Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Island of Misfit Toys – Informatics Graduation Remarks – 2011

These are my remarks from the 2011 Informatics Graduation.

Good morning. I would like to offer my welcome and congratulations from the faculty and staff of the Informatics concentration. Welcome graduates, parents, friends, and family members. I love graduation ceremonies. It gives us all a chance to get together and celebrate what we have learned from each other over the past few years and in particular we can spend time together and there will be no homework assignment.

Today you are graduating with an degree from the college of Literature, Science, and the Arts from the University of Michigan with an Informatics concentration.

According to Wikipedia,

“The term liberal arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike the professional, vocational, and technical curricula emphasizing specialization. The liberal arts denotes the education worthy of a free person.”

The traditional liberal arts curriculum is defined by thousands of years of tradition and prepares students to participate as members of our free society while the professional schools like law, medicine, business and engineering are very much focused on the here and now and in preparing students for well-defined career paths and well-defined fields.

Informatics was founded at the border between the Statistics and Math departments in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) and the professional College of Engineering and School of Information.

Students coming from high school to a university must choose a college and a major. They must pick between a professional degree like engineering or business or a broad LSA degree. Many students make a choice based on their high school guidance counselors or simply come to school and choose to be the same major as their parents. With no prior experience, I think that it is rare that a student chooses their first major based on their own interests, talents and goals.

I think that one of the most wonderful and strongest aspects of an Undergraduate Education in the United States is the ability to change your major part-way through as you meet new people, are exposed to influential teachers, and learn something about who you really are. One of the greatest benefits of coming to a university like Michigan is that we don’t just have a few world-class majors, we have a lot of world-class majors. So if you come to Michigan, you know you will be getting a world class education even if you change your major a few times.

When I went to college, I thought I was going to be a Biology teacher because my favorite class in high school was Biology. In college, I was encouraged to take a computer science class because it was the newest thing. And while I did not do very well in that class- by the end of the class, I had found my life’s calling. When my daughter was off to college she had no idea what her major was going to be. She thought she wanted to be in Criminal Justice and do crime scene analysis because she had watched a lot of television programs on the Discovery Channel. I told her that searching for hairs on a car mat was probably not the job for her and she should just go to college, hang out in the cafeteria, and sooner or later, her major would come and find her. And it did. She is graduating next week with a degree in special education.

I am going to guess that nearly all of the students in this room have a similar story as to how they chose their major and found their way to Informatics.

Some of you chose LSA as your starting point and others chose professional schools like engineering or business as your starting point because you had to choose a starting point. You had to start somewhere.

But for some of you, as time passed, somehow your starting point did not feel quite right for you. Perhaps you were in the college of engineering as a Computer Science major and you did not enjoy playing their reindeer games. For those of you familiar with the movie “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”, reindeer games involve a lot of competition and showing off and are hardly games at all. Reindeer games are really a form of exercse and training in flying skills and other skilles that a reindeer/computer scientist will need when they grow up to pull Microsoft or Morolorla’s technology sleigh on Christmas eve. In Engineering they don’t call them ‘reindeer games’ – they call it the ‘autograder’. No matter what they call it, if you were a little reindeer with a red nose, you quickly learned that reindeer games were not your cup of tea.

Or perhaps you were an Economics or political Science major and it started to dawn on you that the only thing that the people in these major wanted to do was make toys. All the time. Everything was about toys! The teachers talked about toy making techniques incessantly. The other students would practice making toys and showing them to you. You even made in-class presentations where you sang songs about how much all of the students loved making toys and how you were going to joyfully dedicate your whole life to making toys.

But you were quietly hiding the fact that you really did not want to make toys at all. You might have sat in the cafeteria asked a fellow student in the major why all the obsession with making toys in this major? Their answer was that you should not question the making of toys. Making toys was a tradition. And to be part of the field, you needed to follow the tradition like everyone else.

And you sitting there in your little green elf hat and pointy shoes, you did not have the courage to tell the others that you actually did not like making toys. You quietly had to live with the fact that instead of making toys, you want to be (of all things) – a dentist. What? A Dentist? That was not the tradition – it was not your birth right – toy making was your destiny.

