But one thing I have found really helps me continue to learn is reading, or rather these days it's listening. Audio books have really done a great job keeping me steadily racking up books and doing it while sitting in traffic. It's brilliant, although since a voice actor has to be paid, it tends to more expensive than just buying ebooks on sale.
For the Memorial Day post I'll discuss one I just finished. The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin [Amazon].
The authors mention that though there are many milestone battles across U.S. Marine history, four are specifically recognized at the National Museum of the Marine Corps (note that this was as of the time of the book's publication in 2009).
- Belleau Wood: The site of brutal infantry fighting in WWI's France
- Iwo Jima: The seminal Marine engagement in WWII's Pacific theater, where marines fought to take an island. The image of marines atop Mt. Suribachi raising the U.S. flag is perhaps the most famous of all marine images.
- Khe Sanh: The Vietnam conflict featured countless engagements for the U.S. Marines, all of them involving fierce combat, many of them sieges in urban locales (Hue) or at firebases in the country. One of the best battles I'd read of was not an action involving major troop concentrations, but a very intimate and personal battle for then Captain John Ripley as he nearly alone took down a bridge to stymie the movement of enemy armor. It's detailed nicely in the book The Bridge at Dong Ha by John Grider Miller [Amazon]. Having to pick a single engagement to represent the Marine Corps in Vietnam is maybe an even tougher call than having to pick one for WWII, but the siege at Khe San gets it probably due to the size of the battle and the prominence of the marines as the primary force.
- Fox Hill: Finally, the long winded blogger gets to the point and the subject of the book is this roughly week-long battle between the marines and Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) in the Korean conflict. Here, heavily outnumbered marines fought off numerous attacks to hold a part of the Toktong Pass, a key conduit for the extraction of the U.S. forces at the Chosin Reservoir to the north.
In short, it's a great book. It seems to capture the heart of several themes the U.S. Marine Corps typify. The fight against odds, making do with less, "next man up", and of course, always faithful. Hearing of the battles, the authors draw parallels with the Alamo because of the heavy numerical deficiency the marines faced and the encirclement by the CCF. But listening to the stories of frostbite, lice, lack of needed equipment, and the regular failure of the equipment they had, I was struck by the similarity of the marines to the Germans fighting the Russians on WWII's eastern front. In both cases, certain overconfident and misinformed leaders put men into disadvantaged positions with inappropriate gear in unexpectedly harsh terrain and weather. The Chosin marines in the book suffered dearly but at least got to leave after moving south. The Germans had to deal with multiple years and seasons of tough Russian weather as both the winters and the summers sucked.
How do I tie this to IT themes? Well, a good writer can pull a symbolism out of his butt at a moment's notice and a bad one can pull dozens of them, so here goes.
- Clueless leaders. The U.S. forces in the Korean conflict were headed by Army Major General Edward Almond and the reports are that he clashed often with Marine General Oliver P. Smith. Smith believed Almond underestimated the CCF strength and executed a more cautious approach to moving troops north. Some criticize this and believed it left weaker positions north, but another narrative says these decisions may have saved even larger losses for the U.S. X Corps. In any event, Smith was right about the CCF being stronger than Almond expected. As for the rest I don't know, I wasn't there. But Almond casually assuming amphibious assaults will be easy despite never having been involved in one sounds a lot like project planners that assume software development can be done easily within a timeline pulled out of their asses.
- Poor estimates. See point above.
- Poor risk management. Like the Germans before them in Russia, the Americans didn't seem ready for fighting in the extreme cold. They didn't have gear that would keep them warm and dry and stave off debilitating frostbite. They also had to endure malfunctioning equipment; rifles would not fire because lubricants would turn to gel, bolts would freeze or get blocked by ice. Grenades would fail to detonate. Food was frozen solid. Resupply was possible by air drop but sometimes the items in the drops were useless to the soldiers. At multiple levels of IT, I see people generally assuming that development will follow the "happy path" of the project timeline. This often puts them in a position where they are unable to react quickly to contingencies. Instead of getting agreement with stakeholders beforehand on items that can be postponed based on priority, evaluating a threshold where a project should be canceled and given a chance to regroup, or building in extra time (I've seen experienced pros say to take any engineering estimate and double it and add 20%) they resort to the same three tactics: go over budget, go over time, or throw in extra uneducated resources late in the game.
- Esprit de corps: As is often the case with military engagements, the thing that unites fighting men and keeps them going against poor odds is the belief in their country or system, and especially belief in each other. I think that's true of a lot of good teams, military or civilian.
Tonight, it'll be a shot of tequila for the men of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division.