Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Sales Training Speech

I'm speaking at my Toastmasters club again tomorrow. I'm working my way through The Professional Speaker series. It's five speeches, each of which are 15-20 minutes long.

Tomorrow's assignment, the third in the series, is the Sales Training Speech. I'm supposed to be pumping up the sales troops for a company. I've chosen Astrum Solar as my company. I'll be throwing red meat to my sales force to get them to sell solar collectors.

This book is driving me crazy. The typical assignment book requires 5-10 speeches, each 5-7 minutes in length. I feel like I'm working hard to get to my Advanced Communicator Bronze designation. When I complained to one of our Distinguished Toastmasters about it, he told me that the book used to be 20-40 minutes per speech. Another of our three Distinguished Toastmasters managed to get through the more demanding version. I shut my mouth and sucked it up after hearing that. Fifteen minutes doesn't seem so bad.

A friend of mine is fond of saying that everyone should have three jobs in their life: manual labor, customer service, and selling. I've done manual labor. Does working in a grocery store count as customer service? I've never come close to selling. This will be as close as I'm likely to get.

My goal is to finish off the last two speeches before the Toastmasters year closes on 30-Jun-2012. If I can do that, I'll have achieved Advanced Communicator Bronze status. It'll be another rung on the ladder. Can I make it to Distinguished Toastmaster? We'll see.

Here's the text of my speech:

The Professional Speaker Project 3: The Sales Training Speech

(The company is Astrum Solar, a company that installs photovoltaic panels in the area.)

Solar energy has had a long, successful history. The sun has been delivering 5900 times the amount of energy that humans consume today every day for the last five billion years! A small fraction of what’s produced – just 0.016% - would be sufficient to satisfy the current needs residential, industrial, commercial, and transportation energy needs for every individual on the planet.

The source has been holding up its end of the bargain. There have been no outages, no equipment failures, no CEO mea culpas, no angry customers.
It’s the harvesting end that’s fallen short. Fellow sales professionals, I’m here to tell you that the sales process is an integral part of breaking the stranglehold that fossil fuels have on the hearts, minds, and checkbooks of consumers. It’s time for us to recognize the crucial part we have to play in changing our energy production and consumption habits.

How are we supposed to do that, you might ask?

Before I go further, let’s talk about how not to achieve this goal. Let’s look at arguments that have been made in the past and see how they’ve failed.

Solar energy was a very hot topic forty years ago. The United States experienced significant disruptions in oil supplies in 1973 and 1979. There were lines at gas stations. Prices skyrocketed. Consumers were looking for any technology that could deliver them.

If that wasn’t enough, we had the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979. Wouldn’t such an event, one that ended the construction of new nuclear plants in the United States, make a low-cost, low-risk alternative seem more attractive?

Alas, this has not been the case. Solar energy continues to grow slowly, but it still delivers less than 10% of total consumption.

You can make appeals to serving the greater good. Individuals can use the sun to capture energy for power and heat in their home, cutting down on their reliance on public sources.

Our reliance on imported oil would be reduced. Imagine how different the world would be if we didn’t rely so heavily on oil for our energy needs! Wars to guarantee our supply would be a thing of the past. The transfer of wealth to oil-producing countries would end.

We could continue to spur economic growth without worrying about the amount of carbon dioxide we pump back into the atmosphere. Concerns about climate change and environmental impact could be decoupled from the Hobson’s choice of ceasing all economic activity.

These arguments seem pretty compelling, don’t they? Do you see solar collectors on every house? No! Are oil tankers being converted into cruise ships in the Arabian Sea? I don't see them. The appeals to the greater good have not made a dent.

They were true forty years ago. The fundamental story has not changed in all that time.

Why have customers not been persuaded? Why isn’t solar energy more popular with consumers?

Initial capital costs are relatively high. No one is going to lay out a lot of money to buy equipment that won’t pay back in twenty years.
There’s a well-established infrastructure in place to transport heating oil, gas, or electricity to our homes and to make it usable.

Affordable…proven…reliable technology.

There’s a chain of contributors that must work together to change this industry:
• Scientists need to be hard at work in their labs, driving the efficiency of photovoltaic materials up above 10% while keeping costs low.
• Engineers need to be hard at work taking progress in basic science and designing it into robust, affordable systems.
• Machinists and assembly workers need to be hard at work plying their crafts to create high quality, affordable products.
• Field service personnel need to live up to expectations as partners and representatives of Astrum Solar.

All these things are in full swing, but they don’t mean a thing unless we can make the case to customers that it’s in their best interest to make the switch from electricity generated by centralized power plants.

