Author Archives: Sam Adams

INTERMEZZO – A FLASH OF INSIGHT

Like a thunderbolt out of the blue, all those pieces my hindbrain keeps working on clicked this morning. I think I know why I’ve lost my passion and why I’m casting about for what comes next.

I have the capability to accurately judge risk levels and – here’s the insight – the willingness, ability and desire to take on, tackle, manage and mitigate much higher levels of risk than most staid enterprises are willing to take on.

This leads me to two additional insights. The first is based on the most thrilling period of my professional life when I was incubating businesses and running startups. Agility, Results and Risk were all part of the norm. The second is that those environments are typically where I find peers who are not only comfortable but actively willing to challenge me and welcome and encourage being challenged in return. Personalities go on the shelf, foibles aren’t savagely suppressed for fear of showing weakness. Everyone’s pulling on the oars equally, rowing madly towards a commonly understood goal.

That’s where I belong, getting things done yards, not inches, at a time.

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On the Importance of Letting Your Boys to Grow Up to be Cowboys

I’m going to riff on an earlier post in this post where I touched on work, life and passion. I’ll also drop mention of Mike Rowe’s TED Talk on Learning from Dirty Jobs. It’s all related trust me.

So this TED Talk is one of my all time favorites. My personal take away comes when he talks about the advice so many of us get – about following our passion, working at something we’re passionate about. Instead he suggests that much greater job satisfaction can be found when we do a job, any job, and let our passion follow us there. I think he’s on to something, let me explain.

First, a bit of background.

Beowulf

Beowulf

From the first time I heard my high school English Lit teacher speak the first few lines of Beowulf in Old English, then the first few lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English – I knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to grow up and go on to become an English Lit professor at Oxford. My parents were as incisive as they were insightful when they noted that there was a very low need for foreign-born English Lit professors in Oxford.

So, then, I figured Genetic Engineering. Kindly souls reminded me that there was little need for better improved Palm Trees or Camels with three humps, or why not four while we were at it. Never mind that my mind was set on curing cancer and other genetic ailments. Of course, you see the controversy and the promise around Genetics today.

What essentially happened was I got shoe-horned into an Engineering program. Why? Well, I had a VIC-20, then a C64 (and later an awesome C128) – I was tapping away at it all the time – and everyone was saying how there was going to be such a huge need for “computer people.” Besides, between that busy curriculum and my watchful cousins, I would not succumb to the evils of drugs, sex and rock & roll. Well, I’ve been listening to rock and roll since junior high, that fight was long lost. I’ve as yet to be even tempted by drugs. And sex? Well, I was a Computer Science major – the answer to that is rather blatantly obvious, I think, no?

The point is that’s what I was. Coder to CTO, data center to binary bit flipping.

Mike Rowe was right. If I never have to flip a bit again or talk about it for work anytime soon I’ll consider myself a blessed man. Call it too much of a good thing. Call it just too much, but my siren song these days is much different.It’s about business. Strategy. Operations. Finance. Systems & Systemness. Disruption. Innovation.  Those bits? Couldn’t care less. Building a data center? Why? Writing corporate apps? Again, why? Maybe one day I’ll write more on this topic of why computing has become a mass scale commodity, but suffice it to say, it just doesn’t have the same draw as it used to.

In a way I’m happy having it as a hobby. I want to tinker. To play. But work? No way.

Mine is a new passion, and this is my journey to get there.

The Road Goes Ever On

The Road Goes Ever On

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On the Importance of Being a Manager

So, now that I’ve gone on about how better prepared for the professional world STEMs should be, let me write about my own personal perspective on that most evasive of creatures – the Engineering Manager!

(Post in Progress)

On the Importance of Arts in STEM

This is likely heresy. Good, I like being a heretic. We wander the wastes. Talk to burning bushes. Wonder “why oh why me” even as we bark half-mad truths that, deservedly so, divorce us from the mass of the sane.

Here goes anyway.

There’s too darn much Arts in STEM today.

Or put another way, the caliber of STEM graduates needs to be appreciably more improved and I don’t really see that it has over the last couple decades. More specialized, absolutely, but that’s a different story.

