Thursday, September 26, 2013

Can You Speak Hieroglyphic?

As a very social CIO (http://www.enduserexperience.info/articles/535484/aternity-publishes-socially-savvy-cio-list/) people often ask me for coaching, mentoring, and help with career planning.  If you looked at my LinkedIn profile you would see that I've achieved things earlier in my career than a lot of others in similar positions.  Some are interested in recommendations for how to move their careers forward in the same way, a recipe if you like.  Others want to know about different things that I've done to set myself apart or if I've had any "singular achievements" that propelled me forward.

In truth, I cannot think of any one experience that shaped me into who and what I am today.  I tell folks that I view my history as a patchwork quilt of different experiences.  I've done work on six different continents so it's likely that I am more culturally aware (or least sensitive) than many others.  At the same time, I've been close to getting fired on at least two different positions, including my very first one out of college.  That's why I say something to the effect of "Caveat Emptor" (http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/caveat+emptor) to those that take my advice.  By nature I am a risk taker and am prepared to take both the good and bad that come with pushing the envelope.  That's not the path for everyone, I think you would agree.

So what is the one thing that I can tell you that will help you consistently achieve your goals?  Become an excellent communicator.  Sounds pretty easy, right?  It may not be quite as simple as you think.  As someone who has kissed the Blarney Stone three times I can tell you that I am not referring to just becoming a good talker or speaker.  I am saying that you really need to be able to communicate well across a number of different mediums. 

The first question, if you want to learn how to get what you want out of life and your career, is: "How can I communicate without language?"  Strange thing to ponder, right?  I found an interesting blog by "psychoneuro" (http://psychneuro.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/thinking-without-language/) that talks about how language shapes thought.  If you believe that to be true (and you should), then you know that communicating is much more than just speaking.  Many people believe that 1st person communication is at least 90% non-verbal.  By default you should be drawn to the conclusion that emotion is a much more primal, effective way of communicating than speaking a word.  Have you ever heard someone say something to the effect of "I don't remember what s/he said but I sure do remember how it made me feel!"  That's what makes music such an effective way to motivate people to do what you want.  (Although I digress, what would Highlander 1986 have been like without the music of Queen?)  Being an effective communicator is the key to ensuring success.  Being able to connect with people on an emotional level is the foundation for successful communication.

The evolution of communication took a lot of steps before getting to the English language.  Back to the question - Can you think without language?  I believe the answer to that is "No".  Modern day languages, especially English, serve as tools to allow humans to formulate exceedingly complex thoughts.  But in an odd twist, a paradox if you must, the most complicated and powerful speakers today use a skill very similar to what the Egyptians developed through hieroglyphics. 

Sometimes an idea or concept is so complicated that words cannot accurately convey the full meaning.  That's why great communicators tell stories full of metaphors and allegories.  By weaving a mental picture into a conversation, these individuals can convey volumes of context in a way that people can connect into.  Since I am a Denver Broncos fan, I can give you a great example.  Imagine if I'm trying to inspire you to take on a challenge that seems all but insurmountable.  Then I say to you, this is just like "The Drive" (Google this) you might become very inspired because of the complex mental picture those two words would paint for you on both the intellectual and emotional levels.  Of course, if you were a Cleveland Browns fan you might become enraged...

The ancient Egyptians developed the very first way to communicate complex ideas.  Using pictures and symbols, they were able to develop a rich way of exchanging information.  They didn't have phonetic letters to spell things out but they had a whole lexicon of symbols to convey information in a conceptual sense.  To this day, the Chinese use the Mandarin symbolic language to do much of the same.  Of course, Mandarin is much more sophisticated than hieroglyphics, but it has been in development for over 2,000 years.

If you want one singular piece of advice on how to succeed, learn how to connect with people.  Learn how to engage them simultaneously on the physical, mental, and emotional levels.  If you can do that I guarantee you will be a success.

Friday, September 20, 2013

At $1 Billion, Crime Does Pay

As we talk about technology and how it is advancing, too often we place a myopic view just on what is happening inside of our companies. Yes, the needs of business do tend to drive innovation and improvements in information technology.  That being said, these improvements seldom connect with users on a personal level.  After all do you or your co-workers think about your computers, servers, network, or applications when you leave the office?  Not likely. 

It is the connection with consumers that has propelled companies like Apple and Samsung to such economic success.  Why?  Because they make products like tablets (iPad, Galaxy) and smartphones that really excite people.  As odd as it sounds, I have literally watched VP-level colleagues continually caress their iPhones for hours at a time (during meetings).  Microsoft developed the in-vehicle technology called "Sync" which has also revolutionized how people use technologies while in motion.  Being deployed exclusively in Ford vehicles, Sync has likely added a percentage or two of market share to Ford Motor Company.

The correlation of consumer appeal and profitability cannot be overstated when it comes to technology.  If you can find some way to make people emotionally excited about your app or device, expect to get very, very rich.  I don't really need to do much to make my point.  Should I just say: Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, or David Karp?

