Saturday, July 04, 2015

Book Review: A Technologist's Guide to Career Advancement by John Schneider

I saw someone mention this book in an article comment and bought it as it looked interesting. I also posted a review at Amazon but wanted to write a more detailed review here.

Advice from an IT Success

John Schneider has had an eventful and successful career in technology, working his way up to executive levels. This book couches itself as a career guide specifically for technology workers. I didn't find a whole lot that was specific to technology; there is a lot of great advice in this book for pretty much anyone. Schneider writes with an easy style and uses a lot of humor and the book is a fairly quick read. I think it's probably a good book for most people who want to know how to stand out in any industry, although it's likely a bit better value for younger people who have time to put into play the things Schneider recommends.

IT People Have an Edge?

The one conceit Schneider carries that's specific to tech workers is that you can do most of the other jobs in the company but the other people couldn't do yours.

This is often true but I would prefer that it not be presented as an absolute, because I've met my share of IT people that probably couldn't do other people's jobs, much less their own. And I've met smart folks outside IT that could be great in it.

But I do like the gist of what he's getting at because it matches an observation I've made about experienced IT teams: they represent an interesting foci of business and data. That is, they are people that understand the technology, but have also probably picked up knowledge of the company's business and its clients. They also are positioned to recognize the gaps between departments that need to use the same data. That puts them in a unique position to solve problems and improve the company.

As companies grow, they naturally tend to fragment and become a collection of silos, each narrowly focused on its specific function. This is a dangerous structure that compromises efficiency, ironically the very thing that specialization is supposed to provide. It becomes inefficient because people begin working in a vacuum and lose insight into why a task is done and how it affects others downstream in the process ecosystem. Communication tends to suffer too as people get busy doing their own things and this gradually reinforces both the distance between groups and the calcification of process quirks that might have been workarounds for something that was a problem once but might have since changed. And without an oversight to recognize this condition and an agent to promote improvement, companies (even if still solvent) eventually suffer atrophy. Teams become political and defensive, trying to justify their existence and role, even if they'd be better somewhere else.

The agents of change would ideally be managers and business analysts. But we know this isn't the case; higher management typically does not listen to the things their subordinates are telling them. They've evolved into selfish entities that cater to self preservation and shield themselves behind barriers of elitist cliques and faulty assumptions that they, and not the customer, are the profit center.

Killing Sacred Cows

Schneider isn't shy about challenging conventional career wisdom.

He disagrees with some things that are considered industry best practices, notably the advice on accepting a counter offer when resigning. The general rule is that you don't accept them. If there were fundamental problems at the job that caused you to want to resign, are they really going to change if you accept the counter offer? Schneider does acknowledge that if a workplace is really dreadful you should just leave, but then goes on to say the things you've heard about taking a counter offer are "BS" and taking one is just fine. I too will concede that if the parties involved are mature consenting adults and not children that can hold grudges, it might be ok.

But people are human beings and both the company, the managers, and your peers will remember what's transpired (you might try to keep it a secret, but things have a way of getting out). Ultimately, if you had to threaten to leave in order to get what you want, is that really the kind of place you want to stay? These are legitimate caveats to accepting a counter offer and Schneider is perhaps a bit to flippant about them; in addition when he calls them "BS" he doesn't really provide an argument about the specifics of why they are.

He also seems to value the effort one could put into acquiring certifications. I think a lot of experienced IT staffers will tell you different things here. In my career I've managed to do well without certifications. Schneider feels they will be useful in helping you advance in the organization and discounts the value of seniority; that may be true in some companies. But my personal experience is that certs are best as differentiators in getting hired, not promoted. Once you're in an organization, promotions are likely to be based on a combination of things such as performance, politics, and yes, seniority. Often, very much about politics and seniority.

