Saturday, March 22, 2014


On Wednesday, I had, hands down the best day ever at this job. That's actually a low bar, but in absolute terms it ranks favorably with all of my best workdays ever.

Wednesday was our planning day for the coming 2-week sprint. We look at the work lined up in our backlog, we decide what we're going to work on, and we break the implementation down into manageable tasks with clear definitions of "done." In order for this to be effective, the design work has to be at least mostly done. Sometimes you need to make time in previous sprints for people to do the design; most often you don't, because design tasks generally don't have a clearly defined end point, and it's the kind of free-thinking work that's good for us to do in between bouts of focused coding.

On Tuesday I sounded an alarm to the two other planning people (our manager and our product manager) that for the two projects we're trying to get done on a tight schedule, there was nothing defined well enough to start working on. I was promptly shouted down, with lots of crankiness on all sides. I went up to the City on Wednesday with some crabby going on.

And then. Then.

We got to the planning meetings, and because the team is fabulous, they discovered quickly that the work wasn't defined. So, without comment, they just jumped in to doing the design work. I didn't have to do much beyond the occasional well-timed nudge. It was glorious. (The next day, they did completely effective sprint planning without me. I should just retire.)

I had a long talk with the product manager about what went wrong with the planning and how we'll proceed from here, and also about our working together and the fact that our conversation the day before hadn't given either of us what we wanted.

At our manager's instigation, I talked to another scrum master about how we run things, and discovered we're doing most of the same things for the same reasons: the beginning of a concerted effort to change how Engineering operates.

I provided a gentle counterpoint to the new guy when he was being overwhelmed by our manager's dial being stuck on Highly Intense.

All of this was awesome because I fixed things. I went to work on a complex system (people working together) and got immediate feedback (people being able to work together better). Relationships repaired and improved, plans made, seeds planted, realizations begun.

Not bored now.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

once again I wield my iron fist of command.

I've had a tumultuous time at work, this past eight months. A variety of interlocking issues make it feel like a less-than-great fit, and that was sort of a constant stressor until recently, when I decided to just accept the situation and relax. It's not such a bad thing to not be working at 100% capacity.

As usual when I settle down and accept reality before trying to change it, within a few days it made sense for me to take over as the team's "scrum master," to take on most of the organizing work. This took a load off a teammate who had been doing it for 18 months, under quite trying circumstances (and without any guidance). This coincided happily with a sudden "Hey, can you guys write a whole ton of software for us to demo for thousands of people in 6 weeks?" fire drill from the Powers That Be: a sudden need for particularly team leadership, and a particularly good team leader.

Telling people you're a very good team lead is a little like telling people you're a very good kisser. It may be true in your case, but enough people believe it about themselves, and are wrong, that no one's really going to believe you until you do it. It happens that I am both a good team lead and a good kisser, though Anna made me take the latter off my resumé.

24 hours later, the team's manager noted that our tasks were better organized, and the four of us on the team were communicating more often and more fluidly in the chat room we use. In a way, I didn't do very much: so much of leadership is just being an information traffic cop, making sure that person A waits to talk until person B is actually listening, asking "Hey, can you jump in on this other thing with Person C?".

This is very difficult if the team is looking to someone else for their cues, whether it's a "team lead" as such or just a scrum master. (We don't really have team leads, which is one of our many organizational problems.) We might have all been happier if I'd taken over this job a couple months ago.

The managers are being very kind and making sure I'm not overloaded, but the truth is that this is the first thing I've done at this job that I'm particularly good at. After my previous team of 9 people, with a dozen conflicting priorities and several constituencies, a team of 3-4 with simple priorities is easy.

Friday, March 14, 2014


The boy has exhibited some super competence this week. He got himself into the shower, mostly managed the shower without prompting, and hung up his towel in the bathroom, which was a pretty long time for him to stay on task. If the three of us are home for dinner, we play the Conversation Game that we started over the summer during his social skills camp: everybody goes around the table and talks about the high point and low point of their day, and everyone else has to ask clearly-relevant questions. He has either started to enjoy the conversation, or has learned to be convincingly deceptive for a full half hour, either of which is cause for celebration.

(He did manage to bullshit briefly, when Anna asked what he thought and he didn't want to admit that his attention had wandered off long ago and he hadn't heard anything I said. "Wow, that does sound like a real low point!" Obviously, this is an invaluable classroom skill, particularly in high school and college.)

He's growing up, which I could be sad about, but the older he gets, the more fascinating I find him and (by and large) the easier he is to deal with. He can talk more about his extremely unusual internal processes, and he can better manage the negative voices of his mind. (We all have them, but his are quite a bit stronger than normal: watching him battle himself to spit out "ThankyouMama" when prompted is both sad and endearing. I, of course, have never known the feeling of resisting something just because someone else told it to me.)

The other night at dinner, we discussed foreign languages--he would like to learn some Russian, since his best friend is bilingual, and I got to bust out the classic history of the Lord's Prayer in English to illustrate how language changes. Anna and I got to talking enthusiastically about the various countries we've been able to travel to. As I went into the kitchen, he asked:
"Why would you even want to leave the country to go someplace else that's all different, anyway?"
Which is a good question! And there is really just one answer.
"Because the world is awesome, that's why."
I think that was the main thing to get through, though we did talk about how much fun it is to go to other countries that seem really strange, and discover that by and large almost everyone on the planet is really nice and they're just trying to work and raise their kids and pay their bills just like we do.
"How come you don't take me with you?"
"Well, notwithstanding that Mama came to visit me in Chile for a weekend, twice, traveling to other countries takes a fair bit of time and effort."
"I would like to go with you to another country."
Anna chimes in.
"In order to do that, you'd have to be willing to eat a lot more foods. When you're in other countries you can't be sure what food is available, so you have to be able to eat many different things."
"I would like to start eating more foods. I like broccoli crowns."
Wait. What?

It turns out he does not particularly like broccoli crowns, or rather he has a memory of liking them, when he was much younger, when they were dipped in apple juice? Or something. He tried, though, and while he made The Face of Disapproval, he did not:
  1. Have to keep himself from retching.
  2. Melt into a panicked puddle on the floor.
  3. Give in to an irresistible urge to run away and hide in the farthest corner of the house. [That response is reserved for babies.]
Then it was bedtime.
"You're getting all grown up. It's really cool to watch, and I'm glad I get to be here for it."
"Can we please stop this conversation because it might make me sad, because the more grown up you are the less good your life is."
(This is a kid who has been complaining constantly [and correctly] since at least age 4 about how little control he has over his life because he's a kid.)
"Sure, but you should know you'll always be my kid, no matter how grown up you are. I think being grown up is way better."
"Chris, please stop, this scene is so touching I'll be sad." [He appears to have an affinity for filmmaking.]
Sleep well.