Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Palestinian - Israeli Technical Support Center

The Palestinian-Israeli International Technical Support Center

How are we in the West different from those in the Middle East?

For the last fifty years whenever we, in the West, hear news of the Middle East, it is always about "The Conflict". Arabs, Palestinians, Jews, Israelis cannot seem to resolve their differences and live peacefully with each other. There are always random acts of violence and senseless killing. A suicide bomber enters a cafe, detonates his bomb and kills himself and several others. A school bus filled with children is blown to bits. There never seems to be any forward progress towards peace, just continued hate and violence-- people who hate each other so much that they go out of their way to focus their lives on killing.

Are we in the West any different from the people of the Middle East? Asking myself this question, I find that although there are individuals that I hate, I never think about hating them or engaging in any kind of violence towards them. I have never fired a weapon or built or detonated a bomb. I cannot imagine doing that. Why not? Hating and planning acts of violence would take a lot of time and energy. I have a job. I have family commitments. But most importantly, like most Americans, my spare time is devoted to dealing with computer problems. I am so preoccupied with computer software and hardware problems, I have absolutely no time to hate anyone.

Modern life in the Western world means spending your free time diagnosing and fixing interoperability problems with software programs, hardware plug-ins, and networks. Who has not spent part of her life holding on the phone for tech support, deciphering poor English in user manuals, and rebooting?

I spend hours figuring out why Dreamweaver cannot read my Paint Shop Pro .gif file, days debugging the intermittent problem of USB ports not synching correctly on the Visor, days re-installing the new Lexmark printer driver over and over so I can print on the Lexmark printer on the network. I still do not know why I cannot share a file on the server when I have the permissions. I spend all my time diagnosing these kinds of problems, downloading patches, and rebooting machines. I do not have time to hate and kill.

These thoughts lead me to the inescapable conclusion that we will achieve peace in the Middle East by grabbing hold of the sword of hate and bending it into rack mount sliders. In other words, we need to get Palestinians and Israelis involved in solving technical support and interoperability problems. Once you get involved in solving these kinds of problems, you have no time for hating and killing. Your focus in life becomes relief and technical satisfaction and pride in the PC system that you finally got to work.

PAL-IS: The Palestinian Israeli Worldwide Technical Support Center

How would this be set up?

Let's find 500 talented Palestinian and Israeli youths between 18 and 25 years old. They will need education and training. First, they will need to learn English to have some hope of reading the user manuals. Secondly, they will need to learn the fundamentals of operating systems and programming. Third, they will need an organization and infrastructure (office building, a website, a call center manager, a customer relationship management system, a director, managers, etc.).

Funding? Easy. The Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation can come up with the funding, and the major PC hardware and software suppliers can also contribute.

Basically, everyone, all end users, all over the world will either call the PAL-IS (pronounced "palace") tech support hot line, or send email to support@pal-is.com.

The mission of the organization may be expressed simply: no matter what interoperability problem you have, PAL-IS is committed to fix it. Report your interoperability problems to PAL-IS and get a resolution in three days.

How will this stop the violence in the Middle East?

Just like the rest of us, the 500 Palestinian and Israeli youths will have to be at work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. They will be given a set of bug reports every morning. Each individual will begin with the first bug and attempt to replicate it to verify that it is a bug and not "pilot error". Once replicated and verified, the individual will work with the suppliers of the non-interoperable products on getting bugs acknowledged and patches produced. Each individual will have to log and track bugs and bug fixes. He will have to maintain a knowledge base. He will have to get back to the customer with the solution.

If you have ever spent four or more hours trying to figure out the cause of a technical problem, and someone of a different race or religion gives you the answer in a few minutes, your response is most likely to be thanks and gratitude. You will appreciate that person; you will owe him a favor. You will not think of hating or killing the person. You are too busy. You are on a quota to get interoperability problems solved as quickly as possible.

When you go home at night, you will have to do more studying and reading about new products, just to keep up with the technology.

There will be absolutely no time in your day or night to dwell on hate and violence.


The plan for the Palestinian-Israeli International Technical Support Center requires more refinement. It will be difficult to get it launched and off the ground. Many people and circumstances could derail it. But so what? Nothing else has worked for the last fifty years. We are currently spending $3.9 Billion per month to maintain troops in Iraq (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield quoted in The Wall Street Journal, 7/10/2003, p. A4). Imagine spending $3.9 billion on educating 500 youths! In just a few years, most of the world's interoperability problems could be solved, and we could all use our time more productively.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Online Dating Analysis

The Expectations of Participants in Online Dating

About one-third of the spam I receive asks me if I want to meet my soul mate. This always strikes me as odd because I already met him, and we are married.

I am not the target adience for the spam, yet I get it just the same. Some of it is for Yahoo Personals, so out of curiosity, I have checked it out.

On the "Yahoo Personals" form, I entered my zip code, and my "desired age range 45-60". Unbelievably, there were 1,000 hits. I scanned them. All the men that I checked out were looking for a woman with a "slim", trim, "fit" build. When it came to educational level, hobbies, religion, political preference, they put down "don't care".

Then I did the reverse look. I looked for women in my zip code with the same desired age range. Most of the women I checked out (about 70%) described themselves as "rubenesque", "full figure", "well endowed", a "lot of woman". There were a few that were "trim" and I saw "petite", and I surmise theses trim ladies are really popular and really busy dating.

So there you have it -- 1000 lonely men and 1000 lonely women. If only the men could let go of size there could be 2000 very happy people.


I read my blog entry to my husband, and he said, simply, "size matters".

Saturday, June 12, 2004

How Engineers Should Talk to Sales Reps

A Guide for Software Engineers who are Much Smarter Than Every One Else

If you are an engineer, you have probably had the experience of wanting to get more information or try out a product that you heard about or read about. You found that a sales person from the company bothered you with a lot of small talk, questions, and repeated telephone calls or emails. You deleted the emails and screened your phones calls so you would not have to be annoyed by the sales person.

Having had that experience one time, you have now devised methods of getting new product information and bypassing the sales person. You use a fake name, fake email, or fake telephone number. You slam down the phone if the sales person tracks you down or you yell at the person. You feel this is a pretty good system, but it is perhaps not perfect. Actually, sometimes they won't give you the information you want, like pricing or a trial version.

A Better Solution

There is a way that you can get information or try out the product you want and even get the sales person to work for you. You can do this without lying, faking addresses, and slamming down phones. In fact, it can be effortless and easy and you won't be pestered with repeated emails, phone calls, and more.

Getting Sales People to Give You What You Want and Leave You Alone

In order to implement your solution, you need to know a little about what is motivating the sales person.

Sales people are supposed to follow up on every inquiry from a prospective customer (you). They try to determine three things:

(1) Is the product going to work for your application?

(2) Do you have money or funding to buy it?

(3) When would you be buying the product?

They want to find out the answers to these things very quickly, so that they can properly allocate their own and their company's time and resources appropriately.

If you never want to hear from the sales person again, the best thing to do is focus on your answer to question (2). You should say: "I have no money, no budget, and no funding for this product. The vice president of my group/division has said that we will never buy a product like this."

About 95% of sales people will never contact you again. The other 5% will ask you a follow up question:

"Why is it that you inquired about the product if there is no hope in buying it?"

You should respond: "The purpose of my inquiry is that I want to learn about the product in case there is funding in the future."

With this approach, you are likely to get the information and/or free trial that you requested, and the sales person will not contact you again -- an extremely well organized sales person may contact you in six months or one year, but most will not.

What if there is a possibility that you will want to buy the product?

Since you are a software engineer and are obviously much smarter than a sales person, it is of course insulting when they ask you what your requirements are for the product. Obviously this is a demeaning experience for you and a waste of time. However, there are a number of situations where you might actually want to be honest and tell them your requirements. Here are those situations:

(a) Some sales people are former engineers who wanted to do something new and different after ten years of software design and coding. (I realize that is hard to believe, but you might feel that way one day.) These sales people will understand your requirements. They might actually have some good ideas and insight that would help you. These former engineers now in sales enjoy analyzing how their product can address your problem.

(b) Not all of the capabilities of the product will be contained in the product brochures or free trial. There may be a new product due out in a couple of weeks. Or there might be a partner company that has the product you need. Or the capability is available but not contained in the demo or brochure. Or, there is something like the thing you want but not exactly.

If you express your requirements to the sales person, you will have access to important, unpublished information and other resources. You may be referred to one of their engineers who can talk to you in more detailed technical terms. In most companies, it is the sales person who controls your access to the other information and technical engineers.

You will be able to ascertain very quickly the sales person's technical competence. If they neither understand your requirements nor put you in touch with a technical engineer who does, then you move on. You can say their product does not meet your requirements; they will not be able to judge if it does or does not.

How do I stop all these pestering calls and emails?

The sales person is trying to plan his/her allocation of time and resources based on the timeframe when you would be planning to buy. There are several reasons for this:

(a) the sales people for the company forecast new business, so the company can plan its resources more effectively to meet demand.

(b) the sales person has to judge the level of resources to invest in addressing your needs based on when the payoff may occur in the future.

(c) the sales person wants to make sure that you have a quotation with correct model numbers, descriptions, and prices that you can give to your manager or the purchasing department. Since prices and models can change month to month and quotations are normally only valid for 30 days, the sales person is trying to make sure you have what you need when you need it.

You are probably thinking that you will just hand the last price list you got to purchasing, and they will be able to figure it out. Since you are a software engineer and so much smarter than everyone else who went to business school and claims to have "business experience", it is likely that your manager and the purchasing agent would not be able to understand the configuration you require and the piece parts comprising it. Since your manager and your purchasing department are trying to handle a lot of different things for a lot of different people, it is easier for all concerned if the precise configuration is contained in one quotation document.
Otherwise, they are likely to issue a purchase order for the wrong item, because they misunderstood the price list or the product description, or it became obsolete. Then, products have to be returned, there are delays, restocking, change orders, and so on. This costs your company a lot of money as people are tied up repeating work they thought they finished.

So the best thing you can communicate to the sales person is about when -- what week -- you will be needing the updated quotation to take to purchasing. If you think it will be roughly six months before you get around to needing the product, then that is what you need to communicate. The sales person will then check in with you in about six months. You will not receive annoying emails and phone calls in the interim.

What happens when the six months is up? The sales person will contact you. If you are ready to purchase, the sales person will update the quotation. If you are not ready to purchase, then revise your time estimate for when you think you might be ready. If the situtation is uncertain, tell the sales person in just one sentence what has changed about the situation. Perhaps your project was delayed two months, maybe it was cancelled, maybe it was transferred overseas, or maybe top managment is deliberating about it now and you hope to know something in two, four, or six weeks. You will not get annoying calls and emails when you are not ready if you communicate when you think you will be ready.

What If I Decide to Buy Another Product?

It is really uncomfortable if you have to tell a sales person that you bought another product and you probably want to avoid that whatever it takes. Afterall, the person could feel rejected and get emotional, and you don't want any part of that. Emotions are for the theatre arts and liberal arts graduates, not you, an engineer. As an engineer, you made a decision based on facts and analysis, so there is not really anything personal or emotional about your decision. You do need to communicate that decision for several reasons.

In order to improve product quality and features, suppliers need to understand what was missing or unacceptable about their product. Without your feedback, they have no guidelines or ideas for how to improve the product. Even though you selected another product, there's always a chance that the product you selected will not perform well, or the company will provide inadequate technical support, etc. So, it is in your best interests to keep your options open.

All you have to do is tell the sales person a few things that you liked about the product, and then relate what is lacking in the product or what you preferred about the product you selected. You can use email to avoid the emotional component of the communication.

So now you have a set of guidelines for communicating and working with sales people. You will get the product information and the opportunity to try out a product. By explaining your requirements, you will get access to more detailed help, information, and technical engineering resources in the company. By communicating your revised plans and schedules, you will control when and how you are contacted. You might find that you actually enjoy working with some sales people, since many are former engineers themselves. It may surprise you to consider that there are some really smart people, as smart as you, that are not engineers. Most engineers would not say they were smarter than Einstein. Even Albert Einstein was an office clerk and that is quite a bit lower than a sales person.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

In Defense of PowerPoint

"Absolute PowerPoint: can a software package edit our thoughts?" by Ian Parker appeared in the May 28, 2001 issue of the New Yorker magazine. This essay was a strong critique of PowerPoint, Microsoft's presentation graphics program. (PowerPoint is commonly used by business, government and education as a visual aid in public speaking.)

I believe Ian Parker wrote a very good, insightful essay that is well worth reading. I also believe that he never lived in the business world BP -- Before PowerPoint. Business life AP -- After PowerPoint -- is a better world. This essay will tell you why.

When I started my career, PowerPoint did not exist (nor the web). Our challenge: persuade executives to purchase high priced capital equipment. We needed a presentation. Corporate marketing at our headquarters created presentations on 35mm slides that we placed in a carosel projector. In our field offices, we referred to these presentations as "the corporate story". The corporate story included a picture of the headquarters building, some graphs showing our financial performance and that sort of thing. These presentations were professionally done, but not terribly relevant to our customers. They wanted to know more about what our product could do for them. Plus, to see the slides, you had to turn out the lights, and there's nothing like darkness to make your audience sleepy.

These presentations were not exactly what we needed. As a result, most of my colleagues created their own presentations. They winged it. They "ad libbed". They spoke without preparation, thought, consciousness or concern for the listener. Many were in love with the sound of their own voice. Many in sales have the gift of gab without the gift of great public speaking skills.

Since I was new to all this, I would listen in the back of the room and take notes. Rarely was there a beginning, middle, and end to the presentation. Instead, I heard a stream of consciousness blathering passing itself off as a coherent speech. Sometimes the speaker went on for an hour. When it was over, I would try to figure out if there was one key point I could take away from the presentation. Usually I could not.

Over the last few years, the prevalence and dominance of PowerPoint has been highly criticized. The criticisms levelled at PowerPoint are many:

(1) PowerPoint constrains the imagination of the speaker.

(2) Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech would have suffered with PowerPoint.

(3) PowerPoint templates replace critical thinking by the speaker.

(4) PowerPoint reduces self-expression to "bullet points".

Let's examine these criticisms.

(1) PowerPoint constrains the imagination of the speaker.

Constraining the speaker's imagination is normally "a good thing"; unfortunately, very few people have any imagination. Often they mistake "imagination" for "unlimited time to pontificate about nothing." In the BP (Before PowerPoint) world, most speakers did not put any imagination into their presentations. Possibly because they did not have any or they were too lazy. At any rate, BP, presentations were not only unimaginative, they were also incoherent! Given the choice between listening to an unimaginative, incoherent presentation or an unimaginative, coherent presentation, most of us would choose something coherent.

(2) Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech would have suffered with PowerPoint.

Absolutely true. Dr. Martin Luther King painted an inspired picture of the kind of world we should all live in. He had a vision and he communicated it beautifully. Dr. King was a gifted and inspired public speaker--possibly the best speaker of his time. I think we would all agree that the ten people in the world who can create a speech like the "I Have a Dream" speech do not have to use PowerPoint, if they choose not to.

(3) PowerPoint templates replace critical thinking by the speaker.

Not true. Most speakers do not engage in critical thinking. They are either not capable, or they were never trained, or they just don't want to bother. In these cases the Powerpoint templates provide some structure and suggestions to help the speaker organize his thoughts.

(4) PowerPoint reduces self-expression to "bullet points".

PowerPoint supports "bullet point" communication, but it is not required. It is possible to use PowerPoint completely with pictures, drawings, art and no words and no bullet points. You can even add music and special effects. The default way to use PowerPoint is to create a presentation with mostly "bullets" and this may be the fairest criticism of PowerPoint. If there were a way to help the speaker prepare his presentation by thinking in pictures or diagrams instead of words, PowerPoint could be a much stronger product, and we would have even better speakers with better presentations. This point is very well made by Seth Godin in his ebook "Really Bad PowerPoint". Mr. Godin explains how, where, and why pictures are far superior to bullet points in public speaking.

In our new era of globalization, we find ourselves communicating with people who do not speak our native language very well. We have all experienced the presenter with a heavy accent or inability to articulate key words such that we cannot understand the communication. In this case, PowerPoint bullets have saved the day many times. Most speakers who must present in something other than their native language can read and write the second language better than speaking it. With bullets in the second language, we have a better chance of understanding the speaker.

The world AP (After PowerPoint) is a far superior world. The mere existence of PowerPoint means that most speakers are forced to prepare. There is social and cultural pressure to have your laptop ready to plug into the projection unit. Even if all that PowerPoint accomplished was forcing speaker preparation, we should salute it for that. But PowerPoint has done more than that -- most presentations have a beginning, middle, and end. They have a point. Some actually have a premise, an assertion, evidence, and logical conclusions. This is a tremendous accomplishment and a significant step forward in rhetoric and oratory.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

When People from Los Angeles Marry People from Minneapolis

When people from Los Angeles get married to people from Minneapolis, they have three major areas of conflict. These are: (1) cars, (2) vegetables, and (3) windows. It is possible to work out these conflicts; it is helpful if you are prepared for them.

(1) Cars.

People from Minneapolis drive cars for transportation. The most important buying criterion for a car is its ability to start at -40 degrees Farenheit. If the car cannot start at that temperature, that means you need to purchase an oil dipstick heater. These cost about $15 and have an element that is about 20 inches long. You plug them into a standard electrical outlet. This keeps the oil heated in your car, so that the car will start at minus 40. The trouble is that you must park your car near an electrical outlet. The second most important buying criterion for a car is either front wheel drive or all wheel drive. This means that you will be able to get up hills that are snowy or icey in the winter. You definitely do not want rear wheel drive. The third most important criterion is rust. You want to look the car over very carefully for rust. If it is a new car, most likely there will be no rust. With a used car, you have to be very careful. In Minnesota, once a car has rust, the car's body is ready to rot away, and you need to get rid of it. That's about it -- ability to start at minus forty degrees Farenheit without assistance from a dipstick heater, front wheel drive, and no rust.

People from Los Angeles have never given any consideration to these three important criteria. People from Los Angeles think of cars like clothes. Cars are an expression of your personality and mood. You make a statement with your car -- not with your opinions, your writing, or your behavior. In Los Angeles, it is always important to look good, so you would never drive an old car, because thatmeans you are old and don't look good. You also keep your car washed
and waxed and take great pride in this activity. After all, you would not go out in public with dirty clothes, so you cannot drive a dirty car. It is also very important to keep the front and rear windshield meticulously clean, so that you have good visibility on the freeway.

No one in Minneapolis makes any serious attempt to keep a car clean in the winter. Chances are after you got out of the car wash, the water would freeze in the locks and then you might have trouble opening the doors. Visibility does not matter that much -- you pretty much hope that the other drivers are not driving white or gray cars, and you can always make out the image of a colored car even if your windshield is covered with slush.

To provide an example of car substituting for personality, in Los Angeles, if you want to convey the image that you are a fun, sports-loving guy ready for adventure, you buy a Jeep. You might also join a Road Ralley club, and you might get custom features for your Jeep. You can probably get special wheel covers, special upholstery, and that sort of thing. There is a huge business in Los Angeles for after-market customization of vehicles. It is pretty common for the average person to spend more on their car each year than they have in their savings accounts.

Obviously when the spouse from Minneapolis and the spouse from Los Angeles go shopping for a car the first time, there will be a lot of surprises.

(2) Vegetables

People from Minneapolis cannot get fresh vegetables year round, so they do not bother to try. Instead, they buy frozen vegetables and keep them in their freezers. If fresh vegetables are available, they will buy a lot of them and keep them in the refrigerator, making sure they have some ever night so that the vegetables are consumed before they go bad. Sometimes it is not possible to get out and get groceries in Minneapolis, because there's a snow storm and the roads are not clear. More often, the roads are clear, but it is just so cold out, it is not worth the hassle of grocery shopping. So, people from Minneapolis go shopping for groceries as infrequently as possible. They are big investors in Tupperware -- anything to keep those vegetables as fresh as long as possible.

People from Los Angeles are used to fresh fruit and vegetables year round. They go to the grocery store every day and buy the fresh food. They never buy frozen fruit and vegetables or even canned fruit and vegetables. Every day, some where in Los Angeles, there's a farmer's market, so the Angelinos even have the option of buying direct from the farmer. When they take their purchases home, the Angelinos put all the vegetables out on the counter. They would never put them in the refrigerator. They figure the vegetables will be eaten within 24 hours, so what is the difference. It is not unusual to walk into a Los Angeles home and see broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce sitting out on the counter. No one forgot to put the vegetables away; the vegetables are just waiting to be made into the evening's dinner. If the spouse from Minnesota enters the house and starts putting the vegetables in the refrigerator, the spouse from Los Angeles will go out and buy more. The spouse from Los Angeles would never think to look in the refrigerator, because that is only for milk and meats and other products that need to stay cold.

Obviously the spouse from Los Angeles and the spouse from Minneapolis will have quite a time grocery shopping.

(3) Windows

The spouse from Los Angeles will walk around the house opening all the windows. The spouse from Minneapolis will walk around thehouse closing all the windows. Each will tell the other that they are worried about high utility bills. They will agree that they do not want their utility bills to be unduly high. They will engage in opposite behaviors to keep the bills down. Neither will understand why the other is doing what he/she is doing.