Finding Coffee in the US: A Spotters Guide

New Zealanders and Australians have grown accustomed to a certain style of coffee. They hear about great coffee places in the USA, and assume they will have no trouble finding good coffee in America. They are wrong. Americans have grown accustomed to a different style of coffee. There is good coffee in America, but it can be hard to find. Here’s a guide for New Zealanders and Australians: How to find decent coffee in the US.

The Rules:

  • Assume nothing. Their expectations are different.
  • Food and coffee do not go together.
  • Yelp reviews: read with caution.
  • A mocha is not what you expect.
  • Chain stores: in general, avoid.

Let’s look at those in more detail:

Assume Nothing

New Zealanders and Australians have been spoiled over the last 20+ years with the quality of the average cafe. You can walk into almost any cafe in Melbourne, or any town in New Zealand, and there is a high likelihood you will get a decent espresso coffee.

It does not work this way in the US, even in places like San Francisco. You can find decent coffee, but it is not everywhere. Many places that describe themselves as “cafes” only have a pot of filter coffee. In major centers you need to do research to find good places. Outside major centers it gets much harder.

Here’s an example: a year ago we were driving through rural Louisiana. I knew that coffee would be hard to come by. Sadly the best option looked to be a McDonalds “McCafe.” We knew that when McCafes were introduced to New Zealand they had made a real effort on the coffee front.

The conversation went like this:

I’ll have a cappuccino please.

A cappa-what?

A cappuccino.

Dianne, get over here! These people say they want a – what was it – a capp – u – cheeno. You ever hear of such a crazy thing? What in the hell is that?

Yes, a place with “Cafe” featuring in the name had never heard of a cappuccino. Americans have different expectations about what food & drink a cafe should provide. Many Americans are quite happy to pay for a cheap cup of filter coffee and Half and half. They don’t all want to pay $4-$5 for a hand-crafted beverage. You might think “Why not make it yourself at home?” They don’t think that way. You can’t change this.

There are people that *like* this shit

Once you get your head around this, you won’t be sucked in by a sign promising “Coffee!” It could well mean a glass beaker of coffee brewed 4 hours ago. No-one cares about the taste, that’s why there’s 8 different types of packets of sweeteners.

Fear not. All is not lost. There are places that know what they’re doing. You need to know what to look for.

These people know what they’re doing

Good Food Does NOT Mean Good Coffee

In NZ/Aus, there is a high likelihood that great food places will serve great coffee. Planning a lunch meeting with friends? If a good food place doesn’t do great coffee, it’s probably a bar.

In the US, there is an INVERSE relationship. Great coffee places in the US focus on coffee. They will offer nice pastries and muffins, but not proper meals. Places that serve good breakfast/lunch meals only have basic coffee. If you see lots of people eating, don’t expect to get good coffee.

They are queuing for food. Do not be fooled.

Many of the best cafes here focus on coffee. Coffee is their main revenue source, with a small amount of cakes & pastries (usually good). If you see people drinking coffee, working on laptops, and not much food: it will be good.

Yelp Reviews: Treat with Caution

Everyone uses Yelp in the US. Most places have many reviews, making it far more useful than in other countries. It’s very tempting to read the reviews, look for a well-rated place, and head there.

But.

When reading the reviews, you need to treat them with caution. The reviewers are American, and as above, their tastes are different. So you have to interpret the reviews.

Here’s an example of a review I was reading:

OMG the regular coffee was only 12oz (355mL)! The smallest size should be at least 16oz (473mL)! Plus the coffee was way too strong and I couldn’t understand the French accent!

Bingo! This sounds like exactly the sort of place I want to visit. Small, strong coffee made by a European.

It is time-consuming to read & interpret reviews for lots of places. I have found a few shortcuts with Yelp: search for the phrases “Flat White,” “Cortado” and “Hipster.” Something in that list will usually turn up. The first two are always positive triggers, the last one needs to be read for context.

Hollow: So Hipster it Hurts

Also look for “Coffee Roasters” in Yelp, rather than Cafes. This is a separate category. Coffee Roasters with retail outlets are usually very good.

Mocha: Not What You Expect

In New Zealand a “mocha” (pronounced: mock-a) is short for mochaccino. This is a cappuccino with chocolate added. Very tasty.

In the US a “mocha” (pronounced: moak-a) is regular coffee with a spoonful of cocoa powder stirred in. Not tasty. Note: you will come across a tremendous variety in mocha flavors in the US. Peppermint, White Chocolate, Raspberry, etc. Avoid.

Note the laptops, and not much food

Chain Stores: In General, Avoid

Americans love franchises, and every strip mall has the same set of shops. It would make life far simpler if one of the nationwide cafe chains did decent coffee, but they are all rubbish. Locals will rave about Peets, Philz, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, etc. but as above: they have different expectations to you. Those chains are all crap. Their popularity remains a mystery.

Most definitely not a chain

There are some smaller chains with groups of stores in certain regions. Some of these are very, very good. Examples in the Bay Area include: Ritual, Blue Bottle, and Sightglass. If you find a chain you like in your area, consider yourself lucky.

Cafe Spotting

If you can’t find any conclusive Yelp reviews, and you’re wandering about looking for coffee, here’s a few more tips on spotting good places:

  • Queues. This may just be a San Francisco thing, but people love to queue. Be warned: they may be queuing for food. If so, the coffee is probably bad. Check that it is just a coffee place.
  • Espresso machine: it pains me to say this, but many ‘cafes’ do not have espresso machines. At least with these you can spot them from the window. Bonus marks if you also spot an array of coffee-making apparatus (Chemex, pour over, Bunsen burners, distilling units).
  • Cup sizes. If you see people walking out clutching dairy confections measured in quarts, run. Quality places will have small cups by default. I knew that I would like Red Rock when I saw that their Cappuccino had a single small size listed on the menu.
  • Hipster score. Sometimes a place looks “so hipster it hurts.” Say what you like about them, hipsters do know how to make good coffee (Photo of Hollow).

Looks promising

If all the above fail, find someone with gauged ears, and follow them to work.

I’m never throwing another party!!!

“I’m never drinking again” usually follows this statement, but this year was different much to the surprise of my beloved.  You see, he’s now been around for a few events that I’ve put together, and they usually take a lot of energy and anxiety, climaxing in a great night.  This is usually followed by what many would consider a rather messy house…and that’s without mentioning that cleaning up with a hangover is no better in my late 30’s than it was when I was just a young thing!

But this year was different.  This year the theme was the 90’s, an era in which both Lindsay and I experienced out youth. It had been our time to experiment with bad fashion, alcohol and to push the boundaries of our age.  And because it was the 90’s, we decided to reminisce by throwing the party in the garage.

Much to Lindsay chagrin I once again hired a mirror ball. An eager friend offered to put together a ‘best of the 90’s’ play list.  And in the final week we could be found madly dashing about picking up quality plastic cups (Id usually hire good glasses but not for this bash), costumes and purchasing the tipples of our youth – Southern Comfort, Double Brown beer and medium white wine in a box, aka ‘vin du cardboard’.

Lindsay had decided that we needed to go as a famous couple of the 90’s and in the end we settled on Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.  Okay, so not in the best taste, but it sure had people in fits of laughter.  One group of male friends decided to join us as the Golden Girls and of course that caused a bit of an uproar on the dance/garage floor.  We were also graced with the presence of characters such as Britney Spears, Peter Pan and Wendy, and those who had dug deep into their wardrobe to find a delightful display of 90’s regalia.  A giant sized penguin that apparently wasn’t Pengu also joined us. He’d been drinking at the cricket all day so it seemed a sensible choice.

Monica and Bill.

Monica and Bill.

The Golden Girls...even includes one girl!  Check out the plate on the car.

The Golden Girls…even includes one girl! Check out the plate on the car.

The night went off with a bang.  The weather was perfect, the music rocked and the array of tacky nibbles that everyone had bought along did its best to line the tummies of those over indulgers.

The night came to an end without to many issues and only one neighbour asking us old timers to turn the music down (Hint: always invite the neighbours).  With friends staying over, the clean up in the morning was easy and no sticky floors to contend with, just a sweep out of the garage.  And it turns out that drinking all those cheap sweet tacky tipples has less of an effect than it did in my youth.  When all was done, and we sat down to a cup of coffee and a big breakfast at a local café I could say ”Yeah, maybe we will do it again”!

A couple of ol rockers...check out that ancient cellphone!!

A couple of ol rockers…check out that ancient cellphone!!

Now that one truly poofed backcombed fringe

Now that one truly poofed backcombed fringe

Courtney Love, Peter Pan and a Penguin

Courtney Love, Peter Pan and a Penguin

A few ol rockers....the rest of the party were too old to dance!!

A few ol rockers….the rest of the party were too old to dance!!

 

 

 

 

Site changes coming

You may noticed the new headline – this site is now for northlandboy and his girl. You can now reach the site via northlandboyandhisgirl.com. Links to northlandboy.com will still work.

That’s because it’s no longer appropriate for the site to just be about Lindsay, as Anna is now at least 50% of his life.

