dogsled
Mensa member

My three (counterintuitive) guiding principles

1) Plan backwards.

2) Fail quickly.

3) Seek out and encourage dissent.


Plan backwards

I learned this during my ROTC training:  when planning, begin with the objective in mind (the future state) and work backwards to the current state.  Only then can I be confident I can reach the objective.  I have worked on many projects where managers have planned in chronological order only to discover that the desired state could not be achieved because it did not guide preceding actions.  Prior planning prevents problems, but only when that planning is done backwards.

Backward planning does not necessarily mean waterfall development methodology.  It is not only compatible with Agile, but is a safeguard against Agile's iterative process leading to "mission creep."

Fail quickly

This seems outright defeatist at first, but it acknowledges that any plan can fail --- and the sooner you know it is failing, the better.  That is the point of this principle, one that is especially used in safety testing.  While the use of pilot projects and test groups would seem to employ this principle, they do not unless failure has been defined in a measurable way.  Otherwise, any negative results can be consciously or unconsciously dismissed as something less than failure. This bias also arises when a project is measured in terms of success rather than failure.  If a pilot or an entire project falls short of a definition of success, it is easy to say success is still likely or to be satisfied the project was "mostly successful."  Measuring for failure keeps everyone honest. It also encourages root cause analysis and improvements.

Seek out and encourage dissent

Key to being able to define failure is having someone who can imagine it.  Someone with a dissenting opinion is often the best source.  The absence of dissent and an environment that discourages it produces what in the U.S. space program is called "go fever."  It has been found to be the underlying cause of the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia disasters.

So if there is no dissenting opinion, I will play devil's advocate.

My career

My mother and sister pinning on my lieutenant's bars at my commissioning, 1987
My mother and sister pinning on my lieutenant's bars at my commissioning, 1987
Hand-made plaque from my enlisted troops upon my leaving active duty. I had been their executive officer and, for three months, acting commander.  "Beach bum" referred to my plans to vacation in Hawaii.
Hand-made plaque from my enlisted troops upon my leaving active duty.  I had been their executive officer and, for three months, acting commander.  Back in my ROTC cadet days, one of my instructors had taught us "take care of your troops and the mission will take care of itself."  This plaque shows I put my instructor's wisdom into practice. Note:  "HSC 101 MI BN" stands for "Headquarters & Support Company, 101st Military Intelligence Battalion" of the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized).  "Beach bum" refers to my plans to vacation in Hawaii immediately after leaving the Army.

Intelligence Analyst

I started my working life with the intention of making a career as a Military Intelligence officer in the Army. After graduating as a Distinguished Military Graduate of the Army ROTC program at Northeastern University, I was commissioned as a Military Intelligence Officer.  I would serve in the role of Battlefield Information Control Center Coordinator and executive officer of an intelligence battalion headquarters (with three months of command time including a month of war games in the Mojave Desert).  Later, in the Army Reserve, I served as leader of the All-Source (intelligence) Production Section of an intelligence battalion and executive officer of one of its companies.

My greatest achievement during my service was developing a new method of intelligence preparation of the battlefield that was later taught at the U.S. Army's National Training Center. I was later to discover that my new approach was effectively a process flow documentation of the enemy's expected actions. This let my unit anticipate those actions and plan accordingly. For my achievement, my battalion commander awarded me the Army Achievement Medal and a "One Block" rating on my officer evaluation report. That rating meant I was one of the top three lieutenants of the 30 in his unit.  That unit was Field Artillery, but I was not a Field Artillery officer (I was in the Military Intelligence Corps), so being awarded a "One Block" was extraordinary. It would be like your corporation proclaiming an outside contractor as one of its top three employees.  With performance evaluations like that, I had a bright career ahead of me.  However, when the Cold War ended, I decided to pursue a career as an intelligence analyst in government.

Through the Army Reserve I got temporarily assigned to the intelligence unit of the Drug Enforcement Administration field office in Philadelphia. From there I became a contracted intelligence analyst at a joint federal-state task force in New Jersey. Despite earning awards for my work, I could not find a full-time employee position in intelligence. No federal, state, or local organization was hiring. This situation continued for years.

I was to discover that federal job postings for intelligence analysts, which were very rare, were being reserved for displaced federal civil service employees. There were a lot of them in the 1990s as government agencies down-sized after the Cold War. This situation, as it turned out, was to continue until the 9/11 attacks. I therefore decided to move into the business world and be a competitive intelligence analyst.

Click to see the full set of awards and the stories behind them.

