Mike Loukides

Mike Loukides is Vice President of Content Strategy for O'Reilly Media, Inc. He's edited many highly regarded books on technical subjects that don't involve Windows programming. He's particularly interested in programming languages, Unix and what passes for Unix these days, and system and network administration. Mike is the author of System Performance Tuning", and a coauthor of "Unix Power Tools." Most recently, he's been fooling around with data and data analysis, languages like R, Mathematica, and Octave, and thinking about how to make books social.

To suit or not to suit?

At Cultivate, we'll address the issues really facing management: how to deal with human problems.

Attend Cultivate July 20 and 21, in Portland, Oregon, which will be co-located with our OSCON Conference. Cultivate is our event looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

Ties_(Cravate_-_Larousse)_crop1What does it take to become a manager? According to one article, you should buy a suit. And think about whether you want to be a manager in the first place. You’re probably being paid better as a programmer. Maybe you should get an MBA. At night school. And take a Myers-Briggs test.

There are better ways to think about management. Cultivate won’t tell you how to become a manager, or even whether you should; that’s ultimately a personal decision. We will discuss the issues that are really facing management: issues that are important whether you are already managing, are looking forward to managing, or just want to have a positive impact on your company.

Management isn’t about technical issues; it’s about human issues, and we’ll be discussing how to deal with human problems. How do you debug your team when its members aren’t working well together? How do you exercise leadership effectively? How do you create environments where everyone’s contribution is valued?

These are the issues that everyone involved with the leadership of a high-performance organization has to deal with. They’re inescapable. And as companies come under increasing pressure because of ever-faster product cycles, difficulty hiring and retaining excellent employees, customer demand for designs that take their needs into account, and more, these issues will become even more important. We’ve built Cultivate around the cultural changes organizations will need to thrive — and in many cases, survive — in this environment. Read more…

Comment

Flattening organizations

It's easy to talk about eliminating hierarchy; it's much harder to do it effectively.

tangram_licensed_istock_crop

Attend Cultivate July 20 and 21, in Portland, Oregon, which will be co-located with our OSCON Conference. Cultivate is our event looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

Do companies need a managerial class? The idea of a future without management takes many forms, some more sophisticated than others; but at their most basic, the proposals center around flattening organizational structure. Companies can succeed without managers and without grunts. Employees are empowered to find something useful to do and then do it, making their own decisions along the way. That vision of the future is gaining momentum, and a few businesses are taking the fairly radical step of taking their companies flat.

The game developer Valve‘s employee handbook is outspoken in its rejection of traditional corporate hierarchy. There is no management class. Teams self-organize around specific tasks; when the task is done, the team disappears and its members find new tasks. All the office furniture has wheels, so groups can self-organize at a moment’s notice. Employees rate each other, producing a ranking that is used to determine salaries.

More recently, Zappos and Medium have been in the news for adopting similar (though apparently more formalized) practices, under the name “holacracy.”

There’s a lot to like about this model, but I also have concerns. I’m no friend to hierarchy, but if I’ve seen one thing repeatedly in my near-60 years, it’s that you frequently are what you reject. By rejecting something, whether it’s hierarchy, lust for power, wealth, whatever, you make it very difficult to be self-critical. You don’t change yourself; instead, you turn what you dislike most about yourself into your blind spot. Read more…

Comments: 2

BioBuilder: Rethinking the biological sciences as engineering disciplines

Moving biology out of the lab will enable new startups, new business models, and entirely new economies.

Laboratory_public_domain_image_British_Library_Flickr

Buy “BioBuilder: Synthetic Biology in the Lab,” by Natalie Kuldell PhD., Rachel Bernstein, Karen Ingram, and Kathryn M. Hart.

What needs to happen for the revolution in biology and the life sciences to succeed? What are the preconditions?

I’ve compared the biorevolution to the computing revolution several times. One of the most important changes was that computers moved out of the lab, out of the machine room, out of that sacred space with raised floors, special air conditioning, and exotic fire extinguishers, into the home. Computers stopped being things that were cared for by an army of priests in white lab coats (and that broke several times a day), and started being things that people used. Somewhere along the line, software developers stopped being people with special training and advanced degrees; children, students, non-professionals — all sorts of people — started writing code. And enjoying it.

Biology is now in a similar place. But to take the next step, we have to look more carefully at what’s needed for biology to come out of the lab. Read more…

Comment: 1

Artificial intelligence?

AI scares us because it could be as inhuman as humans.

Internet_Archive_Book_Image

Elon Musk started a trend. Ever since he warned us about artificial intelligence, all sorts of people have been jumping on the bandwagon, including Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates.

Although I believe we’ve entered the age of postmodern computing, when we don’t trust our software, and write software that doesn’t trust us, I’m not particularly concerned about AI. AI will be built in an era of distrust, and that’s good. But there are some bigger issues here that have nothing to do with distrust.

What do we mean by “artificial intelligence”? We like to point to the Turing test; but the Turing test includes an all-important Easter Egg: when someone asks Turing’s hypothetical computer to do some arithmetic, the answer it returns is incorrect. An AI might be a cold calculating engine, but if it’s going to imitate human intelligence, it has to make mistakes. Not only can it make mistakes, it can (indeed, must be) be deceptive, misleading, evasive, and arrogant if the situation calls for it.

That’s a problem in itself. Turing’s test doesn’t really get us anywhere. It holds up a mirror: if a machine looks like us (including mistakes and misdirections), we can call it artificially intelligent. That begs the question of what “intelligence” is. We still don’t really know. Is it the ability to perform well on Jeopardy? Is it the ability to win chess matches? These accomplishments help us to define what intelligence isn’t: it’s certainly not the ability to win at chess or Jeopardy, or even to recognize faces or make recommendations. But they don’t help us to determine what intelligence actually is. And if we don’t know what constitutes human intelligence, why are we even talking about artificial intelligence? Read more…

Comments: 4

Cultivating change

Cultivate is O'Reilly's conference committed to training the people who will lead successful teams, now and in the future.

comboseedpackets_final

Attend Cultivate July 20 and 21, in Portland, Oregon. Cultivate is our conference looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

Leadership has changed — and in a big way — since the Web started upending the status quo two decades ago. That’s why we’re launching our new Cultivate event; we realized that businesses need new types of leaders, and that O’Reilly is uniquely positioned to help engineers step up to the job.

At the start of the 21st century, Google was in its infancy; Facebook didn’t exist; and Barnes & Noble, not Amazon, was the dominant force in the book industry. As we’ve watched these companies grow, we’ve realized that every business is a software business, and that the factors that made Google, Facebook, and Amazon successful can be applied outside the Web. Every business, from your dentist’s office to Walmart, is critically dependent on software. As Marc Andreessen put it, software is eating the world.

As companies evolve into software businesses, they become more dependent on engineers for leadership. But an engineer’s training rarely includes leadership and management skills. How do you make the transition from technical problems to management problems, which are rarely technical? How do you become an agent for growth and change within your company? And what sorts of growth and change are necessary?

The slogan “every business is a software business” doesn’t explain much, until we think about how software businesses are different. Software can be updated easily. It took software developers the better part of 50 years to realize that, but they have. That kind of rapid iteration is now moving into other products. Read more…

Comment

Postmodern security

The real challenge going forward: we can't trust anything.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about postmodern computing, and characterized it as the computing in a world of distrust.

This morning, I read Steve Bellovin’s blog post, What Must We Trust? — Bellovin explains that “modern” (my word) security is founded on the idea of a “Trusted Computing Base” (TCB), defined (in part) in the United States’ Defense Department’s Orange Book. There were parts of a system that you had to trust, and you had to guard their integrity vigilantly: the kernel, certainly, but also specific configuration files, executables, and so on.

The TCB has always been problematic, particularly since (at least initially) it did not consider the problem of network connections. But networking aside, Bellovin argues that recent events have blown the idea of a “trusted” system to bits. We’ve seen attacks against (Bellovin’s list) batteries, webcams, USB, and more. If Andromedans (Bellovin doesn’t want to say NSA) have managed to infiltrate our disk drives, what can trust mean? And it would be naive to think that this stops with devices that have disk drives. Our devices, from Fitbits to data centers, have been pwnd even before they’re built. Read more…

Comments: 3

What is DevOps (yet again)?

Empathy, communication, and collaboration across organizational boundaries.

Cropped image "Kilobot robot swarm" by asuscreative - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kilobot_robot_swarm.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Kilobot_robot_swarm.JPG

I might try to define DevOps as the movement that doesn’t want to be defined. Or as the movement that wants to evade the inevitable cargo-culting that goes with most technical movements. Or the non-movement that’s resisting becoming a movement. I’ve written enough about “what is DevOps” that I should probably be given an honorary doctorate in DevOps Studies.

Baron Schwartz (among others) thinks it’s high time to have a definition, and that only a definition will save DevOps from an identity crisis. Without a definition, it’s subject to the whims of individual interest groups, and ultimately might become a movement that’s defined by nothing more than the desire to “not be like them.” Dave Zwieback (among others) says that the lack of a definition is more of a blessing than a curse, because it “continues to be an open conversation about making our organizations better.” Both have good points. Is it possible to frame DevOps in a way that preserves the openness of the conversation, while giving it some definition? I think so.

DevOps started as an attempt to think long and hard about the realities of running a modern web site, a problem that has only gotten more difficult over the years. How do we build and maintain critical sites that are increasingly complex, have stringent requirements for performance and uptime, and support thousands or millions of users? How do we avoid the “throw it over the wall” mentality, in which an operations team gets the fallout of the development teams’ bugs? How do we involve developers in maintenance without compromising their ability to release new software?

Read more…

Comments: 2

Beyond lab folklore and mythology

What the future of science will look like if we’re bold enough to look beyond centuries-old models.

Chemistry_Set_Alejandro_Hernandez_Flickr

Editor’s note: this post is part of our ongoing investigation into synthetic biology and bioengineering. For more on these areas, download the latest free edition of BioCoder.

Over the last six months, I’ve had a number of conversations about lab practice. In one, Tim Gardner of Riffyn told me about a gene transformation experiment he did in grad school. As he was new to the lab, he asked two more experienced scientists for their protocol: one said it must be done exactly at 42 C for 45 seconds, the other said exactly 37 C for 90 seconds. When he ran the experiment, Tim discovered that the temperature actually didn’t matter much. A broad range of temperatures and times would work.

In an unrelated conversation, DJ Kleinbaum of Emerald Cloud Lab told me about students who would only use their “lucky machine” in their work. Why, given a choice of lab equipment, did one of two apparently identical machines give “good” results for a some experiment, while the other one didn’t? Nobody knew. Perhaps it is the tubing that connects the machine to the rest of the experiment; perhaps it is some valve somewhere; perhaps it is some quirk of the machine’s calibration.

The more people I talked to, the more stories I heard: labs where the experimental protocols weren’t written down, but were handed down from mentor to student. Labs where there was a shared common knowledge of how to do things, but where that shared culture never made it outside, not even to the lab down the hall. There’s no need to write it down or publish stuff that’s “obvious” or that “everyone knows.” As someone who is more familiar with literature than with biology labs, this behavior was immediately recognizable: we’re in the land of mythology, not science. Each lab has its own ritualized behavior that “works.” Whether it’s protocols, lucky machines, or common knowledge that’s picked up by every student in the lab (but which might not be the same from lab to lab), the process of doing science is an odd mixture of rigor and folklore. Everybody knows that you use 42 C for 45 seconds, but nobody really knows why. It’s just what you do.

Despite all of this, we’ve gotten fairly good at doing science. But to get even better, we have to go beyond mythology and folklore. And getting beyond folklore requires change: changes in how we record data, changes in how we describe experiments, and perhaps most importantly, changes in how we publish results. Read more…

Comments: 6

Announcing BioCoder issue 6

BioCoder 6: iGEM's first Giant Jamboree, an update from the #ScienceHack Hack-a-thon, the Open qPCR project, and more.

Today, we’ve released the 6th issue of BioCoder. There’s a lot of great content, including a report from iGEM’s first Giant Jamboree, and an update from the #ScienceHack Hack-a-thon. We’ve also got a report on the Open qPCR project, which reduces the cost of real-time PCR by a factor of 10, and an article about bringing microfluidics into the DIY lab. There’s nothing more disruptive than taking exotic and expensive techniques and putting them in the hands of experimenters.

Once again, we’re interested in your ideas and in new content, so if you have an article or a proposal for an article, send it in to BioCoder@oreilly.com. We’re very interested in what you’re doing. There are many, many fascinating projects that aren’t getting media attention. We’d like to shine some light on those. If you’re running one of them — or if you know of one, and would like to hear more about it — let us know. We’d also like to hear more about exciting start-ups. Who do you know that’s doing something amazing? And if it’s you, don’t be shy: tell us.

Above all, don’t hesitate to spread the word. BioCoder was meant to be shared. Our goal with BioCoder is to be the nervous system for a large and diverse but poorly connected community. We’re making progress, but we need you to help make the connections.

Comment

Self-censorship is not the way forward

Marco Arment did an excellent job of offering constructive criticism to a company that he genuinely loves.

I was disappointed to see Marco Arment say he wishes he never wrote his post on Apple’s software quality, “Apple has lost the functional high ground.”

The point he made is one I’ve tweeted about (though not written about) a number of times over the years. The big problem facing Apple isn’t a deficit of innovation, but bitrot creeping into their codebase. You don’t have to look far to see it: for example, there’s a race condition in text handling that has been there since at least OS X 10.3.

The point needed to be made by someone who knows and loves Apple, someone who is a leader in their developer community, and someone who has a reputation for being fair and even-handed. That’s Marco. He did an excellent job of offering constructive criticism to a company that he genuinely loves.

Yes, there is a risk that anything you write will turn into a media storm. That’s a risk you have to live with; it’s unfortunate, but it’s not going away. It’s also important to say what needs to be said. Self-censorship is not the way forward. Read more…

Comment: 1