Blind Faith

I thought I had my backup strategy all figured out. I have time machine backups, a NAS for archiving and remote access, a back-up of the NAS, a back-up drive in a safety deposit box, iCloud, Dropbox for collaboration, and I have been using Google drive for my active projects folder. Some redundancy, and though it may seem complex, it isn’t, and it should just work. Except it doesn’t.

I’ve been working on a podcast, and wanting to hear the final file on my iPhone before uploading for distribution, I looked for the file on Google Drive for iPhone. It wasn’t there. Neither was the file folder, or any new folders and files added since this past April. The same with the GD web interface.

The Google drive icon is spinning, and every time I check, it says it is syncing, except it isn’t. All the right boxes are checked and I looked for the usual silly errors that I might have made. Nothing.

I’m sure after digging deeper the problem will resolve itself but I think it wise in the future to not believe that software services should just work as advertised. Because if they don’t, and the rare failure occurs, the results would be disappointing to say the least. From here on out, I’ll be setting a reminder to check data versions between local and remote files – or perhaps set an automator action to do it for me.

Interestingly, in my regular review of where my “cloud service” dollars go, I gave Google Drive a pass, accepting the status quo. I think I’ll revisit that decision and perhaps GD will join Flickr and Evernote in the no longer useful column.


My Current Problem

While money is nice, caring about what you do with your life is better, because true wealth is about experience.

Naturally life is full of problems; how to convince your kids that money doesn’t grow on trees, how to convince your teenage daughter that yes I know some things about life and people, how to tell a young boy to do something once instead of ten times, how to make money, and perhaps the biggest of all – how to stop needing to sleep.

These are all real problems, but the one I have been thinking about recently, as I bob my way through Charlottetown bumping into people I used to know, and sort of making new acquaintances, is how to distill a lifetime of activity into a conversation, a sentence, a document or a resume (my CV makes me cry every time I look at it). And should I even care.

During a Pitch Camp workshop I attended, Robert (Bob) Williamson in a sideline conversation, provided me with some valuable advice in how to answer the simple, and somewhat annoying question, that I was failing to answer time and time again, “what are you doing here?” His advice wasn’t something new, but served as a reminder to keep responses to one complete sentence and then pause, allowing those truly interested to ask further questions.

But this doesn’t help with the broader problem.

My wife has a similar difficulties, but she’s pretty much had a singular focus all her life – different roles maybe – but easier to relate to. In short: She has taught kids from all over the world in a foreign country, worked with and managed Taiwanese and international colleagues, raised her family in Taiwan, and travelled the world. Pretty awesome.

Some people would say that I don’t care what you have done in the past, only what you can do now. Or 10 years ago is irrelevant, what did you do this past year? I don’t agree, experience has value, it matters.

Relating experience is tricky. My family (had) recognizes outcomes like a new car, a house, shiny useless objects and job titles with understandable nomenclature. A big house means you are either somehow managing a crushing debt load, or you “have made it.” Taking 6 years to be able to negotiate a contract in Chinese doesn’t compute.

My years playing trumpet have had a profound effect on me. Studying Chinese and subsequently using that ability to secure and hold employment changed me immensely. The struggle of living away from home without any support, government or family, shaped my (our) character.

Linear career paths in traditional corporate structures are easier to understand. You start as an intern, maybe get a masters, then your first job at the junior level, followed by no junior title, and then they add senior. If you like telling people what to do you get to manage ever larger amounts of people, then maybe dictate strategy, and by the time you have forgotten how to do the job as well as those with a junior title, you get a “director of,” added to your name.

I deliberately do not have such a complete experience.

My life and professional experience has been a windy road full of challenges, wonderful people and interesting work. As a jack of all trades, and just generally lucky, I’ve been exposed to projects, people, and responsibilities far above my station.

How can you possibly relate 30 years of experience in a LinkedIn profile with the route I have taken?

You can’t. Experts will tell you to contextualize, to build a personal brand, have an online profile, engage on social media, and blah blah blah. I’m not so interested in their advice anymore, I’ve tried those things, and I’ve never really been comfortable taking a loud approach.

