Mentorship

The opportunities to be a mentor or, as Jack Donaghy would say, a mentee, are few and far between in the world of web development. On one hand, few potential mentors want to sacrifice the precious, precious time on junior developers who will likely be gone in less than a year. And then there are the developers who scowl at any attempt to share knowledge believing that to be a mark of showing off.

Besides spending your own time and being a showoff, there’s another mentorship prevention layer: the direct management of junior developers and tight deadlines. A developer once asked me to show him how to do something, but as I was explaining, I could see my other co-worker in a neighboring pod getting more an more frustrated. After 5 minutes, as I was getting into a little more detail, he piped up – well, let’s not confuse […] there — just tell him what he needs right now, Michael.

Some mentorship styles are harsher than others. Here’s an excerpt from most excellent “Coders at Work” about the schooling that young JWZ received from some dude named Skef:

“Like the guy who was sort of our manager—the one keeping an eye on us—Skef Wholey, was this giant blond-haired, barbarian- looking guy. Very intimidating-looking. And he didn’t talk much. I remember a lot of times I’d be sitting there—it was kind of an open- plan cubicle kind of thing—working, doing something, writing some Lisp program. And he’d come shuffling in with his ceramic mug of beer, bare feet, and he’d just stand behind me. I’d say hi. And he’d grunt or say nothing. He’d just stand there watching me type. At some point I’d do something and he’d go, “Ptthh, wrong!” and he’d walk away. So that was kind of getting thrown in the deep end. It was like the Zen approach—the master hit me with a stick, now I must meditate.”

Or here’s a passage about the concept of “nusumi-geiko” that is still alive in Japanese culture:

“The cabinetmaker’s training usually began in his early teens. In the ensuing ten years of apprenticeship, he endured a great deal of sweeping and menial tasks, but was also exposed to the work of the master craftsmen around him. The term nusumi-geiko refers to what actually took place in cabinetmaker’s training and many other trades. It means “stolen lessons,” alluding to the fact that the apprentices were not instructed so much as they learned the requisite skills by sheer determination through observation.”

I am very thankful to the people who took their time to show me the ropes: Lothar Krause, Bill Cunningham, Dan Tepper. They spent a lot of their time explaining things to me.

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else

In his fifties, Michael Gates Gill had it all: a big house in the suburbs, a loving family, and a top job at an ad agency with a six-figure salary. By the time he turned sixty, he had lost everything except his Ivy League education and his sense of entitlement. First, he was downsized at work. Next, an affair ended his twenty-year marriage. Then, he was diagnosed with a slow-growing brain tumor, prognosis undetermined. Around the same time, his girlfriend gave birth to a son. Gill had no money, no health insurance, and no prospects.

One day as Gill sat in a Manhattan Starbucks with his last affordable luxury—a latté—brooding about his misfortune and quickly dwindling list of options, a 28-year-old Starbucks manager named Crystal Thompson approached him, half joking, to offer him a job. With nothing to lose, he took it, and went from drinking coffee in a Brooks Brothers suit to serving it in a green uniform. For the first time in his life, Gill was a minority–the only older white guy working with a team of young African-Americans. He was forced to acknowledge his ingrained prejudices and admit to himself that, far from being beneath him, his new job was hard. And his younger coworkers, despite having half the education and twice the personal difficulties he’d ever faced, were running circles around him.

The other baristas treated Gill with respect and kindness despite his differences, and he began to feel a new emotion: gratitude. Crossing over the Starbucks bar was the beginning of a dramatic transformation that cracked his world wide open. When all of his defenses and the armor of entitlement had been stripped away, a humbler, happier and gentler man remained. One that everyone, especially Michael’s kids, liked a lot better.

The backdrop to Gill’s story is a nearly universal cultural phenomenon: the Starbucks experience. In How Starbucks Saved My Life, we step behind the counter of one of the world’s best-known companies and discover how it all really works, who the baristas are and what they love (and hate) about their jobs. Inside Starbucks, as Crystal and Mike’s friendship grows, we see what wonders can happen when we reach out across race, class, and age divisions to help a fellow human being.

Developer Life, Yo

These days there are a lot of documentary shows on TV about various professions. I am somewhat addicted to them – I watched whole seasons of shows about hairdressers, crab fishermen, lobster fishermen, tattoo artists in Florida, tattoo artists in Nevada (but not the one about tattoo artists in LA), restaurateurs ice road truck drivers, custom motorcycle builders, custom car builderscorrectional officers and inmates, and the Philadelphia meter maids.

My own profession is mostly untelevisable. Mostly. Well, maybe some TV network might make a show out of Aardvark’d: 12 Weeks With Geeks. I also think that there could be a tiny market for a heavily edited “looking over the shoulder” video on the code writing habits of colorful  alpha geeks like Linus Torvalds, Donald Knuth, Brad Fitzpatrick, Dries Buytaert, and maybe even  JWZ. I’d buy that for a dollar.

I found that there are two occupations that are unexpectedly similar to that of a software developer: prison inmate and line cook. Both of these are heavily male dominated, involve a disproportionate amount of minorities and are very stressful.

I recognized offices in which I worked all my life in prison layouts.  The common criminals usually live in a common area in the center of the prison. This is exactly like a common area of an office, except with bunk beds instead of desks. Some actually have semi-private cubicles. Inmates organize into gangs, just like departments. Gang leaders are usually placed into single or double cells that line the perimeter of the common area to cut down on the communication between them and their reports.  Even there you have to be a manager to score an office.

Restaurants are a lot like developer shops. You have your front of the house: waiters (sales people),  hosts and managers, food runners (analysts). And then you have your back of the house: chefs (architects and lead developers), line cooks (developers) and  prep cooks (producers). There’s no good equivalent for dishwashers in a typical developer shop.

People often assume that a chef primarily cooks and a lead developer primarily codes. Do you know the title of Julia Child’s awesome show? Well, she was neither French nor a chef. Chefs do surprisingly little cooking, they are more like conductors in  orchestras. They create menus,  divvy up the tasks, check quality, train and supervise cooks.  Best chefs, just like the best lead developers do find time to cook, but still spend more time organizing, tasting and researching.

Rank and File

Since a comprehensive list of Microsoft codenames already exists, I would like to move on to another taxonomy project that fascinates me. I would like to collect a list of weird titles so common in many big-name corporations. Here are some notes that I collected already.

Also I am adding a little note about certain not very publicized rules that the company has that might help you get better service, or so to say to hack the system. You’ll see what I mean.

Kinko’s
Every employee carries a title of “Co-worker”. Employees use the term Kinkoid instead.

Kinko’s hacks:
All Kinkoids seem to live in fear of “mystery shoppers”. The corporate mothership sends special agents that pose as customers, and then evaluate the Co-workers. On at least several occasions I asked for some collating and printing jobs and quoted long wait times by Co-workers, which strangely had a change of heart and did the work right away. Your job is to make a Co-worker suspect that you are a “mystery shopper”. How? I don’t know, but apparently I managed to pull it off a couple of times.

McDonald’s:
Generic title: Crew Member. There are special non-management Crew Members with many years of experience called Crew Superstars. Managers carry the title of Crew Leader.

Fast Food Hacks:
This is a little known fact, but almost all soda fountains have a special button that will dispense seltzer. So technically the soda choice include seltzer. Sometimes when I am not in the mood for caramel coloring and phosphoric acid, I buy a medium soda and then ask them to find the button (most employees don’t know about it).

Starbucks:
Barristas are known as Hourly Partners. I’ve seen a title of Coffee Master on a manager’s card.

Starbucks Hacks:
There’s an 8oz cup called “Short” as opposed to the holy trinity of Tall-Grande-Venti. It’s never advertised, but I successfully ordered it on occasion.

I learned a new trick, which I am not planning on using, but which surprised me. I found a tiny sticker which outlined Starbucks refill policy. It reminded me that Spongebob episode where Bubble Bass pointed out to the microscopic print on the Crusty Crab menu that outlined the refund policy. Anyway, it seems like the rule is that if you finish your drink within the hour, you can ask for a refill in the same cup at an unspecified reduced price. How will they know if you consumed your drink in an hour? There’s a label on the cup that records the time when the drink was ordered. You can also apparently bring in your own cup and have it filled at 30 cents off or so.

You can ask for free coffee grinds at any Starbucks store to use as fertilizer for your garden or farm.

Barnes and Noble:
This is a surprising one. All B&N employees carry the title of “bookseller”. Even computer programmers and janitors. Thank you, anonymous tipster for this slice of corporate weirdness.

Disney
Most employees at Disney World are titled “Cast Members”. “Face” characters, like Cinderella and the like are “Union Actors”. Disney weirdness is too huge to discuss here, there are whole sites dedicated to the subject. “No Disney Cast member at the Disney reservation center has the same name. If there are more then two with the same then they are given a name.” Whoa.
Thank you, Merlin!

Pacific Theaters
Ushers and the like carry the title of “Talent”.
Thanks you, Greg!

This calls for a gratuitous Spongebob quote:
“Squidward: Repeat after me. “I have no talent”
Spongebob: I have no talent.
Squidward: “Mr. Tentacles has all the talent”.
Spongebob: Mr. Tentacles has all the talent.
Squidward: “If I’m lucky, some of Mr. Tentacles talent can rub off on me”.
Spongebob: If I’m lucky, Mr. Talent can…rub…his tentacles on my…art… (smiles)”

Toyota Canada
Salesmen carry the title of “New Vehicle Advisor ”
Thank you, Aidan R.

WL Gore & Associates
Every employee is – you guessed it – an “Associate”.
Thank you, Joe Grossberg.

NASA
Gouvernment employees are called “Guvvies” and contractors are called “Swaliens” (because they are frequently from Swales Aerospace.

Thank you, anonimous commenter.

IKEA
IKEA employees have the same designation as Kinkos – “Co-worker”. I am not sure if this is a recent development or not.

If you have any information like this, please let me know.

Raiding the Foodmotron

I am endlessly fascinated with vending machines, and being my old semi-autistic self like to study their contents. These days, trying to fight my way out of being overweight, the only thing I ever consume out of them is peanuts or trail mix. Still, I am amazed at how hard it is to get anything remotely healthy out of them.

I’ve seen an article once that described how to get a balanced meal out of a vending machine. All I have to say to that is – “Ha!”. So in the spirit of exploration I decided to figure out what is the single most unhealthy item you can get from them.

The placement of items in most of machines that I’ve seen at different workplaces follows the same pattern. Chips at the top, various snacks in the middle and ultrascary stuff at the bottom. The very last minirow is usually reserved for dried out rolls of lifesavers and gum.

The ultrascary items are the ones that I am interested in here. I have to admit that in the dot com years a consumed a couple of items from there. In fact I had a manager who publicly admitted his addiction to “Black Forrest Brownies” located there. I looked at the wrapper of the brownies and was absolutely scared of the fact that somebody managed to stick that much high calory crud into such a small package.

I checked the machine at work and promptly started the collection of scary vending machine food wrappers. I present to you the current champion:

The little “Eddie” character looks a little creepy, doesn’t he?

Wow, 40 grams of fat and 61 grams of carbs. Food of the gods!

I dare you to find something less healthy in your vending machine. If you do and send me a scan of the package I will send you a nice set of 3d photos of New York that I took and 3d glasses to view them.

TT : Thought Tally : Dude, Where’s My Biochemistry Degree? or Kinky Crew Superstar

is going to like this. As I learned from TV Guide Magazine, Ashton Kutcher majored in Biochemistry.

According to one of the most annoying things a customer can do at the checkout line is to say “He heh. I guess it must be free” when the scanner beeps and refuses to scan the code. See, I could never come up with that stupid and apparently common joke. A Null is not a zero.

This kind of reminded me about a dude who was playing an electronic one arm bandit in Moscow when the machine crashed with 999999 rubles in the payout window. He stayed at the gaming parlor for days guarding the machine, but in the end the machine was rebooted and he wasn’t given any money. Or so I heard.

Coca cola definitely tastes better when it’s sold in those glass bottles. You know the ones that are probably based on the shape of the cacao pod (which was mistaken for the kola nut by the designer or something). They still make those in Mexico and sometimes they are sold in a few bodegas in NYC. I always thought it tasted better because of the glass, but finally found out the true reason:

“She told me that they were bottled in Mexico and I nodded since I already knew that and said, “I think it is because they use real sugar.”
She shook her head, “No, no, not the sugar. It’s the water.”
She leaned in like she was telling me a secret, “Mexican water is the BEST water in the entire world.”
Just then a smaller woman leaned in beside her grinning with a single eyebrow raised and whispered.
“It’s MAGIC water!”

Apparently it is not Montezuma’s revenge that assails unsuspecting tourists, but the magic waters that sour in the bellies of the unimaginative, somewhere South of the border.”

Many big corporations in order to retain employees use powerful “cult team building” techniques. One thing that I noticed is that worker ants usually have very peculiar job titles. For instance at Kinko’s the official title is “Co-worker”. At McDonald’s – “Crew Member”. From Gig I learned that Kinko employees unofficially use “Kinkoid” instead of “Co-worker”. And from an lj user in I learned that a McDonalds crew member who has formidable years of experience, but isn’t a manager is called “Crew Superstar”. I guess it’s kind of like “Research Fellow” at Microsoft :)

Now I Know Where Sinner Programmers Go When They Die

writing in smashing :

~ You are searched thoroughly at the end of every shift. You can’t put your coat on until you’re outside the store, and a manager has to search it first. Once outside, you’re patted down and may be asked to remove your shoes to make sure you’re not hiding any jewelry.

~ Being “friends” with anyone you work with is frowned upon, …

~ Any shopping bags/personal belongings/reading material/clothes discovered by the district manager will be thrown out immediately.
~ No “ethnic food” may be eaten on your break because it makes the store smell bad. You may only eat food that does not smell like anything.
~ No one with piercings or tattoos may be hired.
~ Avoid hiring anyone who is “aesthetically unpleasant” (e.g. ugly, fat, deformed, etc.) because they don’t “project the appropriate image”

It’s Story Time

This kind of reminded me of an incident from my years of work in the service industry. I used to work in a clam bar of Nathan’s Famous at Coney Island. I never sold hot dogs, opening clams was my specialty.

Anyway, this really drunk guy gets upset over the cost of a half dozen of clams (something to the tune of 12 bucks). But he still wants them. And here’s the twist – he wants them unopened. After asking the manager if it’s ok, I hand over six closed clams. The dude takes a huge Bowie knife and proceeds to try to open them. Of course, he fails at opening even a single one. He puts the knife back in his pocket and lets me open the damn clams for him.

Another time I learned why pint jars with condiments were to be kept behind the counter. I, seeking to improve usability, put them on the counter during my shift, so that the patrons would not have to ask for them. When I looked away, two bums got into an argument and one of them proceeded to throw a jar full of horseradish sauce and a jar full of cocktail sauce at the other.

Now here’s another one from my years as a doorman/porter in a Manhattan building. During one of my night shifts somebody stole a huge (probably two meters tall) potted pine. The pine in question was in a heavy bucket that was chained to the wall. That asshole uprooted the whole thing and dragged the tree for at least ten blocks leaving a trail of dirt. The pine was not recovered. I locked the door and was cleaning the lobby at the time, so nobody really blamed me.

Die Kunst der Rant : Contrapunctus 2

“How may I help you?” is probably the stupidest question that salespeople ask. There are hundreds of things that salespeople mean by it. It can mean “Do you even know what you want?”, or “Are you here to buy something?”, or “Buy something, dammit, or get out”, or “Dude, you are wasting my idle time” or “My manager is making me say this, but all I want is see you leave”.

“How may I help you” implies that you need help. It suggests, that you can’t make a decision on your own. A shopper that answers “yes” is obliged to come up with an explanation about how the salesperson can assist, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Many people don’t even know what they want yet. On the other hand, people that actually know what they want and have questions will seek out a salesperson and ask those questions. That’s of course when the salesperson will be nowhere to be found.

But guess what, turns out, there is an alternative! I’ve been reading this book about buying used boats. The author mentioned that real professional boat salesmen don’t use the phrase “How may I help you”. What the say is “What can I show you?” You see, this question is very hard to answer negatively. To make a sale, the salesperson needs to know what the customer is interested in, show off the product and make a pitch. “What can I show you?” is a question that is easy to answer and hard to walk away from. It’s a polite way to ask a permission to launch a sales pitch.

Strangely enough, I don’t think that I ever heard “What can I show you?” asked in a store.