Posts Tagged With: Technology

If someone asks if you have any questions, ask a question

Let's revisit one of the most humiliating (and expensive) moments of my life. It happened a decade ago and even today I cringe and seethe when I think about it.

I was one of 25 finalists for a $20,000 scholarship in my junior year of college. The last step was an hour long interview with three faculty members. I wrote down a list of every single question I thought they would ask - why do you want this scholarship, why you, etc - and rehearsed answers, recording myself, for a week straight. The interview came and went and I thought I did pretty well!

Fast forward a week and I got an email that I was not going to be offered a scholarship. Only two other students out of 25 were rejected. I was dumbfounded. There was no way I should have failed this test. I started thinking back to the interview. Some answers stand out as opportunities to improve - I could still tell you exactly what they are. There's one answer that I really wish I could get back.

At the end of the interview they asked "do you have any questions for us?" By this point I'd done so much research into the scholarship that I couldn't think of anything, and said "No." The interview ended.

But think about it from their perspective. I'd just spent an hour talking about myself; what does it show when I refuse to ask any questions? Not only am I denying them an opportunity for them to talk, I appear very incurious about the program itself. They didn't know that I had been quizzing myself on every aspect of the program for a week. I should have asked about anything — literally anything — and given them a chance to talk.

The funny thing was I had actually asked some of the people who had gone through the interview what they had been asked about. "Ask a question at the end" was both so obvious to them - pretty much every successful candidate had done finance interviews, where cultural signals are more important; I hadn't - and so oblivious to me that it hadn't even come up to people who wanted to help me succeed.

From that point on I made a point to always ask a question when someone asks if I have any questions. Ask anything. Even asking "what did you have for lunch" is better than asking nothing; the interviewer might start talking about whether the company pays for lunch, whether it's any good. My standby question is "what did you do yesterday" - it has a unique answer for each interviewer and reveals how people spend their time (vs. how they say they spend their time).

Finally, "person fails interview because interviewer expects to see cultural signal and interviewee does not broadcast cultural signal" is a common failure mode. Think about someone who wears a suit to a tech interview. Some organizations only want to hire people who can utter the secret words, and that's their choice.

But if your goal is to cast a wide net - I am looking at you, tech companies that put up billboards championing your commitment to diversity - and you have a candidate without a traditional background, maybe make a list of every reason you've used to reject a nontraditional candidate in the past and then email that to the candidate in advance of the interview - "wear a dress shirt and jeans," for example.1 You won't get everything, but it's a good start. (You can try to get your interviewers to discard the cultural signals but that's difficult and it might show up in their feedback without them realizing it.) Note that career services departments at good schools are already doing this for their students; what you are doing is leveling the playing field.

1 This is not a new critique by any means, people have made it about the SAT for some time - if the tests quiz applicants on vocabulary and grammar that are more commonly used in white households than nonwhite households, than identical students with identical aptitudes will score differently, which seems unfair.

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Your company needs a URL shortener

tl;dr Every company needs an internal URL shortener. Your new employees will thank you later.

You just started your new job, and you've got a million things to learn about, but never enough time to do them all. You want to sign up for a massage to take some of the stress off. But where do you sign up for massages? You can bug a coworker for the URL but they're busy too, and you're already bugging them 20 times a day about more important stuff. Alternately, you could search through the poorly documented company wiki. The page you find is probably out of date, but no one will tell you that the massage page moved 6 months ago.

The third option, and by far the best, is to punch massage into your company's URL shortener and get taken straight to the massage page. Once you've done this a few times and gotten success, you'll realize the power of it. And if you try the shortener and don't get any results, you get a form asking you to add the URL you do find, for the next new person who might come along. This is so helpful; you don't have to bookmark useful pages when you find them, or search through your history to find that really useful Perforce setup tutorial you only got halfway through.

Instead the URL shortener takes care of all of it. At Google you just type go/ followed by the name of whatever you're looking for, like go/massage or go/coffeescript. Curious about what the Google+ team is working on? Type in go/emeraldsea. If you don't get what you're looking for, you add it for the next person. This way Google's spaghetti mess of internal wiki software becomes manageable, and good resources never go missing. Another benefit is people can share links on ads and in talks very easily - just tell people the shortcut URL, which they're much more likely to remember than a full URL.

So stop worrying about keeping your website organized and get a URL shortener. If your documentation becomes deprecated, just make a new page and update the shortlink. It's not very hard to set up and it will help your new employees get up to speed faster.

To ensure you have no excuse, I wrote a minimum viable URL shortener over the last two nights. Check it out and contribute features. I hope your company will experience enlightenment soon.

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The data-driven approach is changing the world

I was reading this profile of Esther Duflo in the New Yorker last night when I realized that rural development and the tech sector aren't too different in their approach to problems. In each one you're trying to convince the customer that what you're selling - immunizations, software - will make their lives better. Sometimes you're not reaching out to the customer that well, in which case you try experiments to make things better. In tech, this is pretty low cost - you segment the customer base, show the treatment group a revised page and then measure the differences. In development this is more expensive - you have to create a randomized controlled trial, divide your population in two and then measure the results later. The basic principles are the same, though. Most successful web designers and aid workers/economists believe the following: 1. We can be doing a better job selling our product 2. Our assumptions could be right or could be wrong, but we have no way to tell without testing them 3. Good data is essential 4. Opinions without data are meaningless 5. Experiment constantly to collect more data and find things that work The success of this approach has become so clear, and such a part of my approach to problems, over the past few years that it's hard to imagine doing things differently, or having a discussion with people that rely on their gut. Even having discussions with people is pointless, when you can go look up some papers or evidence that proves or disproves your point, but most people aren't willing to trust the data over their intuitions. There are two types of people who have opinions about social promotion in schools: people who have looked at the data and people who haven't. Overwhelmingly the people who look at the data are in favor of social promotion (as are school administrators). Institutions push back against the data-driven approach, however, because of its implications. Underlying the hierarchical system at most companies is a belief that the people at the top are better at making decisions, or their assumptions are somehow better than the people just starting. If we're trusting the data, then your guess as the CEO is just as good as mine, as the intern; the people at the top must be comfortable ceding power. Plus we have all these biases, like the ability to discern patterns out of random data and anchoring, and if you're not familiar with cognitive bias by this point go read this. In both the tech sector and in development, there are companies that - for the moment - aren't randomizing, and are still doing okay and collecting money. That's going to change, though, and soon, because relying on the data gives you such a clear advantage. Google's made billions with it. J-PAL's gaining on everyone else in development, only because their experiments are demonstrating results. If you've got nothing else to go on, evaluate the future success of an organization by how it makes decisions, and how open it is to change.

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Please, Put More Personal Information On The Internets

Google Maps today released a feature called "My Maps," where you can personalize Google Maps and add your favorite places to the map. This is pretty cool, except when you realize how easy we are making things for stalkers. That said, I can't wait for my favorite young, nubile, innocent female friends to place the location of their house on the Internet for everyone to see.

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Once You Go Mac, You Never Go Back

I'm home for Spring Break and working on my PC at home... I keep reaching for the command-space tab to bring up Quicksilver and keep looking to change the volume in the keyboard. As my new, terrible Verizon RAZR and Apple prove, the best features of a phone aren't the camera, or the video text messages, or the new technology. They're the ease of use and the free, simple stuff that makes using a product easy and intuitive.

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Excellent Mac App: Quicksilver

I have an iBook at college, and recently I started using the application Quicksilver. If you download and open it, odds are you will be initially confused by how simple the app is - just two boxes. I was discouraged from using it. I simply forced myself for an afternoon's browsing session to complete every action - open a new link, compose an email, play a new song, find a file, attach that file to a message to send to a contact, skip to the next song, run a Google search - using Quicksilver. The beauty of Quicksilver is that you can do all of the actions I just named simply and without using the mouse. The two windows in Quicksilver comprise an object and a verb - start typing the object and once you've found what you want (a song, a photo, a document, a Firefox bookmark, an application, the function that lets you run Google Search), press Tab and QS switches to the verb - what you want to do to the object (open, play, compose email, new folder, open URL, copy, etc.) This not only feels really cool but saves the time you'd need to move the mouse to the correct location and open something. Plus, it's nice to be able to do everything on your computer from a single location. Dan Dickinson has a good tutorial on his blog, A Better OS in 10 Minutes. I highly recommend this program to anyone who wants to run their computer faster and/or more simply.

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Kill your Facebook Mini-Feed

If you're like everyone else I've talked to today, you think that the Facebook mini-feed is an invasion of privacy and a great tool for stalkers. Plus, you probably don't want people seeing what you do on Facebook 24/7. Facebook makes the argument that the info was all public anyway, but it would take a really dedicated stalker to dig it all out. This makes it much simpler for people to see what you're up to on the site. If someone followed around the CEO of Facebook and posted all their happenings to one place on the internet (left home without a kiss, bought a certain kind of coffee for $3.29, talked to certain people, or whatever), we'd see if they still agreed with the idea of the Mini-Feed. Facebook's arguing that all the information there in your Mini-Feed is public, which is true, but they greatly lowered the cost of retrieving that information by displaying it prominently on the profile page. Here's how to erase all your Mini-Feed data: 1) Download Greasemonkey for Mozilla Firefox. Greasemonkey allows you to run scripts on web pages and customize them however you feel like. Once you install the extension it will show up as a little monkey in the bottom right corner of the browser. 2) has a list of scripts, and many of them are useful, such as the ones that take ads out of Myspace and add other search results to Google. Once you're at the website, search for and install Facebook Mini-Feed Killer. Then go to your Facebook profile, and observe the wonderful results! Once you're done, the only difference you'll notice is that a little monkey shows up in the bottom corner of your Firefox browser, and none of your mini-feed stories show up. Just remember to visit your profile page when you're done browsing Facebook and it will automatically delete every action you've taken from your feed.

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Building an A’s Scoreboard Widget

Oakland A's I want to create an A's scoreboard widget. Ideally it will have an A's logo on the left, the linescore (all 9 innings), current pitchers' jersey numbers, runs hits errors, and then player at bat, count and runners on base. When the A's aren't playing it shows only the logo and current standings. I can draw you out what my widget will look like. Unfortunately I have no idea how to make one. So I will be trying to learn through trial and error and hands-on. The best way to learn programming must be to write programs. I wrote Ryan Inselmann who has a widget called Scoreboard, which has roughly the same information as what I want in mine, only his covers all MLB and doesn't have linescore.

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