Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Be Nice on the Way Up

   You may remember the old Genesis song "Paperlate", in which Phil Collins sings:
There's no need to be nice on the way up
'Cos you're not coming down!
   Of course, most of us will come down.  Even if you don't, surely you'd like to go up faster, right?

   Today, one of my favorite DJs, er, I mean, radio personalities (Paul Harris, whose blog and podcast are well worth following) published this piece about Judy Gold.  It's not so much about her current doings, or even her career overall.  Instead, he tells of when she was, or at least was going to be, on his radio show twenty years ago.

   Rather than recapping the story, I'll let you go read it.  Go ahead, I'll wait.

   Yes, she's had a decent career.  But think... if it hadn't been for that attitude, causing that incident and doubtless many others, where could she be by now?  How many extra fans could she have made that morning (and again, doubtless many other such opportunities), even if they didn't buy tickets for that show?

   And what about in her "golden" years, when she's a washed-up old has-been?  Think she'll be able to get many radio guest spots, when she's desperate to get butts in seats at her shows?  Not if the host has read that article, or dealt with her before the attitude adjustment that I hope she's had since then....

   There's a term for people like that in the theater business: prima donna.  There are much harsher terms for them in real life.  Whatever you call it... don't be one.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Be an Inbox Ninja!

   One of the biggest productivity sinks most of us face is email.  From the sheer volume (even after decent spam-filtering), to the necessity of actually checking your spam filter to make sure nothing got stuck in there that you actually need to deal with, to the temptation to waste even more time writing a reply, it sucks up hours of a typical busy professional's day.  How can we deal with it?!

   There are three main ways to deal with pretty much anything with daunting volume:

   First of course you can reduce the volume!  Unsubscribe from any email lists that aren't sufficiently useful, amusing, or whatever other criteria you apply, to make it worth their contribution to the load.  That's so obvious that I'm going to assume you've already done that.  (Or at least heard of it, considered it, and procrastinated about it.)

   Second, you can just suck it up and attack the problem.  If you've chosen that path, good luck!  As you wade through the stupid jokes from your relatives, the latest sale announcements from your favorite stores, and other such dreck, your vital business communications are going unread for too long.

   Third, you can be an inbox ninja!  No, I don't mean leave it unseen, I mean to slice and dice it so you can attack it in the most effective places first.  There are many cuts you can make, but the basic two I like are direct vs. list, and work vs. not-work.  This allows you to separate your email into four "buckets": work-related email sent directly to you, work-related lists, non-work email sent directly to you, and non-work lists.

   How to apply this strategy, depends on what tools are available for the program you use to read email.  I use GMail, and usually directly at their web interface.  Like most email programs, that lets me do a search.  Pretty much any email program lets you do that.  GMail, however, is particularly powerful in that it will let you do the search automagically on incoming mail (they call it a "filter"), and use that to apply any labels to each piece of email.  These let me use a much simpler search later to get that "quadrant" of my email.

   Let's look at an example.  Suppose I'm a veeblefetzer repairman.  Anything mentioning veebelefetzers or repairing is work-related, along with the various popular brands of veeblefetzers, such as Furd and Potrzebie.  Also, anything from veebleworld.com (where people may contact me directly, or post in forums, which will send me an email from the forums subdomain), or from anyone in my company (backbelt.com), or from the Veeblezebie mailing list, or from Melvin Cowznofski.  I also subscribe to the blues-guitar and skeet-shooter lists, but these have nothing to do with work, nor do any of my other frequent correspondents.

   (For the sake of simplicity, let's say all the lists are at Yahoo.  Slightly different filtering techniques may be needed for lists hosted elsewhere, like looking for words from a header, footer, or subject line preface.)

   So, I can set up filters as follows:
  • If something fits the search: veeblefetzers OR repair* OR furd OR potrzebie OR veebleworld OR backbelt.com OR veeblezebie OR from:cowznofski@example.com, then tag it with the label "Work".

