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Autobahn Bathrooms and Aeron Chairs

Last August I took a two week tour of Europe. One of my favorite parts of the trip was the two days we spent in Germany. The tour included stops in St. Goar (the Rhine Valley) and Munich. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time on the Autobahn as we drove from place to place. The Autobahn is most famous for its fast drivers, but I didn’t get to experience that myself. (The tour bus I was on had its speed electronically governed, but even if that weren’t the case I doubt the laws of physics would have allowed the big beast to go much faster than 65mph anyway.) Instead of high speed driving, what I’ll always remember the most about the Autobahn are its rest stop bathrooms.

Unlike the bathrooms here in the United States, the bathrooms along the Autobahn are not free to use. In fact, it costs half a euro to answer the call of nature along the Autobahn. When I learned this, it led me to wonder if this is why so many people drive fast on their roads. Hey, if my bladder were full and I was short the requisite 50 cents I’d probably be driving 140mph too!

At first I was a little pissed off (pun intended) at having to pay to use the bathroom, but this went away once I saw how nice the facilities were. The restrooms, run by a company named Sanifair, were the cleanest and most modern public bathrooms I had ever seen. The walls were decorated with a cobalt blue tile that put my home bathroom to shame. The self cleaning toilets looked as if they had never been used. The bathroom floors were cleaner than my kitchen floors, which is especially impressive considering that I never use my kitchen. To top it off, the 50 cents it costs to use the bathrooms are refundable if you make a purchase in the rest stop restaurant. This is particularly clever since encouraging people to eat and drink is good for repeat business!

A few days after visiting Germany, the tour took us into Italy. By contrast, the bathrooms at the Italian rest stops were among the crappiest (pun intended) I have ever seen. The floors were dirty, the sinks were wet, the paper towel was often missing in action, and at one stop every single toilet seat had been removed from the stalls. On the bright side, these bathrooms were free to use.

What’s the moral of this story? German and Italian bathrooms are perfect examples that, often in life, you get what you pay for.

When running a company, it’s very important to be careful with your money. This is especially true in today’s not-so-hot economy. At my company, I do my best to watch expenses and look for ways to save money that won’t affect the happiness of my employees or the quality of our products and services. However, in some areas of the business, I’ve learned that it never pays to be cheap.

A large part of what my company does is custom software development. This makes our computers the most important tool of our trade. For this reason, I buy the top of the line computer for each new employee. The last employee I hired one month ago is now working on a MacBook Pro with 4 Gigs of Ram. The total cost of his machine, including the purchase of additional software, came to about $5,000. Sure, I could have saved a thousand dollars by purchasing a Dell, but I like to know that my developers won’t be slowed by spyware, viruses and buggy operating systems.

I also do my best to ensure that my employees are working in the most comfortable conditions. When working in the office, each of my developers sits in an extremely comfortable and ergonomic Aeron chair. On eBay, a brand new Aeron chair will cost you about $800, including shipping. This is obviously much more expensive than a “normal” office chair, but I find the price to be well worth it. The chairs are immensely more comfortable than a typical office chair, and although we’ve only owned ours for a couple of years I’m told that they will last at least a decade.

Joel Spolsky does a very good job of praising Aeron chairs in his Field Guide to Developers:

[Aeron chairs] are much more comfortable than cheap chairs. If you get the right size and adjust it properly, most people can sit in them all day long without feeling uncomfortable. The back and seat are made out of a kind of mesh that lets air flow so you don’t get sweaty. The ergonomics, especially of the newer models with lumbar support, are excellent.

They last longer than cheap chairs. We’ve been in business for six years and every Aeron is literally in mint condition: I challenge anyone to see the difference between the chairs we bought in 2000 and the chairs we bought three months ago. They easily last for ten years. The cheap chairs literally start falling apart after a matter of months. You’ll need at least four $100 chairs to last as long as an Aeron.

So the bottom line is that an Aeron only really costs $500 more over ten years, or $50 a year. One dollar per week per programmer.

A nice roll of toilet paper runs about a buck. Your programmers are probably using about one roll a week, each.

So upgrading them to an Aeron chair literally costs the same amount as you’re spending on their toilet paper, and I assure you that if you tried to bring up toilet paper in the budget committee you would be sternly told not to mess around, there were important things to discuss.

Joel was even kind enough to bring the topic full circle, back to bathrooms. Thank you, Joel. The point I’m making is that just like with European bathrooms, when it comes to office chairs you get what you pay for.

In addition to developing software, my company also provides technical training at the corporate level. As a trainer, I have the opportunity to work with software developers at a number of large business and government organizations throughout North America. I’m sad to see that many programmers in the corporate world are forced to work on old, slow computers, seated on cheap, uncomfortable chairs. I think this is being penny wise and pound foolish.

Cheap computers end up being more expensive because they slow down their well paid users. Spending an extra $1,000 on a faster computer might save a given developer twenty minutes a day in not having to wait for the compiler to return. Twenty minutes doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that’s over 83 hours per year. If a given developer makes $50,000 per year, $2,000 of their salary is being made staring at an animated hourglass. An extra $1,000 spent on a faster computer would have paid for itself in six months.

Cheap office chairs also end up being more expensive over time because they need to be replaced more often. Replacing chairs requires time ordering them, money shipping them, time assembling them, and money having the old ones hauled away. This doesn’t even include the cost of lost productivity caused by the back pain brought on by sitting in a really bad chair.

As if all of this weren’t enough, I imagine that there’s also an opportunity cost that must be paid by being cheap with your employees. If an intelligent job candidate realizes that working for your company will require them to use sub-par equipment, seated in a sub-par chair, they will seek greener pastures.

I’m not advocating wasteful spending. On the contrary, I think that companies should be cheap where they can get away with it, and “lavish” with the pocketbook when it matters. Specifically, if it effects the happiness of customers and employees, or the quality of a product or service, then liberal spending will often pay for itself many times over. The Germans seemed to have learned this lesson. Now if somebody could please translate this page into Italian, I might be able to make a big difference in this world.

Battling the Procrastination Paradox

I am embarrassed to admit that it has been over three months since I’ve posted here. When I started this blog in 2005, my goal was to post often. Perhaps as frequently as once per week. Writing is relaxing, I have a lot that I would like to say, and I enjoy receiving feedback from strangers online. So why have I only posted 31 articles in 41 months?

One of my most frustrating problems in life is that I too often let myself get sucked into vicious cycles of procrastination. I do my best to not fall behind with things, because once I do, a downward spiral begins with a gravitational force so strong that not even Hawking radiation could escape. (Seriously, CERN could save themselves a lot of time and money by abandoning the LHC and studying my procrastination instead!)

For example, if I’m supposed to phone a friend on a Monday but I forget to call, then calling them on Tuesday would be the next best thing. However, phoning them on Tuesday would involve having to admit to myself that I forgot to call on Monday and that makes me feel rotten. Calling them on Wednesday would be good, but that’s even harder to do because it involves having to come to grips with forgetting to call on Monday, plus the guilt of putting it off on Tuesday! Calling them on Thursday wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the anxiety that’s still fresh from Monday’s forgetfulness, not to mention Tuesday’s guilt compounded with Wednesday’s! I would rinse and repeat this broken logic for three months until I finally bump into my friend one day on the street. Only then would I allow myself to blank-slate my way out of the procrastination paradox.

A quick tangent: As you may know, I am a big fan of Benjamin Franklin. According to Walter Isaacson’s book, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, the phrase “clearing the slate” originates with Benjamin Franklin’s practice of keeping track of his virtue slip-ups on a slate tablet. Is there anything we can’t attribute to this man?

I’ve discovered a few techniques over the years that have helped me improve my problem with procrastination, and I’d like to share these with you.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

I think that a spirit of perfectionism lies at the heart of many procrastinators. One of the reasons that I haven’t posted to my blog more frequently is my insistence on only posting interesting content with perfect spelling and grammar. As a result, writing posts takes hours of time and I often decide against publishing what I write. With the exception of last year’s fifteen minutes of fame, I don’t typically have many readers. I don’t know why I hold this lousy blog up to such high standards. From this moment forward I promise to only write about boring subjects with bad spelling and horrible grammar!

Learn to run a dash

I read about this technique a few years ago from the wizard of time management, Merlin Mann, and I highly recommend that all procrastinators learn about this method straight from the source. This technique acknowledges that the hardest part about getting anything done is simply getting started. Running a dash encourages you to get a task started, and then quickly abandon it after ten minutes of working your butt off. Half of the time that you do this you’ll find yourself on such a kick that you actually won’t let yourself stop working until the task is finished. Even when this technique doesn’t trick you into completing your work, it will at least remove the anxiety associated with not having started at all.

While most U.S. citizens file their taxes on or before April 15th, this year I filed mine just before October 15th. I literally let four hours of work delay my taxes from being filed for almost six months. What finally got me past the procrastination paradox was a ten minute dash. I sat down with a text editor for ten minutes and created a bulleted list of the things that stood between me and my taxes from being completed. Then I played Warcraft for an hour. After getting my ass handed to me by a thirteen year old Brazilian (“jajaja, u suck”, he said), it was back to work. Four hours later my taxes were complete and I felt like I was one hundred pounds lighter.

Work like your hair is on fire

This piece of advice comes from Seth Godin and has also been lauded by Joel Spolsky. Timothy Ferriss gives very similar advice in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek. The advice is this: Simulate a really, really, really urgent situation for yourself (such as having hair on fire) and work yourself raw as if somehow getting your todos “todone” would end the urgency. As Timothy Ferriss puts it, pretend like you only have one hour to get an entire eight hours worth of work done.

Although this technique is new to me, I can already report it as being helpful. This method allows you to quickly triage your tasks and figure out what can be safely sacrificed in the name of getting things done. In order for this technique to be successful, it’s important to turn off your phone, avoid email, and eliminate all distractions that might prevent you from completing the task at hand.

This very blog post is proof that these techniques can work. About two hours ago I started writing this entry with a ten minute dash. After a twenty minute phone call with my girlfriend, I was back to work. Since then I’ve been writing as if my hair were on fire. I’ll be doing the same thing next Thursday, October 30th. That day has been completely blocked off on my company calendar as a “hair on fire day.” On this day I will shut myself off from the outside world until a colleague and I complete and release the new Field Expert web site.

Ten posts in ten days

I feel like I have the upper hand on procrastination lately, and I want to put myself to the test. I am hereby committing myself to writing (and more importantly, posting) ten blog posts in the next ten days. Yes, this counts as one of them.

A number of ideas have been gelling in my brain for the last few months, and I already have titles picked out for some of the things I’ll be writing about. These include:

  • Highway traffic and the space time continuum
  • Autobahn bathrooms and Aeron chairs
  • Richard Dawkins’ selfish genes
  • Brute forcing Gödel, Escher and Bach
  • How DOTs can save money and improve roads

Forgive me, but I must quickly leave to run my hair under water and clear the air of that putrid, burnt dapper dan smell.

Recession Survival, Ben Franklin Style

I recently returned from a weekend of leisure in Philadelphia. After reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, I was inspired to visit his hometown and retrace the footsteps of one of our country’s greatest founding fathers. As I walked along Market Street from Independence Hall to the site of Franklin’s former home, I caught a glimpse of some discouraging headlines at a newspaper stand. Gas prices are soaring. Inflation is rising. The dollar is weakening. I began to wonder how Benjamin Franklin would perceive our modern world and its problems. If we could transport this bald-headed sage through time, what advice would he dispense to us today?

Benjamin Franklin knew how to overcome economic hurdles. As the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations, he was forced to become a self-made man. Throughout his lifetime, Benjamin Franklin had to overcome a lack of formal education, a war, debilitating ailments, libelous business competition, the death of a child and the threat of being hanged. Despite these obstacles, he was able to become (and more importantly, remain) a wealthy man who would shape the aspirations of many business moguls to follow, including Andrew Carnegie.

As a prodigious writer, Benjamin Franklin was kind enough to leave the world with a large corpus of work. The subjects of his writings were diverse, covering everything from the properties of electricity to the benefits of dating older women. Somewhere in between, he managed to share a great deal of financial advice. Although his words of wisdom are appropriate for any economic climate, Franklin’s commentary is made all the more relevant by today’s difficult financial times.

Benjamin Franklin has long been revered as the father of frugality. Although he likely never wrote these exact words, the phrase, “A penny saved is a penny earned” is the quote most commonly attributed to him. But Franklin’s belief in avoiding unnecessary expenses went deeper than coining catchy phrases. As a teen living in England, he forwent beer for water and meat for vegetables in an attempt to save money. By threatening to move to a new London apartment, he was able to convince his landlord to reduce his rent by over fifty percent. Through his actions and words, Franklin advocated a life of frugality to his friends, family and the readers of his many newspapers.

If Benjamin Franklin were alive today, it is unlikely that he would spend his money on an expensive car, jewelry or even cable TV. In “Poor Richard’s Almanack”, he advised people to “beware of little expenses.” He continued, “A small leak will sink a great ship.” The difference between basic cable and extended cable may only be $20 per month, but $240 per annum invested in the stock market could one day grow to a non-trivial sum. Franklin realized that making small sacrifices can drastically reduce expenses without noticeably deteriorating the quality of one’s life.

Even when he began to amass a large amount of wealth, Benjamin Franklin continued to live well below his means. Realizing that times were about to become difficult for the colonies, he warned his wife that “when people’s incomes are lessened, if they cannot proportionally lessen their [expenses] they must come to poverty.” He continued this theme in his self help book entitled “The Way to Wealth” when he said, “Gain may be temporary and uncertain, but ever while you live, expense is constant and certain.”

Reducing expenses and living below one’s means would be just the first step that Benjamin Franklin would advise for Americans today. In a time of recession, he would assuredly promote the idea of investing in yourself through education and other forms of self improvement. As a young teenager living in Boston, Franklin was able to overcome his lack of formal education by studying the works of authors, philosophers and scientists. His natural gifts, combined with self-gained knowledge, provided him with the ability to improve his lot in life.

Realizing the importance of never growing stale, Franklin continued his education throughout his entire eighty-six years. His study of poetry and prose gave him the skills to become an excellent writer, which in turn enabled his printing company to prosper. His knowledge of religion and politics provided him with the skills required to become America’s most successful foreign ambassador. His scientific inquests brought him the fame he needed to garner respect from the people and the influence of kings. In short, knowledge was Benjamin Franklin’s great enabler.

If Franklin were operating a business in our world today, he would use the current economic slowdown as a time to educate himself and his workforce. As he put it, “Genius without education is like silver in the mine.” At face value, this analogy might seem no better than one claiming, “Genius without education is like fish uncaught in the sea” or “Genius without education is like a seed left unfertilized.” However, it is no accident that Franklin chose to compare education with a valued precious metal. He, more than most people of his day, realized that knowledge begets wealth and power. The value of the dollar may go up and down, and the price of oil may fluctuate daily, but Benjamin Franklin knew that knowledge is everlasting. He expressed this idea most eloquently when he said, “If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him.”

Through the combination of a frugal lifestyle and constant self-education, Benjamin Franklin drew a roadmap for living which has proven itself useful for over two hundred years. His philosophies have helped businesses and individuals excel during good times and bad. As the U.S. economy slows, emulating Franklin’s traits can surely do no harm, and would likely do good for many.