Awasu » 2007 » March
Wednesday 28th March 2007 6:53 PM [General]

Paul Graham has another crackerjack article where he talks about some of the common reasons people give for not launching a startup, and then proceeds to knock them all down :-)

He points out that now his startup incubator company has been going for a while, they're probably the world experts on people who aren't sure if they want to start a company or not, and as someone who's always been intrigued by what makes people do what they do, it was a fascinating read.

You need a lot of determination to succeed as a startup founder. It's probably the single best predictor of success.

For a while, RSS readers were becoming the new instant messaging client. That is, every kid in junior high and his dog wanted to write one and the developers' forums were full of questions like "i wnt 2 wr8 rss prgrm. wr 2 start?!!!" Lots of feed readers have come and gone since then but Awasu is still going strong, churning out features and definitely no shortage of things for the next couple of releases. Stick-to-it-iveness is definitely an essential quality! :-)

One side effect of being determined is that if you work hard, it doesn't really matter what you happen to be doing, you'll probably achieve some kind of success at it. And Y Combinator are taking this idea to a whole 'nother level:

[W]e're so sure the founders are more important than the initial idea that we're going to try something new this funding cycle. We're going to let people apply with no idea at all. If you want, you can answer the question on the application form that asks what you're going to do with "We have no idea." If you seem really good we'll accept you anyway. We're confident we can sit down with you and cook up some promising project.

This is pretty amazing :blink: but also a really intriguing idea. The people you've got are always the most important ingredient for the success of a project [1] but this is really putting yer money where yer mouth is :clap: It hints at something Paul doesn't mention in his article but Joel Spolsky has written about many times: the importance of being able to get things done. This is a definitely a critical skill to have (his other key criteria is "be smart" :roll:) and if you're the kind of person who's perpetually "95% done" on the task at hand, you're not going to last very long trying to bootstrap a company. Ditto for the perfectionist who has always got "just one last thing to do" before releasing something. But if you're smart and can get things done, you'll have at least a reasonable amount of success at most things you try [2].

Paul also talks about a "need for structure" and the fact that getting a job is the "default" action.

I'm told there are people who need structure in their lives. This seems to be a nice way of saying they need someone to tell them what to do. I believe such people exist.

I can definitely agree with that :-) and his story about the Real Madrid soccer team is a telling one.

[David Beckham] said [the many different languages spoken by the players] was never an issue, because everyone was so good they never had to talk. They all just did the right thing.

As a musician I see this all the time; a bunch of great musicians get together and start banging out some fantastic music, even though they may have never played the song together before (or even met each other :o). But they're good enough to know instinctively what everyone else is doing (and just as importantly, are actively listening to what's happening). Again, it's the difference between sitting around waiting to be told what to do and taking a bit of initiative and making things happen.

But I think the big reason people don't take the great leap is here:

Perhaps some people are deterred from starting startups because they don't like the uncertainty. If you go to work for Microsoft, you can predict fairly accurately what the next few years will be like—all too accurately, in fact. If you start a startup, anything might happen.

Starting a company requires an enormous amount of faith in yourself, in your ability to step into the unknown and deal with whatever comes your way. I guess my background in jumping out of aeroplanes and bumming my way around the world was good training for that but most people just don't have that kind of self-confidence. Thing is, you're not just born with it, generally speaking, the only way to get it is to test yourself, deliberately drop yourself right into the middle of it and see if you can get out :whistle: Sometimes you won't make it but as they say, what doesn't kill you can only make you stronger :unsure:

I think a lot of people, deep down, know they don't have the drive and determination needed to make things happen, at least, not to the degree needed to get a company up off the ground and coupled with an unwillingness to dive into the unknown, end up taking that safe and secure 9-5 job at the bank :-| Starting a company is a pretty tough ordeal to put yourself through, on many levels. You need to be really good at what you do and at least moderately competent at everything else, work incredibly hard, be even more determined, be able to deal with the million-and-one things Fate will throw at you (and throw them at you, she will :roll:) And I guess a lot of people aren't willing to test themselves to that degree [3].

