Category Archives: Personal

Life-p (My move to Synety and coming blog posts)

For those that are in contact with me regularly, you will be aware that about 2 months back I took a position with an established startup called Synety.

I needed more stability in my life and while I dislike working in a corporate hierarchy with all the politics that go with it, I felt that Synety and its small size was a good fit for my move back into the that world.

I am pleased to say that 2 months in and I am enjoying the role. I am being challenged on a daily basis, but  I also have the support of a great team who make these challenges manageable and the support of a great management team who are willing to allocate resources to do things right, rather than having to cobble something together using whatever odds and sods are lying around at the time. It is a refreshing change from some of my previous roles which were beset by political huddles at every turn and budgets that were inflexible.

I hope to share some of the knowledge I am gaining (nothing proprietary obviously) in the coming months in a series of posts that help explain some of the technologies behind some of the changes that I am making within Synety by applying the same techniques and technologies to my own projects.

This will probably include some details of the use of Jenkins, FPM, RabbitMQ and other technologies and how they can be used effectively to build more efficient workflows, application architectures and to reduce technical debt through automated code checks.

If there is anything in particular that you would like me to cover, then please drop me a line at mike at technomonk dot com

Lessons I learned from building startups

Sysdom isn’t my first startup, it isn’t even my second, but comes some way down the list at 3 or 4 (or 8 or 9 depending on whether you want to count startups that I didn’t have equity in). In that time I have made mistakes (oh so many mistakes), but I have learned from them and tend to make completely new mistakes the next time around. 😉

I will try to distil some of that hard learned knowledge into a something that others can learn from so they don’t have to make the same mistakes I have.

Happiness is everything

If you aren’t happy going to work then you really shouldn’t be doing this. You will work harder for something you enjoy and unhappiness will spread to colleagues and customers. In the end it will make or break the business.

Everything has a cost

While you might not value your time during the initial stages of building your new enterprise, your time does have a cost. Any time that you spend reinventing the wheel or building solutions to a problem that can be solved cheaply by using an outside service or product is time that you are not concentrating on your core product.

Everything has a value

Any time you are building solutions to problems you are creating value. While it might be difficult to turn this value into money (ie. by productising it) it quite often can be used to build reputation or build attention for you and your business.

Vision

If you don’t have a vision or aim, then you are essentially just randomly hitting keys and hoping to come up with the complete works of Shakespeare – it is unlikely to happen. Start with a problem that vexes you regularly then solve that problem. It is quite probable that other people face the same problem regularly too.

Never take outside money

Taking other peoples money is never a good idea for a small startup. It gives them a massive lever in the direction of the business and often results in the business going in a way that you dislike. Result? You end up getting dissatisfied with the business and work suffers.

Don’t give away equity

Giving away shares in your business should be one of the last resorts. It can mean that employees will work harder, that investors may bring in expertise to assist in the growth of the business, but unless done right it will mean huge risk and little benefit.

Innovate

If you aren’t breaking new ground then you are really just building a ‘me too’ product. This isn’t always a problem, but makes it hard to differentiate yourself in a market filled with clone products. Innovation is key: make it simpler, faster or do something no other product does.

Pivot and think laterally

Inside almost any solution is the key to solving an even bigger problem. Build a good solution and you often have other products that can be brought to market with minimal effort.

Be Lean

Even if you do have cash available, you don’t have to spend it. Do you really need that flashy usb coffee cup warmer? That £800 office chair when a £100 will do? The same goes for infrastructure. Why buy a £5k server when you can build using cloud servers (Rackspace Cloud and Amazon Web Services for example) at a fraction of the price and gain redundancy to boot. Yes, it will be hard, but these challenges will make you face up to the real problem – that of bringing in customers and cashflow.

Fail fast

If the problem isn’t really a problem or your solution doesn’t adequately solve it then don’t be afraid of quitting before you sink too many resources into it and move onto the next problem.

Don’t quit at the first hurdle

If you find a problem that you can’t solve initially, don’t quit. Other people will be facing the same issue and a solution will mean you have an advantage over them. This doesn’t mean you should sink resources into something that is unlikely to be able to recoup them – fail fast in this case.

Iterate

You are unlikely to get it right first time. Build a product then improve it one problem at a time. Sometimes it will look nothing like how the original concept was envisioned – this is fine and normal.

Measure

Metrics and logs should be an integral part of everything you build. If you can’t measure it you can’t improve it. Web logs are a good start, but alone don’t tell you much besides who is visiting and how many times they have visited. You also need to know how many resources you are spending on servicing each visitor.

Low barrier to entry will mean many competitors

If the solution is easy, then many people will build one and compete with you. For example, there are many projects cloning 37signal’s Basecamp product or bringing basic telephony services to market based on the open source asterisk project. If the problem is harder, then you will have less competitors and will be be able to price your product higher.

Find your niche

Your niche should be somewhere where you can dominate, where few competitors exist and you can grow unhindered. For example, applications for pig farmers – there are a lot of them around the world…

Some competitors will always race you to the bottom

Racing your competitors to the bottom is generally a losing race for everyone involved. Without the cashflow to innovate and support your product, your service will suffer and your product will likely stagnate. Charge a fair price, explain what your customers are paying for and point out why a lower cost solution isn’t suitable. 37Signals have been releasing uptime and customer happiness metrics for just this reason.

Stop doing things that don’t get you towards your goals

If it doesn’t get you closer to your goals then it isn’t worth spending your time on. Stop doing it, or at the very least outsource it.

You aren’t perfect

It is unlikely you will have all the skills required on your own. Don’t be afraid of buying in talent to bolster your skill-set.

I hope that this has been interesting and please do leave any additional lessons in the comments below.

Why a sysadmin?

I never intended to become a system administrator out of choice, it just kinda happened. What follows is a rough account of my history of computers since around 1995. I omit mentions of specific companies I worked for and with and any systems I owned prior to 1995 (of which there were many, but no PC compatibles). This isn’t a perfect recount, some details are lost in the mists of time, but I hope it gives you the gist of it all. Continue reading

DC Appliances

Those that know me know that I to get myself a boat soon. While this isn’t definite, it still makes no sense to buy new equipment that is unusable on a boat due to such undesirable features such as power consumption, size etc.

I will be replacing my monitors soon and in looking at what is available on the market it is clear than few manufacturers care enough to label whether the monitor uses direct AC input or uses an external AC to DC adaptor. The second type is preferable for a boat since I can use a DC to DC converter to shift the voltage and not need to bother with an inverter sucking power when the computers are on.

So far the only company I have found that even bothers to list whether they use internal or external power supplies seems to be ebuyer and even then there is no easy way to tell them apart except by checking each one to see if it is listed in the specs.

While I might be fairly uncommon in looking specifically for this requirement, I’m sure I’m not the only person who wants a monitor that can work of 12 or 24volts. It just seems like an under-served market.

Printable CEO – Tasks Up Organiser

I’m trying a new way to manage tasks, I am hopelessly disorganised at times and while I have tried computer based systems I find that I just don’t work the way they want me to. Paper is better, but unless I can keep it organised I just end up with a massive pile of notes sticking out the front of my keyboard, but paper does seem to work better…

To this end I am trying David Seah’s Task Up Organiser system which organises tasks as they do in food place, where you have an order attached to a rail or spike and you work through them as you can. This can probably work better for me in some respects than the ‘cycle system‘ I tried before, but lacks some of the long term goal aspects that both the cycle system and GTD both have in common. I suppose we will just have to wait and see.

Tools

Those that have known me for a while know that I can produce a fair mount of useful web based tools from time to time. While some of them have been lost to the sands of time, some still are knocking around in various forms and deserve to be resurrected.

To this end I am starting to move some of the tools over to a new page on this site.

If you know of any of the tools I have produced and would like to see them published here, please let me know at mike at mikepreston.org.

Geek Work

This isn’t aimed at any one person, but it explains my thoughts on how geeks (especially me) work…

Don’t complain when I fail to get your work done if…

  • you interrupt me
  • guilt trip or force me into doing stuff not on my daily plan
  • want stuff doing right now (tea, food, stuff moving etc)
  • force me to change my scheduled plans due to something you failed to tell me about earlier

I work with people in the UK and the US so don’t be suprised if I am working at odd hours by your standards.

If I go bed at 4am due to speaking to people in the US, I might not be up until 10 or even 11am. This does not mean I am lazy. It is unreasonable to expect me to be up at 8am and be in a chirpy mood and thinking straight on less than 6 hours sleep.

Just because you don’t see me move from in front of a computer for hours, doesn’t mean I’m not getting anything done. My product is intangible and if you don’t understand what you are looking at how can you judge my output?

