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.

Umbrella Theory

Umbrella

Posted by A is for Angie

My wife and I have started to use a term we’ve developed called “Umbrella Theory.” It’s almost a synonym of “Reverse Jinx,” but there’s more to it than that.

 

The Reverse Jinx

By my definition, to jinx means to “foredoom to failure or misfortune by mentioning the possibility of an unlikely catastrophe.” A simple example would be saying “we are on target to reach our destination on time unless we meet stopped traffic at 2 in the morning.” If you believe in jinxes, you believe that mentioning that statement ensures you will “meet stopped traffic at 2 in the morning.” It follows that superstitious folks sometimes strategically mention the opposite outcome in hopes to influence an unlikely event in their favor. Stating publicly “the Miami Heat are a lock to win their 24th consecutive game tonight” is a reverse jinx if the orator also bets against the Miami Heat. If reverse jinxes worked, I would probably walk out my front door stating “It’s going to rain today,” and I would get to enjoy dry weather for all time.

 

The Umbrella Theory

“Umbrella Theory” has a special meaning in the parlance of our household. It stems from the experience that it seems like it never rains when we’ve gone through the trouble to bring an umbrella with us.

Let me walk you through a sample dialog:

Me: Is it supposed to rain today when we’re at the game?

My Wife: I heard it’s a possibility.

Me: Should I take an umbrella?

My Wife: “Umbrella Theory.” Just take it.

 

What inevitably follows is I take the umbrella with me and the weather stays clear. I simply have to endure the small burden of carrying the umbrella to be prepared, to ensure the negative event I’m preparing for doesn’t even happen.

It turns out I’m not the first to think of this.

 

What We Have Learned

The Umbrella Theory is admittedly silly. Still, it can be a useful guide in my family’s decision making process. When worrying about what to pack or how to prepare for something, the theory reminds us to prepare for the “Worst” if the preparations are relatively easy. Also, it is important to decide quickly. There is no reason to deliberate with the Umbrella Theory. Time spent determining whether preparation is necessary can just be spent on the actual preparations.

I hope this terminology catches on in your household. May you carry an umbrella with you always!

 

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!

How to Make a Whiteboard Wall for your P90X Workout Calendar

A computer scientist is writing about health, so I know you’re thinking this must be one of those New Year’s Resolutions posts in which I talk about how I need to get myself into shape. Is that what this post is all about?

While we’re discussing it, here are my health-related New Year’s Resolutions for 2011:

- Lose weight to less than 205 lbs by end of February

- Reduce cholesterol by the end of January

- Run a half-marathon by August

- Dunk a basketball in a pickup game

 

Yes. And No.

You see, I’ve already begun to whip myself into shape since the 2nd half of 2010. Specifically, I’ve been using the P90X workout routine and have been pleased with the results. Sure, recompositioning fat into rock-solid muscle may seem like the end goal, but for analytical folk like you and me it is not the only reward. My wife allowed me to dedicate an entire wall in my workout room to track which exercises I completed, how many reps, how much weight I used, and my goals. It’s a real-life data dashboard!

If you share my excitement for tracking progress, doodling, or staring at reflective surfaces, you may want to know how I did it. p90x whiteboard wallHere’s how:

  1. Determine a wall in one of your home’s utility rooms (e.g. office, workout room, basement) which is segregated from normal clutter.
  2. Purchase Dry Erase wall paint. I used Rust-Oleum and I recommend it. The price was right and I have had 0 complaints.
  3. Follow the directions on the label of your paint to apply it to your wall. The highlights of my process were:
    1. Prepare my wall by sanding rough spots and wiping off dirt.
    2. Dry Erase paint comes with 2 separate cans of different paint mixtures. I had to mix them both together before the next step.
    3. Apply a coat of the mixture as you would with any paint. I used a roller and a brush after taping the edges of my wall.
    4. Recoat if necessary. In my case it wasn’t.
    5. Wait a few days before writing on the wall with Dry Erase markers.
  4. Next is the part where the data comes into play… Look over your P90X workout calendar and map it out on the wall. Leave space to fill in the blanks for each workout.
  5. As you go through each video, especially those involving lifting (e.g. Chest & Back, Shoulders & Arms, Legs & Back), Tony will tell you to write down your results. Take action on his advice.
  6. Each week you can look back on what you have accomplished previously as your baseline. Since we’ll be getting better and stronger every week, our baseline changes frequently. A white board is the perfect vector for storing our results!
  7. After a couple weeks of doing the exercises, I recommend setting goals for each exercise. For my whiteboard, I used blue marker to record my most recent accomplishment and red marker to set a goal for myself at the end of the 13 week schedule

    Results and Goals.

 

The only step I left out was purchasing the P90X videos if you have not yet. Otherwise, that’s it!

I’m still learning a lot about working out and eating right. Hit me up in the comments or on twitter if you want to discuss.

Looking for extra motivation? In Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Body, he shares a story of Richard Branson, the ridiculously successful head of Virgin Group, and how he remains productive. His short answer: “Work out.”

Many of us have a habit of lounging around when tired, especially after a long, stressful day of work. I know this can be a default activity for me at times. However, we must all acknowledge that the best way to reach our goals, both physically and mentally is to work out if there is still time in the day. I realized this on my own a couple years ago, that if I force myself to get my blood pumping, even by doing something as simple as jumping rope for 5 to 10 minutes, I will feel re-energized and ready to be productive. Keep that wisdom with you when thinking about lying on the couch and turning on the television.

Additional Links for setting up your workout room:
http://www.beachbody.com/product/fitness_gear/p90x_gear/p90x_chin_up_bar.do (But I recommend getting a cheaper option)

5 Career Lessons Learned Planning My Wedding

My wife and I were married in July two years ago (2008). We had a fairly large wedding, by our standards, which involved many nights spent planning, collaborating, and organizing. The list of tasks that needed to be completed seemed never-ending. To manage them, we used a website that listed them out month-by-month, letting us know when our progress had slipped (e.g. having not yet chosen our center-pieces 8 months prior). Little did I know that we did not have to do every little thing that the website specified…

Looking back on that wonderful night, I realized that I learned a great deal from planning such an important event. Much of what I learned will help me in my career. Below are the highlights.

1. Prioritize

Often times in America, planning of a wedding begins moments after the excitement of the engagement quells. Coming from a male perspective, this is amazing. We spend our time planning to “pop the question”, and then as soon as we do, it is as if the floodgates of wedding expectations and desires open right up. From that point forward, the giant list of preparative tasks stays at the fore-front of our minds. Ever-growing. Never shrinking.

As overwhelming as the list may be, it can be managed through prioritization, by sitting down with your fiancee and discussing those items that are the most important. This exercise leads to a plan that can save you money and time, by realizing which items can be purchased for less money, which items can be delegated, or which items can be left uncompleted.

In addition to the list of known tasks, there will be issues. For example, the color of my vest that I wore on my wedding day was incorrect. It was white when it should have been ivory. I, of course, didn’t notice until it was too late. It was not a big deal. Things like this will happen in weddings and in your career. As long as it does not affect your top priorities, do not let it stress you out. There will be a time and place to resolve such issues. That time is not during your wedding day.

Think of this scenario in the business world. You and a team are working toward a Big Hairy Audacious Goal and it feels as though processes are becoming disorganized. You feel like you have to do everything or you will be a failure. This is simply not true.

Take a step back and evaluate the most significant goals and tasks with your core group. Focus. Make sure to proceed with only those items that will bring progress to your primary goals. If you can achieve them, you will be successful even though things may not be perfect.

2. Outsource

Most people, when planning for a wedding, still have a life to live. They have a full-time job, a social life, family obligations, school… Time management becomes crucial. When wedding planning, you must realize that your time is important, because only you (and your fiancee) can make many of the important decisions. Instead of performing all the work yourself, you MUST delegate/outsource. In my case, I thought I wanted to have complete control over the DJ’s playlist. However, I soon realized that I just wasn’t going to be able to create a complete playlist and also accomplish my bigger goals. “Leave it to the DJ,” I said. “He is a professional, afterall.”

Hopefully you will find that family and friends offer to help with wedding preparations. Perhaps your initial instinct is that you do not need it. I advise you to find a way for them to help. Practice your delegation skills. Remember, your time is critical. If you can relinquish a little bit of control to allow someone else to help, you will have more time to work on the truly important aspects of your wedding. Besides, if you try to do everything yourself, it’s not going to turn out perfectly anyway, because you will run out of time. At the end of it all, make sure to let your helpers know how appreciative you are that they were able to contribute.

At the workplace, how many times have you found yourself working on a rote task because it was easier to perform yourself than to teach someone else how to do it? Please discontinue this dangerous habit! If you are working toward a tight deadline, you must have enough time to do those things that only you can do. Delegate. Outsource. Allow someone else to concentrate on those tasks that you work on just to get them out of your way. He/She may even be able to do them better than you can.

