Yesterday I was listening to a presentation about lean startups and a topic in the presentation really struck a chord with me.  The presenter was talking about measuring progress and how frequently progress is measured in ways that are totally incorrect.  Such an obvious observation in hindsight but one that I had never made.  Hello dots, meet your new friends the connections.

Immediately I started thinking about all of the projects that I’ve worked on and tried to identify how progress was measured on each one.  The most disastrous project had a huge specification jammed down the throats of the developers and progress for that project was measured by how much of the specification was implemented.  There wasn’t much about this project that felt right, but the self centered metric for measuring progress should have been the biggest indicator of failure.  At least 10 man years were spent on that project, it never made any money and has now been shut down.

The next project I worked on at that company was one of my own making.  Personally I was measuring progress by how much the company was able to innovate.  Admittedly that too was a stupid metric because you can have progress without anyone else caring. Consequently while the site is still around, the original projects on it were a bit of a flash in the pan and died a slow death.

More recently I was working on a project that had a pretty clear metric for progress, traffic.  But I suspect that this metric was a bit too vanilla and thus provided little value.  However, the bigger problem was that different parties had different metrics for progress.  Our group was measuring traffic and saying that generating more of it was the most important thing to work on.  While the CEO was measuring our progress by how much money we were making, which was none.  So it strikes me that not only is it important to have a good metric for progress, it’s something that all parties need to agree upon.

So I feel like a real idiot.  I strongly believe that asking questions is a fundamental part of making anything that’s successful.  I’m not talking about asking random questions, I’m taking about asking the hard questions and having the endless curiosity to ask why.  But I feel like I’ve neglected to ask the hardest and seemingly most important question of, what is our metric for progress.

So today I’m thinking about all of the other aspects of my life and it’s surprisingly refreshing to realize the places where I’ve been measuring the wrong thing.

A simple example.  When I started climbing I measured my progress by how hard of a climb I could complete.  Typical male stupidity.  That metric had me focusing on pure strength instead of technique which has caused me a tremendous amount of physical pain.  Or take this blog for example.  It’s very easy to measure my progress by looking at beautiful charts that tell me how many people are reading what I’m writing.  But is that really what I’m after?  No.  I’m just trying to share things in my life with those that are interested, not make more people interested in my life.

When taking a macro look at the things around me I really start to wonder what metrics are being used in other areas.  What’s being measured when we bail out banks and automotive companies?  Simply not dying?  How about the housing market?  More homes being purchased?  What about the economy as a whole?  Please tell me we aren’t using the stock market.

I’m hoping like crazy that someone in a position of power has answers to those questions.  But even if we have the metrics, what I fear is that the people in power don’t agree or even communicate what they are.  What would happen if every law we passed had to have a metric of success tied to it and we voted on both the law and the metric?  Then we would have real data that can be used to decide if the removal of our rights as Americans has a proportional increase in our safety.

Humm… much to think about.

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So there’s this gym in Mountain View called Twisters.  They seem to focus on gymnastics and dancing, but they also have a small climbing gym. Last month I meet a few folks there that had never climbed before so I was excited to see them have a good time.  I had also never been to this gym so I was going to experience something new as well.  Sadly I think everyone walked away feeling pretty disappointed.

First impressions can say a lot, but sometimes they don’t say enough.  I showed up right around 2pm on a Saturday and strangely enough I couldn’t get into the building.  The entrance was around the side of the building and honestly felt more like the back door of a restaurant than the entrance to a gym.  The fact that the door was locked only added to this sensation.  But apparently the guy working there heard us trying to get in and opened it up for us.

As soon as I stepped in I realized that this was a very small gym and that we were the only people there.  The guy behind the counter got out some harnesses and tried to give me one even though I was already wearing one.  But what was really surprising is that he didn’t give anyone any climbing shoes.  He didn’t even offer to rent anyone a pair.  This was very surprising because I had heard that this was suppose to be a really good instructional climbing gym and climbing shoes really make a world of a difference.  In fact, this quote taken directly off of their website seems to suggest the same thing:

If you are just starting out, you will want to take advantage of the Bay Area’s best instructional rock climbing gym!  Twisters is a nationally recognized member gym of the USAC and is the only rock climbing gym in California with certified coaching staff! We are excited to help you climb!  Of course our expertise will be available to you at all times, but our classes are definitely the best around. In as little as one hour you can be off on your own, handling the ropes and reaching new heights!

There are some pretty bold statements in that bit of text and given that they ended 80% of the sentences with an exclamation mark tells me that they even realize how bold they are.  The only problem is that from my experience I have a hard time believing a single part of that quote.  The “instruction” that our group got was miserable at best and actually woefully inadequate.

The guy there did show the group how to tie a figure eight knot as well as a fisherman’s knot, so in theory they should have been able to tie themselves into their harnesses.  He then spent a couple minutes showing them how to use a grigri belay device.  The grigri is a locking belay device which can give people a false sense of security.  It’s also a more complicated device than an ATC, so proper instruction is really important.  On top of that, it’s somewhat awkward the first time you try to belay someone and he didn’t even bother to see if people were understanding the basics.  Instead he demonstrated belaying one person and then expected everyone to just get it.

I guess the last sentence in the above quote could be correct.  He did have everyone off on their own in only 15 minutes and I was a tiny bit worried that they would be off to new heights, heaven.  At this point we had four people who had never climbed before barely understanding how to tie some knots and maybe understanding how to operate a grigri.  No mention of any voice commands.  No helpful hits on climbing technique.  No confirmation that anyone knew what they were doing.  Climbing is a dangerous sport and he was treating it like it was ping pong.

Not only were these far from the “best classes around”, this guy clearly wasn’t excited to help.  In fact, I’d actually be surprised if he wasn’t completely stoned at the time.  Thankfully the two of us that had climbed before could fill in the gaps (and by gaps I mean very wide canyons) in the instruction.  However, what we couldn’t make up for was the safety of the gym itself.

The floor of every gym I’ve been to is covered in this thick foam material with a blue fabric on top.  It can absorb a fall from six feet off the ground without issue and is really great stuff.  This gym had the same blue material on top but was actually missing the foam underneath!  I didn’t realize this at first and hopped down from a bouldering problem and landed on the floor so hard that it caused a great amount of pain in my heal for a few days.  I then started inspecting the rest of their gear.  I then found carabiners with stuck or sticky gates, a couple ropes that looked like they should be retired and I think I even saw a static rope.  I can’t help but wonder who is insuring this gym.

I will say that their routes were challenging and that they were playing some good music (Dispatch) but I really can’t recommend anyone going to this gym.  For the sake of the people that love this gym, I hope I caught them on an off day (or month… or year…) and that it truly is a safe place to climb, but somehow I doubt that.  Besides, when it comes to safety and climbing, off days can result in serious injury.

Sad Face in my Taxes

April 12, 2009

So in typical Ryan fashion I filed my taxes yesterday.  Some people may call this type of behavior procrastination but I prefer to think of it as lazy evaluation.  I am pretty proud of myself because this year I managed to get them filed a whole three days earlier than I did last year.  At this pace, by the time I’m 60 maybe I’ll have them taken care of in January.

No Spouse Sad Face

No Spouse Sad Face

I filed them online and in the process of filling out their forms they asked if I had a spouse.  While it’s always fun to play pretend, I don’t think the IRS enjoys the game so I fessed up and admitted I didn’t have one.  After I was all finished they showed me a summary of my information which is where I saw the image to the right.  When I first saw this I thought they had a sense of humor and had put in a sad face because I didn’t have a spouse.  This of course made me smile and for a moment I was amazed that a tax website could have a sense of humor.  But then I realized that they were trying to output and underline a social security number that wasn’t present and all I was seeing was the dashes that usually follow the third and fifth digit.

So I guess this isn’t a sign of humor at all but more of an oversight.  Either way, it made my taxes a little more entertaining and I’m only paying in $38 so I’m not complaining one bit.

Why I Climb

April 11, 2009

This last January I joined a small group of people (8 in total) for a half day rock climbing class.  I’d done a very small amount of climbing before and figured it would be a good time, but honestly I was hoping to just meet some women.  Much to my surprise, this was the start of a new love affair… one with rock.

Climbing has taken a toll on my hands

Climbing has taken a toll on my hands

In February I joined a climbing gym (Planet Granite) and have been spending about 10 hours a week torturing myself on its walls.  This is a huge amount of time for someone as busy as I am but for some reason I really can’t help myself.  Just like any other attraction, there is a certain amount of mystery behind it and I like to solve mysteries.

So I’m making a list.  A list of feelings and skills that showcase themselves while climbing. I doubt this list will be able to fully express things enough to come to any conclusions but I’ve got to start somewhere.  And just like Columbo, I’ll probably have to come back in the room and add in “just one more thing”.

Forced Social Behavior – Pretty much all of the outdoor activities that I’m into are ones that you can do by yourself.  Climbing is refreshingly different.  Because every climber needs someone to belay them (take in the rope as they climb) it’s kind of a hard activity to do by yourself.  This makes it very easy to approach others and strike up a conversation and so far almost everyone has been receptive of this.  In a world where most people avoid saying hello to strangers, climbers seem to encourage it.

Freedom – For years I’ve been exploring various parts of the wilderness and seeing rock walls that looked impossible to scale.  Being an idiot, I naturally want to conquer such things and it’s this kind of desire that I think worries my parents.  But as it turns out, acting on those desires can be really empowering.  The ability to traverse over any physical object opens up whole new worlds.  No longer is that island plateau off limits, no longer is the view from the top of that mountain out of reach and no longer are you simply stuck to foot paths.  It’s physical freedom on a level I have never experienced.

Problem Solving – Unless you’re on a ladder, climbing isn’t a straightforward task.  You need to plan your moves, anticipate the crux and find places to rest.  It sounds simple and logical while on the ground but these are easy things to forget when you’re getting mentally and physically tired.  This is what makes the sport so challenging.  You know where you want to go but just need to find the right combination of movements that will get you there while staying coordinated, balanced and under control.

Focus – Problem solving requires focus.  You can’t think about what is below you or how the last sequence of moves didn’t go as well as you planned.  You need to be looking ahead and knowing what your next few moves are so you can execute them logically.  At the same time you can’t forget about proper foot placement, keeping your hips close to the wall, progressing using your legs and so on.  You get so tuned into the task that you forget about the other things around you and feeling them reappear when you’re finished adds to the sensation.

Grace – Grace is just another word for control.  While keeping your temper and frustrations under control is very important, I’m actually talking about control of movement.  Making smooth movements to adjust your center of gravity helps you be a more efficient climber and use less upper body energy.  Watching the fluid movements of an experienced climber really is like watching someone dance on the rock, very graceful.  While the less experienced climber looks more like the portrayal of a white guy dancing.  I am a white guy and I think I stand a better chance of being graceful on a rock than I do a dance floor.

Physical Strength – Climbing is a full body physical activity.  Every muscle group can be used at different points but only some of them require real strength.  You discover pretty quickly that the muscles you want to use the most (your forearms) are the ones that are the weakest.  I may be in the minority, but I truly love pushing my body to its limits and feeling like I’ve done something at the end of the day.  If climbing doesn’t do that for you, it’s time to move up a few levels.

Mental Strength – Focus is the product of mental strength.  As a climber gets tired there seems to be a tendency to climb in a less efficient manner, this is clearly a downward spiral.  So having the mental strength to remain focused in the face of increasing pain is a valuable tool.  Being able to trust yourself to hold onto a grip is also an aspect of mental strength, if you can’t do this all you’re doing is closing off options.  There is also an aspect of dealing with fear.  Falling is a very natural and healthy fear, but if gone unchecked it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

Achievement – The feeling of accomplishment after finishing the hardest climb in your life is simply fantastic.  You struggle through it, push through the pain and come out on top.  Then down the road you find yourself able to do the same climbs that you once struggled on without an issue.  Because the routes follow a (sometimes rough) rating system it’s pretty easy to see improvement over time.

