Tuesday, November 24, 2015

My top tips for making your user experience design not suck

UX_Horse[1] I’ve taken a fun little transition in user design and user experience.  After a number of years developing websites, I’ve spent the past year help shape the user experience of my company’s iPad app.  The process has been… uneven, admittedly.  We officially got our first app review, and it was 1 star!

I always tell my users “I like positive feedback, but I love negative feedback”

Getting this app review came at a good time too, we’re in the process of updating the app, so the 1 star review really helped us.  The review was “has content, but just no direction.”  Personally, we couldn’t agree more!

First off, no excuses here.. we had issues with the direction of the app.  We wanted our app to contain lots of helpful content, but we didn’t guide the user as quickly and easily as we should have.  We also dealt with an offshore, 3rd party development firm.  They did a good job, but items got lost in translation.  In short, we learned how to fine tune our approach with the offshore development team, but we’re also in the process of cleaning up the sins of the past. 

Some of the items we’ve learned and improved upon are listed below.  Perhaps you already know them but  these are items that we’re revisiting now to give our app a more pleasant experience, and are also guiding principles for any software application you may be architecting.

1. Start with a goal – This is UX 101, but honestly.. we had issues here. We had a number of items that we felt our app could do, and we tried to do them all.  At the end of the day we wound up with an app that does all of these things pretty well, but not one thing great. The problem is, the user’s noticed this in the experience.  The items we developed weren’t fully robust.

This is something Apple is so darn good at doing.  They limit their scope and design the heck out of it.  Microsoft on the other hand puts their hands in everything. They’re not great at one thing, but are pretty good at many things.  After knocking Microsoft for so many years about this exact principle, here I am on a team committing the same sins!

Pick your idea and stick to it.  Make a mission statement for the product and consult it if needed, but don’t try to do too many things all at once.

2. Don’t penalize a user – So our app involves a little setup.  The app helps a user sell an extended service contract for a used vehicle.  To do this, the user needs to answer some information (what vehicle are you selling, are you including any other costs, is the customer financing the sale).  That’s just a few of the questions.  We found 2 issue’s with this approach.

First, it’s a lot to ask of the user up front!  There are 12 different questions for the user to tap through, which is probably about 11 too many for the user to care.  Could the user walk through this process if they really wanted to?  Sure.  But the point here is, don’t count on the user wanting to perform these actions, instead make it as simple as possible, even if they don’t want to perform these actions, there’s a better chance they still will because it’s low effort.  We’re no going through and removing over half of the initial setup questions, making a separate section for anything that is optional.  That should help us get the user’s buy in for the app.

The second item involves how we collected data.  Once a user started the process, we didn’t make it easy enough for the user to cancel.  If they chose to cancel, it would reset the entire form.  If the user completed a question, they could no longer edit that question.  Once a mistake was made, you did not pass go, you did not collect $200, you went to jail.

Needless to say, users HATED this experience.  Heck, we HATED it too! So why did we ship the product this way?  We ran out of time.  It was either ship late, or ship on time with a faulty process.  As said before, we’re now fixing the sins of the past, and this is one of those items.

3. Make your actions consistent – One of the nice things about designing a product is that some decisions pay dividends.  For example, when you choose a color layout, you no longer have to question “what color should I use for this text” since you’ve already decided that.  Once you use a color somewhere.. keep using it! 

Actions within the aforementioned app weren’t completely consistent.  We were consistent almost all of the time, but when it comes to end-users, almost doesn’t count.

Take the time to choose your action buttons, how they look and where they’ll be placed.  As importantly, make the placement consistent (always in the bottom right corner for example). If you’re going to place “Save” and “Cancel” buttons next to each other, place them in the same orderly consistently.

4. Don’t change too much too often – Item 3 discussed placing items consistently. Item 4 is all about respecting that. When you place items consistently, users learn where items are placed early on and become much more inclined to continue to use your product\service. Forcing a user to re-learn how to use your application is a big deal!

Of course, there are always times that you need to make a change.  Perhaps it’s a company rebrand, or perhaps an item wasn’t as well thought out when it went live.  If you’re going to change, don’t change too often, and certainly don’t take half-measures when performing your update. Anything worth doing is worth doing right.  Make a change that you’re comfortable living with for some period of time.

5. Don’t chase perfection – The classic project timeline killer. Here’s the scenario: You take the time to design your screens, create wireframes, consult the user’s and perhaps even write a technical spec!  In other words, you took the time to think.  Once you get as far as actually testing the application, it doesn’t feel right.  Perhaps you need another button, or an option is missing.

For our iPad app, using a 3rd party put a lot of time and communication between the ability to identify a need and complete work on that item. It also came with a cost: “We can do this, but it will take 2 weeks and $1500” was the usual reply.  These responses forced us to look inward and say “is it worth it?”  Depending on the item, sometime’s it is, but treating each change as a cost really helped put wants and needs into appropriate perspective.

