After a finishing up my current contract, holidays and a bit of Bloggers Block, a chat with John Wenger about humanity and process a while ago has inspired me to do this post that I’ve had brewing for a while… Your first response may be a glib / tongue-in-cheek response “What, humanity and PMs, that’s an Oxymoron”. And therein lies the problem – I feel I almost need to point out that PMs are people too :-) Most of them are trying to do a good job in a probably difficult situation. They have families, lovers, pets: and they’re just at work like you – doing their best…
To tease this apart more, the first thing we need to do is separate the person from the role. With that, we can acknowledge that people are generally the same, so there should be no core difference between a PM and others in an org. Then we have the role – this is unfortunately where distortions can come in. Not only from the role, but the organisation and it’s view of that role which often puts them forward as “Managers”. I mostly see them as “Administrators”, though and I’m not saying this in a mean way – as an Architect (or any other core-IT role) I see them there to help me to build things for an organisation. Sure, they have their plans, but any good PM knows how to work the plan with the people and not the other way around.
In most of my engagements in large organisations, as a facilitator I’ve gotten along well with the PMs personally and professionally and they’ve always helped the project (well, there’s always the exception, but one can say that about almost anything). Strangely though, this seems to be the opposite of most of the “agile crowd” who seem to constantly complain about and want to get rid of PMs. What’s up? Have I just been lucky the last 15-20 years? I think not…
How would you feel if I came in to your work and told you I was a BoingBoing Master and that part of the BoingBoing Approach (tm :) I’d be replacing you, or if you were lucky would turn you in to a BoingBoing Apprentice where you’d have to start from the bottom again and work your way up?
Well that’s the attitude most agile people do! And then they wonder why PMs are so “difficult”…
As I touched on above, I acknowledge that while PM is not an essential role in agile, it can be accommodated. Part of this probably comes from my earlier work with (Iterative) RUP where PM is an acknowledged role. When I progressed to Scrum, it was using RUP Iterations, so again, the PMs were there – helping with Iteration and Project planning, while we ran the Scrums and handed most problems over to them to sort out.
This brings me to my current approach: As I mentioned, I view PMs as “skilled administrators” and “organisational facilitators” who are necessary in in large company. On that basis I help them understand how I can work with them as I’ll help the team focus on their work and maximising it, while they can help communicate this to the wider organisation and help remove obstacles that the team will be surfacing with them. This way, we both benefit, generally doing what we all enjoy.
Perfect? No, but it’s sure better than going in to a situation where you have exist with a powerful and combative “opponent” every day…
This approach also allows for what I’d call a “classic” Scrum/Kanban/… Facilitator, where this is not a full time job (which I can remember in the early days of agile and scrum). The rest of the time, I get to perform a team role (usually Architect, but it could really be any – e.g. (Business) Analyst, Developer, Tester, Infrastructure) which enables me to be deeply involved in the project and therefore not need “explanation sessions” where the team explains what they’re doing to someone who doesn’t really understand.
So is that it? Am I advocating we just sit back and not cause “too much trouble” for the entrenched system? NO! It’s quite the opposite as I’m suggest a campaign for Hearts and Minds conducted with Love and Compassion rather than the “Shock and Awe” campaigns that are often conducted by the Agile Extremists…
Firstly, I must admit I’m a bit of a Kurzweil Fan. Not in a groupie kind of way, but more in a way that I’m an optimist who believes in technology, and so is he. So as soon as I found out that he’d written a new book (which was about a day after it was released) I ordered it. Then on Monday I had and started reading… I’m not a speed reader and have no intent to even try on this book, so it will probably take me until the weekend or beyond to finish it (I also have a life that doesn’t involve computers & books ;). I therefore thought I’d to an Agile / Iterative / Incremental / Progressive review. I won’t publish every day, but every few until I’m done (and I may slow down near the end as I suspect it’s one of those books that builds up as it goes).
My plan is to go by the chapters I’ve read, then summarise / comment and probably go back over the whole thing and refactor in to a “Gold Release”.
Before we get in to my review, for a counterpoint, you may want to check out The New Yorker’s “Trendy, Dubious, Sarcastic” Review (just my opinion ;) entitled Ray Kurzweil’s Dubious New Theory of Mind. It seems to be not just me that has this opinion though as one of the Anonymous comments best sums up reasoned (to me) opinion:
This is a very poor excuse for a review. It misses so many points that it appears to be constructed for the purpose of allowing Gary Marcus to pose as a smug intellectual superior to Ray Kurzweil, and the ad hominum crap in the comment section only confirm my dismay at how thoroughly personal psychology trumps reasonable thought. Demeaning Kurzweil’s understanding may get you off, but it’s clear to this reader that this book is filled with interesting information and insights, and is a valuable contribution to the intellectual life of anyone interested in these matters.
I mean, who knows who Gary Marcus is and what has he done (other than write a seemingly vengeful review) in the bigger picture vs Ray Kurzweil?
Anyway, on to the good stuff – the review!
As I mentioned, I’m quite familiar with Kurzweil and the history of science, so in this light I was personally a bit “disappointed” by Chapter 1 “Thought experiments on the world” and Chapter 2 “Thought experiments on thinking” as I already knew most of this and therefore skimmed quite a bit. I can understand why it’s there though as this is an “enthusiastic layperson” book and he has to give some background. For me, Chapter 3 “A model of the neorcortex: The pattern recognition theory of the mind” is where the book really starts – it’s a great introduction to Kurzweil’s theories and obviously a basis for the whole book that will be expanded on. It talks about his theory that the brain operates as a hierarchy of pattern recognisers with some illustrations. Part of this theory is that the brain works in one-dimensional lists – what a mind blower, as this is the basis for Lisp which was invented by John McCarthy. There is much reference to his earlier work, such as the “Book reading machine for the blind” and the “Kurzweil Synthesiser” (which I’d buy if I was loaded) that shows this is the track he’s been on all along and is finally realising it…
Now we start to get down and dirty and gooey as Kurzweil starts off in Chapter 4 covering “The Biological Neocortex”. This was really interesting to me as my knowledge of the brain and it’s various areas is quite basic. He also refers to the recent NIH study of the brain and had the same thought as me – it looks like a crossbar switch! Are we inherently creating brains in our technology? The next Chapter 5 covers “The Old Brain” where Kurzweil contends the Neocortex has taken over much or at least severely enhanced many Old Brain functions. Hormones are given pretty short shrift though – maybe Richard Berglund, author of Fabric of the Mind may disagree. Only time and experimentation will tell. This is all pretty much wrapped up in Chapter 6 “Transcendent Abilities” which covers Love and Aptitude that touches on nature vs nurture but kind of neatly sidesteps the whole issue.
Having set the biological background in the previous chapters, Kurzweil now moves on to the question of “how do we build one of these brain thingies”, starting with Chapter 7 “The Biologically Inspired Digital Neurocortex” which starts off talking about brain simulations, gives us some more background on his original research and outlines Vector Quantisation that is a technique that provides a compressed way to capture learning. He also outlines Hidden Markov Models which seem to have a similarity to the brains functions. There’s also mention of LISP, which also works in 1-D lists – coincidence or reflection of our structure? After all that theory, there’s a nice general discussion about out current efforts in machine intelligence, such as Watson which leads nicely in to Chapter 8 “The Mind as Computer” that gives a compressed history of the original development of computers. My only criticism is that like most Americans he overlooks Turing in preference to von Neumann with regards to implementing a fundamental computer architecture. There is one thing I didn’t know here, which is that von Neumann wrote near the end of his life about neural processing and even tried to estimate the amount of computing needed – these estimates still hold today!