Monday, March 31, 2014

Reporting Structure Matters

People don’t leave companies.  They leave managers.

I’d put that in quotes, but I can’t find an attribution.  It’s become such common knowledge, and it’s been written about so often, that I think everyone who is interested in employee morale and the benefits of keeping your good employees happy already knows this.

This statement really rings true for me.  But I don’t think it rings true the way that it’s often meant.  I think that when most people hear that, they picture an overbearing, boorish, emotional, or abusive boss, pointy-haired or not.  They maybe think of the condescending boss that uses this type of conversational antipattern.

Really, though, I’m thinking more about management structures today.  I think people are just as likely to leave management philosophies as they are to leave individual managers.  Sure, having a terrible supervisor has the potential to make every moment of your working life terrible, but the way organizations shift and rotate these days, having to report to a duff manager for a while isn’t really that big a deal.  Kinda like the old saw “If you don’t like the weather in <remarkable number of regions/cities>, wait 5 minutes and it’ll change.”

Bad management philosophy can break a company, one spirit at a time. 

And yes, in the past couple decades, we have seen the old command and control style of management from the industrialization era falter.  We have seen the rise of agile project management and lean software development.  We have watched with curiosity at the mounting evidence that waterfall-style management of software projects and programs does not take into account the pragmatic reality under which software is routinely delivered.

There are still lots of companies out there whose leadership hasn't received the memo on this, yet; mainly those whom were educated under the philosophies and by the leaders of the industrial era.  There are a lot of mid to large companies whose leadership hasn’t picked up a management book in twenty years, to hear people describe their environments.

I want to discuss a few things that I think would be massively beneficial to any company currently stuck in the old, rigid, empire-building, command and control management style.

Resource rotation

One of the big antipatterns I’ve seen in organization is resource-hugging.  That is, there are five developers on Team A and three on Team B.  Team B gets an organizational-critical project, which would really benefit from having another developer.  Let's say that no one disputes that Team B’s project is more important that Team A’s.  And let’s say that no one disputes that it would be a better use of company resources, even Team A.  What are the odds that Team A will lend Team B a resource?  Factoring in not only willingness, but also organizational red tape?  I’m guessing it’s close to zero.  Managers might like to think of themselves as working for the good of the organization, but silos and affinity can run deep.

Old-school organizations have a really difficult time with letting developers switch products and project managers, despite the positive benefits that come from such rotation.  Some inhibitors to this type of rotation include siloed teams not having similar enough processes, teams having completely different coding styles, needing visibility for annual performance reviews, and so on. 

More modern management philosophy suggests that rotation through projects, products, and managers engenders similarities of codebases, commonality of processes, and dissemination of knowledge.  It reduces the number of junk drawers in the organization, and limits loss of knowledge due to lossy transition plans.

Also, while this may be a post for a different day, I think there’s a huge case to be made for rotating your most senior IT leaders.  Especially in small shops where there are folks that have been there a long time, and have very deep relationships with the business.  Sure those relationships are optimized in a way, but they’re not optimized for global company benefit, and let’s face it, the whole company is what’s got to survive and thrive.  It does no individual silo any good to succeed if performance problems in another silo drag down the organization. 

Flat hierarchies

Another big no-no in modern organizations is the steeply peaked org chart.  While there’s some evidence that extremely wide spans of control (1 manager to 20-30 people) can get out of control, there’s also evidence suggesting that a company loses a lot of communicative efficiency when there are a lot of levels between the lowest-level leaf-node worker and the CEO. 

Having steeply peaked hierarchies leads to another big issue, and that’s one of throughput.  If an organization has a high management to staff ratio, it’s going to have a bottleneck.  Especially if there are non-people-managing project managers in the mix.  Each manager in the organization is given at least one project that is their top priority.  They may need a couple FTEs on the project and other ancillary folks.  With a steeply peaked hierarchy, there are not enough leaf-node workers to get everyone’s project done.  The managers then have the ability to say, “Well, I asked for some work to get done, but another manager’s project came first.”  In the worst case of this, the work is not prioritized actively and the whims of what the developers want to work on, or the manager that barks the loudest drives what the organization accomplishes.

It seems to me that huge efficiency that would accrue to any organization that would recognize the preceding and deal with their jelly layer (mainly by having a lower jelly to producer ratio).  Most organizations need more driven, informed individuals doing work, and fewer people arguing about why the work isn't getting done.  Scott Berkun suggests a great way to deal with the "too many chiefs" syndrome: innovation by firing people.  Seriously, if your organization is so top heavy that you've got more projects than people, start there.

I also am really fascinated with the holocratic experiment that Zappos is conducting right now.  I’m far from declaring that hierarchy should completely dodo, but I think current data suggests that flatter is better.  

