Archive: March, 2017

That summer camp feeling

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 18, 2017, 12:16 AM | comments: 0

I only went to summer camp once, and it was a camp that the City of Cleveland recreation division ran. It was the summer before grade nine, starting high school, and it was a weird thing where I was slowly feeling confident about my place in the world (until I moved to the suburbs and had to start over, later that year). I was at the upper end of the age for the camp, and most of us in my cabin were there because we had younger siblings there (though I don't recall actually ever encountering Jason during the stay). It was a fairly positive experience, and I suspect a great thing for the other inner-city kids.

The best parts were when we collaborated on stuff. I would experience this later in high school, when I would produce a TV recording for basketball, or record a show from the theater kids. In college, it's something we did with every TV show we produced, or my minor involvement in theater. I would repeat that experience after college doing government TV, and much later in collaborative situations as a software developer. There's something enormously fulfilling about putting together a "show" with other people, even when, like me, you straddle that line between introvert and extravert.

I recognize this phenomenon by proxy any time I see certain movie special features. The Oceans trilogy (with Clooney and Pitt) are big examples of this. The Pitch Perfect series also qualify (can't wait for the third one!). Any time you have a big ensemble cast, it seems like the general sentiment is, "Wow, we had such a good time making this!" It's probably true for any movie, but you don't generally get the testimonial of a random grip in the special features for a movie.

In my day job, leading software development, collaboration happens almost every day. Sometimes you even get away from it, and gather with the people, to have some important moments with your co-workers that lead to important new things (I had one of these the first night we were at SXSW, last week). There's something intoxicating about this process, where you get together with people and create something awesome. Looking back at my life, I'm kind of surprised at how infrequently this occurred, and how infrequently I made changes in recognition of this lack of awesomeness.

But it's funny how often I come back to the film variety of this. My darling wife, working in theater as a stage manager, got paid to make something awesome and connective happen with people every night. Can you imagine that? I recently met a new friend, an ex of my ex (this is why you should stay friends), who has been touring as part of the cast of Wicked for years. Watching him on the Facebook, it's staggering that this is what he gets to do for a living, and he's not even a little unappreciative about it. That's amazing.

For years now, I've put some pressure on myself to write something worth shooting, and haven't produced more than a page or two at any given time. But I want to do it, not really for the resulting art that I hope for, but more because I want to have that collaborative thing happen to make the art. Hopefully, one day, I'll have that idea, and I can gather my friends to make it happen.

A new quilting empire

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 17, 2017, 8:28 PM | comments: 0

My wife, Diana, is awesome for a great many reasons. When we moved to Seattle, following both of us getting laid-off in 2009 while getting pregnant, Diana decided that she would stick to being a mom for at least the short-term, since I was making more than enough money at Microsoft. Understand, that's a pretty bold move to make for someone who spent the previous 20+ years being largely self-sufficient. It turns out that this was a good decision for a great many reasons, not the least of which is that it allowed her to be super involved with Simon while some of his earlier challenges surfaced. That, in a lot of ways, is full-time work by itself. It wasn't until about two years ago (and change) that she started to work part-time again.

A little over four years ago, Diana decided that she wanted to become more serious about quilting. Sure, it's a hobby, but what I've learned is that even hobbies require excellent tools to do it right. That's why years ago I bought a decent camera and a decent video camera. Ditto for expensive computers used to write code. If you're a mechanic, you don't buy your tools at Walmart. (Sidebar: You might buy them at K-mart though, since they carry Craftsman, the Sears brand, which have been pretty solid for as long as I can remember. My socket set I've had for two and a half decades!) So she bought a really good sewing machine. Since then, with a lot of practice and an excellent tool, she's become pretty good at quilting. She made an amazing BB-8 quilt for Simon for his birthday.

Meanwhile, her blog is pretty well followed, literally by thousands, and when she goes to a conference, people know her. That's pretty cool. For some time, we've been talking about a long-arm machine, which allows you to free-motion the shit out of a quilt, without being constrained to the relative confinement of a traditional sewing machine. These things aren't cheap. However, Diana met a vendor at a conference, who was willing to sell the floor model for about $2k under the normal price. As it turns out, they oversold their units, so she got a completely new one for that price. Score!

