Giving titles meaning

Titles are not credentials. They help describe the responsibilities of an individual to facilitate success. The secret is that people decide what other people should be titled. It is in this unseen step that the train comes off the track. So, what do we do about it?

Only promote after the individual is acting in the role. Following this rule does two things. First, it instantly puts meaning into organizational titles. People that have them are not just sorting out how to be a leader or execute with new found skills and experience. If you are acting in the role, then no one questions when it is realized. This recognition creates a tremendous amount of support in the organization. It allows the leadership team demonstrate competence while fighting cynicism and cronyism. It also creates visible examples of the Company’s identity creating opportunities to guide, replicate and grow an organization.

Accept a title you are not ready for only if you have a plan on growing into the role. Titles are frequently incentives. If you negotiated a title at the start of your current job or were recently received a surprise promotion take pause. Knowing that you are stepping into a growth opportunity, you need to have a plan. What do you need to be successful? Who are your coaches or mentors? If you have are unable to pull together a plan, then you should not be in the role. It is much better to deal with that instead of faking it until you make it. People who pretend the part lose perspective and over time any hope for knowing authentically. Worse yet, they make awful leaders for others.

Do not confuse your title with an assessment of your ability to act. Conversely, do not be constrained by your title. The key is to focus on developing yourself and doing great work. People often confuse titles with permission. “I need to to be a manager to lead.” This idea is nonsense. Leading without authority is a much better skill to have. Titles are tools. If you do not know how to use them, they are dangerous.

Titles are words. Words convey ideas and actions change things. In my current Company, the topic of titles has come up many times. It is a small organization and people play many roles. What people are called is irrelevant mostly, but what they do is vital. The only titles we are careful with are customer facing individuals where a title facilitates peering. That sounds silly, but it is a critical part of interacting with other businesses. Everyone else can call themselves whatever they want in my opinion. If they are great at what they do, we celebrate that, not the words in their signature.

Focus less on what people call you and more on what you do. Others do not determine your arrival.

Creating better people

I am often accused of being a pessimist and always discard the idea as inexact. People say I am a realist and it is absent still of who I am. Complicated for sure.

One of the most significant ways I see the world is through the eyes of many. Somewhere in the multitudes of perspectives I find what is true. To get to there I will have adopted perspectives not my own, views created by where and with whom I have been, despite my fallible perceptions, and unwound that all to know my signal from noise.

Somewhere at twenty-five I decided the best way to reason about life is to consider I may die tomorrow. We tend not to choose when we leave and if you live with that, as the backdrop of today, the standards by which all is measured are naturally aspirational and every breath filled with gratitude. What am I doing? Why this? Why now? Why these people? What have I missed? What needs to change? So blessed.

Another thing I do is consider my worst-case scenario and fall in love with it. It makes the idea of the train going off the tracks palatable, in fact acceptable and at times desirable. That in turn gives me the confidence to not be held hostage by the current set of people, places or things. There is always an alternative and it reaffirms why I am doing something different in the first place. I could be doing something else, but right now I am doing this.

Needless to say, some find this irritating and highly exhausting.

I embody multiple points of view, but many of them are not my own.

If today is my last, there is no time to waste and nothing to take for granted.

Even if the people, places and things change, I wont lose myself.

Which brings me to the original inspiration for writing. As a people, we do too little to develop our understanding of our self. Somewhere among the many and varied life experiences we expect people to sort out why they are here and what they should be doing with their precious life time. We construct a world that makes it harder to accomplish this than ever – living vicariously through the best moments of others, the modern version of keeping up with the neighbors. If we find ourselves we then struggle to nourish it because nothing has been designed to make that easy.

People striving for clarity, stoking their fire and tapping their passion results in the fruits we perceive as indicative of success. It is in fact perfectly acceptable to have obtained all the people, places and things in the world and still not have any of it come from within. There is a great idea that changing one side of the coin will change the other, like smiling to be happier. Unfortunately, in this case, the evidence does not create the reality. This dysfunction poisons the water. People need to find the reason they are here and do that at all costs and encourage others to do that same.

What would happen if everyone sorted out their purpose and stayed true to that their entire life?

What kind of education system is needed to help this?

What kind of culture is required to support it?

Intentional software design and the customer tightrope

Customer designed solutions are radically flawed. IT people do that to manage their business counterparts. “You asked for X and I gave you X. Hope you can drive adoption!” This demands too little from the business to articulate the value proposition – the users, defined market, unique difference and desired outcome. This absolves IT from having to contribute to the leadership of thinking, discovering and doing the right thing.

No software company alive has initially built software based on customer requirements. Gathering feedback and user testing are not the same as beginning with the survey of what a customer “wants.” In fact, the challenge has always been how to validate the applicability of a customer’s request over the money they may be willing to pay.

Yet, it would seem everyone wants to start with the construction, we are human after all, instead of starting with what at the core uniquely delivers value and in turn defines the product and the company. Upon reflection, I recall an ex-manager that said, “I think we will end up at the same place, we just start at different beginnings.” If you subscribe to this point-of-view you will end up with a core that is not of your own creation, but instead one of circumstance. This doesn’t make it wrong, but it does make it unintentional.

The problem with data science

Everyone wants a data scientist, yet most have no idea what that would mean – it’s the cool thing to want and even cooler thing to sell. The problem with data science is that it will take time to evolve technology, business and industry to make the discipline and role effective. Until then you actually want something even more rare than the data scientist, a software engineer who knows data.

The United States alone faces a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with analytical expertise and 1.5 million managers and analysts with the skills to understand and make decisions based on the analysis of big data.

Big data: The next frontier for competition - McKinsey
Big data: The next frontier for competition – McKinsey

I am bullish on the data science concept as a field of study. I am hoping that at least half decide to get their masters in something different, because diversity is still more important than a specific skill set. The focus on data as an important domain of understanding is not new, but it does appear that many people have gotten by without – imagine how much better everything would have been if we knew what it was we were looking at or what questions we should have been asking!

As we enter the trough of disillusionment for big data, it would seem a side effect is the increasing demand for people that understand data, ask the right questions, design the right approaches and help build the right solutions. Instead of waiting for data scientists, we should be build them not wait to buy them.

First, it is going to be hard to hire the best data scientists. If you can’t source the most talented, I would argue there is a significant drop in ability to the point that additional strategies are required.

Second, most of the data scientists you will recruit will be lacking domain knowledge. It takes time to impart this information, especially if they have less experience, since that means they have less to build upon.

Third, I am no longer certain that what you want is a data scientist, at least not initially. I liken them to the recent and desperate need for Hadoop. Enterprises made significant investments in a subpar distributed file system and a framework for distributed processing. Most of those enterprises lack the attributes that drove those innovations and it is easy to argue the costs outweighed the benefits. Nonetheless, everyone needs to be “innovative” and so it goes, millions to build out data lakes without a lifeguard on duty. Data scientists require leaders and environments that build on their unique strengths – aspirational visions and tangible impact.

Accenture - It Takes Teams to Solve the Data Scientist Shortage
Accenture – It Takes Teams to Solve the Data Scientist Shortage

Instead of trying so hard to hire the data scientists from “MIT,” consider that it might make more sense to grow your current organization in understanding a little more data science. Your current top talent has domain expertise and if you have software engineers, the skills to deliver. With some help on the basic techniques and algorithms you actually have a practical strategy. Maybe you hire that MIT graduate as an advisor to the software engineers required to effectively build production data analysis?!

Data scientists are going to be a rarity for most enterprises and in some cases entire industries. This capability will be available through industry focused consulting offering the edge of having the knowledge without the expense of sourcing, leading, managing and retaining. It is more important to be able to build the first order techniques and algorithms against a data set you understand, because most of the time that will be good enough, more than enough. Moreover, if you are in a domain where more is required, then you already have hired data scientists – I am not directing this at you. Software engineers that know enough about data science are invaluable, since they are able to realize, at scale, the way in which to operationalize that data thinking. Without them, you might end up with a team of data scientists only able to offer solutions limited to the supporting technology they know – a limiting factor unless you want to create presentations and demos.

We have a world filled with educated individuals often performing tasks unrelated to their learning. Many have proven their ability to be highly successful which underscores how slight the specifics have been in their success. I think it is fair to say that more is required than the degree(s) and involvement – those events required an individual in tune enough to make something of those experiences to achieve great things. Data science, be it the scientist or engineer, is going to need more than the obvious indicators to make a go of it. As such, I can only recommend that we help people grow in diversity in their involvement, application and creation of unexpected things.

Activism leads in the absence of an effective government

In the absence of a government that can effectively govern, activism leads us. 

Most of us are not in the position to govern. We rely upon those passionate for that path to represent and act on behalf of the collective. When that process fails people become apathetic. The problem with that is that the collective memory forgets its aspirations. When leadership fails you, activism is the only way to hold strong to the issues of importance.

A single voice is louder when joined with others of like mind. Find organizations that represent the issues you care about and give to them. They are unlikely to be perfect in their message or execution, however, doing nothing ensures those in power have no objection.

Exercise your rights and privileges as often as possible. It is easy to step back and construe that the lack of engagement represents a point of view. If you never express your voice then maybe you do not need freedom of speech. It may sound ridiculous, but this is how people manipulate data – “lack of use means it must not be important.” Of course those are two different observations and the latter something you need to ask about in order to discover – “Is freedom of speech important to you?” When was the last time you were asked anything?

The ninth amendment to the United States Constitution is Madison’s attempt to ensure that in defining liberty, in listing rights, the omission of a right is not be used to deny it. And while this may have been inspired by the need to balance the rights of the states and the general government, it also underscores that as long as a right is protected somewhere, it need not be listed to be protected. Stand up for what you believe is true and you continually shape what governs your circles.

We have optimized around following someone with a point-of-view. We know them no better than an actor in a movie. We cross our fingers and hope. For most of us this means we have to spend money for others to represent areas of interest. Acting like giving money to support these agendas is wrong only makes it easier for those that more effectively fundraise. Money shapes how the current society governs. Short of a complete reboot, we must accept that and work within it. I promise you can throw up after your voice is heard. Doing nothing makes you an irrelevant passenger.

Don’t just adopt the cat; fund the lobbying effort that fights to protect animals. Don’t just hope the new restaurant in town makes it, make it a point to patron there. Gay and want to get married, do! Get active. Exercise your rights and privileges and ensure lack of use isn’t an excuse.