Monday, February 15, 2016

Seeking Order in a Chaotic World

A few books linger on my office bookshelves.

I've tossed many of my business books into the recycling bin, including unread 1980's editions of In Search of Excellence. Managers passed out copies, and it would have been impolite to decline.

In the absence of competent leadership, it seemed futile to spend time reading a book about leadership. I gather the book had high praise for Amdahl, Data General, Digital Equipment, and Wang Labs. Past performance was no guarantee of future results.

When I was new to the workplace I was flummoxed by some of the behaviors I saw around the office, particularly in meetings.

One old product manager contributed nothing to meetings until the last few minutes. He would then spring to life, reminding us we were all on a moving train and would have to belly up to the bar and run the idea up the flagpole to see who salutes.

Apart from wasting time, he was harmless. It was the people who deliberately tried to sabotage the work that bothered and confused me.

"You need to have an overriding architecture," was one colleague's broken record. She was never able to elaborate, never able to write anything down, but she knew how to bring a discussion to a halt.

As an engineer, I know the magic is to adopt a sufficient architecture, then move forward with the first iteration of a deliverable. An all-or-nothing position kills the process.

A colleague came to my rescue. She handed me a copy of Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking, which addresses behaviors of young children. She recognized the office behaviors from her time as a grade school teacher. The book is still on my shelf.

I've also held on to Knuth's Fundamental Algorithms, and Sorting and Searching. They represent pure joy for me: as an undergraduate they revealed a world where order can be created out of chaos. They're pillars of computer science, still near the top of Amazon's lists.

I will hold onto Knuth's books like talismans. They remind me of the most satisfying times in my career, clustered at a whiteboard with a bunch of engineers, passionately disagreeing, seeking an answer to a problem, leaving the room as friends.

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