An Uncomfortable Privilege Walk

I attended the 2017 MAKERS Conference a few weeks ago. If you are unfamiliar with MAKERS, it is a storytelling platform for the trailblazing women of today and tomorrow. features greater than 4,500 original videos and more than 400 MAKERS interviews. These are incredibly compelling stories and incredibly compelling women. I strongly urge you to go get inspired and check out the site.

The 36-hour conference was packed with inspiration, energy, and great people. I’ve been reflecting back on this experience and wanted to share today, on International Women’s Day, the most impactful moment of the conference for me.

To set the stage, there were roughly 500 women invited to attend. My unofficial count of men in the audience stands somewhere below a handful.

The last day of the conference included a choice of 6 interactive sessions on a wide range of topics from personal branding, gender equity, and ideas to shape the makeup of corporate boardrooms. I chose a topic on personalizing diversity and inclusion simply because I had seen one of the moderators talk earlier, Luvvie Ajayi, and she had such great energy that I wanted to hear more from her.

I walked to the assigned room, a square conference room with chairs lined up against the four walls all pointed toward the center of the room. There were 36 women, including the 2 facilitators, and me, the only guy.

I had lobbied (maybe begged fits better here) to come to this conference, not just this year, but for the past three years. I wanted to be here. I knew I would be gender outnumbered, I wanted to put myself in that uncomfortable, and unusual position, of being a white male in the minority, participating in discussing topics important to these women. I was prepared to take some arrows, to shake my head in disbelief as I heard the obstacles these women have overcome (many of these challenges created by people who look like me), and actively listen to their stories and experiences.

As Luvvie, a self described “Author. Speaker. Red Pump Rocker. Techie. Professional Troublemaker.”, and her co-facilitator, Jana Rich, a seasoned headhunter and founder of Rich Talent Group, kicked off the session, I knew I was in for something unusual. Little did I know how powerful this next hour was going to be.

Rather than sit in a conference room, we were all ushered to the sculpted lawn on the grounds of Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. Here we were directed to stand in a straight line, our feet sinking into the soggy grass, provided by a days long, steady downpour that had fortunately stopped earlier that morning. Several women took off their shoes to spare the mud and water damage. We placed our right hands on the left shoulder of the person standing next to us and learned we were about to start a privilege walk.

walking.. - lucio zandonati -


Now, I’ve never done a privilege walk, nor had I even heard of a privilege walk. In case you haven’t either, let me provide a quick overview. It is a physical exercise meant to visually display benefits or detriments award by society based on things like race, gender, or sexual orientation. Privilege isn’t earned, it is simply unmerited grants to an individual.

A facilitator reads 30 to 40 questions out loud to the participants. After each question, you either step forward, representing a positive merit, or backwards, representing a disadvantage. The connection with the two people next to you, one with their hand on your shoulder, and the other where you are resting your hand on their shoulder, provides a physical bond. A bond that breaks as these questions are asked and each participant moves based on their response.

Everyone begins in a straight line to represent an equal beginning. Within three questions, I had lost the physical contact with both women on either side of me as they retreated and I moved forward.

Typical questions might be, “Step forward if both of your parents have college degrees” or “Step backward if you feel safe walking alone at night in your neighborhood”. If a particular question is too personal, you just hold your ground and wait for the next one.

I can tell you it’s a powerful moment when the question “Take a step back if you have ever been sexually harassed” and every single person moved except me. It still gives me chills writing this down and thinking about that question. All 34 women took a step back, and I stood still.

By the time we had finished the questions, the division was clear. I stood the farthest forward of anyone, simply because I’m a white male. There were white women closest to me, within a few steps. The middle of the pack was populated with black women and Hispanics, the farthest in the back were southeast Asian women.

The facilitators asked for our reactions and thoughts on the exercise. “White Male Privilege” was a phrase that floated around. I felt a bit embarrassed, certainly uncomfortable, yet mostly grateful. Grateful for having the opportunity to participate with these women on something that was so important to recognize. Many women spoke, sharing more about their personal stories: mental illness in the family, having people speak for them when they weren’t asked to, being passed over for job advancements. I listened to everyone of them.

