Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Receive my rants on paper

I've signed on with Print My Blog, a service that provides hard copy versions of blogs to readers. I don't have any illusions of writing a proper book here but from looking at the traffic logs for this site it's quite common for new visitors to spend an hour or two reading the archives.

I know myself that reading a large chunk of any blog in sequential order is an annoying experience and Blogger's lack of good navigation links between articles makes it more difficult. The paper version is in chronological order from earliest to latest and is much easier to read than the online version.

What does it look like?

If you order a printed copy you get a cheap and nasty collection of half size pages stapled together containing all my blog posts to date. There's no reader comments but there is an online system in place to allow links to be followed. Like I said it's cheap and nasty, you won't be looking to place it on your bookshelf, but it is a much easier way to read my articles.

What does it cost?

US$4.50 (postage is free inside the USA)

The $4.50 all goes to the Print My Blog people. If you're feeling especially generous you can add on an extra amount of which I receive 75%. Many thanks if you do but it's really not necessary, I'm a developer not an author.

How do I order?

Just pick the link below that indicates the amount you'd like to pay for a printed copy of all my postings to the current date.

Carnival of the Capitalists

Welcome to the Carnival of the Capitalists for this week. With the Americans on holiday for Thanksgiving we expected a smaller carnival than usual but together with some overflow from last week, the carnival is as strong as ever.

I underestimated the amount of work involved in bringing this all together. Luckily the earth's rotation and Australia's close proximity to the international dateline is working in my favour so it won't be as late as it could have been.

Answering the call

Last week, while preparing my readers for the link fest that was about to occur (I don't do a lot of linking here at Software Startup), I posed the following challenge.

I doubt I'll be as provocative as Pete was but it would be nice if there were a few submissions that showed some examples of capitalism benefiting people other than just those at the top of the pyramid

Brian Gongol accepted the challenge to alleviate my uncertainty about capitalism and has a great post that lists 5 examples of capitalism improving society.

Similarly Tim Worstall has also given me plenty to think about with his commentary on the recent statements of a Bishop and what Tim believes is his misunderstanding of economics.

Both Brian and Tim make convincing cases for capitalism though I think as a society we can always do better. The challenge is there for everyone to keep looking for new ways to spread those benefits as widely as possible. After all we live in a society not an economy.

Lefty leanings from a reluctant capitalist aside let's get back to the business at hand with a topic close to my heart...

Entrepreneurship and Small Business.

Jeff Cornwall at The Entrepreneurial Mind illustrates the importance of planning in family businesses.

Ankesh Kothari presents a discussion from Dien Rice Ph.D on reducing risks when start a new venture. He cites the example of Richard Branson and suggests studying the risk reduction strategies of serial entrepreneurs.

Anita Campbell at Small Business Trends has an interview with a noted small business expert who in blunt and colorful fashion states why the U.S. Presidential election doesn’t matter for small business. Quoting Paul Simon songs, he says it’s because small businesses are on their own. Each one is so different that there is nothing any of them can band together and do as a group. They should get their lovin’ at home.

Harish Keshwani at BusinessWorks Inc has started an experimental blog about a "virtual" Dotcom company doing business in RFID based solutions. He takes readers through the steps involved creating a business plan for his "virtual" company.

Beth Mauldin is in the early stages of planning a restaurant web site business and asks for advice from readers on her ideas.

The Labor Market

Dean Esmay discusses impending unionization in an unlikely place, and the relative merits of unions and, especially, corporations as a valid business structure for true capitalism. Comments from readers and Dean expand on the topic spiritedly and at length.

Joshua Sharf discusses a Washington Post article about labor unrest in China. The fact that the Party has been playing for both sides, labor and management, combined with its need for increased growth, may hurt its ability to deal with this. It also shows that there are at least soft limits to China's ability to absorb jobs.

Jeff Cornwall investigates the current debate about outsourcing. The debate seems to only focus on free markets or government regulation. This fails to consider the ethical and moral dimension, which can move us beyond relying on government imposed controls.

Tim Worstall discusses job creation and how it relates to Bill Gates' inbox and the Lump of Labor Fallacy.

Leadership and Management

Steve Rucinski at Small Business CEO discusses leadership and asks what are the key tasks?

Wayne Allen asks why do managers and executives wait so long to make decisions about painfully obvious problems?

Jim Stroup at Managing Leadership commences a series on why the woman Peter Drucker called the "Prophet of Management," Mary Parker Follett, is more urgently relevant to practicing managers and executives today than virtually the entire crop of contemporary writers - even though she wrote in the 1920s!

Economics

Rawdon Adams at Capital Chronicle is interested in exploiting the dollar's drop. He theorises that the brutal drop in the greenback is a chance for holders of foreign cash to take advantage of the new investment opportunities being presented. But is the time ripe?

Dave Foster of Photon Courier fame introduces the Harvard indicator, a stock market indicator based on the career choices of Harvard MBA graduates.

Arnold Kling debates the The Flynn Effect which is the increase in IQ test scores each decade. Arnold wonders if it is a result of economic growth.

Captain Arbyte (AKA Kyle Markley) discusses the economics of insurance in particular health insurance. The Captain discusses how tax incentives have contributed to the structure of the health care system in the United States, and some of the bad results. He also explains why insurance is the wrong vehicle for paying for chronic medical conditions.

The Free Market

John Beck at Incite debates a bill currently in congress would require DVD player manufacturers to make it impossible for viewers to fast-forward through commercials. John thinks the very essence of this bill is an affront to property rights and the notion that free market transactions are voluntary. It sounds like a good way to get people to go back to reading books to me.

Barry Ritholtz of the Big Picture takes great pleasure in debunking the kinda-eventually-sorta-mostly-almost Efficient Market Theory.

Arnold Kling discusses the affect of regulation without thinking through the consequences in the area of affordable housing.

Russell Buckley of the Mobile Technology Weblog talks of Amazon's plans to allow customers of traditional retailers to to scan bar codes with their cell phone whilst instore to see if Amazon can offer it cheaper.

The Interested Participant, Mike Pechar, details multi-million dollar agreements recently signed by Beijing and Tianjin allowing licensed use of Microsoft software products as well as 16,000 Dell personal computers for primary and secondary schools. These sales are good news for U.S. suppliers but they have produced a loud protest from the nascent Chinese information technology industry.

Warren Meyer at Coyote Blog discusses why many reverse auction sites failed (even some of those you may have thought succeeded) and why Priceline, the most famous success story, succeeded for a very unique reason.

Blogging

Wayne Hurlbert of Blog Business World tells the tale of a blogger who received some shabby treatment from a mainstream newspaper.

Brendon Connelly of Slacker Management is thinking about blogging as "professional lubricant." He examines the pros and cons of citing your blog in a resume, and how hiring managers might view it.

James at Collaborate Marketing has written an article to try and make it easier to explain blogging to business people. He offers it here for your use next time you have to explain the importance of blogging to someone.

Business

Phillip Wilson has some thoughts on the Appreciative Mindset in business. The basic point is to explore what gives the organization life - instead of looking for "problems" to solve, a negative way to look at life. According to Phillip it always transforms the conversations that occur in an organization - the first step to any lasting change.

David Masten at Catallarchy has an amusing piece on what life would be like if pharmaceuticals were produced and sold like computers, and vice versa.

Frank Scavo at the Enterprise System Spectator thinks that most Sarbanes-Oxley compliance efforts will not do much to mitigate business risk. In this post, he describes how companies should focus their efforts to make Sarbanes Oxley compliance a meaningful exercise.

Director Mitch from the Window Manager takes an ironic look at how to tell customers the truth when they ask for things that are impossible to deliver.

Todd Sattersten of A Penny For... talks of Gamesmanship in the Air and the strategies employed in the competition between Boeing and Airbus.

And finally on the lighter side

A satirical riff from Kevin McGehee on a recent vote by the city council of North Pole, Alaska to raise the sales tax by one cent (from 3¢ to 4¢) for two years, with some consideration of the challenges of a certain unique, seasonal manufacturing operation staffed by extremely long-lived elves.

Well that's it I guess. The earth's rotation may have saved my bacon but only just so I'm off to bed. My advice to future carnival hosts, start early.

Friday, November 26, 2004

The original eureka moment

Earlier this month I mentioned that I was going to reduce the scope of my first version of Sydney and target a narrower market. That narrower market is one that I've personally been a part of and it's my own experiences that make me think it's a good first step for Sydney.

During my years at my former day job I encountered a program which I'll give the codename Geneva (yes another codename). Geneva is a server based software system, used primarily by small to medium businesses, that has established itself as the premier reasonably priced solution in it's field. I was responsible, amongst many other things, for maintaining a Geneva server for several years and was very impressed with it's features and reliability.

There was one operation though that Geneva took the easy way out with in the area of long term data storage and retrieval. Because of this I would often find myself recovering data stored in Geneva for staff who had no means of accessing it themselves.

It was after a long session of manually sifting through this data that I had my eureka moment. If this data currently stored in Geneva could be made accessible to users, then my time and the time of others like me could be devoted to more important tasks (such as resetting passwords and teaching people when to double click and when to single click).

It wasn't a quit your day job straight away sort of idea but over the next few months the vision grew in scope from a simple add-on to Geneva to an industrial strength distributed platform for storing all sorts of unstructured data. Support for Geneva would be just one small aspect, if I wasn't too busy catering for the big end of town that is.

Over the past few months you've been witness to me reversing my thinking on this and now once again Sydney will be an add-on to Geneva. There's been some time wasted on building some now somewhat redundant infrastructure but that will hopefully pay dividends for building future releases.

Sydney's design is much more open than it was originally and should be easier to extend than if it had been designed solely with Geneva in mind. After this first Geneva specific version I'll start by adding support for Geneva's competitors, with each release incorporating more of the big picture features. Perhaps one day I'll approach my vision of a full bells and whistles Sydney that doesn't need to attach itself to another product to justify it's existence.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Do not adjust your set

Next Tuesday there's going to be a break from the usual program here. I'm going to be hosting next week's edition of Carnival of the Capitalists.

What's that?

It's a regular weekly blogging event with articles about business, management, marketing, accounting, finance, economics, sales and of course capitalism. The Carnival is hosted by a different site each week and anyone who has posted a blog entry on one of those topics is invited to submit it to the host for that week to include a link to it in their carnival presentation.

To see what I mean take a look at this week's Carnival hosted at Social Twister. You can also take a look at these past Carnivals where I submitted some of my postings at Blog Business World, The Outsourcing Weblog and Crossroads Dispatches.

It would be great if there were any readers of my blog who could make their Carnival debut here. It's a guaranteed way to bring more people to your blog. To do so you need to have written a blog posting on one of those topics, and send a link to it along with a short summary to capitalists - at - elhide.com. You can find out more at the Carnival's home page.

Some philosophical musings

Although I'm hosting the Carnival of the Capitalists this week I have to admit to having some reservations about the Capitalists part of the name. These last few months I've really learnt to make do with less and I'm just as happy if not more so than when I was earning a reasonably large income.

But while I've been finding that less really is more I do wonder if it's a sustainable position. As a single guy with no financial commitments it's quite easy to live on a modest income but could I say the same thing in five years time if I had a family to support.

Unfortunately it seems that capitalism with all it's faults is the best system we've been able to come up with to date. I'd love to be able to suggest an alternative but to the best of my knowledge every other alternative has pretty much failed. Until someone comes up with a radical new economic and social structure that's sustainable, I guess we'll all have to make do with the devil we know. Those romantic "less is more" types like your's truly might have to be satisfied with tweaking capitalism around the edges to make it a bit more "human".

A fellow reluctant capitalist

Peter Caputa also showed his left leanings when he blazed a trail while hosting the carnival a few months back. He received quite a bit of negative feedback my favourite being, "I can see why the French like you so much."

I doubt I'll be as provocative as Pete was but it would be nice if there were a few submissions that showed some examples of capitalism benefiting people other than just those at the top of the pyramid.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Opportunity reconsidered

There was a range of good advice from commentors to my last post both for and against developing Sydney for a specific company. The arguments were sound and I'm going to give more consideration to my decision not to pursue this opportunity. I don't think I need to reach a final decision quickly, as well as Sydney not being ready, the company in question has put their purchase project on the back burner. With Christmas approaching I'm guessing they won't start looking again until early next year. By that time Sydney should be getting ready for prime time.

An anonymous commentor recommended I read Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm. This is the second time it's been recommended to me by a commentor so I think I'll go and take a look for it in the bookstore today. I know a little bit about it from reading Luke Hohmann's excellent book Beyond Software Architecture who mention's Moore's book in passing.

From Hohmann's book I was introduced to the S-curve of adoption. This is a well known pattern that describes the different categories of customers and their adoption rates of a new technology. It divides people up into:

  • innovators, those who want to be on the cutting edge and can tolerate a few rough edges,
  • early adopters, people who like to push the envelope but expect a higher standard of reliability and completeness.
  • early majority, who expect a higher still standard of reliability and completeness,
  • late majority, those who will only consider a tried and true solution,
  • laggards, who adopt a technology only because all their competitors have already done so.

As I understand it, Crossing the Chasm refers to making the jump between marketing to innovators, which I guess is what I'm doing now with this blog, and marketing to the early adopters. It's an interesting topic and I'm eager to compare Moore's advice with my own marketing plans (which you'll hear about shortly).

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Opportunity or step backwards?

I was speaking with a friend a few days ago about Sydney. He's someone who was initially skeptical about the concept of Sydney but has come around since the company he works at started shopping around for a system just like it. They're currently evaluating a New York style product but apparently aren't all that wrapped in it. Being a good friend my mate was enquiring with me about Sydney's progress and if I would be interested in presenting it to his bosses with a view to them purchasing a license.

It was a nice gesture but I've declined for a few reasons. Firstly Sydney just isn't ready yet. Hopefully by early next year I'll be preparing to release my version 1, but right now it's a definite work in progress. According to my friend that time frame would be acceptable for his company but I still don't want to go ahead with it. I'm staking my future on this venture, I wouldn't want him staking his reputation/future in his company on it also if things don't go well.

The other reason I'm declining his offer is that I want to maintain full control over the path this project takes. If I were to agree to developing Sydney with his company in mind then I'd have to, and my friend said as much, take their suggestions onboard and incorporate them into my feature set. Certainly many of the features they'd ask for would be ones that I would implement anyway but there is bound to be some that would be specific to them and not able to be resold in a wider release.

I don't want to be obligated to anyone as strongly as that. I've been doing consulting and contract work for almost 10 years and it's what I'm trying to move away from. Taking the ideas of others and turning them into software is all well and good but this time I want to try my hand at being the ideas man as well as being the developer. My friend thinks I'm being unrealistic and a bit stubborn in wanting everything my own way. Stubborn I'll put my hand up for. Unrealistic is something that only time will tell. If I don't give it a go though I'll never know.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

My first taste of dog food

I'm about to add a data import feature to Sydney. This might appear to be a bit premature since the main core of the system is nowhere near finished and, apart from a few flashing lights in my unit tests suite, Sydney doesn't really do anything useful yet. Why would I be writing the data import routine this early when the core is still unfinished and very likely subject to change?

The answer, of course, is that I'm looking to eat my own dog food as soon as possible.

I don't have the luxury of dedicated testers so I need to spend as much time making use of the system in the same way a future user would. By importing my large store of historical data into Sydney and managing it there on a day to day basis I'm hoping to identify problems now rather than at release time.

It will also give me plenty of testing data and I won't have to worry about converting test data as the data format changes. Instead I'll just clear out all the data and reimport again.

Since there is so much of the core application still to be written those import routines will likely be broken by changes several times over the coming months. This shouldn't be too big a deal though. As long as I fix the import routines each time they break the changes required shouldn't build up and become a major task. The time I lose making those fixes I should recover by having a more robust and well tested system that requires less debugging further down the track.

