Digital receipts for paperless living

In trying to live a relatively paperless lifestyle, I notice what options stores and restaurants offer for providing electronic receipts instead of paper ones.

My favorite kind is where you use a credit card or mobile payment method that some lower level of infrastructure already knows about and you automatically get an email receipt without further prompting. Square has a great implementation of this.

Slightly less awesome but still great is the version where you use a digital payment method and then have to enter your email address manually, even if you've used the same payment and receipt delivery method at the same location before (I'm looking at you, most American chain restaurants that have the little mini-computer waiting at the booth when people sit down). A bit annoying, but still paperless.

Then there's everywhere else where printing a receipt is probably the only option. Especially at the grocery store, where the receipt and personalized coupons are several miles long, requiring their own bag to carry out. And look, there I am a few days later, awkwardly holding a crumpled piece of paper up next to the networked super-computer on my desk, manually typing in some details that some other networked computer somewhere else already knows about.

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Star Trek values

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a panel at Silicon Valley Comic Con consisting of various members of the cast of the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Brent Spiner, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes, Denise Crosby, Marina Sirtis and Robert O'Reilly were joined by original series cast member William Shatner to talk about the show, their lives as actors, and what the Star Trek universe has taught and can teach us about the real world.

For someone who watched every episode of the show when it originally aired and who has remained a fan since, it was an hour and a half of nearly pure joy. For one, I was just excited to be a part of a whole auditorium full of people reflecting on how much influence the stories, dialogue and creativity of the show had on our lives, the panelists included. Several audience members stood up to say just how strong that influence has been, informing the careers they chose, the people they've become, the kind of lives that they now lead, and I was right there with them.

In watching Star Trek as a young person I remember being invigorated by the complex problem-solving scenarios that the Enterprise crew faced week after week. I learned from the principles of collaboration, mutual respect and cross-species equity that were practiced. I saw strong women in leadership roles, and I saw non-Caucasian characters developed with an unusual (for mainstream TV, anyway) depth and texture. And I was inspired by a vision of the future that offered so many possibilities for exploration, discovery and growth. I'm sure that my real-world evolution as technologist and computer geek was propelled forward significantly by my immersion in that make-believe world of technological wonders.

The panel also highlighted a new angle of my appreciation for the Star Trek universe. I hadn't previously thought about Trek as having a political point of view, because I assumed that the vision of a world where humanity had figured out how to eliminate poverty and hunger, celebrated and built on our various differences, and employed innovation to protect and restore the environment was a vision that anyone would embrace and want to strive for, and not a particularly politically-charged one.

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On training people

As a follow-up to my post on what I've learned over the years about hiring people, this is a similar list of what I've learned about training and onboarding people as you welcome them into your organization.

Many organizations reduce training to a pretty simple process ("here's the training manual, here's your trainer, go"), but I find it to be one of the most complicated and fascinating periods in someone's life with an organization. The initial days, weeks of someone's employment (or, in a not-for-profit context, someone's time volunteering or serving on a board) are highly influential in shaping the experience they're going to have in the long run, and the work they're going to do.

It's a time when they start to reconcile their "outsider" impressions of what you do and how you do it with what they see as a new "insider" with fresh perspective. It's where any idealism and over-simplification that happens during the hiring process runs up against the nuances of internal processes and the texture of individual co-worker personalities. Training can prompt many moments of truth about the new person's image of themselves as a part of your organization: "do I belong here?" "are they going to like me?" "can I live up to hopes/expectations?"

From the perspective of the people doing the training, then, I think successful training is a careful balance between providing enough structure to properly educate and acclimate the new person to your organization while also allowing enough freedom and flexibility to accommodate their learning style, pace, interests and questions - especially the "why are you doing it this way when you could do it this other way?" ones.

Whatever you do, don't figure out training on the fly. Don't let it be a 100% self-directed experience in some hope that throwing someone fully into the deep end is the best way they'll learn. And don't underestimate the return on investment you'll get from an intentional, comprehensive approach to training.

As the process gets started, minimize assumptions. Communicate clearly and directly with the trainee (a word that feels a bit demeaning but is useful here) about every detail of their first moments as a part of your organization: where they should be at what time (and in what time zone, if you're a distributed team), in what medium the training will be conducted (in person, text chat, audio chat, video chat, in groups or one-to-one), how long the sessions will be, what they need to bring, and anything they need to do in advance. Give your trainee every opportunity to get past nervousness and make a great first impression by removing unnecessary vagueness in these critical first days.

Communicate expectations and set clear training goals. "Over the next X hours/days/weeks we're going to walk through everything from this to that. Your main trainer/mentor/buddy will be this person and they are your main point of contact for the process, ask them whatever you want. Here's the format we'll use, here are the materials we're going to cover, and here's a list of all the things we're going to touch on. Here's how we'll track your progress through this training, and here's what we expect from you at the end of the process." And then make sure all of this information is known to the wider team and company. Continue reading On training people

On hiring people

After years of various roles in which I've been solely or jointly responsible for hiring people into businesses and organizations, I offer some thoughts on what I think works.

Hiring is ultimately about entering into a new relationship with someone. Actions and words that truly honor the joys, anxieties, vulnerabilities and interdependencies of that process will tend to make it more successful. Things that treat it as a cold, harsh, impersonal transaction will tend to make it (and your organization) less successful.

A successful process, by the way, could mean that someone is not hired just as much as it could mean they are. Clarity about the long-term fit is more important than short-term harmony and avoiding disappointment.

If you create an application, screening, interview and hiring process where people can check off a bunch of boxes that culminate in their employment, they will tend to optimize for that. It doesn't mean they are disingenuous or won't be good employees, but it may not be what you want as you build a team. Asking people to follow specific instructions is fine - it can be a good way to screen out bulk applications and clarify someone's interest. But lean more toward creating an interesting dance between equal partners, and then seeing how everyone feels when the music stops.

Keep candidates updated as much as possible at every step of the process. Let them know you've received their inquiry and when they should expect to hear a next response. If there are delays on your end in evaluating their application, say so. Try to respond to every candidate who follows your basic instructions about how to apply, no matter how far they make it in your process. Don't play mind games, you are not running Fight Club.

Résumés are useful as a summary of someone's professional identity, but should only be a starting point for understanding what they would bring to your organization. Putting together a flawless résumé (and possibly a cover letter) should be a baseline for understanding someone's attention to detail and ability to communicate clearly. A résumé with typos, lots of fluff or other problems can probably be discarded early on.

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What we are, what we can become

One of the many recent life lessons I've learned from parenting an 18-month-old is that where you are and what you know right now doesn't have to limit where you can go and what you can become.

It's been fascinating to watch our daughter learn about the world and incorporate that knowledge into her life on timelines that span mere days and weeks. I had apparently developed a cynical view of what people have the capacity to learn and how long it takes, and she is challenging those assumptions and views every day. The old, limiting way of thinking about this puzzle/game/word/object/creature is so yesterday, dad! It is delightful and surprising to watch the human brain expand its understanding of how the world works, and I must constantly re-evaluate what she is capable of in order to keep up.

It's also a good reminder for me about how much we as a society tend to categorize and label people and what they have the capacity to know or do based on our initial encounters of them.

I've been thinking lately about how this dynamic is at work in the tech world in particular - people are pigeonholed into being developers, support/customer service, marketing/sales people, administrative/HR people, founders, or other roles and then we quickly start to make assumptions from there about how they think, what they know and what they're capable of. We can quickly forget that someone might have a broad range of skills and life experience that would allow them to take on multiple roles or see a given problem space from multiple perspectives, even if they choose to primarily occupy one particular role right now. Even worse, there's strong temptation to use only one or two direct encounters to label someone as a good/bad/mediocre version of their singular role, never again mentally giving them the chance to demonstrate otherwise.

"Him? Oh yeah, I worked with him on a project three years ago. He's a so-so developer but I wouldn't trust him to really thrive with this new project."

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Without media literacy, is there hope for the media?

Much has been said in recent weeks about how the news media will need to transform itself if it is to keep up with continued deception from a President Trump, and with the proliferation of so-called fake news.

I think it's true that journalists have an almost impossible-to-navigate obstacle course in front of them for the years ahead. Covering hard news, calling out lies and omissions while maintaining their access, not becoming the story, not becoming desensitized, and just generally being on top of the actions of an administration unconstrained by any reasonable standards of integrity or transparency will be all-consuming.

But perhaps the harder task falls to an American public whose media literacy has apparently wasted away under the relentless influence of social media, clickbait journalism, passive entertainment, substandard education, and general civic apathy. It may not matter how well-sourced, researched and fact-checked a news article might be if the average reader doesn't know how to distinguish it from a speculative, misleading or just plain fabricated piece published by someone trying to get rich quick or advance an agenda. It probably doesn't matter how much time and money a media organization invests in being seen as credible if there is no widely accepted and respected standard for credibility.

If the public continues to give our clicks, attention and dollars to the most salacious and distracting stories over ones that cover the complex substance of politics and governance, there may be little hope for a strong fourth estate.

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Tired of Cancer

My friend Carol Hunter died this past Sunday morning at the age of 68, of cancer.

I wrote to her recently about how much her teaching and life have meant to me:

I think the third term of Humanities during my first year at Earlham was the most time we ever spent together, gathering in the Meetinghouse Library four days a week to talk about the works of Willa Cather, Anzia Yezierska, Amílcar Cabral, Basil Davidson, Ayi Kwei Armah and others. I remember the gentle but persistent way you encouraged us to think, to organize our thoughts, and to share them in mature and helpful ways. I remember your way of talking of really hard things about the nature of the world - historical and modern alike - with a tone that was serious but encouraging. And I remember your overall kindness as a professor...I want to thank you for the life that you have lived, the challenges to heart and mind that you laid down for your students, and the ways you have shaped the rest of us through your time in this community and the way you have been as a family. I am grateful to you and for you.

My friend Roland Kreager died on May 28 of this year at the age of 65, of cancer. His obituary only begins to paint a picture of what a kind, active, generous, loving soul he was. He worked hard to create a world that was more just and equitable. Roland surprised me often with his ability to find good and hope within complex situations, even horrible ones. Even within his experience of cancer.

I can only hope to have a small piece of both Carol's and Roland's tremendous perspective on life as I grieve their deaths and feel anger and sadness at how quickly and profoundly a world can be turned upside down by illness.

Unfortunately this particular kind of anger and sadness is not new to me, or to many other people.

And it feels like cancer is everywhere.

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