413: World Wide Waste with Gerry McGovern

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Gerry McGovern talks with us about the amount of energy used sending the bits and bytes around the internet, the cost of storage, new phones vs old phones, the scale of data, and how do we adjust our process and culture to make changes?



Gerry McGovern

Web · Social

Writer. Speaker. Developer of Top Tasks Framework.

Time Jump Links

  • 01:23 Guest introduction
  • 03:10 World wide waste
  • 09:59 Storage
  • 16:25 New phone is the same as the old phone
  • 19:53 Sponsor: X-team
  • 22:26 Data scale
  • 26:24 Common human behaviour
  • 36:58 Do we need some regulation?
  • 39:14 Sponsor:
  • 41:27 Does our process & culture need to change?


[Banjo music]

MANTRA: Just Build Websites!

Dave Rupert: Hey there, Shop-o-maniacs. You're listening to another episode of the ShopTalk Show. I'm Dave--at home with the kids--Rupert. With me is Chris--in the booth--Coyier. How are you, Chris?

Chris Coyier: Good. I am in my little booth. I don't mind it in here.

Dave: Wonderful.

Chris: It's my safe space. We have a wonderful guest today, Gerry McGovern. Hey, Gerry.

Gerry McGovern: Hello. Hello, Chris. Hello, Dave. Great to be back on.

Chris: Yeah, thanks. You've got a lot going on, Gerry, so we're going to talk about all that stuff but there's a couple things I want to mention at the top of the show. One thing, I think I met Gerry very likely from being at a conference together. It was probably An Event Apart because Gerry is a big figure at that particular conference series, which is, in my opinion, one of the best ones out there if not the best one out there.

They've had some event cancelations recently, like every other conference in the world has, because it's just not appropriate right now, or the law, to be able to get together to do a conference like that. That's sad to see for the An Event Apart gang and every other conference out there. But, of course, they're scrambling and doing a great job of figuring out other ways to bring what they value to the world to life.

I see, just the other day, yesterday maybe--although, when you listen to this, I know there's a time delay--are doing AEA online now, online together. I just wanted to pitch that a little bit and we'll have a link to it in the show notes that they're doing that, so high five. It's cool. It's a part of our lives too because, you know, that's how Gerry and I met.

Gerry: Absolutely. Wonderful, yeah. I totally agree with you, Chris. It's one of the best conferences I've ever been at.

Chris: We'll talk a little bit, yet.

Dave: Well, I was going to say, I met Gerry at An Event Apart as well. You're a very tall, honest man, Gerry.

Gerry: [Laughter]

Dave: But then, boy, howdy, I was not prepared for the fire and brimstone that you bring to the stage. I'm always appreciative.

In some ways, I feel like a crazy person because I have seen the Gerry. I have seen Gerry talk. I believe what Gerry says. [Laughter] Then I try to go back and translate it to my coworkers, like, "We need these top tasks!" Maybe I'll do a bit of an accident. "We need these top tasks! Then we need to do this," and I feel like I fumble in the relaying of the gospel of Gerry.

Chris: I can relate to that a little bit. As a matter of fact, if I ever think of doing right by the user, somehow little Gerry's head floats by every time I think of it, so that's big. We'll talk about what we mean about top tasks and stuff but, Gerry, that's just one of the many things that Gerry does.

Recently also talking about a thing called World Wide Waste, which is a book you wrote, Gerry. Notably, what's related to this right now is Dave, Gerry, and I are not looking at each other. We do that on Zoom all the time on ShopTalk Show and that's to save bandwidth. But, Gerry, it's also saving the world a bit, huh?


Gerry: Well, it is because, basically, everything in digital costs energy. I did some calculations about conferencing. If you, say, did an hour with two people on just audio, that would be about 36 megabyte. If you did it with standard video, it would be about 0.3 gigabyte. If you did very high or ultra-high-definition video, it would be about 1.35 gigabyte per hour of data created. All that data, when it's being stored, it requires energy and that energy creates an amount of pollution.

Essentially, audio versus ultra-high-definition is ten times better for the environment. Okay, relatively speaking, driving a car--not that we're allowed to drive cars much at the moment--is much more consuming of energy. But still, there are choices we can make.

I was discussing with some people and he says, maybe we should have a pattern where you're running a meeting or whatever and, for the first three or four minutes, you turn the video on so that people can meet and greet and everything like that. Then you go to audio unless somebody is presenting or unless there's an important reason. If there is, absolutely do it. But if we can put less stress on the planet and use less energy, I think that's a positive thing. Then somebody also told me that they started implementing that in their organization and they said people said that they actually felt that they were less stressed.

Chris: Wow! I've heard of a Zoom fatigue thing.

Gerry: Exactly.

Chris: I think it's related to that.

Gerry: Because if you constantly feel you're being watched, so it actually had other benefits. It wasn't stressing the Earth as much because it wasn't consuming as much energy, but it wasn't stressing people as much because they didn't feel like they were constantly on show, so to speak. I think this sort of consciousness that everything we do in digital consumes an amount of energy and the less energy we consume, the better it is for the planet.

Chris: I really like that. Reducing electricity really does take pollution to do it, no matter how it's done.

Gerry: Exactly.

Dave: You're saying it's an order of magnitude too, like between voice is 30 megabytes and video is 300 megabytes.

