“Dad, you weren’t listening! We told you already.”
I’m a great listener. Well, at least that is what I originally thought. In reality, there are many times when I’m present in body, but absent in listening. The audio channel is working but my mind is tuning it out. In some conversations, I find my mind daydreaming, racing toward solutions, practical steps and action planning instead of hearing what is being said. Have you ever experienced that? Thankfully, I have three attentive daughters who make sure I know when that is happening.
Listening. It’s one of the core senses we have as humans, but do we use it well? In my conversations with businesses across the company and across the industry, they often cite that a key challenge working with “centralized shared services teams” is getting them to listen. I am often told things like, “They come to tell, but we wish they would come to listen.” When I probe that sentiment, it is very clear that the desire is to have the other party fully understand them. It isn’t just to recognize the words, concepts or thoughts, but to fully connect with their frame of reference. It is to intimately understand their challenges, their business needs, their priorities, passions, practices and people. By doing so, the help that the central team offers is more relevant, effective and wanted. In the end, they want to be heard and understood. Isn’t that what we all want?
In a recent call with our CIO, she challenged us all to pick a “focus word” for 2023. For me, on both a personal and professional level, I picked the word “listen.” I want to improve my ability to hear with understanding. And I want to champion and expand my team’s ability to “listen” and help the businesses we support.
We know there are challenges ahead. I anticipate a great deal of flux with new demands across the globe, new opportunities, new adventures and new perspectives. The ability and focus on intentional “listening” will be a superpower to help us all succeed. And, yes, my daughters will be happier too.
My step dad was a great storyteller. In one of the last conversations I had with him, he wanted to talk about Christmas. But first, he had to lie down. His body was riddled with cancer. His strength was gone and he needed to rest. He closed his eyes and begin to reminisce about his childhood. He loved Christmas. He told me how his dad would buy a tree and set it up in their living room a week before Christmas. You could smell the fresh cut pine throughout the house. His mother would wrap up the presents and put them under the tree. He recalled how he and his brother would sneak in to inspect and shake the presents. They would try to imagine what was inside. Maybe it was some socks or a new coat. Or better yet, maybe it was that new toy you always wanted! It could be anything. The colorful paper and neat bows only added to the mystery and intrigue. He couldn’t wait for Christmas morning! The days and hours would stretch on for what seemed like eternity, but then Christmas Eve would finally arrive! They could barely sleep. At first light on Christmas morning, they would rush to the tree and tear open their treasures. It was magnificent!
As he lay in his bed, struggling with some pain, a broad smile formed across his face. His eyes opened. They were beaming with a misty, joyous radiance. He looked directly at me. “Jason, I feel like Christmas is coming. Eternity is wrapped up in a beautiful package waiting for me under the tree. I can’t wait to open it. It’s like I’m holding it right now and wondering what’s inside. I keep shaking it and wondering how wonderful it will be. What is on the other side of this mortal life? What will heaven be like? Christmas morning is coming for me and I’m ready to open it.”
Not many days later, my dad opened that present. He breathed out his last terrestrial breath and drank in the brilliant glory of eternity. While his life was ending here on earth, his joy never did. With a tearful smile and a heavy heart, I sent my last wish to him as he departed, “Merry Christmas, Dad.”
I recognize this is a heavy and personal story to start off the new year, but I think it is an important one. For me, it is profoundly grounding. There are controllable and uncontrollable events on our horizon. What matters and what is in our control is how we prepare and respond to those. How we look at things shapes our destiny. It can limit us or propel us forward. Wrapped up under the tree are packages with our names on them. What will they be? What will we find inside? How will we respond? What new adventure awaits? What will we discover?
As the new year is born, we don’t know where it will take us. We will face new experiences and say farewell to others. New memories will be made and old ones will visit us. Like the stars in the heavens, they will illuminate our journey, orient us and encourage us. We will embrace the unknown and keep going. Every encounter, precious. Every person, infinitely valuable. Every day, a gift.
The future is before us, full of potential, new adventures and new memories to enjoy. Like a present under the tree, it could be anything. It’s time to start unwrapping!
