A Beginner’s Guide to Beginning to Begin Coding

I first wrote and published this on the iQmetrix blog. I should point out that it’s now the Tuesday after Black Friday. Our system – the infrastructure, the software, the databases – all just performed without issue on the biggest sales day in our company’s history. More evidence of what I wrote about.

If I were working on a cattle ranch, I probably shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see a calf being born. If I worked in a political office, I probably shouldn’t miss the opportunity to observe how an elected leader actually makes decisions. When I worked at a garage in high school, I learned how to install oil pans and set the timing mechanism on an old Mustang.

I work at a software company. I’m surrounded by people that actually have that Matrix thing happening: where a big mess of cryptic words means something and everything is quantifiable down to 1s and 0s. This is an amazing opportunity to see behind the curtain. I’m your interloper seeing how software is actually made. Here are some things that blow my mind.

I work at a software company. I’m surrounded by people that actually have that Matrix thing happening.
EVERYTHING is based on really simple decisions. Usually “Is it this? If not, do that.”

Really simple decisions get complicated when you combine them. Do this 20 times. Each time you do it, also do this 8 times. While you’re doing that, check if this other thing is happening or not. Did you follow? We just instructed the computer to make 320 things happen.

Let’s stretch it out a bit…

Action 1 of 20

Sub-Action 1 of 8

True or False?

Sub Action 2 of 8

True or False?

Sub Action 2 of 8

True or False?

Sub Action 3 of 8

True or False?

Sub Action 4 of 8

True or False?

Sub Action 5 of 8

True or False?

Sub Action 6 of 8

True or False?

Sub Action 7 of 8

True or False?

Sub Action 8 of 8

True or False?

Action 2 of 20

Sub Action 1 of 8

True or False?

Continue for all 20 actions…

I hope you get the idea. One of my colleagues, after a taxing day, had his wife joke, “It’s just ones and zeros!”

“Yes,” he said, “but there are millions of them.”

Using physical items that can only say “off” or “on,” you can theoretically build a calculator… or a web server. The item is called a transistor. It’s exceptionally good at its one job. Combine millions of them on a really small surface and you have a processor.

Some basic words that will intimidate your friends and make developers chuckle at how cute you are:

Recursive loops

Multi-dimensional arrays

Asynchronous tasks

Application Protocol Interfaces

Service bus

You and I like puzzles. The average developer lives for puzzles.

There’s a site where coders can go test their skills on theoretical problems. This is question #2 of 512 problems. They get harder. Much harder.

Each new term in the Fibonacci sequence is generated by adding the previous two terms. By starting with 1 and 2, the first 10 terms will be:

1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, …

By considering the terms in the Fibonacci sequence whose values do not exceed four million, find the sum of the even-valued terms.

Coders are an underappreciated breed. Go hug a coder.

Nothing is as simple as it seems. The layers of complexity developers work with and the intricacy of relationships is mind boggling.

It’s hard to find a developer that won’t help with your simple question. My fascination with this stuff has me asking really stupid questions. I’m always helped, prodded in the right direction and when I get it (or think I get it), it’s celebrated.

My colleagues are solving problems that are insanely complicated. The thoughtfulness, team collaboration and ingenuity being employed by software developers is really beyond measure.

The rare number of times we hear about things that didn’t work is likely the best testament to the quality of work being done. They’re an underappreciated breed. Go hug a coder. If nothing else, you’ll enjoy watching their discomfort.

01

12 2015

Attempt to Break Down Government

That’s funny. My title made you think I was going to tell you about all the subversive things I’ve done to make the government system inoperable…. well, sorta. I’m going to detail what I saw, at least in part, from my experience in the public service.

I’d like to provide some reflection on my seven years spent in the Saskatchewan Public Service. It was a period of tremendous growth and maturation for me. As the province’s largest employer, it represents the experience a lot of Saskatchewan people receive, or will receive, so here’s my take on what you’ll see.

There are two pretty distinct groups of people working in government. The distinguishing point, in my opinion, is how an individual interacts with the numerous boundaries the bureaucracy presents. Some people see these boundaries as porous and bendable, and others see them as air-tight and immovable.

