The Idiots Guide to the Universe It's a big weird world, best to be snarky!

21May/13Off

The Idiocy I Hear About Teachers

As I write this President Obama is spewing his platitudes about the horrific disaster in Oklahoma City. Meanwhile the under story goes completely unnoticed. The under story is teachers. In many cases we hear about our brave first responders, law enforcement and fire fighters rushing in to help. My intention is not to take anything away from these brave souls whose fortitude greatly outweighs that of most of us. But my thoughts go to the true first responders at those elementary schools, teachers. This image to the left; in looking at it you see two parents escorting their kids away from the horrors that happened just a short time ago at their elementary school. The father clutching a daughter to his chest, the injured mother holding on to her daughter's hand as if she'd never let go. But look again, that is two teachers, holding on to the children as if they were their own. Moments later, once these children were safe, they would rush back in to help others, because they have other children that need saving.

In another scene, a car that has been dropped by the tornado is lifted. Under that car is a teacher. Under the teacher, students. This teacher was putting her body between this destructive force of nature, and her students. In Connecticut a teacher was found shot to death with her body draped over her students. In Columbine a teacher was shot to death as put himself in harms way to close and lock a door to protect dozens of students inside. In countless other horrifying situations we hear of teachers making the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to protect their kids. That's right their kids. Ask any teacher about their students, and you will hear the words 'my kids' come out of their mouth countless times.

So why is it that these teachers would feel such a protective bond for these students. It's simple, they have no other way of looking at those students. The students aren't a product that they are building, they aren't groceries or sundries being stocked on shelves, or scanned for check out. They are each individual human beings with hopes, dreams, hurts and potential. Every single one of these kids develops special place in the heart of that teacher.

In a situation like this, it is the teachers that provide comfort to the students until a family member comes to retrieve them. It is the teacher's that will see to their basic needs, warmth, clothing, water and food until that last student is with their family. During this entire time, the teacher will wonder about the fate of their own son, daughter, spouse and any other family. While other families rush to reunite, the teacher remains, tending to his or her students until the last one is with his or her family. If the family never comes because tragedy has occurred, it is the teacher that takes those first tears into his or her chest. All the while, wondering about the fate of his or her own family.

On top of all of that, disaster aside, it is the teacher that spends 5%-20% of their own income on supplies for their own classroom. In many states, these costs are not tax deductible, or are not deductible until certain thresholds are met, at which point the deduction is only available for expenditures above and beyond that of the threshold.

So of course many of the parents meet this level of dedication with comments like, "Oh he's (or she's) just a teacher. Guess he couldn't hack it in 'real world.' Yes, you muppet, the teachers chose to put the kids before their own self absorbed chase of consumerism. How dare they not make the same choices you did. How dare they become better educated than you, and choose to put the kids first.

How about this one "teacher's are over paid." Really? Teacher's spend the entire day educating your kids, then they go home, grade their papers and prepare materials for the following day. On the weekend they plan the following week to make sure that there are engaging activities planned that will keep the interest of the students, because here's a hint: your child can't sit still in class because you sent him to school with a Rock Star energy drink and two doughnuts. In all seriousness, kids don't want to come to school and be lectured all day. They want to learn by doing. So a science teacher will go out and spend a couple hundred dollars of their own money to buy flowers so the students can dissect these flowers and see the various parts of the flower like the pollen and the stigma. But hey, I hope you enjoyed that backyard BBQ.

But the most galling thing of all is the way the students and teachers are used as political pawns by our politicians. This usually ends up turning many conservatives against the teachers. Teacher's are turned into "educators" in political speeches since polling data suggests that when a politician says teacher, you will immediately think of your kids teachers, or teachers from your past. Politicians can't have you thinking about people, personalizing it makes it harder for them to do their political maneuvering. So instead they will say "Educators are taking up a large portion of the budget." But then they will flip the script on you. Politicians know that there are a few political hot buttons that work on the genreal public, kids, police, fire and roads. They will typically use the term teacher when they want to increase funding by saying things like "If we do not get this tax increase through, it is the teachers and children who will suffer."

What the politicians are doing is using teachers, and student education as a political pawn. The politicians know that you would never vote to fund a tax increase to subsidize business growth for the businesses that funded their campaign, so they lock that part of the budget in early, along with their own salaries. But then when the money is coming up short because they funded their own special interests, they turn to the public and say we need more, it's for the teachers, kids, fire, police, and the roads you drive to work. The teachers are then held as a political hostage, many of them getting the dreaded 'pink slip' telling them that they may be laid off for the following school year because the budget is coming up short. Imagine for a moment, going months, not knowing if you would have a job the next year. Now imagine doing it 5 years in a row. That is the life of a teacher.

So how about instead of saying degrading things about your kids teachers, you treat them with the respect they deserve. Tell your politicians to stop using our public servants as political pawns. Next time you get that big bonus, how about an email to the teacher asking what you can buy for the classroom. How about at the next back to school night, instead of cornering the teacher to discuss your child and how special you think he or she is, you just say 'Thank you.' You can schedule an after school meeting to discuss your little darling. How about as school winds down, you send in a thank you card. You don't have to send anything else (though I'm sure a gift certificate for school supplies would be welcome,) a thank you card would mean the world to most teachers.

So to all those teacher's that educated, and put up with my snark. To all those teacher's that have dealt with whatever idiosyncrasies I have passed on to my children, to the teachers in Oklahoma and to all the teachers counting down the days this Spring.... THANK YOU!

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31Mar/110

Effective Product Management

Let your customers lead you to success.

If you want to be an effective product manager there is one thing that you desperately need to understand. See, most product managers come from either marketing, or the sales engineering parts of an organization. Frankly this does not give you the tools necessary to become an effective product manager. It gives you product understanding, but not the whole picture.

Now the concept I am going to discuss is not original, and it is the main focus of the Product Management classes taught by Pragmatic Marketing. If you are looking for a Product Management class I can't recommend their classes highly enough. Some of it is just good common sense, but the rest of it is just pure gold. So much so that I am of the opinion that it should be a required class for all executives, whether they are in product management or not, because the class really teaches how to make sound business decisions.

Now the concept of product management is simple and elegant, yet ends up being made far too complex by most. The sole job of a product manager is to 'own' the product from a business stand point. This means that the life cycle decisions on the product belong solely to the product manager. In some organizations the product management can be handled by a team, looking at things from an inbound (dealing with product developers) and outbound (dealing with customers, sales, analysts etc.) perspective. In general this methodology is usually not the most effective. This is because of that oh so important thing.... as a product manager you need to understand that "your opinion, all though interesting, is irrelevant." This is also true of the executives, sales staff, and everyone else 'inside' the organization. Frankly, the answer for what's best for your product does not lie within your organization, it lays outside the organization.

Now I am not saying that there shouldn't be inside an outside product managers. What I am saying is that the decision should be made by one person, and that person needs to be as close to the customers as possible.

The concept here is really simple, the product manager simply must get to know the customers. The product manager needs to walk in the customers shoes as much as possible. Dropping in on your whale customer to do a road map presentation doesn't count. How can a product manager learn and understand how the customer uses the product if all they do is present slides to the customer and listen to minor gripes.

The effective product manager understands that he/she can hear "opinions" about the product. But the true product manager sits down and watches the customer use the product as part of their daily life for hours, a day or several days if you can manage it. It is only then that you can truly see that perhaps there are too many clicks in your UI, or the ergonomic design that you spent $4 Million developing gets in the way of it's most common use. Quite simply, the customer can't tell you what you product needs, they have to show you. Remember, your product has to effectively solve a problem for people to want to spend money on it. For them to keep using it, it has to continue solving the problem without frustrating them in the process. This means understanding the developing needs if your customer over time.

So now you know, the salesman's opinion doesn't matter, the executives opinion doesn't matter, the product managers opinion doesn't matter. The facts that you learn from the customer are what matters. But how does the product manager tell the CEO that his opinion is irrelevant. Quite simply, with facts. Instead of saying "Well I think that...." the product manager should say "On my visit to 5 customers I learned that..." Just the facts. A product manager should never say "I think that..." See by visiting the customers and getting to know how the customers live with your product, you as a product manager know the facts about how your customer uses your product. How is any executive going to argue with facts like that. Facts can limit (and hopefully eliminate) executive meddling in your products.

Lastly, fear the committee. Product decisions should never be made by a committee. It is okay for the product manger to have an internal product advisory committee, and to take feedback from other product managers. But ultimately there should be a single product manager making the decisions about the product. The product manager that spends the majority of their time interacting DIRECTLY with the customers. That product manager will, of course be making those decisions based upon knowing how the customers use the product. Knowing what the customers need from the product. Solving the customers problems. Because ultimately sales (and the entire organization) is successful when the product manager listens to, and understands the customer, not their own opinion.

30Mar/110

Acknowledge Your Limits

There is nothing more frustrating than encountering someone who holds a job/title/position that is outside of their capabilities, and then doesn't acknowledge their limitations.

Listen, I get it, good for you, you are making the big bucks, or at least bigger bucks than you would be. But when you have to work with other people that are relying on you to be able to do your job, just come clean and tell them that you are struggling or that you don't know how to handle the situation.

By shrouding the fact that you are limited, you are doing 3 things

  • You are making everyone's job harder
  • You are losing credibility with the people you are working with
  • You are missing out on an excellent opportunity to learn

That last one is really the key point isn't it. No one is going to bother to teach you the stuff you need to learn if you never acknowledge the fact that you need help. In most cases it is simply a case of saying "Hey I am a little confused on what I should be doing here, it's a litle outside my expertise. Can you help me with it?"

 

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