Cool Tech Gifts for Christmas

Circuit Board

With Thanksgiving behind us, it’s time to start looking for gifts for the important people in our lives. If one of those people happens to be a techie, what can you get them? Particularly if they’re a teen? Here are some ideas of cool tech toys for the people on your list.

Electronics

There are some really great products out there for learning more about electronics. One of my favorites is littleBits. Each piece contains a separate electronic component – such as a speaker, button, or power cell – than can be connected magnetically to create circuits. With a variety of sets available, you can create all kinds of projects.

Another cool electronic toy is Snap Circuits. Snap Circuits are more like a traditional electronics learning set, but instead of using wires connected to metal springs, the pieces are snapped on a board with metal buttons. These buttons connect pieces together to create the electrical circuitry.

Both of these sets are appropriate for children as young as elementary school and are great for learning the basics of electrical engineering with countless online and print books available for project ideas.

Microcontrollers

For the techie with a bit more experience in electronics, a microcontroller may be the perfect gift. Today, there are countless microcontrollers available. However my two favorites are the Arduino and the micro:bit.

The micro:bit was developed by the BBC to teach children more about electronics and programming. It’s a small device, but it packs a lot of cool features including a grid of LEDs, an accelerometer, buttons, and built-in bluetooth support. They’re very easy to program and fairly inexpensive. NOTE: buy two, you’ll need them to play with the bluetooth functionality!

For more mature electronics enthusiasts, the Arduino is amazing. In fact, it is well beyond a toy for learning and has transcended into the hands of professionals creating prototypes and products. Countless kits exist on sites such as Amazon that include wires, motors, LEDs, buttons, resistors, and countless other components to build just about anything. In addition, since Arduino is truly the industry leader, it’s easy to find books and online resources for help as well as inspiration.

Microcomputers

With more power than microcontrollers and more versatility as well, microcomputers offer unlimited opportunities to create and explore. The industry leader in this real has long been the Raspberry Pi. About the size of a credit card and costing substantially less than a typical computer, the Raspberry Pi is an excellent platform for learning and exploration. You can interface the Pi with custom hardware, learn to program with Scratch, create a custom video game console, or explore countless other options. And, much like the Arduino, online retailers have numerous kits with all kinds of parts to aid in learning and fun.

A newcomer to the microcomputer realm, the NVIDIA Jetson Nano offers programmers and techies a new real to explore – artificial intelligence! This small box (about the size of a Raspberry Pi) features an NVIDIA graphics processor specifically configured to perform the intense number crunching associated with AI processing. This is an excellent gift idea for those who already have some background in programming and electronics and want to take their ideas to the next level!

Conclusion

This is a great time to be a techie. With countless low-cost gadgets available to encourage exploration and experimentation, the barrier to learning technology has never been lower! Take time to explore the products out there and buy something that may encourage someone in your life to join the tech revolution!

Simple Tips to Avoid Scammers

Gangster

It seems that every day criminals find new ways to separate victims from their money. However, most of these tricks can be avoid with three simple rules.

Assume all email is junk mail until proven otherwise

Email is the easiest way to scam people. It takes little effort to send out thousands of messages, and scammers win if even a small percentage of people act on their messages.

Don’t click on links. If you believe the email to be from a reputable source, go directly to their website instead of using the email link

Don’t open attachments. This is particularly true for unsolicited Microsoft Office documents such as Word and Excel, but equally important for any other attachment. If you believe the attachment to be valid, contact the sender by phone and confirm they sent it.

Contact the sender directly. If you get a message claiming to be from someone important in your organization and asking you to do something that seems odd, contact the person and verify authenticity.

Assume all phone calls are spam

Suspect local numbers. If a caller claims to be from your credit card company or the IRS, but their phone number is from your area, it’s a scam.

Ignore callers from India. Does the speaker have an Indian accent? It’s a scam. The overwhelming majority of spam calls originate from call centers in India.

Caller can’t provide you with information. Does the caller know your name, address, account number, or other information? If not, are they really your bank? I doubt it.

Avoid entering data in unencrypted sites

Check for the secure icon in your browser. If the web site you’re visiting isn’t encrypted, be skeptical. Particularly if they’re asking you to enter personal information. Never, under any circumstances, enter your credit card information in a non-secure site.

Conclusion

The simple answer for security in the modern age can be summed up “trust no one”. Assume everyone is out to scam you, and you’re probably not far from the truth. If you want to conduct business with an entity, go to their web page directly or contact them on the phone. Always assume the incoming solicitations you receive are from people trying to cheat you and you will likely avoid most scammers.

