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June 6, 2014
by Dustin Speckhals
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Working at Culligan

This is the beginning of a short series about the places where I’ve worked. There are plenty of fun memories, and an immense amount I’ve learned since I was 15. This will likely be only up to, but not including my current job. It’s not usually very ethical to talk about your current place of employment, even if it’s all positive. What’s my purpose in this? I guess it’s just “musing.” Maybe it can be an encouragement to others as well.

First, let me make it clear that the most important catalyst to me having any sense of a work ethic came from my father. Against every grain that was in me as a teenager, he pushed and prodded, pressed and punished me into having a strong work habit. I am far from being a super hard-worker, but any bit that I do have came from him. I would probably be a pretty sorry worker if it wasn’t for my dad’s encouragement to make me better. I may not have liked him making me mow the lawn right — and making me fix it when it was wrong — when I was 13, but I am out -of-this-world thankful for it today.

In September, 2001 my family built and moved into a house just south of Grand Ledge, Michigan. The well water there was very hard and always had a strong sulfur scent. We installed a water softener soon after the home was built to help alleviate the problem. Several months later — I guess it would have been about June of the next year — something broke in the system; I can’t remember what. The water was pretty horrible without the softener, so my dad called the place that installed it: Culligan Water Conditioning of DeWitt.

The person who came to repair the system, Art, quickly fixed the problem (a timer needed reset). I happened to be the only one at home when he made the service call, so he explained to me what he did. I basically just nodded my head and acknowledged that I’d let my dad know. As he was getting ready to head back to his truck, he asked if I needed a job for the summer, and told me how much they would pay. I was 15, and wasn’t all that interested, but I said that I’d talk to my dad about it and get back to him.

When my dad got home from work, I told him that Culligan had offered me a job to work for the summer. He was thrilled about it, and said that I should call back and say, “Yes!” Again, I had never really had much of a job other than shoveling some neighbors’ driveways and mowing their lawns, so I was a bit timid about the whole idea. But I was 15, and figured that it was about time for me to start working somewhere, at least for the summer.

It was about this time, right before I started at Culligan, that my dad set a firm precedent in my life that continues to this day: don’t ever let work interfere with God; this included church services and activities. I had summer camp coming up, and my dad basically said I should be honest with them right off the bat about church. I called Art the day after he offered, letting him know that I was interested. I also mentioned that I could not work Sundays (they weren’t open then anyway), Wednesday nights (again, they weren’t open then), and asked if I could wait to start a week later because of camp. He said, “Of course you can wait! Have fun at camp! We’ll see you the Monday after.” I am not overstating that that statement was life-defining for me. I would find out over the years afterward that putting God first and having principal always turned out for the best.

I didn’t have my driver’s license yet, so I had to be taken to Culligan and picked up every day until I got it. My dad would usually drop me off, while my mom would often pick me up. My first day was mainly pulling weeds outside in the landscaping: lots and lots of pulling weeds. Yes, it was outside in the hot sun all day, but it was very fulfilling to put in an 8 hour day of hard work, and get payed for it on top of that! Over the coming weeks and months I was taught a lot. There were about a dozen employees at the shop total: 4 delivery drivers, 1 technician, 2 salesmen, 2 secretaries, and 2 owners who doubled as technicians. Then there was me; I took care of the shop, which included quite a lot: loading salt bags into customers vehicles, cleaning, washing company vehicles, disinfecting water coolers, and regenerating all of the older-style water softeners.

The most time consuming responsibility was the softener regeneration. It was pretty technical for a 15 year old! It started with double-backwashing the 150 lb tanks eight at a time. Sometimes the tubes would explode water everywhere, which was always fun to clean up! Then, the tanks would be hooked together 40 at a time and regenerated using a machine that would run water, salt, and sodium hydrosulfite through the steel softener tanks for about 2 hours. This would regenerate the resin in the tanks and allow them to be delivered to people’s homes again and used for another month.

steel tanks

While I regenerated the softeners, I found that I liked conservative talk radio a lot. During the summer, I would start with listening to Rush Limbaugh for three hours at noon, then Sean Hannity would come on at 3PM and I’d listen to him until I went home at 5. I kind of learned what it meant to be a conservative as a 15-16 year old in that garage! After my first summer was winding down there, Art (who was one of the owners) asked me if I could work afternoons during the school year as well. By this time, I loved my job, and definitely wanted to work during the school year. Being homeschooled made it easier to get there earlier in the afternoon as well.

