workin’ schoolin’ livin’

Elephantine

“You’re like an elephant,” she explained to me. “You walk in to the room or you say something and everyone notices, because it’s very forceful. Not everyone can handle that. You need to learn to change your communication patterns.”

That was real-life advice I got from a real-life professional.

The year was 1996, and I had just moved to San Diego to be with my then-fiance. He was in the Marine Corps, and I was a recent college grad, with a degree that could get me $7/hour at Scripps or $10/hour temping with my typing skills. As the Marine Corps enlisted man gets paid atrociously small (I think it worked out to $5/hour or something because the Corps assumes that until you are married, you live on base with their provided food and housing) it was unfortunately a no-brainer. (There are times when you have those late night “what-if” conversations with yourself, and mine start with “What If” I had gone to Scripps instead and resolved to eat beans and rice every day).

One of the temporary jobs I had was with a company that had a rigorous FTE hiring process: you were welcome as a temp with whatever the agency said you could do, as an FTE you had to go through a Myers Briggs assessment and a 1-hour coaching session to determine your personality type. It wasn’t the first MB I had taken and would not be the last (I’m an ENTJ, in case it wasn’t horribly obvious). From the coaching session the quote above is what I remember the most.

In the spirit of the recent articles on how women couch their conversations differently in the workplace (to their perceived or actual benefit or loss), and in particular of memes like this, I’ve got a couple of things to say.

I do it too. I try hard not to, and I’ve found that when I get on a roll — of not apologizing, or not being “we-centric”, etc., I get a different reaction. For the most part, stuff gets done.  And for the most part, I don’t have any lingering perceived/actual issues with coworkers.  I know however it would come as a shock to some friends and family to learn that I have learned to be hyper-deferential. For the person who had to take a whole Traci Mercer class on the art of saying “No” without *actually* saying “No”, this is a surprise.

Then again, I just had that conversation with my boss: namely, he suggested that everyone should be aware of how they are perceived, and maybe that should be my goal (?) for the year (?).  My boss has 3 female employees, none male. All but four of the 25-person engineering team is male. One of my coworkers and I were in a seven-person meeting the other day and she had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a word in for about 3 exchanges. I finally had to do the “rude” thing and speak up and say “hey, I believe [A] has something to say… [A]?”

I shouldn’t have to do that.

In the hallway after the meeting, she and I were talking, and she noted that even I as the “brash American” in the group had to try more than once to get the sentence out or the point across. It stung me, because it made me realize that 1. I’m still coming across as brash, but 2. that’s somehow considered a bad things, and 3. whyinhell are we still fighting for a say at the table?

The real kicker is, I would bet you any amount of money you care to that no one else around the table even noticed. And by “I bet they didn’t notice”, I mean all of it: that we were trying to say something, and that I had to get forceful to say it. (Incidentally, yes our point was taken, yes it was considered valid, and yes it shaped the meeting: we were not dismissed.)

I am not entirely sure what my boss was driving at — and I was very conscious that we were ending the meeting in two minutes because he had another one, and I suspect that if I had pressed the conversation would be longer than 2 minutes.  I’m also not entirely sure I want to entertain it any more than as a casual mention of one thing I could pay attention to during the course of the year. For someone newly promoted, with a whole sheaf of new responsibilities, with the volume of work I have and need to help facilitate, I don’t think that my best efforts for shareholders and coworkers and customers alike should be me sitting and worrying about how others perceive me. While I agree that work is not just about what you do but how you do it, there are multiple ways in which to provide feedback to someone, and the only constructive feedback I’ve had in this position to this date is that there was one time a customer got me riled up too easily and it showed internally to the group. (Not externally to the customer). Save that, everything else was positive.

In the light of all of the recent articles this is forcing me to think about it as, “would my boss have said this if I had been a man?” In other words, would my focus for the year have been “how I am perceived” if I had been male and the brashness and posturing that is/does come with that socially were expected? I honestly don’t know (and since we don’t have a male counterpart, will not know).

Right now I am on my day “off”, and I’m working on some metrics and analysis — my “comfort” work, if you will. I like data: it’s clinical, it’s discrete, and it can help frame decisions and actions. I’d much rather live there than this current world of “how am I perceived”. In my mind, though, I’m conflating the two, and thinking about requesting a change to our internal anonymous surveys: to ask everybody if they have ever been TOLD to consider how they are perceived, and to ask them if this actually is forefront in their mind.

I’d bet it would be illuminating.

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Great Expectations

‘Tis the season here at My Big Software Company, where we rate ourselves and rate our peers and rate our managers in a method that doesn’t actually impart A Number, you see, but is still used to determine those numbers which are most important to working folks: how much you get paid, either in one shot (bonus), in the future (stock), or over time (raise). In other words, it is review season, and it sucks.