In Taiwan it was easier. No one really cared, as it often just seemed about status, so I would share in Chinese that I worked at such and such a company, graduated from such and such a university, and where I lived for the past x number of years and I was done.

So why care at all? There are only so many things we can give a f**k about and devoting any cognitive time to this may be stupid. For years I didn’t bother, no one knew what I was doing and where I had been. Few care to hear about your 15th trip to Thailand anyway. But my kids do and finding a way to share what there mother and father have done with there lives seems like a worthwhile effort. Of course, since I am poor, and need to work, there is that whole are you any use to me thing.

And so it goes.


Social revisited

I wrote back in February about how I am increasingly aware of the clicking of father time and how I don’t have the time to waste today, as I felt I had in my late teens and early twenties. Ideally I should spend my time on activities that have value for me, and reject all the other “things” we get caught up in in an effort to look busy or fill in time..

Specifically, now as then, I questioned exactly what value I get from spending time on any kind of social media. I think the answer is generally none. Its like carbs vs. protein, or filler for my day, or sometimes with the extreme politics of today, its bad for my blood pressure.

With the exception of this blog, which serves as a quick exercise in writing semi-complete sentences, I’ve thought of giving up all my social accounts completely. But lately after attending event after event touting the importance of having a “social media strategy”, or a “digital marketing initiative” for your business, I’m going to try broadcasting more (PEI seems to have a dis-proportionately large number of marketing professionals, it’s like Hsinchu and the number of engineers/researchers). I’m an introvert, seemingly anti-social, so conversations with strangers online, like in real life are infrequent, but I might be able to handle sharing more of the banality of my professional interests. This should make for some interesting ads on Facebook at the very least.

Against the advice of the marketing folks I have recently met, I’m going to see how it goes for a shortish period of time (they suggest much longer), say a month or so, and see if it doesn’t work out to be a waste of time.


Looking for a desk

I spent the better part of a week going store to store in Charlottetown looking for a hard surface I could work on. My needs are simple, a flat surface, preferably wood, that is of a certain modest size and cheap. The cheap part is a bit tough here. For years I have bought kitchen tables from IKEA for this very purpose – often I would leave them unfinished but have also taken to staining them to help cover the change in color brought on by age and the effects of humidity. I wasn’t able to find much of an equivalent here, with most furniture stores opting for larger more showcase like units. My desk is going to be hidden away in a room, unseen by anyone but me. Staples had an inexpensive stand-up desk, but I imagined one frustrated fist on the desk would bring the whole surface crashing down. Eventually I realized that IKEA does indeed ship to PEI and for a price cheaper than local furniture stores.

Finding a figurative desk has thus far been easier. For the years that I freelanced while in Taiwan I often found the experience extremely … lonely. First when we were in Hsinchu’s equivalent of the suburbs, I would never come into human contact for weeks on end. When we moved to the Science Park, there were world class coffee shops aplenty but they were noisy or not conductive to longish sprints of work. Most of what I was missing was the “water cooler” talk and the opportunity to learn from people smarter than myself, collaborate, or ask for help. Hsinchu is full of big brains, but they work 12+ hours a day and there was little in the way of support for independents or small entrepreneurs. Taipei was the centre for that. So in Charlottetown I find myself in coffee shops, and at least for now occupying a hot desk at the Startup Zone. I find it a tad expensive but at least I get to see people walking by the windows and hopefully later absorb the work ethos of a bunch of young people working on their new companies (the office is generally empty these days). Despite being an introvert, I do find surrounding myself with people healthy for work. Just don’t ask me to “work the room”.

Later as I get my sea legs I might rent a more purpose built space, maybe joining the underground society, but I think the combination of working from home and getting out a couple days a week might work for now.


In user experience design (UX) research, we think a lot about mental models — how a user believes a process works vs. the system model of how it was actually designed; and framing — the context in which an interaction is interpreted. In essence, your satisfaction within an experience can depend a lot on your initial expectations.

