Do bigger projects really fail more often than smaller projects?

Common sense and Michael Krigsman tell me that bigger projects fail more than smaller projects.  However, this does not match what I have experienced in the past. From what I have seen, project size does not have a significant impact on its odds to fail.

First – how do we define size ? Size can generally be expressed in terms of effort, which in turn drives duration and headcount.  occasionally we do run into situations which are akin to asking 9 women to deliver a baby in 1 month – but assuming that doesn’t happen , there is a logical way of arriving at duration and headcount from a WBS.  There are always compromises made between the triple constraints – scope, schedule and budget.  Once all the stakeholders agree to this – project is good to go.

Now, assuming this exercise is done – size is generally not a reason for failure any more.  The reason is that in this planning exercise, you should have covered the effort required to mitigate the risk for duration and headcount. After this planning exercise irrespective of size – all projects start on the same footing. 

It could be argued that bigger projects are harder to plan and hence should fail more. However I am not sure if this is a true statement entirely.  The reason is that planning for a bigger project is done on a larger scale with a more intense process and  will have better scrutiny than a smaller project. Since the planning effort is proportionate – size should not be an unmitigated risk after that. For example – if headcount increases, then there is more overhead on communication. But once you factor that increase into the schedule, this risk has a valid mitigation.  and so on and so on…

Then there  is the risk that we fail on execution.  This is not rare – but the question is – does it depend on size?  As an example – lets say a small project was commissioned to build a UI in 5 days.  Planning was done in an hour on a whiteboard, and the stakeholders were 2 people. It only needed one developer to write the code and test it and move it to production. Total cost was calculates as say $2000. In execution, it took 6 days to finish because one of the stakeholders was out sick for a day and hence could not clarify a requirement in time. Cost over run is $800. What is the chance that this failure gets highlighted in blogosphere? ZERO  or NEAR ZERO.  As a percentage – cost slipped by 40% and schedule slipped by 40%. But since the materiality was so low, it is not worth spending time to analyze it.  And guess what – in most cases, people won’t even say that this was a failure.

But on a project that is $10 Million in size – a 40% miss is enough to get some serious blogosphere attention. Then we need to find out what went wrong – and point fingers at the SI, the customer, the product vendor, the weather and the macro economic factors. 

My point is – as long as we compare projects and their risks apples to apples, I have not seen big projects fail any more than smaller projects. The difference is that when big projects fail, they fail SPECTACULARLY, and hence they overshadow the similar failure rates of smaller projects. Several decades later, we still talk about sinking of Titanic. Since that time, more people have probably dies of smaller accidents – but do we talk about them?

 Lookin forward to hearing your perspective on this topic…

Too much of analysis + Too little of synthesis = Sub-optimal decisions

I remember a high school lesson on analysis and synthesis – with the teacher emphasising why they should always go hand-in-hand in a complimentary manner. It apparently did not register very deeply in my mind – and for a number of years, I was a bigger fan of analysis than one of synthesis.  Higher education in engineering and management pretty much helped me firm up by belief that analysis is the big deal and this is the area I should master.  Engineering taught me more about how to break a problem into smaller parts and solve each. It did not teach me with the same vigor on how to put things together to better solve the problem.  Same deal with my MBA – I became pretty good at analyzing issues, but when I look back – I don’t think I had the same zeal for putting things together to aim at a better solution.

This craze for analysis must have some how played into my decision to take an active interest in the world of Business Intelligence too. Over a period of time, I got exposed to more and more of the challenges that my clients face. While I had a decent ability to figure out why they were having the problem, and give them advice on how to analyze the issues – I was not equipped with the tools or training on how to use synthesis and put it all back together to give a better solution that gave more value than the sum of solutions to the problems my analysis pointed out.

In real world, the best business brains have the ability to use analysis and synthesis together – and not just analysis alone.  These are people who use tools and other people to do the analysis part and come to them with the required information, and then like a master chef – they mix the parts to create an extraordinary dish. However, the fact that this type of people are few in number makes me believe that we have a fundamental issue with how our education, tools and thinking is preparing us for taking on grand challenges.

A primary reason for this is our simplistic view on solving problems. Here are three  that come to mind

1. Not all problems have exactly one root cause. But we have been taught to think that there is one such cause.  Even if our analysis comes up with 3 causes, we try harder to somehow rank them – many times artificially, till we can defined “The” root cause. And in this process, we lose out on the ability to gain a better solution by understanding the relation between all the causes. When analysts scream that a CEO has to be replaced, or when opposition screams that the President is ineffective – we lose sight of the fact that there are many things that cause issues – and it cannot be all attributed to one person. But since we are tuned to think about the world in a hierarchical fashion – and the CEO or President is visually the top node – we attribute too much to them, whether it is good or bad.

