Archive for the ‘Kompetens’ Category

Beware of Fun & Useful: the Company

December 6, 2018

In my last blog I described how we need to beware of fun and useful. Using a bleeding edge technology is fun. Combing this with something good (useful) is usually an interesting way to fail. Most new tech doesn’t make it. These forces act on a company too. Let’s dissect that contradiction and see how we instead of giving up can take advantage of them.

We have two dimensions here – fun and useful. What do the quadrants mean? What type of companies (or projects) do we find?

Diagram: X-axis moves from useless to useful. Y goes from boring to cutting edge (which is usually fun).

First; Let us examine the aspects of fun and useful.


Often I find that people view the word useful as in ”good data to have” or ”good tool in itself”. I argue that we should instead define it as ”have a good effect or outcome”. It doesn’t matter if it is ”good” to collect some data if it isn’t used to some goal. A person or system need to use and take some decision or action based on that particular piece of information. In other words, it has to have an effect on the organisation or in reality to be useful. The same thinking applies to features, processes or functions.

In many cases, I find that people design systems or applications because they can. We settle for the more easy question; Is this good data/feature? We should answer what effect it can have.


Fun can mean many things to many people. I regard ”bleeding edge” as fun. It is great to explore and learn new things. However, it can hurt, hence the reference to blood. Whatever your definition, I believe that we have an intuitive understanding of fun.

It captures an aspect that is usually somewhat contrary to do useful stuff. Useful can be a product or service that someone is ready to pay for. Having fun is one of the intangibles that affect employees and makes them stay. Likewise, if we find ourselves at the bottom area, things look bleak. You will lose employees, at least when the economy favours switching jobs.

These dimensions make for some interesting analysis of different types of companies.

The Startup

The top right-hand corner is to be feared, at least in general. For some companies like startups, brand new technology offers new ways to solve (old) problems. They could be the cutting edge to out-do product companies stuck further down towards the centre of the diagram.

Apply with caution though. You aren’t selling new technologies per se.

The Consultancy

In my previous blog, I wrote about the individual and why we should be wary of the combination fun and useful. Those or two different goals and usually one of them will suffer given enough time. You’re likely to end up with bug fixing and no fun. The same thinking applies to a consultancy. Just like the individual you will probably go for the high-paying (yeah, right) gig and lose track of that ”useful time reporting tool” that you were working on.

I say we need to focus the fun. You will learn a lot that can be useful on the next gig (without the hangover). Here’s a fun twist; The more useless or outlandish project you tackle, the more newsworthy it might be. That’s good marketing, booth when attracting new customers or coworkers.

The Product Company

As a product company, you know that you will have to live with your decisions. Make the right choices and spend enough time developing your product mean fewer bugs. At the same time, you need to push new features out the market to stay competitive. Going back and fixing or improving can be a difficult choice, especially if you’re management. Over time the technical debt builds up. Your technology is probably already gathering dust as I write this. What once was the promising edge of choices slowly drifts to the bottom of the diagram (see red arrow). Your tech is now less fun. To make things worse; A competitor launched a great new feature. You drift to the left. Ouch.

What to do?

Recruit a junior

The easiest and fastest way is to hire some new people with potential. Go for someone junior where your tech is a step forward. After all, fun is a relative measure. Your seniors can teach the newcomer how things work and in good time hand over some of the responsibilities.

Divide and improve

The next step, which usually takes more work, is to develop your product. Divide it into areas where you can employ some new tech. Put it into your senior staff’s hands. It will be new plus fun stuff to do. Maybe you even can leapfrog your competition?

Of course, we can imagine more steps to help us. The point is that we need to put some effort to climb out of the boring-but-somewhat-useful hole. See the green arrow in the diagram.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this back and forth for a product company. Handled with care, you balance between fun (as in “expensive new bleeding tech”) and boring (as in “trusted”). Just make sure that you don’t fall too far to the bottom left.

Finally – no fun and useless

The bottom left corner sounds like a self-evident no-go zone. I defined useful above as ”have a good effect in reality”. It follows that useless means having no such discernible effect. My experience is that more work tasks and products end up in this quadrant than we like to admit. We allow products beyond the date where they should be euthanised. We push items in an issue system and produce reports that no one reads. We measure because we can, without thought on what good it might do. I can go on, but it makes me sad. Have mercy and kill that project or task or report. It’s going to take courage since it has probably been in this corner for some time. You’ll do us all a favour.

Beware of Fun & Useful

November 24, 2018

So you got time to learn and that’s fun. Best way is to do something, to practice. What should you choose? You start searching for some fun stuff, but your mind meanders. You add some useful purpose. Makes sense to fulfil two goals, right? No! Your learning curve is now longer, and you have created a long tail of tedious bug fixing.

Learning is fun. That usually means reading and studying, which is the first step in acquiring new knowledge, and yet you still haven’t gained a new skill. That last step takes practice, some kind of exercise. What should we choose?