There are written rules for when you’ll show up, when you’ll take a break, when you’ll get a performance review, how you’ll provide advice to decision-makers, how you’ll request bereavement leave… the list goes on. Then, there’s unwritten rules, like how you’ll dress, or what kind of message you’ll leave on your phone, what your out-of-office email message will say, where you’ll park your bike, there are even some unwritten rules for what are reasonable excuses for calling in sick.

The first, and most significant, choice government implicitly invites you to make is which group you’re going to be in. Most make a non-choice to follow the rules. However, now that you’ve read this far, you’re no longer eligible for the non-choice. You’ll have to choose. If you choose that government boundaries are rigid, congratulations. You’ve just gotten a job that will ensure you and your family are fed for the rest of your life. Mission accomplished.

That choice, however, requires you to accept assignments that appear pretty much meaningless, misguided and sometimes demeaning. If you’re OK with accepting that someone else knows better than you, even when you’re doing more thinking, researching or interacting on the topic, you’ll do fine with this.

My experience with government is that approximately 80% of employees choose to blindly follow the rules. It’s not that everybody starts this way, but they have to keep choosing, everyday, and government has a way of wearing you down until you accept the boundaries. Then you don’t have to choose anymore.

Even in this environment, 20% of individuals don’t accept the bureaucratic expectations. They choose to push, prod and break the boundaries. They work for change.

There’s different levels of investment to the work done on the 20%. Some work on the periphery, away from bread and butter issues. It’s a little more comfortable there. They can fight for changes to regulation 32 C of the Labour Standards Act, and feel proud that they fought the good fight… and no-one bit back.

Others try and strike right at the heart of the organization. They say, “12,000 public servants are working at half speed. We need to change the way we organize and engage employees.” It’s a herculean task given the amount of bureaucracy and control they’re confronting.

It’s in this environment that I worked for seven years, and it had three stages for me:

Stage 1 – Crash Course in Analysis

My amazingly brilliant supervisor demanded more and more from me during this time, and I wanted to get better. I got what I suspect was Masters-level training in creating concrete, credible and compelling solutions. It was a very beneficial relationship… for me, certainly, and I hope for my boss. That training is the foundation for the thought process I apply every day.

Stage 2 – My Attempt to Dent the System

My supervisor moved on, but the timing was impeccable. I was just starting to want to take on more ownership. Ownership not just for the work, but ownership for how I created my own brand and value in government. I challenged boundaries and had some success, primarily in helping others see their relationship with the boundaries. I also had failures. Lots of them. But they were mine, and I learned from them, so… success.

Stage 3 – My Burnout

I had built what I felt to be a healthy, productive little “shop,” an oasis in the bureaucracy, where people were responsible to be thoughtful and practice ingenuity. It was far from perfect. There was lots of growth left to pursue, but time ran out. New leadership brought new direction, and I found myself starting back near the beginning, so yeah, failure. I didn’t do what was necessary to lock in the changes I’d made.

I don’t know if you can “lock in” progress in government. (I don’t know if what I did was progress. If you like this blog, maybe it was.) I left the public service without knowing how to lock in what I’d done. I acknowledge this limitation. I think this was when I knew it was time to leave. I didn’t have the appetite to start again and rebuild what I believed in, and even if I did, I didn’t know how to sustain it when a more senior person’s philosophy didn’t jibe.

Here’s then, what government gave to me. If you’re a recent graduate or considering a career change, you can use this as a checklist to determine if government is right for you:

  • Significant investment in my ability to produce quality thinking and advice
  • Practice at managing and leading people
  • Practice at building a grassroots cultural change
  • A near-militant commitment to challenging status quo environments
  • Pessimism for the future of all governments
  • An innate sense of a bureaucrat’s motivations

I welcome your thoughts, especially if you’re a public servant in Saskatchewan or elsewhere. I tried to write this without pessimism, but I’m not sure it’s possible. Some other perspectives would help round it out.

I’m forever grateful for who I became through my public service experience, but mostly because of how it served as a motivation and a foil for me to grow up and away from it.

