Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

The Joys of High Visibility Micro Goals

September 8th, 2011 2 comments

I like to create games.

Games that motivate.  Games that create focus, pressure, supreme concentration.  Done right they can be a fantastic hack for programmer productivity.

A few weeks ago I set out to build a working prototype of the DealNation members zone in a single day.  To make it interesting, I let everyone in on the game.   At 9:45am I setup my day as a collection of mini-milestones in building the system from start to finish, each with a target completion time, and put the progress chart + time line on the office whiteboard for all to see.

I had declared my fate for the day, and effectively given my word to “this is what will get done with every passing hour today”.  Folks were curious to get that kind of high-resolution look into how I work, and I promised they could view the work in progress as I pushed each mini-milestone to our dev server.

To make it more real and pressing, I openly advertised my progress throughout the day.  When a milestone was completed I would rise from my desk, write the actual completion time on the whiteboard, and settle back into my trance-like concentration at the computer once again.  No chit-chat, I was on a mission and everyone knew it.  Green marker meant I was on time, red meant I was behind.

At the end of the day, this is what everyone in my office got to see:

Yep, I gave it a zany, over-the-top name. Whatever, it's my game.

There are a lot of payoffs to this structure.  First, this day was a ton of fun for me.  It was like being in the zone of pure productive concentration for a hour, 7 times over.  I had zero problem blocking out distraction, and the mini-race to the next milestone keyed me in with renewed focus each time (it’s WAY fun to write the next actual time on the board, and striving to use the green marker keeps it interesting).

The final show off was the grand prize.  My team was delighted to see all that got accomplished in just one day, and I think their sense of appreciation was heightened by being vicariously in on the process along the way. This is about as close I know to the experience of performing for an audience as a programmer, and it creates a certain buzz which theatrical and musical performers will understand.

Categories: Communication, Essays Tags:

Knockout First Impressions

June 15th, 2011 No comments

“Dude, that was a total baller move.” my friend Eliav reminisces of it, months later.

This refers to the manner in which I first met the good people behind a young company here in Denver called DealNation back in January.  As a close collaborator to the project, Eliav got me invited to pitch myself on developing their system.

Things moved fast this particular week in January.  While hosting and hanging out with Eliav on Tuesday night, he loaded onto my browser a few mock up images of the system.  During that same evening I got a call inviting me to come to the office and pitch on the project.  We would meet the next day, at noon.

Fast forward to 9am on Wednesday.  I’m all ready to go, and have about 3 hours to kill before I meet with some strangers to convince them that yes, I have web development superpowers.

An idea hit me.  I checked my browser’s history from the night before looking for the mock up images.  Bingo.  Instead of pacing about for 3 hours, psyching myself out for what is in essence a job interview, I would spend the time building a working prototype of the system as a real-as-can-be demonstration of what 3 hours of John Larson time are worth.

It was an inspired 180 minutes.  I fired up Photoshop, sliced up the mockups, designed a suitable database, whipped up the 3-step front end user experience, and even created an administrative back end for configuring facets of the system and viewing results of user visits.  A quick deployment to a dev URL and I was out the door for my noon meeting.

Like any such meeting I was met by the usual platitudes of greeting and new acquaintance.  “Hi John”, “Good to meet you”, “Thanks for being here”, “How’s it going?”

I was waiting for that last one.

“Good”, I said, “I’ve had a fun morning.  Now I’ll be honest to say that Eliav shared the mock ups you guys are working on with me last night, so I’ve had a little advance info on what you guys are up to.  I had time to kill before this meeting since 9, so I cooked up something I think you’ll find interesting.  May I show you on a computer?”

As I punched in the dev URL in the address bar, I continued to say “So I built your system.  I mean not all of it, and it’s not the air-tight, bullet proof masterpiece that you could expect with a more thorough effort, but enough to give you a good sense of what I’m capable of in a few solid hours.”

I let them play around on the front end, and had them log in with their own username and password in the back end and see the several controls and reports available in this hurried piece of web work.

I went on to narrate: “Now I understand you guys are used to paying twelve bucks an hour with India, but perhaps you will find me worth the roughly $125 I charge1–you get a bit more bang for your buck, I reckon.”

With them clear that I was the real deal, the rest of the meeting was a fun, free flowing exchange of ideas and everyone getting to know each other.  Again, this was Wednesday.  Later that afternoon I had a proposal with firm price tag in their inbox.  Thursday I had the thumbs up for the project, and on Friday I dropped by to pick up my project inception check.

The powerful first impression set by those 3 hours of work set the tone for our entire working relationship, namely “you can and should expect miracles of me that will defy what you’ve been trained to expect in software development”.  By the gesture I deliberately set the bar for myself very high, and to our mutual delight: they get to enjoy ultra-high performance out of me on a regular basis, and I get to delight in the opportunity and rewards of providing it.


  1. I don’t do hourly, as you may know: that’s just my rule of thumb for estimating project costs
Categories: About Me, Essays Tags:

The Free Day

May 3rd, 2011 1 comment

I stood in the office of my clients having just wrapped up a successful quick visit, and gave a strategic, pensive pause.

“So… you guys get a free day.” I said plainly, as though what I meant was perfectly clear and well established.

It wasn’t of course, and immediately aroused the earnest curiosity that I was aiming for.  “What’s that mean?” asked one of my clients, as if right on cue.

“A free day.  Meaning I’ll come into the office at 9am prompt, laptop in hand, and be at your disposal to bang out whatever new features, tweaks, enhancements, or anything else you’d like to add to your system.  My super powers are yours to wield for a full day, no charge.  I totally dig working with you guys, and this is my way of saying thanks for the opportunity.”

(As an aside, let me point out that our working relationship had thus far been 100% based on me assigning dollar amounts to chunks of work (projects, features, enhancements, etc).  Hourly availability was never on the table, as I don’t really believe in that model for the kind of work that I do.  So to have me in the office to perform whatever work I could in a solid 8 hour day was quite the novelty, and a rather valuable one at that.)

“It’s a chance for you to get whatever enhancements or tweaks made to have you really love the system without worrying about the cost.” I went on to explain.  “Having me in house will enable me to quickly identify how you’re using things and what’ll make them even better for you.”  Eyes lit up at the prospect, they were just about to go live with the system for the first time, and having me after a few days of really using things was in their estimation perfect and fortuitous timing.  We picked a day during the following week.

“It’s good form to buy me lunch, during that day.” I said with a smile as I walked out, “Keeps me at my desk working on stuff for longer.  Oh, and for best results I also recommend having a spare monitor available… I can get more done when rockin’ the dual screen.”

The day itself was a hit.  My second monitor as well a USB keyboard (“in case you prefer it to your laptop keyboard) were there and waiting in my conference room setup when I arrived, and the whiteboard was loaded up with a huge list of check box-adorned to-dos.  A spirit of “yay, John’s in the house!” was palpably in the air.  I was well taken care of and lunch ordered in was delicious.

I say this all not to boast, but to point out how the human element can massively work in everyone’s favor in programming.  I’m human, so the excitement that I’m in the house pumps me up, which gives me massive focus and determination to have a rockin’ day, which creates superb results.  Programming at its purpose-filled, invigorated best.

And when 5pm rolled around, what was the net result of this 8-hour generosity?  My client loves their system even more, have gotten massive value out of the programming I did, and appreciates the heck out of me for it.  I walk on air as I leave the office after having the sensation of being a hero for a day, I’m better related to what my clients are trying to accomplish which henceforth makes me a better consultant to them, I’ve got a bunch more billable work to perform to wrap up and extend upon various bits that got done, and I got free lunch.

A day in the life of a programmer well spent.

Categories: Business, Essays Tags:

Mastering the Entire Stack

April 13th, 2011 3 comments

I had an enjoyable meeting with a peer of web dev wizardry the other week.  He was illustrating a development framework for web apps that he created, talking me through the many layers of the architecture.  While enjoying the discourse there was one small thing that he said that I thought profound: “no one’s a master of the entire [web technology] stack”.  He said it so matter-of-factly, no big deal, just a transition sentence to frame an illustration of the beauty of one smart abstraction or another in his framework.

No one is a master of the entire web tech stack.

(For those of you not familiar with such nerd speak, the “stack” we’re referring to is the several varied technologies, each layered upon the previous, which collectively comprise and power web applications.  Server runs upon operating system, database runs on a server, business logic uses database, and so on.)

No one is a master of the entire web stack. Conventional wisdom.  Self evident.  But of course.

I disagree. My musings in the last few months have led me to curiosity about my staunch opposition to conventional wisdom that [non-trivial] application development requires a large team, large budget, and long time lines: am I full of it?  Is there something I’m missing? Where’s the loophole?

Mastering the entire stack might be that loophole.

(A quick technical caveat for the nerdy purists in the house: I don’t pretend that I’ve mastered the literal entire stack, for example I know only a little about the L in LAMP stack1.  But since you do things nearly identically on the so-called WAMP stack (swap in Windows for the operating system), I don’t think my craft suffers for it.  This suggests there are some shortcuts one can take while effectively maintaining mastery over the technologies that make a difference when creating web applications.  Similarly, one can get by with only crude [or even zero] knowledge of, say, hardware level logic gates and assembly language, which are also part of the rigorously defined entire stack.)

For this discourse I say the entire web stack that matters in web application development is comprised of: database, server side language, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and enough knowledge about server software and hardware performance to not be blindsided by rookie mistakes nor dumbfounded by scalability challenges.  That’s it, and there is plenty of depth and mastery in each of these layers.  Regarding this web stack, my friend was approximately right: developers who are masters of it all are super rare2.

This I think may be my loophole.  In a world where designations like “database admin”, “front end developer”, and “back end developer” comprise commonplace job titles, it’s obvious that most teams and individuals in my trade are sold on segmentation of skills along slices of the technology stack as the best way to do it.  Specialization and depth over broad, general skill sets.  Makes sense, our civilization has been going in that direction for centuries.

But does it need to be?  It’s certainly not ideal: communication overhead and inflexibility makes it easy for me to best most teams on price, time and quality, I have enough client horror stories to assure me of that.  So then is your average developer stuck in a niche, unable to branch out their mastery because it’s too much to handle?  Am I just a genius?  I don’t think so.

I think above all it’s a matter of just trying.  Overcome that little voice in your head that says “who am I to design a schema without the fancy title of Database Administrator?” and just do it3.  Play with a nice JS framework and make some cool AJAX stuff happen on the client side of things, most of the hard stuff is done for you anyway.  Learn a few CSS tricks and experiment with making things pretty instead of stark utilitarian.  I bet the average pigeon-holed developer could explore in other parts of the stack and be at least baseline proficient in all of it with just a few weeks of dabbling on the side.  It’s those Renaissance-type developers that you really want.


  1. For the non-nerds hanging along, LAMP stack refers to Linux operating system, Apache web server, MySQL database, PHP server-side language.
  2. Add in ability to represent strong in the boardroom talking business needs behind the software, and they’re damn near impossible to find.  Ahem.
  3. I dealt with this very concern when I built my first web application to manage my department at MonsterCommerce.  It wasn’t that scary, I learned what I needed to as I went and cleaned up any rookie sloppiness as I got better.
Categories: About Me, Essays Tags:

The Right to Demand Satisfaction

March 23rd, 2011 2 comments

I recently had a good sense to add this new boilerplate section to my standard project contracts:


Acceptance of this agreement includes the right to demand satisfaction for all described features, no more, no less.  I’m on the hook to complete all the described features to the point that you love it, and you get to demand satisfaction to that extent.  So do it.  If you’re not happy, and you haven’t exercised this clause, you’re technically in breach of this agreement.  Just sayin’.

In my years of experience I have never been burned putting myself on the hook called “my work is not done until you love it” , so I realized that I may as well get the benefit of advertising as much up front.

I don’t know that this sort of clause exists anywhere else in my industry.  Flippant language aside (which in my estimation is rad: if that sort of playfulness backed up solid performance turns you off, you’re not my client anyway), I think there’s a general fear about having to appease some fictional, nightmare client who is endlessly demanding.  In my experience, when it comes to my world of web programming, they don’t exist1.  Oh sure, there’s always room to want more features, or a cheaper price, but that’s not what what’s on the table here.

This here is a promise to do great with all of the [meticulously outlined] features within the scope of work at hand.  Software development is generally a complex endeavor so I think the average bear understandably shies away from such a tall promise.  Fair enough.  I embrace it.  It keeps me honest and fosters a healthy pride in my craft, and if I just bring my art to it using my full facility with leading edge technologies and tricks, I don’t have to worry about falling short.

So I don’t fall short.  If my first attempt isn’t loved by my client, they tell me and I tweak accordingly.  No fuss, no muss2.

That’s the second beauty of stating up front the right to demand satisfaction: it creates a conversational dynamic between my client and I that deliberately CALLS FOR that kind of feedback.  We become partners in the endeavor to create software that perfectly suits, and they have a role to play called “speak up if you don’t love it.”  When the invitation to do that is clear and on the table it is easy and fun to exercise, and moreover doesn’t get compromised by a desire to be polite.


  1. This is assuming a contractor is only taking on work that is within their ability to deliver, which is, it turns out, not to be overlooked nor taken for granted.
  2. If I think it’s easy to build software to be loved on the first pass, it’s really easy to do armed with feedback from looking at a real, tangible first attempt
Categories: Business, Communication, Essays Tags:

Why I Don’t Negotiate on Price (and Why That’s Good News)

March 6th, 2011 2 comments

I recently quoted $250 in response to a client with a particular feature request.  The reply I got was asking if I could add this feature for $125, citing perfectly good and valid reasons of it not seeming like that much and a desire to keep costs down.

Here is my exact reply:


Whenever I let a client name the price I turn into a poor businessman indeed, and it puts me on a slippery slope of devalued self worth trying to please clients who will nickel-and-dime me and don’t really value my time.  Most damaging is that it tends to prevent me from doing the great and interesting things with my talents that I’m committed to doing in this lifetime.

Poetic waxing aside, I have a LOT of real world data that the price I charge for the value I provide is above-average fair and, relative to other vendors, sometimes ridiculously cheap.

Now then on this particular price, I’m not hosing you to make a couple extra bucks as though I were a shoe-in for the work: between transitioning mentally from other projects, sorting out your request, pre-pondering the best solution, doing the coding (which I reckon is what you figure should cost $125, and reasonably so), testing it, launching it, testing it live, being generous with any tweaks/enhancements you might request (has it been your experience that I’m fairly generous with these?  It is my aim that it has, and please let me know if I’ve fallen short!), and the sliver of added complexity that it entails for future maintenance/trouble shooting, I stand by my estimate of 2 hours.

(A common alternative to this is quick, get-er-done style work where one change breaks something else, perhaps familiar to you! :)

That said, you might have noticed that a lot of items in the list of things above represent the overhead of doing a non-trivial amount of work of ANY size, and you would be right to think that that sort of overhead is roughly constant no matter how much substantial work is to be done.  I do my best to have evolving and tweaking a system be as fast, easy and painless as possible (and I understand I do pretty darn good at it relative to my industry), but the general rule still always holds: that we’ll both always get a better value for our time and money the more you can batch feature and change requests together (a full day’s work in my experience is generally the tipping point).

Whatever you think for this one is totally cool by me.  If the day ever comes that you want to transition from me for any reason, be it price or whatever (or in the event that I need to move on myself) I am completely reliable to be 100% cool and helpful in facilitating that transition.  I’ll even train the next guy on the code and be available for quick questions (in the past for clients I really liked I’ve even done this training for free).  I’m committed that you NEVER have the experience that you’re stuck with me when you could do better.

Whew, that’s lot!  I didn’t mean to talk your ear off with the above, and know that I don’t mind your request at all.  Hopefully you’ve gotten some nuggets on how to get the best bang for your buck out of me.


Looking back there are a lot of things about this communication that I like.  It is a candid look at how I work with and honor my client relationships that I am happy to share publicly: it gives some insight as to how to get the best value of out me, reveals that a lock-in is NOT part of my business model, and gives the freedom to choose.  Negotiation-wise there are a lot of points made and I want to add a few more to round out the exposé of my thoughts on the matter.

My stance on not negotiating price serves both me and my clients because it keeps me honest and true to my standards.  Coupled with my willingness to facilitate anyone in transitioning to another developer, it holds me to a standard of being the best and giving the grade-A experience of working with me. If I don’t perform at the level I say I do and thereby someone can get a better value with someone else, I will lose that business and I should.  Short-cut jobs with me are simply not on the table, though the option to get one somewhere else is.

Psychological factors play into it as well.  When I know I’ll be earning what I feel I’m worth for a piece of work, it’s easy and a joy to put the shine on it and go the extra mile, and my clients regularly reap the benefit of this.  By contrast, in the past when I’ve allowed myself to get beat up on price I had to fight against the devil on my shoulder telling me that just meeting the spec-doc minimums was acceptable.  I always won, but those then were the clients I eventually fired.

If nothing else, not negotiating on price forces me to work with the right clients.  For a mom-and-pop business looking to get a website online, I’m expensive.  For a million-dollar company for which custom software is an integral part, I’m cheap.  In some cases ridiculously cheap.  So if I’m getting push back on my price, it’s a sign that we’re not a good fit, and acknowledging that sooner than later is useful for both of us.

And in case you were wondering, my rate of $250 was accepted via email reply 14 minutes later.

Categories: About Me, Essays Tags:

Programming at the Speed of Trust

January 12th, 2011 No comments

It is conventional wisdom that software development is complicated.

Triply so if you stick the word “enterprise” in front of it.

By complicated (and complicated x 3 for so-called “enterprise software”) I’m referring to the whole pomp and circumstance that surrounds the actual process of banging out code to solve a problem.  Needs analyzing, requirements gathering, stakeholder interviewing, spec formalizing, story boarding, resource planning, milestone setting, time line estimating1, wire frame designing, and prototype building are all usually part of the dance, and that’s just the front end.  On the back end you have testing, quality assuring, requirements verifying and acceptance reviewing.  (Here to forth the sum of these activities will be referred to as “the formalities”.)

With so many disparate verbs involved, conventional wisdom accordingly asserts that it takes a team of at least half a dozen highly trained and specialized professionals to pull it off.  This itself gives rise to boatloads of meetings, coordination, consensus gaining, gaps in understanding, and other communication overhead.  The formalities effectively constitute a gatekeeper from a new piece of software getting out into the real world, lest it do something that’s embarrassing, incorrect or otherwise terrible.  So you’re paying the price of all this work before a new software solution actually gets to do you any good in real world use.  (This, incidentally, is how million dollar software gets built that actual users hate.)

Does this model have a place?  Absolutely.  Some projects are sufficiently complex/important/sensitive to justify that kind of slow, methodical approach.  But many aren’t.

One of my roles during my tenure at MonsterCommerce was being in charge of development on the MonsterMarketplace, a shopping portal that aggregated product listings from several thousand of our e-commerce clients.  The building of the MMP was originally outsourced to an international resources development firm, and the [accepted] proposal for the project contained line items of many (costly) hours for the formalities.  It was a sizable system distributed over two web servers, one database server, and tied to its own [then newfangled] Google Search Appliance.  It was a great site and they did a good job.  But l don’t know that we got our money’s worth for all that supposed testing and quality assurance.

Like most sufficiently complicated systems there were bugs, hiccups, gotchas, and performance issues.  Not necessarily glaring ones, but critical none the less.  When new campaigns were launched to drive more traffic the system had to be carefully monitored due to memory leaks and other inefficiencies that would routinely crash a server.  As traffic soared beyond 100,000+ visitors a day such reactive maintenance became the norm.

When I took over maintenance of the system these problems remained for me to solve, and there was also a fresh new look to be implemented.  My calculated path of least resistance was to rewrite the entire front end myself, which was tantamount to breaking many rules of the development cycle and best practices as laid out by the outsource firm.

But it worked.

In 4 weeks I had made the new front end, polished by about a week of collaboration with the sharp-eyed spot checking of my boss.  We launched and watched the CPU usage loads under traffic, which instead of dancing between 20 and 100% utilization like before were scarcely seen above 4%.

How did that happen?  The first version of the MMP was built by a team of people, and subjected to (presumably) all kinds of formal testing and quality assurance. The version I cooked up was written just by me with only the benefit of my boss who loved to click around and see to it that all was well with his brain child.  Granted, I had the benefit of an already laid out foundation for the system, but my aim was much more to rip out and replace that foundation than to bootstrap off of it.

This was a matter of raw ability trumping best practices, both technically and management-wise.  I knew a few things about the lower levels of computer architecture that best practices were apparently oblivious to, so I could get rid of what were (to me) glaring performance problems 2.  I was close enough to the vision and intended outcome of the project that I could be trusted to remain true to it.  The objective win of this was the quicker end to hemorrhaging revenues due to sporadic downtime.  The subjective win was the satisfaction my boss felt getting a major release out without all the painful fuss of formalities that plagued the first time around.  (And the win for me was the satisfaction of delivering on what was viewed as a tall and unlikely promise, plus a $7000 raise given to me the day after launch.)

What I’m curious about is how many projects are beholden to the more complex level of rigor out of a false sense that they should be (or need to be) in order to turn out.  In my experience the procedures and complexity of methodical collaboration ultimately become self-justifying: all the brain farts, delays, back-and-forth interactions, and so on make it harder for a quality developer to get actual work done.  It’s then no wonder if he/she can’t be trusted to create a solid end product without micro-management and support.  It’s worth considering that the end quality level is a wash at best, only you spent a lot more time and high salaries to cobble it all together.

Programming at the Speed of Trust

To do away with all the formalities, I assert, is the programming equivalent of Covey’s maxim “The Speed of Trust” 3.  If you have a nimble, self-directed team of developers (even a team of one) that is intimately familiar enough with the aims and needs of a project to do it right, there exists the opportunity to sidestep all of it in favor of trusting them to responsibly do their job.  The reason is that a lot of best practices are above all designed to prevent screw ups rather than promote excellence (having massive amounts of meticulous documentation and following someone elses’ protocols to the letter counts in many ways as a big C.Y.A. and little else).

Cultivating and using this approach to software development needs to be done with care.  No doubt many of our modern practices were born of reactions to past disasters, which leads me to think there’s a largely unrecognized dichotomy in approaches to software: one approach is formality as preemptive damage control, the other is running at the speed of trust.  Nimble start ups by default operate at the latter, and for it have created some of the most amazing software on shoestring budgets and in record time.  Established software development houses and large companies with full blown IT department are almost inextricably married to the former, probably because cultivating the latter doesn’t seem like a viable option with any reliability.

What, then, does it take to cultivate the latter reliably?  I think whomever cracks that code is going to have a major leg up in any business that calls for custom software.  I do know of a couple conditions that help:

  • The ability to release early and release often. This is the era of cloud computing and the mobile app, so this isn’t as tall an order as it used to be4.  Being able to fix flaws immediately when discovered makes them much less harmful and much more palatable.
  • Give developers at least a semi-regular taste of doing the job that the software is supposed to help with. This is important before, during and after development.  Before because it lets them experience exactly what they’re solving for.  During to keep true to what’s important as things progress.  After because a good developer can almost always improve software they’ve made if they’re saddled with using it.
  • Break the project into individually useful chunks, and put each chunk to good use as it’s ready. Making a complex uber-system is dangerous business only if you have to finish it up to the very end before getting to experience if it sucks or not.  Structure a project so that the fruits of it are apparent sooner than later, and that the wins of the last release spur on the next one.
  • Have a developer experience that it’s their baby. Whether intentional or not, nothing prompts a sense of “get ‘er done and move on to the next one” as when that is precisely how the job is set up.  This makes cutting corners much more likely.  If a developer knows he or she is on board to grow and evolve the system over time, a sense of pride and long term responsibility kicks in that can’t be beat for ensuring quality now.
  • Give a developer some form of vested interest in the project’s success. This is similar to the last one, but not quite.  It’s vested interest that strongly evokes above-and-beyond effort and innovation.

I think the formalities are wholly valid, and exist for a lot of good reasons.  However like most things that are seldom questioned it is useful to question their necessity for a given project, simply because the reward is the opportunity to program at the speed of trust.


  1. Aka “guessing”
  2. Namely you don’t do string building via massive concatenation, and it’s much more efficient to reuse a cached database connections and run inline SQL than to connect/disconnect on every access and build parameter objects for stored procedure calls.  Turns out a Master’s degree in CS with knowledge of algorithm design and computer architecture IS useful in day-to-day programming.
  3. I haven’t actually ready Covey’s book, so if it contains a chapter on software development I apologize for any apparent lifting of ideas.
  4. Except iPhone apps, until they drop the practice of requiring several-week approval processes for updates to already approved apps.
Categories: Essays Tags:

Working On the Business By Working In the Business

December 28th, 2010 No comments

Michael Gerber, in his treatise on entrepreneurship The E-Myth [1], makes a firm point of the dangers of working in your business when you yourself are the entrepreneur trying to run and grow it (i.e. working on your business).  He makes a compelling case that the activities of one and the other are not only completely distinct, but that they are also virtually mutually exclusive.

I completely agree.

It was a watershed moment for me when I acknowledged for myself that am far more interested in being a consultant than building and running a consultancy, even though the the latter carries with it much more prestige.  I love the kind of consulting and application development that I do, and at the same time I have no interest in building a team of me-clones to do contract consulting work.   So when it comes to me as a free agent consultant, I am much more about working in my business than on my business, and Michael Gerber is right to say that I haven’t created a business so much as a job.

