Managed Chaos: Empowering Your Engineering Team


I believe in the engineering team using Cobol and Fortran ’77 (so much better than ’66) to develop the best modern websites.  I believe in them using note cards and excel files and Jira and Trello to organize the Agile Product Backlog, and using nothing at all.  I believe in the teams having a leader and having no leader.  I believe in what the team wants to do.

While a bit tongue-in-cheek, I truly believe that a successful, innovative, and evolving organization must encourage its members to decide how they get the job done.  Trust the team to find what works best to achieve their goals, which of course should be aligned with the company goals.  The effective leader provides vision, values, and transparency.  The leader must protect the team by setting up the metaphorical guardrails by the cliff’s edge, but between those guardrails create an open and fertile environment for the teams, who are professionals and most likely smarter than the leader (that’s why you hired them!), to do what they do best.

If you want to achieve the best, get out of their way and trust!

That said, how do we prevent the organization from falling into chaos where one team is using Clojure, another Haskel, another Go, another Agile, another Waterfall, ad-infinitum?  If we allow that sort of chaos to ensue, the engineering team will have serious issues with business continuity (shoot, Bob the Cobol guy just left – who here knows Cobol, anyone, anyone, Bueller?), hiring, and maintainability.  The other extreme, which large organizations often adopt, is a regimented approval process for all technology, down to the version level.  Do you want to use Scala 2.11.7?  Well, write up a report, submit to the engineering committee, POC, review, and 6 months later and dozens hours of your time, maybe get Scala on the restricted list.  Maybe.

But there is a better way to do it and that is Managed Chaos.*  Chaos can be detrimental, but if properly managed, it can be a powerful tool for an engineering organization to embrace innovation and drive the business forward through technology.  When the engineering team comes to you asking to use Cobol, say, “Yes! I support you.  But, I do have some questions.  Where do you plan on finding Cobol engineers?  What about mainframes?  I don’t have any here.  Also, can you build websites in Cobol?  Didn’t know that.  How will you leverage other teams to get the help you need since no one here knows Cobol?”  If the team has justification and has reasoned out how this will drive the product and team, allow the chaos to happen.  You have managed the chaos by asking the right questions, thinking things through, and aligning to the business and product. You have embraced change that can drive the business and product forward by giving your team control (e.g. the tech stack).

Create a great engineering environment by giving your team control.

What you really are trying to avoid is the “Oh, yeah, we should have thought of that” statement after the fact.  For example, if our Data Science team wants to start using MongoDB and our Platform team wants to use Cassandra, that is totally fine if they have thought it through and discussed why each team needs to use a different no-sql databases.  That is Managed Chaos.  We don’t want to have the discussion 6-months after implementation and say, “I guess there is no reason we couldn’t have used the same.”  That is just chaos.

Another example is from a recent decision by one of our Agile teams at TheLadders.  Most teams are either singularly use either Jira or Trello.  However, one team for our Professional website decided they want the Product Owner to create user stories in Jira and the Engineering Tasks be broken down and estimated in Trello.  I was dubious – really, both?  Isn’t that, well, chaotic?  It isn’t.  The team had thought though the complexity and determined it worked for both the product owner and engineers, and I’m happy to say they were right.

In conclusion, don’t be afraid of change, don’t be afraid of the decisions your team makes, and don’t be afraid of managed chaos.

Managed Chaos is similar in concept to Fractal Organizations.  Below is a great description from Pravir Malik on how a Fractal Organization works:

“In meta-theory all instances of organization, from the smallest, such as an idea or a person, to the largest, such as global markets and planet earth herself, are fractals:  the essence of their way of being is repeated on scales both smaller and larger than themselves.  There is however, a particular class of fractals, that of progress, of which The Fractal Ladder is an ever-present manifestation, which spawns organizations that are truly progressive and sustainable in nature.  In the scheme of things this class of fractals is of critical importance, and to master its replication and to fully understand the impact it will have in creating sustainable and dynamic organizations is a practical necessity.”

The Best Podcasts (or My Personal Favorite Podcasts)

Here is a run down of the podcasts I subscribe to using my favorite app (Downcast).  While these are not all of my subscriptions, they are the ones I actually listen to.

