Blog: Work

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Our legacies are not always what we think they will be

In the mid-80s, in my first full-time position after college, I worked for a now-defunct software company doing artificial intelligence, specifically natural-language processing. The most significant project I worked on while there was a text categorization system. I was the tech lead (this was 1987ish). The client was Reuters, who at the time had literal rooms full of people whose job was to skim news stories coming over the wire, attach categories to them, and send them back out quickly. Our job was to automate that -- or, more realistically, to automate the parts that machines could do and send a much smaller set of "don't know" cases to humans. I'm writing this from memory; it's been more than 30 years and details are fuzzy.

I left that company and went on to do other things. I was vaguely aware that, at some point, the corpus of news stories we used for training data had been released publicly, by agreement between Reuters and my then-employer. I wasn't a researcher, wasn't in the NLP business any more, and lost touch. Technology moves on, and I figured our little project had long since faded into obscurity.

Tonight I got email with a question about that data set. My name is in the README file as one of the original compilers, and somebody tracked me down.

Somebody still cares about that data set.

I Googled it. Our data set was popular for close to a decade, during which time people improved the formatting (SGML, baby!) and cleaned up some other things. It spawned a child -- the original either had, or had acquired, some duplicate entries, and the new one removed them. (The question I got was actually about the child data set.) And now I'm curious about the question I was asked too, because I either don't know or don't remember how it got that way.


Well, he asked...

A (newer) coworker asked if he could pick my brain about a certain part of our product. Sure, I said -- and I asked some questions to figure out what he already knows (or doesn't). We chatted a bit, and then I said "Ok, I have some homework for you -- please read X and Y before we talk".

He responded with "pop quiz next Wednesday at 3".

So I scheduled the meeting. I mean, wouldn't you? :-)

A day much like any other

Get up, shower (because we do not let hygiene lapse).

Make coffee. I seem to have learned to drink coffee. Between us we're going through 4-6 K-cups per day; that jumbo box isn't going to last as long as it looks like it should. And that's with tea and cold drinks as well throughout the day. Remember to drink water; it matters.

Box of tea arrived yesterday. Good.

Plug laptop into dock, start work day. Visit the "pets" chat channel. Mon/Wed/Fri, join the virtual coffee break mid-morning just to see and interact with coworkers. Try to work productively. Pay particular attention to my mentee who joined the company two weeks ago in the midst of all this. Read more…

Young coworkers

Last week the director of engineering sent email announcing prizes for an "improve our tests" hackathon. He labelled one prize (about finding and fixing the most bugs) as "write yourself a minivan".

Later, in response to questions, he sent a copy of the 24-year-old Dilbert strip.

Over the weekend our CTO, in response to questions, sent email explaining what a minivan was.

I'll be over here, weeping into my prune juice and yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

Windows: accessibility obstacles

I got a new laptop at work last week, so naturally it came with Windows 10. Some of the software my group uses requires Windows; I'm currently still on Win 7 on my old machine. (And haven't gotten updates since last November. Eventually IT would have noticed. But even aside from that, the machine is five years old and starting to become unreliable.) The migration has been...challenging, with some accessibility regressions I don't know how to fix.

On Win 7 I defined a custom theme which had the following important properties:

  • Window background is not bright white but a light tan: bright white backgrounds hurt my eyes a lot, especially over a sustained period. This is set at the OS level, so all applications get it by default.

  • Font size for menus, window titles, and assorted other UI elements is increased so I can actually read them.

  • Colors for the title bars of active and inactive windows are very different so I can easily spot which window is currently active.

Read more…

Patches and fixes

Yesterday, a delivery person came to our office door asking if so-and-so worked here -- he had a package that omitted the company name, so he wasn't sure where to deliver it. The package did have the suite number on it, which got him to the right floor, but he helpfully pointed out that none of the doors in our building actually have numbers posted on them. Huh! He's right!

After he left, I took a post-it note and a marker, wrote "suite #" on it (with our number), and stuck it to the wall next to the door at eye height. (The door itself has a company name at eye height.) That was a patch.

Today someone else printed a sign with a nice, large font and taped it to the door under the name, taping on all four edges to increase its durability. That was a fix.

If somebody else decides to make it pretty, with a splash of color and art, that will be marketing excess. :-)

Conflicts between work and holidays

Someone came to Mi Yodeya with the following problem: everyone is expected to attend an important work summit, but it's scheduled on Rosh Hashana. The person asked how to explain the significance of the day and tell the boss that attendance wouldn't be possible.

My answer:

I have faced this problem several times - sometimes a holiday and sometimes Shabbat (directly, or not having time to get home). How I handle it depends in part on whether the plans can still be changed, but the broad outline is the same. It goes roughly like this:

(Name), I'd really like to be able to attend this event. (Something about why it's important.) Unfortunately, it is currently scheduled on an important religious holiday and I cannot attend. I'd like to find a way to avoid scheduling conflicts in the future; how can we work together to do that?

Key points:

  • You want to fully participate; you value the activity. Sometimes people make excuses to get out of things they don't want to do; this is not that.

  • It's a scheduling conflict, not an accusation. Don't say "but you scheduled it on Rosh Hashana"; that can sound like personal criticism. This is a time for passive voice.

  • "Currently": if you think it can still be changed, leave that opening and ask if changes are possible.

  • You offer to be part of the solution. We are a minority and even if they know about our holidays they might not know about two-day days or days starting the previous day (from their perspective). At one company I maintained a calendar and included some time info when especially important (like erev Yom Kippur). Expect the burden to fall on you for a while, though they might learn in time. (After several years I changed a culture of Friday-evening gatherings at one place.)

I usually don't try to explain specific holidays unless they ask. I do explain that it's very important to observe those days and that work on those days is a violation of religious law. That's been sufficient for me so far.

Even partial lessons are lessons

Last week I was at corporate HQ, where the rest of my group is, for a few days. Everything about the trip in on Monday was a model of efficiency -- the plane got in early, getting off the plane was faster than usual, Uber came right away, traffic was light -- so I got to the office about half an hour earlier than any of us expected me to.

Given that, I was a little surprised to be greeted with "oh thank heavens you're here!".

The previous weekend there'd been a catastrophic power failure and many of our servers came tumbling down. (I didn't hear the gory details. We have what I understand to be the usual precautions, and yet...) The small team responsible for that infrastructure was understandably frazzled. My teammates were happy to see me because the (internal) documentation servers are not managed by that team but by us. But their main custodian, G, was on vacation, and another person who knows relevant stuff, J, was on vacation, and that left me. I know some of the systems well but not others -- which put me ahead of anybody not on vacation. Okay.

Our doc infrastructure team has two newer members, an experienced writer who joined the company last fall and a recent grad who joined the company last month and the infrastructure team a couple weeks ago. The former has been focusing on git as my backup, and the latter is solidly in learning mode.

So first we did the usual dance of "this is not the right dock for my laptop / these are not the right monitor cables / why TF can't Windows see both of these monitors? / network, we have network right?". Once I could actually use my laptop, I settled down to investigate -- with the two newer team members watching everything I did and taking notes. It was kind of like pair programming, I think. Read more…

Poor user experience, hardware edition

I call these "Don Norman doors". It's been 30 years since he wrote The Psychology of Everyday Things (aka POET) and people are still doing stuff like this:

door with handle and 'push' sign

But hey, they recognized the problem -- and "fixed" it with documentation. Yay?

I was recently mystified by the following control in a hotel shower:

faucet with two concentric knobs

One of those controls temperature, but it moves most of the way around so it's not clear whether you need to turn clockwise or counterclockwise. The other one controls which of two different shower heads to dispense water through. Why there are two shower heads is left as an exercise for the user, I guess. (And, of course, when I'm trying to operate a shower, I don't have my glasses on.)

(There's lots of discussion of affordances in general and shower knobs in particular in the comments.)

Visit to Cambridge

I visited our main office for a few days this past week. (Sorry to folks I didn't connect with.) I met our two new team members, one of whom is our new manager, and our intern for this coming summer, and I had lots of productive conversations. I also played one game of Caverna with coworkers.

I wondered what airport security was going to be like given the government shutdown. Monday morning in Pittsburgh the line was probably about 15-20 minutes long, but somebody came by to tell us the alternate checkpoint was open and had no line, so some of us went there. All of the agents I saw were polite, professional, and not acting disgruntled. I and several other passengers thanked them for being there despite the situation. Everybody there understood that the mess was not the fault of anybody there and taking out frustrations on the wrong people would be bad. Yay for people acting like adults!

Thursday night at Logan, the first checkpoint I found was closed but the second was staffed. It took me five minutes to get through. Again, people behaved themselves.

Wednesday afternoon our new writer and I took a walk through a park/wetlands area near the office. We saw lots of ducks and one heron. We later saw the heron catch a small mouse; I hadn't previously known that they ate mammals.

Photos: Read more…