On Expertise

As this post talks about work a bit, I note here that this doesn't reflect the opinions of any past or present employers. Timelines are deliberately ambiguous, in the same way a comic will say "the other day" to signify some time between forever ago and never.

"When people say their processes can't be automated, it means they have data the rest of us don't have, but need to get."

"This year we're going to work on moving from being a business that succeeds because of its people to one which succeeds because of its processes."

This thinking isn't new - those lines came from conversations a decade apart, one right as I was getting into the job market, one more recently. It's easy to understand why a business wants to ensure their operations don't rise or fall based on the knowledge of an individual. I've heard this called "The Bus Factor," (I thought by Joel Spolsky, though I can't find his reference to it) - the number of people who can be hit by a bus without threatening the success of a project. Theoretically, a high bus factor is ideal for everyone involved - the team as a whole is stable and secure, and no one has their vacations interrupted by frantic conference calls because they're the only person who knows the procedure for turning the conveyer belt on.

In practice, this isn't always so simple. Setting up a task so that anyone could step in and do it makes a person feel their work isn't valuable or appreciated. Most people have seen the lower bound of this problem:

EMPLOYEE: In some ways I'm the most crucial person here, because if I don't do my job none of our orders are processed.

TRANSLATION: I open the mail.

EMPLOYEE: I know this is true, because when I'm not here, no orders are processed.

TRANSLATION: When I go home, I take the mailbox key with me.

Similarly, the upper bound is easy to recognize - most of us don't want any medical procedure done by a project manager who took a nurse out to coffee and asked for a quick summary of the high level problems they face. Not all jobs can be figured out on the fly by a person of reasonable intelligence. But the space in between is harder to evaluate - which problems really need to be solved by people with years of expertise, and which can be reduced to just-in-time processes?

I've worked on both sides of that divide, and in general the Process Analysis Consultant is given the benefit of the doubt, with any failures excused because the experts on the ground didn't tell effectively communicate every detail they had acquired in years on the job in a thirty minute meeting. It is rare that someone concludes "maybe we should have trusted someone who knew what they were talking about."

The tendency to devalue hard-won knowledge spills over into other areas of life, too. John Finnemore's sketch about a pub argument being ruined by smartphones suggests that we used to be ignorant before we could look everything up online, but I think this perspective is backward - we used to actually know things. Our access to the sum of human knowledge is better than ever in the smart phone age, but the sum of human knowledge only increases by people synthesizing things they already know to produce new insights. The fewer things we already know, the less this synthesis happens.

I was talking to someone the other day who grew up in the neighborhood I currently live in. At least, I think they did. They referenced many places I had heard of, and told me where they lived in relation to those. Do I possess the information needed to visualize those places and how they intersect? Definitely not, I get around blindly following the maps on my phone (worse, they’re Apple Maps). Most of the time, I get where I need to go, but my understanding of the place where I live, and my interaction with the people who live here, is greatly diminished because of the connections I can't make. It takes expertise I don't yet have.

Is there a better way forward? On the business side, I wonder if the affordance we give to people with MBAs but no subject matter expertise might be just as useful working the other way. If we gave more subject matter experts the chance to learn other business skills, we might discover it's the Consulting Process Analysts whose roles can be quickly learned on the fly with no prior experience. As for recapturing the need to actually know things in the rest of our lives, it will take bitter experience for us to see the light… as we catch our partner slyly opening a dating app to make sure they have our name right, before introducing us to their parents. Sometimes it's worth really knowing things.

On "I'll Be Your Girl"

It started with the longest, happiest sigh. In early summer 2012, I returned to an empty apartment for the first time in two weeks, having had my dad and sister over for a vacation. The warm afterglow of fond memories together with the still peace of a house to myself made for an excellent mood. A friend of my sister’s had suggested The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife as good driving music during our road trip, and we’d added the title track to whosever iPod was in charge. She was right, it was an excellent open road song, and I made a note to check out more of their stuff when we came home. I’d heard of the band, as 2011’s The King is Dead was a favorite among some friends, though I hadn’t listened to it myself as that particular group of friends had a musical vocabulary completely foreign to me, and I felt it’d be easiest to remain ignorant rather than risk mispronouncing Bon Iver as “Sufjan Stevens.” 

And so, alone in my apartment with no risk of getting anything wrong, on that hot June evening in 2012, I investigated their latest release, and discovered it was a live album from the King is Dead tour. I was already excited about this, as I generally find live albums more enjoyable than their studio predecessors, and it provided a good way into their whole catalog. We All Raise Our Voices to the Air made me an instant convert to The Decemberists, and to this day that album brings to mind dozens of sunny afternoons cycling along the Poudre river, as the horrifying story of The Rake’s Song stealthily invaded my brain through a catchy guitar riff. 

2015’s “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” was the first album they’d released since I’d been a fan, and it was a vast array of styles and perspectives. Or, said more pessimistically, it was bloated and directionless. I think both perspectives are probably right in their way. But the title could just as easily be applied to their latest effort - 2018’s I’ll Be Your Girl is a short, focused, often whimsical look at the sad state of things. Waiting three paragraphs to get to the record is perhaps why I haven’t written more reviews.

An acoustic guitar fades in to kick things off, as Colin Meloy pleads for something to go right in “Once in My Life.” It’s a risky ploy, singing about how difficult things are, as you release your eighth studio album and head out to play to thousands of fans every night as part of your band’s seventeenth year. But everyone has someone above them keeping them down, and in any case, problems start far further back than this record if all Decemberists’ lyrics must be explicitly autobiographical. A bright synth strides atop the guitars and drums to carry the vocal along, and the amount of melody and interest they manage to wring out of the piece is genuinely impressive, as the song has about six lines.

“Cutting Stone” is the album’s nadir. Some more synth runs initially threaten to take the song somewhere notable, but as the same two melodic ideas repeat themselves, three minutes twenty seconds seem to take a very long time. Sequencing as track two a song best suited to a Best Buy Exclusive bonus cd (even after they stopped selling cds) was an unfortunate choice, but the first notes of Severed immediately wrestle back the listener’s attention. Severed was the pre-album single, and it announced a bold new direction, all verbed out guitars and vocals held together with unexpected keyboards. It features Meloy at his most directly anti-Trump, as the President proclaims he’s “gonna leave you all severed.” As words put in the mouth of the commander-in-chief go, “don’t you get clever” surely ranks as some of the more poetic, apropos, and sad. Severed also represents the album at it’s most experimental, to allay the fears of fans of the band’s earlier work. No further pages of the Nord 2 manual are explored.

“That’s a very high note” is likely the next thought from the listener, as “Starwatcher” comes in with it’s military drums and warnings of evil ahead. It’s the first in a trio of songs direct from the center of The Decemberists’ wheelhouse. "Tripping Along" lets a lazily strummed clean guitar lull the listener into a state ripe for being jolted awake by the next track, in the same way the ticking countdown from “24” used to leave us vulnerable to the VERY LOUD FOX COMMERICALS. The energetic “Your Ghost” would be slightly more enjoyable had it not already been released as “The Infanta” several years ago, but adds an excellent instrumental break reminiscent of a harpsichord played through a 16 bit Nintendo.

So far, so… like the last one, but with keyboards. Side 1 has many of the strengths and weaknesses of “What a Terrible World…”, with it’s disorganized flashes of brilliance and tedium, with some interesting new instrumental flourishes.

Dropping the needle on side two is only recommended if you’re listening on vinyl (it will scratch your phone otherwise). The first nineteen seconds of strummed “A” chords and repetitions of the word “everything” are a big risk, all the listener’s “where are we going with this?” patience has nearly been exhausted before the tension breaks, and “Everything is Awful” kicks off an incredibly fine run of songs, stronger than anything in the first half. Whether the world needed a big nihilist singalong is a topic for another time, but this is the first of two on the album, and it’s catchy and playful. I defy anyone to keep from humming it the next time a day-ruining email hits their inbox. Chris Funk’s mad Wilco-esque guitar adds just the right amount of chaos as Meloy exhorts him to “kindly keep it down, I’m trying to get some sleep.”

"Sucker’s Prayer" is next, to check the “singalong suicide song” box. The story of a despondent man filling his pockets with rocks and wading into the river must surely pique the interest of mafia bosses who may find this easier than concrete shoes. For as much as they were trying to get away from the “piano in the verses, organ on the chorus” sound for this album, they made the right choice to play this one straight, with piano, organ, lush slide guitars, and beautiful harmonies. I could listen to that chorus for days, while my wondering where this song was when I was a lonely angsty teenager is answered by the realization that times haven’t much changed.

