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Alpharetta – Technology City of the South

Mayor David Belle Isle made good on a campaign promise this week with the formation of Alpharetta’s Technology Commission. The new group kicked things off by hosting Governor Nathan Deal. The governor also helped the group with a declaration proclaiming Alpharetta to be the technology city of the south. The phrase will become a branding initiative for the city. As a technologist in Alpharetta, I love the designation!

The commission will consist of representatives from the city’s largest technology companies such as HP and McKesson. It’s so very important for Alpharetta to remain close to these companies. The city spends a lot of time attracting new business yet retention of tech firms is equally important.

A lot of factors are at play when a company decides to pick up and move. Many of these factors are out of the hands of local control – think mergers and acquisitions. (I still believe Radiant’s Alpharetta office is likely to close following their acquisition by NCR) However there may be small things city government can do to keep larger employers happy. This might be as simple as adding turn lanes to roads or other municipal service changes.

A commission like this gives the city a line of communication to these firms. Some of these companies have been in Alpharetta going on 25 years and likely are not as plugged in locally as they once were. Now they are. I’m pleased to see this come together. Well done Alpharetta.

Fights at Alpharetta High School and Social Media

Alpharetta High School has a positive climate and students are extremely well behaved, respectful and exhibit mature behavior and attitudes to each other and to the faculty and staff. 

These are words from a school quality review conducted at Alpharetta High School. They were quoted by principal Shannon Kersey in an email to parents yesterday. It was an attempt to put a positive spin on news of terrible and violent fights at the school this week.

Selected tweets this week from Alpharetta HS students

And I’m sure these words are very true when describing Alpharetta High. The timing of the study is ironic. Social media channels have been abuzz this week with reports of multiple fights, trips to the hospital and even disturbing pictures. One camera phone pic I observed on twitter showed blood smeared on a cinder block wall. It contained the caption “It’s not right without a fight…Alpharetta high school is now in the running for most ghetto.” Another student tweet from earlier this week read “Only the ambulance would come for a fight at Alpharetta.”

Was the violence at AHS exacerbated by the use of social media? Or did it just help spread the news? Hundreds of students walk the halls with iPhones that can blast pictures to friends and in seconds. Principal Kersey seems to acknowledge this in her letter, saying “this particular altercation has received more attention because some students photographed the location of the incident with their cell phones and shared the images through social media.” Students can communicate in stunningly rapid and effective ways. It’s a new reality that school administrators just have to deal with.

I don’t think administrators need to dwell on social media but rather focus their attention on the troublesome students who bring violence into this good school. Fights are nothing new. Those who engage in violence at school should be given swift and certain punishment that includes expulsion. None of that should change.

I hope next week brings calm to the halls of Alpharetta High School. Please keep these students in your thoughts and prayers over the weekend.

MyFavEats – A Review

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

For a few months now you might have seen table tents on Alpharetta-area restaurants touting a service called MyFavEats. And if you’re like me, you probably dismissed the service, perhaps thinking of it as the deal website dejour.

Curiosity got the better of me so I googled MyFavEats. Soon I learned that Alpharetta-based Radiant Systems was behind this start-up. That was enough to get me on the hook. Here’s a local creation that combines current technology with food. That’s right up my alley! I installed the app on my Android smartphone and have been using it for a few weeks now.

The fact that Radiant is behind MyFavEats is significant. They make point-of-sale hardware and software applications used in stores, gas stations and restaurants. So essentially they are already in the back of the restaurant, now they’re trying to put their technology in the hands of the consumers. If they can successfully merge the two, they have the chance to present unique opportunities to both restaurateur and foodie. More on this in a bit.

To the end user, MyFavEats is like a restaurant loyalty card combined with a daily deal site. Using location-aware mobile technology you check-in, registering your visit and marking off another notch on your virtual loyalty card. Much like physical card-based systems, a certain number of visits earns you a free meal or a discount depending on the restaurant involved.

What peaked my interest as an Alpharetta-area restaurant customer is the number of locations participating. The GA-400 corridor is the first testbed for MyFavEats.  I found it easy to locate restaurants offering free daily specials or first check-in deals, cashing in on three half off deals in under a week.

Wanting to learn even more, I reached out to Radiant and their Vice President for Strategic Development, Chris Lybeer. We discussed the technology over lunch at a participating MyFavEats restaurant in Alpharetta.

Lybeer explained that MyFavEats was hatched at the ATDC technology incubator on the campus of Georgia Tech. Radiant’s goal, in some respects, is to create a dossier on your dining habits at a restaurant. By linking a consumer’s visit to their order in the point-of-sale system, the restaurant can learn about their individual likes and preferences. Sales and promotions can be uniquely targeted.

You might be concerned about privacy but consider this; your grocery store or pharmacy is collecting similar information with their sale cards. MyFavEats is similar. Imagine this scenario… using their inventory software, a restaurant realizes they have excess tilapia fillets in their fridge. They pull up a list of frequent customers and discover that Lee eats a lot of fish sandwiches at lunchtime (which is true). They ping me with a special sale on fish sandwiches.

By linking hand-held technology to the point-of-sale terminal in a restaurant, Radiant can offer much more than sales to restaurant patrons. How about the ability to review your order on your smartphone or even pay the bill? It’s pretty easy to do when the mobile technology syncs with the back office. It’s all coming soon from the smart minds at Georgia Tech.

The technology is still pretty new and they’ve got some snags to work out. I experienced some software defects while trying to redeem prizes at a few restaurants. The application is still in a beta testing period at the moment so be patient. Yet Alpharetta-area restaurant goers have a unique opportunity to be first adopters with MyFavEats. The deals are free and numerous.

Libraries or E-book Readers?

I envision having a conversation like this one day with my grandkids:

Lee III: Granddaddy, what were “libraries”?
Me: They were government-funded book sharing entitlement schemes. Taxpayers borrowed money to build libraries. You’re paying for them now.
Lee III: Granddaddy! You’re being a grumpy old curmudgeon again.
Me: They were big buildings with books. You could borrow them.
Lee III: You could borrow the buildings?
Me: No, the books! <unintelligible grumblings>
Lee III: Oh yeah, a library! Like Alexandria in the third century BC? How quaint.
Me: Yeah, except we were still building them in 2011.
Lee III: You still had books in 2011? I thought Alpharetta was a high-tech city?

Smart grand kids I’ve got there, huh?

I continue to follow the public comments on Alpharetta’s downtown plans as they pour in. By far my favorite came as a tweet from Rob Forrest. Rob is a real estate developer, restauranteur and IT startup guy. I’m going to paraphrase his idea a little. First, some background…

The Fulton County library system is set to build a new Alpharetta branch on land donated from the city as part of their downtown vision. The library system will spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $24 million for this branch. The funds come from a bond approved by Fulton County voters back in 2008. This $24 million is in addition to the $29 million the city of Alpharetta wants to pour into downtown.

So what was Rob’s idea?

e-Book Readers for All!

It would cost just shy of $8 million to buy an Amazon Kindle e-Book reader for every man, woman and child in Alpharetta. Based on the 2010 census, you’d need 57,551 devices at $139 each. Sure, that doesn’t include the cost of the books, but if we’ve got $24 million to play with, that still leaves a staggering $16 million after paying for the devices.

Now before you label me a library hater, keep in mind that this is somewhat of an academic discussion. We still need libraries. Yet technology is making obsolete just about every form of physical media, including books. And not only that, the devices themselves are quickly becoming commodities. I wouldn’t be surprised if e-Book readers are soon offered for free, with manufacturers earning their money on content sales and subscriptions.

Rob’s comments on the library put the cost into a creative new perspective. I attempted to do this with the $29 million downtown pricetag back in May when I wrote about city hall’s opportunity cost. We’re talking about significant chunks of money with Alpharetta’s downtown plans.

It makes me laugh to hear politicians talk about how high-tech Alpharetta’s new library will be. It’s ironic considering such an alternative is available at a fraction of the cost. So yes, Alpharetta does need a new library. But more than that, Alpharetta needs leaders that can be creative thinkers and innovators. I expect more coming from such a high-tech city.

Photo Credit: Tsgreer (public domain)

How I Use Twitter in Alpharetta

I started writing my Roots in Alpharetta blog about a year and a half ago. I knew right away that I wanted to integrate social networking somehow. I’d been on Facebook for a while but decided on Twitter for the blog. I learned that Twitter was more of a micro blogging platform. I thought, “Hey, I’m a blogger so I should be micro blogging as well.” What I didn’t know at the time was how I would use Twitter as a tool to stay connected to the Alpharetta community.

But before I get into it, let me explain how you can make a Twitter account. Go to www.twitter.com and follow the instructions to join. It’s a very simple signup process. Once finished you’ll have a unique name. For the blog I have @rootsalpharetta. Feel free to follow me! From here you can micro blog about anything, so long you limit your thoughts to 140 characters.

Once you make an account you’re free to continue to use the twitter.com website. But unlike Facebook, Twitter has extended their service to allow other tools to leverage the technology. You’ll get a much better experience if you download and install one of these third-party applications. I like TweetDeck which I’ve installed on my laptop and Android phone.

Twitter in Alpharetta

So how do I keep up with Alpharetta on Twitter? The quickest way is to follow local news media. For example, I’d suggest the Revue & News at @NorthFulton. This is the easy part. The real power of Twitter is using it as a listening tool. Create a search in Twitter and type “Alpharetta”. You can do this in TweetDeck, the twitter.com website or just about any tool. The result is a real-time feed of anyone talking about Alpharetta. What will you see? At first it’s a lot of garbage. I’m watching the feed while writing this article. I see Alpharetta tweets about a concert at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, a relo’s moving truck, a job opening for a tax specialist and someone going to Starbucks, just to name a few. It’s a lot of nonsense really.

To cut through the chatter I make judicious use of filters by removing some keywords. I cut words like “job” and “career” to remove automated job postings. Adding “4sq” will remove FourSquare checkins. I don’t need to know that you’re at Starbucks on Windward Parkway.

After most of the noise is gone I’m left with some interesting happenings. I might learn of a new business in town or maybe find reviews of restaurants I’d like to try. This is also a great tool for learning of breaking news. Is there a traffic catastrophe on an Alpharetta road? You can bet someone’s tweeting about it. Or how about severe weather rolling through? People are tweeting about it in specific detail. Nothing beats Twitter for hyper-local breaking news.

I also expand my searches to include Johns Creek and Forsyth County. Many Forsyth tweeps will use the #ForsythCo hashtag for easy searching. Milton is tough to search on because it is a common name. Fortunately Alpharetta is a very unique name on which to search. Imagine if we lived in a place called Springfield?

By using Twitter this way I’ve become connected with people who live, work and are passionate about Alpharetta. In return I try to share new information I’ve learned, often before I can write about it on Roots in Alpharetta. If you come at it with this helpful mindset you’ll often receive more than you give. That’s certainly been my experience as I’m truly grateful for the connections I’ve made.

Let me know how you use Twitter. Who are your favorite local tweeps to follow? And most importantly, let’s introduce ourselves!

Johns Creek and the Quest for a Zip Code

The scarecrow wants a brain, the tin man wants a heart and the lion wants courage. Johns Creek wants a zip code. They’ve enlisted the help of Congressman Tom Price to guide them down the political yellow brick road. Will the great Oz grant their wish?

I’m torn on this issue of zip codes for the new cities of the burbs. In some ways I think they are going for a vanity zip code, something that could become exclusive like 90210. It’ll be a unique Johns Creek number the country club ladies can get snobby about. Yet in other ways I think the zip code system is partially broken and a new zip code for the city makes stuff function better. First I’ll make the case against a new zip.

Zip codes belong to the post office. They were invented by the USPS and are maintained by them. They exist to make postal delivery more efficient. Zips do not follow political boundaries and never have. Asking the post office to create one or more zip codes exclusively within the boundaries of the city of Johns Creek is not realistic. The USPS has enough problems right now, I’m sure they don’t need political pressure brought down on them by Congressmen for the purposes of city identity.

On the flip side, zip codes are often misused and misunderstood. The post office recognizes a “default place name” for each zip code. Johns Creek is not a default name of any zip code, even though they exist partially in five zips. The USPS agreed to allow Johns Creek to be what they call an “acceptable place name” for four of the five zip codes. That’s not good enough for one big reason…

Poor software design. Yeah, I blame it on the software guys (like yours truly). Many software apps incorrectly assume a one-to-one relationship between zip code and city. So for example, when they see 30022, they assume “Alpharetta, GA” or vice versa. Acceptable place names are often not factored into many software applications. As a result, using a website to find a restaurant or get a weather forecast might not work if you type “Johns Creek” or “Milton” as the location.

So what’s the solution? I’d kinda like to see the USPS change the default place for 30022 and 30097 to Johns Creek. Those two zip codes are mostly in the city limits anyway. I’m sure this change would tick off folks in Alpharetta and Duluth. North Point Mall is in 30022 and I’m sure the businesses near there wouldn’t care for the change.

Or Johns Creek could hope for an outcome similar to what happened in Milton. In their case, 30004 was just about the only zip code in the new city. In 2008 the USPS carved out a new zip code from 30004. This new zip, 30009, is mostly downtown Alpharetta with just a few addresses in Milton. They said the change was for efficiency reasons, yet the line somewhat closely follows the city boundaries. I’m certain there was some political influence involved in this though. What is confusing to me is that 30004 still has a default place of “Alpharetta”. It really should be Milton.

Pulling off something like this in Johns Creek would be more difficult considering that five zip codes are involved. And those five zip codes have four distinct default place names. Is it all worth it? Is this a waste of political capital?

It’s About More Than Potholes – Alpharetta Adopts SeeClickFix

At my job we have lots of ticketing systems. This is pretty common in the IT world. We have applications for submitting tickets for network changes, maintenance requests, software defects, technical support, new employee hiring and firing, etc. We probably have a ticketing system for making changes to other ticketing systems. It sounds like a lot, and sometimes it is. But if you’ve got a good process around the system, it can help your organization in a big way.

How so? It allows for accountability and transparency. When stuff isn’t getting done, there is a record of who is assigned a task with dates, times and notes. And when the process behind the system works, it gives management the tools and metrics to track change. They can also make pretty graphs for their powerpoint presos.

Yesterday the AJC ran a story about the City of Alpharetta and their adoption of SeeClickFix. You can read the article here. The application is basically a ticketing system for citizens to submit minor problems within the city. Think potholes, broken sidewalks, storm drains, traffic lights, stuff like that. Users submit issues through a web 2.0 interface with google maps integration or over a smart phone (iPhone, Blackberry or Android). It is slick technology. <nerd mode off>

Like many, this was the first time I heard of this application, which Alpharetta has quietly been using for a few months. When I first read the AJC article I kinda thought the city developed this on their own. That’s not the case. They have adopted a process around SeeClickFix and have subscribed to its service. At only $100 a month, this was a real bargain for the city.

Yesterday I created an issue in the new system. I reported on a traffic light on Windward Parkway that I think needs to be re-timed. In just a few minutes someone with the city acknowledged the issue and assigned it to the traffic division for research. That in and of itself isn’t a huge deal. I suppose I could have picked up the phone and called the traffic division and accomplished the same thing.

So how is this better? Because I have a ticket. I am issue number 47733. I have a URL, a status, a date, “like” buttons and a section for comments and discussions. I have something I can come back to weeks or months later if nothing is done. In short, I have a visible way to hold the city accountable. If I had just called in my issue, who knows what would have happened. The employee on the other end of the phone could have done nothing. Or more likely than anything, the request might have just gotten lost in the bureaucracy of government.

The system is still pretty young. It will take time to see how well it is adopted and embraced by the city and citizens. As a local blogger you can bet I’ll be watching. In the meantime, I think the City of Alpharetta deserves a lot of praise. In this current political climate, citizens are demanding a lot out of government. Unfortunately that usually manifests itself in the form of ugly campaigns and fighting. What I think citizens truly want is open, transparent and responsive government, not politics. Big kudos to Alpharetta for being the first to leverage this technology.

Social Networking and Alpharetta’s Restaurants

Every Friday, Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series I like to call Foodie Friday.

I had good intentions of writing today about using social media to promote your restaurant. I was going to use a handful of Alpharetta restaurants as examples of what to do. So for the last two weeks or so I’ve researched this topic. I’ve become a Facebook fan of some of Alpharetta’s finest and most popular restaurants. What I’ve found is disappointing.

Let me say first that I’m not really an expert on social networking. I’m a fairly active user of Facebook but not nearly as active on Twitter. And I’m not to the point of promoting my blog on either site. But I know good use of the tools when I see it. At this point I’m not seeing anyone locally make real good use social networking to promote a restaurant. Take notice, restaurant owners!

I’ll go over some social networking best practices and try to highlight some local restaurants that I think are doing it right.

Updating Menu Offerings

If you’ve got a menu that changes frequently, social networking is for you. By far the best example of this is Dutch Monkey Doughnuts at Avenue Forsyth. They change their doughnut offerings daily and post a complete list to Facebook, Twitter and their website. They also will post pictures and an occasional tease of tomorrow’s menu. If you are not familiar with this place, check them out.

‘Cue in Milton will sometimes post updates to their seasonal vegetable on Facebook. Recently they were showcasing a baked sweet potato that sounded delicious.

Milton’s is providing updates on their vegetable garden on Facebook, which is kinda interesting to follow.

Specials and Discounts

I’ve yet to see many restaurants around here offer specials for social networking users. Ray’s Killer Creek currently is offering a free dessert for Facebook fans, but that is about it. If a restaurant wants to increase their online fan base, this is the way to do it!

Be Social

It is called social networking after all. Interact with your customers! Most people on Facebook will “become a fan” of a restaurant as a way to let their friends know they like it. As a restaurant owner, you can learn who your best customers are. These are your ambassadors, the key customers who are talking about your food to their friends. These are the customers who are worth their weight in gold! Engage these people online. Create dialogue and request feedback. I don’t see ANYONE doing this well in Alpharetta. If no one is talking about you on your Facebook page, then ask! Create a reason for people to post. Give away a free entree to the fan who suggests the best new side item. Or how about a picture contest? Free dinner to the fan who uploads the cutest picture of their kid eating at your restaurant. Be creative and get people talking.

Post Other Relevant Content

This kinda goes back to what I said about blogs a few weeks back. Don’t make everything on your Facebook page about you. Here’s an example… say you run a barbecue restaurant. You learn that there is a BBQ festival this weekend. Mention it to your fans. Don’t you think they’d be interested in something like this? Whatever you post, keep it on topic. They probably don’t want to see pics of your pet guinea pig for example (unless he’s on the menu, yum).

Creative Use of Media

Pictures and video. I know it can be hard to photograph food but do the best you can. If that doesn’t work, photograph your customers. Sage, Kozmo’s and Pure Taqueria are among the best spots in town for happy hour and night life. They each have some hot pictures on their Facebook sites.

Location-Aware Mobile Apps

This is so new that Facebook and Twitter arn’t even here yet. Check out Foursquare for example. Yelp isn’t far behind. The general idea is that with an iPhone (or similar smart phone), these apps will use your phone’s GPS to determine that you are currently at a business. From there you can register your visit (called ‘Checking In’). Foursquare keeps track of how many times you’ve been there and who’s been there the most.

This is a goldmine of information to a restaurant owner. You know exactly who is coming and who is there the most. It creates competition among your customers to see who can visit your place the most. Restaurants should be all over this like white on rice. How can you encourage it more? Offer specials with these services. Better yet, offer the user with the most visits (called the ‘mayor’ on Foursquare) with a SWEET deal. The idea here is that you want people competing for this offer, trying to oust the mayor by visiting your place more often.

This is huge and almost no one around here is taking advantage of it as far as I know. The only place that comes close is the convenience store chain Racetrac. They offer a special for each check-in at their stores.

Again, I think most restaurants in Alpharetta are failing when it comes to the free marketing available on the various social networking sites. I’d have to say Dutch Monkey Doughnuts is the only place doing things right. They seem to have a clear social networking game plan and it is working. They have over a thousand fans on Facebook alone. Kudos to you guys!

If you know of a restaurant with a cool social networking presence, let me know!

This is Where I Want To Be

I realized something after reading my first few blog posts. It is easy to come across in a negative tone about living here. A lot of people curse the burbs. Folks despise the relos, traffic, strip malls, chain restaurants, soccer moms, etc. I don’t want to come across as one of those people. To put it simply… I like it here. Yes, seriously I do.

Alpharetta Chose Me

I don’t like to think of myself as a relo, but I suppose I am. I sorta ended up here by accident. About twelve years ago I was a young bachelor living in the upstate of South Carolina. I enjoyed the pace of life up there and the job I had. But after getting a few years of work experience under my belt, I began to realize something. There were only a handful of companies up there that would hire someone with software experience. If I switched jobs every several years, I would simply run out of places to work before long. So I interviewed with a company in Atlanta, got an offer and moved down here in 1999.

Since then I changed jobs just twice. My work location moved from Norcross to Duluth then finally to Alpharetta. Not wanting a long commute, I moved here. I eventually married my sweetheart from South Carolina, cranked out a few kids, and here I am!

There are a lot of things I love about this area. Here are a few…

Jobs

As I mentioned recently, there are (still) technology jobs here. There are more high-tech jobs on Windward Parkway alone than in all of the upstate of South Carolina. Add to that Johns Creek, Duluth, Norcross and the Perimeter area (all within an easy commute). Even in the recession, this is a great place to be.

Traffic

Yes, this is a positive on my list! Most people around here won’t admit to this, but… you choose where you live and you choose where you work. I choose to have both of these in Alpharetta, and both fairly close to each other. I have a five mile commute; very atypical for an Atlanta commuter. I can come home everyday for lunch but I usually choose to eat out with my family. It is nice, and something I don’t take for granted.

Strip Malls

I love ‘em. Seriously. They have stores, dry cleaners, restaurants, veterinarians, and barber shops to name a few things. I like these things. I like that I have literally one hundred restaurants within range for lunch. I like that there are new Targets and Walmarts nearby. I like having a Home Depot open until 10:00pm. I like Chinese takeout. I dig all of this. You might call it sprawl. That’s fine. I call it stuff I like. I call it a job for someone, a business or entrepreneurial endeavor. Yay capitalism!

Schools

The schools up here rock. I would gladly enroll my children in the worst public school in North Fulton or South Forsyth over the best public school in the city of Atlanta.

Crime

…or lack thereof. Let’s face it, the streets are relatively safe here. Sure, someone is going to occasionally get a purse snatched at the mall. But violent crime is almost nonexistent here.

In my blog I’m going to write about all the craziness and contradiction that exists out here in the affluent burbs. But don’t take this the wrong way. I love this place. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to move here. But now that I’ve been here for ten years, I’m diggin’ it. If you don’t like our pace of life, our standard of living, our “sprawl”, our five bedroom homes and large SUVs, that’s fine. I’m open to all the good-natured ridicule you can throw at me.

How’s the job market?

Remember the heady days of the dotcom boom, when anyone who could spell “JAVA” was getting multiple job offers? Ah that was the life. Today the job market is supposed to be all doom and gloom, right? Maybe not.

I’m not looking for a job right now, thankfully. So I don’t truly know how bad it is out there. But since I’m blogging, I thought I’d do a quick search, just for giggles. I went to the career websites of the biggest employers in Alpharetta. Next I counted how many job listings where posted in Alpharetta. I didn’t look any deeper than that. I know many are in technology but not all. And I have no clue as to if they are actually filling these positions. But here’s what I found…

Alpharetta Jobs January 2010

Company Number of Jobs
McKesson 138
HP 15
ADP 42
LexisNexis (fka Choicepoint) 42
E-Trade 14
Equifax 11
Infor 8
Verizon 5
Radiant 5
AT&T 3
UPS 2
Sun Microsystems 2
IBM 1
Hansgrohe 1
Alltel 0
Total 289

So what to make of this? Maybe health care is where the action is these days! Otherwise I was surprised to see this many openings quite frankly. I did a quick glance on monster.com and didn’t see all of these jobs. If you’re in the market right now, I think you need to be knocking on doors, virtually speaking (or maybe literally).

I may come back to this idea in the months ahead. We’ll have to see if this is an accurate barometer of the job market in Alpharetta.

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