Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Technical Communications

My last post talked about invention and innovation http://vzimmer.blogspot.com/2013/12/invention-and-innovation.html, and in that post I mentioned an article from the Harvard Business Review. Touching on such business aspects in a blog with the theme of 'musing on technology' may appear to be a category error, but for me, business underlies many of our technical endeavors.

Specially, I believe that technology is really about people, and people interact via the macro-economy via business, so they are all related in my eyes. A strict logician could argue via parody of my assertion with the following: 'technology is made of atoms, and atoms interact via the laws of quantum mechanics, so where are your QM postings?' My reply to such a syllogism would be 'the post is upcoming.'

So enough preamble, let me explore what I mean by technical communications in this post. A few recent events inspired this posting. The first was a discussion at Seatac airport http://www.portseattle.org/sea-tac/Pages/default.aspx with a former Intel manager. We were both waiting to fly to San Francisco, and our flight was delayed by a couple of hours. Fog in San Francisco, who would have thought it possible? This manager now works for the hardware division of Amazon, namely Lab 126 http://www.lab126.com, or "A to Z." I asked him about the admonition by Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos against misusing Power Point that I had read about on the web http://conorneill.com/2012/11/30/amazon-staff-meetings-no-powerpoint. He told me that the practice of writing white papers ahead of the meeting and using Power Point as 'speaker notes' finds practice throughout all of Amazon's groups. The manta of "think complex, speak simple" summarizes the intent of the behavior.

The ex-Intel manager brought the Amazon culture close to home for me when he said "Don't you realize how many presentations get stuck on discussing a bullet for the whole meeting? At Amazon, we can deflect such delays by referencing the white paper, for example." In my professional career where white papers are not fully embraced, I try to avoid the single bullet rat hole with 'lap rules.' The term 'rate hole' and 'rat holing' is common in the tech industry and described well in Johnson's book Absolute Honesty http://www.amazon.com/Absolute-Honesty-Building-Corporate-Integrity/dp/0814407811. To avoid a rate hole via lap rules I advocate the following, 'Lap #1' allows the speaker to present all of his material without interruption. 'Lap #2' is a re-review of the same slide deck, which allows for questions. Regrettably, many senior people cannot restrain themselves and will camp on a bullet, or even the title, during 'Lap #1.'

When it comes to rat holes, the "Highest Paid Person's Opinion" (HIPPO) http://www.forbes.com/sites/derosetichy/2013/04/15/what-happens-when-a-hippo-runs-your-company/ is especially prone to this behavior of jumping to early conclusions prior to hearing a full review. I once asked a HIPPO after a meeting if he/she really thought that being the most senior person justified the enforcement of an opinion without having all of the data, and the reply was "of course or else the company wouldn't pay me this much." Interesting observation and maybe sour grapes on my sub-HIPPO status, but I encourage such parties to temper that alacrity with the possibility of succumbing to the logical fallacy of confusing correlation ("I get paid a lot so I am right") and causality ("I reviewed the data and with my experience I assert that I am right"). To combat the attraction of correlation-based reasoning I advocate a bit more Socratic questioning in the venues where seniority provides access.

From my last posting I talked about the 'exit champion,' or the pejorative characterization of such parties as "Dr. No" or the "No-Bots", so a cocktail of a 'HIPPO plus No-Bot' may engage the most vigorously in the rat-holing. Or even worse, the trifecta of 'HIPPO + No-Bot + Architecture Astronaut http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000018.html.'

Maybe some of this crazed behavior within companies can be explained by the theory of canine-stacking  that a colleague recently described to me.  As Mike Rothman noted:

"I suppose the theory is simple:
     Top Dog
     Middle Dog
     Lower Dog
     Lowest Dog
Lowest dog works like crazy, but Lower dog adds a little something and communicates up what he did (inclusive of lowest dog's work) - and each layer above adds a touch of something and fronts for all the work below....You just hope that each layer had added something useful other than passing the word around...."

On a personal note, I appreciate the Amazon-eque white paper sentiment and try to use the written word as a way to scale and convey complex thoughts, strategies, and technical designs. And on the topic of scaling my impact, I hearken back to a quote from a manager a decade ago who told me "you should produce the output of as many people as your grade level." Taken literally this can be the IT equivalent of John Henry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Henry_(folklore), I fear. It’s tough to write specifications + code at the same level of ten people, but working through others, collaborations, training, writing things down, etc, are some of the tools by which I can scale my efforts.

The next event that started me down the path of thinking about communications was a presentation Yuriy Bulygin, the Chief Threat Researcher, myself, and John Loucaides gave at Cisco SecCon http://www.cisco.com/web/about/security/cspo/csdl/seccon-overview.html. The narrative proceeded from attacks (or offense), then into technology countermeasures (or defense), and finally answered the question of what to do in case of a vulnerability (or response).

One comment from an attendee included "Quite impressive. You told an epic tale in less than an hour." To me this was a reminder that the 10's of slides and the constrained time frame for explanation plus demonstration exceeded the medium of Power Point. This class of erudition needs a complementary discourse mechanism, such as the written word.

Another recent event, though, that reminds me that I may not be following my own advice was my presentation on "Platform Firmware Security" at Seattle BSides http://www.securitybsides.com/w/page/57847942/BsidesSeattle in Redmond, WA a couple Saturdays past. Specially, I cribbed a long Power Point deck https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BxgB4JDywk3MSncxUHlIN0tYdms/edit but I didn't produce an updated white paper for offline reading. I was told that as RSA becomes more professional, Black Hat is the new RSA, Defcon is becoming the new Black Hat, and the local BSides are becoming the new Defcon.

I posted these slides during one of the subsequent talks based upon the exhortations on Twitter
"we want the slides!" "we want the slides!" chants are heard in the twitterverse ;)

After my talk, I sat in on a talk by Jack Daniel https://twitter.com/jack_daniel on presentation techniques, including the use of more graphics than text and engaging the audience. Jack was in attendance during my talk in the morning, but luckily I preceded his presentation else I would have been especially shame-faced in having delivered my verbose deck that didn't follow his guidance.

I recently realized the impact of a white paper when I saw that my 2009 IBM and Intel white paper http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi= has been included into university curricula http://www-inst.eecs.berkeley.edu/~cs194-24/sp13/index_handouts.html. That shows scaling of the written word in one instance.

On a side note, I couldn't resist Tweeting a quote from Jack Daniel #bsidesseattle on Saturday.
"I am from Texas. It is an excuse for aberrant behavior for life."
Having grown up in Houston, TX, I have to agree w/ Jack on that point.

A final event that helped inform this posting was reading Joan Magretta's book What Management Is: How it works and why it's everyone's business http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AQKIOFC/ref=r_ea_s_t during the round trip on Amtrack to Leavenworth last weekend. This was more of a meta-business book that provided an alternate way to think about modern management and leadership, versus today's books of recipes, sound-bites and aphorisms. I especially liked the sentiment where today's manager is possibly the last domain of the generalist since the modern worker is a super-specialist who necessarily 'knows more' than his manager. This leaves the role of the manager to inspire, lead, coordinate, and synthesis the efforts of this global workforce.

Pretty interesting read.

Well, I should summarize this post by reminding myself that the written word provides scale. Conference talks are great for networking and getting new insights, but for purposes of information dissemination they have understandable limits. In 2014 I need to convert more of my slides and talks into more deliberate writing activities. When I revisit this post in 12/14 we'll see how I have done in making progress against task on this sentiment.

With that I will close today and wish everyone a Merry Christmas.

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