More thoughts on Gratitude

Several years ago, I took my kids to see Diary of a Wimpy Kid at the movie theater. The way that the main character ranks himself in comparison with the other kids at school really hit me between the eyes. I thought “I do that”. I’m not proud of it, but I do. (If you haven’t seen the movie, you can see what I’m talking about here.)

A few months ago it occurred to me that – wherever we put ourselves on the list – most of us spend a lot of time looking “up” at the people we’ve ranked higher than us and plotting on how we can climb higher, when we should “look down” and try to figure out how we can help those that we perceive as below us.

I was trying to explain this to someone and they (correctly) pointed out “you shouldn’t think you’re better than some people and not as good as some others”. I tried to explain that I knew I shouldn’t, but if I was going to have this bad habit, at least changing my focus from “looking up” to “looking down” might produce some good out of it.

I recently realized that – I don’t think this inner monologue of ranking myself in comparison to others was really about “better” or “worse”, but about who I perceive as having more than me, and who has less. There are definitely people that have more than I do, and people that have less than I do. When I look “up”, I focus on what they have that I don’t. That’s called “coveting” and it’s not a good feeling. When I look “down”, it makes me grateful for what I have and (hopefully) makes me to want to help those with less.

Grateful for the New Year

Happy New Year!

2017 was a year of changes for me. My oldest child graduated from high school and went off to college. In my work life, I finished the project I had been working on for a couple of years and, for the first time in about 20 years, felt like I had a little time to breathe and not have to put out fires constantly. At the end of August, I was able to go on a mission trip to Honduras that was eye-opening and provided a great opportunity for reflection.

At this point, I’ve started a couple of new work projects and plan to hit the ground running as 2018 starts. My New Year’s resolution is – to work on having an attitude of gratitude.

I’m reading a great book by Brene Brown – The Gifts of Imperfection (Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are). She says: “Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.”

That sounds pretty good to me, so that’s my resolution – count my blessings and practice gratitude.

I hope you have a joyful (and grateful) New Year.

Forest and Trees for Projects

When you’re doing a non-trivial project, it’s basically impossible to focus on the forest and the trees at the same time. You have to get down into the details (trees) to get the project done, but while you’re doing the work:

  • you may lose track of time
  • you may not realize that the project requirements have changed (or that it no longer needs to be done)
  • you may not be doing a good job of communicating with stakeholders

I think you have to have different people focused on the forest than the trees. The waiter/cook analogy comes to mind here. The cook is focused on the tree of cooking Table 7’s meal, while the waiter is communicating with Table 7. “I just checked and it’s going to be right out.”

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a Disney Institute seminar. (I’m a huge fan of theirs.) I was recently going back through the material and came across something that I think is relevant to this: “People don’t separate their wants and needs – so if you meet their needs but not their wants, they may react as if you didn’t meet their needs.” In the case of the restaurant, the cook is working on their need (food). The waiter is paying attention to their wants while they wait for their food.

It’s tempting to think that you can do both at the same time. (I’ve frequently tried to do this myself.) I don’t think you can. You’ll have happier customers if you meet their needs, and their wants.

Tuition at The University of Life Experiences

When you’re about to spend some money on a service (hiring a new lawyer to help you form an entity, hiring a web designer to help with a new site, etc.) – it’s easy to get bogged down with thoughts of “Am I paying too much?” or “Is that the best rate I can get?”

Instead of spending a lot of time worrying about this kind of thing, I’ve decided to spend a reasonable amount of time making a good decision, but then to proceed and think of the money spent as tuition. There’s always going to be a cheaper lawyer (or cheaper web developer, etc.) but every time I proceed with one of the activities, I learn and get experience to help make a better decision the next time. I think that’s called education.

When I think of it like that, it seems like money well spent. I can live with that.

Here – I made this

We picked up our middle son from Auburn University yesterday. He had been there for a week-long creative writing summer program for high school students. The “graduation ceremony” was held at a Starbucks on campus where students who wanted to (most of them did) got up to read some of what they had written during the week.

A lot of the students were very hard to hear. The acoustics weren’t great. There was a small PA system, but most of the students either didn’t hold the mic close enough or still spoke so softly that most of the room couldn’t hear them.

One of the other dads was in front of me. I could see him motioning to the quiet speakers to “speak up” or “hold the microphone closer”. I know he was trying to be helpful, but it occurred to me that – the point of this isn’t for us to hear them. It’s for them to get up and speak – at whatever volume they are comfortable with at this point.

In that instant, I realized that this may have been the most important part of the course. Improving your craft is a good way to spend some time, but I think it’s even more important to get comfortable with getting up in front of people and saying “Here. I made this. I’m going to show you a little part of me with this.”

It takes courage to do this, and courage comes with practice – which is why it’s good to get up and speak, even if you’re speaking so softly that no one can hear you. The next time you do it, you’ll be a little louder.

