Thoughts

Life Lessons in the Mojave Desert

This summer, my sister Kell and I crossed an item off our bucket list when we took a three-day kayaking trip on the Colorado River at the base of the Hoover Dam. That part of the river goes through a desert, and that harsh terrain was a stark reminder of some of the principles I try (but sometimes fail) to follow in my day-to-day life back home.

1. A good guide can be the difference between fun and misery. 

Kell and I went with a tour company, Desert Adventures. We could not have done this trip without our guide, Gary. He knew the trails and kept us comfortable and well-fed. I’ve camped and kayaked before, but I didn’t have enough experience to do a trip like this without a guide. Sometimes back in my “real life” it’s hard to ask for help or say I need guidance, but while following Gary on the trails, I wondered why I’ve been so stubborn about this. Having someone who has been there, done that makes the path so much easier. My takeaway: Seek out guides!

2. Good preparation improves your ability to improvise. 

Our guide, Gary, had planned out all our meals and brought enough tools, supplies and amenities so that we could live three days in the desert very comfortably. Even though there was a plan for the trip, we felt free to be flexible every day. For instance, we passed an afternoon soaking in a 98º hot spring and stayed well past sunset because we had flashlights and towels. Being prepared gives you opportunities to wing it when something really good comes along (like the chance to while away the day and night in a natural hot spring!).

Kell sitting on our "front porch" at our camp site
Kell sitting on our “front porch” at our camp site

3. It’s sometimes easier to do difficult things when you don’t see the risks.

One night, we decided to hike to the single public “bathroom” in the area. It was after dinner, and well after dark. The hike was a little under a half mile. We had headlamps and good shoes and followed Gary. We scrambled up jagged rocks, through a crevasse and down slopes littered with tiny, unstable pebbles. At one point we stepped carefully over a gap in the trail – a black hole that we stepped over one at a time. We made it to the bathrooms and back without incident. The next day we made the same hike in the daylight on our way to a trailhead. I slid down a rocky slope and Kell lost her footing twice. “People always have a harder time with this trail when they can see it,” said Gary. We knew it was an uneven trail, but in the dark we couldn’t focus on the drop to the water or the crack we’d have to shimmy through. We just moved forward. This isn’t a call for carelessness; it’s a reminder to not get bogged down in the uncertainties. And see Lesson 1: Have a Good Guide.

4. You get to awesome places by taking small steps.

This is a lesson in self-care, one that is so easy to dismiss when I’m in my daily routine and deciding to skimp on sleep or skip a workout. On a searing hot day, we hiked to petroglyphs (rock carvings). The trail was a dry riverbed. Though it was a short hike – only about three miles roundtrip – each time we found some shade, we took a seat, sipped some water and chatted. Taking our time was the only way we would make it to the petroglyphs and back. We had to rest, to care for ourselves and not get overheated. We made it there, got great photos, and took a well-deserved swim in the Colorado back at camp. Take good care of yourself along the way!

On the trail from the petroglyphs
On the trail from the petroglyphs

5. Journeys are more fun with others.

The environment we were in was rugged and gorgeous. I’ve never seen such a big sky. I had lots of time to myself, to unplug and reflect. The greatest memories are the ones with my sister, though. It was amazing to have that experience together, to push ourselves during the day and then gather around the campfire at night. When the trip was over and we were dropped off in Las Vegas, we made a beeline for the Buffet at the Bellagio and spent the whole night rehashing stories.

We had a great time in the Mojave Desert and I can’t wait until the next outdoor adventure!

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Inside Reddit: No Salary Negotiations!

Reddit’s been in the news nonstop lately. First interim CEO Ellen Pao’s failed sex-discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins. Then Pao’s shutdown of Reddit’s r/fatpeoplehate in June. And now, the dismissal of a key Reddit employee, Victoria Taylor. Reddit’s voice on the web is huge, thanks to its volunteer moderators. The company itself is small, however, with around 60 employees and a business model that still doesn’t turn a profit.

That’s why I was interested in Pao’s comments on pay in her conversation with WSJ in April. Pao said one way Reddit addresses gender inequity is by eliminating salary negotiations. Studies show that salary negotiations are a touch point for some of the inequalities we see in the workplace. Men are more likely to negotiate, women may see more blowback from negotiating, and studies have shown in so many ways how the game is rigged from the start – male names atop resumes are more likely to be chosen than female names with similar experience and men are hired on potential while women are hired on past experience. Eliminating salary negotiations may seem like a salve for uneven compensation, but I’m happy to see that this is not a widespread corporate practice.

First of all, salary negotiations are only one of many negotiations in the workplace. People negotiate benefits, work assignments, promotion paths – even the day-to-day of work life involves small negotiations. “Can you do a favor for me?” – that can be an opening to negotiate for resources and power. Eliminating salary negotiations doesn’t wipe out inequality.

Secondly, negotiations can be mutually beneficial. Some employees may want more equity and less salary. Some employees may want flexible schedules. Some employees may take on additional responsibilities over time and ask for more. How does that work when the employer dictates the terms? In an environment without negotiations, the employee has only two options – take the offer or leave. This kind of black-and-white scenario doesn’t work for either side of the negotiating table. 

A better move is to aim for transparency. Few companies get behind this, but companies with pay bands and levels give employees a sense of appropriate compensation in their role. Transparency is a key driver of employee engagement. And knowledge is power. Did you know men are more likely to talk about compensation among their friends than women? A completely unscientific poll among my friends show this to be anecdotally true.

So what’s the way forward? For companies, it is taking risks in being transparent. For individuals, it is knowing the market and gathering knowledge from your peers. Negotiation isn’t a thing to be avoided – it’s a dance, in which both parties can find mutual satisfaction. 

Digit.co: A Review

As a kid, I had a wooden piggy bank and loved dropping any spare change into it (and later sorting it with the plastic coin sorter on my mom’s desk). I have found the digital equivalent in Digit.


I joined Digit on January 30 after reading this post on Lifehacker. It has a great premise: link it to your bank account and it applies its special algorithm to find untapped savings. As a personal finance hobbyist, I was happy to take the bait.

In the first month, I saved over $100 with Digit and have since saved about $650. I recommend it, as long as you understand a few things about its operating model (or what I’ve gleaned from Google searches).

First, Digit holds your “savings” in an interest-free account. I’ll come back to this because it’s a key to the Digit business. But for the consumer, that means my “savings” are essentially stuffed under a digital mattress until I’ve moved the money out of my Digit account and into an interest-bearing savings account or investment. The catch to this is that so far, Digit only links to one account, meaning to “save” the $100 Digit pulled aside in month 1, I had to transfer that money back into my checking account and then into my savings account. I’m fine with this as an experiment, but this would get really annoying over time.

Second, Digit operates primarily through SMS. This feels like a novelty these days, and the simplicity makes it so enjoyable to use. Every day I get a text with my checking account balance and then I get texts when Digit makes a withdraw. I also got some gif action when I hit $50 and $100 in my account. All in all, a very pleasant and simple user experience.

I was hooked after using it just a few days. I’ve noticed the amounts drawn taper off – sometimes to <$1 – as my checking account lowers with bills, rent, etc. It hasn’t landed me any overdraft fees and even if it did, if offers a guarantee to repay them.

And now Digit: the startup. I am intrigued by this company. The founder, Ethan Bloch, has started a few other companies and the last one, Flowtown, was acquired by Demandforce. Why is this company so interested in helping little ol’ me save some bucks? Which brings us back to the no-interest point at the top. Your miniscule interest on your checking interest (mine is 0.05%) is Digit’s gain. When I defer my money to a Digit account instead of my checking, I forfeit only pennies in interest earnings, if that. This becomes a win for Digit if they put everybody’s money together to collect the interest or invest or do whatever they want to do.

For now, I’ve put a reminder on my calendar to transfer my Digit account back into my checking account the first of each month so that I actually put the money into an interest-bearing savings account. I’ve automated a lot of savings already – I have a set amount pull out of my checking account the day after my paycheck hits each pay cycle. It feels good to use Digit because I feel like it’s a little bonus, finding incremental savings where I thought there was none. But if it ends up being a similar amount each month, I’ll just up my savings rate and deactivate my Digit account.

If you have trouble automating savings, Digit could be for you. I’m enjoying it so far.

Better Persuasion through Behavioral Economics

A recent Freakonomics podcast called “The Maddest Men of All” perked up my ears. Rory Sutherland, the vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather in the UK, talked about applying behavioral economics to advertising. Behavioral economics is the study of how individuals react, and while economics assumes rational actors, behavioral economics asks what people really do.

Of course, this has been done for ages in advertising – “Hurry! This offer won’t last long!” The example in this story applied these principles to persuade customers to keep their news subscription through call center interactions.

How to harness behavioral economics for yourself:

1. Channel (gentle) peer pressure

Knowing others are making a similar choice is a very motivating force for us social creatures. “Many people like you are doing this.” Choices presented in this manner still offer options but nudge the listener to the majority action. 

2. Help people avoid loss 

Dan Ariely has written a lot on loss aversion. People are more likely to avoid a loss than reach for a win. Language like, “I wouldn’t want you to miss out” drives the listener to take action. 

3. Stay positive in the face of negativity. 

Even when reading the terms and conditions, call center employees were encouraged to use a friendly tone and phrases like, “I am confident that…”

I like these takeaways because they can be applied broadly and show measurable results. In this study, using one of more of these techniques were three times more likely to be successful in retaining customers. 

How can you creatively apply these to drive action in your business? 

Your Poor Dad

I am the oldest of four girls. I loved growing up in a big family and am filled with pride watching my younger sisters grow from little girls to young women. It’s been so interesting to see our differences despite growing up in the same house. As children, we loved different activities, a range of playing with Barbies, putting on shows, playing with our cats, riding bicycles and kayaking. Our budding career paths have reflected this – me, a business analyst; the next, an engineer; another, a budding activist; and the youngest, just coming into her own out of high school.

That’s why it’s so disheartening when I tell people I’m the oldest of four girls and they say, “I’m so sorry for your poor dad!” It says my dad missed something having all girls instead of a boy in the mix. That because he was the only man among five women, it’s obvious what our family dynamic was. I’ve heard this said about mothers in families of all sons, as well, so it cuts both ways. It’s meant as a toss-away phrase, some gentle joke to show camaraderie, said often without thinking. But it sucks to hear it.

Usually when I get this comment I just smile politely and take it for the thoughtless comment it is. But now that my dad is gone and I can reflect on the entirety of our relationship (and how awesome it was!), that phrase is a barb. When people say it, it sticks, and I wonder the consequences of hearing this all through my life.

Over Thanksgiving break, my sisters and I discussed how to respond to this remark. The person saying it is not (typically) intentionally being hurtful, so it’s more useful to encourage a moment of reflection rather than pointedly saying you’re offended. The goal is to make them just take a beat to ask why that is a given. The best we came up with is simply asking, “Why?”

What would you say?

Five Reasons to Get Excited about IBM’s Watson Analytics

This week I saw a demo of Watson Analytics, IBM’s new natural language-based analytics tool. It was presented at the New York Strategic HR Analytics Meetup, though the tool itself is not specialized to any one business function – and that is a big part of its appeal.

My initial thought was, “Uh oh, there goes the boom in data analyst jobs!” I also felt really excited at the idea of analytics operating like a Google search bar. Number crunching for the masses!

The past few years have been an exciting time to be following data and analytics. With market intelligence startups like Food Genius getting regular mentions in the press and tools like Qlik and Tableau entering the common language of non-data heads in the business, it’s cool to see where analytics is going next.

Here are the top five reasons to get excited about Watson Analytics (and one reason to be weary):

  1. You’re no longer at the mercy of your IT team.

You can pull in data from Excel spreadsheets, Oracle, Salesforce, etc. The data has to be uploaded to IBM’s cloud in order to use it in Watson, but data selection and clean-up takes place as a step in the analysis. Current solutions on the market try to approach this by doing transfers and loads on their own, but there’s a lot of planning ahead – and partnering with the data managers in IT – required before you can move data into any system for analysis.

  1. Data clean-up is a cinch.

In the demo, after the rep chose a question, the next page guided clean-up, the process of organizing and formatting the data. IBM estimates that data preparation can take 50-70% of the completion time of a data mining project. To be fair, Excel does this pretty well but has its limits with huge data sets.

  1. The data looks pretty!

Any analyst worth her salt knows that getting the right data story is only half the battle. No one cares about a pivot table – they want to see cool graphics. Compelling visualizations are the vehicle for getting data into viewers’ heads. The visualizations in the Watson demo look good – they have lots of information without looking too busy, they connect well to the data they’re showing and the colors and shapes are bold and appealing.

  1. It’s not relegated to a single business function.

There are great analytics tools for marketing, great analytics tools for operations, great (or at this stage, maybe just good?) analytics tools for human resources. The beauty of Watson Analytics is that it doesn’t specialize. I hope movement towards tools like this leads to asking deeper questions of the data, like how do disparate business functions work together and drive productivity, sales, etc.

  1. Analytics is no longer the domain of analysts.

This tool doesn’t require a PhD to understand a multivariate regression. Analytics and data storytelling are now in the hands of anyone with a question that can be answered with the data on hand.

And my bonus point, one reason to be weary:

  1. Data analysis is only as good as the people communicating it.

A huge job in building good data stories is communicating the finer points of the analysis to those less data-savvy. A difference of 2% can mean nothing or so much depending on the sample size. A regression is only as good as the variables you’re putting into it. These basic statistical concepts may be lost with easy-access analysis. Data is powerful, and it should be wielded wisely!

Ultimately, I am excited to get my mitts on a trial and signed up at IBM’s site. You can too here.

Big data on a little tablet. The future is here!
Big data on a little tablet. The future is here!

So what do you think? Is natural language analytics the next big thing? Will we all be data analysts in the near future?