The reason this is interesting at all is because of the fun twist on the in-the-business/on-the-business dichotomy that I love to play with: for an application developer who is not afraid to get his/her hands dirty with the daily roles and work of a given business, there is opportunity to make massive improvements to how that work is done.  An example will make this clear.

During my one straight job out of school at MonsterCommerce I held a number of roles and one of them was manager of the custom programming department.  We were an e-commerce company selling an already spiffy, feature-loaded shopping cart software package, but that didn’t stop loads of our customers from wanting it to do more new and novel things.  So we had a custom programming department that would take feature requests, offer quotes for the work, and execute the jobs when opted for.  About 2-4 requests would come in per day.

The system I inherited for managing these leads and projects was a drawer of a few hanging folders, my predecessor’s email in-box, and a notebook or two of notes.  The notebook system, it turns out, scaled maybe for two weeks’ worth of leads before becoming cumbersome and impossible to manage without jobs and tasks slipping through the cracks.  By this firsthand experience of working in the business I knew things could be better, and with programming skills, a desire to learn web programming (new to me then), and a dash of confidence (arrogance? ) I set out to create the solution I knew I wanted.

It was fueled by a simple vision: whenever so-and-so called, I wanted to type their name in, see their job on my screen with the complete lowdown (what they wanted, the status of the job, and even when we last talked and what was said), and be able to talk intelligibly about their project within 10 seconds as if getting it done was the only thing on my mind.  (I think a lot of visions are fueled by frustration of doing something a few times when you know it could be so much better.)

Taking inspiration (and the design aesthetic) from our own shopping cart software, I learned how to program web applications[2] and design databases, and built my dream system one weekend at a time.  It sat there, hosted humbly on the floor within the computer in my bedroom, during a time when each subsequent week a little more of my job was managed or automated by it.

After six weekends of development (and the interim six weeks of real-world use, testing, and tweaking), I was ready to show off my baby to the rest of the company.  It was well received by all the parties it touched upon: billing, sales, management, and my team of programmers, and getting adoption was quick and painless.  (The greatest honor was when the Design and SEO department heads both requested a similar system: I quickly forked off versions to suit both.  The second greatest honor was hearing that it wasn’t until 2009 until these systems were retired, fully 3 years after I left the company.)

Building something that good was made easy (almost trivial, it felt) because I was making it for me to solve my own day-to-day problems.  When my day-to-day usage revealed something that sucked I would simply fix it that night at home, and have a better system the next day.  I had bridged the creator/user gap.

Not only were the systems nice and made a manager’s job easier, it made the departments better.  Communication, coordination, follow through, professionalism and the bottom line all benefited.  It was the stuff of systematizing things that Micheal Gerber would classify as working on the business, and doing so happened because I was steeped a little while working in the business.

This is completely unconventional.  Software development talent seldom experiences the day-to-day work of the people for whom they create software for, yet what if that experience is a shortcut to making a really great system?  Though unorthodox, time spent by a developer actually doing a job for which he/she is to make a software system for may pay out overall in time saved trying to otherwise imagine, describe and communicate the software needs.   Any additional unimagined solutions/shortcuts/innovations devised by the developer-turned-worker are a pleasant bonus.  Furthermore it makes nice protection from rough or ugly spots in an application: if a developer is saddled with using his/her own creation (even if for a little while), they will be apt to smooth over and tidy up such unflattering features.

It may be a loophole to the notion that if you’re working in the business you can’t possibly working on it: insofar as software systems are concerned, at least, a person working the job who is able to design systems to make it easier is leveraging the former to help the latter.


[1] It’s been 4 years since I read it, so please pardon any haziness in my recollection of it.

[2] This is the root of my [still persistent] fondness for Classic ASP, an arguably terrible and woefully outdated server side web language.  There’s always something special about your first.

Categories: About Me, Business, Essays Tags:

A Nerd’s Perspective on Software Patents

November 3rd, 2010 4 comments

As a programmer doing reasonably smart stuff on the web, I’m made a bit uneasy by software patents, namely because the possibility exists that I be sued for infringing upon them.

It’s not that I do anything nasty like meticulously reverse engineering the complex works of another for my own benefit, it’s that I build websites and web applications at all.  I haven’t done the boatloads of research to know precisely how much I’m infringing, but, for example, most projects I do contain some sort of menu, and this technically violates Microsoft’s patent on ‘system and method for providing and displaying a Web page having an embedded menu’, which they have already demonstrated willingness to sue another company for.  I do stuff that’s WAY more complicated than a bunch of navigation links of at the top of the screen, so I can only imagine how many other toes I’m stepping on when building systems that feature both ubiquitous and niche features.

So this characterizes the implication of patent law upon me personally.  Now then, if you scale that up to a community of hundreds of thousands of programmers similarly impacted, and throw in the rising prominence of large companies suing one another over intellectual property[1], you will then have a sense of what the fuss over software patents covers.  These are broad strokes, but they convey the gist.

