COVID diaries: Day 15

Week three of self-quarantine. The Governor just issued a shelter-in-place order, so I think we’re going to have to restrict our kids from playing with their friends now. It’s going to be tough for them, (and me), but if we haven’t been exposed to the virus already then I’d like to keep it that way. It’s hard to tell; everyone in the house has been sick of some kind or another for over the past month. Most of us have had a cough for several days; I think it may be pollen allergies since everything has been covered with a blanket of thick yellow pollen for the past week.

The oldest one spent much of this morning doing piano lessons while her sister did Khans Academy Kids. I let them watch a couple of Disney shows between “school” work and play. I took the little one for a bike ride while her sister did her Zoom conference with the class. She’ll have another one this evening, and is too read Harry Potter for the class. They’re outside playing right now, it’s seventy degrees and sunny outside right now.

None of the cilantro or tomato seeds we planted last week have sprouted. I’m beginning to think my seeds are bunk. We may have to start again using the old damp towel in a plastic bag method. We’ll give it another day or two first. I have a couple of garlic cloves that have sprouted shoots that I want to stick out in a small planter. I’m not sure if it’ll make more cloves, but the red onion I put out months ago has gotten bigger and has some large green scallions growing out of it that I need to use.

My wife is still trying to secure telework capabilities from her work, but hopefully we’ll be able to finish completing those requirements tonight. Their forcing her to submit all her applications as one PDF, but don’t have the programs on the work computers to be able to compile them into one document. Just when you think Kafka was being melodramatic.

As far as school goes, I just turned in the midterm that I’ve been working on, and will be turning my attention to our group Django project next. Our professor seems to have checked out completely, besides the test, there’s been no communication from him for over a week. I know he was ready to retire but this may have been the straw that broke the camels back. I’m sure he’s considering retiring if on-premise classes don’t resume in the fall. I’m pretty sure they won’t for him — he’s too high risk.

And let me just rant for a moment about the idiocy of using Blackboard for computer science courses. It’s asinine. The BB text editor used for submission is one of the worst things I have ever been forced to use. Markdown makes much more sense. Pasting preformatted code in the BBE is useless, the HTML code that it generates is enough to give any web designer a heart attack. Even the LaTex support makes no sense. It doesn’t actually work for math or formulas wrapped in dollar signs, you have to do everything, including sub and superscripting, via a toolbar. It’s extremely inane.

That said, I’m loving Overleaf, the online LaTex editor. It’s a very good compiler, and I’ve been having a lot of success with it over the past few weeks. I wish that their Git implementation worked anonymously for use with Gitlab pipelines, but that’s my only gripe with them for the most part. It looks like they’ve open sourced their implementation, so I’m going to see if I can get the university to allow me to set one up for use with my individual project. I’d like to see some sort of system that allows LaTex within a GitLab repo, so that students can fork assignment repos and submit their code as pull requests for grading through some sort of pipeline testing.

Not much else to say right now. It’s late in the afternoon, and I’ve got to launch the website for the local party and send out a MailChimp blast. Once that’s out I’ll start working on dinner and recharging for another hour or two on school work tonight.

Grocery shopping adventures

It’s Saturday morning, but weekends have taken on a decidedly different feel to them now. “We don’t have to worry about what we’re doing tomorrow,” my wife said to me yesterday while we were talking in bed. No, we won’t be going out and about today, besides maybe a walk around the neighborhood, but with my wife home to help handle the kids, this might be the most productive I’ve been all week.

The house has slipped into a bit of a mess as I’ve struggled to keep up with the un-cleaning abilities of my two children. We’ve had a pile of crafts on the dining room table for almost two weeks now that needs some attention. I’m hoping to rearrange some things in the kitchen, and the garage desparately needs a good cleaning out. Somehow my wife managed to get the kids to believe that washing the cars was some kind of treat, so we may do that as well.

We’ll have to do some grocery shopping, or online ordering this weekend. I failed to account for the amount of food that these kids eat, and since my wife is no longer eating out at work, I’ve got to step up the amount that we buy by some amount. I’ll have to focus on making larger amounts when I cook, because cooking from scratch during the week every day is wearing me out. I just wish my kids weren’t so damn picky. I also need a way to buy certain items in bulk without having to go through Amazon. I buy these small half pound containers of nuts and trailmix, but I go through them so fast, I need to find some three pound bags of the stuff that I like, and more importantly, I need to find something that the girls like so I don’t have to keep feeding them crackers and other high-carb garbage all the time. And my oldest is going through peanut butter like nobody’s business.

The girls have made me promise them a trampoline. They’ve been asking for years, literally, but we’ve pushed back on it with various excuses, mainly that our yard already has a large playhouse, plus two trees, so we don’t really have room for a ten or fifteen foot trampoline in it. But now I’ve relented, and have been forced to agree that we will purchase one in five weeks, when the refund from day care comes through. Hopefully it won’t attract every kid in the surrounding neighborhood.

As far as the pandemic goes, it has finally hit the city. I read in the paper that a local police officer has tested positive. This individual was the booking and intake officer for the local jail, of all people, so I have a feeling things are about to turn into Rikers Island over there.

We, meaning my daughters and I, seemed to have developed a bit of a dry cough. It’s not too bad, and we don’t have any other symptoms right now, but it’s got me a bit worried. The girls have been playing very closely with the same small groups of friends for the last week, and I haven’t been around anyone except during my last grocery store run, which was a bit of a disaster.

My car was a bit slow to start when I left the house, it seemed like it turned over slowly a few times. I attributed it to the car having sit in the driveway for a full week, but it made it to the store with no problem. I got my groceries from a young associate, and tried to maintain social distance with the loading, but she got a bit close for my liking. We had some small talk, and I went back into the car and turned the key. Clickclicckclickclickclick. Nothing. Again, clickclickclickclickclick. She was dead. Mild panic set in as I tried to figure my best options, I texted my wife to let her know that I was having problems, that I was going to see if I could get a jump and might need her to come get me.

A car with a young couple pulled up in the spot next to me, but they walked into the store before I was ready to start asking. I had been watching the parking lot for a few minutes while I waited for my groceries. The store was busy, it was after 5PM on a Wednesday and people were going about their business. The only sign that there was a pandemic going on were a few people I saw going into the store wearing facemasks. One woman, probably in her fifties, came out carrying only a twelve pack of soda. I was dumbfounded that someone could be so seemingly careless.

I got out of the car and asked the first person to walk near, a white man, thirtyish, if he had cables. He did, but said he couldn’t give me a jump. He was glad to talk, and told me he had fried his Jeep’s electrical giving too many people jumps in the past, and launched into an explanation about feedback or some kind of surge caused by the vehicle being jumped. I asked if he could at least let me borrow the cables while he was shopping and I’d leave them at his Jeep. We walked back to the car, the dude still talking non-stop about whether he actually had them or not. We got to his Jeep, and he excitedly showed me a a twenty year old Apple II that he had found lying on the curb. It was surely worth thousands, he told me, if he could get it to work. Certainly, I agreed with him.

He didn’t have the cables, so we walked back to my car, I thanked him, and he went in. I cursed my luck. I leafed through the car’s user manual to make sure I knew how to jump it. I looked up possible alternative solutions on my phone and popped the trunk, checking the terminal cables. No fix. I texted my wife, “You’re my only hope, Obi Wan.”

I scanned the parking lot, looking for people or cars I thought might be likely to have cables. A jacked up pickup truck with FUCK GUN CONTROL window decal and a LVURSLF vanity plate? Yep, I though. A large, clean silver Dodge Ram pulled up and looked promising, so texted my wife to wait a minute and got out again.

The owner, an older black man, pulled a small device out of a bag. “That’ll jump it?” I asked, amazed. “It jumped that truck,” he replied, nodding back at his vehicle. After a couple of failed attempts, he allowed that the device may have been sitting in his car too long and might not have enough juice. I thanked him for his time. And got back in my car, squirting on some hand sanitizer.

By this time the couple parked next to me were walking back to their car, I asked them if they could give me a jump. Yes they said. The woman pulled some cables from her trunk and I noticed she was late in her second trimester of pregnancy. I felt vaugely guilty as we broke social distancing walking around her car. Our cars were parked a bit to far apart than ideal, and as the man and I struggled to untangle the cables, a woman approached carrying a portable jump starter. “Right on,” I told her.

