Welcome!

Disclaimer: I work at Amazon but this writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.

Who is Robert Schlaff?

I’m a devoted husband and father to an awesome family. For work, I’m the Banking Business Development Manager for Amazon Web Services. For more information about what I do at work, please visit my LinkedIn profile.

About This Site

I collect stories. There are so many amazing things happening every day. I need to spend some time writing them down before they slip away. Madeleine L’Engle said that every writer needs to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. But some of this stuff is too good to keep to myself. So I’m sharing it with you.

When I’m writing, I picture having a conversation with some of the world’s smartest and most interesting people — you, my readers. I picture us all sitting around a table telling stories and having fun. I’d like to think we’re a digital version of the Algonquin Round Table. Throughout the 1920s, some friends would meet daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. They included the founding editor of the New Yorker Harold Ross, the playwright George S. Kaufmann and the writer Dorothy Parker. This group, called The Algonquin Round Table,  would meet to tell stories and share quips in a bustling city that was finding its place on the world stage. They were the original raconteurs of New York, getting together to share stories that would enlighten and entertain. In an age when we no longer have two-martini lunches, I wanted to humbly bring that sensibility online.

Highlights

Life Lessons

Product

Technical

Human Behavior

Math and Logic

On Amazon – A Peculiar Company

Disclaimer: I work at Amazon but this writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.

Amazon has a very strong culture. At other places I’ve worked, culture is an aspiration at the senior level but took a back seat to more pressing concerns like making as much money as possible. Amazon’s culture is embedded in its 14 Leadership Principles that are a common language and framework that form the basis of everything the company does, from interviews to everyday decisions. You can get a good feeling of the Amazon culture by watching videos of Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. A few good ones are from the Economic Club of Washingtonan interview by his brother Mark,  the Axel Springer Award, and a 60 Minutes Story about Amazon from 1999.

Continue reading “On Amazon – A Peculiar Company”

In Praise of Humility — The Forgotten Story of Edward S. Harkness

The Residential Colleges were created 85 years ago. Though they have the names of many famous Yalies, the donor of these colleges is nowhere to be seen. Why?

What is a Yalie? When I think of the archetypical Yalie, I think of two things. First, a Yalie is someone who will do great things and change the world. Second, a Yalie has great human qualities of humility, philanthropy and caring for others.  While Yalies are always reminded of our great alumni plastered across campus, we rarely see the humbler and more human side. That’s why it’s important to remember Edward S. Harkness. Continue reading “In Praise of Humility — The Forgotten Story of Edward S. Harkness”

How to be Happy — Yale’s Most Popular Class

This year Professor Laurie Santos created Yale’s most popular class of all time. The class is titled Psychology and the Good Life but it’s really a course on how to be happy both in the short and long term. I was excited to hear that Yale was offering the course but even more excited to see that the class is available online. While there’s little I hadn’t heard before, it did a great job of focusing me on what’s important and helped me get into the practice of being happier.

Continue reading “How to be Happy — Yale’s Most Popular Class”

The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Software Testing

This is part of my Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Technology. My Mother-in-Law is a very smart woman even if she isn’t a “computer person.” The goal of this series is to take some big and treacherous sounding ideas and bring them down to earth.

Dearest Mother-in-Law,

Remember when you had kids and you told them to do stuff. And remember how they used to do what you told them but that wasn’t always what you intended them to do? Well, that’s the way computer programs work.

Just like kids, computer programs will do what you tell them, but beyond that, all bets are off. They don’t do anything that directly contradicts what you said but that doesn’t mean they’ll do what you want them to do. Continue reading “The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Software Testing”

The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Cloud Computing

This is part of my “Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Technology.” My Mother-in-Law is a very smart woman even if she isn’t a “computer person.” The goal of this post is to take a very big and treacherous sounding idea and bring it down to earth. I tried this before in a post which I’ve now renamed The Mother-In-Law’s Guide to Chaos Engineering.

Dearest Mother-in-Law,

You know when we visit a Target or a Wal-Mart in the suburbs and they have 30 checkout lanes and only 3 are open at any time? I always wondered why that happens. It even sparked someone to write a funny blog post about the phenomenon: Target Store Opens More than Three Checkout Lanes; Shoppers Confused. Continue reading “The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Cloud Computing”

You Think You’re Better Than Me?! An Open Letter to the Grammar Police

I was at my shul last week and got into an interesting argument with my friend Bill Schwartz. I said, “Bill, the reason you feel this way is that you’re older than me.”

“Than I,” he corrected me.

“No. I really think it’s ‘than me.’ It’s clearly the object of the sentence.”

“Let’s ask my wife Janet. She used to be an English teacher.”

