The Thinker

My harried week out west

Occam’s Razor fans will have to forgive my inability to post much lately. I have just finished a weeklong business trip in Denver. Between work and visiting family, I have been kept fully engaged. It is only now on a 777 moving across the country that I have something resembling sufficient personal time in which to order my thoughts.

My work took me to the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, Colorado. This is my third trip out there for the agency I joined two years ago. The trips now have a certain familiarity to them, which will only increase when I return again the first week of June. So far, we have stayed in the same hotels: a pair of Marriott hotels in Golden, Colorado a couple miles away from the Federal Center. They are clean and comfortable and provide an excellent view of the Rocky Mountains. Like most hotels these days, they offer a decent complementary breakfast consisting mostly of foods most sedentary adults should avoid.

On Monday evening, I went to sleep in my room at the Residence Inn at Golden, only to awaken unexpectedly at 1 AM. A fire alarm was putting out a deafening ring. 1 AM must be the worst time for me to have to awaken unexpectedly. I knew where I was but mentally I was on some other planet. For the longest time I could simply not figure out what was happening. Once my foggy mind put the facts together, I was unable to figure out how to do the simplest thing like turn on the light. When after a minute or so I had finally mastered that act, I could not figure out what to do next. Should I dash outside in my underwear? Eventually I decided to throw on my bathrobe, slip my shoes into my sneakers, and grab my room key. I staggered out of my room into the hallway in a dazed state. Fortunately, I was only a dozen feet or so from an exit.

It may have been 1 AM, but one of my employees, Dave, was still awake and in his business attire. Apparently, he is a night owl. Some birdbrain a few floors above apparently hung something on a sprinkler head, causing it to rupture, so there was no actual fire. After a few minutes outside, we were allowed back into our rooms. I went back to sleep, wary of another fire alarm. I could hear the sound of water coming down between the walls and a wet/dry vacuum above me. Needless to say, the rest of my sleep that night was restless. The next day we were all a bit groggy.

Linda, a coworker from my office in Reston, had a rental car. I became both one of her passengers and one of her dinner mates. Fortunately, Linda is an adventurous person. Despite having been to Denver at least twice a year for a decade, she felt there was much more to see. On Tuesday night for example, she took us on I-70 over the continental divide. This was my first time crossing the continental divide by car. The drive fifty miles or so into the Rocky Mountains was quite awe inspiring. For this east coast person, the mountains on either side of us struck me as incredibly steep and high. We made it through the Eisenhower tunnel before turning around. We dined at Beau Jo’s in the small town of Idaho Springs. The restaurant offered something called “Colorado Pizza”. I later asked my brother Tom, a resident of Boulder, if there was such a thing. He had never heard of it. Colorado pizza apparently consists of very thick crusts around the rim of the pizza pan and thin crusts in the middle. Since there is plenty of crust remaining after consuming the pizza, you are supposed to spread honey on the remaining crusts and eat them for dessert. While the pizza itself was okay, by getting dessert “free” it made for an inexpensive meal. It was also the first pizza parlor that I have ever been in where you order pizza by the pound. A two-pound pizza can feed three normal people more than adequately.

There is hardly room for the town of Idaho Springs between the Rocky Mountains. Except for the restaurants, there was little in the “downtown” that remained open after 6 p.m. For someone looking for an authentic small town experience, it seems a great and inexpensive place to live. We passed a realtor’s office and learned we could rent a mobile home for only $250 a month. The town is not big enough to justify a Wal-Mart.

Thursday night Linda took us to Mataam Fez, a Moroccan restaurant in Denver. I had never eaten Moroccan food before. The entertainment was as much a part of the experience as the meal. If you have never eaten in a Moroccan restaurant, be prepared to remove your shoes and sit on cushions on the floor. Expect the table to be about two feet off the ground. We had a five-course meal and shared our food. The food was overall quite tasty (though expensive), but rather elemental too. My Shrimp Pel Pel, for example, came in the shells with the feet still attached. A partner’s salmon was quite good but still had the scales on it. Moroccans apparently dispense with silverware. We ate everything with our hands. Before eating we had to wash our hands at the table. The waiter had us place our hands above a pot while he poured lemon water on them from a pitcher. After trying to eat dishes like creamed spinach with our fingers, I realized why silverware was invented.

The entertainment came in two forms. First, there was the belly dancer, an achingly beautiful and buxom woman half my age who I suspect was a local American co-ed, rather than a Moroccan. No matter, she was excellent at being both alluring and doing impressive things with her abdominal muscles. For example, she was able to balance the edge of a sword on her tummy and work it down her abdomen. Many patrons stuffed dollar bills into her skirt. In addition, the waiters had a unique talent of pouring tea into cups from behind their backs. They also demonstrated they could pour it from a high height into three cups stacked on top of each other. As best I could tell, not a drop landed on the floor. The spiced tea was excellent.

The business part of my trip was intense and exhausting. There were about fifty of us. Most participants were users who were rigorously testing changes to a system we manage. A typical day consisted of three or four formal meetings where they gave reports on the problems they were uncovering. Since these meetings have a critical mass of important users from across the country, it is hard not to have many other ad-hoc meetings too. I was sucked into many of these, and some of these meetings were intense.

While the testing part went quite well for my team (no underpowered web servers crashed this year), discussions with customers about delays in projects closing up and underway were less successful. I am under a lot of pressure to complete a current project, which, by some measures, is a year late. There are good reasons why it is a year late. Inadequate planning was certainly part of it, but it was also late because we spent much of the latter half of last year scrambling to install new web servers to keep up with demand from the public. (Demand is increasing by about a third a year.) However, our customers are wholly inured to operational issues. (They would have cared had the system come to a screeching halt last year, which it did not. Naturally, my team gets no credit for preventing this from happening.) Missing deadlines are perceived as bad management on my part. I am confident that over the next couple of years that most of these problems will be ironed out. Putting in place predictable processes and teaching excellent scientists the discipline of software engineering takes time.

As I told my boss, things will and in fact are already improving. However, given flat funding and a staff that is constant, changes occur in an evolutionary manner only. There is no magic wand to wave that can make long-term problems disappear overnight. Instead, solutions require much up front thought, planning, careful execution, rigorous monitoring, and integrating the many concerns. Bill Gates said managing programmers is like herding cats, and the same is true with my developers. Change is effected by getting their buy in and earning their respect. Over time, new and better practices will become institutionalized, and then plans will more accurately reflect reality.

While struggling with this I had to drop a bombshell on another set of customers. A key contract employee may have to leave us. The new contractor may not pick him up. In the federal government, contracting works in mysterious and often counterproductive ways. Against my wishes, the contracting officer selected another contractor because it bid lower. That makes a certain amount of financial sense if you assume two contractors can provide precisely the same service. Real life, of course, does not work that way, no matter how carefully you write the statement of work. That something like this would result in a six month or more delay in this project was irrelevant to the contracting officer. She had to follow the contracting laws. Apparently, I did not sufficiently plan for this specific contingency, and for that, I came up lacking. At the time, I was busy doing other things that seemed a whole lot more important, like instituting better ways of doing requirements management and system design. I occasionally get miffed by the pointless and counterproductive pressure, but I usually succeed in not taking it personally. I know that my strategy is sound and will prove itself in time.

Therefore, Friday found me glad to put the week behind me. My brother Tom lives in Boulder. The transit strike in Denver made it hard for me to get to Boulder from Lakewood via established means. Fortunately, Kip, a coworker who lives near Denver, drove me up to Boulder. We went along U.S. 93, a lovely road through the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Tom and some of his friends from NOAA do a regular Friday night dinner in a restaurant on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. I was glad to enjoy their company. The Indian food at the Himalayan Restaurant was quite good too.

Saturday, Tom took me biking. My feet are a bit challenged at the moment, due to a recent toe injury, but I was able to enjoy a bike ride of about twenty miles with him by peddling with care. Boulder is a very bike-friendly city, with numerous wide and well-maintained biking trails. Most roads have extra space for bike lanes. I am impressed by how its residents take exercise and proper eating so seriously. A car is not an absolute necessity in Boulder if you are adventurous and an outdoor type. The prevalent obesity I see in the East is largely missing in Boulder. The cultural values are to be trim, eat organic foods and stay in shape. Boulder is really a model of how a city should be laid out and managed. It also demonstrates a pragmatic way for modern Americans to live healthy and engaged lives. It should be proud of its sensible land use planning and a pedestrian friendly infrastructure. As the age of oil ends, cities like Boulder will prosper while others that depend on hydrocarbons for transportation are likely to whither.

Tom’s girlfriend Beth invited me to spend last night at her house with Tom. Her townhouse was more home-like than Tom’s rather small condominium. It was good to meet Beth again, who I met for the first time in January. She is a skinny, intelligent, attractive, athletic and caring woman, which means she is a good match for my brother. Beth has a 9-year-old daughter named Erica who was fun to get to know. She reminded me of my daughter at that age. Beth must be a better parent than I am though, because Erica seems to be about as well adjusted as a nine year old can be. Beth also has two cats, one of whom is a lap kitty and deigned to sit on my lap for a while and be worshipped. While certainly not as affectionate as my recently departed feline Sprite, it was nonetheless comforting to be in a house with felines again.

In my absence, my wife has had about a dozen friends over for a party. She has also purchased a fish to replace Fred the Ferocious Fish. The fish is another betta and I understand she has named him Sid Vicious.

Tomorrow it is back to the salt mines. Those pressing problems I put on hold Friday afternoon will be back to challenge me again.


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