Saturday, April 30, 2005

You've just got to take that chance!

Well… as you know, I took the chance and submitted a short article to a magazine.

What happened you ask? The short story is that I got an email back from the editor saying she liked it and was planning on using it in their September 2005 issue. Further, she said that now she’d had the opportunity to see my writing style… what other article ideas did I have? Needless to say, I'm stoked!!!

So taking chances, in this case at least, was worth every second of the effort and anxiety.

It has me thinking however about that, taking chances, and trying to remember a time where Id taken a chance, and actually regretted doing so. I can’t remember one. I have regrets, some anyway, but each of those seems to center around a chance I did NOT take.

A friend of mine once said to me: “You’ve quit more jobs, good jobs, than most people will ever have a chance at.” I thought about that then and think about it still, from time to time… and he was right, I have. I think though, that every change was ultimately for the better. That it was for the better was not always immediately evident, and on more than a few occasions I found myself seriously considering going back to the ‘old place’ and begging for my job back… I just never did.

That’s pretty much the direction of my life, moving forward, nearly always, with an occasional glance back over my shoulder.

Let’s take the most recent change… Last July my employer of 11 years and I parted company. I’ve said, on several occasions, that it was a mutual agreement. It is in fact a mutual agreement as I have it in writing! The bottom line though is that they didn’t want me there any longer. Maybe they’d realized I’d left already in my mind, that my heart just wasn’t in it any more, or maybe they were simply tired of having me around.. for whatever reason, we split, and they initiated that split.

I found myself searching for a new direction, and my wife bless her heart, managed to listen to all my wild ideas without saying much more than “I have faith in you, whatever you decide”. The ideas ranged from opening a “hot-rod” shop to a commercial software company, to buying into a franchise of some sort, to opening a landscaping (mowing lawns) company.

I was all over the map.

One thing I have always enjoyed though, was contract programming… and little by little, the phone started to ring… A short little project here, another one there, never anything substantial, but enough to keep the bills paid. Then last November, right before Thanksgiving I had to choose between two opportunities, one a solid six month gig, with a possible extension, working for an arrogant type individual… and a short 6 WEEK gig at a place where I had really liked the interview and the people I’d met.
I took the one I liked… I took a chance that; 1) it would be over in 6 weeks and 2) there wouldn’t be any more work to immediately follow it.

Looking back now, had I taken the first project, I would have missed out on the best project I’ve ever been on. Not to mention the project manager asked me last week if I’d like to work through the end of the year!

Had I not taken this path, I may not have had the time to look into getting an article published, write the article or be sitting here with it about to be published!

Life is all about taking chances. We take a chance with nearly everything we do. I’ve tried, and continue to work at, taking the chances that interest me the most. So far I don’t regret a single chance I’ve taken, even the ones that haven’t turned out at all like I thought they would!

So take a chance, be bold, follow your dreams and dream BIG! I doubt you’ll ever be disappointed!

I’ll try to write more about things turning out differently than I’d anticipated, tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Am I older... better... or just getting started?

I was talking with someone recently who was lamenting the fact that they (we) are getting old. Shortly after that conversation I began to think about getting older. It’s something I rarely do, because, inside of this body I’m often looking out with the eyes of that 19 year old who had no idea what he was going to do in the world.

The fact is, I still don’t know what I’m going to do. I know what I’ve done, done well, done poorly, those things I don’t want to do again and maybe more importantly those things I’d like to repeat as often as possible as long as I’m alive.

Some days I feel like I really don’t know that old guy in the mirror. If I take a minute or two though, I begin to see the laughter that put each of the wrinkles on my face. I remember the great fun and conversations over the cold beers that seem to have taken up residence around my middle. Then I find myself remembering all the spills and thrills that seem to now occupy spots in my back and act up every once in a while so I’ll think of them.

I look at my bald head and remember days when I had hair, and the friends I’ve lost who never had a chance to grow bald or gray.

I remember heartache and heartbreak, falling in love, and out of love, the incredible smells of the Adirondack’s on a cold fall morning, or a warm summer afternoon and how it feels to be in love today!

The sheer joy of driving down country roads in the summer, on the motorcycle or with the top down in one of my old Triumph’s, summer vacations at Old Orchard Beach, the taste of fresh caught Maine lobsters are all things I feel so lucky to have experienced.

I know I’m not as ‘buff’ as I once was (I was probably never as buff as I remember being), but, I’ve earned every badge along the way.

I think there’s a two edged blade in aging. On the outside, and to the world, we’re older, maybe wiser, less impetuous, more mature and certainly more knowledgeable. On the inside however, for me, I’m still a kid. My inner child writing checks my body can not cash, or nearly hits bankruptcy when it does cash them. I still have that wide-eyed wonder at anything new I discover, can spend countless hours discovering all there is to discover about it then falling into a deep, sometimes several day sleep, when I’m done.

Some folks talk about ‘paying the price’… me, I’m thoroughly enjoying the price, of growing old(er). The flaws my body contains are like a roadmap, a photo album, of my travels and experiences. Each change reminding me of those times in the past when someone would say to me “You’ll pay for that when you’re older”… Maybe I am paying the price, today, but I’m truly enjoying being here to make the payments!

Be careful what you wish for...

What do I mean? Well... I mentioned in my last post that I've always wanted to write. Then, later in the day I'm in Sears, picking up a couple of belts for the garden tractor, and start having a casual conversation with the clerk (a woman in her late 30's early 40's I would guess). She starts telling me how she's gone back to school, is close to finishing her Associates degree and wants to start taking some writing classes. She also tells me she's had a few articles published in a local magazine... I couldn't resist... So I asked her how she managed to do that.

In short, she gives me the name of the editor, her email address and explains that whatever I write I should be prepared to change it some, make it longer, shorter, depending on the needs of the magazine at the time.

Yesterday I wrote a short email to the editor, telling her my story, and inquiring as to what, if any, types of articles she might be interested in. In truth I fully expected one of those 'form' replies that said, in short, "Thanks, but no thanks".

