Saturday, January 24, 2009

Saturday around town

‘nice to be back off the road…it was a short trip but with a lot of stops.  The 16 hour trip back on the plane didn’t help, and there was an absolutely stationary queue of traffic waiting for me on the ring road around Eindhoven and south towards Maastricht.  I wish I had a way to gauge the length of these jams, but after spending an hour to make ten km progress, I angled off to Venlo to get around it.

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It’s nice to let go of a long trip with some simpler, grounded activity closer to home.  Maastricht is a wonderful city for walking, with lots of twisted old streets and big public squares.  I’m still discovering nooks and notches in my new town: today’s find was a traditional bakery still grinding it’s flour by water wheel.  There was also time for exploring St. Servaas church, dating back more than a thousand years.

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Traditional green, yellow, and red decorations have started to appear in anticipation of Carnival, still a month away at February 22-24.    Shops are selling masks and costumes, and floats are starting to take shape in scattered workshops.  This isn’t a celebration that I remember from Arnhem, but clearly one that will be a big event here in the South.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Climbing F6

With closure of our business unit in Arnhem, a new team is being assembled in the US to carry forward the development and marketing of the product.  This group held a planning summit yesterday to define the future product map and project plan, and asked me back to lead discussion of the programs that I was responsible for.

I’ve struggled with how to approach this event.  The new leadership comes from outside the company, and I don’t know how they regard their Dutch predecessors: is our experience a stepping-stone into their future or a mistake to be avoided?  Their organization and funding won’t be defined for another month: is presumptive engagement or consultative distance appropriate for me?

And, since I’m still between assignments, the organizational uncertainty blends into personal worries about the future.

book cover of 

The Ascent of F6 

A Tragedy in Two Acts 


W H Auden and 

Christopher IsherwoodThe British playwrights Auden and Isherwood wrote The Ascent of F6 in 1936.  It tells the story of Michael Ransom and his team of climbers, sent to remote Ostnia to conquer the fabled peak.  Instead, all are killed during the climb by demons that embody each man’s individual weakness.

I feel much the same at this juncture.  The professional challenges of finding my next position are making for a difficult climb, and I’m feeling the pressure of time before the storms finally close in. It’s all too easy to feel defensive about the past, slighted in the present, or isolated from the future.

It’s not clear what opportunities there might be for me: it’s work that I loved doing, but the new team has less scope and funding than the Dutch one did.  I don’t know if they would offer a position, or even if I want to ask for one.

In the end, it’s good to find that the meeting included very good people who identified the right issues facing the business.  Even though I was the only one among the 30 who had actually worked in Arnhem, they had found most of the people with product and market knowledge.

However, the agenda was overcrowded and we only discussed a fraction of the material I (and others) was asked to prepare. The discussion repeatedly circled familiar points, absent the data or experience that we had in the Netherlands.  It reminded me of how much knowledge and momentum was lost as a result of the decision.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Organizing a presentation

D_Hampton_2 It’s been a busy week for travel and presentations, first in the UK and now in the US.  When I was younger, it was hard for me to give public speeches.  My mind was on the audience, I was self conscious, I worried that I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say.  Clenched muscles, shaking hands, and quavering delivery was the sorry result: my best prop was a podium to clutch.

Over time, I learned to organize material while teaching community college, and I watched how my directors presented and connected with their audiences.  Business school focused on the pitch: how to capture and persuade an audience.

Today, I really look forward to talking with a group.  I never get butterflies; I keep a good pace and make better eye contact.  I still make mistakes, but (I hope) I’ve also gotten better at  learning from them.  And a lot of that success depends on the preparation work, the thinking and organizing that distinguishes timid talks  from engaging ones.

Broadly, I first think about whether I am lecturing or pitching.  A lecture is a journey from common ground to unfamiliar frontiers; I always identify where we start together and what (limited) new knowledge I want to leave them with.  In contrast, a pitch builds a more emotional case, still facts and data, but traveling from a shared problem to a consensual solution.