Endless Challenges – There is always a harder route to climb and many different types of rock to play with.  You can work on slabs (rock that isn’t quite vertical), overhanging rock, cracks, chimney climbs/stemming (using pressure with your feet and hands to scale up two parallel or adjacent faces), routes that require a lot of balance, routes with a lot of crimping holds, etc.  You can have some fun on some sport climbs or get the full rack of gear out for some traditional climbing.  This translates into a lifetime of goals.

Nope, that list doesn’t solve the mystery but perhaps it’s the mystery itself that is so appealing.  Afterall, one of the things that drew me to start climbing was the mystery of what’s at the top.  It seems kind of fitting that the mysterious journy to the top is what keeps me coming back.  So maybe this one should go unsolved.

Climb on.

For at least the last eight years SGI has been slowly dying a painful death but this seems to be the end of that road.  Yesterday they declared bankruptcy and sold themselves to Rackable Systems for $25 million in cash (at their peak they were doing about $4 billion in revenue per year).  While this news isn’t shocking, it does leave me feeling a little sad and reminiscent of my hacking roots.

Back in 1997 I first visited the Virtual Reality Applications Center at Iowa State University as a high school senior.  I was so taken back by the things they were doing in their lab that I simply had to get my hands dirty with it.  I ended up attending Iowa State after high school and one of the first things I did was to walk over to the VR lab and get more information about what they were using to build these virtual worlds.  Enter SGI, stage left.

I walked away from the lab that day knowing that these SGI computers played a big part of making these virtual worlds.  At this point in my life the only thing I had ever programmed was my TI-86 calculator and I had never even heard of UNIX based computers.  Somehow none of this discouraged me one bit.  I simply saw a toy that I wanted to play with, end of discussion.

During the summer after my freshman year I started going to these surplus sales that the university had.  One week I walked in and couldn’t believe my eyes, sitting on a shelf was a SGI Indigo Elan.  This was a computer that once sold for tens of thousands of dollars and could now be mine for $225.  It came complete with a 19″ monitor, 64MB of memory, a 500MB hard drive and a R3000 processor at 33MHz.  Not exactly a barn burner in 1999 but like U2 says, “love is blindness”.

So I got the damn thing and had absolutely no clue what to do with it.  The university wiped the hard drive so I had no OS to run on it.  I knew that somehow I had to get a copy of Irix 5.3 to install but that wasn’t an easy thing to come by.  But with the help of some folks at ISU somehow I managed to get the thing to going.  It was now officially my first computer and would end up being the most influential.

I can’t imagine how different my life would be today if that computer was a Windows machine instead of an SGI.  My SGI allowed me explore in depth the wonders of networked computers.  Being able to login to a remote machine, pipe windows over a network and mount network drives.  It fostered my love with the command line which is a fundamental requirement for being a productive geek.  I loved this machine so much that I ended up purchasing two more just like it.

By the end of my second year at ISU I had my three Indigo’s and also a R5k Indy at 175 MHz.  After finding a copy of Irix 6.5 the Indy became my primary workstation.  But my collection didn’t stop there.  Over the next few years I got a couple more Indy’s and a couple of green Indigo 2’s.  Then came my favorite machine, my purple Indigo 2 R10k.  I have so much respect for that machine.

That machine served as the database server for my search engine for two years, handling millions of queries each month with grace.  However it was also the last SGI that I owned.  Eventually my needs outgrew what this pile of hardware could provide.  Just like the next generation of startup companies, I too was making the transition to commodity hardware running Linux.  Exit SGI, stage right.

When I moved out to California I left behind my old flames.  They now reside in my parents basement in Iowa, collecting dust and probably dreaming of being useful once again.  Somehow I can’t imagine the thought of actually getting rid of them.  There is a part of me that would like to fire them up again and just look back at that time in my life.  What was on my desktop?  But I can’t bring myself to do it at this point in my life.  What’s the point of looking backwards when there is so much in front of me?  Besides, it would just make me crave the days when I had so much time to simply learn.

Maybe I’ll compromise and pay a visit to the Computer History Museum and see if they have any old SGI boxes on display.  Not only is the hardware and software they produced of historical significance, the museum now occupies a building that SGI once owned so it only seems appropriate.