Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Loyalty Programs

I'll admit that I do have a weakness for loyalty programs. The allure of points and the promise of free airline tickets, meals, and hotel rooms is enough to get my mouth watering. During my winter cleaning today, I took an inventory of my loyalty programs and decided which stay and which go.

Delta Skymiles
United Airlines Mileage Plus
American Airlines AAdvantage

With as much travel as I do, it is no wonder that these programs provide the most useful benefits to me. Most of my travel has traditionally been with Northwest Airlines (which was recently acquired by Delta). Delta's Skymiles membership card is the only card that I carry with me consistently.

Delta Skymiles is the only loyalty program that will cause me to consciously alter my spending. Yes, the free upgrades are nice, but as a Platinum Skymiles member, I have access to better reservations support and I get accommodated first in the case of irregular operations. These benefits may not sound terribly important, but when snowstorms hit the midwest and airlines have to decide which passengers to send on the next flight and which get the privilege of staying in an airport overnight, I would much rather be Platinum on Delta than nobody on United.

Bottom Line: These are all staying around as I am actively getting some benefit from each of them.

Office Depot Worklife Rewards
Staples Rewards
Granite City Mug Club
Stomping Grounds and Z'Marik's Punch Cards
Marriott Rewards
Gold Points Plus
Priority Club Rewards
Java House JavaPerks (Iowa City)

Mostly, I am a member of the retail programs above for the periodic coupons that they send out; I can count on Office Depot and Staples to mail me a good coupon every once in a while. Staples previously gave free shipping to its rewards program members, but I don't think that's the case any more.

The Mug Club membership is a little different; it gets me into a reception whenever our local Granite City is tapping a new brew. I am not really a beer drinker (I still have the "One Free Beer" coupon that they gave me when I joined) but I enjoy spending time with my colleagues and this card has more than made up for the $10 I paid for it.

The hotel programs require almost no maintenance, don't spam me and might provide some benefit some day. I believe that Gold Points owes me a free hotel room at a 2-star hotel, so I might cash in on that some time when traveling.

Bottom Line: These programs are probably worth less than $50/year each to me, but I'll keep the membership cards around because they are so low maintenance. However, the next time I move, a lot of these will probably go away because it won't be worth it to update my address for most of them.

The stack of punch-cards gathering dust

More than anything, U Promise does a great job of promoting its benefits. I would believe that most people for whom some form of post-secondary education is in the cards have heard of it. However, for me, it's been a waste of time. Over the six years I've been enrolled in U Promise, I have accumulated exactly $2.93 in "college savings" which I can only liberate if I open a 529 account.

This housekeeping exercise has taught me that punch cards to places I only go once in a while just aren't worth it. I'm probably not going to go to Fazoli's seven times in the next year and I know that I'm not going to hit Espresso Royale in Champaign, IL another eight times so what's the point of keeping the punch cards?

Most of these cards got tossed immediately.

How about you? Which rewards programs do you participate in? Do you have a threshold for making a loyalty program worth your attention? If so, what is it?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Eliminate The Development Machine to Increase Innovation

In my quest for knowledge and insight about how great companies are managed, I've been reading "The Google Way" one of the, I'm sure, myriad of books that purports to explain all of the things that make Google amazing.

One of this weekend's insights was the following:

A lot of good ideas (and a few great ones) come from rank-and-file employees.

In a "traditional" organization, many of these ideas are overlooked. Great ideas are supposed to be generated by people tasked with dreaming up the products of the future, the select few "tinkerers" in advanced engineering or some elite department of marketing. These ideas are then evaluated in committee, picked apart, perhaps improved, and documented. The few ideas that survive this process are then given to a marketing organization to see if a business case can be made for these projects.

In an organization like Google, the leadership believes that ideas are generated everywhere. Idea generation is encouraged and expected of all employees. The most obvious way this philosophy shows up is in the policy that engineers may devote 20% of their time to working on their own projects. Some of these projects have died, but some became Google's better known products. Would gMail or Google Maps have died in committee at a traditional organization? Likely; neither has a direct connection to Google's core business of search.

In my organization, most of the good process improvements (by which I mean changes in the way code is developed, not institutionalized processes) came from rogue engineers who were spending time working with tools beneath the radar of management. Software engineering at my division is special in that the developers are given a lot more freedom than in other parts of the company and it shows; many other development centers come to us for advice and are interested in adopting our best practices. Unfortunately, the "product development process" that we use ensures that no product ideas that come from the rank-and-file engineers will see the light of day . . . and I believe that will ultimately cost us as talent goes elsewhere.

How does your organization work? Do you feel like you are encouraged to explore newer and better ways of working? Have any new products come out of your rank-and-file?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Debunking Myths about Public Healthcare - Part 1

I had originally planned for one huge blog post about public healthcare, but have since decided to split it up into a number of smaller posts, owing to me being quite busy this time of year. I think that it is shameful that we are one of the few (if not the only) developed nations that does not have universal healthcare. The majority of the country wants a public healthcare option (75% according to a recent NBC/WSJ poll . . . Google it). These posts are part of my contribution to the public discussion.

Objection: Countries with universal healthcare make people wait in line for services.

This has been used as a scare tactic for many years. Yes, Canada and other countries that have universal healthcare do ration care. If you need to have an elective procedure, you wait in line until your turn come up. This is not really different than in the United States . . . for a routine physical, I need to schedule an appointment with my doctor at least eight months in advance. My dentist requires six months. I've never had to have non-emergency surgery, but I'm sure that I can't just walk into my local hospital and demand to be serviced that day.

We ration care in the United States, but we don't ration it in a way that promotes the overall health of our population; we ration it based on who can pay the most. That means that, if a millionaire wants a nose job, s/he can and will get care before a poor person who needs cancer screening. Under our system, doctors who do elective plastic surgery make more than primary care physicians who work with patients to keep them healthy. I can't imagine any framework in which this makes sense.

Care should be prioritized/rationed based on what is most effective at keeping people healthy. Countries with a public healthcare system can do this because, under a public system, there is no incentive to chase after a profit.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Oh, Delta (Rant)

I'm taking a trip out to Seattle to see my cousin, Cody, get married. I'm flying Northwest Airlines, but some of my flights were operated by Delta. Today, the flight (Delta) from DSM to SLC got canceled and my itinerary was replace with the following:

Fri  4SEP Delta 6151*          LV Des Moines, IA    (DSM)  730A Coach
AR Cincinnati, OH (CVG) 1014A
*operated by Freedom Airlines Inc
Fri 4SEP Delta 1424 LV Salt Lake City, U (SLC) 830A Coach
AR Portland, OR (PDX) 922A
Fri 4SEP Delta 1419 LV Cincinnati, OH (CVG) 1225P Coach
AR Salt Lake City, U (SLC) 212P
Fri 4SEP Alaska Airlines 2142 LV Portland, OR (PDX) 1030A Coach
AR Seattle, WA (SEA) 1120A

At first glance, I was happy that they still had me getting into Seattle at 11:20am, as I have plans for that afternoon. But, upon closer inspection, they had me getting into Salt Lake City at 2:12pm and leaving at 8:30am.

My question is: How do things like this happen?

Fortunately, Northwest Airlines was able to fix my itinerary with a phone call, but, seriously . . . if this is what I should expect from Delta, I'm not excited.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Travel Deals

Okay, many people following this blog (surprisingly, there are actually quite a few more than I expected there to be) have expressed an interest in learning how I score awesome travel deals.

This year, I have been on a bit of a travel binge, venturing to Asia twice, Virginia, Seattle, California, Germany, Oregon and (in the coming months) Tokyo, Michigan and Australia.

One of the secrets to traveling cheaply is traveling where the cheap fares lead you. It sounds much less glamorous when put that way, but that's essentially how I travel. Most of the time, I haven't said that I wanted to visit X in Y, but have taken the opportunities to visit my friends when there have been reasonable fares available. (When I do decide to visit a specific person in a specific location, I cash in some frequent flyer miles.)

One of the tools that can help you find cheap travel deals is's "Top Deals From" tool.

Simply enter your origin airport and FareCompare will tell you where you can go (including internationally) for cheap.

Later this summer, I will be doing a bit more blogging on my experiences in certain airports . . . stay tuned.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Back in Germany

Note: This was originally written on April 25th, on a train from Zweibr├╝cken to M├╝nchen.

Well, I’m back in Germany, for the first time in several years. Since I’ve been travelling all over Asia, some of my German friends had felt that I had abandoned them . . . well, no longer. As I’m writing this, I’m currently sitting on an ICE Train (German Bullet-Train) to Munich, in complete comfort, but without an internet connection.

I’ve missed Germany . . . the food, the trains, the scenery, but above all, the people. Since I’ve been working all week (almost 10 hours/day, plus social outings with my colleagues), I haven’t had much time to think about that . . . and it hit me for the first time when I was on a train to Saarbruecken. There’s something about riding a train that makes me realize that I am actually here . . . in Germany . . . and quite a bit at home.

When traveling internationally, even in a country as safe as Germany, it’s important to do basic things like lock the car when you leave. This is a lesson my colleagues found out the hard way. To make a long story short, this resulted in a trip to the police station on Friday afternoon, with me feeling out a police report. Earlier in the week, I had asserted that the German police were both friendly and professional. Fortunately, this was the case. An experience which might have tainted my colleague’s perception of Germany was turned into a pleasant experience with the German police and disaster was averted. (I even got to sign my name to the police report that I translated it.

One of the things that I need to put on my to-do list is to re-learn how to drive a stick-shift. It’s kind of embarrassing that I am a bit afraid of the things, but, you lose any skill you have if you fall out of practice. Some weekend, I’ll rent a stick-shift car and practice. If I’m going to destroy someone’s transmission, it can be Hertz’s. Then, next time when we go to Germany, I can feel comfortable driving.

Now, it’s off to Munich to see Katha and Nowy.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Updating Multiple Social Networking Sites with

I have tried to reduce the amount of time I spend pecking away at a keyboard in front of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. These sites have a lot of utility, but also can be a HUGE time-sink.

One of the things that I would like to do is to get to the point where I can automate status updates across several social-networking platforms, based on location. If, for example, I am at Stomping Grounds in Ames, I can have some application broadcast that to the world, without me having to update the status message. This would save LOTS of time, as my statuses could be mostly updated without any effort on my part.

Earlier this week, I've discovered, which gets me half-way there. In short, it allows me to update my various statuses from a single text message. Now, I can have AIM, Facebook, LinkedIn, gMail, etc. updated from one location. The site also supports a host of other applications. If you have several social networking sites and are constantly trying to keep them all updated, check out It will save you TONS of time.

What tools do you use to manage your online social networking world?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Book: Hot Commodities

On my recent trip to Hong Kong (which reminds me, I really need to get pictures from BOTH Hong Kong and Japan up for people who are not on Facebook) one of the people I met recommended the book "Hot Commodities" by Jim Rodgers. While on a business trip in Moline, I spent some time reading this book and as a result, have decided not to start investing in commodities.

I'm always skeptical of any book that starts off sounding like a sales pitch for some "hot new thing" and this book was no different. Jim's first chapter explains that you are missing out on a great opportunity to make a lot of quick cash if you do not start investing in this hot market. It sounds much like hyperbole . . .

To its credit, the book does touch on a number of investing strategies which jive with my thinking, including investing with a long time horizon. But, I will remain out of the commodities market with my personal investments because commodities do not fit with my investment strategy. The things that I really like about stocks, compared to commodities are:

1. With stocks, the intrinsic value of the companies I am investing in is increasing. Generally, companies are growing, developing new products, improving their operations, etc. An ounce of gold is an ounce of gold and will never change.

2. I do not wish to take the risks of timing the speculative whims of the market. Jim Rodgers flatly states that you make money in commodities because of speculation. Since there is no increase in the intrinsic value of any given commodity, the gains made are purely speculative. At best, success requires time and effort spent doing analysis that, quite frankly, isn't a good use of my time. (At worst--and most likely in my view--this is a game that nobody can win in the long-term.) Since the intrinsic value of commodities is not increasing, for every dollar (or euro, yen, etc.) that is won in the market, another is lost . . . and the brokerage houses are always taking their rake . . .

What are your thoughts on commodities? Are you investing in commodities? Have you made money? Have you lost it?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Understanding the Financial Crisis

So, you want to know more about the financial/housing crisis? I've scoured the interwebs for you to bring you these three links:

1. This short video explains how the mortgage stuff happened . . .

2. NPR's "Planet Money" podcast recently collaborated with "This American Life" on an hour-long special entitled "Bad Bank" which does a fair job explaining the collapse of the banking system:

3. If you still need more, "Planet Money" and "This American Life" also collaborated last year on another hour-long special:

Do you feel like you understand enough about how financial markets, banks, subprime mortgages and corporate paper work? If not, what do you want to know? What do you read/listen to/watch to find out more about this?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book: Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work

Yes, the title sounds kind of gimmicky, but I heard about this book on NRP's Marketplace . . . and a mention on NPR lends anything quite a bit of clout with me, so I decided to pick up this book for some weekend reading.

Tamara Erickson's book is geared toward Y-Generation members who are soon to enter (or have recently entered) the workforce. The book is very approachable and can be read casually over a weekend. In the initial chapters, she defines what it means to be a member of the Traditionalist, Baby-Boomer, X and Y generations and describes the events that shaped each generation's perceptions during its formative years.

She then continues to describe how these differences play out in a work context, notably pointing out that Y-ers think about work as something they do, not somewhere they go. (I've commented before about asynchronous work, something that she seems to agree that the Y Generation is naturally able to do.) Other points of discussion include: relationships with parents, competitiveness, attitudes toward money and our natural ability to use technology.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone under the age of 25 who is entering the workforce; it was written to help Ys understand how the working world works and I feel that it accomplishes this very nicely. Additionally, I think that this book is worth a look for those who work with Ys on a regular basis . . . we do need to learn to work with you, but you need to learn to work with us, too. :-)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sick Days

CNN recently posted a piece entitled: “Don’t go to work if you’re sick – please!”

My mother and I probably disagree on this strongly; she prides herself on only having taken 2 sick-days during her 25+ year career as a nurse, whereas I take the view that you should stay home whenever you’re feeling under-the-weather, so that you don’t infect your colleagues.

In my view, the best sick-day policy is as follows:

  1. If you’re sick, we don’t want you infecting the rest of us, so you get the day off, free.
  2. Don’t abuse #1.

This is more-or-less the policy that John Deere IVS uses for sick days. (If you’re sick for more than 3 days, I believe that you must either go on short-term disability leave or take vacation. This policy deincentivizes coming to work sick. Of course, it requires a bit of trust in your employees . . . but if you don’t trust your employees, why are you still their employer?

What is your employer’s sick leave policy?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Location-Aware: The Future of Social Networking

Well, now that NPR has done a story on location-aware cell phone services, the urban-dwelling, latte-sipping, 30-something professionals will be talking about it, so I'd better throw my two cents into the mix. (Disclaimer: I am a total NPR junkie, so don't take offence to my characterization of NPR listeners.)


For the non-latte-sipping crowd, when I say "location aware," I'm simply talking about using GPS (Global Positioning System) data in different applications, usually on a cell phone. For the most part, this is currently limited to simply reporting your location and drawing a map.

My experiments with location-aware social networking.

About three years ago, when location-enabled cell phones started to become available in the United States, I played around with Mologogo, a very bare-bones application which took my cell phone's GPS position and published it to the web. Unfortunately, it worked only on a limited number of Nextel and Boost Mobile (Nextel's pre-paid service) phones, so I had to buy a Boost Mobile prepaid phone for this one application. The application did nothing more than report my location to a website. Unfortunately, Mologogo was very buggy and, while it provided an interface to integrate with my own applications, I wanted something more out-of-the-box.

Things have improved (but only marginally) since then and I've moved on to Ipoki, which reports my location to a website and my Facebook profile, without much trouble on my part. Ipoki also has the advantage of running on my Sprint phone, so I don't have to carry a THIRD cell phone around. The current application crashes frequently, which is annoying, but somewhat tolerable. If you would like to follow me, feel free: I'll make no guarantees about keeping Ipoki on.

My Complaints.

Unfortunately, both of these applications suck battery life. I have no idea what my current phone (HTC Touch Pro, Sprint) will do, but it's been my experience that most GPS applications require a persistent connection to the Internet, which drains a phone battery in about two hours. An application running on a mobile phone is of limited utility if it must be tethered to the power grid.

Other than battery life, here are my top feature requests:
  • Integration with Social Networks AND Privacy Settings - I do not want to share my location with just anyone and I want to be able to integrate with Facebook.
  • Updates to Twitter, Facebook, etc., based on location. - If I am at Stomping Grounds in Ames, I want my Facebook status to read, "Aaron is at Stomping Grounds in Ames." Even cooler would be time-based updates, so if I'm at John Deere between 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., my status can read, "Aaron can't sleep, so he's gone to work early."
  • Automatic geo-tagging of social media content. - If I post a picture to Facebook from my cell phone, attach my location to it.
Finally, the United States mobile phone carriers are notorious for locking the features on their phones, preventing cool applications like Ipoki and Mologogo from accessing the GPS applications. (Verizon is especially notorious for this.) They claim that it's so that they can have network stability, but most of the rest of the world allows users to use unlocked equipment with few problems . . .

