All Posts By

Melinda Harrington

Work

Cult of the New Person

Let’s say you are in management and you hand over an idea for the “Galaxy” project to somebody who has just arrived at your company. The response is usually: “yes, absolutely we will figure this out. No problem, leave it with me.”

You present the same idea to somebody who has been at the company for years and they’ll say “yeah, but remember when we tried to introduce the ‘Aurora’ project three years ago and half of the customer service team quit because they couldn’t cope with the onslaught of complaints? And, are you sure the flux capacitor can handle all that data? With the ‘Life Star’ project five years ago, it was brought to a halt and we were up for three days trying to get it going again. There are still some issues we haven’t resolved with that.”

No wonder that management likes new people. They are really positive. They are also usually more expensive which no doubt means they are better.

So the new person forges along with their new project. Well they take a few steps forward confidently. Then, they sidle up to the old person. “I just have a quick question, about that flux capacitor…”

The new person continues and it turns out that they bump into the same kind of challenges that the old person does. The flux capacitor can’t handle the data and the customer service team is overwhelmed with all the complaints.  Over time, they become like the old people. Experienced, skilled and undervalued.

Like most people, I have been a new person before. But I have been an old person a lot more. That’s why I am grumpy. I am really loyal to companies. I don’t just jump around in search of something better. I focus on delivering the best I can where I am. I don’t spend a lot of time telling everybody what I am working on. I just quietly deliver. But I get a bit irked when somebody new comes along and says “we’ve never done this before.” Well, yeah, you haven’t. But we have and we did a damn good job.

New people in positions of authority often want to change things. They want to fix everything. Problem is, people who are already there don’t always want to be fixed. They might actually be doing a really good job. Experienced people have a really good insight on what could be improved. Let’s say you are getting things 90% right. Might make sense for the new person to talk to the 90% people and figure out how to address the other 10%. “Hey, how can I help you with the little stuff?” That’s not usually what happens. Lots of babies and bathwater flying everywhere is what usually happens.

Don’t get me wrong, we have had some fantastic new people join us lately. When you are under the gun for a long time, particularly if you are understaffed, you don’t really have time to look at a better way to do things. Our new people have been able to look around and make a few suggestions that are really helpful.

New people have the opportunity to focus. They aren’t being distracted by the old, messy stuff. They have a blank slate. They aren’t clouded by the complications.

It’s not unusual for a new person to start asking the old people to do something. I had something to do. That’s why we hired you.

The people that matter (management, executive team – whatever) tend to concern themselves with the bright, shiny things. That makes sense. Focus on what is important. Except, of course, that sometimes the existing team is so busy with the not so shiny stuff that it’s really hard to find some time for the important stuff.

The longer you are there, the more of the existing stuff you are still stuck with. They don’t give that stuff to the new people. So you waste people with the most experience on all the dross.

That’s the way it is. Until I decide to be a new person.

Work

Indicate and Check Your Blind-spot

Years ago I picked a fight with my best friend’s boyfriend because he wasn’t looking and indicating when he changed lanes. “There’s nobody there” he replied. I learned to drive on the LA freeways and I know that in the blink of an eye there can be another car next to yours. You always look. You always indicate. Most of the time you are right, there is nobody there. But that time you are wrong might be the last time.

Fortunately for everybody I am not a driving instructor. I work in software. But the same rules apply. If you are going to pivot, you need to let people know. Don’t assume it doesn’t impact anybody else.

Recently I was working on a re-design that wasn’t going particularly well. There was one area of functionality where we could choose to retain the old design or forge ahead with the new design. There were a lot of edge cases and secondary workflows in this area so different developers had tasks that were impacted by this change.

So I sent out an IM @all to let anybody who wanted to be part of a quick catch up to join us. We ended up with two POs, our QA lead and a few developers getting together to agree on the overall approach so that they could each go forward with their individual tasks. Stick with the old design or continue on with the new one.

Half way through our meeting the Director of Engineering sent us an IM to say that the Vice President had already made that call. The decision had been made to go forward with the new design the week before.

It wasn’t a bad decision. I probably would have made the same decision myself. I think he made the decision assuming we were mostly done when in fact we were only mostly done with the ‘happy path’. Nevertheless, we could deal with the edge cases and secondary workflows and we all agreed the new design was better.

