The Complexity Barrier

Be forewarned, I’m going to speak bluntly in this post.  I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings; I just want to make a point.

There’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve encountered the last few times I’ve taught a certain course.  I’ve given the students a poorly-defined problem with minimal guidance on what I’m looking for and then have asked them to build an organization and a process to solve the problem and then bring me a solution.

Do you know what I get?

I get a project management structure – because, I believe, that’s the only way they know how to organize themselves.

I get requests for more information, even though I’m the one asking them for more information.

And I get unhappy students.

Do you know what I wanted to get?

I wanted to see them self-organize into, essentially, an R&D structure.  I wanted to see discipline, confidence, critical thinking, logical analysis, exploration of the unknown, trial and error, testing, discovery.

What happened?  I think there’s a barrier, what I’ll call a complexity barrier, at which our students falter.  They expect to be given sufficient information to solve the problem and they assume that what they need to do is work together as a team to apply the information to solve that problem.  I also think they perceive the purpose of a team to be an opportunity to learn to work in teams.  But I want explorers… teams of explorers.  Not explorers who are learning to work in teams.

Results count.  Teamwork does not count unless the teamwork produces results.  Teamwork is not a goal, it’s a method.

But, back to the complexity barrier, I think many of them don’t know what to do when confronted with a problem that appears too complex because of the quantity of unknowns.  They balk at that.  They fear failure (i.e., not getting an “A”).  They give up.  They shouldn’t, but they do, because we’re not teaching the right mindset.  We teach them to do simple things and we teach them to do complicated things, but when we push them to do truly complex things – things with many unknowns and not easily discernible rules and no clear definition of success – they don’t see a way forward, they begin to contemplate failure, and they either stop or they just go through the motions.

So how can we fix this?

Four Teams

I’ve been thinking about teams recently.  There are a number of reasons why.  It would take multiple posts to explain it all, if I even decide to go there, and I probably won’t.  But a few minutes of recollection reminded me of four very different, and significant, team experiences I’ve had professionally.

Two of the teams were part of new hire training.  We did not know one another.  We did not choose one another.  We were simply grouped together and told we were a team.

This first team was, in one sense, a team, but only by definition.  In another sense, an important sense, it was not a team at all.  Let’s describe it as a “nominal” team.  This team was a failure from the very beginning because certain members pursued a strategy of intentionally embarrassing other members in front of management, making their teammates look bad in order to promote their own interests.  The result was complete failure, at least from a team perspective.  (Whether it ultimately advanced anyone’s personal career, I don’t know.)

The second team, also nominal, was also a failure.  The failure resulted from the team being factional and quarrelsome from the very beginning.  It essentially split into competing sub-teams and success was never achieved.

That leaves two other team experiences, and they were extraordinary.

The third team evolved naturally.  We knew one another.  We had worked side-by-side for many years.  We gravitated toward one another and developed friendships.  We had total trust and confidence in each other.  Each of us was competent in the complex technical things that we needed to do, but each member also had their own highly-specialized areas of expertise that made us significantly more effective working as a team – fewer problems, faster resolutions, flawless execution. I think back often about the privilege it was to work with Valerie and Johnny.

The fourth team also evolved naturally, but in a different way.  I was with a new company, returning to a technical role after five years of doing something more staff-related.  My new situation was a little different organizationally.  There were fewer of us, working from our homes, scattered across a large geography.  But, over a span of time, I again had the privilege of working with two amazing teammates, Jane and Van.  Interestingly, I think the thing I valued most about this team was the friendship and support.  It was often the peer-to-peer dialogue, the mutual understanding of the challenges and complexities we were facing, that was most valuable.  Basically, we could rant to one another as needed in order to reduce some of the stress.  But they also had great strengths in their areas of specialization.  I benefited from that while, honestly, offering them very little in return.  That team dissipated late last year and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t reflect on what great teammates they were.

z/VM and Linux support considerations on an IBM Z System migration

Most of my clients are z/OS customers, but quite a few of them also run z/VM and Linux on their mainframes.  When planning for an upgrade to a new processor, be sure you don’t overlook z/VM and Linux in your migration planning.  It’s important to be sure that all of the installed operating systems are at a version and release level that supports the incoming machine type as well as any new functions that are release dependent.

