You Deserve to be Eaten by Amazon

By way of practicing what I preach I’ve recently been going through the “Things To Try” sections at the end of each chapter of Blending Leadership, picking out one or two of the activities, and trying them. Last week, I visited an actual shopping center staffed by real, live people.  I had the following “offline thing” in mind:


I went to the mall because I had a free afternoon, and I had to buy some things for the start of the school year. I headed for a shoe store that carried my favorite shoe brand, the same shoe brand that I’ve purchased again and again over the years.

As I walked in to the store and started looking at some of the shoes, I noted that it was 5:01 p.m.  I was on a semi-scientific mission, after all, so I had to be precise. I kept looking at shoes, turning them over, roaming around the store, and nobody asked me if I needed help, nobody asked me to try on a pair of shoes, nobody even looked at me. At 5:08, still utterly unattended, I left, and for the first time in years, I considered a different brand of shoes. (Also, for the first time ever, I realized that my “relationship” with this particular brand was completely one-sided. I knew them, followed them, kept an eye on the way they changed — but they didn’t know a thing about me or how best to serve me.)

This cycle — of me being basically ignored as I tried to shop — repeated itself, to varying degrees, in three other stores. I walked into stores and either couldn’t find anybody to help me or found people who seemed very uninterested in helping me. Honestly, I often felt like an intruder or that I was interrupting the salespeople when I tried to engage them. I’m not suggesting that these kinds of sales jobs are easy or exciting. They involve a lot of standing around, near constant interactions with semi-difficult people, and certainly it’s not everyone’s passion to sell the things they are asked to sell in the mall. I recognize all of that, but overall, I found that the actual experience of going to the mall dramatically reinforced my opinion that online shopping is the better way (for me) to buy the things I need. In fact, I actually purchased something from Amazon ON MY PHONE from the mall because I just couldn’t figure out how to find what I needed quickly.  It may be many years before I drag my body back to a mall.

Time for a reflective rant: if you operate a store that offers a face-to-face experience for customers, then that face-to-face experience should be a big part of the value proposition. You should present eager salespeople who are eager to help customers. And to make that happen, you should invest money in training those people and holding them accountable for that experience. Because, honestly, if you run an organization that puts salespeople face-to-face with customers and the experience is as bad as it was for me the last time I went to the mall, then you deserve to be eaten by Amazon. And if you’re a school and guilty of the same charge, you deserve to be eaten by Khan Academy (or some other online equivalent).

As mobile technology becomes ubiquitous and trusted, people themselves become more mobile. Most people that I know really like mobility — they like being able to control more of their time, they like being able to avoid frustration. And what’s more frustrating than having to operate in poorly designed spaces (like parking lots or malls that are designed to keep you a little bit lost, a little bit disoriented, so that you spend more time in them)?

This is why I’m very proud to work at the school that I work at. At Montclair Kimberley Academy, we are investing time and energy and resources in building out and articulating social-emotional learning competencies to show students how to engage with each other and with the world. Even better, when we were getting ready to roll out these competencies, teachers and school leaders argued that the competencies should outline aspirational behavior not only for students, but also for adults — for the entire community. They said, “We, too, need to be civil to each other, we, too, need to be good to each other, we, too, need to be good listeners, we, too, need to model social and emotional competencies.”

I’m proud that I work in a school whose value preposition is, in some senses, blindingly obvious and yet hiding in that same obviousness. We plan to maintain and continually enliven the conditions for teachers to work face-to-face with students. It sounds almost goofy to say that so plainly, but it’s true. Working with students face-to-face, in school buildings, is something we plan, intentionally, to be exceptionally good at. So we’re always working at it, training around it, talking with kids about it, and doing it better and better every year. Sure, we’re an award winning 1:1 school with a reputation for innovative curriculum and program. Sure, we offer plenty of our instruction and learning resources via Moodle and Google Apps for Education. But we also get right the most basic and cherished part of the educational equation: teachers and students meeting together, face-to-face, to talk and think and question and grow and (someday, when the time is right) change the world.  Though I won’t go back, I’m glad I went to the mall. It provided a stark reminder of what I never want my school to be.

Feedback Studio Feedback

I love tracking the changes in companies that are paying attention to the needs of their users while also trying to move those users forward in their practice.

