Bits are Free, People are Valuable

A few days ago, I caught myself thinking about whether to save some images and video; whether the likely future value of those megabytes would be greater or lesser than the cost of storage. This is a sort of thought that was important and valuable… a couple of decades ago.

Bits are Free

Today, and at least for the last decade, bits are so absurdly cheap that they can be considered free, compared to the time and energy of people. Storing gigabytes or terabytes because they might come in handy is not just for government agencies, it makes sense for all of us in our daily work.

Waste bits to save time.

Waste bits to help people.

People matter, bits are free.

Bits are Free at Work

Here are some ways I waste bits at work:

  • We often gather a few people working on project to meet or code together; it is very easy to start a video or screen video recording of the work. That recording can then be shared with anyone on the project who wasn’t present.
  • We record screenshots or videos of the future in progress, and send it to a customer. Yes, we could wait and present to them “live” using WebEx or whatever. But it is cheaper to waste the bits and conserve human coordination effort.
  • If I have something complex to explain to someone, I can do it in person, and I can do it on the phone, and I can write lots of text. But if I already know them well enough to partly anticipate their questions, I will start a video recording and explain something using voice and white board. The bits are cheaper than the coordination to work “live”. The bits are cheaper than asking them to figure it out themselves.
  • Driving down the road, it is unsafe to text, or read, or write, or (I am looking at you, morning commuters…) apply makeup. But while the numbers are unclear, we have a broad assumption that merely talking with someone while driving down the road is OK. I sometimes make use of traffic time, and burn some bits, by recording audio about some problem to be solved or other matter. The bits are free, who cares if this uses 1000x as much data as sending an email?

Wasting bits can grow somewhat extreme. In the first example above, I described a screen video of developers working together, recorded for the benefit from other developers. You might imagine this as a high-ceremony process, done on important occasions about important code. But bits are free – so we sometimes record such video even if no developer will ever pay attention to it – the value is there even if just one developer maybe lets it play in the background while they work on something else – much like by working in the same room as other people, it is common to pick up some important bit in the background. If one developer learns one small thing to make their work better, that is more valuable than 400 MB of video storage space.

Bits are Free at Home

Here are some ways I waste bits at home:

  • When I take photographs, I take a lot of photographs. One might come in handy. Who cares if 95% of them are bad and 90% of them are useless?
  • Why do cameras have settings other than maximum resolution? Bits are free.
  • Nearly 100% of paperwork I get in the mail, other than marketing, I scan, OCR, and keep in a searchable archive. The disk space for this costs almost nothing. The time saved deciding whether to keep each item, and how to file each item, is irreplaceable. I probably only ever look at 10% of what is scanned, but who cares?
  • If my kids are doing something even vaguely interesting, I try hard to remember to take photos and record video. Looking back at when they were very young, snippets of video we have (from before every phone had a decent video camera) are priceless. I can’t reach back and record more of those, but I can easily record things now that might be fun in the future. Who cares if 95% of that video no-one ever looks at? If I ever need to go through it, I can do it then. The storage space in the meantime doesn’t matter.
  • If I need to look at a model number, serial number, etc. of anything around the house, I snap a photo of it. Then I can look back at the photo anytime from anywhere. Yes, it is absurd to store 3,000,000,000 bytes of JPG rather than 20 bytes of serial number. But they both round to zero.

How Free Can Bits Get?

I expect this tradeoff will shift even more exponentially in the future. In a couple of decades, perhaps:

  • We will record 5 petabyte ultra beyond-HD holographic recordings of insignificant activities just in case someone wants to watch them.
  • We will run video and audio recording of our lives 24 x 7, to be indexed just in case anyone ever wants to look back at it.
  • Future cameras won’t even come with an on-off switch, and will instead record continuously for the lifetime of the camera.

 

SaaS: The Business Model – Video

On Feb. 27 at St. Louis Innovation Camp 2010, I gave a talk on the SaaS business model. I posted the slides, handout, audio, and transcript soon thereafter. Here, finally, is a video of the 44-minute-long talk. Why did it take over three months to get online? Read on below.

video

Warning: Sausage-making Discussion Below

The following has nothing to do with the content of the video.

This is an x.264 video, shown here initially with a Flash-only player (FV WordPress Flowplayer). Later I’ll replace this Flash-only widget with one that offers HTML5 video (for iPad use, in particular), when I find one that works sufficiently well.

That’s the easy part, though. Getting this video to you here was an adventure, and not in a good way. Three recordings were made of the talk:

  1. We hired a professional videographer to record the talk. When I say professional, I mean it only in the most literal way, i.e. the videographer charged money. They showed up with a nice camera and a wireless lapel mic… but somehow produced a broken video recording (the first 10-15 minutes were intermittant video noise). In addition, the mic gain was turned up way too high and thus the audio is awful.
  2. Dave Blankenship recorded the talk on his consumer camcoder; he was not paid for this, and he did a much better job. This video is usable all the way through, but arrived in an oddball format produced mostly by some models of JVC camcorders. The audio was not so hot, because he used the mic built in to the camcorder from the back of the room.
  3. I recorded the audio using a $5 microphone plugged in to an iPod Nano, sitting on a table at the front of the room. It’s a bit noisy, but with a few minutes of work with Audacity (Noise Removal and Normalization), the results are much better than either video attempt.

Armed with this, I set about to somehow combine the video from #2 with the audio from #3. I send emails describing this mess to several videographers I found on Craigslist. Most of them didn’t reply at all. I finally got a cost estimate from one, of many hundreds of dollars or more, and not much assurance of results.

Now I’m willing to spend some money to get good results, but spending it without confidence of results is less appealing; so I set about trying myself instead.

First, I cleaned the audio in Audacity as mentioned above.

Second, I watched the video and listened to the audio a few times, to get the approximate starting timestamp in each one of the moment the talk actually started; each recording had a different amount of lead-in time

Third, I grabbed ffmpeg, the swiss army knife of command line video and audio processing. After reading a dozen web pages of ffmpeg advice, and a number of experiments (with short -t settings, to quickly see how well it works without waiting to transcode the whole thing), I ended up with this command to produce the encoded video:

ffmpeg -y -ss 40.0 -i Recording-3-audio-only-clean.wav -ss 95 -i Recording-2-video-ok-audio-bad.mod -shortest -t 18000 -vcodec libx264 -vpre normal -b 700k -threads 2 Cordes-2010-SaaS.m4v

I then noticed that the MacPorts installation of ffmpeg omits the important qt-faststart tool, and found this helpful version of qt-faststart and used it instead, on my Mac; later I switched to a Linux machine with an ffmpeg install including qt-faststart. Without the faststart step, the metadata in the m4v file is arranged in a way that prevent progressive/streaming play-while-downloading.

The results are good but not great:

  • The video has some motion/interlace artifacts; these were present in the original recording, and I’m not aware offhand of what to do about them
  • The video camera used rectangular pixels; the pixel aspect ratio is 3:2 while it is intended for display at 16:9. I wasn’t able (at least in 20 minutes of learning and experimentation) to get the 16:9 output working correctly, so if you grab the underlying m4v file you can see the aspect ratio a bit off in the shape of the clock on the wall, for example.
  • The audio-video sync is adequate (and plenty good enough to follow along) but not perfect. Clearly using the audio track on a video recording is much better than putting them together in post-processing.
  • The audio is not as good as if I used a lav or headset mic, though I think it’s quite remarkably good for a $5 mic plugged in to iPod.
  • I’ve no idea if ffmpeg complies with any of the relevant copyrights/patents/whatever in video production, though it seems hopefully safe to use for a one-off non-commercial video like this. (Normally I use Apple’s iMovie for my videos, and I assume Apple has taken care of such things.)

A few morals of this story:

  • Get some powerful tools, and learn how to use them.
  • Be willing to pay for professional work, but be skeptical. Just because you pay, doesn’t mean it will be quality work.
  • Have a plan B. If I had assumed that at least one of the two videos would get decent audio, and skipped my own audio recording, I’d not have been able to deliver the acceptable audio here. If Dave had assumed that my professional videographer would produce results, and turned off his camera, we’d have no video here at all.

