Life TODO List: Teaching a Class

2012/08/03 1 comment

This week, I got to check off an item on my life to-do list. That feels pretty good.

I’ve always wanted to teach a class. A few weeks ago, following conversations with people in the Awesome Inc community, I decided to create a class called “Programming For Absolute Beginners”. This class offers an introduction to software development based on an excellent (and free) resource called Learn Python The Hard Way. We only announced the class internally (to our Tenants, Team Alpha, and the Experience teams at Awesome Inc) but still had 12 people sign up within 3 days. I was pretty surprised with the response; I thought it would be a struggle to find half that many people. And, following the first and second sessions of the 5.5 week course, both the students (and I) seem to be enjoying the process.

There are two reasons that I’m so excited that this course is able to take place:

I get joy in empowering other people.  Education is one great way to empower people. “The more you know,” right? I’ve actually approached the class as more of a facilitator than a teacher. With the varying skill levels of the “students” in the class, and the ability for anyone to move through the material at their own pace, everyone in the group has the ability to serve as a teacher. So, at a meta level, I’m not only teaching a group of people how to be programmers, but also teaching them how to programming teachers. In fact, based on how quickly several of the students took on the role of peer-teacher, I didn’t really have to “teach” them how to do this. I just gave them the opportunity to use their skills. And while this might be bad for my job security as a teacher, it’s great for expanding our ability to help more people. And if that means that more people like Therese, who wrote her first program ever last night, will feel this empowerment, then our time invested is totally worth it.

The world needs more makers. For a generation or so, the title of “skilled workers” has gotten a bad rap. It has become viewed as a subpar status, denoting people who have chosen non-university educational paths, or pursued non-white collar careers. The thing about most white collar jobs, however, is that they operate at a level of abstraction beyond actual productive work. If white collar workers stopped working, we’d lose the ability to account, litigate, and manage. If blue collar workers stopped working, no new stuff would come into existence. There would be no food, no clothes, no cars, and no music on the radio. Herein lies the magic of programming: it’s a white collar job (read: prestigious, well-paid), yet it’s also a blue collar job (programmers actually make things). At this particular point in history, our ability to solve many of the world’s problems is only inhibited by our ability to understand those problems, and our ability to turn the solution into working software. Hunger, energy, peace, communication, drugs, poverty. In solving any of these problems, the lowest-hanging fruit can be addressed through appropriate computer software. So, by helping a few more people become developers, we’re doing a small part to make the world a better place.

A final note on this is how easy it was to go from discussing the idea for a class, to deciding to do it, to starting it. This all happened within 2 weeks. The two major factors that made this so easy:

  1. Availability of course material. Thanks, Zed! (also, thanks in advance to iTunes U, Udacity, Coursera, and even Wikipedia)
  2. The power of the Awesome Inc community. I didn’t have to search for a physical space to host the class, or struggle to market to a critical mass of potential attendees.

Based on our initial results, we’ll be offering more of these courses in the future. If there’s anything you’d like to learn (or teach), leave me a note in the comments!

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Give Blood, Save Lives (I’ve saved 24)

2012/07/13 Leave a comment

Blood donation sticker and pin

As of today, I have donated 3 gallons of blood. If every pint of blood saves 1 life, then I have saved 24 lives. As a 26-year-old, I hope I can keep up this pace.

As a technology guy, I’m anxiously awaiting the day when we develop a suitable synthetic blood substitute…but we haven’t yet. Blood donation is our only option. Demand for blood always exceeds supply, so we always need your help. Giving blood is safe, fast, easy, and you get free Little Debbie snacks.

If you already give blood, keep up the good work. If you’ve never donated before, consider it. If you’re in Central Kentucky, check out http://kybloodcenter.org

Categories: Personal Development

What I learned in San Antonio

2012/06/10 Leave a comment

Last week, I had the privilege to participate in Commerce Lexington’s annual Leadership Visit to San Antonio, TX. Since 1974, our local chamber of commerce has been organizing these trips that bring together business, government, academic, and community leaders to travel to another city. The “visit” aspect (versus just a group meeting somewhere in Lexington) serves two purposes:

  1. Find inspiration from other cities that are doing cool things
  2. Bring Lexington’s leaders together in a new environment, free from the distractions of home

The Leadership Visits have been the nexus for some of Lexington’s great assets, including Thursday Night Live which was inspired by a visit to Greenville, SC. On this visit, one of the highlights of San Antonio was the River Walk, now a major tourist attraction and downtown focal point, but once just a trickling stream. What not many people know is that there is a similar stream that flows under Lexington. On this trip, we learned that the Town Branch Creek is perhaps more voluminous than the creek that feeds the San Antonio River. The difference is, San Antonio chose to design a beautiful, open waterway. In Lexington, we conveniently diverted our creek through a buried pipe. For a city often described as “conservative”, the notion of unearthing a buried stream and manufacturing a downtown river is nothing short of audacious. But, looking at Lexington’s history, you may be surprised to learn that we have a penchant for progressive public-private partnerships. I hope we take a gamble on this.

With all the focus on the river, another key aspect of our host city was underemphasized: young leaders are critical in shaping the city of San Antonio. In our trip program, all participants under the age of 40 were denoted as “Emerging Leaders”. I commented to my friends before the trip In San Antonio, “If Mark Zuckerberg, age 28, lived in Lexington, would he be considered emerged yet?” I did notice a difference in San Antonio. People in that age range are just called LEADERS. However, that designation was objectively earned. They didn’t wait for a 40th birthday party to receive permission to lead at the forefront of their city. They just went out and made it happen. The two examples with whom I’m most familiar are:

  • Julian Castro
    • Mayor of San Antonio (7th largest city in the USA)
    • Age 37 (Mayor since 2009, age 34)
  • Lanham Napier
    • CEO of Rackspace (>$1B annual revenue)
    • Age 41 (CEO since 2006, age 35)

There are a few notable similarities about these two leaders. First, both are from Texas. They didn’t have to be sold on why they should live there. Both have graduate degrees from Harvard (Castro in Law, Napier in Business). This doesn’t make them inherently better leaders (heck, they even let me into HBS), but it does guarantee that they know what world-class means, and demonstrate that they aren’t scared to chase after it. Also, they are in terminal positions. They can’t move any higher up within their organizations, so the only way to achieve greater things is to drag the whole organization up with you. This differs from some of Lexington’s young leaders who are not in terminal, but transient leadership positions. The best basketball player in Lexington will leave for the NBA. Even within the world of sports, San Antonio’s professional basketball team, the Spurs, provide a terminal post, and one that is noted for its world-class leadership transitions.

I have a friend who works with Steve Westly, an advocate of rotating involvement in the 3 major sectors of society: business, government, and academia (I’d argue that religion fits in there as well). Looking at those three sectors, who are some of our young, already-emerged leaders within terminal organizations here in Lexington? I’ll offer a few (list is far from exhaustive, and is based totally on my familiarity):

Last year, I wrote about the departure of many of Lexington’s leaders. With the World Equestrian Games and other recent successes, I was worried that Lexington would go downhill following their departure. Now, I look at this in a different light. Perhaps these departing leaders had one last bit of insight: the most effective action they could take was to hand off the torch to a new generation. And while earlier I perceived the under-40 designation as a form of ageism, it’s in fact a testament to the associated wisdom of Lexington’s leaders. Those who recognize this gap are doing something about it. The reason that I, and many of the other young professionals, were able to attend this trip was through the generous private donations that provided Emerging Leader scholarships. Far from excluding, Lexington’s current crop of leaders is actively including their younger peers. But, as the saying (rather apropos in equine land) goes, “You can lead a horse to water…”

Dear leaders of my generation: the torch is now in our hands. It’s our calling to make Lexington a world-class awesome city. Let’s roll.

New Unit of Measure: the FayetteMall (FM)

2012/06/02 Leave a comment
Image of FayetteMall measurement

The FayetteMall, approximately 2000 ft or a 7.3 minute walk.

The FayetteMall (abbreviated FM) is a unit of measure roughly equivalent to 2000 feet. It is based on the distance from one end (Dick’s Sporting Goods) to the other (Macy’s) of the Fayette Mall in Lexington, KY.

A common usage for this unit of measure is when relating otherwise difficult to fathom distances in terms of the more familiar unit of FayetteMalls. For instance, the distance from Triangle Park to Thoroughbred Park in downtown Lexington is approximately 2 FayetteMalls. The distance from the Davis Marksbury Building on UK’s campus to Awesome Inc is just over 1 FayetteMall. Strongly associated with the unit is the average walking time to traverse 1 FayetteMall, which is 7 minutes, 20 seconds.

The creation of the FayetteMall as a unit of measure is intended to inspire more people (particularly those in Lexington, KY) to enjoy walking throughout their city as much as they do inside the mall. Most of the geographic area of Lexington currently suffers from a low WalkScore, however the downtown core has a score of 85, which is on-par with New York City and San Francisco. With increased awareness of the ease of walking in Lexington, as well as the association with a familiar, often-walked unit of measure, perhaps we can make Lexington an even better place to live.

If you’re into this kind of stuff, you should also check out WalkRaleigh (and the WalkYourCity Kickstarter project), SecondSunday, and OpenLexington.

Categories: Uncategorized

My sleep journey, year 1

2012/05/24 Leave a comment

alarm clockI have a love-hate relationship with sleep. I acknowledge that there are likely benefits of an 8-hour night of sleep, but there are so many exciting things to do while I’m awake! I spent most of my K-12/college years sleeping just enough to stay awake during (most of) class, which turned out to be roughly 6 hours per night. A few years ago, I tried an experiment with polyphasic sleeping, but it proved to be a tough adjustment to fit into my unpredictable schedule. I might revisit polyphasic at some point (I like the everyman 3-nap), but for now what should I do? If sleep affects my overall health, as well as athletic performance and creative productivity, how can I optimize my sleep habits to maximize those outputs, while maintaining the smallest possible input?

About a year ago, I decided to start collecting some real data on my sleep habits. I found an app that provided some basic sleep data (for the curious, Zeo is a much better option). Once I started collecting data, I found out that my average night of sleep lasted about 6.5 hours. With this baseline, I set a new goal: 7 hours. As of yesterday, 373 days into the experiment, I achieved my goal of averaging 7 hours of sleep per night! You can see some of this presented on my personal dashboard, or check out the full source data.

So, how did this data collection help me increase my sleep average? For starters, “what gets measured gets done“. Simply keeping track, actively paying attention, helped me increase my amount of sleep. An even more effective tool (and you’ll see this if you look at my source data) was providing myself with timely feedback on fluctuations in my sleep time. I chose a basic analysis: a running weekly average for my sleep. I decided to alert myself whenever this weekly average fell below 7 hours. Typically, I have greater control over when I go to sleep than when I wake up, so my countermeasure was to “go to sleep before midnight”. Since I implemented this countermeasure, I’ve found it easier to maintain a consistent sleep pattern.

A missing piece of data in this process is a performance-related dependent variable. While I’m excited that I was able to increase my amount of sleep, I haven’t found a good means of measuring long-term health or professional performance improvements. Anecdotally, I do feel more alert throughout the day, I don’t fall asleep during meetings/lectures/etc, and I have been reasonably healthy over the past year. For the next phase of this process, I would like to find a means of correlating changes in my sleep to quantifiable life-performance data.

By the way, if you like this kind of stuff, you should check out the Quantified Self event happening during this Fall’s IdeaFestival in Louisville. I’ve been working with Chris Hall to bring together some of the leaders in quantified self from this region, as well as a few special guests, to share stories of personal experiments and insight on the latest tools.

User-friendly cities

2012/05/13 1 comment

What is a user-friendly city? We say that the iPhone is user-friendly, but what about Washington, D.C. or Madrid? The concept of designing from a user-centric perspective is common in the creation of web and mobile applications. There is a whole field of User Experience (UX) designers who take a holistic approach to optimizing the “system of systems” that make a product. A major focus of my company is helping people navigate unfamiliar indoor spaces, so I look at the world through this lens all the time. But who does user experience design for our cities? For whom are we designing? And even if an amazing design is created, how does it get implemented amidst the dynamic cultural, political, and economic flows of a city?

There are increasingly-many similarities between web and mobile applications and cities. Both often start as small endeavors, experiments cobbled together out of necessity or a dream of a better way. Sometimes they stick, attracting citizens and snowballing. Sometimes they die, fading into just another line in a history book (or Wikipedia entry). Sometimes, they turn into something entirely unintended by their founders:

  • SF: Spanish mission to gold rush boom town to silicon valley.
  • Shenzhen: fishing village to financial center.
  • Burbn: HTML5 location-based service becomes top photo-sharing app.
  • MS Excel: intended for financial calculations, actually (ab)used for: lightweight databases, recording OSHA notes, list of b-day party invites

So, why do we have cities? What are they intended to do? Most cities are concentrations of economic and social activity collected under some form of governance, and many provide “systems for sanitation, utilities, land usage, housing, and transportation“. From this, we can derive that the intended users for cities are people (Note: while this may seem obvious to us, Douglas Adams asserts that an outside observer may be mistaken). But even if we can agree that cities are designed for use by people, who are these particular people? Are they permanent residents or temporary visitors? Are they old or young? What languages do they speak? What type of education do they have? Do they like Bluegrass music?

A major challenge for both cities and software is making changes amidst a large-scale deployment. Like a large enterprise application, cities have a lot of legacy features that must be supported, and a very broad user-base. It’s not easy to rebuild from scratch, without incurring a major service interruption, or alienating a significant group of users. While the existence of software is relatively new, cities have been around for much of human history. For most places, it’s likely that the original city founders are now dead. Even if they were alive, society has changed so much that the founders wouldn’t understand today’s version of their city even if they found a way to exist in it. Even for current residents, making drastic changes is painful. Consider how young Facebook is, but how much its users complain when the service gets a new feature (or kills an old one). What if we re-routed a major highway around a city? What if taxes disappeared…or doubled? What if food trucks show up? What if we un-bury a river through downtown?

My hope for improving the user experience of cities lies on making small changes, rather than big ones. The pilot projects that Janette Sadik-Khan and Mayor Blumberg run in NYC seem very similar to the iteration and experiments advocated by Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement. I’m also curious to observe a few technologists try their hands at designing cities, as the new Apple campus comes to fruition, designed in part by the late Steve Jobs. Online shoe mogul Tony Hsieh is knee-deep in recreating downtown Las Vegas, taking a gamble that he can transform a part of Sin City into a self-contained oasis for Zappos and its creative class friends.

I’m excited to be part of OpenLexington, a group of volunteers who work on open-data projects in Lexington, KY. Right now, I wouldn’t rate our city as very user-friendly. The roads are organized in an uncommon way, to get things done you often have to “know someone“, and our tight-knit social circles make it difficult for outsiders (eg UK graduate students) to integrate. With OpenLexington, we have the opportunity to greatly improve the UX of the relatively new digital infrastructure that co-exists with our city’s much older physical infrastructure. We’re starting with some small projects, like making it easier to find bicycle parking around town, and creating a web-accessible version of local restaurant health ratings. But someday, as our small actions accumulate, perhaps we can have a big impact, like making it easier for relocating families to feel at home in Lexington, or breaking down the artificial borders among our diverse population. Groups like us around the world are always looking for help, so if you grok this stuff, join in!

The Myth of Bike Lanes

2012/04/08 7 comments
bike lane

Bike Lane in downtown Lexington

Bike lanes are not for cyclists. Bike lanes are for motorists.*

I realized this following a discussion about shared-use roadways (ie the majority of non-Interstate highways and roads in America). I have quite a few friends who don’t understand my choice to ride a bike on the road, partly because the see it as a choice. Where I live, it’s often not a choice, it’s the law. With the exception of bicycle police, cyclists are not allowed to ride on sidewalks. That’s why they’re called sideWALKs, they’re meant for pedestrians. Thus, when I ride my bike on the road, I’m riding it where I’m supposed to be riding it. And, by law, I have the same privilege (yes, “privilege”, not “right”) to operate my human-powered vehicle on the road as those who choose to operate motorized vehicles.

When I’m riding my bike, I view myself as a person who happens to be on a bike. When I’m driving my car, I view myself as a person, who happens to be in a car. Between those two states, I view my life, my sense of urgency, and the importance of my travel to be equal. And I view the lives, deadlines, and importance of everyone around me, in cars, on busses, on bikes, and on foot to be equal.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the currently prevailing viewpoint.

When talking with friends who are motorists, but not cyclists, they consider their trips in cars to be more important than the simultaneous trips taken by cyclists. One argument is that cycling is multi-functional: while some cyclists are in the act of commuting, others are on their bikes for the purpose of exercise. And in this argument, commuting is considered to be more important than exercising.** While I disagree with that particular assertion, a more relevant disagreement is that the associated assumption that all trips in cars are for the singly important purpose of getting to work. Do these motorists hold the same disdain for fellow motorists transporting themselves in search of entertainment? Likely, yes. It wouldn’t surprise me if they also became upset when their potentially fluid rides are stalled by farm implements, and then show up to the ever-important work and eat a few corn chips, never making the connection.

I would assert that there are 3 reasons for which the journey of a particular vehicle on the road would be more important that that of other vehicles. First, emergency vehicles. There’s a reason they get flashing lights, and permission to blow through stop signs: they are operating in potentially life-or-death situations. Second, commercial vehicles (particularly, tractor-trailers). Think of something that you use in your daily life. Vacuum cleaner. iPhone. Banana. Socks. To quote a friend, “Almost everything you use in a day was on a truck at some point.” Often, those trucks are not just carrying Timmy’s stuff, or Susie’s stuff, but hundreds of people’s stuff. That’s important. Finally, buses. Sorry dude-in-a-Porshe, those 20 people on the city bus may not seem as stylish as you, but I’d like for you to convince me that their twenty lives have less collective influence on their world than your one. As you may have noticed, the importance I assigned here was not due not to some personified needs of the vehicle, but to the needs of the people that the vehicle was serving.

But maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe their frustration is misdirected at non-conforming cyclists, when in fact the true source of their frustration is an incorrect assumption about the predictability of our transportation system. I am guilty of this as well. When I am trying to drive from my house to a destination that is 30 miles away (separated mostly by rural highways), I mistakenly expect that this journey will take me only 30 minutes. But I am wrong. There are all sorts of factors, like stoplights, detours, accidents, and…traffic that can make my trip unpredictable. In fact, this unpredictability is the norm, although I tend to fool myself into thinking that it is the exception.

Which brings me to traffic. Traffic moves according to what I like to call the slowest common denominator (SCD). In my definition, this means that the slowest vehicles in a traffic flow determine the average speed of the traffic flow. This defies the assumption that aggressive, fast drivers are in control of the road. I have yet to see one of these vehicles successfully push traffic forward, bulldozer-style. Yet, I’ve been caught behind many an meandering, elderly motorist who has taken complete control of the rate of traffic on a two-lane road.

And this is where Bike Lanes come in. Bike Lanes are not for the benefit of cyclists. Bike Lanes are for the benefit of motorists. If sharing the road with cars were not a factor, a cyclist presented with the choice of riding in the normal lane or in the bike lane would be unlikely to choose the inferior, shoulder-esque mini-pathway. They would choose the main lane! The reason that bike lanes matter is because of cars. Bike lanes make it so that automotive traffic can continue with minimal impediment from cyclists. That’s right, bike lanes are a means of making it more fair for motorists, who wish to travel at a rate faster than the SCD of a bicycle. So, from someone who, whether I’m hypermiling or riding a bike, is often the SCD, you’re welcome 😉

* To avoid any unnecessary personal banter, I’d like to clarify that I distinguish the difference between a cyclist and motorist as the present (thus, temporary) selection of mode of transportation. Personally, there are different occasions on which I choose to be a cyclist, motorist, pedestrian, and transit rider. Regardless of this choice, I retain my own unique identity, not one assigned to me by my mode of transport. Sure, there are differentiating personality characteristics that people choose to associate with their preferred form of transportation, but we’re all just a flat tire away from being united as pedestrians 🙂

** I understand the economically-minded intent of the argument that commuting (to work) is more valuable to society than exercising. Yet, with the disproportionately high costs of healthcare, especially the reactive medicine needed to compensate for generally sedentary lives in America, I think I could make a case that the economically logical choice is that we all exercise for 30 minutes in the morning, and show up late for work.