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Women and Girls in Technology: Ice Station Zebra

April 23, 2013 3 comments

I recently completed a volunteer project called Technovation Challenge that aims to “inspire girls to become creators and innovators” by mentoring them to create mobile app companies. I’d like to share a little bit about the experience because it was great for the students, inspirational for me and it’s critical for the hi-tech industry going forward.

I’ll preface this with a confession, using the term “girls” makes me feel politically incorrect, but that’s the Technovation terminology and, as you’ll see, aiming young is important. The story begins with Joythi, a concerned parent who organized an extracurricular course of study for students who were disbanded when our young women’s STEM school was closed. Joythi chose Technovation as one of the activities and asked a friend (Shannon) to form and lead a mentoring team to coach the kids (ages 13-16) through a 12-week program that concluded with an international competition for $10,000 in seed funding.

PDX Team

PDX Team

Perhaps you’ve heard that “kids today have a sense of entitlement” and “they won’t go the extra mile.” I didn’t see that with our students. Portland State University donated a computer lab, which was fitting, because I’d rate the time commitment and pace equal to a university course. The program included concept, design, market research, competitive analysis, programming, planning and the all-important funding pitch. Each student brought something special to her team. There were some great programmers and writers, an artistic type doing PowerPoint images, a spreadsheet wizard rolling the numbers and a future product manager who authored an amazing competitive matrix. They did it all and created a prototype mobile app to help high school students graduate: Graduaide. I’d tell you more, but the team can do it better: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Prsz9oHFpx4

Why is this important? Let’s start with the team. Their confidence shouts out in the video. And they really earned that feeling. They learned a lot about hi-tech and themselves. They believe in themselves and that’s important for middle school students. But I didn’t just see what the Portland team produced. I also judged entries from Canada, UK, Ukraine, Jordan and India. They were great. For me, working with an almost entirely female team was really educational. I expected that, but was still surprised at the extent to which I feel better prepared to address gender in the workplace as a result.

But why is this important to our industry? Gender inequity in hi-tech is pretty well documented, so I’ll just summarize it like this. The hi-tech workplace is predominantly male (~70%) and the bias is even stronger in areas like programming. Put simply, it becomes more pronounced as rewards increase and it’s been getting worse. When I graduated from university, women were earning close to 40% of the computer science degrees, but today, it’s less than 20%. What happened? I believe men created an environment that’s suited to men; and it’s driving 50% of the population away. How can that be healthy or smart business?

Diversity is important for many reasons but here’s the bottom-line: your company will be more successful if your employees reflect the demographics of your market. So we’re not just being unfair, we’re leaving money on the table – all of us. I’ve led several development sites with 20+ programmers but no women and I call this phenomenon “Ice Station Zebra”. That’s a reference a classic cold-war thriller with the peculiar distinction of an all-male cast. That’s where we are today: Ice Station Zebra. Of course I’m an optimist and believe smart ideas win in the long term. So I believe gender equity in hi-tech will happen, but I don’t think it’s enough to be “gender-blind” today because I don’t believe we can wait for this problem to solve itself. So here are some recommendations you can act on today.

First, when opening a job requisition, insist that your recruiter present qualified female candidates before interviews begin. Perhaps you didn’t know you could do that? Well you can, and you’ll get no argument from HR. They know there’s a problem and will be glad that you see it too. Second, walk a mile in their shoes. You’re not going to learn much about hi-tech gender issues from a room full of guys. Third, address the problem at the root and that means promoting hi-tech careers as an option for women and girls. The first two suggestions won’t move the needle if we cannot improve the entry rate. Volunteering for the PDX Technovation Challenge was a great experience because it helped me understand gender in the workplace and it promoted hi-tech with young women. Change will happen. Where do you want to be when it does and what will you do about it now?

Accurate Estimates are Important

December 28, 2010 2 comments

Accurate estimates are critical to successful development projects because overestimates and underestimates damage credibility and profitability. Ideally, the estimated cost and actual cost are found to be identical at project completion and optimal, meaning that we didn’t overpay. But what happens if we start with a bad estimate?

Overestimates become self-fulfilling prophecies because work expands to fill the budget. So one impact of an overestimate is a linear increase in cost. For every estimated unit over the optimal cost, we pay one additional unit in actual cost. Another possible outcome is that the project never gets funded or someone else gets the work because the estimate doesn’t provide the needed ROI. Even if a bloated project is funded, the downstream impact is bad because sloppy work habits become ingrained in the workforce leading to systemically poor productivity.

Underestimates are even worse than overestimates, because the impact is non-linear. Once it’s clear that the budget is broken the team is pushed into overdrive to meet the unrealistic goal, causing turnover and exacerbating the problem. If the estimate is bad enough the project is replanned, either by descoping or pushing the schedule. When that happens there is often a leadership change, which impacts the schedule as well. Changes to leadership, plan and personnel are multiplicative and cause cost to escalate rapidly. In the worst cases, the project is canceled completely.

The Standish Group is a respected industry analysis and research firm that regularly publishes a study, fittingly named CHAOS, documenting project failure rates (among other things). Since the inaugural study in 1994, project failure rates have dropped from 31% to 24%. That’s improvement, but still dismal. Inaccurate estimates are a key reason that projects fail – though certainly not the only one. I’ll be writing more on this subject going forward, including approaches that I’ve seen work.

An Inspiring Story about an Extraordinary Team and Culture

December 22, 2010 2 comments

We all aspire to work with great teams and I’ve had some amazing experiences in that regard. Several years ago I had the good fortune to manage a development team in Sweden. That team did many great things, but this story only involves them culturally. In fact, the best way to describe that team is to say that they’d get more satisfaction reading about the exploits of their countrymen than they would reading about themselves.

Let’s start by setting the stage. Our team was located in Skellefteå, a town of 35,000 in northern Sweden. And, when I say northern Sweden, think arctic circle, reindeer, midnight sun, connecting flights, prop-jets, etc…

Skellefteå has a small, efficient airport and travelers typically use the bus when getting to and fro. This is quite convenient because, in Skellefteå, the bus schedule isn’t independent, it’s built around the actual arrival and departure of planes. And, as I sat across the city square from my hotel drinking a beer with a colleague, I fully intended to begin my journey home with that bus.

So it was a bit concerning when I noticed a bus pulling away from my hotel after returning from the bar with another beverage. Was that my bus? Surely not I thought confidently as we drank our beers. After all, I was a seasoned traveler who knew the plane schedule well. Thirty minutes later, I meandered across the square and asked the hotel receptionist when my bus would arrive, so I could fly to Stockholm.

Sir! She said with alarm, your bus left 35 minutes ago! I was lost in thought, because that meant I would be spending the night and missing a host of other commitments. She was not lost in thought; she was rapidly speaking Swedish into the phone. Before my thoughts were complete, a car screeched to a halt outside reception and a very concerned driver bolted through the doors. He grabbed my 40 pound bag, threw it over his shoulder, ran to the car and threw it into the trunk, with me in tow and all the while imploring me to hurry. Obviously, she’d called me a car and, oops, I hadn’t settled the bill.

Once in the car we traveled the one lane roads at breakneck speed, which was odd, because the Swedes are notoriously law abiding. When not calmly speaking Swedish into his cell phone, my driver asked me a few particulars, like where I was going. And, when we arrived at the airport, he again grabbed my 40 pound bag, threw it over his shoulder and ran – this time into the terminal – where he threw it onto a moving conveyor belt.

Behind the desk, a smartly dressed luggage handler wrapped an already printed destination tag around my luggage handle as it disappeared up the belt, just as the clerk handed me an already printed boarding pass (how did that happen?) and briskly walked me to a waiting security checkpoint were I provided my fingerprint and breezed through. Finally, I was escorted by a flight attendant out to the tarmac, up the steps and onto the plane where the doors closed immediately behind me and we departed – on time. Ten minutes later we were airborne and, freshly provisioned with another beer, I reflected on the evening’s events.

The hotel, cab, airline and security personnel all worked for different companies. They all had jobs to do and rules to follow. But the chain of events that got me to Stockholm required that each of them modify their normal routine and coordinate across traditional boundaries in order to provide me with an extraordinary experience. The story ends when I next visited Sweden and described my experience to a cab driver who, with obvious pride, told me that travelers rarely missed flights in Skellefteå. Indeed.

Like our team, this driver was raised on the Scandinavian Jante Law, which downplays individual achievements and focuses on the group. I use this story occasionally because even though it celebrates the achievements of a small town in Sweden, it’s a global story. We all want to be part of a team that operates like that. We all want to do a great job and provide a great result. When leaders are at their best, they tap into that desire. You can’t extract performance like that, it needs to be given.

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