Distractions are Necessary to Get Things Done

by Dave Atkins on January 8, 2015

in Uncategorized

As an INTJ personality type, one area of potential conflict and misunderstanding I experience in working with detail-motivated people like ISTJs is how differently we approach tasks and how apt we both are to judge others who don’t do “what we would do.”

One thing I find interesting about my job is learning about medical issues: a rule I was testing depended on something called “GFR” – Glomerular filtration rate. GFR is the rate at which blood passes through the kidneys. Based on the patient’s race, and a lab observation of creatinine, we display different messages because the GFR is calculated differently for African Americans. When I shared this learning with others, I was met with disinterest or a reaction of “you don’t have time to waste on that/you don’t need to know that to do your job.” Seriously? I thought that kind of thinking was just apocryphal big company culture. For me, not knowing what “GFR” meant slowed me down and made me feel stupid. Now it is a part of my understanding of our product in the same basic way that knowing that hyperkalemia…hyper…K…has something to do with too much potassium…or that hypernatremia…hyper…Na…has something to do with too much sodium. It’s probably oversimplification, but it’s enough for me to organize the information in my brain so add to my intuitive understanding of what I’m doing.

I run into that kind of thing often. The part of the job that others see as irrelevant or a waste of time, is the part of the job that is most interesting to me. And far from being a distraction, it is the thing that motivates me to get the job done–the opportunity to learn new things. If you take that away–I don’t know how I get any work done! For other people, it must seem a distraction, but they are wrong to assume that removing “distractions,” can increase “productivity.” I don’t really know what any of that means; I just want to solve a problem and learn something new.

This came up dramatically in a task delegation project recently. We attempted to “divide and conquer:” One person is responsible for figuring out how to collect the data; the other is responsible for presenting it. What a terrible idea (for me anyway!) The interesting part is finding the answer to the problem, not taking a bunch of numbers and displaying them on a screen. And yet, you cannot really solve the problem without doing both because ultimately the solution is to provide a useful business dashboard to decision makers and operational staff. It’s not just annoying to be told to focus on a part of the problem; I can’t do it. I second guess the other person and basically wait until they go on vacation so I can do their part over and understand it myself. Once you understand the system…it’s just some details to solve the problem. But without the big picture…it’s gibberish.

Now I understand other people think differently. I wish I had a half dozen of those people working for me because as systems and problems become more complex, “just some details,” always turns into a lot of mindless drudgery…searching through code for an improperly-placed semicolon or parenthesis or finally realizing there’s a typo. The intellectually-difficult tasks take minutes to solve, but then, getting the details right is what takes days. At least for me, what can keep me going is the satisfaction of solving the bigger problem; knowing you have the gist of it done and just needing the hack away until it works. Without that perspective…how can anyone be motivated?

 

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Collecting Thoughts

by Dave Atkins on January 4, 2015

in Uncategorized

Four years ago, I wrote a post simplifying my plan in life to the “4 R’s:” Read, Run, Write, Ride. Of course, there’s a lot more to life–such as family and work–but I observed that for me, a great deal of personal satisfaction came from those pursuits which fit into and anchored my life. I got up early to run; I bike commuted often, I read books on the commuter rail when I was not riding my bike, and spent much of this “downtime” thinking so that when I sat down to write, I had ideas ready to put on the page.

It is depressing and ironic that that article, four years ago, was, like this post, the first after a long gap in writing. I started work a year ago at a job with zero commute and eliminated all that time on the train. I did continue running–completing two marathons in the span of six weeks this past Fall. But the reading, writing, and bike riding kind of disappeared until this Christmas vacation when I found some time to dust off my bike and brave the sub freezing temperatures a couple of times, and pick up a book on medieval history from the library. It is good to know I can still read and ride, but of course, you do not forget how to do these things, you only lose motivation to find time.

No one is reading this blog now, and that is probably a good thing as posts like this one are not really for an audience. I write for myself because sometimes putting thoughts to the page helps me see truth in the noise. But it is risky to write recklessly of topics where I have great ambivalence–such as career issues.

