Disproductive Software

Talking to Blackboard About Applets

We implement software solutions to help us become more productive. These pieces of code allow us to do more through creating efficiencies. Bad software hinders our ability to do the work. Normally I would call this unproductive, but I had a weird thought fighting a human resources program this morning. Unproductive software is both disruptive and unproductive, so we should call it disproductive.

Not only are we not achieving as much as we ought, but we also become so frustrated with the lack of productivity that we whine and complain about how bad it is to others. There is a synergy of lost productivity due to the overwhelming frustration of having to deal with such horrible software. The amount of frustration become its own entity and source of workplace dysfunction.

Like, all I wanted was a simple report the software claims to be able to do. It tells me zero even after I try all the reported tricks to make it give me the correct value. So, I resorted to a different report that gives me all the details to add them up myself. And then I could not save the second report in Mozilla except to print it out on paper (or the HTML, but I hate that), so I had to re-do the same thing in Chrome in order to save it as a PDF. Annoying. The good thing is I discovered data entry problems I had not previously noticed due to a dropdown box defaulting to a useless value that I failed to change, which I had to fix. Everyone hates this program, which is probably why we are switching.

March of the Machines (Automation)

Saw a tweet about and interesting piece in ABC News Australia Digital disruption: How science and the human touch can help employees resist the march of the machines. Basically, many jobs are going away due to automation. W.I.R.E.D. has a similar story: Robots Will Steal Our Jobs, But They’ll Give Us New Ones.

One of the long struggles I have ever pushed in my career is automation of machines. My approach falls along the line of: if it is going to be done more than once or will take a really long time by hand, then it needs to be automated. This is hard to do. The temptation is to do it by hand once, see how it went, then write a script which does it for the next time. The trouble being that if this is done between having completed the first one and the second, then there is little incentive. Best is to make the automation part of doing it the first time, the second time can include any remediation necessary to make it more perfect.

All this automation makes us more effective employees. My team of three managed hundreds of web servers and dozens of database servers for ten sites. Without automation that would have been a nightmare. The replacement product was more difficult to automate so with fewer servers we needed more people. Yet the drive to better automation is making lives easier. (Technically I left that program about a year ago when my replacement was hired and took over my spot in the on-call rotation.)

A fear I hear about automation is that people will lose their jobs. It reminds me globalization and manufacturing moving overseas to China. Highly repetitive, mindnumbing jobs were the most at risk and as those work forces got better, what was at risk moved up the complexity ladder.

The fear of both globalization and automation led to books like A Whole New Mind. The idea is that if your job is highly repetitive or analytical, then it is at risk to these forces. Becoming the person who designs, describes, coordinates, or finds meaning in stuff (aka “right brain” activities) is the way to survive the coming storm. This book very influenced how I started thinking about my work.

Back in 2003, I automated everything I could because I was overwhelmed with work and little resources beyond great computers and my own skill to make it better. My supervisees focused on meeting with the clients to talk about the web site they wanted and build that. I wrote code to report about or fix problems to prevent people needing to call or email about problems.

Where I wish we would head is more like You Really Don’t Need To Work So Much. I meant to send this to my boss (maybe he’s reading this blog)? All our efficiencies should mean we have less to do not more, so why do we work so hard?

The past fifty years have seen massive gains in productivity, the invention of countless labor-saving devices, and the mass entry of women into the formal workforce. If we assume that there is, to a certain degree, a fixed amount of work necessary for society to function, how can we at once be more productive, have more workers, and yet still be working more hours? Something else must be going on.

From my experience, the to-do list gets ever larger. Not because there is more to do, but because more is possible. I’d just rather spend more of my time on solving hard problems than easy repetitive tasks.

P.S. This post really only exists because I loved the phrase “March of the Machines” enough I wanted it as a title for something on this blog.

Re-Imagining Work

Guess Drive made me think about happiness at work more.

How can we get people more engaged, more productive, and happier at work? Is technology part of the problem — and could it also be part of the solution?

Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft, imagines what might be possible if more organisations embraced the full, empowering potential of technology and encouraged a truly open, collaborative and flexible working culture.

If the embedded video below does not work, then try RSA Animate – Re-Imagining Work.

Broken

At 30:00 Steve Jobs talks about how innovation came about because people wanted something for themselves to use that was actually good. Maybe this is the takeaway message for dealing with any technology, especially in education. If <name your institution’s LMS> sucks, then look around and cobble together something actually good. Or failing that make your own. Don’t rely on a corporation making profits to suddenly improve.

Email is the most important app I use. I’ve used everything out there… I know we could improve the productivity at Apple 30% just by getting them good email… If something so obvious as email is so broken… there is no answer to these questions [1] except, “Let’s go do it.”

[1] Actually, I think the answer is licensing. A manager wants to pay one bill for software everyone uses. People who hate the software either spend the time to find a free alternative and/or pay the money for a license to an alternative.

Hawthorne Effect

At work we are being asked to enter the amount of time we spend on certain activities into an online form. This is ostensibly so some people can get a handle on where people at my level (the bottom) can get better a sense of where we are putting our efforts. Yet, we are not supposed to go to any great effort to track what we do. (I think the assumption is we already know on what we spend our time.)

It makes me wonder though if anyone planning this anticipated the Hawthorne effect? By putting observers in factories, productivity improved. Nothing changed except people being worried about reprisals while anticipating the ramifications of the observers. This means the results are biased and non-reflective of what people actually will do. For this time tracking stuff, the observers are the bosses who have to review the data we record and approve it. Yes, self-reporting information is a horrible way to get at this information accurately, yet that is the method chosen. Combine self-reporting with not spending a lot of time tracking it accurately, I’m going to guess accurate data is not desired so much as anything more than a complete lack of data. Possibly completely wrong data is okay as long as there is something upon which to be able to make decisions.

So… Personally, I am trying out RescueTime to get a better sense of where I spend my time.

Lost in Communication

Would you believe United States employees cost their employers $650 billion in productivity costs in the seconds it takes for them to return attention back to the task at hand? The time spans lost are the same amount of time required to interpret a CAPTCHA. E-mail, instant messaging, Twitter, etc. are all distractions from getting the work done. Those who choose to disconnect or limit the distractions improve their productivity. At least that is what the technology corporations studying the problem have decided. I have my doubts. This sounds like a restating of “all employees with access to the Internet just surf all day and get nothing done.”

What I like about instant messengers is they are more efficient than email but cheaper than a long distance phone call. By marking availability status, employees alert others not to contact them. Employees also may ignore messages until they have are done concentrating on the task at hand. Another article, also from the New York Times, supports this view employees using instant messengers effectively are not distracting.

Looking at an alert just to decide whether to respond would “waste time.” Then again, so would talking about a cool movie, the family, or any of the standard means of bonding which establish trust between individuals (without which far more time would be wasted in mistrust).

Guess there will be more research to debate what is really the problem.
🙂

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WebRunner

Linux.com :: Mozilla begets WebRunner, a site-specific browser:

Nowadays, people are turning to Web-based applications as replacements for desktop applications. Web-based office suites, mail clients, multimedia apps, and general productivity tools are all extremely useful now, but standard Web browsers aren’t always the best option for running applications. To provide a more suitable tool for Web-based apps, Mozilla Platform Evangelist Mark Finkle has been working on WebRunner, a site-specific browser (SSB) that’s designed to work exclusively with one application at a time. It’s not finished yet, but it’s already showing promise.

Blackboard, Inc. Are you reading? 😀 This could be the magic bullet you need for a fully functional section archive outside of the true Vista application!

Taking Screenshots of web pages without Spending $40

Screen Grab will be very useful. It is easy enough to take screenshots, past them into GIMP and save them as PNG. Why do that when you can have something do it for you in one step?

Take Screen Capture of Webpages in Firefox » Digital Inspiration: Software Reviews, Technology News, Downloads, Productivity Tips

As the name suggests, Screen Grab saves the entire webpage as an image. The screengrab plugin can capture the current browser window, any visible portion of the browser window and even capture the entire website being viewed in Firefox.

When you capture the whole web document, this screen capture plugin scrolls the page around taking snapshots every time. At the end it stitches them all back together again and asks you where you’d like to save the image. The screenshots are saved as PNG format. Screengrab requires Java Virtual Machine. Supports Firefox 1.0+