Monday, November 21, 2016

Frozen Popsicle Man Takes to the Road: A Curmudgeonly Travel Narrative

“Wednesday, November 28, 1520, we debouched from the strait, engulfing ourselves in the Pacific Sea. We were three months and twenty days without getting any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats. We drank yellow water that has been putrid for many days. We also ate some ox hides that covered the top of the mainyard to prevent the yard from chafing the shrouds, and which had become exceedingly hard because of the sun, rain, and wind. We left them in the sea for four or five days, and then placed them for a few moments on top of the embers, and so ate them; and often we ate sawdust from boards. Rats were sold for one-half ducado apiece, and even then we could not get them. The gums of both the lower and the upper teeth of some of our men swelled, so they could not eat under any circumstances therefore died. Nineteen men died from that sickness.”
Antonio Pigafetta. First Voyage Around the World (1519-1522): An Account of Magellan's Expedition.

“Elwood: It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark... and we're wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it.”
           Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Blues Brothers.

“Lester Siegel: You don’t have a better bad idea than this?
Tony Mendez: This is the best bad idea we have, sir. So far.”
               Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck. Argo.

A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to take a brief vacation. You see, the retired life is so hard that I need a break from it. Seriously, though, here’s what actually happened.

Over the past few days, I went on a few too many chilly rainy rides up the mountain. You don't have an appreciation for what that means if you haven't “enjoyed” going downhill for twenty minutes non-stop at speeds of up to forty miles an hour while getting pelted in the face with thousands of cold liquid missiles coming at you diagonally. As you hurtle towards your death down the slippery road, you also get to “enjoy” feeling that your toes are frozen solid, that your nose is dripping, and that you haven't actually felt your fingers for the past hour. The fact that you just spent an hour climbing the mountain and are sweating profusely just means you are even more wet, cold, and miserable. At this point, you are basically a frozen Popsicle.

Of course, none of your extremities come even close to your rear end when it comes to pain. Try sitting on a road bike for three to four hours a day and you'll know what I mean. If that's not masochistic enough for you, try having a flat tire in the middle of the aforementioned rain storm while riding in some Godforsaken nowhere woods. As you stand there soaking wet and try to fix the flat with numb fingers, you have plenty of time to daydream about sunnier days. Ah, how I love biking! It's good for you, I keep telling myself.

Anyway, I looked at my iPhone Weather app and saw that the Bay Area was up for at least another week of cold and rainy weather. Being the resourceful guy that I am, I jumped on Expedia after checking the weather reports for half a dozen places “close enough” to the Bay Area for a quick two or three day trip. I settled for Palm Springs. Warm and sunny with temperatures in the high seventies, close to Joshua Tree National Park and the Salton Sea. I can go for quick day hikes and maybe even drag my camera along for some desert photography. Quick one hour flight to LAX, hop in a car for a couple of hours and we’re there. Brilliant. I even patted myself on the back for the quick thinking before asking my wife if she wanted to join me. She declined. She is a wise woman, as will soon become obvious. I also pinged a few friends to see if they wanted to join me. But, they were all either working or had other obligations. Never mind. I'll go it alone. How bad can it be?


At this point in the story, I should mention that I absolutely refuse to sit in real restaurants and wait for food when I'm traveling alone. I just feel so self conscious sitting there alone for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. I wouldn't know what to do with myself. It just feels too weird. So, when I travel alone, by and large, I eat on the run. Anything to get the excruciating ordeal out of the way as quickly as possible. Fast food, burritos, fish and chips at a pub, slice of pizza at the airport, anything that does not require sitting down alone at a table in a restaurant. For some reason, sitting at a bar is permissible but an actual table is not. I don’t understand the logic either. Needless to say, this aversion (it’s involuntary, I can't help it) also makes many magical destinations much less enjoyable when I'm forced to travel solo.

I booked nice midday flights so I would get a chance to bike in the morning before jumping on the plane. I find that helps with the guilt of knowing that I wouldn't get nearly as much exercise for the next few days. No, thank you. I'm not taking my bike to Palm Springs. It's not worth the hassle. It's just a quick one hour flight.