The point is the VP didn’t indicate. He didn’t look to see who would be impacted if he changed lanes. He didn’t update any of the tasks to let the POs and developers know of the decision that had been made. In this case, none of the people working on the tasks knew of the decision that had been made.

It’s not always practical to have everybody in every meeting. Nobody wants endless documentation and discussion but if we are going a different way, everybody needs to know.

This happened early in our Agile transformation.  I’m not saying that it never happens any more but Agile practices are protecting us more now. Agile ceremonies may sometimes seem like overkill but they are actually a good way to indicate your movement to a wider group rather than assuming that you aren’t impacting anybody else.

Life

With Love and Respect

One of my treasured possessions is an inscription Professor Rassias wrote for me which continues to comfort me in times of doubt. He signed it “with love and respect, John.” With love and respect. That was how he treated everyone.

At night when the cleaners came in, we would be the only ones in the building and John was so supportive of their work (even though he would whisper to me that they didn’t do a very good job). The team that worked in Wentworth Hall told me he was the only professor who knew their names.

I consider myself fortunate to have worked in John’s office for years while I was at Dartmouth and after graduation. I had a rare glimpse behind the curtain of the most hard-working and loving man I have ever known.  I saw countless students come to Wentworth Hall looking for inspiration and understanding and receiving what they sought.

It means so much to me that he was able to see something in my twenty-two year old self at a time when I couldn’t see it myself.

“To Melinda, A truly authentic human being whose energy brightens our lives.”

Right back at you John.

With love and respect.

Work

I don’t think this way any more

Disclaimer:  I was going to get rid of some of my early writings but I decided to keep them because I realize they show that I have changed. ”Journey” is over-used but I have to remember that I am learning and others are too.  You may be here.  Or you may be reading what I am writing now and smiling because you know I will move on from there.

Scrum principles may seem like a radical departure from how projects have traditionally been run but ultimately the big picture is pretty much the same. Comparing ‘waterfall’ to ‘agile’ often assumes a pure implementation of both when I find my own practice of Project Management to be much closer on the spectrum to agile without being strictly agile.

Methodologies aside, as a Project Manager, I take the requests of stakeholders, distill them into reasonable tasks, list those tasks in order of priority, estimate how long the project will take, agree on how much we are going to deliver and do what it takes to deliver the project by the deadline. During the project, I answer questions, make decisions about the scope and remove obstacles so the team can deliver. If we can’t meet the deadline, we decrease the scope, increase resources or negotiate a later deadline. As a Project Manager my responsibilities can vary greatly as I do whatever it takes to get the project delivered.

Within a scrum/agile framework, when playing the role of PO, I facilitate user stories from stakeholders, arrange them in order of priority (backlog). The team breaks them down into tasks, estimates the relative scale of each task and agrees on what is included in each sprint. During the project, I answer questions and make decisions about the requirements and remove obstacles. We deliver work that is tested and potentially shippable in completed sprints. As a Product Owner, my role is clearly defined.

Throughout my career I have been a Project Manager, a Program manager, a Producer, a Director and a Consultant. Regardless of which title I have, it is important to me to be involved in the strategy – not just ‘what are we trying to deliver?’ but ‘why are we trying to deliver it?’

PS:  How have I changed? Since I wrote this, my thinking has evolved. I now believe that agile is a radical departure from how projects have traditionally been run.

Work

Why my cat wouldn’t make a good agile leader

Suffering from jet-lag insomnia and thinking about agile, I found myself thinking that my cat is very “command and control.” Equating the fact that I was awake in the middle of the night with the possibility that she would get an extra feed, she started with the loud purring. You would think she would be familiar with the cadence. The sprint ends after about eight hours of sleep. No we are not going to do an emergency release.

Most cats are excellent project managers. They remind and coax and hassle. Would they be good agile leaders? Not so much.

Is she happy to adapt to change?

Depends, she likes to try different places for an afternoon nap. However, a new brand of cat food is generally unacceptable.

Customer collaboration?

I’ll have to give her a free pass on this one since she can’t actually speak and I’m not quite sure who the customer is here.

People over process?

I’m going with no. The process is “feed me now”. Does it matter which person does it? Not really.

“Working software over comprehensive documentation?”

Yep. Well if software = food, absolutely. I haven’t seen her read.

