Our Edible Front Yard and a #WorkWonders Giveaway

My husband and I have a deal. He cuts the grass and I garden. I told him early on that if it was up to me, any grass that was not useful (i.e. not used to run around and play on) would be removed and replaced with either a garden or something low maintenance like rocks and shrubs. I have no desire to toil to maintain something I get no pleasure from and has no use to me.

Until this house, it was never an issue. For the first years of our marriage, we lived in townhouse condo where, other than a small back garden, all the outdoor maintenance was done for us. Now we have a fair sized front and back yard. The back gets lots of use…the front not so much. A few years ago my husband got tired of cutting the front grass for the sole benefit of the neighbours and started researching grass alternatives. He settled on clover and went to work. Our front yard now sports a full and lush crop of drought tolerant clover which, other than whipper-snippering some of the taller weeds that pop up every once in a while, doesn’t even need to be cut. People walking by stop to knock on our door and ask us about it.

This year, we decided to go a step further and make our front yard useful. When I was a child, we lived in the country with about 2.5 acres of land. Much of that was taken up by a large vegetable garden and mom would allocate a corner for me where I would plant cucumbers, pumpkins, carrots and zinnias to my heart’s content. I loved it and thought now would be a good time to get back into it.

We face south so our front yard is much sunnier than our back yard and since it wasn’t being used for much else, it made sense to think about putting the vegetables there. Last year John and I had many discussions about building the gardens. My criteria was that they needed to be raised a minimum of 18 inches and couldn’t be more than 3 feet across to accommodate my bad back. I also was leery of building them from wood as I envision us staying in this house for the next 25 years and don’t want to have to rebuild them when we’re old and decrepit. They need to have some staying power. We settled on galvanized steel and John found a place in Toronto that makes raised garden beds.

We lured family to our house with promises of food and beer and put them to work moving the big dirt pile from our driveway into the raised gardens. Even the kids were put to work!

I only managed to get 1 of the 6 containers primed before they got filled with dirt as it kept raining on me. Which is okay I suppose as my ideas for how to make them look less industrial and more blended with our home keeps changing. At first I was just going to paint them a dark brown colour, now I’m leaning towards doing some outdoor mosaic work. This may not get started for a while but eventually, they’ll look awesome!

Back in April, I started some indoor seeds in defiance of the winter that stubbornly stayed  with us until late into the spring.

John rigged up some florescent lights in a mobile greenhouse frame which we set up in the kitchen.

Not all my seedlings made the transition to the outdoor gardens (I’m still learning!) but it was great to see them sprout up and share the wonder of nature with the boys.

Our gardens are now growing blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, carrots, sweet peppers, sugar peas, eggplant, broccoli, cucumbers, lettuce, Swiss chard, garlic, onions and herbs. Whew! I’ve also planted nasturtiums in the two gardens closest to the road to spill over the front and be ornamental as well as delicious.

We’re starting to see some of the “fruits” of our labour growing – here’s hoping we get to eat some of it soon too!

There’s a lot to keep track of – which seeds I used, what worked and what failed, what I did when, etc. I looked at a number of options to use as a garden diary but in the end, I came back around to my favourite tool – OneNote. Combined with OneDrive to sync my notes between my phone and my notebook and it’s been invaluable. I’m sure I will be thanking myself immensely next spring when I have my notes and photos to read through. This is what I love best about technology – when it transcends being an end in itself but instead becomes an enabler for making life that much better and richer. 

For full disclosure, I need to tell you that I’m part of a Microsoft Office 365 advocacy program. But anyone that knows me will also know that I love technology and I love Office – I live and breathe this stuff. What I write here are my own opinions.

That’s why I’m so excited to be able to host a special giveaway from Microsoft as part of this blog. The prize is a one-year subscription for Office 365 Home donated by Microsoft. All you need to do is think of something you’ve accomplished lately. It can be big or it can be small. The Office team at Microsoft have put together a #WorkWonders site which highlights all the things that people accomplish and it’s quite inspirational. I invite you to be part of the conversation and to inspire others.

