More Than Just a Pretty Picture

For years, I have had a picture hanging in my office. It is a semi-famous piece by the contemporary magical realist, Michael Parks. It shows a young girl blowing soap bubbles off the edge of a tall structure, and the stone gargoyles on the structure come to life. At some point during our time as mutual employees, I would call a developer into my office and instruct them to look at the picture. Take a couple minutes, I would say, and really look at it. Catalog in your head all the elements in the picture. Think about how it makes you feel, and what other ideas or images come to mind. After a few minutes of this, when they were satisfied they had seen enough (and I always knew they were wrong because of how quickly they were satisfied) I would ask them what they think the artist was trying to say with this painting. I would be met with a pained expression as the developer would then struggle to communicate to me that they saw a picture of a girl and a gargoyle and they were certain from the context that there was something more that they weren’t seeing, and that I was, and that their college courses on Computer Programming never covered art criticism, and this was a stupid exercise I was forcing on them anyway. I would try to walk them through it, ask leading questions as a teacher would, and eventually point out some of the things I was seeing.


Heroes are all well a good, sure, but…?

Last month, I had the pleasure to attend the inaugural meeting for the Santa Clarita Valley Startup Grind, a networking group devoted to entrepreneurs. The guest speaker was Michael Arevalo, the co-founder of Loot Crate. Loot Crate, for those that are unaware, if one of the fastest growing companies in the collectible and fan-based market. They pioneered the idea of curated subscription boxes that catered to the fan boys and girls. He, and a handful of others, started with an idea at a Hack-a-thon, launched that idea, and spun it into a multi-million-dollar industry almost overnight. It was meant to be a very inspiring evening, but in fact I was not very inspired by it, though I do appreciate all the time and effort that went into the meeting.

Here is the problem. I just don’t relate. You see, the story has a lot of privilege underlying it I don’t want to get into as that can be a dicey topic, even for me. But also, the concept that you could rise so meteorically is like a rock and roll fantasy or a fairy tale. It’s not that I don’t believe it happened, I do. It’s that 70 – 80% of businesses fail in the first 10 years. Of the 20-30 percent that don’t, most do not increase in value by leaps and bounds. Most never become IPOs or get Angel Investors looking for unicorns.

The world runs on stories. It’s that simple. We like to use a term called “cognitive bias” to describe it, but basically it just means, we want everything to be just like a story. We may, for instance, not recognize the achievements of a woman in a stem field because stories have always told us that “girls are not good at math and science,” even though the evidence to the contrary is right before us. And one of the most pernicious stories we have is that of the underdog that ascends. The simple farm boy that saves the princess from the evil dragon and gets to rule the kingdom. Or Rocky Balboa coming back from losing to Apollo Creed (or Ivan Drago) after training and refocusing and having a sports montage.

But we forget a few key factors. The farm boy is always, by definition, the last person to face the dragon. Littered all around the dragon’s lair are the bodies of the brave knights that fell in battle before him. That means, much like business, most dragon killers are unsuccessful and die in the attempt. There is nothing heroic about being the first person and easily dispatching the beast with barely a fight. Those knights all had stories to tell, too. They didn’t end well, but they had stories. And if only they could speak, then maybe we could learn something from them about slaying dragons, or at least how not to be slain by a dragon.

Secondly, the farm boy may be the focus of the story, but he doesn’t do it alone. A blacksmith made his sword. It took years of learning to understand weapon making. It took expensive raw materials to make that sword. It took hours of pain staking labor. It wasn’t a part of the official story, but it was craftsmanship none the less. And that horse the farm boy rode had to be stabled somewhere. It had to be saddle trained and well cared for. Even the farm boy needed the farm to provide nourishing, wholesome food so he could grow strong enough to lift that sword and eventually slay a dragon with it. The point is, the hero didn’t do it alone. He couldn’t do it alone. Every step along the way, he received help from people that were never named in the story of his heroic deeds. People who performed their service then went back to their own homes and families and left dragon slaying to someone who was interested in princesses to begin with.

Stories tell us that we need to be the hero. We need to “aim high” and “never settle for less” and always be looking for growth opportunities. We need to be ready for that moment when we get to become the hero of our own story. Odds are, your small business will never be the hero. But you could be the blacksmith and lead a very fruitful life away from dragons. And you could learn from the mistakes of the failed knights.

For the last few years, I have worked for a small business. My boss started it in a field he was comfortable in and knowledgeable in. He took advantage of any opportunity he could, and he managed to grow it to a comfortable sized office which about 50 employees at its peak before selling it to a larger corporation. Unless you were in the industry, and in the locale, you wouldn’t know the name if I told you. But it put his kids through school and put food on his table. It gave myself and the other Vice Presidents a good salary and benefits, good experience and insight into the industry. And at the time I leave next month, almost at my 10-year anniversary, about half the employees remaining will have been with the company even longer than I was. We could all complain that we did or didn’t get paid enough, of should have had free soda and ping pong tables or whatever, but what we all had was a good, stable job that we could be proud of and paid our bills and got us through the Great Recession of 2007 and the bursting of the Housing Bubble. My boss is, in every way, a craftsman doing his part to help create heroes. His is the story that inspires me.


Box Trolls and Their Impact on the Business

Boxes are amazing things. I don’t know who invented the first box, but he really did us a favor, that guy. They allow us to carry more things than we normally could, to organize our stuff, to hold things that otherwise couldn’t be held like air, water, and lava. Boxes come in all kinds of materials too; Wood, metal, cardboard, glass; there is even a bone box holding your brains. I bet if you look around, why your house is just filled with useful boxes. In fact, your house is a kind of box itself, isn’t it? But there is a downside to boxes, too. If a box is left alone long enough, and placed in a dark enough corner, then before you know it, a Box Troll will move in. You will start to hear noises coming from the box at odd times. Or it will randomly shake. And when you try to peer into the unnatural darkness within it, all you will see is a pair of predatory red eyes peering back at you, and perhaps a hairy knuckled hand will start to reach out.

Ok fairy tales aside, the truth of the matter is, Box Trolls exist. They may not be mythological creatures, or even monsters, but odds are your company has a few of them. They can come from any and every part of the company, but the IT Department seems to breed them like vermin. In many companies, we tend to put people into boxes, and say “This box is for networking” or “this box is for accounting.” We come up with these great sounding names for it like roles, separations, and partitions. And because these boxes are small, the Trolls tend to be alone in their box and start to think of themselves as Kings of their boxes. And when something or someone enters their box, it’s like a sudden shaft of light is piercing their darkness. Its blinding. It scares them, and hints to them that they may not in fact be kings of anything. And so, a Box Troll will do anything to get that person or thing out of its box. And once they do, they will pretend that it no longer exists for it is now outside the scope of the box.

So, what is a Box Troll?

Corporatus Verminicus Politicus. The Common Office Weasel

I keep lapsing into metaphor, don’t I? When dealing with Box Trolls it’s hard to comprehend them without using a metaphor, because the mindset is so antithetical to everything we think of as team work and empowerment. In simple terms, a Box Troll is a team member that is working to protect their own comfort and interests at the cost of the greater team. Unlike the common Office Weasel, they are not necessarily scheming to climb the corporate ladder, though they do enjoy the perks of power. They rarely make alliances except with other Trolls, and usually only so long as they keep out of each other’s boxes. They may appear busy, but nothing they do ever seems to further any of the overall business goals; they may not even be aware that the business has goals in some cases.

So how do we recognize a Box Troll? Glad you asked. They have a lot of methods of protecting their box, but there are three that tend to get used more than any other. This first is to just say No. That’s right, no matter what you requested or why, they will shoot it down. Should you try to discuss, or even argue, you will find that they will create improbable scenarios to back their decisions. A veritable Rube-Goldberg Device of random facts and coincidences will suddenly coalesce into a likely, if not inevitable, occurrence that no one else could have conceived. Usually key words like “Security” and “Compliance” are used as part of the excuse because it’s hard to argue against being secure and compliant. Likewise, names will be dropped. Their goal here is to shut you down completely as quickly and as easily as possible to get you out of their box.

The Greatest Troll Man Ever

Ron Swanson is the Greatest Box Troll ever. So much so that it became an endearing quality.

When a Box Troll can’t get away with just saying No, they tend to weaponize the bureaucracy. Things will be put off “until we can have a board meeting.” Or “Agnes usually handles those transactions, so maybe we should wait until she gets back from her three-year sabbatical to Tibet.” Another favorite of mine is “I was waiting for Bob to reply.” Of course, there are always the bureaucratic lies we have all used from time to time: “It must have gone into my Spam folder,” or “I didn’t realize this email was meant for me because my name wasn’t mentioned.” And when necessary, they can pull out the big guns, “Oh yes, I saw your request from last week, but it wasn’t complete. Three of your sentences were missing periods and one period looked more like a comma, so I will need you to make corrections and resubmit the request.” And when a Box Troll is weaponizing bureaucracy, they suddenly forget how to pick up a phone and ask for clarifications. Their goal now is to put so many obstacles in your path, and to delay the execution for as long as possible, so that you relent and leave their box alone. And should you complain, they will shift all the blame for it to the system. “Form 29-G wasn’t filled out in triplicate; what could I do?”

Finally, when a Box Troll is forced to work on another request, be assured, they will often attempt to interpret the request to the letter with the tenacity of a corporate lawyer or a politician. No supporting actions will be done that are not in the request. No improvements will be suggested. There will be no follow up. And they will not care if the request in fact solves any real-world problems. If it fails, even better. They just want more than ever to get you out of their box because now you are a reminder that they are not in fact Kings. And the sooner your request is over, the sooner they can return to ruling over their own darkness. (Damn it, I am getting metaphorical again.)

