Top 10 Midwest Cities in Enlightened Developers

As I’ve written before, I often think about which American cities are the best hosts for software developers. I’ve stumbled upon another metric contributing to the conversation: Number of Developers with Stack Overflow Careers accounts.

It seems to me that developers with accounts on Stack Overflow tend to be more enlightened than those who do not. If we assume that a representative number of those developers have “Careers” accounts, then we can easily compute a ratio of enlightened developers in a city.

  1. To query the number of developers in a city, navigate to:

http://careers.stackoverflow.com/employer/search

  1. Simply type in the city name and click “Search”.
  2. You’ll see a nice map representation with the number of “Careers” accounts in the area (I used a radius of 50 miles)

 

The nice thing about this approach is it is simple and currently free. I’ve been experimenting with this search page since 2009, back when no city in Ohio had more than 9 members. It’s nice to see such growth in the site.

To instead get more accurate data, the StackExchange API could be used to compile the locations of every Stack Overflow user. The locations could then be parsed and plotted on a map with additional processing to query how many are within a certain distance. Actually, that sounds interesting. I think I’ll have to do that soon!

Keeping with the consistency of my blog, let’s take a look at the cities in the Midwest with the highest numbers of developers with Stack Overflow Careers accounts. You can contrast the below numbers with a large city, like San Francisco, CA, which has 3500.

 

1. Chicago, IL
1100
2. Detroit, MI
400
3. Pittsburgh, PA
346
4. Columbus, OH
323
5. Cleveland, OH
265
6. Kansas City, MO
261
7. Indianapolis, IN
258
8. Milwaukee, WI
254
9. St Louis, MO
247
10. Madison, WI
244
11. Cincinnati, OH
237
12. Grand Rapids, MI
139
13. Des Moines, IA
134

 

How Should the Midwest be Defined?

Allow me for a moment to rant about what I consider the “Midwest.” Many people who live outside the Midwest maintain too broad a definition of the Midwest. Omaha and Minneapolis are not Midwestern cities. They reside in the Great Plains. Louisville & Nashville are not Midwestern cities. They are in the South. There is a certain culture embodied by a Midwestern city that excludes those previously mentioned. Midwestern cities are not major metropolises nor are they merely farm country. They reside somewhere in between, as medium-sized cities, and are typically within a short drive of another city falling in the same category. Refer to my hand-drawn map of the Midwest.

 

An ideal map of the Midwest can split state borders. It should seem clear why northern Wisconsin & Michigan are not included. They are so far North that the culture is different enough not to be representative. Culturally, the cities I choose to include are similar. They tend to have cold winters, their people speak with only slight accents, and they all have an inferiority complex with Chicago. Lastly, every city is within a 3 hour drive to a Top 100 US city in population. This last point is what disqualifies Minneapolis, which is a significant drive to Madison.

A Tall, Inexpensive, Standing Desk Solution

Over the past year, I’ve been working exclusively on a reasonably-priced standing desk. Originally, I thought I wanted to splurge on an adjustable height desk, but I wasn’t sure how much I would actually use the standing capability. Therefore, I did some research and found a very easy-to-assemble, albeit not advertised, configuration of Ikea desk parts.

You can reference the Vika Buying Guide here.

I bought the Vika Amon (now called Linnmon) table top ($48), which is a nice big platform for my keyboard, mouse, and some extra workspace.

The default legs that are used with this table top are called Vika Adils. They are cheaply priced at $3.50/each, but they are for a shorter table configuration. They are not adjustable and are only 27 1/2″ tall.

Instead, to create a tall standing desk, I used a different type of leg from Ikea, the Vika Byske ($30/each). Vika Byske legs are adjustable up to 42 1/8″ and are supposed to go with the Gerton/Vika Byske table. However, the configuration I used still worked. They screwed into the bottom of the Vika Amon table just like the other legs.

The desk works perfectly for me and I recommend this setup. Including the platform of the table top, the height of the desk is 44″, which is right at the height of my elbows bent at 90 degrees hanging down at my sides.

 

 

When I don’t want to stand

There are times when I get too tired to stand, so I needed a large stool ($60) I could sit in and still be high enough to comfortably reach the keyboard. Now that I know that I like this setup, I would like to upgrade the stool situation. However, it’s difficult to find such a tall stool for under $200.

Desktop Setup

I bought a shelf to raise my monitor from the desktop. I cannot find it online at Ikea.com, but it was on display in the store. It raises the monitor about 12″.

Another useful item is my iPhone stand. I use it to connect power my iPhone and situate it as a 3rd monitor. The screen stays on as I sometimes use it to display a stock ticker, time tracker, or reference videos.

 

 

The Specs

 

44″ high desk

33″ high chair

 

1 Table – $48

5 Legs – $150

1 Monitor Shelf – $30

1 Barstool – $60

Total for a standing desk solution: ~$290

 

Drawbacks

I love my desk setup but there are a couple drawbacks involved.

  1. The taller the legs go, the less stable the desk is. I feel as though I’ve extended the adjustable legs to their maximum length. At this height, the desk does wobble a bit but I’ve been using it over a year and have never had anything fall off. I would be much more concerned though if, say, a toddler were around the desk and was trying to shake the legs, because the toddler may cause something to fall off.
  2. Cables are difficult to hide, since this desk is simply a table top and legs. Also, since it’s so tall, many people can see the unsightly mess stored underneath it. Therefore, to maintain a consistent look, you almost need to purchase a matching cable concealer and file cabinet on which to place the computer.

Still, I recommend trying out a standing desk to see if you like it. Remember, it can be done for the small financial commitment of under $300.

A Review of our Time Tracker Software

I work at a small, but quickly growing consulting startup. At first, time-tracking was a significant pain for me and the owner. I spent a lot of thought trying to automate my personal time-tracking and had decent success using FogBugz and Paymo. However, no matter what I tried, I was still required to spend about 3 hours a month (1.5 hours per billing period) exporting my time records into an acceptable MS Excel format to be given to the client. I understand that there was even more work done by the owner, as he made sure every consultant’s format was the same, copy-and-pasted records into one huge spreadsheet, and invoiced the client based on this report. What a mess! That was time that should have been spent on client work, advancing the projects to which we were assigned and making more money in the process. Thankfully, after some brainstorming and research, our company standardized on Harvest for time tracking.

What we wanted was an affordable, centralized solution that could track time and enable invoicing for all employees at the company. Harvest has delivered even more than we thought we needed! Included with our monthly payment, we receive a mobile app, API use, and expense tracking.


Harvest Time Tracking

 

Design

One thing I like about Harvest is that it is definitely a modern-looking website that is continually being updated. The site is also intuitive and visually appealing. It was not long before we learned how to make an invoice online.

 

Usefulness

Simply put, Harvest saves us time. What used to take me 90 minutes at the end of each billing period now takes me 5. It’s also very easy to manage and create invoices. I think it’s fair to say it’s worth the money considering we keep paying the fee every month.

In addition to its advertised features, online time tracking provides insight and transparency into key aspects of our business:

  • Employees’ work habits
  • Progress of projects and budgets
  • Real-time snapshots of what work is currently being performed

 

The Time Tracker App

Members of our team have used the Harvest Time Tracking app for Android and iPhone. It is pure icing on the cake. It has its limitations but it saves me a lot of time in 2 particular use cases.

Expense Tracking

I can easily keep my expenses organized with this app. The best feature is the ability to add expenses and to take a picture of any receipt as soon as I receive it. By making it so simple, it encourages the habit of inputting expenses almost instantaneously, reducing the likelihood of losing track of a receipt or forgetting about a meal. It can be humorous to see a few members of our team out to eat on a business trip as we all take out our phones to take pictures of our separate receipts.

Stopping a Running Timer

Simply explained, the smartphone app gives me mobile access to my online time sheet. This is especially useful if I leave the office to run an errand or go home for the day but absent-mindedly leave my timer running. I can quickly take out my phone, open the app, and stop the running timer. It syncs with the Harvest server soon after.

 

The iPhone app does have some limitations. The key item I’d like to see improved is the ability to edit time entries (which is possible on the website). As explained in my most common use case above, if I leave a timer running I might remember to stop it while I’m on the go. It would be nice to be able to edit the time entry to change the end time to be earlier (when I actually stopped working). As it is now, I have to remember to go back and change that time entry the next time I’m in front of my computer.

 

API

I’m not yet a connoisseur of web APIs, but Harvest seems to have a good one as far as I’m concerned. As an experiment, I wrote a simple website to display whether or not I am working at any given moment. You can see my site here, which I put together in just a few hours. Disclaimer: I wrote this website as a play project for my own utility. I reserve the right to take it down at any time.

 

Integrations

I haven’t yet had the need for many of these but it is encouraging that Harvest time tracking integrates with many common software-as-a-service tools such as InDinero, Twitter, ZenDesk, and HighRise.

 

Summary

It should come as no surprise that I consider Harvest to be some of the best small business software I’ve used. It runs the core of our business and draws few complaints. It’s especially easy to bring on new consultants, requiring almost zero training. In that case we typically say something like “just use Harvest for time tracking.” And they do…

I invite you to connect, but only on your own time

This blog post is the 3rd and final of a series of Anti-Pattern stories

In this last post of the series, I finally take the opportunity to rant a bit. Thinking back to the time when I worked at the aforementioned small company, I realize the reason I became so emotionally affected was because the company seemingly had great growth potential that never materialized. Below is one last story of workplace theatrics accompanied by quotes from my favorite movie of the last 5 years, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

“Do Less… Well no, you gotta to do more than that”

One of my favorite lines from the movie applies to the network monitoring policy at this corporation. For at least some period of time, the paranoia from above was deep, resulting in a robust monitoring software rollout. Whereas some companies track proxy statistics to determine broadband usage and lists of sites visited by employees (a tactic I have no problem with), that was just the beginning in our case. Here, all corporate emails from most employees were published on the network to keep them honest. Additionally, the owner of the company installed software to be able to view keystrokes and screenshots from each employee’s computer usage on the network. Details about this product’s existence as well as the tracking information collected were only supposed to be accessible to the owner. When a Network Admin noticed a peculiar “SpyWare” program on the server, the “cat was let out of the bag”. In retrospect, we all should have had some suspicions based on the broad statement allowing company collection of data in the Employee Handbook.

Knowledge of keystroke logging was held in a fairly close circle, shielded from new employees. Therefore, I did not find out about it right away. Granted, I do not like the idea of anyone being allowed to track keystrokes, as that provides all the information needed to login as me on the network and possibly additional websites, etc. However, the network monitoring policy that frustrated me the most began when “questionable” sites became blocked, inaccessible to users on the network. Some of the obvious sites you would think of were on the list of blocked sites (Gaming, Personal Email, MySpace) but also blocked were those not so obvious sites (Personal Banking, LinkedIn, YouTube, Random Blogs). Many times during the day I would be blocked from information on the Internet I needed to do my job, such as tutorial videos on YouTube or programming help on a blog. The “straw that broke the camel’s back” for me was when I received a LinkedIn Connection request from the owner, but I was not allowed to accept it while on the company network. How can the site be considered valuable and reputable enough for the owner to use it to connect to employees during work hours but not reputable enough to actually allow them to reciprocate while on the job? It was as if we were being asked to “Do Less.”

“So then do something about it”

If working at this place was so dreadful, why did I continue to work there? Well, for one, I didn’t have the option to create a rock opera about Dracula (I kid). But as stated above, I truly believed that the company would grow and along with that would come personal opportunities. The key benefits to working for this company were:

  • Growth Potential
  • I was given tremendous amounts of responsibility early, which was frequently a rewarding challenge
  • I viewed the job as a resume builder, thinking that I could land any job after about 3 years
  • My colleagues were great to work with and are some of my best friends today
  • I got to work on brand new Microsoft technologies

“It’s really good, Peter. I just don’t understand it”

3 posts now have revolved around my time working at this company. It’s time to get to the point by explaining what I learned by constantly having to “walk on egg shells.”

  • It pushed my leadership ability to a new level. I was forced into making technical leadership decisions within a short period of time after beginning the job. Because of the high turnover, I went from being the 3rd most experienced technical person in the company to the 1st. This meant that I had to learn to make decisions without the reliance of someone who had relevant experience.
  • I learned when and how to speak up, to voice my opinion.
  • I learned that it is important to be able to articulate the points for or against a decision.
    • When responding negatively to news about a decision, I learned to be able to describe reasons why a decision made me uncomfortable.
    • When presenting, it is important to start with an “Executive Overview”; don’t assume that the audience knows immediately what you’re talking about.
    • When selling an idea, I learned to prepare for critique and to validate benefits.

Perhaps most importantly, I began to understand how stressful it can be to own/bootstrap your own company. For the owner, his or her entire livelihood is at stake every day. The occasional emotional response to bad news can be expected.


Hire ‘em and Ignore ‘em – Another Anti-Pattern

This blog post is the 2nd in a series of Anti-Pattern stories

As I wrote in my last post, turnover at one of my previous employers was abysmal, a dreadful 50% each year. I don’t know the industry calculation for employee turnover but here’s mine:

Count the number of people at the company on January 1.

If half those people are not there a year later, then that’s 50% turnover.

I also mentioned in the last post that the company was fairly small. I think it’s fair to say the company’s growth was restricted by the continual loss of (mostly) talented employees. Nevertheless, you would think that a company with so much experience filling vacant roles would have become effective at training and onboarding new hires.

On the contrary, this company’s orientation process was inconsistent at best, nonexistent at worst. Instead of a new employee’s excitement being maximized during its peak, it was met with a complete lack of direction. Whatever willingness to learn and sacrifice the employee had was quickly drained with feelings of boredom, irrelevance, and defeat. The culture had become so rotten that some company members actively avoided new hires until they had “established they could cut it.” In other words, it was not considered worth the time to introduce one’s self to a new employee until he or she survived a certain minimum number of weeks on the job. Another common scenario was that new employees were not given any tasks or attention when they started. They were just left at their cubicles to stare at their computer monitors and look busy. They usually did not know who to ask for help or for more work to do so they became frustrated with the lack of mental challenge and began wondering what alternative employment options existed.

Exciting Lunch

Posted by jmerriam7

As I alluded in my previous post, a more dramatic scenario occurred when new hires were introduced to their first “dropped bomb,” when an ambiguous “corporate catastrophe” was explained in a monthly meeting. They were incidentally led to believe their jobs were in jeopardy, leading them to revert to their recent yet unsatisfied job search as a fallback option.

It is my belief that new employees require attentive treatment and care in order to rapidly train them how to do their jobs and more importantly to reduce turnover. In many cases, companies are willing to spend time and money on recruiting talented employees, but next to zero time on them once they have signed an employment agreement. With a thorough employee orientation program, new hires are incorporated into existing teams and they feel confident about their efforts, abilities, and the organization. They begin to produce results earlier begetting momentum and a sense of accomplishment. Doesn’t this sound like a better outcome?

Accordingly, if you remember only one thing from this post, remember this:

Employees in orientation must still be recruited!

 

Below I outline a few recommendations for new hire orientation. They may seem like remedial suggestions but I can assure you they are new concepts to at least one company. Picking and choosing even a few to implement should increase morale and productivity of new employees.

Introduce the new hire to people with whom he or she will interact regularly

One of the goals of employee orientation is rapid integration into the existing team. Introduce a new hire to close (in proximity or function) employees on the first or second day. If the company is small enough, introduce him or her to everyone in the organization.

Take the new hire out to lunch with the team

Ideally this would take place on the first day. When the new hire is eating lunch with peers, he or she can begin to ask less formal questions about the job or company history.

“Pair up” the new hire with someone knowledgeable

Ideally, there will be an experienced member of the new hire’s team in a similar role. The experienced member should teach techniques and best practices to the new hire. Additionally, this semi-formal pairing provides comfort to the new hire that there is always someone that can answer questions.

Formally train the new hire

For smaller organizations this is not as practical, as most knowledge is tribal. However, medium-to-larger organizations with established roles often spend the first few days or weeks training new hires in a classroom. Such focused learning of company-specific knowledge reduces experience needed to perform the job.

Implement a formal mentor/mentee arrangement between different departments

Pair a new hire up with an experienced company member from a separate department. The experienced member should be given knowledge of what is expected of a mentor in such a capacity. The mentor schedules regular (e.g. weekly or monthly) meetings with the mentee. This setup provides new hires the opportunity to ask questions about corporate culture or specific difficult scenarios without concerns of corporate politics.

Develop a central knowledge base

This often takes place in the form of a wiki. New hires should be directed to an internal web application that can be searched for information that has helped employees in the past.

Setup a new hire’s computer and working environment

.NET developers like me encounter this anti-pattern frequently. We show up on our first day and are given a laptop with a fresh installation of Windows on it and administrator privileges. We are expected to spend the day (or however long it takes) installing the software needed to perform our jobs. Visual Studio alone takes about half a day to install, so you can imagine the extremely unproductive time wasted on staring at progress bars. I recommend setting up the computer to a point past all the down time. It should be easy for a current developer to work on his or her own computer while another one is plugged in at its side getting important programs installed. If there are specific development environment configuration settings that a new developer should know, leave those incomplete for a learning experience.

 

Retaining newly-hired employees is essential for organizational progress. Great opportunities are lost when employees leave your company before significantly contributing to its success. The company loses money and time on recruitment, training, salary, and also could lose the opportunity to hire the second-best candidate, who likely has joined another company already. By implementing an orientation program with some of the above strategies, turnover of new hires can be greatly reduced. And if a company-wide “restructuring” must occur, at least show some sensitivity to the employees that are considered valuable so that they feel secure in their positions.

 

 

 

2 Steps Forward, 3 Steps Back – A Leader’s Anti-Pattern

Recently, I have struggled to maintain the blogging pace (1 every 4 weeks) that I set as a goal for myself at the beginning of the year. The difficulty can be easily explained. I have been meaning to share some stories from past experiences. However, I have hesitated, worrying that by publicly displaying my thoughts about sensitive topics I could be burning the bridges I have built with past colleagues. Ultimately, I’ve decided to write about some lessons learned based on advice from a mentor, “sharing how you overcame difficult situations is always a good thing.” I will attempt to be objective in my recollection as opposed to writing a long-winded rant. Names will be withheld to protect the guilty. Nevertheless, I can say with certainty that the chaotic, passive-aggressive environment of the following situations taught me more about dealing with superiors and office culture than anything else.

Since I plan on writing more than one post around the same topic, it is useful to spend a little effort describing the culture at my previous employer. First of all, the company was small. It was big enough and established enough to not be considered a startup anymore. However, it was small enough that any change that ownership decided on could be carried out in a matter of days, and drastic decisions were made… frequently.

Once a month, all employees met over a long lunch to discuss important topics, like current status, growth, and direction of the company. This was not an abnormal concept, but it was at these meetings where we were met, more often than not, with such flummoxing news that we all left in disbelief. We began to walk into the meetings each month expecting a new “bomb to be dropped” on us employees. Despite hearing that company financials were good, we would learn of a completely new corporate direction. Also typical would be revocations of previously approved “perks.” Or, as we looked to our left and right and noticed certain people were not in attendance, we would soon find out that these folks had been fired unexpectedly that day.

At the time, I merely chalked everything up to the passive-aggressive nature of leadership. But now, looking back, I realize what was happening was a lack of trust, and therefore a constant evasion of policies, conversations, and tactics that had previously caused pain. The moment anything went wrong, then in the eyes of those making decisions, it meant that everything on which the company was focusing was wrong, and changes needed to be made in the opposite direction. Put another way, the strategies being implemented may have been near perfect, but they were immediately abandoned at the first setback. It is this anti-pattern on which I will elaborate today, but first, I want to share an excerpt from a journal I wrote while on the job:

No one really ever knows if they’re doing a good job. “Reviews” have been neglected over the last 8 months. And, although we have a “Vision” statement, our environment changes so often and our direction always comes from one source, that it makes everyone feel like whatever they were working on before wasn’t right.

Another source for this is that we have high turnover here. So, if someone learns some method or process from someone else who was terminated, the thing learned gets questioned even though it might be highly valuable.

I think a way to resolve this is to understand that it occurs. When there is turnover, either more could be explained, or there should be a more thorough strategy for picking up the focus that the resource had.

 

The Solicitation of Advice

Recognizing that turnover was high and morale and productivity were low, leadership asked me and another employee to lead 2 workgroups over the course of several weeks to brainstorm areas at which the company needed to improve. The idea was that recommendation documents from each workgroup could be created somewhat anonymously, and would result in an honest, public discussion with the owner. The documents would follow a What, Why, and What’s Next format for each suggestion.

I cannot speak for the other workgroup, but mine was thoroughly engaged in the process of trying to “fix” the issues of the company. We spent hours brainstorming, collaborating, and refining our recommendations, but we ultimately knew that no policy change or employee benefit would take root unless a culture of trust arose first. Our message was clear. We aspired to a culture of trust in which we communicated openly, trusted the intentions of colleagues, and were patient with decisions based on education and experience. In order to fit the requirements of the document, we provided specific examples of ideas for change in addition to an overview wherein our culture of trust concept was explained (if you knew our audience, you would know how important adhering to the proposed document structure really was).

Eventually, our deadline arrived along with the promised “open” discussion. The owner was the solicitor of our recommendations and the authority for taking action. Our workgroup’s mission was to pitch our ideas on paper and await the resulting changes. Going into the meeting, I was excited about making a truthful, heartfelt, objective, and passionate case for change. My hopes were quickly squashed.

The owner had a day to review recommendations before the meeting. However, it apparently was not long enough to enable an objective reaction. The meeting kicked off with defensive remarks rebutting the specifics of nearly every recommendation. Those of us who were more vocal, or who had less to lose, prudently responded calmly, arguing for the case of the documents.

As you may have guessed, the multi-hour clash was all for naught. The owner, citing past misbehaviors by employees (most of whom were no longer employed there), told us we “were not mature enough to handle these changes.” The entire discussion focused on arguing specific points about low priority recommendations and how they would be carried out. It became emotional. The overarching message was not heard, nor internalized.

Maybe it was better to receive an immediate negative response than to follow the company’s normal trend of putting changes into place only to lose faith in those changes soon after. Still, that was the 2nd “bomb” I endured at the company, and it illustrates one of the biggest anti-patterns that was so common. We were given hope in the form of solicited advice, but absolutely zero progress resulted. The owner had effectively reduced morale to nil. There was a fleeting moment of trust (2 steps forward) followed by the regression to a comfortable status quo, except the engagement of several of us was lost in the process (the 3 steps back).

Is there any hope for the ideal bookstore?

Borders – My favorite bookstore

Recently, Borders Group Inc filed for Chapter 11 and closed a local Cincinnati store that I frequented. You can find details about the filing here. As I have explained in a previous post, I love to work at bookstores. They offer a great way to stimulate my mind while also offering the essentials (Internet and power outlets) to do actual work if I want to. We all knew that bookstores, in their current form, were going away. However, because I still love them is why I feel compelled to write about the disappointment that comes with their closing.


Borders Bookstore Closing


Photo by Mark Hillary

I remember hearing about Borders’ attempts at changing the layout and offerings of their stores with a new model. They were supposed to open one such store here in Cincinnati (the Kenwood area) about a year and a half ago. I waited with excitement to see how they attempted to approach a changing information market, but never was able to see it for myself. The construction project became a debacle and Borders, along with other companies, eventually backed out.

Borders realized that people are becoming less likely to purchase full-priced, bound books at the store. The demand is clearly not enough to warrant thousands of square footage for store space. People can both browse the information at the store for free (and then not buy anything) and find the exact piece of information needed online. It is rarely necessary to take a book home, and when it is it can usually be shipped home more cheaply.

Drastic changes must be made to save the bookstores…

Is there any hope?

Is there any way to fix the dying bookstore industry and make a brick and mortar store work? After all, there are an increasing number of people who can work without an office. Does that mean there is a growing market of people who would pay for a workplace at a bookstore?

Let’s analyze the benefits of bookstores versus other similar establishments (e.g. Libraries and Coffee Shops)…

Bookstore Pros

  • Social gatherings – bookstores are a great place to meet with friends to chat.
  • White noise – they realize conversations can get loud, so they try to please those trying to concentrate by piping music over the speaker system to generate white noise.
  • Food is served – is there any reason to leave when there are vital nutrients and caffeine within a cricket pitch from my table?
  • Research – bookstores have magazines and a wide variety of recent non-fiction books with which to perform research. When a topic can’t be found, just go online (with the free Internet service) and try to fill in the gaps.
  • People watching – for those of us who get a little more enjoyment occasionally working around people.
  • Store hours – bookstore hours are not usually as flexible as coffee shops but are much more so than libraries.

Library Cons

  • Less Noise – theoretically, loud library-goers are supposed to be shunned. At least, that’s how they were when I was growing up. Nowadays, with constant cell phone interruptions, it seems people no longer treat libraries as a quiet place for reading.
  • Food/Caffeine prohibited – I am getting sleepy, very sleepy…
  • Obsolete resources – most libraries now have free Internet, which is a savior because very few of their nonfiction books are useful anymore.

My ideal bookstore

I don’t know if it can make any money, but as I alluded to in a previous post, I have an idea for the ideal bookstore.

It would combine all the best aspects of current bookstores, coffee shops, and bars.
 

  • Books/Resources/Internet – this is a great benefit to current bookstores. If a goal is to reduce floor space, then books can be made available in electronic form but can only be accessed from within the bookstores’ provided Internet connection.
  • Coffee/Food/Alcohol – follow a similar formula to normal bookstores but provide alcohol as well. If Chipotle can serve beer, can’t a bookstore too?
  • More people watching – current bookstores are pretty good social environments as they are. However, for those people who want to be around others but not subject to their noise, there is no solution. My ideal bookstore would have social (loud) and focused (quiet) gathering areas. The quiet area would be surrounded by glass walls so as not to carry sound but to enable visibility.
  • Great location – a nice perk would be to have an outdoor seating area or a window that overlooked heavy pedestrian traffic.

As I have never been employed in the bookstore industry, I do not know if my concept could even make money, but that is not my concern. I just want someone to build it so I can live/work/play there.

 

 

Ponderous Thought: I have found that I often get “in the zone” during .NET User Group meetings and Firestarters, which leads me to believe that if my bookstores could somehow incorporate training or presentations that they could be even more valuable!

Mind Map Software – a Great Tool for Brainstorming

Are you struggling to be creative? Looking for ways to organize your brainstorming sessions? Or maybe you’re just bored? I have found a good solution for when I am stuck in one of these situations. I look to Mind Map Software for help.

What is Mind-Mapping Software? It is software that helps you to keep track of related thoughts on a bubble-laden canvas. It produces a similar drawing to what you would have put on the chalkboard in 5th grade. Remember that? When no idea was a bad idea?

 

The nice thing about good Mind Mapping-Software is that it speeds up the rate at which we can record information while brainstorming. I type faster than I write so if I can brainstorm digitally, then I am less likely to forget a key idea I had before recording it. Additionally, soft-copies are more easily stored (than 50 white-boards) and can be updated later.

I have used a few of these applications and have definitely found them useful but I would like to do it more. I am just looking for the perfect option at a good price. Below are a couple neat options:

Installed Applications

Mind Manager – I understand this to be one of the leaders in the market, and at $349 it better be robust. I downloaded a trial and was impressed with the software. It had many templates for creating different types of documents, like organization charts and process flow charts. It was also very easy to add new nodes (spacebar) and new child nodes (insert), which is my most important feature.

Using Mind Manager reminded me that these Mind Mapping Software applications are also great for capturing flow charts. During times when you are trying to explain how a process works or how different things interact, fire up the software and draft a quick mind map diagram. Sure, you could use Microsoft Visio to do it but since you’re getting familiar with your Mind Mapping tool you might as well use that.

FreeMind – This is the other leader. It is open-source and free. The interface for this application is not nearly as beautiful as that of Mind Manager, but for technically-savvy folks like us, it is just what we need. FreeMind also suggests some other interesting uses for their product here, such as for a task list or meeting notes. I would choose FreeMind if I were going to install a windows application, but that’s not what I really want…

iPhone Applications

It would be extremely helpful to be able to record brainstorming sessions on my mobile platform (iPhone). Usually, when I am sitting in front of my computer, my head is buried in my work, writing code, blog posts, or email messages. I struggle to take a step back and reflect while sitting at my desk, because I tend to act on the first idea I have with my computer so close and accessible. The best broad thoughts I have seem to arise when I am not distracted by my computer: waiting to board a plane, riding a bus, or running on a treadmill. I’d like to capture those thoughts as seamlessly as possible.

iBlueSky – I am still searching for the perfect iPhone Mind Mapping application and this is not it. It is $9.99, seems limited, and only has a 3.5 star rating in the App Store. It is amongst the leaders of iPhone Mind Mapping applications but I think I will pass on it.

iThoughts – I am definitely going to give this a try. It is $7.99 and looks very intuitive. It has a 4 star rating in the App Store. I am excited to use this with my Bluetooth iPhone keyboard.

Google Wonder Wheel

Google Wonder Wheel is in a class of its own. It’s useful and yet many people do not even know it exists. To use, search for a topic in Google around which you are trying to brainstorm. How about “Mind Map iPhone Applications?” The lowest option on the left menu should be “More search tools.” Click that. Then click “Wonder wheel.”

I could not describe this tool any better than GoogleWonderWheel.com:

“Did you say mind mapper? This tool is a built in mind mapper with the intention to sort out search results in a logical way of relevancy creating a visual wheel of terms that can make your searching enjoyable and time effective at the same time.”

Clicking around the wonder wheel reveals related topics to what was originally searched for. It’s how I generated the chalkboard image above. I recommend playing around with it as you never know what it might help you to find.

King for a Day – My Visit to Zappos (Part 2)

In my last post, I discussed a very stimulating tour of the Zappos headquarters.

In this post, I discuss some of the perks of the Zappos work environment.

During the tour, I found myself checking off items in my head from my imaginary list of things needed in a dream workplace1 :

They provide the essentials for sure. You will definitely see me write about many of these key components of a great work environment throughout my blog entries.

Allow me to start with my favorite perk of working as a developer at Zappos, Adjustable Desks. I hope you can make out the picture that I took from my phone. In it, you can see a worker that is standing while working. I did not see anyone adjust his or her desk, but I understand that this can be done easily.

I can only imagine how much more comfortable this must be while working. One of the biggest drawbacks to being a developer is the health issues that can arise from sitting at a desk in front of a computer for long hours. Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, limited physical activity, and bad posture can be at least partially alleviated by Adjustable desks. Perhaps I am especially sensitive to the adjustable desks because I am fairly tall (6 feet 4 inches) and am often defaulted into using disproportionate desk furniture. Corporations do not want to purchase custom chairs and desks for each individual worker so a one-size-fits-all strategy is taken, which is no help in creating comfort. I can understand the need for saving money in this way. Alternatively, Zappos has made the definitive statement that they care about employees’ comfort by allowing the flexibility to work on a desk of any height. If I had this opportunity, I would sit comfortably before lunch and stand while working after lunch, helping me to both keep good posture and to stay awake. I appreciate a company that felt this was important even knowing that employees will occasionally be tempted to dance while typing.

My commonly observed theme was a high level of interaction between employees. Although there are numerous obvious benefits to this, my original notion was that it would be extremely difficult to get much work done on an individual level, as I alluded in Part 1 of this blog post. After all, to accomplish great work, knowledge workers need time without distractions:

We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration…trouble is that it’s so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers — especially interruptions by coworkers — all knock you out of the zone. If you take a 1 minute interruption by a coworker asking you a question, and this knocks out your concentration enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble.

—Joel Spolsky, Fog Creek Software
(from Where do These People Get Their (Unoriginal) Ideas?)

What I had not realized is that I had this thought before seeing the development department, which was in a second building detached but right outside the main building. In my opinion, this separation was a crucial element to Zappos’ success.

Many departments work differently. Some require heavy collaboration and outright noise. Others are responsible for cheering whenever a tour walks by. A development department cannot survive if such distractions are omnipresent. It will never be as productive as it should be.

I cannot say I got the full experience of what the development department was like just by walking through it. However, in general, the second building was much quieter than the main. Employees working in the second building receive the best perks from both buildings because it is still easy to hop over and get a fix of the different energy of the main building when necessary. Whether it be the need for a game of ping-pong or reflecting with Dr. Vic, it must be nice to know that these options are available but do not get in the way of day-to-day work habits.

Beyond gaining productivity from existing employees, Zappos’ excellent and interesting culture affords them a giant benefit: Top-Notch Recruits. How many potential employees take the tour or hear about Zappos’ unique culture and soon after take a look at Zappos job postings? I would imagine this occurs frequently, as I know at least one other blogger that I talked to on Twitter did this. By garnering extreme interest in the company, Zappos has a huge pool of candidates to choose from when deciding to hire, which inevitably gives them a pick of some of the most talented workers around. Not to mention, Zappos is headquartered in Las Vegas, NV, a vacation hot-spot and genuinely exciting city. Many talented individuals would consider relocating to Las Vegas for a great job opportunity, at least for a few years.

With all the obvious benefits that Zappos has created with its corporate culture, why doesn’t every company strive to be like them? The only answer I can come up with is a fear of employees taking advantage of the company’s policies. At “normal” companies, we submit equipment request forms for bigger monitors and ergonomic keyboards, we are required to be at the office between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm, and we are our responsible for directing our own personal growth. At Zappos, these things and more are offered as part of the employment package, allowing them to recruit the best of the best. As always with the best of the best, superficial concerns about work habits can be relieved by knowing that great work will get done, period. Also, with such a unique experience, employees that value it know that it cannot be recreated anywhere else, helping with employee retention.

If every company tried to create an extremely unique and happy culture, it would not work. Zappos falls into the perfect fit of culture with aptitude with industry. Encouraging collaboration and outgoing personalities helps them “deliver WOW through service” which makes them a successful retailer. As more and more companies attempt this, it will require “culture innovation” to stay unique and to continue to attract talent. Kudos for being at the leading edge of this trend, Zappos, I can only hope our paths will meet again.

1: A supremely neat novelty that Zappos had in the office was an industrial-strength blender. When we were walking through the tour, we watched them emulsify random office items like a foam ball and a pencil. I don’t know what the purpose is other than to relieve stress and to give outsiders something to talk about.

King for a Day – My Visit to Zappos (Part 1)

Late last summer a group of friends were planning a trip to Las Vegas and invited me to come along. I struggled to rationalize the trip until finally settling on the excuse. While in Las Vegas, I promised myself that I would perform research by visiting the headquarters of Zappos, the successful online retailer known for its incredible corporate culture. The goal was to witness first-hand a company that has mastered the art of creating a fun yet productive culture while also serving to motivate me in my own career. I apologize if I spoil the surprise, but it worked!

Planning

I am a bit of a veteran when it comes to Vegas trips. I know what I like and therefore I optimize for those things. However, I was a bit nervous about setting up the tour with Zappos because being productive and talking business does not normally fit into the schedule of planned events when I am on the strip. Fortunately, during planning my nervousness soon turned into excitement.

I reached out to Zappos customer service by finding an e-mail address on their website. Shortly thereafter, I received an informative and encouraging e-mail from someone at Zappos.

Hello,

In an effort to share our culture with visitors we open our doors and offer an experience of the Zappos Environment first hand through a tour. I would love to help facilitate a visit to our office, to include a tour.

Tours are offered Monday through Thursday; and the tour duration is 75 minutes. Tours typically start at 9:00am and the last tour starts at 3:00pm.

Please provide a date and an arrival time, and I’ll coordinate a schedule. One of our wonderful tour guides will WOW you with our history of service.

Zappos.com extends a complimentary shuttle service to all of our guests. If you are interested in the shuttle, please provide the pickup and drop off location(s) as well as a cell phone number.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best Regards.

It may seem like a simple e-mail but I was downright surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, given Zappos’ reputation. The e-mail simultaneously answered nearly every question I had and reinforced my impression that the visit would be worthwhile. I immediately began looking forward to the tour. Looking back, throughout all my interactions with Zappos employees on the visit, I was received with similar tones of courtesy and relevant information.

The Tour

The tour of the Zappos campus was quite fun. Our tour guide, although fairly new to the company, was well trained and a good conversationalist. He delivered enormous amounts of functional knowledge about the company and each department in a very short time. I found the professionalism of every employee to be quite impressive but clearly information is not what made the tour fun.

Although I came to the tour alone, I was included in a group with 13 other people who all worked together at a Zappos supplier. This made things a bit awkward at first, but the tour included multiple tactics to get us out of our comfort zone. Some visitors walked around with Zappos flags, others were asked to ring a bell and yell something that nobody would know about them, and still others got to engage in a hula hoop competition with a random employee (who happened to be walking by at the wrong time). Because doing these things felt completely acceptable, nay expected, it did a great job of loosening up our moods. Additionally, only volunteers did these things. No one was forced to be embarrassed by the zany antics.

Zappos’ culture was very welcoming toward visitors. Almost every department we passed did something to acknowledge us and to make us “feel like Kings.” Many of them shook noisemakers, jingled bells, or played funky music on their computers. Some had funny stories or poems prepared for us. From a visitor’s perspective, I felt special to be welcomed in this way as opposed to feeling like a nuisance to people in the building. From an employee’s perspective, I could not imagine being happy about the distraction of a sizable group of people strolling through my office regularly, and me being expected to make noise and interact with them, but there will be more about that opinion in part 2 of this blog post.

The folks at Zappos wanted to make absolutely sure I left the building with a positive impression. In addition to all the free information, popcorn, and smiles I received, they gave me SWAG! I could barely carry it all (a backpack, Zappos Monopoly, culture books, and more). They let me and the other visitors choose a hard back book from their 2 large book cases in the lobby. I took home The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss. Given that I was on a mid-week Vegas trip I had traveled to Nevada with just a carry-on. There was no way that I could pack all my new stuff and take it home. While I was leaving the Zappos headquarters, I briefly had the thought to ask them if they would ship my stuff home for me. I honestly got the feeling that I would have, but I did not ask.

Conclusion

Visiting Zappos and taking the tour accomplished everything I had hoped. It taught me a great deal about how a unique culture can have brilliant effects, it was fun, and it inspired me to better myself so that I may be more desirable to future employers that have a similar environment. I absolutely recommend that you take a tour yourself. As long as you are interested in business, web development, shoes, or fun, it will be worth your while.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post, in which I analyze the productivity benefits and drawbacks of Zappos’ environment.

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