When I’m using a new version of a product and I can say both “that’s just what I needed or wanted” and “that’s something that I didn’t know I wanted, but it pushes me to think differently,” I know I’ve hitched my wagon — and resources — to a good company.

Accordingly, I’m really happy with the new version of  Turnitin.

My renewed affection begins with the rebranding implied by the title of the service. As I understand it, Turnitin is now called “Feedback Studio.” The melding of the words feedback and studio forms a nice impression. Offering feedback is what teachers do. For actual learning, which is our actual business, it’s much more important than grading. Thinking of offering feedback in a studio adds a creative dimension to the activity. When you’re in a studio, you’re focused on process, you’re building or making, you’re trying to be as creative as possible, you’re hoping to ship good work to the outside world, you’re involved in an intense relationship with your materials. I love the idea of giving feedback in a studio — of approaching feedback as if it were a craft.  (I may be reading way too much into this, but hey, I’m an English teacher by training, so you can give me a pass.)

Here are some other UX type improvements that I also like, in no particular order:

When I’m adding feedback to student papers, at the top right corner there’s a big, easy-to-use navigation bar that allows me to click between student papers.


As I’m offering feedback, this keeps me, literally, in the game.  I’m not tempted to look anywhere else on my laptop screen or beyond my screen.  This keeps my attention where it’s supposed to be when I’m focused on student work.

I also love how I can quickly interact with student text, just by clicking on it.


With one click, I can either access comments I have saved for repeated use (that’s the check box on the left), add a callout (that’s the thought bubble in the middle), or type right onto the page (that’s the big T on the right). Of these, the callout option is my favorite so far:


It’s my favorite because of the way it invites me to extend my feedback practice. The option to add a link to my comments already has me thinking about adding short articles or videos to my feedback. It also reminds me of how I’ve been using Explain Everything to articulate the magic of great sentences and paragraphs. I could easily build more videos in Explain Everything and then link them to my Feedback Studio comments on student papers.



If I had to sum up what I like about the changes found in Feedback Studio, there’s a single phrase that comes to mind: Feedback Studio is flow enabled.  Great work often happens as a result of entering what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called a “flow state.” In a flow state, time slips away and your engagement with the task at hand completely captures your attention.  As a result, the work you produce is often heightened. I applaud Feedback Studio, formerly known as Turnitin, for attempting to heighten the part of the educator’s job that is more important than most things we do in schools: offering students effective and timely feedback.


Pick a Leader

Here’s a tale of two team leaders.

It’s the start of the school year, and each team leader is getting organized.  They will hold 10 meetings, respectively, and they have established the dates and times for those meetings.  Their next step is to notify their teams about the dates of the meetings, so that everyone can clarify their commitments for the year.

The first team leader inputs all the meeting dates in his electronic calendar and then does a quick search for all the meetings.  He then takes a screenshot of the results.  He’s delighted because all 10 meetings fit in a single screenshot.  He pastes the screenshot into an email and adds a note to his team that says, “Here are our scheduled meetings for the year; please add them to your calendar.”  A few weeks later, when he has to change a meeting, he emails the group and asks them to update their calendars.  This happens a few times during the year.

The second team leader also inputs all of the meeting dates in her electronic calendar, but instead of searching for the meetings and taking a screenshot, she exports the meetings in a single calendar and then shares that calendar with the team.  When they join the calendar, the dates immediately populate in their personal electronic calendars.  A few weeks later, when she has to change a meeting, she simply changes it on her calendar and the change appears on all of her team members’ calendars.

Assuming you were on both teams, which leader seems to be more interested in honoring your needs and your time?  Which leader is freeing you up to do important work, work that only you can do, instead of the mundane clerical work of inputting meetings into your calendar?

Here’s an illustration from Brad Ovenell-Carter (in Blending Leadership) that makes the same point. 4.2 Ch 4 Sketchnote 1.PNG


At Home and at a Distance: An Interview with Jason Chicola of Rev

Blending, in education circles, is typically a way of mixing face-to-face and tech-mediated approaches to communication, creativity, collaboration, teaching, and most of all, learning.   More broadly, Reshan and I see it as descriptive and provocative — a way to lead and live so as to to constantly blend perspectives, people, tools, services, networks, and other organizational DNA.  We wrote about such practice in our book, Blending Leadership, and in this interview series, which we’ll slowly release through our blogs and other channels, we dive deeply into the stories of the people who played either direct or indirect roles in the construction of our ideas.  Part of our goal here is to reach out to influential people — people who helped shape our thinking, who built the tools that have helped our ideas come to life. We want to share their work, their beliefs, their practices, and their aspirations, since they might help to shake something loose in your thinking or practice.  Another part of our goal, as long-time school leaders, is also to help others, outside of school, learn from schools, which, at their best, are utterly human, utterly keyed into learning, themselves a blend of art and science, left brain and right brain, physical space and digital space, school and the world.  We hope you enjoy the conversation and perhaps join in someday.

