Friday, December 31, 2010

You know you have a great team when....

You know you have a great team when, on your way our the door, they hit you where it hurts.

And you laugh hysterically at it.

See, yesterday was my last day at a job I've had for twelve years, for a startup we founded that had it's downs (see 2001-2003, Bubble Bursting Bingo) and ups (we grew it to the largest remote patient monitoring company in the world, and sold it to Robert Bosch Healthcare). In otherwords, a long, winding path that evokes significant emotion. Plus, I'm a sap.

I planned on writing about this decision, and transition, today - probably something slightly depressing or at least highly contemplative, fueled by an Indie-Rock Soundtrack straight out of a teen angst movie (1).  Thankfully, my amazing team of people at Health Hero/Robert Bosch Healthcare provided me with unexpected, but very welcome, comic relief.

You may already know I'm the world's second biggest Red Sox fan. This is probably a good opportunity to remind you that all Red Sox fans think they are the world's second biggest fan (Johnny Pesky of course, being in the top slot. And don't give me any of this Jerry Remy crap, either.)  The only thing you need to know about this being a Red Sox fan is that 25% (off season), 50% (in season), and 75% (playoffs or any head-to-head game) of a Red Sox fan's life is dedicated to hating the Yankees.

You'll be able to really enjoy this now, in context - this was even more funny because my car was vandalized earlier this month, so my first reply was "oh crap, not again". Here's what I found yesterday when I started lugging boxes out to my car (a few more after the break as well).

Over the years, I've had a lot of different people work for me, and I've been blessed with great programmers and developers, designers, marketers, nurses, clinicians, accountants, business developers - but more importantly, the best people. Yesterday, they proved it yet again. They made me laugh a bit on a day that could have been sad or depressing, and once again, picked me up.

I hope my future teams are as great as the ones I've had at Health Hero/Robert Bosch Healthcare, because these are top-notch people first, and professionals second. You know who you are - thanks for adding laughter to a tough day. And sadly, I can't fire you anymore. But I'll have my revenge!

Here are some more pics:

My favorite part about this, of course, is 2004 is the first year since 1918 that we finally won a World Series, after the EPIC comeback against the Yankees. My people are really smart, but their MLB history is a little weak.

For what it's worth, I also did that to a Wily Mo Pena card.
I find myself saying this over and over, but once again, Dewey Evans deserves better.

(1) For the record, I'll probably still write that piece. Someone cue up the Ben Harper and William Fitzsimmons!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Goodnight, Major

This was written December 20th, 2010.

Tonight is Major's last day on earth. Tomorrow, he'll be peacefully put to sleep as a result of his battle with cancer, which has already cost him a leg, and has taken his breath as it moved into his lungs. Major is my Alaskan Malamute, my friend, a "sibling" to my daughter, and someone who has brought joy to nearly everyone who has met him. Dogs certainly are man's best friend, and Major is no exception.

If you'll allow me, let me tell you about Major.

One of my favorite pictures is of Major in Lake Tahoe, California, peering into the frigid water during a winter vacation. He loved the snow, he loved Tahoe. He was fascinated with the water. He could play in it for hours. That picture sums him up well - strong, curious, playful, beautiful.

Hopefully the rest of the pictures and words I've included will give you further insight into this amazing dog. Maybe it will encourage you to give to Canine Cancer research, such as the work done at the Morris Animal Foundation. Maybe it will encourage you to adopt a dog from a shelter, like Humane Society Silicon Valley. Or maybe, it will do nothing at all; but I need to write this for me, to get onto paper what a wonderful companion he has been.

Major was a rescue dog, who was found wandering the streets of Fresno, California. What a big, hairy, friendly Malamute was doing in Fresno, I'll never understand. It's even more mind boggling that someone would let a dog like Major go free. But I'm happy they did, because it lead him to me.

He eventually made his way to the Bay Area, where we found him online. Major is my second Alaskan Malamute, and just like his predecessor, Sitka, he had all of the wonderful traits of a Mal - loving, loyal, independent, vocal (including howling at every ambulance or police siren that passed him by) and unbelievably patient. He surpassed me in everyone of these qualities.

The last few months have been an emotional roller coaster with Major. When he was first diagnosed with cancer, it was a shock. He was acting a little funny, laying down in places he would not normally lay down, walking a little differently. Within a few days, there was a positive diagnosis of cancer, in his shoulder; within three weeks, his leg was removed.  While the days on the calendar passed quickly, this was an agonizing process that felt like it took years. Each day was a physical challenge for Major, and a emotional challenge for  those of us that loved him. Did we do the right thing?

People expect each other to get married, have children, change jobs - of course, these are all huge decisions. However, while I've done all these things, somehow, in retrospect, the choice to amputate felt like the first "adult" decision I made in my personal life. One that literally meant life and death. It was agonizing.  It was clear he was in tremendous pain, but the idea of life without him was just hard to fathom. The decision was made to amputate, and try chemotherapy to fight back the cancer.

Thankfully we met the wonderful people at VMS, who did an amazing job supporting both the humans and the animals. However, it was not perfect. Major actually had to have three surgeries. There were infections, issues with the dressings. It was painful for him to go back and forth.  I should say again that despite these issues, I always felt VMS has the best interests of the entire family in their work, process, and decision making. It was just the unfortunate reality of surgery and healing.

The hardest part was the recovery from the surgery. I will tell you now, I do not wish those days after his surgery on my worst enemy. The overwhelming feeling of guilt, of making the wrong decision, of putting all these human emotions on to Major was nearly unbearable. As an arctic breed, he is vocal by nature. The crying after his surgery, the despair in his eyes, you cannot possibly describe this or express to someone how that feels; this blog certainly will not correctly convey that, and if you are considering such a surgery, no one can really prepare you for it.

I cannot remember a time in my adult life breaking down like I did that first time seeing him after the amputation, being so sure of making the wrong choice, of putting this poor friend through hell. Maybe the worst was, though, the fear on my daughters face seeing him after surgery. To understand this, you have to understand their relationship. Mackenzie does not have a sibling, she has Major. I cannot really describe their relationship any more than this, but I think pictures can still expand upon the story - I am sure you can tell this spans many years - same child, same dog.

This may have been Major's greatest gift. Not only for Mackenzie, but for every child he met, Major instilled in them a confidence that animals were friends, partners, and to be loved and respected. Major earned that love and respect because he gave it out to people, who naturally returned it.

Despite his massive size and wolf-like appearance (always a big attraction to little boys at the park!) there was only one possible risk of Major being aggressive - if you were a stranger, and got close to Mackenzie, well...all bets were off. He was extremely protective of her, always on the lookout. If you were a jogger and he and Mackenzie were coming down the street together, it was best to change sides, less have Major think you're running at Mackenzie. Otherwise, the only real risk of Major doing any harm would be his rather gaseous post-meal releases, or if he rolled over on top of you. I'm still not sure how we didn't loose a cat that way.

The nights after surgery, when he came home, I slept outside with him. For two days, he cried constantly, unless he was medicated heavily. The medication sapped all his spirit, personality, and his very being. He did not want to get up, he did not want to go pee, he did not want to eat. He cried every time we tried to move him. I was sure he'd never move again. I ran over scenarios in my head over and over - how to move him, how to get him comfortable, how to keep if from getting sores or suffering from incontinence - nothing worked.

I cannot say to you that I made the right choice, that amputation was the best thing for him. I don't know. The early days, I had my doubts - very significant doubts - but over time, he recovered. It was amazing to watch him do re-learn everyday things, how to eat, go to the bathroom, even go for short walks at his advanced age. As you can see, he regained his composure, pride, and even his role as "king of the dogpark". Here's a picture of him lording over his domain.

One of the greatest experiences was taking him to the Morris Animal Foundation  K9 Cancer Walk in Los Gatos, California. He got to meet lots of other cancer dogs, some survivors, and many amputees. He was the star of the show! He me everyone, and everyone knew him. As always, he was calm, happy, peaceful, and a great ambassador not only for his breed, but for dogs in general. It was certainly the highlight of his post-surgery life, where we were able to raise money for a great cause, and he was surrounded by love and support. At the K9 walk, I met people from Tripawds,  an organization dedicated the quality of life for amputees, providing information, retail items, and  support to the large community of canine amputees. If you are considering such a surgery, you should visit their site, follow them on twitter, and join the community. It will help you.

Tomorrow is the end. It's the right choice. As much as for selfish reasons I would love to make it to the holidays, maybe one last trip to the snow, it's clear that his quality of life and his pride need to be considered. He has given so much love and respect, he deserves the same in return. The entire family will miss him immensely. I am so blessed that my daughter was exposed to such a wonderful animal, and that I've had years of joy with him. I hope I made the right choices about his amputation, and his quality of life these last few months has been has high for him as it has for those that know him, having him around.

Goodnight Major. I love you.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tropicana Field - Where wind goes to die

My Red Sox are in a fight for their playoff lives in Tampa this weekend. While refreshing the box score every 20 seconds to see what's happening (Sidenote: Thank god for live box scores at ESPN and Yahoo! Sports, or I would be actually refreshing every 20 seconds). I noticed this little wonder in the box score:

In related news, there probably is no "real" Bruce Dreckman in this alternative, windless, universe.

Really? -1 MPH for the wind? What does that mean, even? Someone had to actually code the page that way, not to just put zero (since it's an indoor stadium, I understand zero), but -1? 

Is this like when you put hot food in your mouth and start trying to do the "reverse blowing" (aka, sucking) in air somehow believing this to be an effective way of cooling your flaming tongue?

I cannot explain this.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Shuffle is my friend today....

Today the shuffle on the old iPod Touch came through like a champ. An absolutley wonderful set of music that motivated me to actually go back and write it down. Half way through I thought, holy moly, this has been good music latley.  So I'm saving it, for me, for you. For us.

"I'm Afraid of Americans" - David Bowie/Trent Reznor
Everything goes better with a little Trent Reznor. 

"New York is Killing Me" - Gil Scott-Heron  (YouTube)
You can get this free from Ameoba Records. What are you waiting for? Go download it. Seriously. You are still reading this blog? It's boring. Stop.

"Ain't no Right" - Jane's Addiction

"Supernova" - Liz Phair
I still think she was overrated, but this song was great. When "Friends" was cool.

"Everything" - Ben Harper
The talented Mr. Harper. Laura Dern's husband can sing a song, that's for sure.

"Block Rockin' Beats" - Chemical Brothers
I just popped and locked something.

"Till Kingdom Come" - Coldplay
(Buzzkill - skipped this one)

"Dirt of your Shoulder" - Jay Z

At this point, I'm, starting to wonder if I this is a 1997 or YK2 playlist. If the next song is Frank Black, I'm taking myself out back and shooting myself as a mercy killing, since social security is going away, and I'm closer than I thought.... Of course, after hearing Frank Black. Hope it's Brackish Boy....

"The Judas Kiss" - Metallica
Suddenly, I'm not in the mood for Brackish Boy. And I broke everything on my desk playing air-drums. Newsflash: I did not shoot myself. Saved by Metallica. Again.

"Everythang" - Street Sweeper Social Club
That's right, it's spelled with an a. If you don't like it, Boots Riley is going to kick your ass, while Tom Morello plays taps on his guitar with his teeth.

"Optimistic" - Radiohead
This song is never not ironic

"The Royal We" - Silversun Pickups
This song builds perfectly  towards an epic ending.

"Who are You" - The Who.
Um, clearly my stepfather played with my iPod. Moving on...after the song

"Another Lonley Day" - Ben Harper
Okay, similar to the Coldplay buzzkill, but not skipped. Ben gets a special pass for the lyric "It's either love or hate, I can't find in between/'cuz I've been with witches and I've been with the queen". The man is a genius.

"Having Wings" - Ben Harper
Christ. Enough Ben Harper. What is it with that guy? Skipped.

"Excuse Me Mister" - Ben Harper
At least this is angry. Ben stays for now.

"Bullet and a Target" - Citizen Cope
I'm going all indy on you now. Look at me. Time to rent a Zooey what-her-name movie.

"River of Deciet" - Mad Season
The absolute best one-off band you've never heard of. However, this puts me squarley back in the late 90's, again. In related news, how is it possible that on an iPod with every Pearl Jam song ever, I have not heard nary a peep from Mr. Vedder and the boys?

"Jigsaw falling into place" - Radiohead
Speaking of genius (and thankfully, not more Ben Harper), Radiohead is back. I could listen to this song over and over for days. In fact, I think I have. Just not today.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Just because you can use AdWords...

I experienced a Web 2.0 marketing phenomenon today, powered by AdWords. For those that don't know AdWords, simply think of it as the advertising machine where Google makes there money from search. If you want to know more, there's a ton to be found on the web that explains AdWords far better than I.

So, I'm online searching for some Balsamiq plugins, I ran across an AdWords link that told me, very directly, that Balsamiq couldn't do the job for me, and I should switch to a product called iRise.

I'm always interested in new tools, so I checked out the link offered by AdWords. Clearly, iRise is a very robust tool. Does about 700 things I probably don't need, but looks great and is certainly something that will, as they say "scale with me".

As I browse, I really cannot tell how they see themselves as competitive with Balsamiq, but I keep looking. The more I look, the more features I  find - an extremely robust, detailed application, clearly targeted at the enterprise and seemingly well done for that purpose.

Even though it feels a bit like Microsoft Office and it's well documented feature bloat problem, I decide I will download it and check it out. First, though, I wanted to know what comes after the 30 day free trial. No need to start this relationship if I know I can't maintain it after a few dates. As Dr. Phil might say, we should know if this is going somewhere....

Then I find it. I nearly fall off my chair. $7,000 for a single seat license. $7,000. I found 10 cars around Palo Alto (CA) for less than $7,000 in two minutes. $7,000! Now, you might be thinking  "$7000 for enterprise software is not so bad, I've paid three times that before for large enterprise installations."

To be clear, it's not really the price (after the sticker shock!) that gets me, it's that they seem to have no real idea of their target market. Balsamiq is $79. That's right, they have an AdWords campaign against a competitor that is so far outside there price matrix, it's not worth even doing the math. Think about that again. They are paying to market against some who cost significantly less than the sales tax resulting from their product (With apologies to you, New Hampshire).

This shotgun marketing isn't appealing to me - it's concerning. I know they wanted to match on possible competitors, but they could have picked any number of solutions that were at least in their price range or target. They established a full campaign about Balsamiq, and in the end, what I really ended up thinking was "Wow, these iRise guys are scared of Balsamiq? Or do they just not know their target audience?"

There is no way I am their target market.  This tells me there is little chance that future versions will really target what I (as only a $7000 professional user...) want to get from the tool, compared to the enterprise customers who must be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. When Oracle XE markets against mySQL (prior to being one big somewhat-happy family), it makes sense. It's a product targeted to similar markets, has similar features and a similar pricing model. It represents choice for my end of the purchasing spectrum. Not just a wide ranging blanket thrown over all word-matches for "database".

Bottom line - I can purchase nearly 87 copies of Balsamiq or one copy of iRise. I am sure iRise is great - the screen shots look nice, the features are detailed and complete -  but did this AdWords campaign  really get them what they were looking for?

Do people who are searching for and/or considering using Balsamiq really justify an 87 to 1 cost increase?  I am sure for the set of enterprise users that need those features, this is a well justified expense - but not those users who would choose Balsamiq in the end. They simply serve different parts (pricing) with different goals (enterprise vs. collaboration) of the same target market.

I wonder if they got any value from this campaign at all, or someone just feels good about having a "robust Adwords strategy".  Just because you can use AdWords, doesn't always mean you should.

Even more AdWords fun? When I decided to write this entry, and went back to find the original AdWords posting, and I got this link presented to me, for the same search (!) - honestly, I couldn't make this up:

Disclosure Statements:
To be fair to iRise, I rounded up. The price is actually $6995, not $7000. Since that $5 is about 16% of the cost of Balsamiq, it's probably important to mention (sorry, couldn't resist).

Also  they do state they offer some mid-level pricing for "smaller companies".  So maybe you can get it for only $4,000. Stil does explain how these guys serve the same market.

You can see the comparison  to Balsamiq for yourself if you like, too. Just in case it's taken down, I've placed a picture of the key part of the page below. Maybe that is worth $6900 to you. Not to me.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Here's a tip

Today, I got a tip from a waiter, rather than the other way around.

It wasn't monetary; It wasn't even a fun experience. But it sure was a tip.

The tip? In a service relationship, simply making my problem your problem is the beginning of the end. The key part of Problem Management is the Management, not the Problem.

It was Sunday, and, I wanted breakfast anywhere that didn't include me cooking. Now, for where we ended up, Sunday morning is probably always a busy place at this establishment - it's a touristy place, and it was raining out - so a large number of wet, hungry, people were looking for breakfast and staying at their table longer than normal - it was a recipe for a stressful day at the breakfast stop for the staff.

Getting seated and ordering went as one might expect - busy, but not horribly long. However, after ordering, everything went down hill. This is only important to mention because it was clear the waiter, in the end, was not the source of the problem - we were seated and ordered fairly quickly. However, as business people we face this problem ever day - the problem in front of us is rarely one solely of our creation, but we are often responsible for the solution.

After waiting for a considerable amount of time, we had not heard anything from the waiter, staff, or anyone even semi-official looking. Heck, Flo or Alice from Mel's would have been a welcome sight.  More importantly, the coffee cups had sat empty long enough that my clear-as-day caffeine addition was starting to kick in. With a five-year-old in tow, time was not on our side, and we inquired on the status of our order.

 The response to the question was not exactly out of Miss Manners:

"I've got this table of six and that table of five and you'll just have to wait"

As you can probably imagine, this was not exactly delivered with a Coke and Smile. In fact, his complete disbelief that we'd even ask him might have been the most troubling aspect - as if we were not actually there, to, you know, eat.

Contrast this to the situtation a few weeks ago at a different establishment. My waitress probably took more time in delivering the meal, but was constantly at the table checking in - Did we have enough water? Did we need more bread? She updated, apologized, and just made us felt like she understood the situation. In return, I felt involved, connected, and understanding of her situation. In both situations we had a hungry five year old along for the ride. In only one case, did the server seem to notice and even acknowledge the elements of the environment.

I will return to only one of these establishments. As the consumer in this service relationship, that is my role - to choose where to consume (In this case, quite literally!)

So what can we (Re)Learn from this? We easily forget our role in a relationship. Most business transactions are not symbiotic - one side is the consumer, and the other is the producer. As the producer, you've got a role to consistently provide your best. Let me be very clear - I said "consistently provide your best", not "always be perfect."

How we handle stressful events, failure, and mistakes is part of how we provide our best. Here are some of my steps to trying to provide my best, even when I'm the cause of the original problem.

Sharing your problem is a start - but not the finish! Update, Update, Update

Both waiters should be applauded for being honest - although one had to be prompted.  Acknowledging the problem quickly and head on is a great start. But, don't stop there. Understand what parts of the problem can be addressed quickly, which cannot, and provide constant updates with a clear message on what can be expected from you, the provider, in the solution process. It is critical to demonstrate that you understand the issue from the point of view of the other party, and understand your role in both the problem and the solution.

Be transparent in the solution, and invite people into the process. Agree to a communication plan and strategy with your consumers so they know when to expect an update from you, and, more importantly, they already have an idea of what you will be telling them. Focus on direct, personal communication mediums - avoid email and instant messaging like the plague, and focus on phone, video conferencing, and even face to face meetings if possible. Let them know you honestly and sincerely understand you have an effect on their business.

Having the waiter, or any member of the team, come to the table and simply acknowledge the problem and set some expectations on the solution, face to face, would have disarmed the situation. I'm just not that scary. I even brushed my teeth.

Validate the problem, and confirm it. Provide a solution, even if it's a horrible hack

This next step is a big one, and sets you apart from a company that listens and one that understands. Sometimes, we clearly rush to a solution without really understanding the problem from the point of view of the consumer and involving them in the process. This morning, I simply would have loved a refill of the coffee. Keep the coffee coming, and you're half way home.

Let's take a hypothetical, but all too familiar, software story.  You've got a massive bug in a new release that makes all monthly reports crash. You just can't run them. The consumer, is, understandably, pretty upset.

Realistically, do you know what the bug is? Probably not, or you wouldn't have gotten here. You've tested, tried, unit tested (you better have!), simulated, and did everything in your  release process.  So what makes you believe you have the fix right in front of you? You never saw this problem coming.

At this point, you can deploy every resource you have on the bug. You can chase it up for endless nights. You know what the customer cares about? Where are my monthly reports! They don't care about your unit testing, your process, your bugs, Tomcat memory issues, or problems with the JDK. Yes, they want transparency on the process, but only in the context of their specific issues - the reports!

You must really understand the problem in their terms. Can you run those reports for them? Can you pull the data from the database directly? Yes, it's a horrible hack, but it's just for today.

You don't have to live with this solution, just don't die by the problem.

Coffee aside, I needed to keep a five year old from tearing apart the table. Do you realize how I would have killed for a crayon? That's a solution that had nothing at all do to with the number of tables, customers, or how busy the chef was. Solutions exist - if you understand the problem in the eyes of the consumer.

Work at the right pace - make sure you get it right!

Once the problem has been established, breathe.

Do it again - breathe.

You're going to need to focus your energy on the solution, so it's time to let go of the problem.  Put away the feeling of anxiety and focus solely on the solutions you've communicated to the consumer. This is why the sharing and validation are so important - not only are you bringing the consumer piece of mind, but you are giving it to yourself, too. You need to put the problem behind you. There will be time to reflect later.

Don't get caught up in all-nighters, panic, yelling, and the general behavior that sets in during crisis. Focus on the solution, and take the time to do it right. Crank out the horrible hacks, work arounds, and manual processes you've promised to your consumers. Do this as fast as you can,  but only at the pace that makes sense for the solution. Rushing to a solution that is untested, unproven, or fails only causes more problems just reduces confidence. Communication with the consumer - establishing a clear risk profile and clarity on why you are working at the pace you are - will buy you the time to get it right.

Focus on the solution only, and nothing else. Wallowing in the problem helps nothing at this point. Anyone on  who starts in with "I can't believe we got here" and "I told you so" - they are off the solution team. I don't care if they created the problem, or are the smartest person you know. They are simply not in the consumer/producer solution frame of mind. Replace "I can't believe we got here" with "How did we get here? Did we miss something?"  When they are ready to contribute positively, looking forward, invite them back in. Not before. Don't let a toxic thought into the solution team.

Enough Theory - Any Reality? 

These are all wonderful concepts. There are people who have gone through much bigger crisis and much bigger issues than you, me, or anyone we know. But the reality is that each day threats to our business, our investments, and our livelihood is as big as Apollo 11 - to each of us.

In a follow-up post, I'll be discussing public and private JIRA instances and other tools you can use to be transparent, prove to your customer base you trust them, and treat the world around you like adults.  Transparency, honestly, and trust is the key to any successful personal relationship. I believe it's the same for businesses.

Until then, I'll be looking for a crayon and some coffee.