Tag Archives: Mastery

Layers of abstraction, the cost of convenience, and the commoditization of experience

The story of progress is one of abstraction, of increased convenience, and the taming of novel experience into the everyday.

An obvious example that comes to mind is in programming, and in fact this is the context in which the seed of this idea first came to me. In my first digital electronics lab at UMR we learned how to program the 8088 processor using machine language (or maybe it was assembly language). I have no memory of either language, but what did stick with me was the idea all higher level languages are simply abstractions of those languages that humans can understand and write. The farther away from machine / assembly you get, the easier (more convenient) it is to get the machine to do what you want it to do, but at the cost of understanding what exactly you are telling the machine to do. And as things get more convenient, you don’t even need the experience of understanding: writing a block of code to do something in a given context becomes nothing more than a copy/paste from Stack Overflow or some other place where someone (or something) else has already had the experience of creation.

A very different example, but one still close to my heart, is the sport of rock climbing. I learned to climb when I was in high school, in the early ’80s, when it was still a novelty. Before we could actually start climbing we had to learn basic rope management, the various knots, how to belay. And the gear, though effective, was by today’s standards, very rudimentary; if you needed your gear to do something, you figured out how to make it work. Today if you want to climb, you just go to the local rock gym, rent a harness and some shoes, get a quick lesson on how the auto-belay works, and away you go. Not saying this is a bad thing, I love that so many people are being introduced to the sport, even if they only climbing they ever do is in the gym. But that commoditization of the experience, that extreme convenience, abstracts them away from the joys of adventure climbing. And turns the experience of climbing, in many ways, into just another workout.

Of course, these examples are important, but they aren’t life and death. Like, say, knowing how to hunt, kill, clean, and prepare your own food. Or how to clear some land and build your own shelter. Or so many other aspects of simply surviving that we (in the so-called developed part of the world) no longer need to worry about. Or, perhaps more accurately, don’t need to worry about at the moment.

One last example for now: When I first heard Dave Gray talking about his latest book, Liminal Thinking, I wrote down “layers of abstraction” among my notes. Though different from the other examples here, I couldn’t help but see that connection. That the more we commoditize our thinking – the more we are on auto-pilot – the more abstracted we are from an understanding of where our beliefs come from, and the harder it is to understand where others are coming from.

The many layers of abstraction, the incredible conveniences we have today, and the commoditization of experience are not, in and of themselves, bad things. As I mentioned at the start, this is the story of progress. It’s when we forget that this is happening, when we start to believe that this is the way things have always been without understanding how we got here, that we run the risk of losing our ability to progress.

General Mattis on ‘Too Busy To Read’

“The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

Source: General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis Email About Being ‘Too Busy To Read’ Is A Must-Read

The Neo-generalist and functional resumes

It has been many years since I’ve really given my resume much thought. I have, of course, kept it (and my LinkedIn profile) up to date in terms of my actual job, and mostly up to date in terms of the work I’ve done in the course of those jobs. But it is a straight ahead chronological resume, following the standard (if there is such a thing) configuration of most recent job first and going back to the last x number of jobs and listing various responsibilities and accomplishments in those jobs. Not necessarily the work I’ve accomplished, but more the “important” tasks I completed. (The full version currently weighs in at a solid 7 pages.)

A key factor in my neglect of the resume is the fact that I’ve worked in the same environment for all of my adult career, and that type of resume is how you are judged, the primary consideration when looking for a new position (and how the company for whom you work demonstrates its range of skills to potential customers). A focus on what you’ve done in the past, with a demonstrated progression of skills and responsibility within a (generally) narrow specialization, not to mention specific education milestones and certifications specific to that narrow field.

My recent online reading (and writing) and involvement with various meetup groups, communities, and organizations (including a nascent startup) here in St. Louis and around the world (online) got me thinking about this resume, and how I present myself and what I do as opposed to simply what I’ve done). And the books I’ve been reading this summer, including Rise of the DEO, Service Design for Business, Managing for Happiness, and Liminal Thinking have got me thinking about what exactly it is that I do do. But it was a book I haven’t read yet (bought, dispatched, not yet delivered) that really got me thinking about what I do, and how to explain it.

From the back cover of The Neo-generalist:

Have you encountered difficulties describing what you do to other people?  Yep. 

Have you ever labelled yourself in order to be understood?  Double yep. 

And even more to the point from the Preface (posted on the book’s website):

Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, our society has remained in thrall to the notion of hyperspecialism. This places constraints on the ways in which we are educated, the work we do, the people we socialise with, how we are recruited, how our career progression is managed, how we label ourselves for the benefit of others’ understanding. To counter and challenge these social norms, the neo-generalist has to learn how to give expression to their more generalist tendencies, even as they practise various specialisms, guiding others as they do so.

Which is exactly the conundrum in which I find myself.

To give you an idea here is a list of some of the things I’ve done through the years, in (not reverse) chronological order:

  • Responsible for the operation of a 24/7/365 communications facility in support of mission critical operations, including designing of communications networks, maintenance of equipment, and training of personnel and the periodic (several times a year) requirement to shut it all down, pack it up, drive it to a farmer’s field somewhere in Europe and set it all back up again. And, of course, return it to the buildings.
  • Designed and executed logistics for the upgrade of all equipment in a communications organization, including replacement of vehicles and communications equipment (which involved a range of activities including inventory and inspection of old equipment, disposition of old equipment (including rail and other transport manifests), inventory and inspection of new equipment, arranging a place where all this could happen, and making sure that all the paper work was correct at the end of it all.
  • Chief executive of a communications company of 150+ people, responsible for providing mobile network services for a customer organization consisting of mobile operation centers operating in unforgiving physical locations. In addition to the network design, maintenance, and training operations, responsible for housing and feeding of company members as well as all financial aspects of the organization. (Best job I ever had, probably the best I will ever have.)
  • Test officer for mobile and man-portable satellite communications terminals.
  • Assistant project manager responsible for the fielding of manpack tactical satellite communications radios to the US Army. Included all aspects of coordination, planning logistics, coordinating training, and ensuring the receiving units were satisfied with the products. (Basically the other end of the job 2 above; I learned a lot from job 2 that went into my success here.)
  • Assistant CIO responsible for implementation of Public Key Infrastructure within the organization, including distribution of required hardware, development of appropriate policies and guidance, and execution of training.
  • Systems engineer including
    • Develop requirements for next generation tactical network communication systems
    • Develop operational concepts for the next- next generation tactical network communications system when the next generation system was deemed not next generation enough
    • Refine operational requirements, act as intermediary between requirements creators and vendors designing systems to meet the requirements
    • Review and approve (or not) designs at preliminary design reviews, system design reviews, etc.
    • Work on the edge of the system, integrating with the next- next- next generation system, ensuring the interests of the program for which I worked and the end user were considered in the development of the other system
    • Integration of systems onto platforms for which they were not designed, involving coordination between many different parties while keeping in mind the desired end state.

I think you get the idea. Like most people, especially most people in the Army, I started out in the jobs that my career field said I should start in. While I didn’t have a choice in the job, I did have a choice in the work. As my career progressed, especially after leaving the Army, I did have a choice of job, and often based my decision based on the type of work I’d be able to do. And, as importantly, how I’d be able to do it.

Though I didn’t have the words or terminology for it back then, I realize now that I’ve always had a human-centered approach to my jobs. Although getting the job done was always important, how it got done was very important to me. Though not to everyone. A story from my first job….

On my unit’s first deployment to a field exercise after I had joined, one of the comms links was just not coming in. It was a training exercise and so, naive me, I was using it for training. What I didn’t realize is that others (my boss and his boss) saw it not as a training exercise for me and my team but for them. (This is, if you are familiar, the curse of the Signal Corps.) So when my boss came out to the rig and saw me in the door, he started chewing on me before he even arrived. “Why are you out here, why aren’t you in their making this work!!!” I had no words except, “This is [her] job, she needs to do it. Besides, I don’t know how to make this work.”

When I was in the Army, it was easy to tell people what I do – “I’m an Army Signal Officer.” Once I left the Army, it was a bit less straightforward. “Systems Engineer” is no help to most people, and the tasks I was performing weren’t any better at getting across what I did. So, for the most part, I was “in computers”. Even now, that is pretty much what most people think I do, though it might be a bit more expansive, “He does corporate IT.”

Which is kind of true. My current job title is Solution Designer (Enterprise Social Networks) and Community Strategist, whatever the hell that means. Again, a lot of tasks I perform on a daily basis, but listing those doesn’t really get across what I do, nor how I do it.

Which gets me back around to neo-generalism. Though I haven’t yet read the book (dispatched, not delivered), what I’ve read from the authors leads me to believe I am a neo-generalist. Which makes sense, because I’ve very often found myself acting as both generalist (connecting the dots) and specialist (building the dots). The chronological resume format doesn’t – can’t – really convey this to the casual reader typical hiring manager / resume screener. Which gets us, finally, around to the functional resume.

Nearly everything I’ve read about functional resumes, as I’ve been thinking about and doing research for revamping mine, paints them as a last resort, something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. As I’ve gone through this process, though, I’ve come to realize that this is because most people look at jobs, at work, in terms of specialization. That if you don’t have a good cohesive chronological narrative of tasks, there must be something wrong with you.

And, to be clear, if you want a job that builds on a specific specialization, it is probably a good idea to have a chronological resume with some good details on what you’ve done.

But I’m starting to think that for me, and for other neo-generalists who are interested as much in how they work as the tasks they perform, the work they do and not just the job they have, a functional resume may be the way to go.

tl;dr I’m going to update my resume, and it is going to be a functional resume.

 

Toys and tools – different in degree, or different in kind? 

At the end of a brief history of human communication, Dave Gray of XPLANE gets to what he sees as the future of communications: visual communications. Today, we are free once more. Paradoxically, n…

Source: The toys of today, the tools of tomorrow | Brett’s Phrontistery

Is safe really better than sorry?

I first mentioned this tweet from @codinghorror in my review of StrangeLoop 2010.

It has stuck with me through the years, and always seems to pop up when it’s needed. Not too long ago (wow – the better part of a year), I tweeted my own variation on this, exploring a bit the “is such crap” part of Jeff’s tweet.

Is safe better than sorry?

It all depends on the context. How you define “safe” and “sorry”, the time scale in which you’re working. What you are willing to give up for what you want to achieve. What you are willing to tolerate. What you want to have written across your tombstone, or in the history books, when your time on this earth inevitably ends.

The PMP – How it Ruined Project Management | Stuart Hamilton | Pulse | LinkedIn

There has always been a class of worker that is paid for their labor, not for their expertise. There is a reason they were called “laborers”. The IT professional used to be part of the workforce where they were highly skilled and earned a premium for their experience. Now employers, often while employing contract IT labor through agencies, look for a few base criteria, and then differentiate only on price. The IT professional might not be digging ditches, but they are now a “laborer”.

Source: The PMP – How it Ruined Project Management | Stuart Hamilton | Pulse | LinkedIn

Fourth and inches

Chances are you’ve heard the saying, “Won the battle but lost the war.” While it is hard to willingly accept defeat or failure, sometimes your best strategy in a given situation is to not give it your all. To not try your absolute hardest to be successful. To not try to win at the specific task at hand. To lose a battle so you can win the war.

In baseball, a manager may have a batter sacrifice (bunt or fly) themselves to advance another runner. Or have a pitcher intentionally walk a good batter to get to a relatively weaker batter. In American football, most teams choose to kick – either a punt or field goal – on fourth down instead of going for it. In basketball, coaches may call for intentional fouls late in a game to prevent a sure two by the opponent and risk a 1-and-1 foul shot situation. In chess, a player will intentionally sacrifice pieces to improve board position. You get the idea.

What each of these situations have in common, of course, is that the goal is not to get an individual hit, or out, or touchdown. The goal is to win the game, and ultimately a tournament or season. You weigh the risk of doing what is typical against the potential benefit or cost in terms of that goal of winning. You may not “go for it” on fourth and inches early in the game deep in your own half of the field, but you probably will if it is late in the game deep in your opponent’s end and you’re down by four points. Context is key.

Of course, no one would ever intentionally lose an actual game. Or would they? Depends on the context.

During the 2012 Summer Olympics several teams were disqualified and removed from the Badminton competition for deliberately trying to lose a game. From the outside this seemed crazy, and the crowds at the games were rightfully angry at what they were seeing. Did I mention that these teams were playing against each other, both of them intentionally trying to lose.

But for the teams at the time the strategy made perfect sense in the context of their ultimate objective – Olympic gold. For various reasons, the rules for the badminton tournament were changed going into the Olympics. The teams who wanted to lose games on purpose were simply adjusting their strategy on the court to increase their chances to win gold based on these new rules.

I say “simply”, but the whole situation was anything but simple. The rule-makers had failed to consider this second order effect of changing the rules, and the athletes had failed to take into account the reactions of the fans and officials at their blatantly unsportsmanlike conduct. And so they were disqualified, even though they hadn’t technically broken any rules.

They won the battle, but lost the war.