Monthly Archives: December 2004

High Hopes For 2005

2004 has come and (nearly) gone.  I can’t say I’ll miss it much.  Not that 2004 was a bad year – but it was a trying year.  Growing a business is hard, solitary work sometimes.  I’m starting to see my company’s growth curve start to take off, and I am looking forward to the new projects and experiences that 2005 will bring.  Suffice to say that I am excited about the future.

If there were only one thing that I learned during 2004 that I could share with colleagues and clients, it would be this:  slow down.  The earth will not open up and swallow you whole if you devote a little time to planning.  Mafia goons will not break your kneecaps if you take 20 hours to do a high-quality job instead of rushing it out in 12 only to find obvious, rookie mistakes in the project.  Despite the old saying, you do not have time to do it over, but you do have time to do it right in the first place.  Nobody is going to fire you for taking the time to do a good job on something.  Note:  this is not to be used by would-be software artistes as an excuse to justify endless noodling on minor details under the guise of doing quality work.

The longer I work in technology (11 years and counting now), the more convinced I am that we – developers and users – create the majority of our own problems.  Whether it is the developer who builds a $5,000 solution to a $5 problem and delivers everything late or the user who refuses to view his job in the larger context of how it benefits his company, we all make things hard on ourselves.  There continues to be a widespread failure to find the “friction point” between cost, timeliness and features.  Add to that the false mantra of efficiency and speed and you have a recipe for a situation in which everyone is working as fast as they can at accomplishing very little.  I can’t speak for you, but I don’t find that very satisfying.  I believe people – in AND out of the technology field – need to have a bit of a craftsman approach to their work.

In other words, 2004 taught me what I already knew.  ;)

Things to look for in 2005:

  • My company, Cogeian Systems will announce the pending release of a software product by year’s end.  I am committing my company to spending the first half of 2005 researching product concepts, and the second half developing a prototype, if not a beta release.
  • More articles.  Many more.  And perhaps longer ones.  Consider 2004 a warm-up for the articles I’ll be writing on in 2005.  I intend to continue scolding the duller practices of the industry and praising the virtues of effectiveness and common sense in the development trade.
  • I might bring back the highly-neglected discussion forum.  Or I might not.
  • As always, I will continue to take a “business value first” stance on technology projects.  In the profession of software development and project management, one either creates or enables value, or it’s time to hit the bricks and find a new line of work.

In closing, I want to thank every visitor to my site – 31,000 this month – for reading, linking, eMailing, etc.  Compared to some of the more popular software industry blogs, my traffic stats are nothing to crow about.  However, I still find it immensely rewarding that anything I write resonates with any number of people.  My aim is to spark thoughts and conversations that lead to the betterment of the profession.  Hopefully I’ve made a decent start of it.

So on behalf of myself and Cogeian Systems I say:  Happy New Year, and may you achieve all the success and excitement you desire in 2005!

Joel Backs Down; Claims Misunderstanding

To his credit, Joel Spolsky has clarified the harsh comments he recently made about one-man consulting businesses, revising the sentiment to be more accurate.  In his discussion forum, Joel writes:

It serves me right. By now I should have learned not to post in the discussion groups, because off-the-cuff things that I say without the full-blown multi-page article full of careful hedging and defining my terms invariably gets misunderstood.

So, I will make an effort not to post in the discussion groups any more.

But anyway, what I was referring to in that brief off-the-cuff comment was the kind of one-man contractors who do sequential long-term programming gigs.

SEQUENTIAL: not multiple clients at once, just one client at a time, 40 hours per week.

LONG-TERM: for the purpose of avoiding nitpicking, shall we say, 6 months or more. If you do 1 week gigs you have my permission to call yourself a startup. If you’re a plumber, ok, you’re in business. But if you work at the same big company in the same big department sitting at the same desk and reporting to the same person who treats you like an employee without benefits and you do the same kind of work for six months straight, that’s not entrepreneurship, that’s a job.

I did a gig like that at Viacom for a couple of years and never pretended that I was “Joel Spolsky Consulting, Inc.” or an ISV and I didn’t subscribe to Inc. Magazine. If you’re doing sequential, long-term programming gigs and you’re imagining that it’s entrepreneurship, there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing, it’s just that you’re not building a business, you’re doing a job. That’s all I meant.

In my original post I used the words “one-man consultant” when I meant “one man serial long term gig contractor,” because it was a quick post on a discussion group and not a thoughtfully edited Joel on Software piece (which, incidentally, takes a week or more to write and edit), and now all kinds of people are accusing me of dissing all one-man independents, people are writing elloquent thoughtful essays implying that my arguments are tantamount to racism or homophobia (ooo! you got me there!).

