Intelligent Planning for Showers and Data Systems

On a recent road trip my hotel room shower provided an excellent physical example of the poor planning behind many data and tool infrastructures.  Don't get me wrong; it was a very nice bathroom.  I prefer to stay at Hilton hotels, and this Hampton Inn was quite nice.  The bathroom was clean* and looked like a lot of care went into the visual appeal.  Each individual component did what it was supposed to do.  At first glance, the system looked solid.

The shower stall was spacious -- probably six feet deep, very comfortable.**  Here's the problem: the door was at the opposite end from the shower head and taps, and the shower head was fixed in place.  There was no way to turn on the water without being blasted immediately.***

Worst shower design ever.

Of course, the system owners can't easily remedy the problem.  Relocating the taps is an expensive, laborious process.  Changing the shower head is the most likely option, except that the supply pipe from the wall had no threads.  And this is a hotel; the change has to be replicated in about 400 locations.

So, the infrastructure and a major delivery system were either not planned together, or not planned with the end user in mind.  They do the job, but the user experience is poor.  Sound familiar?

Here's the cardinal rule of system planning: you must start with the desired outcome.  That's the bare minimum.  Really, you need to start with the desired outcome AND some conception of how the system will be extended later, but since many organizations can't even force themselves to start at the desired outcome I'm going to pass right by the concept of extensibility right now...

I can hear many of my ex-colleagues at Microsoft thinking, "We're great now at starting with the desired outcome," to which I say "Bull dookey."****  After 16+ years of seeing systems developed at Microsoft, I'd say these are the most common starting points, in order of frequency:

  1. We need a data-origination tool!  Engineers need to track labor, we need to gather customer feedback, we need to track expenses.  Data input, build a tool!
  2. It's consolidation time.  We recognize (for the thousandth time) that we have dozens of non-communicative data systems, based on all these individual tools, and we're going to build (wait for it) a consolidated warehouse!  Oh, and our organization has convinced our new leader to fund a new consolidated warehouse, so we're going to ignore the eighteen other consolidated warehouses...
  3. The new boss wants a better scorecard, and wants it now.  We'll just build a cube for that, created some measures, and hell, if there's enough funding, how about a tool to go with it, with some "scrubbed" data?  Wait, the measure don't match the calculations from other tools?  Bummer.
  4. We are looking at the desired business outcome and planning the system accordingly.  However, time is of the essence.  Let's start with (wait for it) a new consolidated warehouse!  But this time is different.  This time we're going to plan on doing a serious data overhaul some day.  No, seriously, we will!
  5. (We're going to start with the outcomes we need to support, define the insights we'll need to provide that support, define the data structure needed to eventually deliver those insights, and build the tools on that new data structure.  We may even take this is as an opportunity to totally redefine some of our key business concepts.)

I put #5 in parentheses because in over 16 years I've rarely seen it happen, despite being the correct approach.

The concept here applies to any business or system, whether it's a single-person sole proprietorship or a corporation with 100,000 employees: when planning your data and tool infrastructure, start with a full set of desired outcomes -- tactical and strategic, internal and customer-facing, immediate need and future-proofing.

As an example, my game company is working on the design of our first online app.  We've considered a few features that didn't make the cut for the first version: league play, private instances, and end-user administration, to name a few.  However, the data infrastructure includes placeholders for all these concepts.  If we choose to implement any of them later, we won't have to patch or overhaul the base system to do so.  Thanks for the lesson, Microsoft.

Oh, and to the Hampton Inn: I know you can't do anything about that shower stall tap location, but perhaps you could put a towel hook somewhere near the door?

* Cleanliness is my #1 criteria for a hotel, particularly the bathroom and the bed.  I can put up with a lot in the way of noise, price, or lack of customer service, but if the bed looks unclean...I'll sleep in the Canyonero.

** Especially if you've been driving all day and haven't gotten much exercise.  The Fitbit Surge is water resistant, so you can get some steps in while showering.

*** I say there was "no way," but that's not quite true.  I did think out of the box, but the best immediate solution was to stand on the toilet, reach over the shower wall, and activate the taps.  I tested this method and found that at 5'9" I'm about four feet too short to make this work.