Higher Education

He recommends getting an MBA; not bad advice, but there's more to this than meets the eye. He casually shoots down several excuses people might use to not get one when some of them are actually really good reasons. Cost, for example. If you want to go to a prestigious program, it might cost you the amount of a nice house; I would not so flippantly disregard this barrier. And, in my experience, the value of an MBA is like that of a cert. It's probably a great way to get your foot in the door, but advancing beyond that point will depend on performance, politics, and well, seniority, though I do see a distressing trend today to put young and inexperienced people into positions of power where they can destroy companies largely because they have an MBA and are experts at cost cutting, Mark Hurd-style. So maybe Schneider is right about that after all.

Are Things Different Now?

I don't doubt that Schneider is a successful and brilliant guy and probably a good boss too, if he practices what he preaches. However, I couldn't shake the feeling at times that he's led a bit of a charmed life. His thoughts about certs, seniority, and MBAs make me feel that he's been fortunate to traverse most of his career through meritocracies. But I'm certain I'm not alone as an IT staffer that's recognized technology workers have become the contemporary blue collar workers of the world. IT shops are seen as costs, not strategic components, by most companies. As a result IT people are constrained by a very thick ceiling barring them from the highest leadership positions (roles open to operations, sales, engineering, marketing, and even accounting) where they could bring their blend and breadth of business and systems knowledge together to truly help a company forge strategic initiatives in intelligent cost cutting rather than mere layoffs and the practice of being cheap at the expense of efficiency.

All this to say that while Schneider's advice is still overall very good, it may have had more effectiveness before IT departments evolved into the bastard stepchildren of a companies today, a time before PMP's started telling us to forego innovation for smaller and more easily measured changes. A time when workers were allowed to think.

A Word about Surveillance

Happy Fourth of July. I've got something to say about a controversial subject on a day the United States likes to reserve for a celebration of freedom.

It's common for ivory tower dwellers to scream about surveillance being a violation of privacy. And taken to pedantic extremes, they are correct. It certainly seems wrong to have your communications monitored and your actions tracked without your knowledge and consent.

People who have spent much of their lives in the ivory tower though are often challenged when it comes to separating fantasy from reality. The unfortunate reality is that humans are flawed; we will be dishonest for a number of reasons, we will succumb to base emotions, we allow hate and disrespect into our lives. We murder, steal, and cheat.

Perhaps that would be acceptable if our transgressions would hurt only ourselves but they don't. They infringe on the rights of others, and the idyllic image of a world totally "free" and totally "equal" is one that any reasonable and sane human understands is near impossible.

While it's easy to take the side of freedom in an argument, most people arguing for unbridled freedom are making assumptions that humans will always do the right thing. That assumption's been proven false since day one. It is more challenging to empathize with the other side. What would someone supporting surveillance say?

We can start with some true stories. I have a friend whose daughter lost her iPhone. But they'd installed a tracking app on it, and were able to find its location. My friend drove to the location, a residential address, and rang the doorbell. A young boy answered, and my friend said, "Call your parents over because I'd like to talk to them about the iPhone you stole." The boy was understandably shocked. When his mother called out, "Who's at the door," he responded with, "I've got it," and then surrendered the iPhone to my friend. Later, my friend proudly proclaimed, "I'm Batman!"

Here's another one. I recently was involved in an auto accident. A lady at a train crossing saw the crossing lights start to flash, and she braked abruptly, perhaps two to three car lengths ahead of the stopping line where you would expect stopping cars to line up. I jammed on my brakes in response, and was able to stop without hitting her. The young man following us was not able to stop and rear-ended my vehicle. The damage was mild and no one was hurt. We exchanged insurance information and I took several pictures of the scene, including a photo of the rear of the other vehicle. I did that to get the license plate, but it turns out it was a good idea because it shows no damage to the other vehicle's rear.

We then cleared the traffic pattern. The other driver seemed very nice and I didn't expect any problems. After filing a report with the other driver's insurance company, I found he lied about the incident, saying there was a third car involved that hit him from behind and pushed him into me. The insurance company stood by him because there was no other witness, even with my picture showing there was no impact damage to his vehicle. So to repair my vehicle I must now pay my deductible and my insurance company will pay the remainder. If the other guy had told the truth, everything would be covered by his insurance. What a pain in the ass.

The evidence I have should help my insurance company go after the other guy's insurance company and recover the costs, but why should they have to? Gee, you know what would have been really awesome here? A bit of footage from a traffic camera showing what happened. Oh, but that would have been more of the evil surveillance wouldn't it?

These are just simple personal anecdotes. You can find many stories of how traffic cameras and store cameras have helped uncover the truth about an incident where someone is lying. And when a criminal is caught, the people screaming for freedom from surveillance don't then go scream about the criminal being wronged, do they?

I sure hope they don't, because it means they do understand the challenge of navigating the line between freedom and security. They're quick to quote Benjamin Franklin, when Franklin said that a society willing to give up freedom for temporary security deserves neither freedom or security. But Mr. Franklin said that a LONG time ago and times have changed, people haven't. And old wily Ben Franklin was pretty smart...look carefully at the quote. He notes it is "temporary security" that a compromise of freedom gives, a fact that many drop from the quote when referring to it. So what would the price of more lasting security be?

Ask yourself this: at what point does a lack of security begin to infringe on freedom? If you cannot navigate in a society without your every step being compromised by the dishonest, how free are you? Where do you find fertile ground for enterprise? For family? The point I'm getting at here is that the people demanding total freedom incorrectly assume that freedom and security are mutually exclusive. Freedom and security are indeed strange partners, sometimes at odds but also sometimes allies. And when there's an altercation between them, how do we resolve it? Usually, we depend on that most neutral of third parties: the truth.

I'm not talking in absolutes; wisdom has taught me that a position of an absolute is usually wrong. And I remember my literature too, and would prefer not to be Winston Smith, screwing my girlfriend in a field while filmed by cameras in wheat stalks. But the world is an imperfect place, and in the battle to make it a better and more just one, the truth has a place.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day Post 2015

Two years ago I posted after reading Chris Kyle's American Sniper. Today I finished watching the Clint Eastwood-directed movie. Today I'll share a few thoughts.

First, there's no way a two hour movie can fully capture the thoughts in the book. And it's rare when a movie captures well the spirit of the source material. The movie here is a heavily abbreviated version of the book's story. It also takes the usual artistic license to embellish the drama, or outright create it where there might not have been any.

Still, Eastwood made this movie knowing things Kyle could not have at the time Kyle wrote his book. The most important one being that Kyle's life would end in early 2013. And this is a powerful tool in story telling. Some writers will tell you that the hardest things to write are the beginnings and endings of a story; with the death of Kyle, Eastwood got built-in ending, and I think he uses it to good effect. Where the book was a slice of Kyle's life, describing some of his youth and life in the military, Eastwood's movie seems more a cautionary tale about war and the different ways it can effect people.

The combat scenes are good, except that I don't remember them being described in much detail in Kyle's book. But it's when Eastwood moves away from the book as scaffolding and fills in the blanks where it picks up it's best points. The movie does a good job replicating the eerie intimacy a sniper has with his targets, being farther away from them yet able to see more through scopes than the troops that are closer.

And when the actors are showing Kyle's estrangement from civilian life when he returns home, they're giving us something Kyle, who rarely comes across in his book as anything other than calm and in control, could probably not share as well as his wife could.

There's also something clever done as each of Kyle's tours is introduced. The equipment shown evolves with the passage of time. Early on we see Hummers, by the end, we see MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush protected) trucks and drones.

Unfortunately, it's when the movie casually tries to keep itself tied to the book that it falls. Kyle wrote with conviction about his friendships and his love for his fellow soldiers. The movie doesn't really bring into focus any of the peripheral characters. Even if they weren't made of cardboard we see so little of them that we don't really develop any affinity. Some film critics felt this same way about Kyle's wife, Taya, but I thought the actress did pretty well here with the moments she was given.

