In Search of Less Data Waste

Data waste is an awful yet potent nemesis.

Here €™s the problem: every day, every person is bombarded with 16 hours of information. This information might be ideas in your own head about what you want to say, who you want to talk to, projects you want to tackle, improvements you want to make (to yourself or at work), or… anything. It might be something as nuanced as this blog. It might be as simple as remembering who you intend to thank. But every day, there is a lot of data being generated by our head.

Meanwhile, there is as much or more information relayed to us by those we interact with. People tell us how to improve ourselves, a great hike, where to shop, how to be productive, what it will be like to grow old, how to make a million dollars, what funny TV show or web site we should visit. Or any of millions of other things.

As one receives their 16 hours daily data, there emerges three choices.

Choice number one, which I think is probably used by at least half of all people, is to sit back, listen to all that data, and trust that the really important stuff will get captured by your memory and occur to you again when it becomes applicable. If none of the data you are receiving is imperative to your well-being, then you can certainly continue to exist while you arbitrarily remember some data and forget other data. But this choice puts a great deal of faith in the subconscious mechanisms that are choosing (based on factors we largely don €™t understand) what to remember and what not to remember.

Choice number two is to employ a few key systems to stay organized in things that matter most to you. Choice number two is what is used by people who keep a calendar of upcoming events and a filing cabinet of tax documents and a list of passwords and the like. Choice two is basically choice one, but for people who need a simple way to capture esoteric data that affects their well being. You €™re still at the mercy of memory for 75% of the data you receive every day. Different flavors of choice number two are what I €™ve employed to this point. I have slowly accumulated a sundry collection of what’s now about 15 different organizational systems, including Google Calendar, a filing cabinet, and various Gmail “drafts.”

Choice number three is to constantly quest for the Panacea to All Data Wasting (PADW). Looking at the piecemeal list of organizing systems I currently maintain, it €™s clear that my ad hoc organizational network isn’t working as well as it could, nor as well as I need it to. Speaking as a computer scientist, the essence of the problem seems to be that there are gigs of incoming data available for us to learn, but we only have megs of memory in our brains to store it. If that. Off the top of my head, I think the following are the key components of PADW.

1) Figure out somewhere with the capacity to store gigs
2) Ensure that the time it takes to retrieve data from said place scales well with large amounts of data
3) Come up with an algorithm for organizing that data such that we €™ll know where to look for it and
4) Make a plan for what happens if the storage medium fails.
5) Design medium such that it is accessible anytime, anywhere

It is true that I might be getting overly geeky about this, but with each day it becomes increasingly apparent to me that without PADW, I am going to be throwing away perfectly good data. For example, here’s some data I’ve received in the last 16 hours that fits in none of my systems (and is thus likely to be lost by the time I need it): Katy tells me that the REI online outlet store has great prices and delivers to Redmond REI free of charge; Ben tells me that there are monthly meetings of “lonely programmers” (programmers without projects) in Seattle that I can attend if I Google the right terms; a friend mentioned, which is officially the many-eth time I’ve heard of that site without visiting it (unless I did visit it and forgot about it). Where would I file these sorts of information? Let alone information I get from people like my grandparents when I visit them and they tell me about experiences in their life that aren’t applicable to me today, but that I would do well to remember for future situations.

It breaks my heart to let this perfectly good data go to waste. It’s even worse when I visit a bookstore and read random books about Argentina or life as a single mother — lots of fascinating and someday useful data that would never fit in the 2 MB memory the human designer has outfitted me with. Anyone got a clue about how to fix this?

Books for a Better World, Pt. 1

There are a couple books (literally, two) that I find myself quoting from on a very regular basis. Today, I come to speak of the book that takes about an hour to read and years to fully assimilate.

But before I reveal the identity of this book, a question: when was the last time you started using a new application (for the sake of this blog, “applications” includes web sites) and felt like the architect of said application truly cared about your experience?

Speaking from personal experience, it never occurred to me why certain applications felt “better” and “worse” to use. Nor did I ask myself why frustrating applications had ended up being designed as they were. Now I reflect on both regularly, and the reason is Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.

