Knowledge and specialization

Now that Thanksgiving is over, I’m trying to get back in the swing of things and stick to my habits. I’ve been terribly bad lately, staying up too late, not getting enough exercise, and spending too much money on beer. I’m sure a lot of it was exuberance with the bitcoin price action; I was way too excited about my prospects. This Thanksgiving pullback seems to have deflated my mania. I also deleted TradingView and my cointracking apps off of my phone.

I spent a lot of time playing Elite: Dangerous the past week after it was offered for free on Epic Games. It’s a massive timesuck. I played six hours after dinner on Thursday, trying to complete a mission that may have been bugged. It’s a great game, but I feel like I need to delete it from my PC. Otherwise I may wind up pulling out the Saitek flightstick and Oculus out of the closet. May as well buy some adult diapers while I’m at it.

Last night I spent the evening working on a bug fix pull request for a Hardhat issue that no one’s been working on. I ran into it while working on my Ether Auction unit tests, two other people seem to have discovered it as well, so I decided to take a look at it. It was actually pretty easy to fix. The Hardhat library explicitly imports many of the matchers in the Waffle library, these balance change functions were just left out. I tested one of them within my actual repo and it worked fine, but I’m not sure the most efficient way to design a unit test around every one of these functions. I may take another crack at it later.

I still get a kick contributing to projects, knowing that my contributions are forever going to be associated with the project history. Even if I’m just doing minor stuff like fixing a typo or adding a couple of imports to a file. It’s like every commit or PR gives me dev points, and each one still gives me a little dopamine hit.

There was a quote that’s had my attention recently: “the more knowledgeable you become, the more you tend to specialize.” I can’t recall the exact wording, but the gist is that as one gains knowledge in a field, the more one tends toward specialization in a particular niche. One the one hand, my professional knowledge has tended to spike toward a topic for a period of time before moving on in a different direction, Jack of all trades, Master of none, if you will. I might be overly harsh on myself. On the other hand there is a bit of immense freedom in this, that I’m not trapped into a particular niche. Still, it may be too much freedom, and has prevented me from truly mastering particular domains. I usually focus on what I need to get things done, then it’s on to the next thing.

When I was younger, I used to ready entire documentation manuals from front to back. I remember the large Windows 2000 Server Administrator guides, large 1700 page monstrosities that I would flip through with great curiosity. It got me pretty far in my career, and still serves me well as far as Windows server administration goes. I’m just trying hard to get away from that career.

Now that I’m in my forties, there’s a part of me that wonders whether I still have the capability to absorb information or pick up new skills like I used to. My brain is a sponge, but is it’s absorption rate still what it used to be? I don’t know whether it’s just doubt, impostor syndrome, or just too much time to think, but part of me is wondering whether I have what it takes to succeed in these endeavors that I’m undertaking.

As far as my day job goes, it seems that I’ve already made a semi-conscious effort to stop keeping up with the changes. There’s so much consolidation in the managed services space, with remote management and process service vendors merging left and right. New offerings are popping up all the time. Every few days Bossmang will send me an email about some online conference for this or that, Sonicwall’s new OS offering, say, and ask me if I’ve registered for it.

“Nope”. Aint gonna.

I’m simply focused on maintaining our existing customer networks. We haven’t had a new client in eighteen months. Right now I’m just focused on completing the Ether Auction, then I’ll have my first Ethereum project under my belt, and then I’ll feel comfortable calling myself an Ethereum developer, which will open a lot of doors. I know I can get the version done before a COVID vaccine is widely available, and then I should be able to go anywhere.

I’ve always loved casting a wide net, and going wherever my fancy took me. Unfortunately, this results in a bit of decision paralysis. I must get this from my mom. My dad called it “flightiness”, as she always had a new hobby, whether it be woodcrafts, painting, stained glass, or hiking. I tend to take after her in that respect, in what Missus calls my six-month projects.

I’m more focused on seeing things through to the end these days, but I’ve always lived by the maxim that works of art are never completed, merely abandoned. Maybe it’s a matter of specification, the difference between building to requirements versus a creative project based more on exploration.

Focusing on the process, rather than the outcome seem to help. Sit down, code, make progress toward the next thing. Resist the urge to start something new. Say “no”. Have constraints. Reduce the possible futures to the set of those where success (or at least completion) is inevitable. Collapse the superposition to a finite state, hit that commit button, deploy that contract, so you can say it.

“I’m done.”

Professional excellence

Today was pretty chill. I had my annual physical today, the girls were off school, and neither Missus or I were in the mood for much work, so we all took it easy today.

Public schools decided to take an early break today so I let the girls watch some TV this morning. I gave them a list of chores to do for more TV, but they decided not to do any of them, which was fine with me. I took them to the park for an hour this afternoon to run off some steam. I’m making them wear their masks while they play, but it’s probably not doing any good since they keep pulling them down. I’m trying.

My physical was uneventful, we mostly talked about our kids, fishing, and bitcoin, of course. Doc seems like someone I would hang out with, if I had friends of course. It would be a huge violation of ethics though. Que sera.

I didn’t have any messages or tickets in my inbox at work this morning, so I was planning on slacking off, but I surprised myself by answering a call for help on the national team tech help channel. There was an Exchange server error that was caused by a broken Active Directory/DNS issue. I spent an hour and a half troubleshooting and checking things, and finally got to what I thought was the fix. I still needed more information from the client, so I called them, waited an hour for them to call back. I ran the command, rebooted the server, and things were up and running.

The client asked me, “all you did was run that one command?”

“Yes,” I told them. He thanked me and I did my picture perfect support rep impression before signing off. I recalled a story that I had read some time ago that I often refer to after incidents like this, sometimes called The Handyman’s Invoice or The Boilermaker’s Story:

“There is an old story of a boilermaker who was hired to fix a huge steamship boiler system that was not working well.