Near the end I shared a quick observation myself, which is simply this:

As I moved forward, I lost sight of all those behind me, I could no longer see if they were moving forward or back after each question. I had lost the perspective and the benefit of seeing and knowing their experiences. This was a reminder that I am surrounding by people I’m not consciously seeing everyday. Good people with amazing stories, talents, ideas.

While I can’t change the privilege I’ve been granted simply by being born white and male, I don’t have to behave as if I’m entitled to every advantage either.

Today we recognize International Women’s Day, let’s do this again tomorrow, and the day after that…

Be Mindful of the Turtle’s Shell

The other day I heard someone casually use the word carapace, a word I was unfamiliar with. A carapace is the upper hard shell of a turtle or crustacean, made of keratin, which is the same material we find in mammals fingernails, hooves, and claws. (The lower shell of the turtle is called the plastron.) The turtle shell protects its fragile body and acts as a portable protective case for it’s head and appendages.

When we consider the work in front of us, transforming the IT services we provide and acting as a catalyst to change our business’s landscape, we need to take a lesson from the turtle. Not everyone is going to be as supportive as we’d want. Not everyone is going to recognize the value of the long term vision we have. Some might sling some arrows, and having a hard exterior shell to protect us will be paramount.

The carapace of the IT leader needs to be constructed from the conviction that you provide high-value, operate on equal footing, and contribute a pan-company perspective that is unique and crucial. Keep pushing the boundaries and have confidence that your protective shell will be strengthened as you build better relationships and expand your tribe.

Turtles have survived for over 157 million years, their longevity, due in part, to how they’ve adapted to their environment by presenting a thick, resilient exterior shell. Let’s take a lesson from the turtle and not get distracted by the occasional arrow or barb.

Christmas Routine (A Pseudocode Poem)

While (AwakeBeforeSun()) {
   Case ListenForKids(): {
      1: Hear(Giggling | WhispersInHallway): ChristmasMorning();
      2: Silence : LayAwakeEyesClosed(5 minutes);

Function ChristmasMorning() {
   CheckSpouseSleepStatus(); //Spouse may be simultaneously checking your sleeping status
   SignalToKidsYouAreAwake(); //Note: Giggling noises likely to increase
   QuicklyGetDressed("pjs", "santa hat",);


   //Find best angle between tree and stairs
   Shout("Ok, you can come down now");

   Santa = RandomlyAssignSanta();
   PlayHolidayMusic(); //Optional Real Live Fire or Netflix Yule Log

   Shout("Merry Christmas!");

// Present Distribution likely to take a while

   Foreach (person) {

   OpenStockings(); //This routine could be placed before PresentDistribution in some households

Function PresentDistribution(Santa) {
   Global Timer = 0;
   While (GiftsUnderTree > 0) {
      If (GiftTag = "self", OwnGifts++, GiveGift(GiftTag)); //Be overly unselfish by delaying opening own gifts
      If (OwnGifts > 3, OpenGift(Santa), OpenGift(!Santa)); // 3:1 ratio seems to work well
      Timer = Timer + 3 minutes;
      If (Timer > 45 minutes && Coffee==0, Coffee());
      If (Timer > 90 minutes, Breakfast());

10,878 Pages Later

I’ve been cataloging the books I’ve read each year since 1985 when I was greatly influenced by my 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Arnold, to keep a book journal. (There is roughly a 14 month gap in my book list due to the “Great Hard Drive Crash of 2001”. I also lost a ton of baby pictures for our oldest child, but that’s a story for another time.) Making an entry in my book journal has turned into a bit of a ritual, over the years, when I finish a book and take a few moments to capture the details in my ever growing list. While I moved the cataloging online many years ago, I still have the original paper version. I recently thumbed through this, recalling the moments when I read some of these works, and enjoyed the trip down memory lane.

There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all: the days we spent with a favourite book.” – On Reading, Marcel Proust, 1905

This year my goal was to read 36 books, equaling last year’s efforts. I’ve listed all 36 at the end of this article. First, I want to call out a few highlights from this list (ordered only by the sequence I read them):

Filters Against Folly, Garrett Hardin – Hardin was an ecologist and philosopher. It’s an unlikely book to begin with, yet I found myself recommending this book several times throughout the year. In the book, Hardin details three filters to help us solve problems:

  1. Literacy – the words we use and how we interpret a problem through language
  2. Numeracy – how we quantify a problem, what metrics we use to convey it
  3. Ecolacy – what are the unintended consequences of our actions, what comes next?

