Methodology, managers, and projects

When working on a project there are a few different ways to manage those projects. One is the traditional waterfall approach, which is your top down project where you have to use Gantt charts to figure out how long you think it’s going to take up front, where you’re given a set date that can’t change without a lot of effort to do a certain amount of poorly defined requirements, and a set amount of money to do the project. This approach has been how Windows and many video games have been produced in the past. It’s not really extremely effective and really no one really likes working a project conducted using Waterfall methodologies. There are risks, projects get cancelled and the project management can seem to be capricious and opaque. This leads to lack of trust and belief that management has the best interest in mind for both the project and the employees on the project.

To address these concerns a group of people created the Agile project management methodology. The goal was to value working software over documentation. Which means that each bit of software is broken down into the minimum viable feature, or the smallest piece of working software that could be packaged and used by a customer. The goal is to manage the project through adjusting how many of these features are going to be finished by the go live date. Effectively you build small bits of work instead of finishing one giant massive piece of software.

This approach is effective for other types of technology that have a modular architecture. There’s some minimum viable product, where you need a minimum set of features for the product to actually work. For example a cell phone needs to have a combination of features to function properly. Things like bendable screens would not be in the minimum viable product, but an excellent touch screen would be. These minimum viable features can be modulated based on the Kano model – which is useful for determining if a specific feature is basic, a pleaser, or a delighter. If the feature falls into basic, you must include that feature if you’d like it to be a success. However, those minimum features don’t guarantee a successful product, you’ll need to include pleasers as well as delighters. Those are the pieces of scope that you will be able to eliminate to make sure you actually launch the product on time.

Issues with these projects come whenever there is a mixture of methodologies. When management believes projects must be managed through waterfall through a central project results office while the development team believes the project is being managed through the agile methodology. This creates serious issues whenever there is miscommunication, lack of information, or lack of understanding the real status of the agile team’s approach. This is exacerbated by the required openness in the agile approach (where you are supposed to continually learn from your mistakes and have a conversation about all the problems you’ve had – to fix them) while in waterfall it is better for people to hide and place blame elsewhere whenever things are not going well. Not because people are bad, but the incentives are in place to behave this way. With a single option of go/no go, it’s better to minimize the known risks as if things are misunderstood as going poorly it will drive management to take action. While in an Agile team, discussing the true status of the project is vital through self policing and partnering with other agile teams to address the problem. The greater the likelihood of success of the projects.

This conflict and a switch from governance in the agile methodology can and will destroy the trust the various agile teams have developed. An organization needs to fully commit to a single project management methodology or it will struggle to complete any project within scope and budget and will demoralize the leaders of projects being worked in agile, as waterfall would likely be the methodology that management selects. Leaders of Agile projects should leave organizations that undercut the agile teams, as it will not stop and will have dramatic impacts on their careers in the long run.

It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message

The Joker said it best in The Dark Knight. Destroying something that people care deeply about wakes them up. Gets them to pay attention. I think the recent events have woken people up in a lot of ways because it’s driven something home that would have otherwise been a misunderstood topic. A few days ago I wrote a blog about the militarization of police in that blog I compared a positive and a negative example of this (Boston and Ferguson). This has been getting a lot of interest lately because of the seeming disconnected in the amount of force actually required and the display of force on hand (especially considering the US government doesn’t think displays of force like this are effective for de-escalating situations). I do think that the protests would have started to draw less attention as time went on – in a similar fashion to the Occupy Wall Street protests fizzled out, however, the fact that the Police started to threaten and arrest a large number of journalists, made the news because the news itself was being threatened.

If we’re honest with ourselves we have to admit that the police killing a young blackman really isn’t news. It happens so often in the US that we rarely see it at a national level. We’d hear about it if it was a white guy (unless he was a drug user) or a white woman. Since it’s just another black kid, we don’t hear about it. However, attention stayed in the area because first amendment rights started to be restricted by the government. I know that a judge ruled that it was a special area which allowed some restrictions on where the press could go, but that’s exactly what the first amendment was supposed to defend the press against. It’s a type of prior restraint.

