Responses to Clearing Mental Clutter

A colleague let me know that Web Worker Daily has commented on my post about withdrawing from the echo chamber.  That’s pretty cool, I like WebWorker.

First off, let me say that it is not lost on me that I would have noticed this myself had I not deleted all my feeds and bookmarks.  Har-har, the joke’s on me, I get it.  This still makes for nice reading on a day off of work.

Second, Mike Gunderloy thinks I am prominent.  Excellent.

Now, on to the meat of this post.  By saying that:

…web workers have focused on ways to fine-tune and channel attention so as to find the necessary information at the right time.

Mike seems to be advocating that you carefully evaluate each and every one of your links, each and every one of your social sites, each and every one of your newsfeeds, hemming and hawing over “gee, maybe this one could stay”, wondering if you made the right choice, carefully crafting a suite of interruptions that you deem acceptable.

I say, to hell with that.  If you’re running a business then you’ve got bigger fish to fry.  Plus, we already have a way to find the necessary information at the right time.  It’s a little site called Google, maybe you’ve heard of it.  I’m glad that Mike can make this kind of soft-pedal approach information clutter work for him, but in my experience you need to take direct and massive action if you want to be really effective.

Now, I did indeed take a radical approach by simply deleting all of it.  And I do indeed think that it was the right step to take.  However, the spin that Mike puts on it is that I – in true ultra-hermit, Unabomber style – have decided to permanently and completely withdraw from the outside world.  This is not accurate.

Mike seems to think I’m advocating sticking one’s head in the sand and letting the industry pass one by.  I’m not sure how he comes to the conclusion that disconnecting for a while is akin to never learning new skills and letting your firm die.

Look at the last sentence of my previous post again:

Basically, if it’s not helping me to secure or complete projects for my company, if it’s not helping me to make money, if it’s not improving my life in some way, it’s mental clutter and it’s out.

You see, I have no doubt that some of these connections to the echo chamber will eventually be back in my routine – if said connection helps me in some way.

The heart of the matter is, which of these outside influences and sources of connected-ness will earn their way back organically, by being a legitimate boon to my life and my business?  And which will turn out to have been nothing more than baggage that I was holding on to un-necessarily, simply because I felt compelled to for some reason?  That’s the real test.

I issue a challenge to Mike, and to all of you who are reading this – disconnect, if you can.  Disconnect, if you dare.  Ditch your feed-reader.  Ditch your Favorites folder.  Drop out of your social networks.  Just for 30 days, disconnect.  Then, start allowing connections back into your daily routine organically.  Resist the temptation to maintain a bookmark to some blog just because you feel like you’re supposed to know what’s going on within it’s contents.  Why are you supposed to know?  Is it because you really benefit from it, or is it just because you feel compelled to be “in the know” with all the cool kids and A-listers?  Resist bookmarks to “resources” that you don’t really need.  Is a given bookmark providing you with real knowledge, or just tabloid information about the industry?  Is a given bookmark that once provided useful knowledge still relevant?  If not, do you need to maintain it?

Make your online distractions earn their keep.  Then delete them every year or two, and make them earn their spot all over again.  Be ruthless in the distractions you accept.  There is an entire world out there trying to pull your attention away from the things that will make you effective, productive and prosperous.  Don’t just give your attention away, make things earn it, then earn it again.

Withdrawing From the Echo Chamber and Clearing Mental Clutter

Updated 14 April 2016

I think I read too many blogs, follow too many people on social media, and get news from too many sources.  Perhaps you do, too

I know that Scoble is legendary for keeping up on umpteen jillion blogs, but even with the aid of feedreaders (are those still a thing?), it’s daunting.  And there’s just no payoff.  In fact, I am beginning to believe that being too connected to too many inputs actually is a negative.

There is a limited amount of overhead that the human brain can sustain and still be highly productive
I believe that every feed I follow, every blog I read regularly, every bit of connected-ness I currently have to various destinations in the tech echo chamber is like a lead weight, slowing down my brain.  Furthermore, I’m not convinced that being this highly connected to the industry is even healthy.

There’s too much focus on what the other guy is doing. Which designer has a clever CSS hack this week? Which company is launching what web app with no revenue model this week? Which Microsoft/Google/Apple technology (which obsoletes some other Microsoft/Google/Apple technology) is on the drawing board this week? Who’s making a billion? Who’s losing a billion? Who has mind share? Who’s leveraging the Long Tail? Who’s reached the Tipping Point…ugh.  It’s as though everyone who writes or reads a tech blog have all actually agreed to bullshit one another, and act like it’s all perfectly normal.

Guess what?  I don’t care about your web app.  I don’t care about the latest developer technology MS is working on.  I don’t care about the 19-year old whiz kid who just sold to Yahoo for a billion.  But by being so plugged in, I have sometimes managed to fool myself into thinking I care about these things.

What I do care about – passionately – is profitably solving problems for my clients.  Being overly connected distracts me from that. So, I’m going to opt out for a while.  Clear out the awareness baggage.  De-program.  And, thankfully, focus my mental bandwidth on how to continue effectively and profitably solving client problems.

I’ll continue updating my blog, of course.  And I’ll still be (somewhat less) active on Twitter; in fact, if you haven’t noticed, I recently reduced my following count by almost half. Being less connected will probably mean that what I write will be more informed by what’s happening out in the real world where software is used to keep real businesses running than by the online chatterbox where the focus is on who’s doing what.

Are you feeling like it is time to clear out the attention clutter and cut back on your connected-ness to the blogosphere too?

The same goes for the hundreds of items in my bookmarks.  All that takes up mental bandwidth, keeping the idea in the back of my head that all those bookmarks are there for a reason and that I have this hovering obligation to go back and look at them again and possibly DO something.  But really, those bookmarks just sit.  So I deleted every single one.  Now, I’m going to have to re-create a few, because they were for things like client websites and such, but the point is that if it doesn’t get re-created during the course of my work, then I didn’t really need it.

I’m also deactivating my accounts with online forums and 2nd-tier social networking sites (Snapchat is a good example; I tried it & it didn’t have anything I want, so now it’s gone).  Again, just having those accounts forms a sort of mental commitment to visit them, keep up with people, keep abreast of the latest, and feel obligated to DO something that doesn’t necessarily help my productivity.

Basically, if it’s not helping me to secure or complete projects for my company, if it’s not helping me to make money, if it’s not improving my life in some way, it’s mental clutter and it’s out.

Monday Consulting Questions: Time and Relationships

Q.  Have you abandoned your blog?  If so, is it because you don’t think it has marketing value?

A. Although I have undoubtedly neglected my blog, I have not abandoned it.  What it comes down to is time invested and value received.  Right now the project work is flowing freely and the amount of available non-work time I have is limited.  I’m afraid that blogging just hasn’t managed to rise very high on the priority list, which brings me to the second half of your question.

Despite all the hubbub about transparency and conversations and other positive aspects of blogging, I have to say that no, I don’t find that my blog has much marketing value in its current form.  I’ve gotten a few leads from my blog that have ended up yielding projects worth a low 6 figures over the past 4 years, but in the big picture the blog is just not a consistent source of leads.  Bear in mind that this blog is primarily read by other developers and consultants.  Now, I love my fellow developers and consultants to pieces, but you’re not the ones hiring my company for projects.  One of the things that I have been meaning to do this year (and haven’t managed to do yet) is re-tool my blog so that it offers information that is of interest and use to potential clients.  Right now this is jut a bullet point on a to-do list someplace; I do not have a plan outlining how to make this happen.

Q.  How do you deal with competitors undercutting you? A. For every consultant with pro-level chops who is charging market-level rates, there are 10 guys with skills ranging from horrible to brilliant who charge 50% of market rate or less.  Why is this?

First of all, some of these folks just don’t know any better – they might not know what market rate is, and coming from a W2 job it’s not that hard for a sub-par contract rate to sound like a lot of money.  Then you have the people who are just starting out and are charging sub-market rates to make up for their lack of experience.  Finally, you have the folks who are under-charging because they just don’t know how to make themselves stand out from the crowd.

I suggest 1 thing for competing against undercutters: create stronger relationships.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  all things being equal (and sometimes even when they’re not), people will choose to do business with their friends.  Unless you’re making a completely wild pitch to a client, it is your relationship with the decision-makers that will either get you the deal or not.  We’ve all had the painful experience of losing a client to another provider who charges $10 less per hour, but the $10 is not really what’s at the heart of it.

Here is a common scenario that I see being played out between my company and clients:

  • Company A hires a questionable developer (we’ll call him Developer X).
  • Developer X misses deadlines, blows budgets, flakes on deliverables, produces broken code, and then suddenly disappears, stops responding to phone calls and eMails, or fouls up the project in some other critical way.
  • Company A gets frustrated and hires Cogeian Systems to take over the project and do some remediation.
  • We hit our deadlines.  We hit our budget marks.  We hit our milestones.  We fix all the developer’s mistakes.  We produce working product.  The client praises us up one side and down the other.
  • Developer X re-appears from wherever he’s been hiding.
  • Company A drops us and re-hires Developer X, despite repeatedly expressing to us that they’re SO frustrated with him, and his flaky behavior has been going on for SO long, that there’s just NO WAY they’ll ever work with him again.

Sometimes we go through this pattern with the same client 3, 4 or 5 times over a year or two.  How can this be?  Well, I’ll tell you how this can be:  Developer X has a stronger relationship (even if it is somewhat dysfunctional) with Company A than we have.  The people at Company A like Developer X better than they like anyone at Cogeian Systems.  In the short-term, their need to have business objectives met will trump the relationship for just long enough to have those needs met.  But over the long term?  If Developer A has been their boy for years now, odds are that he will remain their boy for years to come.  I’ve had business owners tell me to my face that yes, so-and-so is doing crap work and yes, it’s screwing up my business, but gosh, I’ve known him so long and he’s a real good guy, and I’m not going to fire him, so you just fix this up and we’ll be fine.  It really does boggle my mind – I’m a “performance over all” kind of guy at heart – but it is something that I have to deal with, so I have learned to understand this kind of stance.

Although I do my best to forge a good relationship with the client, it’s just not always possible to make that happen in as short a period of time as I usually have to work with on an in-crisis project.  Also, it’s not something you can force.  I could point out that spending another $1,000 with Developer X will end up costing them $10,000 in fix-it fees when they get fed up again and bring us in to get things working, but I suspect that would just reflect poorly on my firm.  This is something I am still working on – finding ways to develop strong relationships quickly.  My clients universally praise the work, but I suspect that I’m not doing enough to register on the Friend Meter.

Why Brain-Teasers are a Lame Interview Tool

I read a great article on Cameron Moll’s blog today about all-day tech interviews.  One of the things he mentioned in the article that struck a chord with me was the use of brain-teasers as an interview tool.  According to Cameron, the brain teaser counts for a full 25% of the candidate’s total impression.  Yikes!

I have used brain-teasers as an interview tool in the past, but no longer do so because I can’t say that brain-teasers really pull their weight as an interview tool.  It seems to me that brain-teasers are good for two things:  a) letting an interviewer feel smug because “I know the answer and you do not, silly candidate” (and I’m not saying this is why Cameron like them, so please save the drama), and b) determining if the candidate is good at brain-teasers.

Seriously, that’s it.  I can’t think of one thing that having a candidate do a brain-teaser will tell me that is more relevant than what I can learn from showing the candidate a page of incorrect (or is it?) code and ask them to find the problem and suggest solutions.  It just doesn’t get any more in-context than that.

I know that there is a great love of brain-teasers in the geek community, so perhaps I’m all alone on this.  But I’ve never really felt like brain-teasers told me anything that a more in-context demonstration couldn’t do.

That said, if they seem to work for you then by all means use them.  🙂

Do We Need an Internet User Blacklist?

What with the recent Kathy Sierra death threat saga, I’ve been thinking about the kind of behavior people tend to engage in online.  I don’t think it’s any secret that a fair portion of the folks interacting with others on the internet – whether via blog comments or message forums – display really rotten behavior.  There’s no way these people really talk to others in real life the way they do on the net.  What that amounts to is an abuse of anonymity.  As such, I’ve seen some folks suggesting that net anonymity should go away.

I disagree with that, but I do have another idea: perhaps what we need is a good old-fashioned blacklist?

To make it work, a good number of the most popular blogs and forums on the web would need to participate.  It would work like this:  suppose Person A posts something that is egregiously abusive – like a death threat – on a blog or forum someplace.  The owner of the site could report Person A’s IP to the blacklist service, along with a link to the offending post.  Participating sites could then check and see if anyone with that IP was posting on their site as well, and – being aware of that poster’s behavior on other sites – ban that user from posting to their sites as well, if they so chose.  This would allow the blogosphere (plus any site operators who care about such things) to establish a shared base of knowledge with regard to abusive or criminal behavior by visitors common to the community, and give members of the community the ability to deal with it if they want to.  In simpler terms, it would be a Wikipedia of internet bullies/criminals.

Personally, if I still had comments enabled and I knew the IP address of a poster who had been making death threats elsewhere, I’d be happy to ban that individual from posting here.  And if I were running a large message forum, I’d certainly consult any available reference to weed out such folks.

I know, I know – I can hear you already:  “That’s draconian,” “That’s against the spirit of the web,” “You’re a fascist,” “Going by IP alone isn’t sufficient,” “blah blah blah.”  Get real here.  This kind of abusive behavior is a real problem on the web.  We can talk all we want about how the web is self-policing, but if the site operators who care about such things don’t communicate with each other and then communicate with the community to present a clear “This is not acceptable, and here are the consequences” message, it’s never going to improve.

Got a better idea?  Let’s hear it.  I’m certainly not the smartest person who’s thinking about this problem – at least I hope not.  If I am, then we’re doomed for sure.  😉