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Finding the Path – Part 1

by Dave Atkins on January 1, 2015

in Uncategorized

This blog post was a draft I never published from a year ago at the start of 2014. Today, I’ll post it and followup with the 2015 post…

Life happens in bursts of consequence. There are moments when the path is clear, and what comes next seems inevitable in retrospect. There are  times when you see an opening, you KNOW where it will lead, and you take the chance to follow. You hold on and tell yourself, just don’t let go.

Eight months ago, we had a great house in Roslindale and were making friends in our community. We were thinking Sharon would be happy in the “Advanced Work” program at the Bates and eventually, our kids would go to Boston Latin while I continued my work at a nonprofit and Jen worked as a nurse at Boston Children’s Hospital.

I joined the Longfellow Area neighborhood council and listed to people complain about parking and remodeling projects. I got involved with the BPS school choice process and put together a community meeting with mayoral candidate John Connolly and other parents to talk about improving our schools. We went to parent meetings at our school and I redesigned the website–I was an advocate for urban living and for finding value in our new community.

But the old community was stronger. Every Saturday, I drove back to Westwood for my weekly run with the running club. I saw bike racks appearing all over town–partly due to the work I’d started when I founded the Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Committee. I discovered that I could access WestCAT TV on my Roku player–the members of our nonprofit board continued to move forward and establish a community access television station in town. People continued to ask me about WestwoodBlog and for many people, I’m still “that guy with the blog.” I started to really appreciate how much effort I had put in and how much reward I had received from my efforts in Westwood.

We kept an eye on the real estate market in Westwood and then one day, I saw a listing for a rental house…

 Twelve years ago, I was living in San Jose, California, working for a dotcom startup that had been through two series of layoffs. We’d lived there for seven years and had a pretty Victorian fixer-upper, but ever since 9/11, and my Dad’s death a year before, we’d missed the East coast where our family was. Ever since 9/11, I’d imagined some sort of calling or feeling that we should be back. In 2001, I’d attended a friend’s wedding in Boston. I also took that weekend to walk from MIT to Chinatown and back and remember how much I loved this place.

I started looking at Craigslist and then, one day, I saw a job posting for a job that exactly fit me–in Boston…

 Twenty years ago, I had, without a plan or path, graduated law school and moved to DC to find my future on Capital Hill. I walked the halls of Rayburn, Longworth, and Cannon and pursued every lead and connection I had from being active in Democratic politics in the State of Washington where I went to law school. At first, I stayed with my best friend, who lived in Rockville, MD, but eventually I found roommates and a condo. Then I found a job with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

One night, my roommate asked for a ride  to a Republican bar on the other side of the Capital. I was just going to drop Cathy off, but there was a parking space right in front of the bar, so I took the space and went inside. My roommates were not really my type, but Paul’s girlfriend Anne had brought a friend, Jen…

Twenty-eight years ago, I was admitted to UVA and had gone to visit and tour the special dorm for “Echols scholars.” I was excited to have a scholarship and be offered admission to a special program at such a great school. And then the letter from MIT finally arrived, offering me one of the last spots off the wait list…

In May 2013, Jen and I decided to take the rental and move back to Westwood. We sold our house in a day. My daughter was ecstatic to be with her friends she’d left in first grade. People asked if I was going to start the blog again, would I join the Ped/Bike committee and was I interested in rejoining WestCAT?  Then, my Mom decided to move from 600 miles away in Virginia to nearby Norwood. Then, we found a house to buy on Parker Street–the street we had walked, strolled, and biked with our kids for 4 years before leaving Westwood. Then, I found a new job a mile and a half away–I start work the day after tomorrow and help my Mom move into her apartment in Norwood this weekend.

Life happens in bursts of consequence. All we do is important; we commit and we give it our all in everything we do, but there are times when a path is suddenly clear, and our task is to follow it through. The choices, the changes, the moves we’ve made…maybe they seem random or indecisive to some. But I believe there is a path we follow and a journey that would be incomplete without all the changes. Maybe it is hard to “connect the dots;” I don’t know. Maybe other people have a plan and execute on that plan and are happy with that. I find a path, and I find joy in living that path.

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The related problems of declining relevancy of local news coverage, lack of effective civic engagement, and impediments to local economic development can be solved by rethinking the role of journalism and devising a new business model that recognizes economic value from citizen engagement.