Here’s what to do: Take a picture that represents your accomplishment, think of a caption, put it together with the #WorkWonders hashtag and my twitter handle (@ruthm) or tag me on Facebook. For example, have you coordinated the family calendar online using Do you balance the budget using Excel? Have you delivered a presentation to the parent council using PowerPoint? Have you researched or organized a home project using OneNote? Then your entry might look like this on Twitter:

“Finally did it! Everyone can access family schedule & Billy won’t get left at school next Tues after all <picture url> #WorkWonders @ruthm”

Have you accomplished a number of things lately? As long as they are distinct and you can put each entry together with a picture and caption as detailed above, send them my way for more chances to win! The giveaway will end at 11:59PM EDT on Monday, June 16, so be sure to get your entry(s) in before then. I’ll be making a random drawing from all the entries I receive and will announce the winner the next day. And remember you must tag me or use my twitter handle or I won’t know that you’ve entered!

I can’t wait to see your entries!


Fine print:

No purchase necessary. Open to legal residents of Canada excluding Quebec who have reached the age of majority in his/her province of residence. Enter promotion before June 15, 2014, 11:59 PM EDT. Entry details can be found in the blog post above. Void where prohibited.

Getting organized in a digital age

I’ve always been a visual learner. Couple that with a diminished capacity to remember anything other than which son likes cheese and which prefers vanilla yogurt over blueberry, and I tend to forget anything that I haven’t written down. Hearing it isn’t enough, I need to see the words to take it in. Better yet, see the words and visualize the scenario or object in my head – then it’s in the vault.

For years I carried around paper notebooks of various sizes and shapes. These helped me remember things, although having to flip through them to refer back to the details I had written was always bothersome. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I left Microsoft and started my new job with Compugen that I fully embraced a digital solution. Sure, I had dabbled in OneNote while at Microsoft but I never gotten into it for my own personal day to day work.

However, in my new role I attend a lot of meetings. A *lot* of meetings. Many of these are customer meetings and so I quickly adopted OneNote as my go to tool for keeping track of who attended, which customer it was about and the salient points for later recall. And from there, I started adding to and organizing my digital notebook into something that makes sense and works really well for me.

So now I’m a OneNote junkie who can’t function without it. I live in it every day. However, whenever I’ve espoused the wonders of OneNote to others in the past, I’ve always been aware that there are free tools like Evernote that do an ok job too. They may not be as feature rich as OneNote, but hey they’re free – that’s hard to compete with. Until now!

This week, Microsoft made a few exciting announcements:

  1. OneNote is now a free download – yay!
  2. OneNote is now available for the Mac. So now it doesn’t matter if you are on a PC, Mac, Windows tablet, Windows phone, iPad, iPhone, Android or using a web browser. You can use OneNote and each device will always be in sync.
  3. There is a cloud API for OneNote which means that OneNote apps can be created in the cloud, compared to add-ins which are installed and used locally on each OneNote installation.

If you’re looking to try it out or you’re already using OneNote and would like some ideas of how to use it better, I’ll share how I do it. This may not be the best method for everyone but it definately keeps me sane.

I keep one notebook for work and one for personal activities (vacation planning, shopping lists, volunteer work, etc.) and save both to OneDrive so that I can access them from anywhere. I’ve organized my work one by types of meetings – customer meetings, 1:1 meetings with my manager, meetings with partners, etc., and activities – event notes, blog ideas, etc. Below is a screen shot of my Compugen notebook opened to the Blog tab, where I jot down and develop ideas to write about on the corporate blog (click for larger image).

Screenshot of my OneNote workbook

Along the right hand side are the titles of each idea, but also there is a Submitted page, with several blog idea pages as subpages under it.  I can show or hide subpages as needed. On my customer tab (which I can’t post here for obvious reasons!), this allows me to have a main page for each customer with sub-pages organized by date underneath for each meeting or conversation about that customer.

One more thing I have to show you. For any free form folks reading this, OneNote also works great with a stylus. Here is an example of an intense brainstorming team meeting I participated in. As most doodlers know, far from being distracting, doodling can help focus concentration and increase retention so every once in a while, I break out my stylus and go to town!

OneNote Doodle

Any other OneNote aficionados out there that would like to share how they use it? I’d love to hear your methods, tips or tricks.