Instead, I get a short email back that let's me know she's checked out my websites, and blog, and would like me to call her and see what we might be able to work out.

So here I sit this morning, a writing opportunity at hand, and wondering what I'll ever find to write about! Feeling like a freshman in English about to get my first writing assignment and worried about the grade, before I ever even start writing, or know what I'll be writing about!

I've got some thoughts, a lot of them 'computer' related, many involving my personal 'hot topics' like outsourcing, project management (or mismanagement really), business process and so on.

The truth is though; I don't really want to write about 'computer' stuff. I think I'd like to write about motorcycle travel, the interesting folks I always meet, the sights, the smells, the total tactile experience that is motorcycling. About 'life' here in North Carolina, people, places, the ways in which it's like, yet unlike, anywhere else I've ever lived.

For example, when I first moved here you could actually write a check at McDonalds! I spent 40 some years in Upstate NY, and while it was a great place, they sure didn't take checks at McDonalds! How, especially here in Burlington, you rarely go anywhere that people don't greet you with a smile, ask how you are and in general make being 'out and about' a pleasant experience. Sure, there are exceptions; it's not "Perfect"... But, when was the last time you nodded at someone and said "How ya doin", in passing, and they responded with "Great, hope you are!"? It happens here everyday, several times a day!

When I'm out on the motorcycle here, it doesn't matter where I stop, who I'm with or what the weather... nearly every time we stop, someone comes over, asks where we're headed, tells us about a great twisty road they know of "if we have time" (I'll tell you a secret, we *always* have time for a new twisty road!) and a great place along the way to eat.

In fact, before my riding buddy moved away we would often hit the road with no particular destination in mind, and then let the folks we met 'guide' us to new places to explore. It's how we found 'Wayah Road' in the Western portion of the state; we'd been over to 'Deals Gap' (home of the infamous 'Dragon') and were looking for a shortcut to get to Brevard for the evening. It was a local teenager, at a gas station that told us about it, saying it would cut an hour or better off the ride. He failed to mention however that it was a road, carved in the side of a mountain, with shear drop on one side, a rock wall on the other and some of the most beautiful scenery short of the Blue Ridge or the Rockies! All in all a great 'find'.

I honestly don't know if it's 'me', or just the nature of the folks here, but people are always telling me their life story... in the gas station, the grocery store, the bank, dry cleaners... it doesn't seem to matter where, if I'm standing in a line, someone will start telling me about their life, good or bad, as we stand there. I don't recall ever having 'conversations' with the folks at the grocery checkout's back in Upstate NY... it happens here nearly every time I go grocery shopping. The lady at the dry cleaner's last week telling me about her love for Bingo, the fellow at the gas pumps yesterday telling me about his kid's love for soccer as we waited for the cars to fill up. I don't know either of these folks, but the conversations were like we were friends, and had been for years. In my experience, it's something that's distinctly 'here', in North Carolina.

So what do you think? Writing about computers would be pretty easy, technically anyway, finding ways to make it interesting and understandable to non-technical folks would be the challenge there. The challenge in writing about North Carolina, wouldn’t be finding things to write about, it would be choosing the ‘best’ things to write about. Have them be representative, funny, maybe touching, informative and not ‘too’ motorcycle focused, yet have the flavor of the experience all the same.

Well, I’m off to make that call, and to see where this all leads, if anywhere. So, like I said, be careful what you wish for, you might just get it!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Careers and such...

I’ve been thinking lately... about the various ‘careers’ I’ve had. In my working career I’ve been:
  • An auto mechanic, at several various points actually.
  • A retail store manager
  • An auto parts buyer for a chain of auto parts stores
  • An advertising Manager for a chain store operation
  • A manufactures sale rep for auto parts companies
  • Owner of a custom car shop
  • A substitute High School teacher
  • A college teacher
  • An independent computer consultant
  • The director of a computer sales operation with about 30 employees
  • The author of several commercial software applications
  • A contract programmer
  • Vice-President of Management Information Systems for an Insurance organization
  • CIO and CFO for an Insurance related organization
And today, I find myself back in the role of contract programmer once again. Aside from being a car mechanic, nothing else has given me the raw daily satisfaction that contract programming does, with one notable exception.

During a 14 year period I was also a volunteer fire-fighter for a rural village I lived in. A small group of us formed and pushed forward an initiative to develop ‘interior-attack’ crews. These crews allowed us to quickly identify those individuals who had been training for this task and get them on the trucks first when an alarm came in.

To this day, those folks I worked with remain some of the bravest individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. To a person they were dedicated, courageous and gave of themselves and their time… in many cases gave when their families could have needed them more.

Together we ran into burning buildings when others were running away… we saved property, lives, and in the process, in my case anyway… found ourselves in the process. I remember Larry telling me one night… it’s a “war”… it’s us or the fire, one or the other is going to win… you and me… it’s our job to make sure we win! I remember one fire, a house on the right side of Westbound Rt.49, in between North Bay and Cleveland that had a 30’ fireball blowing out the roof of the building as we rolled up.

Cleveland was already on the scene, Larry and I took off on a dead run for the house… when we got to the door, he looked around saw the rest of the crew was still at the truck and said to the chief standing there “Tell the guys with the air packs on… the fire's over here” … with that he and I made entrance… The center hall was filled with dense white smoke, and out of the haze came Jack Cottet (the Cleveland Fire Chief)… he said something to the effect his crews were getting beat up in the attic, could we get a line in to it from the living room…

We grabbed a pipe (fire hose)… blew a hole in the ceiling and Larry climbed up on a chair to begin working the fire.

I was stabilizing him and the chair when I noticed my feet were getting very hot (this was in January in Upstate NY)… as I looked down I could see bubbles in the water on the floor… NOT a good sign!! I informed Larry, who told me to find Jack and tell him we had a fire in the basement… When I found him, and started to tell him, he stopped me and said: “No, it started on the porch and extended into the attic” (which would be natural as fire/heat tends to rise)… as I continued to explain the floor in the living room.. he stopped me and said “I’ll get a crew on it”.. he did, we all went home safe.. and the last I knew people are living in that house today…

It was the calm, relaxed manner we all had that day (at least that’s how I remember it) that continues to amaze me even now. The place was blazing around us… and yet, these guys all acted like it was just another day at the office. Not to mention they were doing it all for free!

