Book review: The Effortless Experience

Anyone who has ever had to call a customer service center has at least one story of an unpleasant experience. While some companies have poor customer service because they won’t invest in it, no company sets out to intentionally provide terrible customer service. Companies that try to provide good service and fail do so because they focus on the wrong things.

That’s the basic premise of The Effortless Experience, a 2013 book by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick Delisi. Based on extensive research from both customer and service organization perspective, The Effortless Experience challenges common assumptions about what the customer wants and how to provide it.

Companies like Amazon and Zappos (which is owned by Amazon) have made a name for themselves by providing excellent customer service. Other companies have had high profile stories of above-and-beyond customer service. Companies in competitive areas try to distinguish themselves by providing service that delights the customer. Research shows this is of little benefit.

Increasing customer loyalty doesn’t do much to keep them around. Decreasing customer disloyalty should be the ultimate goal. Disloyalty is decreased by reducing the customer’s effort. This isn’t necessarily their exertion, which is how much work they actually have to do, but the perception of that work.

The ultimate goal of any customer service interaction is to get something done as quickly and painlessly as possible. This could be changing a cell phone plan, configuring email, or ordering a part. In The Effortless Experience, the authors describe how to move toward that goal. They include the results of surveys and actual implementations from organizations that have shifted to a focus on effort.

Dixon and his coauthors give usable guidance for assessing your organization’s performance and moving to a culture that focuses on effort. This includes advice for non-call-center interactions. It’s a quick read with a lot of great content. Like many books of this type, The Effortless Experience describes what should be common knowledge. I strongly recommend it for anyone who provides service to customers.


When your product isn’t yours anymore

If you pay attention to Twitter at all, you heard about last week’s news that they’d be rolling out algorithmically-curated timelines. This caused a great deal of consternation among heavy users. The real-time, linear (excluding retweets) nature of Twitter is a key feature of the service, especially in the weather and news communities. Potentially breaking this, in the same way that Facebook decides which updates you’ll see and when, takes away much of the value for many users.

The #RIPTwitter hashtag caught on. Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey was quick to try to reassure users.

My initial thought was “I suspect Jack‘s perception of what is ‘Twitter-y’ has diverged from the users’.” I don’t know Jack (hush!), so I can’t say for sure, but the changes that have been announced sure suggest it. That’s not to say that Twitter must do what the users want. For one, it’s a free service. For two, users don’t always know what they want. For three, Twitter’s growth was flat in the last quarter of 2015 and the stock has been dropping sharply.

At some point,when you have a popular product, its no longer yours. The user community owns it, even if they pay nothing. That’s the mark of a successful project, but it can also be frustrating. You want to take the product in one direction, and your users refuse to let you. Twitter already alienated much of the developer community that helped it grow in the early years. Who knows, maybe alienating the user community is the best thing that could happen to it. Maybe Jack will steal his Twitter back.

Full disclosure: I own a small number of shares of Twitter. I regret this every time I check my portfolio.

Book review: Go Set A Watchman

To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of my favorite books since the first time I read it in high school. The movie adaptation starring Gregory Peck is a favorite as well. I always thought it was a shame that Harper Lee only published the one book, but I respected her decision not to turn out uninspired works just to make money. When it was first announced that a new novel was going to be released, I was thrilled. Then I found out that the circumstances were suspect at best.

Concerned that Harper Lee was being taken advantage of, I decided not to purchase the book. But when I was at the library a few weeks ago and noticed several copies on the shelf, I couldn’t help but check it out.

Let’s be clear here: Mockingbird is a better book than Go Set A Watchman. Although Watchman was written first, I don’t think it could survive without being preceded by Mockingbird. Mockingbird is why you care about the characters in Watchman, and I found that I did care very deeply about them.

Watchman is the story of an adult Scout, who has gone off to New York and become a career woman. When she returns to her childhood home, she’s struck by the way racism pervades Maycomb. Being away from it has caused her to lose her desensitization. The frog is out of the pot. Scout, being young and wordly, is passionate about righting all the wrongs. Meanwhile, even those who largely agree with her advise moderation.

I had heard long before I read the book that Atticus, the heroic Atticus, was racist. I was expecting the stereotypical southern racist, but that wasn’t the case. Atticus’s racism is a more nuanced, almost well-intentioned racism that you can almost start to agree with until you suddenly remember that it is still racism.

There are a few plot details that would allow one to argue that Mockingbird and Watchman aren’t in the same universe, but that does a disservice to the story. The Atticus of the 1930s and the Atticus of the 1950s are the same man, but Scout has changed. I think most people can identify with the idea of seeing faults in their parents as adults that they were totally blind to as kids.

This is where Watchman shines. It’s not going to become an American classic, but it is much more thought-provoking. In Mockingbird, the line between good and bad is largely clear. Not so in Watchman, and it forces the reader to consider not only the abstract concepts of race, but how to address racism in the real world. Is it right to burn down all the injustice in a sweeping blaze of righteous indignation, or is it better to slowly work to help those who can be helped and let the rest fade away? And if it’s better to work slowly, is that a position that can only be held by the privileged while the oppressed are forced to endure more oppression?

There’s no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is a better book: artistically, commercially, and politically. But Go Set a Watchman is an important follow-on, and I’m glad it has seen the light of day. I only hope that Harper Lee really does feel the same way.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


This post contains spoilers. If you’re not fortunate enough to have seen this movie in the first month after its release, please stop reading now.

I’ve loved “Star Wars” for many, many years, as I’m sure my ones of readers have as well. On New Year’s Day, my wife and I finally got the chance to go see “The Force Awakens”. I had been hearing a lot of good things about it in the first few weeks after its release, but I was nervous.

When “The Phantom Menace” was released, I wasn’t old enough to drive. My mom was gracious enough to take my friend Erik and me to the Georgetown Drive-In on opening night. We had to get there very early in order to ensure we had a spot. In the hours between our arrival and sunset, we spent a lot of time running around: Erik with a blaster and I with a light saber. Finally it was dark enough for the movie to begin. The place was packed, so it had been a little loud, but once those opening words came on the screen, everyone was quiet. We all held our breath for just a moment, and then the music started. On the first note, there was such a cheer as I’ve never heard.

I was pretty stoked to watch the movie, but over the course of the next few days, I was less and less thrilled. What the hell is a “midichlorian”? Did we have to see so much of Jar-Jar? I saw “Attack of the Clones” in the theater not long after it came out, but I wasn’t thrilled. Mostly what I remember is rain and Hayden Christensen’s terrible acting. I never bothered to go see “Revenge of the Sith”. I still haven’t seen it all the way through.

So yeah, the prequels? I’d rather they just never existed.

Shifting gears, I’ve been a Star Trek fan even longer than I’ve been a Star Wars fan. I have a TNG hoodie with a comm badge and captain’s pips. When the Star Trek reboot came out, I went and watched it with friends. It was a very entertaining movie, but I didn’t quite feel like a Star Trek movie. There are so many stories to tell in that universe, so destroying decades of canon seemed like the wrong move.

So yeah, J.J. Abrams? Not big on his space movies.

I tell you all of this to explain why I was really apprehensive going into “The Force Awakens”. I had nothing to fear. When it ended, my first words were “holy shit that was a Star Wars movie!”

And yes, there are a lot of similar plot elements (though usually with a twist) to “A New Hope”. I’ve seen a fair amount of complaint about that. “Too much fan service,” they say. Well, yes. For one, history repeating itself is kind of A Thing™. Secondly, for the reasons above, Abrams et al had to regain the trust of the fan base. “Trust us,” the movie says. “See how we respect what you love? Let’s ease into this and the next two movies will show you what we can do together!”

Personally, I found the cast to be incredible and the story telling to be better than the originals. It has some self-awareness, which makes for some great jokes. Most of the criticism I’ve read seems to be of the “let’s hate on it because we’re cool” variety, which Matty Granger has addressed quite well.

I may try to get another viewing in before it leaves theaters, but I’m definitely excited for Episodes 8 and 9.

Upgrading to Fedora 23 and some meaningless torrent stats

Since Fedora 23 was released yesterday, I went ahead and upgraded my desktop over lunch. The process was mostly painless. I followed the instructions for using dnf in Fedora Magazine, but hit a small snag: a few of the packages blocked on requirements. So I removed an old kernel-devel package and gstreamer-plugins-ugly. But I still got this:

package kf5-kdesu-5.15.0-2.fc23.x86_64 requires kf5-filesystem >= 5.15.0, but none of the providers can be installed.

That’s not great, because you can’t remove that package without also removing KDE Plasma. Taking the –best off of the dnf invocation fixed it, without any weird upgrade issues (the –best option supposedly cancels the download if a package can’t be upgraded, but everything seems good after the fact).

Since I don’t have any great tales of technical prowess to share, I thought I’d comment on the torrents. Measuring usage of an open source operating system is a really tricky thing, so I thought I might see what the torrents tell us. Keep in mind that torrents are probably a terrible way of measuring popularity, too. I’m just going to assume that most people who torrent ISOs are only torrenting the ones they actually use (instead of me, where I torrent several just to be a good citizen).

Here’s my seeding ratios for Fedora 22:

Flavor i686 x86_64
KDE 16.1 32.9
Security 8.02 13.6
Workstation 24.8 31.2
Server 10.3 15

The “ratio ratio” as I call it is a comparison of seeding ratios between the two main architectures:

Flavor x86_64:i686
KDE 2.04
Security 1.70
Workstation 1.26
Server 1.46

So what does all of this tell us? Apart from “absolutely nothing!”, it says that KDE users install on x86_64 way more than on i686. Workstation is still really popular on 32-bit machines and overall. The first 32 hours of seeding for Fedora 23 show similar patterns. Yay?

Learning by mashing buttons

I’ve become somewhat of a Slack expert at work (or at least that’s the perception) On the technical side, we’ve been using it for over a year, and you’d think everyone would have a pretty similar degree of familiarity. That turns out not to be the case.

I don’t think I’m particularly smart, but I tend to be pretty good at knowing how to configure various applications. This isn’t some skill honed by years of meticulous study. On the contrary, I learn my way around by smashing keys until something interesting happens.

One of the first things I do when I get a new device or application is to go poking around in all of the menus looking for fun settings to change. When my family got our first computer, I nearly bricked it a few times playing with different settings. I’m much more careful now, but I’m still unwilling to leave settings unexplored.

Occasionally I’ll be reminded that not everyone does this, and it confuses me. Where’s the fun if you don’t play with all the settings to see what happens?

I’m a boothtrovert

Some people are introverts. Some are extroverts. I, apparently, am a boothtrovert. Last week, I attended the All Things Open conference in Raleigh. As part of the Community Moderator team, I took a few shifts in the site’s booth. And wow did I enjoy it!

I’m an equal mix of introvert and extrovert, depending on the day, but something about working the booth really got me going. It helped that I had nothing to sell. All I had to do was talk to people about the site: what they like about it (if they read it), and how maybe they should consider contributing. I’m not sure any of them actually will, but there were definitely a few people who began to light up when I explained that I went from thinking “I have nothing to contribute” to having submitted 20 articles in the space of just a few months.

But my favorite part happened during one of the book signing sessions. We were giving away signed copies of Jason van Gumster’s Blender for Dummies, and the stock we had was quickly exhausted. One guy came up to the table and looked pretty sad when he found out there were none left. So I asked his name and then brought him over to where Jason was standing. I introduced him to Jason and stepped out of the way to let them talk. They conversed for probably ten minutes or so. It wasn’t the same as getting a free and autographed book, but he certainly seemed less sad.

I’m not sure I could ever give sales pitches, but I certainly enjoy the interaction and conversation of booth work (interestingly, I mostly don’t like visiting booths at conferences, in part because I know it will result in having to ignore sales solicitations for the next three months). It looks like I’ll have another opportunity soon, but this time for work. I’ll be interested to see how booth-for-work compares to booth-for-volunteer.

ebooks versus dead tree books

For a long time, I avoided ebooks. Partly because reading on a monitor was just weird to me. Partly because I really like the feel and smell of physical books. Partly because having a dead tree version of manuals was important in outages. Partly because I don’t have to worry about DRM. Partly because I enjoy the look of a shelf full of books.

It wasn’t until my oldest child was born that I started getting into ebooks. The aspect ratio of my phone or tablet made long-form reading a lot easier than the “sideways” monitor setup. The real selling point was that the backlight was a lot easier to manage than a small reading light, particularly when trying to get a resistant child to fall asleep.

Still, my consumption habits are better suited for physical books. One of my favorite ways to get books is to peruse the discard shelf at the local library. I’ll pick up books that seem interesting. If they are, I’ll keep them. If they’re not, I’ll send them off to Goodwill. Digital media doesn’t (yet) have a similar paradigm.

On the one hand, that makes sense. Digital copies are cheap to the point of being basically free. Who needs to discard an ebook when you can just copy it? Of course, authors and publishers argue that such a model completely eliminates the commercial value of their work. I am very sympathetic to that, although there’s certainly room to make copyright law more consumer-friendly.

Slowly, I’ve begun adding to my ebook collection, generally when O’Reilly has their Day Against DRM sale. I’ll still prefer physical books for the most part, if nothing else because it’s easier to get them autographed. A conversion to more ebooks is probably inevitable, particularly once publishers realize that ebooks are cheaper to produce and adjust the prices downward accordingly.

RIP Paul

I swear this won’t become a theme (or at least I hope it won’t), but the world got a little bit darker today. My friend Paul Birkhimer passed away this morning after a a brief battle with cancer. Paul was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the end of May. It was aggressive, but it did not dampen his spirits.

I’m not sure Paul’s spirits were dampenable. I didn’t know him half as well as I would have liked, but he always seemed to be the most cheerful person in the room. His cheer was a quiet one, subtle. He wasn’t bombastic in a way that turned people off, but an even, slow-burning cheer.

I first met Paul because his wife Suzanne of my undergraduate department’s Assistant Head. I’d seem him at department functions and thought he was a pretty fun guy, but I couldn’t remember his name. I called him “Mister Sue” until I learned his name. I don’t remember if I ever told him that or not, but I’m sure he would have gotten a kick out of it.

Paul faced cancer exactly how Paul would: with humor, with faith, and with the love of countless family and friends from all over. Would that we were all a little more like Paul.

How I take notes

I’m not what you call an obsessive note taker, but I have learned over the years that I shouldn’t rely on my memory without some kind of external backup. A while back, I came across an article about how taking notes by hand is better for long-term memory. This immediately made me sad, since all of my serious note-taking is done digitally. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized digital notes are best for me.

I first started taking digital notes late in my undergraduate career. I had a program called “GoBinder” where I could import course notes and slides and comment directly on them, as well as adding my own free-form content. This worked fairly well for more text-based classes, but for meteorology classes with a lot of Greek letters and illustrations, it was a bit of a challenge. I mostly stuck to hand-written notes.

Years later, I went to graduate school. A master’s degree in IT project management is very wordy, so I resumed digital note-taking. Pretty early on, I settled on using Markdown. This allowed me to take notes that looked like text but still have some basic markup so I could highlight important points, make lists, etc. When it was time to study for exams, I would review the notes, and convert them to HTML for more in-depth study and review.

This method worked pretty well for me and had a few added benefits. When doing homework, I could `grep` for a key phrase if I couldn’t remember where to find it. Also, the files were on my SpiderOak account, so they were available to me anywhere. I didn’t have to worry about leaving my notebook at home or spilling coffee on it (at least if I spilled coffee on my laptop, I’d be able to get my files onto a new one).

For me, the portability and searchability are compelling reasons to stick with digital notes. As the article points out, I do find myself doing more transcription when typing than when writing, but that’s a habit I can fix.