Windows 7 Desktop Migration Webinar


If you’re in IT and just now considering moving your organization off Windows XP to Windows 7, first of all, what the heck took you so long? And second of all, now that I’ve probably totally insulted you, won’t you join me for a free webinar on how to do it? 🙂

I’m doing 2 webinars, both covering the same material but the first one targeted for healthcare organizations and the second one not specific to any vertical. One is this week on Wednesday and the other is next week on Tuesday. Although the title says Windows 7, you can use the same information moving to Windows 8. Hope to see you there!

Read all about it and register over on the Compugen IT Buzz blog.

Living without Lync: No Thanks!

[Cross-posted from the Compugen ITbuzz blog]

I’ve been working out of a home office for the past 10 years and although it may not be for everyone, I’d have a hard time going back to being in an office every day. While there are both merits and pitfalls to telecommuting, there is one tool I couldn’t do it without: Lync.

I have to admit, I have a certain bias here. After all, I did just come from 6 years of working at Microsoft where Lync is baked into the company’s corporate culture. When I was interviewing for my current role, I was happy to discover that Compugen is also heavily dependent on Lync and use it to embrace a flexible work place for employees. It weighed nicely in the “Pro” column when considering my options.

Why Lync? Implemented right, it’s more than just a teleconferencing application. For example, it integrates with Exchange, SharePoint and other applications to show presence. When I open up an email or shared document, I can see who is offline (gray dot), busy (red dot), away (yellow dot) or available (green dot) and I can click on the person’s name to email, IM or call them right from my computer.

Presence information in Outlook

Because I’m not physically near my colleagues, being able to see who is available and being able to have multiple ways to easily contact and communicate with them is critical. I don’t want to miss opportunities to have quick chats with a colleague on an issue or ping someone with an idea simply because I’m not in the office around the water cooler.

Through federation, I have similar visibility into the online status of customers, partners and others using federated Lync. With Lync 2013, federation extends to customers, partners, etc who use Skype as well. Even though I’m sitting by myself in my home office, I’m totally connected to all the people that I need to be in order to be productive and effective. All without the daily commute.

Federated contacts in Lync

To be optimally effective on any conferencing software, it helps to have good hardware. In fact, ineffective hardware can be a big barrier to adoption and can make telecommuting very frustrating. I had the opportunity to speak to Jabra, Plantronics and Polycom at the recent Lync Conference in Toronto and each of them have solid Lync optimized options for whatever environment you’re working in.

There are hundreds of hardware options on the market. Here are my two personal favs:

  1. For in my home office, I like to use what I call my Jabra hockey puck. The Jabra SPEAK is optimized for Lync and all I have to do is plug it in to my notebook’s USB port. The call quality is great and people don’t realize that I’m calling through my computer without using a headset. Because it’s a speaker phone, I can get up and stretch without being tethered to my computer or worrying about my glasses or hair getting in the way of an earpiece.clip_image003
  2. For the days when I do go into the office or I’m working from a coffee shop, train, airport or other shared workspace I have been using a Plantronics Voyager Pro Bluetooth headset which I’ve absolutely loved. I’ve never felt like I needed to raise my voice any higher than normal, it’s pretty discreet and it fits over my ear well. However, I was given the latest version, the Voyager Legend, at the Lync Conference and I’m pretty excited to try it out.clip_image004

It looks much like my old headset but with a few key improvements. The volume and power buttons are easier to work with and it comes with this great little case that has a rechargeable battery to charge the headset when it’s stored there. How cool is that!clip_image005

So how do you like to work when you’re on the road and mobile? What are your favourite tools? Post a comment below – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shiny new toy–Nokia Lumia 900

Not too long ago, I wrote about the unboxing of my Nokia Lumia 800 Windows Phone. I was fairly impressed with it at the time, however, since then it’s been sitting on my desk unused. Why? Partly because it requires a micro SIM to use and I hadn’t gotten around to getting one. But a lot of the functionality is still usable without the SIM card as long as wifi is available, so that wasn’t entirely the reason. I still think it’s a sleek looking phone, but there isn’t enough compellingly different about the experience of using it to make me want to switch from my trusty Samsung Focus.

However, recently each Microsoft Canada employee was given a Nokia Lumia 900 and I am totally thrilled with it. It doesn’t hurt that it came with a pre-configured micro SIM so I could activate and use it almost immediately. But it’s also bigger than either the 800 or the Focus and as you can see from the photo below, the screen size (outlined in orange on each phone) is quite a bit larger and the colours are much more vibrant.


