Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Memory of My Father

My father died nearly 30 years ago. I was there.

With some quiet, I settle into my chair and I relive it--taking note for a moment that it began with him, about my age, sitting quietly, alone, in his own easy chair. I remember kneeling beside him, talking to him as the paramedics applied the paddles. I remember following the ambulance to the hospital. I remember alarms on the other side of the wall and the people rushing in. I remember thinking I should not gamble with his falling out with the church years and years before, and I remember the anger in trying to find a priest at that hour. I remember the shocked look on the faces of the ambulance crew driving by on seeing me standing outside the funeral home...

... but that is not the memory that haunts me.

I remember years before, sitting at the kitchen table after school, a young teen or maybe a tween, angry at him. He must have overheard my indignant rant though as he came in after work through the garage door behind me and paused just inside my view. He tossed a small bag on the table in front of me and walked off without a word.

It was a thermometer. A simple, outdoor, garden variety thermometer.

I loved math and science as a child, and he knew it. Once, he gave me a gift of an LED Casio calculator; I remember that, if you divided by zero, it would start counting up continuously. Another time, he handed me his old slide rule with a smile. Years later, I remember when he bought me a Pascal compiler and an ASM assembler for the old IBM 8088 PC... I remember the one and only one time I beat him in a game of chess.

I don't know that we ever had much in common, but he tried to connect with me--and occasionally he succeeded. That thermometer... he knew I really wanted one for some science experiments--and that was the day he took the time to find one for me.

That is the moment that haunts me... I may never remember why I hated him then, but I remember the terrible anguish in remembering that he loved me. I knew so much just one moment before... in the next breath, everything I knew was turned upside-down.

I will never, ever forget how terribly I felt.

In the one or two years between his divorce and his death, he wanted to explain some things to me--then a young adult--privately. He wanted to tell me how, in spite of anything I might have been told, things were not necessarily as they seemed--but he would not say how out of certain respect...

... and I told him it was not important. I told him that he had nothing to prove to me. That I clearly remember--not only that I had those words in me for my father, but on seeing the quiet nod. He was just a man; maybe then I was too.

For all of the confusion, misunderstanding, doubt, and outright lies in the world--and for all of the hurt, sorrow, and anger result with the corresponding actions that are the fruit of it all--I remember the thermometer, and I resign myself to the thought that people have their own lessons to learn and we will all inevitably suffer the drama... often in that same quiet resignation. I hope all find their thermometer moments before it's too late, not after.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Twenty-Year Periodicity Observed on VHF

I sat with the radio on, listening to the local VHF repeater, background noise for whatever else I was doing at the time...

Repeaters are popular in the ham radio world: By occupying the high ground within a region, the repeater is able to hear an operator's weak signal--typically from a low-powered walkie-talkie-like radio--and re-transmit ("repeat") it to the larger audience with higher power from its advantageous location. Since ham radio wouldn't be much of a hobby if not for the people wanting to interact, the locals will naturally gravitate toward whichever one or two that they can reach has activity.

From there, repeaters develop lives and rhythms all of their own. Since repeaters by nature serve a local area, the "usual suspects" will typically appear at their usual times throughout the day. The repeater "wakes up" when the locals wake up and start their days. The repeater keeps them company on their commutes to and from their offices. The repeater participates in the midday chatter between retirees, shut-ins, and folks at home or out-and-about. The repeater serves as the place for scheduled over-the-air meetings during the week. The repeater quiets as the operators turn off their radios for the night and go to sleep.

Since only one person can talk and be understood at a time, repeater traffic also takes on a soothing predictable rhythm as the operators chat with one another: The operators take turns transmitting and take short pauses to listen for newcomers to the conversation,  It's somewhat predictable in form even if the topic changes. Listening can be quite relaxing...

... right until it's not, and all it takes to disturb the rhythm is one person breaking the implicit rules.

Whether it's the people who prattle on endlessly, dominating the air time and not giving others a chance to jump in; whether it's the people who can't let others enjoy a brief conversation without having to be a part of it; or whether it's the people who simply enjoy making a mess of things; when a fundamentally cooperative, non-confrontational group of people encounter even an inadvertent bully, the people often yield--quieting down, turning off their radios, or moving to an other repeater

I entered the hobby 20 or so years ago and was well out before my license expired 10 years ago. There were several issues, not the least of which were lack of time or money, but there was also a sense that I did not fit in with all the folks who were quite set in the rhythm of their ways. Rather than fight it, it was easier to let my participation fade.

Twenty years later, things are not so very different. People being as they are, the patterns of interactions and resulting issues recur--and among those recurring patterns is my seeing the issues again and my willingness to just walk away...

... and while we all continue to do what we have always done, things remain as they've always been--even 20 years later.

Time for a different approach?

Perhaps the next disruptive force is you.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What Else Don''t We Know?

This post arrived today via email from the Google blog.