The Quasi-Self Similarity Fractal Theory of Personal Development

This would be a new theory. Perhaps the title needs a little work.

Image Credit: http://mark.rehorst.com/Bug_Photos/index.html

Are you familiar with fractals? I’m fascinated by them. They are beautiful and simple. No, complex. No, simple.  That’s why I like them.

Here’s what they are for me: A foundational element replicated for infinity that creates an entity that is full of intricacy and detail.

Wikipedia, citing a guy named Mandelbrot, describes a fractal as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole.” Wow. No wonder I didn’t remember this from school.

Fractals and Personal Development

I think there are some fundamental principles that govern our interactions and create our legacy. In a fractal, if you change the fundamental geometric shape, you can get a significantly different shape. In life, if you change your fundamental principles and governing behaviours (your geometric shape, if you follow), same thing.

“I will embrace this event with a presumption of abundance” doesn’t change your story very much if you do it once. However, if you establish that presumption as part of your core it will rewrite your experience, your relationships and your legacy. Rather than a presumption of scarcity in the face of change, if you presume that resources, opportunity and happiness are abundant in every opportunity, it changes the outcome. It changes the entity.

If you change the scale (the detail) at which you look at a fractal, you see essentially the same image. It just keeps replicating at a smaller size. Here’s where my theory really comes together. Your principles create results at different scales, too. If I engage with each of my colleagues with honesty, enthusiasm for their growth and a true commitment to their success, I will be doing the same thing at the team level, the department level and the corporate level. I’m not so idealist as to say your choice in principles will change the organization, but it will change your experience with the organization.

Same with family, community or your weekend softball team. All part of the same fractal. All replica copies of the pattern you have established for your life. Each interaction carries an eerie similarity to other interactions, past and present. The accumulation of those interactions establishes similar relationships with groups and larger elements.

By the way, with all that consistency and replication, it pretty much defines how you’re remembered, too.

With this new, soon-to-be-famous (and renamed) theory now present, there are some barriers that would need to be addressed before this simple model is applied.

1) We have to deliberately decide to be owner of our choices

The reason life looks “fractured” rather than like a fractal right now is that we’re not replicating our own deliberate model. We’re getting sucked into someone or something else’s pattern.

2) We really should choose principles that we’re OK with being central themes in our eulogy

That’s sort of a bold way of saying that they need to be authentic and real. Contentment, happiness and success comes when we sustain our commitment to principles and replicate them in new, yet to be anticipated situations. When they start creating that full-sized, complex, nuanced entity, that’s when you see the real results.

31

03 2011

Office Decor

Here’s a picture I have up on my office wall.Image from the Sistine Chapel

04

02 2011

The Power Position

At UFC 100, mixed martial arts superstar and welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre defended his title from the best efforts of Thiago “Bulldog” Alves. It was a tremendous test of athleticism and skill, one of the toughtest of GSP’s career.

Throughout the fight, Georges was winning.  When he returned to his corner between two of the later rounds, he indicated to his trainer, Greg Jackson, that he thought he tore a groin muscle. To this, Jackson replied, “I don’t care… Hit him with your groin.”

Best MMA line. Ever.

I think this statement could simply be construed as a statement of “fight through the pain,” which GSP certainly did. When I hear it, however, it has more meaning than that. I hope it was the verbalization of a deeper, more fundamental paradigm – if it’s out of your control, we’re not spending time worrying about it. As you pursue your goal, the external elements that come up are to be used to aid you in your direction or be discarded as irrelevant.

It was an incisive statement of purpose. A painful red herring that had no bearing on Georges’ agenda… and it’s worth watching again.

So, a great lesson, but you and I aren’t in any particular need to know how to successfully dominate a mixed martial arts fight. Let’s take it out of the octagon and consider the underlying paradigm in our day-to-day. Supervisor providing inadequate career counselling? I don’t care. Create your own career plan. Contract not getting signed fast enough? I don’t care. Find a diferent way to deliver.  Chronic illness going to slowly debilitate you? I don’t care. Redefine what creates meaning in your life.

The most powerful position you can take when confronting an obstacle is to presume that it’s entirely your responsiblity to address it. We can acknowledge that the “bulldog” actually had a lot to do with your situation, but don’t let that knowledge hinder you from owning your path out of it.

31

12 2010

Examining Leadership

We could all use more leadership.

That’s a loaded statement, so I’ll unpack it a bit.

First, here’s my attempt to define the kind of leadership that we can benefit from.

Making choices that may feel uncomfortable in the short-term but have long-term benefit for the individual and the organziation.

Second, I want to acknowledge that there’s a lot of leadership already happening. Every day, individuals and groups are doing things that are focused on the long-term, even though they create temporary discomfort. Those are fantastic actions building sustainable, healthy, vibrant organizations, poised for a dynamic and undefinable future.

Third, and finally, there are times when we choose the short-term, easier route, instead of the route that would create the healthier outcome.

You could take, for example, the way we respond to the “inputs” we get each day – the assignments, the phone calls, the voice mails, the emails… the list goes on, I’m sure. There’s a continuum for how we could manage this. At one end, we could put on blinders and say, “I’m working on this one thing unless lightning strikes me.” At the other end, we could bounce from request to request, responding to the most recent, regardless of importance.

It’s a theoretical continuum, but even so, if we’re in error, I think I know which way we err. We tend to “bounce” more often than we should. There’s a lot of incoming traffic, and we naturally get distracted.

“Leadership” calls on us to do something that is not natural. Something that isn’t comfortable. Rather than responding to the urgent because it pops up, the definition I’ve proposed would ask you to pursue what’s important, even if it feels uncomfortable.

Here’s an exercise I’ll be doing, and I invite you to join me. When I start work on something, I’m going to ask “urgent or important?” In fact, I’ve made a sticky note that goes on my monitor to remind me. Given all the responsibilities I have – my mission, colleagues, customers, my boss… is this the most important thing I can be working on right now?

If it is, I’ll proceed. If it’s not, I’ll do something else, something more important.

Victim or Owner

Sitting in as a guest for some recent leadership training, I was invited to participate in an exercise to tell a story. I realized I hadn’t shared this here, and there’s no good reason not to.

Ten years ago I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. With the diagnosis, I received my fair share of the sort of the traditionally awkward condolences from those that know me. These condolences could perhaps be broken into two parts. First, none of us really know what to say. We fumble and we search for words. Second, we express remorse. We acknowledge that this is bad luck and the person is not as well off as they were.

I don’t really fault that. Given the reverse role in the situation, it’s what I’ve done, too.

When I received all these “bad luck” acknowledgments, they served to help justify my general apathy and lack of effort to improve things. “Well,” I thought, “I’ve been dealt this hand, so now I’m excused from whatever I was pursuing before.” This is all too typical a reaction for people that are diagnosed with a chronic illness. It seems almost normal that you should take on a bitter demeanor and wear a sign that says I was screwed.

That didn’t last a long time for me, but it was very real. I was diagnosed in the May, and through a combination of medication and lethargy I managed to gain 30 pounds by September.

Feeling sorry for myself, I was simply being a spectator, both literally and figuratively. My wife and I found ourselves watching as the runners of our city’s first ever marathon ran through the park. They were all shapes and sizes, and it began to dawn on me that I shouldn’t feel limited. I still had the ability to do things, lots of things, including run a marathon. If they could do it, I should be able to do it.

It was at this point that a blind man ran by being assisted over the course. That was a watershed moment for me. There was clearly no excuse that legitimized my current behaviour.

Life gives you lots of choices, but one of the fundamental ones is whether you’re going to select the role of victim or owner. This isn’t a one-time choice, by the way. It’s a choice presented to you every day, over and over. You have to choose each and every time.

I still don’t quite know what you’re supposed to say to someone who’s been dealt a bad hand. It’s an emotional moment, and I’m not sure there’s words for it. Given the invitation, though, I tell people recently diagnosed with MS that it can be a gift. They just have to choose that it is.

08

11 2010

Wise Advice from a Puppy

We were talking about boundaries at work, and my colleague likened it to the “invisible fence” that shocks his two new puppies if they venture too far. They are inclined to sit pretty far back from even where the shocks begin, looking forlorn and whimpering.

We do that at work, too. We readily structure boundaries around our role, boundaries even more restrictive than the ones we are asked to accept.

“It’s too bad,” I said, “that one of your puppies doesn’t go get shocked anyway. That would be a great life lesson.”

“That actually does happen,” confirmed my co-worker.

Turns out, these two identical dogs behave in very different ways. They both struggle with the boundary, of course, but one of them pushes into the “shock zone” anyway, irritating their neck and scratching themselves raw. Guess what happened? It’s priceless. The puppy that pushed the boundary got the collar taken off. That puppy got to run free. Guess that boundary wasn’t so firm after all. Good thing he checked. 

For our own sense of well-being and happiness, it is a necessity that we test our boundaries, at least once in a while. Changing the seemingly unchangeable external factors of your situation can be done, or at least significantly influenced, by you. You have to be willing to ask/test/challenge/disobey.

Another note: The boundary-pushing puppy also figured out that the “shock” only lasts for a ten foot distance. With a full head of steam and the willingness to endure a quick zap, he’s spending his whole day outside the fence exploring the neighbourhood. I like this dog.

04

11 2010

The Pull

If you haven’t surmised it, I’m having a little trouble putting new stuff to my blog these days. I think I’ve just proven that there’s a direct, inverse relationship between how cool my job is and how much I blog. I’m not giving up on my little chunk of the internet, and I have some good ideas for future posts, but my work… my play, actually, has me using all spare creativity and thoughtfulness to resolve interesting, meaningful opportunities.

Today, iQmetrix was named number 24 on the list of best small and medium-sized employers in Canada. I share this not to gloat (though it feels good), but to give iQmetrix it’s fair due. The company’s not known enough, either in my community or the nation.

And before you write me off as a newly addicted workaholic, I left work at 3 today to give some quality attention to my family.

This, of course, is exactly the kind of thing that has me applying tremendous discretionary effort towards even more success for a pretty awesome organization.

28

10 2010

Deluded Perception and Inability to Control Reality

As I leave my latest role in the provincial government, I think perhaps I can be more plain about my experience.  It’s said that one of the biggest challenges with recruiting is the tendency for the employer to employ the “bait and switch,” whereby they talk a game that isn’t the one they practice. One kind of employment experience is presented, another is on offer.

I think I’ve seen that first-hand. The first reason I give as to why I think it happened would be my own “grass is greener” lense, whereby I overlook the reality of the situation for its prospects, then kick myself for not being critical enough of the opportunity before signing on the dotted line. There are also circumstances that change the role once you get there. Government is especially vicious at redefining roles without the slightest consultation.

There’s also the question of whether the big stuff works as described. There’s the philosophy of how decisions get made, or the level of trust inherently given to an employee. There’s the vision for the organization and whether daily actions are aligned with this vision or pay it lip service.

I think it’s really easy for a hiring manager or an employer to have a real intellectual commitment to a higher purpose sort of role. All the buzzwords and catch-phrases are there. All the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed on the mission and vision statements. However, cashing those cheques is a lot different than writing them, and the employees you’re hiring will immediately experience dissonance if word and deed are not congruent.

This is costly. An unhappy employee that feels they’ve been misled under-performs. Well, I did, anyway.

So, this is called the “bait and switch,” except I think “bait and switch” implies a level of forethought and control that is often nonexistent in the formation of the employer/employee relationship. A better, less catchy title would be “deluded perception and inability to control reality,” as in, “I was excited about my first day, but then they made it clear that the job was more about keeping up appearances. They got me with the old ‘deluded perception and inability to control reality’.”

This doesn’t just go for hiring, of course. If word and deed aren’t aligned in any relationship, it’s a source of frustration and contention. If you’ve got drama in your life, it’s probably worth doing a gut-check. Are you pulling the “deluded perception and inability to control reality” ploy?

23

09 2010