2019 – What a Year!

I’m going to skip, like a merry water beetle, past the absolute shit show of the global politics, and focus on the positive and the personal.

3 things I learned about working at home

1 Make an office space that works

I need something I can walk away from, I don’t have a separate home office, but there’s a corner of the living space – the foot of the ‘L’ shape of the room – that I use. At the end of the work day I can switch off the light and walk away.

2 Make the timezone work for me

Most of my work is with colleagues in the US, so my work day ends at 7pm, I either start later or I take a coffee break and get some fresh air and daylight. I really value the ability to have a walk outside since it’s dark by 4.30pm. My work day is all meetings from about 2pm, but meeting-free in the mornings so although I finish late the work life balance is actually working out well. 

3 Found my coffee home

I’ve found a cafe with fantastic coffee, free wifi and lovely people. I can go there to work or just to take that coffee break.

3 things I’m grateful for in 2019

1 Home

I moved at the end of last year and it’s been fun discovering my new home town and enjoying all it has to offer – having the beach just 15 minute cycle ride away is wonderful and I need to take advantage of that more often. Bring on spring!

2 Friends

When you’re having a tough time there’s nothing better, and the friends who have supported me, cared for me and made me laugh. Well, you know who you, thank you.

3 A good boss makes a big difference

I have a boss who backs me up, looks for me to lead, believes in my expertise, finds resources and removes boundaries. She also thanks me for specific activities from time to time. It’s a huge help when navigating all this change. 

3 things I will change in 2020

1 Push myself at work

Need to be clearer on results and focus on the significant things, rather than getting lost in detail. 

2 Be a better friend

I’ve let people down in the last year, I will slowly but surely rebuild what I have lost. 

3 Write

I haven’t been as creative or as productive on the writing front as I want to be, I will get back on it next year. I did start a series on creativity, and I will continue it in the new year, it does stimulate me to look out of my work mindset. I’ve also been more creative outside of work and that will continue. 

Image:pixabay

Techlash

Techlash is a portmanteau word from technology and backlash, the FT gives a definition: The growing public animosity towards large Silicon Valley platform technology companies and their Chinese equivalents.

I’ve heard it in a few podcasts and seen it in a few articles recently, usually in reference to Facebook or twitter, often in connection to privacy issues or political fallout. But it’s older than I expected. Google trends indicates it was first in use in June 2006. Searches on the term peaked in November 2018, when Facebook was under fire for privacy breaches and for selling data to advertisers.

(This data from google is indexed with the date with the most interest being scored at 100, so it’s hard to know what this interest means. I compared the interest to other search terms and all I can say is – it’s not a very interesting term).

There are genuine concerns about “big tech” that all get rolled up into techlash;

For users this has been the decade where the internet went from being a playground to a marketplace, it’s the decade the internet lost its joy. Many consumers started to question where their data was going, the EU and California passed privacy legislation that impacted the online world. 18 months after Europe’s GDPR legislation went into effect I still occasionally find a site that has chosen not to adapt their site and blocks me – it’s not a surprise, the penalties are huge, 20M euro or 4% of global turnover whichever is greater.

So what’s the argument against change? That limiting tech companies will reduce innovation.
But these companies are no longer the innovators, Facebook buys innovators, and for a new platform to emerge against Facebook’s 2.4 billion user base seems close to impossible. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google are the establishment now, we can stop treating them as the new kids on the block that need the special treatment to get started.

So what happens next? I expect regulation to protect users and workers (in the case of Uber et al), I expect some attempts to break up the biggest companies – which will fail, and some legislation around competition which might succeed if the EU and the US can find a way to pass similar legislation. I expect Chinese tech entrepreneurs to ignore as much of the legislation as they possibly can get away with.

I expect I will not by an AI virtual assistant in the coming year.

Window of Opportunity

“What’s the window of opportunity on that?”

Also known as a ‘critical window’ Wiki gives a pretty good definition: “A window of opportunity (also called a margin of opportunity or critical window) is a period of time during which some action can be taken that will achieve a desired outcome. Once this period is over, or the “window is closed”, the specified outcome is no longer possible”.

