Sometimes, Establishing Expertise Doesn’t Pay Off

Recently I analyzed the relative payoff from different types of work I’ve done in my career to date. Some of the work has paid off reasonably well. But one particular bit of it stands out as a counter-example to common wisdom:

Between 1997 and 2000, I spent countless hours on the BDE Alternatives Guide, a section of this web site devoted to listing and analyzing the dozens of third-party database access libraries available for Delphi in that era. Delphi shipped with the BDE a not-great mechanism for database access. BDE was Borland’s answer to Microsoft’s ODBC, but unlike the latter, BDE didn’t get industry-wide support.

Working on the BDE Alternatives Guide had many positive payoffs:

  • It created a much-needed resource, greatly appreciated by thousands of developers.
  • I learned enormously in the process.
  • It put me in touch with dozens of library vendors, and many hundreds of developers.
  • It generated many incoming links and much traffic, around a million page views over a 5-year period.
  • Banner advertisements brought in a few hundred dollars, before I scrapped them to avoid the appearance of bias.
  • It made me reasonably well-known in the Delphi world, which was growing rapidly at that time. (Our team at Oasis Digital still does some Delphi work, by the way.)

You might think, though, that establishing expertise as a Delphi database integration expert, would result in lots of consulting leads, new business, and job offers. Let’s look at the stats:

  • Total number of leads generated: 0
  • Total consulting work generated: $0
  • Total job inquiries and offers: 0

Yes, that’s right. Not a single firm ever contacted me to inquire about consulting, development, etc., as a result of the BAG. I’m still glad I did the work, for all the reasons above. But it is a counter-example to the notion of showing expertise and building a technical following, as a way to generate business interest. Sometimes the work pays off in new business, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The situation is not as dire as it sounds though; concurrently with that technical reputation, I was building a development-results reputation, and the latter was vital to launching Oasis Digital in 2001.

 

Take a Strategic Vacation

This is yet another story that I’ve told dozens of time to individual and groups, and now finally written down. Here is a short video talk:

Strategic Vacation from Kyle Cordes on Vimeo.

As usual, the vimeo page offers it for HTML5, non-Flash platforms like the iPad.

Back in 2004 I co-founded Mobile Workforce Management, a vertical market SaaS firm. For the first 6+ months, I was the entire development team, while my co-founder was the entire analysis, support, and customer happiness department. Over the course of a few years, we hired developers, a very-senior developer / leader / general manager, support staff, and more. In spite of these hires, as of 2007 I was still in the loop for numerous critical processes that had to happen every day or week to keep the doors open – not a great situation.

Around that time I was inspired to take a month-long family vacation, far longer than any past vacation. My family made arrangements to spend 3 weeks in a house by the beach, 1000 miles away, in the summer of 2008; these arrangements must be made far in advance, as such houses tend to fill up. I’d be away for approximately an entire month, allowing for travel time and stops along the way.

With that hard date in hand, my notions of ironing out the business processes “someday” were swept aside, and I set about tracking, automating, documenting, and delegating any of the work that involved me and had to happen at least monthly.

  • accounting / bookkeeping / payroll
  • production sysadmin
  • development sysadmin
  • system monitoring
  • management processes
  • customer relationship processes
  • vendor relationships
  • design and code reviews
  • much more

It took months of hard work (by myself and others) to build up our company ability to handle all of these things well in my absence. As of the vacation date, all of this was set up to run smoothly either entirely without me, or with a tiny bit of remote input from me.

This worked, in fact it worked so well that our customers didn’t even notice my absence.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, the work I did then to increase our organizational process maturity was a turning point in the life if the business, enabling its eventual sale. Before that work, I’d have been a bit embarrassed to say “organizational process maturity” in public. Afterward, I have lived (rather than just learned about and talked about) the notions of working on-rather-than-in a business, of building a business with a life separate from that of its owners.

In retrospect I’m calling that trip a Strategic Vacation – a vacation taken both for its own value, and to drive the accomplishment other critical goals. If your business needs you every single day, that’s a problem. Create some pressure on yourself to solve it, by scheduling a strategic vacation, then go make it happen.

