Monsters University catches diversity perfectly

There is a great scene in Monsters University when the protagonists go to spy on Monsters Inc. Mike Wazowski, who is entirely at the center of this story, asks the question “Can anyone tell me what all great scarers have in common?”

The rest of the protagonists look down on the “scare floor” and see an array of monsters that come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and attributes. No two are alike. About the same time the audiences realizes it someone says “No.”

Mike Wazowski triumphantly says “Exactly!”

Read my writings long enough and you’ll see I’m a big fan of diversity. I’ve seen teams where their idea of a good team dynamic is everyone is essentially the same. That may sound good on paper, but never quite works as well in practice.

In the world of knowledge workers, diversity is important. There are so many ways to approach complex problems that sometimes you need a different perspective. Not just having someone else look at the problem, but having someone who thinks differently than you do.

I look back on all of the great software developers, engineers, and architects I’ve worked with or managed and ask me to tell you what makes them special, other than their intelligence very few of them will share common traits.

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Posted in Business, Managing Employees

On Vacation

I’m taking a much needed break for the rest of the week. I will continue my daily updates, Monday through Saturday, starting July 8th.

Until then, have a Happy, Fun, and Safe (Pick any two) Independence Day.

Or for our non-American friends, have a good day of normal work.

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True Tales of the Weird

In order to be able to give a no-holds barred account of what really goes on in the management realm I have to write under a pseudonym and have to be annoyingly vague about where I work. So I apologize in advance that I can’t get more specific about the following story because if I could name the company you would probably immediately not be surprised considering their history.

One of my consulting gigs was as staff augmentation for a major internet provider. The entire contract was odd because it didn’t make sense to have consultants basically just coding and the client really didn’t understand the difference between a consultant and a contractor.

The project I was on was an update to a legacy application and the previous team really wasn’t looking to cooperate because once we were done their services would no longer be required. The client did layoffs every 6 months and were constantly hiring. Essentially they were letting go of teams for projects that didn’t work out or for products they were retiring. They would then turn around and hire a brand new team. Why did they not just transfer personnel between teams? Beats me. I believe there was a lot of intra-company competition and managers would rather layoff employees and release contractors than have them go to a competing team. That’s just a theory though.

The weirdness culminated in having to deal with the legacy team’s architect. I was given a specification written in XML. If you don’t know what XML is that’s not important, because usually specifications are delivered in a standard human readable format, like a Word Document or maybe even HTML you can load and read in a browser. After puzzling over the odd specifications I asked to speak to the architect who designed the old system. The architect from my team, and a client employee I’ll call Bob, found out and said he better go with me. At the time I had no idea why Bob would go with me. I was used to talking to techies, it was the business that usually needed help, and I was fine dealing with them as well. Why in the world do I need someone to come with me?

Well, as it turns out, the legacy architect, who I’ll call Jimmy, had been around since shortly after the company was founded. He had also survived numerous layoffs and was the rare individual who always seemed to find a new position before his team was dissolved. He was also a complete burnt out wreck. Jimmy spoke in a sort of babble that resembled English in that I understood the words but the context was completely beyond me. The reason why Bob came with me is because he had been dealing with Jimmy for nearly a decade and was there to translate. Jimmy was a complete train wreck. His hair was wild, unkempt, and completely gray. He was skinny, pale, and he had this sort of nervous anxiety about him which became more noticeable as I asked him questions. Even with Bob there to translate I didn’t get much out of Jimmy. After we were done I asked Bob what was wrong with Jimmy.

“He’s completely burnt out. He’s been here since the beginning of the company and has survived every layoff we’ve ever had. Imagine being here twenty years and watching your co-workers getting picked off one by one while also being on one high pressure project after another. I honestly think he is still here because some executive feels sorry for him.”

After that I met with Jimmy twice more, with Bob along both times to help translate. The second time was an attempt to get further clarification and the third was really just to see if I could even get basic information out of him. I finally gave up and went to try and translate him specification on my own. An endeavor I spent nearly a month on before quitting, getting drunk out of frustration, and then solving it once I recovered from the hangover.

Truly one of the weirdest assignments I’ve ever had.

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Posted in Business, Career Management, Work

Confessions of a Middle Manager – Part 3 of many

I think it is stupid to.

That corporate directive you hate? That new policy that makes your job harder? A new process that adds no value? All the things you gripe and complain about, I hate them to.

