Master of Your Destiny

Workforce

As the economy begins to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, people are starting to go back to work. Unfortunately, it seems some sources are suggesting that companies have engaged in sexist behaviors by only bringing men back to work. Or have they? I asked both my wife and my daughter what they thought the reason for this apparent sexism may be and they both came to the same conclusion – women were likely staying at home to take care of their children. None of the articles I read came to this conclusion.

Shouldn’t we stomp out sexism whenever we find it? Absolutely. As my daughter enters the workforce with a STEM degree, I want her to have the same opportunities as men. As a business owner, I have a simple rule for the people I work with – they must be the most qualified people I can find. Note my lack of concern for race, gender, religious creed, etc.

Unfortunately, I see a bigger problem with the assumption that everyone is bigoted: it destroys the motivation of those who are the target of those prejudices. For instance, as women see articles about sexism in the workplace, they increasingly believe that everyone is out to get them. Likewise, the constant insistence of racism creates an environment where minorities believe they’re unable to get the job. This causes those individuals to put in less effort or even give up. After all, if the system is rigged against a person, why would they bother to try?

These notions of sexism and racism end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. People give up, we see a less diverse workforce, and then point out the racial/gender makeup of the workforce to prove our conclusion.

What Do I Tell My Daughter?

When I talk to my daughter about sexism, I tell her that she is in control of her own destiny and can accomplish anything she wants to do. I tell her to ignore the reports of widespread bias and instead work hard to achieve her goals. I tell her that when she falls for narrative that women are at a disadvantage in the workplace, she becomes the victim and is unable to achieve her goals.

Conclusion

While I have witnessed sexism in the workplace, I reject the notion that women are systematically oppressed. I believe that women are just as capable as men, and that when they begin to see themself as the victim they kill their own upward mobility through the paralysis of fear. Most importantly, I reject the politics of division and believe we all end up better when we bring the best people together – regardless of race, gender, or any other meaningless classifier.

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!

Financial Planning

Money

The unprecedented impact of the Coronavirus will certainly be the subject of countless articles during the following decade. After all, there’s much to be learned from this event in a variety of fields. Economists, epidemiologists, lawyers, and business owners will all approach the subject from a different angle. Undoubtedly, many of those conversations will involve financial planning and economic impact.

As I look at the nation, after over a month of lockdown, the most obvious thing I see is the lack of sound financial planning. From the individual to the federal government, this event has exposed a gaping hole in our ability to plan for disasters. Of course, it’s easy to say that nobody could have predicted a pandemic – so how could we prepare? But countless disasters happen every single year. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, winter weather, and extreme cold are common events that could easily bring harm to a business or family.

Furthermore, sound financial planning has always said you should have six months cash on hand. That’s wise advice for individual, corporate, and government financial planning. Yet, within a week of the lockdowns, people were lining up at food banks across the nation. Surely businesses would be better prepared. Right? Sadly not. Within short order, the government opened loan programs to keep businesses from failing. Even worse, the government itself was unprepared and an extra 2 trillion dollars was added to an already unsustainable national debt to deal with the virus.

From one end of our nation to the other, nobody had any money in the bank to weather a week long storm – let alone a months long shutdown. And, sadly, I think we’ll see innumerable businesses lost in the fallout of this national disaster.

How can we – the business community better deal with these kinds of events in the future? First, we obviously need to ensure that we have adequate cash on hand to continue to meet our financial obligations even if we are unable to conduct business. Second, we need to find creative ways to operate our businesses using eCommerce, cloud systems, or other technologies that can operate even during a disaster. Third, we need to encourage everyone – at all levels – to put money back for a rainy day. We may not see another plague in our lifetime, but we will undoubtedly see other disasters.

Marketing 3.0

Marketing

In the early days of marketing, companies relied on print, and broadcast media. Newspapers, magazines, television, and radio provided advertising solutions for everyone. Then came the internet. During the last decade, we’ve seen marketing rapidly move to things like Google AdWords as well as social media. Today, people make heavy use of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to push their brand. Through both paid advertising as well as providing content, social media is now a major player in the marketing realm.

Unfortunately, however, this seems to be changing faster than many would like to admin. Facebook’s user base is dwindling, and Twitter is typically only used by people looking for information within a niche market – such as music or tech. Worse yet, LinkedIn – once a place for professional networks – is becoming the venue of choice for advertising. Initially, I embraced the use of LinkedIn to advertise my services to local businesses. Unfortunately, over the last year, I have been increasingly bombarded with connection requests from people who simply want to sell me products. Now, I am increasingly reluctant to connect with people I don’t know. I look for where the individual is located, and if it’s outside the US, I reject the connection. I’ve removed individuals who acted as spammers. None of this is new, of course, I’ve talked about it before (Social Media Etiquette and Sleazy LinkedIn Users).

Now, I am left to wonder where the next phase in advertising will take us. I assume others are having the same experiences, and are wondering the same thing. Mobile advertising seems to be good, but only if you’re selling games. Advertising on digital audio services such as Pandora or Spotify are great – if you’ve got the budget. I have to assume that other’s are having the same experiences I am, and so these methods are becoming less useful. I think we are on the brink of a massive shift in marketing, but I’m not sure what it will be. But whatever it is, I hope it’s less spammy than what people are doing now.

Local Hack Day 2019

Learning

In December, I once again spoke at the South Hills School of Business and Technology for their Local Hack Day. I shared some of the lessons I learned throughout the year, and would like to share them here on my blog as well.

Team Members

Throughout the year, I encounter people who would like some development work on the side. They may be experienced developers looking for additional work, recently graduated noobs, or people just trying to find a place to start on their software engineering journey. As a small business, I don’t have the bandwidth to take them all on. But when I see potential, I try to see if I can plug them in. This year, I learned three valuable lessons about staff. First, inspect what you expect. Just because someone says they possess a particular skill does not mean they actually do. Finding this out late in the game can be very costly. Second, I would encourage noobs to check their attitude at the door. If you’re just starting out, don’t assume you know more than me. You don’t. Third, friends don’t always make great team members. They may be great to hang out with, but mixing personal and professional relationships can be dangerous.

Customer Relations

As a software engineer, learning to deal with customers is a new challenge for me. This year, I learned the value of contracts. While I have always preferred to do business with a handshake, I’ve learned that customers may not always think the same. Without a contract, you have no recourse when your customer relationship goes south. On the flip side, when you do have a signed contract, treat your customer like the girlfriend (or boyfriend) that you’ve always wanted. Show them how much they matter as a customer. Otherwise, they’ll find a service provider who will!

Productivity

I started this year doing a lot of work that yielded no value. As a business, I must focus on those things that generate revenue for my organization. Some of that work is obvious – such as billable customer hours. Others tasks are essential, but don’t generate revenue directly – such as advertising efforts. Still other tasks are utterly useless – stop doing them. For things that are essential but don’t generate revenue, find ways to automate them or to lesson the workload. I use Hootsuite for my social media, for example, because it optimizes my social media workflow.

Valuable Tools

As a developer, it’s important to have the right tools available to not only be in a position to exploit future opportunities but also to be able to meet current business demands. I have been telling people for the last year to learn OpenCV and Artificial Intelligence. The future will undoubtedly involve computer systems doing work previously only done by humans. In the meantime, learning how to create PDFs is a far more practical business need for everyone. I’ve also found LaTeX to be a very useful tool for creating business documents. Not only can I easily check the documents into source control, but I have 100% control over the layout without my software injecting the style it thinks I want.

Education

In the tech world, you can never be left behind. You need to always be learning new tools, frameworks, and languages. Go to sites like Udemy or Coursera and further your tech skills. Seek out valuable certifications and read books. Louis Pasteur famously said “luck favors the prepared”. In the tech world, that’s typically the programmer with the broader skillset.

