forgotten and I think he will be the nominee.

Rubio comes from Florida – one of the two biggest battleground states. An obvious VP choice would be Kasich, since Ohio is the other big battleground state. However, I think Rubio will emphasize youth and simultaneously try to appeal to women voters by choosing Nikki Haley, 43-year old Indian American who is the Governor of South Carolina. Rubio is 44 years old and will try to make Clinton’s age (she’s 68) an issue.


 

Presidential Election results

As noted below, the results of the U.S. presidential election are based on electoral votes. Each state gets a specified number of electoral votes, equal to the number of people that state has in Congress (two senators + representatives based on population). California (the most populous state) has the most at 55; the least populated states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming and the District of Columbia) each have 3. The winner of the most votes in a state gets all the electoral votes for that state.

Presidential results (electoral votes):

  • Clinton – 303 electoral votes
  • Rubio – 235 electoral votes

Caveat – if the Republican nominee is Trump, Cruz or (however unlikely) Carson, I expect that Clinton will win by a considerable larger margin:

  • Clinton – 347 electoral votes
  • Republican nominee– 191 electoral votes

So, there it is – I believe that, in January 2017, the US will inaugurate its first ever female president – Hillary Rodham Clinton.


 

What’s a Battleground State? 

The presidential election is the US is based on winners in each state, rather than the overall total number of votes. Because of this, states that are closely divided between Republican and Democratic votes are hotly contested. There are fewer than a dozen of these “battleground” states. Having someone from one of those states on the ballot is widely viewed as beneficial to winning that state.

 

Share
Posted in General | Leave a comment

Returning to my blog

It’s been over a year since I published a blog post. I recognized regularly through the year that I’ve missed it. I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, so I intentionally didn’t try to pick back up at the beginning of the year. Still, now that 2016 is well into its second month, I decided it’s time.

I’ll add some new topics (including my first attempt at political predictions very soon), but most of my focus will continue to be thoughts on management, leadership and organizational challenges, occasionally veering off to talk about sports, travel, wine and theatre.

It’s good to be back!

Share
Posted in General | Leave a comment

Travels in 2014

As the year winds down, I’m looking back at the past twelve months and looking forward to 2015.  Travel has been a huge part of my life this year (magnified by the move Sheri and I made to London, which I wrote about here).  After not traveling at all in January or the first half of February, I started up and never really stopped.

In February, I made my final trip to Vietnam as part of SDL’s Social Intelligence development team.  March brought the first of many trips to Cluj, Romania, as manager of SDL’s Language Technology development team, coupled with a few days in Amsterdam.  April started with a trip to corporate HQ in Maidenhead (near London) at the beginning of the month and continued with another trip to Cluj in the middle.  Sheri and I made our house hunting trip to London with Sheri at the end of the month.

We moved out of our house near Seattle in the middle of May, beginning about 10 weeks of not having anywhere to call home. [That was no fun!] After one more business trip to Europe (Cluj and Maidenhead) and a few trips to California, it was time for the biggest journey of all: at the end of June, we made the move from Seattle to London.

After our relocation, the travel didn’t really slow down.  I’ve been to Cluj at least once a month and made additional business trips to Amsterdam, LA, Seattle, and Stuttgart.  Meanwhile, Sheri and I enjoyed some personal travel time in Romania, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Iceland.

 

Travel map 2014

 

Total count for the year:

  • 2 countries of residence
  • 3 continents
  • 7 SDL offices
  • 8 inter-continental trips
  • 9 countries
  • 11 airlines
  • 12 trips to Romania
  • 15 airports
  • 121,000 miles flown (at least)

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

Travel is becoming my life.  Not that I’m complaining.

Share
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

As the year winds down, I’m looking back at the past twelve months and looking forward to 2015.  Travel has been a huge part of my life this year (magnified by the move Sheri and I made to London, which I wrote about here).  After not traveling at all in January or the first half of February, I started up and never really stopped. In February, I made my final trip to Vietnam as part of SDL’s Social Intelligence development team.  March brought the first of many trips to Cluj, Romania, as manager of SDL’s Language Technology development team, coupled with a few days in Amsterdam.  April started with a trip to corporate HQ in Maidenhead (near London) at the beginning of the month and continued with another trip to Cluj in the middle.  Sheri and I made our house hunting trip to London with Sheri at the end of the month. We moved out of our house near Seattle in the middle of May, beginning about 10 weeks of not having anywhere to call home. [That was no fun!] After one more business trip to Europe (Cluj and Maidenhead) and a few trips to California, it was time for the biggest journey of all: at the end of June, we made the move from Seattle to London. After our relocation, the travel didn’t really slow down.  I’ve been to Cluj at least once a month and made additional business trips to Amsterdam, LA, Seattle, and Stuttgart.  Meanwhile, Sheri and I enjoyed some personal travel time in Romania, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Iceland. Travel map 2014 Total count for the year:

  • 2 countries of residence
  • 3 continents
  • 7 SDL offices
  • 8 inter-continental trips
  • 9 countries
  • 11 airlines
  • 12 trips to Romania
  • 17 airports
  • 121,000 miles flown (at least)

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought: Travel is becoming my life.  Not that I’m complaining.

