Echo and Alexa

If you’ve talked to me in the past year, or visited my home, I’m certain I’ve mentioned the Amazon Echo.  I’ve been playing with it a ton lately, so I thought I’d write some of my thoughts for all of you to read.

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Amazon Echo is am amazing little device that sits on your kitchen counter or desk.

You talk to it.

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Alexa is the voice that speaks to you and listens to your commands.  It does all the basic stuff incredibly well:

  • “Alexa, what’s the weather like today?”
  • “Alexa, what time is it?”
  • “Alexa, how many cups are in a gallon?”
  • “Alexa, what’s the current price of AMZN stock?”
  • “Alexa, order me some AA batteries.”
  • “Alexa, play some classic rock.”
  • “Alexa, set a timer for 9 minutes.”

What you may not know, however, is that you can also add additional skills to Alexa.  There’s a growing collection of skills being created by developers, much like app stores of the mobile phone world. There any many cool skills you can add, but the home automation ones have had the biggest impact in my household:

  • “Alexa, how much gas do I have in my tank?”  (via Automatic)
  • “Alexa, trigger the garage.”  (opens or closes my garage, via WeMo Maker)
  • “Alexa, trigger the office lights.” (flips the lights in my office, via WeMo Switch.)
  • “Alexa, order a pizza from Domino’s” (places my standard order with Domino’s.)
  • “Alexa, ask FitBit how I’m doing today.” (tells me my step count via FitBit.)
  • “Alexa, ask Capital One how much money I have.” (via Capital One)

I’ve even built my own simple skill, a game of Would You Rather.  It poses a situation for you, and it’s up to you and your friends to answer it.  Like I said, pretty simple, but a good way to include Alexa in your next game night.

I’m going to write another post next week with a simple tutorial on how to build an Alexa skill.  It’s surprisingly easy.

Making Changes

About a year ago, I took a chance on my career.  I left the stable, secure world of Microsoft to join and help found a startup.  I don’t regret this decision at all.  But I failed.

I failed because I didn’t make my expectations known.

I failed because I didn’t figure out what was expected of me.

I failed because I was scared to stand up for myself.

I failed because I didn’t communicate effectively.

I’ve always prided myself on being an excellent communicator, but it showed me that I’d made a mistake.  I took the job for the money, for the prestige, and for the wrong reasons.  I chased promises rather than reality.  From Day #1 I was counting the days to our acquisition.  This is absolutely the wrong approach, and I wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t taken that chance.

So I’ve decided to start making some changes in my life.

First, I am going to exercise every single day.  Between work and travel, I wasn’t taking any time for myself, and my energy levels reflect that.  I need to be healthier at 40 than I was at 30.

Second, I need to find “the right job.”  I’ve had a few of these in my career, where I can’t wait to get started every morning, and don’t want it to end every night.  I’ve started a pretty extensive job search, but it’s a slow, slow process.

Third, I need to get back to focusing on my family.  The weekly travel to startupland didn’t do any lasting damage to my relationship with my family, but I owe it to them to give them everything I have.  None of this other stuff matters if I can’t spend my time with my wife and children.

Finally, I need to find a hobby.  I’ve been scattered across a number of “interests,” but I’ve never really landed on one that really consumes my time.  I love golf, but it’s time consuming and expensive.  I like playing with Lego Robotics, but mostly with my kids.  I love writing, but I never seem to find the time to do it (as evidenced by the infrequency of my posts.)  The one I keep coming back to, however, is writing.  I’ve been sitting on the first 20 pages of a sci-fi novel for a couple of years now, and I think it’s time to dust it off and bring it to life.  Keep an eye out for something from me later this year, I hope.

I don’t like failing.  I don’t like accepting that a decision I made was a bad one.  But it was, and I did.  Here’s to making the next decision a good one, and making several aspects of my life better than they’ve ever been.

Leaving the Nest

For the first 9 years of my career, I was a software developer.  It hadn’t even occurred to me to be anything else.  Then, one day, I met a guy named Drew Robbins, who said he was an evangelist for Microsoft.  He introduced me to Josh Holmes, one of the best speakers I have ever met.  The way they described it, they spent most of their time learning the bleeding edge of software, and the rest of their time teaching people how to use it.  On that day, I asked Drew when he’d be looking for a different job, because that was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do.  He eventually did, and I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to replace him in the summer of 2007, thanks to a very unexpected decision by Sam Henry.

I can honestly say that I will never be as excited to start another job as I was to start this one.

For six amazing years, I got to spend my time traveling through what Microsoft calls the “Heartland District”, and I got to know these states well.  I’m not sure why I decided to do it, but I have kept every single plastic hotel key I’ve ever had since I started this job.  There’s 163 of them in this photo.

