Armen Chakmakjian

Posts Tagged ‘DEC’

Thinking in Systems: A Primer Donella Meadows

In Business & Finance, career, College, history, Kindle, technology on March 13, 2010 at 4:14 pm

During my marketing course last year, while studying conscious capitalism and other topics related to a changes in the perception of corporate responsibility and stakeholder interests, the professor recommended that we read Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows.  The editor writes at the beginning of the book about how this book was in draft form and circulated informally until the writer died unexpectedly in 2001.  Donella Meadows also was a lead author The Limits to Growth, published in 1972.  I’ve been reading this over a few weeks on my kindle.  Here are my reactions:

I am fascinated by how obvious (to an engineer) what she was writing is.  The kinds of decisions about hardware, software, cost and people that I’ve had to make over the years are not generally simple decisions and you have to pick which ones you worry about at any point and which risks you are willing to take on.  To some extent it falls into the butterfly flapping its wings in the amazon concept (e.g. the movement in the wind there causes a snowflake in Alaska)

Anyway, we’ve been on this scrum kick at work, and have seen some benefit to it in our ability to iterate over a problem quickly and change course if new data appears.  Meadows addressed this issue and the justification for going to scrum about 1/3 of the way through the book:

“Self-organization is such a common property, particularly of living systems that we take it for granted.  If we didn’t we’d be dazzled by the unfolding systems of our world.  And if we weren’t blind to the property of self-organization, we would do better at encouraging, rather than destroying the self-organizing capacities of the systems of which we are a part….

…Self-organization produces heterogeneity and unpredictability.  It is likely to come up with whole new structures, whole new ways of doing things.  It requires freedom and experimentation, and a certain amount of disorder.  These conditions that encourage self-organization often can be scary for individuals and threatening to power structures.”

The difficulty is that self-organization in the office, where centralized hierarchical control is exercised because of the financial, organizational and legal constraints, will cause conflict.  The two systems can not comfortably co-exist.  The whole organism has to be reactive to self-organization or highly organized system will snuff out the self-organizing entity or itself.  That’s reality.  Just because I could have a bunch of people work on something cool doesn’t mean there is a the greater organization understands or can support the market to sell it into or a capital structure to support it.  This is why Google works.  To some extent, the had been self organizing from the beginning and the incentive structure for their employees were based on the idea that a good idea needs to work its way through to live or die.   That’s not to say that a highly structured organization like Microsoft or IBM doesn’t works (or the companies that I worked for in the past)…its just that those entities force (and to some extent expect) after hours creativity that isn’t sanctioned.  I think of the fact that Lotus Notes was built on the work on the Plato system that guys at Digital and Data general tried to introduce into those companies and neither company saw fit to fund it…even when THE collaborative tool used within DEC for people to work on was VMS Notes.  A tool like Notes created in an environment like Google would have had a very different history (AKA the Lotus moniker may have never been attached to it and maybe DEC or DG would have become quite different companies than they both ended up…absorbed into HP and EMC).   The self-organizing reaction to things like Notes was people willing to leave a company and start their own because the system within which they were working didn’t allow it during business hours.

So I guess I’m bought in to the agile thing from a systems analysis point of view because it is real.    Self-organization can occur within an organization and will either be intrinsic to that organization (like Google) or be spawned off by an organization (as the self-organizing entity will be inconsistent with that greater organization’s ability to exert control)

Random thoughts over my Panera bread breakfast.

Why am I doing this?

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2008 at 1:12 am

About 29 years ago, I touched my first computer.   It was an IBM 360/1500 at Fairfield University.  I was a freshman at Fairfield Prep on the same campus.  In between the 2 semesters we had mini-courses, which were a 2 week break from normal classes and an opportunity to investigate topics that you wouldn’t normally be able to take.  Some people took classes in architecture, other in meditation (the most highly sought after class, of course…who wouldn’t pick a class you could sleep through for credit). 

I chose the class in APL programming.  This happened to be taught by a Junior student because none of Jesuits knew much about the computer, let alone APL.  So I took that class and the same class next year.  During this period I wrote my first major computer program.  Domino7 was the character sequence on the 3270 terminals that called a random number generator.  This was just what you need to write a computer game.   Being a child of the post Viet Nam Cold War era I wrote a program that allowed the player to pick a city and blow it up.   Back then Don Imus used to have people call his WNBC radio program out of New York City and as for people to get nuked if they ticked you off.   “Nuke ’em….boom….Yay!”  That was the inspiration. During my Junior and Senior year I taught the class.  I keep forgetting that when I go through the list of things I’ve done.  My Senior year, I had 10 members of the varsity football team in my class.  I wonder if any of them remember the class 🙂

Anyway, playing around with the computer led me to apply for schools that had a computer engineering program because I, at the time, couldn’t figure out what the heck computer science was and engineering sounded more prestigious.  Being from a blue collar steel-worker family, and being the oldest child, I had to figure out how to pay for school.  Knowing that RIT and Northeastern had co-op programs, bingo, there I was at RIT in cloudy and snowy western New York, fighting my way through my EE classes, cruising through my CS classes and finding out that I was pretty good my Liberal Arts classes.  People have often told me that I’m not really an engineer, I just play one in life.

That’s when I got my Co-op job at DEC which eventually led to an 11 year stint in the end.  There’s a whole story about that, that I should elaborate on, but I’ll leave that for a different entry.  Eventually I made it through all the weed-out EE classes and took my full time job at DEC in the low end workstation firmware group.  If anybody cares, I wrote the SCSI and NI drivers for the firmware on several vax and alpha workstations.  In the process I had my first taste of leading teams.  

When things got bad at DEC in the early 90’s I started looking and finally got a job at Teradyne before the DEC wave crashed.  I worked at Teradyne for 11 years touched just about everything but the analog side of the tester.  Those wavy things are scary 🙂

Anyway, during that time I got to go on all kinds of trips to big places like Texas, California, Germany and India, although I remember several trips to Allentown, PA.  I worked on Solaris and the NT on the digital side of the testers and got my first chance to manage teams and never looked back.  I really wanted to move to a company on the web where all the action seemed to be about 2000-2001, but couldn’t get out.

After watching Teradyne react to the commoditization of testers and chips with outsourcing, layoffs and a weird refusal to build smaller testers like the J750 and their inexplicable surrender of the memory test market to Advantest,  I then went to a company called Lakeview.  It was strange place where I lived the ups and downs of 2 previous companies all compressed into a 2 year demise.  It ended by a buyout by private equity.  I survived all the downsizing but I was unhappy.  Knowing that I always wanted to get out of the hardware industry, I got a job at Intuit QuickBase where I am now.

Intuit is an awesome place and QuickBase is an phenomenal product.  I stepped in just as the QuickBase Developer program was being scoped out and tomorrow, in conjunction with several other team within Intuit, QuickBase will present our new development environment based on Adobe Flex at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco.

In the end, I’ve lived my dream.   Stuff I’ve worked on was used by the armed forces during the first Gulf War, was used to test chips in every cell phone and disk drive on the planet, and is about to change the world via networked collaborative technologies.  So maybe I wasn’t as wildly successful as Gates or Jobs, but hey, I’ve done some incredibly complicated things and nobody can take that away from me.  In the process I’ve worked with a lot of really smart people along the way who can claim the same thing.

Here’s to changing the world, flipping one bit at a time!