Blogging @ Christmas

I’ve been away for the past few days, so haven’t had a chance to write recently. Normal service will be resumed soon. In the meantime, happy Christmas!

Customer Service Update - LOVEFiLM and PlusNet

I’ve written several times before about LOVEFiLM and their deteriorating customer service. They’ve just got worse - sometime during or after the merger with Screenselect, it seems that they sneaked in a change - you can now only ‘go on holiday’ (pause the service) for a maximum of 4 weeks a year, and only 2 weeks at a time (with a holiday size measured in units of 1 week). No doubt this is within the T&Cs;, but this clearly isn’t going to suit lots of people (myself included), and is just another ill-considered attempt to shave costs (maintaining your account details is essentially zero cost). The only thing that’s keeping me clinging on to LOVEFiLM is their range (the delivery times aren’t getting any better), so I suspect I’ll be ditching them soon. Unless of course they feel like improving? Guys? Hello?

PlusNet, who also failed on the customer service front a while ago when they failed to fix my broadband for almost two weeks, have just published some fairly detailed statistics on their claimed improvement in problem turnaround time. Whether they are true is difficult to say, but it’s certainly interesting to see them being so open for once.

Update 2006-12-23: Some people still don’t like PlusNet much though.

Correction 2007-01-05: You can suspend your account for longer than two weeks, but LOVEFiLM charge £1/week for this - plain cheek, since the cost to them is obviously next to nothing.

Interview with Alexander Kjerulf, Chief Happiness Officer

Alexander Kjerulf JumpingSince meeting Alexander Kjerulf at euroGel 2006 last year, I’ve been following his work as the self-appointed Chief Happiness Officer with interest. He’s just released his first book, Happy Hour is 9 to 5. Alex is also one of the most energetic and inspiring people I’ve met. He’s kindly consented to be the first interviewee on this blog. I hope you enjoy it.

AF: What first interested you about happiness at work? Were you unhappy at your workplace?

AK: I’ve tried being really, really happy at work. And I’ve tried being desperately unhappy. And I think it’s the contrast between the two experiences, the huge differences that draw me to the topic. When I’m happy at work I’m positive, upbeat, creative, supportive, giving, energetic. But during the one year I spent being unhappy at work I found myself becoming despondent, cynical, tired, depressed and negative. I hated the experience - but wasn’t able to change it. Until I quit!

Have you discovered which companies make people happy at work? In particular, is there an international bias: are some countries better at this than others?

The biggest bias is this: Smaller companies are usually better at happiness. If you look at the top-10 list for happy companies here in Denmark, 7 out of 10 have less than 500 people. This is one reason why WL Gore (they make GoreTex) limit plant sizes to 150 people. There’s also a national bias: International studies show that the happiest workers are found in the Scandinavian countries. This is because Scandinavian organizations have a decades long tradition for focusing on happiness at work. We even have a word for it: Arbejdsglæde, a word that exists only in the Nordic languages.

Do you think there’s a conflict between businesses making profits and keeping employees happy?

Quite the contrary. Study after study has shown that happy companies make more money. Why? Because happy employees:

  • Are more creative

  • Take fewer sickdays

  • Are more productive

  • Make the customers happy

  • Focus more on quality and make fewer mistakes

In my opinion, this is the major factor behind the “Nordic Miracle”, the incredible success of Scandinavian companies like Nokia, Carlsberg, IKEA, Statoil and the Scandinavian economies in general.

You’ve just published your first book: Happy Hour is 9 to 5. Was there any part of the writing process that made you unhappy?

Only one part: Stopping. I could have gone on writing and re-writing but at one point you have to stop and say “It’s finished. Or it’s a finished as it needs to be!” That was difficult. Other than that, writing was a lot of fun. As it should be. Imagine saying “I wrote this book about happiness at work - it was a horrible experience every step of the way” :o)

You’re now self-employed as a happiness consultant. Do you think self-employment is a good way to be happy with your work?

It is for me!! I’ve been self-employed since 1996 and have probably been spoiled for life. I’m not sure I could ever go back and work in a job. But it depends on your personality. If you like a little more excitement, uncertainty, challenge and self-direction then it’s the way to go. You probably also need to be addicted to low levels of fear :o)

** Should large corporates have vice-presidents of happiness?**

Yes! Why have an HR manager, when you can have a Chief Happiness Officer. That would be a great way for a company to show, that they’re committed to their employees’ happiness.

What does the future hold? Are you seeing an improvement in happiness levels among employees? Is there a market for more people like yourself?

The world of work is definitely getting better on the whole. Ask yourself: Would you rather have a job today or in a company in the 1950’s? 1920’s? 1980’s even? Work is becoming more interesting, creative, challenging and the mood at work is (in general) becoming more open, free and flexible. On the negative side, we see more and more workplace stress - probably as a direct consequence of the increased freedom.

But there is no doubt that the future of work is happy. That is my ultimate goal: To change the world of work to the point where happiness is not an exception, but the norm. Where most of us refuse to take jobs that don’t make us happy. Where no one is forced to treat a job as “just a job”. And yes, there is a huge market for this - just look at all the people working in innovation, motivation, communication, teambuilding etc… At the core of this lies one thing: Making people happy at work!

Thanks to Alex for the interview.

Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy is a hard film to call. It’s a slice of film history, with some well-known visuals, well-known music, and well-known scenes:

"Hey! I'm walkin' here! I'm walkin' here!" - Ratso

But it’s a confusing film, with plenty of montages, flashbacks, fantasy scenes, and a drug-induced party. I wasn’t expecting any of that, and it doesn’t exactly help carry the plot (that which there is) forward. The sex scenes, despite being notorious (Midnight Cowboy was the only X-rated film to ever win an Oscar - it’s since been downgraded to R-rated) are tame by modern standards: although there’s a strong theme of ambiguous sexuality running throughout the film, with Joe Buck (Jon Voight) - the cowboy of the title - being pretty indiscriminate about who he sleeps with, even in his role as a hustler.

Fundamentally, though, it is a film about friendship - between Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) - and Buck. In that, it does succeed. Both Voight and Hoffman have plenty of chance to assert their acting range also. It’s perhaps not the strongest buddy film ever, but it still has a powerful poignancy enhanced by the last touching scene.

Source Code Crazy

I’ve thought for a while that build, source-code management, and bug tracking software (which I’m collectively calling meta-software) could, and should, be so much simpler. I’ve written previously about my contention that bugs and features are the same thing, but the problem is wider. Software has a tendency to acquire features over time, and software that’s used to make other software is no exception. Here are some assorted thoughts about how to improve the situation:

  • Always use integrated source-code libraries and bug tracking. This is something that CMVC and other systems do excellently, and up till recently was fairly poorly served by the open-source software community, although projects such as Trac are doing a good job of closing this gap. The ability to see what changes are associated with what bug is invaluable. Anything else is a recipe for mistakes.

  • Get rid of all the excuses. There are only two valid reasons for permanently closing a bug: (i) it’s fixed; (ii) the developer disagrees that the change will improve the software for the user. Anything else isn’t OK. A corollary of my rule about bugs and features being the same thing is that bugs can’t be returned just because they are feature requests. All bugs that aren’t targeted for a release currently being worked on are still open bugs (just with a different target field). All bugs we don’t want to fix because they don’t seem sensible to fix right now (which could be marked as such) are still open bugs. All bugs in an external dependency are still bugs (the whole system doesn’t work). All bugs that can’t be recreated were seen once (assuming you trust your testers) and are still bugs. A good bug tracker is a database, and will let you see any subset of these any time you want, so no-one needs to get blamed unfairly.

  • Make sure each bug only has a few panic fields. ‘Severity’, ‘Importance’, ‘Priority’, ‘Ease of Recreation’, ‘Impact on Customer’, ‘Impact on Developer’, ‘Impact on Tester’ are all ambiguous. Pick a maximum of two, preferably just one, and make sure everyone knows exactly what they mean. After all, only one field really matters - how much does this affect the user of our software? Everything else should be secondary.

  • What Joel says about explaining off-buttons to uncles applies equally to the design of procedures around software development - everyone will think their exception to the process is vital until you’re drowning in exceptions. This relates more to conventions surrounding software development rather than meta-software itself, but it’s still relevant. Keep it simple - regular builds on a schedule everyone knows; keep everything in one place; reduce the number of parties required to make a decision about any change to the bare minimum. Scott Berkun has a lot to say about this in his excellent book The Art of Project Management.

Fundamentally, though, maybe none of the above will help. Meta-software is perhaps destined to suffer from featuritis more than other software precisely because usability is not so important for its userbase (in my experience, most developers don’t like bad interfaces, but can also cope with them). Only time will tell if developers will be set free.

subscribe via RSS