Some fond memories that I had at Culligan were detailing all of the company vehicles for the DeWitt Ox Roast parade, getting to know the regular customers that would pick up salt, getting my clothes stained with chlorine all of the time, shoveling salt into the pit in the basement, shoveling snow off of the flat roof (you have to do that sometimes in Michigan if you don’t want the roof to cave in!), ordering Hungry Howie’s pizza on Tuesdays, helping with deliveries sometimes, and OSHA saying I had to wear a gas mask. The people that I worked with were all great as well.

Just as my 2 year anniversary of working at Culligan was about to pass, one of the two franchise owners passed away after a short battle with cancer. Soon afterwards our franchise merged with a larger franchise, and I lost the job that I loved! It was kind of sad for me because I loved the people that I worked with, but thankfully God had something else for me that I would enjoy even more. I was just finishing up my junior year of high school when Culligan DeWitt merged with Lansing. I knew that I had only about a year and a half before I would be going to college. I had to find another job, though, and God would give it to me much sooner than I would have ever expected…

location today

My few years at Culligan taught me what it meant to work for someone. I learned to be on time, faithful to my employer, and to get tasks done right. I was not always perfect at those things, but over time I would get better.

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July 11, 2013
by Dustin Speckhals
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Why Did You Have to Change Everything?

After several personal experiences I’ve had recently, I’ve come to a general conclusion that there are two types of people when it comes to user interface changes: those who think “awww…neat!” with updates and changes, and those who say “if it wasn’t broke, why did you fix it?” Let me illustrate by telling two short stories about what I was involved with this week. As a side note, and as you’ll notice by the end of this article, I’m in the “awww…neat!” camp.

Google Maps Update

Several weeks ago, Google revealed at the I/O Conference that the desktop and Android versions of their famed and very useful app was redesigned from the ground up. I saw a few early screenshots, read some explanations of the new features, and got an overall sense that the changes would be huge, but would generally make the app better. While Google updated the desktop Maps, they would also update their Android version. Let me say that I really like Google Maps; I wouldn’t say that I’m quite a “power user”, but it has been highly useable for me, especially on my Nexus 4. I wondered what this big update would bring…

Then the actual update was rolled out yesterday. No, I wasn’t one of the first to get it; I must have been pretty far down the list for them to push the update to me. Before I was able to experience it myself, I read a bunch of reviews in the Play Store, as well as Google+, and the overall consensus seemed to be “if it wasn’t broke, why did you fix it, Google!?” Most of the complaints were the removal of features that many users found to be sooooo important (Latitude, Location History, cached maps). I have to be honest that I had mixed feelings about the update before I even had downloaded the update.

When I arrived home from work today, lo and behold, I received a notification on my phone about the Maps update. I downloaded it right before dinner, then decided to play around with it a little. What was my reaction? “Awww…neat!” This is not meant to be a review of Maps, but I have to say that I like the new user interface (I’ll just call it UI from now on) way better than the previous one. Did I ever use Latitude or Location History? No. Maybe if I had used them, I would be a little more disappointed; otherwise, I think I would still love it.

My Work’s Menu System Update

In the middle of May, I was assigned an enormous task of leading the charge to update the UI of my company’s 1000+ user intranet Warehouse Management System (all web-based). Specifically, I was going to update the navigation system. At first, the task seemed very daunting to me, but once I started seeing the rewards, I got pretty excited about it. I went through the whole development process, and eventually ended up with a working version in the QA system by mid-June. We let every-day users examine it, critique it, and try to break it, with a pretty positive end result.

Let me say that the UI is very different. The old version was designed in the early-2000′s (table grid layout, no CSS, frames within frames, etc.) and many users that have been with the company when the system first came out and are completely used to the old UI, though they have a lot of complaints about the functionality and inefficiencies. I knew the most difficult piece would not be the development and testing, but rather user satisfaction.

Again, the users who used the QA system enjoyed the new UI, but there were still hundreds of users that did not try it out. I took every possible effort to have face to face meetings with dozens of users, handed out lots of documentation, and even put out a quick tutorial right in the middle of the new UI. There was one strange thing I noticed after blind-testing some users who did not know an update was happening; I had them read through the documentation, explain the benefits and time they will gain with the new UI, and told them there were instructions right on the screen just in case. Deployment Day was this Tuesday.

We updated our system at 6:30 in the morning, just in between user shifts. It was amazing to see the variety of reactions from people. The first reaction from nearly everyone was absolute shock. Then the new UI seemed to divide the two groups of users: “awww…neat!” and “if it wasn’t broke, why did you fix it?”.

I would say that the “awww…neat!” group comprised about 70% of users. The “if it wasn’t broke, why did you fix it?” group comprised the rest. Talking to people, I didn’t find any correlation between age, techno-knowledge, or experience in relation to their reaction. Honestly, it just seems like there are two different types of people.

What Does All of This Mean?

Designers and developers change things for a reason. It is impossible to satisfy everyone. Look at Apple with the new “flat” design of their icons. Look at Google with their Gmail rework a few months ago, and Microsoft with Windows 8. You can throw my company into that as well with the UI update. Do you really think that they all change things just to make people mad, or that they don’t ask users what they want? Of course not. It’s all about adapting to new technologies, making workflows more efficient, and giving the vast majority of users a much more enjoyable experience.

I believe that Apple is probably the best at this. Steve Jobs would push his engineers to not just give people what they want now, but give them what they don’t even know they want yet. That attitude breeds innovation. Google did this with their new Maps upgrade as well. If they had simply given users what they wanted for this release, it would just be another addition to the ‘ol farmhouse. What did they do instead? They remodeled that farmhouse. They gutted out the asbestos, put in new drywall, tacked on brand new siding, and made the place better. Yes, dad might not know where his overalls went to, but he’ll find them hanging in a much better place than on the upstairs shower bar where they were before. That’s how user interface changes should be perceived.

With that said, designers and developers will always have dissatisfied users. I think it’s the person making the change’s job to not tell them they are just old legacy users and get over it, but try to bring them along with the new interface. For us users, before saying, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”, say “awww…neat!” instead with application changes.

June 20, 2013
by Dustin Speckhals
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Review of “The Last Days”

tldThe Last Days is actually the first book by Joel C. Rosenberg that I’d read. As mentioned previously, though this is the second book in the actual series, it is the one I first got my hands on. Out of all the books in this series, the plot in this work is probably the most linear and simple to follow. Several main antagonists are introduced and detailed out, the main protagonists are built upon from The Last Jihad, and the more minor characters are also laid out before the reader in a very thoughtful manner.

Book two in Rosenberg’s political action thriller series that highlights the lives of Jon Bennett and Erin McCoy takes a swing to the war-ridden territory of the Gaza Strip. With Saddam Hussein’s regime overthrown in Iraq, the world turns to the Presidents of the United States and the European Union to bring a final, lasting peace to the Middle-East. This is seeming more and more likely to be accomplished until a series of events take place in Gaza that rivet the world; but in fact are just the beginning of a massive conspiratorial plot to destroy the free people of the world.

Bennett and McCoy are right in the middle of the peace process: appointed by President MacPherson of the United States to oversee a hopefully lasting peace and cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians. Also appointed to join the peace process are two very influential figures respectively for the Israeli and Palestinian people: Dmitri Galishnikov and Ibrahim Sa’id. The negotiators unfortunately find themselves in the midst of a violent plot against peace; yet going through these events together bring the two sides closer together, allowing them to discuss differences and lay out a road map for peace.

I feel that Mr. Rosenberg presents a very accurate picture for main setting of The Last Days: the Gaza Strip, and specifically Gaza City. Though I have never visited there, it seems to be painted in a very real-to-life way to make the reader sympathize for the citizens that live there, as well as see the difficulty of introducing democracy and peace to a war-torn people.

As the narrative drew to its climax, I noticed just how much I enjoy Joel Rosenberg’s style of writing. He writes intriguing plots that, while complex, also seem realistic and honest. The spiritual plot also begins to first develop in the lives of the main characters in The Last Days. I feel that this is the book that “gets the ball rolling” in the lives of Jon and Erin. The remainder of the works in this series can be very emotionally driving at times, and this book lays the groundwork for Mr. Rosenberg to be able to weave in the complex spiritual and emotional plots that cap the series.

Of course, I am glad that I was able to read this via my Kindle, as well as listen to it with my wife via our Audible subscription. The reader was solid, easy-to-understand, and surprisingly precise with his pronunciation of some words in the Semitic languages and Russian. It is a joy to read an exciting, intelligently written, and well plotted book. Though it is best to read The Last Days second in the series, it ended up being fine with me coming back and reading The Last Jihad last, after reading this. Again, you won’t regret picking this up, taking a week or two, and reading The Last Days.