  1. Planet Money – You would think it was on personal finance (being named Planet Money and all), but it goes way beyond that.  I just listened to a podcast on the app Haystack (sell your parking space).  From their site: “Imagine you could call up a friend and say, ‘Meet me at the bar and tell me what’s going on with the economy.’ Now imagine that’s actually a fun evening. That’s what we’re going for at Planet Money.”  And it is fun!
  2. Hardcore History – Dan Carlin is amazing.  He creates a historical narrative that is engaging, informative, and entertaining.  I listened to a 5 part series on Genghis Khan – it is that good!
  3. TechStuff – Not as polished as some of the other podcasts, but the 2+ parters are just plain good.  I really enjoyed the ones on Atari and HBO.
  4. Serial – Ok, if you’ve haven’t heard of this podcast then you’ve been living under a rock.  The most famous, downloaded podcast in the history of podcasts.  It follows the story of convicted murder Adnan Syed and makes you ask if he really did it.  I say he….
  5. StarTalk – Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson himself with with Bill Nye or a comedian join forces to explore the mysteries of the universe.  My favorite are the Cosmic Queries where Neil answers reader question off the top of his head…his brilliance shines.
  6. Radiolab from WNYC – Moving stories that either make you think or on pull your heard strings.  Sometimes I don’t listen to them while I’m driving because they are too intense.
  7. StartUp – A series about, you guessed it, startups.  The first season was about how Alex Blumberg left his stable job at NPR to create his own startup media company (Gimlet Media).  Season 2 follows Dating Rink, a dating startup.  Extremely entertaining if you are into the startup world.
  8. Reply All – The second podcast series from Gimlet Media about the hidden corners of the Internet.  Some of the episodes are misses, but some real gems exist.

So there you have it!  Enjoy, and I hope this helps you discover something new.

I’m Back and The Apple Watch Review

watch-dmIt has been a long time since I last posted, but with today’s Apple Watch reviews coming in, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to start my New Year’s resolution of posting weekly…a little late, I know.  A special thanks to John Sonmez @jsonmez for his inspiring podcast on Developer Tea.

Since I don’t have an Apple Watch yet, I won’t attempt to give my own review (funny if I did).  However, I’ll provide the best overview I’ve yet found on the Apple Watch – a summary of review across the blogosphere at The Tech Block.  I also suggest checking out the USA Today video of using the Apple Watch in the real world.

The overall sentiment is:

  • The Apple Watch is amazing!
  • The best smart watch out there.
  • Do we really need it? (if you recall, the same was said of the iPad)
  • The watch is for pioneers…a 1.0 product.

The big question I have is should I spend the $$ now or wait until the 2.0 version?

Update: I think I will. :)

Pebble – Is it the Newton of Today?

Pebble WatchI recently purchased the plastic version of the Pebble Smart Watch, made by Pebble.  For those who may not know the history of Pebble, here is a two second intro: Eric Migicovsky couldn’t get funding for his smart watch idea, turned to Kickstarter, got $10.2mm, sold over 250,000 watches,  just introduced a second (kinda) version called the Pebble Steel that looks nicer, but is essentially the same watch.  Got the picture?  I just have to say I love my Pebble.  Instead of wearing some of my much-too-expensive designer watches, I often wear my Pebble.  However,  just because my geekiness has an affinity towards the Pebble doesn’t mean it is a consumer product yet.

The Pebble has a lot of things going for it:

  • Notifications and calls are never missed.  Your phone can be in the other room or your backpack and when a call/notification comes, the Pebble will start vibrating and glow.  You can then either read the message or accept/reject the call.
  • The charge lasts a long time for me – around 5 days (though others have said it only last 3 days) due to Pebble’s use of e-ink technology.  The same e-ink used in the Amazon Kindle that allows you to read the screen in direct sunlight, go for several days without a charge, and is easy on the eyes.
  • A plethora of watch face and a number of apps – Pebble distinguishes a watch face as your standard, albeit sometimes funky, clock that can be run continuously and an app as having more depth and functionality that isn’t run all the time.  Some of my favorite watch faces show funky numbers for the time and the latest weather.  One of my favorite apps is  PebbleBucks  that gives me my Starbucks Rewards barcode for quick scanning at the counter.
  • Light.  The Pebble is incredibly light weight and waterproof to boot!

While all the above points makes a great product, it still doesn’t mean the product is consumer ready.  Here is a test, would you recommend the product to your non-tech savvy relative?  Would this be the next Christmas gift under their tree?  Unless I wanted to spend a week as their help desk, no way.  iPad, no problem.  Pebble, nope, at least right now.

The Pebble has a few problems:

  • The interface is confusing on both the device and the newly introduced Pebble app store.  Simplicity is needed.
  • The current offering of apps and overall functionality are just not that interesting.  As my wife said after showing her the Pebble, “Is that all it does?”  With your attention drawn to so many outlets:  computer, TV, iPhone, iPad, etc, another device that essentially just vibrates when you get a text isn’t worth it to the mass-consumer audience.
  • It’s ugly.  Hands down the plastic version is U.G.L.Y., and the newly introduced Steel with the “Pebble” embossed logo is just campy.  Pebble needs a Jony Ives to bring the device to the next level.

The current version of the Pebble has incredible promise and shows what the future might be for wearable tech.  I’m excited to even own one and trying to develop an app or two.  However, for the wearable tech smart watch space to take off, a more engaging, higher value proposition device needs to be introduced that is fun, beautiful, and lasts a long time between charges.  In other words, while we sit here using the equivalent of an Apple Newton, the mythical Apple iWatch is what we are all waiting.

Agile: Approaching the Daily Scrum

I recently presented at the Rally Agile Executive Talk Radio program on how best to approach the Daily Scrum (or Daily Standup for those non-Scrum folks).  It was a quick talk – about ten minutes – and I thought it would be interesting to share the presentation.

Enjoy and let me know what you think!

Agile: Approaching the Daily Scrum

Top iOS Developers Twitter List

There doesn’t seem to be many Twitter Lists of the top iOS developers out there – you would think Googling would bring up dozens of results, but it doesn’t!  So here is a great start to a Twitter List of the top iOS mobile developers to follow.  Click here to follow the list.

Courtesy of @jeffhodnett at

Does the End Justify the Means?

On Monday April 2, 2012 the Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled in the case of Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders that the police can strip search anyone entering jail (not just prison, but also jail) after being arrested for any offense (murder to drug trafficking to speeding to walking your dog without a leash).  Often contraband, such as weapons and drugs, enter the prison system through newly introduced inmates, thus the Justices reasoned that the safety of the inmates and guards outweighs the privacy and rights of the individual.  Is this just?

Consider what this means, as observed by Sherry Colb on CNN Opinion (click here for the article):

In one facility, this means “a complete disrobing, followed by an examination of the nude inmate … by the supervising officer, which is then followed by a supervised shower with a delousing agent.” In the other facility, the booking process “required groups of 30 to 40 arrestees to enter a large shower room, simultaneously remove all of their clothing, place it in boxes and then shower.”

To personally answer the question of justice, self-reflect on do you consider it just (not necessarily like or be happy with, but know in your heart it is just) if a loved one, friend, acquaintance, or yourself were stripped searched for not paying a parking ticket.  It is the same exercise for for torture, i.e. water boarding, where being accused of a crime justifies the means to extract the sought after information.  Using this simple litmus test, some will find the court’s decision just and others will not.

I personally, and profoundly, believe that the decision of the Supreme Court is not just.  The court determined the best way to protect the inmates and guards is by removing the rights and dignitary of the accused.  They focused on a laudable end goal and worked backwards to justify the means – a slippery slope of reasoning that can make any injustice justifiable.

So what can we do given the highest court in the land has made their decision?  Luckily, times and attitudes change – hopefully for the better.  Slavery and discrimination were justified by the courts and later overturned, and so might this decision.  Citizens have several avenues to address this injustice: writing your representative, speaking our against the injustice both verbally and using the internet, and if the injustice happens to you, fight back through the courts by suing the police and state.  You most likely will lose, but all we need is one judge to recognize the injustice and open back up the debate.


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