2. Over use of the 80-20 rule can be counterproductive.  We almost always find something using analysis along the lines of 80% of revenue comes from 20% of customers. And hence we think if we spend most of time and resources in making these 20% customers happy, then we are in good shape. Well…think again. If you have a large customer base, then 80% of your customers is a large enough number to drag you down in a variety of ways, using the various channels available to them to do so.

3. Analysis is always done assuming certain boundary conditions and assumptions. However, we do not always factor this when we interpret the results. Just by asking the same question in a different way – you can get a different answer. Here is a recent example. We asked a set of stakeholders – “How important is dashboarding/  graphical representation of data to you?” as a part of 10 questions in a survey. When we compiled the results, we found it was one of the least important. Around the same time, some one else had done a similar survey which asked “how often do you use charting and other graphical representations of the data you analyze?”. And guess what – the answer indicated that many of them used it quite regularly.  Eventually,after many more discussions with the people who answered the survey,  we figured that other questions in the survey had an influence on how the users answered each question.

I still think that analysis is crucial to decision-making – all I want to add is that people should not stop there. They should use the principle of synthesis and take better decisions.

Prayer And Other Aspects Of Religion – My POV

I was born and raised a Hindu. I attended my primary school in a Hindu institution, my high school in a Catholic school , my Engineering degree in a college founded by a Muslim visionary and My MBA from a Government run university . I am influenced by teachings of all these religions – and when I was in college, the student body was very left leaning, so I have read a fair amount of marxist type literature too.

On the plus side – this makes me totally tolerant of all religions – because, once you abstract it to a high level, they all say pretty much the same things. There are specifics like idol worship that are significantly different between religions, but that does not matter to me all that much. On the minus side – there are plenty of things that are not very clear for me about the concept of God, Prayer etc which frustrates me to some degree.

All these religions teach us the superiority of God over everything else, and I buy into that. But – at the same time, they also give totally human characteristics to God. This makes it hard for me – does God really need us to offer a prayer of praise?. I cannot imagine that God needs an ego boost from humans. If God were human – would we like a someone who won’t help unless we constantly sang praises?  But we do it any way – at least on occasion. Why?

What about prayer of petition? Religion tells us that God’s will is all that matters, and that we must succumb to it. If that is the case, why would we then also make prayers of petition? If God has a plan for everything – what does it matter whether we petition for something or not? 

I can see some rationale for prayers of love,charity and contrition. Our actions do not always account for all that happens to us. Hence – saying thanks and sorry to the power that accounts for the grand plan sounds logical to me. Somehow, apart from some ritualized aspects of contrition and penance – these types of prayers take a backseat.  However, there is one question in my mind – if God already made plans for everything that happens around us, what is the point in saying sorry and thank you and please?

Also, what is the need for middlemen between man and God. In a human organization, I fully understand the need for hierarchies. However, since God is über powerful – is there really a need for priests, saints etc to convey messages between us and God?

Why do we need a defined place for worshiping – like a Temple, Mosque or Church? All religions tell us that God is omnipresent, and that God is within us. Then why would I need to go to a certain place to communicate with God?

If devotion to god is not an act, and a way of life – do we really need specific days to worship? We need father’s day and mother’s day and independence day and so on because people have busy lives and in the mad rush, we do not think daily of dad and mom and the nation. We feel guilty of that occasionally, and get rid of our guilt by using an arbitrary day to take care of it. Although dad, mom and the nation could probably use more interaction with us – they are usually not in a position to change our behavior. But God is much more powerful – so if God cared about constant attention from us, wouldn’t God have done something to influence it? Since that does not seem to be the case – my theory is that God does not really care if we think about God all the time.

I think Religions serve more societal and psychological needs than spiritual needs. Having a place and time to worship brings people together, and augments the legal framework of a society with a moral framework. People resist the temptation for crime partly because of fear of God punishing them in some form on top of the society punishing them. Having God to blame for our disappointments give us a big psychological relief. Believing that God will intervene and make things right for us help us keep trying. So yes – religion does have a very valid reason to exist.

The people who founded religions probably found that it was easiest to get a following by giving God some human attributes. This would help others relate to the concept without a lot of critical thinking, and help make teachings more accessible via stories. This also helps explain why middlemen came into being between God and commoners. By instituting prayers of praise and petition – humans can easily think of God as a very powerful human who is more powerful than a King, rather than as an abstract concept. And as they get to think over time, they can fine tune their belief and faith to whatever suits them. So I think it was a very smart idea to put such a framework in place.

Concept of life after death is also a very clever and smart idea in my opinion. Since no one knows exactly what happens after death – the thought that you could be praised/punished will keep us even more focused on sticking to the framework when we are alive. This serves as a catch-all for anything that happens which cannot be explained easily. For example – say you followed all the teachings of your religion, and still got in to trouble some how. This can then be explained that this is “a test” and “your reward will be in your next life”. The next life of course differs across religions – some saying you will be born again to suffer consequences of past life, and some say you go to hell/heaven after God tallies your score and so on. Risk averse nature of many people make them feel more secure that if they stick to the rules – they have a good chance of going to heaven, in case there is a heaven. In case there is no heaven, it still gives them a reason to feel more peaceful in life and stay out of trouble. So it works either way.

Enterprise 2.0 – another “build and they will come”?

I already un-followed several people on twitter because I could not stand any more E2.0 trivia being hurled at me. I have hardly seen anything new being said about it. And no –  just by adding “social” and “collaborative
” to every sentence does not make you or your idea look smart.

I earn a living by finding out my customer’s pain points and offering solutions to them. I have only been in consulting for about 12 years or so, and hence don’t claim to be the most experienced dude around. However – in these 12 years – I have not seen a significant change in the top 5 pain points for big companies. And till date – I have not seen E2.0 in that list. I actually doubt if it even makes it to top 10.

Don’t get me wrong – executives at almost every single client of mine are keen to find how E2.0 can help them in their business. Most are willing to invest in pilot projects to check out the idea too.  But almost invariably – they can always find other avenues to invest that money for better ROI.

Here are  few things that are probably worth keeping in mind in this context.

1. Business users are not dumb

Everything does not have to be stupid simple. There are complex things they need to do, and a simple UI is not always what they are looking for. These people are smart enough to use complex tools as long as it serves their purpose.  They feel insulted when they read/hear that things have to be made stupid simple for them.

2. Not all customers are consumers

What works in B2C does not work in B2B all the time. So when we talk about facebook type things for enterprise – remember that it is only one of the many things a business user needs to do.

3. Guess what – people have been collaborating before E2.0

If a millennial reads about E2.0 – he/she might think that people used to never collaborate till now. Enterprises have been collaborating internally and externally all the time – it is the tools that kept evolving. Email, telephone, snail mail all have helped us collaborate and they all still work. What the new tools help with is scalability. But then again – unless it is B2C – not many enterprises need such extreme scale.

4. Large enterprises cannot be flattened

I get very amused when the E2.0 gang keeps talking about flattening hierarchies. Try doing that in a significant way for a large company – and you will soon figure out it cannot function effectively.

5. You can build your own community online – but you cannot control it

And this can bite you. If you nurture a community and make every one passionate about it – you should also be prepared for even more backlash if you mess up. Plus – you cannot restrict all the activity to a site you control. It is a free world – and people will discuss about you anywhere they please.

6. Collaboration is not always neatly tied to a given business transaction.

Lets say you can have an online chat with your vendor on a certain product. It is very seldom that you talk only about one transaction – you will talk about many transactions, weather, baseball and so on. But when you go back to that transaction – you don’t want to see the baseball discussion – you just want some specific discussion about that transaction. And most software I have seen don’t support a useful way to use collaboration information. Just being able to collaborate is not value adding – using that effectively in decision-making is key.  MDM, content management, collaboration, OLTP and OLAP all have to play together – and this is hardly possible today.

Bottom line – till it becomes a top-5 pain point, I do not see many enterprise customers taking the E2.0 plunge. And I am not holding my breath on it for now.

Context is everything

This happened in the year 2000. I am fairly new to USA, and sitting in my client’s IT offices in Colorado Springs,CO. It is close to lunch break – and my mobile rings. I pick it up – and it is my dear friend from India. A minute later I am telling him – in an exasperated voice -“Do not let that bitch on your bed, she won’t let you sleep one wink all night.”. Next thing I know, 20 heads are staring at me with horror written large on their faces. Little did they know that I was actually talking about a dog – a female German Shepherd that I bought and sent to my friend in India to show there in dog shows. Despite me explaining to the best of my abilities, I am sure not all 20 believed me then, or ever after.

That is the thing about context – data without context means nothing. And this is especially true in the world of analytics. A given set of data can mean many things to many people. Consider this example.  If you are at the physician’s office to check blood work results. You and the doctor are both staring at the same numbers. Yet – doctor and you have two levels of understanding about what those numbers mean.  But why does that happen?

It happens because we try to abstract everything into some common model for all users of the information.   Since you and the doctor have a difference in your level of knowledge on the subject, the idea is to make it useful to you – who has minimum knowledge.  It can also work in another way – like the stock market. There, the information is skewed towards the more knowledgable users – and the layman investor cannot make use of it easily.

