Why I’m staring at clouds (cloud computing, that is)

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re falling behind, no longer at the sharp end of technology if, like me, you’re a bit bewildered by the idea of so-called cloud computing, drifting slowly by. For me, “the cloud” is just a new riff on an old way of doing things.

Before I begin, let me just say this isn’t going to be some in-depth analysis of cloud computing, simply because I’m not that IT literate. And, for the most part, I’m sure such a review would have an exceptionally narrow audience. Instead, I’m going to skip the technicalities and offer my opinion on the cloud.

I have various parts of my digital life and work on the web, scattered hither and yonder. Mostly, these electronic excerpts of my life are to be found in the form of profiles, bookmarks, portfolios, with websites and articles representing the more substantiative end of the electro-content-centric spectrum.

What I don’t have on the web is anything specifically work related, in so far as archived data. Why? Two reasons, the first of which being that I live in a rural area and sit at the end of what’s called the “last mile”, a telecommunication euphemism for having a rubbish broadband connection, while secondly, I just don’t trust the internet that much.

A security storm cloud for Sony

To some, that final statement must appear like an unusual admission coming from someone like me, a business owner who builds web applications for a living. But let me just quote a message I saw on Twitter earlier, written by Adi Kingsley-Hughes:

“Before everyone pours their financial information into Google Wallet, let me just say one thing … Sony.”

Remember the Sony fiasco, where, firstly 77 million user accounts for their PlayStation network were illegally accessed, followed by an additional 24 million? Yes, that Sony. And the truly tragic irony is, the attack was actually launched from Amazon’s EC2 cloud computing platform.

So, for myself at least, if the likes of Sony can’t keep customer data safe, I really don’t hold out much hope for anyone else, Google included. And that’s just the security side of things. Then there’s what I call the all-or-nothing aspect of cloud computing.

It never rains, but it pours. Even for Google?

Let’s say you’ve taken the Google shilling and you’re using one of their Chrome OS laptop computers, that shoves all of your stuff up into the magical ether. Now, while Google will claim they can keep you going while you’re away from an internet connection, storing some of your stuff on your computer, for how long can you work like this when that all-important spreadsheet is presently residing on a server somewhere in the North America Mid-West?

And this is Google, arguably the most well resourced company in the world. From this perspective, you can easily see the cliff edge at which most other companies offering similar services would immediately drop off when their vastly smaller resources are included into the equation of you requiring access to your stuff. In the world of cloud computing, you either have everything, or you have nothing.

But cloud computing offers another potential problem, because we have Google and Amazon offering similar cloud-based services for their music offerings, too. Apple have something similar lined up, but crucially, they have seen the potential problems with the cloud and have a hybrid in mind, where you keep your music and movies on your computer, but will also be able to access them remotely from some other location, away from your computer.

This all kind of reminds me of that real world all-or-nothing situation, when the power goes out.

“Hmm, no TV. Oh well, I’ll make a cup of coffee.”

And then you realize you need power for that.

“Okay, skip that. I’ll listen to some music.”

And then you realize you need power for that, too.

“Damn it! Right, I’ll read a non-electronic book of the paper variety!”

But it’s now dark, and you need power for the lights.

Looking back, from the future

In fifty years time, this article will probably be ensconced in academic literature, highlighting the quaint concerns of the early internet, before becoming self-aware and omnipresent. For now, it isn’t and it’s not, and I’m here staring at clouds, while I work on my computer, reasonably safe in the knowledge that I have access to my stuff whenever if not wherever I am.


Why small businesses should make you think

Let’s hear it for the little guy! Seriously, small businesses are, well, the business. So here’s my take on why it’s a good idea to think big but act small when choosing who’s going to fix your boiler, install broadband at your office, replace your car exhaust, unblock your drain, mend your leaking roof, provide mobile phone coverage…

Trust in small businesses?

I can count on one hand the number of businesses I can rely on. Let me clarify what I mean — I want to be able to call them, speak to someone who actually knows what they’re doing, and get a straight answer, with some novel lateral thinking thrown in for good measure. As soon as you apply that kind of criteria to the broader swathe of businesses out there, you find yourself clearing the field of candidate businesses very, very quickly.

Arguably more importantly, how many businesses can you really, genuinely trust? And that’s the thing — trust is an invaluable quality you can neither beg, steal or borrow, or buy for that matter.

The biggest problem will small businesses is their lack of scale; they can’t service a huge number of clients. But what small businesses can do is provide an excellent personal service. It’s this attention to detail and the attention to the customer that makes dealing with small businesses so appealing to me. In fact, I often go out of my way to find the equivalent small business, who provides a service I require, even if they charge more.

A word or two about why small businesses are fantastic!

So what makes small businesses better than big businesses? Well, first of all, let’s define what I mean by big business — here I’m thinking about the likes of Orange, British Telecom, British Gas et cetera. Let’s look at what makes small business so good, by way of the words we all love to hear:

  1. “Yeah, I can do that!” Knowing they really do know what they’re doing and not having to worry any longer is just priceless — from Lynne Foster of PoLR, an internet marketing agency based in Glasgow, Scotland.
  2. “Oh, that sounds like the [insert name of broken gizmo here]. Yeah, I can sort that out for you.” You often deal with a decision maker; someone capable of handling your request in a meaningful way. They thrill you with their instant insight, and you know they know what they’re doing.
  3. “Go on, call it a tenner”. You walk away with a smile on your face, they get cash in hand, everyone is happy. And you remember them all the more for your dealings with them.
  4. “Well, if you pop in right now, we can fit you in!” The sheer convenience of ad hoc arrangements, without having to wait days or even weeks is just bliss, which means you can get on with your life.
  5. “Yeah, I saw the problem earlier. I’m working on a fix right now.” Getting the right level of support can be a monumental challenge. Being able to speak to the very people dealing with the problems you encounter, and being reasonably certain they’re already fixing those problems fills you with a certain warmth.
  6. “What’s your deadline?” Having some demonstration of their awareness and ability to plan is also a good indicator — from internet marketeer Nikki Pilkington.
  7. “Sorry, I can’t do that, because…” Maybe they don’t have the time, or they simply don’t have the necessary skills. Either way, they’re being honest, which allows you time to move on and find someone else. You’d be surprised just how empowering say “no” can be.

And here’s some more thoughts from the world wide web:

“I need my suppliers to be honest and do what they say they’ll do. If they’re nice too, so much the better!” — Rob Griggs-Taylor.

“”Yes sir, you are right. I will get that done immediately, free of charge” Is my favourite response.” — Steve Williams, IT security expert.

Conclusion

As a small business owner, I’m passionate about my business, Octane, by default — if I’m not passionate, who the hell else will be? And so it goes that many similar small business owners make their businesses passionately personal and personable.

We don’t have the luxury of shrugging our shoulders as customer number 77,596 walks away in a huff because we didn’t give them the service they expected. Instead, we work damn hard for all our clients and customers because our reputation and, by natural extension, our livelihoods rely on this attention to detail.

So when you’re thinking of renewing a service contract, or buying something and you’re planning big, try thinking small for a change.


Quite simply, clients count on quality

Quality is one of those things a business needs to get right early and quickly. Quality of service is not optional, nor is it interchangeable (or to be confused) with something else, like quantity. So would you impose a statute of limitations on the quality of the service you provide? No, you wouldn’t. And neither would I.

Of course, it wouldn’t do for everyone to be the same. At least that’s what my mother used to tell me. But then my mother didn’t run a business. As sage and sound as her advice often was, some things are an immutable prerequisite, like quality.

OK, let’s talk specifics — specifically, where a statute of limitations exists as a legitimate cut-off point for quality. Here I’m thinking of a time-limited warranty, like you get with physical goods, such as home electronics, food and vehicles.

In this kind of situation, you expect the guarantee of quality to fade over time, as the physical product ages, and is exposed to real world knocks, scuffs, tumbles and inexorable decay.

So that’s the physical time-limited quality issue out of the way. I’m sure we all agree on the legitimacy of warranties, yes? Now, I had an unusual conversation yesterday, one that forced me to think of the obvious in a way that, at least for me, is a constant I wouldn’t dream of tinkering with.

There’s no statute of limitations on quality

I was asked if, say, six weeks was a reasonable period of time, after which a client could no longer legitimately request fixes to software that myself, for example, had developed for them. As you can imagine, that threw me.

There were technical issues here — which I suppose we could consider as clauses — that needed addressing, as they were key players. Ultimately, they amount to an exercise in finger pointing, if I must be lazy about this. My reply was:

“If there’s a bug in your code and it’s your fault, don’t expect a client to observe a statute of limitations — they want a fix!”

And that’s only fair, and that’s where the technical clauses emerged — who made the most recent changes, to which files and when. However:

“If the client made any changes in or around the area of the fault, I’d make them aware of their liability.”

Which essentially highlights to the client the possibility that they will have to pay for those “fixes”, should any be required.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not laying any blame on the person who asked me this question. After all, each industry has its own customs and practices. To me though, common sense wins out every time, and customs and practices be damned.

So I guess what I’m saying is, software doesn’t come with a warranty, and don’t expect a client to think otherwise.


How best to deal with the needs of leads

So you got a lead. Good for you! Warming that lead up is crucial. Fudging the numbers, or scaring them with big ideas can just leave them feeling cold. So what do you do? Scale those big ideas into bite-sized chunks and think long-term.