Certainly something this expensive isn't viewed strictly as a hobby purchase, and she was motivated in part by the fact that she met someone who paid for one of their kids college tuition by renting out their skills on a long-arm to people who need big quilts quilted. The idea of getting paid for something you enjoy is not a hard sell, and I agreed that it would be worth it to purchase the machine. We don't have a business plan around this or anything, but if she can bang out a few paid gigs a year and it pays for itself over some arbitrary number of years, that's a pretty cool way to pay for a hobby! In all of the years I've been shooting video for fun, I've only made about $3k. That wouldn't even pay for one of the two cameras I've owned at various times.

Diana is part artist, which you would expect for someone who pursued a career as a stage manager. I love that she gets to do this now, regardless of whether or not the cost of the machine is ever entirely paid for. It's amazing how quilts touch people. I'm glad that I get to be the supportive husband in this case. I like to brag, a little, about her.

Parenting and exhaustion from clinical experts

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 17, 2017, 7:07 PM | comments: 0

When Simon was diagnosed with ASD, I felt like it was just confirmation of a suspicion. I felt like it explained a lot of his behavior, and set him up with success after a lot of therapy and some great teachers.

This year, however, it was apparent that not everything was clicking at school. The district's previous evaluation was that he no longer needed services around the ASD. Various experts and therapists since that time all seem to conclude that the ASD is not a visible challenge, and I'm starting to come around to the idea that it makes sense. For all the time and money spent on therapy and the earlier developmental challenges, we would hope that he can cope with some of those challenges. The occasional meltdown aside, I think he's adapted pretty well with most (but not all) things. He still struggles with social contracts. (Just now: "Simon, you're pretty good at that." "Yes, I know I am.")

Then comes the ADHD diagnosis. I've read the stories from parents, where the immediate recommendation is, "Medicate!" I wasn't crazy about this, because thinking about ASD and projecting my own experience on to him, I just figured that when it comes to school, he doesn't do what doesn't interest him. Still, it made a difference for Simon's cousin, and so he was prescribed an extremely low dose of a relatively new med. Aside from a few instances of him being super highly focused on completing tasks (in an autistic way, I would add), and not being able to turn off his brain, the results in school have been positive. It seems to help.

The most recent concerns, however, center around speech and expressive language, and in particular an issue where he gets overwhelmed by information and doesn't parse out the less relevant parts. Also, he seems to suffer from anxiety around the desire to get it all right, right away. This has manifest itself in art class when he can't draw what he wants, or at home when he must use a ruler to make perfect lines for underlining.

Now take all of this in when you're just trying to get the kid to eat at dinner and not try to snack all night, or get him to take a shower in a reasonable time frame. It's exhausting. I feel like every expert sees the thing that they're looking for, and I'm very cautious about the idea that medicine is the go-to option without therapy. Mostly, I'm just tired of hearing about all of the ways that Simon isn't perfect. I miss the simpler days of him just needing to catch up a little on motor skills or vocabulary.

If there's any bright spot, it's that I can see extraordinary intelligence in our little boy. He's very into examining physics and mechanical things. Heck, even when he plays Planet Coaster on the computer, he likes to zoom in and look at the systems of brakes and motors and things. The challenge, I think, hasn't changed since the autism concerns: We need to do our best to figure out how his wiring best connects to the ability to learn. It's hard for me to stay focused on that when everyone is looking for the next problem.

My 2017 SXSW experience

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 15, 2017, 12:30 PM | comments: 0

I've always had a recreational desire to go to South by Southwest (does anyone actually spell it out in print?), but I've never been able to make a business case for going. This time around, my employer could, for the purpose of getting our distributed team together and being around a lot of people and things that offer inspiration. Who am I to argue with that?

