Essay

To the Indianapolis Museum of Art: Way to shoot yourself in the foot

Last week, the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced that admission to the museum and its gorgeous grounds will no longer be free starting in April. It will cost $18 for adults, $10 for children.

Entering the IMA

IMA welcome pavilion

It’s neither unusual nor unreasonable for a museum to charge. But the IMA bungled this announcement, slathering it in suspicious PR doublespeak. They are also making this enormous price jump too suddenly, leaving a feeling of sticker shock and pricing visits out of reach for many.

In all, this announcement has damaged community goodwill. I think they just shot themselves in the foot. I think they’ll lose visitors to the point where the admission fee doesn’t generate the revenue they seek.

In a press release, the IMA announced this change as a “campus enhancement plan to improve the visitor experience and financial sustainability.” The IMA’s admission fee appears to cover both the museum and grounds. They will reconfigure access to require all visitors to pass through the museum building’s welcome center to build “long-lasting relationships with IMA guests.”

Oldfields

Oldfields, on the grounds

Hogwash. News reports say that the museum is using too large a portion of its endowment for operations, and the IMA needs to correct that so the endowment can serve long term. It’s obvious that money entirely drives this decision, and that requiring all visitors to enter through the welcome center is how they will collect admission fees.

It would have been better for the IMA to just own that. They should have said plainly that they need to charge admission to ensure the museum’s long-term operation, and skipped the “campus enhancement” and “long-lasting relationship” nonsense. Nobody’s falling for it. Transparency engenders trust; bad PR-speak makes everybody think you’re hiding something.

On the bridge

$18 to ride through? Seriously?

But more importantly, the IMA appears not to have thought through the emotional impact of this tall admission fee. Cries of elitism and exclusion pepper the comments sections on every news story posted about this change. The IMA was not going to entirely avoid that even if admission had been set at $5; it takes quite an adjustment to pay for anything that had been free. But after you cut through their invective, many of those commenters have a good point: what had been a wonderful free family outing is now mighty expensive, and has been priced out of reach for many.

It is clear that this change will cost the IMA its most casual patronage, those who visited once in a while because it was something to do and it didn’t cost anything. But how many people who really appreciate the art and the grounds will no longer go, either out of principle or because they just can’t afford it now?

LIttle bridge

The IMA is a great place for a stroll

Perhaps the IMA wishes to drive their non-casual patronage toward memberships, which cost $55 per year for individuals and $75 per year for families. With a membership, a family of four can visit anytime for $19 more than one visit at admission price.

I’m going to buy a membership, even though I don’t like how the IMA is handling this. I visit the IMA a dozen times a year, usually just to walk the grounds and take photographs. I would hate to not do that anymore, and I can afford a membership.

But I wonder what would happen if the IMA instead set admission at $5, which would avoid this sticker shock. I’m betting they’d lose far fewer visitors up front. I also think they might make up on volume what they lose on that $18 fee. If it didn’t, they could raise admission a buck or two every year until they find that sweet spot.

I think the IMA has hurt itself. I hope, for the IMA’s continued good fortune, that enough people like me buy memberships to make up for the loss of visitors for whom a day at the museum is now too expensive.

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Essay

On language: The unfortunate nominalization of spend and ask

James Kilpatrick

James Kilpatrick

James Kilpatrick may have been best known for his syndicated political newespaper column, but I preferred his weekly column about writing and English called “The Writer’s Art.” I loved it when in his column he’d put on his virtual judicial robes and open the Court of Peeves, Crotchets, and Irks, for what followed would be a humorous, incisive invective on foibles of our English language.

Kilpatrick passed in 2010. I miss his column.

I wonder how he’d address a trend I’m hearing that dips from the well of nominalization. I’m in favor of making nouns from other parts of speech when the conversion is necessary or helpful. This is how we get useful words like investigation, which is an ancient nominalization of investigate.

