Five services I use to automate life

My life of services I use continue to evolve. Below are five that are currently on my list, with the top three being on my list the longest. I’m extra excited for four and five as recent additions.

  1. Shoeboxed – I’ve written about Shoeboxed many times and it continues to be one of my core services. All my paper documents get shipped off to be imaged and stored on Evernote for future retrieval. This service alone saves me many hours of scanning, archiving, and retrieving paper documentation.
  2. Evernote – This is my digital brain. I store everything on Evernote both current and past information for retrieval. The imaging capabilities and OCR allows me to search for files, documents, and notes.
  3. Dropbox – Cloud storage is a tough space to be in. I have accounts with Google Drive, Microsoft Skydrive, iCloud, and DropBox. Among all of these services, Dropbox continues to be my go to service because it integrates so well with many different apps. It acts as the link between my different machines, enabling me to keep a single copy across multiple devices.
  4. Fancy Hands – I’ve always wanted but couldn’t justify a personal assistant. Fancy Hands is the solution to that. I’m able to send my tasks to Fancy Hands from their website, app, email, or by phone. In my short time using this service, I had a birthday card sent out and researched some articles on a speaker I saw. I’m excited to use this service to scale up my calendar management and to shift many of my task items off to a more dedicated team. They can put time and attention on things that I probably would let slide or not have focus on.
  5. If This Then That – IFTTT is the mother of all integrations. I use this to link and automate my services. For example, I have a recipe setup to turn off my lights every work day at 9:00 AM just in case we forget to turn them off when we head off for work.

My five principles for work and career

As my career has progressed, I’m spending more time mentoring, coaching, and guiding others. Where I once was the naive fresh out of college grad, I’m now the experienced. These are my five key principles that have guided me in my career.

As a career consultant, I have worked for five different firms and consulted on more than 30 projects. In addition to my own experience in my own company’s career model, I’ve seen other companies during my consulting engagement. I’ve heard client employees struggle with their careers and I’ve seen successes. In nearly all my experiences, I’ve found my five principles to hold true.

I’ve never publicly shared these principles before, only some during my mentoring sessions. I will preface that these principles have worked for me in the past ten years but as we all know, the world is evolving and they may not hold true moving forward. The rate of change and the speed of competition will only increase. I would argue these five principles are going to be the baseline for the future and that to be successful in that future, you have to go above and beyond these.

1. You own your career, no one else

Everyone company has their own career model. Many will be more prescriptive and share the formula to success. These models are designed with the intention that you will work your entire life for this one company. You’ll build skills for the next job title or role and move up a pre-defined path.

That’s all fine and dandy until you decide that you don’t like the company anymore, or you want to change career paths.

What you need to do is to create your own career path, one that exists outsides of the artificial constructs created by companies. Then, manage your own career path in parallel to the company you are working for. If you have to fill out a career development plan, use your own first, then fill out the form or follow the procedure to check that box off. In all cases, your own career plan trumps all.

Your career plan should identify the skills you need and the course of action to get those skills. When possible, use your company’s existing infrastructure to get those skills, whether it be on the job training, formal classroom training, or reading. If that doesn’t exist, fund it yourself. Ask if you can take an external workshop. If your request is denied, take time off and pay for it out of your own pocket. An investment in yourself will yield the greatest return. If you can’t get specialized software (e.g., Photoshop), then buy your own copy. If you don’t have the hardware or tools you need, buy your own. Do that it takes to make sure you acquire the skills you need to go where you want.

2. Create and share your portfolio

My brother is an artist and like all artists, he has a portfolio of his work. In the business world, that’s much less common. A few years back, I decided that the best way for me to get a job was to show what I could do in the interview. Anyone can talk about what they do, I wanted to show what I have done.

Early on, my portfolio was simply a three ring binder with hard copy prints of my work. This included print outs of presentations I’ve made and delivered, copies of reports I wrote, or pictures of workshops I conducted.

