Sunday, May 8, 2016

Notes on Note to Self

I hear voices. On the bus. In my car. While I'm cleaning my house or working on homework. When I'm alone or on a crowded street. I have a problem... And it's PODCASTS.

I love listening to people tell stories. Factual or fictional, it doesn't matter. I like to keep busy and multi-task, so podcasts are how I get my entertainment and news most of the time.

This American Life, Love and Radio, Invisibilia, Lore, Criminal, Radiolab, The Memory Palace and so so many more. It's about time I start getting into more tech podcasts- but with so many on my playlist already, it's tough to know where to start.

Luckily, a friend with excellent taste turned me on to Note to Self from WNYC. You can visit their site for more info on what they do.

Their most recent episode, titled "What Happens to the Videos No One Watches" seemed appropriately timed with the end of my Social Networking in Business class. As a burgeoning tech professional and social media user I think a lot about who (if anyone) will see the content I publish across all platforms.

This 20 minute episode only talked about the personal videos that people post to YouTube. The videos that get lost somewhere in the sea of social content and receive very few views.

The host and interviewee talk about how sweet it is to see little glimpses of real people. These videos are a reminder that as much as we are encouraged to share every detail of our personal lives online, we really aren't all that interesting most of the time. The videos themselves can suck you into an internet rabbit hole for hours, but this also started me on my own journey of internet procrastination.

I was inspired to spend some time looking at the LinkedIn accounts, twitter pages and even websites of professionals and businesses I've never even heard of. I could spend hours pouring over poorly written resumes and shoddy websites, though unlike the videos featured in the podcast, it's not because they offer some kind of charm or insight into the  human condition. Mostly I just want to learn from the mistakes of others... I don't want to join the legions of the lonely web.

Check out Note to Self!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Programming Students to be Better Mathematicians

    I've seen a lot of discussion out there about "New Math" in schools, or Common Core as it's more formally known. It's really not that new, in fact it's been taught  elsewhere for decades. We're only just catching up in the US. The idea is students learn mathematical concepts and reasoning rather than rote memorization of facts. You can see side-by-side examples of old and new math here.

    A lot of the backlash from parents is about how hard it has been for them to help their children with homework now that they're learning things differently- in my opinion that only goes to show how backwards math education has been in the past. I have stepsisters in elementary school who astound me with their ability to perform long division and multiplication in their heads. More astounding is the fact that they not only have the answers, but can tell you how and why they got there. I could go on about how screwy STEM education has been in the past, but I'd prefer to write about how I think things could be better... While we're in the process of reforming education in this subject, why not take it a step further and have kids learn to code?

    In "new math" kids are learning to apply mathematical concepts to the real world. They learn base 10 early on to instill a concrete understanding of quantities, and build from there. They are taught to think of amounts instead of abstract representations of numbers. In doing this, they are learning to sense patterns and use logic rather than memorizing seemingly arbitrary relationships between symbols. It's really cool, and I'm a little jealous I didn't learn things that way from the beginning.

Spock says "Math and programming are
both highly logical."
  In programming you solve problems using a lot of the skills you use in mathematics. You have to solve problems using order of operations, pattern recognition, and logic. There are often multiple solutions to the same problem. Tasks can be performed in many different ways meaning that you need to truly understand what you're working with.

    Programming is a real-world skill that can make you VERY hire-able. There are plenty of statistics on the number of jobs likely to be available within the coming years. So why don't we make kids learn math and coding in tandem?! At the same time?! together?!

    There are great resources out there for adults ( is great, there's also Khan Academy, and a friend told me about this class on linear algebra taught with Python). But what about elementary and middle school students? Think of the edge it would give them in later math and computer science classes, or in the job market. Think about how rewarding and engaging it is to create while you learn. Think about the generations of brilliant engineers and developers you could inspire just by exposing them to programming!


 Galileo Galilei wrote (if I'm not misattributing this quote...), "Math is the language in which God has written the universe". Theological and philosophical debates aside, I think that's lovely. If math is the language of the universe, maybe programming is one way humankind can write the story of its intellect and creativity.

Teach kids to code, darn it!



Monday, April 4, 2016

Learning the Art of Presentation from Linda Liukas and TED

I feel that all new skills are developed by practice and honed by observation. Lately I've been thinking about how to improve my public speaking skills. TED is an excellent source of material for improving by watching and listening.

A talk that caught my eye was a recent one by Linda Liukas. She's a Finnish programmer who wrote and illustrated a whimsical childrens book about coding. The reason she got into coding in the first place was her teenage crush on former vice president Al Gore. She knits and occasionally writes fiction. For readers who don't know me personally, Liukas and I have a lot of interests in common.

As a Finnish speaking woman going to school for software development with an interest in the environment and a job in science education, this talk grabbed me. There's something to be said for representation in the media in all its forms. I can only speak from my own limited perspective, but it's encouraging to see women like me in my career field.

Some of the elements of Liukas' presentation style were different from other TED speakers. It's clear that she spends a lot of time talking to children. If you watch the video I'm sure you'll see what I mean.

A lot of her talk was very similar to other TED talks, and by extension other good speeches. I've watched many talks over the years, and from what I can remember and what I've seen recently I made a list of the key elements that I think make any speech or presentation better:

  1. Minimalist stage/ setting: Props are great, but too many distract the audience. I know that my own tendency is to hide behind props unintentionally or to rely too heavily on them in the story I'm trying to tell.
  2. Simple slide show: Slide shows shouldn't be overburdened by text. Unless you're taking a class and you have an assignment with a minimum slide number, the only pictures and charts you need are the ones that backup your point in a meaningful and direct way.
  3. Hand gestures and body language: There's some statistic somewhere that says some percentage of all communication is body language, rather than the words we hear… and it's a lot. I could find the specific data, but I won't because I think we all know from experience that listening to a very rigid speaker is painfully awkward. My own anecdotal data tells me I like it when speakers illustrate their words with their hands and look comfortable standing in front of the crowd.
  4. Humor/ knowing your audience: These two belong together. There are the jokes I make in front of a classroom full of children, and then there are the jokes I make with my coworkers, and then there are the jokes I make with my friends. There are things that should not cross those lines, not only because it could be inappropriate in a “file a report with HR” sense, but just in the sense of context. A knock-knock joke with the punch line “orange you glad to see me?” might kill in a room full of second graders, but my friends would think I'm a complete dork if I whipped that one out at a dinner party.
  5. Well-rehearsed material presented in a casual to semi-casual tone: You have to know exactly what and how you want to deliver, but the audience should feel like they're the first to hear it. Again with the hypothetical dinner party; when I listen to a talk I want to see an emotive storyteller who draws me in and makes me feel like I'm among friends in a casual setting. I want to feel like I just met this fascinating person over dinner and they're telling me an interesting story about something they care about. It's a tough thing to do if you're talking about something like finance reports, but I'm sure it can be done.
  6. The Arc: Not Ark- I'm not talking about a massive ship filled with animals.To me, good books and good speeches all have the same thing in common. They follow the traditional story arc. They have a clear beginning, middle and end; opening, climax, resolution; introduction, body, conclusion. Whatever words you use to describe the main parts the idea is the same. You start by touching on the main subject, then delve into the meat of it with examples and analogies, and then wrap it all up by stating your main point clearly and concisely at the end.

I think that TED is a fantastic resource for seeing great presentations. I've learned a lot about what I like to see in talks and picked up tricks for my own skill development. I think Liukas' talk was absolutely charming. Her talk was inspiring in the way that most talks are- that is to say ephemerally. I enjoy TED talks because they are professionally produced to be captivating and entertaining. But when it comes to just how influential they actually are, and what kind of power they have to shape a better future, I'm critical.

That's material for a later blog post. For now, suffice it to say that I'm learning a lot about how to be a better public speaker, and I think Linda Liukas is todella mahtava.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Social Media Marketing with Purpose

 I've always worked for small businesses, so I've spent a lot of time thinking about what can make or break ma-and-pop shops. Marketing is a must, and social media is a given, but for business I don't think there is a one-size fits all approach to social media.

Twitter is probably one of the greatest tools for self-promotion. You publish a bite-sized status update with just enough space for clickbait or a sensational statement but not so much space that the reader can lose interest before their eye has reached the end. Once you see it, you can't not read it. It's brilliant. But is it possible that a social media and marketing tool as ubiquitous as Twitter might not be right for every business?

I thought it would be interesting to compare a small local shop to a larger retail chain. In the spirit of sticking to what I know, I chose two bike shops.

The first is Erik's Bike Shop, a 39 year old company with 24 locations in Minnesota and Wisconsin that employs somewhere around 300 people (according to their website).

The second is Bigfoot Bike and Skate, a seven year old company with one location in Milwaukee that employs three-ish part-timers (full disclosure: I'm one of them).

This case study is admittedly limited, my sample size is small, and a lot of the information is anecdotal, but it raised some interesting questions for me about marketing strategy and what small businesses can realistically hope to gain from using social media.

I was surprised to see that Bigfoot didn't have an active Twitter presence, considering they have daily, or near daily posts on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest (Pinterest? really?).  The Facebook page shows a good amount of interaction between the admin and people who have liked it. Messages are typically returned within just a few hours and the content is  often engaging.

Much of the same is true of Erik's Facebook page. They insert humor where they can and give people a behind-the scenes look at some of their spaces. Though there are some key differences.

You can see that Erik's has significantly more likes, but what does that really mean in terms of total reach? Remember that Bigfoot has only one location for Erik's 24. If you divide the number of likes by the number of locations, Erik's only has around 640 likes per store.

It's not a perfect comparison; it's not taking into account other social media platforms, and I know next to nothing about what kind of sales these shops are making. But it is interesting to see the proportional difference between the two shops in terms of reach on Facebook.

Because I couldn't compare Erik's Twitter to Bigfoot's, I decided to compare it to another bike shop's to see how it ranked for number of followers. Here's the Twitter page for a company called Ben's Cycles, also in Milwaukee:

With just one location in Milwaukee, they have 2,732 followers on Twitter as of the day this post was written.

Erik's is lagging behind! Only 1,259 followers on Twitter.

While I wouldn't say that Erik's is failing in terms of social media coverage, it's definitely not on par with similar businesses. This conclusion may be misinformed, but I can't help but wonder if Erik's either outgrew its social media strategy or never had clear goals in the first place. Based on content, I'm leaning toward the latter.

While Erik's posts plenty of product pictures and sprinkles in the occasional funny meme or photos of employees at promotional events, Bigfoot's feed is populated with content that shows the owner's humor and aesthetic.

These are the twelve most recent pictures posted to thee Bigfoot Facebook page. Only five are pictures of products.

Below are Erik's twelve most recent pictures:

Nearly all of them show products.

   While it may seem counter-intuitive for a business to use social media to post anything that isn't strictly advertisement, there's real value in what looks like dumb internet garbage at first glance.

A basic list of items for sale with stark, sterile pictures is great if you're making a catalog. The followers of the Erik's Bikes Twitter and Facebook page can quickly and easily see what's in stock... but there's not much personality in their content.

The majority of Bigfoot's material is funny, bizarre or reflective of the 80s-90s skater/bmx aesthetic shared by many if its customers. Erik's Bikes probably caters to a different audience and that's fine, but if I can't tell what that audience is by looking at what they post it probably means they don't know who exactly they're trying to reach themselves.

And that brings me to the idea that social marketing should be done with intention. If we're going to operate under the assumption that when adjusted proportionally Bigfoot is more successful on Facebook than Erik's , and if we take in to account the fact that Erik's has fewer followers on Twitter than another smaller bike shop, here's what I've learned about using social media in business (and a few things I already gathered):

1. What are your business goals? In Bigfoot's case the desire to become a regional mega-chain just isn't there. Acknowledging this frees the owner/ social media dude from feeling compelled to be active on every form of social media.Maybe they're fine not having a Twitter presence. Maybe Facebook is better suited to meet they're needs.

In the case of Erik's Bikes, it may mean that they need to amp up their Twitter to reach more people faster. They are already a fairly large regional chain. Compared to other, smaller businesses they look like they've already outgrown their marketing.

2. Do a cost-benefit analysis of the time it will take for you (the business owner) to update social media yourself or hire someone else to do it. How much time can you afford to spend on posting and engaging followers?

This may be another reason Bigfoot doesn't have Twitter, but also an indication that Erik's is a bit behind the times. It's surprising that a company that hires around 300 people would have so few followers on Twitter.

3. Make your posts less about merchandise and more about people.

Posts should appeal to people's emotions. They should be funny, or heartwarming... maybe shocking or intriguing. People love to know about the personal lives of other people. We all love stupid internet memes, and when we're mindlessly scrolling through our feeds we want to see things that give us a quick rush of dopamine. That might look different for different customers, which is why you should....

4. Know your target audience!!! Who are you trying to get in your store and why? Maybe this step could be included in number 3, but there's a lot to say about it.

 Bigfoot does this really well. The items they carry appeal to a subset of bike culture, so they post content for those people. It appeals to BMX and skater punks young and old, but remains just neutral enough to not scare off newbies or casual shoppers. The owner posts videos of himself in a full Bigfoot costume riding a skateboard.

It's funny and just a little self-deprecating, and therein lies the charm.

If you're paying attention, sometimes you'll catch a glimpse of the owner's personal life:

Sharing things that are even superficially personal or entertaining brings people back to your content and builds trust because they can see that there are other humans behind it all.

Erik's talks about the early days, and they do a lot of self promotion, but there isn't as much entertaining content.

It's utilitarian. I can see what they offer, and what I could use it for, but there's no emotional pull. 

There are so many factors that inform a person's purchasing decision that have nothing to do with utility.  We're emotional creatures who like stories, humor and gossip- the very foundation of social media. Rather than using platforms like Twitter and Facebook as an extension of their website catalogs, businesses should be using these powerful tools to show followers what kind of people keep them running. They should be building a culture around their products or at the very least playing off the cultures they cater to. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Why I am at MATC

   When I was 16 I decided I wanted to work in agriculture. I had always been fascinated by the life sciences, particularly entomology and ichthyology. Thanks to a couple of pretty open-minded parents, lax laws on homeschooling in the state of Wisconsin, and a whole lot of luck, I got to do the work I loved early on. For my final two years of high school I did an independent program where I studied beekeeping and aquaculture. It opened the doors to several jobs on aquaponics farms, and a few seasonal beekeeping gigs too.

   During my almost six years of experience in ag, I picked up plenty of useful skills. I loved getting my hands dirty with fish and bugs, but at the end of each day I'd find myself in front of the computer playing with numbers. They say you always remember your first love, and I will surely never forget how Microsoft Excel stole my nerdy teenage heart.

   In the early days we spent hours digitizing handwritten water chemistry data and recording fish mortality. We stayed up late into the night calculating fish feed rations and projecting plant growth based on nitrate availability… You know, just #couplethings. I was in awe of what you could do with a few data points.

   Like most relationships, ours wasn't perfect. We fought over the usual things; bad formula syntax, incorrectly formatted cells. Our relationship became a series of 'if' statements… “if only I could calculate toxic ammonia levels at different water temperatures and correlate it to feed input, then I would never overfeed.”, “If only I could easily swap and compare parameters, then I wouldn't have to make so many sheets!”

   There were plenty of fixes I could have made still using excel, but I wanted more control. I wanted to create something that was entirely my own. Those early spreadsheets were the place where my love of the natural world and farming came together with my love of order and structure. It was the first time I was using a computer to make my job and my life easier in a concrete, observable way. It sparked my interest in programming.

   We all know the stereotypes about programmers being droll, antisocial nerds who think too literally and lack creativity. The thing is, a computer is a simple machine that can only “think” or process ones and zeros. Programmers pluck ideas and concepts from the ether(net- punny, right?) and use them to craft entire programs that users can interact with. Some programs simulate certain aspects of human behavior, some make it possible to share a conversation with a person on the other side of the planet. Most, including my rudimentary little excel sheets, make life easier and better. I want to belong to the leagues of creative, imaginative people who tell computers what to do.

   This is only my first semester in the Web and Software Development Program at MATC, but I am already confident I made the right choice. A lot of people cite cost as the determining factor, and it certainly informed my decision too… but beyond wanting to save a few bucks, I wanted an education where real-world implementation was the focus.

   Academia is great, I'm glad there are people who learn merely for the sake of learning. Academics exist to collect and disperse knowledge. We need teachers, but we also need people who can create. The focus at MATC is to give students the tools and resources to start their careers as quickly as possible. There's a no-nonsense directness in the way courses are conducted, thanks not only to the teaching staff, but to the students as well.

   “Diversity” is a buzzword you see in a lot of college brochures, most of them with pictures of kids in their late teens who look like they were all cut from the same JCPenny's catalog. Some schools throw the word around like some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, “advertise it and they will come”. But with 56% of students self-identifying as belonging to a minority group, MATC is the most diverse school in the state. Some of my classmates are years older than me. Some are returning to school after decades in a different career. Some have families. All of them have backgrounds and experiences different from my own. I can learn as much from them as I can from my instructors. What better preparation for the real world can you get?