So, I got up at the usual time, did a quick hour or so of biking and took a shower, ready to go to the airport. That oughta make up for all the junk food I’ll be eating. Just as I was getting ready to leave, I received a text message from the airline that the flight had been cancelled due to “weather problems in San Francisco”. Hmmm… the weather out the window actually looked pretty good. Just a little rain and wind. Nothing special. I even went on a quick rant about Californians who didn't know how to run an airport. “If this kind of weather results in flight cancellations, then they’d have to shut down the entire airport for six months out of the year in Canada and Denmark.” Later, I came to find from other passengers that the plane had had engine problems, too. The airline just chose to blame weather publicly. Not our fault, bad weather.

Anyway, at least I got the notification in time and didn't spend several hours along with thousands of other travelers walking around the airport like zombies. Instead, I jumped online and booked myself on the next available flight out, still arriving in LA before 4:00 PM. Once again I patted myself on the back and congratulated myself for saving the day. Well, the next few hours were spent reading a succession of text messages informing me that this new flight, alas, was being delayed - in half hour increments. To make a long story short, the plane finally took off at 5:00 PM and deposited us in LA before six. Just in time for rush hour traffic. Joy!

It’s amazing how many multi-car pileups Angelinos get into on a regular evening commute. By the time I got to the hotel in Palm Springs, it was 9:00 PM. An entire day wasted getting from the Bay Area to Palm Springs. I could have driven there faster. Three hours, my ass! We have made air travel, and travel in general, so inefficient and painful that it almost makes me give up on travel altogether. I'm sure I'll have a similar day long ordeal going back home. A “quick” trip shouldn't require two full days of travel. I used to actually enjoy travel but am finding it increasingly difficult to justify it given all the hassles involved. In hindsight, I should have booked the flight directly to Palm Springs but that severely limits the number of available flights and is not much better. Okay, maybe it’s not as bad as the days of Magellan and urine soaked biscuits but we seem to have massively regressed in the past few years when it comes to travel. As an aside, did you notice that that entry was dated 1520 and that the trip didn’t end until two years later? Yikes!

Now, lying in bed, I was too agitated to sleep. New bed, noisy air conditioner, combined with stress from the sheer stupidity and waste of the previous twelve or so hours. So I lay there thinking about the next month. In my infinite wisdom, I somehow committed to five more similar “quick” trips coming up between now and Christmas. Two for business, three for family. Great job, Ben. Right in the middle of the holiday season and the worst time of year to travel. By the time I fell asleep, feeling sorry for myself, it was 2:00 AM. And, of course, I was up bright and early at 5:00 AM like every day at home. I’d forgotten to shut off my biological alarm. Oh great. Now that's what I call a vacation.

So I rolled around the bed for a couple of hours before getting up to go to Joshua Tree National Park for a hike and some photography. I have to admit I wasn't up for it. I hiked a couple of the trails and took a few pictures. It was a beautiful place and I enjoyed it but, it seems, in my rush to book the trip, I hadn't bothered to think about the fact that flowers bloom in the spring, November is not the best time of year to go there for photography.


By 3:00 PM, I was back at the hotel, in a new much quieter room overlooking the golf course and a man made lagoon. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at the poolside bar enjoying a beer and the sunshine and writing this text. Let's face it. This is why I came here. To get out of the rain and cold and to get a few more days of sunshine and warm weather and relatively clean mountain air before settling in for the cold winter. The hiking and photography were just excuses to fool myself into thinking I wasn't slacking.

Did I mention that three of those trips next month are to Seattle, Toronto, and New York? Brrrr. The older I get, the more I need sunshine and warm weather. My old bones and joints prefer it to freezing rain and forty mile an hour winds. I've paid my dues for years in cold and inhospitable climes. To those of you still living in those kinds of places, I have to ask: “Why?!?” I guess I'm getting old. I'm actually starting to understand people who move to Arizona and Florida. Now, there's a scary thought.

I was determined to get a good night of sleep so I went to bed early the second day and managed to fall asleep by midnight, only to be awakened at 3:30 AM by the shrill sound of the fire alarm in my room. Why is it that fire alarm batteries only die in the middle of the night? Somehow, that doesn't seem right, statistically speaking. It took quite a while for someone to come and replace the batteries. By then, my ears were ringing so hard that any thought of sleep had to be abandoned. Just call me “Sleepless in Palm Springs”.