IT Exists to help Business

The fact of the matter is, technology has always existed to help business. We tend to think of technology solely in terms of personal computing devices and wide area networks and multi-protocol data lines, but technology has been helping business since the beginning of time. Pencil and Paper are forms of technology, and paperwork allowed us to have more complex business interactions that spanned time and people. A plow is a great piece of technology for a farmer, allowing him or her to seed a field that would otherwise be too difficult to grow anything in. But every time technology becomes more complex, we need specialized individuals to handle that technology on behalf of the business. Farmers needed livestock, and therefore animal husbandry, to keep ox or cattle to pull the plow. In the middle ages, Kings and Queens could be illiterate but they had scholars to write down their proclamations and interpret laws and treaties and keep records of transactions. When Algebra was invented in the year 820 we got accounting but we suddenly needed accountants of all people to balance the spreadsheets. Now we have computers, but the situation is no different than the introduction of Algebra, or a pencil.

And as IT people, we can do a lot for a business. We automate complex and repetitive tasks, freeing up hours of productivity so that time can be concentrated on sales or operations. We create structures for organizing data such as Data Warehouses, Active Directories, or even simple filing systems. And by doing so, we enable the business to make better decisions based on that data. We implement systems that enforce protocols so that no critical steps in a process are missed. And we protect the business and its systems from catastrophes.

So, if we are so integral to business, why am I such a Negative Nelly when it comes to IT people? Where’s the love, you ask? The honest truth is, whenever I deal with a Box Troll in an IT Department, I see my own reflection there, and it embarrasses me. I don’t know what it is about us, but it seems like we all have a little Box Troll deep down inside. Does the job attract us, or does it create us? I don’t know. But I have spent my career trying to fight the Box Troll impulses within me, and helping my own employees to do the same.

Unboxing the Troll

So here is my advice if you want to stop being a Box Troll. First and foremost, understand that a business has needs and if those needs are not met the business goes under. Nothing will deprive you of your box quicker than getting laid off or fired. Too often we forget that there are reasons for these requests we are getting, and that there are consequences to our actions and inactions. Maybe in some special situation a concession would put you, or the company, in moral, ethical, legal, physical or financial risk and you are justified in putting a stop to it. But that is really very rare, and in all other situations the needs of the business must come first. So never just say no to a request. Instead, take some time to understand the request; get the details you need to make an informed decision. There is a reason why the request is being made and understanding that reason may change your mind or your outlook on the request. And even if it doesn’t, it will help you explain to the requestor why you couldn’t comply with their request. And in that situation, don’t simply toss your reasons out of the box; take the time to make sure the requestor truly understands your reasons. Also, never forget that you are the expert and you need to act like it. If you must say no to a request, provide an alternative. Maybe there was a better way to meet that need or accomplish that end that the requestor didn’t know about.

It’s going to be difficult. Habits are hard to break, and none of us like it when our comfort zones are disrupted. I still struggle with it. But if you succeed in doing this, if you make yourself an asset instead of an obstacle, you will stop being a Box Troll and become an IT Hero. I promise.


Oh, by the way, we got a post card from Agnes. Says she is having a great time in Tibet and wishes you were there.



Why Should You Make Simple Contract

A Contract Should be Simple, Right?

I saw this posted on my Facebook wall today, and it was followed by a large chorus of “here here’s” from the poster’s following. Between artists and developers, I have many people I am friends with or following that frequently are in client / provider positions on a regular basis. I was shocked to see how many people seemed very approving of this idea. It seductive to think that all that “legal jargon,” as the article refers to it, is put there by unscrupulous lawyer types just to hide the truth from us plain-speakin’ folk. That an agreement shouldn’t require more than a hearty handshake and a desire to work together. But that is not the truth. In reality, a good contract is written for the benefit and protection of both parties, and tries to cover the legal risks that both parties may face and provide a framework for fairly evaluating disputes. And this contract does none of that. But that is because, it’s not really their contract.


What Microsoft Zune and the Microsoft Phone have in common

Have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy V2 yet? If not, you should probably not read this and instead go make a sandwich or something. But if you have, then you probably got a good chuckle out of the ending where Peter Quill is handed a Microsoft Zune and told that its the big thing on Earth now. The joke of course is that the Zune is a relic that never really competed successfully against Apple’s iPod.


Container Phone Manifesto

I need a new phone. No, there is nothing wrong with my phone, from a purely functionality point of view. It makes phone calls, sends text messages. I can even get to Facebook and YouTube from time to time. But while I recently was able to download and use the Starbucks app, I still can’t order and pay online, then grab my drink at the counter like other users do. When Pickup Stix launched their new app, I wasn’t able to download it and register to get my free entrée. You see, I have a Windows phone, and no one makes apps for that platform despite the general ease of doing so.


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