Tag Archives: work

Random Musings

High School Reunions
Just had my 20 year reunion.  I honestly didn’t know what to expect.  Overall, I came away from it deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with so many in such a brief time.  My class had over 550 students, so 20 years later I’m still meeting people that I never had a class with, and was very pleasantly surprised to hit it off with a couple of guys that I hope to do some camping/paddling with in the near future.  Time has been very well to most everyone that I saw, and the level of genuine interest and mutual respect far exceeded anything we had 20 years ago.  Any downers?  Barely.  I was amazed at the ‘metaphysical acrobatics’ one classmate was willing to perform in the quest to convince everyone that he had no regrets (really – we all have them).  There were a few odd moments where crickets would have been heard chirping, if not for the noise, one or two mild blow-offs, and – i think – one “so-long-and-have-a-nice-life”. 


Books & Tea
Jim_Tea1 I just started re-reading CS Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”.  It’s an amazing book – challenging modern concepts of “Love” (“There is kindness in Love, but Love and kindness are not coterminous…”), and trying to tackle the “intolerable intellectual problem” of human suffering.  Lewis has a gift for stating things eloquently and plainly at the same time.  He can turn a topic around and over, examining it from multiple angles and provoke the reader to not only consider his opinion, but to think for themselves as well.  Much to my own dismay, I’ve taken a special liking to Darjeeling tea (a lot of it) – and I (as I do even now) constantly have a cup nearby.  As Lewis said, "You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."

I often marvel at how much we’ve changed in our view of “career” from the Baby Boomer Generation to Gen X.  I think it would be easy to dismiss much of the modern view as selfish, but I think it’s much more than that.  Globalization and the increasingly rapid pace of technological advancements have turned the normal view of the business world on it’s end.  While I love having a so-called “cutting edge skill” – the reality is that it’s always at the risk of obsolescence.  In this kind of climate, long term trust in a corporation is unthinkable.  The employee/employer relationship – at least in my field – seems to be shifting towards a more symbiotic one (at best).  I think that’s a good thing overall – but the lack of continuity has its drawbacks.

Seriously – people need to get over it.  We’ve gotten streaming in addition to DVD-by-mail basically for free for years now.  This is a company that has had their pulse on the future in multiple critical instances.  No brick and mortar – remember the Blockbuster ad campaign about having the option to hit stores as well as the mailbox?  Ha – a dinosaur memory at this point.  Then, Netflix sees the promise in Amazon’s cloud hosting capabilities and transfers nearly everything to the cloud, saving themselves millions in hardware costs alone (not to mention the immense technical labor overhead involved in maintaining data centers at that scale).  They see the end of DVDs – sooner than most of us think.  Most brand new TVs have apps to run services like Netflix and Hulu – and if they don’t, it’s easy to either use your blue-ray player, or a computer.  I see it as their strategic move to convince the “one DVD a month” families like mine to just switch to only streaming.  The rest of the revenue they pull in as a result will fund the efforts to digitize even more movie selections (a process that is much more intensive than most realize).  So sure, whiners, go use Redbox or Blockbuster.  You’ll be back. :-)


When life gives you class vi rapids…

In conversation I tend to be as direct as tact will allow.  So you’d think blogging would be even easier, right?  Not for me.  I want to write about the deep and shallow things of life, but I over the last year I have stopped short several times of actually posting, for fear I’d say too much, reveal too much or offend someone I care for.  But the real reason is that I feel like I’ve been paddling through serious white water for the last year, and blogging, journaling, or even simply taking a quiet solitary walk haven’t been on the table as serious options.

On July 6th, 2010, I was sitting in an office at the Sommet Group, in Franklin, TN.  The developers had become aware that layoffs were coming, and most – if not all – of us would be let go.  One of my fellow developers had left for an interview and texted me as he left the building: “At least a dozen FBI are headed into the building!”  I knew in my gut that they were bound for Sommet, though I couldn’t tell you why.  It turns out the our CEO had been embezzling money.  Sommet handled payroll for other small businesses, and we were apparently taking their money and instead of funding payroll taxes, IRAs, medical insurance, FSAs, etc., our CEO was using it to subsidize a failing business unit along with a lavish lifestyle.  So we weren’t just in trouble for our own company’s delinquency, but for dozens of others.  Employees from across those small businesses (including Sommet) were discovering that their retirement, medical insurance and other benefits weren’t actually being funded, though the money was being withheld from their checks.

So.  FBI *and* IRS agents raided our office that Tuesday.  They were very nice, but it was a serious situation.  I literally left my post-raid interview with the FBI and headed straight to a job interview at a consulting company in Nashville – talk about context switching!  Thank God my good friend Garry Kean was in town – I was able to talk to him at Starbucks for a few minutes prior to my job interview.

