Working Up

Working Up in Project Management, Systems Engineering, Technology, and Writing

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The Bologna Environment

April 24th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

I’ve heard people in meetings tell me stuff that was just pure bologna. Then I had to ask myself why I created an environment where people told me bologna instead of the truth.

I once managed a project where an engineer stood in a meeting and explained that a hardware part had been “thermal stressed.” He tried to move on from that statement quickly, but I caught it and intervened.

“Don’t you mean that it burned to a crisp?” I asked.

He admitted that is what he meant.

His statement was pure bologna. It was creative and, for a while at least, humorous.

Later, I felt badly. I was in charge. I created the environment. I was responsible for a situation where people felt the need to make up silly terms instead of telling the truth in a candid manner.

Sometimes it isn’t much fun to be in charge and to create the environment. People tend to slap you in the face, and sometimes that happens in a way that you don’t realize that they just slapped you in the face.

→ No CommentsTags: Communication · Management · Meetings

“Tech” Companies

April 21st, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Somehow, at some recent point in time, someone tried to change the definition of a technology company.

Blame it on old age, but I am fed up with what the media, in particular the technology media, calls a “Tech Company.”

Headlines tell me that our President (Obama) is meeting with CEOs of tech companies to map national technology strategy or to discuss surveillance of citizens or some such. They then list the heads of Facebook, Yahoo, Google, and the rest of the usual suspects.

So, here I go making enemies of everyone.

Facebook is not a technology company. Mr. Zuckerburg wrote software that allowed friends to message one another without using email. Someone found a way to sell advertising space next to the messages and viola—ga-zillion-aires! That is not technology.

Google, with the exception of a few research projects and recent robotics company purchases, is not a technology company. A couple of grad students experimented with search algorithms, also found a way to sell advertising space, and also became ga-zillion-aires.

Apple is no longer a technology company. Apple is an intellectual property company. They design systems and hire other people to build those systems.

Hewlett-Packard still does some technology. (You try to make a printer head that squirts ink at 600 dots per inch.) It is unfortunate, however, that HP sold off much of its actual technology to other companies, see, for example, Agilent.

Technology involves transforming ideas into physical things. Design and build a machine that operates on the human body in ways that were not imagined ten years ago. Design and build a machine that takes people to Mars safely in seven days. Design and build a flying machine that transports hundreds of people around the world on one gallon of gasoline per person (or how about not using fossil fuels at all?). Those are examples of advanced or high technology.

Facebook? Technology? No, that is advertising.

Okay, now everyone can hate me.

→ No CommentsTags: Communication · Technology

There is a Diagram for That

April 17th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

There is an old diagram that helps explain what a system does. Sometimes, these old diagrams are lost and need to be found again. Apologies to Google and the Chromecast, but it is a good example to mention.

Me, i.e., old engineer: What is that?

Young Engineer: It is a Google Chromecast.

Me: What is that?

Young Engineer: It is a video streamer.

Me: What does it do?

Young Engineer: It streams video.

Me: I think you already told me that. Let’s try again. Perhaps you could draw a diagram of what it does.

Young Engineer: Why should I draw it. You’re holding it in your hand.

Me: I mean a system diagram.

Young Engineer: What is that?

Me: You draw a circle representing the system. In this case, the circle represents the Chromecast.

Young Engineer: But the Chromecast isn’t round.

Me: The circle represents the Chromecast. There is a difference between the thing and the representation of the thing, but let’s not digress. After you draw a circle, you draw lines coming in and out of the circle representing the inputs and outputs.

Young Engineer: blank stare

Me: The system is then able to transform the inputs to outputs and so on. Simple little diagram that explains the system. In this case the Chromecast.

Young Engineer: Where did you find that?

Me: Find what?

Young Engineer: That type of diagram.

Me: It is old. Really old. I think someone found it scribbled on the wall of a cave or something. Engineers used to draw them all the time with pencil on paper.

Young Engineer: What is that?

Me: What is what?

Young Engineer: Pencil and, and, what was the other part?

Me: blank stare

→ No CommentsTags: Communication · Systems · Technology · Thinking

Herding Cats and Those People Who Say That

April 14th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

I ache for the people who say “herding cats.” I really ache for the people who work with the people who say “heading cats.”

Almost every week, I hear someone say:

Managing fill-in-the-blank is like herding cats.

Deep sigh and groan.

I ache. How can a person refer to their colleagues as cats? Cats are cute but basically simple animals. Do you really consider your colleagues to be simple, misbehaving animals?

I know, “It’s just a figure of speech. You know what I mean. They know what I mean. It’s all in good fun.”

If you are a manager, you shouldn’t use figures of speech or cliches to describe the people who work with you. They deserve better, and you are responsible to provide better. Such cliches come from lack of thought and lack of care. If you don’t think and you don’t care, get another job.

→ No CommentsTags: Communication · Management

How to Instruct People How to do Something

April 10th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

I point back to a classic but little-known work on instructing people how to do something.

Way back in time in the mid-1980s (yes, I am that old), I stumbled onto a book written by Edmond H. Weiss titled How to Write a Usable User Manual. I thought it was a basic book that reiterated what everyone knew. I have now concluded that this little-known book is a work of genius that somehow has been lost to the world.

Weiss shows how to instruct people how to do things. Step 1 followed by step 2 followed by step 3. That is too simple to occupy a book, right? That is too simple because everyone knows how to do that, right?

I wish the answers to those questions were, “yes” but they aren’t. It breaks my heart and hurts my head to daily encounter lousy instructions and unusable user manuals.

Buy this book! Use it. Follow it. Please.