Then I set my subconscious to work. A talk on remote medical monitoring is really about how can a physician keep track of hundreds of patients scattered across a city.   I get associated insight everywhere: looking at Facebook, where I am keeping track of dozens of friends scattered across the country, or reading how computers at CERN distinguish significant events from meaningless ones.  I scribble it all into a notebook.

I storyboard my notes to define the talk, using big flip-chart pages to collate my notes, then cutting them up to arrange thoughts by progression or affinity.  It’s a mess, but reveals the major themes that I want to share.


Time constraints define the structure: A half-hour talk allows about 25 slides.  I take a blank sheet and segment out a storyline: 5 slides for the introduction, 6 each for three major topics…the storyboard migrates onto the storyline.  In formal lectures, I expand the storyline into an outline of lecture notes.

I simply transcribe these topics into slides to create my first draft,getting thoughts composed clearly and topics into the right order. Each slide forms a paragraph: a logical unit of thought flowing into the narrative ahead and behind.

Once the story is complete, I challenge myself to take a third of the material out, editing, focusing, tightening. There’s often too much background, or excess detail where the point isn’t being made. In the end, I want a strong narrative flow to carry both me and my audience.

ECG Sensing 2Finally, I fix the visuals, adding  illustrations, ensuring that the font and headings are consistent, making the text blocks visually interesting. I like the Fast Fade transitions between slides, but rarely use animations except to introduce sequences of pictures.

And a  final review by a friend catches any last spelling errors and obscurities.

When my talk arrives, I own the topic. I’m excited about the ideas, the points are clear in my mind, so there’s no need to read from the slides and I can get engaged with the audience..

Disasters still happen: I included some borrowed slides in a talk this week and got lost trying to present them. There was nothing to do but declare a break, rip out all of the offending slides, and then make the top level points without any presentation materials. I kicked myself hard: I know better.

But when the session moderator cut my pitch on the fly yesterday, asking that I skip ahead to a particular topic of interest, I could adapt.  I knew my material: nod, Slide 24 please, and we were off without missing a beat.  That’s how I like to be able to do it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Consequences of a Dutch driver’s license

Image of Washington Driver's LicenseWithin 180 days of becoming resident in the Netherlands, I was required to supplement my Residency card with a baby-girl pink Dutch driver’s license if I wanted to operate a car.  The process is painless: just fill in a form and visit City Hall.  There wasn’t a written examination or a road test, not even a fee.

Easy, but not without surprises.  I didn’t expect to have to surrender my Washington state driver’s license in exchange for the Dutch one.

What will you do with my license?  “We’ll send it back.”

Back where?  “Back where you got it.”

And what about when I go back to the US?  “We will get it back and return it to you.”

It made little sense but I’m the guest, so I handed over my US  license.  And, on my next trip to Seattle, I cleverly reported my license as lost and got a replacement.  Problem solved.

Until I needed to get some Sudafed for the kids.

Cold medications contain chemicals that are used to make methamphatamine, so you have to ask a pharmacist for the product.  They, in turn, have to query a state database, which requires a driver’s license.

She squinted at my baby-girl pink card and asked what state it was from.  The Netherlands?

She looked at the computer screen and asked for a two-letter code.  NL?

She typed that in as the State, and the computer coughed. “Sorry, you can’t have Sudafed.”

I cursed Dutch efficiency in actually sending the license back to someone who cared enough to take me out of the state database.  That meant that my replacement was now invalid as well.  Check and mate.

The loss of my US license has caused other problems.  Airport security is not amused by passengers bearing a Dutch ID, and I’ve been pulled out of line to dig out alternative ID.  I had to reapply to keep access as a state voter, and am now correctly classed as an expatriate with ballots coming to my Dutch address.  And it’s helped to have a black-and-white copy of my US driver’s license to show as backup to my Dutch one.

Finally, although I had an International Driver’s License, nobody ever cared or asked for it, and I have let it lapse without issue.