The press helped make this story bigger than it normally would have been by getting targeted by police. The fact that the news itself became the news to many of the people watching on Twitter rather than the message of the protesters is sad, but I’m glad that it was able to keep the attention on the protests in a way that have been some what constructive. It’s starting to force us to actually have a conversation about what sorts of equipment our police officers need. In an interview with the former Seattle Police Chief that oversaw a similar sort of confrontation in 1999 over the World Trade Organization, he argued that what needed to happen was a reduction in arms on the police side. He further argued that there is a great deal of racism in our police forces, not initially intentionally, but through learned fear and through common language in the departments. This is partially a result of the “Us vs. Them” mentality that results whenever two groups are continual conflict – anyone that might be part of the other group is part of that group. Because the War Against Drugs has primarily impacted the black communities, this has pitted the police against the black communities. It is likely part of the reason we have a lack of diversity in our police forces.

We’re finding in other portions of our society similar sorts of either intentional or accidental bias. Looking at the populations of the largest tech companies in the world we see the same sort of biases and segregations. In many cases it is because these selections become path dependent. People end up hiring friends and pulling in more people that look like them. Creating a larger problem and then HR has to step in and it’s a forced issue and people might question why a person was hired in appropriately.

The police have shined this light on themselves through their brutal responses where they show a clear lack of understanding of the people they are expected to be protecting and serving. Their actions, which should be protecting the press as well, have made sure that the press is going to be paying very close attention to all of their actions in the next few years. Furthermore, anything like the killing of another black man in the St. Louis area will result in extra scrutiny.

I think that killing that man ended up sending a message as much as taking away the rights of the protesters and press (both first amendments). The police don’t care and can act with impunity against the black community. They don’t care what the press does they will block Freedom of Information requests, prevent the press from filming their actions, and arrest anyone that gets in their way. A message has been sent. How we react is important to the future health of our press, our communities, and our freedom.

Book review: Enchanted objects

In my last post I briefly mentioned the book Enchanted Objects which is an interesting book about how the future of technology might go. I’ll tell you this up front, the book is biased without a doubt. You can tell this from the beginning. That being said, I think the bias is a fair one and not subtle and really, if you’re reading a pop technology book and you don’t expect bias, then you’re kind of an idiot. This book is pretty full of technoptimism, which if that’s you’re thing you’re going to absolutely love this book. I mean, it really gives some great ideas about how to take an ordinary object add an app to it, connect it to the cloud and other devices and it will realyl solve a lot of problems.

I think this is a really great approach for a limited scope of objects. Not to say that the scope of objects is small, but more that it’s limited to the scope of objects. In some ways, it’s small thinking. I don’t think that’s a limitation on the potential. No, David Rose (the Author) actually does a good job making arguments that this could be a massively connected network that could be part of an even larger network. He envisions using enchanted objects to help manage diabetes care in such a way that it continually informs doctors, patients, hospitals, and insurers of the status and well being of the patient. Even so far as to tell the patient what foods to eat when in the event of a diabetic shock.

The big holistic vision is there, but I really can’t but think that a lot of these ideas he covers, Ambient Orb for example, are really first world problem solving tools. His idea around a garbage can that will automatically reorder a good when you throw it out seems to push consumerism rather than conservation (to be fair he does talk about trying to turn the garbage cans in a neighborhood into a game where the “greenest” or smallest waste house wins).

The major problem I see with these enchanted objects, isn’t that there’s a lot of potential to make them, it’s more what is the additional value gained to the consumer by having these enchanted objects? Rose argues that we need to move away from the swiss army type devices, like a tablet which is an attempt to do everything, towards more specialized devices. For example an umbrella that connects to the local weather to glow and recommend taking it with you when you head out the door. I could see some value in this, living in Portland, Oregon, but I hate umbrellas so I’d never use it (too many of them have hit me in the eye, so i think they should all be destroyed). Other people likely will find value in this product. However, is that enough to make you buy the special one, or do you think that you’d just still buy the $10 one that when you lose it, you won’t morn its demise? Maybe a connected umbrella stand would be more appropriate.

I think the biggest problem with this book, isn’t the general idea. I think connected objects will happen and I think there is something of an air of inevitability around them. My largest concern, however, is the lack of concern over safety and privacy within these applications. It’s likely that this umbrella will have to have a GPS radio in it. Which suddenly means, I’m carrying about multiple GPS radios. My phone, my tablet, my umbrella, my watch, and probably my running shoes (so I can share my results on mapmyrun and then Facebook, of course!). All of these devices will likely end up following under the purview of law that will require them to store that data for some amount of time. In many cases, App designers also tend to requet access to a larger portion of a phone or tablet than they strictly need. This opens end users up to greater risk than really neccessary. If I bought a product, shouldn’t that information be under my control? If it’s free how is that company using my data once they requested access for it?

These answers are lacking. I don’t really believe it’s because the author doesn’t think they are important questions. I think he just doesn’t know how to answer them. He actually mentions some of these topics in the book, but doesn’t have a statisfactory answer to them. I would like to see him work with Evgeny Morozov to answer many of these questions. I think then, I’d feel more comfortable purchasing these enchanted objects.

I’d recommend this book to anyone in design, aspiring to be an entrepreneur, or that really loves technology. It’s not as blind in its faith in technology the way that “What technology wants” but it has the right level of optimism to help keep someone that is trying to change the world keep trying and to hopefully make the design of that product just a little bit more magical. I do plan on using what I’ve learned in this book to help with my projects and any sensor based device my wife designs on her side projects.

Overall, I give this book a 4/5 

Silicon valley, new tech, and how we use it

Last night as I was watching Hulu, an interesting comercial came on that was all about jabbing Silicon Valley and its love for the newest of the new. I think it was for a new Toshiba Tablet. This comercial was really self-aware of the environment in which they sell as well as the types of people they are actually trying to sell their devices to. I think that the commercial also does a great job pointing out that the Internet of Things and 3d Printing both might be part of a hype machine that is out of control. All of these technologies could do great things, but they aren’t preordained to do anything amazing. It’s up to the user to really enable that.

I think that the book I’m reading “Enchanted Objects” does a bit of this as well. I’m torn if I should love these ideas or hate them. The Smart scissors mentioned in that ad would definitely fit under the definition of Enchanted Objects because it’s something ordinary that through sensors, haptic feedback or other do-hickeys has some extra-ordinary capabilities. Many of these things seem gimicky and unlikely to catch on. Others, like the author’s Glow Pill – which is a lid for a pill container to remind people to take their pills – would be really helpful to a lot of people out there.

I also agree with the author’s sentiment that the black screens we peer into day in and day out, are somewhat ugly, unweildy and have never lifted up to their hype. Which means that they likely haven’t made our lives significantly better and mostly just incrementally. I think this is born out through the drop in sales in tablets, the saturation of the smart phone market, and the resurgance of sales in PCs. People have found the tablet ecosystem limited in someway and awkward to use and have opted to refresh their capability with a cheap laptop rather than springing for a new tablet (an exception to this trend could be a Surface 3, but we’ll see how that pans out in the long term). Another concern with all these devices is of course security and safety from prying eyes. I’ve been talking about this for a number of years, but I believe that people will actually start listening after seeing the result of the Ferguson MO police action. Your twitter feed and location is on twitter, the police can find that. What other data are you sharing out there without truly understanding it. How can it be used against you by a militarized local government?

I think much of this goes back to my questions of ethics and technology. At what point does a technology become unethical or, rather, the use of a technology become unethical? Is a smart trashcan ethical because it helps you save the environment and support local business, what happens if that impacts your taxes or gets you on an eco-terror watch list? We don’t understand how our data is being used and to me that is scary.