But why does this happen? We have raw data  – so this should not be hard to represent it in ways that a given user can figure out. The reason is that if we were to create a report per type of user, it is a nightmare to develop and maintain. But what if there was a tool and a framework that could take raw data and present it differently to different users without a developer writing report after report?

Here is another scenario. Lets say an order entry clerk is entering a sales order. The context has all the information on customer, product, location and so on. And there are probably plenty of BI reports that analyze the product and customer in a hundred different ways. But the clerk probably does not know that or care about that. Wouldn’t it be nice if system had the ability to ask the Clerk “hey did you know this customer always pays on time, and hence you should check if he can be given a loyalty discount?” or “we have this other product that is similar, but no one is buying it. Why don’t you ask the customer if he would take that instead for a reduced price?”.  That is actionable information – presented in a way that a user can understand. And depending on context, system can figure out what the user can be presented with.

The best part is – there are plenty of technologies around us that can do parts of these already. Missing aspect is the integration of all of them. So – will all the smart product developers recognize this and do something about it? I am counting on them !  As intel says in their campaign – “it is not what we make, it is what we make possible”

Post SAPPHIRE NOW musings

SAPPHIRE was way cool – one of the most well-organized ones, and I enjoyed it very much, despite the extreme sleep deprivation that I had to endure. In general, I was quite excited with SAP’s messaging, and analyst commentary. But as soon as I left the convention center, I started thinking more about the messages I heard at SAPPHIRE, and I think I am not as excited as I was a few days ago. It was a mixed bag. Please check my blog I posted when I was on my way to Orlando.

Let me start with Sybase. For one – SAP paid a huge premium for Sybase. The only reason I can think of is that SAP fears some one else like ORACLE or HP might be ready to buy Sybase, and in the process put roadblocks to SAP’s way forward on enterprise mobility. SAP claims to have figured out in-memory data bases even before Sybase story came out – and Sybase is nowhere near the top-tier of enterprise DB market. Even in SAP ecosystem, I think Oracle and DB2 have the lion share. So this is not going to help SAP rule the DB market. On Analytics – SAP has BOBJ, which is top of the line. So it is hard to imagine that they need more from Sybase. So mobility is the only reason that is worth SAP paying this premium. But why pay that much when Sybase is already a big partner, and is committed to building SAP specific solutions? 

Where this makes it confusing for me is that on one hand – SAP swears that they are committed to all the partners having an open level playing field. On the other hand – if a client gets a mobility pitch from a partner and Sybase tomorrow – which one will they choose? In today’s world – Sybase solutions are SAP CRM specific from what I know – and there are other partners that do other things. Post acquisition, I am pretty sure Sybase will become the de-facto standard.  This looks like a repeat of BOBJ story in analytics world – it is true that other BI partners can still sell to SAP customers, but what is the long-term value proposition for non SAP BOBJ vendors any more when they sell BI to primarily SAP shops? 

SAP cannot buy every company around – so of course they need partners to build things around their solutions. So I am not surprised that SAP reiterates its commitment to keeping it an open field for every one. But won’t partners now feel a constant fear that after they have invested in SAP solutions for a while, SAP will buy one of them – and leave others by the way side?

Now on to HANA and in-memory. I was super excited to hear that SAP is taking this route, and that they have something that customers can sign up for right away. On the flight back from Orlando, I posted these questions on my SAP blog and there has been some good discussion around it. .  Technical questions apart – SAP is a relative late entrant into this market. So calling it innovative is a stretch. Hasso had this idea a while ago. So what prevented this from getting productized for so long?

It was great to hear that Business By Design is finally ready for prime time. SAP also has a lot of side benefits due to this – they probably figured out how to scale with Agile, something that I am very keen to find out. Please check out the great discussion I had with Enterprise Geeks at .Another plus is the use of Silverlight, a Microsoft technology that I think is superior to all the SAP UI tools currently available. I am fully bought in on Vishal Sikka’s position that SAP has way too many UIs to use just one common tool.  but for all the good things – SAP leaders made a statement that sounded like “we do not have a firm target for growth of BBD “. Really? Would you just throw billion dollars at something that you have no real expectations for? Had to swallow that.

I just think it is plain funny when SAP talks about sustainability in these big events like SAPPHIRE. This is an event that makes such a lot of carbon emissions – high energy use for the many display gizmos, the jet setting executives, and many vendors and participants who fly to get there, and the massive air-conditioning that keeps participants alive in Orlando heat and humidity. Al Gore, Powell and the Virgin guy didn’t drive their hybrid cars to get to Orlando, did they? And did the SAP top guns fly commercial between Germany and US to appear at the concurrent events  or did they fly in private jets? So yeah – it is very hard for me to buy into the whole sustainability pitch. It sounds hollow .

SAP is clearly in the top bracket of companies who have figured out how to use social media to its advantage. SCN has 2 million members and the SAP mentor program (of which I am a part) provides excellent input to SAP for free. SAP has a blogger program – which I think pays T&E for bloggers to come to these events, but in no way forces these bloggers to let go of their objectivity.  And twitter helped several of us keep track of the massive event. That is extremely forward thinking and admirable. They are leading from the front – and other companies should watch and learn.

Finally, a couple of things on the leadership front. First and foremost – Hasso is still SAP’s superman. None of the others evoke the kind of passion he delivers. Bill and Jim are a perfect pairing – and I think SAP made a wise decision to do the Co-CEO thing again, especially with these two guys. And Vishal Sikka has all the qualities of a great tech visionary – and like the taste of good wine, his message gets more and more clear to people who follow SAP as time passes. I used to think John Schwarz was the next big leader at SAP – but I was wrong. he left, and probably took some of his trusted guys with him. Now with Sybase comes its CEO John Chen. He is an amazing leader – some one who successfully turned around Sybase and kept it growing despite a terrible economy. Will SAP manage to keep him and his team or will he too leave one day soon after the acquisition? I am very keen to see how that unfolds.

Software companies , Innovation and On-premise

You cannot walk on the street, or browse on internet, these days without some one screaming “innovation” on your face.  Software companies lead the pack here – not only do they use the word “innovation” ad-nauseum, they also take time to explain why their competition is not using “innovation”.

Read this excellent blog by Dennis Howlett . Dennis is known to give software companies, including SAP (He, I and Craig who is mentioned in the blog, are all SAP Mentors), a hard time on the incessant use of the word “innovation”. After reading his blog, I wanted to put in my 2 cents as well.

When do we call something innovative? I would think that, it is innovative when something changes for the better – in a significant fashion.

When you are working on a project – your aim is to make something better. But you don’t know if it is better or innovative, till your customer uses it and acknowledges it as better than status quo. So does that mean all projects are innovative? I would say no. It is an after the fact issue – a lagging indicator.

I don’t think it makes sense to say “I am working on an innovation project”. Every one is working on projects that can claim to be innovative – but only the ones that make a meaningful result at the end can claim to be innovative.

I read somewhere that Edison had to do few thousand prototypes before light bulb was invented. Do we say that Edison worked on 2000 innovation projects that failed? or do we give him credit for one great innovation?

So in my mind – I would consider it a total marketing buzzword till such time as software companies can say something like ” here is how this product was when it came out, here is what we changed 3 years ago, and over the last 3 years – our customers gained 20% cost benefits due to this. And we have several such cases which we can demonstrate value-add measured by independent sources.  This proves we are known for innovation, and you can trust us to make better and better stuff for you as time passes”.

A closing comment on “On Premise” – as in “On premise vs On demand”. I am told this die was cast and it won’t change – but doesn’t premise mean something like an assumption or a hypothesis? And hence shouldn’t these people start saying “On Premises” or even “On the premises” to denote a system that is local as opposed to, say somewhere on the cloud.  I am not a native english speaker, so I will gladly stand corrected if my premise is wrong 🙂 

So what do you think about this? I am very keen to hear your take on it.

South beach diet didn’t work for me, and neither did Agile development.

Normally, I would write this in my SCN blog – but this is not about just SAP projects, I am going to do it here. As always, these are strictly my personal opinions – not that of my employer.

Some of you have seen me  – at work, at some tech conference, dog show or at an airport. I doubt if “Agile” was the word that came to your mind when you met me. I could easily lose 20 pounds and have some one ask me “hey, why are you not doing something about your weight?”. You get the idea. I have tried many a weight loss / excercise plan – and have  come to the firm conclusion that the magic bullet for weight loss is to eat less of everything I like (Rice, red meat, fried food) and excercise more.

In parallel, I was going through a similar excercise at work – trying to find an optimum way of managing the projects I get to run. I have read and tried several different things over the years in a variety of projects. Over the last couple of years, I have been fascinated with Agile development and hence I have been reading, talking to others, and trying it out in teams I manage – and again, I have  come to the firm conclusion that, just like the various dieting schemes – Agile also does not work for me.

This is not to say Agile does not work for others . South beach diet must have worked for others, and I am sure Agile would too. For me – no sir, I will pass. That being said, let me explain why it does not work for me.

Would you pay an Agile contractor to build your deck?