His first law of Ecolacy, “We can never merely do one thing.” is both simple and elegant. It should serve as a reminder that all of our actions have an impact, maybe we should consider that impact before we act.

The Top of the Volcano, Harlan Ellison – You have to be intrigued by a guy who has self-described as “possibly the most contentious person on Earth”. This was the first material of Ellison’s I read, and I will certainly be back for more. His imagination and storytelling are superb. This collection of 23 speculative fiction short stories are surprising, bold, and enchanting.

Gateway (Heechee Saga #1), Frederik Pohl – I’ve been meaning to read this book for many years. I happened across a used copy one afternoon and piled it in my long list of things to read. Finally, in August, I picked it up for some summer reading, I completed it in one day, something I haven’t done since a teenager. This book kicked off a significant consumption of 70’s, 80, and early 90’s sci-fi and fantasy, which dominated the back half of the year for me. I’ve read 5 of the 6 Heechee Saga novels, of which Gateway is the first. This and the next book in the series, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, are groundbreaking, imaginative, and just plain fun to read. If you want to relive the sci-fi you might have read as a teenager, I strongly recommended starting here.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders – When I wasn’t reading Sci-fi I was apparently reading short story collections this year. Saunders is excellent, full of satire, wit, and very funny (sometimes awkwardly so). Here is the note I wrote to myself after completing, “Saunders is a magical creator, spinning yarns of drama, absurdity, sorrow all in an extremely humorous and entertaining prose.” I sound too much like those silly quotes you see on the dust cover. [The transcript from his commencement speech at Syracuse University is worth reading too, it can be found under the title Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness]. Did I just recommend a commencement speech?

Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny – I warned you I was reading some classics, didn’t I? I had forgotten I read this previously, back in the mid-80’s. It was like discovering something you had forgotten you lost (I never finished the series, having gotten distracted after book 6). Each of these novels is super short, yet it tells a fascinating story of time/space bending, a royal family, and lots magic, sword play, and deception. I’m hoping to re-read though book 6 again and push on through to the end of the series in 2017.

I’m saving the details of my last selection for a future article, I’m not done thinking about it yet, but there are several thoughts I’ve added to my Infinity Shelf for later posts. The title is Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by my favorite author on the planet, Haruki Murakami. Reading this book is like a guilty pleasure of eavesdropping on their conversation.

My entire reading list for 2016 is listed below. You’ll notice I provided links to all titles on Goodreads, I find this platform to be perfect for both researching and cataloging current and future reads.

Happy Reading and Stay Curious,

Books – Jules Hawk –
Filters against Folly: How to Survive despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent Hardin, Garrett
Mort (Discworld, #4) Pratchett, Terry
The Harvest (The Heartland Trilogy, #3) Wendig, Chuck
Atlanta Burns (Atlanta Burns #1) Wendig, Chuck
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche Murakami, Haruki
The Buried Giant Ishiguro, Kazuo
Trout Fishing in America Brautigan, Richard
Who We Be: The Colorization of America Chang, Jeff
Falling Free Bujold, Lois McMaster
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century Pinker, Steven
Zeroes Wendig, Chuck
A Confession Tolstoy, Leo
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances Gaiman, Neil
Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness Saunders, George
The Top of the Volcano Ellison, Harlan
Ficciones Borges, Jorge Luis
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t Silver, Nate
The Real Frank Zappa Book Zappa, Frank
Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results Wodtke, Christina
Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1) Pohl, Frederik
The Oasis Within: A Journey of Preparation Morris, Tom
The Windup Girl Bacigalupi, Paolo
Wild Cards Martin, George R.R.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline Saunders, George
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (Heechee Saga 2) Pohl, Frederik
Deathbird Stories Ellison, Harlan
Heechee Rendezvous (Heechee Saga, #3) Pohl, Frederik
Coin Locker Babies Murakami, Ryū
Grit Duckworth, Angela
Nine Princes in Amber Zelazny, Roger
The Annals of the Heechee (Heechee Saga, #4) Pohl, Frederik
Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa Murakami, Haruki
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment Tolle, Eckhart
The Guns of Avalon (The Chronicles of Amber #2) Zelazny, Roger
The Elephant Vanishes Murakami, Haruki
The Gateway Trip (Heechee Saga, #5) Pohl, Frederik