There haven’t been enough saxophones and childrens’ choirs yet, thought nobody. Both are put to excellent use in the next track, the musings of someone lying injured, dreaming of a message from a civil war general. The fight between irresistibly fun music and inexplicably heavy lyrics is a hallmark of Decemberists tracks, taken to the extreme by “We All Die Young.” And so we do. The band’s political leanings might tempt the listener to frame it as a protest against war or mass shootings or whatever else, but reminders of the inevitability of death are useful from any perspective. 

Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes manages to harken back to the epic feel of The Island or The Hazards of Love without feeling derivative, a feat successfully attempted. The haunting piano of the first half gives way to a jaunty acoustic guitar just in time to stop the piece dragging, and some menacing organ and electric guitar riffs close out what should be a high point of their upcoming live shows.

And finally…the title track. “I’ll Be Your Girl” recalls the perfect simplicity of “June Hymn,” adding a slightly odd genderbending lyric. It’s pleasant enough, and rather than being baffled by a line like “I could be your man but I’ll be so much more… I’ll be your girl,” I just assume I’m not the intended audience. I hope that whoever is enjoys it.

New sounds, bold perspectives, and strong songs. Whatever the flaws of “I’ll Be Your Girl,” it leaves me enjoying my favorite tracks and excited for wherever they go next, which luckily for me is “on tour, quite near here.”

On Leaving it too Late

In 2012, the leader of the Labour Party in Britain was reflecting on why they'd lost an election two years ago. In a speech about immigration policy, he made the following point:

Quite simply, we became too disconnected from the concerns of working people. We too easily assumed those who worried about immigration were stuck in the past. Unrealistic about how things could be different. Even prejudiced. But Britain was experiencing the largest peacetime migration in recent history. And people's concerns were genuine. Why didn't we listen more? At least by the end of our time in office, we were too dazzled by globalization and too sanguine about its price. By focusing too much on globalization and migration's impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – and the people who were being squeezed.

A mea culpa from a political leader is a rare event, and there’s no doubt Ed Miliband was right about this. But where would he go from here? He could:

  • Continue this dialogue, and commit his party to developing and proposing policies at the 2015 election which would thoughtfully address the public’s concerns; OR
  • Never mention it again, allowing public frustration to fester, and leaving people open to being taken advantage of by those offering a blunt instrument with which to vent their feelings.

He chose the second option, and the blunt instrument offered was a referendum reconsidering membership of the European Union in 2016, in which the public duly voted to leave. 

The U.S. went through virtually the same political spasm later in 2016, as neither party offered a scalpel to carefully address the concerns of those who were doing poorly. When they were instead presented with a rock to throw at the greenhouse of society, they took it - people only vote for someone likely to say  something as crass as "this American carnage stops right here and stops right now" after a long period of failing to hear anything more nuanced. That the rock has turned out to be largely inflatable was both obvious at the time and didn’t seem to matter very much to the people voting for it.

I point all of this out because of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the era of mass public shootings, the only thing Republicans in this country seem to know how to do is put their fingers in their ears (though thankfully not in a “miming a gunshot” kind of way). By doing this, they may have left it too late for a careful, considered solution. There are all kinds of contributing factors to these tragedies, and people who look to blame family breakdown or SSRIs or social media or whatever else probably do have something useful to contribute to the discussion, but by refusing to engage with the idea of legal restrictions on firearms, that discussion is never going to take place. 

Recent history (indeed all of history) shows that the public do have a tipping point. You can leave it too late. What could have been a sober, thoughtful process of how to balance liberty and safety will be replaced with calls to outlaw anything more powerful than a water pistol (and even those must be made from avocado, so they begin dissolving when you fill them and collapse disgustingly in your hand upon firing). If those on the Right keep stonewalling the gun control debate, the future is shockingly easy to predict. In 2018, and 2020, commercials and events featuring the bright and articulate students from Stoneman will capture the public attention, and a sweeping, radical change to gun ownership will be passed into law. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the person signing it spends a few seconds reflecting on the tragic waste of life this country has seen, before saying "this American carnage stops right here and stops right now."

