Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

June 10, 2008

Management, leadership and information technology

Filed under: Personal,University Life — cec @ 2:34 pm

A few years ago, I participated in a six month program to train leaders in information technology. I learned a fair amount, perhaps enough to be disillusioned, and ever since the program, I can’t help but look at organizations in terms of their leadership. Case in point, the grapevine of ex-employees from my former workplace says that three employee resignations were announced last week. One person only gave one week notice. By my rough count, that’s about 20 people leaving since January – or approximately 8-10% of the work force. Ouch!

As a benchmark, I tend to think that a business organization will see about 15% turnover in a year. An academic institution, maybe 5%. The last 12 months at the old job has seen something close to a 20% turnover, prompting me to suggest to friends that there needs to be a web-based application to stream line the process. You could have work flow, automatic announcement letter generation, employee exit reviews, etc. Someone’s suggested name… iQuit.<org>.edu. Perfect 🙂

Ironically, several months before I left the organization, I started getting concerned with turnover and was probably thought a troublemaker. But again, the leadership course I took, the books I’ve read, etc. All suggest that when your best people are leaving, it’s a bad sign. Even if they are nominally leaving for personal reasons, their happiness in their current job was factored in and found wanting. Turnover means that the organization faces a loss of productivity as a replacement is found and trained. Skills and institutional knowledge are lost.  In my opinion, even a termination indicates a problem – i.e., what went wrong in the hiring process such that you hired a poor candidate? For a good explanation of why turnover in all its forms is a problem, read Peopleware – it focuses on software development, but can be applied to IT as well.

In contrast, I was reading Richard Clarke’s “Your Government Failed You: breaking the cycle of national security disasters” on the plane ride home from vacation. Near the end, he describes how to build an effective organization, borrowing from Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s 1981 speech to Columbia titled “Doing a Job.” In the speech, Rickover describes the management (“leadership” wasn’t the in-fashion word at the time) style he used in building the first nuclear submarine. Clarke summarizes the Rickover’s points as follows:

  • People, not organizations or management systems, get things done.
  • Management is hard work.
  • Subordinates must be given authority and responsibility early in their careers.
  • Get rid of formal job descriptions and organizational charts. Define responsibilities, but define them in a general way so that people are not circumscribed.
  • Complex jobs cannot be accomplished effectively with transients. Short rotations ensure inexperience and non-accountability.
  • Don’t downplay problems to save face.
  • Flatten management structures, but empower the remaining managers and hold them responsible.
  • Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.
  • The man in charge must concern himself with details. If he does not consider them important, neither will his subordinates.
  • Develop simple and direct means for finding out what subordinates are doing and what the status of projects is.
  • Don’t let your inbox set your priorities. Unimportant but interesting trivia pass through every day.
  • Check all work through independent and impartial review. In engineering and manufacturing, industry spends large sums on quality control but the concept of impartial reviews and oversight is important in other areas also.
  • Important issues should be presented in writing. Nothing sharpens the thought process like writing down one’s arguments.

Those seem like pretty good goals to me. I bet they reduce turnover too.

April 11, 2008

Web 2.0 and trusting the users

Filed under: Social,Technical,University Life — cec @ 8:31 am

The CTO Project makes an interesting observation that faculty are a bit like some corporations. They feel obligated to use Web 2.0 technologies in order to engage student interest and actually make some token effort to be up to date. But that they only want these technologies if they can exert complete control.

Trust me, I can relate. We’re currently contracting with a part of the government that wants to do something similar. They want to make use of the knowledge of a number of experts to produce an encyclopedia of a given technology. Of course, this has been dubbed the FOOpedia (where FOO is the technology).

In the first phase, they laid out an outline of the field. There were to be top level items that only they could edit, secondary items which would be owned by specific individuals and third level items which would be links to support documentation like powerpoint slides and papers. Control of the site was to be pretty restricted, but they did know that they wanted to use a wiki.

Kill me now.

So, in working with them for a bit, I think we’ve talked them out of the rigidly structured, top-down, hierarchical encyclopedia and have gotten them to embrace something a bit more organic.  They’re still not comfortable with a completely open system.  We’re looking at a model comparable to Scholarpedia or Citizendium where there’s a person responsible for each article and he or she will have the final editorial say over that topic.  But at least we’re no longer trying to define all of the pages in advance.  I’ll call it a win.