So both the reindeer and the elf that did not fit in, moped around for a while and decided to run away and ran into each other in the woods, ran away from the abdominal snowman (during Winter semester) and to get away they ended up on a ice floe floating across the ocean to almost certain failure. But just when things seemed like there was no hope, in the fog, they bumped into something. They bumped into land.

And when they got off, they were surprised by a sentry who challenged them. The sentry was a jack-in-the box who was not named ‘Jack’ instead he was named ‘Charley’. Since he had a Phd in Computer Science – they called him ‘Dr. Charley’.

Dr. Charley informed them they had arrived on the ‘Island of … Informatics’. The Island of Informatics was a place where King Moonracer (a.k.a. Kerby Shedden) had gathered faculty members from all over the university who just did not exactly fit into their home schools and departments. The faculty of Informatics saw things a little differently. Students did not have to have to make a stark choice between a traditional liberal arts education and a modern, relevant professional education. You could learn about both and by doing this, both be well-prepared as a member of a free society and be well-qualified to get a good job in an increasingly technology-savvy job market.

So you decided that you had finally found the place that you belonged and declared yourselves to be Informatics concentrators. We found you a place to stay for a while, and you learned some important lessons from the various misfit toys you encountered and realized that you were not wrong to think differently. As a matter of fact your unique approach, interests and skill set was an advantage not a disadvantage.

But this is the sad part of the story and you all know how it ends. Since you are not a misfit toy, you cannot stay on the Island of misfit toys forever. Only misfit toys can stay here forever and you need a Phd. to be a real citizen of the island of misfit toys.

We the faculty and staff of the island of misfit toys have greatly enjoyed having you as guests on the Island and we have all learned much from each other these past few years.
So today, you must leave the island of misfit toys. But we need to make sure that you know that you are always welcome to come back and visit. Who knows, perhaps you will come back and meet our next generation of immigrants to the island of misfit toys and tell them what the real world is like. Or perhaps you will decide that you really truly don’t want to leave the island of misfit toys quite yet so you are pursuing a masters or Phd degree. If you go to school long enough, you can become a faculty member yourself and then stay on the island of misfit toys forever.

But today it is time for you to leave the Island of misfit toys and go back to the real world.

And actually, the real world needs you and needs your talents. There are a lot of problems and a lot of crises (like a foggy Christmas eve and an abominable snowman with a toothache). The world needs you to lead it going forward with your unique blend of knowledge and talent. Even though you decided not to play reindeer games nor studiously make toys, it turns out that your skills are what they world is waiting for. You are what the world needs. You are the leaders and the best.

For your reference – here are some background materials :)

Movie Review: Waiting for Superman

On a recent international plane flight, I got a chance to watch the movie ‘Waiting for Superman’.

Waiting for Superman As a Movie

Like all documentary-stye movies, it first must succeed as a movie and then succeed as a purveyor of informative and factual information. Far too often a documentary-style movie cannot maintain interest long enough for the viewer to make it through the movie. And in particular in on-demand situations like NetFlix, viewers are quick to cut their viewing short if a movie does not hold their interest. As a matter of fact, I still have not seen all of ‘Supersize Me’ even though people told me that it gets much better after the exceedingly dull and self-absorbed first 45 minutes.

The good news is that ‘Waiting for Superman’ is well crafted as a film. They hook you early, tell you the source of the film’s name, introduce you to lots of characters and give you just enough detail on each of the characters to make you want to keep watching. I loved the interplay that mixed families with experts along with really cool narrated graphic sequences. I love the geographic diversity and socioeconomic diversity. It made it so that as you watched the film, it was very hard to pretend that this was about ‘someone else’ – the movie is about all of us and applies to all of us. We are all involved.

As the plot unfolds, the drama increases and we are ever more deeply drawn into the lives of the characters. We see the lead up and are given lots of context about each student’s situation. We see both sides of the ‘tracks’ in the form of the schools the students are currently enrolled in and the schools they hope to be accepted into. The film makers repeatedly draw the line between glorious success and abject failure, punctuating their description with beautifully animated graphics with facts and figures to draw us in and make sure that we never think that the issues are small or isolated.