Every year, at Thanksgiving we start our “prep list” for our annual holiday party at our home. It’s a highlight of the year for us and an opportunity to spend an evening with some of our work family, their families, kiddos and other friends. We just hosted that event his past Saturday. It was so fun! We had food, holiday treats, gifts, music, and laughs! Of course, I even provided a few tours to see my garage collection of tech hacks, projects, Powerwalls and gadgets.
For any of you who host parties, you know they can be a lot of work. Your prep list is full of food and drinks to buy, cooking, arranging, planning and of course, cleaning. That last bit can vary quite a bit. Even if you have a regular schedule of keeping things maintained, there are still those items you postpone, like the deep cleaning part, until there is a good motivation. Well, hosting a party is a good motivation. One of the things we identified this year that needed some special treatment was our area rugs. We have tile floor throughout the house but we have large area rugs in the living rooms. They can get dirty. Very dirty! We needed to either replace or clean them. My wife found a professional cleaner that would be able to accommodate our schedule.
The carpet cleaner showed up with special chemicals and equipment. After he treated the rug, he pulled in this large hose and vacuum tool and said, “Are you ready to see the money shot?” We looked at the rug and it already looked better. The colors that had faded were already showing again. But then it happened. He turned on the machine and began pulling the vacuum head across one side of the rug. It was mind blowing! The white border of the rug exploded with colorful and vibrant brilliance. The rest of the rug we thought was clean suddenly looked dingy, gray and soiled in comparison to the strip he had just cleaned. We were stunned! He laughed. He then told us that people love to see that. In fact, he informed us, you can spend hours on social media watching people clean their rugs this same way. I couldn’t believe it so I checked it out for myself. There are tens of thousands of hours of rug cleaning videos out there! I kid you not! And I must admit, they are addictive, soothing and somehow satisfying.
Why is that? It turns out that there is a lot of research on this type of thing. We find a sense of optimism, peace, clarity and control when we watch things go from dirty to clean, chaos to order. In reflection, I find the same with my own efforts around cleaning. In preparation for our party, we declutter, wash, arrange and decorate. I confess that the ramp to begin that process isn’t easy and my procrastination skills kick into overdrive, but once I’m past that the effort is oddly satisfying, refreshing and enjoyable. Now, don’t get me wrong, my garage is still 100% chaos and needs some treatment, but containerizing and treating chaos in an agile fashion is a topic for another email.
For today, as we parade into this holiday season, I’m reminded of the joy of cleaning. We all need a bit of housekeeping from time to time. Life is dusty. Spider webs settle in the crevices of our hearts, our minds and our homes. Seeing the “money shot” of things in your life go from dirty to clean is an enjoyable experience, healthy and encouraging. Pull out the special cleaner, scrubber and brush and go to work. Trust me, it is true! Try it. Go clean something and report back. I’ll wait.
I love getting holiday greeting cards! Our first cards started showing up last week. Most of the time, I dread going through the mail. You can probably relate. Mail these days is littered with extended home warranties, credit card offers and advertisements. But this time of year, envelopes of love wrapped up in memories, reflections and joy arrive nearly on a daily basis. Friends, family and dear acquaintances from long ago reconnect across time and space with a card, an address and a stamp. Those tiny bundles of care soared across oceans, over lands, across snow-capped mountains, rivers and valleys, finally arriving at our home like a warm hug. You all know me by now. I get nostalgic and emotional about all these wonderful tiny human touches. They remind us that we are all related, connected, remembered and loved. They are small things but they mean so much.
At this point, we send out so many Christmas cards that we have to pick up postage by the hundreds. But every card is special. I love spending time with each card, each envelope, thinking about each person and family that will receive it. Memories fold into every envelope. Concern, love and hopeful wishes accompany every stamp placed. Off they go, on their journey to the objects of our fondness and the precious hearts of our human kin.
This time of year can be busy. The lists are non-stop. Shopping, planning, mailing, volunteering, cleaning, hanging, cooking, and traveling… all those activities spin up in our lives and can even overwhelm us. I have to remind myself to add to that list, pausing, resting, remembering, reflecting and loving. We are surrounded by so much beauty, so many precious connections with people, moments of joy and instants of delight. But they are fleeting. Don’t let them soar away without your attention. Snuggle up next to them. Wrap your mind around their splendor. Soak in every connection, every person you encounter and every moment you experience. We won’t walk this way again. Tomorrow is coming and it will be glorious, but don’t miss the chance to savor today. Treasure your loved ones and every moment you have with them now and throughout this holiday season.
May this season bring you love, joy, peace and warm holiday hugs!
I could see my breath. The curling wisps of vapor waved and disappeared before me in the cool crisp morning air. I looked up and saw that my neighbor’s roof was white with frost. The emerald green grass on my yard sparkled as the sun poked out over the horizon. The chill of the morning pulled back just a little as the trees along our street burst into flame. Their brilliant red, yellow and orange hues sprung to life as the sun’s vibrant rays backlit their leaves. Notes of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves seemed to be everywhere… Well, maybe it was just my coffee. But, it was glorious! Fall is in full swing.
In the US we are on the glidepath to Thanksgiving. Next week, there will be family, friends and feasts. Preparations will slip into sleepy afternoon naps and awaken to Black Friday holiday shopping chaos. I can’t wait! I love this time of year. Sure, the festive foods, cheerful tunes and colorful lights all decorate the season with delight, but another treat for me is the time of remembering. I begin to reflect back and meditate on the days gone by. I confess, I’m nostalgic. I love to relive history, cherish those moments with friends, family and fellow travelers. It makes me smile. Visions and feelings from the past arrive like Christmas cards from dear friends. Smells, pictures, traditions and sounds trigger remembrances and moments of joy. Gratefulness rises like those butter covered rolls in the oven. Our adventures, discoveries, setbacks and successes are all part of the grand journal of our lives.
What are you thankful for? As you dream into next week and the holiday season, what pops into your mind? Make sure you take time to pause during this busy holiday season. Breathe in the moment, exhale the worries and focus on the blessings. You are surrounded. Like a feast, there are so many great things to sample and remember. There is even a song in the air! Quiet now. Can you hear it? The melody of our life is accompanied by the enduring rhythm of our own hearts. Stop and listen. That song has journeyed with us all of our days, keeping us alive and marking every moment as a gift, a soothing and sacred reminder that we matter and our days are worth living.
Listen, I know what you are thinking… There will be some challenges and difficulties before us. But we can get through it. You are all brilliant and powerfully unique. The journey ahead is preposterous. It’s full of unexpected surprises, possibilities, challenges and delights. As we feast on the memories of the past, don’t forget to drink in the intoxicating hope of the future. The best is yet to come!
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Mark Schwartz had just taken on his role as CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) when the team hand delivered a huge book of rules to his desk. He had just asked the team why it took months, not days or weeks to build and deliver a simple single page website. “Here is why,” his team said pointing to the tome of regulations and rules. They carefully explained the large number of procedures and approvals required to do something that seemed so simple.
Mark was determined to simplify the process and improve the speed. As he read through the enormous volume of rules, he discovered many legacy controls that no longer applied, yet required motion by the team. Like organizational scar tissue, the rules had been crafted to respond to some incident or fear and then spread to cover a vast domain, even if it was outside of scope. They were outdated, inflexible, irrelevant and at best, ineffective.
“This is bureaucracy!” It needed to be eliminated. He immediately started to tune the processes and eliminate the needless rules. Now, you would expect a cheer from the team impacted by this, right? Surprisingly, that’s not what happened. Instead, it resulted in an uprising! The authors of the rules began to appear in his office to protest. His own team resisted the change. Those rules, despite their pain, had become a comfortable crutch for the team. They depended on them to know they were doing the right thing. Even the team that was harmed by them was defending them. But why?
As he talked to them, he came to realize that they were not trying to block progress, they were trying to protect the country, the organization and the individuals applying for citizenship. Their intentions were good! He listened to them. He asked more questions. They explained their concerns and their motives. He told them how he understood and appreciated them and their efforts. He asked if they could work together to change the rules to be more efficient and relevant, but still address their key concerns and motives. The geometry of the energy in the room changed dramatically. Suddenly they were all behind his efforts to improve the rules. Over the next several months they slimmed down the bureaucratic book of rules to a manageable size and more importantly, unlocked the speed and potential of teams trying to deliver features and new websites for the organization.
