Friday, August 29, 2008

Freeways that trick you

I don't like it when freeways trick me.

There's I-10 west into downtown LA, when it splits off to US-101 and I-5. Six lanes of I-10 turn into a single pathetic lane if you want to stay on it to keep going to Santa Monica. Most of the rest goes to US-101. Context over consistency, to serve the massive hordes going to Hollywood? Perhaps. But this is the mighty I-10 freeway, encompassing the width of the country and passing through Phoenix, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, and Jacksonville. It's not some little country road in the middle of nowhere. Someone should tell this freeway, "Hey, you're not done yet. You reached LA, but the real end is Santa Monica."

And then there's I-5 north to SR22 west in Santa Ana. When you're driving on I-5 and you choose the "Exit Only" lane to switch freeways, you should be rewarded for your dedication. But it is not like that at all. It really does mean "Exit Only" — and not to switch freeways. It takes you off the freeway and you have to switch into the other lane if you want to get on SR22 west to Long Beach. Well, you must be saying, it does say "Exit Only" so what were you expecting? Well, says I, it's clearly marked SR22 west to Long Beach, while it should really be marked as a regular exit, not a way to switch freeways.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Meetings are not always toxic

I'm a big fan of 37signals in general, but I remember a time when I went a little overboard with youthful zealotry for one of their philosophical tenets: meetings are toxic.

Back then, my business partner Steve and I had just landed our first major client, and this client asked for a kick-off meeting.

I curtly dismissed it, telling them I didn't need a meeting — leaving them baffled with my strange behavior (and Steve smacking his forehead).

Since then, I've found kick-off meetings with partner companies and clients to be crucial for greasing the wheels of personal exchange. It gets people talking to each other, which is worth pursuing because cross-company communication is a tricky thing. Plus, the stakes are higher: if you have to coordinate with another company, chances are that you're working on something pretty important. I've found in the vast majority of cases that it doesn't take extensive preparation to the standard I would expect of myself if I were to prepare for an intra-company meeting. People just like to talk and get a feel for each other. If meetings and conference calls are good for anything, they at least open up the communications channels.

After thinking about it for a bit, I realized that I initially learned to conduct business in a contrarian way, since I got most of my tips from the Web. But since then I've begun incorporating more traditional business practices because that's how most people still do business. I have a hunch that most people still do business "the old way" because it works.

Am I anxious that I could be blindly following new ideologies or anything that remotely seems to make sense, to my detriment? Would I have been better off doing business the traditional way and then finding out about these counter-cultural methods? I don't think so. Whichever end of the spectrum I may have started on, the important thing is to continually evaluate the merits of each idea I encounter, whether old or new, and knowing why I do things the way I do. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and it's reachable starting from either side.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The introverted leader

During the course of my two years attending Discovery Christian Church in Davis, I had the chance on several occasions to eat lunch with the pastors, namely Aaron Brockett and John Richert.

I still remember the most surprising thing that Aaron ever mentioned to me. He said that a lot of the leaders at Discovery, himself and John included, were natural introverts. From the outside, it seemed that they were anything but.

They greeted people left and right, confidently gave their sermons, and coordinated the big picture very smoothly. One of the things that caught my attention at the beginning, and subsequently hooked me in to attending regularly, was how the services on Sunday were so well-run.

As for me, I have found that I am quite happy to be a follower, unless there is a leadership vacuum — either no leadership at all, or very poor leadership. To be fair, I've found that very poor leadership can come from both extroverts and introverts.

In extroverts, the leadership pitfalls have to do with the tendency to make decisions without thinking very hard about them; not being aware of how everyone else feels; or not stopping to ask what everyone else thinks.

With introverts, what I've observed includes the lack of dynamism to keep everyone interested; indecisiveness while trying too hard or too long to build a consensus; and a lack of forcefulness.

Being the introvert that I am, I naturally got to thinking. What, I asked myself, can I do to leverage my natural strengths while avoiding the pitfalls of my natural weaknesses?

My natural strengths are things which come easily to me: thoroughness in exploring issues; attention to detail and a concern for total correctness; and having a passion for learning new things on my own, which makes it easy to become knowledgeable in various areas. I see these kinds of traits as "hard-wired" where my thirst for knowledge or obsession with detail give rise to good things. Like a microprocessor is hard-wired to perform basic operations like addition and subtraction, I'm hard-wired to do certain things because I'm comfortable with them and I know how to do them.

But the desirable traits that extroverts possess that I don't have — outspokenness, dynamism, gregariousness, forcefulness — I have to run them in emulation mode. I have to figure out some software to run on what's hard-wired in me so that I can do pretty much the same thing. Software operations are slower and require more instructions than hardware-level instructions. If we're going to continue carrying our analogy over to people, this means that I've got to put more effort into expressing qualities that are generally characteristic of natural extroverts.

But it's possible to do so, and this is good news.

For the introvert, it just takes a lot of piecing together. For example, the extrovert can just "be forceful," while the introvert has several mental steps to take. First, he must recognize that forcefulness will be necessary to avoid wasting everyone's time, and it's better for everyone. Then, he must double-check that the position he is strongly advocating is correct, because he knows his confidence in a position relies on knowing that it is as correct as can be, given all the data. Then there's recognizing that the best that anybody can do is make a decision based on all available information, and that's really the most that we can do. There is no sense in second-guessing since more information is not available. Finally, there's actually saying what needs to be said, or acting out what needs to be done. This requires a conscious mental step for the natural introvert.

As anyone can see, it can be much more involved for an introvert to display extroverted qualities, but it is possible. Over time, the basic behaviors can be optimized and moved a little closer to being hard-wired, just as software can be extracted into microcode to sit somewhere between software and hardware. This way it runs more quickly and more readily, with less effort.

There's one last thing before I completely beat the dead horse of this analogy: even though things done in hardware run much more quickly than those which are run at the software level, the software level allows for much more richness and flexibility. What does this mean for natural introverts who are looking to be effective leaders?

My very introverted answer is that I don't know; I'm still trying to find out.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Where software developers fear to tread, or why open source fails

Open source has had its triumphs and failures.

The most notable wins include Eclipse, Linux, Apache HTTP server, MySQL, and Mozilla Firefox. Developer tools and server software are generally areas of strength for open source. I wouldn't say that Mozilla Firefox is an anomaly. Rather, it shares something in common with developer tools and server software: the programmers who work on it are also its users.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with the gaps that open source has so far failed to close. A friend of mine recently asked me about my choice of spreadsheet software. We talked about it for a bit, and agreed that Calc is still clunky. I suggested Gnumeric, but I don't really hear anything notable going on with it these days. In short, I don't see an Excel killer in either of these. It's not for lack of vision that these spreadsheet projects have stagnated. It's for lack of sustained passion and developer interest in making these products world-class. Rather than get deep into using these spreadsheet packages, I often just resort to SQL queries and image generation libraries if I need a chart. And I'm guessing that other developers have also resorted to what was more familiar and efficient, given their esoteric knowledge of more powerful tools.

It's obvious to many of us that successful open source projects are characterized by programmers who are also users, but I would go a step further and say that the programmers must not merely be users; they must be the power users. There are two ways that a programmer could be a power user of his own software: out of enjoyment or out of necessity.

Open source software developers should be the power users of their own software. This sustains the passion to "scratch the itch" and fix bugs to produce polish. With proprietary software, programmers have the benefit of separate QA teams or product managers. In open source, it's overwhelmingly the case that they do not.

It's been said that with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow, but it's quite often the case that not all of the mouths will bother to report what the eyes are seeing.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The music at 24 Hour Fitness

For my morning workout, I switch between two different 24 Hour Fitness locations. One is right by where I live, in Irvine, California, where people tend to be either white or some kind of Asian. The other gym, near Long Beach in the city of Carson, is on my way to work. Most of the customers I see there are either black or Filipino.

Each location plays different kinds of music.

At my neighborhood 24 Hour Fitness, the music that's played is the angst-ridden punk and alternative that people have come to expect out of Orange County. (To be fair, I like a lot of the songs they play.)

In Carson, it's a bigger gym with some sort of Magic Johnson approval. They make a big deal of being tied in with Magic Johnson, and his pictures are plastered over all four of the walls, on both floors. If I were Magic Johnson, I would be a little embarrassed to have so many pictures of me smiling statically at people as they work out. The music is hip hop and R&B. As both workout and leisure music, it works for me. (In fact, it recently helped me rediscover the genius of Usher.)

Noticing the difference, I got to wondering who makes the music selections. If it's an official policy that the music fit the ethnic demographics of the community where the physical gym is located, then I'm pleasantly surprised that they took a factor like that into consideration.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Mexican flower vendors

One my drive home from work each day, I see Mexican guys trying to sell flowers, standing on the curbs by freeway entrances and exits that have stoplights. After seeing them all week, I got to wondering whether any of them ever make a sale: I haven't seen anyone buy flowers yet. And I'm sure they make a sale here and there; otherwise they wouldn't come back.

That got me to wondering whether there's some sort of demographic they target.

Given that the particular time of day is when most people get off work and then sit in traffic, the cynic in me thinks that the buyers are probably making their purchases for reasons other than being considerate. A man doesn't have to plan the purchase of these flowers in advance, and even if he did, it's not guaranteed that the seller will be there.

My hypothesis is that these traffic light flower vendors' target market is men whose wives or girlfriends are upset that they're coming home late from work, and these busy guys are grasping for any quick fix. In that kind of situation, there's a lot of potential to jack the price way up. Personally, I am not yet decided on whether I would ever buy flowers from a Mexican traffic light flower vendor, but I wonder if, next time, I should at least ask them for a price in order to get more information.