In the fill-in-the-blank percent

I live in–no, I am a homeowner (which has its own privileges) in a ZIP code where the life expectancy is 20 years higher than it is in the ZIP code in this city with the lowest life expectancy.  In large part, this is because I was able to marry my partner (thanks, Loving vs. Virginia!).  Because in addition to being part of a two-income household, I otherwise would not have imagined ever owning a whole house with an bachelor’s degree in English.

I have a full time job with benefits, which means employer provided health insurance.  Which means that I probably don’t have as much to worry about because employer provided plans have not typically, even pre-ACA, excluded coverage for pre-existing conditions.  Which, when you’ve had gap in coverage, can be anything.  I had a friend who once got a letter from his health insurance (pre-ACA) that listed “pain” as a pre-existing condition and therefore not covered.  Not even specific pain, just pain.  And so “historically” is not terribly reassuring to someone who didn’t have insurance for most of her childhood and still sometimes forgets that she can go to the doctor now and that the co-pay is probably less than buying several potential solutions in the OTC aisle of the drugstore.

I have a full time job with benefits that I would not have gotten without a college degree, even though one really does not require a college degree specifically to perform my job, nor any of the jobs I have ever held.  A college degree that, without Pell grants and federally subsidized Stafford loans–well, okay, my parents and I could have taken out private loans and paid ridiculous interest, and we’d still be in debt now, over a decade later.  I took out subsidized Stafford loans in my name and, combined with Pell grants, work study, and a scholarship, my dad was able to afford the rest.

Aside from a mortgage, I am not in any other debt now because my dad gave me my car and because I paid off my college loans years ago.  I paid off my college loans thanks in large part to my dad, in part to a partner who was okay with getting all our groceries from Save-A-Lot, and in part to the education award I received after serving a year as an AmeriCorps*VISTA.

Did I mention that I started my career thanks to AmeriCorps?  With that year of experience, I was offered full-time employment at a time when many of my peers were going to grad school because there are no student loans for being an unemployed college graduate, and/or moving back in with their parents even while working.  This was just before the housing bubble burst in 2008.  Did I mention that I was able to graduate (from a public college) when I did (in 2006) because I was able to take AP Calculus and college-level classes at my public high school?  Timing can be everything, and I was lucky there as well.

I have been incredibly fortunate in life.  Yeah, I work hard and save and all that.  But my dad also did his best to give me a solid start in life and as an adult by minimizing the debt I had.  Even if we didn’t have health insurance.  I was extremely lucky not to have had any serious illnesses or injuries as a child and still am extremely lucky at the moment.  Because that’s one of the ways people lose the roof over their head and start that spiral.  When I graduated from college and was accordingly kicked off my parents’ health insurance, I was able to sign up for S-CHIP in the month between my last final and when the catastrophic insurance I had through AmeriCorps kicked in.  And thanks to COBRA, I could buy an extension of that catastrophic insurance at the group rate while I waited the 60 days or so for my employer provided health insurance to kick in.

I am female, but I am also heterosexual.  I am a person of color but also a member of the model minority.  I don’t have any physical disabilities or learning disabilities.  I grew up in a middle class household, with a dad who worked a white-collar job, so that I knew enough of what was okay and not okay and a lot of the unwritten rules of that type of professional world.  Rules that I’m not even sure I can articulate now, even as I’ve watched others struggle with them.  Which I guess I bring up to say that it’s complicated, intersectionality.  None of us are all privileged or all disadvantaged or all anything in all spheres.  Not even white, Christian, heterosexual males.

I guess that what I’m trying to say is intersectionality applies to cause and effect as well.  That we can all (myself included) do better in clarifying the world instead of simplifying it.  I am privileged to the point that I’m probably not the person who comes to mind when most people think of someone who has been able to get to this place in life because of my family, government programs, and plain good fortune.  Would I have gotten here without those combined with working hard and trying to make good decisions?  Probably not.  But without any of the first three, I never would have had the chance to try.


Introducing new technology and processes to staff/volunteers: A case study

This is adapted from a class assignment and the story told is from a several years ago (there’s an app for this now!).  However, the inherent principles still apply.  And it had been a while since I’ve posted so I thought I’d share…

We were working in the dark

Our organization had a very large event, with approximately 800-900 attendees. When attendees arrived, they would need to check in to get their materials for the event and to find out their assigned table. Since not everyone would receive the same materials, and table assignments often changed up until the last minute, making sure everyone received the right materials and was sent to the right table was challenging. The previous method was essentially a spreadsheet printed out on paper, with volunteers checking off names manually. Any updates or corrections also had to be done manually on every single copy—which is a lot of fun when you have 12 copies of a 20-page list and people are starting to line up at the door! Plus, after the event we had to compile all the lists of checked off names so that we could follow up appropriately based on whether they had actually attended or not. One year, someone didn’t realize we would need to know that information afterwards and tossed the checked off lists at the end of the night!

Then a light appeared from the front lines

In the post-event debrief, one of the volunteers suggested using Google Docs as a way to have multiple people working off the same list and to be able to make updates in real time on a single file. She had used this with her friends while planning a group trip and thought that it might also be useful for this event. It sounded great, but…

We had so many questions

  • Would we have the technological capacity and infrastructure needed? (e.g. internet, laptops, electrical outlets, Google accounts)
  • How might we need to adjust the standard physical set-up?
  • What kind of adjustments might be needed when working directly in the spreadsheet?
    • Previously, we had created the list on a large spreadsheet to track all of the information we needed but hid certain columns when printing so that volunteers would only see the information they needed. We had also printed out multiple versions of the list (e.g. alphabetical by last name, by group, groups only, presenters only) depending on how guests might present or information might be requested by staff.
  • What changes would we need to make to the check in process, from when a guest first steps up to the desk, to when they’re going off on their way?
  • Is information visually ordered/formatted to support the new process?
  • How might we need to adjust the volunteer training?
  • What would happen if someone accidentally typed over data or made a mistake during data entry?
  • What types of changes to the data would volunteers be empowered to make on their own, and what types of changes would need to go through the registration manager? (In this case, I was both the person managing registration volunteers at the event and the one who managed the data before and after the event.)

Another question, in hindsight, would be:

  • If the point was to streamline the process and make things simpler for both the data managers and volunteers, could we do this without volunteers having to learn so many new things that it negated the benefits of saving time and increasing accuracy?

This did not end up being an issue in this particular case, but in general, it is worth asking as it will be difficult to get staff or volunteers to learn a new system or implement a new process if they are taking on the costs (training time, frustration in troubleshooting, etc.) without seeing the benefits (i.e. it doesn’t save them any time or make things easier for people in their roles).

It is always important to remember why you were trying to do this in the first place and determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs (time, resources, etc.). Once you dig a little deeper, you may discover that the benefits don’t outweigh the costs for anyone. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best one.

How we answered some of those questions

  • We worked with the venue to make sure we would be set up in a space with internet connection and electrical outlets. We asked all the volunteers about access to laptops and Google accounts and made arrangements ahead of time for those who would not. And we sent everyone a calendar appointment to remind them to bring their laptops on the day of the event!
  • We decided that we would ask volunteers to use the Find function and provide training on how to use this to find the information needed among all the other data in the spreadsheet.
  • We updated the check-in process, and updated the color coding and visual formatting of the spreadsheet accordingly to call out or differentiate key information.
  • For the volunteer training, we decided to bring a couple laptops and have them go through the entire process.
  • We came up with specific guidelines about the changes volunteers could make to the spreadsheet; anything beyond those would be directed to the registration manager.
  • After testing, we felt comfortable that most of the volunteers would be able to learn the new process, especially since they’d all worked in similar programs like Excel before.

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3

  • We built a prototype of the spreadsheet in Google Docs using the previous year’s event information.
  • We wrote up a new process.
  • We drafted some of our most seasoned volunteers (who had seen the widest range of situations) to put the new process and Google Docs spreadsheet through the wringer.
  • We adjusted the spreadsheet and the process.
  • We tested again.
  • We made the final adjustments and prepared to train the volunteers.

Training volunteers

  • After the basic event overview, we explained why we were making the change in order to answer the question of “so what?” for returning volunteers. In addition to providing more accurate and up-to-date information, we explained that the new process/system should make the process faster and easier for everyone—from staff/volunteers to guests.
  • Our graphic designer (also the volunteer assigned to event registration who suggested this in the first place) created a flow chart/decision-tree to keep it simple and help volunteers visualize the new process and how to handle different situations.
  • We walked through the new process verbally.
  • Then it was time to practice! We created a mock registration spreadsheet in Google Docs using the information from the previous year. We scripted various scenarios and had volunteers take turns role playing to get comfortable with the technology and the process, and to get a sense of the different ways a guest might present and how to handle those.
  • To make the training fun, we also took advantage of the inherent awkwardness of role playing and came up with some ridiculous scenarios involving celebrity couples and TV characters. Some people decided to show off their various accents as well…
  • Some volunteers were fine with the flow chart/decision tree and the verbal walk-through. Some practiced with extra scenarios. Volunteers needed varying levels of support during the event. One volunteer tried it out that year and then asked for a different assignment in the future. Everyone learns differently and sometimes, in spite of everyone’s best attempts, not everyone is necessarily a good fit or comfortable with the new system.

Last minute hiccups, a.k.a. The Murphy’s Law of events and anything tech-related

  • We learned that the wireless internet would be shut down during the event and would need to hardwire the internet connection for each laptop.
    • We talked to the venue to ensure this was possible. Then we asked everybody who was providing a laptop whether they had an Ethernet cable. And then we searched every cabinet in the office.
  • A few hours before the event, I discovered that the final spreadsheet file was too large to import into Google Docs.
    • After trying to reformat the file, panicking, and sheer banging my head into the same wall multiple times, I finally resorted to copying and pasting the spreadsheet in chunks (the technical term, I’m sure) of about a hundred rows at a time. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked! (Back to that point about Occam’s Razor and the simplest solution…)
  • During the event, Google Docs appeared to freeze or act up for some of the volunteers.
    • We discussed this during the post-event debrief and realized that certain browsers were not fully compatible and that, in the future, we would need to ensure that every laptop used for the event had a compatible browser.

Lessons learned, re-learned, and still being learned

  • Try as many ways as you can to “break” the technology, system, or process, in field conditions, and preferably with whoever is in the field or has that experience. There will always be something unexpected, but you can probably test out most common situations and come up with contingencies.
  • Don’t be afraid to tear it all down and start from scratch. Sometimes it can be easier (and less confusing) to build a comprehensive process incorporating all the new (and relevant existing) pieces than to try to shoehorn the old process into a new system or vice versa.
  • The best way to learn is by doing. It can be a scary moment of truth, but better that you discover any kinks during training than when rolling out a new technology or system live!
  • Frontline feedback is crucial! In this case, it brought about a change that was a significant improvement, and it was helpful in figuring out what worked or did not work the first time and making things easier for the next event.
  • The more you empower frontline staff, the easier it will be for everyone involved. There will always be some decisions that need to be made centrally or with consideration for factors beyond what frontline staff can see, but if you’re clear about the parameters, you might be surprised at the solutions people come up with on their own.
  • Sometimes the simplest solution is the best one. It can be tempting to think that just because technology can do something, that it is the best way to do something in this particular situation. For many smaller and less complex events, pen and paper is still the easiest and quickest way to handle registration.

Well, enough from me. What has worked well or not worked well for you when rolling out new technologies, systems, or processes?


What’s black and white and red all over?

A few weeks ago, a British teenager’s tweet went viral as he asked how Muslims were supposed to stop ISIS when he couldn’t even get the girl he liked to text him back. Every time someone who is visibly a member of this or that broad group (Muslims, police officers, et al.) commits a terrible act, anything other than an immediate condemnation is seen as condoning that act. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.

What’s black and white and red all over? If we refuse to see anything but black and white, then we all will have bloody hands.

Let’s get the facts right. More importantly, let’s get the truth right. Taking one’s time to get it right is not the same thing as covering something up or dragging your feet to delay the inevitable. If we were the accused, we would also hope that our friends and family who knew us well would give us the benefit of the doubt. Would at least not immediately believe the things others accused us of without proof. But if the proof showed I did wrong then, to make excuses and to act as if better cannot be expected of me is just as offensive. To act as if others are less than just because they’re “other” or just because you know me is just as wrong. Respect and believe in me enough also to hold me accountable.

For every time we ask not to be painted in broad strokes, to be presumed guilty or treated as anything other than a human being who may be part of broader groups but is also an individual capable of his or her own thoughts, values, beliefs, actions—

It goes both ways. It has to, or it doesn’t at all. Somebody needs to be brave enough to go first.

How can we do this better?

My dad is a tinkerer. Not in the handyman sense, but in his approach to whatever he happens to be doing, whether it’s a lobby design or a meal. Like when he says he’s making Sunday dinner and that was three hours ago. Like when I started drafting that e-mail and have been writing and rewriting it for the past twenty minutes.

How can we do this better?

This is a question that drives me. It drives me to edit while I write. It drives me to spend hours tinkering with how an Excel spreadsheet is set up. It drives me to wonder at the simplicity of pen and paper and how years ago, as a volunteer in an emergency department, I failed to see that solution and kept asking this poor woman to verbally spell out her name over and over again so I could get it right on the EKG. Something about her jaw made it difficult for her to speak clearly. Why had I not thought to hand her pen and paper? Or to see if they’d already gotten her name on the chart? How many times had she gone through that same exact scene, different people asking her for the same information, noticing that she had difficulty speaking, and still demanding that she answer verbally? How many times just since her son first brought her into the hospital that day?

Which is why the same question inspires delight when I read or hear about someone connecting the dots across disciplines to solve a problem, especially when they look at it from the perspective of the end-user—like the students who created an infant warmer that didn’t require electricity for preemies born in developing countries. (There are plenty of newer examples out there, of course, but it’s still a good one and trying to look up a more recent one would have involved going down some type of time warped hole in my e-mail.)

Speaking of time warps, this question can sometimes drive me deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole where all time has stopped, and then I look up and it’s dark. Sometimes I am convinced there is a better way to do something and there probably is, but I run out of time or need to pull my head out and attend to something else that is actually my job or responsibility.

A couple years ago, someone asked me what my personal goal was for the upcoming year. I answered “to do more writing.” To which he responded that I wrote all the time (this was during a team meeting at work), which was true given my projects at the time. So I amended my statement to say that I wanted to do more writing for myself. Tinkering. I didn’t really follow through on that, but I continue to be constantly dissatisfied with how I or others do things and also fascinated when people connect the dots in ways that allow others to do something better.

And here we are.