Thursday, March 31, 2005

FAQ - Last day at the DOE

Thank you - all of you that replied to my last email and blog regarding the "Last day at the DOE." I tried to reply to each person that sent me email about it, but I also decided to create this FAQ. I'm sure these questions will come up again as more people realize I'm no longer there when they come back from spring break.

  • Q. Why is your blog called "That's my stapler" ?!

  • A. It's a reference to one of my favourite movies : "Office Space." Even though Milton never really says that line, he appears to mumble it often. He is very upset that his company switched staplers and he kept his old one "because it didn't jam and if they take his stapler away, he'll burn down the building." His boss eventually takes his stapler and ... I digress, but you should rent the movie - many of the scenes mirror my experiences in the corporate world.



  • Q. What are you doing next (after DOE) ?

  • A. I don't have anything yet. It appears that I'll be Mr. Mom for the next while and then I'm going to look around Calgary. I have a few prospects in Edmonton, but mostly government projects (go figure). I also want to pursue some of my "entrepreneurial interests" like Traffic Shark. With spring coming, the yardwork on the acreage will keep me busy as well.


  • Q. So - you're moving (back) to Calgary ?

  • A. No. My wife says we're not moving again, as her and I have moved 5 times (4 cities) so far during my career! I will probably rent an apartment (or try to buy a condo "someday") in Calgary and do the commute - if I can find a flexible client/contract. Quite often in previous jobs I was away from home for long trips and/or long hours. So my wife and I decided that if we were closer to her family in Edmonton, it would be that much easier on her and the kids - if I had to commute to another city.



  • Q. Why didn't you renew/continue at the DOE ?

  • A. Well, the root cause/reason is that in the last 13 years I've been in about 10 different companies in 4 cities (USA & Canada) and the longest stay (employee or contract) was the DOE at 3 years and 4 months. I enjoy new challenges all the time and I think that my experience shows that focus. I realize now that many people who work for the government (employee or contract) become lifers and my mode d'operation is quite unfamiliar.



  • Q. I didn't know you were leaving!

  • A. That's not a question, but I understand your point. I was told that "people would be notified of the resource transition." You can still reach me at my home email address, but my spam filters will catch the keywords : OBS, XMAP, CAN, YOU, HELP, ME



  • Q. So, you're not going to respond to any requests for help/support on OBS or XMAP are you ? Can you help me ?





  • Q. Did you know that ASP is the species of snake that bit Cleopatra ?

  • A. Yes I did and you're behind by one blog post aren't you ?



  • Q. I've heard you talk about Oklahoma quite a bit lately... [Why ?]

  • A. It's been on my mind (again) lately. This April 19th is the 10th 'anniversary' of the bombing in Oklahoma City. I was thinking about going back for a visit - but that doesn't appear do-able right now. Long story short, I was almost in the building that morning and I would have been standing about 20 feet from the truck that decimated the Social Security office and most of the building. There will be a blog about that "soon" as well as the "Oklahoma City Drunk Tank" story. Otherwise, Oklahoma was a great experience and I often tell people that Albertans are not half as friendly as they think they are (in comparison). And yes, it is "Africa hot" in the summertime there...


  • Q. What was your solution to leaving after the bathroom guy ?

  • A. I used my pinky to pull the door open on a part of the door handle that I figure would be the least used. I heard that others do the paper towel condom on the door handle idea, but then use their foot to prop the door open so they can reach back to throw the towel away. YMMV. My wife says that you can use your shirt sleeve on the door handle - but I'm a geek that wears short sleeve shirts 'often.'



  • Q. What is the Russian Coffee Syndicate ?

  • A. Our favourite Russian import was in charge of collecting the monthly fee for the coffee fund. Quite often he and his other Russian (actually Ukrainian) friend would finish off the coffee in the morning with their extra large cups before anybody else could have some. I couldn't talk about it before and please don't mention my name in reference to it. In fact, forget I mentioned it.



  • Q. Why didn't we do a final lunch ? When can we do lunch/beers/other ?

  • A. I didn't organize the final "team" lunch - sorry you didn't get invited. We can always do lunch/beers/other ! Are you buying ?






Last day at the DOE

Today was my last day of my contract at Alberta's Department of Energy (DOE).

The following are memorable things about the Dept of Energy that I may or may not miss. This is not a top ten list as I'm sure I will add to it.


  • Crazy Paper Guy - I hope he finds that airplane soon

  • Elevator Rides - praying for a non stop trip past the 5th floor (AB Mental Health outpatient clinic)

  • No more TEARS - Time Entry And Reporting System

  • Open Source vs Micro$oft "discussions"

  • Drive by management

  • Dodging smokers at each entrance to the building(s)

  • Dodging cars to get across 108st to/from our clients' building

  • Harassing Becker : "are you done yet ?"

  • Obscure batch program email messages

  • Figuring out how to open the bathroom door after the guy who never washes his hands has just left.

  • The Russian Coffee Syndicate

  • Last day rounds

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Reused Acronyms

Yes, there is an alphabet soup of acronyms used in technology today. And yes, we geeks do use them a lot in conversation "when you're around." But most of the time three letter acronyms (TLA) serve their purpose - to abbreviate standards or other terms in technology 'we' know all too well.

Many vocations have their own TLA's and I'm sure when each group gets together, their set of peers completely understand each TLA used. I won't even get into a discussion (today) of phbs using acronyms that they heard and think they understand.

What I have to point out today is the reuse of common Acronyms. I'm not talking about ones that are only used just by those in the technology professions, but have become part of the culture - a meme or a piece of knowledge that that we all seem to know.

The other day I received a weekly "Threat & Vulnerability Report." The report's header called it this week's 'TV Report.' Now, if you're reading this, I'm pretty sure you know what TV really stands for...

Canada's Association of Technology Professionals promotes their trademarked designation for Information Systems Professional (ISP). Again, if you're reading this you probably know by now that ISP is the generally accepted acronym for Internet Service Provider.

Microsoft introduced Active Server Pages (ASP) in December 1996. Active Server Pages is their technology to make dynamic and interactive web pages. You may have seen an '.asp' extension on the link to a page you accessed on the internet. When this page is requested, Microsoft's webserver Internet Information Services (IIS), runs the script and some html is generated "on the fly." Great idea, right ? But we had CGI first (can you say standardardization, boys and girls ?) to do much the same thing in the world's most popular webserver: Apache.

In the latter half of the 90's dot-com boom, several bright people had the idea that if you have a browser on your computer, you can access applications running remotely through dynamically generated web pages. A business model soon arrived where applications didn't need to be installed on your computer and you (or your company) paid to use the service. These bright people called their niche : Application Service Providers (ASP).

So, if you try to find ASP information through Microsoft, be sure to let them know you mean "Application Service Provider" instead of "Active Server Pages." But then, that's so much easier to remember or say than the TLAs, right ?

A final note : with only 26³ or 17,576 possible three-letter abbreviations, perhaps we have run out of combinations and we need extra letters. "If we could get just one more letter, that would allow us to continue making acronyms through 2018."

Monday, March 21, 2005

Entrepreneurship

Don't get me wrong - there's nothing like the stability of coming in to the cubicle each day, knowing that somebody will find something for you to create or fix. Programming can be a fulfilling vocation. I look forward to creating something that could possibly add to somebody's life, increase their productivity, solve a problem uniquely or just look cool. But of course, there are barriers and we all have many criticisms about our phbs.

So this weekend I surfed with with the intent on learning more about 'How to be an Entrepreneur.' I didn't think about buying those Business for Dummies books - the fluff that gets (re)produced about the same clichés. What follows are several summaries of what I found that appeared to be out of the ordinary regarding today's subject - aka "How can we be the bozos that others work for ?"

Of course, you will have resell an existing product/service or create a new one. If you have to change consumer behavior or ask them to adopt a new behavior, you just raised the market risk by 10x. There are other types of products/services than those I've listed here, but my main focus was on those that leverage the internet, don't require a large capital infusion and I didn't know a lot about before.

The concept of a viral product is a product, an ebook, some software, a cute game, or maybe a screensaver that people love it so much that they pass it around. Everybody who gets their hands on this incredible product wants to share it with everyone that they know. Unfortunately, these products tend to be free and will not always make money. Seems like a great money maker if you can get it, but I don't think I will ever seek that route as the main revenue stream. From what I found, there are lot of companies out there trying to convince you to buy their viral marketing tool so you can create traffic to your website and "work less, earn more."

There isn't really any franchising opportunities in the online world, but there is the ability to resell online services. I believe godaddy.com is the leader right now in virtual webhosting with their reseller program. You can start your own offerings/promotion for people to get their own domain and website with forwarding, masking, parking, etc - but the underlying company is still just godaddy.com! With such low margins in the domain and webhosting market, it makes sense for godaddy.com to offer a reseller program as they will spend less on advertising and they
won't appear to have saturated the market.
    Not first to market? Provide a support service if you thought of something great but someone else thought of it too and executed it just that little bit better than you did. ShippingSupply.com and AuctionWatch were created as a result of eBay's success.

    Alternatively if your idea happens to have already been implemented by multiple online businesses, perhaps consider creating a piece of aggregating software. CheapFlights.com is a website that allows you to search many websites at once for discount travel.

    Revenue and income projections just aren't that important for a start-up company. There is 100% probability that anything you come up with will be wrong. An Entrepreneur should know the key assumptions that will drive the company's economic model.

    You need a team of people who can come up with great solutions to problems, rather than a solution to one problem. Start-ups evolve and the ability to thrive during the course of that evolution is what distinguishes great companies from mediocre ones. When a start-up's team members deeply believe in what they are building and the mission at hand, they have a big advantage over most big companies. Implementations of this concept include people wearing the company gear and generating a reputation that goes with the company's name. I personally saw the repercussions of a company being taken over and the parent company insisted that the old name be dropped. The reputation was never regained under the new name. Anyway, the key is to engage the company in some shared activity that brings them together as a group. Depending upon the team and the culture, that activity could be pretty much anything.


    Both Silicon Valley and Hollywood are literally built on dreams. There are a massive number of new plans for movies and start-ups floating about and only a tiny proportion of new plans/ideas become funded businesses or movies. Most of them will die early from lack of interest and not because they are bad ideas, the projects didn't generate the belief in their potential for success. So, companies get funded in waves, just like similar movies are produced. Somebody in Hollywood produces a volcano movie, and suddenly everybody has to have a volcano movie in production. One VC invests in a social networking firm, and suddenly every major VC has to find some bet in the social networking area.

    You always need to stay aware of your competition. If you perceive that your company "has no competition" - you aren't doing much diligence. Opportunities await wherever there's a slow-moving incumbent trying to sell yesterday's goods at the old prices and all companies need to constantly refine, learn from mistakes and follow a relentless path of improvement. For example, recently Blockbuster was suffering from competition from an online mail order DVD rental upstart - NetFlix. So Blockbuster became : "the only company that lets customers choose to rent their movies at the store or through the mail."

    Everybody quotes Google's success - their formula is to generate powerful customer focused technology with an eye towards making money. New product decisions at Google are driven by optimizing for the user experience first and for revenue second. And by perfecting the nature of targeted ads, Google not only has created a highly effective revenue generator, it has produced what it hopes to be a better experience for its users. They are also the number one most recognized worldwide brand. Indeed, Google has become a verb : "I googled him/her." Google revealed recently that part of their competitive advantage is the utilization of customized open source implemented on servers they built from components bought directly from hardware manufacturers.

    During the early stages eBay's founders were always worried that a big Internet business like AOL would realize the potential for auctions and leverage their traffic and market power to put eBay out of business. In fact, I read that eBay's initial business plan focussed on a long term goal of selling online auction software and merely use eBay as a very good showcase tool. Regardless of competitors, eBay had one clear advantage over every other auction site : a community of people that actively participated and interacted on the eBay forums.

