Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 430

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It’s time for another appearance on Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast.

This week’s episode, number 430, features Tom’s essay on product owners, Steve Tendon with more on TameFlow (in this episode, constraints), and a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “Leadership Anti-Patterns – The Thinker” (the third in a series on leadership).

The Thinker is a classic leadership anti-pattern hearkening back to Frederick Taylor. In essence, the leader does the thinking and the peons do the doing. What could go wrong? Tune in to hear Tom and I discuss all the problems this anti-pattern can bring.

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPAMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 425

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I’m ringing in 2017 with another appearance on Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast.

This week’s episode number 425, features Tom talking about annual tune-up ideas, Steve Tendon with more on TameFlow (re: kanban, flow, and throughput), and a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “Leadership Anti-Patterns – The Great Pretender”.

In my last SPaMCast segment, I discussed the Growler, which had elements of both pattern and anti-pattern. Not so the Great Pretender, it’s clearly an anti-pattern that is as if someone mixed impostor syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect together and skimmed off the most detrimental parts of each.

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPAMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 421

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This week’s episode of Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast, number 421, features Tom on vanity metrics (“feel good, less useful”), Steve Tendon discussing TameFlow, and a Form Follows Function installment based on my post “Leadership Patterns and Anti-Patterns – The Growler”.

Ever deal with a “crusty” leader who used an “unwelcoming” attitude to filter demands on their attention? Tom and I discuss this leadership pattern (it works, sort of, so you can’t rightly classify it as an anti-pattern) and the very real downsides that make it problematic.

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPAMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

Leadership Anti-Patterns – The Thinker

'The Thinker' by Rodin

My interest in leadership, how it works and how it fails, goes back a long way. Almost as soon as I learned how to read, history, particularly military history, has been a favorite of mine. Captains and kings, their triumphs and their downfalls, fascinated me. The eleven years I served with the Henrico Sheriff’s Office honed that interest. It allowed me to go beyond theory and the hearsay attendant in just reading about leaders. It allowed me to both observe firsthand and to get practical experience of my own.

For most of the latter part of my career with the Sheriff’s Office, I led a unit responsible for providing support services for the jail (canteen, recreation, laundry, hair-care, maintenance, and coordination of volunteer programs). In addition to their primary function, members of my unit, as sworn staff, also served as a ready reserve to the security staff during the busiest parts of the day. It was a challenge for me, because I was responsible for managing a group of experts with diverse duties. It was a challenge for them, because the way I led was something of a change for them.

Like everyone, I started my career working a security platoon in the jail. My second posting, however, was in our training academy. Roughly half of my responsibilities involved record keeping and administration of the training program. The other half of my time was spent in class, delivering training. Something about that resonated with me; I loved it and it strongly influenced my leadership style.

When necessary, I was fully capable of issuing orders to be complied with immediately. The operative word here being “necessary”. What’s necessary under emergency conditions and what’s necessary the other ninety-nine percent of the two are two different things. The majority of the time, my leadership style involved more coaching and little or no dictating.

I still laugh when I think of the first time a subordinate came to me for a decision. After her laying out the problem, rather than serving up a solution, I asked a simple question, “What do you want to do about it?” The speechless expressions I received in response were priceless. Having someone in authority ask for her opinion was so utterly foreign as to be beyond belief.

[Note – this is not the same thing as “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”. That type of bumper sticker philosophy is a good way to have people avoid you when they don’t know what to do, which is when they actually need you the most (and likewise, when you most need to know what they’re dealing with).]

By making sure that those who worked under me knew the boundaries they had to work with, we were able to divide things into three groups: the routine that was unremarkable, that which they could deal with on their own and tell me later, and that which they needed to get me involved in up front. Even with the last category, I asked for opinions. If it was a decision that I could make, my bias was to go with their recommendation unless I had a really good reason not to (as I noted above, most were specialists and knew the details of their position far better than I, so overruling them solely because I was “in charge” would be a really bad idea). When the decisions were above my pay grade, I would still give them credit and endorse their recommendation. My goal was to have a unit that could operate as well when I was not there as when I was.

