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

Sgt. Pepper at 50

By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was remixed by Giles Martin, son of original Beatles producer George Martin. If the word “remix” gives you pause in the context of a classic like Sgt. Pepper’s – don’t worry. It’s more of a restoration. You can read all the details elsewhere, but I wanted to put down a couple of thoughts.

  • It’s fantastic. Let’s just get that out of the way to begin with. Martin did a fabulous job. I can only imagine the pressure of feeling like “you better not screw this up” on something as beloved as this.
  • Since the album was originally released a few months before I was born, I obviously don’t remember that. What I do remember was the original CD release. In 1987 (I was in college), the Beatles albums were finally being released on CD. As I recall, they released them in batches – first 4 together, next 3 together, and then, on the 20th anniversary of its original release – the Sgt. Pepper CD was released by itself. I remember going to the record store (yes – there used to be record stores) that day to get it. Much ado was made about “It was 20 years today…” at that point.  Hard to believe that that was 30 years ago (seems like yesterday). What’s not hard to believe is that the album is still hugely popular and influential.
  • I have said before that I think “Stay With Me” by The Faces has just about the perfect beginning to a rock and roll song. Listening to this, I realize the same thing can be said about “Lovely Rita”. The opening is perfect and even better on this version. Not only do the harmonies really pop, but even the kazoo sounds really come through.
  • I don’t usually think of Paul McCartney in the category of “best rock and roll bass players” – not because he’s not fantastic, but because what he doesn’t fill the traditional role of a bass player (John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin is my favorite at this). He’s doing a completely different thing with the instrument. The bass line on “With A Little Help From My Friends” is a great example of this, and it really comes through now. I was listening to this while making breakfast this morning and realized I had a huge smile on my face. “Delightful” isn’t a word I use very often, but that’s the best word I can think of for it.
  • I love how you can really hear Paul, John, and George’s individual voices during the three part harmonies.
  • The cymbals are clearer and the kick drum really come through.  (The end of “Good Morning Good Morning” is a great example of this.)

If you haven’t listened to it yet, set aside a few minutes. I definitely recommend headphones to really pick up all the nuances.

Well done Giles Martin. Thank you for this.

The Beatles, holding marching band instruments and wearing colourful uniforms, stand near a grave covered with flowers that spell "Beatles". Standing behind the band are several dozen famous people.
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Appearance of Motion

I’ve having a small project done at my house. The vendor hit a small snag and I’ve been waiting to find out how they’re going to resolve it. Yesterday, I called them because it had been a couple of days since I had heard anything and I was getting a little frustrated. This morning, I got a call back explaining what their plan is and I feel better about things, even though no additional actual work has been done yet.

It reminded me how powerful “appearance of motion” is for a project.

Don’t get me wrong – the project needs to be finished eventually. And – there are definitely some projects that absolutely, positively have to be done on time. But for most of what we do – you can buy yourself some goodwill (and some leeway to deal with the unexpected things that pop up along the way)  if you will just continually give the client the feeling that things are moving in the right direction.

It’s easy to get buried in the weeds of doing the “real” work of moving towards the finish line. Don’t forget to take a second to keep the client in the loop.

Chess and Checkers

I’ve heard some discussion in the press lately about whether or not a certain politician is “playing chess, while everyone else is playing checkers”. Whether or not that’s true – it got me to thinking about some people I know that probably think that about themselves. If I’m honest with myself, I’m sure I thought that’s what I was doing at times (or at least what I was trying to do).

It’s seductive to think that you’re operating on a completely different level than everyone else. Unfortunately, I think you’re usually just outsmarting yourself, not everyone else. Are you really going to be able to figure out a way to do this better than any one else has before? Occasionally – yes. Most of the time – no.

In many cases, I think this is looking for a shortcut as opposed to just doing the work. You’re probably better off just trying to get better at playing checkers.


Less is more

I’ve noticed that a couple of non-fiction books I’ve read recently have really short chapters – frequently just a page or two. My initial reaction was “I didn’t know you could do that.” But I’ve realized – it’s good to make your point and move on.

As Jerry Seinfeld said – “Showmanship, George. When you hit that high note, say goodnight and walk off.”