The ensuing job search was rough.  Sommet didn’t pay us the last two paychecks, and despite recruiters promising “Sure, there are plenty of senior level jobs in Nashville”, none materialized.  I secured some side work that would help keep us afloat, but it wasn’t much.  At the end of July, at the recommendation of my good friend and former Sommet co-worker, Alex, I interviewed with a company in Chattanooga, TN.  They offered me right in the range I needed – and they were the only offer I’d had since Sommet collapsed, so we were Chattanooga-bound.


It’s been interesting.  Chattanooga is a good city overall – lots of interesting things to do, great restaurants and it’s small.  We love living on Signal Mountain, and I work with some very good people.  I would never have considered the job here if Alex hadn’t recommended I interview – and getting the chance to continue working with him has truly been one of the most rewarding things about the new job. 

But I’m also not going to lie – it’s been a tough year.  Our first six months was overshadowed by an awful rental house.  My second full month on the job saw my team working loads of overtime, so I was practically gone the whole month.  If we haven’t been travelling, we’ve been sick, vice versa, and sometimes both.  Making friends has been a challenge as well.  We’re still looking for a church (thought we’d found a good one, but alas no).  Steph has met more people than I have.  I’m extremely thankful for friends like Jon – though he lives in Nashville, we’ve stayed in regular contact and have managed some visits as well, and Alan.  You don’t replace the network of family and friends that was built across 15 years very easily, if at all.


I’m thankful for a good job – and one that continually challenges me to step up in my skills.  There’s still the interesting dynamic, though, of working alongside people who wanted to move to Chattanooga and plan to retire here, whereas I would’ve never considered it outside the events of last summer.  In the words of Gomez, “I’m just as lost as you are” – especially when it comes to what lies ahead.  It’s been tough having to lay aside so many things I love – writing and recording, camping, and others.  I don’t see an end to the white water just yet, but I still have the paddle in a firm grip….


I’ve been off the grid for a while due to being laid off unexpectedly.  It truly is amazing how quickly things can change.  One minute you’re part of one of the premier software teams in Nashville, TN – pinching yourself every day, thinking “this must be a dream….this is too good to be true”.  The next minute you’re unemployed and in the hole financially thanks to a thieving CEO.  I will blog about the “why” behind the layoffs another time, but suffice it to say that we not only lost our jobs, but were owed at least 3 weeks pay (which we’ll never see).  Job hunting was….interesting.  Despite numerous recruiters’ claims “Sure, there are plenty of senior level software positions open in Nashville”, none materialized.  I learned of an opening in Chattanooga through a fellow developer, and after researching them (plus interviewing), felt like it was great opportunity.

Fast forward to tonight.  I’m in my hotel, ready to start my second week with the new company tomorrow.  I’ve been sick for the last week – with the worst of it hitting me this weekend.  I miss my family, still have a house to pack (and…gasp…sell) and was primed and ready for a mini-pity party tonight.  My mind started wandering over silly little regrets – you know, the ones from 20 years ago that suddenly pop into your mind leaving you as embarrassed now as you were then.  Whether out of habit, or desperation, I began to discuss my situation aloud in prayer.  I lamented over those silly things, but especially over the very real financial challenges my family faces today: selling a house in a down market & expecting a loss; being without a paycheck since June; the credit debt we’re incurring until paychecks arrive, etc.

I suddenly realized how silly I sounded.  It’s not that my problems are’t real or important to me or to God, but seriously, I needed perspective!  In all of human history, I (along with millions of Americans) am in the upper echelons of salary and standard of living.  Even when I sell my house and take the loss I expect, we will recover and wind up in better shape than we’ve ever been thanks to a generous offer and a cheap cost of living in Chattanooga.  While I can easily pine-on-demand about wanting a life of meaning, how many millions of people have lived lives in the muck and filth of places like Kibera – maybe at one time they hoped for something better, but the world crushed it out of them, leaving them dead inside long before death claimed them?  I was struck with profound gratitude – the sense of which only grew as I voiced aloud what I was thankful for.

I have a job – and less than a month after I lost my old one.  I love what I do – how many people can truly say that?!  My job allows my wife to stay at home with our boys.  My wife and sons are healthy, safe and without want when it comes to necessities. Despite our impending move two hours from our current home, my boys have enjoyed 3 years with my mom and step-dad close by – and the two hours to Chattanooga is really not bad at all.  Living in Chattanooga puts us closer to my dad, step-mom and my oldest sister.  Despite the awful way my last job fell apart, working there introduced me to some of the sharpest developers I have ever met, and allowed me to forge friendships I will value the rest of my life.  I could go on….there truly is so much I have to be grateful for.  Saying it out loud is a powerful thing.  I encourage you to try it as well…

(Oh, and I’m also thankful for the 17-inch Macbook Pro my new company bought for me to use!)

