Saturday, December 28, 2013

Shopping in China - Part 4 - The Wangfujing Marketplace

We really saw three big markets for shopping that I can describe: the Wangfujing market in Beijing, the rural food market of Suzhou, off the river tour, and Shanghai's Chinatown.  I'll tackle each one in a separate post starting with:


The Wangfujing market was a delightful mix of odd places.  It combined elements of street markets and department store shopping.  The main thoroughfare was like a large outdoor mall, not far off what you'd find in America.  They had a McDonalds, a Gucci store, and other name International brand stores that if I could remember, you would recognize.  To the left of the Dongan Dept. Store in the pic below, you can see the rightmost 1/3 of the Rolex logo.  These Rolexes?  Not fake.  And not cheap.

Yep, that's the Dongan department store.  "Like, that place is totally dongin', dude!"
When we first got off the bus there, we stopped at an apothecary.  This was a very interesting introduction to Chinese medicine.  Most of what you could find here was roots and herbs.  The idea was that for whatever ails you, simply take home this root or that herb and make a tea out of it, and all will be well.  Sounded a bit crazy and homeopathic to me.  Yes, this is where you get Medicinal Slices:

Yes, I'd like a slice of medicine, please.
That's kind of funny about China, too.  At some point, someone in our party (let's pretend it was Nicole, but I can't remember now) wanted Tylenol.  I looked high and low for something other than an herbal remedy in every little shop we stopped in, but we never found anything like it.  Seriously, that whole country is just crying out for a Walgreens!

The first pharmacy we stopped in was all roots and stems and leaves.  There did appear to be a more westernized pharmacy, right on the main street of the mall, so we tried there.  They had medicines for more dire afflictions.  When we walked in, they showed us a little laminated card that listed things like diabetes, gout, and other diseases you manage, not cure.  I actually asked them about one or two of the medications, but what they offered was something like a two month supply of something or other, and it was not cheap, so we passed.

The part I liked best about the Wangfujing market was the side streets.  I think that was true in most of China, and most of life, in fact.  I like the side trips, the dark alleyways, the unexplored corners.  Taking a narrow path off the main Wangfujing drag, you enter what really seemed like the market to me.  Dozens of open air booths, mashed in side-by-side, crammed with trinkets and trash, all waiting to be bartered for.

There were little black plates, little red books, little red lucky tassels on hooks!

Oh crap, I went Seuss there for a minute.... sorry about that.  The point is that there are endless little oddities in these booths.  Little bits of artwork, kids toys, electronics, t-shirts.  The variety was dizzying.  I don't recall buying anything at this market, but we did a lot of browsing.

Best shirt I saw there.  I love Beijing, too!  But where would you wear it?  To the kids' school?  
We actually went through a little store behind this twisty maze of street vendors that had leather coats.  I have always kinda wanted one, so we shopped there.  Of course, I tried on an XL first.  I'm a big guy, so an XL is a natural first try.

And in doing so, I got to relive Chris Farley's "fat guy in a little coat" routine from Tommy Boy (minus the rippage).  So, the sizes run a little smaller there, then?  Ok, fair warning.  But c'mon!  I tried on the 3XL coat and it was tight too!  As that was the largest size they had, I didn't have to argue much that I didn't want to buy anything.

Ultimately, I ended up at that Dongin' department store shown above.  Their ground floor was a cool toy store with some really neat toys in it.  Robots, artwork (and crap, too), but as we went up the escalator, we found more clothes for men and women.  We had to hit the restroom, and on the way out of this restroom on something like the 5th floor, we were accosted.

Not by mosquitoes, so much as just really aggressive sales women.  And they wanted me to buy shirts.  Oh, boy did they.  But I didn't want a shirt.  Not there.  Not then.  But I had been looking at leather coats about an hour earlier.  And they had leather coats.

This particular saleslady was relentless, and we started haggling on price.  I didn't want to pay what they were asking, and she didn't speak much English.  But she barked at me what she knew.  These words came out abruptly, in almost a shout.  Imagine a little Chinese saleswoman yelling at me "Finish!" (meaning, "this is my final price") and "Bigger!" (meaning, "you need to come up in price") and somewhat less understandably "Flanders!" (meaning, ... err... I had no idea what she meant).

Eventually we settled on $30 for a very nice faux leather jacket.  Size?  XXXXL, the biggest they had.  Yep, I'm nearly too fat for China.  I'm a big guy, but I'm not enormous.  Some people I can only imagine are turned away at the door.

I've already mentioned what it was like to see the open air food markets in Beijing, so I won't recount that here, but I can say we ended our day at a nice little pub place in the middle of the Wangfujing mall area quaffing beer, where earlier, we'd watched the Gucci store guys play a game of "pick the booger and try to wipe it on your friend." People watching is even more entertaining when you have no idea what they're saying and they're being childish.  We were hoping maybe they'd play the "cup a fart and waft it" game, too, but they didn't.

Up next, the Suzhou market.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Shopping in China - Part 3 - The Mosquitos

One of the first things that the tour guides told us about shopping in China was to beware of the mosquitoes.

And they're not talking about the blood-sucking kind.  At least the insect kind.

No, this term mosquito very aptly describes a class of merchant - a peddler, maybe - very common in touristy areas of China.  They wait for you to depart tourist attractions and areas and then swarm onto you like mosquitoes smelling fresh blood.  And in some places, like exiting at the north end of the Forbidden City in Beijing, they were so dense it felt like crawling up out of a grave to fresh air just to be free of them.  In that case, it seemed like half a city block of densely packed mosquitoes all pawing and fawning and showing and for a claustrophobe like me, it was a gauntlet of “hell no.”

Our first real experience with mosquitoes came after the very first factory place we went, the Pearl factory.  Nicole and I weren’t the last ones out, but by the time we came out, we were greeted by members of our bus looking into little suitcases that the mosquitoes had brought by.  The first one I saw had a case full of watches.  Mostly Rolex.  All fake.

What caught my attention was that not all fakes were created equal.  There was quite a bit of negotiation over a particular Faux-lex that had a sweep hand.  These mosquitoes would ask $30 and negotiate down to almost nothing for watches with discrete second hand movements, but offer them $20 for these and they acted indignant.

With that encounter, I learned to be very careful about what was what.

But you can’t swat at these mosquitoes.  No, these are people, and even if they are not behaving decently, turns out you can’t hit them.  Our “swatter” was the Chinese phrase “bu yao” (pronounced “boo yow”, meaning “no want”).  We started off by saying it pleasantly enough, except they persisted and persisted.

Until our tour guide informed us that you can’t be giggling or smiling when you say it.  Of course, because it sounds like “booyah”, I had trouble saying it with a straight face.  After that advice I could be found walking through the mosquitoes angrily muttering bu yao, bu yao, and suppressing my giggles.

But that didn't always work.  The slightest interest, and that means that these mosquitoes will bite until they draw blood.  On the third day, we were going into the Hutong to have lunch with a local family.  This was certainly one of the coolest parts of the trip.  The Hutong was a style of neighborhood that's been almost wiped out.  It is characterized by narrow alleyways, and houses with little courtyards.

Also, poverty.

The Hutong district in Beijing has been preserved and allowed to stay as an example of the old style of living, but the people who populate the neighborhood seem to be relatively poor.  Our tour gave us the opportunity to ride into the Hutong on a bicycle rickshaw and have a local lunch cooked by a husband and wife team in their own home.

We departed the bus at the entrance to the Hutong and were swarmed by the mosquitoes as usual.  There was a woman selling silk bags and little purses that Nicole liked, and so she bought a bunch of them.  Nicole, looking for a fake watch for her dad, expressed interest in one gentleman's wares.

She wanted the nice sweep hand watch, and was willing to part with a twenty for it, but he was not having it. Yet he still wanted to make a sale, and started offering combinations of the other watches in the case for lower and lower prices.  He latched onto her and would not let go.  He knew she had money from her previous purchase and no amount of bu yao would get him to leave us alone.

But we figured that we'd soon be on a rickshaw and riding into the Hutong, and therefore we'd be away from these mosquitoes, especially this one.  We figured wrong.

We boarded our rickshaw, and our rickshaw operator started pedaling down a narrow alleyway.  A block away from where we started, we relaxed into our seat, grateful to be away from the mosquitoes.

All of a sudden, someone talking to us from the left.  "Two for twenty!"

The guy was on a bicycle, and he'd caught up to our rickshaw!  He was still trying to make the sale!  He had latched on to us suckers, and was sticking his proverbial proboscis into our ankles.

And as our driver angled around corners, hurried down narrow alleyways, and dodged oncoming bicyclists and mopeds, our mosquito held on.  Then he did something crazy.

He threw his case with all his watches into Nicole's lap!  And all of a sudden, she was shopping in her lap! And negotiating out the window of a moving rickshaw!  In the craziness, I can't really remember how everything went down, but I think ultimately she grabbed three of the watches, stuffed a $20 bill in the case, and tossed the case back at the mosquito.

He had his sale, and she had a few watches.  And we were able to have a very nice lunch in the Hutong with a family that kept wicked big and colorful crickets in little cages hanging on the wall that they occasionally took out to the cricket fights (no kidding).

After lunch, we came back out into a swarm of some of the same mosquitoes that had chased us into the Hutong.  As we were preparing to leave, one of the mosquitoes we recognized grabbed up a bike with a kiddie seat on it.  In getting on the bike, she seemed to break the child seat.

And on top of it, we don't think the bike was hers.  We think she was "borrowing" it so she could make the sale!

And she rode us down, again with a harrowing Indiana Jones-style chase through the narrow streets of the Hutong.  Nicole was yelling at her "No, No!"  But the woman persisted until our rickshaw driver turned to her and shouted "NO!"  He was our hero of the minute, and we couldn't stop laughing.

We were warned as sternly against buying from the mosquitoes as not to eat street food.  We figured it was to ensure that our sales went to our tour guides or people that gave them kickbacks, but they did offer some good reasons not to purchase from them.  The best reason they offered was that we have no idea what counterfeit Chinese money looks like, and that these people are quite likely to take large Chinese bills that tourists give them and return the change as counterfeit and pocketing the difference.

That didn't really stop us from buying the occasional thing from them, though.  Never had any real problems with it.

Next up, Markets!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Shopping in China – Part 2 – Tour Guide Shopping

I guess I've said a few things about our tour guides, but maybe not introduced them properly.  For each four-day leg of the journey (we spent the first four days in Beijing, then took a flight to Shanghai and bussed around there for four days), we had a different tour guide. 

In Beijing, our tour guide's "English name" was Brian.  He said that was a reference to Bryan Adams, because "everything he do, he do it for us."  He was a very engaging and entertaining speaker who generally got things started out in a fun direction every morning, taught us how to say a few things in Chinese, answered questions throughout the day, and helped us navigate and negotiate deals in the various marketplaces.

In Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, our tour guide was a woman.  She went by the "English name" Celery, so chosen by her friends because she really loved celery when she was younger.  She was from Hangzhao, a fact that she told us with almost every breath.  I can't tell you how difficult it was to call someone a name that is an english word that isn't generally used as a name.  And this is from a man whose children are named Gamble and Random.  Go fig.

These tour guides were our lifeline.  They were our protectors.  They got our hotel rooms for us ahead of time so that we didn't have to wait to check in.  They kept our passports for us.  They knew where we needed to be and mostly kept us to a strict schedule.  We would have quite literally been lost without them, so we had to put our trust in them.  And they worked very hard for us.

I know I wrote that there were a lot of art and product-specific shops that we went to, and that we think the tour guides got a little taste of the action for inspiring us to buy the goods at those specific places, but there were other ways that the tour guides were compensated.  Each day, Brian or Celery would explain that there was something they could get for us - something that represented China, or a service they could set up for us.

Custom Suit

It's pretty common that you hear of someone that travels to China and has a suit custom made for them while they are there.  It's amazing to think of an entire suit being made within a few days.  On the bus on our first day in Beijing, Brian offered to schedule a tailor to come to our hotel room and take my measurements.  I jumped at the chance. and scheduled a tailor to come measure me on that first night.

They brought material swatches for the suit itself, and I picked out a narrow pinstripe pattern in black.  They showed me some shirt material, and I selected a lightly textured white fabric.  It was a very quick measuring process, maybe 15 minutes in the whole transaction, but I knew that I'd have the best fitting suit I'd ever worn.  The next night they delivered it and I tried it on. Now I just need that magic occasion to wear it!

In-Room Massage

That first day, Brian also offered to have masseuses sent up to the room to give us 90 minute foot and body massages, so we scheduled those, too.  $30 apiece, so Nicole and I both scheduled them.  We were not disappointed when two Chinese women came to our room and gave us our rubdowns.  We were still jet-lagged, so I'm sure I fell asleep during the backrub portion, but I distinctly remember the second part.

After rubbing down our bodies, the two women disappeared into the bathroom and had us sit up at the edge of the bed.  They brought out what looked to be a Wal-Mart bag full of diarrhea.  Ok, so it was just dark brown liquid, and there may have been some leaves in it, but it was completely sketchy.  We were instructed to put our feet in the liquid.  Then they tied the bags off and let our feet soak.

So in other words, they made feet soup.

They followed that up with a wonderful footrub that even my ticklish feet withstood just fine.


On the bus, Brian told us of the ability to obtain jade animals in the shapes of the Chinese zodiac with stamps on the bottom that had the Chinese version of a name.  I jumped at the chance to have one made for Gamble and Random.  We ordered them on day 2, I think, and they arrived on day 3.  The little kits came with an inked wax glob to ink the stamp, and a cute little jade figurine with a stamp on the end.  Gamble's was a sheep, and Random's was a pig.

Oh, and just so you know, while Nicole's a dragon (Chinese royalty), I'm a rat.  I'm sure you always expected as much.

Unexpected little gifts

Brian gave us a couple unexpected little gifts.  He gave every one of us a map of Beijing and the surrounding area, which the map-inclined among our tour took great delight in visibly exploring, trying to figure out where in the Fuxing Hek we were.  He also gave us a pack of little Chinese bookmarks.  I think they were very small and easy to lose, though, since I don't remember seeing them after the unpacking.

Souvenir photos/books

Another thing we did as a group is take a couple group pictures.  One was in Tienanmen Square in Beijing, and the other was in a Garden in Suzhou.  These pictures were then printed and offered in a souvenir book of the area.  We picked up the one in Beijing but not the one from Suzhou.


Brian seemed to sell us a lot of very Chinese artifacts, but Celery was from a different part of China. Shanghai is more Western, more hip.  She offered us the ability to order Beats by Dre headphones, power brick chargers, and those sorts of things.

I picked up a little brick charger to charge my phone when my battery is low.  It's already come in handy a couple times!

So that's what the on-bus shopping offered us.  Next up, I'll tell you all about the mosquitoes.  Oh, the mosquitoes.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Shopping in China - Part 1 - Bus Shop

I started writing this rather long series of posts over Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend, figuring it was a great weekend to reflect on the shopping scene in China.  Thing is, the whole experience is so interesting to me that I’m going to break it down into a few different chapters.  First up, I’m going to talk about shopping from the perspective of the bus.

A lot of the shopping that we did was really based around the bus.  Pretty much each morning our tour guides would tell us of something that we could get on the bus from them, and take orders, or tell us about something we could do in our rooms later for a fee.  If not that or we were going on the bus to go to one of the various factories

People ask us how the trip could have been so cheap for what we got.  Ultimately, it’s because the whole trip is like a time share deal.  They bring you over on tours of product-specific facilities, and you listen to presentations on the different types of classic art and products that China is known for.  You don’t have to buy, of course.  They don’t really pressure you.  But it is quite the education and sales pitch in each place, and you are a captive audience, so it’s easy to get excited about what you’re seeing.  The Chinese art can be really inspiring.  It was also said that these places were government-sanctioned and quality controlled, and that pieces would be the highest quality at these places.

At each place, you are handed a card.  Those cards identify which tour group/bus you are with.  We were not told explicitly, but we figured that they were used to kickback to the tour guides a part of the sale, giving the tour guide an incentive to sell us on the culture while on the bus.  Here are the places we went, and my opinion of each of them:

The Pearl Factory was the first factory we went to.  They sat us in a little room and explained to us that there are both freshwater and saltwater pearls.  They showed us that there are many different colors of natural pearls.  I knew that there were a couple different colors, but I was dazzled by the wide array of color choices.  They also suggested that the way to determine the difference between real pearls and fake pearls is to rub two together.  When rubbed, it should feel raspy.  And no matter the color of the pearls, the residue should be white.  We didn't spend big money here.  I think Nicole got Random some inexpensive jewelry and maybe a couple gifts and a pair of earrings for herself.


By the second day, I was thinking that it would be cool to get a jade dragon sculpture for my home office desk.  Something to inspire.  A thing of beauty, an artifact of power.  We got to visit the Jade Factory on the morning of the second day. 

They showed us a beautiful piece  Beautiful, the dragon thing with the man and the woman (look up the difference).  They are supposed to be bringers of luck.  They eat money, and they never poop, so they represent growing wealth and prosperity.  At prices starting at a few hundred dollars, I decided I wouldn't pick one up.

The second thing they showed us was the nested family ball:

The dragon and the phoenix represent the mother and the father and they are carved on the outermost ball.  The outermost sphere demonstrates that the parents protect the family.  Each nested concentric sphere is carved in place and represents a family member.  I really wanted to get one of these too, but the prices at the factory were similarly high.  I ended up getting a little one at a souvenir shop.  It wasn't the best jade, but it was a good reminder of family.

And we went and looked at even more beautiful statues.  There was a beautiful lithe dragon carved in light green jade that was perfect.  The sticker, however, kept me from even attempting a negotiation.  This particular item was priced at $2200.


After climbing the Great Wall, we went to the Cloisonne Factory.  If you've ever seen one of those beautiful Chinese vases with lots of detailed enamel, that's probably Cloisonne.  They had the craftsman making things in front of us.  I could never have guessed how it's made.

First, they take a copper pot and bang it into shape.  They fire and smooth and fire and smooth the copper.  Then they create the outline of the designs that will appear on the pot out of metal and attach that to the pot.  Each metal ridge stands about a quarter inch from the pot. 

So then it's kind of like a color by number.  Enamel is painted into each space between the metal wires until the layers come up flush with the pot.  The enamel colors end up so vibrant and beautiful.  We didn't return with any examples of this work, but it is very pretty.

Silk Embroidery

We went to a place where they made embroidered silk wall hangings.  They dye the silk strands vibrant colors and then stitch them onto fabric one fine thread at a time, resulting in some incredibly detailed and vibrant portraits. 

The true master works of this type have one image stitched on one side of the wall hanging, and another totally different image stitched on the other, with no obvious threads or ends in sight.  These works of art were far, far too expensive for our blood, however, so we didn't pick anything up.

Other silk products

And the Silk Factory, we got to see how they take the silkworm cocoon and unwind it to get the thread.  They held one end and in their other hand they unwound the cocoon, while I took the center point of the thread across the room about 30 or 40 feet to demonstrate its strength.  As the one holding the thread, I was amazed by how strong a single strand of silk is.

Then they demonstrated how they take those threads and make sheets out of them, and how they then stretch those sheets one over the other to make comforters.  Many folks in our group were able to stretch out these layers and feel how strong the material was. 

At the Silk Factory, we had the option of buying comforters, sheets, and pillows, along with scarves, dresses, and all kinds of silkwear.  The pillows we bought have a pouch filled with "silk soil" sewed up into one side.  Silk soil isn't soil.  It's what comes out of the backsides of silkworms.  It's supposed to have medicinal properties.  Of all the purchases we made, this is the only one where I now think "What was I thinking?"  Then again, I bought silkworm poop, and that's amusing enough.

Tea Plantation

I really enjoyed the Dragon Well tea plantation in Hangzhou, where you can buy authentic Longjing tea (literally “dragon well”).  As you drive into the hills on the other side of the West Lake in Hangzhou, you start to see stepped crops growing on the hills, and you know those are the tea plants.  We got to take a tour of the plantation; they showed us how they dry the leaves.

The Dragon Well tea that we were served is supposed to be the best, and the tea they were selling us was the so-called "Empress" tea, meaning that these leaves were picked at the time of the year reserved for tea for royalty.  The tea leaves are more tender or something.

They sat us in a little room and taught us a little about tea.  They explained that there are three types of tea: green, oolong, and black.  Green tea is not at all fermented, whereas oolong is partially fermented, and black tea is fermented. 

They showed us how to pour the proper cup of tea.  Tea leaves steeped in a pot of freshly boiled water, then pouring the tea in a once, twice, thrice motion (for luck?).  They said that the tea leaves can be used many times.  The first cup is for aroma, the second has the best flavor, and after the fifth time, the leaves should be relieved of duty.

I bought quite a lot of this tea.  I really liked it while I was drinking it there, and as opposed to the poopoo pillows, I consider it among my best purchases.  I have a cup that my lovely bought me in Shanghai that has a bottom with a wire filter for steeping loose-leaf tea. I drink those five cups of tea every day.

Up next, Bus Shopping Part 2!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Annual Review Thoughts

Oh, it’s that time of year again: the time to spend thousands of hours and millions of company dollars pretending to fairly and impartially rate and rank our peers.

Oops, did I just say that out loud? 

I did. I’ve said it before and I will say it again:  I think the annual review cycle is an outdated, unfair, and demotivating waste of time.  It satisfies an organizational need to put on paper that some process, however worthless, is being followed. It’s a matter of doing something by the letter of the law, not the spirit.

Nor am I alone in this assessment.  Aubrey Daniels, in her book, “Oops! 13 Management Practices that Waste Time and Money” talks about the annual review cycle as one of the biggest wastes of time and money in an enterprise.  Here’s what I have always claimed:

Reviews are often a way to back-justify a popularity contest

Confirmation Bias is crazy evident in this.  I need to give an employee an average review.  Can I think of a few times they came up short or screwed up or maybe just didn’t step up to handle a dropped ball?  Sure.  I need to give an employee a stellar review to justify a promotion or a raise for some non-merit-related reason, so can I find some examples?  No problem!

Annual is not often enough to be relevant feedback

For those of you who are parents, and responsible for the social and intellectual development of your children, imagine if you gave feedback to your kids once a year (well, that’s kinda what Christmas is, and may provide about the same behavioral modification impact).  You wouldn’t do that.  You know that feedback long after an action is useless either as a punishment or a reinforcement.  So why do so many people wait to do it until they’re forced? 

Many folks who went to college/university took some kind of intro psychology class.  In terms of behavior modification, the ultimate point of doing some kind of review process, positive feedback needs to immediately follow the desired behavior to effectively encourage change. 

Good managers knows that they’re always trying to best motivate their employees, maximize productivity, and leverage skill sets.  Why would you have them wait a year to give official feedback?  If they’re not giving lots of great, positive, frequent feedback, then maybe they shouldn’t be managing people at all.

Forced curves are demotivating

You hire the best, why would you tell all employees that they’re the best you could find and then tell 90% of them they’re average?  Because you can only give one person in the department an “Exceeds Expectations” instead of the dreaded “Meets Expectations".  Chester has been here eight years and needs to make senior developer or he’s leaving with all our legacy knowledge.  Guess everyone else is getting a “Meets”.

You’re not graded against your goals

There’s a whole aspect of the annual review that doesn’t really mean much: it’s that setting of goals and then evaluating your performance.  Except in sales departments and similar organization, the work is often not sufficiently metrics-driven to give anything more than a subjective nod to meeting of goals.  The goals may not be concrete enough, or they may not actually be related to the day to day work and are therefore stretch goals.  The idea that goals can get adjusted mid year to reflect actual work done as job changes is a symptom that the feedback cycle is too long.

So that’s the dark side of reviews as I see them, but what would we do to replace them?

What can we do instead of annual reviews?

Do nothing

If reviews are so costly, a good alternative would be doing nothing at all.  First do no harm, is a great motto.  Address the roots of the problems you face.  Annual reviews are often a symptom, not the disease itself, and they are the cure for nothing material.

More informal feedback

There’s this weird vibe at the office where we can’t tell each other what a great job we’re doing, or what a cruddy decision something was.  Maybe that’s because if you give someone positive feedback all year, they’ll be upset if you give them a Meets rating at the end of the year.  Or maybe egos for 30-40 year-old office workers are more frail than that of your average tween.  Start by praising your coworkers and people you supervise.  Get used to giving honest face-to-face feedback about problems and screw-ups.  It’s tough and uncomfortable to change, but it would make the office a better place.

More frequent feedback

More frequent feedback would be helpful.  Annual reviews suffer that downside of not being timely and therefore useless.  Give feedback early and often.  If you’re a manager, find a way to give feedback with every interaction.  Yes, every interaction.  And keep feedback focused on improvement, not criticism.  Focus on what was done right.  Most people get defensive when criticized, because they already know what they did wrong.  Criticism amplifies that conscience effect and kills morale.  Positive feedback is almost always unexpected (partially due to imposter syndrome), and works to reinforce more of whatever you said you liked.

Quarterly bonuses and raises

I once worked for a company that gave its employees quarterly bonuses.  It was the greatest thing ever for motivation.  If you had a great quarter, it was awesome.  If you had a bad quarter, and your bonus kinda sucked, you could turn it around in a quarter. With an annual review, if you have a bad Q4, and the political whimsy is not on your side, your entire annual bonus/raise could be jeopardized.  Quarterly bonuses also keep an employee engaged and motivated to self-reflect. 

Lighten up on the tooling

The tooling and formality around annual feedback is stifling.  First, put in your goals for next year.  Have a meeting to review the written goals.  Sign off on the goals.  At the midyear review, tweak the goals because practically, you should never have set those goals in the first place, or maybe your role has changed, or maybe your manager has.  Then do five to ten 360 degree reviews.  Then write up your own self assessment.  Then meet formally with a manager and document that.  Then approve the final copy, regardless of whether you agree with it.  It all smacks of busy work, and I don’t know that anyone finds any value or pleasure in doing it.  Do whatever it takes to take the time-wasting tooling out of the equation.


It’s time to do away with this ugly tradition and replace it with more rewarding behaviors in the organization.  At worst, you’re taking away an expensive (both in time, goodwill, and motivation) waste of time, and at best you’ll be improving your culture, focusing on productivity, and raising the spirits of your most important resource, your knowledgeable internal associates.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How to Write

I seem to have been writing a lot lately.  Just the other day, I put out about an 1800 word essay on my blog. I did this because it’s something I've been thinking about, and I follow Scott Hanselman's philosophy on multiplying your effectiveness (it's a 40 minute presentation, but it really is worth your time, no matter what your field).  One of the tips boils down to this: if you have an opinion to articulate, and you’ll want to say it to many people, it’s worth it to spend a little time to polish your thoughts, write it down, and then you can send it to many people at once, and have it available to refer to.

I don’t know how many times I've posted the same points or ideas to Facebook, talking to different friends. The barrier to entry is so darn low to hosting your ideas permanently online that there’s absolutely no reason not to publish your thoughts.  Blogger?  Free.  Tumblr?  Free.

And I've been doing that a lot more.  It occurred to me that I should be encouraging more people do the same, but then I figure they will want to know, “How do you write?  I have thoughts, too, but how do I actually get them on (electronic) paper, organize them, and make them sound good?”

Here’s my secret: I don’t.  Well, not really.

My recipe for writing is as follows:
  • Have some thinks
  • Write them down somewhere online (as I mentioned, there are free platforms out there)
  • Edit (this step is entirely optional)
So let’s break it down:

Have Some Thinks
You'd think this was the hardest part.  I do.  I mean, I did.  Maybe you have this idea that you have to have an original thought, and it has to be a well thought out thesis, or that it has to be so well-researched that it has to be bulletproof.  Here's the real truth, however.

It's a blog post.  It doesn't have to be your Ph. D. defense.  It doesn't have to stand up against a tide of questions or a barrage of counterarguments.

Think about the last argument you had with a family member where you had a difference of opinion.  You probably went back and forth and the conversation diverted here or there into topics unrelated.  Think of a blog post as your opportunity to get your side of the conversation out without interruption.  So you can get your whole opinion out without being interrupted.  This is a great way to get your opinion out, get it off your chest, and maybe even continue a constructive conversation.

Write them down somewhere online

Ok, these steps are so easy I can give you a recipe:
  • Pick some blogging platform. I obviously use Blogger, but Tumblr, Wordpress, whatever.  Just pick a free one that lots of other people are using.  
  • Pick a sweet username or blog name.  This can be your name or your topic, something hipster, or something classical.  Anything that you feel represents you and what you're most likely to write about
  • Write a little test post.  My first post on my first blog (this is my third) was a trivial little nothing post that I can still see and occasionally look at as the genesis of ... wow, 10 years of writing.  Don’t share this test post with anyone.  Just know it’s there.  Let the fact that you've published your thought to the web sink in.
  • Next, start getting those ideas out.  Whenever you have something long form to say to someone, say, in an email, blog it instead and send them a link.  Put together a lot of drafts and have them ready to add to.  Whatever you need to do, get those ideas out of your head and onto the page.  Bullet points, fragments, whatever.
  • Flesh out a post.  Click publish.  Repeat.  It's not so hard.  Eventually, the problem will be that you have so much to say that you don't have time to say it.  Trust me.  It happened to me, too.
  • Publishing gives your thought a permalink, somewhere you can always refer someone to.  Another big benefit to doing this is that you can refer to your former thinks whenever you want without having to rewrite them.
Edit (optional)

If you want to, please feel free to edit your thoughts.  Take some time to proofread them, spell check them, check them for grammar.  Make sure you don't say "like" too many times, or whatever speech pattern you have that doesn't translate well to the written word.  But remember, editing is optional.  Here's why.

Ok, so you’re thinking your thoughts are all disjointed, and that they need editing.  Maybe that's true, but don't let that be the reason you don't publish them.  Perfect polished thoughts can be left to the philosophers and linguists who look to distill ideas into their perfect essences.  Your idea doesn't have to be perfect or bulletproof to have value.  Heck, you thought it, right?  It was good enough for that email conversation you were going to have.  Why not have that conversation with more people?

Afraid you might be wrong?  Well, maybe better to find out than to be wrong forever.  Worst thing that happens if you're wrong is that you learned something.  Worried people won't think you're a genius?  Here's a hint.  They already don't.  Don't worry.  You're not a genius.  But you are valuable, and your opinion matters.  You can have great thoughts even if they're not entirely fully formed.

So get your voice heard.  Speak up.  And then tell me, because I want to hear what you have to say.


You’re going to have opinions, so don’t be shy.  Share them.  Write them down.  Put them out there.  Share your knowledge and talent with the world.

Or at least with me.

Setting a Master Page for a Subsite in SharePoint 2013

Ok, so this may be super obvious to all you SharePointers out there, but it wasn't in any way obvious to me. This took me an afternoon to get all these pieces together, so I thought I would share.

I saw a dozen articles talking about how to get your subsites to inherit a custom master page from a site, but I couldn't find much that talked about setting a custom master page for a subsite that differs from the master page for the parent site.  And much of what I found didn't really help me, because SharePoint security hides a lot of the Site Settings from you if you're not a Site Collection admin, even if you have full control and design privileges.

Note: I am not a SharePoint expert; quite the opposite, I am a novice.  I may get a bunch of this wrong, so please feel free to leave comments and correct me.

Create your custom master page

For any of this to be relevant, you need to create a master page and get it into the master page library of the Site Collection.  To do this, I mapped a drive via Windows Explorer to the SharePoint master page library directory.  Once I had the drive mapped and opened in explorer, I took an existing master page and edited the corresponding .html file.  That link above is a pretty good source of info on how to do this.  As you save your .html file to that directory, SharePoint converts it over to a .master file.

One thing I didn't know about this mapped drive was that behind the scenes, because SharePoint is using WebDAV, it's keeping versions of the file as you save them, if the library is configured that way.  We'd been trying to figure out source control for SharePoint, and this provided us with the mechanism.

Publish your master page

For the custom master page to appear in the list of pages that we'll get to later, you need to publish it.  Go into the site collection Master Pages library, and find the file you just saved.  Once you do that, you can publish that file.  You are only able to publish the .html file, though.  Trying to push the new master file fails.

Set the master page

Go to the subsite for your new custom master page.  Go to the site settings and manage site features.  Now, you might be able to see the "Manage Site Features" link if you have full control and design privileges, but no, even those don't allow you to do the next step.  We had to give my account site collection administrator privs to activate Sharepoint Server Publishing.  Why do you have to do that?  Without that site feature activated, you can't see the link "Master Page" where you can change the master page for the subsite.

Go back to your site settings.  Under Look and Feel, now you can see "Master Page".  Click in there and set your master page to be your new custom master page (using the dropdown).

It's really that simple.  I found a number of places that said "just click Master Page", but couldn't find the link. That's how to do it!

Go forth and SharePoint!