// Internet Duct Tape

What Would You Do If You Didn’t Have To Work?

Posted in Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on September 11, 2008

Workhacks

Lottery tickets offer us the dream of escaping to a different life. Often I find myself wondering what it would be like if I didn’t have to work full time. I always imagine spending more time on my open source software projects, getting in better shape and doing some freelance consulting to pay the time.

About ten years ago I got to see my parents make the transition from working full-time to retirement. It wasn’t an easy switch for them. There was some sadness, a lack of motivation and a lonliness as they lost the human contact the workplace gave them each day.

For the past two months I’ve gotten to experience what it’s like not to work every day. I was laid off from my previous job with severance. While I money wasn’t tight, there wasn’t enough to jet set off to Europe or go on any big vacations other than the ones I already had planned for the summer. I was stressed out most of the time until I found myself a new job. After I accepted the job offer, I gave myself a big window until I had to start so that I could relax and enjoy my time off.

This was the longest stretch of time I had booked off; it has been 14 years since I’ve had that much time to myself all at once. When I was working, I imagined all the web projects I could do if I didn’t have to go to work. The reality of the experience was quite different. Once you have the freedom to do anything you want with your day, sitting in front of the computer is the last thing you want to do.

For the first few weeks I found myself irritated by 3pm every day. I quickly realized that it was the lack of structure; if I got myself out of the house the feeling went away. So time was spent walking around the city, going to the library and reading in coffee shops. The beautiful weather really helped. Why stay inside on a sunny day if you don’t have to? Part of it was a desire to be around real people, instead of the virtual people I usually associate with if I’m stuck on a computer.

There was a definite priority shift. With the freedom to do anything I wanted with my day, it made so much more sense to focus on those long term, important but not urgent goals. Organizing things around the house. Getting a new family doctor. Renewing my passport. Getting new contacts. Removing clutter from my house and my life. I had to laugh one day when I found an old to-do list from 2006. There was stuff on that list that was important to my life and my well being that I was finally getting around to.

I found it amazing how much clearer it was to process my task list and choose the most important tasks for the day. Because I felt no urgency in any of my tasks, I was able to make much better decisions about what was important vs what wasn’t even worth doing.

I’m about to enter the workforce again, and I hope I can take some of the clairity I currently feel with me.

Building a Better Job Search Site

Posted in Hiring, Job Interviews and Resume Resources, Technology by engtech on July 21, 2008

Workhacks

Job hunting is a massive industry, but unfortunately it’s one that that always leaves job hunters feeling unsatisfied. Monster and Dice are painful to use. The hierarchy trees of job categories are often incorrect and confusing to someone who is looking for a job. There are a few places that are doing something different:

LinkedIn – resume and networking tools to keep in contact with ex-coworkers. The best way to find a job is often through people who know you. You get a job, they often get a referral bonus — win/win.

Peter’s New Jobs – regional tech job searches in Ottawa and Toronto, worth the yearly subscription even if you have a job because it’s a great way to stay current with the job market and how companies are doing.

Standout Jobs – Montreal startup that is focused on humanizing the job search process and giving companies a chance to sell themselves.

Working With Rails – job listings based on people working with a common technology.

Site-based Job Boards – job listings for readers of blogs like 37signals, Joel on Software, and Tech Crunch.

There are a few things I’d like to see in a job search site.

LinkedIn Integration

LinkedIn has taken over as the business contacts networking tool and it has a robust resume feature, yet we’re still forced to manually enter our resume into most job sites.

No Job Categories

Job sites like Dice and Monster all suffer from bad usability with elements like the job category navigation that takes several minutes to fill out. It’s so much simpler to have saved search agents for keywords in resumes and job postings.

Google Maps

I’d really like to see all of the job locations on a Google Map centered around my home address with different colours based on how the fresh the listing is. Job decision is often based on locality and I’ve yet to see a job search site that lets me easily list.

Stock History

For publicly trade companies there is no reason not to integrate a stock ticker widget so that job applicants can quickly see how a company is performing.

Tagged with: , ,

Competition

Posted in Marketing and Promotion, Startups and Business, Technology by engtech on April 29, 2008

Marketing, Branding and Promotion

When we look at technology we use everyday, the great success stories all have one thing in common: competition. They all achieved their success despite healthy competition, or perhaps because of it.

(more…)

Tagged with: , ,

9 Ways to Know When to Jump Ship at a Startup

Posted in Startups and Business, Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on January 11, 2008

Workhacks

For the last couple of months I’ve been plagued with wondering if I should stay at my current startup. I’ve been approached with a few different job offers that I haven’t followed up on, and maybe it’s time I pursued greener pastures. In the words of the Clash: should I stay or should I go now?

Indecision

Changing jobs is a big, life altering decision and if you have my knack for risk avoidment it can be a horrendous see-saw of uncertainty. It’s this state of uncertainty that is ultimately the cause of the most unhappiness in your life. Leaving your options open is always less satisfactory than making a firm decision.

Compensation

When comparing offers from other companies, you need to compare the full package which is a lot harder than it looks.

  • Health benefits / Health insurance
  • Overtime compensation
  • Pension plans / Pension matching
  • Stock purchase plans / Stock discount
  • Stock options / equity
  • Travel allowance / food allowance
  • Raises

In particular it’s very hard to figure out what stock options are worth, if anything. The best advice I’ve read is that your stock options aren’t worth considering in any compensation comparison unless you are a founder.

This wiki page does a very good job of explaining how any employee can figure out what their pre-IPO equity is worth. What’s most important is to figure out the percentage of total options and how much funding the options are worth. Don’t forget to include capital gains tax (eg: 40%) when figuring out how much those options are worth.

More information on equity dilution

Business Plan

When will the startup be profitable? How much money has been invested in the company? How much more funding is needed until the startup can stand on its own legs? The more you can find out about this, the better off you’ll be, because you can’t accurately evaluate your monetary compensation and the future of the company without it.

At my previous job I was making more money than I am now, plus there was an average of a 5-8% raise per year. Startups often have no salary increases until they are profitable, or at least have revenue on the books. When you look at the roadmap to profitability you need to factor this in so you can evaluate if the potential payoff if the startup does well comes close to matching the potential revenue lost working at another company.

Bankruptcy

Most startups fail. The most likely outcome of working at a startup is showing up to work one day and finding the doors locked. There may be no compensation package for the newly unemployed workers until they land another job. Waiting for a golden handshake from downsizing is a worse idea than acting on an opportunity that has presented itself at a different company.

Technical Debt

Startups cut corners. You may not have the best tools available to get the job done. You are always squeezed for time and money, which means quality suffers. Poor quality can throw a monkey wrench into schedules, forcing crunch time in order to meet the delivery dates. This technical debt is just like any other debt in that it requires interest payments and you’ll have to pay it off eventually — although project managers often ignore it completely. Steve McConnell covers technical debt in more detail.

Signs of Success

Success should happen early. If things are always running smoothly then the work environment will be enriching and enjoyable. If things never work properly the first time then it can create a big cloud of doom that hangs over the head of everyone in the company and curses the new work being done.

Positive Reinforcement

How are employees reinforced for good work? In a startup, it usually won’t be monetary but that’s ok because one of the best rewards is the time to work on pet projects. Interesting work is its own reward.

Work Experience

Monetary compensation might pay off the bills, but it won’t make you feel as satisfied as a job well done. What makes me happiest is learning/improving new skills and knowing that I’ve done a good job. Having to constantly return to the same project that never works properly is one of the most soul-sucking experiences I’ve ever had. It’s like a bad relationship that drags on and on. You’re trying to make things work, but there’s always something new that comes up and drags you back into old issues that you thought were worked out a long time ago.

“Will I enjoy the work?” is the one of the most important criteria for evaluating a job change, because passion can’t be faked and it’s the only way a job will enrich the rest of your life.

People

Jeff hit the nail so squarely on the head when he said that the most accurate predictor of job satisfaction and success is if you like the people you work with. No matter what the problem is, it’s a people problem and if you don’t enjoy working with your coworkers then you’ll never enjoy your job.

Did you like this post? If so then please vote for it on digg. Thanks!

Related Posts

Overtime Considered Harmful

Posted in Getting to Done, Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on October 29, 2007

(or I’m Too Lazy to Think of a Better Title)

Time Management

In the past month I’ve worked over 100 hours of overtime to ensure that a project deadline was met when unforeseen issues put the entire project at risk. When you’re a high tech worker then this can happen often enough that it feels like a way of life. What I find strange is that I’ve caught myself bragging about the hours I’ve spent tied to my job. In what sick world should living off of food from Styrofoam containers and an intravenous espresso drip be considered an admirable accomplishment?

If anything it’s a sign of monumental failure in project scheduling, design, delegation or personal time management. Spending two thirds of my waking hours at work isn’t a sign of dedication, it’s a sign of screwed up priorities where I’m willing to push everything else in my life to the side to satisfy the SNAFU I find myself in. The sensible decision would be to get my resume in order and find a way out of this mess.

But like bad movies and bad relationships there’s a sickening desire to stick it out until the end. The sunk cost of time invested seems more valuable than the future cost of staying in this downward spiral. Despite having a university education with a strong background in numbers I can’t do the math and see that the grindstone of a doomed project damages my health and completely destroys my ability to respond to new opportunities. If I’m going to spend a significant portion of my life on work, shouldn’t it be something where that time has a chance at being rewarded?

If the project success depends on a Hail Mary pass to the end zone then chances are slim that things will turn out well for the project in the end. There is no room for heroes on large multi-team projects. For large projects success comes from putting in consistent effort over time and crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s. One last hard push to get it out the door isn’t a valid project management strategy. There is no doctor waiting in the sidelines with a chemical cocktail to induce labour.

I’m lucky that I don’t have children, because this isn’t a life blueprint I’d want to pass on to them. Success that comes from time stolen from the other aspects of your life isn’t success at all.

Interesting Links

Related Posts

Coworkers Considered Harmful

Posted in Lifehacks, Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on October 15, 2007

Workhacks

I hit a realization this weekend that I’ve hit many times before. There’s an inordinate number of times when I’m in the office late not because of my own time management failures but because of the people I work with.

Common coworker induced workplace failures:

  • Checking in code that doesn’t work at all
  • Checking in code that introduces subtle bugs somewhere else in existing code
  • Trivial interruptions when I’m in a state of flow
  • Playing vacation snafu where they schedule a trip immediately after a deliverable
  • Playing priority snafu when a manager or team leader side swipes you with fixing someone else’s problems that really aren’t that urgent compared to what you’re already working on
  • Telling me something I’m responsible for is broken, when it’s really because of an error with the way they’re using it
  • Letting someone convince me of their interpretation of a spec because they are more experienced and more confident in their opinion
  • Following their implementation recipe (that doesn’t work — particularly from managers who aren’t in the trenches anymore)
  • Assuming their code does what the comments describes
  • Assuming that because a manager asked me for it directly it falls into the 20% of what’s important, not in the 80% of what can be ignored

One of the best lessons you can learn in life is that you can’t change anyone else, you can only change yourself. The minute you put the blame on someone else you’ve switch things from being a problem you can control to a problem outside of your control. Up until this point I’ve put the blame at their feet, but it’s really my fault because of how I interact with them. It all comes down to a case of trust, and with coworkers trust should be earned, not given (at least when it comes to their assumptions). Here are some things I can do differently to avoid those situations.

  • Always keep my manager informed of my current priorities and to-do list
  • Put on the headphones when I’m in flow and turn off phone/email
  • Never, ever check out coworker code when I’m in the middle of debugging my own code
  • Always check out a stable version of other coworker code that’s been show to be sane so I don’t spend my time fixing their problems
  • Read code, use comments as annotations
  • Always create interface assertions when integrating with other people’s code to easily flag when they’re not behaving the way they’re supposed to be
  • Regressable unit tests for my own code so that I’m confident that the problem isn’t on my end, and I’m confident I can introduce changes in my own code without have side effects
  • Don’t believe a bug exists without seeing it reproduced and seeing the error message
  • Don’t believe my interpretation of spec is wrong without digging into it for myself
  • Always be mindful, never follow instructions without thinking it through for myself

How have your coworkers unintentionally made your life hell lately?

(To make it clear — put your trust and faith into your coworkers, because your relationships with them will get you farther in life than putting your trust into your company ever will. But there’s a difference between trusting them and blindly trusting their assumptions.)

Magazine Review: October 2007 Issue of Inc. Magazine

Posted in Book Reviews, Startups and Business, Technology by engtech on October 05, 2007

I came to a rather startling discovery in the past month: magazines are just blogs with the added luxury of being able to read them while on the toilet or in the bathtub (but hopefully not both).

I picked up the October issue of Inc. magazine because Joel Spolsky of Joel On Software has joined the magazine. I’m a Joel fan-boy. Internet Duct Tape was inspired by Joel on Software. Here are some random thoughts from spending a rainy Saturday flipping through the pages. Can this possibly be entertaining or of value to my readers? I have no idea.

I’m going to give each article a +1 or a -1 based on whether or not I found it interesting and discuss it with a short blurb. You can read along with me on the online copy. Follow the bouncing ball.

-1 Editor’s Letter, Contibutors, and Reader Mail: I can’t help but think this stuff should be at the end of a magazine instead of at the front. Below the fold, if you will. Give the reader the most useful tidbits first instead of burying it in the middle.

-1 People Who Were Inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: It didn’t sell me that the only entrepreneur’s name I recognized was the one from Doubleclick. Instead of a biographical tidbit about Ayn Rand, tell me what the book was about! How did they miss that there is a 2008 movie with Angelina Jolie in the works? Is Wikipedia the new Coles Notes? Where was the tie-in that Atlas Shrugged inspired the current hit Xbox 360 game Bioshock?

I’m getting the feeling that I’m not the core audience for this magazine.

+1 Netflix vs Blockbuster: Blockbuster proves the adage that startups are R&D for bigger companies by one upping Netflix’s business model. Bad advice from other entrepreneurs follows.

  • “Netflix should court CDs” – iTunes and digital downloads are already trailblazing the future of this industry, going up against iTunes on their existing strengths isn’t going to help Netflix. Isn’t CD by mail subscription also going up against Columbia House?
  • “Focus on being #1 service without lowering price” – Good, if obvious, advice.
  • “Focus on obscure films” – Every company needs to have a passionate minority at their core if they hope to have any success. This would have been good advice if Netflix was starting at a grassroots level, but they already have that core smaller audience from years ago.
  • “Hookup with a cable company” – I completely agree that they need to move to digital downloads. Always build the product that will kill your current product. But getting in bed with CableCos is courting the devil.

+1 Investor’s Guide to Inc 500: Bug VCs with the previous issue’s top 500 startups list. Bonus points for mentioning Massage Envy masseuse franchises that are a lawsuit waiting to happen. Bill Me Later is my pick from the list. They act as a proxy between your credit card info and other companies for people who are afraid of buying on the Internet. I also like Vocera who do star trek style voice communicators for hospitals.

+1 Even CEOs Have to Apologize for Screwing Over Workers: I appreciate the message, but felt there was a bit too much emphasis on assigning blame for why the bad decisions happened. Kudos for stepping up to the plate, admitting mistakes, and keeping the team in the loop.

+1 Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Companies: Someone’s written a book about the idea that companies need to fulfill more of an employee’s needs than just the paycheck. Interesting: customers are promiscuous meaning that even if they’re perfectly satisfied with service they might still switch to a competitor they’re also perfectly satisfied with. Article is fluffy, wonder if the book goes any deeper? No mention of creating fulfilling work, just increasing employees self-worth and attitudes towards themselves.

Is this like that bogus psychology from the 80s that encouraged self-confidence without merit and created a generation of self-entitled people who don’t understand why life isn’t handing them the success they deserve?

-1 Estate Planning: I pay someone to pay attention to this stuff for me. That might be stupid on my part.

+1 Is My Social Network Startup Worth Investing In? 55 Alive: Investors get to rip into a young startup. Startup wants $250k but most investors are advicing between $1 to $20 million. I love the VC who points out that common interest ties people together, not demographics like age group. We had a conversation about this last night at a dinner party discussing the people you knew in elementary school and high school that you reconnect with but it goes no where — because where you went to school is no indication of common interests. Same guy tells them to generate their own ad revenue without investors.

More good advice that they need to focus on building up local features. So true, what makes social networking sites work is if they become a communication tool for an existing friends group.

+1 Internet Video Beyond YouTube: Some good discussion on interactive webcasts, livecasting, and promotional videos. HelloWorld is officially my favorite company name ever. I’m so surprised there was no mention of Will It Blend or CommonCraft.

+1 Web Polls: Not enough information on the individual web polling companies, but the use cases of how businesses are incorporating them are phenomenal. Conclusion: don’t manage statistics gathering by hand, but be careful who you go with because it can go from $1,000 to $10,000s of dollars.

+1 Using Marketing to Improve Old Business: One man’s guerilla campaign to revitalize the NY Metropolitan Opera. My favorite example of traditional businesses embracing new media is the Brooklyn Museum’s Flickr page. I liked the idea of giving free tickets to the last dress rehearsal to create buzz and simulcasting the operas onto outside monitors.

+1 Update: An older story of a company in trouble and the advice the Inc. experts gave is updated with the results. Great proof that the magazine advice works.

+1 Questions and Answers: Inc. recommended a survey business support myspace, but ignore Second Life. Unfortunately, no mention of SL’s flying penii. They also give the sage advice that the average person sees 3,000 ads a day so advertisers have to work that much harder to be in the 1% of ads that people notice. Good advice with “do you even know who your audience is?” Huge bonus points for mentioning Made to Stick, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

How to maintain corporate culture: build stories around your brand, have bigger goals than “making money” and fire people who don’t fit with the culture you want to have.

+1 Money Management for Entrepreneurs: Good tip that you should have two financial advisors, one primary and one secondary so that if one doesn’t work out then you can transfer to the other while you look for a replacement.

0 Joel Builds a Shipping System: Reprint from Joel on Software.

-1 Entrepreneurship is Passion: all fluff, no content.

-1 Inc. Gear: hard to believe that this isn’t product placement.

+1 Pandora Story: Cover story about the Pandora music recommendation service. Turning your customers into fans will help you overcome all kinds of roadblocks. But what about your international customers?

+1 The Way I Work: The best interview question is to find out how someone copes with stress. Article focuses on stress management and using external creativity to unwind — maintaining relationships with your support network is more important than the job.

-1 Corporate Retreat: The usual on breaking down people to build a team.

+1 How I Did It: Success story in billboard advertising. Become an expert and buy advertising space that people aren’t using.

-1 Inc. Classifieds: Spam spam spam. Penis enlargement, asian brides, and buy my e-book. It’s like they have blog comments printed right in the magazine.

Overall Score: +7

After an underwhelming start I found some good content in the middle of Inc. Magazine and I’d read it again. Every blog is a self-run small business and every blogger is an entrepreneur, so it isn’t that surprising that I liked the magazine.

9 Techniques to Promoting Your Social Web Application

Posted in Software, Startups and Business, Technology, Web 2.0 and Social Media by engtech on September 21, 2007

Social Software and You

This is a continuation from The Problem with Social Web Applications.

“web applications are created as social software where you have a friends list, collaborate on a document with multiple people and it is easily to share information and communicate. The downside is these networks consume a lot of attention and too much time is wasted building profiles and adding friends – for some of these sites building a profile and adding friends is the only utility they have.”

Putting the inherent problems of social web apps aside, how do you build a web app that has traction, gain users and hopefully explodes virally? I’ve been paying attention to this space for far too long and this is a round-up of the tricks and techniques successful and not-so-successful social web applications use to promote themselves.

I’m completely excluding any technique that relies on spending money. It’s a given that you can buy traffic and attention through various mean. Instead, I’m focusing on the self-powered techniques companies can use to build organic buzz and word of mouth advertising around their web application.

Technique #1: Beta Invitations

The easiest way to generate buzz for your social web app is to create an artificial scarcity for applications. You can email invitations to people every day and they won’t give you a second glance, but if invitations are hard to come by then the invitation becomes a valuable commodity instead of easily ignored spam. Gray market economies grow around beta invitation trading, even if the accounts themselves are seldom used.

Beta invite success stories: Gmail, Joost, Pownce

Gotcha: “Blog Friendly” Beta Invitations

The gray market beta invitation economy that you want to generate buzz is built off of the back of bloggers. Invitations are an easy way for bloggers to provide value (or the illusion of value) to their readers at no cost other than time. How bloggers feel about your beta invite campaign, and your application, will come from how easy you make it for them to send out invitations.

Medium lets me invite people by posting a URL on my blog. All of my readers who click on that URL can get into the Medium beta and are added as ‘friends’ with no effort on my part. Compare this to Joost invitations require a cut-and-paste of every email address into a desktop application. Sending a single Joost invitation will take me at least a few minutes because I have to load a desktop application. It could potentially take much longer if the desktop application needs to be updated.

Gotcha: Scarcity of Beta Invitations

One way sites screw up is by giving away too many beta invitations up front. If you are using manipulation to create buzz around your product then you need to create artificial value by implying that the people who have access to your service are more privileged. If anyone and their lolcat can get in then how do you create the false sense of hype that comes from people talking about a product you don’t have access to? It’s like the false economy around diamonds.

Technique #2: Social Engineering Trickery

A social engineering technique that works very well for getting people to accept their user account is to say “your friend created a profile for you!” It’s cheesy but it gets the invited user to sign-up. The easiest way to engage someone’s curiosity is to make it about them. People are always interested in themselves, and in what other people may have said about them.

Examples: Spock and Yahoo Mash

Technique #3: The Video Demo

A very effective technique for creating interest in your product before the doors are wide open is creating a video to promote the service and show how people can use it. The iScrybe calendar is a great example of a video that went viral and created a lot of buzz around a product that still hasn’t materialized (disclaimer: I’m a beta tester).

CommonCraft has created a business behind making videos that explain product in simple no-frill terms that somehow work better and remain more interesting than the flashiest demos.

Gotcha: Leaking Features to Early

The only problem with giving a video demo of a product doesn’t exist is you give your competitors that much more time to copy your features. By the time you release you’re competitive advantage might no longer exist.

Technique #4: The Press Release

I’ll let this video CommonCraft developed for PRWeb discuss the value of press release kits for generating buzz.

Gotcha: Spamming Bloggers with Press Releases

As a blogger, one of the dangerous of having your email address on your About Me page is the number of press releases you receive. I’ll reluctantly admit that I do occasionally write a blog post about a service that catches my eye. However, the method of contact has also made me ignore sites like CrossLoop.com that I later realized was very awesome and solves a problem I often have about how to fix someone else’s computer remotely. Why is your application different than any other of the many emails I have received?

Technique #5: The Address Book Import

Always make it as easy as possible for people to invite their friends to use your social web app. The email address book is the only existing workaround to the “social graph problem.” Make it as easy as possible for users to invite or connect with their friends using address book import and supporting the major webmail sites (Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail) as well as instructions on how to upload from Outlook or Outlook Express. Plaxo even offers a free javascript widget so ANY social website can offer address book import with little effort.

Gotcha: Giving Out Your Email Password

Jeff very correctly points out that giving out your email password is ridiculously stupid, since a malicious site can hijack your login information for any website and potentially gain access to your credit card or banking information depending if you use the same email address for everything. There has also been more than one case of startups sending emails to your contacts without your permission (see SixDegrees.com, Quechup and RapLeaf).

Gotcha: Address Book Import with Custom Invite

If you are going to brave the address book import (admittedly I do it often) then it is imperative that the invite sender can customize the message to the invitees. Thanks to the wonder of “automatically add anyone you’ve ever had an email conversation with to your address book” technology, if you do full address book spamming you might be contacting people who have a very loose connection to you. LinkedIn does it right by giving the sender several precanned invitation messages that can be customized at will. Another technique is to limit the number of invitations someone can send at once to prevent spamming.

I had a shock this weekend when I sent Yahoo Mash invitations out and my custom email invitation was never sent — instead they were given that spammy ‘engtech created a profile’ message. I went to the trouble to explain why I was sending the invite, what Yahoo Mash was about, and linked to a TechCrunch article about the service. This is what they saw instead:

Success stories: LinkedIn, Plaxo

Failures: Yahoo Mash, Quechup, RapLeaf, sms.ac…

Don't send out stupid invitations like this one

Technique #6: Leverage Existing Success

In all aspects of life success can breed success. Would Paris Hilton have been in the limelight if she wasn’t the heiress to a ridiculous fortune? When larger companies launch a new web application they need to leverage the success of their existing sites. A common complaint when Google or Yahoo launches something new is that it doesn’t integrate well with their existing portfolio of web applications. Use the success and lessons learned from existing applications to slingshot your new web application into stardom. This is much easier to do when it is the same small team developing the application.

Success stories: 37signals

Technique #7: Corporate Superstar

One of the easiest ways to get buzz about your web app is to hire someone who is well known in the industry. This can be a detrimental factor because their involvement can overshadow the product itself or bring too much attention to a product before it has had a chance to mature. However, I think there is always more of a positive factor because it is easier to improve a product than it is to build the kind of buzz these people bring to anything they are involved with.

Examples: Jason Calcanis, Guy Kawasaki, Kevin Rose, Marc Andreessen, Joel Spolsky, Aaron Swartz

Technique #8: Send Out the Bacn

Social sites try to keep you interested by sending ‘tickler’ emails whenever any little action happens related to your account on their site. These emails are functionally useless, but they drive you back to the site. It’s not spam, it’s bacn — useless emails from a website that you’ve given permission to contact you. It’s the worst form of permission marketing and smart sites will set a sane default where they only contact the person once a day at the very most. Stupid sites will quickly see their emails detected as spam since clicking the ‘Report Spam’ button is often much easier than creating an email filter or finding out how to unsubscribe or change notifications.