As technology advanced, my portfolio now resides in a PowerPoint presentation in a DropBox folder that I can access on any device (laptop, tablet, or phone). As technology advanced and this became more common place, I migrated back to the physical portfolio. Instead, I’ve printed out artifacts of my work and laminated them. They now exist as a packet of physical handouts that people could touch and feel.

When I’m meeting someone, or interviewing with someone, I’ll keep the portfolio handy. In about 60% of my meetings, I have a reason to pull the portfolio out to show something that’s relevant. It has to be natural. It has to resonate with the person you’re talking to.

3. Be your own PR

If you’re reading this and you have your own PR resources, then you don’t need this. If you’re like 99% of us, there’s no such thing as personal PR. Instead, you have to manage this yourself. What PR does is it creates a perception and perception can be a very powerful agent.

Doing good work will only get you so far. What’s important is that good work is known, recognized, and shared with others. Sharing your work shouldn’t feel tacky. It should feel natural and wanted. But just yapping about how great you are isn’t going to cut it. Besides the obvious that your work has to have some value, talking about it only has value if someone listens and then is willing to share it with others.

You should create your own fan club. If the words coming out of your mouth is worth one point, then the words coming out of another person’s mouth is worth 10 points.

Why is it important that people know who you are and what you’re capable of doing? So that you can do more of what you love and you can contribute more of what you’re capable of doing. This is not a bad thing. Done right, it actually makes the world a better place. There’s no point of doing great research and discovering great discoveries and never sharing them with anyone.

All of this only works if you can back up what you say about yourself. If you can’t, people will be very quick to call you out and you’ll do more damage than good. If you can back up what you say about yourself, then you need to reach out to as many people as you can. Give them a reason to talk about you. They should leave feeling like they’ve met someone that can help them rather than feeling obligated that they should help you. When the first happens, you’ve just became a go-to person. You’ll be top of mind when a need comes up.

4. Connect the dots

In Steve Job’s Stanford commencement speech, he said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Spend time connecting those dots. Take time to let the people that’s helped you in your career that they’ve made a difference in your life. The more you connect those dots, the better chance you’ll have that more dots will connect later in life when you look back.

Mistakes you’ve made shouldn’t look like a tarnish on your history. You should be able to look back and see those mistakes as simply a path that got you to a better place.

If you believe that the dots will connect, then you won’t be afraid to veer off the path and take on new challenges. The unknown will be scary, but you’ll have confidence looking back that ever dot was an unknown.

5. Go where the ball is going to be, not where it is now

The best way to win in competition is to go where the competition isn’t. If you spend your life chasing the ball, that’s what you’ll be doing, chasing the ball. What you want to do is go where the ball will be.

When the industry is jumping on board the latest fad, you should be already out there looking for the next thing. If you’re chasing the latest trends, you’ll be in with the hoard of competition. Instead, be the person that’s out there by your lonesome. Take the trend to all digital. Everyone is going mobile, everyone is going digital. Now would be the best time to start practicing your penmanship and start writing letters, supporting our good old USPS. In a world where everyone sends electronic messages, the one person that sends in a hardcopy letter stands out.

Anytime you see an industry go all in on something is a great time to go the opposite direction. It’s an opportunity to be different.

Closing Thoughts

These principles have worked well for me the last ten years. Take that with a grain of salt. I’m already gearing up for the next ten years and I anticipate retooling myself to change with the times. Let me know what you think. What has worked well for you.

First impressions of the Surface Pro 2 as an alternative to laptop and tablet

When Microsoft first announced the Surface, it caught my attention. Here is an opportunity for a new approach to tablet computing. Unfortunately, after a week with the Surface RT, I returned it. I knew that it wasn’t going to be popular and really quickly there will be many for sale on Craigslist. Microsoft later reduced the price.