On a side note, steeply peaked organizations with deep siloed hierarchies also really suffer when coupled with ineffective delegation.  Every level of the organization should maintain at least some spending limit that, below which, they have absolute authority to make a call.  A $30 software tool to improve developer productivity should not have to go all the way to a CEO or even the head of technology for a decision. Before you've even described the problem, you've already spent more of the company's money in wages discussing it.  When you don't have large enough spending approval limits low enough on the org chart, you can run into the longest delays for the simplest things, because validation has to make it through so many more layers of jelly.

A parting thought: one of the reasons that I've often heard for narrow spans of control is that the annual review becomes too hard to manage for one person.  This is a really bassackwards reason for having a peaked hierarchy, as it gutpunches you twice!  Peaked structures have awful consequences, especially coupled with inefficient delegation, and every time an organization narrows spans of control solely to participate in one of the worst business practices, an angel gets cancer. 

Differentiation between managers and team members

A manager cannot be held to perform the same tasks as their employees.  While managers may have come from the ranks of the individuals that report to them, and are invaluable in terms of providing overall direction, having a manager that currently performs the same tasks as their team members is a roadblock to innovation and prevents productive dissent.

Here's how.  Let's say two people are doing the same job, only one is manager of the group, and one is a team member.  If the team member has a difference of opinion with the manager, that team member has a limited set of choices: disagree with the manager publicly and risk getting reviewed poorly or being disciplined (in public or private), or play along and let a potentially bad decision for the organization play out for purely political reasons.  Bad things happen when team members are set up by organizational structure to compete.  You either end up with no innovation or people refuse to continue playing along and depart.

If two people are fulfilling the same role in the organization, they are team members.  If there's not enough management work for full time management duties within the group, consider making a team member a team lead for administrative purposes, but don't change that reporting structure.  That's poison in the morale well.  Pursuant to the previous point about flatter = better, be very sparse about where you decide to install organizational jelly layers.

Make sure the org change will be welcome

If you’re going to ask people to report to someone new, you should check with them to find out if there are any objections.  There’s nothing more impactful to productivity than an employee not respecting the person they suddenly need to report to.  This doesn't have to be a big formal ordeal; even something like, "I'm thinking about restructuring the organization so that you'd be reporting to <whomever>.  How do you feel about that?"  

Springing a restructuring on people is disrespectful and does not engender trust.  It makes it look as if the organization has something to hide, as if discussing it with employees beforehand would somehow queer the deal.  If it's such a great idea, it will be embraced.  If there's going to be a problem, you want to know that up front as an organization. Also, if you're going to lose people as a result (because people do leave managers), make sure they're people you want to lose.

This holds true for new hires, by the way.  I can't articulate how important it is for an incoming manager to meet the team they'll be working with, even if as a final "sniff test".  Too many organizations only have interviewees interview up.  In many modern business organizations, if they do reviews, HR requires 360 reviews.  It only makes sense to offer the team that you're hiring a manager for to meet the interviewee in kind of a 360 interview.  


The reporting line in the organization should form an unbroken chain of respect.  That is, anyone asked to support a manager must respect that manager.  If they don't, the entire organization suffers.  You can ask someone to report to someone else, but if they don't respect that person or their abilities, there's going to be trouble.   Lack of respect for someone the organization trusts to manage leads to lack of respect for the judgment of the organization.

The worst place that this lack of respect can show up is in promotions.  Everywhere I've ever worked, I've seen people promoted - not beyond their abilities, because sometimes you have to trust people to stretch and grow - but beyond their personal charisma and respect level.  Promoting someone who does not engender respect or trust forms a weak link in the leadership level. 

And respect is one of those things like trust that cannot be demanded - only earned.


Ultimately, a strong and confident organization puts leaders in place that engender respect, not through level or title, but through good decisions and good people skills.  Given that you can have leadership at all levels, consider policies that empower them to use their judgment for the good of the company.  And remember, because management != leadership, you don't have to have a million managers in your company to get a lot of great work done.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Reminiscing About China

So that's basically China.  I'm amazed that I had so much to write.  I'm amazed that there are still little stories I didn't tell.  But now that it's over, here's a little table of contents of the adventures, which turned into a 18 part series:
I sure hope you all liked them.  If there's anything you think I missed and you think I should recount, let me know, and I'll be sure to blog it.  Also, if you want to see some beautiful photos from another denizen of Bus B, check out Ela's Pictures.

I was told to have a look at the TV series, "An Idiot Abroad."  In this show, Ricky Gervais sends an average Joe, named Karl Pilkington, around the world with the idea of sending him to exotic locales and gauging his reaction.

The very first episode, Karl is sent to China.  They do a great job of showing the culture from a western point of view.  And they're spot on.  I recommend that if you get a chance, you watch it too.  It's on Netflix, and is a great visualization of what I talked about here.

Entertainment in China

Ok, so one other thing we did while we were there is take in a couple shows.  And I was so excited, too.  I mean, this is the land of the super-flexible and talented artists of the Shanghai Circus.  The land of kung fu.

I mean, we were in for some real treats, right?

I didn't mention this during the post on the bus shopping, but one of the things our tour guide told us was that the Chinese government puts its best face forward to the world, selling the finest products that they make on the world market, and keeping the B grade stuff for the Chinese people.

I actually think this applies to the entertainment as well.  As entertained as I am by the Chinese performers I've seen in the states, I wasn't that impressed by the shows we saw.  Permit me to explain.

The first production we went to was the Kung Fu Panda show.  It was at a school for Kung Fu, and I think we were kind of watching their equivalent to a recital.  It wasn't typical recital bad, but it was super cheesy, and many of the performers were kids that were clearly getting better at their craft.  The story had something to do with Mr. Panda doing Kung Fu and trying to get up all in Mrs. Panda's fur. Or something.

It's so funny.  I didn't feel like finding out the name of the place where the Kung Fu Panda show was, but I realized I had a picture.  So yeah.  That place.
This sign showed the English translation of what was going on.  It was as Engrish as the rest of the signs in Beijing.
Well, that was Beijing's show.  On our last night, we got to go to a circus in Shanghai.  Having seen the Shanghai Circus at the Paramount a couple times, I was pretty excited.  I like that kind of Cirque du Soleil stuff.

Except again, I think the export was better.  The feller who was juggling the large vases kept dropping them, and more than once we caught other mistakes by the performers.  If it had been the first show of that type I'd seen, long before Cirque du Soleil, I might have really enjoyed it.

It was exciting, though when they dd the motorcycles in the murder-sphere-of-death bit.  They did that really well.

Either way, I wasn't that impressed by the Chinese performances I'd seen.  Like a tiger mom, I expected Asian perfection, but I think we got b-grade performances.  Could have just been the tour too.  Dunno, but I was far more impressed by the historical sights, the shopping, and the food than I was the entertainment.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tourism and Sights in China

China is a place with a deep and rich history.  No eight day tour was going to scratch the surface, but we did get some cultural flavor when we were there.  I've talked a lot about the culture through the products of China, but there were other sights, too.

For example, we did go to the Forbidden City in Beijing, and the Summer Palace.  We got some interesting pictures at each.  For example, at the Summer Palace was the giant rubber duck that's been traveling around the world.  It was there for National Day, which happens every October 1, and was just a week prior to our vacation, so I guess it was still there:
That's Brian, our tour guide.  And that duck is like three stories tall.  Biggest rubber duck I've ever seen.  And totally worth seeing.
Because National Day was so close, Tienanmen Square was also decked out with one of the biggest bouquets of flowers I've ever seen:
Girls, I know you like flowers, but this thing is also about three stories high, so you won't be getting this delivered through FTD.
Also note that this was taken in Tienanmen Square, across the street from the entrance to the Forbidden City.  Note how blue the sky is in the pictures.  Not a cloud, and no smog.  It was beautiful and fresh and wonderful.  I am well aware of how lucky we were to get such beautiful days in Beijing.

The gate to the Forbidden City.  You can see the giant portrait of Chairman Mao over the entrance.  Note the post in the foreground.  I't got a butt-ton of surveillance cameras on it.
Inside the Forbidden City.
You know, we also got to go to the Great Wall.  That was an adventure in itself.  Nicole had a little trouble making it up, and decided to wait for us on a landing instead of going on.  To be fair, it is an impressive structure that induces great amounts of vertigo due to its uneven steps and steep ascents.

It's interesting to note that on the Great Wall is a chain, and it appears to be a custom to bring a padlock and lock it to the chain.  These padlocks had initials and engravings and all kinds of stuff on them.  Kind of like a heavy metal version of the gum walls in San Francisco and Seattle.  See below

I was a little surprised not to see a skeleton dangling off a handcuff here.
That's right.  A Great Selfie.
We did go to a public park in Beijing.  There were thousands of people in this park, and there were lots of activities you could participate in.  We stopped and did Tai Chi with a group of people, and I played a little ball game with a local.  Some folks did something like Hacky Sack, while a group of girls played the cups song on the ground.  People were singing together en masse.  And there were lots of games of Go and Chinese Chess being played with a ton of people looking on at each game.

