On being a bit of a control freak

We talk disparagingly about “control freaks”- how annoying they are, how difficult to work with, how….controlling.

But the real truth is that when you have a vision, you have to be a bit of a control freak. In moments of exhaustion or desperation, turning ideas over to the masses to be “implemented” or “improved” may seem like a good choice- but it is very rarely the case.  Seth Godin’s blog post summed it up nicely this morning:

Left to its own devices, the mob will augment, accessorize, spam, degrade and noisify 
whatever they have access to, until it loses beauty and function and becomes something else.

The tragedy of the design commons. .........  It seems democratic and non-elitist to set it and forget it 
and let the users take over.  But the tools we use (Wikipedia) and the brands we covet (Nike or Ducati) 
resolutely refuse to become democracies.


If you have a vision, you have to grow it wisely, pruning the sucker branches that would distract or weaken it.

The importance of business rule #1

I work in IT.
I am getting sick, watching our field grow a reputation slightly better than shifty used car salesmen. This is spreading like wildfire because people are forgetting business rule number one: Listen.

Here is a recent great example.
I got a call last night from my mom, who is about 700 miles away.
She was frustrated, exasperated and nearly ready to cry.
She was absolutely ready to throw her Roku box out the window.

My parents  are NOT technologically savvy.  Since my Dad’s vision is worse, he can not see wires and connectors to help.
My mom is usually a little scared she is going to break something and less than confident when it comes to technology. If you have done any tech support, you know the type. If you have not done tech support, you probably have a Dad or an Aunt or a Cousin like this.  Just like not everyone is comfortable playing softball, not everyone is comfortable with technology.

We got my parents a Roku two years ago because we loved it so much, and they have loved it too.
My dad is sight impaired, and they love that they can connect Flick.r and then my dad can see photos on the TV where they are large.  They do Netflix streaming ( at least for now) and a few other things on it.

So, what caused her to want to pitch the Roku they have loved? Tech Support who wanted to sell them things instead of solving a problem. And not just Roku Tech Support, Linksys and Verizon got in the game as well.

They wanted to show a friend some pictures from a recent trip. When they went to open Flic.kr, they got an error message that the network settings were not correct and it could not connect.

They called Roku support. Roku support ( who they could barely understand speaking), had them read them the error message and said- it must be your router call them.   They called the Linksys customer service people and Linksys customer support (who talked mostly jargon and tech terms, rather than simple english)  told them that they probably needed to reset a code in their Verizon DSL Router, when they got a storm it can cause problems. They tried to rest the code, but did not have access in the Verizon hardware. So, they called Verizon DSL, Verizon DSL told them it would cost 29.95 to have that code reset. At this point, my mother thought every time they got a storm, they were going to have to pay 29.95 to get a code rest to make their Roku work. The Verizon people assured her she could pay 59.99 and get 6 months of support instead.
Luckily, she looked at my dad and said ” we can buy a whole new Roku for only 79.99, I don’t know what to do- let’s eat dinner”. Then called me , very upset.

I LISTENED. Actually, when she got to “my Roku gets an error message trying to connect to the network”, I knew what to ask next- but I let her vent the whole painful story to get it out.
Then I asked ” Have you tried to reconnect the Roku in the Roku settings?”
She stopped in her tracks. They had had this working seamlessly for 2 years and had completely forgotten that there were any settings there.
I booted up my Roku quickly, so I could look while I talked, walked her through the menu selections to get there ( about 3 clicks) and the built in wizard took over, found their router and connected.  Less than 3 minutes and her Roku was fixed, no expense.

I have no problem with the fact that people need to make money.
But this is the second instance in less than a week that we have crossed paths with tech support that was more anxious to collect cash for things other than a needed fix, instead of listening to the customer and fixing the problem and creating a happy customer who would come back for more sales in the long term.

Granted,  my parent’s Roku is out of warranty. But if Roku had asked them “have you tried reconnecting from the settings menu ?” instead of pawning them off on Linksys, it would have short circuited 90 minutes of frustration. I would have been OK if when she said ” How do I do that?” they said, we are sorry you are out of warranty, that support costs. Then she would have called me and asked and we would have had it fixed.

If Linksys had said ” we do not support Roku, but let’s check your router” and taken her through standard troubleshooting ( the fact that the other two computers attached to the Linksys router still talked to the Verizon DSL and got on the internet fine should have indicated that there was no communication problem between the Linksys and Verizon), then politely sent her away, rather than sending her into DSL reconfigurations would have been fine.

Verizon had in their records that they had a tech at her house a couple of weeks ago, who adjusted their network. If they had said- we had a tech there recently disrupting your network, you might have to reconnect devices to make them work correctly. They do not have to be able to tell her how to do that, it is not their responsibility.  But immediately telling her the DSL could have issues in a storm and trying scare tactics to get subscription support pisses me off.

It upsets me both because they jerked around my mom, but also because it makes IT look bad. Pretty soon, being in IT will be a little like being a lawyer. That is a horrible shame. We have the opportunity to make things that make people’s lives fun, interesting, and even amazing.  Let’s not lose this to make a few 29.95 fees that don’t fix anything.

The meaning of maturity

That whole “using a crucible to burn to truth” and “from hardship comes wisdom” thing? Sometimes it works.

Through some recent rocky roads, I have had reason to try to clarify some frequently used but slippery definitions.

The difference between adult and child is fairly easy- it is either a legal or biological one. You can choose which one to use, depending on the appropriate circumstances. While it sucks to have more than one definition, they are not very slippery ones.

Then comes the challenge of mature versus immature. This has nothing to do with age or biological function. Certainly we have all encountered the very mature child or the immature adult. This morning, in a moment of clarity, the difference crystallized.

Someone who is immature receives input/feedback/critique from others, assumes it must be true, even if it conflicts with their experience and reacts to it emotionally.
Someone who is mature receives input/feedback/critique from others, self- reflects on it, agrees or disagrees with the input and decides what action to take ( or not).

For example-

An immature child who wears hand me down clothes to school has someone tell him that he looks like a goofball. He assumes their statement is true and reacts emotionally ( hurt, sad, angry) and his actions are then driven by those emotions.

The mature child in the same circumstances self reflects on the comment. They might disagree and move on, or they might agree. If they agree, they might reflect back to the critic that they might look like a goofball, but those are the only clothes they have. Or they might reflect and decide that putting the plain shirt with the striped pants was a mistake and choose different clothes the next day. In each case, their action was chosen and was the result of self reflection, not an immediate emotional response.

It’s all a matter of perspective…

Some calendars start on Mondays. Manic Mondays,the beginning of the work week, they start off entrenched in demands,ToDo lists and starting out 5 steps behind.

Other calendars start on Sundays, for some- a religious break- for others, sleep in late, hide-under-the-covers-and-dread-what’s-coming-tomorrow followed by hours of email catch up for work. In both of these cases, the end of the week starts on Friday night, as soon as work is done. Friday night is the beginning of the big blow off, steam venting, “recovery” period that is the week-end. Run errands, run kids, catch up on house work, Honey-do lists, “all the stuff I could not get done during the week.”

Lately, I have been approaching the calendar from a different perspective. I do not have weekends that last for days. Friday night is the end of my week- a true WeekEnd. Yep, a lot of times, Friday night is a blow off and vent night. But when the night is over, so is the week.

The first day of my mental week is on Saturday. This gives me two full days to spend getting prepared for all the demands that the world and my family are going to impose come Monday morning. I do not spend my Saturday and Sunday recovering from the week, or digging out from everything that got piled on me. I spend my Saturday and Sunday examining what my upcoming week requires and preparing for it.

I should be clear that, much to my children’s regret, there is still a lot of house cleaning going on here on the weekends. This does not transform my life into something mystical or superior. But when I am cleaning, I am not cleaning up the messes from the previous week- I am organizing and preparing for the tasks in the week ahead. When I sit down and go over email or schedules, I am not making lists of the forgotten or missed, I am not picking up lost pieces, I am preparing for the meetings and deadlines in the coming week.

Yes, it all sounds like semantic word games. But there is a Jedi mind trick at work here. When you spend the first two days of your week with time to prepare, time to sleep in, or time to spend with family first- those Mondays start to look entirely different .

Now, if I could just get Google to offer Saturday as an option for starting my week…..

Green until death

Marketplace has an article about Resomation-a new treatment for corpses that is being pitched as the green alternative to cremation. By dissolving the body, they are really only accelerating the natural decomposition process, but this is not always the way that people want to think about what happens when they die. It seems that there are some who are also opposed to this alkaline body dissolving solution because they are worried what will happen to the post treatment liquids. We have entered a time when death is so removed from life that even thinking about having to interact with something that has been part of death is frightening.

If we are really worried about the carbon emissions of cremation, perhaps it is time to return to the old tradition of the dead being laid out on a pyre to be consumed by birds. This does get a bit messy( and the smell is not good) so perhaps the use of dermestid beatles would be a cleaner, most clinical way to dispose of cadavers without the use of any energy at all. The resulting clean bones could be ground into bone meal and returned to fertilize the soil.

No matter what path we choose for disposing of our dead loved ones, we would all be better to remember that we are part of the cycle… and there is no life, without death.