At this point, you may be wondering where’s the information about this “Thinker” anti-pattern. All the background above, is to serve as contrast to one of my colleagues, a lieutenant in charge of a jail security platoon. This person informed their platoon that they were paid to do the thinking and their subordinates were paid to do the doing. No one other than this lieutenant was allowed to make any decisions, period. While I doubt this person had ever heard of Taylorism, they had a firm grasp of the principles of it.

Under the most normal of circumstances, there’s much to criticize about The Thinker’s way of doing things. The method doesn’t scale. It places a lot of burden on the Thinker. Getting a bathroom break in between decisions to be made is hard enough, but vacation? Forget about it.

The thing about a jail is that it’s not the most normal of circumstances, so there’s an added disadvantage. In the event of a hostage situation (something that’s more of a risk in a correctional environment), if the Thinker was the hostage, then they would be in for a very long ordeal. Unless one of their subordinates decided to ignore the Thinker’s orders and call for help, they would be stuck until someone “authorized” to think reported for duty.

Ignorance of the law (of unintended consequences) is no excuse.

Leadership Anti-Patterns – The Great Pretender

Roman Mosaic with Tragedy & Comedy Masks as gargoyles above a water basin

My previous leadership type, the Growler, was hard to classify as it had aspects of both pattern and anti-pattern. The Great Pretender, however, is much easier to label. It’s clearly an anti-pattern.

Before entering the working world full-time, I worked in the retail grocery business (both of my parents also had considerable industry experience, both retail and wholesale). I ran into this type more than once. The type is distinguished by a lack of domain knowledge and/or experience, coupled with an apparent inability to trust anyone with knowledge and/or experience. Consequently, the default method of decision-making appeared to be “whatever someone suggests, do something different”. It was as if someone had mixed impostor syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect together and skimmed off the most detrimental parts of each.

I remember one July Fourth holiday where a Great Pretender tripled the order for sliced-bread and cut the order for hamburger and hotdog rolls in half. This was based on reading something that said Americans were eating healthier. Unfortunately, that message wasn’t communicated to the Americans in our community (bear in mind, this was many years ago and July Fourth) and we wound up with customers unhappy that we had run out of what they wanted to buy and a lot of soon-to-expire bread that had to be marked down drastically so that it sold before going out of date. The failure to trust subordinates with the right expertise carries costs.

Another Great Pretender questioned his stock crew when he found them taking a break while a truckload of merchandise remained in the back room. The response, “Do you know how long it takes to get all that put on the shelf?” sent him scurrying away. The crew, who were malingering, had a good laugh.

The combination of lack of knowledge and lack of trust opens the door to an interesting manipulation strategy. When you want something from a Great Pretender, you never ask for it directly. It’s always “Boss, should I do this incredibly inane thing that no one in their right mind would do or should I do what I actually want to do?” The response from the Great Pretender is always “Do that second thing” (every single time). I leave it to you, dear Reader, to only use this knowledge for good, not evil.

The idea that someone in a leadership position should be the best at all they oversee is a pretty common one. More than once I’ve seen people claim that the have no respect for a leader that can’t do their job better than them. This attitude, however, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of leadership (hint, effective leadership is more about coordinating the team than doing any one job on the team). This attitude also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the cognitive capacity that would be required to lead a team involved in a minimally complicated undertaking (hint, effective leadership is more about coordinating the team than doing any one job on the team). This attitude also ignores the fact that a leader is responsible for tasks unique to their position (hint, effective leadership is more about coordinating the team than doing any one job on the team). When a team member has this attitude, it can be a problem.

When the leader buys into this attitude, we get the Great Pretender.

Leaders have their own roles and responsibilities to fulfill. This involves dealing with what’s appropriate to their role and relying on others for what’s appropriate to theirs. This requires communication and collaboration. Micro-managing and insecurity are counter-productive. The best leaders, in my opinion, are those that can recognize talent in others and gather around themselves a team of people with complementary strengths. They’re not the experts, but expert at helping a collection of experts come together for a common purpose. That involves placing trust in those being led.

Having to know it all can be fatal.