Business Continuity

The Road Ahead

During the last several months, we have seen unprecedented damage to businesses. Every single day, we see more reports of closures and bankruptcies. Yet, among all the carnage, we see some businesses that managed to thrive. What was it that allowed these businesses to perform so well during this time? Business Continuity Planning.

Of course, some businesses – like grocers and stores with other necessities – were less impacted by the virus. And others, such as hair stylists and nail salons, are utterly unable to perform their job without close contact. But in between those two lie a large number of businesses. In those businesses, the winners were those with business continuity plans that included technology.

As businesses closed down in Pennsylvania, one of the first stores inundated with business was BestBuy. Within short order, all of their computers and laptops were gone. Why? Because businesses were equipping their employees to work from home. Businesses with the ability to setup an online store quickly found they had to. But the biggest winners were those who already had the technology in place. Those businesses were already able to function remotely and their staff had done so before with work from home policies or as a necessary part of their business travel.

Recommendations

How can you be better prepared next time? Here are some technology recommendations for businesses to ensure they’re in a better position next time.

First, find a technology for remote communications. Zoom has been heavily mentioned during the past few months, but dozens of other options exist. As a software company, I like Slack. Others like Google Hangouts. Whatever your choice, make sure your staff is familiar with it.

Second, setup your office for remote access. This can be as simple as a service such as GoToMyPC.com or as detailed as a VPN setup. Whatever it is, make sure all your staff is able to access all necessary systems from outside the office.

Third, invest in cloud technologies. Whether they are off-the-shelf or custom solutions, get as much as you can outside your network so that those systems are easily accessible by your remote workforce.

Fourth, examine relative mobile technologies. Many cloud solutions have mobile apps, and many other work functions can be performed on tablets or phones. This will allow greater availability of your team regardless of where they are – at home or on the road.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this is a black swan event that does not occur again within our lifetime. But even if it doesn’t, you may be impacted by natural disaster, fire, or other extraordinary events that have the same impact – difficulty performing business function. Put the tools into place today so you are better able to handle the next disaster.

If your business needs help with custom cloud or mobile solutions, please reach out to us. We can create solutions for small business or large enterprise. Then, you can sleep easy knowing your business will continue regardless of what goes on around you!

Remote Connections

Computer on a Tree Stump

As a techie, I often need to connect to a variety of computers to accomplish my work. But as a small business owner, I enjoy the freedom to do my work from wherever I choose. How can you accomplish both? Remote connections! Through a variety of technologies, I am able to access the resources necessary to do my job from anywhere around the globe.

SSH

The simplest means to remotely connect to a computer is through Secure Shell – better known as SSH. SSH is a secure replacement for the much older (and insecure) telnet protocol. SSH uses public-key cryptography, so you can setup keys to connect to your server instead of a password. This makes connecting easier and more secure. SSH is a text-only connection type and is particularly well-suited for Linux machines. However, while SSH is a great tool for controlling a Linux server remotely, it doesn’t allow you to use resources on that server (or network) from your local machine. For example, if the remote server runs a website, you won’t be able to access that site via SSH.

SSH Tunnel

While SSH won’t allow you to access remote resources directly, you can turn options for tunneling. Tunneling will map local ports to remote ports so that your local computer can access resources on a remote computer. For example, if your remote server runs a MySQL server, you can setup an SSH tunnel to forward localhost:3306 to remotehost:3306. Then, you can setup your MySQL client to connect via your local machine. The SSH tunnel will then forward your requests to the local machine. I heavily use this technology for web sites on my development build server. For example, I run a Jenkins server on port 8080. I can SSH into my machine and create a tunnel to port 8080. This allows me to view my Jenkins web server from anywhere. I even have an Android application (JuiceSSH) that allows me to setup SSH tunneling from my phone. So, when I need to control a Jenkins build on the road, I connect via JuiceSSH and make the necessary changes.

VPN

Sometimes, a tunnel just isn’t enough. Maybe you need your computer appear to be on another network. Running my own business, I have some clients who allow me to access their systems – but they require me to connect from my office IP address. Since I like to travel – or work from home – I need a way to remotely connect to my network. A VPN is the perfect solution. I can access everything on my network, and I appear to be on that network by other systems. Unfortunately, a VPN is a little more complicated to setup. OpenVPN software is available to setup a server, but I have found it more difficult to setup than I would like. (When I did get it setup, I found it frequently locked up on my Linux server too.) So, I decided to buy a Netgear Nighthawk router. Their embedded VPN works great from Android, Mac, iOS, and Windows.