June 17, 2013
by Dustin Speckhals
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Review of “The Last Jihad”

thjBelieve it or not, this is one of my most recent reads of Joel C. Rosenberg’s end-times, political, action-thriller novels; this is also not my first review of one of his books (read about Implosion here). Yes, I know that it is the first fiction book that the author wrote, but the funny thing is that there was no Kindle edition when I first heard about and became interested in his novels. I had first heard of Mr. Rosenberg’s works just after finishing college in 2009. I wasn’t really in a good habit of reading back then, but I kept him in the back of my mind–just in case I started to read more often. In 2010, I received a 2nd generation Kindle for my birthday, and after a few months of having it (and loving it), I remembered Joel C. Rosenberg again.

I navigated to Amazon.com one day, knowing that I wanted to read a good fiction. I found The Last Jihad, was about to purchase it, but found out–to my dismay–that it was not available in an eBook format yet (it is now). The funny thing was that at that time, I did not think that his novels were necessarily linked, so I found the next one in the search results, which ended up being the second book in the series: The Last Days (I’ll review that for my next review). Thankfully, as much as the novels were linked, I did not feel like I missed out by starting at book two. I ended up reading all the books in this series, and then on to the next series with the books: The Twelfth Imam and The Tehran Initiative (and am right now halfway through The Damascus Countdown).

Last fall, a year after reading all of the Kindle versions of Mr. Rosenberg’s novels (minus The Last Jihad), my wife and I were going to be going on an eight-hour trip, and I thought she would like to listen to the audio version of The Twelfth Imam. I purchased the audiobook from Audible just before leaving, used the Audible app on my Android, and we had a blast! Over the next few months, we  used Audible a lot, finishing the two available novels for the David Shirazi series in no time. Just as a side note: it was just as fun and thrilling to read the books a second time via Audible, even after already purchasing the Kindle versions.

After finishing the two novels taking place in Iran, I figured it would be an enjoyable family time to be able to sit down in the evenings and just listen to a good series of books. Naturally, that would start out with Rosenberg’s first novel–the only one I had not gotten around to reading yet–The Last Jihad.

There is no doubt that the author has a talent to take real-world scenarios, put them into a fictional context, and make them entertaining for anyone. I am definitely the history buff and political junkie of the family, but I think that my wife has been just as interested–if not more so–than I am. On the cover, it would be easy to think of The Last Jihad and its sequels as simply a story for a niche market, but I have found that the author’s fiction works are enjoyable to everyone I have talked to about them. I have yet to meet someone else who has read Joel Rosenberg that has said they did not love reading his works.

The Last Jihad begins with a thrilling sequence events that take the reader from Denver, Colorado to Baghdad, Iraq. You are gracefully introduced to characters who, by the end of the series, almost become friends to you: President MacPherson, Marcia Kirkpatrick, Dr. Mordechai, Dmitri Galishnikov, and of course Erin McCoy and Jon Bennett. It was nice for me to get all of the background that I did not know about, or was hinted at in the sequels. The character building is gradual, and takes place over the course of the series, but I feel that the main characters are all introduced and played out well in this first book.

Multi-layered plots unfold from the American soil–in a time very reminiscent of the post-9/11 US geopolitical situation–and from slowly unfolding events happening in the Middle-East: the epicenter of the world. Assassinations, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction are beginning to plague the world to a greater extent than they were before; evil men are gaining momentum; many good men are standing down; the world seems like it may implode. However, unlikely heroes rise up to their life’s calling, make tough decisions, while finding spiritual truth in the midst of their trials.

From a Christian standpoint, The Last Jihad is definitely the beginning of each character’s spiritual journey. Again, over the course of the series, you can truly see the spiritual growth, struggles, and decisions that have to be made at each step; yet this piece of the puzzle is only hinted at in The Last Jihad, making everything feel more realistic as plots unfold later in the book, and eventually later in the series.

I found The Last Jihad to be extremely readable as well. It is easy to pick up for just a few minutes and read, and even more easy to sit down and read for a few hours, losing track of time in the process. The flow of events is smooth, but details are not skimmed over either. I felt like I got the whole story of Jon Bennett and Erin McCoy as I listened to the last few words of the audiobook.

I cannot recommend reading The Last Jihad enough. I know that  Joel C. Rosenberg’s novels have made evenings very exciting in our home. I know once you are finished with this first book, you will want to continue on. I am also going to finish reviewing all of his books that I’ve read here as well, over the next few weeks (though probably not in such great length…I had to give the background story for this first one!).