Category Archives: insights

i’m not technical

I am. But not really.

To paraphrase my prelicensing class instructor, “95% of consulting is not technical work – it’s psychological”. 5% of consulting is delivery. The remainder is listening, empathizing, training, selling, encouraging, improving, and a whole bunch more gerunds.

I’m an unlicensed psychiatrist dabbling in technology -just call me Frasier Malone – the single person every consultant has to be (even though on Cheers they were two people).

Part of the Art of Consulting™ is conveying ROI in the right terms to your current audience. My job as an automation consultant, project manager, and team lead is to convince customers (at all levels) that the tools I’m there to deliver, configure, and utilize are not “taking their jobs away” (in the wrong sense of the term). Ideally, my customers not only see me as their Trusted Advisor, but as someone who has “been there, done that” just like they have, and that I truly am there to help them: to help them save time (for engineers), to save headcount (for managers), and to save money (for executives).

Good consultants are, in many ways, like bartenders – they listen to the problems their customers have, and hand them things they hope will help. Like a good bartender, you need to deliver what has been agreed to. And like a good bartender, you need to know when to tell your customer “that’s not the best option – try this instead”. And like a good bartender, you need to know when to tell your customer “no”.

facebook is aol

Facebook is AOL.

Yes, that AOL.

America Online.

The one that advertised 20 years ago in conjunction with companies things like, “search AOL keyword ‘ford'”.

That’s what Facebook is now. It’s AOL – but without the ISP aspect.

Check that – Facebook is (or “has”) an ISP: just look at internet.org.

So we’ve come full circle.

The ISP that millions of Americans used to get online, send email, chat, read news, keep up with friends, follow/participate in chat rooms, and see “the web” (through an extremely walled garden, mind you) has been replaced wth a website that hundreds of millions of people around the world use to send messages, chat, read news, keep up with friends, participate in groups, and, apparently, get online (if you’re in a part of the world Facebook is targeting with its ISP, of course).

“like” problems: social ‘voting’ is a bad idea

The news story making the rounds about Facebook the past few days indicates they’re working on a kind of “dislike” button.

The problem with the Facebook “like” button is the same problem Google has with Google+ and their “+1” button: it doesn’t tell you anything meaningful.

Voting on Reddit doesn’t really convey much meaning, either.

Stack Overflow tries to address this with its up/down voting and being able to see the gestalt votes as a ratio (if your rep is high enough (an admittedly low bar, but still a bar, and an aspect of the gamification of Stack Oveflow)). But that doesn’t really cut it, either.

The problem with online “voting” (or “liking”, or “plussing”, etc) is that it is a dimensionless data point.

Does getting 300 “likes” on a post make it “good”? Does it reflect on its quality in any way? How about getting nearly 400 upvotes (and only a handful of downvotes) on a question about MySQL (along with 100+ “favorites”) mean the question is good? Does it show something is popular? Are people clicking the vote mechanism out of peer pressure, because they actually agree, or because they think it needs more visibility? Or something else entirely?

Dimensionless data that gets used as if it has meaning is a problem – one of many problems of social media and web sites in general.

Of course, you will object, quality is a potentially-subjective term – what does “quality” mean, exactly, when talking about a post, website, question, etc? Is it how well-written it is? Is it how long? How funny? How sad?

Take this question I asked on Stack Overflow, “CSS – how to trim text output?” It’s clearly-written, was answered excellently in 2 minutes, and is a “real” problem I had. Yet in the 4.5 years since asking, it’s only gotten 2 votes total (both “up”, but still only two).

Reddit has upvotes and downvotes – and your comment/post score is merely the sum of the ups and downs; below a certain [relative] threshold, you won’t see content unless you ask for it.

One of the biggest problems with all of these systems is that the “score” doesn’t actually tell you anything. An atheist subreddit, for example, will tend to downvote-into-oblivion comments that are theistic in nature (especially from Christians). Quora‘s voting system is highly untransparent – downvotes don’t really seem to mean much, and upvotes are pretty much just for show.

This derives from the fact that these sites use dimensionless data and try to give it a value or meaning outside of what it really is – a number.

What should be shown is the total number of “votes” a given post has gotten – positive negative, reshare, etc – but never combined. A ratio could be displayed, but the sum of the votes is a poor plan.

Facebook, Google+, and others should offer various voting options – “up”, “down”, “disagree”, “agree”, “share”, and possibly others – some of which may be mutually-exclusive (you cannot upvote and downvote the same thing), but you might downvote something you agree with (or upvote something you disagree with) just because of how it is written/presented, etc.

And the total of each type of click should be shown – show me 10,000 people disagreed with what I said, 15,000 agreed; 20,000 upvoted, and 30,000 downvoted; 12,000 reshared it (with, or without, comment).

Using voting as a means of hiding things (and trying to prevent others from seeing them) can be somewhat akin to online bullying – revenge voting has its problems; as does blindly upvoting anything a particular person says/does. Which is why assigning (and then displaying) dimensionless data anything more than a count is dangerous.

automation is a multiplier

Multipliers. They’re ubiquitous – from ratchet wrenches to fertilizer, blocks-and-tackle to calculators, humans rely on multipliers all the time.

Multipliers are amazing things because they allow an individual to “do more with less” – a single person can build a coral castle with nothing more complex than simple machines. Or move 70 people at 70 miles per hour down an interstate merely by flexing his foot and twitching his arm.

Feats and tasks otherwise impossible become possible due to multipliers.

Automation is a multiplier. Some automating is obviously multiplicative – robots on assembly lines allow car manufacturers to output far more vehicles than they could in the pre-robot era. Even the assembly line is an automating force, and multiplier regarding the number of cars that could be produced by a set number of people in a given time period.

In the ever-more-constrained world of IT that I orbit and transit through – with salary budgets cut or frozen, positions not backfilled, and the ever-growing demands of end-users (whether internal or external), technicians, engineers, project managers, and the like are always being expected to do more with the same, or do more with less.

And that is where I, and the toolsets I work with, come into play – in the vital-but-hidden world of automation. Maybe it’s something as mundane as cutting requisition-to-delivery time of a server or service from weeks to hours. Maybe it’s something as hidden as automatically expanding application tiers based on usage demands – and dropping extra capacity when it’s no longer needed (one of main selling points of cloud computing). The ROI of automation is always seen as a multiplier – because the individual actor is now able to Get Things Done™ and at least appear smarter (whether they are actually any smarter or not is a totally different question).

Go forth and multiply, my friends.

a simple restructuring of elections

In close follow-up with my desire to see political parties abolished, we also need to rethink how voting is done.

In the United States, you can only vote for a single candidate for most positions (town councils are an exception).

You do not have the opportunity to say anything more than a binary yes|no to a given person for a given office.

You can vote for Bob for mayor. But not voting for Mary, Quentin, and Zoe doesn’t really say anything about what you think of them – just that you liked Bob the best.

And there is the problem. There is an explicit elimination of relative preference when voting: all you can do is vote “yes” for a candidate.

That is very different from voting “no” against a candidate.

What should happen instead is you should vote for your favorite candidates in order of preference, so Bob is number 1, Zoe number 2, Quentin number 3, and Mary number 4.

Then when I vote, and rank them Mary 1, Zoe 2, Quentin 3, and Bob 4, we can get a picture of the relative preference of any given candidate running for the office.

Do this across all voters in a given election, and assign the winner to the person with the lowest score (in the numbering shown above – flip the values to assign the winner to the person with the highest score).

Perhaps even look at the top 3 or 4 after gestalt ranking, then vote again to determine the winner (this would be ideal for a Primary-then-General Election method).

What research shows is that while you and I may wildly disagree on “best” and “worst”, we’ll probably be pretty close on who we think is “good enough”.

In the Bob-Mary-Quentin-Zoe example with two voters, Mary & Bob both got 5 points. Quentin received 6, but Zoe earned 4.

The two voters, therefore, think Zoe is “good enough”, even though they part ways on “best” and “worst” (Bob & Mary).

Combine such a ranking system with a fully-open Primary election (ie you go rank every candidate regardless of “party”), and we would see much more representative-of-the-citizenry candidates appear at final Election.

vision for lexington

Over the past 5 years, I have witnessed some of the growth Lexington KY has started to undergo. From a population in the city proper of about 260,000 in 2000 to 295,000 in 2010 to an estimated 315,000 in 2015,

While there seems to be something of a plan/vision for the downtown area, the majority of Lexington (and its urban area) seems to be more-or-less ignored from an infrastructural perspective (the last update was in 2009, and only for a small part of Lexington).

Public Transit

The public transit system, as hard as I am sure Lextran employees work, is underutilized, poorly routed, and has no means of connecting into it form out of Lexington (full route map (PDF)).

In comparison to where I grew up, the Capital District of New York, the public transit system is both too inwardly-focused, and too poorly-promoted to be useful more most Lexingtonians. CDTA, for example, has connectors to other cities and towns other than just Albany. You can start where I grew up in Cohoes (about 10 miles north of Albany), and get more-or-less anywhere in the greater Capital District by bus. It might take a while, but you can get there (or get close). There are also several Park’n’Ride locations for commuters to take advantage of.

Lextran doesn’t offer anything to connect to Nicholasville, Versailles, or Georgetown. With workers commuting-in from those locales (and more – some come from Richmond or Frankfort (or go in the opposite direction)), one would think urban planners would want to offer alleviations of traffic congestion. But there is nothing visible along those lines.

Lost Neighborhoods

There are large chunks of Lexington where the houses are crumbling, crime rates are higher than the rest of the city, and the citizens living there are being [almost] actively avoided and/or neglected by the city.

Some limited business development has gone into these neighborhoods (like West 6th Brewing), but as a whole they are becoming places “to be avoided”, rather than places where anyone is taking time and effort to improve, promote, and generally line-up with the rest of the city.

Yes, everywhere has regions that folks try to avoid, but the lost and dying neighborhoods in Lexington are saddening.

Walking

Lexington is – in places – a walkable city, but for most of the residential areas, it was/is up to the developers of the subdivisions as to whether or not there are sidewalks. And if they weren’t put in then, getting them done now is like pulling teeth.

Being able to walk to many/most places (or types of places) you might want to go is one of the major hallmarks of a city. One that is only exhibited in pockets in Lexington.

It should even be a hallmark of shopping areas – but look at Hamburg Pavillion. A shopping, housing, and services mini town (apartments, condos, houses, banking, education, restaurants, clothes, etc), Hamburg is one of the regional Meccas for folks who want to do major shopping trips or eat at nice restaurants. The map (PDF), however (which only shows part of the Hamburg complex) demonstrates that while pockets of the center are walkable, getting from one shopping/eating/entertainment pod to another requires walking across large parking lots – impractical if shopping with children, or when carrying more than a couple bags.

Crosswalks and lighted crossings on major roads, in some cases, leave mere seconds to spare before the light changes – if you’re moving at a crisp clip. Add a stroller, collapsible shopping cart, or heavy book bag, and several crossings become “safe” only if drivers see you are already crossing and wait for you. Stories like of pedestrians being hit, like this one, are far too common to read in local news media.

Employment

There is no lack of employment opportunities in the Lexington area – there are 15 major employers in Lexington, hundreds of small-to-medium businesses running the gamut of offerings from auto dealers to lawn care, IT to healthcare, equine products, home construction, etc; and hundreds of national chains (retail, restaurants, services, etc) are here, too.

Finding said employment can be difficult, though. There are some services like In2Lex which send newsletters with employment opportunities – but if you don’t know about them, finding work in the area isn’t as easy as one would think a Chamber of Commerce would want. Yes, employers need to advertise their openings, but even finding lists of companies in the area is difficult.

Connectivity to Other Areas

Direct flights into and out of Lexington Bluegrass Airport reach 15 major metro areas across half the country.

Interstates 75 and 64 cross just outside city limits.

The Underlying Problem

The major problem Lexington seems to have is that it doesn’t know it’s become a decent-sized metropolitan area. There are about 500,000 people in MSA, or about 12% the population of the whole state. It’s a little under half the size of the Louisville MSA (which includes a couple counties in Indiana). There are 8 colleges/universities in Lexington alone (PDF), and 15 under an hour from downtown.

To paraphrase Reno NV’s slogan, Lexington is the biggest little town in Kentucky. The last major infrastructural improvement done was Man O’ War Boulevard, completed in 1988 – more than a quarter century past. There were improvements done to New Circle Road in the 1990s, but that ended over 15 years ago. Lexington proper was 30% smaller in 1990 than it is now (225,000 vs 315,000).

Lexington’s 65+ year-old Urban Service Area, while great to maintain the old character of the city and region, hasn’t been reviewed since 1997. A few related changes have been added since, but the last of those was in 2001.

One and a half decades since major infrastructural improvements. Activities like the much-delayed Centre Point (which I agree doesn’t need to be done in the manner originally planned), the begun Summit, and other development projects may, eventually, be good for business and the city as a whole, but there has been little-to-no consideration for what will happen with traffic. Traffic problems and general accessibility is one of the core responsibilities of local government.

The double diamond interchange installed a couple years back on Harrodsburg Rd was a good improvement to that intersection. But it was only good for that intersection. It alleviated some traffic concerns, crashes, and complications, but only on one road.

Lexington needs leadership that sees where the city not only was 10, 25, 50 years ago, but where it is now and where it wants to be in another 10, 20, 50 years.

My Vision

My vision for Lexington, infrastructurally, includes interchange improvements / rebuilds for more New Circle Road exits. Exit 7, Leestown Road, grants access to Coke, FedEx, Masterson Station, the VA hospital, a BCTC campus, and more. Big Ass Fans is between exit 8 from New Circle and  exit 118 of I-75. Exit 9 from New Circle more-or-less exists to provide Lexmark with a way for their employees to arrive. The major employers in the area are great for economic stability. But with traffic congestion, getting into and out of them needs to be as smooth as possible.

West Sixth Brewery and Transylvania University are two of the highlights in an otherwise-aging, -dying, and -lost area of the city. There needs to be a public commitment on the part of both the city and the citizenry to not allow the city to become segregated. Not segregated based on skin tone, but on economic status.

Bryan Station High School has a reputation, deservedly or not, of being one of the worst high schools in the region, because of the dying/lost status of the parts of town it draws from. You can buy a 2 bedroom, 1 bath, 1300 square foot house for under $20,000 near Bryan Station. It needs a little bit of work, but what does that say about the neighborhood?

The leadership of Lexington seems to be ignoring parts of the city that are going downhill, preferring instead to focus on regions that are going up. Ignoring dying parts of the city from an infrastructural perspective isn’t going to make them any better – they will only drag more of the city down with them. As a citizen and a homeowner, I want to see my city do well.

I do not like paying taxes any more than anyone else, but I do like seeing the city taking initiative and working to both heal itself and take steps towards attracting future generations, businesses, and more that we don’t even know are coming.

Lexington has great promise – it is growing, expanding, and burgeoning. But if its leadership – political, business, and citizenry – doesn’t take the time, effort, and money to ensure it’s prepared for this growth, it will become a morass to traverse, live in, and do business with.


Some more interesting regional data (PDF)

traveling consultant cheat sheet

“Join the Navy and See the World!”*

Perhaps one of the most famous recruitment phrases ever established in the United States.

And it’s not at all dissimilar form what a lot of budding consultants think they are going to do when either joining a services organization, or starting their own business.

I have been fortunate in that I have gotten to “see the world” as a professional services engineer – at least a little.

What the recruitment phrase fails to mention is that while you may “see” the world, you [probably] won’t get to do much while you’re “seeing” it. I’ve been to or through nearly 60 airports in the last several years. I “saw” the coast of Japan a few times when going into and out of Narita. I’ve “seen” Las Vegas – from a couplefew thousand feet. I’ve “seen” Houston – from IAD. And so on and so forth.

The far more realistic view of what will happen is something like this:

  • get call Friday afternoon asking you to be onsite in <someplace> Monday morning
  • book flight, hotel, rental car (if appropriate)
  • make sure clothes are clean
  • do as much Saturday and/or Sunday as you can, since you’ll be gone for a week
  • fly out Sunday evening or Monday morning (I’ll talk about this later)
  • get rental car
  • check into hotel
  • go to customer site
    • work
    • eat
    • sleep
    • repeat
  • check out from hotel
  • return car
  • fly home
  • repeat all of above

As someone who has been doing a travel-based job for 7+ years now, let me share some of the things I have learned with you.

Basics

Loyalty programs

Sign up for airline frequent flyer programs. In the US, this means Delta, United, Southwest, and American Airlines.

Sign up for hotel rewards. Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Wyndham.

Sign up for the car rental programs. Hertz, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Thrifty, Enterprise, National.

Stay “loyal”

So long as you are able, ie costs are reasonable, schedules are good, etc, stick with a single primary chain for each of the travel categories (airline, car, hotel). If you’re going to get status, might as well get it all with one place when possible.

Sign up for every promotion your loyalty partners make available. For example, I’m a United Guy (used to be a Delta Guy – but that’s a different story). I’m also a Hilton Guy (because Marriott hasn’t been as competitive (price, location) in the markets I’ve been to as they used to be). I have my Hilton HHonors Double Dip go to HHonors points and United miles. And I make sure ay time there is a promo to get more points or miles that I sign-up for it. If Hilton wants to give me an extra 5,000 United miles for every stay after the second between now and 31 August, why not take advantage of that?

Choose the best rewards – for you

Maybe you like traveling so much you want to have Avis points so you can get free car rentals on vacation. Personally, I find turning all my reward points into frequent flyer miles is my best option – renting a car for a week is almost always less expensive than paying for a flight – especially when my family goes somewhere on vacation.

Clothes

Every shirt and pair of pants I take when I go onsite are “no iron”. This saves time when you arrive. And you won’t have nearly as much time as you think you will, most of the time.

Get slip-on dress shoes. You will appreciate this most when going through airport security. But also if you have to go through security to get into customer buildings, etc.

Have an arrival and departure change of clothes that are comfortable – I like jeans and either a polo or comfortable t-shirt.

What about jackets? I like the lightest-weight jacket I can carry/wear: there will not be enough space on the plane for it, it’ll get hot in the airport, and you really only normally need it to walk from the airport to the rental car shuttle / counter, form the rental counter to the car, the car to the hotel, the hotel to the office, and all in reverse. You probably won’t need a parka for those types of activities.

Baggage

There’s a big conversation that surrounds this topic, but I’m going to tell you what works for me. First, check your main bag – it’ll accelerate your time to board, your time between flights (if you have one or more connections), and make it easier to get around the airport when you arrive (easier to use the bathroom, get a meal, etc). So save everyone headaches and check your main bag.

In your one carry-on – a laptop bag- you should have the following:

  • single change of clothes
  • snack & water bottle (empty, of course)
  • basic minimal toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, etc)
  • book (or Kindle, but I like a physical book – there’s never anything to have to turn off)
  • all required chargers (laptop, cell phone, mifi, etc)
  • portable battery backup like an EasyAcc Classic

Arriving and Departing

Day-of? Or night before?

This is almost entirely a personal preference: arriving day-of (eg Monday morning) can be good if you have a family, don’t mind getting up hyper early to get to the airport, and can functional well enough on little sleep.

Arriving night before (eg Sunday night) can be good because if you’re bumped or delayed on a flight, you have cushion before your customer expects to see you.

Either way, always try to check-into your hotel before going to your customer – if it’s an early-Monday arrival, change out of your travel clothes at the airport into work clothes, and have the hotel hold your bags for you.

I alternate between which is better for me to do based on how many connections I have, customer expectations (if you have a mandatory 0900 meeting Monday, and you flight won’t arrive til 0930, you have to come in Sunday night), time of year (weather considerations), etc.

What did I miss?

What would you add/change/tweak on this cheat sheet?


* I always though it should read, “Join the Navy and Sea the World”