The Right Stuff

I know it’s been a long time since I last posted, but I think it is relevant to discuss training and education, especially in software development. This has been a topic weighing on my mind a lot the past several years.

In the past 20 years since I made the leap into my career path, I have witnessed many changes in technology. The microprocessor and the internet have taken over nearly every facet of our daily lives. It is quite remarkable where we came from to where we are today, and to think it has only been that short of a time while I’ve been a professional.

When I first started writing software, we didn’t have the rich toolsets we have now. We had some very basic compiler suites, or command line compilation using a text editor to edit the source files. We also didn’t have the libraries available today. Most problems we had to solve from scratch. Finally, to top it off, we didn’t have Google to save the day when we needed that snippet of code to hybridize into our own solution. We had to know how to write algorithms to solve problems. The solutions weren’t handed to us, and we weren’t coddled to the answer via great tools that auto complete our lines of code, and format our code and give us instant feedback to errors or omissions without compilation and trial and error.

I may sound like an codgidy old man, and maybe I am, but I think having to solve problems from scratch taught my generation a lot about problem solving. I think this is the magic bullet that is missing from the college curriculum, work training programs, or coding bootcamps. I think all of those things are great, and there is some foundational stuff there, but these folks are missing out on algorithm design. This is the foundation for which all software works. You have to be able to solve problems. You can’t just rely on Google or great tools to solve them for you.

So, here I plead to anyone affiliated with these software development educational programs, spend some time on bubble sort or binary search. Teach your students about how to extract a subset of text from a string, or how to increment numbers exponentially. Spend some time on conditional logic, and order of operation. All of these things have value, and while pretty basic, they are the building blocks that we are skipping over to get to the cool IDE or the latest tool or JavaScript library.

What Yoda taught me about being a mentor

Like I mentioned in my blog post, What I’ve Learned from Mr. Miyagi, the elderly, wise, green alien creature from the Star Wars saga, Yoda, was another model for how I learned to be a great mentor. I didn’t know it at the time, but while I watched The Empire Strikes Back when I was a young boy, I was learning many life skills while I dreamed of being Luke Skywalker flying an X-Wing, commanding the force, taking on the bag guys, and learning to overcome the dark side, and in particular, Darth Vader.

Yoda was introduced into the story when Luke Skywalker crash lands into Dagobah, a swampy forest planet. After a moment trying to gather his surroundings, Yoda arrives in scene as a quirky, curious, alien creature who speaks in broken english, but still shows some sarcastic and quippy wisdom when he speaks. For instance, when Yoda asks Luke why he is there, after some banter, Luke states, “I’m looking for a great warrior.” Yoda immediately in his broken english language states, “Great warrior? War’s not make one great.”

You can watch the entire dialog above, but the truth of the introduction is that Luke is overconfident, and almost cocky. He has many thoughts about how everything works, how he is supposed to become a Jedi Knight, how his destiny is supposed to pan out, and in reality, he has much growing up to do. Luke is like many of us when we start out on our career paths. We have a small education and maybe some bits and pieces of real world experience, but in practice, we don’t have much experience at all.

Many of us, when seeking mentorship, are ready to receive it. Luke, on the other hand, was not. He argues with Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi’s force ghost about whether he is ready to be a Jedi Knight or not. Eventually, they all agree he will finish what he starts and become the Jedi Knight he is meant to become. This submission of will is important, because being a good mentee is about submitting to the process, knowing that in the future you’ll be able to expand your wings and fly on your own.

Yoda trained Luke on calming his mind and approaching challenges in a clear frame of mind and to stay focused. He also taught Luke small concepts and allowed him to build upon them later, even though he didn’t know why he was doing them in the first place. This idea of foundational building was something I explored with how Mr. Miyagi trained Daniel in The Karate Kid. This was the same with Yoda. He started by having Luke move small objects with the force. Later in the training scenes, he had Luke try and move his X-Wing from the swamp as it began to sink. He utters some of his best lines during this scene, “No. Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.” or Luke saying, “I don’t believe it,” when Yoda uses the force to move his X-Wing from the swamp and Yoda replies, “That is why you fail.”

I use these same techniques when I mentor. I often only give out bite size pieces of information which are enough to get the job at hand completed. This allows my mentees to become masters of that technique faster, and later one we can connect the dots. Keeping things simple is a core value of mine. Not only is it the best way to keep things progressing, but there are many times I learn new techniques as well. As I have explored in many of my previous posts, including Teach a Man To Fish, I point out that the best leaders and mentors surround themselves with smart people, and allow them permission to fail. Everyone gets an opportunity for growth this way.

