Entries from August 2009 ↓

Saying goodbye to a legend

I didn’t know Dick Egan, never had a conversation with him.  I knew him by reputation alone, a larger-than-life legend out of the misty past of EMC’s glory days.  It’s not often you hear the words “self-made billionaire.”  If you work in high tech, especially in Massachusetts (or in storage), your story and his probably intersect somewhere.

I don’t presume to speak for those who knew him.  But when I came back from vacation this past weekend and saw the news of his death, it was those people I thought of, the people who helped build EMC into the place it is today, who bridged the gap between the EMC before 2001 and the EMC of 2009, who were there to see Egan’s vision and adapted it into a vision for the next century. I thought of Polly Pearson’s post about the rise of EMC’s stock during the 90s, and about Egan’s response to the Working Mother’s Experience book.  I thought of the many long-tenured employees who would have memories of the early days, and wondered what they would say.  I expect the coming week will bring out a lot of personal stories from those people and others.

My heart goes out to all of Egan’s Many Children, and to the large and literal family he also leaves behind.

On dodging buses

The following is inspired by a number of true stories, though it is fiction:

Susan, manager of a development team, receives an email (sent to several dozen people) that the sanity test cycle is being held up because of a problem … a problem she thought had been fixed.  She sends a hurried “reply to all” saying as such, asking whether the fix ever made it in.  Igor knows his teammate Rosalina was ironing out some last-minute issues with the fix late last night, but doesn’t know what happened.  Igor sends a reply-to-all saying “Rosalina was supposed to check in that fix,” prompting Susan to ask, in front of the same 50 people, whether the fix ever made it in, in some rather unhappy language.  Rosalina replies a few moments later that the fix was held up, but that a manual workaround has been applied and testing can continue.

On the surface this looks mundane, but if you look a bit deeper it exposes some behaviors which can have a lasting negative effect on the team.  It’s bad enough when your teammate throws you under a bus to get ahead … but Igor has thrown Rosalina under a bus and gained nothing out of it.  This is a blame-avoidance culture gone too far.  Igor is so scared of getting in trouble that his first reaction isn’t to fix the problem, it’s to dodge the incoming blame missiles.

I can’t blame Igor for what he’s done.  He’s been trained, either by Susan or by other managers, to do this.  But imagine everything else about the story is the same, except Igor takes the time to walk over to Rosalina’s desk, they converse for a moment, and then Rosalina responds to the email, “I was working with Igor on that problem late last night.  I applied a workaround while we work out some last-minute details.”

The situation is no different, and nobody is being deceived or misled or any problems buried.  It’s just a matter of changing how things get communicated.

Here’s another example.

Roger, Director of Software Engineering, sends an email to his entire management staff asking whether a certain scenario was considered when the product requirements were estimated.  Bill, a Senior Manager, replies-to-all, “Li, on my staff ,was supposed to consider that.  Did you, Li?”

Ouch!  There’s another bus-throwing incident, this time Bill tossing Li under one for no reason.  In fact, Bill made himself look worse, like someone who can’t trust his own staff.  Imagine Bill instead privately contacted Li and asked about the situation, and then summarized the answer.  Here are two possibilities:

“Li, on my staff, started to look at that but got pulled aside for some higher priority work.  I can share the details with you if you want, Roger.  If we need to go back and invest more into this, let me know and I’ll work with my team on it.”

“Li, on my staff, took a look at this and we’re all set.  Feel free to swing by and we can discuss the details.”

Frankly, the reply-to-all blame dodge and/or bus-toss is one of the most distasteful behaviors I encounter from otherwise civilized professionals.  We need to drill it into people’s heads that it’s a lose-lose proposal.

The most important communication skill

So much has changed about the workplace, so many of our social interactions take place in new ways. Clearly our old communication skills are going to be less important, and we’ve got to learn new ones, right? What’s the most important communication skill you can develop these days?

What if I told you it’s the same one it was a hundred years ago?


Hearing (or reading) comes naturally, but listening requires active investment.  Active listening, empathic listening, listening with intent … these do not come naturally.

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Stereotyping in the age of inclusion

Last week I stumbled onto an interesting phrase in a personal finance blog I read occasionally.

…knew to negotiate like an Indian — meaning he recognized that he has more control in his relationships with companies.

On first glance, the phrase “<action> like an <ethnic background>” seems offensive.  Try it yourself, plug a few in there, negative or positive.  In general it ends up sounding ignorant, maybe even hateful.  The fact that the author is Indian leads me to believe this wasn’t his intent, of course, and when you read a follow-up comment on the blog you get a clearer picture of what is going on here:

Spent some time backpacking in India … I realized I was very undergunned when it came to negotiating with the auto-rickshaw drivers. After six months, I could hold my own.

So one possible meaning here is that there are opportunities for confrontational negotiation in the Indian culture that are not in the US culture.  I asked the author of the post for clarification but he didn’t respond, so I can only guess.  But for someone in a global corporation, interacting with people from different cultures (even in different cultures) every day, this isn’t just an academic question.

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What’s the worst that could happen?

I often joke with my wife that you shouldn’t ask anyone with an engineering background “what’s the worst that could happen?”  We get paid fairly well to come up with really scary answers to that question.  She’ll often come up with something bad, only to have me top it in terrible ways.  “The worst that happens is we go to the party, don’t have fun, and go home.”  “No, the worst that happens is we’re in a car accident on our way home, which can’t happen if we don’t leave the house.”


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