February 25, 2008

FISA extension and telecom amnesty

Filed under: Social,Technical,University Life — cec @ 11:10 pm

Few people have been on top of the extension of FISA like Glenn Greenwald. As a quick overview for folks that haven’t been paying attention to the issue:

  • Late last year a real potential problem with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (as written in the 70s and amended after Sept 11) was recognized. Namely, communication between two foreign entities that was routed through the US was subject to the law’s requirements for a court order. This was never the intent of the law and largely crept in due to the routing of Internet traffic through major US networking hubs
  • In addition to correcting this, the Whitehouse and the Republican congress pushed for a change to FISA that went beyond correcting the oversight and significantly extended the ability of the government to spy on citizens.
  • Congress couldn’t pass this permanently, but did pass a six month bill before the August recess, in large part because of scare tactics used by the FBI (releasing warnings of predicted attacks in DC)
  • Six months was up last week and the Whitehouse was pushing to: a) correct the known oversight, b) extend its ability to spy on US citizens without court order, and now they’ve added c) grant retro-active immunity to the telecommunications companies for illegally helping the government spy both before and after Sept 11th. And of course, if they don’t get all of this, we’ll die in our sleep, murdered by terrorists.
  • The Senate caved and gave the Whitehouse everything it asked for.
  • Surprisingly, the House didn’t and we’re now seeing extra pressure claiming that we’ll all die and it’ll be their fault. This is of course BS, but that’s the state of discourse in the country.

I don’t have much to add on the spying per se, but I will admit to being particularly offended and disturbed by the telecom immunity issue. Essentially, these companies started helping law enforcement to monitor calls, read emails, etc. well before September 11th. Their actions were not scared or patriotic, they were largely motivated by greed.

Even if this were not the case. Even if they only started cooperating after September 11th, there is no excuse for allowing extra-legal monitoring by law enforcement in violation of the 4th Amendment. While much of the monitoring may have been intended to track down terrorists, we know that tools of this nature are never used only for their intended purposes. They are always used by someone trying to get a little extra edge in a non-terrorist case or by a cop wanting to spy on a girlfriend.

Consider the following. I was the IT Security Officer for the university back in 2001. When September 11th occurred, everyone wanted to be as cooperative as possible with law enforcement within the bounds of the law. Within the bounds of the law was an important caveat. Late September of 2001, I received a phone call from an individual who identified himself as being an agent with the FBI (note, none of this is confidential – there were a few times that I was asked/instructed to sign the equivalent of an NDA; for reasons that will become obvious, this was not one).

The agent asked me for some information pertaining to an investigation on which he was working. I asked him to slow down a bit because I needed to confirm that he actually was with the FBI (and not some random caller) and then I would need a court order for the information (because, hey, I don’t want to be sued, he wasn’t asserting that this was an emergency situation, and my failure to follow reasonable procedure meant it might be me personally being sued, not the university).

The agent then starts to get very defensive and plays the terrorist card. “This person could be a terrorist, and if you don’t help me, who knows what could happen?” Taking things one step at a time, I asked for his FBI identification number. He wouldn’t give it to me. He did give me his name and a phone number I could reach him at. I called the FBI. After a couple of false starts, I was finally able to confirm his identity.

It turns out that he was sort-of an agent. Actually, he was an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Ostensibly, he was on loan from the ATF to the FBI in order to assist them in their cases. Instead, he was working on an ATF case and trying to use his newfound FBI authority and the tragedy of September 11th to get information that he could not normally obtain. If I remember correctly, the FBI told me not to call him back and that they would handle it internally.

Granted that all of this occurred before these agencies were pulled into the Department of Homeland Security and the processes may be better. However, any time someone claims they need new powers to keep us safe from terrorists, I remember this incident and become a little more wary. If there is a demonstrated need for a new law enforcement power, then it should be discussed, weighed against civil rights and the constitution, voted on and enacted if passed. The sum total of the argument for the power should not be, “we need it or you will die!”

p.s. C&L and Mark Fiore have produced a good/amusing video illustrating this tactic.

October 25, 2007

well that was nice

Filed under: Personal,University Life — cec @ 9:56 pm

I’m up at the university yesterday, tying up some loose ends from my job there when I ran into the executive vice president.  Essentially, this is the guy under the president who runs everything administrative for the campus.  I used to see him every month or so as a part of my job responsibilities and we always got along reasonably well.

