IT Does Not Work – or – why the best IT personnel might be out of a job

I agree, stolen from the site - don't have the cash to buy the rights. Shhhh!
I agree, stolen from the site – don’t have the cash to buy the rights. Shhhh!

The last 6 months have been hard. With the company I worked for going out of business without a day’s notice, life became a lot harder. Because of it regular funds to my own company to invest in research and development depleted, which also made it hard to generate more income out of that.

I was thrown back into the land of the unemployed. Scraping by, making some money here and there, but most of all, lacking a nice healthy amount of income. Which is a reality I know a lot of IT personnel have been seeing in the last couple of years. The golden years of IT are over. It is not the time anymore that you will get another job if ‘you just work with computers’.

Being almost 40, I was already playing with the idea of maybe changing my career. But I did not want to. I love my work, and I am good at it. So with a great résumé, a truckload of great references from excellent companies and prominent people within, and awards in excellence for usability design and development; I thought it was a slam-dunk; I would be back in a moment.

I was so wrong.

My expertise is in real usability design, information architecture and management. And the first thing I noticed is that Usability Design (UX/UI) went completely down the drain. Even after the two decades since my 4 year college in cognitive psychology, development, art and design combined in the major of InterAction Design – the world still not really knows what it is.

How many times I have been visiting companies, as an interviewee or as a consultant, usability is still something companies want because it is good for marketing. But they still think it is something you slap onto something you already have and you are done; a bona-fide qualified usable product. Signed. Sealed. Delivered.

When talking tho the team, the company, and mentioning that usability design is quite more work than putting wireframes in Axure, and that it involves graphic design and architecture; that it is expensive to do right – it is usually also the exit talk. Companies don’t want to know that.

And I know there are tons of so-called usability experts out there that beg to differ; but I would just like to invite them to visit for example Verizon’s career site, who told me that my major of ‘InterAction Design’ at the ‘Utrecht School of the Arts’ – which was the very first and most qualified school who even taught Interaction and Usability Design – was not a real major. I had to mention that my major was system engineering to actually get on with the process. Oh, and that was after the page told me that the Netherlands was not a correct country, but it needed to be NLD.

Really? Usable?

Usability Design is not something you do with a set of rules. There is a foundation of rules, which have nothing to do with technology; but clearly a lot of people who know how to make wire frames would love to disagree with me.

But all this, it is not something new. Before leaving college, one of our teachers was smart enough to mention this to us; the world will not understand why they need us. They need us badly, but it is a hard sell. Because; how do you sell something that is expensive, has no guaranteed outcome, and might not always mean that your product becomes more successful?

A good usability design makes your product good, solid. Less frustration. Less calls to your customer support. That is where you will safe money. And on top of that, people will leave with a good impression; give word of mouth, like the product, and are inclined to buy more products from you. That is where you make money. But there is no immediate return in profits by implementing a good usability design.

But this is not even the bad thing. Like mentioned, this is something I was prepared for. Even after 15 years of Apple introducing the world to what good UI/UX design can do for you, it is still more a magic word for most – even to the so-called UX/UI designers who really have no idea.

Then thing what I was surprised about the most is the recruiters. Finding a job is made impossibly hard because of the tons of recruiters that contact you non-stop with jobs that are in no way a match for your skill-set. All in the hope to send immense amounts of spam and that one of them will give them a little bit of commission.

Most of these are not even capable of writing a correct message, and do not even take the time to introduce themselves or send me a mail that does not show 100 wriggly lines from the spelling-checker.

For one company I got a phone-call from the CEO mentioning that they never had someone come in and deliver a real personal letter and résumé before and he called to thank me for that. Really? What happened in the decade that I was away?

But the painful element of the recruiters is that there is hardly any mentioning of price anymore. Oh, everyone is ‘competitive’, but the jobs that actually still post an income with a job are short in supply. And my response to most recruiters is a polite request for more information about compensation. Which, actually, is a 100% mismatch with my résumé – and not off by a normal amount, but easily a difference of $100k or more.

That is, at least, when the job is actually a match. Because on a daily basis I receive tons of emails from recruiters who never even looked at my résumé, including jobs of being a hardcore C++ programmer to managing a marketing team with Weight Watchers. Yes, recruiters really are the new spam to me.