I live a 1000 miles from there now, rarely hear from, talk to or see, any of the old crew… but they’re never far from my mind… anytime I see a story in the paper, see a fire truck, hear the sirens, or pass an old burned out structure…. I remember those days, with pride.

Larry’s gone now, but Abe, Gary, Craig, Jack, ‘Greek’, Mike, Whit, and all the others… thank you… for being the men you are, and for teaching me what real strength, courage and community spirit is.

    Saturday, April 23, 2005

    Wizards... and such

    Wizards... I think they're the one of the worst things ever added to a development environment. While they certainly make it fairly easy to crank out a quick form, report or SQL statement, they increase the complexity of later changes 100 fold.

    It's like all the other 'all-in-one' stuff so prevalent these days, yeah, they do 'everything', but, they do no particular thing well!!

    Maybe I'm just a dinosaur, someone who takes pride in an application well crafted. To me the feel of a new subroutine 'clicking' in to place in an application is as satisfying as a new hand-crafted part sliding perfectly in to place on my Car or Bike.

    Why am I upset about this, when I never use them? Well... simply because every single project I've had to work on in the past six months was initially developed using the 'Wizard' features. Every single item that the client wanted changed... you guessed it... was a limitation imposed by the original use of the 'Wizard'. I'm certainly capable of pulling all the wizard code, and replacing it, but, it all adds time to the project that gets us no closer to the desired end result.

    I could develop a 'replacement' class to over-ride the existing 'wizard' classes, unfortunately, that could easily impact systems I'm not even aware of somewhere else in the organization. Not exactly a result that will endear you to the client, or lead to additional work!

    So 'Wizards' to me, are like the Wizards we read about in folk-lore... Thought highly of in their time, but, in time were seen for the 'smoke and mirrors' magicians they really were. Nothing substantial in their various offerings, just a lot of flash. When things were really put to the test, they ended up blaming the 'gods' for being angry when they couldn't produce results!

    One interesting thing to me, is my newest site has 'Wizards' in the name (and far less content as at this point it's really just a placeholder) and it gets more hits a day than all the other established sites combined... Maybe I am a dinosaur... and the rest of the world still believes in wizards!!

    Thursday, April 21, 2005

    Life is funny....

    My wife accused me of 'stealing the pillow from her' last night... I remarked that I hadn't 'stolen' the pillow, I was simply "repositioning previously misappropriated head cushioning apparatus" - which of course means that she'd actually stolen it from me first!

    This past weekend I rented a tractor with a front-end loader and a rear mower to do a little work around the 'farm' (our entire 1.2 acres)... things were going pretty well, when, just as I was pulling forward to move the last bucket load of firewood I nicked a tree branch and dropped a piece of said firewood directly on to the hood of this John Deere tractor... it split that plastic hood like an over-ripe grape... The ticket for a new hood for that tractor? $604.92... about twice what it cost to rent the thing for the weekend.

    Oh well, at least the fire wood is moved, the brush is cut back and we now have a nice dark brown mulch covering the large area in the back yard where grass refused to grow.

    You see, I have a plan... everywhere else we've put mulch to suppress the grass and weed growth (like around the plants in the front of the house) grass seems to sprout up better there than anywhere else on the property... grass always grows robustly where ever it's very inconvenient to mow... So I figure I'd spread out the mulch... sit back and probably by Mothers day I'll have to mow that mulched section twice as often as the rest of the yard!

    The contract has been keeping me very busy. I picked up two additional projects this week, both are going to be challenging and will most likely lead to another extension on this contract. I know this is going to sound like I'm not thankful for the work (and believe me I *am* thankful), but doesn't anyone but me know that it's *motorcycle* season?? I want to be in the wind, carving corners on the Blue Ridge Parkway, riding the Dragon at Deals Gap (put your bones on the line... ride 129... 318 curves in 11 miles)... and in general adding to my long list of strange and unusual folks I meet while riding... but the universe has decided that this season I'll be coding, not riding... it could be worse, I could be riding, but not eating!

    The personal work is slipping... it's been days since I've been here... My new data driven web site is still in the “proof of concept” phase, meaning I’ve proved the concept, but it’s still a long way from “ready for prime time”. I know I can build a package that will allow anyone with a computer to build a totally dynamic, and data driven website, with no knowledge of web pages or HTML… I’m just a long way from having it ready for even ‘pre-beta’ testing (which means a bunch of my friends trying it out)

    The truck project is still ‘in the shop’… in pieces, all over the shop, on the shelves, in the attic, under tarps behind the garage… a vehicle takes up a surprising amount of room once you take it all apart!! I’m reminded of ‘how many’ pieces every time I need a ‘lawn implement’ from the garage as what ever I need is always behind the heaviest pile of truck parts…

    So the weekend is almost here, Saturday promises to be perfect for frenching in the new gas tank doors and finishing up the body work on the truck bed, and Sunday if it rains I could tackle the brakes and suspension…

    Then again... I could take my new ‘beach chair’ (I’ve gotta ‘test sit’ it before the actual beach… don’t ya think?) a cold beer or three and grill something on Saturday after a nice bike ride in the country… Decisions… Decisions…

    I’ve decided to go steal a pillow from my wife!

    Wednesday, April 13, 2005

    Scope Creep... Managing 'small' creep(s)

    I read an interesting article on managing scope creep today. As I'm more involved in project management than I care to admit, I found it interesting.

    Use these techniques to control small scope change requests

    Scope creep is a term used to refer to the 'little' changes to the scope of a project once the project specification has been written and agreed upon, and after work has started.