An added bonus of a VPN is that it can be used to secure your connection when you are using a public WiFi connection. Additionally, since you will appear to be at a particular IP address, you can access services that are only available from your geographical area. For example, web-based TV programs only available to users within a specific geographical area.

Conclusion

The ability to remotely access resources means you can work from any location in the world. You don’t need to be at your office. You can even access your home computer from work or from your phone. If you’re looking for an easy way to connect, look at SSH – it’s a simple and very effective way to access remote computers!

Scheduling & Planning

Schedule

Last January, I made a decision that profoundly changed my life – I started scheduling and planning my time. Most people are subjected to schedules and plans at the workplace, but few take their life so seriously. As a consequence, we all end up in a place we never intended to be. We all have hopes and dreams, but we fail to plan the steps necessary to get there. During the last year, I started my business full time, completed 61 college credits in 6 months, read four books in Chinese, and accomplished more than I have in years. None of these things would have happened without planning and scheduling.

Pen & Paper

Many people may use electronic tools like Google Calendar or their iPad Reminders. While these are both great tools, they are way too easy to ignore. I have found that using a written planner is so much more effective. Every night, I plan out out the most important things I need to accomplish the following day. On Sunday, I plan the big items I need to accomplish throughout the week. I take notes of what happened in any given day so that I can reflect on my progress later and see where I can improve. I nearly always have my journal nearby so that I can capture anything important to me.

Electronic Tools

While I prefer to do my scheduling and task lists on paper, there are some things that simply work better via electronic scheduling. For instance, when I write a blog post, I schedule it to be published at a future date. That way, I can write several posts during one block of time and have them go out during the upcoming month. For my social media, I use HootSuite for the same purpose. I can schedule all my media for the week or the month and not worry about it during the week. This ensures that my blog and my social media are constantly fresh and updated without the necessary worry about posting every day.

The End Result

Through the use of scheduling tools, I have found that I am able to be substantially more productive than ever before. Tasks get accomplished on time, more gets done, and I have more free time to focus on the things I enjoy in life. Even more importantly, I know where my life is headed. I have a plan, and I know where I’m going. Do you?

Lessons Learned

A little over a year ago, I decided to start using a planner to keep track of my todo list, take notes, and keep track of progress on projects. Each week, I review what happened during the week and note any lessons learned during that week. At the end of the year, I compiled all the lessons into a PDF document that I can frequently review. This helps me to continuously improve myself both personally and professionally. Some of the things I’ve learned may be worth sharing.

Fall in Love with Customers

I’d like to say this one was mine, but I read it somewhere and it really resonated with me as an owner of a service company. Imagine if you treated every customer like you were as infatuated with them as you are with the man or woman of your dreams. Deliver that level of service! This is a hard one, but if you can do it you will never be without clients!

Be a Leader in Everything You Do

It’s easy to lay back and relax, and let someone else take charge. But your success will only be achieved when you make it happen! If you want to be successful, you need to be a leader in everything you do – in your home, your workplace, your place of worship, your social clubs, absolutely everywhere.

Focus on People

As a business owner, it’s easy to focus on money. We worry that we won’t have enough or that our sales pipeline is drying up. When we do that, we lose focus on people. But relationships are really what matters most. Every job I’ve ever had – whether as an employee or a contractor – started by having a relationship with someone.

Be Selective of How You Spend Time

Life is short, and you’re busy. Do you really have time to commit to a new project? Volunteer at the school? Take on additional responsibility? If the answer is no, don’t commit. It’s easy to become overcommitted – and burned out. If you don’t have the bandwidth or the desire to do something – don’t do it. Focus your time on the things that will aid in achieving your goals.

Set Goals

I have found that by setting goals – both annually, quarterly, and weekly, I am able to achieve substantially more than I could before. I heard it once said “plan the work and work the plan”.

Conclusion

While I have hundreds of other lessons learned, the above represent some of the most important. This year, I have been trying to do a better job at all of the above. I’ve got far to go, but I can see the fruit of my labor when I look at how far my business has come during the past year.

Know Your Numbers

As a US based tech company, if someone were to ask which language we would use to be able to communicate with the most people around the world, “English” would probably be the expected answer. While English is second only to Mandarin Chinese (the most spoken language in the world), communicating nonverbally through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) would serve as a more universally effective method. Regardless of whether the person on the other end of the conversation can speak the same language, anyone can relate through numbers.

In business, numbers are considerably more important. From margins to revenue and analytics, companies live and die by their numbers. Some of my favorite businesses have closed, not due to a lack of quality in their product or service, but because they failed to understand how to properly manage and utilize numbers. Sadly enough, companies with millions of dollars in revenue can still have little to no profit. Likewise, companies can often easily fail to deliver on the value proposition of their product or service.