I don’t care how careful HR is and how well prepared they are. I don’t care what the template and tools are you are given to follow. The fact of the matter is that at least once a year and, ostensibly, four to six times a year, you are sat down and are told to quantify, in a variety of ways, the working worth of the people around you. And they are told to do the same about you. It sucks.

It’s horrifying and necessary. This process is meant to weed out the freeloaders, the bad seeds, Those Who Do Not Fit for a better word. As a manager I dreaded reviews (because as much as everyone says they want to lead a team of rock stars, guess what happens when you actually do? Now you have to rate rock stars. Which means only a few rock stars can be the rock stars of rock stars. Talk about splitting hairs.) As an employee I dread reviews (because as hot shit as I can think I am — and sometimes I really am — like any teenager staring in the mirror there are a load more times where I wasn’t even a lukewarm fart).

That more companies are moving to a system where this is not technically quantified in numbers — e.g., as a manager I would not say “Jane” is a “3” on a scale of 1-5 (for, you see, historically Janes and Jons were appalled at being reduced to a number)–means that this gets harder, not easier. How do I tell you that you are doing “pretty good” but not “really good” and so you only get a mediocre raise? How do I tell you I had to compare you to the guy who came in under-leveled — in some cases by 3 levels — because of someone ELSE’s hiring error, that has nothing to do with you? I don’t. I just tell you where you fell on the curve.

One of my favorite memes is the one that is attributed to Kurt Vonnegut but wasn’t — and was later imparted by Baz Luhrman on “Wear Sunscreen” — tells you that the race is long, and in the end, it’s only against yourself. If there were some way to measure one’s improvement against oneself, and then weight that within reasonableness (because frankly, I can have a deliberately shit year and then bust my ass for an easy “improvement” rank), that would be better.

Interesting point of fact though: we hold our kids to numbers.

My kid is in 6th grade — almost 7th  (2! weeks! to go!) — and is held to the standard 1(D), 2 (C), 3(B), 4(A) scale that I grew up with. Every assignment is reduced to numbers and faithfully reported and published (to the point where I often know his score before he does). This number — and numbers in standardized testing, either within the school or external to the school (Washington state is on its 4th or 5th “standardized’ test in the last 10 years — none of which equate to one another, so it’s a constantly shifting field)– will determine what classes he can take, which math path he is on, if he can participate in extracurricular activities, etc.  And he’s 12. Whereas his mother is 30 years his senior and doesn’t have the “advantage” of a number.

As a society we constantly worry about preparing our kids for the future, to be competitive within the global sphere. They are learning things 2 years earlier than they did at my age — both by math formulae and science concepts. They are expected to perform and they are connected in a way we never were — the kids are handed laptops as a required tool for school. The internet was this totally shady side thing when I was in school and generally not talked about. Now it’s a project to tell him about how plagiarism works and that Wikipedia is informative but cannot be your data source. We grade them and numericize them and then let them take and retake tests as needed to make sure the number fits. In short we are preparing our kids very, very well in one way, and very, very poorly in another.

In the working world, you are held to a numeric standard but it is never actually communicated to you. In the working world there are damned few test retakes and there is little extra credit. It’s this world full of meetings and 1-on-1’s and phraseology without hard-core definition. In the student world it’s the opposite: little individual time and little talk, all strict grading and numeric application. In college this gets less personal and more regimented. We train our kids to know things, but not apply them.

This mad scramble that results, inevitably, in a new testing method every two years or so means that we are trying to hit a moving target with a bow and arrow while on the back of a truck in the middle of an earthquake. Instead of sticking with one test– however suboptimal– we change the test in hopes of finding some “perfect test” that will make everything sane. Instead of gearing curriculae towards the Real World, we chase some phantom metric that is meant to make us feel better about being twenty-somethingth — or is it thirty-somethingth, now?– in the world on education. When we were, at one time, first.

We are two weeks out from the final grades that will numerically identify how “well” my kid did in school this year. We are two months from the longer, more complicated, not-numerically-driven conversation with my boss about how “well” I did at work this year.

In neither case can we state with confidence that the analysis was foolproof, regardless of the outcome.

State of Education

I was born in California, and the first 12 years of my life lived there. The summer before my 13th birthday we emigrated to Washington, all six of us: my four parents, my brother, and I. Up until then we had gone to private school (in my case, religious private school) because my parents wanted to keep us out of the blackboard jungles of southern California.

When we arrived in Washington State the public school system was actually pretty darn good — the fellow students in my junior high were, for the most part, atrocious (as all junior high kids are) and my social register was somewhere beneath pond scum; but the educational offerings, while not as good as a private school, were pretty decent. My brother and I were as challenged as we wanted to be (which became “not much” and so between parent teacher conferences and report cards, the continual theme was “Bobbie could do so much better if she just applied herself”.)