While I understand the desire of colleges to turn out well-rounded graduates that’s simply not what the business world needs more of. Businesses need four year grads that can work at two-year professional experience. What does “Geology of Natural Parks” have to do with being a better bit flipper or bean jockey?

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Nothing.

Yet we persist in believing that well-rounded grads are better people. You know, what? Yes, they are. But that rounding is called life experiences. It’s about self-discovery and following your own cultivated preferences in arts. You can be a renaissance man or woman, you don’t need college for that – and college can’t make you one either. It’s an innate thing.

If it wasn’t such a slow, bottle-necked process, I would be advocating for the return of Crafts Guilds. How’s that for being a luddite?

STEMs need to have greater focus on their skillsets coming out of college. It is of personal benefit to them and to the larger business world, always hungry for talent. They can take some vacation time and visit their nearest natural park for a geology lesson.

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April 24, 1915

Today marks the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide. I’ve written before on this topic and what it means to me – as the descendant of not one but two Genocide Survivors. Haig Aram Tavoukjian and Hasmig Caloustian were both survivors, growing up in an Armenian Orthodox orphanage in what would come to be known as Bourj Hamoud, Lebanon. This suburb was founded by Genocide survivors and remains an Armenian enclave today. My grandparents, their children and their children’s children grew up there. I had the fortune to go there when I was younger – up until the Lebanese Civil War that started in 1977 made it too dangerous to go back. My memories are extremely hazy of that time, but I remember mountains, the sea, the forests and my grandmothers, my Medz Mairig’s, songs.

While I never got the chance to meet my maternal grandfather – he passed away well before I was born – I still have a special spot in my heart for my Nani. I remember her as a diminutive, feisty lady, weathered, iron in her spine, no-nonsense and hard on her kids and doting on her grandkids. I grew up at her knee listening to songs that I barely understood. Sure, there were the nursery rhymes  I still recall snippets of. But there were other songs, songs that brought a tear to her eye as her vision loosened and fixed on some far horizon.

I honestly don’t know how I came to learn of the genocide. I know my grandmother raised me on Armenian Folklore and

David of Sassoun, Yerevan, Armenia

David of Sassoun, Yerevan, Armenia

tales. Haik the founder – for whom Hayastan, the Armenian word for Armenia, is named. Aram, his great-grandson and ancestor of the Armenians. Saint Gregory the Illuminator, first official head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, founded by the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus (Jude) . Mesrop Mashtots who created the unique Armenian alphabet. Vartan Mamikonian who died a Martyr facing down a Sassinid army who tried to impose Zoroastrianism on his Christian countrymen. And of course my all time favorite – David of Sassoun – the Armenian Beowulf that drove out Arabs invaders from Armenia. There are more which I only vaguely recall the stories of now.

But somewhere along the line, I learned about the Armenian Genocide.

I dug deeper, I asked my mom and I think it was then that I found out that my Grandmother and Grandfather was a survivor. I’ve told the story earlier so I won’t go through it again in this post.

The Genocide was a formative fingerprint on my soul. It was one thing to learn of evil, another entirely to find out how close that evil came to extinguishing not just myself, but an entire people for no other fault than their different culture and faith. It sits with me still and on every April 24, I am a lead weight. Don’t call it despair, rather a shocking reminder that there but for the grace of God go I. Yes, I’m aware of the original phrase attribution and it’s intent – and it was intentional.

There’s a sadness that dwells deep for family and descendants that I will never know. For giants in Literature, Science and Politics that were murdered, driven into the wastes and killed. For the Diaspora which followed and seeded Armenians through out the world. A popular, French I think it is, phrase goes – “Turn and you will find an Armenian.”

We’ve survived and thrived. Charles Aznavour. Atom Egoyan. Yes, even SOAD – we’re proud of those hard rocking boys.

Armenia Genocide Memorial Yerevan

Armenia Genocide Memorial Yerevan

We’ve made progress in recognition. Turkey remains in denial, of course. And, disappointingly but unsurprisingly, so does the US Government.  That recognition counts in a way that, and I mean this humbly, only a Genocide survivor can feel. One day there will be less lead and more feather on this day. But not this day.

The tree that was cut down sprouted from acorns that spread through out the world.

Rest in peace Nani and Grandpa – I hope you found the family you were ripped from.

Much love.

Raffi

Medz Mayrig! (Grand Mother)
She is my Armenia
My window to the past
Stories she used to tell
Humming childhood songs
In between tears for family lost

Her tatoo’d lips,
Henna stained hands
A flavor of truth
To stories of flight
From bloody fields and roads with no end

We sing
We dance
We argue as Armenians only can
As I hear the shouts
All I see are her tears for family lost

Where David?
When his zeal is needed now
Where the heroes of today
To teach tomorrow
Lessons of yesterday?

She rocks back and forth
Dreams as she sleeps
Cries when she’s awake
Humming childhood songs
Serdis (my heart), my lovely Armenia

April 24, 2006

Intermezzo: Finding What You’ve Lost

Much can be made of that point in life – or two, or three – where you have that existential crisis moment. Life, God, The Universe forces a pause on your chained moments. You stop. And for the first time in who knows how long you look up. What do you see?

It is as important in this crisis moment to look back – not dwell, look back – as it is to look ahead.

For me, I’ve lost something along the way. I’ve always been driven by passion. If I’m not passionate about a subject, I’m just not going to engage or do it. Some people may have the talent to do so, it’s not one of mine and important that I do so.  My passion doesn’t gut out quickly either – I tend to like to start and finish things – delivery is key for me and always has been as software engineer and a manager of software engineers. First, ship version 1.

I’ve got twenty-two years in computing. I’ve been a coder and a CTO. I’ve built data centers. I’ve delivered shrink-wrap products and IT projects. I’ve done one from just about every major column of technology platform. I’ve done startups and large multinationals. To be clear – in each and every instance I’ve had a solid team of developers, marketers, finance, HR – it’s been a group effort in each case.

But I’ve lost the zeal and drive to own, improve and deliver. How much is due to politics and how much is due to the personal worth I derive from it is an open question I debate. Incubation & startups still excite me. Technology in general remains something that excites me. But the rest of it? The jury deliberates.

I know the older generations would pale at the thought of not spending their entire lives at one organization. The younger generations work gigs not jobs. What about my generation? Are we stuck in the middle? I do wonder if this is a common affliction.

I know that what comes next will have to be different. I know I have to find a new passion. What that is remains to be seen.

What about you?

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Intermezzo: Star Wars

Yes, I’m a huge Star Wars Fan. Geek. Nerd. What have you. I’m not matchless, I don’t have a treasure trove of trivia and an encyclopedic hoard of minutiae nor do I have the entire Extended Universe (now defunct anyway) memorized. By almost any measures, I enjoy what most folks I know have come to despise – Episodes 1 through 3. Yes, there are many issues that armchair directors in this age of 140-character cynicism might be justified in espousing. And while there might be universal agreement that Jar Jar should be excised from human memory somehow, with that one exception, I enjoy the Episodes 1 through 3 as much as I do the original trilogy.

Unlike most of the world, I never got to see any of the original trilogy in the theater. Growing up overseas we had one theater that showed mostly Arabic and Hindi films and another drive-in that showed mostly Arabic and Hindi films. What Western films were shown were so chopped up by censor that the movie might as well have been a stroboscopic acid flashback.

My first experience with Star Wars was walking down to the local equivalent of the Blackmarket Bootleg Blockbluster, with mostly Hindi and Arabic movies on VHS and Betamax, and hunt and peck for the one or two Western movies that had been smuggled intact and spread like wildfire to every similar corner shop and souk.

From that first clackety-clack of the tape going in and the firm snik of the play button being depressed, John Williams Score and George Lucas’ scrolling start took me far, far away. I was hooked on Science Fiction and Big Dreams.

Star Wars Original Movie Poster

Star Wars Original Movie Poster

And that’s been the magic of Lucas across his decades of film making. He’s always told a good story. Other’s have picked up on it. Filled in some blanks. Created new stories in that world. I’ve lost track of how many books, graphic novels and comics have come out over the decades. Each one stood on his shoulders and weaved me away from the mundane and to that galaxy far, far away.

So when I read about grown men bursting into tears at the sight of a 72 year old Han Solo saying “Chewie, We’re Home” and Chewbacca growling in agreement – well, darn right I shed a few happy man tears.  While a trailer’s not much to go on, it’s evident to me from that first scrolling shot and those clarion horns again – we’re about to go back to that galaxy, far, far away, that some of us found the solace in, joy in, peace in – and yes, even inspiration and Hope.

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On the Importance of Positional Flexibility

Big words, what the heck am I talking about? Good question, glad you asked.

Have you ever argued your perspective until you were blue in the face? Did you accomplish anything? Maybe you felt better about getting it off your chest.

Now, did you try to argue the opposing perspective? Not just give it lip service, but genuinely put effort into arguing its merits? And the trickier parts, being aware of its drawbacks while doing so and not poisoning the well?

(Post in Progress)

On the Importance of “The Plan”

You’ve heard of it before, right? That magical, mystical “We have a plan!”

Creating a strategy plan is a lot of hard work from a lot of people. Typically, smart people who are highly driven and motivated to create value. Unfortunately, when “The Plan” meets the shredder of life, everyone falls back on base instincts and anything resembling iterative adjustment falls apart. The best laid plans. No plan survives contact. We have these little quips we use, but it always seems to be post fact, not prior to. It’s as puzzling as how we love ignoring history, current and ancient.

STOP. DROP. ROLL. Fire out? Great, now learn, adjust and move forward. Generate some new ideas. Test them. Try them. Don’t try to predict the future outside of what you anticipate may happen. No one has a crystal ball and even the best logical reasoning flails horribly in the face of herd psychology. Expect further change.

Delorean Time Machine

Delorean Time Machine

But absolutely, positively don’t stick with the same plan. You have to have as much flexibility as you have humility of vision when it comes to strategy and execution.  If what I’m saying sounds a lot like the rigueur de l’heureFail Fast then – you’re on my page. For those in software development, yes, this is essentially Agile.

Be intentional. Be iterative. Be measured. Be rational. Be tenacious. But above all, be flexible, fail, learn and keep doing.

Failure is not to be feared.

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On the Importance of Articulating Change

I think I might be going slightly addled in my old age.

There’s a large, multinational I’m intimately familiar with that is currently amidst disrupting its market as it cannibalizes itself and breaks new ground.  Like most well run organizations full of intelligent people, they’ve realized that significant change will be required across the board – from R&D to Sales & Support.  Excellent story right? Right.

Except it seems like no one bothered to clearly enunciate what is driving the change (revenue recognition, etc) and what the overarching change plan is. In fact, in so far as I’m aware, there is no 3 year change plan. Or even a five year change plan. There’s likely a twelve month plan but it’s been torn up and redone so many times it’s a poor joke to call it a living document. Living dead maybe.

Look, there’s probably something along those lines. There’s a LOT of brilliant, capable people up and down the chain – this isn’t a company of slackers. But the communication is clearly lacking. Even if it’s because we have to remain nimble, we have to react to the marketplace or the changes, ok, fine, communicate it. There can be few things more exhausting to a results oriented workforce – that pushes each other more than they get pushed – than to be chasing the change ghost.

Just because Dr Christensen mentioned that 4 out of 5 companies that attempt this change fail at it the first time, doesn’t mean you set out to prove him right! Try to be the outlier, not the recidivist.

B52 Stratofortress

B52 Stratofortress

Change is hard. Personal, professional much less organizational across multiple geographies. You’re changing from a B52 to a B2 in mid-air, during a vital bombing mission, as you’re dropping bombs with flak and SAM all around you and radar locks out the ying-yang.  Ok, maybe it’s harder than that. And if the aircrew has no idea what the plan is because the airbase has forgotten there’s a radio they can use … well, you get the picture. I hope, as I’ve run out of appropriate metaphors.

The point is that even if there’s organizational recognition and acceptance that change is necessary and everyone’s on

B2 Spirit

B2 Spirit

board, consistently clear communications have to be key to success. Start with the goal. That’s where you want to go right? Perfect. We ran into a hill, we have to push harder. Perfect. We’ve hit a ravine, we’re going to have to backtrack and try a river crossing. Gotcha. Let’s go. Crap, the river is flooded. Hey, let’s build a bridge, we got any carpenters and masons? Half a caravan full, keep them wagon’s rolling. Don’t leave the rest of us wondering. Or wandering.

Oh, wait, there’s a dragon too, did I mention?

Dragon vs Bomber

Dragon vs Bomber

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