Archive for June, 2010

How to Learn Twice as Much from Blog Posts

Monday, June 28th, 2010

The trick is to read posts that are doubly-useful.

Let’s look at a few examples:

I’m a big fan of JD Roth’s Get Rich Slowly, a finance-tips-for-the-layman sort of blog. While I do appreciate the best practices and money hacks (I feel they help me develop and maintain good financial habits), I could get those anywhere. A huge part of why I read GRS is because JD is a fan-freaking-tastic blogger. He writes diverse content on a near-daily basis, his posts always come off as sincere and never condescending, and the totally-committed community he has built up around GRS is nothing short of incredible. When I read posts at GRS, I’m not just learning about personal finance, I’m learning about how to write for and manage an extremely successful blog. Two things.

Another blogger I really like is Lisa Barone over at Outspoken Media. She writes mostly about search engine optimization and branding, which is often useful information for small-time bloggers like myself, but it’s not what she says that I’m paying the most attention to — it’s how she says it. Lisa has voice. Her writing is playful but clear, concise but with flair. I’m confident that if someone gave me ten posts about SEO and told me that one of them was written by Lisa, I could find it hands down. She’s identifiable and unique in an industry that is crowded and largely bland. Her content is useful, but it’s her style that I learn the most from. Again, two things.

And doubly-useful content doesn’t always have to be about honing pairs of skills; it works just as well for entertainment. Take, for example, Penny Arcade. There are at least two things I find entertaining on this website. The obvious one is the content they produce; their comics, podcasts, and PATV episodes are inspired and wildly popular, but I’m also a huge fan of Tycho’s writing! There have been days when I’ve loaded up PA to see the latest comic, and after reading Tycho’s post, completely forgotten that they even do comics and moved on to something else. Tycho’s posts are so captivating on their own that I would visit the site even if they didn’t make hilarious content. You guessed it: two things.

This doesn’t just apply to blogging either. I’ve tried several times to find a few francophones to follow on Twitter, because in addition to enjoying their opinions (I like to cover a wide variety of demographics on Twitter) it will also help me practice my french. It’s surprising where phenomenons like this can crop up.

So next time you’re about to drop half an hour on FAIL Blog or that popular social-media site that you only follow because everyone else does, consider spending that time on something with more depth. Something you can gain two insights from instead of one. Something doubly-useful.

Rules are Made to be Not Strictly Followed

Monday, June 21st, 2010

A couple of things happened over the weekend that made me wonder about rules. More specifically, they made me wonder about why rules exist and how strictly rules should be enforced. Let’s look at these two stories and see if we come to the same conclusions.

How I scored a free bus ride.

On Saturday, my fiancée and I attended a wedding (not our own). By a miracle of convenience, the reception hall was a 10-minute bus ride from our humble abode, and the reception included an open bar. This meant neither of us had to worry about driving or finding a ride home, we could simply take a bus that ran until 2am.

And so, shortly after 1:30 in the morning, the two of us stumbled out to the bus stop and caught our bus. I have a monthly pass, so I walked on as usual, but when la fiancée went to pay her fare, the bus driver stopped her and told her not to worry about it. I’ve never seen this happen before, and I’ve been taking buses in Ottawa for over ten years. The rule has always been pay your fare or get off the bus.

Why did he break this rule? My working theory is that the driver saw two young-adults making the responsible but unusual decision of taking a city bus home from a wedding in the early hours of the morning, and decided to mark the occasion by breaking a rule and saving us a few bucks. More on this in a moment.

How I spent half an hour at the airport.

On Sunday, I went to the airport to surprise my parents with a ride home. Their flight was delayed… for about two hours. So to kill a bit of time, I thought I’d grab a drink at the bar (yes, the day after the wedding; no, I don’t have a problem).

I sat down and ordered a gin and tonic. When it arrived, I realized that I didn’t have any cash on me and began digging through my wallet for my credit card. The bartender told me not to worry about it, and to just let him know when I’m ready to pay. I was a bit surprised here. Usually the rule is that the barkeep brings you a drink and you either hand him some cash or start a tab.

He didn’t know if I had any means to pay for my drink. In fact, he completely left the bar for about ten minutes to make a club sandwich for another patron. I could have nonchalantly up and left if I were that type of person (I’m not — I watched a bit of baseball, and paid for my drink when I got up to leave).

Why did he break the order-your-drink, pay-for-your-drink rule? Because it was convenient. I was fumbling through receipts and business cards, and someone else had just ordered a meal. Why make the hungry gentleman wait for me to sort out my payment details?

Let the over-analysis begin.

The first point I’d like to make is that both cases were great examples of good customer service.

On the bus, the driver likely recognized that I take the bus frequently on account of my pass, and may have deduced that I talked my date into taking the bus home. Maybe the bus line wants to encourage wedding-goers to benefit from its services, or maybe the bus driver just wanted to make our ride memorable so that we would tell people about it (mission accomplished). The price of a single fare on this one rare occasion was a small price to pay for those goals.

At the bar, the bartender managed to please two people by not requiring me to pay for my drink immediately. He trusted me, even though I was a total stranger. He had no idea that it was my first time at the Ottawa Airport Bar and Grill, or that I had a blog and might mention it in passing. He was just doing his job, and making a positive impact on his customers.

The second point I’d like to make is that this sort of behavior is probably actively discouraged (and that sucks).

I seriously doubt either the bus driver or the barkeep would have broken their respective rules if “the boss” had been watching. It’s way easier to enforce the rules (all passengers must pay, no exceptions! all drinks must always be paid for immediately!) than it is to flexibly provide great service.

I’m not going to say this should be actively encouraged, as that could get chaotic very quickly in both cases, but every once in a while a situation presents itself where it’s ok to break a rule or two. It makes the interaction feel more human, and we like that about it.

And the final point I’d like to make is this: are there any rules you strictly follow that might be ok to break every once in a while?

Motivation Overflow

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Let’s talk about motivation.

I recently joined Stack Overflow (here’s my profile) and one of the things I noticed right away is how easy it is to spend time there. I think I’ve checked in every day since I joined, and in ten days I’ve already answered fifteen questions. Now, before we discuss whether or not I’m developing an unhealthy addiction to social networks, I’m sure some of you are wondering what Stack Overflow is — let’s sort that out first:

Stack Overflow is a place where people can ask highly technical questions about computer programming and related topics, and get answers from a community of well-qualified geeks such as myself. When I log on, for example, I scan over a few dozen questions and answer any that I feel qualified to weigh in on. It’s free, self-organized, and completely voluntary.

Now, back to the issue at hand: why would I choose to volunteer my valuable free time answering other people’s questions? Or more specifically:

How does Stack Overflow motivate its community of users?

We’ll get to the answer in a moment, but before we do I’d like to take a moment to mention that I recently read Dan Pink’s Drive, a fantastic book about modern theories of motivation. I highly recommend this book. It’s an easy read that’s full of all kinds of useful information, and I’ll borrow a lot of its concepts and jargon in the remainder of this post.

Stack Overflow implements a wide variety of motivational techniques. For starters, all users have a “reputation” score which is basically a fuzzy measure of how well the Stack Overflow community trusts you. You earn reputation by asking and answering questions, so users that participate more actively in the community will get more reputation. Already that’s a form of motivation right there; the more you do for the community, the more reputation you build up.

Specifically, you gain reputation when you do positive work for the community. Users can vote on each others’ posts, so a good answer that gets a lot of votes will grant more reputation than a mediocre or weak answer (and likewise for questions). It’s very encouraging to see your answers get a lot of votes, and this sort of now-that reward (now that you’ve provided a good answer, we’ll boost your reputation) has been proven to be a repeatable tactic to motivate good behavior.

Similarly, good behavior is occasionally rewarded with badges. For example, if you answer a question and your answer is up-voted by ten different users, you earn the “Nice Answer” badge. This is known as an if-then reward (if your answer is accepted by many of your peers, then you get this badge added to your profile) and is historically a very effective technique for short-term motivation. Stack Overflow does a couple of things to keep badges relevant in the long term:

  • Some badges are extremely hard to earn — I’ve seen a few that have only ever been awarded a few dozen times.
  • Some badges can be awarded multiple times.

These conditions mean longtime users still have something tangible to strive for, so the motivational boost generated by badges doesn’t dwindle over time.

But rewards aren’t the only things that motivate us.

So far we’ve looked at the measurable ways that Stack Overflow motivates its users, but there are a number of non-measurable motivators as well. For example, the higher purpose of helping others and contributing to a database of valuable knowledge is a strong intrinsic motivator, and studies have shown this type of motivation to be the most powerful. On a basic, human level, we like to help each other out and do good work. Stack Overflow is an outlet for these tendencies.

Likewise, we enjoy pushing ourselves to master various skills. Like the carpenter who perfects his craft over years of experience, it’s rewarding for geeks like myself to hone the technical and communicative skills required to answer challenging technical questions. Not only do I learn something new every time I log on to Stack Overflow, I teach something new as well — this knowledge-transfer cycle is something I simply crave.

Let’s discuss this a little more.

If you’ve spent any time on Stack Overflow, I’d love to hear your take on this. Do you find yourself motivated by the factors above? Did I miss an important motivator that really drives you to contribute to the community?

Better yet, did you stop visiting Stack Overflow because you found it boring or uninteresting? What motivated you to leave?

Ottawa High School Technology Program Winter 2010 Wrap-up

Friday, June 11th, 2010

As some of you may recall, I volunteer with the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation in a program that aims to teach high school students how to develop real, working software. I’ve mentioned this before (in fact, I have an entire page dedicated to what I do with OCRI), but I haven’t really been blogging about it much (read: at all) this semester.

Fortunately, my co-mentor for the past twelve weeks has. I present to you:

I’m not sure why I didn’t even check in once over the course of three months, but I’ll try to actively post about it next time around. This is something I like to talk about.

Finally, this season’s program ended last night with the annual showcase. This event allows students to demonstrate their final product, (hopefully) running on a real XO Laptop, to friends, family, mentors such as myself, students from other schools, and various representatives from OCRI. It was a fun time, and as always, the ability of students that are often being exposed programming for the first time to crank out creative, engaging applications is absolutely stunning. I couldn’t be more proud of the students I’ve worked with and the software we’ve created.