So, I’m talking to him and he tells me that whenever he sees someone who has left the university, he always tells them that he hopes they made the right decision… because they aren’t coming back (implying that he will prevent them from returning).  He then goes on to say, but you are welcome back if you ever want to return and that this puts me in a very small group – three in twelve years.

For all I know he was blowing serious smoke up my ass.  But that’s not really his style.  Regardless, it was very kind and probably one of the nicest complements (in context) that I’ve received.

August 16, 2007

notes from a transition

Filed under: Personal,University Life — cec @ 7:59 pm

It’s been a bit strange changing jobs.  My former responsibilities as the security officer for a university are so different from what I’m doing now.  A few idle thoughts:

  • Life at the university, particularly for management, is entirely interrupt driven.  Between the phone calls, urgent emails and meetings, I seldom had time to stop and think.  Unfortunately, that meant that a lot of work was done at home.  At the new place, work is nowhere near as disruptive.  I’m in the office for eight hours and I get eight hours worth of work done.  No meetings.  No phone calls.  Few emails – none urgent.  The change has been a little jarring.  The biggest advantage is that I’m not trying to actually do all of my work at the end of the day, so I’m leaving and getting home at a reasonable time.
  • The university structures its benefits to the advantage of the highest paid.  Everyone has to pay for a share of their health insurance.  The 403b, which is incredible, pays progressively more for people at the high end of the pay scale.  IIRC, if you put in 3%, they put in ~8% for the first $50k of salary and then ~13% for anything above that – assuming that you are in the better paid category of staff.  Hourly employees receive less contribution and have a 5 year vesting period.  At the new place, they cap at 4% of your salary, so it’s nowhere near as much in retirement.  However, they also pay full health and dental.  The upshot is that everyone receives health benefits, regardless of income.  Retirement benefits which are typically only used by people at the high end of the income scale are less generous.  Overall, a far more equitable system.
  • I’m finding that I’m much more relaxed.  I am responsible for the implementation of a decent sized project, but because it’s only one project, there is much less stress and I’m not working in the evenings.  Which gives me time to find great things online.  Like the following from Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s:  “via ovicipitum dura est”  or “the way of the eggheads is hard.”

August 11, 2007


Filed under: Personal,University Life — cec @ 11:29 pm

Done. Finished. That’s all she wrote. Yesterday was my last day at the university.

Sometime before I left, I started thinking about what, if anything, I wanted to leave on my whiteboard. The obvious came to mind: “So long and thanks for all the fish.” But that’s a little too obvious. My next thought was to crib a few lines from Jonathan Coulton:

I fear nothing


See you all in hell

But I figured that wouldn’t be appreciated. Instead, I focused on finishing up some last minute projects and before I knew it, I had to leave to run an errand before the farewell party. I left the hard drive wipers erasing my laptop and desktop, grabbed my keys, procurement card, parking pass, prox card and id card.  All of which I left with the finance and administrative folks. When the door closed behind me, I knew that I couldn’t get back in the building and that the lightness I felt came from more than the lack of a laptop in my bag.

It really didn’t matter what I put on the whiteboard – I’m done.

p.s. to everyone that could make it to the party, Thanks! it was great. to those that couldn’t, i’m sorry i missed you. folks can email me at <my last name> (at) fenris (dot) org or at <first>.<last> (at) gmail (dot) com.

July 10, 2007

New job

Filed under: Personal,University Life — cec @ 8:17 pm

Well, it’s official now.  I’m leaving the university to go work for a private company – my last day will be August 10th which gives me all of a 4 day weekend before starting full time for the new place.  FWIW, I’m definitely looking forward to the change.  I’ve been in my current job for about 6.5 years and in the tradition of my family, that means that I’ve been doing the same thing a year and a half too long.

The work at the new place is completely different than the job I have now, but in a sense it’s a return to something familiar.  The company does R&D work, well really more R than D on a number of grants, contracts, etc.  It feels a lot like a big (and more productive) graduate office.  It’s a good chance to put my PhD back to work.  The new company is also pretty light on meetings (they are mostly impromptu and short) and as an engineer, not a director, I don’t have to manage people.  🙂

I suppose that I should also say that this was a very hard decision for me.  I’ve been here for almost 14 years, 6.5 in my current role – my entire adult life.   The university feels like home.  But more than anything else, I’ll miss working with the people I know there.  A lot of folks are more like friends than colleagues.

I’m going to cut this short before I get too sentimental – I still have over 4 weeks to go 🙂

June 25, 2007

Fun with aphorisms

Filed under: University Life — cec @ 9:22 pm

I was in a longish meeting today when it occurred to me that it is a military truism that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  Moreover, as Walt Kelly’s Pogo noted, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”  This suggests that no plan survives first contact with its creators.

Most of my meetings bear this out.

April 30, 2007

Which is worse – the cheating or the commentary?

Filed under: University Life — cec @ 10:52 am

The Chronicle of Higher Education (and others) are reporting the largest cheating incident ever at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. 34 students were caught having very similar answers on a take home exam. 33 were convicted of cheating, one of lying to the judicial board and four were exonerated.

Cheating by students always amazes me. Back when I started college, an old engineering professor explained to the class that the most benefit you were likely to receive from cheating was, maybe, an increase of one letter grade. However, if he caught you, and he was likely to catch you, you would receive an F and be suspended from school. He encouraged us to “do the math” and understand that it wasn’t worth it. I think this may be the right approach. Rather than trying to drill an honor code into students, we need to do two things: 1) encourage them to think about it as a risk management exercise; and 2) have all students grade a set of 30 papers.

The second suggestion may need a little explanation. I have graded thousands of papers over the past 10 years. The basic process of grading is to sit down for a several hour block of time and work through them all. When you are focused on a set of papers for a relatively short period of time, you find that you almost always recognize an answer if you see it again. If the words are written in the same way, if the argument is the same. I’ve graded programs where the syntax of two programs was strangely similar and turned out to be a case of cheating – even though the variable names had changed. If students ever experienced grading, they would be more likely to realize how hard it is to get copied answers by the grader.

One final note. As bad as the cheating was, I have an even harder time with the following from the Chronicle article:

James R. Bailey, a professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business, said in an interview on Sunday that it is possible that business schools, by the nature of the material they teach, breed a certain amount of academic dishonesty. Mr. Bailey is editor of Academy of Management Learning & Education, which dedicated an issue last September to ethics in business education.

“Business schools generally have a culture of competition and self-interest,” he said. “In our theory classes, we’re teaching theories of advancing one’s self-interest.”

“All the formal mechanisms in the world — honor codes, having everybody read it during classes, an ethics class — can’t overcome culture,” he said.

Besides, he pointed out, if students are collaborating on a take-home test, they may be building useful skills — even if it is against the rules. (“The professor’s asking for it when you give a take-home exam,” he said.)

“They were enterprising, they took initiative, and they worked together,” he said. “Aren’t those all the qualities we’re trying to encourage of business school students?”

Professor Bailey’s response to the incident should embarrass him, the journal he edits and the entire business education community. To excuse, and even promote cheating, and to blame the professor for assuming the students were mature enough to handle a take home exam, is probably the best indictment I could find against our business culture. The “cheating is okay and expected” attitude in school is the same one which encourages businesses to try to get around regulations and to promote the bottom line at all cost. It’s the same attitude that will kill people by ignoring product and environmental safety laws once these students are in positions of leadership at large companies.

April 17, 2007

Duke LAX

Filed under: Personal,Social,University Life — cec @ 7:48 am

I never planned to comment on the Duke Lacrosse rape case, but one observation keeps running through my head and it’s probably best to get it out.

Back when I was in high school, I remember being told that, in a Shakespearean sense, tragedies were uplifting and comedies were depressing. That struck me as backwards for a while until I had watched/read more plays and understood that the tragedies, where the protagonist dies, often display the best elements of human character. There is nobility or love or honor in the characters as they face a universe that is, not hostile, but merely indifferent to the concerns of mankind. On the other hand, a comedy, where the main characters survive the play, often shows the pettiness of people: the bitterness, the backstabbing, the prejudice, the lying, etc.

