Monthly Archives: January 2012

Programming is the new High School Diploma

It used to be there were four tiers of work in the United States. The first tier was for the truly uneducated: the illiterate. The second tier was for people who could be counted on to read and write and perform basic math: the high school graduates. Then there were folks who could be counted on to learn a lot more and take up positions of greater complexity: the college graduates. Finally there was a spot in the job market every so often for an expert.

Newsflash: the second and third tier are going away. In it’s place is a single tier: people who are literate and are able to control computers. And we’re nowhere near ready for the changes coming.

Programming is the new High School Diploma.

Sure, it might be another decade or so until the rest of the world catches on, but we programmers, especially those of us over 40, already see it today. Forty years ago computers were specialty devices found only in the most obscure places, now they are everywhere. Until strong AI is discovered, we know there are severe limitations of canned programming. When I was a kid, nobody had computers. Now my dentist’s office has at least a dozen. Hell the dentist himself has 3 or 4 he walks around with.

As as consumer of pop-media, there might be an app for everything, but the way an economy works is people putting together disparate things into something new. There’s never going to be an app for your job. Because if there was an app for your job, your job would be on your way to being replaced by robots or outsourced.

The new “middle tier” of the workforce looks something like this: literate, able to use math and write well, able to read a manual and instruct computers to take various actions depending on various conditions. Note that I’m talking about entry-level work. This job segment will take over “old” jobs from both the illiterate sector, and the college-educated sector. Eventually, as robotics comes to fruition, it will consume every job niche but the true experts.

I think a fair criticism of this essay is “there’s nothing new here,” and in a general sense, that’s true. After all, we all saw this coming. As technologists, the more technology we deploy, the less mundane jobs there are in the world. That’s a given. But the flip side of that — the more advanced jobs there are — hasn’t really sank in for most of us. After all, we’re already programmers. In a way, as programmers we’re stove-piped; we see just the system that we’re writing and (hopefully) the repercussions of that. We don’t sit on the other end of the table and see a dozen jobs working a dozen manual processes replaced by three jobs working two dozen computer programs. While we see the good that we do for one task, we have absolutely no insight into all those thousands of new multiple-application jobs (and the real-world implications for people) scattered all over the economy.

This really sank in for me when I read that although the United States leads the world in manufacturing, it does so with an ever-decreasing number of jobs. Nobody wants people to stand on an assembly line; they want people to tell the robots what to do. The robots work on the assembly line. When I thought of robots, for some reason I just thought about manufacturing cars, but that change happened in like, 1990. What has happened with computers in my lifetime is now happening with robots. In the next couple of decades, just like the last, seeing robots will go from a rare curiosity to an everyday occurrence. The only jobs left will be those that deal with computers. Dealing with computers; programming, scripting, reading manuals, and connecting interfaces and data; it’s the new reading and writing.

Progress is good, and I can’t wait until we get a world where the truly dehumanizing jobs are all gone, but while these jobs are coming online now, the education system is nowhere near understanding this new reality.

The political implications of this for older industrialized societies are vast. If there ever was a “red alert” we could put on a problem, this should be it, for what is about to happen is truly going to be unprecedented. We are going to end up with societies that have developed complex automated support and production systems that they themselves cannot manage. There’s simply too much work and too little competence. Instead, outsourced programmers will be used to supervise and control much of this modernization over the net.

This will bring on even more commoditization of business practices than we already have. While your dentist could use a nurse who is able to do data mining and various programming tasks to help him optimize his business practices (and gain an edge on his competition), he won’t be able to find one. Instead, he’ll pitch in with dozens of other dentists to buy a pre-canned support system overseas, with real, live, English-speaking operators. They’ll be able to do the same tasks, sure, but they won’t be part of his team, programming and working the business problem intimately in an effort to innovate. Instead they’ll just be a fancy vending machine. As services stratify, the opportunity to take many different technologies and merge them together, inherent in programming, will be lost to hundreds of thousands of businesses of all kinds.

The critical question that needs answering right now is: how do we make people of all education and age levels into somewhat competent programmers?

ADD: I hope I’ve described “programming” broadly enough for you to get the gist. I have a strong feeling we all could end up in a deep and long discussion about just what I mean by “programmer” That’s probably a post for another day. LISP experience not required. The key here is learning and using all sorts of already programmed systems in scripted ways that are all edge cases. Also, as much as I love computers, this is also not an advocacy essay. I am not advocating one thing or another nor asking for your approval. Things are changing. We must adapt.

