September 12, 2019

Making IT Like Disneyland: Prologue

I used to say that my goal was to run my IT department like a Starbucks. And by that I wasn't suggesting that I wanted to extract as much profit as possible out of my customers on the back of an underpaid workforce and mediocre product. I meant that I wanted my IT department to run the way a Starbucks cafe operates. To me, at the time that meant an IT department that is clean, polite, and can consistently and competently deliver on a wide catalog of services. It also felt like a clever thing to say and seemed to resonate with my caffeine-addled peers.

What I've learned in the seven or eight year since I made that declaration is that I was greatly overvaluing the services being delivered and equally undervaluing the experience of the customers receiving those services.

Let me explain. If you've worked in IT, you've probably heard, or like me expounded that good customer experience is a byproduct of good IT fundamentals. If your systems are stable, your backups solid, your security sound (editor's note: your heart true), the IT Fairy will visit all of your users at night and gift them with a great customer experience. And that is exactly as realistic as it sounds. In reality the IT Fairy is Arri from Estonia and the only gift he brings is identity theft (editor's note: sorry Estonian readers).

The same is true for Starbucks. The service being delivered, in this case coffee, is only a component of the customer experience. To illustrate this point, let's pretend you just walked into a Starbucks and ordered an Americano. You receive your drink, it's the correct size, correct temperature, correct flavor and aroma. Name is even spelled correctly on the side of the cup. Service delivered, boxes checked, happy customer. Easy, right?

But what about the ten minutes you just waited in line to order? Then the additional ten you waited for your drink to arrive? Or that guy in corner loudly dictating his next self-published masterpiece? Maybe the James Taylor and Sia duet album of Thanksgiving classics that is now soundtracking your decent into madness? Better be one hell of an Americano.

The other danger of relying solely on service delivery to determine customer experience is that you set yourself up to falsely associate poor customer experience to failed delivery. We're back at Starbucks again and this time instead of handing you your Americano, the barista pours it all over your hands. Which is contributing more to your poor experience, the skin on yours hands beginning to blister or your lack of beverage? Service delivery would say the latter. Reality would make a strong counter argument.

So, what does all this have to do with Disneyland (editor's note: after 450+ words of Starbucks ramblings)? From the very beginning, Walt built Disneyland to be a place where people have an experience. The attractions, the characters, the performances, the music, the theming, tools to enhance and amplify the experience, but the experience itself is the product, the service that is being delivered. Walt explained it best himself in his opening day speech, "To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land."

What if we apply Walt's philosophy for Disneyland to IT? What if customer experience becomes the product and IT services become the tools to support it? What if we make IT like Disneyland?

This is how I have been leading IT for several years now. Though the Making IT Like Disneyland series, I will be exploring how to create a better customer experience by applying Disneyland concepts to IT leadership and operations. No, we won't be devising plans for the World Famous JIRA Cruise or Splashtop Mountain or even Mr. Tableau's Wild Ride. But we will be looking at how things like cleanliness (editor's note: shout out to The Sweep Spot) are integral to the Disneyland experience and how they can also be used to further IT.

To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Information Technology is your land.

Cheers!

September 6, 2019

Gluten Free: A Trip to Seattle

My family took a short trip up to Seattle at the beginning of last week. This was the first time we have traveled, outside of camping or day trips since my partner was diagnosed with celiac disease earlier this year. This post is a brief rundown of our experience as a couple tourists attempting to eat gluten-free in Seattle.

I'll start by stating something that is probably blatantly obvious to anyone who has been living with special dietary needs - eating away from home takes much more coordination. This isn't necessarily a problem, but if you do not enjoy a scheduled vacation, which neither my partner nor I do, you may eperience moments of genuine frustration, flashes of anger and the occassional cursing of various gods and deities when it comes to meal time. Some words were said...

We also learned the importance of location. Seattle has a wealth of gluten-free, celiac-friendly establishments, but not many were walkable (editor's note: with two children) from our base camp across the street from the Seattle Center. We did bring a vehicle, but didn't fully appreciate the logistical challenge of it being parked at the hotel while we were miles away and hungry. This became glaringly apparent when we tried to eat our first meal, lunch at Pike Place.

We attempted to eat at one of market bakeries that Google had identified as gluten-free. The bakery did have several gluten-free and vegan offerings, but they weren't kept separate and with how the food was being handled, we didn't have high hopes of avoiding cross-contamination. But the kids were hungry and we'd already invested 30 minutes walking in circles so the kids and I ate there while my partner grabbed a pint of strawberries from one of the farm stall. Lunch then segued into our next unforeseen challenge - cleaning up after a meal with gluten.

Pike Place restrooms are the perfect storm of urine covered floors, sinks to high for children and blisteringly hot water. I entered the restroom with two gluten-covered children and left with two upset, soaking wet, probably still gluten-covered children. Not a great start.

We spent the rest of the afternoon around the waterfront, so when it came time for dinner, our options were either:
  1. Find something around the market.
  2. Walk back to the monorail station, then ride to Seattle center, then walk to the hotel, then get the car, then drive somewhere, then park, then...logistics.
We chose option 1 and ended up at Pike Brewing Company's Pike Pub for dinner our first night. Mind you this was after another heated round of debate, frantic Googling, weighing the above options, more Googling, all the while our kids agonizing over the starvation we were inflicting upon them.

Though not advertised on their website, The Pike Pub was very accommodating to my partners needs. They have an entirely separate gluten-free menu and confirmed for us that they maintain dedicated fryers and a separate prep area in the kitchen. My partner was able to order a Wild Salmon BLT that met her gluten-free, dairy-free, pescatarian needs. I had a Ruben, a Peach IPA and the bacon from her sandwich, none of which was gluten-free, save for the bacon.

After the headache of day one, we spent a good deal of time in the hotel room that evening, strategizing places to eat the rest of our trip. One of those places was I Love My GFF, which operates a group of gluten-free carts serving quinoa bowls. For lunch our second day, we ate at their cart across the street from Westlake Center, in front of the Old Navy. Their bowls were great and my partner was able to order hers sans cheese and protein, meeting her needs.

For dinner our second evening, we had come to terms with the fact we were going to have to drive. We ended up choosing Capitol Cider since it was only a 10 minute drive and there appeared to be ample (editor's note: but expensive) parking options. Capitol Cider is a completely gluten-free, scratch kitchen and their menu is clearly marked with extensive allergen information. For example, the fish and chips my partner ordered was noted as also dairy-free by omitting the tartar sauce.

They also have cider. Lots of cider. They maintain 22 rotating cider taps and over 200 different bottles. I tried the Snowdrift Forefathers and my partner had the Anthem Watermelon Gose (editor's note: Gose-style cider, no wheat). A quick note, Capitol Cider does have 8 rotating draft beers that are not gluten-free, but they are served from dedicated taps and lines that are not shared with their ciders.

For the final day of our trip, we stopped back at Pike Place to to try Cinnamon Works before we hit the road (editor's note: and to let the kids ride the monorail again). Cinnamon Works in not a gluten-free bakery, but they do have several gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options. The employee we spoke with was knowledgeable about celiac disease and explained that while their items are prepared in the same kitchen space and share baking pans, gluten-free and non gluten-free foods are not prepared simulaneously and everything is thoroughly cleaned between batches to minimize cross contamination.

So what did we learn? In short, plan better and be prepared to drive (editor's note: or ride share if you don't kids restricting your transportation options). Dining at an unfamiliar restaurant is stressful enough when you have special dietary needs. There is no reason to pile on the additional stress of attempting to choose said unfamiliar restaurant if it can be avoided. Ideally, if you can come up with a short list of restaurants ahead of your trip, you can call them to confirm they are capable of accommodating your needs and verify their hours before you travel. We probably spent a good 3-4 hours of our three day trip arguing, stressing and plotting each others untimely demises while attempting to plan meals.

There were several other highly reviewed, celiac-friendly restaurants like Niche, HeartBeet and Ghostfish Brewing that we didn't get to try because they were either closed or we were too far away to get there before they closed (editor's note: or before the kids completely melted down).

A thanks to Pike Pub, I Love my GFF, Capitol Cider and Cinnamon Works and their knowledgeable staff who helped accommodate a couple cranky, tired, out-of-towners. Cheers!

June 26, 2019

Blogging SEO: Why You Should Give Up Sex and Devote Your Life to Writing Seo Optimized Blog Titles (Part 1)

Apparently this is what a SEO optimized title looks like...at least when it has been optimized for clickbait. But I am getting ahead of myself.

