Archive for ‘Learning’


Seeing Someone Live

On Oct 29th 2012, I saw Martin Fowler speak here in Toronto. This was a free event sponsored by ThoughtWorks and InfoQ, though parking in downtown Toronto at 4:30 PM isn’t cheap.

The format Martin Fowler used was to deliver three short talks using articles published on his web site. I like this approach as I have read most of the recent posts to his web site and hearing Martin’s explanation would enable me to compare my own interpretation with his.

The first was on developing for multiple mobile devices. This presentation didn’t provide any new insights to me and it is an excellent primer for anyone faced with a decision about developing for mobile devices.

The second was on NoSQL which I believe was actually an combination of his blog post on aggregate oriented databases and his introduction to NoSQL. I have been following the development of NoSQL however I hadn’t read the post on aggregate oriented databases. The aggregate oriented databases piece was an interesting backgrounder that I had missed.

And the last topic one was entitled “Agile: Essence and Fluency”. As a participant in the creation of the Agile Manifesto, Martin is of the opinion that “agile” has been subject to “semantic diffusion”. In other words, what was meant by “agile” ten years ago is not necessarily what people mean today. For Martin, the essence of agile is adaptive planning over predictive planning and people focused over process focused. This is not to say that you must abandon predictive planning and throw out all processes but rather weight in favour of the former. I very much agree with this and have found that reality of balancing the two is quite difficult.

The second part of the final talk was to highlight the paper posted on his site authored by Diana Larsen and James Shore on Agile Fluency. This is a great paper for anyone working in an agile way or for those moving to agile. The two key points I think are the cultural shifts, first the team then the organization. The team shift isn’t that difficult though not necessarily painless but the organizational shift is. Michael Sahota describes it this way, “Culture Will Eat Your Strategy for Breakfast“.

So what do you gain by seeing someone speak live? For me it is two things, audience reaction and the opportunity to interact. Watching the audience is always interesting and sometimes makes you realize that you might have not caught the significance of a particular statement. The opportunity to interact is also very important. This is the time when you can find out if your interpretation is the same or different from others and hopefully ask clarifying questions of the speaker. I have watched Martin Fowler present many times in videos available on InfoQ and seeing someone live is always better in my opinion.

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Second Anniversary

ContemplationSo I’ve been blogging for about two years, my first real post was February 2. In that time I have posted 35 times and I was wondering what my theme is. My most popular topics are around understanding, faith, passion and doing. My top three posts for the year were Faith, A Lesson Remembered, and Doing more by doing less. If I look at my two-year statistics, my most popular post was Causality followed by The Importance of Dialogue and Faith a close third. How odd. That is not what I thought this would be about.

My original intention was to use this blog to get input from others on things that would help me help those I worked with and develop my skills as a leader. I thought this would be a blog focused on technical matters and agile methodologies and practices. Within a few months it was less of that, more of what simply made me think. Sometimes it was work related and more often it was not and I am happy with this direction.

I think the following quote captures my thoughts well:

Each of us is it in the world for no very long time, and within the few years of his life has to acquire what ever he is to know of this strange planet and its place in the universe. To ignore our opportunities for knowledge, imperfect as they are, is like going to the theater and not listening to the play. The world is full of things that are tragic or comic, heroic or bizarre or surprising, and those who fail to be interested in the spectacle that it offers are foregoing that one of the privileges that life has to offer.

Bertrand RussellThe Conquest of Happiness.

Work is a great source of inspiration and happiness and the world holds so much more. I will continue to blog about what I am privileged in this life to see, whether it is work or some thing else.  Whether it is joy, tragedy or comic, I hope we all learn something about ourselves and the spectacle that is life. Cheers.



In early January I found myself in the strange position of telling my father I had faith in his recovery and that he needed to have some too. Constantly faced with set backs due to infections that are inevitable when in the hospital for four months, he was weak in body and thus weak in mind. He would have let himself go at that point and as he told my brother, his heart was too strong to let him. So I found myself at his bedside after work telling him that I believed he would recover to the point that life would be worth living.

What is faith? Is it believing in capital g, God, or Allah, or the pantheon of the Norse? Is is choosing to believe that there is nothing beyond this life, that this mortal coil is all we have? Faith is any and all of those. Faith is believing in something and holding it as your very core. When you believe in something, it becomes your lamp post in the forest. From that place you can map out the world, and cling to it when the maelström surrounds you.

Life is chaotic. No matter how hard you try, life will always be unpredictable. You can make choices that swing the odds towards good things happening, and in the end all you have is your choices. So what do you do when bad things happen? You have to believe. That’s it, believe. You could believe that the world is out to get you, that it is never your fault and I don’t think that leads to a happy and fulfilling life. Believe in something positive and make that the foundation of your happiness.

When your faith is the foundation of your happiness, nothing can take it away from you. When you stripped naked before the world you can say, I believe, and I know I will be happy. It doesn’t mean you are always happy, it just means you know happiness is in you and you will be happy again. I think where people fail is they externalize their faith.

When you believe in a capital g God, you believe in an entity that is external to you. So you can attribute all actions, good and bad, to this external entity it leaves you foundering when things happen that make you unhappy. You can choose blind faith where you believe all their actions are good because, well, they’re God and that doesn’t tell you why so you will remain unhappy.

So what happens when you accept that you don’t know “WHY”? You are released from searching for answers that don’t exist and the unhappiness of a fruitless pursuit. And the only true why you can’t figure out is the big two, life and death. Pretty much everything else has some sort of answer and it is up to you to choose whether it is gods will, or because a butterfly flapped its wings. If you accept that life and death happen then you can stop asking why and start focusing on happiness.

I believe in me and I believe I will be happy, maybe not now but again soon if not now. I have faith. Do you?


Philosophy Rules!

People come, people go, subway trains go flying by me - but I just maintain my Zen trance, and calmly read my book...Philosophy is a great choice when picking a degree and we now have the data to prove it. A friend recently shared a blog post on Facebook that I wanted to highlight. This is an addendum to my earlier post “Humanities is a Good Choice” because graphics can a great way to communicate. The blog post in question leads with a graphic based on the data found here. As I was trying to find a link to the original graphic, I discovered at least 2 other blogs that commented on this data. I get the feeling that we philosophy majors are a bit insecure because we love it when we find evidence supporting our choice. I know I love data like this.


A Great Summary of Agile Development

For those using agile methodologies, Henrik Kniberg posted a great little video about agile (software) development. He tells the story from the view of a product owner and I think it is a very useful overview for anyone trying to understand how agile all fits together. So take just fifteen minutes out of your day and check it out.


A Lesson Remembered

It has been a busy summer. One of my major personal projects is a redo of the upstairs hall and main floor of my town house. At the start of the summer I had a contractor install wood floors and replace the stair railings. Since then I have been patching walls, painting and installing new trim. Part of that trim install is replacing the quarter round that went down the stairs with the baseboard being used in the hall and main floor. This is a feature in a friend’s century home and I like the look.

Because the stairs turn at the bottom without a landing the stringer, the piece of wood on the side that carries the treads, changes angles. I thought no problem as I have to cut the baseboard to fit against the half newel post that is against the wall, I will just use the same vertical cut at the transition and tie in. I have illustrated this with the red lines in Figure 1.

My initial cuts of the baseboard

Figure 1.

It wasn’t as easy as I thought. I ended up discarding two lengths of wood as I couldn’t get the angles to line up. You are probably wondering what is so hard about cutting a butt joint, but you don’t use a butt joint when joining two pieces of trim work. You cut them at 45 degrees so they overlap. When the wood shrinks, because the wood will shrink at some point, you aren’t faced with a big gap in your trim. Instead you have a shallow depression which you may not notice at all. The problem was cutting the 45 degree cut at an acute angle. No matter what I did, it just wouldn’t overlap cleanly. I was getting worried, as a 20 minute job had now taken me two hours and two pieces of not inexpensive trim were  now closet filler. For those that don’t do carpentry, closet filler is the short pieces that you can’t use in the main area because it would look terrible but nobody ever notices the patchwork in a closet.

So I did the best thing you can do when stuck on a problem. I stopped, I cleared my head of the ‘solution’ and looked at the problem fresh. Well not quite fresh because I knew what DIDN’T work. So I thought about the easiest solution, which is two 45 degree cuts at 90 degrees to the length of the board. That was when I realized I could to that, I just needed to change my orientation. I suddenly felt very Ender-ish (Read “Enders Game” by Orson Scott Card to understand that thought). I made the cut, shown by the red line in Figure 2, nipped off the bottom corner, on the angle shown by the black line, and finished in 20 minutes.

Cutting at from a different perspective

Figure 2.

The lesson I remembered was that sometimes you have to stop trying to make the ‘solution’ work and start all over with a fresh perspective. Sometimes you can reach this perspective on your own and sometimes you need help. The most important thing is to admit failure and use that failure as a learning point for finding the right solution.


Power Questions – A Review

The other day a colleague posted on her blog about the book “Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others“. Within minutes of reading her post, I had bought and started reading the book thanks to the power of electronic delivery. Why did I do that?

In my journey towards being a better father, friend, sibling, person I have read books such as “Crucial Conversations” and “Difficult Conversations“. Both are great books that have helped me stop making assumptions about others, learn to listen and to share more of my own thoughts in a respectful, non-confrontational way. In these books asking questions is essential to build understanding and the examples are all focused on emotionally volatile situations. That is great and isn’t always useful when you are looking to apply that same process outside of interpersonal situations.

In the past few years I have had the privilege of working with a couple of people who know how to ask power questions. Hopefully you know the type, the one who sits quietly listening then they ask the one question that completely re-frames the discussion into new and meaningful ways. And I have always wondering how do I develop that skill?

None of the questions in Power Questions were surprising or revelatory to me. The power of the questions comes from the story that told about how each question changed an interaction and made that interaction more meaningful. It allows you to imagine yourself, or remember yourself, in a conversation that would have benefited from the use of a power question. The story told with each question helps connect you with the question so that when faced with a similar situation you will recall the question.

So why did I buy the book? It is because I want to contribute in meaningful ways to the conversations I participate in both at work, and in life in general. This book is just one more tool that I can use to help me do that and well worth the few hours to read it. It is also a book that I think I will refer back to on a regular basis to help me tune my thinking.


Scott Berkun on Creativity

Scott Berkun, an author I greatly admire, posted a video where he talks about creativity and some ‘hacks’ to help you with creativity. This isn’t a “follow these steps and you will be creative” talk. Scott starts out by making the point, creativity is hard.

Scott begins by describing his view of creativity. He sees it as the combination of existing ideas. So there are no new ideas, only new ways of combining previous ideas to create something new. This is a view that I support. I certainly believe that we are the sum of everything we have done in our past though not in a deterministic way. It is non-deterministic in that we always have a choice and that our choices determine who we are.

After giving his view of creativity, Scott describes the three things that influence it, inhibition, environment and persistence. I think Scott has done a great job of distilling all the possible influences to these three items. I was unable to think of anything that couldn’t be categorized using the above.

And finally, Scott describes five hacks which help build creativity in different ways. I won’t give it all away and a summary would be, don’t trust your memory and change things up.

Check out the video as it is an hour well spent. If you don’t agree be sure to let me know and be creative about it.


Positive Influences

A colleague blogged about National Women’s History Month and celebrates it by reflecting on the women whom have had a positive influence in her life. Celebrating the positive people in our life is something we should do on a regular basis, and if you are like me, something you don’t do enough.

So following on dorianns example, I want to celebrate the top three women in my world. For the record, I am ordering the list by the length of time these women have been in my life. I am not elevating any one of them over another. They are all important to me.

The first is my sister. While we were not particularly close as children, as adults she has helped and supported me whenever I needed it. One of my great pleasures in life is being able to spend time with her.

The second is my daughter. While she isn’t yet a woman, it isn’t that many years away. The joy that she has brought to my life is unbelievable and she has forced me to grow in ways I never expected. Every day my daughter delights and amuses me and I truly look forward to her growing into adulthood.

And third, not to be confused with last, is my partner Wendy. For the first half of your life you live with an idea of what your life partner will be like. For me, it was mostly about someone who loved me to the core. For all my faults and idiosyncrasies, they would be there for me to pick me up when I fall and celebrate my successes. I found that person in Wendy.

So that is my top three. There are so many others, both family and friends, that I have had the honour to share time with in this life. To my top three women and everyone else, male and female, that fill my life with happiness, thank you!


Carpenter Programmer

So this is my third attempt at writing about being both a carpenter and a programmer. The first attempt started as a laundry list of attributes of carpenters and programmers and then a pitiful attempt to discuss them (sound of shredding paper). The second attempt started as a mind map of the skills and behaviours of each task then I attempted to write about the commonalities….(sound of shredding paper). This time there are no lists, just a stream of consciousness dumped to the editor for later manipulation. I have certainly thought about this enough, and hopefully managed to pull some coherency out of the pile that was.

If you follow the Software Craftmanship movement then this post is a no-brainer. Programming requires craftsmen as much as carpentry does so there is no need to contrast the two. And that would be a cop out and I rarely take the easy path.

Fundamentally, it is about the task and how it makes me feel. Whether I am writing a new function for a software package, or building a bookshelf for my daughter, it is the pleasure I get that counts. In the end whether it is a product of my mind or a product of my hands, I get to step back and admire my creation. I also get to identify the flaws and (hopefully) learn to do better next time.

I was fortunate to be born with a decent mind, spatial sense and dexterity. I also had some great role models. My father is a research scientist, author, carpenter, artist, botanist, musician and expert on historic building methods. His father was a medical doctor and war historian. I have an amazing collection of war histories and biographies on my bookshelves and a surprising amount of knowledge about the conflicts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries courtesy of him. My mother’s father was a mechanical genius and life long athlete. And the women were no slouches either and what I remember them most for is a love of reading, food and cooking. Oh, and impeccable table manners.

Where I am going with this is, when someone raises their eyebrows at carpenter and programmer, or a double major of computer  studies and philosophy, I am perplexed. My entire life I have been taught you can do anything you want and should definitely do the things you love. The only caveat I was ever given was that you should never pursue anything at the expense of others.

The same attributes that make me a good carpenter also make me a good programmer and they don’t make me a good vacuum salesman. And I also know that I don’t have to be good at something to love it because I am a poor singer and I still love doing it…usually alone so as not to irritate others.

In the end carpentry and programming make me happy, and being happy is good.

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