Now that I’ve started using it, I’ve found that the unmarked buttons along the side that I wasn’t sure about in my unboxing post are actually very well designed. Unlike the Focus which has buttons on both sides of the phone, the Nokia phones only have them on one side. Which means that once I figure out that the volume is at the top, the power is in the middle and the camera is on the bottom, it’s simple to remember as I don’t have to also remember which side they’re on. I didn’t realize how often I was getting the buttons on the Focus mixed up until I started using the Lumia.

One downside however, is that the larger form factor doesn’t fit in my purse pocket as well. The upside…I now have a good excuse to go buy a new purse!


The dishes are dirty but that’s okay, I’m rediscovering my passion

Over the years, being a wife, running a business, dealing with infertility, giving birth (finally!) and now trying to be an attentive mother while keeping up with a demanding job have left me feeling like I’ve lost touch with myself a bit. I’ve been trying to regain that creative side of myself which has long been neglected and regulated to the back shelf while life was too crazy. I set up my craft table in the basement and have started painting again (perhaps I’ll post pictures later of some of my projects) but my desire has always been to marry my 2 loves – technology and art.

I’ve played around with using PowerPoint to draw with and have done a few things which I’ve incorporated into my work at Microsoft:

thankyou4          thoushalt

But PowerPoint, while great for some things, is woefully inadequate for what I need to satisfy my creative itch. So today I downloaded GIMP – the GNU Image Manipulation Program. The first thing I worked on was a new logo for this blog:


I’ll likely change it several times as it’s a good simple project to work on while I get familiar with the tools. Although I’m using a tablet computer (a Lenovo X201) and a stylus, my lines look pretty shaky. I almost feel like I have to learn how to draw all over again. But I’m loving it!

So now when the dishes are sitting dirty in the sink and John has had to reheat leftovers for him and the boys yet again, I can show him my screen and say, “But, look what I drew!”.


Unboxing my Nokia Lumina 800 Windows phone

One of the great perks to my job is all the cool toys I get to play with. This week I was given one of the new Nokia phones running Windows Phone 7. It won’t be my main phone since it’s actually a European phone and my SIM card won’t work in it. But I’ll use it to show off Windows Phone on a Nokia device when I’m out and about and have access to wireless Internet. For my everyday phone, I have a Samsung Focus also running Windows Phone 7 which I love.

The Nokia is quite nice. I would have liked to have gotten one of the cyan blue ones, but beggars can’t be choosers, so basic black it is.




Nice box. Oooooo.








Opening the box. Aaaaaaaah.








Feels good in my hand. It has a nice weight to it even though it feels slightly heavier than my Samsung.










Shiny and smooth. Nice.

But they used the same types of buttons as the Samsung. That’s the one thing I’d change and was hoping manufacturers wouldn’t implement in future versions of Windows Phones. It’s too easy to accidently brush your finger over one of the buttons and find yourself back on the home page or staring at the Bing search field. Guess they didn’t get my memo.




It’s got really nice lines, although none of the buttons on the side aren’t marked. I have a hard time not hitting wrong buttons on my Samsung and they have distinguishing markings. Hmmm…perhaps I should look at the markings more often and then I wouldn’t hit the wrong buttons. With the Nokia though it’ll be the device’s fault, not mine. Smile





The accessories. It’s a European phone so hence the European power plug.










A rubber sheath to keep my new toy looking shiny for longer and to help me keep a grip on it. I like.









My new phone in it’s new rubber clothes.











Sleek new phone + sleek phone OS = awesome

Can’t wait to show it off.

Learning super secret stuff


I’m at TechReady all this week – an internal conference for Microsoft employees in Seattle, Washington – where I’m learning all sorts of cool stuff. I could tell you about it…but then I’d have to kill you. Or I’d get fired.

The technology sessions are really interesting but to be honest, the best part of coming here are the connections and the things I learn from my fellow colleagues. I can learn the technology other ways but I can’t have the impromptu conversations and chats over drinks without being here in person.

Every year I wonder if it’s going to be worth it – I hate leaving my family and I’m here for 9 days, the longest I’m away from them in consecutive days during the year. But then I get here and start talking to people and the ideas start flowing and the creativity and collaboration starts. It’s a beautiful thing.

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