Expect to see posts from Anna coming up, and more posts on joint activities. The theme will also get an overhaul in the next month or two – it’s desperately in need of it!

Lindsay is currently working on the look and feel of a new site, that will be dedicated to his professional technical writing. This will be much better than trying to mix life + travel with a deeper explanation of TCL scripting in IMC. Details to be made public soon.

Hearing Aids Cases Review

Whenever you buy hearing aids, they almost always come with a small plastic case. As I’ve been trying different hearing aids over the last couple of months, I’ve ended up with a reasonable collection of hearing aids cases, from different manufacturers. These have a range of features. Sometimes it’s a bit unclear how the designers expect you to use the cases, other times they’ve put a bit of thought into it. Below I’ve rated each of the cases I’ve received, along with a few notes on each.

I would use these cases whenever I need to put my hearing aids somewhere safe, possibly for transport – e.g. I might put them in my bag while swimming, or maybe while I’m riding my bike. Overnight I’ll generally store them in a drying kit, but other times they’ll be put in the case. The case should be able to safely store the aids, and ideally it will have a compartment for carrying useful accessories – spare batteries, cleaning tools, that sort of thing.

Here’s the collection I’ve amassed so far:

Full range of hearing aid cases - iPhone 4S on left for scale

Full range of hearing aid cases – iPhone 4S on left for scale

Let’s go through them one by one, in the order I’ve picked them up. First up is the small Widex case I got around 1999:

Small Widex Case Open

Small Widex Case Open

Small Widex Case Closed

Small Widex Case Closed

I like the relatively small size of this case, and the soft interior lid, which gives the aids some protection. Easy to put in the pocket. No place for spare batteries or tools though. Overall rating: Good

Next up is the case I received with my second set of Widex aids, around 2006-2007:

Large Widex Case Open

Large Widex Case Open

Large Widex Case Closed

Large Widex Case Closed

This is my current go-to case. It is bigger than the previous case, but it’s still small enough to put in a man’s pocket, if required. It’s got the hard outside, with softer inside that I like. It’s also got a little storage space to put spare batteries and tools. On the inside of the lid, you can see the pack of spare wax guard filters. It’s a nice touch being able to slot those in there. The designers have clearly put some thought into how people use these. Overall rating: Excellent.

Now, let’s move on to some of the cases I’ve received as part of my recent testing. Phonak really go to town, starting with a large soft case, which contains a smaller soft case, and a smaller hard-sided case. It has room for all manuals, tools, everything. Unfortunately this overall case is pretty large, as you can see in the earlier photo.

Phonak Large Carry Case

Phonak Large Carry Case

I’ve ended up with two of these, which is over-kill really. I don’t know who needs this great big case. I ended up with two of the smaller hard-sided cases from Phonak too, one slightly large, but both pretty small:

Smallest Phonak Hard-Sided Case

Smallest Phonak Hard-Sided Case

Slightly Larger Phonak Case

Slightly Larger Phonak Case

These are both very nice little cases. Nice and small, but still have some protection for the aids, and they have storage space for tools and batteries. Well thought out. Phonak also gave me this soft-sided case, but I have no idea where to use it, as it really offers no protection:

Phonak Small Soft-sided Case

Phonak Small Soft-sided Case

Overall, Phonak seems to be trying to cater to everyone. But they end up shipping a bunch of stuff that no-one really needs. Ultimately, I would probably only use the smallest plastic case, and everything else could be thrown away. Overall rating: Very good (would have been excellent, but they ship too much extra stuff)

Finally, the Oticon case that came with the most recent pair of aids I’m trying:

Oticon Hard Case

Oticon Hard Case

I’m not really impressed by this case. It’s a nice looking slide out case – not much chance of it accidentally flipping open, as the Widex cases are prone to do. But inside, it’s all hard edges, and there’s nowhere to put spare bits and pieces. It’s quite a large interior space, and they could have had something there, but they just didn’t seem to bother. Overall rating: Below Average

I’m undecided on keeping my Oticon aids. Possibly I’ll return them, and try the new Widex Dream aids in a few months, when they become available. I wonder what 2013 will bring for new case design from Widex?

Hearing is Believing

I’ve been using Widex Inteo hearing aids for about six years now. One CIC (Completely In Canal) model, and one ITE (In The Ear) size. Prior to that, I had another set of earlier Widex digital hearing aids for around 7 years.

Hearing aids have an expected lifetime of somewhere around 5-7 years, perhaps a little shorter for models like mine that live inside the ear. I’m lucky that I don’t seem to get much wax in my ears, so I’ve been lucky that mine last reasonably well. I’ve still had to get them serviced periodically, and I did once have them fail in Turkey (but luckily I was able to get them repaired!).

Technology moves on, and hearing declines as we age. At a minimum, I need my current aids serviced, tested, and possibly reprogrammed for my changing hearing. But since my current aids are still working, I’m not in a hurry to get new ones. Instead, it’s a good chance to look at my options, including a changing to a different manufacturer.

To start off, I had a full hearing test conducted by Dilworth. This went beyond the usual “tell me when you hear the beeps” test, and included comprehension tests in noise, and electronic measurements. Apparently not only is my hearing worse in my left ear, but my eardrum responds differently. If only there was a simple operation that could fix hearing. Not likely in my lifetime though.

Once we had the results, the audiologist and I had a look at what my options are. I wanted to stay with CIC or ITE style aids, which is a bit tricky, since my left ear is marginal or outside the limits for most manufacturers, in that style. I like CIC because they are good with the wind, I can put headphones over them if I need to, and they’re reasonably discreet. I’m getting older now though, so I’m not quite so fussed on that last point.

Depending on development cycles, vendors jockey for position for “best” hearing aids. Even then, what’s best for one person will be terrible for someone else. This is in part due to different philosophies of different manufacturers, as to how best to help with hearing loss. If you haven’t dealt with this sort of thing, you may think that it’s simply a matter of raising the volume. Turns out that it’s far more complex than that.

Firstly, different people have different patterns to their loss. For me, my low range is poor, my mid frequency is worse, but going up it gets quite a bit better. This is quite different to typical age-related loss, where the high frequencies are affected. If you raise the volume across all frequencies, you will distort speech as that person perceives it. Apparently increasing levels in one frequency range can drown out perception in other ranges. This can lead to the situation where everything seems very loud, but you still can’t understand what people are saying. All you get is a headache. Not much fun.

Secondly, different environments require different sorts of help. In a quiet environment, you probably do want to hear the page turning. But if you’re in a noisy environment, you really want to be able to focus on the conversation going on right in front of you. The last thing you want is every conversation in the room coming through at full level. So manufacturers work hard to try and detect the environment they’re in, and adapt. Some aids have programs that the user can select, but many now are automatic. These will try and work out what’s going on, and how best to respond. One of the things they will do is to compress loud sounds, to ensure they don’t cause discomfort to the user.

Thirdly, some manufacturers have a philosophy of “speech comprehension is more important than anything else.” In some ways this is true, but this can make the adaptation phase harder for those using aids for the first time, or changing manufacturers. Others aim for more natural sound.

The other thing that plays into this is the user – you get used to a certain sort of “style” and changing can be very jarring. If you expect to hear a car door slamming sound like, well, a car door slamming, it’s very disconcerting when it sounds like a short clap. It’s also very odd to hear your voice changing. Takes a while to get used to.

Anyway, we decided that Phonak Virto aids would be the best for me to try. The specs said I could get two CIC aids, so we ordered those. Turned out the specs were a touch optimistic. Even with my good-sized ear canals, with the gain needed on the left ear, they just couldn’t make a shell that worked. In the end, we got a slightly larger aid than originally anticipated, but it wasn’t too bad. The initial moulding of the right ear was also a problem, with it being very long, and pushing on my ear drum. Very painful. Managed to get that one shortened though, and all was good.

The Phonak style is very different to the Widex style. Much more focused on speech, and to my ears at least, somewhat “tinny.” Huge amounts of echo too, until we got them programmed right. That’s the other thing with modern hearing aids – you hook them up to a computer, while they’re in your ears, and you have a million options you can change on them. You can also insert tiny tubes alongside the aids while they’re in your ear, then a machine plays a sentence to you, and shows what the aids are doing, along with recommendations on improving the settings. The only problem with having a million options is of course trying to work out which ones you actually need to change. Also tough when you’re doing it at the clinic, as there’s not that many different environments you can be exposed to.

The Phonak aids were strange to get used to, but I decided to only wear them for several weeks, and not fall back to my old aids. Turned out to be pretty tough going. I realised I was missing a lot of conversation, and my wife saw me missing more that I didn’t even notice. But it was in noisy environments that they were toughest. Shopping malls or parties were very tough, where they just gave me a wall of noise. In that situation, you tend to shut down, as it’s the only way to cope.

We tried making adjustments to them, but ultimately they just weren’t going to work for me. Maybe someone else, but they weren’t an improvement on what I had – they were worse – so there was no point paying the $7,100NZD. So back to the audiologist.

