fighting the lack of good ideas

free wifi

I travel a fair amount for work – not excessive “road warrior” style anymore (thank God!), but often enough.

One thing that has consistently dumb founded me is that, like cheap hotels, the smaller the airport, the more likely it is that it has free wifi.

I understand places like ATL or ORD are incredibly busy. I don’t know why, however, that means they have to treat their customers like they are cash cows.

It’s like the difference between staying at Motel 6 vs a JW Marriott. I have platinum status with Marriott, so my wifi is always free there … but it’s also free at the $40 a night joints.

How is it that Days Inn for $40 can afford to hand out free wifi, but The W at $400 a night cannot?

I’m writing this from ABE – which has free wifi. Why? Because my next stop, DTW, does not. And that’s dumb.

For the relative cheapness per person of putting-in an airport-wide service, there’s no reason everyone shouldn’t be doing it.


I love maps. I have a calendar with historical maps on my wall next to my desk. I love books based around atlases (such as the Historical Atlas of series (many by Ian Barnes (similarly related review)). I like going to museums, visiting websites, used book shops, etc and just peruse the maps. I used to have a small collection of rail and bus transit maps from around the world (London, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York City, Washington DC, Chicago …). On my phone I have Apple Maps, Google Maps, MapQuest, Scout, TeleNav, Park Me, and Google Earth.

I love books like 1421 by Gavin Menzies (my review) that have histories of map making, ancient maps reproduced, etc.

When I graduated from HVCC in 2001, I had hoped to join many of my classmates from school at MapInfo. I think GIS is fascinating (and know someone, now, who works for the KY government doing GIS).

I wish I could be a cartographer.

I can’t draw, though – so I sate my appetite for geography via reading maps others have made.

Data visualization, which is all map-making is, is another, broader interest of mine – but also one I don’t have enough of a grasp of to work with intelligently too often.

All this leads me to ask for the best introduction to GIS you have seen for someone interested in cartography, and with a basic knowledge of system design and architecture. What would it be?

make other people come to you – use bait if necessary – law 8 – #48laws by robert greene

Law 8

When you force the other person to act, you are the one in control. It is always better to make your opponent come to you, abandoning his own plans in the process. Lure him with fabulous gains – then attack. You hold the cards. –Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power (review)

what to offer to be the best possible employer ever

This will likely be an ongoing series as time progresses, but here are a handful of thoughts on how to really WOW your employees (or potential employees). Some of these ideas were garnered from my personal thought and observations, some from former employers, and some from other sources including “A Field Guide to Developers“, Fog Creek, Opsware, and Google.

  • Automatically “match” up to x% of an employee’s 401(k) – but deposit it (on a vesting schedule) regardless of whether the employee participates or not
    • Maybe you pick where the money gets distributed (target retirement funds, for example), but do it
    • Your employees will LOVE you (eventually)
  • Increase your level of 401(k) match based on loyalty – the longer someone works for you, the better it should be
  • Fully-fund some level of “good” health care coverage – regardless of whether the employee is single or married
    • Let the employee choose to go higher out of their pocket if they want, but pick a “good” option for everyone at a bare minimum (maybe a 70/30 plan with a modest deductible)
  • Competitive salary
    • Offer your best on the first try
    • Ironically, this is the least important item on the list – be competitive, but offering your best the first shot means the candidate can evaluate with no ambiguity
  • Give good standard corporate paid holidays and vacation
    • Minimum holidays (in the US) – 11-13.
      • New Year’s Day
      • President’s Day
      • Good Friday
      • Memorial Day
      • Independence Day
      • Labor Day
      • Columbus Day
      • Election Day
      • Thanksgiving Day (and the day after)
      • Christmas Eve (if a weekday)
      • Christmas Day
      • Day after Christmas (if a weekday)
    • Minimum vacation
      • 3 weeks
      • 4 weeks is better
    • Reward loyalty with better vacation accruals
  • Great work space
    • For appropriate jobs, offer up to 100% remote work
    • For everyone, make sure you have full offices for your people
    • Ample meeting rooms
  • Great equipment
    • There is no excuse to not give your employees the best equipment money can buy
      • Great tools make the work better
      • This does not mean you buy everything, you buy the best for what you need
    • eg For tech folks, let them choose the workstation / laptop they want
  • In-office perks (ie, for folks who come into the office)
    • Free drinks
    • Free snacks
    • Free meals
    • Free childcare
  • Education / personal development
    • Cover related classes (or create appropriate classes) for your staff to improve their skills for the business
    • Give everyone a book/tool allowance – and let them keep the books if they leave
  • Certifications
    • Pay for at least the first try of a work-related certification exam for appropriate employees
  • Allow salary / compensation information to be “public” within the company
    • Don’t bar employees from discussing how much they make
    • Every compensation package may be on a per-person basis (raises, bonuses, etc), but it’s not a secret
  • Put everything in writing
    • All benefits need to be in writing – bonus structures, profit sharing, etc

the traveler by john twelve hawks

I first heard about The Traveler in Albert-László Barabási’s book Bursts (review).

Now that I’ve had a chance to read John Twelve Hawks’ novel, I can say I can’t recommend it.

Not because it’s a bad story – but because I couldn’t get into it. I think it has the potential to be a good story … but I’ll have to try again in the future.

the art of the essay

Paul Graham is one of my favorite essayists. The following are some excerpts from his excellent 2004 essay, “The Age of the Essay“.

The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.

in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors. This had two drawbacks: (a) an expert on literature need not himself be a good writer, any more than an art historian has to be a good painter, and (b) the subject of writing now tends to be literature, since that’s what the professor is interested in.

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn’t take a position and then defend it.

Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it’s not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. It’s not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can’t change the question.

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion– uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell.

To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called “essais.” He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don’t know yet.

If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne’s great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them.

Questions aren’t enough. An essay has to come up with answers. They don’t always, of course. Sometimes you start with a promising question and get nowhere…An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn’t already know.

An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn’t meander.

The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn’t do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea.

The river’s algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting.

So what’s interesting? For me, interesting means surprise. Interfaces, as Geoffrey James has said, should follow the principle of least astonishment. A button that looks like it will make a machine stop should make it stop, not speed up. Essays should do the opposite. Essays should aim for maximum surprise.

I found the best way to get information … was to ask what surprised them. How was the place different from what they expected? This is an extremely useful question. You can ask it of the most unobservant people, and it will extract information they didn’t even know they were recording.

[T]he ability to ferret out the unexpected must not merely be an inborn one. It must be something you can learn. How do you learn it?

To some extent it’s like learning history. When you first read history, it’s just a whirl of names and dates. Nothing seems to stick. But the more you learn, the more hooks you have for new facts to stick onto– which means you accumulate knowledge at what’s colloquially called an exponential rate. Once you remember that Normans conquered England in 1066, it will catch your attention when you hear that other Normans conquered southern Italy at about the same time. Which will make you wonder about Normandy, and take note when a third book mentions that Normans were not, like most of what is now called France, tribes that flowed in as the Roman empire collapsed, but Vikings (norman = north man) who arrived four centuries later in 911. Which makes it easier to remember that Dublin was also established by Vikings in the 840s. Etc, etc squared.

There are an infinite number of questions. How do you find the fruitful ones?

I write down things that surprise me in notebooks. I never actually get around to reading them and using what I’ve written, but I do tend to reproduce the same thoughts later. So the main value of notebooks may be what writing things down leaves in your head.

Whatever you study, include history– but social and economic history, not political history. History seems to me so important that it’s misleading to treat it as a mere field of study. Another way to describe it is all the data we have so far.

Gradualness is very powerful. And that power can be used for constructive purposes too: just as you can trick yourself into looking like a freak, you can trick yourself into creating something so grand that you would never have dared to plan such a thing. Indeed, this is just how most good software gets created.

If there’s one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don’t do as you’re told. Don’t believe what you’re supposed to. Don’t write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don’t write the way they taught you to in school.

Popular magazines made the period between the spread of literacy and the arrival of TV the golden age of the short story. The Web may well make this the golden age of the essay. And that’s certainly not something I realized when I started writing this.

delivering solutions – “shipping is a feature!”

Back in 2009, Joel Spolsky wrote an article called The Duct Tape Programmer. Of everything he has written, I think this is the very pinnacle, and it is summed in one simple sentence in the middle: “Shipping is a feature.”

I’ve referenced this article twice before (in Feb and Sep of ’11).

Why is this so important in my mind?

I went back to school in 2003 to complete my bachelor’s degree in CIS. I had graduated in 2001 with an AAS in CIS from HVCC, and after finding nothing in 2 years of searching better than the job I had at Hertz, I decided a 4 year degree might help. I graduated from Elon University in Dec 2006 with my newly-minted BA in CIS. During my tenure at school I discovered that I didn’t really like the development end of Computer Science, and I instead preferred the analytical and integrational aspects of systems work – tying disparate tools together, improving internal workflow, etc – to help make individuals’ lives better and easier. In other words, I enjoyed finding ways to automate time-consuming and repetitive tasks to allow myself (and others) to focus on more interesting work – like figuring out how to automate more tasks to move up the chain.

I worked for a few places while I was at school (two different departments at the school itself, a pair of non-profits, and some freelance side work doing web site development). When I graduated, therefore, it was only natural that I ended-up with a pair of offers to work with automation tools – one from a company called Opsware, and one from a place called Network General. For a variety of reasons, I chose Opsware.

It wasn’t long after I started in Support for Opsware’s Server Automation [System] product that I became more and more sold on the product, and grew bored doing support – troubleshooting is fun, but with the paucity of good support tickets*, large similarity of cases coming from customers, etc .. it just wasn’t “me”. Shortly after HP purchased Opsware I put in to move from Support to Professional Services – to, hopefully, get a chance to work with harder integrational problems than I would ever see helping people over the phone and via email.

Beginning March of 2008^ I moved from Support to ProServe, and did start to get a taste for the bigger systemic problems that could be solved with the Opsware HP BTO suite. While with HP, I had the opportunity to do the global delivery of HPSA 7.5 for HSBC – performing both installation and onsite mentoring/training in Chicago, NYC, London, and Hong Kong. I also did the replacement install of HPSA 7.0 (a non-upgrade-to release) for Home Depot in Atlanta to manage their 2200 stores. There were some other customers I worked with, too – but those were the two biggest.

One of the issues that has arisen with [nearly] every customer I have ever worked with it that they want what they’ve agreed to pay for in the Statement of Work (SOW) signed, sealed, and delivered by the end of the project – and if it’s not, they want good reasons to sign a CO (change order) to modify the SOW.

And it’s no surprise. When you cost someone nearly 7 cents per second to work for them, they want to see results!

One of the constraints, therefore, that needs to be constantly watched is scope creep – the insidious tendency for all projects to go beyond their intended purpose (violating law 47 of the 48 laws), exceed budget, and never deliver what is really needed.

My primary goal when I work with a customer is not, perhaps paradoxically, to “make them happy”. One thing I learned when working in support is that the customer is never right!. You may have to pretend that they’re kinda right – but they’re always wrong. They do not know what they want. They do not know what they need. And they certainly do not know what is wrong if you ask them.

My primary goal when I work with a customer is to deliver what they have paid for. When possible, I will change course slightly (following proper CO processes) – but I want them to get what they have agreed to pay for. Ideally, especially now that I am in the architecture end of the world much more than ‘just’ delivery, I can work with them in the pre-sales process to get the SOW to something that approximates what they need. But I always aim to give them what they have paid for. Everything else is window dressing.

At the end of a project – whether as outside consultants, students, internal employees, at home, for work, etc – what needs to be seen is what was paid for.

Ship. Deliver.

Without those two, nothing gets done.

* I have grown so frustrated with support processes that I spent time a couple years ago writing a small eBook that includes a section on how to make good tickets. I’ve also written on ways to improve your support organization before.
^ Just realized that means I’ve been doing ProServe or PS-like work for 5 years running, and have been with the automation suite for more than 6 now.
! Before you become too concerned – I do realize there are a few good customers out there. But they are just that – few, and VERY far between.