Let me tell you the most secret of all secrets for Intel, AMD, and the whole hardware industry.  When it comes to advances in technology, especially the Internet, you need to look at video games.  Yes, games are the single-most significant driver of advancements within information technology and always have been.  I've heard people argue back to me, saying that email and ERP applications have played a much more significant part in the advancement of technology.  I think not.

Since I'm making a very bold assertion now is the time that you should expect proof.  So here it is fresh off the press.  This week a video game company called "RockStar Games" released the fifth iteration of their hit game "Grand Theft Auto", creatively named "Grand Theft Auto V".  In the first 24 hours of release this game grossed over $800 million in sales.  Two days after that the total sales have eclipsed the $1 billion mark. (http://www.joystiq.com/2013/09/20/grand-theft-auto-5-sales-surpass-1-billion/)  Since we're talking about an entertainment product, here is another piece of perspective for you.  The most monetarily successful movie of all time was James Cameron's "Avatar".  After several years of release and DVD sales, Avatar finally reached a gross sales mark, worldwide, of about $2.8 billion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar_%282009_film%29).  Of course the profit margin for "Avatar" was only $1.12 billion (http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/records/budgets.php) but that was further halved by a $500 million dollar intellectual property suit against the producers. 

Can you name any of the acting/voice talent in Grand Theft Auto V?  I can't either (no cheating by looking at the packaging!)  The game is going to make as much as Avatar (or more) and most of the revenue will become profit.

There is a lesson to be learned from the interest people show in games and by the money they are willing to pay for them.  As technologists, both practitioners, managers, coaches, and executives, we should pay very close attention to how games are driving the advancement of technology within our corporations.  As we design our IT road maps, we should always be thinking about the human component and the incredible power of personal engagement.

The more personalized we can make our products and services, the more our customers (internal and external) will engage themselves in the technologies we provide. 

Happy customers = Successful CIOs

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Gen Y & The Retirement Myth

Because it's a big part of my job to manage people well, I often spend time thinking about just who they are and what drives them.  There are endless cliches' about the differences in generations.  While I find material that is helpful in describing how they differ (Boomers vs. X'ers vs. Y'ers), it all seems to lead to the same three conclusions.  To sum them up:

  • Boomers are straight-laced albeit uncreative cogs in the wheel
  • X'ers are distrustful of the "corporation" and are always looking for something better
  • Y'ers are spoiled, need constant reassurance, and don't respect authority
It is up to you as a critical thinker to determine what truths lie in the bullet points I just listed.  There is truth in them - I can attest to that as an X'er.  However, I think Generation Y gets a bad rap, mostly because people do not understand just how different they are as people.

Every generation learned how to approach work and had their attitudes shaped by what they saw (or didn't see) from their parents.  Let's take a quick look at each.

The Boomers' parents were members of the "Greatest" and "Silent" Generations.  I remember these people well because they were my grandparents.  Boomers had a specific set of instructions hammered into them.  To paraphrase: "Get a good education and then join a company and work your way up.  Your loyalty will be rewarded and you'll end up with an excellent pension."  Boomers mostly enjoyed having one parent at home with them as they grew up.

Gen X'ers had parents from both the Silent and Boomer generations.  X'ers were the first generation of children since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that had both parents go to work (permanently).  They learned to raise themselves and earned nicknames like "Latchkey Kids".  The instructions they got from their parents, if any were given at all were: "Get a good education, work hard, invest in your 401k, and you'll have a good retirement."  Yet the Gen X'ers saw what happened to their parents during the great stock market crash of 1987 (Black Tuesday).  They also saw the effects of an exploding divorce rate, the interest rate expansions of the 1980s, and parents actually getting laid off.  (That never happened to their grandparents - what gives?!?)  At the same time, X'ers were also the main beneficiaries of the dotcom boom of the 1990s.  That taught them that although they had to rely on themselves, they had a chance to make it rich and actually retire someday.

Gen Y'ers are the children of very late stage boomers and Gen X'ers.  They benefited from the guilt of parental neglect that the Gen X'ers suffered.  The X'ers were left so much to fend for themselves that the as parents of Y'ers they tended to overcompensate.  These parents were always there, always nurturing, and apt to reward the smallest good behavior.  But when it came to career advice, the Y'ers got a much different lesson.  Again, summarizing into a hypothetical first-person lecture, Y'ers got this message: "The economy is never going to get better, a degree may not make you money, 401k plans are clever ways for the Fed to take your money, and Social Security won't be around when you'll need it.  But don't worry, my child.  You can live here with us (your parents) and we'll all take care of each other collectively."

So, instead of saying that Gen Y'ers were babied it might be more accurate to say that they are the first generation in the post industrial revolution to be told the truth.  They are inculcated with the belief that the only reliable support structure they have is their family and their "clan".  It therefore isn't really any wonder that Y'ers seem not to have a respect for authority.