Share
Posted in General | Leave a comment

Commuting by Train

Since Sheri and I moved to London (which is described here), I’ve been commuting by train from home to the office.  This was our plan as soon as we decided to relocate.  It figured in our search for a place to live. The SDL office is in Maidenhead, which has direct train service from Paddington Station to the Maidenhead station. As a result, we needed to live in a location that gave me easy access to Paddington – either by tube or by bus or by foot.

We ended up renting a lovely flat in Maida Vale, in a part of London known at Little Venice.  It offers a wonderful blend of city life with a neighborhood feel that offers some peace and quiet. Maida Vale lies just to the north of Paddington and our flat is close enough that I can walk to the station.  From there, I take the train to Maidenhead, which takes about 30 minutes (depending on whether I catch an express train or not).  On the other end, I walk from the Maidenhead station to the office

Here’s a visual view of my commute – total travel time is about an hour and ten minutes (a little faster in the evening, if I catch the super-express 19 minute train back to London).   Click on each map for a larger view.

  • Walk from home to Paddington – 15 to 20 minutes – note than much of my walk is along the canals of Little Venice, which is pretty cool

Home to Paddington

  • Train from Paddington to Maidenhead – 20 to 40 minutes

Paddington to MH

  • Walk from Maidenhead Station to SDL office – 15 to 20 minutes

MH to Globe House

If I had a car, the commute would take at least as long – Google Maps estimates that the drive, with no traffic, is about 51 minutes.  Naturally, my commute would almost never encounter “no traffic”.

Driving commute

So, what’s the effect on me of commuting by train?  There’s no real impact on the time I spend commuting.  I’ve lost some weight and am getting more fit, since I’m getting more exercise – it’s about 4 miles of walking per day: a mile to and from the train station, in each direction.  In addition, I get to relax for the time I spend on the train – reading a book or a newspaper; listening to music or a podcasts; or just watching the scenery go by.  Since we don’t have a car, we’re saving money on petrol (that’s British for gasoline, for my American friends), car insurance, parking, and maintenance.  British trains are expensive, so the savings aren’t as significant as I would like, but we’re still better off.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with how this is working out.  Check back in with me in January or February, after I’ve had a few months of the same commute in a rainy, windy, dreary, grey English winter!

 

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

Moving from a suburban to an urban life brings a lot of changes – transportation is one of the biggest.  Take opportunities to change your approach.

Share
Posted in General | Leave a comment

A New Beginning

My wife and I have moved to London and moved into our new flat last week. Packed within that sentence are a whole lot of life changes for both of us.

Back in January, I was asked to take a new role within SDL, to look after the development of the Language Technology products.  Though the responsibilities are similar to my previous position (managing development of SDL’s Social Intelligence products), this is a significantly larger role.  There are many more products, with a much larger team developing them.  The revenue generated by the Language products is tens of millions of pounds (compared to just a few million for the Social products). In addition, the products provide a foundation for SDL’s Language Services that delivers more than £100 million in additional revenue.

Once I agreed to accept the new job, Sheri and I faced the logistics of winding down our lives in the Seattle area and moving to the UK.  Sheri gradually wrapped up all the active projects in her interior design business and shuttered it for at least a few years.  We sold the house we had lived in for twenty years.  We sold our cars, sold some of our furniture, put other furnishings into storage, and shipped the rest (along with clothes, kitchen supplies and other household items) in a container bound for London.  It’s difficult to explain how complex and stressful those months of packing and moving were!

Now that we’ve arrived, we’re settling into life in London.  Both of us are looking forward to new adventures and new challenges.  There’s obviously the job change for me, with new products and technologies to learn, new colleagues to get to know, and a new industry to understand.  For Sheri, there’s the prospect of deciding how to fill her days and weeks, with her design business no longer commanding her attention.  We hope to have opportunities to travel through Europe, in addition to experiencing an urban life in central London.

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

Big changes can bring new opportunities as well as new challenges.  Don’t be afraid of them.

Share
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Corner Office – Spencer Rascoff – Zillow

In Adam Bryant’s Corner Office column on 22 December 2013, he interviewed Spencer Rascoff, CEO of Zillow.  The full interview can be found hereZillow is an online real estate database, aimed at providing a marketplace to help people find information about home values.  The company was founded in 2005.