I need a deck built, and I don’t know how to build one. So I hire some one else to do that. And this dude tells me he can do it one of two ways. 1. I can discuss with him on how a basic deck has to be built, and he can give me an estimate. Or 2. I can give him a rough idea, and he will start building the deck, and every day or two – he and I can get together to see how it is going and what changes I want, and I can pay him for work that he has done every day. Of course in the second option, he cannot tell me how much the deck will cost me or how long it will take him to build me one – but I can see progress every day. I don’t know about you – but I know what option I will go for.  Same thing with my clients – if the work and schedule are not predictable – it is hard for them to just pay as I go.

Global and Agile are like Oil and Water – They don’t mix.

I forgot the last time I had all the IT and Business guys and gals working in the same location.  Most often – we have people working on a project from all over the globe. It is seldom possible to get teams from Japan, India, Germany and US to be on a conference call. And even if you do – without a written document explaining the problem and/or solution – it is hard to get anything done. 

There are only so many super stars in this world

In any given team, the norm is to have a few super stars, several average performers and a few below average ones. This has a direct effect on pulling off delivery in an agile fashion. Not every one can go away with minimal instructions and come back with the right solution, and right questions to ask for next day. 

It can be argued that Agile needs less programmers, and hence you can keep just the super stars and let go of every one else. This argument works only if the scope is small.  The day still has only 24 hours – and even super stars  cannot work 24X7  all the time to get everything done.

Most projects do not have dedicated business users.

The whole idea of Agile is to get something back to business users faster than in a waterfall model, and keep them informed of progress frequently. This is very good – except it won’t happen in most projects. Most companies find it hard to dedicate full-time business people to a project. More often, business users have to do project work on the side. So – even if the tech  team wants constant face time , the chance of that working out is low.

A few product companies have tried out Agile successfully. However, in the couple of cases where I got a chance to talk to people from the team – it seems, the customer was almost never present in the scrum meetings. Instead, the product manager assumed the role of being the customer voice. If that is the case, I would have to wonder aloud “so what is new?”.  Product manager is not the one who has to live with the product after it is out – it is the customer.

What works for you –  people over process? or process over people?

This is what it boils down to – Agile manifest claims the superiority of people over process. And traditional waterfall puts process over people. For me – as a manager of big teams, with a deadline and budget that seldom cuts me any slack – I would trust a good process to compensate for the human errors most of the time. I think it is a high risk for me to trust that every one in the team will perform to the same high standards. Having a disciplined process helps me get the best out my team, despite not every one being a super star. 

Would you build a mission critical solution using Agile?

I don’t know – but I keep wondering if NASA would use Agile for designing systems for their next space mission? I somehow can’t see any application that is very important and deals with life and death, or dealing with large amounts of money – like air traffic control or stock market transactions –  to use Agile.

I hope every one knows about 3C. This was the big Chrysler project that was the poster child for XP (Extreme programming). Well, guess what – that didn’t quite work out. Check this out  or just google and you will find several interesting takes on it.

Building a car and building a software solution have similarities in design. However, there are significant differences too. Just as it is impossible to build a car without knowing what exactly needs to be built – we cannot build a good software solution without knowing what the heck we are building. Otherwise, even if you follow Toyota manufacturing Process to build a Camry – you could end up with a Chevy Malibu.

Is Agile really good for long-term stability of a solution?

Most software is built by first putting a framework in place, and then building on top of it. It is the rough equivalent of putting a good foundation for your house. If you know that you will have a house with 2 floors – you will probably put a certain amount of concrete in your foundation. Now that you have finished the house – and for some reason, you now want one more floor – would you put one more floor without also doing some additional foundation work? And if you build by constantly messing with your foundation – I am definitely not going to buy that house or rent it for living.  Same thing with software – the way sprints happen from what I have seen, I doubt if it is possible to put a solid foundation in place.

It is fun, but is that good enough for customer to pay?

One thing I really like about Agile is that every one involved in it usually has more fun than in a waterfall project. This improves team morale and all the good stuff – temporarily. When you cannot get user involvement, or if a blame game starts – where there is no documentation to go back and clarify what every one agreed to, this fun does not always last. And fun for the development team, while important in a project, is not the sole reason why some one pays for a solution.

Waterfall is not such a terrible thing to do, as its opponents make it to be. And it is a big exaggeration to say the team does a very long design up front, and that user gets to see things only at the end. That is not how most projects run. Waterfall can also have users involved more frequently. Also, you can build in plenty of  feedback options and test driven development in a waterfall project. Also there are very strong visualization tools that can give the users a taste of the solution very early in the process.  For example – iRise is a great tool to use for that. Do try it out, and your whole perspective will change. Also, once you have a good change control process established, changing requirements can be handled very effectively.

So, when do I think Agile would work?