Gerry: Yeah, a standard video. If it's high definition, it's about 1.3 gigabytes, so there's a significant. Yeah, sorry, I didn't mean. It's like 30 or 40 times if it's high definition. It's ten times if it's just standard video.

It's a significant difference and in some of these things as well, I'm sure you find high definition 4x images and high definition video. A lot of times you can't even see the difference.

Dave: Yeah, the returns become less and less after a certain point.

Chris: I'll tell you. Even having double benefit here is so cool. I'll tell you a lot of meetings I start with, particularly long ones, the meeting is right there front and center on my screen. Then, as the minutes and time ticks by and by and by, I'm moving out of the way a little bit. Moving out of the way a little bit more. Maybe then another window starts overlapping it a little bit. By the end of an hour meeting, I practically have the thing minimized anyway. [Laughter] You might as well have the video turned off.


Gerry: Yeah, and that's the terrible thing, isn't it, when we think of that. The book is about waste. It's not saying don't use digital. It's saying, how do we eliminate the waste so that we don't walk out of the room with the 72-inch screen on and leave it on for 5 or 6 hours. We've become so used to cheap electricity.

There was one study that said that something like 20% of the U.S. electricity costs came from vampire power, from things that are plugged in but are not being used.

Chris: Twenty percent?

Gerry: Yeah, like serious figures.

Dave: Wow. You think of those in every startup or whatever. There's a dashboard. There's a high definition TV on the wall with a dedicated computer powering some chart and graph that updates every 22 seconds. I'm just thinking, well, if that was an e-ink display or something, it would tell you the same information. It wouldn't have the colors but maybe it could. It would tell you the same information at a fraction of the ecological cost, right?

Gerry: Exactly. I think that consciousness, we need. We've become much more conscious of our physical footprints and we try and avoid using too much plastic.

There's a real rising consciousness, I believe. I certainly sense it in so many places. But once it comes to digital, we seem to just totally -- like, "Oh, yeah. It doesn't really have any impact." Like it's a kind of, "Yeah, I can use digital as much as I want," that we haven't kind of psychologically connected it.

"Oh, yeah, my phone, the battery lasts a long time," but one of the reasons for that is that your phone is kind of like a dumb terminal. It's the data center that's doing the heavy lifting, so the energy processing, a lot of that is a thousand miles away. It just feels like you're not using a lot of energy but you're actually using a lot more energy than you might think you're using.

Chris: Well, let's dig into this more. The book, again, is World Wide Waste. It's at - Gerry with a G. You can buy it right now, right?

Gerry: Yeah, absolutely.

Chris: What else is in there? I remember speaking with you a little bit about storage. That's a potential carrier of waste.


Gerry: Well, you know, principles of storage: Basically, if you store something locally on your own computer, on your own hard drive, that is up to 3,000 times less energy-intensive than if you store in the cloud. Then there are all sorts of levels in the cloud, like there's hot and cool and archival. The difference between choosing various types of storage in the cloud, see, basically, it's instantaneously accessible. That's the most expensive storage. I can get it, the exact thing I want. As soon as I click on it, it's essentially there. It's opening up for me, versus I have to go into a kind of an archival system and find the file and retrieve it. It takes a bit of while and that file downloads.

The difference can be 150 times in cost, in energy consumptive cost, between choosing a cold storage archival option versus a hot storage, instantaneously available option. When you consider that the vast majority, 90% of data, we never ever access. [Laughter] You know, after three months, we never access it again and the 10% we do access, most of that, only a fraction of that do we access every day or access really regularly.

Thinking about storage and I was talking to this guy who is a data analytics cloud expert and storage expert. We're talking about the estimates of the amount of stuff that we're creating. We've created more data in the last two years than in all of previous history.

Dave: Hmm.

Chris: That's wild. The scale is hockey sticking, as they call it.


Gerry: Well, it absolutely is exploding. We're now into zettabytes. I calculated a zettabyte of data. If you were to print out a zettabyte of data, I did count off how many trees that would require, how much print, how much paper that would require, theoretically, if you were to print it out.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Gerry: You would require about 20 trillion trees. Now, there are only about three trillion trees on the planet, so it's just to give you a sense of how much stuff is in a zettabyte. Now, by 2035, they estimate we'll have over 2,000 zettabytes of data, so these are unimaginable.

I asked this guy. I said, how much, if we were buying storage for that, like if we were buying hard disk storage for that? He calculated that the highest storage units available, we'd need about 1.7 billion of them and that that would come out to a cost of about $60 trillion. Now, the U.S. economy is $20 trillion, so we're on a path of data creation that is not sustainable.

Dave: Yeah, it's whole economies' worth of data generation.

Gerry: Absolutely, and most of it is crap. We never use it.

Dave: [Laughter] I feel this is where the classic Gerry comes in. If we don't need it, please get rid of it.

Gerry: Yeah. Why do we create it? Why do we collect all this stuff? Because we've been kind of trained, "Oh, just in case. You never know. It's easy."

I remember, Chris, you were telling me as well about the systems where, when you do an edit to an image, it creates copies and there are copies of this and copies of that. We're always copying.

You know what the funny thing is that all of this stuff that we're storing, in a thousand years, most of it'll disappear. What we have in digital is tremendous capacities to create but, actually, long-term storage abilities is very, very low because most of the mechanisms for storage, they don't last. They might last five years, ten years, but you can go back to Sumerian tables that were created 3,000 years ago and you can still read them and they still exist and they're still readable. I mean there is no possibility on any planet that digital data on a hard disk that you own today in your computer will be readable in 3,000 years.