But things became even stranger when I decided to work with a recruitment agency. They showed real potential, and I felt really good to leave work in their hands. Until I saw a posting for a job, and exact match, that actually was done through my recruitment agency. And I never heard of it.

I contacted my recruiter, who mentioned it was not in her portfolio but in that of a colleague, that is why she did not have it.

Excuse me?

I was absolutely stunned. There is a job, a perfect match, with my recruitment company, and I was not matched because it was not in ‘my recruiters” portfolio? Then I started browsing around; another match, also with my recruitment agency, but then in New Jersey, not even 25 miles away. Also – no information. It was of another office of this agency – so it is not in that recruiters’ portfolio. So I decided to then respond to it through their job website. I could not. Because my account was linked to the Philadelphia office.


I could – honestly – not get myself connected to the New Jersey office because I already had an account. I was absolutely baffled! And this is not a small agency; it is one of the largest in the country.

How can an agency with thousands of jobs miss out on possibly thousands of perfect matches because of their commission plan for their employees? You can even automate it! Have the match delivered to the correct person automatically! Why is that not in place? I am not talking rocket-science here!

And then, the final disappointment; the one I have heard about from others, and that I really do not know what to do with: Being Overqualified.

This hit me hard. With the company I worked with I did my job. But with my own company, running a small IT firm and also it’s own media studio – I did not only build up trust with a lot of companies, but also got accolades and great references of big names in the industry.

2 decades of pure experience, raving reviews, knowing how to manage, budget, run products, even build it from scratch on my own if needed… the term ‘overqualified’ destroys it.

I do understand why, but the fact that I cannot fight it, is painful. Overqualified means not that ‘you know too much’ or ‘we cannot afford you’ – as anyone else who have been ‘overqualified’ can agree with me – ‘Overqualified’ means that you might be a danger to the people who are already working there. It is not that you are too good; it is that the others are afraid you actually might show that the others could do better.

The first time I received that information, that I had too much experience, hit me straight in the gut. Here I am, someone with a lot of experience, a passion to work, not being able to get even a normal job. I see tons of jobs out there, which have not been filled since the beginning of this year – so that is almost 8 months. Even the recruiters I work for mention that the positions are not even filled, not even being interviewed for.

And that makes me feel sad for this industry. And I know there are loads of people like me; wanting to work, willing to work, and an excellent match for the job – and not able to.

This is where I see, that with all the automation going on, IT does not work. Because if companies cannot and even do not want to fill up their positions, or otherwise not want to best for it, how can we ever advance?

The Extinction Alert On Creative Development

Credits where credits are due, but I don't know who owns this photo. So, (c) by someone...
Credits where credits are due, but I don’t know who owns this photo. So, (c) by someone…

Overqualified? I hardly think so. I have never considered myself overqualified for any kind of work. Sure, I have 20+ years of full-time experience in Usability Design, Front-End and Back-End development, but there is always something new to learn, and there are enough people to learn it from.

But lately I have been asking myself the question if IT is still the area that I am interested in. I am not yet 40 – although that age is reaching very quickly – and I always thought that if I would change anything in my career, I should do it before I was 40. But I don’t want to, since I simply love to let my brain work, find out new things, and try to make it into something practical. I love working with a team of people, who help me achieve exactly that goal. That is my passion.

But over the last couple of years, I also noticed that it is harder and harder to find people who actually really like this work. And the feeling of being old, really old, creeps up on me. When I started working with computers it was still in the late ’70s, when I got my 4-year old fingers on the keys of the computers my father took home from work. From when I was 10 we had a computer at home that was actually for my father’s work, but I saw that from a different perspective; it was my playground. And that is when I got interested in everything with computers; a computer was a blank canvas that, with hard work, you can do almost anything with. It is the perfect tool for exploring creativity.

When I started my career in Usability Design, Graphic Design and development, it was still in the early ’90s. The Internet was still not a commodity, and everything you did had to be thought over. We were trained at the art academy, the very first school in the world who taught usability design – which meant that creativity was a major part in everything. Creativity, psychology and technical knowledge.

And it was necessary as well; because to make sure a web page would load up in anything that could be considered a reasonable time, you had to be creative to make it work. Especially if your design was extravagant, and you had to cut every corner to make sure you page loaded up in the 30 second time mark. Nowadays, people will not wait even 10 seconds for a page to load, but back then, you had to write your HTML wisely, remove every possible color from your GIF images, and work correctly with memory management.

