Square Root Of Change

Back in the early 1990s, I was working in IT at a multi-billion dollar manufacturing company. Ours was a small part of IT, separate from the mother ship. Responsible for about 2000 employees in our area, we had implemented several large projects over a two-year span; all bringing changes to the employees. I was a young IT acolyte, and I thought all change was good, great even. Why were people so grumpy? Sigh. I was so naïve.

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The Fake Image/Video Arms Race Continues

It is not always easy to tell the difference between real and fake photographs. But the pressure to get it right has never been more urgent as the amount of false political content online continues to rise. On Tuesday, Jigsaw, a company that develops cutting-edge tech and is owned by Google’s parent, unveiled a free tool that researchers said could help journalists spot doctored photographs — even ones created with the help of artificial intelligence.

Tool to Help Journalists Spot Doctored Images Is Unveiled by Jigsaw – The New York Times

This is a good arms race. Fake photos and videos exist and will get harder to detect. This is the side that will fight to identify those fakes. I hope there are others.

Helping People Understand Data

We are flooded with data and we don’t understand most of it. While the below HBR tip of the day has specifics about communicating outside the company, I think that the basic concept — helping people understand the data — is a fundamental part of being a Business Analyst.

Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

The standard mantra you hear is “too much data, not enough information” or “information is data made actionable”. These sayings are all getting at the fact that looking at data does not convey everything that we can learn from the data. Understand what is being looked at, understand the limitations of the data, understanding the assumptions in the data, understanding the cleanliness of the data. That is critical to having a business leverage the data they have.

But data can steer you wrong if you don’t know the information around the data.

When someone is looking at a report, is it easy to see the metadata? When someone looks at a spreadsheet or a PDF output of some sort, can they see where the data comes from and what assumptions are in place?

It is easy to simply slap a report out for the requester to get what they want. Too often, the requester and the report writer miss the fact that someone else is going to use this report six months from now and not have the same background the requester had. Or think differently from the requester.

So when writing reports or creating spreadsheets or otherwise presenting DATA that is meant to be understood, consider adding this information (automatically updated, of course) to them:

  • metadata (date of data, all the parameters, specified and implied filter and sort parameters)
  • Where did the data come from? Can you provide a link back to the original data for detail reports?
  • What are the calculated fields and what are the calculations?
  • Who is responsible for the data?
  • Who do I talk to if I have questions?
  • Do the field names make absolute sense to everyone looking at the report?

Here is another tip, this one is from Harvard Business Review:

Help People Understand Your Data by Making It Relatable
People can’t use data to make decisions if they don’t understand what the numbers mean. To help colleagues wrap their heads around a data point — how big or tiny it is, how important it should seem — compare it with something concrete and relatable. When you’re talking about lengths of time, frame your data in terms of flights between cities, TV episodes, or how long it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn — whatever your audience will know. When you’re talking about size, use places and things that are familiar to listeners. For instance, if you were trying to show a San Francisco audience what 1 million users really looks like, you might mention the San Francisco Giants baseball field, which has 41,915 seats: “Our users would fill the stadium almost 24 times.” Articulating figures this way can keep the narrative from getting lost in the numbers.
This HBR tip is adapted from “3 Ways to Help People Understand What Your Data Means,” by Nancy Duarte

xkcd: Unreachable State – been there, done that…

As a developer, I was so tempted to put messages like this in the parts of the code that should never execute. I did a couple of times, although never this clever. I’m not up on the latest programming languages, but I imagine that it is still possible to have these places of despair. These ‘black holes’ of code where you should never go but if you do, you will never recover.

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A software developer and a software tester walk into a bar…

A software developer and a software tester walk into their newly opened bar. The tester orders a beer. Orders 0 beers. Orders 99999999999 beers. Orders a lizard. Orders -1 beers. Orders a ueicbksjdhd. The developer says, “See? It all worked. I told you everything was fine.” First real customer walks in and asks where the bathroom is. The bar bursts into flames, killing everyone.

Heard a variation of this at work the other day. Note, I have been both developer and tester in my career and fell into the above trap several times.

For those few of you that smiled at this, I strongly recommend reading the replies to this Tweet. It is hilarious. https://twitter.com/brenankeller/status/1068615953989087232?lang=en

Getting The Most out of Your Cell Phones

Mobile phones are going to be here for a while. At the risk of writing a post that will be useless in a few years, here are some thoughts on helping you stay in control. Make the phone act like a tool that is invisible unless you need to use it.

  1. Immediately after installing a new app, go into settings. Look around a bit to see what things they allow you to control. Since useful instructions rarely come with apps, this is sometimes the only way (other than web searching the app) to find out what features there are.
  2. Control your notifications. Almost every app has a Settings option. Under settings, there is almost always a Notifications options. Turn off all notifications. Everything. There should only be a few things (text, maybe email) on your phone that actually make a sound or vibrate.
  3. Web search the name of your new phone and look for tips and tricks in the results. You might find a few things you didn’t know.
  4. Set security. Swiping to unlock is not the best idea. Depending on your phone, there are lots of options. Learn what they are and pick one that seems the best for you.
  5. If something frustrates you about your phone, chances are there is a way to make it better. Web search for your phone name and the problem. It may require that you learn something or change the way you do something. Sorry.

I believe that a big part of keeping your phone invisible is controlling when the phone tries to get your attention. You decide when you want to interact with your phone, not the phone. Setting the security to what works for you and protects you, allows you to get into your phone quickly.

Do you control your technology or does it control you?

Signal To Noise: Managing what comes at you

In telecommunications, the concept of Signal To Noise Ratio has been around for a long time. The basic concept is the signal (what you are trying to communicate) and the noise (all the crap that isn’t the signal) are related. The higher the ratio of signal to noise, the better. High ratio: more signal, less noise. Low ratio: less signal, more noise.

A high Signal To Noise ratio is a good thing. Thinking about the concept, not the math, if we have better signal and less noise, we have better communication.

This post is mainly about receiving communication. This includes talking to someone, email, texting, social media, etc. Some of this is obvious: if you are trying to listen to someone and there is a jackhammer going on five feet away, there is too much noise to hear. If someone texts you with a name you need and wraps it up in 2000 characters of opinions and other useless info, that is bad signal to noise.

But there are some non-obvious ways to look at it.

If you get a lot of unnecessary emails or texts, it will be harder to find those that you want to get. We can keep an eye out for message from people we want to hear from, but we will miss messages. The list of things to read (the list of conversations in your text messages, your email inbox) is something that has a signal to noise ratio.

If we have curated our social feed, we have lower noise and better signal..

Consider a few possibilities

  • Email: be vicious in unsubscribing from things that you don’t actively need. Be proactive in managing your inbox.
  • Social feeds: be aggressive at muting, blocking, unfollowing those that post noise (you get to define that). If you complain about Facebook or Twitter about how much stuff you have to scroll to see anything interesting, then you are following too many of the wrong accounts.
  • Learn the controls available to you. Yes, it is a pain when Facebook, et al, keep changing their feed algorithms and add/remove settings. But learning them takes time. Yes, understanding Gmail’s tab structure and conversations seems overly complicated. However, spending a few minutes trying to figure out how to use them to your advantage will save you lots of time in the long run.

Curate your electronic life. It pays off quickly.

Electronic Bits
Coming fast from everywhere
Are you in control
?

Inbox: friend or foe

https://xkcd.com/2181/
xkcd: https://xkcd.com/2181/

If your job doesn’t fundamentally depend on your email*, then ask yourself if you control your email or if email controls you. Our Email Is A Monster (Oatmeal). Some ideas to consider:

  1. No matter how focused you are, when that little window flashes up in the corner of your screen or your phone beeps, you have at best a micro-distraction that derails your thinking and at worst a full distraction. Turn off your email notifications and schedule time during the day to open email.
  2. Signal (high priority emails) to noise (low priority emails) in your inbox is a problem. Not all emails are equally worthy of your time. If conditional formatting (like in Outlook) is available, use it. Set a condition for when you are on the CC list. Read those last. Set a condition for when you are the only one on the TO: list. Set conditions for people that you need to respond to right away.

* Customer service type jobs and a few others do require constant vigilance of an inbox so the above suggestions don’t help you. Hopefully you have other techniques to make things more efficient.

Marginal Revolution: Is the generalist returning?

This Marginal Revolution article, based off the article “At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor” from The Atlantic, brings up a good point about specialization and generalizing: our current economy may be diverging from the standard theory that bigger and more complex economies and industries require more specialists.

Or in other words, you may not wish to specialize with your truly scarce factor, namely labor. 

Marginal Revolution: Is the generalist returning? by  Tyler Cowen June 24, 2019 at 12:38 am 

We are seeing this in my company. In the past, we had specialists in most areas. In the last few years, speed and flexibility have become more important. In order to get that speed and flexibility, employees that have more general skills are more valuable because we can move them around to meet specific needs.

This is true on the production floor, engineering, and even IT. Having Business Analysts that can jump in and help any of the departments improve is better than having Business Analysts that can only support one or two departments.

Obviously, this is a function of the size of company. finding or building a BA that can effectively jump into any department of a billion dollar company is really hard. Project Managers, sure. BAs, not so much.

If this is true, and I think it is, what are the implications for those at the beginning of their career? The initial take is to head into careers that are more general or make sure you don’t limit yourself.

This does not, however, mean the death of the specialist. Maybe it means the opposite. The BA generalists I mention above will frequently require help in deeper technical knowledge. They will need programmers, deep ERP experts, deep business experts to support their efforts to improve the business. Those people will deeper more specialized knowledge for the BA to use.

So maybe developers need to be more specialized, focusing on one technology or platform? Maybe not. There has long been a class of programmers that fit the cliche of “a champion can win on any field”. They are very good at picking up new programming languages, connecting to new interfaces, understanding new kinds of databases. Maybe their specialty is not the specific of the technology, but their ability to create software to meet a need. Those developers are more valuable than a developer than only knows one language and one database.

So maybe each career (an ill-defined word here) is really a set of generalist skills and specialty skills. Those that can build a strong set of generalist skills and and apply them to needed, and ever changing, specialty skills are what is really in the highest demand.

The ability to learn quickly does then become a fundamental life skill.

Creepiness–Convenience Tradeoff

A good article from the Nielsen Norman Group, a group that focuses on technology (generally software) user experiences. The site itself is a good resource for those developing technology for larger groups of people such as companies or the general public.

Summary: As people consider whether to use the new “creepy” technologies, they do a type of cost-benefit analysis weighing the loss of privacy against the benefits they will receive in return.

Hiring Interns

If you are fortunate enough to work at a company that has an intern program, make sure you take advantage of it. Having interns in an IT department is a great way to find new talent, extend the skills of existing staff, and bring young energy into the department.

Requirements for interns are not high. My top four items are

  1. Show Up On Time
  2. Work Hard
  3. Learn Fast
  4. Have Fun

This applies regardless of where in the IT department we are putting them. (It also applies to every job everywhere, but that is a different post.)

If the position is for the Help Desk, I would add 5) Basic troubleshooting skills, and 6) Friendly. If the position is a Business Analyst intern, I would add 5) good writing skills and 6) a sense of curiosity.