**** I don't really say "bull dookey," but I try to keep my blogs family-friendly, so...

It's All About What The Audience Sees

One of the first subjects I studied in college was magic.  Specifically, stage magic, as opposed to supernatural magic or Magic: The Gathering.  The latter wasn't first published until a bit later in my college career, and the former didn't offer a full four year degree.  You can get all sorts of degrees in it now, but instead of "witchcraft" it's referred to as "data analysis."*

Anyway, I quickly learned two things about sleight of hand.  First, the texture and finish of the cards significantly impact the mechanics of card manipulation.  Second, the audience's perception of magic is driven by many factors beyond your sheer mechanical skill.

While working on Film Tycoons I've greatly enjoyed the search for a manufacturer -- this has been a great learning experience and now that we're in the final stages the selection of printing materials is a critical task.  A few companies have been very responsive to my inquiries but Longshore Limited of Hong Kong shines.

Not all cards are created equal.  Magicians prefer to use Bicycle and Bee back cards because they have a very high quality air finish with just a slightly rough texture.  In short, they're excellent for card manipulations.**  Even a non-magician can tell the difference between Bicycles and a dollar store deck -- pick up ten cards and fan them.  Bicycles (and Bees) will spread evenly and the cards glide against one another.  Lower quality cards will stick to each other and clump.

Not surprisingly you'll find a wide range of paper and finish qualities when shopping for card printing.  When you're looking at mass production you really want some basis for comparison beyond, "I really like Bicycle playing cards, do you have something like that?"  Longshore has many permutations available and I can't tell you offhand the difference between a 330g black core and 250g white core cards.  Last Wednesday night I mentioned this in an email to Nancy, my brilliant contact at Longshore.  By Monday morning FedEx had delivered a box of samples to my house.***

That's overseas shipping in two business days, and I've yet to actually place an order.  In fact, as potential customers go I'm probably a real pain in the neck.  As we've iterated on the game development process I've updated our component list numerous times and Nancy cheerfully provides me with new quotes every time.  She's also patiently answered two dozen questions about the production process, recommended freight forwarders, and provided suggestions and options. 

Different experience with another company.  (This isn't another manufacturer competing for our Film Tycoons business, it's a provider here in the U.S. with a service that we needed pretty quickly for another aspect of the game development.)  I placed an order with them last week.  The automated reply estimated a shipping date of March 10th.  Okay, we can wait that long.  Last night I thought I'd check the provider's system to see what information I can get about my order status.  Turns out they do have ongoing updates -- my order is now estimated to ship on March 13th.

I'm not happy that my order is now arriving three days later.  My perception of the company's reliability just took a hit.  And since I had to find that information myself rather than being notified, I'm certainly not feeling valued. 

I'm confident that both Longshore and the other company can deliver -- that's the mechanical part of the process.  Longshore, however, demonstrates all those other behaviors which positively influence my perception of the company, and any magician will tell you that both those things are necessary before magic happens.

* When I started college the only computer discipline offered was "Computer Engineering."  Yeah, we didn't even have Business Information Systems yet.  You sure as hell couldn't major in "Creating Gaming Apps for iOS."

** If you'd like to learn some fun card manipulations to amaze your friends, I strongly recommend Jeff McBride's video series.  He's an amazing magician and his how-to videos are actually excellent teaching aids.

*** I was going to share a picture of the sample package from Longshore but I haven't asked their permission, so I decided not to.  Take my word for it that this isn't just an envelope with four or five cards in it -- it's a box full of cards, pawns, dice, a Loot Crate for aspiring game makers. 

The Business Of Being Funny and Some Questionable Priorities

Questionable priorities first.  PricewaterhouseCoopers has hired bodyguards for accountants Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, the unfortunate pair who were responsible for handing over the Academy Award envelopes.  PwC is taking very seriously death threats the pair have received because of the mix-up with the Best Picture presentation.

That's right, death threats.*  Apparently the most crucial issue facing the nation today, the one that requires immediate, violent resolution, is the incorrect dissemination of envelopes at an awards ceremony.**  Now you know.

Speaking of movies, you're probably aware that I'm in the finishing stages of a board game involving a movie theme.***  The scripts, directors, and actors in Film Tycoons are parodies of real films and people, and two weeks ago I went through all the cards (300 of them) to try to ensure they were a) funny but b) not offensive. 

Possibly the best advice I've ever received.

Possibly the best advice I've ever received.

The scripts were hard enough.  It's amazingly difficult to be funny 110 times in a row in four sentence increments.  Remember the quote, "Sorry I wrote such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one?"****  It's certainly a true phenomenon in humor -- it's much easier to be funny when you've got more words/time to do it.  That's especially true when you're taking care not to be mean.  In Film Tycoons we only included actors and actresses we like, so we wanted to keep the humor good-natured.  Not surprisingly, it's much easier to make some of the audience laugh when you make another part of the audience cry. 

Years ago I saw an interesting summary of the creative process for Mystery Science Theater 3000.  The crew described sitting at a conference table as they watched a movie, everyone throwing out random lines that came to mind.  Someone would track all the brainstorming, then they'd organize, decide to eliminate some options, and do it again.  And again.  And then refine.  And then polish.  By the time they actually recorded the show the creative team (which included the live actors) were probably awfully tired of the film they were panning.  I imagine they also started second-guessing the lines that seemed funny five days earlier, before they were repeated twenty times.

Overall, being funny isn't always fun, and at some points it feels like solving quadratic equations would be more entertaining.  But at least there's the occasional no-brainer when a movie like Avatar makes the parody process almost criminally easy.

Avatar: the extremely rare element is called "Unobtanium?"  How do you come up with this stuff?

* I don't think there's any way I would have believed this if I hadn't seen the movie The Accountant, which made me realize exactly how devious these people are.  But it also begs the question, why do they need bodyguards?  Apparently ninjitsu and explosives are required training for accountants.

** Why the need for violence?  I have a kinder, gentler proposal: track down the ancestry of the two accountants, identify the countries whence they came, and build a GIANT WALL to keep any more of these nefarious people from entering the United States!  That'll protect our awards shows!

*** Since you're reading my blog and I won't shut up about it...

**** Like many pithy quotes, I've seen this one attributed to a bazillion people: Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill...the list goes on.  Apparently Blaise Pascal is the earliest actual attribution.  That's right -- math geeks are funny!

Oh, Amazon Prime, How You Spoil Me

Last December I thought it'd be fun to 3D print replacement tiles for my Settlers of Catan game.  The Catan board is made by placing hexagonal tiles next to each other; each tile represents one lot of resource-rich land (either wood, wheat, wool, brick, or ore) and the set is surrounded by sea tiles, which may have harbors for trading.  The junctures where three tiles come together provide spaces for villages and cities to be built, and the borders between tiles are roadways. 

I chose this tile set from Thingiverse for one feature -- small holes along the underside of each tile allow magnets to be placed inside.  The magnets are just strong enough to keep the tiles together during incidental bumping throughout the game.  (Otherwise the game could be retitled Settlers of San Andreas.) 

The preferred magnets are pretty specific: 3mm diameter spheres.  Go ahead.  Search for "spherical magnet" on Amazon.  You'll find that the world's biggest retail clearinghouse comes up pretty dry.  But no fear, the Thingiverse designer provided a link to a company in China which sells these.  The company is called TinyDeal, and back on December 16th I ordered myself a few boxes.

"It seems to run on some sort of electricity!"

"It seems to run on some sort of electricity!"

Fast forward -- no, wait.  Crawl forward to February 1st and my magnets arrived. 

Sure, the magnets came from China.  The customer's expectations should be set appropriately; it takes a long time to ship goods from China.  Problem is, some behemoth has been steadily resetting the general expectations of the American consumer in regard to shipping time.  With Amazon Prime we regularly receive goods in two days, one day, or even the same day that we ordered them.  During the Super Bowl they even advertised the possibility of receiving your Doritos via drone in minutes, right?  If my craving for simulated nacho cheeze flavoring can be quenched in an hour, surely my need for tiny magnetic parts can be accommodated in less than six weeks.

The business lesson is pretty obvious -- scarcity is the only compelling factor to order from TinyDeal.  And even that could be alleviated easily by someone who orders in quantity, stores in the U.S., and is able to fulfill my magnetic need for just a few dollars more, but within days.  That's worth paying for, right?  I'm going to refer to this theoretical concept as importing.   Maybe I'll see it during my lifetime, though I'm pessimistic.  I'm still waiting on my flying car.

My Stakeholder's Hidden Agenda

One of the most common phenomenon* in business intelligence is the mismatched ends: you've gathered requirements, think you've gone through them ad nauseum, but weeks later the dashboard is delivered and the stakeholder says, "This doesn't meet my need."

Like any decent phenomenon** the Mismatched Ends mystify us.  That in itself is puzzling; given that the phenomenon occurs often/regularly/daily, one would think there's plenty of opportunity to study, solve, and avoid it.  And like any decent phenomenon the best place to seek an explanation is often the mind of a child.

The child in this case is my daughter, MD.  When MD was eight she and I started an annual ritual we call the "Dad and Daughter Adventure Trip."  We identify at least one Really Cool Thing to do, vow to stop at every Potentially Cool Thing on the way, and hit the road.  Sometimes the Adventure Trip includes a life lesson or at least a good learning experience.***

When MD was 13 we took our golf clubs with us on the Adventure Trip.  This one was a road trip through west Texas, and Texas in general is blessed with a bazillion golf courses.  MD navigates on road trips and quickly took on the job of finding golf courses to play.  She settled on a few criteria right away: no private clubs, and preferably no 9-hole courses.  She's also very price-conscious, a characteristic I hope she maintains through high school.

Over the week we played at three different courses and each turned out to be a great choice.  There were some consistencies in her selection -- even when near a large metro area she'd pick courses on the outskirts.  The courses never seemed to be very busy, and most of them were very duffer-friendly.  (Long, wide fairways with little water or trees.)  I finally asked how she was making the final selection in each area and found she had one very simple criterion: she was checking the course rules to find out if she could drive the golf cart.

That's it.  After the basic assumptions that we'd agreed upon she added one high priority condition.  She wanted to drive the cart.  I never would have guessed that this was important enough to influence her overall evaluation of courses, but it turned out to be absolutely critical. 

And this agenda item was "hidden" by her for some reason -- one strong possibility is that this was important enough to her that she assumed I already knew about it myself.  It's also possible that she was embarrassed a little by it and decided to own the search herself rather than vocalize the need.  I actually think it's the former -- after all, we both clearly understand that the most important criteria in selecting a hotel is the availability of a pool, so shouldn't Dad just know about the golf cart?

*Notice the clever use of the word "phenomenon."  It almost sounds positive, like, "Whoa!  Look at the fascinating thing we've discovered!"  This approach, rather than negative implication words like "challenge" or "problem" helps keep everyone feeling like we're making progress even though we've encountered setbacks and delays.  It's the same reason the safety briefing card on an airplane shows everyone smiling as they don life jackets and plummet toward the ocean.

**A few of my favorite phenomena in the U.S. include the Marfa Lights, the Devil's Kettle, and the Great Stalcpipe Organ.  You should leave your desk, go visit one of these places, and return to work with a sense that you're now prepared to completely dominant mundane tasks like requirements gathering.

***One of my favorite life lessons was, "Listen to Dad when he says you shouldn't eat three cheese Danishes right before a 12 mile hike at an elevation one mile higher than where you live."

Added Value Explained

I tidied up my office yesterday, a process which largely involves a) discarding bits and pieces of early 3D printing experiments, b) discarding bits and pieces of board game prototypes, and c) filing or discarding papers that have clearly passed the threshold of "every day use" and must now be relegated to either recycling, filing cabinet, or three-ring binder.  During that third stage I found what might be the most important business document ever: a worksheet my older daughter, MD,  completed at school in first grade.

The scan's a bit hard to read, so here's question #3: Alena wants to buy a sticker for 45 cents.  She hands the cashier 1 quarter, 1 dime, and 2 nickels.  Did Alena give the cashier enough money for the sticker?

The answer, of course, is yes.  The sticker costs 45 cents (holy inflation!) and Alena hands the cashier 45 cents.  MD dutifully shows her work (25 + 10 + 10 = 45) and says, "Yes." 

But that's not all.  In the margin she adds, "but not with tax though."  And there you have the two simple keys to defining and identifying added value.  Information beyond the simple correct answer was provided, and that information was of vital, practical importance to the end user. 

The smiley face and "I love it!" is from her teacher.  That's the added value litmus test: the end user recognizes that the information provided went above and beyond the minimum correct answer AND provided insight that could help avert a negative situation or facilitate a greater success. 

I showed this to my team members seven years ago and it's occupied various spots in my office ever since.  Though there's a pretty good size file of paper memories for her in my closet, I think this one's going back up on the office wall for another few years.