Let’s look for (and create) safe opportunities for our kids (and ourselves) to get up and say “I made this”.

 

Random Notes from Sloss Tech 2017

TechBirmingham hosted Sloss Tech 2017 at the Lyric Theatre today. When I first saw the list of speakers, I must confess – I wasn’t overwhelmed. I mulled it over and decided to go anyway, mostly to support the Birmingham tech ecosystem. (“Got to support the team”.) I’m glad I did. I thought it was a great event and I got a lot out of it.

Random Notes:

  • Will Pearson (co-founder of Mental Floss) was as interesting as you’d expect him to be. (Did you know that you can rearrange the letters in EPISCOPAL and get PEPSI COLA? Or that the letters in PRESBYTERIANS can be rearranged to give you BRITNEY SPEARS?)
  • Kulture City has a great story. Impressive that they have already partnered with several NBA arenas and NFL stadiums. (I also didn’t know you could go to medical school without finishing college first. Apparently that’s a thing.)
  • I thought it was a little strange that Tiki Barber’s segment was done in interview format, as opposed to just letting him speak. He’s got an interesting business that I didn’t really understand until today. Apparently I can have a meal with former New York Yankee Bucky Dent (that’s Bucky “effing” Dent, if you’re from Boston) for about two grand.
  • I learned a lot about Shipt today. I’ve been hearing a lot about it but didn’t really understand how it worked until today. Interesting model. And good Birmingham success story.
  • Alabama native Cliff Sims worked on Donald Trump’s campaign and now works in the administration. Interesting stories regardless of your political leaning.
  • Liz Pharo of Momentum Telecom had a really interesting story. I didn’t realize that the same family started SuccessEHS and Momentum.
  • I had never heard of Casey Neistat before reading about him on the list of speakers. Apparently that means I’m old because he seemed to be a pretty big deal to the younger attendees. He’s a really good story teller – which isn’t surprising given his success as a filmmaker (videomaker?). He struck me as being very “comfortable in his own skin”. Authentic.

Nice job TechBirmingham for putting on the event. Nice job Birmingham for supporting the event.

Are you comfortable hiring plumbers?

If you’re thinking of going into business for yourself, you might ask yourself – am I comfortable hiring plumbers (or handymen, or mechanics)?

This may seem like a weird question, but an easy trap to fall into for new business owners is feeling like you have to do everything yourself. If you’ve never been the boss before, you probably haven’t had a lot of opportunities to hire people (at work).

But – if you have a house (or a car) – when something needs doing, you have the option of trying to figure out how to do it yourself, or – to “call the guy” and let him take care of it. You probably could figure out how to do it yourself, but you need to really stop and think if this is the best use of your time.

If you find yourself trying to do everything yourself, you may have a similar struggle when it comes to deciding to hire bookkeepers, website designers, etc.

There is no “them” – only “us”

I passed someone on the street the other day that I associate with a clique of people (that I’m not a member of). I realized that I had subconsciously pigeonholed her as a representative of “them” and that was how I thought of her – as a member of that group, not as an individual.

It occurred to me that I’m pretty sure that’s not how she sees herself at all. I mentally walked some steps in her shoes and realized that she probably spends most of her time helping her kids with homework, preparing meals, going to work, etc. In other words – her days are a lot like mine.

At that moment, I realized I had subconsciously perceived a barrier between us that didn’t actually exist. We concoct these groups and stick people into them. If we’re honest – we think we’re better than some of the groups, and we think some of the groups are better than we are.

How refreshing to realize that there is no “them”. There’s only “us”.

 

Embracing “off the rack”

This one is geared towards my programmer brothers (and sisters!)

If you’re buying a suit, you can have one custom-made or you can buy “off the rack”. The Venn diagram intersection of software developers and people that have suits custom-made for them is pretty small (at least where I live), so most of us have embraced “off the rack” vs. custom when it comes to suits.

We need to learn to take the same approach to code.

Stereotypically (and I’m preaching to myself here as well as you) – we’d rather write our own functionality than use someone else’s. There are certainly exceptions to this. We all use 3rd party libraries like jQuery and iText, but I would argue this is for things that are either:

  1. so comprehensive that it’s not feasible to do it ourselves (jQuery), or
  2. something that we don’t know how to do and don’t want to take the time to learn (creating a PDF file from scratch)

If the task at hand is something we can do, our inclination is to do it ourselves instead of using someone else’s code. I’m currently working on a project that needs something to happen once a day (processing monthly subscription renewals), so I need something to virtually “press a button” to kick off a process once a day.

I’ve had a similar need many times in the past. I’ve written numerous Windows service programs whose only job was to wake up every minute, check a schedule and – if it’s the appropriate time – call a function.

The first time I did it, I didn’t really have any alternative and I was curious about how to write a Windows service. Today, those are no longer valid reasons.

A quick Google search this morning revealed that Microsoft Azure has something called Azure Functions that can be invoked on a schedule. (I’m sure there are other suitable offerings as well, like AWS Lambda functions.) There will be a little bit of a learning curve to use it the first time, but from a maintenance point of view – I need to let someone else worry about whether or not the machine that “presses this button once a day” is up and running.

I read something recently that I thought was insightful. It was that – “code is easier to write than to read”. (I wish I could remember where I read that so I could give proper credit.) I think that’s part of why we prefer home-grown (custom) code to someone else’s (off the rack).

There’s a certain “macho” (sorry sisters) programming mindset that says “I can do this better than anyone else”. Part of that came from disconnection. We didn’t know anyone that could do it better we could. In today’s connected world, that’s not really true anymore.

A pencil is a pretty simple object, but if you think of the manufacturing of a pencil – no one person would (I’m not even sure they could) perform all the steps needed to manufacture a pencil.* Older programmers (like me) grew up being a “jack of all trades”, but that isn’t an asset any more.

Let’s stop re-inventing the wheel, use that “off the rack” component and spend our time making something great.

  • I think I stole this from Seth Godin, but I’m not sure and I can’t find the post now.

Case study (Xbox) in getting your customers to hate you

My teenage son’s Xbox Live subscription expired and he wanted me to help him renew it. This annual ritual has become infamous in our house. All of my son’s have learned that this is going to put my in a “throw my keyboard through the window” kind of mood. It’s not a question of price (they are paying with their own money) or principle (I have no problem with them having an Xbox Live subscription). It’s all about Microsoft’s awful process for doing this.

Years ago, Microsoft had a Family Plan that worked well for us. Since they cancelled that offering, a parent helping their teenager renew is an awful process.

To renew my son’s account, I have to be logged on as him – even though the family relationship is still set up. Microsoft knows he’s my son. (I can change security and privacy settings for his account while logged in as myself.) This means we have to spend a few minutes figuring out what his login and password is. (This is the only thing he uses a Microsoft account for.) After we figure out his login credentials, we then have to get Microsoft to send us a code. (None of this is bad on it’s own – but it’s a lot of hoops to jump through.)

I have to save my credit card into his Microsoft account profile. That doesn’t feel right. Wait. Here’s an option to “Add money to his Microsoft account”. I like that better. I’m going to need to add $60. (The yearly renewal fee is $59.99.) That’s not an option. I can add $10 and then add $50 separately. I added $10 and then (based on previous Xbox Live renewal debacles) – the thought occurred to me “that would be just like them to not let the child use this money to renew Xbox Live”. So – before adding the other $50, I checked. My paranoia was justified.

Microsoft won’t let the child use the money you’ve added to their account to pay for an Xbox Live subscription. So even though they know I’m his father and will let me transfer money to his account – I still have to enter my credit card while logged into his account. I couldn’t find anywhere that says you wouldn’t be able to use this money for this purpose. (I looked.) I’m pretty sure this is because they turn on auto-renew by default. (If they just let him use the money in his account – they wouldn’t be able to charge my credit card in a year, when I’ve forgotten to cancel the renewal.)

You can’t just sign up for a one year (non-renewable) subscription. I made a point of carefully reading the Terms of Service to figure out when they would charge the renewal. It didn’t say specifically, but did say something along the lines of “your card may be charged a little before the subscription expires”. It also says “no refunds”.

They give terrible error messages. I posted this to Twitter a couple of years ago after a previous occurrence of this ritual. Got a similar error message this time. At this point, I have one browser (Edge) logged in as my son and another browser (Chrome) logged in as me, so I can try to figure out what setting I need to change to let him purchase the renewal. (Of course, the entire time  – there’s a banner at the top of the page in Chrome suggesting that I try Edge.)

They won’t let me remove my credit card info from my son’s account. I did immediately change the auto-renew setting on the subscription to not renew in a year. (I was pleasantly surprised that was an option.) But – when I went to remove the credit card information from the Payment Methods in his account – it said that it couldn’t remove this because it was still being used. Recommended that I change the auto-renew setting (which I had already done).

This took me about 30 minutes to work through all of this. Then, I took deep breaths for about 15 minutes until the feeling of wanting to murder someone went away.

What’s to be learned from this? Eat your own dog food. Since Microsoft is who made that phrase famous – apparently there’s a little more to it than that. I feel certain that there are Microsoft employees who work in the Xbox division who have renewed their teenagers’ subscriptions. I’m wondering if they have watched adults who aren’t serious gamers do this process. My guess is no.

Am I getting carried away here? Maybe. Is this the end of the world? No. Am I exaggerating about how frustrating this was for me – at that point in time? Not a bit.

It’s a good rule of thumb to make the process your customers use to send you money as friction-less and pain-free as possible.

Well – at least I have a year before I have to fight this battle again.
bad Xbox