Very few sites get that if you’re going to email someone that they have a message, you might as well include the message with the email. Even fewer sites understand that people should be able to respond to the message directly from email. Improving the customer experience always trumps increasing page views or any other metric.

Sites that get it: Twitter, StumbleUpon

Sites that don’t get it: Facebook, Yahoo Mash

yahoo mash bacn spam

Technique: Don’t Require an Account to Try It

(update because I forgot it the first time around)

One of the absolutely best ways to promote your app is to let people use it without requiring an account to sign in. OpenID hopes to provide a universal account that you can use anywhere, but other sites like Geni and JottIt bring you directly to the application and only prompt you to create a user account when you want to store your information.

Technique #9: Solve a Problem

The easiest way to build buzz around your web app is to solve a real problem. Many “web 2.0″ sites are repeating what has been available in desktop software for decades. For the ones that do something original, it often serves no real purpose. Messaging friends? I have email and instant messenger programs. Writing documents, spreadsheets, calendars? I have office suite applications. Translating desktop software gives decreased performance with the ability to easily collaborate and access documents from any location that has Internet access.

There are very few web applications that solve a problem that desktop software never did well. They add real value to a user’s life in a way that is new and innovative. Desktop software never handled music discovery (last.fm) or photo sharing (flickr and now Facebook) as well as their web counterparts. Too many web applications are social for no reason or offer solutions without a problem to solve. As my blog friend Steven says:

Adding value to one’s personal pool of knowledge or giving to another’s doesn’t depend on vast numbers of useless contacts. Value comes from one to one communication and then following whatever paths that come from that conversation.

Bonus: The Yahoo Mash Report Card

Last weekend I had a chance to check out Yahoo’s “we were too cheap to buy Facebook, let’s get that egg off of our face” entry into the social platform war with Yahoo Mash. The experience inspired this post. How did Yahoo Mash rate?

+1 point for creating approximately 2 hours of ‘I want a beta invite!’ buzz
+2 points for convincing me that Mash invites had some value and I could earn some social capital by sending invites to everyone on my address book
-10 points for refusing to send my handcrafted invitation that explained what Mash is and why I was sending out invitations
-20 points for sending that ‘engtech created a profile for you!’ spam instead of my custom invitation
-3 points for being ugly
-2 points for not having any utility beyond creating a profile
+2 points for the ability to edit other people’s profiles — something different
-4 points for not leveraging all the other Yahoo services I use
+5 points for introducing me to Yahoo Avatars — much cooler than Mash

my yahoo mash avatar

Links You Can Use

The Problem With Social Web Applications

Posted in Startups and Business, Technology, Web 2.0 and Social Media by engtech on September 18, 2007

Social Software and You

This is an exciting time because unlike traditional software that runs on your computer [1], web applications are created as social software where you have a friends list, collaborate on a document with multiple people and it is easily to share information and communicate. The downside is these networks consume a lot of attention and too much time is wasted building profiles and adding friends — for some of these sites building a profile and adding friends is the only utility they have.

Brad Fitzpatrick touches on this with his social graph problem — we need a way of moving our social network around with us as exportable and importable data. Read/Write Web has an overview of the issues behind the social graph problem. Companies like Facebook and MySpace capitalize on the network effect — the more of your friends who utilize the site, the more useful the site is to you — while Plaxo is one of the companies who are targeting the problem of creating a portable social network you can use on any web site.

There are two fundamental problems with using social web apps. The first is the lack of a unique identifier on the web — you know who you are but there is no way for two websites to know that you are the same person. Email addresses are one way to solve this problem. OpenID is another way to solve the problem of identity on the Internet, but it is fraught with it’s own issues such as too many providers / not enough consumers, who owns your OpenID and how trivial it is for someone to steal your OpenID authentication through phishing. OpenID is better than captcha for leaving web comments, but I wouldn’t trust it with my credit card information.

The second problem with social web apps is social network fatigue. The average person has the time to actively use 2 to 5 social web sites and become part of a community on them. No one has the time to be part of more sites than that, and we get burn out from having to create accounts and add friends on sites after site. This is called social network fatigue and has spawned spoofs like BugrOff and Social Networking Rehab, as well as applications like Delicious Stumbles and Social Poster to make it easier to maintain profiles on multiple sites.

If you’re a new social software company then it’s hard to attract users because of all the incumbent sites who already have their attention; if you’re an old social software then it’s hard to keep users because so much of the initial addiction comes from adding friends. (Not that they’re really your friends, but you know what I mean)

Tomorrow I’ll explain the techniques used to promote a social web applications [2].


[1] Of course, having a dedicated application on your computer is usually a million times more efficient than running an application in a web browser.

[2] aka Why Yahoo Mash Sucks

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How to find out if you are passionate about your career or if you are just wilfing

Posted in Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on April 16, 2007

art of happiness at workI was reading an interesting post about a new weblogism [1] called ‘wilfing‘. “What was I looking for?” describes getting trapped in an Internet rats nest – you had good intentions of doing a work related search but the siren call of the Internet was too much and you went off on a tangent (*cough* It’s all Google Reader’s fault *cough*).