And there were groups like this every few feet along this bench for hundreds of feet.
And we visited the Temple of Heaven.  But this time, however, I was getting a bit exhausted at visiting cultural landmarks:
Temple of Heaven
For a bit of modern history, we visited the site of the Water Cube and the Birds Nest:

Mona wore that Birds Nest like a sombrero!
In Suzhou, we visited some beautiful gardens.  In one of these gardens, this woman was playing beautifully
Nicole is taking a picture. I'm taking a picture of her taking the picture.  That's fun.
One of the things we were taught about in Suzhou was about the round ports in the walls.  They are called Moon Gates, and once you see them in Chinese architecture, you'll see them everywhere.  That and the little lip at the door that you have to step over to get in to just about every old structure in China.  Those little lips apparently keep out evil, because evil can't hop.

In Hangzhou, we stopped off at a Buddhist temple for a few minutes.  We weren't there long, and they were closing down, but the place smelled heavily of incense.  Here's why. All those ashes in this giant cauldron are all incense sticks.  I imagine that this is about how Denver smells these days.

Getting lightheaded from the fumes.
What's funny is that after this, I don't really have many pictures of cultural stuff.  Granted, once we went to Shanghai, it wasn't so much about cultural activities, as Shanghai is a relatively western town.

But I don't think it was just that.  I think part of the reason I didn't take many pictures of scenery was that I was having too great a time with our tour group, who had by then all gelled into great friends.  As such, I think the cultural interest gave way to personal interest, and that was great by all of us.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Massage in China

One thing I heard about China before I went was that they have a massage culture.  That there's massage places all over the place, and that people often stop in for a massage after work, the way we might stop in to a bar for happy hour.

Nicole is a big fan of spa treatments and massage specifically, so I knew we'd have to sample.

On the first day there, our tour guide said that we could get a full hour massage treatment in our rooms for $30 (I think.  Boy, my memory of October is getting blurry; I'm glad I'm almost finished with my China series).  I jumped at the chance.

Nicole and I have done side-by-side massage a number of times.  It's fun, although being together doesn't usually matter much since massage is such an individual, internal, sensation/sensual thing.  For me, I'm always half or wholly asleep anyway.

Two ladies that spoke not a lick of English showed up at our hotel room that night.  They had us lie on the bed and got to work.  It was nice to do this in the hotel room.  I was so tired that I fell asleep, and don't remember a whole lot about that part of the experience experience.

After the horizontal massage, they had us each sit up at the edge of the bed.  They took what seemed to be like Walmart bags and filled them with hot water and herbs.  The water looked to be a brackish brown by the time they brought the full, steaming bag to us, and they had us put our feet in.  It was just herbed water, but in my very tired state it kinda looked like diarrhea and I was kinda grossed out.

That said, they tied the bags around our feet and let our feet soak, and it felt great, this making of the feet soup  After the soak, they massaged our feet, another very nice experience.  And that was about it.  A very nice, very cheap massage that we could just fall asleep after.

But that wasn't the only massage we got while in China.  When we got to Hangzhou, I asked the hotel about massage places.  They gave me directions to a place called Sha-na-na (yes, like the 70's tv show with Bowser, and no, you cannot make this stuff up).  It was only a couple blocks away, so after Nicole freshened up from the day, we walked over.

When we walked in, it was kinda like a restaurant.  They asked us, "Body or foot massage?" and followed that with "For two?" in a similar tone to what a hostess at a restaurant would use.  Yes for two.  Yes full body.  I think this massage was also $30, but for 90 minutes.

They escorted us to a private room.  It had three loungers in it separated by little end tables.  Nicole took the middle one, and I took the one to the right.  Someone came in and brought us tea.  Then they brought a little plate of of fruit for us to enjoy, including pieces of dragon fruit, which we really got to enjoy over the course of the trip.

The TV was on, tuned to a Chinese variety show that looked a cross between The Voice, America's Got Talent, and The Gong Show.  Lots of goofy silliness that we didn't understand, but at the same time kinda did.  Goofy humor is somewhat universal.

Then our massage artists came in, and they were very good looking.  A well-built hunky chunky monkey for Nicole, and a petite, cute tiny thing for me.  No kidding, this girl wasn't more than 90 pounds soaking wet.

And neither of them seemed to speak any English whatsoever.  Communication was limited to grunts and pantomime.  This was just fine with us.

Communication was bad enough that it took an embarrassingly long time to understand that my girl was telling me to get out of my chair and come sit on a stool so that she could work on my shoulders and back. I've got a long torso, so it's no surprise that once I was on the stool, this petite little thing had to get her own stool to stand on just to reach my shoulders.

No kidding, I felt like a hulking giant.