After that, the browser wars would keep us all on our toes; your design should work in IE and NetScape, and that was not an easy feat at all. Especially, again, when you wanted to show something really creative. Creative use of tables, iFrames (how hated they might have been) would really keep you working. But when it worked, it was also an amazing happening.

The introduction of Flash made the browser difference obsolete; if it ran Flash, it would look the same. And then it was about pure creativity, without making it too long to load. Again, if you were in web development, it was an exciting time.

And at the same time, something else happened that was inevitable. The web was here to stay, everyone had a computer at home, and with the break-through of smart phones with the iPhone, when app development hit the main-stream market, so did the platforms. It had to happen. A tiny machine like the iPhone, or any computer, now had so many more uses that it was impossible to have someone develop everything. And the libraries became a powerful development tool. And the use of different libraries, API’s and everything were, and are, still necessary to make things work.

But it also brought the media that once was filled with pioneers mainstream. There was too much work, and people were trained to fill up all those places. It is the Natural Evolution of an industry. But the world is now flooded with developers who know how to use libraries to make things work very quickly, but without the knowledge why it actually works.

Countless times I have been faced with issues of productions that were created by developers almost purely using libraries. The moment that a tiny change had to be made that was custom and outside of the scope of the library that it was developed in, all progress came to a screeching halt, with the words ‘That Does Not Compute’ written across their faces.

During my career I have worked with absolutely marvelous people, great thinkers, creative developers who understood the foundation they were working on, and I have seen people who rose to the occasion when a situation forced them to think about what they are working on. But sadly to say, those time I worked with those people were few.

When I had to hire people to work for me, most people were send home simply because the test question that showed if someone actually understood what they were doing once a library was not available was almost always answered incorrectly or answered with a simple bewildered look on the face of the one interviewed.

When I had to hire someone, the feeling that gave me the right impression was a feeling of fear. That I would hire someone that I would think also was a threat to myself. Because that feeling meant that I could learn a lot from someone in my area of expertise. And in the last couple of years, I had that only twice. First with a developer I hired almost a decade ago, which I appreciate still a lot and respect a lot simply because he just found a way to make things work. And once it worked, he would go back an find out how to make it better. So many times would he mention that he made another search seconds faster, simply because he knew he could.

The second one was a temporary front-end developer who mentioned he had limited experience. But anything from the interview gave me the impression that this guy would be something special. The advice from upper management was not to hire the guy, but I insisted to try him. And in front-end development he was absolutely amazing. Not so much on his end-products, but his ability to learn, stand his ground, and once he had his goal in sight, he would not let go, even if it meant learning a whole new language on the spot to get it done.

But sadly, those were just 2 out of about 40. I don’t and cannot consider myself an authority on my area of expertise. I can’t simply because that would mean there is nothing to learn; and there will always be new developments, new insights and perspectives that would make you discover new things.

I don’t want to work with a library in any kind of development before at least understanding what it does. I have worked in plain JavaScript years before switching to jQuery. Simply to know that when jQuery cannot do the job, I can still fall back on it’s foundation.

The same thing is with the usage of pure HTML where CSS falls short. And a lot of front-end developers will jump high-and-low trying to convince you that CSS solves all the visual problems, but there are situations where it simply does not. And to be able to work in those areas, requires the ability to be creative.

The last 6 months I have been getting in contact with a couple of different teams, and that makes me long back for the teams I have been working with in the last decades. With a well formed team of people who could think outside the box, never took anything for granted and who earned their stars by thinking before doing. And with teams of 3 to 8 people at different companies and productions, we always were able to do in far less time and far better stability than what other teams of 40-50 people were not able to do.

Maybe it is also good that these people are rare… it makes them stand out.

Did Usability Design Jump The Shark?

In the last couple of months I have been working on smaller projects and training myself to keep my skills all up to date. And in the meanwhile I also have been looking for bigger opportunities since that the last company I received  a majority of my income from went the way of the Titanic. As a Interaction Designer by education and trade, it was that what I was attracted to the most.