Does she stick to the rules? Not really. We have some large floor to ceiling windows and she often asks me to open them. They are windows, I say, not doors. She doesn’t care, she wants to be let in. So I am going to say she is a good outside of the box agile thinker.

In retrospect, I really shouldn’t judge her.  Agile about is accepting somebody where she is in her journey – even if her journey does tend to be towards the bowl.

Work

Why a traditional IT project is like an elevator

I have never re-designed an elevator. But the elevators in the building where I work were recently redesigned at the same time that I was working on some website re-designs. It struck me how similar the process was.

The arrow points up; the elevator goes down

Since the upgrade of the three elevators in our building, the indicator triangle above the middle elevator has pointed up when the elevator is about to go down.

The analytics department studying the impact of the button pointing up may determine that the user experience hasn’t been greatly affected. Users, after all, are adaptable. Although a few people may have gone up when they intended to go down, they have adjusted their behavior. Essentially we have all learned that if we push the button to go down and the middle elevator arrives, it will point up but go down. New people may accidentally go the wrong way but they end up going down.

I think anybody in marketing would have no problems explaining that this was in fact a successful upgrade. People just needed some time to adjust to the new, superior interface. Any complaints are just resistance to change.

As a user of the elevator I want to get down five floors as quickly as possible so that I can go home

Experiencing the upgrade of the elevator as a user, I suppose the first thing that strikes me is the lack of consultation with me and – as far as I know – with any of the other users.

Had I been asked, I probably would have said that the elevators provide the core function that I want. They go up and down from one floor to another and I would want to retain that. However, they are prone to stopping in between floors. I think that is a bug that should be addressed since the people stuck in the elevators don’t like it. So if there is going to be an elevator re-design, making it more stable would be what the users would request.

So we got music

Music? Yes, it’s kind of tinny and it kicks in halfway through the journey. Nobody really wanted it and we don’t quite know what to do with it. I don’t know anybody who would have actually asked for the music. But it’s there. We can’t turn it off.

We got the arrow that points up

I did point out to the people working on the elevators that the arrow pointed the wrong way. They didn’t seem too interested. They were just doing what they were told. I suppose it wasn’t in the requirements. Nobody said that the arrows had to point the correct way. Now, the project has been delivered and that will have to go in a future phase. I don’t know if there is a future phase. It has been a few years now.

The doors open really slowly now

You can tell that the elevator has arrived at your floor because it stops. And then for a few seconds you begin to wonder if maybe it’s between floors because nothing is happening. Then just when you are ready to hit the panic button, the doors open slowly.

I don’t know if anybody has any metrics for how quickly the doors opened before the upgrade but they didn’t feel slow. Now they do. We can’t provide any data about the slowness so apparently we will just have to live with it.

So in short

The elevator upgrade is like a lot of traditional projects because:

  • Nobody consulted the users
  • New features were introduced that nobody wanted
  • Critical features that used to work no longer work
  • New issues were introduced that haven’t been fixed
  • The people who sponsored it consider it a great success
  • The work was all done at one time and wasn’t ever revisited.

We’re getting used to it.

Balance

Swimming Alcatraz

This is the first blog I ever wrote. In 1997 nobody was calling it a blog. But there was a website called SF Stories and the editor encouraged others to contribute. Reposting here because I still love it.

“Why did you swim to Alcatraz?” everyone asks me. “I didn’t swim to Alcatraz, I swam from Alcatraz.

“Why would anyone swim from Alcatraz?”

Pedantic discussions aside, I’m not always sure why I made the swim.

Before you dismiss me as a streamlined mega-athlete possessing super-human ability that you can’t attain, I have to point out that you clearly don’t know me. Without a doubt, I am certainly the last person picked for the team in any sporting endeavour. With the one exception, (obsession?) of swimming.

But I only joined the swim team in high school to escape P.E. And, even then, I only won one race in the whole three years I swam for Long Beach Polytechnic. Least Likely to Do Anything Athletic — if there were such a title.

Then there was Alcatraz.

Alcatraz, by the way (if you haven’t seen all the Escape movies), is a former federal prison a mile and a half off San Francisco. Supposedly nobody ever escaped because of the sharks, the cold water and the fact that it’s impossible to swim. I heard somewhere that they didn’t let the prisoners take cold showers because it would help them train for the swim. Now it’s just a tourist spot and an inspiration for action movies.