We often make assumptions. We have a tendency to cast a reality into place that we invent by ourselves. We can even be guilty of assuming malintent of others when that is not the case. A superpower that awaits every leader who chooses to wield it, is the power of listening. As Mark discovered, the bureaucracy that was created by individuals at USCIS was not intended for evil, but for good. By reaching out to those who crafted the rule book to understand their intent, he unlocked the door to improvement. By listening and understanding, he forged a new reality into place that profoundly changed the dynamics from resistance to revolution. The authors of the previous reality willingly enlisted to rewrite the new one. The results were significant.
Do you want to change the world? If so, reach out to others. Ask Questions. Listen. Like Mark, we may discover a good story that will completely rewrite our understanding and forever change the trajectory of our progress. Go on! Listen.
Oh, no! We were several hours into a major system outage and there was still no clue as to what was broken. The webservers were running at full load and the applications were pumping a constant stream of error logs to disk. Systems and application engineers were frantically looking through the dizzying logs for clues as to the cause. Of course, looking at the logs, you would assume everything was broken, and it was. But even when the application worked, the logs were full of indecipherable errors. Everyone knew that most of the “errors” in the logs weren’t really errors, but untidy notices that developers had created long ago as part of a debugging exercise. As one engineer observed in some degree of frustration, “It’s like the log file that cried wolf!” After a while, nobody notices the errors.
The teams restarted services, rebooted systems, stopped and restarted load balancers. Nothing helped. Network engineers dug into the configuration of the routers and switches to make sure nothing was amiss. Except for the occasional keyboard typing sounds, dogs barking or children crying in the background, the intense investigation had produced an uncanny silence on the call. Operation center specialists were quickly crafting their communication updates and were discussing with the incident commander on how to update their many clients that were impacted by this outage. Company leaders and members of the board of directors were calling in to get updates. Stress was high. Would we ever find the cause or should we just shut down the company now and start over? Fatigue was setting in. Tempers were starting to show. Discussion ensued on the conference call to explore all mitigation options and next steps.
“I found it!” The discussion on the call stopped. Everyone perked up, anxious to hear the discovery. “What did you find?” the commander asked in a hopeful way. The giddy engineer took center stage on the call, eager to tell the news. “It’s the inventory service! The server at the fulfillment center seems to be intermittently timing out. Transactions are getting stuck in the queue.” The engineer paused, clearly typing away at some commands on his computer. “I think we have a routing problem. I try to trace it but it seems to bounce around and disappear. Sometimes it works, but to complete the transaction, multiple calls are required and too many of them are failing. I’m chatting with the fulfillment center and they report the inventory system is running.”
The engineer sent the traceroute to the network engineer who started investigating and then asked, “Can you send me the list of all the addresses used by the inventory system?” After some back and forth, the conclusion came, “I found the problem! There are two paths to the fulfillment center, one of which goes through another datacenter. That datacenter link looks up but it is clearly not passing traffic.” After more typing, the conclusion, “Ah, it seems the telco made a routing change. I’m getting them to reverse it now.” Soon the change was reversed and transactions were flowing again. The dashboards cleared and “green” lights came back on. Everyone on the bridge quietly, and sometimes not so silently, celebrated and felt an incredible emotional relief. Sure, there would be more questions, incident review and learning, but solving the problem was exhilarating.
How many of you can relate to a story like that? How many of you have been on that call?
A friend of mine, Dr. Steven Spear at MIT, often reminds us that the key to solving a problem is seeing the problem. You can’t solve what you cannot see. A big part of reliability engineering and systems dynamics is understanding how we gain visibility into problems and surface them so they can be addressed. Ideally, we find those weaknesses before they cause real business impact. That is often the attraction of chaos engineering, poking at fault domains to expose fractures that could become outages. But sometimes the issue is so complex that we just need a clear line of sight into the problem. In the story above, connectivity and those dependent links were not clearly visible. If there was some way to measure the foundational connectivity between the dependent locations, our operational heroes could have quickly seen it, fixed it, and gone back to sleep. Getting that visibility in advanced is the right thing to do for our business, our customers and our teams.