The woman appeared underdressed for the weather, which was a bit brisk for me in my jeans and sweater. She looked a bit butch with her short haircut and was wearing basketball shorts and jersey. She got the jumper hooked up right way, and after a failed attempt and a quick reattachment, the engine turned over and started up. I thanked everyone profusely and got ready to leave. My wife pulled up right after, with both kids in the back seat. I told her we were good to go and followed her back to the house.

So, despite my best efforts to separate myself from everyone for the past couple weeks, a small little automotive setback at the grocery store expanded the number of people that I came in contact with. My wife and I realize how lucky we are, that millions of people have lost their job these last few days, and our income has not only remained the same, but our expenses have gone down. This world is crazy.

COVID Summer Camp: Day 12

It’s Friday, and in the 70s today after a couple days of rain and cold weather. The girls are out back playing with some friends. I just finished cooking some breaded chicken for dinner and have a good forty minutes before my wife comes home. The US officially has the most coronavirus cases, but we have yet to see the brunt of it here. The medical center where my wife works officially has it’s first cases; the first in the city.

I called day care today, planning on officially withdrawing the kids, but they’ve no longer requiring partial tuition payments too hold spaces open, so we’ve just requested a refund on a couple thousand dollars tuition that we deposited a few months ago as part of our credit card rewards hacking. That will take five weeks to come back, then will go in our savings until we determine what to do with it. Not having the $280 a week to pay means I’ll be able to start saving half of that. More on that after I finish Choose FI.

This first week home by myself has been a bit rough. I had trouble sleeping two nights ago and was dead on my feet by the time my wife came home. I’m trying to get as much done on at my desk as I can while keeping the girls off of the TV, but it’s a battle. I’m not having much luck keeping them to the schedule that my wife set up, but that’s mainly because the school teacher can’t seem to have their Zoom meetings at the same time for two days in a row. She’s trying to accommodate parents on different schedules, but it’s annoying.

I start the little one off with Khan’s Academy Kids, so she can learn her letters, then I try to get them outside for a bit before a snack around ten. If it’s raining I try to get them moving via GoNoodle, or there’s a Cosmic Yoga vids that she like’s to do. I may let her watch PBSKids if I’m having issues keeping her busy and I need to get something done.

Her sister, I’m pushing a bit. Trying to get her to do a quiz on Khan’s academy, or on this reading app that the school has suggested. Apparently my second grader is reading at a fifth grade level. I also try to get her to do morning pages, and am still pushing her to play piano even though she says she “hates” it. I think what she hates is me telling her what to do. I’m trying to balance between work and play. I let the two of them watch some Disney+ shows around one in the afternoon, then I let them do whatever they want till their mom comes home. Thankfully they’ve spent several hours outside.

The past few days we’ve been able to do some morning meditation. A short kids-oriented lesson on the Waking Up app seems to be okay with them. This morning we set on the deck on cushions with blankets and sleeping bags, listening to the birds chirping and tweeting at each other.

My wife is attempting to get telework granted, but the beaucracy has set impossible tasks in front of her, as usual. Now that the patients have been prohibited from coming to the medical center, she’s at less risk, and I’m wondering if she even wants to work from home and have to share home-school duties with me. We’ll see.

For school, I’m in the middle of an exam for my computational methods class. I’ve got five days and am about halfway through it. And I’m working on our Django app for my group project. I still have my independent project, which I haven’t worked on much at all.

Work is not much… work right now. I’ve got little to do, so I’m going to have to be proactive to keep myself busy. I’m starting to warm up to some of the other projects I had abandoned months ago, both internal ones and things I can do for my clients, more as exercises for my programming chops.

We’re almost ready to launch the new WordPress site for the local party. I’ve also been looking at a new theme for this site, as well as standing up a professional portfolio/CV site. Right now I’ve picked out a few from Envato Elements, but need to get a few things in order for my cornerstone client before I do that.

Tonight, I promised my oldest that I would let her pick out a video game on Steam. She’s been playing Roblox obsessively, and I was fine with her playing that unsupervised, but some of the games are pretty mindless and last night I found her playing some sort of FPS called Arsenal. I had mentioned that I might work on a game for it, but after looking at the developer kit for it decided that I didn’t have time for another complex project like that. So I’ll let her take a crack at it tonight, or see if there are any of the numerous programming games on there that she’ll like.

We’ve also started planting some seeds. I bought a subscription to SmartGardener, and loaded all my (five year old) seeds in the app. We’ve missed the window for almost everything but the cilantro, but I had the girls plant tomato plants yesterday just as an teaching experience. Something tells me that we’re going to need to start taking gardening much more seriously now.

The 10% Entrepreneur

Live Your Startup Dream Without Quitting Your Day Job, by Patrick J. McGinnnis

My wife got me this book for Christmas last year, and it’s just the book I need at this point in my life. Like most people, I’ve been fed up and unchallenged by my day job for some time, and looking for a way to escape. I’ve been unwilling, or unable, perhaps, to take the plunge into entrepreneurship at this point. I’m in my early forties, and have a mortgage and two kids to take care of. I’m not financially independent, yet, and so quitting my day job to work on some venture right now is not something I’m willing to risk.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I fell into business ownership. I worked at a small computer sales and repair store, and the the owner wanted out. This was during the beginning of the Iraq war, and the owner was in the reserves and going to be called up. They offered the store, and all assets to me and another employee if we were willing to take on the business debt. We both jumped at the chance, but the venture ultimately failed, and it took me seven years to clear the stains on my credit. So needless to say, going into debt to start another business is not something that I’m willing to do.

I’ve also seen how taking on personal liability for a business loan has affected my current boss. Having that kind of stress in ones life is a sure-fire way to grey hair and cardiovascular problems. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the type of venture investors who are willing to throw angel money at a company, at least not yet. I did have an interesting experience participating in the semifinal round of a local startup competition that was fun, but ultimately, when the it seemed that the chance to go all-in on a venture was presented, my existing obligations, political and personal, prevented me from taking that leap.

They say that the thing that you want is on the other side of your fear, but so far my need for stability has won out. Perhaps that’s why McGinnnis’s book is so appealing. It offers a third way between the two poles, between day job stability and entrepreneurial rewards. It advocates keeping the day job and turning ten percent of ones resources, whether that be time, money, or expertise, toward startup ventures.

The 10% Entrepreneur is a light book. It’s opening pages have a few checklists and self-assessments to find out where you stand, it moves on to concrete steps on how to build your opportunity pipeline, assess them, and build a team or personal network. It’s filled with numerous real-life examples, including the author’s own, of people who have followed the 10% plan to build their own businesses and ultimately, a new life.

McGinnis describes the various ways that people can contribute to their ten percent, based on the resources they have at hand. Those with time can focus on running a business, those with expertise can advise, and those with capital can invest. And those with more than one of those can blend them accordingly.

One insight I took away from the book is the idea of a cornerstone client. A term taken from commercial real estate, a cornerstone client is usually a large retail store, like a Sears or Macy’s that draws customers and attracts other stores to a mall or shopping center. The metaphor may not hold up in this post-retail age, but McGinnis recommends focusing on finding that cornerstone client for your venture, one that will show that you’ve arrived, and provide social proof for other perspective clients. This type of proof of work, or past performance as it’s called in the government contracting business, is important to establish oneself, and provide the necessary traction to make a transition from ten percent into a more involved role.

Some of the ten percenters described in this book decide not to quit their day jobs, instead preferring to hand off day to day management to others while retaining ownership. Others build a stable of advisorships, building equity in a number of firms. I’m more partial to the latter. Just a few days ago, I called up a contact that I’ve been advising with to tell her that I was ready to take a formal stake in the company in exchange for two hours a week of advising. We have been dancing around this relationship for over year now, but with graduation on the horizon, it’s time for me to take the next step.

I have another venture I’m involved with, that has been my cornerstone client. I had neither realized nor been treating them as such. But as I was reading the book it became instantly apparent. It’s not a relationship that I’ve been too happy with, so I’m in the process of re-evaluating that relationship, and reaching to both them and another potential partner that I’m hoping will make a much more solid cornerstone.

Building your ten percent venture, just like any business, is about building a network, forging relationships, and making connections. It may sound a bit cliched, but it is like planting seeds and watering them from time to time until they sprout and grow. I haven’t been the best at keeping up with people, personally or professionally; a shortcoming that I will no doubt have to correct. The 10% Entrepreneur reminds me that this cannot be neglected.

