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Reasons, goals, and teamwork

Nick@Nick Finck says: When asked to jump, there are those who ask “how high?” & then there are those who ask “why?” Be the person who asks why.

I often find, in meetings with my colleagues, that I ask why a lot. And I know that it often comes across as, “Why on Earth would you want to do that?” I’m not sure why it comes off that way — so I generally make an effort to qualify the question. “I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. I’m asking what your reasoning is behind suggesting it.” I’ve long sought a, perhaps, gentler way to ask, but I really can’t think of one.

Without knowing the “why” behind a decision — why are we planning to redesign? why do we need to hire more staff? why do you want to drop text there? — you can’t be confident that the decision is the right one. You can’t get buy-in from your team. And it’s really hard to ensure that followup decisions are made for the right reasons.

When egos are not allowed in the room, “Why?” (and the discussion that ensues) can be one of the most productive, effective, team-building things you can say to your colleagues.

Professors bought out to speak out?

Qaddafi at a podiumFrom Libya With Love | Mother Jones — How a US consulting firm used academics from Harvard, the London School of Economics, and Rutgers University to rehab Muammar Qaddafi’s image.

Job posting

Wheaton's campusMy pal Bill is moving on from his post at Wheaton, which means his position will soon be vacant. Interested? It’s for a Web Technologist and System Administrator at Wheaton College in Norton, MA. (Listings are in that horrible PeopleAdmin interface, so you’ll have to poke at it a bit to get to the listing.)

Cramming my phone bill

UPDATE (31 May 2012) – I got a card in the mail last week letting me know that there’s a class action suit against Verizon for these cramming practices. I’ll have to go and research if they’ve actually stopped third parties from doing this by default for new customers.

I will admit it. Until now, I wasn’t the kind of person who actually looked closely at the phone bill. Scan it, sure. Make sure that the cost is in the ballpark? Right. But we don’t use the landline much at all, so it’s not very exciting reading.

This month, though, it just didn’t seem…right. Just a little too high. There was a charge on the bill from YCP Network Fax. Never heard of this company. Not sure what it was, but I’m quite sure I didn’t need to be paying someone $15 to use the fax machine that I already had on this second house line.

A call to Verizon confirmed that a monthly service charge had been added to the bill by this third-party company. There’s no way I added this service, intentionally at least. The Verizon rep insisted that there had to be verification before anything could be added to our account, and they would send us the information that *I* verified. They also agreed to remove the charges from our account (this was actually the second month).

Yesterday, I got the paperwork telling me that I “confirmed” this service. Apparently the services was added at a site called This is a site that apparently has lots of job listings on it. Now, I’m certainly not looking for a job, so I am sure I wouldn’t have used or registered at this site. And upon visiting it, I realize that I’ve never seen it before. But then it gets weirder.

The registration information on the paperwork is just slightly wrong. There’s a typo in my address…I wouldn’t have a typo in my address, as whenever I fill out a form on the web, my address auto-fills. But ok, maybe there was a typo. In the mother’s maiden name field, there’s a name I’ve never heard of, much less been related to. And the phone number, remember, is our FAX line…why would I fill out a form with my fax number as contact?

But then it gets even stranger. I use Chrome as my web browser. They said I signed up on July 1, 2010. I went back to my browser history for that day, and the week before it and a few days after it. Nothing. And when I say nothing, I mean that none of the pages I visited even had a form of any sort that I could have filled out. I did buy a couple of things on Amazon with my Prime one-click account a few days before that date, but Amazon has a different email address and phone number than were on this paperwork.

And then you realize, I’ve been slimed. The paperwork says that I would have had to do X, Y, and Z to sign up, and then I would have gotten an email confirmation from these bozos welcoming me to their service. Well guess what, bozos? I don’t ever throw away an email. Even spam gets archived, suckers. There was NOTHING from them. Nothing nothing nothing.