The Salton Sea? I enjoyed the solitude but there isn't a whole lot to see other than water and dead fish. I was told I could drive another hour to a wildlife refuge if I wanted to see birds but I was too tired from lack of sleep to do another two hours of driving. I have no reason to believe the return trip tomorrow will be any less painful than the one coming out here. The sunshine has been great but let’s just say I'm ready to go back to being Frozen Popsicle Man on my bicycle until the next adventure.


Friday, November 18, 2016

Please Change My Password When I Go on Vacation

“The regulations read, ‘The supervisor and compositor shall be flogged thirty times for an error per chapter; the printer shall be flogged thirty times for bad impression, either too dark or too light, of one character per chapter.’ This helps explain both the reputation for accuracy earned by the earliest Korean imprints and the difficulty that Koreans found in recruiting printers.”
Daniel J. Boorstin. The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself.

“I live the life I love
And I just love the life I live.”
Muddy Waters. I Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love.

"Once [Sir Isaac Newton] inserted a bodkin—a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather—into his eye socket and rubbed it around 'betwixt my eye and the bone, near to the backside of my eye as I could', just to see what would happen.”
Bill Bryson. A Short History of Nearly Everything.

I've now been officially “semi-retired” for six weeks. In my case, that means I no longer have a day job. I am trying to avoid brain rot by staying engaged with the industry: advising a few startups and sitting on the Board of Directors of one. But I've otherwise given up the day to day office hours, the daily commute, and more importantly, the responsibilities of a full-time job.

Six weeks in, I have to tell you I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. I feel more refreshed and relaxed, I spend 3-4 hours a day biking, have dropped fifteen pounds in weight, my chronic back pain is under control, I'm in a better mood all the time, I sleep a full eight hours a night, I spend more time with family and friends, I am more patient and reasonable with people, I am just basically a happier human being. Highly recommended.

I don't mean to gloat. I know that would be mean since most people out there reading this still need to hold a day job and collect a paycheck. My main point is that, after thirty five years of working like a madman, I feel I'm just now realizing what life is supposed to be like. And it feels glorious.

I realize now that I have obsessed over work to the exclusion of all else for the past thirty five years. Okay, I knew this all along but I never stopped to think what it really meant. It has left scars not only on my life but also on the lives of those around me.  It is only now that I recognize the obsession with work, the twenty hour days, the lack of sleep and relaxation, all of it - was taking a huge physical and psychological toll on me. I loved working and work seemed to love me back. So all else be damned. It's a virtuous cycle (or a vicious one, depending on your point of view). The more you work, the more successful you are. The more successful you are, the harder you have to work.

So, what's my point? Barring the ability for most common folk to quit their jobs and start exercising like madmen, what am I proposing?

Take vacations. No. I mean really take vacations. Insist on taking real vacations. Ones where you unplug. Ones where you cannot connect with work except for emergencies. Ideally for four weeks or more per year. It should be a law enforced by congress that we should lose all access to our work related email and chat accounts when we go on vacation. I wish employers would just change the employee’s password for the duration of their vacation. If they need you, they will call. We have your number. Don't call us, we’ll call you.

I say this as I remember the last vacation I had with my family while still working. Last year, my daughter and son-in-law gave us (my wife and I) the gift of a vacation in Mexico. They spent five days with us in Puerto Vallarta. It was a lovely trip and we all had a great time but it was two days into the trip that I realized something. I had spent more time on my laptop and on the phone, working, than I had with my family. Every five minutes I had to check my email. Check a dozen Hipchat channels to see if there are any disasters in progress at work. Dial in a couple of meetings every day. Check Twitter to see if there are any major DDoS attacks in progress or any customer issues that need immediate attention. You get the idea.

Of course, the bigger problem is that even when we are not looking at the screen, our brains are working on the most recent set of problems we just heard about in an email chain or on a call. And we call this a vacation? No wonder we return to work more exhausted than when we left.

Business trips are even worse. On my most recent business trip to London last year, I found myself awake every night until 6 AM conversing with folks back in California, falling asleep at 7 AM for a couple of hours, before jumping up to go in for the day with the London office. Of course, you are also likely to catch a nasty bug on the flight out. Or, more likely, on the flight back when your immune system is weak from jet lag and sleepless nights. The flights used to be the only time when you could unplug. No more. I've spent entire fourteen hour flights arguing with colleagues - in real time. Thanks to In-flight wifi.

Of course, I realize that I'm describing my own personal problems. My obsession with work. But I suspect it resonates with a few of you out there. What I realize now is that my brain was on overdrive. Non-stop. Twenty Four Seven. And that can take a toll on you over time. Physically, mentally, and socially. The least we can do is shut it down - I mean really shut it down - once in a while. Hence the proposal for the vacation thingy.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Whiplash: What Half of America Feels Right Now!

‘“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."
"I don't much care where –"
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go.”’
Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland.

“We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But! We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”
Woody Allen. Crimes and Misdemeanors.
“I say you know it's funny I think we were on the same boat back in 1694.”
Indigo Girls. Shame on You. Shaming of the Sun.

I have been vocal on political topics in my blog in the past so I hope you will forgive me for the addition of these thoughts on the current situation.

I recently called for a rewriting of the US Constitution, call it version 2.0, updated for the modern times we inhabit, free of rules designed for Eighteenth century Agrarian America. Maybe version 1.1 would be more appropriate terminology.

I've also complained bitterly (to Mr. Obama, no less) when I thought the US was enacting xenophobic laws under his watch: HR-158, the so-called “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015”, a law that allows profiling of our own citizens when crossing the border - based on national origin - if you are from a Middle Eastern country. Never mind that each of the countries in the Middle East is a mishmash of Moslems, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Atheists, Baha'is, and the adherents of a dozen other belief systems. Never mind that the region encompasses everything from Turks to Arabs to Persians to Armenians to a dozen other ethnicities. We now have a law on our books that legally permits profiling them as they enter the country, coming back from an international trip. Never mind that they have lived in this country for their entire adult lives (or perhaps even born here). Never mind that they are, by and large, hard working tax paying law abiding citizens. How do we end up with such laws on our books?

Replace Middle East with Italy or Ireland or Japan or China or India or any one of a dozen other world regions over the past two hundred years and you are guaranteed to find similar experiences by each of those ethnicities. If they weren't profiled at the border, they were rounded up into internment camps, they were used as indentured labor to build the country's infrastructure (first the one in the physical world and now the one in the virtual world), they were shunned and ostracized as outsiders. But every one of those ethnicities is now broadly accepted in America and has found a way to not just integrate with, but also to change, the culture of America for the better.

The Middle Easterners and Mexicans being vilified and discriminated against today are a resilient bunch. They are already merging with the rest of American society at a faster pace than previous ethnicities. The Japanese had it worse. The Irish had it worse. The Chinese had it worse. The African Americans had it worse. The list goes on. No one said it would be easy. But it’s the only way forward.

But, meanwhile, what has this extreme shift to the right done with American politics? Is it any wonder that the republicans were emboldened by how far they could push partisan politics after passing this bill? Is it any wonder that the same congress bold enough to pass xenophobic laws would have no trouble holding up the nomination of a Supreme Court justice for an entire year? We can complain about Donald Trump all we want, but the problem is bigger than Trump.

So, to all those of you out there that are feeling dazed and confused right now, walking around asking yourselves “What just happened?”, “How did I misunderstand America so much?”, I have only this to offer. I know it feels like half the country just experienced the biggest whiplash of their lives. I know it feels like you were rushing headlong to meet the future only to be brought to a screeching halt by the other half of the country. I know it feels like you were sucker punched. I know you feel like you are following Alice down the rabbit hole. I know you are afraid of a dozen catastrophic scenarios. I am, too, but I think we will be alright.

Many times in the past, we have swung to extremes of left and right. I admit this one is more bizarre than any of the ones in the past but I blame the media and the internet for that. Most of our presidents, including the founding fathers, had sordid personal lives. Yet they managed, by and large, to move us forward as a country. We just didn't have the Internet and Wikileaks and Facebook and Twitter yet so we didn’t get as clear a view of their personal lives and thoughts as we do now. I bet the next election will be even more contentious. And every election after that, too.

Please don't read my comments above as any kind of an endorsement for Donald Trump. I abhor everything the man stands for. And I bet most other Americans do, too. But, by concentrating on Trump, we are missing the point. We are personifying our complaints about “the other side” and ignoring the issues behind the vote, the whiplash to our progressive ideals expressed by half of America. Even more importantly, we whitewash the fact that we allowed this to happen. We created this. We, the people. These are our representatives in congress. We elected them. Even after all the petulant behavior, we just voted most of them back into office again!

