Attributes of Effective Project Managers

project

In most work spaces, individuals are at least partially motivated by their salary to contribute to the project for which they are assigned.  Leaders may possess various and commendable attributes in this scenario but they have the ability to leverage salary to motivate others.  What happens when the salary isn’t there and how does it change the attributes of effective project managers?

I’m a fan of open source software development and have been following some projects for several years through various iterations of development.  Recently, I had the opportunity to interview two of the project managers prominent in the open source community.  The first was Martin Wimpress who manages the Ubuntu MATE project and Frank Karlitschek now the project manager for NextCloud.  In both interviews, I got a peek at the attributes that have helped make these individuals successful project managers of a nearly all volunteer workforce.  I’d like to share three that are often overlooked for projects that rely heavily on volunteers.

Building Trust

Technical competency is certainly key but being individual competency doesn’t directly correlate to inspiring a workforce.  Instead, both Martin and Frank appear to use their technical competency for more than just code production.  They use it to build trust among those who would be volunteers.  During my time with Frank, he talked about how for his project it was difficult to create a singular shared understanding for NextCloud among his diverse volunteers and so instead he retooled his software to serve as a platform that others with different visions could build from and tie into without being formally adopted under the umbrella of his project.  He understood his project’s scope and made clear lines to where it ends.  To him, every line of code is a line that has to be maintained and long-term success is dependent upon code maintenance.  Knowing the boundaries of a project contribute to trust because they help establish the predictability necessary for success.  With NextCloud’s rapid expansion, it’s obviously working.

Gratitude

Volunteers often work for both philanthropic and selfish reasons.  For example, contributing to FreeBSD and having your code approved can translate to a career-building resume bullet (nearly ⅓ of the world’s internet traffic runs on FreeBSD).  While not every contribution translates into a resume bullet, volunteers generally contribute more of their talents when their contributions are recognized.  Martin takes great pride in publicly sharing information about how he gives back to his volunteers in the form of reasonably-sized monetary gifts.  He remarked to me how one gift bought a programmer a new chair.  While it may not seem like much, the contribution made a significant difference to that person’s sense of value to the project.  Martin noticed that since the chair arrived the change requests for Ubuntu MATE that come from that programmer with the happy hind quarters seem to become his highest priority and Martin generally gets the changes in short order.

Accepting Risk

Sometimes things don’t go as planned or on schedule.  Volunteers don’t always prioritize their contributions to your project the same way the project manager does.  This can put the project at risk for missing published deadlines or making deadlines, but having the quality called into question.  Martin’s risk comes in the form of scheduled release cycles (every six months), whereas Frank’s is more iterative.  He controls the release schedule, but has direct competition that requires him to develop at a faster pace to stay competitive.  In both cases, each project manager reduces their risk by actively seeking out new talent and assistance.  They are frequent guests on open source oriented programs presenting their projects as professionally run groups happy to welcome like minded contributors.  This campaign helps to retain interest of current members and encourages new ones to join.  Many open source projects reduce the risk of ineffective full time employees by selecting employees from the pool of already contributing volunteers.

While there may be many attributes of an effective project manager, I believe there are also different skill requirements based on the project management environment.  An organization run by volunteers requires different leadership skills to ensure its long-term viability.  The three I’ve chosen to focus on here are certainly worth highlighting though the list is not conclusive.  Building Trust, Gratitude, and Accepting Risk are certainly a part of the equation.  Would you suggest recording these or is there something you feel was left off the list?  Let me know in the comments.

Linux Emergency Mode Thoughts

emergencymode

I’ve broken a lot of things over the years. Quite a few of them out of curiosity. I remember in the mid-1980s my dad had bought me a digital CASIO watch. After a few months with it, I wanted to see how it worked. Avoiding the sound advice of the instruction manual, I proceeded to open it using a blunt object. In the end there was no way to get it to work again.

Younger readers won’t remember or realize that a digital watch during the 80s was high tech and cool. It was a computer on your wrist. It had an alarm and a stopwatch feature. While there’s certainly a market for high end watches for the kids at school, these were status symbols. Now they’re on the cheap shelves of your local big chain store.