So, somehow, my phone got crammed. Now here’s the real question. Why does Verizon allow anyone with my address and phone number to add a pay service to my phone bill? They have a maiden name, and it’s THE WRONG ONE, they have my address, a phone number, and an email address. There’s nothing here they couldn’t get from a domain registration record, customer loyalty card, hell, everyone has your name, address, phone number, and email address. And that’s ALL THEY NEED to add some pay service to my phone bill?

Verizon, why do you allow this? Why don’t you require verification from your customers when someone wants to use you for a moneymaking scam? Why do you make me spend FIVE MINUTES verifying my identity when I call you just to ask a simple question, make me spend HOURS on the phone doing third party verification when I’ve already had to give you my Social Security number and my firstborn, but you let some known scammer add his service to my phone bill without so much as a hello?

Imma ask this question of you, Verizon, and I’d like an answer.

Interröbang Cartel Favorites

While I’m certainly biased about some of these Interröbang Cartel songs, I hope you’ll find some enjoyment in my selections below. I’ve made a playlist that will work in iTunes or a web browser for your ease of listening.

Songs that I think are pretty good:

Songs that I may only think are good because I worked on them:

Webinar deluge

I spent much of today online in live conversations about social media. I’ll be doing two more webinars tomorrow. They’re important discussions to have, and I’m glad to be loading them all into a couple of days…then take some time to digest.

The hardest part has been the presentations themselves. Most of the folks leading these discussions have been involved in social media for six months or so. Maybe a year. Listening to that kind of a talk can kind of feel like watching your dad dance to rock and roll music.

Were you on Friendster? Orkut? Do you know what FriendFeed is? Have you squatted your username on Brightkite? Forget about Twitter and Facebook — I mean, don’t forget about them, they’re hugely important…but if you’ve not studied up on the past, and not looked in the niches (hey, tried TopHarbor?), this probably all looks bright and shiny to you. The original online social network was probably Usenet.

So, I just wanted to share a few things that I’m thinking about in this social networking space.

* The notion of monetizing social networks, or measuring their ROI, is like the notion of measuring ROI on telephones.

* Different social networks serve different functions, and have different audiences. LinkedIn is data driven. Who are you, where do you work, what do you do, how many TPS reports did you push out? Facebook is a publication — you and your life. Pictures of the kids alongside your latest contract win at work. A picture of you as a person, and a place to keep in touch with other people. Twitter is a conversation. It’s a way of establishing relationships with other people, doing customer service, enhancing customer relations, while allowing companies to show a human side, and humans to establish relationships.

* Protecting your Twitter updates is silly. Of course you protect your Facebook stuff — you don’t want strangers downloading pictures of your kids. But Twitter? The rule is, never say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t say to your mother, your kids, or your boss.

* Social media is a public utility without a monetary framework. It’s not the tools, it’s the people. It’s what you say and do in this public town square that enhances (or doesn’t) your brand, your name, your reputation.

With two more webinars tomorrow, I probably will have more to say about this tomorrow. Also, after sleep.

YouTube’s Added Value

I’ve been using YouTube quite a bit lately to host shareable videos. It’s so easy, a child can use it (and clearly they do, for better or worse). But it’s also maturing into what could become an enterprise-level tool that is a lot more meaningful than videos of kittens falling asleep.

It’s important to me to ensure that as much video as possible is captioned. We’ve captioned many of our YouTube videos already, and we’re hard at work captioning more. The goal is that all of the videos we publish will be closed captioned. Why is this important? Well, certainly for accessibility. Someone who can’t hear the audio track of a video needs to know what’s being said. But also, people in offices who don’t turn up their volume, people in noisy places who can’t quite make out what’s being said through their speakers — they too can use closed captions to ‘hear’ what’s going on.

That’s enough reason for me. But it wasn’t enough for Google. They’ve added the killer-app feature that makes it critical for all thinking people to add captions to their videos — SUBTITLES. That’s right, if you caption your video, the user viewing it has the option to translate those captions into any of approximately 40 different languages. (The thumbnails below will link you to screen shots of just how it works on the user end.)