Now I’m trying some Oticon Acto aids. I had to go for an ITC Power style for my left ear, to get the gain I needed, but I’ve got CIC for the right ear. I’d rather have them the same, purely so they use the same battery, but hey, I’m used to this setup now. Initial fitting went well, and the tests on the machine show that we’re able to get these ones to pretty much exactly where the machine thinks they should be.

It’s hard to say what they’re going to be like – my brain is still adjusting to the changed sounds. They feel like they might be a little worse right now, but I need to give it a few more days before we’ll know. Hopefully these work out, otherwise I’m going to go back to my trusty Widex Inteo aids. They’re being serviced right now. Widex tells me that they’ve got new stuff coming out soon. So if I do go back to the Widex aids, then I’ll stick with them for a bit longer, and maybe in 12-24 months I’ll try again.

I’ll report back in a couple of weeks with progress.

Two Left Feet

November was cold, but we had a fabulous spell of weather here in Auckland during the first few weeks of December. Several weeks of glorious sunshine, with almost no rain. This is distinctly abnormal for Auckland, so we decided to make the most of it, by going for a mountain bike ride in the Hunua Ranges, to the South-East of Auckland.

There’s a great set of trails that take in single track through bush, gravel roads, open fields, stream crossings, etc. It doesn’t have the enormous network of trails that Woodhill or Whakarewarewa has, so it’s not the sort of place you want to visit all the time, but it is well worth at least a couple of trips a year. Since it can get a bit slippery, it’s better to time a trip after an extended fine spell.

OK, so we’ve had a good spell of weather, and it’s been a while since we’ve been, so let’s go! Get up early on Saturday morning, walk the dog, load up the car with bikes and gear, on the road at a decent time, and at the trailhead by 9:00. Perfect. Sun shining, a few other tramping groups around, not many bikers though. Excellent, time to unload the bikes and get set up.

Pull down the bikes, grab the box of gear and start sorting out Camelbaks, etc. Today I’m riding in my SPD sandals, while Anna’s using her normal MTB shoes. Picking up one of the sandals, I immediately see something wrong – it’s only size 41-42. Anna has a pair of sandals identical to mine, except smaller. She’s not wearing hers today, but it looks like maybe I’ve chucked her pair in the car, instead of mine. Well, they’re just sandals, and they’re not that much smaller than mine, so maybe I can make do with those? Yeah, probably.

Except wait a minute, where’s the other sandal? Here it is, and this ones a 45-46. That’s more like it. Maybe I’ll just be able to make do with one that’s a bit tight? But you’ve guessed it, I had two left sandals. What to do? The only other footwear I had was a pair of jandals (thongs/flip-flops), which were just far too soft to wear with SPD pedals. Well, they’re sandals with lots of adjustment points, maybe I could wear the bigger one on the wrong foot?

Something's not right here

Something’s not right here

By now Anna is just about wetting herself, but she’s trying to hold it in, as I’m in a rather grumpy mood, since it doesn’t look like our ride is going to happen. I tried riding around the carpark, looking like a right fool, but it just wasn’t working, with the sandal hitting the crank, making for difficult riding. We’re too far away from any bike shops to make it worth going and buying new pedals or shoes, so we have to make a call – pack up the bikes, and head home, no ride :-(. It’s too far out here to justify driving all the way home, then back out again.

On the way home, someone sends a message inviting us to brunch. “Sorry, can’t make it, we’re taking the bikes out to Hunua.” Well, technically it was true…

Get home, unpack the gear, and just go for a road ride around town. Good ride it was too. Shame about Hunua.

Tier Status Gold

I’ve been on a lot of flights in the last year. A lot. Only a handful of long haul, but I’ve been to Australia three times, the USA twice, South East Asia, and I’ve been making quite a lot of flights around New Zealand, most of them short hops.

Almost every flight has been with Air New Zealand, and eventually this starts to get recognised. In July I made it to Silver Class, which brings a few limited benefits. But look at what the Air New Zealand mPass app on my phone showed today:

mPass App showing Gold Status

mPass app, showing new Gold Tier status

New Tier Status: GOLD. Now I’ll get some worthwhile benefits. Lounge access, Priority check-in, Priority boarding, Priority waitlisting – now we’re talking! Priority check-in is irrelevant for Domestic flights, or even International originating from NZ. But Air New Zealand lines can be long in other countries.