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Agile Backlogs Redux

Spent some time today gathering together the many ways Agile Backlogs are wrong.

It was a painful journey — very sad to remember the different, many ways we screw up doing backlogs. But it was for a worthy cause: I have a new microsite positioned around Agile. Part of the site is a bunch of landing pages, part is a blog.

I’ve never blogged tightly around one subject before — quite frankly, the concept drives me nuts. But I’m wiling to give it a go. I have a lot of experience with Agile teams. Perhaps I can take some of my SEO/Microsite experience, some of my Agile experience, some of my e-book experience, and make something useful out of it. Who knows? Never know unless you try.

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Sucky Things You’d Rather Not Think About

Steve Martin with balloons on his head

Steve Martin used to say “I learned enough philosophy in college to mess me up for the rest of my life.”

There’s a bit of truth to that. Philosophy — the real stuff, not the stuff you learn mostly in college today — makes you deal with a lot of things you’d rather not.

Your death is imminent. No way around that. In the big scheme of things, you’re not even an ant. In fact, you exist for such a vanishingly-small amount of time and have such a tiny impact on anything that for all intents and purposes you don’t exist at all. The question shouldn’t be “How can I really know the rest of the universe exists?” The real question is more like “How does the universe really know I exist?”

Science is just a bunch of guesses. Yes, we’ve gotten really good at guessing, but for all we know we’re just getting better at describing the workings of the computer simulation we all live inside of. We can do amazing things by empirically observing things, noting patterns, creating possible rules, and testing those rules. Science rocks. But there’s always the chance we didn’t observe enough, that our model is lacking fidelity and we just don’t know. There were no black swans — until somebody saw a black swan. Newton’s laws worked awesomely well — until they stopped working. Induction, the idea that if we see something over and over again we can infer a general pattern, works until it does not work. The turkey thinks the farmer is a friend and always brings food — until the day he shows up with a hatchet. Mars had canals, hell they were empirically observed by multiple scientists, until we realized we were just looking at the backs of our own eyeballs.

Everything really cool is always going to be 20 years away — right up until the day you die. Twenty years is about the size of something that looks possible, yet has so many problems we’re not really sure how long it will take. So when people ask experts how long it’s going to be until some super-cool new thing comes out, the answer more than likely will be “20 years.” One day you’ll be dying of disease X and read that a cure for disease X is only 20 years off. That’s probably going to suck a lot.

Trans-humanism is going to take a lot longer than people think. On one hand, we’re already at the singularity: people are integrated with machines to a point right now where only twenty years ago it would have been a miracle. The folks from twenty years ago could not have predicted how all the technology is starting to interact with each other. On the other hand we can get carried away with this very easily. To take the idea of a singularity to it’s most extreme level, to say that some mystical far-out world will come into existence where literally everything will be possible? Not so much. Even if the technology races ahead, we are in for a long struggle as the human side of the changing world adapts. Don’t expect this to happen overnight. Odds are we end up with a machine in a few decades that has the horsepower of a human mind; and then we abuse it or fight over it for years afterwards. We have no history of welcoming new intelligent species with open arms. Don’t expect that to change.

Science will never be able to transfer your mind into a machine. Yes, maybe one day in the distant future some miracle will happen where all of your mind can be analyzed and copied, but that will only be a copy. The “real” you will die. There will just be a twin that’s born with everything about you. You won’t magically pop over from one head to the other. Yes, “you” might continue, but only in the sense that a new person begins that’s just like you — a super twin — while you die. Not a pleasant thing to look forward to. However the future works out, the wetware that exists inside your skull is subject to the limitations of being a biological device. Not going to change. Ever.

The religious people were right all along. Given all this uncertainty and almost pointless nature of existence, the only rational course of action is to creatively speculate on what values you want for your life and why. Then make decisions every day based on that creative speculation. Remember that the driver of all religions is each individual having to make value decisions based on incomplete information. This is a good thing and, in fact, the only thing you really have. Don’t confuse that with religion in the sense of an organized social structure. I’m not saying join a church, or start believing in a deity (although many religions have rather vague deities which sound a lot more like “the universe” or “nature” than anything else.) The existentialists argue that any formal, self-consistent religious structure is necessarily broken — God is dead — not that the essence of religion, finding meaning by artistically living an authentic life, doesn’t work. Living life is an art, based in your own creative speculative imaginings of what the universe expects of you. You can start with somebody else’s imagination of how it all fits together, but at the end of the day it’s up to you to take ownership of this — complete with all of the doubts that you might have made the wrong choice.