    You should focus on the long tail of the market which your competitors are ignoring. In the example I found of this theory, the author described how Excite, a popular search engine from the 90's, was handling millions of searches a day. The graph showing the frequency of those searches (the Y axis being the number of times a query was asked per day and the X axis being the actual query listed in order of frequency) showed a curve that extended with a "long tail" :

    Without_percentages_3


    The most popular searches on the left side of the curve were vastly more popular than the 1000th most popular search. For example, “sex” was on the order of 100,000 times more popular than the 1000th most popular search (perhaps "travel"). BUT, there were a handful of extraordinarily common queries and millions of far less popular queries - the long tail.

    Google, eBay, Amazon, Netflix and iTunes all work the long tail by radically changing the dynamics of their more traditional businesses. However, the long tail doesn't just apply to music and movies - there's a long tail of very custom process problems that software is supposed to help businesses solve. In the software business, the traditional focus has been on dozens of markets of millions instead of millions of markets of dozens. The traditional software model is to make software have just enough features and address enough of a homogeneous market that may buy the product. However, to take advantage of the long tail, whatever business your starting, think about how to serve millions of markets of dozens instead of dozens of markets of millions.

    Never set a goal you can't measure. You should always set measurable goals, measure relative to competition. A common mistake people make is that they set absolute goals as opposed to goals relative to competition.

    The Stockdale Paradox was often quoted regarding a startup's sustainability and adversity. James Stockdale was a severely abused prisoner of war in vietnam. How does his experience equate to starting a business ? It doesn't really, but the moral is that you have to believe that your vision will come to pass. You've got to do everything you can to make it happen - but never let your belief and faith cloud your confrontation with reality. Entrepreneurs are wired for optimism, but in Stockdale’s story - it was the optimists who died. Stockdale's focus was to balance optimism with fact and belief with reality. If that can get someone through 8 years of being a prisoner of war, it certainly can get anyone through a (trivially compared) startup.

    And finally, several articles/blogs I read agree that even with little cash there is much we can do to differentiate your product beyond just good coding. Software is increasingly becoming a commodity but good service will always be valuable.

    That's enough for today - maybe a part II will follow.

    -

    Thursday, March 17, 2005

    Make Money Blogging

    Make money blogging ? Really ? People out there will tell me how I can make a million by blogging? I'll buy that for a dollar! Are you intrigued ? Maybe you'll purchase my "Make Money Blogging for Dummies (tm)" book due out next year. Alternative title for now is "Blogging for dollars."

    Anyway, a few sites I surfed this evening revealed that some people out there are making money with their blogs - either through adsense addons or actually selling the blog when it becomes popular ?!

    But after all that nonsense, I moved back to more interesting territory - people talking about what is the "next big thing" (besides blogging). Well, I didn't find the next big thing in any blogs, I did find a few that I will continue to read/review. They will probably be placed on my "Blogs I Read" list as I'm always interested in cool business ideas or how a new startup is managing to survive.

    A final thought on where I think the next big thing is going. In the 1960's, it was plastics. In the 1980's, everybody was whispering about biotechnology start-ups. Of course, in the 1990's - we were all thinking about making that first million on the "information superhighway" with our own website and shaky business plan. What do I think is the next big thing ? (with apologies to Mike Nichols) :

    Mr. McGuire :I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

    Are you listening?

    "Wireless"



    Resources

    Wednesday, March 16, 2005

    Scenic Drives

    A listing of my favourite roads that I have driven in my travels.
    Criteria for my list are sports car drivability, scenery and minimal traffic.

    Calgary/Banff - Alberta
    • Old Banff Coach Road

      A local road that winds it's way out of Calgary on the westend, through a couple foothills to the outskirts and executive acreages. In the early evening, you'll find several motorbikes cruising up and down this twisty stretch. Urban sprawl and a few drivers who try to navigate this twisty circuit too fast are sure to make this road unusable for a quick evening cruise soon.

    • Highway 1A

      This is the backroads way to Banff from Calgary and a great alternate route when the number of tourist buses on the Transcanada increases in the summer. Best time is the late evening on a weekday. No need to speed or push your car too hard on this road, just enjoy the serenity and lack of tourists' buses and RVs.

