Monday, 24 October 2016

Hacking for Good

What an awesome journey!

The Capital One Canada Gift the Code hackathon took place on the weekend of October 21st and it was nothing short of amazing. We brought together over 140 coders, designers, and other experts for a weekend-long sprint to create software driven solutions for very real challenges faced by each one of these super-deserving organizations: Blake Boultbee, Prosper Canada, Toronto Pflag, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Women's Habitat, and Second Harvest.

The logistics that goes into a hackathon like this is really incredible and the efforts of Hackworks in the handling of the lot of the daily grind can't go unrecognized. There's a lot that needs to get done, especially when you have a client that wants the best for the participants: food, swag, and experience. This was no pizza and bagels hackathon, we had BBQ, tacos, falafel, s'mores, and more. Sure, we had pizza for late night snacks and bagels to compliment the great hot breakfast, but the people that were donating their time needed to get real body fuel.


The other big piece of the puzzle was the creative work. I can't begin to describe just how awesome the work of our creative team was with this event. First, they fell in love with it and that goes a long way to making something special. Secondly, they gave it their all. Look at the picture above; it's that attention to detail that just blew my mind! The logos, the videos, the badges, the web page layouts, the rooms and tents, and even the swag went through their hands and turned into magic.

However the most truly amazing thing, for me, was that so many people did this only for the chance to give. We never said what the food was going to be. We never said what was in the swag bags. There was no big prize to be won. They came to give. And they really gave their all and came up with some really amazing stuff in 40 hours. Impressed the heck out of me and I'm jaded!

Who knows what will happen down the road, but I really hope this turns into a lasting legacy for the city. It would be really cool to be able to say one day that I was there when it all happened. In the meanwhile, a few pictures that I took during the weekend.














Sunday, 16 October 2016

Netflix and the Border Wars

Image courtesy: Mike K
The CBC is reporting that Netflix crushes border hoppers and that there may be no way out for Canadian subscribers. Well, not really factually true, but for many it's probably the end of the road on accessing US content from inside Canada.

The CBC also, earlier, reported that the hardline on cross-border viewing may result in increased piracy of content in Canada. This is also not surprising, primarily because the rights holders in Canada are either typically Bell or Rogers and neither offer the content at a price competitive to Netflix (or HBO for that matter).

The least surprising thing in this is that Netflix doesn't really care if some border-hoppers are inconvenienced for now, that's not the point. What Netflix really wants is the increase in piracy. You see, as was mentioned, Netflix use to point out that there was a marked drop in online movie piracy as a result of their service, a sound argument for getting rid of geoblocking. However, geoblocking remained and Netflix quietly ignored it, until now.

So, what changed? Well, obviously the content providers are taking heat from the people they licensed to outside the US and so they're transferring that heat to Netflix. Netflix still wants that content in the really big market, namely the US, and so is turning up the cross-border heat. Yet, despite that, they really want to crack the issue of regional distribution because, in the end, it will blow open the doors on subscriptions. They would, effectively become the defacto movie and television service of the world if geoblocking was to disappear.

In other words, Netflix is almost betting on skyrocketing piracy as a response. The more it happens, the more the Netflix argument makes sense. So, for that reason, Netflix will continue the VPN/DNS whack-a-mole game for the foreseeable future.


Sunday, 2 October 2016

What is overpriced?

I hear this term with respect to product and services quite a bit, especially in relation to the product pictured to the left. It leaves me wondering if people have any idea how free market economics work?

"Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it." - Publilius Syrus

If I take the case of the iPhone, which many deem to be overpriced (a theme endemic to Apple criticism), it becomes pretty clear that the person making that statement either will not, or cannot, pay the price that Apple is asking for. From the perspective of that person, then, the iPhone is seen to be overpriced. The problem is, that person's perspective isn't the reality of the market.

In 2015, according to Canaccord Genuity, Apple took 94% of global smartphone profits while selling only 14.5% of the total volume of phones. Take a deep breath and consider those stats for a second... Almost all money to be made in the smartphone industry went to Apple. You can slice or dice a lot things about market share, but if you're not making money with it, what good is it?

I had somebody tell me, "where Apple is made they don't even buy it. The only place Apple is doing well is the USA." Not entirely true, but regardless, what this person is clearly missing is the fact that Apple isn't selling well in places where people aren't spending money on devices and apps. In other words, why on Earth would they care about selling there? They're clearly selling to the segment of the world's population that is not only able to spend money, but are willing to do so.

Are Apple products expensive? Sure, they are. Can you get relatively comparable features in less expensive products? In many cases, yes. Does that make Apple overpriced? Nope, not in the least. The most valuable company on the planet has, I think, managed to figure out the price to volume ratio that is ideal to maximizing profits. Which, by the way, means that it's priced correctly.



Sunday, 10 July 2016

Return to Sender

A.K.A. How Not to Treat Your Customers

A.K.A. Adventures in Bad Experiences


Recently I ordered some Pentel Arts Aquash Waterbrushes through Amazon Canada. I didn't realize, at the time of purchase, that these were being fulfilled by a company on the other side of the border. That, in itself, probably doesn't make a lot of difference to me, but the delivery choices they made certainly did...

So, to deliver the brushes to me, the seller used DHL Global Mail who will take the shipped goods across the border and then will hand them off to Canada Post. Not really a big deal, this was all to happen before things got a little hairy on the possible strike/lockout front, but then the product was never actually delivered. In fact, looking at the tracking history, Canada Post picked up the product on the 22nd of June, sat on it for a couple of weeks, and then returned it to DHL on July 7th with absolutely nothing happening in between. It gets better, though, as the seller then tells me that DHL then destroys the package as they're unable to return it across the border.

Where to begin with such a customer experience? Lets start with a global delivery company, that being DHL, not actually handling the package all the way through to final delivery themselves. It's not like they don't have the facilities to do it, but instead they hand it off to another company and then effectively they lose track of it. Couple that, which itself would be a relatively minor issue if the deliveries made it, when they do get return of the package they make no attempt to find out what is going on and make no effort to contact the seller for clarity. No, they just destroy the package and move on. It's a good thing that what I ordered wasn't one of a kind! I don't even know where to begin with how incredibly bad a customer experience that is, it would certainly encourage me to never use their service for anything even remotely important in the future.

Now lets talk Canada Post... I'm not even really sure where to begin. Let's start off with picking up a package and not doing anything with it. How incredibly ridiculous is that? However, this can happen, I get that mail rooms can be busy, the package could have fallen off something, etc. These things happen. However, the solution to something like that is to finish the delivery! No, nothing like compounding what could have been a simple mistake by returning to sender instead, as Canada Post then chose to do.

It gets better, though, oh so much better. You see, when you do want to find out what is going on, you can call or you can use social media.

Let's start with social media, shall we? It turns out that they only monitor it from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm ET. Yep, if you happen to live in another time zone, well, too bad. I don't, but I do have to wonder what planet they live on? This is a 24/7 world now, people may not get an opportunity to contact them until after work and, as a consequence, their Twitter/Facebook messages don't get any attention. Even worse when it's a Friday, since it's now a multi-day lack of response, only leading to additional anger and frustration as a result. If nothing else, recognize that you serve a country that spans many time zones and handle appropriately.

So, discovering that social media is a bust, I did manage to call. Those hours are marginally better, but then you have to wade through menu, and message, hell just to talk to a human being. Finally, somewhere! Nope. The depth of detail they were able to give me was that it was returned to sender (which I already knew) and that the reason would be on the package which, as I've been given to understand, has since been destroyed. I'm at a loss for how to explain how ridiculously bad a customer service experience it is for Canada Post to not be able to tell me why they returned a package to the sender and then to return it to one that will destroy it. Seriously. It has to be unintentional, it would require a level of absurd maliciousness to deliberately craft an experience like that and, even with my currently low opinion of them, this is probably too much.

The only one that seems to do the right thing here is Amazon. I filed a failed delivery refund claim which they're now processing. I have confidence there. I feel for the sending company, but at the end of the day, I'm not going to be out $50 for their delivery choices and I've already recommended to them that they consider switching carriers for the future.

Customer experience really does matter.


Sunday, 5 June 2016

Interesting Definition

Sophie Turner at HBO's Season 3 Premier
By Suzi Pratt
Used under Creative Commons 2.0
It's probably not news to most people by now that various US-based media companies are cracking down on cross-border watchers from Canada. This is, for the most part, a consequence of very dated licensing agreements and policies that still look to enforce geographic borders in the age of the borderless Internet. Still, agreements are agreements and I respect that even when I wonder what they're thinking when they do that. This is why, despite the relative ease that content such as the ever-popular Game of Thrones, I wait until the content hits iTunes and then I buy it. I fully support the content makers getting paid appropriately so that they continue to create great content.

That does, of course, mean that I need to be a little deaf to information about the current episodes of some of these shows, yes I know about Jon Snow, but that's the price of cutting the cord and being honest about it. However, when I see articles like "HBO tells Game of Thrones pirates it's easy to pay for shows" on a Canadian website, then I feel a need to investigate the veracity of that claim.

So, in the context of the article, the folks at HBO and Bell inform us that you can legally stream episodes through the use of TMN Go. That's great! I'm in! Oops, wait, it turns out you need a subscription to the movie package through an existing TV provider such as Bell, Rogers, Shaw, etc. Well, I'm in Cogeco land so I decided to see what the cost of entry to watch the only show I'm actually interested in...

  • Basic Channels - $25/month (only because the CRTC forced the issue)
  • The Movie Network Channel - $21.99/month (needed to get HBO)
That doesn't include the receiver cost, which Cogeco will give you free for 6 months, but then you pay to rent it after that. So, leaving aside the receiver, the monthly cost to watch HBO's Game of Thrones in my area is, at least, $46.99/month. For reference, a Game of Thrones full season, in HD, on iTunes is $43.99. 

So, given that each season has 10 episodes and, if we say it's roughly 3 months to broadcast a full season, then my cost per episode on a cable subscription is about $14 per versus $4.40 if I wait and buy the set, assuming that I only hold onto my cable package for the duration of the season and that's still not counting taxes, various fees, and the hassle of returning the equipment when I'm done.

Now, for my view, I would be more than happy to pay $21.99/month for TMN Go all on its own. That's pretty close to the HBO Now price that our US cousins pay when you factor in exchange rates, but it's not an option today. Fixing that would, in my view, make the HBO and Bell claim true. Until then, however, it's patently false.

Interesting definition of "easy" they have, you just need to be a little naive.


Saturday, 7 May 2016

Don't be a Brake

There's a very fine line between supplying guardrails and supplying brakes when it comes to an Agile journey and many really struggle to see the difference.

At the heart of any Agile transformation is the willingness to empower your teams to make decisions and take action and the key to that is context. When you first start out, a major challenge is establishing context and ensuring that your teams know what you're attempting to accomplish. That period of growth will, in many cases, have some rather spectacular explosions and so businesses will often put some guardrails in place to minimize the blast radius as much as possible.

These guardrails are okay because being Agile doesn't mean you get to go full-tilt Wild West where anything goes! However, we want to make sure that these are actually rails and not brakes, and that's sometimes hard to spot.

So, as your teams start to experiment and look at new ways to do things, the question you need to start asking yourself is simple: what can really go wrong if I let them try? Much of what we do will have some element of risk attached to it, that's expected, but as a leader you have a responsibility to make good risk assessments and guide your teams accordingly. That does not mean "no" for the sake of saying "no." It's entirely parental to tell someone "no, because I said so" and as a consequence, it's important that you understand why you're saying that and that you're able to provide significant context.

A better way to tackle that, though, is to ask powerful questions about what they're looking to do. You're a leader, so lead the teams to a better answer by educating them, providing context, and explaining risks. You always have "no" in your back pocket, but the use of it should be really infrequent and very carefully considered when all else fails and the risk really is too great.

The other aspect of self-examination is to ask yourself if you're saying "no" as a default position. I find that many who use that often do so because they don't have an informed response and so saying no is a way of avoiding the need to become informed or to buy time to get informed. Either way, it's not a good approach, primarily because it immediately deflates your team. One of the worst feelings for a people in a workplace is to have your enthusiasm shot down with a "no" by a poorly informed manager. If you're not informed enough to respond, say so, and then become informed with their help. That may, as a result of the journey, inform both you and your team as to the right course of action and it's very powerful.

In the end, the line between a leader and a manager is, quite often, understanding the difference between a guardrail and a brake. A leader helps the person climb the wall, helping to reduce risk while facilitating the challenge. A manager probably won't let you climb it in the first place.


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Words Matter

One of the things that you'll often hear in the workplace is the term resources. By that, many mean, all of the people and equipment needed to get a particular task done. In fact, some dictionaries back up the concept in their definitions (bearing in mind that dictionaries are written by people in a workplace).

Whats the concern then? After all, we have "Human Resources" as a department in just about every business larger than a handful of people. Well, the problem is that is dehumanizing, even when combined with "human" at the front.

It's dehumanizing because it presumes that people are interchangeable, like chairs, and that each one doesn't bring something unique and important to the problem. When dealing with complex tasks and challenges in the modern technology world, you very quickly learn that it's not a matter of having just anyone there, you need the right people there, the ones with the knowledge, skill, and desire to get it done. Those people aren't chairs and considering them like that is unlikely to help you succeed in the long run because, quite frankly, it's demotivating.

Speaking of demotivating terms, there's an expression that probably also needs to enter the dustbin of corporate speak: let's throw some more bodies at it. Maybe we should recognize that term is synonymous with cannon fodder and has roots in the idea of disposable people and realize just how offensive that really is. As a leader, if your team is truly disposable, then you have even bigger problems than you realize.

I recognize that modern usage is more about the concept of all hands on deck needed to deal with a ship in peril, but what you really need is the right hands on deck. That's where being a leader comes into play, as it shows that you have a grasp of a situation and are able to think reasonably and rationally, rather than just panic.

We swarm problems in agile software development, so I recognize the value of many minds, but the key is recognizing that all of the minds engaged are unique and that the size of the swarm is appropriate to the situation. That brings me back, full circle, to note that if all of the minds swarming a problem are unique, then maybe we should be talking about finding the right people and resources to get the task done.

So, words matter. Treat your people like people and not like things, the difference it makes will be remarkable.