Ally Bank. I Hardly Knew Ye.

This is my review of my first couple of weeks with Ally Bank, and why I ultimately decided to stay with stodgy, old Chase.

When I was 16 years old, I went with my Mom to a local Bank One branch to open my own personal checking account. Bank One eventually got acquired by Chase, and so I’ve effectively been a Chase customer for more than half my life!

But it’s been a love-hate relationship. On the positive side, it seems that no matter where in the United States I am, I’m always less than 3 miles from a Chase branch, so it’s definitely convenient. I also don’t worry about Chase failing so it seems like a safe place to keep my family’s money. Their iPhone app is actually pretty good, especially the ability to remotely deposit checks.

But on the downside, I often get a “big bank” feel from them, mostly owing to the fact that I don’t really have a personal relationship with anyone there. I find I’m usually just engaging the “Chase Infrastructure” rather than contacting a specific person I know.

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The User Interface of the Violin

Earlier today, I met a friend for breakfast who’s an outstanding professional UX designer.  I was curious about something:

“How do you balance the need to give people a user interface they’re familiar with and can do something with right away, against the opportunity to innovate and do new things that may take more time to learn?”

He gave a beautiful analogy in response.

“Consider the violin.  It has one of the most difficult user interfaces in the world to use.  But if you’re willing to put in the thousands of hours of practice, you can make such beautiful music with it.  There has to be that trade off.  If we demand of our users a steep learning curve, they had better be able to produce some beautiful music.”

I like that idea because I’ve met many designers who get so mesmerized by the idea of doing something new and amazing that they lose sight of the fact that “the tradeoff” has to make sense.


My Desert Code Camp Presentation on Server Configuration Management with Chef

I gave this talk at Desert Code Camp earlier today as part of the DevOps track. It gives an introduction to Chef with a special emphasis on getting you to Hello World and beyond.

They say Chef has a steep learning curve, but I think that’s only because there are a lot of concepts you need to know before you can do the most basic things. I tried to cover most of those concepts here. I also included some best practices I discovered such as how to handle secrets like passwords and certificates using Chef.

Checks and Balances in Agile Development

Recently, I worked on a sprint as part of our company’s scrum process.  This sprint was somewhat unusual in that I was the sole developer.  Not only that but I knew most of the specs in my head, so our product manager and I agreed it wasn’t necessary to write acceptance criteria for the user stories I would be working on.  Since I wrote the acceptance criteria, it made sense that I would be the one who ultimately signed off on the user stories.

I hate bureaucracy so I was excited about how “lightweight” this process for the sprint was.  But I found something kind of interesting.

When I was wearing my developer hat, I realized how much I enjoyed taking time to learn about other technologies.  I had made a commitment to my teammates to get a certain amount of work done by a certain date, and we came up with estimates to make sure that the work was achievable.

But once I was doing it, my human nature started subconsciously looking for ways to “cheat”.  I still wanted to get the work done, and done well.  I wanted to be acknowledged by my colleagues for having delivered what was expected with high quality.  But I also wanted to sneak in extra time so I could do more tech learning on the side.

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Paying a Medical Bill Should Not Be This Hard

When it comes to paying a medical bill, I’ve had a backwards experience.  As the founder of Omedix, I built software that’s collected tens of millions of dollars in healthcare bill payments, but I hardly ever paid any healthcare bills of my own.  I was under 30 and hardly went to the doctor!

Next month I turn 34 and I am fortunate that neither my wife nor I has any chronic medical issues, but now we go to the doctor for the usual annual checkups.  In 2013, our health visits amounted to:

  • Annual well-checks with our primary care physician (PCP)
  • The lab tests our PCP’s requested
  • In her case, annual visit with an OB/GYN
  • In my case, annual check up at the dermatologist (skin doctor)
  • In my case, annual check up at the ophthalmologist (eye doctor)

Today, I’m about 4 hours in and almost done paying all the healthcare bills.  The experience has been…traumatizing.  First, multiple bills are sent for the same service, but with slight differences.  Second, our doctor tried to bill insurance, had the wrong info, sent us a bill for the full amount, was later informed the insurance was wrong, adjusted the bill, and sent an updated one.

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Basic Introduction to Play Framework

I recently gave a talk at Desert Code Camp 2013.2 on an introduction to Play Framework. I’m just getting started with it, but there are several concepts that got me interested:

  • Non-blocking / Evented vs. Threaded
  • Command-line interface to compile, test, and more
  • Clearly inspired by the productivity Ruby on Rails, but written for Java
  • Written using a Functional Programming paradigm
  • Super-easy for creating RESTful web services

The devil’s always in the details, of course, but it’s been a blast so far! More to come on Play…

Give, Give, Give, Then Get

I’ve decided to try an experiment lately.  At every opportunity where I see I can possibly add value to someone in some way, I try to do so.

This can mean connecting someone with someone else I know, sharing insights from experiences I’ve had that may be applicable, or even mini-projects that leverage my technical skills.

Like any other behavior change, this is a habit that takes some work to build, so I’m not 100% ramped up yet, but at least the habit is building, so hopefully after a few weeks it will just be my default behavior.

Anyway, I’ve had a few interesting observations about it:

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Your New Normal and the Futility of Stress

I had a very powerful business experience about 4 years ago that taught me a lesson that I didn’t fully understand until recently.

I was the sole owner of a company that received a Letter of Intent from a publicly traded company to be acquired for around $1 million, all before I was even 30 years old.  Sure sounds sexy, right?  Well, the catch was that we were not profitable at that time and of course the time between receiving a Letter of Intent and actually signing all the contracts, getting a check in the bank, and considering the acquisition a done deal can be anywhere from a few weeks to over a year.

So we waited.  Doing our best to not be too unprofitable and not incur too many legal expenses, but thrilled at the prospect of an acquisition that would instantly remove all the stress.  I remember every day trying to act to the outside world like things were fine, but inside I felt incredibly stressed.  Each day was a new opportunity to obsess just a little bit more about when the acquisition would finally close.

And then finally it did.  Except that it didn’t go through, it fell through.

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Cutting Out the Noise

I keep noticing a recurring theme in my hobbies and in business: cut out the noise and focus only on the essential.

It seems so simple, but the fascinating thing about life is that the things and people we encounter so rarely do cut through the noise.  Instead it seems like most endeavors of consequence are messy, complicated and hard, and it’s not always clear why.

When you approach almost everything with the mentality of “how do I cut out the noise?” life becomes a very magical experience where a little effort in the right place can yield big results.

I think can think of at least 3 areas of my own life where cutting out the noise yielded big results.

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The Power of Frames

I recently read Pitch Anything by Mr. Oren Klaff and one of the coolest concepts in the book was the idea of “frames.”

A frame is basically the set of beliefs, contexts, and assumptions that implicitly sit behind everything you communicate.  The author argues that when two people meet, their frames eventually “clash” and that only one frame can win out.  This concept was also discussed in The Game by Neil Strauss, but it was presented there in the context of attracting girls, not clients.

Anyway, after I finished reading Pitch Anything, I have been blessed with a special insight into how I and others think, and to the social dynamics underlying most business transactions.

Take sales, for example.  When I first started out doing sales, my mentality was always about understanding what the client was saying as precisely as possible and, to the greatest extent possible, providing him with exactly what he requested.  But it turns out that’s not the best way to do business.  Often times, I’ve found, people respect when you challenge them because they see it as an opportunity for growth.  I realized one day that with myself, when someone challenges me head-on, I find them really interesting and then start engaging about why they disagree.

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