Working Up

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

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Jerry Pournelle

September 18th, 2017 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Someone who had a big influence on my life has passed away.

“The Mote in God’s Eye.”

Star Wars was in theaters, and everyone was enthralled. The science fiction community tried to fit in with Luke, Han, and the rest, often in vain. Every science fiction commentator had their own list of, “Now that the movie makers have the technology and the movie go’ers have the appetite, these are the science fiction books that should become movies.”

The best seller by Niven and Pournelle appeared in many lists. I had to find out what it was. I devoured the book.

Aha! That was why science fiction fans were happy yet disappointed with Star Wars. That was the example of real science fiction—fiction with science and humanity blended expertly. I wanted more and found it with more by Niven and Pournelle.

A couple of years later, the personal computer revolution was on us. Byte magazine was the monthly chronicle of how much technology changed at a frantic pace. Jerry Pournelle had a long column in every issue. That was the guy who co-wrote those great books. How could one person do all that? And what Jerry wrote every month was maddening. How could a person bungle through all those machines? And why give them names like Lucy and Linus. Those were machines!

Time flowed through my life of marriage, births, deaths, jobs, and changes. The constants were the pace of computer progression and my enjoyment of writing.

The Internet arrived. One day I did a random search about writing professionally and Jerry Pournelle popped up again. He had a long essay published no where but the Internet. “You want my job?” asked Jerry. “Write 10,000, or some unheard of quantity, words as practice.” He went on with excruciating detailed advice that I found to be true in the ensuing years.

And Jerry Pournelle had this daybook thing on the Internet. He wrote and wrote and wrote, and all I had to do was show up online and absorb. He knew politics. He knew warfare. He knew education. He knew history, gosh did he know history. He knew humanity.

From 2006 through this month, I read and Chaos Manor. I finally figured out that, as he said, “he did a lot of foolish things (with home computing) so that I wouldn’t have to.”

Jerry had a brain tumor and lived through radiation treatment. His empty-nester dog died. He went to the opera. He went to writer’s conferences. Apple computers moved from the fringe through the mainstream. Barack Obama was elected. Donald Trump was elected. Bouts of the flu came and went.

Then this last week, his son wrote, “I’m afraid the Jerry passed away.”

It has taken me about a week to put hands to the keyboard and write more words. Perhaps that is my tribute to Jerry Pournelle. I’ll write more words. Maybe one day I can have his job. Maybe no one will ever have his job.

→ No CommentsTags: Communication · Computing · Systems · Teaching · Writing

Learn to Drop Some of the Balls

September 14th, 2017 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Jugglers know this. Managers and builders should know this. Let the little things fall without over reacting.

Jugglers have to do this. They may be a bit off balance, so they let a ball fall to the ground.
An alternative is to over react and reach for that one ball and lose focus and drop all the balls and …. everything goes downhill quickly.

Hence, good jugglers learn to let one or more of the balls fall to the ground. They don’t reach. They don’t stretch out of shape.

The lesson(s) for project managers and builders of systems?

  • Learn to let something drop
  • Maintain your equilibrium
  • Keep moving on the bigger thing

There are always bigger things. We sometimes are so involved that we fail to see them, and we let a little ball wreck everything and everyone.

→ No CommentsTags: Failure · Management

Back to Basics: What to Write About

September 11th, 2017 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Can’t think of anything to write about? Back to freshman English.

It was one of the first classes I took in college. I took it the summer after high school graduation. It was a writing class, I guess it was called English Composition or something. We had a great teacher for this seven-week summer couse. His assignment:

Write something in a notebook everyday.

He would collect and read through our notebooks periodically.

One of his frequent reminders, I won’t call it a college lecture as it was too practical, was that there were always plenty of topics for our daily writing. Just flip through the newspaper. We didn’t have to read any articles, just look at the ads.

For example, today on the Internet, the annoying ads show me…

  • an abandoned cruise ship
  • Apache Spark

Okay, so I can write an essay about the cruise ship industry or about how we discard really useful things or how we can use discarded things to help people around the world or how we seem to love floating on water. Then the Apache thing…why is it that computer geeks use such awful names like Apache or what in the world does “spark” have to do with what the software actually does or why is it than they want three-syllable names for everything or why can’t they just speak plain English?

And then there is an ad about the best ads of the year. Gosh. That one goes on forever.

And then if I am not interested in the ads, I can actually read news stories from the top newspapers from all over the world.

Nothing to write about? Really?

→ No CommentsTags: Writing

Freedom of Choice and Excuses

September 7th, 2017 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Freedom of choice robs us of excuses. Of course we are free to choose to ignore this.

Most of us live in a world of abundance and wealth. Come on folks, admit this is true.

We have the freedom to choose much of what we do.

It is unfortunate, but we often choose to do something that brings us troubles. Rats. What is wrong with us? We must be human or something.


We do what we like to do and avoid what we don’t like to do.

No duh on that one. Still, we avoid the consequence of the above. Given we do what we want and what we like, these luxuries rob us of excuses.

I weigh too much. I didn’t sleep last night because I ate too much at dinner. I’m tired because I stayed up too late watching something entertaining.

I chose to do those things. I chose to indulge. Rats. No excuses available. I can’t blame my pain by pointing to something or someone else. I’m the only one standing in the mirror.

Of course all this choice gives me one more choice. Let’s call it the “Ignore all else choice.

I can choose to ignore the obvious results of my choices that led me to this pain.

There. Nice to have a choice.

→ No CommentsTags: Adults · Choose

Write the User Manual First

September 4th, 2017 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

I review an old, and seemingly forgotten, technique for building systems in which we fully describe what a system will be and do.

Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away…

Maybe not that long ago, but still…there was a technique for building systems wherein we wrote the user manual first. Today, we could write the FAQ page or make the YouTube video first, but you get the idea. Then, we built the system to match the user manual (FAQ page, YouTube video).

Of course, there was a lot of back and forth. Sometimes the system simply could do what the user manual stated (at this time). Sometimes the system could do more than the user manual stated. Adjustments occurred daily on all sides. Still, there was a target—something visible that we tried to reach.

Folly? I think not. And no, a story card or whatever is not the same. Start by creating a full-fledged piece of documentation that requires time and effort. It may surprise all of us what thoughts come to mind in creating this. Then, work hard to make it a reality.

→ No CommentsTags: Communication · Design · Expectations · Requirements

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do

August 31st, 2017 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

This paraphrase from Through the Looking Class continues to reign in systems development.

The title of this post is a famous paraphrase from the classic Through the Looking Glass. I live it most days. The conversation goes something like this:

Me: The system won’t do such-and-such.

Builder: Of course not. It wasn’t supposed to do that.

This is simple. There was no prior commitment to what the system was supposed to do. Hence, any result will do just as any destination for Alice would do.

We have been able to hide behind the-latest-buzzword-in-development. We tried “something.” What we have, by default, it what someone intended at some time.

I am afraid that what we are telling ourselves is:

We don’t care enough about the other persons to commit anything to them in writing or over a handshake or any type of commitment.

Perhaps I am now too old for system building. I was raised in a time and place (far, far from here) where and when we told the other person what we were going to do and then we worked as hard as we needed to deliver that. The other person meant something to us. Disappointing the other person was the worst thing that could happen.

Today’s system builders are good, smart, caring people. They have the best of intentions and they work hard. Still, we seem to be relying on Alice a bit too much.

→ No CommentsTags: Adults · Agility · Commitment · Communication · Scope · Systems · Work

The Hostile and Friendly Audiences

August 28th, 2017 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

A speaker can lead an accepting or friendly audience just about anywhere. Hostile audiences, however, can uncover holes in thought. I recommend the questioning group—especially when the stakes are high.

It was a senior-level course in Electrical Engineering. The teacher, I can’t recall his name, but I do remember that he didn’t have a PhD, just a Master’s and several decades of experience, walked us through the solution to a quirky design problem for 45 minutes. We had it. We knew what to do.

Then he pulled it on us. He showed us how all that stuff he just told us was wrong and would never work.

The Lesson: If you are a friendly audience, i.e., you are not skeptical and you don’t ask any questions, the speaker can lead you through all sorts of nonsense.

The Hostile Audience: the attitude is, “I doubt you, whatever it is you are about to say, so convince me.” Note: the hostile audience holds no personal animosity. It does, however, hold healthy skepticism and asks lots of questions. Sometimes we need the sharp questions, the uncomfortable poke with a stick.

The Friendly Audience: like the classroom full of seniors I was in. We were in awe of the speaker and had no inclination to question anything. There are occasions when a friendly audience is better for all of us. There aren’t many of these situations when we work with adults. They sort of dry up once we become teenagers.

→ No CommentsTags: Adults · Learning · Questions

The Folly of the Birth Certificate

August 24th, 2017 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Basing decisions on a person’s age is a bad practice and always has been.

Individual persons are  just that—individual persons. Groups have tendencies. Oh the horror of that statement, but it has some truth behind it. One of the greater follies of this post (post(post)) modern era is that of the “digital native.” Now proven to be false (see this study), don’t expect someone to be a whiz at technology based on their birth certificate.

The knowledge of mankind is at our fingertips. This was predicted several decades ago and it true. Ever sat in a room of college students and asked a fact-based question? The answer doesn’t pop back as fast it would seem. They don’t know how to turn questions into queries and return answers. Forget all that stuff in the newspapers. It doesn’t work that way.

Some persons in their 50s, i.e., born in the last millennium, can do that. We learned logic and rational thought. We also learned how to learn. (Amazing stuff that meta-learning!)

And forget the stuff about younger minds being quicker. Quicker minds are quicker than slower minds. Of course that is the definition, but it holds true.

All this makes a manager’s job tougher. Well, it makes a manager’s job a manager’s job. Knowing the persons who work with you and what they can do is just about as fundamental as anything in a manager’s job.

Darn. It sure would be easier if we could just look at the birth certificate and make lots of assumptions.

→ No CommentsTags: Culture · Differences · Expectations · Generation Y

Gone with the Self-Driving Car

August 21st, 2017 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

A little future prediction about what we used to call automobiles.

When the self-driving car actually arrives. We will no longer have:

Rear-view mirrors – we’ll have lots of sensors “looking” in all directions.

Steering wheel – what would we do with that?

Front-facing seats – car interiors will be rectangles that we arrange and decorate as we wish. What about safety? Self-driving cars don’t have accidents.

Windows – I guess we will have some kind of windows, but we will decide where they are, how big they are, and so on. Again, the car will have lots of sensors “looking” out for us.

Trunk – why put things in a compartment that we cannot reach?

Four doors – ooops, we already lost that one.

Some cosmetics – really, it will be a personal bus, so how good does that have to look? Besides, a big box gives us more space inside.

Anything else?

→ No CommentsTags: Technology · Time

Knowledge Management in Real Life

August 17th, 2017 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Want to see knowledge management in action? Go to, of all places, the library.

No, we won’t go to the library to find a book all about knowledge management. We will go to the library to see knowledge management in real life.

Look about. We are surrounded by reusable modules of knowledge Grab one. Grab another. Put them back in place.

Want to find one of those modules of reusable knowledge? They are searchable. These new libraries have computers to help us find the modules. Older libraries, I think some of these exist, have these cabinets full of little cards that tell us where the modules of reusable knowledge are.


I don’t think so. The library is the best, easiest to find and visit example of knowledge management I can find. Trying to convince someone that your organization’s knowledge costs money and should be saved, searchable, and reusable? Take them to the library. Try to imagine the library without being able to find any book. Not pretty. It is a shame that most of our organizations are not pretty in this way.

→ No CommentsTags: Knowledge · Library · Management