Thursday, July 27, 2006

Air Show


Every year in Farnborough, the fast and the furious gather to show off the latest in aeronautic wizardry, and good ol' fashioned hotdogging. I paid £44 plus another £12 for the train (the traffic into that rather small town, with quite narrow roads, which are horrendous during the show, so even though it is only 10 miles away, we took the train). I am including a picture of the Airbus A380, the double-decker mammoth that will go into service some time next year, and will haul up to 800 people at a go.
Unfortunately, my normal digital camera with a 10x optical zoom lens gave up after a very few pictures, the battery running out. Pshaw! The image above was from my cell phone a Nokia N70, which isn't bad at all.
Unfortunately, after only about an hours worth of viewing pleasure, it started to rain and thunder, and we had to give up and go home, since we had no shelter, that only given to guests of the pavillions of various manufacturers. I actually have a guy working for me who used to build aircraft simulators, but forgot to ask him if he could get me tickets for one of the pavillions. One more thing on the list to do next time, in addition to taking folding chairs, waterproof wear, and earplugs. Oh yeah, and charging the batteries of my digital camera first.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Seat of My Pants

Yesterday I had lunch with a colleague that I had known since Japan. We had both worked at the same company, but didn't really work together, since he had worked in finance, and I worked in IT. We met at the Tokyo English Lifeline (TELL) 'marathon' (only 5 kilometres). Our company had a large contingent organised that year (2003). He is from Singapore, but married to a Japanese woman, and had just bought a house in Saitama. Since I lived in Tochigi, we had a little bit to talk about, there, and both being foreigners, in a company where that was not the most common thing, was something else. We would occasionally talk in the hall, or have lunch.
On Monday he e-mailed me asking if I wanted to have lunch. We talked about his new life here, and life here in general, and moving and relocation agents, and some of the hassles I have had. And then the talk turned to work. I had noticed that he now had a 'PMP' after his name on his e-mail signature. That, in case you have missed it, stands for 'Project Management Professional', and is a professional accreditation from the Project Management Institute. It is somewhat the rage in Japan at the moment, which is hardly a surprise: Great! A set of rules to govern the ungovernable! Yeah!
I should say that I have been involved in managing large and small projects for the last 5+ years, and flirted at different points with becoming a PMP. But the thing is this: On the small projects that I managed, it added way too much overhead, and would have meant unacceptably high costs or delays. I played the game, with project plans that looked fine, and documentation like risk analyses, and so on and such, but I was not particularly impressed with how well PMBOK was for managing smaller projects.
And then I got involved, as the leader of a vendor managment team, and concurrently the leader of a change management team, with the mother of all projects. 600 people working on it. The thing is, what I saw many, far too many, really, of these 600 people doing was working on the project, not on achieving what the project had been meant to achieve, the new billing system. When the project was brought to a halt, I remember sitting dejected at my desk, surrounded by reams of documents that I had to shred, and others that needed to be archived, and thinking 'my God! We weren't working on a billing system at all, we were working on a project.'
I had actually hired a PMP, U, an Indian guy, to be on my team, and introduce PMBOK and project managment as a dicipline, to the IT department. He did really well on this project, though he quit before it was completely finished, and went to work for Cisco. He and I are friends, but he was one of the worst: Rather than worrying about actually producing something that would help the project come to completion, he spent hours a day worrying about and creating worry among others about, documentation.
And that is what we had when the project was cancelled; lots of documentation. Absolute shitloads of use cases. Oodles of defect reports, most of which were only defects in the documentation of test cases. Tons of bright red powerpoints.
Sitting there, feeling like a real failure, the absolute feeling of having participated in a real sham, an absolute crock of shit that had nothing to do with building a billing system, and did not, in fact, end up building the system, I took some of it to heart, thinking that perhaps it was partially down to me.
Having a year and a half to think about it, and of course to spin it a little, has given me a more textured perspective. A lot of what I was doing on the project was bringing the additional costs of the inevitable changes to light. It was actually that which led to the cancellation of the project. From that perspective, I was successful in my own area of the project. But it is absolutely difficult to feel that way when the project is such a collossal failure.
I am managing about five concurrent small projects at the moment. I got an absolute bollocking for not having documentation that was very good. Guilty. Depending on the project, some are more or less date driven, have many or fewer dependencies on other departments, require more or less bureaucratic process sign-off, and so on. I just can't be bothered to create the sort of documentation which at it's heart tries to hide the ever-changing complexity that exists in even a small project, in order that upper-management are reassured that everything is ok. That same sick feeling came upon me.
My comment today, to an English colleague was "to those who see these projects from afar, this seems like seat of the pants management, and it scares some of them awfully. To me, this is both the fun, and the only real way to manage. Life, and business as practised by our company, is seat of the pants, and there is no reason that projects wouldn't be. Now what I need to learn to do is to make this a little less scary for my boss." I can manage by GANTT chart with the best of them, create GANTT charts in Project, Visio, Excel, or PowerPoint, and quote the processes needed in PMBOK. I can talk about PRINCE gates, and I can manage lists of issues, take meeting minutes, analyze an SLA, and exhort one and all to "just follow the process," as well as anyone. But I am really not convinced that will help me in the end to achieve what the project was created to achieve in the first place. Projects are about results, and results are about performance. And, in the end, that is more important to me than the letters after my name.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Crybabies?

