discoveries

Discoveries from the long run

by Jason on December 20, 2011 · 0 comments

treadmills

I managed to put in ten miles on the treadmill this weekend.  In a single session, minus the reset time in the middle because the machine doesn’t let you plug in more than an hour at a go. Yes, it’s as exciting as it sounds.

That said, it was interesting.  My lungs held up.  My legs didn’t get tired, really.  I knew, going in, that I was going at a pace that I’d been able to sustain for every (lesser) distance I’d previously attempted at that speed.

It’s the other things that went wrong that fascinated me.  My right calf started to seize up around mile 8.  My left knee grew progressively wobblier.  The basic conditioning was there, but the weaknesses in the mechanical underpinnings were starting to emerge in a way that I never could have found without a prolonged stress test like this one.

Now that it’s been a year (almost) of running my own business full time, I’m seeing parallels to that run.  I know I can sustain a certain pace, with small sprints mixed in, and in theory I can do that forever.  But the holes in the underlying structure start to appear after a while.  You can push through most of it, but ultimately, just like with the long run, if you ignore the problems for too long, you’ll get an injury that takes you out of the game for months.  In fitness, that’s a setback.  In business, it can be fatal.

The end of December is a great time to notice this stuff and put plans in place to address them.  Everyone else is slacking off, and of course you’ve got the choice to do the same, or you can push through and try to accelerate past them, but as a third option, I’d strongly recommend looking for those aching joints and cramping muscles, and see if you can get some basic maintenance put into play to prevent problems in the next quarter.

Inventing things that already exist

by Jason on June 6, 2011 · 1 comment

Clock comb by hatwoman

I think Al Gore still gets flack for claiming to have invented the internet, and it’s been pretty well established that he didn’t actually say that, but that’s OK, because I’ve invented a few things in my career too.  The difference is, my inventions already existed.

I invented relational databases. It was 1993 and I was writing dBase III+ apps for the federal government, IT inventory stuff I think, and I wanted to find a way to reduce some of the duplication I was seeing, so I came up with this “crazy” plan to make two different tables and tie the rows together with some kind of identifier.  Two years later I took an actual course on databases and a lightbulb turned on.

I invented the blog. It was 2001 and I wanted to start a website that was kind of like Slashdot, but a bit more personal.  Their code was open sourced, but it didn’t look like there was any way to run it under the shared hosting plan I had, so I started my first ever CGI scripts on a Sunday morning and got something rudimentary online by that evening.  Note that I’m not trying to brag; I had to support that core code for many years as I built around it and learned a whole lot of what not to do.  It turns out there were other systems out there that could do what mine did, but the internet was more scattered back then and I hadn’t seen them.  Interesting side note: there were at least 2 other people who created a very similar “Slashdot for [my niche at the time]” site within a month of me.  There are probably 87,000 new blogs per topic started per day now, but ten years ago I remember a clear sense that the future was happening.

I invented hellbanning. I just saw this post by Jeff Atwood, which inspired this little writeup, where he describes hellbanning: the practice of flagging abusive or troll-like users in a community so they can see their posts and comments but nobody else can.  The trick is that they don’t know they’ve been hellbanned, so they just figure that everyone’s ignoring them, and without attention, they tend to leave, and in the meantime the community flourishes without the added troll noise. My constantly evolving “blog” code I mentioned above (which had user journals and forums by then) had a feature much like this, but I never knew it had a name (or started on BBSes in the ’80s!)  It remains something I recommend to all my clients when we’re talking about building community features.

Now, Jeff’s post mentioned something about, well, here’s how he put it, “Like so many other things in social software, it keeps getting reinvented over and over again by clueless software developers [emphasis mine] who believe they’re the first programmer smart enough to figure out how people work.”

Ouch.

I don’t know anyone who’s worked in this industry long enough who hasn’t inadvertently reinvented the wheel.  In every case I’ve heard of, we didn’t think we were the first smart person to come along; we just needed to solve a problem so we could go home and sleep.

I think there’s value in some of this rediscovery.  The trick as more algorithms become public is to figure out how much is normal in a productive, efficient product cycle, and how much is an unfortunate waste of time.

In all the “inventions” I mentioned, I had mixed emotions when I found out my discovery wasn’t exactly unique, but none of those feelings had anything to do with a sense of a lost fortune had I only commercialized any of it.  If anything, there was a sense of validation, that my “crazy” idea actually was a valid approach to a problem.  It’s a backwards version of what I imagine “real” inventors must feel when their idea gets an audience of actual users who find value in the concept.

Of course, the other feeling was a profound sense of lost time.  Most of my “discoveries” could have been found in a book or on a website, had the information been more readily available to me, and I could have made more progress with the actual problem.  But as students, we spend considerable time working out problems that have known solutions (they’re right in the back of the book,) and this is how we learn.  Of course, we can accomplish a lot more with the right shortcuts.

To me, the real danger is to assume everything’s been done and end up spending all your time researching the perfect combination of building blocks (and keeping up with new discoveries) instead of actually doing something.  Re-inventing the wheel, but with a few small variations, is where innovation can be born.

I worry a little that there’s a gap between the small scale doers that approach technology as a hobby and the big picture thinkers who know all the stuff that’s being found but don’t have time or, possibly, motivation, to actually implement. That space in the middle is where startups thrive, but the founders and staff need to have the rare combination of awareness of best practices and motivation to launch, and the right mindset to prioritize on one or the other as needed.

Photo by hatwoman