Coffee At The Ballpark

Was that you out in the bleachers last night, getting a cup of coffee in the 7th inning, as the fog poured in off the Bay and Mad Bum drowned the Reds with movement and location?

AT&T Park

ATT Park in San Francisco
photo by Jamie Balaoro

Thought so. What, did you walk home? After draining that paper coffee cup. After standing for the last out. After a wonderfully Giants MO, playing to the park, scoring runs early, then letting their man leave his fastballs up, daring hitters to blast harmless popgun shots into the soggy San Francisco night, to be run down by Gregor, Melk Man and the Angel?

I bet you took MUNI. Packed train. Clusters of folks talking about the game. Other riders looking at all of you like you’re an alien invasion. The Ballpark Crowd. Though the tunnel, to West Portal.

I cann you guys walking down Taravel. Talking Ball all the way. It was you and your buddy at the game. He lives out in the Excelsior or Daly City or something like that, but he’s walking with you anyway. There’s a bar, should we? Gotta work tomorrow. Such a nice night though. And Friday tomorrow. Easy day. We’ll just have one.

Pints. Talking around it now. Anything but baseball. Not talking about it means you can think about it. One hit allowed by the tall lefty. So close to immortality. Story of the game is peppered with spectacular one hitters. 130 years? 140? Can’t ever remember quite when it started. Those Cy Young days. Cap Anson days. In the key of midnight it sounds like something from a book.

You and your baseball buddy shake hands outside the bar. One pint turned into three. Of course. Now alone and a little buzzing walking in the fog midnight San Francisco Sunset streets. Wind blowing it under your jacket. Coldest winter I ever spent comes to mind. Part of what it is to love The City. How quiet those Avenues are after midnight. Those pastel victorians. The neon green or orange ones that pepper the blocks.

Shivering by the time you get home. Hard to even get the key in the door.

Mad Bum

Of course you can’t sleep. Keep tossy-turning and thinking about The Game. Look at the clock, it’s 3:17. Hell with it, just call in sick tomorrow.

It’s at the point where you concede and decide to just call in sick that you inevitably fall asleep. Dreams, pitching dreams. How to adapt the finer points of his windup. He’s a lefty is the first problem. You throw like a girl lefty. Never mind, just adopt the spread wingspan that’s the hallmark of the delivery. Comes across his body. They say that’s bad. Kerry Wood. Never mind that. This kid is special. Belying normal rules. Oh now we’re getting deep into that book…

It’s at this moment of the dream when your alarm will start to scream. 6:15. You’re in the shower before you remember you were going to call in sick. Well. You fell better than expected. Good in fact! The pitcher will carry you through the morning. If he could get through the 7th, the 8th, the 9th, surely you can stumble into the office and punch out a decent day’s work, right?

More coffee will help. And yes you will feel the hurt around two. But it was worth it. A 2 PM comes every day. A one hitter? That’s a gem in the narrative of a season. Another season in your life.

Summer Solstice

Top of the year, the pendulum out as far as it goes. The final extension of daylight hours before she starts on her long topping pattern.

I wonder sometimes if there weren’t primitives who were seduced into believing that one year, the days might just keep getting longer and longer. Into perpetuity. It sounds ridiculous. We behave ridiculously though as trends extend to an end. ‘Euphoria’ is the condition seen at the top of markets, on any timeframe.

171. Summer Solstice Sky

And now, the nice months. July. August. September. Summer in Cascadia. During these three months the Pacific Northwest is as beautiful as anywhere in the world.

Lost In Translation

Had an interesting experience with a large public digital media company the other day.

They sent me the wrong box. “You can send it back but that will take weeks. Just bring it by our office.”

So I swing by their ‘office’. Pleasant place. Big waiting room with comfy chairs and a huge screen TV. Surrounded by kiosks where agents call you over to help you. Very ‘designed’. I remember a few years ago when WaMu / Chase bank was trying this. Anyway.

There’s maybe 10 people working and only two of us customers are there. So everyone’s doing that thing where they’re pretending to work just enough so their boss won’t care that they’re actually watching the waiting room TV. Which is totally cool with me. I understand. The thing is, the guy helping me is so distracted, that when he gives me the right box, he also gives me the wrong power cord.

I find this out after I get back home with everything hooked up.

Call tech support. India. Great. Now I have nothing against the good people of India. But tech support in India doesn’t work, it’s never worked, it likely never will. And it doesn’t work this time either. I won’t get into the gory details. Suffice it to say, I had to call back and nav the phone tree until I found someone on this side of the water who had the authority to actually mail me the right cord.

2 things wrong here:

– Indian tech support doesn’t work because they don’t give them any authority. In this case, the man on the other side of the phone only had the authority to read through a script and follow a tech support tree. He couldn’t think on his own, and he didn’t have the authority to mail me a $10 cord.

– There’s no way to reach the office! The simplest solution is simply to patch me through to that office where 10 people are sitting around with nothing to do. *They* have the authority to mail out the cord. But guess what? There’s no way to communicate with them.

So we have a phone tree, and a CRM, but neither of them are smart enough to connect me to the right people. Instead, the system has been rigged to actually deliver me to the one person who’s LEAST likely to solve my problem! All because his time is the cheapest time in the system. But that sort of smarts is actually profoundly dumb, because the CRM / phone tree hasn’t learned to identify when someone else in the company could actually, you know, solve my problem.

Building the CRM and phone tree system was good. But the really interesting challenges, the ones it will be fun to solve in the next 20-30 years, are how do we teach the system to be able to really help people?

Why I Was A Lousy Receptionist (*)

When I was 20 I was given an opportunity to break into the business world. My first job was to answer the phones. How’d I do? Looking back, I’d say pretty poorly.

Why?

  • Limited talent. I’m not good on the phone. I’ve always disliked the phone. I’ve tried learning tricks and techniques. (Some of them are really good. ‘Smile’ sounds funny, but it does work!) They work, to an extent, but I can only get so far.

    I think, and this may sound like someone just trying to rationalize his own deficiencies, but I think there’s something in me that processes cognition visually to a high degree. Without the visual cues from seeing you while you’re talking to me, I have a hard time parsing not just content but also intent and tone.

  • Frequency. Calls came in waves. Just like customers on a busy weekend at the bakery, calls would come in threes or fours or sevens. Some you could deal with in a matter of seconds. Others were delicate matters, especially when the person didn’t know exactly who they were calling for or if they were upset.

    When talent is an issue, the hardest jobs tend to be the ones that oscillate between mellow and hectic. When things get wild, the talent-poor tend to drive off the bridge.

  • Stakes were high. We managed money for high net worth individuals. It was the end of a monster bull run and it was being interupted by the Asian Contagion crisis. Investors were stressed because they felt like they’d missed the rally and they were stressed because they felt like they were over-leveraged during the pullback. Often at the same time.
  • Underconfidence. At that age I didn’t know how to marshall my forces. I did know how to bounce back from bad news, but I was still susceptible to letting one or two bad calls or a sales guy bawling me out negatively affect my day.

(*) At best I was a C- receptionist. What got me above the D level?

I cared. And I tried really, really hard to be better.

5 Things I Learned From Rudy

Five Things I Learned From Rudy

Rudy was working at the Woodside Bakery and Cafe when I worked there in 1995 and 1996. Working on a green card, half his paychecks headed straight home to his wife and kids in Guatemala. To give them a better life. When I left the bakery for a job in finance, I lost touch with Rudy. No way to find him now. Never even knew his last name. But I’ll never forget the man and his ways.

  1. Do what you do well.

    It was a simple job. All we were doing was putting pastries on plates, pouring coffee and making espresso drinks.

    But Rudy had a way of making customers feel like their order was special by doing what he did with panache. You can slap a pastry on a plate like it’s a hockey puck, or you can present it like it’s a delectable fit for the Queen of the Caspian. You can slosh coffee in a cup, or you can pour it with aplomb.

    And as a barista? Yes you can burn the hell out of the milk. Or pull a loose shot. But you can also do things right. Get the milk the right temperature. Tamp a tight shot. Bang the pitcher of milk on the counter to mix the foam and pour out a perfect cappuccino heart.

  2. Remembering the drink is more important than remembering the name.

    Most people, I’d say nine out of ten easily, get the same thing every time they go to a cafe. Rudy had an incredible memory for people’s orders. If you came in once a month and he saw you walking across the parking, he’d start steaming milk, or if I was rocking the machine he’d elbow me “Jon. Cappuccino. Extra foam.”

    I realized that a lot of times, Rudy didn’t know their names. Just their orders. There’s something to that. A lot of times, people want to retain some sort of anonymity. They’d almost rather you didn’t know their names. But people always liked it when you remembered their orders.

  3. Take care of the people you work with.

    Even if you’re not ‘the boss’. Rudy wasn’t the manager. But he was a role model. And he accepted it. He helped us new fish. Looked out for the guys who’d been there for a while. Cared about all of us… or those of us who showed him that we cared back.

  4. Play.

    Have little games with each other. Got a stacked drinks order list? Got a sink full of dirty dishes? Split’em up and see who can bang’em out fastest. Losers buys first beer tonight. Or when things are quiet, good natured ribbing, teasing each other.

  5. Delight people for no other reason than just to do it.

    Rudy taught me how to pour coffee from seven feet in the air. You’ve got the pot way above your head and the cup as low as you can hold it. And you don’t spill a drop. Customers dig that stuff. Their kids love it. Why not make people smile?

Ask The Right Questions

I was 11 when I got my first Bill James baseball book. The last of his Abstract series.

Because this is the last annual he did, James ends the book with a summary of his career so far and how he got into the sabermetrics business. He describes how he would hear baseball men blunting arguments with truisms. Pieces of the baseball canon. Accepted as fact because nobody was checking to see if what everybody knew was true was actually, you know, true.

“What was missing from these discussions was obvious: no one knew… So I counted”

This idea of getting started that way, approaching problems by taking a bit of what everyone thought was true and holding it to the fire of real metrics, it affected me. A lot of my successes in business and in life have come from checking.

When I worked in an IT Dept, if someone said tech support response times were down, I checked. When I was responsible for lead generation for a thriving .com, if someone said there were less quality leads coming in, I checked. When I joined the executive team, if someone said the revenue numbers were up, I checked.

Sometimes I found that what people said, well it was bang on. There’s nothing more powerful than showing someone that what they believe to be true, is true. You get to say “You’re right”. Being justified to say You’re Right to someone, that’s good stuff, for you and for them.

Sometimes I found what people said, it was dead wrong. And I’d done the work. I had the data to back it up. The compulsion to change the conversation.

A Catch: This idea of challenging the collective wisdom, it has to be done from a certain standpoint. It wasn’t like the people saying thsoe things were necessarily doing so for nefarious reasons. Just like those baseball people who said things that James challenged. A lot of times things are just said because.