Standing Desk Experiment and Experiences

Round 1, 2007

Back in 2007 I read a few articles about the merits of stand-up desks, in regards to health and productivity. According to the New York Times and other sources, standing desks have been not quite common, but neither terribly uncommon, for many years. Sitting all the time is apparently quite unhealthy. Famously, Donald Rumsfeld used one, and maybe it helped him come up with this?

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

(This quote got a lot of chuckles, including from me; but it is actually a good and important point. I wish someone less politically charged had popularized it. Many commentators suggest that Rumsfeld’s phrasing and concern for unknown unknowns came from Werner Erhard, himself a very smart but somewhat odd fellow.)

Inspired to try out standing up at work, I set up perhaps the world’s ugliest standing desk:

2007 Standing Desk

I took an old and already-ugly normal desk, and put it on primitive stilts constructed in about 30 minutes for about $10. This was marginally acceptable for the out-of-the-way room I was using as a home office at the time. To make the most of things, I took the photo above with plenty of semi-obsolete technology and ample wiring in view. Looking back at this photo, I observe that my wife is an amazingly tolerant and loving woman.

In spite of the poor aesthetics, I enjoyed this desk for many months, and noticed an increase in my productivity and focus, discussed more at the end of this post. At the same time, some minor backaches and pains went away, and I slept better. (Be warned though, that it takes some getting used to, the first couple of weeks are tough.)

Functionally speaking, the only weakness of this arrangement was that the monitors were not high enough relative to the keyboard height.

This first-generation experiment fell into disuse when I set up a new home office with tasteful solid wood furniture and other decor, in a prominent front room of my home, at “only” 10x the cost of my old home office. The desk above went to the offices of my old firm where a couple of people tried it out, then eventually discarded it. (My new home office is not pictured here; it looks approximately like a page in the catalog of a furniture store – nice, tasteful, boring. It also contains much better hardware.)

Round 2, 2010

Inspired again by further press coverage, I’m trying out a standing desk again in 2010. I looked around at various power-adjustable desks from GeekDesk, Anthro, and Relax the Back. These have several problems:

  1. While I’m willing to spend what it takes, power adjustable desks are a bit costly for an experiment. None of them are a model of desk I’d want anyway for sitting.
  2. They only solve the keyboard height problem (the main desk surface height), they generally don’t address the height of the monitors at all. (However, Anthro has solutions for this.)
  3. They are much deeper than I need.

Instead, at the beginning of May I set up another homegrown (and slightly less visually offensive) arrangement:

2010 Standing Desk

This setup is also quite cheap, around $150 total. It is a metal shelf/rack, with an extra protruding MDF shelf screwed on to form a keyboard/mouse surface. The shelves are all adjustable, so I moved the top (computer/screen) and middle (keyboard/most) shelves up and down a few times to find the most comfortable heights: I look straight ahead at the screens, and my elbows at at 90 degrees (wrists straight) while typing.  (Update: Jeremy, a reader, set up something similar.)

I wired up some leftover accessories (display, keyboard, mouse, etc. – my good stuff is in my home office, try not to laugh at the use of a spare low-end Microsoft mouse and small monitor with my MBP). This includes a very old printer that I pulled out of storage, partly as ballast and partly to just see if it still works. (It does, but an HP LaserJet 1100 is terribly slow by today’s standards, and I may replace the whole thing when my toner on hand runs out. A personal printer at my desk is more convenient than the better printers a short walk away.)

I located this at my “work” office away from home, so as not to re-test the tolerance of the above-mentioned wife. My time is split between home and work offices, and occasionally cafes, so I stand perhaps 20 hours per week on average. Even when at the standing desk, I’ll grab a nearby chair to make a phone call.

The Standing Experience

Relative to sitting, I’ve noticed a number of benefits:

  • I focus more completely on my work, with less tendency to become distracted.
  • More specifically, I write more (text, code) and read less.
  • My back, and whole body feed better, aside from that first week.
  • I move around, shifting weight, standing on one foot for a moment, etc.; I experience no stiffness or aches that sometimes result from hours of sitting.
  • My urge to go buy a new chair went away; I already have a good chair in my home office, and rarely sit while at work.