With those two definitions in mind, I don’t think that you can call the Duke Lacrosse rape case anything but a comedy (again, in the Shakespearean sense). The key thing to remember when you see any of the coverage is that there were no good guys in the case. There were no heroes you could root for. The best you could do was to hope that justice would be served. Consider the participants:

  • Duke Lacrosse team. These are not the good clean cut boys that show up on television every few months. On campus, they are among the rowdiest of the athletes. They believe that they own the campus. They are generally the privileged children of parents in the north east. They grew up expecting everything and often got it. On the night the alleged event occurred, they were having a loud party that involved strippers and, probably, under aged drinking. According to public records, after the party one of the athletes composed an email to the rest which, while not illegal, was crude and disgusting and gives you a sense of what they might consider humorous.
  • The accuser. A woman who has been in and out (okay, mostly in) trouble with the law for well over a decade. Multiple arrests. Stolen property. False allegations in the past. Drug use. etc.
  • The police. For the most part, the police have gotten a pass in this one, but they are among the worst offenders. The investigating officers held a grudge against Duke students. One or both had arrest rates of Duke students that were much higher than the average. They generally went in with an attitude that the students must be guilty. They created a photographic lineup that was guaranteed to identify one or more Duke students as the alleged rapists, in violation of their own procedures. They accused staff of the university of being willing to destroy evidence – at times, they refused to actually tell staff what they were looking for in fear of the staff willfully destroying evidence.
  • The DA. The DA has gotten a lot of flack in the media and it is justly deserved. Nifong was running for re-election in a city with a large black population. He was running against a popular female attorney (whom had successfully prosecuted a very public murder trial) and a very well qualified black candidate. Nifong was concerned that if he didn’t score some points with the black community, he would lose the election. So he made horribly prejudiced statements to the media, he ignored exculpatory evidence and generally railroaded the students.
  • Duke Athletics. Here are a bunch of folks that knew the lacrosse (and other teams) were a problem waiting to happen. They had heard reports of general “bad behavior.” They knew about the drinking and the loud parties and never chose to do much about it.
  • Duke Administration. There were a number of ways the administration could have gone. The smart one would have been to: remind the public that these are allegations and not facts; tackle the general issue of the behavior of athletes; take no disciplinary action against the students for the alleged rape until after the prosecution was finished. This would have upset a large number of people, but it would have been a principled stand. Instead, the administration chose a middle course and upset everyone. They suspended the students, essentially presuming guilt. That upset all of the supporters of the athletes, but didn’t go far enough for those that wanted them expelled.
  • Group of 88. These were the faculty that came out against the students, assuming guilt based on the allegations. They endorsed a statement published as an ad in the Chronicle. These are faculty, they should know better than to presume guilt.
  • Other Supporters of the Alleged Victim. While not in the same position of responsibility at Duke as the group of 88, a number of people in the local community and nationally treated the allegations as fact. They assumed that just because a woman made an allegation, it must be true. After all, why would she make something like that up. Never mind that from the beginning, it was clear that all of the facts didn’t add up. They seemed to say that she was an underprivileged black woman, they were overly privileged white boys, of course they raped her. Other supporters harassed the students. They put up web pages with their names, pictures, home addresses and parents. Another person or group of people sent forged email to the students, the police or NCCU, trying to get the students in more trouble.
  • Supporters of the Lacrosse Players. If the supporters of the alleged victim and the group of 88 were bad, then you could at least hope that the supporters of the athletes were the good guys. You would be disappointed. While there were principled people saying that these are allegations and we should wait for the trial (if the case is brought forward), many of the supporters launched personal attacks against the accuser or the group of 88. Some of the more harassing and racist messages I’ve seen in a long time came from supporters of the players and was directed at the accuser and the group of 88.
  • The Media. The media, of course, did what it has been doing for years now – not just in Durham, but all over the country. They were quite happy to report what the participants said, but seemed disinclined to actually investigate what happened. Since Nifong was the person making the most statements at the beginning, it was the Nifong show. When Nifong finally realized he should stop making speeches to the press, the defense attorneys had the press to themselves. I recall very little real investigation by the media. Certainly none by the local television stations.

In short, the closest thing we got to a “good guy” in the whole mess was attorney general Roy Cooper. After Nifong recused himself, the AG’s office took over the case. They did their jobs. They spent three months quietly looking into the evidence and came to the conclusion that there was nothing to prosecute. If this had been a Shakespearean comedy, Cooper would have played the beneficent king that comes in at the end and makes everything right. And, as with any comedy, I’m left a little more depressed with the nature of mankind.

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