Broken Bits

“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” – Fred Rogers

Did any of you brave it out on Friday to see the bustling crowds at stores or the mall?  We did.  I’m a glutton for punishment I suppose, but I do enjoy the excitement, festive mood and the occasional good deals.  To be fair, there was much less this year.   Especially the crowds and the good deals, but the festive mood was still there. Regardless, it was a fun date with my sweetie to parade around the town and spot a good deal or two.

We started putting up Christmas decorations even before Thanksgiving, but this past weekend was the final sprint. Trees, lights, candles and greenery now adorn every room in our house and even flow outside. Present boxes, sweets, music and greeting cards begin their annual appearance.  And, as some of you know, it was the first candle lighting of Hanukkah last night.  As the days grow darker and a bit gloomy, the warm glow of the candles, fireplace and the Christmas lights are healing salves to the soul.

I’m clumsy.  I love helping set up the trees, string the lights and set out the decorations.  But in the process, I manage to bump things and there is the evitable breakage.  I was setting up a small tree next to our dining room and added a small string of LED lights.  It was a low-cost variety and had that irritating 60Hz strobing.  I decided to solder in a rectifier, which did the trick, but in the process, I knocked over one of those big LED-lit candles we have.  It fell to our unforgiving tile floor and the wax broke into bits.  

“Oh great,” I said to myself and then heard the expected, “What did you break now?”  My poor motor skills are well known to my family so they came into the dining room to see the show. They managed to piece the candle back together.  To our surprise, the candle still worked.  The glow of the light in the candle warmed up the entire cylinder and to our surprise, created a marvelous new display, illuminating the cracks and casting new shades on the surface.  It was beautiful!   It looked like a landscape wrapped around the candle, with dramatic shadows to create depth.  The result was a natural and unique work of art that now sits on the shelf.  The broken candle created something new, giving inspiration and perspective that didn’t exist before.

We are all broken.  We all have cracks.  We experience hurts, failures, disappointments, physical limitations, mental struggles and other self or externally judged imperfections.  As my youngest often reminds me, especially when my obsessive compulsiveness kicks in, “Nobody is perfect.”   She is right! The reality is that part of our immeasurable value and enduring purpose is the incredible uniqueness of our seemingly broken bits.  Where we are fractured, the light shines through us best.  Glow!  We are creating something new by embracing who we are, striving yet shining. Our uniqueness gives inspiration and perspective that didn’t exist before.  Don’t hold back.  Be the best “you” you can be and shine!

Rafting Down the Stream of Time

Did you notice it?  We often wish for more time in the day to get things done.  Yesterday we got it!  Sunday was 25 hours long.  I don’t know about you, but the only part I noticed was the extra hour of sleep.  Of course, to pay off this luxury, we will suffer a 23-hour Sunday in the Spring.  That is, of course, unless we suddenly manage to retire Daylight Savings Time.

The stream of time keeps going on.  It reminds me of my childhood when we would go river rafting.  We would find a mountain stream in the Ozarks and launch our rafts at the headwaters.  It would be early in the morning as the sun was just coming out.  There would be dew on the leaves and the air would be cool and crisp.  As we would float downstream we encountered areas that moved quickly.  We would hit the churning water of the rapids with loud and heart pounding excitement.  Frantic and vigorously we would paddle to steer clear of the approaching boulders, tree limbs and perilous drops.  

There were times when the stream would slow to a crawl and the water would become like glass.  We would hear the birds and wind gently whistling through the trees.  It was like time and the stream just nearly stopped.  We would still paddle to stay on course, navigate the river bends and slowly make progress.  Occasionally we would just simply glide along, letting the energy of the stream carry us forward.  Or we might steer the raft to the shore to rest, warm up in the sun, eat a snack or just relax.  Those are some of my favorite memories. They were beautiful opportunities to soak in the views and drink in the sounds. 

Life throws a lot of variety at us.  There are twists and turns.  There are times of rest.  There are moments of chaos.  Sometimes we face the rapids head on, quickly navigating and strongly reacting to the dramatically unfolding challenges before us.  At other times we get to glide and enjoy the serene and beautiful moments.  In all those moments, we have a choice.  We can actively participate in the journey, paddling our best to navigate the adventure.  And at other times, we can pull up our oars and enjoy the scenic serenity of living in the moment, frozen in time.   Make sure you do both.  

