Sorry, I can’t be there. I’m going to a movie with my sister.

Believe it or not, I actually said that this week.  As a small business owner (I own Custom Software Design Global LLC in Woodstock, Georgia, just north of Atlanta, with my husband, Tim) that is a death sentence to a potential client relationship.  Normally I would never turn down a sales opportunity, but as I approach 50 I’ve realized how much more important family is.

My older boys, Matthew and Michael, are grown (27 and 25 respectively).  As I reflect on our brief time together as a family I realize they grew up and left while I was in a fog.  I was a young single mother for most of their lives, so I had no choice to prioritize work over family too often.  I blinked and they were gone.

I just don’t want to do that again.

Although I once again have two little ones, Isaac and Joy Ann (7 and 6 respectively), things are very different now. I cannot prioritize work over time with them.  I know all too well how quickly time disappears.

I miss Matthew and Michael tremendously.  They brought me so much joy in such a short period of time.  Now they are both living in far away cities and I rarely see them and their families.

When I got an email yesterday that a new potential client wanted to meet with me Friday my immediate response was “Sure!”.  Then as I settled into the routine at home last night I realized I had scheduled a ‘date’ with my sister for the same day.  We planned to go this Friday see the new movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” several weeks ago.

Years ago I would have called my sister to excuse myself for this potential opportunity.  However, last night I did not even hesitate.  I emailed and excused myself from the meeting with the potential client.  I truthfully explained I had plans with my sister.

I would never want a client or colleague to feel as though I did not value their time.  I would never deliberately inconvenience anyone.

On the other hand, my priorities have changed in recent years.  A lot.

Will I have another chance to see my sister soon?  Probably.  She lives in a nearby suburb of Atlanta as well.  However, time is not guaranteed and I truly value my time with her.

I may have missed a golden opportunity, but it won’t bother me one iota when I’m old and think about it.  I’ll only remember laughing hysterically at the movie with my precious sister.  Time well spent.



Building custom software for an industry you are unfamiliar with

The telephone call

Whether you are a consultant, contractor or full time employee, you have gotten that call. It sounds like the perfect job for you, but it is in an industry you know nothing about. If it is a job you would love, you panic when the question comes up: “How many years experience do you have in this industry?” If you are a contractor or consultant or you are like me and own a firm of your own you know your customer is thinking: “I want someone who has built this type of project in my industry before.”

Sweaty Palms

Ok, before you start getting sweaty palms, let’s think about your answer. You know programming. You have mastered a programming language or many programming languages and built custom applications before in other industries. What do you have to offer this client that he would not find in a “more experienced” person or firm?

The one thing many companies are looking for is a fresh perspective. Even if the caller has not considered this before, this is your chance to turn around their plans completely. Sure, there are benefits to hiring someone who has written multiple enterprise-wide applications in that industry before. Let’s face it – they know what they are doing.

However, is that a good thing? Maybe not.

If you have driven the same way to work for the last 20 years and you have never ventured onto an alternative path and you never look at a GPS or map of the area, how do you know if there is a more pleasant path or a shorter one? Have you even considered that there might be?

We are creatures of habit. While those habits can often be very good ones (ie, exercise) some of those habits can be very bad ones (ie, smoking). However, if you started smoking in 1950 you might not realize it is killing you if you never read or watched the news.

A New Kind of Value

So let’s assume you have no experience in Bob’s industry (for the sake of argument, let’s assume Bob is in transportation). You already know there is one objective in transportation: get from Point A to Point B.

Easy enough, right? Clearly there are monumental steps between, on top of and around this objective, but when you boil it down to basics, this is what you have.

Rather than sit with Bob and go through how he currently does everything, why don’t you use this simple objective as your starting point?

Instead of doing research on the software that is already available to the transportation industry, do your research on processes in the transportation industry. Focus your new enthusiasm on learning what physically happens every day in a transportation business (not just Bob’s business).

Go to Google and type in “transportation”. What do you see? I started with the Department of Transportation website (I knew with pretty solid certainty they would not be the most cutting-edge technologists in this industry so it was safe to assume I would learn all about the physical aspects of transportation.)

Using this information you can build on all kinds of branches of research within the transportation industry. Build a comprehensive document for yourself and for Bob demonstrating your new found knowledge of the industry.

What does that mean to Bob? He just got a completely fresh perspective on his business from a very bright developer that he could not have gotten otherwise.

What does that mean to you? Knowledge begets knowledge. Once you have tried this method on multiple industries you will be amazed at how broad your knowledge base has become.

A new found strategy

Now when the telephone rings you have a strategy. If you do not know the industry, offer to learn more about it and come in with a fresh perspective.

Once you’ve done this a few times you will find you are really quite good at convincing yourself and your prospective client/employer that he/she would be crazy not to use your services.

No more sweaty palms and no more lost opportunities.

