Jun 21 2011

Design Whine: Shower Door

I often come across products or web sites or anything really that have (in my opinion) poor design. It might not go as far as poor design, but there is something that I think can be improved. So I am introducing a new series that I’m calling “Design Whine” that consists of me whining about the design of something. First up is the shower door at Sam’s house. Sam is the CTO of Rocket Whale and I stay there when I go up to DC every couple of months so that we can work in the same location. It’s good for things we need to be in the same room for and also for team building. Anyways, on to the shower door.

Shower Door - I Need a Knob!

My design whine for the above picture is as follows. You see that towel on the rack on the wall? That’s mine. Sadly, the door has no handle on this side, forcing me to dig my fingers into the edge of the glass to slide it open. There is a short non-knob that is highlighted in the picture; it’s short so this door can slide in front of the other one. The non-knob should have an inset I can use with 1 finger or a popout ring or handle. On to design flaw # 2:


Mind the Gap

There’s a gap between the doors. This lets cold air blow in and water splash out. It is crying out for some type of weather stripping. Again, the sliding might be an issue due to the handle bar caps but I’d be ok with a small gap or a bristle or flap based solution.

So, there you have it. Design whine #1 is on the books. Do you have any design whines you’d like me to talk about?

Oct 28 2010

Set up Linux (and more) for Ruby on Rails

I’ve decided that a great way for me to motivate myself to get my new business going will be to post regular updates about what I’m doing and accomplishing. One of the problems I’ve been encountering as a new business owner who is without an actual product (yet) is that I can easily give off the impression that I’m a crazy inventor guy with an idea that just needs a) your money or b) your time to develop my product for nothing. Since neither of those expectations are true, and since giving anyone the impression that I’m an inventor is a death sentence for a legitimate conversation, I will be designing and creating the front end of my product (a web application). Even more importantly, I can show it to potential customers for some oh-so-important market feedback.

Rather than coding normal HTML and CSS with Notepad++, I’ve decided to actually get into a real development environment. It will help me avoid rework in the future, and also give me more insight into how my developer is doing things. The more I know about the technical side, the better CEO I can be. Since Windows is a poor development environment for Ruby on Rails (which I discovered quickly), I had to set up some sort of Linux box to get moving. This is a problem because I haven’t used Unix in over 10 years (if you don’t count editing an htaccess file). The other problem is that my iTunes keeps playing every terrible song in my music library.

This is a tutorial for creating the development environment I’ve chosen. It consists of Ubuntu 10.4, RVM (Ruby Version Manager), RubyGems, Ruby 1.9.2 (and 1.8.7), Rails 3.0.1, git, github, haml/sass, sqlite (though I won’t be creating a database right now), java and finally RubyMine for text editing. I tried tons of different text editors, and RubyMine was the best, though technically it’s an IDE and not a text editor. It has built-in haml/sass/scss highlighting and more, and has a nice GUI that this Windows-user needs. I hope to explore Compass/Bluepoint for the CSS portion but that will be another time! Here’s the machine I’m setting it up on:

  • HP dv6t laptop with Windows 7 64-bit, Intel Core i7 and 4GB RAM
  • Microsoft Wireless Mobile Mouse 4000 and Logitech diNovo wireless keyboard for notebooks
  • nVidia geForce GT 230M with a Dell ST2410b display attached via HDMI
  • I also have an HP LaserJet P1006 printer attached

As far as disclaimers go, I need to admit that I don’t particularly understand everything that is happening when I type the commands I describe below. As I said, I haven’t used UNIX in 10 years. If some of these things are explained wrong or anyone wants to enlighten me, please feel free to do so in the comments and I’ll update the tutorial!

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Sep 10 2010

How to Negotiate: 2 Book Recaps

I recently read 2 different negotiation books: Bargaining for Advantage and Getting to Yes.  I read BfA first but I think if you are going to read both, you should do so in the opposite order. I found that GtY did a better job at giving practical advice for everyday negotiating and communicating, whereas BfA was a more about different strategies and tactics to use. I’d characterize BfA as a more advanced book with tactics that should be used once you feel comfortable using the basic principles outlined in GtY. Though I recommend both books, read GtY if you’re going to pick just one. As a reminder, this is a book recap, not a review. Without further delay…

Getting to Yes

The underlying principle behind Getting to Yes is that negotiations should be a cooperative problem-solving process with the goal of finding the best solution for the mutual gain of both parties. It then outlines several strategies for getting there, with other useful information included for when the other party doesn’t see it that way. Here are the main strategies discussed:

Establish Criteria

Creating an objective standard in which to judge things against helps create an environment of cooperative problem-solving. The standard can be something that: you decide together (we want Italian food within 10 miles), already exists (standard govt. building codes), is based on past behavior (my last oil change was $X) or is based on market standards (the Kelly Blue Book value of a car). The key is to frame each issue as a joint search for an objective criteria you can agree on. Negotiating and agreeing upon criteria leads to fair agreements almost every time.

Separate the People from the Problem

The main idea here is to remember that, ideally, you are 2 (or more) parties that are working together towards the best agreement for your mutual gain. This section of the book discusses many points, but the main thing to remember is that we’re all just people and relationships are a very important part of the negotiation process.

Concentrate on Interests, not Positions

Ask a lot of questions, and listen for the answers. Most people won’t come out and just tell you what their real interests are. They’re usually buried under a bunch of positions. It’s the “why” hidden behind the “what”. Your job is to figure out why the other party has taken a certain position. This is the fastest path to finding mutual gain. Example: A guy wants $1000 for his car and is firm on the price. You ask why and find out it’s so he can buy a new TV. Well you happen to have a friend that can get a TV at a 20% employee discount. So you pay $800 for the car and your friend helps him get the TV he wants at a discount, and you take your friend out for some beers as a thank you. Everybody wins, and none of it happens if you didn’t take the time to find out why the guy was so firm at $1000.

Improve your BATNA or Adjust the Leverage Equation

BATNA is your Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. The better your BATNA, the more leverage you have when negotiating. Even if you don’t tell the other party, you’ll FEEL better. An easy example is getting another job offer to help negotiate your first one. BATNA also can go the other way. By bombing a country, you’re effectively worsening their BATNA to force them to negotiate. Yes, war is a negotiation tactic aimed at reducing the other side’s leverage.

The last important item I took away from the book is a technique for how to state your position on something. Always give the reasoning first! Once you state your position, the other party is thinking of a reply or is busy being affected emotionally by your position. They are not listening to your reasons. I think this advice applies very well for all communication. Whenever you need to say anything with a qualifier or you want to give your reasoning for something, do it up front. People will actually hear and process what you have to say and will be much more able to understand where you’re coming from when it comes time to say the thing you want to say.

Overall, I highly recommend that everyone should read Getting to Yes. You negotiate something almost every day! Wouldn’t it be better if everyone treated it as cooperative problem-solving?

Bargaining for Advantage

First off, there are 4 + 1 key habits to good negotiators:

  1. The willingness to prepare
  2. The confidence to set high expectations
  3. The patience to listen
  4. A commitment to personal integrity

The “+1″ is the ability to see the other side’s point of view, which is mainly achieved by listening and asking thoughtful questions. This point was discussed in Getting to Yes as well and is something that people often easily forget. Instead of thinking of the next thing to say, just listen. I have personally found this advice to be essentially a requirement on the improv stage.

Each person has their own personal negotiating style, and each situation has its own negotiation type. In some cases, preserving the relationship is more important than “winning”. Being able to recognize your negotiation style and the type of negotiation you are in is crucial to your preparation. You’re going to negotiate differently with your spouse than with a used car salesman.

The last big takeaway from the book is that information is king. Ask questions. The more information you have about the other side (their wants, their needs, etc.) the better off you are. Stop focusing on what you want and focus on what THEY want. That’s when you can really discover their true interests, and you may find they line up with yours a lot better than you had thought. Conversely, if you are in a competitive situation (divorce, house sale, market transaction), you want to hold as much information as you can. This seems pretty obvious when you think about it!

Overall, I feel like I’ve learned a lot from the combination of both books. Now it’s up to me to put the techniques into practice!

Jul 22 2010

The Power of Focus

The breakup of The Pickles anti-dynasty in the spring of 2010 was a devastating/euphoric event for many of us. Though I’m happy to not be managing a team of misfits, I still love playing the game. The thought of playing an old man’s game like softball just didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to retire. However, The Spikes had some injuries and they called me out of retirement to join them in their Sunday 25+ league. And funnily enough, through 4 games, I’m doing alright. I’ve got a slash line (verbiage courtesy of Off Base Percentage) of .385/.500/.538 to go with 5 runs and 5 steals. Now, 4 games is an absurdly small sample size for baseball and at this point my stats could tank with 1 bad game, but I also FEEL like I’m a better player. I got to thinking about why and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s about focus.

You see, as manager of The Pickles, I not only had normal managerial duties such as setting the offensive and defensive lineups, making pitching changes and managing the personalities of 8-12 other idiots aside from myself, but there was also the list of Pickle-exclusive issues:

  • People showing up late or not at all with no notice, even when they said they’d be there
  • Having to bug people for money 3/4 of the way through the season
  • Considering shuffling the lineup because more than one player is hungover or still drunk
  • Breaking up fights between opponents and our rapscallion replacement players
  • Making sure nobody hurts their arm during pre-game Emanski bucket tossing practice
  • Setting up and participating in a pre-game slam dunk contest on a Fischer-Price hoop
  • I think you get the idea…

So now when I’m in the outfield I don’t need to worry about whether I need to pull our starter, who has walked 4 people this inning and has yet to record an out due to at least 3 errors, in favor of someone else who, though not tired, has arm trouble and clearly has no business being a pitcher in a baseball game (this would be me). This has given me the ability to focus on defense, my next at-bat and how I’m going to get on base. The simple ability to focus on what I’m currently doing has vastly improved my play (though this post will certainly jinx that). This got me to thinking about my time at 3DScanCo and LDI.

Throughout my experience in the 3D scanning world, the leaders of my company (including myself) consistently had trouble with focus. We oftentimes got stuck working IN the business when we should have been working ON it. This is easy to do when in a money crunch or when it feels like you’re the only one who can do a task. The key is to recognize those situations and work on a way to change things. Delegate. Do one thing at a time. Find good people you trust to do the other work and leave them alone to do it. Sounds like easy advice to follow and it is – until something goes wrong. When that happens, will you recognize your loss of focus and turn things around? It will be harder than you think.

You see, the difficult part is not doing the things I talked about above (delegation, etc.). The difficult part has to do with mindshare. Those rare free moments, like when I’m standing in the outfield waiting for a pitch, need to be devoted to thinking about what you WANT to be thinking about, not what you NEED to be thinking about. If you delegate a task to someone yet continue to think and worry about it, you haven’t accomplished a thing. Likewise, if you’re wasting your most creative thinking moments, like when you’re in the shower or on the crapper, on things that are menial, unimportant or outside of what you’d like to be focused on then consider it a good sign that a change needs to be made.

Jul 6 2010

Sway: A Book Recap

I hesitate to call this a book review because like my previously mentioned “skill” in reviewing wines, my thoughts on books can usually be summed up in just a few simple sentences. However, I would like to start discussing the books I am reading for a couple of reasons. The first is to force me to summarize books in a concise way so that I can go back to my notes in the future to “reread” the book without actually reading the entire thing. I’ve read many books that I thought were insightful and informative, yet I half-forget or mis-remember important points when I try to recall them later. This leads to many “you know what I mean?” and “it was something like that” quotes when trying to explain the author’s ideas to others. I’m thinking that writing some notes will help me remember the important takeaways. The second reason is to help my readers (all 3 of them) discover some of the good ones and maybe also prevent them from wastes of time. Hence the first post in the “A Book Recap” series.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior was a great read. I really enjoy psychological books that explain little parts of how our brains work and why we as humans do the things we do. You will notice my fondness for these types of books as this series plays out. I recommend Sway as it’s a quick read yet it is jam-packed with useful information. The authors, Ori and Rom Brafman, use great examples to back up their points and they do it concisely. They also have great first names.

The general structure of Sway leads the reader through many reasons why and in what types of situations we act irrationally. Each chapter covers a different reason and there are multiple case studies and other examples from daily life to support the idea being discussed. Most, if not all, of these made sense to me which made me happy. I don’t like things that don’t make sense. Unless it makes sense that it doesn’t make sense. Got it? Good.

Below are the reasons the book gives for our irrational behavior. I guess they’re spoilers but you’re really missing out on the great case studies and supporting evidence by not reading the actual book. Not to mention the author’s suggestions for combating these “sways” in the epilogue. And at 180 pages, it’s an easy read! Here are our most popular sways:

  • Our fear of loss – which is much more powerful than our excitement for gain.
  • Commitment and difficulty letting go even when we know we should.
  • Value attribution – incorrectly judging a book by its cover or letting our perceived value of something influence other characteristics.
  • Diagnosis bias – labeling of people, things or ideas based on an initial opinion and an inability to reconsider those judgments down the road.
  • Cultural norms regarding fairness – being upset at someone else for being unfair and punishing them even if it’s to your own detriment as well.
  • Altruistic motivation vs financial motivation – these two separate incentives for doing something don’t work at the same time.
  • The lack of another dissenter – agreeing with others for fear of being the only one to dissent the group opinion.

Well that’s it; stay tuned until next time. You might read something amazing or I might give away something valuable and you wouldn’t want to miss out on that. Think of what you could lose!

Jun 1 2010

Comcast Customer? Save Money!

Just wanted to spread the word of how you may be able to save some money with your cable bill.  Simply call the billing department and state, “My cable bill is too expensive and I would like to know if there is anything you can do to get the cost down before I consider disconnecting.”  That’s all you have to say!

I’ll be saving $40/month for the next 6 months and I’ll call back in a year to request the same thing.  Cable is expensive and unless you make $1440/hour, it’s definitely worth a 10-minute phone call.