The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Almost sad

I haven't finished all of Almost Perfect yet, but I think I understand now what happened to WordPerfect Corp.: they had accidental success, naïvely thought they authored the success, and never thought strategically.

Now, possibly, I'm imputing Pete Peterson's own failures to the entire company, but I have to assume the other board members condoned his approach or they wouldn't have kept him on for so long. Peterson himself seems hopelessly without self-awareness, stumbling from decision to decision without a thought to the implications of each and without any coherent plan for how they all fit together. He is, in the Myers-Briggs jargon, an off-the-charts Thinker making him almost indifferent to other people's feelings, with an added load of Sensing making him detail-driven with a disdain for abstractions. For example:

For practically every week from December of 1989 through mid-1990, I invited 16 different managers to have lunch with me for three consecutive days starting on Tuesday. After lunch each day, I spoke for about an hour and a half. ...

Near the end of the first lecture, I explained what WordPerfect Corporation was not. This set the stage for the next two days, when I would explain what WordPerfect Corporation was.

WordPerfect Corporation was not a platform for personal achievement, a career ladder to other opportunities, or a challenging opportunity for personal improvement. The company did not put the needs of the individual ahead of its own. The company was not concerned about an employee's personal feelings, except as they related to the company's well-being.

WordPerfect Corporation was not intended to be a social club for the unproductive. While other companies might condone many personal or social activities at the office, ours did not. Things like celebrating birthdays, throwing baby showers, collecting for gifts, selling Tupperware or Avon, managing sports tournaments, running betting pools, calling home to keep a romance alive or hand out chores to the children, gossiping or flirting with co-workers, getting a haircut, going to a medical or dental appointment, running to the cafeteria for a snack, coming in a little late or leaving a little early, taking Friday afternoon off, and griping about working conditions were all inappropriate when done on company time.

In other words, how employees did things was more important than other concerns that one might prefer to use as yardsticks for employee value: productivity, creativity, well being, cameraderie. All right, as my dad says, "it's their football," and if you work for them you play by their rules. But contrast that passage with this one, from the same chapter:

[A requirement] was that we needed to communicate freely and frequently. In many companies it was common for supervisors to keep information to themselves, conceal their mistakes whenever possible, and never allow subordinates to go over their heads. I wanted a company where information could flow freely without regard to formal lines of communication. I imagined a room filled with light, without any portion remaining in darkness. I wanted a company where no one kept secrets and where everything was kept out in the open. Advisors who expected their employees to be so loyal to them that they would not take problems to someone else were exactly the ones I wanted to kick out of the company. Any loyalty should be toward the company, its purpose and objectives, not to individual advisors. Advisors who did not want the light to shine in their domain did not deserve their positions. Lines of communication should be allowed to go in any direction. If employees made mistakes, then the mistakes needed to be known so they could be corrected and avoided in the future. I wanted a company where employees could make mistakes, admit them freely, and learn how to do better without fearing for their jobs.

That's great if every person in the company is exactly like him: heads down, ISTJ, work is for working and home is for everything else. But to most people, in my experience, generating that kind of atmosphere requires flexibility around the periphery. In other words, if people have the freedom to work in the specific ways that make sense, and if they're judged by their output rather than how they achieve the output, they're usually happier. The occasional office baby shower might "cost" two hours of "company time," but it pays back disproportionately in productivity if it helps people feel happy about coming to work.

More practically, though, Peterson demanded loyalty towards the company while at the same time telling people they have no way to advance within the company because of its flat management structure. What he fails to understand, despite getting close to seeing the patterns while remaining maddeningly oblivious to them, is that in an organization the size of WordPerfect Corp., politics happens. It's an emergent phenomenon of groups. By "groups" I mean in a sociological sense: any aggregations of two or more people.

Throughout the book Peterson shows these amazing blind spots, often on the same theme. He wants people to openly speak their minds to management, yet "[f]or years I was the person most feared in the company. If I walked down a hallway, I was used to hearing the sound of desk drawers closing as people hid their snacks from view." The mind boggles.

Not too long after the events described above, the employees of the company presented a petition to the other two board members to have Peterson fired—and they fired him. Shortly after they sold out to Novell, and WordPerfect became irrelevant.

More later.

Potpourri, without the odor

Quick update:

  • The Titanic dinner at Mint Julep Bistro was wonderful. Rich's wine pairings especially rocked—as did his beef tournedos in port reduction. Mmm. Not so much fun was Metra's return schedule (featuring a 3-hour gap between 21:25 and 0:35), nor my reading of it (I did not remember this three-hour gap). The fine for taking public transit out to the suburbs (because driving to a 10-course, 9-wine-plus-apertif dinner seemed irresponsible) was $80, paid to the All-Star Taxi Service.
  • I did, in fact, buy a Kindle, and I love it. I've now read three books on it and numerous articles (converting a .pdf or text file costs no more than 10c for automatic downloads), and I hardly notice the machine. It only holds 1.5 GB of stuff, but the complete works of Shakespeare ($4) only takes up 4 MB so space is not exactly at a premium.
  • I may have a new release of Weather Now out today; if not, then tomorrow morning. I'll be writing over the next few days more about what's different, and why it took nearly two years to produce something that, to some, will look almost identical.
  • Tangentially about my Kindle and software releases, I'm now reading Almost Perfect (hat tip Coding Horror), Pete Peterson's account of the rise and fall of WordPerfect. It's a fascinating tale of what happens when everyone in the company is just like you, and when entrepreneurs can't let go.

Finally, in a tiny piece of good news, it looks like we'll have tolerable weather Friday for my first Cubs home game this season.

The dangers of cut-and-paste coding

Last night, while studying for an economics exam, I took a moment to execute the following SQL against a client's production database:

UPDATE table_name
SET column_a = 'Equipment', column_b = 'Equipment'
WHERE column_a = 'Boojums'

UPDATE table_name
SET column_a = 'Borfins', column_b = 'Equipment'
WHERE column_a = 'Nerfherders'

The client called this morning to ask why the application suddenly had two different types of equipment, one which looked suspiciously like a collection of borfins.

You can see what I did, of course. I copied the first statement and forgot to change the copy's second argument. And I quite deservedly looked stupid.

What makes this even funnier: I executed the statement against a staging server first, carefully (I thought) checked the results, and then executed it against the production server. This is why having someone else do quality assurance is a good thing for most programmers.

Another argument about the Kindle

I still haven't committed to buying a Kindle, and Mark Morford echoes of the reasons:

[M]any creators loathe the beige slab because of how ruthlessly Amazon owns every aspect of the experience. Authors and publishers have little control. Readers -- that is, you -- have even less. Want to share a book you finished with someone else? Too bad. Want to upload and circulate your own text without using Amazon's system? Screw you. Want to, well, do anything at all that's not 100 percent within the company's power and revenue stream because you don't actually own any of the books you buy? Amazon says: Bite me.

I like having paper books. I have a sinking feeling that having a Kindle would result in me buying books twice, once for my bookshelf and once to read on a plane.

Yelp again

I had a conversation with Joe over at Urban Outsitters this morning when I picked Parker up. It seems he's had run-ins with Yelp as well. He mentioned a ratings service that, he thinks, actually works: Angie's List.

The difference? Angie's List members have a reputational risk of their own when posting. The members may be anonymous to the vendors they're rating, but they're authenticated, and can be held accountable for their content. Also, the List, being member-financed rather than advertiser-financed, has no potential conflicts of interest. Yelp and other advertiser-supported media always have a potential for payola. Always.

How to destroy a website brand

If the website has community-written reviews, you can destroy it by soliciting bribes from the reviewed businesses:

With the Web site Yelp still responding to allegations by San Francisco businesses that it manipulates the prominence of positive and negative reviews, some Chicago merchants are adding to the heat.

They allege that Yelp representatives have offered to rearrange positive and negative reviews for companies that advertise on the site or sponsor Yelp Elite parties.

Yelp's CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has been taking his side of the story in this controversy to the Web, the media and even Twitter.

In a conversation with the Tribune, Stoppelman denied the allegations, saying, "I guarantee that there is no link between" review placement and advertising. He said that the people selling the ads have no access to the architecture of the site and so cannot influence placement or review content."

This bears investigating. Check out the original story in the East Bay Express, too.

Oh sad day

Via The Atlantic's James Fallows, a report that Microsoft's latest round of layoffs means the end of Flight Simulator:

[A]s of yesterday, it's the end of development for the venerable FS franchise (and probably the associated Microsoft ESP, the new commercial simulation platform based on FS), one of the longest-running titles in the history of the PC.


New software release

I've been slaving over a hot keyboard for a few days to finish the Inner Drive Extensible Architecture™—the Idea™—release 1.10. I've added two major components to support auditable business objects and money, the latter being much more interesting but a lot simpler to code. For the truly geeky, I've also published a Software Developer Kit (SDK) for your perusal. Some of the documentation may be slightly out of date as I needed to get the bits out sooner than the docs.


If you're extraordinarily geeky, or looking for a great buy-not-build decision, I'm open to licensing and consulting deals.


Consultant: More than adequate office space in Evanston

I spent the better part of the last few months looking for appropriate office space to hold a team of developers. We estimated we'd need about 325 m² for 18 people. For some reason we could not find appropriate space. I therefore found an Evanston city consultant's recent report fascinating:

Consultant Marty Stern of U.S. Equities Realty says, in a report to be presented to the city's Economic Development Committee Wednesday night, that nine different generally suitable Class B buildings have a total of 50,072 square feet of vacant space.... In addition, Stern says there is about 141,000 square feet of more expensive Class A space available downtown and 21,000 square feet of less expensive Class C space, most of it downtown.

That comes to 19,700 m²—almost five acres of office space. Slightly more than we needed, of course, but probably workable.

Going around, coming around

So, in January I started a new job, right around the corner from my old office. Then I moved out of my old office. Today I'm moving back in, with three of the developers who work for me. It's temporary, and it's surreal. I'll have before-and-after pics later.