Thursday, 26 February 2015

Culture: Working with the Israelis

I'm in the process of rounding up all my reports on my self from various psychometric tools & frameworks that I had to use in the course of my professional life, and share them openly on this blog. I did make a start some time ago with these two posts from a few years ago:
This week, I experienced another framework called the "Enneagram" which I also will aim to share on this blog.

As I dug through my old records, I found one particular course that brought back some fond memories: Working with the Israelis :-) 

Working with Israelis, a One Pager Cheat Sheet
So I worked with a lot of Israelis, all levels: engineers-to-directors, and it was quite exciting and a thrill, personally & professionally. I really didn't let any personal/religious biases get in the way of working professionally, and actually developed some really good relationships that I'm happy to call them my friends...where there is code, there are no barriers....all you need is code :-)

So if you ever confronted with working with an Israeli, here is a handy table to help get you to understanding the experience:
Cheat Sheet
Cross-Cultural Awareness is becoming increasingly important in a Connected World
In the years 2003-2011, I worked with a company that was truly global. We had software teams all around the world: North America, Canada, United Kingdom, Paris, Denmark, Australia, Israel, India, Korea & China. The company went on a global training drive to address the issue of working with the various cultures. The company partnered with the folks from TMC CulturalNavigator,  an online system that we could use to learn about the people from all parts of the world, however, specifically tailored for the regions we operated in. 

Each person in the company had to complete the online questionnaire (like all these psychometric questions) to gauge the type of person you are. The results were mostly online for people to access, as it was useful information to have to hand especially when you're meeting a colleague for the first time, or have a high-profile meeting to attend and you want to get a sense of the people, etc, etc.

I applied the tools quite often, found it extremely useful and handy to have around...

In addition to the online tool, we had coaches come in and talk around this system, which is called Cultural Orientations Index - I will write about my own results from 2007 in a follow-up post, the COI contains the following dimensions:

I will expand on this in follow-up posts...

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Street vendors and Talent houses

WARNING: This is probably one of those posts that just might not work, but anyway, this has been playing on my mind today that I had to write about it, so here goes!

The sell
If you're living in South Africa, or you spent some time here, you would have definitely come across our resourceful street vendors that hang around at major intersection traffic lights (robots), offering some really tempting fruits on sale. It is convenient, on-the-go, and price-competitive, reasonably safe, and most of the time, the stuff on sale looks really good. So to save yourself some time from stopping at a green grocer, you grab what's on offer, haggle a bit, pay and drive off. Seller and buyer are happy.

Sometimes though, and this is something that's becoming increasingly popular, is your street guy propping up his boxes, making it seem you're getting a good deal, the box has got the best samples on top, and tucked behind those good ones, are the not-so-good, slightly older fruit. Sometimes, the box has been pushed from the bottom to give the perception of volume, but sadly you're getting much less than you expected. In some bad cases, you get deceived by finding some really old rotting stuff (not cool)...
Hidden gems

A thought struck me today, that this is similar to the shows I've seen from software service providers, especially the ones that outsource, off-shore resources. They put on a good show, showcase their best talent at the initial meet-and-greet, CV/Resumes ripe for the taking - you sign the contract, agree on a medium-to-long-term support contract, thinking you're not only getting value-for-money, but also getting ripe fruit for the taking!

Alas, after a few months into the engagement, you realise that the good fruit was just a show, that the wider team is a box of dull tasting fruit, that you were sold more packaging than what you bargained for. Bodies are thrown at your project, giving the perception of a strong workforce, but you're unable to see any real value, delivery happens at snail-pace. Just what kind of fruit did you end up buying?? 

You're left with a sour taste in your mouth, you make a mental note not to be fooled by the alluring front of such street vendors. You will do your homework next time, ask the right questions, and continuously monitor the progress and commitment that your outsourced vendor had initially promised.

Too often, development managers are faced with just seeing the contract through, working with a mediocre team, fronted by a good tech lead if you're lucky...and kicking yourself for not taking extra time out to seek out to the rightfully established reputable greengrocer, who takes the time to source just the right quality fresh produce you really wanted, even if you have to pay a premium or wait in long queues!

Be ware of up-and-coming Talent houses. Take time to develop the relationships, and make sure you look past those lovely shining front-facing, mouth watering fruit....

As I've become my own independent consultancy, I am always mindful of overselling my expertise, mindful about putting on a show & being seen for a fraud, and take pains to delight my clients with work (and talent) that I can be proud to associate my brand with...

Monday, 16 February 2015

Non Functional Requirements and Sluggishness

There is a lot of talk about whether writing code, or creating software, is really an art, a craft, or is it a highly disciplined, software engineering discipline. This post is not about this debate, although I do wish to make my stance that great software is just as much it's a craft as is a software / systems engineering discipline. One should not discount the analysis, rigour that should go into the design of any software system, be it relatively simple 4th/5th tier high level applications built on very easy frameworks (e.g. WebApps, Smartphone & Tablet frameworks), or very low-level, core, native software components (e.g. OS kernel, drivers, engine services).

Take the Set Top Box (STB) for example, a consumer device that is usually the central and focal point of the living room, people expect the thing to just work, to perform as well as any gadget in the household, being predictable, reliable and always delivering a decent user experience.

How then does one go about delivering performance in a STB software stack? Is it the job of the PayTV operator to specify in detail the NFR (Non-Functional Requirements)? Or is it the job of the software vendors (Middleware / Drivers) to have their own internal product performance specifications and benchmark their components against their competitors? Does the PayTV Operator benchmark their vendors based on the performance of their legacy decoders in the market, for example: this new product must be faster than all infield decoders by a factor of 20%. Or is their a collaboration between the technical owners (i.e. architects) to reach mutually agreed targets?

Take the problem of Sluggishness. According to good old Google,
  1. slow-moving or inactive.
    "a sluggish stream"
    "the sluggish global economy"

When we're field testing STBs, over long periods of time (or sometimes after not-so-long-usage), people & customers report:

  • The box got very sluggish, needed to reboot
  • The STB isn't responsive to remote presses, takes 4-5 seconds to react 
  • Search takes too long and I can't do anything else but wait for search to complete
  • Channel change is slow compared to my other decoder
  • When using the program guide or navigating through the menus, the box gets stuck for a few seconds as if it's processing some other background activity - it's very irritating to my experience

This feedback, whilst extremely useful to the product team, is very hard for engineers to characterise without having access to system logs, to trace through the events that led up to the slowdown in the performance that resulted in degraded user experience.

In my view, based on my own experience of writing STB applications and managing complex systems projects, I believe that unless we quantify in fair amount of detail what sluggishness means, then it's a cop out for passing on the buck to other parties: either the product owners didn't take time to functionally spec out the requirements, or the application is using API services that it doesn't have control of...

In the remaining part of this post, I will touch on an example of a previous project of how we handled the problem of sluggishness, and this was through a process of rigorous Non-Functional Requirements focused on Performance Specifications...