Monday, April 29, 2013

Walking Through Time and Tide in Boston’s Back Bay

One of the many things we learn when training with @BostonbyFoot is that we walk through time, over water, and underground.  Not literally, of course, but Boston’s history is three-dimensional in many ways.  In the Back Bay, for example, we stand on what was originally swamp land and tidal mud flats.  That unusable—and unpleasant—area was filled in during the years from 1857 to 1900 and it was done pretty much block by block.  So as you walk west on the long streets:  Beacon, Marlborough, Newbury Street as well as Commonwealth Avenue, you are walking through the period of time in which the land was created and the houses were built.  You can also see a progression of the architectural styles that developed in that period. 

These stately town houses are beautiful when seen from the outside, but what did they look like on the inside?  It’s hard to tell from the street because the houses are long and narrow (typically just 25 feet wide) with windows only in the front and the rear.  The back ends face service alleys.  Fortunately, you can find out by visiting one of three “house museums” that present a slice of early Boston life.

Gibson House Museum
The Gibson House Museum
Yesterday my husband and I visited the Gibson House Museum (@The_GibsonHouse) at 137 Beacon Street (between Arlington and Berkeley).  Outside, the magnolias flaunted their magnificent pink-and-white blooms on a gorgeous 21st-century day.  We stepped across the threshold to enter the world of 1860.

The house, along with the one next door, was built from 1959 to1860 by the widow Catherine Hammond Gibson, who moved there from Beacon Hill with her son, Charles Hammond Gibson. It was designed in the Italian Renaissance style by the noted Boston architect Edward Clarke Cabot, and is built of red brick and brownstone.  Its interior is what one might call tastefully ornate. 

Our guide, Jonathan, was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic, which made for a very interesting tour.  We learned a great deal about the house and how it operated, the family and their history, the culture of the time, and how the house became a museum.  The Gibson House is filled with original nineteenth-century furniture, wallpaper, china, kitchenware, carpets, clocks, and many marvelous paintings, including a family portrait by Thomas Sully. 

Gibson House Museum
Gibson House Interior
The Gibson House gives a whole new meaning to the term “upstairs/downstairs.”  An unusually tall house for the Back Bay at six levels, it must have forced its servants to be in good shape.  I felt sorry for the maids who would have had to climb all those dark, narrow, twisty stairs in long skirts and while carrying heavy trays, platters, and buckets. 

Our tour group was small—only four people—and we were the last tour of the day so we were able to spend more time in the museum than we expected.  When we finally left, we headed over to @Skipjack’s on Clarendon Street for their excellent chowdah and a seafood dinner. 

We enjoyed yesterday’s tour so much that we’re planning to visit Boston’s other two house museums: the Harrison Gray Otis House, one of three houses with this name, all designed by Charles Bulfinch, and currently the headquarters of Historic New England, and the Nichols House Museum on Beacon Hill. 

Next Saturday’s Boston by Foot lecture is on land building in Boston and I’m looking forward to it.  It’s fun to walk on water.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Back to the Back Bay – We’re All Boston Strong

Yesterday was the third Saturday of lectures and demonstration tours for my tour guide training class at @BostonbyFoot.  Nearly 30 volunteers are learning about history, architecture, land building and other required subjects to become docents for BBF.  On the first Saturday we learned about Colonial Boston and went on the Heart of the Freedom Trail tour.  Last week we listened to lectures about Federal Boston and took the Beacon Hill tour. 

Yesterday was special, though.  We BBF trainees spent the morning absorbing a huge amount of information about Victorian Boston in the South End and the Back Bay.  Then we went on the Victorian Back Bay tour.  Broken into several small groups, we met with our teacher/guides in Copley Square on the steps of Trinity Church.  It was the first time I had been in that neighborhood since the bombings and I was astonished.  There were so many people flooding Boylston Street and Copley Square that it looked like the marathon had just ended. 

Boston Strong
Boston Globe Photo
There were people strolling, riding, shopping, admiring the tulips, pointing cameras, and taking in the sun.  On our way walking there and on my way walking back to the car, I saw four weddings and a quinceanera.  The people of Boston were out in force, reclaiming the city from the bombers and the terror they sought to inflict.  This was a vital, personal demonstration of what we mean by #BostonStrong. 

But it’s not just the people of Boston and not just the people of Massachusetts.  Boston has more colleges and universities than any other city in America.  Students come to these institutions from all 50 states and many foreign countries.  Everyone was out in the Back Bay yesterday:  people of all ages, all colors, all manner of dress, and all economic groups.  There were Boston Strong and Wicked Strong tee shirts mixed with marathon jackets and @RedSox gear. 

Boston Strong
Red Sox Shirts
People came into Boston and to Boylston Street to make a statement about the importance of freedom and to demonstrate solidarity.  Everyone shopped in the stores and ate in the restaurants that were closed when the whole area was locked down.  I heard stories of people leaving large tips—one man left $100—to help out the servers who had lost a week of income.  Jars were stuffed with donations to the One Fund Boston, which has raised nearly $27 million so far.

One Fund Boston
It was a great day—if exhausting.  I covered a lot of territory, but on a beautiful spring day in Boston that’s a pleasure.  The people I saw in the Back Bay yesterday made it a wicked good day.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Thinking vs. Whining: the Value of the “Big Room” Approach

A news article from last week and thoughtful article from last year clashed in my head today.  The contrast between the two highlights the value of actually thinking things through instead of following fads and trends.  I’m talking about business here, not fashion or TV, or Frisbees®. 

In the course of my career, it has often amazed me how educated, tough-minded corporate executives with MBAs and lots of experience can get caught up in a trend, just like lemmings in pin-striped suits, marching happily to the cliff’s edge.  Over the years, business fads have included taking on a pile of unnecessary debt, merging with or acquiring another company, getting “lean and mean” by laying off employees and closing facilities, or offshoring production of their signature product line to a low-wage country.  Maybe they read an article in Business Week, Fortune or The Wall Street Journal about the advantages of this new trend.  Perhaps their boss or someone on the board heard about the trend and asks why American Industrial Widgets isn’t doing it.  That gets the gears moving.

Then these folks, trained in hard-nosed quantitative analysis, find a way to crunch those numbers so as to justify jumping on the express train of a hot new trend.  It’s only human nature—who wants to be left behind?  Who wants to be the Luddite trying to explain to the board and shareholders why he decided not to do what was clearly obvious to everyone else?  When a person stops thinking and starts acting on emotion, though, things can go sideways big time. 

Insourcing Boom, The Atlantic
Let’s take the old article first.  The Insourcing Boom” by Charles Fishman appeared in The Atlantic in November.  It talks about how General Electric is bringing much of its appliance-manufacturing back home after many years of offshore production.  The article is long but it is well worth reading, possibly several times.  It makes so many excellent points that I cannot even summarize them here, but the core of GE’s vision is what Fishman calls the “big room” approach to manufacturing.  This puts design engineers and manufacturing engineers in the same room with staff from marketing and sales to solve a problem and, by doing so, create a better product.  Mr. Fishman points out that there is, “no management-labor friction, just a group of people with different perspectives, tackling a crucial problem.” 

GeoSpring Water Heater, General Electric, GE, Insourcing
Water Heater
In the case of General Electric, the result was a water heater that is better and smarter than the one they were building in China.  It is also cheaper to manufacture because it uses fewer parts, can be built by fewer people, moves off the production line faster, and can be shipped to sales outlets in a fraction of the time.  That means its price is nearly 20% lower.

Now compare that with “Face-Off on Visas Pits U.S. Against India,” by Dhanya Ann Thoppil, which appeared in @WSJ last week.  This discusses provisions in the proposed immigration-reform legislation that would reduce drastically the number of foreign workers foreign companies can send to their U.S. offices.

At first blush, this might seem like a good thing for the American workforce because it would keep Indian companies from staffing their offices in the U.S. largely with “Indian expatriates, who earn significantly less than their American counterparts.”  This approach would seem to help with the problem of foreign workers, “displacing qualified Americans from jobs,” especially in the IT sector.

H1-B Visa, Insourcing, Offshoring
But wait, there’s more.  The large IT companies have jumped into the argument because they want to keep bringing in, “as much as 80% of their staff in the U.S.,” on H1-B and other visas.  In short, these big American firms “are seeking to hire more foreign workers for high-skilled jobs but face a visa shortage because of competition with Indian firms.”  The proposed cap on foreign workers would benefit U.S. companies by allowing them to hire more foreign workers at lower wages but force Indian companies to hire more U.S. workers.  The U.S. firms claim they need these foreign workers because of a dearth of American computer graduates.

I know that companies like @Microsoft claim that they can’t find enough educated American workers to fill all the high-skilled jobs they are creating.  But I can’t help thinking that they really can’t find enough Americans who are willing to work for “significantly less.”  Maybe they could take the “big room” approach to filling those skilled jobs.  After all, there are lots of highly trained people out there who can’t find work because they’re over 50.  They got laid off because they made too much money and now can’t find another job because their hair is gray or they have been out of work too long.  We’re talking people with Bachelor’s degrees as well a graduate-level education up to Ph.D.s.  Just last year on @SixtyMinutes, John Blackstone talked to a room in Silicon Valley filled with hundreds of such qualified, but unemployed, Americans. Ironically, this segment is introduced online by a Viagra commercial that says, “You’ve reached the age of knowing how to get things done.”

There’s a difference between whining and thinking.  If General Electric can think beyond the obvious solution to make better water heaters, maybe Microsoft, @IBM, @CiscoSystems and other big IT companies should try thinking beyond H1-B visas for hardware and software.