Friday, January 20, 2006

Pulling others to the leading edge

Those of us working with advanced technology, who push the frontiers of knowledge forward, take a lot of what we know for granted. We take our mathematical ability, our economic sensibility, or our personal responsibility as givens. It's always mind-boggling for me whenever I'm reminded that there are a lot of people worse off than I am.

Sometimes it seems like the best gains that I could possibly make by working in advanced technology to better the world are marginal, at best. The higher yield activity would be to reach people, care for them, educate them, and convince them to take better care of themselves.

If only Americans as a whole could be convinced to exercise consistently and to eat right, the impact on their health would be more substantial than if I were to discover the next wonder drug.

Rather than spending absurd amounts of time developing myself to understand ever more esoteric realms of knowledge, I could instead equip people to make a good living for themselves by working with kids who are behind in school.

We're in a service-oriented economy now. We've moved on from making physical goods. Just like manufacturing moved from cottage industries to mass production, we're stuck in an intellectual cottage industry right now and need to move on to mass production. In a knowledge economy, people are the greatest asset. It makes sense to invest in people.

I hesitate to use the phrase, but “social work” just may leave the world better off, on average, than advanced research projects. I'm not saying we should stop discovering and innovating, but rather that we should stop and look back once in a while to see if we can pull anyone else up with us.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Dividends aren't such a bad thing

I've come to think again about what I said about government paying out dividends: that it's a bad idea because the money can be invested into big infrastructure projects. It's not so one-sided to me anymore because I've thought of three advantages to paying dividends rather than keeping the money, even if it can be used for big infrastructure projects.

First, dividends modularize the allocation of money and make investing easier to manage. It splits up a large sum into more manageable chunks. It's hard to be careful when sitting on a billion-dollar pile of cash, but if you give it to people in smaller amounts, they'll be more frugal with how they spend the money. Amassing money is good and necessary for big projects (like infrastructure), but if we want to use money efficiently, a finer-grained approach makes more sense. This doesn't mean we abandon big projects completely; we'll always need roads.

Second, dividends promote good will among the recipients. It keeps people happy, so it's easy to see how tempting it is for politicians to pay dividends to their constituents. Who doesn't want extra spending money? It may be wasteful when people go on spending sprees, but in certain situations, good will can be even more valuable than efficiency. When people are hostile and angry, it doesn't matter how efficient a government can be, when that government is on the verge of being overthrown.

Now, paying dividends to consumers may seem wasteful when we look only at efficiency, but when we look at a third possible benefit of paying dividends, the efficiency sacrifice may not seem so bad. Paying dividends puts extra cash in the hands of consumers--just like a tax refund. If there are enough consumers and enough cash being handed out, this payout may stimulate demand. This might be an option to consider when demand is at a low level and economic activity needs jumpstarting.

Of course, these possible benefits do not apply in all cases. We shouldn't pay dividends when our dirt roads are washed out every winter when it rains; we use the money to build roads. We shouldn't pay dividends with the intention of calming the public when they're content already. It doesn't make sense to try to stimulate consumer demand when spending is out of control and everyone is maxing out their credit cards. When we make decisions about what to do, we should, as always, take into account the specific needs of the situation at hand.

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Leadership and the extent of communication

There seems to be some magic in communicating well as a leader. You can do everything right in a leadership position, but some of your tougher moves tend to come off looking bad to those you are leading. This article at Fast Company tells the story of a pilot who communicated well with his disgruntled passengers.

Yesterday, my company had a meeting when the Vice President came to our branch office and told us how the company was doing. There was one disgruntled person who boldly spoke up about how disgruntled people were that we had our company health plans changed in the middle of the year on short notice. The leadership at this company meant well, but people felt exploited and betrayed because they didn't know what was going on.

The lesson here is to involve people at the lower level when decisions are made higher up. Show them the intermediate steps in your thought process, especially when you make difficult moves.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Evangelism and the success of technology

It seems like the key to success lies in publicizing something. There's a lot of good technology out there, and for it to be considered good, it's got to get everyone casting in their lot with it. That's what separates sites like Wikipedia from some Joe Schmoe who sets up his own Wiki site. That's what sets apart MySpace and Xanga from someone who downloads the LiveJournal software to run on his own server.

So, building a good product seems to be the easy part. These good products themselves are often commoditized, and so the hard part--that which is most crucial to the success of the product--is telling people about it and convincing them to keep on using it.

Bottlenecks

I'm working on a project with IBM Rational ClearCase, and the builds take forever. It seems somehow wrong that the bottleneck is the computer's performance when I know it should not take that long. It's one thing if I'm the bottleneck as an engineer when I have to think about the problem, but with something like editing, compiling, and linking source code, I should not have to wait long to see if my changes were successful.

In our quest to achieve efficiency, maybe a key indicator is to see where our IT bottlenecks are. In my case, the bottleneck is in the network filesystems. I think the compiler is also licensed only for a few machines, hence the centralized build system. If an unlimited-use compiler were available, the builds could be performed on each engineer's machine, now that workstations have caught up in computing power to yesterday's servers.