Guest Spot On "Career Launch"

On Monday, July 13th at 8am I’ll be doing a guest spot on the “Career Launch with Jane and Al” internet radio show. I’ll be present to discuss the role of social networking and social media tools in the career advancement process: specifically LinkedIn and Twitter. Compass Consulting Team (run by Jane and Al) is an OpenRain client, and they are insanely positive and fun people with which to converse. I’m highly looking forward to it!

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Show some love and try to catch the show live!

OpenRain's First Commercial Product In Production

I feel like I’ve come to know you quite well over the last few years. It was a rocky relationship at first, what with you not paying attention to me and hanging out with your friends too much and all. But ever since you started taking better care of yourself and dressing up a bit before reading me, we’ve become closer than ever.¬† You see, you and I — me and you — are sharing an intimate connection right now through the Internet. We’re two bits in a byte. Open and close braces surrounding an “<3”. Venerable electronic soul mates.

And because of my undying love for you, Ms. (Mr.? ūüôĀ ) random person on the internet, I’m going to share something with you that I’ve never shown anyone publicly before…

My company’s first commercially available product: The Online Business Platform from OpenRain.

OpenRain’s managing superwoman may have had a small stroke when I told her she had to produce and post-produce this video, but I think I made her feel better by offering to take all the credit if it turned out well. I’m disappointed that the stunt scenes and Clive Owen guest appearance didn’t come through, but… recession and all that… or at least that’s what I inferred from her half-paralized drooling. So without further ado, please enjoy this awesome video demo of the Online Business Platform that I did all by myself… or not.

Preston's Business Razor: A Stakeholder Perspective On Pair Programming

xplogoPair programming is an activity of eXtreme Programming (XP) wherein two developers work in conjunction–often physically seated next to each other with a single keyboard and mouse–to solve the same development tasks as a single mind. Having developer pairs tackle complex tasks can go a long way towards…

  • Increasing personal productivity.
  • Reducing defects.
  • Minimizing misinterpretation of requirements.
  • Improving designs.
  • (Many other benefits.)

As a developer, pairing make mountains of sense. Most tasks in the development world can be improved in a direct, obvious way.

The business perspective, however, is somewhat different. While any give client or manager will say “yes” if they want to see the above occur, a pragmatic developer presenting pro-pairing arguments must, more importantly, provide evidence that stakeholder–not developer–outcomes improve. Let’s look at a few different stakeholder perspectives individually…

Return on investment.

moneyThe common pro-pair argument of “increasing personal productivity” is, unfortunately, a deceptively irrelevant point when it comes to ROI. Business stakeholders will always want to increase productivity, but only if it improve project value per dollar, ceteris paribus. Individual productivity and overall ROI and not always proportional… but we’ll get back to this in a minute.

To play devil’s advocate, let’s create a extreme, cynical analogy by playing stakeholder to a small project that can be run in one of two ways…

  1. Two expert developers arduously working for 2 man-months to complete a small project for a total business cost of $20K.
  2. One hundred college interns assigned into 20 5-man teams, each trying to create a solution equal to or better than the above team could, estimated at 100 cumulative man-months (50x the development effort, but free because they get college credit) plus one man-month of project management and a half-man-month of additional overhead to simply identify the best developed solution. Total cost: $15K.

Now, this latter case is clearly an extreme fabrication of how real-world projects run, but does highlight a Occam’s Razor-like rule for business types…

If presented with two approaches with equal outcomes and equal risk, chose the cheapest. (Aside: This is not argument for crowdsourcing.)

In the latter case, overall productivity, code quality of a random line, design quality and other factors from a random intern will be horrendous. We’ll probable end of throwing out at least 95% of the code. But here’s the kicker… it doesn’t matter. From a business perspective we don’t care about the 95 interns that can’t tell a hard drive from an iPhone. (It’s a problem for another day, at least.) We do care about the 5 brilliant interns that teamed up, overcame the mediocrity of their peers, created something truly magnificent, and saved the company $5K. Despite bad individual productivity, the overall outcome is positive and at an overall lower cost. If we had to apply Preston’s Business Razor to this scenario, there is a clear winner, and it’s not the “ideal” one.

Why is “two” the ideal number?

kittens_huggingIt’s not… except when it is.

In economics, there are a series of concepts related to production possibilities, allocative efficiency, Paredo efficiency etc. that can be applied to engineering: using a group of individuals to maximize the production of various outcomes with limited resources. Here’s a simple empirical experiment that you can run using a group of 15 people and a good 30 minutes that touches on some of these concepts.

  1. Print out instructions on how to make an origami cube, give them to each person, and make sure everyone can make a box on their own. Instruct everyone to make as many fully-assembled, respectable boxes as possible in 5 minutes. Some will be great at it, others less so, and maybe a few that just can’t do it. Don’t count the crappy-looking cubes. Figure out the average time to build a box across the group. This is our “baseline” number that we’re going to try to beat.
  2. Break the 15 people into 5 groups of 3. Each team of 3 will now produce boxes assembly-line style, requiring each member to master specific parts of the process. Measure the production capabilities of each team in 5 minutes and again find the average time to create a box across the entire group.
  3. Reform everyone into 3 groups of 5. The assembly lines will be longer, requiring everyone to become even more specialized in their responsibilities. Again let the groups run for 5 minutes and compute your output.
  4. Lastly, form the entire group into a single, massive assembly pipeline of 15 people. Time the group and compute your output.

origami_cubeWe now have 4 data points in how to maximize the production of the group, as well as some interesting observations. First, in all likelihood, the best overall production probably came in one of the middle two trials. People were forced to specialize, but not overly so to the point of awkwardness. Second, having 15 people do a task with less than 15 significant steps is really awkward. People specialized to the point of meaninglessness; issues in the pipeline blocked way too many people; the shear overhead of literally moving paper around defeated the point of specialization. Third, each group had its own characteristics. Some may have been so productive that they blew away the baseline quota, while other in similar sized teams simply could not work together due to process issues, personality conflicts etc. Each group probably also adapted within those five minutes to maximize the groups output based on who was faster/slowest, and best/worst at folding. Some groups may have created a “manager” role to correct critical pipeline issues, pitch in a few folds when someone gets behind, or fix the “broken” boxes. When in a massive 15-person pipeline, some may have gotten frustrated and wanted to split back into smaller groups.

Let’s put it into a real-world perspective by taking an arbitrary task from an issue tracking system: “refactor foo to support bar.” This task has it’s own optimal number of concurrent developers that will be unique to the team. For a group of interns, maybe it’s 5.5; for a team of superheros, 1.2; for my team, maybe 2.4. This specific task and specific team has its own distinct production characteristics (even though the task only needs to be done once), and only in very rare cases will the optimal number of people assigned to it be exactly equal to 2.0. The point is this…

Asserting that a “pair” of people is always optimal is just as absurd as asserting groups of 1, 3 or 4 are always optimal.

The number is unique per task, per project, per team, and understood outside of computer science when looked at from a businessy economic perspective. So from a stakeholder viewpoint, use of pair programming is absolutely acceptable (and even preferred) when optimal over other options.

Experienced engineers inherently understand that some tasks require multiple minds to collectively discuss difficult challenges, debug complex code etc., and don’t hesitate to seek additional eyes when it feels right. What we should not do is cling to the notion that “2” is a magic number that should be used without contextual consideration. Maybe it’s 3… or 1… or 7… there is no universal constant that can predict this number, and it’s ok that it varies per task.

So for now, let’s put aside this arbitrary “2”, and instead rely on our experience, higher-level intuition, business strategy, basic metrics and¬†strong understanding of our peers strengths and weaknesses when deciding when to pair.


My FonWallet Story: Making It All Public

Update: April 26th, 2009. I’ve had a few brief conversations with Todd over telephone and IM, and have offered to cease pursuing both¬†judgments¬†and remove this post from this website provided a prompt, reasonable payment schedule for the personal judgement against Todd. He has committed to proposing me a payment settlement plan by the end of April, 2009. I am currently awaiting this documentation.

There are several areas of this post in which he has taken issue. Since many people have already read this post I am¬†hesitant¬†to silently change copy, so for¬†readability purposes I have highlighted that original copy in bold, followed it with additional personal commentary in square brackets, and Todd’s verbatim remarks in curly braces.

Update: November 1st, 2010. I recently had a phone conversation with Todd, who stated a payment schedule should be possible in the near future. I’ve yet to receive any follow up of meaningful action.

Update: December 1st, 2010. Very minor typographical corrections.


I’ve avoided writing on this for a year and a half now, but have been pushed to do so by several inquiring minds over the past year and a half not affiliated with the company. Some documentation on this can be found in public record, and some not. I will note the points on which I’m speculating. None of this information is covered by any NDA I am under.

The company under discussion is generally known as “FonWallet”, though the official legal entity has changed¬†numerous¬†times and is fairly tangled in the personal affairs of one of its owners, Todd Coulter.¬†{Todd, April 16th, 2009: “This is totally false, inaccurate and easily proven”} [Preston: April 26th, 2009: When I first became involved in the project, most important assets at the time seemed to have direct ties to Todd, personally, rather than the company: such as bank accounts, server assets, and vendor accounts. ¬†At the time, at least, there were a handful of different entities that all centered around Todd… A few I recall were FonWallet Payment Solutions, Inc., FonWallet Payment Solutions, Ltd., MBXIP, SipCellNet… possibly other I do not remember. I do NOT have detailed knowledge of the activities of those additional entities, nor do I make ANY claims as to how–if at all–they currently relate back to FonWallet. Also note that I¬†still have the original stock certificate log books for FPS, Inc. and FPS, Ltd.] I have neither¬†vindictive¬†nor harmful wishes against anyone affiliated with the company: only to be compensated for my work.

I¬†personally performed a significant amount of work for FonWallet, at the time known as FonWallet Payment Solutions, Inc. and now known as FonWallet Transactions, Inc., largely in the first half of 2007.¬†It is a startup operated largely in Phoenix. {Todd, April 16th, 2009: “This is again totally false, inaccurate and easily proven”} [Preston: April 26th, 2009: I personally know more than a few people of current and former involvement with the project that are local to the Phoenix area. Whether or not Phoenix now represents a majority of the projects efforts, I do not know: simply that there is a significant amount of work being done in Phoenix. With regards to the entity primarily associated with the project, all current documentation I can find–including the website itself–leads me to believe that “FonWallet Transactions” is now the preferred nomenclature. This could be wrong, but from the perspective of a reasonable outside observer, this definitely seems to be the case.]

Employees/Contractors of the company were initially paid as promised, however, dollars dried up around summer and most of the concurrent staff stopped received compensation. The only reason some of us stayed on as long as we did was due to a personal guarantee made by Todd Coulter to personally cover the staff debts if the company were not able. Soon thereafter I moved on. Others stayed. As far as I know, none of the compensation owed across that period has ever been paid, even though the company has been in operation under a new name. I am aware of at least 2 others people owned money by Todd Coulter, personally.

Mr. Coulter eventually became completely unresponsive to inquiries on the matter, which prompted me to file suit. (AFAIK¬†I’m the only that did so.) Mr. Coulter did not respond to the suit. A motion for judgment was made on 12/12/2007, and ruled upon in my favor shortly thereafter.

Two suits were actually filed, with myself (Preston Lee) as the¬†plaintiff¬†for both. The first names FonWallet Payment Solutions, Inc. as the defendant with a ruling of $71,324.32. The second names Todd Russell Coulter personally as the defendant, with a ruling of $24,044.32. The sum total is $95,368.64. I suspect that the company name change was made, at least in part, to avoid having to pay these debts.¬†¬†{Todd, April 16th, 2009: “This is totally false, inaccurate and easily proven”} [Preston: April 26th, 2009: This is purely speculation on my part, and to be honest, I hope is completely wrong. I do not have insight as to the specific reasons for the creation of a new entity (FT, Inc.), except for the knowledge that the old one (FPS, Inc.) was out of money, had a ruling against it for $71K., and the stock books were were in the possession of the guy (me) who filled suit. Again, I hope I’m wrong about this, but I haven’t been provided with any reasons to believe otherwise.] To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Coulter was properly served on both accounts but neither notified the other owners of the company nor made attempt to respond to the suit.

Regardless, the latter ruling still stands, and I have tried numerous times over the past several years to settle the matter and collect compensation for the months of work and expenses that I am personally owed. I wish all those affiliated with the company the best of luck, however, this matter is certainly not “closed”. There are some interesting and challenging concepts involved and I wish the staff the best of luck. I write this note as a friendly, public attempt to settle this matter once and for all.

Relevant public legal documents are available from Maricopa County, Arizona. If anyone–specifically Todd Coulter–would like to the discuss the issue with me directly, you can reach me direct via email or my cell.

Handling Fuzzy Requirements

I had a great conversation with remi Taylor of OpenRain Software today on how to handle fuzzy requirements when the customer isn’t available. You’ve been there… you get an issue tracking ticket like “Add Foozle Support” only to find no explanation of what this means other than the issue title. The customer/decision maker decided to add this ticket as your number one priority 2 minutes before getting on a space shuttle to Jupiter and is unavailable for clarification clear through next month. The customer says it’s the top priority, though, so you’ve got to do something.

The problem is an unaddressed gap in requirements between concept and action. In the customers mind, the concept may be clear. They may have a mental concept of what a Foozle is, what it means to the business, and how it will interact with the rest of the system. They may even have a GUI mockup laid out in mental Photoshop securely filed into the right hemisphere of their gray matter. As the developer, however, you don’t know any of this, and cannot act until you’ve figured out what the fooz you’re supposed to do.

The temptation in this situation is to pick up the keyboard and start coding according to your best guess of what the customer should have explicitly specified, since it’s not possible to reach him/her and you have to deliver something before they return. So you add a “foozles” table to the database, create some forms, tie it into the search algorithm and write a robust suite of regression tests. You are now the de facto project expert on Foozle and Foozle-related issues, and are pretty freakin’ proud of your work. The milestones completes, Foozle support hits production and it’s all good.

The customer returns from Jupiter delighted to find their feature request ticket resolved as successfully completed. They check out the work, and gaze wide-eyed upon the screen. Squinty eyes and an emoticon-like frowny face ensue, and all hell breaks loose. Sound familiar?

Yes: there has been a clear and obvious failure in process and communication. You–the developer–probably even muttered this when the issue hit your inbox, but let’s just assume that this particular real-world situation meant that the “proper” process wasn’t followed for legitimate reasons and you certainly weren’t about to twiddle your thumbs for two months waiting to meet with the customer upon return. Fail? Yes. The customers fault for hit-and-run management? Probably. But could you have handled the situation better? Yes! Let’s look at what could have happened to make an unfortunate situation a little sunnier…

When you first started thinking about the issue, you made the same mistake as the customer: you jumped from concept to a mental action plan without communicating the assumptions under which you made it. You formed your own mental concept of what a Foozle is, what it means to the business, how it will interact with the rest of the system, and created your own mental mockup. Unfortunately, all your concepts and conclusions ended up being completely different from the customers (since you couldn’t discuss them), and none of these discrepancies were discovered until delivery.

For our purposes, the interesting part about the situation is not that the lack of clear requirements prevented delivery of the “correct” system (according to the customer), but that you did not state your mental assumptions about Foozles  because your instincts told you it was a pointless exercise. The customer was on Jupiter and couldn’t possibly respond on time, so why bother? …right? Quite the contrary!

It is critically important to document assumptions on unclear requirement–especially when the customer is absent–because it places accountability of correct feature development back on the customer. What if your first reaction to the situation was to add a comment to the issue like this?…

I’m going to accept and attempt this issue, but I can’t find any detailed information on what needs to happen and REALLY need some customer time (~1-2 hours) so I know I’m going in the right direction. Not having this information leaves me with a LOT of fuzziness on what the expectation are, so here’s what I’m going to do…

[Explanation of your approach to the problem, explicitly making and stating assumptions as necessary in lieu of clear customer requirements. If you need a definitive answer that you can’t get, explicitly define one as an assumption so the reader knows how you’re getting from high-level concepts to lower-level action.]

If any of this is incorrect, PLEASE ping me IMMEDIATELY. I’m going to start development soon and want to definitively understand the intent of this ticket to avoid wasting time!

Your assumptions could be wrong. Really wrong. They could be so wrong that you’ve wasted 100% of your time because the customer made a typo and meant “Woozle”, not “Foozle”. The key difference is that you’ve been proactive in specifying missing requirements and gave the customer a non-confrontational opportunity to clarify their intention so you can Get It Done Right. Your clear, wrong assumption statements on Foozle concepts should–if the client was fulfilling their obligation–have triggered an immediately phone call from the customer. It didn’t, and that sucks, but given a tricky situation you’ve done pretty much everything you can do to assure the system is correct (short of a high-speed intergalactic chase to flag down the customer), and of that you can be proud.

In the best case, someone familiar with Foolze semantics will chime in to represent the customer until they return. In the worst case, the angry customer call will at least go much better since you can point to your desperate pleas for clarification on specific items, timestamped in a timeline manner before any of the “wrong” work was done.

10 Joys Of Small Business Ownership

Don’t fret about those woes! For on a daily basis…

  1. You are building something greater than the sum of its parts.
  2. You set the mission, vision and values.
  3. You define the right people, right roles, and right rules.
  4. You will push constantly to explore and learn to think outside your comfort zone.
  5. You will often fall, but consistently stand up stronger… usually.
  6. You will grow leaps and bounds professionally and personally.
  7. You will come to understand the wisdom of those you admire, and fear.
  8. You are pursuing your dreams and will pity those that lack the courage to pursue theirs.
  9. You have no limit to your possible successes.
  10. You are the driver of your destiny.

I’d also like to emphasise that none of these items are directly focusued on the immense financial wealth of which we all hope. Over time wealth may or may not come, but the common factor amongst all great entrepreneurs is the primary importance of personal satisfaction regardless of monetary riches. At times–and during all stages of business–progress can require a certain amount of financial masochism and sacrifice, yes, but always should you be proud of what you’ve done, where you’re headed, and excited for the treasures of the next day.

The Financial State of Arizona

moneyThe Arizona Joint Legistlative Budget Committee (JLBC) released two documents yesterday quantifying the effects of U.S. economic fear, uncertainty and doubt as it applies to Arizona’s 2009 budget, and proposals for 2010. The big question on U.S. minds is, “How will all this affect my business?” By most accounts the answer is not positive.

The JLBC’s February 12, 2009 budget update puts “January revenues 21.5%…below [fiscal year] 2008”, for a cumulative 2-year decline of 35.9%.¬†“January results [are] significantly worse than expected”, says slide 4 of the report. These numbers directly translate to additional lump-sum budget cuts for state-funded programs, including the Arizona University System.

Layoffs in the private sector worsen the situation via a direct reduction in state sales and employment taxes. In a 2010 appropriations hearing presentation also released yesterday, the committee discussed specific cuts to a page-long list of Arizona institutions. A 2010 option for reducing the Arizona University System budget calls for a $160.6 million lump-sum reduction. “ABOR and university system received a combined¬†$141.5 million lump sum reduction [in 2009].”¬†Such changes would affect Arizona’s Arizona State University, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University despite higher projected enrollment numbers and tuition increases across the board. Arizona State leads in projected enrollment increases at 4% in 2010, with 15% at the East campus. Arizona University System tuition prices have increase an average of 8.5% annually since 2004.

The effect? All employees and families of the state of Arizona are nervous to find out, as “[c]urrent forecasts can indicate the direction of the¬†economy, not its precise landing point”, to quote the 2009 update report. The nightly news will likely continue to cover layoffs, salary cuts and sob stories for Arizona not-for-profits for the foreseeable future, and it seems unlikely that a “quick fix” will restore budgets to previous levels as existing layoffs and budget decisions cannot be quickly recovered.

Please tell me I’m wrong.

Offering Developers Startup Equity, A Dialog

I have this conversation about once a month, generally by a well-intentioned dreamer new to the software space who doesn’t understand why I¬†can’t accept projects for equity. I may be exaggerating slightly, but it sure feels this way… ¬†ūüôā

Preston: Hi Bill, nice to meet you. How can we help you develop your online venture?

Bill: I have a unique web startup opportunity worth $4B and am accepting HTML experts to implement it.

Preston: [immediately suspicious of the phrase “HTML expert”] Ok, you have my attention. What’s the business plan?

Bill: It’s essentially a combination of eBay, Facebook…

Preston: [senses where this is going]

Bill: …Slashdot and TheSuperficial.

Preston: It’s a news and auction site for celebrity social networks?

Bill: No no no, it’s more like Google meets MySpace.

Preston: Like.. Orkut?

Bill: Kinda, but simpler.

Preston: [completely confused] Back to the business plan part for a minute. Could you tell me about the nature of the business? Is this an ad-based site?

Bill: No.

Preston: Ahh, ok. Some sort of subscription thing then like Salon or TheOnion?

Bill: No way. Users hate paying for stuff. It’ll affect our bottom line. We’re going to keep it free for everybody. And green. We should probably add a database of sites using ecological products. And videos, of course.

Preston: [now confident of where this is going] Let me restate the question. Where did that $4B figure come from?

Bill: YouTube was bought out for $18B. Google will be all over this after we capture 10% market share.

Preston: [completely ignores the issues with those two sentences] I see. To be completely honest, I should share a couple general thoughts. [brings up telephone script #4 from personal wiki] We haven’t talked about budgets at all, but I assume this is an equity-share idea, and I’m really honored you thought of us. There are a lot of great people out there, and I’m happy and thankful to have stood out. Unfortunately, we’re not accepting equity-based projects at this time for two primary reasons. First–and again all in frank honesty–we have the technical, business and other resources to implement these things on our own without external partners. We have a lot of great ideas, and it makes the most sense for us to pursue them internally. Secondly, it’s our goal to treat employees the way we all want to be treated: with respect, recognition and great benefits. That comes with cash flow requirements we just can’t meet with equity-heavy relationships.¬†I’m going to email you some contact information for other resources you may want to follow up with directly, and I think you’ll find that reputable software engineering shops will share these two sentiments in common as a matter of prudence. We look forward to working with you in the future, however, and we’ll keep in touch periodically to check up on you!

[exchange of pleasantries]