    Often it's these 'little' changes that unless they're properly managed will cause the project to get off track and start to code 'yellow' to indicate it's not on course. Most of us include a little slack in our timeframes to allow for a certain amount of these inevitable changes, however, sometimes enough of these 'creep' in that they exceed even the built in slack.

    This short article did a nice job of illustrating a few ways to regain control and get the project back on track.

    I'll write more on this in the future as I can not recall a project I've ever been involved with that did not require some adjustment as it progressed. Usually as a result of the sponsor (customer) identifying some 'small' items that had been left out of the original specifications, and they now feel can't be lived without.

    Feel free to share your scope change horror story!!

    Tuesday, April 12, 2005

    Outsourcing... Yet again...

    As those of you who read my blog know, I have very mixed feelings about outsourcing and specifically with offshoring. I read an interesting article today:

    Offshore Outsourcing: Success and Savings Still Elusive

    In short, the article relates that despite problems the trend is gaining momentum. That with respect to 'Customer Service' outsourcing, not only is it NOT saving money, it's costing more than when is was being handled internally.

    I've contended for some time that when managers seek to 'Outsource', they're often admitting that they believe the company does not know how to manage the process internally. However, once that process is moved outside, the flaws that exist in the management of the process are magnified, and often geometrically.

    Let's face it folks, there is no panacea, except possibly hard (and of the right type) work.

    In my opinion, the only way an outsourcing, and especially and offshoring, project can work is when there are people, back home, inside the company, who can apply the proper metrics, tighten the requirements and specification documents and manage the project every step of the way against scope creep.

    Those are the same requirements for performing effectively internally, they just become many times more important when the work is being done off site by individuals who may have a communications barrier like time (of day), language, industry specific skills or any others (Often more than one).

    The one real downside for the company considering outsourcing their development efforts is the exodus of their internal 'talent'. Every developer knows it takes weeks, months and sometimes years to become truly proficient within an organization. Once the outsourcing/offshoring begins, and the existing staff is gone, ramping back up an internal development team can take a very long time.

    I'm of the opinion, that working on the internal metrics, quantifying the IS/IT efforts as a profit center instead of simply as a 'cost center' and developing (or hiring) skilled project managers is the way to contain development costs. To simply attempt to shift them to the 'lowest bidder' reminds me of the old adage:

    "You can have it Fast, Cheap, Right... Pick two"

    Monday, April 11, 2005

    Annual reflections

    Every year about this time I get reflective. I guess it’s the fact that another year has past and I sort of review my ‘status’.

    Am I closer to or further from my goals?
    Are my actions in line with my goals?
    Have my goals changed?
    What have I achieved since last year?
    What do I want to do this year?

    I’m giving myself mixed reviews again this year. Professionally, I’m at or near 100%, but personally I’m not where I wanted to be as a husband and partner to my wife.

    I’m getting there, but I’m still not the understanding, supportive partner I want to be, all of the time. I love my wife… crazy about her actually. I can be happy just sitting quietly in the same room with her. We talk about everything and anything… but sometimes, especially if my mind is full of ‘other things’, like a project from work, a new application idea, or I’m just off lost in a cloud of random, unrelated thoughts… I can get annoyed if that thought process is interrupted.

    The funny thing (to me) is, that generally I’m the only one who knows I’m off in thought-land… it’s not like I announce… “Major brain activity in progress… do not disturb” or anything… so I know the ‘intrusion’ is not intentional. I can’t seem to help becoming annoyed though!

    I know I’ve gotten better at not ‘acting’ annoyed, but like any couple who are as close as she and I are, she *knows*… and feels that even if I try to hide it. I’d really planned on having this under control by now… its proved more difficult than I’d anticipated however!

    I’ve achieved some big professional goals in the past 12 months. I got out of a job I should have gotten out of several years ago, in fact I should have never returned to it after I left in 1998. Money is a difficult lure to resist though… and despite my “Money doesn’t motivate me” position and pontificating… it obviously kept me hanging in there! I may make more money, I may make less now… but one thing I’m definitely doing is having fun again!! That was one of my goals for the change, get back to having fun, *and* make money!!

    The business ideas I had last summer have not materialized, in fact they’re all pretty much on hold. I’ve been so busy on the past two contracts that there really hasn’t been time to move any of that process forward. In fact, if I landed a substantial development project at the moment, on top of what I’m doing now, I don’t know where I’d find the time (but then again I have a 20 year history of *finding* the time)… regardless… Moving the development company forward is still one of my goals.

    Writing… some would say that starting this blog, and posting a daily, or near daily update… *is* writing. My goal however was more targeted, I started a book on Terrorism in Cyberspace shortly after 9/11… I got the story started… began developing characters… and had (what I thought) was a good premise for the story. I got a 100 or so pages in the can… and ran out of time, and motivation. I still want to finish that book… if only to prove to myself I can! Maybe I’ll start a blog for that… and begin adding to it daily… I just don’t know what I’ve got to do to get into that groove.

    My auto-shop projects are all *way* behind schedule… I’d anticipated having my wife’s ’78 pickup completed by now, instead I’m about ¾’s of the way done with the disassembly! I do have all the parts though, and the weather is getting conducive to starting back in on it… I find myself stalled though… between the yard work that needs doing… the house repairs that need doing.. and the 11+ hour days on the contract I’m on… I don’t know where to fit it in!! (It sure seemed like a no-brainer when I had help around!)

    So see… I’m still close to, but not 100% at, achieving my goals.

    One thing is really true though… At times, I find myself looking around our house and I see all the work my wife and I put in to it. I can hear us complaining about the sore muscles, leaving the place long after dark only to ride back to the apartment. Arriving there still soaked in sweat, with about enough energy left to fall into the shower, and then into bed, just to get up the next day and do it all over again!

    The laughs we had, the sense of accomplishment we both had when the carpet was finally in place... the day before we actually moved in… how *new* the place looked… and how proud of her I was for all the work she did!! Not the least of which was her ability to help me stay focused on my vision for the place, even when she wasn’t 100% sure what my vision was… she just had a way of not letting me get discouraged… and to keep putting one foot in front of the other, one day after another… until one day we looked around and said: “It’s ready for us to move in!”

