Freedom For Ideas

Sharing ideas, concepts and thoughts, mainly about Information Technology – and consulting

Poor, transparent tools

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 26, 2009

Poor, transparent bike

Coming back to Tools for Conviviality, I want to share some thoughts on software architectures. Software products and associated frameworks on which we build them are tools. As such, the criteria of choice is usefulness to our goals. They should be servants.

Ivan Illitch advocates that “the simple, poor tool is a humble servant; the elaborate, complex, secret tool is an arrogant master”. How many times have we seen choice of tools which we do not master? Which are “elaborate, complex, secret”, and the more fascinating because they are? Can we mention:

  • Complex, poorly understood architectures, based on new concepts which are barely understood?
  • Huge packaged products, which contains the expertise of generations of analysts and programmers, but which you don’t pretend to master in a lifetime?
  • Sophisticated frameworks, which are supposed to do it all and are the best you can get. But cannot sometimes the best be too much?
  • Assembly of “best of breed” products, which can turn into “poorest of suite”?

Have you seen these? For myself, I have seen them too many times. With Ivan Illitch, I want to advocate a preferred choice of “simple, poor tools”, which can be mastered and are not too much for our hands, and this apply too well to our software architectures. Thanks to Tools for Conviviality, we have guidelines for selecting them when KISS is not enough. Guidelines which show us how to put at the center the human beings who are going to run, use and rely on them.

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Towards post-industrial IT

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 20, 2009

Modern railways station

After reading Tools for Conviviality from Ivan Illich, it seems to me that the large IT organizations I know are some of the best examples of industrialization gone wild.

Ivan Illitch introduces a maturity model for the industrialization of a product or process. Before the first threshold, the costs of industrializing exceeds the benefits. It is like transportation with the very first steam machines: noisy, filthy, not much good for anything. Then maturity arrived, and usefulness exceeded the costs – when steam power was mature enough to be applicable to helping in the real life. In this way, many products and services were industrialized successfully and transformed the world: medecine, transportation, education, food…

But then the cost of industrialization in terms of energy, human life, environment, excessive complexity, indirect costs can become too high and exceed the benefits, at least considering the overall society – some people or groups can still benefit by concentrating wealth and power. Ivan Illitch defends the case that many services in in developed countries have exceeded this second threshold, the threshold of decreasing marginal usefullness.

In large IT organizations, industrialization has been used as a set of methods for tackling complexity and volume. Up to a certain point, we have seen some success. New, more complex, more ambitious software applications are being developed, improved, and are to a certain extent serving the business. But as a method for improving the efficiency of the business, the industrialization of large IT systems seems to me to have exceeded the second threshold. Every new aspect which is submitted to industrialization and centralization, turned over to experts, adds a cost which is out of proportion with the benefits the company gets from the move. This added cost takes many forms: human life essence, efficiency, resources, indirect cost on users or customers…

What should we do? Turn to industrialization with the same tool which has helped in the beginning: rationality. We have used rationality to industrialize, but are not applying rationality anymore if we consider the tools of industrialization as mandatory, as an ends in themselves. We should realize that it is not rational anymore to go on applying these tools without any discrimination, that we should better add some new tools, the tools of conviviality to be able to develop a post-industrial IT.

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You don’t need a damned e-shop, your customers deserve more!

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 24, 2009

Going shopping?

I admit it, I am a telco guy, having worked in that sector for longer than I care to count. It is thus a pleasure for me to see telecom operators transform and adapt, when they do it for good. I appreciate seeing new ideas take form and shape for the benefit of all, vendors and customers. But it seems to me most telcos are struggling with their Internet strategies. They have a hard time setting up nice enough Internet site, keeping them up and running and attracting customers to them.

Probably that’s the reason why I want to share here what I would like to tell them, especially after reading Jeff Jarvis.

1- Stop calling the Internet site where you promote your products and sell them an e-shop or an Internet boutique.

Once you know a thing’s name, your control it. That’s the nice side of the coin. The other side is: you name it wrong, you get it wrong. Naming your selling site a boutique means it will be only this, a copy of a physical shop, where you only expect to sell at a reduced cost – to you. Thus at best it will provide a slightly worse experience than a physical shop. Don’t ask why your customers are still going there.