Keeping IT Cooking through a recession

I sometimes get to catch a TV show called “Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares” (Between you and me, I like the BBC version better- but you can actually watch it on Hulu via the first link). It is a show where famous chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsey spends a week with a failing restaurant and attempts to turn it around. In a week, what he can usually do is is rework it and point the owner and the staff in the right direction. It occurs to me that the types of activities we, as corporate IT folks, should be taking during this “economic downtime” are very similar to what Chef Ramsey goes through with a restaurant. The process is really fairly formulaic, it is only the personalities involved that make the shows different from week to week. If you are a corporate IT type and your business is slowing down, here is the basic flow:

1. Inventory. Understand what you have.
For IT this can not mean spending lots of money. It may mean lots of man hours. Time spent on phones with end users, technical staff etc. Then tracking it down in detail. It is tedious, it can be boring. You can not do anything else without this information.

2. Clean ( usually while inventorying). Throw out the green fuzzy leftovers in the back of the kitchen. Make sure the old grease is cleaned up and the plumbing is working well.

You may have done some of this as part of cost cutting already, but I am sure there is more to be done. Keep the following key principles in mind: simplify the software stack, lower the variety of applications that fulfill the same task and look at which technologies are potentially nearing their expiration dates and may need to be replaced in the future. You will not be able to spend money to do simplification; but you can do all the research and be prepared with detailed business cases and implementation plans when the money is released. Look at the entire queue of identified projects and rationally prioritize your actions for when the budget is a little more flush. You may even surprise yourself and find some cases where you can see immediate cost savings.

3. Understand the neighborhood and potential clients. Understand the competition. What unsatisfied tastes/needs could this establishment fulfill?

What are the technologies that will give your company the best business edge over your competitors? How do your competitors work? What is the growing infrastructure in the IT and/or ( fill in your domain here) world at large? Where are the biggest business gaps that IT can assist the business with? Do the full technology evaluation, write the business case, use this information to help build the new menu. Understand what ingredients are needed, what the best suppliers are, etc.. Read, talk to other IT folks at other companies, hold internal discussion groups and seminars to get everyone up to speed and well educated on today’s possible technologies. Have a few key sandboxes where you can build without costs, using your own man power to try things out.

4. Rework the menu, always remembering to keep it simple. Narrow the number of choices. Use ingredients that allow you to make a quality product while keeping the menu price low and still make a profit.

This is not just coming up with the same dishes on a pretty new piece of paper. Sometimes you have to work with the suppliers to teach them better ways to do things. Help them find ways to lower their costs, so they can get things to you cheaper. Sometimes you have to find brand new suppliers. Test all the menu items. A good chef Always tastes and eats his own food. If we do not test and use the technology, we will never really be experts or understand the potentials. It is your experience with technologies combines with our deep understanding of the business that makes us an invaluable addition.

5. Work on staff communications and clarify duties. Make sure everyone knows their job and can do it well.
Clean up your processes. This does not mean make them more complicated. This does not drawing pretty pictures.. It means practicing. OK, you don’t have real paying customers? Run yourselves as customers and practice how to handle the orders, how to serve and how to talk to each other and the business clearly.

6. Relaunch with a fanfare and some important guests. Be sure not to blow the relaunch.
Have a great new recipe/offering to dazzle folks. This means having fully prepared business cases/implementation plans and have the business partially sold on it before the dollars start flowing. Execute well.

7. Work hard, but do it with passion and feeling
That is just something that never changes. It is insufficient to just beat yourself to a pulp to get tasks done- you still will not win at the end of the day. You have to have a passion for what you do and add in your personality and flair to make it really a winner.

Life, Death and the End of the World As We Know It..

One of the fun but challenging things about being a parent of teens is that they are at the stage of life where they are starting to question and challenge everything. This often leads into long, deep discussions on the nature of Love, Religion, Power, Death and Rebellion.

I capitalized those on purpose, because at this point in your life, these are not personal, intimate issues, these are Big Ideas. My youngest teen is deep in the throws of this. She is intelligent and looking at the chaotic, messed up world around her with horror and feelings of frustration. She is also wracked by the storms of emotion and hormones that cry out for Action! and Change!- sitting quietly and waiting for an issue to resolve itself is anathema at this stage in life ( where do you think the term “angry young man” came from??). You can imagine the appeal that raddical activist groups were starting to have for her. The glory of damaging animal testing labs, the exhiliration of vandilism to shine a light on animal “haters”, the ecstasy of driving stakes into trees to prevent logging!! ELF, ALF, PETA – she was starting to vibrate physically, she was so excited about the potential of other people who wanted to “strike back”. Finally, I could stand it no more and had to stretch the limits of her philosophical development. We ended up in a more than 2 hour discussion on right action, peaceful protest, civil disobedience and why “any action in the name of a good cause” is NOT a good thing. She wanted to cry and kill me in the middle of the whole thing, but I hung in there and in the end, I think she actually gets it. We will see if it sticks, or if she starts plotting to free Guinea Pigs from Walmart again.

For those of you not certain why saving poor suffering animals by damaging testing labs across the earth is bad, let me do a quick summary of a 2 hour conversation.

1) Issues are not Black and White. Issues are rarely simple. Any arguement or advocacy group that boils them down this way is overlooking something. Animal testing as a case in point. Yes, I agree that testing animals for beauty products and our vanity is horrible. However, there are people that you know and love who would be dead today if someone had not done some medical testing on animals at some point. Is that a price you are willing to pay? Ahh… test on humans instead of animals? OK- which Humans? Prisoners? Because they are bad people? What about the ones in prison who we find out years later were actually innocent? Did they deserve it? OK- volunteers only? What if the volunteers only feel desperate, that they have no other choice? What if they were abused and maltreated as children? What if they were discriminated against? What if they are slightly mentally ill and just can not make it any other way? Is that still OK? Hmm… the ethical and moral decisions we have to make in modern human society ( and probably forever) are complex and hard and never simple. If anyone convinces you that a decision is easy, they have not given you all the information and you have research to do.

2)Impulsive, Radical actions rarely have the end result you wanted and often have unwanted end results and complications. You evaluated all the evidence, made really hard choices? Still want to take action. OK. Harsh reality:Getting together with a bunch of your friends, randomly freeing the animals from the test labs and using bolt cutters to cut up fences is NOT going to prevent animal testing.
a) premise #1 is “do enough damage to the testing labs, they will shut down” Reality is that you are fighting against Large Corporate Entities. Doing a few thousand dollars of damage to a testing lab is like a baby fly buzzing at a picnic. You can not do enough damage to stop this. If the testing contributes significantly to their bottom line, they will re-invest in it without a moment of contemplation. You want to make a difference- strike at their sales and profits, not at their cost of doing business.
b) premise #2 is ” it is better for the poor animals to not be in the labs” Reality? Animals freed from a testing lab do NOT make good pets, are very hard to handle and often still do not thrive. Many of them are unadoptable. Many of them end up dead.

I use Animal rights here as an example, becuase it is one of the topics that we adressed, that is near and dear to her heart right now. But the general premises hold for any cause.

At this point she was not happy, she was struggling and frustrated with the complexities of hard problems, but she was convinced that there were limited sets where it was going to be resolvable. That is when I knew I had to stretch her hard. Here is the real point, the real issue, the one that breaks most people.

3) Taking Action at any cost in the name of a good cause now removes from you the ability to prevent other people from doing the same thing for causes you do not agree with. This is where her brain exploded for a while. She railed against the concept. “but they are wrong- that is why they should not do it” I tried the wrong tact of the worst case extreme example of people whose ideals you disagree with taking action- the KuKluxKlan and the Nazis. That proved to be too big, too much, we were just going to degrade into an argument and lose the concept. I back tracked and emerged into something smaller and easier.

You know in your heart of hearts that mistreating animals is bad, and you have decided that fur wearers are horrible and cruel and fur wearing has to stop. You thought through all the consequences and have invented special paint sprayers that can be carried anywhere and you and your followers will spray flourescent paint on every passer by you see wearing fur until everyone stops. You know that vandalism is wrong, you know some people might get hurt, but this fur wearing is so horrible that it has to be stopped at any cost. She was on board for this. (Actually, I think a part of her brain was starting to work on the design for the paint gun…) Now. If you carry this out- how can you condemn people who really believe that homosexuality is wrong and thus those two guys walking down the street holding hands deserved to be beaten up? What is the difference? But they are WRONG! She screamed. ( no. really. literally. screamed.) Her brain cells expanded and imploded in what would have made award winning MRI artworks. How is it different, I pressed, except that you agree with the premise and cause of one group and not with the others? If you have the right to damage personal property for things you believe in- so do they. What if they decide that that need to spray paint on the windows and cars of everyone who is agnostic ( her self proclaimed affiliation)? What right do you have to prevent this attack on yourself? She melted. I think ( I hope) she got it. I am sure we will have this discussion more than once. It is an amazingly hard concept to wrestle through. It will show great emotional maturity if she actually gets it.
Then I rejoiced in the SF protests, becuase I did not want to leave her feeling hopeless and powerless. We talked about civil disobedience, about how it is not ok to do wrong or harm to others or their property, but it is OK to sometimes stand up( or sit down) in the name of a cause- even if it is illegal to do that. We touched on taking personal risk and personal cost versus acts of terrorism.

Whew. Now do you understand why I live in a constant state of tired? Parenting is an exhausting job.. but she is going to be an amazing person some day and I will have the priviledge of knowing my time and energy helped that.