Working Up

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

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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

How to Concentrate All Day

March 20th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Focusing for a long period of time is contradictory, but it is possible.

Graduate school in 1983 (yes, I am that old): I had to study a text on a new concept called object-oriented software. I don’t mean read the text, I mean read it, study it, master it. I faced a ten-hour day.

My process:

  1. study the text for 50 minutes at the dining-room table
  2. sit in the Lazy Boy recliner under the wall clock and close my eyes
  3. the clock chimed at the hour (sometimes waking me)
  4. back to step 1

This worked. Periods of intense effort, a.k.a., focus followed by periods of rest.

I still use this process in writing. I set a timer for 25 minutes. I put the timer out of sight and write as fast as I can. When the timer rings, I take five minutes to walk about and stretch my back, neck, arms, hands, etc. Using this process, I can write for hours at a rate of at least 1,400 words an hour. (Some people tell me that is an extremely high rate, but given I use this process it seems normal to me.)

→ No CommentsTags: Work · Writing

Descriptions and Predictions

March 17th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

A description portrays what is now; a prediction estimate what may come. Sometimes we confuse the two at our peril.

Some words are predictions. We use to them to portray our estimate of the future. Few of us are satisfactory as predictors of the future even though most of us think we are.

Some words are descriptions. We use them to portray something as it is now. We are adept at descriptions.

Consider a couple of examples:

  1. A temporary structure or a quick-to-assemble-and-dissemble structure
  2. A developing country or a poor country

The first part of each example is a prediction, while the second part is a description. It is easy to confuse the two parts of each example.

When we mistake a prediction for a description, we usually base a decision on what we hope will be instead of what is. I believe that someone has already said something like:

Hopes are not plans.

→ No CommentsTags: Communication · Estimation · Expectations · General Systems Thinking · Reframe

The Peter Principle

March 13th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

I read a classic management text. It is as true today as it was in 1969.

When in college in the mid-1970s (yes, I am that old), an English professor spoke about the Peter Principle. This was a relatively new concept about how people rise to their level of incompetence. Work was accomplished by the many who had not yet reached that level. We chuckled and moved on. We were young and would never perpetuate the mistakes of our ancestors.

The book by Raymond Peter and Laurence Hull goes into much more depth than the once sentence summary given above. It is in the depth that the genius of the principle is found.

Here is a disclaimer or qualification:

I worked in the U.S. Federal government—the biggest hierarchy in the world—for over 25 years.

This book is true! It is a documentary, not a commentary.

I wished I had read the book in 1980. Then again, I would have dismissed it as humor as no one would participate in such nonsense. Well, I participated. In some ways I was able to avoid my level of incompetence by assuming that someone would notice me doing real work and reward me. I was wrong about the reward, but right about how to stay in a work-producing, competent place. Yes, there are some work-producing spots in the Federal government.

While reading, one thought stuck in my mind:

This book was written 45 years ago, but reads as if it were written 45 minutes ago.

Read it. Try to avoid the principle in your workplace.

→ No CommentsTags: Change · Choose · Work