First there was YouTube EDU, and now captioned *and* subtitled videos — a suite of remarkable tools rising from a pool of skateboarding dogs and angsty teens.

Does (not?) compute…

A few people have asked me recently what tools I use to do the web work I do. So I thought I’d do a rundown of the top apps that make me productive. In writing this, I have realized that I may, in fact, have the most boring jam-packed Dock in all of Mac-land.

BBEdit [text/code editor] (and not just for the obvious reasons) — When I first started using a Mac professionally, it was out of necessity. My Windows machine had blown a motherboard, and the only available loaner was an iMac (StudioDV, the smokey one). I was the only one in the office who was still using Windows, so my colleagues were more than happy to offer me help and advice on appropriate software. BBEdit is the reason I stuck with the Mac. Edit over FTP? Things like ‘Process Lines Containing’ and built-in Tidy and an instant live Preview…it works like I do. Light, powerful, and can clean/update/edit/create faster than anything else out there. I spend most of my day in BBEdit, and not just writing code…but jotting notes, lists, doing information architecture, etc.

LaunchBar [app launching tool] — Shortly after I got my first Mac, I installed LaunchBar. Since then, I’ve gotten quite a few new Macs (hmm…let’s see…at least eight or nine…) and the first thing I install is LaunchBar. I don’t know where any of my apps live. I don’t need to clear off my desktop or have them in the dock to launch them. (Also finds people in the Address Book.) Command-space and the first letter or two, enter. It’s in my muscle memory. Saves me many minutes every day.

Fugu [SFTP client] — Free, BSD-licensed, academic. It’s simple, clean, and always seems to work. Can’t ask for more than that from a client like that.

Fetch [FTP client] — Free academic license (thanks Jim!), and for the one server I have to log into with FTP, it works a treat. Fast, and cute puppy.

xScope [visual design support] — I tried xScope on a whim when it first came out, and I have saved insane amounts of time since. It allows you to measure web-page objects, among other things. So, I have a photo that I want to replace…rather than viewing the image and getting info, or opening it in Photoshop (neither of which necessarily gives you the right info, as the image could be scaled in the CSS or HTML), you just hover over the image, and the pixel dimensions show up. I highly endorse this product and/or service.

LiveScribe Desktop [digital notebook] — This software is the interface between my Mac and my LiveScribe pen. Being able to open that up, type in someone’s name, and find all the meeting notes for all the meetings I’ve ever been in with that person is quite handy.

Yojimbo [information aggregator] — I like junk drawers. I can always find what I need in my junk drawer. Same is true with Yojimbo. I keep all my serial numbers, passwords, and receipts from stuff bought on line in here.

FileMagnet [iPod/iPhone sync] — Some info is important enough that I want to have it with me all the time, but I don’t want it in the cloud. It’s primarily stuff I export from Yojimbo, and then transfer with FileMagnet. Works great. (I posted some details of the Yojimbo/FileMagnet workflow on the Yojimbo talk list.)

Photoshop [image editor] — If BBEdit is my right hand, Photoshop is my left. I don’t LOVE it, but working on the web without it would be like trying to slice bread without a knife. There are tools that are lighter and sleeker and cooler and written in Cocoa, but there’s nothing that comes close to the brute-force power that Photoshop has. Period.

Camino [web browser] — Sure, I use Safari and Firefox, too, and the Web Developer Toolbar is crucial for some tasks. But for some reason, I enjoy browsing in Camino better. It’s faster than either. And even though it has that bug where it doesn’t know how to display buttons properly, I still find it to be the best choice for me. Of course, choosing a browser is like choosing a flavor of chocolate.

VMWare Fusion [Windows virtualization] — I have to test everything on IE. Because people still USE IE you see.

SLife [time tracker] — Gives me a broad view of which apps I spend the most time in, and vaguely what I was doing. It’s kinda neat.

UPDATE: In the two years since I originally posted this, my palette looks remarkably the same. I sidelined FileMagnet for Dropbox, and SLife got too depressing — not the application itself, but what it showed me. Too much time on overhead…sigh. My browser of choice is Chrome these days, although I still have to use ’em all for testing. And Twitter.