Do you see a theme here? What are the two things that our customers want?

First, they want energy to be affordable. Heating oil is currently around $3-4 per gallon; prices are relatively stable. A homeowner using oil to heat their home can predict what their heating costs will be for a given heating season.

Second, they want access to energy to be reliable. Sitting in the dark and cold won’t do. Breakdowns must be rare. When they do happen, there has to be a person on the other end of a phone line who can quickly sort out the situation.

Affordability is a function of large economic forces that are outside the control of the company.
1. We can’t control the price of oil.
2. We can’t wave a magic wand and make a scientific breakthrough happen.
3. We can’t change the fact that the sun doesn’t shine on rainy days.

But we can influence how our customers perceive Astrum Solar. It’s our job to tell them that this is a reliable company. We need to educate them about the fact that our products can provide power with a degree of reliability that matches or exceeds that of traditional power suppliers. We must engage them as a trusted partner, one that will stand behind the product and make right any breakdowns in a timely way.

Do you remember fall of 2011? I do. I’ve lived in my house for a long time. The worse power outage I’ve ever experienced prior to last year was the three days without power after Hurricane Gloria back in Sep 1985. For almost thirty years I’ve been able to count on power and heat in my house without fail, except for a few odd hours.

That clean record was sullied in the last six months. I had to endure not one, but two nine-day periods without power! Thank goodness both happened before winter had set in. My pipes would have been in real trouble if temperatures had dropped below freezing. Repair crews were already having trouble keeping up in the relatively mild fall conditions. Can you imagine having to repair a state-wide failure of the grid in sub-freezing temperatures or in the midst of a blizzard?

When my power was finally restored in November, my first thought was prevention: How could I ensure that this never happened again? I went out and bought a gas-powered generator and had a transfer switch wired in, but it seems like a temporary solution.

I think it’s time for something more permanent. It’s time to install solar panels at my residence that will supply electricity sufficient to meet my needs and even allow me to sell excess back to the electric company.

So how can we help?

We need to address affordability.
• Sales people need to work with field service personnel to properly size equipment to meet the needs of each individual household, taking into account special features of each site.
• Sales people need to inform customers about all available energy conservation programs. Minimizing power needs makes the installation’s job easier. Most customers can benefit from better insulation in attics and weather stripping in doors and windows.
• Sales people need to explore every subsidy from federal and state sources that might defer portions of the economic burden of installing solar equipment.

We need to address reliability.
• Sales people need to educate customers about warranty agreements that guarantee the uninterrupted operation of their installations.
• Sales people need to ensure that field service personnel are partners with customers to instill confidence and ensure reliability.

One day I was walking on a beach where the tide had gone out. The sand was covered with starfish, left behind by the sea. I encountered a small boy who was walking along, bending down from time to time, and throwing a starfish back into the ocean. I watched the boy throw starfish after starfish, yet they still stretched out on the sand as far as the eye could see. I went up to the boy and said, "Give it up! There must be thousands of starfish washed up on shore. What difference can you possibly make by throwing them back?" The boy looked at me without saying a word, then he picked up another one and threw it as far as he could. It landed with a splunk! "I made a difference to that one!" he replied.

We can fulfill that grand, large-scale goal of moving this country to a sustainable, independent, renewable energy economy. But we’ll have to do it one customer at a time. We must make Astrum Solar a trusted partner whose reliability exceeds that of traditional power suppliers. I urge you to be the public face of Astrum Solar. Our future, and more, depends on you.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New Haven Bound

I got a message from my wife this afternoon: our youngest daughter was officially notified that she's been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Yale. She'll matriculate in the fall to begin work on her doctorate in biophysics and biochemistry. She'll graduate in May from the University of Connecticut with both her Bachelors and Masters degrees in molecular cell biology. It only took her four years to get both.

She went to visit New Haven Thu through Sun last week. She loved everything about it: the students, the professors, the programs, the campus. It sounded like everyone was enthusiastic about what was happening, and there's a lot going on. We thought it might take a few weeks to hear the final decision, but one of the professors - the one she most wanted to work with - called her personally to tell her that Yale hoped she would come.

I have never been one to claim the accomplishments of my children as my own, and I'm not going to start now. I will say that I'm so happy for her. It's a well-deserved opportunity that she's worked hard for.

She's always had an unusual focus. Even as a young child, she could play happily by herself for hours. (Until her beloved older sister came along with other alternatives.) She loved puzzles; she sought out jigsaws that would challenge an adult, let alone a child. She was ambidextrous. She would pass the crayon from hand to hand as she colored pictures. She finally settled on her left hand for writing and preferred status, but it was touch and go for a long time.

She was quiet and reserved. She chose her words carefully and thought before she spoke. She still does, but now the words and ideas pour out of her at a faster clip. She's a confident woman these days.

She's always been a fine student. She "gets it" with math and science. I used to ask her if she needed any help with math when she was in high school. I learned right away that she didn't need my help. It was always a conversation about a topic that we both enjoyed. She would talk to me about problems she was given more as a courtesy to me than a plea for aid. She knew that it made me happy.

I've had the pleasure of repeating that experience throughout her undergraduate career. I swim on campus on Friday nights. I'll call her every once in a while after I'm done and ask if we can get together. We'll hit a dining hall or Starbucks, grab some tea and dessert, and I'll hear about everything she's doing in the lab and the classroom. Sometimes it's chemistry; other times it's quantum mechanics, math, computing, physics, or something else like a one-credit class in weight training. It astonishes me to hear how well she understands what's presented to her. She has a way of digesting the message, internalizing it, and making connections well beyond the context in which it was presented.

She is a biology major at the University of Connecticut. At the end of her freshman year she researched professors on campus and solicited them for a job in their lab. She found Robert Birge and sent him an e-mail. Did he accept undergraduates to work in his lab? He said it was rare, but told her to send in a resume anyway. He took her in and gave her a thorough grounding in research and how to conduct herself in a lab. Dr. Birge, his wife, Connie, and his team of graduate students have been so generous to our daughter. She worked without pay in the lab that first summer, but they found funds to support her after that. They've been the best mentors and examples imaginable.

I feel so fortunate to have the children I do. I wish I could point to some thing or another that my wife and I did that made this happen. Maybe I could bottle it or write a book to out-do a tiger mom.

I believe it's a combination of factors: genetics and the good fortune of peace and enough prosperity at home to meet their needs. After that it gets fuzzier. We read to them a lot when they were small and beyond. It is a common sight to see one family member or another draped on a chair or couch in silence, reading a book. The house is still full of them. We had television around, but it wasn't the 24x7 bombardment that is cable today. We didn't forbid television, but it didn't crowd everything out, either. We've never had video games; still don't. We had a computer in the house when they were young, but the Internet wasn't the distraction it has become. There were no cell phones.

They played a lot by themselves. We have an infamous book of games that they wrote together when they were small. ("The Queen Game" was a special favorite.) The rules included stuff like "If somebody gets hurt, don't cry or we'll have to go inside." Some of them make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, but they're funny to read today. They had a lot of opportunities to use their imaginations to entertain themselves. They played with other kids, but they spent a lot of time with each other, too.

My wife is an educator, so she's always been on the same schedule as the girls: home in the afternoon when they returned from school, able to spend lazy summers at home instead of being shipped around to camps. Quality time with children cannot be scheduled. You're either there when they're ready to spill or you're not. Being at the kitchen table after school with a snack put my wife in perfect position to hear what was on their minds. I'm glad that one of us was able to be there. They're lucky to have had her: she's so attuned to them, always knowing just what to do.

They weren't home schooled. We sent them to public schools, where they had more than a few outstanding teachers, such as Mark Logan, Jason Courtmanche, and Madame Bender, and that made a great difference.

Both our daughters are a great mix of mind, body, and spirit. They're just terrific to be around. I'm grateful for the vantage point I've enjoyed. It's a great show to see.

Yale, you're in for a treat.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

The Volcker Rule

I find this article to be unbelievable.

Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve who rescued America from high inflation, high unemployment, and high interest rates in the 1970s (remember 18% interest rates?) proposed a rule that prevents banks from making speculative bets with deposits. It sounds like Glass-Stegall redux: separate deposits from speculation.

The article feels an introductory lesson in how to spot the bias in an argument.

The very industry that brought us to the brink with their creative weapons of financial mass destruction, such as credit default swaps (selling fire insurance on your neighbor's house) and mortgage-backed securities (sending tranches of mortgages through a meat grinder to turn them into AAA rated securities, good as cash), criticizes the proposed rule. Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, said "Paul Volcker by his own admission has said he doesn’t understand capital markets. He has proven that to me."

If that's true, I prefer the fruits of Mr. Volcker's ignorance to Mr. Dimon's subtlety and cleverness, every time.

I know less than either of these gentlemen, so I can't say that I have proof that the short-term loss of liquidity will not harm the economy. But with interest rates at an all-time low, Facebook able to raise $10B in an IPO, and the European Central Bank pumping trillions of euros into the Eurozone to prop up the PIGS, I don't think liquidity is a problem in the short term. It feels riskier to allow banks to operate unchecked. Yet nothing significant has been done to curb them in the last three years. The too big to fail are only getting bigger, and the rest of us are taking on more of the risk.

The arguments put forth in the link are the very ones that persuaded the House and Senate to send the Gramm-Leach bill to be signed by President Clinton in 1999. I'm not sure about the harm to the larger economy, but I know restricting these activities will have a tremendous impact on the bonuses paid to bankers.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tactical Solutions

"It's a tactical solution."

The tone was so dismissive. When did "tactical" become such a dirty word?

Software is rife with dogmatic pronouncements these days. BUFD is always bad. Unit tests are always good. Everyone knows that <insert-language-or-technique-of-your-choice-here> is better than anything else. Developers and coding are commodities. Process wins out over people; a good process can produce great code even when executed by average or below-average developers.

I personally hate dogma of all kinds. I recognize that accumulated wisdom needs to be respected. Physical laws are involate; I don't need to relearn lessons to keep fingers away from hot stoves. Gravity works. The second law of thermodynamics says that the egg I dropped on the floor might spontaneously reassemble itself before my eyes, but the probability is so small that it's never been observed. (But give it ten billion years and evolution could reconstitute it into something else, like a Boeing 737.)

Always relying on what everyone knows becomes a problem when context is ignored. Rules of thumb usually have exceptions, but the dispensers of dogma fail to bring them up or acknowledge them only grudgingly when they are pointed out.

There's also the question of who gets to decide what "everybody knows" when it's a non-scientific issue that's not entirely settled. History is full of people who have used dogma to serve their own ends. If the winners write history, it's also true that they decide questions of dogma.

I agree that slapping things together and being sloppy should not be anyone's goal in life. But prototyping something quickly, getting it out into the field, providing short-term value, and learning lessons from that experience has its place.

The objection to tactical solutions harbored by organizations is that they often become the de-facto standard solution, never to exit the portfolio again. This kind of organic growth can cause problems over time. But banning all tactical solutions feels like throwing the baby out with the bath. A better answer is to plan and budget for refactoring as needed. Retire those tactical solutions when the better, strategic thing comes along.

There's a tension between technology and economics. It doesn't pay to leap onto every new thing that comes along. The adoption curve for technology says that there are always leaders and laggards:

Organizations that are smaller, more nimble, and less risk averse get to be leaders and early adopters. If they play the game well they can get the jump on larger, slower, more conservative competitors. The larger competitors can leverage economies of scale and the damping that copious resources provide. They just need to be mindful of those tipping points that can shift the earth under their feet.

I wish that the timelines for payback were easier to quantify. Cost-benefit analysis can be made to come out to support the desired conclusion. Could Bayes and Monte Carlo be used to improve on what's done today? I'll have to think about that.

The truth is that everything is tactical. Technology is changing at a breathtaking rate. Every solution is tactical; they just have different timelines. (Just like there are no "permanent employees". We're all contractors.)

One final, funny thought: When I searched Google Image for 'tactical solution', I was surprised to see all the photos of weapons of all kinds. I had to scroll down several pages to find an image that expressed what I had in mind. The word is overloaded with military implications. It brings to mind SEAL squads and surgical strikes. That sounds effective when applied to certain problems. Why can't tactical software solutions be granted the same consideration when they apply?

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Did I mention that my eldest, my first-born is newly employed? (Why yes, I did.)

Her first weeks are going very well, indeed.

She was interviewed as a success story by I Need A Library Job, the listserv where she found out about her employer. It's a great interview. It hints at the enthusiasm and thought she brings to everything. It choked me up to read the reference to "Cholera", knowing the source.

She has made herself into the one thing that every parent longs for: a self-motivated, internally driven, responsible for themselves adult.

Mostly I feel very proud of her. Is it wrong to gush in public on the Internet? (Who cares? I can't help myself.)

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

An Old Allegiance

The championship of American football will be played in Indianapolis IN tomorrow at 6:30 pm. It's the New York Giants versus the New England Patriots, a rematch of the epic 2008 game. The Patriots were undefeated coming into that game. They were hoping to become only the second team in history to go undefeated and win the league championship. The Giants were huge underdogs. It was thought that the record-setting Patriots offense could name the score. but the Giants hung in and won an improbable victory, 17-14.

