Drink Coffee Do Work

Drink coffee, do work
Apple iPhone 6s
2017

Before I drive to work I drink three mugs of coffee. Then at work I drink as many as three more. It’s a family thing; we all do it. I tried to resist — I hardly drank coffee, just stayed away from it, through about my mid 20s. But I finally fell, and hard. And the older I get, the more I consume. But I’ve drawn the line: six mugs is all I’ll drink in a day. That’s a full pot of coffee!

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Photography

single frame: Drink coffee, do work

Photo: Drink coffee, do work

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Cofee and Macbook

Coffee and Macbook
Nikon N2000, 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor
Kodak Ektar 100
2015

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Stories Told

Requiem for Radio Shack

RadioShack

We’d been all over town trying to find a new gaming headset for my son and his unusually large head. It’s harder than you might think: most headsets grip his big head like a vise. We’d bought and returned four uncomfortable headsets already. On the way back from yet another failed mission, we passed by a RadioShack. “What the heck,” I said as I turned in. “We’ve tried everywhere else.”

It had become a sadly typical scene: RadioShack, the electronics store of last resort. It’s not a sustainable business model. The retailer has faltered for a long time, and looks like it will finally throw in the towel after 94 years.

Getting its start in amateur radio, and having not yet lost the space between Radio and Shack, the chain always had a defining, high-volume and high-margin product line. For years it was hi-fi, and then it was computers, and finally it was cell phones. But now phones are a commodity product, and nothing replaced them at the center of RadioShack’s business model.

RadioShackLogoI’ve bought a few things at Radio Shack over the years. I suspect you have too; the stores used to be everywhere. Their battery club first brought me in the door when I was about 12. A free, fresh 9-volt battery every month to power my handheld electronic head-to-head football game? Yes please. That’s how I became acquainted with all the gear Radio Shack carried, from diodes to audio cables to calculators to computers. Radio Shack’s TRS-80 computer was respectable for its day.

When I needed a 1/4″-to-1/8″ adapter for some headphones? Radio Shack. A universal remote control when such things were new? Radio Shack. Patch cables to connect my cassette deck to my computer so I could digitize my old radio airchecks? Radio Shack.

My wife and I bought our first cell phones at RadioShack. And remember how every Christmas the front of their stores were crammed with radio-controlled cars? One of the last gifts from my wife before my marriage ended was a big radio-controlled 1967 Chevy Impala. That was fun. The car, not the marriage ending.

But that was more than 10 years ago, and until my son’s headset adventure I’d had no reason to step inside RadioShack. Most of us didn’t, apparently, because now here the chain is, at its end.

The clerk at RadioShack listened to my son tell his tale of headset woe, and guided us to a short aisle with a small selection of headsets. He opened a couple boxes and let my son try them on right in the store — which was just enough for us to learn that this stop, too, would be a bust. At least we wouldn’t have to bring a product home just to return it later. And so with that, I walked out of RadioShack for the last time.

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Essay, Personal

Technical problems can almost always be solved, but people problems are hard

I’ll never forget the revelation it was when I figured out how to write computer programs. You mean, I thought, I can make this machine do what I want it to?

It was a watershed moment in my life.

A portrait of the geek as a young man

I was shy, introverted. People often frightened me, at least a little. I struggled to interact with people I didn’t know well, and I had no idea how to influence others. And then here was this machine that I could order around. It had limits – it couldn’t make my breakfast for me. But within those limits, it was all about what my mind could imagine and then code. I wrote games that my dad and my brother played. I wrote programs that illustrated concepts of geometry, which I demonstrated to math classes in school. I wrote a payroll application for my aunt’s small business. I even wrote a very rudimentary operating system once – it was terrible, but I learned a lot.

So I went off to college to learn how to make software. When I got out, the job market was terrible, so I took the only software job I could find, writing user guides for a software company. Later in my career I moved into testing, and into management. I’ve delivered a lot of software since I started almost 24 years ago.

Here’s the crazy thing I’ve learned: The hardest thing about making software is not the technical stuff. The hardest thing is getting people aligned and pointing the same way!

I’ve often said that it’s a modern miracle when a software project succeeds. Any software development project that involves more than about two people will have coordination challenges, differences of opinion, and all the other normal issues of working together. My experience has been that the programmers and the testers can do whatever you need them to (short of, say, telepathic user interfaces). They will work hard at it, they may struggle to get it right, and there may be frustration and late nights getting it done. But those struggles can pale in comparison to how hard it is to get everyone to agree on what to build, how to build it, and what it means to be done. Here’s how code is better than people:

Code People
Once coded, code stays coded and reliably does the same thing over and over. You think you have people all organized and then they go off and do whatever they want anyway.
You will sometimes struggle and work hard to make your code do what it needs to, but you can almost always get the job done. Sometimes you simply can’t influence people. Drat their free will.
Change your code, it doesn’t mind. It knows no fear. People hate change! When change is thrust upon them, they often resist it or even run away, screaming.

By the way, the WordPress editor doesn’t offer a way to create tables, so I wrote some HTML code to generate one. Fear my mad, l33t sk1llz.