Accordingly, protest has risen and lengthy debates have raged on about how to fix the “software patent problem”.  Some of it goes on and on about legal precedent, objective tests for what’s patentable, the so-called “transformation test”, and other things that apt to make the eyes of a more casual reader glaze over (mine included).

What I want to explore is if it makes sense and is defensible to take a completely different tack: the pragmatic view of the average, motivated nerd.

Let us eschew, for a while, all the legal mumbo jumbo of definitions, specificity, precedent and so forth as they are usually applied to the debate of “is X patentable?”, and see if we can’t go closer to the root concepts in an effort to sidestep the whole tangled mess.  I want to look through the lens of the reasons and motivations of why have a patent system at all.

The Essence of the Patent System

I’m not saying anything new or profound here, just summarizing to set the stage.  The patent system is a societal construct: we all, as a society, agree to abide by certain constraints (namely not infringe upon anothers patented ideas for a fixed period of time), we willingly do this in order to reap benefits as a society, and there are consequences for an individual who breaks this agreement.  (The whole thing is not unlike how we all, as a society, agree not to kill one another: we all more or less enjoy the overall benefit and are willing to give up that particular freedom, and there are consequences for an individual who breaks that agreement).

There are two really great benefits we reap as a society for having and honoring the patent system.

The first is that it encourages people to come up with new great things.  The  protection offered by patents effectively says “Hey, nice job coming up with that great new thing!  Listen, we know you put a lot of hard work and investment into doing so, and for being the one who did all that we’ll give you a window of time in which you can be the only one who gets to reap the reward of that effort, without having some copy cat come along and bootstrap off of your blood and sweat.”  An innovator, knowing that benefit lies on the other side is encouraged to invest time/effort/money up front.  The rest of society gets to enjoy the fruits of that work, and for it pays the price of allowing a temporary monopoly.

The second benefit is that it encourages disclosure of really smart work.  In this sense, the patent system effectively says “Wow, that’s something really smart that you did!  Listen, we’re thinking long term for the expansion of the fabric of human knowledge, and so we’d love to know how you did that rather than see you take those secrets to the grave, or have your heirs forever keep it under lock and key.  If you teach us how that works, we’ll get to expand as a civilization and in return we’ll make sure you have a window of time in which to benefit from your novel creation. Thanks for bettering the rest of us for the long haul.”  Again, a nice benefit to society: it speeds up the proliferation of ingenuity and all the fruits that come with it, gained at the cost of allowing a temporary monopoly.

Evaluating Patents as a Cost/Benefit Proposition

From a clear understanding of the trade-off made when a patent is given, one can view it as a transaction willingly entered into by two parties.  A patent application can be viewed as a business proposal that a society might freely choose to enter into (or politely decline) according to its interests and values, much like any business deal between two free-willed entities.

I propose that the debate no longer center around IF a given idea is patentable, but instead whether or not we WANT to grant a patent for a given idea: in other words, transform the debate to a value judgment as to whether we as a society care to pay the price of issuing a patent for the expected benefit, or would rather pass on the opportunity altogether.  When it comes to software, I believe the best choice, as a culture, is to say “thanks but no thanks” to the opportunity of issuing patents, and it takes a look into the nature of software and the nerd culture that surrounds it to see clearly why.

Nerd Culture and Innovation

I love creating cool and interesting stuff with technology, and there are 100,000 others like me.  There is no shortage of things out there in software that could be (or are) patented that a smart nerd with a little bit of gumption could look at and recreate without trouble.  And by “look at” I mean simply get the view as an end user, not trolling through source code or employing sophisticated tools of reverse engineering.

Consider, for example, Amazon’s patent on one click ordering.  When a customer is logged in, and has items in their cart, with one click they can place a completed order for those items.  Kinda nifty, but anyone who’s done e-commerce programming can immediately work out how to implement such a feature using a customer’s information on file.  I say society got a raw deal for issuing this patent: Amazon shared nothing of value with the rest of the world, and effectively earned the right squat on a generally useful idea because they ponied up some cash for lawyers and got some paperwork in first.

I would categorize ideas like that as “inevitable disclosure”: an idea that, by its very existence in user-facing software, reveals everything needed to reproduce it.  The benefit of having information about how a such an idea was implemented in software disclosed is moot: one look and (or even sometimes hearing of the idea) is all a smart nerd needs to work out the rest.  Apple’s patented “slide to unlock” widget is another example of an inevitable disclosure idea.  So are rollover images:

We smart nerds are always thinking of and building new stuff to razzle-dazzle, be it for the pure fun of it, personal pride and reputation, or a great portfolio piece by which to impress the next prospective client for a contracting gig.  And nerd culture, with its drive to innovate and share runs much deeper than small projects.  Volunteer, collaborative open source projects have created top notch, large scale innovation in all realms of software, such as full-fledged operating systems, open web standards, content management platforms, e-commerce packages, audio and video compression schemes, office productivity suites, and more.

I point this all out to demonstrate a simple observation: innovation [in software] isn’t going to dry up if the incentive of patent protections were to disappear tomorrow.  More than most (all?) industries, software grants much more space for hobbyists and enthusiasts to get involved.  The overhead to major achievement is much smaller. We are numerous, we are smart, and we are hungry to create brilliant things for both personal and altruistic reasons.

Secrets in Software

The world of software won’t turn into the wild west of pillaging and stealing ideas in the absence of software patents, because things that are genuinely hard to do and which represent painstaking work and novel innovation can be kept a secret[2].

Come to think of it, the desire to file a patent to protect a software innovation may be a sign of admittance on the part of the applicant that the idea itself will be easy to replicate by a community of smart people (or even maybe your average nerd), which is a sure good reason to be disinterested in issuing a patent at all.  “Thanks but no thanks”, I would rather we collectively say as a society: “keep it to yourself because the larger world will figure out how to execute and enjoy this idea sooner or later, and get there sooner without paying the price.”


[1] Which breaks my heart, because as a casual observer it appears as though legal strong-arming is becoming a passable substitute for actual marketplace competitiveness.

[2] Google’s proprietary index and ranking algorithms that power their web search are presumably breathtakingly brilliant.  They constitute a large portion of the secret sauce which gives Google its competitive edge, and they reap the rewards of that not because they came first and get to squat on medium-obvious ideas, but because they do it better than your average smart person can figure out on their own.  Contrast this against Apple’s slider thingee.

Categories: Essays Tags:

Designer Collaboration II: Respecting the HTML

September 5th, 2010 No comments

Yesterday I wrote about how developers owe it to designers to respect the PSD, or in other words to implement their original designs in HTML with pixel-perfect fidelity.  Today I want to turn the tables a little and explore how a design can be particularly good or particularly bad for implementation in HTML.

A designer who knows the gotchas of HTML implementation can make it drastically easier for a developer, and usually with little compromise of their artistic liberties.  Here now is a laundry list of the themes I’ve seen come up over and over.  With a clear understanding of these, a designer can make minor alterations that lets the developer sidestep all kinds of complications and tedious work.

Non-web standard fonts – Most browsers can’t render them and must fall back to a more generic stand in.  Ok, granted this first one does impose on artistic liberties.  Unfortunately support for embedding arbitrary fonts with the super cool @font-face tag is not quite ready yet for prime time.  (That, and to embed downloadable fonts in your site one must be certain all the legal i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed with respect to licensing.)  Bits of text that need to be that special font can be sliced out of the PSD and rendered in HTML as images.  It’s a little more work, the text isn’t searchable, there’s more to download, and can’t be changed as easily, but it can be done.  For some things this is entirely appropriate: a big shiny title for the site, for example.  It’s not great for menu items if you expect lay users to be able to update them (think content management system were non-technical folks can add pages to their heart’s content and their titles are automagically added to the site’s nav menu).

Fits-like-a-glove text – Sometimes text looks so good in a PSD: it fits right in the space it’s given, nestled up as one tidy line in it’s column on the side.  So long as it doesn’t wrap, all will be well.  If the text will never change, it can be sized to fit just right in HTML.  But if the PSD portion is a mock up of,  say, the name of the most recent blog post?  There’s no telling how long a given name might get, so the design there should gracefully accommodate a lines of text of any length.  In general a designer must be aware of which text elements are fixed and which are subject to change, and beware of rigid assumptions about the bounding size when it’s the latter.

Finite background images – Similar to the above, the web, unlike traditional print media, offers up pages or blocks of text of varying and unpredictable length/size/height/width (not to mention a given user’s browser window can be much larger than designed for).  Background images need to be designed with awareness of this kind of variability:

In a picture-perfect PSD, the background image supplied by the designer might perfectly fit the content of the design mock up.

No shortcomings here.

But when translated into a live site with dynamic content that changes from page to page, all bets are off as to how tall the content might get that needs to fit into the design.

For example, consider this page: here we have a bit more content that the previous one. We can anchor the background image to align with the bottom of the page, but as soon as we run out of image at the top the best we can do is provide a flat color as a fallback.  See the sharp edge above and to the right?  Ouch!

The trick around this is for the designer to craft a background image that comes to a “fixed point” at at least one of the edges: that way the page can expand indefinitely, the background can be matted against a flat color, and there is no discontinuity.

It’s a simple matter, but having a designer recognize that background images need to be crafted such that they can be nicely matted against a flat color for regions of unpredictable size makes a big difference for a developer to execute a design that looks good in all situations.

This page could go on forever, but thanks to how the images is built, when we mat its top edge against the flat color there is no problem.  Nice!

That’s about it for the consistent gotchas that the HTML medium offers over, say, print media: they pretty much stem from how ultimate control of the end product is, in two vital ways, not in the control of the designer.  To wit: while a designer can count on whatever font they use to print successfully by a printer, on the web fonts are limited to whatever an end user’s browser supports.  And while a designer can usually perfectly typeset whatever copy is to go in a brochure, they often must design for variable and often unknown text in a web setting.

This list is shorter than it used to be.  A number of design elements that used to be headaches (or impossible) to realize in HTML have recently become rather simple with the rise of support for CSS3, namely rounded corners, drop shadows, gradient backgrounds, and image-based buttons of variable size.  It’s probably only a matter of time before the use of non-standard web fonts is perfectly acceptable, leaving only the notion of designing for variable or unknown content the only real novel constraint a designer needs to specially accommodate for.

Categories: Design, Essays Tags: