WordCampSTL 2017 – some notes and thoughts

What better excuse to overcome the recent dearth of posts here on the Phrontistery than sharing my notes and thoughts from a WordCamp event. In this case WordCampSTL 2017. I had hoped to present a talk this year but wasn’t sure if I’d actually be able to make it when the deadline for submissions came around, so I volunteered instead.

Some notes and thoughts from the talks I sat in on, as well as the many great conversations between sessions.


(Here are the sessions I attended, will fill in notes throughout the day (and beyond))

Keynote: WordPress, not just software but LIFEWARE

 

Navigating a Career in WordPress

 

User Empathy with Advanced Custom Fields (ACF)

 

Herding Cats: Tips for Leading Technical People

 

Demons In the Closet

 

WordPress Theme Code Reviews

 

AMA: WordCamp St. Louis

 

Systems thinking and complexity

One of my earliest blog posts was a simple reference to complex adaptive systems. The concept was (is) fascinating to me, on many levels. Not the least of which is my unquenchable curiosity about the connectedness of everything, and an early realization that the world can be seen as a collection of systems. A systems thinker, in other words.

I think I first came across the formal concept of systems thinking in The Fifth Discipline. I was a young Army officer in the Signal Corps, responsible for leading and training young soldiers and for planning and executing communications support missions. Many of my colleagues approached the role from a very rigid, very structured, very “mechanical” perspective. Not unexpected, of course, since military units in general are very highly structured and driven from the top down by command and control – “Here’s what you should do, and I’m going to watch you to make sure you do it so we achieve this very specific outcome.”

As if anything ever works out the way you plan. Understanding my job, the role of my unit, as a component of a larger system that could be manipulated helped me to provide the best support I could to the units that depended on what we provided. (The beginnings, perhaps, of my understanding and application of human centered design, perhaps?)

I really don’t remember what triggered my interest in complexity. This, I think, is something that has always lingered just below the surface in my mind. If I had to pinpoint a single starting point for the beginning of my slow hunch about complexity it would have to be Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach – A Golden Eternal Braid. I came across this book in my latter years of high school and made my way through it as best I could. Though I didn’t really understand much of it at the time, it primed my thinking to be more receptive to a different way of viewing the world.

Then came James Gleick’s Chaos and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. My interest in the science and philosophy of Richard Feynman led me to Murray Gell-Mann and the Santa Fe Institute. Eventually I found my way to the work of Dave Snowden and his insights into the application of systems thinking and complexity science to the world of work, however broadly or narrowly you might define this. (Though I have some of this documented in my notebooks from the time (90’s), I wish I had been blogging back then so I had a better record of my thinking.)

Systems thinking and complexity have thus spent a lot of time in my mind, side by side as I try to make sense of them and understand how to apply them to life and work. To be sure, I have often simply treated them as “basically the same thing”, without much effort to distinguish between them. Though they share some key characteristics they are, of course, different. But what are those differences, and why does it matter? Heading in to the new year seems to be a good time to delve into this.

Fortunately for me in this regard, I recently discovered an article from 2013 by Sonja Blignaut that has pointed me down a good path for this exploration. Titled appropriately enough 5 Differences between complexity & systems thinking, the article is a summary of her notes and thoughts from some time spent with Dave Snowden as he presented workshops and worked with clients.

In the coming days I’ll be looking at those 5 differences in detail.

Edited for content

Edited for content

I can watch favorite scenes from a movie many times without getting tired of it, much like many people listen to their favorite songs again and again.  This usually happens in the evening when I’m winding down from the day. Or, in the case of recent events, winding down from the week. (I think we all know what I’m talking about.) So when something in one of these movies is different, I tend to notice.

executive_decision_ver1

I was flipping through the movie channels late last week to see what was on that was worth spending a few minutes with and came across the 1996 movie Executive Decision starring Kurt Russell and Halle Berry. If you know the movie, you’ll remember that the movie is about a group of radical Islamic terrorists bad guys who hijack a plane from Europe and plan to wipe out Washington, DC with some stolen nerve gas they have fitted with a bomb on the plane.

“Wait,” you may be thinking, “why did you strikethrough the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorists’ and replace it with ‘bad guys’? The movie was about terrorists of the Muslim faith. Wasn’t it?”

Well, yes. And, apparently, no.

The version I saw way back when and, as far as I can remember, ever since was about terrorists striking out against “the infidel” in the name of Allah and Islam. It just so happened that the scene I stopped on, where a member of the team that hijacked the airliner is confronting the team leader, is one where they spoke of Allah, and Islam, and the infidel. Except in this version the reference was not to “Allah” but to “Jaffa”, the organization’s leader, and the reference was to the “enemy” and not the “infidel”.

What the…?

It would be easy to think, especially with the discourse of recent history, that someone somewhere had recently decided to edit the movie to remove the religious references. (An interesting side note: Marla Maples Trump appeared in the film.) But a little digging took me to movie-censorship.com (man, I love the Web) and some insight into what is probably happening here:

„Executive Decision“ was at first released in Germany and the UK in an adapted, pre-censored version. Probably this also concerns other European countries and maybe Australia too (Caution: was not checked, but it’s rather likely. If you have Infos please leave a comment). Many references to the Islamic-fundamentalistic background of the terrorists were deleted in this pre-censored version. The UK version moreover contains some further cuts due to violence. The old US version was uncut.

By this time, the movie has been released on Blu-ray in many countries, in the USA too. But it seems that Warner used the old pre-censored master for the BD. This master is the source for all Blu-rays worldwide. So the cut version was released in the USA for the first time.

Though I’m not really sure what they mean by “pre-censored”, it appears that this version I saw is, in fact, the version released back in 1996 in Europe. Which leads to a whole bunch of other questions, such as, “Why did Warner use these old pre-censored masters for the BluRay instead of the masters from the US release?” I’m sure there is a good answer somewhere.

My point in all of this is…. I’m not sure what my point is, really. It all started because I noticed something different from what I was expecting. In fact, when I first noticed it I wasn’t sure. And if I hadn’t had the DVR, closed captioning*, and, ultimately, the Web, I might have just let it go, chalked it up to a faulty memory. And I think that maybe that is the point.

If you notice something that doesn’t seem right, for whatever reason, take the time to understand why you think it seems wrong. Take the time to understand what is going on. Pay attention to what is happening around you and be willing to question those things that don’t make sense, or contradict your expectations.

* Though I knew that what the actors were saying was not what I remembered, I really had no way to confirm it. Except for the fact that the closed captions** in the broadcast had not been changed, and reflected exactly what I remembered. Which raises a whole ‘nother train of thought about dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s when you are making changes in a complex environment. 

** We’ve had closed captioning enabled on all of our TVs since the mid-90’s. Did you know that the HDMI protocol doesn’t support the CC signal? 

Imagine no employers, no employees too

In my June 2008 post The evolution of the employee-employer relationship I wrote the following:

The challenge for organizations in this situation becomes not providing employees the training they need to carry out the company’s goals and projects, but rather providing employees with goals and projects that engage the employees and effectively use what they are learning for themselves.

This was in response to some things I had read at the time and was something of a follow-up to another post from April 2004, in which I wrote:

I’ve long believed that the prevalence of knowledge work in organizations today will (eventually) fundamentally shift the employee – employer relationship. In many ways, knowledge workers will come to be “self-employed” in the sense that they are working to improve themselves and to make an impact on the world at large and not just within the company they happen to be “working for” at the time.

Though I haven’t written much (at all?) about this particular aspect of thinking in bits since that 2008 post, the ideas are never far from my the front of my mind. It is hard not to think along these lines as I wonder about the future of work. Not just for me, but for my kids, and for the people with whom I work every day. Even within an organization, there is a certain amount of this, where HR acts as the “agent” and the employee moves about inside the organization based as much on their own needs and desires as the organization. (If, that is, they are lucky enough to work in an organization that “gets it”.)

b9fhxmdwI closed that 2004 post with the thought, “This obviously raises some interesting questions for organizations….

Some interesting questions that Stephen DeWitt is working on answering. Here’s a description of what DeWitt is doing as CEO of Work Market, from the article/interview A Total Rethink of How Work Should Work:

In short, Work Market hopes to instrument a wholesale rethinking of how work gets done in our society — from a world of traditional corporate employment to a world where every skilled worker can act as an enterprise of one.

Or, to look at it another way, where an organization consists primarily of management and the workforce is “on demand”. Where the focus is not on building, growing, and sustaining a large organization but on doing the work, creating value, getting shit done. Where each member of the team can contribute their expertise – whether it be financial, management, technical – and all benefit from the arrangement. On their own terms.

More flash team than gig economy, where the labor is not a commodity but where each participant competes based on skills, past projects, reputation, etc etc. All those things that in the past would have led to promotions and raises and bonuses will now lead to more work, higher rates, and more choice in the work you accept.

Obviously, there is much more to it or it would already be the norm. There are examples of where it is working and organizations who are using it, but it will be many years before it is more widespread. And, of course, the transition will not come without pain, without costs, without some collateral damage to the workforce and organizations who are not able, or interested, in making the change.

Are you ready to be an “enterprise of one”?

Design choices – web browsers

In addition to the many different features implemented in the various Web browsers, there are many  different decisions and choices made in the design of the features common across browsers. Some make sense to me and some don’t. For example…

Right-clicking

Right clicking a link provides several options for interacting with the link, the options being different based on browser features. The most common of these options, listed at the top of the right-click list, are options for opening the link,  typically “Open in new tab” or “Open in new window”. In IE11, however, the top option on right-click is simply “Open”.

rightclickdesign

What decision process went it including the “Open” option on right-click in IE11?  Did the designers think that a lot of people would want the first option on right-click to be exactly the same option as simply left clicking? Indeed, how many people right-click and select “Open” when they could simply left-click and open the link?

Smart card authentication

I use a smart card to authenticate to our organizational websites. Different browsers have a different visual design of the dialog for selecting certificates and entering PINs, which makes sense to match the overall visual design of the browser. But the on-screen location of these dialogs differs in interesting, and significant, ways.

In Chrome, for example, the certificate selection dialog is displayed at the center-top of the browser window while the PIN entry dialog is displayed at the center of the screen. If you have the browser in full screen this is the center of the browser, otherwise not. This can be especially irritating if you have a multi-screen setup and you are using Chrome on the non-default screen: the PIN entry dialog will show up on a completely different screen from the browser in which you are working.

In IE, on the other hand, both the certificate selection and PIN entry dialogs are displayed in the center of the browser window. Not only is this more intuitive (to me, anyway), it provides consistency of location for all actions related to logging in via smart card.

Update: It turns out that IE doesn’t do this universally. When sending a digitally signed email using the smart card in Outlook Web Access, the PIN entry window is displayed in the center of the screen (the default screen if you have more than one). 

Were these conscious design decisions for placement of the smart card related dialogs? Did each of the design teams look at both options (center screen and center window) and simply make a difference decision? If so, what drove that decision? Or perhaps this is just default behavior for these types of actions based on the overall design and code of the browser. Perhaps something to do with the underlying OS (in this case Windows) since smart card authentication requires interaction with the OS?

Intentional or incidental

These are just the two design differences that I notice most frequently, I’m sure there are many many more. I can’t help wondering are these choices intentional or incidental? Is it possible to make an intentional decision about every design element? Is it desirable?

How intentional are you about the design of your products, and how much of the design simply “is”?

Wirearchy and the opposite of patriarchy

I do think that women could make politics irrelevant; by a kind of spontaneous cooperative action the like of which we have never seen; which is so far from people’s ideas of state structure or viable social structure that it seems to them like total anarchy — when what it really is, is very subtle forms of interrelation that do not follow some heirarchal pattern which is fundamentally patriarchal. The opposite to patriarchy is not matriarchy but fraternity, yet I think it’s women who are going to have to break this spiral of power and find the trick of cooperation.

Germaine Greer

I first heard this quote when Sinéad O’Connor used it as the first track, an intro of sorts, to her 1994 album Universal Mother. (Maybe my favorite album of hers, we saw her at the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park on the tour, great show.) The quote has stuck with me over the years and pops its head up at various times. Like now.

In one of those stereotypical “I wasn’t thinking of anything and it just popped into my head” moments, the phrase “the opposite to patriarchy is … fraternity” and Jon Husband‘s  concept of wirearchy came together and presented themselves to my conscious mind. Obviously the full quote refers to political, not business, organization and is from “one of the major voices of the second-wave feminist movement in the latter half of the 20th century” about the role of women in the transformation of politics, and this reference to fraternity has nothing directly to do with business or the organization of work.

But I can’t help thinking there is something here to explore.