  • If something fits the search: from:forums.veebleworld.com OR to:yahoogroups.com, then tag it with the label "list".
   Now suppose I am settling down to my workday, and want to read the highest priority stuff: work-related emails sent directly to me.  I can search on: in:inbox label:work -label:list.  After I'm done with that I can search on in:inbox label:work label:list to get my work lists.  When I get home, I can search on in:inbox -label:list -label:work and in:inbox label:list -label:work.  If I didn't have labels available, I could still achieve the same goal by combining the two searches.  Either way, I could make these searches easier by saving them as URLs; if you don't use the web to read your email, you could save them as canned text strings to paste into the search field.  GMail provides a Quick Links "lab" to make it even easier.

   Alternately, if I were reading my email via a desktop client program such as Thunderbird, I could set up filters to route the mail into folders based on the search results.

   If your raw searches are large enough to be cumbersome, there are also the plus sign trick, and, if you have your own domain, catchall addresses.  These are ways to create unique addresses on the fly.  (If your email host honors the plus-sign standard, as Google does, append a plus sign and any other words you want, to the username part of your GMail address, and it will still get to you.  So, if you're joeshmoe@example.com, and example.com honors this trick, email to joeshmoe+whatever@example.com will also get to you.)  You can use these generated addresses to subscribe to lists that don't have some visible trace you can search on, or to separate out work lists, or even separate lists into ones for ads, announcements, discussions, or even particular topics.  I would sign up for the non-work lists as joeshmoe+lists@example.com, the work lists as joeshmoe+work+lists@example.com, any other work-related sites as joeshmoe+work@example.com, and everything else as joeshmoe@example.com.  Then, I could just search for "work" and "lists" as words in the To line rather than labels on the message.

   (Or you can look for plus-signed tags in order to apply labels.  You can combine all these tricks however you like.)

   In summary:
  • Define searches that pick out segments of your email.
  • Apply these searches in applicable combinations.
  • Save the combinations in some convenient way.
  • Attack your email pile by prioritized chunks!
  • Having accomplished your mission, leave the email castle, fading silently into the night.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Bill of Rights Day: ALL of it!

   Today is not a widely honored holiday here in the United States of America.  But it should be.

   Long story short, December 15 is Bill of Rights Day.  It was declared in 1941 by President Franklin Roosevelt, at the request of Congress.  Since then, however, it has been largely ignored.  The Bill of Rights is a key part of what makes America America.  (Or at least, what America's supposed to be.)

   Yes, America often strays from the principles it outlines (along with our other founding documents).  That has been the source of many of our troubles as a country.  Far from meaning that we should ignore it, that makes it all the more important to remember it, honor it -- and insist that our government obey it.

   So far, so good, right?

   Now comes the tough part.  Some of you may be big fans of, say, the First Amendment's guarantees of freedom of speech... but not so much, say, the Second Amendment's guarantees of the right to keep and bear arms (i.e., own and carry weapons, such as guns).  Or you may be a big fan of the Second, but not so much the Fourth Amendment's guarantees of privacy.  Who knows, you might even object to the Third Amendment's protections against troops being quartered in private homes in peacetime without the owner's consent.

   Well, too bad!  We must honor all of the Bill of Rights, and for that matter the rest of the Constitution, or it doesn't mean a thing.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Get off your duff tomorrow!

   It's been a looooong time since my last post here.  Sorry 'bout that!  Been kinda busy working.  But an important thought occurred to me about tomorrow.

   No, I don't mean the generic tomorrow, as in the near future.  I mean specifically November 5, 2013.  Or rather, the day after the first Monday (which, mind you, isn't necessarily the first Tuesday!) of every November.

   Those of you in the USA might have already guessed what I mean.  Even if you're not here, keep reading, because this probably applies to you too, albeit with different timing!

   Some of you are eager to go to the polls.  (If that's you, great, thank you, you can stop reading now.  You might want to keep reading, though, to see what I have to say to the rest.  I'd sure appreciate your passing it along to those who need to hear it.)

   Some of you reading this might not be able to vote for one reason or another; that's a different story altogether.

   The rest of you, though, LISTEN UP!  You might be thinking, "why bother, the major parties never put up anybody worth voting for, and the minor parties don't stand a chance."

   If that's your attitude, then:


   You probably say your refusal to vote is an act of protest, right?  That's baloney and you know it.  You're just being lazy, not doing squat to earn your right to complain.  (I am trying to keep this blog family-friendly, but at times like this it gets a mite difficult.)

   Offended?  Good!  Maybe you'll get off your duff now!  Oh, you still wonder why you should?

   The Powers that Be, much as they might be spying on us, can't tell whether you're refusing to vote because you're protesting, or you're just too lazy, or you forgot, or you had some emergency and couldn't get to the polls (like happened to me last year).  (Lesson: vote absentee/early if you can!)

   So long as turnout is as abysmally low as usual, they have every right to assume you're being lazy.  And you know what?  The vast majority of the time, they'll be right.

   Now, if you're too lazy to vote, why should they give half a damn about you? Do they really think that you're going to suddenly find a burst of energy when it's time to grab guns and head to the makeshift barricades?  Or when it's time to go to the protest rally, or Occupy Whatever?  Riiiiiiight.  I don't think so, neither do they, and deep down, admit it, neither do you.  You probably won't even sign a petition, let alone work for a campaign.  Your own history indicates you probably won't do the easiest thing they fear most -- vote for the other candidate.

   There's an old saying: "The world is run by those who show up."  If you won't bother to show up, okay, fine, I'd probably rather you personally not be involved in running the world.  But then... don't come griping to me.

   You know those silly little "I Voted" stickers?  I call mine my "griping license".  I don't listen to unlicensed griping.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Follow Up... WAY Up!

   Everybody has had the experience: "D'oh!  I forgot to follow up on that, and now the opportunity is gone!"  Whether the opportunity is for a job, a client, a lover, or whatever, you need to get back to them.  And yet, being merely human, we forget.

  This is one of those areas where being an absolute geek can really help.  No, it won't help you figure out what to say to them, but it can help you remember to do it at all.  How?

   The basic concept is very much like a "tickler file".  (I'll wait while you go look at that article, if you're not familiar with them already.)  The geeky twist I add, is that I don't file an actual physical document, just a reference in a spreadsheet.

   Yes, a spreadsheet.  They're not just for suits and green-eyeshades.  They're a great way to organize any kind of information that you just need to record a few brief pieces of information about, and may need to sort in various ways.

   Let's look at a small simulated excerpt from my client-hunting spreadsheet, which originally started as a job-hunting spreadsheet.  (The company names have of course been changed.  The dates are in YYYY-MM-DD format, aka ISO 8601, so that even if they're not in a "real" spreadsheet program, but rather a plain text file, they'll still sort in the right order.)

Company Status Last Contact Followup On
Fubar Heavy Industries Inc. CALL THEM ASAP 2012-10-04 2012-10-08
Conceptual Concepts Ltd. waiting for NDA 2012-10-03 2012-10-10
Widgets R Us I emailed them 2012-09-28 2012-10-12

   So tomorrow morning, I should call Fubar Heavy Industries, as we arranged on Friday.  Suppose the result of that call is, "we'll give you a decision within two weeks".  Then the 10-08 becomes 10-22... and I sort the sheet on the "Followup On" column again.

   Next up would be Conceptual Concepts Ltd.  I'm waiting for them to send me an NDA.  They said on last Thursday afternoon that they would do it, but as of Sunday I haven't seen it yet.  If they still haven't sent me the NDA by this Thursday, I'll send a reminder... and add another week to the "Followup On" column, and sort again.