Not being imprisoned there, I swam Alcatraz because I didn’t have enough time to come up with reasons not to. I tried. But my friends and relatives were annoyingly helpful.

“But, I couldn’t possibly swim Alcatraz” I protested, “it’s bound to be too late to sign up.” The flyer clearly said register early, spaces are often filled a month in advance. This brilliant idea hit me just two weeks before the swim.

“No problem,” the nice people at Sharkfest said, “of course you can still register.”

“Hmm, but it costs money, I’m not sure it’s really worth it….” My mother was happy to sponsor the swim. After all, I’m swimming Alcatraz.

“But, I don’t really trust my car to make that big trip over the bridge from Marin and won’t I be too tired to drive home?”

“Hey, if you’re going to swim Alcatraz, the least we can do is give you a ride.” Now I had my chauffeurs and a small cheering squad.

“But, I couldn’t possibly swim Alcatraz” I protested, “after all, I don’t have a wetsuit.” “You can borrow mine” a friend insisted. He wasn’t exactly the same size. You can’t exactly roll up the cuffs in a wet suit and there was that unnecessary bulge spot. Took on way too much water with that one.

Never fear. Another obliging friend. Wet suit #2. Much more appropriate, even had handy indentations (or whatever the opposite of indentations are) for boobs. Still took on water. All my friends are taller than I am. Decide to rent.

Next stop, some really cool surfer-dude store off Highway 101. I arrived after work feeling hopelessly un-hip and surprisingly old. Cute little surfer boy with long blond hair helped me find a rental. At some point in the conversation I mentioned what a wuss I am. “You’re not a wuss” he said with all seriousness, “you’re swimming Alcatraz.”

Yeah, I guess I am. Swimming Alcatraz. Wow.

Next thing you know, I’m slathering on Vaseline at the Maritime museum way too early on a Sunday morning.

Everyone else seemed really big and really sleek.

My small cheering squad made a great video of the event. There’s this image of my curly blonde ponytail bouncing along a foot lower than the heads of a sea of giant black seal people thronging towards the ferry. I’m smiling. Must be in denial.

The ferry took a long way to get out there. It will be the same distance back. But without a ferry. That’s a long way.

Ferry stops out in the water next to the island. They just open up the doors on the side of the ferry and everyone jumps out. I couldn’t see the water because of all the big plastic people in front of me. When the row of lemmings ahead of me dropped, suddenly there was the water a long way down. Sort of like the Titanic but without the ice. I didn’t have time to re-think this decision, besides the big people behind me were pushing me along. I dropped.

A tremendous amount of really cold water passed by my goggles as I submerged a long way under water. Haven’t I seen this in a horror movie before? I spluttered to the surface. Staggered to the beginning spot, so tired when I got there that I really began to wonder how this possibly could be done. The cold zapped me immediately and the wet suit was a major liability. Super slow-mo.

Perhaps I should have actually trained for this in open water as recommended. But I hate being cold. I complain if the pool’s less than 80. And even though I was swimming a mile and a half in the pool each day, it’s a little different in the ocean.

Too late. They fired a gun and everyone was suddenly horizontal.

Breathe. Move. Breathe. Move. Kick. Kick. Swim.

Did I mention that I hate being cold?

Fortunately the cold water stopped me from thinking.

Breathe. Swim. Breathe. Swim.

Salt and waves and swallowing dirty water.

A particularly challenging part of this swim is that a very strong current will pull you away from the most direct line and try to deposit you somewhere around the Bay Bridge. Ironically, the fastest swimmers have the easiest time because the swim is carefully timed for the best currents. The longer you’re in there, the more likely you are to end up going in a big wide arc.

Most people pick something big to head for like the Transamerica Pyramid. A survivor of this swim had given me other advice. “Don’t look at the land. Find a kayaker and don’t let him out of your sight.” The kayakers are there to guide and help. They watch the currents and find the most direct path.

So I stuck to a kayaker.

Breathe. Swim. Breathe. Swim. Watch the kayaker.

I had planned some inspirational songs to sing to myself as I stroked but my brain had other ideas. Mmm bop bip be dip be dip (are there even any words to that?) flowed embarrassingly through my mind. Perhaps it was the wet suits. The surfer kid? And where did I learn this song anyway? They certainly didn’t play it on my radio station.

Blame it on the cold water.

Breathe. Swim. Breathe. Swim.