And ultimately, being an entrepreneur, whether that’s a ten percent or full time job, is about playing the long game. McGinnis discusses failure and the importance of ethics when it comes to ones reputation, and how important open communication and treating people with respect is. It’s possible to fail and still come out on top. If you handle the fallout with integrity, it’s likely that others will want to work with on that next entrepreneurial project, and maybe this one will be the one to take off, providing you the freedom or fulfillment that you so desire.

World on FIRE

It seems almost impossible to think about long-term finances in the midst of a global pandemic, however, we have to assume that we’re not headed for complete and utter global collapse. My wife has been obsessed with the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement for some time, and while I’ve been with her in spirit, I haven’t been really focusing on it. For one, I’ve considered my finances very tight, and haven’t seen much room for cutting back in my budget. Two, I’m focused more on investments and entrepreneurial opportunity, and this FIRE movement is something a bit new for her. That said, I’ve been anticipating a recessionary event for over a year now, and have been trying to escape what some call “wage slavery” for even longer. So the ideas of the FIRE movement aren’t foreign to me to begin with.

Being home in self-isolation these past two weeks or so has led my wife and I to question everything about our current situation. Our biggest liability right now is our home. We’d already come to the conclusion that we’ve got too much house, and have long term plans to downsize as a way to save money. She still owns her starter home, which she rents through a property management company, and will have fully paid off this month. She’ll be completely debt free. Me, not so much. I’ve got less than ten grand left on a car loan, plus more than twenty in student loans that I’ve accumulated.

We’d been discussing getting rid of my car; her’s is fully paid off. And while I’m currently near break even with regard to the value of the car and the loan, something tells me it’s going to be very hard to unload my car right now. I’m assuming a private sale is going to be damn near impossible, and selling to a dealership will pretty much guarantee me a balance on my loan.

The FIRE community likes to talk about the rule of 25. It states that you need 25 times your annual expenses in order to maintain your current standard of living. It assumes a four percent growth rate of savings to use as income. When you break that down by month, that’s three hundred times. When you think about each dollar of recurring expenses, it really puts things in perspective. So we cut our Hulu and Netflix subscriptions, and cancelled our Amazon Prime subscriptions to cut down on impulse shopping.

We canceled our housekeeper (a sure sign we’ve got too much house!) last week because we were isolating. (We paid her anyways.)They normally come twice a month, at $135 a pop. That’s $6750 of savings we’d need to maintain. Since we were all home last week, we went on a cleaning rampage to straighten up the house. It might have just been cabin fever, but if we can keep it up through this week I may be able to convince my wife to cut that expense.

Besides our mortgage expense, our largest recurring expense is childcare. We’re currently spending over $300 a week on daycare for our two kids, somewhere around eighteen thousand a year. There’s a bit of tax savings from my wife’s TSP and childcare credits, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment. When our state closed the schools, we decided to pull the kids out of daycare for two weeks, anticipating that the pandemic would escalate and they would be forced to close the day cares. Last week was my wife was home with me on leave, but this week it’ll be just me with the girls all day long. It’s going to be tough, but if things work out this week we’ll likely cancel daycare altogether so we can save that money.

There are a lot of risks to this strategy, but I think it’s going to work out. I’ll have more time to spend with the kids, and have more of a direct impact on their studies and behavior. We’ll save lots of money, and it will force me into a complete work from home lifestyle. I just won’t be available for remote service calls, which will force my employer into making some changes to the way we operate, mainly by eliminating my commute times. On the flip side, it could backfire. Getting actual time for deep work like I’ve been accustomed to will prove hard to do with the kids in the house. Of course, if work fails and I’m forced to take a traditional corporate job with a lot of face time, we’ll have lost our holding spot in day care and have to go back on the wait list.

The financial upside is just too great not to try though. If I can manage to maintain my current hours for my day job, which is likely, my wife and I will not only be able to save a lot of money, but I should have more time overall to spend with my kids, and be able to stay home and focus on my side projects. It’s the equivalent of a large raise, and could work out very well if I can hold my day job.

Staycation: Day 7

We were rained in yesterday. I tried to keep the kids occupied by offering them several chore cards that they could turn in for screen time. It worked until after lunch, when my wife decided she was done for the day and then it was Marvel movies till the end of the day.