It’s a term I’ve known and used for many years, usually I’ve used it in a rather flippant way to encourage a person to make up their mind because I have shit to get done. Turns out it’s a real thing, a serious term used in science and medicine. For example the time a person can survive after breathing has stopped is a “critical window” in which emergency treatment can be delivered.

Think of a farmer, if she hasn’t planted her crop before the rains come there is no harvest, that’s perhaps the clearest example.

I’ve been working on a project where the window – the time to ask for executive sponsorship and budget – was closing as we were preparing the business case. We ended up missing it, and using a more minimal technology. Realistically that window for change would not come around for two budget cycles, ie; two years.

Occasionally you’ll see the idea of a closing window of opportunity used in marketing to create a sense of urgency, number of shopping days to Christmas is a timely example. Black Friday shopping deals and limited time offers are all false windows. Try not buying whatever item is being advertised – you’ll be fine.

Know the context, if you’re a farmer, know the seasons, the crops, the market. If you’re a project manager know the budget cycle and the budget influencers – they can open those windows for you when you’re ready.

Image via pixabay 

Creativity at Play #9

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to be more creative and one way I’m doing that is picking creativity exercises from the brilliant book Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 exercises to wake up your brain.

Here’s last month’s challenge:

How Big is a Bread Basket?

Recognising relative size or distance is an underrated skill. The late Chick Hearn, long-time play-by-play broadcaster for Los Angeles Lakers, was the king at being able to identify, from a country mile away, how far any shot attempt was from the basket. Your task today is to find he Chick Hearn in you. Grab a digital camera and take one picture of an object that satisfies specific size criteria:

1 is bigger than a coffee cup, but smaller than a dinner plate

I chose to think of this in terms of the diameter of the seed head – if you include the petals I think this would be bigger than most dinner plates!

2 is smaller than a cat but bigger than a kitten

An adult sized ceramic clog – in wonderful Delft blue

3 is bigger than a baseball but smaller than a football

A sculpture of a child’s head from the Allard Pearson Museum.
(Just how big is a football?)

4 is smaller than a car, but bigger than a bicycle

A boat! This image fools the eye because the perspective makes the bike look bigger than the boat and the boat look bigger than the car.

5 is bigger than a letter but smaller than a folio

A bar of Chocolate. It’s a slight cheat – it’s bigger than a letter, we’ll be taste-testing this today.

Did this exercise break out the creativity?

Sort of – I started out with specific things in mind to look for, and dipped into my image library for a couple of them. The last one was actually the first that I took. This could easily be adapted as a break out exercise for a longer workshop, and allowing the use of existing image libraries could make it work for a virtual audience. Maybe you could use your company’s products for the size limits. It was fun to do but not super creative for me.

The Danger of False Positives

The danger of false positives as text with positive and neutral symbols on left of text

The security IT teams where I work are intent on protecting the company from emails that might cause damage to the company, so they’ve been working on new Spam filters, and they’ve decided to put a notification at the top of each email that comes from outside the company. However we use a lot of third party online tools and now notifications from these tools – which I need to see – are flagged as being from outside the company.

Technically it’s true, these are emails from outside the company. However they’re from companies we partner with and I do need to see these emails. From a user perspective these are being flagged when they don’t need to be: it’s a false positive and it occurs because IT have defined the work environment as only what exists on the company’s own servers.

There is a limit to the accuracy of any test, and some of that limit is around false negatives and false positives, so what do those terms mean?
Think of a pregnancy test:
– A false positive would mean the test confirmed a pregnancy that does not exist.
– A false negative would mean the tested showed no pregnancy when one does exist.

One challenge of creating an algorithms that use some external data as input is evaluating the risk of false positives and false negatives. In law there’s an axiom that it’s better that ten guilty people go free rather than one innocent person be imprisoned. So the legal systems work to protect the innocent with rules of evidence and putting the burden of proof on the prosecution, knowing that in some cases guilty people will go free. In drawing the line far on side of false negatives (the guilty person is not convicted) the law acknowledges that it is, at least in theory, really important to avoid false positives (an innocent person is convicted).

