Archive: October, 2019

When you made a big career mistake

posted by Jeff | Saturday, October 12, 2019, 9:18 AM | comments: 0

I hate Facebook for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it's a terrible company, but it's where the people are, and I want to stay connected at least superficially with the people I've met across thousands of miles of moving. I like the memories function though, because it's neat to see where I was on this day years ago, with 13 years of history. Sometimes though, you can't help but get some icky feelings.

In 2011, this time of year, we had moved back to Cleveland. I won't rehash the reasons for that again, but suffice it to say that we were wrong about the social aspect, totally right about the house situation, and I correctly predicted that we'd end up in Central Florida. It all worked out, but the regret of leaving Seattle sat with me for a very long time.

By the time I landed at Microsoft, I was in active career management mode. Being a huge company, there is probably something well suited for you once you get there, but it may or may not be hard to find. I got so close to what I would consider a dream job at the time, running a development team that made test tools for studios using Xbox Live. The hiring manager was honest with me: I could have done the job, but the other guy had just a little more experience. He was even trying to get budget to build a second team, and put me on that one. That would have changed the outcome entirely, and I still wonder "what if." Where I did end up was a team that was "old" Microsoft in its approach, and trying to change it was hard. It left me with indifference.

So I landed at this marketing agency in Cleveland. I've worked for various organizations like that one, for periods ranging from two weeks to four months, and every one of them was a disaster. In this case, I had nothing to do. Imagine you worked on an app for the world's largest software company that processed 100 million interactions per month, and then you've got nothing to do. Then they complained that I was arriving and leaving early, 7:30 to 4:30, which has been my m.o. always in order to avoid traffic. They didn't trust people to be grownups, so they fired me.

I sensed it was going to be a disaster, and quite literally had an interview elsewhere at lunch that day. But that intense feeling of, "What have I done?" was such a sinking feeling given my desire to actively manage my career. The next few weeks were actually loaded with opportunity. I had offers to decline even before I got back to Cleveland, and then I randomly was flown to Louisville to speed date/interview with groups there for remote work. It ended up being a terrible company to work for, but it was still valuable experience. I just remember the constant gray skies of Cleveland, and thought, "What have I done?" In retrospect, that was probably the source of much of the regret.

In an expanding economy where you do something that's in demand, career mistakes are temporary. I'm not alone in making these kinds of mistakes, as my friends have all been there (especially those on the west coast). When you make them, it's important to stop and be deliberate. What are your goals, personal and professional? Where do you want to live? What income do you need to make your financial goals? How long do you have to do it?

We were in Cleveland for less than 19 months before I got back on track. The work here in Florida has been generally good, and now I'm at a company that's growing fast. It's challenging, but it's the part of a company lifecycle that I haven't been a part of before, and with significant responsibility. The mistakes were OK in the long run, if only to give me focus.


The path to success is not well defined

posted by Jeff | Friday, October 11, 2019, 4:00 PM | comments: 0

I read an interesting career advice essay today that made me realize what I already know, but rarely define out loud: Success, and the path to it, are not easily defined. He was using it with the lens of west coast technology companies and startups, which is not at all representative of most everything else, but still, that itself shows how squishy these definitions are.

For me, I suppose my definition looked like this: Find a field that you are interested in, get solid, white collar jobs, make enough money to retire and own a modest house. That was the basic starting point. Then it got more complicated over time... longevity became increasingly unlikely, especially with economic volatility and tech companies having wildly unpredictable outcomes. The gig economy became lucrative and its lack of long-term commitment had a certain feeling of freedom even with the uncertainty. Then for the better part of the last decade, I've wandered between pure technologist and manager, so the professional accomplishment definition of success has been fluid too. And what does winning look like? A certain salary? Title? I don't know.

If that weren't enough, there's a completely different dimension if you own your own business. I've had a business for two decades, that I started by accident, and outside of the online ad boom 15 years ago, it's mostly been a hobby. I've not deliberately started anything for the purpose of my own sustainment. With all of the experience I've gained in companies from tiny to gigantic, shouldn't I be qualified to do that, and do it well?

This sounds pretty midlife crisis, which is appropriate because, well, that's where I am. At the same time, the late start to parenthood, and starting over with a second marriage, I have the life priorities of someone in their 20's with the life experience of someone with two extra decades. Given what's important to me, defining success can still have a basic starting point, it's just different now. My goal is to be able to provide for my child and my wife, and make sure the latter is well taken care of in a decade when we're empty nesters, even if something were to happen to me. I think as we get older, we transition success from "more" to "enough."

So that's well and good, a solid base to shoot for, but where the anxiety starts to creep in is looking at how we get there. I spent money like an asshole in my 20's, running a negative cash flow for a number of years, and while I had that under control by 30, I didn't really reverse it until later. I'm behind on saving, and suspect that Social Security will be a fantasy when I retire. I've only got half of what I should saved if you don't count home equity (and I sure don't). If financial planning is a measuring stick for success, I sure don't feel like I'm doing it right.