Data Science: What Creeped Us Out Early On

“Data scientists solve complex data problems through employing deep expertise in some scientific discipline. It is generally expected that data scientists are able to work with various elements of mathematics, statistics and computer science, although expertise in these subjects are not required.[3] However, a data scientist is most likely to be an expert in only one or two of these disciplines and proficient in another two or three. Therefore data science is practiced as a team, where the membership of the team have a variety of expertise.” – Wikipedia Reference

The “information explosion” started around 1941.  (see reference) Believe it or not, the phrase “data scientist” was coined in 1960 by Peter Naur (Wikipedia Peter Naur) as an interchangeable noun with “computer scientist”.  However, the term wasn’t related directly to statistical data management until 1997 when, in an inaugural lecture at H. C. Carver Collegiate Professorship in Statistics at the University of Michigan, Professor Naur defined statistics in science.  The name of his lecture was: “Statistics = Data Science?”

It was a very modest beginning to something which has exploded into a entirely new profession today.

Fast forward:

In 2006 I was 10 years into my career in data management, manipulation, and adoration.  I also had a liberal arts education in political science – clearly unrelated to data science.  I had no idea what data science was, but I knew I loved data.

In that year a colleague of mine and I sat down with a quad processor server and MS SQL (some antiquated version) and a terabyte of data getting moved around every night to figure out what to do with it.  To our knowledge there was no name for what we were doing.  It was really more a pain in the proverbial … well, you know what I mean… for the company we were consulting with.  They knew there was value in that data, but at that point there was no popular concept of what that value was.  At least not in our little corner of the world.

The data came from click events in a few major websites – a LOT of click events – one terabyte a day worth.  My colleague and I were making great strides in ensuring the four processors were working overtime all night every night (one thread per processor running parallel).  One day I was discussing the project with a non-technical relative of mine when she stopped me and said in a very startled tone, “You mean you track everything I click on?  Creepy!”

Yep, I realized at that moment we were headed right for the last chapter of an Orson Wells novel.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still love data.  I still ‘practice” data science as my profession and hopefully I get better every day at it (I should be getting better after almost 20 years in this profession).  However, that realization was really creepy.  We were tracking every click event our customers created on those websites.  What else was being tracked in other organizations?

Today we know that everything we touch, every comment we make, every photo we post somewhere is tracked, analyzed and reported on to some organization.  I think some of the creepiness has been washed out of the concept simply because we’ve come to accept this “Big Brother” technology as an inevitable part of progress. 

The unasked question remains, however:  will anything “creep us out” going forward in this scientific practice?

I can think of a few things if I give it enough energy, but I try not to because like most people in this profession I love the story data tells.  It is not unlike the feeling of getting into a new car every day and smelling that “new car smell”.  It’s something intangible that you cannot define for someone who hasn’t experienced it first hand.  Every day I “get in that new car and inhale”.  It is as beautiful a high today as it was in 2006 when I couldn’t sleep at night wondering what story our click event data would eventually reveal.


The best worst boss ever

When I first started as a software engineer (over 20 years ago) I had a very wise person tell me I would learn something valuable from every boss I ever had.  I really took that to heart and tried to make note of those things as my career progressed.

One thing became apparent after a few years: I learned the most from the worst bosses I had.  Why, you ask?  Because I learned what I never wanted to be – and that kept me focused on doing what’s right – all the time.

So today I start a blog about some of the things I’ve learned from the best worst bosses ever.  Let’s start with my current boss.

Mid-thirties, ex-college-soccer player, and his technical skills range from moderate SQL to moderate report writing.  However, as one of six partners in his business he is considered the expert in business intelligence (really?)  I would bore you with all my qualifications, but that’s not what this story is about.  What I will tell you is that I have 20 years of very deep technology skills – far beyond moderate report writing and moderate SQL.

So what I’ve learned from this man is:

1.)  Never be threatened by employees you know are more knowledgeable than yourself.  Embrace that talent and use it to the betterment of your company and your own position.

2.) Listen.  Especially when you are “on top of the world” and making all kinds of money.  Listen.  Stop talking.  As long as you talk you are not absorbing and that means you are getting less knowledgeable every day.

3.)  Constructive feedback is specific and unemotional.  If you get angry when you point out someone else’s mistakes you just scare them into immobility.

4.)  Every day take time to say, “Hello” to those who work for you.  It demonstrates humility and respect.

5.)  Find something positive to say at least once a week – and be specific.  It takes very little to encourage an employee on a daily basis.

6.)  Encourage creativity.  Don’t be afraid of creative and bright employees.  In the long run they will make you look better.

7.)  What makes your employees happy?  Do you have a clue?  Why do they work for you?  How far are they from strangling you in your sleep?

8.)  Learn to love yourself so you can be kind to your employees.  If you don’t love yourself you’ll take it out on your employees and your company and career suffers.

I could go on, but it’s time to spend quality time with the children.  Tomorrow we’ll talk a little more about what makes a boss the best worst boss.