Thursday, October 1, 2015

Buying Real Estate

My wife and I are buying a house. I hate real estate. It kind of reminds me of jewelry. Everyone tells you what a great investment it is. But it isn’t. It’s a shiny bauble that’s only worth something to you. And a house is not an investment. It’s a dwelling. And it’s an expensive dwelling. I prefer renting. When the toilet breaks I call the landlord. Done. And if the economy tanks, you can’t even get out of it what you have in it. You don’t have that problem in an apartment.
It seems everyone in the real estate business is shady. Contractors charge inflated prices and hide shoddy work behind sheet rock. Real estate agents take the path of least resistance, whether it’s the ethical path or not. Appraisers amazingly always come up with numbers suspiciously close to the sale amount. Bankers get their cut. Lawyers get their cut. Insurance companies get their cut. Uncle Sam gets his cut.
I hate all the hidden things that can go wrong when you purchase a home. We’re purchasing in DC, which has the most extortionary tenancy rights in the country. Our new house was a rental. So when we made our offer, we had to wait till the tenant (whose lease was up, by the way) “gave” the owner permission to sell. And by “gave” I mean extorted to the tune of two months’ rent, a fully refunded security deposit, and a $500 moving stipend - totalling $8,000. All so they would be allowed to sell, in a timely fashion, that which they should have every right to sell, any time they wish. Because they own it.
This seller also had the good fortune to have hired a shady real estate agent who likes to hide things until it’s too late to do anything about them. I wanted to walk. My wife wants a house. I understand. Our first child is on the way. We need the white picket fence. And the yard with the swing set. And a place for our dogs to pee. That becomes a much bigger mission when you have a baby in tow.
I’ve never liked real estate agents, in general. I have some friends who are real estate agents. I like them. They were friends before they were real estate agents. Some of you might know or be related to real estate agents. Or you might be real estate agents. And what I’m going to say next is going to offend you. Most of the real estate agents I’ve dealt with have been a combination of lazy and incompetent. In good economic times, any monkey can sell real estate.
I don’t like most general contractors. I bought a new house from a contractor one time but they didn’t finish the work before closing. When I told them we would be cancelling the closing, my real estate agent suggested we instead put $1,500 in escrow to hold until the contractor finished the house. This being my first rodeo, it made sense to me. It was a stupid deal suggested by a lazy realtor who just wanted the commission. If that came up again, I would make it $20,000. Make it hurt. What the hell does the contractor care about $1,500 when he’s just sold a house for a quarter million? Nothing. 
So we’re going to buy our house. And it will be our home where we’ll raise our son and be a happy family. I hope I don’t have to do it again, but I probably will. Every time I do it, I learn a little more. This time I learned that I should be a hard-ass right from the opening bell. You want to be shady? I’m walking. There are lots of other houses. Maybe next time I’ll just buy a house boat. Then any time I don’t like my neighbors, I can just weigh anchor and leave. I think that’s a much better deal.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Just Be Considerate to Your Fellow Traveler

I’ve been a more and more active cyclist for the last 3 years and for the last 5 months I’ve been commuting to work on my bicycle. I love my commute because it allows me to get a little exercise on the way in to the office every day without actually having to exercise (I hate morning exercise). So by the time I arrive at work, my mind and body are awake, I feel good, and I’m ready to be productive. Because I’m not a morning person, this is a good thing.

The other things I do on my commute are think about random things, and observe the world passing by me. I make mental notes of things I see. Sometimes I strap a camera to my helmet and take video of the things that I’m also noting. This is handy because it allows me to go back later and actually document stuff.

I live in Washington, DC, and work at the base of Capitol Hill. As I’ve written before, there’s something almost magical about my bike rides. I grew up 800 miles away and never even visited this area before I was 29 years old. To me, all the monuments and landmarks are 2-dimensional - these are things you see in movies and on television shows. But now, every morning, I ride my bicycle down Pennsylvania Avenue, right past the White House. As I turn down 15th Street, I turn the corner at the Treasury Building and look down the road at the Washington Monument. Then I turn left onto the continuation of Pennsylvania Avenue and head straight toward the Capitol Building. It’s very cool.