Take this to heart if you are a Boomer or X'er and plan to manage a workforce that will depend on Generation Y for labor.  They are on to us and are wise to our game plan.  They know that the modern company/corporation views them as a commodity.  They are aware that pensions are a relic of the past, 401ks haven't done anything in over a decade, and job security is out of their control to a large extent.  Given that they know all of these things, Y'ers have much less to fear and thus fear is not a significant motivator to them.  They know that they will likely work into their 70's and will live with multiple relatives if they don't already do so.  So what should you do to make them effective employees?

The answer to this question is obvious.  Rather than be authoritative, be inspiring.  Be the type of manager that a Gen Y'er would want to follow.  Learn how to teach and motivate rather than command and control.  Yes, it is as hard to do in reality as it is to contemplate in practice.  But if you can do it, you will be the manager that always has an abundance of talent and hence success surrounding you.

As odd as it sounds, Generation Y has the power and leverage in the workplace that Boomers and X'ers could only dream about.  Learn to make them want to be in your organization - even to the point that they compete with others to get in.  If you think you can act like a Darth Vader figure, ruling by fear/authority/power, expect to be ridiculed and abandoned.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

In Search of Perfection

Like me, most of you have been in multiple organizations.  Some strive to continually improve while others maintain the status quo, because it is sufficient.  Many times a company's external competitive environment will have a strong influence on its internal culture.  An electric utility company, for example, is not rewarded for risk taking.  Therefore, its culture will have a strong bias towards maintaining the status quo.  On the other hand, retail and marketing companies are strongly rewarded for "pushing the envelope".  Since Google is a marketing company, is it surprising that they allocate a certain percentage of each employee's work week to personal projects?  How risky would it be in your company to give each worker the chance to spend time on their own endeavors?

My own preference is one for action.  I am so thoroughly constructed to improve that at times, to my own detriment, I become a solution in search of a problem.  However, I see it not only as an option but a duty of managers at all levels to continually strive for improvement.  I've been rightly chastised for driving my teams harder than I should.  It's part of my own personal learning about knowing when and when not to push down on the gas pedal.

I remember a topic that came up during a friendly 1:1 conversation I had with a CIO back in the middle 1990's.  We were discussing how to provide a level of customer service that continually improved.  The CIO told me in a very confident, satisfied tone of voice basically the following: "Look Christopher, my phone isn't ringing with any complaints.  Why try to fix something when it's not broken (and working well)?"  This conversation has stuck with me for almost 20 years.

The CIO's whole premise was that equilibrium was a virtue to be maintained and nurtured.  That is completely contrary to the way I think.  While I believe equilibrium is a good thing if you're actually walking on a circus tightrope, in life and work we should be like that running back who is staggering forward to eke out just two more yards (The new NFL season starts this week!)  We should always be trying to get just a little bit better everyday.  If not, why even be here on planet Earth?  We're here for such a short amount of time that not to try for perfection is a waste of life.

So I just used the "P" word (perfection).  That brings me to another accusation I've had leveled at me over my career.  People say, "Christopher is always seeking perfection when there is no such thing!"  Ahh, but that is where they are wrong.  Part of what drives me personally is that I know perfection does exist.  Even though I know that neither I nor anyone alive today will reach it, we do indeed have something for which to strive.  Before you disagree, let me give you some evidence.

In the 11th century the religious philosopher Saint Anselm developed an interesting treatise.  At the time, he was looking for a way to prove the existence of God.  The beauty of the argument he constructed is that it had/has an enormous bearing on the human mind and will.  Extrapolating from Saint Anselm's argument: If a human mind can conceive of the existence of something, then it must exist.  
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/anselm/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anselm_of_Canterbury

You don't have to apply this to God.  Just think about the technological advances we've made since WWII.  How many things were conceived at a time when they did not exist, yet they exist today?  In the 40's and 50's there was a comic strip called "Dick Tracy".  The titular character communicated using a video wristwatch.  What are Samsung, Apple, and several other companies about to launch this year?

When it comes to managing and improving our organizations each of us must make decisions.  If you have a functioning organization where "your phone isn't ringing", that's good but is it optimal?  Should you push to be better, even when nobody is clamoring for change?  If you do, that means you will constantly be dealing with issues - process, people, and structure.  It might even be the case that you have to replace employees who will never be more than just barely average.  Tough decisions for you, all around.  But knowing that perfection does exist, shouldn't you try to grab for it even if you can never reach it?  Your answer will go a long way towards determining if you're good or great.

Remember one last thing.  Trying to be better than average will always ensure that the harder you try, the more effort others will put into opposing you.  If you want to be exceptional, expect to end your life, so to speak, covered in the scars of battle.  Nobody ever summarized this point better than Homer when, in Book 9 of the Iliad, he laid out Achilles' choice:


"Mother tells me,the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,that two fates bear me on to the day of death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,my pride, my glory dies. . . ."