Sunday, February 27, 2011

Introducing my Consultancy Service

I've been helping people on various things, ranging from linking up their startups with potential employees, helping various people vet their ideas, to helping engineers negotiate their compensation. All of these activities are time consuming, and do take quite a bit of my time. At this point, I'm having to admit that unless I start charging people, all my time can easily be taken up by random interruptions.

Unfortunately, my hourly rate is not cheap. Nevertheless, given how much I've boosted people's offers, I can safely say that I could charge 10X my hourly rate and everyone I've helped would still come out ahead. Unlike books or generalists, I don't work in platitudes and generalities. In most cases, I tell people exactly what to say to their managers to get a better offer/counter-offer.

If you need someone to help you negotiate your compensation package, see what I can do for you!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: The Skinner

The Skinner introduces us to Neal Asher's world of SpatterJay. While it has all the trappings of science fiction, there's actually very little science explained.

The central conceit of the world of Spatterjay is that it is a world driven by essentially one species, the leech. The leech incorporates a virus that when it infects a human, grants the human fast regeneration, growing immunity to wounds (as the viral fibers become incorporated into all parts of the human body), and eventually immortality. Such beings become nearly immortal, and if they live long enough, become very very strong.

The plot revolves around 3 people, Erlin who visited Spatterjay when she was younger and was the one who discovered and described the viral properties, Janer, who was once indentured to a hive mind of hornets (yes, in Asher's universe, the other intelligent species on earth is a hive mind of insects), and Sable Keech, a returned-from-the-dead ECS monitor (think super-cop) bent on avenging his death at the hands of the criminals who once ruled Spatterjay. Throw in some Prador (who were at war with humans some centuries ago), stir gently, mix in with plenty of explosions, war droids, and plenty of underwater action, and you've got all the makings of a thriller.

Is it a good thriller? Yes. The action never gets boring, and nearly all references in the book are made use of at some point or another, so you do have to pay attention so as not to miss anything. You have to like Asher's obsession with parasites and funky life cycles. If you enjoy Iain Banks' depiction of hyper-intelligent minds and droids, Asher's clearly got the same attitude down. The whole thing is a fun read, just don't probe too hard, expect the science to make sense, or wonder why a fully intelligent species could remain undiscovered to humans despite its ability to speak human speech.

Recommended as light reading on a plane.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: Peopleware

I've always considered Peopleware to be the best management book for technologists, and recently wanted to re-read it as preparation for working on my next book. Mysteriously, every copy I've ever bought of this book has been loaned out and never returned to me, so I was very happy to see that there's a Kindle Edition where a borrower cannot help but return it to me after two weeks. At $9.99, the Kindle edition is a bargain.

This book is about the sociology of projects, though it spends a lot of time about the physical environment that programmers find themselves in. For instance, there's a long section about putting together an ideal space for a small team, as well as railing about prevailing noise in the workspace and the current favorite solution, headphones and ipods:
During the 1960s, researchers...polled a group of computer science students and divided the students into two groups, those who liked to have music in the background while they worked (studied) and those who did not. Then they put half of each group together in a silent room, and the other half of each group in a different room equipped with earphones and a musical selection. Participants in both rooms were given a Fortran programming problem to work out from specification. To no one’s surprise, participants in the two rooms performed about the same in speed and accuracy of programming... The Cornell experiment, however, contained a hidden wild card. The specification required that an output data stream be formed through a series of manipulations on numbers in the input data stream... Although the specification never said it, the net effect of all the operations was that each output number was necessarily equal to its input... Of those who figured it out, the overwhelming majority came from the quiet room.
In other words, you're giving up significant creativity when you choose to ask engineers to put on headphones and listen to music in order to compensate for a noisy work environment. There's an explanation about why incentives such as "best quarter ever" doesn't work:
Throughout the upper ranks of the organization, there is marvelous ingenuity at work to be sure that each manager has a strong personal incentive to accept the corporate goals. Only at the bottom, where the real work is performed, does this ingenuity fail. There we count on “professionalism” and nothing else to assure that people are all pulling in the same direction. Lots of luck.
There's a long section about the importance of jelling a team, and how most managers do everything necessary in order to get the team not to jell (the authors call this "Teamicide"). What's fascinating to me is that the authors claim that they don't know how to get teams to jell, even though the book is full of examples as to how to make it happen! They do provide lots of counter-examples, however, about how certain behavior causes teams not to jell.

Finally, in the "new" segments of the book (new since 1999, so not that new), the authors discuss how upper management can encourage teamicide:
Here are some of the managerial actions that tend to produce teamicidal side effects: annual salary or merit reviews management by objectives (MBO) praise of certain workers for extraordinary accomplishment awards, prizes, bonuses tied to performance performance measurement in almost any form But hold on here, aren’t these the very things that managers spend much or even most of their time doing? Sadly, yes. And yet these actions are likely to be teamicidal.
Fundamentally, introducing competition disables the coaching process, and what happens then is that people no longer feel like a team. If your promotion package has to be better than everyone else in order for you to be promoted, then your best bet is to hoard knowledge and skills, rather than spreading it around.