Success for me, today, has more to do with my little family unit. It was never about keeping up with the Jonses. It's always been about personal satisfaction though. I have to combine it with what is practical now, and those are sometimes hard to reconcile.


The tribalism is getting worse, on both sides

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 9, 2019, 10:38 PM | comments: 0

I've written many times that people treating politics as if it were a sports rivalry is I think the core problem in our culture. I seem to recall in my teen and college years that there was a healthy skepticism of all politicians, regardless of party, but maybe I was just naive at the time.

In the obvious case, average Joe's and career GOP politicians are lining up behind the president, defending him for the indefensible. Look, this is a guy who did and said things that no person would excuse as an employee in a minimum wage job before he was even elected. Now the guy released evidence showing he asked a foreign power to investigate his political rival, then did it in public asking another country to do the same. Forget whether or not it was quid pro quo (it was, look it up), the whistle blowers, the Democratic opposition... they're all secondary to the thing you can plainly see he did wrong. Now the same people, who took an oath to defend the Constitution, are calling the impeachment process unconstitutional when it's literally enumerated in the Constitution. We've landed in bizarro world.

The other side doesn't get a pass. Last weekend, Ellen took in a football game with George W. Bush, and she took all kinds of shit for it. Now, it's no secret that I'm about as far from a W. fan as possible. Years beyond his presidency, I think he made some terrible decisions on the basis of even worse information, for sure (though the special place in hell belongs to Dick Cheney), but at the end of the day I can't really do anything about any of it. It's already more than a decade in the past. He's a human being, and there isn't a reason that Ellen can't be kind to him. We have to stop this ridiculous fucking with-me-or-against-me nonsense.

I'm more centrist than I ever used to be, probably because the constant extremes are exhausting. Admittedly, there is no moral equivalence between describing white supremacists as "some good people" and subsidizing college, so even if I don't agree with either one, I'll side with the college because it's not going to get anyone killed. But the tribalism prevents us from even talking about anything. Congress hasn't done anything useful in at least six years and keep passing record deficits. People vote for the dog catcher based on party instead of ability. We have the government we deserve.

Just stop it with the sports rivalry politics. Let's go back to the healthy suspicion of both sides, engage in critical thinking, and stop enabling the shit show.


POP Forums and the accidental entrepreneur

posted by Jeff | Saturday, October 5, 2019, 10:21 PM | comments: 0

I've spent a lot of time in the last week, my staycation week, working on the hosted version of POP Forums. The idea is that you give me money, and I'll host a copy of the forum for you. Diana asked the appropriate question about this: "Does anyone want this?" It's a valid question... I'll get back to that.

In 2000, my little hobby sites, Guide to The Point (now PointBuzz) and CoasterBuzz, were making a surprising amount of money from advertising. Those were pretty awesome days for content publishers. You could make a lot of coin without a lot of audience. It didn't even matter that everyone was doing it, either. There was so much ad revenue out there that everyone could make money in their spare time. (If only that had been something 7 years earlier when I was in college... I would not have had student loans and had my own place.) The promise of the Internet as an equalizer in all things was real back then.

As the story goes that I've told a million times, I wanted to own the whole experience, and since my sites had a forum as their core, I wrote my own, and so POP Forums was born. I figured, since I wrote it, I might as well sell it, and I did as downloadable software, $175 a hit. This was the reason that I first acquired a merchant account to collect credit card payments, and it came in handy in 2001 when I started offering CoasterBuzz Club. I made OK money selling the forum, even though I really wasn't much of a software developer in those days.

Eventually I started giving it away as an open source project, in late 2003. It wasn't until 2010 that I started also developing it in the open, hosting the repository on CodePlex (RIP). I moved it to GitHub in 2014 when Microsoft left CodePlex to die. As an open source project, it attracted enough attention to be translated into six languages, and sometimes I get someone interested who does a pull request and contributes. It's been forked dozens of times, and a half-dozen people clone it everyday. That's not a wildly popular project, but the bottom line is that some people find it useful, and that's gratifying. I would be building it anyway for my sites.

This has been my approach to entrepreneurship from the beginning: If I'm building it anyway for myself, there's no real risk to selling it because it's not a deliberate business. That's a huge cop out, for sure. You can't fail if you didn't intend to "make it" in the first place. It's also the reason that some of the arbitrary things that I've started "for the money" rarely were finished or had any follow through. It's weird, I can get into something in a day job as an objective with a team, but if it's something I'm starting on my own dime, and I don't have my head into it, it never materializes.

I vaguely remember the time when a number of web-based software packages started to become software-as-a-service (SaaS), and thinking that was nuts, but I've been working on commercial SaaS products now for more than three years. It's not nuts. Getting back to the earlier question, I don't know if hosted forum apps are something that people want, but there are a few players in the market today that suggest that it's a thing. A few are making in excess of $3 million a year, even. It's not a huge market, but it's not crowded. I'd be content to make a grand a month. It would more than pay for the expenses. 

As I mentioned, making it real is what makes it work for me. So we're planning to migrate the PointBuzz forums there as the first "customer." I know the app isn't perfect, and lacks features, but so what? If I wait for that, it will never be out there. The UI needs a fair amount of modernization, but the upside is that it's really, really fast. I'm very proud of the performance, with most pages loading in 100ms or less from my decidedly erratic connection at home. I don't know what the upper limit of scaling is, but in tests I've found that it can do 1,000 requests per second pretty easily on cloud infrastructure.

Some part of my nights and weekends will be devoted to figuring this out for awhile, but I'd like to launch it before the end of the year. I've got most of the hard parts finished... multi-tenancy, taking money, provisioning... the only big part left is recurring billing, but that shouldn't be very hard. I've got complete continuous integration environments set up already. The only quasi challenging thing on the radar is provisioning free secure certificates for customers who want custom domain names, but I'll figure it out.

My hobby is for fun and hopefully a little profit. 😁


Solitude and struggle

posted by Jeff | Thursday, October 3, 2019, 10:39 PM | comments: 0

I've been thinking a lot about solitude and struggle in a number of different contexts. Not sure if I have a point, but I need a brain dump.

First, I realize when I'm being reflective that I've spent a lot of time in my life in solitude. I mean, shocking volumes of time by myself. As a kid, I didn't really hang out with other kids. In high school I had my roles helping out in athletics, where I cared a lot about the other kids and their families, but I didn't have a lot of deep connections. In college I spent the first two and a half years not having any idea where I belonged in the bigger picture. It's not that I don't connect with people, it's that I don't value superficial connection. Deep connections don't come easy or often, so that explains the solitude.

The post-divorce time taught me a lot about how to be alone in a constructive way, which is to say that relationships should be additive to who you are. You can and should value relationships, but you need the foundation of having a good relationship with yourself, and that's a huge struggle. The parts with other people are easy by comparison.

I see my son going through a lot of the same things already at age 9, and it's heartbreaking. It's a similar struggle. He spends a lot of time alone, and doesn't find social connectivity to be easy. His relationship with himself isn't great. I don't know how to help him, because it took me literally decades to get even partially comfortable with myself, and being by myself. Telling him he's smart enough and good enough isn't going to do anything. It would help if he could find one kid who wasn't a dick to him, but like him, I found it was only the adults who really could be that person. There's a brilliance in his thinking, and I need to help him learn how to express and value it.

I spent most of today alone at my computer, writing code for my side hustle. I enjoyed the time to myself, but I feel guilty that I'm not spending the time with Simon and Diana.

...

I was talking to a friend who recently started therapy to help unpack a lot of damage. I've been in and out of it since college, and it helps a great deal with self-awareness. The underlying theme of all those sessions is about the struggle. Life is struggling... with relationships, family, parenting, work... it doesn't seem like it ever ends. That may sound kind of depressing, but I will say that you almost need that contrast to see the joy and happiness in life.

My last therapy session was to talk about the struggle, and how much of it was self-inflicted. We definitely put pressure on ourselves in a lot of aspects of our lives, which creates some of that sense of struggle. I've noticed discreet times in my life where I was happiest, when I ran out of fucks to give about whatever felt like a struggle. There's a weird dynamic there: You have to find the combination of action (or non-action) that allows you to be a reasonably productive member of society, while also letting go of the struggle. In other words, don't be a worthless bum, but stop doing the things that hurt.

The period of my life I can best point to in order to describe this struggle reduction was 2013. I bailed on a terrible job, picked up contract work that was slightly better but didn't matter, and resolved to reboot and move to Orange County. The second half of that year was strangely low stress, even with the big move. I was working a contract job that may not have been renewed or converted to full-time, and it was OK. I had seen enough chaos to know that I could figure it out. That was freeing. Parenting wasn't super hard yet either.

The truth is, I don't know that the solution is that you simply need to walk away from the hard things. I think it's how you perceive the hard things. Look, I'm not a Type-A personality (which I assure you is an anti-asset at this stage of my career). I have the capacity to see the relative importance of hard things, and there's a huge scale, all of which lies below the fact that I'll be worm food someday. It's surprising how easy it is to forget that.


Trip report: Coronado Springs, Walt Disney World, 9/27-10/1/19

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, October 2, 2019, 4:35 PM | comments: 0

We haven't done a real "theme park trip" in a very long time, and considering that we only drove three miles for this one, I'm not sure it counts either. But the situation was straight forward enough: I was overdue to take a week off, Simon missed his entire first week of school to illness so we couldn't pull him out, and I was overdue to take a week off. Some weeks ago, I saw an ad for Florida discounts on rooms at Walt Disney World, and found that Coronado Springs, a moderate resort, was down to a little under $250 per night, with tax. We had never even been on that property, but folks seemed to like it. I figured, OK, it's around the corner from Simon's school, it will be unfamiliar, and that will have to be good enough for a brief retreat.

The resort has a Mexico-Southwest feel to it, and the new tower they added made it more classy. The rooms were all recently renovated, as were a lot of common areas, and quite frankly it's all very beautiful. We stayed in one of the older Casitas buildings, but the room was brilliantly new. It follows the usual convention of tile flooring, granite surfaces, a great shower, and room under the beds to stash your suitcases. It's rounded out with an unusually large TV and LED lighting. The room wasn't as large as those we've stayed in at Beach/Yacht Club, but it was more than adequate. We had a slight snafu where the fridge had someone else's leftovers, but a manager came by and cleaned it out.

This particular property is probably best known for "The Dig Site," a centrally located pool complex that includes a Mayan pyramid and a water slide. There's a great waterfall that flows from the top of the pyramid, and a small bar and food stand sits next to it. As pools go, it's one of the best I've seen on WDW property, second only to the one at Beach/Yacht Club. My only real complaint is that it wasn't heated, but that's clearly a Florida life problem.

This is Disney's convention property, so it's huge, with over 2,300 rooms. There are a lot of restaurant and bar options, including a few places in the tower that we did not make it to. However, there's a great full-service bar right in the lobby. We had breakfast at the counter service restaurant, which wasn't bad. We had one dinner in the Rix sports bar, and it was kind of shitty. They advertised turkey burgers but didn't have any, and the boneless wings I had instead were overcooked. The surprise was the Three Bridges restaurant that's, as you might imagine, at the center of the three bridges across the lagoon. It has a small food menu, but the food is extraordinary, as is the service and beverage options. We managed to sneak out there for a 90-minute date night while Simon watched a movie back in the room. It was a weekend highlight for sure.

Our boy strangely never had an on-property stay, so he was excited to stay there and ride the buses that he's watched for six years. They're not always conveniently timed, but we had one long wait, and others that were perfectly timed. The one night, I met a friend at Disney Springs, and was happy to have that option with the strong beverage I had at Jock's Hangar Bar, and the jug of sangria with dinner earlier. I do find it lame that the resort now charges for parking.

Overall, I give Coronado an enthusiastic thumbs up. It very much felt like a vacation, even if we were close to home.

As for our theme park outings, we finally endured a wait for Smuggler's Run at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in Hollywood Studios. I think it ended up being just under an hour, but the line kept moving. The theme of that land and attention to detail is amazing. When we sat down in the Millennium Falcon, I'm not going to lie, I got a little emotional, but there are things to do immediately so no time to screw around. Simon and I were pilots, where I did lateral movement, he did vertical. Unfortunately he didn't hear that it was inverted, like a real plane, so, he crashed into a lot of stuff and we scored 20%. It was still pretty cool.

Beautiful as Galaxy's Edge is, there isn't a ton to do there. The lines for the Cantina are insane, and Rise of The Resistance doesn't open until December at best. It will definitely be a more complete experience with the other ride.

We spent a few hours at Magic Kingdom on another day, where I discovered that Pecos Bill's has a rice bowl that I'll eat, and it was delicious. More importantly, there's something I'll eat that isn't deep fried. I also have new appreciation for the air time in the back seat of Space Mountain. That was nuts.

On Monday, I met up with a friend from DC, and we did an Epcot drink-around-the-world tour: 11 drinks in 11 countries. I did this once before when Diana and I had our first child-free vacation some seven years ago, but this was planned. As I suspected, this isn't really that much of an achievement. That many drinks over nine hours probably won't even get you buzzed. But it was fun to have good company and people watch. The jerk chicken in the Caribbean stand is amazing, and I still love the cheese bread in Brazil. We had dinner at Le Cellier, which is still crazy expensive, but the food and service are great. We all had fruity drinks with glowing ice cubes, and the waitress immediately caught on to Simon's distress over this and brought one for him. We definitely reported this kindness and attention to a manager.

The big event was the last show for Illuminations. I've not seen it that crowded in a long time, and definitely not that late in the day. Rain almost made things miserable, but it stopped just as the show started. Unfortunately, they didn't really do anything special for it, but I've never heard anyone cheer for a nighttime spectacular like that. The show will certainly be missed.

So for four nights, we did Disney like tourists, and despite the familiarity of the parks, the resort made it feel like a vacation. We had a really good time. It's clear that Diana and I need another long weekend away though, and we need to figure out how to make that happen.