When I studied Interaction Design at the Utrecht school of the Arts in 1993-1997, we were already told that the world would not really understand the focus of our profession. The Utrecht school of the Arts was the very first school in the world focusing on interactive systems and its interface and behavior designs. We were in the second year ever being there, making it only a handful of Interaction Designers in the world when we came out of school.

The very famous unusable teapot. Sounds obvious, no? Well, better believe it, most IT companies design just this in their productions.

I have build my career from it, and with the knowledge how to design, develop and how to manage it has been my bread and butter for the last 20 years. But now with the time here to get myself into another company, I have been faced by a dark and ugly truth; the world STILL doesn’t understand what Usability (or UX) design really is. And I have been at interviews where I had to restrain myself from grabbing someone by the shoulders and shake him out of it, when that someone who has no clue about the world told me how my job actually works. It is no wonder why with every company now hiring UX specialists still make unusable productions. It is because with hiring someone who claims to be an UX specialist a company thinks that they are in the clear if it is about usability.

So, let me write this posting to really make things clearer, also if you tend to be on the lookout for a UX specialist in your company, that you do not pay a lot of money for something that anyone can do:

A Usability Designer is not a Wire-Framer
Anybody can make a wire-frame. It is the easiest form of design since you don’t have to have any skills for it. But you cannot wire-frame anything if you don’t have a vision. You need to know WHAT you are wire-framing, and why.

A Wire-Frame is not an end-product of an Usability Designer
Worse, a wire-frame is only the layout of the elements of the system. But, usability design is about psychology, understanding of your audience, how they talk, how they work, how they understand things and how they learn. It is about applying color, shapes, movement, animation, audio and visual or contextual feedback.

A Usability Designer MUST be also a Graphic Designer
Again, usability is not about placement. It is about the whole interface between your user and your system. And your interface is the screen between the user and your system. It may be the keyboard, or touch, or even voice activated. That whole experience on that screen comes from the Usability or Interaction Designer.
But a Usability Designer must design. The use of color, space, visual feedback, it is all what comes from an Usability Designer. Not only the notion of where things go.

A Usability Designer works with the Art Director or Creative Director
If the Usability Designer is not the Art Director, he/she should work closely with them. The Art Director provides his/her vision to the Usability Designer before a design is created. Together they will merge in the usability systems in this creative concept. And after that, the Art Director will provide the designers from your creative team with the concept who will then work it to a finished product.
Of course, in smaller companies, a good Usability Designer is trained to do all these roles for themselves, and in this scenario you should not only test a Usability Designer on his UX skills, but also on his graphical skills.

It is all about the user
Keep in mind, that if you hire a Usability Designer, it is like the necessary medicine to make your production healthy. You can have the most wonderful production in what it can do, but if your customers cannot use it, or are unable to learn it, or are even getting frustrated with it, you will be the one losing. A Usability Designer is the one who first asks you about your audience, before even looking at anything else. He/she needs to know first and foremost about the people who will be using your system. What age, sex, experience level, what kind of input devices they use, how well they use them, their understanding of language and computer skills etc. etc.
Only after that will he/she be putting their attention to your system. And if your system is already existing, be prepared for bad news, because even the slightest rebuild might be even a pricey one.  That is why it is always easier to hire a Usability Designer in the creative phase of your productions.
After everything is done, built, and created into a prototype, your Usability Designer or Specialist will guide you into the user testing. And the work is only done when the users indeed are able to reach the milestones that were set in the beginning. Bigger companies will do this using a usability lab, but a smaller company can use this in beta testing or simple small one-on-one usability sessions with users.

In the end, there are a lot of really good usability designers out there, and companies that understand the value of a good usable design. It doesn’t have to be amazing, it has to be good. Some designs will become beautiful, other might not even need that flair. But at least, the targeted user should be able to work with it.

Is it worth the money to have a good usability designer on your team? Of course, I will say that it is necessary. But to be honest, in some scenarios, it might not be the first thing on your mind. Most companies bring in a usability designer when the feedback from users has shown that they did something wrong that has to be fixed. And usually, that is where the money comes in. Usability design is not necessary to make something work, but it is necessary to make something work well. If you build a website, you might not need one if it is for something small, or if you use established templates. But if you build something from scratch, you will be glad you had a Usability Designer on your team.