But the time the film reaches its climax and all the charter school lotteries are happening, the film makers have the audience eating out of their hands. And like all good movies about education (i.e. Stand and Deliver) I was dabbing my eyes with kleenex (in seat 17G) throughout all of the final scenes. The heart wrenching emotions that the parents and students are feeling and talking about on camera make for some damn good film making.

And for all of my movie reviews, I need comment on editing. I felt that the movie was very well edited. They had a lot of threads and lots of different kinds of footage and they never seemed to linger on a shot or a plot line for too long. It suggests they had a lot of footage, and through editing presented us with the bits that told the story without wasting the viewers time.

Where I agreed with Waiting for Superman

I thought one of the strongest (and quite novel) points that the movie made was about the correlation between bad schools and bad neighborhoods. Their point as that certain schools had become ‘factories for failure’ and that bad schools created bad neighborhoods instead of the more widely held notion that bad schools are caused by bad neighborhoods.

Lets say (for argument’s sake) that we wanted to improve a neighborhood and that we had lots of money and lots of discretion. Imagine for a moment if we took a completely failing school and re-did it to be a showcase school and filled it with talented teachers and small class sizes – and were able to somehow sustain it for 20 years (half of a generation) and then look at how the neighborhood might have been improved by a better school. Of course there are lots of challenges with my scenario – but remember that we have unlimited money in my little thought experiment.

Then turn the thought experiment around. Is there any way we could invest the money in the neighborhood outside the school (more parks) better housing, cleaner streets, a nice community center, nicer police patrols, etc etc. And somehow if those actually did make the neighborhood better – would the school naturally be better as a result?

As far fetched as the ‘invest in the school to improve the neighborhood’ scenario might be, the ‘invest in the neighborhood to make the school more effective’ is far more unlikely. Neither scenario is likely – it just gives a device to think briefly about where the cause and effect might lie in the high correlation between failing neighborhoods and failing schools.

I also agree that ‘bad teachers do not produce bad schools’ but instead ‘bad schools manufacture bad teachers’ using a similar logic.

Where I disagreed with Waiting for Superman

I think that the movie pretty much got ‘who the villain is’ wrong. The movie makers selects teacher’s unions as their clear villain. It is funny. At one point the movie makes a statement that people so fear the teacher’s union that they barely mention it.

I think that the actual villain is the education bureaucracy which I refer to hereinafter as the Vogons. I think that the film tries to cast Michelle Rhee in the role of the token Vogon. This is a mistake at least two ways: (a) in her role as Chancelor she is not one of the Vogons – she is at the boundary between the local environment and the Vogon culture and (b) unlike the Vogons Michelle Rhee actually was open minded and willing to think outside the box and try new things even if some of those new things kind of crashed-and-burned.

I think that it is somewhat gutless of the film makers to turn Randi Weingarten into the villain. They made her the villain not by what she said or what she did but instead by their clever editing and voice-over narration. Gutless and not particularly true to the documentary principles where you let the story tell itself. Oh by the way very entertaining.

At least Randi had the guts to appear in the film and I respect her for that. I am sure that most real Vogons would not be willing to be filmed at all and if they were filmed they would hide behind patriotic-sounding words all the time. Come to think of it, perhaps some of the people in the film *were* Vogons, but since they are so good at sliding around under the radar – we never noticed them. Again – at least Randi was who she was and stood for what she stood for.

Perhaps, the code word for the Vogons is “assessment”. Literally every time someone mentioned “assessment” unless they were saying “assessment sucks”, I got white-hot with anger. But I never remembered the names of the “assessment parrots” because that is how Vogons are. They hide behind meaningless but destructive platitudes and no matter how many ways you ask the question, all you ever get back is the “company line”. Grrr. You can see my rant on the ‘assessment parrots’ in my earlier blog post

The Elephant in the Living Room

From this point on, I will likely piss a few people off. I am trying to be balanced on this topic and trying not to speak from a pre-computed perspective (ok yes I do hate Vogons), but trying to make sense of the complex situation that ‘Waiting for Superman’ makes us think about. So perhaps it is a good point to reveal my political position on unions. I am a political moderate, neither left nor right. I am a teacher but not in a union since I am a professor. I have spent a portion of my career in a union and other parts of my career without a union. I have never worked in a position where my union was particular strong or activist. I fully understand that whether we are in a union or not, we all owe a debt of gratitude to unions who fought for reasonable working conditions and benefits over the past century and before. Their sacrifices and efforts of unions an union organizers benefit society well beyond their direct effects and immediate members.