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I met people from every type of company, writing every type of software, with every type of concern about Microsoft and every one of our development technologies.  And I loved it.  I helped start conferences (like Stir Trek), and encouraged others to do the same.  I spoke anywhere someone would listen.  I did all of it because I loved it, and Microsoft empowered me to share my passion.

I had the pleasure of working closely with Jennifer Marsman and Brian Prince for years.  I made lifelong friends in Clark Sell, Sarah Dutkiewicz, Mike Eaton, Matt Davis, Andrew Maxey, Rick Kierner, Matt Casto, Brian Jackett, Ryan & Travis Lowdermilk, and literally dozens of others.  Practically my entire social circle is a result of my work as an evangelist.  I am so thankful to have met all of these people, and all of you reading this.

My passion for software and evangelism led me to write over 500 articles, a book, and dozens of apps. That passion took me to a new role two years ago at Microsoft.  I got to share my passion with four high-profile software companies in the healthcare industry.  We talked about Windows and Azure at length, and I got to help them make some significant architectural decisions about their products.  It was still evangelism, but for a highly focused set of individuals.

It is that same passion that has me writing this today.  I have decided to leave Microsoft after 8 years of amazing.  8 years of learning.  8 years of loving what I do, with the freedom to do it.

I will miss every single thing about evangelism here at Microsoft.  Sincerely.  The people are amazing.  The mission is worth fighting for.  I can only hope that my path will cross with yours again time after time.  Thank you all for teaching me so much.

Jeff Blankenburg

On May 18th, I’m starting a new adventure.  I’m joining a startup as their Director of Product Management.  We’re going to try to change how the world thinks about software and healthcare together.  As we get close to a release, I’ll have plenty more to share about this endeavor.

#12: My Favorite Talk of the Year

For the past seven years, I have had the good fortune of being invited to speak at the Kalamazoo X Conference.  If you’re not familiar with this conference, you’re not alone.  It’s one of those hidden gems.  Once you’ve gone once, you’re angry you didn’t hear about it sooner.

In short, KalX is a conference for software developers that has nothing to do with software development.  It’s a focus on the other part of your career.  Work-life balance, mentoring, passion, enthusiasm, excuses, you name it.  Anyone, in any industry, would have tons to gain from these presentations.

As a speaker, this is my Superbowl of speaking opportunities.  It has been said that “every talk at Kalamazoo X would have been the best talk at any other conference.”  And it’s true.  I am humbled and flattered to be asked back each year, and am astounded by the raw human emotion that each speaker brings to the conference.

Two years ago, the organizers of Kalamazoo X recorded all of the sessions, and you can find them at the link below.  The best way I’ve heard these described is as “a braver, more profane version of TED talks.”

https://vimeo.com/kalamazoox/videos

This year, they opted to not record the sessions, but I did set up my tablet to record my presentation before the battery died.  My talk was titled “Be A Beginner,” and it focused on the benefits of being a beginner in a situation, and how, as experts, we should recognize and encourage the beginners on our team.  There is a moment early in the presentation where the projector fails me, but we rally and get past it in a relatively quick time frame.  I’d love your feedback on the content.  Click the photo below to view it on YouTube.


Get the entire presentation as a PDF here…

#11: Key Chains and Kroll

What’s On Your Key Chain?

It seems like more and more, I’m finding things that I want to put on my key chain.  Bottle openers, technology, all sorts of cool things. I’ve limited my key chain to two things (in addition to my car key, obviously), and they’re both pretty cool, so I thought I’d share them.

Machine Era

If you haven’t already heard of Machine Era Co., make sure to check them out.  It’s an American company that makes hand-crafted metalworking goods.  I currently own their wallet and the KeySquare, and they’re both amazing.  But we’re talking about key chain stuff, so here’s a picture of the KeySquare.

Cut from a solid piece of stainless steel, has a bottle opener, and can easily be attached to your pocket or belt loop.  I’m not much of a “keys on the belt loop” kind of guy, but that open hook has made it easy to attach my keys to a bag strap.  And it can open my beer.  It’s just awesome.

Where’s My Charging Cable?

The other thing I’m keeping on my keychain is a VERY short USB cable.  It seems that when my phone is low on battery, it’s always when I don’t have my computer bag with me.  InCharge allows me to have a USB cable with me at all times.  It’s available for micro USB or Lightning connections, and it’s less than $9, including shipping.

Have You Seen Kroll Show?

