Archive for July, 2008

Every once in a while, blogging delivers an unlooked-for personal insight. I had an example of this occurence earlier this week, when I mentioned that, despite being left-handed, I had won handwriting awards in the first few grades at school. Suddenly, I realized that this experience helped to explain my interest in typography.

The connection was news to me. I thought I had developed an interest in typography when I was working as a technical-writer, and wanting to branch out into design. Partly, my motivation was to make myself more versatile and therefore more employable, and to add a extra bit of creativity to what was sometimes monotonous work.

However, I soon became fascinated with typography for its own sake. Not many people – including graphic designers – are well-versed in typography, but the selection of typefaces and their arrangement on the page is a minature art-form, full of arcane jargon and fascinating lore.

It’s hard to imagine now, for instance, that the rise of asymmetrical design was as controversial as Impressionism or Modernism in the arts – or that one leader of the so-called New Typography, Jan Tschichold, was considered so subversive in Nazi Germany that he was given the option of exile or imprisonment (he chose exile, first to Switzerland and after the war to England, where he designed the standard templates for Penguin books of the period – little gems of design that you can still find today, sometimes, in second hand book shops).

And, like any art form, once you’re comfortable with the language of ascenders and descenders and kernings and letterspace, typography changes your perception. Just walking down a street of shops became a whole new experience for me as I examined all the signs in a new light. Similarly, opening a book, my pleasure is substantially increased by a fine layout, or lessened by a poor one.

These are all reasons enough for the large collection of fonts I accumulated. However, I suspect now that my font-fetish is also a revival of attitudes formed in the first years of my education.
You see, I was left-handed, and no one expected me to write with any elegance to my letters. The very fact that we read left to right makes writing awkward for lefties, and letters in cursive script especially are easier to form when your pen hand isn’t in the way.

But, having conquered a speech defect in Grade One, by the time I was introduced to handwriting in Grade Two, I was determined to defy expectations again. By an effort of will that, looking back, I now find hard to credit in a seven-year-old, I focused on the forms of the cursive letters, drawing them repeatedly over and over at home in my own time until I could draw them perfectly.

Or so I thought. I wonder now if I won handwriting certificates as much because I did better than lefties were supposed to do, rather than because my handwriting was objectively among the best in my classes. Unfortunately, I don’t have a sample of early handwriting to confirm or deny my suspicions.

No matter. What is important isn’t whether I really deserved the certificates, but that I became interested in the shape of letters for their own sake. I remember doing class presentations on the Greek, Phoenecian, and Norse alphabets. And, well into my teens, copying out the final version of my essay (this was before personal computers) became a ritual all its own. I remember labouring over the letter forms, not much concerned with what I said, but determined to produce a beautiful page. In Grade Ten, I even did a calligraphed creative writing project that I did and redid many times, and only completed because of the deadline – and I laboured at least as much over the page borders as I did the story contents.

Those interests went unexpressed as I went through university and became an instructor then a technical writer. Even when I was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, I never did much of anything with calligraphy. Yet, like a root buried deep underground, the interest remained, waiting for the right conditions to send up tendrils and be reborn.
Odd, that I never saw the connection from now. The continuity and persistence confounds me – yet, in seeing them, I now know a little bit more about myself.

Read Full Post »

(This article was originally published on the IT Managers Journal site. Now that the site is no longer active, many of the articles are no longer available, so I’m reprinting some of the ones I wrote to give them a more permanent home)

Everyone knows that Napoleon’s invasion of Russia failed because of the winter, right? But the truth is, saying that is as incomplete as saying that the cause of every death is heart failure. The winter may have been the final blow to Napoleon’s grand design, but it need not have been.

The more you look at Napoleon’s Russian campaign, the more you realize that it ran into trouble long before the first snowfall. The campaign actually failed because of difficulties in scaling, combined with poor management by Napoleon himself. His example provides a case study of the pitfalls when planning any project, especially large ones, making it an object lesson for the modern corporate world.

A bigger team isn’t always a better one

To invade Russia, in 1812, Napoleon assembled an army of 700,000 — probably the largest army up until that time. It contained some elite forces, but it was never an efficient fighting force. For one thing, its members spoke too many different languages to communicate well. Many parts of the army were traditional enemies of other parts, or had been fighting them recently. As a result, the army never cohered into a whole.

