Remote Employees, Your Canary in the Coal Mine?

canary in the coal mine

I know it’s a bit of a sensationalist title but I hope by the end of this post you’ll at least understand why I chose it. This post is primarily aimed at small to medium sized enterprise companies although I think that any company that uses remote employees (and if you don’t, you really should look into it).

Companies succeed or fail based on their internal processes, procedures, knowledge management, and workflows. Basically what I call their business infrastructure. (Okay, technically they succeed or fail based on sales and profit but give me this little bit of conceit.) So the question then becomes, how do you know if your business has the right infrastructure components? Are all critical workflows formalized into a process, are those processes known, is the knowledge necessary to follow those processes being managed and kept up to date? Well, one way to figure that out is to wait until you lose that big opportunity because the quote wasn’t filled out right. Or that strategic client escalates to the c-level because they didn’t get what they paid for or thought they paid for.

Another option is to check in with your canaries.

For remote/virtual/telecommuters/etc, that business infrastructure is full on critical to our ability to do our jobs successfully. I should know, I’ve been working remote for over five years. Unlike our HQ based friends, we don’t have the option of standing up or opening our office door and walking down a hallway asking until we find the person they need, get the answer to their question, or find the right template to submit a request. We are almost completely dependent on having clear procedures and not just that but knowing a.) where those procedures are and b.) having confidence they’re up to date and being followed.

3-best-practices-engaging-remote-employeesThere is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour filling out a request (including tracking down all the information about the client, the tool needed, etc), submitting that request, waiting several days, following up, and then being told that process was no longer being followed and here’s the new one.

So, if you want to know if you have the right workflows formalized, that the background knowledge management is there to support these, and they’re being followed, ask those canaries. Get them together (either virtually or if you want to treat them and really get their attention, bring them together physically) and have them start talking through their usual daily activities. The more cross departmental your group the better. Use them to identify which processes they’re currently using, if they feel they’re working, what could be done to improve them. Be on the lookout for statements like “Well, then I message coworker Y for the information/to do X/etc”. This could be an actual process or it would be a work around. And that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for those activities that remote folks have started to adopt because either the current process isn’t working (DEFINITELY find out why that is, or why they feel it is) or there isn’t an internal process.

Keep in mind, that this is not meant to be a knowledge check on your remote folks to see if they know the latest processes. If they don’t then that should definitely be a red flag for your organization not on their ability to remember. There are several reasons why remote employees may not know about a process that have nothing to do with them failing to remember: a.) management might believe the process is there but it’s not being used b.) the change in process was never communicated in a way that employees remembered them c.) you have too many processes and it’s hard for your team to keep them all straight.

All of these are things that can be addressed but you need to know they’re a problem before you can start addressing them. And that starts by checking with the remote employees. Because like those canaries in the coal mine, the remote employees are going to feel the strain and the frustration before the HQ based employees will. Let them warn you of them before you find out in a way that has a lasting and possibly catastrophic impact on your business.

Final comment: Yes, remote employees struggling with different challenges than those faced by those in the HQ. But instead of viewing these as a reason to not explore telecommuting, they should be embraced as ways that your business can improve and become even more successful.

Intuitive vs. Familiar

I was recently talking to a coworker and the topic of intuitive vs. familiar came up in regards to user experience and design. He suggested I take a few minutes and write a blog about it so… here is me doing just that.

(Note: other more intelligent writers have put their pen to paper on this one and I encourage you to take some time to look through them. These are my words but a common set of concepts, I don’t claim any original creatorship to these ideas)

A lot of my clients when asked about success criteria for their platform will give me answers about ‘needs to be easy to use’. That’s SUPER vague and really hard to put a measurable metric around it so I always try to unpack that farther and we start getting criteria like ‘intuitive’, ‘familiar’. I can tell from the way they use them that they think these are synonyms. And in other industries they may be but when it comes to user experience they are different. Related but different. Or that something with a low number of clicks is ‘intuitive’.