And once she was up there, she sure did a number on me.  This was deep tissue massage.  I'm pretty sure she massaged my lungs through my shoulders, given how hard she was pressing.  I pictured her behind me, lifting her entire body up after placing her elbows between my shoulders and neck, just to put the entire weight of her body on these two points.  Cirque style.

After the back rubs, he two massage artists brought in wooden buckets full of herbs and hot water.  That's right, we got to make the feet soup again!  And after the feet soup tenderized our feet meat, they started working on our feet.

My girl worked rather vigorously, rubbing the top of my foot pretty hard.  It hurt.  And after a while it hurt a lot.  I cringed and squirmed, but didn't say anything because I figured this was just me being a massage wuss. I mean, it's not like this little lady could cause any damage, right?

So we finished up our massage and headed out into the night, relaxed and feeling wonderful.  Feeling really happy to have experienced some of this massage culture.

Skip ahead to the next morning.  My foot kinda hurt when I woke up.  And then I had a look at it in the light of the bathroom.  This is how it looked:

That is not my natural feet color.  That is a colossal bruise.  
That is a massive bruise.  And it hurt.  For the whole rest of the trip.  The Chinese people have hard lives, in some ways, and we Americans have it cushy.  I don't know if a hardier foot would have stood up better to the massage, but I like to think this was a great reminder that my body is the way it is because we have it so good.

That was and will remain, however, the last foot massage I get in China.

You Should Leave Your Job

Here we are again.  I'm talking to you.  It's just us here, and no one is listening.  Clear your mind.  Take all your preconceived notions about what you were going to do today and toss them out the window.  What I'm going to say may shock you.

You should leave your job.  Soon.  I mean it.  Start looking today.

Look, you know and I know that life is too short to hate your workday.  Let's make a huge assumption: 8 hrs of work a day + 30 minutes lunch + 30 minutes * 2 for commute = 9.5 hrs of your 16 hour day.  That is 60% of your useful day.  If you eat or work longer or are further away from work, the numbers get worse. The numbers get better if you're willing to skimp on sleep for a longer useful day.

You know that every keystroke you give someone is a gift, right?  In this great presentation, Scott Hanselman suggests you check this out.  Are you giving the gift of your limited keystrokes to the right people?  For the right reasons?  Do those keystrokes match up with your values?  Are you giving gifts that others want and only you can provide or are you buying generic gifts that the recipient will ooze with "meh" over.

I've seen your situation before.  You're dark matter.  You're a 5:01 developer.  When you got to the organization you're in, you loved the first project you were put on.  You were hired specifically for that project, so it met your idea of what you'd be doing when you signed on.  You put in lots of time learning, showing people you were excited, showing you could be counted on to deliver.

You were enthusiastic.

But that was years ago.  That was a couple CTOs ago.  That was a couple technology strategy direction changes ago.  The organization has moved on and you've adapted to provide it value, but maybe your day-to-day is not what you wanted to do.  Shoot, it's a convenient commute.  The compensation's right.  Family health matters made it inconvenient to take on a change at that time.

You like what you did at the organization in the past, but now there's very little to do.  You're in maintenance mode for the product you were hired to build.  Management appetite for new development is nil because of cost cutting.  You've been told to keep the lights on.  Leadership doesn't want to spend time adding new features because they would rather buy a replacement system, but never seem to actually complete the research to buy that replacement, resulting in continued use of subpar tools, and missing opportunities to sharpen developer chops.

You're a developer, but because of "budgetary constraints", the organization is not allowed to staff a team that develops software appropriately.  So you are doing business analysis or QA, because there's no one in those roles.  In agile teams that's something that's expected of everyone, but your projects aren't agile.  You spend a lot of time writing up documentation that never gets used or read.

The excellent team you signed on with?  Excellent teams are an unstable equilibrium.  If you were on a tiger team of development that does everything right, did your organization split it up to "seed" the talent in multiple places, not realizing that it's the team that did things right, not the individuals?  Great people working on excellent teams get recruited to join other excellent teams.  So maybe your team fell victim to entropy.

So that team is no longer.  Maybe that was many reorganizations ago, before many different sets of leadership came in and tried to optimize output of a fixed group of resources.

Maybe your organization favors butt-in-seat over other productivity metrics.  For that reason, you can't work from home, contributing to that feeling of wasted commute time.  Collaborative technology is discussed, and maybe even experimented with, but because not enough people are using it, it's never optimized.  Time-shifting is not allowed to enable you to work at your most productive times.

Maybe you're on a support rotation.  That wasn't in the original sign-on agreement, but "You know... We all have to be team players", and you don't really mind since it's not all that often.  Although when it does, even though comp time should be an expectation, it's never discussed.

Yeah, maybe this describes your situation.  Maybe only some of it does.  If it does, however, you should leave your job.

But maybe you're not convinced to move.  You're too complacent.  You're comfy.  This job thing is a solved problem and you don't think you'll ever really need to look for another one.  You can coast out your career on your current skill set.

Maybe, but I've put together a few signs that it might be time to consider moving on.

  • Don't like working on what you're working on
  • Don't like who you're working with 
  • Don't like your immediate manager
  • Don't feel as if the discourse is civil or nonconfrontational 
  • Don't believe in management's vision or goals
  • Don't believe in your management's ability to make good decisions
  • Don't feel valued for your contributions 
  • Don't feel the tasks in front of you are very exciting
  • Don't feel focused enough on any one thing
  • Don't have clear reporting structures; have overmatrixed teams
  • Don't feel like your organization can prioritize
  • Don't feel like productivity is as important as appearance
  • Don't feel like the organization is moving forward quickly
  • Don't feel like the organization makes data-based decisions 
I read the following as symptoms of organizational dysfunction.  To change any one of these is like moving a cultural mountain and require clarity of vision and charismatic leadership from the very top.  I don't think that mid-level management in any organization can change these effectively.  If you recognize a lot of these, it may not be just your position in jeopardy; the whole company may be in trouble long-term.

  • Very peaked/deep org structures indicate a problem with reporting.  Need a low ratio of managers/doers.
  • Lack of information flow
  • Lack of recognition
  • Lack of celebration for hires or promotions
  • Lack of visible employee enthusiasm
  • Lack of unity of processes across divisions
  • Too many junk drawers 
  • Too much reliance on transition plans (which don't work) 
  • Lots of Not Invented Here silos of experience 
  • Headcount is kept flat regardless of technical investment or debt reduction 
So if any of this resonates with you, consider leaving your current gig.  Fast.  There is too much demand in the development industry to spend time in an organization where you're not happy.  Some organizations just don't get it, but there are plenty that do.  Find one and let the ones that do hire unenthusiastic, unmotivated shlubs to barely work until they go out of business or get sold to a competitor.

If all of this resonates with you, call a recruiter today.  Shoot, call me.  I know enough recruiters and folks at good places to be a good resource, and I'm happy to help you find your passion.  If you just want to talk, I'm here too. You'd do well to find yourself a mentor, too.

And if you're happy with your gig, good on you.  Come on out and be part of the community.

I just want you to be happy.  Yes you.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Pooping in China

Oh boy, I'll bet you're thinking.  Today we get to talk about poo.  You can imagine we're probably going to get a bit... biological..., so if that kind of stuff offends you, please run to safety.  There may even be some ugly visual details in one of the pictures, so if you're eating chocolate pudding or some nutty fudge, please consider stopping before reading on.

But I'm not kidding, questions about the bathrooms are the most numerous I get asked about the trip to China.  More specifically, I get asked, "So... Did you use one of them squat toilets?"

First, I have to talk about what a squat toilet is.  I sure didn't know, and when I found out, I'm pretty sure I didn't think such a thing would exist in a modern society.  Almost like that would be the definition of "modern society" implicitly.

Restrooms in China are decidedly and deucedly different from the ones anywhere else I've ever been.  Sure, I've only ever been to North America and Europe before, but that's enough places to figure that the design of the toilet is pretty much a world standard.  This is not what you get in China, and it doesn't end in squat toilets.

Squat Toilets

Ok, so for those not in the know, a squat toilet is a little porcelain hole in the floor flush to the ground (oh, I don't even know if that pun was intended).  Beside the hole in the ground, along each side, are often obvious little non-skid pads on which to place your feet.  Anyone that would typically use a toilet in the sitting position would instead place a foot on each non-skid pad and then pop a squat, hovering over the hole and doing your business.  Or as women tend to know this move, "the rock concert".

And so I don't suspend the punch line too long - no, I didn't use one.  I didn't avoid them, per se.  Whenever the urge was there, the squat toilet was not my only option.

Now that I'm thinking about it, I feel pretty lucky about that.  I didn't have to worry about testing my squatting prowess.  Given that I wasn't in particularly great shape during the trip, I'm not sure my thighs would have held out.  I can only imagine the embarrassment of toppling over in the stall while trying to do your business, and the idea of rolling onto the floor in a Chinese bathroom makes me mentally retch a bit.

Also, I'm not sure if I got to talk with this about the folks that were with us that did have to squatpop.  If any of you are reading this, are you supposed to remove your pants?  I would guess not, since you'd have to remove your shoes to do that, and I can't imagine standing barefoot on those little pads or the bare stall floor.