I kept my head down. Watched the kayaker out of the corner of my eye. Then I decided I should get a sense of where I was so I popped my little head up.

Swivelling around, there was Alcatraz behind me, the Golden Gate Bridge to my right and in front of me, those streets of San Francisco that go straight up, like a kid drew them on the side of the hill. I almost stopped breathing. I was a very small speck in a very big and quite awesome world and here I was moving from one icon to another. Wow.

Breathe.

I wasted some valuable seconds on this awesome moment.

There’s something very vulnerable about being that far out in the water. And cold.

Breathe. Swim. Breathe. Swim. For a long time.

Someone doing the back-stroke crashed into me. At first there were tons of people around but they dispersed. Hard to tell if the three or four people in sight were the only ones left or not. My goggles were fogged. My brain was fogged. Pretty oblivious really. Auto pilot.

Finally got into the last stretch. Land was in sight. It was a long way away.

By this time I started to realise my neck really hurt. Well, lots of things hurt but my neck got my attention. And did I mention that I was cold? How could I want water so much when I was surrounded by it? My mouth was filled with salt.

Before the breakwater there were lots of waves. Not really fair having to go up and then down. Twice as far. Hard to breathe without swallowing water.

Then there I was. My feet were on the sand. Well, technically my knees. Everything sounded funny. I was pretty spacey.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if I was the last one to finish. I wasn’t. I actually finished somewhere in the middle. It was a great finish for me. “Look, other people are still in the water. I’m not the last one out.” “Look, look I’m done.”

Swimming Alcatraz was about what I expected. That’s because I expected it to be hell. It’s a big ocean out there and it’s really cold.

I had slathered myself with Vaseline™. Not enough as I ended up with a raw, bleeding spot on my neck that later inspired comments about hickies, vampires and recreational hanging. All of which seemed more believable to people I know than the fact that I actually swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco.

From the Golden Gate Bridge, you can see how far away Alcatraz is from the land. When I go over the bridge, I always look over to the side and smile.

I figured out why I swam from Alcatraz. I like to think of myself as someone who takes risks, someone who will just jump in there and do it. And, yet, most of the time I just go to work and go home and don’t do anything worth noting.

Ultimately, I swam Alcatraz to remind myself of who I am.

(If this actually inspires anyone to give it a shot, it’s probably not too late to sign up. You do have to be a strong swimmer to do it. There are several organizations that sponsor swims. I went with SharkFest — Envirosport: www.envirosports.com.)

Me? Well, now I’m swimming with real sharks in Australia.

Life

Waltzing Melinda Goes Down Under

Three of my lovely and creative American friends, Holly, Alexis and Dyana, wrote the following Australian version of The Rules:

Some of us were wondering, “Why would Melinda want to go to Australia?”

Then we had the answer.  Because of all of the incredible contributions Australia has made to the world.

For example:

  • Mel Gibson
  • Foster’s Lager (it’s Australian for beer, you know)
  • Violet Crumble
  • Billy Tea
  • koala bears

Of course, there have been a few “misses,” like:

  • Air Supply
  • Men at Work
  • Crocodile Dundee

And now for a few excerpts from the soon-to-be-bestseller

“The Rules – Australian – Style”

RULE #29

Invent your own past.  For all he knows, your coworkers DIDN’T live alone in apartments with cats. Envision a room filled with sexy, well-dressed, sane people (kinda like Melrose Place except for that sane thing). Then tell him that’s who you worked with.

RULE #63

Never kiss a man right after eating a Vegemite sandwich.

RULE #88

Remind him often that you come from a superior country. Men love a challenge! Don’t let him think that you are in Australia because you want to be there.  Make frequent, unfavourable comparisons between Sydney and San Anselmo.

RULE #101

Don’t let the outback ruin your aura of mystery. Men love mystery! If he offers you a ride in his tractor across miles of scrub brush, reply with a coy “No, thanks.” Let him wonder who you might be meeting. After all, it may just be you and a few dead kangaroos, but HE doesn’t need to know that!

RULE #154

Create opportunities for him to do hard physical labor. Australia is a BIG country, with a lot of BIG things to lift. Occasionally slashing your own tires gives him a chance to change them for you and show he CARES. Remember, you didn’t come all this way to open your own jars of Vegemite!

We’ll miss you, Melinda!

Have a great life.