I think this is played out a great deal with the fact that AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, and similar sites are the biggest booming sites in Silicon Valley. These aren’t truly technological innovations, they are business model innovations, which is why they are so devastating. Sure they are leveraging technology in an appealing way, but they aren’t really technology companies. Their innovation is in the way they engage with their customers, the delivery method is the same in many cases, a room or a car, as their competitors. The competitors haven’t been able to figure out how to combine the nimbleness of the app with a dynamic business model. Based on historical evidence, it’s unlikely that they will be able to catch up and compete. Which is fine, because I’m sure their data usages will be as opaque as the new companies. We don’t know how they are collecting our data or what they are doing with it.

Militarized Police

In a little over a year we’ve seen two amazing examples of how militarized our police forces have become. One was a “best case” scenario and the current one is just about as much of a worse case scenario as you can get. In 2013 the Boston Marathon was bombed by a pair of radicals. What happened afterwards was a combination of the full capabilities of the surveillance state, investigation, and militarized police. Through a series of cameras blanked across the area, the Boston PD and other law enforcement offices were able to identify the pair of bombing suspects. Eventually this turned into a chase, shoot out, and then a stand off. During the stand off we saw some pretty amazing pieces of equipment being deployed, including fully body armored SWAT teams, armored personnel carriers, infrared cameras, and other pieces of technology. All deployed to find one man huddled in a boat. Furthermore, the officers conducted full house searches without consent of the homeowners. All of these amounted to some pretty incredible uses of power by the city of Boston and the state of MA. All to find a terrorist.

Now, we’re seeing something similar playing out in Ferguson MO, where the police allegedly shot an unarmed black man in the suburb of St. Louis. This town has 21,000 people and has nearly identical pieces of equipment deployed to prevent protests over what’s clearly a case of perceived police overreach, brutality, and murder. According to Paul Szoldza of Business Insider, vets of the Afghan and Iraq war argue that they had less capable equipment when they were in their actual war zones. This is rather appalling. These are citizens that are essentially delegitimizing the rule of law because of the illegal actions of the police force. In response, the police force essentially sends in an improperly trained military force.

This is abhorrent. In the United States we should never see this type of behavior. We’d condemn these actions if it happened in Russia or a similar regime, yet here in the United States it’s acceptable. Furthermore, the FAA is complicit by enforcing a no fly zone thus restricting free speech – as it prevents any news helicopters from recording or reporting on the story as it unfolds. This isn’t an instance of a free press. It’s free as far as the military police allow it. I’m extremely concerned by these turn of events. I have no idea what we can do about this. It’s continually spreading and will likely only get worse.

Technology and ethics

We’re in a precarious position right now. We’re moving faster and faster forward with our technologies. We’re dreaming up new ways to track our movements, our health, vehicles, and weapons. Our leaders in congress and the senate don’t want to have honest conversations about these technologies. Our weapons are being used for some pretty unethical things in Israel no matter how you look at things. We don’t know how our data is being used by or by whom.
We’re developing technologies that will significantly modify our work places, that will adjust how we interact with each other, understanding and discussing what the impact of these changes is vitally important. Let’s say you’re a big fan of applications and devices like FitBit and similar products, you use them everyday, how will your health insurance company use that data? What happens if it shows that you’re a lazy bum and that you’re not doing anything to keep yourself healthy. What if it shows that you’ve recently stopped doing physical actitivies and that you’re actively being unhealthy. Could your rates go up, could your Care manager suddenly contact your doctor’s office and getting you on a forced care plan through your doctor. These types of things could happen. Now what happens if your insurance company sees where you’re going to McDonald’s all the time because of your car or your smart phone. This could easily happen through Apps. Skype and Facebook both require you to share GPS locations, why not an app from your Insurance company?

Are these applications of technology ethical, I don’t think so. But they will help people make money and save money. Now, is that a reason that we should accept these ethical lapses? I don’t think so. I think we need to have more serious ethical conversations.