“It’s ‘than I,'” said Janet.

“OK, I said. I’ll look it up and get back to you.”

“Great,” said Bill. “I love receiving email.”

So I looked it up and I found some interesting pieces. My favorite is this bit from Merriam-Webster:

Some people think they’re better than you because they say “better than I” instead of “better than me.”

They’re not, of course. They’re just among the select group of grammar enthusiasts who think that than can only be a conjunction. You, on the hand, recognize that it can also be a preposition.

That’s right: whether you say “better than me,” “taller than I,” or “more annoying than they” has to do with grammatical categories that we typically only consider when a teacher asks us to.

But the bigger issue is believing that there’s a “right grammar.” John McWhorter is a Professor at Columbia University who writes about how grammar is more a fashion than anything else. McWhorter writes:

An especially enlightening read is William Cobbett’s book-length lecture to his son called “A Grammar of the English Language.” Cobbett’s sense of what good English was in 1818 seems, in 2012, so bizarre we can scarcely imagine someone speaking in such a way and being taken seriously.

To Cobbett, the past tense forms awoke, blew,  built, burst, clung, dealt, dug, drew, froze, grew, hung, meant, spat, stung, swept, swam, threw and wove were all mistakes. The well-spoken person, Cobbett instructed, swimmed yesterday and builded a house last year. In Google’s handy Ngram viewer, using data from millions of books over several centuries, one can see that builded only started falling out of disuse around 1920. Not for any reason; no one discovered that builded was somehow elementally deficient. Fashion changed.

So why was Bill Schwartz so insistent on “better than I?” Let’s use Google Ngram to see the historical trends of these two phrases. You can click on the graphic to interact with it.

As you can see, when Bill was in school, “better than I” was the fashion. But don’t lose hope, “better than me” is coming on strong!

My Blog as a Jewish Folk Tale

As I think about the sensibility that I have in this blog and the stories I tell, there’s a certain Jewishness to it. After reading the book A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, I can see it clearly. There’s an ironic wit of the underdog in Jewish storytelling that’s been passed down for generations. If you’re unfamiliar with the Jewish storyteller, take a look at Eddie Murphy playing “Old Jewish Man” from the end of the Movie Coming to America.

Jewish folk tales to a great job of explaining how I think about my blog. For example, my goal in this blog is to use stories from my life to make interesting points. But there’s a much better explanation through the following folk tale.

The Preacher of Dubno, Jacob Krantz, was once asked why parables have such persuasive power over people. The Preacher replied, “I will explain this by means of a parable.”

“It happened once that Truth walked about the streets as naked as his mother bore him. Naturally, people were scandalized and wouldn’t let him into their houses. Whoever saw him got frightened and ran away.

“And so as Truth wandered through the streets brooding over his troubles he met Parable. Parable was gaily decked out in fine clothes and was a sight to see. He asked, ‘Tell me, what is the meaning of all this? Why do you walk about naked and looking so woebegone?’

“Truth shook his head sadly and replied, ‘Everything is going downhill with me, brother. I’ve gotten so old and decrepit that everybody avoids me.’

“‘What you’re saying makes no sense,’ said Parable. “People are not giving you a wide berth because you are old. Take me, for instance, I am no younger than you. Nonetheless, the older I get the more attractive people find me. Just let me confide a secret to you about people. They don’t like things plain and bare but dressed up prettily and a little artificial. I’ll tell you what. I will lend you some fine clothes like mine and you’ll soon see how people will take to you.’

“Truth followed this advice and decked himself out in Parable’s gay clothes. And lo and behold! People no longer shunned him but welcomed him heartily. Since that time Truth and Parable are to be seen as inseparable companions, esteemed and loved by all.”

I also like to take examples and then write blog posts around them. The theory surrounding the example is subservient to the example itself. That’s an annoyingly complicated way of saying something better described in the following folk tale.

Once Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, said to his friend, the Preacher of Dubno, “Tell me, Jacob, how in the world do you happen to find the right parable to every subject?”

The Preacher of Dubno answered, “I will explain to you my parabolic method by means of a parable. Once there was a nobleman who entered his son in a military academy to learn the art of musketry. After five years the son learned all there was to be learned about shooting and, in proof of his excellence, was awarded a diploma and a gold medal.

“Upon his way home after graduation he halted at a village to rest his horses. In the courtyard he noticed on the wall of a stable a number of chalk circles and right in the center of each was a bullet hole.

“The young nobleman regarded the circles with astonishment. Who in the world could have been the wonderful marksman whose aim was so unerringly true? In what military academy could he have studied and what kind of medals had he received for his marksmanship!

“After considerable inquiry he found the sharpshooter. To his amazement,  it was a small Jewish boy, barefoot and in tatters.

“‘Who taught you to shoot so well?’ the young nobleman asked him.

“The boy explained, ‘First I shoot at the wall. Then I take a piece of chalk and draw circles around the holes.’

Though I hadn’t thought of it, I’ve been using some of the wisdom of the ages to craft this blog. I guess I wasn’t just messing around and having fun.

Lessons from My Grandparents

I’m a very lucky boy. I had all four of my grandparents until I was 25. And I had one until this year when I was 41.  Now that they’ve all passed away, I feel different. I’m a grand-orphan. Now that they are done teaching me, I wanted to honor their memory by reflecting on the lessons they’ve taught me.  To paraphrase the great physicist Richard Feynman, “By the time they died, a lot of what is good about them has rubbed off on other people. So although they are dead, they won’t be completely gone.”

My Bubbie died in January. A couple of months before she died, she told me, “I’m a fighter.” At the time I didn’t want to tell her that the fight wasn’t going well. That an 87-year-old with heart and kidney failure was not winning the battle to live forever. She could hold on a little longer but eventually, as with everyone, death will win. Looking back, I realize she was fighting for something else. She wasn’t fighting for everlasting life, she was fighting to live a good life. It would have been easy for her to just go with the flow and coast off into the sunset—being that woman who just plays bingo and watches Jeopardy until she dies. But to really try to lead a good life—that takes effort.

David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address called This is Water (or more fully This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life) where he tells the following story:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

To me, this story is about fighting against the current of the water to live a good life. All of my grandparents showed me where the water is, how to separate myself from it, and how to focus on what’s important.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from my mother’s parents, Nana and Papa (Florence and Barney Liebman), and my father’s parents, Bubbie and Zaid (Connie and Norman Schlaff).

Continue reading “Lessons from My Grandparents”

Fiction Is the Lie That Tells the Truth

When my Bubbie died in January, I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. People kept telling me that, “She lived a good long life” and “Her memory will live forever” but this wasn’t helpful. I know that she lived a great life and I know that I was very lucky to be 41 when my last grandparent died. But how should I deal with her death? What do I do now?

I started thinking about a conversation I had 13 years ago with Mike McGill. Mike was the superintendent of the Scarsdale school district, one of the best school districts in the country. We were talking about what students should learn in high school to lead a good and productive life.

I thought I had the answer. At 28, I’d finally learned the key skills to be successful in the business world: analytics and communication. I’d spent two years in business school and then worked for two years as a  management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the world’s most prestigious corporate strategy consultancies. Through this education, I learned to take data, analyze it, and communicate a story about it. Analytics and communication are also the skills needed to discuss issues and be a contributing member of society.

But Mike had a different perspective. He said, “Literature is the most important subject you can learn. It’s at the heart of being human. By reading a good book you learn key life lessons. There’s no better way to learn empathy and see things from someone else’s point of view.” Mike’s comment always stuck in my head and helped me understand how to read literature. So when Bubbie died I looked to literature for answers. Continue reading “Fiction Is the Lie That Tells the Truth”

My Eulogy for My Bubbie

Below is my eulogy for my Bubbie, Connie Schlaff, who died on January 9th, 2019 (1/9/19):

There’s a video of the great physicist Richard Feynman. In the video, his friend Danny Hillis said, “I’m sad because I realize you’re about to die.”

And Feynman said, “Yeah, that bugs me sometimes too. But not as bad as you think. By the time you get to be my age a lot of what is good about you has rubbed off on the people and so … although I will be dead, I won’t be completely gone.”

And that’s the way I like to think about Bubbie and all the little things she left us. Like some of her favorite things. I remember the last things that Blake and Ari did with Bubbie. These might have been Bubbie’s two favorite things. Ari did a crossword puzzle with her and Blake asked Bubbie if she would watch his new favorite show, Jeopardy, with him.

Continue reading “My Eulogy for My Bubbie”

Design Challenge: Makeup Kits for Female Astronauts

It’s always hard to design products that you are never going to use yourself.  One of the most interesting design challenges in history was the equipment for the first astronauts. And once the women went up in space,  the problem for the (mostly) male engineers only got worse. Take the example of the makeup kit.

Continue reading “Design Challenge: Makeup Kits for Female Astronauts”

The Future of Payments

Disclaimer: I work at Amazon but this writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.

When I was working at Citi Cards, I was under the impression that people were spending a lot of time figuring out what credit cards they should have. Were they going to get points or miles? Weren’t they going to be so excited that they could redeem their points with Amazon? Of course, working in a credit card company I was thinking about this all day and I lost sight of the fact that my customers had far better things to do with their time. Continue reading “The Future of Payments”