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.

SaaS: The Business Model – Slides, Audio, Transcript

On Feb. 27 at St. Louis Innovation Camp 2010, I gave a talk on the SaaS business model. If you missed it, you might be interested in:

Orbitz.com Considered Harmful

(Offtopic warning: my site is mostly about technical matters, not about consumer affairs.)

Well, that wasn’t fun.

We had reserved, or so I thought, a hotel stay of a few days, using Orbitz.com.  Life intervened, and it became necessary to cancel.  We attempt to cancel.  It turns out that we hadn’t reserved a hotel stay. We had paid in advance for a hotel stay, which was 100% non-refundable. Don’t stay, still pay the whole amount anyway. (With considerable effort, including intervention by the management of the hotel in question (at which we’ve stayed a number of times before), we were finally able to get it resolved.)

While in a free world one should be able to sell such a toxic product, it generally does not make sense to buy one, certainly not as the default. One lesson to learn: read the terms carefully, there are dragons in there.

But I think that is the wrong lesson. The right lesson is much simpler: do not do business with a vendor (Orbitz) who offers such foolishness. Rather, use them (or any similar size) to find a hotel / flight / whatever, then leave their site and go make the purchase by other means, some means by which the more traditional (and sane) terms-of-sale are used.

Playing to Win, Going Beyond the Call of Duty

I’m writing this up as advice to a rhetorical “you”, but it’s really written to a younger version of me.

Imagine that you are working on a project for a customer (or employer), who has a weekly or monthly budget limit. You are paid by the hour, for up to N hours per week; or perhaps you are paid a salary for full-time work, nominally 40 hrs per week.

You want to work on the project more hours than your customer will pay for. For example, maybe your customer can afford only 20 hours per week, but you have more time available that you’d like to spend on the project.

The most obvious path is to simply not work any more than your customer will pay. Go do something else unrelated instead, perhaps not even computer-related. This approach appeals strongly from a work-life balance perspective, and also has a “tit-for-tat” appeal along the lines of “I refuse to do anything that would benefit my customer unless I am being paid to do so”. However, it is a very bad strategy. Do not let your customers’s budget stop you from growing your skills and building something great.

A second path, at the other extreme, is to work all you want on a project, regardless of how few hours you are paid for. Simply don’t bill for the extra hours. This is an easy answer, and in spite of its appeal from my current perspective (as an employer and customer of software development work), I don’t recommend it. It will give your customer an erroneous indication of your productivity level, causing future problems for you (how will you live up to this apparent but false productivity in the future?) and for your customer (whose estimates and schedules will be fed by false data).

I recommend a path between these two extremes, a strategy by which you can do work that benefits you and your customer, now and in the future. Work the hours you bill, directly on your customer’s project. Then, if you have extra time available (that you haven’t filled with other, paying work), work as much as you care to, past those hours, on related activities that indirectly help the project and help you grow:

  • Read about the development tools and technologies you are using. (Learn by reading.)
  • Read about the project problem domain.
  • If your customer project uses a DBMS, read about and experiment with that DBMS.
  • Try another DBMS; port the customer project to this other DBMS. Even though the customer doesn’t need it, you can nonetheless learn a lot from the experience.
  • Build an additional feature that your customer did not ask for (yet); the offer it to them if they want it. By the way, this is a great time to learn to use a powerful source-control system to manage a long-lived branch with such a feature.
  • Start a second, sample project, which uses some of the same tools as your customer project. Learn by doing. Experiment on this sample project, practice using the tools. Try out options and feature of the tools that you haven’t needed yet on your customer project.

To me, this is a strategy for “playing to win”.

More About the Sample Project

By the way, the notion of a second, sample project is very powerful, for reasons far beyond your current project. Be careful to keep the real project code completely out of this sample project, and you will end up with a very valuable artifact: a working piece of software, built with tools you know well, which you own. You can use this project to help get future work, by offering it to future customers as a work sample, and by posting it on your web site to show (rather than merely proclaim) your expertise.