In summary, this seems like a fairly substantial win, one month in to the experiment. I’ll report back later this year.

A bit of commentary: lots of people talk about their standing desks with some degree of bravado. That is entirely unjustified; outside of office workers, a large portion of the workforce spends most of every day standing and working. It’s the traditional sitting office worker who is doing something unusual.

I’m Dreaming of a Better Social Media Client

I’m not a big social media guy. I’m certaintly not a social media consultant, nor a maven. I never used MySpace at all, and I was not among the first to use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. But I do find all of those useful to keep in touch with a bunch of people using all of the above, and I’ve grown quite frustrated with the sorry state of the client applications I’ve tried. Even those whose features work well and look good, don’t really go after the core problem we all either have it or will hit: information overload.

Here is what I really want in a social media client application for “power users” who receive a lot on their feeds: follow a lot of people on Twitter, have a lot of friends on Facebook, 500+ on LinkedIn, etc. Today, these are power users. Over the next few of years, this will be “everybody”. Most of these features make a lot of sense for a business managing its presense.

Table Stakes – The Basics

Support the Big Three (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook)

… and hopefully several more. But don’t even come to the party without the big three. I’m looking at you, Twitterific on the iPad, which I otherwise enjoy (and use every day, and paid for).

Ideally, RSS feeds would also flow in, and perhaps email and SMS too. But I don’t want this to be a “unified inbox” to replace an email client; this information would appear here as context for smart reading.

Run On Many Platforms

Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad, Android, Linux, maybe even BlackBerry. It’s not necessary to start with all these, but the target should to end up with all of them and more, with the core features present everywhere. I’m not looking for crappy ports though. Native, good citizens.

Keep Track of What I’ve Seen

Keep track of what I’ve seen, automatically. Don’t show me again unless I ask. But the act of closing the app should be meaningless, in that it should not mark all data as seen. An example of what not to do is TweetDeck, which has various settings for this, of which I can’t find any combination that does the Right Thing.

Next, the less common ideas:

I Paid for a Lot of Pixels – Use Them

Single-column feed display GUIs? Great idea for a phone. Silly on a PC.

Like most PC users, I have a wide, high resolution screen. Like many power users, I have two screens on some computers. I payed good money for all these pixels because I want to use them. Therefore, when I’m trying to catch up with all these data/tweet/etc. feeds, I want software that makes good use of those pixels. Show me a rich, dense screenful of information at one. Make it look like a stock trader’s screen (or screens).

Our Eyes are All Different – Give Me Knobs

I don’t want extensive customization. I don’t want a whole slew of adjustments. I don’t want a Preferences dialog with 82 tabs. I don’t even want themes. I want a good, clean, default design… but with a few well-considered knobs. Perhaps something like so:

  • font/size knob – because my eyes might work a bit better or worse than yours, and my screen might be higher or lower resolution than yours.
  • information density knob – because sometimes I want to admire a beautiful well-spaced layout, and something I just want to pack more information on there.

Aggregate Across Networks

Many of the people I follow, post the same data to at least three social media outlets; then a bunch of other copy/paste or retweet it. Please stop showing me all that duplication!

Instead, aggregate it all together, like Google News does for news sites. Show me each core message once, and then show a (dense, appropriate) display of who/how the information came in. Include a sparkline and other charts to show the continued re-arrival of that same data. This way, I won’t have to endure the duplication directly, and I can more clearly see how information traverses the (underlying, human) social network.

Some Tweets are More Equal than Others

In an ideal world, every Facebook update, every Tweet, would be a precious flower, to be admired in depth. We don’t live there. Instead, there is a lot of noise; an example fresh in my mind as I write this is the TV show Lost. It may be a great show, but it’s not one I watch, so to me all the Lost chatter is noise. I’ve probably scanned/scrolled past a couple hundred of them (some of them duplicates) over the last few days.

