Book Review: Goliath

I recently read Goliath, by Matt Stoller. It was, I’ll be honest, hard going. Not because it wasn’t interesting or because the writing was bad. Just because it’s a dry subject and there are a lot of people involved.

The book is about how we (the USA, there’s really no coverage of any other country) think about the economy. Who is in charge? Big business, or people opposed to big business, who Stoller calls anti monopolists, and who most often act through government institutions.

The author starts with Teddy Roosevelt and the early 1900s, covers Wilson’s presidency (I had no idea he was so progressive, nor what an impact Brandeis had), the 1920s and the power of the financier and secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon. The Great Depression gets some interesting coverage and we learn about how Mellon was almost impeached (he resigned before the House took up the matter). The anti monopolists were ascendant in the 1930s, interestingly in part because of fear of fascism coming to the USA. During the 1940s and 1950s when there was a pretty firm understanding that large enterprises were not good for the country. This was based on an shared understanding of the causes of the Depression. Then the Chicago school begins and starts to chip away at the intellectual underpinnings of the anti monopolist move. This combines with a re-imagining of the American populace as consumers rather that small business owners and farmers.

This accelerates in the 1970s, and the fed starts to rescue failing enterprises like Penn Central. In the 1980s the author discusses Michael Milken and how he ran the junk bond markets through a combination of market making and outright fraud. He also talks about how the savings and loans crises and the uneven unwinding of regulation affect the economy. He also covers briefly the rise of Walmart. Stoller also discusses turning points where the free-market philosophy could have been reversed, but instead, due to a lack of understanding of the monopolistic roots of the Great Depression, it is not. This happens with both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom came to power during economic downturns, and both of whom followed financiers’ advice. At the end he discusses how the intellectual foundation of anti monopolyism is being rebuilt, and invites everyone to join.

The book was much more interesting to me when it was covering earlier history. He threads a lot of it together by talking about Wright Patman, a Texas congressman who was a valiant defender of the anti monopoly practices and institutions that were created after the Depression (the FTC, the Justice Department’s Antitrust division).

This book, long and dry as it was at times, was important for two reasons. First, you have to know history before you can understand the current day. Second, there’s a lot of populist anger (justified in my mind) about the way that the Great Recession was handled, and I think that is shown in both Trump and some of the current Democratic candidates. I’m very interested in that anger being harnessed in as constructive a way as possible. I also think that it’s a valueable conversation to have about the tradeoff between economic efficiency and economic resilience. From what I’ve read of systems thinking, the way the US economy has been structured since the 1980s has been tilted towards efficiency, but is that the right answer? I don’t know, but I do know that I believe that the economy exists to serve society, not the other way around, and so if a democratic society wants to restructure the economy, that’s fine by me.


My Ignite Presentation

Now for something completely different…

I participated in Ignite Boulder 40 in December 2019. I gave a talk about perennial vegetables.

It was a blast because it was largely out of my comfort zone. Yes, I’d spoken in public a couple of times, but in front of the entire Boulder theater? Yes, I’d given talks, but remembering everything and having no speaker notes? Yes, I’d talked for a fixed period of time, but communicating a cohesive argument in 5 minutes, with the slides advancing every 15 seconds?

It was a definite challenge and I was happy to be selected. I have no idea if every cohort works this way, but we built our talks over just 4 weeks.

Week 1: Come to a group session with only a rough topic idea (what you applied with) and talk about it for 3-7 minutes while being recorded. Feedback was given about the points that resonated for you to expand on.

Week 2: Write down your talk in 20 points and read it out loud. More feedback about timing and content.

Week 3: Put your talk in front of slides and give it to the group. I missed this one as I was out of town.

Week 4: Deliver the talk!

Of course, I practiced a lot during the weeks leading up to it. I was giving it in the shower, before I went to work, after I got home. Frankly, I was sick of it at the end.

But I’m glad I did it now.