I’ve been thinking about project management a lot recently (and doing a lot of project management, also), which you’ll probably have detected as you’ve skimmed through the headlines to my earlier articles. In some ways, this article is a continuation of the last, which you may want to read, to give you some background.

Be the voice of trust

As with almost every facet of business, trust is a mandatory quality and not some interchangeable attribute you can substitute, by being cheap or quick. So when someone comes to you for your services, it’s as much about people management as planning and pricing — people won’t buy from you until they’ve bought into you.

Being eager is great, but there’s always the danger you’re coming across too strong and a little too eager, bordering on insincere. After all, we’ve all witnessed the say-yes-to-anything sales man and woman at work, and clearly the experienced amongst us have these encounters drifting forward from the back of our minds.

And here’s where I go slightly off at a tangent, but it’ll all make sense, trust me. And I begin with a confession — I don’t pitch for work.

Octane doesn’t do the pitch thing!

The problem with pitching for work is that you’re sort of relying on one thing while skipping several others. In the first instance, you’re assuming the brief you’ve been giving is worth the pixels or paper it’s written on. And then latterly, you’re skipping the all-important initial meeting where you initiate a Q&A, to disentangle need from want.

So when that brief arrives, I’m usually to be found shaking my head, wondering just what the hell I’m supposed to make of the whole thing. Worst thing is, the emphasis is nearly always on cost, in that they equate cheap to be synonymous with being good. Well, we all know where that road leads to.

I’m guessing that, by now, you see where I’m going with this, right? Ask the right questions, and keep asking the right questions. If required, and as I’ve said before, don’t be afraid to ask the obvious questions.

What I’m really getting at is, I either do things right and in their correct order, or I just don’t want to do them at all. And since I’m eleven years into the big game, I have the option of indulging in that particular luxury of choice.

Project priorities

Certainly from my point of view, the various requests and briefs I receive are either a cursory examination of needs, or technically incomplete, which is to be expected as their authors are unlikely to as technically competent and literate as I am. Either way, none of this is a problem for me. But, it’s at this stage that the problems can surface.

Curb your enthusiasm

“Yeah, I can do that.” being the reaction of many, upon reading through a brief. “This is easy.” they add, enthusiastically, quickly diving into a lengthy and detailed document of how they’re going to transform the humble and basic needs of the prospective client into some all-singing, all-dancing cavalcade of features and bells and whistles.

Overload. That is the word most appropriate and often to be found on the lips and in the minds of the recipients this tome of a document sent back in reply to the author of the brief. Overwhelming. That’s another word, very similar to the first.

Needed now, Next time, Nice to have

Being objective is something that cannot be emphasized enough. What the prospective client may think is vitally important may well be of secondary or tertiary importance. So prioritizing those requirements is essential a function as just about anything else. In fact, getting things in the wrong order could be a project-ending event.

What I do is take those needs, break them down into what I see as their right order and then sort them again, this time by, well time. You see, any good project has a deadline. And since time is the final arbiter of all things, good or bad, by shuffling those needs around, based on which are Needed now, we can then sort the rest into those that are required Next time around, with the remainder being the ones that would be Nice to have at some later date.

Once you start thinking and then acting this way, everything then sort of looks better. Modular. Now there’s a good word, and appropriate, too.

Cooking up a feast of features

You’ve taken the needs of the prospective client and chopped, hacked, sliced and diced them into bite-sized chunks that are much more digestible by all, delivered to them in an appetizing assortment of textual delights!

OK, enough with the food theme, you get the idea. The point is, you’ve given dates their requirements by which you’ll deliver demonstrable evidence of your good work, packaging your ideas with their own, adding a quality of depth to a project, that allows them to structure their time and budgets accordingly. Keep in mind, the author of the brief might not be decision maker, so your reply may well be a sales letter to their immediate superior.

Packaging your project estimates

We’ve covered a lot of ground, here. So I think this calls for a break-down.

  1. Think strategically, and long term.
  2. Keep the technical talk to a minimum, or at least keep it simple.
  3. Since this is a lead, you’re still very much selling your self and your services, so write accordingly.
  4. Break everything down by their respective priorities, and sort those requirements into Needed now, Next time, Nice to have.
  5. And finally, since there’s no small measure of consultancy being thrown into this, fold those activities into your estimates.

So there you go, a neat list of suggestions, to keep you on your toes and help warm up that lead. Of course, these things are dynamic, but I’m sure you’ll not go too far wrong if you keep these suggestions in mind or at least at hand.


11 steps to building the perfect project

While we’re always eager to strike new ground and get working as quickly as possible, planning is the be-all and end-all of the success of any project. As the saying goes — fail to plan and plan to fail.

I’ve seen eagerness get the better of judgement. I’ve seen people lunge straight into the work side of things and be content to worry about the details afterwards. I’m not one of those people.

