On Communication

My workplace isn’t the only place I harp on communication. I’ve also done it in my HOA. We have a good board of directors for our HOA, but due to some advice from the HOA’s management company to be careful from a liability standpoint about conducting business on the various mailing lists in use in the community, there are times when communication about HOA related matters depends on that management company to do a distribution in email, and the management company hasn’t shown they do a very good job of this. Anyway, I harped on that, a little harder than I probably should have, and I got rightfully called out for it publicly. And I deserved it.

One of the points in that was this:

If Jason Young wants to volunteer he can certainly come on board. The last time we asked for volunteers for the Communication committee he did not volunteer.

I actually laughed a bit when I read that, not at the poster, at myself. Because that’s for dang sure, I can’t complain about something and not step up to it, but I did have some rationale for it, and I thought my response was pretty relevant to things outside my community – and to colleagues and to the eventual “Googlization” of this

This is a completely fair criticism. I have made a big deal about communication, and continue to do so, and in fact, did not volunteer for the “Communication committee” I was even asked twice about it and I didn’t respond.

It’s really hard to complain about something and not step up to it. That can be hypocritical as all get out 😀 Hey I certainly am that more times than I will ever want to be.

But not about this, and here’s the rationale. I work in Higher Education on Government grants. The first thing we do about anything is to “form a committee” And the second thing we do is fail at what we are doing because we formed a committee. The thing is, you don’t need a committee to communicate. In fact, committees make it worse. We don’t need meetings, we don’t need planning, we don’t need a roadmap, we don’t need nametags, we don’t need those things to “communicate” You might need one for a newsletter. You definitely ought to have one for landscaping. You need a group of people that care about those subjects to sit around and bounce ideas off each other to do those things.

But communication, you just do.

I know it’s not quite that simple. I know from every day in all the positions I’ve been in, you have to continue to ask yourself “who should know this” and to make sure that the folks that need to know, that want to know, that should know, well, know. It’s not easy, in any area of this thing we call life.

But I think the core point for the workplace, our social groups, our professional organizations, our families: communication doesn’t need committees, it’s just what you do.

These numbers aren’t right

I was close to releasing the code – and that’s when I looked at the numbers. And that proceeded to change my whole sunday morning.

In early 2000, I bought my first home – through a mortgage broker, who promptly sold the loan to Wells Fargo. And somewhere along the way there was an error. When Wells Fargo sent my first statement, the interest was normal, the principal was normal, the PMI was normal, but the property tax escrow was close to 10 times what was needed. My tax bill was supposed to be about $1,500 (Wake County + Garner tax rates were a little over %1 at the time)- and instead of taking the ~$125, they were billing me $1,300.

I called Wells Fargo, got the front-line support, and the first representative told “Well, we collect your property tax for escrow and it’s based on your local tax rates”

Yes, I know that. But it’s a 10 times more than it’s supposed to be. That’s when I got the killer response – that I remember verbatim to this day:

“Well, this is what it says on my screen. We’ll have to put in a research request, that will take up to 6 weeks.”

It says this on my screen

I asked for supervisor escalation, and get a very polite supervisor that is saying the same thing. “it’s based on your tax rate… we’ll have to research it”. And I’m like “Ma’am – There is NO place in the entire United States with a Property Tax rate that high. It’s kinda of interesting that it’s approximately 10 times more. Do you think that the decimal place is off? “Well, so it does seem to be. Let me check on that and be back with you shortly”

And without a research request, without up to six weeks, when the brain finally engaged – I got the issue corrected.

See that’s what happens. Somehow all the brains get turned off with what the “computer says” – and then suddenly when the faith in the almighty computer is shaken, it affects the whole system – because no one gets the technology. It’s magic somehow (and the IT staffs are well to blame for this, because we think the magic helps keep a segment of our ranks employed).

Two weeks ago, I was merging some code that I had been writing for reports and number summaries back into the code base for our directory/workstreaming application, and was looking at the published item and edit counts for our applications (summarized out of the activity streams). And the numbers were good, great, through the roof.

And not right.

Not that we won’t have those numbers, but it just didn’t make sense. And it turned out that I had logic errors in the code that forgot about passing object variables around in Ruby and just because it wasn’t in the object didn’t mean it wasn’t being passed by reference. And a few hours later that Sunday morning, I had the problems fixed – before the numbers got out there, and before others started trusting was on their screens.

My lesson – and the ongoing lesson for all us in systems administration, programming – finance and anyone using tools we put together.

You have to have a feel for the numbers and whether the numbers are right. You have to question how they got there – especially when the numbers confirm your own opinions.

And when the numbers aren’t right – you have to check the numbers.

And that makes all the difference.

Ten Things You Should Be Saying At Work

Earlier this week James shared this article from publishing CEO Michael Hyatt about the “10 things you’d love to say at work but can’t”

But you know, in my job, I find it more prevalent that there’s an awful lot of things at work that we should be saying – but don’t. And I don’t mean those “I love the work you do” express-the-unspoken-gratitude-and-appreciation-for-your-colleagues-more-than-you-do things . I mean, real, legitimate definitive discourse about things we do, and the things we don’t do.

Here are some of mine – and as you might imagine if you have perused prior postings heretofore mine come mainly the the form of questions.

  1. Who, exactly, is “they”?
  2. What do you think [word phrase] means in this situation?
  3. What data do we have that backs up that assertion?
  4. Thanks for that data, can you tell me how it was generated?
  5. How does this help us get to where we want to be?
  6. I don’t think that this has worked like we thought it would. Let’s try something different.
  7. I don’t know.
  8. Yes.
  9. No.
  10. Why?

That’s my 10 off the top – what are yours?

Facebook and OpenID

So, after finding the only webform contact I could find to contact facebook – I have to say that I was impressed that I got an answer:

Hi Jason,

The Facebook Platform does not currently support the method you are requesting. We are always making improvements to our platform, and we will certainly keep this functionality in mind for future releases. Keep your eye on the Developers Homepage Latest News section (http://developers.facebook.com/) for new information.

Thanks again, Greg Customer Support Representative Facebook

[jason.young@ncsu.edu – Mon Jun 18 07:53:59 2007]:

Hey folk,

We are looking to build on Facebook with as much of the Cooperative Extension system as we can try to evangelize about the platform.

We really would like to grow our FB use on our OpenID provider – who in FB can I contact about any possibilities for OpenID integration?

Thanks, Jason Young Systems Manager, National Extension Initiative

Which is nice that they actually answered, but it’s not quite good enough. Like Kevin said I’m all for them becoming a provider. But what they really need to be is a consumer. They lose nothing (other than having to support people’s passwords. And we gain a lot.

So come on Facebook – do OpenID.

Announcing Young’s Law

Young’s Law:

“Every stop-gap becomes a permanent feature in applications written in University environments.”

corollary a:

“Every internal application eventually becomes an external application, with no additional design or resources granted to make it so.”

corollary b:

“All external application users will eventually complain about the design quality of the given application and wonder why on earth such an application was ever released to begin with.”

corollary c:

“Stop-gap measures will be introduced in internal applications released as external applications to address the concerns of those using the external application for purposes to which it was never designed in the first place.”

p.s. Lather, Rinse, Repeat

A Christmas Story

No, this one isn’t about Genuine Red Ryder BB Guns, and I’m pretty sure you won’t shoot your eye out.

This christmas I had the chance to buy my parents a new computer. I’ve always given them my hand-me-downs, but since I went Mac, my hand-me-downs suddenly stopped. Their computer was getting a bit long in the tooth, and while they are still on dialup (or maybe because of it) and I don’t get out there as much as I should – I’ve been living in some fear of them having some spyware or other security problem because they are still running Windows. So I had the chance, and went ahead and bought them an iMac G5. My mom’s only software requirement was some kind of greeting card program.

Well, I bought the Print Shop for the Macintosh – but wouldn’t you know it, version 2.0 of The Print Shop came out 4-5 days before Christmas. So on Wednesday before, I pulled out the credit card and bought it, paying $12 for the overnight shipping. Because I live in a townhome, I had it shipped to work.

Big mistake.

Overnight shipping became “over two nights” shipping, and the University was closed on the Friday before Christmas. So no package.

To make matters worse, they shipped it US Postal Service. And the USPS isn’t quite FedEx and UPS are in terms of Information Technology – so the system update didn’t occur until late Thursday night (so I didn’t know that it was even in transit to try a redirect) – and the delivery update didn’t occur until late Friday – with no mention of where the package actually was (and I was head out of town, and without knowing where the package was, there wasn’t much I could do).

But this story isn’t quite about that, well it sort of is about the USPS IT system, this story is really about the Extension system.

You see, I called the USPS when I was back in town on the next Wednesday, the fourth business day of my priority mail package being somewhere at the USPS. My office building is in zip code 27606 – and there’s a post office about a block away (Method Road), but that’s actually for zip code 27607 (I think – it has an entirely other zip code on the sign on the building but the website says 27607) The customer service number told me that my package was at the Avent Ferry post office and that I better hurry because if I didn’t get it – it was going back to Mackiev that day. Well, I went to Avent Ferry, but they said that “No, we don’t have it, we actually service 27607 – you need to go to Lake Dam” Lake Dam is the warehouse for the whole area, it doesn’t have any traditional services like stamps or shipping – but it services pickups for 27606.

There I found my package, with the front attendant remarking (a bit nonplussed) that “He” [the mail carrier for my building] was going to deliver it “later that day”. And sure enough, I get my package, and on the front is written the schedule for the University – “Friday closed, Monday closed, Tuesday closed, try Wednesday.”

You see, the knowledge about the University was in the hands of the mail carrier. He knew where my package was. He knew the University schedule. He knew when to and when not try the delivery.

The knowledge was at the ends of the network. I knew what my package was and what my hours were. MacKiev knew what my package was and when they had shipped it. MacKiev’s mail carrier knew when they had shipped it, and what MacKiev’s hours were. My mail carrier knew when I had received it and where it was and what my hours were. But the “network” – that is, the IT system in the middle, had little or none of this knowledge. And that fails everyone. Because every one in the middle of the chain is just trusting the IT system/network.

The goal of the system should be to connect and empower the ends The fatal flaw for most IT systems is that it tries to hold the knowledge. And does so in a way that all the ends forget where their brain is at and trust the system to have the knowledge. But unless it connects the ends, it’s impossible to create the necessary feedback loops to know anything.

This week, I read a story of the TSA’s no-fly list snaring a 4-year old in Texas because the 4-year old shares the name of someone on the watch list – and of course, held up the travel for the 4-year old. The airport rep said that “it’s not a person, it’s the name, and we are just following procedure” And the clearance procedure for the watch list requires identification papers the 4-year old doesn’t have. Regardless of any of your politics on any of that or opinions on whether watch lists work or not – it’s an asinine situation to block a four year old’s travels and require documentation that he doesn’t have because his name matches a string. And the problem exists because the system doesn’t empower the ends to make decisions.

_The knowledge is at the ends of the network. The goal of the network should be to connect and empower the ends _

Whatever comes, the goal of our effort for the nation’s land-grants has to be to empower the ends. Both the faculty, and most especially the Extension Agents (and the staff that serve them). The real knowledge of our system is at the ends.