So I tried to deflect the rabid criticism claiming I am ‘wild left’ or ‘wild right’ – it probably won’t work – but I tried :)

Unions have a purpose in a free society and capitalist economy. At some level, the only way a free society and capitalist economy works is when there is ‘balance’ between competing stakeholders. The union movement rises out of a natural reaction to situations where management holds ‘all the cards’ and management regularly takes advantage of their unbalanced power positions.

It is not natural to want to form a union when there is a respectful and collegial relationship in a workplace. Forming a union is a risky proposition and so a rational employee will not do it unless they see themselves and others at some greater risk is the union does not exist.

In cases where unions exist and union/management relationships work well, it is because of mutual respect on both parties and a focus of both parties on what is important in their relationships.

For example, at the University of Michigan, we have a very strong Graduate Employees Organization (GEO). (This is my personal observation) The GEO seems to be a very strong, active organization that cares deeply about its members. The rest of the university are very respectful of the GEO and work very cooperatively with the GEO. No one in their right mind would go up against the GEO – because we all know we would lose.

In a sense, the university has a great financial temptation to try to ‘work around’ the GEO since when it comes to employing its own graduate students, the university and faculty could completely ‘rig the game’ and take advantage of the students. In particular, with a strong GEO, it is highly likely that any organization in the university that started sneaking around avoiding the GEO, they would be quickly caught because there are graduate students *everywhere*.

But in a situation where ‘management’ is highly motivated to cut corners to save money, and the union ‘has teeth’, things go remarkably smoothly because all parties understand the issues and it is much simpler to cooperate than to fight.

So my core hypothesis as to the mechanism that causes teachers and teachers unions to behave the way that they do is that there is no real way to have a respectful relationship between the workers/union and the ‘management’. Strong combative unions are the natural effect of bad management.

But What is Management?

The problem in K12 is that “management” is an undefined, undifferentiated mass of bureaucracy that crosses national, state, and local boundaries. School principals, superintendents, boards of educations, are part of management but they are not management. Michelle Rhee as the Chancellor of the Washington DC system was part of management, but she was not management. Management includes all of the state departments of education, the US department of Education, and the state and federal government. Management is answer (d) – it is ‘All of the above’ – or perhaps better termed, ‘everyone except for the teachers’. Or in its saddest formulation, ‘e) None of the Above’.


The “management” of the US educational system is a terrible interconnected mess where no one takes any responsibility for the entire problem. Just as a microcosm, look at the sequence in the movie where Michelle Rhee offers the teachers a significant increase in salary to no longer be covered by the union. The idea does not even come up for a vote. Why? Well the film makers would like to suggest “bad unions” and “smoke-filled” rooms. My interpretation is that majority in the rank and file (I am sure a few folks wanted the fast cash) knew that Michelle was a short-timer and as soon as the teachers agreed to the union-free high-pay new deal, Michelle would leave and go on the lecture circuit leaving them with some Vogon-like replacement that would slowly crawl up their spine and eat their souls from within.

The people in management are not ‘bad people’ – in a sense they are as stuck in a system as the teachers are. No single member of management has the guts to switch sides and start fixing the system so even the management hates the management. We limp alone in a perfect but horrifying Nash Equilibrium (Video Lecture) and Evolutionarily Stable Strategy where everyone knows there is a better way but on one is willing to take the first step to make things better because while such a selfless act might save the species in the long-term, the short-term consequences for the individual are usually grave – it is why ESS works the way it does.

The teachers knew that Michelle was only part of their management and while for a bit she might have been a bright light that seemed to be open to cooperation and building respect, the teachers knew that the interlocked system would close in and eliminate her once the cameras stopped rolling and the special funds/initiatives dried up.

So they needed to pull into their union shell turtle-style and hold on until the violent rocking motion went away. Which it did surprisingly quickly as Michelle went on to bigger and better things. Do you think that 20% of the teachers hearts were breaking in the room when the issue did not come up for a vote? Do you think some went home and cried themselves to sleep, knowing that an opportunity for things to be better had been lost? Of course! They want the system to improve too – they want bad teachers to get out of the system – they want the pride back in their profession. But they knew Michelle was not the path forward because the bureaucracy is just too deeply entrenched.