But the observations I make don’t end at the positive. I also notice bad things. Usually it’s the behavior of my fellow humans. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost our empathy and consideration for others. And it’s not just those commuting to work in cars who are the problem. It’s bus drivers, taxi drivers, pedestrians, and other cyclists, as well.

We’ve all experienced bad drivers. The entire first section of my book Hang Up Your Phone!!! deals with courtesy on the road. And a couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about the four cars to avoid. So this is not new information. There’s not much I can tell you that will be new and interesting. All the bad behavior by automobile commuters is predictable and expected - Uturns in the bike lane, illegal turns, text or talking on the cellphone, stopping in the middle of the road to let off or pick up passengers, illegal passing, speeding down narrow streets, running stop signs, honking their horns for no apparent reason. These all occur daily. I have video evidence. And bus drivers and taxi drivers are no different. But they should be.

Pedestrians are an interesting lot. Because I live in a touristy town, I have to deal with a lot of people who have no idea where they are, typically walk around ill-dressed and ill-prepared for whatever it is they’re doing, and they’re completely oblivious to their surroundings. Mind you, I’m not complaining - tourists bring a lot of money in, and that’s a good thing.

However, DC has done a great job with bike lanes. We have them in very convenient places on major thoroughfares in the busier parts of town. This enables cyclists to be off the sidewalks and out of the traffic lanes. But pedestrians often see bike lanes as just extensions of the sidewalks. They stand in them having conversations with other pedestrians, or to hail a cab, they walk into them without looking, and they generally ignore bicycles. It’s as if they don’t think it will leave a mark if I run into them on a metal contraption traveling at 20 miles per hour. It will hurt. I have a bell that I ring. They don’t notice it. So I bought an air horn. They notice, but look at me like I’ve grown a 3rd eye in my forehead, as if I’m supposed to go around THEM in the bicycle lane. Also, pedestrians rarely pay attention to where they’re going. They spend a lot of time with earbuds in and their noses in a phone and step right into the street without looking for cars or bicycles or anything else. It’s a wonder more people don’t get run over.

But let’s talk about cyclists. A lot of people who never ride bikes think cyclists are assholes. And they’re right. But we’re not all assholes, most of the time. The assholes come in a few categories:
  1. The inexperienced cyclist who uses bike share bikes and doesn’t really know what (s)he is doing
  2. The asshole cyclist who rejects your notion of consideration and is going to ride any damn way he pleases - and if it slows you down, all the better!
  3. The asshole who is just an asshole in every area of his life - so why should cycling be any different (we all know these guys - no need to go into a long description here)

The Inexperienced Cyclist
We’ve all seen these folks. They rent the bike share bikes, they generally don’t wear helmets, they often have some kind of bag hanging on the handlebar, they wear flip flops, and their whole body bobs from side to side as they pedal. They usually have the seat set too low or too high and appear generally uncomfortable. These people are a menace. They don’t obey traffic laws - not out of hubris but out of general ignorance and inexperience. When they DO stop at red lights, they pull all the way to the front of the line of cyclists so that we all have to go around them when the light turns green. Because they are typically tourists, they don’t really pay attention, as they’re busy looking at all the sights. I don’t think these people should be punished  - more people on bikes is a good thing - but there should be some sort of testing required before allowing ANY cyclist on the main roads. Fortunately, bike share bikes are easily recognizable, making these people really easy to avoid.

The Asshole Cyclist
This is the asshole who will flip you off if you are in a car and give him a short beep when he’s riding abreast with his buddy on a busy road instead of single file in a clearly demarcated bike lane. This asshole hops on the sidewalk when it’s convenient but he’d really rather stay in the middle of the road if he can slow down the cars. He will go out of his way to get in the way of a car and he WANTS you to say something to him. This asshole doesn’t respect red lights, stop signs, or walk / don’t walk signals. The whole road belongs to him - everyone else be damned. He pisses off other cyclists, too, because he HAS to be at the front of the line. He cuts off other cyclists and gets mad at them for being in his way. He’s dressed all in his zip-up lycra top and matching pants and if he had a car, it would definitely be a BMW. Or a Prius. You should just stay away from this douche - no good can come of any interaction with him. You’ll just get mad and he'll never change.

So what’s the solution, when you have a significant number of cyclists who think motorists are assholes, and vice versa? (Not to mention the pedestrians, on which cyclists and motorists agree)
Well, first and foremost, courtesy is the solution. If you consider that there are other people around you who are also trying to get somewhere, you might modify your behavior slightly - maybe you stop at the red light, or maybe you pull into single file with your buddy so the cars can pass. Maybe if you’re a motorist you don’t make a Uturn in the bike lane. And you get off your phone. And you keep your eyes open for cyclists.

For pedestrians - PAY ATTENTION TO WHERE YOU ARE! Turn down the music, get your nose out of your iPhone and look before you step out into the street.

If you’re an inexperienced cyclist, maybe try riding around a parking lot and practicing a bit. For the rest of us - we can see them coming, we should just give them a wide berth.

And for law enforcement - give tickets to motorists breaking the laws. I know you see them, I see you seeing them. I also see you ignoring them. Make it hurt when someone makes a Uturn in the bike lane, or gets caught texting, or turns right from the left lane.

But that goes for the cyclists too. Nail ‘em for running red lights (as an aside to this, I got a warning for running a red light a few months back - however, it was a light where cars can’t go, and there were no pedestrians or other cyclists - that’s just kind of nonsense), give tickets for people who blast through stop signs without so much as a glance and a slow-down, ticket the guys who are all over the road and the sidewalk, where there are perfectly good, and well-demarcated bike lanes.

But mostly it’s courtesy. If we all practiced a bit of courtesy and empathy, we wouldn’t need someone to write tickets. If you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, you don’t need the threat of punishment. Just don’t be an asshole.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How Bicycles Can Save the Planet

In the last five years I’ve become more and more interested in cycling. When I first moved to the city from the suburbs, I would ride my bike to work a couple of days a week. It was an old, cheap, heavy mountain bike so it wasn’t a very smooth or easy ride, but I enjoyed it enough. Three years ago, my now wife bought me a nice commuter bike for my birthday. That made all the difference.

Right from the start, I felt like a kid when we went on leisure rides. It was fun. It was exhausting. I was getting great exercise without even trying to get great exercise. I hate running. It’s boring. I hate going to the gym. It’s boring. Exercise for the sake of exercise holds no appeal for me.

I used to love playing rugby. But after a few concussions and 2 shoulder surgeries, I decided it was enough. Refereeing was good, but it ate up my Saturdays in the Fall, Spring, and much of the Summer. Bicycling is something I can do any time I have a little free time. Daytime, nighttime, morning, afternoon, whenever. I don’t have to plan the rest of my life around IT, but can do the other way ‘round. And it makes me feel like a kid.

Two years ago I moved to a new city and got a job that was an hour’s commute, in a car, each way. I was miserable. Not only was the job NOT what I was hired to do, the commute was killing me. “Trapped like lemmings into shiny metal boxes, contestants in a suicidal race.”

That lasted almost a year and I vowed (although I hate the word “never”) that I would never have a commute like that again.

Now I have a job that is 3.4 miles from my house. I bike to work every day. And this brings me to the point of the piece. I truly believe bicycles could save the planet.

We have an obesity epidemic in this country. When I combine my normal daily movements with ~7 miles on a bike, I’m burning somewhere on the order of 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day for the four days a week I’m in the office. I haven’t changed my diet much, although I make certain to eat breakfast every day and drink plenty of water. I’m not likely to get fat with this lifestyle.

We have an anger epidemic in this country. Everybody’s angry at everybody else. And usually for pretty petty reasons. Granted, a lot of it has to do with politics and the crap spewing from our televisions and computers, but I’m convinced a lot of it is just pent up road rage. It’s frustrating as hell.

Somewhere around 90% of people think they’re better than average drivers. That’s impossible. And while I believe most drivers are adequate, the small number of jackasses can really throw a spanner in the works. And that makes everyone else angry.

Sometimes I get angry on my bicycle. Sometimes pedestrians are idiots and think the bike lane isn’t really part of the road so it’s okay to stand in it. Sometimes those few jackass drivers don’t look before they turn, or before they open their doors into traffic. Sometimes it’s a jackass biker who thinks he owns the road (note to jackass bikers, you can get hurt real bad that way).

But after a few seconds, when I’m on my way again, I forget about it. I’m getting exercise and fresh air, and I have other things going on around me that I need to pay attention to. In a car, you’re just stuck there to let that anger fester.

Whether you believe in global climate change or not, you have to know that fossil fuels are a finite resource. The WILL run out one day. And they DO cause pollution. The earth  might be fine, after she shakes us off like dust. But we might choke ourselves to death.

Don't get me wrong, I love to drive. My car is a manual and a little sporty. I love the feel of the road, taking curves a little faster than I should, down-shifting for extra torque to pass slower drivers. But that's joyriding or road trips. For my daily commute, I'd rather be doing a hundred other things.

When I was commuting to work, I drove a clean diesel. I was getting around 40 miles per gallon, on average. That’s really good. But now I don’t use any fuel at all. I use a synthetic lubricant to oil my chain about once a month. So far a 3 ounce bottle has lasted me almost 3 years. And I have plenty left. That’s efficient.

I don’t know what goes into building a bike. Mine’s made mostly of aluminum, with some steel and some plastic parts. Along the way I’ve added plastic fenders, a steel saddle bag rack, an aluminum bell, plastic lights, and an aluminum air horn. These are all things that go on cars, too, so I would have to guess the footprint of my bicycle is considerably less than even the TaTa car that runs on compressed air.

Public transit is great, but it’s often gross, and dangerous. I love the convenience of the subway when I need to go someplace a little farther away, or if I need to be dressed a certain way and don’t have the ability to change when I get there. But some of the stations are filthy. Some of the cars are filthy. Some buses are filthy. And public transit for short hops takes MUCH longer than a bike ride.

Just for giggles one time, I timed my drive in traffic to where my office is now. It took about the same amount of time as the bike ride. However, I was only timing point A to point B. That time didn’t account for finding parking once I arrived, and the walk from the parking space to the building. These are important considerations because on a bike, once I get to point B, I’m there.

I work in a building that must accommodate at least a couple thousand people. But the bike rack, on a full day, only has about 30 bikes locked to it. I have a hard time believing that only 1% of the population of the building lives close enough to bike. My commute is about to double, but I’ll still bike to work. And I’m 46 years old. Washington DC is a very young city. I just don’t believe all those young folks can’t jump on a bike rather than in a car or on a bus.

I understand not everyone has the luxury to bike to work. Because of distance or disability, or perhaps it just isn’t practical - I have to change clothes in my office every day and maybe that option isn’t available to everyone. But if all those who COULD ride a bike to work DID so, for even just one day a week, think of the change. Now multiply that change by every city in every country around the world.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

8 Hour Workdays Are Absurd

Copyright: pxlstore / 123RF Stock Photo

The standard, 8 hour workday is dumb. It sounds great that we could all be busy doing wonderfully productive things for 8 hours every day. But the reality is that we’re not. So to expect people to hang around and pretend to be productive when nothing is going on is asinine. I’m speaking, of course about the service industry. If you work in a factory or on a construction site, you probably have stuff to do for 8 hours. But not in most service-oriented offices.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating less work. In fact, I’d prefer more work. But I don’t need to be in the office to do it. I’m at my most creative and productive (typically) between 8:45 and 11:00 at night. I don’t know why that is, but it just is. And I work during those times; sometimes on work work, sometimes on outside interests, sometimes just washing dishes, doing laundry, or cleaning the house - because that’s when I’m at the peak of my physical and mental energy cycle.

However, I’m still expected to be in an office during regular business hours every day, and I’m expected to be billable to actual projects for a certain percentage of that. Do you know who gets screwed in that scenario? Customers. I know so many people who make up things to do, sandbag, call meetings, stretch out tasks, or just plain lie about their time so they can get that billing in. And that all gets invoiced to the customers at the end of the month.  

I was involved in a project once for which we billed the customer $120,000. When I sat down and ran the numbers, including hard costs, my time (I was billed at $125/hour) and added in a little padding for unforeseen issues, I calculated I could have done the job on my own for around $40,000. And I wasn’t being cheap with my numbers. I used the high end of all the hard cost estimates, I overestimated my time, and like I said, I padded it 10% for “just in case”. That’s not a small difference, and it all comes down to “being billable”. We had 3 or 4 extra, totally superfluous people working on the project. Because they had little else to do, and they were expected to be in the office working for 8 hours every day.

It’s a fact that business isn’t always busy. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. Sales people should always be finding things to do but not everyone else can. Mind-numbing busy-work is what makes people want to tear their hair out and find a new job. So why, in 2014, with all the technology we have to be connected from anywhere at any time, do we still have an expectation of working, from an office, for 8 hours every day. I submit it’s because of one thing - TRUST. Managers don’t trust their employees to actually do their work, if they’re not sitting 10 feet away.

If a person’s job is a specific type of intellectual work - say design, or programming, or writing, and that person has managed to finish all of his assigned work in a timely manner, what benefit is it having him hang around the office. For that matter, what is the benefit of having him come into an office every day in the first place. I’ve heard silly excuses like “Oh, we’re a very collaborative team.” Yeah? Bull. There’s no logical reason why a team can’t collaborate in-person when necessary, without mandated 9-5 office presence. And with Skype, and Facetime, and Hangouts, and Webex, and Live, and all the other similar technologies being so ubiquitous; that notion is all that much more absurd.
What if a person’s job is more project-based - like a researcher or an analyst? Someone who looks at a thing, or a document, makes her assessments of it, creates and presents recommendations, and then moves on to the next. Why should she hang out in an office every day doing busy work, or trying to stretch her projects out, or just being bored. It’s inefficient.

Again, it comes down to trust. Management are stuck in a 19th / 20th century paradigm where their employees weren’t accessible at all times. We don’t live in the 19th and 20th centuries any more. We live in a time when people can be just as productive in the middle of the night as they are at noon. If they’re not in the office they can be reached. If you need them you have all manner of options at your fingertips to get them. If they aren’t getting the job done, or they’re not accessible, your job as a manager is to correct the problem, or cut them loose.

A good manager and good employees will get the job done, regardless of locale. And allowing for the flexibility of working remote if presence isn’t necessary saves money, increases morale, and produces better results for your customers.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Death of Democracy

People are dumb. I guess I’ve always known it but tried to convince myself otherwise. I have a very deep libertarian streak that leads me to think people should be left to their own devices; that when allowed, people would do the right things, the smart things, the things in their own best interest. The older I get, the more I come to conclude that, no, people are not smart. While I still believe most people are, at their core, good; they are also dumb. 

This epiphany didn’t come easy. It came from years of observing behavior in public spaces and being involved in behavioral psychology studies. It continues on a daily basis. Reading the news, interacting on social media, and watching a variety of television shows has brought me to where I am today. Slowly but surely veering more and more to the left because I’ve come to truly believe the state must take care of people, because people are too dumb to take care of themselves.

Don't believe me? Take a look around and see the things people expend their energy being mad about. A male athlete who wants to have boobs and wear a dress. A white woman who wants to be black. Two dudes who want to get married. And then do some research to find out the things science is doing that we never hear about - a nano-lubricant with nearly zero friction. A probe landed on a comet. A solar airplane making a trans-global flight. Mutated cells that eat cancer. And all we care about is Kim Kardashian's giant ass. And her big butt, too.

This is quite a disheartening revelation because for those seemingly few of us who have the ability to process abstract concepts, and care about truly important things, it means we must give up a certain amount autonomy, for the good of the whole. We can’t be allowed to have any meaningful vote, because allowing stupid people to vote leads to the catastrophic mess we have in Washington  - and in Governors’ mansions and State Houses across the country - today.

The following quotation has been attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler, although it has also been occasionally attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville:

A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the world's greatest civilisations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.

We are firmly in the complacency stage now, running headlong into the apathy stage. For myself, I admit to already feeling complacent about where we’re heading, as a society. The loss of freedom is inevitable. There are three main groups involved here - the over-represented, non-productive super-rich, whose inherited and ill-gotten wealth allows them the ability to buy politicians, the over-represented, non-productive, special-interest poor, whose sheer numbers allow them to buy politicians, and the under-represented, productive middle class, who have neither the common interest numbers, nor the funds to buy politicians. Enjoy your freedom; it won’t be here much longer. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Sometimes the customer IS wrong

I have been an independent consultant in the web-development world, off and on, for a little over 11 years now. In that time, I’ve realized some really nice successes and gained friends and long-term customers, but I’ve also made my share of mistakes and had some failures along the way.

Quite possibly the biggest mistakes have come from trying to stabilize relationships with customers as they’ve veered off track. In some cases, it resulted from my lack of foresight, but in most cases, it resulted in dealing with impetuous people and trying to appease them, or convince them of the right course of action, when they plainly have no interest in agreeing with anything.

Because I started my company to cater to small businesses, I was, naturally, dealing with small-time entrepreneurs and that often means dealing with people who have small budgets and big wants - along with big egos. Sometimes I’m dealing with small non-profit organizations whose leadership don’t always understand that they have to pay for things.

Here are a couple of missteps I’ve encountered along the way, and how I believe (in hindsight) they could’ve been avoided or fixed. Most of you may look at these and say "well, duh, everyone knows that!" And you're right. But when you're in the thick of a project, and just want to get it finished, it's easy to fall into these before you even realize it.

It needs to Pop more!
What web development or other design professional hasn’t heard that before? In this scenario, I was working with a real estate agent who really didn’t know much about marketing, in general, and the web, specifically. We provided three designs for him to choose from and he ended up choosing a few elements from all three. After making the requested modifications and providing a new mock-up, he approved it and we continued with the development process.

After we built the wireframe and some dummy pages, we presented it to him again, and again, he approved it, with some modifications. So we completed the build. That’s when the wheels came off.

Our client looked at the finished product and said “Hmm. I don’t like it.”
“Well, what don’t you like about it?”
“It needs to POP more. It just doesn’t POP!”
“Hmm. Can you be more specific? What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t know, it just needs more pizazz.”
“Okay. Is it the colors? Is it the images? Is there another site you’ve seen that you like? Can you give us something specific you think might help?”

We spent the next two weeks offering modifications and nothing seemed to suit him. Eventually we told him “We’re done. Unless you can give us something specific you’d like to change, we can’t help you.” Because this was a fixed price contract, we were already losing money on it and decided to cut our losses before they were too far out of hand.

What we should have done:
We should have cut our losses much earlier. Instead of trying to guess what the client wanted and make him happy, we should have told him upon delivery of the original site that he had approved the site at two previous stages and that further development would represent a new contract. Additionally, instead of trying to guess what he wanted, we should have halted all modifications until he could clearly articulate what he meant by “Pop” and “Pizazz.”

But you told me you wouldn’t charge me for this!
Translation - “I don’t want to pay for things.” Because I offer managed hosting to my customers, I have always been rather generous with little support issues. If you ask me to add an image, or make a small text change in your site, I have traditionally not billed for it. It takes longer to generate an invoice than it does to make the change.

Recently that policy blew up in my face. A customer I’ve had for six years has often been the beneficiary of free work - an image here, a changed phone number there. No big deal. Occasionally he’s requested things that took a bit longer and was presented with invoices for 15 or 30 minutes - never anything too complex.

A few weeks ago, this customer requested some substantial revisions to his website. By “substantial” I mean enough to require a few hours’ work. We’re not talking about thousands of dollars here. He went apoplectic when he got a bill for 3 hours. He said “You said you wouldn’t charge for changes.” To which I replied, “No, I told you the same thing I tell all my customers - if it’s a little change and doesn’t really take any time, I won’t invoice it. But anything that takes more than 15 minutes will be billed commensurate. You haven’t had any trouble in the past receiving free work, or even paying for up to half an hour of work. This work was far more substantial.”