Enjoy the trip!

Major and Minor Chords

Boo!  Trick-or-treat was a blast this year. I love seeing the neighborhood kids, and sometimes their parents, all dressed up for the occasion.  While some safety measures were still in place, it was great to see some return to normalcy even if it was a street full of super heroes, princesses, goblins and ghosts.  

I don’t know about you, but I start buying candy way back in September, most of which is trick-or-treated even before the first costumed characters arrive at our door. In fact, so much so that I usually have to make several subsequent trips to the store to get more.  I figure it is all good UAT (user acceptance testing) so we deliver a quality experience on Halloween night. Based on the pounds of candy invested, we nailed it!  Of course, the weight scales have a different opinion about the outcome. 

Bring on the fall decorations!  Christmas and holiday decorations have been on display in most retail stores for the past several weeks.  But before we light the candles and trim the trees, we must past through the season of thanksgiving.  I love this time of year!  The next four weeks are a great time for reflection and gratefulness.  Yes, it is a wonderful time of family, friends and food, but it is also a time of remembering.  This past year has been a challenging time for all of us.  Major life events and minor inconveniences added up to a sum of substantial challenges for many of us.  Yet through the journey there has been incredible moments of celebration, accomplishments and learning. 

Life is like that.  It is a composition of major and minor chords.  Sometimes you are soaring on the high notes, ringing warm with the delight and optimism that the major chords bring.  Then suddenly, tragedy or setbacks strike and the strings ring a cold, somber and sad march.  Yet in it all, there is a beauty.  The shadows of the gloomy mood are overtaken by the next soaring melody.  We overcome.  We sing new life into the darkness and transition our way to the next mountaintop anthem.  Looking back, we see the journey and the score that was laid down behind us.  Remember it.  It is part of our experience, a bit of who we are and the personal soundtrack of our life’s story.  Change it.  As the conductor, we have the opportunity to set the next measure.  Write it.  Enjoy every section that makes up our life.  We journey this way but once.  Don’t miss the concert!

Autumn Act

“Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” – Bil Keane

Halloween is this Sunday.  Christmas is just two months from today.  Can you believe it?  As I stare out my dining room window, I notice the trees are beginning to paint themselves with the beautiful colors of fall.  The brilliant reds, gilded yellows and warming browns highlight against the faded greens.  Nature’s parade of time strikes a chime, reminding us that the year’s last act is on the stage.  

I love this time of year.  The cool crisp autumn breeze and ever-increasing autumn nights seem to pull a thick dark relaxing blanket over the mind.  Melancholy and hope dance.  There is rising optimism and wistful reflection, thinking back and looking forward.  We remember and we plan. 

Reflecting back on the year, I know it has been challenging for all of us. There has been a lot of change. We have seen wonderful successes, painful losses, personal victories and sometimes even discouraging defeats.  So much has changed since the start of the pandemic.  Yet, so much is still the same.  This time of the year we get to relive the delightful nostalgia of our past while reaching forward with hope to grab the future.  

Can I suggest something?  Stop for a few moments today and disconnect.  Take a walk, maybe even in the rain, or stare out the window.  Reflect on this past year, dream about the coming holidays, but don’t forget to soak in the present.  The act is on stage right now.  It’s beautiful.  Savor it.  

Thanks for all the great memories and intoxicating hope for the future.

Mudita

“The more deeply one drinks of this spring,
the more securely one becomes in one’s own abundant happiness,
the more bountiful it becomes to relish the joy of other people.”

Have you ever entered a room where you didn’t know anyone but where everyone was excited, happy and enthusiastic and suddenly found yourself feeling the same way? Or perhaps you happened to witness a heated debate or argument and suddenly felt angry, frustrated and anxious? Maybe you are watching a movie, a show or a theatrical presentation and suddenly feel connected to the story in a visceral way, with fear, anger, disgust, sadness and joy. If so, you can thank your mirror neurons for those fun experiences. Researchers in cognitive neuroscience have been trying to figure out why we have mirror neurons and their specific benefits to us. It appears that at least for one thing, the mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy. I don’t know about you, but I’m immensely grateful to have these, and especially grateful that you have them too!

