Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Carriers are not ready for tablets

This week I spent at least two hours on the phone trying to convince both AT&T and Verizon to give me online access to accounts I set up for tablets that I am testing -- the Samsung Galaxy Tab (AT&T) and Motorola Xoom (Verizon). They are both great devices; I like the Galaxy Tab's form factor (like a paperback book) and the Xoom is incredibly fast. But it is clear that the wireless carriers have no idea how to incorporate these devices into their billing and customer service ecosystem. It was such a painful and frustrating experience that I wonder how the cellular carriers expect to leverage these devices as more tablets come onto the market.

First, my story with AT&T. I bought the Galaxy Tab a few months ago which came with an AT&T SIM card pre-installed. When you boot the device for the first time, there's a widget which takes you to a registration page, which I filled out to activate the tablet on AT&T's network. Since then I have not received a bill (to my knowledge) for the usage, and couldn't remember whatever password I might have used to set up the device. Nothing on AT&T's website seemed to offer any help, as it is completely oriented towards phones.

Finally, I gave up and called AT&T to re-register the Tab manually. The first customer service rep had no idea how to do this. They kept asking for the phone number, which the device does not have (at least when you enter the Settings menu it lists the phone number as "unknown"). Given that I had not received any bills I suspected the Tab was never registered, so we had to look it up by IMEI number. The rep could not pull up any account information. She ended up transferring me to technical support at Samsung, of all places. The Samsung rep was very friendly but couldn't help with this problem, either -- it seemed to be an AT&T issue (and I agree). I ended up having to call AT&T back, and went through the same painful process of explaining what my problem was. This rep ended up transferring me over to a different sales rep who tried to help me set up the account from scratch.

This is when things started to go downhill. All I wanted as an unlimited (or as close as possible) data plan for the Galaxy Tab. I could see online that AT&T has a 2GB/month data plan for tablets but the rep kept telling me that "their internal systems don't necessarily show what is on the website." (First warning sign there.) Eventually he managed to pull up the right plan but couldn't seem to figure out how to add a Galaxy Tab -- the device wasn't showing up in his menus. It sounded like he had never activated a tablet before. After around 20 minutes on hold he managed to figure it out, so I think I finally have the Galaxy Tab set up for data access. I was promised that I would get an email from AT&T confirming the new account, but it never arrived. So I guess I am going to have to call them back. I am dreading this.

Verizon was almost as bad. Like the Tab, I had set up the Xoom using the registration app on the tablet itself. I had made a note of the username used to set up the account, but not the password. Verizon's website offers no ability to request a new password except via SMS to the device -- and the Xoom doesn't receive SMS messages, since it's not a phone. The only way to request a new password is to spend around 45 minutes on the phone with various Verizon reps with the result being that a new password is being sent to me by postal mail in five business days. (What is this, the nineteenth century?) Of course, since I moved recently, my mailing address on file with Verizon was incorrect. Fortunately, the service rep allowed me to change the postal address over the phone -- meaning that they trust me enough to let me change my mailing address, not not enough to reset my online account password. This makes absolutely no sense and seems designed to drive users away.

The lesson here is that the wireless carriers have no clue how to incorporate tablets. They are treating them like phones, which they aren't.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thinking back on 8 years in Boston

Tomorrow I will be packing up and moving from Boston to Seattle with my family. I thought now would be a good time to reflect on living in Boston as a city and recall some of my best memories here.

I've never lived in Seattle, though have been there many times -- it seems like a wonderful city, full of funky crazy people and absolutely beautiful geography. I'm not terribly excited about the rainy weather, though something tells me it can't be any worse than the Boston winters, when I always feel cooped up. I really miss getting out to go hiking with the dog or mountain biking during the winter months in New England -- and now that I have a kid it's especially hard to get out when it's well below freezing outside (he has a lot lower tolerance for the winter weather than I do). Rain I can deal with; negative 20 wind chills and a foot and a half of snow are something different altogether.

