Tuesday Nov 04, 2008

Vote No on Proposition 8

In four years of blogging, I have rarely ventured into the political arena. I see this space as a place to discuss technology, life at Sun, the socialization of technology, and to provide commentary on music, books and comics. I am way under that long tail of content, and happy to be there.

But - four years ago, I appealed for people to vote, and on Election Day 2008 here in the US, I feel compelled to do the same. And this time it's another friend that prompts me to get politically active with the keyboard.

Tom is one of those friends who makes it feel like you've known him your whole life. I can go two years without talking to him on the phone, but the next call has the social context of a weekly update. We keep up with each other through blogs, email, pictures, holiday cards, and lifecycle events. I got him to play ice hockey (no small feat for a Los Angeleno who believes cold is a place you go skiing, not a weather pattern); I assisted on his first goal; I consider him my linemate for life. Been like that for 26 years. He's the kind of guy you want to have every happiness life can afford. And I'd like to see that happiness legally extended to Tom's husband George.

Which is why I think Californians have to vote "no" on Proposition 8 today. Tom and George are a happily married couple who should be afforded every Constitutional right to their own pursuit of happiness. More important, they should have every legal right to take care of each other "until death do us part." The bulk of the effort in making a marriage work is dealing with life's curve balls. Why would you want to regulate that?

Taking away that right - and that's what laws do, they tend to regulate what you can't do - scrapes too close to the Bill of Rights and I personally find that notion very wrong. At Sun, I'm the executive sponsor of our Asian Diversity Network, an employee resource group that makes sure we recognize, celebrate and benefit from diversity in our workforce. I am not technically identified as Asian, but a large number of engineers who work for me do affiliate with the ADN, and I take their representation at Sun quite seriously. Change the wording in Proposition 8 to affect any other employee resource group and you have a scary set of laws -- but as Terry McKenzie points out, laws that were on the books in California during our lifetime. Why reset such legal precendent?

You can read more of Tom's thoughts on California newspapers urging "no" votes, on the reasons he and George got married, on the myths and distortions hiding in a variety of rhethoric, and most important, get a sense of why legal recognition of same-sex marriage is critical.

It's important to Tom and George, so it's important to me - another of those long-tail recommendation effects.

Wednesday Jun 11, 2008

Joining the Asian Diversity Network

About three weeks ago, Bill MacGowan (the top of the Sun HR pyramid) sent out a note to all employees encouraging us to join Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Based on both my own views that networked communications are a (potential) tool to drive cultural understanding, and the fact that more than one-third of my Global Systems Engineering employees are affiliated with countries in our Asian Diversity Network (ADN), I asked to join. And last week I became the executive sponsor for Sun's ADN, a role for which I'm thoroughly excited. The ADN not only links Sun's employee resource groups to other, similar groups in our major work locations, but it's also driving an important sense of cultural awareness inside of Sun. My goal as executive sponsor is to make sure that we're using all of the communications channels available: internal and external wikis, blogs, Facebook groups, and one-one relationships including programs like Sun's formal mentoring relationships.

A bit of context is in order: growing up in central New Jersey, my exposure to Asian culture was limited to what passed for "Chinese food" (no Sichuan, only heavy Cantonese style dishes that had been Americanized), and trying to figure out the Indian scripture references in Yes' Tales from Topographic Oceans. The impact of a seemingly benign interaction sticks in the very deep, tape-based portions of my memory of that time: While working at Six Flags Great Adventure, I took a break and went to visit some friends in Ride Operations, hoping we could make plans for a post-shift beer. Thinking we had agreement, I made a hand gesture to signal "all good" to my friend in the control booth, knowing she wouldn't hear me over the electric motors and small kids. Her partner working the entrance gate told me "You just insulted her; in her family that gesture is nasty." Touching, bowing, eye contact, honorifics, hand gestures, and seating position may be things we don't consider every day, but they bound our first impressions and often govern others' strong first impressions of us.

In the intervening three decades, the world has become smaller as a result of networking, air travel and diversity on college campuses, but it's also become larger in terms of understanding the cultures, norms and preferences of the folks on the other end of the TCP/IP connection. One of my favorite learnings was working with a manager in our Beijing engineering office, who described a management situation with the Chinese phrase "Two tigers cannot inhabit the same mountain." To her, this was a statement about having a clear line of sight to one owner for a problem; to me it captured the fact that tigers are one of the few carnivorous animals that don't attack or eat their own kind, creating an effective conflict avoidance mechanism. The root cause of her issue was that the way in which Sun engineering culture would have stimulated a resolution to her issue created a larger cultural conflict; people backed away from what was perceived as the "usual way" in other parts of the world.

What do I hope to get out of the ADN? Two big things:

Cultural understanding. There are the obvious issues, like appreciating holidays, celebrations, whether or not asking questions is considered rude, the desire not to draw attention to an individual, loss of face (on both sides of the table), and whether or not a knife is a weapon with no place at the breakfast table. There are the subtler things, like the fact that "spicy" is effectively a logarithmic scale in parts of the world, or that organizational hierarchy determines who sits when and where at the table. The more you understand about your peers, the more effective you are in creating an environment where everyone contributes, feels valued, and forges strong connections. Failing to understand these differences is as bad as inviting your vegan friends to dinner at your favorite BBQ joint.

Avoiding monoculture. We need to spend time with people who are not like us -- not like us in terms of geography, world views, food preferences, musical interests, and engineering approaches. Monoculture in anything is bad, whether it's desktop productivity tools, search engines or local newspapers. What I've found amusing is that the further afield you look, often you run into something familiar -- my discovery of a synagogue in Shanghai, created when the Viennese embassay of Shanghai smuggled Jews out of Europe during World War II, or finding that my marketing buddy Carrie also listens to matzah-soprano Ofra Haza through a Facebook status update.

Put together, I hope I'm a more effective communicator and leader, and that what we learn in the ADN can be shared with other employee resource groups (in and out of Sun).

About

Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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