My thoughts?  It's brilliant. I want to make sure that you had the opportunity to see it as well. At the bottom of this post is a cut & paste from the original. Go ahead and take a look before continuing.

Now take another look, with a more critical eye.  Make some notes about what you might not have seen in the first pass that you caught in the second.  Compare your notes with mine when you're done.  I'll be interested to compare notes and join our thoughts.

The email begins with an anecdote guiding the reader to a comfortable place, a view of the business' well known work in the technology sector, and then invites you to step back in time for a behind-the-scenes look at a blatant mistake in the product's requirements analysis and development... except it's not referred to as mistake; we'll say that what was built was nearly perfect every case that the developers could imagine, but there was something of a silly oversight that any unwittingly and innocently biased group of us might have made in the same situation.  Since we all know that the very successful product works fine today, the email doesn't have to go much further to suggest that the author was quick to take action and capable enough to resolve it.

But consider this rhetorical question:  When Google made assumptions to accommodate the left-handed user, did they inadvertently overlook the case where the video was showing that things were actually upside-down?

Some arguments are simply unresolvable. Some issues are simply too heated at the time to survive taking a stand.  How does Google address race, gender, and other other imbalances of their employee demographics when compared to the general population?  Read carefully:  They don't.  Through some clever slight of hand, the topic has shifted. If it makes the reader feel that they care, however, they did change the gender of a conference room, showing responsiveness to their employees' concerns.

And the employee concerns? Look at how Google has invited their own employees to accept that this blindness of sorts is something that they each suffer from unknowingly, and look how they have been invited to check themselves and each other. The guilt or blame associated with discovering or being accused of bias is absolved by first accepting that we all suffer from this "original sin" of sorts and then by being open to addressing it as the company did itself.

All of this aside, on the first reading the Google release, did you get that warm fuzzy feeling?

Reading it again more critically, do you see the alchemy?  To me, it's beautiful... but I acknowledge that I might be blinded by my zen-biased reading.  Tell me, what did you see that I missed? There is certainly more...

Posted: 25 Sep 2014 08:00 AM PDT
When YouTube launched their video upload app for iOS, between 5 and 10 percent of videos uploaded by users were upside-down. Were people shooting videos incorrectly? No. Our early design was the problem. It was designed for right-handed users, but phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in left hands. Without realizing it, we’d created an app that worked best for our almost exclusively right-handed developer team.

This is just one example of how unconscious biases influence our actions every day, even when—by definition—we don’t notice them. These biases are shaped by our experiences and by cultural norms, and allow us to filter information and make quick decisions. We’ve evolved to trust our guts. But sometimes these mental shortcuts can lead us astray, especially when they cause us to misjudge people. In the workplace, for example, the halo effect can cause us to inflate performance ratings or in-group bias can lead us to overlook great talent.

Combatting our unconscious biases is hard, because they don’t feel wrong; they feel right. But it’s necessary to fight against bias in order to create a work environment that supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people. Not only is that the right thing to do, but without a diverse workforce, there’s a pretty good chance that our products—just like that early YouTube app—won’t work for everyone. That means we need to make the unconscious, conscious.

The first step is education; we need to help people identify and understand their biases so that they can start to combat them. So we developed a workshop, Unconscious Bias @ Work, in which more than 26,000 Googlers have taken part. And it’s made an impact: Participants were significantly more aware, had greater understanding, and were more motivated to overcome bias.

In addition to our workshop, we’re partnering with organizations like the Clayman Institute and the Ada Initiative to further research and awareness. We’re also taking action to ensure that the decisions we make at work—from promoting employees to marketing products—are objective and fair. Here are four ways we're working to reduce the influence of bias:

  • Gather facts. It’s hard to know you’re improving if you’re not measuring. We collect data on things like gender representation in our doodles and at our conferences.
  • Create a structure for making decisions. Define clear criteria to evaluate the merits of each option, and use them consistently. Using the same standards to evaluate all options can reduce bias. This is why we use structured interviews in hiring, applying the same selection and evaluation methods for all.
  • Be mindful of subtle cues. Who’s included and who’s excluded? In 2013, Googlers pointed out that of the dozens of conference rooms named after famous scientists, only a few were female. Was this our vision for the future? No. So we changed Ferdinand von Zeppelin to Florence Nightingale—along with many others—to create more balanced representation. Seemingly small changes can have big effects.
  • Foster awareness. Hold yourself—and your colleagues—accountable. We’re encouraging Googlers to call out bias. For example, we share a “bias busting checklist” at performance reviews, encouraging managers to examine their own biases and call out those of others.

As we shared back in May, we’re not where we should be when it comes to diversity. But in order to get there, we need to have this conversation. We have to figure out where our biases lie, and we have to combat them. Tackling unconscious bias at work is just one piece of making Google a diverse workplace, but it’s absolutely essential if we’re going to live up to our promise to build technology that makes life better for as many people as possible.

Posted by Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations, and Brian Welle, Ph.D., Director of People Analytics