Qualifying for the Boston Marathon: a Goal

I started running for exercise when I was in middle school and then competitively when I got to high school. I ran cross country, indoor track, and track & field all four years of high school (I also threw the javelin!). I was never a star but I did manage to come in 3rd place on a few rare occasions my senior year. Nonetheless, I learned to love running and it’s been a great resource for me to stay in shape since then. I haven’t always kept up with it as I should but ever since we got a treadmill in January 2011, I’ve been really getting back into it. In particular, I’ve been running increasingly more challenging races like the BAA Half Marathon last fall and a Tough Mudder a few weeks ago. Having survived these, I find myself now looking towards new challenges.

I’ve always wanted to run a marathon, but the training regimen has never really meshed with my schedule especially with all the travel I do as well as having two little kids at home who constantly desire my attention. As such, I’ve never tried. If I were to do a marathon, I’d really like to run the Boston Marathon in particular as the course runs not too far from our house and I love the thought of my family and friends cheering me on from multiple locations along the way. However, I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I could possibly qualify for Boston (I do realize that this means that I’d have to run a different marathon first) and I’ve not been particularly comfortable with the idea of asking for donations to participate on a charity team.

Despite these reservations, my thinking on this matter changed recently after discovering online pace equivalent calculators developed for training purposes (Runners World has a simple one that I like). Basically, these are tools that take your pace for a given race and estimate how you might do on a different race assuming you had done the proper training for that distance. After playing around with a few different ones for a bit, plugging in different races that I’ve done, the estimations seemed earily accurate. In the process of playing around, I entered my high school PR for a 5K (20:00) and noticed that it gave me a marathon time of 3 hrs and 15 min which just so happens to be the qualifying time for the 40-44 age group for the Boston Marathon. Now, I’m not quite 40 yet, nor can I run a 20 minute 5K right now, but I’m actually pretty close (my last 5K was just over 21 minutes) and my body has clearly done it once before. Anyways, having always wanted to beat this high school PR, I find myself wondering whether maybe I could actually qualify for Boston if I put the training in. So, I’ve set myself a goal, I’m going to beat that PR and if I can do so sometime in the next 4 years before I hit 40 and still manage to keep up the training and the distance, then I’m going to defy my pre-conceptions and qualify for the Boston Marathon.

I’m Vetoing Your Pants

Truly exceptional customer service (especially when you aren’t paying a premium for it) is a wondrous experience. Anytime I am blessed with it, I find myself amazed that more individuals and companies don’t make a greater effort to offer it because it leaves such a profound and lasting positive impression. A number of companies like Zappos and Rackspace have built their reputations and subsequent success around this idea, but they aren’t the focus of this post. In Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, they highlight the value of seeking out individual bright spots of success in otherwise bad situations as a powerful way to learn how to affect change in difficult situations. It is in this context that I want to share my most recent brush with truly exceptional customer service.

I don’t particularly enjoy clothes shopping because I’ve never had a particularly good eye for fit or fashion, but a friend recently sent me a 50% off “Friends & Family” coupon for Banana Republic (thanks Brent!). The coupon could only be used in an actual store, so I walked on over to the store hoping to take advantage of this windfall as I’d been in the market for new pants for a while now and my wife assured me that Banana Republic pants were among the best fitting pants that I owned.

On entering, I quickly sought out the nicest pants that I thought would look good on me to maximize my savings because I had already decided I was going to make a real investment in quality pants one way or another. With my armada of potential new pants in tow, I headed over to the fitting rooms. Surprisingly, there wasn’t anybody waiting to check me in or count my items, so I just went into the first empty room I saw. Shortly thereafter, my shopping experience changed when there was a quiet knock on the door. A salesperson on the other side said that she saw me go in and wanted to know how things were going and whether I needed anything. Nice.

Once I had my first new pair of pants on, I stepped out to see how they looked in the 3 way mirror. I was pretty pleased with my selection. However, as I was returning to the fitting room, the same salesperson looked me up and down and very politely (but firmly) said “I’m vetoing your pants. You can’t buy those.” She then informed me that the pants were too short (apparently they should fall just above the sole at the back of your shoe … who knew?). She then walked me through the various ways you can test your pants for fit after trying them on (be sure to sit down and raise one foot to the other knee to ensure that you don’t see too much sock). Somewhat flabbergasted and crestfallen that I’d been wearing the wrong size pants for years, I went back into the fitting room to undo my fashion faux pas.

As I started back into the room she asked to see what else I had brought in. On seeing my vast collection of ill-fitting pants, she told me to wait right there while she went out and got me new pants in the right size. She then gave me one last look and asked whether I was particularly attached to the cut of the pants I was wearing. I informed her that I was not, to which she nodded approvingly and explained to me that while the pants looked good on me (once you got past the too short part), there was a different cut of pants that was better suited to my body. So, if I didn’t mind (and I didn’t), she was going to swap out any of the less desirable cuts of pant with the preferred kind. Seemingly moments later, she returned with all the same pants I had originally brought in but now in the appropriate size and cut. I tried them on and she was absolutely right. Once I finished trying the pants on, she carried all the clothes to the register for me and then proceeded to walk me through the best way to maximize my discount based on the coupon’s specific rules and criteria before passing me off to the cashier. In the end, I purchased all 8 pairs of pants and saved over $300 in the process. I’m not sure where I’m going to put all the new pants, but I’m really excited about them.

My many previous experiences with clothes shopping (outside of buying a tailored suit) have always left me wishing that I had a personal shopper or that the cast of What Not To Wear would magically appear and do my shopping for me. Sadly (or not) my existing wardrobe isn’t sufficiently bad to require such an intervention, but it would be nice, as would the cash that goes with being on that show. However, on this particular occasion, this single individual salesperson managed to turn an experience which I normally dread into one in which I left feeling excited and looking forward to coming back again (and I will). That aside, having learned not to expect good customer service when I shop for clothes, I am guarded in my belief that I’ll actually receive this level of attention and service again in the future, but if I do, it will really make a lasting impact.

So, my take away from all of this – by providing me with direct and honest feedback coupled with a teaching moment and then a successful follow through on addressing the problem the salesperson left me in shopping nirvana. If only all customer service interactions could be so successful.

Honest feedback, teaching, delivery – three critical components to generating repeat business.

Preparing for a Lightning Talk

So, I had intended to write this before the Business of Software 2011 conference this October as a bit of advice to the Lightning Talk presenters at that meeting. I gave a Lightning Talk at the 2010 conference and for me it was one of the absolute highlights of the conference. Unfortunately, I didn’t get this written until after the meeting… However, as it is never too early to start preparing for the 2012 meeting, I’ve decided to post it now anyways.

For those of you who are not familiar with the concept of Lightning Talks, they are very short time constrained talks in which you are allowed a specific amount of time for set number of slides. At Business of Software 2010, we were given 7.5 minutes to cover 15 slides (each of which automatically advanced every 30 seconds). Usually, Lightning Talks are given as part of a competition and the audience votes on the best talk at the end. Sadly (for me), I didn’t win, but I was very glad to see Patrick McKenzie take home the prize for his great talk. So, on to the advice:

Have a provocative and memorable title

The title of my talk was “How to make a billion dollars in 7.5 minutes” and based on the conversations I had at the meeting, it really caught people’s attention and piqued their interest. When you only have 7.5 minutes and are sandwiched between a number of other speakers, it is a huge help to have people thinking about your talk before it begins and being able to easily remember the hook afterward. However, it is important that the subject matter of the talk relate to the title, because otherwise, remember the title won’t reinforce your actual performance.

Network

Just like having an interesting title is important, so is introducing yourself to the audience in advance. I didn’t fully appreciate the value of this until Mark Stephens (who won in 2009) kindly walked me (and a few other willing presenters-to-be) around the cocktail reception introducing each of us to new people and informing them that we were giving Lightning Talks. Amazingly, this was a great icebreaker for conversation (which frankly for me was reason enough to bring the matter up) but it also allowed me to engage the crowd in a comfortable setting and get some advance feedback on what their expectations were based on my title. Not only that, it enabled me to create some inside jokes for the crowd for the talk. Lastly, it also serves as a great frame of reference to reintroduce yourself to people after the talk is done because they’ll likely remember you from the initial meeting as well as your talk.

In addition to meeting the crowd, you should take every opportunity to get to know your other presenters. Preparing for and giving a Lightning Talk is a very stressful experience and I found a great deal of camaraderie grew out of the process amongst the speakers who got to know each other.

Practice

I know this should go without saying but you need to practice, a lot, (much more than you might think). Getting the timing right is extremely difficult especially when you are not the one controlling the advancement of the slides. Once you have the slides created and the basic content down, you need to go find a quiet room and set PowerPoint up to auto-advance your slides every 30 seconds and just keep practicing your talk. By the time you actually present, you should know exactly how long it takes you to present the content of any given slide. Unfortunately, what you won’t know is how the audience will react to each slide, so you need to prepare built-in talking transitions for each slide which can be adapted to the unexpected laughter or to the deadening sound of silence as you realize that nobody got your joke.

In addition, I would also recommend that you practice presenting with a big digital timer in front of you counting down (as well as counting up) your time so that you’ll be prepared for either circumstance when giving your talk. I found the experience of watching a timer count down to be very disconcerting as it threw off my internal time tracking process (I had practice using a stopwatch that counted up).

Your slides are context not content

One thing I noticed in reviewing the previous years’ winning talks as well as those which I thought went well my year is that their slides were very minimal. The slides were usually just brief touch points occasionally visited during the talk that provided the audience a reminder as to what you are talking about.

Making your slides too central to the talk sets you up for a significant challenge because if your slide needs to be visible to make your point, you may find yourself stalling while you wait for the slide to advance if you didn’t have your timing just right. Trust me, idling at a transition can be very painful to watch as well as experience.

Furthermore, don’t even think about putting enough text on your slide so that you are tempted to read from the slide. There is nothing worse than watching a speaker read their slides and in a situation like this, you can’t afford to waste any time not engaging the crowd.

Put your name on your slides

I know it seems like an obvious thing, but it easy to forget (I know I did), but make sure that your first slide has your name and the title of the talk on it. I had forgotten to do this and was very fortunate that this was pointed out to me as I was loading my presentation onto the conference computer.

In addition, put your name on the last slide too. Either your first slide or your last slide is going to be shown during the transition between speakers, so you might as well keep your name in front of people so they don’t forget who you are.

Be relevant (and funny)

I have to admit that I was really excited about my talk because it was drawing from my background in drug discovery and exploring how lessons learned there could be applied to software development. I agree that it seems like a bit of a stretch and even Neil asked me when I applied whether I could make it relevant. In the end I think it was relevant enough and I think people could see my passion for the subject matter, but when I saw Patrick’s and Portman’s talks the next day I knew I was in trouble because they were talking directly to the audience in a language they could understand and to which they could relate. When you couple that both of them being very funny, the game was up.

Learn from previous winners

Sadly, I was called out of town this year and missed the Lightning Talk session much to my dismay so I don’t have a lot to say about the winner at Business of Software 2011 except that I heard great things about the talk afterwards. But what I do know is that the videos from the winners from the previous years are available online and I’ve included them below for your convenience.

Watch Patrick McKenzie’s talk from BoS 2010

Watch Mark Stephens’ talk from BoS 2009.

Watch Alexis Ohanian’s talk from BoS 2008.

Prepare for disaster and be ok with it

Sometimes things just go wrong and there isn’t anything you can do about (especially when the clock is ticking). The more gracefully you are able to handle your slides not working as behaved the better off you’ll be. That being said, do everything in your power to avert disaster in advance. One way of doing that goes back to a previous point – don’t put a lot of content (especially media) into your slides!

Heck, if you’re really serious about it, trying practicing your talk with no slides at all to prepare for the case when all your slides come out all one color.

Lastly, have a good time

Win or lose, giving a Lightning Talk at a conference like Business of Software is a great and rare opportunity. I met more people at that meeting as a result of the talk and much to my amazement, people remembered me from last year’s talk at this year’s meeting!

Anyways, if your goal is to meet new people at the conference (which it really should be because the people are awesome), give it a shot, particularly if you aren’t a natural social butterfly or can never find the right topic to break the ice, because the Lightning Talk will do it for you.

For a great review of the actual Lightning Talks from 2010, be sure to check out Patrick Foley’s blog on the subject as well.

See you in October!

Navigating the Tokyo subway

I realize getting around Tokyo probably isn’t a top priority for most people these days, but as I was there recently (before the earthquake) and will be back in a few months escorting some newcomers to the city, I thought it might be a good idea to write down some of my thoughts.

Tokyo Subway MapTokyo has an extensive subway and light rail system (not to mention the superb inter-city trains as well). There is almost nowhere you can’t get to in Tokyo via the subway or the JR (Japanese Rail) lines. It is for this reason coupled with the fact that taxis are extremely expensive, that I highly recommend making yourself familiar with the subway/JR system.

A quick glance at the map (PDF version) can be quite overwhelming, but once you spend a few minutes figuring it out, it isn’t too bad. In particular, it useful to distinguish the JR lines (in particular the JR Yamanote line which circles central Tokyo) from the subway lines as the JR lines run above ground and so switching lines may not be as simple as changing trains inside a station. That being said, as long as you follow the signs, it isn’t too hard to find them from each other. However, I should point out that even connecting between subway lines you might be required to walk quite a distance, exiting and later re-entering the ticket area, and even possibly go outside to get to a connecting line at the same station. A good example of this is at the Kuramae station where switching between the Asakusa and Oedo lines requires leaving the station and walking nearly a quarter of a mile around the block to get to the other line at that same station. There really isn’t a good way to predict this, so just be prepared that not all connections can be made in a timely fashion. That being said, the trains themselves run like clockwork, it’s just the time between trains which is not guaranteed.

If you look closely at the map, you will notice that there are many separate lines which are operated by different companies (with different fare systems) which can make paying for your trip complicated if you don’t have either Suica or PASMO prepaid fare card.

Suica CardPASMO CardHaving one of these cards is invaluable if you want to be able to move around Tokyo easily and without a lot of drama. I would recommend Suica over PASMO as it can be used outside of Tokyo as well as the fact that many stores and restaurants accept Suica as a mechanism of payment (just like using a debit card). There is a very detailed page over at Japan-Guide.com, which is well worth a read, that describes the subtle differences between the cards as well as how to use them in practice.

20110403-032532.jpgOne issue that is not particularly well covered (in my opinion) by the Japan-Guide.com site is how to actually obtain one of these cards. The site explains that a card can be obtained from one of the many Suica machines (shown on the left) that you will find in every station. However, my experience has been that this is only true for the pink colored machines (not shown) and possibly the blue colored machines as well, but I’m not positive about that. Furthermore, most stations seem to only have the standard green charging-only machines as opposed to the pink or blue dispensing ones. Realistically, your best bet is to get a Suica card right after you land at the airport. The JR ticket office at Narita airport (below) offers 20110403-032050.jpga great deal on a Suica card in conjunction with a ticket for the Narita Express. No interaction with machines is required although you may need to point to a picture of a Suica card on the wall in case your Japanese or their English isn’t quite up to the challenge. Apparently, there is a similar deal available to people arriving at Haneda airport for a monorail ticket and a Suica card. I’ve never flown into Haneda so I can’t speak to that experience.

One last thing, while the stations and maps are usually well labeled in English inside the JR Yamanote line, once you get a bit further out, most of the maps become Japanese only. It is well worth it to purchase an subway map in your native language (be sure to get one which includes the JR lines). In addition, it might also be worth learning the Kanji symbols for the important station names on your journey (particularly the one nearest your hotel).

Calling home

I travel frequently and whenever I travel abroad, I always seem to rack up a rather large mobile phone bill because I call home frequently to speak with the family who can be rather chatty when I’m away. As such, I’m constantly working to minimize these costs by signing up for international calling plans and using Skype whenever possible. However, tonight I discovered a new weapon in my arsenal … Google Chat Voice. Google Chat Voice allows you to make completely free phone calls to the US and Canada from within Gmail. I didn’t quite believe it at first. I assumed I would only get my first call free like with Skype, but that does not appear to be the case. I made two calls this evening from my hotel room in Japan to the US and both were definitely free (it actually displays the word “Free” once you enter a US number into the keypad) and the call quality was great. If you haven’t tried this out yet, I highly recommend it.

In addition to now being able to make phone calls through Google Chat, you can also send free SMS messages. The only catch is that you are given an allotment of 50 messages which only get replenished when people reply to your texts. I suppose this is designed to be an abuse prevention mechanism which makes sense. All in all, I’m very excited about this new discovery and am hopeful that I’ll be able to keep my mobile phone bill down in the future.

Update (11/11/11) – As of September, it no longer appears to be free to call the US from international destinations (at least from Ireland). That being said it is still very cheap and convenient.

Dealing with wired internet access

I really hate when I check into a hotel only to discover that the advertised Internet access is wired. The location of the Ethernet jack and the length of the (sometimes provided) cable are both almost always inadequate. To make matters worse, many of the devices I travel with these days are wireless only (e.g. iPhone, iPad, etc.). Fortunately, I’ve discovered two options to work around this problem:

1. Make your own wireless network

To make your own wireless network, all you need is a standard wireless router (nothing fancy here) which you can plug into the provided wired connection. In fact, I am right now posting this through a personal wireless network off of my wired hotel Internet connection using a Cisco-Linksys E2000 Advanced Wireless-N Router and it is working like a champ. This is also a great solution if you have multiple wireless devices, are sharing the room with another person or have a group of people in the room all of whom would like Internet access.

The only real major caveat to this approach is that you have to bring the router with you (and don’t forget the power cable) which can be a pain. As an aside, you might want to preconfigure the router at home so that you can make sure it works and you know how to connect all of your devices to it. Furthermore, choose a wireless access password that you will remember (I was bit by this today unfortunately) or get yourself a label maker and put the password right on the device so you’ll never forget it.  Just to be clear, I’m not advocating using password labels like this more broadly, but it is a simple fix for this specific case where other people won’t have physical access to the router.

2. Bring the Internet with you

An alternative option to converting the hotel’s wired network into a personal wireless one is to simply bring your own wireless Internet access with you. This can be accomplished using a variety of different mobile hotspots like MiFi devices from either Verizon or Virgin Mobile. The great thing about these is that they just work. You simply turn the device on and you’re pretty much good to go to connect to the newly created hotspot. In addition to being simple to use, you have the benefit of not being throttled by the slow connection provided by the hotel. The downside to this option is that you have to pay for it and you likely have a bandwidth cap depending on your plan.

A similar option is to share your phone’s Internet connection through tethering. This is something offered by a variety of different phones now but again it isn’t free and your total bandwidth will be limited by your mobile phone’s data plan. AT&T just started offering this for the iPhone in the US within the past year, but unfortunately you cannot add tethering to your plan if you have the unlimited data plan which means that I probably won’t be adding that anytime soon.

I think that both options have merit and value independent of each other. The main advantage to the first option is that the cost is minimal and you can use this solution anywhere that you have wired Internet access unlike the second option which is reliant on cellular coverage and may not work outside of your home country. It really comes down to how often you have wired access available and whether you are going to be traveling abroad with any frequency.