On finishing grad school at Berkeley in 2002, I had a few faculty job offers, and my wife was looking for residency programs in psychiatry. Our decision came down to two cities: Boston, where I had an offer at Harvard, and Pittsburgh, where I had an offer at CMU. I had lived in Boston for a while during college, so I knew I liked the city. But CMU was a very tempting offer, being a much more highly-ranked CS program than Harvard. My wife and I visited Pittsburgh a couple of times and actually liked it a lot: it was a very friendly place, and the CMU folks went all out to show us a good time. At one point we actually made the decision to move to Pittsburgh but decided to sleep on it. The next day we had to ourselves, without anyone showing us around. The only Mexican place that served "fish tacos" appeared to be Van De Kamp's fish sticks on a tortilla. I could not find a music store that allowed you to browse the CDs without an attendant unlocking a glass case to let you inside. We tried to find a decent shopping mall, hoping they would have a good record store, but found ourselves in the mall where the movie Dawn of the Dead was filmed -- I did not make it more than three paces beyond the door before we realized it was a terrible mistake. I'm sorry, Pittsburgh might be a wonderful city for some people, but it was not for us.

Monroeville Mall on a typical Sunday afternoon.
So we moved to Boston in 2003. We drove across the country in my little beat-up two-door Ford, stopped at places like Moab and St. Louis and Nashville, a little like On the Road in reverse. We arrived on a hot, sticky summer day in a thunderstorm and moved into an apartment on Dana Street in Cambridge, not far from Harvard Square. Almost immediately we felt like outsiders. Boston is a very old city, and it shows -- the old brick buildings around Harvard, the beat-up sidewalks, everything dripping with history and significance. Paul Revere. George Washington. Boston Common. Old Granary Burial Ground. The feeling was so different than the newness that is so pervasive in California. It took some getting used to.

These gravestones have been here for a while. (From
That first summer was one of the most exciting in Red Sox history. I had never paid attention to baseball before, but it soon became clear that if I wasn't conversant in Curt Schilling or Manny Ramirez I was going to be left out of a lot of conversations. Like a lot of people in Boston, I got caught up in the excitement of the 2003 postseason when the Sox were narrowly beat by the Yankees for the ALCS title. The next year was even more exciting, in that the Sox went on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. The whole city went totally apeshit. For so many people living here, it was like a moment of rapture that they never believed would actually happen, the culmination of a lifetime of inferiority to cities like New York. I feel sad for some long-time Bostonians who now have no excuse to be cynical about their station in life.

People were just a little excited. (From
Not long after we moved to Boston they finally banned smoking in bars and restaurants (which we'd been used to in California) and actually allowed alcohol sales on Sundays. It was as if the city were modernizing before our eyes. It would take another six years for Cambridge to allow outdoor dining at restaurants, which is still encumbered with backwards vestiges of the Puritans (you can only have a drink while sitting outside if you also order food).

Going out in Boston was a bit more a dressy, formal affair than we were used to in Berkeley. At all but the very highest end restaurants in San Francisco, jeans and a t-shirt were acceptable attire; not so in Boston. On the positive side, Boston has a great foodie scene. At first we were totally lost trying to find good places to eat; Zagat's is useless and Yelp simply reflects the lowest common denominator. At first we were convinced that people in Boston had no idea what real, good Mexican food was -- those greasy platters of "enchiladas" covered in melted cheese that are so popular at hellholes like Casa Romero are not it. Then we discovered Chowhound, and got turned on to a whole world of hole-in-the-wall places serving authentic Mexican and Salvadorean and Sichuan and Cambodian. Unlike Berkeley, where you can swing a dead cat and hit three burrito joints and a place with out-of-this-world sushi, in Boston it takes a bit more digging, but there is great food here.

Some of my best memories of living in Boston...

Walking my dog, Juneau, to work at Harvard every day, stopping at the coffee shop on the way, and taking her to the dog park on the way home for an hour or so of play time with the other dogs.

Juneau would occasionally help me reviewing papers, too.

Sitting outside on a warm summer evening, firing up the grill, having friends over for dinner and drinks until late.

Every single fall, feeling the first day of cold air and getting excited for the leaves to start changing.

This image has not been enhanced.

Riding my bike along the banks of the Charles River, whizzing by rollerbladers and clueless tourists walking four abreast in the middle of a bike path.

The morning after a big snowstorm, seeing the world transformed and noticing how quiet everything was with the snow on the ground.

Shoveling is always fun too.

Late nights out in Boston Chinatown with Gu, drinking beer and eating Korean food.

Watching the sun rise out of the window of Mount Auburn hospital on a hot July day a couple of hours before my son was born.