Authority and Soap

Washington I think a lot about leadership – what makes a great leader?  What ruins one?  Are leaders born, made, or some combination of the two?  Often over the course of my life I have been handed the compliment of being told I have leadership qualities.  But what does that really mean?  Since as far back as I can remember, I’ve loved to watch and understand people.  As a 15-year-old, reeling from the separation and divorce of my parents, my ability to understand others helped me overcome my natural inclinations towards mild introversion to become outspoken, bold, opinionated – but staying as likable as possible in the process (not always successfully, I might add!).  During those years I learned what I believe is one of the most important qualities for a leader to possess: the ability to admit you’re wrong and apologize.  I began to be amazed at how much respect someone was willing to give to you if you were simply honest, and how quickly it faded when you became defensive.  A good leader must possess the ability to admit they’re wrong, humbly apologize and take responsibility for their mistakes.

I’ve written before about discovering early on in life the immeasurable value of deep friendships.  As a result, leadership in my mind is inextricably linked to relationships and respect (the kind of respect that flows downhill).  No leader can be (nor is realistically expected to be) everyone’s best friend.  Making decisions that can affect so many lives is not an easy weight to bear – and it comes with it’s own version of loneliness.  However, good leaders must not insulate themselves from the lives of those they are responsible for.  If you want to be a good leader, then you must make every effort to remember that real people work for you, not numbers on a ledger, nor merely bodies in a cube.  They are real people with families, dreams, hopes, fears and yet-untapped abilities.

I once heard a man say “Authority flows to those who serve.”  As leaders, we serve those around us by enabling them to realize their goals and dreams.  The  best kind of “follower-ship” a leader can hope for is a fully-engaged-but-voluntary following by those who are endeavoring to be the best that they are capable of, with your company, department, church (or some other organization) benefiting from it in the process.  It’s a healthy symbiotic relationship.  This is not to say that other leadership styles don’t produce results.  Napoleon produced unprecedented results, until his maniacal arrogance blinded him to Wellington’s superior strategy.  A CFO I once worked for – brought in as a turn-around expert – successfully completed the turn-around and sale of our company.  However, he left in his wake an atmosphere of fear and contempt – as his style of explosive shout-downs and expletive laden rants were adopted by his underlings.  My departure from that company shortly followed.  A good leader delicately balances positional authority with the morale and support of those reporting to him, and seeks to inspire their support and buy-in to his vision as opposed to demanding it for fear of retribution.  As my father-in-law so wisely said, “Authority is like soap, the more of it you use, the less of it you have.”

If you are truly interested in becoming a good leader, I think you need to ask yourself if you could handle moving down the ladder as well as moving up?  It took about 2 years for me to learn this lesson.  Up until 2008, I had always moved “up”.  However, for many reasons, I hit a plateau.  The next natural step was another step “up” – and the CIO I reported to was offering a higher position.  But something wasn’t right.  It was as if the head coach was asking me if I wanted to move from quarterback to offensive coordinator.  More power and authority to implement things as I saw fit, higher pay, more prestige.  It had some tempting elements.  However, looking at myself in the mirror every morning, I knew that I was actually lucky I was even quarterback.  My knowledge of the ‘game’ was far from mature.  Instead, I sought a new team that was looking for a rookie quarterback to take a back seat to the arsenal of experienced ones, so that I could learn from those who’s abilities far exceeded my own.  A good leader knows when to not lead, and instead follow a better leader from whom they can learn.  A leader who holds tightly onto a position at the expense of their growth as a leader is no leader after all.

Constructive Discontent

I’ve mentioned Robert Cooper’s book “Get Out of Your Own Way” a few times in my recent blog entries.  I love the title of chapter 13: “Constructive Discontent Drives Growth”.  I don’t think any other chapter title could describe my life so well.  “Constructive discontent” means that you’re not satisfied to simply repeat past successes; instead, you seek out new ways, new paths.  Before I start to sound like a fluffed up motivational speaker, let me pull some real examples from my life.

Twelve years ago I worked for an ad specialty company – as their courier.  The owner found out I had a knack for navigating Adobe Illustrator to create image files for our embroiderers.  (Bear in mind I have zero graphic design talent – this was simple image editing!)  My good friends, Kyle Chowning and Shawn Stewart, were both involved with the burgeoning web/graphic design industry – and, though I wanted to learn about their world, I ruled it out, thinking I was simply too far behind to ever catch up.   But the healthy level of discontent that is constantly with me would not let me settle down into ‘easy’ paths and stick to job skills I knew.  I borrowed an HTML 4.0 book from Kyle, and after a couple of meetings to discuss web development, I dove into learning everything I could.  At my next job, working as a PC repair technician and logistics coordinator, I was quickly frustrated with rampant inefficiencies in data entry & research.  I created a department website internally to help me (and other co-workers) automate tasks and more quickly find answers to common questions.  While I was thankful for the success I’d had, I soon realized that the site needed more capabilities – but to deliver on new features I had to leave my fledging pursuit of web design to learn about web application development.  Each new door opened up more doors of information and exposure.  Within a year, I was developing database-backed applications using Cold Fusion.  Since that time I have consumed 40-50 technical books easily, accumulating far more hours learning about software development than I spent earning my bachelor’s degree.

