Introducing “Another American Childhood.”

I haven’t done a very good job keeping up with the constant stream of fail fast references and my terse commentary regarding them this year because my blogging time has been spent on another writing endeavor that will probably sound very nineteenth-century: poetry. I spent a lot of time writing in high school, studied literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan, and my first career was as a writer and editor in the Penobscot Building in Detroit. I’ve been writing ever since, but my technical career and family life have certainly taken center stage the last 15 years or so.

Back in January when my dad was in the hospital, I instinctively turned to poetry as an outlet, and the idea for organizing some of these random pieces I had collected over the years as a gift for his upcoming 60th birthday came to me as I walked the bright, miserable hospital hallways. I realized I wanted to do something for him that I had never been able to do for my mom, who died in 1997 at the age of 44 after a 20-year struggle with Multiple Sclerosis.

As I started to write and edit in earnest, I realized that, in today’s multimedia world, it would be more interesting to pair the words with images. Given that I happen to know two talented photographers, Dave Limer and Andy Schmitt, I introduced them to the project and was relieved when they agreed to help. We began pairing images with words and, to be honest, I was very surprised how quickly a basic structure came together. We shared some lunches together — seven to be exact — and a lot of emails — about 146 — over the next months, and made many, many revisions. As we neared our deadline, I thought it would be helpful to have someone with an English background review everything, and was lucky to have another literary and creative friend to call on, Michael Slawnik. Dave, Andy, Michael, and I, who work together on a daily basis as technologists, pulled everything together in time to print one copy of the book for my dad’s birthday in mid-August. It was a great day.

Early on in the process, I thought of expanding this project as a charitable effort to benefit MS, which has impacted my family in a way that is still unraveling itself. I had originally chosen Blurb as the publishing solution we would use because they print beautiful books, but the idea was concretized when I learned of their Blurb for Good program, which donates a portion of their own fees to your fundraising effort. Their technology and philanthropic model are fantastic.

I’m very happy to finally and publicly introduce Another American Childhood to you. Navigate the poems and photos on the website. Check out the page-by-page preview of the book. Buy a copy or donate directly to the MS Society if you can. And join the conversation on Facebook, where, over the next 16 weeks, we’ll be discussing the poems and photographs in order to give you a little of their background and the behind-the-scenes fun we had pulling this all together.

Any support you can give will mean more than you can imagine.

Fail Fast with Agile

A nice article yesterday from Aaron Erickson about the relationship — I would go as far as to say the symbiotic relationship — of agile software development and failure. He provides an overview of methods to identify a failing project and metrics that can help discern failure as quickly as possible. To quote:

Failing fast doesn’t just save us money. The cold reality is that people don’t like working on failing projects. When a project is failing, people generally can smell it in the air. Employee engagement goes down, turnover goes up, and things just generally get worse. The best thing to do — for your people, for your company — is to learn to fail, and create a culture that learns from failure.

I heartily agree, though I would emphasize that failure doesn’t have to relate to the entire project, and ideally it doesn’t. You could fail fast on an architectural approach, a feature, a graphic design, or an idea. As Alan Cooper recently wrote:

Generally, ideas are cheap and plentiful, therefore so are good ideas. Unfortunately, bad ideas are the most plentiful of all. While success depends on developing good ideas, consistently successful companies and individuals are skilled at both identifying and discarding bad ideas to devote resources to the good ones…. You have to be tough enough to nurture your idea to the point where its fatal flaws become visible, then ruthlessly put it out of your misery. The author William Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings.”

Good night, darling.

The Best Coffee in Traverse City

Two summers ago, we migrated my family from our metro Detroit home to Traverse CIty, roughly 240 miles, so I could take a new job at the idyllic Interlochen Center for the Arts. Deciding to accept the position was easy; selling our house in Troy was surprisingly easy, too (at an economy-adjusted loss, of course, but any sale in which the seller didn’t have to write a check was considered a win at the time — and still is); leaving our family and friends was naturally the hardest.

Another non-trivial consideration was the availability of coffee and coffeeshops. Despite all the press over the last few years, Detroit is still a thriving area in many ways, and, certainly in the northern suburbs, a Starbucks is never far away. After living and working there my entire life, every route I took was subconsciously optimized to ensure that the easy acquisition of a Starbucks was a certainty. Every morning, I was there. Many important meetings were held in its jazz-infused interiors. I would send people on “Starbuck runs” around 2pm to provide some sparkle to a lingering afternoon or some energy for a late night. Traverse City, while one of the only economically growing regions in the Great Lakes, is a much smaller town, and there is only one Starbucks on the map — located in Meijer, no less. Could we — could I — survive after over a decade of more than one Starbucks a day?

The Siren Call

My own love of coffee began in Ann Arbor in the early 90s, when I was a literature student at the University of Michigan. Before then, the coffee in my life was over-adulterated with sugar and milk, more or less a bastardized form of hot chocolate. But, in Ann Arbor, every morning as I walked past Espresso Royale on the way to Angell Hall, the downtown streets alive in a way only a college town’s can be, the aroma of coffee beckoned through the crowds to me. Suddenly, the drink that had been an astringent, bitter, burnt drink from a worn Mr. Coffee at home had a new, cosmopolitan, out-on-the-town character. As I continued my twice-daily walks past the coffeeshop, I became more and more interested in the evident happiness of the students walking out with their double-cupped treasure. One afternoon on the way back from classes, I caught the silhouette of the iconic Professor Williams sitting at the counter, accompanied by a book as thick as a couch cushion and a tall cup of coffee. Sensing an opportunity, I stepped inside to small talk, ordered a coffee, and the rest is my caffeinated history.

One thing to note about the coffee I am talking about is that I am not focused on what my fast Canadian friend Tim Purdie calls a Fivebucks: A custom foo-foo latte or mocha (though Espresso Royale does offer what I consider to be the best mocha you can find). When I describe my favorite drink, I am talking about a freshly-ground, perfectly-hot, black-as-night, strong-as-acid coffee with absolutely nothing added to it. I don’t mean to sound Frasier-Crane-snobbish, but in the end this is what coffee is to me: simple, pure, austere. If you have to put something in it to make it taste better, it isn’t coffee to me. If you prefer it all laced up with other ingredients, that is okay, too — the soul of another is a dark forest — but the specific coffee for which I search and yearn is clear water brewed with beans, served quickly, sipped slowly. Aaah.

The Local Coffee Scene

As it turns out, there are a lot of coffeeshops in Traverse City; it is a beautiful area — I would argue the most beautiful in Michigan — with a small downtown that balances tourist-oriented businesses with art galleries, restaurants, and clothing and home stores. After two years of trying each of these coffees with a scientific but casual approach, I finally feel comfortable sharing my preferences, especially as you may be looking forward to a TC trip this summer or fall. (And, if you aren’t, you really should plan one. The coffee is on me.)

And so, in ascending order, here are the three best places to get a coffee in TC:

#3: Starbucks

Thankfully, there is a true Starbucks in Traverse City. Sadly, it is in a Meijer. It has no windows. It does not play jazz. Its only view is of the produce section. The majority of clientele, as in many parts of this region, are retirees. But, the coffee really is Starbucks, the baristas are extremely nice and learned my drink by heart within a week (I have now checked in there 150 times on Foursquare), and you can use your Starbucks Gold Card with a little bit of effort. Having to walk through the automatic doors into a grocery-store setting to get your coffee isn’t the general vibe that you are looking for when looking for Starbucks, but if you need your fix, you need your fix. I would say that either the water or the mix of coffee creates a less-bold brew than I am used to, but if you are looking for a Starbucks as you drive up the bay to a winery or secluded beach, this is the place.

#2: Frenchies

Photo by Andrew Schmitt.

Frenchies Famous and their new sign. How can you not want to go in?

Ah, Frenchies Famous, now we are getting somewhere. Frenchies is a little gemlike oasis in an off-the-beaten-path part of town, within a straight 3-iron shot of the bay. Much has been written about the fantastic food and the interesting story of its owners, but their coffee deserves at least equal billing. Most importantly, they offer the type of royal coffee that is not always easy to find: French press. This is the sort of coffee you make at home for good friends and, given the petite interior (it seats 10) and friendly atmosphere, you’ll likely feel like you are at an eccentric artist friend’s house, perhaps arguing about existentialism again, while you wait for your brew at Frenchies. Though a bit away from the downtown scene, if you are heading to the water after or for lunch, Frenchies is a perfect place to stop for a sandwich and a great, great coffee. (And look like a local by going into the door on the right side under the “Coffee” sign; don’t try the front door! Oh, and don’t forget to grab a pastry or other sweet near the register.)

#1: Morsels

Photo by Andrew Schmitt.

Tiny little Morsels is hardly more than a lean-to, but the coffee fills the space with verve.

I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to try the coffee at Morsels; I had always thought that it was a bakery more than a cafe. By accident, one morning as I was driving by I noticed a sign I hadn’t before: Intelligentsia Coffee. From a holistic brand perspective, the 22% of my heart dedicated to coffee is still wedded to Starbucks, but I had read about Intelligentsia, was interested in their story, and was thrilled to have an opportunity to finally try their coffee as brewed by professionals.

I was not disappointed. Or perhaps I should say that I was disappointed in myself for not walking through their doors sooner. The dark roast that Morsels brews is smooth, vibrant, and just a touch smokey (the good kind of smokey). The people in this ultra-tiny restaurant-bakery-cafe are extremely friendly as well. If you are in downtown TC and Morsels is open, you have no excuse to drink coffee anywhere else, including the many other coffee shops within walking distance. Grab a coffee and some of their signature bite-sized bakery morsels, sit on their outside patio or go for a stroll, and consider yourself lucky to live in a world where such fine coffee, great downtowns, and beautiful scenery — peeking at you from just around the corner — dare to exist.

[Update: As of the spring of 2012, Morsels has moved a few blocks east on Front Street.]

[Photos courtesy of my buddy and Interlochen-colleague Andrew Schmitt, who needs to get off his duff and pull together his website.]

Learning Effective Failure

Many thanks to Chris Mero for the reference to this short interview with Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist from Arizona State University. Given that “theoretical physicist” was one of the careers I really wanted to pursue, I have a natural soft spot for this podcast. The fact that it also includes this quote doesn’t hurt:

But I think we do a much better job and a much better service to our students if we try and teach our students to fail more effectively.

How to Fail

A little wisdom from Mr. Godin to get your Monday off to a strong start. I particularly like the last suggestion:

When you fail (and you will) be clear about it, call it by name and outline specifically what you learned so you won’t make the same mistake twice. People who blame others for failure will never be good at failing, because they’ve never done it.

You Are Solving the Wrong Problem

Many thanks to Stacey O’Connor for the reference to this fantastic article on how a human-powered airplane was crafted. As technology as an industry or department continues to shrink due to advances in models like cloud computing, I theorize that those workers and models will be transformed into process developers: business process, product design process, fundamentally design process. The key quote:

The first airplane didn’t work. It was too flimsy. But, because the problem he set out to solve was creating a plane he could fix in hours, he was able to quickly iterate. Sometimes he would fly three or four different planes in a single day. The rebuild, re-test, and re-learn cycle went from months and years to hours and days.

It is interesting to me that this story of process and failing fast uses flight as the example, as the original use of the term “fail fast” that I remember was in this Freeman Dyson interview:

Say something about failure in experiments or businesses or anything else. What’s the value of failure?

You can’t possibly get a good technology going without an enormous number of failures. It’s a universal rule. If you look at bicycles, there were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we’ve been building them for 100 years, it’s very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works – it’s even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error, we found out how to do it, and the error was essential. The same is true of airplanes.

This brings up an interesting issue of where theory fits in. Presumably there was not a theory of planes before there were planes.

There was an attempt at a theory of airplanes, but it was completely misleading. The Wright brothers, in fact, did much better without it.

So you’re saying just go ahead and try stuff and you’ll sort out the right way.

That’s what nature did. And it’s almost always true in technology. That’s why computers never really took off until they built them small.

Fail fast, my friends, and take flight.

GLSEC 2011: Migrating Core Enterprise Applications to the Cloud.


In the last year, the Interlochen Center for the Arts has moved from an antique on-premise ERP/ CRM solution to two cloudy offerings: Enrollment Rx for admissions to both our summer camp and arts academy, and Convio Common Ground for our advancement and fundraising department. Both of these solutions reside on the platform, a delivery model that is providing significant financial and time savings for our IT organization along with process improvements for our business units. Interlochen has also migrated away from on-premise Microsoft Exchange and adopted Google Apps for Education, which provides email, document collaboration, enterprise calendaring, and instant messaging.

At the 2011 Great Lakes Software Excellence Conference (April 16th in Grand Rapids), I’ll provide an overview of how these efforts to move to the cloud have benefited our institution and, just as importantly, outline the challenges we overcame in an effort to save others the same heartaches — or to at least prepare them for similar challenges.

Please come join me for a great day of learning and networking. The Starbucks is on me!