Archive for May, 2008

KFC, Baby!

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

Of all the international food brands and fast food joints everywhere in Shanghai, by far the most popular is KFC.  You heard right:  The Colonel and his Secret Formula for fried chicken are more popular than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King.  It’s even more popular than Subway, America’s most popular franchise food chain (and incidentally, the one with the lowest franchisee satisfaction).

Random sidebar:  my first job in the US was at a Subway.  I was paid below minimum wage, under the table, at $3 an hour (in 1992, when minimum wage was about $4.50).  A total of $12 a night in cash.  Surprisingly, even at such a bargain, I managed to get fired.  The manager didn’t even have the decency to fire me herself.  She asked my cousin, who also worked there, to break the bad news to me.

I didn’t eat at Subway for the next seven years.  Seeing the Belly Of The Beast was just a bit much.  There are things about mayonnaise that I still question.

There are KFCs sprinkled everywhere in Shanghai.  There’s a certain intersection near the Grand Gateway shopping center where you can see six different KFCs from one spot.  Even Starbucks would envy that level of market saturation.

My favorite market customization in China’s KFCs is their passionfruit juice.  If you happen to make it to Shanghai at some point, it’s worth getting alongside your cole slaw and potato salad.

Best Wishes to Caleb and Jordan Kemere!

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Over this weekend, I had the privilege of attending Caleb and Jordan Kemere’s wedding in North Carolina.  Below, you’ll find a video of my toast to them as their best man as well as the original script of the toast (which the video differs slightly from).

Here’s the broadband WMV version of the toast video.

I wish both of them all the best on their journey together!

Original Script for Caleb and Jordan’s Toast

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. and Mrs. Walker, Dr. & Mrs. Kemere, family and friends, Caleb and Jordan. It’s an honor to be here amongst all of you to witness and celebrate this blessed union.

To be honest, I’m a bit nervous about this toast. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I thought I’d consult the Internet. I checked YouTube, polled FaceBook, and even considered working with a Nigerian banker who emailed me out of the blue with a great business proposition involving bank transfers. In addition to transcripts of great wedding toasts, he also offered to get me Viagra. Ringtones. A college degree from the comforts of home. Canadian prescription drugs. He’s apparently a very capable man. But in the end, I decided to set technology aside and do it the old fashioned way.

So just before this, I locked myself in a private, mostly quiet place to sit down and have a good long think about what to say. Here’s what I came up with. [Produce sheets of written-on toilet paper] Hey — I had to use what was available.

Caleb and I have known each other for 25 years. We went to the same schools from first grade through college. I almost followed him to grad school, but the required discipline and rigor were too much for me.

I’m pleasantly amused by the great misnomer “best man” when applied to me at this wedding. Of the two of us, Caleb is better in almost every dimension that actually matters. It’s he who has always been the Best Man. In our relationship, he was always the more generous, always the more grounded, the more profound. You might say this is only to be expected, since Caleb comes from a family of generous people.  Through the years, my respect and admiration for him has only grown.

Caleb is full of grace. I’ve offended and wronged a good number of people in my life. Caleb has always forgiven me, not just seven times, but the proverbial 70 times seven times. I’m working hard to avoid that 491st offense. I hope this toast isn’t it.

Caleb has always been a Peacemaker. The only time I’ve ever had a gun pointed at me was in college, when we hatched a plan to buy some U2 concert tickets without needing to wait in line all night with the other students. Somewhere between setting off a campus building alarm and getting shouted at by hundreds of angry fans, I managed to get a gun pointed at me.

Fortunately, Caleb came immediately to the rescue. He, like any true man of honor and valor, made peace, using his bare fists and a spinning jump-kick that left three students hospitalized and put one student permanently in Cirque du Soleil.

Those who know Caleb know that nothing of the sort happened. Caleb made peace by befriending everyone. He even anticipated the need to bring donuts to smooth things over. If it wasn’t for his easy affability, things would have turned out quite differently for me that day.

Caleb’s most profound impact on me comes from his grounded view of the world. He once declared to me that he wouldn’t necessarily require his children to go to college. [To Jordan: This isn’t news, right? The two of you have talked about this?] I at first thought his declaration was ridiculous. But he eventually convinced me with his usual patient discourse. What, after all, does college teach about Justice, Mercy, Integrity, Kindness, Charity, Compassion? Isn’t Character what we should all want for our children, for even ourselves? Caleb reminds me to strive for these things, to question what I want and what I value.

I admire Caleb in all these ways and more. So much so, in fact, that when it came to my wife and me naming our first child, we were thrilled to name him Caleb.

All of us already know that both Caleb and Jordan are wonderful people. What, if anything, would I say if there was one additional thing I could convey? It’d be this: that marriage is supremely beautiful, far better than you imagine, even today on your wedding day.

But much talk these days might cause us to disbelieve that.  First, many people have made it habit or reflex to complain about their spouses.  "You know Jeff – never lifts a finger."  "Sorry, guys, the ol’ Ball and Chain is making me stay home again."

Second, talk about marriage can often come across as Stern and Grave.  It’s not that Stern and Grave is somehow wrong. Marriage is indeed a most serious responsibility. But it’s also a beautiful opportunity. I’d love to hear more talk that’s infused with the positive emotional conviction that naturally springs from relational happiness.

Here’s my shot at it.

I’ve been married 8 years. Marriage is positively the greatest everyday happiness in my life.

I have a constant companion to share life with, to amplify the joy, to dampen the sadness. With each year of marriage, I find deeper support and comfort, a solid emotional foundation to stand on.

Marriage is unconditional love made tangible. Risks seem less daunting, thrills seem more exciting.  It’s supremely beautiful, far better than I imagined.  And I had high expectations.

One piece of advice: I find that everyday grace is essential to marriage. Most of us want someone to accept us as we are. But we sometimes struggle to extend that same grace to our partners.  “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Gandhi said that.  So strive to extend this grace to one another daily. I know you will.

Now, my desire for both of you is this: that eight years from now, that even thirty years from now, you will attend a wedding where the one thing you’d want to convey is that marriage for you has indeed been supremely beautiful, far better than you imagined even on your wedding day.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in raising a toast.

To Caleb and Jordan: May you enjoy lifelong happiness together, walking side by side, blessing others. May you daily extend a full measure of grace to one another, packed down, flowing over. May people one day say of you, “There was a blessed couple who did justly, loved mercy, walked humbly with their God.”

NextStep Is Born

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

I’ve started a Microsoft-internal blog called NextStep to augment the content on this blog.  NextStep will focus on engineering, teams, and careers at Microsoft, and will contain the types of company-specific details that aren’t relevant or available to the general public.

In cases where topics are interesting to both audiences, I will post the public version here and the internal version at NextStep.

NextStep will only cover topics related to software engineering, teams, and careers at Microsoft, so you won’t be able to read about, say, body heat there.

You’ve Got Three Hours

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Developers often complain that projects slip because managers flat-out override schedules by fiat, the sort of thing that happens on Star Trek all the time:

“Captain, I’ll need six hours to fix the warp drive!”
“You’ve got three.”

I’ve seen breakdown in Management’s interaction with the people producing the estimates for a variety of reasons.  But having been on both sides at Microsoft, it seems to me that root causes for the breakdown are often more subtle than at first appears;  more often than not, the breakdown is with both parties.

There is, of course, the manager who insists against all reality on his/her own ship date.  I seem to remember reading a blog about a Vista VP who had this problem, but I’ll need to dig up that blog entry (wait:  here it is).  I’m told the blogger almost got fired for that posting.  I hope he’s ok.

But I also often find that the developer/project-manager is simply putting too much schedule blame on the manager.  The core of the issue is often credibility:  is the presenter of the schedule credible?  Is there reason to believe the schedule?

Good points were already made below about practical things one can do to improve basal credibility, like documenting assumptions, going deep on unknowns, gathering supporting data, etc.  Those are helpful.

But in times when I, as the manager, have doubted schedules, it hasn’t been about this sort of credibility.  It’s been about other factors:

· How experienced is the developer presenting the schedule?
· How has he/she delivered in the past?
· How transparent is he/she?  How skeptical should I be?

You build credibility by demonstrating a series of repeated successes despite adversity.  You build credibility by being consistently right in your past judgments.  No college-hire is going to have this sort of credibility, at least in the beginning of his/her career.  You can give them the tactical tools and training, but they also need to give themselves time to hone their track records and reputations.

I once got a water heater moved by a plumber.  He estimated two days.  On the fourth day, when he finally finished, I asked him why the actual time was double the estimate.  He answered, full of conviction and without skipping a beat, “This happens every time.”

There are leads I’ve managed in the past who would make similar proclamations without even realizing it.  “I don’t feel comfortable committing to this schedule – in the past three sprints, we’ve always slipped a week beyond what we expected!”  There are other developers who I’d trust with a schedule without even needing to review it.

I think what often gets perceived as “my manager overrode my schedule” is actually the more subtle, “I’m not credible to my manager.”  As I often urge people, first look within.

Form Line! Form Line!

Monday, May 19th, 2008

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Whoever created the stereotype of the Chinese proprietor shouting “Form line!  Form line!” at disorderly customers obviously hasn’t been to China.  Because in China, people don’t form lines.

In fact, in some places there’s a veritable free-for-all.  For instance, take Xujiahui subway station, a reasonably large (count them:  14 exits), quite crowded subway station in a Shanghai business district.  It’s nothing compared to Shinjuku station in Tokyo, but still — more people travel through it every morning than probably inhabit most small cities in the US.

I was standing in Xujiahui station at one of five ticket counters, four of which were manned.  One person was ahead of me, busily talking to the attendant.  There was about one customer per attendant, so you could say that I was the only customer “in line.”  In fact, in the US, you’d say I was “next in line.”

In China, you’d just say I was “stupid.”

As the patron in front of me finished his business, I began to move towards the now-freed-up attendant sitting in her booth.  Mind you, there was very little gap between me and the person that was in front of me.  In the US, you would have said that I was standing uncomfortably close to him.  You’d say perhaps we were more than friends.  Or maybe I was covertly directing his moves with a hidden gun.

But it was apparently Too Much Space.  Too Much Gap, Indicating Not Enough Interest In A Ticket.

As I moved towards the attendant, another man jumped right in front of me and began to buy his ticket.  I rolled my eyes, chalked it up to Being In China, and waited patiently.  But I inched even closer.  At this point, I could  — I am not making this up — feel the heat from his body.  I was seriously that close.  Between needing to be disturbingly close and being without a ticket, I chose to risk all hygiene and propriety.  I was not going to get cut in front of again.

But oh, I was.  As the man in front of me (let’s call him “Steamy”) began to leave, and as I began to close the less-than-a-foot gap between me and the ticket booth, a woman jammed her hand, full of coins, into the opening of the booth to purchase a ticket.  There wasn’t enough space for her to fit bodily between me and the booth, at least not enough to prevent Whisperings And Talk, but there was apparently still enough for her to jam her hand in front of me in line.  That, my friends, was enough to buy her a ticket before me.

Fool me once, shame on — shame on you.  Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.

I was not going to let propriety or personal space get between me and a subway ticket again.  When the lady in front of me (let’s call her “Hands”) finished her business, I immediately jammed my hands into the hole in the booth, even before I was close enough to do this without awkward stretching.  This thwarted the next customer, who was probably otherwise puzzled about why I had been standing near the booth so long without indicating any desire to purchase a ticket.

So when visiting China, just remember that There Is No Line.  Even if you think there is, or perhaps that there should be.  What you need to do is to get closer than you ever would to anyone in the US, and furthermore, exploit any gaps that you can.  When there’s an opening, jump right in.  Elbow old ladies, knock old men over.  Self Before Others.  Live the dream.

WWFMD: What Would the Fire Marshall Do?

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

Fire safety standards are quite different from those of the US in several buildings I frequent here in Shanghai.  There don’t seem to be as many accommodations to make sure that people can evacuate quickly and safely in case of fire.

For instance, in my apartment building you need to do two things before you can exit from the main door:

  1. Press a small, recessed green button to the right of the door.  This button, if left un-pressed, keeps the main door locked so that people on the inside can’t exit.  Someone please write in to explain to us the logic of this.  I see this design in most buildings in Shanghai.
  2. Pull the door towards you in order to exit.  Which direction a door operates is something that was resolved decades ago in the US, what with all the tramplings in movie theaters due to fire scares and what not.  Doors in buildings should always open outward.  That way 300 people don’t all get logjammed at the entrance when trying to rush out of a burning building.

The same weirdness happens even at work.  The Microsoft building in Zizhu (a small town in the southern outskirts of Shanghai) not only has these oddities, but has the additional death-blow of requiring a cardkey in order to exit.  To get into the offices, you understandably need a cardkey.  But apparently the building designers thought it’d be Super Extra Double-Secret Secure if you also required a cardkey to get out.

I, and this is no joke, got locked between two sets of doors in this Microsoft office.  It was my first day of work so my cardkey wasn’t yet recognized.  A guard let me into the first set of doors, at which point I realized that I couldn’t get into the second set of doors since they also required a cardkey.  When I tried to go back into the lobby to explain this, I was faced with yet another card reader.  I could neither go into the offices nor go back out into the lobby.

Good thing I didn’t have to use the restroom and that there wasn’t a fire.  I suppose one could argue that if both things happened simultaneously — that is, if I both needed to use the restroom and there happened to be a reasonably small fire that, say, 500 mL of bodily fluid could easily put out, given some patience and steady willpower in the face of adversity — I’d actually be alright locked in the Fire Hole.

As it was, I just waited for another employee to leave for the lobby and tailgated behind him.  He at least had the decency to let me out without demanding to first see my cardkey.  (“I’m sorry, sir, but you’re going to have to wait here.  I can’t let you out if you don’t have a Microsoft cardkey.”)  What exactly makes a building more secure if you need a cardkey to get out?  Someone enlighten me.

Recently Spotted in Shanghai

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Every once in a while, I hope to report on interesting sights spotted in Shanghai.  This edition will be about firearms.

Several days ago, I was in a taxi when a scooter passed by to my right.  On the back of the scooter, strapped casually pointing sideways, was an M-16 assault rifle.  The scooter was being driven by a normally-dressed guy, the same sort of person you see all the time riding scooters in Shanghai.  No military uniform, nothing.  Just a rifle you could film Commando with.  Given that my mental schema when traveling in public doesn’t include looking down the barrels of military weaponry, much less military weaponry riding on the back seat of what essentially was a Roman Holiday Vespa, it took me a while to actually figure out that an assault rifle had just gone by.  My camera made it out moments too late.  Let’s hope that scooter doesn’t get into a traffic accident anywhere.

While we’re on the subject of serious weaponry…  I was just about to step out of a mall today (Metro City Mall at Xujiahui) when I passed a guard standing inside the mall doors holding, I kid you not, a pump-action, short-handle shotgun.  People were walking within less than a foot of the muzzle without even a second thought.  Here’s the thing though:  it seems to me that in order for you to choose a shotgun for this particular mall-door duty, you must either expect never to have to use it or you must not care about civilian casualties.  There were scores of people within 20 feet of this thing.  How could you ever fire it without hurting others?

On a positive note, I suppose the shotgun must really beat the pants off of RFID door alarms when it comes deterring shoplifting.

Once again, I didn’t get a photo of this.  Not because I wasn’t quick enough, but because it seems to me that in general one should probably not photograph prominently-armed guards from close range, with an indoor flash nonetheless.

More Fluctuations Than A Penny Stock

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

When we first decided to move to Shanghai, I had visions of living well on pennies a day.  After all, China makes Wal*Mart prices possible, right?  You can’t have a yellow smiley face rolling back prices all the time if you don’t have the insanely cheap production costs (and artificially low currency exchange rates) that China brings to the table.

At least that’s what I thought.  Sure, you can ride a subway between any two points in Beijing for essentially $0.28 (not a typo, not a joke).  Yes, a short cab ride costs only $1.57.  (Cheap you say?  Think of it from a Beijinger’s perspective — that cab ride is more than five times what it costs to ride the subway!  You’re living large!)

It turns out that my imagination oversimplified things.  While some things are very cheap, others are ridiculously expensive.  Sure, you can buy two onions the size of a toddler’s head for $0.21.  But your two-bedroom apartment costs $5500 a month, so what does it matter?

Let’s focus on the onion a bit more, though.  Sometimes, seemingly similar onions from the same store will cost radically different prices.  Spotted in the same store:

  1. Two onions, just out there in the middle of a pile of onions, like in any American supermarket:  $0.21, as promised before.
  2. Two onions packed in cellophane, smaller than aforementioned toddlers’ heads, $0.50.  These are marked “Quality.”
  3. One onion on a plastic tray, packed in cellophane, across the aisle from its Quality neighbors, marked “Organic Quality”:  $1.25.

I suppose this might not seem that big of a deal to some of you.  Those used to shopping organic in the US might be nonchalant about paying five times the price for a similar item.  But the kicker here, even more than in the United States, is that you have no idea whether those onions are any different from each other!  For all you know, they could have priced the same batch of onions using two simple questions:  is the onion larger than a toddler’s head?  and should we wrap one or two in a pack?

Beef costs as much as salmon costs in the US.  A raw steak will cost you roughly 100 onions.

Here, though, is what you’ll really discover — prices vary by orders of magnitude based on two simple questions, neither having to do with toddlers’ heads:

  1. Where is the item being sold?  An item can cost two to three times more by simply being in a different store.  In the mall vs. right outside the mall.  First floor vs. fifth floor.
  2. Is it a Westerner favorite (or, for those hailing from The Commonwealth, “favourite”)?  Anything that a Westerner might want automatically costs multiples more.  You want local tea?  Dirt cheap.  You want the same tea labeled in English?  10x markup.

Picture 010 The three items you see on the left were purchased from City Shop for, I kid you not, $35.  Never mind that the name itself should have set off warning bells (“City Shop” sure rolls off my western tongue well!).  We ended up buying these ridiculously priced items because the concept of “decaffeinated” items hasn’t really taken off in China.  So whereas in the US, you might use Folgers crystals as kitty litter, here you’d pay $12 a bottle and thank them for the privilege.

Nice apartment in the city:  $500-1500 a month.
Nice apartment in the city advertised in English:  $3000 a month.

Monthly maid service:  $200
Same service by a maid who speaks a few words of English:  $400-500

You get the idea.  Dreams of cheap living are pretty much out the window.

But it’s been fun.  We’re learning where to shop to get local prices.  We’re resetting expectations.  As long as you’re willing to pay US prices and not worry that you’re getting ripped off, you’ll get along just fine here.  Me, I worry.  So the hunt for true bargains continues.

Perhaps, in a true twist of irony, I will need to end up shopping at the Shanghai Wal*Mart in order to get good deals.  A friend recently joked that perhaps all the items in China’s Wal*Marts are Made in the USA.  That’d be a kick, wouldn’t it?

Sweet Freedom

Monday, May 12th, 2008

World of Su is back in action (at least mostly)!  As you’ll recall, I’ve been unable to get to this site because of the China’s national firewall.  I’m told that the firewall is particularly eager to block blogs because, after all, you could in theory say anything.

Although I have part-time access now, I’m still figuring out a way to get full-time access.  It may end up that we’ll need to pay a third party in order to do that (using a pass-through proxy).

Picture 001 Picture 001 CloseIn the meantime, not to disappoint, I’ve included photos of a sign marking a bathroom stall in Japan’s Narita Airport.  For those of you not familiar with Japan, there’s a national obsession there with bidets and feature-rich toilets (you heard that right).   It’s common to have toilets with fancy electronics on them, controlling everything from the heated seats all the way to ambient background noise (I Am Not Making This Up).  Good times, good times.

Big Brother Is Watching

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

I’ve been offline here for a few days after arriving in Shanghai because, as it turns out, World of Su is actually blocked by China’s national firewall.  So I’m having trouble even accessing this blog, much less publishing to it.

I’m not sure why this is blocked, but as far as I can tell, all WordPress blogs are blocked by default.  Stay tuned…