Thursday Aug 06, 2009

My Annual Drum Corps Nerdfest Announcement

Every summer, my personal obsessions take a break from their normal subjects of computing and other technology, and veer toward a long time favorite hobby: drum and bugle corps.

The world championships are this week.  Quarterfinals competition begins at 3:30PM Pacific Time today in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Semifinals are tomorrow, and the finals (Top 12 corps) are this Saturday.

My favorite, as usual, is the Santa Clara Vanguard.  It looks like the clear leader this year is the Blue Devils, from Concord, CA, but second through fifth place is up for grabs for any of four corps, including the Vanguard.

I won't be able to make it to Indianapolis to attend the shows in person, so I'm going to watch quarterfinals live at my local theater.  The DCI organization is broadcasting the event live and you can go buy tickets just like any movie.  The theater will be filled with other drum corps nerds just like me.

But wait, there's more!  I will also be attending the free snapcast created for the event, on G-Snap!  I've mentioned snapcasting before; a couple of weeks ago, over 800 people attended a live snapcast of a regional drum corps show so I'm anticipating a big crowd for today's competition.  I'll follow the snapcast on my mobile phone while I'm in the theater; that should make the whole experience a lot more fun: while I'm watching the competition on the big screen, I'll be able to comment with other nerds like me nationwide, as it happens.

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Saturday Aug 13, 2005

Learning More About Drum Corps

SCV Hornline

Okay, I can't help myself. The DCI (Drum Corps International) Finals competition begins in just under two hours and I gotta talk to somebody about it, so I'm telling you.

First, the CBS Evening News did a story on the drum corps activity: follow the link then scroll down to the sixth video story on the left side of the page; the video is entitled "Super Bowl of Marching Band" (yes, that's cheesy). It's a fairly short piece, but should give you a little taste of the physical demands made of the people who participate.

Next, some videos taken by the drum corps from Concord, CA. Here's a page of videos; the one to watch is called "SCV Drumline Warm-ups". The Santa Clara Vanguard's percussion section was best in the nation last year; here's an idea of how they play in the parking lot before they go on the field for competition. Note: you'll need a Quicktime viewer to watch these videos.

Finally, if you're crazy enough to pay to watch this season's performances before they've available on DVD later this year, go to the DCI Season Pass web site to listen to the audio of your favorite corps. The Cavaliers are worth a listen, as are the Madison Scouts and Blue Devils. I'd love to say that the Vanguard is a top pick, but unfortunately I can't say that this year. Well, better luck next year.

By the way, on September 6, ESPN 2 ("The Deuce") will be showing highlights of tonight's competition. The broadcast will be two hours long and will likely show excerpts of most of the top twelve corps and the complete shows of the top few. Usually PBS does this broadcast, but DCI is improving its marketing partnerships and getting better coverage and spread. This is a good thing.

Friday Aug 12, 2005

The Difference Between Success And Failure: Less Than 10%

SCV Drumline
I'm in the Boston area this weekend to enjoy one of my favorite things: the Drum Corps International (DCI) Championships.  The semifinals competition is tonight at Gillette Stadium; finals happen tomorrow.  The corps most likely to win, much to my chagrin, is The Cadets, a corps from Bergen County, NJ.  They've been winning shows much of this summer and look like the corps to beat.  Unfortunately, my favorite corps (and one I marched in waaaay back), the Santa Clara Vanguard, is likely to place around eighth or ninth place, which is much less competitive than the Vanguard usually is (they often place in the top three or four, and have won the DCI championship six times).  The funny thing is, the Vanguard will likely be thrashed by The Cadets this year, but the difference in scores will be less then ten points out of a hundred, less than ten percent.

(okay, before I go on, I just gotta include a link to some crazy drumline warmups, to give you an idea of what a top percussion line eats for breakfast.  Go here and listen.  If that doesn't mess up your head enough, try this one.

This is not uncommon in many areas; in professional sports, a winning margin of less than ten percent, when done consistently, is often interpreted as dominating.  And you don't even have to win all the time in order to dominate your competition.  Tiger Woods doesn't win every golf tournament he enters (in 2005 so far, he has only won 4 out of the 14 tournaments he has entered, and only been in the top 10 finishers in 8 of those tournaments), but he's the most dominant golfer in the men's sport (he made over $6M in winnings so far this year).
My question is: how can one be so dominant with such a narrow margin of victory over time, or even with a relatively low winning percentage?
My answer: the question is a distraction, the thing to learn from these examples is that you can be highly successful by improving just a little bit.  If you can improve yourself operationally only ten percent, you can see huge improvements in results.

