Author Archives: Matt Warren

And work on them.

There are many times in life when we don’t get what we want.  A business idea fails, we lose an argument, we don’t get the job promotion or pay raise we hoped for. It’s easy to find excuses that absolve us of any blame – people just don’t understand, the other guy pulled some strings, the game is rigged.

Here’s a bit of advice, consider the possibility that you are at fault for the loss.  Perhaps you needed to be more articulate or exude more passion in your words. Perhaps you needed to be more political in building support for your ideas. Perhaps you just haven’t proven you deserve that promotion or raise yet.

Whenever you ask yourself a question your mind will come up with answers.  You have to be careful to ask the right questions to get helpful answers.  Answers that put you into control.  “Why didn’t they pick me?” is an open question that invites speculation as answers. “What could I have done better?” helps focus things inward on yourself – where you have the power to make changes.

Blaming others, or blaming the system will only serve to make you bitter. It gives you no actionable steps to do better next time.

Coming up with good answers to these questions requires some knowledge. If you don’t know anything about salesmanship then it is easier to be oblivious to seeing others apply it, or recognising the need for it in yourself.

A broad base of knowledge comes from reading and deliberate learning.  Without the foundation you won’t come up with answers on your own. However, being cognisant of your own self to the degree that you can identify when you don’t know and have to rely on an outside perspective is rare.  Very rare.  We all feel like we have a good grasp of how the world works, when the reality is that we are all clueless. The human mind isn’t sophisticated enough to comprehend the interactions of 7 billion other people.

If you are able to accept your own faults and listen to the criticism you are better than most.  If you take action on it, to improve yourself, you are one of the very few who do.

 

There are proponents of both cases for building a business.  Should you identify the vision and strategy for one amazing product and chip away at it until it becomes a success, or should you try 10 small experiments, see what sticks then focus on the winners?

David Heinemeier Hansson of BaseCamp started his venture with a dozen different web apps, developed more or less in parallel for several years.  After a while it became apparent that one of them was vastly more popular than all the others and those lagging Apps were eating up precious attention that could otherwise be better spent focused on making their Basecamp app even more awesome. Eventually they sold off the other assets and doubled down on their winner.

Ford on the other hand started out famously with one car that was available in just one color.  The model-T was a singular project and the focused effort one building just one thing really well is what helped Ford compete and survive in those early years of the automotive industry. Had Henry Ford decided to develop 10 models of car at the same time it’s unlikely there would be a Ford Motor Company today.

Had DHH decided to start his company based on just one of those 12 app ideas, there’s less than a 10% chance he would have picked Basecamp and ended up with the winner he has today.

It seems that in both those cases one approach or the other was a requirement for their success.

However there is another strategy that attempts to strike a balance between these which is the pivot.  With this approach you focus on one vision until it can be validated by the market and at a certain point if things look like a dud then you re-align the company on a new vision.  This has the advantage that you maintain the efficiency that comes with a focused mission, but if the market doesn’t resonate with the product you can keep the company together, re-used some of the assets you’ve built and test another market with a renewed focus and determination.  Hopefully it doesn’t take too many pivots to find something that fits.

How do you know what is the best strategy for your business?  I think it comes down to how the development cycle matches with the marketing cycle.  A lag creates gaps where the development team may not have market driven direction to go, and the marketing team may not have anything new and hot to sell.  Filling the voids (if you have them in your business) may be an opportunity to develop a new idea, or an indication there is an opportunity to re-structure and tighten up the slack.

I have been writing for my blogs for over 15 years now.  A lot has changed with the internet in that time, and over the years I have investigated many ways to let my websites pay for themselves.

When Adsense was first announced I jumped on it only to find that it paid almost nothing to publishers like myself.  Just pennies at a time would take years to generate enough given the traffic on my sites for Google to cut me a cheque.  In all the time I had been running ads I think I had only ever received a payment once.

The dismal returns eventually made me realize that the ads were more detrimental to my readers than they were worth.

However, recently I have been on a mission to cut my budget for servers and part of that effort is to get my websites to pay their own way or else risk getting shut down.  I started by experimenting with adding Adsense back to one of my blogs and found, to my surprise, that it earns enough to pay for its hosting costs.

I have extended ads onto this website, so that I pay less out of my own pocket to keep it running.  Hopefully keeping these sites financially sustainable will be mutually beneficial to both me and the readers.

One of my ambitious goals for the year is to take on 12 programming projects.  The projects I’ll undertake for this challenge have a couple of requirements:

  1. It should be something that I can complete in 1 month of calendar time
  2. it should take less than 40 hours of effort
  3. it should ideally challenge me to learn something new
  4. it should maximize impact for someone other than myself

Trying to think of project ideas that can have a big impact with less than 40 hours of effort is not easy.  Luckily Kenneth Reitz serves as a model for how to accomplish this.  He is best known for authoring the awesome requests library, which is ubiquitous. Over the last while he’s been on a tear.

  • typy.io – a service for sharing text snippets
  • pipenv – a wrapper that combines pip and virtual envs
  • maya – datetimes for humans
  • saythanks.io – a way to send thank you to open source developers

These are potentially high impact projects compared to the effort required to create them. It’s something that I will try to replicate this year with my own projects and an approach to open-source development that I wish more people took.  Flooding the community with high impact contributions enriches us all.

Impact can be a trade off.  A large impact can come from a small improvement for many people or a large benefit for a small number of people. And of course these are all relative to what leverage you have to help.  The audience that Google can have an impact on is vastly different than the number of people I can reach. So I’m trying to be realistic about what kind of impact a 40 hour project can have.

Optimizing for impact seems to be a great goal.  It re-frames the importance of a project; If I could do something in 40 hours that would double someone else’s business it might be a worthy project to consider.  If I could contribute a wrapper for an API that is used by 1000s of developers it could have a wider impact.

Scratching your own itch is the common motivation for open-source development, but in a sense it is inward focused and self-serving. In a world where we increasingly don’t talk to our neighbors or contribute to our communities doing things to help others sounds radical.

Be radical, make an impact.

Part of my fascination about economics is peoples desire to oversimplify a dramatically complex system. The reality is that there are 7 billion individual active entities that all act in complex ways. The human mind simply cannot comprehend the motives and interactions between all 7 billion individuals that make up the system. This makes it a fun thought experiment, how many complicating motivating factors can you think of and what are their relative strengths on a human mind across different personalities.

Last night I was pondering a currently popular topic of Universal Basic Income. And it occurred to me that perhaps there is a win-win way that governments could slowly introduce them without breaking the bank.

The most common objection to basic income is ‘who pays for it?’ and certainly the most straight forward answer is to raise taxes on the rich and re-distribute the wealth downwards. This is a tough sell, especially since wealthy people hold sway with the government to protect their wealth, while the lower income earners hope to be wealthy one day and don’t want to experience higher taxes when they are. I don’t think this approach is viable for a substantial UBI scheme.

What is needed is an approach that makes business owners happy too.

Where could the government get the money to pay a UBI if not from increasing taxes?

The wealthy people themselves serve as an example of how to make a income that isn’t tied to work which we can model the government on. Wealthy families put their money to work for them and can live off the dividend payments forever. This is a model that may work at a national level with the government making the investments and passing the dividends through to citizens.

Are there any precedents for this kind of arrangement with other governments around the world? Yes! The Alaska Permanent Fund was established in 1976 as part of an amendment to their constitution. It was designed so that a portion (25%) of revenue from oil royalties flowed into an investment fund for future generations to enjoy. As of 2015 the fund is worth $55B and over the last 5 years the average annual payout has been $1352. That has proven to be a significant boost to the economy especially in rural areas where cash and jobs are scarce. While $1352 is not enough to be considered a basic income, it is a start, and proves that it’s possible to give money directly to citizens without raising taxes.

What would it look like to scale this up to a country like Canada? The population of Canada is 50x bigger than Alaska so a per capita equivalent wealth fund would be nearly $3T. That’s a massive number. It will take a long long time to reach that level, but it’s not as completely insane as it sounds. The execution of this plan would look a lot like Quantitative Easing. The government makes use of it’s ability to borrow at very low interest rates (currently about 0.5%) and use that money to buy assets. Those assets would yield income back and the spread between interest and yield is a profit that could be used to pay down the debt principal initially, but ultimately get passed down to citizens.

Instead of buying bonds and mortgage backed securities typical of the US Quantitative Easing approach, I’d suggest investing in equities and infrastructure as well. Pumping money directly into the TSX should make the elites happy.

Isolation of both the debt and assets into a ‘Canada investment Fund’ that is mandated to provide transparency would, I hope, ease the concerns of the added debt since people can see that there is $xB in debt but it’s offset by $yB in assets which generated $z in profit for all Canadians. If the government continued to finance more and more into this fund it could eventually reach the desired levels.

Quantitative Easing in the USA resulted in $12T worth of assets being bought by the government. Between 2005 and 2015, the Fed generated a profit of $700B for the US Government which is generated through these kinds of investments.

By making an investment directly in profitable businesses and infrastructure projects now, you help spin up the economy as that money gets put to work. And the government gets something in return for the investment (equity) instead of it being a more typical hand-out (grant or tax-break). Equity provides some accountability for an ROI. The fund can pass profits back to the government which could create the base of a universal basic income that is not based on raising tax rates.

My project for the month is a stock trading bot that will ingest tweets from accounts I consider to be market influencers and do some parsing and sentiment analysis to help create and execute a trade through my broker.

For years I’ve wanted to build something to do automated trading and this is something that seems simple enough to accomplish in a month.  That makes it a worthy experiment.

There are several steps to this process:

  1. connect to the twitter stream API and listen to specific user accounts
  2. for each tweet that comes in, parse it for a company name or CEO name
  3. if there is a company or CEO mentioned, find the ticker symbol
  4. run a sentiment analysis on the tweet
  5. look up the current price of the stock
  6. decide on a trade (long/short) and size, limits and stop loss
  7. execute trade through broker

This project will be open-source for those of you interested in watching the progress or curious to see how it works. Twitter Trading Project

For the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about budgets.  Businesses, particularly large ones, have very advanced budgets and therefore tools in place to monitor and analyse cash flows and budgetary concerns, sometimes even in real-time.

You can bet that a company like Facebook has the ability to show ad revenue per hour and probably per minute.  Obviously this is outside the scope of nearly any small business to put together, but the concepts are still valuable.  Tracking your income and expenses as accurately as possible allows for quicker decisions and possibly the ability to identify trends that might disappear in aggregate.

There’s the old adage that What gets measured gets managed.  To that end tools like Mint help with personal finances a bit, but sometimes you need some better real-time feedback on your spending behaviour.

Something that I want to get a better feel for personally is how spending matches up to my budget, if a couple of purchases blow the budget I want to know about it as quickly as possible so that I can adjust before sitting down at the end of the month to review my accounts.

I may try to put together a custom system to create budget alerts for this kind of thing by scraping credit card transactions.  It could be very beneficial.

I’m ramping up a couple of eCommerce websites as part of a strategy to create a home based business that my wife can take charge of when our daughter starts school in 9 months.  Part of building the foundation for a business like that is to get re-acquainted with the world of internet marketing… something that I was deep into several years ago but am now way out of date.

Facebook Ads seems to be an interesting platform for advertising now and is significantly different from Search advertising.  I’ve been reading and learning about various strategies for marketing on Facebook and I’m hearing about some really crazy and convoluted advertising funnels, like leveraging cheaper advertising markets for likes and engagement to help drive down costs and help improve social proof in the target market.

The interesting marketing psychology is that people are not on Facebook to look to buy products and so ads which sell things stand out as an ad and are not engaging. There really needs to be some kind of entertainment or curiosity value.  Like paid advertorials in print media the goal should be to mix in with the rest of a person’s news feed and not stand out as an advertisement.

To that end I’m going to be pumping a fair bit of money into Facebook over the coming months to test ad campaigns and find viable ways to run an eCommerce business.

 

For software developers there is an unhealthy prevailing belief that being a great programmer is some innate skill that others have. Brilliance with developing code is difficult to train for because it either requires some gift you don’t have or years of on the job experience.  There is a large amount of impostor syndrome within the community which is not healthy or productive.

Of course people who are top developers know that it takes a lot of hard work to understand core concepts. It helps to have a mentor and a solid education and access to training.

There is a tactic to getting better which more programmers should be using.  Deliberate practice is the most critical aspect to improving any craft and programming software is not an exception.  Like playing piano or painting or ceramics there is creativity and technical skill which can be improved on with deliberate practice.

If you want to get better at your craft it is not good enough to simply work on job tasks. For work you typically do something once and then it’s done, there’s few opportunities for repetition and critical evaluation.  If you were learning to play piano and you had a sheet of music the equivalent to developer workflow would be to play through the song once, stopping to go back and fix your mistakes then when you finished you’d put the song away move on to a new song.  Practising piano requires playing the same song hundreds of times, you start by playing and focusing on not making mistakes, when that is accomplished there is still practice at making the song sound good with appropriate pedal usage, tempo and dynamic, and finally when that is good enough you can continue to practice the same song and add your own touches – arpeggios, slurs, delays etc.

How many times have you implemented a deck of cards?  Can you write one top to bottom without looking up examples on stack overflow, or querying the documentation or searching through code completion lists? Could you write a deck of cards in a procedural, functional and object oriented styles?  Could you meta program a deck of cards? Could you make a deck that is thread safe? distributed? Web scale? Obfuscated?

Practice. Do it often, and do it deliberately.

Writing code everyday has been an interesting challenge.

In 2015 I started to work towards a long streak on GitHub which eventually capped out at 250 days. The questions I wanted to answer was:

  • Can I apply ‘deliberate practice‘ to programming and get better?
  • Can ‘free coding’ (like free writing) be effective way to push through writers block?
  • How important is memorising to your coding performance?
  • If syntax and API unknowns don’t present bottlenecks to your flow how fast can I translate an idea into code – can it be limited by typing speed?

I started a repository for my daily coding.  It had a simple script to generate a blank file everyday for me to code in and I would try to code something.  Sometimes it would be to explore a new python module, or fiddle with syntax, or challenge myself with a rosetta code example or replicate a previous day’s code from memory.  I wrote dozens of Flask apps, memorised the methods of lots of APIs, and gained a level of confidence with writing Python that I don’t have with any other language.

At the end of the streak I had a repository with hundreds of small scripts.  Only a handful of them were multi-day efforts or had any real value.  The variety of this collection proved to be useful on it’s own too – several times I have referred back to these examples to help with my actual work and to copy/paste snippets from.  Some of them started me down a path of exploration – like calculating the return on investment for solar panels.

Part of what enabled me to maintain this streak as long as I did was a simple script I wrote to check GitHub for daily activity and email me if I hadn’t yet committed any code.  This simple hack was enough of a reminder to keep me focused even when I was otherwise distracted.

This past week I turned that script into a web service anyone can use.  CodeStreak.io will watch your public github activity and email or SMS you if you haven’t yet pushed any code for the day.  This is the first project of 2017 that I plan on building to expand on my previous streak.

In 2017 I want to build 12 projects.  Each should be roughly 10-20 hours of effort and result in something that provides value for other people.  CodeStreak.io is an example of the kind of project that I want to undertake this coming year, but it is also a tool to help ensure that the momentum is sustained for 12 months.  Blocking out 4 hour chunks of time is a helpful way to really focus and be productive, but 4 hours once per week has been (for me) too sparse to maintain interest in something long enough to finish it.  A little bit everyday keeps a project on your mind.  Attempting to maintain a streak will be a tool to power through the bits that are otherwise uninteresting or difficult.  CodeStreak.io is a foundational tool necessary to accomplish my 2017 goal.

The questions I want to explore with this new goal are:

  1. Without a concern for generating revenue can I just write cool things and get them out there?
  2. Can I get deeper into something new and create something useful out of it with less than 20 hours of effort?
  3. Can you get good at seeing a project from start to finish – what skills or traits will improve the odds?

Hopefully, I’ll have some answers at the end of 2017.