Like many other subjects of Corner Office interviews, Rascoff was an early entrepreneur.  He describes his first business venture, at age 10, selling cookies and other baked goods to friends and family.  His first management role came at Goldman Sachs, at age 21.

I really like Rascoff’s answer when asked about common mistakes made by first-time managers:

The biggest mistake I tend to see from junior managers is not hiring people who are better than them. It might be subconscious — people don’t want to be shown up by one of their direct reports — or maybe they don’t know how to identify talent.

 This is part of a larger management theme: managers who are confident and secure typically make better decisions than those who are uncertain or lack confidence.  Managers who feel threatened may be reluctant to hire people who are likely to outshine them.

Rascoff provides an additional, more introspective response to the same “common mistakes” question:

 The mistake I have most commonly made, especially earlier in my career, was not acting quickly enough when I knew in my gut that somebody probably wasn’t the best person for a role. I like to be liked, but sometimes managing people is not a popularity contest. So when a manager realizes that somebody is not right for their job, they need to act quickly — not just for their own success and survival, but also for the overall team.

Again, I find Rascoff to be very insightful here.  New managers are often reluctant to replace (or reassign) employees who aren’t being successful.  The fear of not being liked frequently backfires, since other employees recognize the individual who isn’t performing and conclude, if no action is taken, that the manager isn’t managing effectively.

Finally, Bryant asks Rascoff how he approaches hiring and what questions he asks.  

What are you most proud of so far in your career? And if you ran your current company, what are some things you would change? What I’m looking for with that question is whether people “level up.” Usually their answer is very narrow and focused on their particular area. Successful interviewees have broader and more strategic answers.

These kinds of open-ended questions are good ones, in my experience.  Candidates who think of (and can describe) a broad perspective in their responses are likely to be more strategic and more creative employees.  “What are you most proud of?” is a relatively common interview question, but effective – there’s no obvious right answer and it can provide good insight into the candidate’s true achievements (rather than just bullet points on a resume).  Similarly, “What would you change if you ran your current company?” can reveal a candidate’s awareness of (and thoughtfulness about) areas outside her own personal area of responsibility.

Rascoff continues:

I then usually ask them to describe the job they’re interviewing for, which is a good question for several reasons. First, it helps force them to articulate what the job description is and how their skills would fit into that job description. Second, it helps me learn their level of interest in the company. It immediately becomes apparent whether they’ve done the research and whether they are really serious. I also ask where they think their career will go in the next five or 10 years.

Most of this is really good, although I’m not thrilled with the last question.  Taken properly, the question can reveal a bit about long-term thinking and ambition.  However, as I look back at my own career (and those of colleagues I’ve known), I find that very few people can predict what might happen over several years.  Especially in a technology field, the landscape changes too quickly and opportunities come up too frequently for there to be much predictability.  Still, the question can be useful, if the response is interpreted more abstractly.

Share
Posted in Corner Office, Management | Leave a comment

Corner Office – Shanti Atkins

In a Corner Office column (published by the New York Times) on 2 January 2014, Adam Bryant interviewed Shanti Atkins, president and chief strategy officer of Navex Global, which handles ethics and compliance issues.  The full interview can be found here.

[On Twitter, Shanti is @ShantiNAVEX; the company is @NAVEXGlobal; Adam is @NYTCornerOffice; the newspaper is @NYTimes]

I think Atkins comes across as a demanding but fair leader.  She has evolved (by her own admission in the interview) from a background as a lawyer, where perfection was a consistent objective, to a business setting where there are so many issues that triaging and prioritizing become essential.  That shows, to me, that she’s pragmatic about recognizing (and accepting) when “good enough” is an acceptable level of completeness.  That’s an important lesson (and one that’s difficult, especially for leaders who are high achievers themselves).

When Bryant asks her whether she see the influence of her parents in her management style, her answer (not surprisingly) is yes.

 Yes, in terms of demanding excellence from people but in a way that isn’t oppressive. It’s a compliment to demand excellence from somebody. And that’s how I always think of it.

 Bryant immediately dives into the “demand excellence” point, probing for more detail:

 Q. That’s a subtle note to hit just right, so that people take it the way you intend.

 A. I think you have to model it yourself. You have to show people that you apply the same standard to yourself in a way that’s healthy. You set a high standard for yourself because you believe in yourself. You celebrate successes and you acknowledge where you fell short, but then you still show that you’re very confident and have a lot of self-esteem. If you can model that, then I think people respond to it very well as a leadership style.

 If I have to have a difficult conversation with someone, I might start by saying: “Look, I think you’re extraordinary at these things, and this is where I think you can go. So if you’re thinking five, 10 years ahead, I think that you can do better than this.” When you provide that context and perspective of someone’s potential and where someone may be going long term, they’re a lot more open and they feel that you care about them as a person.

