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Every three or four years or so stuff just tends to pile up around me. In the coding world, bits of stuff that glom onto a project over time is called cruft. So I had a lot of techno cruft laying around the house. Old hard drives, laptops, a bunch of software and console games, a couple of iMacs that served us well for a long time. So I began to systematically assess the current “state of the state” as it were and do something about it. I began trading stuff in and selling stuff on eBay.

Trading stuff in tends to be more immediately lucrative, as most places will offer you “more” for in store credit. Sure you could sell the items potentially for cash in the same or higher amount, but the convenience of the in store credit can be super useful if it is for things you want that they sell at a good price. You can also, I should mention, donate stuff, as I did with one or two laptops that run Windows 7 just fine but weren’t really worth selling.

As such my old but faithful iMac got turned into, with some trading, a brand new 27 inch model along with an external 512gb SSD and 16gb of high speed RAM. I was able to score a Titanfall edition Xbox One essentially for free. Rochelle went from an old 24 inch 2008 iMac to an Alienware laptop hooked to a 27 inch monitor. Meanwhile my desk and the associated areas are becoming cleaner.

I’m even upgrading my Internet line. Isomedia, the ISP I have done business with for 11 years, simply cannot offer my house any better connection than 7mb down/768k up. That’s been ok for 11 years but in todays world of streaming netflix while downloading the latest Xbox One game that ain’t gonna cut it. So I bit the bullet and for a cheaper price per month I’m having a 110mb down/10 mb up connection installed today. Yay for progress.

Point being there’s certainly been times in my life when I’ve consumpted conspicuously. So it feels good to take a lot of stuff laying about, trade it in or donate it, and get one or two new things without having to spend some money. Maybe you have something laying about you can do the same with. I can only say trust me, it’s worth the time.

The View From the Ambulance

February 24th, 2014

I’m guest posting on Wil Wheaton’s blog, so cross posting this here as well.

 

Try to imagine this conversation:

Brain: Man. I am getting kinda worried about the fact I’ve had this incredible cold and have not slept but 10 hours over the past 5 days.

Heart: Roger that Brain, engaging the engine at 110%

Brain: No wait I…

Chest: Heart? This is the Chest we’re gonna need to tigthen up a bit here to handle the new load.

Brain: No guys that’s going to make it worse because…

Heart: Make it worse? Roger that! Upping to 120%

Chest: Chest copies! cranking up pressure.

Lungs: Engaging gasping.

Brain: no guys this is going to make this bad because he’s going to think he’s having a heart attack–

Skin: Hey guys, we have the go ahead to go flush and get all clammy just FYI that’s what we’re seeing across the board here.

Lungs: Uh Heart, we’re pushing up respiration to 130% to help move this racing oxygen around. This triggers shortness of breath mode just FYI.

Heart: Brain we can’t keep this pace up how long were you needing this?

Brain: I never asked for–

Eyes: Guy’s I’m seeing some crazy stuff on Webmd regarding heart attacks and I know we have a family history so…

Brain: All right I’m getting angry here, let’s calm down immediately and–

Heart: Angry? Got it, crank it up another 30%.

Chest: Roger that cranking up the tightness.

And this is how I ended up calling 911 with racing heart, intermittent chest pressure, rapid breathing, anxiety etc. All of which had lasted off and on for a couple of hours.

My father’s side has had heart issues, most of my paternal grandfather’s siblings as well as himself died from heart related issues. So when, late Friday night, I began to feel what I thought were ever increasing and clear symptoms of a mild heart attack, I called 911. 911 sent a dispatch team out to the house while I laid down and Rochelle penned up the dogs and got me ready to travel if needs be. My anxiety level began to skyrocket when I realized I had just called an ambulance, sirens and lights blazing, into my “so quiet you can hear someone drop a coke can in another house” neighborhood at 4am on a Saturday morning.

Brain: Jeez I hope they don’t use the siren…

Heart: Aye sir cranking up to—

Brain: SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUTUP

They arrived (sans siren) and hooked me up to all manner of bitchin’ equipment to scan my heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and a field EKG. while they shouted scary numbers to each other (“210 over 120″ “96!” “6.0221413e+23″) I got to become increasing agitated while I answered a ton of questions about where did it start, how did I feel etc. All while wearing enough leads and wires that I felt like one of the trees in Avatar.

After a scary few minutes the tech calmed me down. Started asking the “have you been getting sleep? Under stress lately etc.” They reassured me I was in no immediate danger looking over all my vitals and my EKG’s were normal. My heart rate was through the roof so they wanted to go to the ER.

The view through an ambulance was surreal and I guess an experience I have the good fortune to scratch off my bucket list without kicking the bucket. The techs told me all about the various gadgetry and we all geeked out over my iPad mini retina which they allowed me bring. In the interests of their privacy I didn’t want to tweet photos from there since it would be hard in the cramped quarters to remove any distinguishing characteristics but they did a great job in calming me down.

Once at the ER, a crack team of people informed me they would not need to crack open my chest. They ran a blood panel, took X-rays, and ran several EKG’s. About the only disappointment was the X-ray, where the technician put a lead cloth down to “shield my privates from being irradiated” and I complained it was OK, I wanted Hulk privates.

Everything came up Milhouse. I was given an IV of Lorazopram and that niftily settled my brain down. They explained my blood panel was fine, my heart was ok, the EKG’s were fine and that I did not, in fact have a heart attack. Instead I had a very sustained panic attack brought on by a variety of factors, not the least of which was an extreme case of sleep deprivation.

Now, I told you all that to tell you this.

My family on my father’s side as I mentioned has a huge history of sudden heart related death experience, an experience you only get to have once. I quibbled for a few minutes over bothering to call 911 until I remembered that. On the heels of Wil’s post about getting healthy, I wanted to throw out that assuming the presence of insurance (or even not), DO NOT SCREW AROUND with symptoms like the ones I had. It’s always better to know it’s not a heart event than it is to drop dead being so very thankful you didn’t wake your neighbors with the ambulance siren.

On the morrow.

January 29th, 2014

My ride share had to cancel this morning, her son is ill. So I tried to catch the valley shuttle bright and early to get me out to work at HBO in time for our morning Stand Up meeting. I love the work being done there and wish I could talk about it but I cant. Suffice to say they are an amazing team of people doing amazing work on amazing things that are amazing and I’m just really proud to be a part of it.

But their offices are in downtown Seattle, roughly 27 miles as the crow flies from my house. By bus on the best of days that’s an hour and twenty minute commute.

This wasn’t the best of days, weather wise. I let Aspen out for his morning routine and did sign language to him in praise while I gave him his anti-seizure meds. It was cloudy out and raining that classic late-January Seattle rain. Misty and a bit clingy more than pure drops out of the sky. It smelled wonderful outside, and Aspen looked like he was covered in dew from it during his morning constitutional.

I love living in the country. I’ve been here ten years now. If you get the chance, try to spend some time living somewhat remotely. I’m not saying it’s better than living in the city, I’m saying a radically different experience sometimes cleanses the mind.

I tended to my own morning routine and donned my “rain shoes”. Yes in Seattle you usually have to have a pair of shoes dedicated to the purpose of walking in the rain. The shuttle pickup stop is roughly three quarters of a mile down the ridge from my house and my canvas Vans weren’t going to cut it. I have a wonderful new greatcoat I bought for the Child’s Play dinner this year that I trot out for the cold and rainy days. I shrugged my way into it, put on my hat, tucked my ipad into the inside pocket, and began my walk. I paused for a moment at the door and listened. I’m not sure why I did it, but there’s something about the sound of rain lightly hitting the trees and the house in the morning that never, ever gets old. Even a misty rain can be loud in just the right moment.

I walked. All around me commuters passed me by and I was wondering what they were thinking of me. Was it “Oh that poor guy trudging in the rain somewhere” or was it “oh man. I wish I could just walk around in the morning instead of driving to work”?

aaaaannnnnnd I missed the shuttle. I wasn’t walking slowly, there was a slight pause in my walk as a family of deer foraged up the hill halfway the journey by one of the housing subdivisions. I thought about taking a picture, but deer in Duvall are fairly common and I was in a really good mood and although I’m not “that guy” lecturing people about enjoying a moment as opposed to stopping to phone-cam it, I enjoyed the moment instead of phone-camming it. I was probably 30 seconds from the bus stop, and a good 7 minutes ahead of the shuttle’s pickup time, when the shuttle blew right past me.