→ No CommentsTags: Communication · Design · Teaching · Writing

The Purpose of Testing

April 7th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

A good test provides information—no more and no less.

Let’s take a step back to the fundamentals of engineering and building things. Part of building some thing is to perform some tests on the thing.

Why perform a test? The oft-cited answer is, “to show that the thing works.” Deep sigh.

We test a thing to get information.

Sometimes, a successful test tells us that the thing doesn’t do what we wanted it. That is information. Sometimes, a successful test tells us that the thing does some of what we want but not all of what we want. That is information.

Somehow, this little bit of knowledge about testing has escaped us. Sometimes, we need little reminders.

→ No CommentsTags: General Systems Thinking · Systems · Thinking

The Spam Comment Magnet

April 3rd, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

It is SEO backwards: words that draw spam comments like a magnet.

I don’t receive many comments on my blog posts. I receive many more spam comments than real comments—about 100 to 1.

One post I wrote in 2009 draws more spam comments than all the other posts combined. It is titled Adapting and Adaptability. There is something magical or cursed about that title that draws the automatic spam comment generators. If anyone knows the reason, please tell me.

→ No CommentsTags: Adapting

In Praise of the Raspberry Pi

March 31st, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Praising the most successful education project in the history of man: the Raspberry Pi. Nobel Prize? Why not?

Two years ago the Raspberry Pi was launched. 2.5 million units later, it is still going. Two years is a long time in technology—a very long time. (Wikipedia has a good article on the Raspberry Pi.)

The idea was simple:

build a programmable computer that any school could afford to buy.

The schools would be able to teach computer programming. The price: $25.

It worked. It has worked better than any education project I can recall. Hooray for the guys who did this. This is Nobel Prize worthy.

→ No CommentsTags: Education · Programming · Technology


March 27th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

I build my own little LibraryBox2.

I stumbled across this project recently and, since I am fascinated by libraries and distributing content, decided to try to build one. I am not good at this sort of thing, but why not try it?

It worked! I have my own LibraryBox2 (see photo).

My LibraryBox2 Placed in a Cut Out Book

My LibraryBox2 Placed in a Cut Out Book

LibraryBox is an offshoot of the PirateBox project. Jason Griffey, a librarian, used a Kickstarter project to fund the work of extending PirateBox to LibraryBox2. PirateBox allows people to move files up and down to a local server privately. LibraryBox, like a library, allows people to copy files from the local server to their device (anything that runs a browser). The project is described in detail by Make here.

The hardware for the LibraryBox2 is a TP-LINK MR-3020 portable router. As the photo shows, this is about three inches square by an inch thick. Power comes via a USB cable and storage comes from a USB thumb drive.

I bought my TP-LINK from Amazon here for $30. I followed the instructions from the LibraryBox2 website here. 

Two notes not in the directions:

  1. Put the mode switch of the TP-LINK in the WISP position.
  2. Take care with the USB thumb drive you use.

Item 2. caused me the most frustration and time. I first bought and tried a SanDisk Cruzer Fit USB thumb drive. That device seems to be sensitive to power on/power off cycles and puts itself into a write-protected you-can’t-reformat-this-thing state. That sensitivity is very bad with LibraryBox2 as you power off the TP-LINK by yanking the power chord.

I then tried an old USB thumb drive I found in the corner of a drawer. It didn’t work either. Then somewhere online I found the advice “don’t use an old thumb drive, use a new one.” So I tried a “new one” from my drawer and it worked. I then went to Best Buy and bought a PNY Micro Metal drive (it is that little bump plugged into the TP-LINK in the photo). These really small physical thumb drives are convenient for this application.

Now I have a working LibraryBox2.

What do you do with one of these?

The primary application is when you are in a place like a seminar or meeting where the Internet connection isn’t good. You put all the pertinent files on the thumb drive, turn on the TP-LINK, and everyone present can access the files via WiFi from any device that has WiFi and a browser (smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc.).

One note about support: When I was having problems, I asked questions on the discussion area of the LibraryBox2 website. Answers came back quickly and professionally. The people, and there are only a few people involved, really care about this project succeeding.

→ No CommentsTags: Communication · Internet · Library · Meetings · Technology · Wikipedia

Advise vs Assist

March 24th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

If possible, assist instead of advise.

I worked in a government bureaucracy for over 25 years. A favorite practice to this day is the review board. Some unlucky and usually young engineer works really hard for weeks and then brings the work before a group of older engineers. The older engineers pick apart the work and send the hapless and demoralized young engineer back to the drawing board.

That is advising. It is characterized by the admonition

You should do…

I often suggested, and always in vain, a different method. After a day of thought, the young engineer stands before the review board and scribbles thoughts on a white board. The older engineers add thoughts and suggestions. And, this is the critical part that never happened in my experience, every older engineer that suggests something also agrees to work with the young engineer on the suggestion.

That is assisting. It is characterized by the words

Let us do…

Here is some advising:

  1. You should rewrite your documents
  2. You should have an external group of people, who you have never met, agree to do such-and-such
  3. You should consult such-and-such a report to learn of new products

Note the use of the word you.

Here is some assisting:

  1. I have some sample documents that we can edit for your project
  2. I know people in an external group and I’ll introduce you to them and we can speak with them
  3. I have a report that we can peruse together to learn of products

Note the use of the word we.

Yes, assisting requires more time and effort than advising. Yes, assisting is much more likely to yield good results. And yes, assisting will eventually accomplish the work using less time and resources.

No, assisting is not likely to happen in your organization either.

→ No CommentsTags: Learning · Management