Uncharted Waters

July 30, 2015  12:49 PM

Revisiting the Objective Journal

Michael Larsen Michael Larsen Profile: Michael Larsen

Twelve years ago, I made a decision to go back to school. In the process, I downshifted my reality for two years. I was given the opportunity to work with a video game publisher as part of their testing team (this helped me slow the burn-down of my life savings while I was in school). While I was there, I was introduced to the concept of the “Tester’s Objective Journal”. Each day, we were to log what we worked on, and what we noticed throughout the day. Most of the time it was a rote summary; numbers to be tracked, projects to be recorded, and little else. At the time I considered it a document to justify why I was there.


There’s lots of ways we can track our time and justify what we do. Currently, I post a log each morning of what I did yesterday, what I planned to do today, and if there are any things or people blocking me. What I realized wasn’t being captured was the process of learning I was doing each day, or the interesting things that could be improved. As I considered these moments, I thought back to that Objective Journal.

Continued »

July 27, 2015  10:33 AM

Silly Travel Tricks

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

There’s a price to pay when you travel for 35 weeks a year for the first two years of consulting, but it also had benefits. I learned a few things that work for anyone, even if you only go to one conference a year — and it’s about time I shared.

Laundry. Most hotels include a laundry service, with a plastic bag in the closet to put your laundry in. Use the bag as storage, to separate your dirty laundry from clean, when living out of a suitcase.

Wrinkled Clothes. Ironing in a small hotel room is time consuming, but you do want to look good. If you can, get wrinkle-free shirts and fold clothes carefully. If you can’t, then hang the clothes on a hanger outside of the shower, and run a hot shower. The steam will remove the wrinkles from the clothes. Some hotels have strange hangers that are designed to be un-stealable, with small hooks or strange connections. If you really want to be sure this will work, pack a small clothes hanger, ideally the old-fashioned wire type.

Airplane Internet. Internet on a plane sounds fantastic, but consider how long the flight is. Short “commuter” flights to a larger airport may consist of take off, climbing, 10 minutes, descending, and landing. Ask the cabin staff how much in-air time you’ll have before paying that $15 — also note that more and more airports give away internet for free.

Points Programs. Travel for more than a few weeks a year and you’ll want to join a points program – hotel, air travel or both. Mostly the “reward” is more time away from home, but some programs, like Delta, make the travel experience itself better – Delta begins upgrades to first class as low as Silver, but awards them when first class is not sold out, in a highest-award-level-first progression. You can also get priority baggage arrival, priority through the security lines and early boarding – Delta Diamond members get free access to the club lounge.

Points-Based Create Card. To really optimize for rewards, consider a credit card. Look to see if the card actually helps you achieve the next level, or just earns points – Delta’s credit cards earn points but not “qualification miles.” You can earn Delta MQM’s by spending a great deal on the card within a calendar year. Other perks include waiving the checked bag fee, bonus miles, a second companion ticket, discounted lounge passes, and, with the Delta Reserve credit card, free lounge passes ($50-full price). To get that free lounge pass you’ll pay $450 a year in annual fees, but the card also includes a first-class ticket for a companion on the same fight as you per year, starting on year two.

A rewards card can be especially helpful if you don’t travel for work much. Put all your gasoline and groceries on it to save up for that family trip, because frankly, a conference a year won’t do it.

If you don’t want to be loyal. The American Express Platinum card costs a little less per year than the delta reserve and gets you access to many more lounges, not just Delta. There’s no companion ticket, but you can spend points in many more ways, including at Amazon.com. Capital One Venture, which earns 2% rewards on any kind of travel when you purchase any item, is probably the kind of the non-loyalty cards.

Shoes. If you are going to go on and off airplanes, get a pair of shoes that slips on. Preferably, get a pair you can slip on the airport, get off the plane, and wear to a meeting – so you don’t have to pack two. While you’re  at it, pick a shoe you can wear with no socks to the hotel pool. My suggestion is the Olukai Moloa – they slip on easily which is a benefit for airport security, but more importantly, the back of the shoe folds forward (It’s called a “Drop-in Heel“) so you can wear them like sandals, then pull the back up easily when you are well through the line. If you are, shall we say, a little less flexible than average, the shoe is fantastic.

Olukai MOLOA Shoes

Last week I wore my MOLOA’s to a meeting with the VP of product for a large software company; the week before I took them for a day at the beach on lake Michigan.

TSA and Immigration. Priority in the security line helps, but the ultimate is global entry, that gets you through security and immigration. These programs cost $85 for 5 years (TSA) or $100 for 5 years (global entry). Several several credit cards offer reimbursement for these expenses; with American Express, you pay with your card and a negative amount to offset the fees appears on your card.

and now for my personal favorite silly travel tip:

“Yes Please.”  If you are asked during beverage service “peanuts, pretzels or cookies?” and you’re hungry, say “yes, please.” You’ll probably get all three. Likewise, for a very short (regional commuter) flight, ask if there will be a beverage service. If the answer is “no”, the staff may get you something anyway.

