Archive for January, 2011

Micro-innovation in Egypt (or why I will continue to drink coffee while teaching)

There is a policy at my school, (Nefertari American International School), that says teachers are not permitted to drink coffee while teaching a class or proctoring an exam. As someone who regularly indulges in morning coffee, I find this policy extremely silly. So silly in fact that I choose to ignore it.

Remember the TPS reports from Office Space and how the protagonist Peter Gibbons is “talked at” by several of his bosses on how to use the correct cover sheet? I had one of those moments. For the second time, I had the principal convey to my recently appointed pseudo department head that drinking coffee is against school policy and that I should stop. Being fed up with the administration’s idiocy, I decided to go talk to the principal about it.

I asked him why this school policy is in place and he mentioned something about teachers being a role model to students. How drinking coffee in front of the students ruins the role model image is incomprehensible to me. As a former military officer, I understand the importance of leading by example and if this were the military, I would not want to flaunt the privileges of being an officer in front of the enlisted guys. The fact is the teacher-student dynamic is not the same. If I could make students stand extra watch duty or remain in the pushup position for an extended period of time, than maybe I would consider not drinking my Maxwell House master-blend. But I digress.

The most bothersome part of the conversation came when I asked how I could get the policy changed. Apparently, any policy changes can only take place once every year (before the school year starts). Staff can submit suggestions and some group consisting of the higher level administrators vote on the suggestions. This is the school principal telling me he has no authority to change a simple policy about coffee drinking. No wonder the administration is incompetent.

I’m currently reading a book by economist Richard Florida called “The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity.” Florida suggests that the new American economy will heavily favor the creative class, a group of people that includes entrepreneurs, artists, designers, and computer programmer types. This class shuns arcane and silly bureaucratic rules and prefers to work in professions that are conducive to effecting change quickly. Florida makes the argument that this class of people will ultimately be the saviors of the new American economy. Their innovation will be the catalyst for future prosperity.

Egypt’s creative class, though existent, is being suppressed by an attitude of “follow the rules no matter how silly and you’ll be successful.” Now I’m less worried about the future of Egyptian Mark Zuckerbergs than I am for the average working class Egyptian who could make an impact at his place of work. For example, another teacher at my school had her business class students start a project that required them to write a business plan and execute it. The students loved it. They created a plan to sell home-made food at school during lunch and they actually pulled it off. It was an excellent project that actually benefited the students academically. The school administration declared that would be the last time any sort of business project would be permitted.

This type of micro-innovation has been thwarted many times at my school and it seems that it is not uncommon across many schools and businesses in Egypt. I believe that the overwhelming government bureaucracy has created a slothful work culture that has spilled over to many sectors in Egypt, education being one of them. Very few people are willing to stir the pot, and not necessarily for bad reasons. I imagine that if I had a family with children to take care of, I would be hesitant to anger my boss.

I told my principal that I would continue to drink coffee in class. He seemed surprised that I would openly defy the policy and meekly responded, “I hope you choose not to drink coffee.” The fact is I don’t really have anything to lose. I am only responsible for myself and I don’t particularly care to be a teacher. If saying no to a silly policy will pave the way for other teachers to actually make a positive impact, then it is completely worth it. Less altruistically, it is worth it to continue to enjoying my daily dose of caffeine.

Here’s to micro-innovation, the creative class, and Starbucks.



Milton from Office Space



The importance of acquaintances and friends while traveling (and Tamer’s Birthday)

One of the things I enjoyed most about my time in NROTC and my short stint in the Navy is the plethora of strong and weak relationships you develop with your peers. The military has always emphasized camaraderie as one of its selling points and I have to say it is an effective one.

There’s something about traveling or living abroad that cultivates the same type of bonding conducive environment that the military does. Like the military, sometimes living abroad can be stressful. Like the military, you find yourself socializing with people that you probably would not have back home. Maybe its just the displacement of living abroad that causes one to grasp and embrace those people who have anything in common with you. For example, in Lexington, I would not just befriend anyone who lives in Lexington. But when I leave the town, even to somewhere relatively close by, say Washington, DC, I might gladly talk to someone because he has a friend in Lexington. I believe this effect is exponentially magnified the further the physical distance from wherever you consider your home.

When I arrived in Cairo, I was immediately initiated into a network of friends and acquaintances through Sarah (who I went to GW with) who introduced me to a mixed group of Egyptians and American expats living here. Having a pre-established group of friends is immensely beneficial. You go out together, you complain about traffic together, and you’ll find yourselves at Tamer’s birthday party together. At Tamer’s birthday party, I found myself talking to an Egyptian girl who is best friends with the fiancee of one of the guys I was at BUD/s with. This single point led to further conversation and now we’re officially friends on Facebook. It turns out that my social network will sometimes come full circle.

That same weekend, I went to go see The Hanging Church which is a Coptic church in Cairo that is not actually sitting on the ground (hence the hanging). The church has Coptic volunteers stationed there to give a free tour of the church. One girl offered to give us a tour, but the conversation soon turned to Malcom Gladwell’s book “Blink,” which she was reading and I had already read and enjoyed a few months ago. Gladwell focuses on the concept of “thin-slicing” which refers to the ability to make an accurate snap judgement of people and situations. I enjoyed the tour and the book club-esque discussion. Within 20 minutes I “thin-sliced” Marian and determined that I would like to continue hanging out with her. I unconsciously made this snap judgement. I have no idea whether or not a Malcom Gladwell book would have been a strong enough commonality to establish a relationship with her if I were back in Lexington. Maybe its strong enough in any place but Lexington.

As I am not a strong enough writer to have a though provoking concluding paragraph, I have decided to just post a few pictures from the week instead. Enjoy.

Coptic Grave

The Hanging Church

Tamer on a boat on the Nile

Koshari...delicious. Warning: will make you a master of binge eating.



Christmukkah and the holiday season Cairo style

This was my first Christmas away from home and I have to say, it was a lot of fun. Though it wasn’t a substitute for a Lexington Christmas, the Cairo Christmas and New Years experience isn’t something to shy away from. I’ll recap some of the events of the holiday season.

Christmukkah :

The thing I remember being most excited about when I was younger was the pile of Christmas presents from Santa waiting under the tree. As I got older, this became less and less important. However, when I went to make my coffee, I found a file folder with a bow tied on leaning on the coffee maker. Was it a batch of essays I forgot to grade? Fortunately for me, that was not the case.

Erica, in all her thoughtfulness, harnessed the power of Facebook to get me an awesome gift. She sent out a Facebook invite to various friends from our travels to write stories for Trekdek when it launches! I was touched that so many people contributed to this gift. I’m very excited to get these posted when Trekdek launches. Thank you to all the people who wrote stories and thank you Erica!

The rest of the day was dedicated to the Hanukkah portion of Christmas. Erica and I went to see the movie, “The Tourist,” which I give a B. Mildly entertaining. We later met our friends Theo, Fronnie, and Randall for a traditional Korean dinner. Delicious.

Touristy things with GW friends:

A few days after Christmas, a bunch of Sarah’s old roommates from college showed up unexpectedly (not really, they were planning this for a while). They were part of the first wave of people to stay at our apartment. Sarah’s sister was getting married and some of her friends came for the wedding. These friends, of course, stayed with us. At any given point in time over the week, there were 10 people staying with us. Crowded, crazy, and awesome. I have to give a shout out to our plumbing system for being a champ during this whole process: good work toilets.

There is one thing every tourist needs to see when visiting Cairo: Egypt’s oldest apartments for the dead, the pyramids. Having guests visiting from the states was the catalyst that got me off my butt and head to Giza to see one of the great wonders of the world. I will let the pictures do the talking.

The Great Pyramid + Erica + Dale

This camel was named "Dennis the Menace"

Sphinx and Pyramids

New Year’s Party

There’s something very fitting about celebrating the New Years in a place where one of the oldest civilizations in the world existed. We decided the best way to celebrate this profound event was to hold an alcohol fueled house party. The highlight of this night involved a game called “dunkaroos” where you have your head held underwater for as long as you take it take, tap out, and then chug a beer. It is hilarious, fun, and messy.

Read and GW Girls




Dina and Ahmed’s Wedding

I am on a roll with weddings. Sarah’s sister Dina got married here in Cairo on New Year’s Day. I think they primarily set this date so that their anniversary would be easy to remember. We were lucky enough to be invited. Again, I will let the pictures do the talking. Congratulations Dina and Ahmed!

Dina and Ahmed

First dance


So that about wraps it up. Good luck to everyone and your New Year’s resolutions.



A few things I’ve learned about outsourcing to India

As some of you may know, last fall I began the process of
building trekdek. Now, since I have no web development/programming
skills, the process of building trekdek started with a visit to , a site where you can outsource all manners of projects
you can’t or don’t want to do. Here are some of the steps I took
and some lessons learned.

1. Post the details of your project on elance.

This was a fun and interesting step for me. I posted the
job with some vague details about what I wanted. I think I titled
it “Travel themed social-networking site.” I had many developers
place bids on the job. I eliminated the ones who immediately asked
for a list of features and gave me a quick price quote. It seemed
as if they were in for quick cash and wanted to meet the minimum
requirements only. It is at this stage of your project that you
will meet the “Sales guy/guy who types the best English at the
company.” This guy will not be your primary point of contact after
you award the project to his company. However, he is useful for the
purpose of clarifying the actual features of your project. My sales
guy Samit even gave me some ideas for more features on the site and
a mockup. Cool.

2. Negotiations

Once you find the sales guy you
enjoy talking to most, you can start negotiating price and
deadlines for the project. The former is easiest to negotiate. I
had no idea how much something like this would cost, but after
receiving multiple bids from several companies, you kind of get a
feel for what the cost should be. Don’t make the first offer. Samit
started with an offer of $5500 for the whole project. We eventually
got it down to $3800. The other aspect of the negotiations includes
the type and number of features you want and the various deadline
milestones that should be reached. Your sales guy should send you a
relatively detailed project proposal outlining the features and
dates they will be done by. Don’t be so concerned with the dates,
the project will inevitably take longer than planned. However, you
should make a point to include as many features as possible for the
given price. In the end you will eliminate features, but this way,
you won’t be negotiating a higher price to add features you
could’ve included in the first place.

3. Introductions to the money guy and the lead developer

So this is where things become a little
more frustrating. Your nice english speaking salesman will fade
into the background and you will be introduced to the guy who makes
sure you pay, and the guy who will be building your site. The money
guy, in my case Rajdeep, will pop up sporadically throughout the
development process “to ensure you are satisfactory” and “please
release next milestone payment at convenience by today.” Make sure
that you are being updated on the progress of the website and they
are taking your feedback and incorporating it into the site. If
they aren’t, withhold payments until they do. This is really the
only leverage you have over the the money guy.

Your introduction to
the developer will be necessarily a little frustrating. All that
time you spent hashing out the details with the salesman will have
to be repeated with the developer. The developer’s English skills
(Rajdip don’t be offended) will be a little worse. As a programmer,
he will be more concerned with the nitty gritty details and
technical features that you want rather than the amazing,
revolutionary concept you have. It helps to have a clear
step-by-step outline of how your website’s users will interact with
the website. Throughout your talks with the developer you will also
be able to figure out which features would be best left out. For
Trekdek, I recently decided to eliminate a separate blog section
that was unrelated to any challenges. This lets the developers
focus on the most important features of the website which is
challenge creation and accomplishment.

4. Keeping tabs on the project

Your project will inevitably be delayed. Trekdek was
supposed to be launched in November. It is now supposed to be
launched by the end of January. I’m thinking this won’t be launched
until March. The most important thing is to ensure progress is
being made. I made the mistake of not being strict enough about
getting weekly updates and setting agendas for the weekly Skype
date. As a result, I’m confronted with a list of updates on Friday
mornings and an unfocused discussion of what needs to be changed.
You should get updates on Mondays so that you can be prepared to
discuss them the following Friday. I plan on doing a better job of
this for the duration of the project.

The benefits of outsourcing to India is primarily the cost savings. Hiring an American developer would have cost 3-4 times as much. Had I decided to do the website
myself ,I would have spent many years learning how to program
poorly and it never would’ve gotten off the ground. For a
relatively simple website (basic e-commerce shop or blog),
outsourcing may be the best option. For more complex websites, one
must carefully consider the costs and benefits of outsourcing. When is finally launched, I’ll let you be the judge of
whether outsourcing is worth it.



PS: Christmas and New
Year’s blog post soon to come.