   After that would be Widgets R Us.  I emailed them the week before last, in response to an ad on a job board that said they were looking for contractors.  If they don't get back to me within two weeks, I will send a note... and add another two, or maybe three weeks to their followup date.  If that one comes and goes with no response, I'll probably just delete their row.  If they then contact me later, I've still got the other information.

   Other information?  Not in the spreadsheet?  Where am I keeping track of that?  I have another column (not shown) for brief notes, but there's a lot more information than can fit there.

   You're going to get an extra-special bonus on how I keep my stuff organized!  If you are a potential client/employer and call me, I'll probably ask you to wait a moment as I pull up your file.  Yes, I keep a file, or possibly several files, on each potential, current, or past client.  Many have been surprised (pleasantly, I hope!) that I'm so organized.

   In my work directory is a directory with (at least) a text file for each one, such as ~/work/clients/WidgetsRUs.txt.  This contains copies of all correspondence, notes, etc.  If I need to store additional files, such as NDAs, I create a directory for that, such as ~/work/clients/WidgetsRUs_files.  In there I store files like ~/work/clients/WidgetsRUs_files/Aronson-NDA-Signed.pdf.

   As yet another bonus tip for you: note how the filename contains my own name... for the client's convenience.  My own convenience in organizing, is served by the directory structure.

   So now, as always, it's your turn.  How do you keep track of stuff you need to do all the time?  Do you use a to-do list application, something more specialized, reminders on your calendar, a text file, or what?  What problems or unexpected benefits have you encountered?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Freelancing Podcasts

   I can't believe I haven't posted on this before.  Sometimes we humans can't see the forest for the trees.

   Some of us find it difficult to excel in an office setting.  No, I don't just mean the fact that we're indoors, at a desk, staring at a computer.  That may be factors for some people.  More commonly, though, it's that you're slaving away for someone else's goals, to make someone else a profit, fit in with their "corporate culture", fulfill their long-term vision... not yours.

   But they plod along, maybe even climbing the proverbial ladder fairly well... because they don't dare to strike out on their own.  To stretch a metaphor (after all, that's what a meta is phor, badum-pum!), they don't dare try to hit a home run on their own, for fear they'll strike out.

   Do you have some kind of long-term vision?  Make it a reality.  Just Do It.  Get started.  Be an entrepreneur.  Or if you just yearn to breathe free, and maybe come up with some long-term visions, be a freelancer.

   I was reminded of that, not only because I am freelancing these days (got paid for project #1 last month, and am now in the midst of #2, wrapping up #3, waiting for an SOW on #4), but because of some Recommended Resources on that topic.  There are a gazillion web sites out there on being a freelancer or entrepreneur, but not so many podcasts, so I wanted to share some I found recently:

   A while back, a few freelance Ruby developers came up with Ruby Freelancers, at http://rubyfreelancers.com/.  Very little of it is Ruby-centric, and a lot of it is not even specific to software development.  (E.g., "have a contract in place", "ask for a deposit", "you probably need to charge more", "hire an accountant and a virtual assistant", etc.)  The web site is mainly just a place to put information about the podcast, available via iTunes.

   I also recently discovered the much older Life of the Freelancer, at http://lifeofthefreelancer.com/.  (Some of you may now be thinking, "Didn't that shut down last year?"  Well yeah, it did, on April 4, 2011... but as of February 20, 2012, it's back!)  I haven't poked around the web site much (I'm mainly catching up on the podcasts), but it seems to be mostly transcripts and supplements for the podcast.  The host happens to be also a Ruby developer, as is the occasional guest, but the guests are in a wide variety of freelancing positions.  Occasionally the talk is specific to their line of work, but as with Ruby Freelancers, there are almost always a few nuggets of more general wisdom that any kind of freelancer, or even other kinds of entrepreneurs, can benefit from.

