Browse Month: October 2011

10/31/2011

It was almost 60 degrees this evening, in what was probably the nicest Halloween weather in the last decade. The kids canvassed the entire neighborhood, which has a total of 189 houses (including ours), so they came home with an impressive stash. Then there was the usual hour or so of trading, where Snickers got swapped for Reese’s and Twizzlers for Skittles, and so on. I’d like to think they’re learning valuable life skills about bargaining or something.

10/26/2011

I just finished reading “Built to Sell”, which one of my clients graciously sent to me. What a great book. It gave me some good ideas and validated a few things that I’m already doing.

My goal isn’t really to sell Zing, but one thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time is put myself in a position where the company sort of “runs itself” and gives me a lot more flexibility with my schedule, and the freedom to work just a couple of days a week or take long vacations with my family. The book addresses that idea really well, so I feel like as I move toward the goal I’ll not only be able to do what I want but also position myself for a sale if I decide sometime in the future that it’s a smart move.

Another concept that really struck a chord with me was the idea of focusing the business on a single thing. Don’t be too broad and hope to cover everything a client might need; do one thing and do it well. Over the years I’ve toyed with the idea of hiring a graphic designer so we have some in-house capabilities with graphics (many clients ask for them), or hiring a marketing person who could address some of the things our clients need. But I’ve always resisted, feeling instead that I’d rather be a really stellar web programming company and leave those other things to people and agencies who specialize in them. This book reassured me that it’s the right approach, and that I shouldn’t worry too much about design or marketing or search engine optimization or whatever.

A big action item I’m taking away from the book is sitting down and really thinking about how my business is structured, and which sorts of projects are the ones we should pursue. In other words, are we really good at certain things? Do we enjoy doing those things? Are we profitable when we do them? It’s no surprise that some projects are just black holes that suck us in and leave everyone (my team as well as the client) feeling drained. They’re no fun, they don’t turn out very well, and they end up costing us money in the end. I need to look hard at those kinds of projects and be prepared to just turn them down. I’ve done that a few times in the past few months, and it was a good feeling. I hate to pass on projects and the potential revenue, but at the same time I don’t want my team feeling unhappy about working on them and I certainly don’t want to lose money or have a company badmouthing Zing because things didn’t go well.

Along those lines, I need to study the past few years of invoicing to figure out what types of work really bring in the money. Because the nature of our work is so highly specialized, it’s often difficult to nail down a fixed price for a project because I know things will evolve as we work on it. As a result, it’s typically better for everyone if we bill on a time-and-materials basis so we can deliver exactly what’s needed and not feel like we need to cut corners to meet some artificial deadline.

I think the biggest challenge for me is taking the steps necessary to extract myself from the day-to-day operation of the company. Although I enjoy the technical work and I need to do the sales and business development stuff with potential clients as well as existing ones, I think it makes Zing rely very heavily on me. I want to continue being involved, of course, but some processes need to be shifted around so I’m not the only person who can do these things. I have a great team of programmers, but none of them really want to take on these management responsibilities. So the hurdle is figuring out how to accomplish this.

All in all, it was an enjoyable book and certainly thought-provoking. Hopefully I’ll be able to make some changes with Zing and position myself for that retirement I’ve been thinking about since I was twenty-seven.

10/26/2011

Yesterday it was 60ish and sunny so we had a good game of ultimate. Today there’s a foot of snow on the ground. How cool is that?

10/21/2011

This is an actual e-mail message I received from a client today:

We have these two sound clips, one is of chickens clucking and one clip with a rooster call. We would like to make a sound clip using the chicken sound first for a few seconds and ending with the rooster, all together maybe 5 seconds, when the website is opened.

I struggled a little with how to respond. See my discussion of how to tell a client their idea is dumb.

10/20/2011

You know it was a good diving catch when you find grass inside your underwear two hours later.

And I had two diving catches today. Both for the score.

10/14/2011

I’m working on a project for a client, and the primary users of the web site will be on an iPad. The site is supposed to behave much like an “app” (although it obviously won’t be a native code app). It’s a fairly substantial project, so I decided that in order to be most effective, I’d need a tablet to test it as I’m building.

So I bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab (ten-inch model).

It showed up yesterday and while I was unpacking it, all three of the kids came into the room at different times and exclaimed, “Dad, you got an iPad! Cool!”

No, it’s not an iPad, kids. But I guess iPad has become synonymous with ten-inch tablets, just as Band-Aids and Kleenex have captured their respective markets. No one cuts their finger and says, “Hey, I think I need an adhesive bandage!” or has a runny nose and asks for a “facial tissue”.

Last night I spent a little time loading it with some apps– the same apps I have on my phone, actually. That’s a benefit: since both devices run Android, they’re compatible in that way. I must admit the tablet experience is pretty sweet, though. A touchscreen of that size is an entirely different world than a three-inch smartphone screen.

So far it’s been fun. I wonder if the novelty will wear off, though…

10/07/2011

I think one of the most challenging parts of my job is telling my clients “That’s a dumb idea.”

Of course I don’t say it in quite that way… that’s what makes it hard. It’s a careful game to play: listening to the idea, understanding it, asking some questions to make sure it’s really as dumb as I think it sounds, and then gently explaining why it probably isn’t the best option.

It happens surprisingly often, actually. The clients have a lot invested in their web sites– and I’m not just talking about money; they really believe in what they’re doing and they want to be the best. At times they struggle to understand how other people (their customers and the public in general) perceive their site, so when they ask for something it’s because they think it’s really cool or new or flashy. Then it’s my job to occasionally point out that their customers don’t like being confused or frustrated or overwhelmed with new stuff if it gets in the way of what they want: finding information, buying a product, downloading some software, whatever.

Don’t get me wrong: I really like my clients. Many of them have become friends over the years, and without exception they’re good people. And one of the reasons they pay me and my team to work on their projects is because we’re candid about their ideas. I want them to succeed, because their success is also Zing’s success. So I might joke about dumb ideas (and in fact they often are) but it’s in a positive way: what can we do that might be even better than that idea?

10/05/2011

Occupy Wall Street is a fascinating phenomenon. What started as a protest by a few hundred bored New York City college students has swelled to tens of thousands across multiple cities. And it continues to grow.

Will it have any effect? I was alive but not really aware of the Vietnam protests in the early 70’s, when tens of thousands joined in solidarity against the war. Historians probably disagree on whether those protests caused the U.S. to drop out of the war, but it was a pretty polarizing time regardless. Now, people protest the gap between the rich and the poor– at least that’s what I interpret the overall message to be– and I wonder if any of the banks are changing their business models as a result. I doubt it.

Perhaps more to the point, is this really the solution to our country’s (and our world’s) financial problems? The manifesto of the Occupy group seems to be “let’s tax the rich more!”. It seems to me that such a goal is very short-sighted and in fact smacks of some kind of revenge. We– the common people making less than a million dollars a year– always perceive the millionaires as living lavish lifestyles and stomping on the little guys. I don’t personally know any millionaires, but I doubt they’re all bad people. Should they be forced to shoulder a greater financial burden, in percentage, than others simply because their income exceeds a line we’ve drawn in the sand?

It seems to me the real problem with this whole mentality is that people seem to think raising taxes will solve our problems. I submit that we’re only giving a broken government more stuff to waste. It’s like giving an alcoholic another six-pack. Our leaders have proven time and again that they’re completely incompetent when it comes to simple budgeting. We’re a trillion and a half dollars over budget this year alone, and Congress talks of “slashing” that shortfall over the next decade. Doing the math and assuming we trim an average of $150 billion per year for ten years, we’re still left with a titanic $13.5 trillion deficit in those ten years. How is that possibly good?

So if our government can’t control its spending as it is, why would raising another few billion dollars a year from the crowd of millionaires change things? If anything, it would allow the government to dump more money into black holes like defense spending, homeland security, and a thousand ridiculous pork projects.

Don’t tax the rich. Spend less. That’s what I wish the Occupy Wall Street folks would advertise.

Regardless of how it turns out, I think we’re seeing the start of some very interesting times.

10/05/2011

Scott Adams wrote an interesting piece today about how investments, in general, suck.

What does a rational, employed person with some extra money do? I think consumer spending is on the verge of spiking as high-income people decide they’d rather buy some nice things than lose money in sketchy investments. In other words, the horribleness of the economy is the very thing that will make it self-correcting. I could summarize the idea as “Screw the stock market. I might as well buy something.”

There’s a “capitulation stimulation” coming soon. In this context, capitulation means investors give up on investing, or at least love it less, and decide to spend more money on new cars, furniture, phones, and that sort of thing. If you buy a new TV, you have something you can enjoy. If you invest, all you end up with is less money. When being an investor starts to look irrational, overspending becomes the new rational.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Savvy investors can make money in any sort of market. But those folks are the exception. Your average doctor and small business owner aren’t that clever. Their money is piling up in bank accounts with no place to go. I think the dam is about to burst. Spending on high end items is about to explode.

With 9% unemployment and a general slowdown of the economy, half of the country has no extra money to save or invest. But the folks at the top have plenty. And they have no idea what to do with it.

Although I’m certainly not amongst the “folks at the top”, I completely agree with this– particularly the sentence “If you invest, all you end up with is less money.” I have some money I’ve saved over 15 years of working, but it’s not getting me any closer to the retirement I’d hoped to secure by age 40. In fact, I have less money now than I did a few years ago, and I’ve been conscientiously putting money aside into savings all along. It feels like for every step forward I take in my savings/retirement plan, the market pushes me two steps back. It’s frustrating, and it’s contrary to what I learned when I was younger: work hard, save some money, enjoy the fruits. That’s no longer true. The rich (corporations) get richer, and the rest of us kind of wallow in the middle somewhere, never able to fully reach the goals we planned for a decade or more ago.

Maybe I should be going on more elaborate trips with my family, spending that hard-earned money on creating memories instead of throwing it into the gigantic trash heap we call the stock market. I don’t know, but it’s definitely something to think seriously about.

10/04/2011

I love autumn in Colorado. Today was another amazing gorgeous day, and a chance to play ultimate with 15 friends and enjoy the sun, the breeze, and the warm grass. What a way to spend the lunch hour.

10/02/2011

This weekend I finally made the switch from KDE3 to KDE4. That’s the windowing system I use in Linux; I’ve been running KDE3 for something like ten years now and really enjoyed it. I had tweaked it so thoroughly that everything worked smoothly and behaved exactly as I expected. But KDE3 reached end-of-life about three or four years ago, and all of the modern software has been ported to KDE4. There’s only so long I could hold out– it’s something akin to continuing to use Windows 95 because you really like the interface, I guess. But someday you have to make the jump to (shudder) Windows Vista.

Anyway, the biggest pain of the migration was what’s called the PIM module: that’s “personal information management” and encompasses email, calendars, to-do lists, and address books. All of those things are absolutely critical to my everyday workflow, both personally and at work. If I don’t have my calendar and to-do list, I don’t know what to do when I get up in the morning. Without my address book I don’t remember anyone’s phone number, and of course without email I’m cut off from the world.

I’ve been resisting KDE4 all these years mainly because the developers changed the underlying technology that powers the PIM stuff. I was worried that all of my data would get garbled, or I wouldn’t have access to my 16 years of accumulated email archives, etc. I was pleased to find that many of my fears were unfounded, although there are still some annoying problems with the new version. The biggest one is the fact that apparently I can no longer use a central data server for all of my stuff… rather than using good old-fashioned text files to store contacts and events, KDE4 uses a full relational database and some behind-the-scenes shared messaging software. Heaven knows why.

The migration itself took a few hours of poking around, figuring out where things are in the new setup, as well as some time tweaking the desktop to have the same layout and magic shortcut keys as my old seutp. I’m probably 90% of the way there, and along the way I discovered some bugs and quirks in KDE4 that others have reported but haven’t been fixed. Sigh.

Overall I’m mostly satisfied with the new KDE4, but honestly if I could continue using good old rock-solid KDE3 for the next ten years I’d probably be happier. As a software guy and all-around Linux geek, though, sometimes I have to swallow the bitter pill.