Software is never perfect.  Respect that there’s always a balance between getting things right, and getting things live.  Learn to live with imperfections and simply target them for a future release.


PS – Thanks to MikeMark.com for the post image, it was too awesome to pass up when I saw it on the web.  You can see the original logo, along with an interesting intro to UX, here - http://mikemark.com/2013/06/user-experience-intro/

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Adventures in Brewin’ – True Brew - Bavarian Hefeweizen

Many years ago I had a semi-successful attempt at brewing homemade beer.  I made a stout, ran out of beer bottles, bottled in 1 and 2 liter plastic bottles, and added too much sugar causing my stout to be dark with way too much carbonation.  However, I handed out (and drank) a fair share of liter sized beer and had a good time doing it.

I recently got my mittens on a “True Brew” beer kit and found the recently to make some beer. The kit was for a Bavarian Hefeweizen, and as I type this my bottles are slowly carbonating.  In about 2 weeks, it should be beer time.

Below are a series of video’s I made.  I partially did it for this blog, but mainly did it to make notes on what I was thinking, doing, and screwing up when I made my batch of beer.

The video’s above showcase my “work” from the past few weeks.  I screwed up a few times, but beer can be forgiving (as long as you keep it clean!)  I didn’t pitch my yeast until the following morning after making my wort since I ran out of time.  I also didn’t bottle til an extra week after my beer stopped bubbling, I didn’t have all the required parts and ran out of time during the week, but again.. I don’t think that really hurt anything.

I snapped a picture of my beer prior to bottling.  Mmmm.. looks delicious!  WP_20151115_002

I also got some labels from GrogTag.com.  The beer may taste like garbage, but at least the presentation looks good!  Hopefully I can write a follow up post in a few weeks to indicate that the beer tastes good (and that the bottle’s didn’t explode in my office leading up to tasting day). Stay tuned!


Witski – BraĆ¼
Bavarian Hefeweizen
Love, Life and the Pursuit for Good Beer

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review – Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day SpiesDouble Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few years ago, I took to the book "The Longest Day". A number of family and friends did the annoying thing and said "I saw the movie, it was amazing!". I did the more annoying thing and say "I read the book, it was amazing!" I'm a relatively young guy, Vietnam, WW1 and WW2 and the Civil War were well before my time obviously, but it's incredible to see the honor, glory and pride that poured into D-Day. The Longest Day was interesting, but Double Cross was truly James Bond meets WW2. Add a magic medallion and some ghosts and you have inspiration for another Indiana Jones movie!

OK, that's a little outlandish, but Macintrye did an absolutely phenomenal job. His main purpose of the book is to showcase the work that went into the Britain deception of Germany throughout WW2, and how they were able to parlay that into cover for D-Day itself. Interwoven throughout this book are 5 main "characters" (spies) and several other historical figures, from case officers to anti-Nazi plotters. You had to remain on your toes to ensure you didn't miss anything, but the story is complex but extremely well told. By the end, the final chapter "Aftermath" discusses what happened to the main characters, and with some solemnity you discover how they simply "disappeared".

That is the most amazing part of this book. If you're a spy - and more so a double agent - there's no grand reveal, parade, or declassification. Decades later, here we are learning names and discussing idea's. Reading this book was both eye opening and humbling, complex but easy to read, and one of the better books I think I will have ever opened.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

Why I eat my lunch

“Don’t forget your lunch” my wife reminds me, as she often needs to, as I step out the door in the morning.  It’s not just that she wants to ensure her husband doesn’t become malnourished, it’s because she took the time to make the lunch and doesn’t want to see it go to waste.

I learned this lesson the hard way a number of years ago.  My wife would send me to work with a lunch bag, and after some period of time noticed I would be bringing home a lunch bag with the same contents as when I left our domicile, but just at room temperature. “Didn’t you eat lunch today?” she would ask.  “Yeah” I would reply, “but the guys wanted to go to the diner today for lunch.”  This begin a series of increasingly more frustrating arguments with my wife, escalating to “FINE, I JUST WON’T PACK YOU A LUNCH ANYMORE!”.  After a brief work stoppage, she started to pack my lunch again.. and I learned to eat them, provide advanced notice when I wouldn’t need a lunch, or make the appropriate provisions to ensure that not eating a lunch one day would turn into that lunch becoming my dinner that night, or lunch the following day.

Each week, I make sure to listen to 2 podcasts: This American Life and the TED Radio Hour on NPR, and the most recent TED Radio Hour show was about “The Meaning of Work”, which is probably my favorite show they’ve done yet.  It already inspired me to purchase and tear through Beyond Measure by Margaret Heffernan, one of the speaker’s on the radio show.  Another act of the show contained a presentation from Dan Ariely on What Pushes Us to Work, Even When We Don’t Have To

I’ve read Ariely’s work in the past and really enjoyed it, his experiments are very detailed and thought provoking and provide specific life lesson’s that we can all take away.  In his speech on the show, he discusses how he was able to measure why we work, and the joy we get from building, creating, and problem solving.  In one experiment, they measured how much our work matters to us by allowing subjects to build something (LEGO robots), and then paid the subject decreasing amounts for each item build ($3.00 the first time, $2.70 the next, and so on).  With a separate group, they performed the same test, but with one alteration.  Once the subject agreed to start another robot, the robot they just created was destroyed.  It was disassembled, in front of the test subject, and placed back into the basket to be rebuilt.

Destroying the robot had a significant impact in the study, subjects stopped creating robot’s far sooner than they had done in the control experiment. Knowing the work was essentially for nothing, it de-motivated the test subjects, caused them to lose their drive, and realize that their time could be best served doing something else.

At work, I’ve noticed a pattern with some other friends of mine.  Some are also lucky enough to have their wives pack them lunches, and over time we’ve managed to swap eerily similar stories about why we “need” to eat lunch at the desk, or why we “can’t go to lunch today, I packed my own”.  After hearing Ariely’s talk about the meaning and purpose of work and building things, as much as it resonated with me in why I enjoy what I do for my career, I didn’t realize how easy it is to take someone else’s work for granted.

So today, it looks like I’m having a Turkey sandwich, some pretzel’s and  some cranberry juice.  I’m not really in the mood for it, but I’d hate for it to go to waste.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Book Review – Beyond Measure: The big impact of small changes

Beyond measure: the big impact of small changesBeyond measure: the big impact of small changes by Margaret Heffernan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was listening to the NPR TED Radio Hour and heard Margaret Heffernan speak, and was inspired to pick up her book immediately. She told an incredible story about Super Chickens and how a team of top performs don't necessarily work as a team. Boom.. I pulled over to the side of the road to order this book before I forgot the name.

I only gave this book 4 out of 5 starts because it was too short, and I wanted more. Then again, that could very well be the genius of this book, it's such a quick and easy read, any busy executive or has-some-free-time software developer (such as yours truly) could read it in a heartbeat. The principles of the book are exceptional.. embrace that we all make mistakes, organizational hierarchies can stifle creativity, working more than 40 hours a week is not necessarily more productive, take time to get outside of the office and to walk around to get creative juices flowing.

It's all music to my ears, and sometimes too good to be true. But that's the other lesson of the book.. these aren't things that happen overnight, it's a cultural difference that if you can tweak in your own existing organization (or when creating a new one for yourself), you can build social capital that give you driven and focused employee's, all ready to buy in and lead.

If you're looking for a short, easy read on leadership, pick this up immediately, it's worth every penny.

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book Review – Bad Paper

Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the UnderworldBad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld by Jake Halpern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had been listening to This American Life recently, and the name of the show was "Magic Words". The theme of the show was how sometimes there are certain words that are said or mentioned that have unintended consequences. Jake Halpern was interviewed during the show; he told his story of interviewing a couple when they were in small claims court in Georgia (which is discussed in the final chapter of his book). It was fascinating to listen to him tell this story, as he essentially asked the owner of a small debt to "prove it"... prove that what these people owe is actually what they owe. The lawyer in turn puffed out his chest and acted sporadic, but when they went in front of the judge, the lawyer backed down.. because Halpern essentially said "the magic words" (which is the phrase he uses in the book as well.

In college, I was a little reckless with my personal finances, got in a little trouble, and found myself on the receiving end of collection calls. It was, unsurprisingly, an unpleasant experience. I think that's why hearing Halpern on the radio show was so invigorating. "Yes!", I screamed to myself, "Give it to the bad guy!"

Ironically, the lawyer is far from the "bad guy" in this book, which helps explain why this book was so interesting. The first half of the book is dedicated to discussing 2 main characters, an owner of debt (Aaron), and the gentleman he purchases this debt off of (Brandon). You see why they got into the business of purchasing paper (debt), how it can be so profitable, and how it can be such a disaster.

As the book moves on, you start to read interviews with other debtor's, debtee's, and collectors, and see how crazy the industry is. It's scary to know that if you default on a loan, who has access to your private information and how hard it can be to truly rectify a debt.

And so "who" is the bad guy in all of this? It depends on the viewpoint, but it's hard to argue it's not the financier's of this whole industry. Halpern paints a pretty strong picture that some in the world worship at the altar of money, and have no problems (even find some joy) in padding their pocketbooks with the debt's and hardships of others.

It's an interesting read, and an easy one at that.

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Book Review – How We Got to Now

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern WorldHow We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Based on several online recommendations I picked up this book for pretty cheap off of Amazon.. it was worth every penny. It's a very easy read - especially considering it's a historical book of some sorts. How We Got To Now essentially provides context into some of the most common things we have today, how they arrived, and how we take them for granted. The 6 chapters (each readable in under an hour... and I'm a slow reader) cover items like Glass, Cold, Sound, Cleanliness, Time and Light.

Each chapter dedicates a good mix of information on what life was like when the subject matter was being investigated, and what problem it was immediately solving - for example, did you know that one upon a time, turning on your faucet in a bathroom would result in wastewater and dead fish emptying into your tub? - neither did I.

Each chapter is also dedicated to the idea of the "hummingbird effect" - much like a hummingbirds actions have unintended positive\negative consequences - so do the invention of these items. For example, the radio opened up pockets of new music that were previously only known in their own respective sub-cultures. Country music was only heard in a honky-tonk bar, overnight this music was available "nationwide" (assuming you were an adopter of a radio.

I would imagine Steven Johnson could write a follow up with a number of other items - I'm hopeful he will anyway - the work was very enlightening and encouraging of our human ingenuity. The book closes with an excellent chapter on the forward thinking of other individuals, namely Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, and how they were designing programmable computers before ANYONE knew what the terms "programmable" or "computers" even meant. As Johnson put it, most were confused by what Charles Babbage's machine was meant for, Lovelace was thinking about potential applications after it was built. For those who care - I think this chapter is an excellent jump off point to read The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, who begins his book with a more thorough investigation into Babbage\Lovelace.

This was a very well done, easy to read book that certainly makes you appreciate where we are now, and leaves you hopeful for where we'll be in 100 years.

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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Adventures in Cookin’ – Potato Chowder

It’s early October and technically Autumn, but outside it feels closer to winter with it being rainy and low 40’s.  This morning my daughter had dance class, on the way home I was in the mood to make some comfort food.  We stopped at the market to pick up some fresh items, today we’re making Potato Chowder!

I browsed the Internet for some ideas, and settled on this one when I saw it used hash browned potato’s, which I had never had in a soup before.  Armed with some fresh veggie’s and a fresh beer (Goose Island Oktoberfest, can I say that this is the best time of the year to try new beers?), it was time to start cookin’.

WP_20151003_004 The first thing I had to do was create some southern style hash browns, as the recipe called for.  I didn’t really know what southern style hash browns meant, so I figured hash browns and bell peppers would do nicely. I bought a pack of the frozen hash browns – the whole square one’s – and put them in the microwave to defrost.  I then grabbed 2 bell peppers and started dicing;  when my hash browns were ready, I tossed the peppers into a pan with some oil and started to sautee on a low heat. 


Once they started to soften, I started adding some of the hashbrowns, only adding a few at a time.  As I chopped up the hash browns, I seasoned with some salt, pepper, garlic powder and hot seed.  After about 15 minutes of stirring and blending the flavor’s, I removed the hash browns from direct heat – and sampled some with a spoon.. very tasty!


In my stock pot, I added the butter, melted it, and added my carrots and onions.  Much like before, I kept the heat pretty low and got the ingredients to soften some. After a few minutes, I added 3 cups of the hash brown concoction, 14 ounces of the chicken broth, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper.  It was noticeable very quickly that this wasn’t enough broth.  I think the real hash browns I used were just very thick and were going to soak up a lot of the liquid, so I ended up adding another can of broth.


Once I got everything mixed together, I brought back to a boil and started to season to taste (yes… it needed more cayenne pepper!).  After reducing the heat to simmer, I grabbed some shredded Wisconsin Sharp Cheddar cheese and added to the soup as well.  (The sharpness of the cheese really stood out later on, I was happy I added this.)


The last thing to do was to add some cream – this is a chowder after all.  I added 2 cups of half and half and continued to stir (but not enough, at one point I was distracted and the soup started to burn a little, argh!).  The soup was a little too thin at this point, so we (“we” being my wife, when things start to burn in the kitchen she arrives to the rescue to tell me what I’m doing wrong) added some flour to thicken the soup a little.  Once the flour cooked in, the soup had a nice consistency to it, and it was all done.

I served it with some crusty bread, and was really happy with the end result.  The soup had a nice level of heat to it – which I was aiming for – the sharp cheese came through, and the consistency of the potato’s was very interesting.  Rather than whole chunks of potato, it was thin strips mixed in which I thought was good.  I’ve made some items in the past and was proud it was edible, this is the first time I made food and thought “I would definitely share this with other people!”

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

How’s That New Job Working Out? (And what its like to stick it through)

good-advice-for-hard-times-2[1] Just over 6 months ago, I posted a brief rant on what it means when a team member quits on you and sprays napalm on your work environment and leaves you to pick up the pieces.

I’m not really bitter about it anymore.  I was at the time.. briefly.. but shortly after it happened, it was what it was.  The gentleman who quit felt a need to leave, and he did.  I disagreed with how he handled it of course, but all I could control was how I picked up the pieces and moved forward.  And that’s what this little post is all about.

I happened to notice it’s been 6 months since the other guy quit, and I got to reflect on how much things have changed for me since he’s left.  More responsibility.. more opportunity.. more control… more respect… more leadership...  Gee, maybe the other guy leaving isn’t so bad?

Actually.. it was… it was real bad.  In addition to this guy leaving, we lost our VP and another resource within a 4 month span, making me the longest tenured IT employee after that.  We’ve faced service outages and power outages, angry customers and angry partners, and our leadership team not only expected us to stabilize the business in spite of our losses, but continue to grow as well.   I’ve lost a lot of nights and weekends this year due to issues and\or stress.  But here I am.. writing this now.. still alive. I’m also writing this as I have recently traveled to our parent organization in Atlanta,GA. I’ve walked into a larger organization, with a larger team, and a larger technology stack.. and everyone has been terrific.  They’ve wanted to know what technology I’m using, how we decided to run it, and where we’re going next. They’ve been more than forthright in explaining how they manage their processes and goals, and have encouraged me to do the same.  It’s been a tremendous few days of give and take, and I still have a few more to go.

6 months ago I looked at my dad and explained the stress I felt, and he subtly reminded me “bud (he calls me that when he’s going to be endearing), you don’t get to choose your opportunities.”  And he was right (dad’s tend to always be right somehow).  I had a choice.. get out of dodge and find something easy, or take on the opportunity the best I can.  Obviously I chose the latter, and here I am managing some of our most important IT resources, gaining tremendous experience, and finally feeling optimistic about where this career choice can take me.

So the other guy who quit with no notice, was the grass greener?  No, of course not.  He messaged me on LinkedIn only 3 months after his move and told me the new job is a grind and he’s looking to get out (“hey, let me know if you get any leads on a programmer position” he told me).  I’m not happy to hear that news from him, nobody deserves to be unhappy in their job.. life’s too short after all.  But it does go to show, if you run from opportunity, you’re never going to find it.

Book Review – The New Kings of Nonfiction

The New Kings of NonfictionThe New Kings of Nonfiction by Ira Glass
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I started working on this book several months ago. I enjoyed picking it up and reading a chapter, but that's all it was, just a chapter.

The book is a collection of independent stories, compiled by Ira Glass, to indicate that today's author's are just as strong as what we had a decades ago (as he explains in his prologue). I struggled getting through the book because there was no reason to continue each chapter.. no storylines to follow, no characters to track, no arc to complete.

So why the 5 stars? Because each chapter is that.. damn.. good. OK, I take that back. The early stories were interesting. I mean.. really interesting. Acid\Tar pits and a class action law suit - and the compelling nature on why it's not always the big corporations that are evil; An expert painter toiling in anonymity an the bizarre circumstance that caused the world to recognize his works - these works were very well done and I liked them.

As the book went on, the stories only got stronger and stronger. The final 4-5 chapters, I simply could not stop reading. "Losing the war" - a piece on what our war veterans have experienced compared to what we think they experienced - was heart wrenching but beautiful. Another chapter was a self written essay about someone who experienced first hand the World Series of Poker. He wrote with such detail and emotion, my heart was racing as if I was playing myself. Possibly my favorite was another piece on the "life" of a news radio DJ, how their news cycle works, how the PC world conflicts with a sometimes semi-non PC point of view, and how it affects the occupation.

As the stories went on and on, they got stronger and stronger. I typically like to read non-fiction to open my mind to a different concept, reality, or perspective. This book didn't really achieve that (on the whole anyway), but it was absolutely enjoyable to page through and read the works of some fantastic authors.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Tell an interesting story about yourself (some of the best advice I ever got)

I was at a company sales meeting in New York City this past weekend.  I know, normally not my cup of green tea, but it was actually an awesome event.  I got a chance to touch base with a lot of my customers, get valuable feedback, hear from a great speaker, launch our iPad app, and even go out and have a good time.

The meetings took place over the entire weekend, starting with a reception Friday night and going solid through Sunday evening.  On the final night of the event we had a small awards banquet, and were provided assigned seating.  This meant, of course, I wasn’t able to sit where I would be comfortable and among those I normally associate with.  Then again, this isn’t so bad of a thing.. it get’s me more involved with others, and many of these folks I knew on a casual basis anyway.

So one of the socialites of the group said “OK, lets go around the table, and everyone introduce yourself and tell an interesting story.”  So of course, they start with the gentleman to my left, and by this order I’ll be the last person to speak. Over the next 15 minutes, each person follows suit, providing details about themselves, talking about various accolades and crazy sales trips they’ve been on.  Finally they get to me, and at this point everyone is talking amongst themselves.

GOOD!  I thought everyone lost interest and they would forget about me.  Instead, the socialite said “Hey! It’s Eric’s Turn” and everyone went back to drinking moderately and staring at me making me rather uncomfortable.

So I gave my brief introduction (married 9+ years, have a daughter, etc.).  And then I gave my story, which was the only story I could think of.

When I was a senior in high school, I took an Advanced Placement programming class.  It was in C++, and the whole idea is that if you take the AP exam and score well, you get college credit.  At that time, the exam was scaled on a 1-5, 5 being the best.  I took the exam, and I got a 1.

Dejected I did so poorly, I went over my girlfriends house, who’s father was working for IBM. When I told him how I did, and mentioned I was going to change my declared major from programming to something else, he told me that you don’t go to college because you know everything, you go to college because you know nothing.

So, I stuck with my major, continued to struggle with software development, graduated, and kept grinding and working on getting better, and hope that I’m halfway decent enough to provide help today.

Well, the brief memoir was met with instant applause, I felt really proud they enjoyed the story, and even prouder I was able to think of something to say other than a silly joke.

However it did make me reflect on what I do, where I’ve come from, and how far I need to go.  It was a great reminder for me to remember that I am far from gifted in my field, but I am fortunate enough to enjoy what I do, enough so that when I have a problem or am interested, it’s hard work and dedication (just like anything else) that helps me continually improve and grow.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Going to the App Store – Lessons Learned

In late April, 2014 I was an attendee at the Windows Build conference.  Conferences are a great way to “get out” and focus on higher level items rather than fight through the weeds.  A number of conference sessions focused on apps, user experience, and data services, and it got me thinking “why don’t we have an app” (we being the company I work for).  Simultaneously, our CEO was walking around the home office saying “why don’t we have an app!?”  The CEO wanted an app, that’s the ultimate blessing for a project, and away we went.

Late April of this year, and we we’re putting the finishing touches on the app, and it’s amazing to look back and see all the lessons learned throughout the process. As a software developer, there have been so many times I could take an idea and start to make it real, even if only a proof of concept.  In the iOS world I can’t do that however, I dont have the toolset to scaffold out an app, it’s just not who I currently am.  So, the internal team and I had to start from square 1,which was finding out who could possibly build this thing.. and along the way determine what “this thing” could be!  It was a great learning experience, and looking back I think these are some of the key takeaways.

1. Know your customer – This isn’t a recommendation on how to come up with a killer app, this is how an outsourced development firm should treat you. We had a number of mis-fires throughout our development period, mostly due to a simple problem, our offshore team didn’t understand what we do.  Our app is to help sell vehicle service contracts, our offshore team wanted to design software and write code, not learn about US manufacturing and warranty periods.  The problem was, the “simple” parts of our application – show videos or PDFs – they ran with.  The most critical pieces they fumbled along the way because they inherently didn’t understand what data the app needed to handle and disregard.

2. Know how to track issues – Our offshore team used their own custom software to report issues, track feedback and answer questions.  The problem was, it was essentially a private discussion board.  So, imagine what life was like when we received a new release, tested, and posted feedback to the system as one massive message.  There were no “tracking numbers”, instead our tracking system involved referring to items like a Friends episode - “that one issue where the app crashes if you don’t enter any data on the fourth field”.  We also lacked any categorization – all issues were just that, issues.  What was important and what wasn’t was difficult to follow.

During the final few weeks of development, we took over bug tracking capabilities.  We went somewhat old school, just an excel spreadsheet, but it logged each item as an individual task, with priority, examples and dates.  This was the decision that helped put our app into the store.  We were able to categorically indicate “we have 20 critical\high issues that we need closed” gave the offshore team a focused intensity towards what was important and what wasn’t.  It also helped us communicate internally how close we were to launch, and if deadlines were going to be impacted.

3. Know when your partnership changes – Another issue we had was how our development process progressed with our offsite team. The first half of the project was all design – pictures, images, text – how will the app look and feel. What will it do.  Forget how data will input and output, what will this thing feel like.  Once our design was signed-off, most of the designers moved on to another project.  The problem here was, there was a “reason” we designed things a certain way.  We talked alot about the emotion and meaning behind our imagery, and our use cases on how a screen would work.  When developers were making the app work, they didn’t inherently understand “why” we did certain things certain ways, and the functionality came out clunky and took a lot more time than anticipated to make the app work.

4. Know how to motivate people to test – We had a number of meetings during the past year, and many of them involved conversations that boiled down to “this is THE most important project you are working on.”  It really helped understand that nothing short of a production outage should take precedence over working on this project.  It was rather aggravating then when it came time to test and we couldn’t find anyone – not a single soul – to help test our app.  We would send emails, chat in a hallway, place phone calls and talk to managers.  Finally I had had it, I sent a plea for help to the requested testing team – 10 people in total!  “Please”, I said, “We desperately need your help! Just one hour of your time!”  I even offered to purchase lunch to whomever could find the most defects.  2 out of 10 people tested (and yes, I bought both of them lunch).

The optimist in me tells me that this final plea came at a bad time, that my co-workers aren’t heartless employees who don’t like a free lunch, but that if I gave them a week to test rather than that one day, I would get results.  The problem was, we were asking for weeks on end for help, timing never really worked out, and in the end a majority of the testing was done by myself and the 2 people who worked on the project with me, which wasn’t the same amount of hardline testing we were hoping for.