I was a dad not long after this picture was taken.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Running a successful program committee

Yesterday we held the program committee meeting for the 13th Workshop on Hot Topics in Operating Systems (HotOS), for which I am serving as the program chair. This is the premier workshop in the OS community and focuses on short (five page) position papers meant to bring out exciting new research directions for the field. In some years it has been more exciting than others. What tends to happen is that people send five-page versions of an SOSP submission they are working on, which (in my opinion) is not the best use of this venue. When HotOS becomes an SOSP preview I think it misses an important opportunity to discuss new and crazy ideas that would not make it into a regular conference.

We accepted 33 out of 133 submissions. The number of accepted papers is a bit higher in previous years because I wanted to be more inclusive, but also recognized that we could fit more presentations in at the workshop when you don't have 25-minute talk slots. There is no reason a 5-page paper needs a 25-minute talk, and I think it goes against the idea of the workshop to turn it into a conventional conference.

This was, by far, the best program committee experience I ever had, and I was reflecting on some of the things that made it so successful.

I've been on a lot of program committees, and sometimes they can be a very painful experience. Imagine a dozen (or more) people crammed into a room, piles of paper and empty coffee cups, staring at laptops, arguing about papers for 9 or 10 hours. Whether a PC meeting goes well seems to be the result of many factors...

Pick the best people. We had a stellar program committee and I knew going in that everyone was going to take the job very seriously. Everyone did a fantastic job and wrote wonderful and thoughtful reviews. These folks were invested in HotOS as a venue, were the kind of people who often submit papers to the workshop, and care deeply about the systems community as a whole. The discussion at the PC meeting itself was great, nobody seemed to get cranky, and even after 8+ hours of discussing papers there was still a lot of energy in the room. This is helped a lot by the content -- HotOS papers tend to be more "fun" and since they are so short, you can't nitpick every little detail about them.

Set expectations. I tried to be very organized and made sure that the PC knew what was expected of them, in terms of getting reviews done on time, coming to the PC meeting in person, what my philosophy was for choosing papers, and how we were going to run the discussion at the meeting. I think laying out the "rules" up front helps a lot since it keeps things running smoothly. I've blogged about this before but I think establishing some ground rules for the meeting is really useful.

Get everyone in the room. Having a face-to-face PC meeting is absolutely key to success. Everyone came to the PC meeting in person, except for one person whose family fell ill at the last minute and had to cancel, but even he phoned in for the entire meeting (I can't imagine being on the phone for more than eight hours!). I made sure the PC knew they were expected to come in person, and nailed down the meeting date very early, so everyone was able to commit. Letting some people phone in is a slippery slope. I can't count how many PC meetings I've been to that have been hampered by painful broken conference call or Skype sessions.

Use technology. We used HotCRP for managing submissions and reviews, which is by far the best conference management system out there. During the PC meeting itself, I shared a Google spreadsheet with the TPC which had the paper titles, topic area, accept/reject decision, and a one-line summary of the discussion. The summary was really helpful for remembering what we thought about a paper when revisiting it later in the day. Below is a snippet (with the paper numbers and titles blurred out). The "order" column below is the order in which the paper was discussed. This way, everyone in the PC could see the edits being made in real time and there was rarely confusion about which paper we were discussing next.

Pre-reject and pre-accept. I rejected around half of the submissions before the PC meeting and gave the PC a chance to revive any such paper for discussion (none were). I also "pre-accepted" about 10 papers that were noncontroversial; we saved discussion of these for the end of the day, since they were easy cases. We ended up discussing a total of 69 papers at the meeting, which meant we had to go at a pretty good clip.

Be definitive.  With very few exceptions, we tried to reach a clear accept/reject decision on each paper as we discussed it, and did not table any papers for later discussion. There was one case where we were hung on what to do with a paper and decided to push the discussion until the end of the day. In cases where there was disagreement, I would mark a paper as "presumed reject" or "presumed accept" and put down the name of the person who wanted to argue for the opposite outcome later. That gave us a chance to move on when there was an insurmountable debate, and it was clear that the champion (or anti-champion) of a paper would have a chance to have their say.

Take everyone out to a nice dinner afterwards. As far as I'm concerned, this was the best part of hosting the PC meeting.

Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.