We were there for the interactive part (the others being film and music), and my initial self-direction was to seek out as much as I could that was relevant to my job. This, as it turns out, wasn't a great strategy, because the relevant stuff didn't go very far in the weeds and wasn't really ripe with new information. As a result, half of the stuff I went to was not particularly valuable to me. However, there were other things that I went to that energized me and even blew my mind. I saw Joe Biden talk about cancer research, the editor of the New York Times talk about journalism and Senator Cory Booker talk about the need to focus on love. Hopefully they'll release the video with Mark Cuban, because I hear that was good, too. I saw a talk about online activism that really got me thinking.

What I should have done was spend more time looking at the massive schedule, outside of the tracks that I thought I should focus on. Turns out amazing people like Kerri Walsh Jennings were there, and I didn't realize it. In some ways, that might be the fault of the entire event, that it tends to want to be all things to all people. It's spread out across dozens of venues. The low-quality stuff ends up taking space, and I spent almost as much time queueing for things as I did seeing things. It seems to me that they should book half of the content in bigger rooms so more people get to see what they want to see. Not everything is recorded, either, so there's no way to see it after the fact.

The fact that the hotels and restaurants price gouge leaves a bad taste in my mouth too. I get it, that's capitalism, but doubling your price for breakfast just because you know you can feels gross. The people of Austin seem generally welcoming, but that part doesn't feel good at all.

Still, I don't want to suggest that it isn't worth going. As is the case with most conferences, the conversations you have in the hall are where it's really at. Heck, in my case, those conversations lasted all the way back to MCO, where I had a chance to talk with the mayor of Orlando and his staff (he was at SXSW for a talk on domestic terrorism). Indeed, I talked to people in similar businesses, activists, nerds, artists and even one relative from Ohio that happened to be there. As for my team, we had one conversation in particular that seemed like a breakthrough moment that will help shape our product going forward. That's pretty exciting.

I'm not sure if I'm in any hurry to go back next year, but at some point, yes, I'm sure I'll be back.

The success of the failing New York Times

posted by Jeff | Monday, March 13, 2017, 3:02 PM | comments: 0

I saw a really excellent session yesterday at SXSW called "Covering POTUS: A Conversation with the failing New York Times." Snarky title aside, this was a conversation between Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Media Columnist Jim Rutenberg about the role of the press in democracy, the evolving business model of newspapers and the quality of journalism. It was pretty fascinating stuff, and I walked away feeling that the institutions are actually in pretty good shape, even if not everyone sees it that way.

Baquet started by talking a bit about the business of having a newspaper, which is less about the physical paper every year. It has been reported elsewhere (along with broader implications of its evolution), but the NYT has been making a slow and painful transition from an advertising driven business to a subscriber driven business. That's a pretty terrible situation to be in, because a great many people are so used to stuff online being free. But Baquet insisted that they would staff the right amount of reporters when and where it mattered. The structure of the editorial staff looks a lot different now (most notably a lack of mid-level editors), but they've turned a corner and right-sized it.

Naturally, they have to talk about Trump, and how to report on him. It's not surprisingly complicated, in their eye. You report what he does, truthfully. I was amused by the audience question about bias, because as Baquet pointed out, the paper was accused of the same harsh treatment by the Sanders and Clinton campaigns last year, more even than the Trump campaign. Indeed, using the press as a scapegoat is not the exclusive domain of the right.

Baquet seemed to be particularly proud of their investigative work, and mentioned that they've hired several "well known" investigative journalists in the last year. The Times was the paper that found the only public record of Trump's taxes, the questionable dealings of his charity, and a number of stories about his interactions with women. They went the deepest over email and Benghazi as well (without finding particularly damning stuff, because it didn't exist).

One of the things that really stuck with me was that he was asked about how journalism is defined, and despite saying he was uncomfortable being the authority on that subject, he generalized that it was the careful pursuit of truth. In that context, he named BuzzFeed News (their news division, not the link bait farm), as the real thing, but definitely not something like Breitbart, which deals only in self-serving propaganda. I don't think that goes far enough, as the pursuit of truth is the guiding principle, but there's more to it than that. Perhaps a related issue is that a lot of journalism gets buried inside of punditry, which is frankly not useful at all.