But I don’t think ask and spend need to be used as nouns. To be fair, there’s precedent: etymologists have found occasional uses of these words as nouns going back almost 400 years. It’s like a recurring passing fad. But the poor dears don’t even get the whole treatment, as they are not transformed (as investigate becomes investigation). They are used as is:

Ask: What are the asks here? My ask is that you deliver the project by next Friday. Wow, that’s a big ask.

Spend: Our marketing spend exceeded budget again last month. This month, we anticipate a spend of about $1 million.

This usage makes one sound savvy, in the know. But it also pulls the punch and blurs meaning, making concrete expectations and budgets seem abstract. Ask even carries a passive-aggressive note. What happens when we say exactly what we mean?

Ask: What do you want? I want you to deliver the project by next Friday. Wow, I’m not sure that’s possible.

Spend: We overspent our marketing budget again last month. This month, we plan to spend about $1 million.

Ah, sweet clarity!

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Essay

Obamacare, healthcare.gov, and how government software gets made

It’s been in the news lately: the healthcare.gov site, a component of the Affordable Care Act, fell flat on its face at launch. It was unable to handle the crush of people seeking health-insurance information. I have empathy for the people who built the site, because I’ve built government software before and it was way harder than it needed to be. Here’s my story, at my software-development blog.

Jim Grey

By Jim Grey (about)

I was not surprised when I heard that the Obamacare Web site, healthcare.gov, crashed and burned right out of the gate.

But I was disappointed. Regardless of what I think of the Affordable Care Act, it’s the law. I wanted its implementation, including healthcare.gov, to go well.

Still, I wasn’t surprised because I know how government software gets made.

obamacare2Several years ago I worked in middle management for a company that built a government Web application related to health-care customer service. I was in charge of testing it to make sure it worked. It is probably not going out on a limb to say that the people who built healthcare.gov experienced many of the same kinds of things I experienced on that project.

Let me be plain up front: I was a poor fit for government software development. I was too free-wheeling and entrepreneurial for…

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Essay

Toothpaste is a scam

Given that every toothpaste contains whitening ingredients now, why aren’t we all walking around with teeth that are a perfect #ffffff? (That’s the HTML code for the whitest white, for the nongeeks in the audience.) That’s right: because it’s a scam.

Crest Tooth Paste, 1960

Photo: Allen Sandquist Collection

Anytime a product category requires an entire aisle at Walgreen’s, with many competing brands and even products within one brand, each promising to be the Best Evar!!!!!!! – that is, when something is marketed to the hilt, that’s your clue that you probably don’t need it.

Look, I know that studies say that the fluoride in toothpaste leads to fewer cavities. But when I was a kid in braces, I brushed with baking soda most of the time. It tasted terrible, but it made my metal mouth gleam like nobody’s business. And I saw no uptick in the number of cavities I got.

I’ll bet I could brush dry and still reap brushing’s benefits – but for one. The reason I still use toothpaste, even though it’s a scam, because it makes my mouth feel and taste minty fresh. I like that.

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Essay

I hate automatic bathroom fixtures

This showed up in the men’s room at work recently, and I rejoiced aloud.

pump

Yes, it’s a soap dispenser pump. It replaced an automatic dispenser. the kind that squirts soap into your palm when you stick your hand under it.

The concept is fine. Futuristic, even. Very House of Tomorrow.

Except that it was overactive. If your hand moved anywhere near it, soap immediately squirted onto the counter. What a mess! And after a while, its squirter grew weak and it took four or five squirts for one handwashing. The facilities guy tinkered with it and tinkered with it, and finally threw in the towel. He put in this old-fashioned pump, which provides endless trouble-free service.

Most automatic bathroom fixtures just don’t work right:

  • At my last job, at one of the sinks the automatic faucet would randomly decide to run for five or ten minutes even though nobody stood before it to wash their hands. This went on for two years, despite frequent repairs trying to get it to behave.
  • The towel dispensers where you wave your hand by a sensor to eject a towel seem only to sometimes recognize your wave. And the towel is tiny, meaning you need to wave six or eight times to get enough.
  • Don’t even get me started on forced-air hand dryers. Well, except for the high-powered Xlerator and the Dyson Airblade; those both work incredibly well. But as for the rest, it’s just faster and better to wipe your wet hands on your pants.
  • But most of all I hate automatic toilet flushers. So you’re sitting there, minding your own business, when you shift ever so slightly. The flusher thinks, “Aha! He’s gone!” and flushes – which sprays some of the toilet’s contents all over your naked butt.