Therefore, a good social media client will make it trivial (one click) for me to tell it which bits I am interested in and which I’m not. I’m not talking about a scoring system, just a simple up/down arrow, for a total of three bins:

  • Important
  • Bulk / default
  • Junk

Apply some automatic classification mechanism (like the naive Bayensian that’s been common for several years now in email spam filtering) to learn from my votes and apply those to future data. By default, highlight the Important, show the Bulk, and hide the Junk.

I Have Several Devices – Sync Them Now

I might look at this river of news on my Mac in the morning, then on my iPad at lunch, then on my Linux netbook in the evening, then sneak an iPhone peek at bedtime. Keep all that “what I’ve seen” and “what’s important” data in sync across them. This means that my dream social media client needs a backend service behind it. It is not necessary for the data feeds to flow through the backend system (thought it might be useful); just the user’s attention metadata.


I believe that most or all of those features will be common in a few years. But I’m annoyed by the tsunami of social media feeds now. Is something like this out there? Where?

I could build such an application (with some help!). I’ve worked with APIs of all flavors. I’ve done mobile. I’ve created GUIs that elicit a “Wow”. I understand servers, and asynchronous operations, and scalability, and SaaS. But if I built it, would anyone *buy* it?

My iPad is (unfortunately, mostly) a toy

Some pundits have declared the iPad a “toy”, or suited only for content consumption. I disagreed with the latter a few days ago, and I think it will have some very interesting business uses. If I come up with a sufficiently novel one, Oasis Digital might implement it.

But sadly I must mostly agree, for at least my personal use of iPad v1, with the “toy” assessment. Here’s why.

I like to hand this iPad (I wrote the first draft of this post on it) to other people to try out, to my kids to play with, to sit it out as a novelty for guests, etc. But if I set it up as a personal tool, with my email, calendar, Twitter, Facebook, other accounts, work related files, etc., then I’d be handing access to all that personal and business information to everyone I offer the iPad to. Clearing out and re-entering my accounts from a whole pile of apps (and Safari, and Mail, and ???) is tedious and error-prone. My personal accounts include occasional bits of my (and our customers’) proprietary information, so leaving them present for guests is clearly unacceptable. Thus, for now this iPad can be only a toy to me. I occasionally set up email, then remove it; set up Twitter, then remove it, etc. I type some notes, then email them to myself, and remove them.

The key missing feature of the iPad, for me, isn’t a camera, a USB port, or an SD slot – it is the lack of a user account/profile capability. My Ubuntu netbook, at half the cost, has this capability in the box.

This isn’t much of an issue with an iPhone, which by nature of being a phone, is inherently almost always a personal (not shared / guest) device.

This isn’t much of an issue with an iPod Touch, at least for me, because I already use it as a guest/toy only anyway.

I suspect that Apple won’t add an account/profile mechanism anytime soon; it is easier to therefore ignore a mixed personal / guest use case like mine. If Oasis Digital ends up with a line of iPad software, we’ll work around the problem by buying more iPads.

But in the meantime, I like the share the one I have – so I must configure it primarily as a toy.

Mobile Workforce Management, a Five Year SaaS Mission Completed

Here is the story of a substantial chunk of my professional life over the last five years. I didn’t tell this story in real time (for various good reasons), though I have mentioned bits of it in various talks.

In 2004, I co-founded a vertical market Software as a Service firm, Mobile Workforce Management (MWM). MWM serves the underground utility locating industry with a Software-as-a-Service offering, TicketRx. Most people interact with this industry only with an occasional “call before you dig”, and think of it as just a phone number. However, there is a lot more to that industry than a phone number; there are numerous companies involved, each interacting with the others to complete the work. It is a vertical market niche with specific software needs, which our product met.

I personally wrote and administrated the first version of the TicketRx software and the first few servers, and my cofounder personally performed analysis, support, documentation, operations, and mountains of other work. We then incrementally hired a team to expand our capacity (and make ourselves replaceable), building an organization to serve its customers. Our software startup became an operating business with a life of its own.