While these things are indeed sucky, they are also reality, which means we might as well get used to them. After all, there are some pretty good things too. You live at the pinnacle of modern thought. Billions of years of evolution has happened to put you exactly where you are today. Nobody else has lived in a time where lifespan is so extended, living is so easy, and people from all over the world are so connected. The poorest person in the United States has things that Louis XIV could have never imagined.

But you can’t experience the total awesomeness of life unless you own the bad parts too. It’s been my experience that you have to absorb these sucky things — take them in and let them wash over you — in order to truly move past them and enjoy life. Otherwise they always seem to be nagging at your heels. You can live in total denial of reality, or you can push through these sucky things to the other side. Being in the middle is unpleasant. Yeah, college can screw you up for the rest of your life. You can end up thinking nothing is true and everything is pointless. But that should only be a pit-stop on the way to the “dancing above the void” that marks a truly meaningful and enjoyed life.

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Refactoring the United States

As a libertarian, I do a lot of whining and complaining. Seems like the government is always taking up for special interests and consuming more and more of my freedom in the process. No matter which party is in power, I can count on having less freedom by the time they’re through with me. Sometimes each party wants to screw me over different ways, but many times both parties are paid off by corporations and such and the only difference is what kind of political bullshit I have to listen to while my freedoms are being restricted.

Every week, it seems like it just gets worse and worse. SOPA/PIPA, NDAA, and so on. We keep getting laws passed with names like “The Protection of Bunnies and Children Act” which end up letting government do all sorts of nasty things that nobody who has really thought things through would agree with.

I’m getting tired of complaining. Today I thought I’d put some possible solutions out there. Suggest some ways to refactor the government:

  • Constitutional Amendment: The government shall not abridge the digital communication of data between people.
  • Constitutional Amendment: digital data collected by a person as part of a wearable or embeddable computational device shall be considered an integral and internal part of that person.
  • Constitutional Amendment: For any year that the Federal Government increases operating expenses more than 3%, or that the total federal tax burden is more than 20% of GDP, currently elected officials will not be eligible for re-election. (Also known as the “Warren Buffett” rule)
  • Constitutional Amendment: No federal law shall be valid for more than 40 years or less than 1 year.
  • Constitutional Amendment: The only form of tax collection authorized to the Federal Government is a flat tax on consumption, with blanket exemptions for certain types of consumption created and managed by law.
  • Constitutional Amendment: Each Congressional Representative shall represent no more than 100,000 people. (This would increase the size of the House to around 3,000 members, easily manageable by technology yet much more difficult for a 2-party system to control)
  • Constitutional Amendment: Senators shall be appointed by the legislatures in each state (This takes the Senate back to being an aristocracy, which was the intention of the body, and not just another place for populist grandstanding)

Admittedly there are probably a lot of problems with my suggestions. I would point out, however, that amendments are supposed to be simple and broad. They are later “colored” by court action. So although we have freedom of speech, we can’t yell fire in a crowded movie theater. Likewise, although we might have freedom of digital data transfer, this probably wouldn’t be construed to allow incarcerated drug lords to control their crime empires from prison. There will be many reasonable limitations to these amendments which will come out like always, through judicial interpretation.

I’d also caution against taking facile pot-shots at some of these ideas. It’s easy to sound like you’re making a valid criticism when in reality that’s not the case. For instance, one of the reasons we have a popularly-elected Senate is because the states did such a bad job of it. At one point a businessman in Illinois basically paid-off every legislator so he could be a senator. This makes for a wonderfully dramatic rhetorical point, but looking back I think it was a major overreaction to change the entire system simply because of local abuses. The way it was supposed to work was that the House was filled with people who lived next door. The Senate was filled with rich banker and lawyer types. That’s because the system is set up to be a balance between aristocracy and representative democracy. (Most graduates of High School civics classes are probably unaware of this fact.) What we’ve ended up with is both houses being full of banker and lawyer types — the reason is that the House is too small, limiting the number of seats available, and the Senate is too dependent on national political parties for their election. Let’s have some Senators chosen by states with 50/50 Democrats and Republicans. We know from past experience that we end up with a Senate that’s much less partisan and full of more calm, thoughtful, diplomatic members.