So my choice as the correct ‘bad guy’ in the film is the unspoken and undescribed ‘management structure’. That structure is the enemy of teachers, enemy of the students, and then enemy of reform minded administration as well. At least Randi Weingarten and then unions have the courage to stand in public for what they believe.

Those that manipulate and destroy the system for their own selfish benefit hide in plain daylight. You can usually detect them because they use words like, “assessment”, “measurement”, “metric” or other misguided vocabulary borrowed from statistical process control as if they were describing improving the shelf-life of Little-Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies using a new food additive. They cloak themselves in patriotic-sounding phrases to mask their own incompetence and lack of understanding of the real situation.

Summary of the Film

The film mistakenly wraps up the solution to the problem in the few “stellar” charter schools featured in the film. They mistakenly suggest that there *is* some kind of scalable solution that is about a ‘system’ and not about celebrating amazingly talented individuals.

To the extent that those charter schools are a success, it is about empowering and celebrating the administration and teachers in those schools. And doing things right is infectious. With these schools able to limit their intake, limit their class room size, have some control over keeping the good teachers and letting bad teachers go, and funding well above average, they can (not surprisingly) create pockets of excellence.

I would suggest that the common thread of all the success depicted in the film are situations where real control and decision making are devolved to the edges. For whatever legal, structural, or political reason, the administrators in these schools feel empowered to ignore the management above themselves and focus on teaching and focus on the success of their children. And at some point their success crosses a threshold and they become a “sacred cow” to the management above them and the management starts protecting them and then “adopts them” and then starts flowing resources toward these “success stories”.

My guess is that quite often these bright lights of isolated success, have a half-life of 7-10 years and that they are more fragile than the movie depicts, and that at some point, the central management ‘reels them in’ by funding and kindness and brings them back into the fold. (Just FYI: This would be a good time to read Page 152 of the Book the Spider and the Starfish.)

It is tiring to fight the man forever in the game that the man has designed and holds all of the cards.

Khan Academy running in Sakai and Blackboard using IMS Basic LTI

Update 2012: Google changes the levels of resources available in the free tier so this application can no longer run in the free tier :(. You can download a copy of what I was running at – no guarantees of course – but it is a copy of what was working when I made the video.

This is a purely demonstration project after a few hours of hacking. I made a copy of the Khan Academy Exercise software and put it up on Google App Engine. I then modified it to accept IMS Basic LTI launches and auto-provision accounts and auto-connect Learners to Instructors as coaches. So the need to make a separate Khan Academy account for each student to select a coach is eliminated.

Khan Academy running in Sakai and Blackbooard using IMS Basic LTI from Charles Severance on Vimeo.

With Basic LTI in place, all is automatic based on the course roster in the LMS. Further, the accounts are fully name spaced by Consumer Key so information is nicely siloed for each course. I apologize the the roughness of this, I started yesterday and tried to see how far I could get. Thanks to the internal elegance of the Khan code and the fact that they had done some nice refactoring to support Facebook and IMS BLTI is similar to FaceBook, the modifications turned out to be pretty easy.

I demonstrate Khan academy plugged into Sakai and Blackboard’s free CourseSites system. Of course this would also work equally on any of the IMS Certified LMS systems like Desire2Learn, Moodle, Jenzabar, OLAT, etc.

This should not be considered production but after a few days, I can give out keys to folks who want to do simple demos with this instance. In the long term, I would love to see Khan Academy support BLTI on their servers and merge a cleaned-up version of this code into their source tree.

Bob Frost Memorial Service

Robert Lee Frost, II October 25, 1952–March 26, 2011

I was honored to be asked to speak at Bob’s memorial service. Here are my comments.

I met Bob Frost in a meeting of the Informatics planning group right after I was hired. He asked me two questions. First he said, ‘so you have a Phd. in Computer Science…’. I knew exactly what he was asking so I answered, ‘I have always been far more interested in how we use and apply technology rather than the study of how we build basic technology.’ Then he asked if I liked teaching undergraduates and I told him that I loved teaching undergraduates and in particular I loved teaching classes where I could try to find a way to get students excited about technology instead of being frightened of technology.