Before I go any further, I should probably throw in fair warning: after reading this book, my reaction to using poorly designed software has changed from a mix of frustration and confusion to simple anger. If I waste more than five minutes finding a basic piece of functionality in an application, this now generally leads to severe annoyance. There is a fair chance that you, too, will revile the authors of your poorly designed software after reading this book. Therefore, if you are a person of action with a strong sense of justice, think twice before reading a text this potent.
But if you think you can deal with the truth, here’s what you’ll learn:

The premise of the book centers around the fact that users are very busy people who have neither the time nor the will to give an application as much attention as designers think they will. Krug asserts that when encountering a new application, the human impulse is to scan a page in about 1-3 seconds, make a best guess what will get them where they want to go (in Krug’s words, “satisfice”), and muddle along from there. He points out that designers should take care not to waste users’ milliseconds through making unclear links or leave them stranded in an application without a clear sense of where they are. He goes on to do some exercises where the reader sees examples of well-organized sites (i.e., Amazon) and poorly organized sites (buy the book and see them).

What’s more, the book is chock full of pictures and great examples. As I’ve come to know other Internet entrepreneurs within the community, I have found myself repeatedly citing examples in this book, as it seems to take most applications at least an iteration or two before they can get enough user feedback to create a UI layout that makes sense. Without this book and a strong sense of responsibility to your user, an application can quite easily never get things right.

With this book explained, you can now look forward to hearing the exasperated tales of applications that drive me bonkers, like TopStyle. This application earned itself an express ticket to my bad side today when, after handily reporting files with CSS errors in them, it provides no clear path of how to fix (or even view) these errors. Clicking on a specific error in a list of errors just jumps directly to the top of the file that the error resides in, not to the error itself. Brilliant.

Be Wrong

I love being wrong. Actually, check that, I hate being wrong. But I love finding out how and why I am being wrong.

When considering whether to undertake a new type of challenge, my guess is that “being wrong” is a big component of what makes people hesitate. Why?

In school, we all had regular opportunities to be wrong. Every test you took, you would probably be wrong on at least 10% of the answers. And there was no subjectivity; no “this seems wrong but it could just be me.” You simply didn’t “get” the test question, or you misunderstood the homework instructions, and you had to learn what had caused your reasoning flaw.

Graduating to a professional environment, it seems like the opportunities to be bona fide “wrong” are few and far between. Those who are regularly told they are “wrong” are often people who become disgruntled and leave their job. The rest of us glide happily along, forgetting what it was like to get a “C” on the final.

But what more fundamental component of personal growth is there than learning, and what more fundamental component of learning is there than experiencing failures? If you haven’t been exceedingly wrong at least six times in the last six months, I’ll bet you’re becoming less than your potential.

Meetings: Important to Whom?

Those who know me know that I am and have long been a zero-meetings enthusiast. I used to blame it on a short attention span, which I figured was also the reason that school became more suffocating to me every year I attended. It started in high school, when I learned how to expertly use every last one of my 12 permissible absences per semester while still maintaining passing (read: nearly perfect) grades. In college, the problem worsened to the point that during my last two years, I averaged about 10% attendance across all of my classes. Many classes I attended only on the first day and on exam days. And then I wrestled with myself over whether the first day was really necessary. I did not have a problem walking in, leaving my homework in the teacher’s hands, and walking back out of the room. As I did this, I made sure to take a deep breath of fresh air while the doors to the building swung closed behind me. My thoughts and prayers were with those countless captives now listening to the daily administrative agenda as I headed home to further my daily personal agenda.

I would imagine that nowadays, a student who approached school as I did would be stamped ADD and given the proper medications to fix it.

But the more meetings I skip at work, and the more crucial tasks I get done during those skipped meetings, the more I think that my loathing for meetings and classes is my subconscious’ not-so-subtle way of guiding me away from non-productive BS.

Now, I will readily acknowledge that there are some who learn best when they have a person standing in front of them reciting. But, for the rest of us, there is no need for classes that are graded on attendance, or meetings announced by an overzealous HR director or boss as “mandatory attendance.”

Objectively, which of these options make more sense?
Captive Audience
Option 1 — Information communicated by word of mouth. Information is delivered at the speed the orator remembers or reads it, in the way that orator chooses to present it. Information does not exist tangibly, so listeners must take notes, and then organizer those notes, to have the data, if that data later becomes relevant. Similar to commercials on TV: many nuances bombard you, few of them resonate.

Option 2 — Information communicated by a Wiki or web page. Information is presented in visual form, with clear delineation between topics and sections. Illustrations and cross-references are provided to be accessed on demand by learner. Learner can navigate information hierarchy to jump to whatever information is relevant to them, and refer to it at any future time to verify that they understand correct details when correct details are necessary. Similar to the Internet (uh, because it is the Internet??): learn what you want, when you want, how you want.

I point this out here because I think it’s important that others fight the teacher/boss/HR person who chooses audience captivity over audience productivity. That feeling of displeasure you have during a meeting? It is your subconscious productive side pleading for the madness to stop.

And if said teacher/boss/HR person has the gumption to remind you how “important it is for you to attend their meeting, like everyone else,” respond simply: “Important to whom?”

The Slow Learning Advocate

What does experience buy an employee? It buys a body of knowledge to draw upon. Reflecting upon the nebulous “things that went wrong,” savvy veterans can provide great value to a company by using the lessons learned from past failures to steer clear of disaster on future projects.

But this is only in the perfect case.

In the real world, most people do not have the capacity to remember specific examples of what they’ve seen. Instead, most leaders that I have worked under develop a “gut feeling” that guides their judgement. If asked to substantiate the gut feeling, these leaders can be evasive, because without being able to remember the examples, one might not be sure what specifically led to that feeling being formed. Instead of the example that brought about the feeling, they will more often cite a recent-but-not-too-relevant example that comes to mind.

As a leader, I have found that I am as guilty of this as the leaders before me. I do not have the ability to remember every situation that has led to my gut feelings, and so I can sometimes find myself unable to substantiate even my “stronger” gut feelings.

Now, the fact that we tend to develop a gut feeling that we can not explain is not in itself a problem. If your gut feelings are correct within the context that you assert them, fine.

But here’s a little secret that I think is the key failing of many highly experienced leaders: their gut feeling is to avoid risk, and while that gut feeling is understandable, it is also stupid.

Think about it: indiscriminately avoiding risk is the natural culmination of years of collecting examples of things that go wrong. First you work on a project that was overly ambitious and got overscheduled, so you remember to keep your scope refined. Then you work on a project that used very elaborate systems that caused you to run out of memory, so you remember to avoid very elaborate systems. On a third project, you try a new 3d algorithm that ends up being thrown out during alpha because of low-level incompatibilities, so you remember to be wary of new algorithms.

Combine all of those lessons into one lesson and what do you get? At the most abstract level, all three of these examples suggest that by taking a risk (large scope, elaborate systems, new algorithm) the project suffered.

This is why I believe that many experienced people learn to avoid risks as a habit. And this is why I make it a point not to learn from my mistakes.

You can not make significant innovations without taking significant risks. Yes, you expose yourself to second-guessing, particularly if your risks have failed before. And yes, it is far more difficult to implement a nuanced risk-aversion plan that considers the specific reasons behind past failures, rather than simply avoid all possible risks that could beget failure.

But as an employer, I believe that the holy grail of maximal ass-kicking job applicants are those that have been through projects before, failed, but are just as willing to push the envelope as they had been during their first project. They need to have learned something from their failures so as not to be derelict, but learning to simply avoid risk is the recipe for perpetual sterility.

Viva la Bill

Every day I spend with my nose to the grindstone, it keeps sneaking up on me. It started as “maybe someday,” and eventually progressed to “hopefully soon,” “maybe four months,” “about two months,” and now, three wee-little weeks: my (partial) liberation from the man as I transition to working a half-time shift!

I’m (partially) ecstatic. I don’t yet know exactly how calling my own shots will effect my day-to-day life, but it sure sounds terrific. Currently, I’m squeezing 25-30 hours a week between late weeknights and long weekend days. Time to meet with people is limited. Time to develop the site myself is non-existent. For all the time I’ve spent looking for someone else to give the executive branch of this project a shot in the arm, I’m now betting that in three weeks, I’ll be infusing the project with about as good a boost as could be hoped for at this point. For progress and morale alike.

I can still clearly remember the first morning I woke up in my own apartment after arriving in Seattle. The apartment was a complete disaster: cheap, run down, and littered with leftover food and partially emptied boxes. I woke up at about 8 in the morning after just a few hours sleep. Though I had thrown off my blanket when dusk broke a few hours earlier, I was still drenched in sweat from the sun shining through my window, baking me on my futon. I looked out my clear, sunny window onto the neighbor’s cluttered porch and an already bustling 15th Avenue. I deeply inhaled the pale smell of cigarette and newly washed dingy carpets, and pasted a grin on my face that lasted the rest of the week.

The independence was intoxicating, unlike anything I had felt in my life to that point. Every trip to the deathbed Safeway on 50th Street was a field trip where anything was possible. I couldn’t give a damn about yielding at crosswalk signals, paying bus fare, or doing the dishes.

girl_jump.jpgEven today, many of my favorite moments are those where I shun convention in favor of the freewheeling ethos that personified that time in my life. Given that, it is something of a wonder that I managed to do the 9-5 routine even for the three-plus years I’ve been at it. From what I have read and what I can sense, making the leap away from security and into a self-directed challenge that will engage me daily promises to hold the same clear air of possibility that blew by me as I baked on that futon almost 10 years ago today.


Myself and a bunch of friends are going to jump from a plane in a couple weeks. I have mixed feelings about how much I’ll enjoy it. The safety statistics don’t concern me much, nor does the thought of jumping from the plane particularly make me sweat. The part of the trip I am most dreading is the many hours that we will have to sit around the wherever-you-sit-at-a-skydiving-joint and think Think think about all the tiny logistics of what we’re about to do. The same unending stream of thoughts that makes my brain so very useful for discovering creative solutions/solving deep-rooted problems isn’t discriminating about what it will analyze; therefore I’m probably destined for some miserable hours. It is one thing to go from hanging out and drinking beers to jumping 14,000 feet. It’s another to sit around with little diversion for hours and ponder how someone could hit the wing.

Two Dentists Offices, Stolen from Creating Passionate UsersI’m thinking the skydiving experience will most likely prove to be another everyday example of preventable customer discomfort. I believe that these discomforts exist in large part because, often times, customers do not even realize their discomfort is preventable. The example on Creating Passionate Users of two potential dentists’ offices comes to mind. One dentist office looks more or less like every dentist office I have ever been to: dry, clinical, and, um, black & white. The other one is dressed in warm colors, “smells like cookies,” and has a wine bar. Every time I have gone to my dentists’ since seeing this graphic, I think to myself, “Where’s the damn wine?” Every time I sit in the seat, stare toward the ceiling, and listen to the sweet lullabys of the dental drill, I think, “Where’s the plasma TV with ESPN or Xbox 360 or anything?”

Simply put, service providers have a tremendous opportunity to see past conventions and create an experience that makes the customer happy from the moment they enter to the moment they leave. The service itself is but one aspect of the experience. In many cases, the service itself might take only a small portion of the overall time for the experience (how many times have I sat 20 minutes or more in an empty patient room at a doctor’s office, waiting for a doctor that spent five minutes with me before rendering their verdict?). And the service is frequently not what’s on the customer’s mind during most of the experience.

It is the experience that I remember, and it is the experience that I think about when considering whether I’d go back.

What’s So Bad About Getting Paid?

Yo non-profiteers, ye so virtuous, ye so in touch with your internal belief set, and working every day to further your altruistic cause: you suck!

Yo for-profiteers, ye so obsessed with pennies in a billion dollars, ye so proud and ascribed to the adage “It’s business, it’s never personal”: you suck too!

Yo Mickey Mouseketeers, ye with such freakishly proportioned ears, ye so happy on the inside and somehow also happy on the inside: you suck three!

Is that everyone now? Good. Let’s continue.

I want to meet people who are benevolent and like getting paid. From what I can tell on TV and even in real life, it seems that people are largely split into the two groups. The non-profiteers want no part of the capitalist, affluenza pandemic that has infected rappers and America and especially for-profiteers. The for-profiteers, on the other hand, want money severely. They want money so badly that they will pollute environments, defraud geezers, or otherwise embrace whatever vices blacken the bottom line.

In the middle, there is an island upon which I hope to find some fellow refugees. What’s so bad about getting paid?


When’s the last time you heard that you did a “really great job”? Even better, when’s the last time you heard that you did a “really great job, and here are some ideas as to how you can do an even better one”? Hopefully in the last few weeks, but working at the average company with average boss, chances are that it’s probably measured more in months or years. As an individual in search of constant improvement, I am severely bugged when I see this happen. When one acts as their own sounding board, the veracity of the evaluation they give to themselves will be inherently more random. And with randomly correct data about what was and wasn’t good, the precision with which you can determine how to improve your actions is low. After working even one year without meaningful feedback, you end up with a lot of data points representing tasks that you completed, but no bin to sort them into. They are points in space, and the value of that experience is largely diminished because of it.

So, not getting feedback=bad. But is getting feedback=good? Sometimes. A concurrent epidemic that seems to have infected many of the noble feedback givers is that of not assigning degree and example to feedback. Did you ever have a class that was graded on a curve in college, and sit in class on a day where the professor jubilantly declared that “everybody did so well on this test, I am so proud of you all!” Seldom was there a compliment that I less wanted to hear. In reality as we know it, there are few, if any, absolutes. So feedback such as “you did well last week,” ranks only slightly higher in data conveyed than no feedback at all. A disclaimer is in order here that this is coming from a computer programmer who works in a world of logic and quantifiable principles, but in my eyes, a compliment that does not come attached to a comparison and an example will still be only marginally informative. Strictly speaking, whether you are “smart” or “good at what you do” does not exist in an absolute world. It only exists relative to other people (or your past self) who do those same things worse.

“Harsh,” you might be thinking, because it is. Society likes to sugarcoat the reality of comparison by labeling those that see the world as a place of relative degrees as “competitive.” Competitiveness of this type is often discouraged in casual affairs, or even in some business settings where it is important to preserve feelings. But whether you’re winning or not, the relative nature of success is here to stay. Deal with it and grow richer in your understanding of yourself and the world. Deny it and protect your self esteem while you remain ignorant to how you could do better.

It’s “Realitivity.”


I had an interesting talk with an intelligent young man this evening, and it got me to thinking about an entrepreneurial question that runs right past mere entrepreneurship, and straight into the human condition. That question is: “Why aren’t people more productive?” Or, as my brain construes it: “Why do so many people watch TV five nights a week?”

The cynics will tell you it’s because we’re lazy and brainwashed. The idealists will say it is to relax and to understand the world we live in. The intelligent young man (who also had a name, “Ben”) said it’s because people will take the path of least resistance to personal satisfaction. I say “dunno.” I think Ben might be thinking along the right track, because the act of turning on television/turning off brain is easy easy enough to initiate, and it’s interesting for the first few minutes. But after those five glorious minutes of watching the contestant pick random briefcases in search of $1,000,000, the question re-surfaces: “Why aren’t people more productive?”

My best guess is that the watcher has failed to discover what it is that they’re really interested in. Because once you know what you love doing, you have an option that both passes time and prevents brain decay.

It’s not hard to see how this relates back to entrepreneurship. I consider myself a ridiculously lucky human to have been given a consciousness that innately craves challenges and is action-oriented. I enjoy thinking up and organizing ideas the same way that others enjoy stamp collecting, gossiping, or theatre. But despite the feelings of well-being that I bask in every time I tackle a new entrepreneurial challenge, it still takes some time to climb up the stairs before I get to sled down that hill. TV is the other way around. When you first turn it on, there is ramp-up pleasure to be derived, but after the brief fun, your brain turns off and an hour later you suddenly wake up feeling dirty.

I know that entrepreneurs aren’t always so hot with math, so I’ll work this one out for you. One hour of spare time + TV = 5 minutes fun, 55 minutes flub. One hour of spare time + hobby = 5 minutes pain, 55 minutes passion. I will not work out how those numbers extrapolate to an entire evening, because if you’re the TV watcher it would probably hurt your feelings. Suffice to say,

Harding: 1. America’s Favorite Past Time: 0. Booyah.