But if you don't take off your pants, then aim becomes more important.  I would have worried about aim while butt-naked, but with clothing as potential splash damage, I would probably freak out.  I mean, I know that we're talking about point-blank range here, but visibility isn't very good, at least for a fella my size.

Yup.  That's it.  That's a toilet.  Way down there by the floor.  Oh, and the paper doesn't go down.  It goes in the little bin.  That probably made the whole experience even worse for me.

"Why is there a picture of a microscope on this stall door," I asked.  Oh wait, that's a little guy pooping.  Well, at least they got the number right...
Note, I think squatting is supposed to be better for you.  Something about the alignment of the rectum if I recall correctly.  In fact, check this article.  What nice little cartoon images!

Toilet Paper

I think it may have been Johnnie that first told me about this, but public toilets in China do not universally provide toilet paper.  This... I couldn't even imagine.  I mean, really, what if you're out and about with an emergency, and you have nothing.  What if no stranger can spare a square?  Or doesn't understand your language?  Squat down, do your biz, and walk away?

In China, it's apparently BYOTP.  No shit.  Literally.  BYOTP or no shit.  That or make sure you have plenty of oxi-clean with bleach at home.  Maybe this is why there are so many Chinese laundromats?

So it's not ubiquitous, no.  You do have to carry some in case of "emergencies", and it's not like you see a lot of Taco Bell restaurants there.  Maybe that's why.  To minimize emergencies...

Further, even if you do remember to bring your own paper, you can't flush it.  I don't know why exactly, but in each little stall there's a little garbage can where you dispose of the toxic discards.  See the picture above, and you'll see what I mean.

So I guess that's why the public toilets smelled so bad.

Now some bathrooms were monogenderous, but some had a little mixigenderous vestibule prior to branching off to two separate areas.  This little antechamber generally had a few sinks and in a rare occasion, a big roll of communal toilet paper that you could grab from.

This idea of a communal toilet paper seemed, in general, to beat the idea of not having to carry your own, but I got to thinking.  What if you grabbed too little?  I don't know about anyone else, but I never seem to know exactly how much I'm going to need in a given two-session.

The whole thing just made me paranoid.  Maybe that's why I didn't have to use the squatters.  Maybe the Duke was scared.  Maybe the Duke was hiding.

Toddlers Learning to Poop

This really doesn't fit anywhere else in any of the other stories, but since it is relevant to pooping, I'll relay it here.  In China, we saw a number of toddlers walking around in what looked to be assless chaps.  They were pants that had no crotch in them, and it's my understanding that they're used to toilet train kids. I think this is the same school of philosophy that Nicole once suggested we use for Gamble, where we let him wander around in the backyard naked until he let loose, so that we could help him identify that feeling.  If we did that, I don't recall.

Anyway, I didn't see them often, but Nicole spotted them a couple times.  I think she actually saw once where they were "in use", as in, the kid started to throw a deuce and mom scooped him up and held him over the bushes.  I know we saw a kid wearing them in the Suzhou marketplace too!

If you can't imagine what these look like I found this article.  Needless to say, when these pants were in use, I wasn't rushing over there with a camera...


Either way, I can say that while I'm generally pretty happy to be a man, with all its privileges, I was even happier while in China.  Standing to pee rules.

I am not sure if this was temporary storage or just a urinal "out of order" sign.
I was also pretty happy to be a tourist.  The hotels we stayed in on our tour were kinda fancy, and that means that they all had regular western toilets and regular western toilet paper rolls right there in the stall. And that made for a happy chappy.

Pooping in China is an adventure in itself.

Stop Punching Yourself in the Junk

When you think of the Hippocratic Oath, you may think, "First, do no harm."  If you go to the Wikipedia article, as I did, when looking it up because it's relevant to my topic here, you'll see that translation of the oath contains no such verbiage.

I was shocked to see this, but further research explained where the phrase actually comes from, which I leave as an exercise to the reader.

The point is that I was thinking of it in the context of business.  If you're looking to take action in a business, the first thing you want to make sure is that taking action is better than doing nothing.

You see examples of this when senior or executive leadership turns over in an organization.  The strategy may be sound, having been made in a collaborative way, but the instant the new leader steps in, every existing direction or strategy is obviously the problem.  You can often see a lot of counterproductive churn during these transitions, and if you have high turnover, the price of change for change's sake can be quite high indeed.

Sure, sometimes a company is in a legitimately bad situation, but all the proactive things you might do will only make things worse.  Sometimes, time is the only way to get through a tough scenario.

But my thoughts really didn't stop there.

We've all heard of the stop-doings: things an organization can do to improve its standing in the world by stopping.  A good example might be manual process steps that don't provide any value and that can be easily automated.  Maybe documents are routed through extra hands that they needn't be.  Maybe an old monitoring system is consuming CPU cycles when the thing it was monitoring has been gone for years.

Whatever it is, you can make positive steps forward using stop-doings.

There's a certain breed of stop-doings that I've seen a lot of in the past, and that's what I've been thinking about most recently.  I call these things "punching yourself in the junk."

An organization is punching itself in the junk any time it causes to happen, or through inaction allows to happen, any net-negative action by a bad actor in the ranks.

Let's say you have an individual in management that is, say, abusive to women.  Maybe not overtly, but through subtle and not so subtle ways, this individual constantly undermines female employees, using language to put them down, or pass them over.  Let's even say it's a relatively obvious pattern that this individual does this consistently, yet due to organizational politics, folks look the other way.

In that case, you could envision strong women not wanting to be put down or belittled by such a supervisor, and you might start to see some turnover in that particular demographic, which not only hurts diversity in the short term, but then forever brands the organization as misogynistic in certain circles, all because of one particular individual.

That looking the other way while a single individual harms either the reputation, morale, or finances of the organization, that's what I call a punch in the junk.  It's totally avoidable, self-inflicted harm.

Now this is an extreme example, and made up to demonstrate this idea that maybe, just maybe, if an organization is struggling in one department or area, special effort should be taken to undergo a thorough audit of the area, to make sure that the damage to the health and welfare of the organization is not coming from within.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Getting Around in China

So I know next to nothing about getting around in China.  Except maybe that it's terrifying, and I can't imagine getting around there any way other than what we did.

The Bus

We were on a tour.  We were bussed everywhere in relative luxury.  Well, I would have called it luxurious if there had been a toilet in the bus.  But bathrooms are almost an unknown luxury, and a topic of a future post to themselves.

We saw China through the windows of the bus.  Some stories are best told in pictures:

Yes, that's a beggar.  On the ground.  Face down.  With one leg.   This is not the only beggar in this condition we saw.
Out the window, we saw much interesting architecture.  And no real way to know what all of it was.
There was lots of space at the back of the bus.  Mona had room to stretch out.
The buses are huge, and the mirrors they use that stick out way into the front amused me.
Non-bus vehicles and traffic

The population density in China is ridiculous.  Over the top.  You can't imagine it if you've not seen it.  In Beijing, the roads are bumper to bumper traffic all over the city, pretty much all day long.  Buses, cars, all moving along at a decent pace, never as jammed as you'd think.  But it's very dense.

It's unclear whether it's because of the cost of cars, the density of traffic, the difficulty of navigation, a combination or something else entirely that drives it, but a lot of people drive scooters or bicycles instead of cars.  There were huge scooter drop off locations all over the place (I hesitate to call them parking lots, since they didn't look all that organized), and same with bicycles.  

Add to that the number of crazy vehicle hybrids.  We saw all manner of bicycle/scooter/auto hybrids. Franken-vehicles that boggled the mind.  Suffice it to say that traffic was incomprehensible to a westerner, and I'm sure glad we were on the bus. See some examples below:
Bicycle and scooter travel is so common they have their own light.  Note the green bike sign above the green pedestrian sign.
This feller's riding in the bike lane.  Many times the bike lane was fenced off as a separate lane.  Many times not.
And what the heck is this monstrous thing?  I'll tell you, it's no Elio... There were dozens of variations on the bike/car hybrid.
Ok, so this intersection makes no sense to me.  I could never drive here.  Or ride a bike.  Or pedestrian.
The Cab

Hoo boy, we only rode in one cab.  It was from the hotel to the Chinatown in Shanghai.  It was a white knuckler for sure, and being in the front seat made me so nervous.  The driver got us there safe, but I'm not hankering to get in another cab in China.  That stuff is scary from street level.

Me in the suicide seat with Kevin, Sarah, and Nicole in the back.  
Out the window of the cab.  Yes that's a bicycle under that enormous haul.  All those goofy pictures on the internet of people with stuff piled high on their vehicle or bike?  Yeah, those could all be taken in China.
Another bike just laden with stuff.
You'd think with all the craziness there would be accidents everywhere making it worse.  But there wasn't. We didn't really see any accidents that I recall.

Well, except that one.

While we were waiting to get back on our bus in Hangzhou, we were standing on the sidewalk when there was some commotion.  A scooter had slammed into a pedestrian crossing the street.  I didn't see it, but some in our group did, and it sounds like it was the pedestrian not paying attention.  Evenso, the scooter operator just nonchalantly sped away.

But that was it, and that wraps up our little discussion about Chinese traffic.  Next up, let's talk about toilets, people!