Saturday, December 29, 2012

Oh, the Old "Competitive Pay" Saw

I woke up very early this morning and had some quiet, quality time with my hard copy Wall Street Journal, Weekend Edition.

A story on the front page talked about the rise in college costs (specifically, this was all about U of Minnesota-Twin Cities).  The article pointed to the growth in non-teaching staff and other administrative bureaucracy as major culprits behind cost increases, which have galloped far beyond inflation but even beyond rises in health care costs.  Now that's a worthy benchmark!

I will keep this blog post short, and I won't wade into waters that I don't fully understand.  I don't know all the details about how much better -- or not better -- the Golden Gopher students are served by these extra staffers or other overhead.

What I do know, however, is that as I read, I was eagerly waiting a quote from some official offering a defense of certain high salaries via the "competitive with industry" canard.  U of M employs 353 people who make more than $200,000 per year.  The school's new President, who is introduced early and hailed throughout the article as a cost-cutter, is quoted towards the end of the article as saying his $610,000 salary "is competitive in the marketplace."  (His Chief of Staff, by the way, makes a sweet buck ninety-five).

Again, I won't presume to be an expert -- or even to have a clue -- about how to run the University of Minnesota.  One article, even a full-length WSJ feature -- doesn't change that.  I don't know which offices and staffs could be trimmed down.  I also won't talk about the work ethic of people I've never met (particularly in light of the past 7+ years which I've spent working for Uncle Sam).

But here's what I do know:  Government jobs, non-profit jobs, and university jobs are NOT comparable to private sector jobs in a simple apples-to-apples sort of way.  You can't simply say, "Well, the average Fortune 500 CEO makes [x], so therefore we should pay our "CEO" [y]."  And it works even less well once you start moving down the line.  

Yes, they're both leaders.  Yes, they're in charge of people, and yes there are significant pressures and stresses that come with Senior Executive positions anywhere.

But how often do you see people come from a solely government, non-profit, or university background STRAIGHT into the C-Suite of a Fortune 500 corporation?  Not that often, right?  Because the skill sets aren't directly transferable.  You could throw statistics out there that show the average Fortune 500 CEO making something near $13 million, which is way more than 20 times higher than the average University president, but that just doesn't mean much in and of itself.

Now, perhaps by "competitive in the marketplace" the guy was referring to the marketplace for University Presidents (average salary just shy of $500k).  Given that his University is one of the largest in the country, that would make way more sense.

I guess to tie it back to my original point, though, here's what I wanted to say with this entry: You often hear people in the government, non-profit, or university sectors defend high salaries with vague claims about 'private sector pay' or 'what they could make in industry.'  

The reality -- a VERY small number of people in the private sector make VERY high salaries.  Whether they deserve them is a question for another day.  There are lots more people in the private sector who make very quotidian salaries to work very hard.

If the people who earn incomes in the "very comfortable, but not quite 1 percent" range (say, between 150k and 400k) in those aforementioned sectors were to try to walk right in the door at State Street, or JP Morgan, or General Electric and think they could earn those sorts of salaries right away (excepting those with prior backgrounds in those areas), they might see the weakness in the sector-to-sector comparison argument).  

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Person of the Year Vote? Mayor Murphy

I just voted in this contest:  Lowell Sun's Person of the Year.

I voted for someone who represents a lot of what people say they want in a politician:  independence and originality of thought, ability to work with others when needed, and ability to tell others to put it [where the sun doesn't shine] when needed, too.

Probably no surprise that I voted for Patrick O. Murphy.

Oh, and MERRY CHRISTMAS from Market Street!  We're about to get going on a stockings-on-Christmas-Eve tradition, so time to close the laptop for the next day or so..

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gettin' Nonlethal With It..

Amidst all the hoopla, partisan wrangling, and attempts to jam square pegs into round holes, I heard what sounded like some pretty serious wheat coming out of the chaff via a Facebook post from Lowell blogger Renee Aste.

She raised the issue of non-lethal measures, which I'm surprised isn't being thrown around more in the post-Newtown debate.

I'll leave the specifics out of this post (can only justify so much procrastination today) BUT think about it...non-lethal measures can save the lives of would-be victims, avoid the problems of collateral damage and training requirements that come with the 'just arm everyone' solutions, and allow us to gain better insight into why these things happen (presuming here that the would-be shooter will survive until the cavalry can arrive and arrest him).

Some of the obvious non-lethals include things like Mace and Tasers, but there are way more interesting and sophisticated options that school security personnel could use.  With Mace and Tasers there are issues about stand-off (in other words, how do you get close enough to effectively use it without exposing yourself to too much risk?), but as I said, there's way more on the palette than just those.  Believe me, the US military is VERY interested in these sorts of things...

Many would serve a "just enough" sort of purpose -- they would incapacitate an aggressor "just enough" to keep things steady until a more heavy-handed response (i.e. law enforcement) was possible .  

Whuh Whuh What???

I just saw this blurb from an MIT Press Release (via the Office of Undergraduate Admission):
"Another change this year was the addition of an optional application question asking students to describe their sexual orientation and gender identity. MIT is now one of just a few schools to offer this question on its application; Elmhurst College, a private liberal-arts school near Chicago, became the first to do so last year."

Before I start to sound like just another straight white conservative mossback male, let me lay my creds on the line:  I fully believe in FULL equality for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.  I have been consistently in favor of DADT repeal and gay marriage for as long as I've written this blog.  If you read this blog, you already knew that, but I felt like I had to say it.

...And now that I have, I'm wondering, "What the heck is this?"  Why is this being asked of 16, 17, and 18 year-olds, who may not be sure of all this themselves? 

As a late bloomer with a sarcastic wit, I might've tried to answer this one cheekily: "Hopeful but frustrated."  Or perhaps, "Thinking about the girl in front of me in Physics class but wouldn't know what to do if push really came to shove."  "Living vicariously through the football team."

But before I get back to my day job (last final of Core is tomorrow...and the trial-by-fire semester will all be over in just 21 hours), I will try to get serious for a second.  How does a pimply, gangly kid with only vague concepts of 'this stuff' answer that?  The easy answer is just to leave it blank, as it is optional. 

But does that create a disadvantage?  Is some future clean energy scientist with 800s on her board scores, but without the 'crazy weekend at Smith' story now less 'competitive' than someone with 750s but some precociously bi-curious tendencies?

Furthermore, will some applicants try to 'game' this question?  Is it better to say that I'm into girls (can't help it, I really was just born that way) but that I'm an unequivocal "Straight Ally?"  That seems better than leaving it completely blank, right?  Should I wax eloquent about the gender spectrum?  Or should I go even further and hint that something that might not even be true in the first place but could help put my application in a certain pile OTHER than the one for the plain vanilla people from upper middle-class public high schools?  Then, if called out on it afterwards, could I plausibly cite "confusion about budding sexuality at the time?"

I'm all about LGBT equality.  In fact, I'm SO MUCH in favor of LGBT equality that I think MIT could best practice it by eliminating this question from all future applications.

Monday, December 17, 2012

So What's the What's the What's the...Scenario?

I recently posted on about how I was tired of the bumper sticker-isms flying around.  I noted that none of the people bombarding the airwaves imploring people to "do something"  had articulated a "something" that would've prevented the recent massacre, and that I had nothing to offer, either.

I take that last part back...sort of. 

One thing you really can do -- and should do -- is take 5-10 minutes to talk with your co-workers about a ROC (Rehearsal on Contact) drill you can have ready in case of a Live Shooter scenario unfolding.  If you work in a government office place -- particularly one with easy street access -- this concept is particularly relevant.

I'll leave the details to you and the specifics of your situation but I can tell you that huddling up defenselessly in the corner is probably NOT your best option.  Based on pattern analysis, you can  surmise that there is almost always a single shooter in these scenarios.  Make that assumption part of your ROC drill. 

Do you work on the 1st or 2nd floor near a window?  If you do, I would HIGHLY recommend that you consider a window egress as your first and best option.  If you are sure the shooter is inside the building, crouching behind most objects is not going to provide you with adequate cover.

You might know that the quickest way to end a firefight is to return fire.  However, I will assume you are unarmed (and don't recommend you modify that posture).  Something you might not know is that an effective way to gird yourself against certain "out in the open" threats (i.e. snipers) is to constantly remain in motion.  A tenet of urban patrolling is just to never stay too still in any one place for too long -- you don't know if someone is drawing a bead.

If it's a "crazy guy with a rifle from an elevated vantage point" scenario, keep good cover if you have it; otherwise, RUN.  Don't lay down in the open.  Don't think an object like a regular automobile is going to stop a bullet.  If the shooter is inside the building, and you've successfully made it out, don't be a hero -- RUN.  Don't stop anytime soon.

If exiting is simply not a viable option, you should know that the Live Shooter is going to be most vulnerable during a magazine reload.  Of course, it's preferable to wait until police arrive, but if you are truly cornered, and it comes down to being a sitting duck or taking a chance, this is when you would do it, particularly if you have a size advantage.  (This is how many lives were saved in Springfield, OR in a high school cafeteria in 1998...wrestlers took the kid down...he begged them to shoot him...they didn't, but held him until police arrived).

The odds are strong that none of this will ever apply to any of us.  But the 5-10 minutes you take going over this basic ROC drill might give you some peace of mind..and if, God forbid, something like this did unfold, you would be far more confident if you had a plan to fall back on.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Analogy I Wish I'd Used

Two entries ago, I talked about the at-first-blush unconventional advice a friend had given for new business founders:  don't spend too much time around other entrepreneurs.  Of course, 'too much' leaves plenty of room for interpretation and subjectivity, but his general point was that with limited time, it's better to use it to a) actually build your business, and b) talk to your actual or prospective customers, rather than c) go to the nightly founder networking night events in Boston.

Of course, balance is what makes sense -- some of that stuff is really useful.

Anyway, here's the analogy I shoulda coulda woulda used in that entry:  a band.   I know virtually nothing about how anyone promotes a band for either live gigs or recording contracts, but I think this analogy will hold some water, just based on general principle.  Here goes:  Let's say you and your friends are trying to start a band.  You guys think you have the special sauce needed to be awesome.  Whether it's the uniqueness of your sound, the soul with which you play, or something about the way you look, interact with the crowd, etc. you think you've got something that could "blow up."

How should you test your hypothesis?  

It stands to reason that you would start out playing in front of small crowds to gauge the reaction from the audience and the management.  See if you get asked back.  See if you can go bigger.  See who notices you, etc.  If you're trying to get a recording deal, well, then put your demo together and try to get some time to borrow the ear of whoever makes that decision.

What should you probably NOT spend most of your time focusing on? 

Other musicians.  Think about it -- not only are they not your audience, but they're trying to do what you're doing (even if there's no 'market overlap' and no direct sense of competition).  Add it up, and you're way more likely to hear stuff that's steeped in negatives, rather than honest feedback or encouragement.  Obviously, there's a lot you can learn from someone who's been around the block a time or two before you got there.  And obviously, it seems wise to wear whatever shoe fits.

However, there is a point at which that value tapers off, and maybe even starts to curve downward.

That's why there's no substitute for the most honest form of feedback -- are people willing to pony up their dollars in exchange for whatever you're offering?

Critics will criticize, Thomases will doubt, and armchair know-it-alls will, well, know-it-all.  Great.  And dogs will bark while cats meow.  Got it. None of that should surprise anyone.

But separate from all of that, a band that draws a big following, much like a business that draws real live customers, is doing something right.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Psy's Rights, My Rights

If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you might want to skip this one.

This is going to be one of those recurring entry themes -- since the subject is the recent revelations about inflammatory remarks made several years ago by the Korean rapper Psy, you might already know what I'm about to say.

If not, here goes:  Psy absolutely has the right to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants.  He spoke out against the US military presence in Korea at a time when tensions were very high (following the accidental deaths of two Korean schoolgirls from a US military vehicle).  At the time, anti-US feelings were strong around the world due to the invasion of Iraq...and feelings in Korea were particularly intense given the kidnapping of a Korean citizen in Iraq.

His words were rather strong.  He advocated the death of US soldiers and their families (specifically, wives, daughters, and mothers).  Whether he "just" meant the US soldiers responsible for the Abu Ghraib abuses, or US soldiers in general, does not seem entirely clear.  Regardless, I know what I need to know about whether I will ever consciously support Psy (by watching his videos, paying to see him perform, wearing anything associated w/him, etc.)


I will respect Psy's right to speak his feelings through songs.  That is probably one of the oldest forms of human expression, and it should never go away.  There are very few places in the world where that right does not exist [and yes, I will point out that one of them happens to be a place where many US soldiers perished in the early 1950s while fighting Communism].

I hope his supporters can understand that my decision to never listen to Psy's music, to never support him financially, and to never see him in the same light again is just another side of that same coin.

Freedoms of speech, thought, and expression should mean what they sound like.  None of those freedoms are jeopardized when people disagree with the words or thoughts of others...but they ARE when people want to arbitrarily decide where the line gets drawn, and where disagreement stops being okay.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

One Entrepreneur's Not-So-Off-The-Wall Advice

As you know, I'm a sucker for anything that sounds counterintuitive at first, but then seems obvious later in a palm-slapping-the-forehead sort of way.

My buddy, who is the CEO of a company based in Allston (but who shall remain nameless for this entry), said this over coffee the other day: "The biggest thing I'd tell anyone who is about to start, or who just started a business, is not to spend too much time around other entrepreneurs."  

I gave him my puzzled look.  Yeah, but isn't all the conventional wisdom about how you should be constantly networking, constantly learning about best practices, staying looped into the "ecosystem?"

"Sort of," he replied.  "Some of that is worthwhile.  But it's almost never a better use of time than talking to your actual customers and building your business."  He went on to say that many people lose sight of this -- they become obsessed with the start-up "scene" and completely ignore the fact that businesses are, at their core, all about dollars being transacted.  He added that the start-up scene is like any scene -- it has its own insular lingo, faddish concepts, groupthink, etc.  There's a big obsession with homeruns as opposed to solid hits:  if you're pitching something that involves a) mobile devices, b) the cloud, c) the developing world, and d) scalability, then many will think you're the greatest thing since sliced bread.  You could stand up and say, "I'm going to bring streaming educational software to Uganda through a scalable app that tracks student progress with a proprietary algorithm," and people might line up to buy you drinks and shake your hand.

But guess what?  Unless you can somehow monetize that, it's less of a quality business idea than that of someone down the street with half your formal education who thinks he knows a great place where a car wash could go.

That second guy might not use all the right buzzwords, and he may not know or care about mobile user interfaces for orphanage locator apps in Burma, but if he can get the attention of people with dirty cars who seek clean cars, he will be in business.

He went on to explain that other entrepreneurs are more likely to act like restaurant critics than kitchen line staff when they hear about what you're doing...makes sense, right?

He wasn't pooh-poohing the idea the CEO-to-CEO networking.  I'm not trying to, either.  Everything in its place, and to everything, a season.

It's just that the execution side of things -- the moment in which someone says, "I would rather have [that service or product] than [this money in my hand or account]" is where business actually happens.  

Amidst a lot of jargon and buzzwords, people can lose sight of that.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Help Schoolchildren in Colombia...From Right Here in Lowell

Via Beatriz Sierra:

I am here again asking for your collaboration in helping the boys and girls of the school Centro Rural Corcovado of Titiribi, Antioquia, Colombia.
Friday, December 7th, will be our annual event- Viejoteca 2012. It will help raise funds for this cause in which 100% of the proceeds will be used to help buy the children’s school utensils for the 2013 school year.
If you are not much of a dancer, come anyways and bring friends, enjoy good music and a few drinks. By attending the event you are helping many young boys and girls stay in school and continue learning.
To watch the video of the children receiving the school utensils for the 2012 school year, click the following link:

Place: La Pradera - 1717 Middlesex St, Lowell MA
Time:  8:00 p.m to 2:00 a.m
Price:   $10 dollars  
Date:  Friday, December 7th