New tech, same as the old tech

Those of you who know me will be astounded to learn that I’m using Flash. What you won’t be astounded by is that I’m using it to caption video.

I am really enjoying my new job. The people are great, the work is good, and challenging, but well within the realm of do-able. Plus, I have my own thermostat. I miss my friends at Brown, but we’ve kept in touch, which is nice. I now fill my car’s gas tank once every three weeks or so. Can’t complain about that.

Lately, I’ve been focusing a lot on CMS analysis. It seems like a lot of the decisions we’re working on making and the changes we’re moving towards are things I was involved in five years ago. The good thing is, there’s five years more research and experience in the world to tap into. To that end, you may be interested to see what peer institutions are doing in the realm of content management. 129 self-selected web developers answered a long and very informative survey regarding their experience with CMS products (homegrown, commercial, and open source). Take a look. (Requires Flash. Sigh.)

Saying goodbye

Tomorrow is my last day in the office. I’ve been at Brown for twelve years — twelve *and a half*, if you want to be precise about it. It is the third proper job since college, and by far the longest. I’ve had at least five different titles, and no fewer than eleven offices. On balance, I’ve liked each one. Even the cubicle with no windows in the center of a basement of a concrete bunker was all right, because I had some really smart, cool people in that bunker with me.

It will be sad to leave, I think. But it really hasn’t hit me. The notion that tomorrow is my last day is completely foreign. I will drive to the office, park, walk up the street about a half mile (or maybe take the shuttle), card my way in, and waltz into my lovely corner office — a space with three windows and my purple leafy curtains. The desk is still cluttered with papers, wires, and who knows what. There are still a couple of bags that I never unpacked from the last move a year and a half ago. Bookshelves are full, and my shrinkwrapped MacWrite 1.0 and MacPaint 1.0 are still on the top shelf.

I’ll sit down at my desk, and realize that there are still things that have to get done on at least one of my pressing projects (in fact, I just this moment, 9pm, got ANOTHER email from a professor who has ‘one last thing’). I’ll probably read email, check Twitter or news, and try not to get sucked in for more than five or ten minutes. If I can finish the work that I need to get done by noon, I can start packing. Three hours should be enough, I hope…because that’s when the party starts. We’re expecting about forty people in our conference room, and frankly, I hope it’s packed to the gills. There’ll be beer…in fact, all I asked for was beer and cupcakes. Even regular cake would be fine. But I think that’s a fitting sendoff. No pretentious hors d’oeuvres, no fancy speeches. Just some of the people who have made the last twelve years great for me (and some who’ve made it a challenge, but still) hanging out, having a beer on a Friday afternoon. I can’t think of anything better.

What is going to be weird, though, is Monday morning. I don’t have to rush to work. I have to…er…well, I have a meeting at the Benefits office at my new job (which doesn’t start until the 23rd) at 10. Then I have to…er…the house is pretty clean. So is the car. There’s really no gardening to do, and it’s going to rain anyway. Hmm.

Maybe I’ll schedule a massage.

I hoped that writing this would make it more real, but it doesn’t. I know I will always be welcome at Brown, and I know that many of the friendships I’ve made there will last forever. But I also know that of the forty people at that party, I’ll likely never speak to or set eyes on at least half of them ever again. It’s comforting to realize that for the rest, when we do touch base, it’s likely to feel as though no time has passed at all, and we pick up right where we left off.

And I’ll make new friends, tackle new projects, drive less, and maybe relax more. I’ll have to navigate the scary waters of bureaucracy that I haven’t had to swim in for more than a decade…but I think I can do it. I like to smile, and people like smiles.

Tomorrow I’ll smile. I don’t know if I’ll cry. Probably not. If I don’t, maybe it’ll be because I’m older now. It’s work. It’s less emotional. It’s not baby seals and starving children, it’s just a job. Or it’ll be because it’s just not real. Either way, though, I think there’ll be cupcakes.