A year later, I’m here, typing away on this blog post on my Surface Pro 2. What changed my mind was that the Surface Pro 2 was a multi-purpose utility tool. As a laptop, it reminds me of my x-series ThinkPad, small, light, and compact. As a tablet, it acts more like a Wacom Cintiq than a real light tablet like the new iPad Air. When I’m at my workstation (the kitchen table), I’m barely tapping into the full capability of the machine. My 27″ monitor caps out at 1080 resolution. Surface Pro 2 can go 4K. With a bluetooth mouse and keyboard, it’s a real workstation.

The ability to use the pressure sensitive pen is a selling point for me. I’m an aspiring designer but not yet at the Wacom Cintiq level. But with the penning option, I’m able to sketch out ideas previously done on paper while I’m mobile.

I’m only a week into using the Surface Pro 2. These are my initial takes as I experiment with using this device exclusively. Below is a capture of my workspace. The Surface Pro 2 is connected to a low cost 27″ ViewSonic. With bluetooth, I also have a Logitech keyboard and mouse. On the left is my handy Jabra speakerphone for making calls.

Photo Nov 09, 11 38 22 AM

Display – The Surface Pro 2 comes with a 10.6″ display supporting 1080. With the docking station, it can connect up to two 4K monitors. I need to test this out and will accept any donations for 4K displays. On a day to day basis, the screen is a little small compared to 13-15″ laptops. In desktop mode, it’s really small.

Touch Cover Keyboard – I’ve been really stubborn and refuse to use the Type Cover keyboard. I believe with enough practice, I can get pretty close to typing on a regular keyboard. In fact, this entire post has been written on a touch cover keyboard. My belief is that we should start practicing to type on touch screens as the future is in adaptable input screens (like Star Trek). Edit: I ordered a type cover for day-to-day work while I practice on the touch cover. My typing speed is limited to about 30WPM on the touch cover and I need to be up to 60 to stay productive.

Windows App Store – This is not a review of the app store. Most reviews are hung up on the limitations of the app store and quality of modern apps. I am a believer that modern apps are the future. Unfortunately, people are slow to adopt Microsoft’s vision and the selection, but most importantly the quality is a little subpar at the moment. The reason I chose the Surface Pro 2 is that I can live in this duel world of legacy and modern until that transition is compete. I do find myself preferring modern apps to the desktop apps.


  • This is a powerful machine. I was able to load up Steam and play Street Fighter IV and Mortal Kombat with full graphics. Again, this is an all out workstation crammed into a tablet form factor.
  • Multi-purpose. As a single device to replace a laptop and tablet, it’s ultra portable and light.
  • With my upper end configuration, I have plenty of memory and storage space.
  • While the keyboard covers are expensive and don’t come with the device, they can easily be swapped out enabling future upgrades.
  • Power adapter is a little big (it’s a laptop) but comes with a really unique design with a USB port for charging other devices.


  • No cellular options like LTE. This device is WiFi only.
  • As a tablet, it’s pretty heavy and the 16:9 aspect ratio is awkward in portrait mode.
  • The screen size is really small for day to day computing. Better make sure you have external monitors handy.
  • Magnetic power plug is hard to plug in. You have to align it just right for the magnets to engage.
  • Only one USB port is limiting but you really should stop plugging things in and start using bluetooth.
  • Cameras were not updated to 1080 in this rev. Surface Pro 3?

Bottom Line:

Surface Pro 2 fixed the biggest complaint from the first one which is battery life. It’s effectively an all day device. It could replace your laptop and tablet, but really make sure your workstyle and workflow will  accommodate this. I jumped into rev 2 because I’m an early adopter. For everyone else, I recommend waiting for Surface Pro 3. Remember that iPad 1 and 2 didn’t really change much until the new Ipad introduced a high resolution display. Always wait for the 3rd gen device to jump in, unless you have deep pockets or want to be at the front of the wave.

In a couple weeks, I’ll do a follow up review on my longer term usage.

Traveling with the Yellow Book

I used to be a government auditor. The audit bible was the Government Accountability Office (GAO) book on Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (GAGAS). It was also known as the Yellow Book for its yellow jacket.

Shortly after working at the California State Auditor’s office, I got married and went on my honeymoon in Jamaica. I brought the Yellow Book along as reading material. I love to geek out on technical material.

It became a running joke with my audit friends. Little do they know I actually read up on the standards when I take it along. However, I do so much less now that I’m not an auditor anymore.

En route to Sayulita Mexico via Phoenix. So exited I couldn’t contain the Yellow Book.
Shrimp tacos? Sure, I’ll be over here reading up on auditor judgement.
Day of the Dead? Audit standards wait for no one.
Beach? We’re at a beach? I’ll be over here catching up on standards for sufficient and relevant evidence for audit findings.
My Yellow Book has seen better days. I’m catching up on my 2007 edition. Time to get the latest edition (2011) leather bound for the library.
Catching up on some much needed sleep. Once you start reading attestation standards, you can’t stop. Good thing the Yellow Book is good for blocking out that pesky light in the sky.

How I use Shoeboxed to scan all my documents

I still remember my first flatbed scanner I got back in the 90’s. It was big, connected via parallel port (remember those?) and took a long time to heat up and a long time to scan one page. The world has changed significantly since then. OCR technology has advanced to the point where it functionally works. Search technology replaces the traditional filing system. Where I once spent hours a week scanning documents and then putting them into folders, I now outsource all that work to Shoeboxed.

Meet Shoeboxed. I think of it has the Netflix of scanning. They mail me these blue indestructible envelops and I mail in things I want scanned. It takes a little more than a week after I put the envelop in my mailbox for pick up to when I get the email notification that my documents are ready for viewing. I also use the integration to Evernote to automatically archive all my scanned documents into Evernote. In the note, I get the date of the document (pulled from the receipt transaction date), a dollar amount, and payment type.

My intake and processing workflow:

1. All documents to be scanned goes into a shelf in a small cabinet we have near the door. This is our intake area.

2. Once a week, I sit down and stuff the documents into my blue folders. I paper clip documents that belong together to improve the accuracy document groupings.

3. I place the envelops out the next morning for pickup.

4. I get the email notification from Shoeboxed that the documents have been scanned and ready to use. I check Evernote to see that the files are indeed archived in my notebooks. I have one called SB Receipts and another called SB Other Documents.

5. Once a month, I’ll go through each document in the SB notebooks, tag them, and then move them to the appropriate notebook for future reference.

My retrieval process:

Since my documents are scanned and it goes through OCR processing, I can search the contents of the documents.

  • Search by tags – I have a tag for “2013 tax” to pull up all my tax deduction documentation
  • Search in a notebook – I have a notebook for all my home maintenance documents (and manuals for appliances)
  • Search by date and tag – For medical reimbursements, I search all dates in 2013 and tagged “medical”

I previously wrote about what type of things I send into Shoeboxed to be imaged. Since that time, I’ve trusted Shoeboxed to be my official record keeper for my tax documentation (deductions) and medical reimbursements (FSA). It’s much safer than the file folder I keep in the closet.

It’s also a great way to track all my home maintenance documentation, car maintenance, pet exam records, and warranty receipts. I’ve been historically really bad at keeping receipts. Instead of a literal shoebox, I now send it into Shoeboxed.

Disclosure: I’m a Shoeboxed Ambassador because I really believe in this product. I get a discount on the service to help promote the service. I’ve been using this service for nearly two years and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It’s that good. Use this link to get 20% of your service.

The end of better, faster, and cheaper

Have you noticed that the world is getting faster and faster? Exponential growth keeps me up at night, with terrifying night sweats. Unlike regular linear growth, where each year we see the same change, exponential growth accelerates.

Take the recent Apple presentation on CPU performance increases. I owned the original iPhone when it first released in 2007. A year later, the 3G came out and I skipped it because there wasn’t much increase. I then upgraded to the 3GS and saw a bump in speed. Today, just six years after the original iPhone was released, my new iPhone 5s has 40 times the processing speed. I can store 64GB of data vs. my original 8GB.

Go back a further and data storage was measured in kilobytes. Today, we measure data in megabytes and gigabytes. Hard drives are sold in terabyte increments.

Using the iPhone example above, more than half of the speed increase came within the past year. At that inflection point, more progress came during that one year than the previous five years combined.

My sense is that the number of email messages, tweets, Facebook postings is also increasing in that similar exponential fashion. There’s a reason why we are starting to feel overwhelmed with the shear volume of data come across.

Yet, the way we work continues to evolve at a much slower pace. We still cling onto email like its the only way to communicate. Google Wave failed when it first came out because it evolved faster than people could adopt. Today, the simple act of getting people together to make a decision or take an action results in countless emails, meetings, and calls. As the to-do list gets bigger, the number of communication points will increase exponentially as well.

If we continue to cling onto emails, meetings, and calls, in the very near future, we will consume the full 24 hours in a day, or 168 hours in a week and still not be able to keep up with the ever increasing data streams.

The tools we used in work the past five years won’t keep up with the doubling of work in the next year. The era of better, faster, and cheaper is rapidly coming to an end. Anyone that thinks they can better, faster, and cheaper an exponential curve is going to quickly get crushed by the mathematical inevitability.

What we need is to be smarter, network, and scale. More to come on what the future will hold for us.

Taking down the chimney

Next on my home improvement projects was taking down the old chimney that went from the basement up through the attic. It was previously used for the coal stove in the basement and for the wood burning oven in the kitchen. The previous owners had boxed it in and then capped it off in the attic.

My first project was to enter the attic ponywall and take down the chimney brick by brick. The ceramic liner was too small so I wasn’t able to drop bricks down. Instead, I took down a good 30 buckets of bricks down the two flights of stairs.

photo 1

For the second and final phase of the project, I enlisted three great friends. The night before, I plastic wrapped the kitchen channeling my inner Dexter Morgan. We removed the two sides of lath and plaster (a very dusty and nasty effort). A few snips with the sawzall and we removed the studs holding up the wall.

Brick by brick, we slowly chipped away at the chimney and dumped the bricks out the side door in buckets. Here’s Ben and Hsu Han hard at work. I was up in the attic chipping away at the bricks further in the back.

In the end, we build a pile of bricks on the side yard. Thank you to my neighbor Chris for lending his driveway for our effort. In between our demo effort, we helped my neighbor raise up his workshop in the back yard. The men lifted four walls and nailed them down with the nail gun.

photo 2

Lessons learned:

  • Borrow a fan to blow out the dust. We were working in a cloud of dust.
  • Plastic wrap the workspace to protect living space, but don’t wrap yourself out of the kitchen so you can’t get access to water.
  • Take lots of breaks but keep the momentum going.
  • There’s nothing you can’t accomplish if you put your minds to it.
  • We’re not as young as we used to be.

Thank you to Ben, Hsu Han, and Kris. After a long week of white collar work, we put on our blue collars and went to work.

Jumping out of a perfectly good plane

I force myself to be uncomfortable. It keeps me on edge, on my toes, and agile and ready to go. Just recently, I checked off skydiving off my life bucket list. It was a perfectly clear day, with 360 views. With the weather so nice, we were able to go up to 13,000 feet. We put on our jump suites, harness and met our instructor. They prepped us on what was going to happen and then we boarded the plane.

The 15 minute flight up was incredibly scary. The anticipation was probably the hardest part of the jump. When we reached 13,000 feet, the green light went off and the doors opened. A certified jumped went head first out. Next came my friend Cassie. She was fearless and just flopped out the door. Her husband Steven came next. His face turned white as he scooted toward the door and out. At that point, I wanted to stop.

I looked out the door and down to the earth. Two seconds later, all I felt was falling. I held tightly to the harness and screamed. After about five seconds, air resistance caught up and it felt like floating. That didn’t stop me from screaming the entire way down.

Not sure if I’ll do this again, but I’m proud I got it checked off my bucket list.

Here’s the edited version from Snohomish Skydive.

I also got the raw footage of the jump itself. It’s higher quality and captures most of my screaming the entire way down.