How will I know when changes to the core have broken the import routines?

Two ways. Before I even write the import routines I'll be writing some unit tests to check that the import routines will at least execute without error and perform some basic validation on the imported data. I execute all unit tests frequently as part of my development process so I should know almost immediately of any major errors that cause the import to fail.

Secondly I'm thinking of clearing out and then repeating the full import of all my historical data on a nightly basis. This will hopefully help me realise if more subtle errors have crept in, errors that don't cause the import to fail but perhaps affect the consistency of the data.

There's nothing revolutionary about any of this of course. I'm just making good use of some best practices and techniques I've learnt from others. You can read about Joel Spolsky's experiences with eating his own dog food and there's a wealth of material available on Unit Testing and Test Driven Development from the XP folks and others.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Adjusting expectations and strategies

Fresh from my realisation that Sydney wasn't the most original idea in the world I've re-analysed my situation and made some adjustments. While I was never absolutely certain that Sydney would be a run-away success I have to admit I was fairly confident that it would spark a reasonably successful business. With that business I expected to be able to set myself up comfortably for quite a few years to come.

I'm not so certain of that anymore. Finding out the market for Sydney has become a fair bit more crowded with New York, London and other products has lowered my expectations somewhat. I'm now thinking that a few years of quite modest* income is a much more likely outcome.

* Keep in mind you're talking to someone who currently pays himself a wage that's much closer to the unemployment benefits amount than the average weekly wage so my idea of a modest income is probably well below your idea of a modest income.

I'm not giving up though, just acknowledging the more likely than not possibility that Sydney isn't the million dollar idea I thought it was. Maybe Sydney is a stepping stone idea, something that I can work on while I come up with the next project, or perhaps it will eventually evolve into something else completely. I'm going to forge ahead though, at worst the experience will help me to better prepare for my next venture. I also think I can probably make enough sales to go part-way to getting me off the tech support consulting treadmill.

My strategy does need some adjusting though. Previously my strategy was simply success or bust in the form of one grand release (which with all the recent delays would have been late 2005). Since I no longer have as much blind faith in the Sydney concept it would be foolish to keep putting all my eggs into that one basket.

I think I need a more staged strategy, one that's more transparent as to how well the project and business is performing to it's goals. That way I'll hopefully be able to recognise if and when Sydney has run it's course and when it's time to move on to the next idea. Here's a rough outline of what I'm planning:

  • Release a version sooner rather than later,
  • Reduce the scope of the first version to allow this,
  • Target a narrower market where I have a good channel to market Sydney through,
  • Leverage any successes in this narrower market to expand to other markets and
  • Reinvest this initial income back into the business.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Treading water

Despite my intentions to do as little actual paying work as possible, I seem to be every week drawn closer and closer to becoming a full time technical support consultant to local small businesses.

Word is getting around to both old clients and new that I am available again and for the past month I've done little else but service those businesses. It's been a great month for the bottom line but a terrible month for Sydney. My business cash reserves are healthy and could cover my expenses until late February, but I'm more than a month behind on my development schedule.

The time has really come when I have to make a decision about whether I'm an independent software developer or a freelance tech support guy.

I'm an independent software developer.

That was easy.

Frivolity aside, the past month has only reinforced my feelings on this. While I'm happy to do a limited amount of support for another year or two, I don't want to still be doing this years from now. There's quite a few reasons for that but the main reason is that I don't find it very fulfilling. I quite like going around helping people but I'd much rather be building the dam instead of just plugging holes in it.

The one good thing about this past month is that I've had time to do some planning and research for Sydney. I'll talk more about that tomorrow but the short version is that I'm hoping to have something ready in a few months time. Since I've built up a few months of living expenses I'm going to try and dedicate myself almost fully to Sydney until the money runs out. I'll still have to support existing clients but aside from emergencies I'll be limiting myself to 1 maybe 2 days per week for support work and only on days that fit in with my schedule not theirs.

That's the new plan, although it's remarkably similar to the original plan. This time though I'm going to add a new word to the vocabulary, "No!"