(Part of the systems assurance process is to identify the version and release level of all installed operating systems and compare that to the required versions and releases for the new processor, so this topic should be covered during the pre-install Technical and Delivery Assessment or TDA.  But, that’s really late in the planning process in most cases, often just prior to shipment of the new machine.  Sort of late to discover you need an OS upgrade, right?  Check it out early.)

Here is a link to review z/VM support for Z System servers. (Scroll down a bit when you get there.)

IBM Servers Supported by z/VM

Since Linux is not an IBM product, you must seek guidance from your Linux vendor on recommended release levels.  IBM does have a link that provides information on which environments have been tested.

IBM Tested Linux Platforms

Also, though there’s nothing imminent, here is a link to the “end of service” dates for IBM’s z/VM operating system.

VM End of Service Effective Dates

My Teaching Journey

I’ve recently been reflecting on my teaching career.  I started teaching in the engineering school about fourteen years ago.  The first course I taught was an undergraduate engineering course on engineering computation.  The focus was on using Microsoft Visual Basic and Microsoft Excel to solve basic engineering problems.  It was a great opportunity to do something different professionally.

My next course was a graduate course in operations management.  That was a nice fit, given my background in operations research, mathematical modeling, and simulation.  I taught that course for several years.

I added a couple more courses shortly after that.  One was on computer networking and the other was on computer security.

There came a point where we began to steer our master’s degree program more toward technology management and entrepreneurship.  I reworked the operations management course to become a course in the management of technology.  That quickly became my favorite course to teach.

From there, I spun off a course specifically on technology and innovation, with the emphasis on innovation.  I also developed a special topics course on professional communication for engineers.  That’s a long story; it was built around my own personal experiences of being a person who was always uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience, while being someone who has to do that all the time.  That’s when I wrote my book, Effective Speaking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Presentations.

In the last few years, my courses have been centered around systems engineering and engineering management.  I’ve been a professional systems engineer for over forty years, so that’s my niche.  But I’ll tell you, that’s been a tough subject to teach.  I’ll save that story for another time.  On the engineering management side, I’ve been teaching what is essentially “finance for non-financial managers” and strategic planning (with a deliberate focus on teaching IT-industry technical professionals how to better understand the problems of alignment between business and technology workers).

It’s been an interesting journey:

  1. Engineering Computation
  2. Operations Management
  3. Computer Networking
  4. Computer Security
  5. Management of Technology
  6. Technology and Innovation
  7. Professional Communications for Engineers
  8. Systems Engineering
  9. Financial Concepts
  10. Strategic Planning

What will I be teaching going forward?  Anything new?  I’m not sure.  One thing I’d like to do is develop a course on consulting skills and methods.  Another idea is a course on technology sales and technical sales support.  I’d also like to revise and update my course on professional communications, which could easily be part of the consulting skills course.

I’ve also considered starting a “professional development” consulting business to bring some of these important topics to a broader audience.  I ran my own consulting business for a number of years and it was a satisfying experience.   It’s also a great way to serve if you can help others develop their professional abilities and do it for a nominal charge.  There’s more to this story as well.

IBM z/OS V2.2 goes EOM on 01/29/2018

IBM z/OS V2.2 will be withdrawn from marketing this coming Monday, 01/29/2018.  If you are still running z/OS 1.13 and plan to move to z/OS 2.2 but have not yet ordered it, Monday is the last day you can do so.

See IBM ALET 917-078 for details.

Also, if you are running z/OS V2.1, remember that it goes “end of service” on 09/30/2018.