The Future.

As social networking becomes more location-aware, we will certainly see some interesting things happening in the future. Here's an abbreviated list of my predictions:
  • Location data will be aggregated to provide general information, such as traffic reports (UC Berkeley is already experimenting with this).
  • Advertising, advertising, advertising. Expect the US cell phone carriers to try to get location-based advertising on your phone any way they can. When you walk by Starbucks, they'll offer you a free ringtone with your latte.
  • It will become common practice for parents track their children by installing software on their cell phones. (All major US cell phone carriers are currently selling this service.) This will quickly become obsolete as children learn how to disable these services. Cheating spouses, however, had better beware.
  • Location data will be used to improve quality of service: Airports, for example, could use this data to map passenger paths through terminals, marry this data to flight schedules and use this to figure out which airplane should park where.
  • People will be automatically informed when their friends are in the area, so that they can meet up in person. This will be a rare case of technology fostering real social interaction.
Well, that's my Tuesday @ 5:00 a.m. brain-dump on location-aware services. What are your predictions? Do you use location-aware services on your mobile phone? I'm looking to experiment with some other applications, so if you have any suggestions of apps I should look at, go ahead and send them my way.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lessons Learned from Parents' Basement Flood

This weekend, I spent a significant amount of time clearing everything out of my parents' basement. About half of the stuff in the basement was ruined, but it taught two important lessons:

1. Backups are worthless, unless they are regular and stored off-site.

My parents faithfully backed up their financial data every week to a floppy disk, which they stored right by the computer. Unfortunately, the pipe that broke soaked their computer and their backup disks. We haven't yet tried to recover the data, but if we do, we will have dodged a bullet.

2. Paper records are a pain and often not needed.

Since everything had to come out of my parents' basement, I got exposure to the amount of paper records that they keep. Frankly, I think that people keep a lot more records than they need to. Whether it's a credit card statement or bank statement, the bank can always pull back statements (usually for a fee). I think that the headache saved by not needing to manage records is well-worth the $50 that I might spend pulling a few years of bank statements. Many paper records were destroyed; it will be interesting to see if they actually need them.

For the records that DO need to be stored, I generally scan and store these on my computer, and then sort through them once a year. I think that this is a good practice.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Social Engagement

One of the things that I would like to do during this next year is to become more socially engaged. (I’m waiting to hear back from some interviewing that I’ve done at Deere before I become committed, because I’d hate to commit to something and then leave in a few months.)

At Deere, employees are encouraged to contribute to United Way (my thoughts about that are in another post) and to participate in build days with Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity is great, but when they push the religious angle, it really turns me (and several others) off. I really feel that promoting these two programs (at the exclusion of others) encourages employees to ignore the myriad ways in which they can contribute.

There are thousands of ways in which we can be involved in our communities, but we don’t encourage social engagement generally. I think that it would be great to get some sort of partnership going with a local school and have engineers tutoring math, or helping to teach language, or going to speak with classes. I’d love to go speak with German classes about where their language skills can take them. (I actually do this, on my own time.) A colleague suggested recently that Deere give a few “social engagement” days, in addition to vacation days, so that employees can contribute to their communities in ways in which they feel most comfortable. This is a great idea, and something that I think we should push at Deere.

What do you do to be socially engaged? Do you think that this is important?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Saving Time by Batching Tasks

One my new New Year's Resolutions is to eliminate some tasks that are unnecessary, freeing up more time for the things I really want to do.

The first target is my postal mail. I love mail. In fact, when I was living with Tim, we would often swing by the house to pick up the mail during lunch. It was great, I processed all of my mail immediately and got it out of my inbox. Good, right? Wrong.

Dropping by the house and processing mail every day caused about 20 minutes of overhead . . . that's over two hours a week. Two hours a week for mail? Really? That sounds a bit insane. After all, there is NOTHING in the mail that can't wait for a week. So, I am now checking mail only on Wednesdays. Everything will be put in a basket and be processed on Wednesdays. This will save me about two hours a week.