I just found a new favourite pastime: playing the Vocabulary.com Challenge.
A great example of gamification, it makes learning new words engaging and actually quite fun.
I do wonder if such a similar thing exists for Chinese/Mandarin.
I felt like a lawyer. The call was in less than 12 hours, and I was busy preparing my case, consolidating evidence and building my story. To be honest, I wasn’t 100% behind the argument I was preparing to put across, but I didn’t really have much of a choice. I had to believe — how could I convince others if I couldn’t even convince myself?
But at the same time, I really wanted to steer clear on the “us vs. them”. Together with allies “from the other side”, we were working hard on framing it from a collaborative angle. It’d do us all no good if our discussion disintegrated into a blame game.
The situation at hand was a classic business vs. IT situation. Business says “we asked for this”, and IT says “no, you didn’t.” Whatever the case, the project deadlines weren’t going to be hit and nobody wanted to be responsible.
The funny thing is, if you asked me, I’d say no one was responsible (or that we all were). It was one of the first times we were doing anything close to what we were doing, and it was almost expected that hiccups like these were going to occur.
Requirements were defined, and IT made good on those requirements. Business was as clear as they could be on those requirements, but apparently not clear enough. But how could they be? The project was a little too big and too fuzzy to be executed perfectly from the get-go.
Maybe a more iterative approach might have worked better, with all parties agreeing at the start that for a period of say, two or three weeks, we’d all be in a transition phase, where 70% of the requirements were met and the other 30% part of some type of agile-development, exploratory process, where things didn’t need to work perfectly but problems rectified quickly.
True, we could have spent more time thinking through and defining better requirements. But even if we spent an additional year we might not have uncovered requirements buried deep under others, the discovery of which were dependent on the implementation of the others. Would the need for a parachute have come to pass if planes hadn’t yet been invented? Would these later requirements have come to pass if the earlier ones hadn’t been implemented?
Whatever the case, this was an interesting situation to be in.
Creating on the iPad… it’s just not the same as creating on the computer.
When on the iPad, I’m far more a consumer. Typing is laboured, and sharing isn’t as easy. If I see an image on Facebook or Linked In, and I want to share that with my Google+ followers, it’s not straightforward at all.
Consumption, though, is far easier. I read a lot on the iPad (it’s essentially replaced my weekly visits to the library); viewing images are a joy (whoever invented pinch-to-zoom should be knighted); and browsing through music on the Spotify app is quite the adventure.
The funny thing is that all this consumption without sharing irks me. Every time I experience something I like, I want to share that with somebody. Everybody. But because of the difficulty, I park it in my mind. I bookmark it. Tell myself, “I’ll share that later,” knowing full well it probably isn’t going to happen.
A look through my iBooks app shows pages upon pages of highlighted material and notes, all of which during the time of highlighting and noting was something I was just dying to share, but which I haven’t.
That’s why I’m bitching about it here, typing this on my MacBook Pro, with my iPad’s Spotify app providing beautiful background music.
People watching used to be a favourite hobby of mine. Sitting at a café, observing without judging.
Then technology came along. And I don’t observe people so much anymore.
I mean, you can’t observe both the screen and the people around you, can you?
A real pity, really.
Technology has filled all those little spaces that “just being” used to fill. The spaces between the things that needed to be done and the places that needed to be visited.
And unfortunately the spaces where ideas used to roam free and germinate.
I’m going to write a bit about my thinking process whenever I build things, whether it’s websites, VBA applications, or financial models. I’m not too sure if this is going to be a “oh that’s so obvious why is he telling me this?” piece, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, one person’s normal behaviour may be another person’s exceptional one.
And I know you’re exceptional. So let’s get on with it.
My thinking process whenever I’m making things people use (i.e. goes into production) goes like this:
First, I ask myself (or the project champion/sponsor/requester): is this a one-off, or will there be many iterations?
If it’s a one-off, I can do away with making things beautiful and/or flexible. For one-off builds (again, whether it’s a webpage or financial model), most things can be hardcoded (e.g. unchanging interest rates, cell references and the like) and documentation doesn’t need to be too detailed (trust me on this though: documentation should still be done. People have a habit of waiting till the day after you forget what you did to ask you how you did it.)
If there are going to be many iterations, then I ask myself, what’s likely to change?
I once built a financial model containing over 30 options from which business users could pick and choose to determine what affected the final number. The model didn’t start of with all the options straight off the bat, and was in fact supposed to be a one-off. But after hardcoding and then manually changing what users needed multiple times within the same day (even though they “were quite certain” on what they wanted early on), I realised the flexibility of options, despite the longer initial development, was worth doing. I built the options on a very granular level so users could say, “I want option #1, #5, and #29” and have the affected numbers come up immediately.
Focusing on what’s more likely to change, and ignoring those that won’t, will allow you to save plenty of time. In that same model, I didn’t bother with ensuring formulas didn’t get broken when headings changed, because I knew they weren’t going to. (But I have certainly done this before; in some applications I’ve written, the source data had headings manually typed in, and almost every other week some variation of what was basically the same thing would get put in. I used regular expressions to ensure anything that looked like a header was treated as a header.)
Who and what is this report for?
Depending on the needs of the request, you could very well end up spending hours on something that should take only minutes. I have encountered many times someone coming to me for numbers in which I thought details were needed (or would be useful). I’d spend far too long extracting and formatting really granular data, when all the person needed was a “ballpark” figure.
And when you’re sending that consultant who is requesting for your company’s sales figures the information he needs, make sure you’re not giving him more than he needs. Does he really need to see the invoice numbers? Or customer IDs? Or costs?
Designing for maintenance
A few years back while taking the train I saw an engineering student’s lectures notes on “designing for maintenance”. I’m not from an engineering background, but because I happened to be mulling about on what software to use for a website I was developing, the concept of designing for maintenance struck me like Eric Clapton’s fingers on a guitar string.
Beautiful. Smooth. And oh-so-right.
The two main pieces of software that I had been considering were pretty distinct. One had a very developer-friendly, Linux feel. The other had a very polished, user-friendly Apple feel. The former catered to my nerd needs, while the latter catered my aesthetic aspirations (an aside: the very word ³aesthetic² is surprisingly pleasing to the eye and ear).
Though at first I was kept in a 50/50 bind between the two, after getting exposed to this idea of “designing for maintenance”, I realised that I really needed to go for the more polished and user-friendly one. Though I was helping to develop the website, I wasn’t going to be running it or doing the day-to-day maintenance of the site.
I think that maintenance of software (including spreadsheets) is something that’s missed by far too many people. If you know you’re not always going to be around to maintain the software, make sure it’s easy-to-understand and that everything’s well documented (even if it’s in an e-mail). Keep in mind that it isn’t all about you, but rather about the end-user, too.
Well, that’s about what I have for now. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. If you have any.
Was on one of my regular runs today when the words “courage is not acting in the absence of fear, but in spite of it” suddenly came to mind and never left.
Can’t quite remember where exactly I read it or heard it, but those words have always comforted me in times of need. Here are two quotes that might have had a hand in incepting my mind with those words on courage.
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
— Nelson Mandela
Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear; The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.
— Meg Cabot
I was reminded today in a book I’m reading on visual analytics that the purpose of any analytical project is ultimately to make better decisions. Coming from a mixed business and IT background, I have had my fair share of IT vs. Business conundrums.
With my IT hat on, I’m always thinking about efficiency, optimisation, ease-of-use, and resource management. What questions are being answered, what problems are being solved, or what the ROI (to a certain extent) isn’t always on the forefront of projects (though almost always who’s the requester is).
With my business hat on, I’m always thinking about what business questions to solve, what information needs I have, and just plain old “getting the answer”, which IT isn’t always the most willing to help retrieve. I don’t care about how long IT takes (so long as its done yesterday) and how much effort they need to put in or how optimised the process is, I just want my questions answered so I can make better decisions. Isn’t that what technology-driven analytics is supposed to do
But, coming from a mix of business and IT backgrounds, I know the problems both sides face. IT needs more emphasis on understanding business needs, while business needs to understand IT constraints.
My current role has me more as a “business” person, and I don’t know if that’s a blessing or a curse. A blessing in that I’m given a lot more face time in business and finance discussions, allowing me an almost voyeuristic view of how the business makes its money. A curse in that IT treats me as any other “business” user who’s request trigger-happy and who doesn’t understand the IT side of things (and therefore who should be ignored most of the time).
It’s tough convincing IT to talk about the things that could potentially give pretty decent ROI when they don’t trust you.
“I’m one of you,” I tell them.
“Yeah, you sure are, buddy,” they reply, smiling, handing me a ticket number.
I can’t believe I didn’t write about it before today: the difference between uncertainty and risk.
I’d originally thought that uncertainty and risk were one and the same. If you’re uncertain about something, about taking some action, and you had to decide whether or not to take that action, it was a risky action to take.
But it’s not like that.
Risk involves known odds. Known probabilities. Known possible outcomes. Uncertainty does not.
Let’s say that you have to throw a die that determines whether or not you live or die based on its outcome. If it’s four or greater you live, if it’s three or less you die. It’s a risk. But it’s not uncertain, because the odds and outcomes are known.
If you were not given the conditions under which you’d live or die, so you don’t know what range of values determines what fate, things get pretty uncertain. You don’t know if throwing any number between 1 through 6 will mean you live or die. Or whether or not living or dying was one of the outcomes you could expect.
To use another analogy, it’s like playing Russian Roulette without knowing how many bullets there are in the chambers and not knowing if the gun is real in the first place.
Under conditions of risk you’re making an informed decision.
Under conditions of uncertainty, however, there is no informed decision except that of the overhanging uncertainty. “I know the outcome and odds are uncertain, but I’m going ahead anyway.”
A great talk by one of my favourite authors Alain de Botton, speaking on success. A quote that I absolutely love, from the talk:
The next time you see someone driving a Ferrari, don’t think this is somebody who’s greedy. Think of this as somebody who’s incredibly vulnerable, and in need of love.
Just the other day I learnt that the data warehouse I was working on was designed using a Star and Snowflake schema. I’d known enough about them to know that this meant the data was set up on fact and “dimensional” tables, but not much other than that.
So the moment I had some time I went online and looked up definitions, and realised that they were pretty much the way many of the bigger databases I’d done up looked like. I’d been using this schema for the past four years (at least) without my ever realising it. It was like in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme when Jourdain remarks
Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it.
Which reminded me of something else I read about in Taleb‘s Antifragile: that academia often comes after practice. You can do something your whole life (practice), have it labelled and described as something in theory (academia), and after a while forget that it’d started not as a theory but as an unlabelled, undescribed bit of practice and not as a theory.
Personally, Taleb’s spelling this out gives me much reassurance that we don’t always have to understand something theoretically in order to do something (an activity) well. If I want to run well, or swim well, or program well, it doesn’t necessarily have to follow on from learning the theories of aerodynamics, water viscosity, or binary.