I hate anything the company does that keeps us from being able to do our jobs. Anything that makes a task take longer and lowers morale impacts my bottom line. Ultimately, I have to control costs and most of my cost controls is meeting deadlines. I meet deadlines by making sure people stay productive. Forcing people to slow down for no good reason and lowering their morale are two productivity killers. So you see, I don’t see the value in it either.

However, I still have to enforce the rules. That’s my job. It is a part of the job I hate, but it’s still the job. Someone has to be the enforcer and while I hate the stupid rules I have to follow them and apply them because I need you to follow the rules that improve our quality, ensure that we are working as a team, and keep us out of trouble. I can be somewhat selective about how I choose to enforce the rules but I don’t have total discretion.

Sometimes, I am going to introduce a policy all my own that you’re not going to like. I know very well that some middle managers and executives do this so they can appear to be “doing something” about a problem or becuase they suddenly decided it’s a good idea. I don’t do that. I do sometimes have to introduce rules for our group though because of other events you may not be aware of. I don’t like it either and I feel your frustration, but this is not a democracy.

I do actually value your input and I feel your frustration. Unfortunately, by choosing to work at this company we also choose to abide by those rules. For me, that also means enforcing rules even when I think they are dumb.

Also, you can be as irritated or as angry at me as you need to be about it. I accept that as part of my job. Just don’t think that I necessarily accept the wisdom of every corporate policy or that you always have the big picture.

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Why I hate annual performance reviews

Here is a harsh reality that Corporate America wants to pretend isn’t true.

By the time you get to a performance review your raise, your bonus, your promotion, etc. have pretty much been determined. Now your boss gets to justify why you aren’t getting a raise or why you are getting a raise. If we’re looking to fire someone, the review may go from what would normally be mediocre to nitpicking everything we don’t like what an employee did over the review period. If an employee thinks they are doing a good job, they will often rate themselves highly. How do you account for the disconnect when an employee rates themselves as good while the manager rates them as bad? Doesn’t that expose the whole farce if the employee’s self evaluation carries no weight?

In other words, the annual performance review is a complete waste of time. They mean nothing and they accomplish nothing.

I like setting yearly goal plans. Mostly because I like to define targets and I think people should know what their goals are. However, if those goals are attainable, and they should be, why is it part of the performance review? A goal plan is something that should be reviewed and adjusted quarterly. Irrelevant or unattainable goals should be removed. Goals that are attainable but are in jeopardy should be addressed. Also, employees should receive regular feedback. I have told my managers many times that if an employee receives negative feedback for the first time in their annual review that their manager has failed them. There aren’t many bad employees out there, just a lot of mediocre ones. Managers have a tendency to turn mediocre employees into bad employees by not making expectations clear, by not giving direction, and by ignoring performance problems in the hopes that it will go away.

Also, the annual performance review does nothing to address how we turn mediocre employees into good employees. A mediocre employee is not going to have an ambitious goal plan. They will set mediocre goals that they can attain with mediocre performance. Then if their goal plan turns into their performance review, which it usually does at most corporations, the employee will get a mediocre review. I think I see a pattern here.

To get a top performer you have to coach, you have to praise, you have to criticize, and you have to do these things routinely. You have to establish a pattern of consistent punishment and reward. People are simple and respond well. If something they do gets them praise, they will continue doing it. If something they do lands them in the Principal’s office, they’ll avoid it. If they don’t avoid it, then maybe they are a trouble employee. However, you cannot spot these patterns or establish these patterns by doing something once or twice a year.

The annual performance review encourages mediocre management practices. If it has no teeth, do away with it. I have yet to work for a company that actually delivered anything based on an annual review. Get rid of it. Kill it. If your managers need an annual review to manage their staff, they are probably not good managers!

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I Rank Everything – The Fast and the Furious film franchise

I’m going to start out this series with a film series I just recently completed. I’m ignoring the web spin-offs for now and just focusing on the feature films.

In general I find these films to be great “popcorn flicks”. They don’t require a lot mentally and usually bring some decent entertainment value depending on which film in the series.

#6 – 2 Fast 2 Furious
Overall Assessment – Barely Watchable
I talk about turning off suspension of disbelief but really all I can do is crank it down. I have setting I call “Comic Book Physics”. That’s a pretty low standard. 2 Fast 2 Furious required a greater suspension of disbelief than comic book physics. I’d say it insulted my intelligence if I wasn’t already voluntarily watching a movie called “2 Fast 2 Furious”. These are not movies you watch for the acting, but I do enjoy cars. Except the two “Hero Cars” are just downright gaudy, as if the paint scheme and decals in the original movie were just too subtle. This is such an obvious desperate cash-in from the original that I’m surprised it didn’t kill the franchise. The lack of Vin Diesel’s presence is just glaringly obvious. Trying to have Paul Walker carry this movie is a huge mistake.

From a car guy perspective there are just too many things wrong with the movie. The best car in the movie is shown at the beginning and then gone. What the protagonists use for the remainder are not even close to as powerful or capable. The car races make even less sense than the original movie as well. There is a race against a pair of muscle cars that should have been an easy win for the protagonists. The movie does a very convincing job of making you believe the heroes are not that capable as drivers considering what they find difficult.

Interestingly, you could pretty much skip this movie and it wouldn’t have much impact on the rest of the films. Sure, they introduce a couple of characters who appear in later films, but they cover everything you need to know about them in those films. As though the filmmakers have realized what a mess of a film they had on their hands.

#5 – Fast and Furious
Overall Assessment – Passable
I vacillate whether this should be “Passable” or “Barely Watchable”. The idea is nice, bringing back the original cast of the first movie. In some ways it is a reboot, giving characters some new traits they didn’t have before to better define them. However, I would not say new car preferences is characterization. One in particular is now Dom appears to prefer American Muscle even though when we were first introduced he was driving a Mazda RX-7 and we last saw him driving off in a Toyota Supra. The plot really goes nowhere, it is a series of set pieces. The races rely way too much on CGI as well, which really detracts from the movie.

For a movie about cars, it really goes nowhere, and then it is over. I’m surprised this attempt to refresh the series didn’t end it. Then again, if you can continue to make films after 2 Fast 2 Furious then it probably takes more than this lukewarm mash-up of a film to sink a series.

#4 – Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
Overall Assessment – Passable
That’s right, I am claiming that the film most people consider the most pointless in the franchise is not actually the worst film. Honestly, if you ignore the film series this is a halfway decent “fish out of water” story that also happens to involve fast cars. We get into the usual problems though. Lack of logic, plotholes, and situations that flat out do not make any sense.

The two most glaring examples, which are problematic because the entire movie is based on these situations, is that the main protagonist is working for someone else after trashing one of his cars and then there is the classic desireable female who is dating the biggest jerk on the planet. For the first, what doesn’t make any sense is who the protagonist is even paying back the guy whose car he utterly trashed. He seems to be doing more damage and costing more money than he could possibly be earning for his new “employer”. For the second, I realize the hot babe/love interest initially being paired off with a jerk is a standard trope. However, in this case the jerk/antagonist has absolutely no redeeming qualities. The love interest is not Japanese and is as much a fish out of water as the protagonist, she’s just been there longer. I guess the antagonist/jerk is rich? That seems to be all he has going for him, except the love interest doesn’t seem to care about that. Why is she with him again? How is this a conflict? It just doesn’t work.

There are also tons of plot contrivances that seem to be explained away as “Because it’s in the script!” moments, including the entire final race and what is at stake. This is a movie watched with a heavy suspension of disbelief and an appreciation for Japanese automobiles. I found myself liking the protagonist in spite of myself. However, because he was not in any of the other movies I think it turned audiences against him.

#3 – The Fast and the Furious 6
Overall Assessment – Entertaining
I think a lot more thought went into this movie and as an action thriller it does ok. It gives away its plot twist earlier than I think the filmmakers realize so when it happens I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I wondered why it didn’t happen sooner and almost thought it was TOO obvious and I was reading too much into the movie. Nope. Spot on. Fast Five was a tough act to follow so it’s not surprising that this film falls short, but it’s needlessly silly and aggressively stupid. There are physics on display in this movie that make 2 Fast 2 Furious seem realistic by comparison.

You’ve seen the previews so I’m not giving anything away but the tank chase is sillier than it is suspenseful. You just know the heroes are going to stop it somehow, so there isn’t much at stake. The movie also relies on a lot of internal silliness. They are stopped by electronic gizmos so they switch to older cars that the gizmos can’t affect, except we never see the gizmos again. Not even a throwaway line by the bad guys about how the cars they’ve switched to don’t have electronics. The good guys specialized knowledge or cars makes them more effective than an elite international law enforcement team, just because they understand cars. I about choked on my popcorn that these former petty criminals were about to out-investigate the pros. Really? In the age of the Internet? Then, even though I understand the movie contrivance that says the good guy drivers need to square off against the bad guy drivers, but then the good guys show up woefully unprepared. Why were they all not carrying at least one law enforcement type with them. I know, I know. “It’s in the script!”

The entire movie is like this. Much like 2 Fast 2 Furious, the plot is merely a vehicle to get to the action sequences and car chases. All of which are well done, but there is way too much goofiness going on and it’s distracting. What sets this apart is that the filmmakers at least take the entertainment value seriously and so it’s a good popcorn flick while 2 Fast 2 Furious was just a blatant cash-in.

#2 – The Fast and the Furious
Overall Assessment – Guilty Pleasure
There are not many film series or franchises where the first film doesn’t hold the top spot. After all, you need the first film to establish the foundation for everything else. That said, I just can’t do it. The original movie was a straight up guilty pleasure that shone the spotlight on street racing culture of the time and combining it with a crime thriller to fill out the movie. A formula that was revisited for the second and fourth films as well.

The Fast and the Furious set up the ongoing reliance on “Because it’s in the script!” moments that had no basis in reality. We still had plenty of races and chases to keep us occupied, with the occassional gunplay thrown in for good measure. Vin Diesel really is the star of the show, alongside the many cars he appears with or in, but when he disappears from the franchise for two films it really hurts.

#1 – Fast Five
Overall Assessment – Guilty Pleasure
I almost hate to put this first but this really is a moment in the film series where someone got smart and said “Let’s keep the core concept but make everything else different!” Unlike some of the past films where criminal enterprise was something to keep our interest alongside the street racing, Fast Five is a straight-up heist movie. This is also a movie that bends the laws of physics in new and creative ways. Car guys, forget everything you know about traction, horsepower, and handling. This is not a car movie per se, it is just a movie where cars are the tool of choice.

Big props to tying in characters from all of the previous films and setting them up to stand on their own without having to know much about previous films. That is the reason this film works so well and surpasses the original. No prior knowledge is needed. Also, Vin Diesel is such a big intimidating actor that it was brilliant casting having him go toe-to-toe, or knuckle-to-knuckle, with Dwayne Johnson. An inspired piece of casting seeing these two physical behemoths throw down. They held nothing back in their big fight and it was a great moment for any action movie fan.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an awful movie just very entertaining. Of all the movies it is just downright disrespectful to women. There’s always been a split dynamic for women in this movie. The capable ones and the eye candy. In Fast Five one of the female leads is employed as both and it’s not a great moment at all. That and the final chase scene will challenge your suspension of disbelief, though it doesn’t work overtime to completely crush it like some of the other films in the series.

Definitions –
Guilty Pleasure
I define a guilty pleasure as a movie that I acknowledge is not a good movie but I enjoyed it anyway. These are some of my favorite movies though they will never top films that are both well done and entertaining.

Entertaining
Not a great film and probably what most people define as a “popcorn flick”. I might enjoy it enough to watch it more than once but it is not going to be considered great cinema by anyone.

Passable
Probably entertaining but not something I’ll watch again. Usually a movie I watched to say that I have seen it or part of a film series that I want to complete.

Barely Watchable
I didn’t fall asleep but probably left disappointed. The film had some entertainment value but was either forgettable or had some many inconsistencies that I find myself questioning its internal logic for days after seeing it.

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Friday Round-Up: Revenge of the Blogs Part 2

Not much research got done this week. I’m not promising any blog posts but I’ve got some TED Talks to watch next week and I may get some thoughts up here next month on them. That’s going to be a challenge because I am more of a reader than a watcher. I feel lazy doing nothing but blogs, but I promise these are all quality entries and I’m actually a little stressed over the thought I may have forgotten a few that I actually wanted to include.

I’ve purposefully stayed out of the whole Paula Deen controversy, but this post really spells out that this is far more than using a racial slur 30 years ago. Wow, just because they are family doesn’t mean you can expose your business to that kind of liability.

For what it’s worth, I try to limit these to one blog per week, but ChristopherHR put a tough choice in front of me. My favorite was his post about how we don’t need to celebrate failure. Learning is good but not everything is celebratory.

I haven’t done Ask a Manager in awhile but you need to read this heartbreaking story and the reader comments are what really sells this.

All about working your network. Good advice. Do it.

I’m also a big believer in passion and I love this blog post talking about passion in your work.

Depending on your age you may not have encountered this yet, but here is some excellent advice on determining when it is time to change careers.

Last but certainly not least, as this topic is close to hope, is some do’s and don’t with mentors.

Check back this Saturday for my first I Rank Everything post on the Fast and Furious film series.

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