Posts tagged ‘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.


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.


The Importance of Dialogue

From Ed Yourdon's photostream
I was recently reminded about the importance of dialogue. I had the opportunity to dine with some very smart and interesting people courtesy of VersionOne and their sponsorship of Agilepalooza Irvine 2011. At dinner I was seated by David Hussman of DevJam who is a very good speaker, and has a interest in philosophy amongst other things. As David got up to leave, he asked me who my favourite philosopher is. I answered Wittgenstein as I have for the last 20 years and even as the words left my mouth, it didn’t feel right.

Dialogue is the exchange of ideas and opinions and it isn’t very easy. Some people are so busy speaking that they don’t stop to listen and others are uncomfortable with dialogue so they send emails, or they simply say nothing. Dialogue about philosophy is even harder because those who study philosophy are few. You don’t have to have studied philosophy at school, you just need to have read it and thought about it. And thinking about it isn’t enough, you need to have a dialogue about it.

When you read something, or listen to someone talk, that is only half the process. The second half of the process is to discuss what you think you learned with others. This process helps you solidify your own understanding and (hopefully) forces you to evaluate your own opinions. When David asked me who my favourite philosopher I started to think about it and after some thought realized Wittgenstein is no longer the answer. Without the discussion, I would not have realized this, or perhaps come to this conclusion far later in life. After a fair bit of thought, I can conclusively say Bertrand Russell is my favourite philosopher. I am still fond of Wittgenstein and he is no longer my favourite.

So I have (re)learned that without dialogue you are missing half the learning and I resolve to initiate dialogue about the things I am thinking about. Without that dialogue I don’t know if I have really learned anything, and if you don’t learn anything whats the point?

And unless I figure out how to get people to start commenting, these blog posts are not helping me learn. Tell me about your experiences with the importance of dialogue.



I have been struggling with writing this post for two reasons. One, this is a very personal post and I didn’t know where to start. My sister wrote a brilliant piece for her on-line newsletter (full text here) that brought tears to my eyes. Below is an excerpt that captures what I struggled to write and some of the sentiment she shared:

On Sunday, October 9, my seventy-nine year old father went to play in the ocean in Spain. A huge wave slammed him to the ground, and in a freakish twist also slammed him into a chunk of board. This created severe trauma to the spinal chord causing massive swelling. He was instantly rendered immobile from the neck down.

From that moment on, I was fully awakened to what gratitude truly is.

I am eternally grateful to the Universe that his neck did not snap. We were told he would have died instantly.

I am eternally grateful to the young man who rushed to help pull my dad from the grips of the ocean.

I am eternally grateful to this same young man who phoned 911.[Robert’s note: it is 112 in Spain]

I am eternally grateful to this young man’s girlfriend who rushed to the boardwalk to direct the emergency crews to our location on the beach.

I am eternally grateful to my brother’s friend who rushed my brother and his husband to the beach.

I am eternally grateful to this same friend who held me and my sister-in-law close to him while the paramedics worked on my dad.

How do you describe such an event that so deeply affects your life? My sister did a great job. For me the hardest thing to get over is when I turned and saw my father floating face down in the water. That image leaps to mind every time I think of my dad, my mum, and the current situation. Fortunately I have more than 40 years of great memories to counter it with, and I look forward to the day it fades into the background, though never gone.

Now I entitled this post causality and here is why. As an intelligent person of no real religious conviction, I feel that we are generally in control of our own destiny. For every decision we make, we first calculate the odds of various outcomes, then choose an action that is most desirable with the least negative consequences. Unfortunately, the universe is far more diverse, and perhaps a little perverse, than we can ever imagine. My cousin summed this up so very well in this note to the family:

 It’s wonderful to bob up and down in the waves and feel the power in the surf zone. Physics never take a holiday though and will school us throughout life.

My father debated for quite some time as to whether he would enter the water. He was concerned about getting chilled, or overwhelmed by wave or undertow. However, given descriptions of light undertow and warm waters he went in. He told my brother that he was about to get out when the accident happened. He wanted just one more wave. The one thing that I can say with fair certainty is that my father does not regret his choices.

For every decision there are consequences and you can blame others, and play the victim, or move forward and make new choices with what you have learned. I will continue to make the best decisions I can, accept the consequences and celebrate the successes, and never shy away from the next one.

While we wait to for the swelling to subside, my father follows the doctors instructions and signs are hopeful that he will recover. In the mean time he is learning Spanish, and making new plans for his future.


Digging into MAS 90 and 200

So I am going to be taking a new direction for some of my blog posts. This new direction with be into the depths of MAS 90 and 200. Don’t panic if you like my posts up to now, I will continue to post my thoughts on all manner of things and I will be sharing my learnings as I dive into the technical side of MAS 90 and 200.

For those of you not familiar with MAS 90 and 200, it is the Sage enterprise resource planning (ERP) application for small and medium sized businesses. The reason I am involved with MAS 90 and 200 is because it runs on ProvideX, which is the development environment that I have been helping produce for the the last 11 years. In October 2010 we realigned our ProvideX business, turning the sales and support of all external Sage customers of ProvideX over to PVX Plus Technologies. This allows those of us on the ProvideX side of the business to really focus our efforts on making MAS 90 and 200 an even better product than it already is.

So I have been dabbling with MAS 90 and 200 for 11 years now. I know enough to be dangerous and knowing more will help me provide better input when we discuss the future to the product. The posts will be fairly technical in nature about such things as the object oriented business framework, the plug-in for Eclipse, and other things that mostly developers will be interested in. I hope that my posts will help those with more years of experience with MAS 90 and 200 find things that they didn’t know and also assist those new to MAS 90 and 200. Please provide feedback when I go awry and about topics that you would like an in depth analysis of.


Becoming a Writer

Is it just me, or do things regularly converge in ways that are unexpected? Perhaps they shouldn’t be unexpected as it is our focus that draws them together but some things are random events that just seem to be timed too perfectly. So what am I going on about? I just read “Made to Stick” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, my brother published his first full length ebook on Amazon, and at work we needed someone edit a document on managerial core competencies.

So I recently read “Made to Stick” which is a book about why some ideas ‘stick’ or resonate with an audience. It is a very thought provoking book covering such topics as newspaper articles, campaign strategies and slogans, and corporate mission statements. The premise is that there are six principles that make ideas stick. If what you are communicating hits enough of these six principles then your idea ‘sticks’ with the audience. As I read through the book it got me thinking about the construction of my blog posts, among other things. How could I apply what I learned from the book to improve the quality of my blog posts?

In the middle of May my brother announced that his first full length ebook had been published in the Kindle store on Amazon. This is an achievement for my brother some six (I think) years in the making. He gave up his successful business and house here in Canada and moved to Europe to dedicate himself to writing. And he stuck with it resulting in the aforementioned book. Now, as his brother you would expect me to heap praise on his book just because he is my brother but that wouldn’t be me. To be honest, I was dreaded starting it because I expected it to be a slog. The night I started it, I picked it up about 11 PM, and didn’t look at the clock until 1:30 AM. It was excellent and I rushed through it looking forward to discovering how it would end. Through dedication and hard work my brother had transformed himself into a writer of books that I was interested in reading. Could I do the same with myself and create blog posts that would attract readers?

At work we have been working on creating core competency documents for all the staff in our research and development organization. We had previously created a document for all the non-managerial positions, a process with I shepherded. We are now working on the same document for the managerial positions and I am once again the chief editor and shepherd. I didn’t write the initial draft, that was done by another director. My job is to rewrite the document based on the initial feedback of all the directors. This document isn’t just a bunch of job descriptions, the what you are suppose to do but rather the principles that each level should be following to accomplish their job. This ties very much into “Made to Stick”. A good corporate mission statement can help every employee choose the right path for the company by informing them as to the best action. That is what this document is suppose to do for managers, provide them with the yard stick against which to measure their actions. If the managers follow the core competency document then they will have guidance on each tactical decision they make.

So all three of this things came together in a very short period of time which lead to this blog post. I had to ask myself if I wanted to become a writer. Did I really enjoy writing? Writing isn’t something I have done extensively since I graduated from university.

Can I write a blog, or a corporate document, that people want to read, that communicates clearly what I am trying to say? Will it cause people to think about what I said? Only time will tell, and perhaps the fact that you read this far.

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