My inner cynic wants to tell me that Joel meant exactly what he originally wrote and that this clarification includes a certain amount of back-pedaling meant to get him out of trouble with the community, BUT – whatever the motivation, he is making an effort to soothe hurt feelings, and I can’t help but applaud that.  So on behalf of all one-man consulting operations, I say :  thanks, Joel.  It’s good of you to provide a response; you certainly could have turtled and ignored the whole thing, but instead you chose to face the heat.  I can’t help but regard the revision of your statement as a victory for the little guy, but all in all there are no hard feelings.

Handshake?  Hug?  High-five?

P.S.  For Pete’s sake, don’t stop posting in your own message forum.  That’s just drama talking.  Remember, you designed the forum to lack an edit button specifically so people would be thoughtful when they posted – just follow your own design and you’ll avoid having guys like me coming after you with fangs bared.  ;)

Joel Spolsky Insults The Little Guy

I’m not one for public bickering, but I simply cannot let this pass without comment.

Joel Spolsky posted an opinion in his discussion forum yesterday regarding one-man consultancies like mine.  Here’s the paragraph I take serious exception to:

I think that being a “one-man consultant” is not entrepreneurship, it’s not starting out on your own, it’s not MicroISV-dom. It’s just having a job. Another job like everyone else. You’re not independent. You’re at the bottom of the totem pole wherever you go. You are constantly selling yourself and trying to find the next gig. The only reason you might consider it superior to a full-time job is if you get bored easily, and you’re welcome to the lifestyle of perpetual job hunting if that suits you, but do NOT tell yourself that you’re a “startup” or an entrepreneur if you’re a one-man consulting shop.

Now, Joel is never one to shy away from stirring the pot for purposes of self-promotion, but there is a certain venom and dismissive quality to his comments that I take exception to.

I’ve heard people using a similar argument to Joel’s on subjects such as sex, race, class, politics, etc. to the effect that “people who do/have x are the real [insert some noun here], whereas people who only do/have y are only pretenders.”  These kind of arguments have been used to devalue women, devalue people of color, devalue gays, devalue the poor, devalue the kid wearing the non-name-brand jeans to school, etc.  I have zero respect for this kind of thinking.

Bear with me as I indulge in some of that annoying line-by-line refuting that is so popular on message forums.

First, we’ll address Joel’s claim that “being a ‘one-man consultant’ is not entrepreneurship, it’s not starting out on your own, it’s not MicroISV-dom.”   I’ll stipulate that an independent consultancy is not a Micro-ISV (although many consultants use their consulting practice to fund the launch of an ISV).

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, the word entrepreneur comes from the old French word entreprendre, which means to undertake.  The full definition is listed as “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.”  Hmmm.  Let’s take a look at your typical one-man consulting shop – it is certainly organized to some degree.  The consultant himself manages both his affairs and whatever affairs of his client that he has been engaged to manage.  Assuming risk?  Don’t work, don’t eat – is that risky enough for you, Joel?  And regarding the “business or enterprise” portion of the definition, is not the exchange of value for value the very definition of business?  And if a one-man shop is not “starting out on your own,” I don’t know what is – there is nobody who can assure the singular operator’s success, save for the operator himself.  In what way is this NOT going out on your own?

Joel’s assertion that “It’s just having a job. Another job like everyone else. You’re not independent. You’re at the bottom of the totem pole wherever you go” is as correct as saying that owning a small ISV is a job – it’s a meaningless comment, really.  Everything anyone does for a living is a job.  That’s not much on which to base this kind of attack on independent consulting.  As far as not being independent, again I say that being an independent consultant is about as independent as running a small ISV – if your customers quit buying what you’re selling, you’re done.  True, a business like a small ISV has a model that means money is flowing in even when you take a day off, but any smart independent consultant is going to have some sort of ongoing support contract in place for every app he delivers, ensuring a steady revenue stream when the custom work slows down.  So there’s another attack premise shot down.

Regarding the claim that the independent consultant is at the bottom of the totem pole, perhaps Joel was at the bottom of the totem pole when he was at MCS or when Fog Creek Consulting was young, but I have not had a similar experience.  When my clients bring me on to a project, they do not bring me on solely as a pair of hands that can type things the client’s own hands cannot – my clients want my active input on how they can run their businesses better with the help of technology.  They want my input on how the technology will impact the way they manage their people, how their process will improve, what the most effective practices for getting a desired result are.  I have rarely – if ever – been treated as a low-on-the-totem-pole lackey.  Clients don’t pay today’s consulting rates just to get cannon fodder – they are much smarter than that.  If they wanted a simple minion to serve as surrogate hands, they could get one for $15 an hour form the local junior college’s Introduction to Programming class.

Joel continues that “You are constantly selling yourself and trying to find the next gig,” which is the only truly defendable statement in the entire post.  There is en element of constant selling when working as an independent, but at a certain point even an independent can find that his marketing efforts have generated enough market pressure that the leads come in on a regular basis and work is able to be booked well in advance.  So now that I think about it, perhaps this element of Joel’s comments isn’t defendable after all.  An ISV can no more afford to stop marketing than an independent can.

Joel’s argument against independent consultants concludes with “The only reason you might consider it superior to a full-time job is if you get bored easily, and you’re welcome to the lifestyle of perpetual job hunting if that suits you, but do NOT tell yourself that you’re a “startup” or an entrepreneur if you’re a one-man consulting shop.”

I’ll take this opportunity to remind Joel that businesses come in all shapes and sizes, from the small-town handyman in Montana to the behemoth corporation that makes name-brand products in every country of the world.  That is one of the things that is so interesting and so fantastic about living in a country where so much is available to so many – the diversity of opportunities to engage in commerce, small or large.  I think I can speak for every one-man technology consultant when I say this to Joel:  We are in business, whether you like it or not.  We provide value to our clients, whether you like it or not.  We are growing, we are learning, and we are becoming better at what we do every day, whether you like it or not.  Some of us will even grow up to be big businesses.

We are entrepreneurs as much as you are, Joel.  We have skin in the game and we take our chances, just like you.  Don’t you think it’s rather classless to tear down an entire segment of small businesspeople just to reassure yourself that you are in a “real” business and therefore better than us lowly independents?  That kind of thinking is reminiscent of a small child building a fort and then tacking a sign on the front of it with “no girls allowed” scrawled in a number of Crayola colors – it is false, it is elitist, and it is exclusionary.

You’re a smart guy, Joel.  You should know better.

Blogs – They’re Not Just For Vanity Anymore

Last week something very interesting happened.  The CEO of a company I’d proposed some work to read my blog, decided that we were a good philosophical match, and gave me the project – before ever having spoken to me or exchanged an eMail with me.  I had engaged in some initial contact with one of the company’s programmers, who forwarded my name on to her CEO.  When I finally got on the phone with the CEO, she spoke as though she knew me already, talking of the fit between our respective outlooks on business and technology.  It was strange, but very welcome, and she was right – we do indeed have a great philosophical fit!

The Scobles of the world who claim that blogs are a relationship accelerator must be correct – if by reading someone’s blog you can get a bead on where that person is coming from and even begin to feel as if you know that person (even if only in the context of their blogged subject matter), then why not?  The internet has changed everything else about how we communicate, it only makes sense that it would help change the introduction/getting-to-know-you dynamic as well.

Anyway, I’m both surprised and pleased.  I have a great new client staffed with people who are pleasant to work with, and the project itself is fun.

My blog closed the deal for me!  I never thought I’d see the day.

More Changes Here At ChristopherHawkins.com

I’ve tweaked my blogging tool so that the main page of this blog only displays the last 10 dates on which I’ve published something.  To see content older than that, you can use the Archive links on the side of the page.  The RSS feed also only goes back 10 days.

We’ll see if these changes help or hinder.  The main page used to display every blog entry I’ve ever made, and the page was well over 100K – far too big, in my opinion.  But heck, maybe people don’t mind loading a huge page as long as everything is on it when it finally loads.

If any readers have an opinion on the way I’ve broken up the content, let me know.  My mission is to make this blog easy to read, not a chore.

Did You Remember to Back Up Your Work?

Not too long ago, a hard drive failed in my primary dev machine.  It turned out that although I had been backing up most of my important files, I had not been backing them all up.  Net result?  The fruits of about $50,000 worth of my labor was gone.  That was a painful lesson.  Since then I have become religious about backups.

I got off pretty light, to be honest.  But suppose something more critical than money was depending upon having a good backup?  Say, something like the outcome of a capital murder trial?  Yes, I’m being serious.  I just read an article about Robert Blake’s attorney and his stolen computer.  Apparently his entire defense was contained on a laptop computer in his office, and  – cue Mr. Murphy – said office was burglarized, the computer stolen.  One sentence from the article was telling:

Schwartzbach declined to comment on whether he had copies of the material on the computer missing from his Sherman Oaks apartment, which was serving as his office.

Who wants to bet money that he’s got zero in terms of backup documentation?  This is really serious.  If I were his client I’d be very, very worried.  M. Gerald Schwartzbach is a high-level attorney, yet he couldn’t be troubled to burn a few CDs to guard against this type of disaster?  Incredible.

What kind of shape are your businesses backups in?  Ask yourself a question – what would you do if you woke up tomorrow to find your most valuable digital property gone?  Could your business survive?  Do you have adequate backups?  Do you even  have a disaster recovery plan?

It seems that IT disaster recovery plans are not just for IT shops anymore – high-priced attorneys appear to need them, too.