Much will be written about massive external influences on this election cycle (Russia, FBI, lobbyists, dark money, social media, fake news, etc). But, once again, we are missing the point. We are blaming others for what we, as a people, have created. And we are the only ones who can fix it.

This may all seem like too much doom and gloom but, to be honest, I'm actually optimistic about the future of America. We are moving in the right direction - in the long run. We have become a more inclusive country, we are more prosperous, crime is down, the better angels of our nature are winning the war. The government of the people, by the people, will eventually do the right thing. Over the long term. But, for that to happen, we the people have to engage. We have to get out of our cocoons and participate in the process. Not just the process of electing the president once every four years, but also the process of governing our country on a day to day basis.

This picture is by far the most optimistic one I have seen in this election cycle:

a.jpg

Just remember that. We will take this country, kicking and screaming, into the future. The next four years will hopefully only be a bump on the road to progress.

If you are not happy with what is going on, then please engage. Here are few concrete things you can do:

  1. Sign this petition to support the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. As far as I can tell, it is the simplest, most obvious, way to get rid of the electoral system. And it doesn't even require approval from the federal government. I'm tired of arguing about why we should continue to use a system that was designed over two hundred years ago to favor slave holding states. I don't care that it helps better representation for smaller states. That logic makes perfect sense for enforcing adequate representation in congress - not for picking the President! Either we are all equal in the voting process or we are not. We can't claim one but practice the other. It may have been convenient historically but is no longer warranted in this day and age.


  1. Get involved for the next round of elections for congress. The clock is already ticking.

Finally, a personal note. I have lived in this country and prospered for almost forty years. I have been a citizen for over thirty of those years. I admit to having largely ignored politics during most of that time. I was too busy working, raising a family, and whatever else it is that normal people do. Mea culpa!

I voted this time. For the first time in my life. It mattered this time.

I voted for Hillary. But my vote didn't matter. I live in overwhelmingly blue California.

Simultaneously, and perhaps fortuitously, I've also been reading several books on US history, about the creation of the republic, and about the founding fathers. Believe me. They were no saints, either. But they rose above their petty personal differences because they believed in an ideal. The ideal that the government of the people, by the people, is the only just form of government. In the long run, I believe, they have proven themselves correct.

I have already lived through a monarchy turned dictatorship, I’ve lived through anarchy (before fleeing a theocracy), and I’ve lived in a democracy. I bet you won't have much trouble figuring out which one I prefer, in the long run.

Yes, maybe Bernie would have won. Maybe he could have won. But that's beside the point. We, the people, didn't vote for him. Besides, the result would be exactly the same as what we have today. Just reverse the two halves of the population and their reactions. And he would have been totally blocked by a republican congress.

So, instead of complaining, let's engage in the political discussion. I know the most obvious reaction is to clam up and say “not my president”, “not my congress”, “not my government”; but, right now that is the worst thing we could possibly do. Yes, it will take time away from other precious objectives but I think it is required of us. If we are serious about this government by the people thing, anyway.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Employee Performance Reviews: Necessary Evil or Righteous Path to Meritocracy?

“Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
      Garrison Keillor. A Prairie Home Companion.

“42.7 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.”
      Steven Wright.

"Nobody's looking for a puppeteer in today's wintry economic climate."
John Cusack. Being John Malkovich.
I received another request for a blog from a colleague, this time on the topic of performance reviews: “Here is ONE that almost no one addresses honestly - The Employee Review System, the review process, the outcome, and its intended/non-intended outcome on the morale of an employee. This topic applies to human kind in any industry and one that pretty much EVERY company gets totally wrong…”

This topic has received a lot of attention recently as more and more large high tech companies have started abandoning a formal review process or at least abandoning review scores that pigeonhole employees into pre-ordained buckets.

Such processes usually start with the employee giving him/herself a score and then writing some text to justify that score. In my experience, most high performing employees ignore or minimize the effort, either not writing any text or writing a small bulleted list of their accomplishments, the rationale being that the manager already knows (or should know) what they’ve been working on based on regular interactions, so any time spent writing it up is a waste of time and effort. By contrast, low performing employees spend hours or days collecting data to highlight their efforts, writing long essays on why they should get a high score, sometimes even asking other employees to write recommendations for them. Great, exactly what we need. Low performers spending even less time doing real work.