A couple posts back I showed off a mind map of blogging topics for the site's relaunch. My next step was to take my outline and devise a titling scheme for blog posts, one that plays to the value of content serialization and is SEO friendly. I have been spending quite a lot of time at the day job learning, teaching and generally shaking my fists angrily at SEO optimization. As a result, I have become acutely aware of everything I did wrong during the blog's first run and gleaned just enough knowledge to (editor's note: maybe) do one or two things right this time. Though most of what I've gleaned is that "right" is itself quite subjective. Still getting ahead of myself.

Blog titles, there we go. I started by working out a style guide for my post titles that maintains a consistent titling scheme, comprised of both categorical and post specific keywords. Sounds like a mouthful, so let's break it down.

Looking at the mind map, one of my broad themes, beer, contains the following categories:
  • Craft brewing
  • Gluten free
  • Home brewing
  • Recommended reading

The craft brewing category contains the post topics:
  • Events
  • Industry musings
  • Releases
  • Reviews

From this, I developed a set of keywords:
  • Craft brewing - beer
  • Events - event
  • Industry musings - musings
  • Releases - release
  • Reviews - review

Putting it all together, if I wrote a post about the Hellshire Barrel-Aged Beer Fest, I would title it something like, "Beer Event: Hellshire Barrel-Aged Beer Fest." And I did.

Likewise, if I wrote a post recommending Jeff Alworth's blog Beervana, I would title it, "Recommended Beer Reading: Beervana." This one hasn't happened yet.

I now have a point-and-shoot scheme for titling my posts, but how is the SEO? Like I said, it's subjective. Which is a horribly ironic statement since search engines are not subjective gods. But Google, Microsoft and the like have shrouded them is such mystique that entire industries of oracles now exist to help decipher their cryptic whims (editor's note: let's reign in the metaphors).

One such oracle (editor's note: watch it!) is Neil Patel, who explains how to create search engine friendly title tags. If you prescribe to Neil's brand of divination (editor's note: hey!), my title scheme should work well - Front-loaded, pertinent keywords and generally under 60 characters.

One point where we differ is my decision not to include the blog title in post title tags. Why? As we established in the mind map post, "Beer and Coding in Eugene" has become fairly disassociated from the current direction of this blog. So, there is little value in potentially eating up 25 characters of valuable space in Google search results with a mildly related blog title.

Case in point, which of the following is more appealing?

Beer and Coding in Eugene | Beer Event: Hellshire Barrel-Age 
Beer Event: Hellshire Barrel-Aged Beer Fest

Let's try another.

Beer and Coding in Eugene | Blogging SEO: Writing SEO optim
Blogging SEO: Writing SEO optimized blog titles

So, how did we get from, "Blogging SEO: Writing SEO optimized blog titles" to the mess at the top of the page? That would be Content Row's Headline Generator I came across while prepping for this post. It feels like something akin to the Wu-Tang Name Generator (editor's note: Phantom Overlord, nice!), but toss a title idea into the generator and you will get something that could pass for any clickbait title you see at the bottom of any clickbait article you are currently reading. Eerie.

"Writing SEO Optimized Blog Titles" resulting in the following recommendations:
  • Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Writing SEO Optimized Blog Titles
  • Writing SEO Optimized Blog Titles 101: The Essential Guide
  • The Most Incredible Article About Writing SEO Optimized Blog Titles You'll Ever Read
  • 8 Things the Media Hasn't Told You About Writing SEO Optimized Blog Titles

And of course the winning, "Why You Should Give Up Sex and Devote Your Life to Writing SEO Optimized Blog Titles."

Now we've come full circle. All things considered, I think I'll stick to my scheme going forward.

Cheers!
Phantom Overload

June 15, 2019

Beer Event: Hellshire Barrel-Aged Beer Fest and a trip back in time

Here comes by first beer post in more than seven years. Let's see if I can shake the rust...

Today is the Hellshire Barrel-Aged Beer Fest and release of Hellshire IX, Oakshire Brewing's annual barrel-aged bottle of magic. In honor of the event, I'm going to take you on a little trip back in time to the first Hellshire release.

Saturday May 7th 2011. It was the closing weekend of Eugene Beer Week's freshman run. It had been a gauntlet of a week (editor's note: mainly for the liver and wallet) and I was about an hour away from my final event, the release of Hellshire I.

For those unfamiliar, Hellshire is a barleywine/stout/some-other-kind-of-big-beer-depending-on-the-year, barrel-aged and released annually alongside a big party. Hellshire was started under former Oakshire brewmaster Matt Van Wyk, now part of Alesong Brewing and Blending. The beer carried with it a mythos before it was even released, heralded by many as a continuation of Wooden Hell, a similarly-styled annual release Matt crafted at his previous (editor's note: previous, previous) brewery, Flossmoor Station. In fact, shortly before the release of Hellshire I, folks online were offering $50 per bottle for anyone interested in a little side hustle.

Apparently everyone else was doing battle with their owns hangovers that morning, as I not only made it to the brewery (editor's note: not a small feat) but beat out all my compatriots to be first in line for the event. Not a bad position for a bantamweight beer blogger. When the gate opened, I was given the baby blue Line Dry Rye t-shirt for being the head of the line and allowed to make the first ever purchase of Hellshire. This was immediately followed by a textbook Charlie in the Chocolate Factory moment.


Oakshire employee: "How many would you like?"
Me: "One please"
Oakshire employee: "One case?"
Me: "No, one bottle"
Oakshire employee: "One, bottle?" (puzzled look)
Me: "Yes"
Oakshire employee: "Ok, ring him up for one bottle" (continues puzzled look)

Of course the next ten people in line all purchased their two case limit...or at least that is what it felt like at the time. And despite my limited economic impact, Hellshire is still going strong. It has grown from that initial gaggle of over enthusiastic beer nerds eight years ago to the full-blown barrel-aged festival and additional Hellshire Experience for those with a bit deeper pockets.

As for that first bottle of Hellshire I, it sat, tucked away for eight months until the birth of my son. The t-shirt I still wear. After eight years it has been given the prestigious honorific of Lawn Mowing Shirt. Speaking of which, that is what I will be doing today instead of attending the Hellshire IX release, a very "dad" decision. Now the only question is, do I pop open this bottle of Hellshire V before or after...

Cheers!

June 11, 2019

A small correction...and a roadmap of sorts

I'm going to start by correcting a bit of revisionist history I expounded in my first post. About a third of the way in, I made the comment, "Shortly after EBW wrapped up, so did the blog." It turns out that wasn't exactly correct. Even with a mind as sharp and nimble as mine (editor's note: good place to insert something moronic like, "big league brain"), the details from seven years ago are beginning to blur around the edges. It felt like my timeline was off so I went back to the source.

I pulled a 2012 site backup out of OneDrive and did a local restore. Yes, it would have been far easier to just hop in the Way Back Machine, but that idea didn't cross my mind until just now. Hindsight. It turns out my final blog post was, "Eugene Beer Week Starts Tomorrow!" An entry posted May 6th, 2012, exactly one day before the start of EBW. So, it appears my blog did not wind down alongside EBW as I initially remembered. It abruptly stopped on the 250th post, the evening before. There we go, record set straight. I feel better.

The point of this post was to share some of the planning that went into the relaunch of this blog and a peek at things to come. As I mentioned in my initial post, I've had several failed starts over the years. Each one went (more or less) like this:

    (receives email)
    "My domain renewal!"
    "I was just working on a blog post, this is a sign I should finish it." (opens OneNote)
    "Oh God, that was a year ago!"
    "What was I even working on?" (checks OneNote more intently)
    "A half written review for a beer I don't remember?" (continues checking)
    "That it, nothing else?"
    "OK, looks like I starting over from scratch, idea time." ([scribbles|types|taps] frantically)
    "Alright, that looks good. There's at least a week of topics."
    "Now I just have to write them...and start thinking of ideas for the next week...and..." (crickets)
    "I know! I'll start with a beer review...and might as well turn on the TV."
    "Hey, a new episode of Teen Titans Go!" (closes OneNote)
    "Wait, what was I doing?" 

A talented writer would say something inspiring like, "just start writing and the words will find you." Only, being a talented writer they would phase it more eloquently. Unfortunately, I am not a talented writer. I tend to just hack away at my keyboard until the word vomit starts taking the shape of semi-coherent thoughts. From there it undergoes additional forming and bending until I arrive at something readable. Never great, sometimes good, but usually readable (editor's note: glowing endorsement!). And herein lies the problem. It takes a lot of effort to get an idea out of my big league brain (editor's note: that works!) and into that aforementioned readable state. So, the thought of having to do that time and time again with no clear direction posed a huge challenge to my relaunch. Knowing my limitations (and penchant for distraction), I made a conscious decision this time around to initially focus on mapping out a sustainable content strategy, not spewing out half-formed ideas.

First, I reassessed my blogging focus. Previously, this was craft beer, with a hyper-focus on Eugene, Lane County, Willamette Valley and outward from there. I also wrote, with much less frequency and fanfare about coding, usually something related to web development. Those that subscribe to the theory of niche expert blogging would point out that I missed the mark on both. One niche was far too specific to ever attract a wide audience and the other was far to broad to actually be a niche. This was easily confirmed by my Google Analytics scores. One thing I did seem to get right on the first go-around (editor's note: by complete luck) was content serialization. I'm not going to spend a lot of time explaining serialized content, you all know how to Google. Serialization works because people like things they are already familiar with, already invested in or able to binge. This is why it's a big deal in my house when a new Dog Man book is released or a new season of The Great British Bake Off airs or the morning newspaper arrives with the next Sally Forth comic strip. Again, turning to Google Analytics, my highest ranking posts were those that were beer-related, not hyper-local and part of ongoing series (Adventures in Homebrew, Going Nano, etc). Using this information, I planned out my broad, overarching themes (blue) of the relaunch: beer, blogging, IT leadership and technology. With that set, I then developed specific categories (green) and individual topics (brown), each representing an opportunity for serialized content over a long period of time.


Beerandcoding Mind Map

Looking at the mind map, you may notice the lack of beer and the near non-existence of coding. And immediately following that, you may ask, "Why keep beerandcoding.com if you are taking the blog in an entirely different direction, wouldn't a new domain make more sense?" Another great question. It also happens to be the same question my partner asked last night. I don't believe my meandering reasoning did anything to convince her, but maybe I'll have better luck with you. In my mind, this blog is a meta example of serialization. We are starting chapter two. I'm not worried about duplicating chapter one, but I do want to continue the story.

Cheers!

June 7, 2019

From the ashes...


This past Sunday marked the start of Eugene Beer Week, now in its 9th year.

If you are one of the three readers who remember this blog from its initial flight, circa 2009-12, you may be asking one or more of the following questions:
  • "Really?" 
  • "A seven year hiatus and this is what brings the blog back?"
  • "Wait, isn't Eugene Beer Week already half over? First blog post and it's already late."

All great questions. Well, except that last one.Could have done without the sarcasm. This isn't really a story about Eugene Beer Week, but it is a story that both starts and ends with EBW. Let me explain...

In early 2012 I was three months into a new career, three weeks into fatherhood and had just signed on to help with marketing and awareness for the 2nd Annual Eugene Beer Week. Some of those milestones are probably more important than others, but the net result was something had to give. Shortly after EBW wrapped up, so did the blog.

I've attempted to restart things a few times over the years, usually getting a spark immediately following the yearly arrival of my domain renewal notice. I'd fiddle with web hosting and CMS options for a week or two, then throw in the towel long before even thinking about content. Then, a few weeks ago (after receiving this year's renewal notice) I decided it was time to give it a serious try. I made a deal with myself that if I couldn't come up with anything worthwhile to write, I would finally put it out to pasture.

And now we're caught up. Here I am with about a dozen different drafts of my relaunch post sitting in front of me. Some inspiring, some comical, most incoherent, all bad. And inspiration strikes. Or, more accurately Twitter strikes. My phone buzzes. Ah good, a distraction. Just what I need. Hey look, it's the list of tomorrow's EBW featured events. My eyes drift down from my phone to my not-so-slender middle. Look, it's my well-loved 2nd Annual EBW shirt (featured above). We have liftoff!

A lot has happened between the 2nd and 9th Eugene Beer Weeks. The personal highlight reel includes 6+ years in Higher Ed IT leadership followed by a recent shift back to the private sector, a 100% increase in children, 10 legally recognized years of my partner's tolerance and understanding, having a (award winning) homebrew recipe become a commercially produced beer, discovering a late-blooming obsession with Disneyland and most recently, discovering my partner has Celiac Disease. Again, some of these items are probably more important than others.

So, for those still following along, it's been 8 years since I have done and serious coding. And with the Celiac diagnosis, my craft beer intake has serious plummeted. Kind of a rough spot for a blog titled "Beer and Coding."

Where do we go from here? Honestly, I'm not exactly sure yet. I have a decent mind map of topics (that I'll be sharing shortly) and I'm currently working up the skeleton of an editorial calendar so I can ensure some consistent content. Apparently I absorbed a thing or two after several years supporting a large marketing and communications team...

In any case, it feels good to be back.

Cheers,
Kevin