Mudita. In Spanish that word means “mute”, but in Pāli and Sanskrit it has a completely different meaning. In fact, you will find an equivalent word in many languages around the world sometimes even represented by a single character. That is, all but English. We don’t have an equivalent word. For us, it would translate to something like, “sympathetic joy”. It is the overwhelming feeling of pleasure that comes only from a vicarious delight in the well-being of others. In other words, it is feeling immense happiness for the happiness of others.

Some adversaries of mudita are jealousy, envy and derision. Mudita can heal these poisons and untap a reservoir of happiness. Many of our world religions teach the virtues of drinking in this joy. They encourage celebrating the delight and achievement of others, even when we are facing tragedy ourselves. “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” The real challenge is to cultivate mudita even in a world often full of misery.

We are wired for mudita, with our mirror neurons helping us, but do we really experience it as we should? Or do we find that we live in more of a manic state, seeking and reaping things for ourselves while missing the real treasure of joy that comes from celebrating with others? I’m definitely guilty of that. We should be in the business of the happiness of others that we may be happy too.

Mudita is flowering all around us. Let’s not miss it. Grasp the moments as they come. Absorb the incredible joy that can be ours when we step out of ourselves and rejoice at the blessings of others. I suggest we all take time this week, stop and smell the fragrance of those mudita blooms.

Fixers

“I was a fixer, a builder – an inventor – ever since I can remember.” – Tom Scholz

I love this time of year.  The mornings are nice and cool (11C) but can still warm up in the afternoon (32C).  Our neighbors have decorated their homes with Fall and Halloween decorations.  Target has a mile-long line of candy aisles and we do our best to replicate that in our home.

I confess, I have an addiction. No, not the candy, I can meter that fairly well.  My real addiction is my obsession to fix things.  I can’t stand it when something is broken or a system is down. It drives me crazy. I am compelled to get it working.  This past weekend, my obsession was our new Tesla Solar system.  It all began with our decision to get solar a year ago… 

After research and talking with several solar companies, we decided on a small 8.5kW Tesla Solar plus Powerwall system. The main reason for our decision was the low cost, handsomely framed panels and the whole house backup capability. There were several good offers out there, but we were delighted when Tesla came in with the lowest price.  I’m very cheap, I admit, I love a good deal.  What we didn’t realize is that the way Tesla beat the market was to remove some of their overhead, mainly in the area of customer service.  That translated into a lot of waiting and frustration. 

Our system was finally installed last month and during commissioning, the first signs of trouble started showing up. The installers downloaded the latest software updates but were unable to get the Solar Panels to work correctly. The solar assembly was only producing 160W in full sun. They tried for hours, upgrading, rebooting and calling. They eventually gave up after showing me that the Powerwall could power our house if they cut the mains.  They explained that Tesla would send out a software patch to fix the Solar panels, most likely.  

I contacted our Tesla Advisor to report the problem and to see if they had an update. After several days of emailing, texting and calling, I received a note from the advisor that he would contact the electricians about the problem. I spent another week requesting updates but my Advisor had gone radio silent. It turns out that this is a common experience with Tesla. Assuming best intentions, I can only imagine that the Tesla teams are understaffed and overwhelmed. Regardless, it all results in a very frustrating experience for the consumer.  I escalated and was finally told that they could schedule a service appointment on Dec. 14th.  Seriously?!

We had all this gear in place.  We had these beautiful solar panels, high tech Powerwalls and all the gear to drive it.  But none of it was working.  Tesla’s mistake was bringing all of this into my home.  I can’t help myself.  My addiction set in.  I have to fix it.  So, I did.  I began poking around, measuring voltages, sniffing the system’s communication links, and researching all of the modules that make up the system.

I finally found the issue.  I discovered a WiFi based metering system Tesla had used was defective.  I reprogrammed and recommissioned the system.  It came online and for the first time ever, we had full solar energy powering our house and charging our Powerwalls.  Our home had gone green and we were 100% powered by the sun!  I love making things work.