Most managers tend to do as little as possible during the review process, writing at most a few sentences in the review form and giving the employee a score when they are hounded by their HR partners. The entire process is viewed as bureaucratic and a burden by most involved. If we are talking about a large corporation that enforces a fixed distribution, the managers then spend many hours huddled with other managers in calibration meetings, trying to highlight the accomplishments of the their team members and arguing for higher scores.

There are several major problems with this approach.

Most first level managers don’t have enough employees in their teams to meet the required distribution. Believing that their team members performed above and beyond the call of duty (don’t we all?), they come into calibration meetings with a distribution that would only make sense in Lake Wobegon where everyone is above average!

Calibration meetings thus become a battleground where every imagined problem (be it a bug introduced by the employee or an unanswered email message or a perceived slight) is dragged out and used as an excuse to knock down review scores for people in other groups - since that’s the only way my employees have a chance to get a higher score. In the case of large teams, you end up concentrating primarily on the top and bottom performers in an organization and ignoring the bulk of the employees in the middle of the pack - the ones who really need your help.

I remember spending entire days in such calibration meetings while at Microsoft. Needless to say, these multi-hour meetings usually end up being a forum for n-1 persons to read their email, surf the web, and otherwise occupy themselves while the n-th person delivers a lengthy sermon on the virtues of their team members. These episodes are only interrupted by the next presenter’s startled look as he reluctantly tears his eyes away from his laptop: “Ah, it’s my turn to talk about Jack now?”

Most of these shenanigans are performed simply because managers are handed a fixed budget for raises and bonuses with strict guidelines pertaining to each performance score: Someone getting a score of 3 of a scale of 1-5 can’t get more than a 3% raise, for example. Using labels such as “Needs Improvement”, “Meets Expectations”, “Exceeds Expectations”, and “Excels” is really no different than a score of 1-5 when it comes to evaluating employee performance nor is it any more conducive to healthy feedback and mentoring.

The biggest problem with these labels or scores is that once you have handed them out, it is extremely difficult to change them in the next cycle without causing morale problems: “What do you mean I only exceeded expectations? My last two scores were ‘Excels’.” There you go, destroying the morale of a top performer. Instead of concentrating on performance improvement, the discussion turns into a tug of war between the employee and the manager, the former trying to highlight accomplishments while the latter weasels out of responsibility and begs forgiveness: “I gave you an Excels but it was lowered by upper management.”

Another problem with such forced distributions is that they are nonsensical as you move up the organizational ladder. It makes no sense to compare the contributions of a kernel engineer to those of a UI developer or a tester (I will give you one guess as to who will come out on the bottom with that one every day of the week) nor does it make sense to compare junior employees to senior ones. And it makes even less sense for the arbiters of such decisions to be at the top levels of company - where those disciplines typically meet in a large organization. They don't have enough visibility.

At my last job, at a startup, we used a very simple model that worked well: KSS (Keep/Start/Stop doing). The idea is for the manager to write an email message to the employee: “Here are a couple of things I’d like to see you keep doing, here are a couple of things you’re not doing that I think you should start doing, and here are a couple of things you should stop doing.” No forms, no long essays, no calibration, no forced distribution, no fixed budget. I asked all my managers to run the emails by me beforehand so I could provide any feedback based on what I'd seen independently, and to make sure inexperienced or weak managers don't pull any punches when dealing with low performers. The emphasis here is obviously on providing feedback, reinforcing good behavior, and highlighting negative traits that need to be changed in order for the employee to succeed. I found that the simplified process forced me (and other managers) to be more transparent and avoided morale crushing discussions about why you are a “3” instead of a “4” this time around.

Such an email should take no more than fifteen minutes to write and no more than half an hour to discuss in person. Such a lightweight process, I believe, also lends itself well to more frequent checkins. Why wait for a heavyweight annual process if you can offer honest feedback once a quarter?

Let's cut to the chase. The idea of performance reviews is great. The implementation often sucks because it turns an opportunity for mentoring into a forced statistical distribution problem informed primarily by budgetary concerns.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

An Ode to Mr. Zimmerman: In Defense of Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize

Crane: [Jokingly referring to Bob Dylan in the third person] He's quite the put on artist, isn't he?
 Dylan: Nah, God.
 Crane: [Teasing] You're terrible.
 Dylan: Nah. I don't want to be categorized.”
The Les Crane Show. February 17, 1965.