The state of Connecticut lies between New York and Massachusetts. Its capital city is Hartford: "Halfway between Boston and New York City!" It hasn't had a major sports team to call its own since the Hartford Whalers hockey team left for North Carolina. Needless to say, it is the Mason-Dixon line of local sports affections. Yankees or Red Sox? Giants or Patriots? Knicks or Celtics? Rangers or Bruins? One has to tread lightly for fear of offending.

I grew up in south western Connecticut. I could walk from my parents' house to a railway platform and be standing in Grand Central Station 45 minutes later. I watched New York news on television, read the Daily News and New York Times newspapers. I could not have named the governor of Connecticut was, but I always knew the mayor of New York City. I was far more New York than Boston.

I've never cared for hockey. I can't skate. I used to go to a pond down the street with my sisters and skate during the winter. One day I fell flat on my face and lay on the ice. I looked down and was eye to eye with a fish, frozen in place. "That's it!" I said to myself. I took off my skates and walked home. Hockey never had any interest for me.

I was a terrible baseball player. The Yankees fell into decline when I was young after decades of dominating the sport. The Red Sox were irrelevant. But the St. Louis Cardinals had fantastic teams and the best pitcher ever: Bob Gibson. My love for the Cardinals came in handy years later: it kept peace between me and my father-in-law, a lifelong Yankees fan.

Basketball was the game I loved once I reached my teens. I started playing the game at the end of the Bill Russell era, so I was a fan of the Celtics. There were a couple of years of adjustment after the sublime Russell retired, but Red Auerbach quickly surrounded John Havlicek with enough talent to pick up the torch again. Tom Heinsohn was their fiery coach, leading them into battle with the next great team in the NBA: the New York Knicks. They played a beautiful style that emphasized passing, moving, and finding the open man. All my friends were Knick fans. I had to stand alone, a minority of one. It was agony when they lost to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals in 1972 and especially 1973. They won 68 out of 82 games that year, but lost when John Havlicek hurt his shoulder running into a pick while guarding Bill Bradley, the Knicks' perpetual motion machine.

But before basketball, I was obsessed with football. There was no good reason for it. I was a skinny little kid. I had one uncle who was 6'2" and a big man; he had a great throwing arm in his youth (or so he told me). Another was 6'4" and a legendary basketball player until he lost his left leg in WWII. I prayed every night for their genes to pass down to me so I would grow to a size better suited to the game I loved.

My team was the Giants, but they were never very good. I suffered through year after year where the best I could hope for was a season where the wins balanced the losses; more often than not the character-building losses came in waves. But I loved the team. I had a red plastic helmet that I'd wear out to play with my friends. We'd head over to the nice football field at a nearby private school, put on helmets and pads, choose up sides, and have at each other in 3-on-3 games. My sister Mary always had an artist's eye. She offered to paint my helmet a replica of the Giants. She did a magnificent job! It looked beautiful - I loved it.

A friend of mine offered to bring me to the Giants training camp one summer. I was so excited! I drew up a play with complex X's and O's and lines running all over the place. I put it in an envelope with the intention of offering it to Allie Sherman, the Giants head coach. We had a great time that day: watching practice, following the players around, getting autographs. When I saw Mr. Sherman I sprinted over, introduced myself, and offered my envelope for his inspection. I don't remember much about the conversation.

That following Saturday night the Giants were in Green Bay playing an exhibition game against the mighty Packers. It was a hot night. My father's sister, my Aunt Bea, was visiting from California for two weeks, as she did every other year. Of course we had the game on television. The Giants took the opening kickoff and marched down the field. I cheered when Joe Morrison, their stalwart running back, scored the first touchdown of the game. As the players lined up to kick the extra point, the yellow wall phone in the kitchen rang. My mother answered, listened for a moment, and then turned to me: "It's for you!" I heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line: "Michael Duffy? This is Allie Sherman. We just scored a touchdown on your play!"

I don't know if it was a hoax, but if it was the timing had to be the most perfect of all time. (How did he get my phone number? Did I put my address on the envelope?) All I knew was that I was one happy, believing boy, and the Giants would be my favorite team forever.

The Giants eventually accumulated enough good players and coaches to win their first Super Bowl in 1986. They won it again after the 1990 season, beating the Buffalo Bills to win their second just six weeks before my father passed away. They had another chance in 2000, but they were steamrolled by the Baltimore Ravens that year. The victory over the Patriots in 2008 was their third triumph.

My nephew Gavin is a Patriots fan. He asked me who I'd be rooting for on Sunday. He didn't know my history; I had never told him about my trip to training camp. But knowing that, how could it be otherwise? I'll be hoping for another Giants victory at this time tomorrow night.

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