For new employees, the expectation we need to set is that while the initial learning curve is steep, the on-boarding process actually never ends nor does it move in a predictably straight line.
The UX explanation for why you hate your new job after three months

Companies should approach new hires with the same vigorous approach they have, or wish to have, with product development. People aren’t software but understanding each new hire, and their needs and expectations, to the extent that you know the users of you product would go along way to producing happy talent. And happy talent has a whole slew of side benefits. Unfortunately, to my knowledge this is seldom done in Taiwanese or Chinese companies.


Interruption is Not Collaboration

Hey, are you busy? Can you listen to this real quick? It’s an episode about interruptions in the workplace. You’ll hear from academic researchers, Basecamp’s head data wrangler, and the CEO of a remote company about how they’ve tackled not just the disruptions themselves, but also the workplace culture that allows those intrusions to flourish.


It’s not a failure until you stop trying.
[…]
I don’t think you can achieve anything remarkable without some risk. Risk is actually a rather tricky word because humans aren’t wired to tolerate it very much. The reptilian part of our brains wants to keep us safe. Anytime you try something that doesn’t have any certainty associated with it, you’re risking something, but what other way is there to live.
An interview with Debbie Millman.


Cannot connect to world

Common minecraft error message

This was pretty much a central theme during my time working in China. When you are conditioned to always be connected to the hive mind suddenly losing access made for some adjustment. Ready access to information is central to experience design work today.


Modern laziness
The original kind of lazy avoids hard physical work. Too lazy to dig a ditch, organize a warehouse or clean the garage.

Modern lazy avoids emotional labor. This is the laziness of not raising your hand to ask the key question, not caring about those in need or not digging in to ship something that might not work. Lazy is having an argument instead of a thoughtful conversation. Lazy is waiting until the last minute. And lazy is avoiding what we fear.

Lazy feels okay in the short run, but eats at us over time.

Laziness is often an option, and it’s worth labelling it for what it is.
Seth’s Blog


– Dan Shapiro

… courage was more important than confidence. When you are operating out of courage, you are saying that no matter how you feel about yourself or your opportunities or the outcome, you are going to take a risk and take a step toward what you want. You are not waiting for the confidence to mysteriously arrive.
An interview with Debbie Millman in Tim Ferriss’s book, Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World


    Were all pros already.

  1. We show up every day
  2. We show up no matter what
  3. We stay on the job all day
  4. We are committed over the long haul
  5. The stakes for us are high and real
  6. We accept remuneration for our labor
  7. We do not overidentify with our jobs
  8. We master the technique of our jobs
  9. We have a sense of humor about our jobs
  10. We receive praise or blame in the real world
  11. Steven Pressfield

From the book The War of Art.


What I have been up to

Waiting for my order at Starbucks in Fuzhou. It was hard to find good coffee there and I would have to rely on Starbucks for a Latte fix. Unfortunately the milk they use would often cause problems.

I have been back in Hsinchu since July, staying under the radar, as I often do, but have been asked on a number of occasions what I have been doing to keep myself busy. As is also often the case my responses have gone off in all kinds of directions – my conversations are still often like hypertext and it takes effort to focus.

Though it was only official in September, I left NetDragon at the end of June, immediately packed my bags, and got out of Fujian as fast as Cathay would take me. Which as it turned out wasn’t that fast, as I had a layover in Hong Kong. I had been thinking about writing about the experience but I have decided that there is little point in sharing much of the details. If we think of companies as products, like Apple reportedly does, NetDragon ticked all the boxes, the feature list was long, but like so many tech. products the actual experience was poor. Poor to the point that I wasn’t going to achieve what I set out to do. There are some good people there and I worked on some interesting things, but over the long term it just wasn’t worth being away from my family. As I get older I have less patience for wasting my time, our greatest commodity.

Now, I am taking a risk by spending time on pursuing something different. I would like to say that it’s all puppies and pizza but it isn’t. It’s hard, frustrating, and very often boring. Through a combination of books, online courseware, and tutorials I have been spending my days learning programming with Swift. I’ve taken programming classes in the past, worked on apps. in Xcode, and did a lot web development, but with the exception of mark-up languages I was at best a hack. A cut’n’paster. So I am giving myself 4 – 6 months to see how far I can advance with my studies. To be honest I am not making great progress, boring tasks plant the seeds of procrastination, but I’m not ready to quit yet.

Lastly, I started with Sheryl a new company. It’s called Smart Bean, and I see it is as a new kind of family business, with everyone involved in it’s success. It’s akin to stalls at the farmers market, a breakfast shop in Hsinchu, or what younger, more hip people than myself, call a side hustle. When I was a musician we called it surviving. Though it’s my main focus in the months to come we don’t have grand ambitions like so many start-ups you read about in tech blogs. We just want to work hard at something that’s fun to do and hopefully be rewarded with experience and enough business success to smooth out the rough spots as we transition away from Taiwan. Our company has an educational product focus with Apple’s iOS being our platform of choice, for now. The iOS app business feels like the “Pro Blog” trend of past and we are going in realizing that it’s very difficult for a small independent developer to make money. I think it’s fun to be working on the whole product development stack, not just writing reports or managing the work of others.

Other than that, it’s great to see my kids everyday again. I spent the better part of a year in China and Canada, and visits were sparse. I’ve had to lay off running for a while but I’ve been training and hope to be running again ASAP. Now that the heat has gone, Hsinchu is a pretty decent place to be right now.


If you can’t explain it to a 5 year old …

One of the consistent problems I have faced both as a result of a highly irregular career path (I don’t even like the word career), and my own extremely broad interests, is that answering the inevitable “what do you do?” question inevitably leads to a stuttered response on my part.

This problem in no small part has been a result of living in Taiwan for 18 years, where design specialization is a difficult path to take.

My responses have been purposely vague and often include the titles designer, design manager or engineer. Inquisitive people, like my son, often want more detail and that’s where I usually start to fail. How to explain my work, experience, and/or my interests to non-practioners, which is to say just about everyone.

Last December I attempted to do just that, as I was required to do so as part of 3+ month evaluation presentation. I wrote the following:

For over 20 years I have worked with organisations to help them build applications, websites, music, and other digital products that work for real people.

I’m a maker, love my craft, and enjoy working with others to realise a products vision. I have experience, and am comfortable, working in a variety of roles.

我有著20年的經驗幫助各類組織製作應用、網頁、音樂 、提升使用者體驗、以及開發其他幫助人們實現其 目標的數碼產品。

我是一個製造者,我愛我的手藝,並樂於同其他人一 同努力實現產品目標。 我有著豐富經驗,能夠適應在 工作中扮演不同的角色。

I don’t like it but it served it’s purpose at the time, particularly the Chinese version.

The problem with these couple of paragraphs is that they don’t actually explain anything. And the term maker in English has all kinds of connotations that I don’t want.

So this is a problem I hope to solve over the next couple weeks as I make some time for a healthy does of introspection and define some further focus for the next few months.


A quick departure

NetDagon’s very impressive ChangLe campus attracts allot of new recruits and tour groups. Really well done and the whole campus is incredibly well maintained. Missing from the picture is the new executive “borg like” apartments on the right. While it deserves all the attention it receives, it becomes obvious over time that the campus and office buildings were designed more for the “wow”, than for the needs of employees.

Some decisions are difficult. While I am really excited to be returning to Taiwan for these next few months and have a direct impact on a new company’s product, I can’t help but feel a tiny bit of disappointment that I am leaving China early without accomplishing all I had set out to do (it was a big list). I’m a bit of an outlier, an odd duck, for a lot of good reasons, but instead of wasting time trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, I thought it best to part ways, quickly, and on friendly terms.

I hope to write more about my experience in the coming weeks


Inside look at NetDragon

I always find it interesting to have a voyeuristic look into the work environments of others. While I wish these photos were as beautiful as many I see of design studios around the world but I hadn’t given any forethought to this series. My other photos of the of the ChangLe campus largely feature the buildings exterior and environment.

Most of the team at a dinner activity.

Cramped quarters in the Fuzhou office – less room for thinking and collaborating, more focused on production.

Afternoon meeting

Merry Go Round near the industrial design teams workspace.

Lots of space creates possibilities for thinking and co-working.

If I have the opportunity I’ll come back and update this with new photos.


Less Adjectives More Verbs

In other words, less talking more doing.

Taken from the blog of the same name, this should be my mantra for the rest of the year.


“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”
— Jessica Hische


Creativity isn’t linear

I die sitting at a desk all the time, and despite most of my favorite ideas coming at times I’m not even at work, I must sit there for at least 8 hours a day. Many don’t truly understand the following, and prefer a factory model of employee productivity and value.

… let’s remember that research shows human productivity does not follow a linear continuum with time. Specifically, according to Pareto’s principle, people produce 80 percent of what really matters in approximately 20 percent of the time they spend at work. So when I hear clients complain about summer hours, coffee breaks, or employees’ short days, I always remind them of the result of the study. Timesheets for employees are a relic of the past. They made sense in the industrial era when the scientific management of labor was implemented to organize work in assembly lines. But in today’s global economy more and more companies rely on their employees’ creativity for their success. Because creativity does not follow a linear relationship with time, time management for creative employees shouldn’t either. For instance, great advertising copy can take weeks or even months to be worked and reworked to final edit, whereas, conversely, a brilliant slogan may come to mind in just a few seconds. Time spent on copywriting is not a guarantee of success. So when Google provides employees with space and resources for a break, relaxation, or a massage they actually are managing the 80/20 rule of human productivity very well. They know that at some point in the day it inevitably becomes useless to require employees to sit at their desk. From this article which is excerpted from Francis Cholle’s The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass


Doing a Project in Your Spare Time

“The Problem With Doing a Project in Your Spare Time is That There isn’t Any”

I shared this on twitter earlier but the 140 character limit doesn’t allow for much commenting. I think it was Matt Owens of Volumeone (one of the original flash based “ezines”) who served as my inspiration 17 years ago for doing personal projects. It was at that time a very fundamental part of what I did, and about the only opportunity for trying new things that ultimately increased my skill set or alleviated the boredom of corporate design work. Many of these projects went on to be sources of income in themselves. When asking young designers today if they doing any work outside of the office they almost universally say no. Which is a shame because much of what gets done at work is full of constraints and as such it can be hard to grow or simply have fun.

But the choice quote above from Jim Coudal above does ring true. None of us get off at 5, and though I leave earlier than most, the mental energy to start a side project is nearly impossible to muster. It should be apart of our week, but unfortunately in all of the past 17 years in Taiwan, I’ve only met 2 bosses who believed in giving teams time to learn new skills. As a result I sacrifice my lunch hours, Friday nights, some early mornings, and Saturday afternoons practicing skills that make me a better designer.


It’s amazing the difference experience makes

A recent school meeting where we get introduced to all our kids teachers, and hear about the coming year amongst a myriad of other things, was a refreshing change. All but one of the teachers were mid career or older and had an air of confidence and experience that was palpable. They spoke from their success and failures, and with many stories to illustrate their point. The results of our kids studies at this school are far from being evident but despite having an unfavourable impression of the school as a whole, I left feeling at ease and confident that our children’s educational needs would be taken care of.

In my life I don’t often run into people with experience, Taiwan employers favor youth over experience, and so it was interesting to be talking to people whose abilities were as much defined by what they have done as what they have read. There is a struggle to gaining knowledge over time and this comes through with their delivery. Which reminds me of a quote from Limitless:

And you would even think that, would only show me how unprepared you are to be on your own. I mean you do know you’re a freak? Your deductive powers are a gift from God or chance or a straight shot of sperm or whatever or whoever wrote your life-script. A gift, not earned. You do not know what I know because you have not earned those powers. You’re careless with those powers, you flaunt them and you throw them around like a brat with his trust-fund. You haven’t had to climb up all the greasy little rungs. You haven’t been bored blind at the fundraisers. You haven’t done the time and that first marriage to the girl with the right father. You think you can leap over all in a single bound. You haven’t had to bribe or charm or threat your way to a seat at that table. You don’t know how to assess your competition because you haven’t competed.

Companies in Taiwan over-reliance on inexperienced workers in their teams may be misguided (more time spent does not equal to quality output) but that not to say that younger people have no value, many of the people who I have worked with are far more skilled in some areas, but that one should have balance. The best design team I worked with had people of all ages and backgrounds.

Also: At 90, She’s Designing Tech For Aging Boomers and Former Apple artist Susan Kare joins Pinterest as a lead product designer.


Saturday afternoons

A great working partner

A great working partner

This is getting to be a bad habit. I enjoy working in coffee shops, the few I frequent in Hsinchu are some of the best you will find anywhere. Great coffee, free wifi, and great environment. Saturdays are less enjoyable as it’s standing room only and the noise level rises above the usual background din.

For the past month or so while my son is at soccer I have been spending most of Saturday afternoon with my daughter at our local favourite Ink Café. I study, or catch up on odds and ends, or work on projects that can’t be accomlished through-out the week. Catriona finishes homework and then dives into a book.

It’s not a total waste but I can’t help think that this would be better done during normal (western) working hours. I would rather be hiking, or watching my son practice, or simply helping my daughter with homework over coffee and then going off exploring. But there is so much I hope to do.

Maybe if in the future my employment situation is more stable, I can relax and not be concerned with these small tasks.


Empathy and teams

How can you create products without being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, without caring deeply about how they will use your product and how they will feel. The same with the people you work with. If you really don’t care about them or their time, if you don’t try to help, or aren’t aware of their needs, how can you possibly work well together as a team? The best teams I’ve ever worked with were in music, where everyone intuitively worked together, communication was nothing more than a glance or a deep breathe. I often think of these questions lately.

Below is section from Stewart Butterfields recent interview in The New York Times, Is Empathy on Your Résumé?

You’ve had a couple of big successes, starting Flickr and now Slack. What are your thoughts about culture?

I really admire good restaurants. I don’t necessarily mean expensive ones. I mean restaurants that are well run with a seamless kind of flow. I notice things like whether the servers keep an eye on each other’s tables. If someone needs the check, they’ll tell each other. I think everyone likes working in an environment like that.

I played in jazz bands when I was younger, and I like playing improvisational music generally. You really have to keep your eye on everyone at the same time.

So how do you try to maintain that feel as your company grows?

One of our values is that you should be looking out for each other. Everyone should try to make the lives of everyone else who works here a little bit simpler. So if you’re going to call a meeting, you’re responsible for it, and you have to be clear what you want out of it. Have a synopsis and present well.

At the same time, if you’re going to attend a meeting, then you owe it your full attention. And if it’s not worth your attention, then say so — but don’t be a jerk about it — and leave the meeting.

People can go to work every day for a year and not really get anything done because they’re just doing the things that they felt they were supposed to be doing. We just went through this process of canceling almost every recurring meeting that we had to see which ones we really needed. We probably do need some of the ones we canceled, and they’ll come back — but we’ll wait until we actually need them again.

When we talk about the qualities we want in people, empathy is a big one. If you can empathize with people, then you can do a good job. If you have no ability to empathize, then it’s difficult to give people feedback, and it’s difficult to help people improve. Everything becomes harder.

One way that empathy manifests itself is courtesy. Respecting people’s time is important. Don’t let your colleagues down; if you say you’re going to do something, do it. A lot of the standard traits that you would look for in any kind of organization come down to courteousness. It’s not just about having a veneer of politeness, but actually trying to anticipate someone else’s needs and meeting them in advance.


If something that seems like work to other people doesn’t seem like work to you, that’s something you’re well suited for.

[…]

The stranger your tastes seem to other people, the stronger evidence they probably are of what you should do.

[…]

What seems like work to other people that doesn’t seem like work to you?
Paul Graham