As a twelve to seventeen year old student, I did not pay attention to educational funding or where public schools ranked within the state or the country; I wasn’t a taxpayer and I regarded school as a dismal use of my time (why couldn’t I just sit in a corner and read someplace?). When I finished college (the first time), left home to go create my own, and returned to the state with the intent to start a family, I still assumed Washington schools were “fine”, as they were when I was in school.

By the time my son was about 2 I was hearing, from the fellow mommy reports, that this was not so. Funding issues were brought to the forefront, and as someone who has voted in every election since 2000, I discovered a direct correlation with my vote and my taxes. I was paying for these schools now, so why was I hearing complaints from the field? Why were the local schools needing additional funding, seemingly each year, in the form of bonds and levies?

When my son entered Kindergarten, I resolved to be as involved in the school system as I could — PTA, volunteering, etc. Doing this as a single mother working full-time was difficult but necessary; there’s an unspoken “us vs. them” for the parents who contribute (in any form or fashion) vs. the parents who do not. This is not fair but it is true. With every PTA meeting and email from the school and school district, it became clear that as well-funded as our schools seem and ought to be, they are not. As we live in an area where the median house costs about $350k and nearly every high schooler drives his/her car to school, this is not what one would expect.

My son’s school — the one he is leaving — was built the year my brother was born. There are five or six portables that have been there at least twenty years, housing not only “electives” like music and computers, but also at least two grade-level classrooms. In my six-year tenure here, the PTA has paid for cement stairs and a ramp for easier access to the kindergarten area, fencing to protect the schooling area from bears and predators that walk on two legs (for we have had cases of child enticement), new landscaping, chairs for all of the classrooms, new sports equipment, stipends for the teachers annually to spend on school supplies, scholarships for children whose parents cannot afford the roughly $350/year in expected purchase of school supplies, materials, school party contributions, and field trip costs. That the direct community who benefits from this (parents of the local students) is the direct community who provides it, is a pleasant thing. The realization that we are fortunate and there are other schools in this district and throughout this state where they cannot hope to raise equivalent cash is not.

Washington state is unique in that it has a state constitutional mandate to *amply* fund education. Unfortunately it hasn’t and got sued (see the McCleary case) and lost in its own Supreme Court. Lawmakers are scrambling to figure out how, with the number of tax-reducing propositions on the ballot, they can achieve the now court-mandated requirement to fully fund education by 2018. This is not eased by Common Core State Standards (whether you’re for or against them — and my opinion is that at least there’s a standard now, even if it’s a low one — they do cost money in the form of teacher training, new materials, etc.). This is not eased by teachers unions (who fight legitimately for better benefits for people who are treated as babysitters and, for the most part, have the shittiest job around; on the flip side they protect those teachers who are not deserving of the pseudo-tenure said unions provide). I have participated in three ballot/levy votes here in our little area of Sammamish, including this last round. For this last round I knocked on 375 doors, I called 85 strangers, I emailed hundreds more. I wrote each week to the local newspaper to get them to print my letter urging constituents to vote, explaining the benefits of a properly funded and educated community to even those who do not, or no longer, have children in schools here. (I succeeded twice.) In this most recent effort, the operational expenditures the district needed to survive were approved. Our kids will have heat in their classrooms, they will have virus-free computers, they will have secure locks on doors.

But they will have this at 40 kids to a classroom, with some children being bussed in from 10-15 miles away, because the local bond initiative (to account for expansion) failed. We have a total of 300 brand new houses going up in the immediate area this year alone; the average house here has 4 bedrooms. The amenities keep expanding and City of Sammamish is spending a record amount of money on a local swimming pool and community center. If you want to go to a chiropractor, an orthodontist, a podiatrist, a personal tutoring service, a nail shop, a grocery store, a sports equipment store, or a gas station in Sammamish you have a choice of three of those (each) within a 3-mile-square area. What I do not understand is we fund all of these things through the local economy, and the demand is there for additional housing for families ostensibly with children– where are those kids going to go to school?

Already poorly-paid teachers, who will not be getting raises in exchange for some preservation of their retirement funds, will need to stretch their attention to an additional 10 or so students. The level of personalized attention is already small in a 30-student classroom (in elementary school, where that attention is needed as they build the foundations of study and learning practice). It will diminish that much more as the schooling populace swells. Sammamish, and the local school district, will not have the ability to put forth another bond measure for four years, meaning that the short-term decision-making of the paltry 34% of the populace that voted (yep, that’s right, only about a third of the voting populace voted, and while more than half voted for the bond, bonds require a supermajority (60%) which was not had) will have some long-term effects on the community as a whole.

I had been Legislative Advocate at my son’s Elementary school for five years. This last year, after the second failure of the bond (there was proposal A, and then when that failed a special election for proposal B), I gave up. It may be temporary, and I may just be suffering from fatigue of the situation; I increasingly feel that this society values an “every man for himself” view of education.

Well, if that’s how it’s going to be, that’s how it’s going to be. It’s just a sad state of affairs.

 

Free Premium

I recently posted about LinkedIn and how I use it; I recently was the recipient of a FREE month’s worth of LinkedIn Job Seeker Premium, and this post is about my experience with that. (NB: I am not paid by, or influenced by, anyone at LinkedIn, save possibly Daniel Tunkelang, who is their Head of Query Understanding and a wicked brilliant person. And no, he didn’t pay me to say that. It’s just that he’s an “influencer” of mine on LinkedIn).

The short of it is my free Premium Membership ends in four days and when it does I will let it end (or more accurately, I will proactively kill it). Much like other “free introductions” the feedback loop is a negative one: the assumption is if you don’t actively end it then it continues on, and bills your card appropriately.  I am letting it end not because I do not feel it is a good program, but because it is not particularly useful for me.

First, the basics: LinkedIn Job Seeker Premium has a check sheet of the advantages of paid membership here. At $25/month (billed annually, so $300/year) it provides you with the ability to see who’s looked at your profile (the regular free membership shows you a subset), you can see full profiles of people up to 3rd degree, you can leverage LinkedIn’s “In Mail” and receive a bump of introductions, and a few assorted other UI niceties (up to 250 results per search, etc.).

whodatFor me the attraction was the ability to see everyone who has looked at my profile, and here’s the rub: it does show you everyone, but only if they want to be seen. For example, if someone has not logged in and/or is surfing anonymously, with Job Seeker Premium you will see an individual, faceless avatar saying “someone” looked at you; you will have no idea who they are. So if 12 total people looked at you and 3 were not logged in and/or were surfing anonymously, you see 9 photos/bios and 3 blank avatars. This is frustrating for someone who wants to inspect the inspectors, but totally understandable from an execution perspective: LI has no idea who you are until you are logged in, so there is no way to let someone else know who you are, either.

Then there’s the fact that I now know that “12” people looked at me, instead of “5”. I also get handy “last 90-day” graphs with informational snippets like “7 viewers had the title of Technology Manager” or “16 viewers work at Microsoft”.  I can also parse out how they found me: search, 2nd or 3rd link, etc.

icon_gold_inbug_74x74As part of Job Seeker Premium you get a little yellow and white icon in your search results (when people search for you, that is) that indicates you’re on Job Seeker. This should be a very large flag to any potential recruiters that you’re open to inquiry, and the inquiries just come flooding in, don’t they?

In my case, not.  I did get one offer of a contract for Salesforce Development (something that is not anywhere on my profile; I have worked with SF developers on getting two Salesforces (Salesforceii?) to talk according to a set of business rules, but haven’t done it myself, thanks) in another state. For someone who has been Manager and above titled, etc. it was an odd request and reaffirms my belief that people don’t actually read.

The other thing that messed with the experience is that I used this opportunity to update my profile and add on consulting work that I have been doing on the side (for about a year) and the recent appointment to a non-profit Board. This generated a bunch of “Congratulate Bobbie on her New Job” notices to those I was linked in to, and when your own best friend emails you to ask about your “new job” it’s time to add a control to the announcement features, methinks.

The rest of the features offered by Job Seeker Premium were unused and I’m not entirely clear how someone looking for a job would actually use them. To wit: as a free member, I can send in-mail to anyone I’m linked to, and can “hack” that by attempting to link to someone I don’t know (e.g., recruiter) and putting my introductory email in that “link to me” email.   If I’m looking to get a job, rather than find someone for a job, I don’t know how useful it is for me to see the full profiles of 3rd-level linked people; I’m more interested in the recruiters seeing me.  I’m not sure how the ability to see up to 250 people per search is useful, unless the proposition is that I will try to boost my 1st-linked numbers while job searching; even then, if you can’t find someone you worked with or know in the first 100 records then you have to question if they’ll even link to you.

Now, counterpoint and contrariwise: if I were not already gainfully employed (“Congratulate Bobbie on her new old job!”) and were actively networking and really trying to get employed, I would probably pay the $300 and then pay another $200 or so for a professional headshot, and possibly another $150 for a resume analyst. I would probably have a resume for every position type I was qualified for and interested in, and would make sure my LinkedIn profile was carefully agnostic (If you are angling for a Dev Manager job you probably don’t want to over-emphasize your writing skills vs. your coding skills).

