Communication at its Finest

My place of work, at the behest of their insurer, has implemented a new requirement of their employees: everyone must authorize release of their Motor Vehicle Reports. There’s more, but this is the only thing that requires direct employee action.
The body of the email message communicating this new policy to our 1000+ US employees was composed of the following text:
>*Please find attached three separate files that present and explain in detail, our new Motor Vehicle Policy.*
>*At your earliest convenience, please review all of the information and take the necessary actions as requested in the memorandum and as described in the policy.*
That’s 44 words for the content. There were another 113 of non-content (contact information of the sender and a legal disclaimer) and three attachments that have to be viewed in external applications.
It isn’t until one opens the strikingly-named *mvr2006policymemo.doc* attachment and reads through 290 words – about 2/3 down the first page of a two page memo – that one is told of the requirement to authorize release of driving records.
Not until 360 words pass does the reader discover that the authorization form must be completed, signed, and submitted in 9 business days.
Without a clear action and deadline in the actual body of the email, several people in our office deleted the message without reading the attachments. It’s only now that word is spreading: *Hey, you actually have to **do** something about this message.*
How difficult would it have been to insert this between the two sentences of the original message?
>*All employees are asked, as part of this new policy, to authorize release of their Motor Vehicle Reports for insurance purposes. We request that all employees complete and return the attached release form by MM/DD/YYYY.*
What do I have to do? When do I have to do it?
This shouldn’t be quite so obstuse. Why did I have to open an attachment in another program and ready several hundred words just to find out I have to fill out a form and return it to HR?
Corporate communication at its finest.

Productivity Tip: Throw everything on your desk in a box

From the good guys at 37signals:
>Toss everything, and I mean *everything* on your desk in a box. If it doesn’t fit in a box, put it on the floor. Your desk should be completely cleared of everything — no monitor, keyboard, mouse, pencil, paper, stickies, gum, etc.
>Next, get to work. Only remove something from the box (or the floor) when you *absolutely need it*. Not before. No anticipation. If you don’t need a pen now, don’t get the pen. Only place it on your desk when you need it.
>Throw out the remaining items in the box in 30 days or sell the contents on Craigslist. (Edit: or give it away on Freecycle)
>Disclaimer: Before you toss it, you may want to go through it and make sure you pull out the picture of the family and the legal documents, but toss everything else.
When we decided to move this spring, we started by “de-cluttering” our house (at the recommendation of our selling agent). Loads of things to criagslist, freecycle, goodwill, a 10×10 storage space, or just the dump. Made our home look much better, and certainly contributed to the quick sale.
Not to mention it made the eventual move *so* much easier.

An old theme

I’m an IT professional – I’ve spent well over half my life making computers work for people. While my platform of choice is Mac OS X, I still know much more than the average bear about making Windows XP go where I want it to go. The Dell laptop that my workplace supplies is kept well-patched, lives behind the corporate firewall, has several company-supported GPOs, and runs up-to-date anti-virus software (Trend Micro).
So when I lose a workday and a half clearing my computer of a worm, I become intensely frustrated. The worm, TOMBAI, came courtesy of autoplay. It was undetected by Trend (and failed, in later tests, to identify files recognized by other scanners). It reduced the security settings for IE (which I have to use for several corporate IT services such as SharePoint), such that I found out about my infection via the secondary infections that Trend did detect.
Today, finally, I’m certain it’s clean.
The frustrating part is that, with the knowledge, resources, and support structure I have at my disposal, I lost almost 2 days.
How can the “average” user – running Windows, behind on patches, relying on the spare time of the neighbor’s kid, and likely unwilling to shell out for good security software – even hope to survive?
Why does the consumer tolerate this? In my heart, I know – it’s a combination of low Cost of Entry and undervaluation of personal time. People look more at what it costs to get into a system rather than the total cost (TCO), and they usually undervalue their own time. So they buy systems that are cheap, not factoring in what it’s going to cost to make it run – and keep it running – or the lost value in not really being able to do what you set out to do.
But knowing that intellectually doesn’t really help when you’re so frustrated you want to drop-kick the bloody thing and walk down the street to Microsoft with a fistful of invective. I just don’t understand.

Lowest Common Denominator

There’s been a lot of talk in the blogs (I really dislike blogosphere) that “small is the new big“. 37signals loves it, of course. Scoble talks about it in Microsoft land.
Brought it up with my CIO this morning, and he even brought up the “old” concept of Extreme Programming. However, we came to a very quick agreement on why – if they’re so great – you don’t see these models implemented more: the prerequisite.
You have to start with a group of functional, motivated, communicating people who have very little ego in regards to a shared project. This includes the management, and the money – not just the core project team. The moment you throw in someone who is entrenched in his work flow, who is dogmatic about a given implementation or technology, who is in “coasting” mode, or who clams up every time something might possibly be construed as criticism (even constructive), then these hi-efficiency models grind themselves to pieces.
It’s like a hi-performance engine. To get those levels of performance, everything has to be tuned just so.
If you don’t meet those prerequisites, then it’s back to the more structured models – because the structure can help route around the damage of the low-performance parts.
Either that, or you swap out parts. But that’s another issue entirely.

Get out of my way

Several years ago, I came across an open-response question:
>”If you could have only one superpower, what would it be?”
A lot of respondents wanted to fly, or be immortal, or see the future – but one person came up with a superpower that I keep going back to time and time again:
>The power to make people get out of my way.
Line at the grocery? On hold? Crowded room? Traffic? Obstructionist bureaucrat? Get out of my way. The joy in the idea only underlined how much time we all spend with someone in our way – often for no good reason. Jenni and I still turn to each on regular occasion and chant, “I want the power to make people get out of my way.”
During a content-poor seminar this morning, I was pruning and cleaning the documents on my Windows laptop. And was marvelling at all the little ways that Windows kept getting in my way. Mix of mouse and keyboard to do simple tasks. Lack of visual cues. Terribly inconsistent interface. Obscured menu language. It got even worse when I decided to take some time to explore OneNote – which is supposed to be Microsoft’s let-you-do-things-quick freeform note-taking app.
The damn thing kept getting in my way until I shut it up and went back to my good old text editor. Maybe OneNote does neat stuff – but I couldn’t get the damn thing out of my way long enough to find out.
And I realized that I wanted my old favorite superpower, but applied to technology. That all the technologies and solutions and applications that I enjoyed using were the ones that – as much as possible – either stayed out of your way or got other things out of your way.
I’ve spent a lot of my career in technology saying that what I enjoy doing is providing cool solutions and elegant tools. But what is a “cool” solution or an “elegant” tool? I couldn’t find a succinct way of saying it. I have that now.
Tools that get out of your way.

What am I worth?

What do I charge for my time?

It’s a fairly normal question for people who have been sararimen all their professional careers and are looking to do some freelance work. Searching for comparable rates rarely helps – web and IT geeks (my line) rarely advertise their hourly rates, same with editors (my wife’s line of work). So how do you figure out what to charge a client?

This is my take on it. It assumes you want to earn the financial equivalent of someone who has a full-time job; someone who works 40 hours a week (not 50, 60, or 70), gets benefits, sick time, training, vacation, and paid holidays. Sound good? Climb on board.

So, first off, decide your salary. That’s why you decided to freelance, right? Let’s say $60,000/yr – it’s a nice, comfortable number. First thing we’re going to do is take half of that, and add it back in. Why? A workplace provides you with all kinds of benefits: workspace, office supplies, office furniture, phone line, computer, printer, fax, paper, pens, electricity, bandwidth, email, coffee, trash service, tech support, purchasing office, training, voice mail, software, insurance, employee discounts, sick leave… just to name a few. I work in Higher Ed, so I also get many spiffy discounts, and access to lots of university stuff. Work for, say, a basket-making company? Bet you get a discount on baskets. It all adds up. But you, you lucky devil, you’re self-employed, you have to supply all these things yourself. So long as you’re putting yourself in the under-$100K range, let’s say that all those things are worth – collectively – about half your salary. So multiply your salary by 1.5. That gives us $90,000. Write that down – that’s how much it costs, per year, to keep you around.

Now, how much do you want to work? Really now. For the sake of argument, let’s use the old standard of 8 hours a day of real, live, billable hours, 5 days a week. Do you want holidays? All said, there’s about 12 valid non-religious (well, save for Christmas) holidays. Vacation? Let’s not be greedy, and take 2 weeks – 10 business days – of paid vacation a year. We already budgeted for sick days in the previous step.

Now let’s do the math. 52 weeks in a year. You work 5 days a week, that’s 260 days a year. But you don’t work on those 12 paid holidays, and you don’t work on those 10 vacation days. That leaves us with 238 working days each year. We liked 8 hour days, right? 238 days at 8 hours a day… that’s 1,904 working hours every single year. That’s our magic number: 1904.

Go back up 2 paragraphs. How much money a year did we need to keep us in beer and cheese-whiz? $90,000 for the equivalent of a $60,000 annual salary. And we decided we wanted to work 1,904 hours a year. Divide the first by the second: 90000/1904=47.27 (rounded).

There you go. If you want to live the life of someone who earns $60,000 year at a 9-to-5 office job with benefits, holidays, and paid vacation, you need to charge $47.27/hr for your time. Or, to make a nice geek equation of it:

(salary * 1.5) / (((52*daysinweek)-(holidays+vacationdays)) * hoursperday)

Don’t have a calculator handy? Fill in the numbers, then cut-and-paste into a Google query. They’ll do the math for you.

Now, I admit, the biggest leap of faith is the first one – that all your benefits add up to half of your gross paycheck. I’ve spent over a decade in workplaces where, to make you feel good about your (often small) salary, they give you a “benefits analysis” each year to tell you what your bennies add up to. And each year, it’s been close to 1/3 of my salary. Add in all the costs of putting you in an office and keeping you equipped with Post-Its and red Swingline staplers… that stuff adds up pretty quick. So, for a ballpark figure, I’ll stick by my 1.5 for sub-$100K jobs until someone gives me a detailed proof otherwise (and you’re welcome to do so).

So, now you know how much you should charge for your time. Or, if you’re a salary-earner, how much your time is really worth. It’s a powerful number, and can change your perspective on things.

Here’s an example: Let’s say I did the above exercise, and my time is worth about $40/hr. I have a house with a yard. It takes me about an hour to tend to the yard, each week, with a basic mowing and trimming. A kid in the neighborhood offers to do the job for $15. Now, if I like tending to my yard, it’s not even a question. But if I don’t – if I consider it an odious task – then having someone save an hour of my time (which costs $40) for $15 is a bargain. See?

Before you all rush off and start applying this to everything in your life besides your freelancing hourly rate, I want to make two last points:

  • One – time spent on something you enjoy is priceless. If I like taking care of my yard, then I don’t care if the neighborhood kid offers to do it for free. I like doing it, and that makes it intensely valuable.
  • Two – Money has no intrinsic value. Yeah, this is something for a later posting. But the short version reads something like this: money by itself is worth nothing. It is a medium of translation. We used to barter directly – item for item, service for service. Now we use money as a representation of value – a middleman in the bartering process. So don’t fall into the “time is money” trap. Money is nothing. Time is what has the value, money is just a way to represent that value.

There. You’re armed now. Set your rates.

Tom’s TIB

Okay kids, go read this. You’re going to have to have a PDF reader of some flavor to actually get into the goodness but, trust me, it’s worth it. While it has a lot of your typical “what color is my parachute” and “who moved my cheese” stuff in it, there is also an overwhelming amount of the very-uncommon “common sense” that is missing in too many minds these days. Such as:

Management Rule/Role No. 1: GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY.

“Manager” = Hurdle Removal Professional.

“Thank you” trumps all!

Fun…is not a…Four-Letter Word (so, too, Joy).

Just go grab it. There’s at least one thing in there you need.

Doing the Obvious

One of my ongoing projects at work has been allowing the HTML-impaired to update web content. I’ve already shimmed one MovableType “blog” into a quarterly newsletter where the Table of Contents for a given issue is the Monthly Archive Index, the individual stories are the Individual Entry Archive pages (ordered by manually adjusting the authored-on date), and the Main Index is just an HTML redirect to the most recent Monthly Archive Index.

Right now, I’m getting ready to allow our Public Information guy to post news releases and stories – both internal and external – to our home page. The challenge has been the mixing of internal and external content. On the home page, we simply want a list of titles – and selecting the title should take you to the apropo content. That’s fine for internal content, we just enter the story into MT and it generates the pages – it’s easy for MT to generate that list. But what about external content – where we want the title selection to take the user to some external site? MovableType most always just wants to link to its own stories. Thanks to a pointer from Caius, I found Brad Choate’s plugin for MovableType: IfEmpty. Simple, really – IfEmpty allows you, within an MT template, to test if a field is (or is not) empty, and tailor the output based on that. That was the piece I needed.

So now, when an entry is simply a link to outside content, my content person leaves the EntryBody blank and puts the URL in the Extended portion of the entry. The code knows that, if the body is blank but the extended portion isn’t, it should use that extended portion as the link URL when generating a list of entries. Voila.

I’m pleased. It’s simple and reasonably elegant, the user doesn’t have to jump through hoops. If you don’t spend time geeking on thing like MT, then you’re probably saying “What’s the big deal?”. Exactly. It shouldn’t be a big deal – and I’m pleased that it’s been solved in a way that isn’t a big deal.