    • Tunnel Mountain Road - Banff

      A narrow mountain road on the edge of the Banff townsite that is only open in the late spring to early fall. The scenery on this route is best viewed with a convertible! Not recommended for passengers who get a little squeamish.
    British Columbia
    • Kootenay Lake Highway 3a from Creston to Nelson

      This is the windiest piece of road I have seen in Canada. From Creston, home of the Kokanee Beer brewery, you'll drive north along the east edge of Kootenay Lake - up to Crawford Bay, where my parents live. At Crawford Bay you have to take the "longest free ferry" across the lake to Nelson - a quiet mining town that is now focused on tourism.

      Do not try this road in the summer time. Americans in their large RV's bring travel on this road to a near standstill, even with places for them to pull over. However, with minimal traffic in the spring/fall, you can traverse this 80km of road in a little over an hour. Locals can do it in less time, but they will cross over the median, so watch out for them if they're on-coming or pull over if they look like they want to pass.
    Montana
    • The Going-to-the-Sun Road is a spectacular 52 mile drive through Glacier National Park. Due to the number of switchbacks and tight corners, the maximum length of vehicles allowed is 21 feet. On a summer day, don't plan on making the trip in less than a couple hours. For sheer 'wow' factor nothing beats the views of the valley at the top! Of course, this road is only open in the Spring and Summer.
    Colorado
    • Garden Of The Gods are towering peaks of red sandstone. Not much to the drive to get there from Colorado Springs, but the view of these monolithic formations at sunset are unbelievable. If your car is up to it, a cruise up to the top of pike's peak is in order.
    Oregon
    • Columbia River Highway is a scenic drive through southern Oregon, past Mount Hood along the Columbia River.

    • US Highway 101 - Pacific Coast Scenic Byway

      The Pacific Coast Scenic Byway follows the Oregon coast along Highway 101. There are many points of interest, including lighthouses, sandy beaches, spectacular views and the aquarium at Newport. The Oregon Coast Aquarium ranks among the top aquariums in the nation.
    Virginia
    • Blue Ridge Parkway Interstate 81

      The Parkway follows the Appalachian Mountain chain and provides views of many different parallel mountain ranges and scattered hills ranging in elevation from 649 to 6,047 feet.
    Florida
    • Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West - US 1

      Highway 1 has 37 bridges over 113 miles and passes over a series of islands (the Keys) from Key Largo to Key West. The Keys vary in size, most being very small, and apart from Key West they largely have a rural, old-world boating atmosphere.

      The drive is generally scenic and interesting. One highlight is the seven mile bridge just west of Marathon. Stay in Marathon or Key Largo rather than Key West if you prefer somewhere less crowded, less expensive and less commercialized.


    Tuesday, March 15, 2005

    Quotes

    Random Quotes that I enjoy

    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.
    Donald Rumsfeld

    Antitrust laws were written to protect consumers, not competitors. If Microsoft is to fail, let it be because we failed to innovate, not because our innovations were outlawed.
    Bill Gates

    When you say "I wrote a program that crashed Windows", people just stare at you blankly and say "Hey, I got those with the system, for free"
    Linus Torvalds

    Unix was not designed to stop people from doing stupid things, because that would also stop them from doing clever things."
    Doug Gwyn

    The distinctive difference between PCs and other consumer electronics is that only PCs are allowed to fail in routine use.
    Peter Coffee

    It is easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of computers by the sense of accomplishment you get from getting them to work at all.
    Douglas Adams

    Imagine if every Thursday your shoes exploded if you tied them the usual way. This happens to us all the time with computers, and nobody thinks of complaining.
    Jeff Raskin


    Walking on water and developing software from a specification are easy if both are frozen.
    Edward V. Berard, "Life-Cycle Approaches"

    Brilliance is typically the act of an individual, but incredible stupidity can usually be traced to an organization.
    Jon Bentley

    We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.
    Robert Wilensky

    The Internet is a powerful example of free speech and the free market in action; it is curious that the Net has alarmed the lawmakers of a nation founded on those principles.
    Denise Caruso

    I would be content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.
    Anna Quindlen

    You'll have to pry my Emacs from my cold dead oversized control-pressing left pinky finger.
    Randal L. Schwartz, in gnu.emacs.help, quoted by Edward O'Connor

    What I find most amusing about com and .NET is that they are trying to solve a problem I only had when programming using MS tools.
    MaxM

    But it used to work.
    Let's document it, so we can all figure it out.
    We need to fix all the bugs.
    Tell me all the specific unknowns at this time.
    I'm much too busy to work on this, so can you ...
    PHB

    One mark of a deteriorating society is when people cannot discern between truth and lies. Another is that they don't care and will believe whatever their itching ears want to hear.
    Cal Thomas


    We are a nation that has a government - not the other way around.
    Ronald Reagan


    Those who voluntarily put power into the hands of a tyrant or an enemy, must not wonder if it be at last turned against themselves.
    Aesop

    If you protect a man from folly, you will soon have a nation of fools.
    William Penn


    Monday, March 14, 2005

    Jetsgo & Website Technology

    Jetsgo, a discount airline in Canada, went bankrupt this last weekend. They were accepting reservations right up to midnight the day before everything shutdown. Just for fun, I decided to lookup what technology they were utilizing for their public website.

    Here is a quick comparision of the technologies used by various major airlines for their public websites.

    Draw your own conclusions.

    AirlineOS & Webserver
    JetsgoWindows 2000 Microsoft-IIS/5.0
    WestJetLinux Apache/2.0.46 (Red Hat)
    Air CanadaAIX Netscape-Enterprise/4.1
    QuantasFreeBSD tigershark/3.0.113
    NWAAIX Netscape-Enterprise/6.0
    AmericanSolaris 8 Netscape-Enterprise/6.0
    UnitedSolaris Apache/1.3.26 (Unix)
    DeltaSolaris 8 Netscape-Enterprise/4.1
    JALSolaris 8 Apache
    VirginSolaris 8 Apache
    SouthwestSolaris 8 Netscape-Enterprise/6.0
    British AirSolaris Netscape-Enterprise/4.1
    US AirwaysSolaris Netscape-Enterprise/3.6 SP3

    About

    Why is your blog called "That's my stapler" ?!

    It's a reference to one of my favourite movies : Office Space.

    Even though one of the cubicle dwellers : Milton - never really says that line, he appears to mumble it often. He is very upset that his company switched staplers and he kept his old one "because it didn't jam and if they take his stapler away, he'll burn down the building." His boss eventually takes his stapler and ... I digress, but you should rent the movie - many of the scenes (with the other characters) mirror my experiences in the corporate world.

    So what is this all about 1 ?

    History

    I actually started a 'log' of my journeys on the 'web' back in the grand old days of the internet- 1995. I created a few web pages of my travels using html and soon my fasciation with the world wide web began. Yes, I used AOL back then, but it was the cheapest, easiest way back then to get on the web with a nation-wide ISP^.

    So, in the spring of 2005 I decided this blogging thing had taken off enough that I should try it out (again). I thought that it would a great forum for posting things : 'this looks interesting' or 'I wonder if anybody else noticed this?' It could spare my friends/coworkers from a multitude of emails (spam) from me with a place to add their comments - thereby sparing a flurry of emails to those that weren't interested in the initial topic.

    It's not about you

    I have to point this out : It's not about you. If you know me and I quote you in some way, fashion or mention you in some form that you don't like - well, I'm sorry you took it that way. Like Denis Miller once said : "once you get past race, religion, politics, colour or culture - there's so many other reasons to hate a person!"

    Why won't you just tell us about you already?

    That's the point of this blog and the posts I will be making to it. It will be self indulgent, but I will try different styles, subjects and theories. If you want to learn about who I am, what I like or dislike, where I'm from or where I live now and what's happening in my life - read the blog.




    1 about : pronounced a-boot in the great white north (eh)!




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