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Jonathan's Blog

Mindful Leadership and Technology


AuthorJonathan Fries
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Leadership Agile

Do Agile Software and Agile Management Practices Equate to Communism?

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I bring this up because it's something that I've heard a few times over the years (including recently) and I think it's worth examining the hidden anxiety behind this statement.

On one level, agile is not anything like communism. Agile practices extend some of the decision making in business to people close to the problem, people who will do the work. In this way, it's much more like a capitalist/democratic system than a communist/authoritarian model. In democracies individuals have agency/a vote/influence in the system (just like agile) and in capitalism individuals/businesses control the means of production and what work gets done, not a central authority (just like agile).

Looked at in this way, the answer to the question above is clearly 'No'. Agile equates to democracy and looks nothing like communist/authoritarian systems. But this doesn't get at the anxiety, which I think is important.

Why the comparison? Why do people say "Agile = Communism"

I think it's because in traditional businesses (a key feature of capitalism) the democratic principles of society don't extend inside the business. Inside the business the business owner and their appointed managers run the business and make key decisions. The businesses themselves demonstrate the authoritarian characteristics that the rest of society does not.

Looking at in this light, I think the anxiety could be expressed thus, "Agile is not like traditional business management and that makes me nervous. So, I will express my fear by equating it to something that also doesn't look like traditional business/capitalism, which is communism."

This fear is not unreasonable. Agile is different. It does distribute decision making differently. I think that it is hard to relinquish control and you should expect this type of reaction to change, as you should expect this reaction to ANY change at all. It's just one more manifestation of anxiety around change.

So, where does that leave you?

Understanding doesn't mean accepting. You understand the anxiety to facilitate the change, not give in to the resistors.

We've seen that the pace of change in life and business is accelerating. Predict and control structures become outdated too quickly. Your prediction will now almost certainly wrong because the assumptions that underlie your prediction lose their currency quite quickly.

Why rely on the assumptions of one person? Why not have a high functioning team working together? In this way, agile can be part of the antidote to the anxiety.

You (and your leadership team) need smart people working on effective teams with the ability to execute. Whether you call it Agile Management Practices or Holocracy or something else, it makes sense when the world changes quickly.

Of course, individual business owners and leaders are free to make decisions to run their companies in whatever way they see fit, that is capitalism.

But, as a leader, don't you want to hire the best people and get the most out of them? Empowering them is one way to do that. It does require you to let go of some control. And it does require you to have enough governance to ensure people don't bet the farm or the business without oversight.

But after that, you WANT people to feel ownership and make decisions. It's going to make them more loyal, successful employees, and it is going to help your business be more effective in the long run.

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Technology Education Kids

How Much Do You Teach Your Child About the Technology of Today?

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I'm asking this question because I realize that if I teach my child about the technology of today - how it works, how to use it, how to build stuff with it - that a great deal of that information will be out of date when my child enters the workforce in 12 - 15 years.

This is going to happen for a bunch of reasons:

  1. I certainly hope that writing basic, redundant code will be done automatically. This might happen because tooling improves dramatically or because the languages that are used improve dramatically and remove the need for this kind of stuff.
  2. AI is going to replace a lot of jobs, even in technology.
  3. The jobs that will exist in the future don't exist and (mostly) haven't been dreamt up yet.

In such an environment, who can teach technology skills that matter? Not me certainly.

So, if we know that technology will continue to be important (it will) and we know that the details of that will change constantly and dramatically such that what you will need to do detail-wise at a job 15 years from now is hard to know, where do you go from there?

There are still skills that matter, you just have to emphasize them, even if you also do some detail-y technical work. Here's what I choose to emphasize:

  1. Think creatively.
  2. Do things with your creative thoughts - make stuff.
  3. Use technology and don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

In the world of software, this last point is largely figurative. Your hands don't literally get dirty unless you've spilled a lot of coffee or toast crumbs into your keyboard over the years.

So, you have to teach them stuff. Teach them the big with the small.

The small stuff (details, technology) will expire. It always does. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower.

But while you're doing that you can learn to learn and not be afraid of it.

What 'it' will be in 15 years is anyone's guess.

Cover photo by @clever_visuals on Unsplash.

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Leadership Technology

Does this Technology Require Discretionary Effort to Get Anything Useful Done?

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Discretionary effort is critical to business success. You need enthusiasm, time, and energy from dedicated employees to make your team or your product a winner.

Knowing how your team spends discretionary effort is important. For this reason, you should ask the question in the title of this post. Ask it before the outset of any significant effort or the adoption of new tech.

There are a lot of reasons why people choose technologies. Carefully guiding selection is an important part of the technology leader's job description. Managing and directing discretionary effort should be part of that calculation.

So, why do people choose different technologies?

This technology is a good fit and here's why ....

Sounds lovely doesn't it? Technology is chosen to meet the needs of the project. Nothing more, nothing less.

Our team already knows this technology.

This can be an excellent reason. Efficient, lots of knowns, starting with some pre-baked design work - very good.

We already know this other technology that looks a lot like the one we're choosing.

This can also be a perfectly acceptable reason to choose technology.

We like where this technology is headed and we believe it will help us meet our future needs.

A little bit riskier - when will the future arrive?

This technology is neat.

Neat is fine. As long as it is also good fit and we can get things done.

This technology is new.

See also, Neat. Beware of the following Trojan horse: everyone will be doing it in 5 years, so if we want to be able to hire people we better choose it.

Here's the trouble with new and neat technologies. You don't know them and you have to learn them.

Will this require discretionary effort on this project? Who is paying for it?

As I said above, discretionary effort is important. Nothing of significant value gets done without it. There are late nights for someone somewhere if this (or any) project is going to be successful.

The trouble with new and neat is that they can use up all the discretionary effort that people have to give.

When this happens, it's bad.

Especially if the value of a product doesn't reside in the new and neat technology that was chosen. If the value is in the logic or time-to-market or ease of use or anything else, then spending discretionary effort learning a new technology is ...

You decide.

I wouldn't necessarily call it wasted effort as it probably benefits those learning it.

But it isn't high business value in the short-to-medium term. It's a long term investment. It may be that the investment is in people or infrastructure that benefit the product or project or business you are building.

Should you make that investment?

Post photo by unsplash-logoTim Gouw from Unsplash.

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Mindfulness Technology

Making a Simple 'I Love You' Button with the Amazon IoT Button

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The article below is specifically about using the AWS (Amazon Web Services) IoT button to create a simple 'I Love You' button that my kids could use to send a text to their mother while they were staying with me.

While that was a specific idea, the concept could easily be extended for children to send a message to a grandparent, a friend who has moved away, or a cousin who lives in another city. It's not strictly limited to the situation I describe.


As a divorced parent, you often find yourself trying to make the divorce have as limited an impact on your child or children as possible.

One thing they teach you as you are going through that process is that your child ultimately views each parent as key to understanding themselves, and any time you do anything to tear down your ex you're really only hurting your child.

So, last summer, shortly after my divorce was finalized I happened to come upon the AWS IoT button, which is basically an unbranded programmable Dash button. I've written about using it at work here.

As I was working on the pitch for that project, it occurred to me that the button could be used to solve another problem. My children are too young to have phones (my opinion), but it would be nice if they had a way, when they were staying with me, to send their mother a text to say 'Hi Mommy! I love you!' or something similar.

This is easy with the IoT button. Here are the steps involved.

Step 1 - Order Button from Amazon All you have to do is order them from Amazon here.

Step 2 - Use the mobile app to configure the button to communicate Download the setup app for Android or iOS. Next, use the setup app to put your button on your wifi and configure a basic function.

Step 3 - Change the message to your custom message The last step is a little trickier. You need to edit the Lambda function created by the setup app. I won't go in to the details, but it is possible for a person with limited technical expertise to pull off. Certainly, anyone with a technical friend or relative could do it with help.