Define Usability, Please

Ah, the old trustworthy REX. I loved it. Had Apps, Touch Screen, Internet, Office Apps, and fit in your wallet. And it was ahead of its time with usability... only no one thought that way.
Ah, the old trustworthy REX. I loved it. Had Apps, Touch Screen, Internet, Office Apps, and fit in your wallet. And it was ahead of its time with usability... only no one thought that way.
Ah, the old trustworthy REX. I loved it. Had Apps, Touch Screen, Internet, Office Apps, and fit in your wallet. And it was ahead of its time with usability… only no one thought that way.

As I mentioned in my previous posting, I was faced with losing my prime source of income last month and of course that can hit hard. Very hard. Still, every action has its reaction, and mine was suddenly being there with a lot of time on my hands, and far less stress to deal with. And being someone who simply loves his work, I decided to use the time while looking for other work, to be well spent to put time into this product that I have been thinking about for such a long time.

But, just before I lost that income, I had a lunch with an old colleague who asked me a simple question; why wasn’t I going back into doing what I do best again. I started out my career as one of the first qualified and full-time trained Interaction Designers in the world. The very first school to do so, The Utrecht School of the Arts was the only school to actually start this course, years before usability design became a big thing.

I waved the comment of this ex colleague away with the thought that the money I was making now, was more than what I would be making as an Interaction Designer. But he asked me to check it out again. And as I did, I was surprised. While other salaries in the industry had dropped, Usability Designers (Interaction Designers, User eXperience (UX) Designers, or however you want to call our breed) actually were increasing in salaries. So, going back to my roots and doing what I do the very best, or sticking with what I was doing now, which often related to a lot of technology parts that I simply could not care about more. Oh, I am good at it, but it is easy to get very bored with it as well.

So I decided to give it a go. I brushed up my résumé and rebooted my orientation on the market. But, in the meantime, I grabbed up my project, and worked on it like there was no tomorrow. The good thing of working for a while on something for your own company is that you can do it exactly how you think it is the best. No people mentioning that it has to be different, no people who want to push their opinion or have you simply do what they tell you, even if you know from experience that you do know it better. But hey, that is work. And often it is good as well, as you learn new perspectives. But sometimes, you know your own job so much better than anyone else.

And in three weeks, there it was, a complete new platform for a shopping engine the way how I would envision it to work on current days computers. And believe me, I was the one telling myself to redo things, work them over, and make it better. But still, I was happy as a clam working with the finished product, testing it, working it some more, prototyping… everything. It simply worked, and first responses were very good without any real content to it.

But, at the same time, I also started to get surprised about the Usability job and project market. And that was that it appears to me that the so-called UX designer is just as much an enigma to the technology world as it was 18 years ago when I walked out of school and into my career. Because the impression that I started to develop now is that a UX designer is the modern-day art director for applications. Talking about the usability test tools, and especially the term ‘wire-framing’ is still wildly popular. But it is nowadays important that a UX designer programs HTML, JavaScript, jQuery, AJAX, and a lot more. True, everything in here is a good practice. I advice always a designer to know their platforms they are designing for, even if it is just to defend their decisions. And I happen to be very confident in my skills in these tools, languages and everything around it, both front-end and back-end.

But I miss, in each and every job or project description for UX design, actually a reference to usability. Usability is something invisible. Usability design is not graphic design, it is not development, but a complete skill to place yourself in someone else’s shoes, look through their eyes, and adapt to their understanding and level of comprehension. Then, based on what you imagine there, you draw up a usability design. And on top of that, you build (or hav it built by someone else) a graphic design.

This is where the wire-frames come into place, but the wire-frames are the last step of your usability design, while I notice it is often seen as the first step. And then, usability design is not an exact science. For example, we had a while, in the late nineties and early 2000’s that icon design was a lucrative business. Making an icon was the big thing for usability. Little pictures explaining exactly what something had to do if you clicked on it. The world would become so much better because of it.

Oh, it works as long as the number of options are not too many, or not too familiar. How would for example WordPress, what I use to write this blog, show a difference between the ‘Save Draft’ and ‘Publish’ button. Using the old-fashioned DISK icon wouldn’t make it clear what is a draft and what is a publication, and make it so clear everyone sees the difference. Who uses a DISK anyway still? I know it is around, but a lot of people who use computers now never used those 720kb disks before, maybe never even saw one. Should you show now a CD which is a simple circle that can look like anything else, or a chip, which would be something like a square?