 That’s a good summary of an excellent approach to delivering difficult information.  Starting with praise (as long as it’s sincere) eases the delivery of the more difficult message.  Coupling that praise with the longer term, strategic perspective helps set the context for how you hope the constructive criticism will be received.

When Bryant asks Atkins to tell more about her leadership style, here’s the response:

 I like to make decisions quickly. That came from being in an environment early on that was a crisis situation. I find that people react very badly to a sense of uncertainty. So I always ask myself, “If I had to decide in 30 seconds, what would I do?” I always write it down to document my gut decision. I’ll take more time, of course, on big decisions, but most of the time the initial gut instinct is right. You don’t agonize and you move on.

 The balance here between efficiency and thoughtfulness, when making decisions, is really good.  I love the “If I had to decide in 30 seconds” approach, as long as that’s not the only basis for making the decision (and it isn’t, since she immediately adds “I’ll take more time” for significant decisions).  This is a really good guideline – it can help avoid analysis paralysis – the inability to decide anything because too much time is spent exploring and analyzing alternatives.

Finally, Bryant asks Atkins about what she looks for when hiring.

 I’ve always believed in starting with the organizational structure and being very clear what the position is that the business needs. I also find that job descriptions can get really stale. I think keeping job descriptions up to date with what’s actually happening with the business sounds rudimentary, but it’s really important, especially as you get bigger.

 When I interview people, I always ask, “Why do you want to be in this business?” If someone doesn’t immediately have an energetic, authentic response, that it is a huge red flag for me. It’s shocking how many people come in for very high-level jobs and it’s clear they haven’t even been on our company’s website.

 I want someone who is super passionate about excellence and who gets the biggest charge out of doing something extraordinary. They’re seeking that charge out of their jobs.

 This answer is interesting and, in some important ways, very different from the most common responses to this question.  Part of that is necessary, given the mission of Navex Global.  Atkins question “Why do you want to be in this business?” is appropriate, with Navex Global’s focus on handling ethics and compliance issues.  That’s a relatively narrow business area and prospective employees need to understand (and embrace) those objectives.  I think that’s very different from recruiting into a more traditional technology company or financial services enterprise or other more mainstream business.

The other distinctive detail I find here is the importance Atkins places on job descriptions and organizational roles.  This contrasts strongly with the approach of many executives, summarized by “find really smart people and turn them loose.”  Atkins’ response indicates that Navex Global is probably very closely managed and is disciplined and hierarchical in its organizational structure.  That’s not necessarily good or bad – it’s just a likely fact of their organization.  Given that context, her attention to “keeping job descriptions up to date” makes sense and helps avoid mismatches between employee interests and job requirements.  However, it seems like it may preclude the hiring of innovators and creative disrupters.  I’d be curious to discuss that with her, to see if it’s been an obstacle in hiring.

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

I really like Shanti Atkins’ thought process on “if I had to decide in 30 seconds” – I’m going to use it!

Share
Posted in Corner Office, Management | Leave a comment

Observations on “Corner Office”

Adam Bryant (Twitter: @NYTCornerOffice) writes a wonderful column called Corner Office for the New York Times.  Here’s the NYT description of the column:

 Corner Office, a feature by Adam Bryant appearing Fridays and Sundays in The New York Times, offers highlights from conversations about leadership and management.

Adam Bryant conducts interviews with chief executives for Corner Office, a feature about leadership and management in The New York Times and on NYTimes.com that he started in March 2009. It now appears twice weekly, on Friday and Sunday.

 Each column summarizes his Q&A session with a CEO (or other senior executive).  The questions are tailored for each interview, but the pattern is fairly consistent.  Each time, he covers the executive’s earliest leadership experiences and current leadership style.  Often, the discussion will explore how that style has evolved and how those early roles shaped that development.  In addition, there is generally a discussion of interviewing and hiring – What do you look for?  What questions do you ask?  The entire column is fairly short – typically one thousand words or so.

I’ve been reading Bryant’s column semi-regularly for the past few years and almost always find something intriguing or thought-provoking.   Frequently, I’ll emphatically agree with specific points the executives make.  Just as often, I’ll question or disagree with something they said.  Sometimes I discuss the columns with co-workers, but most of the time, my reactions end up being private, within my own head.

Recently, I recognized that I ought to use my blog as a forum to share those reactions (and possibly generate some dialog) about these columns.   So, from time to time, I’ll post a column that analyzes interviews from Corner Office.

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

Adam Bryant’s Corner Office column offers thought-provoking insights on managing and leading – it’s worth reading.

Share
Posted in Corner Office, Management | Leave a comment