He smiled broadly – I had passed his test.

Because of our shared interest in undergraduate education our offices have always been near each other so I could watch the steady stream of excited undergraduate students on their way to and from his office. He always had time to talk to undergraduate students, do special projects with them, and encourage them to explore information more broadly. He seemed to have an unlimited amout of time and energy for his SI110 students.

We worked together building the emerging Informatics concentration. We built a curriculum and then started building classes like SI182, SI301, and SI124. Inventing courses and scheduling rooms was the easy part. The hard part was recruiting students for these classes – particularly when they had never been taught before. Our marketing plan was simple. Go to Bob’s SI110 class and give a 10 minute pitch about the new class right before registration opened up. After I would give my pitch about the new class, (like Bob would say ‘If you like SI110, you will love SI301’ – and that was enough. We would have 20-30 students the next semester. And it was not just the students in SI110 at that moment – students would walk out and tell other students to take our brand new course. The SI110 Social Network as it were.

When I visited Bob’s class I always stayed for the whole lecture. You never wanted to miss a Bob Frost lecture. The slides or even audio recordings don’t really capture the experience of being in his class. SI110 was called ‘Introduction to Information’ but it might have been more apt to call it ‘The Secret Life of Information’. In Bob’s class, information was alive, it was moving all the time, and it had purpose, and goals and there were many unintended consequences of information.

Bob had a way of bringing information to life and making you see information from a whole new perspective and connecting so many past present and future threads of ideas together. I know many students registered for SI110 because it seemed like a pretty interesting way to meet the Social Science distribution requirement. But what many students got out of SI110 was much more than that. For many of the SI110 students Bob gave them a gift that resulted in a permanent adjustment to the arc of their learning experience and their life.

While it was fun to listen to and learn about what Bob was teaching in SI110, his greatest gift to me was what I learned while I was watching how he taught. For Bob, the syllabus, reading materials, course outline and even his lecture slides were just starting points. They were simply triggers for Bob to go off on a verbal journey of reflection and critical thinking. No two lectures were the same and no two semesters were the same. Each was a unique experience for Bob and his students.

What I learned sitting in Bob’s classes was that when we are teaching courses, we are not just responsible for presenting the useful information for consumption. What is far more important is for the teacher to let the students know who they are, how we think, and to share opinions, feelings, passion, and frustration to put the knowledge being presented into the proper context.

Watching Bob teach showed me how joyful it could be sharing who you are as a human being along with sharing the knowledge that you have to offer. One of the founding tenants of the study of Information is that to fully understand information, we must know the source of that information.

Bob Frost was a source of information and inspiration for all of us. He taught us all so much by sharing both what he knew and more importantly who he was. It is honor to be his friend.

Memorial FaceBook Page

IT Trends for 2011: Things Might Be Very Different Today (Abstract)

I will be giving an keynote talk this Thursday at the Wilmington Information Technology eXchange and Conference hosted by the University of North Carolina Wilmington Cameron School of Business.

Title: “IT Trends for 2011: Things Might Be Very Different Today”

Speaker: Charles Severance – bio at –


This session looks at the history of the Internet and World-Wide-Web paying particular attention to some of the moments where it was not assured that things were going to work out and produce the user experience today. Via video interviews, we meet a number of the innovators of the Internet and World-Wide-Web and focus on “what might have happened if things had not worked out the way they did”. While much of the research in Internet protocols and technologies was very deliberate, until 1994 it was not clear that either the Internet nor the World-Wide-Web had any purpose beyond connecting academics, scientists, and computer scientists. In many ways, both the Internet and World-Wide-Web were “lab experiments” that escaped “into the wild”. We look at those moments where the lab experiments “escaped” and imagine possible alternate realities if things had turned out differently. We conclude with a few emerging IT trends for 2011 and beyond.

Governance: The Spider, Starfish, and Sakaiger

I proposed the following as a BOF for the Sakai Conference this June 14-16 in Los Angeles. It is a crazy idea based on my SI124 – Network Thinking course.


