The Future Looks Very Bright at #ChorleyHack

We have a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) skills problem in the UK. Estimates vary on the impact, but it’s significant:

UK STEM businesses have warned of a growing skills shortage as they struggle to recruit qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields.
According to new findings from STEM Learning, the largest provider of STEM education and careers support in the UK, the shortage is costing businesses £1.5 billion a year in recruitment, temporary staffing, inflated salaries and additional training costs.
The STEM Skills Indicator1 reveals that nine in 10 (89%) STEM businesses have found it difficult to hire staff with the required skills in the last 12 months, leading to a current shortfall of over 173,000 workers – an average of 10 unfilled roles per business.

Skills shortage costing STEM sector £1.5bn

This shortfall is particularly acute for women entering STEM careers where less than 20% of the workforce are women.

The number of graduates is a result of many years of education and the earlier that we can get young people interested in STEM the better that the results will be. We can’t expect schools to be the sole instigators of that change either, as an industry we need to step up and help to provide life change STEM opportunities to children and young people. That’s one of the reasons why I was delighted to be a mentor as #ChorleyHack which was organised by the town council in the area where my office is.

What a fabulous day with 25 teams of four children from 14 local schools coming together in the local town hall to spend a day coding together. The task was “create a game or animation that educates other young people about cyber bullying, online safety and social media safety.”

The levels of preparation and enthusiasm were an inspiration, the room was buzzing. The children and young people were so focused on the task that many of them returned early from their lunch to get their code as far along as possible, even though the task was not to get their code finished. The sophistication of their work was amazing with a significant depth of understanding of the challenge subject area. As mentors the conversations where inspiring, I particularly enjoyed an extended chat with one of the children who was very excited to explain to me how Scratch worked and about another project he was writing in Python.

Observe anything about the make up of the winning teams from the tweets below:

That’s right, a significant proportion of girls, something that was evident across the day, no 20% here. #ChorleyHack was a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that girls can indeed code and another nail in the coffin of the lie that IT is just for boys.

Thanks go to each of the teams leaders, mostly teachers, who had clearly invested a huge amount of time in getting the children and young people prepared for the event.

A particular thanks goes to Simon Charnock, Digital Transformation Officer, Chorley Council who did a fabulous job of facilitating the whole event.

If we can see this level of enthusiasm and passion continuing through the education system then we should be looking forward to a very bright future.

Document Driven v Data Driven

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about forms. Why forms? Forms give us fascinating insights into that way that organisations work.

A Life of Forms

We are surrounded, some would say inundated, by forms:

  • Banking runs on forms.
  • Insurance wouldn’t survive without forms.
  • Most organisations have thousands of ad hoc forms for various diverse purposes.
  • One of the worst things to happen in some organisations is that a situation arises for which there is no form.
  • Visit a medical professional and somewhere within the dialogue a form will become necessary.
  • Subscribe to any service and forms will be used as part of the contracting process.
  • Start a new employment and you are likely to spend much of your first day completing forms.
  • Our birth and our death are accompanied by forms.
  • How many times a day do you complete a two-field form in order to gain access to some technology.
  • Interact with a government organisation and a form will be required.

Sometimes these forms are online, web page, or even forms on mobile devices. There are still, however, many situations where forms are completed with a pen. How many hours have you spent trying to complete a pseudo form that was sent to you as a Word or PDF document.

Document Driven Business

There are many PowerPoint decks, Excel spreadsheets and Word documents that are in essence forms. They are created from a template that sets the titles and contents of each slide/worksheet/section. The person completing them is expected to say certain things in certain ways, just like a form.

  • This first slide has the title on including the reference number, person presenting and target date.
  • The next slide has the required content on and only this content.
  • The following slide will explain what it is you are going to do.
  • The penultimate slide will outline the business case in the supplied table.
  • The final slide will contain the risk register, using the supplied table headings.
  • No other slides may be added.

It’s a form, isn’t it?

A Form to Transact

Each of these form-types exist to support a transaction:

“Once you have completed sections 1 to 5 and 8 of the loan application form we will proceed to the next phase of you application.”

“You are required to complete a tax return of which sections a to e are mandatory.”

“We’ll proceed with your project once you have provided the project initiation template document.”

The boundary of the transaction is defined by the form, without the form nothing moves forward, or backward.

This way of working produces a number of effects:

  • Over preparation – in order to make sure that a transaction can complete documents tend to be over-worked. Many hours are spent making sure that every detail in a form/document are correct to a level of detail that is not required to move onto the next phase, but everyone strives for perfection to avoid rework at all costs. A small amount of over-work is compounded as a process is worked end-to-end. Imagine how much work goes into producing a set of 40 document? Add a little bit of over-preparation to each of them and the amount of effort being expended is huge.
  • Over-stating – The over-preparation of documents often includes over-stating, where things that aren’t required in the document are stated in the document “just-in-case”. The problem with this superfluous information is that it becomes part of the record and is then used by people who make decisions despite its heritage and trustworthiness.
  • Point-in-time perspectives – The information in the form/document was mostly correct at a particular time on a particular day, but that’s all that can be said about it. Any perspective that is taken on that document is locked into the context at that time. The information in the document isn’t being refreshed, it was completed, a transaction took place and now everything within the document is, at best, history. Yet, people will continue to refer back to it as information way beyond the valid life of the data contained within it. The reality is, even before the document is concluded the data within it will be out of date.
  • Action blocking – A form/document represents the end of one activity and the start of another – a phase-shift. The next phase can’t start until it has received the information from the previous phase. Even if an element of the next phases has all that it needs to proceed it can’t until the transaction has been agreed. Consider how many actions are expected to be undertaken following the transaction of a 100 page document? How many of those actions could have safely been undertaken way before the transacting of the document?
  • Phases based on documents – The definition of a document as the point of transaction means that production of the document often becomes the definition of the phases/stages of an activity. This way of planning has little to do with the amount of effort involved, or the value being produced, it just represents a transaction. An activity that only exists to produce a document is a bad activity.

Data Drive Business

Let’s turn our attention to data-driven activities.

The document has been with us for thousands of years, but we no longer need to work at such a coarse level. The information that is placed into a form was not generated by the form. A form is just a place to consolidate information that already exists elsewhere. When you are asked about your date-of-birth in a form you are simply recording information that has existed, for some of us, for many years. So why not link the data directly with the intent for which it is needed. Why bother placing a date of birth on a piece of paper when one system could ask another system whether I’m older than 18 and get the correct answer back.

There are situations where data isn’t enough and a set of information may need to be brought together to tell a particular story. Imagine a design for a network topology, the design may be the first time that it’s been outlined. This isn’t to say that in this situation a document is required, it’s just to highlight that an intermediate step from current state to future state may be required to fill gaps in the data. Even in this network topology example a diagram with meta-data is probably sufficient to communicate the change being proposed and for people to agree to transact. Once the change has been implemented the diagram is no longer required because the current state information becomes the record.

Taking the network topology example even further, the need for a human-readable design demonstrates a gap in policy and understanding. If the change could be codified in a way that a policy mechanism could understand and assess, then the change could have taken place without the need for a diagram. If, as an example, an application needs to add more resources to the network, the network would respond on the basis of the data provided and the policy defined. Likewise, once those resources are no longer required the policy engine would turn the resources off. All of this would happen before someone has filled in half of the “necessary” paperwork.

Our job, as humans, should be to assess and define the required actions for the exception, for those situations where data and policy is not sufficient for a decision to be made.

Time for Transformation

For much of the life of IT may applications have been little more than form replacements and that has given us some productivity gains. In many ways we are only just at the beginning of a transformation from a world driven by documents to one driven by data  This will require a profound change in the way that we think and act.

Organisations that continue to rely upon forms (including apps that are replacing forms) will be overtaken by the machines.

Header Image: This is one from a recent morning walk along the lanes near my house. I’ve always loved the shapes of tree skeletons in the winter.

The 5 Phases of a Reply-to-All Storm

Reply-to-all Storm: The set of events that occur when a group of people decide that the appropriate response to an email is to reply-to-all. In nearly all of these situations the replies add no value other than to fill-up the email account of everyone on the distribution list.

I’ve observed many a reply-to-all storm and it occurs to me that they have a set of phases to them, have a missed any?

Phase 1: Initial Contact

I’m not sure quite what the anatomy of an email needs to be to start a reply-to-all storm but there are some characteristics that will increase the likelihood of a storm starting. Emails with a pointless subject and equally pointless content are my favourites, they create a response in certain people that is completely disproportionate to the initial contact. It’s rare that a reply-to-all storm is generated from a meaningful email.

I’m pretty sure that the likelihood of a reply-to-all storm increases exponentially with the number of recipients on the initial distribution. Emails to 500 people aren’t likely to result in a storm, emails to 5,000 people have a much higher probability, correctly crafted emails to 50,000 people are almost certain to result in a storm.

Phase 2: Initial Reply

Someone has to be the person to start the storm. Much like a firework requires an ignition a reply-to-all storm requires someone to get everyone started. It helps if the initial reply is as benign as the initial contact.

The purpose of the initial reply email is to create a release valve that gives everyone else permission to participate in the storm. A single drip doesn’t create a flood, but it does make a pathway for what is to follow.

Phase 3: Engage the Pack

Two emails do not constitute a storm, but that’s all that the pack requires for those who are going to participate to become engaged. The pack, in general, only have one response which may use different words to these, but they are basically all saying the same things:

  • “Why was I sent this email?”
  • “Stop sending me these emails.”
  • “Remove me from this distribution list.”

None of the individuals involved in the pack realise the irony of their actions.

By this point most people have disengaged by clicking “Ignore” or “Mute” in their email app but this is where volumes come in, all that the storm needs to continue is one more person in the cohort to keep it going.

Phase 4: The Anti-Pack Becomes Engaged

The anti-pack’s role is to keep the reply-to-all storm going by telling people to stop replying-to-all. We are now in double irony territory.

These emails come in various grades depending upon the frustration of the recipient. This appears to be one of the few occasions where it has become acceptable to use capital lettering in an email subject. The use of the words “IMPORTANT”, “URGENT” or “STOP” become prevalent as does the use of bold, coloured and enlarged content all saying the equivalent of “please stop”.

Phase 5: The Die Down

Thankfully reply-to-all storms rarely last longer than a day, in my experience. You can sometimes get someone who tries to restart it the following day, not realising that everyone has already left the party, but that rarely does a restart result in a full storm emerging.

As quickly as they come, they leave.

Avoiding the Reply-to-all Storm

People have talked about getting rid of this problem for decades and yet it still persists, you may be wondering how we stop it. The simple answer is that you can’t because the instigator of the action is that weakest link in most processes – the human. You can do many things to avoid it, but stopping it altogether requires humans to behave in a logical way and that’s not going to happen.

Stop the Self-Inflicted Pain | Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we let others do it to us?

Do two posts make a series? Anyway, this is second post looking at some modern-day frustrations where we look inside things that we do that are daft and dangerous. Some of them you may not realise are doing you damage, others probably already drive you a bit loopy. Part 1 is here: Stop the Self Inflicted Pain | How Much Better Could Your Life Be?

We have three more topics for today:

Devices in Meetings

What is the purpose of a meeting? Do you know? In almost every case, the addition of screens into that meeting is harming that purpose.

Most meetings that I attend, if I attend in person, are based around a large table. The table is littered with laptops, phones and tablets. People join the meeting with every intention of contributing wholeheartedly to it, but within minutes they are distracted. They don’t mean to be, but they are powerless to stay away from the distracting movements that are occurring before them.

“But” I can hear you say…

“But, what if I want to take notes electronically?” If you are far more disciplined than me, then perhaps you can have a powerful, internet connected, multi-skilled device there in-front of you and only use it to take notes. If that is you, then I take my hat off to you, but it’s still not as good for you as writing notes.

“But, what if I need the material off my laptop to inform the meeting?” That may be a perfectly valid point, but it should be limited and clearly understood in the objectives for the meeting, often it’s an excuse.

“But, what happens if someone needs to contact me?” This is the ultimate expression of the problem. If you take a device into a meeting because you think that someone may need to contact you, then you will be spending a significant amount of time in that meeting distracted by the potential that someone is going to contact you. “Has my phone run yet?” “What’s was that email that has just come in?”

Multi-tasking

One of the main reasons that devices in meetings is such a bad idea is that it draws us into multitasking and we are very poor at multitasking.

There are numerous experiments that show our inability to task switch, but perhaps we need the kids to show us how it is (not) done:

There’s also growing evidence that the impact of persistent multitasking is lasting harm. You’re less effective while you are multitasking, but you are also permanently numbing down your brain.

Aside from the impact on our brains there are situations where multitasking is downright dangerous. Those of you who still think you can text and drive are kidding yourself:

It has become normal many of us to multi-screen in front of the TV every night. Even if we are only using our tablet or phone while the adverts are on, we are still expecting our brains to multitask. Those advert may be annoying, but rather than picking up a screen we would be much better standing up and having a stretch.

This isn’t a new subject for me, but we still have a very long way to go before people listen.

Open Plan Offices

Once the darling of every office manager the open plan office is a disaster for productivity.

You don’t need to look any further for evidence of this than this invention from Panasonic:

wearspace_rolling

These are a pair of blinkers for the office, for those times when you need some peace and quiet to get your job done! Seriously!

Again, I hear that “but” word entering into your head. The primary “but” for open plan offices is: “But, doesn’t it improve communication between teams and enable more creative interactions?” Let me put it as simply as I can: “No.”

Open plan offices drive down interactions:

The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

Most people spend their time in an open plan office with headphones plugged in which makes it difficult to know whether they are one a phone call so it’s normal to instant message them, even if they are on the next desk.

How many more things?

That’s eight different areas that we’ve covered in two posts, I wonder how many more there are? Imagine if each one improves your productivity, or wellness, by just 2% we would have improved our lives by at least 16%!

How weatherproof are your headphones?

On the 28th August 2018 I went out for a walk in the mountains of the Lake District. It was a glorious day of contemplation and enlightenment, and quite a lot of water.

When I returned home I was unpacking my somewhat wet equipment and getting out of damp clothes when I noticed that my Anker Bluetooth Headphones were missing. I’d definitely had them on my walk because I’d listened to part of an audio-book on them. How frustrating.

I like these headphones because they are light, have good battery life and are supposed to be waterproof which I’d tested a bit and it seemed to be the case, but I’d not gone swimming in them or anything like that.

But now they were lost.

I searched the various nooks and crannies of the car, I searched the many pockets of my rucksack, but no headphones. I even checked the many pockets of my walking trousers and waterproof coat, several times!

A eventually came to the conclusion that they must have fallen out of a pocket, or the car, probably in the car park near Thirlmere.

Today on the 29th September – a month later – and just to show how often I do gardening, I found the headphones. They were about a metre from where I get out of my car, laid on some plumb colour slate. They weren’t wholly disguised, not were they very visible, I’d obviously not looked there. But, I did need to look there whilst I was weeding.

In the last month we have had rain and wind in the form of storms Ali and Bronagh, as well as the usual English September showers, we’ve even had sunshine and our first mild ground frost.

Would these waterproof headphone survive a month laid on the ground outside my house? I’m please to say, absolutely! One of the ears is a little quieter than the other at the moment, but I suspect that may ease as they get dried out a bit. How’s that for resilience?

If anything, the biggest impact has been from the sun and bleaching, some of the black isn’t quite as black as I remember it, but they work, and that’s what counts.

Anyway, I’m off now to enjoy another audio-book with my headphones on. Hopefully I won’t loose them this time 😀.

I’m reading… “Hit Refresh” by Satya Nadella

How do you bring significant change to an organisation? Particularly a large, multi-national organisation?

Where do you start once you’ve decided what it is that you want to change? How do you make change that is sustainable?

This is no ordinary organisation either, this is Microsoft, an organisation that has some huge fans, but also massive detractors. It’s an organisation that has made some very public missteps and become regarded as arrogant, but is also one of the most valuable organisations in the world.

How do you revive a giant?

Microsoft has, for a long time, had a reputation for being an organisation with an interesting way of working. This is something that Nadella refers to early on in the book by using a cartoon from Bonkers World that depicts Microsoft’s organisation structure as being one of a set of warring factions:

While it’s a cartoon, it has meaning because it is based in a truth. Moving away from this situation required a significant change of culture and to use Satya’s words for Microsoft to find its soul.

This book is partly an autobiographical telling of how Nadella got to be Microsoft CEO, it’s partly an outline vision for the future of Microsoft and partly a discussion on some of the opportunities and challenges currently facing the wider technology industry.

I found the autobiographical parts the most interesting, but I like biography. These sections give some insights into how someone born in Hyderabad becomes the CEO of an organisation that has had a dramatic impact on the world that we know. There are part of these sections that are very personal, particularly when he is talking about his son Zain who suffered in-utero asphyxiation during his birth which caused severe brain damage and left him with cerebral palsy. This isn’t one of those management books where someone tells you how brilliant they, there’s more humility than that.

Nadella describes the role of CEO as “curator of culture” and it’s clearly culture that he regards as the primary change required. Speaking as someone who works in the technology industry, Microsoft is an organisation that divides opinion, and it takes people a long time to change an opinion. Nadella took over as Microsoft CEO in 2014, since then Microsoft has sought to show a very different culture, embracing many things that previously would have been regarded as red-lines. Two words that Nadella uses several times in the book are listen and empathy neither of them words you would have associated with the Microsoft of the Steve Ballmer era.

The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture. Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission. Creating that kind of culture is my chief job as CEO.

The culture change I wanted was centered on exercising a growth mind-set every day in three distinct ways. First, at the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet a customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs with great technology. This was not abstract: We all get to practice each day. When we talk to customers, we need to listen. We need to be insatiable in our desire to learn from the outside and bring that learning into Microsoft.

Still, many responses to the recently announced purchase of GitHub reflected suspicions of the arrogant Microsoft. I suppose it just goes to show that 4 years isn’t a very long time in people’s memories.

The third section, on some of the opportunities and challenges facing the technology sector are also interesting, but for a different reason.  These sections aren’t as insightful into Nadella’s thinking on a particular subject, but feel more like the thinking of the broader Microsoft organisation. There wasn’t, for me, any particular revelation here.

Summarising: Nadella is an interesting character with an interesting background. He seems to me to be taking Microsoft in the right direction, but it will be interesting to see where he gets put when the history of the current age is written.

DaaS or DaaS, or even DaaS?

We love acronyms in IT, see, we even define ourselves by one.

Sometimes we try to be cute with them and make words out of them: RADIUS – Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service.

Sometimes we create acronyms that enter the popular lexicon as words without people realising that they are acronyms:

  • LAN –  Local area network
  • RAM – Random Access Memory

Sometimes we get all wrapped up using the same acronym for multiple meanings.

In recent weeks I’ve found myself involved in multiple conversations about DaaS, which is pronounced “DAS”, generally with a hard-“A” (like the detergent), but sometimes with a kind of confused stutter as people try to pronounce both “A”s.

(This is one of those acronyms where saying the letters – D-a-a-S – is nearly as long as saying the meanings, and neither is very comfortable to say.)

Anyway, getting back to the point, DaaS, what does it mean? Well, it depends. It has a different meaning in different contexts, which, personally I find infuriating, especially as a couple of the contexts are quite similar.

DaaS #1 – Desktop-as-a-Service

I think that this one can claim to have been around the longest. It refers to the provision of virtual desktops as a pay-per-use service.

Lots of organisations use virtual desktop service, what makes this as-a-Service is that it’s delivered by a cloud infrastructure. AWS, Microsoft and VMware all have Desktop-as-a-Service offerings which you can purchase and use without the need for any internal capabilities.

DaaS #2 – Device-as-a-Service

Really, yes, “Device-as-a-Service” is different to “Desktop-as-a-Service”.

Device-as-a-Service has absolutely nothing to do with virtual desktops, it’s all about physical devices. If you’ve had a mobile phone contract which included the phone hardware then you’ve used something similar to Device-as-a-Service, you paid a monthly fee for the device in the expectation of certain services. Managing a large estate of devices is a complicated thing to do and adds little value to most organisations. Creating an arrangement with a third party to lease devices and let them manage the inventory gives them the problem, but also, potentially, allows your organisation more flexibility.

DaaS #3 – Data-as-a-Service

Once upon a time Microsoft produced an interactive encyclopedia application called Encarta, it shipped on a set of CDs and later DVDs. To get access to the data you needed to buy and use the application, the two were bundled together. The internet changed all of that and Encarta became obsolete in 2009.

The internet as a data source also made obsolete the need for applications to own the embedded data.  Lots of applications now use data that comes from other sources, sometimes that data is given away, sometimes it’s provided on an as-a-Service basis where people pay to use it. In some industries bureau have been set up to provide this data to the people willing to pay for it, one example of this is the credit check agencies who take the various sources of data about our financial situation, analyse it, and provide the results back to the financial institutions.

So there you have it, the same four letters, three different meanings.

I suppose that I ought to go now and use my DaaS provided equipment to access a DaaS so that I can use my application that gets its data from a DaaS source.