3. Overcommunicate

An important aspect of outsourcing is communication. Most likely, the biggest reason we avoid delegation of tasks is because we fear that the task will not be completed satisfactorily. This is a valid fear. Vendors, colleagues, and friendly helpers all have their own ideas and biases. Without appropriate direction, they will run with them until told to make changes (which will be too late).

Therefore, when planning a wedding or directing a project in our careers, we must overcommunicate. We cannot assume our helpers know what we want. You may not even know what you want right away either. Just make sure to follow-up with them. Express your concerns clearly and with objectivity. Explain how your tastes have changed. Remember, in most cases, you are dealing with professionals. They are skilled in taking an idea and creating something tangible. However, they cannot read your mind.

4. Disrupt Your Comfort Zone

This one is the most important.

There were many, MANY things that I had to do for my wedding that I simply did not want to do. In other words, if I could have avoided uncomfortable obligations, such as giving a speech at the Rehearsal Dinner or having to entertain during the Garter Toss, I would have. However, I would not have realized at the time how much I was missing. Looking back, the uncomfortable times created the memories and stories worth re-telling. Additionally, the uncomfortable efforts gave me experience doing things I was not used to, ultimately giving me more confidence no matter the endeavor going forward.

Ever since that night I have made a concerted effort to try and push myself outside my comfort zone. The book The Think Big Manifesto refers to this as “Getting Comfortable with Discomfort.” I admit, I have not made as many strides as I would have liked in this area. Why? Because doing things outside your comfort zone is HARD! By definition, it means doing things that are uncomfortable. Then, once you have mastered those so they are comfortable, finding new awkward things to do. Without a catalyst or a deep-rooted goal, most people will slip into a rut of comfort.

In the case of a wedding, finding that goal can be simpler. It might be to “have the best time possible,” to “show our family how much we love them,” or to “actually look half-decent while dancing.” In our career and our life, it is much more difficult to find motivation. I encourage you to do some “soul-searching”. Determine what it is you truly want from life and begin moving forward by living outside your comfort zone. If you cannot settle on a worthy goal, I recommend making a list of things that you feel like you should be able to do but have never done.

Here are a couple things on my list:

  • Sell Something
  • Talk to a Stranger in a bar (Sober)
  • Babysit
  • Medium-Sized Home Improvement Project

Perform one a week. Perhaps it will open your mind to new possibilities. I will post my progress on this blog as well.

5. Connect

There is no better time to let someone know how special they are than right now. Ok, so this isn’t necessarily career advice, but it does come into play. If you appreciate someone, let them know. Right now. In person. You will be glad you did. You will feel better about spending many hours at work knowing the people you love know you love them.

Some people find this difficult, including myself. If you are one of these people, or for some other reason you would like to say “Congrats” or “I’m Sorry” or “I Love You,” but you can’t or don’t know how, browse to my website, Viternus, which is exactly for situations like this. Create a message that can be delivered at a later date. Perhaps that will take off some of the pressure.

Conclusion

By the end of it all, we had made mistakes and left things unfinished. But guess what! I still consider the event a success. As long as our core group (i.e. my wife and I) are focused and aligned with what we want, it is possible to have success even though everything is not perfect. I will strive for this type of success throughout my life and career.

Why are there no programming books at the bookstore?

This post was written over a year ago based on frustrations of not finding good .NET materials at the bookstore. It is being published as a bonus post now after finally completing it.

A little about me:

- I live in the Midwest
- I like to program at bookstores
- My favorite band is Huey Lewis & the News

I like programming at bookstores. Armed with a laptop and earplugs, I find myself at my most creative and in flow when I am around interesting resources. Browsing a few technical or business books, my mind quickly reaches hyper-active problem solving mode. To play off the ancient proverb, when I find my hammer through reading, I immediately notice all the nails I have to pound.

In the Cincinnati area, Barnes & Noble and Borders are the most predominant bookstores with Joseph Beth coming in a distant 3rd. Bookstores are nice because they are open relatively late (compared to libraries), have coffee bars with Internet, and have seemingly infinite resources on a variety of topics (as compared to Starbucks). At least, they “had” a variety of resources. It seems over the last couple years these large scale bookstores have been phasing out the acquisition of new tech books. It used to be that I could go to the bookstore and utilize the books to do legitimate technical research. Now, it seems that only the heavily mainstream books are on the shelves.

In late 2008, when I should have been seeing books about the Entity Framework or Sync Framework soon after they came out, I did not find anything except on Amazon. The lack of books on new .NET frameworks continued when ASP.NET MVC came out and no physical copies could be found. My strategy used to be to check Amazon to see when new books were about to be released and then to travel to Borders on that day to perform the research I needed. Or sometimes I would browse the books at the store to determine if any were worthy of buying. For those that were, I then bought them on Amazon because they were much cheaper.