Despite all these points above, I am not an extremist when I think of methodologies.  In my opinion, Agile is going through a hype cycle exactly like how it happened with SOA.  Once the hype died down a little, we mostly figured out what is possible with SOA and what is not. SOA is great for several use cases, and terrible for others. Same is the deal with Agile.  Just because Agile possibly has the issues I called out above, it should not be inferred that Agile should not be used. If you have a bunch of highly skilled people, where the team has a clear vision of the end product, and/or where time to market is not such a big deal – all these challenges will vanish. Such a team can probably come out with a great solution using Agile. But in the type of projects I am dealing with – I don’t think Agile can succeed. 

Rather than take an extreme view of either/or – it is probably best that we let individual projects decide the methodology they want to follow.

Woman geeks and their troubles

I don’t know what is the real definition of a geek. For that matter, I don’t know of a crisp definition for “nerd” either. When I hear “Geek” or “Nerd”, it  generally makes me think of the word “odd”.  I work for a consulting company, and I have a deep interest in technology. However, I certainly don’t think of myself as a geek or a nerd.  I have (and can be) called many things – but never a geek or nerd.

It is no secret that women are a definite minority in technology companies at all levels. I honestly do not know what causes it in a country like USA – especially in this day and age.  I have been working in US for about 10 years, and have worked for and with many women. And when I became a manager, I had women in my team. Not once have I seen anything that made me think they are any different from the men working alongside them  in the same team. 

My mom only studied till 10th grade, and she married my dad when she was 17.  She had me when she was 18. But, she was one of the first in her generation to drive a car and a motor bike, and was a succesful small business owner. My sister had a masters degree in commerce, and was an anchor in a popular regional channel. She moved to the US with her husband, and easily moved into a business analyst job. My wife is a civil engineer, and she is now studying computer networking, and is now aiming for her Cisco certification. Despite not knowing anything about computers – and being  one of two girls in her class, she has been consistently at the top of her college class. My aunt was a major in English literature, and decided to join Indian Police Service – and became the first woman from my state to do that.

The list goes on – and remember, these women are all from India, where social progress has been a lot less compared to US and other developed countries.  So if they can do this successfully, why would this be hard for women in general, and for women in developed countries in particular?  Beats me .

Recently, there was a survey that I saw which showed sharp difference between the pay for men and women in the technology I specialize in. This made me all the more curious as to why such disparity exists. I have been reading about this, and talking with others (both men and women) about this.  And then yesterday, a very accomplished lady pointed me to via twitter . 

Admittedly, the first picture that comes to mind when I hear the term “geek” is not that of a woman – it is that of a T-shirt and Jeans wearing guy, usually sporting glasses.  So , I have some difficulty thinking of women as geeks – thanks to how my mind has been conditioned all these years. I read through a lot of postings in that site – and have been fascinated at how women view themselves and their challenges. It was quite an eye opener – since this was totally not how I thought about the issues. 

Before I read this blog, I did not exactly realize that women in technology felt like they had to work twice as hard to prove themselves. In multiple posts there was the idea ” I want to be feminine – wear a nice dress, heels and make up, but if I do that – men think I am craving their attention, and they won’t take me seriously at my work”.  

This makes sense. Sure, if a girl is attractive, guys will look at her more than they will look at a less attractive girl. But this is true in reverse too – there are also some guys , who attract the attention of  a lot of female colleagues.  And this causes some halo effect for sure. If you like something about a person, you will extend that liking to other things that person does.  This is true for dislikes too.  So yes – I can believe that some of that halo should be affecting how work is perceived by others. 

However, I think this problem exists for any kind of minority situation. If I am the only chinese guy in a team of Indians, I will stand out. Question is – what do I do about it. I definitely will have to try harder and be more creative and smarter than the Indians in this example, if I were to succeed.  And come to think of it – most of  us have something that puts us in a minority.

Geeks feel that there are way too many suits in this world, and that is why their career does not go anywhere. Women think that there are too many men in the organization, and hence they have to work twice as hard for same benefits. I think that there are way too many professional dog handlers in US, that an amateur owner handler like me have no chance of winning a dog show.  Have you read the results of horse races – no horse in history has ever lost a race because it was slow. The horse always loses because  of  the wrong turf, bad handicap, inexperienced jockey, or a million other things – but never because it was slow. You get the drift – the only way out is to try harder. If you stand there with a lemon in your hand – nothing changes, and you still have a lemon. You squeeze it hard, and you can potentially have some lemonade.  There are plenty of examples around us to get us inspired – so it is not fiction, it has been, and can be done.

Another theme in the blog that picked my interest was about low presence of women speakers at tech conferences. This is also probably true, since I have presented at many events and have hardly seen many women speakers. But I keep wondering what is the cause.  Is it because less women apply? or is it because many women apply, but the guys picking speakers ignore many of them? or is it because women do not get funding from their companies to go present at conferences? From my personal experience, I have noticed that very few of my female colleagues have an interest in public speaking. There are a few who like it, and they present frequently at tech conferences. Similarly – in any of my employers till date, I have never seen any one being refused funding because of their gender . In fact, many male managers I know , within and outside my employer – including me, actively encourage  female employees to present at conferences. But of course this is not a large enough sample to derive any good conclusions.