In The Art of Happiness At Work [2] they state that “A third of people see their work as a job, a third as a career, a third as a calling.” The go on to say that it is more a reflection of the attitudes of the worker than inherent qualities of the job. Books like What Color is Your Parachute are devoted to helping people find a calling instead of a job. To paraphrase my friend AJ [3]: I’d rather spend my life failing at something I love instead of being successful at something I hate (or worse, something that filled me with apathy).

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Lions, Tigers and Managers Oh My – The IT Animal Kingdom (by guest blogger logtar)

Posted in Humor, Programming and Software Development, Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by Guest Blogger on April 11, 2007

This post is by a guest blogger.

John Guzman aka logtar is a computer programmer that rants about daily life, movies and culture. He was born in Colombia and also does translation and interpretation.

Now that I have liberated myself from the last zoo I worked at, I feel that it is my duty to document the IT (Information Technology) ecosystem for those that happen to enter it. I’m intending this as a good PSA (Public Service Announcement) for all the non-IT people out there. It is no accident that I have made all of the managers predators. You may find yourself fitting one of the animal profiles.

The Eager Beaver
eager beaver shavedI think there is a little Eager Beaver in all of us when we start in a new department. This character is the one that is always coming up with new innovative ideas that, while brilliant, will never be implemented. There are many varieties of this beaver, from the one that eventually gets beat down and controlled to the one that actually tells his boss he is just stupid. And, yes, to his face… and, yes, I have seen this one in the wild. Eager Beavers know what they are doing when it comes to technology; however they spent too much time on new ideas and not enough on actual production.

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An Introduction to Reputation Management (by guest blogger Tim Nash)

This is a post by a guest blogger.

Tim Nash is a reputation management consultant, co-founder and primary consultant for Venture Skills a “New media” IT company which specialises in search engine optimisation, reputation management, and technical side of online marketing. When not working at Venture Skills, posting site reviews on forums he can be found teaching at a local university where he lecturers in Search Engine Optimisation and Information Retrieval.

My name is Tim and I’m a reputation management consultant. I’m helping engtech out by doing a guest post for his blog.

But what is reputation management?

Let us start with a formal quote:

Reputation management is the process of tracking an entity’s actions and other entities’ opinions about those actions; reporting on those actions and opinions; and reacting to that report creating a feedback loop. All entities involved are generally people, but that need not always be the case. Other examples of entities include animals, businesses, or even locations or materials. The tracking and reporting may range from word-of-mouth to statistical analysis of thousands data points. — Source: Wikipedia

This is a very dusty but surprisingly accurate description of reputation management, be it in commercial business analysis or on a personal level. There a three basic areas to reputation management:

  1. Finding out what people are saying about you
  2. Creating a persona or brand image
  3. If needed defending this image

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Is your web identity a help or a hindrance to your employability?

ComputerWorld has an article about how recruiters use web anonymity to find more information out about job applicants.

In a 2006 survey by executive search firm ExecuNet in Norwalk, Conn., 77 of 100 recruiters said they use search engines to check out job candidates. In a CareerBuilder.com survey of 1,150 hiring managers last year, one in four said they use Internet search engines to research potential employees. One in 10 said they also use social networking sites to screen candidates. In fact, according to Search Engine Watch, there are 25 million to 50 million proper-name searches performed each day.

They go on to list some tips like starting a blog, joining open source communities, building a web page, creating web profiles. Andy pads it out with some more helpful suggestions like getting a domain name, tips for getting the number one spot for your name and controlling what appears in search results for your name.

I’ve written about privacy, internet usage and real name searches a few times with my Facebook tips, guide to pseudonyms/identity hiding and tips on hiding your LinkedIn profile from searches outside of your LinkedIn network. When I started this blog a year ago it was with the idea that it could help with the job hunt, but then the slew of articles I read about people losing their jobs because of blogging convinced me otherwise.

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The Work Manifesto

Posted in Links, Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on December 03, 2006

This was so good that I felt I had to share it verbatim. It is by Pamela Slim from Escape from Cubicle Nation (via Gaping Void). It nicely sums up a very important rule that people so often miss out on in life: be passionate (not obsessed) about your job and it will enrich the rest of your life. I find that whenever I’m bored at a job I end up focusing my energy into some other passion which effectively means I’ll end up having two jobs.

The Work Manifesto

1. Work is your real life. It is the way you translate your feelings, your thoughts, your hopes and your desires into something valuable, tangible and useful every day. You can choose to make work into a dreaded, necessary evil that you can’t wait to finish so that you can get busy with your “real life.” Why not just do work you love?

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New tech meme: How to become a Venture Capitalist

Posted in Links, Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on November 30, 2006

guyGuy Kawasaki brings it home and writes about what he knows with a piece about becoming a venture capitalist and an online survey to see if you have the chops. Could this be a new quiz meme for startup tech bloggers?

It won’t really take off because it doesn’t tell me which Star Wars VC I most closely resemble.

Regardless, here’s my advice to all the Biffs, Sebastians, Brooks, and Tiffanys who want to be kingmakers: “Venture capital is something to do at the end of your career, not the beginning. It should be your last job, not your first one.”

vcat test results

College graduates wanting to become VCs furthers the Bubble 2.0 meme that Silicon Valley has entered another tech bubble (read my first post on it: “The Internet has no clothes“). Because most tech startups aren’t aiming for IPO, some people are saying that Google is the canary in the mineshaft this time around.

