Continuous Improvement

The title of this piece is a phrase you hear a lot in consulting, software development, higher education, and basically any other highly complex process environment. When I hear the phrase “continuous improvement,” I generally think it means three things:

  1. The speaker acknowledges that the thing being “continuously improved” is broken.
  2. The speaker confesses that not only is it broken, it’s so badly broken that it will never be fixed.
  3. Look for a lot of half-assed changes to try to fix the problems, but never really succeed.

Maybe that’s a little too cynical. I certainly hope it’s too cynical for my “continuous improvement” efforts on this site!

Improving the site

One of the nice things about writing a personal web log is that, at least until you get linked by Dave, you know everyone in your audience. I’ve been taking advantage of that to gather feedback from people about how the site is working for them. I’ve heard two pieces of feedback: the navigation can be confusing, and the email options don’t work. I’m trying to address both of those:

  • Navigation: I’ve just added a new help page to the site, accessible both from the FAQ and from the side links on each page. It explains how the site works, in concept and in how you click from page to page. I’m also trying to improve how things on the site are labeled.
  • Email: I think that I didn’t understand how the email bulletins feature was supposed to work. I’m changing the process for how I write the front page of this site. After I write a page, I’ll manually send out a bulletin with the contents of the page. If that works, this will be the first page update you’ll get by email. Remember, you can turn bulletin notification on and off using your Preferences.

This site is definitely a work in progress, so please give feedback either to me directly or on the site. If you have problems with the site navigation or have an idea of how I could improve it, or if the email bulletins don’t work, let me know! As Dave Winer, the developer behind the Manila platform used to say, “Dig we must!” It’s a phrase I prefer to “continuous improvement” because it’s more concise: there’s work to be done! I’ve got to do it! I’m working on it now!

For Amateurs

Not that this has anything to do with the rest of the piece, but my wife and I (yes, she’s back in town for a few days–yay!) ate at Seattle’s famed Wild Ginger last night. Sadly, we were very disappointed. While the food itself was quite good (though very mild compared to the Thai food that inspired it), the service was so far below sub-par it wasn’t even funny. We got there half an hour early for a 9:30 reservation (so we could hang out in the bar and chat) but weren’t seated until 9:45. The waiter was condescending about the wine list (which was overpriced)… Enough rant. Bottom line: go to Flying Fish instead. Much better experience.

So, “for amateurs.” Douglas Rushkoff in the Guardian wrote this piece that echoes my feelings about the possible harm from the dot-com fallout. Rushkoff says, “The point is to do what we do online because we love it…Anything done in this very transparent medium for any other reason gets exposed. It’s as if the more active mindset we use to navigate the internet allows us to detect the intentions of its many posters and navigators. If there’s no real passion for anything but revenue, we know it. We can smell it.”

I have long thought the same about music (in the immortal words of choral conductor Robert Shaw, “Choral music is like sex. Both are far too important to be left solely to professionals”). I think on some very fundamental level this can be generalized to our work, our private activities, our interaction with our families. Purity of motive and honesty about motive count for a lot in my book.


I’m feeling a bit overextended lately. This is nothing new for me; after all, I gave myself an ulcer when I was an undergrad with the stress of the various things I was trying to accomplish. I’m still surprised on a day like today when it seems I haven’t learned my lesson.

This summer, I’m trying to do the following:

  • Complete a successful internship
  • Customize a commercial calendar package for MIT’s entrepreneurship portal, e-MIT
  • Give the web site for the Sloan Leadership Forum a facelift
  • Get ready for a new season of the Sloan E-52s — including arranging some music
  • Oh, yeah–and be a good husband

Am I stupid? Why do I always overpromise things?

A few years ago at AMS, I had a 360-degree review. If you’ve never been through one of these, I highly recommend it as a diagnostic tool. A group of your direct reports, managers, customers, and peers provide you with anonymized feedback in response to a questionnaire designed to measure your leadership effectiveness. It can be pretty humbling. One of the respondents noted my tendency to get involved in a lot of things (at the time, I was, at the request of my management and my clients, holding two unrelated full-time positions), and accused me essentially of letting my ambition write checks that I couldn’t cash.

Maybe there’s some truth in that statement. I don’t know that I’d ever considered ambition a major component of my personality, but maybe that’s the problem — or vanity, or something. Or just a chronic inability to estimate time. I do know it’s frustrating not having the time and energy to deliver the best things that I can.

Gougers! United: The Untold Story

After some fun, I’m back in Seattle. An observation: when United Airlines calls your cell phone, tells you that your original flight was cancelled, and offers you a different flight at no charge that gets you to your destination earlier, and it seems too easy… it probably is.

Update: Here’s the full story. Not an atypical travel story, I suppose, but it’s unusual in my experience in the number of things that went wrong in one day.

Boston, Sunday, 3:35 pm. I get a call on my cell phone telling me that the first leg of my flight back to Seattle, through Washington, DC, has been cancelled. However, they can put me on a flight routed through Denver that gets me to Seattle about half an hour earlier. As noted above, it sounds too good to be true.

Boston Logan Airport, 5:30 pm. The airport is packed and I find the flight departure has been delayed twenty minutes, to 7:00 pm. No big deal so far…

Boston Logan Airport, 8:00 pm. Having finally pushed back from the gate at 7:30 pm, we’re waiting in line to take off. And waiting. And waiting. I start noticing other planes going around us… The young kid in the row behind me kicking my seat and giggling doesn’t help my mood.

Boston Logan Airport, 8:30 pm. We’re back at the gate. The pilot announced that there was a mechanical problem with one of the instruments that would prevent us from taking off. Then the ground crew chief came on and said, “Passengers going to Denver and those continuing to San Francisco, we will get you there tonight, either on this plane or another. Passengers connecting through Denver, you will probably all miss your connections. Please come and see me at the podium…”

Boston Logan Airport, 9:20 pm. I finally get through the line at the podium to find that I can get on a flight to Los Angeles, and then take a flight to Seattle first thing in the morning. That gets me to SeaTac Aiport about 9 am. The only catch is that “at this point there’s no way your bag is going to LAX with you, because the LAX flight leaves in 15 minutes and your bag isn’t off the plane yet. You’ll need to file a claim as soon as you get to LAX so that your bag can be delivered to you in Seattle.” But he promises I can get a voucher for a hotel room in LAX.

Boston Logan Airport, 10:20 pm. We take off finally for LAX.

LAX, 1:10 am (Pacific Daylight Time). We land in LAX. I ask the customer service crew about my hotel voucher and am told to proceed to baggage claim. I ask the baggage claim personnel about my bag claim and am told, “Since your bag is checked to Seattle, you’ll need to call this number to file the claim.” I have to ask twice to get the voucher.

LAX, 2:10 am (PDT). After I wait for 25 minutes, the shuttle for the Aiport Hilton pulls up and stops one lane away from the curb. I try to make eye contact with the driver to see if he’s going to bring it to the curb, but he revs the motor and drives away as I’m waving at him (empty shuttle). I end up paying the Ramada driver $5 to take me to the Hilton.

LA, Airport Hilton, 2:45 am (PDT). I finally get in my bed, until…

LA, Airport Hilton, 5:10 am (PDT). My wake-up call. I need to be back at the airport for a 6:30 flight.

LAX, 6:35 am (PDT). We take off on time (amazingly). So far Monday is much better travel than Sunday…

SeaTac Airport, 9:10 am (PDT). I deplane and head for baggage claim. When I speak to the personnel about my bag, she says, “Your name rings a bell for some reason. I think we may already have your bag.” She and I walk over to a stack of luggage from another flight, and there’s my bag!!!

Redmond, 10:10 am (PDT). I arrive at work smelling not too horrible in yesterday’s clothes (no time to go home and change). Another travel horror story survived.

The scariest part

The most frightening thing about this whole story is that virtually the whole story happened to me before… in 1995, when I was traveling for AMS. From Dulles, we couldn’t take off for LA because of mechanical failure… we missed our connection to Inyokern, CA and had to spend a night in the Airport Hilton… our bags were lost and then found… and it was all on United. So Mike Stopper and Kevin Mitchell, I was thinking of you guys last night as I tried to dial a local access number for my company in LA only to find that the room didn’t have an active outside line. “What a bunch of gougers!”

What’s your story?

Post your travel horror story in the Discussion section. (Comments are now closed.)

Back in Boston

…at least for the weekend. After my long sleepless plane ride (which admittedly was freakishly cheap), it was a relief to just sit on the bank of the Esplanade in Boston beside the river and watch the crowds go by. Lisa, our friends Niall and Dubhfeasa, and I went there about 3 pm yesterday and spent a nice afternoon just being lazy. There are probably more historically appropriate ways to spend Independence Day, but I don’t want to know about them.

Lisa has said that the weather in Boston has been oppressive this summer with high heat and humidity, but (at least so far) it doesn’t touch Washington, DC for nasty sticky.

