Find (or found) a consulting support group

I work on my own most of the time, out of my house. This means that I have regular email and phone contact with other people, typically clients, but only occasional face to face time. This style of work suits me, though I have friends who say it drives them batty. I enjoy the short commute and the freedom to order my day as I see fit (as long as I deliver).

However, sometimes it’s nice to have contact with people who aren’t paying you money. Users groups (such as BJUG) and meetups (such as the New Tech Meetup) can be informative and through provoking, but the presentation focus makes it hard for me to connect with other people. What I’ve found works best is a small regular lunch group with other consultants.

At lunch, you can discuss business problems, sometimes related to people who aren’t paying you money, but should be. You can get referrals for professional services that you may need–accountants, lawyers, etc. The group can be a source of business for you, as well as a place you can find someone to refer clients to for projects beyond your expertise. I always find it interesting to hear what other people are doing: one of my favorite lunchtime activities is the ‘new project go around’, where everyone talks about what new project he or she is working on.

In short, gathering on a regular basis with a set of consultants who you know and trust can be very useful. I have found once a month works just right for me–we always have plenty to talk about. We have also met semi monthly, and that was alright too–a bit harder on the schedule. A group of 4-8 people is about the right size–less and you don’t get as much cross pollination, more and you start to lose track of people. If you can, try to have people from different parts of the technology world in the lunch. The group I belong to has development managers, UI folks, project managers, developers and designers. This means that if I have a problem to discuss, I can get a lot of different viewpoints.

How do you start such a consulting support group? I think the best way to do it is to pick a restaurant and time, and invite 10 colleagues that would find this type of networking both useful and geographically convenient. At the restaurant the first time, see if people are interested. If so, set up an email list, and pick future dates. Don’t try to pick a time to meet that always works for everyone–part of the reason to invite 10 or so people to start the group is so you have enough people for a good conversation when someone inevitably can’t make it.

My group wrote up some bylaws–the most important of which was that no clients would be invited, except with prior notice to the email list. The reason for that was to allow the sometimes frank discussion of issues. Other than that, just set up a recurring event in your calendars and ping the email list when the lunch is near. And let the discussion commence!


Connecting PHP and Java

Have you ever had a project written primarily in PHP, but there were some java systems that you wanted to connect to? Perhaps there was a third party library or a java API that you really want (or are required) to use, but PHP had been chosen for other reasons.

The php java bridge is your solution. The documentation is good, and the performance is pretty darn good (if you’re looking for benchmarks, search for ‘How fast is it?’). You can use the bridge over sockets, a xml based protocol via servlets, or over a mono application. The mailing list is active, and it looks like the primary developer actually answers questions on said list (as of May 2007).

I’ve always been a bit hesitant regarding cross language programming: “Great, now I get to debug in two languages that communicate via sockets! Yahoo!”. But for a certain set of circumstances, using this bridge can be the right answer.

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Extending AWStats reporting

AWStats is a powerful, free web log analysis tool. I had a client that had some specific reporting needs–parsing urls retrieved and reporting how many times any document in a specific set of directories (but no other ones) had been viewed.

Luckily, AWStats is configurable enough to do this using the Extra Sections feature; in fact, there is an example in the documentation showing how to do exactly what the client needed. In fact, you can do a ton with regular expressions and AWStats. Basically, if the data is in the web logs, you can build a custom report for it.

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