Thursday, March 12, 2009

Advice? Focus on your goals!

This past weekend saw me back at the race track where my driver education continues. Before I left for the track, I took the car back to our tuning shop for a quick check of the engine programming. I had detected when in top gear, and under load, some “engine knock” – something I didn’t think occurred with today’s modern engines. “There’s been some poor fuel over the winter,” remarked Andy of A&A Corvette Performance, “and my advice is to boost the octane level of the fuel” The picture at the top of this page is of the Corvette outside of Andy’s shop. After adding a few gallons of 100 octane gas, the problem didn’t reoccur!

This is the second year of my participation in the High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) program conducted by the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) and the one constant throughout the experience has been the steady stream of advice I have received. Perhaps the most technical part of driving any track is working out the “racing line”, and there’s no formula or calculation readily available. I have sought the advice from friends with a longer history in racing, socialized ideas with others on the association’s online forums, and I have even chronicled my own experience on another blog site, yet suggestions and recommendations continue to arrive.

Making sense of it all is a constant challenge for someone new to the race track. Each car and driver combination is unique and there’s no one right line around the track for everyone but, with time on the track, you soon work it out – in the end, you have to put all the advice to one side and just drive! There may not be a destination involved as you rack up laps, and it’s not a time to take in the scenery either as your eyes focus on the track ahead. Applying everything you have read and discussed soon has you getting around the track in less and less time.

The Oracle of Omaha, as Warren Buffet is frequently called, makes it a habit of grabbing global media attention with catchy and timely quotes. This week, it has been about the economy, and he simply observed that it “has fallen off a cliff!” The global stock markets sank like a stone in the hours that followed his remarks. Only a week ago, in his annual letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., he remarked on some of the “dumb things” he had done with his 2008 investments.

Buried deeper within the letter, "investors should be skeptical of history-based models," Buffet warns his shareholders candidly. "Constructed by a nerdy-sounding priesthood using esoteric terms such as beta, gamma, sigma and the like, these models tend to look impressive … Too often, though, investors forget to examine the assumptions behind the symbols. Our advice: Beware of geeks bearing formulas."

Information comes from many sources and varies in quality. And those who provide analysis and opinions represent many viewpoints. Sorting it all out, and figuring what is valuable and what can be discarded, has always been a problem for those of us working in IT. In a recent posting on the Connect community web site, Too much advice? I raised the prospect of whether or not we were getting “too much advice” and whether the explosion in social networking and it’s almost instant access to opinions and viewpoints were simply flooding us with information. I went on to ask “when is too much advice simply that – too much advice? And when do you reach that point where you have to switch off, ignore all the advice that continues to stream in, and simply focus on your goals?”

I have found social networking to be a tremendously powerful vehicle for communicating ideas and for engaging other like-minded IT professionals. I am also very surprised by how much influence online communities are having on the decision makers within IT. I was recently given an informative statistic by a good friend: “the current research finds a 1/9/90 rule for online communities – 1% of the community is active and involved regularly, 9 % participate once in a while, and 90% may use information that they see through online forums but never participate at all.”

“The conclusion I drew from that it that we have to have a very large community to end up with a vibrant and active online portion of that community,” and this reminded me very much of Buffett’s admonishment “beware of geeks bearing formulas!” After all, turning to online communities can prove to be very useful, but blindly applying everything we find on these sites may not be the best answer either. As a blogger, this is an important consideration I keep in the back of my mind at all times – what if someone does pay attention to my commentaries and follows my advice?!

Over the years, those I have worked with have picked up on my approach to sharing information. It falls into two distinct categories. There’s the time where I openly share opinions that I have developed after a lot of reading and follow-up discussion and where I am well-informed about the subject material. And then there are the other times, where I just make stuff up in order to provoke a discussion on a subject where my knowledge is skimpy at best.

The number of instances where colleagues have come to my rescue and corrected my errors, all for the sake of better educating me, has bothered many of my managers. “Aren’t you concerned you will look foolish?” Not too much, not when I really want to find out something! In an open forum, I will just throw ideas out there to see what comes back. Again, it was Buffet who once remarked “only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked” and so I am careful whenever I elect to do this. After all, should anyone run across one of these discussions in an open forum and before the responses have been posted, they could easily come startled by what they find!

Exercising some caution however, lets you experience one of the strengths of social networking – it can be an anonymous way of pursuing answers to topics you may barely know. Coming up to speed on current technology, and getting to a position where you can provide counsel to others within your company is, for many of us, becoming an important aspect of our job. And I continue to remain impressed with the overall quality of information that is being provided openly and freely by the many online community web sites that I belong to.

HP never strays too far from the action – while the lawyers have done a pretty good job of keeping HP management from jumping in too deep, I know for a fact that very little of what is published in social networks escapes the attention of product managers and the marketing teams. If only they could keep up with all of this! There’s not a manager within HP BCS who doesn’t see the value that is created from “independent buzz” in support of a product or technology. Even within my own company, GoldenGate, there’s appreciation of the “for-free marketing” that comes with active online communities.

It was Mark Twain who popularized the phrase attributed to the British parliamentarian Benjamin Disraeli “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” One source I turned to on this topic suggested that “the statement refers to the persuasive power of numbers, the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments, and the tendency of people to disparage statistics that do not support their positions.” And again, I hear the words of Buffett “beware of geeks bearing formulas!”

Within our own online community I have been tracking readership statistics for a year now and become aware of the preferences and biases of some of the commentators, and that’s only natural and I’m OK with it. After all, you can’t provide advice unless you draw it from a real-world experience of one sort or another.

But there’s also a subtle “seduction” with all of this – knowing when to stop, when to leave the social network dialogues, and when to begin applying what you have learnt. As I observed in the posting I made on the Connect community web site a few days ago “in driving a high performance car on a race track, as part of an educational experience, you eventually reach a point where you have to put all the advice to one side … and just concentrate on driving.”

Social networks with their chat rooms, wikis, forums, and blogs are providing us all with instant access to almost every conceivable aspect of IT. Whether we want to catch up on the latest with SOA, or platform and application migrations, or simply want to find out more about the adoption of a new tool, there will be advice and counsel available a few clicks away in one online community or another. There’s never been such an immediate type of information sharing as this in our history. Bad products and technologies will have nowhere to hide any more.

But let’s not forget about the needs of those who employ us and who expect us to get on with it! As I wrote on the Connect community web site “and I have to ask, how many of us in IT, whether operations, architecture, or in development, lose sight of our goals and just keep on looking for more advice? Does our analysis end up becoming our goal?” So let’s not simply become consumed with the process – after all, unlike driving around a track, the destination for all of us remains extremely important!

1 comment:

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