In this interview, we speak with Jason Chicola, Founder of Rev, the blazing fast transcription, caption, subtitle, and translation service.

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Steve & Reshan: We found Rev by reading an interview with Shane Snow, an author we really like. He was asked about the tools that make writing possible for him.  He’s a really busy guy — runs a company, writes books and journalism, speaks at a ton of events . . .  He mentioned Rev as one of his indispensible tools.  So that was how we found the service, and we would love to know how you founded it. Where did Rev start for you?

Jason:  I came at the market — a place for all your transcription needs — in a roundabout manner.  It started with a question: how do we create jobs where people will work from home? There are many labor marketplaces out there.  There are marketplaces for companies that will come and do your laundry, they’ll come to clean your house, deliver food to you, cook food in your home.  I think there’s a lot of opportunity in all these categories, changing the landscape of services. But the kind of services that I’ve been focused on in most of my career are services that can be done at home and delivered at a distance, which is different. You can’t cook food or drive somebody from a distance, but you can offer knowledge-work-type services.

In 2004, I met up with the founder of a company that was then called oDesk and is now called Upwork.  I was the third employee there, the first non-engineer.  I had the opportunity to learn all kinds of things about how to build an internet startup.  oDesk is like eBay for work.  It’s a website where you can hire people from around the world to work on your behalf, and it’s pretty flexible and horizontal.  By that I mean, you can hire someone to do nearly anything that can be done at a computer.  You can hire someone to program, to write software, and you might hire that person from India or Russia, where there’s a lot of talent.  You might ask someone in the Philippines to do data entry.  You might hire someone in the Midwest to do customer support.  You might hire someone in Indonesia to do graphic design.

If you ever talk with somebody that has a career because of oDesk, they’ll say, “this changed my life.  I lived in a country where I don’t have great opportunities.  Now I can be my own boss.  I get to wake up in the morning and decide, do I want to work today or not.  I get to pick the kinds of work that I do.  I can earn what I deserve.”

Plus, there’s a free market.  People can set their rates as high or low as they want, but if they set it too high, no one will hire them.  If they do good work, though, they can increase their rate over time.  So when we started oDesk, a typical Russian programmer earned 2$ an hour.  Now, the top Russian programmers are probably earning more than 30$ an hour, which might not be a high rate if you were in Manhattan, but if you live in Russia, that’s an attractive rate.

I was blown away by the opportunity for remote labor, for the internet to serve the world’s flat workforce and bring people together.  If you’re building something in New York City, you shouldn’t be limited to people that are in Midtown.

If you work in a knowledge work capacity, it’s increasingly important for you to be looking into software that makes you productive, connects you to the people that need your kind of service, and gives you control over who you work for.  This is especially true if you live in a small town.  If you live in Des Moines, Iowa, do you want to only have the opportunity to work with clients in Des Moines, Iowa?

[oDesk merged with its competitor, Elance, and re-branded as Upwork,]

I started Rev with the knowledge that oDesk, now Upwork, is an incredible company, and that people all over the world want to work from home.  But we also had a slightly different idea: people who pay for services want curated talent — to guarantee quality.  They don’t want to take a risk on quality.

The thought was, let’s build a work-from-home platform, where we can guarantee customers are delighted every time.  Where we give customers exactly what they want, and where we as a platform can stand by that quality.  We started with a firm concept and with the knowledge that people all over the world want to work.  We then asked a question: what kinds of services exist where we can guarantee quality?

We realized we wanted to find services where the measurement of quality was objective.  The assessment of what proper English is, is reasonably universal. Yeah there’s dialect, sure there are differences, but the standard of English, of what goes in newspapers, is pretty common.