There’s one other benefit which is particularly interesting to me – Fast Bag Tags. These are not just the usual ‘priority’ tags that everyone has. No, these are are special tags that apply to flights on turbo-prop planes. Rather than having to check your bags in, you can carry them out to the plane, hand them off just before you get on, then get them as soon as you get off the plane at the other end. This only works for the smaller regional flights, but it’s perfect for me, especially for all the short trips I make to Tauranga. I live relatively close to the airport, which means you tend to cut it fine when planning when to depart. You can’t afford any delays at checkin – now I don’t have to worry about that if I’m checking in a bag. I can turn up 15 mins before the plane leaves, swipe my phone to check in, and go straight to the plane. How good is that?

The flip-side to it all is that I’ve had a lot of time away from home, and a lot of early mornings and late nights. If you’ve only ever done casual travel, you don’t realise just how draining it can be doing business travel. Here’s an example: Recently I had full day of work in Christchurch. This meant getting up at 5 AM, departing the house at 6 AM, for a 6:50 flight. Work from 8:30 -> 6PM in Christchurch, then head to the airport and back home, getting home around 9PM. Shower, bed, up at 6AM the next day and back to the airport, off to somewhere else for a couple of days. I enjoy moving around, but it doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else.

At least now things will be just that little bit nicer at the airport.

Anna’s Turn

A couple of months ago I was the one finishing a long slog of study. This time it’s my wife’s turn, as she has now finished all her exams. All going well, this will mean that she will have completed her undergraduate degree. It does not mean the end of her studies – there’s at least two more years to go – but it does mark an important milestone.

Academic studies do not come naturally to Anna, and it has not been an easy path getting here. But she has persevered, learning how to learn, working out which study techniques work, and which ones don’t. In the last year in particular, she has really gotten into it, and now regularly achieves high praise for her work.

The last couple of weeks of exams were fairly intense, but I did what I could to help, and we got through it.

Since she has been working so hard, she decided she deserved a holiday, especially since I had a couple of ‘holidays’ in the USA earlier this year. I don’t think anyone who has been on a boot camp run by Narbik would describe it as a holiday, but we’ll let that slide. So she’s headed off to Brisbane for 10 days, leaving me home alone.

She thought it was a wonderful idea going to see her friends in the Brisbane area, until a couple of days out, when she realised we would be apart for 10 days. I don’t think I would be much use over there though – between Anna, Lara and Sarah, I wouldn’t get a word in the whole time.

To occupy myself, I’ve been in Wellington this weekend, at Kiwicon, a rather informal security conference. Lots of fun too. Good chance to catch up with various people I know in the industry.

Business travel coming up this week too, so I’ll be away again. Also means I won’t let the house get too messy while Anna’s away. Don’t want to get in trouble…

Maintaining Order

I’ve had a couple of questions come up about how I organise my life around work/study. I can’t promise all the answers, but I can relate what I’ve done over the last 18 months. Pretty much all the other certifications I’ve studied for were trivially easy compared to CCIE, or I was studying full-time, as in the case of my degree. This one was different. Far more time consuming, and I had to better organise things if I was going to get through it. The additional challenge I had was changing jobs about a year ago. Previously I was working at one place, so I had one list of tasks to do. Now I work in more of a consulting role, and I’m often in quite short-term engagements. That means multiple lists of tasks, for multiple clients. My previous methods weren’t keeping pace.

First piece of advice: Find a partner that will support you in everything you do, and make sure that you discuss your plans with them. If you’re going to invest a lot of time in something, you need to make sure that those around you understand when you will be busy, and when you will be available. Without their support, it doesn’t matter what else you do – it will end in tears.

Now for some specifics around managing tasks. I worked out that my challenges came down to keeping track of all the things I promised I would do, and making sure I was getting through my study plans. So I started looking around to see what was out there in terms of A) Strategies, and B) Software that could help.

After a bit of investigation, I settled on using a version of the Getting Things Done system by David Allen, also known as GTD. I certainly don’t follow all his steps exactly – I use a modified version, based in good part upon the writings at Asian Efficiency. These writings proved extremely helpful, both in providing general strategies, and specific instruction around how to use the software package I settled on – OmniFocus.

You can have a read of the strategies at Asian Efficiency yourself, but some of them I try and use are Eat That Frog, and the Pomodoro Technique. The first one means: That task you don’t want to do? Get it done first thing, and then the rest of the day is easier. The second one is about how to divide your time into manageable chunks of time, with scheduled breaks. Another strategy I’m working on (not always successfully) involves not checking your email first thing, but spending the first part of the day doing things like exercise, and planning your day. They have a series of posts on how to use OmniFocus, and how to integrate it into your life.