Come to think of it, maybe it's not that surprising more people don't start their own company. It's a lot of work and as I'm always telling my students, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it :roll:

[1] Of course, everyone says this but if you watch what they do, very few actually back it up with their actions.
[2] On the flip side, I'm reminded of an article that made the rounds a while back that talked about incompetence. The authors pointed out that the less capable someone was at doing something, the less likely they were to be aware of it. In other words, the old saw that "the more you know, the more you realize how little you know." The guys at the top of their field know enough to realize that there's so much more left for them to learn and it's those at the bottom end of the curve who think they can write 100% bug-free code, 100% of the time or are Yngwie Malmsteen re-incarnated. A commonly-seen corollary of this in the I.T. field is top-flight programmers who don't see themselves as anything more than merely competent but are bemused as to why everyone else around them seems to be so incapable :-) I suspect a similar thing holds for techies who might be thinking about starting a company; they simply can't believe that more than a few people would actually pay money for what they do :roll:
[3] Although even fewer would be willing to test themselves to this degree (a bullet-proof vest maker demonstrating his product :blink:).

Wednesday 21st March 2007 12:16 PM [General]

You definitely have to feel at least a little bit sorry for the poor sod who did this.

[A] computer technician reformat[ed] a disk drive at the Alaska Department of Revenue. While doing routine maintenance work, the technician accidentally deleted applicant information for an oil-funded account — one of Alaska residents' biggest perks — and mistakenly reformatted the backup drive, as well.

There was still hope, until the department discovered its third line of defense, backup tapes, were unreadable.

Apparently the account was worth 38 billion dollars :blink:

While it's easy to snicker at the guy for wiping the drive and the backup, you have to wonder how good their procedures must've been to even allow such a thing to happen. The article hints at that at the end when it says

"Everybody felt very bad about it and we all learned a lesson. There was no witch hunt," [former Revenue Commissioner] Corbus said.

According to department staff, they now have a proven and regularly tested backup and restore procedure.

Still, it certainly highlights the need for a solid backup strategy, as this presentation from Dr. Harold Twain Weck explains. I've linked to it before but as a public service, I encourage y'all to to check it out :wink:

Backups are something I've always been pretty disciplined about, a habit I picked up at my first job at Telecom Australia's huge mainframe data centre in Melbourne. I remember hearing the (probably apocryphal) story about a guy who accidentally deleted huge amounts of data from a live production database. He only wanted to format one disk in a box of 64 but the software forced you start at disk number 1, asking Do you want to format disk #1? Press Y or N, then Do you want to format disk #2?, until you got to the one you wanted :blink: (remember, this was a mainframe operating system, written back in the 60's).

Anyway, the poor guy went through the list pressing ENTER each time, thinking that the default was N and was apparently rather miffed to find that the default was actually Y :hysterical: Of course, the real WTF here is that whoever wrote that bit of code thought that Y was the sensible default :roll:

Actually, it occurs to me that this may well be the future of blogging. As bloggers get older, they will ruminate less on what their cat did that day and start droning on about how difficult it was using computers when they were young [1].

Never happen to me, of course... :roll:

[1] It certainly was for me. I had to carry my punch card decks for miles from the data entry center to the processing center. In the snow. Uphill. In both directions!

Saturday 17th March 2007 2:15 PM [Awasu News]

Awasu has long passed the point where I can easily keep every detail about it in my head :-( If you asked me exactly how a particular feature worked, I may well not be able to tell you off the top of my head and would have to go to the source and look it up. And I certainly can't remember every little plugin and other extension I've written over the years.

I was working on the 2.3 release today and was a little puzzled to find a rather old note in my to-do list to "update the documentation for the FilterFeedItems plugin." I had no idea what this plugin was but a bit of poking around turned up this, a plugin that I wrote :oops: about 18 months ago, in response to a user's request to be able to filter feed items by keyword. It seems to have been missed when we moved all the plugins and other extensions over to the wiki.

A lot of people have been asking for this feature and we'll be adding it once 2.3 has been released but the FilterFeedItems plugin will certainly do the job until then.