In my email example above the line has been drawn, if it’s not a company email – easily identifiable by the email address – then it’s external and the notification is used. But our work environment online is no longer the walled garden we once had. Almost all of the systems I use are from external companies, companies that have gone through significant technical and risk assessment before being allowed to connect to the network. They are systems where I work, but from a strict IT perspective they are outside the company.

I understand the IT perspective on this, but the volume of notifications has taught me to ignore them. It’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf – the ultimate false positive.

Just Stop It – Don’t talk to me in a funny language

Just Stop it

Last Month YouTube updated their terms of service, and users in the EU and Switzerland had to agree to new terms so I got this notification.


So I clicked on it, and got a document of more than 4,000 words in Dutch.

I can read Dutch, but it’s much slower for me than reading English. I know YouTube must have this document in English because Ireland and the UK are (at date of writing) part of the EU and YouTube is an American entity so it’s highly likely that they created the document in English. So I’m sure they have the right content – and a quick search revealed they do.

I use the internet in English at least 90% of the time, my language settings are all for UK English, my browser is in English, my YouTube account specifies UK English.

But it seems that YouTube have chosen to use my IP address to determine which language I get my terms and conditions in. This is a Bad Idea, it’s a very poor data point to predict language.

  • Internet access can be routed through another country, my work computer can go via UK, Netherlands, Singapore or the US depending on which data centre I route it through.
  • People travel, within a 2 hour flight I could be in a country where people speak French, English, Irish, Danish, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, German, Czech, or Polish.
  • In some countries there are multiple languages spoken, what did YouTube do to the Belgians?

Websites can pick up the language of the browser, that’s a better guess at which language to deliver content. And in this case I was logged in. I TOLD YouTube what language I wanted.

American companies are really bad at this, they need to hire more Europeans to their UX teams. Hire some Belgians, YouTube.

The Rise and Fall of Social Media Platforms

Turn the sound off and drop the speed, and watch as the companies bounce up and then disappear.

In 2003 everyone was on Friendster, and back then “everyone” meant 3,5 million people. Their membership peaked at around 50 million, but by then Facebook had 120 million members. The company is “on a break“, and has been since 2005.

By 2005 everyone was on MySpace, but they were overtaken by YouTube in 2007 and had a peak user number of about 73 million in 2008 by which time Facebook had also overtaken them. MySpace still exists, and has tried to position itself as a platform for artists, it still has 50 million monthly active users.

By 2011 Facebook had overtaken and has remained in the top position ever since.

It’s interesting to see how the companies go up and down the charts, but I’m not sure exactly what it tells us – I think a social media platform can be financially successful serving a smaller audience. Linkedin no longer ranks in the tables, and it was purchased by Microsoft in 2016, but it’s a revenue generator for them because of it’s bespoke business tools, and the high level of influence the members have in the business world. The biggest option might not always suit your purpose. Making a profitable business out of a social media channel needs to be about more than ad revenue.

This was compiled by TNV, and they’ve sort of explained how they did it in an article, nowhere on the graphic or the article does it say what the measure is, it seems to be monthly active users (I compared published data from Weibo and Facebook), but I suspect that the Google Buzz figure is not accurate – it plateaus at 170 million, and then is overtaken by other platforms.

Their conclusion was

One thing’s for certain, judging by how many times the top spot changed hands over the past 16 years, none of the social media giants should be resting on their laurels. Really, anything can happen.

Not really. Only three companies held the top spot in the first 8 years; Friendster, MySpace and YouTube. In the last 8 years the top spot has been held by Facebook, and I expect it will take the top spot again this year. Given that “everybody” is now on Facebook it enjoys a position of being an entrenched network, the more people are on it the less likely people are to leave – even if some of us are reluctant users.

If a challenger comes for the top spot I suspect it will be from China, Sina Weibo sits in 7th spot on the 2018 data. They started out as a Chinese only, but now produce a site in both traditional and simplified Chinese to capture much of the Chinese diaspora, and have started to support other languages. Tencent has a billion users already, but is China only so was not included in the data.

Meanwhile I suspect that groups disillusioned with Facebook’s privacy and data practices will start smaller interest-based sites. I’m curious to see where this goes.