There's a very cogent explanation about how the weekly status meeting is essentially a ceremony meant to boost the manager's ego, rather than something that's useful for a team. There's a good explanation of how trust is built and important to individual contributors' performance, and how increased quality is important to establish esprit de corps in a team. There's a lot of railing against fragmentation of people's time.

Do I have any criticism of this book? Yes. First of all, the authors have spent their careers entirely as consultants to large organizations. Many of the issues here don't exist in startups, for instance. I've never seen a startup with a large PA system that interrupts workers, nor have I seen one with a furniture police. The flip side of that is that the authors assume basic things that all managers should know and do, but judging by the quality of the average manager in Silicon Valley companies, is almost non-existent. There's insufficient analysis as to who should be a manager and who shouldn't. There's very little help these folks can give you as to how to hire and grow a balanced team. But seriously, there's no point criticizing this book for something the authors couldn't possibly have been expected to know.

At the end of this read, I still stand by my statement that this is still by far the best management book that an engineer or technical manager can read. Many large and growing companies I know could stand to distribute this book to every new manager. Needless to say, this book is highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Piaw versus The Post Office

One of the consequences of being a self-publisher and self-distributor of books is that I'm continually running up against various weird limitations of the post office. Despite that, the post office is still the best service for a self-publisher:
  • It's relatively cheap. ($2.24 for Engineer's Guide and $4.95 for Independent Cycle Touring
  • Daily pick up from my mailbox, even on Saturdays. This is pretty cool.
  • An unlimited supply of free envelopes for Independent Cycle Touring. Having to pay for my own envelopes is one reason why I have to charge $3 to ship Engineer's Guide.
What's not so good is that Independent Cycle Touring is one pound to ship. Yes, between the large form factor, and full color pages, it's a heavy book in more than one sense of the word. That exceeds the 13 ounce limit, so I can't do what I did with Engineer's Guide and stick a stamp on it and leave it in the mailbox. In fact, the mailbox that came with my house wouldn't even fit the book! Fortunately, Pardo came by and replaced my tiny mailbox with a huge rural sized mailbox. Now I can ship 5-6 copies of Independent Cycle Touring at once, if I am ever so lucky as to get that many orders at once. The problem then is the 13 ounce limit: I once shipped a copy of Independent Cycle Touring in a flat-rate envelope with a flat-rate stamp, and it bounced right back. I took it to my local post office and the carrier there said that the only way to by-pass this problem is to use the USPS web-site to buy a printed shipping label. That also has the side-effect of being potentially cheaper to ship books, but I have to use up my supply of $4.95 stamps first, so that'll have to happen before I switch over entirely to on-line shipping labels. Note that I can't do that for non flat-rate envelopes, so I have to stick with buying stamps manually for Engineer's Guide. With all this, you would think that I'd be tempted to ship media mail, which gets a special rate for books. This doesn't work. For one thing, it's actually not any cheaper for Engineer's Guide, and for another, in the age of Amazon Prime, other self-publishers/self-distributors have reported that people complain when books take as long as a week or two to reach them. It's just easier to use first class mail and not have to deal with the customer complaints. Media mail also doesn't always bounce if the destination is mis-spelled or mis-named. Another strange thing with my two books. Engineer's Guide obviously gets a lot of technologically sophisticated customers. Not so with Independent Cycle Touring. I once got a call from a customer who thought he had ordered a book but when I checked my records, I had no sale record for him. It turned out that he did not actually realize that he had to click the "buy" button and then the "confirm buy" button after that on Google checkout. As a result, I'm going to have to put my phone # on the page for Independent Cycle Touring for people who need help ordering.

Little details like this is what makes fulfillment challenging. It really gives you respect for on-line retailers like Amazon who do this all the time for millions of customers.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Review: The Victorian Internet

In addition to The Box, Paul Krugman also recommended The Victorian Internet, which is an account of the invention of the telegraph and the follow-on consequences.

This turned out to be a very fun read, and Tom Standage draws very appropriate comparisons between the telegraph (which heralded the true dawn of the information age) and today's internet. Interestingly enough, for instance, the telegraph was invented simultaneously by two people on opposite sites of the Atlantic, Samuel Morse and William Cooke. While both systems worked more or less similarly, Morse's superior user interface won wide-spread adoption and he became by far the more famous of the two inventors. Sounds like a familiar story, right?

It gets better. Standage continues to expound on the laying of the first transatlantic cable, complete with cable cuts, funding fiascos, as well as the initial design deficiencies which caused it to fail almost right away. He then describes the community of telegraph operators that grew around the telegraph, telegraphic romances, crimes, and common mis-understandings of the technology which obviously parallel what we see today on the internet.

All in all, a short and enjoyable book, and very much worth your time. Recommended.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The High Costs of Distribution

Occasionally, someone will ask me why I only sell on my web-site. The answer is that distribution is expensive. In particular, my first book, An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups is pitched at a niche audience, and one that's likely to be internet savvy. Giving 50% of my revenue to Amazon is unlikely to draw me any additional sales or reach additional audiences.