As I continue to help Talixa develop and grow through refining our business processes and my own social media processes (specifically twitter for the time being), I constantly am looking to see what the numbers can tell me. Experimenting is one of the best ways to learn, because it leads to a wider range of experience. Individuals, businesses, and organizations can develop and grow simply by taking action upon an understanding that numbers are a priority.

Looking for advice based on anything I’ve said? I’m happy to give it, free of charge. Reach out using any of these methods:

DM Talixa on Twitter: twitter.com/TalixaSoftware
Message Nick on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/nick-gordon
Email Nick: nick@talixa.com

New Year New Me?

After Christmas each year, many people begin a process of introspection in order to help determine their New Year’s resolution. While resolutions generally aim to improve oneself or a particular aspect of life, few actually survive very long. In my own experience, the promise of change on New Year’s Day was more of a novelty than something that I truly considered and took seriously. In all honesty, thinking about becoming a better person is vastly more fun than actually taking action to make it happen.

Regardless, most people admit that they do, in fact, want to improve in certain areas. My greatest criticism of New Year’s resolutions and phrases like “new year new me” comes out of the premise that in order to effectively develop and grow, people need to constantly focus and reevaluate. Quite frankly, bringing others along into the process to create a feedback loop and accountability serves an essential purpose as well. When change is important enough, it should be implemented immediately rather than wait around for the first of January. Further, if a person needs a holiday to change, then how genuine is that desire?

With that being said, if you have been thinking about how to change going into the new year, might I suggest that you start now, instead of waiting for Tuesday to roll around. Whether you want to make changes to improve your health, family, work, or something else, be mindful of why you really want to change, how you plan to get there, and what consequences will result from your success. Every morning presents a new opportunity to become someone different than you saw in the mirror yesterday. Be encouraged, and feel free to save and return to this article to refocus throughout the year.

Opportunity Awaits

Timing is everything, and managing time properly is extremely important as well. Tim Ferriss might say it best, “If you don’t have time, you don’t have priorities.” Assuming people read the big letters that make up the title of this content, they may be asking “Why all this talk about time and timing instead of opportunity?” The simple answer becomes quite clear by taking a look at the second word: Opportunity AWAITS.

Now take a moment to think of some opportunities that impact life. Whether it’s a first date, a new job, or a college acceptance letter, these opportunities, regardless of magnitude, contribute to the direction of a person’s life. Smaller opportunities can lead to greater opportunities, and over a short period of time, life can radically change. While it’s impossible to anticipate every opportunity, people can prepare to capitalize on any opportunity, good or bad.

As a company, our preparation is critical to the success of both our clients and our business. We know that success does not happen by accident, yet we also do our best to put the needs of others above our own. In reality, we understand that the value of education far outweighs a pushy sales pitch, so we spend our time and money educating ourselves and others who express interest in who we are and what we do. In doing so, we hope that the friends we meet along the way appreciate what we do for them and help spread the word.

If you have interest in learning more about why we continue to work with new businesses to develop and grow, simply click on the “Contact” tab and choose your preferred method. Opportunity awaits!

Limit[ed/less]

Over time, there is an infinitely small likelihood that I would be capable of talking about this blog individually to everyone who will ever be interested and invested in the content. As more content meets more people, time would inevitably run out. Fortunately, with the help of technology, here we are. The limitations of the internet are not the same as the limitations of my mouth, and building upon this foundation brings some game changing ideas.

While the internet provides much better potential to reach more eyes and ears, nobody wants to give up the benefits of using their mouth to speak. Nobody wants to upload their entire life to YouTube either. If humanity would become incapable of speaking, however, the way we think about even the smallest aspects of everyday life would change, similar to how the internet has impacted how we interact with the world. This leads into what we can learn  and apply to tech and business.

Regardless of individual circumstances, people have areas where they are presumably limited more or less than others. For instance, the fact that I am 6’4″ implies that my height is much less limited than most. But how would things change if we alter the conditions? You might be pleasantly surprised at the result if you consider questions like this in a variety of circumstances.

When applying this thinking to finances and business growth, the effect becomes clear. Say a business operates on $200,000 per year. What would be done differently (and why?) if the business had an annual operating budget of $100,000? How about $400,000? Putting businesses into these hypothetical situations will inevitably help foster a mindset of growth by overcoming presumed limitations in a practical way.

Circumstances will certainly change over time, for better or worse. By asking these questions now, you can gain a better understanding of why you might choose to take one course of action over another. Hopefully this entire process will help you more adequately prepare for your next big decision. After all, with preparation and execution people develop and grow.