Dave: I know universities, that's one of the things they struggle with. [Laughter] They wrote a database in the '80s and now they're stuck with it and have to maintain it and nothing else can read the data except this one program that some college kid wrote in 1980.

Chris: Yeah, I mean 3,000 years is a whole other ballgame. Have you heard of the COBOL Cowboys? I listened to a podcast about them recently. COBOL is this old programming language, but it's not that old in the grand scheme of things. Already, there are these last few programmers in the world that you have to hire. NASA has to hire them to work on this systems. That's only a handful of decades let alone 3,000 years.

Gerry: Exactly.

Dave: Yeah, my uncle is a COBOL programmer. [Laughter] He works on credit cards almost exclusively. It's just wild. All that infrastructure is just dangling. I don't know.

Gerry: That's a concept of old. Really, now we think old is two years. Oh, my computer is really old. How old is it? It's five years old.

Dave: [Laughter]

Gerry: You don't say, "Oh, my child is really old." "How old is he?" "Oh, he's five."


Gerry: That's not really old. You know? [Laughter]

Dave: Better get a new one. Just get a new one. The other one is too old.

Gerry: Yeah, get a new one. Change that child. He's five years old. You've still got a five-year-old child?


Gerry: You know? Only in digital. Only in digital do we think two-year-old things are old.

Dave: Definitely, because you've got to get the phone. You've got to get the new phone, the faster phone, the more pixels phone. That's what they tell me.

Chris: I'm surprised it hasn't slowed down. I find it so anticlimactic lately when you buy new devices anyway. It's like you spin it up and you're like, "Well, it does the same thing as the old one did." Maybe just hold onto the old one for a little longer. You know?

Gerry: Well, that's another thing, a really important thing to understand as well. In energy consumption, because energy creates pollution, so any energy has some sort of an offsite of a pollution effect. Most energy in digital is created in the production of the digital device. Typically, in your smartphone, 80% of the energy is consumed in the creation of the smartphone and 20% is consumed in the use of the smartphone.

Chris: Really?

Gerry: If you've got a short lifecycle of that, you've got a perfect storm of pollution because most of the pollution was created in producing the thing. If you're changing that thing every two or three years, you've got a real dirty circle of pollution occurring.

A digital thing, you really should be using as much as you can so that it kind of has the minimum negative impact on the planet, so to speak. If you are constantly changing digital things, the digital things that we create, the products, we really should hold onto them as long as we can and get the maximum use out of them because there are ten billion smartphones since 2007.

Chris: If you see someone driving around in a 1975 Ford Pinto, they're a hero.

Gerry: Yeah. Yeah and that's an interesting thing as well. In our world, you're only a hero if you've got the latest thing. I wonder, can we change the culture of somehow that we begin to cherish things that are older rather than constantly chasing new things because constantly chasing what is new, as you said, Chris, you wonder, "Well, how new? Really, is it that different?"

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes, it really isn't. Yeah, sure, if you jump five versions, you might feel it but, year after year, it doesn't feel all that different. They want you to do it, though. You know?

I'm on the plan. Just full disclosure here, I have this Apple plan where I pay monthly for it instead of buying it outright or whatever. They say, "We'll send you a new phone every year." Every single year, you just get a new one automatically.

Theoretically, you like to feel good that--I don't know--what do they do with the old one? It's not like they chip it up and throw it in the junk, right? They downcycle it or who knows what they do.

Gerry: Well, Apple, at least they have a bit of a better policy. They definitely have a better policy than many, but the vast majority of smartphones are not recycled, or phones in general. That culture is still tremendously wasteful, even if they recycle. There is still an incredible amount of unnecessary energy just to make some Apple shareholders even richer than they are.


[Banjo music starts]

Chris: This episode of ShopTalk Show is brought to you in part by X-Team. You've got to check this out. This is so cool. It's literally Love dashes in domain names, of course, by the way.

The idea is that -- so, let me explain it. You can hire them. They have this tribe of developers. Those developers, they'll, you know, parachute in and help your team do stuff like, "Gosh, I need some more developer help on this thing. Where do I turn?" Go to X-Team and you hire them to help you build your thing. That's cool but that's almost not what I'm talking about here.

They're also looking for developers to join their team to be one of those developers that goes and helps other people. It's a completely, 100% remote company. By parachuting, I mean like figuratively, you know. You don't actually parachute in. You just help them remotely.

You help them scale so, if a company is like, "We've got to scale right now!" they're going to reach out to X-Team and you're going to be one of those developers that goes and helps those companies, which help really awesome companies like Riot Games who make League of Legends. Wouldn't that be cool? Kaplan, Coinbase, Fox Broadcasting, Beachbody, all kinds of, you know, like, who knows what you're going to work on, but they have a bunch of cool clients so, chances are, you're going to work for multiple of those cool clients.

You can, if you choose, live and work in one of their roaming hacker houses. Probably not right at the moment with the pandemic and all, but that's a thing that they have. It changes locations monthly. I don't know. It just gives you a chance to explore the world, explore beautiful locations, take part in their adventures and share a passion of coding with the people you live with. Pretty darn cool.

There are all kinds of great benefits, too, like they give you $2,500 a year just to spend on doing things that you love to be healthy, energized, and all that. Go to conferences, buy some video games, buy some cool photography equipment. $2,500 is just like bonus bucks to spend on stuff, that's pretty cool.

Anyway, X-Team seems very cool. I guess, check them out for either reason. Do you need to get some devs on your team real quick? You hire them to do that. But the important thing is, does that lifestyle sound cool to you? Do you want to be a part of a team that does that? Go! Do it! Apply! Be a developer like that. It sounds awesome to me.

[Banjo music stops]


Chris: Well, anyway, I have this scale thing open because I think this is interesting. We all know what a byte is, right? You type the letter A. That's a byte. You type Dave. That's four bytes. I believe that's how it works. If you put an emoji at the end, it all gets screwed up but, you know, bytes is generally a character.

A thousand times that is a kilobyte. We still think of one kilobyte as really pretty small, but you can fit a lot in a kilobyte. It's a thousand bytes.

A thousand times that is a megabyte, which that's a hell of a lot of data these days. You can deliver a really fine looking photograph in a megabyte. Hopefully, your images are much smaller than a megabyte, but that's a lot of data.

Of course, we know the average website is many megabytes, so holy crap. What have we done wrong there? [Laughter] But that's where we're at.

A thousand times that is a gigabyte, which is starting to feel like this middle tier of size anymore. We used to think of a gigabyte as just an enormous amount of space, but it's hard to even find hard drives anymore that are measured in gigabytes because we've kind of moved on to terabytes, whereas like a terabyte drive or a couple of terabytes might be almost what's expected in a really modern computer, especially for pro-level use of any kind.

Then a thousand times that is a petabyte, which you don't hear of very often but cloud storage is often sold at the petabyte level, you know, like, do you need some big storage? A petabyte is what we sell at.

Then there's a weird one in between, exabyte, that's a thousand times that, which holy crap.

Then what Gerry was talking about, zettabyte, is a thousand times that, which, when you're talking about the exponential scales like this, we're starting to be talking about the amount of data there is in the world. Fascinating.

Gerry: Yeah, we're going at those phenomenal scales and you were saying about a typical webpage and the average ones are about four megabytes now. I calculated that if we downloaded -- if a typical page that's 4 megabytes was downloaded 600,000 times, it would create about 10KG of CO2 pollution, which is roughly what a tree absorbs in a year. A reasonably mature tree will absorb about 10KG.

Chris: A website is a tree?

Gerry: Well, that analogy of looking at if that page is downloaded 600,000 times, we'd need to plant a tree to offset the pollution that is being caused by those downloads.

Dave: Wow.

Gerry: We just don't see that and we don't recognize it. Like I'm doing work at the moment for WHO and the Coronavirus and COVID-19. One thing we found was a huge jump in mobile usage of the website when the pandemic hit.

Dave: Mm-hmm.

Gerry: It was like far more ordinary people started coming, if you know what I mean, the public. But it was somewhere in the region of about 45%, 50% mobile. But then when the pandemic hit, it went to 70%. You're thinking, hey, there are so many people out there looking for stuff that really matters to their lives on maybe not the top-end mobile phone. They can be waiting for a lot of our pages for up to 20 seconds for them to fully download.

Dave: Wowzers.

Chris: You're doing work with the WHO to some degree, so do you try to bring some of your top tasks thinking to that world?


Gerry: Yeah. We're doing a project to try and create an information architecture for COVID-19. We started with a top task to find out, well, what is it that people are really looking for? They're looking for stuff about vaccines, about transmission and spread, and about end dates and new outbreaks. We went out and did a big excise with a load of contributions from people and then got thousands of people to vote. We've got this map of what are the top tasks for people.

It was interesting. There were many interesting things. One of the things that we actually found, because we got people to sort the tasks at the next stage, that doctors and healthcare workers were sorting them in the same way as individuals and families were. In other words, they were grouping.

We always get told, "No, no, no. This audience is totally different from this audience," and, "No, patients have a very different way of thinking about stuff than doctors." We actually found that people, everybody was grouping, say, symptoms and diagnosis together.

We did all this mapping and sorting, et cetera. But we found this tremendous commonality of human behavior that not just were doctors and individuals grouping stuff together, but people from India were thinking basically the same way as people from the United States. People from Ireland were thinking the same.

When you get these types of things like a pandemic, we're human first. We worry, "Do I have the symptoms? How do I avoid infection?"

Chris: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Gerry: It's the same.

Chris: Did you find that in the cards and the research?

Gerry: We did.

Chris: Yeah.

Gerry: We found amazing overlap of human behavior. We didn't find huge differences. Obviously, say in New Zealand where countries would be at different stages in the pandemic, so New Zealand would have had a lot of success and almost eliminated the virus. The tasks would change more based on the cycle of where you're at whether than that Germans have a different set of ways of looking at treatment. We found this underlying commonality of human behavior.

Chris: Wow.

Dave: Hmm. Wow, that's kind of inspiring.

Chris: It is, in a way, right? Everybody is worried about the same things.

Gerry: It is. I mean this is the lesson I've learned. I've been lucky to work in maybe 30, 40 countries. People are the same everywhere. Once you get past the initial how they dress, how they talk, or whatever, it's the same. I've never had an organization anywhere that said to me, "Help us become more organization-centric. We're too focused on our customers."


Dave: Constant problem.

Chris: Well, we were talking about cross-cultural design with Senongo on a recent episode who I don't think would disagree, but the specifics are a little different. He was painting some differences across cultures and countries. I don't think that they would disagree about, you should do right by the people visiting your site. Absolutely not. But how you do that might differ, like he was painting differences between the expectations how something is organized might be different.


