Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Are we under too much stress?

Five people in the Software Group have recently (in the last three months) had to get repairs for damaged teeth. I am one of those people. We've had to get crowns because a tooth broke or cracked. That's five people in a group of fifteen. Does that seem like a lot to you? It does to me. And I think I know the reason.

We are all under a lot of stress. We're under pressure to not only get our work done but to get our work done quickly. We not only have to get our work done quickly but we have to think ahead and plan the work we do so that we don't make things harder for ourselves or others in the future. That means the whole time you are designing your software, you have to be thinking how it might be used in the future. You have to think about how the hardware might change and you have to think about what features the Marketing folks might want to add.

And all the time, we are constantly being reminded of the schedule. We plan our work over a period of months and then set the schedule. The actual writing of code starts and we will work on it for another period of months. But just before we start the coding, we publish a schedule and no matter what happens after that, you get sick, your car breaks down, an asteroid hits the Earth, Jesus returns and takes us to Heaven, all that the directors of the company remember is that first schedule that was shown.

We develop our software using Agile Software Development. I'd like to write more about this methodology in the future but I only have time to write the short description here. Agile Development is meant to help you make schedules that are flexible and to increase the communication among the programmers of the team. It is a really good system but I don't think its ideas have sunk into the people that run companies (not just ours). In previous times, schedules were set and that was it. People treated software (and all types of design, really) like you were stamping out parts that have been made for years. Times have changed and what we produce has changed. When we run into things like illness or problems keeping us from work, Agile handles those well. Every month (or even more often in some cases) you rearrange your schedule. The important thing is to know what you are working on, that everyone else knows what you are working on and what parts depend on other parts.

But old ideas are hard to change. We are all under a lot of pressure and we've been clenching our teeth as we try to deliver good products on time. I go in tomorrow morning to get the permanent crown for my tooth that broke. I hope it lasts. Maybe I should get a mouth guard. Who would have thought that writing software could be as tough as playing hockey?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"There's a good boy"

That's how my grandmother used to end every sentence to me when I was a little boy and she was asking me to do something. "Would you bring that bag of groceries into the house? There's a good boy." When she would be babysitting me, she'd say, "It's getting close to bed time. Go take your bath. There's a good boy." I always did what my grandmother asked me to do.

I remember this like it happened yesterday but that would have been over 50 years ago. And I remember the thought that went through my head when she used that phase. "Well, she's already acting like I'll do it and that I'm a good boy. I guess I have to do it now." It was her expectation that I'd do my duty and she was rewarding me for it that got me to never refuse to do what she asked. I didn't want to disappoint her. She never bribed me with treats or told me about a punishment if I didn't do it. She just assumed I would and let me know that.

Or it could have just been a phrase she used. I never noticed her saying it to my cousins, my parents, my aunts and uncles or my grandfather but maybe I just didn't notice. Besides, I was just a kid. I couldn't have been more than 8 years old at that time. I like to think she really did think I was a good boy and that she could depend on me to do the right thing. I wasn't perfect but I always tried to make her proud.

I've always said that we all have regrets in our life. Maybe I'm being pessimistic and some people regret nothing they've ever done in their life. But I do have some regrets. One them is that when my grandmother died and we all got together for her funeral, I didn't tell this story. There was just a small ceremony in the funeral home and just grandma's surviving children and my cousins were there. The minister gave a short message and then asked if anyone had anything else to say. Were there any stories anyone wanted to tell? None of us said anything. I always regret that I didn't tell this story. For one thing, it might have prompted the others to tell stories of their own. But mostly, it would have been nice to share this simple case of someone expecting the good from someone else and encouraging it.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

I have not given up on blogging

It's been 18 days since my last post. There is no one reason for it. It just sort of happened. I have a lot of posts in the draft stage but I haven't been able to work on them long enough to be ready for publishing. I've always been torn between the idea of just getting thoughts down or spending the time to make sure a piece is thought out and well written. I seem to have a hard time finding the middle ground. And no matter what I do, I'm never quite happy with the result.

In the past, I've said, "This is just a diary. I should get things down quickly so I don't miss events that happen in my life. The important thing is to be able to go back over these posts and remember what was going on. I want to recall my thoughts - not create the great American novel."

But I've also said, "The idea of this blog is to help me to learn to write better. Just writing down my thoughts could be done in a paper diary. The idea of doing it in a blog is to allow for the possibility of other people reading it, too." That means I may need to explain things that I understand but other readers wouldn't. That means it needs to be written well enough to be understood. It should make sense. Also, I'd like other readers to be moved by my writing. We all have some knowledge that other people don't. One of the reasons God put us all together here on the Earth is to share what we know and to help each other.

The idea that other people might read this blog is both scary and exciting. It's scary because it opens me up to criticism. It exposes things I wouldn't normally share. But with criticism comes improvement and that's the exciting part. Is it better to have an idea that is wrong and hold onto it no matter what or is it better to find out that ideas you think are true and important that turn out to be false or useless? I'd rather try to correct the things that are wrong. I guess that's the engineer in me. And maybe that's how my title Adventures in Engineering is really about my adventure in correcting my own mistakes. Not to create a great piece of software or a product for sale but to create a better me. To extend my knowledge by coming up with an idea, getting it down on paper and then finding the problems with it and correcting those problems. Engineering isn't always about creating things. It can also be about improving yourself. So, I'm left with the difficult balance of trying to write as often as possible but to write as clearly and thoughtfully as I can. Bear with me. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Not our normal walk

You don't expect a problem when you go out for a walk with your dog. Every morning, Charlie (our dog) expectantly looks at me until I take him for a walk. He's 14 years old and can't walk far but we walk slowly for about one mile each morning. We take pretty much the same route every day so we know what we're going to see and what we're going to do. Charlie has his duty and I have mine. Nothing much happens. Except for this morning.

We have to cross a fairly busy road but there is a crosswalk there. In Massachusetts, a vehicle has to stop if a pedestrian is standing between the white lines of the crosswalk. We usually let the cars go, though, because they always seem in such a rush and we are not. Right after the crosswalk, there is a house with a chain-link fenced in yard that has a bunch of (at least five) yappy Boston Terriers that love to bark at us. If they are out, they usually sense us before we get to the crosswalk and start barking before we even get to their side of the road. This morning was one of those mornings.

One thing wasn't the same as normal. I noticed a fellow about 20 feet off to our left obviously looking for something in the woods. He was whistling and calling but I didn't think too much about it. I was concentrating on the traffic that was approaching the crosswalk and the noise being generated by the yappy dogs. As we waited by the road to let the traffic pass, the car closest to us stopped and motioned for us to go. I looked over at the other lane to make sure the car coming from the other direction was going to let us go, too. Then, everything happened at once.

The car going the other way did stop but you could see he wasn't happy about it. The first car that stopped was motioning, impatiently, for us to get going. The yappy dogs were excited that we were coming their way. The guy looking for something was raising his voice and I was tempted to look over at him. But to make the drivers happy, Charlie and I started to run. Well, Charlie is 14 so we trotted, across the road. Just then, the guy looking for something shouted. Loudly! I looked over and my heart stopped. A Pit Bull was running toward us! Our running (trotting) had caught his attention and he left the woods to run after us. We were out in the middle of the road with nowhere to go. The yappy dogs were getting louder. The drivers were getting mad and I was scared into inaction. Then a miracle happened.

The guy who was obviously looking for this Pit Bull yelled and the dog stopped dead in his tracks. He kept his eyes fixed on us but he listened to his master. We continued across the road and got safely to the other side. The cars continued on their way and the yappy dogs continued to get louder as we approached and then passed their yard. I didn't look back. I assume the guy put a leash around his dog and walked him home. I was shaking but Charlie calmed me down with a look of, "Don't worry, I'd have protected you."

I wouldn't have been so scared but a fellow I work with was attacked by a Pit Bull just a couple of weeks before. Actually, there were two Pit Bulls but only one attacked. He described his struggle to free his dog from the grip of one of the attackers while yelling for help. He would get his dog free only to have the attacking dog grab her again. Even though the second dog never attacked, my friend had to keep an eye on him. Finally, a neighbor heard his yells and came to help. His neighbor was able to take his dog away to safety. With his dog gone, the attacking dog focused on my friend. Fortunately, it was cold that day and he had a heavy jacket on. The dog shredded it. He was finally able to pin the dog down until the police came.

That story flashed into my mind as I stood in the middle of the road in panic. I am so thankful I didn't have to really deal with anything beyond fear. I will be looking around a little more cautiously tomorrow morning.