My second book, Independent Cycle Touring, however, is aimed at cyclists, potentially a much less internet savvy audience. This is a book that really could be distributed to bike shops and book stores, so I approached a local bike shop with a sample to see if he would be interested in carrying it. The owner thought that he could sell a handful of this book every year. Then he asked for a whole sale discount, 40% off the cover price. That effectively lops a whopping 60% off my profit margins! Then he gave me the name of a distributor who could distribute my book to all bike shops in Northern California. Guess what, he wanted 60% off the cover price, reducing my profit to $1/book. At that price, it's not even worth writing the book unless I could sell thousands of copies a year. I suppose I could raise the cover price, but that would only reduce sales further. And note that these are sales to bike shops, which don't return books (unlikely the retail book trade). Those really aren't worth thinking about.

So for the foreseeable future, I'm going to keep selling the book off my web-site, and at local events like the upcoming Sports Basement talk.

Incidentally, I recently sold two copies of Engineer's Guide to the Midwest Library Service, meaning that some library, somewhere, received a request to stock my book. If you want to read my book but can't afford it, try asking your local library to acquire it. I am perfectly happy to handle library sales, and the guys over at MLS even send me a check up front rather than making me navigate the Purchase Order process. Now that's author friendly.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Review: The Box

If you do any sailing on San Francisco Bay, you'll see container ships. Giant ships stacked with containers coming in full and leaving empty. (After all, nothing's ever made in America any more) If you've ever wondered how the logistics worked, or how the standard container was designed and evolved, then The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger is the book for you.

What's fascinating for me is that the idea of the container was effectively invented by one man, Malcolm McLean, and he effectively championed and promoted it through his company which he started for the purposes of promoting this idea. The book describes all the implications of this, including how the Vietnam War effectively sold the military on containers, and thereby enabled the trans-Pacific routes that I see today on San Francisco Bay --- container ships would get to Vietnam full, and then have to return to the US empty, and McLean saw that if he made a stop in Japan, he could fill up the ships and make more money.

What's disappointing about the book is that the author could not manage to compute the drop in costs that could be attributed to container adoption. Nevertheless, the entire story is fascinating, and well worth the time. Recommended.
(Thanks to Paul Krugman for recommending the book over at his blog)

Monday, February 07, 2011

Setting up a Proxy Server on Windows

If you've ever traveled outside the US, you know what a pain that is to access certain web-sites. In particular, lots of web-sites have country-restricts which prevent you from accessing them outside the USA. The solution is to run a proxy-server in the US while you're going to be traveling. There's probably a ton of information out there on how to do this if you're a Linux/Mac user (both of them can run standard UNIX proxy servers), but I haven't seen anything on how to do this on Windows, so here's my stab at it, having recently ran a proxy for a friend of mine in Canada.

My main criteria was that the proxy software be free, as in free beer. I couldn't be bothered to download and compile anything for this exercise.

  1. Download CCProxy. There are alternatives, but none of them are easily configured, and most of them just simply broken or have onerous licensing requirements. CCProxy is all you will need for personal use. If you need more users, then you'll have to pay up or compile some open source software.
  2. Open up a browser to your router's administration page. This will usually be 192.168.1.1. You can now navigate to Applications & Gaming screen, and set it up so it looks like the following:
    From Drop Box

  3. Now look up the static IP of your router. This is usually on the "Status" page of the router's administration application.
  4. Configure the client. I tell people to run Firefox, since it has a separate proxy configuration dialog box. Visit tools->options, select the "Network" tab, and click "Settings." Now turn on "Manual Proxy Configuration", and use the static IP address you got previously. Hit OK until you're finished.
    From Drop Box

  5. You are now all done!

Talk at Sports Basement, March 22nd

For those of you who have thought about getting a copy of Independent Cycle Touring but have hesitated because you would rather see a copy of the book in person, there'll be an opportunity to do so at the Sports Basement in Sunnyvale on March 22nd, from 6-8:30pm. I'll give a talk in about 45 minutes about the book and some topics it covers, and then leave some time for questions, book sales, and a signing.

If you're attending, please use the Facebook Event to sign up! You can also it!

I'm also working with REI for a talk later on in the year, and will try to make various other events happen. In general, if you would like to host me for a speaking engagement, please send me e-mail.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Review: Shadow of the Scorpian

Shadow of the Scorpion is a prequel to Gridlinked, starring Ian Cormac, the unbelievably competent ECS agent of the prior novel.

The novel is short and an easy read, and composes of two threads: Cormac's childhood, and his initiation into the military, where he's quickly involved in quashing a separatist movement. In this novel, he's still not quite believable, but does at least make mistakes. The thread from Cormac's childhood is pretty irrelevant. We get a set up, and there's this build up about his memories having been edited, but the payoff just wasn't there and was quite a bit of a let down.

The main thread is characteristic Asher. Lots of big explosions, violence, and cool weapons. It's a fun read for an airplane ride, but don't consider it anything deeper. Mildly recommended.