Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas from Woodinville

Merry Christmas from Woodinville

Before with dead tree, organic roof, etc.
It was just a year ago that Tot1 took a position with Microsoft in Redmond WA, just outside of Seattle. Yes, that is why we didn’t send out Christmas cards last year.  He got to live the bachelor life for nearly six months. “Bachelor life” really means 12-hour work days, riding shotgun with a Realtor every weekend, and flying home to Texas every 5-6 weeks. He finally got a lead on a nice home in March with some help from a 6th grade friend of mine from Saudi Arabia. (Yes, it is a small world.)

After, new roof, paint, etc.
After, with new roof, full paint, new landscapaing...
The house was a foreclosure and required a lot of work before we could move in. And it was ONLY twice the price of our place in Round Rock.  Sticker-shock. It is a beautiful house in lovely neighborhood surrounded by 100 foot fir trees on an acre next to a nature reserve. We even have a neighborhood bear. Once escrow closed Tot1 worked with handymen for six weeks to get the house ready for us to move in. His reward for the new job and all the hard work to get the house ready… a new BMW which he calls Alex, after Alex Forrest in the movie Fatal Attraction.
Tot4 and Tot3 finished school in Texas and then flew to Washington, just in time for two more weeks of school. As parents there was a certain satisfaction of letting them start summer vacation, then sending them back to school. They were able to meet some of the neighborhood kids, get used to riding the bus, and the basic rules of their new school. The kids have been adjusting to life in the Pacific Northwest.  It is an amazingly beautiful state.

When school restarted in September, they were not the “new kids”. Tot 3 joined a soccer team and Girl Scouts, Tot4 joined Boy Scouts and took ice skating lessons. We spent the fall driving to games, practice, meetings, and outings. The girl scouts are very practical. They have had outings to see how marketing is used in the supermarket, how Panera runs a bread store and an historical tour of old-town Snohomish. The boys, well, bottle rockets, pumpkin bowling and bawdy campfire songs.
This summer we went camping with my 6th grade friend, Laurel, and her friends and family. We camped up at the Chewuch River – everybody in tents, and sleeping bags. The kids got to hike up to a waterfall, and get pulled behind a boat on inner-tube for the first time. It was a lot of fun. The drive was gorgeous. The kids have officially seen mountains (cause you know, in Texas if stand on your tip-toes you can see Houston from Austin). For Thanksgiving the Smith family took us over the river and through the woods and across Stephens Pass, to their family’s amazing vacation cabin in Plain, WA. It was much nicer that roughing it with the scouts. 
We spent a lot time with my family before moving to Washington. The kids also got to meet their Grandpa FC and Grandma MF this last year so that was nice.  In September Grandma JC along with Aunt E and Aunt N came here for a visit. We had lunch on top of the Space Needle. My hands did stop sweating enough to hold a fork. We visited the EMP museum and the King Tut exhibit in Seattle.

Also, the tree huggers up here are not shy about their vandalism. We retaliated with Romney signs on their driveway.

Merry Christmas to all...

Friday, August 3, 2012

Stack Ranking is Life

Stack Ranking is Life

First the disclosures: I currently [previously - left MSFT in 2014] work at Microsoft, these opinions are my own, and reflect many other experiences, since I have been at MSFT for less than a year.
I have been “stack ranked” at previous employers and in school. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have been stack ranked since age 2 - when my younger brother was born and I was no longer the cute baby. I’m not sure who thinks that success in life is not about how you compare, or rank against other people.
The process of stack ranking raises dozens of questions, and a I note a couple of major disconnects that lead to the strong negative feelings about the process. 


What is the Stack Ranking Process Trying to Achieve?

What behavior/activity are you rewarding: firefighting, hero work, or solid day-to-day execution?  At one of my previous companies we valued the message: "own it, do it, done...".  Which led to plenty of stuff getting done, but not by the most appropriate person or in the most effective manner.
Teams are created to leverage skill sets to deliver more work than an individual. If the reward system recognizes the individual over the team, then hero work becomes the norm. Can the hero, or "franchise player" always carry the team to the goal?

What behaviors are you punishing? Are you punishing those behaviors that execute reliably and predictably; like planning and managing? Here is a guarantee: you will get exactly the behavior and culture that you reward.

What message are you sending to the "non-winners"? Is this an exercise in softening the blow for those that should be fired?

Why Stack rank on an annual basis?

Why not more or less frequently?

Is it possible for a great player to run into an extended slump of productivity, to fail? Is it possible that a weak player might step up and become wildly successful? Why wait for annual reviews – prune poor performers early.

If performance varies day-to-day or year-over-year, should your rewards system be locked to a calendar? Moving away from Spot Awards and basic recognition of a job well done is corporate cancer. Daily execution of key work should lead to recognition.
What impact does team or company dynamics have on individual performance? Without diving too deeply into the economics of pencil fabrication, how do you compartmentalize the efforts and reward the successes of a person in a large organization?

Whatever Happened to Humility?

