Life Outside My Cube

My life, a work in progress.

Category Archives: work

More work, more fun

I had a conference call with a client this noon to clarify some issues with his software product (he was in London on a trip, I was at my workplace; loving Skype and Google Docs). Resolved quickly, I can move past this roadblock to complete implementing a new email template system for him. I’d already developed a prototype to thrash out the idea, but needed to understand better how to integrate it into his system.

His previous developer used a very wide, sparsely-populated non-normalized client table (around 60 columns), to which I needed to add another handful of columns. That is, if I continued in the same design vein. I won’t.

That table’s so integrated into the website code it’s not even funny; correcting the bad design would be a tremendous effort. I’m not going to even attempt it right now. I told the client about this, as I knew he was propositioning a large potential customer that would add tens of thousands of records to this table. TBD, I guess, but I’d sure like to see it changed sooner than later. I think I shook him up a bit when I talked about it with him. He has greater confidence in his prior developer than I do, ’cause I’ve seen the code.

Anyhow, I can easily split out the email template columns into another table, so it won’t be so bad, and that stuff is pretty much used in only two places. Will be kind of a fun addition, and limited in terms of touching the rest of the system, so testing should be fairly easy.

The website application also provides for handheld data-entry using a mobile device. He also mentioned today that he’s going to want more work done on that part of the site, so he’ll be sending me some kind of device, probably iPod touch related. Cool! I’m not really interested in a smart phone or iPod touch thing; I have a cell phone for talking to people, and a computer to store stuff and browse the internet. I don’t need another expensive piece of technology. But if someone gives it to me, I’m not going to turn it down. :-)

Plus, it turns out another of my clients also wants a mobile-optimized view for her website, so that’ll be handy to have. I had thought I’d need to purchase one on my own. I’m really looking forward to working on that optimization project, having never done anything for mobile before. That will really be fun, but probably not on the table for a while; she’s not sure it’s worth it right now, until her site gets more traffic.

The other client’s data entry stuff needs to be done by July 9 – I don’t even know what needs done yet. But if I have time, I can perhaps do the optimization project on my own, and just present it to her when it’s done, just for fun.

Big difference between the two clients – the one I talked with today is hourly, and the other is “free”. The former is a more stressful, the latter is more enjoyable. The former involves managing others’ code/design, and the latter is all mine. The former is a guy from Manhattan, the latter is a woman from New England.

We’ll see how they both pan out. In the meantime, I’ve got work to do!

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Thursday morning blahs

Failure to provide proof of financial responsibility, when required, will result in the following civil penalties imposed by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles:

  • Lose driving privileges for a minimum of ninety (90) days and up to two (2) years;
  • License plates and vehicle registration suspension;
  • License plate reinstatement fees for first violation, second violation, and third or subsequent violation (There is an additional non-voluntary surrender fee for failing to surrender the license, plates or vehicle registration to the BMV);
  • Require filing with the BMV (SR-22 or bond) to continuously maintain proof of financial responsibility for a minimum of three (3), up to five (5) years from the date of the suspension of operating privileges;
  • Vehicle immobilization and confiscation of plates for 30 to 60 days for violating FR suspension.  Third and subsequent offenses could result in vehicle forfeiture and a five (5) year suspension of vehicle registrations.

That sounds serious. Which is what my wife was thinking this morning when she asked if I’d gotten the bike insured yet (I hadn’t, out of laziness). So I drove the van to work today.

You would think I’d be terrified to be out on the road at all driving an uninsured vehicle. I have no explanation for why I rode to work the last 4 days. Looking back on it, that was really stupid. Stupid stupid.

There are a several things on my TODO list that I’ve been ignoring recently. I don’t have an explanation for that as well. Perhaps I’m just weak from the pounding I took last weekend at the volleyball camp, and it carried over into a kind of mental “don’t care” attitude. I know I have that state of mind, but I can’t pinpoint why.

Even this morning, I’m having trouble getting motivated to think through code problems, despite a good breakfast and coffee. I feel pretty lethargic physically and mentally.

I wish there was more to do at work. I’m stuck working on intermittent bugs, with no real project work ahead. Two major opportunities have disappeared within the last 2-3 weeks, which otherwise would have kept me busy through the summer and possibly into fall. Now, I don’t even know what I’ll be doing in the next month. I’m sure this affects my attitude.

So I’m a bit down today.

Why I Don’t Bill My Clients

I’ve done web development on and off for a many years now, and worked for all kinds of clients. In general, those clients were good to work for, but every once in a while one would come along that would make my life miserable. For whatever reason, despite a very specific quote, people feel free to change, append and rework their requirements as the project progresses, asking for minor but time-consuming changes, and generally assuming I would be available at their beck and call whenever they wanted.

I found that writing and maintaining code in these situations very stressful, and have, over time, been more selective in choosing clients and turning down work. However, there’s still a sense of control that any client has when you’re working for them that tends to inhibit me. For example, if I’m asked to add a feature to a site (designed by someone else) I might want to rework a section of particularly ugly / unmaintainable code. But I’m not getting paid to rework the code, so I have to limit myself to the objective, even if as a result it takes longer. Or, for example, I might want to add a feature the client hasn’t requested. But I don’t want to set a precedent that I always deliver much more than they pay for. Billing sometimes is a hassle, and people don’t always seem to want to talk about money openly.

So about 6 months ago I decided I didn’t want to charge clients for web development anymore. Hosting (I’m a reseller) yes, new design no. I’d read an article someone wrote about this, and thought it would be a good solution to my issues. Here’s how it’s worked out.

Case 1. A new client was looking for a new site for his business, eventually e-commerce. He did not understand anything technical about the web, nor did he have a good idea where a website fit in his overall business marketing plan. We talked a while about philosophy, and the work/time involved in setting up a site. He wanted to know about “typical” costs, and was skeptical about my “no fee” policy. He about choked when I said that it would not be unreasonable for local companies to charge $5000 for a starter ecommerce site from scratch. I should have walked away then. Instead, we talked about completing it in phases, and I started with phase 1, a simple 5-pager. Trying to pull information from him was very difficult, and I instead made a CMS backend so he could edit content himself, which he eventually did. I never heard from him again.

Case 2. An existing client was looking for a new website for another business venture. She had a pretty clear outline of what she wanted (including an online subscription product), though we discussed through a number of details. She was initially skeptical about the “no fee” idea, but agreed to give it a try. I’ve been working on the site on and off for a couple months and it’ll be ready for release in about a month. She’s got a business and marketing plan, and funding. It’s been a lot of fun working on the site, adding things as I wanted to, spending as much time as I want on features. I welcome additions and changes from her, as my focus has changed from working according to a spec, to working toward an excellent website. We’re more like a team, rather than a contractor/client. She sent me a $3500 “down payment” check yesterday.

Those are the only two clients I’ve had since my original pivot, and the clients and situations were so very different, but I’m so psyched about how things have turned out with the latter one. Working on her site is still *fun*, and I’m enjoying writing code without stress.

I’ve done a number of jobs on eLance in the last few months, and most have been stressful; most all the clients are looking for the most they can get for the least amount of money. There are some exceptions, to be sure, but it’s a totally different kind of work – fairly high-pressure, low profit. I wish I could get a “Client 2” job three or four times a year; that would be 100% satisfying in every way.

Building a Zen Garden

Worked in the garden today. Not the home garden or the community garden – those are my daughter’s domains. But the garden I’m creating at work. My boss calls it the “Zen Garden”.

There’s an unused section of the gravel parking lot, about 25×25 that’s been left go for a couple years. I decided that was a waste, and have begin in earnest to reclaim it as a nice partly-shaded beautiful lunch/break spot. It’s on the north side of our 2-story building, but on a corner, so it still gets partial sun, plus a nice breeze off the west side of the building which faces an open park. It’s fenced in on 2 other sides, so opens to the existing parking lot.

I started thinking about this last year, and talked about it more than I really did that all much. I did mow it several times, dragged over some old railroad ties from the weeds, spent about $30 on yard-sale plants and bedded the hostas against one of the railroad ties with some rotted loam from against one of the fences. I also trimmed the tall weeds and brush from the fences, and trimmed the overhanging branches from the trees. I scrounged a couple of rainwater containers. We brought over a small load of dirt and old sandbags to spread around, and a load of grass to help start a bit compost pile. It was a rather lot, now that I think about it. I also thought about it a lot last year.

So this year, I began thinking about it long before the snow melted! I designed a grand entrance, with brick pillars, rail fence and arbor entrance in my head; I don’t know if that’ll get done this year. Now that the weather has broken, I see there’s so much more landscaping effort needed! So far I’ve raked a lot, bought $100 worth of shrubs at Lowes, outlined and partially filled the front two raised beds, planted 4 forsythia and some unknown plants from last year, and done some minor trimming.

The next steps include:
– Purchasing a dozen railroad ties
– Taking delivery on 6-8 yards of topsoil
– Purchasing and planting a bunch of annuals as fillers
– Continuing to shop for, buy and plant perennials
– Digging and constructing a small pond
– Orchestrating a water system (i have it all planned!)
– Bringing power outside the building
– Building a half-shed against the building for tools and etc
– Purchasing a push mower
– Purchasing a picnic table, chairs, benches or something

Work isn’t paying for any of this, which allows me a great deal of freedom to choose what I want to plant and how to do it all. It’s quite gratifying to see things take shape, since I live in a condo and can’t do any of this at home. Hopefully things will be sufficiently completed so we can take lunch breaks and “zen out” in this park during the summer. I’m looking forward to it!

More Questions

Blogger Steve James has kindly provided a list of questions you absolutely must ask your interviewer when applying for your next job. Insightful ones. Perhaps obtrusive ones. But in all, questions whose answers are likely to affect your own employment decision. He lists 10 of these must-ask questions on his blog, and has some 40-odd others you might consider.

The Slough of Despond

Five years ago I was at the tail end of  self-employment, and a year from accepting a position with my current employer. I was working for my father on and off – he did not have sufficient income to pay me fulltime – and some programming, web design and home-business gigs. Unfortunately, there was not enough sustainable income, and my family was getting deeper and deeper into debt, which would at one point top $50K. I was feeling helpless, frustrated and depressed.

I had left my previous job 6 years before, to take on some work with my dad. He (inexperienced in software development, but too persistent to let that get in his way) designed and coded a software program used in the long-term care dietary business, and needed help with, well, Help. It wasn’t writing code, but technical manuals was fine with me to start with. I shortly after began to assist with software development, support, sales and marketing. It wasn’t long, however, until financial difficulties began. There was not sufficient income from the company to support me fulltime, despite my dad’s hopes and dreams that things would get better. He paid when he could – or wanted to – but it wasn’t enough, and we soon began relying on credit.

The peculiar thing was, I didn’t feel I could just say “no” to him and move on. By the time things were bad, I was fully involved and he was – to a great extent – dependent on me. I felt that to bail out at that point would be not only end my hopes for a work-at-home job, but also crush his hopes and dreams. How could I do that to my own father? I was beset on all sides – my supremely patient wife continued to urge me to quit, my bank account begged me to find a paying job, and my dad continued to not care about my financial situation. I felt helpless to act at all.

Well, I did act a little, and purchased a reseller account from a web host, thinking that I could fill in the gaps with web programming and hosting. Weak in the sales/marketing area, I found myself undercharging (per my astute wife) for work, and giving away too much for free. Hardly the way to make a decent income, but when you’re working for your friends (how else do you get started in this business?) I felt like it was almost an insult to charge going rates. Plus, I wanted to “build up the portfolio.” Unfortunately, since I did next to nothing marketing-wise, the web business didn’t grow. I don’t believe I was equipped to be a successful entrepreneur – I was only a technician (according to The E-Myth) and missing the kind of skills needed to grow the business. Here I was full of programming skills, but I didn’t know how to effectively do anything about getting clients. That was frustrating.

So I was in a horrible financial situation, feeling helpless and frustrated. There was a terrible amount of pressure to change my situation, but I seemed to be paralyzed. One reason might be that I sincerely thought that working from home was the Ultimate. Oh, we’d escaped the traditional church and were meeting in homes, we’d rejected public schools and home educated our children. Bringing the work home seemed like the next logical step, and God-ordained. Yet here we were in a much worse financial situation than we’d ever been in! What was I doing wrong? Were we totally deceived? I began a long period of self-doubt and depression over our situation. I lost interest in work, in the business, in home life.

What do I wish I would have done differently? I don’t think leaving the previous job was wrong; I’d do that again in a moment (besides, a layoff there was imminent). Here are some things I, in perfect hindsight, would redo:

– Talk openly with my dad about my finances, and ask pointed questions about his. Finances were never an open subject with my folks, and I didn’t get started of with a good foundation. Hence I had no savings to draw on, and we weren’t accustomed to changing lifestyle to accommodate reduced income. Anyhow, if my dad and I could have talked about my financial needs on a regular basis, perhaps we both would have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t working out, and bail earlier with no hard feelings.

– Connect with other web developers in the area in order to work cooperatively. I was lacking some skills, but perhaps with others we could have presented a full complement of abilities to potential clients. In an office, I find myself wanting to connect with other independent types at coffee shops, open workplaces, and the like – I should have jumped at those opportunities, or created them. Alone in a home office is no way to network.

– Get out my shell. I’m an introvert, and find it extremely difficult to cold-call and meet new people. Less so now, but much more then. I should have sought for advice on how to overcome this inward tendency, and how to improve those skills needed for an entrepreneurial business to survive.

– Open up to people. When things are going badly, I have a tendency to withdraw. I should have talked more openly with my wife and family about what I was going through, and drawn comfort from their love. I felt like nobody knew what I was going through. I’m sure some did, but I didn’t open up about it, to my loss. It wasn’t all about me and my failures (what I thought at the time); it was about the journey God was bring me – and us – through. That should have been shared more openly.

– Do that which I think or know is right. I was full of fear at what people would think, or how people would take my actions if I stopped working for my dad and friend (I’d set up a little home-business with a close friend that supported his business) and found a “regular” job again. Walking in fear is not a good thing, I realize now. I wish I would have gotten that back then.

A bright spot in all of this is that our eyes were opened – through that friend – to the beauty of God’s undying love and the hopeful theology of the kingdom during this low period. Had I not gone through these difficult times and been brought so low, I don’t believe I would have been as open to receive these truths. Through the slough of despond, God has brought us out into a beautiful vision of life and purpose. That’s a topic for another post, I think.

* Questions 6

The Need to Create

Men are born with the innate desire to create. Women are born with the innate desire to nurture, but that’s perhaps another post. Creativity is a general characteristic of both men and women (or mostly children, these days), but to men, I think, creativity is a need, a validating force.

Here’s an example. I write software in my day job. The aspect of the work I enjoy the most is creating new software. I derive a great deal of pleasure from taking an idea and implementing it from scratch, especially where I have freedom to choose my tools and use my experience and the user-interface skills I have to build a piece of software. The more complicated, the better. This is much more satisfying than maintaining existing code. Even writing a specification for a new project is satisfying. I really get excited when I can spend time in creative designing and coding work.

Many guys have a place to putter about – a shop, a workbench – but the real satisfaction often comes with creating something there. Building a picture frame, a table, a solar heat exchanger or a go-cart are all achievements that bring a lot of satisfaction to the average male. Well, they would for me! These kinds of work – some might call them hobbies – are a guy’s way of feeding that need to create that might be missing in his day job.

So here’s a test: find a guy – or a bunch of them – and see if those whose jobs are predominantly rote have a creative outlet somewhere else in their life. Then think about how much more fulfilled they might be if their primary job centered around that creative outlet. I’m not suggesting that the key to fulfillment in life is finding a job that you love, but that a job that doesn’t offer a creative outlet may be stifling.

Does your life feel flat-lined right now? Why not try creating something!

* Question 4

Beating a Path To Your Door

I hear people say sensible things all the time; my problem is that I don’t remember those things. Every once in a while, though, one sticks in my head and I find myself thinking about it over the course of several days.

I heard a radio commentator say that the devastation in Japan was going to be a boon for entrepreneurs. That’s all, just a short sentence. But I got to thinking about what it would be like to build a village / town / city from scratch, and all the business and infrastructure that would be needed. Entrepreneurs for sure! There will be a boatload of opportunities there!

I don’t mean to trivialize the personal and business destruction that happened there. I know lives, families and fortunes were lost in a matter of hours. It was a horrific thing, even if it’s so far from my imagination because of where I live. My heart goes out to those who have lost so much.

I don’t live where there are those kind of new opportunities, though, and at first I was tempted to sulk a bit. Coincidentally, I’d read someone that said, regarding starting a business, that you don’t need to do something something that no one else is doing, you can just do what they’re doing better. Now that’s sensible. I’m sure you (and I) have heard it a million times, but for some reason it stuck with me that day.

How many business have you patronized where you were dissatisfied with the product, service or employee performance? We to often encounter, for example, restaurants where the meals are mediocre, or the wait staff are far from satisfactory, and come away saying, “In my restaurant, things would be different.” Of course, we don’t have the experience or capital to open a restaurant, but that’s only one example. I’m sure there are many other opportunities out there for an entrepreneur to open a similar business and distinguish himself from others by providing a superior product (maybe harder) or superior service (easier). In fact, I’d say that receiving superior service is quite remarkable these days.

A recent visit to both Lowe’s and Home Depot made this clear. I’ve shopped in both innumerable times, and was generally frustrated at the difficulty of finding available floor staff for assistance. This time, however, not only were we audibly greeted by most every employee, we were always within sight of a helpful blue- or orange-vested person. When passing out of the store (were were just browsing at that point), a friendly casher engaged us in conversation, and reminded us that we could get a Lowe’s gift card at the Giant Eagle just down the way and get double Fuel Perks this week!

Well, didn’t we just high tail it down to that Giant Eagle and buy a $100 gift card, then come back to Lowe’s and purchase what we were looking at? A no-cost minimal effort on the part of one person brought profit to 2 stores and one happy couple. That’s what I’d call superior service, and it makes me much more likely to patronize that Lowe’s from now on. It also makes me think too, that any business that treats its customers this way will profit, regardless – or in spite of – the competition.

So what’s stopping you from taking that bad experience you’ve had, and turning it and some capital into an entrepreneurial opportunity?

* Question 3

Monday Morning Blues

The rain pattered on the window, interrupting the silence in the downstairs office, somehow in sync with the tapping of the keyboard. The harshness of the cold fluorescents seemed to match the mood of the gray light from the window, where dark clouds overshadowed the dewy landscape. “A miserable way to start the week,” he thought, glancing outside at the drops running down the window pane. “I”m glad I didn’t take a vacation day today.”

Jim Beckett’s original plan was to take the whole day off in order to work on the yard, as the cool wet weather seemed to have taken a turn toward spring over the weekend. Moody April had changed her complexion again, however, and this week was gearing up to be  a wet one. Sure, and with the warm spell, his grass was likely to be quite tall by the time he could get the mower out on the soggy lawn.

He sighed, and turned back to his computer. Jim typically spent Monday mornings scrounging for work to take him through the week; things were pretty slow at his company at the moment. This morning, however, his inbox was already full. “That’s a relief,” he thought, “Looks like I have more than enough work for this week, and I won’t be gazing longingly outside today for sure.” He smiled wryly at the sudden way his attitude could change. “What a creature of circumstances.” The phrase, “like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind,” ran through his head.

The explosion assaulted his ears, as ceiling tiles and debris rained down upon his head. Stunned and wide-eyed, desire for self-protection kicked in and he scrambled under his desk. The lights flickered and went out, and an eerie silence echoed through the office, the raindrops hardly a flicker at the edge of his senses. The daylight shone through the window, gray daggers through the dust. Beckett couldn’t imagine a more bizarre situation.

Shouts and loud footsteps echoed through the floor above, echoing down the connecting stairway. At first he felt a sigh of relief, but that quickly turned to terror as the voices became clearer. “Go, go, go! Call out bodies; we can’t have witnesses!” “Looks like 6 down!” A female scream rang out, then was cut short after several loud shots. “Make that seven!” “Blue, check the basement. Red, the server room, quickly!” Terrified, Beckett , pulled his chair up to the desk, and made himself as invisible as possible, as more footsteps clattered down the stairwell. He several pairs of black boots run by, then “All clear, no bodies!” and the men ran back upstairs.

Beckett heard muffled voices, then “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” as the footsteps quickly moved toward the front door, then silence again. Trembling and too terrified to move, he laid on the floor, waiting for what seemed an eternity. In reality, eternity lasted only a minute, and another explosion rocked his world, louder than the first. It was a Monday morning Jim Beckett would never forget.

April Fool’s Day Ideas

Make a bunch of photocopies of paper clip at the corner of a page, then fill the copier’s source tray with the photocopies.

Post sign explaining new voice activation features of office copier.

Embed certain office supplies in jello, a la The Office.

Insert a – very clean – rubber ducky into the 5 gal.water cooler bottle so it’s floating on top.

Replace all of someones pens with crayons.

Put googly eyes on a bunch of office objects.

Rent a stuffed/inflatable bear/animal and place it on the toilet in the restroom. Maybe even dress it. Don’t even think about this.

Hang a piece of women’s undergarments on the rear view mirror of the boss’s car, and make sure he drives when going out to lunch with the crew.

Gain access to someone’s car and turn on the fan, windshield wipers, radio and emergency flashers. Go out to lunch with them.

Move the refrigerator handle to the opposite side.

Completely cover someone’s car with post-it notes.