Look, I understand the promise of automatic fixtures. Less wasted paper and water. Toilets that are always flushed for no unpleasant surprises when you approach. No need to touch anything so germs aren’t spread.

But they usually don’t work. Can’t we just go back to flush handles, faucet handles, and paper towels you pull out of the dispenser?

At least in my office, they finally got the soap dispenser right.

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Essay

I believe in A teams over A players

I’ve heard it again and again at work. “We need to hire a real A player for this job, a total rock star.”

CrayolaQA

A software test team I used to belong to, dressed up for Halloween.

This statement usually comes at a time some critical task or function isn’t being done well (or at all) and it’s causing projects to fail. “If we can just bring in a super-skilled specialist,” the thinking goes, “it would solve all of our problems!”

Sometimes this gets stretched into a one-size-fits-all approach to hiring. “Let’s hire only A players,” the thinking goes, “and then get out of their way and let them perform.”

No doubt about it: A players are extremely talented and deeply experienced. They are heavily self-motivated and especially hardworking. They are creative problem solvers who focus on getting the job done.

But don’t assume that putting A players on the job is like sprinkling magic fairy dust that makes problems go away. That’s setting them up to fail – and setting your company up to fail, too. Companies are much better served building high-performing teams.

A players are no substitute for leadership. The most important step in that leadership is to help your people form solid teams. I make software for a living, and I’ve been in leadership roles for more than 15 years now. I’ve delivered many, many successful software projects with teams made mostly of B players. That’s because company leadership:

  • Created a shared, common vision that everybody rallied around and focused on
  • Built a process framework within which team members worked, which set standards for workflow, quality, and completion
  • Praised and rewarded team members for jobs well done
  • Hired for fit within the company culture, as well as for skill

A players are hard to find. A reason why I often hire B players is because most people aren’t A players. I’d say maybe one in ten people I’ve ever worked with are that good. Many of the truly outstanding geeks move to the coasts or to Texas, where the opportunities are greater. Here in Indianapolis, anybody who wants to hire only A players will soon run out of them and will sooner or later be forced to hire B players too. Those B players will work best under strong leadership and in highly functioning teams.

A players often have the biggest egos. A little swagger is part of the A-player territory. If you don’t lead well and help them gel into a team, conflicting egos will put your projects at risk.

A long time ago I used to follow rec.music, a once-popular Internet forum about music. In a recurring discussion thread, members wrote about which musicians they’d put in the best supergroup ever. The debate raged — Eric Clapton on guitar, and Neil Peart on the drums, and Paul McCartney on bass, … no no, Phil Collins on drums and Jeff Beck on guitar! …no! It must be John Paul Jones on bass!

It was fun to fantasize about such things. But do you really think a band with some of the biggest egos in music would gel? I’m reminded of We Are the World, the 1985 charity song recorded by a supergroup of pretty much every popular musician of the time. The famous story goes that someone taped a sign that read, “Check Your Egos At the Door” on the recording-studio entrance – but that didn’t stop arguments over many of the recording’s details, with at least one musician walking out and not returning.

Still, A players can be mighty useful. There are times when it’s right to hire A players. Here are the times when I’ve settled for no less than an A player:

  • Lead roles – I needed someone to figure out some thorny problems, and to set the pace and point the way for the team.
  • Lone wolves – I needed someone for a highly specialized job where I was unlikely to need more people in that role for a long time, especially a role where I lacked the skills to do it myself and therefore would have a hard time managing its details.

Really, I’ve never not hired an A player just because he or she was an A player. Who wouldn’t want their skill and determination on the team? I’ve only passed on A players when they would be a poor cultural fit in my company and in my teams.

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Technical problems are easier to solve
than people problems. Read why.

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