Monthly Archives: March 2011

Turning Negatives into Positives

Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you deal with it.

Sometimes that means just staying positive, or keeping a sense of humor when things go wrong.  But occasionally it’s possible to flip things on their head and actually turn a negative into a positive.  Hard to imagine?  Here a couple of quick examples:

1. Shooting the cat.

When my wife brought home a cat I was quite happy…right up to the point when he started using the furniture as a scratching post.  The little bugger would happily saw away at the arm of the sofa while staring directly at me.  It didn’t matter how much I shouted and waved my arms, he wouldn’t stop until I stood up – at which point he would take off only to return only a few minutes later to taunt me again.

After about a week of this, he started his game again but this time found his fun cut short by a powerful jet of water to the neck.  Yes, the tide had turned – now I actually wanted him to attack the sofa so that I could use the super-soaker I had just purchased.  Sadly my fun was short-lived as he quickly realized he was out-gunned (literally) and the scratching stopped.  But, for a short time, I had a lot of fun turning this negative into a positive!

2. Junk mail revenge

Junk mail is a sad fact of life these days.  Each day our mail men and women break their backs delivering paper goods that go straight from our mailbox to the recycling. Clearly someone is buying things from this or they wouldn’t send it, but I find wading through the pile offers and begging letters to find the ‘real mail’ to be a little irritating.

Fortunately Scott Adams provided the answer in his book, The Dilbert Principal.  Some of these companies offer pre-paid envelopes in their junk.  Should you find one of these gold mines, there is an opportunity to release some of the negative energy by stuffing their envelope with your other junk mail, along with a note saying “Please throw this in the garbage for me”. You can then chuckle to yourself as you slip that into the outgoing mail in the full knowledge that the company will now have to pay postage on your junk. Another negative turned into a positive!

3. Spam purveyors of bloatware

A recent update of Adobe Reader installed not only the expected update, but also a copy of McAfee Security Scan Plus.  I never asked for this, and certainly didn’t want it.  If these companies actually believed you wanted their bloatware, they would not feel the need to hide the opt-out check box in obscure parts of the screen. I was very irritated by this and decided to vent to the customer complaints department of Adobe but, alas, their website doesn’t have any such link – perhaps shut down due to excessive call volume?

Instead I found the Facebook page for Adobe Systems and flagged them as spam. The Internet can be self-healing (Wikipedia is proof of that) so, perhaps, if enough people take this sort of action when a company installs unwanted software, they will get the message.  If nothing else, it gave me a little tingle of satisfaction and turned a negative into a positive!

So what are you waiting for?  Get out there and take control of your life – there’s fun to be had everywhere if you know where to look, so start looking!

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Filed under Life - or something like it, Technology, The Human Condition

Help! IEP Time! (via Aspergers : A Mom’s Eye View)

IEPs…and how to go about getting one for your child.

Help!  IEP Time! Yes, it’s that time of year again – Time for the annual review of my son’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  Even though this is only a review of our existing plan, and things have been going really well for my son this year, I still feel nervous and concerned.  Let’s face it, the entire process is extremely intimidating and nerve-wracking to a parent.  Without fail, I don’t sleep the night before, I can’t eat anything that morning and during … Read More

via Aspergers : A Mom’s Eye View

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Filed under Career, Children, Education, Uncategorized

The Power of Text

I spend a good deal of time on the computer – probably far more than I should.

In fairness, it is my trade as well as my hobby, so I have a good excuse.

Despite being very comfortable with technology, I use a GUI whenever possible because it’s easier and…I’m lazy.  Tools like Webmin and Toad have saved me from hand-typing commands and, usually, provide prompts to keep me on track.

My kids see me using these sort of tools all the time and never bat an eyelid.

But, the other day, I was making a change to a Linux test machine I had launched on Amazon’s EC2 and, since I had no GUI tools installed, I decided to just open up a terminal window to make the change.

The familiar black screen with white writing showed up and, instantly, Daniel appeared at my side and the following conversation ensued:

D: “Ooohh.  Are you writing code?”

Me: “Not really, just running some commands here because it’s faster.  I could show you what I’m doing if you like.”

D: “I don’t think so, I think my head would explode!”
Clearly going ‘old school’ had real credibility with him.  Apparently that is what ‘real’ programmers do.

Who knew?

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Filed under Children, Technology

Excessive Customization: The Fastest Way to Kill Your Project

I have run many projects to implement software over the years, and learned many lessons along the way.  One of the most common themes I hear project managers talk about is the dreaded “scope creep” – the constant moving of goal posts that often occurs.  Of course, the real difficulty is that project sponsors often don’t know what they want but, surprisingly, do know when they want it by.

Usually, problems are apparent right from the outset.  Firstly, if your project involves building a system that is available off-the-shelf then alarm bells should be going off.

Unless you are building something that provides a significant competitive advantage, then 99% of the time you are better off buying the package, and here is why:

Penny Wise & Pound Foolish
The off-the-shelf package won’t exactly match the way your company does business.  But I will bet good money that accepting that, or slightly changing your processes will cost less than building, customizing  and maintaining a bespoke system.

You’re Already Late!
The off-the-shelf software already has several years head-start on you.  By the time you build a fraction of the functionality contained in the package, they will have moved on.  After all, this is their competitive space and their existing customers will be constantly pushing them to keep improving.  Not only will you never catch up, you  won’t even get close.  Your expensive software will constantly fall behind the rest of the market and end up a competitive disadvantage.

But, let’s assume that the decision was made before you were given the project, and you don’t have the political clout to get that changed.  Your task now is to deliver, on-time and on-budget, while still keeping the sponsors happy.

Scope creep is inevitable and, I would argue, actually positive if you want to deliver something that makes sense at the end. There’s no point in delivering a feature from the original design if the market has changed and the module will never be used.  A somewhat controversial  study by the Standish Group suggested that 64% of functionality delivered is “rarely or never” used.  Some argue that Standish’s measurements are harsh.  But even if they are off by 50%, that is still a huge number.  Your job, therefore, is not to limit change, but to make sure that what you are building actually adds value.

Most project sponsors have seen the story before.  They get one chance to say what they need and this  is then split into “Phase 1” and “Phase 2“, which really translates into “Phase 1 minus the stuff we couldn’t complete on time” and “Never“.  Because of this, the sponsors have adopted a simple technique – Stuff the hat with as much functionality as possible.  If they get enough in there up front, then they might actually end up with most of the functionality they really need at the end.

This desire to keep adding functionality needs to be managed before the requirements gathering session turns into a customization binge and you find yourself waking up in a pool of customizations, unable to remember the past two weeks and with a maintenance headache like a jackhammer.

So how do you avoid this?

First off, you need to grow a pair.  Be willing to stand up to your sponsors and push them to prove the functions that they are asking for actually make sense and are worth the effort.  Putting things into dollar or time values can really help here.  e.g.  “Is that field really worth an extra $100,000 and a 3 week delay?” You will have some fights, you will lose some, and you will win some.  But ultimately, as long as the rationale is solid, people will respect you for your commitment and the project will be successful.

Know when to stop! Some people like to tweak things constantly – continually trying to make things just that bit better – but all this tweaking takes time.  Doing things right is important, but you need to recognize the cancer of perfection, if you are to avoid spinning your wheels long after an acceptable solution has been found.  Sometimes good enough is good enough.

Try mixing in Agile techniques. Like the traditional Waterfall project methods, agile software development requires a list of requirements up front (your backlog).  The big difference is that the team only agrees to deliver the items that can be completed within the next “sprint” (usually 2-4 weeks).  At the end of the sprint you deliver real, working software and then agree the next set of deliveries.  This way the business receive working software much earlier than they normally would and, over time, the items being delivered have less and less value.  Eventually the sponsor will realize that they have bigger fish to fry elsewhere and will redirect resources to those projects…but it will be their decision to do so.

Picture by Simon Clarke

Unless  you manage it vigilantly,  excessive customization will take over your project – and your life. Your projects will fail, your career will go down the tubes, and you will find yourself sitting on a park bench with a bottle-shaped paper bag, muttering phrases like “scope creep” and “waterfall” to people passing by.

So get with the program already, before the person in this picture becomes you!

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Filed under Career, Technology, The Human Condition

WordPress: Stop Sub-domain Squatting

Last year I convinced my wife to start blogging her experiences as the mother of a child with Aspergers.  She is a very private person so getting her to agree to this was no small task so, when she finally did agree, I immediately set to work finding a suitable space for her.

Deciding to use WordPress was a no-brainer.  But finding a suitable sub-domain name (e.g. ???.wordpress.com) proved much more a challenge because  all the great sub-domains where already taken!

I wouldn’t mind if these sub-domains were occupied with people writing interesting blog posts.  In fact, I wouldn’t even mind if those places had one decent blog post on them.  The sad fact is that most of great names have nothing at all, just the initial “Hello World” post that you get when you first set up a site.

Don’t believe me?  Try it out.  Go to your browser address bar, pick an interesting word and follow it with .wordpress.com.  To save you some time here is my experiment with this:

Any random word will do – Hair, Smoke, Toon – it doesn’t matter, the results are almost always the same.

I reached out to the WordPress people about this a while back and they sent me a nice note with this link in it which basically says “we don’t recycle blog names”.

This is prime web real estate that is just being squandered. Somewhere out there is someone with a great idea, a passion to write, and they are stuck in the electronic backwaters with a name like poop.wordpress.com.  Actually, scratch that, I just checked it and that one has a “Hello World” post too.

Come on WordPress people – let’s fix this! I love you guys, I really do.  A rock-solid platform, awesome open source software, fantastic templates and a price that just can’t be beat.  But this lack of great blogging names must stop some people from picking up their blogging ‘pen’ or, at the very least, sending them to some other platform.

Working on the theory that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness I’m going to make a proposal that I hope you will agree with.  Change the WordPress policies around domain name recycling.

My rule is simple, but still gives people enough time for their creative mojo to materialize.  Here it is:

If your sub-domain has nothing more than the initial post one year after being registered, you lose it and it goes back into the general pool.

That’s it!  Nothing complicated and very easy to enforce.  I’m sure there will be all sorts of exceptions, but that one rule alone will put some amazing sub-domain real-estate back into circulation.

If you agree with this then click the Like button or pass it along to others, and let’s see if we can get away from blog names like abc123.wordpress.com.   Oh…hold on…that one has a “Hello world” post too…

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Filed under Technology

Changing Theme – What Do You Think?

In order to spice things up a little, and to make commenting a little easier, I’m going to change my blog theme.

Currently on the short list are the following (you can see the theme name by hovering over the picture).  I’d love to know what you think, so please either vote (at the bottom) or add a comment.

 

 

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Filed under Technology

Are You Listening?

Our three children are still young enough that they want to share their latest discoveries with their parents.  Many times I will hear excited cries of “Dad, check this out!”, delivered with a real sense of urgency.

What I “need to see” invariably turns out to be a new weapon in a video game, or a dolls’ tea party, all set up ready for me to sit down and share a cup of imaginary tea.  Actually that last one would have started with “Daddy”, since my daughter knows she has to pull out all the stops to get me involved in a party with stuffed animals.

Since I am rarely just sitting there twiddling my thumbs, these urgent requests are too often met with “In a minute” or “As soon as I’ve finished this.” Often, I am ashamed to say, never to be followed up on.

But are adults so different?

Joanne has tried so hard to involve me in decorating, but I just don’t get it.  Coral, to me, is a living organism, not a color.  As long as tables don’t rock, seats are comfortable, and curtains keep intruding eyes from peeking in, then I don’t need to know what it matches.

Conversely, I recently tried to show Joanne some very cool software that I had just fired up on a new virtual server.  She looked around, tried very hard to look interested and…failed miserably.

I realized then that I had just committed exactly the same crime as my son when he tried to show me his latest video game.  And then it all became clear to me.  This isn’t about showing video games, or software, or matching colors, it is about sharing something you are passionate about with someone you love.

Is it fair for me to not listen to Joanne or my kids, but then expect them to snap to attention while I drone on about the benefits of open source or SaaS delivery models?  Not really.

So I am turning over a new leaf and trying to pay more attention to these requests.   I figure my children are only on loan and I really should try to listen to them when they are excited about something.  The great thing is that, often, what they have is actually very cool and/or funny.

I remember reading that every religion in the world – all of them – have one thing in common: the directive that you should treat others as you would like to be treated.

So I am going to try harder to pay attention to the loved ones in my life.  Responses of “In a minute” are now reserved for those occasions when time is of the essence.

Starting today I will make an effort to go and find out what my family has to show me before those moments are lost, and I’m inviting you to do the same…just please don’t ask me to sit in on a tea party with stuffed animals.

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Filed under Children, Life - or something like it, The Human Condition