Monday, October 2, 2017
For longer than I can remember I have been using computers to make music. Many years ago I wrote a program I called Newsic, a compiler for musical tones using a fourier approach. Is was interesting, and eventually I was able to load a generated sound into a keyboard and play these tones.
My new endeavor will use midi in and out to control a keyboard workstation. For preliminary development I will use Python. Feel free to follow to see how this turns out!
Monday, August 17, 2015
A great deal has been written about the work environment at Amazon. The reason for this attention is that there is something unique going on there. I was only at Amazon for 19 months, but I learned a great deal that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Before I get to my feelings about my time at Amazon, I want to set the stage a bit.
First off, I love my current job at Snowflake Computing and am very grateful for the opportunity to work with the incredible team they have put together. In fact, I feel that my experience at Amazon helped set me up for success in this role. I am passionate about the value of data in making business decisions and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to share that passion in my daily work.
Second, I feel like I need to explain my views on the modern workforce in order to give context to my feeling about Amazon and what they are doing. In my opinion, two primary forces are pulling today’s workforce in opposite directions. What I am going to say may be politically incorrect and offend some people, but I am going to try to leave the political implications out. I feel that the current environment has a great deal to do with the way that Amazon has developed its methods for teaching leadership.
On one hand, people have never felt more entitled than today. I may be getting old, but I am amazed by what people expect to be given just for showing up to work. Very few in the American technology workforce have ever known true scarcity, and as a result there are many who lack a sense of urgency about their careers. This attitude is not entirely negative. A career is only part of the life we lead, and the surplus energy can be directed into many good endeavors. However it does create a challenge for managers who are learning to deal with employees who they find difficult to motivate or direct. Perks are often thrown at employees in the hopes of luring top talent to a company and holding on to the talented workers they have.
On the other hand, the entrepreneurial spirit has never been more prevalent. Many in the workforce are driven by an inner need to succeed and are finding innovative ways to do so. Venture capital has added tremendous fuel to the fire, funding the movement and profiting greatly from the successes. Caution has been thrown to the wind in pursuit of bigger ideas, and while their have been a significant number of failures, many positive innovations have resulted. No one could have predicted how this movement has reshaped corporate America as well as our everyday lives.
In this complex environment, Amazon has thrived by adapting and finding a way to promote passion and innovation throughout the company. Still, working at Amazon is not for everyone, as evidenced by a high turnover rate and a far from stellar ratings on services such a Glassdoor. I personally loved working at Amazon, and feel strongly that it has changed me in ways that will benefit me for years to come. Still, I struggled with a number of the issues that have caused others to leave with hard feelings for the company.
For the sake of transparency, I should add that I accepted another job after 19 months at Amazon because I was offered an amazing opportunity. I was mostly happy during my time there, but I will admit that I spoke with a number of recruiters about other positions. I believe in keeping my options open and ultimately chose to take advantage of a great opportunity when it was presented to me. Though I was only at Amazon a relatively short time, the lessons I learned will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Very few things in life push us to truly excel, to reach beyond what we think we are capable of and acheive our full potential. Excellence requires extraordinary effort to achieve and maintain, along with regular self-analysis to determine areas for improvement. One very real challenge in pushing ourselves to be our best is the struggle to accept the value of who we are today while acknowledging that we can become better. Environments that are designed to promote high achievement often become stressful when we fall short of the new standards we have set for ourselves or that others have set for us.
Many have pointed out that our work environment is most strongly impacted by those with whom we interact on a daily basis. As a result, employees of a single corporation can have vastly different experiences based on the teams within which they operate. I have had the great fortune in my career of working in some great teams. The best teams motivate one another by example, with everyone working hard together to achieve success. The true challenge for upper management in a large organization is trying to ensure that the teams they manage are creating this type of environment.
Amazon’s management principles are one way to create a consistent environment throughout a huge organization. When properly applied they create a demanding but fair environment that rewards effort and encourages innovation. This environment permeates the entire organization at Amazon, all the way up to the executives. It can empower employees by offering them a chance to make a difference in a major corporation.