In conclusion, Yoda and many other wise sages in many movies taught me much about how I mentor today. Lessons such as keeping things simple, staying focused and submitting to the process are all key to growth. We will explore this more in the future, but for now, venture out and try these things out for your teams.  May the force be with you.

What I’ve Learned From Mr. Miyagi

Like many kids who grew up in the 1980’s, I learned a lot about life from two wise sages. First, was Yoda, the green, grumpy, 900 year old Jedi master, who trained Luke Skywalker to reach his potential and overcome against all odds to destroy the dark side forever (Well, at least until Episode VII came out in 2015, because the dark side somehow came back again). I often quote Yoda to my wife’s dismay with, “No. Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”

We’ll tackle Yoda in a future post, but in the interest of staying more grounded in reality, I’d like to focus on my second choice, and that is Mr. Kesuke Miyagi or Mr. Nariyoshi Miyagi, as he went by both names in the movie series. For the purposes of how I knew him, Daniel Laruso, his student in most of the movies, called him Mr. Miyagi, so that is how I knew him as well.

Mr. Miyagi was a fictional character, but the things he did and said in the three Karate Kid movies (I know there was a fourth one much later and then a remake after Pat Morita died featuring Jackie Chan as the Karate mentor) were very much things that shaped who I am and how I live my own life, even today. I constantly find myself quoting Mr. Miyagi as well. “Walk on the road? Walk right side safe. Walk left side safe. Walk middle, sooner or later get squished just like grape.”

Mr. Miyagi seemed to always have a solution, but I think it was just a confidence in his response, even if he didn’t know how the outcome might play out. In the first movie, there was a scene on the beach where some racist drunk guys didn’t want to move from their spot so Mr. Miyagi and Daniel could leave. They had taken up shop on Mr. Miyagi’s truck and had placed several empty beer bottles there. Mr. Miyagi asks them to remove the bottles so they can leave and they refuse. He then proceeds to Karate chop the beer bottles in half, and the guys remove them and scurry off. Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi how he did that, and he simply replies, “I don’t know. First time.” You can watch below, skip ahead to about 2:36 for the scene.

This scene is perfect Mr. Miyagi with a little humor and humility, simplicity and yet in complete control. This is a theme with Mr. Miyagi throughout the entire series. Another scene that demonstrates this is when he takes Daniel to the Cobra Kai dojo to talk to the bully kids and their sensei in hopes that they might leave Daniel alone. When Mr. Miyagi realizes this won’t happen he volunteers Daniel to fight in the All Valley Karate Tournament in return for no more bullying. The sensei agrees. After leaving Daniel is furious that he has to fight, and Mr. Miyagi says something to the effect of, “I just saved you two months beatings!”

Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel lessons using cryptic methods, but it all came back to simplicity. I’m sure nearly everyone knows “Wax on. Wax off.” or “Sand the floor.” or “Paint the fence.” or “Side to side”. These being his way of instructing Daniel in the basics of self defense. He also had him do manual labor to build strength and endurance.

Mr. Miyagi understood how to live a rewarding life, even though you knew throughout the films that he struggled with this himself. He was an immigrant and veteran of World War II. He lost his wife and unborn child during the time he was away at war and never really let go of this, and while they never stated it directly in the movie, they definitely implied he probably battled some sort of alcohol abuse grieving these losses. He at least commemorates the anniversary each year by dressing up in his military uniform and by getting hammered to the point he passes out. Daniel finds him during an anniversary and sees a side of his friend and mentor to show he is just a man with flaws who is doing the best he can.

In the second movie, we discover that Mr. Miyagi also had a relationship before he left Okinawa. He and his best friend were going to fight to the death over a woman, and Mr. Miyagi knew he couldn’t kill his friend, so he gave up his love and left the island. When he returns he finds that he still loves her and she never married and never stopped loving him either. Of course, as these things go, he leaves to go back home at the end, but he and his friend patch up their relationship before he leaves, and all is well (I guess?).

Mr. Miyagi, while a man with flaws, also shows great wisdom in the entirety of the series (even the fourth film I suppose). He says statements of simplicity and devises simple challenges to get his points across and be the best mentor and friend to Daniel he can be. As a leader, there is much to be learned from Mr. Miyagi’s approach to leadership. Keeping things simple is often the best way to empower those you lead to take ownership themselves and become the best they can be while you nudge them in the right direction from time to time.

One Play at a Time

Today brings sad news that former NFL head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. There are plenty of news sources reporting that he has been suffering from this terrible disease now for about five years.

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As a Kansas Citian who is still in his 30’s (barely), my formative years were spent watching Marty lead the Kansas City Chiefs using awe inspiring quotes about getting the gleam, igniting the rocket ship, or taking it one play at a time. His voice was familiar to me, as every time I turned on the radio or television, I couldn’t escape his voice saying, “Nothing stops a Trane”, as the spokesperson of Trane HVAC systems. His voice was so familiar he seemed like someone I knew, like a long lost uncle.

Marty was an iconic figure in my mind and to me was the epitome of a head coach. He was known for Martyball, with his run dominated offense and outstanding defenses. He even got a polka song written for him! He led talented and not so talented teams to really good records. He only had two losing seasons in his career, his final one in Kansas City in 1998, where the promising season derailed and finished at 7-9 and his second season in San Diego in 2003, where they went 4-12, but followed that record in 2004 with a 12-4 record and first place finish in the AFC West.

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With all of his success, he still kept things very simple. He was very focused on the task at hand and didn’t get caught up in looking backwards or forwards. This is something I try and do in my career and life. In any situation, you only have control over your next action. You can’t hit the undo button and get another shot at what you already did and you can’t skip forward and change the future.

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This is the lesson that I learned by watching Marty Schottenheimer coach the Kansas City Chiefs in the 90’s. His teams were so good at moving onto the next play and not dwelling on the past. I can recall countless times I watched defensive stands, last second field goals, blocked kicks or kick returns for a win. If you think of all of the times you have failed before, you’ll never be prepared to succeed when called upon. This is what Marty represents to me. He now has an incredible fight ahead of him as he undergoes experimental treatments and continuing loss of his faculties as this disease progresses. Knowing Marty from being the fanatic observer I was, I know he will continue to live his life one day at a time and appreciate every moment, because that is all he can do.

Go get ’em coach!

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Build Your Team With Character First

So much can be said about character. To me, it is the number one thing I look for in another person in any walk of life, not just professionally. Character is our moral fiber. It is what makes us who we are and it provides us what we need when we are at our whit’s end.

Mark Twain said, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” I don’t know if it is so rare or it is just not advertised. Doing the right thing, being paitent and kind, being strong when the chips are on the line, these are things that just aren’t talked about. They are exactly the types of things I look for in those around me.

I am a huge football fan. My team I root for is the Kansas City Chiefs. In 1998, after a very good run in 1997 and a 13-3 regular season record and a disappointing loss to the division rival Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs, Marty Schottenheimer was going all-in to try and win a Super Bowl. He brought in several players of questionable character, but with above average talent. This move backfired and Marty experienced his first and only losing season in his coaching career, going 7-9. Marty went against his moral fiber and brought in players purely on talent. He never did this again in his other coaching stops. He only had one other losing season.

In my own career, I have spent much of the interview process talking with the candidate. I’ve been known to take a candidate to Starbucks and buy them a coffee and just try and get to know them. During nice weather, I might take them on a walk through the trails by our offices if their shoes are up for it. This approach tells me more about the person and I also get a feel for their qualifications. I can always coach them up or teach the person a skill, but I can’t teach them to be a person I trust with the operation and execution of my future and the futures of those I work with.

In short, when looking to who to surround yourself with, look to character before talent and you’ll do much better in the long run. I’ve mentioned George Washington as one historical person I’ve looked up to as a leader. He was quoted as saying, “It is better to be alone than in bad company.” There is so much truth in this short statement.

Teach A Man To Fish

Everyone has heard the expression, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” or some variation of this. In fact, it’s been quoted, paraphrased, blogged, memed and parodied so many times, it hardly seems blog post worthy anymore. The phrase itself is a fairly novel concept. The real reward in life is learning to be self sufficient and to not be dependent on others. This is truly where happiness comes from. A new penny loses it’s shine eventually and is just a penny, but if you know how to make that one penny into many pennies, the reward is so much greater. Blah, blah, blah, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. We all know this, right?

When I got started in IT leadership, I was so obsessed with making sure things were handled to my standard that I hoarded much of the work. I would tell myself that I was protecting my employees from having to deal with such things, but in actuality I was hindering their development. There was the occasional employee I felt so comfortable with that I would hand one particular project to them and let them own it, but for the most part I felt like I had to have my hands on everything that was going on. I felt if I didn’t do this, we would fail. I felt such ownership over every piece of software, hardware, process, or procedure that I couldn’t let it go.

I can still remember having several conversations with my boss about delegation. We talked on the subject often, and I understood that it was something I needed to get better at, but I sure didn’t know how. How do you own something, and be responsible for it’s success and yet let other people do it? This concept was hard to grasp. It was hard to grasp for him too, but we both vowed to get better at it.

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I remember seeing a program about George Washington once, and on the program they talked about his leadership style. George would gather those whose opinions he valued, hear them out and make a call. I visualize them in a circle around some old 1700’s wood table made from a tree trunk, standing of course, in full dress for the period. I picture them with their wigs and hats. George would address the group with the issue, and then he would back off and let them all talk about it. He would observe and in the end I picture him clearing his throat to a silence of the crowd and just telling them how it is. George took the opinions and ideas and formulated his own idea and then that is what happened. That is my image of a good leader. The thing was, George had those around him that he trusted to provide value. How did he get to that point? Sure you could say it was because he served in the trenches with them. You could say it was because George always had the absolute best around him at all times. The truth probably is that George did his best to teach them all to fish. He made them better, so in the end he was better at his job.

To come full circle, I think we can learn something from George Washington. For us to be the absolute best version of ourselves, it is our responsibility to teach everyone around us to fish. In business, now, I think I do a much better job of this. I give everyone who works for me the permission to fail. In fact, I encourage it. I want them to try to solve problems on their own. I tell them that my door is always open to talk through what they are working on, but in the end, they are the ones working on it. I will not do it for them, even at the expense of the project or a deadline. In my early days, I had no problem sitting down at my employee’s workstation and running through the solution to whatever problem they were working on and not thinking twice about it. Each time I did this, I was setting them back days, weeks, or months in their development and maturation as a technology professional. To be the best leader I can be, it is up to me to make those around me the absolute best they can be. If I do this, in the end, we will all reap the rewards of learning to fish.fish

Celebrate Every Win

In the fast paced world we live in it can be very easy to skip from one thing to the next and expect for things to work out or just flat out expect to win. I do this. I expect to win, no matter the situation. I can be teaching someone a skill, building something, playing a game, having an argument or even driving to work, I expect to win. I would argue, this isn’t a bad quality at all, except when you don’t recognize your accomplishments. Learning to celebrate success is truly what winning is about at any level.

It took me years to realize that sometimes winning can happen in losing too. No one celebrates losing. Losing imagery usually looks something like this:

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The truth about losing is sometimes things don’t go as planned. Sometimes you can win and still not reach the pinnacle. I think back to the 2014 Kansas City Royals coming 90 feet from tying the game in the 9th inning of Game 7 of the World Series against Madison Bumgarner and the Giants. They didn’t win the game or the series, but they proved to everyone in Kansas City that they were a force to be reckoned with. They eventually won the whole thing in 2015 against the Mets and are off to a promising start in 2016 despite the projections of regression.

Winning has become second nature to the Royals. How did they get to that after decades of losing? It’s my belief that winning for the Royals started while they were still losing ball games. The players they brought in and the players they had developed knew what winning was. It was something they lived and breathed everyday in their work ethic and execution. They knew, in order to be successful, winning is sacrifice, determination and hard work. It’s believing in yourself and your team.

I listen to many podcasts about leadership and I recall an interview with Joel Manby, who is the new CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and former President and Chief Executive Officer of Herschend Family Entertainment. He says, “The enthusiasm of the guest experience can never rise higher than the enthusiasm of your own employees.” This is 100% true!  The Royals displayed that when they were drawing 8,000 fans to a game on a Tuesday night in mid July because they were 15 games out of first. They would show so much enthusiasm that it was making opposing teams angry. They would celebrate every little victory in a game, even though they might lose the game. They took much heat over signing hand gestures back to the dugout when getting a big hit or stealing a base. They still do them!

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Through all of these acts of showmanship, they were demonstrating and building a belief in themselves as players and the organization. They were playing with enthusiasm for their job, team, city, and fan base that had not been seen before. It paid off as the club set attendance records in 2015. The fans bought into that enthusiasm. The increased winning on the field also helped that cause, but before the wins came they were creating a mindset for success. They were building a foundation, and this my friends, is winning even though you are losing. These are the building blocks to greatness.

How does all of that relate back to being a better leader, team member, partner, or employee? It is up to you to find it in yourself to show unbridled enthusiasm about what you are doing. You must outwork your competition. You must have more focus and better execution. It is your choice to believe that you will achieve in whatever you are doing. Even when you fall, you must get back up again, because each step forward is a win, even if you get knocked back a few times along the way. You too can be like the 2015 Kansas City Royals and have the greatest success in your business or chosen profession, but first you must commit on the deepest of levels to being a success even before being a success. Most importantly, celebrate every single step towards your goal, and don’t take any of them for granted.