Reflecting back on this experience it occurred to me that this is a lot of what we do.  In technology, we are often the Sherpas that help our business partners reach their destination.  Sometimes it requires research, investigation, designing, hacking, and even reprogramming to arrive at a reliable and operative solution.  All along the way, our partners are depending on us to be the experts to creatively solve problems, fix what is broken and deliver a working solution that helps them, our businesses and organizations deliver the best outcomes as we can.

Thank you all for being the fixers.  You substantially make a difference to the world!

If you want the gory details on my investigation and fix you can read them here

Life without Fences

“We were born to be free, to expand our horizons by going where we have never gone before, and not to hang out in the relative comfort and safety of the nest, the known. There is a place within us that is courageous beyond our human understanding; it yearns to explore beyond the boundaries of our daily life.” – Dennis Merritt Jones

My mom was a teacher.  She taught 3rd grade most of her career.  Growing up, my friends thought it was great that my mom was a teacher, but it wasn’t always great for me.  Most kids got sent to the principal’s office for acting up or misbehaving.  Not me!  I got sent to my mother’s classroom.  Corporal punishment was still in play and the principal proudly hung his “board of education” paddle on the wall of his office as a deterrent.  I would have preferred a meeting with that “board” any day, if I could have avoided being sent to my mom’s classroom.  I can still picture the horror on her face as the teacher explained my activity and then hearing the stern, “Just wait till we get home.”  

It seemed like most of my “acting up” happened during recess and on the playground.  I guess it was an irresistible smorgasbord of trouble waiting for me, but really, I just loved experimenting.  I tested Newtonian physics of balls bouncing off all sorts of surfaces, including other kids.  I loved exploring fencing techniques with pretend light saber sticks and branches. I even helped other kids prove or disprove their own theories.   A cute little girl with glasses and a confident attitude once declared to me an axiom, “You can’t hit a person with glasses.”  Much to her dismay, I was able to prove her wrong.  I fully expected to be thanked if not awarded some scientific prize for my discovery, but instead, I was granted another visit to my mother’s classroom, one that had particular impact on me, literally.  

Recess!  What a glorious thing.  There are a lot of life lessons that you can learn during recess.  You also get a chance to see curious characteristics of our human traits on display.  One particularly interesting observation my mom made was the power of fences.  Having had the opportunity to work in many schools with different playgrounds, she noticed that when kids went out to play, if there was no fence, the kids would huddle together, close to the building or by the door.  Nobody ventured out very far.  When there was a fence, the kids would scatter and run all the way out to the edges, running up and down the fence line.  Why is that?

For those kids, the fences created a sense of safety, confidence and certainty.  With that in place, the kids used the entire space to explore, create adventures and have fun together.  I believe there is a good leadership lesson here.  We often talk about unleashing the potential of our team by empowering individuals to creatively solve problems, take on responsibility and innovate.  A good leader can help us manage the unknowns by bringing clarity, direction, and expectations.  They also promote psychological safety by establishing a culture that avoids the blame game, encourages risk and values continuous learning. Those structures help us navigate, explore and create results without fences.  But that is only part of the story.

The leadership lesson here also applies to us individually.  So much of our life and the world we live in has no fences.  It can be intimidating.  Our human tendencies, evoking survival instincts at times, will be to huddle close to what we know, where we feel safe, secure, confident and comfortable.  But if we do that, we miss out on the greater prospects and the rewards that can be waiting for us.  We need to take bold risks.  We should gather our courage and set out on an adventure into the unknown.  Experimenting, exploring, discovering, creating, solving and ultimately enjoying greater outcomes than we would otherwise.  

Spend some time this week in recess!  Examine your fence line.  Ask yourself, what is helpful and what isn’t.  Take a brave step and go beyond, explore outside the fences and enjoy our spectacular world.  And, hopefully, you won’t end up in my mom’s classroom.

Gullible?

We are in the midst of a series of critical repairs at the Cox home. The pandemic forced us to postpone many of them, but slowly they are starting back up.  This last week involved the removal and upgrade of our failing main electrical breaker box panel.  Of course, that meant an extended power outage and the hourly “When will power be back on?” questions from my girls.  I must say, we all gained a greater appreciation for our ancestors who navigated the 1800s with gas lights, candles and no air conditioning.