Constructive discontent helped spur me on in the face of “you’re too far behind, you’ll never catch up to guys who’ve been doing this for years.”  Constructive discontent enabled me – a music major – to lead a team of 7 developers, nearly all who had degrees in Computer Science, a mere 5 years after I switched careers to software development.  Constructive discontent also helped make it clear when it was time to let go of the comfortable leadership position I had, leave working from home for 5 years, and go join a local software team with talent and leadership far exceeding my own.

A healthy discontent helps guard you against complacency and apathy.  It helps you cultivate the habit of asking “Is there a better way to do this?”  It abhors the idea of being a “big fish in a little pond”.  A constructively discontent person would rather serve on the greatest team possible than ‘rule’ in mediocrity.

Ah, but there are catches.  It is difficult to cultivate this kind of healthy discontent across a community.  As Cooper points out in his book, there are centers in the brain that thrive on routine and predictability.  Those parts of the brain will cry out loud to be heard, in an attempt to drown out the parts of you that want to take risks, try something new – take a leap of faith.  Because discontent breeds change, many people resist it.  Not all change is change for the better (pause, and consider that in light of current events!); it’s the right changes that we want to push for.  We must guard against being obsessive in our discontent, and the tempting aspects of making it blindingly personal.

My discontent is driven by a desire to learn more & to be a part of excellence.  Because of it I have learned more than I could’ve ever thought possible and formed some of the most rewarding relationships of my life.  Because of it, I never see the future as dull, but loaded with opportunities to learn more, discover more, and teach more.

The 2 Sigma Problem

thinking_man In my last post I discussed Benjamin Bloom and how Bloom’s Taxonomy can be a guide to helping us determine if we’ve truly learned something, as well as give us objectives in helping others learn concepts in such a way that they can understand, apply, analyze and improvise them.  Throughout Bloom’s career he sought to better understand what factors led to students excelling and achieving the objectives of their curriculums.   In his book “Developing Talent in Young People”, Bloom demonstrated that famous high-achieving adults were rarely considered child prodigies.  The difference “was the kind of attention and support those individuals received at home from their parents…they realized goals born of guidance rather than raw genetic capacity.  Attainment was a product of learning, and learning was influenced by opportunity and effort. It was then, and is now, a powerful and optimistic conception of the possibilities that education provides.”  In other words, Bloom argued that environment and not genetics was the biggest factor in helping a student reach their potential in learning.

The type of environment necessary for reaching full potential matters a lot.  In 1984, Bloom published an article entitled “The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring.”  In short, 3 learning environments were compared:

  1. Conventional – roughly 30 students per teacher, periodic tests given.
  2. Mastery Learning – roughly 30 students per teacher learn the material in a classroom setting (like above) .  However, the tests (like those in the Conventional class) are used to give feedback which is immediately followed by corrective procedures and ‘parallel formative tests’.
  3. Tutoring – Usually one (sometimes 2-3) student(s) learned the material from a good tutor.  Tutoring instruction was “followed periodically by formative tests, feedback corrective procedures, and parallel formative tests”.

These studies found that the average student in the tutoring group  was two standard deviations (or 2 sigma) above the average student in the conventional group – meaning that they were above 98% of the  conventional students.  (The average student in the mastery learning group was 1 sigma above the average student in the conventional group – or above 84% of the conventional group.)


In light of these findings, Bloom wrote:

“The tutoring process demonstrates that most of the students do have the potential to reach this high level of learning.  I believe an important task of research and instruction is to seek ways of accomplishing this under more practical and realistic conditions than the one-to-one tutoring, which is too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale.  This is the ‘2 sigma’ problem.”

I had three immediate reactions to Bloom’s statement.  First, I am more determined than ever to be heavily involved in tutoring my children regardless of whether we go with a home school, private school or public school approach.  Second, what does it say about our society that even the home cannot be a “safe bet” for one-to-one tutoring?  Regardless of the reasons, I am troubled that an entire value system has been built that deems it “too costly” for us to bear.  I wonder what the general attitude and level of education in our nation would be if families didn’t assume that education was something to be outsourced to an already overburdened and complicated public school system?  Third, it struck me in the context of workplace mentoring.  How often do I make myself available to be a mentor for junior software developers?  How often am I seeking out other senior developers or managers to mentor me?

What about you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Do you seek out mentors in the workplace?  Have you been a mentor?  How did that work?  What helped it happen?  What undermined it?