Instead, you should find what else it could be, and try to do it. But that should be something better, unique, which can be done only via the power of Internet – and we know that we can do many new things thanks to Internet. If you don’t, just take a tour before building your web site.

2- Stop positionning it as a competition to your physical shops

A bit of a competition is good, too much can be dangerous, especially inside a firm. Build your business relationships, most of all with your colleagues, on trust and cooperation, not competition – don’t worry, competition will come by the side, even if not encouraged. This means you should develop the Internet media as a new, original one, which has its own niche, and is complementary to shops. If your Internet presence compete with your physical shops, it means that you are not promoting at their best the advantage of each channel. And don’t forget: while your are busy managing the devastating effects of internal competition, others might be taking care of your (old) customers.

3- Create a community and hand it control

The Web 2.0 is all about communities. We are lucky in that mobile phone and even Internet access are already community-oriented. Mobile phones are trendy gadgets, and for many accessing the Internet via an operator is being part of his community. Not for everybody, but you only need a small critical mass to start with it.

So the advice is, straight from What Would Google Do?: make your on-line presence a platform on which communities can live and flourish. As a side-effect, these communities can help you sell your products, or better use them. If you take care to listen and cooperate with them, they can help you improve your products, get better support, package them the right way or price them the right way. First, you accept to be influenced, and then you give them some control. Then they can help you and work for you – by working for themselves.

4- Don’t do it all yourself

If this program sounds pretty difficult, you are on the right way. But don’t do it all yourself! You can build the minimum infrastructure, hand them the tools, and then get ideas and help from the masses. Your devoted users can help you design your next best-selling products. They can also build many aeras of your next successful community platforms (aka web sites). Allow and encourage plug-ins and links.

5- Provide them access to your best deep resources

That’s the best of true SOA and SSOA. If you really want to get help and you are serious about it, you should do your best to those people devoted to help you. You should give them access to your most valuable resources, to the depths of your IT, network and service infrastructure. And the best part of it: be happy if they are using it better than your own guys.

And now, where do we start?

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Discipline and teams, part 3

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 24, 2009

A social activity

I know I should be doing some sport. I like running and live close to the forest. I know it would be better for my body and my health and I do not have any reason not go running every Saturday morning. Or do I? I just cannot discipline myself to go. Comes my son, Simon. He wants to perform better at the running competition organized by the schools of the sector. He then suggests that we should go together to run a bit every Saturday morning, that it would be better for my health. And I say “Yes!”, with good chances to stick to it. I have even stopped using the elevator for getting up the six floors to my flat.

Alone, I lack the discipline. The two of us are stronger. Interestingly, Scott Peck does not develop much this topic, but only mentions group therapy exercises without developing much. My point is that the two of us are a team: a group of persons oriented towards the same goal and willing to cooperate towards it. Simon wants to perform at the competition and his dad to be healthy, I want the same, we have found a way to work together to the two objectives. And I think we will stick to it more easily because we will support one another. This can be the same with a husband and wife couple, and this is the same with a team at work, a true team.

Indeed a group of people can be much worse or much better than a single individual. When not performing, it can be lazy, prone to self-indulgence and sustain poor results – bad attitude can be reinforced. On the opposite, a well-oriented team can offer very strong support to its members – each one is helped by the others and by the conscience of the team.

This is the reason why I have a lot of hopes in the power of team to help in making deep changes in firms, such as infusing a new culture of customer orientation or continuous improvement. Peter Scholtes in The Leader’s Handbook mentions that change is a social activity – we can make better changes in groups if we treat it first as social change, as change in relationships. And we can make better changes if we get help from true teams!

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Discipline and teams, Part 2

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 15, 2009

Beach at sunset

Let us go on today with discipline, following my first post.

Discipline is not a very popular value today, in a cultural environment which is prone to anxiety, leading to withdrawal and the erection of barriers and walls. What is the worth of discipline when hope is missing? “Lack of hope may give place to despair or cynicism“, and hope is surely missing a lot today.

We must be strong, perform, be autonomous and so on, but we look for magic bullets, easy ways of becoming what we wish to be. And lots of people are ready to sell them! We want quick results, not years of slow progress! We cannot understand that some results can be obtained only by a long, disciplined and oriented effort.