5. Understand Apple Trademarks – So apparently, if you name your app “Company XYZ iPad App” – you’re not only in trademark violation, your app will get rejected.  However, if you name your app “Company XYZ App for iPad”, you’re fine!  We didn’t know this, and it caused our app to get rejected almost immediately when we published for review.  Fortunately, it was a quick turnaround to change our title and get it submitted again.

6. You can request an expedited review of your app, but it still takes some time – We submitted our app, and within hours we were getting it reviewed.  Our app had some basic features, and within 24 hours we were approved to go to the app store, solidifying that we would hit our deadline.  Then we learned that the waiting is the hardest part. It took another 36 hours since original approval to actually appear in the app store! 

All in all, many of the items above aren’t so much “app” lessons learned, they’re more or less general items that relate to any software development project.  Still, all’s well that end’s well, and we’re proud to have our first app in the store, and hopefully this is the first of many.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A diatribe on how not to give a resignation


We had an employee quit today.  He wasn’t my employee, but instead a co worker and member of the IT “team”.  He emailed his letter of resignation and informed the company tomorrow would be his last day.  Seeing that he was joining a consulting firm, he would make himself available at an hourly rate of $125 per hour.

Nice, huh?

A 2 week resignation window is a courtesy.  It’s not a courtesy to the company, the company moves on regardless.  The courtesy is to your co-workers, the ones who pick up the pieces, the ones who are trying to meet deadlines and expectations and push forward and stand tall.  The ones who spend not just 5 days a week, but often parts of nights and weekends monitoring and assisting and helping with operational support rather than doing the things we would much rather do, such as spend time with our families or read or watch TV or sleep.

This courtesy extends to your team, your brethren, those who you know are impacted by your absence.  Would you just take a vacation without telling anyone?  Of course not.  Would you refuse to answer an emergency call or email while absent?  You *could* – especially given the reason for your absence – but isn’t that part of being a *professional*?

My daughter took a trip to the emergency room a week ago today.  I surveyed the issues with her, realized she most likely would be OK, told my wife I would be there as soon as I could be, and finished up my tasks for the day knowing I wouldn’t be available for a few hours.  Am I a bad parent for doing this.. especially in the name of trying to be a good employee?  Who knows.. perhaps I am.  When we sign up for our jobs, *this* is what we sign up for.  The days of 9-5 are over, but that’s not a bad thing, is it? Isn’t the fact that we had an opportunity to have an education, an occupation, a career, and a retirement what our fore-fathers worked so hard for?  In full disclosure, my boss told me point blank to “go!” when he heard about my daughter, but can’t we instead take the appropriate time, prioritize, and take care of our responsibilities in an organized fashion?  Maybe my outlook will change in 20 years, but today.. that’s how I feel.

kevin-bacon-300That’s a lie, that’s not ONLY how I feel.  I feel angry, dishonored, stressed, and embarrassed to know that this person was considered part of the “team” all these years.  I’m so angry I wanted to.. to.. to WRITE something!  (I wonder if this is how Kevin Bacon felt in footloose?)

It’s just so disheartening when a co worker walks out on you.  It’s just so selfish. You put in so much time, and sacrifice, and slave, and others just take it for granted.

So this is my angry note to the world.  Those who are professional get it.  Those who want a legacy, and want to earn respect.. you don’t need to read this, you already know the answers. For the rest of you, just grow up.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review: The Innovators

The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital RevolutionThe Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I will say unequivocally, anyone who is in the IT field - software, hardware, architecture, telephony, networking, management - you should read this book. If I ever have the chance to meet Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I am buying that man a beer and giving him a hug.

The Innovators is a very well written, historical narrative on the forwarding thinking and progressive thought leaders that brought forth the digital age. Most shockingly, the idea's and experiments that lead to the technology we use today started in the 1800's. The book goes on to explain the machines - and I mean physical gear turning machines - were developed to help add, subtract, and predict number sequences. At this time it was not only dreamt, but felt that it was within their lifetime that machines would become programmable devices that could be fed data (via punchcard) to instruct future mechanics.

Obviously, they were wrong on the timeframe, but incredibly forward thinking on the application! And that is exactly the insight this book provides, what and how so many individuals thought about technology at their time, and what it lead to for us to use today. Machine, programmability, electricity, microprocessors, system-on-a-chip, open architecture, closed architecture, software development, the Internet - that is in essence how this book flows. Isaacson shows how rarely one individual had both dreamt of a solution AND capitalized on it. Rather, one would have the idea, and others would find a way to provide the solution to the masses.

All in all, this book is a great tale of how teamwork and leadership played a role in helping even the brightest of the bright succeed. What I wish this book had done was provide more application in a business sense, just because I feel that this book was really a hundred mini history lessons. Again, it was well researched and written, but in a way each chapter, and some subsections of each chapter, were all in a ways independent of one another. I know Isaacson isn't one to write business leadership books, but if he had been, this would have been the perfect jumping off point. I also have a little concern for the technical nature of this book.  It’s not a science book in any way, but when the book makes periodic reference to TCP\IP, the importance of an Operating System, or perhaps readable\writeable memory, it may be a little cumbersome for a reader who is not inherently technical.  It’s difficult for any author, let alone Isaacson, to dive in and explain what TCP\IP is.. or it’s importance..  so these things need to be mentioned in order to give an appropriate history, but I do worry that at times the text can become a little tech-heavy.

I had read Einstein: His Life and Universe many years ago, and quite honestly it was the best book I've ever read. In some regards, it's unfair to compare The Innovators to Einstein. However, it is a worthwhile read, and ultimately I stand by my opening statement.. if you're in IT.. read this book! It will give you a great appreciation for the field your in and the insight so many before us had had that provides us with an opportunity to excel today.

View all my reviews

Saturday, January 17, 2015

How to gain and lose a customer

I had an interesting turn of events this AM. So much so, I thought it would be a great way to make my first post of 2015. I’ll get to the aforementioned events, but first.. the back story.

A little over 2 weeks ago, I was driving along in my car and had a thought pop in my head: “I haven’t had to change a flat tire in a really long time.”  Don’t ask me why I had that thought.. I have no idea where most of the ramblings that are going on up there come from.  I don’t recall driving by someone changing a flat, or talking to someone who had done so.. it just.. popped in my head.  Well.. the following week.. GUESS WHAT HAPPENED?

True story, not a week later and while on my way to work in single digit temperatures, I here the “wump, wump wump” sound as I start to slow down towards a stop sign.  Pulling into a nearby gas station and fearing the worst, I took a jaunt around the front of the car and see my tire all ugly and misshapen (like me!). Summoning my inner-man, I took a brief look at the car manual, jacked up the car and put the donut on.  Actually, I wish it went this smoothly.  It took me 15 minutes just to get the car jacked up, the lug nuts wouldn’t pop off, and a kind.. and burly.. gentleman had to show me how to kick the loosened tire out of the wheel well.  However.. I learned something!

rustyscrew The remainder of the week was too hectic for me to get out and get the tire changed, so I decided to wait until the weekend to take care of the issue.  I gave my local tire\repair shop a call on Friday (yesterday) afternoon and explained the issue.  They said it would be no problem, come in as early as I want.  So, this morning I did just that and got there around the time they opened.  Roughly an hour later they summoned me to the front desk, showed me “the culprit” – a broken off rusted screw that was jammed into the tire – and told me the best news of all – NO CHARGE!

I was taken aback.  Honestly, when’s the last time you had gone somewhere for any service, and wasn’t charged at least a “service fee” of some sort?

Even better, the company’s policy is a “free fluid check”. I brought the car into the shop for a flat and they patched the tire, mounted it, and checked a bunch of other items in the car… all for no charge.

I had two items on my list as I got up this morning, take care of my tire, and get a haircut.  I jumped into the car and took a 15 minute ride across town to where I’ve been getting my haircut the past few years. 

I’m kind of weird.  I suppose we all are in some regards, but I just don’t like change… and that makes me weird about certain things.  I’ll drive the same route to the mall that I took with my dad as a kid. I wear the same rotation of clothes to work every day.  If I go somewhere to get a haircut, I like knowing that I can go back later and they’ll remember how short I typically like my hair. 

When I got a new job a few years back, it was inconvenient for me to use the barber I had always used, so I found another place closer to home.  I’ve been going there for over 2 years now, but the woman there never remembers how short I like my hair – I always get the question “what number?” for the clipper settings. She’s always pre-occupied with her dog that she brings to work.  Her friends are always stopping by and lurking around.  Still.. I’m weird.. I found a place for a haircut and that’s where I’ll continue to go. 

howtomop This AM as I pull up for to the shop, I see her locking the door to  a walk and have a cigarette.  She looks at my car, checks the door once more, and then takes a walk. As I waited in my car for roughly ten minutes I started to ask myself “Why do I even come here?” and “Why am I waiting?”  All of this off the heels of having one of the better customer service experiences I’ve had in a very long time, I now feel like I’m wasting my time. I mean.. I’ve seen this woman on several occasions.. she’s cut my hair! What are the odds I’m showing up at her shop, with a mop on my head, and I’m not there trying to get a haircut?

Today was just one of those examples that show how the little things can really help earn you business.  A customer friendly policy at my auto shop didn’t bring me back there.. I didn’t even know it existed.  But now I guarantee you I go back there many more times.  Meanwhile, if anyone knows a good barber who wants a loyal and well tipping customer.. I know of someone who’s in the market…

* Forgive my gratuitous linkage to http://www.jackwilliams.com, but for anyone who lives in my area.. and for the great services I received today… I feel providing some linkage to their website is the least I can do…