AKF Partners

Abbott, Keeven & Fisher Partners Partners in Growth

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What Google Got Right and Wrong with Firing James Damore

August 9, 2017  |  Posted By: Marty Abbott

We have a saying in AKF Partners that “an incident is a terrible thing to waste”.  When things go poorly in a firm, stakeholders (shareholders, partners, employees) pay a price.  Having already paid a price, the firm must maximize the learning opportunity the incident presents.  Google wasted such a learning opportunity by failing to capitalize on an incredible teaching moment with the termination of James Damore (the author of the sometimes called “Anti-Diversity Manifesto”).  While Google seems to have “done the right thing” by firing Damore, it is unclear that they “did it for the right reason”.  The “right reason” here is that diversity is valuable to a company because it increases innovation and in so doing increases the probability of success.  Further, diversity is hard to achieve, takes great effort and can easily be derailed with very little effort.  Companies simply cannot allow employees to work at odds with incredibly valuable diversity initiatives.

Diversity Drives Innovation and Success

My doctoral dissertation journey introduced me to diversity and its beneficial effects on innovation, time to market, and success within technology product firms.  Put simply, teams that are intentionally organized to highlight both inherent (traits with which we are born) and acquired (traits we gain from experience) diversity achieve higher levels of innovation.  Research published in the Harvard Business Review confirms this, indicating that diverse teams out innovate and out-perform other teams.  Diverse teams are more likely to understand the broad base of needs of the market and clients they support.  Companies with very diverse management teams are 35% more likely to have financial returns above the mean for their industry.  Firms with women on their board on average have a higher ROE and net income than those that do not.

Differences in perspective and skills are things we should all strive to have in our teams.  As we point out in The Art of Scalability, these differences increase beneficial cognitive conflict.  Increases in cognitive conflict opens a range of strategic possibilities that in turn engender higher levels of success for the firm.

We have for too long allowed the struggle for diversity to be waged on the battleground of “fairness”.  The problem with “fair” is that what is “fair’ to one person may seem inherently unfair to another.  “Fair” is subjective and “fair” is too often political.  “Success” on the other hand is objective and easily measured.  Let’s move this fight to where it belongs and embrace diversity because it drives innovation and success.  After all, anyone who can’t get behind winning, doesn’t deserve to be on a winning team.


Achieving Diversity is Hard

While the value of diversity is high, the cost to achieve it is also unfortunately high – especially within software teams.  As my colleague Robin McGlothin recently wrote, the percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women over the last 25 years is declining.  Most other minorities are similarly underrepresented in the field relative to their corresponding representation in the US population. 

As in any market with high demand and low supply, companies need to find innovative ways to attract, grow and retain talent.  These activities may include special mentoring programs, training programs, or scholarships at local universities meant to attract the group in question.  These approaches may seem “unfair” to some, but they are in truth capitalism at its best - the application of market forces to solve a supply and demand problem.  When a skill or trait is under high demand and short supply, the cost for that skill goes up.  The extra activities above are nothing more than an increased cost to attract and retain the skills we value. 

Companies desiring to achieve success in innovation through diversity MUST approach it in a steely, single-minded fashion.  Any dissent as it relates to outcomes detracts from the probability of success.  How many people with diverse backgrounds will leave or have left Google because of Damore’s missive?  How many candidates won’t accept offers?  Losing even one great candidate is an unacceptable additional cost given the already high cost to achieve success.

The Bottom Line
Structuring organizations and building cultures that tap the power of inherent and acquired diversity pays huge dividends for firms in terms of innovation, time to market, ROE and net income.  While the rewards are high, the cost to achieve these benefits are also high.  Success requires a steely, single-minded pursuit of diversity excellence. 

The successful company will allow no dissent on this topic, as dissent makes the firm less attractive to the ideal candidate.  Given a constrained supply under high demand, the candidate can and should go to the most welcoming environment available.

Put simply, Google did the right thing in firing Damore.  But they failed to fully capitalize on the unfortunate event.  The right answer, when asked about the reason for firing, would look something like this: “We recognize that diversity in experiences, background, gender and race drives higher levels of innovation and greater levels of success.  Our culture will not tolerate employees who are not aligned with creating stakeholder value.”

Interested in driving innovation and time to market in your product and engineering teams?  AKF Partners helps companies create experientially diverse product teams aligned with business outcomes to help turbo-charge performance.

 

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Does Dunning-Kruger, a recently popularized cognitive bias, exist in the Technology world?

August 1, 2017  |  Posted By: Dave Swenson

We all suffer from various cognitive biases, those mental filters or lenses that alter or warp the reality around us. With the election of 2016, one particular bias has gained widespread attention - the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Defined in wikipedia as:

“...a cognitive bias, wherein persons of low ability suffer from illusory superiority when they mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.”
(If you’ve ever wondered about the behind-the-scenes process of creating Wikipedia content, look at this entertaining discussion.)

In 1999, while a professor at Cornell, David Dunning joined Justin Kruger to co-author a paper titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, based on studies indicating that people who are incompetent in an area are typically too incompetent to know they are incompetent. Or, simply put, we are often in a position where we don’t know what we don’t know, and therefore cannot judge our level of expertise in a particular area.

This effect or bias, is also known as the ‘Lake Wobegon effect’, or ‘illusory superiority’, and is closely tied to the Peter Principle. Donald Rumsfeld put it this way:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

And in John Cleese’s words, stupid people do not have the capability to realize how stupid they are.

The story of how Dunning came to posit the D-K Effect is an amusing one. He read about an unusual bank robbery that occurred in Pittsburgh. What was unusual was that the robber, McArthur Wheeler, made absolutely no effort to disguise himself, and in fact, looked and smiled directly into the security cameras. Yet, he was surprised to quickly be arrested, telling authorities “...but I used the juice!”.

The juice?

Wheeler told the police that they couldn’t arrest him based on the security videos, as wearing lemon juice, he was of course invisible. He had been told coating your face with lemon juice makes you invisible to cameras, perhaps similar to using lemon juice for invisible ink. Wheeler had even gone as far as to test the theory by taking a Polaroid picture of himself after coating his face with the lemon juice, and sure enough, his face didn’t appear in the print. The police never were able to explain this, but likely Wheeler was as incompetent at photography as he was at burglary. Clearly, Wheeler was too incompetent at burglary to know he was incompetent.

So, does Dunning-Kruger exist in the technology world? Absolutely…

Just as a typical driver believes their driving skills are Formula 1 worthy, until they’re on a track getting blown past by an inferior car driven by someone who has far better braking and cornering skills, we all tend to underestimate what is possible. We live in our own bubbles and are comparing our abilities only against those who also reside in our bubbles. Therefore, we don’t know what we don’t know - we don’t know there are far better drivers outside our bubbles.

You may think your organization is at the peak of efficiency, until you bring someone in from a Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. who reveals what the true peak really can be - what fully Agile processes and cultures can do to reduce time to market, how effective SREs and DevOps can be, how to remain innovative, what continuous delivery can do to, etc.

AKF firmly believes in “Experiential Diversity” to cross-pollinate teams, injecting new DNA into a company or bubble that was grown in a different bubble. We see numerous companies with very static personnel, where the average employee tenure is over 15 years. There have been tremendous changes in the technology world in 15 years, and while reading a book or attending a conference on new processes brings some exposure to the latest and greatest, it isn’t enough. It is incredibly important to continually bring new blood into an organization, and to purposely tap into that diversity of processes, technologies, organizational structures that comes with the new blood.

Other techniques to mitigate the effect of D-K in technology, of eliminating our personal and organizational biases include:

  • 360 degree reviews - Dunning himself has said “The road to self-insight runs through other people”. What better way to get feedback than from periodic 360 degree reviews?
  • Code reviews - The likelihood that some percentage of your developers suffer from D-K means that you’re dependent upon code reviews to flush out their incompetence. Just make sure you’re not pairing up two D-K developers to perform the review!
  • Planning Poker - requiring, in true Agile fashion, a team to estimate a task or project reduces the chance of that D-K estimate from torpedoing your development planning.
  • Soliciting advice - the increasing utilization of open source software means there isn’t a vendor, with hopefully solid expertise, to turn to for advice. Instead of solely relying upon your own developer who only knows how to spell say Cassandra, leverage the appropriate OSS community. Just beware that you might not know whether that solicited advice is good advice.
  • Proper interviewing - Ensure your interviewing process can weed out “confident idiots”. Consider planting bogus questions to gauge a candidate’s reactions, like Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News”. At a minimum, require team interviewing and consensus for new candidates.

In short, Dunning-Kruger is as rampant within the Technology sector as it is anywhere else, if not even more so. Expect it to be present in your organization, and guard against it. Look at it within yourself as well. Who amongst us hasn’t experienced the shock of discovering we’ve failed a test that we actually thought we’d aced? We all have suffered at one time or another from the Dunning-Kruger effect.

 

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Where have all the Women gone?

July 19, 2017  |  Posted By: Robin McGlothin

We hear every day that more and more jobs are disappearing, yet the technology job sector cannot keep up with the unprecedented demand. So why are women falling behind in this growing career track? 

When we look at the percentage of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded to female students for the last two decades, based on NSF statistics, we find there are no gender difference in the bio sciences, the social sciences, or mathematics, and not much of a difference in the physical sciences. Great news for women scientists.  The only STEM fields in which men genuinely outnumber women are computer science and engineering.  What?  Why the stagnant numbers in computer science?


At the PhD. level, women have clearly achieved equity in the bio sciences and social sciences, are nearly there (40 percent) in mathematics and the physical sciences, and are “over-represented” in psychology (78 percent). More good news.  Again, the only fields in which men greatly outnumber women are computer science and engineering.  Why no growth?



As I started my research for this blog post, I was pleasantly surprised to find women scientist representation growing in almost all aspects of STEM. And at the same time, disheartened to find my major, computer sciences, is stagnate in growth for women over the past two decades. 

What’s different in the computer science & engineering aspects of STEM that seem to hold women back?  There are many conflicting reports on how our environment and upbringing are sublimely programming women away from engineering and mathematics. We were told from an early age, math and science are for boys.

My mother was a pioneer and a strong female leader.  She holds a PHD in Biochemistry, served as President for Academic Affairs and Provost at Salem International University.  She demanded her daughters rise to any challenge and deliver to the best of our abilities.  Never once did I doubt I had amazing talents and just needed to get busy using them.  So, is it nature or nurture that helped me stay with STEM?  Maybe a little of both.

I saw an article recently in the WSJ on Salesforce.com, where CEO Mark Benioff, is focused on ensuring women are represented fairly at every level in his company. Taking proactive steps like SFDC.com, to open doors for women, rings truer to me then the “poor little girl” theories on how to increase female participation in computer science and engineering. 

The cloud-computing giant is two years into a companywide “women’s surge” in which managers must consider women when filling open positions at every level.  They are also examining salaries for every role in the company to ensure women and men are paid equally.  And finally, ensuring that women make up at least 30% of attendees at management summits or onstage roles at keynote presentations.

With some nurturing at home during early years of development and progress in the corporate landscape leveling the playing field, I believe we are finally set to see an upward trajectory for the last two laggard categories in STEM.
 
Future women engineers can see a world where their hard work and discipline will pay off, a road-map to success if you will.  We no longer need to break through the old stereotypes, running faster and jumping higher to be considered half as good as our male counterparts.  Instead, there will be fair and equal opportunity for career advancement for women engineers and computer scientists. 

I would submit some of the best technology leaders today are women.  My personal experience afforded me the opportunity to work with several top female technology executives.  One of the best leaders I worked for is a power house that broke all the stereotypes, and worked circles around her male counterparts.  As I look back and try to understand what propelled these successful women, they all possess some classic traits that are needed in any leadership role.

Collaboration. Women are skilled collaborators, able to work with all different people. This is an important quality for any professionals, as cross-departmental collaboration is key. Technology impacts every function in modern business, and those most successful will be able to collaborate with all different teams and individuals.

Communication. For many of the same reasons, technologist must also be strong communicators. Communication is an area where many women traditionally excel and it’s an important quality to have. For example, communicating with the sales department may be different from communicating with the IT department. Good technology leaders will be able to speak to everyone.

Perspective. Being able to inspire a team and see the big picture are both equally important. A technology leader must be able to not only collect and analyze data but draw meaningful insights and understand what it means for the company. The ability to holistically view a situation is a competitive differentiation for organizations as well as a positive attribute that many women possess.

In the past, women had to fight a little harder to push through the barriers that have prevented women from entering STEM, but the tide is turning.  In today’s new business paradigm, with a strong technology sector jobs forecast, it’s a perfect time for young women to enter computer science and engineering field. 

And to help drive this point home, President Donald Trump signed two laws that authorize NASA and the National Science Foundation to encourage women and girls to get into STEM fields. The Inspire Act directs NASA to promote STEM fields to women and girls, and encourage women to pursue careers in aerospace. The law gives NASA three months to present two congressional committees with its plans for getting staff—think astronauts, scientists and engineers—in front of girls studying STEM in elementary and secondary schools.  The full name of the law is the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers Women Act.  The second law is the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act. It authorizes the National Science Foundation to support entrepreneurial programs aimed at women. 

The stage has been set – go forth future astronauts, scientist, coder girls!  Let’s rock the world. 

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Scalability Workshops

April 19, 2017  |  Posted By: AKF
AKF Scalability Workshops


Notify Me when AKF schedules another public workshop!
 
Workshop Overview

Our workshop is designed for technology executives who are responsible for delivering highly available and highly scalable technical platforms & products.  The principles we share can be applied to large organizations and start-ups alike.  Our principles are technology-agnostic – we believe you can successfully scale with almost any technology if key concepts are followed.  During our two-day workshop, you’ll participate in sessions that integrate our experience, research, and the work we’ve done with over 400 clients since 2007. 

How is the workshop structured?

The workshop is delivered in 14 collaborative sessions over the 2-day event.  While a member of the AKF team will lead the discussion in each session, much of the interaction comes from the participants themselves.  We keep the session size limited (maximum of 25 attendees) so that each attendee can be an active part of the conversation, share experiences, and ask questions from other executives who have been in your shoes.  You’ll leave the workshop with principles, tools, and examples that you can continuously apply to your platform and organization.

Who should attend the workshop?

Our event is designed for current CTOs, VPs of Engineering, Chief Architects, and other technology executives who want to improve their management, leadership, and technology skills.  We help companies scale their technology and product platforms.  Although nearly any technical organization would benefit from the lessons shared in the workshop, our sessions will provide the most value to companies that use technology to deliver their core product or service (e.g. SaaS, eCommerce). 

What topics are covered in the workshop?

The CTO Role: A discussion on the diversity of expectations and responsibilities from the 400 companies we have worked with at AKF Partners.
The Right People & Roles: Ensuring the right talent is placed in positions for success.
Management & Leadership: The skills of a transformational leader and highly effective manager.
Conflict & Innovation: A discussion of good and bad conflicts in organizations and how to increase innovation.
Multidisciplinary Agile Teams: Building innovative teams with diverse experience and skills.
Team Goals & KPIs: Setting goals, metrics, and KPIs for Agile teams to ensure success.
The Experiential Chasm: The widening gap between business leaders and technology leaders and how to close it.
Service Delivery Mindset: The most successful technology organizations are structured with a service oriented mindset and we will discuss how to transform your organization and mindset.
AKF Risk Model: Our viewpoint of risk and how to manage it successfully in your architecture, people, and processes.
Highly Scalable Architectures: An in-depth look at creating highly scalable and available architectures
AKF Scale Cube: Our approach to designing highly scalable architectures.
Creating Fault Isolation: The importance of isolation for availability and time to market.
Architecture Principles: An in-depth look at the top architecture principles and how to apply them.
Processes for a Learning Organization: The most effective processes to put in place to create a successful learning organization.

Who teaches this workshop?

Workshops are delivered by AKF Managing Partner, Marty Abbott, as well as AKF Partner Drew Morrell.  Marty, along with Mike Fisher and Tom Keeven, helped found AKF Partners nine years ago with the goal of leveraging their successes (and failures!) as technology executives to help other companies prepare for and achieve hyper-growth.  To date, AKF has helped over 400 companies across 18 countries make progress towards their scalability goals (including many leaders in the internet industry).  Marty and Mike have co-authored three books: “The Art of Scalability”, “Scalability Rules”, and “The Power of Customer Misbehavior.”


If you would like to be notified of our next workshop, please enter your contact information below, and we’ll let you know when one is scheduled!

 

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AKF Turns 10 – And It’s Still Not About the Tech

March 23, 2017  |  Posted By: AKF

The caller ID was blocked but Marty had been expecting the call.  Three “highly connected” people – donors, political advisers and “inner circle” people –  had suggested AKF could help. It was October 2013 and Healthcare.gov had launched only to crash when users tried to sign up. President Obama appointed Jeffrey Zients to mop up the post launch mess. Once the crisis was over, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its postmortem citing inadequate capacity planning, software coding errors, and lack of functionality as root causes. AKF’s analysis was completely different – largely because we think differently than most technologists. While our findings indicated the bottlenecks that kept the site from scaling, we also identified failures in leadership and a dysfunctional organization structure.  These latter, and more important, problems prevented the team from identifying and preventing recurring issues.

We haven’t always thought differently. Our early focus in 2007 was to help companies overcome architectural problems related to scale and availability. We’ve helped our clients solve some of the largest and challenging problems ever encountered – cyber Monday ecommerce purchasing, Christmas day gift card redemption, and April 15th tax filings. But shortly after starting our firm, we realized there was something common to our early engagements that created and sometimes turbocharged the technology failures. This realization, that people and processes – NOT TECHNOLOGY–  are the causes of most failures led us to think differently.  Too often we see technology leaders focusing too much on the technology and not enough on leading, growing, and scaling their teams.

We challenge the notion that technology leaders should be selected and promoted based on their technical acumen. We don’t accept that a technical leader should spend most of her time making the biggest technical decisions.  We believe that technical executives, to be successful, must first be a business executive with great technical and business acumen.  We teach teams how to analyze and successfully choose the appropriate architecture, organization, and processes to achieve a business outcome. Product effort is meaningless without a measurable and meaningful business outcome and we always put outcomes, not technical “religion” first.

If we can teach a team the “AKF way” the chance of project and business success increases dramatically. This may sound like marketing crap (did we mention we are also irreverent?), but our clients attest to it.  This is what Terry Chabrowe, CEO eMarketer, said about us:

AKF served as our CTO for about 8 months and helped us make huge improvements in virtually every area related to IT and engineering. Just as important, they helped us identify the people on our team who could move into leadership positions. The entire AKF team was terrific. We’d never have been able to grow our user base tenfold without them.

A recent post claimed that 93% of successful companies abandon their original strategy.  This is certainly true for AKF. Over the past 10 years we’ve massively changed our strategy of how we “help” companies. We’ve also quadrupled our team size, worked with over 350 companies, written three books, and most importantly made some great friendships. Whether you’ve read our books, engaged with our company, or connected with us on social media, thanks for an amazing 10 years. We look forward to the next 10 years, learning, teaching, and changing strategies with you.

 

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AKF Interim Leadership Case Study

March 21, 2017  |  Posted By: AKF

Read about one of our success stories in which we filled an interim CTO role at a marketing subscription company in New York.

AKF Long-term Case Study

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