Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Finally, Innovation from the Auto Industry

I remember when the Saturn brand was first launched.  It came with the promises of revolutionizing the auto industry.  That they were building cars without the "stuck inside the box" thinking that plagued the auto industry at the time.

I couldn't wait.  For me, that meant cars that came with six wheels.  Or at least let the wheels rotate a full 180 degrees so you could parallel park more easily.  Or a door design that really stood out.  Or a fundamentally different shape.  Three rows of seating, but only one seat per row, like a hot dog.

What we got (this is hearsay.  I've not owned a Saturn personally, though I have ridden in a few, and know some Saturn owners) was a slightly different customer experience and a bunch of average looking cars that I couldn't get into without banging my head on the door frame (long torso exceeded tolerance).

I've longed for a solution to the whole car thing.  This idea that people would get into a long term loan to pay half to a year's salary for a motor, four wheels, a couple seats, and a steering column (ok, sure, you want A/C too) always seemed ludicrous.  It also seemed ludicrous that the price of a car never seemed to drop either, the way they seemed to drop for TVs and other consumer items.  Yes, I know that there are a lot of things that make these types of purchases different, but as an average consumer, I never felt that the features of new cars adequately made up for the fact that price of new cars didn't seem to be coming down.

On top of that, as I've aged, I feel a larger push to use only what I need to use when it comes to resources.  I'm not the kind of fellow who feels comfortable in a vehicle where gallons-per-mile is as reasonable a unit of measure as miles-per-gallon.  I never understood why, despite all the concern about fossil fuels, cars never seemed to get much better.  They got better, sure.  I'm talking doubling or tripling, though.  That's what I wanted.  Orders of magnitude better.  That's what science is supposed to do for us.

The battery technology is great, but even batteries themselves haven't gotten much better in about 100 years. Someone even pointed out the other day that electric cars have been around since before 1900.  That shouldn't have blown my mind, but did.

Auto makers keep trying to push more electronics inside the car.  USB?  Bluetooth?  Wow.  Little tablet mounted in the dashboard?  Big whoop.  Car talks to you?  Old news.  This is not the kind of advancement I want.  I want advancement in the core capabilities of what a car really is: a transportation device.  I don't want to hang out in my car.  I don't want it to be a little bachelor pad with disco lights and a flat screen (obviously, my idea of a bachelor pad is a little off).  I want a better car.

While auto innovation isn't exactly gangbusters , there is some hope on the horizon. There's progress on the self-driving car: GM and Nissan both say they'll bring a lot of this tech to bear by 2020, but those won't go mainstream for another decade, and ubiquity is a ways off.  The real game-changing impacts of that technology (Automobile-as-a-Service or AaaS) are so far off that I'll need another car by then.

And I'm actually thinking about this one.  I'll say this.  I'm in no way related to this company, other than I am a super-fan of what they're trying to do.  I don't get any commissions, nor have I been able to go to one of the events to drive one.

The high points for me

  • 84 mpg highway - this is one heck of a leap forward.
  • Perfect commuter car - it's for when you're just driving yourself and don't want to drive around a heavy box full of air.
  • $6800 - I liked the Smart car and could have handled the fact that it drove poorly if it wasn't priced the same as cars twice its size that handled better.  At this price point, you could get a lot of people into these commuter cars.
  • Groovy colors - Yeah, it matters to me.  I like groovy colors.
I appreciate what they're doing.  They're innovating.  They said, "How can we make a car that's less expensive and can still get better mileage than most cars get today?"  And then they got to the drawing board and did it.  Now even if they miss their mark and are off by a grand and 10 mpg in the wrong direction, that's still an $8,000 car that gets 75 mpg.  That's still remarkable.

They're not on the market yet, but they are taking pre-orders.  I've not put mine in, but I'm sorely tempted to do so.  I really want to wait to see how they handle before taking the plunge, and if they got to my area for a test drive, I'd be much more willing to plunk down the down payment.

What are your thoughts?  Would you drive this car?  Would you buy one without a test drive, just to support innovation?  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

What is My Passion?

So after I wrote about Finding Your Passion, I thought I might write a little about my journey towards finding my passion.

Note, I have many passions, the greatest of which is learning new things.  This means that any job I take can be my passion, as long as it changes frequently enough to be challenging and educational.

I love finance.  I think the whole industry is fascinating.  I have always been involved in investments firms on the buy side, but I find everything fascinating.  Equity, fixed income, derivatives, pricing, valuation, research, automated trading, risk modeling, economics... The field is huge and vastly entertaining.

I am lucky enough to currently hold a position in a financial services company, developing software, improving processes, helping the business find technology solutions, helping integrate and update vended software, managing projects, leading teams, educating and inspiring co-workers, and asking good questions.  I like what I do, and I love my colleagues.  I could easily do it forever.

So what in the world would ever make me want to leave?  I have been thinking about what kind of things I want to accomplish, so here are some things that really excite me.

I love educating people.  Not just when I was a teaching assistant in grad school, but in every organization I have been in.  I've always pushed new ideas and relentlessly developed myself and others, but in my current organization, I started a program three years ago for my technology team to meet weekly to discuss libraries, patterns, trends in tech.  I present frequently, but almost everyone that attends gives a talk or two.  We are creating new speakers, and good community collaborators.

Recently this has come through most importantly in my volunteer work with That Conference.  I write content for a lot of communications.  I'm responsible for the emails to attendees, to speakers, to sponsors, a great deal of the printed program, and the welcome letter.  In a very real way, I am privileged to be a large part of the public voice of That Conference.

And I love it.  You know that Community Conferences changed my life, and I'm hoping that my involvement in That Conference will change the lives of other people.

Technology that saves people's lives, or saves them time, or makes them happy also is really intriguing to me.  Possibly nowhere else is this present in the idea behind the self-driving car.  I've blogged about the benefits of that in the past, but the short answer is that self-driving cars will save lives, save relationships, and save valuable natural resources.  I'm dying to make this a reality, and if there was ever a chance for me to help out, I'd be very interested in contributing. Legal, political, software, being involved in town halls, anything.  Let me help.

Something that leverages my love of data would be awesome, too.  Recently I did a little statistical analysis of the game of cards called War.  I did this because I wanted to learn to use the statistical language R, and I was honored to be able to speak about my experience at the Lake County .NET User Group.  Math, statistics, and data are awesome.

I'm not just a content generator, either.  I love to edit, to polish, to finish, and to critique.  I've done a whole bunch of technical editing for Pearson, Addison-Wesley, and Prentice Hall over the years.  I am quite proud to have worked on most of the books in Thomas Erl's series and to have praise quotes on a great number of his works.

Last, I guess I must like writing, too.  I do the occasional bit of blogging here, and would definitely be open to collaborating on a book, if I were able to find the right project, with the right collaborators.

Your turn.  Hopefully I've managed to stir in you some feelings about what you're interested in.  What's your passion?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bachelor Blitz

I’m not a bachelor, but a couple times a year, my lovely wife takes the kids to go visit remote family for a week.  This leaves me as essentially a bachelor.

And when they’re gone, some of those bachelor tendencies creep in. 

If I have a meal, it’s just one plate, fork, and glass.  Into the sink they go!  Load the dishwasher?  Not likely!

Laundry?  Heck it’s not building up quickly!  Why do that?  Take off your socks?  Do they really need to make it upstairs to the hamper?  Nope.  On the floor by the couch they go.

Got packages from Amazon?  Empty boxes pile up by the garage.  Cats play with the packing materials and drag it around.

Painting the bathroom (my current project)?  Between coats, the extra rollers, paint pans, and even the bathroom hardware off the walls sits on the kitchen island. 

Playing video games between home improvement tasks?  The controllers and remotes end up wherever they end up when you last left off.

So basically, it looks like a place under maintenance, crossed with a college dorm room.

But by the time the family comes home, this place has to be spotless.  All hardware and home repair stuff stowed safely back in the basement or the garage.  The dishes done and the sink clean.  The laundry done and in baskets.

And I’ve done it every time.  Did I have to spend the final 24 hours of every trip cleaning like a madman?  Not at all.  I manage this lifestyle with the periodic Bachelor Blitz.

Originally, I started “blitzing” with my kids.  Like most kids, they hate to spend time cleaning up.  But when Mommie’s out on a photoshoot, instead of telling them they have chores, I’ll tell them it’s time for a 15 minute blitz. 

During the 15 minutes of the time-boxed blitz, we run around and find things that need to be done.  Socks on the floor?  Gather them up.  Put the dishes in the dishwasher.  Run the accumulated stuff to the basement.  Run the vacuum through a couple rooms.

Sure, the purists would say that it’s better to take care of things as you go.  That you should pick up after yourself as you go.  I don’t really disagree, but for me that’s not always been practical.  The 15 minute blitz done every couple hours is a solution I can live with

And when the family is gone, I actually schedule half-hour or hour long blitzes.  I wash down surfaces, run the vacuum over the whole house, do several loads of laundry.  During this time, I also do any very short repair tasks that might need attention.  Sand a rough spot.  Spackle a wall and touch up the paint when dry.  Change light bulbs, spray down the house.  Whatever it takes.

Blitzing is a great way to get things done, and is another great example of the adage that "small efforts, repeated over time, will almost always surprise you." 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Offer Your Opinion

"Opinions are like assholes. Everybody's got one and everyone thinks everyone else's stinks."

I've just returned from That Conference, a polyglot technical conference held up in the Wisconsin Dells every August.  It's an awesome place where collaboration happens, and everyone learns a lot.  Ideas collide, and people partner.  It's truly an eye-opening experience that inspires by design.

Many of the folks who come out have strong opinions.  Some very strongly held.  What makes That Conference special is the lack of fear people have while sharing their opinions.  They share opinions openly and without fear of judgment, because, as Clark Sell affirmed as he kicked off the week, "None of us is as smart as all of us."

So that got me thinking about opinions.  Closely held opinions, or ideas, are worthless until they are shared.  Sure, they inform private decisions, and even public actions, but in terms of contributing to a public discourse, opinions are much more powerful when shared.

This works exceptionally well if the opinion is well founded in logical thought, and the opinion holder is open-minded enough to change that opinion in the face of evidence-based reason.

This also applies, strangely enough, in the area of customer surveys.  I'm sure we've all been annoyed by the survey pop-ups on various web sites we use.  "I see you're on the website!  Can you spare a minute to answer a couple questions for us?"

I almost always take these surveys.

Why?  Because if I'm on a site, it's almost always because I chose to go there.  And if I did, it means that I value their product or information.  And if it's worth it to me as is, wouldn't it be worth more if I had a little input about what was good and what could be improved?

This all comes back around to community, raising your voice, and having an impact in improving all those things you find good in the world.  As you all know, community conferences changed my life.  This year Doc Norton talked in his keynote about how many connections we have to other people, and how we can subtly influence their lives without thinking about it.  Imagine what would happen if we choose to offer our opinions to positively influence the things around us.

Imagine what we could do.

Imagine what you could do.

Now go do it.