I’m currently sitting in a team room in Sloan writing this. It feels strange to be back here, knowing that there will be 350 new people running around in a month and that I’ll be the one that’s supposed to know something about Sloan and how it works.

I had an email today from someone in Alabama who may be related to the Jarrett side of the family. Weird thing–he says he has my uncle Aubrey Jarrett’s dog tags… I’ll have to call and see if Aubrey was even in the military.

PS — Freudian slip: the first version of this page was called “Back in Cambridge” — even though we moved across the river to Boston in May. Funny how the brain gets confused in a different time zone.

And the eyeball’s red glare…

Updates will be sporadic for the next few days, as I’m flying back to Boston for the 4th of July holiday (redeye flight tomorrow night, hence the title of this piece). I’ll probably sneak one update in later in the week, but I hope to mostly be enjoying the heat, humidity and sun that I’ve so far managed to escape in Seattle this summer.

I had dinner with our dear friend Shel and her folks tonight. They’re visiting her in Portland, having flown out this morning from Poquoson, Virginia. Exciting news from Poquoson–apparently they’ve put a sewer system in now. Too bad–as they say, it used to be “where the effluent met the affluent”…

I tried to talk Shel into starting up one of these sites (by the way, have I mentioned you too can have your own weblog, entirely edited through your browser, at, but over dinner wasn’t able to get quite worked up enough about it to convince her. I guess the only thing I can say is to point to the web site of Justin Hall, which remains unparalleled in my experience.

Justin’s been writing an online diary since he was a callow youth at Swarthmore back in 1994, and has faithfully posted every joyous and painful (and sometimes explicit, so be warned) detail of his life since then at his site, Links from the Underground. In a way, you might say Justin is to blame for my site and others like it. But at the same time, his words from 1995 still ring true, even after the DotBomb.

For him, and for me, it’s about getting humanity onto the web before it’s so choked with commerce, official TV show fan sites, technical support knowledge bases, and pop-under ads that it becomes just another worthless sewer of data without information, communication without listeners, words and images without soul.

I was sad because I had no broadband

…until I met a man with no modem. If you’re trying to contact my parents via email, you may want to try the phone instead — their modem perished via electrical storm last week. The moral of the story: get one of those little modem surge protectors from Radio Shack. Your Internet thanks you.

Yucca Flats

So the cryptic reference in yesterday’s writeup was to a beverage called Yucca Flats, which we used to enjoy at Myrtle Beach after classes ended each spring when I was in college. For the record, here’s the recipe: Put 10 lbs of ice in a cheap styrofoam cooler. Pour a big (1.75 liter) bottle of vodka over the ice. Put sliced fruit (whatever you’ve got handy, but make sure to include limes, oranges, and maraschino cherries, plus the liquid the cherries came in) in the cooler. Add about 1-2 cups of sugar. Stir. Put the lid on the cooler and place it in direct sunlight for about six hours, stirring periodically. (The ice must melt down enough so that you can’t taste the vodka any more).

The only problem I ran into making it last night was that I didn’t get enough direct sunlight, so I had to use a few cups of hot water to melt some of the ice — which made it a little too weak. But it had good flavor anyway.

Reggie Aggarwal and the Thrilla from Manila

A long time ago, I decided to start this page so that I could play around with the Manila technology and keep a web log. I didn’t realize the power I had at my hands until I started looking at my referer log. I saw that a lot of people had come to my page after searching for things on Google. Curious, I clicked through one Google link (a search request for info on Reggie Aggarwal) and found that I had the top two links for him! The links showed up ahead of his own home page and his official biography at his company.

I can only assume that the Manila back end managed to store my site in such a way that it showed up pretty darn high on Google. I don’t know how you did this, guys, but I’m sure I speak for all Reggie’s fans when I say I’m grateful.

Keeping Busy

Looking back over the past couple weeks, I realized I haven’t really said a lot about my day-to-day existence here in Washington State.

I’ve pretty much fallen into the groove here. Work typically doesn’t consume much more than eight or nine hours a day; commute chews up almost two hours a day, though. (Coming into work isn’t bad: I leave the house at 7:15 and get in around 7:45. But the return trip always takes forever.)

After hours most days I heat up some leftovers and read, listen to music, or try to teach myself Perl. Sadly, I have become addicted to a few television shows as well, specifically “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and most of the shows on the Food Network.

We interns typically have about one company-sponsored after work event a week. We also generally meet up for dinner and drinks after work on Friday. This weekend we’re doing a barbecue at the swank apartments where a number of the interns are staying (sadly, my digs are a little less elegant).