Aside from the brilliant intro, I’m a huge fan of the Kroll Show.  It just started its 3rd and final season.  In short, it’s a show of sketches, but it’s done in a way I’ve never seen before.  First, here’s the intro video (click the image to see the video)


Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a family friendly show, but that doesn’t stop it from being hilarious.  It spends most of its sketches skewering reality television, but what I enjoy most about the show is how much crossover there is.  In one episode, you meet Liz & Liz, who run a PR firm called PubLIZity.  One of the Liz’s discovers she’s pregnant, but isn’t willing to reveal who the father is.  In another episode, you meet C-Zar, a “toilet baby” they call him, who is attending “Dad Academy” to determine if he’s fit to be a father to the child his baby mama is expecting.  Two seasons later, you discover the connection.

It’s these kind of running jokes that you find throughout the show that kept me coming back for each episode.

There’s also another sketch series where two cousins run separate pawn shops, one in Philadelphia, one in Pittsburgh.  It’s called “Pawnsylvania.”  It plays on the massive cultural differences between the two cities, and made me laugh most of the time.  There’s dozens of other memorable characters and sketches, including Dr. Armond, the animal plastic surgeon, “Too Much Tuna”, and “Rich Dicks”.

Highly recommended.  Would watch again.

#10: Journeys, Jobs, and Jumping Into The Future

We’re Going On An Adventure!

I’m not one to advertise a vacation.  In fact, most times I don’t talk about it online until I’ve returned for a number of reasons.  This summer, however, my family and I have decided to take an extended road trip, and it got me thinking about all of the amazing opportunities I’ve had to see this grand, vast world of ours.

In my 38 years on this planet, I’ve visited dozens of countries, but only two continents: North America and Europe.  I need to start striving for the other five.  Yes, that even means Antarctica.

As for the United States, I’ve visited (and let’s be very clear about this one, I’ve been on foot or in a car) 48 of our fifty states.  My two remaining challenges are Alaska and Hawaii, and I’m certain I’ll knock those off my bucket list.

This is probably as far as you’ve ever gone with these kinds of lists.  Countries and states.  But what about counties?  How many COUNTIES in the United States have you visited?  A better question might even be, “How many counties are in your state?” or “How many counties are in the United States?”

My answers?  Ohio has 88, and the United States has 3,143.  I’ve visited a bunch of counties, but I’m not yet up-to-date on my count.  As of right now, I’ve recorded 393 counties visited, but there’s a big trip I took during college that I haven’t entered yet.  It will easily add another 100+ counties to my list.  My biggest challenge is that many of my trips involve an airplane, so I only get credit for places I visit or connect through.

“But Jeff, where do you record something like this?”

There’s a website designed specifically for this purpose, actually.  (Contributing to my theory that everything is already on the internet.)  Check out http://mob-rule.com.  My travels are NOTHING compared to a few friends of mine, however.  (These are the guys that I set a world record with a few summers ago.)

Dan Miller has visited 1,465 counties.
Jim Tocco has visited 1,672 counties.
Kevin Roll has visited 869 counties.
Jay Bohland has visited 831 counties.

They have also set a record for visiting all 88 counties in Ohio in under 24 hours, along with a few others.

So this summer, why not pick up a few extra counties on your way to your destination.  At least mark your entire home state in blue, right?

Employment

Having a job is a gift.  Making an income to support your family and your lifestyle is even better.  But so many people do something every day that they hate.  Why?  Why not change it up, and find something you’re excited to do every day?  I have a theory on this one that has nothing to do with money:

We’re afraid to be a beginner again.

Think back on the times you’ve been the most passionate about your work.  Passionate about your career.  Was it yesterday?  Probably not.  In my history, the times I’ve been the most excited to work was when it was new.  When I was learning.  But it seems like our professional culture rewards those who continue to build on their siloed set of experience instead of broadening their knowledge horizontally.  Why not reward the curious problem solver?  Having ZERO perspective on an industry can actually be liberating when you try to address the big issues.

As an example, I’ve worked for ad agencies, clothing retailers, and consulting companies, but all of them were as a software developer.  When Microsoft hired me as an Technical Evangelist 8 years ago, I was thrown into a different world.  Now I was doing a ton of public speaking, training, and research.  I didn’t have delivery deadlines and a feature list to complete, I had events to plan, technology to understand, and relationships to build.  I loved it.  But after a few years of that, I’d mastered it.  And it became tedious.  So I left, for the safe thing.  Now I’m working on software development projects again, but they’re HUGE projects run by billion dollar companies.

What I yearn for, however, is to be a beginner again.  To be put in unfamiliar territory, to have thousands of questions for hundreds of problems.  I want to solve problems from a unique angle that those entrenched haven’t been able to see.  That’s when I’m most successful.  That’s what I want to be when I grow up.  A beginner.

(I’ll be presenting an entire talk on this at the Kalamazoo X Conference on March 14.  It is hands-down one of my favorites conferences anywhere.  You should come!)

Welcome To The Future

Every couple of years or so, Microsoft releases a “Future Vision” video that is meant to illustrate how they see life, work, and play with technology that isn’t currently available.  Maybe the technology isn’t even possible.  But it makes you wonder what you could do when you see their vision.  It’s 6 minutes long, and you could definitely watch it without the audio if you’re at work.  Definitely worth checking out.

This letter is also available at TinyLetter, where you can receive these directly in your inbox.

#8: Horrible Ideas, HoloLens, and Handlers

Slinging A Horrible Idea

I should start this section with a preface: my family proudly “cut the cord” just over 4 years ago.  (You can read more about that here.)  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it simply means we don’t have a cable subscription.  We looked at what we watch, and what we were paying, and it just didn’t make sense.  So we dropped it in favor of things like Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and Netflix, all streaming through our Roku Boxes.

We watch almost nothing “live.”  Sports are an obvious exception to that rule, but otherwise, we are perfectly content to watch the show we like the next day, or several days later.  (This is exactly what most people do with their DVRs anyways.)  Hulu carries most of the shows we watch, and we actually purchase episodes of the shows they don’t from Amazon, like the Walking Dead, for example.  $27 for the whole season is WAY cheaper than even the most basic cable package over that 6-month season.

WE pick the shows WE want to watch, and they’re organized into a nice little queue for us to choose from.

Fast-forward to last week, when my wife and I decided to try the new Sling Television service.  They offer a 7-day trial, and it includes content from ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, HGTV, Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and a few others.  The $20/month price tag seemed steep, but if I could watch some of the shows on those channels, it might be worth it.

Here’s why Sling Television is a horrible idea for cord cutters:

1) It’s not like any other streaming service I’ve mentioned.  It’s not a list of shows and episodes that I can select and watch when it’s convenient for me.  It’s just live streams of the channels, requiring me to tune in when the show is scheduled to air.

2) It’s 3x the cost of Hulu, with significantly fewer features, and significantly less content.

3) They still think like a cable company.  They’ve created additional bundles of channels, called Sports Extra and Kids Extra that are those “premium channel packages” that you probably skip on your cable subscription as well.  Sports Extra includes ESPN U and ESPNEWS, among a few other niche sports channels.  Kids Extra includes Disney XD, Disney Junior, and Boomerang.  Each of these packages costs $5 more a month, making their total offering $30/month.  (As a reference, I can get a decent internet + cable package for $40.)

4) Watching ESPN on the Roku or Xbox One apps is a significantly enhanced experience over just watching the ESPN channel on cable.  I have access to every college football game on Saturdays.  As a guy that wants to watch his Bowling Green Falcons every weekend, this has proved invaluable.  When I’m watching Monday Night Football, I get live notifications about my ESPN Fantasy Football team’s performance.  Try doing that with your cable box.

What Sling needs to offer to make me a subscriber:

1) A Hulu-like DVR service.  I don’t want to manage my recordings.  I want to tell it which shows I like, and it should add them to a queue once the show has aired.

2) An ESPN experience similar to what is offered on Roku or Xbox One.  I can’t go back.

3) Adding baseball.  In your Sports Extra package, adding all of the regional MLB channels would go a LONG way.  It’s the one major sacrifice I made when we cut the cord, and thanks to MLB’s blackout rules, I don’t have an option to watch the Cleveland Indians without a cable subscription.

What do you think?  Is this a good deal?

Holograms are coming…

A few weeks ago, a revolutionary new product was announced by one of the most valuable companies in the world.  They make mobile phones and tablets, entertainment devices for your television, health monitors for your wrist (that can talk to your phone!), even mice and keyboards.

This time, they’re taking on the world of wearable computers.  (Yes, I’m talking about Microsoft.)


If you watch any single thing this week, click on the HoloLens above, and give it two minutes of your imagination.  This will be available this year, and it looks absolutely amazing.

Daniel Handler

Last night, I had the opportunity to go hear Daniel Handler talk about his new novel, We Are Pirates.  If you’re like me, you’ve probably never heard of Daniel Handler.  Most of the books he has written have been done under a pseudonym you’re probably more familiar with: Lemony Snicket.

He spoke at our local high school last night, and I was drawn in immediately.  He was funny, clever, eloquent, and witty.  He spent 20 minutes or so telling some charming stories about his writing history, some things that have happened while traveling, and how he landed on the topic of his new book.

I’ve been toying with a story I want to write for a couple of years now, and I think hearing him talk made me realize that I just need to do it already.  So, in my ample free time, I’ve got another project to start working on.

I’ll keep you posted.