All posts by Donn

My name is Donn, and you’ll find me working at the intersection of business and information technology, constantly looking for ways to apply IT to business and life to make things better. I’m a big fan of data analysis and its subsequent communication. It always gives me a thrill extracting meaning out of data through analysis, and figuring out the best way to present the findings for maximum impact!
Image of a die with "maybe" and "yes"

The Default Option

Saw the following via Avinash Kaushik on Google+. Too good not to share, and on so many levels.

If internet explorer is brave enough to ask you to be your default browser, you're brave enough to ask that girl out.

It is worth highlighting that the power of the “default option” is a very real one.

Organ donation is a good example. Whether organ donation is an “opt-in” (i.e. the default option is not donating), far fewer people tend to go for it, as compared to when it’s an “opt-out” (i.e. the default option is donating).

I’m a big believer in this effect, and use it often when scheduling meetings, among other things.

For example, when scheduling meetings, I like to give options, but always ensure that one of them is the “default” or “preferred” option, even though there’s no reason for it to be (“We can meet either Thursday 2pm or 5pm, though I would prefer 2pm. “)

It helps expedite things: if the recipient can’t make it at 2pm or 5pm, it’s an easy choice, the recipient just chooses the alternative. If the recipient can make it for both, the recipient just chooses the default (2pm).

Without the default option, if the recipient can make it for both, it’s likely the recipient would wait till the last possible moment before responding, keeping options open in case another meeting crops up.

Great things don’t just happen

Like a blog post.

I’ve been thinking all month that “I ought to update my blog”, but “inspiration” didn’t hit and so I just let it slide.

Day after day, thinking about it; not doing anything.

And then I thought, “what if I don’t wait for inspiration? What if I just got out there and wrote?”

Well, I did. And I did.

Feeling Sorry for Yourself in this Complicated World

I was feeling sick. I mean really sick. Walking five steps would leave me gasping for air. My throat felt like murder (:bad). My head throbbed like a discotheque.

But I had work to do. Work I didn’t feel like doing, but which my professional self wouldn’t let me off not doing.

Let me share with you a little bit of my work ethos using one of my favourite quotes from Will Smith:

I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories.

But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.

So I got to work. While working away through my illness though (whatever it was; or actually still is, because I’m still feeling its effects two weeks after), I couldn’t help but think if it was all worth it. This wasn’t change the world stuff; and I wasn’t being compensated enough to make up for that fact.

In fact, I started feeling quite sorry for myself. So sorry that I started googling for help: quotes on self-pity

And came across this little gem from D H Lawrence:

I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.

Which reminded me of the Will Smith quote and helped me carry on till most of the stuff I needed to do were done.

On my walk to school yesterday though (I’m back to school for a Masters in Tech, by the way), I passed by a bird. That bird was chasing down a worm, pecking at it. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the worm, though I knew very well it was just the natural order of things.

And I realised that the reason why wild things never felt sorry for themselves could well be the reason why we do: because we are not wild; because we feel pity not just for ourselves, but for our fellow living beings.

How complicated our world is!

To Judge a Life, Just Look at the Last Half

A beautiful quote from a beautiful book, Vegetable Roots Discourse, #92:

If a singing girl is virtuous later on in accord with her circumstances, her earlier life of rouge and flowers will not matter. The faithful wife with white hair who lets down her guard nullifies half a life of chaste endeavor. The proverb reads, “To judge a life, look just at the last half.”

A true saying indeed.

A reminder to all of us that even after what might be deemed as failure, not all is lost.

On another note, the second half of the first paragraph, about the faithful wife, reminds me about antifragility, and how it would be prudent to build antifrgile systems around what matters most to us.

Shipping like there’s no tomorrow

The concept of shipping as per Seth Godin is a beautiful thing. In essence it relates to the idea of getting something out (i.e. “creative output”; a “product”) without the need to achieve perfection before getting that something out. Ship, get feedback, improve; then ship again, get more feedback, and improve once more. Do this again, and again, and again.

In my role as an analyst, I create a lot of data products that many people use. Things like sales reports; spreadsheet tools and models; and data analyses. Not being one to stick with the status quo, I’m always looking for ways to improve the stuff I create (better interfaces, new metrics,  distribution methods, and more).

In such experimentation (which seeking improvement invariably entails) there’s always a risk that something will go wrong: calculation errors (especially common in complex spreadsheets of which aim is “simple for the user; complex for the developer if need be”); interface usability issues (I tend to work on a large screen that not everybody has or uses); software-compatibility (I use Excel 2013 as I need to know what’s “out there”; which sometimes proves problematic when I use a 2013-only function that 2010-users can’t use); well, the list runs long.

And I’ve had my fair share of failed “improvements” (the latest affecting a couple of very senior management, with my experimentation with Excel Pivot Slicers — very cool stuff by the way — breaking a couple of vital sales reports on their Macs*).

But without having taken these risks, without having shipped, there would be no way that I could be doing as much as I currently do, no way that I could have done as much as I have done. If I had listened to my fears and resisted stepping into the unknown; if I had thought to myself, “let’s not rock the boat, let’s stick with what we know works”, I would be a miserable little automaton working in a far less colourful sales operations environment. And many sales people would still be working with the tools they had in 2013.

Shipping like I do now, though, didn’t come overnight. At the start, I had to push the envelope a little by a little, testing the waters to see just how far I could go. Every little success inspired me further, and built up the all-too-important goodwill that proved useful whenever I messed up;  while every misstep gave me insight into how “open to failure” the environment in which I worked in was (I’ve got very accepting colleagues I must say).

It wasn’t always easy though. Still isn’t. Doubt is a constant companion. I remember once spending three weeks thinking and experimenting with a myriad of ways to capture and report sales targets, a job that I’d been tasked to do.

I was looking for a way that was as intuitive and as “smart” as possible. I must have found at least a hundred ways of how it shouldn’t be done. As the deadline approached, I started feeling like I was being too ambitious, and couldn’t help shaking off the feeling that it had all been wasted time. Maybe it doesn’t have to do all that I wanted it to do.

But I stopped myself. There was still time. “Let’s try,” I told myself, “and let’s ship.” And I did just that.

I shipped an initial “prototype” version, ran it past my boss. It was a rough-and-dirty version, but it showed the concept well. I further developed it, and shipped it past sales management. I showed them screenshots. I did a demo.

What they didn’t realise was that the demo focused on the 10% of what worked; there were plenty of bugs, plenty of things that I hadn’t managed to work out. The actual product was still days away (maybe weeks) from being completed, but I sold them the story, and they bought it. They were excited.

But I certainly wasn’t. I was worried. Worried as hell.

But there was no turning back now. I’d demonstrated what the cool new tool could do (more like what it should do, really). I had no choice. I needed to complete this.

Due over the next few days, I worked like a cow suffering from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (i.e. “mad cow disease”, geddit?) coding and re-coding; testing and re-testing. Eventually some of the most major issues that I had encountered I managed to solve. I shipped again, on the deadline, with 80% of what I had envisioned included.

And boy were they were happy (most of them, anyway). Which made me very happy.

Oh, and the other 20%? Repackaged as “future optimisations”. Which, yes, I eventually did ship too.

* I’m happy to announce that we eventually found a workaround, which appeased the Mac users. The Pivot Slicers remain and prove to be an extremely valuable addition to our reporting arsenal.