Skype – You Done Me Wrong

Well, hello. I’m back. And not just on my blog. I’m now back on Skype as well – no thanks to Microsoft.

A few months ago, I tried to open my Microsoft Skype and found myself locked out. I’ve had the account for maybe 9 or 10 years, all the way back to when Skype was a scrappy little online video conferencing tool called just plain Skype. At the time, we didn’t have too many options when it came to a reasonably good connection, and as a remote employee, it was an essential lifeline to my coworkers.

I know this because, when I went to rediscover my password, I encountered three obstacles:

  1. One of my emails was that very old work address. Can’t respond to that.
  2. Many of the ID questions wanted old answers. I couldn’t remember where I was living at the time or what car I owned when I subscribed, much less who I was connected to in my Skype account.
  3. When I tried to use the other, legit address on the account, none of the emails that Skype supposedly sent back to me actually arrived.

One email told me my account was now blocked due to suspicious activity and that I should try harder to log in. Then, their final response included this sage advice: “Because there have been multiple unsuccessful recovery attempts for this account, we recommend at this point that you create a new account.”

So – they are telling me, a Skype user for 9 years, that I have to start all over again. Who does that? My bank doesn’t. Twitter doesn’t. Even our pool club doesn’t.

I went online, searched for responses to people with the same problem, and found over 5 million search responses to “cannot get into Skype account.” Many of the sites suggested I had no real options, that my fate was sealed. I was the walking dead. Unable to admit defeat, I made four more attempts to get through the maze of automated requests and finally found a contact address and wrote in.

After a few back-and-forths with actual humans (I believe) named Lylle O. and Chariza V. from Skype Customer Service, we were no closer to an answer. Rather than actually go into my account and help unlock it, they continued to suggest that I needed to create a new account. I begged them to call me, offered to supply as much information as I could regarding the account. To prove myself as a real account owner. They stonewalled me. So I gave up.

Fast forward to last weekend: My brother asked me to Skype, so I tried one last effort to recover my account, this time using the mobile Skype app. And what do you know? The email with the verification code came through this time. I had to double verify my account and change the email twice, but I got back in. I also made sure to update the recovery settings.

Looking back to my experience of four months, I can’t help but feel sad for Skype under Microsoft. When a tool with millions and millions of users won’t bother to offer more than automated support tools or give employees the authority to actually help customers, it’s a clear sign that there’s room in the market for a responsive and user-friendly live chat tool. Three lessons here:

  1. Write down all my friends’ Skype addresses and add them to my phone contacts.
  2. Go back to all my old accounts and make sure I have the right email addresses and multiple contact methods enabled.
  3. Try something new: I’ve been hearing good things about WhatsApp, and it’s downloading to my phone right now. Maybe all my Skype friends will join me there.


In Memorium: Abby the Cat

Today we had to put Abby the cat to rest. Almost 20, she “did it her way,” as Frank Sinatra sang. Aloof in her early and middle years, Abby mellowed dramatically in later life, suffering through our attention and petting, I suspect, as a way to siphon off our body heat. She was always cold.

Six years ago, I wrote a blog post about Abby when I was running the marketing for an eLearning company that focused on process improvement and product design. I looked for it today, and though they have since removed it from their website (!), I was able to locate it via the Wayback Machine. Nothing dies on the Internet.

I present it as a way to honor the memory of the extended life of sweet, dear Abby. Certainly not my best work, but a classic Abby story.

iPod Destructive Testing Using Cat

Yes, I still have the cat, for now.

March 09, 2009 – This morning, my cat threw up a hairball on my iPod. I kid you not.

As the, well, regurgitation, soaked in through the front navigation wheel, I saw enough to know that there was liquid mixed in with the delicate innards. This was much like the “coffee on a laptop” scenario, so I knew not to turn the iPod on. But will it still work, and what does this have to do with e-Learning and design? There are two important connections.

Abby the CatFirst, my online search for “iPod and water” (“iPod and bile” was never a realistic candidate) reinforced an important tenet of Blended Learning. Many people mistakenly believe that Blended Learning is simply a combination of e-Learning and instructor led training.