Conclusion

Each year of our lives, we should strive to be more than we were last year. The starting point for that is to reflect on the last year and learn from your successes and your mistakes and then to apply those lessons to the coming year. Look back on your last year and take note. This year can be the best year ever if you put in the effort to ensure you’re on the right path.

Microsoft Account Mayhem

Mayhem

Recently, I purchased a laptop for a non-profit organization. The user was not a super tech-savvy individual, so I decided to get everything setup as much as possible for her. Since the laptop was running Windows 10 in S mode, I would need to first upgrade to the standard Windows 10 version. During the initial laptop startup, I avoided using a Microsoft account. However when started the upgrade process, the first thing Windows did was ask me to sign into my Microsoft account. No problem, I enter my credentials and wait for the upgrade to complete. As I continue, however, I notice that Microsoft added my OneDrive account and had started downloading my data. Then, I see that Microsoft Office is registered to me. Obviously, I didn’t want any of this. So, now I go through everything piece by piece and remove my account information.

A few days later, I’m at a client site setting up Office. I enter the credentials for the user, and am provided with an error that another Microsoft user is already signed into the machine. Search as I may, I could not find out what Microsoft was complaining about. Fortunately, after a reboot I managed to get it working again.

I really like how Microsoft has integrated their services into Windows. OneDrive is an amazing tool to easily share between machines, and using a single sign-on to enable all the Microsoft services can be convenient. Or, it can be a nightmare. Microsoft, how about you stop forcing someone to login to get a Windows update. Or, better yet, ask if we want to use that same sign for other services. While you’re at it, change Office registration to be more friendly for business users. I think we’d all rather have a product key than to worry about registering Microsoft accounts for every member of our team.

Electronic Check Payment

Money

Like many small businesses across America, I use QuickBooks to manage my accounting. While it’s sometimes buggy, overall it’s a great application. So, when I got a message to setup online payments for my customers, I thought it sounded like a win. Customer’s wouldn’t have to deal with writing a check, and I’d get my money quicker. Or would I?

I typically bill customers at the end of the month. So, when October 31’s rolled around, I sent bills to all my customers. It was the first time I enabled electronic payment services, and one of my customer decided to take advantage of that service. In fact, he had paid me within 2 hours of receiving the invoice! I was excited, and eagerly waiting for the money to appear in my bank account. And I would be waiting for an entire week. That’s right. In a world where I can email someone in China within minutes, or call someone in Australia right now, it takes a week for money to electronically transfer to a bank across the city.

This isn’t the fault of QuickBooks. When I went back to their terms, I found out that 5 business days was the expected turnaround time. But for the $10 fee they charged me, I actually waited longer for the check to clear than I would have if the customer mailed me the check to manually deposit in the bank.

How is this even possible today? How is it that banks – where I can withdraw money at an ATM anywhere in the world, won’t let me move money electronically in the same time period?

Well, as it turns out, I actually received an email from QuickBooks today – their new service will offer next-day payments. Thank you, QuickBooks, for bringing payment services into the 21st century!

Mac – Not For Business Anymore

Catalina

A few years ago, I fell in love with the MacBook Pro. From the amazing display to the incredible battery life and everything in between, the MacBook Pro is an amazing machine. Unfortunately, Apple started killing that when they removed support for standard USB and I decided not to upgrade. Now, Apple has placed the final nail in the coffin for professional users with Catalina.

Apple has grown accustomed to telling their customers what they want and providing few options. Whether it’s the iPhone, the iPad, or their computer products, you typically don’t have many choices. This has always been a complaint lodged against Apple by PC users. But during the last year, this has killed the effectiveness of the MacBook Pro for business users. With Catalina, Apple has removed support for 32-bit software applications. Unfortunately, as a business user, I don’t have the luxury of upgrading my system if it’s going to kill applications I need for my business. In the business world, legacy code and applications may exist for a decade or more. So, I need to support those systems until they are end-of-life. This means insuring that I having support for 32-bit applications well into the future.

So, as of Catalina, I am no longer an Apple fan. I will keep my current MacBook Pro until it is no longer usable, but my next machine will be a Windows laptop. I can pick what ports I want, and find the corresponding laptop. I can decide what OS I want and what software. I don’t need Apple to tell me what I want – I’m a business user and I know my tech needs far better than they do.

Sleazy LinkedIn Users

Bar

As a small business owner, I am always trying to improve my social network. It’s an essential part of business development and the main point of LinkedIn. During the last decade, I’ve communicated with clients, prospective customers, old colleagues, and people I went to school with via LinkedIn. Unfortunately, now that I’m a business owner, I increasingly find that too many LinkedIn users behave like they’re at a sleazy bar. They connect with me to ‘grow their network’, and within a month I’ve received a half-dozen unsolicited messages to give them my business. I find this utterly annoying. Just because I connected to you doesn’t mean I am looking to outsource to your company, purchase your health care, use your accounting services, or anything else. And your behavior ensures that won’t change.

Previously, I wrote a blog about Social Media Etiquette. In that blog, I mentioned the Like/Know/Trust model. The idea is that you move connections from the outer circle to the inner. I start by getting you to like me, then get you to know me better, and finally get you to trust me with your business. Unfortunately, when you start by spamming me, I don’t like you. If I don’t like you, I will never get to a point where I trust you.

Why are people engaging in this sleazy behavior? I assume, sadly, that it gets results. If you spam enough people, you only need a small percentage of conversions to consider your method a success. But what happens to your reputation among those who didn’t purchase your product? It’s possible that I may have purchased your product at some point, had I ever gotten to know you, but now I never will. You have lost a potential customer who, because of your sleazy business practice, will never be converted to a client.

My advice for social media: slow and steady wins the race. Develop meaningful relationships with people, share meaningful content, engage your network. Through this process you will earn friends. And we all know that given the choice of working with a friend or a stranger, nearly everyone will chose to give their business to someone they know and trust.

To those who spam me on LinkedIn: my new policy is to immediately remove you from my network. You bring nothing of value to me. I get enough spam in my email, I don’t need it on social media too.

Value & Time

Growth

When we think about value, we think about the cost we pay for something. However, that’s a very shortsighted definition. We probably only consider cost as defining value because most of the things we buy are defined this way. For instance, when we go to a grocery store, we look at two brands of cheese, and the cheaper one is the better value. It doesn’t matter much which is the better quality cheese, it simply matters which is the cheaper cheese. As consumers, we typically only consider the cost. To me, the definition of value is far more complicated.

Buying Vacuum Cleaners

Twenty years ago, when I would buy a vacuum cleaner, I only considered cost when purchasing. The cheapest vacuum was the best value and the one I would purchase. But time and time again, I found that my value vacuum cleaner would stop working after about a year. So, I’d go back to the store and buy another one. I was paying about $100 per year to purchase vacuum cleaners. Note that now my value definition has a time element. After several years, I considered buying a Dyson vacuum cleaner. It was four times as expensive, but I had hoped it would do a better job than the $100 vacuum cleaners and that it would last longer. And today, 15 years later, I still have that same Dyson vacuum cleaner. If it were to break today, I would have spent $400 over 15 years for my vacuum. That’s a substantially better value than before!

Value of Technology

The cost of computer technology is very similar. You can buy the $300 laptop and expect to replace it next year, or you can buy a MacBook and have it for 10 years. But custom software is a little more difficult to directly compare since the price tag isn’t as clearly defined. What I’ve found is that when customers purchase consulting services or software development services based solely on the cost of those services, they often find that the price tag explodes over the lifespan of the product due to poor development. When you find the developer with the lowest cost, he probably has the least experience. He will take longer to accomplish the work since he’s bound to run into more snags than an experienced developer. He’s also likely to overlook things that a senior developer wouldn’t. These issues will result in additional costs during the lifetime of the application to fix in addition to lost time and productivity from your software users.

Conclusion

Paying for custom technology services is more like buying a vacuum than it is purchasing a block of cheese from the grocery store. The true value of those technology services will be defined not by cost alone, but by how long those services solve your technology problems.