Of Death Threats and Internet Cowards

I’ve been stirred from my non-updating torpor by something that I think needs to be discussed by every single blogger on the planet:  Kathy Sierra receiving death threats via her blog comments and via 2 other blogs.

The blogosphere absolutely needs to stand up and denounce this sort of thing, loudly.  Thankfully there are many who are doing just that.  But will it be enough to get the message across to every jackass who might want to do something like this?  I’m not sure.

As deplorable as I think this is, it is not at all surprising.  Internet cowardice and bullying has been a fact of online life ever since people first started to communicate via computer.  My first online experience was with Quantum Link, and anonymous bullying was evident even then – 20 years ago.  So clearly, the problem isn’t new.  It is still pervasive, though.

Visit any message forum on the web – go on, pick one at random, I’ll wait – and click through threads at random for 15 minutes or so.  If you don’t see anyone making personal attacks on each other, you picked a real winner.  You see, although the death threats against Kathy have given the issue of online bullying a lot of attention, the fact is that abusive people act abusively toward others online every day.  The abuse does not usually rise to the level of a death threat, but the same callousness and cowardice that produces a death threat goes into abusive post you see.

Some people say you should not be offended or upset by anything anyone says on the internet because, well, “it’s just the internet.” These people are wrong.  What these people fail to understand is that when one real person posts abusive things aimed at another real person, that constitutes real bullying, real abuse.  It is no different than making death threats or other  personal attacks against someone on a telephone chat line, or shouting them at someone across a crowded room, or screaming at someone in his car next to you at a stop light.  These things are not acceptable face-to-face or over the phone, and there is no reason why they should be acceptable over the wire either.  Abuse is abuse.  Threats are threats.  What ever happened to good, old-fashioned civility when in the company of others – online or otherwise?

In addition to the “don’t get upset – it’s only the internet” folks, there are the “if you’re going to put yourself out there you should expect to be abused” folks.  I cannot think of one single reason why posting one’s thoughts in a public medium should entitle others to threaten or bully.  I’ve had my share of abusive eMails and jackasses leaving comments here (back when comments were possible), and it’s all garbage.  I have friends who have had threats of death, rape and other serious bodily harm levied at them via their blogs, eMail and/or message forums.  Is this really what we want to be doing with the impressive communicative power of the internet?  I certainly hope not.

As a great fan of Kathy’s writing, I wish her well and I hope that no ill comes of this for her.  Kathy, please don’t stop blogging.  To do so would be to hand a win to the forces of online criminals and jackasses, and they don’t deserve it.

And to the rest of the blogosphere, I say:  we need to do something to introduce civility into an online world that too easily facilitates this kind of behavior.  I’m not sure what, but we certainly need to do something.  What’s that old saying, again?  Oh, yeah:

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing

New Year, New Goals

So, it’s 2007 now.  Holy cow.  It seems like 2006 just flew right on by, it was a very eventful year for me.  As I tend to do, I’d like to set just a few goals for myself and my business for 2007.

First off, I think that my previously-stated goal of releasing a software app has now become an un-goal.  The consulting business is going so well that I’m just not willing to divert the resources necessary to engage in a serious dev effort.  Eventually I’ll come to that place, but I’m not there now.  Second, I’m going to launch a new business.  This business will also be in the technology sector and will complement my current business.  More on this when we’re closer to launch, as it’s so early there’s not much to talk about right now.

How Not to Run a Business: The Leafyhost Story

I caught an item on Digg this morning that I immediately recognized:  How Not to Run a Business:  The Leafyhost Story.  Here’s a quick description:

A story of a web hosting company with lots of potential. A hard drive failure, lack of back-ups, and bad communication. How things went south and some advice for how to keep your business from making the same mistakes.

Leafyhost is a small hosting firm started up by a couple of ArsTechnica members.  I recognized it because I am also a member of ArsTechnica and have also seen the saga being played out. Here is a link to the original thread where it is all still playing out.

At first it was just a little downtime, no big deal.  Then there were some unanswered support tickets.  Later on it was a corrupted drive for which the expected backups did not exist.  Then a 2-month delay in sending the failed out for data recovery.

Needless to say, the Leafyhost disaster-management story is not pretty.  To their credit, it seemed as though Leafyhost was staying on top of things at first.  But as the situation worsened, they seemed to turtle up a bit, which of course fanned the flames of customer discontent even more.  It seems as if they’re trying to remedy the situation, but there’s little visible improvement.  It’s sad because the Leafyhost staff is clearly smart but can’t seem to pull it together.

A lot of good people are upset at Leafyhost and feel they have not received what they paid for.  Sadly, Leafyhost has poorly managed the situation and have angered many customers by not being prompt and communicative enough.  The Leafyhost story is the kind of thing that runs completely counter to the principles of transparency that everyone seems to be talking about these days.

Dreamhost and Freshbooks have both had well-publicized disasters recently and handled them reasonably well, with tons of transparency and candor.  Leafyhost, on the other hand, has not.  Anyone who is looking to start any kind of business would do well to read the story and then make certain to NOT handle customer relations the way Leafyhost has done in this situation.

It’s sad for everyone, really.  At this point it’s a lose-lose for both Leafyhost and the customers who have been affected.  I hope it can all be resolved somehow.

Monday Consulting Questions: Teamwork, Money and Learning

Q. How do you manage team members who work on the other side of the country, or in another country altogether?
A. My team includes a dev on the East Coast and one in New Zealand, so being mindful of time zone differences is a must. We have a strong eMail culture, and that eMail communication is supplemented by instant messaging software and message forum software. We also make use of home-grown issue tracking software to ensure that information is available when it is needed.

That said, I’m not sure I can offer much more in the way of advice on managing remote teams. Part of the reason that having a distributed dev team has been so problem-free is that I exclusively work with devs I worked with back when I had a corporate job, before I started Cogeian Systems. So, the team is pre-gelled from prior experience together and we already know each other’s working styles, strengths and weaknesses.

Once I’ve grown the company to the point that I need to start hiring devs from outside my own sphere of previous work experience, we’ll see how managing remote work goes then. I suspect there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve that I’ve managed to sidestep by stocking my dev team with former co-workers.

Q. Are you profitable? Are you able to pay yourself a salary? How long did it take?
A. Yes and yes. Despite the obvious scaling issues, consulting margins are pretty good. I was able to pay myself right away when I started consulting, but what I was paying myself stank because work was scarce at first. It took almost 2 years before I had built up enough of a client base to pay myself the same amount I was earning when I was a corporate employee. Now I’m able to take home a salary that is some multiple of the salary I received as a corporate employee.

Q. How do you keep up with the latest technology?
A. I don’t. At least, I don’t keep up with the latest technology just because it happens to be the latest. I learn new technologies when my business needs (or the business needs of my clients) dictate that learning something new is needed. For example, I’m having fun with ASP.NET 2.0 right now. But, I think that expending the kind of energy it takes to keep up on technology for technology’s sake is silly.

I think a lot of devs lose a lot of traction by trying to stay on the bleeding edge of the ever-changing tech landscape. If you’re serving business customers, they don’t care what technology you’re using so long as you solve their problem. If a new technology presents an opportunity to profitably provide a better solution, learn it and use it. If it doesn’t, don’t. I’ve never felt the need to be the most up-to-date coder in the room; I just want to be the best problem-solver in the room, and problem-solving is a platform-independent ability.

Re-tooling my business

I’ve had the distinct feeling that something is missing from my professional life lately. Sure, my company is moving right along, my family is about to have a new addition, and my health is on the upswing. But something has definitely been missing, and I finally realized what it is: art.

See, before I was a high-tech consultant, I was an artist. I wrote poetry. I painted and sketched. I wrote songs (and even sang a few). I published an art magazine. Art was a regular part of my life. But as the demands of my profession grew along with my family, I let art become less and less a part of my daily routine. I think I need to find a way to re-integrate artistic pursuits into my life (sorry, but I don’t count coding as as artistic pursuit).

For that matter, I’d like to integrate my artistic pursuits with my business somehow. What would that mean? Better design on my web projects? More beautiful interfaces for my homegrown management tools? Marketing materials that could be framed and hung on the wall? Truthfully, I don’t know. But I do know that injecting artistry into what is a fairly dry profession can only be a good thing. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn into some hippie who treats coding like a tortured artiste with no concern for deadlines or costs. 😉

The other thing that has been on my mind lately is my own role within my company.