My wife, kids, and I spent the Christmas holidays in Phoenix, Arizona, with my parents, brother, and sister. While the vacation was great, relaxing, and filled with beautiful sights like daily hikes and side trips to Sedona and the Grand Canyon, I had one big scare.
While walking with my 86-year old dad and my 6- and 8-year-old children to Barnes & Noble, my dad took a big fall while crossing the parking lot. I heard a “thump”, looked behind me, and saw that my dad was face down on the road’s speed bump. I rushed to pick him up, and my kids crossed the street and watched from the curb, crying. When I flipped my dad over, he said “I’m alright”, but his eyes were closed, and there was blood everywhere coming from a huge gash above his left eye. There was so much blood flowing into his eyes that he could not open them at all. His cochlear implant went flying out of his ear, so he couldn’t hear very well, either.
There were a few bystanders nearby that approached us. My kids saw everything, but a lady with two kids of her own (a baby in her arms, and a toddler holding her hand) took them under her wing and comforted them. One young man, a Chef from the Cheesecake Factory, took off his sparkling white chef’s coat and let me use it to control the bleeding. While helpful for a little while, the starchiness of the coat limited what could be done to stop the bleeding. Someone else stopped by who had some napkins and handed them to me. I asked that man to call 911, and he said, “I got it”. Another man handed me some sort of small towel to use, which was a good thing because by then the napkins were soaked through. Then a lady came over and helped me hold his head up and apply pressure to his wound. Eventually, a mall security guard rolled in on his Segway and blocked traffic until the paramedics and ambulance arrived. The lady watching over my children — while handling four kids — called my wife and texted her several times. All of this happened within 6 minutes. Six minutes that can change a life.
Fortunately, my dad did not break anything, nor suffer any internal bleeding in his head. Just 13 stitches, some pain medication, black and blue bruising all over his face, and the use of a walker from now on. But that single scare made me realize how fragile life is and how good people can be. It happened so fast…in just a few minutes. It can happen to anyone, at any time, anywhere.
Before the Accident
The Injury Uncovered
13 Stitches Later
My lesson was that sometimes you need to slow down a bit, take a break from whatever you are immersed in, and look around. To appreciate those near you a little bit more. To be less judgmental of others and more accepting. And that while life can be cruel and evil, people — even strangers — still care. These strangers stopped to help, even if that meant sacrificing a coat, getting blood on their hands and clothes, or spending time calming down two emotional kids. Each of them had a choice…to walk by, or to help. And each of them chose to help.
A few days later, my wife, kids, and I went to the Cheesecake Factory to find the good samaritan and thank him personally. The manager thought he knew who it was, but he wasn’t there because his wife was delivering a baby. Hopefully he knows how much I appreciated his help, as well as the young mom who helped comfort our kids. If it wasn’t for them, and the other good samaritans, the outcome may have been far different. I will forever be grateful for their human kindness and caring.
Last week, I met a young college grad who decided to join the entrepreneurial bandwagon and do his own thing. He was very excited and full of energy. His startup is 3 months old, and he’s made some great choices and progress. You could see the energy in his eyes.
I remember those early days like it was yesterday, even though it was 21 years ago. Bill Spruill and I both joked about it, wondering if this young kid will still have that kind of energy 6 months from now. The thing is, odds are pretty high that life will beat him down, to the point that he won’t pop back up because it’s too painful, too much work, too unrewarding, or any one of a multitude of reasons. It’s not easy to break out on your own, but it’s even harder to keep at it when the euphoria of a new thing wears out and life beats you and your idea down. In my experience, this usually happens for the first time within about 6-9 months.
If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to take the licks and keep on keeping on, to keep popping up after you get bonked in the head by the whack-a-mole mallet, even if you don’t see any tangible results from your efforts for quite some time and everyone is telling you that it can’t be done. Easy to mentally understand, but hard to actually go through. This is something that you will need to expect, not something that you think you can avoid. In fact, I’d argue that no one can really avoid it.
In my experience, I still to this day get whacked on the head by that mallet. It happens nearly as frequently today as it did in my company’s infancy. I still make bad decisions. I still let myself down by not doing all that I know I can do. People I rely on still let me down, and vice versa. Assumptions I make are sometimes still way off reality. I’m still overly-optimistic. That whack-a-mole mallet keeps bonking me on the head again and again.
But I keep on keeping on, wholeheartedly believing that one day I will make my mark, that one day it will be my turn in the limelight. And this is one of the most important lessons I have learned throughout my life as an entrepreneur: believing that if I keep getting up and trying again, I will eventually get there. So, if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, then you too will have to learn this lesson: keep dodging that whack-a-mole mallet, keep popping back up, no matter how hard it hurts.
I used to be a conservative Republican. I voted for Reagan. I studied at a conservative university, Texas A&M, where George H. W. Bush has his presidential library. I enrolled in the Baptist Student Union for a semester. I used to regularly attend a fairly hard-core non-denominational/Pentecostal church in Charlotte, where people take their religion seriously and sometimes break out into speaking in tongues. Some of my friends at that church even espoused that you could not be a liberal or a Democrat and call yourself a Christian. I also happened to spend my childhood and teenage years in Venezuela, where 90% of the population is Catholic and people generally think the USA is too liberal. Even I thought that way at one time.
But the older I get, the more I get it that people come from all walks of life, with various viewpoints, backgrounds, religious beliefs (or none at all), sexual preferences, cultures, likes, and dislikes. Imposing my own beliefs on others and actually believing that my way is the better way — or the only way — is just plain wrong and dumb. I, like everyone else on the planet, don’t have all the answers, and neither does anyone else, including those interpreting any book written by mortals thousands of years ago.
Evolution plus inclusion. That’s how I see our future. Evolution because we as a population are evolving. The demographics are changing, just like they did in our nation’s infancy, and just like they will continue to do so in the generations to come. Evolution because our opinions on certain taboo subjects, like the legalization of marijuana or the right to marry someone of your own gender, are changing. Inclusion because instead of fearing these “radical”, “crazy”, “immoral”, and “unchristian-like” ideas, we are beginning to accept and even embrace them.
To me, this sort of philosophy will inevitably lead to a better and richer future for all of us, no matter what each of us believes or practices. The opposite of this, which is that of static ideas, literal interpretations of subjective books, inflexible and outdated rules, fear-mongering, and exclusion of anyone that doesn’t think the same, or look the same, or behave the same, will not.
And that’s why I am a Democrat. Because this group actually tries to be accepting of everyone. It’s an inclusive group, not an exclusive group. There is a difference. To me, it’s like a band of misfits…all of those out there that don’t quite “fit in” for one reason or another. Including me.
As a US citizen, it’s your right and duty to vote on November 6, 2012.
No excuses….go vote.
Today’s post contains a few life lessons from Karen Baer, an employee of Terraine with over a decade of experience in the environmental industry.
What is your typical day like? I bet if it’s anything like mine, you feel like the Energizer Bunny, minus the energy. You keep going, going, going, but run on Starbucks, Starbucks, and more Starbucks. You get your kids off to school, head to work, tickety-tack right through your lunch break, go to a doc appointment, respond to emails on your iPhone, run to get your kids (5 minutes late), go back to work, make supper that your kids hope doesn’t resemble cat barf, clean up from supper, shuttle kids to swimming and basketball, help with homework, give baths, read stories, tell your kids with selective hearing to go back to bed five times, do a little more work or perhaps study for a class (as if your life wasn’t busy enough), pick up toys and dehydrated 5-week-old cheerios that are stuck to the floor, and hope that you might find just 1 hour to sit on your butt and do nothing before you fall into bed and ignore your snoring spouse.
And that’s just the typical…throw in soccer, church activities, play dates, birthday parties, school field trips, and it’s enough to feel so wound up that you feel like at any given second, if anyone asks you for one more thing, you might jump out the nearest window and run like Forrest Gump.
I’ve had a few Ah-ha! moments this year, though, and as a result, I’m trying really hard to change my life (minus the coffee).
I like perfection. I don’t care if my house isn’t super clean or if my yard is imperfect. In fact, they are both quite messy. But when it comes to school and work, I want everything to be just right.
I’m taking a class right now, and I have a 97.5 lecture average and a 101 lab average. After I take a test, I check blackboard over and over and over, as if I’m awaiting the results of a multi-million dollar lottery. A grade below a 95? Truly devastating.
Before publishing a blog article or sending an important email, I may read it multiple times or find myself rereading and critiquing even after it’s published or sent. If I still have work to do at night for the next day, I find myself rushing my kids to bed, selecting shorter stories, and am all worked up when they sneak back out of bed.
Will stalking the blackboard change my grade or make my professor post results any faster? No. After an article is published or an email sent, is there anything that can be done about who has read it and whether you used effect or affect correctly? No. Will spending 10 extra minutes with my kids affect anything in my professional life in the long run? No.
Will it affect my kids if I blow them off several nights a week? Yes.
So I encourage everyone — if you are like me — to remove the ginormous stick from your butt and throw it far, far away. Then, ask someone to slap you in the face if you find yourself tempted to run after it like your family dog.
Focus Less on Others’ Opinions
Continuing on with obsessive behavior, I am a people pleaser — 100%. We all seek validation in one form or another, but for me, feedback is crucial. Absence of any positive feedback or interaction feels a bit like rejection. I fear that I’m not doing a good job, that I have a big booger hanging from my nose, or that I’m simply not needed. But once again, I’ve realized over the last year that this is a complete waste of my time. Deep down, I know I always do my best as a professional, as a student, as a friend, as a mom, and as a wife, and that has to be enough. People may not like my work; they may not even like me! That has to be ok. Otherwise, I am a transformer, a poseur, striving for success living someone else’s life, and that is never ok. Why? Two words: Milli Vanilli.
Run Over Your iPhone
I’m a big fan of being able to answer emails wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. I feel like I’m able to keep on top of things, even if I’m sick or at appointments. I feel more in the loop and less left out. But having work at your fingertips also creates problems. One night, right before story time, my now 6-year old son stole my phone and said, “You are always on that phone!! You never listen to me!” Wake up call. Not only does having your eyes on your phone constantly take away from family time, it doesn’t allow your mind to rest.
I have had some health problems this year, and finally I’m seeing the light at the end of what was a very long tunnel! Yea!! (The exclamation points really fail to express my glee). Recently, I had surgery that rendered me immobile for a couple of days. I had the surgery on a Monday and thought that I’d probably be back to work on Wednesday or Thursday. Often, folks take off weeks for surgery like this! But I couldn’t shut my brain off.
Rest is absolutely crucial to a successful life. Rest doesn’t mean the time you have to take off to go to the dentist. It doesn’t mean the time you have to take off for the flu or, in my case, hospitalizations, a million doc appointments, and surgery. Rest doesn’t mean that you have to take an expensive vacation to Cancun. It just means shutting out the day to day for a while. It just means taking a few days to stop running, to realize the insignificance of the rat race, to sit, to do nothing, to breathe.
What life lessons have you learned over the last year?
I’ll be the first to admit it: Our environmental chain of custody software, ezCoC, is not awesome. Not yet anyway. What I have learned over the last 2 years in developing this product is that making software that doesn’t suck is really, really hard. Sure, it might be easy to come up with an idea, such as the idea of replacing paper forms with electronic forms on an iPhone. But actually doing it, in a way that doesn’t suck, is really difficult. And if the software is intended to change user habits and behaviors (which is the case with ezCoC), then it’s an uphill battle that is even harder to conquer, especially in the environmental consulting industry, where inertia has set in pretty deep with current practices. Getting users to even consider trying an alternative approach to something as basic as filling out a chain of custody form electronically on a smartphone has so far proven to be a massive mental challenge for many of us.
It’s Not Easy To Do
Building software like ezCoC takes a hefty amount of time, money, internal evangelists, expensive software components and tools, servers and bandwidth, and a team of smart people, including developers, network admins, and testers. Then you need to get the word out. That requires a content management system like WordPress or Hubspot, people willing to produce content for that website, including help documentation and a tech support case system with FAQs in it, consistent blogging, search engine optimization on your content, metrics and keyword tracking, social media activity, and a whole host of other marketing-related tasks like attending trade shows, phone calls, and such. As you can see, building software is not just about the code. In fact, the code that makes your software product work is just one of many moving parts.
In our case, many of our environmental folks weren’t used to doing these things. Instead, they were used to doing typical environmental consulting projects: bid on a job, write the work plans, schedule and conduct the fieldwork, analyze the resulting data, and put together a final report. They were not bloggers or software testers. It was all new to them. And when something is new and different, it can cause uncertainty and tension in the ranks. Some will step up, some won’t.
For me, building ezCoC has been among the biggest challenges I’ve ever done in my 21 years of running an environmental consulting practice. It’s been difficult migrating from traditional consulting to building software for our industry. Getting all the moving parts together to produce a software product that actually works has not been a walk in the park. And even more difficult has been the job of evangelizing the product vision, one that is actually pretty basic: replacing paper CoCs with electronic ones using web and smartphone technology. Even 2 years into this, our software is still not up to snuff, and the doubters and critics are everywhere, which is hard to believe in 2012, when more than half of the US population carries a smartphone in their pockets.
So how do we do it? How do we build a software product that, in the end, doesn’t suck? For our team, it’s by doing the following:
I started this whole thing by first coming up with the idea intended to solve the latency, transcription, and communication problems between field techs and labs that are inherent with the use of paper CoCs. This was followed by hashing and rehashing the idea in my head many many times, and then finally putting that idea down on paper. But instead of writing a bunch of text and procedures, or drawing a complicated Visio diagram, I used Balsamiq Mockups software to get the ideas out of my head and into a medium that others could really understand and interpret.
If you are not using a wireframing tool to design your user interface (UI), you are wasting a lot of valuable time, and your product will suffer. Balsamiq Mockups is inexpensive, a cinch to use, and can provide visuals that everyone will understand. Not only that, but by doing this exercise, by mocking up your concept that is locked up inside of your head, you will be able to better understand and improve your original ideas. Just by using Mockups, your ideas will easily improve by an order of magnitude, as your creative juices will begin to flow and some of your original ideas may morph into other even better ideas.
Keep It Small and Simple
No doubt that Apple has shown the world that less is more. A phone with only five buttons. Simple, intuitive controls. No thick user guides or operation manuals. One way to shut down a computer instead of four (in Windows: Hibernate, Sleep, Restart, and Shut Down). My opinion is that all software should follow this same “less is more” principle. Keep it simple, with fewer choices and options.
As your software product matures and more users use it, you will inevitably get many requests to add this or that, to change the flow to accommodate a user or a specific use case, and so forth. But you have to be willing to say “no” more than you are willing to say “yes”. It will mean that you will lose some users, but in the long run, a simple and intuitive UI is more important than catering to everyone’s unique workflows, needs, and desires. The last thing you want is for your software to become unwieldy and complex. Less is more. Keep it simple.
Build Relationships with Partners
Sometimes you can’t go it alone. Sometimes you need partners, which can act as catalysts to get your product noticed and moving in the right direction. In our case, we are working with Promium, whose Element LIMS software is currently installed inside of 250 of the 800 commercial labs in the US. Tight integration of our electronic chain of custody system with the LIMS leader in the environmental lab industry should offer us that needed boost. More about this in a future blog post.
When you can, reach out to others in the same industry that can complement your software. They are out there. You just need to look, reach out, and keep reaching out until you find the right ones.
Listen To Your Users
One of the take-away messages that resonated with me from attending this year’s Business of Software conference this past week is that you really have to listen to your customers. Really listen and try to understand what they are trying to tell you. And you should focus on the negative feedback without getting all defensive about it. Don’t ask for positive feedback. That kind of feedback doesn’t help improve your product one bit. Ask for negative feedback. Ask them what they don’t like about your product, and then do something about it. If you are getting the same negative feedback or suggestions from a bunch of your users, then make those requested changes. However, if it’s just one or a few folks suggesting something, keep that suggestion in the back of your mind, and change your software to address those issues only if you continue to receive similar feedback from more users.
I’ll confess that we haven’t done enough of this. Two years ago, I had an idea for an electronic chain of custody system using smartphones, and I got it built to version 1.0. It does things the way I perceive they should be done. But we have received enough feedback that suggests that selecting an analytical method within ezCoC is still complicated. So we are now working on improving that area of the UI in an effort to make it drop dead simple.
On the other hand, we’ve also received feedback about use cases that are very specific and unique. Those sorts of suggestions will have to wait and may never see light in our product. Why not? Adding options all over the place, so that a single tool can handle every single use case under the sun, will make the system even more complicated, and that’s not where we are going to go. So while you need to listen to your users, its still a balancing act. Listen to your users, but don’t over-complicate your product. In the end, less trumps more. Simple trumps complex.
Build. Test. Learn.
Build. Test. Learn.
I remember in 1980 when I was a young kid at Culver Military Academy, one of the cadets in my barracks was graduating, and his parents were giving him a car as his graduation present. It was a Honda Accord CVCC. He was devastated. He thought he was getting a Camaro or Corvette. No, he was getting a crappy 72 horsepower “car”, which was basically a glorified motorcycle with doors. Flash forward to 2012, and the modern Honda Accord is pretty impressive. How did they do this? Honda continually iterated and improved the Accord, until it far surpassed Detroit’s offerings. The Big Three didn’t even see it coming…or they did, but thought that it was too crappy of a “car” to even worry about.
While our software product may not win any awards yet, it continually improves, just like the Honda has over the years. And one day in the not too distant future, we will land at a sweet spot, where the functionalities and benefits offered by ezCoC far outweigh the negative concerns or doubts some people have about it. That time is coming. It’s inevitable. And the reason is because we continually iterate and improve it.
Making software that doesn’t suck is truly hard to do. Our first version of ezCoC is not a standout yet. It might actually suck at some functionalities. But it’s getting better all the time. We are learning and applying the principles mentioned in this article. We are not there yet, but we are getting there, one line of code at a time. And I still believe that one day, perhaps even as soon as 2013, our little software product might just become a gamechanger in this industry.
Today’s post is courtesy of Karen Baer, who has over a decade of experience in the environmental industry. She has worked for Terraine for the past 9 years and is discussing a recent trip with her sons to a local nature center and her insights regarding that experience.
On Saturday, I took my sons and a friend to Boxerwood Nature Center & Woodland Garden for the Family Fall Festival. We enjoyed activities like apple pressing, weaving honeysuckle wreathes, and a solar harvesting demonstration. Soon after we arrived, we headed down into a beautiful clearing to sit and watch a dance performance by children of all ages. Following the third song, my 5-year old, in quite a loud voice and as if sitting was causing him physical pain said, “Is it over yet?!”
I wanted to die.
Thankfully, it was the last song, so we were able to slip away before we received many judgmental, “where is your appreciation for the arts??!!” type of glares. Truth be told, I felt about the same way as my son. I found it boring, and the costumes too Peter Pan. I just didn’t say it out loud. Because somewhere along the line, between ages 5 and 34, we are told by teachers, by parents, by babysitters, by relatives, what are appropriate things to say and do and what are not.
Later in the afternoon, we walked up to the Play Trail. An area that, upon entering, felt magical, simple, and perfect. No plastic; few rules. My sons thrived. Log chairs, a mud kitchen, and live willow tunnel. Imagination unleashed and freedom to explore — they would have stayed all day.
Sometimes I wonder how many of the “don’t-do-thats,” “stops,” and “shhhhhs” as children hurt the “who we have the possibility to become.” Are the children that are allowed to speak their minds, keep their elbows on the table, draw rather than color, and live a more “free-range” life more fearless? Better leaders? More successful?
Maybe it’s time for adults to selectively let go. To discontinue saying and doing because it’s what we have been told is best. Maybe then we’ll return to that place where our own imagination is unleashed and our freedom found.
A pet peeve of mine is having a person in a position of authority telling you what to do in a certain situation when they have never actually experienced the situation you are in or the problem you are encountering. Typically, this comes from having to do something in the field or follow a specific field procedure simply because the State regulator or agency says you need to do it. Sometimes this may come from a desk jockey who has never actually performed the work you are doing and who only has theoretical experience, as opposed to actual practical experience. And sometimes this comes from following a work plan or sampling and analysis plan that may sound good on paper, but when applied in the real world is about as dumb as a bag of hammers.
Work plan vomit: work plans that are as detailed as a Chilton’s Auto Repair Manual, where every single thing possible is explained and detailed, so that field techs don’t have to even think when doing their work in the field. That’s the theory behind detailed work plans: to make it easy for the field tech to do his job because all he has to do is consult the work plan. But it doesn’t work that way in the real world. Instead, it complicates things for the person it was intended to help.
To prove this point, I have listed excerpts of two separate tasks I found in a work plan for a real project:
Two Examples of Work Plan Vomit
Example 1 – Well Development Procedures
After a minimum of 48 hours following well installation, each MW will be developed. Well development will be accomplished using a surge block. Development will include constant rate pumping after several cycles of surging. These periods of surging and evacuation will flush the aquifer in the near vicinity of the wells. Pumping of the well will continue until stabilization criteria have been met, 10 well volumes have been removed, or the well is dry. The deep bedrock well will require a submersible pump for development and a weighted bottom discharge bailer (sand bailer) for removal of sediment. When the submersible pump is used, water will be removed throughout the water column by periodically raising and lowering the pump intake. Development water will be containerized and stored on site pending laboratory analysis.
During development, various water quality parameters will be measured. These parameters will consist of pH, temperature, conductivity, and turbidity. Adequate development consists of meeting the various measurable criteria as outlined below:
- Minimum removal of three times the standing volume in the well casing plus saturated annulus, pending well recharge rate.
- Removal of equal volume of any water added during well installation.
- Sediment thickness remaining in the well of less than 1 percent of the screen length (0.1 foot for screens 10 feet long).
- Measured water quality parameters stabilization. Stabilization is reached after all parameters are stabilized for three successive readings. Three successive readings should be within +/- 0.1 for pH, +/- or minus 1 degrees Celsius (ºC) for temperature, plus or minus 3% for conductivity, and plus or minus 10% for turbidity.
Example 2 – Sample Label Format
XXXXX X XXX XXX
Characters 1 2 3 4 5 Horizontal Locator: Five-character code is the sampling location. For example, the horizontal locator for a well designated MW-4 would be MW004; MW-101 would be MW101. The horizontal locator for soil samples SB-1 would be SB001; HA-50 would be HA050.
Character 6 Matrix Indicator: See applicable Matrix indicators below.
Characters 7 8 9 Depth, Interval, Serial No.
Soil: This three-character code corresponds to the lowest depth of sampling interval. For example, the vertical locator for a soil sample collected from 8 to 10 feet below grade would be 010.
Groundwater: Groundwater samples collected as part of a groundwater sampling event will use the three-character code to identify the sampling event number. For example, the fourth quarterly groundwater sampling event would be identified as 004.
Characters 10 11 12 Site/Area where sample was collected. This is optional but may be helpful when multiple samples are collected from different areas.
The matrix indicator is the sixth character of the 12-character sample ID scheme. The following defines the characters to be used for this field.
S — soil
C — soil duplicate sample
G — groundwater
H — groundwater duplicate
Z — liquid waste (including IDW)
V — solid waste (including IDW)
Field Duplicate Samples
Field duplicates will use the same sample ID as the parent sample. The differentiator will be the sixth character, which will indicate the type of duplicate and will be obtained using the matrix indicator codes above. For example, a groundwater duplicate of MW004G001 would be identified as MW004H001. A soil duplicate of SB005S002 would be indicated using SB005C002.
Field QC Blanks
Field QC blanks will be populated using the same 12-character ID system. The first two characters will correspond to the type of blank, followed by a number corresponding to the sequential number of the blank on the CoC form. The sequential number is important when more than one blank is entered on a single CoC form. If only one blank is collected for a given CoC form, use the numeral. The remaining six characters will be populated with a blank collection date. The following lists applicable field QC blank codes:
EB1 = equipment blank
TB1 = trip blank
Sample ID Examples:
SB025S000 represents a soil boring sample at 0 to 6 inches bgs from soil boring #25.
SB032S001 represents a soil boring sample at 6 to 12 inches bgs from soil boring #32.
MW004G002 represents the second groundwater sample collected from monitoring well #4.
TB1061211 represents the first trip blank submitted on June 12, 2011.
TB2061211 represents the second trip blank submitted on June 12, 2011.
EB1061211 represents an equipment blank collected on June 12, 2011.
No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy
Sure, the work plan tasks outlined above may sound good on paper, in an office setting. But when applying detailed procedures in the field, where conditions may not be conducive to working, equipment malfunctions occasionally, the proposed type of equipment may not adequately perform the job as intended, and the sheer amount of moving parts complicates things, something will undoubtedly go wrong. And when you are out in the field doing multiple tasks, the last thing you really need is a 1-inch thick plan telling you how to do your job in exacting proportions, simply because someone put it in a stupid plan and says you need to follow it.
As with battle plans not surviving contact with the enemy, environmental work plans rarely survive application in the field without some sort of variance. Hell, the actual physical work plan pages may not even survive the work truck cabin’s environment, which is typically full of loose items, clipboards, sampling gear and supplies, Ziploc baggies, gloves, mud, dirt, empty Doritos bags and Gatorade bottles, and who knows what else. Sometimes trying to locate the work plan and then thumbing through the 200 wrinkled pages to find the three pages that explain how to fill out a label for a matrix spike duplicate sample is a challenge in itself.
What Is the Real Purpose of the Intended Work?
When you boil it down to the basics, all we are really seeking, as environmental scientists, is to collect and analyze data that will be as representative as possible of natural conditions, in a practical, timely, and cost-effective way. If that statement is true, then does a specific sample ID naming convention as stringent and long-winded as the one listed above really matter? Will it actually help the end user understand where the samples came from without having to consult the same document that explains what the heck that format means? What if the naming convention is so complicated that the field tech makes mistakes on the sample labels and chain of custody forms? Isn’t that counter-productive at that point? Having to explain the incorrectly labeled samples?
Do we really need to take stabilization criteria from a well during well development? Sure, this is typically done for low flow sampling, but for well development??? Isn’t the purpose of well development to mainly remove the sediment in the well so that conditions in the well can be as representative as possible for sampling at a later date without matrix interference? How will that happen if you are pumping water so slowly out of the well (so as to meet stabilization criteria) that none of the sediment goes into suspension, so that it can be pumped out of the well?
Plans Should Be Flexible and Be Used As Guides, Not As the Final Authority
So why complicate things with detailed, onerous, inflexible plans? Why not instead write simple plans, ones that can be used in the field more as guides instead of as gospel? The information should be easy to find, as concise as possible, and offer flexibility that allows the field technician to handle the work in a flexible manner under field conditions that may dictate certain things as not being possible.
Avoid Workplace Vomit By Sending Plan Writers Into the Field
People in office settings who write detailed work plans should stop writing work plan vomit and instead be required to conduct field work prior to writing plans. If your organization already does this (plans written only by field-experienced personnel), then it’s likely that that battle-tested person writing the plan has now succumbed to the same things that plague everyone else in the office and needs to get sent back out in the field again to correct their work plan vomit behavior. It’s amazing how much knowledge can be gained by conducting field work and being there to see it in person.
Even those of us that have been there sometimes need to be sent back to the field again so that we remember what it was like. It’s easy to explain to the field tech how to sample a well for volatile organics with a peristaltic pump from the comforts of your air-conditioned room while sipping on a latté. But try to do that in 112 degree weather, with blazing sun on your back, hot dusty air being blown into your face, sweat pouring down your forehead, while trying to carefully and slowly pour water from the discharge tubing into a 40 ml vial sitting on top of the back of a manhole cover that is in direct sunlight and not quite on flat ground. Try doing that while maintaining the 40 ml vial at a cool temperature, with no bubbles in the headspace, and keeping the tubing from touching the surrounding soils or mud-covered plastic sheeting.
Less Is More
Instead of writing 1-inch thick detailed work plans that leave no room for thinking, use the “less is more” approach. Less verbiage = more flexibility. Not only will this mean less busy work for the office staff, it will also make things easier on the field techs. It means that the field techs can apply their own knowledge and experience in the field as appropriate for the field conditions encountered instead of following some dumb cookbook approach. And isn’t that why you hired that field tech anyway? To think in the field when things don’t go as planned? Because nothing in the field ever goes exactly as planned. And the more complex and detailed the work plan, the more likely that something will deviate from that plan.
I’ll admit it: I’ve never been much of an NFL fan. My wife, however, is a huge Dolphins fan. So today we bit the bullet and bought DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket and watched us some football. In the game between San Francisco and Green Bay, David Akers, with 2 seconds left in the first half, nailed a 63-yard field goal, which tied him with the longest successful field goal in NFL history. It was an awesome play to watch…so good it seemed right out of a movie script. The football bounced off the crossbar and then went through the goalposts. The team took a chance on a play that didn’t have much of a chance. But this time, it paid off.
Taking Chances is Par For the Course
I have learned that in business, you need to take chances, even in spite of the doubters. Otherwise, you will never get anywhere. In my case, as an example, I took a huge chance with building our electronic chain of custody software — ezCoC — a product that no one asked for. When I talked to people about it, the typical reaction was “…that sounds kind of neat. Good luck with that.” Or “…no one will use it because of the legal ramifications of e-signatures and paper trails.” Suffice it to say that most people were not big fans of the idea and thought it was a huge uphill battle that I’d never win.
But I built it anyway. And yes, it has been an uphill battle. Changing user behaviors is a bitch and not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of effort to ignore the skeptics and to keep moving forward. But it can be done. There’s no question in my gut that the future — the very NEAR future — will use smartphones and web browsers to fill out chain of custody forms and connect field and sampling technicians to environmental labs. The future is NOT more of the same: paper.
I’ve taken a chance that, after nearly three years of solid work, has yet to pay off. Unlike David Akers in today’s football game, I have not kicked the ball through the goalposts yet. I’ve missed the shots taken so far. But I’m getting closer, and I will make that shot one day soon. I can taste it. How do I know this? People are starting to notice and agree with me about the role of smartphones within the environmental industry. I get fewer skeptics commenting to me about why it won’t work and more comments about why it will. People in positions of authority, such as the EPA, LIMS providers, environmental database management companies, and large environmental labs are taking notice and reaching out, instead of the other way around. And one day, sooner than later, people will comment about how bassackward it was to fill out paper chain of custody forms and then manually transpose them into the LIMS. It’s inevitable. And I’m in a pretty good position now to realize that payoff that is just around the corner.
Take that chance, despite the odds and the odd looks. Build that website or app. Kick that ball. Maybe the ball won’t go through the goalposts on your first shot. Maybe not even on the second, third, or fourth shots. But as long as you learn from each shot, practice, react, and continuously iterate and improve, eventually you will. It’s your opportunity.
A few nights ago, I watched the movie “Parenthood” again. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, there’s a moment where Gil Buckman, the main character played by Steve Martin, compares raising a young family to riding a rollercoaster. And he doesn’t really like rollercoasters. He prefers merry-go-rounds, which are more predictable, without the really high ups and really low downs experienced in a rollercoaster ride.
In my experience, running a business — just like raising a family — is more like a rollercoaster and less like a merry-go-round. It can be unpredictable, fast-moving, and can have very high highs and very low lows. One day, you have to figure out how to manage your overabundance of cash; another day, you are struggling to meet payroll, cut costs, and find more work to feed the beast. This unpredictability and lack of assurances is what drives 99% of people to choose to work for a predictable paycheck instead of “doing their own thing.”
But is this predictable paycheck from a third party really that predictable? For how long? Until you are too expensive and can be replaced by tech-savvy twenty-somethings who are willing to work twice as hard for half the pay and don’t even care about health insurance or 401K plans? Or until the company has a large downturn and you just happen to be among the more expensive cats on the payroll? Just how safe is your steady stream of paychecks from your employer? Is it really that much safer than doing your own thing? And what do you do if you really do lose your job at age 50? What then? Will you be able to find another job that will replace your six-figure salary? The odds are against you at that point in your life…
Doing My Own Thing
That’s why I decided, 20 years ago, to do my own thing. At the time, I figured that I had nothing to lose. I was 28 years old, single, with no kids. Instead of following my peers and working for a big-name multinational firm, I figured “let’s try this Terraine idea out and see where it goes.”
Well, I’m still here doing my own thing today, even if that “thing” has metamorphosed a few times along the way. The benefits? I have learned to learn, to adapt and change as times change. I have learned that I can figure it out, survive, and even thrive later in life. I don’t fear the future. I don’t count the days before I retire. I look forward to continually learning and trying new things, to see what will stick and what won’t. And best of all, I never ever worry about getting laid off or being replaced by a younger and smarter person. It’s not even a thought in my mind, ever. For me, that kind of freedom is, in a word, priceless.
I’d argue that running your own business is far more secure — in the long run — than working for someone else. Key phrase here being “…in the long run.” To get there, you have to make the decision to start by just starting. To decide to just get on that rollercoaster instead of the merry-go-round and realize that it will be a bumpy ride, with unexpected turns, movements, and surprises…and a whole lot of fun.