Fast forward… five years of incremental and accelerating growth…

In 2009, the opportunity presented itself to sell MWM, and we did so. MWM is still there, operating fine without me. The press release about the sale is online and is also reproduced below. It is amusing to see how PR-speak invaded, labeling TicketRx as “custom” even though its whole essence was to not be custom, but rather off-the-shelf and highly configurable. Perhaps it is custom in the very broad sense of being industry-specific.

As is common in deals like this, the “terms of the transactions were not disclosed”, along with many other interesting bits. Still, I have a great number of lessons-learned to share in future posts and talks; and as of early 2010, there is extensive information about the product itself on the company’s web site, http://mwmsolutions.com/

Where does that leave me?

For some reason, the notion of having two companies then selling one, has been surprisingly hard to communicate. I still own Oasis Digital Solutions Inc., a consulting / custom software development firm, and work more intensely than ever with its customers and developers. Oasis Digital is growing up rapidly, with marketing efforts and ever-increasing process and organizational maturity.

Growing a product/SaaS business was a great experience, and one I hope to repeat. I’m actively on the lookout for another non-consulting software business to launch, when the time and opportunity are right.


St. Louis-based MWM sold to Consolidated Utility Services Inc.

Custom software product TicketRx, provides cost effective job tracking for utility locating company

Jan. 19, 2010: ST. LOUIS, Mo. – St. Louis-based Mobile Workforce Management has announced the successful sale of its company assets, including its commercial software as a service product, TicketRx, to Consolidated Utility Services Inc., an underground utilities locator company based in Omaha, Nebraska.

“With TicketRx, we created a customizable system to provide field service staff remote access and management tools for receiving, routing and tracking tickets and job assignments in real time,” said Kyle Cordes, a principal of Mobile Workforce Management (MWM) and owner of local consulting firm Oasis Digital. “We started TicketRx in 2004, and experienced great success with over 1,000 users and a growth rate of 25% per year.”

The sale of TicketRx to Consolidated will allow the company to integrate the system into their full spectrum of services that serve to protect utility companies’ underground infrastructure. In addition to ticket tracking, Consolidated offers clients systems for locating utilities, performing field audits and managing claims.

“Creating a comprehensive software solution such as TicketRx that fulfills a complex set of needs and watching it operate successfully is a very rewarding experience,” said Cordes. “I am confident the custom software solution we developed will make Consolidated’s business stronger.”

TicketRx processes one-call tickets from ‘call before you dig’ call centers or utility companies and then routes the work to the appropriate field worker. Technicians have immediate access to the information they need, which improves on-time performance. And managers have easy-to-use tools for scheduling, balancing work loads and providing emergency notifications. The system tracks all activity on the ticket, which can be used to create invoices and reports.

TicketRx is a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, a growing trend in which companies are adopting easy-to-use services that can be integrated efficiently, with minimal risk and at a cost advantage. With SaaS companies can have the service they need without the responsibility for their own internal servers, data centers or related IT staff, saving them time and money. According to industry analyst firm Gartner by 2010, 30 percent of all new software will be delivered as a service

Since the sale of MWM, Cordes will focus his energies on Oasis Digital. “The sale of MWM and TicketRx allows us to concentrate our efforts first on our consulting clients here in St. Louis and elsewhere, then later on our next SaaS opportunity,” Cordes said.

About Oasis Digital Solutions Inc.

St. Louis-based Oasis Digital develops custom software for workflow management, application integration, business process automation, and handheld devices for companies nationwide. Oasis Digital can produce a whole project or subsystem depending on the needs of the client, using a variety of computer languages and technologies. Fore more information, visit www.oasisdigital.com.

About TicketRx

TicketRx is a product of Mobile Workforce Management, LLC, and is a software-as-a-service program for the underground utility locating industry that can manage locating tickets from one-call centers or directly from the utility companies. TicketRx offers a unique combination of a broad feature set, fast setup and quick learning time. For more information, visit www.mwmsolutions.com/ticketrx.