These days it is okay to have things show up as texts again. A text is a great way, simply to describe. But if you have too many options, you have too much text. So you need to rethink how to present it to your users, and in what doses.

Usability design is an art. It is not technology. It is one of the few psychology infused professions that actually get physical results. It is not easy, and it changes all the time. Pre-2007 touch-screens were considered a problem. You could not ‘feel’ your interaction methods, so you could not use or type blind on a phone if it did not have real buttons. Touch was there, and the iPhone was absolutely not the first. In the late ’90s I owned the REX. A small PCMIA card that also contained a touch screen. It was super small, and absolutely amazing. You could download games on it, read your email, program it, and all the size of a thick credit card.

But it never really picked up, simply because it was not something considered very user-friendly. Would it be released in 2008, it would have possibly been a huge success with an updated color screen. But pre-iPhone it was absolutely considered a bad thing in usability to not ‘feel’ the texture of your input mechanisms. But the iPhone was so cool and popular, and it was the big thing, that the market got swamped with touch screens and it became something people were getting used to. Now, it is considered user-friendly. The market and the audience have learned to deal with things that we thought were bad in the past. Now, it is about the size of the buttons. Making everything big, clear, understandable. I know there is research going on at this moment in trying to get a dynamic texture back into the touch screens so that you actually could feel the buttons on the screen, but it is not there yet. But once it is, it might as well be that what we consider now so very user-friendly, is bad again in five years.

I had a talk about usability design this morning with a person from Merrill Lynch, a very intelligent guy, but the talk could not go beyond technology. A Usability Designer was simply someone with an impeccable knowledge about JavaScript, jQuery, AngularJS, AJAX etc. I guess it is the job of the Usability Designer anywhere to first come in and be the person people are looking for, and then astonishing them with what the job actually entails. But hey, nobody said it would be easy…

The Price Of Running A Business (Into The Ground)

A sad thing to happen to any business
A sad thing to happen to any business
A sad thing to happen to any business. But going out of business is working hard.

About a month ago, a simple message came in that disrupted the regular rhythm of the week. My prime source of income would fall away as it was told an investor did not invest in the company I worked with as was promised and payments could not be made.

A long time ago, I have been in the situation of being the bearer of that news with my own company that my partner and i ran. We thought it would only be fair that when we noticed things did not go the way we planned, and also that we did not have the know-how back then how to fix it, to simply call it quits at that time, and close the doors. We decided to pay off what we owed and be realistic about it, but avoid bankruptcy in any way. That was a high price to pay for people just in their twenties, but we did.

When you hit such a bump in the road, you have to understand that cleaning up your act is something you need to do well. You cannot simply ignore the problems, put your head in the sand and wishing it all will go away. Nor can you be too pessimistic and feel bad about yourself. If you have a company where you employ people, you have to clean things up correctly. And sadly, in this scenario, the immediate problem was ignored.

I like to be open about certain information with people I work with. If there are potential problems on the horizon that involves your employees, you need to be frank about it. Discuss it. There are too many managers and company owners and CEO’s that love to show how good they are, but a real good business person knows that it is not about appearances, but about how you really act in difficult times.

In my whole life I had good and bad managers. A lot of them with good intentions, but only a couple who really did rice to the occasion. At one moment, about 12 years ago, I was recruited by this team who decided to build Flash games for the Play Station 2. Around that time, the news broke that Sony was thinking about integrating the Flash Player into the firmware of the Play Station, and we had an extensive amount of knowledge to build Web Apps and RIA’s in Flash. So why not make something new? We hooked up with a world-famous institute to support us for making a edutainment game for 10+ ages. 7 people, of which I was responsible for the design and front-end development, worked together by building a platform. We hired vacation homes and brought our stuff together and worked, worked and worked. Although officially there was no leader, it was the only time I ever noticed that there was also no problem about it. One person was our manager, and he was absolutely amazing at it. As we got our demo and prototype to an advanced stage, we were invited to a conversation with Sony Europe.  And at the moment our guy came back, he sat down and delivered us the bad news; Flash was not going to be implemented in the Play Station. Period.

Right then and there, of course with sad hearts, we also looked at everything together; the concept of the game was good, but Flash was already so well presented online, the game would not make sense with a mouse and keyboard. It would become something mediocre to semi good at best.