“It’s either fortune or fame
You must pick one or the other
Though neither of them are to be what they claim”
Bob Dylan. Just Like To Thumb’s Blues. Highway 61 Revisited.

“Crimson flames tied through my ears
 Rollin’ high and mighty traps
 Pounced with fire on flaming roads
 Using ideas as my maps
 “We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
 Proud ’neath heated brow
 Ah, but I was so much older then
 I’m younger than that now”
Bob Dylan. My Back Pages. Another Side of Bob Dylan.

As friends and family will vouch, I am a maniacal Bob Dylan fan, my obsession with him only intensifying over the years. It's not enough for me to have every one of his albums (over two hundred at last count, every concert and bootleg included), but I also obsess when it comes to listening to him. I end up listening to his albums in alphabetical order, chronological order, and based on every other criteria imaginable - but always from beginning to end, never piecemeal. I start with the very first album (say, chronologically) and don't stop until I get to the end: all two hundred albums - one after another.

I will listen to and enjoy other artists on a regular basis but I always come back to Bob sooner or later. “Let’s see now… we haven’t listened to him in reverse chronological order yet, have we?” And we're off to another journey with Bob. I've done this half a dozen different ways and I encounter new songs, new words, and new ideas every time. I hear new pearls of wisdom masquerading as poetry masquerading as music every time.

As you can imagine, this process can take several months since you can’t really absorb more than one or two Dylan albums on any given day. When I'm finished, I go off and live in the normal auditory universe that the rest of humanity inhabits but sooner or later, I come back to Dylan.

The trick to Bob Dylan is to start with the oldest recordings and the bootlegs. Everything he recorded from 1961 (when he was only nineteen) until his motorcycle accident in 1966 - every track, every album, every concert - was world class, flawlessly executed, and sublime. Many of his newer albums have become classics as well and I don't mean to take away from any of those accomplishments but what Dylan accomplished in the first half of the 1960's is nothing short of heroic - in scope and in execution. Rolling Stone magazine has listed an amazing eleven studio albums by Dylan, more than any other artist, in its list of Top 500 Albums of All Time, including two in the top ten. But it's only when you listen to his official bootleg series (dozens of albums released recently with the artist’s supervision and help) that you begin to realize his genius. Every song, every performance is amazing. You will find yourself stopping cold every once in awhile and gasping: “These are his discarded works?!? These are the ones he thought weren't good enough for his studio albums?!?” Suffice it to say that his castaways would be the envy of any recording artist today.

My personal struggles with OCD notwithstanding, I do wonder if anyone will ever understand Bob Dylan without obsessing over him. The problem with Dylan, you see, is his encyclopedic breadth and prolific output. He defies categorization as an artist, having innovated in fields ranging from prose to painting and more. But his biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, is the mesmerizing and profound lyrics in his songs. Most people listen to his scratchy voice and give up in frustration after a few tries. They can't figure out what the often surreal lyrics mean or how to interpret them. This is unfortunate because if you just manage to break through and hear the message, there is much to love and learn. He has written over seven hundred original songs at last count and almost none of them are your typical pop song. They cover every topic from civil rights to religion and so much more. Many of these songs are, in fact, world class poems; the music is often there only as an accompaniment. If you would only stop and recognize that you are listening to poetry, as opposed to popular music, you would appreciate Dylan a lot more.

I've seen articles and blogs denouncing the award because Mr. Dylan is principally known as a musician and not an author. Here’s how I think about it. What if the committee gives the award to a graphic novelist next year? Would you have similar complaints about a “painter” getting the award simply because that is the medium chosen by the artist? How are pictures any different than music in this regard? Perhaps the quibble is over written vs. verbal delivery of the content. Well, feel free to go buy Mr. Dylan’s lyrics/poems in print and enjoy them without the accompanying music.

At a time when American culture and politics are being misunderstood, ridiculed, and vilified around the world, I, for one, welcome the Nobel Committee’s willingness to “think outside the box” and recognize positive American culture and, more specifically, Mr. Dylan as its representative around the world, with an award that he well deserves.

Finally, until there is a separate Nobel Prize for Poetry, I can think of no other artist, dead or alive, who has touched the lives of more people around the world over the past half century nor can I think of another artist who deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature more than Mr. Zimmerman.