Which brings me to the point of this little missive: if anyone reading this knows the recipe for Yucca Flats (also known as just yucca), can you call please before 6 pm Pacific time? I’m going to wing it, and I’m terrified I’ll forget something …

The Verdict

On the verdict

There’s been a lot of coverage of the verdict of the Microsoft case today. There were a lot of news trucks in the part of the Seattle area where I work. The web log traffic has been heavy too.

Dave Winer thinks that the decision still contains some really strong teeth against Microsoft and in favor of Independent Software Vendors (ISVs). He thinks “the judges put in writing some basic principles about how platform vendors must deal with independent developers.”

Thomas Madsen-Mygdal has been excerpting the decision of the appellate court, highlighting sections that upheld the ruling of the lower courts.

Slashdot has more than 1000 comments on their reporting of the article.

On the competition

I have some thoughts on how all this will play, but one point I have to make from the Mac-using population: the decision does throw into pretty sharp relief the issues facing the Mac platform. From the case:

The District Court found that consumers would not switch from Windows to Mac OS in response to a substantial price increase because of the costs of acquiring the new hardware needed to run Mac OS (an Apple computer and peripherals)and compatible software applications, as well as because of the effort involved in learning the new system and transferring files to its format.
Findings of Fact ¶ 20.The court also found the Apple system less appealing to consumers because it costs considerably more and supports fewer applications.

I guess that’s the challenge for Steve. He’s got a brand new operating system that has a combined heritage of 17 years of the Mac and more than 30 years in Unix. Is that enough to keep the platform from falling into irrelevancy? I’ll keep using my PowerBook until it’s pried from my fingers (or I upgrade to a new model), but I have to hope that the early burst of activity I’ve seen with new apps for the platform will help reverse some of the trends of the past few years.

The Distance of the Lonely Runner (or something)

My parents are in the process of building a house. This is a pretty big deal, since their previous house, the one in which I grew up, had been their home for almost thirty years (longer, in my Dad’s case). They started the building process late last year, after having moved to my family’s property in western North Carolina when my Dad retired.The house is its own story (and it’s one that Mom and Dad have sent out in numerous emails in the last six months), but the part I want to focus on is (naturally, and myopically, enough) where I fit in. See, I grew up in that house in Virginia. I went to school at the University of Virginia. I worked for six years in Northern Virginia (which is not quite its own separate state, although maybe it should be).

Now, within the course of eight months, I’ve moved to the Boston area for school then to Seattle for a summer job, and my parents have left Virginia for good. Only my sister is still left in the state.

What I’m coming to understand as a result of all of this is something that I never really “got” before. My family’s roots are very strongly geographic, with my Mom’s family from Lancaster County, PA, and my Dad’s from the Asheville area in North Carolina (in fact, if you look at my genealogy, you can see just how far back those roots go). As a result, I think I confused geography with family connections for many, many years. What I’ve come to realize is that there’s a much harder process than building a house that I have to do—it’s continuing to communicate and visit with the family and ensuring that those connections never drop.

It’s a much harder job than designing an enterprise software system. Or building a house. Or writing a book. But a lot of people seem to be able to do it pretty successfully. As a coworker of mine said a bit wistfully this evening, “That’s what air travel is for.” Still, it seems like no matter how far we’ve come in communications, travel, and city design, we’re still faced with the basic fact that distance makes a huge difference in how we live our lives.

Kicking squealing Gucci little piggy

Today’s update is a little disjointed, but I wanted to go ahead and post it rather than try to get it perfect.

One of the benefits of hearing a band live is that sometimes you can understand some of the lyrics to your favorite songs better. The lyric quoted in the title of today’s piece was snarled with great clarity and venom by Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke on Saturday night, during “Paranoid Android” (their “breakthrough” single from 1997’s OK Computer). And Thom did look like a paranoid android — bobbing in front of the microphone like a man possessed. The full context is “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking squealing Gucci little piggy/You don’t remember, you don’t remember/Why don’t you remember my name?”

And the audience kind of sat there getting stoned. At least that was what was happening where we were sitting.

The Gorge, near the city of George, Washington, sits in a high natural amphitheatre overlooking the Columbia River. You can see down into the river bed for miles past the band shell. It’s the most sublime location for a concert I’ve ever seen.

Radiohead is a band that makes music that kicks back against the complicity with which we are giving up our humanity. Unfortunately I think most of the crowd on Saturday was too far gone to respond.

The new Radiohead song that won’t leave my head, “Dollars & Cents,” was given a disturbing spin on Saturday. Radiohead have made a career out of defying expectations, and originally I understood “Dollars & Cents” to dramatize pressures that the band felt to be conventional pop artists (“Be constructive with your blues…Quiet down!”). But on Saturday I thought I heard Thom sing

     We are the dollars & cents
     We are the pounds & pence
     We are the marketing men, and yeah
     We're going to crack your little souls

Words of caution to live by for an MBA student.

PS The full lyrics to “Dollars & Cents” can be found at

Well, how did I get here?

…but first, an update on all the boring tech geek stuff from yesterday: If you are a member of the site and want to subscribe to this page by email, click on the new “My Preferences” link in the left navigation area under Membership and make sure that the “Receive email bulletins?” radio button is selected.

So why am I here? I’ve found myself pretty surprised that I’ve been updating this page so frequently. When I called the post for June 11 “Quarterly Update (i)” it was only half tongue in cheek, as I hadn’t done an update before that since October 2000, and before that it was August 2000…

What I think is causing this: I haven’t really written much in a long, long time. I learned how to write in a business style when I worked at “AMS”, but the insidious downside of business writing is that it makes it very difficult to write when you don’t have a business purpose. Business writing, like scientific writing, is a very different set of muscles than writing essays (about non-business topics), poetry, record reviews, or anything else that requires independent thought. I used to write all these things, and one day I hope to do so again.

But the first lesson in writing, and the one lesson I never really learned when I was studying Poetry at Virginia, is that writing is a muscle. If you don’t exercise your ability to write, it atrophies and dies, slowly and horribly. Over the past seven years, I stopped writing poems, reviews, articles, letters, emails (except for very brief and perfunctory ones), and pretty much everything except software code and documentation.

I’m good at writing software, but it’s a very restrictive medium because it has to do something. I like my words to have a chance just to lounge around sometimes. And if they happen to let something interesting out while they’re doing it, so much the better.

So this website is where my words come to hang out. Maybe at some point soon they’ll start exercising a little bit, lose that spare tire (like I need to do), and start surprising me again like they did in college. We’ll see. While I’m waiting for that to happen, though, it’s kind of nice to know that anyone who wants to can read them any way they choose.

P.S. Again, don’t expect an update until sometime on Sunday. Four in a row is pretty good for me right now, and with my wife coming into town I think I’m going to give myself and my words a few days off. –tj

Discussion boards are live!

Just a quick note: For those who want to use the discussion boards, they’re now “live.” You can post feedback on any story, including these front page stories, and start your own discussion topics.

Apologies to all for not finding the badly set site administrative option before now — and thanks to my sister Esta for pointing it out.

So to enter the discussion, you have a couple different paths:

  1. You can click the “Comment on this item” button at the bottom of each day’s page.
  2. You can click the “Recent Discussion” link in the left, which lists all the posted discussion items in the last few days. Choose an item to read or respond to, and a response area will appear in the bottom of the page.
  3. You can click the “List by Topic” to see all the top level topics (including these stories). Clicking through to one of the topics will show you the discussion topic and all its responses, and allow you to respond.
  4. You can click the “Create New Topic” to start your own topic.


What Am I Doing in Seattle?

I’m in Seattle this summer working as a strategic development intern at A Big Software Company in the area. Having been in consulting previously at a firm that did a lot of in-house software development, I kind of wanted to see what the product-only side of the fence was like.

It’s a little more difficult than I had anticipated–for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the job. For one thing, it’s difficult to be on the other side of the country from one’s family for a week, let alone 10. Non-obvious things get you, like the fact that you aren’t able to make most calls to the east coast past 7 PM for fear of waking someone up–and, given Seattle traffic, I generally don’t get home before 7 pm.

Then there’s that whole issue of family. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. I haven’t seen my wife since the end of May. She’s coming to visit on Thursday night, so don’t expect any updates until Sunday…

But I’m having fun anyway as much as I can (if the earlier stories about concerts and beer didn’t make that clear). And Seattle is a really cool town. Although I could do without the sun coming up before 5 am–that’s really weird.

Sunburn and Loss

A few quick thoughts today…

  1. Contrary to popular opinion, you do sometimes need sunscreen in Seattle. I was at a beer festival Saturday and at the Fremont Fair on Sunday, and am currently the color of a boiled lobster.
  2. The radio station I listen to out here, KEXP, was playing a tribute this morning to a listener who lost a bout with cancer over the weekend. Nick Cave’s “Death is Not the End” and a cut from Lou Reed’s last really brilliant album, Magic and Loss. Makes me think: what would be your favorite way to be remembered musically? Post your answers in the discussion area.