    Yes there’s still work to be done… but it’s ours, we built it... sort of… we gutted it and put it back together… perfect or not… it’s ours (well ours and the bank's)… and going home to her, and *our* home is the best part of my day. I'm real pleased with that accomplishment!

    Oh... one last thing for y'all to ponder... If vegetarians eat vegetables... what do humanitarians eat?

    Sunday, April 10, 2005

    A great birthday...

    That's what I had. My wife got me that digital camera I've been thinking about for a year... So now I have no excuses when it comes to taking pictures. Seems our cats are a constant "Kodak-Moment' judging by the number of pics we've taken of them in the past day!!

    Speaking of birthdays, one of my oldest friends, Greg, has a birthday two days before mine. Well yesterday morning I had a chance to chat a bit with him (if you can call rapid emails chat)... He moved up to Alaska and we don't talk as much as we used to, but, every time we do, it puts a smile on my face. If you get a chance, check out his website, he's taken some incredible photographs and posted hundreds of them!

    For a sample of his writing, and some journals of his travels:

    I had another thought today. It seems lawn equipment is not made as well as it used to be. Especially lawn and garden equipment! I bought my first lawn tractor (a riding mower actually) in 1978, used, it served me well for 4 years and all I ever did to it was change the oil and spark plug once a year and sharpen the blades as needed. I bought a larger one in 1984, again used (10 years old at the time), and did the same with that one. I then bought a larger diesel tractor in 1984 and used it 5 or 6 years. The first two mowers I gave to neighbors who needed one, the tractor I traded to my friend Greg and I know that with the exception of repairing a bearing on the mower deck it's still in use today too.

    The small garden tractor I bought 4 years ago when we moved into this house on the other hand has been a handful from the beginning... it throws a belt nearly everytime I mow the lawn, and has trouble keeping bearings in the mower deck. The Briggs&Stratton engine however seems to be as reliable as ever.

    But... with the gas today.. anytime you intend to leave it sit idle for more than a few days it's imperative to add some gas stabilizer, or, you'll find yourslef disassembling the carburetor just to get it to start again... Seems that the absence of 'lead' in todays fuels encourages the growth of some petroleum 'microbe' (or so the parts depot folks tell me) and it's those microbes that make up the nasty gooey crap that clogs the carb... I'm gonna head over to one of those 'landscaper' supply type stores and see what kind of additives they sell those folks... no way would they ever want to have the set back of a carb rebuild simply because they didn't use a particular piece of equipment for 2 or 3 weeks!!

    Saturday, April 09, 2005

    This really ticks me off!!

    What’s with the inclination these days for folks in the medical profession to want to label anyone frustrated with the (lack of) medical care they’re receiving as ‘depressed’?

    Does anyone else find this fairly self serving? (and no, it wasn’t *me* this happened to)

    Pretty convenient if you ask me, patient complains, set ‘em up with an anti-depressant so they won’t care how bad their care is.

    A case in point, this actually happened to someone I know, let’s call her ‘Sally’.

    Sally has had a number of medical problems lately, starting with her; feeling sluggish, discovering a small lump on her throat and an ‘out of sorts’ a little over a year ago. She saw her family Doctor; they discussed how she was feeling, and the lump, from that discussion she decided to see an endocrinologist (Dr. Endo#1).

    • The Dr. Endo#1 said, based on her blood work, that she had “Hashimoto’s Disease” and a ‘fine needle aspiration’ (FNA) was in order for the lump.
    • Based on the results of the FNA she was given pamphlets on Thyroid cancer and referred to a surgeon.
    • Surgeon suggested a repeat of the ‘FNA’ and explained that if you “had” to have cancer, Thyroid cancer was the one to pick.
    • At the 2nd “FNA” the surgeon brings the complete lab results from the 1st, out to the waiting room shows them to the husband and asks “Why would Dr. Endo#1 send her for surgery based on a report whose findings were clearly shown as “inconclusive’
    • The 2nd FNA was performed, the conclusion on that report was (conclusively), negative, no cancerous/pre-cancerous cells present
    Y’all still with me? I swear this is 100% true… ya couldn’t make this crap up!

    Ok… now things begin to get even more interesting…

    • The surgeon refers her back to Dr. Endo#1, who, upon hearing the medical opinion of the surgeon (remember, this doc sent her to this surgeon saying he was the “best”), says “Let’s find you another surgeon…” at which point Sally (and her husband) say.. Forget that! They figured if you see enough surgeons, eventually one will operate regardless.
    • They revisit the surgeon, who then recommends a 2nd Endocrinologist (Dr. Endo#2)
    • Sally goes to see Dr. Endo#2, who proceeds to tell her there’s nothing wrong with her that won’t clear up if she’d stop smoking. (Remember now, she’s had confirmation of the Hashimoto’s from three separate Docs prior to this one) and suggests she stop taking the Thyroid replacement hormone recommended by the others. Sally decides this is odd, and returns to see the surgeon.
    • The surgeon agrees to help her manage her thyroid.
    About 30 days later, both Sally and her husband are laid off.

    About 30 days after the layoff, she begins experiencing significant menstrual problems; Sally and her ob-gyn decide that the long recommended hysterectomy can no longer be delayed.

    • In pre-surgical testing for the hysterectomy her EKG shows some abnormal heart rythms. (Which by the way are not uncommon for folks on Thyroid replacement hormones.)
    • The Ob-Gyn refuses to do surgery until she sees a cardiologist
    • Several tests later (including a cardiac cath!) she’s proclaimed healthy enough for surgery.
    • Sally has the hysterectomy, and begins recovering nicely. The Ob-Gyn is pleased with her recovery in both speed and her overall improved health.
    Near the end of this recovery, just as she’s finally beginning to feel ‘normal’ again, as she’s reaching for a piece of wood to toss in the fireplace she feels a sharp pain in her lower back. The pain is so bad she’s stuck on the couch for the rest of the day. (Sally thinks she’s strained a muscle).

    • Three days later (on the weekend of course) her husband is urging her to see a doctor that this is something far more than a simple strain. (He’s had two back surgeries)
    • She sees a physician at an urgent care center, who takes some x-rays and prescribes some anti-inflammatory and pain meds. He also feels she needs a specialist and refers her to a neurosurgeon.
    • In conference with the neurosurgeon she’s sent for an MRI which reveals two ruptured discs in her lower back.
    • Initial treatment is rest and more medications.
    The surgeon, remember him? (The Thyroid surgeon)… leaves the practice he was in, so, in need of the required quarterly thyroid panel, Sally seeks out another Endocrinologist…. Dr. Endo#3…
    • In meeting with him, and discussing how she’s feeling overall, Sally breaks down and begins to cry (if from the pain she’s in, the frustration at the downturn in her health or this whole process… who knows).
    The doctors response? Comfort her? Console her? Reassure her everything will get better?

    Nope… he tells her that she’s severely depressed and unless she agrees to see a therapist, he can’t treat her. That (and I quote) “You don’t need and endocrinologist, you need a psychiatrist.”

    Sally seeks out and begins seeing a therapist. He tells her she’s NOT depressed, that her emotional ‘outburst’ in Dr. Endo#3’s office was a perfectly normal reaction to her situation and experience of the past year or so. He does however refer her to a Psychiatrist that may be able to give her some medication for the ‘medical anxiety’ she’s feeling. Again telling her that this anxiety is normal, but some help in dealing with it might be good as well.

    • Sally goes to see the shrink, who tells her she’s, severely depressed, has lost her ‘faith’ and needs to begin to learn to trust again. He also writes her prescriptions for 3 separate medications.
    • Sally fills the scripts and begins taking them.
    • Day two on the new meds, she begins to experience tremors/spasms in her hands, arms and legs, as well as a general overall ‘intoxicated’ feeling.
    • So, Sally stops the meds and calls the shrink’s office. Leaves a message (this is a Friday, last Friday actually) about her bad reaction to the meds.
    • No one returns her call! (Remember now, she’s called and has said she fears she’s having a bad reaction to the meds)
    • She sends an email over the weekend as there is no one answering the phone despite several attempts.
    • She calls again on Monday, speaks to the office person again, and again requests to speak with the Dr.
    • She revisits the original therapist (with her husband this time. Her husband never felt she was depressed either, just tired of not feelign well!) who is appalled at what’s happened, ands reasserts his professional opinion that she is NOT depressed.
    Fast forward to today…

    The shrink has still not returned the calls… Her back is healing, albeit slowly, after a series of epidural injections and she’s beginning to function, as she would put it, “as normal as I ever was”…

    I don’t know what the moral here is, but I do know that what she’s been through is ‘off the hook’ as far as I’m concerned. All she wanted, from any of these folks… and remember ALL of them were supposed to be tops in their fields… was help in getting better.

    I don’t know how she kept from going off… I know I would not have had half of the self restraint she did… I woulda smacked (or sued, taking their money really hurts these types! ) somebody!!

    “Do not give up until you have a medical ‘team’ who you trust!” That was the other piece of advice the therapist gave Sally… He told her it’s not ‘Doctor shopping’ when you’re looking for the best care provider for you and your needs. (she was accused of that too along the way).

    We’re all consumers of medical services… these folks are merely ‘body mechanics’… If you didn’t trust the person working on your car, would you continue to take it there? Don’t you owe yourself that same treatment… without being labeled? I don’t think they want us to ‘shop around’… we might find out there are still medical professionals that know:
    • how vulnerable we feel when we’re sick.
    • we look to them for reassurance and comforting words
    • we just want to get better, as quickly as possible
    • we need someone that will actually care about us, that we’re more than a chart or a billable entity
    Ok… now that I’ve got that off my chest… I can go enjoy the rest of my birthday

    Wednesday, April 06, 2005

    Client Management

    There are two sides (at least) to managing a consulting business. Finding new clients and determining which clients are not right for you.

    That's right, I said it, not all clients are the right clients. I've had several computer consulting operations (and managed quite a few as well) over the years. Today, as I'm struggling to build yet another I've come to the conclusion that some clients just are not worth having.

    Sure they provide some billable time and there's certainly a measure of revenue stream contribution, but when all is said and done, with some clients, you would have fared better had you not started the project.

    Every business has a cost model, you have to know yours, know what works and even more importantly, what doesn't work.

    A case in point. Last fall we set up a software package for a local company. Everything went fairly well at the start, but little by little as we progressed the client missed their deliverables to us. The software had some design problems (it was a brand new version) and the vendors tech support was virtually non-existent. So the project slowed, got farther and farther beyond the original scope of the project and everyone was unhappy.

    A couple of points:
    • The software they'd chosen (we didn't *sell* it to them), they'd called us and asked us to procure, install and configure it. Was a new release (as in purchased on the day of release) and untested in the field.
    • The client assured us all of their office and remote PC's were Windows 2000 or XP professional (they weren't).
    • The client agreed to have all the equipment delivered to their office at a pre-arranged time so it could be taken off site and configured (it wasn't).
    Well... Let's just say that everything that could have gone wrong, did. First and foremost was the software itself, not exactly ready for prime time and a tech support staff who's favorite answer was "We've not actually seen this product yet". Also an employee of the client 'reinstalling' Office and attempting a Windows reinstall. One PC so laden with Spyware it barely booted. Another (completed) PC had a power supply die a week later and the folks who repaired it attempted some sort of registry 'fix' that caused several applications (including the one we had contracted for) to begin having problems.

    In a forensic look at this project I now know we should have never taken it on. We're geared up to work with much larger operations, take on a mission critical project and run with it from start to finish. There were too many hands in this stew, and the folks involved viewed 'any' PC problem as related to the new application software.

    In the end, we resolved everything, got paid for our original contract and are attempting to move away from this particular client.

    I always experience a sadness when this has to be done. I truly like nearly every client I've ever worked with, including this one. Some however, are just not a good fit for our operation.

    We're application developers, that's the simple answer. We take an idea from vision to reality, that's what we do. How did we get involved with this particular client then? Well, initially they'd indicated they would want a considerable amount of Crystal reports work, in addition to some .Net development, once the initial project was complete. In the final analysis, what they really wanted was an 'on-call' desktop support vendor... That is definitely not us!

    So it's as much business management, as it is client management. In order to effectively manage the business and to have the resources to succeed with the clients who are a fit, you have to manage, cultivate and work with the type of client that fits your business model.

    For those of us who've experienced some very lean years in this roller-coaster ride of a career, it's hard to turn away a potential project. I'll be looking at every project, for quite a whole, with this rule. If it's not a development project, it's not for us.

    Thoughts, ideas? What's your take on this? I'd like to know!

    Tuesday, April 05, 2005

    From the trenches…

    I’ve been wrapped up in meetings, writing spec documents and designing reports for the past couple of days. Thursday and Friday of last week I spent looking at the work that will be required to port the existing VFP6.0 application I’ve been maintaining to VFP9.0. (Although there’s a distinct possibility it could go to .Net)

    (I wonder why, that when ever I spend that much time, not ‘doing’, and just planning… I become very philosophical, less logical… There’s a lesson in there somewhere.)

    Then, late yesterday I find myself discussing something with the team that I thought had been resolved. Well… turns out… it’s not resolved, in fact it’s a long way from being resolved… the reality, from what I heard yesterday… some folks do NOT want it resolved and are deliberately pitching rocks at the possibility of resolution.

    Why do folks do that? I think everyone should try being, or at least operate as if they were, a contract employee… work on a project by project basis…. Then, the only real issues involve getting the project done on budget and to scope, and getting picked for the team on the next project!! Not how to submarine (as in sink) one that’s already on the boards.

    The Professional News

    I remain interested in the ‘Percentage of Likeness’ work I told you all about. The more I experiment with this process, the more I really like it. I’ve got a lot of work to do to make it operate faster, but the fundamentals are in place. It has a very broad possible application in the ‘real world’… from identifying ‘Duplicate Candidates’ in a database, to providing matching candidates in any sort of data merge process. I will be placing some examples on the websites in the next few weeks… once they’re in place I’d appreciate any and all feedback on the process. I’ll provide some examples as well that will illustrate the data, and the outcomes.

    New business item!! I’m in discussion with a fairly large VFP (Visual FoxPro) shop in Greensboro, NC regarding the possibility of me (and my associates) handling some of their ‘overburden’. This would be a wonderful gig if we can land it! It’ll get the revenue stream growing for the company, and, allow us a look at yet another group’s utilization of VFP and their styles. We should know more by tomorrow if this is going to be a ‘go’ or not!

    The client is taking my Spanish translations to Mexico in the morning… pretty cool deal as far as I’m concerned! I’d love it if this project allowed me to learn Spanish finally!

    The Personal Side of Things

    Well… it’s definitely spring in North Carolina!! The pollen is all over everything… my sinuses are in an uproar… and the lawn grew 8” overnight!! Despite all of that… this is absolutely my favorite time of year here… (Followed closely by Fall) Cool evenings in the 50’s and 60’s, day time highs in the mid and upper 70’s… beautiful weather.

    So I’m torn, every day… between relaxing and enjoying the weather… and jumping in to the projects I have stacked up (waiting for this weather)… and pushing forward on all the code ‘projects’ I’d like to do…

    I can tell you what’s going to win… anything that has me outside! Mowing the lawn… working on the ’78 pickup, splitting some wood… riding the motorcycle!!

    And… Saturday is my birthday…. I haven’t really paid too much attention to them in the past, but, my wife has actually convinced me that I should celebrate each one. It really is something we should all treat as a special day… one that we reserve for ourselves, and those people we truly enjoy being around. It’s not required that there be a ‘party’, instead allow yourself to do the things you really take joy in doing. For me, that’s spending time with my wife, motorcycle riding, hanging with good friends, a spirited debate or any of a number of other things… I’ll be finding time to do at least some of those this weekend!

    Sunday, April 03, 2005

    Don't sweat the small stuff...

    And it's ALL small stuff!

    I read that book once, forget the authors name... But I remember thinking as I read it "This guy doesn't live in my reality!"

    In retrospect though the concept is right on the money... It is all small stuff... Think about it.. In a 100 years or so everyone involved will have died and forgotten all about it... What ever it might be.

    While driving with my wife yesterday we got to talking about how folks are always worried about what people think... My comment to her was "I don't really give a damn what anybody thinks... I care what I think"... (and to be 100% honest I do care what she thinks, but I felt we were talking about the rest of the world)

    That may sound cold, or self involved, but it really isn't. I'm the one I have to look at in the mirror every morning. I have to be happy with that person staring back at me. I want to feel good about how I go through life, the things I accomplish, the goals I set and achieve... The price I'm willing to pay to achieve them. In the final analysis, it doesn't matter what others think of us, it matters what we think of ourselves.

    Years ago, shortly after my Dad passed away, I found myself drifting with no seeming point or purpose... I felt lost... Like I'd lost my 'compass' or something... For the first time in my life I felt I had no 'drive'.

    It took a lot of soul searching, but I finally realized that I had been living my life in hopes of hearing my Dad tell me he was proud of me... That I'd do something, anything, where he'd say "I'm proud of you". That had never happened... At his wake, his friends all told me how he had always bragged, or at the least told them, about the things I had done... The various careers, jobs, skills, etc I'd acquired and how proud he was of me... But I'd never heard those words from him.

    Later, in this realization, I found myself wondering if I would have tried so hard, done so much, without that underlying need to hear those words. Then, after he was gone, so was the motivation. I suppose I could have kicked back, relaxed and just let life happen.... But it seems what I really needed was a new goal.

    For a while, it was hearing my wife tell me she was amazed, or proud of what I was doing... Then slowly, day by day, I came to the understanding that I was the one I had to impress! I was the one who needed to be proud of me... That I had to seek that 'validation', inside, not from the outside, or I'd never be really happy.

    So, little by little, day by day, I began looking inside (at first a little afraid of what I might find), and identifying those things that made me feel good, about me.

    Since then, when ever I feel at all lost, like I did last July when my employer of 11+ years and I parted company, I look inside, find a new path and set out on the journey.

    Last July, I ultimately decided I wanted to resurrect my consulting career... Start contracting again, only this time not spend all of my time away from home, but to find projects I'd like and be able to be home every night... Here it is April now... I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do, and... Have a contract that will take me at least to the 1yr anniversary of the career change.... And, I'm excited again... Making a big contribution to the project... having FUN again....And happier and more relaxed than I've been on 10 years!!

    So don't sweat the small stuff... Look inside... Find a path that will make you happy to be on and take that first step!!

    Saturday, April 02, 2005

    What to do when the Internet is down....

    Get the oil changed in the car! Well that's what I did this morning. Today was the first time since I moved the business and home phones to Vonnage that my internet connection died. Actually there was a cable outage (due to an accident I believe)... So, no internet and no phones... theoretically.

    Interestingly enough, my failover plan actually worked! The business phone forwarded to my cell phone and the home line forwarded to my wife's cell phone... all automatic and no problems... maybe technology isn't all bad :) There was no way to automatically roll the old BellSouth lines to another number in the event of a failure. Nice to see this work, and on a Saturday NOT a business day!

    Well UNC Chappel Hill is in the big dance! What a great game against Michigan, the first half was real close, no big leads and 6 or 8 lead changes... the second half though was all Chappel Hill! They played their game (run and gun) worked the paint, got posted up under the hoop and shot close to 70% from the floor... just a great game to watch against a solid Michigan team!

    Spent most of today getting ready to tear back in to the restoration of my wife's '78 pickup, making a parts list, spec'ing out some new 'goodies' and getting an overall plan in place. With any luck I'll have the rest of the running gear out during the week and can get down to cleaning and painting the front half of the under-carriage and frame next weekend. Then I expect to start in on all the body modifications late in the weekend, or evenings next week.

    This kind of stuff always makes me think about the old days... back when I had the shop in Oneida, NY... the crew that used to hang out, Al DiMauro, Quentin Charleston, Lauren Segal, Joe Best, Tim Spaulding... and all the others... man we had fun... built some cool stuff... and then later, after I'd closed that shop and started working out of my place and a local shop owned by Floyd (Whit) Whitney.. there were some nice rides getting done then too... and damn if Mitch Fox and I didn't paint a boat load of cars and trucks in his shop!! We had fun, made a little money.. but living then seemed so much simpler than it does now... we didn't have a lot, but we always made eats and got by... all in all it was pretty good living!

    I get nostalgic for those days... my life was certainly slower paced... less stress... more fun... but ya know, I was also a lot younger then, with a ton more stamina.. I could work 8 hours a day, go to school full time and still find another 30 or more hours a week to work on our side projects... I don't seem to have that energy, or drive these 20 some years later... I wonder sometimes if that's just life's way of telling us to slow down a little, find new things to enjoy, new places to explore and adventures to have.

    I suppose if I'm lucky, I'll be looking back at *these* days in another 20 years and be thinking similar things!

    I need to write some soon about the old 'Micro Application' and 'CSMA' days... those were fun times too.. and we were building computer systems, not cars, bikes and trucks... but all of the systems were custom, like the rides had been... different, but equally fun, and rewarding!

    Friday, April 01, 2005

    Today's thoughts on ASP and life

    ASP.Net is a very strange place... tracing code is about the least straightforward process I've ever seen, not to mention the huge amount of 'setup' work that's required to actually *do* anything!

    I remain convinced that it's the right technology, just maybe a little immature still.

    I find myself thinking today about development in the early 1980's... back before graphical user interfaces, extensive inter, intra and extranet environments. We were so focused on function then, what an application was supposed to *do*. We took great pride in getting that task done with the smallest possible amount of code and tight, efficient algorithms.

    Today, at least 60% of any business application is driven by the interface it will present to the user, only 40% dedicated to what it's actually supposed to do!! One of the consistently annoying components of development for me, is that some environments are extremely good, and efficient at that user interface portion, others at the data handling (the 'doing') portion. Often those two environments are not able to use the same language!

    Yes, I know, and am productive with multiple computer languages, but, one of the things I really dislike is having to learn an entire new language to utilize a new interface tool, when I already know how to do everything else in several other languages.

    .Net has attempted to remedy that, what with the common CLR and all... But in many areas, the interface design portions (especially in ASP/Web forms) are so far behind it's crazy. We'll reach a point, somewhere in the future where we'll be able to develop, seamlessly, in multiple languages, with multiple tool sets.

    Today that's not the case. I keep wondering why? The technology is out there, it's available... Maybe it's the (probably very real) fear that the ability of managers to 'manage' the code base would be destroyed. If that's the case, we should move forward NOW... They're not managing it anyway, the programmers are.

    Every time I read about another Outsourcing/Offshoring project going belly-up I find myself thinking the folks who backed the project had no clue what was really going on in their own company. For any management effort to be successful, the managers have to actually know how to manage!

    I've been fortunate to have actually worked on two contract projects where the project managers not only could manage but actually knew the difference between management, and control. They are not synonymous terms, contrary to what many managers think!

    A fellow at USAir/Sabre and my current project manager understand that their people are the strength of their team, and at the root of it's ultimate success or failure. These two, out of a cast of over 50, stand out. They've identified the strengths and abilities of the team members, assign tasks and then leave them alone to get them done! Interestingly enough, they are the only two I can recall, who consistently reach all of their goals, despite tough time frames and big projects. There's a lesson in there somewhere!!!

    Well.. enough pondering for the moment... I need to get back to work!