Working in data, I was used to being asked to provide reports to show decision makers the numbers around their decisions. At Amazon I was asked to help make decisions by providing not just the numbers, but also my insights into the numbers. Instead of just learning how to work with the data, I was encouraged to learn the business and given the opportunity to leverage my knowledge in new and exciting ways. I rarely felt pressured, outside of the pressure I put on myself to excel. I went from being satisfied as an individual contributor to wanting to lead.
I will admit that Amazon faces a number of challenges as it pushes forward. The management principles are not always consistently applied and some teams have created openly hostile environments. While I never felt that hostility within the groups where I worked, I will admit that my experience with managers was a bit uneven. The churn of the organization resulted in me having 6 managers during my time at Amazon. This happened even though I never changed roles. Some of them were great managers who nurtured my skills and encouraged me to grow. I still look up to them and am grateful for their influence. Others were honestly too busy to help me in a meaningful way. While some were more effective than others, all were friendly and none ever belittled me or put undue pressure on me. To be honest, had I had more consistent management I likely never would have considered career opportunities outside of Amazon.
An organization growing as fast as Amazon is today is bound to have some rough spots and uneven management. I never witnessed anything cruel or demeaning in any way. I have spoken to a few employees, and a few spouses of employees, who found the grind at Amazon did not suit them. That is not unusual for a place that employs thousands of workers. I have worked in dysfunctional organizations before and my time at Amazon was nothing like that. I worked with talented and driven individuals on key projects that resulted in a number of successes. I made good friends and have many fond memories.
As a result of my time at Amazon, I feel that I have internalized the spirit of the management principles. Passion for your work is very liberating, even when it borders on obsession. I will admit that the ideas promoted within Amazon do not fit everyone. Not in a world where we enjoy great diversity. However they have helped me to become more than I previously thought I could be and opened my mind to new possibilities.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
I remember the first time that someone asked me about cloud computing. I was attending a software conference in 2008, representing a BI vendor. One of the conference officials came to our booth to ask if anyone from our company would be willing to sit on a panel for a discussion about cloud computing. At the time, I had heard a few whispers about the concept of cloud computing, but I didn’t have a firm grasp of the concept or any idea of the impact it would have.
I declined the offer to sit on the panel, and instead watched from the audience. There were some interesting ideas presented in that discussion. However, as someone who frequently worked with very sensitive customer data, it seemed far-fetched that these same customers would push their data to an external location. Fast-forward 3 years and suddenly cloud computing was gaining incredible momentum. Amazon’s AWS had made it easy to spin up resources for any size of business. That year I spent a good chunk of my free time working on a startup that hosted its service in AWS and I learned a lot. Unfortunately our venture didn’t get very far, but the seed had been planted.
Shortly afterwards I joined a much larger cloud-based BI startup. There I began to really understand how the scale of the cloud was a game-changer. At the time, we had to work hard to convince most of our potential customers that the cloud was secure and that they could entrust their most valuable data to someone else. That was a crazy ride where once again I learned a great deal. When the time came to make a change, I made the jump to the cloud leader and joined Amazon.com. While I was not in the AWS business unit, I quickly learned that the cloud was very much at the heart of how Amazon ran everything. Flexibility and scalability were essential for such a dynamic organization. I was providing BI for a key development team and their business partners and the cloud was a key resource in my daily work. I loved working at Amazon, and once again I continued to learn. One key principal for building a successful career in BI is to constantly be on the lookout for the next new technology. When I first heard about Snowflake Computing, the problems that they were trying to solve really resonated with me. A totally new data warehouse, purpose built for the cloud with a focus on scalability and performance. The website in those days was little more than a few buzzwords and the profiles of the founders. I realized that they had assembled a team capable of building something truly transformative and I decided that I needed to investigate further.
At first, my inquiries were mainly aimed at satisfying my curiosity. However the more I learned, the more I realized that I needed to seriously consider joining their team. As I mentioned earlier, I was very happy with my current role, so I took things very slowly. At each step of the process there were more questions, but the things I heard made me think that this company was something special.
After a few weeks and interviews, it came time for me to interview at the headquarters. My first interview was with Benoit Dageville and Thierry Cruanes, two of the three founders of Snowflake. I actually started the interview off in French since they are both French and I once lived in France. However as we turned to technical subjects we transitioned to English so that I could understand the details. I was blown away by what they told me about what they had built over the past two years. I was sold, and decided to make the jump.