Aside from the biographical value of the film, I think the best message to be taken from the film is that war affects people in many ways. Sebastian Junger's book, War, also talks about this. Although PTSD is a more common term now, we're still learning a lot about it and how to deal with it.

One of the reviews I read said that although the film, like Kyle's book, is wrapped largely in jingoistic gloss, it is slyly also a an anti-war movie. "Slyly"? If you need a movie to convince you war is a terrible thing, you're an idiot. But aside from that, there are indeed a couple moments where I thought Eastwood challenged some of Kyle's beliefs. In his book, Kyle is proud to be a redneck of the "god, country, and family" philosophy, and this is mentioned too in the movie. But there is a quick scene where a more pensive teammate questions the US efforts. And I like the way it was portrayed; the actor doesn't spout off some speech written by some liberal ivory tower resident. Instead, when Kyle tells him the enemy is savage and evil, he simply responds with a non-committal, "Ok." And the delivery of his response was perfect, seeing it in print can't do it justice. It was said in a resigned tone, as if he knew he wasn't going to change Kyle's mind but also that while some of what Kyle said was true he had doubts about the US approach.

The movie finishes on the note that it should. In the same way that Unforgiven refused to revel in the act of killing, American Sniper ends quietly, with images that are respectful and yet deeply somber.

Friday, May 08, 2015

A TrueCar Experience

I'm deviating from my normal subjects to share an experience that might be useful for some people. I purchased a car through TrueCar and this is my review of the experience. When discussing the auto industry, I don't know how you can fully relate the experience without some profanity, so if you can't hack some colorful language, please don't read this.

Let me start first by saying I don't expect a business to run at a loss. But don't take advantage of my decency, and also don't blame me for the car buying model which has been around since before I was born and has a history of controversy. The salespeople that complain about consumer attitudes are sort of like the shyster lawyers that complain about the way they're guys are sleeping in the beds you made.

The Old Way

Buying my first car, back in 1990, was a grueling experience. Visiting dealership after dealership I endured a litany of lies and deceit. The process was almost the same at all of them. I would go in, get a test drive, then get pounded on sometimes for hours while we talked about a price. Then I would get frustrated and leave, without a car.

Then I would later see the same car I wanted advertised in a dealership newspaper ad for the same price I originally said I could pay.

In other words, car sales folk are right up there with lawyers when it comes to being lying sacks of shit (not all of them, but a high percentage of the ones I dealt with...maybe I just got unlucky and didn't get to work with all you angelic sales people out there). I'm sure most of us have heard these great lines:
  • We really want to see you in that car
  • I really want to be your salesman
  • That car won't be here next week, you have to buy it today
  • I can't sell it for that, but we're not far from a deal
  • Boy, this is your lucky day
  • I'll run it by my manager
  • Have you heard of rust proofing?
  • I'm losing money on this deal


The Three Battles

When you buy a car, you are potentially engaging in a three stage war, where some or all of the following apply:
  • The price of the vehicle being purchased
  • The value of the trade-in
  • Financing/warranties

The New Way

Thanks to the Internet, the average consumer can go into battle better prepared. There are many resources to help you not only find a good vehicle but that can provide information on pricing of both new and used vehicles and the current interest rates. But it doesn't solve everything; not until you can configure and buy off the internet and get a fair value on trade-in all via the online shopping basket will it ever fully remove the dirty human element.

But even though my recent experiences with buying a car are still disappointing in ways, I think it is an improvement. And TrueCar is a big part of that, essentially taking the pain out of the first battle. You identify and configure the car you are interested in at the TrueCar site, then get to decide which dealers you will send your data to (my favorite part, because you can pre-screen out dealerships that are too far away or that aren't in your price range), and then engage those dealers.

TrueCar wasn't the first to recognize that people didn't enjoy the hours-long pounding they were taking in car salesmen's offices. GM's Saturn line sold cars with a firm sticker price. And dealerships like Texas Direct Auto and CarMax work with no-haggle pricing you can see over the Internet.

The Verdict

TrueCar did its part well for me in my last purchasing experience. I got a quote in advance from a participating dealership that was honored without argument. Note that the initial quote you get from TrueCar may not be fully accurate, and TrueCar also puts language on your quote saying it is an estimate. If the dealership doesn't have an exact match for your configuration, you may get an alternative of the same trim that has some different options, and you will pay for those options, but your sales person should be able to send you that updated TrueCar quote via email before you even visit the dealership.

So if TrueCar's goal was to save me the headache of the first battle, it succeeded. If its goal was to bring more transparency into the auto buying process...well, that's debatable. Car dealerships are still sleazy and still try to go cheap on your trade-in and still try to push an extended warranty at an inflated price until you say you're not interested and then they'll cut the price on it so deeply it's practically an insult.

There's also the whole debate over what a dealer's cost really is. Between discounts for volume buyers, dealer holdbacks, and other corporate incentives, there are still many unknowns in the car sales game...well, unknowns to you, that is. In fact, TrueCar has evolved over time and is different today than it was a couple years ago when it used to list the dealer cost in its quotes. There are some great articles online about the trouble this caused it with dealerships (at,, and and how the company has since modified how it operates.

My salesman actually showed me a dealer invoice slip that indicated my TrueCar price was several hundred dollars below dealer invoice, but you know, with PowerPoint I can balance the US budget too, so I'm not putting much stock in that. The finance guy said the dealership was losing $3000 on my purchase, but the TrueCar price was $3000 below the MSRP, not the dealer invoice, so one or both of them are likely, ahem, exaggerating. If they were indeed losing money on the deal, the only logical reasons for it I could think of were 1) they weren't losing much and 2) I bought a 2015 model not long before the 2016 models would show up, so they wanted to move inventory or 3) they really weren't losing money (the link in the last paragraph notes that after TrueCar changed its approach, dealership gains on a vehicle sale increased). Either way, I had nothing to do with that price, it was determined by TrueCar (or TrueCar and the dealership together), so the dealership complaining to me about the price is silly.

Ultimately, while I'm no fan of lying salesmen, I do not think anyone should work for free, so I'm ok with TrueCar trying to quote a price that's fair to both parties. And again, it really did save me the hassles normally associated with the first battle.

Other Voices

If you do a little looking around on the Internet you'll find other testimonials and opinions of TrueCar (tons actually and mostly negative, at,,, and [very useful review] among others).
One bit of feedback that made sense to me was from a guy that said you can get a better price than the TrueCar quote if you're willing to fight. In this way I suspect TrueCar prices are like CarMax prices: you could do better, but then, you'd have to wear body armor and bring brass knuckles to the dealership. I don't have time for that, but it's interesting to note that essentially what's happening is you're paying a TrueCar fee for the convenience of not getting kicked in the balls all afternoon long. Whether that's worth it to you or not is really up to you.

I also don't have time for haggling over the trade-in. Every dealership I've ever been to except CarMax will always lowball you. You have to fight them though. At least get their second or third offer. You might ask, "Why don't you just sell your car to CarMax?" Because if I can get a decent offer on the trade-in, I like the tax savings it gives on the new car by essentially lowering the sales price, and the dealership will handle the necessary paperwork. And although I could work around it, I also like the convenience of driving myself over in the old car and swapping it for the new one and not having to drive down in two cars or have a friend drive you or whatever you end up doing. Of course, if you can sell your old car for thousands more somewhere else, then go for it because that should be better than the tax savings.

Another concern voiced about TrueCar is that there may be collusion with some dealerships. I don't know if this is true but since there are some veils up in the background that I can't see past, there could be something to it. My salesman mentioned that his dealership has a good relationship with TrueCar and they sell a lot of cars through TrueCar. That doesn't mean there's anything illegal going on, but take that as you will.

Some testimonials also claim that not all dealerships will honor the TrueCar quote as well as mine did. In the end all you as the consumer can do is recognize that knowledge is power and use every tool you can to be educated about purchasing. For me, it worked well enough that TrueCar will remain in my toolbox.