Unfortunately, the trend has continued. I am hard pressed to find any interesting books (or those that I have not read already) in the “Computers – Programming” category. And this used to be the key differentiator to me from the coffee shops on every street corner.

I realize that I may not be the ideal customer in the eyes of the bookstore. I have learned not to buy any books from them and commonly use the free Internet provided. However, I at least make a conscious effort to purchase an overpriced beverage every time I abuse the store’s resources.

With the above changes comes my growing disappointment. I miss having a central place to do research, skim random books, surf the Internet, energize myself with caffeine, and watch people. I don’t believe I can get that just from the Internet at home or a coffee shop. Additionally, I prefer to learn through reading books versus through the Internet, mainly because they tend to cover a wider spectrum of knowledge. Usually, a book goes through the basics to the intermediate and then the advanced. Books tend to contain straight-forward walkthroughs, executive summaries, and theoretical concepts. In contrast, the Internet tends to have very specific blog entries that solve a particular problem. When researching this way, I am forced to “jump right in” instead of following a complete tutorial targeting varying experience levels. It can be difficult to find high-level descriptions about a technology and why it is useful.

Is it useful to complain about a problem for which I am not offering a solution? I don’t know. I assume the bookstores are not making very much money by filling their inventory with programming books. Or perhaps authors are no longer producing content in the form of physical page turners. I just hope they know that the technology and programming books were a small part of the overall experience which caused me to buy their coffee. I guess attracting my “type” wasn’t worth it for them.

Perhaps when I win the lottery, I’ll unleash my solution to the dying bookstore industry. More on this in a later post…

Personal Benefits to Taking the Bus to Work

Take the Bus to WorkNot many people in Cincinnati take the bus to work. There are a couple reasons for this. For one, the city is not that big so even people who have purchased homes in the ‘burbs can drive into town in less than 30 minutes. Secondly, there are not many routes scheduled, especially outside of commuter hours, so if someone’s schedule is anything different from the standard 8 to 5, then taking the bus would be inconvenient.

Why do I do it?

When I got my job downtown I was determined to begin taking the bus. The closest stop is ridiculously convenient for me. It is less than a half mile away and I pass my mailbox and a grocery store on the way. I don’t take it every day, but about 40% of the time. There are some obvious benefits:

  • Extra exercise
  • Good people watching
  • Save money
  • Reduce stress on my car
  • Environmentally conscious
  • Learn another valuable transportation resource

The biggest benefits

I neglected to mention the 2 biggest benefits in the above list because I want to write about them in more detail.

Time

The bus is great when it is not crowded, so recently, I have shifted my work schedule to be earlier so that the bus ride is less likely to be crowded. Instead of paying attention to driving, I can zone out, sleep, read, text, get on twitter, etc. I get back my commute time.

This is important because lost time is an important issue. The concept has been analyzed many times in other sources, but as developers our time is valuable and easily monetizable. Even if we have day jobs our time outside of that could be spent freelancing, earning significant dollars per hour. Therefore, if I can save an extra hour a day by not having to drive myself to work, then I have saved X dollars, by freeing up that time to work on something else, like this blog post. Now, if it were only socially acceptable to attend work in pajamas, I wouldn’t have to spend time ironing. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Speaking of being productive, I could only imagine what more I could do with my time if the buses I took provided wireless Internet. Then I could actually do billable work. I know that other cities’public bussing systems provide this, so why can’t mine?

Flow

Another great benefit I have noticed is that by starting to exercise my mind on the bus, I am ready to work by the time I get to my desk in the morning. I do not need to “wake up” for an hour once I get there. I don’t feel the need to catch up on twitter, blogs, or emails because I have already done that on the bus. It is a way to “prime the pump.” By consuming some slightly work-related info in a relaxed manner, I am able to feel like my day is starting at my pace without wasting the time I could/should be productive at the office. By the time I am at my desk, I am able to buckle down and get into flow much more quickly.

My recommendation

Here’s my advice if you currently have a significant commute to work and have not tried the bus system enough to get comfortable with it. You can probably ease into it to see if you like it.

To get started, you can search for your local bus system online. You can usually find it by Googling “[Your City] Transit Authority.”

Find the nearest Park ‘n’ Ride, that’s what the Midwest cities call parking lots that are specifically designed for leaving your car there all day while you commute on the bus. There are 2 advantages to using the Park ‘n’ Ride rather than walking. First, you can drive to it. This way you don’t have to try and time the bus schedule as precisely because the car can get you there more quickly. Driving also allows you to be lazy and takes less effort. Second, if you miss the bus and decide you don’t want to wait for the next one, your car will be right there for you to drive into work that day. The Park ‘n’ Ride reduces risk.

Take the bus 2 times a week for a month. This should be long enough for you to decide if you like it and to understand how to utilize the system should you need it in the future. It can be nice to have the option to take the bus to work in certain cases, such as when your car is in the shop or when you will be meeting someone for happy hour who can drive you home.

 

As you read more of my blog, you’ll realize I love it when I feel like I am getting the most out of something. I feel that way with my local bus system now and I hope to share the benefits with you.

Attribution: Image by caribb

Stealing Away For Product Development on Vacay

This week I am on vacation at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico. With me is my family: mother, step-father, wife, and sister. I look forward to rest and relaxation in the sun.


Photo by Gerriet

The Big Idea

Here’s the weird thing, being away from a computer for a week is not relaxing given my current perspective of the world. The best vacation I can have right now obviously includes spending quality time with loved ones. However, I spend so much of my life trying to carve out time to work on side projects that a part of me feels like this week should be no different. Given that the resort has free Wi-Fi and my wife is taking her laptop, I have several types of tasks in mind that should make it easier to be as productive as possible without neglecting the opportunity to experience Mexico.

  • Work on the soft tasks
    • I am writing this blog post on a piece of paper on the plane
    • Think about/write down marketing message
    • Think about what kind of influencers I need to contact about my product
    • Refine my elevator pitch
  • Brainstorm
    • Interact with and observe people
    • Print out blogs that I have been meaning to read (often times, reading something short provokes creative ideas)
  • Get Feedback
    • I’m spending a week with my family, so guess what, they’re going to have to hear about my ideas at least once
    • Listen to their feedback
  • Work on the product (if possible)

Many of these tasks do not require anything more than conversation and time for reflection. Others only require a pen and paper. But when can I work on product development and/or communication with the outside world via email and the Internet? How can I make sure that I appropriately limit when and how I perform this work?

General Strategy 1: Limit Alcohol Intake

Maybe I sound like a party pooper but I plan to heavily restrict my alcohol intake this week. It is time to make the decision that I would rather feel all the time than to feel great while enjoying a buzz but tired/worthless the next day. The ultimate goal of this decision will be to harness as much energy as possible and to be awake when other family members are taking naps, etc.

General Strategy 2: Take Advantage of the Inequity of Preparation Times

Let’s face it. In most circumstances, men are able to spend less time getting ready for a night out than women. It is certainly true in this group’s case. My plan will be to get ready quickly and then get some work done while I wait.

General Strategy 3: Leverage the Cell Phone

Our resort ostensibly has Wi-Fi throughout its campus. I will therefore use my cell phone to access my e-mail and perform simple Internet queries through Wi-Fi access. This will limit any exorbitant roaming charges and will allow me to look less like a Dufus while surfing the Net by the pool-side.

Results (1 Week Later)

I must be honest. After a week of trying the above strategies, the report is that I did not have much success. I was hoping to be able to use my wife’s computer for some development work but technical difficulties quickly thwarted that goal. This left the soft tasks to be accomplished, which did not occur either. Believe it or not1, when I was lounging around the pool-side in the sun, with extremely easy access to fun, alcohol, and jovial conversation, I was not exactly writing down any golden blog posts nor stellar website copy. In summary, peer pressure worked this week.

There were some accomplishments. I focused my plans going forward and broadened my perspective. I also was able to read The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. Somehow, reading a book by the pool was much more acceptable than sitting in the room on the computer. It gave me some great ideas on how to push forward as well as the confidence to do it.

Surprisingly, my cell phone received a good 3G signal, allowing me to send multiple productive emails and to stay up-to-date on twitter. This was nice given that the Wi-Fi was choppy anywhere that was not my hotel room and that I was then able to perform these tasks in taxi cabs, etc. [Update March 17: I should not have been tempted to use my data plan Internationally even though my phone gave me no indication that I was roaming. It cost a considerable amount of money which is what I was trying to avoid. Lesson learned.]

Looking back, I tried to attack the week with an intense level of energy that would allow me to enjoy vacation but to also be productive with “spare time.” The other vacationers in my family had no intention of exhibiting such energy level and were somewhat hurt by my attempts to get away. I have not learned much about how to be self-motivated and productive while also being engaged in the vacation with my family. Do you have any ideas about how I could have done this better?

 

1 Note the sarcastic tone beginning now.

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