The Microsoft Tool For The Job
Many technophiles have a special disdain for Microsoft. I’ve been using Microsoft “stuff” for over two decades, but only within the past two months have I been able to articulate the underlying reason behind that disdain, and I can now state it in a single sentence:
The vast majority of Microsoft tools intentionally avoid the title of “Best Tool For The Job”, instead favoring the title of “Easiest Tool For The Job”.
This is most evident in an ingeniously infuriating tool named Microsoft SharePoint. Sharepoint allows anyone to create a website using pre-built templates. You can make documents repositories, wikis, lists of… whatever you happen to want to list, issue trackers, even just a departmental homepage. The problem is that the quality of these sites are all exactly the same: very mediocre. They don’t outright suck, as measured by the fact that they all accomplish their stated purpose. The wiki acts as a wiki. A fairly difficult-to-use, ugly, and slow one, but a wiki nonetheless. The issue tracker lets you track issues, provided you don’t mind the lack of standard issue tracking features and the abysmal user interface.
These things are all fine so long as you’ve never used a good implementation of whatever functionality SharePoint is trying to replicate. Consider the issue tracker having used a number of actual issue trackers, ranging from Bugzilla to Trac to Github Issues, SharePoint sucks. Without even bothering to list the deficiencies—that would be a long, boring post all by itself—it’s perfectly clear that this is truly the poor man’s Issue Tracker.
To pick on a different Microsoft tool, this mentality of “Easiest > Best” is even more apparent with Microsoft Access. No matter what task you’re performing, creating a database in Microsoft Access is the wrong way to do it. There are countless other alternatives that are more capable, powerful, robust, and significantly faster. Again, Microsoft Access is definitely not the Best tool, it’s the Easiest.
For power users, this is death by a thousand paper cuts. Seeing people regularly deciding to use inferior tools just because “well, we know how to use them better than we know how to use anything else, so meh, it’s good enough” is painful to watch. “A little training, a little education,” we think to ourselves, “would make these people so much more efficient.” Unfortunately, with such an easy crutch to lean on, most users of Microsofts software never even realize the crutch is there, despite the fact that it slows them down every step of the way.
That is the source of my disdain. Microsoft, creator of the invisible crutch.
The Wish List
You’re looking for a job. In reading through the job listings, you notice that many seemingly entry-level corporate positions have these oddly extensive and specific requirements, such as “three to five years work experience” coupled with “two years experience in the <whatever> industry” and “knowledge of XPR, EGS, CPP, and MMCS methodologies” or something similar. You click away in exasperation and wonder to yourself, who do they think they’ll find with a posting like that? What kind of entry level person has that type of knowledge and experience?
You’re missing something very fundamental here: the vast majority of low- to mid-level corporate job postings are actually just wish lists. Some manager in some corner of a large organization realized that they need more people to do whatever specific job it is that he manages, and wrote a posting for that task. Do you know how to do that task? Of course not. Very few people do. This is even more true regarding familiarity with software packages; the majority of software packages used by large corporations are highly specialized, used by a very small group of people in a very specific industry.
So, our manager has a problem: the talent he is looking for doesn’t exist. How can he solve this problem? Oftentimes, he’ll take one of two possible approaches:
- The manager will craft a very detailed and specific job listing, carefully outlining what the perfect candidate would look like, in the hope that people who apply will have some, if not all, of the posted requirements.
- The manager will slap together a very generic job listing—sometimes provided to him in template form by HR—detailing the typical skills possessed by people in the positions similar to the one being posted, and hope that the candidate can be trained.
These differing approaches reflect two different approaches to hiring.1 In both cases, though, they’re unlikely to find the “perfect person” for the job, and they’ll have to train later on. With that in mind, even if you come across some bizarre job description that appears to describe a mythical creature that doesn’t exist, don’t be deterred from applying to a position that sounds promising.
The first is an attempt to weed out via the job posting, hoping to only receive applications from candidates with the necessary skills. The second relies more heavily on the phone screen and interview process to identify talent, with the downside that many more resumes will be received, and more time will have to be dedicated to the hiring process. ↩
Some interesting wordplays I thought up while on the bus recently.
The wording of red-light district legislation:
sin tax syntax
An end-user license form allowing others to use your unique chemical:
formula form ULA (or formula ULA form)
Making disparaging comments about a poor report card:
degrade D grade
Competition for the best criminal psychological test:
con test contest
What neural growth hormones attempt to do:
attract a tract
Warehouse that contains information on length of business lifecycles:
store age storage
Two musicians riding on the back of a male cow:
ensemble on some bull
When a new army conscript uses a racial slur:
ensign “n” sin
Two years of blogging
To improve a skill requires practice, practice, and more practice. Two years ago as of this past June, I decided to work on improving my writing, and I started this blog. I wanted to share some thoughts on how this exercise is going so far.
Writing takes a lot of time. I definitely did not appreciate how long it takes to write before I started. Most of my posts take between an hour and a half and three hours of often disjoined writing until I have something that is half-decent. I’ve learned the value of outlining, writing, reading, re-doing the outline, write some more, etc. None of my posts have come out well on the first draft; every single one has had at least three revisions of each paragraph.
You don’t know what you like until you try it. I spend a lot of (read: way too much) time on Hacker News. At the outset, I wanted my audience to be the Hacker News audience. I’ve been successful, to a small extent, in that a good number of my posts have made it to the Hacker News front page. As I developed my writing, though, my writing started to focus more on different topics, that interest a different audience. I’m still trying to really determine the types of topics I enjoy writing about; I suspect this is a common theme among novice writers, the long search for the topics they feel most comfortable writing about.
I think about writing a lot more now. As I go through the various experiences of my day, I find myself thinking “that would make a good blog post” very often. As a result…
My thinking has evolved. Previously, I would do my best to understand “things” for myself; reading the news, learning a new trick, going through some funny/sad experience at work/home/life in general would be an effort in trying to understand what’s going on for myself. Now, I find that I’m asking myself, “how would I explain this concept or argue this point to a larger audience?” This approach of explaining ideas from a different angle has helped me thinkg through concepts and arguments more deeply, and get a better understanding of when I really understand something.
So far, it’s been fun. Here’s hoping I can keep this up for a few more years!
I’ve recently started doing something I haven’t done for a long time: read books. The two that I’ve recently finished are Good Boss, Bad Boss and Contagious, and I’m currently working through A Random Walk down Wall Street and The No A****** Rule. While reading, I’ve noticed a clear pattern in the writing style: all of these books are written like storybooks. The chapters comprise of one short story after another, each one between a paragraph and a page and a half long, often making the same point over and over and over again. The next section will be the same: a basic idea, and then dozens of stories illustrating the point over and over again.
This works. People don’t remember endless streams of facts, they remember stories. More pointedly, they remember stories that they find interesting and/or relevant. This is why all good public speakers know to make liberal use of stories, jokes, and anecdotes when talking; the audience enjoys it more, and will remember it better than a simple recitation of facts. A good friend of mine who frequently gives talks as a motivational speaker told me that a good speech “begins with a joke, continues into a story, and then ends with a joke.” What about content, I asked? Make your jokes and stories convey your content, he said. People want to be entertained, not lectured. Entertain them, and you’ll convey your message much more powerfully.
This isn’t my usual type of blog post, but rather a reflection on something interesting that happened to me last night…
I whistle. A lot. Mostly while walking down the street, but also while doing housework, while driving, quietly to myself while thinking, etc. (I keep this next to my desk to remind me not to whistle at work. So far so good.)
Last night, as I was walking home and whistling some random tune, a woman across the street practically yelled at me, “you’re the best whistler I ever heard!” I laughed, thanked her, and continued home. Two blocks later, as I was walking up to my house, some guy who was entering the apartments turned to me and said, “you know, you’re really good. That sounds very nice.”
While two compliments in one walk is a new record for me, this isn’t the first time that people have made comments like that. Whistling in public is pretty passé nowadays, and the sheer novelty of it elicits interesting responses from people. Last summer, whistling while coming home from a walk, a young lady sitting sitting on the steps in front of an apartment building commented, “you know, you just made my day.” I regularly get comments asking why I’m in such a good mood.
When I was a kid, I used to comment to friends that life needs a soundtrack. Nowadays, life does have a soundtrack, via iPod earbuds. The problem is that it’s completely confined to the individual. We can’t hear each other’s music. That’s definitely a pretty philosophical approach, to be sure, but still, I think it’s kind of sad.
It seems that people appreciate hearing someone else’s life soundtrack. I’m not referring to their favorite playlist. I’m talking about the soundtrack reflecting their mood, their week, their personality. Humans are deeply empathetic; if it looks like I’m having a great day, that’s often enough to put a smile on your face, at least for a moment. Everyone has their own worries and stresses, but getting a peek in someone else’s life—even if just through a snippet of a cheerful-sounding whistle—reminds you that things are generally pretty good in the world.
"Free" can be pretty expensive
It’s well-known in the IT world that free, open source software often incurs a hefty cost—the cost associated with supporting that software. You can replace Microsoft Office with OpenOffice or abandon Mac OS X in favor of Ubuntu, but if your users are familiar with the commercial packages—as most users are—then all you’ve done is transfer the cost from “purchasing” to “support”. This is not to say that it’s never cost-effective to move to open-source, but it’s definitely not “free”. In this instance, the cost of open source is lost productivity for both the users and the IT department. I know this, and you likely know this as well. I would venture to suggest that this is common knowledge within the tech circles at this point.
With that being said, I find it striking that I rarely hear the reciprocal argument—that paying money for software will result in a cost reduction—being brought up by the technically inclined. Heck, I’m guilty of this myself; I’ll download some free software that I’ll likely never really use without a moment’s consideration, just because it’s free, but I’ll think long and hard considering whether it’s “worth it” to spend $10 on a piece of software, even when there aren’t even good alternatives available.
A funny-because-it’s-true Dilbert strip highlights the problem here; everything has to be compared to the alternative. In most cases, the alternative is “whatever I’m doing right now”, which likely isn’t all that great. The short-term (but quantifiable) goal of not spending money overrides the long-term (more ephemeral) goal of being productive.
If you’re using something free, when someone brings to your attention a paid alternative, don’t disregard it just because it costs money. Even from a monetary standpoint, you may be better off with the alternative.
For my son’s tenth birthday, I took him to a major league baseball game. I haven’t sat through a complete baseball game in decades, so this was almost a first-time experience for me.
First off, lets get one thing out of the way: raw baseball is boring. Scientific studies have shown1 that over 90% of baseball is comprised of something other than baseball; watching the scoreboard, doing the wave, watching the drunk guy yell at the players and passing helicopters, etc. Mostly, though, you’re waiting for things. Lots of waiting. If going to a baseball game involved nothing more than watching baseball, I can’t imagine anyone would actually watch it.
The thing is, the Major League Baseball people realize this. A good game will last three hours, with maybe five minutes of actual action over the entire game. What kind of fan wants to sit through that?
The answer, as it turns out, is an entertained fan. While watching the game, I noticed that every 30 seconds—sometimes even less than that—something happened. Maybe they played some chant (“bum bum bum, let’s go Bucs!”), or maybe they had some dude throw tee-shirts, or maybe they played some snippet of a song over the sound system, or maybe they had men dressed up as Pierogies run around the stadium in the most ludicrous race in the history of mankind. Strikingly, the vast majority of these involved the audience in some way. They put pictures of random fans up on the display, causing other fans to think, “hey, I’m a fan… if I do something now, maybe I can get up there!” They run raffles involving ticket stubs, or seating sections, or outrageous clothing. Whenever a ball is hit near the fans, the ball girl will toss it into the crowd. They show trivia questions on the display board. They have fan interviews, lots of fan interviews. All this stuff is meant to not only keep you entertained, but keep you wanting to stay in case the next “thing” may involve you. It’s subtle but very effective.
I went from the game to a committee meeting for a non-profit at which I’m a volunteer, and I brought this idea up there. We are trying to maintain the enthusiasm of our volunteers, and this experience drove home the point that maintaining engagement requires lots of planning, work, and effort. Running an activity every 30 seconds over a three-hour period takes some serious advance planning. Keeping volunteers involved in a project, or keeping customers interested in your product, or even keeping yourself motivated about your latest personal growth project, requires a lot of advance planning. When that initial effort is put in correctly, the result can really shine.
I’m a Scientist™, and I studied it today during the game. (I thought about it twice, just so I could say “studies” instead of “study” in the above sentence.) ↩
Interview Tip #1: Be Enthusiastic
For the vast majority of jobs, the skill itself is almost a fungible commodity. There are thousands of “Java developers” or “Quantitative Analysts” on the job market. Just because you took some classes or one worked in the field for a few years doesn’t make you special; I’ve seen fifteen other resumes in the past two weeks alone that were almost identical to yours.
In other words, I’m not hiring a skill; I’m hiring a person.
To that extent: always be enthusiastic during the job interview.
Whether you think you’re the best person for the job, or whether you think you have no chance whatsoever, enthusiasm is crucial. In my role on an interviewing team, we have turned down numerous people who possessed the requisite skills for the position but had a bad attitude, and more than once have passed over a higher-skilled candidate in favor of a candidate who showed excitement about what we do. Apathy is contagious; I don’t need that in my group.
If you’re an enthused candidate, you may have a chance. If you don’t seem to care, you can be certain you have no chance at all.
Listening as a skill
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received came from a friend of mine, who makes his living as a clinical psychologist. We were talking about his practice, and he told me that his mentor had taught him to never take notes while meeting with a client. Rather, during his training, he perfected a method of listening to what the client was saying, remembering both what was said and what it implied, and then afterwards committing the important parts to paper. I told him I was very impressed that he was able to remember the entire discussion, from beginning to end, without writing anything down, as I can barely remember my own name without periodically checking my drivers license. His response was simple:
"During my training, I learned a new way to listen."
It can be hard to consider listening to be a skill. It’s something that everybody does, all the time. You probably know some people you consider to be better “listeners” than others, and likely just attribute that to being “part of their personality”. However, everyone starts out with different degrees of artistic ability as well, and it’s well-recognized that, with training, almost anyone can become a fairly proficient artist. Listening is no different, save for the fact that there while there are many books on “learn to draw”, there are few books titled “learn to listen”.
Well, actually, there are, but they’re disguised under other titles such as “Be a Better Boss”, “Improve Your Marriage”, and “Learn to Debate”. In fact, there are countless books on a huge range of subjects that could generally classified as “improve your interactions with other people”, and almost all of these will dedicate some space to teaching how to listen. The problem is, like with so many other skills, people read the book and then forget to practice. This is a skill like any other, and it will only improve with practice.
Well, lets make it simple. Good things come in threes, but that’s one more than we need here.
Rule #1 of listening: Pay attention to what the other person is saying. This seems so obvious, and yet so many of us never do this in conversation. When we’re listening to someone else talking, once we begin to get an idea of what’s being said, our first instinct is to begin to formulate our reply. Don’t do this! If you’re doing that, you’re not listening to the rest of what’s being said. This is particularly relevant during a discussion or debate, when you’re just itching to demonstrate why your opinion is correct and their isn’t. Give them your full attention, and try to understand the nuances of what’s being put forth, and then try…
Rule #2 of listening: Don’t be afraid to take some time to think about what was just said. Silence during a conversation evokes the most interesting emotions. Many people find more than three seconds of silence very uncomfortable, and try to break the silence with empty talk. It’s a rare person who can completely comprehend a complex concept or subtle argument within that short timespan. Take your time; think about what was just said, ask for clarification, repeat the idea back to ensure you really got it. The speaker will likely be flattered that you’re taking time to actually think about what was said, and you’ll have a better understanding of whatever you’re discussing.
Personally, I’ve also been trying the “don’t take notes until after” technique as well, and after doing it for a few months I’m finding that I can typically remember most of what was discussed. Most, not all, but hey, it’s a start, and these skills take time to improve.