So what do we mean when we talk about familiar and intuitive? Let’s start with familiar. Familiar designs are ones that leverage pre-existing designs that have created a habit or common design scheme. The most common example of this is the QWERTY keyboard. The layout doesn’t really make any sense but by now we’ve become used to it, it’s now familiar. If you put another keyboard in front of most Western computer users it would not go over well (trust me, I’ve done this) and you’ll hear things like ‘not easy to use’ ‘makes no sense’. Actually the QWERTY makes no sense. It was created for the type writer and we just… kept it. Why? Because people were familiar with it, they were comfortable with it.

Familiar interfaces can be great. Why? Well, we know they work (at least to a degree), people are used to them, they know what to expect, and they tend to be less disruptive. There are plenty of other examples out there of workflows/designs that have become ‘familiar’ due to repetitive use. Basically think of them as habits.

An example is dialing 9 to get an outside line. This is familiar now and most users when first confronted with how to get an outside line in a hotel or an office building will dial 9. Why? Because that’s just the way it’s always been. (hint: if that’s your answer when asked about a design then 9/10 times it’s familiar.)

It’s also important to note that because familiar is due to repetitive exposure it tends to be based on culture. For example, writing dates by month-day-year is familiar to Americans but to the rest of the world it’s day-month-year (smaller to larger). Americans do not like it when they see dates written the other way.

Now let’s shift tack and talk about intuitive. What is intuitive? Intuitive means it makes sense without any training or explanation or referencing an earlier design. That last one is a bit hard to understand and really speaks to the heart of the difference. If someone tries to use something for the first time and says “oh yeah. I know how to use this because it’s like an X”, then it’s familiar. You can intuit the intention of something or a design without needing to be told. A LOT of research is done to try and determine what designs make the most intuitive sense. Especially when developing an entirely new product. If it can be designed in such a way as to feel wholly natural to the user without needing a reference point, training, or leveraging an existing design then that’s the gold star of intuitive. A simple and yet good example of intuitive (and simple) design are volume controls. On most devices these are set one under the other. Without any previous experience with remotes/ipods/cd players/etc, you can look at it and know that the up button makes the volume go up and the other makes it go down. Now, you could argue that this is also familiar. (And yep it is. I never said these were mutually exclusive), but in this case it’s a regularly accepted belief that this is intuitive b/c the function matches the form. Eating utensils (knife, fork, spoon) are also generally considered intuitive, because without having to see someone use them, it is easy to identify which part is the handle and how to use a spoon to scoop things, the fork to stick into things.

So.. Intuitive vs. Familiar… what do we mean?

Well, as I said these concepts are not mutually exclusive. A design can be both familiar and intuitive. This can be achieved by combining various elements that are familiar and some others that are intuitive (there are some great articles on cell phone design that break these down. I’ll try to find and add in the comments below). And in most cases this is what is happening with product design, trying to leverage certain items that are familiar (the windows button being in the bottom right of you screen) while adding in some typically new things that help make it a little more intuitive.

The difficulty with this comes when these two concepts compete with each other. When something is intuitive but because it is different from what is familiar we see dissonance. Take when Microsoft rolled out updates to office that created tabs within the ribbon to group similar tasks together. After research this was shown to be more intuitive (and we’ve seen more tools going to tabs now) but it was not familiar. It was a departure from the way office products had worked up until that point and had become quite familiar to people. The same will happen if you present someone with the Dvorak keyboard who has used a QWERTY keyboard. If they’ve never used a QWERTY, a user can much easier adopt and use the keyboard (as compared to a first time QWERTY keyboard user). But if they are familiar with a QWERTY it takes more time to use Dvorak and will often complain at how hard it is to use.

So.. how do you do this?

There’s no good answer on this. And this blog post wasn’t really intended to give you the answer just make an attempt to explain what is meant by intuitive and familiar and how they’re not the same thing. The ideal is to find that balance of how can something be made intuitive so a user can just pick it up and go (without any prior knowledge) but also use familiar without creating conflict. But sometimes a design needs to be disrupted. Sometimes ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ isn’t how it should be done. And that’s where designers need to make that decision to suck it up and take the initial pushback and hope that intuitive can eventually trump familiar (or become familiar).

Book Review: Libriomancer

A few years ago, I checked out Jim C. Hines Libriomancer from the library. I’d read and thoroughly enjoyed his Goblin Quest and Princess novels and thought a story about casting magic from books would be a good read. I never got around to it and when the rental period expired I returned it unread.

Jump ahead to a few weeks ago when I finally remembered to check it back out again. This time I devoured it quickly and already put holds on the next two books. I’ll try to avoid spoilers and stick to the general stuff for now, but I have to say that I really loved this book. It was funny in the right places, had action in the right places, and the right touch of romance to hit all the right notes.

Let me take a moment and break down the book for you. Isaac Vainio is a libriomancer (it’s in the blurb. not a spoiler) Basically this means he can cast magic by pulling it out of books. What’s great is that as a true geek, Isaac mostly sticks to scifi/fantasy novels, some called out specifically others in vague descriptions. Either way, every time a reference is made that I got, my little geek heart grew a few sizes for this book.

And then of course there’s some conflict, some adventure, and Isaac has to do some creative thinking to save the day. And as is true of other Jim C. Hines’ books, the ‘method of success’ has some unforeseen side effects that setup the conflict in the next book or the one after.

I can talk for a long time on the plot, the characters, etc of this book but what I want to focus on is just the… awesome wish fulfillment of this story. I know usually wish fulfillment is used in book reviews as a negative, that the book was just written to basically be a form of written daydream but in this case I mean it in a very very good way. Not sure about other readers, but for me the idea of being able to reach into my favorite book and pull out a magic ring, excalibur, tricorder, or fire spider is amazing. I grew up reading to the point that my parents realized by middle school that sending me to my room wasn’t a punishment because I would just curl up with some music and a book for hours, losing myself in the adventure and the characters. Libriomancer is that kid getting to interact with his favorite books in a completely new and magical way. It’s that kid getting to not just be a book geek but also the hero, the geeky guy that through his wits and knowledge of scifi fantasy books can save the day and get the girl. (A girl who is totally kick ass and unique in her own way)

If you’re a book lover, someone that prides themselves in having a bookshelf in every room and believes in the magic of the written world, I cannot recommend this book enough. I love it and can’t wait for the others to come in.


Path of the Cardboard Rainbow Circles

While in HQ for some internal meetings, I was walking from the office to my hotel and I started to see these suns? circular rainbows? Not sure what they were meant to be but they were circles of cardboard about a foot in diameter with rings of colors. They were hung and attached at various points along the alleyway route that I take like some kind of guideposts on a trip. One hanging from a door knob, another taped to the back of a sign, a third attached to a stake shoved into a planter.

As I walked I started to look for them to see if I could figure out what they were, or where they lead. My mind started to concoct some kind of secret scavenger hunt narrative to explain these objects that were every ten feet or so for the half mile walk. Just as I was nearing the end of my trek, they disappeared. I couldn’t find another one.  Did I reach the end? Was I supposed to go through the door that the last one was attached to?

Not knowing the area and not being quite that adventurous, I shook my head and carried on to the hotel. Riding the elevator up, I resolved that the next day I would take a picture of one of them to show my local coworkers, see if they had any idea what I had found.

But the next day my mysterious ‘yellow brick road’ was gone. All the signs had been taken down from one afternoon to the next morning, further adding to the mystery.  For two days now I have kept an eye out for my little cardboard circular rainbows but they haven’t made a reappearance.

So now I am left to wonder about what would have happened if I had followed that last one through the door. Maybe I will write some story playing out the fantastical things that could have been found at the end of that path not taken.

Dragon*con 2015 Thoughts

(warning: censored profanity)

I plan to write more later on my two FATE games that I ran on Friday and Sunday nights but first I wanted to crank out a quick ‘reaction’ piece to my first Dragon*con.

My easy reaction is: “F*#king go to Dragon*con.”

Are there crowds? Yes. Is it hot in Atlanta in the Summer? Yes. Will there be panels you can’t get into? Yes. Will you have to wait for an elevator? Yes.


Will there be cosplayers and fans of your favorite show/game/movie/book? Yes! Will your favorite actors/writers/directors/scientists be there talking about all the things you love? Yes! Will you meet new and interesting people waiting in that elevator? Yes. Will you be surrounded by 60+ thousand people that fully embrace your weirdness, your geekiness, your nerdiness? Will you leave feeling like you are no longer alone in your weirdness? A million times: yes!!

This was my first time going to Dragon*con and I had some idea of what to expect: crowds, lines for panels/interviews, a board game room, some RPGs that I could run or join, cool costumes, celebrities, etc. What I wasn’t- couldn’t have been prepared for were just the sheer number of people that ‘got me’. From the moment you see your first deadpool or hear someone talking about the latest Star Wars trailer or asking you to “WITNESS THEM!”, you immediately understand “You are One of Us.” We could be IT professionals, teachers, librarians, teachers, construction workers, consultants, et cetera but at Dragon*con you are a geek. You are One of Us and it is glorious. It is affirming. It is inclusive.

Yes. I know there are jerks and we all have those stories too but they in no way hold a candle to the guy who jokes about using his shield to hold off the masses as the elevator door opens or the woman who sees you reading a Seanan McGuire book or playing a friend’s video game and asking what it is and not just as a way to kill time but out of genuine interest. If that question had been asked of me anywhere else I would have hemmed and hawed a bit given a high level overview of what urban fantasy is and maybe the protagonist and wait for the ‘oh. so not my kind of book/game’ look in their eyes. But at Dragon*con that explanation is met with ‘Yes and…’ followed by questions about the book, the characters, suggestions for other books/games that I might find interesting.

(For those interested the book was Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire and the game was Cognition Episode 2 by Phoenix Online Studios.)

So once again. If you are in any way a geek: tv, movie, video game, board, or tabletop game, book, character, science, space, LARPing, Felicia Day or whatever it is. F*&CKING GO TO DRAGON*CON!!!!!

(Okay, so maybe I’ll do another post on the actual panels that I visited and the things that I saw)

A Little Junior Derby Vignette

Wrote this after Head Reffing a Junior Roller Derby bout. Not entirely sure where I’m going to go with it but I’m liking the characters and such so far so we’ll see.



Hearing the official’s call, the Little Monsters’ jammer drops lower, her blue eyes glancing at the opposing jammer trying to gauge which direction she’ll go. Something tells Valkyrie that she’ll try and cut high and take the outside lane which is exactly where Val wants to go.


Fine. It’s on. Valkyrie thinks glancing up at the scoreboard. The Monsters are up by 3 but this is the last jam and if she can’t get lead and hold them off, they’ll lose the bout. Not gonna happen, she thinks fiercely, rocking onto her toe stops as Loki’s music pulses through her. The Little Monsters form a wall of blockers on the other side of the Belles from Valkyrie. All except Typhoid who managed to get herself into the Belle’s line. The twins, Frik and Frak, are hip to hip ready to help Valkyrie or more likely block the Belle’s jammer.


The whistle sounds starting the jam and immediately a skater in Monster’s green slams into the blocker in front of her. Typhoid Mary, Valkyrie’s offensive blocker, doing her job and making the opening for her teammate.


There’s my hole! Shoving off, Valkyrie cuts toward it, trying to stay aware of the Belle’s jammer as she does. Within moments the hole starts to close but not before she can get a grip on Typhoid’s belt and uses it to propel herself through the gap.


Two more strides has Valkyrie breaking through the pack and hearing the exhilarating sound of two whistle blasts. Glancing to the left she sees Critical Hit, her jam ref, pointing and holding up his hand, the signal that she’s the lead jammer. And a grunt of success tells her that Typhoid just put a big hit on the other jammer as she tried to sneak through.


YES!! Valkyrie shouts internally, a fist pumping in victory. Looking up at the clock, the blond skater sees that there is still twenty seconds left on the clock. Maybe I can score a few more. With that she puts on a burst of speed, accelerating around the track. Her ice blue skate wheels are a blur as she flies around the turns, long legs crossing over to maintain her speed, and pale blond braid trailing behind her.  


Moving this fast across the track, the spectators a blur, Valkyrie imagines herself with wings, golden and glowing, spread out behind her.The wind on her face and the blur of the fans make it feel almost like she’s flying.


Within seconds the pack is back in view, a wall of Belle’s and Tyhpoid now hovering like some kind of avenging angel waiting to strike.


A quick glance over her shoulder, shows Valkyrie that the other jammer is only thirty feet or so behind her and catching up. Let’s do this, she thinks focusing on the players in front of her, trying to anticipate where her teammate will make the hole this time. One of the Belle’s blockers looks back and sees Valkyrie, calling to her own teammates, “Green Jammer coming up!”


Her lips twitching in an almost smile, Valkyrie uses the sudden attention to swing wide, pulling the blockers with her. And giving her own blocker a perfect target.


“Typhoid!!” signals Valkyrie as she cuts hard to the inside, just as her teammate expecting the calls pushes to the outside catching one of the blockers and shoving them into their own teammates.


Flying through the hole, Valkyrie immediately starts tapping her waist turning to Crit so he can clearly see her calling off the jam. With a smile of his own, the dark haired boy blows four short blasts on his whistle ending the jam and the bout for Valkyrie and her Monsters.

Blog Rebuild

So I haven’t been doing as much with this thing as I wanted/should be. So… I’ve decided to change that. But in order to make the most of it, I’ve decided to blow away most of the old site and only keep a few of the ramblings that I really liked.

I’ll be doing a better job posting here with more creative writing, book reviews, game reviews, random thoughts, and maybe even the odd recipe. Not sure how many folks are actually going to read this but it will serve as my commitment to myself to do this. So… away we go. Again.

Staring Out the Window

Written on the train from Geneva to Zurich

The train rumbles down the tracks, with the views of Swiss lakes, mountains, tunnels, and cows flashing past like a montage from the Tourism Board.  Various artists fight for attention on my ipod, from GaGa to Sinatra.  And I stare out the window.

Memories of the past days mingle with those from a decade ago. Faces that have changed and faces that have stayed the same.  Old faces no longer recognizable. Visits to places remodeled, renovated, and just gone, replay themselves in the ever present cinema of my mind. And I stare out the window.

Paths taken, and paths not taken route themselves in my head, map them onto the sails of the boats in the lake, and the billboards of towns.  Questions about current ambitions, broken goals, new ones made, and those in between rattle in my head. And I stare out the window.

The train tilts on its side through a turn.

Familiarities that seem years behind rise up and yet recede. Interactions that once came with ease now seem strained, even frayed, like meeting people from a dream half remembered. And yet they mingle as if made to. And I stare out the window.

Thoughts of other places, other lakes, other views, and other cows interrupt the feed; other connections and familiarities that I recognize are also starting to fray, and lose substance. Can I stitch them back together, fray check them, should I? And I stare out the window.

Gaga ends and Jim Croce takes over. Saving time in a bottle. If only.

My eyes grow heavy. The train tilts again and then rights itself. The picture show in my head dims and fades. The clacker clacking as it runs out film. And I stop looking out the window.

First Sentences

So for christmas this year I got “What If?” a book of writing exercises. I am going to try and crank out a new one once a week. The first one is to write 10 first sentences. Here’s my crack at it. Any thoughts/opinions is greatly appreciated.

  1. James stared at the cracked shell of the subway train, letting the memories of those few minutes inside before it flipped wash over him.
  2. “Liam, we’re over.”
  3. The rain washed over David as he held Valeria, the most annoying, frustrating, beautiful, courageous woman he’d ever met and ignored questions of what they were to do about those in the manor house behind them.
  4. “You’re sending me to Science Camp?”
  5. The press of college students in the Spring pressed in around me, the guys and girls desperate to get out of Psych 101 and into the beautiful Spring day, I had wanted that to before last summer and night at the lake.
  6. If asked what one object could completely change your life, I never would have said one can of spray paint.
  7. I stared at the picture of Melissa and I holding each other under a waterfall, remembered how beautiful she looked that day in the Smokies.
  8. Slowly I crept through the open window, taking every pain to keep as quiet as possible until I caught my chucks on the windowsill and tumbled face forward into the principal’s office.  James Bond, I am not.
  9. Damon stared out the window at the moon and stars as the day ended on the most bizarre fourteenth birthday I had ever had.
  10. How had this happened?

What Do You See?

When you look at me you see things I fear do not exist.

You see Strength, all I see is one who endures because there is no other choice

You see Courage, all I see is a man too scared to be himself

You see a Rock, all I see is sandstone barely holding himself together

You see Good, all I see is a man doing what others expect

The man I see in the mirror is strained, faded, and lost.  The one you see is amazing, honourable, and confident.  I like your image of me better than my own.  So maybe I’ll stop being myself, and start being the man you see in me.