We actually tried two services in the first year of the company.  We tried document translation and audio transcription.  Both did well, but audio transcription did even better for a number of reasons, not least of which is because its quality was objective.

The third service that we’ve offered at that scale is our closed captioning of videos.  If you made a movie, and you wanted that movie to play in movie theaters or on TV, or if you wanted to post it on Netflix or Amazon, you had to have that movie captioned.  Somebody had to watch the movie, type the words, time them against the video, along with some other nuances . . . and we offer that service as well.  You can think of it as a close cousin of transcription.

I would say we stumbled onto our path based on our search to find ways to create work-from-home jobs, where the customers were delighted in terms of quality.  What we learned along the way was that, for these kinds of services, customers want: better, faster, and cheaper.  That’s mostly what mattered.  There’s a bunch of other things that we could provide and will provide over time, but if the quality is not good, if the speed is not fast, or if the price is not right, no one is going to get to first base.

We spend 90% of our time not with our customers, but with freelancers, trying to create a great place for them to work, which means first and foremost building tools and software to make them productive as they do the work.  Rev is kind of like a black box to you, the customer.  You put audio in and you get a transcript back.  Behind the scenes, we build software to ensure the process; we build all the things for the freelancers to make their jobs rich, rewarding, and efficient.  It’s a two-way marketplace.

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Steve & Reshan:  The very first thing we noticed about Rev was that it was very easy to join. It has a graceful, minimalistic signup page and absolutely no nonsense in terms of pricing and getting started with the product.  The second thing we noticed, over our first year with the service, is that Rev keeps getting better in terms of transcript turnaround time.  It has become an important part of our workflow, almost like a game we play, where we dictate our ideas quickly, forget about them for the rest of the day, and then open email in the morning and find them all typed up and ready for editing.  For people who traffic in words, Rev keep us on a very productive cycle.

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Father Gabriel’s Bedrock

Readers of Blending Leadership know that Reshan and I are big fans of David Sparks.  In all that he does, he combines good humor, humility, and intelligence, so what’s not to like?

Recently, on Mac Power Users, a podcast he co-hosts with Katie Floyd, Sparks interviewed “Catholic priest and geek” Gabriel Mosher. At one point in the interview, after Katie asked Father Gabriel about the online tools or scheduling services he uses to organize his parish, Father Gabriel offered a response that is a textbook example of thoughtful blended leadership — that is, leadership that balances the needs of those served (i.e., led) with the range of tools available to serve (i.e., lead) them.

A lot of the people who I work with or who I spend time with or who need my help really, they don’t function that way. Most people that I’m working with, they either want to deal with a phone call or email. Having a remote or sort of . . . Internet based or a service based scheduling system would lose for them, I think, that personal touch. A lot of them are really asking, of their priest, they’re asking for that personal touch. . . .  An email is already a little bit distant from that.  You have to balance, I think, as a priest, [when you’re] someone who is ministering, when you’re serving people, you have to balance. Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of great services out there, but for these people, there needs to be that element of the personal involved.

David Sparks then jumps in to emphasize the utility of Fr. Gabriel’s point, applying it to his legal practice:

That’s the reason why I frankly haven’t used them in my legal practice. I don’t want to put my clients through saying “oh you have to go log into some website and look at a calendar.”

And then Fr. Gabriel finishes the point:

I think there’s [an] analogy. . . .   If you hire a lawyer, this is someone that you need to have a relationship with, and you need to be willing to, you want to, trust them.  So you want to get to know them. All of those points of contact that you have, those actual points of contact on the phone or through email or in person, each of those are very important for establishing the relationship that’s the bedrock of the work that’s done.

There are dozens of wonderful tech tools that leaders can use to inspire and guide their constituents . . . But it pays off to really think about the people you lead as you’re choosing the best ways to connect with them and to serve them.  The bedrock is what counts.

Automation for Leaders


My friend and colleague, Dr. Reshan Richards, is great on the topic of automation.  He reminds us that, as we gain time due to automation or efficiency, we should protect that time and use it for truly human interactions, whether that includes spending more time with our families, pursuing some kind of personal expression through an artistic side project, or doing the kinds of work that only we can do.

Here’s a quick video I made to demonstrate one way that I automated the use of feedback this year in an effort to do a better job with a task that I perform every year at the same time.  In this case, automation ensured that I made the best use of some great insights from a colleague.