Last night, while I was putting my son to sleep, he said something interesting. I should mention, by the way, that he is 8 years old, and had been used to sleeping with his parents in Japan. We needed to put a stop to that when we came here (much to my relief), but I still have to lay next to his bed until he is asleep.
Anyway, he said 'papa, English boys are really weak.'
'What do you mean?' I asked.
'They are just weak?'
'How are they weak? What do they do that is weak?' I asked.
'They cry at anything,' he said.
The fact that my son who demanded to be put to bed still at 8 years old was calling English boys weak for crying in no way seemed ironic to him.
Japanese children in general are called crybabies, even by their parents, if they cry about silly things. Actually, the Japanese word is 'cry bug' or 'naki mushi', and is pretty negative. W, his friend, though, seems to have no problem or stigma in shedding tears, which is what prompted my son to mention his thoughts. I told him that just because someone cried, it didn't make them weak, but he has 8 years of socialisation to overcome, and I don't think this swayed him. Children are wonderful mirrors of the things that are taught without even thinking about it. Japanese assumptions of correctness are so absolute, that they rarely think about them. While I was there, neither did I, very much. Hearing my son talk this way, I wish I had...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Island Hopping

It has been a number of very busy months since I last blogged. A lot has happened:
  • I have now moved to England and am living in Hamphsire
  • My wife and son joined me last month
  • My son has started school at the local school, and is struggling with English
  • The company I worked for in Japan was sold off, and so I don't really have a return path (which I actually expected, to tell the truth)
  • The company I work for in England hasn't been sold off, but I now report to Germany, and that could be sold off at some point.
  • I have a new phone
  • My cat has died, only a few days after my wife left her in the care of a family friend. She didn't deal very well with change, and was rather sick, with kidney failure and diabetes. My wife blames me.
I guess those are the headlines, but if I am to continue to blog on this site (which I probably will, as I am rather busy, and not inclined at the moment to build a new blog site), it will need to be about what I am experiencing in England as a longtime resident of Japan, a citizen of the U.S., and a guy with a reasonable curiosity and intellect at work when viewing the world.

There is a lot to make up for, but I don't want to spend the next five months telling you about the last five months, so I will get it out of the way in this one post. Or at least most of it. Other things will probably occur to me as soon as I post this.

So, from the start. I came over here at the end of last year. I did that rather than enjoying the New Year holiday with my family in order to avoid paying one year's worth of residence tax in Japan. If you are in a certain location at New Years, you are expected to pay residence tax in that location. Actually, if you are registered in a certain location. In my case, this was a real issue. If I de-registered, I would have to give my alien registration card back, and would lose my permanent resident status, which took a long time to get, and which I really value. Luckily, I spoke with the local tax authority, explained the situation, and got them to agree to make a note on my record that I was no longer in the country, and not liable for residence tax (after confirming my story with my former employer). So, I get to be a permanent resident, and not pay residence tax! Not bad. I don't know if I will be returning to Japan, but if I do, I don't want to wait another five years for residence.
I rented a car, which was a little tricky, since I had always only kept my company credit card, which debited my own account, and was actually a charge card, which I had to pay back every month (which is why I liked it: It kept me out of debt). But I had handed it back. Renting a car without a credit card is a bit of a challenge. The thing is, actually driving the thing got me in trouble: About a week or two after I arrived, I had to make a trip to Dusseldorf, and the flight was a 7:30 flight. I was quite tired, I admit, but Heathrow has a lot of construction going on, and I could not, for the life of me, find the long-term parking lot. (I have since learned that there is no single long-term parking lot, but a bunch of private lots scattered around. This is nearly exactly the situation at Narita, but I had assumed somewhat more organisation in the UK. Silly me.) I accidentally drove into an employees parking lot. The only way to get out was in the bus lane, so I was in that lane, probably going a bit too fast for a parking lot (car park), but had right of way, when this older Indian woman came barrelling out of one of the rows, going the wrong direction, and ignoring the stop sign (because it was backwards maybe, since she was going the wrong direction). I smashed my almost-new Benz E280 right into her Golf. I totalled her car, did not have 'Super CDR' coverage on my own, and so had to pay 750 pounds deductible, even though it was certainly mostly her fault. (ok, ok, I was in a bus lane, and I was, probably illegally, in a secure airport employee car park, but her driving was definitely at fault). I also missed my appointments. Oh, and argued with the HR woman about insurance. In Japan, travel from home to work is always covered and is always liable by the employer. That is probably one reason that most employers highly discourage commuting by car: The liability is too high.
I also had some adventures just getting a bank account, but those are more of the absurdist sort. I had thought that only Japanese bureaucracy had this surreal fixation on checking everything four times, and sending things back as a matter of course. Wherever HSBC have their back office operations center, somewhere in South Asia, I think, the people seem to have a somewhat similar approach. I finally ended up going in to Barclays, and setting up an account on the same day, just using my U.S. driver's license.
Which reminds me of the other bit of stuff I had to do: Get my license changed. What a pain! U.S. license holders have to take the test, which I didn't really want to do, while Japanese license holders could 'simply' exchange their license for a U.K. one. I guess simplicity is relative. I had to first send in both my license and passport in to the Japanese embassy to get my license translated, paying 35 pounds for the privelege. I then had to take the translation, my license, my passport, two photos, and the application, and, oh don't forget (!), another 35 pounds, to the DVLA (don't ask, because I don't know). I was told that if I did this in Wimbledon, because I was a Japanese license holder, I could get my passport back on the same day. This turns out to not be the case if you happen to be a Japanese license holder who is American. And in any case, I found, when I got to Wimbledon, that I had forgotten to bring my Japanese license with me.
The reason this mattered is that I actually travel a fair bit for my job, and the DVLA said to expect not having your passport for two weeks. So, I had to time it just right. Again, I forgot something rather important, but luckily, they came through a little early. One thing, if you have a Japanese license, is that I actually only had an automatic license in Japan, and that was translated correctly by the embassy, but I still got a full license in the U.K. I don't know if this was just a fortuitous mistake by the DVLA, or whether everyone gets one. But I am happy!
Actually, if I would have known that beforehand, I might not have bought my wife an automatic. Finding a decent automatic car that is cheap in the UK is quite difficult. Mostly only higher end models seem to be automatic. Since my wife only has an automatic license, I looked hard for one. I finally ended up buying one on eBay for 880 pounds. It is a 1994 Vauxhall Corsa, otherwise known as an Opel Corsa, otherwise known as a Chevy Nova. I can't really say it was the best deal, but it runs. I did spend a lot to get it up to spec, though, which is not really a happy thing. Hopefully it passes it's MOT (Ministry of Transport) test in October. One thing I can say about Japan, is that you have lots of choices when buying a used car, most of them very cheap, and with plenty of automatics. In fact, some of the automatics that I found here were imports from Japan. The problem with that is that the insurance on imports is really high.
Well, I have sort of wandered around the last five months, and definitely not covered everything, but I have to go for now.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Tokyo Spin Off

I write this from Newbury, England. It has been a busy couple of weeks since my last post. I have turned in my resignation to my company in Tokyo and signed a contract with my new company, actually the same company, just the global version.
It has been busy, a little scary, and a challenging three weeks. I spent Monday and Tuesday in Dusseldorf, because I had to be out of the UK on the day they applied for my visa. Newbury is not a metropolis, and without a car you end up depending on very slow-to-respond taxis. On Saturday I walked all around Newbury, and met a guy I had worked with in Tokyo in the bookstore on the Newbury highstreet. Newbury is a sort of company town, so it isn't a huge surprise that I met him. I have seen tons of people in the last two weeks that I only knew before at conferences or meetings I had been to in Dusseldorf, Barcelona, Lisbon, Karlskrona, or Budapest.
On Saturday a couple of guys that I have had a lot to do with in the past, them at global and me in Japan, and a bunch of other people, Americans, English, a German, and a Greek, had a Thanksgiving party at one of their house in Reading. It was really good, a great pumpkin pie, turkey, cranberry sauce, the works.
Work has been interesting. The guy that I am replacing had some real challenges socially: He seems to have pissed a lot of people off. I am fully capable of doing that myself, but seem to have started alright so far. I spent yesterday with a consultant who works for me, but has tons more experience in this area than I have. I learned a lot by talking to him, and I think it is going to work out well.
I haven't had any recurrences of Meniere's despite two flights, and a day when I felt it starting to come on. Sleep is the key. If I can get enough sleep, I won't get it. If I can't and there are other factors, like flying, I will get it.
I will need to think of a new name for my blog, after I move to Newbury in January. How about Tokyo Spin Off...?

Friday, November 11, 2005

Lucky number...

Have I mentioned that 11 is my lucky number? Have you noticed the day? Yes! I got the job in the U.K.! My wife is less than thrilled, but I guess that is just how it will have to be for the moment. I owe my current boss a lot. She really pushed hard to have me get this job. I am thrilled! I can be a full member of the species again! My son can learn English!

I will most likely leave next week for a couple of weeks, come back and hand my job here over to someone, and then go to the U.K. at the end of the year or beginning of next year, for good. My wife and son will follow in April. There are lots of things to sort. Time to get started. Happy 11/11, and goodnight!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Don't Speak to Soon...

No matter how much I may have wanted to be over my Meniere's episode, I wasn't, it turns out. I should have known that, as this is also part of the pattern. Having insomnia really didn't help at all. I was a bit of a zombie on Monday, a worse one on Tuesday, and on Wednesday I would have stayed home just to try and get some sleep, if it hadn't been that I had my last interview. Yes, that one--the one for the job in the U.K.
I was really serious about it, scripting answers for the kinds of questions I thought they might ask, which I was told would be based on the 'performance drivers' used by global HR to identify the right people for the job. The problem was that I was nauseous, dizzy, had a raging headache, etc.
I discovered a very unexpected thing, in my desperation: Our company has a bed that you can use if you don't feel well. If there was ever a time I needed to use it, last Wednesday was definitely it. I wasn't actually able to sleep (I was so tired that I couldn't sleep), but laying horizontal for a couple of hours did me good, I think.
The interview was by videophone. That is appropriate, actually, as the job is the global manager for videoconferencing. One of my interviewers (herr Doktor A) was in Dusseldorf, and the other in England. I was quite happy with how well I answered their questions, actually, especially one of these 'I am going to give you 3 minutes to think of the 7 steps you would need to perform in this case,' variety of questions. At the end, Herr Doktor A told me what was good (most of my abilities were a good fit), as well as what he had questions about (my passion for this particular position). I assured him that I was very interested in this job indeed.
Thursday was a national holiday, which we have off. I sent a thank you letter to my two interviewers thanking them for their time, and assuring them that I was very interested in this job. Friday I took a paid day off, and slept in. It is now Sunday, and I feel like I have finally caught up on sleep.
Tomorrow I was told that there will be an answer as regards the position, which I am happy about: I hate waiting around for these things. My wife still is opposed. The thing is, I have really thought this through, and I think it would be the best thing, by far: For my son, it would be great to expose him to enough English that he is able to speak fluently; for me, it would be a great career move, as there is much more opportunity for me in our global organisation than there is in Japan; for my wife, actually, she needs to broaden her outlook if she is to not drive me nuts, and this is a good opportunity for her to see that the world does not revolve around Utsunomiya, Japan, and that her ways of doing things are not necessarily universal, nor are her ways of viewing things, though they may be very orthodox in a Japanese context.
I will probably be leaving nearly immediately if I do get the job, though I am guessing it would initially be for a couple of weeks, to take over from the guy currently in the role, and then come back here and take care of some things, and then back to the U.K. for me, while my wife and son stayed in Japan until he finished his school year, after which they would join me.
Which is all very nice to think about, but just as I started this blog with don't speak too soon, so shall I end it...