Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Right Way to Address Bad Service

Customer service is a pet peeve of mine. There's no way for a business to never have a problem. But, what a company does to address the problem is their moment to shine.

I've written many times about stellar customer service here, here, and here. I've also addressed how to get the customer service you deserve. The blog post is one of the latter.

I don't believe in receiving bad customer service and then posting to Yelp about it unless I've addressed it with the business, first, and given them a chance to fix the problem. Today, that happened to me and the business failed.


I've never given anything but 5 star reviews on Yelp. I believe in sprinkling the world with good karma. If I have a problem with a business, then I'll address it, on the spot, to give the business a chance to fix it. Otherwise, I'll let it go. Speak now, or forever hold your tongue. In other words, don't blindside a business with a bad review. Instead, address the issue on the spot with tact and understanding. Tact is the lubricant of human relationships, so use it liberally.

Today, I rented a truck from a local mom-and-pop U-Haul franchise. This is my third time renting from these owners, and, up until now, I was surprised that their seven Yelp reviews averaged out to 1.5 stars. It turns out there's a reason.

The husband and wife team do a good job when everything goes well. But, when something goes wrong, they come across as lazy. My lazy characterization is a combination of my observation, today, and the Yelp reviews.

Today, when I rented my U-Haul truck, I specifically asked for a few extras such as a hand truck, blankets, and a pad lock. The first two items cost extra... no problem, I've rented U-Haul trucks before and I knew that. The last item... the pad lock... is chained to the truck and the key to lock it is on the ignition keychain. When I tried to use the key to unlock the padlock, it wouldn't budge so the owner tried it and she didn't have any luck either. This pad lock is the only thing that secures the back of the truck. I didn't want to leave it parked on the street, overnight, without securing it. Too many homeless in my neighborhood looking for blankets, etc.

When I saw that the owner couldn't open the pad lock, I asked if she could replace it with a working on. She said no. She said that they didn't have any and she recommended that I buy a lock. I asked if there would be a discount and she said no, the pad lock is free. Then I asked if we could get a different truck and she, again, said no because "I have no other trucks," even though there were clearly other trucks, of the same exact model, on the lot. Even if those were reserved, she could swap out the trucks. I have no doubt that she lied to me simply to avoid refilling out new paperwork. She said that she was sorry and she was on her way.

After getting home and trying a bicycle lock, which didn't work, I saw no other option but to buy a new padlock, which I did. Not a big deal, but still an inconvenience, costing me extra time and money. So, it looks like they'll be getting a 4.0 from me on Yelp (my first). Not a big deal for them, since it'll help their 1.5 star average, but perhaps I'm being insensitive. Maybe this husband and wife are on the verge of bankruptcy. Who knows, but they certainly could have done better; or, perhaps I'm too easy going and I was taken advantage of.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Little Stories to be Told

1st Grade, Silas Wood, Huntington Station, Long Island

42 years later, in the Hamptons.

Top: 1st grade at Silas Wood Elementary School.

Bottom: 42 years later I found myself polishing Brian Gerken’s shoes at a dinner party at Victoria’s home in the Hamptons. Brian literally gave me the shirt off his back as a “thank you.”

Photo credit: Our 6th grade teacher, Ms. Cooke, who had Brian, Vicky, and I as her students, snapped the shoe shining photo in the Hamptons.

Coda: There were five people from my first grade class photo in attendance at our dinner party in the Hamptons. It's not that were remained close, over the years, it's simply that timing was on our side as we came together for a 6th grade reunion the evening before our 30th high school reunion.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Good Design is Apparent

The lip (red arrows) wrapping around the sink looks like styling, but it isn't.

Good design is apparent.
Great design is transparent. 
– Joe & Joe (Sparano & Moreno)

Styling is concerned with surface treatment and appearance – the expressive qualities of a product. Design, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with problem solving.
– "Design of the 20th Century" by Charlotte & Peter Fiell

One day, I plugged up the sink on the right with a stopper and stepped away while I left the water running to fill up the basin. I quickly forgot about it until about 20 minutes later. As I hurried back to the kitchen, I could hear the water spilling over before I could see the sink. In my mind's eye, I envisioned how much of a mess of water I'd have to clean up on the floor. Guess what? Not a drop spilled onto the counter or ground. I was floored when I saw that every drop of water had overflowed into the sink basin on the left, thanks to the lip around the sink. For all these years, I simply thought that lip was styling; it turns out it's functional. It's a design element that solves a problem – the exact problem I created by leaving the water running until it overflowed.

Database Architecture & RDBMS Best Practices

The most popular database is Excel. Knowledge workers use Excel spreadsheets as simple, non-relational databases more often than as an accounting worksheet. That's OK, because it works. The big boys (software developers) use relational databases, which is like tying together each worksheet in Excel; the tying together (joining) of database tables is the relational part.

In my computer science college classes I was taught that each row in a database requires a primary key. Just like each row on your Excel spreadsheet has a unique number: 1, 2, 3; each row in a relational database needs a way to find that row of data, quickly. In academia – in other words, in theory – I was frequently taught to use something like a person's social security number (SSN) as the primary key for a database table. But, in practice, that doesn't work nicely. In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

One of the key tenets of primary keys is that they must never change unless every single reference to that primary key (the relationship joined by a foreign key) is also updated which is not a trivial task

There are a few issues with using a person's SSN as a primary key. One issue is that it's a long number, much longer than a 1 – 5 digit integer typically used as a primary key, so it takes a database engine longer to compare numbers during a lookup.

More importantly, what happens if a person's SSN changes? SSNs can change in domestic violence cases, identity theft, when two people are mistakenly issued the same SSN, etc. You may think, since these are such rare cases, that it's not a big deal for a database; but software systems have to be developed to handle every possible case to work effectively. Good software should reflect a true reality, not a theoretical reality. So, to solve this issue, most databases issue a sequence of integers for each row. In the case where databases are in a cluster, each database might tag a digit on the end representing which database server issued a specific primary key. In other words, instead of 1, 2, 3; database server #4 in a cluster might issue 14, 24, 34, etc. as primary keys to avoid any primary key collisions.

Database Best Practices

Having done a bit of database work at Apple, I've learned some best practices that are worth sharing. A RDBS should start off in third normal form which means only primary/foreign keys are duplicated in separate tables – the rest of the data should be unique to each table. Later, when there's a performance issue, the database can be optimized, as needed, by denormalizing the data.

1. Primary keys: Never build intelligence into a primary key – a primary key is simply an artifact of the database and it should represent nothing more than a way to access a row in a database table (i.e., don't use SSN as a primary key). Just like a software developer doesn't care what GUID is assigned to an object in memory, neither should a database designer care much about the contents of a primary key. Creating a primary key that's a simple integer is highly efficient since a computer can quickly find and compare numbers (in the case of integers) much faster than a string of nine characters (in the case of SSNs).

I once consulted with a retried Army first sergeant at DTIC, around 1999, who made her RDBS primary keys positive and negative integers. The primary keys for active personnel were positive integers and the retired personnel primary keys were negative integers. While this sounds smart, it's actually too clever. This was pre-9/11 so it was rare for a retired person to come back on active duty. The reason this was a bad decision is that it can be dangerous to change primary keys, and then update all related tables' foreign keys.

2. Table Names: Database table names should be singular (Employee, Order, Transaction, Statistic, etc); they should be named for what each row in the table represents, not the entire collection. The reason is that, typically, there's a one-to-one mapping between a row in a database table and an object used in code. For example, in code, an instance variable referencing an Employee object should represent a single employee from the database while an instance variable that's plural, such as Employees, should represent a collection of objects such as an array or dictionary.

3. Lookup Tables: A lookup table is a simple static database table that's used to populate a list or collection. For example, a list of countries that your company ships to. Perhaps, your company only ships to the U.S. and Canada. Later, when you start shipping to more countries, how do you update the pop-up list of countries on your website or mobile app? With a lookup table, you simply add another row to the table with the new country that you ship to. Updating the database table is easier than changing your code, recompiling, and deploying. Typically, a look up table also has a column representing a sort order. This is done so the list can be displayed in a specific order with, say, the U.S. listed first, instead of Afghanistan, since most of your customers are located in America.

4. Compound Primary Keys: A database table should have a single primary key for a typical one-to-many relationship to another table (join). Sometimes, you need a many-to-many relationship. For example, a Person table/object joined to an Address. A person might have multiple addresses (homes), and an address might belong to multiple people. In these cases, where a many-to-many relationship is needed then a simple middle table is set up that contains only two columns which contain two primary keys propagated from the two joining tables. One of the primary keys in the middle table is the primary key of the Person and the other is the primary key of the Address. Technically speaking, the two primary keys of the middle table are propagated foreign keys. One of the middle table's primary keys is a foreign key from the Person table and the other is a foreign key from the Address table.

I'm not aware of a practical case where more than two primary keys are needed in a database table. In cases where I've seen three (or more) primary keys in a database table I realized that the database designer didn't have a good understanding of relational databases. What they typically needed was a single primary key and indices created for their other columns to optimize their lookup speeds.

5. Number vs Varchar: 

Do not use a numeric type for defining data fields which won't be used for calculations (i.e. "math"). In other words, credit card numbers, phone numbers, SSNs, etc., should be string types (i.e. varchars) in a database model. One specific problem I've encountered on a production system is when a developer stored the credit card security code (CSC) as a numeric data type. Although this credit card code is always numeric, it can contain an important leading zero. When I saw my CSC repeatedly failing at checkout on an e-commerce web site, I immediately knew the problem and confirmed it by reaching out to the DBA.