What we should have done:
Bill for everything, no matter how small. In giving work away, I broke one of my own philosophies, which is that if you want someone to perceive that something has value, you must assign value to it. By giving away even the smallest amount of work, in the name of “relationship building”, I devalued my time and effort.

I don’t like this, why is it so expensive?
I’m ashamed to admit that this has happened a couple of times. And each time I tell myself “never again” (which is another no-no, as I philosophically object to using the word “never”). Recently, I entered into a time and materials contract to develop a very small website for a non-profit organization. Their current hosting situation is soon to expire, and they have a fundraising event coming up so time was of the essence.

The director of the organization made it clear to me that he placed all the authority for the development of a new site in the hands of an executive who works for their primary sponsor, so I should work with her to execute everything. The first thing I did was meet with her to make an assessment of the project, then I offered her a proposal and contract, which she had the client sign. He chose time and materials, rather than fixed price - and that’s an important distinction.

I worked with my developers and the intermediary to approve information architecture, layout, design, and content. The intermediary provided images and logins for various third party software accounts, such as dynamic calendars and payment portals.

In three weeks, we built the site, integrated all the third party software, and were ready for the punch list. But instead of giving a punch list, the client fired us. Not because of failure to perform, but because he didn’t like it - and this was the first time he had seen it. I explained to him that we had approval for everything but we could certainly go in a different direction, since it was a time and materials project and we were only about halfway through the estimated budget.

The next correspondence from him was that he had found a volunteer who would do it for free and that I should send him or our intermediary a bill for the work we’d done and he would pay it. When I sent the bill, he was incensed and shocked (even though I had already told him what it was up to) and couldn’t believe it would be that much, since he didn’t like it.

What we should have done:
This same scenario played out almost exactly the same way about ten years ago, and I should have learned from that. If you MUST deal with a third party middleman, you MUST insist that the ultimate client sign off on everything. It’s not enough for the intermediary to do it, regardless of what they tell you about that person’s authority. In the end, the only one with real authority is the client himself (or herself) and not the middleman. And even if his motivations are wrong (and in this case, the client is demonstrably wrong) he’s the one who has to like the product. Halt all production if the intermediary refuses to get client approval.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"We Have a Super Collaborative Environment"

I have been working as an independent consultant for almost nine months now. This is my second go-around - the first lasting around seven years. The times have been more good than bad but every once in a while I get the normal anxieties revolving around “Oh no, I finished my project, what if there aren’t any more!!” or “gee, my dogs aren’t really great conversationalists; it sure would be nice if there were people around that I could talk to once in a while” or “man, I’m tired of having to worry about paying vendors and providing 1099s for customers, and dealing with collections…” and “it would be nice to have a regular paycheck, and know what I’m going to make from one month to the next.”

These concerns, along with the 2008 recession, led to my decision to rejoin the regular workforce in 2010. I spent the next four years working in a regular job, in a regular cubicle, for a regular paycheck. Part of the reason I wanted this was so I wouldn’t have to deal with management headaches any more - accounts payable, accounts receivable, HR, etc. But I ended up dealing with them anyway. Additionally, I wanted job security, but I think we all know, there isn’t security in a job - unless you’re a tenured teacher. So what did I really gain?

Along the way, I figured out that toiling in a prairie dog farm isn’t really conducive to the kind of work I do. So much of my work is analysis and writing, and it’s difficult to really get your groove on when your co-workers are chit-chatting around you, or polling everyone to see what’s up with lunch or happy hour, or the boss taps on your desk to ask you to work on something else completely unrelated. Ask any writer, analyst, developer, designer or other creative type how long it takes him/her to get back on task once his/her focus is broken and you’ll get a variety of answers - none less than a half hour. So let’s assume these interruptions happen only twice in a day (which is being generous); that’s a full hour of wasted time, on top of the time actually taken by the interruption itself.

This isn’t really a problem, though, because this is the 21st century. We have myriad tools available that enable us to work remote yet still collaborate and respond in real-time. We don’t need to languish in the whack-a-mole existence of the 20th century office paradigm in order to be at our most efficient. Especially in the new technology fields; I mean, these are the movers and the shakers, the visionaries and provocateurs. The people in charge of these companies know instinctively that to get the best work out of the best people, you need to allow them the flexibility to work in an environment that nourishes their strengths. Some people need and feed off of the chaos of cubie-land. Others (especially those who really need to focus) need isolation.  That’s why all modern companies judge their people by their production, not by their face time. Wait. What? You’re telling me that ain’t so?

Early last year I found myself disillusioned with a job that was feeling more and more like a Terry Gilliam film at every passing minute. I was commuting an hour to work each day, most of the work I was assigned was not what I was hired to do, and not what I wanted to do, and when I was able to work in my area (research / analysis, writing) I was being constantly interrupted with impertinent questions and requests about random things. So while I was deciding whether to make the jump to the independent world, I decided to put the feelers out and see what other full-time opportunities might exist that would jibe with my style of work.

And that’s when it occurred to me. While the world has changed dramatically, HR has remained stuck in the mid-20th century. They’ve updated some of their jargon, but it’s like there’s a script and every one of them has to say essentially the same things and ask essentially the same questions. Questions like “where do you want to be in five years?” I was shocked people still ask that. And “tell me about your greatest strengths and weaknesses.”  “Well, I have really good night-vision. But chicken wings give me gas.”

Although I’m content with my current situation as an independent consultant, I still don’t dismiss anything, out of hand. I see opportunities from time to time that pique my interest so I follow up on them. I’ve had a handful of interviews in the last year and the process and question / answer portion of every interview has been so similar, I’ve started cutting to the chase early on.

The most important thing to me, even over money, is the flexibility to work when, how, and where I am the most effective. That will lead to much better results for my employer, and much better job satisfaction for myself. And if I’m satisfied, I will work even harder, and provide even better results, providing more satisfaction for myself, and better results for my employer. Which will lead to my working harder - you get the picture.

Since I’m happy doing what I’m doing, and really don’t have anything to lose, I am very honest with the interviewers and tell them “I work better when I have the flexibility that allows me to sequester myself when I need to really focus. Additionally, I have zero desire to spend 2 hours in a car every day to get to a cube farm and sit for 8 hours for the sole purpose of being present. What is your company’s policy toward telecommuting?” Now, I completely understand that sometimes it’s necessary to be present. Staff meetings, client meetings, focus groups, user testing, etc. - all require presence. Sometimes it’s also nice just to have a place to go where there are other people around. Maybe I need to bounce ideas off someone in person. It’s great to have that available. But to be there just to be there, especially when there are things like Skype, email, cellphones, Webex, and so on, is an anachronistic holdover to the days of the Cleaver clan.

The answers I get when I ask this have all been eerily identical - “Well, we have a very collaborative environment and it’s important that everyone be here.” I even said to one “Oh, so the company values face time” and she interrupted with “Oh yes, management really likes to see people in the office!” and then I finished my sentence “...over productivity.” She was speechless. That one, in particular told me that they try to be flexible so that if you have some kind of family obligation they’ll let you work from home one day. But if you could be in the office, they expect you to be in the office. AND, if you can’t make it in, for instance if there’s a weather event, it’s okay to work from home. How generous.

Look, I understand that some people need to be in the office. But the kind of work I do requires a certain amount of isolation sometimes. Sometimes I work better at 10:00 at night. Also, I’m expected to be on call after hours and on weekends - and I’m completely fine with that. I want to do the work when it needs to be done. But that’s a two way street. If I’m going to be on call, and working after hours, then I need to have the flexibility to NOT be in the office every day from 9 to 5, if the only reason I’m there is just so someone gets to gaze upon me. If you expect me to be in the office, every day, for the sole purpose of ticking a “present” box, then you shouldn’t expect me to be on call after hours, or on weekends. And if it snows, forget working. However, if you provide the flexibility for me to be an adult, and get my work done when I do it best, and collaborate as much as necessary, then I’ll work after hours, on weekends, in the snow, and even on vacation. And I think most responsible grownups will behave exactly the same way.