Speaking of appreciating our 21st century lifestyle, I love using Apple Pay!  With the team of contractors working hard in the heat to get our power back on, I decided to make a run to our local grocery store to pick up some bottled water, Gatorade and snacks for them.  As is my custom, I paid with my Apple watch.  The customer behind me was shocked and struck up a conversation.  

I grew up in the Midwest where you expected friendly conversations with random fellow human travelers all the time.  However, that’s typically not how we do things in California.  Here, everyone tends to be more focused on their own business, mostly without even making eye contact.  But I find I still revert to my Midwest roots on occasion, much to the embarrassment of my kids, especially when there happens to be a cute baby in line with us.  I just can’t help myself.  Babies are irresistible.  In any case, I happened to run into this concerned citizen in line with me at the grocery store who was seriously worried about my Apple watch.   The conversation was really quite fun.

“Hey, aren’t you worried someone is going to steal all your information with that thing?”  I responded, “Actually, it uses an encrypted token, not my info, to complete the transaction.”   

“Like whatever, encrypted nothing, they got you!  That’s dangerous!  Can’t someone just decrypt it?”  I really wanted to start drawing a diagram to explain how it worked, but I knew the rest of the customers in line were not interested in an extended lecture.  I still switched into professor mode, “Sure, but just keep in mind, this isn’t my information directly, it is just a token identifier.”  

“Man, you really are gullible.”   I wasn’t making any progress.  He shook his head but then proceeded to pull out his credit card in plain sight.  I was able to clearly read his name, card number and expiration date printed on the front.  No, I didn’t try to memorize it but was struck by the irony.  He swiped his card with his in-clear-text magnetic stripe, also showing the CVV.  Sigh.  Yes, I guess I’m gullible.

I appreciate my friend’s paranoia, despite his negligence in protecting his own identity.  No system is 100% secure.  We know that.  Several years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a cybersecurity class at USC where we explored the anatomy of an attack.  One particular study was the 2013 Target breach. We examined all the points of vulnerability that existed in the system at that time.  It began with a phishing scheme that equipped the attackers with a contractor’s credentials to log in to the energy management system for the stores.  That led the attackers to a vulnerable Windows PC that just so happened to bridge the HVAC network with the global store network. That network was home to all the point of sale systems for all their stores.  The card readers on those systems only accepted plain text magnetic stripe data. The hackers installed BlackPOS, a malware opensource package that intercepts track data.  It began reading all of that data, sending it off to a server hosted in Russia.  They managed to extract 40 million credit cards before they were discovered.  A year later, the nearly exact same attack occurred at Home Depot, but for 56 million credit cards.

Vigilance is needed.  Reliability engineering is not just about system performance or uptime, it is also about running secure systems.  As we help design, build and run systems, this is a great reminder that we can all help safeguard our customers’ and company’s data.  Have you found a vulnerability?  Are you concerned about some missing measures or designs that should be modernized or addressed?  If so, don’t wait, raise those issues.  Speak up and act.  You can make a difference.  Let’s continue to help make our systems more secure for the good of the kingdom, our guests, businesses and fellow employees.

Automate, Accelerate, Optimize, but first, Delete

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” – Elon Musk

The Tesla Model 3 production line was too slow. Demand was high but delivery was low.  The entire line was being delayed by one particular step in the battery production line.  Specifically, it was a step where a fiberglass mat was added between the battery pack and the floor pan.  Elon Musk talks about the focus that was suddenly placed on this choke point.  In an interview he gave, he says he was basically living on that production line until they could get it fixed.

Automate, Accelerate, Optimize. To address the constraint in the system that was choking the throughput, Elon goes on to explain how they focused on the automation.  To make the robot better, they adjusted the programming.  They increased the speed from 20% to 100%, optimized the paths it would take, increased the torque, removed unnecessary motion and reduced the amount of product needed.  Instead of spackling glue on the entire mat, they programmed it to deliver dabs of glue that were just enough to hold it in place, sandwiching it between the battery pack and floor.  These all added up to some minor time savings.

After investing a lot of time into the efficiency improvements, it occurred to Elon that he didn’t even know the reason for these mats.  He asked the battery safety team, “Are these mats for fire protection?”  They answered, “No, they are for noise and vibration.”  He then went to the noise vibration analysis team and asked them, “Are these mats for noise reduction?”  They answered, “No, they are for fire safety.”  

“I’m trapped in something like a Kafkaesque or Dilbert cartoon!”  Elon discovered the mats had no reason to be included.  After verifying with testing, they eliminated the unneeded parts that were choking the Model 3 production line.  Production throughput increased.

How many times have you optimized a bit of code, a process or a system only to finally realize that the best optimization was to simply delete it?  Before we take on some new work, a new project or even an improvement effort, ask yourself and others, “Do we even need this?”  We all have limited time and resources.  Some upfront investment in validating the real need can pay material dividends.  Seek to eliminate waste.  Instead of focusing on improving unneeded processes, let’s focus our efforts on things that deliver real value and outcomes.  

Before automating, ask yourself if the time investment will deliver more value than we put in.  Before accelerating, ask yourself if the haste will actually eliminate waste.  And before improving something, ask yourself if we should just delete it instead.  Challenge assumptions so we can ultimately deliver bold results that matter.

Heroes

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” – Arthur Ashe

It was an early and cool September morning.  I arrived at our small civil engineering office in Tulsa a little after 7:30am.  The survey crew had just left the building to stake out one of our new projects.  Thankfully they left a half pot of brewed coffee for the rest of us.  I logged in to my AutoCAD station with my cup of coffee and started planning my day.  The phone rang.  It was my wife, Jane, on the other end of the line, who added, “You need to turn on the news, a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!”  Our first thought was our family in New Jersey, especially my brother-in-law who worked in downtown Manhattan at the New York City Rescue Mission.  He took the Path trains and Subways in and often exited at World Trade before walking to the Mission.  I wondered if he was there and if he was safe.

I quickly told the other engineers in the office what I had just heard.  One of the offices had and old CRT style TV and we managed to get it to work.  It looked a bit like a relic from the old Jetsons cartoons, complete with a bizarre looking antenna adorned with aluminum foil balls to somehow coax a better signal.  It rarely worked.  Thankfully however, this morning it picked up our local ABC station, and that was perfect.  The World Trade Towers were full screen, with smoke billowing out of the North Tower.  The entire office had gathered in the room.  We were glued to the screen listening to GMA anchors Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson verbalizing the same questions we all had. What was happening?  How could this happen?  

As we watched, a second plane entered the screen and crashed into the South Tower!  “We are under attack!”  That was the general sentiment in the room.  People started making phone calls to friends and family.  Nearly an hour later and we were all still glued to the news.  The Pentagon attack, then The South Tower collapsed, followed by the North Tower.  We watched the unbelievable footage of first responders, firefighters bravely rescuing people from the towers, many sacrificing their own lives.  Citizens were helping other citizens.  All of us TV bystanders felt a tug to reach through the screen and join the effort.   We couldn’t, so we just watched and watched and watched.  For the next several days and even weeks, everyone around us seemed to be plugged in to the news feed.  Offices, homes and even restaurants were all running the 24×7 coverage of the attack. The event had captured the entire conscious of the nation had awakened our hyper focus.

What was your experience on 9/11?  I will never forget that day or the weeks following.  It changed us.  Yes, we were suddenly remined at how vulnerable we can be.  But more importantly, it taught us how good we can be.  In a crisis, heroes emerge.  They enter the scene not for the drama or the recognition, but to answer the call to save and serve others.  Many did so at the cost of their own lives.  Would we do the same?   Not that we will all be asked to run into burning high-rise buildings, but we can all answer the call to serve others, help each other, and carry each other through tough times.  It’s a job that always has openings.  

In case you are wondering, my brother-in-law never made it in to work that day.  He had missed his train to accommodate some visiting relatives.  It was a frustrating inconvenience that turned into a grace.  He spent the next several months helping others, providing food, clothing and shelter from the rescue mission.  He was a hero too.