This assumes that somehow I had the cash for that (remember it’s good to have a cushion for just-in-case) and have not been unemployed for some time.  To that end, if money’s tight, I’d stick with regular LinkedIn at the free level: if someone thinks you’re what they’re looking for, the presence of the little yellow and white “in” icon is not going to further attract, or dissuade, them.

Linking In

I am, to no great surprise, a fan of social media. You will find by me near-daily tweets, posts on Facebook, check-ins on Foursquare. Lately, I’ve been playing a lot on LinkedIn, trying certain features, and have been genuinely intrigued by some of the functionality that didn’t strike me (initially) as something I’d find on LinkedIn. To wit: a year ago, when I would wake in the morning and want to read the “news” — and by “news” let’s be honest, I mean “news Bobbie is interested in and therefore skewed toward 2 or 3 specific topics” — I would read my twitter feed (follow reporters AND the companies they work for), then I’d check mobile CNN, After looking at my Facebook feed, (oh, work email too), and maybe Twitter again, I’d check LinkedIn.

(Why all the checking? Not all apps update your alerts to the icon on your mobile phone screen. Sometimes you get the little red bubble of awesomeness, and sometimes you don’t.)

Today, the pattern is more likely Economist.com (mobile), LinkedIn, Twitter, work email, Twitter, and maybe one more round to LinkedIn. Why? Many reasons, mostly dealing with personalized news retrieval and access to information about companies, jobs, etc. that I wouldn’t normally have. But there are many misconceptions about LinkedIn, and that’s what this post attempts to remedy.

Wait, Isn’t LinkedIn for if I’m looking for a job?

Not necessarily. LinkedIn offers a variety of other services that you can use, regardless of your current job circumstance. There’s personalized news feeds, updates on your “linked” connections, and for those of us who are stats-centric, tons of little data updates. I recently tried playing with their business logic: changing my title (and ONLY my title, not dates, company, or description) from “Applications Development Manager” to “Manager, Applications Development” triggered a “congratulate Bobbie on her new job” notice to those I was linked to. Awkward, true, but interesting to note the sensitivity. My personal favorite is Pulse, their personalized news service. You pick themes or people who are interesting to you, and it does the rest. Daily updates of articles, and discussions therein with other people both in and out of your network.

But I’m only linked to people I work or have worked with, right?

No, no, and no. You can link to anybody. You will want to link to people you know, regardless of if you “work” with them. You’re on the PTA? Go find your PTA Board members, link to them. You’re on the board of a NonProfit? Link them. Went to college and remember some pretty cool people? Link, link, link. Met some great people socially? Link. Link to them all. You will get recruiters you’ve never worked with asking to link to you — proceed with caution. Do you do a lot of hiring? Then link to them. Do you want to get poached? OK, link to them. But if you’re an individual contributor who doesn’t want to move, tell them honestly and then link anyway — after all, a friend of yours may want to use a recruiter.

Hey, some of those people don’t work, or are retired, or are in a field I’m totally not in to. Why should I link to them?

You don’t know who THEY know. I’ll take the reverse-route on this and look at it from the “what’s in it for me” aspect; most of this logic works if you think of yourself as a relatively altruistic person. That stay-at-home-mom may know a double dozen people who would love to donate to your charity, or may know someone who works as a recruiter at a company you really want to work for. That artsy friend of yours who does installations at hotels may know someone who manages them, which may fit in with your marketing and sales job. You don’t know what you don’t know — the whole point of LinkedIn is to establish routes of communication. If you’re going to use it as a tool, use it properly.

OK but I should only link to “my level” of people or higher, right? So I’m a Manager, I will only link to Managers and above.

First off, this is just plain douchey, but let’s just assume you didn’t mean it that way and are looking at it pragmatically. You’re wrong, and that’s okay. We’ve all been there.

You will want to link to people, regardless of rank and title. Just like you, people will expand their horizons and grow. Some people grow faster than others, and to quote Sigourney Weaver in “Working Girl”, “Yesterday’s junior prick is tomorrow’s senior partner”. Now, NO, people junior to you (real or imagined, rank or age, etc.) are not pricks. But the tenet is legitimate: you don’t know where their career will lead and if you’re going to pick people based on their success, remember you can’t know it. So link to people you know, and that you respect, and ignore their title (high or low). I know some people who give pause in the other direction — that maybe they “shouldn’t” reach out to that VP or that CEO. Do you know them? Have you been in a meeting with them, talked to them? Do they know you or have they worked with you? Then link to them. They may have something interesting to say, their company may want to work with yours, you may want to solicit a donation, they may want to read your white paper.

No one really fills in all the portions of a profile, right? It’s not just me, right?

Of course not. I don’t have anything published (aside from this blog and another one) and so I haven’t got anything for that section. And so I don’t put anything there. I put in what I’ve got, and “curate” my profile as necessary. Sometimes that curation is to see what happens with the business logic because my business *is* logic, and data, and software, and how that rolls together. So I follow people in that vein and I play with my “persona” on LinkedIn to that end.

They offer a lot of stuff for a fee, is it worth it?

Recently I got an offer to try Job Seeker Premium for free. While I don’t think I’d use it just yet, I do know that free is better than not free, even if only for a month. If I ever do go that route rest assured I’d blog all the details, and with as much anecdotal evidence as I can provide.

But for right now, I’m content to get my news.

200 Square Feet

200 Square Feet is the size of the room I, the male person, the boy child, and the bulimikitty have lived in these past 3 days. It represents one bedroom, one bathroom, one kitchenette, and one livingroom/kids’ room. It has not been harmonious joy. Surprisingly, not because of the humans.

Look, I’m a little difficult when it comes to large-scale change in my life, and I need a certain sense of order and organization to function; living in a hotel room with other people at any length while trying to have a “normal” day — functioning as mom, functioning as worker-bee, functioning as human — is difficult. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to have a dishwasher again.

No, my issue is with the cat. The cat who meows loudly. Every 10 minutes. From 10pm to 6am. Don’t worry folks, she’s here all week. The last two nights have been a repetitive round of “MEOW! MEOW! MEOW!” followed by harsh, hasty whispers by the male person to “Stop That!”.  Each morning the alarm beckons at 5am and I freely admit, only one of those mornings did I actually get up to work out.

I’ve rediscovered the joys of cooking on an electric range (the old-fashioned sort), as well as having a Real Dishwasher. The past five weeks have consisted of doing dishes in our bathtub. It has caused me to start checking my left wrist again, as for ten years there was a Seiko there that had to be carefully removed before doing dishes by hand in the first, and second, apartments I had whilst wearing it. That was more than ten years ago.

Tomorrow is Halloween, what was once my favorite holiday; on that day I get to go “home” but it still won’t quite be home as I still won’t have things back where they belong. My study and library are full of boxes, the dining room table is in the livingroom. The boy will be at his father’s house, having an Epic Halloween! I’m sure, and we will receive our usual two new people who don’t realize that our street, as busy and uphill as it is, is not as fun or lucrative to Trick-or-Treat on as the one just two blocks up. It’s the same story for Halloween at this house, one I’ve lived in, on and off, for the better part of 26 years. The house is larger than 200 square feet, for which I am newly, appreciatively grateful.

Learning As I Go

I see I’ve forgotten to do hotel reviews, updates, and other things I learned on my recent trip. Mea Culpa! I blame my economics class.

Patro/Matro-nymics as a Dating Tool

Probably the most fun thing I learned on this recent trip is that Icelanders have dating down to a science. I am not kidding.

In Iceland, the child traditionally takes the father’s first name plus the word ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ (dottir) as their surname. This came up recently about the girl named Blaer, and you can read all about that and link off all you want here, but it got me thinking: you could totally tell if a girl has Daddy Issues if she choses her mother’s name for her surname, and/or if a boy has Mommy Issues likewise. It’s like a window into their childhood and you don’t even have to “wink” at them on Match.com.

Also, one of the best people I’ve got on my London job has the surname Thorisson. We did ask if his dad was named Thor, and it’s pretty close — the name means “worshipper of Thor”, and hey, who isn’t?

It is Possible to Over-Assume as to What Wi-Fi Means

This being my fourth trip to Rome (wow, that sounds really pretentious, trust me when I say as much as I love my Rome team and the fabulous food it’s not as glamorous as it sounds) I was told emphatically that I would not be staying at “that sad little hotel next door”. No, this time I got myself a fancy hotel in the old city, the Valadier, and it was very lovely. They serve a nice espresso. They have wi-fi in the room!

That crashed every. fifteen. minutes. I am not exaggerating. And since my midterm exam was available only for 24 hours, of which 8 I hoped to be sleeping, 4 I had to reserve for dinner (European dinners are breathtaking both in quality and stamina), 9 for work, I really needed my wi-fi to work in my room. A panicked conversation with the front desk man assured me that HIS reception on HIS phone was great, therefore don’t worry.

Thanks to the immense resourcefulness of a lovely gal in the Rome office, I had a quiet conference room and busted out my midterm in 90 minutes right before we left for dinner. Not ideal, but, as the company is/was paying for the class I assume they’ll understand. And yes, I got an “A”.

The Best Laid Plans Will Go Awry. Just Plan For It. 

My flight into Rome was late. My flight into London was late. My flight out of London was really, really late. Jet lag hit harder than any other trip I’ve been on. I broke one of the coffee machines. I lost a meeting room. I totally meant to spend time with someone and didn’t realize I hadn’t until I was almost to Seattle. My plan to have extra room in my bag was thwarted by the fact that it’s winter and all of my clothes were heavy sweaters. Pret changed their menu.

This last trip was a constant reminder that whatever you’re counting on, make sure you’re not counting on it. Or something.

The Best Things Happen When You Take Chances

I went for a run on the Friday, my only morning in London where I’d actually be staying in London that night. Following a map saved to my phone (which got no reception, so it wasn’t a moving map but a pic), I ran about 2.5km up a road and around a park, and then trotted back… or so I thought.

I was about a mile in before I realized *nothing* looked familiar. Not a blessed thing. No buildings, no shops, etc. As most of Islington looks charmingly alike this did not engender much confidence, so I walked into the nearest gas station and asked directions to the Angel Building in Islington. No dice. Walked across the street to a shop, same question, same result.

Hm.

Now, I had no service on my phone, so I couldn’t call up Google Maps. I did not think to bring anything with me but my hotel key, so I had no cash or card to grab a cab back to the hotel. I had run a mile in the *wrong* direction, but which *wrong* was debatable. And so…

I ran back from whence I came, back to the park, and then leveraged every tube station map and bus station map I could find around that park to figure out where I had to go. And got back to my room eventually, ridiculously pleased I didn’t have to give up and get a cab with the promise of “and then wait outside the hotel whilst I go get my wallet”.

Other successful chances included: trying a new place to eat (Meat People. It’s very yum), using my static Starbucks iPhone app to purchase a latte while I had no connectivity (totally forgot Sbux has wi-fi even in London!), and, for the first time in more than 3 years, checking my bag on an international flight. Contents arrived safely both ways.

I therefore declare this trip a success not only for the original needs met, but for the additional learning items. My next trip will be much more local but no less adventurous — please send me your ideas for Portland and the Oregon Coast, with a 10-year-old. 🙂

A Did Not Equal B. I Don’t Know Y, Either

Someone very dear to me told me about a year ago that I kept succeeding and succeeding at things, and one day, I was going to fail at something, and it would be interesting to see how I took it. Sad to say, that time has come. I bombed my Calculus test. (Please do not read a Perfectionist’s “I got less than an A” into this). The fact of the matter is I went IN to the midterm with a 98.5% cumulative grade in my homework assignments and discussion groups. (Yes, you can have discussion groups in Calculus. Yes, they’re about as stimulating as you may think.)

I left the midterm with a 74% in the class.

You don’t have to have taken Calculus, or anything other than some very basic Algebra, to know that I bombed the midterm. Here’s the rub: math is cumulative. So how could I get all of the homework *right*, but the test so very, very wrong?

“Taking Calculus online is probably the hardest way to learn it”, my teacher had warned us. Still, I went in feeling confident, I left the test thinking I may have gotten two (2) problems incorrect, and so the grade was a shock to me.

I withdrew from the class.

The numbers are thus: I could have stayed IN the class (I’m taking another one), been a metric stressbunny, and possibly toiled enough to bring that grade up to a B –*if* I aced the next Midterm, *if* I aced the Final. Statistically speaking that would mean one thing would have to give in my life — and since I can’t give on motherhood and work pays the bills, school had to give. I’m still taking my other class (that one still have my A, thanks, the midterm isn’t until this Wednesday — I’ll be taking it from Rome) but, given current conditions, I can’t take a class where the context is not intuitive… or at least not right now.

Many friends recommended Khan Academy, which I will likely play with as I get a little more time; but quitting and/or failing at something (it amounts to the same thing) was a huge disappointment and I didn’t take it well. It got bad enough to where I was wondering if I was having a midlife crisis, then I realized at 39 I am in fact, mid-life, and things really got ugly for a couple of hours whilst I wallowed in self-pity and the belief that I wouldn’t amount to anything.

It’s been about five days since my reality check and I am feeling better — a lot of peripheral stress died down and I realized that I can still take classes and still toddle on to the goal — just perhaps a bit slower, and without the ability to phone it in.

I took it as a sine.

Solving for X

It’s been some 20 years since I last messed with PreCalculus and I was apprehensive as the quarter started. I mean, do you remember how to factor a quadratic equation?

Most of the last six days I’ve spent pouring over my online textbook, doing the requisite problems and watching the requisite videos, trying to get back into the hang of things, mathematically.  Part of the problem is that the first time I took this in school it was to satisfy a separate need: as a Marine Biologist, how often was I really going to need to use trigonometry? Or create mathematical formulae to describe something? You never saw Jacques Cousteau whip out a Texas Instruments graphing calculator, so I spent four or five quarters of advanced math thinking, “yeah, yeah, but this doesn’t really apply to me”. I studied long enough to get the grade and not one moment longer.

Here we are 20 years later, I’m in the same class (in the same school – although not with the same teacher) doing the same work, and have discovered two things:

  1. It’s a lot easier to do the work if you understand the theory and are studying to that rather than the formula itself – if you get the “concept” you can back into the “formula”, it doesn’t work so well the other way around, and
  2. The newer textbooks have pretty much accepted you’re going to rote-memorize some things and probably don’t care about the formula.

Yep, you read that right. For example, one of the things I find now in my text are handy “tables” that tell you the “standard answers” for common mathematical functions. Twenty years ago, we had to demonstrate mathematically WHY, for example, the sin(pi/6 aka 30o)=1/2.  You got out your quadrille paper, you graphed a unit circle, you labeled stuff, drew your arc, and did the math. Now, you have a table. This helps, right?

Not really. Sure, you have a handy table, and you go and apply that to all of the problems in the homework. Or you leverage your graphing calculator to tell you that sin(30)=0.5, no problem. But when it comes time to use what you have learned so far to apply it to a new concept, or to solve a problem where there is more than one missing value, you’re hosed until you get another table or some set of instructions on what to plug into your TI83.

As I’m actually going to USE this math in Economics – first quarter Microeconomics shows you enough graphs and charts that you immediately understand the significance of Understanding What The Graph Is Actually Telling You and How To Derive a Formula For It – I wish the textbooks actually worked to have you get the theory as much as they do the application. This is like when you’re at work and your boss asks you to provide a presentation and then hands you the template and tells you exactly what to write – that’s great, but I’d really like to participate, please.

The Cobra Effect

Once upon a time in India, in a village (so the story goes), there was a problem with cobras. There were too many of them.

Cobras, those freaky little reptiles, have a bad rap but the unfortunate truth is they *can* kill you, so it’s understandable that the village wanted them gone. And so the village leaders instituted a bounty for every dead cobra. This would surely be successful, as everyone likes money, and no one likes cobras! Couldn’t miss!

Sure enough, tons of dead cobras were brought in…. but the overall cobra problem didn’t seem to subside. This is because just outside the village were people (you guessed it) breeding cobras, so they could kill them, so they could collect the bounty. Naturally the government didn’t want to pay for purpose-bred cobras, so they stopped the bounty. And the breeders, with no more financial incentive to breed cobras, let the cobras loose, thereby increasing the cobra population.

This would be the precise opposite of the desired solution of the bounty, and this sort of circumstance is called the “Cobra Effect”. You can read about it here (Wikipedia lists the village as the city of Delhi, but I’m not sure I buy that). Another example is the famous pigs of Fort Benning.

Essentially, the Cobra Effect is when your proposed solution actually makes the problem *worse* than it was to begin with. It doesn’t always have to be economic in nature, as I am seeing at work currently.

Fourteen months ago I took my current job and in the first couple of weeks I volunteered to work on a given project. The given project had been languishing for a few months and was on someone’s radar again, so it needed attention. The basic idea was to take 200,000 records and consolidate them into about 6 or 7 thousand, with minimal disrupt. We crafted a comprehensive plan to get the project done, executed it, and…

…it blew up in a horrific, ugly mushroom cloud. Everything that could go wrong did: bad data meant some emails went to wrong people. Emails that went to the right people invariably succeeded in pissing them off, and emails that had been declared not necessary to go out turned out to have been rather necessary, after all. Data was updated but not correctly, thanks to an artifact in code knowledge no one remembered (so the after effect was, “Oh, that’s why that was there.”). 112 Hours later it was fixed. 

After six distinct debriefs and detailed postmortems (“Fix the contact information”, “Vet it with this team in this other fashion even though they originally said the first way was fine”, “Avoid Excel”, “Use Excel”, “put a PM on it”, “Take the PM off of it”, “Let’s start from scratch”, “Let’s use what we had before and refine it”, “Take it out of this team”, “Give it back to that team”) it looks like the current plan is to…

… do nearly exactly what we originally did. Only now, we’re doing it with 30% more records, because the first reaction from the first go-around that went awry was the recipients of the new format/data/project went into the system and… created more records. 

Points:

1. Unintended consequences are everywhere, and the best intentions often create more of them, and

2. The Cobra Effect doesn’t just apply to economics, although given a few minutes I could probably monetize this project and it would make me cry, and 

3. You can have a fancy name and anecdote for something, and even have it written about in many management books, but it won’t prevent people from making ill-advised choices (despite best efforts at education).