Security through Immutable Infrastructure

It’s worth taking every precaution when it comes to IT security. Embracing an immutable infrastructure, an approach where after initial code deployment changes are prohibited on the running system, can improve your overall security posture. Revised code and configuration is deployed to a new set of infrastructure, physically and/or logically separated. Once the updated deployment has been validated and tested, production traffic is directed to the new infrastructure and the previous version is torn down.

It’s the act of tearing down that has significant security implications. Kornelis Sietsma coined the phrase Phoenix Servers in support of immutability to describe the process of new infrastructure rising from the ashes of the previous iteration.

Flying Fire – Karen Eck –

We hear about it all the time, aging systems (technical debt) are left to oxidize, leaving open security vulnerabilities. Often times hackers are in these systems for lengthy periods, only realized in a post event forensic investigation. If we set a Time To Live (TTL) on our host environments, forcing us to replace them with each new deploy, the set of vulnerable systems would greatly shrink. Want to put this to the test? Produce a histogram of the uptime of your servers right now, I bet that’s an eyebrow raising chart.

As teams come to grips with this approach to systems operations, automation will improve, code coverage will increase, and your plan for business continuity will receive and uplift. No one will be excited to build by hand if each sprint requires new hardware, this approach will force a maturity for code deployment.

The economics support this too, as companies shift more workload to the public cloud. You are no longer financially incented to run on the hardware you’ve purchased and depreciating for the next four years. The pay-as-you-go model of the cloud, combined with elasticity and server-less architecture (i.e. AWS Lambda or Azure Functions), are perfectly aligned for immutability.

There is a cultural impact, yet the world is changing, and the blurring of the lines between development and operations engineering is real. Embracing immutability has plenty of benefits, and top of the list ought to be the improvement to security that burning down your server farm will provide.


I usually write while listening to music, today’s inspiration: Jeff Beck’s “Performing This Week … Live at Ronnie Scott’s (Deluxe Edition)


Be Curious – A Statement of Culture

In the previous post in this series we discussed talent’s critical role in transformation. Unleashing the best from the talent you have requires establishing the operating norms, approach to work, and the ways in which your people interact. In essence, culture, is the key to unlocking all that your organization can create.

Every organization has a culture, it is impossible to exist and not have one. The question to ask is: Whether it is the culture you want?  I think it is important to mention that a culture created by rhetoric, without aligned action, is likely not the culture you’re angling for. “Do what I say, not what I do” is a sure fire way to establish a culture that drains the energy from your employees and leads to waves of sub-optimal productivity, loss of talent, and creates a failing business.

Culture is a reflection of consistent behavior. If your company goes out of their way to excel at customer service, Zappos comes to mind, then that will be part of the culture. If the team you are part of is ruled by an authoritarian leader, then that too is part of the culture. There are an endless amount of variables that contribute, in fact, all aspects of human interaction are part of the sum.

I can’t presume to tell you what kind of culture is right for your specific place, time, and team. However, I can share with you my belief of an essential element of culture that aligns with IT transformation, happier engaged employees, and a sense of purpose. This element is the willingness and drive to Be Curious.

While it makes for a dramatic story, I believe passion doesn’t fall upon you like a bombshell. Eureka moments are few and far between, and when they happen, center on solutions to a particular problem versus establishing a life long pursuit. Rather, curiosity is the gateway to finding your calling. Think about this, the more you are curious, the more opportunities you have given yourself to find something that you can be passionate about. Passion is one half of Angela Duckworth’s formula: Passion + Perseverance = Grit. (Her excellent book on this topic is well worth the read). Grit is a positive virtue we like to see in others.

Curiosity is essential when building an IT transparency model. Probing deeper into the data you have will lead you to questions you cannot yet answer. These questions can act as a catalyst to improve metric collection, application instrumentation, and business context that ultimately lead to positive changes.