Snowflake has built a database that truly leverages the flexibility and scalability of the cloud. By separating storage from compute in a unique way, they have enabled customers to handle their data in ways that no one could even consider previously. For example, with unlimited storage at a reasonable cost you can load raw semi-structured data into Snowflake without worrying about consuming valuable storage in a traditional database cluster. Snowflake built on that foundation and added built-in parsing to discover the schema of the semi-structured data to enable schema on read. The applications are practically limitless, and the speed and ease-of-use far exceed any Hadoop implementation I have ever dealt with.
On top of the freedom to store data in new ways, Snowflake’s architecture allows for scalable compute resources to handle variable loads and practically eliminate resource contention. We are just beginning to see the applications for this functionality, as customers are no longer tied to a fixed amount of compute resources.
With all of this functionality, one would assume that managing Snowflake would be a challenge. But the beauty of the cloud is that we are able to deliver all of this a service that requires little to no administration. Simply define a data model, load your data, and start querying.
Some database gurus may feel that they want to get under the hood to tune the database to meet their specific needs. I am one of those who felt that my skills were the key to providing access to the right data in the right way. I have come to realize the while I may be good at getting the most out of a database, Snowflake engineers are great at making a database that is easy for anyone to use. Snowflake’s database allows users from analysts and engineers to data scientists to leverage their skills with data in an environment that is automatically optimized for performance and scalability.
To use an analogy, I can make money in the stock market by researching stocks and buying and selling on my own. Still, I won’t ever be able to beat the top fund managers that are paid to be the best at what they are and have the tools and focus to suceed. Snowflake lets you leverage the work of some of the top minds in the industry that have made a database that runs better than any other database in the world.
It took a number of years for me to realize, but the idea of cloud computing is enabling solutions we never could have dreamed of 7 years ago. I am not a gambler, but I am “all in” on the cloud and feel confident that this is one bet that will pay off.
Monday, February 3, 2014
At the heart of this Seahawk team is Pete Carroll, whose style permeates the entire team from top to bottom. He and John Schneider have built this team based on a blueprint that they had in their minds when they arrived in Seattle 4 years ago. The players put in the hours in the workout room and in practice and executed beautifully on so many occasions this season, but the coach was the one who brought it all together. At 62, he is one of the oldest coaches in the NFL today, but his youthful and energetic attitude cannot be denied. He helped to rebuild this team from scratch and he and his staff molded this team into the most fearsome in the league.
Now, before going any further, I must admit the cheering for Pete Carroll was not easy for me at first. As an avid college football fan who has a strong distaste for USC (my favorite teams are BYU and Michigan), I didn't have a very high opinion of him when I arrived in Seattle a year ago. He repeatedly "stole" recruits from both of my favorite schools and the Trojans' success under him made him seem smug and even slimy. When the truth came out about the Reggie Bush situation, I was one of the many who pointed a finger at the coach and felt vindicated in my belief that his success came though cheating. When he suddenly left USC for Seattle, it appeared that he was running from the scene of the crime.
On top of all that, Pete Carroll was supposed to be a failure as an NFL head coach. Before finding success at USC, he had been fired by both the Jets and the Patriots. Even worse, the Patriots turned into a dynasty soon after Carroll was shown the door, implying that his coaching was holding them back. He had shown great promise as a position coach, but it seemed that the spotlight of being a head coach in the NFL was too bright for him to handle.
With all of this as background, imagine my surprise when I arrived in Seattle, to find that practically the whole town loves Pete Carroll. Having grown up in Detroit, where I was an avid fan of the worst franchise in professional football, I was very excited to be living in a town with an NFL team. I immediately read up on the team and realized that they were headed for an exciting season with a lot of young and energetic players. Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman were names that I had heard, but the more I learned about this team the more I liked it. I have always loved hard-nosed, physical football where the goal is for the team to impose its will on its opponents. This Seahawks team was built to do just that, and the architect of this attitude was Pete Carroll. And the Super Bowl was the culmination, a total physical domination of a skilled opponent from the opening kickoff until the game was well in hand.
In the joy of celebrating the Seahwks win with my kids, I watched a lot of post game interviews. One interview in particular stock out in my mind, I don't even remember who the interviewer was. Someone asked Pete Carroll what is was like to win this game at the same location where he was fired after his first season as an NFL head coach. Something changed in Pete's countenance ever so slightly so show that the subject was not a pleasant one for him. He recovered and gave a respectful response, but his initial reaction taught me a lot about Pete Carroll.
Most successful people are driven to succeed and they can visualize what success looks like and make a plan to get there. The vast majority have not always been successful, but they have learned from failure and used it to cement their vision of success. I can't be sure, but it seems to me that Pete Carroll used his past failures to figure out how to succeed as an NFL coach and this Seahawk team is the result of his vision for success. It appears that he has known since day one in Seattle what it would take to get to this point, and gained that knowledge the hard way.
Just like sports, success in business requires hard work and vision. Some business leaders are born with that vision and run at the front from day one. However, I find that the most successful leaders have failed multiple times throughout their careers, and what they learn from those failures shapes their vision of what true success looks like. And just like Pete Carroll's vision has lifted a team and a whole fanbase, great business leaders lift those around them and bring their vision of success to reality.
Thursday, August 8, 2013
I was lying in bed tonight trying to get to sleep when I realized a truth about myself and my career that had missed until now. I pulled out my computer right away to capture my thoughts before they were washed away by a night of sleep. Hopefully my story will help someone out there who falls into the same profile as I do. I know it may seem to have very little to do with BI, but I think it teaches a lesson that can be applied within any discipline.
I did not get into Professional Services by choice, I was led there by the skills I was blessed with in this life. I studied Computer Science in college and expected to get a job as a typical programmer upon graduation. I figured I would code for my entire life and never work closely with customers. But unlike many programmers, I love talking and have a gift for explaining technical concepts to people without a technical background.
In the final interview for my first job coming out of college, the interviewer decided to recommend me for a position that required direct interaction with customers. I accepted a position writing customized code to exchange data between my company's proprietary system and and other systems used by our clients. This position required me to work very closely with our clients to design exactly how the data would move within their environment so that the solution I built would meet their needs. I spent a great deal of time on-site with customers as well as on the phone.
While I enjoyed the team on which I worked as well as the actual coding, I was not good at customer service. As a programmer, I felt that the customers didn't understand what I did and when things went wrong I often blamed them for my problems. Now, I never did it to their faces, but in hindsight what I did was almost as bad. I wanted new challenges and so I ended up with too much work to be effective and made both myself and my customers miserable. The quality of the code I wrote was good and I worked very hard, so I actually got great evaluations and was considered a valuable asset.
After 5 years, it was time for me to move to a position where I could focus on programming. I moved to a data visualization start-up as a Java developer and was happy to code with no interruptions from customers. However, after less than a year, I was asked to help get a Professional Services team up and running. Clients were having trouble implementing our software and so a team was being created to enable more sales by assisting in that process. Remembering my previous struggles with customers, I cautiously accepted an offer to spend 6 months on this new team. I enjoyed the challenge presented by each new client, but again I found the interaction with them bothersome. They always demanded more than I felt I was able to provide and I struggled to avoid ugly confrontations over unrealistic expectations. Again, hard work and technical ability covered for my poor customer skills and I was viewed as being successful in that role.
Once the 6 months came to an end, I gladly returned to product development. Interestingly enough, my knowledge of what customers expected from our software made me a better engineer and I thrived during this time. But after only 6 months, an opportunity came up that changed the course of my career. Our company was launching a sales initiative in Europe and needed a Sales Engineer to help in the effort. I knew almost nothing about sales, but they offered me the job because I knew the software as well as anyone and could talk to customers without tripping over myself. Little did I know at the time, how closely sales and services were related and that I was headed for my greatest professional failure.
I loved my job. It was exciting and exotic and I was having a great time. The sales team I worked with was awesome and we worked hard and played hard together. I was travelling to Europe every other month and recruiting partners to help us sell and implement our software. The challenge was overwhelming, many people told me that we could never be successful in the short-term. That only made me work harder to prove them wrong and to find success in the new part of my career. Six months in, I was at dinner in Rome with my Sales Director when that world came crashing down.
The home office called to let him know that he was being let go. A few days later, I was back in the office and being told that I would not be able to stay in sales. The European efforts were being scaled back significantly and there were no other positions available. The VP of Sales told me that he had been planning to let me go, but that the Services team had an opening and would take me back. As a young father with 4 children and a wife at home, I accepted the move to Services, but inside I was seething. I thought that the VP must be blind not to see my talents, what he would lose by taking me out of a sales role. I vowed to find a new job as soon as possible. It took 6 months of careful searching, but once I found an alternative I took it without a second thought.
The new job was a poor fit to say the least. I ended up as a BI Engineer in charge of implementing the software of the company that I had just left for one of their largest clients. Instead of looking within to understand why the VP of Sales had not seen me as indispensable, I turned to what I knew was a safe job. I actually enjoyed several aspects of that job, but after two years I needed a change. What came next was a crazy ride that taught me a great deal about who I really am.
My previous employer had been acquired by a very aggressive new start-up that wanted to change the face of BI. I wanted badly to be a part of what they were doing and reached out to my former co-workers looking for a fit. I wanted to get back into Sales, but they were in stealth mode and didn't need Sales Engineers. So, by several twists and turns, I ended up back in Services. The Client Services organization was run by some very smart people and was well-organized, but I still had not learned from my past failures. I took on too many responsibilities and tried to maneuver my way into Sales while I should have been focused on execution of the work in front of me. Once again, my technical abilities and hard work kept me from drowning completely, but I was miserable. I was working 80 or more hours a week and dreading work each morning.
This time, I didn't have to look for an exit. A recruiter from Amazon.com reached out to me when I was at a low point. I wasn't quite sure why, but I responded to her message and before I knew it I was living in Seattle. Once again, I am a BI Engineer, but this time I love it. Amazon is a great place to work and the environment fits me very well. I still have a ton to learn and I make all kinds of mistakes, but I am learning and enjoying myself.
So what is he point of this story? Only through the lens of what I have experienced could I truly understand what it is like to work for the world's most customer-centric company. To be great at Sales or Services, you must want to serve your customers. They can never be seen an annoyance or an obstacle. What they want and need must be at the center of everything you do. The real challenge for you is to make their problems your problems and partner with them to solve them as equals.
In Sales, prospects who feel you understand their needs will be much more willing to listen. In Services, customers who know that your number one priority is their satisfaction. Clever and talented as you may be, you can never fully succeed with customers unless you care more about them than you do about your own bottom line.
Monday, February 4, 2013
Thursday, January 17, 2013
January is a new start for everyone, but especially so for me as I celebrate my birthday this month. In a week I will turn 39 and that has me thinking a lot about what I want to accomplish over the next 12 months. Time moves very quickly fo me, too quickly most of the time, and we can never get it back. Often we focus on the big decisions we make in life, the ones that can have a huge impact on how our lives progress. However I would argue that many of the seemingly minor decisions we make are even more important. Big decisions like employment changes or choosing a school for our children often end up being made for us by the little choices we make every day. Deciding to stay at work a few minutes extra to finish one last task can have a huge impact over time. Taking a few minutes each night to read to your children before bed can lead to them developing a love of learning.
We often talk about the fact that some people are "penny wise and pound foolish", to imply that most of the time they make smart financial decisions but then waste large sums of money with rash decisions. But we rarely talk about those who do the opposite, who spend frivolously on small items and therefore never have the money for big ticket purchases. As one who likes to bring a lunch from home, I am surprised by how often co-workers that eat out every day complain that they don't have money to buy the things they want.
In business there are many companies that make good strategic decisions, but are doomed to mediocrity or worse because they fail to execute on a day-to-day basis. One of the greatest values of Business Intelligence is the ability to see how the little choices we make impact our key objectives. You may do a great job of hiring productive employees, but if you don't manage them effectively then it doesn't do you much good. Collecting the right data and knowing how to interpet it can help a manager keep their team efficient on a daily basis and produce great results over time. Little adjustments made at the right time can have a much more powerful effect than big course corrections made after poor performance shows up in the bottom line.