The useful fallacy

If you’re tackling a significant new area, it will mean lots of hours. It’s going to require stamina. The more it takes, the higher the urge for synergy. You are likely to hear arguments like ”If we pour all these hours into mastering X, couldn’t we use that for some good Y?”

A utilitarian approach like this is commendable …or so we believe. Having two good goals – fun and useful – does not mean they work hand in hand just because they are righteous. On the contrary, that new second goal solution ends up with a lot of infrastructure headache, extra costs and a long tail of bugs. None of this adds to your understanding of that new area, the first goal.

You can worsen this by using bleeding edge tech. I’ve seen countless of these good-to-have-projects suffering a horrible and prolonged death. No one likes to admit that his or her pet project is a walking zombie. Have mercy and kill it. You need to focus on the first goal, have fun and learn something.

An example of practice

In one of my teams, we had a pause from customer engagements. Great! We could invest time in ourselves and learn something new. As it happened, we needed to understand a new web framework, which was a new preference among our clients. We googled and read blogs. We followed online courses, and we were diligent.

On a five-grade scale we peaked at two1. We concluded that this was no good and promptly paired up and programmed some live examples. We redid some old coding of choice in this new environment2. Something half-way tangible, but not necessary for our continued work. In essence, we threw away the code once we finished. We needed to learn, not create some ”good-to-have”.

After a couple of weeks of intense training, everyone changed his or her level by their own choice to three. Meaning ”I’m ok. I’ve got practical experience.”

That might not sound like much, but the team consisted of Swedish 3 programmers, read humble. This ”average” grade meant we were ready to take on new and tough assignments.


What if you find yourself with a goal that is both fun and useful? That could happen. Sit down. Take a deep breath and think things through. Do you need fancy new tech or brand new ways of working to accomplish this useful thing? If the answer is still yes, then, by all means, go ahead. Just remember that useful should trump fun in this case, if you have to choose between the two.

Learn? Make sure to have fun!

To reiterate; If your goal is to learn, then you must do stuff to understand it properly. If yes, then go for fun – like in crazy fun – the more, the happier. Don’t settle for ”useful”. You will learn a lot more by the hour and have more energy, without the maintenance hangover.

  1. We do have a competence development system for grading, so this was a solid number for us.
  2. If you need some good examples try a code kata. See
  3. Check out the Law of Jante for an insight into the Nordic mind

Know your strengths and learn to like your weaknesses

October 15, 2017

Human beings are complex. We don’t understand our strengths. We never receive any proper help in identifying them. Let alone to speak them out loud. We view weaknesses as dark spots on our personalities that are best left hidden. Here is my model on how to look at yourself – and others – which is both forgiving and useful.

Growing up, I believed old age automagically infused us with wisdom. In my teens, my mother started working at a retirement centre for retired tearaways (Swedish: pensionerade värstingar). Ah, the stories! I learnt we behave in all sorts of ways as we grow older, which can be both troublesome and filled with dark sense of humor. Even though we do change, the bigger problem in my view is that we don’t give much thought about how we can improve our strengths and weaknesses – our ”pluses and minuses.” We run around blindly and end up in situations with a vague understanding of both ourselves and what a new job might need. There are ways to grow your self. You don’t have to wait until the years have passed.

We have strengths and weaknesses. Understand and handle them both. Remember to place them in the right context for best result.

We have strengths and weaknesses. Understand and handle them both. Remember to place them in the right context for best result.

We tend to view our personalities as fixed with limited ability to change. I argue that we cannot avoid evolving. Our only option is to understand and try to improve both the pluses and minuses. Moreover, and maybe more important, we need to find a context where this matter. You might be awesome, but if nobody cares, it doesn’t matter how good you are.

The Pluses

On many occasions, I have helped people recognising their strengths. As a consultant manager, I typically analysed my team member’s CVs to improve their sales pitch. I would look for the short list of ”what I sell” on their first page. As an exercise, I would ask them for the three to five keywords that defined their strengths as seen from a potential customer.

It turns out, it is difficult to name those strong sides that we do own. We have never received any training, and we don’t dare to ask around. I do recommend the latter though. You are probably going to be positively surprised when you ask some trusted colleagues.

Exercise 1: Talk to a couple of close colleagues. Ask them for your ”top three strengths. Check your CV: Can you find them on the first page?”

The guys in my teams (yup, usually all-male teams) could think of several good words. That’s not hard, but picking just the few that describes you is a lot more difficult. In my experience, only a (very) few arrived at two keywords.

Exercise 2: Form your own top 3-5 words that define ”what you bring to the table”. Show them to a different colleague and get their feedback. Probably you need to redo your CV.

Have you tried the exercises above? Good. By now you should have a small(er) set of value words that feel good and sharpens your professional edge. You understand your core strengths better. Moreover, you have solicited the help of others. Being out of your comfort zone didn’t feel too bad, did it?

At this point, it could be tempting to compare your strengths to people you know and respect. Chances are some of your pluses pale in comparison. Try to resist that urge. Remember this is about you and how to make you the best you. There are always people more intelligent, more beautiful and more friendly than you (and me). I say: Let them buy the next round of drinks and be content with that level of revenge.

It is not only the level of your strengths that are important. The combination of different positives makes you unique. Say you’re a decent programmer, an adequate team lead, a modest speaker, and you listen to your colleagues. None of the skills are excellent by themselves, but the combination of them makes you outstanding.

The Minuses

You have spent thousands of hours honing your core skills. Adding another day’s worth of sweat will not break new grounds or up your levels. You should still do it, but it’s continuous investment so these fortitudes do not slip.

Weaknesses are usually best left forgotten. Right? Wrong. Since these are flaws, you don’t like to parade them. Chances are you haven’t spent much time on them at all. Adding just a couple of hours ’upgrading’ should have a dramatic upswing. The more you suck, the better the effect!

Exercise 3: Ask the near and dear for their advice. What should you improve? Arrange the minuses from small to tough-to-fix. Take the easiest and just do something, whatever, to alleviate it. Rejoice! And repeat.

I’ve talked a lot with my family about this aspect of improving weaknesses. Recently my 13-year old son Bix coined the ”10 hour rule”. He had figured out the actual number to rectify a ‘light’1 flaw.

  • If you spend ten hours, then it will make you better. A single hour doesn’t help, he assured me. So I watch ten hours of YouTube, he continued.

True that. Thanks Bix.

My second son Felix told me that he got beat in chess in 7th grade. His number to get even was 20 hours of chess intros on Youtube. After binge-watching, he went back to school and beat everyone including those two years his senior. Oh, and that includes humiliating me.

Exercise 4: Find a ’good’ weakness. Practice or learn about it for ten hours – not just a single hour. You now officially suck less.

Find the one or two most ’easy’ minuses that you can improve. Think of the smallest step you can take to address them. Can you make that change rewarding? Now you’re on an active path to a better version of yourself. Keep going.

I view weaknesses in a different light than most. I don’t like them at all, but improving them is gratifying and usually cheap.

The context

By now, you should have some kind of understanding of your strengths. You view and handle your weaknesses in a better way. The next step is critical to get the most out of you.
You need to find the context – job or whatever – that is the better fit for you. When you thrive, your company (or marriage or child or…) will benefit. We tend to forget this vital part when we only look inward and examine our abilities.

A colleague of mine was not highly regarded by management. She was typically sent on single person assignments which weren’t sought after by the other programmers. Management didn’t think bad of her. She just was “medium” in their eyes. Always cheerful, she would toil away and not complain much. As chance sometime does, she was put on an in-house project for one of our big customers. After a while, the other programmers would go over to her desk for help or clarification. She had become the goto-person, and even the customer noticed. For the next project, they specifically asked for her. Both she, the project and her bank account were happy.

Exercise 5: Take your plus and minuses. Map them to your context – job, marriage whatever. What does (not) match? Start improving your context, one facet at a time. If all fails, you might have to switch context.

Let us take a more far-reaching example. Many years ago, I noticed that some of my fellow programmers displayed a combination of traits that I found intriguing. They were bad at spelling and at the same time had an intuitive knack for coding. Their solutions seemed to come from some lateral thinking that slipped me by. It turned out they were dyslexic. Why this odd combination?

I hypothesised that they had to use other types of problem-solving for reading and writing. I believed this somehow affected their thinking when coding. More than a dozen years later, I found a doctoral dissertation where they performed intelligence test on dyslexic youths2. The levels for reading and writing were below average, as expected. But, to my joy, the study found the equivalent or higher ability for problem-solving!

Could it be that my dyslexic colleagues, by chance or choice, had chosen a field where spelling matters less? Remember, a programmer usually writes two characters and hits cmd-space to select a word from the menu. Given the context of the code, the choices are few and easy.

Whenever I find that a programmer has consistent spelling errors, I err on the positive side. I expect to see more creative solutions.

Finally; I used the word forgiving at the start. I subscribe to ’growth mindset’3, as opposed to a fixed mindset (your abilities are there from birth and do not change). I believe that it is possible to improve yourself. We all have flaws. We only need to decide to try do something about them. It might not be easy, but it does work.

  1. Obviously this 10-hour rule just doesn’t work for some bigger weaknesses. Choose wisely among the lighter ones. Check out Mike Boyd’s “Learn Quick”
  2. Ingesson, S. G. (2007). Growing up with Dyslexia: Cognitive and Psychosocial Impact, and Salutogenic Factors. Department of Psychology, Lund University, Sweden, 2007
  3. Basically, we can change. See Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset: