Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Life Goal Comes True

I got an email about three weeks ago from a very exciting "@" address, an organization that I love and admire and could only dream of getting to know personally.

But it sounded fishy.

The email had a link, plus instructions to go to said link and enter a password that was provided in the email. So far, the setup mirrored a phishing scam. Who includes a password in an email? Plus, the time stamp on the email said it was delivered to my work address around 10:30 p.m.

On the other hand, I really wanted to believe it was true because of the signature line from the sender.

I wrote back: "Forgive me, but would you mind giving me a ring this morning? ... A late-night email telling me to log into a URL with the password included in the email just doesn’t leave me feeling confident that this request is legit. I’m also curious how you got my name."

The next morning, the phone rang. I could see from the caller ID that it was the person I had been hoping it would be. He said the reason the email he sent arrived so late was it got stuck in his outbox and didn't move until he got home last night and connected his phone to Wi-Fi network. He had read some of my articles about organization and productivity, and that's how he discovered my work.

We talked. He convinced me it was all real.

I finally logged into the URL from the first email, and here's what I saw:



Jaw dropping. Reading those words was a dream come true. It's no exaggeration to say that being invited to a TED conference has quite literally been a lifelong and extremely far-fetched dream.

The Get Organized articles referenced in the invitation are an ongoing weekly series that I write for PCMag.com, where I work full time. Writing that column is one of my joys and passions in life, and I owe its existence to my editor, the director of online content, and the editor-in-chief, three people who have believed in me and my ideas in a way that has nurtured them and put confidence in me. 


The column is about keeping technology organized (think: how to organize email folders), as well as leading a more organized life with the help of technology (think: to-do apps). I truly can't express how positive I feel to hear that someone from an organization as prestigious as TED has recognized them.

The Talk
By the time this blog post appears live, I'll have finished giving my talk to a small group of people at TED headquarters in New York, at TED @250, a new and smaller conference series that TED now runs. A video of the talk may be online at a later date, and I'll link it here if and when it appears.

My talk is about email management, a topic which I've covered extensively, from how to avoid email overload to specific tips for managing email.

If the talk resonates well enough with the audience and TED coordinators (here's the dangling carrot), the video of it could be posted on TED.com. Needless to say, I'm both thrilled and nervous.

Mentorship and Teamwork
Being invited has led me to value anew the amazing working relationship I have with my colleagues. I literally would never have been giving this opportunity without them.

Across my career, I've had too many moments when I knew I was technically succeeding, and yet I didn't click with the management team or other colleagues in a way that brought out my full potential. To work now with people who not only see what I can do, but also coach it and significantly contribute to it is simply remarkable.

I wish I could share how or why these relationships have been so successful and collaborative, how it happened, how the mentorship and sense of teamwork came to be, but I don't know. (Wouldn't that make for a great article, though?) A lot of lucky stars just fell into alignment, and I am pretty overwhelmed at the whole experience.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

3 Apps Added to My iPhone: Runtastic, Untappd, EasilyDo

The app Runtastic tracks not only runs, but also bicycle rides, 
walks, and other activities. Here, you can see a bicycle ride from 
Queens, NY, to Manhattan, with mile markers shown along the route.
Seeing as I test and review apps as part of my job, people love to ask what I have on my phone. Here are a few I've recently added:

Don't be fooled by the name of this first one: Runtastic. Yes, it's an app for tracking runs, but it also works for logging bicycle rides, walks, hikes, and even inline skating (if you're into that, which I hear people are these days). In fact, most runners' apps have these capabilities. In other words, you don't need to buy or download an app that's specific to cycling or walking. These apps almost always have an option for you to pick your sport or leisure activity of choice. A couple of times, I used Runtastic just to map in real time a long dog walk and see how far is it and how much does my little pooch actually slow me down. If you wear headphones and listen to music while using Runtastic, the app can hook into your song collection so that you can set a "power song," or an up tempo song to play immediately if you feel like you're slumping. The app will also announce (if you turn on this setting) each mile as you complete it, like this: "Distance: one mile. Time: 15 minutes, 30 seconds." Full review coming soon.

Untappd is an app where you track beers that you drink and connect with friends or other beer community members to see what they're drinking and whether they like it. This app is a tough one to discuss because while it's clearly one of the best beer apps available due to its strong community, the app itself needs a lot of work. Features you'd expect to be included aren't (there are so many I'm not going to start recounting them here), and the design of some backend processes seems poor to the point that it slows down the app from functioning smoothly. The search function deserves some development love as well. But again, it is one of the best beer apps you'll find regardless. Full review of Untappd coming soon as well.

Often, after I review an app for work, I delete it. But since publishing a review of EasilyDo about a week ago, I still haven't wiped this productivity app from my phone. EasilyDo is something like a "smart assistant," at least that's how the CEO of the company that makes the app described it to me. I think of it more like an app that automates simple tasks; for example, if I get an email from a new person, EasilyDo offers to add that person to my Contacts. If EasilyDo spots an upcoming birthday of a friend on Facebook, the app offers to post a "happy birthday" message on my behalf. When I got this app, I expected I would use it all the time, but that's not how it has played out. Instead, I find myself checking in on the app every few days (rather than several times per day) to see if there's anything EasilyDo can automate that I forgot to do.

[Note: If you're interested in more sneak peeks of apps I am testing, post a note in the comments and I'll make this  post a regularly weekly thing.]

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Taking Recommendations for St. Louis, Kansas City (MO), Memphis, New Orleans

In May, 2011, I drove this Ford Focus from Detroit to Pittsburgh,
over to Boston, and down to New York as part of a business trip to collect data.
In May, I'm going to drive to and through St. Louis, Kansas City (MO), Memphis, and New Orleans. It's part of an annual work trip, and without boring you with details, my role is to drive to all these cities and throughout the day make 11 stops.

All the stop must be at least one mile apart. I have to be stopped for a minimum of 15 minutes. At some of the stops, I can get out of the car, walk around, have a bite to eat, but for efficiency reasons, I can't do that at all the stops. Some stops hold nothing more than 15 minutes of sitting in the car and tweeting (while I run a data collection test on some phones, which requires very little of my attention).

While this will be the third year I take this work trip, each year the cities where I've been assigned have changed. Last year I had Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Miami. In 2011, I went to Detroit, Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York.

My favorite cities for this particular project were those in which I had a wide range of places to stop, like parks, waterfront areas, coffee shops, restaurants for lunch (with nearby parking), museums, major sites (stadiums, historic buildings), so that my day was filled with variety. Otherwise the trip gets boring fast.

So I'm taking your suggestions for where to go in St. Louis, Kansas City (MO), Memphis, and New Orleans. You can add your suggestions in the comments (and note that all comments go through an approval queue, so don't freak out if it doesn't appear immediately).

Monday, April 8, 2013

Failures and Successes

Fail fast.

Eighty percent of the "profits" (i.e., positive outcome) comes from just 20 percent of the work.

To have a great idea, you need to have 99 bad ideas.

I've been thinking about successes and failures. I like to think I'm pretty open about championing my own successes and moving on quickly from failures. Most of my "fails" aren't shrouded in shame, though, and I wanted to share some of them alongside some notes on why they were productive failures.

Women in Wikipedia. I had a vision to run a regular meet-up called Women in Wikipedia that would be a gathering of women in the New York area who would hang out and teach each other how to edit Wikipedia. The idea grew out of the statistic that the overwhelming majority of editors and writers of Wikipedia are men. I wanted to change that by encouraging a collaborative environment that brought together non-technical types who have a lot of knowledge to share about particular subject matters with technical people who could assist with the horrific pseudo-coding that's required to properly edit a Wikipedia article.

Although a lot of people expressed interest, getting them all together and organizing a fruitful event just didn't happen. The day of the first meet-up, I ended up just having a Skype call with one friend who humored by letting me talk her through setting up a Wikipedia profile page. For a one-on-one meet-up, I didn't have the material to move at a faster pace, as I had planned for a larger group that I knew would get caught up in discussion and asking questions--which is what I wanted.

I might return to this idea some day, but for now, it's in my failure drawer. To have one great idea, you have to have 99 bad ideas, and this was a poorly thought-out bad idea. In the future, I may try it again but as a different idea: different scope, different tone, different logistics. Now I just have to think of 96 other ways to change it up.

Fellowship to Germany. In September, I was invited to apply to a fellowship to Germany. I would be categorized as a journalist for the purpose of the fellowship. Ideally, they wanted someone with a master's degree, which I don't have, but the committee seemed to think I had enough work experience to make up for the lack of an MA.

I applied. I had to ask two of my bosses for letters of recommendation, which meant telling them, "I love working here, but I want to leave for a year and live and work in Germany," which to most people sounds like an admission of a lack of commitment to the company.

The interview process would evaluate whether any of the candidates had any German language skills. So I taught myself some German. It wasn't much, but the majority of candidates come in with zero German. I thought I could give myself a bump by knowing at least a few sentences of small talk.

Weeks of thought and focus went into my personal statement and application. And then one day in December, I got an email thanking me for my application and letting me know I was not selected for an interview.

Eighty percent of the profits come from 20 percent of the work. My application to the fellowship turned out to be part of that 80 percent of the work that yielded little to no profit. However, the act of applying forced me to reevaluate what it is I really want to do with my career, both in the short term and long term, as that was the emphasis of my personal statement. Plus, when I went to Berlin, I could order beer and coffee by myself.

The MA. Speaking of not having an MA... Fresh out of undergrad, I applied to four graduate programs and got into none of them. A few years later, I applied to San Francisco State University and was accepted. I went part time at night so I could keep my full-time job (which paid for 100 percent of the schooling). I got through all the coursework toward a master's degree in composition, focusing on matters of how technology influences people's ability to write, and only had to take the two required classes that are basically just weekly meetings for students as they research and write a thesis. The year I was to complete the program, I got the opportunity to move abroad. And I took it. In other words, I walked away from the nearly completed degree.

The motto "fail fast" means it's best to recognize a failure when you have one and not dwell on the time, money, energy, or other investments you've put into it to date. Acknowledge the sunk cost, and move on. Sure, there are times when you should stick it out, but in reality, those times happen to be extremely rare.

I wouldn't consider my leaving San Francisco State University a "failure" exactly, but to do it, I did need to simply walk away, despite all the investment I had put into it. Something better came up that was worth seizing. I do have the ability to reapply to the university and pick up where I left off, but it's very unlikely to happen any time soon.

Successes
I'm not hung up on any of these failures. They weren't fun, but I put them behind me quickly to focus my time and energy on more important things that were succeeding or ripe to succeed with a little coaxing. In fact, I'll have a very big success to share soon!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Kitchen Remodel

Before. We looked for an apartment. We found an apartment. We were excited to buy the apartment. But the kitchen needed work.


It was also very... orange. Terracotta walls and peach tile. 



The kitchen was cute, but narrow, and not very functional. The oven was old and broken, but the range top worked. 


And there was a built-in microwave that definitely had to go. 


After a lot of thinking, we decided to just gut it all and start over as much as possible, within some limits so that we wouldn't have to get permits to move any plumbing, gas lines, or walls. 

Meanwhile, we had already bought a new oven to replace the broken one, but it didn't fit through the kitchen doorway, so the new oven sat in the dining room, connected to nothing, from May until October. And the more we looked, the more problems we uncovered, in addition to the too-small entryway. The tiles and floor had been installed around the existing kitchen. In other words, someone built a new floor around the oven, cabinets, and everything. This meant the oven was sitting in a four-inch hole. The ceiling was oddly dropped. Then the refrigerator clunked out and died. The summer of 2012 was full of pretty annoying surprises.

During. Eventually, we found a contractor, talked to him about options, and figured out what we wanted. He drew up some plans. 
We had to make a lot of decisions, often about things we didn't care about at all. It took months. We used Pinterest to make boards of pictures of kitchens we liked, which helped with the decision-making. Any time we didn't know what we wanted, like for the counter top material, we'd look through photos and see, well, what kind of counter tops were in the photos we liked? We looked for patterns. I wrote about some of that process and other ways to use technology for a remodel at work.


Then, the workers gutted.


They ripped out the window box frames. They tore down the sheet rock. They pulled everything bare.


They dug out the old floor and built a new one.


And for two and a half weeks, our dining room looked something like this:


After. Expensive, time-consuming, and full of challenges, but worth it in the end. We had very tall (48-inch) hickory cabinets custom made to fit our space. 

The countertops are Corian in glacier white, and the backsplash is Carrera marble cut into subway tiles, which we found online at a steep discount.


The oven is a 30-inch NXR double-gas-ring range with convection oven.


And next to the new refrigerator is a deep pantry for all our dry food, cans, and spices.


It took a while to paint, but we ended up adding an accent of light blue on the two small walls. We still need window coverings, but that will happen in time. For the lights, we went with three pendulums so that we could keep the ceiling at maximum height and thus make the whole kitchen seem bigger. You might notice, too, that in the "after" photos, the windows are bigger. That's because the previous window sills had been built in around the window frames themselves making the windows smaller and inoperable. The new window boxes fixed that problem.


The floor tile we found just two miles away at a tile shop in Queens for about $3 a square foot.