Starbucks works on shaving seconds (literally seconds) from the time it takes to process each customer.  One thing they do to shave a little time is to shorten the time taken for credit card payments; they don't bother with the long validation cycle if your purchase is less then $20.  It saves less than a minute per customer, but those savings pile up, reduce the size of lines, and therefore make each shop more appealing to customers, which helps them grow their customer base.
I think about this a lot at Sun, worrying that people think we need to make huge changes in order to become robustly successful again.  But I don't think that's true.  If everybody (or not even everybody, but a decent portion of Sun's population) did a few things better each week, we can be a much better company.

It's easy to do, too, although takes discipline.  For example, if you're in a meeting and it's clear that somebody needs to take some action, make sure it's clear who d takes the action, and then instead of waiting six days (the day before next week's meeting) to begin working on getting that action done, do it now, or the next day.  Chances are, the reason you took that action in a group meeting is because somebody else is dependent on your completion of that action.  The sooner you can get it done, the sooner you unblock somebody else from continuing that work, and the sooner your project gets done, which probably means either saving money (resolving a customer issue, maybe) or making new money (shipping product).
We don't need to be worrying about strategy; execution is what makes the difference between success and failure more often than not.  Do one thing each week more quickly than you would.  Cut one meeting from its full hour to 45 minutes by being more crisp about how you conduct yourself in the meeting and asking others to stop rambling and get to the point.  You've just saved the company 15 minutes times however many people were in that meeting, giving you all time to do something else productive for that 15 minutes.

Okay, enough ranting about small performance improvements resulting in huge results.  Here is a video to give you a small taste of what drum corps looks like.  Keep in mind that it's from a long time ago, and the activity has advanced a great deal since then.  Scroll to the middle of the page to see it.  You'll need a Flash plugin to view the video, but you don't need to be running Windows; I watched it just fine on my Java Desktop System notebook computer.

Sunday Aug 29, 2004

Extreme Teamwork

There's an amazing youth activity that I'm sure almost none of you really know about.  It's called Drum Corps International, and it's the the most incredible showcase of teamwork that you've never heard of.  The DCI national championships, held in mid-August each year, puts in competition the top corps in North America.  The corps are comprised of 135 dedicated, talented young people below the age of 22 (DCI rules say that the day you turn 22 is the day you "age out" meaning you're no longer eligible to compete).  The corps are made of percussionists (the coolest part of the drum corps), brass players, and the color guard.  I marched in a corps oh, so long ago.  They are the Santa Clara Vanguard and are perenially beautiful and competitive.

I saw 6 of the top 12 corps in the country in a tour that they did after the national championships a couple of weeks ago; I was lucky enough to see the shows twice, in Los Angeles and San Jose.  The reason I write about them here is because of what they can teach us about commitment and teamwork.

They are students in high school and college who begin rehearsing in November for a final competition in August.  In mid-June when the schools finish for the year, corps members will join their corps and begin rehearsing daily for twelve hours a day, preparing a show about 11-12 minutes in length that is physically demanding (imagine trying to play as a member of an all-state concert band while running).  They will perform the show in competition about 30 times, travelling across the United States by bus, sleeping in high school gymnasiums or on the bus if the travel schedule demands that the corps needs to cover a lot of ground in a single night.

If you were to watch a rehearsal, you'd notice a commitment you wouldn't believe.  The kids practice marching and playing a difficult segment over and over again, trying to get the intricate timing right.  They march their 32 counts, then stop.  The drum major says "Reset!" and all corps members run back to their original spots.  Why run?  Because every second in that twelve hour period counts.  They run to their spots all season long, from January until August.  They don't falter.  They do this every day of the season, pushing, pushing, pushing through the last show of the season.  It's hard to believe it unless you see it.

The DCI championships are replayed on PBS stations (U.S. television); you can find out when in your area by going to this page.  It isn't the same seeing it on TV versus in person, partly because the TV chooses what you watch so you don't get overwhelmed by the entire experience as you would be in person.  I've taken several people to see drum corps shows, and I have yet to find anybody who isn't impressed.  One common comment is that there's too much to take in during a single show.

If you're interested in seeing group excellence, send me mail next spring or go to the DCI web sit above to see the schedule of shows in your area of the country next summer.  You'll be glad you did.

One last comment: I wonder how this kind of teamwork and excellence can be applied to our engineering groups.  It's basics, really: simple discipline, executed every day.  And a love for the activity that you do.  Getting a group of people together who share a common passion can bring about amazing things.  It's as simple as that.


The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle. What more do you need to know, really?


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