Manual Work is a Bug

My own personal story:  A long time ago, I was a farm kid on my grandfather’s farm.  The neighboring town decided to outlaw the carbide noise makers (like this one) that we used to keep crows off the corn…at peak harvest.  Understandable, but we would have lost the commercial value of the sweet corn crop for the year.

So 14-year-old me got to be a walking scarecrow for a week, in 100 degree heat and 95+% humidity, with a big straw hat and a gallon jug of water that became disgustingly warm as the day went on.

What I learned from this:

  1. Sometimes you have to take one for the team.
  2. In the long run, there are some tasks that human beings shouldn’t do, that should be automated.  (In this case, I was the stopgap in going *backwards* away from an existing automated solution).  We dropped sweet corn as a crop after that year.
  3. The small family farm is a dead end; the margins are too small to make a decent living, so I was the last of 10 generations of family to work that farm.  It wasn’t practical to aggregate the farm with others, as the state had run two highways through it, but that, as they say, is another story.
  4. Corollary: You have to move on from time to time and refresh your approach if you want to succeed.  This is a good general lesson.

Given this, and my history in software development and IT operations, I wholeheartedly agree with the article below.

Every IT team should have a culture of constant improvement – or movement along the path toward the goal of automating whatever the team feels confident in automating, in ways that are easy to change as conditions change. As the needle moves to the right, the team learns from each other’s experiences, and the system becomes easier to create and safer to operate.

Source: Manual Work is a Bug


Terrific senior software leader available, full-time or consulting

Are you in a startup, and you feel that coaching would help with morale, achievement, and results? Do you feel that the team is too small, or unbalanced?  Are you looking to reduce the amount of rework you have to do, or for better engagement with customers?

Yes, I am available.  Let’s talk.

Things that make you go ‘hmm’

It’s just an off-the-cuff observation, but: although global warming is accurate, it’s a completely unhelpful observation. The real ‘hits you where you notice it’ change is ‘climate change.’

This week’s climate change notice: Major snowstorms on the east coast of the US (‘Snomageddon’), and not enough snow for the winter olympics in British Columbia, Canada.  While the real Great White North is somewhere between Ontario and Quebec, it’s still waaay up north.

It’s climate change; yes, it’s real, and no, there’s not enough data to accelerate bizarro multi-billiion-dollar government driven economic compulsion that North Americans should just stop driving cars.

Let’s keep our eyes on what the real issue is folks: we want to have better lives. Fossil fuels are just another kind of leverage, specifically potential energy leverage. Leverage for human effort is what makes us rich.

Building teams: Developers, not Programmers

If you aren’t in the software development business, this post is not for you.  These aren’t the droids you are looking for.  Move along!

Once upon a time, it was Good Enough to have wicked good coding skills.  Master programmers would hand out assignments to the rest of the team, who would code up the concepts and go their merry way.  However, those times are long gone; not only are coding skills regularly taught in high school (all over the world), but even the higher level skill of programming to specifications, not designs, has become a commodity.

I personally believe that the best answer to the commodification of skills is refactor jobs and skill sets.  With this in mind, I am thoroughly convinced that people who were once content to be “programmers” need to be “developers”– consumate professionals able to solve the “whole problem” and take a design task from concept to production.

The fundamentals of business and career growth remain the same: find a need and fill it.  However, there’s no longer a need for 100% code jockeys.  That’s OK; solving the real problem is more fun, and pays better.  (Anyone who I have worked with over the years will recognize that I’m consistent on this point…and most of them have moved on to bigger and better things.  If you are reading this, do drop me a line or post a comment.)

As always, best regards,


Why morale matters

The McKinsey Quarterly has a good interview with Brad Bird (director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille). I’ve been following Pixar with great interest over the years, partly because I have a couple of old friends who work there (Hi guys!), and partly because I really believe in what they are doing (changing from being a software vendor in a niche market to being a major motion picture studio: brilliant!). In my opinion, Pixar is the poster child for the “eat your own dog food” school of management, and deserves their success. (How good is Renderman? Well, it’s good enough that we’ve won Oscars with movies we’ve built on it!)

In my experience, THE key issue on the performance of teams is to get the morale and the synergy of the teams going. This involves selecting the right people, keeping the great players in the team, and keeping the ideas flowing.

Here’s a great quote from the interview:

The Quarterly: It sounds like you spend a fair amount of time thinking about the morale of your teams.

Brad Bird: In my experience, the thing that has the most significant impact on a movie’s budget—but never shows up in a budget—is morale. If you have low morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about 25 cents of value. If you have high morale, for every $1 you spend, you get about $3 of value. Companies should pay much more attention to morale.

Brad is being very low-key here; the emphasis is mine. In my experience, this is exactly correct.

Read the rest of the interview for how and why Brad worked on morale.

What are you doing to increase the morale of your team (and your family, and the broader group of people you work with) TODAY? I’m talking about hugs and compliments; what are you doing to recognize people as individuals, to listen to them, and to make them feel listened to?

More later in the blog, on building a team of “Developers versus Programmers.”

Have a great weekend,

Getting cranky about “IT Policy,” and improving your password practices

I just read a helpful article about tuning organizational password policy but I’m afraid it rubbed me the wrong way.

What it says is helpful and mostly good practice, but it fails to address the problem from the perspective of the users, and does the usual “well, this will be a pain for the users, but it’s good policy, so we’re recommending it,” which is one of many reasons why people hate IT departments. (I say this as a seasoned IT professional, and I hate us, too. 😉

IF you notice that YOUR passwords violate any of these rules, chances are that they are already broken. Change them now.

To all password users, everywhere: Make your passwords unguessable as best you can. If someone guesses your password, change it. Corollary 1: Since you can’t know if someone might have guessed your password, change it from time to time. If you feel that you have to make a list of passwords, make a list of reminders, not the actual passwords, and keep it safe (not where someone can look at it without you knowing about it). More detail below.

HOW: Continue reading “Getting cranky about “IT Policy,” and improving your password practices”

Now absolute for Toronto, but perhaps useful elsewhere: Keep raccoons out of your green recycling bin

In use.
Installed and closed.

Toronto uses a ‘green bin’ system to recycle and compost organic waste. Toronto also has a highly active raccoon population, which quickly tips, opens, scatters, and eats the leftovers in the green bin. This is risky from a health perspective, as raccoons are carriers of roundworms, can be rabid, and will escalate once they establish your home as a source of food.

There are many solutions to this problem. Toronto FINALLY implemented a proper anti-raccoon lock with an all-new bin solution. It’s not perfect, but it does render the below obsolete.

ELSEWHERE, feel free to use this. Cheap, cheerful, works-ish.

Without further ado, here is mine, and a bit of description of the design space.

The requirement: keep the raccoons out of the recycling.
The solution space: cheap, people-friendly, and does not require locking the bin in an enclosure, since many people do not have a convenient place for the enclosure.

Typical solutions involve locking straps, multiple screws, and some sort of buckling mechanism. These work well.

Mine is one loop of Velcro One-Wrap, and a screw. Tools needed, a screwdriver, a sharp knife point, and a drill or small flat screwdriver bit suitable for making a pilot hole in the body of the green bin. (A Leatherman tool will frequently have all of these. I favor the ‘Juice S2‘ for everyday use.)

  1. Take the roll of One-Wrap. Hold the end of the Velcro in your hand. Wrap it around your hand until it completely overlaps on your palm.
  2. With a sharp penknife or utility blade, cut a 5mm slit in the velcro so that you can pass a screw through it, just below the overlap region. You will use this hole to securing the loop to the body of the green bin with a screw, below.
  3. Push the screw through the velcro, so that the head is inside the loop
  4. Place the velcro loop on the bale of the green bin, and close it. Use the sharp end of the screw to mark the body of the green bin.
  5. Using your drill or small screwdriver bit, make a pilot hole for the screw
  6. Drive the screw into the body of the green bin

Notes on using this device:

  • The velcro must be firmly and fully coupled on the overlapping part to keep the raccoons out
  • When you take the bin out on the morning of recycling/garbage day, remember to undo the velcro.  Toronto Garbage will not open it (nor any other strap that I can find on the market).
  • In practice, the loop lasts for about a year due to weathering. I recommend replacing it each Spring.
  • The largest failure (in three five years of practice) is human error: someone dropping a recycling bag into the bin, and forgetting to re-close it.

Feedback, requests for clarification, commentary, kudos and complaints are all welcome.

HOWEVER, I make no warranty or claim of suitability, as I’m NOT selling this to you. It does work for me. It won’t work for you. Seriously, you’ll lose a load or two of recycling to the raccoons because you’ll forget to close it properly, or the loop will become stiff with age and need to be replaced, but it’s radically better than nothing, and very inexpensive.

As a helpful commenter notes, below, there’s also a good commercial solution ( If this doesn’t work for you, upgrade to that.