Unfortunately, even if you have the best coders in the world, if you can’t get them to work together their projects will fail. Fortunately, I understand geeks, for I am one. I know what makes us tick. I’ve learned how to influence us and get us all reasonably pointing the same way. And I’ve built on these skills to learn how to influence non-geeks such as upper management, salespeople, and customer service folks to get them all working together. It’s not easy, and it’s impossible to ever get it perfect, but I’ve had pretty good success over the years and it’s contributed strongly to any number of successful software releases. And it’s helped me come out of my nerdly introverted shell.

I can’t remember the time I last wrote any serious code. I don’t miss it. To my astonishment, I’m having much more fun and success on the people side now.

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Life got lots easier for me
when I embraced my inner geek.

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Stories Told

The pinnacle of my career

Not long ago I wrote about a time I was fired under some pretty stinky circumstances. And then there was the time I worked under the CEO who lied in court about having sexually harassed his assistant. And I still haven’t told the story about the company owner who went to prison. Fortunately, my long career in software development (going on 22 years) hasn’t always been such a bust.

I left the philandering CEO’s employ for a situation where the boss and I just didn’t mesh. Also, after having been a technical writer and editor for seven years I was starting to itch to make software again, like I did in college. So when a well-known local software company was hiring software testers, I applied. I knocked the interview out of the park and got the job.

My corporate mug shot from those days

The company made a large and sprawling product for an industry I knew nothing about, so I had lots to learn. Given my background, the first thing I did was reach for the manuals. Unfortunately, they were incomplete, inaccurate, and poorly organized – unusable. There was online help, but it was unnavigable. Nobody was ever going to use any of it to successfully use the product. My boss managed the technical writers too, so I marched into his office to complain. I wasn’t delicate about it. “This stuff is terrible! I can’t believe you ship this to customers! It’s an embarrassment.”

He leaned back in his chair and calmly said, “What would you do to fix it?”

“I would throw it out and start over,” I began. And then over the next ten minutes, off the top of my head I outlined a project that would create new manuals and online help that would actually help users not just use the product, but get the best value from it.

Three days later, he called me back into his office. “Remember that thing you said you’d do with the documentation? I am promoting you to the manager of that department. I want you to do exactly that.”

It was a bold move for him to take a gamble on me. I’d never managed people, and my project management experience was limited. What I didn’t know was that every year the company surveyed its users about product quality – and every year the documentation got the most complaints. My boss had been told to fix this problem, but he had no grand ideas. Then I walked in with a solution that sounded like it just might work.

Most of this story is just the nuts and bolts of the project – hiring and coaching staff, creating plans and schedules, doing visual and information design for the new manuals and online help, managing the project, reporting to management, and even doing some of the writing myself. The details would be interesting only to another technical writer. Much of this was new to me, but I had excellent support from a boss who needed to see his gamble pay off. He also helped me navigate the inevitable office politics, including another manager who kept trying to torpedo my efforts. Also, the program manager helped me master the project management tools we used, none of which I had ever even seen before. My team and I worked on the project for a year and a half. It’s not often a technical writing team gets an opportunity to do a clean-sheet rewrite like this, and they were all enthusiastic about it. I worked hard to clear their roadblocks, respond quickly to their concerns, and generally be a good guy to work for, and it paid off in the excellent work they delivered. When we were done, we had written over 3,000 pages and had created a seven-megabyte context-sensitive online help system.

I was invited to demonstrate the new online help at the annual user conference. 600 people flew in from all over the United States, and there I was before them on the opening session’s main stage. My presentation was the last of a series about new features in the product. When I finished, to my astonishment the online help received enthusiastic applause – and then one person stood, and a few more, and several more, and soon the whole room was standing and applauding. That moment remains the pinnacle of my career; I can’t imagine anything else ever overtaking it. The icing on the cake was when I overheard the VP of Sales say to my boss, “All the blankety-blank new features we pushed you to put into the product, and everybody liked the blankety-blank online help the best! The online help! You’ve got to be blankety-blank kidding me!”

I used to think I was just a grunt paid to trade the words I wrote for a paycheck. Through this project I learned just how interdependent everyone is at a company, and how everybody is important. Specifically, I learned:

  • If you want to see your great ideas implemented, they need to solve a big problem the company thinks it has. What problems does your company think it has? They may very well be different from the problems your company actually has. What great ideas do you have that you can frame in terms of helping solve those problems?
  • When you’re doing something you’ve never done before, find people who can coach you through it. I don’t care how far down the ladder you are at your company, your success helps determine other peoples’. Look for someone who both knows how to do the thing you need to learn and whose success depends in part on yours – that last bit motivates them to help you. In my case, it was my boss and the program manager.
  • Work for the kind of boss who clears roadblocks out of your way so you can be most effective. I now leave situations where the boss doesn’t help me in this way. It’s that critical.
  • Your success always depends on other people, so treat them well. In giving my team an exciting assignment and creating an environment in which they could focus, they happily turned out huge quantities of good work. Also, after we shipped the new documentation, I promoted every writer. They deserved it.

A footnote: That company went through tough times a few years later and so we all moved on, some for better positions and others (like me) because they couldn’t afford to pay me anymore. One of the writers who worked for me called me up one day about two and a half years ago, by which time I really had moved into software testing. She said, “We have an opening here for a test manager. I’d love to work with you again, and this is a good place to work. You really should apply.” I did, and I got the job. I found out later that just before my interview, she went to the VP and said, “He’s a great boss. You don’t want to let him get away.”

Sometimes the good things you do come back to you!

Doing quality work can pay off, too. Here’s a story of a time it really did.

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