You can throw a GridBug onto any instance, into any datacenter, and it will go to work monitoring connectivity. I didn’t have time to test any serverless options but it should work as well. I set up 5 nodes in 3 locations for a test, with some forced failures to see how it would detect conditions on the grid. The graph data converges overtime so that every node can render the same graph. If you want to see it, here is my test and project code: https://github.com/jasonacox/gridbug
I have no expectations on this project. It is clearly just a work of fun I wanted to share with all of you, but it occurs to me that there is still a lesson here. Pain or necessity is a mighty force in terms of inspiration. What bugs you? Like this outage example, is there some pain point that you would love to see addressed? What’s keeping you from trying to fix it? Come up with a project and go to work on it. You are going to learn something! Look, let’s be real, my project here is elementary and buggy at best (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun), but I got a chance to learn something new and see a fun result. That’s what makes projects like this so rewarding. The journey is the point, and frankly, you might even end up with something that brings some value to the rest of our human family. Go create something new this week!
We had assembled to put together the outline for a guidance paper. At the top was the title, “Modern Governance.” I thought to myself that the title alone would cure insomnia. Despite the title, members of the team had developed brilliant new automation and approaches. They were already deploying those game changing ideas at their businesses. We wanted to share those! Unfortunately, the gold was buried in the boredom. It was too academic and dry. Nobody would make it past the title, much less the layers of governance tedium in the outline. Energy in the room which had been off the chart during the discovery discussions suddenly fell flat as we all realized that our guidance document would have little impact on the real world.
“Hey, I have an idea! Why don’t we just tell a story?” I suggested, “Imagine a Phoenix Project moment where a crisis hits and a band of characters have to solve it.” Enthusiasm erupted as the group piled on with ideas on how the story could unfold to show and teach the thoughts we had captured in the dry outline. Suddenly, characters emerged. Susan, the CEO was getting an urgent phone call about an existential crisis hitting her company. Bill, Jada, Michelle, Jason and the rest of the cast of character sprung to life in a brief narrative. We put the story to paper and changed the name to Investments Unlimited, inspired by the fictitious company in the Phoenix Project. We had done it! A short story was assembled and we presented it to the rest of the DevOps Forum who applauded the work. Mission accomplished. Or so it seemed…
A few months later we were invited to a meeting. “Gene Kim and the staff at IT Revolution reviewed your paper and we have a proposal.” Leah, the editor for IT Rev and the Forum papers explained to us, “We think the paper is great, but we think it could be greater. We would like to turn it into a novel.” She paused and surveyed the group. John Willis, the leader of the forum group and fellow co-author, suggested, “I think we should do this! It would take some work, but we should write it ourselves and add some of the details that we couldn’t develop before. What do you think, are you up for it?” We were all stunned and delighted. One by one, we all chimed in that we would love to take on the challenge. Shortly after that call we started meeting every Tuesday evening to work on the book. We invited industry experts to interview and fill in the gaps of our understanding. Weekends became a writing club where some of us would meet to knock out a scene, develop a character or wordsmith a moment. Slowly the short paper became chapters, and the chapters became a novel.
I confess, I was enamored just to be part of this great group of co-authors. This cast was made up of an incredible family of industry thought leaders, technical gurus and fellow DevOps rebels: Helen Beal, Bill Bensing, Michael Edenzon, Tapabrata “Topo” Pal, Caleb Queern, John Rzeszotarski, Andres Vega and of course, John Willis. Our meetings would sometimes pivot into philosophical discussions, technology news or current DevSecOps challenges. Despite the frequent distractions and detours, we managed to nudge the narrative forward, week by week.
Writing a book is hard. You are turning ambiguous ideas into letters on a page. The key was to just keep writing, keep the prose flowing. There were times where you wouldn’t feel inspired or enthusiastic about the words pouring out of your fingers, but you would keep typing. I was surprised and amazed at how well that worked. More than once, I discovered that inspiration followed effort. The act of doing created a warming glow. Suddenly the arduous task unlocked a love, a passion and an inspiration that wasn’t there before. That approach developed new twists in the story, new ideas to explore or challenges to solve. But getting those words on the paper were important. We would spend months editing and tweaking the story, but without that original content there would be nothing to work with. Eventually we would have a finished product and as of two weeks ago, a published book. It was an experience that I will forever cherish and recommend to anyone who gets the opportunity to do the same.
Just keep writing. Going through this journey has reminded me of the importance of “doing,” self-motivation and determination. I think we can all get stuck in limbo, waiting around for that magical moment of inspiration. The truth is that in life, that inspiration is often the result of the wind of our own movements. Just keep going! Inspiration will come. Words will become chapters and chapters will become stories. What are you penning today? What adventures are you crafting by your doing? Get up, get moving… keep writing.
Investments Unlimited A Novel About DevOps, Security, Audit Compliance, and Thriving in the Digital Age by Helen Beal, Bill Bensing, Jason Cox, Michael Edenzon, Dr. Tapabrata “Topo” Pal, Caleb Queern, John Rzeszotarski, Andres Vega, and John Willis
“I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.” – Queen Elizabeth II
“On the underground, at the pub or picking up food, whatever queue you are in, people are always talking about the same thing: the time that they, or a mate, met the queen.” Discussions about Queen Elizabeth II are happening everywhere, not just in the U.K. but around the globe. And rightly so. Nine out of ten people alive on our planet today were born after Queen Elizabeth II took her reign. Most of us grew up knowing this monarch. She was a respected leader, known to be proper, thoughtful, positive, pragmatic, logical and dedicated. Her public addresses and Christmas broadcasts were especially poetic and inspirational. She seemed to embrace her role as a celebrated leader who was adopted by many of us as a “global grandmother”, firm, gracious, and at times, admonishing. With her passing, a shockwave of mourning has propagated throughout the world as the sad news is learned. She is gone, but the impact of her legacy lives on.
Unlike Queen Elizabeth II, we are not all called to a life of globally visible leadership from a throne. But we are all call to be an example and rule the domain of our own character. You may not know it, but people are watching. Friends, family and fellow travelers examine how we behave, mirror what we value and observe and model how we treat others. What will be your legacy? What message are you sending for others to follow?
Like Queen Elizabeth II, we have an opportunity to encourage and inspire others by the life we live and the virtues we demonstrate. Are we leaving a lasting positive impression on this planet and our fellow humans? I suspect we can do better. I know I can. Now is a great time for us to ponder our own impact and make a change. How can you make the world better by the way you live? What would you change?
“It’s worth remembering that it is often the small steps, not the giant leaps, that bring about the most lasting change.” – Queen Elizabeth II
The fog was all around us. The headlights shimmered off of the cool gray guardrails along the side of the road. I drove slowly around the curve. The tension in the car was as thick as the fog outside. The view to the left and to the right was buried in the gray dark abyss. Even the stripes on the roadway vanished into the fog just a few car lengths ahead of us. The cool white darkness enveloped us. I edged forward slowly, staring intently at the yellow and white stripes that were the only visual assurances that we were still in the lane.
Then it happened. A faint white glow started to appear on the invisible horizon in front of us. It’s warm halo began to grow and soon illuminated the fog all around us. First the cliffs beside us began to materialized. Faint crevasses became sharp edges. Watercolor light splashed against the slowly appearing monochromatic landscape and painted faint hues of brown, red and green. Like a flip of the switch, the light in front of us exploded into view, quickly erasing the remaining fog and illuminating the vibrant colors that were hidden beneath the blanket of mist. It all became crystal clear. As we reached a crest in the road, we looked out into the new horizon and saw the pillowy clouds nestled amongst the royal peaks of the Rocky Mountains, standing majestically in the warm glow of the rising sun. It was breathtaking. We pulled over at a turnout to drink in this glorious view. The nervous trek up the national park highway had been worth it.
Life is full of adventures. But often, we find ourselves on fog covered roads, edging forward into the hazy unknown. It can be nerve racking and intense. It can be depressing and discouraging at times. But we keep going. At long last, we arrive and are in awe of our new destination. It fills us with unexpected joy and new views of our world. The truth is that it was always there, hidden yet waiting for us. We just needed to keep going. Life is often poetic like that. The darkest most difficult moments in life often proceed the most glorious.
Are you in a fog? Is the road before you unclear or difficult to navigate? Don’t give up! Keep going. The warm light of the sun is out there even if hidden in the mist. Keep driving. Soon the warmth and clarity of the new day will appear and wipe out the fog. You can do this!