Leadership Patterns and Anti-Patterns – The Growler

Grizzly Bear Attack Illustration

Prior to starting my career in IT (twenty years ago this month…seems like yesterday), I spent a little over eleven years in law enforcement as a Deputy Sheriff. Over those eleven years my assignments ranged from working a shift in the jail (interesting stories), to Assistant Director of the Training Academy, then Personnel Officer (even more interesting stories), and finally, supervisory and management positions (as many headaches as stories). To say that it was as much an education as a job is to put it mildly. I learned useful lessons about human nature and particularly about leadership.

One of the things that I learned is that leadership and management (they are related, but separate things) have patterns and anti-patterns associated with them. Just like in the realm of software development, it can be difficult to distinguish between what’s a pattern and what’s an anti-pattern (there’s an interesting discussing to be found on this topic in the classic “Big Ball of Mud”). Hammering a square peg into a round hole “works”, albeit sub-optimally. Pattern or anti-pattern?

One pattern/anti-pattern from my time with the Sheriff’s Office is what I call “The Growler”. A high-ranking member of the department was a master of this technique. When approached for something, particularly when the something in question was a signature on a purchase requisition, the default response was a profanity-laced growl (the person in question had retired from the Navy as a senior NCO) demanding to know why he should grant the request. This was extremely daunting, but I learned that the correct response was to growl back. When he growled, “%$@$ a !#&^ing $@!#*. More $%&^ing computer stuff, why the @#*& do you need this?”, I would answer, “You know when you ask me a question and I respond in five minutes instead of three hours”. This would result in a shake of his head, a “Yeah, yeah”, and most importantly, a signature.

More than just an endearing quirk of his character, it was a triage technique. If the person who wanted something tucked tail and ran, it wasn’t important. If, however, the person stood their ground, then he would put forth the effort to make a decision.

Right up front, I should make it clear that I don’t recommend this technique. First and foremost, Human Resources finds “salty” language even less endearing today than they did twenty-five plus years ago, and they weren’t crazy about it then. There’s also a big problem in terms of false negatives.

Most of my coworkers back in my badge and gun days were not shy, retiring types. Consequently, I never saw it backfire for that person. Later on, though, I did see it fail for an IT manager (and yes, while gruff, he was significantly less “salty” than the one at the Sheriff’s Office). This manager had a subordinate who would retreat no matter how valid the need. Consequently, that subordinate’s unit, one that several of us were dependent on, was always under-staffed and under-equipped. When his people attended training, it was because someone else had growled back for him. It was far from the optimal situation.

While not quite as bad as the “shoot the messenger” anti-pattern I touched on recently, “The Growler” comes close. By operating on a principle of fear, you can introduce a gap in your communications and intelligence network that you rely on (whether you know it or not) to get the information you need in a timely manner.

Fear encourages avoidance and no news now can be very bad news later.

All Aboard the Innovation Band Wagon?

Bandwagon

 

It seems like everyone wants to be an innovator nowadays. Being “digital” is in – never mind what it means, you’ve just got to be “digital”. Being innovative, however, is more than being buzzword-compliant. Being innovative, particularly in a digital sense, means solving problems (for customers, not yourself) in a new way with technology. Being innovative means meeting a need in a sustainable way (eventually you have to make money). Being innovative means understanding your strategy, not just following the latest thing.

Casimir Artmann published a post this week, “Digital is not enough”, outlining Kodak’s failures in the digital photography space. As digital cameras entered the market, Kodak introduced ways to turn film into digital images. Kodak’s move into digital photography (which, ironically, they invented in 1975), coincided with the rise of camera phones. By concentrating more on perpetuating their film product line than their customers’ needs, Kodak wound up chasing the trend and losing out.

Customers’ cash follow products that meet customer needs (even needs that they didn’t know they had).

Sometimes a product or service can meet a need and still fail. A Business Insider article yesterday morning discussed the weakness of the peer-to-peer foreign exchange business model, saying it only works in “fair weather”. In the article, Richard Kimber, CEO of the foreign exchange company OFX Group, observes:

When you’ve got currency moving dramatically one way or the other, what you can have happen is it encourages asymmetric activity. As we saw in Brexit, you had lots and lots of sellers and very few buyers. That can lead to an inability to transact because you simply have all these sellers lined up and no buyers. That’s one of the reasons why the peer-to-peer players opted out of their model during this period of volatility because it wouldn’t have been sustainable.

While Brexit might be the latest event to expose the weakness of the peer-to-peer model, it’s not the first. The Business Insider article referenced another article from January on The Memo that made the same point. Small wonder, the concept of a market maker is a well established component of financial markets.

Disintermediation, cutting out the “middleman”, is only innovative when the “middleman” is, or can be made, superfluous.

Blindly following a trend can be another innovation anti-pattern. In an article for the Wharton Business School, “Rethinking Retail: When Location Is a Liability”, the authors discussed the pressures on brick and mortar retailers and the need to be “Digital-first”. The following was recommended:

  1. Identify some of your common habits and perspectives about how the retail sector should function, including guiding principles, time and capital allocation patterns, primary skills and capabilities, and the key metrics and outcomes that you track.
  2. Uncover the core beliefs about retailing that motivate your behaviors, and are the priorities of your firm and board. This step usually takes some ongoing reflection and added perspective from your peers. Industry best practices likely influence your thinking greatly.
  3. Invert your core beliefs about retailing and consider the implications for your firm and board. There are many possible inversions in each instance. For example, all retailers should ask themselves, ‘Is digital our first priority? How about our customer network — do we put them in front of merchandise and do we have an entire department dedicated to mobilizing them?’
  4. Extrapolate what implications these new core beliefs, and the various ripple effects, would have for your organization and board. Observe what is happening in your industry and, more broadly, how different core beliefs might help you get ahead of digital disruption by companies like Amazon.
  5. Act on your new retail core beliefs (preferably with digital as the center) by sharing them broadly with your customers, employees, suppliers and investors. Purposely changing your business actions, particularly when it comes to time and capital allocation, is an important part of the process and helps reinforce the changes in mental models you are trying to achieve.

Note the generous usage of “your” (retailer) instead of “their” (customer). Sharing “…your new retail core beliefs (preferably with digital as the center)…” with your customers will only be fruitful if those new beliefs align with those the customer has or can be convinced to adopt. Retail is a very broad segment and a very large part of it needs to be digital. That being said, over-focusing on it carries risk as well. Convenience stores, for example, catering to a “we’re out and need it now” market, is unlikely to benefit from a digital-first strategy in the same way big-box retailers might. Not having a one-size-fits-all strategy is why Amazon is opening physical stores.

We don’t drive customer behavior. We provide opportunities that hopefully makes it more like for them to choose us.

Innovation doesn’t come from a recipe. Digital isn’t the magic secret sauce for everything. Change occurs, but at different speeds in different areas. The future is not evenly distributed. As Joanna Young observed in “Obsolescence: Take With Grain Of Salt”:

I recall clearly in the mid-1990s hearing an executive say “by the year 2000, we will be paperless.” I signed, with a pen, four approval forms just today. Has technology failed us? No. The technology exists to make mailboxes obsolete and signatures purely ceremonial. However the willingness to change behavior and ergo retire old methods is up to humans, not technology.

Innovation is significant positive change, an improvement in our customers’ lives, not a recipe.

Design Follies – Architect Knows Best

Carmen Miranda

Last (for now), but most definitely not least of the design follies is putting your own “vision” above the needs of the customer. Worse than falling for the latest technology fad or failing to adequate think things through, from an ethical standpoint, putting your ego ahead of your duty to your customer is as bad as making current design decisions with an eye to trying to justify prior mistakes. None of these reflect favorably on the perpetrator.

Whenever I consider this particular anti-pattern, I tend to remember the reality TV series Trading Spaces. In contrast to most of the designers on the show, one designer was renowned for ignoring the wishes of the owners, at some times deliberately doing things he was asked not to. Acting the diva might make for good television, but is abhorrent in terms of professionalism.

“Learn by shipping” can be a valid product development technique when dealing with the truly innovative. As the past two years in the operating system space have shown, that technique may not work as well in mature markets (note: phones/devices that can take on duties previously in the realm of personal computers = absolutely brilliant; computers downgraded to phone/tablet capabilities = not even close). Learning by listening can be much cheaper and just as effective. Giff Constable recently asserted that “…companies, whether startup or enterprise, that do not aggressively build learning into their processes will spend 3x to 5x more time and money…”. Failing to listen to pre-release criticism is, in my opinion, failure to learn at an opportune time.

Change represents both opportunity and danger, more so when we add in people’s reaction to change. The opportunity to innovate can disappear if we are insensitive to the customer’s potential reaction and the reasons for that reaction:

Imagine living in the same house for 10 years. Over that period, you’ve accumulated a lot of stuff.

To keep your house organized, you found places to put everything. Every place made sense to you. Most of the time, you have no trouble finding anything you want. Occasionally, there’s something you can’t find, like a tape measure, because you can’t remember where you last put it, but with a little poking around (and asking your housemates,) you come upon it and all is well.

One morning, you wake up and the house is completely different. Not a little different–completely different.

Nothing is where it used to be. The glasses in the kitchen, the clothes in your closets, and the furniture are reorganized. Even the walls and windows are all completely rearranged.

Whoever rearranged everything didn’t consult you. They didn’t warn you it was coming. They just took it upon themselves to make it happen.

In this “new” house, nothing seems to be where you’d expect it. The coffee cups are stored under your bed. You find your pants on the bottom shelf of the freezer. Logic doesn’t seem to be part of the organization scheme.

The worst part is that you still need to get to work on time. Usually, it only takes you about 45 minutes to get ready, so that’s all you allotted yourself. After all, you didn’t know this was coming, so why would you set your alarm differently? Nothing is where it’s supposed to be, you’re spending a lot of time trying to find everything, and the clock is running out–you’re going to be late and it isn’t your fault!

Jared M. Spool, “Designing Embraceable Change”

Reading that particular passage, I find my “inner voice” rising in pitch and cadence. It evokes a sense of hysteria, and understandably so. Later in the post, Jared points out a key concept when dealing with change:

It’s not that people resist change whole-scale. They just hate losing control and feeling stupid.

It’s important to remember that your intention is in most cases less important than the impact of change on the customer. Things like continuous deployment, although they may be adopted to improve customer satisfaction, can backfire if the intent and the effect do not align. As I’ve noted previously, user experience is extremely important. Unintentionally degrading that experience is bad enough. Purposely making people feel out of control and “stupid” is probably the one case where your intention is more important to the customer and not in a good way.

Design Follies – ‘Can I’ vs ‘Should I’

What could go wrong?

Everyone likes a challenge from time to time. However, some challenges should be avoided. Overly complex systems that stretch the limits of possibility can easily exceed those limits. Even when they can be achieved, the better question is can they be achieved in a satisfactory manner (stable, peformant, secure, etc.). The more important question is not “Can it be done?” but “Should it be done?”.

In his essay “Requirements vs Architecture”, Charlie Alfred relates a quote from German aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt: “The Air Ministry can have whichever features it wishes, as long as the resulting airplane is not also required to fly.” Messerschmitt’s point, of course, was that regardless of what someone specified (even regardless of who that someone was), the laws of physics would rule. The client’s understanding of those laws, much less agreement, was completely orthogonal to the applicability of those laws.

Seventy years later, that lesson has yet to be learned. Ironically, one of the latest examples involves the design of military aircraft. At $400 billion, the grab-bag of features that is the F-35 is described by Time as “The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Built”:

The single-engine, single-seat f-35 is a real-life example of the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Think of it as a flying Swiss Army knife, able to engage in dogfights, drop bombs and spy. Tweaking the plane’s hardware makes the F-35A stealthy enough for the Air Force, the F-35B’s vertical-landing capability lets it operate from the Marines’ amphibious ships, and the Navy F-35C’s design is beefy enough to endure punishing carrier operations.

“We’ve put all our eggs in the F-35 basket,” said Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn. Given that, one might think the military would have approached the aircraft’s development conservatively. In fact, the Pentagon did just the opposite. It opted to build three versions of a single plane averaging $160 million each (challenge No. 1), agreed that the planes should be able to perform multiple missions (challenge No. 2), then started rolling them off the assembly line while the blueprints were still in flux–more than a decade before critical developmental testing was finished (challenge No. 3). The military has already spent $373 million to fix planes already bought; the ultimate repair bill for imperfect planes has been estimated at close to $8 billion.

As I’ve said before, you have to ask “why?” and you have to pay attention to the answer. If the answer is “because it’s a challenge”, then that’s as ethically suspect as “I wanted to try out the technology”. Focus and discipline isn’t very sexy, but going hundreds of billions over budget isn’t a resume highlight.

Some might consider this type of soul-searching as unnecessary. Neil deGrasse Tyson sparked a minor controversy when he suggested students should avoid taking philosophy because asking too many questions “can really mess you up”. The rebuttal to that, however is:

Another way of falling prey to this particular anti-pattern is via inadequate analysis. Tom Graves’ “”Please don’t touch the touchscreen””, he tells the story of just such a debacle. His doctor’s office upgraded to a new touchscreen-based check-in system. Soon there was a bottle of hand sanitizer and a sign asking patients to clean up after using it (infection control). Cleaning up beforehand wouldn’t work because the touchscreen would get smeared with sanitizer:

So maybe the touchscreen was not such a good idea? Or, maybe, not even the auto-check-in at all – rather than an in-person check-in, allowing the reception-staff to build up a better in-person knowledge of the clinic’s clientele? Hmm…

Sometimes thinking things through (and paying attention to what can go wrong) can save a lot of time and money.

[Tightrope Walker Image by Adi Holzer via Wikimedia Commons.]

Design Follies – ‘It’s all about the technology’

Robot playing ping pong

I recently described the method I use to pick topics for posts as “some posts I plan and some just grab me”. The topic for this post seems to be in a class all its own – it stalks me. In previous posts I’ve mentioned how customers are looking for answers to problems, not technology, not artistry. Recently, however, the principle keeps popping up, prompting me to re-visit it.

Just a couple of weeks back, I was chatting with someone on the information systems faculty for a local university. One of the things she mentioned was the importance of understanding that the technology was secondary. Success comes from determining what the customer wants/needs to do, and then providing the how. It’s about finding a place in the customer’s narrative, not finding a way to use a particular technology. After that conversation, I dutifully added a note to my future posts list that it was time for a post on technology as a means, not an end. There it sat for two weeks, when Tom Graves posted his “My ‘EA Masterclass’ coming to Australia”, complete with a slide deck that included this (slide #4):

Slide Show Screen Shot

Okay, I get it – time to write the post.

In this line of work, you need to have a deep appreciation of and interest in technology. If you lack that, I sincerely doubt that you will have the drive necessary to remain current, particularly in today’s environment. Bearing that in mind, however, all the technological brilliance in the world does no good if the product in question fails to meet someone’s needs. How we do so is far less important than whether we do so. Empathy is critically important, because as Jeff Sussna observed in his “Failure == Failure to Empathize”:

When you see things from another’s perspective, you instinctively want to do something useful based on what you see. Empathy naturally drives action in response to listening.

A large part of what makes empathy so important is the architecture of the problems we commonly deal with. Rather than a single context (set of stakeholders sharing similar goals and concerns), most of what we deal with involves multiple, often competing and conflicting contexts. These conflicts are a source of challenges (obstacles to delivering desired value). As Charlie Alfred observed in “Contexts and Challenges: Toward the Architecture of the Problem”: “Tradeoffs between challenges in a context are often subordinate to tradeoffs between similar challenges across contexts”.

Technology belongs to the architecture of the solution, which, to be effective, must follow from the architecture of the problem. When an aspect of the solution does not trace back to some aspect of the problem, this disconnect should be considered a red flag. Choosing a technology for the wrong reason (“this looks cool!”) is a disservice to our customers. Design decisions not only give structure to, but also limit a system. Form follows function initially, but then function is constrained by the existing form.

As always, the most important question when making design decisions, is “why”?

[Photograph by Humanrobo via Wikimedia Commons.]