Here are some symptoms of the problems:

  • Local news coverage–for small to medium sized towns–is almost completely non-existent. It survives only through the personal efforts of a few remaining newspapers and hobbyist websites like my http://westwoodblog.org and other hyperlocal sites.
  • Large media efforts to solve the local news problem have failed, most recently with AOL’s Patch.
  • Town governments want to communicate with residents, but most web sites are inadequate. Nearly every public meeting, after YEARS of discussion, results in at least one resident who asks, “Why were we never told of this?” Residents are frustrated and suspicious and crave greater transparency. Towns attempt to provide this, but find it difficult to reach everyone.
  • There is a perception that the economic development process–in the form of residential and commercial real estate development in small to medium sized towns–is fraught with “NIMBYism.” Small groups of vocal residents block some projects while others “slide under the radar.” Neither town planners nor residents are happy with the level of communication and quality of information being shared.

I believe that:

A well-informed and engaged citizenry is a vital component not only of governance, but also of economic growth. When residents know what is going on, they recognize the needs of the community and can appreciate the costs and benefits of proposals and will, collectively, make better choices. When this civic ecosystem is healthy, the community can grow in a way that benefits everyone.

Achieving a healthy civic ecosystem is a lofty and idealistic goal with great public value, but who will pay for that value? It used to be part of the mission of most independent local newspapers. Freedom of the press is the bedrock of democracy. But today there is no local press. The purpose of most newsprint publications is to deliver advertising to homes with some content to get people to turn past the first page. Web-based news organizations are driven by advertising placements, pop-up ads, and syndicated, hypersensational content.

For at least a decade, local news has struggled with the problem and failed. Local papers were consolidated. Reporters were spread out over multiple communities and paid subsistence wages. Local media was rolled into big regional websites. Whether it was Gatehouse Media or Patch, the basic idea was to use technology to minimize costs. For a time, Patch was able to throw money at putting good editors in charge of local sites, but ultimately the financial pressures prevailed. Advertising is no longer a sustainable business model for local news because the convertible leads are not worth the cost of paying an editor.

When my web site was popular, a number of residents suggested I charge a subscription fee. Perhaps some people would have paid $120/year to keep the Westwood Blog going? Unfortunately, that model is not sustainable for me. Part of what makes a local site effective is that the editor IS local. In order to really make my site work, I would need it to be a full time job. Did I mention I have three kids and own a house in Westwood? To quit my day job and run the blog full time…I believe I would need to gross at least $10,000 per month. Is there a way to make a blog that is relevant to perhaps 6,000 households worth that much? You can do the math and if you are very optimistic, you could perhaps believe some people would pay $10 a month. Would 1000 people sign up?

But wait a minute…this is not a fraction of the value of the service. It is not just a way for me to make some money. It solves problems that have proven intractable for big media companies and thousands of communities. The solution will be revolutionary and extensible to every small and medium-sized community. It’s not a side job.

I think the following principles could drive the development of a successful model:

1. Local news must be reported locally by people with a stake in the community. The local sites I envision are run by community “partners.” They are not just PR agents for towns, but  stewards of information, helping facilitate discussion of issues. They are more “embedded” than reporters. These editors retain independence and strive for fairness of viewpoints, but they are not charged with holding government accountable. If they serve their role appropriately, the transparency they facilitate will allow traditional media and an active citizenry to perform the accountability function.

2. Advertising is not a component of the offering. Every other form of media provides ample opportunity for commercialization. A huge differentiation for this service is that it will never be beholden to advertising dollars. This is not just a goal, but a fundamental difference with some accountability tradeoffs. Distrustful residents and “traditional” journalists will question the independence of the editor and accuse the editor of trying to “sell” the town’s agenda. The editor will be under pressure to “spin” things in a favorable light for the town. The editor’s job IS in fact to promote ideas that help the town. The check on this bias will be in the online participation component below.

3. Free to all. There will be no subscription fees and no premium memberships. There will be no paywall. All content and participation shall be available for free to everyone. The mission is not to sell content but to make our communities stronger by informing and connecting all citizens.

4. These sites are funded through a partnership between business and government. Towns will pay for the service and develop a funding mechanism that includes contributions from business. The business model will be closer to community access television; where a user fee is collected and transferred to an independent entity to ensure independent funding but retain oversight of operations. An example would be to include a surcharge on all permit applications, in addition to a line item contribution from the town, plus a fundraising component undertaken by the local editor.

