When old is as good as new

Having the best technologies isn’t a guaranteed path to success. I’ve found that it’s the most appropriate technologies for the task at hand that make the biggest difference.

In 1961 Scotland, Professor Ian A. Richmond of Oxford University happened on a trove that no Briton was meant to discover. It had been hidden by, arguably, the most powerful and technologically innovative empire the world has ever seen. Forced into retreat by the Celts, a Roman legion had hidden this incalculably valuable technology. They’d gone to great lengths, picking it out of the remains of their destroyed fort, and burying it deep underground, where no one could ever find it. That is, until one archaeology professor, searching for knowledge, uncovered a weapon so powerful it might have changed the face of the Earth.

This invaluable trove was a bag of nails, but what set them apart was the fact that they were made from steel, which was — at the time — a near mythical alloy with almost magical qualities:

Scandinavian smiths discovered that the bones of the dead could grant them an edge.

Incorporating bones into the smithing process did in fact make Scandinavian swords stronger, but it wasn’t magic — it was technology. What ancient smiths could not have realized is that they were in fact mixing their bog iron with carbon to make a rudimentary form of steel.

Still, though, some do obsess on the newest thing — ChatGPT from OpenAI is one obvious example, but let’s not forget the metaverse, blockchain, Web3, and last but not least cryptocurrencies (cue the collective audible sigh of exasperation) — convinced that it’ll somehow give them an edge, like the steel swords of old. Problem is, when that new thing becomes that one big thing, from a distance, what I see is someone running around with a hammer hoping everything they find is going to be a nail.

What if those ancient Celts had found that bag of nails? Chances are, they wouldn’t have had a clue what they were made from or how to replicate them if they did.

I could replicate everything I do written in some variant of C or Python, which is having its moment at the moment, but that would involve an enormous amount of learning, and we could argue that it wouldn’t be the most effective use of such powerful programming languages.

Laboured analogies aside, the point I’m making here is that we, the software developers, database experts, and network specialists, DevOps engineers, and the countless technorati I’ve neglected to think of his Saturday morning, should focus instead on what is the best fit, not for the client (goodness no, not the client), but the task at hand.

I’m Wayne from Octane, and the most important thing I do is make people more effective at what they do. I build cloud applications for SMEs.

Musk versus X.com, PayPal, Twitter … the limitations of transferable knowledge

Elon Musk’s recent antics have demonstrated the limitations of transferable knowledge — AKA the Mike Ashley syndrome.

So who’s Mike Ashley? He’s a British billionaire retail entrepreneur who bought English football club Newcastle United without much appreciation of what it would take to run a big established business, and manage the expectations of a global audience — sound familiar?

Culture shock

Ashley had a tangential connection with sport, in that the focus of his entrepreneurialism is in the sporting goods market, via Sports Direct. But, as Ashley came to learn, there’s a big difference between putting bums in a sweatpants and bums on seats.

Musk, like Ashley, seemed to demonstrate an unwillingness to learn and a strident intention to stamp upon their respective purchases their own brand of command and control, at the expense of the existing culture:

Mike Ashley fails to understand the heritage of this great stadium. He has “renamed” it sportsdirect.com@stjamespark, although nobody ever calls it that.

The constant bad decisions that have characterised the Mike Ashley years, from the sackings of Keegan and Hughton to the sale of Carroll and Barton, have caused many to take a stand. These fans seem unlikely to return while Ashley is still in charge.

An understanding of large-scale infrastructure, a grasp of business finance, and a knowledge of identifying markets are all examples of knowledge that’s transferable, but it’s Musk’s management style that appears to have not made the transition, and we’re witnessing a clash of cultures at Twitter — indeed, as the departures continue, with each person leaves, so too goes knowledge, expertise, and culture.

I’m confident Musk wouldn’t have imposed onerous working conditions on the employees of his own ventures, risking the infrastructure critical to their existence, but that is what’s happened at Twitter:

“Twitter has also been around for ~15 years. [So,] a lot of infrastructure ‘cruft’ has built up. “Is that important, or can it be turned off” is the kind of thing best answered via asking people. 50% of Twitter was let go today, and your oral tradition just walked out the door too.”

Who spends $44 billion and instigates a regime of mind games to bend everyone to their will? Elon Musk, but I suspect few else. Musk founded X.com and PayPal, so it isn’t as if he doesn’t have experience with software, but there too were huge tensions with investors and employees, a short tenure as a CEO, problematic approaches to infrastructure, and acrimonious departures.

Managing failure

Some time ago, a friend had been asked to build a web application for a local business. Like me, my friend wanted to first learn something about the business and to interview the people who would have been using his application. The managing director insisted the thoughts of their employees weren’t important, and was intent on having the application built in secret, as a surprise. The surprise was on them because their employees hated it, were infuriated that they hadn’t been consulted (the application didn’t deal with a whole list of problems they’d reported to management), and some chose to leave as a result.

Again, there are similar features here with what’s been happening at Twitter, and while I don’t think Twitter is going to vanish (although it could fail soon), I suspect Musk is going to learn a hard and perhaps expensive lesson before things improve.

Understanding the people and the culture of a business isn’t some fuzzy warm thing that glows in articles like this, it’s an essential attribute to be understood and be made foundational to most everything else.

As the Qatar World Cup 2022 begins, it’s going to be interesting to see how Twitter copes, and like Ashley before him, the Beautiful Game could where Musk meets his match!

Hitting the same target twice

Octane adds a second string to the business bow of graphic and print design agencies, helping them hit the same target twice or more. So working alongside agencies has become a bit of a theme for Octane, and it’s helped remind me of how I started out, decades ago.

Before there was an Octane, I worked in Leeds, and the one thing that I enjoyed the most was the variation in the work I did. I was lifted out of college and chosen to head up a nascent new media department to build websites and create interactive CD and DVDs. Because I was studying design at the time, it allowed me to learn on the job and become a graphic designer by experience more than it did from qualification.

A good number of agencies in and around Leeds were attempting to branch out into new media (as it was known then), and for good reason — their clients were asking for websites and portable interactive presentations (the Internet was slow at the time, so CDs and then DVDs for a short while were a dominant format).

For the big agencies, hiring in tallent was the route forward, but a lot of agencies didn’t — and still don’t — have the resources to do the same, forcing them to miss out of possible work. So this is where Octane comes in, becoming that virtual department:

“We’ve got to move from HubSpot to Zoho and wondered if you knew anyone who could do it?”

“We need a plugin [integration] to connect our Slack team to [an internal or external service]…”

“[A service provider] has changed their pricing and we have to migrate everything to…” At least once, I’ve built an alternative and it still worked out more cost effective than paying a license fee.

And then sometimes:

“We need a few changes making to our website, but the lad who built has packed in!”

“We’ve got this brochure [containing a lot of tabulated data] that we need putting on our website.” In these instances, knowing if it’s a one-time thing or something that’s going to happen again and again has a dramatic effect on cost in the long term.

If these are the sort of questions you’ve been asked and had to pass on or let go, then let’s talk.

Engineering a future for small businesses with cloud software

94% of enterprise businesses are using cloud software, a fast growing market that’s worth almost $900 billion, and by 2025 that could represent 100 zettabytes of data, according to Cloudwards. But what about the small-to-medium sized enterprise?

Lots of SMEs have super specific requirements that make it difficult to build a complete workflow when access to resources and know-how are limited.

Having had chance to talk with businesses owners up and down Yorkshire, a few themes come up again and again:

  • Many would love to digitise everything and tap into that potential business intelligence, but most of what they have is in fragmented systems, different formats, or as printed documents.
  • They’re on the move and need access to the same resources as the team in the office.
  • Their customers need access to those same resources, but for different reasons. Perhaps they need to create their own? Ouch. Dropbox is good, but…

What we’re talking about here is a need for what’s known as digital transformation.

According to Salesforce:

Digital transformation is the process of using digital technologies to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture, and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements. This reimagining of business in the digital age is digital transformation.

In simple terms, digital transformation is the willingness to adapt to change in this fast-paced modern world. While a willingness is important, resources and know-how are critical to taking digital transformation from concept to a successful execution.

Perhaps the most important thing Octane does is make people more effective at what they do. If someone is spending 5 minutes on 1 task, Octane creates a cloud-based application that allows anyone with the training to perform 5 or more of the same task in the same time or less.

Part of that creative process involves digital transformation, where the data that emerges from those tasks becomes part of the collective intelligence of the business.

I build products that digitise as much as is feasible, give everyone access to things they need when they need them, and that most of what they do contributes to a growing understanding of the business as a whole.

The trick is doing the same thing for businesses who make precision parts for engineering, healthcare, and defence, transient assets like in events and accommodation, wide-format 4 colour banners, and couriers looking for an edge in shipping and distribution.

Taking stock of engineering

Octane’s in the process of building a cloud-based stock management application for a local team of engineers, and it’s been one of the most fascinating projects to date.

Project requirements

I was recommended to them by a good friend, and I was intrigued by the challenge:

  1. build a replacement to an aging custom-build stock management system;
  2. allow for multiple users with different levels of access;
  3. keep within a budget;
  4. have a working prototype complete by April.

When I start a new project, I do a few things:

  • establish who the stakeholders are and assign them to the relevant parts of the project;
  • map out an architecture that includes the immediate short-term needs but also adjacent and related parts of the business that represent a long-term objective;
  • then focus on building the most important parts of the project, much like a MVP (minimal viable product) and have a product working as soon as is viable.

What’s the importance of having stakeholders? In projects like these, the stakeholders are often the principle users of the application, and it has to reflect how they do things, but at the same time be an improvement on how they do things. I take time to listen, watch what they do, how they do it, and ask what they think would be an improvement.

A major benefit to having stakeholders involved is bringing them into the build process and testing the application as soon as possible, helping weed out bugs and other problems, which we manage through a series of cards in Trello, a kanban-based project management application.

Why look so far ahead? By asking questions about what the business does as a whole, I build a picture of what the application could look like, 3-5 years hence, and that allows me build an awareness of that possible future into the project. When I build with the future in mind, it often minimises the amount of refactoring of past code once we get there, something I find saves a lot of time.

Made to measure

A lot had happened before Octane became involved:

They first explored general productivity applications such as Microsoft Office, and while useful at important stages in difference processes, they were no substitute for a complete workflow.

They looked at commercial stock control applications, but few gave them any more than 70-80% of what they needed, and it was the remaining 20-30% that was the most vital to them.

They then built their own in house stock system, and as impressive as it was at the time, people took the vital knowledge and talent with them when they moved on. Years passed and by then the application had grown old, become difficult to maintain, and — as of the beginning of 2022 — failure crept in.

Understanding the workflow

Almost everything a business does revolves around managing the lifecycle of an asset, that:

  1. arrives or is created (be a precision part in aerospace, an event booking, or a brochure for bathrooms);
  2. passes through a series of stages specific to the asset, the business, or a combination of the two;
  3. and is then considered complete, passes into the hands of a customer, and so on.

This is the workflow, which consists of two basic types of process:

  1. something that’s digital in that it happens on a computer or some device;
  2. something that’s analogue in that it’s said, written, sketched, drawn, or fabricated, before spending much of its life in a physical format.

When it’s analogue, the main goal is to make sure evidence of its existence is recorded as something digital, to build an audit trail.

Tools of the trade

In the case of our engineers, one such physical product is the part, which could be anything from a single screw, to a bag of 50 to 1,000 of them, a flange, a box of a dozen washers, or an entire pumping system made up of dozens of individual parts.

Within the application, each part is an asset, which fields such as: name; location in storage; SKU; model number; description; and price.

Perhaps the most important fields are those representing: quantities, the number issued; and those that have been allocated to a job. I’ve created a system that uses these three values to build a complete audit trail of each part, recording the specifics of each action performed, tied to a specific person.

Another vital but ephemeral physical product is the quote sheet, which is printed and then distributed throughout the building. People write on the quote sheet with hands slathered in dirt and grease, explaining what additional parts were used, required, or both. The problems here are numerous. Assuming the quote sheet survives, like anything else written it’s prone to error, loss, and duplication. At some point, those annotations must be taken into account.

PDF, or Portable Document Format, was an obvious and perfect fit:

  • we manage the quote sheet in the application;
  • save versions via a cloud storage service for the purposes of auditing;
  • print multiple copies for distribution;
  • and add a watermark so that everyone understood where the asset was in its lifecycle.

Good though the PDF is, it doesn’t solve the problem of a sheet of paper fluttering around a workshop!

With a bit of training, anyone on the team could access the quote sheet and make changes, and we have a plan in place to install a ruggedised tablet device on a bracket in the workshop for that exact purpose.

During their recent stock stake, I built a spreadsheet in Google Sheets that allowed them to do the job with a few pivot tables but also automate and synchronise and create derived values to build the data we need when it comes to deploying the application.

Having demonstrated pivot tables and combined that with version histories, the spreadsheet fast became one of the most important and valuable assets in the business — in truth, it’s value is nothing compared to what the final application has been built to accomplish.

The challenges

I’m not a salesman, but I know how to talk about what I do lingo-free without the technical jargon … most of the time. The biggest challenges are perceptual.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” — United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in response to a question at a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) news briefing on February 12, 2002.

How to get from A to Z

Most business owners and senior management know when they’re not working as smart as they could or should be, but knowing that isn’t as valuable as knowing what to do about it, which is often the great unknown.

I begin by asking questions and then wrapping a proposition around those answers to build a picture of what we would create. So we don’t go from A to Z, but from A to B, then C, and D, and so on.

How much?

Regardless of how articulate I am, the question of cost is the biggest challenge, but I turn this around and encourage the prospective client to see it from a different perspective. Given the obvious value of building a cloud application that would meet the precise needs of their business, it’s less of an expense than it is an investment in getting to where they need that business to be in 12-24 month hence.

Job done!

I built the prototype in half of the available budget while saving the same amount of time, which has allowed us to build the entire project out to completion.

If you’re hoping to tap into the true potential of your business, let’s talk!

Side projects as an employee KPI

Working long hours — at the office, a coffee house, or at home — is one of the more obvious indicators that an employee is dedicated to their job, but is it indicative of how productive or how good they are?

It’s possible the long hours are a sign that someone is struggling to accomplish in 5 hours what could or should have been done in 1 or 2, and if that’s the case, the job is encroaching on their personal life, which in turn would have a commensurate negative affect on their work like — and that’s when the downward cycle begins. Unchecked, these long hours would have negative consequences for both employer and and employee alike.

Gmail, Google Maps, Twitter, Slack, and Groupon started started as side projects, as did Under Cloud, the digital research assistant, which I’ve since spun out as a startup of sorts.

Side projects should be considered key performance indicator of an employee, something I imagine Google figured out a long time ago, giving rise to their famous 20% time set aside for their employees to focus on side projects. The powers at Google are no fools, and the fruits of that 20% me time become Google products, but that needn’t be the case for everyone else.

“Should I tell my boss I have a side project?”

… is a question I see asked a lot while on a number of groups for entrepreneurs, developers, and designers to talk, share ideas, and learn from their peers. If it were me, I’d want to know if an employee had a side project, not because I’d feel threatened, but because I’d like to help, where possible. As an employer, I see side projects as evidence of some notable qualities:

  1. proactive, forward thinking, and a willingness to look beyond their immediate environment;
  2. inventiveness, and a mind for both identifying and fixing problems, or seeking out new and novel niches;
  3. and a demonstration of a commitment to self improvement, and a desire to learn.

These are commendable qualities that are beneficial to the employer, too — more so if these side projects are work-related activities. It’s feasible an employee could be working on a side project without me knowing — and that’s not a problem in and of itself — but it’s inconceivable that their out-of-hours dedication to their craft wouldn’t be of benefit Octane to some extent, since they’d either be:

  • learning new or honing existing skills;
  • collaborating with others and improving their own project management and communication skills;
  • and perhaps learning to make more effective use of their time, and — through trial and error — create a productive work-life balance.

I’m sure there are other benefits, so what’d I not include, and what do you think of side projects?