Gerry: Yeah, there are subtle, I mean, which can have a tremendous impact. But the underlying stuff of the progress through an illness, you know, the worrying about what do I bring to the hospital, the what should I do post-treatment.

We discovered, in treatment, there are three core, major cycles. There's pretreatment, so what do I bring to the hospital? There's during treatment and there's post-treatment. Everybody goes through that in one way or another.

Now, there may be really important subtleties in Norway versus Sweden, but the basic pre, during, and post happens everywhere because you're a human. You have to get your liver treated or your appendix out. We all get our appendix taken out the same way.

There's so much. We have so much more in common than we have that makes us different. But we find the things that make us different and we absolutely blow those up into 10,000-foot balloons whereas there is so much underlying that we actually share as humans. That's what I've discovered.

Chris: What has changed? I believe you were saying at one point that, through the course of this virus sweeping through a particular country, that week one might look like this and users are wanting to know question one a lot more. Then, week two, it's totally different, and week three. It's maybe not by week, but--

Gerry: Yeah, yeah, maybe, but let's say you go back to the beginning of it. Travel restrictions would be very significant, say, as a task and stuff connected with travel. But then when you're locked down for a couple of weeks, you're no longer -- so the end date becomes -- you know, and then stuff, say, about mental wellbeing becomes more prominent as the lockdown continues.

It's not that it changes radically, but you've learned how to clean the vegetables or how to wash your hands or avoid infection. You've learned that sort of stuff in the first couple of weeks or, hopefully, you have or most people have.

Maybe the avoiding infection tasks are not quite as prominent and then it's more coming out of lockdown and getting into public transport and whether you should wear a mask. It's not that things change radically at an underlying level but there are different elements in the lifecycle of dealing with the virus where certain things rise to the top and certain things drop a bit.

Dave: It sounds a lot like onboarding or something to me, like we're all going through this.

Chris: Coronavirus onboarding?

Gerry: Yeah, yeah.


Dave: Twelve-month Coronavirus onboarding process. Yikes.

Gerry: Yeah, I hadn't thought about it that way, but I think it's the onboarding from hell.


Dave: Yeah, it is.


Gerry: That's it. You know it's the first of the seven gates of hell is an onwards. Yeah, but it is. Yeah, there's this understanding, but then there's this underlying structure that if we can achieve, we can pluck out, oh … there's been a new outbreak so we need to reeducate people about avoiding infection or stuff like that. But there are these underlying structures or things that we can define in advance.

What I find, and it's the stuff I found for doing this for 25 years is that we don't design websites, most organizations. We create immediate, quick structures. We don't really design like we design a building.

Dave: Mm-hmm.

Gerry: We don't say, oh, this is going to be a 100-story building. It's going to have this number of elevators and it's going to have to deal with a hurricane and power. We don't do that for Web or for applications. We go, "Oh, wow, let's get something for now," so what I find--

Dave: What's cool? What's cool?

Gerry: What's cool, so a lot of people are telling me in reaction to some governments, that it's just panic publishing. It's a kind of, "Oh, let's get stuff up for now!" Well, we didn't think about, "Oh, let's put stuff up for this." Instead of actually standing back and saying, "What's this whole world here of COVID-19 and how do we create a structure that we can grow into and evolve with," rather than, "Oh, just let's get some symptom information up."

Is there other sort of information? I don't know but we have to get the symptom. We have to get the symptom app done. Yeah, great. We do need symptoms, but if you do the symptom and says, "Oh, we don't have stuff about treatment. Let's get some stuff about treatment."

Then somebody else says, "Oh, what about vulnerable groups? Oh, we need some content for that." That's the way websites get built.

Dave: Is that something we need to just have to accept, these kind of--

Chris: Reactionary.

Dave: Panic, fire, reactionary, or is there some pre-plumbing we can do or content strategy?

Gerry: Oh, I think there is. I think what it reflects, Dave, is we still live in a very immature world of digital. You would never design a building like you design a website. You'd never get it approved. You'd never get planning permission for it.

Dave: Mm-hmm.

Gerry: There's one 1.8 billion websites in the world. If there was real quality control, there'd be about 100,000.

Chris: [Laughter]

Dave: Yeah, I probably wouldn't have made it too far in the industry if you go to my Code-Pen profile. I guess the big question may be, or where this is leading, is regulation may be something we need? Is that something you think about?

Gerry: Well, I think we need some sort, and it'll take another 20 years, where we actually take digital design seriously like people take bridge design. I think it's part of the reason why we create so much waste is that we don't design things to last.

Dave: Mm-hmm.

Gerry: we don't design with a concept of, "Hey, if I do this right, this website could be around for 20 years." It might change a bit, you know. But, actually, the underlying things like I remember the first time I did top tasks was for travel and tourism. That was back around 2001 or whatever. The core things haven't changed. It was special offers, getting here and around, things to do and see.

The core, we may have different ways of delivering things to do and see, but the core underlying infrastructure, the information architecture, if we plan that properly, would not change over time. Unless humans change their physiognomy or whatever you call that, there are going to be pre-, during, and post treatment. It may be done differently, but we could do this. But we don't want to.

Ninety-five percent of organizations I deal with don't want to do this. "No, we've got to get digital." We've kind of got the speed virus. "Oh, we don't have time to think about this. We don't have time to really do foundational, proper architectural work."

