Oil Change Time and a Rubber Ducky

Sometimes, the inspiration for this blog comes from the strangest places. This time… it was an oil change.

I had been putting off changing my oil for far too long and finally took advantage of some free time last Friday to get it changed. I used to change it myself, but for some reason, in this new car (well new used car, but that’s a story for another day) I’ve always paid to get it changed. (And actually why I stopped changing it myself is also a blog post for another day.)

Anyway, I’ve twice now gone to the local Valvoline. This isn’t really an add for Valvoline specifically but more a comment on what I found interesting there.

So, most places where I’ve had my oil changed, you park, go in, give them your name and car keys and wait. Not here, they actually have you drive the car into the bay itself and you sit in the car the entire time. I think this is a bit more efficient, but since, instead of lifting the car, they have a pit under the car, I suppose they do risk someone driving their car into the pit (yes, it’s guarded by a low rail on either side, but you know there are drivers just that bad out there).

So, while sitting there I observed them doing two things I’m a huge fan of: using a checklist and calling out.

As I’ve talked about in my book and here in my own blogs, I love checklists. I recommend the book The Checklist Manifesto. They help reduce errors.  And while changing oil is fairly simple, mistakes do happen; the wrong oil gets put in, the drain plug isn’t properly tightened, too much gets put in, etc.

So hearing them call out and seeing them check off on the computer what they were doing, helps instill confidence. Now, I’m sure most, if not all oil change places do this, but if you’re sitting in the waiting room, you don’t get to see it.

But they also did something else which I found particularly interesting: they did a version of Pointing and Calling.  This is a very common practice in the Japanese railway system. One study showed it reduced accidents by almost 85%. So while changing my oil, the guy above would call out what he was doing. It was tough to hear everything he was calling out, but I know at one point the call was “4.5 Maxlife”  He then proceeded to put in what I presume was 4.5 quarts of the semi-synthetic oil into my engine (I know it was the right oil because I could see which nozzle he selected). I didn’t count the clicks, but I believe there was 9.  Now, other than the feedback of the 9 clicks, the guy in the pit couldn’t know for sure that it was the right oil and amount, but, I’m going to guess he had a computer terminal of his own and had his screen said “4 quarts standard” he’d have spoken up.  But even if he didn’t have a way of confirming the call, by speaking it out loud the guy above was engaging more of his brain in his task, which was more likely to reduce the chances of him making a mistake.

I left the oil change with a high confidence that they had done it right. And I was glad to know they actually were taking active steps to ensure that.

So, what about the rubber duck?

Well, a while back I started to pick up the habit of rubber duck debugging. Working at home, alone, it’s often hard to show another developer my code and ask, “Why isn’t this working?”  But, if I encounter a problem and I can’t seem to figure out why it’s not working. I now pull out a rubber duck and start working through the code line by line. It’s amazing how well this works.  I suspect that by taking the time to slow down to process the information and by engaging more of my brain (now the verbal and auditory portions), like pointing and calling, it helps bring more of my limited brain power to bear on the problem.  And if that doesn’t work, I still have my extended brain.

PS As a reminder, this coming Saturday I’m speaking at SQL Saturday Philadelphia. Don’t miss it!

Sharking

The title refers to a term I had not given much thought to in years, if not perhaps decades. But first let me mention what prompted the memory.

This weekend my daughter was competing at the State Odyssey of the Mind competition in Binghamton, NY. While waiting for her team to compete, I noticed a member of one of the other teams walking around with a stuffed, cloth sharkfin pinned to the back of a sport jacket.

This reminded me of a t-shirt my mom made for me years back with a similar design.

So, you may be asking yourself, “why?” and perhaps asking “what’s the point of this particular blog post”.  I’ll endeavor to answer both. But first we have to jump back into the time machine and again go back to my days at RPI. The year is 1989 and I’m now helping out with the Student Orientation (SO) staff. We were a bunch of students who would return to RPI over the summer and help the incoming Freshman class get oriented while they visited RPI in prep coming in as students in the fall.

Back then, the ratio at RPI was pretty lopsided, it was 5 men for every one 1 women. This among other things lead to some women using the phrase, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” In a strictly mathematical sense this was in a way accurate, if a woman wanted to date, she had 5 men vying for her attention. The reality of course was much different. It meant that if a woman didn’t want to date, she still had 5 men vying for her attention. (Of course it was far more than that since things didn’t divvy up nearly as cleanly.)

This was a tough social environment and combine that with fairly geeky students who often didn’t develop good social skills in high school and you often ended up with a lot of awkward situations and honestly, some pretty bad behavior all around; hence the goods being odd.

And unfortunately, some SO staff weren’t immune from being problematic. We tried to self-police, but there were always the 1-2 men who would be extra friendly to the incoming women and like a shark swimming the waters, look for their easy prey. We called this sharking. We would look out for it among ourselves and try to stop anyone SO advisor we thought was doing it and if they were particular egregious, make sure they weren’t invited back the next year. But the problem definitely existed.

My mom, bless her heart made me a shirt with a shark fin on the back, not because I personally was a shark, or to mock the problem, but more to highlight the problem and help us be more self-aware.

So, this weekend I was reminded of sharking.

So why bring it up? Because, being a member of several communities, including IT savvy communities, caving, and others, I still see this as an ongoing problem; someone in a position of power or influence, preying upon the newcomers; often young women. Now it often can start out with the best of intentions and without the person meaning to. You see someone new, they ask for help. You decide to mentor them. You’re just being helpful, right? But then it becomes the extra friendly touch, the slight innuendo in a comment, the off-color joke or even the outright blatant consent violations.

Watch out for it. Don’t do it and if you catch others doing it, say something. Nip it in the bud. If you’re mentoring, mentor. Provide them with professional guidance and advice. Don’t use it as an opportunity to prey upon their naivete and lack of knowledge or experience. Remember, as a mentor, you are in a position of power and influence and so you should be like Spiderman and only use that power and influence for the greater good and to help them, not to help yourself.

And if you do for some reason find yourself slipping beyond the role of a mentor and your mentee also appears to be comfortable with this (hey, it does happen, we’re all human), then STOP BEING THEIR MENTOR.  Make it clear that you can’t do both. A mentor, by definition and nature, is a position of influence. Don’t mix that with relationships in a professional setting. Just don’t.

As many of you know, I love teaching, it’s a reason I’m a cave rescue instructor and a reason I teach at SQL Saturdays and at other events.  I encourage folks to teach and help mentor others.  But please, be aware of boundaries and keep it professional.

Oh and a final note, I’m not immune to my own follies and mistakes and if you ever catch me crossing a line, by all means call me out on it. I don’t want to be “that guy”.

 

Slacking on the Job: Or using someone else’s brain as your own!

This post by Thomas LaRock came across my feed a few weeks ago. I’ve had it in my queue to write about since then. Basically he talks about cutting back on using Slack communities. For those not familiar with Slack, it’s a tool used to basically chat with other folks. It can be used internally for companies, set for just two people, or for larger groups of people.

But before we go further, let’s jump in a time machine and go back to the fall of 1985. I was a freshly minted freshman at RPI. I was so freshly minted, one or two of my friends to this day joke about how minty fresh I smelled.

Back then the main computer on campus was Sybil, a dual processor IBM 3081D. Some students had written a program called *CB. Some of you may recall the popularity of CB radios in the 70s and 80s. (If you’re too young for that, click the link back there and read up on it). *CB was a computer based version of it. It had as I recall 10 channels; 0-9, 0 being a ‘public channel’ and the other 9 used for different types of discussions.

I found this early on and started to use it. Of course a problem was, this being a mainframe, all CPU cycles got billed to the student. Of course CPU cycles were cheaper after midnight, so, yes, I did a lot of late nights at a terminal (preparing me for a life in computers).

But, *CB had its limits and it wasn’t long before the powers that be decided to shut it down. But the students weren’t to be denied. Next came *CONNECT. This ran in a different mode so was better tolerated. But that too eventually went away.

At some point *CONNECT was replaced by Clover, which I believe ran on an UNIX system. Clover was soon replaced by Lily. I’m not sure how long Lily has been around, but I know it’s been around for at least 24 years.

From *CB to Lily several features were added or improved upon. The number of discussions on Lily is infinite. Discussions can be private, so only allowed members can see the discussion and who is in it. Discussions can be moderated to control who can and can’t talk. Moderators of discussions can control who is or isn’t in them.

One of the coolest features, and as far as I know the first system to implement this was the concept of a detached user, i.e. you could leave the system, come back and reconnect and review what you had missed. This predated by a number of years AOL introducing a similar feature (and other systems introducing it). Many features found in IRC and SLACK and other systems were first tried out at RPI on Lily or one of its predecessors. (more of a history at that preceeeding link)  (Yes, I’m bragging a bit about my alma mater and the students there.)

Anyway, I write all this because it leads me to Slack. I’ve used Slack. I’m not a fan of Slack. There’s no one specific reason and I’m not saying Slack is bad. That said, one issue I personally find is that everything is so separated that I end up with 3-4 separate Slack Windows and I lose track of what’s going on.

But, I still use Lily. I continue to use Lily every day. I’m a member of 333 discussions, I own 16 and some of those I’m in and I own are private (no I’m not revealing any secrets, sorry!) Why?

Well first I should note, of the 333 discussions, probably 300 of them get little to no traffic. For example the discussion Usenet gets extremely little traffic.  Others, such as Space can be very popular at times (like yesterday around 4:30 PM during the Falcon 9 launch).

So why am I on Lily so much? There’s two reasons. One is the obvious reason: we’re social creatures and I like the interaction. And since I work from home, it’s nice to chat with other folks. And I should note that Lily members are scattered around the country and even the world.

But there’s also another very important reason.  I’m not as smart as some of you may think. My brain is limited to the size of my skull. BUT, I’m not limited to that. I call Lily my extended brain. And it really is. At one point I was having a particularly difficult time with some Javascript (we’ve all been there right?). So I asked one of my Lily friends for help. She’s a full-time web-developer and she was able to help me out. When I’ve had Perl questions, various people have helped me out, including at least one member of the Perl Foundation (I may be mistating his actual role/title). I routinely answer questions about SQL Server.

Other RPI Alumns or associated people have played a major role in writing or being involved with the development of Usenet, DNS, the modern Internet infrastructure. Several work at Google, Microsoft, Amazon or other major companies and can provide a great deal of information I might not have access to otherwise.

I’ve also hired people I’ve met through Lily. It’s been a great resource for job hunting for myself and others.

Even long before we had the wealth of knowledge easily available on today’s Internet, Lily was my extended brain. And it continues to be my extended brain.

I’m not as smart as you think I am. But my friends are, and they’re even smarter than that. And this is one thing that basically makes us humans unique: our language and ability to communicate permits us to be smarter than we really are. We can and do share knowledge. If you really want to be smart and improve your lives and your careers, develop your network. Find your extended brain and exploit it. And remember your role in being an extended brain in others.

So no, I won’t develop a love for Slack. But I won’t give up Lily either. It’s part of who I am.

As a postscript, I will remind folks: if you like what I write, please subscribe so you get the updates when I write more.

And look for me at:

SQL Saturday Philadelphia: April 21st
SQL Saturday Atlanta: May 19th
SQL Saturday Albany: July 28th

You can pick my brain and extend yours there.