Competitive Intelligence Analyst

In the mid 1990s, competitive intelligence was still not being practiced as a discipline in most Fortune 500 companies. I therefore decided to get my foot in the door at a Fortune 500 company and simply create the opportunity. Through a contracting opportunity, I was hired by Nabisco Refrigerated Foods Company as an administrative assistant, of all things. In less than a year I had so impressed senior management with my organizational skills that I was promoted and asked to fix the process of change management in the Quality Department. I tell this story on my "Process Improvement" page. Having reduced the time needed to manage the process by 66%, I had a lot of time on my hands. This coincided with a corporate-level push to create competitive intelligence units in each division. For that I had both the qualifications and the time --- so I got my opportunity.   I went on to provide competitive intelligence for three different companies.  On my "Research & Analysis" page you can see some of my no-longer-sensitive work from this period.

I need to make clear: competitive intelligence is not espionage, which is illegal and unethical. It is simply the collection of publicly-available information to create a picture of current and future marketplace activity and opportunity. The goal is to produce actionable intelligence for decision-makers and people in the field to give my client the advantage. "Competitive Intelligence" is an umbrella term that covers many disciplines, such as competitor monitoring, SWOT analysis, and geographic marketing, to name just a few disciplines.

If you have read about competitive intelligence, you know there is always a debate over what constitutes "competitive intelligence" versus "competitor" or "market" intelligence. To me, actionable intelligence for a competitive advantage is the definition of "competitive intelligence" and must therefore cut across disciplines. I describe some examples of this on my "Research & Analysis" page.

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MS Office/VBA Developer

I loved being a competitive intelligence analyst --- but after nine years and three different positions I learned that the first people laid-off in any economic downturn are competitive intelligence analysts. I needed to make a career adjustment.

I decided to transition to being more of a computer programmer and database administrator. This was not hard because MS Access and Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) programming were a large part of my tool kit for competitive intelligence. Although most of my work over the past 10+ years has been mostly database and VBA development, there have been frequent opportunities for me to combine that with competitive intelligence projects. As you might imagine, my combination of skills are rare if not unique.

While MS SQL Server and Oracle are far better back-end repositories of data than MS Access, Access provides a versatile and quick-to-deploy front-end. When combined with other MS Office applications, a powerful and still user-friendly application can be created with all the benefits of a robust SQL Server or Oracle back-end. Access forms permit quick prototyping and customization, application of before-update quality and procedure checks, and minimization of key strokes.  I use Access to create user interfaces that exceed client expectations, setting me apart from other Office developers.

MS SQL Server Developer

As I learned Transactional SQL (T-SQL), I began to build applications that could process millions of records.  While I continued to use MS Access as a front-end, I was able to use SQL Server to do the heavy lifting of ever larger data sets and greatly more complex processes.  With T-SQL, I created stored procedures with dynamic SQL, OpenQuery calls to other servers, and cursors.  I created scheduled jobs to run processes overnight and Access pass-through queries to run them on demand.  I also used SQL Server (and occasionally Oracle) for some of my competitive intelligence work when working with large sets of customer data.

Sample of my T-SQL. Click to enlarge.
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Data wrangler

As a competitive intelligence analyst, I also gained a lot of experience automating the extraction, formatting, correcting, de-duping, and standardization of large amounts of  data. The nature of that led me to call myself a "data wrangler."  In 2016, I served as the sole Data Cleansing Analyst on a massive data conversion project for Medtronic following their acquisition of several companies.  Oracle and PL/SQL were my primary tools on that project.  See my "Data Wrangling" page for a discussion of my role and accomplishments in this project and others.

Some of my most challenging data wrangling is when I web scrape information for competitive intelligence purposes.  The data was never intended to be extracted for use in a database, so I must come up with a programmatic way of determining where one piece of data (datum) ends and another begins.

I might be rare, but I enjoy data wrangling, probably because I enjoy puzzles.

My hobby:  Astronomy

In September 2010, Jupiter came the closest to earth since I had been born. With only a pair of binoculars I could see its four largest moons as big, bright jewels.  My thoughts went back to Galileo's observations of those same moons 400 years earlier and how they helped confirm the Copernican model of the solar system.  At that moment, I became a space buff.

For night-time observation, I have an Oberwerk 100mm binocular telescope. In addition to the power of a small telescope, it gives a 3-D actual (non-reversed) view that a regular telescope cannot. In 3-D, star clusters like the Pleiades, top right, are stunning, as are mountain ranges on the Moon.

For solar viewing, I own a Coronado PST solar telescope and am a regular visitor (at least during the 11 years of solar maximum) to NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory web site for its near-real-time images of the Sun, like the one shown right.  In August 2017, I traveled to Idaho to watch the solar eclipse (my first).  It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

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News from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), especially about the International Space Station (ISS), is another interest of mine, as is studying the history of the US and Russian space programs. You can also count on me being at any space-related exhibit or astronaut lecture at the Minnesota Science Museum.

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TOP:  Hubble photo of the Pleiades (undated) courtesy of NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, and Palomar Observatory.  CENTER: Photo of the Sun, 2/7/2015 20:24 UTC, hydrogen-alpha filter.  Courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams. BOTTOM:  Nighttime view of the Strait of Gibraltar from International Space Station, 9/20/2016.  Courtesy of NASA.

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