How does one person on a team earn a reward without the efforts of the entire team, and how do we separate this from “someone else built it” mentality. As a project manager it has been my philosophy to push my team to the front of the stage when we win, and shield them from criticism when we fail.
  • Can you be an excellent player on a terrible team?
  • Can you have a team of excellent players and still lose?


Disconnect #1 - Out-running the Bear

Does stack ranking lead to "out-running the bear" behavior? You don't have to run faster than the Bear, just faster than your peer.  Are middle manages tasked with developing talent -- rather than suppressing talent, or riding upon the coat-tails of talent? Does your company have an entrenched bureaucracy that eschews the new guy on the block? Are you attracting, retaining and promoting talent, or is there a good ol' boys (and girls) club stifling new growth?  

Disconnect #2 Performance and Bell Curves

While HR may see a perfectly shaped bell curve of performance, most employees see a negative skewed curve of near-optimum performance. First, stack ranking does not create bell curves. Someone is #1 and someone is number 999,999,999. technically, that is a flat line. When applied at the team level, it means the "worst" person on a great team will be branded a loser. HR may use categories to divide the list into a manageable scales (ranking 1-5, or A, B....F), which may form a curve. "Most of our employees are average, and a few are at each end of the performance range." 
Click for larger image.

The most intense conversation during reviews is not between managers and employees in the middle of a ranking, but at the transitions. The proper question: "why am I a C rather than a B", or a "4 rather than a 5"? If the employee wonders why they were ranked a 5 rather than a 3, then there has been a severe disconnect.The conversation becomes harder when a resource on a high-performing team compares himself against members of low-performing teams.
Do You Want to Run a Successful Start-Up?  

You want your team to execute based on the lower curve - a curve of very high performers with a good supporting cast. A good leader will recognize that performance will change as the company evolves, and will be prepared to respond. 

Other Disconnects

If stack-ranking is used to weed out the non-performers, the Jack Welch method, after you cut the first X%, then the next X%, then the next – are you cutting talent just to meet a number? 
Does a "Dream Team" guarantee a medal? 
If your new employee intake process is robust how do you reconcile hiring  "A" students, then give them a "C" grade?


What does stack ranking give to employees ranked closest to the median?

The employees at the middle of the curve gets to see which behaviors to avoid, and which to emulate. They also get to see how far they are from either extreme. They get to see average pay raises, average bonus, and average promotions. But what motivations do they adopt; active and supportive, or passive-aggressive? Your evaluation process will spawn behaviors that may not be attractive. 

Bottom Line

I'll stream a little Chauncey Gardiner: If you don't allow weeds into the garden, your plants will grow big and strong. We should welcome the inevitable seasons of goal setting, reviews, and stack rankings.
But, everyone should be aware that high performers don't really like the taste of average, and the competition is willing to transplant proven talent.  

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Thompson Twins Hit Song and the New History

Thompson Twins Hit Song and the New History

Gertrude Himmelfarb cracks a ruler across the knuckles of the new Historians, "The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals"

The simple act of stating a thesis and providing evidence to support the thesis has gone astray. Author motive and author bias and sometimes author ignorance undermine the New History. The smallest of fact, a string of semi-related facts, a collection of well-know semi-truths and can drive acclaim. Evidence and interpretation take a back seat to feelings and guesses. Himmelfarb applies pressure to these poorly constructed thesis to shine the light on their (significant) blunders.

Confirmation bias, theory tenacity, and just plain personal agenda are rampant. The task of selecting and honing a thesis, curating appropriate facts, and presenting evidence (both supporting evidence and non-supporting) appears to be lost on the new historian.

Himmelfarb demonstrates the long fall from Master to Disciple to Epigones and cautions the reader to take up the burden of critical reading. 

A similar exercise to evaluate and criticize the current media (mass media, social media, or otherwise), the modern politician, and the polarizing TV/Radio figures  would prove interesting.


  • How can any moderate voice (politician, radio or TV personality, author) become famous without being controversial, confrontational and demi-religious about their point of view?
  • Does "passion" drive theory tenacity (the need to prove your theory to the point that you ignore possible fault)?
  • If "the Spin Stops Here..." why is it still spinning?
  • If Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is correct, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it", how can those who do know history make the same mistakes over and over again?
  • Do guns kill people, or do people with guns kill people? Do SUVs kill people, or do people driving SUVs kill people? Do hoodies kill people... 

So, how did this even come up as a subject?

Over the last week I heard statements from several politicians, a religious leader, a comedian, and a news anchor that forced my gag reflex. The ability to believe in something so deeply as to ignore reality (almost the ability to see only one reality) was striking.

  If it is difficult to write about history, is it difficult to write about current events?

If it is difficult to present facts as facts the consumer of media is forced to step up and provide critical judgement. Do I believe our country is polarized? No, but polarization sells audience and audience drive revenues. If revenues are the deeply held value, then polarization is the fashionable format to drive revenue (bad behavior is rewarded).  

A Couple More Questions:

How many college papers are being written based on information from the internet...
By authors with significant issues... 

Bottom line: 

We're all big boys and big girls, we need to stop the posing, positioning, posturing, and PC bologna and get on with life. A dose of truth and honesty, like "The New History and the Old" is appreciated.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Price is Right! Or, Not.

The Price is Right! Or, Not.

Back in the old days it was easy to purchase real estate.

  1. An owner would list a property for sale.
  2. Buyers would evaluate the property and one or some might make an offer
  3. An inspector would come and identify any defects
  4. The buyer would be qualified for a loan
  5. An appraiser would evaluate / validate the transaction amounts
  6. The sales transaction would jump through basic escrow hoops
  7. The sale would be complete.
OK, so there are more steps, and certainly more hoops, but a real estate transaction used to have a pretty simple process to follow from start to finish and the actors all had clear roles to play.

Simple Transactions: Not Any More

Image a scenario where the owner falls behind on their payments and the bank repossesses the home, which then sits empty for several months. In addition to the "deferred maintenance" left by the uninterested owner, leaving a home empty for weeks and months is a truly bad idea.

Next: the bank decides that it is time to sell the property. They assign the listing to an agent, price it for multiple offers, then put it on the market -- un-repaired, with pages of disclaimers.

A qualified buyer comes along, sees the potential, makes an offer, then swallows hard as the inspection shows a laundry list of simple maintenance items that have grown into big repair bills. Example: if you have water leaking from under your toilet, you repair the problem (usually a $15 wax ring). Otherwise, over time, your floor collects moisture, then rots, then fails, then has to be replaced (always a lot more than $15).

The appraiser then comes to the property, sees the same outstanding items that the inspector sees, and concludes that some of the items must be fixed prior to close of escrow.

In the "old days" this worked just fine. The seller would fix a few things, a re-inspection is ordered, then signed off... everyone is happy, the deal closes. 

But, when a bank is the seller, and has already disclaimed everything about the house, the condition of the house, any express or implied warranties, and will not even confirm something as simple as the year built... the "fix before close of escrow" is a big problem. 

As the buyer, why would you invest money to fix a home that you do not own?

The Great Carsoni Predicts

Even though the NAR is reporting better sales in January 2012, and a slight reduction in inventory, there is plenty of bank owned inventory that is sitting, ageing, and falling into disrepair. These properties will be hard to sell, because both the selling bank and the buyers' bank are in unfamiliar roles. In a normal market the (human) owner shouldered loss or pocketed gain. In the new market, two banks are cautiously circling each other trying to decide if they trust each other and if the buyer cash-flow can allow a stale home to be revitalized - because they certainly don't want to make a loan on something as risky as (distressed) real estate. Passing money back and forth to the FED is so simple, easy and riskless.  

Until the banks come to terms with how they are going to manage the junk properties in their portfolio, the Real Estate market will continue to drift lower. An economic recovery will not occur fast enough to keep their property portfolio from crumbling. Current owners, especially those that are underwater, and potential buyers are frozen like deer in the headlights. 

Que Sais-Je?

Bottom Line

Read past the headlines and deep into the stories linked above and you will find that the experts all see the same issues - the Emperor has no Clothes. No, I'm not a real estate expert. I have bought and sold five properties in the last 12 years and am trying to sell one more and buy another this year. 

"A vain Emperor who cares for nothing but his appearance and attire hires two tailors who are really swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "just hopelessly stupid". The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense. Suddenly, a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but holds himself up proudly and continues the procession, deciding never to be so vain again and to take his position more seriously."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Realtor Etiquette? Please?

Realtor Etiquette? Please?

OK Realtors... I know that you are bringing potential buyers into my home. But, can you please leave a business card so that I know that you visited? 

Remember, it takes a lot of effort to keep my home clean, get my kids out of the house on short notice, crate my dogs in the garage, then find something to do to waste a few hours - just to meet your +/- 3 hour visitation window.

So, when I get back home, I'd love to find your business card on the counter in the kitchen.

It's called being polite.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Politicians and Psycopaths

Politicians and Psycopaths

Douglas French of the Mises Blog write about Hayek's view of Politicians and Political Success in his post "The Worst Rise to the Top."
"F.A. Hayek famously argued in The Road to Serfdom, that in politics, the worst get on top, and outlined three reasons this is so. First, Hayek makes the point that people of higher intelligence have different tastes and views. So, as Hayek writes, “we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive instincts prevail,” to have uniformity of opinion.
Second, those on top must “gain the support of the docile and gullible,” who are ready to accept whatever values and ideology is drummed into them. Totalitarians depend upon those who are guided by their passions and emotions rather than by critical thinking. 
Finally, leaders don’t promote a positive agenda, but a negative one of hating an enemy and envy of the wealthy. To appeal to the masses, leaders preach an “us” against “them” program."
According to law enforcement examiner Jim Kouri, politicians share a number of traits with serial killers. People with a talent for mixing charm, manipulation, intimidation, and occasionally violence to control others, to satisfy their own selfish needs are psychopathic.
I'm pretty sure I've seen all of that from the debates. Afterall, were else would you hear someone say "Let's cut the pious baloney."?

Bottom Line

Comparing politicians to reptiles or amphibians is old sport. 

Also, isn't the correct spelling "b-o-l-o-g-n-a"?