We are building things, in some environments, that are just as big as skyscrapers, just as complex, and no wonder people can't find stuff or find navigation complicated or difficult. I think we don't design stuff for the long-term. We don't do deep thinking about digital design, not in my experience.


[Banjo music starts]

Chris: This episode of ShopTalk Show is brought to you in part by They've had some big releases lately that I think are worth knowing. I bet you already know that is the hosted already version of WordPress so it's still WordPress. You're still using the Gutenberg editor and building out a site and picking a theme and doing all the stuff that you already do in WordPress., you don't have to go out and install the open-source software and deal with all that yourself. The tradeoff, traditionally, has been like it's a little bit more limited. You can't have the infinite control as the open-source product you have.

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[Banjo music stops]


Dave: Immediately, I think maybe is it our process and structures? A lot of us are on a two-week sprint cycle. Got to put up the thing in two weeks or else the boss man upstairs gets mad. Then, oh, we're all going to hear about it. Do you think some of that culture that we've developed affects our quality?

Gerry: Absolutely. Dave, when you say the word "quality," what does it mean?

I've done a lot of work for Toyota over the last number of years. We did a top tasks for them in 2017. One of the things that came out in the top tasks was reliability. When you're buying a car, what really matters to you? What's most important in the decision-making process in buying a car? We did it in 14 countries in Europe. In every country, reliability was number one, you know, connected with the reliability of the car.

When we showed the data internally in Toyota, there was a kind of silence. People were shocked and they said, "What? What do you mean? That's strange." They were surprised. There was nothing on their websites about the reliability of the Toyota cars even though Toyota is totally based on that whole concept. It's kind of like they'd forgotten, in the digital environment, the essence of what they were in the physical environment.

It started a big conversation in Toyota. They started saying, "Ah, we seem to be missing something in digital." Then they started asking about what's quality.

Dave: Hmm.

Gerry: We know what a quality car is but what's a quality website?

Dave: Wow.

Gerry: Then all sorts of interesting conversations come into account. Well, what is a quality website?

Chris: What is it? Should we stop right there? You know the answer to the end of this story, but I wonder if we should guess.

Gerry: Yes. Yes, exactly. That would be good. [Laughter]

Chris: Uptime, I guess. But that's kind of a weird one--

Gerry: No.

Chris: --because I guess most websites -- yeah, but maybe. Speed? Accessibility? Are those the two?

Dave: I think performance and accessibility were in my mind, especially when you get into this, like, we're making a building. It's like, well, people of all different abilities have to use the building. [Laughter] I think we can all say that's maybe the table stakes, you know.

Chris: Mm-hmm. Okay, that you can use it.

Dave: You know, I think some degree of design probably matters too. I think there's that, like, why do you--? What would be a good example? Why do I want to buy a car from Toyota versus Joe's Auto Shack, or whatever? [Laughter]

Chris: Well, if I have a question, I better be able to find the answer. You mean nothing that has to do with esthetics. You mean like the UX or whatever.

Dave: Yeah, a little bit of a UX.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Dave: Or it looks sturdy. I always look for that. If the footer is broken on the Toyota page, I probably am not thinking this is a radical tool. I don't know.

Chris: I would think that always kind of depends on the type of site. We've talked about site archetypes before and the list is probably a little different depending on the archetype. I do think of responsibility of what's on the website, whether it's the safety of the people who use it or the responsibility of the information that's there. Anyway, how did we do, Gerry?


Gerry: I think you did excellent.


Gerry: You hit a lot of it. Yeah, that it's up, it's available. When you put your foot on the accelerator, the car should speed up, right?

Dave: Mm-hmm.

Gerry: It should hit 70 miles an hour within 10 seconds or whatever seconds.

Chris: Type the search bar--

Dave: Unless it's a Honda Civic. [Laughter] Sorry.

Gerry: The kind of equivalent of that is clicking on a link because you're putting your foot on the accelerator when you're clicking on that link. The faster that page downloads, the faster that carries. That's a quality experience. Quality is also--and I think, Chris, you touched on it--answering your question with accurate information that is correct.

Chris: How do you measure that one? That's a tough one to measure.

Gerry: Well, it's a tough one to measure, but it's like the brake pads. The car is measured by the brake pads work, et cetera, that the thing does what it's supposed to do.

If you open the door, the door opens. If you click to bring down the glass, the glass comes down. There are a lot of things that you do with a car, but what you often do at a website is, well, what's the tire pressure or how many miles per gallon does it do? They're informational tasks that you've got and that's quality. Quality is, I went to the website wanting to know where the nearest dealer was to me and it told me.

Dave: Yeah….

Gerry: Really quickly and really easily, and I didn't have to spend ages doing that. That's quality.

Chris: It is. Isn't there a continuation of this Toyota story? Didn't they do something drastic? I'm trying to remember what it was that they take it as seriously as the assembly line, almost.

Gerry: Well, they're beginning to because they're on the journey, but it only started in the last -- it'd been in the back of their heads but they kind of thought, "Oh, digital is different," like it's not. It doesn't obey the same rules. They thought, "Oh, this is different." But then they thought, "No, it's not that different." It's still the same concepts.

There are a couple of things that they did. What Toyota is famous for in their philosophy is visualizing problems. Part of their DNA in their culture is how to present problems and make managers aware of a production line problem. They spend a lot of time, historically, in creating ways to visualize problems and issues with quality.

They said, "How would we do that more in a digital environment?" One of the ideas they came up with was this orb, which looks like a UFO. It's a couple of feet in diameter. It's hooked up to their metrics, particularly their page speed metrics for their 26 countries in Europe.

They've set these targets that they need to meet in different countries, et cetera. If something goes wrong and a site goes down or begins to get slow, the orb between to change color. If things go really bad, it starts flashing red like a kind of ambulance or a police car, in the process. They said that has had a dramatic impact on behavior in the head office.

Chris: It's a culture thing, right?


Gerry: It's a culture thing but it's a kind of a human thing. It kind of connects back to what we were talking about at the beginning about the meetings, the online meetings. They said there's a lot of stress in meetings and one of the reasons there is a lot of stress in online meetings is because we're only using a couple of senses.

When we're in a physical meeting, we get all this subliminal data coming to us just by the smell in the room, by the way people are sitting. We get all this. We pick up the mood of the meeting.

When you strip away all of that stuff, which digital does, we have to concentrate. One or two senses has to work far harder. That stresses people because we're not used to this.

It's like suddenly we've been made blind and now we have to learn to navigate in a world. In a way, when we walk into the world of digital, we become blind and deaf. You do know what I mean? I think we need tools to bring digital into the world that humans live within. This orb is an attempt to do that, to kind of give it some visual sensory other than these little numbers that are going across a dashboard that are hard to relate to.

I think a big challenge in digital, in the World Wide Waste is as a design. How do we design things that, when the earth is hurting or the sites aren't performing, there's some sort of a feedback that creates an empathetic kind of connection with humans that says--

Chris: Such a great idea.

Gerry: --"Hey, we're using a lot of energy here," and you get the sense. The room starts getting warmer. I don't know how we do it. I don't have any answers for this, but I think digital is too alien. We need to more humanize it. Does that make sense?

Chris: Well, of course, things like this tend to start with the money, right? How often have you seen a sales floor where they ring a big bell when they make a sale? That's the first thing that people--

Dave: Trader Joes does that. [Laughter]

Chris: Yeah. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! We sold a high-value account.

Why can't the ding-ding-ding be, you know, there'd be ten different ding-ding-ding or colors or orbs or room heating or whatever when the accessibility tests fail, when a metric or when somebody submits a thing that they were unhappy with the documentation for this reason that there's something beyond just somebody glancing at an email and hitting archive. It becomes real. That's a wonderful idea.

There are already examples. There are ways that we can build that up. It's not like the technology isn't there to do it. It's, the culture isn't there.

Gerry: The culture and now, in Toyota, historically, they used to have post-metrics. It's the metrics of the thing that you've already created. Now they're trying to implement metrics before it gets created. If it doesn't meet certain quality standards, the page doesn't get published. Now, I know we've been talking about this for years but it never really gets implemented. But in Toyota, they're getting really serious about it.

Another big area, which I think is really a mark of quality, is how do you deal with mistakes? You'll always have mistakes. You'll always have variants from quality or stuff.

How is your organization's capacity to actually respond to when the quality within the environment drops? For some reason, the site slows or somebody added a new feature and some of the code corrupted. How long does it take? They measure that on the production line. How long does it take to fix something? I think that's a real measure of quality because when the environment diverges from its quality level, how long does it take you to get back to that level of quality that you have said is acceptable?

Dave: What's the turnaround time to get back to stasis?

Chris: That's great too. That's harder. That's extra cultural just because, you know, it's one thing to just be aware of the problem but it's another one to be like, "Well, how fast did you fix it?" [Laughter]

Gerry: Well, now, Toyota are implementing processes and they're mandating times during every week when all the key players must be available: the coders, the programmers. They're trying to design systems and processes that allow them to be responsive and to fix the problem.

Dave: I've been reading about the theory of constraints, which is kind of like an old business book thing from The Goal. Eliyahu Goldratt, I think is the name. One interesting thing about it is, in capitalism or whatever, you think, "Oh, everything has to be 100% capacity. Coders have to be coding, pushing out code, or the machine has to be machining no matter what. If it's machining, it's a waste of time. If somebody is standing around on the floor, oh, man, they're wasting my money."

This theory of constraints is kind of like, if they're doing their job, that's what their job is supposed to do. If they start doing another job and then the other job gets backed up, I guess the TLDR is, it's okay to have extra capacity. I think about that in terms of workers, coders, or whatever. If I have my next 600 development tickets planned out, man, well, I'm stuck. I don't have a lot of time to go back and make something better because the next 600 things are all planned out for me for the rest of my GD life.


Dave: How do--? You know, I guess, it seems like--

Gerry: Well, again, Dave, I think you told this straight, but we're touching on core stuff in that our whole culture, Western culture, is about creation not maintenance.

Dave: Yeah.

Gerry: We have no culture of maintenance. Even the very word "creativity," when you think of it, it's about creating. A creative creates. A support person is not a creative. A service worker is not a creative. We exalt the creatives. We exalt those who create, so there's a whole pressure in our cultures to create.

The maintainers are at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, the incremental improvers. Whoever progressed in an organization by incrementally improving a product that the person they replace had actually created? You progress by kicking out that product saying it's shit and launching your product and you're the hero. There's so much incentivization in our cultures to create stuff.

Dave: I think about that quite a bit. If I was a project or product manager or something with that title, I'm looking for bullet points on my LinkedIn, to be honest, because, in two years, I'm outta here or I'm going to go -- I want to be in the VP suite. That's what I'm looking for, so whatever. Don't really care about this business but I just want some bullet points for my LinkedIn.

Our industry rewards that, too. It's like, "Oh, you had bullet point one and bullet point two. Well, shoot. I'll pay you more money to come do those bullet points." [Laughter] It's interesting. I think our industry sort of reinforces that culture of crushing it, the entrepreneur. Everyone is an Elon Musk if you try hard.

Chris: Do you think you can make those bullet points? I reduced the average page load time at from four seconds to three seconds. Does that count?

Dave: I think that's a good bullet point, but I don't think it sells as much as, like--

Chris: Really?

Dave: --I invented news.


Gerry: Yeah, or I launched some site for CNN.

Dave: For COVID-19 response for CNN or something.

Gerry: Oh, yeah, that would be it. I launched a subsite, a feature app or whatever for symptoms of sub-sub-sub. There were 200 other of those apps but, hey, I created that little thing.

Oh, you did? Wow!

Chris: You never get points for making something better. Is that the crux of it here?

Gerry: Well, it seems to be, Chris. It seems to be. Your career -- we don't respect those people.

Chris: Let's try to fix that. I just was publishing a little blurb today because I saw somebody had tweeted. I guess they're an agency. I'm not sure what exactly you call them now, but they're called Beaucoup. For two years, they worked with different contracts with Firefox and Google Chrome to fix one CSS property. The CSS property is called Appearance and it has the ability to change what an input looks like, so if you wanted to make an element look like a form element or make a form element not look like a form element. It's a little hard to explain over the radio here.

You'd use that property and when new things like that arrive, they're often vendor-prefixed in CSS and the way that WebKit did it, which is the Safari and Chrome of the world, and the way that Firefox did it was totally different, which put them at a really sucky impasse of how to normalize this so that they don't have to be vendor-prefix and they work the same across browsers.

What a tiny little thing. One CSS property, how hard can this be? Well, it was super hard and it took years of work to do.

Now, they're completed with it. They're at the end of that journey. It's like, they really have to toot their own horn to get any credit for this at all. I'm glad they are and I'm happy to toot their horn for them because this is amazing. You're right, it's not the same as, "We invented this brand new Web technology!" Yeah, you launch a new JavaScript framework, you're going to get a lot more bells and whistles than if you fixed a little sub-feature of one that's already out there.

Gerry: Yeah, and that is such crucial work because, coming back to, as Dave said, the bullet points on the CV because, hey, I'm not going to stay around. I'm two years here. I'm old. This thing is old.

There is no overall solution, staying forever, whatever, you know. But I mean we don't really design deeply in so much digital. We don't really look and say, "Yeah, I'm really going to plan this new car," like people design a car or people design a bridge or people design.

That sort of design rarely happens in digital, in my experience, and it needs to.

Dave: Mm-hmm.

Chris: Yeah.

Dave: That's a good place to end it. Thank you, Gerry, so much for coming on. A constant font of inspiration for me, so I really appreciate that. For those who aren't following you and giving you money, how can they do that?

Gerry: The top tasks is the core way I learn my living doing those sorts of projects. They'll find out about that at or, if they can't find it, Gerry McGovern. If they search for me, Gerry McGovern, they'll find a link to that and the book. The World Wide Waste is available on the Gerry McGovern website, so Gerry McGovern with a G. That would be ways of giving me money in the process.

Dave: When An Event Apart spins back up, go see Gerry there, if you can. I recommend it. Thanks again, Gerry, for coming on the show.

Thank you, dear listener, for downloading this in your podcatcher of choice. Be sure to star, heart, favorite it up. That's how people find out about the show. Follow us on Twitter, @ShopTalkShow, for tons of tweets a month. If you hate your job, get a brand new one because people want to hire people like you, over at


Chris: We've got a job opportunity to tell you about here at ShopTalk Show. It's nice to bring you these opportunities. This is a very unique one, perhaps the most unique job opportunity we've ever had here at Code-Pen. It's at a company called LeetCode,, which is a learning platform for getting you ready to be prepared for technical interviews. There are tons and tons of questions on there and contests and things for you to kind of level yourself up and get ready for getting a job, which is funny. You might want to do some of it to get this job. [Laughter]

You've got to be a front-end developer. That's the big idea, of course. You're using stuff like React and Redux, it looks like. That's all standard. You know what you're going to need: HTML, responsive design, and using JavaScript, CSS, and all that stuff.

I always like looking at the extra bonus points things, which in this case is some back-end language stuff like Python, Reason, Kotlin, and stuff - interesting. GraphQL is a bonus. That's a bonus for me too. Love that. Web Assembly, interesting. I wonder what they're doing with that.

What makes this so unique is that it's in Shanghai. It's in China, so Chinese listeners, it's a little rare that we have an opportunity for you but check this out. If you are interested and perhaps once all of this global tragedy is over, potentially moving yourself and doing something dramatic with your life, move to Shanghai. Wouldn't that be weird and cool and awesome and an amazing opportunity?

Check out Leedcode. Check out their Front-End Developer II position and see if it's for you. Of course, there is a post to it. You apply through LinkedIn and it explains the whole job and stuff there. Always nice to have opportunities. [Applause]

Dave: Chris, do you got anything else you'd like to say?