Also, its size meant that provisioning it was difficult. It could not even live off the land, as other French armies under Napoleon had done, because no area contained enough food for so many people. Instead, it had to keep moving, so quickly that its members were always well ahead of any supply wagons and frequently starving.

Ask yourself if you have the right resources and preparation

Contrary to a popular misconception, Napoleon did not go into Russian completely blind. He had maps, and he made considerable effort to stockpile food, resources, and horses. His instincts were sound, but he had no firsthand knowledge of what he was about to face.

On a map, it looked perfectly sensible to plan to use particular roads. But what Napoleon couldn’t see was that many of the roads in Russia were too narrow for the quick movement of large numbers of troops, and too muddy for artillery and supplies to pass. Nor could he see how foraging in a country as poor as Russia would be next to impossible.

Similarly, the far-sightedness of gathering supplies meant nothing if they weren’t the right ones. Napoleon gathered countless pieces of small-bore artillery, but these were a nuisance to haul, and useless in sieges like the one at Smolensk or artillery duels like the one at Borodino. Nor did he consider stockpiling pointed horseshoes suitable for travel in snow or winter clothing.

Still, even if he had gathered the right resources, the effort would have been largely useless, because among the things he neglected was any plan for delivering supplies to where they were needed. The one efficient piece of transport he arranged was his personal mail service, which could deliver a letter from Paris to Moscow in 14 days — and that luxury was unimportant in the campaign.

Decide on a goal and focus

Despite all his preparation and the size of his army, for once in his life Napoleon was uncertain what he wanted to do when he invaded Russia. Did he mean to occupy Moscow and Saint Petersburg? Carve up Russia between Sweden, Turkey, and a revived Poland? Force Tsar Alexander into a truce and go on to take India from the British? In the early months of the campaign, Napoleon considered all these goals. Unable to make up his mind, he could not act with his usual decisiveness, and failed to followup on his initial victories until after he had lost the initiative.

This oscillation continued throughout the entire campaign. Days, if not hours, before he retreated, he remained uncertain whether he would leave Moscow or winter there. Even when he abandoned Moscow, he first moved south as if planning to face the main Russian arm — then abruptly veered west to begin the long trek home. Not knowing what he wanted to do, he was, not unexpectedly, unable to do much of anything, or to do what he did do effectively.

Keep in touch with your team

Part of Napoleon’s leadership ability was his rapport with his troops. By moving among them, Napoleon could always get a first-hand feel for their morale and combat-readiness, and sense when punishment or a gesture of concern could improve the mood of his troops. Often, his appearance alone could inspire troops.

However, during the Russian campaign, this hands-on approach was rarely possible. At times, Napoleon was too ill. Yet, even when he was healthy, the size of the army and its dispersal meant that he could only use his personal touch on a minority of his troops. Too often, the only troops he saw were the Imperial Guard, those with the most loyalty and highest morale who, because of their proximity to him, were also the best-fed and supplied. Judging the rest of the army by the Guard, he assumed all was well as the rest of his army steadily sickened and dwindled away.

Don’t force subordinates to misrepresent or lie

Early in the campaign, Napoleon told his generals and field marshals that he wanted accurate reports about their troops. The trouble is, when they told him about the lack of supplies and the problems with desertions, Napoleon was prone to abuse them, sometimes publicly. At times, these tirades were followed by demotions or reassignment to difficult duties.

Faced with such consequences, Napoleon’s management soon realized that, for their own sakes, the last thing they should do is tell him the truth. Early in the campaign, they began exaggerating the strength and readiness of the forces they commanded. These exaggerations prevented proper planning and caused Napoleon to under-estimate the extent of the campaign’s difficulties until they were far advanced.

Choose substance over PR or positive thinking

All his life, Napoleon believed in his destiny, trusting it to carry him through times of trouble and upwards to future greatness. For much of life, this belief served him well, possibly because the bravado that it produced constantly took his opponents by surprise.

But in Russia, where geography, weather, and distances were as much a problem as the opposing armies, there was too much reality for a positive attitude to conquer. Napoleon did his best to assert his will and frequently issued proclamations that pretended all was well or about to be so, but this stance became harder and harder to maintain — especially since Napoleon was intelligent and observant enough to be unable to deny the increasingly obvious truth. Still, for a long time, he persisted in believing that will would triumph over circumstance. Unfortunately, by the time he admitted what was happening, his army was crumbling and in an exposed position cut off from supplies. At that point, he had nothing to do except retreat.

Listen to experts and subordinates

Napoleon’s entourage included people whose knowledge could have countered many of the difficulties listed above. For instance, Caulaincourt, the former ambassador to the Tsar, warned him about the conditions of the roads, the poverty that eliminated the possibility of foraging, and the political situation that made it likely that the Russians would continue to fight, despite constant retreats and uninspired field leaders. But these were not opinions that Napoleon wanted to hear, so he ignored them until it was too late. It was only on the retreat, when Caulaincourt advised Napoleon to return home ahead of the army that he listened to him — and then, the main reason was probably that Caulaincourt was saying what Napoleon wanted to hear.

Have a fallback plan

For several weeks beforehand, Napoleon knew that a retreat was a strong possibility. The alternative was to winter in hostile, barren territory. Yet, perhaps because of his reluctance to admit failure, Napoleon made no plans to prepare for the retreat. New conscripts arriving from the rest of Europe were still hurried up the line to Moscow, the farthest point of the French advance, rather than being assigned to secure possible routes. Similarly, no supplies were stored along the way. Nor were any scouts sent along the possible routes. When Napoleon made his sudden decision to retreat, he had made no preparations for it, which undoubtedly worsened the disaster of the march.

Sometimes, resources have to be abandoned before they become a liability

As the French army advanced into Russia, it carried a variety of unsuitable equipment, including hundreds of light field guns and carts that were unsuitable for the roads. Instead of destroying this equipment or abandoning it, Napoleon insisted on dragging it along. This stubbornness served only to slow his advance.

Even worse, on the retreat, the army was carrying as much of the loot from Moscow as possible. Not only did the loot encumber soldiers by filling their pockets and weighing down their belts with the objects hanging from them, but it also encumbered the army’s various vehicles, making them harder to move. The path of the retreat was soon littered with abandoned riches, but the determination to hang on to their spoils killed thousands of soldiers as they tried unsuccessfully to dodge marauding Cossacks or to hurry on to the next outpost where they might hope finally to get a meal.

You can lose by winning

Napoleon never lost a battle in Russia, although many, like Borodino, were indecisive. By traditional standards, he should have won, since he occupied Moscow, the old capital and still the largest and most important city, and his troops started home with fabulous riches. Yet he found his soldiers, horses and supplies steadily whittled away by disease, desertion, starvation, and exposure. After despoiling Moscow, he had to retreat, constantly harried by an enemy he no longer had the cavalry to close with. Unable to grasp fully the kind of war he was in or to adjust his tactics, he abandoned his army to rush home to France. In the end, only 22,000 — a little over three percent of his original force — survived to do the same.


Napoleon was a brilliant leader, one of the most outstanding ones of all time. But the fact that even someone of his caliber could make such mistakes only emphasizes that anyone can falter. Lack of preparation and focus, a belief in his own infallibility, a refusal to assess the situation objectively, a failure to follow the leadership techniques that had served him so well in the past — all these things led to the greatest catastrophe of his career.

Napoleon took another three years and one exile and a return before he was finished for good. But his Russian invasion had drained the fighting strength of France and destroyed his reputation for invulnerability. After his Russian campaign, his rule was a constant struggle for survival against continually increasing odds. Finally, at Waterloo in Belgium, he met the Duke of Wellington — a man famous for his clear headed planning and lack of nonsense — and lost his position once and for all. But the beginning of the end was his lack of proper planning when he invaded Russia.

Read Full Post »

On Canada Day, I had planned to be at a picnic at the Barnet Marine Park. However, when I came in from my morning run, a message from a publicist was on my business line. Would I be interested in a story?

Does a parrot love millet stalks? Suddenly, my plans for the day changed.

There’s something about a breaking news story that I can’t resist.

I wasn’t always that way. Several years, when I first started working as a journalist, I much preferred feature stories, although I didn’t know what they were called. With a non-timely story (as I called them to myself), I could take the time to get the facts right, and choose the details to use carefully – maybe even set each one aside a day or two before submitting it so I could reconsider the wording and structure in the cold, rational light of second thoughts.

By contrast, news stories terrified me. Writing for a largely North American audience, I am at a natural disadvantage compared to writers on the east coast, who are awake and working three hours before I am. The idea of rushing to finish a story in a few hours, especially with my time zone handicap, seemed rash. Undoubtedly, I would make a mistake.

But that was before I had tried writing a breaking story, and before I had made at least my share of mistakes. Now, the challenge exhilarates me.

In fact, a large part of the appeal lies in the challenges. In the space of a few hours, I have to decide who to interview, talk to them and transcribe the results, then produce some sort of coherent story. I’ve learned a lot of tricks of the trade in learning how to cram all these tasks into as little time as possible.

I’ve also learned to work through my fears, ignoring the little inner voice that is constantly yammering that I’m not going to finish in time – and that, too, is a form of challenge. Douglas Adams can joke all he want about the sound of deadlines whooshing over his head as they zoom by, but meeting a deadline – especially an impossibly close one – can be a measure of skill and a source of accomplishment, so long as you don’t have to manage the miracle four or five times a day.
Moreover, the flip side of urgency is a feeling of accomplishment when you’re done. And if you’ve beaten the other three or four writers on your beat and posted your story before they have posted theirs, then the accomplishment feels even greater. You’ve proven your ability to come through in a crisis.

Never mind that the portal sites will link to other stories on the subject as readily as to yours, or that the wisps of glory are ephemeral, blown away and forgotten within three or four days. For a few hours after your story appears, you can enjoy the delusion that you know something about writing after all.

These are all reasons why, despite all my efforts to be hard-headed, I can’t resist a news story. Let me sniff one, and I’ll foam at the mouth in my eagerness to enjoy the sense of purpose it brings.

Read Full Post »

(This article was originally published on the IT Managers Journal site in January 2008. Now that the site is no longer active, many of the articles are no longer available, so I’m reprinting some of the ones I wrote to give them a more permanent home)

Everyone knows that networking is an essential part of business. Done well, it can build partnerships for you, and tell you about jobs before they’re advertised. If you are a consultant, you can easily find — as I have — that networking is responsible for 75-100% of your income. Done poorly, though, it can handicap or even seriously set back your career.

The dangers of poor networking are especially high for IT workers. Many of those working with computers have poor social skills, and may be tempted either to indifference because of shyness or brashness because of efforts to over-compensate. Also, IT workers tend to be among the major users of LinkedIn, FaceBook, and other social networking sites, where the ease of use and casual atmospheres can encourage the wrong tone for business interaction, especially if you’re a novice at it.

However, over my 12 years as a consultant, I’ve seen problems in every sort of business. To help you avoid them, no matter what field you work in, here are what I’ve observed to be ten of the most common mistakes in networking:

Badmouthing other companies and individuals

Meeting people in the industry whom you don’t see everyday, you can be tempted to express feelings that you normally suppress about bosses, past and present, or about other companies. However, it’s rarely a good idea to make those feelings public — especially in a job interview. If you show too much enthusiasm for criticizing others, those with whom you are networking are going to wonder what you say about them when they’re not around. You can also create the impression of a negative, downbeat person.

If you meet the fellow survivor of a company or boss, you might not have to worry about such things. Yet, even if others start the badmouthing first, you should be cautious about joining in. After all, what are you networking for: To find an outlet for your frustrations, or to make useful contacts?

Name-dropping without permission or with exaggerations

Being able to claim a connection is part of what networking is all about. However, before you claim someone as an acquaintance, much less as a reference, check that you have permission to do so.

For one thing, it’s only polite to give your contacts a chance to think what they’ll say about you if contacted. Possibly, too, they would prefer not to be a reference for you, for reasons like office politics that are only peripherally to do with you.

For another, IT or any other field is a relatively small place, and your claims of friendship or support are easily checked. If they’re false, people will react as though you have lied to them — and, in a sense, you have.

Exaggerating connections

Exaggerating your connection with someone can have the same results as mentioning a connection without permission. True, implying that you are a personal friend of Linus Torvalds or Andrew Morton may get you the job interview you’ve been angling for. But if your interaction is limited to a single email you sent two years ago, you’ll look either duplicitous or foolish when the truth comes out.

Begging for a job

If you are networking to find your next position, one of the unspoken rules is that you never ask directly for work. At first that tradition may seem like hypocrisy, but, if you think for a moment, it makes sense. Networking is an informal, personal way of compensating for the formal, impersonal habits of business. By asking for employment directly, you are mixing categories and creating a confusion that can only make you look crass.

It also makes you look as though you are only interested in networking for what you can get. While this attitude may seem efficient to you, it also signals to people that you are uninterested in them personally. You probably wouldn’t respond well to someone whose interest in you is selfish, so don’t be surprised if others feel the same way.

Spamming requests

Networking is the opposite of the usual marketing techniques; it’s about the quality of contacts, not the quantity. Sending out general broadcasts for help negates that emphasis. Instead of being a one-on-one connection, you make networking an anonymous one when you contact everyone you know with a request — and few people enjoy feeling that you only see them as one of the crowd.

Moreover, any experienced PR flack can tell you that, although targeted requests take longer to put together, they bring better results than spam broadcasts. So, by honoring the intent of networking, you also tend to help yourself.

Participating passively on online sites

As the middle-aged discover social networking, sites like FaceBook are increasingly being used to maintain business contacts. Others, of course, like Ryze.com were designed for business networking for the start.

On all these sites, you’ll find hundreds of registered users who signed up a year ago, and have only a handful of contacts. And, although registration for such sites is hardly time-consuming, these users have essentially wasted their time. One such user regularly complains to me that these sites are useless, but what else can he expect when he doesn’t actually use them?

For any type of networking to be effective, you need to put some effort into it. It’s only when you have developed a large network that you’ll find that others will start coming to you with friend requests. You don’t have to let networking sites take over your life, but, at the same time, if you do the minimum, you’ll only get minimal results.

Networking Indiscriminately online

When you are registered for a social networking site, you may get requests to connect with people you don’t know, or to give recommendations to people you’ve never worked with. The temptation is always there to build your network by accepting these requests, but there’s little point beyond an unconvincing illusion of a broad network.

Whenever someone actually tries to use that network, its inadequacies will quickly become apparent. If you don’t know a person, then how do you know that you can be useful to each other — or that they’re the sort you want to be associated with? Nor can you recommend strangers without making them appear to exaggerate the acquaintance (see above).

Failing to keep up relationships

Contrary to what many people seem to believe, establishing a connection is only the first part of networking. The longer a network connection exists and the more exchanges of help that are made — in short, the more trust that is established — the more useful the connection becomes for both parties. For this reason, stopping at initial contacts is only slightly more useful than sitting back and waiting for contacts to come to you. If you want networking to work, you have to become involved with it.

Being unrespectful of other people’s time

When you network, you can treat as a given that everyone is busy with other things beside the connection. Try to avoid pestering others for favors, especially if you are hoping to use the connection to find work, and avoid asking a favor that is disproportionate to the connection. Asking a new acquaintance to send you details about an upcoming conference is appropriate; asking them to give you a private crash course in Ruby isn’t.

Similarly, just over a year ago, a colleague asked if I could help her fill a position at her company. I found several possible candidates, and introduced one to her company. A few days later, she told me that her company had decided to fill the position through a recruiting agency. The decision meant that I — to say nothing of the candidate — had each spent a couple of hours for nothing. Both the candidate and I agreed that we would think carefully before dealing with my colleague again. We both felt we had been treated with a lack of respect.

Hounding a connection

Last summer, I promised to let an acquaintance know when a position at another company was being filled. After a week, he began sending me daily emails, and phoning me every other day. Since I had no control over the job and was simply relaying information, I could do nothing about the delay and told him so. Once, I made inquiries on his behalf, but eventually I had to ask him to stop contacting me so often. He got angry, and I haven’t heard from him since. From another mutual acquaintance, I understand that he feels that I let him down.

Really, though, he let himself down. By hounding me, he lost his connection to me, although it was obviously useful to him.

Rather than producing the same results yourself, minimize your followups when you’ve requested help. Unless there’s a definite deadline, once a week is often enough to ask. And if the request goes unanswered for more than a couple of weeks, you can probably assume that it’s not happening.

Treating networking as one-sided

Effective networking is about an exchange of help. That means that, if you want people to help you, you have to be willing to help them. If you ignore requests for advice or references, or — like one of my acquaintances — always find excuses for not reciprocating, eventually people will start refusing to help you. The same can be true if you are constantly asking for large favors while only offering an equal number of small ones.

The exchange of favors implicit in networking doesn’t have to be spelled out. In fact, most of the time, it’s not. Instead, networkers simply assume that, if they help you out, at some unspecified point, they’re entitled to request a favor of comparable value from you. Ensuring that you honor that assumption is the main point of networking.


Perhaps the best way to avoid these mistakes is to keep in mind the image you would prefer to project around colleagues. For most people, this image would be professional, polite, and active. Ask yourself how your words and actions might appear to your colleagues, and you’ll not only be likelier to avoid these mistakes, but also to start networking effectively.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts