Why I Bought Another Laptop

One word: spreadsheets.

Late in 2011, as I was assessing the IT needs for my new business, I theorized that it might be possible to move to a tablet as my main computer when my aging laptop died (Read “I Need a Mobile Application Strategy“). Then I signed on two clients to produce survey research reports. Each of the nine reports involved datasets containing dozens of tables.

In theory, you could dock a tablet to a monitor, connect to a Bluetooth keyboard and play with numbers all day. Same goes for writing anything that requires frequently referring to notes. But then, you either chain yourself to a desk, like the old days, or you have to carry around multiple components. As appealing as those portable monitors are, I can’t really see setting one up in the dentist’s waiting room, or my car, or a number of other non-office spaces I’ve found myself working in as I pursue work-life balance (please share if your experience is different).

Almost two years, ago, my former colleague at CIO magazine, Kim Nash, did a story about delivering data for decision-making which concluded that IT leaders have to match the device, and the information on the device, to what people are trying to do. And that’s the case with any tool. So when the logic board in my MacBook Pro failed right after Thanksgiving–only hours after I submitted one of those research reports to a client–I headed to the Apple Store for a new one.

I use the iPad most days, especially to read, deal with my email, and manage my calendar and to-do lists. It’s been useful, too, as a second screen, when I’m in a meeting and need to refer to a presentation. But I can’t see it becoming my primary business device any time soon. On the other hand, the tablet is edging out the laptop for personal applications.

In the kitchen, different pans for different dishes. And at work, different devices for different workloads. Do you agree?

Video Works. So Why Don’t We Use It?

Recently, I covered an event for a client, blogging about each presentation and subsequent discussion. (Sorry I can’t provide a link. The content is proprietary.) The event was in Tuscon, but I attended remotely, via videoconference. So did a handful of participants, including one of the presenters.

Although the technology isn’t perfect, it’s darn good. What technical issues  I encountered—a session in which the video feed wasn’t available, and some poorly placed mics—resulted from human error and (it seemed to me) were easily fixed. Which makes me think that the reason we don’t use video more often has less to do with the tools than with our skills and motivation. We (by which I mean the mid-career people who tend to be running meetings) are comfortable with the telephone, thank you very much. And, speaking for myself, at least, we’re not all completely comfortable in front of the camera.

Consider what I observed during the event I covered. Throughout, the camera was positioned so that the front of the room, and thus the presenters, were visible no matter where they moved in front of the projection screen. The presenters were all senior corporate executives, experienced at delivering information to a variety of audiences. Each one made eye contact with attendees around the room. But unless I wasn’t looking when it happened, not one presenter made eye contact with the camera and thus, with those three or four of us  attending virtually.  Even when table microphones—one for each attendee—were correctly positioned, a couple of people couldn’t manage to speak into them clearly.

We’ve come a long way since the 1990s, when PC makers began bundling webcams with desktops. Back then, I spent two years as a remote employee on a small team. Video over my dial-up connection would have been more trouble than it was worth.  But even conference calls were a struggle.  Some colleagues never got close enough to the speaker for me to hear them. Sound quality was iffy, in any case. And though my co-workers around the conference table never forgot about me entirely, sometimes it was hard to get their attention. Since then, we’ve developed pretty good conference call etiquette. Most people are tuned in to what their colleagues on the phone are saying, and meeting facilitators know how to monitor meeting dynamics to make sure callers are equal participants.

Now video seems poised to become second nature. While it’s true that most companies haven’t yet deployed enterprise video, according to a survey by IDG Enterprise (which I helped to analyze, and which is published here for readers who register) 67 percent of respondents said the influx of consumer devices such as smartphones are prompting them to speed up their plans to deploy Unified Communications & Collaboration tools.

It surprised me a little that only 48 percent of respondents said they used Skype and, especially, that only one-fourth used video chat, given that nearly everyone with a smartphone or an IM account has the capability. Then I thought about it. As a freelancer, nearly every meeting and interview I have is a phone call. Though I use video sometimes, it still feels experimental. For example, It took me a while to find a comfortable arrangement on my laptop screen for taking notes and monitoring the video window at the same time.

Do something often enough, though, and you won’t be able to imagine any other way. I wasn’t born yet when AT&T installed the first  Picturephone. Twenty-three years ago, in Back to the Future II, writer-director Robert Zemeckis imagined videoconferencing would be routine. That movie was set in 2015. We’re nearly there.

What’s in a Name

Call me old-fashioned. I think the name of a company ought to tell you something about it: either who runs it, what they care about, where it is, or what it does. Retailers know this. So do lawyers. When companies choose made-up words or deliberately misspell real ones, I often conclude either a) they’re doing a poor job of trying to show how clever they are, or b) no one ever put it on a big poster board and asked strangers to read it aloud.

Tech companies are especially prone to contriving names. A list on the American Express Open Forum site of how 16 well-known companies got their names includes a few that work. You can guess at what they’re supposed to mean, plus there’s a good story about their origins. And who doesn’t like a good story?

Here’s mine:

When it was time to name my company, Cochituate Media wasn’t my first choice. The internet domain for the name I wanted was already taken.  I brainstormed a bit, and put the decision off until I had my first client.

I knew I wanted a name that evoked some physical object or space, to counterbalance the fact that my work is almost completely virtual. Cochituate (pronounced “coh-CHI-choo-it” ) was, and is, a place. An Algonquin word, it means “torrent,” “place of rushing water,” or “rapid stream”–the outfall, according to Natick, Mass. business owner and activist A. Richard Miller, of a lake located within a colonial-era Indian village that is now part of nearby Wayland. The name Cochituate endures, as the name of the suburban village, and of the lake, a state park on that lake, a brook and a major roadway that I use nearly every day.

There’s more local history, too. In the mid-19th century, the lake became part of a set of reservoirs and an aqueduct system that brought fresh water to Boston for more than 100 years. (If you’re interested in the history, check out Miller’s brief history of Cochituate, and this short piece about the Cochituate Aqueduct)

The lake shore is a short walk from where I live. When my kids were younger, we used to stand in the water and practice skipping rocks. The backyards and woods surrounding the lake present a lovely fall foliage show.  Once in a while, we’ll put in a canoe and paddle around.

It’s a name that connects my work with my life.

Watch This Space

According to the Kauffman Foundation, which reports every March on entrepreneurship trends in the United States, new businesses were started at a higher rate in 2009 and 2010 than at any time in the previous 15 years. As I launch Cochituate Media, my editorial consulting business, being part of a trend–even if it’s a trend founded at least in part upon economic woe–makes self-employment slightly less terrifying. Though I made a choice to do this (I left a job as executive editor of CIO magazine earlier this month), not everyone who started a company in the past four years, including some close friends and colleagues, planned on it.

Starting a business feels a bit like I imagine it would to jump out of an airplane (which I have no plans to do, ever). Exhilarating, provided the parachute opens and you don’t land on sharp rocks. It helps to have role models. Mine include my grandmother, who, when she needed money to support her family, started cooking meals for fellow tenants in her apartment building, and ended up running her own bakery until she retired. Also my great-aunt, a talented milliner with her own shop. And my grandfather-in-law. He wired homes to the power grid during the Great Depression, then sold his customers washers, dryers and refrigerators. The appliance business he built endured 70 years.

And so, here I go.

For now, I’ll use this blog to share what I’m learning about being self-employed, let you know what I’m up to and to think out loud about what I’m reading about or working on. I’m certain it will evolve along with my business, and I look forward to it becoming a place for conversation.

If you don’t know me yet, please take a look at my bio, or read my work.