I went with my first instinct, “Oh no that’s the only shuttle for the morning bus runs!” and realized the best I could hope for to reach work would be late morning. I raised my hand and took a few urgent sprint strides before realizing there was no way this was going to work. I stopped, the rain still making that soft patter in the mist, and continued on to the stop just in case that was perhaps a duplicate shuttle or one running really late.

Suffice to say, that was my ride. I stood at the stop until ten past the pickup time and resigned myself to doing some work from home until I could catch the next run of buses an hour or two hence.

The sky had brightened considerably and the actual droplets of rain had increased. My coat and hat made me feel like Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing. I imagined a world where I returned home, put a record on my new turntable I just bought, poured a whisky, and sat like a person in a simpler time until things coalesced back to where the things I had no control over aligned again to get me where I needed to be. I was somewhat amused by this line of thinking when I saw the deer again.

They had moved down the hill and were standing square in the center of the road. The curve at the top of the ridge where I live offers a long line of sight to anyone coming down the road, but to anyone going up it’s a blind turn. And the speed limit, while 35, is routinely broken. My appreciation for them standing stock still in the road, a doe and two very young offspring, was countered almost immediately by considering the likelihood of someone hitting them. Sure enough I turned and around the bend were two cars. I raised my hands up in a waving motion, then my hands pushing down in the road construction crew “slow down” motion. They slowed and I pointed to around the curve. They crawled around the bend and saw the deer.

The deer were nonplussed.

This represented a problem. They were in the road. Two cars, albeit with blinkers on, were on a blind uphill curve. I tried everything I could think of: my phone’s ringtone, shouting, etc. I was even considering quickly downloading a bobcat or cougar roar on my phone when the entire family of deer, with a measure of somewhat aloof disdain, snorted and moved off the road into the brush. The cars passed. I stood for a moment. The entire situation had lasted maybe 60 or 90 seconds.

Living in the country.

I made it back home, hung up my coat and hat. I sent a mail letting work know I’d be delayed and my work item updates. I took a look at the phonograph I just bought (it’s this one by the way) still in its wrapping and debated opening it.

On the morrow, I decided. I’m still waiting for some tiny bookshelf speakers en route to accompany it.

The rain still made noise around the house. Aspen, Eowyn, Adia, and Rochelle were asleep upstairs. A new puppy, Basil Hayden, is asleep up in Canada. We see him soon.

I sit at my desk now, finishing a wiki for work, getting ready to catch the next run downtown. Might have dinner with some friends tonight. Finishing up a long overdue project in the late evening.

And I might see those deer again in the morning.

Go read this. It’s a startlingly thoughtful transformation. I think regardless of whether it does anything for your opinion on the matter you have to admit it’s laudable to publicly realize you’ve lived long enough as the hero to see yourself slowly transform into the villain. And then clearly express the desire to change.

It’s a very different kind of post than an apology, something John Scalzi wrote about quite well. I wanted to read and re-read it over a few days before talking about it then realized it’s just a little too personal for me to really comment on other than to say go read it. I’m not saying people shouldn’t comment, but the more I read it the more I thought “well there but for the grace of the flying spaghetti monster go we all sometimes.”

Over the summer I assisted on a whitepaper regarding "Second screen experiences" for major video game and entertainment properties. (Second screen really just refers to extending games and movie experiences to tablets and phones, etc). I found myself continually surprised over major property holders’ reticence to actually own this, rather than simply do "me too" features developed by outsourced dev houses. To put it another way, people with an almost George Lucas level of control over a particular entertainment property when it came to books or comics or other experiences with their storylines were perfectly happy for a third rate development firm to make their iPhone app or iPad version of their game.

When I asked why there wasn’t someone overseeing the efforts with the same level of "end to end" customer viewpoint that they maintained for their quality of writing or story continuity they looked surprised and said that customers really didn’t expect too much out of alternate experiences yet. They said customers’ expectations of games on tablets and phones were more cartoony and casual as opposed to high fidelity or were relegated to simply being a nice front for a web page or data view rather than a true added value to the experience. Not a single one of the IP owners I talked to had a "butt on the line" for the end-to-end quality of their game’s experience being awesome whether it was on Console, PC, web, or other device. They were designing for the lowest common denominator both of the technology and the customer expectation, without having someone truly own looking at both and trying to maximize the impact and value to the people buying the product.

I asked what if a customer could suspend their game on a console, then grab their tablet and continue where they left off on the bus. I was told no customer expected their tablet to be able to give them the same experience so why bother? I noted tablets now have quad core 64 bit processors, more RAM than the console, and separate GPU’s, why not at least try? Besides, who mandated it had to be the exact same experience? Reasonable customers would know there would have to be minor changes. I even pointed out the potential brand damage to an intellectual property if a third party app contradicted continuity or was so unpleasant or unstable it hurt the game. I was told that wasn’t a big deal either, since customers should have lower expectations of experiences outside the main one in terms of quality. None of these people had invested in a point of contact in the company to oversee the total and complete experience of all their offerings for their top shelf brands and experiences, other than perhaps their executives (who are great at the “Vision” level but notoriously bad at the execution level).

This isn’t new. Back in the early to mid 1990’s, one of the single most powerful divisions inside the Microsoft Corporation was Product Support Services (PSS). This was the group inside the company that supported all of Microsoft’s products either by phone, Compuserv forums, on site support for corporations, or even Fax (Really!). When a Microsoft product had reached its final milestone, which was typically called a Final Release Candidate, the build was handed over to PSS for something called "Sign Off."

Product Support Services was the customer representative. It was the first group within Microsoft that would deal with the full ramifications of releasing a product out to millions and tens of millions of customer configurations. As such, PSS had to monitor both how much it cost to support a product, and how well a product worked based on the assumptions that developers made about customer expectations. A year or so after a product was released, PSS would gather all the lessons learned and customer feedback gathered and present it to the product teams for incorporation into the next version. In this way, customer wants and needs were represented in real world scenarios, not just sales meetings where customers tended to ask for the sky and sales people might promise it. This process also meant that PSS could halt a product from shipping, even if development considered it finished. That was what the sign off process was all about. PSS oversaw the complete end to end use of a product both during development and after.

Final Release Candidate CD’s or disk images were provided to PSS, and teams all over the country would pound on the product and log bugs against it. All shipping software of significant function and complexity has bugs. PSS’ job was to measure the impact, potential pain to customers, and cost of supporting the product shipping with a known issue. If those factors ran too high, PSS would refuse to allow the product to be released until the issues were brought back into line with the quality bar. One of the reasons the final shipping build of Windows 95 was build "950 r6" was that the "final" build had to be revved six times before ship due to issues found during sign off and other last minute testing. There was an enormous amount of customer advocacy talent, support talent, and quality assurance talent in the PSS organization because almost everyone involved was a full time Microsoft employee. If PSS refused to sign off, the product didn’t ship.

PSS was the "butt on the line" for shipping quality software to Microsoft’s customers.

Not long after shipping Windows 95, the process changed due almost solely to Netscape. Netscape shipped "betas" on a continual basis, just propping them to the web when built. The Internet Explorer team was in direct competition with Netscape and constantly complained about having to be held up fixing bugs found during the sign off process and the slow method of releasing.  Soon they were granted exceptions and the release of "perpetual betas" became the pressure release valve to allow the shipping of "Internet" software to be more nimble and competitive. Slowly over the next few years, sign-off as a process became less and less, outsourcing was developed and all that customer focus and expertise was trimmed, cut, then basically eliminated relative to what it used to be. Software quality and customer satisfaction suffered, and more and more products were developed in a silo mentality. I truly believe the security issues in Microsoft software in the late 90’s and early 00’s were a partial result of these changes.

These two anecdotes might seem unrelated, but they are not. I bring it up because lately the vitriolic nature of some Internet comments regarding software or hardware is obscuring a larger problem. Fanboys will be fanboys, and there will unfortunately always be someone willing to type out an anonymous death threat over a designer changing the muzzle velocity of their favorite ammo in their favorite space gun. Those individuals number in the tens of thousands.

What we’re losing all across the software industry, from a services to software to content perspective, is the view of the customer. Or, to the extent it’s taken into account it’s the lowest common denominator of what someone surmises the expectations to be on the customer’s part based on sales.

That audience, outside the vitriolic one, is in the hundreds of millions. For most things, it isn’t a big deal. Call of Duty: Ghosts sold just fine. Both the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 will sell out of their allotments for Christmas. iPads and iPhones are in high demand.

But I watch a major product launch or announce go badly and everyone asks "what were they thinking?" or I see dozens of reviews that state "it’s almost perfect except for this one glaring omission that seems so obvious" or I hear someone point out "This particular feature would add so much and detract nothing and we’ve been asking for it for years" and I realize that we have lost/are losing an essential skill in the software industry: Customer advocacy. We’ve moved it from being a role to being a checkmark box on a long list.

I get that features have to be prioritized and I understand resource triangles better than most. But why should it take a mountain of bad press, social media, or forum posts to note a major product change is a terrible idea in regards to how people actually use your product? It’s gone beyond the simple Redmond Reality Distortion field, Youtube’s recent comment changes are the biggest indicator. Decisions are being made based on what the user base will bear with trying to monetize or compete, not as much on what the user base wants in order to keep choosing your product.

And there’s no reason the two things cannot work together.

We need to establish (are re-establish) the concept of the Ombudsman. People whose job it is to own the end to end experience in both development and release, and serve as the point of feedback publicly when something goes horrible pear shaped on Steam or a new policy or Terms of Use change is announced on Twitter that angers everyone. People who have real veto power when it is needed and can balance the worse angels of the development culture. People who actually get paid to pay attention to what customers like and want and need as opposed to biasing every decision on "We need to make this change because our competitor made it and we need to be the thought leader here. Try and implement it so that customers like it."

We sometimes lose sight that *customers* are the ones who use our products and are important, even when the offerings are (for now) free.

If you don’t believe in strong customer advocacy and making that an actual discipline and separate section of your process then you run the risk of not just failure of your product, but obsolescence of your brand. Usability studies and surveys can only tell you so much.

To use a sportsball metaphor: When competing if you aren’t truly listening to customers you can’t swing for the fences because you will have no idea where the pitch is coming from.

inb4 strawmen:

“But customers will ask for everything!”

Some might, a good Ombudsman will balance this out.

“Apple doesn’t care what customers think, and they sell pretty well!”

Apple works in fits and starts. It’s now on a minor decline as it has gone from epiphany regarding phones and tablets to stagnation. Think about all those lean years before the iPod and iPhone. I’d argue if they would listen just a tad more they could even out their peak and valley cycle and make even more money. One need only look to Vista or Windows 8 to see what happens when you take the platform bully pulpit too far. To think that couldn’t happen to Apple ignores a lot of Apple products that were just as bad.

Besides which, why *wouldn’t* you want to be seen to be listening to your customers instead of dictating to them? I’ve never understood how Apple somehow got away with making their customers feel dumb for things they wanted (like when they said people didn’t need customized SMS tones. Whahuh?) It’s like “I’ll let you purchase my product but I get to slap you one time first.”

“Is this really that big a problem?”

Yes and no. It’s certainly not a crisis. It’s just something I feel like the industry is truly missing out on lately and it represents incredible opportunity for companies, especially big established ones, that move to it or commit to it publicly. It’s low hanging fruit. Customers *love* accountability but better than that they love not making mistakes in the first place. Think about Microsoft’s Xbox One announce then the backpedal. What if they’d had a customer experience advocate who could have prevented the worst of those choices they had to walk back before they wasted time developing them? Someone who was paid for that as their expertise and role instead of relying on a heavily overworked team somewhere in marketing to hope they can get around to it?

Or, when the backpedaling does have to happen, it comes from one voice all at once with a clear message and clear expectation rather than dozens of executives using events over months of time slowly walking back each bad thing.

Community managers are trying to fulfill this role, but many companies simply do not understand Community management is more than just using Twitter or forums. It’s time someone high profile makes a public commitment to having someone like this on staff and actually listens to them. Someone beholden to customers not agendas.


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