The best laid plans…

A few years ago, I took a former client to County Court because they were simply unprepared to let me plan a project they way I’d recommended from the very beginning. And then when things went wrong, the client simply would not accept responsibility for their own failure and refused to pay.

Now, taking my own advice, I chose to invoice the client in stages, mitigating the losses I suffered. However, because of their incessant adding of new bells and whistles, the latter stage of this failed project ballooned and the whole thing simple couldn’t be maintained.

Building the right foundations

So what’s the solution? As usual, the solution is best served when we first describe the problem in simple terms. During the County Court proceedings, I needed to make the case against the client as simple, clear and unambiguous as possible. And I did that by way of an extremely simple analogy.

Imagine you’ve been contracted to build a house; a small abode, not too dissimilar to a bungalow. You dutifully ask the client all the right questions, to which you receive clear answers and the work commences with you laying the foundations for the house.

But then the client realizes the true value of the land and changes their mind — now they want a twelve story apartment block. But they also want all of this work doing for much the same price you originally agreed to for the bungalow. And worse still, on the same plot of land on top of the same foundations.

That was my predicament described in painful detail. Sat across from me in the County Court room, the now former client squirmed with growing discomfort while his colleague looked away impassively and shame faced.

Yes, I won the case, but I’d rather not have been there in the first place. As clearly as I’d explained to the client these issues from the very outset, they were unprepared to heed my articulate protestations concerning the perils we were destined to endure, as we would eventually face each other down across a very solid wooden table in some anonymous County Court room somewhere in Yorkshire.

So again, what’s the solution? There’s no way of over stating how important trust is in all of this. And trust is a two-way street. Also, trust your instincts. I didn’t. Why? Because while I was prepared to plan ahead, I was the eager fool. So matters weren’t helped by the fact that I was being lied to by the client, which my instincts had informed me of, but I continued working with the client regardless.

Trust isn’t absolutely essential, so long as both parties adhere to what’s been agreed. Yes, that’s some kind of trust, but not the right kind. As we all know, trust is a hard-earned quality of any relationship, and for some, it’s simply not a given they can be trusted.

Laying the foundations of a successful project

Sadly, there’s no magic trick to managing client expectations. But there are a number of things you can do help insulate yourself from the death of a project, or to work towards keeping a project alive when circumstances are at odds with you and your carefully laid plans:

  1. Once the client is happy with using your services, reply to them either by post or email with a confirmation of the brief (or at least what you both agreed on), with a copy of your terms & conditions, and ask them to reply to this correspondence, which will be your proof of receipt and a tacit acceptance of your terms & conditions. And in a court of law, this acknowledgement is as good as a binding agreement between yourself and the client.
  2. In addition to agreeing on what your activities will be, the client has commitments, too — enshrine their commitments in the brief, also.
  3. Once they have agreed on their commitments, don’t be afraid to chase the client down when they’re being tardy. Yes, this can be an annoyance for them, but it’s preferable to seeing the project languish, stall or possibly even fail.
  4. Be thorough, objective and assume nothing — don’t be afraid to ask the obvious, as you’d be surprised just how many times the stark staring obvious gets over-looked!
  5. On the subject of being thorough, keep complete and precise notes of everything, and I mean everything — every form of correspondence, every conversation and every decision or moment of indecision. What you know is vital, and can serve as an audit trail, should things go wrong. Also, in keeping such detailed records, you increase your value to the client, as they may then rely on your for such things.
  6. Know who all of the stakeholders are in a project, and know what their roles are. As much as you can, limit the number of stakeholders who are charged with defining your work schedule. You do not want to commit to work that you may not be paid for.
  7. More importantly, don’t be afraid to say “no”. Seriously, Saying “yes” is often synonymous with “I don’t know, but I’ll try”, and that’s as good as a lie.
  8. Break the project into deliverable and demonstrable stages, invoicing at each stage.
  9. If you foresee problems, explain them to the client as clearly and as early as possible.
  10. Don’t allow yourself to be railroaded into doing something you know is either illegal or not in the best interests of the project.
  11. If the client begins to make additions and / or amendments to the project, assess their potential for disruption and be prepared to move them to the end of whatever stage you’re working on, or even the end of the project. While the client may have you believe those additions and / or amendments are vital, be thorough, objective and assume nothing — and stick to the plan.

Sometimes, the needs of the project are far greater than the wants of the client. Articulating that to a client takes a deft touch that not all can summon up the words for. So clearly, perils remain.

That aside, armed as you now are with various ways of staving off project failure, the only thing you may lack is the guile, the gumption and the sheer guts to ask those obvious questions and to say “no” where and when appropriate.

Beyond that, you should now have the right idea about how to manage a project and all of its attendant delicacies and details. So good luck!

Do you have your own project tips, tricks and things to avoid? If so, why not share them in a comment.