I could go on, but the point isn’t to defend each item. It would make for too long of a blog post. I just wanted to point out that I’ve heard many of the objections to these ideas. This wasn’t something I saw on TV somewhere or read about in the back of a libertarian comic book.

The important thing is putting something on the table. Complaining is easy. Suggesting fixes is not. The only way we can improve is to discuss our problems enough so that we can then begin outlining ways we might fix them. Democracies work on conversations. Whining and complaining is a good way to begin a conversation, but at some point you have to move on to the next step.

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Shot a video for my ScumMaster book last night.

I think that’s mostly it for the landing pages — at least the big parts. I have a few more reviews coming in and I need to run some standard checks on the pages. Then, of course, the rewrite.

Somebody told me the video wasn’t that good — my head is down in the bottom of the frame and it runs on too long. Meh. I spent three hours shooting it. What do you think? Should I re-do it? Or is it good enough for now?

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Drive-by Tweeting

The other day when I posted my article about startups being like ice cream factories, a famous person from the startup community sent me a tweet. Something like “Great article! Keep it up!”

This was awesome! As a rule, I’m very stingy about who I follow. It’s not that I don’t like folks, I just like using Twitter as a conversation tool and not an endless stream. But here was famous person X telling me how awesome I am! I went immediately over to Twitter and started to click the “follow” button.

But then I caught myself.

You see, this was not the first time I’ve had a famous person pop over with a compliment. I really like this — hey I can use the encouragement! — but Joe Sixpack tweeting me with an “Awesome, man!” and famous person X doing the same thing are different things entirely.

Why? Take a look at what happens next. I click “like” or “follow” and become part of 27,421 other people following famous person X. Personal conversation with that person then ends.

I have nothing against the person who tweeted, and like I said, I’m immensely thankful. The guy that tweeted to me is a truly nice person whose work I admire. But there’s a bit of game theory going on in social media. Eyeballs have value. If you are not careful, your stream becomes polluted with all sorts of people who just randomly said something nice to you one day.

It works pretty nice from the other end. If you’re famous person X and building a mailing list! Hell, I might even try it myself someday. Take an hour each day and tweet, IM, or email authors of articles I see on HN and tell them how awesome they are. I bet you could pick up between 20 and 30 new followers a day. Do this for a month or two and soon the network effect would start to take hold.

But if you’re not into noisy streams, as a recipient you have to resist the urge to follow when approached like this, especially from people with huge followings. (Or who are building huge followings.)

Yes, it’s a good thing, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You’ve probably just been a victim of a drive-by-tweet. :)

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Welcome to the Ice Cream Factory

Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Cone

When I worked for Pitney Bowes in Connecticut, one weekend the family took a trip to nearby Vermont. No trip to Vermont is complete without visiting Ben and Jerry’s — the world-famous place where they make all the yummy ice-cream.

We saw the strangest thing.

You could walk right in on the workers. I kind of expected an overview of the way ice-cream was made, perhaps a free cone (which, in all honesty, was one of the big reasons we visited), but a big part of the plant had glass walls. We could walk right up and watch everything they were doing in there. There were no secrets at all!

I didn’t understand how they could do this. Didn’t they have trade secrets? Things they had learned over the years to make their ice cream the best? If people could just walk around and watch everything they did, how could they run a business? Hell, how could they concentrate enough to run a business? Having all these clowns hanging around everyday would drive me bonkers.

A couple of years later I was working for the Federal Reserve. Great gig in downtown Washington, D.C. Right on the national mall. We could sit in the lunch room and watch buses pull up and thousands of tourists get off and start taking pictures. I would be checking in at my hotel and suddenly 300 Koreans would walk in the door — all with that “Wow! Take a look at that!” look on their faces. Whatever I was doing, wherever I was, there would be tourists.

At work the tours weren’t too bad — after all, it was only every now and then, and it wasn’t as bad as the Ben and Jerry’s deal. It was actually kind of flattering. But still, I didn’t see how anybody could run a business with tourists underfoot all of the time. I could deal with seeing these folks from time-to-time, but hell if I could put up with them in my office where I was programming.