Disclaimer: I wasn’t paid for any product mention in any way on this post, nor has any product company ever asked. (A software firm did once. I declined their offer.)

I’ve mentioned a few of my favorite travel tricks; what are yours?

July 20, 2015  11:36 AM

Tomorrows Legacy Software

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Growing up in software, there has always been an older person to tell me about how they spent half of their careers working in languages like assembler, or COBOL, or FORTRAN. At the time, there were no computer science or computer engineering degrees, so they came into tech through curiosity and usually a traditional engineering degree or physics.

It wasn’t just people I met, there was a whole generation of people working on just a handful of languages. This lead to a whole lot of legacy software and people that could happily make a career by learning one of those languages and working maintenance.

Maybe with the exception of Java, that idea of eventually coasting on a legacy language and product are a thing of the past.

Continued »

July 16, 2015  4:28 PM

Don’t Interview, Explore!

Michael Larsen Michael Larsen Profile: Michael Larsen

I’m in “interview mode” at the moment. We are looking at a number of candidates, and we are playing “Resume Buzzword Bingo”. I am trying to see if the list of accomplishments and achievements match with “can this person do the job?” For years, I used to go through a set list of questions, areas that I’m familiar with or know very well. Is the candidate technical enough, or experienced enough to “know their stuff”? Some time back, I came to what was, for me, a startling conclusion. These “checklists” for candidates really amount to one thing… “does this person think the way that I do?” Today, I’ll admit my unconscious search for people that thought like I did – how I became aware of it, and what I am doing about it.

Continued »

July 13, 2015  9:47 PM

The Politics Of Kaizen

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Late last year I picked up a copy of The Nature of Software Development and did a review here. It was a nice reminder of what agile is, or at least was at one point in time, really about. Getting bits of software to customers faster than we currently are. Some books make me feel re energized and help to generate lots of ideas, this was one of them. So, like the good employee I was, I brought some of those idea back to work. Some is an understatement, it was more of a shotgun blast.

Nothing really stuck. Most suggestions were flatly ignored, and a few were given a mostly fake attempt.

For a while I thought that my delivery was the problem, and that was probably part of it.

The big mistake was not taking politics into account.

Continued »

July 6, 2015  9:10 AM

The Limits Of Unlimited PTO

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

I’ve noticed a few trends over time for companies that consider themselves to be on the leading edge. A while back it was open floor plans, there were a few companies that added novelties like table tennis or beer refrigerator,  and now we have policies that claim unlimited paid time off for employees.

On the surface, unlimited PTO seems great. Who wouldn’t want to take off all the time they want? But, there is also something smelly about it that I want to explore for a minute.

Continued »

July 2, 2015  3:07 PM

On Freedom

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

A US flag made out of cupcakesHurrah! It’s July! The part of the year where people in the United States start to think about fireworks, hot dogs, parades, independence, and Freedom. That has me thinking too.

Mostly we talk about extrinsic freedom – the freedom to speak, assemble, pray, or write. I do believe that free elections, and the ability to criticize the government and not be put in jail, is a wonderful thing. We don’t enough about intrinsic freedom, the freedom from habits and addictions, nearly enough. One of those habits is the giant monthly cash suck that comes from a mortgage, the heat, water, phone, garbage and electric bills, food clothes and insurance. These things typically force us to get a job. Between the commute, meals, family time, and maintenance of our stuff, Freedom is something limited to the weekends … if we don’t already have a prior commitment.

This is the part of the article where you expect me to talk about lifestyle design, early retirement, or how to run your own business from home selling my super-awesome product. I’m not going to do that to you. Instead, I’d like to talk about what you can do, right now.

But first, let’s talk about what might happen if you win that lottery tomorrow, and have just enough money to never need to work again, starting with the story of someone who did: Philip Greenspun.

The Greenspun Story

Back in the 1990’s Phil Greenspun co-founded Ars Digita, which developed software we would probably call blogging, or a CMS, before it had a name. Ars Digita gave the software away, open source, but, as we’ve seen recently, open source software can take a lot of work. So they gave the software away and charged a premium for services.

By March of 2000, the company had eighty people on staff. At the height of the dotCom bubble, they took on thirty-eight million in venture capital and got a few “grown ups” to run the organization. Timing was bad (the bubble was about to burst) and the grown-ups ran the organizations into the ground. By 2002, Greenspun had been fired by his own investors, the company was a memory, sold to Red Hat, and Greenspun had settled out of court for an undisclosed sum that Wikipedia speculates to be around $7 million.

After the settlement, while Greenspun was not quite rich enough to indulge himself buying super-cruise ships and throwing lavish parties, at least he was rich enough to not need a job anymore. That turned out to be a bit of a problem for him.

Greenspun claims that if you suddenly get enough money to not need to work, you’re be unlikely to develop six-pack abs and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. In fact, in six months, you’d be more likely to have nothing to show for it but an extra ten pounds of weight from too much Doritos and too much binge-watching of Netflix. He should know; after all, he’s been there.

So stop thinking of the day as holding you back. Take your vacation, add in Saturdays, and one hour for each week-night, and three hours for every Saturday and Sunday, for a year – that’s about 500 hours.

You can do a lot with 500 hours of focused effort.

Two More Ways OutFreedom Cat
The other way out is to take that time you have to ‘lose’ – the job, the drive, the family and meal time – and stop thinking of it as lost. There are plenty of ways to do this; from 2008-2011 I worked from home, while there were some things I missed, the drive was not one of them. Today I have an occasional drive for business, but find that podcasts, mp3s, and audio CD’s can make time in the car useful. As for family time, I’m trying to get off my phone more and stay more engaged with my family, to be present.  If you see me on twitter from about 6PM-8PM Eastern USA on a work day, please, tell me to stop. I’d appreciate it.

So use discretionary time to accomplish real goals, reclaim ‘lost’ time – or stop thinking of it as lost. That’s three options.

We can use the freedom we have – both intrinsic and extrinsic – to make our lives better.

What changes have you made in the last six months year to make your life better? What changes are you going to make in the next one?


July 1, 2015  8:48 AM

On Loyalty And Being A 9 to 5er

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

9 to 5er is a nasty phrase slung around offices to describe people that aren’t as dedicated to the company or the cause as the person using the term. Usually, it describes a person that comes in and leaves at the times mentioned in the handbook, people that don’t do extra work in the evenings and on the weekend. Basically, people that, if at all possible, leave the office at the office.

I am a proud 9 to 5er, or at least I was before going independent.

Let me tell you why.

Continued »

June 30, 2015  1:55 PM

Disrupting Disruption

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

Zero to one bookThere is a special nickname for the founders of Paypal in Silicon Valley; they are called the “Paypal Mafia.” The group came up together, supported each other, and continue to be very successful. Three of the founders, Reid Hoffman, Elon Musk (of SpaceX fame) and Peter Thiel, went on to become billionaires.

Long-time readers know that I am a fan of Thiel’s book, “Zero to One“, on the forces that surround a successful startup, and how creating a new thing, moving from Zero to One, is so different than making a small improvement to an existing business, moving from N to N+1.

This week I was going over the book and noticed something new, or, at least, something I had not taken proper stock of the first time. Theil was writing about a common perception of disruption through technology, the kind of thing we saw when the Microcomputer killed the mainframe, Amazon.com killed Walden Books, and iTunes disrupted music.

The topic is huge, and everywhere, and big business.

And Thiel points out that we are getting it wrong — or, at least, thinking it out it in a way that is less than helpful.

I found myself suddenly skipping back to re-listen to the audio, wanting to ditch the next meeting, pull my car over to the side and let the audio run in park.

This guy had my attention.

Continued »

June 25, 2015  11:14 AM

Start Where You Are

Michael Larsen Michael Larsen Profile: Michael Larsen

As this blog is called “Uncharted Waters”, I feel a little entitled to keep the theme of my Pirate Adventures as part of this post. As some will remember with my last post, I talked about stepping back in time to participate in a weekend Pirate Encampment for the Northern California Pirate Festival. This was an event I’ve been looking forward to for several months, and it was my inaugural “voyage” with the Pirates of the Silver Realm, a re-enactment group centered in Reno, Nevada.

A pair of pirates playing instrumrnts and singing songs for an encampment.

Two people, an idea, and the willingness to say “hey, why not?” Photo courtesy of Corey Lefkowitz


I arrived early Friday morning prepared to do whatever was needed, and participate in whatever capacity they wanted to use me. As the group makes decisions democratically, I told the “Captain” to just point me to whatever needed to be done. One way or another I’d figure it out. During that early morning setup, I met another early-bird attendee, named Jeff, and as we got to talking we both realized we had musical backgrounds. He showed me a guitar he had made that was based on an old Martin Backpacker, but a bit more rustic looking. He also had a hand drum he packed, and as we were talking, I picked up the hand drum and started striking out some rhythms. In the process, I used my fingers to tap and drag along the underside of the drum head. Jeff looked at me a little quizzically, and then smiled. “You are one of the first people I’ve seen pick up that drum and know how to do that!” he said. “Do you know how to play that style of drum? I told him I did, and over the next few minutes, we hatched a plan to add a little something to the encampment.

Continued »

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