On 2017

Forgive a slightly similar setup from a couple of years ago, but it gives me a way to share the following anecdote:

January 1, 2017, 12:00am

A good friend had invited several of us over to celebrate the new year with a few drinks and some games on a highly sought after NES Classic. A feeling of “thank goodness that’s over” was in the air, and someone thought it would be fun to write down elements of 2016 we hoped would not return, then set them alight at midnight. As we should have realized, setting pieces of paper on fire in a small glass container where oxygen could not easily enter was a near impossible task. Tipping the container out onto the snow-covered sidewalk did not make things easier, and we gave up after two or three of the paper slips flickered for a second or two. Beginning 2017 with a failed gesture of defiance was an amusing political symbol if nothing else.

January 1, 2018, 12:00am

I’ve seen in about half of the new years of the last decade with the same group of friends, and it was a thrill to do so again after being elsewhere last year. This year, everyone was elsewhere, and friends in four cities and three states gathered to ring in three progressively tipsier 2018s, playing party games over video conference. Technology is brilliant. 

So, then, 2017. 

Towards the end of 2016, I was reasonably settled in my job, learning an enormous amount of new things with colleagues I loved and projects I enjoyed. Out of the blue, someone suggested a new opportunity I might be a good fit for, but I fell at the final fence. In January, a much better opportunity with a new organization presented itself, and after several hours of interviews I…didn’t get that either. These two experiences prompted a lot of thinking about where my career was going, and lead me to take a new job I was not very well suited for and at which I did not succeed. I’m sincerely grateful to some very patient coworkers who prevented that from being any worse than it was, and sorry to some employees who deserved far better from me. The collective impact of these episodes meant I jumped at the chance to move to Seattle this summer and do something completely different.

People seem to have all sorts of different expectations about career stability, so I’ve no idea whether the above sounds normal or insane to anyone else. As I’d held the same position technically for four years and practically for closer to six, it felt incredibly strange. Doing the same thing for a long time in an organization develops particular kinds of expertise and levels of influence which are immediately lost in these transitions. On the other hand, as a 29 year old I’ve got another 40 years of work ahead of me, so this is likely going to happen again and again. With that in mind, I wanted to document two things I’ve noticed about changing jobs in the last 12 months. Neither of these are novel, but are things are want to make sure I remember the next time I throw everything up in the air.

Curiosity actually saves the cat.

When I was learning to drive, my parents were appalled to discover I didn’t know my way around anywhere. I’d been driven by them to and from various places for years, but as my only role in the process was to get in the car and get out again, I hadn’t bothered to take any notice of what happened in between. This lead to a handful of frustrated moments realizing far too late that I’d ended up in the wrong lane at a stoplight or highway exit, but it did not instill in me any great change in behavior - in the 8 years I had a license prior to the advent of turn-by-turn directions on phones, the surfaces in my car not covered in Pepsi cans were covered in printed out pages from Mapquest. 

In the office, this lack of curiosity about how to get from A to B leads to death. In many organizations, the first few weeks of a job consist of learning step by step processes and the rhythm of which processes are invoked at which time. The path to being able to meaningfully contribute, though, is in the whys and wherefores and steps in between, in understanding enough about how you got to step 25 to make some reasonable guess at the yet unwritten step 26. If I had any awareness of this before, it’s been turned up x100 this year - it’s good to be bothered by things you don’t understand, and being the new guy is an excellent cover for having a thousand questions about everything. 

Work, not approval.

In Fort Collins, if things would go well at work and I was pleased, I’d immediately fret that I was getting too invested in it. Since moving away, I’ve been surprised by how much less I’m plagued by this feeling now that work genuinely is the only thing I’m doing. In Colorado there were great friends, church, music, comedy, etc., which meant work wasn’t anywhere close to the “only thing” going on. In the six months I’ve been here, I’m mostly working, riding the bus, and sleeping. And the difference, I think, between that being life giving or not, is in where affirmation comes from.  

What makes a day good or bad? That answer will wholly be about work sometimes, and this is ok as long as it’s not wholly wrapped up in pats on the back (I am not sure how someone wraps up a pat).  In a new place, you spend your whole time asking other people for things instead of getting to play the hero who has the answers, and this can be surprisingly draining if you're used to things being the other way around. Finding some measure of “was my work meaningful today?” other than the number of people who said they were pleased by something you did is vital. Which is a terribly silly thing to write just before hitting ‘post’ and anxiously checking for likes.


On Various Verts

“Likes good things, dislikes bad things. Not here for hookups despite my incredibly suggestive pictures. ESFP.”

So goes the majority of personal blurbs on any online dating service. If I were a different person entirely, this would be where I’d begin recounting a recent date, carefully disguising the identity of someone who didn’t consent to be written about by changing a letter in their first name. It was nice to meet you, Lundsay. Alternately, this might be the beginning of one of those “hilarious” suggestions of a new name for such a service, along with descriptions of the types of people they might specifically try to attract. Alas, no. Instead, I’m hung up on those four letters at the end. 

It is an interesting ploy, leading with a supposedly objective, scientific classification of your personality.    Sometimes this is done with Myers-Briggs, sometimes with various formulations of “introvert” and “extrovert”, lately expanded to include “extroverted introvert,” “introverted extrovert,” “desiccated coconut,” and so on. To define yourself in this way is an attempt at setting others’ expectations appropriately, and to subtly suggest that any conflicts arising as a result of this predisposition should resolve themselves by other people realizing that’s just who you are. But is this wise?

I stood up from a restaurant table recently during a meal with some friends, and attempted to make my way to the restroom. I was immediately met with loud protests from the group, who assumed I was attempting to sneak home unnoticed. I explained I wouldn’t do that, as it would involve sticking them with my share of the check, but someone quickly jumped in with the suggestion that “if Thom has decided he’s done for the night, he’d probably just pay the whole tab rather than stay until the end.” This was useful as everyone laughed and allowed me to escape to the bathroom, but I couldn’t escape the realization that I had, in fact, done exactly that in the past. I’m quite bad at people, it turns out - selfishness and cowardice combine to produce many ungraceful social interactions, the occasional Irish Goodbye being one of the less harmful examples. 

Many others are, thankfully, much better at people than I am, and as the introvert/extrovert debate rightly points out, some tend toward the opposite extreme and self destruct during any periods of silence. Anyone who has gathered together with friends or families for an extended period of time in the last few years has seen the way we now handle troughs in the conversation by collectively disappearing into our devices for a few minutes. Certain people can’t handle this, and use those moments as an opportunity to read their social media feeds aloud as though the rest of us are interested, often providing an unsettling window into the things they find amusing. The more outgoing have the upper hand in this situation, as my reticence to start a conversation is neatly complimented by my ability to ignore them.

I’ve participated in exactly one Myers Briggs exercise, one of those formal work training days where a dozen colleagues find an excuse to get out of the office together for a few hours. After listening to presentations and completing questionnaires, we were split into groups across the room, introverts and extroverts divided like boys and girls at a junior high dance, or virgins and popular kids at a high school one. After we were settled in our teams, the facilitator asked if anyone had done this before, and something important came to light. A friend in the “extrovert” corner, who those of us who had been around a while knew as someone who didn’t feel especially comfortable around people, but had worked like hell to become good at it to further their career, noted that in a previous course she had been called an introvert. The instructor had a minor mental breakdown, explaining that these are scientifically proven unalterable personality traits. They must have done it wrong the first time.

This is the flaw in the -vert divide, and is why I wish we would stop using the terms altogether. It’s not that I don’t believe we have such predispositions. But classifying them in the way we do hurts all parties involved. When my inept social skills cause me difficulty, I need two things: hope that I can improve to attain a better outcome in future, and encouragement to work at this. Diagnosis as an introvert, as though I have some genetic malfunction, both condemns me to a life of embarrassingly bad interactions with others and relieves me of responsibility for this. Is there a more hopeless place to be? Those impacted by the social failures of others are also not well served by this silly psychologizing. The mental muscle we all need to exercise to hold together a society full of other broken, frail humans is not a bland tolerance which pretends we’re not broken or frail. We only help our fellow creatures move forward by providing the kind of relational safety in which boundless patience and strong admonition to change can work together for good.

I’m bad at people. And you might be bad at silence. We both need to know that we can change, we should change, and we’re loved. Diagnosis a-verted.