Many years later in the startup world, I look around and it’s not unusual for people to share everything they are doing. Popular blogs show how ideas were found, markets discovered. There are even lots of guys who publish weekly sales and profit numbers. Ideas are cheap, they say, information has to be free! The more eyeballs the better.

I’m still struggling with this — something about this seems a bit too facile — but I’m getting better. One of the things I’ve learned is nobody much cares about anything you are doing anyway. No matter how level-headed you are, you always consistently overestimate the degree to which anybody actually gives a hoot about your startup idea.

In a world of apathy, the best you can hope for is to write an interesting blog article. Then, if you’re lucky, some smart people may drop by and offer you some advice that you really need. This is a key element of the startup experience — serendipity. It can’t be planned and it can’t be forced. It’s what makes a Silicon Valley work — lots of politely-interested strangers providing bits of advice and informally seeing what combinations they can make to the community in general. Because people don’t care personally about what you are doing, but they do feel part of a larger community that likes to help folks. This is the thing that is so hard to replicate about SV. You can dump a ton of money and build a hundred incubators, but you’re nowhere near having an environment where you can walk a block to Starbucks, ask the first ten people in line what they think of your app, and end up with half-a-dozen great pieces of advice. The culture just isn’t there. It has to grow.

And sorry, I still don’t think people share as much as they make out to be sharing, at least publicly. Yes, every day I will see dozens of articles titled something like “How I got 100 thousand subscribers in one week!” These articles will tell me all sorts of generalities about getting celebrity endorsements and such. But most of the time I leave the blog just as ignorant as when I arrived. The critical details are always missing. Big ideas are always worthless, but a very small number of tiny ideas are priceless — and perishable. You’ll very rarely ever see these tiny ideas being published. If so, it’s always a mistake.

For instance, if you knew that famous reporter X was a big photography fan and loved to chat and write about pictures, and then you pitched a story about your business which had a photography angle, would you be blabbing about it on your blog? Or would you file that piece of information away until the next time you needed a story? The reason why we keep reading all of these overnight success stories without actually learning anything is that the authors skate over the tiny details that make the entire thing work. Most of the time the readers don’t know enough to realize what the authors are doing to them — painting some broad attractive picture of amazing fame and fortune while ignoring the key tiny little tidbits that went into making it happen. So you get the general feeling that you’re seeing something, but there’s nothing really there. In a lot of ways it’s like a magic trick: look over here while I do something over there. Interestingly, these tiny tidbits are exactly the kind of thing that you might share with somebody over coffee — but you’d be an idiot to publish them.

Even Ben and Jerry’s probably was this way, I was just too ignorant at the time to notice. After all, making ice cream isn’t much of a secret — no more than “How to speed up your website” or “Unknown magic of C#” — all that stuff, while appearing to be important is just mundane technical details. The real secret is business relationships, marketing plans, how to approach new distributors, strategic plans, all the little detail work that goes into making and popularizing a company logo such as the one shown above. This is the good stuff, and no matter how intently you stare at them making ice cream, you’re not going to see it.

So lately when I’m doing something like setting up a landing page for my new e-book on being a ScrumMaster, I go ahead and blab about it even though — gasp! — i’m actually still working on the page. Here I am making the ice cream. Here you are staring through the glass. Who knows? Maybe somebody will take a look and offhandedly suggest a great improvement to what I’m doing. Maybe you’ll see something that will help you dramatically improve what you’re doing. We’ll never know unless we try.

So welcome to the ice cream factory! Just don’t peak under the office door over there.

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Playing Around with BoxShot 3D

Been having fun with the little ray-tracer app I bought to make an image of my e-books. Like all things nerdy, it has a lot of little options, but it’s surprisingly easy to use, too.

What I’ve been reading is that people are much more likely to buy an ebook if it looks like it might be a real book. Kind of weird, but people are like that.

Here’s a shot I finished yesterday morning. I think it looks pretty close to being real!

Box shot of scattered ScrumMaster books

It was really cool because it would do the alpha masking so I could output a transparent png file, shown. Bonus points if you can read any of the text on the back of the book (which was never intended!) I had to make it look real, yet on a tight budget and zero time, so I just faked it all. I felt somewhat like a counterfeiter or forger — how close to real could I make it look?

But like all of these things, if I’m not careful I could spend a lot more time in a quest for perfection, and with a startup spending that kind of time on one thing is never advisable.

Still, cool.

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