After listening to the engineer’s description of the problems and asking a few questions, he went to the boiler room. He looked at the maze of twisting pipes, listened to the thump of the boiler and the hiss of the escaping steam for a few minutes, and felt some pipes with his hands. Then he hummed softly to himself, reached into his overalls and took out a small hammer, and tapped a bright red valve one time. Immediately, the entire system began working perfectly, and the boilermaker went home.

When the steamship owner received a bill for one thousand dollars, he became outraged and complained that the boilermaker had only been in the engine room for fifteen minutes and requested an itemized bill. So the boilermaker sent him a bill that reads as follows:
For tapping the valve: $.50
For knowing where to tap: $999.50
TOTAL: $1,000.00”

Thoughts on work and family

Work, or rather my job, has been taking up entirely too much of my mental power lately, and I am operating at my limit. My limit. I’m basically running myself ragged at this point. I’ve already been responsible for taking care of the kids from the time they wake up at seven in the morning till the time my wife gets off work at five o’clock, and managing my work responsibilities, and now I’ve got the added responsibility of overseeing an employee. I feel like I’ve got another child.

I’m not quite as overwhelmed as I have been in the past as I’m doing a lot better at limiting my workload, but it’s damn near impossible to take care of the girls and work at the same time during the day. I’m just going to start taking every other Friday off.

I had a pretty heated argument with my boss today about things. We’ve been together for eight years this winter, so like any married couple we’ve learned how to fight with each other. I basically abdicated responsibility for this employee several years ago after attempting on several occasions to manage him, but each time found him unable to follow my directions. I don’t know if I’ve become a better leader or if he’s become more focused, but I feel like we’ve turned a corner in the two weeks since he’s been reporting to me.

There are definitely more tools at my disposal this time. I’m basically using Microsoft Planner — a kanban board — to limit his work in progress, and have been micromanaging the shit out of him this entire time. I don’t trust his judgement. He’s been managing two separate business segments and has had absolutely zero accountability. And my boss wants to complain about him taking advantage of us, while it’s been his failure to hold him accountable that has gotten us to where we are now. The employee has been put on part time work, and we’ve brought in an HR representative to put him on notice. So yea, he’s focused now.

I think the real difference between this time and the last attempts I’ve made at managing this employee is that I’ve gotten Boss out of the way. We’re not giving conflicting, or changing priorities. If something goes on the board, it gets finished. Done. Done. Done. It seems like we’ve been operating in a state of constant anxiety, where everything is urgent and important, and today I actually felt somewhat relaxed in that I didn’t feel the need to follow up with this employee every two hours.

The things I’d found out, the way that Boss and this employee had been operating, frankly boggled my mind. So much of what had been allowed was completely unacceptable, and I’ve managed to turn things around pretty quickly.

My own projects however, have been put on hold, mainly from exhaustion, and the absence of the time needed for me to do the deep work needed to get things done.

The kids have compounded things this week as well. I’ve been forced to shift how I deal with their academics. I usually let them work on their school at the same time, either independently while I get stuff done or while taking turns. Since I’ve been using RemNote’s spaced repetition with them, I’ve had to be more hands on, so I’ve been letting one of them take a turn watching a show while I work with the other one. We haven’t been doing a lot lately, but I really need to sit down with both of them or they’ll get frustrated and complain that something is too hard. So sitting with them and working it out together seems to calm things down a bit and allow me to really work with them on something.

I think I may be helping Elder a bit too much with her math. I’ve been drilling her on vocabulary lately, but I’m not really happy with her math skills. She still counts a lot, even for basic things like 8-2, so I’m going to be adding some more flash cards to her routine. I even write a short program to generate the cards needed.

# Addition
x = range(1,10)
y = x 
for i in x:
  for j in y:

# Output
1 + 1 :: 2
1 + 2 :: 3
9 + 8 :: 17
9 + 9 :: 18

Changing this for subtraction and multiplication is trivial.

Beyond that though, she’s still flying through some of the questions on the Khan Academy tests, mixing up addition and subtraction, and I should probably let her make more wrong answers.

Still, I’m mostly happy with the way things have been going, even though there’s been some behavioral problems. I’m still being my usual hard-ass self, but they are being creative and playing, and most importantly, not watching a lot of TV.

Tomorrow though, I’m turning off my desk phone, closing my email and messaging apps, and I’m not checking anything until after lunch. I have got to get some project work done, and I want to take the kids to the beach.

The weekend starts early tomorrow.

I only see my goals, I don’t believe in failure

white book with text

Another rough night. I went to bed on time but couldn’t fall asleep. Younger woke up around eleven and I was still awake, and put her in a fresh diaper and let her come in the master bed. Then, just after I had dozed off, the fire alarms went off. I don’t know why they only go off in the middle of the night. Never during the day, only at midnight. The same thing has happened in many times before, when the batteries gets low. They’re tied into the house’s power, and I think something about the HVAC kicking on causes the signal to drop below some threshold and off they go: BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP. I actually had some fresh nine volts, so I threw them in and went back to bed. Whether from the adrenaline, or from Younger tossing and turning, I still couldn’t sleep, so I just grabbed my pillow and went to Younger’s bed, and fell asleep close to two AM.

The girls have been completely demanding, despite the fact that they’ve been playing most of the day building a secret hideout in the living room. I managed to get Elder to do a lot of studying this morning before I let them watch TV; I’ve decided that giving them an hour beforehand makes it difficult for me to get them to do anything. The weather has been so hot lately, with heat advisories and temperatures topping the high nineties, so the girls have been indoors almost the entire day. I don’t think they’ve seen their friends since our little house party last Saturday. They’ve been getting along for the most part, but Younger has been acting out and refusing to follow directions.

I’ve been getting a lot done at work. There hasn’t been a lot of unplanned, urgent, anti-work coming at me lately, so I’m getting a lot of my queues cleared, cleaning out old tickets that have been sitting ignored for weeks or months. I’ve made some good progress rolling out Apple Business Manager with federated Azure Active Directory domains, so I might be able to use native mobile device management capabilities between the two and dump this god-awful third party solution that we’ve been using. Once I get that cleared up, I plan on looking at ways to supplement our configuration management using some native and open source tools. There are some interesting solutions that have come to my attention that can help standardize some of our build processes. Hopefully this will make me more valuable to other franchisees in our network, and help me get some more project work.

I’ve decided to start broaching the subject of a raise with my boss. I’ve been kicking ass since coming back from the July 4th holiday and implementing kanban into my workflow, and I want to wait another two weeks or so before I have a discussion. Zombie, LLC. may still have some life left in it. The printer repair subcontract that we’ve taken on seems to be doing well enough that Boss wants me to start taking over operations, and we’re also going to start targeting voice services in the area, which seems to have less competition going than our managed services offering. I re-registered a domain for this purpose yesterday and will be working on the website for it soon.

That makes four current WordPress projects that I’ve got, active or queued up. I hope to be wrapping up the one I’ve been working on by the end of the month, it may be tomorrow, depending on how the conversation with the client goes over the next day or two. If there are any conversations, I might say. There’s been radio silence since they essentially fired me and I responded that I was going to continue and follow through with my delivery objectives. In a way, I don’t recall feeling this heartbroken since my last breakup.

This project has consumed a lot of time the past two months, and I’m looking forward to putting it behind me. I had allocated eight hours a month, based on the retainer that we had agreed on. My timesheet for last month shows thirty hours spent, and I’m going to hit twenty for this month after another call or two, and possibly another ten if things go well. It can’t keep up at this rate, and I was hoping to add this site to my portfolio as a way to garner additional business.

The other sites that I have ready to go after include one for a local civil rights chapter, a rental booking site for my father in law, and now this site for the telco branch of Zombie. And it feels like I haven’t touched a code editor in weeks. I’ve been mucking around with some small tasks, like checking out lazydocker, and trying to get my cryptominer up and running with RaveOS, but I’ve purposefully kept any actual project work off my WIP board until I got this client taken care of.

I’m looking forward to getting my hands back in an IDE and doing some work, starting with some fintech stuff. I’ve got some refactoring to do with my equities trading protocols, work on the TDAmeritrade package has been progressing at a clip, and I haven’t even logged into Github in several weeks. Likewise, I haven’t filled out a job application in almost two weeks as well. I’m sure my Sixty Days to Six Figures deadline has come and gone. I stopped keeping track when this WP project consumed me.

I think I’m doing all I can do right now, honestly. I’ve practically given up all social media use. I haven’t logged onto Twitter in days. In the morning I rise, make my tea, and meditate, then write this blog if I’m up early enough before the kids. I work all day, take a few breaks for reading, cook and clean, and maybe watch a short show with the girls before dinner. Then after they’re to bed, it’s another two hours of work, and an hour of reading before bed. I’m not sure there’s much else I can do other than what I’m doing.

I’m forty-one now, and frequently looking back at where I’ve been and wondering if my trajectory is sufficient to get me where I’d hoped to be in life. I get to spend time with my kids, no matter how frustrating it is, and am able to give them everything they need. What more can I ask for? I was watching a John Oliver segment yesterday and they showed a supercut of TV anchors bemoaning being stuck home with their kids. I caught myself griping to someone on the phone today and caught myself thinking about it. Why should this be the norm?

I’ve been pushing the kids, perhaps projecting my own insecurities on them. I tell myself that it’s a different world that they’re inheriting, and that they’ll adapt to it the way we’ve all adapted to living with COVID these past five months or so. I want to give them the tools and a headstart on certain skills that I think will be needed in this future world, but Missus called me a control freak while we were arguing today, so maybe that’s part of it. No, that is a part of it. Having my kids close by, and able to guide their development at this early stage of life is probably the greatest opportunity to arise so far as part of this pandemic.

It’s hard for them, and it’s hard for Missus and I. We just have to keep working on it.

Fast, good, cheap

Pick any two

It’s been a little over one year since I started blogging in earnest. I’ve been taking a look at the archives from last July to see what I was writing about back then. When I started, I think I gave myself a three hundred word target, just to get in the habit. Today, these posts routinely run two to three times that length, and with some posts in excess of fifteen hundred words. The content of those early posts were more focused; I had the habit of writing a post for every book or magazine that I read, but today these posts are mostly journal exercises for the most part.

My most popular posts have been on technical issues, two about a WordPress hack and an Windows server issue seems to drive most of the traffic here. My exploration into Facebook’s Prophet machine learning tools gets another trickle. I’ve yet to find a focus for this blog beyond whatever strikes my fancy for the day, and I’m content to continue with it as is, making small adjustments as necessary. However, they say that no one ever got where they wanted to go without a plan, so some critical fascimilie of a plan might have to come together at some point if I want this to be a part of a long-term career strategy.

For now, it serves enough for it to be a place where I practice my writing muscle. If I write, I am therefore a writer, so it goes, and every day that I write the better I get. I’m closing in on three hundred posts here, including ones older than a year old. (This count doesn’t consider the archival posts that are monthly roll-ups from the previous incarnation of my WP database.) I’m hoping that by the time I reach five hundred I’ll be even better. We’ll see if the traffic to this blog increases along with it. Time will tell.

The kids have been incredibly difficult this morning. We all got up pretty much at the same time, and I was unable to get much done till after they left for their grandmother’s house. Younger has been especially sensitive this morning, but both of the girls seem intent on making a sport out of disobeying me. I was unable to get either of them to do their studies this morning, and at one point I had them both taking timeouts in the kitchen, which they made into a game where they tried to laugh at each other while I made lunch. I shouldn’t be mad but I did lose my temper briefly from having to repeat myself whilst being ignored repeatedly. Hopefully they’ll be better behaved when they come back.

I’ll admit that part of the reason for the discord here in the house is due to a text I got from my WordPress client basically firing me from the project. When we had set out, I thought I had made perfectly clear that this was going to be done quickly. I believe my exact words were something to the effect of being on the cheap and good areas on the project triangle, and that if we needed to move to the fast that they should let me know. As we entered the third month of our engagement, they let it be known that they were frustrated with the pace, and that I had expressed some doubts about my ability to deliver the project. I had expressed some frustrations about the work that I had inherited. This was mostly due to the amicable arrangement that we had started out on.

I think one of the major mistakes I made taking on this project was not properly scoping it and setting expectations. Another WP developer in my area charges twelve hundred dollars for a basic, four or five page WP site, and this project involved a major redesign and restructuring of an existing site. Easily a six month project at the rates I was charging. That obviously wouldn’t have flown if I had proposed that at the beginning.

I did identify several aspects of the redesign that I wasn’t going to be able to deliver on my own, mainly image assets. I was having a hard time gathering stock photography to match what they were asking me for. When I made this clear to the client, and told them that delivering everything I felt needed to be done within the accelerated timeline was going to be difficult, they told me that they had other developer resources that we could bring in. I said by all means.

This hasn’t been going quite the way I hoped it would turn out. In anticipation, I wrote up a project summary, invited the outside dev to my Basecamp, where I had all of the project notes and tasks, and spent several sessions building out a backlog of things that needed to be done. I told the dev, a PHP and Laravel dev from Pakistan, that I needed their assistance with one particular task: setting up the MemberPress plugin for us.

It doesn’t seem that any of that has even been considered. When I got the text, to the effect that development would proceed from scratch due to the difficulty in determining what I had done, I checked logs for the staging site and saw that no one besides myself had even logged into it. So something else appears to be going on. I suspect that besides the English language barrier, the outside dev might be more of a Laravel developer than a WordPress one. And I find it highly ironic they’re starting from scratch, when I literally spent two months trying to figure out what the last dev did.

I’m trying to tread a fine line here given that this engagement is with someone I consider to be a friend. We had gotten into some heated discussions about this, and you know the old saw about mixing business with pleasure. Still, my friend is enough of a intrepid entrepreneur that I considered this a baby step into what should be the start of a mutually profitable enterprise for both of us. When they broached the subject of terminating the arrangement with me a few weeks ago, I was so held by a sense of honor that I basically volunteered to finish the work for free. That’s why this morning’s message stung so much.

I replied back with as much tact as was possible given the cortisone flowing. I told them that the outside dev hadn’t even given a cursory look at what I had done, and I asked that they take another look at the progress I had made in the past few days before they pulled the trigger on a redesign. Further, I said, even if they did insist on moving forward with a new project, I intended to continue my development on the staging site until I was satisfied that I had fulfilled my promise to deliver the redesign and the membership features by the end of next week.

This project has taught me a lot already, both about WordPress development, but aslo about managing client expectations. I have got to spend more time focusing on the business side of the relationship, and establish some formal contracts and work blueprints so that expectations are better managed up front. For now, I’ve got about twenty hours of work left in the month in which to deliver and salvage this project. Failure is not an option, and neither is ruining this friendship.


blue tent under starry night

Notes following a restless night

Yesterday was a flurry of activity here at the house. It started out pretty stressful as I was having issues with a client in trying to bring in an outside developer, but I was very focused at my day job and got several tasks moved forward. Besides the recurrence of a previously closed WIFI issue at a client site, the day was mercifully free of unplanned work. Missus took the girls to her mother’s for the afternoon, and we even managed to have some Thai takeout all to ourselves. I also managed to read a couple chapters of the Hamilton biography, which is very dense and will take me several weeks if I keep up my pace of two chapters a day.

My evening work, after the kids were in bed, seemed to flow quickly, and I managed to write a memo of the state of my client’s WordPress project to assist the new dev onboarding. Mainly it helped me focus my thoughts, and was well worth the time. I went to bed on time, read half a chapter of Continuous Delivery and another of Designing Your Life, both of which filled my head with ideas. And I had no trouble falling asleep, at least initially.

I woke at two in the morning, at that dangerous point where my body has gotten rest and thinks that it can plow forward with the day. I tried to go back to sleep, but instead found my thoughts spinning to the WordPress project. My, how it confounds me! After twenty or thirty minutes tossing and turning I finally went downstairs to try and excise the thoughts from my head, and wound up writing two pages of notes to myself to deal with this morning. I was tempted to do actual work, but I was worried that the screens would mess with my circadian and I would wind up staying up much later than was healthy, so I wrote on paper and went back to bed. Younger was in my bed, stirring, so I wound up sleeping in her bed, and tossed and turned until sometime around four before dozing off. I was woken by both children at a quarter to seven.

I made some slight edits to my Substack article and have it scheduled to go out to my eighteen hundred contacts this morning. I’m also resuming my Medium posting, which is scheduled for tomorrow, and I already have an article on LinkedIn ready to post as well. Speaking of LI, I haven’t spent any time recently applying for jobs, it’s been about two weeks. I’m confident that my Sixty Days to Six Figures deadline has passed, but I’m at the point now where the thought of going to work at a new firm is untenable right now. Finding a firm that’s going to allow me to continue working with the freedom that I currently have seems very unlikely. Finding one through any online job board seems like a fool’s errand. I may reconsider once this WordPress project is delivered and the client and I can decide whether to continue our arrangement. For now I’m going to plow through it for the next two weeks and do my damndest to deliver. Once I’m done with it I have two more queued up, and I’ll have to determine whether the pace at which I’m working is sustainable.

I found myself thinking about the concept of a personal blueprint while I was up in the middle of the night. Part of the reason that I’m feeling so much stress with this project is failure to communicate my expectations. I figure to prevent this with future clients, I need to write a primer of not only what I expect from my clients, but what they can expect from me. Continuous Delivery had some good goals around quality that I want to incorporate, as well as setting the understanding that there’s a lot of work done up front before services can be delivered. And I really need to do a better job setting expectations around engagement. I’m at the point now where I’m doing a lot of things for the first time, so it’s taking a lot longer to figure out how to things. I thought I had been clear about that the current project lead, but obviously I didn’t do a good enough job. Their priorities have shifted as well, and it’s caused me a lot of additional stress to deliver on an expedited schedule.

I also have a tendency to think things through out loud (of course, dear Reader,) and this can come across as indecisiveness or lack of confidence on the other end. So making sure that this is understood up front before I take on engagements should hopefully clear some of these problems up in the future.


grayscale photo of girl doing face palm

When getting things done turns into getting things done

I’m not sure what did it today, but I am B-E-A-T. I woke up at five AM and went back to sleep before finally getting up and starting my day. I worked on my Substack instead of writing here, writing a short review of The Phoenix Project. I’ve got more to write, this week’s (or is it last week’s?) post will likely be three shorter segments instead of one long one like I’ve been doing. I just got to keep writing.

Work really kicked my ass. I had clients texting me near the end of the day yesterday, so I got an early start. It didn’t end until almost three. Missus is still on leave from work, so she managed the kids, so managed to get a lot done. A LOT. I started reading Personal Kanban last night, so I decided to give Microsoft Planner another shot, and started by creating three lanes: to do, in progress, and done. I limited my work in progress to four items, and started cracking. It helped me stay focused, and I managed to move four tasks to the done lane. I’m going to leave them there till next week, so I can see what kind of progress I’m making.

I’m going to have to create another board for my work outside of Zombie, LLC. I’ve been using Trello to try and keep track of things that Missus and I are dealing with, but it’s devolved into a bit of a mess. When I heard that Personal Kanban is a bit of an evolution over Getting Things Done I became really interested as I’ve never been able to really make GTD click. I started really trying to give it a go a few months back, and kept writing things down on index cards, going over them once a week at our review. I tried sorting the cards in a small recipe box, but they just got too many and I couldn’t keep them sorted. Our current system involves writing new tasks on cards, then processing the cards into Trello during the weekly review. I tried to have lanes for the various tasks based on category, and one lane for doing/to do, but this lane soon became populated with things that we just want to put off further and further down the road, like replacing the deck, or other expensive projects. It has been successful in getting some of our recurring duties on a calendar, like balancing the house accounts, or weed eating the yard.

I also really like Nirvana. It’s a great app, and seems to be geared well toward the GTD methodology, but when it came time to choose something to manage the house, I went with Trello instead. I think it’s time to go back to using a wallboard. Take the tech out of the equation completely until we get into a rhythm and have something that works. Having it in Trello means that I’m the only one that’ll do it, and looking at it once a week isn’t really helping us keep on top of things.

If today is any indication, it looks like I may wind up with a board for work, a board for family stuff, and a board for consult clients. I’m using Basecamp right now, and I’m not happy with the way my todo lists develop on there. I do love it for communication and client management though. If only my clients would use it more… I think that’s going to give me about twelve tasks for my work in progress across the board. That may be too much, but we’ll see how things go. Four for Zombie seems like a good number, but it already looks like blogging and the Substack are going to take up two of the slots for the consulting lane, so I’ll have to figure out a way to break the larger projects into smaller chunks if I’m going to be able to keep my capacity to a manageable level. Having FINISH PROJECT as a card isn’t really going to do it.

For today though, I’m going to turn in early, read a bit more and see what time I wake up tomorrow. I’ve not been very consistent at all, so I really have to make sure to turn in on time if I’m going to get up early enough to get things started. And tomorrow’s the last day that Missus is off work, so after that the kids are on me again. Missus is really pushing about having them go back to daycare, and I’m not really happy about that. I finally feel like I’m making progress, financially, and not looking forward to losing that money again. Part of me likes having the kids around, however there’s no denying that they distract me from work. Missus is concerned they’re missing out, especially that Younger isn’t going to have the educational head start that her sister did. I’m not as worried about that, but she’s the one with a background in early childhood development.

I think it’s more important to have them nearby and be able to bond with them, but that means that I’ve got to make sure that our interactions are positive. There’s just too much strife in the house. I don’t think it was any better when they were at school, to be honest, but taking breaks from work to talk, play, and care for them is probably better for my stress in the long run than just spending six or seven hours a day focused on work tasks. I’d say it gets easier, but I know it doesn’t. It just gets different.

IT fiction:The Phoenix Project

Thoughts on the first half of the business book

I’ve been reading The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win the past couple days. It’s an interesting book that takes a fiction approach to teaching “the Three Ways”, which are some devops patterns and principles. It’s really interesting, although some of the setup seems a bit contrived, the writing is good enough that I found myself blowing through half the book in two days, and found myself reading it through past my bedtime last night.

Part one of the book is a journey into enterprise IT hell, as our hero, Bill, is promoted from his small operations group to IT director for the large automotive parts company that he works for. They’re in the midst of preparing for a huge software rollout, which is bound to fail, and Bill struggles to get a grip on things before things inevitably crash and burn. In short it it’s a trainwreck, and the authors start introducing the reader into change management devops concepts.

I think anyone who’s ever worked in an enterprise environment will have PTSD from reading this, I know I sure did. Although it’s aimed squarely at teaching workers in larger firms understand these best practices, I think it may be useful to smaller operators and teams like the one I work with. The book was written more than six years ago, which seems like a lifetime ago in IT, but it doesn’t get into the details of any actual tech tools, instead focusing on the process. In fact, the change management process they use in the book is literally postcards on a whiteboard, and the description of the rest of the environment is literally generic enough that it’s irrelevant.

Part one ends with Bill quitting after too many of his warnings are unheeded by the CEO, and part two starts with said CEO seeing the light and bringing him back in as they struggle to work together and save the company.

I’m already thinking that this will be one of those books that I recommend to all my IT colleagues. I may buy a few copies and send them to a few people I’m working with. I think it could be a valuable book for people who haven’t actually operated in a large corporate environment. It may be good for stakeholders as well. Hell, it might actually be good to give a copy out as a sales tool next time we have a big prospect.

One thing that I’ve taken away from the book so far is the breakdown of four types of work: projects, internal IT tasks, changes, and unplanned work, which I’ve always referred to as firefighting. They describe it as anti-work, which is an apt description, and I’m going to be more cognizant about the type of work that I’m doing from day to day.

The Phoenix Project falls in an interesting class of book that I haven’t run into before, business fiction. I’m curious if there are any others that are similar. I’m sure that the situation told within it is real enough, probably culled together from various real experiences, names changed to protect the innocent and all that. The first-person voice used by the authors is a style that seems familiar from many business books going all the way back to Dale Carnegie, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it deployed in quite this way, with the book as one large case study.

Besides the operational side of things, there were a couple of work-related things that struck out at me like a sore thumb. During the failed deployment of the new software product, the entire core project team is forced to pull an all-nighter trying to restore operations, and then spend many long days during the following weeks trying to shore things up. After Bill’s promotion to IT director, he seems to lose all grasp on work-life balance. He’s reading a story to his kid and means to lookup something about Thomas the Train when he gets drawn into a work email and then another call. The situation completely disrupts his family life. Another employee at the firm, Brent, the key-man with a hand in seemingly every system at the company has gone years without taking a vacation without being on call.

Apparently these two issues will somehow be resolved as Part Two progresses, but there was one detail about Bill’s circumstances that really had me shaking my head. Near the end of Part One, as he’s fretting over losing his career, he questions how they’re going to pay off their second mortgage and start saving for their kids’ college. Apparently they were just treading water, and the unexpected promotion has finally put them on the right track. This detail caught me, and I found it interesting. Perhaps to appeal to a broader base of people, or elicit sympathy, but to me it struck me as slightly incongruent with the rest of Bill’s disciplined personality.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. If anything, The Phoenix Project has reminded me of the life that I don’t want. I spent four years working in an enterprise firm, and I came out of there in a rough way. I’m going to need to think long and hard before I think about getting back into a leadership role at a large firm where I have the type off responsibility where I’m going to be on call for emergencies in the middle of the night, or get sucked into some project deployment that’s going to require anything resembling a war room.

I’ll find out how life changes for Bill and the employees of Parts Unlimited soon, as I’ll probably wrap the book up over the next day or two. I’m looking forward to getting copies in the hands of a few more people to see how they like it, and, more importantly, to see what effect it has on our operations and service delivery.

Thinking in public

greyscale photography of skeleton

Down the Venkatesh Rao rabbit hole

Venkatesh Rao popped up in my Twitter feed recently, and I’ve been digging through his work, most notably Ribbonfarm, but also Breaking Smart and The Art of the Gig. I just finished his magnum opus The Gervais Principle, which is interesting in an of itself, and I found his reading list and take on gig work fascinating in itself.

The Gervais Principle is a complete philosophical structure that Rao picked up while watching The Office, it basically deconstructs why the show works so well, and the reason why it’s so cringe-worthy. Now I haven’t watched The Office in many years, and summarizing Rao’s thirty thousand word treatise here is ultimately going to miss a lot of the subtleties, but I’ll try anyways. I wrote briefly about it a few days ago.

Company hierarchy

Society is made up of three classes of people, Losers, the Clueless, and Sociopaths. The losers, (in the economic sense) are people who are basically resigned to make up the mass of people within an organization, and make up your typical working class Jane or Joe. Within this group you have slackers, who are aware of their place and see no need to put in any extra effort, and the unaware loser, who is usually gung-ho about doing a good job. This second type of loser is sometimes promoted to Clueless, as they are needed as a buffer zone between the losers and the sociopaths, who are the Gordon Gecko types within the organization who are focused primarily on extracting as much wealth from the company and getting the hell out. The Clueless, in Rao’s words, serve as control rods between the tops and the bottom of the pyramids, and prevent the whole thing from blowing up.

Rao goes into great detail about how this plays out, ascribing different types of language that the various groups use among themselves: powertalk for the Sociopath to Sociopaths, posturetalk for the Clueless to the everyone, and babytalk for everyone to the Clueless. There’s a few others, and Rao provides some convincing examples of each. Furthermore, he cites about two dozen business management books as his references. Rao is a prolific writer, it seems, and one could easily get lost for weeks trying to read all these sources. Rao himself spent over five years writing The Gervais Principle. Good luck.

I’ll note that I tried to explain this theory to Missus, who works in mental health, and she accused me of trying to mansplain sociopathy to her. I told her Rao’s definition is a homonym of the term, and not a redefinition of the DSM manual. I’m not quite sure she’s going to go for it the way I did. Part of the reason I find it so amazing is that it gives me a new way to frame social and political interactions, and once you see it, it’s impossible to unsee. I’m not going to completely psychoanalyze my life here and now, but it’s easy for me to see how much of my life’s inner misery has been caused by conflict between my tendencies along these lines, mainly my status as overachieving Loser with Sociopathic aspirations, even though I mostly wind up Clueless.

I don’t want to spend too much time here going more into The Gervais Principle, it would really require a reread, and quite possibly a rewatch of the entire run of The Office to discuss further, and Rao has so much more content that is worth exploring. I like the fact that the Ribbonfarm has a guide for new readers, but I’ve only had a cursory look at the rest of the content. (Blockchain Man is definitely up next on my list.) Breaking Smart looks promising as well, focusing on the the theme of software eating the world. And The Art of Gig, which focuses on freelancing, is really what I need in my life right now.

The latest post, Model Questions vs. Actor Questions, is useful because it forced me to re-evaluate the type of work I want to be doing as a technologist. Do I want to be a model, or someone who is interchangeable and doesn’t stand out, or an actor, someone who is known and differentiated among their peers? The latter, obviously. This requires a reframing of the type of questions I need to ask myself about what type of clients I take on and how I promote myself. It is definitely going to force me to re-evaluate my goals. Rao defines modeling, in the context of freelancing, as “consolation prizes for jobs,” which makes perfect sense.

The next post on The Art of Gig, Sparring as Tenure, has some interesting ideas around thinking vs. doing. When one starts out in a field, they’re mostly doing, and over time one should be able to reduce the amount of doing they get paid to do as income shifts to thinking (read: consulting or advising) work instead. I am clearly failing in this endeavor. In my day job, I’ve managed to offload a lot of the end user facing tasks, but because the size of Zombie, LLC has basically collapsed with me as the center of technical operations and service delivery, I’m stuck doing most of the grunt work.

On the other hand, I have been successful in reducing my time spent working to the bare minimum, that I might focus on other projects during my day to day. I basically consider myself a retained employee at this point, on call during certain times of the day and with a certain baseline of responsibility that I’m expected to uphold. Compare to my other friends in the industry, this baseline is very low. My goal at this point is basically to be able to go offline one or two days out of the week, to be able to focus on deep work projects outside of my day job. These will be the core of my new consulting efforts.

Part of my difficulty lies in the fact that I’m trying to go independent in a field separate from that which I’ve been doing for the past twenty years, basically, going from end user support to business network systems engineering to software development. I don’t have the prior performance needed to demonstrate my competence. It’s what’s holding me back from applying to many of the software engineering roles that I’m finding. Instead, I’m going to have to continue doing for now, building up a new portfolio of work, social proof if you will, that will allow me to pick up new work and build my consultancy. Eventually, I will be able to provide value by presenting ideas, and have the implementations left to others. That’s an exaggeration, of course, since I’ll hopefully never stop doing the work that I love to do.

The theme around what I’m doing now is changing, of course. I’m no longer content to just take on whatever support projects are out there, forced to take on whatever clientele I can take. I’d like to be afforded the opportunity to be more choosy with the projects that I take on, that are more interesting and challenging that the type of work that I disdain today, like troubleshooting people’s workstation issues. For now, it pays the bills.

In the long term, even the thinking type of sparring work that Rao and his guest contributor describe will hopefully give way to self directed work, income generating activities like publishing ebooks, or things like Substack subscriptions. If the below graph is accurate, I should consider myself successful if I’m able to reach this point by the time I’m fifty. We’ll see if I can hack it.

Source: Sparring As Tenure – The Art of Gig

Lastly, I wanted to mention Ryan Robinson, who I was introduced to via this sensational Medium post, How This 30-Year-Old Made $451,238 Blogging in 2019. I haven’t delved into Ryan’s blog yet, but I wanted to mention it since he seems to share a property with Venkatesh Rao, namely, ultra longform content. Ben Thompson’s Stratechery should be included here as well. This seems to be a common characteristic that I’ll need to emulate if I’m to have any hope of making a living out of my writing. Of course, I may have to consider affiliate deals as well, and should probably mentally prep for the fact that I’ll need to keep writing for several years before things start taking off. Next month will mark one year since I’ve been treating this blog as a job.

We’ll see how things go from here. There are many things I’ve got to figure out from here. I don’t think I’m going to be able to maintain pseudonymity much longer, I’ll have to make a decision to unmask myself and stop writing publicly about the people in my life, or just stop reposting content across identities and platforms. I have a feeling that the daily content will have to change. I made a decision to focus the Substack on longer (two thousand word) posts, which is too much for me to maintain here with the random topic of the day, so I need to figure out what it’s going to be.

For now I’ll just keep reading from others who have had success with it, and emulate them as much as possible. And in the meantime, keep on writing.

The future of work

white and black digital wallpaper

Tech trends aren’t favorable for small businesses that don’t pivot quickly

We’re now in the third month of The Great Lockdown, and for most of us it’s now the new normal. Households and businesses have made adjustments to deal with the restrictions and new procedures needed to keep people safe from the spread of COVID. Many tech firms have officially pivoted to remote first operations for staff, and many others are doing so unofficially. Perhaps the only question remaining at this point is how far things will return to the old ways. My guess, not so much.

I’ve been working from home for several years now, and have some insights into where things are headed, at least in the context of knowledge work. My day job involves supporting a number of small business, some of which operate with their staff completely distributed, so my experience is mostly in the medical and professional services industries. Leave aside traditional brick and mortar businesses that rely on foot traffic, like restaurants and lifestyle businesses for the moment. And I am of course writing while holded up in my cozy house with my family, under no pressure to leave for work and deal with the public. I have friends, neighbors and clients who are working the front lines in healthcare, and I have deep gratitude for them and for those others “frontline heroes”, keeping the grocery and retail supply chains moving for the rest of us.

Amazon and other digital platforms have been eating away at the real world for many years, and COVID has accelerated the transition dramatically. To steal a phrase from Tobe Lutke, CEO of Shopify, “2030 came a decade early”. People around the world have been forced to undertake massive changes in reaction to the pandemic, and we’re so far into it now that it’s hard to believe that that things were ever different. Future Shock has been barrelling at us for decades now, with the advent of personal computers, the internet, smartphones and wireless internet impacting generation after generation. It seems that the Singularity is nearly upon us. The last three and a half years of the Trump administration have seemed like a decade in themselves. All of that pales in comparison to the changes that we as a society have had to undergo these last three months.

To understand where we’re going, we must go look back for a moment and review the changes in economic and labor practices that have occured since the end of World War II. Since then we’ve transitioned from long-term, single company employment that traditionally ended with a gold watch and a pension, and have replaced it instead with a short-term, shareholder focused, gig economy. Productivity and investor profits have steadily increased for the past thirty years while real wages have remained stagnant. And it’s doubtful that we’ll see any progress on this issue, regardless of who holds the White House at the end of January next year.

Immense social pressure by large swaths of society, as we are currently seeing with the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, can be effective at spurring political action at the National level, but I remain skeptical that we will see much movement with regard to the economic sphere in the next twelve to eighteen months. It depends on whether we can continue to successfully deal with the pandemic. I am not an optimist on this point. I will note though how relatively quickly universal basic income went from being a humorous component of Andrew Yang’s presidential platform to a serious contender for COVID-related economic woes. For now, we’ll have to settle for our twelve hundred dollar stimulus checks.

If one is to use the stock market as a bellwether, it would appear that the economy has already rebounded from the huge hit it took in the weeks following the lockdown. The lack of any meaningful relationship between stocks and reality should be apparent to most. Recent gains have either been driven by the continuing extraction of value from small and local businesses by Amazon and other ecommerce platforms, or from the harvesting of attention and personal data by Facebook, Twitter, Google and others. And now, the Fed has turned on the spigots through what they call “unlimited quantitative easing”, releasing over six trillion dollars to banks, where most of it has gone into the hands of those who need it least. This has caused no lack of excitement among the Bitcoin community, who have taken the “money printer goes BRRR” meme to the next level as they build the narrative of bitcoin as a way to both defund the state, short (as in stocks) governments, and opt out of the traditional central bank based fiat system. I count myself among them, but I’ll save that for a future installment.

Source: VisualCapitalist

That said, data from LinkedIn does show that hiring is up for tech workers. Platform firms that enable developers and entrepreneurs to build on top of their systems are on somewhat of a spree lately. Twilio, a text messaging provider, Stripe and Square, two internet payment firms, as well as GitLab and GitHub, built around a popular software development tool, are all rapidly scaling up to meet demand. And there seem to be no shortage for software developer or engineering jobs that I see, especially for those in government-adjacent industries or those with heavy math and science qualifications, like artificial intelligence and data analysis.

It also appears that most of the healthcare industry, especially the mental health profession, will be safe from any negative economic impacts of COVID. There was previously no shortage of people needing treatment for depression or post traumatic stress disorder, numbers that are rising as people deal with the stress of the pandemic. Indeed, there are number of platform companies that have been offering telemedicine related services for therapy and non-emergency services. That seem to be on the uptake. I myself am currently involved with one.

Let’s turn our focus to the technical side of our new normal.

Perhaps the biggest early winner among the remote-work enabled companies was Zoom, which became synonymous with video conferencing in the weeks following lockdown. Then there was the inevitable backlash, following both privacy and security concerns around Zoom’s default settings and misleading encryption claims. Amazon has been a big winner, both because of quarantine-induced shopping as well as cloud driven usage on AWS. Google Cloud Services Microsoft’s Azure are no doubt doing well also, and there are indications that Apple may be trying to enter the space also.

Microsoft has been in a bit of a battle recently as well, after the CEO of Slack, a remote workspace collaboration service, announced that Microsoft was obsessed with “killing us”, and announced an integration partnership with Amazon AWS. I’ve been using both Teams and Slack for some time now, in different roles, and I don’t think either is in any immediate danger. I’ve got theories about what type of companies choose one or the other, Slack for more tech-focused firms, especially development houses, and Teams for those that already rely on other Microsoft services such as Exchange Online or Sharepoint. I don’t have any hard evidence on that yet, and it may be that a lot of people, like me, will continue to use both for various teams.

My day to day responsibilities involve managing Microsoft Office 365 cloud services for clients. We’ve been pushing them off of older SMTP/IMAP services to Exchange Online for several years now, since it’s just plain better. What amazes me though is that most of our clients have no idea of the myriad other services that come bundled with O365 these days. In fact, I have a hard time keeping up myself. Besides Exchange, Teams and SharePoint are probably the most prominent, and the ones that we push the most, but there are a number of other useful apps bundled with O365, like Forms, Flow and Planner. The problem with O365 is that there are so many product offerings within them that it’s impossible to keep up unless you dedicate a lot of time and resources to them. The issue is multiplied with Azure and AWS, each of which has dozens of services.

I’ve spent the last dozen years of my career building and managing business networks, server and supporting end end users and their equipment, what’s known as managed services in the industry. I realized several years ago as the app economy took over, that these types of services would soon become a commodity, and that competition, especially low barriers to entry, would soon drive prices in a race to the bottom. I think I’m being proven right on that point, but what I didn’t really anticipate was that it was not just managed services providers that are being hit by this, but essentially all industries and verticals.

The overwhelming drive today among business is the tendency toward fewer and fewer employees. Tech tools are increasing employee productivity, apps and automation are compounding their efforts. Some jobs are more resistant to this than others, but the number of administrative staff needed to manage a large organization is rapidly diminishing. As I noted last April:

Blockbuster, at its height in 2004, employed 84,300 workers with a a $5 billion market cap. Today Netflix is valued at $162 billion value with only 5,400 employees. Instagram had just 13 employees when it was acquired by Facebook for a $500 million valuation in 2013.

I wrote about businesses as operating systems last month, so I’ll not repeat myself wholesale save to say that successful businesses in the next year or two are going to be the ones that figure out how to utilize these digital tools to allow them to scale. Even currently sustainable businesses with no interest in growth are going to be forced to deploy them, as the pressure to become more lean will build up from competitors that are. My focus remains on exploring how to deploy these tools in a way that helps my clients streamline their operations. My working hypothesis right now is that businesses that do will survive and thrive and those that don’t will languish and die.

We’ve seen how quickly the world can change. There’s no going back.