In actuality, effective Blended Learning is much more. It is defined as learning from many components, including e-Learning, coaching, live classes, online sources, blogs, forums, simulations, team exercises, and even textbooks. Self directed learning from online technologies (e.g., YouTube, Facebook, Second Life) is also included in the recognized Blended Learning sources, and is one of the fastest growing methods used by professionals to advance their knowledge. After the adrenaline rush, it occurred to me that my own use of Google represented a now-ingrained and non-traditional learning method.

Second, I realized that if my iPhone had been the victim, I would probably not have had a crisis at all. As we all know, Apple constantly modifies and improves its designs, and my phone has a fairly seamless front surface that would not have allowed the, um, cat liquids, to penetrate. The lack of a keyboard is a breakthrough innovation that still triggers curiosity from non-owners, and the nearly solid surface is just one aspect of the overall design. If only I had left my iPhone on the buffet last night.

So, will my iPod still work? Online forum advice leads me to believe that the odds are good, as long as I keep it face down and in a warm dry place, like a car dashboard. I now have it positioned far away enough from a space heater to warm – not toast – it to dryness. It is resting comfortably, with a positive prognosis. Perhaps I will try to turn it on Christmas morning and receive my own little holiday miracle.

Putting My Cats on a PIP

I woke abruptly at 5:30 AM.  My wife was shouting from the kitchen. A field mouse had become trapped in our double sink, struggling to get out like some sort of miniature mastodon in a prehistoric hot spring basin. As “master of the house” (in name only), I was expected to leave the warm comfort of the bed and usher the mouse off to its next incarnation.


Two cats in the hand is worth one in the bush.

I wasn’t surprised. This was the second one we’d caught in as many weeks, though the other had left a endless trail of mini-poops in the basement before we’d captured him. I had no idea where this new one had been living. I am still afraid to look in the lower cabinets.

Rodent safely dispatched, I crawled crankily back into bed. There, waiting for me, was Malcolm, our 16-year-old striped tabby. He and his sister Abby – now 19 years old – were useless as mousers, one of their supposed “responsibilities.” They’d let me down yet again, and I was overwhelmed with disappointment.

Was it time to put them on a PIP?

For those who don’t know, a PIP, or Performance Improvement Plan, is a popular way to get rid of an employee when you don’t want to be sued. The supervisor documents that the employee isn’t meeting his or her job requirements, sets a very high bar, leans back and monitors the employee until enough time has passed to safely let him or her go. A PIP is a not-so-gentle hint that your time will soon be up.

PIPs are a response to poor performance, but they’re also used for personality conflicts or in a culture that prizes tough love over nurturing. To my mind, it’s a cowardly and disingenuous tactic practiced by managers too afraid to fire someone. PIPs offer false hope, and on the rare case that the plan is cancelled, the employee never stays long after the painful experience.

Of course, I knew a feline PIP was never an option.

First, they’re cats, which means I am their de facto employee, and you can’t PIP your boss. Second, mousing is a sport for the young. At their advanced ages, our cats are quite adept at survival skills that include napping in the sun, caterwauling for attention, and licking their bowls shiny clean. They are performing admirably.

And finally, as I drifted back to la la land, with Abby settled on top of me and Malcolm under the sheets purring against my chest, I fully understood why I could never axe these two. They had me right where they wanted me.


NOTE: I owe a debt of gratitude to Troy Williams for his influence on this post. Many years ago, he gleefully explained the true meaning of a PIP to me, painfully ripping away my innocence like it was a particularly sticky band aid. Up to that point, I had actually believed a PIP was for the good of the employee. Oh, naive Larry. I miss you so.



Good Sportsmanship in Business

A few weeks ago, I received a memorable lesson in sportsmanship via my daughter, the gymnast. This got me thinking about integrity, the abundance – or the glaring lack of it – in the office place. I’ll explain.

Turn, Turn, Turn

A few weeks ago at family dinner, our ten-year-old daughter proclaimed that it was time for a stricter coach who would stretch her limits and accelerate her gymnastics skills. In our role as supportive parents, we reached out to a few of the local gyms, and she was invited in to shadow their teams and show her potential. A week later, she was officially asked to join her first choice, and she gladly accepted.

The take-home lesson came when the head coach of her old gym asked her to drop by one last evening at the end of practice to bid farewell to her old teammates. It’s the formal custom of that gym for all departing members, and my daughter was nervous. What should she say? How should she present her decision? Why was she even being asked to do this?

On the drive over, I coached her through a few tactful ways to explain her departure. When the moment came, she did a fine job. Most of the other girls were excited for her, a few cried a little, and the evening concluded with an extended hugfest. The reception surprised my daughter, who was grateful for the opportunity. On the way home, we discussed what we saw as the benefits of the experience:

  1. CLOSURE: Her old team learned why she was leaving and had the chance to wish her luck,
  2. CONSEQUENCES: My daughter was shown the impact of her decision on her former teammates and coaches, and most importantly,
  3. SPORTSMANSHIP: A seminal lesson in how to respectfully handle change, even when it brought up feelings of loss or disappointment.

So why can’t adults act this way at work?

The next day on my long commute to work, my mind kept returning to how well the old gym had pulled off the departure of one of their athletes. The coaches had honored the efforts and achievements of my daughter and dealt with the issue in an open and dignified ceremony. How common is that? I think not at all, especially in the hard scrabble world of commerce.

Over the years, I’ve certainly seen my share of poorly handled sudden departures. The guy who disappeared in a sulfurous cloud of unconfirmed rumors regarding an online gambling addiction. The women who felt passed over by their manager, left the company, and later successfully sued for discrimination. The disgruntled secretary who was let go after one too many arguments with the boss. The intern who one day just stopped showing up.

Sadly, in many organizations, staff departures equate to no sense closure, reveal few consequences, and take place with zero dignity. The former teammate is immediately persona non grata, his desk and belongings stripped away by an underclass of office supply scavengers. Next comes weeks of trash talk about the former employees’ shortcomings, parentage, and peccadilloes.

I avoid this poisonous gossip like the measles. My personal policy: “never speak ill of the dead.” Not being in HR, I am fuzzy regarding the rules of what management can and cannot legally say. But I do know that real leaders are those who opt to tackle – and not ignore – these awkward circumstances.Treating departing employees with dignity is exemplary sportsmanship, played out courageously on the field of business.

When a manager takes the time to say something kind about the individual, to recognize her positive contributions over the ultimately negative outcome, he or she is demonstrating a commitment to a culture of respect. “A man lets you know who he is by how he treats others,” said the basketball player Mo Williams. The coaches at my daughter’s former gym proved without a doubt last week just how much they care for all the girls and boys they train.


Going Tech Cold Turkey

This winter break was not wisely spent. Sure, we enjoyed an amazing ski day at Copper Mountain, a few decent movies and a number of superb meals with friends, but we also lost significant time to technology. To whit:

  • My daughter’s extended time on the iPad over winter break resulted in zero recreational reading.
  • My addiction to Farm Heroes meant no blog writing and less exercising.
  • My wife’s decision to rewatch almost the entire series of Six Feet under on HBOGo lasted for days.

When, with the restart of school, our daughter’s teachers told us she was having trouble focusing on simple assignments, it was clear to us that something needed to change. So, in the spirit of a New Year’s cleanse (minus the grapefruit), we have agreed to go (mostly) cold turkey with our tech.

Away went the iPad. Gone were the video breaks on school nights. Bye-bye to post-dinner, prime-time email binges. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not one of those families that sits around watching separate screens during suppertime, but our mutual addiction to Netflix and HBOGo had us well along the path in that very direction.

When I was a child, my parents strictly forbid television on week nights, but now, there are so many alternative forms of distraction, that a simple ban on the boob tube won’t cut it. So we’ve put in place some sensible limits to usage, especially in the evening before bed. The results so far: a far less irritable child, much improved dinner conversations, and more time spent reading.

Our tech hiatus coincided with my reading The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, by EdD. Steiner-Adair Catherine and Teresa H. Barker, as part of the “One School / One Book” program at the Ricks Center. Based on a combination of current psychological research and the clinical experience of Steiner-Adair, The Big Disconnect is hard-hitting, pointing the finger at everyone – parents and children – for the emerging crisis of disconnected family life.

I highly recommend it, and after poring over the rather startling stories of tech gone wrong, you too may find yourself contemplating a break. It’s certainly reinforced our desire to regulate our need to text and type and to stay present with each other while together as a family. I’ll report back after a few months to let you know how this experiment worked out.