I’m not as violent as I was in my earlier days when it comes to electronics, but I still avoid the advice of the manuals (if any) and test things to their limits. I’ve run an Apple time capsule in my car so the kids could have wifi to play minecraft on car rides. I’ve tinkered around with several iterations of portable movie servers over the past few years. I’ve run a MATE-based Emby server off of a MacBook Air. My video for that even made it to an episode of LAS, though my solution wasn’t terribly eloquent but it still worked. One cool thing about that video is it got the attention of some of my old Army buddies and I enjoyed a week of digitally reconnecting with folks I haven’t worked with in over a decade.

One current iteration of the server in the car is a MATE-based Pi2 running Emby. It’s way smaller and more portable. Again, not elegant, but functional. At least it was functional until I broke it this week.

When they say that the Pi needs 2 amps they’re serious. I plugged mine into a power supply that’s been known recently to have some hiccups. I was curious to see what would happen. It hiccuped as some files were being written to the SD card and affected the load sequence for the OS.

Plugging it into the monitor I saw a message I had never seen before. “Welcome to Emergency Mode!”

That’s a very deceptive sentence. Welcome? I thought. Really? What’s so welcoming about emergency mode? Aren’t emergencies things to be avoided and run away from? What’s that exclamation point for? Are you that excited I’m visiting? Truly, I hope my time in emergency mode wouldn’t amount to much more than a visit. After all, this happened as we were headed out for a car ride. Time was limited.

As it turns out, the problem was extremely easy to solve. Throw the SD Card into another machine and push the error message to Google and see what pops out. I found a couple of quick lines on fsck (which I had never used before) and Bob’s your uncle. Problem solved.

You could totally razz on me in the comments as an amateur for never having encountered emergency mode or for ever having used fsck. If you think that’s what the comments are there for, you go right on ahead. I think it says something about the OS that I’ve never had to use these tools before. I think it says a lot about the community that they made my problem easy for someone to post about and for me to quickly find the answer before the car ride.

This week, I listened to the psaltery voice of Bryan Lunduke lovingly berating and belittling his guests on his podcast. Martin Wimpress, whose work with MATE made it the first project I ever donated to was among the guests. He was asked why he based his project on Debian/Ubuntu and to that Martin responded with polite comments about the robustness of the communities around those projects. He’s right and because of that community I didn’t tag him on Google Plus and wait for a reply. I got my answer much, much faster than that.

I’m still going to keep the blunt objects in a different part of the house but I learned this week that if I break a few lines of code along the road of personal curiosity I’ll have help to get me back on course again. I’m grateful for the community that’s built all of this wonderful support information. The momentum is certainly brewing for the projects on the latest episode of Lunduke and Whatnot. I still believe that the problem solving involved, not just with code, but with the community that builds it, puts these folks nothing shy of genius level. They built something I could smash and put back together again! Whoever invented fsck rocks!

Ubuntu Shifting The Overton Window

We’ve talked for years about the killer app that will take the Linux desktop to the mainstream.  For some the killer app is a particular game.  To illustrate, I’m still playing Civilization IV.  I’ve spent about thirty minutes trying to get it working under Wine to no avail.  I’m sure I just haven’t found the right tutorial yet.  Until that happens, I can’t fully commit.

The next category of killer app usually comes from the productivity side of things.  For some, it’s a video editor with the capacity and polish of Final Cut Pro X.  For others, it’s a Microsoft product such as Visio or Project.  For many, it’s Adobe’s Photoshop or, more accurately, their Creative Cloud suite of applications.

Adobe isn’t a company so large they don’t have any feedback mechanisms.  In 2012 their feedback website became inundated with requests for support for Linux.  16,000+ votes later the feedback has become one of the most popular requests on their website with official comment from the company acknowledging the popularity of the request.

In 2012, overcoming the engineering challenges of moving Creative Cloud to Linux were impractical, but times, they are a changin’ and I believe that within three years Adobe will release all or part of its Creative Cloud applications for Linux.  Why?  Because we’re seeing a shift in the Overton Window.

Ubuntu’s recent Snappy Sprint concluded with a wide variety of projects moving forward with their goals.  Nearly all of those projects took to social media to say something positive about the experience.  The Elementary Project’s post attempts to be positive while also trying to be non-committal.  They talk about the experience being extremely productive and then acknowledge that they’re not making any formal decisions *yet.*

This is how the Overton Window moves.  When projects and pundits talk about the future with a level of inevitability it contributes towards their audience’s future acceptance of their road map.  It’s a way of moving the expectations and therefore contributing to future acceptance of the audience.  As Snaps continue to gain technical momentum and positive press, it will become more and more likely that they will emerge as the dominant installation system going forward.  Once that happens, a large company like Adobe can do its cost-benefit analysis and cater to the growing number of individuals who are choosing Linux on the desktop.

Ubuntu may have a great project on its hands from a technical level, but if it fails to continue the momentum of positive press, it’ll fail to get the widespread adoption it needs to make it successful.  I’d expect for the next Snappy Sprint for Ubuntu to not only invite a wide spectrum of Open Source enthusiasts, but also the Linux press.  Which outlets should be invited, should absolutely be a high priority topic for those planning the next event.  Assuming the next sprint is already being planned, who would you like to see cover the event?

A Snappy NextCloud Installation

NextCloud is a SAAS solution that creates a cloud hosted file/productivity server with features similar to DropBox and GoogleDrive. Thanks to Ubuntu’s Snaps it’s easier to install on a server than it is to create and verify a new DropBox account.

Instructions:
Open a Terminal Window (CTL+ALT+T)

sudo snap install nextcloud

 

 

  • Find your computer’s IP address
  • Left Click On Network Icon and View Connection Information
  • Terminal: ifconfig

IP

 

Place your IP address into your web browser and follow the instructions for first time setup.

That’s it.

Probably the shortest tutorial on this site but that’s by design. I think the brevity of this tutorial illustrates the elegance of open source solutions. Typing instructions into a terminal isn’t much harder than typing instructions into a web browser.

The Merits of the Open Source Philosophy

Tonight, I sent my fourteen year old daughter a sample from the book “Libertarianism For Beginners.”  If she likes it, I’ll gladly buy the full book for her to add to her library.  The purchasing process was reasonably painless as there was a clean interface guiding me from product discovery all the way through delivery.  As an added bonus, the underlying architecture for the whole thing was Linux. This is what you might call Software As a Service or SAAS.  In fact, most of the SAAS systems we rely upon for our most common daily activities utilize the most popular kernel ever created and deployed in the history of computing – Linux.

So what does the book have to do with SAAS? There’s a reason I shared a book about Libertarian philosophy with Eliza and it wasn’t just because it’s a book with pictures.  It’s because she recently stumbled onto watching the Atlas Shrugged movies and was intrigued by the clear way the characters present their thoughts.  She could understand how individualism benefits society and how forced charity can lead to destruction.  It’s not a philosophy that everyone reading this agrees to, nor should they, but it’s neat to see a young lady become infatuated with ideas instead of boys, fashion, or makeup.

In contrast, I’m reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar.  This book discusses software development and also happens to be 15 years old.  Why is it still selling?  Wouldn’t you think in an industry with as much development as software a 15 year old book would be obsolete after a couple of years?  While I’m not finished yet, I can tell you why it’s still a valid read. It’s less about the technical specifics and more about the philosophical ones.  It’s a book about philosophy that happens to talk about technical specifics, and it’s quite good at it!  No wonder Eric Raymond makes the rounds on the Linux Documentaries on YouTube.

To this day, I have to admit I don’t read or write code.  Not only that, I think I might have filled out four bug reports in eight years.  Seven of these reports turned out to be duplicates and the eighth one no one could understand what I was trying to say.  I probably contribute the least to the community when it comes to the technical side.  But when it comes to the philosophy, I’m a huge champion.

I work for one of those organizations that’s supposed to be responsible to a constituency while it simultaneously classifies things to reduce the ability of the constituency from auditing its processes.  The idea of openness and transparency is huge.  The story of Linux is compelling enough that the more we lock away things, the more I push back and point out the destructive nature of closed philosophies.

This week at work, we discussed a bit about network monitoring tools, priority managed switches going bad, and not having the software we’d like to do a job.  (NMAP is not allowed).  I’ve tried to convey to the powers that be that open community has the answers to all of these problems, and I work for an organization that has problems with the idea of anything being open.

2016 is the year we’re seeing a trend for openness at an unusual pace and scale.  Both Microsoft and Apple have released some of the technologies as open source.  Alternatives to software solutions aren’t just alternatives, they’re becoming the norm as these alternatives mature and develop in ways their proprietary counterparts can’t keep up with.  We now use LibreOffice at church.  NextCloud moved the whole market of self-hosted cloud solutions within weeks of their announcement.

The technical merits and failings of any solution could easily get lost in the corporate “buzzspeak.”  If Linux were locked away tomorrow some sales guy would tout its popularity as a way to push more product.  Linux didn’t gets its popularity because of fancy marketing.  As professional as the guys are at Jupiter Broadcasting, UbuntuPodcast.org and the other podcasters out there are, combined their budgets pale in comparison for the marketing department at any major (and several minor) tech companies in the market today.  It’s not the marketing, it’s the merits of the philosophy.  Welcome to the bazaar.  There’s always some place for you to fit in.

The Rumors Aren’t True

I was listening to my usual round of amazing Linux Podcasts this week (you know who you are) and one of the discussions that made the rounds was about hardware compatibility issues with Linux.  One of the hosts was bemoaning the issues with running linux on a repurposed MacBook and trying to get the wireless drivers to work.  That led to a discussion about proprietary vs. non-proprietary drivers and you can pretty much guess how the conversation went from there.

I’m not seeing it.  I don’t believe the rumors.
Let me explain.  I’m typing this on a Lenovo T420 I was gifted because someone in the family upgraded their machines.   It has two hard drives- one for Windows and one for Ubuntu MATE (tweaked to replicate the workflow on my mac).  When I installed MATE, literally everything worked on the first install.  I haven’t done a thing with drivers.

When I had to reinstall Windows on this computer–a computer designed to run Windows–I had an entirely different story to tell.  I like nuking and paving my machines.  The time from nuke to drive (freeway speed) on MATE was 2 hours.  Windows was 4 hours.  Why?  Because when I reinstall Windows, I have to download every possible driver for every possible component on the machine.  I now have a folder of drivers on an SD card reserved for the day I decide to reinstall Windows.

Finding the drivers is always a pain under Windows.  Although Lenovo does a decent job putting the ones I need on a single page, they also put a lot of their crapware on the same page and with obscurely named .exe files (n1au410w.exe) it’s sometimes hard to remember if I’m installing something I need, or something I’m trying to avoid.

Then there are the problems where the drivers don’t get updated.  I’m sure this happens under Linux as well.  Drivers for old components probably don’t get any more love when their popularity starts to wane but I think it’s worse on Windows.  I can’t scroll sideways with my touchpad on Windows, but I can under MATE.  It’s the same touchpad, I promise.  I get a more elegant experience on this hardware under MATE than I do on the OS it was designed for.  I call that winning.

I’ve also got Ubuntu MATE 15.10 running on a MacBook Air as one of my crucial systems here at home.  It works.  The wireless works.  The ethernet works (I used a Thunderbolt Ethernet Adapter) and it generally kicks butt for being low powered, low noise, set it and forget it awesomeness.  The hardest part of installing Linux was doing it on a cracked screen but that was easy to work with once I plugged it up to a television.

When I’ve run Linux, I’ve had to work around a couple of issues, and there’s one issue I’ve just bypassed altogether–a Canon Printer at church.  So I can appreciate that things aren’t perfect, but they’re way better than the competition.

When I was in Afghanistan, I purchased a USB-powered WIFI antenna to boost my range on our FOB.  I pulled it out of a box a few weeks ago and decided to see if it still worked.  When I plugged it into my MacBook, it didn’t work until I went and downloaded the driver.  So I started Googling Linux drivers for it before I plugged it into one of my Linux boxes.  That was a complete waste of time.  No drivers needed.  As soon as I plugged it in, the darn thing sprang to life.  The driver was already in the kernel.

The Linux community tends to vociferously express their frustrations with installation, video/audio settings and so forth when they occur. That’s a really healthy thing for getting better products out of the community, but sometimes we do so at the expense of talking about how, in most cases, and in most situations, this stuff just works.  If it didn’t, we wouldn’t use it.  We’d take our freedom and go somewhere else.  We’re here because it does work and it’s worth mentioning that the rumors about incompatibility are grossly exaggerated.


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Lenovo Thinkpad T420 – http://amzn.to/1ZhnFZU