Social archeology

I don’t talk about my actual work here much since, well, this is a Blog, and it’s basically making a flyer and posting it on my permanent record, and as such, I want to make sure I’m good, and don’t say anything I’d regret. Of course, I don’t say much here at all, but then, that’s a different piece of the same pie. But, I have enough embarrassing legacy still lying around from my days on Usenet, when trolling for flames and arguing something that you knew was incorrect as if it was the only one truth, just to hone your debating skills, was considered art, instead of just rude. Just go searching and you may find one thread I particularly loved where I stated that an rear projection TV could not, due to obvious physical properties, be subject to “burn in”, as was an issue on LCD front projectors. Total fabrication, got one on the hook, it was sport.

But, of course, I digress before I even get started…

Long ago, I worked at a company. It was a big company. I’m sure you’ll never guess what company that could be, so I won’t name it (in this entry). As big companies go, things often get slow and lazy, many people become the “walking dead”, waiting for retirement, or something. Not a lot of excited innovation. Now, most of my career has been at startups. Not because of the equity, never made much at all on those ubiquitous stock options. Really. Take all the money I made on all the options in 20 years, and you couldn’t even buy a Prius. Used. With no batteries. Add in what I actually lost in stock purchase as said big company and, well, I’ve got several more years of capital loss ahead of me. No, I picked companies I thought would be fun. And most were. Most also died without ever making money or going public. But, they were generally fun, and I enjoyed most of the work, and I made good friends along the way.

But, there I was at a big company. The company needed some new products. The old products were “OK”, but not innovative, not interesting, and people who bought them were the same people that buy the same shoes, or the same model car, time after time. Because it’s comfortable and familiar.

We had some management shake-ups, and I got the rare opportunity to build a new group inside a big company. I was given a lot of leeway to do it “my way”. I was allowed to pick people for the team with whatever means I wanted. I didn’t have to OK things with an external HR group, I didn’t have to follow a “corporate policy”. I was also given a few other things I wanted. This big company, like others, had gone to private offices for everyone. Now, I personally LOVE private offices. They are wonderful, they give you your own private space, they’re like the difference of living at home, sharing a room with your siblings, and your first apartment on your own. They make you feel like a grownup.

There’s a downside to offices. Especially in a place who’s normal energy level is somewhere between a garden snake in Minnesota in February, and a rock. Not a pretty shiny rock, but just some random bits of dust, loosely coagulated into an ordinary, monochromatic, dull, unremarkable stone. That is, objects at rest, tend to stay at rest. It’s easy to rest in your own space. Alone. Staring at your computer screen (which, if it’s an LCD, likely will burn in if you don’t shut it off, or keep static objects off it for extended periods. Glad we cleared that up).

So, my thought was, I wanted a team. I wanted a happy, tight-knit, high-energy, “can do” kindof team. One of the many pieces of this puzzle was a “bullpen”. At big companies, any common space must be reserved. It’s shared, there are a lot of people who need to meet and talk about things for a long period of time, so they can feel good about the fact they got together and talked about it. It also helps get people out of their offices, so they don’t become molecularly attached to their furniture. But, they’re common, not special. And, they have to be reserved. In advance. Just got a great idea? Want to get five of your best friends together right now while it’s spinning in your brain? OK, so either you all pile into an office, or you go running up and down the halls looking for an empty room (and then hoping you can finish before someone comes to kick you out), or you reserve a room for “later”. Don’t worry, that brilliant idea in your head can hang out for a couple hours until that room is free.

I got my bullpen. I had to fight for it, since again, you have people who have clipboards, and they state how much space each individual must have to be happy and productive. Studies have shown, if you exceed those limits, even passive software engineers will bite off each others limbs. Well, they studied mice and rats, but you know, same thing.

So, I got my room. Engineers came to the room. They sat together, they talked, they IM’ed the person next to them, whatever they wanted. They did this at minimum two days a week. The rest of the time, they could work at home, work in their offices, whatever. There were other parts of this social puzzle, of course. People had to be available when they weren’t physically present. They had to find ways to utilize the mandatory time together. They had to eat lunch together once a week. They had to show their work off to the team. Now “had” is a bit of a misnomer here, because when you have smart people, and you’ve given them the ability to do cool stuff, and do it well, and do it with a vision towards building a really cool end result, they WANT to do all this. It’s fun. It’s what makes this whole “living under florescent lights thing all day long when it’s sunny out” worth it.

Well, times change, and I had to leave my happy group. I really hated to, they were happy, I was happy, we were all happy, but things happen.

Over time, the group continued to be happy, and to produce really cool stuff, and continued to evolve and keep things interesting. I’m astoundingly proud of them. Nothing like this can ever remain static, “social engineering” changes constantly, and if you dwell on the past, rather than use it as a guide for navigating the present, you’ll fail. As Nicol Williamson, as Merlin, said in the movie Excalibur, “For it is the doom of man, that they forget” (I loved that movie).

As legends go, people look at the historical evidence that remains, often with little knowledge of what went into it, and make assumptions.

The evidence that remained was that a highly productive and happy group of engineers came together a couple times a week in a common area, then they dispersed, usually working at home the rest of the time. A common mistake would be to look at that and say, “aha! We’ve discovered something!”

People love to reproduce success. It’s hard to do, ’cause success usually only looks the same way once. Go ahead, build the next Google. Make it start off as a search engine. Let me know how that goes for you.

I’m imagining scenarios where people take the visible remains of social engineering, which resulted in something that worked for a particular group at a particular time, then trying to use it, verbatim, somewhere else.

Usually what happens is, something like this “bullpen” idea gets picked up, and then gets used statically, or in isolation. The sort of thing that results in the number of square feet in a cubicle at HP. Very stringent, totally standardized, and people can point to studies that show why it’s perfect. And, for some group, doing some task, at some time, it was perfect.

Well, if you hadn’t already guessed where I was going with this, you’re probably molecularly attached to your chair, or you’ve never worked in corporate America, and you’ve never watched Survivor, or any of the other “reality” shows.

When you see a good idea that worked, it probably didn’t turn out the way it was originally envisioned. My vision of the bullpen for this project was what I expected for just about one week. Then, it evolved. There were a large number of factors that worked, for that group, at that time. It combined an interesting project, cheerleading drivers for the team, and on the team, a sense of community and common goals, joint destiny, team spirit, and a group that actually wanted to sit together and talk.

I’m not really gloating here (well, maybe a little), but I actually just felt a lot of “pride of invention”. Now, I applaud well meaning people who try to make things better. Hats’ off to the effort, gotta keep trying or we, um, stop trying. Then that whole molecular bonding things comes into play again.

Hell, it’s not like a bullpen is a unique idea. I think, in fact, they may actually have been used for, um, some bovine innovation project in the 1600’s. In fact, none of what I did to build the team was unique, or new, or hadn’t been done by myself before. Actually, I didn’t do one single thing I hadn’t either tried before, or been a participant in when someone else did it. We build on the shoulders of others, and I try to bring with me all the things that have worked for others, and myself, and try to integrate them in new ways, which are appropriate to the team/project at hand.

So, I encourage everyone else to do the same. Try stuff. Imitate stuff. When it doesn’t work, ask questions, see if you can find out what was good (even massively failed projects have good bits, or at least contrary lessons to be learned), try that, mixed another way. See what happens there.

Nothing is ever perfect, nothing is ever stagnant. That couldn’t be more true than it is when you gather a group of bright, creative people, and set them to what they do best. Create stuff. What worked for a group today, won’t tomorrow. That’s the nature of social engineering, and why archeology of past success is only one aspect of the complex puzzle.

But, I do caution against the more common “I saw this thing that worked”, then try to duplicate the effect, without understanding the cause. If you don’t know why something worked, it’d be best to try something you do understand, since it won’t work as you expected a second time, likely, and if you don’t know what you expected to happen, you can’t adjust in real time to make it work.

Well, guess that’s about all the ranting I’ve got in me today. Everyone go out the day you read this and hug a tree. Give it a big sloppy kiss too, if you’re into that.