   (Just a caveat, don't quit your day-job until your side-job is doing well enough that it could easily grow into something big enough to support you.  Yes I know I didn't do it that way myself, but believe me, being super-busy while the side-job ramps up, sure beats having no income for several months!)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Letter Phi

   This is the text of a speech I just gave, winning the Area level of the Toastmasters International Speech Competition, which culminates in the World Championship of Public Speaking.  Since that obligates me to go on to the Division level, I'd really like to get your feedback on this -- just remember that it has to fit in five to seven minutes.  :-)  And as usual, I encourage you to comment on the concepts as well.

===8<---cut here----

You may remember assorted Greek letters from school -- mainly from math and physics, or maybe the fraternities and sororities.  But don't worry, Madam Contestmaster, fellow Toastmasters, and honored guests, I'm not going to throw (much) math, physics, or Greek at you.  Let's start with one letter [hold up prop with a phi and "PHI" on it], pronounced either "fie" or "fee".

In math, it stands for the Golden Ratio -- but you don't need to know that, or even what that is.  The only thing you need to know, is that the name, usually rendered in English as P H I, is also an acronym for three things that have been helping me earn golden fees as a freelance web developer, and can help you in many areas of your life.

First, P stands for Perseverance.  I decided to go freelance in October.  Guess how much billable work I got in October?  Zilch.  November?  Nada.  December?  Bupkis.  I said I wouldn't throw Greek at you... but bupkis is Yiddish, meaning almost nothing.  As Toastmasters, we look on the bright side.  At least that was more than nothing, so it was an improvement -- and things have been improving since then.  Had I not stuck to it, I would have had... no freelancing career at all!

But what about you?  Same deal.  Obviously, if you don't pursue your dreams, you'll never catch them.  Often you'll be tempted to give up, to fall back on the tried and true... the comfortable.  But you have to get out of your comfort zone to make progress!  I had to get out from behind the computer, talk to potential clients, and try to convince them to give me a nice fat juicy contract.  For you, if your goal is to be a great public speaker like Cicero, or at least get over your fear of it, you have to get out of the comfortably seated audience, get up here and give speeches.  Whatever your goal is, you have to stick with it, despite the discomfort of leaving your comfort zone.

I'm telling you all this because . . . H stands for Helpfulness.  How does helping others help us?  Zig Ziglar often says, "you can get everything you want out of life, if you just help enough other people get what they want."  Whether you attribute this to supernatural forces, like the Hindu concept of karma, or simply your reputation, it works!

So how am I applying this as a freelance web developer?  Nearly every day, I read several online technical forums... not just to see what I can learn, which is for the next point, but to see if anyone has questions I can answer.  This shows me as not only knowledgeable, but also helpful -- exactly the kind of person you want to give a nice fat juicy contract!

But what about you?  The same concept applies here in Toastmasters, just like it does in the outside world.  We help everybody, all the time, anyway... but we're more likely to cheerfully volunteer to go the extra mile, for those who have done so themselves.  Sure we may do that for the rest too, but it will take a little more convincing.

And Toastmasters leads us to the last letter.  I stands... right here, no, I stands for Improvement.

Of course now I'm preaching to the proverbial choir!  If you didn't want to improve your communication or leadership skills, you wouldn't be here at Toastmasters!  You know how vital it is to sharpen these skills, and others.

But how does it help me as a freelance web developer?  If I hadn't been keeping my skills not only sharp, but current, I wouldn't even have web development skills in the first place!  There may not be all that much salt in my pepper, but I came out of school long before the Web was even invented.  Even after that, most of my work was not on the Web; I had to learn web skills on my own time, expense, and initiative.  Because of doing that, instead of being obsolete, I
now have a viable path to not only continue my career, but become more independent as well.

These are just some examples of how I've been earning my "phi" (fee).  What about you?  What are your dreams, and your skills?  How much help do you need?  No matter your answer, I guarantee that [hold up prop with these words on it] perseverance, helpfulness, and improvement, will help you succeed.

===8<---cut here----

Note: The Cicero bit was an impromptu addition because the prior speaker was talking about Cicero.  I probably won't include that in further versions.