This will start with a 20 minute summary presentation of the book, “The Starfish and the Spider”, ( followed by an open-ended discussion about governance models for open source projects. Participants are encouraged to read the book before the conference. But for those who don’t feel like reading the whole book, we will provide a short summary of the book that folks can either read before they come to the meeting or even in the first few minutes of the BOF.

Abstract: Introducing the Sakai CLE 2.9 Portal

I just Submitted this Abstract to the Sakai Conference June 14-16, 2011:

The Sakai 2.9 CLE portal has a whole new look and feel focused on a more efficient and engaging user experience in Sakai. This session will present new features of the Sakai CLE 2.9 Portal including the new navigation, site preferences, and Chat/Instant message system. The session will look at both the user experience as well as the technical underpinnings of how the new portal works. With the code freeze for Sakai 2.9 coming up in September, it will be a good opportunity to get community input on the changes for the 2.9 release. We will discuss the remaining CLE 2.9 challenges and issues to be worked on over the summer and through to the code freeze. We will also discuss possible areas for investment for the Sakai 2.9 CLE after the 2.9 release.

What Is Dr. Chuck’s Project Management Style?

I got this question from the SI617 – Choice Architecture course that is treating me as one of their case studies in what can go wrong in decision making. It is always great fun reading their papers at the end of the semester that talk of the kinds of mistakes I made in decision making and the sources of the errors in my judgement.

Here is her question:

I was wondering during the transition from Sakai 1.5 to 2.0, you stated that “we truly had time to start the Sakai 2.0 effort from scratch.” My question is that what enabled you to accurately estimate the available time for the transition? (Factors, how did you weigh, past experiences? What do you think it was the % of success?, etc)

Here is my answer:

Thanks for a great question that makes me think. I am not sure the context where I might have said “we truly had time to start the Sakai 2.0 effort from scratch.”. I was never sure that we would have time to get it done until we were actually done.

I don’t really keep too close track of time estimates of work. I think that is a waste of time except at a very high level. I look for a couple of things:

(a) Is something possible / feasible or not? If something is impossible then it cannot be done in an infinite amount of time. If something is possible – then often it can be done surprisingly quickly. Just get started and do it instead of wasting time estimating out how long it takes. If it needs to be done – just do it.

(b) Does something have to be done in one giant blob or is there a way to structure the effort so that each interim version of the product is functional. If you design software and manage projects so they are always “working” and all you are doing if you have more time is “make them work better”, then you always have a safety net if you run out of time.

My trick is that I change the requirements to meet what is doable. I meet as many requirements as I can until it is impossible to do so.

In September 2004, I had no idea if a rewrite was possible and had no idea how hard it would be. By November 2004, I knew the rewrite was feasible and that we would have something that met the basic requirements for Sakai 2.0 in about 2 months. During December 2004 and January 2005 we sprinted as fast as we could to see how the basic low-level parts would come together. By Feb 15, 2005 I was very confident that we would have enough in Sakai 2.0 so that we would not have to retreat. The only question between February 2005 and March 2005 was how much would we get re-written and how much of the Sakai 1.5 stuff would we just have to plug in to the new framework. By the end of March and during April, we quit building new stuff and started plugging the old stuff into the new stuff (we still call this legacy code). We code-froze the old+new combination early May 2005 and delivered it mid-June 2005. I used up every minute and every resource I could to deliver as much as we could without taking too much risk.

I don’t try to plan or predict too much. I design plans to be flexible and adapt as time passes. I also try to get slightly ahead in timelines so we avoid dropping quality to meet a deadline. I always want to drop or delay requirements to comfortably meet deadlines and keep quality high. I also get really defensive when the project is a little ahead of schedule and some management-type tells me to expand scope. Expanding scope when things need to be winding down is a tremendous risk. I usually shout at those people.

This often puts me at odds with traditional management-driven project management styles that cram as much in until the last minute, regardless of quality and then hope that you catch all the mistakes in QA. QA is not magical. QA timelines are set based on an assumption that the software being passed to QA is reasonably high quality. If management forces lousy code in up to the last minute to make themselves look good on paper, they give QA an impossible task. And make it so that it is not possible to deliver quality on time.

When people are depending on a project to deliver a quality product on time, my first goal is always to reduce risk and my second goal is increasing feature set.