And it is not all men who are making it hard for the woman geek. I think there are some women techies out there who do not think very high of other women techies. I recently asked a woman techie  that I know, about the glass ceiling, and pointed out to her several succesful senior women execs who seemed to be not affected by it. The answer stunned me “Did you notice that they are mostly blondes and have model like  figures” !!!

Who let the dogs out?

Any one who knows me know how crazy I am about dogs – training them, playing with them, and taking them to dog shows. In college, my ambition was to become a handler full-time.  I have lost count of how many times I have sneaked out of lectures and labs to go to dog shows all over India. Almost every one in my family thought that I will drop out of college and ” go to dogs”.  Well,  that did not happen – thanks to my dad’s cousin.

Uncle R was a retired business man – and an international all breeds judge.  He talked me out of my plan. His point was “Finish your engineering degree and get a job – you will be able to buy better dogs that way”. It was not easy, but I was convinced. So I finished my degree, went on to do my MBA and got a job. Next thing I know, I got assigned to USA . First thing I did before I left India was to find out the best German Shepherd kennels to get a puppy from. I found one in Germany, and used my first salary to buy a 6 month old pup.

I was generally happy that I followed uncle R’s advice. I could afford to buy the dogs I liked – and good dogs win at more shows.  After spending a lot of money and time buying dogs and sending them to handlers and trainers, and winning my fair share of shows – I realized one thing. It was not fun any more – I was just kidding myself that it iwas fun. Where is the fun when I pick a dog, and a handler finishes it for me and I hardly get to see the dog? I missed out on going into the ring and the fun of chatting with old friends at ring side.

Pendulum swung the other way – I stopped it altogether. No dogs with friends and handlers (well almost). My next dog had to stay with me home, and if a handler is showing him, I want to be there most of the times to see him in the ring. And since my wife didn’t like German Shepherds, we bought a Golden, and then a Lab. I have no qualms about using a handler to finish a title and some of my best friends are handlers – in India, Germany and USA. 

In the mean time, my career became more demanding and I am on the road a lot more than I used to. It is virtually impossible to attend several dog shows. I would rather spend a weekend with my wife and daughter than drive to a show. So I get to go to only a handful of shows these days, and that too mostly without a dog.  But I still get some time to play with dogs and train them when I am home, but not to the high degree that I could do earlier. In college days, my dog used to beat the top dogs in India in obedience and now, I don’t do anything with them beyond very basic obedience. 

My little Lab guy is 14 months now, and next weekend is his debut in show ring. He is not trained for the ring – and I am pretty sure he and I will make total fools in the ring.  Totally my fault – I dropped out of handling class, and his socializing is restricted to walks around the neighborhood. If I hand stack him, he will do it with a face that will make people think that he is expecting to be hit with a stick. If I free stack him, he will stay focussed for about 10 seconds at most, and then prefers to leap than stand. He hates showing his teeth, and since he is not conditioned like he should be (except for swimming  in our pool), he tires easily. 

Just yesterday I realized that he has not been around many dogs really – and my short cut solution was to drive to the bark park in Snedigar Park.  I expected him to either get bullied by other dogs, or bully someone himself. Instead he was a cool customer – he went and played with dogs of every size, and allowed himself to be petted by every one there. And he chased a frisbee for 30 minutes (not his toy, he just was faster than the dog it was thrown for). And when he was tired, he came to me and flopped on the ground. I am much relieved – he will do just fine in the ring with other dogs.

He is an independent spirit and a happy puppy. So my strategy in the ring will be to take a chance that judge will forgive him for his goofiness, but will like to see a happy dog, who will move well and do a great stack for a few seconds.  Far too many dogs look like mechanical dogs in the ring, and he will stand out. I am fully aware that this has only a 10% chance of working, and 90% chance exist for him to be the one that makes every one crack up and get me kicked out of the ring.  Either way – I have no complaints. I have lost plenty of dog shows with well-behaved dogs – way more than I have won. And while I am a fiercely competitive guy in general, I don’t feel that way about dog shows any more. (probably because I am well aware of my own limitations compared to others in the ring ).  However, we are going in there to win – and if we lose, it won’t be because we didn’t try.

And I still dream of my five-year old taking up junior handling (in addition to becoming an engineer, doctor, lawyer and a consultant). So far there are no indications of that.  But then if dreams were horses, fathers of five-year olds would fly !

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