Here’s the talk:


The Challenger Sale

I just finished reading The Challenger Sale, a book about consultative selling. I really appreciated its data driven approach. The book, written in 2011, outlines a new approach to selling that is fundamentally about bringing the seller’s business knowledge to bear to provide value to the seller. But not just value, value in a way that is both striking (something new the customer hasn’t thought of before) and that emphasizes the product the seller has to offer. An example they give is Grainger, who sells parts. Grainger did research and determined that a large amount of the dollar spend with them was for unplanned part purchases, which can be expensive in both purchase price and staff time. They worked with customers to take advantage of their sprawling inventory to better plan parts purchases.

They cover the different kinds of sales techniques that their research uncovered, as well as tactics to help people adopt “challenger” traits to become more successful. They also cover how to sell this methodology to front line sales managers.

Two things really stood out for me. The first is that every company needs to answer why their customers should purchase from them, as opposed to anyone else. This can be a hard conversation to have because once you strip away all the “innovation” and “customer centricity” sometimes you aren’t left with much. I know that when I was a contractor, I would have had a hard time with this–my best answer would probably have been “I’m trusted, available, knowledgable and local”, which kinda sounds like a copout.

The other great part of the book was at the very end when they talked about how these techniques could be used for the “selling” of internal services (IT, HR, market research, R&D). I found that really interesting in the context of larger corporations where some of the functions aren’t valued for strategic insight, but rather are order takers from the business. I have in fact myself been an order taker. It’s easy, but not as fun as being part of the strategic conversation.


Book Review: The Economists’ Hour

I recently finished The Economists’ Hour, a book about the rise of economics professionals in public policy. It focuses primarily on the USA during the 1960s-2010s, but it does cover some other countries (Taiwan and Chile primarily). It covers a variety of topics including monetary policy, deregulation, shock doctrine, and inflation. The book also focuses on personalities, from the more prominent like Milton Friedman to the more obscure (at least to me) like Alfred Kahn, and uses them to humanize the economic topics by framing the economics through the human beings who argued for and against them.

This book was a bit heavy going at times, but given the breadth of topics and time it covered, I found it pretty compelling. I lived through part of these times, but there were many things I learned, including the impetus behind US airline deregulation (the power of the airline industry relative to trucking and the success of intrastate carriers in CA and TX) and how Taiwan became an electronics powerhouse (a meeting over coffee and strong industrial policy). If you’re interested in the intersection of economics and government policy, this book is highly recommended. (Here’s a great podcast with the author as a bonus.)


Not delivering end user value

When you’ve worked in software for as long as I have, you have made mistakes. I’m going to catalog some here intermittently so I can analyze them and hopefully avoid them in the future. I may change identifying details or use vague descriptions.

When you interact with a client, especially if they are knowledgeable about their domain, it can be hard to come in and seize the reins. You want to be respectful of what they know and what you don’t. But at the same time, they hired you for what you know, and sometimes you have to stop hurrying forward and take a look around, especially if the project is not running smoothly. This is a story about a time when I didn’t seize the reins, and the problems that followed.

I was working on a long running project for a client. It was a bear of a project, with a ton of domain knowledge and some complicated partially done software. The team working for the client churned, including employees and consultants. When I was brought on, I didn’t have a full picture of the problem space and it felt like we didn’t have time to gather it. No one had this global view. Meetings with the client would often go down rabbit holes and into the weeds. The project was a rewrite and the system we were targeting to replace kept evolving. This original software system powered the business and yet didn’t operate with normal software development practices like version control. When looking at the code, it was unclear what code was being used and what was not.

But most importantly, other than diagrams and meetings, we didn’t deliver anything of value regularly to the client. We would spin in circles trying to understand previous work and take a long time to make small changes. We did write a testable new system and follow other SDLC best practices including version control, CI/CD and deployment environments.

This project finally started to turn around when we shifted from trying to replace the entire running system to replacing the smallest part that could possibly work end to end. This gave the team a clear vision, and showed the client a path to business value. We accomplished more in a couple weeks with this perspective than we had in the previous couple of months. This also let us commit to a real project plan and timeline. Unfortunately, the client wasn’t happy about the projected and past expense, and shut down the project weeks after the development team was starting to show traction.

Lesson: I wish we would have had taken the “smallest bit that would possibly work” approach from the very beginning. I wish I’d had the insight to call a halt and not continue down a path that was clearly not working a few weeks after observing it, not a few months.


Tips for meetup speaker wranglers

Ruby pendantSo I’ve been a speaker wrangler for the Boulder Ruby Meetup for the past year. This means I screen, find and schedule speakers for the meetup. It’s been a lot of fun. You get to meet new people and often help push people past their comfort zone. For many developers, public speaking is a hardship, but a meetup is the perfect place to start. At the Boulder Ruby Meetup, we have between 10 and 40 friendly people, and talks can range from 10 minutes to 60+.

I wanted to capture some tips around doing the speaker wrangling for technical meetups.

Think about what your audience wants to hear, and how they want to hear it.

  • You need to want to attend (not every night, but most nights). This is substantially easier if you work in the technology, because you’ll be motivated to attend as well.
  • It also helps to hang out at the meetup for a few months. You learn who the regulars are, which people are really knowledgable, and what kind of talks the community likes and is used to.
  • Think of alternatives to the traditional 30-40 minute talks. Panels, social nights and lightning talks are all alternate ways to have people share their knowledge.
  • Tap your personal network, but not just your network.
  • If you see something work in a different meetup, steal it!
  • Leverage external events. We move our meeting every year to happen during Boulder Startup Week, which is good for BSW (more sessions) and good for us (more attendees and visibility).
  • Don’t be afraid to stray outside of your core technology. We focus on ruby, but have had popular talks on
    • Interviewing
    • AI and ML
    • User experience
    • General software design
    • CDNs
  • If you have facilities for it, remote presentations are great. This opens up who can speak at your talk to a lot more people. We’ve had guests from Google and AWS and the founder/owner of SideKiq come, at zero additional cost.
  • Recording talks is something that I think has a lot of value, but we’ve had a hard time getting that done. If you do record the talk, make sure to get permission (some folks are ok with it, some speakers are not).

Actually finding the speakers is of course crucial.

  • Whenever possible, schedule the talks as far ahead of time as you can. I just use a google spreadsheet to keep track of speakers and follow up a month or two ahead of time.
    • Sometimes people cancel (travel and personal events happen) and it’s nice to know about it ahead of time.
  • Since you know who the experts are in your group, you can often ask them to fill in if a speaker has to bail. (It’s extra nice if one of the meetup organizers has a talk in their back pocket.)
  • To find speakers, put the call out where people are:
    • Slack workspaces and channels around the technology
    • On a website (this is super low effort once you have a website up). A website is a great place to put topic ideas, audience size, expected length, etc.
    • At the meetup. At every meetup I put a plug in for speaking.
    • Twitter is full of people that might be good speakers.
    • Anyone you have coffee with.
  • I also always ask people that I meet. You know those “so what do you do” conversations you have? Always be on the lookout for someone who is doing something that might be interesting to your meetup.
  • Ask folks new to development as well as experienced developers. Newer folks may feel more comfortable with a shorter timeslot, but they also deserve the chance to speak.
    • Remember that the chance to speak professionally is a benefit. By asking people to speak you are actually doing them a favor.
    • Reach out to heroes or other big names that you want to build some kind of relationship with. They may ignore you, but so what.
  • Some meetups have a form on their website where people can submit. I haven’t seen much luck with that.
  • You can even do outreach. If you see a company in your area posting on slacks, StackOverflow or HackerNews with either articles or job postings, reach out and ask if they have anyone that would be interested in speaking.

Don’t forget to run through the finish. Make sure your speakers have a great time speaking and that you set them up for success.

  • Reach out to them a few months ahead of time to make sure they are still interested and available. Get their email address, and talk description (so you can have it posted ahead of time).
  • The week of:
    • tweet about them speaking.
      • reach out to them about recording or anything else. If you have another volunteer who handles that, this is a great time to hand off. I always hand off via email because everyone has that.
  • The day of:
    • make sure you greet them when they come to the meeting and thank them for their time.
    • have a good question or two up your sleeve if no one else does.
  • The day after, tweet thanking them for their time.

Getting good speakers is a key part of any meetup. There’s a lot else that goes into a successful meetup (a good space, sponsors for food and drink, publicity) but finding and scheduling speakers is important. Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful to you.


Heading to AWS re:Invent 2019

AWS re:Invent logoI’m excited to be heading to AWS re:Invent this week. I’ve never been to Las Vegas (other than stopping at a Chipotle on the outskirts on the way to SoCal), so I’m looking forward to seeing the Strip. I’ve heard it’s a bit of a madhouse, but I did go to the Kentucky Derby this year, so we’ll see how it compares.

I’m also excited to re-connect with people I’ve met at other conferences or only online. There are a number of AWS instructors that I interacted with only over email and Slack that I hope to meet face to face. (If you want to meet up with me, feel free to connect via Twitter.) This is also my first conference “behind the booth”. I have been to plenty of conferences where I was the one wandering around the expo, kicking tires and talking to vendors, so I’m interested to be on the other side.

Finally, I’m excited to get feedback on the new direction Transposit is taking. We’ll be showing off a new tool we’ve built to decrease incident downtime. I wish I’d had this tool when I was on-call, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what people think.


The lifechanging magic of a separate work computer

Man performing magic trickFor a span from 2002 to 2019, I almost never had a work computer. There was one or two times where a contract provided a computer. But primarily my work computer where I did, you know, my work, and my home computer, where I worked on side projects and did my writing and personal internet access, were one and the same.

At Transposit, where I recently started, I have a separate work computer and a personal computer.

This is huge.

Here’s what it means. (I work from home, so boundaries are a bit more fluid.)

  • I’m no longer tempted to work (not even look at Slack) when I pick up my computer to say, write a blog post.
  • I can set down my work computer at end of the day and feel “done”.
  • When I pick up my personal computer to work on a personal project, I’m more focused.

Working is such a endorphin rush sometimes. Having a separate work computer and not installing any work software (not email, not Slack, not nothing) on my personal computer helps me maintain work life balance. This means when I’m working I am working and when I’m not, I am not.

 


16 years

Fiat and treesWow, 16 years of blogging. For the record, this is the 992nd post.

Does this mean my blog can drive?

16 years ago I wrote my first post about RSS. I recently just added RSS to a static site generator that had a blog component. What is old is new again, indeed.

Blogging has taught me so much. How to write. How to promote. How to investigate a problem. How to describe what I do to non technical people. How to handle gobs of traffic. How to handle tumbleweeds (aka no one visiting my blog).

I tell everyone I meet to blog. Not for other people, but for yourself.

Having a record of my life (not the whole thing, but at least some aspect of it). Having a chance to help other people. Even just making the time to sit down and think about something deeply. All huge benefits.

Sometimes my posting schedule is less frequenty (especially when I’m writing elsewhere, as I am now on the Transposit blog), other times I speed up (I wrote 100 blog posts in 100 days, it was great).

Either way, I’ve enjoyed this blog immensely, and appreciate everyone who swings by to read a post, leave a comment, submit to an aggregator or subscribes to new posts.

Thanks for 16 great years!


Develop Denver Recap

Develop Denver LogoI attended Develop Denver in August and it was a great experience. It’s a really fun conference. There are a number of things I liked about it.

  • There is a real culture of inclusivity.
  • They have speakers across the spectrum, including experienced speakers, new speakers, and speakers from underrepresented groups.
  • It is entirely volunteer run.
  • There is a fun tradition, the Ballmer Peak Hackathon.
  • They have both social and technical events.
  • A large number of the speakers are voted on by attendees.
  • The topics are broader than at the typical conference, ranging from product to development to career to design.
  • The venues are spread across the RiNo district, so you walk between them. This makes it easier to start conversations and gives you a breath of fresh air.
  • It’s affordable for a two day multi track tech conference (< $400).
  • The community is rooted in a slack and meetup, so there’s year round engagement if you want it.
  • It was big enough that I can meet new people but small enough that I recognized folks from last year when I attended (~450).

Definitely enjoyed. It got me out of the Boulder Bubble as well, so that was a plus too.

It’ll be coming back in August of 2020. I’m not sure when they’ll be opening registration, but I’d check back in May 2020.

PS Here is one overview and a second overview of the conference worth reading.



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