I may well "amaze myself with the power and flexibility that Awasu's plugins and channel hooks give you" but the old girl is certainly embarrassing me by highlighting my failing memory :brood:

Tuesday 13th March 2007 12:11 PM [Awasu News]

Work on the installer for 2.3 is going well and we'll be doing final testing on it over the next few days but there's nothing like trying something out in the wild on real guinea pigs testers :-) So, if you're currently running Awasu 2.0, 2.1 or 2.2 and you've got an hour or two to spare this weekend for a good cause, shoot us an email and I'll send you details on how to get a pre-release of 2.3.

The idea is to try out the installer so it will be little more than downloading an EXE and running it, then making sure everything's OK afterwards. There will be detailed instructions on how to back everything up in case something is not quite right but it won't be anything too complicated. If you can copy files around in Windows Explorer, you'll be more than able to handle it :wink:

And you'll be well impressed with the new release, especially if you're running one of the older versions :cool:

Sunday 11th March 2007 1:06 PM [Awasu News]

OMG, I can't believe I did this :wall:

I've been so busy getting things ready for the 2.3 release, together with all the other fun and games I've got going on in the background, I forgot a very important birthday last month.

Ours :oops:

I've been testing the installer, part of which requires running really old versions of Awasu and checking that they get upgraded correctly. It's scary to see how primitive 2.0 looks compared to 2.3 and I was chuffed at how far we have come since then, when it hit me that it was our fourth birthday last month :blink:

Happy birthday to us! :clap:

I think the traditional birthday retrospective is going to be a little late this year :roll:

Saturday 10th March 2007 6:44 AM [Awasu News]

The second release candidate (what's this?) for Awasu 2.3 is now available here.

Barring any serious problems, this should be it :clap:

Sunday 4th March 2007 6:40 AM [Awasu News]

Google recently made a small change to their online feed reader which broke the Awasu synchronization plugin. An updated version is now available so if you're using this plugin, please download it again and unpack the ZIP file on top of your existing files (e.g. C:\Program Files\Awasu\esync\).

If you're not using this feature already, you might want to check it out. Sync'ing Awasu with Google Reader, Bloglines and Gregarius is definitely way cool :cool:

Saturday 3rd March 2007 4:18 AM [Awasu News]

The first release candidate (what's this?) for Awasu 2.3 is now available here.

Testing went pretty well so there are only a few minor issues to fix before RC2, in about a week and that'll be the final release candidate for 2.3.

Then I have to get started on the installer and updating the documentation :bah: I really need to find a Mini-Me somewhere to do all this boring stuff :whistle:

Friday 2nd March 2007 2:30 PM [General]

I've never been one for doing things by halves and so I figured that if I was going to turn my life upside-down, I might as well do it properly.

I've never liked getting my hair cut. Even if I'm getting a shampoo and rinse from some hot chick, I just can't explain it, I don't like it. Even worse is when they want to chat since I'm not very talkative at the best of times and so having to yak on with somebody while they're rummaging around the back of my head with the clippers is not something I particularly enjoy. They generally give up fairly quickly and complete the deed in silence :roll: I usually end up ducking into some el cheapo barber shop whenever I need to get shorn, a quick in and out, and I'm pretty happy with that.

So the two-and-a-half hours I spent in the salon this afternoon getting my hair dyed was not an enjoyable experience, not even close. Never having done it before, I didn't realize how long it would take although at the end of it all, I'd have to say that having my hair bright red looks pretty damn fine.

Well, it's either that or "OMG! What the hell have I just done?!?!" :blink:

Thursday 1st March 2007 2:24 PM [General]

Anicca (or "impermanence") is a key concept in Buddhism that simply says "everything changes".

It will take a few months to complete but today I started the process of tearing down my life and rebuilding it in a completely different way for no other reason [1] than because I can. I've done this many times but, like jumping out of aeroplanes, it never ceases to be completely terrifying. It causes a lot of inconvenience, stress and expense but is also insanely exciting :wink:

As often happens, Fate sent several relevant articles my way this past week. First up, Seth Godin wrote recently about what he calls "sheep walking":

I define "sheepwalking" as the outcome of hiring people who have been raised to be obedient and giving them a braindead job and enough fear to keep them in line.

You've probably encountered someone who is sheepwalking.

The TSA 'screener' who forces a mom to drink from a bottle of breast milk because any other action is not in the manual. A 'customer service' rep who will happily reread a company policy six or seven times but never stop to actually consider what the policy means. A marketing executive who buys millions of dollars of TV time even though she knows it's not working--she does it because her boss told her to.

Perhaps a little harsh but not far off the mark. There are indeed many people who go to work, day in, day out, doing meaningless work because it never occurred to them that they could be doing something else. Or worse, they are fully aware of the pointlessness of it all but are too lazy or too timid to do anything about it. And while many people might recognize the malaise in their working life, they often don't realize that it extends into their personal life as well. How many people go to school, get a job, get married, have kids and a mortgage or two because that's what everyone else does? They never stop to think that it could be any other way or if they do, decide that it's just too risky or too much work to buck the trend. If that's the kind of life you actually want, fine and good, but seeing people sheepwalk through their lives is just too tragic for words.

And he's absolutely correct when he says that it all starts in school:

Training a student to be sheepish is a lot easier than the alternative. Teaching to the test, ensuring compliant behavior and using fear as a motivator are the easiest and fastest ways to get a kid through school. So why does it surprise us that we graduate so many sheep?

And graduate school? Since the stakes are higher (opportunity cost, tuition and the job market), students fall back on what they've been taught. To be sheep. Well-educated, of course, but compliant nonetheless.

And many organizations go out of their way to hire people that color inside the lines, that demonstrate consistency and compliance. And then they give these people jobs where they are managed via fear. Which leads to sheepwalking. ("I might get fired!")

I've long held the belief that a lot of what's wrong around us can be explained by one simple thing: people are lazy. We accept what we are fed by the media because it's easier than doing the research to try find out what's really going on. We place so much importance on school grades because it's easier to distill a person and their performance over many years down to a single number and compare that against a curve, rather than go to the trouble of finding out who each person really is and what their strengths and weaknesses are (and more importantly, why).

Where I disagree with Godin is when he claims that much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the employer, not the employee. Ultimately, each and every one of us must take responsibility for what we do and the consequences thereof so to point the finger at our employers and say that it is somehow their fault is just plain nuts.

Penelope Trunk, a columnist at the Boston Globe, continues the theme with a crackerjack article about the myth behind the value of a stable, long-term job.

It used to be that finding a good paying career was the path to adult-life stability. Those days are over. What we think of as stability has to change, and how we get to that stability has to change.


[W]hat else is there to do? Work at IBM until you get a gold watch? There are no more jobs like that - companies are under too much pressure to be lean and flexible (read: layoffs, downsizing, reorgs), so workers have to be, too (read: constantly on the alert for new job possibilities).

Sure, some employers might take a dim view of job-hoppers, but it's increasingly becoming a sellers' market if you're actually any good at what you do [2] so while they may secretly want sheepwalkers, if they truly want people who are half-way decent, they might just have to suck it up :-D The social contract between employers and the employed is long dead, so why not just do what inspires and excites you instead of sheepwalking your way to that gold watch (maybe)?

It comes back to taking responsibility for yourself. You can no longer rely on, or even expect, your employer to take care of you. You have to be prepared to be "downsized" tomorrow, be able to land on your feet and find another job, perhaps in a completely different field. Flexibility is paramount, as is having a broad range of different skills since specializing is a sure-fire way to torpedo your career.

[C]ommon paths to stability no longer work. Professional degrees used to be viewed as a safe path, but now they box you into uncomfortable spots. PhD’s are having lots of trouble finding work due to the documented glut of qualified candidates, and the MBA is not a huge help to your career unless you go to a top-ten school.

As Trunk says, you should "get good at making transitions". But instead of waiting for them to be imposed upon you, why not go out and make them happen instead :wink:

Instability is the new stability. How very Zen :cool:

[1]Well, that's actually not quite true. Part of the reason is so that I can focus more on Awasu. The things I do for you guys... :-) :roll:
[2]And there has long been a dire shortage of competent I.T. people. There's a scary conversation going on right now in tech circles about the large number of people who are unable to do even the simplest programming task in job interviews. I used to be responsible for hiring programmers at one gig I had years ago and while it was never quite this bad, I see no reason for things to have gotten better and would be surprised if they hadn't gotten worse :roll: