My Year of Code – The Path

I’m convinced. It doesn’t matter how many tools I have in my  toolbox, it won’t be complete until I can code. I’ve heard the arguments, both for and against and I know where i stand: old and a bit outdated.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no noob here. I’m more of a “throwback” web dev guy….from the “old school” of the internet. (Let’s call it Web 0.1.1). A place where with a sufficient knowledge of network topographies, databases, HTML, and flash you could probably “pump fake” your way into an interesting opportunity or two. But, oh have times changed.

I’ve done my best to keep up with the changes in the development world over the years. I’d even consider myself a few paces from the cutting edge with regards to technology at large, but I recognize my gap(s). So screw it..I’m taking the leap.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks researching both what’s hot and in demand  and the best language for a guy like me. I need to be able to prototype web applications fairly quickly (even if only to get the ideas out of my head) so I’ve decided to go the Ruby\Ruby on Rails route. Decision made. Done.

All that’s left now is to put one proverbial foot after the other* and embark this year’s journey. Let’s do this.

Walk with me…..

*this will be an ongoing thread here as I walk my path this year



The Intimacy of Teams

We (and by we I mean i) talk a lot about leadership and it’s importance in both business and life, but we (sorry for the third-person self-references, but I’m experiencing an Instagram “selfie” withdrawal at the moment) don’t say as much about the teams. I was writing a blog post on my upcoming “year of code” a few days ago and I realized how my desire to strengthen a specific skill set could potentially make me a better leader and team member.

As a student of several schools of leadership I often find my way back to the simple (reductionist) things. In this case Lou Holtz’s three questions for building teams (and relationships in general, really):

  1. Do I trust this person?
  2. Do they care about me?
  3. Do they share my same pursuit of excellence?

The third question is the starting driver for me here: can I truly share your drive for excellence without an solid (hopefully empirical) understanding of the passion, pain, and challenges you face?

At the surface this seems like a reach, but the more I think about it the more I’m convinced of its truth. Yes, teams have to bring different skills and experiences to to the table to be effective, but they can’t reach their full potential without tightening the connecting threads of experience that helps them understand each other better.

To put it a different way: I don’t have to be an accountant to understand the numbers, but it helps that I’ve built my share of revenue forecasts and cost models. I don’t have understand the intricacies of state labor laws or benefits packages to work with HR, but it helps that I’ve created a few comp plans or coached a few team members. My experiences in these respective areas makes me a better team member because it gives be an intuitive understanding of other team members, what go through, and what required to help them solve problems. This is a key ingredient to managing conflict.

As with everything else in life there’s a balancing act here. Too much specialization may create an unbalanced team member; too much generalization may create a dull edge (ineffective leadership or undervalued contributions). The trick here for any good leader (or team member) is having a wide enough range of things you’ve learned or done (in business and life) to aid you in cross functional “bridge-building”. It’s great to be an expert in a specific area- that’s usually why you are chosen for a team.  But the difference between good and great team members (and teams) lies in decreasing the gaps between us that thwart understanding, empathy, and (consequently) productive collaboration.

Its sounds a like a gross oversimplification. I know, but the fact of the matter is this: I don’t have to know your specific area of expertise to connect with you and build something great. I only have to be around it, beside it, through it, or have experienced it ways that allow me to understand you, trust you, and demonstrate our shared pursuit of excellence. Those experiences make for a better me, and help build better teams.

Again, I know this sounds easy but its not really- being a well-rounded person never is. I acknowledge the fact that this is a growth area for me so all I’ll say is be more, do more.




“Management” Gone Wild

I recently had a conversation with a guy (let’s call him Bob) about leadership. Somewhere in this conversation we veered off the leadership road into a management cul-de-sac. Stuck. I don’t really recall how or why we turned off onto this dead end (although I vaguely remember feeling like I was watching one of those old Gestapo documentaries on PBS), but we were here and I was hearing very strange things.

We’d started somewhere in my “high-minded” philosophies about shared purpose and common threads. I assume that I’d insulted Bob at some point when he bellowed “…as my employee you don’t have to believe in what I believe in. Our agreement is that you do what i say and get a check every two weeks in return…”.

Nice. Bob’s response took me by surprise a bit. Let’s be honest, the guy wasn’t in a role where his primary focus was being a leader and motivating people to do more (or be more). I get that. But this specific response from a guy that’s been in various business administration/quasi-management roles for the last 25 years struck me as wrong on so many levels. It got me to thinking…has that command and control thinking ever really worked? I mean, even the army assimilates recruits into its command structure by indoctrinating them into its shared purpose, belief systems, and cultural mores.

The fact is, only mercenaries are motivated by financial exchange alone. I’m no historian, but I surely don’t recall any event in history where anyone received more than a short-term benefit from using mercenary armies. They tend to be

  • Expensive- since allegiance goes to the highest bidder
  • Risky – since they will always betray you to your enemy), and
  • Detrimental to one’s long term strategy\health -there’s always the possibility that said mercenary will collude with your enemy to kill you.

Also, they can only have short-term value since no one can afford to be the highest wage bid winner indefinitely.

I’ll save you the “business is war” metaphors and say that business may be war, but its a war of beliefs and ideas- not widgets and service lines. Its simple really, people will fight harder for things that they believe in than they will for a buck. (I might be willing to die for my freedom, but I’ll never die for a paycheck). I understand the rationale behind Bob’s logic. People will do what they have to do to make a living, but we didn’t put men on the Moon with comp plans and cancer won’t be cured through salary adjustments. People have to believe and our job as leaders is to create something for them to believe in.  Everything else, is short-term gains and ego ballet. Sorry, Bob.


Inflections, Pivots, and the Life of Bees

Life is really complex. Sometimes its ugly, sometimes beautiful, sometimes its art, and sometimes it just is, but if its anything a lot of times its complex. Life….this system of myriad systems, both perfectly perfect and self-correcting with rules both hidden and manifest move in 3 dimensions (or not depending on which particle physicist you ask) and consistently “happens”.

Each day we wake, work, and play within this system of systems assuming a certain level of order or consistency because that’s how our brains have evolved to see things. Its a part and parcel of the human experience mainly because our brains like it that way. We are content and confident that things will be a certain way tomorrow, not only because that’s how they were yesterday but because our brains prefer the efficiency of a status quo.

From the brain’s perspective, change is bad: not just because change is typically startling, unpredictable, or hard to manage, but because its a major red flag to the quality control guy in our frontal lobes that likes to keep things simple.

But change is inevitable. Our system of systems moves, jostles, and vibrates. It “happens” in a variety of subtle and derivatively-new ways that have long term and far reaching consequences. Some of these changes are the system itself. Some is our interaction with or as part of the system. All are changes and have to be managed accordingly.

Which brings me to bees: bees are the perfect abstract model of living creatures working in unison for the continuation of the whole.  They have a perfect little hierarchical social caste system where everyone plays their role and the colony goes on….

Until change happens and they risk extinction. Bees haven’t evolved the means to recognize change, pivot, and win. Their leaders are focused on the output and productivity of today’s honey- not the vagaries and challenges of tomorrow. Bees struggle with life’s challenge of adapting and winning. They keep their heads down and work.

The life of bees is not dissimilar to the life of a business in this way.  We’ve created systems and hierarchies that we expect will work in unison for the survival of our colony. We produce, measure, and produce again in hopes of becoming a perfectly efficient system driving value to our bottom lines.

In so many ways the Life of Bees is our own.  This blog chronicles my personal adventure into many systems of systems and my eternal quest to not just be another honey bee.  Walk with me…

DKeith Wilson