It’s been a month since I turned over a new leaf in my working life, and I’d like to share some thoughts.
First, I am writing this on my personal blog and not on my business site because, when I created that site, I knew that every business website nowadays has a blog, and that seemed a good reason to leave one out. That’s not a permanent decision: I’ll probably start a blog there when I have a unique and coherent point of view, as a business, to share with the world, but that’s not quite yet.
It’s been a very busy month. I wanted to hit the ground running, so I deliberately took on a larger work load for the immediate term than I probably want to sustain. (I was also a little surprised and very encouraged by the amount of demand there was so soon out of the gate.)
I’ve [re]-learned a few things about time. Halfway into the month, after working most of my waking hours for two weeks, I left my laptop at home and took my Kindle to a coffee shop in Cambridge to read Seth Godin’s Linchpin for an evening. My work involves constant mental energy by its nature, but I got more thinking done between the lines of the book in an hour there than in the previous week. Being head down in work all the time may be good for productivity but is not conducive to new ideas or reflection. (If hygiene didn’t matter, idea-generation alone would be a reason to shower every day.)
Valuing Open Source
I decided early that certain principles should be deal breakers. One in particular that’s been challenged several times already is respect for open source. I work primarily with open source software that is valuable because so many developers and organizations released their contributions for free to the community. Learning and adhering to best practices and new techniques (in any context) involves reading what other people have done, and that’s only possible because they share it. “Giving back” skills and code to the ecosystem makes the world richer for everyone. (As a side benefit, it can also be good for marketing.) Most businesses still think in zero-sum terms - open source saves money, but don’t let anyone else benefit or add to anything we created - and I think that’s short sighted. It’s one of the reasons I left my corporate job.
So it’s been interesting, in nearly every client agreement I’ve been involved with, to have to defend my right to re-use or release any original code serving a general purpose back to the community. The standard consulting contract still has absurd intellectual property clauses - everything you bring to the project, even if it was yours before, is now solely ours, etc. That’s a 20th century mentality and the lawyers need to catch up with the times. On one project I decided to conduct a requested audit/review of a site but not write any original code because the client (or their lawyers) were so adamant about code ownership. (My thought: if a brand-new competitor could beat you simply by using the same general-purpose additions to an open-source framework as you’re using, you should rethink your value proposition.)
(If you’re dealing with the same issue, check out CivicActions’ contract template, released under a Creative Commons license, which is a great model for upholding open-source values.)
I spent a little time today reflecting on a failure of mine at the job I recently left (in the context of Linchpin). One of the company’s sites that I worked on was an old site on an old server and the code wasn’t version controlled. Deploying new code involved downloading, modifying, and uploading in duplicate to the staging and production servers, hoping no one else was working on the same files. I thought this was backwards and insisted on putting the code in SVN like the rest of the sites, and took it upon myself to do so.
Only a fraction of the code could actually go into SVN, however; the vast majority of the site’s many static files (accumulated over years) were generated by a separate application in a way that would make SVN unusable. Separating and deploying them became a nightmare, the solution to which was more about office politics than systems administration. Editors and designers had to change their workflows so files would be tracked and in the places they belonged. But they were comfortable with the way they’d done things for years, and the sysadmin team didn’t want another automated process to worry about.
So I got the technical work done, but the “process” stuff (the human part) lagged, and deploying code became a full day’s work that only I could do. Months went by, we had meeting after meeting to figure out a long-term solution, I proposed a complex solution that was rejected, then simpler ones; the sysadmin proposed a solution no one understood; the editors didn’t show up at the meetings. I likened the situation to walking through a swamp - you’re better off on the other side but drowning if you stay in the middle. A week before I left, I took the code out of SVN, and left it to the other developers just as it was when I came in.
I did a lot of good work at that job, but that was one failure worth reflecting on as I develop my business. Being good at the actual work is critical, but it’s not the whole game. The “art” as Godin calls it involves the social/emotional work as much as the technical. I made the conscious decision (in leaving) that corporate politics were not the best investment of my time and energy, and I don’t regret not staying around to fight more battles with entrenched cubicle dwellers. But I do need to constantly work on my inter-personal skills, and think about the human side to infrastructural change, and be sure I can follow through on both sides of the coin if I commit to something.
Working at home
I’ve been working mostly at home. Pro: the cats like having me around. Con: I don’t have an ergonomic setup yet. (I’m looking into getting an adjustable sitting-standing desk, preferably before I develop tendinitis or carpel tunnel. The MacBook Pro is a beautiful thing but the sharp front edge tend to pinch the nerves in my arms and make my wrists numb.)
I really enjoy working at good coffee shops, and being a T ride away from some amazing ones in Cambridge and Davis Square is great. Over the next few months I’d like to explore working at least part-time in a coworking space. I do miss the camaraderie (and Nerf gun fights) in the office, though I don’t miss the cubicle.
Well this is quite a long post. Congratulations if you’ve read it all the way through. Thank you, and stay tuned.