Since my degree is in journalism (double-majored in radio/TV and journalism), I've always had a love for the profession even if I never practiced it professionally. Newsworthiness and attribution is the thing that I feel news, or things being called news, get wrong much of the time, and not having the broader editorial systems of the past I think are part of the problem. But to suggest that there isn't "real" journalism going on is false. The NYT doesn't get it all right, all of the time, but the intent is correct and solid.

The usefulness and destructive power of generalizations

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 11, 2017, 4:00 PM | comments: 0

I'm at SXSW this weekend, and it has been an interesting experience so far. (I had a Twitter interaction with Cory Booker!) The conference is, in the general sense, one targeted toward creative endeavors, but when it intersects with technology, I'm disappointed with the way many of the speakers put up walls between "creative" and "technical" things and people. It annoys me. It makes a lot of generalizations about the type of people who are one or the other, and what their abilities are.

I don't care much for generalizations. In fact, I would say that generalizations are bad, but of course this means that I am making a generalization myself. This is ironic or meta or something, that generalizations can't be generalized. Not wanting to be a hypocrite, I had to force myself to overcome my own generalization about generalizations.

It isn't hard to see where generalizations are useful, especially in business. If you have a product that is used by people with similar traits, then understanding who they generally are and what they generally need makes it easier to craft the product for them, not to mention sell to them. There are a lot of similar veins in this concept, that the better you can understand a large body of people or things, the better equipped you are to interact with it.

That said, I absolutely despise the strict categorization and classification of people in business, and especially in technology. This conference talks about design quite a bit, and while every speaker (for some reason) wants to define it, the way it's applied is crappy. There is a sentiment that you can be a good designer, or a good programmer, but not both. Others believe you can be a great manager, or great individual contributor, but not both. You can be a great analyst, or a great programmer. You get the idea.

Here's why this sucks: You are artificially limiting the capability of someone based on their strengths or personalities at a given moment in time. It also sucks because you're suggesting, "You can't do that because you aren't smart enough (or good enough or gosh darn it people like you). Without even getting to the fact that this may offend someone, you have placed them in a box and set an expectation now. You have disincentivized someone to expand their abilities and skills into a new area.

Is this really what you want? Someone who doesn't want to be better at more things? I can tell you for sure that I want developers who get design, and designers who get developing. They don't have to be all-stars at both ends, but I certainly don't want to put artificial constraints them that limit personal growth and collaboration. Let's not generalize about people like that. 

Simon at 7: A year in photos

posted by Jeff | Sunday, March 5, 2017, 9:06 PM | comments: 0

Today was Simon's 7th birthday, and we celebrated all weekend. As it turns out, we kind of subconsciously adopted the "experiences not stuff" theme for his birthday, spending money on activities that he'll hopefully remember instead of toys that he may play with for a short period of time. He still did acquire quite a bit of Lego from various people, but what he kept asking for was to do things. Diana found a wonderful and inexpensive local place with a mini-golf course, and we had his friends there for a party.

I haven't had the good camera out much this year, and no "photo shoots," which I kind of regret. I used to do these little photo retrospectives every year, but got out of the habit. He's getting older so fast. In any case, here are a few photos from the last year...

This is just a week ago, when we rented a little boat out on the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake. It's one of those things that has always been here, but we never did it. He was terrified until we had some lunch and talked through it, but of course, a few minutes in, he loved it.

OK, so yes, it's looking at Simon from behind, but this was a special moment for him. This was on a three-night cruise, and we happened to be there when they were sealing the doors just before we left port. The officer that invited him to see it was Officer Simon, from the UK. This sort of thing appeals to his mechanical interests.

After living in Florida for more than three years, we finally figured out that, yes, we can go to the beach the day after Christmas. This year, we did. The little boy who wouldn't even walk in the sand without shoes a few years ago is now willing to be buried in it.

My BFF got married this year, and in addition to me being a "bridesbro," Simon got to be the ring bearer. He did a great job helping with the flower girl, and stood up there for the whole 20 minutes, like a pro. (I didn't take the picture.)

Simon is a little obsessed with elevators. He's also pretty excited to visit the Dr. Phillips Center, where mom works front of house. This led to an invitation for him to volunteer as "elevator captain" for a kids show there, and it pretty much made his life. Yes, he even had a name tag.

There are a lot of things about Simon's life that are extraordinary, and while not knowing a world without the Internet is certainly an obvious future fro him, he's also growing up not remembering having a gasoline car. This was a stop in Tifton, Georgia, on the way up to Nana and Papa's for their wedding. Normally we would go up the coast to North Carolina, but Hurricane Matthew was chasing us.

This is the year that Simon started to get Lego building in a non-trivial way. I think his spacial perception was probably pretty good, but his fine motor skills have been a struggle. Something clicked.

Taking a significant vacation felt like something of a risk, I guess because you never know how well a kid will remember a trip, or whether or not it's a big deal. On the other hand, I'll remember it, and sailing the fjords around the inner passages of Alaska with my little guy was unforgettable. If that wasn't amazing enough, Simon met some lovely kids from Hawaii while playing shuffleboard. In Alaska. I don't know how to teach him that this is amazing.

We don't go to Walt Disney World as much as we used to, because it just isn't that easy when school is in session and there's a bed time involved. My patience for Magic Kingdom in particular is stretched thin because of the crowds and having to take transportation after parking. Still, a stop at the Kingdom often means a stop at the Polynesian Village Resort, and the Pineapple Lanai for Dolewhip. In a sign that his teen years are getting closer, he can now put away an entire float by himself.

This is why I should get the camera out more often. Simon played rec league soccer this year. He wasn't very good at it, didn't seem to take the coaching very well, but he seemed to have a good time with the other kids. (He got a participation trophy. Groan.) Unfortunately, he didn't like tennis as much.

If you live in Florida, rockets can be a part of your life. He has seen a number of launches now, both at the cape and from home, and we always watch the streaming feed when we can. This little air powered rocket captured his imagination for a bit.

This is my favorite picture of him this year. We did two cruises with our Seattle family this year, and it helped with my biggest regret about moving away from there: He doesn't get to see his cousins very often, when they used to be down the street. This was aboard the Magic on a really lovely 4-night cruise. Pirate night, of course!

Dotcom unicorns are still a thing

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 2, 2017, 11:08 PM | comments: 0

Do you remember 2000, when all of these crazy Internet companies were going on about the "eyeballs" they had? None of them really had a viable business model, and most of them are gone now. You remember, right?, eToys, Infospace, Webvan, etc. There was a secondary boom in the mid to late oughts, where companies dropped vowels from their names, and VC's threw millions at startups with the latest app in hopes of finding a unicorn.

Sometimes this works out, and sometimes the company will even go public, though that's a rarity these days. But we had a unicorn today... Snapchat went public, and it's now worth $30 billion. Even if you don't use it, you probably know what it is, the ephemeral chat app that teens use to send each other nudies. I guess some people over 30 use it, but it definitely skews young. I don't know why the world needs so many chat apps, even one that forgets, but deciding it's worth $30 billion is insane. Keep in mind, they lost a half-billions last year, and by their own IPO filing, declared that they might never be profitable. If there's a viable business model relative to the insane amount of money they're spending, no one knows what it is.

Let that soak in for a minute. Thirty. Billion.

A lot of people got rich today, which is no small achievement. It just doesn't feel like it's based on anything.

After working in technology for this entire time, it seems like the obsession over unicorns hasn't subsided. The number of technology companies that have managed to stick around and become household names is not large. And yet, this whole system of venture capital feeding projects, I wouldn't even call them businesses, seems inefficient and wasteful.

What can I say, I'm biased because I've always beat the Basecamp (formerly 37signals) drum, a company that built something sustainable with its own money, going strong for 17 years. Now I work for a small company that is also bootstrapped, has a viable business plan and is creating something valuable and inspiring for its customers. That's pretty exciting to me. I think that's the engine that really feeds the economy in the broader sense... small companies that solve problems and grow at a rational and sustainable rate. Maybe they even level off at some point, but if they don't go public, that's OK. 