This is still worse when we wish to discipline others: “il est interdit d’interdire” (“it is forbidden to forbid”), from the students movement in May 1968. I nevertheless realize that if we believe we can help other people grow, either our children, colleagues, team members or customers (our boss?), then hope and discipline are required – from us and from them. How then can we foster discipline?

Indeed, true discipline cannot be enforced. Going back to The road less traveled, we understand that discipline is nothing less than a grace, which can be accepted or refused.

Scott Peck finds that some patient can improve spectacularly when another, with a much less serious case, does not. Professionally, some people have this inner strength and willingness to improve. They will learn new things, experiment, trying to get better and better. They will also lead when required and follow when it is better. Some other people will just do what is required to avoid problems, and be happy with it, without trying to help when possible, without seizing opportunities.

Why is that so? For sure, personal histories, environments, corporate culture have a role to play. But they fail to explain it all. A huge part of it is indeed a mystery.

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Discipline and teams – Part 1

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 10, 2009

Britanny, early in summer

I have recently read the french translation of The road less traveled from Scott Peck. I particularly appreciated his arguments on discipline as the base for any progress, including spiritual growth. I would like here to share some of what I noted in the book, and then some thinking on teams which it lead me to. As it will be a bit longish, I am going to split the post in two or three. So bear with me, we are for today talking about discipline.

Scott Peck presents discipline as necessary for any progress or growth. Discipline is necessary for succeeding in any difficult learning situation, any spiritual evolution or any improvement process. The opposite of discipline is laziness, which leads to stagnation, and allows entropy to take over – and thus regression and return to mediocrity. Discipline here is meant as self-discipline, I believe, the one which is coming from inside, not enforced from the outside.

I see everywhere real life proof of the pertinence of this model. Let us imagine that I have just received an e-mail which makes me angry. I know, intellectually, that I should not answer it immediately, but wait a bit to cool down before doing so, or not answering at all. I can succeed first because I know it, second because I have the discipline to wait for a moment that I know is right – thus deferring my reaction. On the longer term, I can learn about situations in which I can answer immediately and other situations in which I would better defer my reactions – thus being a bit wiser and less subject to my emotions.

Or another example: it is clear to me that producing working software applications is a difficult activity, requiring creativity and inner strength to put it to work, day after day. We find people who are strong enough to put their hearts in working for the progress of the group or company they are in, putting things in perspective and making sure everyday that they do whatever they find the best for this progress. We find other people who are just doing whatever is fun and pleasant at the moment, doing barely enough to avoid trouble, ignoring what they indeed know they should be doing. They just don’t have the discipline to inquire really on what is best to be done today and stick to it. They wait for external guidance and act minimally on it.

A last, more complex example, from some typical mission of OCTO Technology: we can explain to a software developer good practices and convince him. But the practices will actually stick and bring progress only with discipline. One such good practice consists in first creating a new automated test each time a bug is found in an application, and then only to try correcting the defect. Then you make sure that the next time somebody makes a change to the application which provoke to the same bug it will be detected very soon, during unit testing and not in production. We produce arguments, explain rationally how defects found early and much less costly than found later, how it is a good practice to stop and set this test first because you will not do it later. Still a lot of people will not have the discipline to stick to the practice and will just correct again and again the same defects – or transfer them to unfortunate colleagues…

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The failure of Agile?

Posted by Yannick Martel on August 17, 2009

Is this yet another blog post about the failure of agile? No, not really. More about the failure of Agile adoption, that is failing to notably improving the development process and its effectiveness in delivering features.

A major roadblock with Agile adoption is that Agile is more than a new project management methodology. It is a new approach to product development and application management, based on a number of principles and values, many of which related to management, not just project management. Thus an effective adoption requires new management methods, and its adoption can be gravely impaired by attitudes from decision-makers outside of the project if too far from Agile values.

This means that for an effective adoption (you want results, don’t you?) managers need to also change their attitudes and expectations. They need to change how they interact with their teams and what they expect from them, both explicitely and implicitely.

What if they don’t? Agile will just pass as another fad, but might be an occasion for your competition to benefit from huge productivity improvements and gain an edge. And as Edwards Deming mentionned: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

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Willing

Posted by Yannick Martel on June 12, 2009

Without a good product owner, a project can go that bad!

Without a good product owner, a project can go that bad!

I expressed on a recent post that the activities done upstream from software development where amongst the most difficult ones in producing a quality software product. Specifically, I was thinking about the role of the product owner.

A software developer has a very creative job, implementing requested features, within the boundaries of time and the constraints of language, framework, existing software and knowledge. Still, the job is pretty clear, even if difficult at times. Then tests, automated or not are there to help declare a job is done.

The role of the product owner in an Agile project on the other hand, is to will something and communicate his willingness. He is to produce a view of the software which would be the most useful for the company or organization, define a trajectory, negotiate with peers, feed this view iteration after iteration to the development team and interact on a daily basis to adjust. It is a bit like the job of a captain guiding his ship through a difficult passage, but without the ability to be happy about your job even if you reach a “correct” destination.

As a ship captain, a good product owner must listen, and then decide – I repeat as it is very important: listen and then decide. We concentrate here two major risks, on which the whole project might flounder: listening without deciding or deciding without listening. This is willing with being helped. Alas, in many corporations willing is not encouraged amongst managers, as it goes with taking risks, and accepting help is seen as weakness.

Is that an obstacle to truly benefiting from Agile methodologies? Yes, but indeed no project can go right without somebody assuming this charge, whatever the method – as for many things Agile only help making it more apparent.

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Working on the bottleneck – the right one

Posted by Yannick Martel on June 12, 2009

Are you attentive?

Are you paying attention?

From Lean Management and The Goal, you know where to look for when you wish to improve a complex process: you need to search for bottlenecks in the process flow, and first of all the major bottleneck. Find it and then concentrate all your actions on improving it. Then the process will get better (produce more and/or faster), but you will find have another bottleneck, another limiting factor. Just find it and work on it, and so on.

In IT, Agile has been proposed as a solution to the difficulties in the software product development  process. As Agile concentrates on software design and development, it can really help only if difficulties were indeed in design and development. That’s probably partly true as we effectively see improvements when Agile practices are really applied in development projects.

But then from Lean Management, we know we should look for the next bottleneck in the process. Where to look for it? We get an answer by looking at a typical Agile project: somewhere between three and eight weeks after the beginning, the pressure is no more on the development team but on the product owners. And thus we have found our next (and maybe really first and most important – why not?) bottleneck: the team in charge of knowing what to ask.

To me, it is particularly important to effectively address this bottleneck, first because the bottleneck is stronger: knowing what to code is at least as important as knowing how to code it – and generally coding correctly is easier that knowing what to code. Once the development team is ready and eager to produce value, all concentrated on it, it can gell pretty fast and request to be guided, request to know what to produce – pressure has moved.

But there is another, more subtle, reason: softtware development is more related to product design and development than manufacturing (more related to designing a new model of Prius than manufacturing it). It is a profoundly creative activitiy, requiring communication, trust and confidence. If a strong bottleneck is left in the process and it is not addressed, then you risk mining the efforts which have been done elsewhere and loosing everything you’ve earned. More concretely: if your product definition process is visibly the bottleneck and you don’t address it, the demoralizing effect will destroy whatever gains you’ve done by implementing Agile in your development team and you’ll quickly loose the discipline to go on with Agile practices and continuous improvements – maybe creating a secondary bottleneck again.

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The failure of tyrannies: information

Posted by Yannick Martel on April 23, 2009

Where do tyrannies fail? I mean, modern tyrannies, which are based on concentration of power and fear. In action, from information.

A tyranny can very well last and preserve itself, as Franco did in Spain. It establishes, and then maintain a traditional order. Then it only maintains what is already established.

On the opposite, in action a tyrant lacks information. To be informed in a complex system (a country, a large corporation) requires the use of eyes, ears and brains beyond those of a single man. This information is vital in action, because it is changing and required to be able to adapt to the flow of life. But the tyrant is isolated from the real world by the fear it provokes on those who could bring him information.

It is said that Hitler was not awakened on the morning of the D-Day, for fear of his wrath. The real state of his army has been hidden to many tyrants, leading to a sure defeat.

Fear on one hand allows action to be more powerful, because it allows the will of a single man to be widely deployed, on the other hand makes it blind.

Why does it matter to our corporations? Are there not some forms of (attenuated) tyrannies?

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