A few days ago, the state decided to start allowing alcohol deliveries, so we were able to order wine and beer through Instacart. I asked the delivery person how things were out there, and she said that it was crazy. Lots of empty shelves. I anticipated as much so I bought double bread and lots of canned meats: Vienna sausages, smoked oysters, and even a pound of canned ham.

Our homemade hot dog bun experiment did not go well. The bread came out OK, but was too dense to fit a dog into. It was funny really. They’ll make better breadsticks with pasta tonight. I normally put crushed carrots in the tomato sauce; I’m going to put in sardines tonight and see if the kids notice.

Undoubtedly, my main concern is food security. I figured we’d need two weeks worth of food to deal with quarantine and a full lock down, but now I’m wondering what is the most efficient way to get a longer supply. Like how many calories does a family of four need for a year, and how many bags of rice is that? Someone told me Mormon families keep a years worth of food in their house, and it’s left me wondering.

Of course if it gets to that, we’re all well and truly fucked. I’ve got a couple accounts in my Twitter feed that are really sounding the alarm as far as the finance system goes, but there’s not a lot of concern for the food system, yet. I did see an article that planting season in North America is still a few weeks out, and noted that with temporary immigration shut down, we might have some problems with planting and harvesting some of those crops.

The pandemic continues to spread. Boris Johnson warned UK citizens that they’re going to become like Italy if they don’t distance. Israel is on full lockdown, but that might be more about Bibi protecting himself from trial and trying to stop unrest over the elections. Nothing out of Putin or Russia. There’s probably mass suppression there.

More cities on the East Coast are starting to see rapid increases in cases. Mario Cuomo seems to be acting like the President should be, and there are theories that the DNC is going to make him the nominee somehow. Rumors are that Biden is sick. Bernie has pivoted his campaign to helping spread information and help people, but most of the primaries are being cancelled. I’m not sure there’s a path to victory for him.

And Trump continues to be an unmitigated disaster. Unable to hold rallies, he’s resorted to press conferences for attention. It’s mostly him rambling, followed by his sycophants talking about what a great job he’s doing, followed by the experts like Dr. Faulci, getting up and contradicting what the President just said. Every time he speaks, the Dow plummets.

Bitcoin has been pretty quiet this weekend. Monday morning will tell what the markets do. I’m down to the last purchase of GBTC or two that I’ve been executing since we started, over twenty weeks ago. I’ve still got enough cash to continue dollar-cost averaging the positions I have active, plus enough to open two or three new positions.

My wife keeps using the word “surreal” to describe what’s going on. We’re very lucky, basically on a staycation for this last week. She’s probably going back to work tomorrow. I’m going to keep the girls home and see how well I handle them.

Software craftsmanship

My latest commit on a Python TDAmeritrade API wrapper.

That purple MERGED button gives me one of the most satisfying feelings imaginable. As someone who’s been playing with code for well over three decades, seeing my contributions made part of a project that others and myself use brings me a lot of joy.

I’ve always enjoyed learning how to make computers do things, from the time I was four or five and playing video games on my dad’s IBM PC/2. When I was in fourth grade we did some computer labs with BASIC, and just something like creating an infinite PRINT loop was a great source of amusement. The advent of the web brought HTML, CSS and Javascript skills, tinkering with WordPress, Wikis, and other open source projects taught me PHP. There was a problem though.

All of my dabbling was just playing upon the surface of a giant pond. The more I experimented, the more I realized that I was missing something, conceptually. I started getting stuck. My projects would eventually get too big to work, to complex for me to refactor. I became discouraged, and kept to support roles, helping end users and building and deploying business networks.

Twenty plus years of being “the computer guy” will take a toll on anyone. I suffered from the symptoms of burnout without recognizing the cause. I began to feel a sort of contempt for the people who I was supposed to be helping. It became harder for me to exercise the type of patience needed to deal with older people, unaccustomed as someone my age or younger is to technology. And it became harder for me to maintain the demeanor needed for someone in that role. So I started checking out, and saying no.

It was frustration that drove me back to school. The realization that my self-paced learning had hit a wall, and that I needed some help to get to the next level if my skills were ever to match my ambitions. The other part was seeing job applications with degree requirements, and being unable to get callbacks for the jobs that I wanted. Now, I realize that a lot of it was the lack of challenge. Looking back, I think I had probably grown a bit complacent, arrogant even, unhappy with the direction my career was going, and unchallenged in the ways that I needed.

So the past few years of school has been very fulfilling. The curriculum wasn’t quite what I expected, or as comprehensive as what I think is needed in today’s IT world, but I’ve managed to run with it. Despite starting numerous projects over the past few years, I still haven’t delivered anything that I would consider finished, but the programs I’m building now are a step up from the things I was making a few years ago.

Programming is ultimately a creative art. Having abandoned my musical aspirations several years ago in favor of job stability, perhaps I’ve been craving that outlet in a way that hasn’t been fulfilled. And building software systems, or as in the case above, contributing to an existing project, making it a little bit better, commit by commit, gives me the same sense of craftsmanship that songwriting did.

Self Quarantine: Day 5

We’re all homeschoolers now

Efforts to remain completely isolate have failed. After talking to several of the parents on the street, we’ve decided to let our kids play. There’s five families, about ten kids in all. Most of us are staying home during this first week, but three of the parents work at one of the local hospitals. That’s not including my wife, who works at the hospital, but isn’t in the medical field, and hasn’t been in this week.

That could all change next week. The government agency that she works for is not managing this crisis well. Federal leadership has made some proclamations about non-essential personnel, social distancing, and large groups, but the local leadership’s willingness to follow this is questionable. And with whistleblower protections and union activisism at a nadir during these times, it seems likely that there’s any recourse for her to try to exercise her rights. Anyways, my wife doesn’t like me discussing her professional activities in this forum, so I’ll leave that alone.

Speaking of unions, it seems that the federal workers unions are focused on TSA employees, who are “dropping like flies” according to my wife. Her father has been overseas, working in the Middle East for the past few months, and has been trying to decide whether to come home. Yesterday, the State Department put out an advisory calling for all US citizens to come home or “be prepared to stay abroad indefinitely.” He’s not in the best of shape, but will probably risk coming home, since he’s been staying in a small apartment while he’s been working, and has a large home in the mountains that I’m sure he’d much rather be at.

My father is currently under self-quarantine. My stepsister’s daughter has had flu-like symptoms, so his work has told him to lockdown. He’s retiring in less than fifty days. “You picked a hell of a time to retire,” I told him the other day on the phone. I worried he wasn’t going to take things seriously but apparently he’s all stocked up on frozen food and beer.

I haven’t had any alcohol since last Wednesday. I had the usual sleep issues, and have been overcompensating with caffinee and chocolate. Managed to get a couple of two and a half mile runs in lately, but haven’t made time to do any weightlifting. We made a run to the grocery store two days ago to restock; I used the internet ordering to avoid going in the store. The clerk who brought my stuff out seemed in good spirits. The store was completely out of bread, so we bought flour.

Yesterday’s baking did not go as planned. I had the kids help prepare the ingredients, let them start the mixing while I explained how yeast works, then I turned out the dough on the table before they ran off to play. A couple of days ago, I asked my wife to cook a chicken I had brined, and she made a bit of a mess with the oven. I had put the bird on a rack pan to let it dry from the brine, and she decided to put a piece of aluminium foil on top of the rack to keep it clean. While the bird was in the oven, the drippings ran over the side of the pan and onto the bottom of the oven. I thought I we had burnt the bird when the house started filling up with smoke, but it actually came out good. I had forgotten about the mess when I went to bake the buns, which started the smoke back up. So now I’ve got a pan full of buns in the freezer.

And guess I’ve got an oven to clean today.

Side hustle day

So the search has officially begun. I spent some time on AngelList, looking for opportunities, and sent a few messages out some founders. All equity stakes, unfortunately, but hopefully I’ll start the conversation rolling.

Also reached out to the team behind a new AI startup. It seems that they’re running various AI projects behind the scenes and offering an API for devs to get the results. Seems like an interesting platform play, providing AI as a service. Reminds me of what Twilio did.

Following the advice of Peter McCormick in The 10% Entrepreneur, I’ve started writing a professional biography. I uploaded my draft to AngelList, and will do so on LinkedIn as well. I have to be careful how I put things, cause I don’t want any blow-back from my boss right now. I don’t think it’s likely, given that they can’t survive without me, but I can’t afford to take chances. Anyways, the point of the biography is to build a coherent picture that brings together where I’m at now, where I hope to be, and encompasses my professional, academic, open source, and political contributions. I think I did a good job.

Today I will focus on making progress on client projects, and following up on any opportunities. One of my clients hasn’t paid in months, so it’s time to have a tough talk with them about the future. I have another advisory project I haven’t spoken to recently, and another relationship that I’m hoping to make the cornerstone of new business.

After assessing that, I need to make a few cuts, finance wise. I’ve been carrying Basecamp, Harvest, and an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription for some time, not to mention my Namecheap reseller account and AWS instance running the IDEX node. Unless I can secure some immediate funding source, I’ll have to cut. I think Basecamp may be willing to offer services for people affected by Coronavirus, but I doubt Adobe would do the same.

On a personal node, I should probably do the same with my Waking Up subscription. Sam Harris is gracious enough to allow people to request free subscriptions, so I need to do that. Taxes are also due in a month, so I need to start working on that. I’ll defer that till this weekend. I manged to eek out a refund last year because of business expenses, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get away with that this year. We’ll see.

That’s it, time to get busy!

Automated IT support system

Pulling together a franchise system

I’ve been reading The 10% Entrepreneur, and The Future is Faster Than You Think in bed the past few nights, hoping that it’ll prime my brain to come up with ideas for me to take in the next step in my career. I’m not going to share the crazy dreams I had last night, but I will share this idea, mostly for me to mull on and come back to in a few months.

This idea is for a IT support communications app utilizing voice and chat, with a little bit of AI thrown in for speech recognition.

The problem: I work for an MSP, and over time a number of customers have gotten ahold of my personal cell phone. This is bad. We have several endpoints, if you will, for clients to contact us: an official office number, which is routed to an answering service, a support email, which goes to our ticketing system; and a support desk number, which goes to our helpdesk partner. We have no texting capability.

The catalyst: During a client network outage, I called their ISP, and the hold message said that I could text an agent at a certain shortcode. I quickly hung up and texted the number, then proceeded to deal with the issue, asynchronously. I thought that it would be a powerful tool for us to use if we had similar agent capabilites.

I’ve done a bit of tinkering with Twilio’s platform, having used it experimentally during a few political campaigns. Their Flex platform is geared toward call centers and support agents, and all of their services have APIs, allowing it to be connected to other systems. (This interview with their CEO is enlightening.)

Solution: Build out a phone/text response tree and use it to replace our answering service with speech to text message relay, and also provide text messaging capabilities for clients as well. There are a number of ways to integrate this with our legacy ticketing system API for ticket creation, or, for ticketing creation and status changes in the other direction.

There’s another opportunity here as well. The firm I work for is a franchise, and there is so much redundancy built into the business model. Every independent franchisee has their own instance of our ticketing system, and has to hire or train their own resources to work with all of our different vendors: our RMM, PSA partners, cloud services (e.g. O365 various services), disaster recovery/business continuity, and so on. I don’t even want to try and count the number of vendors that I have to deal with. Personally, I’m well suited to this type of jack-of-all-trades position, but I’m at the point now where I brisk at having to learn or deal with some new system that doesn’t have APIs or programmatical interfaces. And through my interactions with other franchisees and techs in our Slack, I can tell that some of them are less than capable of handling some of these projects.

The onboarding process for our location was very difficult. We were pretty much handed some tools and left to figure them out for ourselves. There’s been some improvements in how this is handled more recently, but one of our vendor onboarding documents was near fifty pages of step-by-step instructions and screenshots.

I’ve tried to set up some automations internally, and tried to get traction among the other franchisees, but the appetite just doesn’t seem to be there. I just don’t think the owner community is really thinking along the same lines as me, and this is one of the main reasons why I don’t think the firm is a good fit for me any longer. I approached one of the home office leaders about using some of the API work I’m doing to do some cross-franchise data mining, and got dismissed out of hand.

I think there’s a huge opportunity to consolidate some of these roles and operations across the franchise system. In fact, I think that it’s the only way that some of the smaller franchises are going to survive. That said, I think the way the business model works, and the way the franchise system has been sold to the franchisees will allow these improvements to be made.

The system I’ve described above should allow multiple franchise locations to share the same dispatching and messaging contacts, and allow messages to be routed to the proper client owner. I will share this idea within the global group, to see if anyone is interested funding development of such a system.