Good Luck Microsoft

Microsoft have appointed Satya Nadella as their new CEO. He’s an internal hire, but from the services bit which includes Azure.

Microsoft have appointed Satya Nadella as their new CEO. He’s an internal hire, but from the services bit which includes Azure. Although everybody is playing catch up to Amazon Web Services, Azure has a number of features that are interesting: getting that cloud computing isn’t just about easy access to disposable servers.

Microsoft today is like the uncle who’s was great when you were a kid, got you interested in stuff, and has now fallen on hard times.

Maybe I’m just biased because I like Office (which makes me a minority I know), but I don’t want a world where there isn’t Microsoft. Google Docs is great for sharing or collaboration documents, Apples iWork is great for simple documents, and well I’m sure OpenOffice is good for something.

Microsoft Research produces so many good ideas, or clever ideas, or just the plain “hey we had a random idea” ideas. They don’t many to use that many of these, so many of them are impractical with current tech. But the ideas are there, at some level the company still tries to innovate.

That innovation doesn’t come easily however, as Windows 8 and attempts for a converged desktop/mobile/tablet interface have shown. The company doesn’t have that Apple confidence of “this is the way we scroll now”. Appeasing the fans of the legacy will not help them move on. Perhaps when the company has a better idea of what the “new” Microsoft is, selling those ideas will be a bit easier.

I may well be a Mac and iOS user now, but I think if I was going to switch phones, it would be for a Windows Phone. A bit like the Palm Pre, or Blackberry’s ultimately doomed Blackberry 10 operating system, Windows Phone didn’t feel like it started off with the requirement “be like iOS”. Android and iOS are really converging in many ways, features hopping from one to the other.

For that reason alone, I would like Microsoft to do well in the future: much like the Shuttle’s fifth computer, I think we need a strong third platform in the mobile market.


Management Tips from Astronauts

What former Astronaut Chris Hadfield can tell us about managing things down on earth.

Being on the International Space Station (ISS) for a few months is a pretty unique experience. I’m pretty sure that nobody reading this will get to do it. Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut, did spend some time there, and I’m sure you remember his Bowie cover Space Oddity.

Anyway, he has a book out (Amusingly at Christmas I bought it for my Dad, while he bought it for me). The book manages to make space travel both more alluring, and yet in many parts tediously mundane. It’s seemingly a lot of study, luck, and waiting for your mission. Also sounds hazardous to your marriage if you’ve anything less than the most understanding of spouses.

Alongside this he highlights a few management things, from his employers, or himself, that are worth remembering here on earth.

Confessing to Near-Misses

NASA, like every safety-critical system (or at least like they should) place great emphasis on being able to speak about near-misses. About the times that something nearly went wrong, so that changes can be made before it actually happens. (I’m not aware of how much of this was in place before the Challenger Launch Decision was made.)

I don’t work in safety critical systems, I work in computers and websites. Although much less severe, we do face  similar challenges. Do you have that random configuration utility that if you feed it incomplete or invalid configuration details, will honour those and wipe out an environment?

You shouldn’t.

In an ideal culture you should be able to say “I was messing about on stage, and noticed that I could break the system with the config tool” and that the reaction should be “Oh, great, let’s figure out if we can easily fix that, and if we can pop it in a sprint” and not the sometimes standard reaction from developers, inwardly judging the operator for using the tool wrongly, while outwardly declaring “Well then you should be more careful with that tool”.

These kind of things matter: You’re not always the ‘you’ in the office.  11am at the ideal caffeination level ‘you’.  At 3am, roughly extracted from sleep by PagerDuty, you’re a lesser ‘you’.

At those points, you’re flying on instincts and adrenaline.

Systems need to be idiot proof because we can all be idiots. (And thanks to a neanderthal leftovers, I think that sometimes the smartest people can be the best idiots).

What’s the BOLDFACE for this?

Documentation and procedures are another ongoing theme. Unsurprisingly every procedure and task in space are heavily documented, because you don’t want this to go wrong when you encounter problems. To paraphrase “you should always know what the next most likely thing is that can kill you, and how to go about stopping it”

The BOLDFACE bits are the critical bits of documentation that keep you alive. Again, IT is not life or death, but your run-books and documentation should have this similar level of priority.

No operator probably needs to know everything of every system, but they should know the procedures which if done incorrectly, (or the ones that done correctly) cause data-loss or system outages.

Some years ago, I was personally stung by changes between software versions: the version before didn’t, the version after wouldn’t, but the current version had some horrible behaviour, and I managed to cause a significant outage.

So on top of your documentation, when the operations become more or less dangerous than they were, make sure that people know about the changes.

Being a Zero

This is perhaps the best way I’ve ever heard anyone talk about the problems of being the new person on an existing team. Being a zero basically means “do no harm, make nothing worse”.

Mr Hadfield correctly states that everyone wants to be a plus-one. We want to do good, think we’re doing good and be seen to be doing good. At the start you’re eager, but that comes with impulsiveness which causes problems.

He talks about some times that in that eagerness, he ended up being a minus-one, someone who made things worse. That isn’t a good first impression on earth, let at alone on the ISS where you’re about to be stuck with those people for 3 months.

His philosophy is that aiming to be a plus-one will only turn you into a minus-one, so aim to be a zero and wait until you’re more certain before you start trying to add something.

Having seen people launch themselves into teams only to fail, this is one I entirely intend to live by.

A Tale of Two CEOs

Ignoring potential risks doesn’t seem to pay off. The eerily similar tale of two failing companies.

When I read about the demise of HMV, there was a quote from here that rang a bell:

The relevant chart went up and I said, “The three greatest threats to HMV are, online retailers, downloadable music and supermarkets discounting loss leader product”. Suddenly I realised the MD had stopped the meeting and was visibly angry. “I have never heard such rubbish”, he said, “I accept that supermarkets are a thorn in our side but not for the serious music, games or film buyer and as for the other two, I don’t ever see them being a real threat, downloadable music is just a fad and people will always want the atmosphere and experience of a music store rather than online shopping”.

Sounded eerily familiar, and then I managed to find it:

I outlined to the Fairfax board what I described as a ‘catastrophe scenario’, which involved losing a decent chunk of their classified advertising, and they chose to totally ignore that. Roger Corbett, who was then a board member and is now the chairman of the company, he stood up at the front of the board table and he picked up a quite fat edition of the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald that was sitting there. And he held it up in front of the board members and he said to them, ‘I don’t want anyone ever coming into this boardroom again telling us that people will buy cars or houses or look for jobs without this.’ And he thumped the big fat Saturday Sydney Morning Herald on the board table.

Two companies, major problems, the same root-cause. You can’t always ignore problems in the hope that they go away or don’t materialise.

Everyone should act like they are leaving…

Could embracing the spirit of leaving lead to people working better.

Perhaps a silly management suggestion, but I can’t help thinking organisations would be better if everyone could embrace the sense of de-mob happiness they get when leaving. But without actually leaving.

When you’re leaving you document, at least you try to. When “the person who knows everything” is leaving, you desperately try to stop the knowledge flying out the door asking endless questions.

This of course doesn’t work.

Asking questions only works when you know what to ask. We’ve all been in office until 8pm on the last day writing documentation, desperately trying to summarise three years in a large document. Later mutters of “if only he’d told us…” fly around the office, while the unloved document sit unread in an inbox.

Living documentation on the other hand does stand a chance of being used, but again is rarely updated. How often do you find yourself saying “if only I had the time?” when considering automating something with a script or a macro, or handing it over to an operational team. We never do though, the training might take a half a day, and it’s only 15 minutes to do the trivial operational task. 15 minutes every day. Forever.

Which is when we get to money-laundering legislation. Banks and other financial institutions enforce a two-week holiday for many stuff, in the hope that any illicit positions will become apparent in that time.

I think all companies can embrace this, if you have someone who can’t take two weeks leave without major ramifications then your company is at risk (once you’re more than a five-man band). Illness, family crises, geopolitical situations and ash-clouds don’t tend to arrive with as much notice as holiday does, and can easily last longer.

Instead of seeing it as headache, the ‘flexible organisation of the future’ should use handover to distribute work in a way that cross-pollinates and leaves the right people doing the right things at the right time; there is no reason to hand back the same work you were given. Even in the ‘rigid organisation of the past’, handover makes painfully clear where your weakness lie.

The final point that is most interesting, but dangerous to explore: the sense of freedom people often get when leaving. I’ve seen managers who were appalling up to the point that their “strategic exit” was negotiated, and even where they were pushed, for the final month their performance improved.

Was it their impending freedom, or the ability to ignore the latest “corporate update” emails about the new org-structure? Obviously you can’t ignore all future things, and ignoring the elephants is never a good idea, if nothing else they can be easier to deflect from a distance. Freed from all the potential faff of the future, people feel more able to perform in the present. Perhaps we just need to send less update emails?

If we can find a way to foster some of those leaving behaviours in an ongoing culture, and we can do it without diminishing commitment; we can build organisations that perform better. I don’t think the principles are hard:

  • When only you know it, document it
  • When the documentation is wrong, fix it
  • When you’re doing something repeatedly, automate it
  • There’s never a good time to take holiday, book it anyway

I’d like to think that would help create the kind of place good people would love to work.