Saturday, November 15, 2008

Y Strap: First Impressions

Y Strap InstalledThe Problem

One huge difference between SLR and point and shoot cameras is that you can't just store the SLR in your jeans pocket. If you want to carry a SLR around ready to shoot, you'll want a strap of some sort.

The neck strap that arrived with my Canon 40D dSLR camera drives me bonkers. It's ugly, to start, with lots of colorful branding calling attention to the camera. It gets twisted up, it blocks the viewfinder when I try to take photos, it makes my neck sore, and it makes me sweat on hot days. In some ways, a simple rope might be better.

If I actually wear the strap, it bounces and smacks me in the chest while I walk. Sometimes the bounces activate buttons on the camera. It protects my camera from drops, but not from smacking tables when I lean forward. It does prevent the camera from hitting the ground, but so would gluing the camera to my hand.

The R-Strap

I've been searching for a replacement strap ever since getting the camera. I strongly considered getting a Black Rapid R-Strap. Instead of going around the neck, the R-Strap goes over a shoulder and across the chest. The camera clips to the strap via a threaded bracket screwed into the tripod socket. It sounded great until Scott Bourne published his Black Rapid RS-2 review on TWIP.

Scott had such a bad experience with his RS-2 that he intentionally destroyed it. Scott had two incidents where the strap malfunctioned and dropped (or nearly dropped) a Nikon D700. In one case, the clasp holding the strap together accidentally opened. The other time, the camera actually fell off the clip. He felt that the strap was so dangerous that he destroyed it to prevent further mishaps. I immediately scratched the Black Rapid from my list.

The Y Strap

I learned about the Y Strap at my Austin flickr meetup. An attendee uses the strap on his tiny Leica M8. Like the Black Rapid, it's meant to be worn over the shoulder and across the chest. Unlike the Black Rapid straps, which monopolizes the tripod mount, the Y Strap attaches to one of the normal strap mount points on the camera.Shooting with the Y Strap (1)

The Y Strap is handmade by Stephen M. Schaub. It cost $25 + shipping at the time of this review.

The Construction

The Y Strap is very simple: there are four parts. There is a loop of nylon webbing, a slide for adjusting where the camera hangs, and two key rings. One large key ring is attached to the webbing, the other is shipped loose. The optional smaller ring can be used as an adapter for certain cameras, like my 40D (see photos).

The camera attaches on one side to the key ring -- the maker suggests attaching the camera on the same side you wear it. The strap goes over the shoulder and across the chest. When you raise the camera to take a photo, the key ring slides up the strap.

Unlike the R-Strap, the Y Strap can't become unbuckled. There are no fasteners holding the strap together, just an adjustment slide. In the unlikely event the slide were to fail, the camera won't fall. The ends of the strap fed through the slide are sewn together so that the nylon makes a continuous loop even without it.

The point where the two ends of the strap are sewn together is quite clever. Others might just overlap the ends and sew, rivet, or buckle them together. Instead, the ends are stitched together a few inches shy of the ends, and the loose ends are sandwiched into the stitching, forming a tiny "Y" shaped tail (see the photos). This construction means that there are no exposed rough ends to fray or irritate your skin.

Do it Yourself?

Wearing the Y Strap (1)The beauty of the Y Strap comes from the simplicity. There are no complicated moving parts. There aren't even any markings except for a hand-written serial number hidden inside the "Y" where the ends are sewn together.

Not everyone likes simplicity though. They point out -- correctly -- that most anyone could probably make an approximation of the Y Strap for much less than $25. You can find plans out on the internet for DIY straps. Most of them seem to imitate the R-Strap.

I'm okay with paying for labor, craftsmanship, and design though. Considering the thorough stitching holding the strap together, I'm surprised it's worth Stephen's time to sell these at $25 -- around half the price of the Black Rapid straps. The materials seem good too. The strap has a pleasantly soft and smooth texture. It's not the rough nylon strapping that you might use to lash a kayak to your car.

If you don't care about the details and just want something better than a normal neck strap, the DIY option will probably work fine. Just be careful to choose a design and materials that won't drop your camera on the pavement.

Possible Issues

My one reservation about the Y Strap was the reliance on key chain rings. I've never heard of a normal key ring failing, but it felt weird hanging an expensive SLR off of one. Incidentally, most of the reviews of the Y Strap are from users of the Leica cameras, not large SLRs. I'll be monitoring the condition of the rings closely.

Stitching DetailI haven't spent much time using the Y Strap in the field, but my initial impressions are good. If the strap length is adjusted correctly, the camera doesn't move too much when walking.

With shorter lenses, like my 50mm f1.8, the camera tends to prefer resting with it's back against my side instead of, say, the back facing forward. This has resulted in accidental button presses. Since my neck strap had the same button issue, I won't call it a deal killer.

Longer lenses seem to do fine pointed backwards along my side. More field use will tell if walking around will cause zoom lenses like my 20-135mm to telescope out.

The key ring slides smoothly up the strap, but the strap still shifts some. Since there is no padding on the Y Strap, this isn't too big of a deal. The little tail of excess strap material does work lower and lower as the strap rotates. Field use should reveal if this is problematic.

The Advantages

Just to quickly sum up, here are my initial thoughts on why you might want a Y strap:
  • Simplicity & elegance. The Y Strap doesn't attract attention (unless, maybe, you get it in red) or look goofy
  • It doesn't put pressure on the neck
  • It makes the camera less conspicuous
  • It keeps the camera near your hands
  • The camera bounces less
  • It interferes with camera operations less
  • It supports craftsmanship
I'll give more impressions later when I've actually had time to live with the strap.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scary Stories from the Interwebs eBook

In total, I have now collected 72 stories of a person's most frightening experience. Since 72 scary stories would probably be too much adventure and not enough engineering for this blog, I have collected those stories into a nicely formatted PDF that you can download from my publisher.

You can read samples of these stories in these previous posts:

It Came From the Interwebs: the Mechanical Turk Tells Scary Stories

Scary Stories From the Interwebs: Part 2

You can download the book here: Get Scary True Stories from the Interwebs

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Scary Stories From the Interwebs: Part 2

HaspIf you are easily disturbed, please skip this entry. It features a terrifying story.

Here is another scary (but true, I'm told) story I collected using Mechanical Turk. I find it quite creepy.

You can find the previous stories here. Thanks to everyone who responded to my surveys. I really enjoy reading the responses and hope to get more.

What is your gender? Male

Write two or more paragraphs about the most frightening thing to happen to you. "When I was 13 years old, I was home alone listening to music on my stereo via headphones. My mom and step-dad were out having dinner/date/movie night. It was winter, so it was dark outside even though it wasn't that late. I was sitting on the living room couch, and out of the corner of my eye I saw something in the hallway directly to my right. I turned to see what it was and froze.

There, hanging in the hallway, was an wispy ghost form of a human. I could see the head and arms and chest and then it gradually faded into the darkness of the hallway floor. I screamed and ran to the TV room at the end of the hall. To this day I do not know why I decided to run through the area where the ghost was hovering. I slammed the door to the TV room, turned on all the lights in the room, turned on the TV all the way up, and flopped on the couch with an afghan over my head.

As I lay there crying, I could hear above the noise of the TV the sound of dishes breaking in the kitchen. It sounded like someone was throwing them up against the wall. I do not know how long this lasted. The next thing I remember is my mom and step-dad coming home and pounding on the locked TV room door. They were scared for me and did not know what was going on. I told them what had happened. I was shaking all over.

My mom forced me to leave the room and come to the kitchen. I was sobbing. She showed me that all was well in the kitchen and nothing had happened. This was my first experience with the spirit world. It would not be my last."

Is there anything else we should know about the story or being scared? "Since this time, I have had multiple experiences with the spirit world. Also, after my step-dad left for the evening (we were living in two different houses at the time), my mom told me she believed me. She too had experiences with the spirit world."

Do you have any feedback for this HIT? "Fun to share my story. Thanks!"

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Joel on Software MBA: Peopleware

SunfishNot long after I graduated from college, I stumbled across a book which explained exactly why my employer's quarterly performance reviews felt so frustrating and useless. The authors of Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead went to great length to demonstrate that performance reviews were worse than useless.

When I told my supervisor about my discovery, her reaction surprised me. Rather than being interested in the book or the findings, she was totally ambivalent. If anything, she seemed to believe more strongly in the value of performance reviews. The reviews made sense to her. It didn't matter that there was research and data indicating otherwise.

I suspect that Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams* falls into a similar category: books big companies are immune to. Having read Peopleware for my virtual Joel on Software MBA, I'm confident that the book's ideas would work great. I'm sure Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood agree -- they advise managers** to staple Peopleware to their face.

Like Abolishing Performance Appraisals, Peopleware resonates with me, but doesn't mesh well with the status quo. This sort of book would interest and inspire the engineers, but -- at large corporations -- ultimately let them down: most managers couldn't implement the suggestions if they wanted to.

For instance, about 58 of the 174 pages concern the work environment. If you work in the typical large office, this third of the book will explain how you couldn't design worse conditions for productivity. Cubicles? Noise? Interruptions? You might as well have your developers code from the local Jiffy Lube. Think of the money you'll save on office space and free Folgers coffee!

Peopleware explains why Joel Spolsky went to such great lengths to give his developers Bionic Offices, complete with windows and closing doors. Good luck convincing your typical corporation to give their engineers offices with windows. They'll have all sorts of excuses explaining why offices are a perk for management, cost too much, or don't allow for proper teamwork.

Aside from environmental issues, Peopleware addresses how to motivate developers, hire the best people, retain them, build awesome teams, and fight counter-productive bureaucracy. In other words, it's more about the engineers (and sociology) and less about technology.

This might seem like an indirect approach to productivity. It doesn't involve bossing people around, demanding long hours, or hiring consultants. You won't find justifications for treating your engineers like factory workers, buying fancy tools, or flying to exotic locations. Instead, it advocates making engineers happy and simply making productivity possible. Psychology and sociology do the rest of the work.

Unless you work at a very progressive company, Peopleware will have you constantly fighting bureaucracy, trying to fix the office environment, and struggling to make time so you can have conversations with your team. Worse, your peers probably won't understand or appreciate what you are trying to do.

Ultimately, you may find it easier become an entrepreneur and start your own people-friendly and productivity-friendly company. But maybe that's the point.

* I'm reviewing the first edition of the book, but there is a second edition of Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition) available as well. You can help me and my publisher by purchasing from these links. In association with Amazon.
** Peopleware concerns the field of software development, although I believe it applies equally to other engineering fields. It probably applies to just about any intellectual and creative effort, especially those requiring teamwork.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

It Came From the Interwebs: the Mechanical Turk Tells Scary Stories

Devil's BallIf you are easily disturbed, please skip this entry. It features true stories of actual humans who found themselves in frightening and terrible situations.

I have vivid memories of reading scary stories in bed as a child. I would lay in bed holding a book under my lamp, the rest of the room lost in strange shadows. As I became more and more involved with the story, the shadows would take on a sinister appearance.

Is that a ghost in my closet, or just dirty laundry? Is that a murder's eyes, or just a reflection off a window? Logically, I knew that I was just on edge from the story, but that didn't lessen my fright.

Despite my fear, or perhaps paralyzed by it, I often continued reading my stories late into the night. The terror was exciting and fun, but maybe just because I knew it was irrational.

In the spirit of Halloween, I used Mechanical Turk to request real-life scary stories from the internet. Like the books I read as a child, some of the responses feature supernatural encounters, while the others involve threatening, but otherwise more ordinary seeming circumstances.

Unlike my scary novels, these stories are true -- as far as I know. I can't rule out the possibility that a story was invented, nor the possibility that the writer misinterpreted the events. Maybe that ghost really was a sheet drawn down an invisible string. Perhaps the light switch wasn't flipped all the way when the author was plunged into darkness. And maybe that man trying to break in just mistook the place for his own house. Whatever helps you sleep at night.

Thanks to the Mechanical Turk workers who shared their personal scary stories! I hope your future frights are fun, not serious.

Here are two samples from the 40 I have received:

What is your gender? Female

Write two or more paragraphs about the most frightening thing to happen to you. "My husband and I had moved to Northern Virginia, and were settling into rented rooms. Strange, odd things began to happen, that we dismissed initially. Over a period of two months, things progressively got stranger and creepier. It culminated one night in August. My husband and I had dozed off reading in bed, with the lights still on in our room. The next thing we knew, we were both on the floor.

Something had pulled us out of bed, and threw us on the floor. Both doors to our room were closed- the interior door was closed, and the door leading outside was closed and locked from the inside. There was no one there but us. We both wound up bruised from hitting the floor, and we each had scratch marks on our calves where we had been grabbed. Those particular marks took a long time to heal, and they had a burning sensation that lasted for days.

Talk about scared? We were terrified. That night we grabbed some clothes, stuffed them into a bag and took off for a motel for the night. Two weeks later we moved. I have seen some spooky things, but I have never been so terrified in all my life. "

Is there anything else we should know about the story or being scared? "Fear is an odd thing. Neither one of us slept more than a few moments at a time until we moved, and there are times still that we wonder what happened, what "it" was, and will it happen again?"

Do you have any feedback for this HIT? "It will be interesting to see the other results. Thanks for the HIT!"

What is your gender? Female

Write two or more paragraphs about the most frightening thing to happen to you. "It was the middle of the afternoon my husband was in the living room checking his email, my children were playing in the living room. It was pretty loud in the house due to the kids playing. I had walked down the hall to change the laundry on my way back through to the kitchen I noticed a shadow on the walk-in porch. I stopped dead in my tracks staring through the window into the man's eyes that was standing on the other side of the door into my living room like he was just waiting for ample opportunity.

Absolute terror ripped through my bones, and I just let out this scream that could have woke the dead. My husband was like "What,What!" He had no idea what I had just seen. By the time I got the words out of my mouth the man on the inside porch had turned and ran, he was no where to be found.

I went down to the police station to file a report, and they showed me a bunch of different mug shots. Come to find out the man that had broken into my house and was waiting to do god only knows what was a homeless man. The police officer told me to make sure that I lock my doors at anytime I am home, and assured me they would look for the man.

They ended up catching the man a week later after he broke into another home. It still scares me to death to think of what could have possibly happened. People that break into your home when you are there and they know it are not in their right mind."

Is there anything else we should know about the story or being scared? "I would never have thought this would have happened in a small town in the country but it did."

Do you have any feedback for this HIT? "This was an interesting hit."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Our Best Habits According to Mechanical Turk

IMG_2506I'm not too surprised that my good habit survey on Mechanical Turk hasn't been as popular as my bad habit survey. People find bad habits more fascinating that good, I think. And yet, the good habit survey still has many more responses than my survey on engineering books. Go figure.

I have received 100 responses to my good habit survey. As with the bad habit survey, the quantity of data doesn't fit well into a blog post. I quickly picked a sampling of responses to post below.

Thanks to all the workers who completed my Mechanical Turk surveys!

Habit I admire in other people: “Standing up when an adult enters the
room, especially if the child has yet to meet him/her. When the child gets up says hello and shakes his/her hand it’s a sign of respect.”

Do I have the same habit? “yes”

Do other people like this habit? “no”

How could someone learn this habit? “Teach their children.”

Will I try to learn this habit? alreadyHave*

Comments about this habit: “Adults react with noticing the kid has respect and is polite. The habit is a pleasent suprise.”

What is my best habit? “Always saying hi to people when I see them, standing up when an elder enters the room and great posture.”

How did I get my best habit? “My parents taught me it, when I was very young.”

Comments about this habit: “People are happy and answer back positively.”

Habit I admire in other people: “The most wonderful and universal behaviour is to smile, a good habit is to be courteous.”

Do I have the same habit? “yes”

Do other people like this habit? “yes”

How could someone learn this habit? “Just be aware of your surroundings and take the time to notice your fellow man/woman and remember we are all in it together.”

Will I try to learn this habit? alreadyHave

Comments about this habit: “In most cases, if you start off with a warm, welcoming smile you get one in return.”

What is my best habit? “A genuine smile”

How did I get my best habit? “It was my mother’s advice and has worked for me.”

Habit I admire in other people: “Whistling.”**

Do I have the same habit? “yes”

Do other people like this habit? “no”

How could someone learn this habit? “Practicing mostly.”

Will I try to learn this habit? alreadyHave

Comments about this habit: “”

What is my best habit? “Whistling.”

How did I get my best habit? “It mostly started out with calling to horses, then I just practiced after that.”

Comments about this habit: “Most people I think find it annoying.”

Do I have any other feedback for these questions? “Thank you.”

*This question was multiple choice, hence the machine-generated symbol in camelcase.
**I like whistling too.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Our Worst Habits According to Mechanical Turk

Phone From CarMy survey of habits that drive people crazy has been a hit on Mechanical Turk (see my earlier post on Mechanical Turk). Unlike my survey on the best engineering books, I've received more than 130 responses!

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with so much data. The responses are fascinating to read, but it's way too much data for a blog post; I'll have to find another way to publish the data.

In the mean time, here are a few randomly chosen responses. I've abridged the questions to save space, but the quotes are unedited.

Habit that drives me crazy: “People who panic over nothing are draining and shouldn’t be allowed to work.”

Do I have the same habit? “no”

Are other people usually annoyed by this habit? “yes”

How could someone change this habit? “Firing the employee.”

My worst habit: “Being stressed out.”

What could I do to change my habit? “Meditating”

Will I take action to change my habit? “no”

Do I have any other feedback for these questions? “kudos”

Habit that drives me crazy: “Lying, especially flattery.”

Do I have the same habit? “yes”

Are other people usually annoyed by this habit? “yes”

How could someone change this habit? “It’s hard to tell the truth in part because we may not know it ourselves or we may feel that it will hurt the other person. But in the long run, lies hurt more.”

My worst habit: “Lying”

What could I do to change my habit? “Taking the risk of telling the truth.”

Will I take action to change my habit? “yes”

Do I have any other feedback for these questions? “Very interesting. Sort of transformative.”

Habit that drives me crazy: “when people call and do not leave a message on voice mail they just hang up.”

Do I have the same habit? “yes”

Are other people usually annoyed by this habit? “yes”

How could someone change this habit? “leave a message when they call even if it is just to say their name”

My worst habit: “The same thing”

What could I do to change my habit? “leave messages even if it is a call just to chat and not something important”

Will I take action to change my habit? “no”

Do I have any other feedback for these questions? “It makes you think about how the things that annoy you most in other people you do yourself”

Habit that drives me crazy: “Overall, generalized stupidity - think of the examples outlines in “Here's Your Sign” by Bill Engvall” *

Do I have the same habit? “yes”

Are other people usually annoyed by this habit? “yes”

How could someone change this habit? “Stopping to THINK before they say and do obviously stupid things.”

My worst habit: “Talking too much, and with too little tact. My problem is that my lips move when I think.”

What could I do to change my habit? “Just stay quiet... preferably with my mouth full of water or something.”

Will I take action to change my habit? “yes”

* You can help me and my publisher by buying the book using this link. In association with Amazon.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Best Engineering Books According to Mechanical Turk

BoltMy first Mechanical Turk experiment asked for the worker's favorite engineering book. See my previous post for a little more background.

This HIT has not received many responses, but I'm not very surprised. There are still assignments open on Mechanical Turk if you wish to contribute.

I asked the following questions:
  1. What is the title of your favorite book on the subject of Engineering? The book might be your favorite because it is fun to read, because it has great ideas, because it is so useful, or some other reason.
  2. Who is the author of your favorite book on the subject of Engineering? This should be the author of the book you mentioned above.
  3. What engineering specialty does this book apply to? Civil engineering? Software engineering? Engineering in general?
  4. Why is this your favorite engineering book? Is it practical? Entertaining? Or something else?
  5. Do you have any feedback? If you're curious, the results of this survey will likely end up on
Below are the responses I received so far.

Artificial Intelligence (3rd Edition) (A-W Series in Computerscience)

Author: Patrick H. Winston

Specialty: Artificial Intelligence/Software Engineering

Reason: Very well written and covers many topics. I took Prof. Winston's class and this got me interested in the field, and I have since then followed a career path in AI and machine learning.

Civil Engineering Reference Manual for the PE Exam

Author: Michael R. Lindeburg

Specialty: Civil

Reason: It is efficient and practical. Most needed information for general civil engineering issues are included in this book.

Feedback: I will try to remember to check it out. I'm curious how many other relevant turkers there are.

Post-Capitalist Society

Author: Peter Drucker

Specialty: industrial engineering / industrial psychology

Reason: Peter Drucker wrote "The Post Capitalist Society" more than ten years go, just as the Internet was starting to come on line. He was prescient in the view that the information of the world would begin to upwell and then overflow. His discussion of the commodification of information, the need to train people how to search and research, the psychology (and growing frustration and dropping out) of the rapid evolution of society are coming true. The evolution of knowledge work into low, medium, and high skill sets are something I struggle to implement in the IT system architecture and user interfaces I help implement. Seeing information as a new commodity, a product to be processed, sorted, transformed, and handed off to users in a final and finished form on demand is becoming critical to apply process improvement methodologies to the IT world.

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource

Author: Marq de Villiers

Specialty: Civil Engineering with an emphasis toward our water resource

Reason: Unlike other mundane engineering books, the flow (pardon my pun) of this book is smooth as it describes the various challenges and engineering feats concerning the water industry. In fact, I have lent the book to other friends and family members who are not of an engineering background, but have exactly been left impacted by the central message. It is that central message is sometime that I try to instill to up and coming engineers back at my alumnus school; that the field of engineering is laid out by formulas and pratical sense, but our ultimate work is dictated by social constructs and attitudes. Most people in America expect to have water, which is defined as a luxury, though really it is a resource. Anyway, it is a very enjoyable read.

Feedback: Good luck finding engineering books, they are certaintly rare, or at least those which are a good read.

* You can help me and my publisher by buying the book using These links. In association with Amazon.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Project Turk

Red FezI was reminded of Amazon's Mechanical Turk a few weeks ago by a story on Boing Boing. In the article, a passenger stranded at Dulles used Mechanical Turk to collect stories and illustrations about cats. He later turned the stories into a book he sold on Blurb.

It seemed like a fantastic idea to me. I wondered how I could use the power of the Turk's hive mind to improve my life. Project Turk was born. Let's see if Mechanical Turk can help me live a better and richer life.

The first idea I settled on was to ask engineers what their favorite engineering book was. I'm a big reader. Perhaps it would be fun or inspiring to read a book from a different engineering field.

To start, I created a qualification to act as a prerequisite to the HIT. This basically amounts to a quick survey that established that the worker was an engineer or engineering student. Once a worker gets the qualification, he or she can perform any HIT (Human Intelligence Task) requiring it.

Next, I created the HIT itself, which pays a few cents in exchange for the name of a favorite engineering book. So far I've only received three responses in the past few days. I'm not too surprised; how many engineers would operate on the worker side of Mechanical Turk? I'm going to give it more time to collect data.

The next HIT I created requires no qualification except that the worker live in the US. I'm asking folks about the habits that drive them crazy, and their own worst habits. It's only been online a few hours and already I have 18 responses.There are a few really interesting themes developing. I'll probably post the results in a few days.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Learning Business: The Joel on Software MBA

More than a NumberI've decided to read the books from the Fog Creek Software Management Training Program. Well, at least the top ten books.

Why? I'm a big fan of Joel Spolsky's writings and musings. Joel's almost like a software folk hero. When he and Jeff Atwood picked out their favorite books in StackOverflow podcast #12, I knew I had to read them.

Second, I'm a software henchman with entrepreneurial aspirations. Aside from losing money on a small business, I need to take some actions towards the dream. Maybe these fancy business books will help me with my biggest failings: sales and marketing.

Finally, despite my title, around 80% of my real job becomes software engineering. I don't want to be a big-company manager, but maybe knowing a bit about the management side will prove useful. I've always wondered what my management actually does.

I'll report back on what I learn.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reflect on the Past for a Better Future

AvisoWe can learn from books, we can learn from teachers, but we can also learn from the past. Some of the organizations I've worked for never look back.

I'm currently reading DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC* by Edgar H. Schein. This passage really struck a chord with me:

"The focus was on moving forward, not on diagnosing the reasons for past events... As we will see, lack of reflection later allowed many inefficient processes to survive and prevented some crucial learning."

Examining our mistakes doesn't feel good, but we've got to do it. I've certainly observed engineers repeating the same dangerous practices that have burned them before. I'm sure I do it too. To get better we need to measure the past and adjust the present. If we don't consider our mistakes, we won't know what to fix.

When we find a problematic practice, we must change. Sticking with our habits feels comfortable and safe, but it isn't. Changing bad practices probably won't expose us to more risk than keeping them.

* You can help me and my publisher by buying the book using this link: DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC: The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation. In association with Amazon.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

One Basket

TowersThe dropping stock market was the topic of the day among my friends. Some of them have been buying discounted shares of their employer's stock through stock purchase plans. A few of them have been buying shares of their employer on the open market too. They aren't very happy with that decision anymore.

I think discounted purchase plans can be a great deal, but I wouldn't invest more than I can afford to lose. Remember that your employer is already one source of income -- you don't want to tie your income, savings, and retirement funds to the same source. Losing your job and savings on the same day would feel pretty rotten.

Just because you might feel that you have insider information on your employer doesn't mean that you're a better judge about the stock than anyone else. As one engineer friend recently said: I've seen a lot of great products that didn't go anywhere.

Diversify. Buy index funds. Do research. I suggest starting with I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Apply What You Know

Doors at Union StationOccasionally I will run into an engineering problem that stumps me. Instead of actually making progress against it, I'll get stuck thinking in circles. I let my automatic problem-solving habits trap me into considering the same possible solutions over and over again.

I've stumbled on one trick to defeat circle think: ask yourself for advice. Present the problem to yourself as if you were asking another person for help. Then answer your own question while imagining the advice was for another person.

I think this works first because it forces you to clearly define the problem. Secondly, when offering advice to someone else, you're less concerned about how ugly the solution might be.

In addition to hopefully generating the best possible answer you can come up with, it may also give you more sympathy for folks who ask your advice.

Mark at Mark++ essentially gave me this idea. He would pop into my cube to ask for advice. By the time he got halfway through his explanation, he'd jump out of the chair. "I figured it out! Thanks!"

Mark used to joke that he needed a cardboard cutout to talk to. Funny how you sometimes needs another person to help bring out your expertise.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Calling

Chicago River
"A calling (or vocation) is a passionate commitment to work for its own sake. Individuals with a calling see their work as contributing to the greater good... any job can become a calling, and any calling can become a job."
Martin E. P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2002.*

If you've ever heard Warren Buffett talk, or read his letters to the shareholders, you can tell that he is a man with a calling. Despite his insane wealth, he lives fairly modestly, and always gets to work early.

He measures up to just about every standard of success, yet he carefully reports even his smallest mistakes to his shareholders. He clearly loves his work and holds himself to the highest standards.

How do you compare to Mr. Buffett? Is your job a calling, or does it just help pay your bills?

* You can help me and my publisher by buying the book using this link: Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. In association with Amazon.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Fighting for Vacation

Platform at Union StationAfter I graduated from college, I used to start my vacation planning process by talking with my boss. I would propose a date and duration -- in essence asking permission to take vacation. Then the boss would veto or approve it and I could buy tickets, hotel rooms, etc.

This approach to vacation had several flaws. First, I behaved like vacation was a privilege instead of a right. I strongly believe that vacation is a right and a necessity. Vacation hours are not a favor or a bonus -- they are part of your compensation.

Second, it made changing my plans complicated -- if I couldn't get tickets for those dates, did I have to go through the process again? The extra step also makes it harder to get a good deal on hotels or travel. Friction of this sort discourages vacation rather than encouraging it.

Now that I'm slightly wiser, I use ideas I stole from negotiation tactics. I start with the Fait Accompli. Instead of asking and then planning, I buy all the tickets and hotel reservations first. Only then do I tell my boss the dates I'll be gone.

This way, I've put myself in a strong position. If the boss objects to my choices, his recourse is limited. If the dates are bad, he gets to worry instead of me. If the boss demands I stay, he looks unreasonable. Am I supposed to just abandon all the money I put into the plans already?

Even if the boss insists you stay, it will be perfectly reasonable for you to demand reimbursement for your losses. Just the prospect of trying to expense such an absurd thing -- the cost of ruining your vacation plans -- may change your boss's mind.

The key to this tactic is to act assertively but always appear in control and reasonable. I'm not saying you shouldn't act surprised if your boss objects -- a good negotiator would. But you should always be in control so that any objections sound unreasonable.

Another tactic is to always announce your vacation two or more weeks in advance if possible. Two weeks has the advantage of a strong association with the accepted notice when quitting. If you really felt strongly about taking this vacation, you have the (risky) option of calling your boss's bluff. "You say three weeks notice isn't adequate, but if I were quitting this would be a week more than the standard two weeks notice."

Equally important, you must always carefully communicate your vacation plans. If you use some sort of online vacation system, immediately put the dates into it. Send your boss and coworkers an email too. Don't act passive-aggressively. If anyone has objections you want them to come out immediately or never.

Planning vacation this way also helps to train your boss and coworkers. He or she will start to realize that there are consequences for poor planning and communications. It will become obvious that last minute crises and under-staffing can't work when engineers actually use their vacation. It also provides a useful reminder to both the boss and you that the boss is not a master, but a supervisor.

Keep in mind that these tactics can hold risks for you. Your boss may not be used to engineers taking charge of their own lives. If so, this is one way to start getting him used to the idea. It's also possible, although I think unlikely, that you may end up faced with the choice of losing the money you spent on tickets or taking vacation without your boss's blessing.

Despite the risks, I think defending your vacation is important. Although there are certainly some engineering jobs out there which are adventures in themselves, I think a balanced life requires an escape from the work environment. Unpaid activities are often the most memorable and rewarding.

If you want to learn more about negotiation, I suggest the book Secrets of Power Negotiating. You can find more information about this book in my recommended reading list for Engineers.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vanity Meetings

Voldemort at Union Station What is the business equivalent of an alien abduction? What activity annihilates productivity and irritates the best engineers? The Vanity Meeting.

You know what I'm talking about. The attendees get locked in a room for some incomprehensible reason. Work grinds to a halt until speaker finally runs out of breath an hour or two later.

Symptoms of a vanity meeting:
  • everyone stares at their laptop instead of the speaker
  • thirty minutes are spent on a minute detail that 90% of the audience doesn't care about
  • there are more rat-holes than real meeting
  • nobody asks questions, OR
  • only one or two people asks questions -- constantly
  • no agenda was sent before the meeting
  • the meeting is automatically scheduled with no regard for necessity
  • the meeting is never less than the allotted time
  • the presenter has prepared "bonus" slides in anticipation of not using the entire meeting time with the normal slides
  • the meeting starts late because nobody wants to sit through the whole thing
  • nobody takes notes
  • attendees are selected by org-chart rather than necessity
  • slides are presented by someone other than the author of the slides
  • the presentation or discussion is vague and abstract
  • the presenter uses incomprehensible or undefined jargon
  • the scheduler individually addresses attendees but holds everyone else hostage for the duration
  • the scheduler doesn't pay attention in his or her own meeting
  • the meeting takes place after 4PM on any day, but especially Friday
  • the scheduler is late for his or her own meeting
  • the presenter shows the same presentation or artifact at every meeting
  • data is presented back to the people who collected it
Vanity meetings:
  • serve no business purpose
  • are used in the place of good documentation or real discussion
  • are often for the wrong audience
  • frequently get stuck in rat-holes
  • waste time
  • squander the focus of the attendees
  • make the speaker feel important
  • give everyone plenty of time to practice Tetris
  • take control away from the attendees
  • reduce job satisfaction
  • become infectious
  • institutionalize procrastination

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Mysteries of Vacation

FishmanVacation is your safe haven from work's demands. For the Engineer Adventurer it's one of the few tools that returns complete control of life for a period of time. Weekends and holidays barely allow the time to escape the city, much less the cramped mentality of work.

Across the spectrum of engineering jobs there is a large variation in the amount of vacation given each year. My first out-of-school job started with a measly two weeks of vacation per year and topped out at three weeks after years of service. At the other end of the spectrum, I've worked for a company that started their newest hires with four weeks and after many years of service award up to eight weeks.

Of all the benefits an employer provides, vacation must qualify as the most grudgingly awarded. I've heard bosses and HR personnel extol the virtues of 401k matching, the gym, and health care. But I seldom hear them encourage employees to take vacation.

Even when the boss isn't pleading for you to stay, the pace of work discourages taking time off. The barrage of meetings, emails, and instant messages make it feel impossible to escape the office without falling hopelessly behind. 50 or 80 hour work weeks make it sound impossible. Vacation time gets pushed behind the piles of late projects, guilt, and panic.

Ironically, I haven't personally found a large difference in attitudes between companies with skimpy vacation and those with generous vacation. Under both circumstances I commonly heard of colleagues losing vacation hours because they weren't using them. Some of the colleagues seem bemused or proud of the fact. Others seem resentful that their life takes second place to the sometimes silly demands of work.

In either case, the attitudes of one company and another with twice the allowed vacation are similar. I suspect that the real problem isn't the amount of vacation. Instead, poor planning, low productivity, or unrealistic expectations probably create the tension surrounding time off.

Use your vacation, don't let work run your life. Your boss is a supervisor, not a slave driver. You can replace your job -- probably with a better one that lets you actually take vacation promised to you. Your colleagues will survive without you, just as you survive when they are out. Don't let work steal your time while it so often squanders it's own time on activities that don't contribute to the bottom line.