>> The Venture Capitalist Test
>> VCAT Test (direct link, nothing to do with SONET virtual concatenations)

Firefox 2.0 Boss Key extension – Productivity and Networking Information Component

Posted in Firefox and Greasemonkey, Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on November 10, 2006

This is a rather self-explanatory Firefox extension for the workplace.

PaNIC is set to be activated by the Alt key and the tick ` symbol up there by the 1 on your keyboard.

Press those two buttons at the same time, and all of your tabs in Firefox will get killed instantly, and replaced with a Google search for “increasing workplace productivity”.

You can edit the hot keys and web page address via the extension’s preferences menu.

NOTE: If you are using StumbleUpon (which I highly recommend), you’ll have to change the keystroke. StumbleUpon uses Alt-` as a hot key for the Stumble! button.

Firefox >> Tools >> Add-ons >> Productivity and Networking Information Component >> Options

I recommend changing the URL to a work-related search and the modifier to Ctrl-`. You could even change the URL to go to your Intranet homepage, specific documentation, etc.

panic_at_the_firefox.png

>> PaNIC @ roachfiend.com

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Peace at Last – The Joy of Telecommuting from Home

Posted in Humor, Links, Technology, Workhacks and High Tech Life by engtech on November 08, 2006

AndyC has a funny piece on the joys of telecommuting from home. I’ll must warn you that he’s British, so he might not actually be funny — just British.

engtech on reading/watching anything British: “hahahhahaha, omg he said tea instead of coffee!! this is z0 funny! He’s typing/talking in an accent!”

That isn’t a horrible slag that Brits aren’t funny, it’s a horrible slag that I find dry wit to be the ultimate form of humour. Your millage(sic) may vary.

I never used to work from home much. When the kids were younger, my wife was at home and without a office, quiet room or even a shed, I found it difficult to concentrate. Accessing the work network over dial-up also was a significant constraint.

Now things are different. My children are both at secondary school and leave the house before I do. My wife also works and I have a broadband connection and VPN access to the office network. So, occasionally, I can save two hours commuting, sit down with a decent cup of tea, be productive and still be back home in time for tea.

>> on hamsters, headhunters, hampers and false religion

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Aaron Swartz on becoming a DotCom millionaire

Posted in Links, Reddit, Startups and Business, Technology by engtech on November 04, 2006

Aaron Swartz of Reddit fame is blogging about the experience of becoming a DotCom millionaire this week after Reddit was bought by Cond�Nast/Wired magazine (Aaron’s collection of web clippings on the acquisition). It’s a very interesting read for those of us working at startups in high tech. The fact that he’s a good writer only helps.

UPDATE 2006/11/09: Mike-o-matic has a nice writeup on the same subject.

I remember how when reddit started, the whole thing seemed so childish.

The cartoony alien, the barebones design, the fresh-faced programmers, the rented house. And none of that has really changed. It’s just that with success behind it, it’s harder to dismiss. A scribbled drawing a kid hands to you is “cute”, the same thing on the wall of a museum is “art”. You assume there must be something there, even if you can’t see it.

It’s hard to notice this when you’re in the middle of it. During the days, I mostly saw my co-workers, who lived and breathed the site. At night, I hung out with my friends, who all knew what I did. On weekends, we’d go to parties for local startups, who all wanted to emulate reddit’s success. Everyone we talked to treated us like it was serious.

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How to screen candidates with phone interviews

Posted in Hiring, Job Interviews and Resume Resources, Technology by engtech on October 25, 2006

Joel has another great post on phone interviews. He focuses on asking questions on programming skills and office politics, with an emphasis on putting forth incorrect assertions and seeing if the interviewee pipes up. “Smart programmers have a certain affinity for the truth, and they’ll call you on it.” He also gives a list of good interview questions like design a program for playing Monopoly. This isn’t his first time talking about interviewing, he also gave some good tips for being on the other side of the chair in his Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing.

It happens all the time: we get a resume that everyone thinks is really exciting. Terrific grades. All kinds of powerful-sounding jobs. Lots of experience. Speaks seventeen languages. And saved over 10,000 kittens!

Look! kittens!

And then I call them up, and I can’t stand talking to them.

>> The Phone Screen – Joel on Software

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Paul Graham on Why Startups Fail

Posted in Links, Startups and Business, Technology by engtech on October 17, 2006

Paul Graham has an essay on the 18 reasons why start-ups fail. I especially like how he sums it up to a single sentence: “In a sense there’s just one mistake that kills start-ups: not making something users want.

These are all very valid reasons, and my favorite is Hiring Bad Programmers. Unfortunately it is quite often the only option. If you’re applying “Just in Time” hiring, the candidates you are looking at may be the only choice available. One way to avoid the permanent hit of a bad coder is to hire them on contract with the possibility of giving them a full time position in the future. Giving them an expiry date gives you an easy out, but you’ll still be accruing technical debt the time they are with you.

>> The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups

Marus from PlentyOfFish disagrees with Paul’s reasons. But he missed the One True Rule that overrides them all “make something users want” and you don’t have to worry about the rest of the rules. :)

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