We decided to wrap things up, not trying to hang on to it simply because this was our strength; Flash development and it’s back-end system. If we would keep working on it, it would never be what we intended, and together with our guy, our company drifted apart.

What worked here, and why I have such great memories to this time, was how clear everything was. There were the amazing moments of pure passion and things were going great! But then there were also problems. They are there, simple. There is no business that can run without problems. They need to be there, because they show how well you will perform and deal with it. This ‘game’ company, even how young it was, did it very well. No bad feelings, not a single one. Our manager was absolutely amazing, and I worked with him before and after that with great joy.

And when the news hit me last month, I noticed that the problem was being mentioned as ‘the investment’. The ‘investment’ is never the problem. If your company is doing it’s work well, the manager or owner has kept you up to date about possible problems – or possibilities – then it is practically impossible to have an acute money problem. But when asked about it – because there are always the tell-tale signs of problems no matter what people try to make you believe about the condition of a company – and it is absolutely denied that there are any problems, what can you do?

It is about cleaning everything up, contacting your clients, update them about situations. It is making sure machines are wiped properly, especially the ones used for running Payroll and holding private information about employees. It is resetting accounts, backing all the work up and making sure that data is locked and encrypted. It is notifying your employees right away, and be absolutely clear to them, and be honest.

It is sad to say that this is not always the case, and I know that goes for a lot of companies and not only here in the US, but everywhere. I guess most people simply want to enjoy the good times, but have no idea how to deal with the bad ones. Sadly, because it is part of running a business.

My partner and I, who saw the water at our necks before we called it quits in 1999, sat down together. The money we saw that we owed was an amount so large in our opinion back then that we panicked. That was not the reason why we closed up shop, but it made us very afraid. Not so much of the money, but that we thought we were doing things right, but clearly something was in there – that we did not understand – that we did wrong. Very wrong. We were able to identify the problem, knew how to fix it, but we could not fix it at the time. We were too inexperienced, not in building our products, but at running a business. And yes, now we know we could have hired someone to run it for us, but again, we did not have that experience. Still, even though the price paid was high, it was the best lesson in business I ever learned.

Pretty Niche, Pretty Nice

Amazon's Fire does pretty well... even though I am not mentioning FireFly at this moment.
Amazon’s Fire does pretty well… even though I am not mentioning FireFly at this moment.

Last week a package arrived from Amazon containing their latest version of the 8.9 FIRE HDX. I am not a huge tablet fan anymore, and my iPad has been collecting dust for quite a while. What started as something I had to have for a project, became a technology I loved to use for some work, gaming and consuming media. And eventually it became a glorified web browser, to eventually be rendered quite useless with the latest update of iOS. And since then, I never really saw the need to upgrade anymore.

To be honest, it is simply the price vs. the functionality of the tablet. Buying a new one would set me back about $800, for something I watch videos on and read the news and write some emails. Android was not a solution to me, simply because of my previous experiences with it.

The reason to get a Fire – which is of course a modified Android tablet – was simple… I got a great deal on it, and being able to test work on different platforms made it something for that price, that I could take a gamble on. I read pretty good reviews about it, but was very nicely surprised. Not because it was a tablet and a new toy to play with, but that it was the first time I used a product that deliberately was limited with a certain goal: This was a media consumption device. Not some productivity device, or a game device, or an app device. Amazon locked it down and modified it nicely so that it is a solid Amazon device.

I did not see that one coming, and especially not that I would appreciate it. Usually, especially with tablets and phones, the manufacturers want it to be the answer to all questions; Can I work on it? Can I play on it? Can I do my finances with it… whatever it is. But spreading itself too thin makes it also prone to a lot of problems. Even when I bought the Fire, it simply did not assume to be anything more than a hardware extension to their Prime services. I do subscribe to Prime, and with that, it became a perfect match. It is a clear device to make my experience with Amazon for buying, streaming media and reading a lot nicer. And for them, it is a perfect way to lock myself into their environment.

I don’t mind that, since I am a satisfied customer already. I would be hugely disappointed if I were not a Prime subscriber. The thing would feel like a very overpriced bit of self-advertisement to me in that scenario.