If you interrupt me it can take 15 minutes or more to get back into my ‘zone’ interrupting me every 10 minutes sets my productivity back 80% or more. Think of it this way, if I wake you up in the middle of the night, how quickly does your brain sink back into sleep? Sometimes it can be almost instant, other times you might fail completely.

If I know I have a big task to do I will try to avoid all outside interruptions, this might mean working through the night or having to work elsewhere. I want focused uninterrupted time that allows me to hit the zone and know I have time to deal with the problem I am trying to solve. Call it a flaw, but knowing I don’t have this time means I will struggle to even get started.

I may ignore instant messages and emails if I am not in a position to switch my brain away from my current task. This does not mean I am ignoring you specificly. If it is really urgent you can phone me.

After being zoned in for a few hours or more I may surface and suddenly realise I have need to food or drink, or to deal with other essential functions. These will take priority until dealt with as they are probably what made me surface in the first place. Do not take offence.

— Dec 10 2010

Personal Failure

It used to be that I was afraid of failure. It wasn’t something I was born with it just tended to evolve over my life. I was fairly risk-averse depending on what was put on the line.

I’m not the only one that has suffered with this problem and yes it is a problem. There is nothing wrong with being conservative, but when your life becomes stagnated because you are unwilling to take risks since you are afraid of failure and how others may judge you, then something must change.

  1. Understand there is a problem.
  2. Work out what causes it to manifest and what allows you to move past it – for me completely new situations where failure is accepted and situations where friends aren’t particularly judgemental aren’t a problem, the problems start when expectation is piled on and people expect you to not be able to fail.
  3. Try to put into action the ways you identified that allow you to move past it.
  4. Review your efforts and go back to 2 with this new information

This isn’t going to be an overnight fix, I have been trying to deal with these issues for a long time and while things are improving, there are no easy fixes. Each day has to be taken on its own.

Misinformation in left-wing economics and the future of our world

I hear a lot of people arguing among themselves that “capitalism is failing; we can’t keep up growth in this resource scarce world we are now living in.”

I say BS! if we lived in a world were we only did manufacturing then sure, this would be true – but we don’t. Much of our economies are based around other types of work. When I was in secondary school doing geography these were broken down into four sectors and I will repeat them here for clarity.

Four sectors of industry

  • Primary – Raw materials – Mining, Quarrying, Fishing, Agriculture
  • Secondary – Manufacturing – Reprocessing other manufactured goods, processing raw materials from the primary sector
  • Tertiary – Service Industry – Intangible goods such as knowledge, advice and attention and non production jobs such as healthcare, sales and government
  • Quaternary – Information Industry – Education, Information generation and sharing, IT and other knowledge based services.

The majority of our jobs are in Tertiary and Quaternary industries and these are still growing. There is no reduction on the amount of information on a day to day basis and this needs to be managed. Also, These two sectors are responsible for efficiency improvements across all sectors and new technology and techniques that change our resource usage from scarce resources to abundant ones.

While I agree that with some resources getting scarcer, for example oil needing to be recovered from shale deposits, this will mean that we move onto other less scarce resources. This could mean running our transport on electricity, hydrogen or ethanol.

The biggest problem we face is not the scarcity of resources since there is still a massive untapped amount out there, it is trying to do so cleanly and without damage to the world we live in.

However, we do still need to look at our current resource usage. We need to consider what by-products we have at each stage and what we can do to decrease the overall resource use. We need cradle to grave product design – product that are design to be made from materials that are less resource intensive and safe to extract from the environment and once finished with, able to be disposed of/recycled in a way that isn’t harmful to the environment.

— originally published Mar 24 2011

Break the shackles

“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all … The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labour. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.” — Helen Keller, 1911

I read this earlier after a friend posted it. While I don’t normally respond to these types of things I thought I’d put down some of my thoughts…

You cannot own another person, they may have a means to control, but it comes down to whether that person is willing to be controlled. It isn’t too complex to come up with other options that mitigate much of the control they have over you.

They may control the supply chain, the monetary system and the government, but if you reduce the amount of influence these have on your life then much of their control disappears. Grow your own food and reduce/recycle/repair items you throw away , move over to a barter or gift economy with other like-minded people and live in a way that reduces government influence over you.

These may seem like an impossibility to you, but if these were really important to you, if it was important to you to regain control over your own life, you would do something about them rather than just moan and groan as you are squeezed further.

— originally posted Apr 10 2011