Blog Action Day (#BAD13): Workers Are Human, and We Have Rights

One morning this past summer seemed like most others: I left my house at 7 AM, to start my two-hour commute to my contract job in a Bay Area exurb.

The BART train arrived punctually. I was glad I had a reverse commute, which required a nearly hour-long ride across the drab, de-industrialized stretches of southeast Oakland; I nearly always had a seat going to work. The passengers headed the opposite direction to San Francisco, didn’t have this privilege, even at this early hour.

To while away the time, I reviewed the stream of tweets on my phone. There was quite a lot of indignation over the recent strike by BART workers, not much directed at BART management–the Twitterverse seemed appalled by the benefits and salary protections demanded by blue-collar transit employees. Meanwhile, the train dutifully stopped for the students, retail clerks, construction guys, and home health aides getting on the Fruitvale, Coliseum, San Leandro, and Bayfair stations. A few passengers dozed. Sometimes a young guy would enter the car, looking at us half-asleep drones with apparent distaste, and hastily exit, as if we threatened him with some contagious disease.

I checked the news from back home in Arizona. Fire season. A photo of the twenty Granite Mountain Hotshots posed in front of an ancient alligator juniper they’d protected from wildfire. Now the hometown news included the story of a Hotshot’s wife denied benefits because her husband wasn’t classified as a permanent, full-time employee. He was, however, permanently, full-time dead, killed on Yarnell Hill with eighteen others.

At Castro Valley station the train passengers started including more people carrying computer bags. By the end of the line–Dublin/Pleasanton–most of us leaving the train looked to be white-collar tech workers. We moved through the BART station in quiet, somnambulant order, every movement calculated to bring us to the next stage of our commutes to distant office parks–to the buses, the shuttles, the sidewalks and bike paths. All this uninspiring travel, just for our paychecks.

The organizers of Blog Action Day prompt me to write about “human rights.” There’s plenty of cause for outrage–the rights of women, of the non-heterosexual, of civilians, of people of color; all of these denied in some way, somewhere, every moment of every day. I’m confident a blogger will address them eloquently. What I’ll treat instead are the rights we seem to have forgotten in our grubby, half-awake, workaday lives. Those are workers’ rights.

Workers’ rights are human rights.

As workers, and as human beings, we have:

  • the right to complete compensation for our work, including pension and health insurance benefits;

  • the right to compensation for every minute we spend working;

  • the right to reliable transportation to our job sites, the costs sustained by taxes on the corporations which benefit from our labor;

  • the right to join other workers to bargain with management, and the right to strike;

  • the right to be hired and retained based on merit, not on racial, gender, or class identity;

  • the right to employer loyalty in exact proportion to the loyalty we show the employer. The right to protection from “rightsizing,” moves, and offshoring when we have kept up our side of the relationship;

  • the right to be paid and treated the same as our native-born colleagues, no matter which visa arrangement brought us to work in this country;

  • the right to compensation when our jobs have maimed or disabled us; the right of our survivors to compensation when our jobs have killed us;

And, to my mind, the most important:

the right to discuss these rights, in public, worldwide, without retribution.

My Joel Test

This year, the Joel Test marks its thirteenth year (does it get a bar/bat mitzvah?) For all the publicity and parody it gets in developers’ media, it seems little-known elsewhere–I still get panicked stares when I ask about it in job or project interviews (“The JOLE Test? Is that one of these HTML5 things we’re supposed to be doing?! Maybe it’s that responsive design stuff! Must–nod–head–sagely…”) So, here’s what the Joel Test is, if this is the first you’ve heard of it:

In August 2000 software entrepreneur Joel Spolsky listed several questions he thought would reveal the quality of a software development team. Observers noted the list could become something a developer should ask a potential employer before accepting a job offer, because Spolsky’s questions focus on aspects of a programmer’s working environment that make enormous differences in job satisfaction, yet are rarely described in detail even at the interview stage. Each question can be readily answered “Yes” or “No”, and the complete list of answers could help a programmer determine whether a particular job offer includes things important to her.

Here’s the Joel Test below, but I encourage you to read Spolsky’s justifications for each list item.

The Joel Test

  1. Do you use source control?
  2. Can you make a build in one step?
  3. Do you make daily builds?
  4. Do you have a bug database?
  5. Do you fix bugs before writing new code?
  6. Do you have an up-to-date schedule?
  7. Do you have a spec?
  8. Do programmers have quiet working conditions?
  9. Do you use the best tools money can buy?
  10. Do you have testers?
  11. Do new candidates write code during their interview?
  12. Do you do hallway usability testing?

I’ve never worked on a project that would pass the Joel Test. I’ve worked on some projects that rated only seven Yes answers, but they were indeed better experiences than the ones who rated even lower. My 2013 resolution is to join a project that garners at least eight Yes answers on the Joel Test–doesn’t even have to be an A+, just eight skimpy “Yes” answers.

A useful supplement to the Joel Test is software engineer Julie Pagano’s response to recruiter spam unsolicited queries, which doesn’t just list what she values in a job, but weights each in importance to her: is the job far away? Involving Windows? Assumed to be the only thing in a developer’s life? I see many items on Pagano’s list which could be on many of ours; I hope recruiters do see her post and take note of what’s really important to candidates (short answer: it’s not foosball).

Combining the two approaches, I emerge with this:

My Joel/Julie Test

  1. Do you use source control?
  2. Can you make a build in one step?
  3. Do you have a bug database?
  4. Do you fix bugs before writing new code?
  5. Do you use an issue tracker?
  6. Do you have requirements before writing user stories?
  7. Do programmers have quiet working conditions?
  8. Do you have testers?
  9. Do you purchase the exact tools your programmers request?
  10. Do you use Agile methodologies?
  11. Do you use only open source software in your application stack?
  12. Do your developers have their own tech blogs or present at meetups?
  13. Do your designers work only in Photoshop/graphical editing software?
  14. If I dropped in here some random weekday night at, like, 8:30PM, would your developers still be at their desks?
  15. Would you give me a hard time if I wanted to telecommute one or two days a week?
  16. Can I get to your office from Oakland by transit within 45 minutes?
    Red indicates a failing test.
    Red indicates a failing test.
  17. Can I bring my bicycle to work?

What’s on your Joel Test?

Stop arranging developers like the typing pool

A couple weeks into the project, and despite my access to the issue tracking system, the project wiki, and the code repository, I still felt uneasy–there was something I was missing, but since I didn’t know what that was, I couldn’t ask for it. Coffee? Water? Multiple monitors? Appealing snacks? Had all those. I stood above my workspace, and then figured it out:

We were seated all wrong.

All of us on the development team were placed into cubicles arranged into a herringbone pattern pointing to one side of the room. Our faces turned about 25° towards one other person. I became familiar with the backs of many of my co-workers’ heads, since that’s much of what I saw of them all day. It was a bizarre arrangement for the kind of work we expected to do, since it discouraged interaction: you didn’t want to walk up behind someone and tap him or her on the shoulder for just any old thing.

Of course, interruptions are ruinous to developer productivity, but so is
isolation. There was a lot of context missing for me on this project, because it wasn’t available through the commit comments, and asking for it on chat would’ve required my knowing who to ask for what. I was slower to contribute because I couldn’t overhear relevant chitchat and couldn’t catch the eye of the project lead when I had a question, the most urgent one being: why were our workspaces arranged so stupidly?

I envisioned some workmen arriving one morning with a bare sketch of a floor plan in hand, and a general work order: “Build X number of cubicles from this pile of parts.” They weren’t told who’d work in the cubes, nor what was important to us. They acted from assumptions that seemed reasonable, but were still flat-out wrong.

One was that we all needed to have visual contact with one certain thing at one end of the room. Most of us have experience with this kind of arrangement, since it’s how we sat when we attended school. It’s also how clerical workers’ desks were often placed in early open plan offices. Management enjoyed this arrangement, since it permitted easy surveillance of those notorious insubordinates, schoolchildren and women. Placed side-by-side, we have less interaction with our peers, and more with the authority figure at the end of the room. But here in a twenty-first-century cube farm, there was no teacher on a dais to please. Why were we all facing the same way?

To watch a movie? Or perhaps a more sinister activity?

We have always been at war with SVN

The project never required the Two Minutes Hate–well, as far I could tell. Who would’ve tapped me on the shoulder to let me know?

“Gazelles” eat hay, not grass

On Good.is the popular posts today include “15 Percent of Americans Are Now on Food Stamps”. I’ve visited the site twice this Monday, once just after the New York Stock Exchange started trading this morning, and now after the market close, as the story of our dismal economy’s enduring lifelessness makes headlines everywhere. In today’s more optimistic forenoon, I read Tim Fernholz’s “Hunting Gazelles: Figuring Out What Makes Companies—and Jobs—Grow”. Some of the points in that article bugged me then. They really irritate me now.

The post is an interview with scholar Tim Kane, who proposes that new jobs in the U.S. economy come from “gazelles,” quick-moving, fast-growing, young businesses. I don’t quibble with this entirely; I’ve seen how many Bay Area tech businesses seem desperate to hire enough people to support their rapid expansion (though–ahem–not desperate enough to modernize their hiring practices). Yet just after sharing convincing data about the remarkable contribution “gazelles” make to the employment rate, Kane veers into territory more familiar to subscribers to Reason than to Good.is:

Photo by Swamibu

There are real structural impediments to starting a firm…Labor regulations can make it difficult for entrepreneurs to even leave, and difficult for firms to hire more people.

The [Sarbanes-Oxley accounting law] is particularly galling because it seems like its[sic] killing off our IPO industry. Without an IPO or the promise of an IPO on the horizon, why start a tech company?

Alright, where to begin?

Let’s start here: one man’s regulation is another’s unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, and minimum wage law. Your “structural impediment” is my workplace safety standard, whistleblower protection, and equal opportunity legislation. Think Sarbanes-Oxley is galling? Try having your retirement savings wiped out overnight by corporate fraud.

There’s a stubborn belief in the startup world that it’s 100% self-made, boot-strapped, that the “gazelles” broke away from the encumbrances of the herd and now thrive on the nourishing wild grasses of the entrepreneurial savannah. If this were so, why are there so few, if any, gazelles in places with fewer regulations? Why do tech bubbles form again and again here in the Bay Area?

You could re-read Richard Florida, or you could remember this:

“Gazelles” eat hay, not grass.

Meaning: “gazelles” rely on the infrastructure all of us provide. This isn’t just WiFi, Blue Bottle Coffee, and a spot on the CalTrain bike car. It’s also those “structural impediments” like environmental regulation (can you drink the water out of the tap?), public health initiatives (when’s the last time you worried about polio?), and anti-corruption laws (do you have to bribe someone to launch your product?).

Yes, it’s admirable to watch gazelles leap gracefully to such heights. But let’s not forget the haystacks we shore up to feed them.

What not driving for 25 years taught me about UX

One drizzly morning in 1988 I arrived at the infamous

San Francisco DMV office
.

There were two lines for service, one noticeably shorter than the other, and since I was already running late for work, I stepped into that shorter line. At my turn at the counter, I completed the paperwork for a state identification card instead of a driver’s license, which didn’t seem that important to me at the time, since it’d been already two years since I last drove a car, and now I lived in SF, which had

passable public transit
. It wasn’t this grand activist moment for me, this kind of Damascus Road flash of insight–no, it was just my deciding that driving wasn’t very important to me.

And I was right.


Not


driving proved more important.

Try getting around the United States without a motor vehicle.

Asphalt Nation, by Jane Holtz Kay
Asphalt Nation, by Jane Holtz Kay
Try it for a while. Try it while also attempting to sustain a career, relationships, household, your sanity. You will learn, as I did, very important lessons about how user experience can be structured to assist or thwart your journey.


Here are some of my discoveries:

Places with more than one way to access them have greater vitality.

As Jane Jacobs pointed out, small city blocks encourage

walking

and transit use. Places which permit access only by motor vehicle are dead-feeling and often

moribund
, which is why a high

WalkScore

is becoming so attractive to potential buyers.

In Web terms, how many of us enjoy visits to sites which permit access only through needless Flash intros or

mandatory registration
? These pages act like those guard kiosks in suburban gated communities. Or how about the sites with no provision for usage by mobile devices?

No, I am

not

going to watch your pointless branding animation, nor wait for your bloated JavaScript form validation script to load: I’m going to shop at your competitor’s site.

You can’t “set it and forget it.”

All over the United States, roads and transit systems are crumbling into unusability because of deferred maintenance. The jagged potholes in my neighborhood act as the speed bumps the City of Oakland can’t commit to installing in this dire period for municipal budgets. A couple blocks away, the once-handy AC Transit bus system runs fewer and fewer buses, thanks to

neverending budget cuts
. Being stranded for 45 minutes waiting for the next bus after missing one by just seconds is a pretty common experience for us commuters.

Out there on the Web are so many undermaintained, tatty sites that I really don’t need to

link

to them. Outdated copyright date on the footer? “Best viewed in Netscape” graphic? Visual design so old it’s on the cusp of being retro-cool? Those are easy to remedy–if you commit time and money to fixing them.

Accessibility is pricey to build in…and exorbitant to bolt on later.

When the

Americans with Disabilities Act

passed in 1990, there was the usual unappealing backlash of nay-sayers claiming that the Act’s provisions were merely nice-to-have and too expensive to require. Despite that, the built environment of the United States changed rapidly to include curb cuts, ramps, and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Building owners whimpered about the expense of retrofitting for ADA-compliance; new construction posed the advantage of having these features built in from the start.

The question of Web accessibility arose pretty early in the

medium’s history
, but remains incompletely answered. Too many site owners consider accessibility a “nice-to-have, but…”, or something at which you can toss a few inadequate

“alt tags”

and be done with it, whereas true accessibility requires

assessing

how your application or site is used in different situations: can this site be used without a keyboard? Without a monitor? Without color contrast?

Making something accessible also makes it relevant to use cases we can’t anticipate. When I injured my knee in 1992, I sure appreciated those buildings with elevators and ramps. When I started browsing the Web on my Palm Treo in 2005, I admired those sites with text-heavy, low-graphics means of interacting with them.

You’re free to think you don’t need to accommodate a diversity of users, of course, just as you’re free to require a motor vehicle to access your physical location. And you’re free to destroy your own brand with slipshod UX. It’s a free world.

Blog Action Day 2010: Water

Yesterday I opened the fridge at home, and was astonished to find these:

1.5 Liters of Bottled Water

Fifteen, even ten, years ago, these items would be unremarkable in my kitchen. I might’ve even remembered purchasing them, rather than regarding them as puzzling stowaways. But thanks to the Web, I’m now enlightened to these harmless-looking bottles’ sinister nature. Each is a crystalline vessel of needless expense, inefficient resource usage, and toxic compounds . So how did they end up in my house?

Each bottle is an artifact from a conference. Each is the result of a conference organizer’s good intentions and relatively enlightened self interest. The original notion seemed to be concern for conference attendees’ physical comfort (“Keep hydrated through those long days of sitting in chilly, darkened meeting rooms! Here, take a bottle of water…”), combined with greater awareness of the ruinous health consequences of drinking soda, and the practices of corporate branding, to create the now ordinary half-liter water bottle such as you see here, and such as you probably have lurking in your own refrigerator.

How is this a problem? We got something for free, right?

Uh, no.  We’re paying for it,  whether we drink this water or not.

We’re paying for:

  • The delivery of so many single-serving bottles full of what is often just tap water
  • The janitors necessary to remove these used-only-once water bottles from conference rooms and wastebaskets
  • The energy inputs required to recycle these bottles, if that’s even available.  (To that conference’s credit, one of these party favors used 100% recycled plastic for its bottle)
  • The landfill space required to bury these bottles when recycling isn’t supported

And we’re missing a great opportunity for tech conferences to be as innovative as they claim to be in their publicity. Want to be truly “disruptive, or “2.0,” or “the future”? Hand conference attendees collapsible steel cups with the conference logo printed on them, and point the way to the drinking fountains.

I doubt we will notice anything missing from our fridges.