You can't manage children

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 1, 2017, 10:56 PM | comments: 0

If there's anything funny about living next door to Walt Disney World, it's to think of my visits there long before we lived here, and before we had Simon. Diana and I would see all of the kids and wonder what ours might look like, and not knowing if the plumbing worked, we were always warmed by seeing parents who adopted. I'm not proud to say that I also was super judgy toward parents who seemed incapable of "controlling" their kids, presumably because of some fundamental parenting failure. Yeah, so when I would be standing on the monorail platform with a kid melting down because we weren't going to ride in the first car (chalking that up to ASD), I felt like a real dick for even having those perceptions of parents back in the day.

As Simon turns 7 this weekend, I've certainly come around to the fact that you just don't know the situation that other parents have. It's not just that I sometimes question my own parenting abilities, it's that there are too many environmental and developmental variables to possibly know how things are going to go. Every kid is different, so even if you have more than one, there's no guarantee that everything you learned about the first will apply to the subsequent kids. You just have to figure it out.

There's still one thing that I get judgmental about though, and that's the idea that you can manage your kids. This isn't prompted by any particular observation of anyone in particular, but I do recall seeing it a little in my coaching days, and an article I read recently about directing you kids to certain things (as a means for long-term success) made me think about it. By "manage," I mean treat them in the way that you would a business unit or professional relationship. In those situations, motivations and situational context tends to be far easier to define. When it comes to your kids, a lot of the time it seems impossible.

Concrete example: You want your kid to limit some particular activity for some arbitrary reason. The problem is that your arbitrary reason likely has nothing to do with the desire to perform the activity. We tend to forget that the "problems" of a child seem insignificant compared to our grownup problems, but they have nothing else to compare to. I struggle with this all of the time. I'm quick to invalidate because even the most fundamental problems of having to provide for my family seem enormous compared to Simon's need to have a snack before bed, but to him, they're the same level of importance.

In the broader sense, it's the kind of thing they always show in the movies, where Dad is busy and important and directs the children to adhere to some structure and the nanny's direction or whatever, but sometimes they just need their father. Or Neil's father in Dead Poets Society. That guy was a dick.

I'm not saying that you don't set limits for kids, but I do think it's important to think about what makes them do what they do. You can't manage their motivation away, and I think it's important to try and understand it and acknowledge it, even when setting limits.

When you can't take it anymore

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, March 1, 2017, 10:24 PM | comments: 0

Because social media never let's you forget, today was the four-year anniversary of a day that set up every day since. I had been working a new job for barely two months when I felt like my integrity and happiness was circling the drain. It was a bad scene, where I was being asked to lie to customers, and felt lied to about the true potential for the job. Throw another miserable Midwest winter, and I was pretty much at my limit. It felt like 2009, only with more options.

I bailed on that job, started banking money from a boring but high-income contract gig, and we made plans. They started vague: Move somewhere with better weather, eventually get a job doing what I wanted (emphasize "eventually"). In four months, that led us to Central Florida and a one-year contract at a theme park company. Our story since that time, at least professionally and meteorologically, has been extraordinary.

You know how people say that sometimes you need to be in a really dark place to really understand what it means to be happy? I equate that to the bullshit suggestion that everything happens for a reason and want to punch those people in the balls. OK, not really, I don't want to hit anyone. But I would adapt the theory to say that sometimes you need to be pushed to certain limits before you're ready to make a change. That February, in 2013, I think I was reaching that limit. The icky feelings were powerful motivators.

I don't know why we as humans tend to wallow in a bad situation as long as we do. We stay in toxic relationships, jobs that suck our souls, or whatever, as if we're building character or will be awarded some badge of courage for taking a little abuse. I'm not saying that we shouldn't expect a little of it from time to time, because that is life, but when it forms into a long-term pattern, we've gotta make changes. For me, life has proven this routinely on 4-year-cycles since I entered adulthood.

Until this year.

Now it seems that I've realized that the opportunity to make smaller, more frequent adjustments, is a better way to operate. Maybe this is just growing up (it sure took long enough!), or maybe I've cracked the code for myself. It could be me applying my software development lifecycle skills to life, because I've worked in environments where we make lots of frequent, smaller changes for more than a decade. Whatever it is, I don't foresee any dramatic changes coming this year.

But if you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make that change. (Ugh, yeah, I went there.)