This is actually what I appreciate; build something for a special audience, and make their experience with your company better, instead of trying to build something for ‘everyone’.

I think this might be exactly why the Fire Phone was such a huge flop. As this tablet is a personal mobile amazon content consumption device – a phone is a phone first and foremost. THEN it can become something else. But your phone is your basic access to the world for a lot. Not just to one company. And even though the Fire allows a lot of extra functionality, it is and will be an Amazon device. And a phone needs to be far more than that.

The fact that Amazon is able to deliver a high quality device like the 8.9 FIRE HDX with a beautiful display, excellent sound and very nice interactivity for a low price makes also sense because of the lock-in with their store environment and their Prime services. Pretty niche, but pretty nice.


Everlasting Maintenance

Water, Everywhere! AARGH!
Water, Everywhere! AARGH!
Water, Everywhere! AARGH!

Yesterday, on the east coast, we experienced the nice phenomenon of ice rain. Coming from a country where black ice and ice rains are pretty normal, it usually does not impress me too much because I grew up with it. But that is fine, where most houses build on the ground, not with a floor in the ground.

And here we have a beautifully restored 107 year old house, on a little hill. Not even slightly aware that one of our drains got clogged up, froze shut over the last couple of days, and then with the amount of icy downpour completely overflowed and created a hole near our house. Even that should not be so much of a problem, were it not for the frozen ground, that did not allow the water to drain on it’s own. The result was water pouring into our basement. Between the cracks of the cinderblocks that we suddenly noticed.

Looking back on it, after we were able to solve the situation with a series of fixes; replace the drain pipe extender with a new one, a longer one as well. Fill up the hole with sand, and to temporarily relieve the grounds of rain, cover the ground with a bit of tarp slanted down from the house. $50 of stuff and 5 new buckets were enough to keep the water out and allowing us to use our wet-vac to empty the 100+ gallons of icy water that was covering the basement floor.

It is what we all would like; just a moment that your house, or car, or anything, simply is in perfect working condition without problems. But we all know, that is not going to happen. Especially when things get older, they simply require maintenance. And fix one thing, another one pops up. It will never be done.

Recognize this? It is just like running your (web) production. It sounds so perfect; a site or program is just code. If the code runs now, it should be running tomorrow. Even if the code – hypothetically – is absolutely perfect, it will break down without the proper care.

Ask any developer who built anything about going back to an old program that is still up and running. There is always this feeling of not touching anything that is not broken. It is simply because of the maintenance. Just like an old house, every once in a while you need to take a peek and spend some time making sure if your production is still running fine.

This is also where a lot of companies make a huge error in their thinking process; being a company building websites. I have been there, and it is painful. With websites, unless you are involved with large scale corporate websites, just earn barely enough to keep a business afloat. So you need more productions coming in on a recurring basis, which simply will add more and more to your portfolio. And in the beginning, this is all perfectly fine, but over time, wishes will change of your clients, a server update might interfere with a technology you created – whatever it is.

It is part of the job, but even I will not say that I have no problems with maintaining productions. It is a tedious job, and I always fear it a little bit. Of course, it comes with the territory, and I will do it with a smile, but that doesn’t mean that that smile is always a real one. Even if when the sites were originally created it was in my own opinion well written code, going over it again a couple of years later, it feels weird, old, dusty, like going into an old attic.

If an issue arises doing maintenance on an old production, it is where the patching comes into place. Just to keep things going forward and being a solid solution to the problem. It might sometimes be not worth it to do more to it. I hear companies mention, or professionals tell that you should not patch, but repair. Fix the issue, do not just make the issue appear to be away.

True, in a perfect world, that is completely right. But a patch is not always a wrong thing, and it needs to be worth it to go with a rebuild or a extensive fix. If a patch does it’s job without problems and it can be done within `5 minutes, compared to a rebuild that might require hours or days, especially on an older production, that might be worth it.

To keep the water from flowing into our basement any more, replacing the drain pipe extender and filling up the hole with two bags of sand was enough. $50, and there is no problem. The fix is to completely waterproof our basement, install a french drain, and possibly rebuild our basement. That, while the inspector mentioned that there is no need to do that at all since everything is completely stable. $50 or $25,000. Same effect without any problems to the bones and foundation of the house.

Call me crazy, but the $50 solution sounds like a great deal.