I chose OmniFocus for its reputation for power and quality, and because it works across the systems I use – MacBook Air, iPad, iPhone. OmniFocus is a tool for “staying on top of all the things you need to do.” It works well with the GTD system, and it has clients for OS X and iOS. These all synchronise, so updates on my phone show up on my laptop. The only problem is the price – it’s not cheap, especially if you buy all three of the apps – one for OS X, one for iPhone and one for iPad. But I’ve gone down the path of using it, and I think it’s helping.

Any new tasks that come up get added to OmniFocus. Initially they’re not sorted – that gets done once per day. Tasks are grouped by various projects – e.g. each of the customer projects I’m working on, or CCIE study. They can also have a “context” applied – so I can quickly find all the tasks for a specific project, or all the specific types of tasks – e.g. chores around the house. Tasks can also be set to recurring. So I can add a task for getting a haircut, and set it to re-occur 4 weeks after it is completed. The task comes up as due, I get a haircut, mark it as complete, then it disappears for 4 weeks. You can play around with how things re-occur too – some will come up again every week, regardless of if you completed it last week or not – e.g. paying rent. Others will only come up again a specific period after you completed it. Haircuts fall into that category – if you leave it a couple of weeks, then the next one is due 4 weeks from when it actually got done, not 4 weeks from when it should have been done. Tasks can have start times, and/or due times. They may not have any specific due date. Some things I note down simply because it’s something I would like to do one day, but there’s no pressing timeframe. That way it doesn’t get forgotten.

An example of the way I use these systems is that I have recurring tasks set up, where every morning I need to review my calendar, and choose my most important tasks for the day. This ensures that I don’t forget the meeting I scheduled weeks ago, and that I go through my list of tasks, and give myself 3-4 to do that day. Now I have a plan of attack, and I know where I’m going to spend my time that day. As I finish tasks, they get marked complete in OmniFocus. Every evening, I check to see what tasks I’ve added during the day, and make sure they get correctly categorised.

It does sound like a bit of work, and it is a bit, but you can do the steps pretty quickly. It’s no more time than would be spent on managing paper lists, but this is far more flexible, since I can assign dates to things, re-categorise them, shuffle them about, etc. And since it’s synchronised across my iDevices, it means I can almost always readily access my list of things to do.

When studying, I would add separate tasks for each of the sections I wanted to study. I would also have daily tasks set up for reviewing flashcards. This made it far less likely that things would slip. By having everything written down, it also takes it out of your head, and means you’ve got one less thing to worry about.

I guess it’s just another one of those ways that CCIE study has changed me – it’s not about the technologies, it’s about the methods, the strategies, the techniques – these are things I can apply to anything else I do in life.

Am I an Efficient Asian? Perhaps not yet, but it’s a work in progress, and I continually aim for better. I actually need to sit down and see how far my current practices have diverged from the recommended ways of doing things. Anyone have any thoughts they’d like to share on how they manage their life?

EDIT: One more thing to add about productivity – I have been Facebook-free for some time now. Very liberating.

A New Life

On September 21st, in Sydney, I took the CCIE R&S lab for the second time. The first time I wasn’t fast enough, nor did I have a sufficient depth of knowledge at my fingertips. This time, through a combination of hundreds of hours of practice, revised study techniques, and a little luck, I proved to be good enough to pass the lab. The average number of attempts is around 2.7, and right back at the start I said I’d be happy to pass it in two attempts. Well guess what? I am happy about it.

There’s a reason you haven’t heard much from me in the last couple of months, and that’s because I’ve had to become very narrowly focused, eliminating all distractions. I couldn’t afford to take a month off work, so instead I needed to use all of the available time I had outside work for study. That meant I have done very little other than work and study for the last couple of months, since I got back from LA. Most nights and usually both days at the weekend I could be found stuck in the office. Time on the bus wasn’t wasted – I would be reading flashcards on my phone, or maybe flipping through Ruhann’s Routing-Bits handbook. When I was doing a long drive, I’d put on the INE audio bootcamp, to listen to Scott Morris talking about MPLS, BGP and PfR. Not surprisingly, this tended to be only on those trips when I was alone in the car.

All this work started to take it’s toll. I now have a handful of grey hairs I didn’t have when I started. I started getting RSI from all the time spent at the keyboard. I put on a little bit of weight from the reduced activity levels. It placed a bit of stress on my marriage, as Anna only had me around for limited times, and I was always studying. But she did everything within her power to help me succeed. She looked after me, gave me support, and gave me space when I needed it. Without her love and support I would not have been able to do this. I have no idea how people who have young children manage to get through it.

Last year, I didn’t feel like I was all that far off passing. I passed the Troubleshooting section, and only two questions were (I felt) unanswerable. I’d gone in with a strategy of “know the basics well, and know where to look in the documentation for the remaining sections if you get stuck.” That wasn’t good enough. The CCIE lab exam has moved from being a logic test to more of a speed test. You need to be able to rattle off a wide range of configurations. You just don’t have time to go looking for things in the documentation. As far as I can tell, they also seem to deliberately slow down access to the docs too, making it a painful process searching for content. Or maybe it’s just that they use an old version of Internet Explorer? Regardless, I needed to improve on my speed.

So this year I took a different approach. Rather than working on multi-protocol labs, where a range of technologies were configured to interact, I instead focused on individual areas. Work through all the options for a technology, then move on to something else. I also signed up for Narbik’s bootcamp in LA. This gave me access to new materials, and a new way of looking at things.

The other big change to my study techniques was the the move to using flash cards. These have come a long way from when people would write out hundreds of cards, and carry them around. Now we can use tools like Mental Case. You still need to type out your cards, but now you can synchronise them with your phone. It can also track them, remembering which ones you got right and wrong, and using “spaced learning” techniques to decide which cards you should study, when. As I worked through different technologies, I would add to my set. I particularly focused on small snippets of configuration. Each day, I aimed to flip through 30-50 cards. You get sick of them after a while, but I think this really helped, especially with the “non-core” technologies, where you don’t configure them as frequently.

In the last few weeks, I took a couple of practice exams, and scored reasonably well. Every evening, Saturday and Sunday, and all the last week, I booked time on labs of real equipment. I took the last week off work, and used that time to really drill into the topics I didn’t want to see on the lab. After a while, I would have been quite happy to see them on the lab, as I felt I had a good understanding. Cisco seemed to know that though, and so they didn’t ask many questions on those areas!

I flew over to Sydney the day before the exam. I used up one of my free upgrades to get bumped up to Business class. A little bit of a waste for a short-haul (3 hour) flight, but I had to use it up soon anyway. That gave me more space, lounge access, etc. Worth it. Only did a little bit of study the day before though. I wanted to be a bit more relaxed.

On the day of the lab itself, it took me about 10 minutes to get into the rhythm of it. At first you’re a bit stressed, but then you start answering questions, and things fall into place. Around the middle of the day I thought to myself “You’ve got a damn good chance of passing today, if you don’t mess it up.” But there was still a lot of work ahead of me. All I could do was keep plugging away at it, and not get bogged down with anything. With around 45 mins to go, I went back and checked over my work. Found a couple of stupid mistakes, which would have cost me at least 10%. I believed I’d answered everything, but I couldn’t be certain I hadn’t missed any key details. I also could have broken some restrictions (some of the wording was a little unclear). Not much I could do about it though.

Just tried to relax for the evening, have a couple of beers, watch some TV. I had been hoping for results before I went to sleep, but it wasn’t until early the next morning they came through. They don’t just email you the results, they send you an email telling you to login to check your results. Quickly try and login, try and make sense of their 1990s-style website, and there’s the result: PASS. I didn’t jump up and down (It was 6am and I was still in bed), but I was pretty happy. I’d put so much more effort into it this time around, and I knew I was so close, so it would have been extremely disappointing if I had missed out. First thing to do was to let Anna know. She was probably more nervous waiting than I was.

On the way home, I had lounge access at Sydney airport, so could have had free beer and wine. But it was only 9am, and I was just too drained to bother. When I got home, Anna and I had a rather expensive bottle of champagne. No great celebrations though – we were both tired, and quiet night on the couch was just what we needed.

I haven’t worked out exactly how much I’ve spent over the last 18 months. Probably somewhere between $15 and $20,000NZD. God knows what the time cost. All going well, it will be repaid over the course of my career. Having a CCIE doesn’t quite guarantee you a job like it once did, but it gives you opportunities. It doesn’t mean that I will move jobs, but it does mean that if/when I do want to move, there’s more doors open to me.

I haven’t decided exactly what I’ll do next. For the next few weeks I’m just going to take it easy. Even now, over a week after the exam, I’m not quite back to normal. I was tired for days afterwards, having been under so much stress. For now, I’ll just do jobs around the house and relax. But in future…Narbik thinks I should take on another CCIE. He says I’m young, why WOULDN’T I do it? I’m also tempted to do HP’s Master ASE certification (much easier cross-over now I have CCIE), and maybe CCDE. Will have to have some negotiations with Anna first. Right now it’s my turn to look after her, and help her get through her exams this year. She deserves some payback for all she’s done for me.