Humans are wired to learn, we exercise our big brains by questioning and absorbing knowledge. We see this in the praise and admiration we have for explorers, inventors, and artists. Curiosity is what makes us human, a true standout within the animal kingdom.

By focusing on building a culture of curiosity, IT leaders best equip their teams to be thought leaders, creatively solve problems, and open up a world to explore, shape, and make their own.

Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living. -T. S. Eliot (1948)

“The Thinker at the Cleveland Museum of Art” – Erik Drost –

Here are 11 values of the culture I’m working to create:

  1. Be Curious
  2. Foster Transparency
  3. Embrace Creativity
  4. Win as a Team
  5. A Healthy Challenge of Norms
  6. Pride in our Work
  7. Quality Matters
  8. Laugh and have Fun
  9. We learn from our Mistakes
  10. Think Abstractly
  11. 200% Accountability (100% for you + 100% for those around you)

How would you describe the culture you are creating?


In a twelve part series about IT business transformation, James explores the need for the modern technology leader to be a catalyst for change, leverage IT value as a corporate strategic weapon, and lead the way for complete financial transparency. Utilizing this approach, today’s technology leader can provide the foundation for the company to build better products and services and gain approval for technology led initiatives that often struggle for executive support and funding.

Previous articles in this series are:

Part 1 – IT is a strategic weapon
Part 2 – Moving IT from Cost to Value
Part 3 – Addressing Technology Misconceptions
Part 4 – Start with a financial model
Part 5 – Goals of an IT Financial Model
Part 6 – The Model Flywheel
Part 7 – Lessons from AOL’s TBM Journey
Part 8 – More Than a Model
Part 9 – Eventual Consensus, Iteration, and Be Manic: A Map to Building an IT Financial Model
Part 10 – Talent: Organizational Charts Should be Written in Pencil

Climbing a Tree, and Finding a Whole World

Around the age of 10 or 11 I lived in a home that was once a one-room school house in a rural part of upstate New York. By then our house had been updated and expanded and was effectively a split level.

We had a large back-yard and the house was surround on three sides by a dense woods. Woods where my brother and I built a tree house, where we would play “war in the woods”, and where, once, my brother drove a three wheeler and got lost. (He followed our dog back to the house, walking, leaving the three wheeler abandoned for days for our family to find by walking a grid through the forest.)

On the edge of our side yard, there was a large maple tree. A tree which grew for decades, with strong, thick, and sturdy branches. It is in this tree that I would climb, a small book bag slung over my shoulder, up into the higher boughs. I would brace my back against the trunk, straddling a strong branch, perched high above the ground overlooking the rooftop of our house. From here I was the king of the sky, secretly squirreled away amongst the rustling leaves. Summer winds would create a nice whitenoise, accompanied by calls of local birds.

I would sit in that tree for hours and read. Ambitiously, I would scale the reaches with multiple books in my bag, consuming page after page of biographies about George Washington Carver or Helen Keller, reading Asimov and Stephen King, discovering Charles Dickens’ land of Oliver Twist.

Research shows that our perception of good food and fine wine is greatly influenced by atmosphere. When we are surrounded by friends and family for a special occasion, the meal we have at the nice restaurant in town is greatly enhanced by the mood we are in. I believe this to be true. I think it is also true about how we perceive a book we read or music we listen to or a movie we watch. As an example, Action Jackson might not have won many awards, but to my wife and I, it is one of our favorites, as it was the movie we saw on our first date.

There is a fondness about the topics I explored sitting in that tree that is hard to recreate. The whole world was yet to be discovered by me, and I was learning and adventuring through those books.

Anglesey Abbey Winter Gardens, Cambridgeshire, UK | A garden des
Anglesey Abbey Winter Gardens – ukgardenphotos –

Last summer we planted a 16 foot willow tree in our back yard. It’s more than a sapling, but far from the large tree this will eventually grow into. My oldest daughter grew rather excited when we told her we were having this tree planted. Once she saw it she said, “I wish it were much bigger. I’d like to climb up into that tree and read a book.”

I couldn’t help but smile a little when I replied, “I know exactly what you mean, Allison”.