5. The model must “scale down.” In a town or small city of 50,000 people, there is no shortage of news. In a community of 5,000, it is not realistic to expect a site to have daily updates and advertising/subscriber models fail for lack of audience. But the model must still find a way to hire a full time editor. In smaller communities, the need is even greater, the problem solved even more valuable.

6. The model cannot depend on optimistic expectations of online citizen participation. The people who have the information that needs to be shared have not already done so and no amount of “ease of use” will change their behavior. We serve an uninformed and passive citizenry. If we achieve a somewhat informed and occassionally active citizenry, it will be a gamechanger. But the idea that everyone will start blogging and commenting intelligently on posts needs to be put in perspective. Simply reading articles is an action we can enable because we start from a paucity of news and information.

7. The check and balance on the role of the editor will be in the form of online citizen participation. This is the hardest component to manage because, since the inception of the internet, online “community” has been dominated by bad behavior from anonymous people. Closed community sites have some success, but in this model, we must find a way to keep the site open and allow anonymity.

So what might this idea look like in practice?

  • There would be a technology and publishing platform that requires minimal maintenance and is configured for each community in an initial design phase. There is no magic bullet here; no secret sauce of community engagement, just a core functional offering with a clean, simple design and a focus on the workflow of the editor; to allow a single person to create and publish content without technical wizardry. There would be add-on components–e.g. mailing lists, video integration, social media integration, etc.
  • There will be a well-defined process cookbook for communities to set up workflow.
  • The editor will be a reasonably well-compensated position; e.g. $50-75K/year and typically a person with experience in business communications and management.
  • The company that creates this offering will be a small startup consisting of a web development and infrastructure team and implementation experts. The web developers will use an open source platform like Drupal 7/8 to create the core offering. The implementation experts are more than just account managers; their job is to ensure the success of the editors by designing the best platform configuration and then assisting in the ongoing management of sites until they are up and running successfully.
  • The medium-term business model for the company would be based on licensing fees. Every town site would pay a monthly fee to use the platform. Every engagement will include an initial design phase that breaks even in terms of implementation costs.
  • The long-term business model is brand-equity and content-licensing. I am not sure exactly how this works yet, but as this idea develops traction, I believe it can disrupt and displace traditional media. If we can deliver on the promise of a well-informed and engaged citizenry, we can do anything.

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Changes

by Dave Atkins on August 31, 2013

in Uncategorized

I’ve removed some links from this blog and will be reworking DaveAtkins.org as well. I have not disappeared…and I will write again, but for now, I’m pulling back the content from the past year that failed to go anywhere.

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How to Email (or Delete) Multiple Photos from your iPhone

Technology How-To

As an early adopter of the iPhone (I remember when there was no such thing as “copy” and “paste.”), I kind of became used to some limitations and never bothered to find out if they had ever been addressed. Many have–years ago, apparantly–including the ability to manage your photos in batches. Here’s how it works:

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Flipping the Classroom

Education

As the school year rapidly approaches, we are excited to have all three of our children at the same school in Boston. Marshall, who is 4 1/2 years old, will be starting K1, the first year of kindergarten. All the kids are excited. I need to update this blog because the last post was so […]

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Choosing the Worst Schools

Education

At our parents meeting on Monday night, we heard from one parent who must have drawn the worst lottery number–both this year and last. His child got nothing for K1 last year after ranking 14 schools, then after ranking 16 elementary schools this year, remains unassigned. They are wait listed at 3 schools, but at […]

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What’s a Quality School?

Education

I organized a meeting of Boston parents last night to discuss the school assignment process and heard many stories of frustration. We were joined by city councillor John Connolly who is, himself, experiencing the frustration of still having a child unassigned. We didn’t solve any problems, but I believe it was helpful to hear each […]

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Why Kids Vacation?

Education

We wrapped up April vacation week today in Massachusetts, and it started me thinking about the coming summer vacation. I’m not talking about my vacation, of course, but rather the practice of closing the schools for a week in February, a week in April, two weeks in December, and all of July and August. Why […]

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