Essentially you change this:

PhoneNumber: PHONE_NUMBER,
Message: 'Hello from your IoT Button ${event.serialNumber}. Here is the full event: ${payload}.',

To make it look like this:

PhoneNumber: PHONE_NUMBER,
Message: 'Hi Mommy, I love you.',

The change itself is as simple as what I outlined above. It's just getting to the right place that takes a little Googling/spelunking if you haven't done it before.

For kids, this is also a nice, simple introduction to coding where a simple change can be made simply, and without needing tons of additional explanation, deployment, or other fanfare. Just make a change and hit the 'Save' button.

Once done, my boys were able to send their mom a short message and have her know that they were thinking about her. In return, I knew I was helping them build connections and self-esteem and not tearing that down. Here is our completed button, plus decorations:

-iot_button_custom

This is extendable to other situations - absent friends, geographically distant loved ones, parents who might be travelling. Even adults could benefit from having a dedicated 'I love you' or 'I think you're great' button to press from time to time.

Who doesn't need the occasional reminder/short cut to tell our friends and family that we think they're great?

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Technology

Carbon Dating a Web Page

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As a side note to this post, I wanted to link to the first person to post such an article. If you search for '3 Types of Fun' on Google you get quite a few different search results back and no one gives anyone else credit (annoying) and none of the top hits had a date-time stamp I could find.

So, I found this article, which was very helpful:

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/513996/how-to-carbon-date-a-web-page/

Which linked to this thing:

http://cd.cs.odu.edu/cd/<YOUR_URL_HERE>

And yes, you really do paste your whole URL there, without the pointy-brackets. Here was one the queries that I ran:

http://cd.cs.odu.edu/cd/https://www.rei.com/blog/climb/fun-scale

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Leadership Technology

Art Week - Post 3 - Laika Exhibit at Portland Museum of Art

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Laika is a stop-motion movie studio located in Portland, OR. If you don't know the 4 Laika movies, they are:

Coraline - On Amazon
ParaNorman - On Amazon
The Boxtrolls - On Amazon
Kubo and the Two Strings - On Amazon

The post header image is a large (about 20 feet tall) skeleton that was used in Kubo and the Two Strings. It is, by their account, the largest stop-motion model ever created. It was amazing to see it in person and imagine them using it to create the movie.

These movies have been a cornerstone of our family entertainment since ParaNorman was released. So, when I heard that Portland Museum of Art was hosting an exhibition I knew that I wanted to make the trip to see it.

Laika really opened the vault - providing character models, complete scenery (including the garden from Coraline), detailed break downs of models and processes, and videos with explanation of how they approach various aspects of film making.

A favorite detail was the locker scene from ParaNorman where you can see the scale model junk accumulating on top of and next to the middle school locker room:

20180329_103107

The amazing detail in creating the overhead projector and mop bucket and paper on top of the lockers shows the kind of time and detail that Laika invests in to make the movies feel real.

When you watch the movies, they are full of detail like this.

It's clear from the exhibit that Laika invests a lot of time in money in the movies they make. This investment takes the form of details (as mentioned above), ambition (they don't rest on their laurels or just do things they know work), and technology (their use of 3D printing to create facial expressions is amazing).

Here is an image of a small portion of the 'wall of faces' showing 3D printed details that were used to create facial features for a number of characters across their films:

20180329_102415

It's often surprising how a great stop-motion studio or artist can produce wonderful emotional depth in their characters - think Wallace and Gromit.

Laika have their own special brand of this, and the 3D printed facial features are part of that capability.

That's at least partly a technological achievement in their case.

The exhibition was well put together and enjoyable. I don't think you had to be a fan of the films to enjoy it, though it helps.

I admire the work that they do and I hope for many more films to enjoy in the future.

Leadership Angle: Laika pushes themselves relentlessly in their art. They search for larger obstacles to overcome, better stories to tell, and more exciting ways to overcome them. Check out all 4 movies to see how they've evolved as storytellers, animators, and innovators.