Friday, 14 April 2017

Thanks for all the Fish Stack Exchange

I moderated two sites on the Stack Exchange network and was one of the highest rep users on another, participating pretty much since its inception as a platform. I just left it.

The goal of these sites, at least on the surface, is to create real compendiums of knowledge around a number of topics, such as Photography, Software Engineering, and more. For the longest time I believed in that goal, I actively supported it, but as time went on, my belief in it faded.

It faded in a never-ending stream of new users who never read how the site worked, users who felt they had a right to make demands of the moderators, users who would argue with you ad-nauseum, and more. It actually became a job just to keep up with that, to the point that answering or asking questions on my part basically dried up. At a certain point I asked myself why I still wanted to be an unpaid babysitter on these sites and I realized that I didn't anymore. It was a time sink that I could use for better things.

The model that Stack Exchange employs to generate content is based on reputation points. As users participate, they gain and lose reputation based, presumably, on the quality of their questions and answers. I say presumably, because it really depends on the site as to how effective that is and, to be honest, it seldom is. The reputation model, basically the gamification aspect of this, is also what leads to the aggression, the arguments,  and the frustration.

So farewell Stack Exchange. I may use the output from the site from time to time, I see it as payment for all the effort I put in to it over the years, but this ends my active participation.

Monday, 27 February 2017

One Week with the Surface Book

Image borrowed from Microsoft Store
So, a week ago, I picked up the Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base as replacement for my aging 2011 iMac 27". The specs on the one I purchased are Core I7, 16 GB RAM, and 512 GB storage, so not quite the top of the line, but next down. I figured I could do most document storage in the cloud or on USB 3 SSD drives as needed.

Why the Surface Book? Especially after being a Mac user for a while? Features that appeal to me from a photography and art (drawing) perspective, especially the quite beautiful display and the solid pen computing features. Both of these are quite good and, when coupled with apps like Photoshop, provide a much more complete experience that I would get from, say, an iPad Pro. At the end of the day, the iPad Pro, while an excellent option, is still hampered by the relatively weak photography tools in comparison to the full-fledged Photoshop.

In any case, this is not a full review by any stretch, but I wanted to touch on the likes/dislikes so far...


  • Windows 10 - Hey, I have to hand it to Microsoft here, the changes from Windows 8 are distinctly for the better. There are some behaviours that I would prefer to be better, but in general, this is looking really good. 
  • The display is, really, very good. Crisp, clear, with great colour, and bright. I like the 3x2 form factor of it too as it lines up with standard photographic proportions.
  • Responsive, the extra graphics horsepower shows, especially in Photoshop, despite the fact that this is only dual core versus the quad core that was my iMac.
  • The pen. Yep, the pen is good. While not quite as sensitive as the pen for my Cintiq (which is also attached to it), it's still 1024 pressure levels and is highly effective in the uses I need it for.
  • Windows "Hello" is fantastic! If you're not familiar, it basically uses the front camera and an IR sensor to enable logging in based on your face. I love it and it works well and pretty fast. The IR helps to ensure a real face and not just a photo.
  • Some nice service integrations, such as Netflix, are done well. This is where the tablet side kicks in.
  • The tablet separation is really well done, it can be triggered from the keyboard or from a system tray icon.
  • More space on my desk at home.

Needs Some Work

  • Touchpad behaviours. Let's be clear, Apple does the touchpad functionality better than anyone and I'm guessing a few patents are kicking in to make the Windows variant less than ideal. Fortunately, I also have a Wacom Intuos which gives me back the three finger drag and natural scroll.
  • Integration into online services for notifications. I've closed the gap using Chrome for most, but it would be nice if it was more integrated. Now, I may have just missed this, so if you know, point it out. :)

What I Miss

  • Mobile device integration. I realize that this more on Apple than anything else, but there is definitely a better coupling when it comes to mac OS and iOS than it is for Windows. I knew that going in though. :)
  • Decent command line. 
  • Window control buttons on the other side! Sorry, just got used to it.
  • Thunderbolt. USB 3 is very good, Thunderbolt is better and faster.
All in all, I'm happy with it so far. Here's a desk shot:

Yes, I have an Amazon Echo (actually, I have 2 of them) and, yes, they work in Canada. Amazon really just needs to get over it and start selling them here so I can update my weather settings.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Self-Organizing Teams and Management

The fine line between leading and managing often resides around the willingness to accept that the window on what is happening can be a bit obscured for a little while. Leaders, in my view, are okay with this situation as they are able to trust that their teams are doing the right things and progressing. It's hard, though, but managers who wish to be leaders should recognize when it is really a time to manage and when it is time to get out of the way (hint: most often for the latter).

I'm in a bit of a rare situation right now in that I'm currently leading 7 teams of engineers. While this should be a relatively short term thing, it does afford me an opportunity to observe a few things...

First, single-team managers meddle, especially if they're in the team. They can't help themselves, mostly because they don't have the distraction of another team to keep them from getting in too deep. This is counter-productive, to say the least, when addressing the question of self-organizing teams. If you're trying to get a group of people to figure out the best way to work together to accomplish the day-to-day activities, having the manager in that mix just makes that much harder. In most cases, then, the manager is going to decide what the "best way" is for the team and that is almost always going to be them assigning tasks and making the decisions. I see it all of the time and it really makes it hard to effect change in the dynamic to improve.

Secondly, I have to trust the people on my teams to do things to their best. It's not really possible for me to, in any sustainable fashion, provide daily task direction to that many teams across the sheer range of systems they're working on. I need to encourage them to work out solutions to complex problems as a group, only pulling me in when they hit a block they can't remove. That, as I might note, becomes more rare as the team learns and improves on their work model.

Third, some people have a hard time working in the conditions created by my second observation. There are some, regardless of what may be said, who simply struggle to focus and select meaningful work in the less directed world of Agile. It may be a comfort issue, but it's often a confidence one. Being afraid to pick wrong creates a paralysis that causes them to effectively pick nothing. This is tough to solve, but the wrong way to do it is for the manager to remove the fear of picking wrong by picking for them. In this case, try to encourage the rest of the team to suggest them in to tasks. Doing it for them just reinforces the problem, it doesn't cure it.

Now, it might seem that I'm taking a pass on the hard stuff by giving it up to my teams, but that's a really shallow view. As the manager, I always have the option to intervene and make a decision, but that's an option to be used sparingly and with care. I do have a real responsibility in working hard to grow the talent we have, to cultivate the next generation of leaders in our teams, and that's a valuable add to both a team and the organization. I also have a role in finding new talent and convincing them to come to us, also valuable for all. Making sure your teams are set up for success with the people, the equipment, the information, and the context never stops and is, I think the best thing you can be doing if you want to create, and sustain, self-organizing teams.

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.