Month: June 2016

Cox Strategy Redux

It has been a few months since I posted my lighthearted Cox Automotive home strategy game.  In that time, four new projects have been announced linking members of the conglomerate.

Cox Game2

I am still watching for some extension of auction functionality into the used-car department, maybe leveraging vAuto.  No word yet on the development of COXML.

Natural Language Protocol Stack

I was in the lobby of F&I Express last week and one of the OGs asked me, “What was that network protocol that the old IBM mainframes used?”  I replied with SDLC, confidently naming the link level protocol.  “No, the other one.”  I moved up a level, to VTAM.

It turns out he was looking for System Network Architecture, which is not a protocol itself but the name of the stack.  This was IBM’s proprietary stack, competing with Open Systems Interconnect.  Where SNA had SDLC and VTAM, the OSI has Ethernet and IP.  It is easy to find a chart of your favorite communication stack … except this one:


I learned about SNA on the job while studying linguistics at college, and I could not help noticing that natural language also uses a stack.

At the lowest level is phonetics.  This is the equivalent of the green light on your Ethernet port.  It means that you are successfully hearing the other person, although the grunts and squawks of human speech carry more data than binary bits.

The next level up is phonology, where different sounds (Greek allo-phone) are resolved into units relevant to the given language.  In German, for example, /ch/ is the same in “ich” and “ach,” even though the sounds are completely different.  Closer to home, English /p/ is sometimes aspirated and sometimes not, a distinction audible only to Professor Catford.

The next level up is morphology.  Yes, I might as well do the whole stack, now that I’m at it.  Morphology is the study of word parts that carry grammatical information, like –ing, -ed, and –es in English (and more exciting ones in other languages).

Once we arrive at the level of whole words, we can study them on their own, plus how they have changed in sound and meaning over time.  The fields of comparative, historical, and social linguistics are each fascinating in their own right, but I will stick with the stack concept for now.

Grammar in Western languages is easily understood as “how to put a sentence together,” using the appropriate numbers, genders, cases, modes, and tenses.  Other languages are not so straightforward, though, and the term from my day job, “message syntax” seems more correct.  I have, at the moment, just finished writing a two-thousand line message syntax specification using XML.

Once we have sentences, we can have a dialogue, or “discourse level grammar.”  This is the application level of the stack, and familiar to all software people.  Our trade is filled with terms like dialogue, request, response, and transaction.  My favorite such term, going back to my IBM days, is “pseudo-conversation.”  Yes, that means just what you think it means, whether you’re talking to a bored spouse or a teleprocessor.

Say It to My Face

dbpix-people-ray-dalio-bridgewater-articleInlineTalking behind someone’s back can get you fired at Bridgewater.  If you have a problem with someone, you must confront them and sort it out.  The corporate culture is devoted to frank assessment of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.

You can see why this might be important to functioning as a close-knit team, and to personal development.  Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio is famous for what he calls Radical Transparency.  There is even an app for that.

In most work places everyone is working two jobs. The first is whatever their actual job is; the second consists of managing others’ impressions of them, especially by hiding weaknesses

Some people think Dalio is a crank, but the movement seems to be gaining adherents.  Shopify posts employees’ strengths and weaknesses on the company wiki.  In this interview, founder Tobi Lütke sounds exactly like Dalio.

We are all … personal-growth junkies. So we really committed to giving each other feedback, and we’re trying to expand that to the entire company.

Personally, I like the direct approach.  I have worked with people who prefer to sulk silently, plotting revenge or whatever, instead of laying their cards on the table.  This is unhealthy, as well as unproductive.  If you find yourself mentally rehearsing what you should have said, or what will happen “next time,” you need to get that off your chest, and damn the consequences.

If you tell someone, “you screwed this up because you failed to do X,” you begin a productive dialogue.  Maybe he has never been trained in X.  Maybe he chose Y instead, for a reason.  Maybe Gartner Group just wrote a white paper on X, and it’s deprecated.

On the other hand, I can see radical transparency being limited to certain kinds of teams, like investment analysts and mountain climbers.  It requires people who are already high performers, committed to raising the bar, and mature enough both to give and to receive criticism properly.

Most people have a hard time confronting their weaknesses in a really straightforward, evidence-based way. They also have problems speaking frankly to others.

This is where Dalio’s idea diverges from Radical Honesty, the self-help program of author and psychologist Brad Blanton.  Blanton advocates brutal honesty from everyone at all times, which strikes me as impractical, even comedic (like the movie The Invention of Lying).   A more practical book for business people is Crucial Conversations.

The other thing that struck me about the Lütke interview was his remark that companies are evolving, still finding the right way to organize.  This I can believe from my long experience working with startups, and reading Tom Peters.  Companies certainly need less hierarchy and more authentic teamwork.  We will have to start being honest with each other.