Monday, June 27, 2011

You know, I can’t think of either a good title for this post or a particularly good way of introducing it, but this is my blog and I refuse to be tyrannized by such considerations.  I read the NY Times’ The Stone column today and was – as happens more and more lately – disappointed in the level of discourse.  Written by Jason Stanley (who, as a professor of Philosophy at Rutgers, one would expect to know better), it makes the point – at once tired and overblown – that one can use words and images to effectively silence one’s opponents.

Aside from a fugitive reference to “pass[ing] a health care reform”, all the examples are of propaganda in service to the Right.  One gets the impression that he is oblivious to this, but in any case his message ends up as “we can no-longer trust the Right’s speech, because it’s only used to deny to the Left the ability to be heard.”

As I read it I simply found it tendentious and conceptually loose, but on reflection it seems of a piece with the recent trend of leftist academics complaining “By attacking my positions my opponent is denying my academic freedom and trying to silence me; therefore, he should not be allowed to speak.”  Somehow they say this without a trace of irony.

An interesting side point:  Stanley’s point of departure is some papers from the ‘90s that claim that when women are portrayed as being insincere in their refusals of sexual advances, it essentially prevents those refusals from being “heard” – effectively silencing them.  Without buying into the terminology (the papers were, after all, produced by academics of Gender…  Hmm!  Is that like “persons of Color”?), I found the argument compelling.  Still, if we turn it around and ensure that No always means No, aren’t we robbing some women of the ability to flirt?  We may decide that’s a worthwhile tradeoff, but shouldn’t it at least be mentioned?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Executive Compensation

Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of Heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.
-          Thomas Paine
A while back I received an email inviting me – as the owner of a tiny slice of Verizon – to vote my shares on a double-handful of proposals for its upcoming shareholders’ meeting.
Mostly, I abstained (having – for instance – no clue about this-or-that proposed board member).  On a couple of issues I approved the board’s recommendations.
And then there was the shareholder proposal to place certain limits on the compensation that could be offered to Verizon’s top executives.
Predictably, the board opposed the measure.  The reasons fell somewhere short of coherence, but included the classic …the compensation opportunities provided to Verizon’s senior executives should be competitive with Verizon’s peer companies…
This would make sense were there an insufficient pool of applicants who could successfully run Verizon or any of its peers.  Verizon would then have to compete with those peers to attract and retain one of these applicants.  I would call that situation “imaginary” – except that I can’t even imagine it.  Let’s examine some of the things that would have to be true to make such a situation real:
·         A company’s top executives account to a significant degree for its chance of success.  (I can see how this idea would be attractive to conspiracy theorists and those with a visceral respect for authority.  By the same token I find it as likely as the Illuminati really running the world or the Secretary of Education determining the outcome of my child’s schooling.)
·         The effect these executives have on the chance of success is deliberate.  (If their decisions are crucial, but they make them by tossing coins, we can hire a coin-tosser for considerably less.)
·         One can recognize which people are likely to take the actions that are likely to increase the chance of success.
·         The pool of these people is small enough, relative to the number of companies wanting to hire them, to bid their price up.  Together with the previous item, this means that our ability to evaluate people for executive ability is so fine that we can be confident in our decision to pay twenty times as much to a candidate on our short list as we would pay anyone who didn’t make the cut (the very idea of a small pool that can command huge salaries assumes that the salary spectrum is not continuous).
·         The difference in salary couldn’t be used in ways that are even more likely to enhance the chance of success.  I. e., the $10 million executive is worth more than twenty $500 thousand executives, and more than 500 line workers.
Personally, I think the items on the list range from the improbable to the wildly improbable, but hey – I could be wrong.  Compensation committees, though, should be pretty darned confident that all the above are true to make the decision to spend millions on an executive.  Remember, we’re in a bottom-line, no-nonsense, dog-eat-dog business!  How else could we justify sending hundreds of jobs overseas?
For whatever my shares are worth, I’d frankly rather not have such people making decisions about my money.
Now, I’ve heard some, subscribers to the “heroic” theory of executives, compare them to sports stars and industrialists, but all they really have in common are their incomes, which is rather circular.  Baseball players demonstrate ability in an artificially narrow domain, where the connection between hitting a homer and winning a game is obvious, as is who hit the homer; and the sales of golf clubs with Tiger Woods’ signature can easily be compared to others, so the value of his endorsement, too, is demonstrable.  And industrialist incomes aren’t determined by committee; whatever their competence, they make their money by selling things that are theirs.
In short, people who make these comparisons are confusing the issue of income disparity with the issue of executive compensation.  One needn’t believe that no one should be super-rich to see that there’s no business sense in paying multi-million-dollar salaries to top executives.
I write this at a time when initiatives to legislate salary caps are having something of a vogue.  I’m not in favor of such legislation, any more than I favor the government stepping in to prevent other stupid behavior.  Freedom includes the freedom to err.  (Also, I don’t assume the people implementing such policies to be any more competent that the ones they’re overseeing.)
But the idea that there exists this natural aristocracy of top executives is as repugnant as it is unsupported, and I for one intend to keep voting my few shares in that direction.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More (Mis)Management

In the interest of full disclosure, and so that this comes off a bit less like a rant, I should start by pointing out that I have been fortunate enough to have a number of very good managers during my career, starting with Bob Kornegay and Joe Mezzaroba at Bell Labs, then Joel Rosner on Wall Street, Dave Koppel at Excalibur and Jeff Schneiderman at Atomica (now  There were others, but these stand out.

And what made them stand out?  It wasn’t their mastery of the techniques of management, though certainly they all had that to one extent or another.  No, it was their personal virtues.  Patience. Thoughtfulness.  Humility.  Professionalism.  Having these qualities will not necessarily make one a good manager (as I mentioned in the previous post, managing well is hard), but lacking them will just-about guarantee being a bad manager.  Yes, I’ve seen managers (me most of all) fail to estimate schedules correctly, fail to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of subordinates, fail to hire the right people and fire the wrong ones and misapprehend trends in technology and the market.  But the really spectacular implosions have been due to arrogance, selfishness and plain bad manners.

Is that too vague?  Okay, let’s say your company makes fardels.  They’re good fardels, but the market is pretty-much saturated, so neither your price nor your market share is likely to go up.  You come up with the novel idea of leasing fardels, rather than selling them outright.  You invest heavily in this new direction, hiring sales and marketing personnel with leasing (although without fardel) experience, setting up booths at trade shows, advertising and having your fardel-scientists develop features geared towards the new business model.

And then it turns out that nobody seems interested in leasing fardels.

If you’re a good manager, perhaps you immediately scale back your new expenditures while reevaluating your strategy, perhaps you solicit feedback on why customer enthusiasm is below expectation; perhaps you solicit ideas from your scientist for a fardel-leasing “killer app”, or run a “why I’d rather lease a fardel in 500-words-or-less” write-in contest, looking for fresh ideas.  Frankly, I have little idea, both because I don’t know what a fardel is (the word actually means “bundle”, but was used as a substitute for “widget” in Starwell, by Alexei Panshin) and because, as I said, I’m not that good a manager.

If you lack those managerial skills and that creativity but have character, perhaps you back off of the leasing idea, trim staff and hope to weather the crisis and slowly rebuild the original business; perhaps you try to sell the original infrastructure to a competitor.  In any case you solicit opinions, notably from your subordinates, act with renewed caution since so much is at stake, cut staff and salaries – your own first – only out of necessity and in general act like a responsible adult.

But with-or-without skills, if you lack character you’ll refuse to consider that your idea is faulty.  Instead, you’ll blame your sales people for incompetence, your scientists for developing inferior fardels and failing to suit them to leasing; you’ll replace key people in all departments, thus losing valuable experience and institutional knowledge; you'll redouble spending on your leasing campaign by stripping budgets from other departments until they can barely operate, then you’ll blame them for their reduced productivity; you’ll borrow money based on your company’s previous solid standing, not letting on to the lenders that the basis for that standing no-longer exists.

These things happen every day, although the spectacular failures often take years of mundane bad behavior before they come to a head.

If I’m still being vague (Fardels?  Really?), perhaps it’s because I don’t much believe in categorical imperatives of management.  I mistrust big, sweeping rules and statements about How Things Are and How They Work.  I have little rules, some of which are practically tautological (which makes it all-the-more surprising that they’re so often ignored) and none of which is likely to break a company in its breach.  Here are a couple:

·         Authority and Responsibility should correlate.  I constantly see cases where people are doomed to failure, held accountable for results while denied the authority for basic decisions about how to get those results, while on-the-other hand monsters are created by letting people make decisions whose impact, if negative, never reflects back on them;

·         Don’t assume that your subordinates are your inferiors.  How many times have you seen pep talks have the opposite effect because the staff – having at least the intelligence of ten-year-olds – see right through them?  How much good advice has been ignored because it came from someone with too low a pay grade?

Enough for now.  Perhaps in a future post I’ll discuss the feudal mentality that’s behind many of these fiascos, and it’s prevalence in Hi-Tech.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Many years ago (I’ve reached an age when much of what’s happened to me can legitimately be described as “many years ago”; it’s like a fairy tale…) I read The One Minute Manager.  I don’t remember much from the book – there wasn’t much to the book – but I have the lingering impression of a sort of Zen management style, where the managing guru mostly stares out the window with his hands clasped behind his back and lets problems sort themselves out.
Maybe my memory is faulty, or maybe I’m giving the book a bad rap, but my point in leading with it, at least with how I remember it, is to contrast it with my own belief that Management is hard.  Shepherding even a small project to completion typically involves many factors, most of which do not lend themselves to prediction, many of which depend on irascible, imperfect and inherently unpredictable people.  It’s no wonder failure, or at least incomplete success, is the rule.

But I want to contrast that – the difficulty of managing successfully – with the fact that it’s fairly easy to not be a moron, and yet managers fail in this task with frustrating frequency.  Before I list some of the most common mistakes of my experience, here’s a very expressive anecdote I just heard:

This is from an old friend and sometime colleague.  He was present at a meeting in the offices of a seed venture fund on the day that a newly-hired management consultant made her first appearance.  The meeting included the consultant, my friend, the CTO of one of the fund’s portfolio companies, the venture partner responsible for that company and perhaps a few other people.  With impressive insouciance, the consultant proceeded to take her shoes off, put her feet up on the conference table and inform the CTO that the R&D team was going to produce software releases according to her (yet unwritten) timetable or they would be fired; and if he didn’t have the authority to do that – she did.

I hear this and I wonder:  Where do these people come from?  Were they raised by wolves?  Who is this woman’s mother?    Meanwhile the partner is grinning his approval of her assertiveness and can-do attitude.

Not surprisingly – at least not to anyone with his head screwed on straight – the timetable was completely unrealistic and the company ultimately imploded.  It seems failure definitely was an option.

More later on Managers Behaving Badly.

Monday, June 06, 2011

If you've ever wondered where the Tomcat class-loader got a particular class from (and which of us hasn't been), or were stumped by a NoSuchMethod exception, this may be of use to you.
There are plenty of sites that will explain the rules by which Tomcat loads classes, but what I really needed was code that would give me programmatic access to the effective classpath of my webapp at runtime, so that I could figure out what the heck was happening. Not finding such code anywhere (though I'm sure it's out there somewhere), I wrote it:

            private String cpString() {
                        int i = 0;
         StringBuilder sb = new StringBuilder();
                        for (URLClassLoader cl = (URLClassLoader) getClass().getClassLoader();
               cl != null;
               cl = (URLClassLoader)cl.getParent()){
                  sb.append("\nclassloader level ").append(i++).append(":\n");
                  for (URL url: cl.getURLs())
          sb.deleteCharAt(sb.length() - 1);
          return sb.toString();

This should work in any Java application, though you'll probably have to change the type of the class-loader, and perhaps substitute something else for getURLs().

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Shalom Berger just posted the latest issue of Lookjed, wherein I have a post.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of literary connections, is it possible that Smash Mouth’s “You are my Number One” was influenced by A. E. Housman?  One of the more famous poems in A Shropshire Lad, number XXXII, goes

From far, from eve and morning 
  And yon twelve-winded sky, 
The stuff of life to knit me 
  Blew hither: here am I.
Now -- for a breath I tarry 
  Nor yet disperse apart -- 
Take my hand quick and tell me, 
  What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer; 
  How shall I help you, say; 
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters 
  I take my endless way. 

I suppose it’s more likely that these are simply common human sentiments – which is why they have such broad appeal – and the song lyrics were simply another expression of them…