September 16, 2006

That's sure to win a few recruits

I was chatting with a friend of mine, and he mentioned that he had just had a job interview. He was really pleased, because instead of talking to a recruiter, he had spoken directly to the Vice President of Human Capital Delivery.

That's right: Human Capital Delivery. After decades as “Personnel,” the hiring folks of the world spent only 15-20 years as “human resources,” before morphing into the bottom-line-friendly Human Capital Delivery.

Google says it's spreading.

By the way, I'm in the market myself. You can check out my resume here.

September 16, 2006 in Work | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 06, 2004

Update and some detail on “Running a Business...”

I'm overwhelmed by the response to my posting on how we're running my new company. It's been linked on a lot of sites that I read all the time, and a few that I'm just discovering, and I appreciate those links.

First, a few clarifications: Nobody would consider us an ‘enterprise’ — we've got seven employees or in-house contractors at the moment. On the other hand, that means we work with a lot more outside partners, on construction, manufacturing, and transit operations, so we rely on the Mac’s ability to read documents from the Windows world and work on them.

Second, some more specifics on what we‘re using:

  • AEC's FastTrack Schedule. Early in MTNI's life cycle, I bought MS Project for the Mac, then (and still) frozen in Version 4.0, which shipped on (8?) floppy disks. It stopped working with OS 9, if I remember correctly, but by then, I had discovered FastTrack, which handles resource management, dependencies, and a whole lot of project management stuff I don't begin to understand.
  • OmniGraffle is a terrific diagramming tool we’ve used for network diagrams, station sketches, and other drawing tasks.
  • As I mentioned previously, we still use Office for the Mac for office apps.
  • I use Entourage X for e-mail, mostly so I can use Softhing's Entourage E-mail Archive X, which I use to archive my e-mail out to FileMaker Pro. Everyone else is using Apple’s Mail.
  • Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection, to (rarely) drive the single XP box from one of our Macs

I’m not going to go into much depth on our server software, but we use Python, PostGreSQL, and Apache, and build from there.

We’ve experimented with MovableType for a group weblog, but it hasn't taken off yet. I’m also intrigued by the capabilities of VoodooPad, and am considering building one or more project wikis with it.

February 6, 2004 in Apple, Apple - General, General computing, Work | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 04, 2004

Running a business on OS X and Linux

In my previous job, I was CTO of a company, MTNI, that sought to put advertising-supported LED signs in transit stations. We had pilot projects with the Cleveland RTA and with Atlanta’s MARTA. We converted both those pilot projects to long-term contracts, but the CEO couldn’t generate sufficient investment to build out the systems, and the company closed down in January 2003, nine months after the CEO came to me and said he wasn’t paying me for the month I had just finished working, let alone the months to come.

Fortunately, the lead investor in the old company had a secured investment, and therefore inherited the company’s assets in February 2003. We sat down, and decided there was a supportable business model, a couple of contracts that were ready to go, and possibilities for future growth.

I learned a lot from the last go-round, and from my time at At CNN, I worked in tech support, which gave me a valuable perspective on a rapidly growing company whose needs were being met by a few “cowboy coders,” who threw together solutions in rapid-deployment systems like FileMaker, Perl, and AppleScript. Then, the “professionals” came in, and started building massive, complicated, Windows-only applications using Visual C++, MFC, and CORBA (success story from 1997; I'm not sure any of the applications mentioned are still in use). The cowboys were sent packing, but the software from the corporatists broke a lot more and was harder to support and troubleshoot. And rapid response? We’ll get that right on the development calendar.

Meanwhile, I built and then managed the development of a fairly complex web-interfaced system to handle support requests and tracking, in FileMaker and Lasso, as a full-time project initially, but later as one small part of my job. The development effort was more cowboy than corporate, so there was one 37-hour day when the product first launched, but it was simple to use, simple to maintain, and simple to debug. It ran on Windows and Mac (later, through the web, on Solaris and Linux), managed daily work for 12 to 30 users, and sent critical updates directly to their pagers. It went down unexpectedly once in four years, when we let its primary drive run out of space (d'oh!).

When I left CNN to the new company, there was a software project already underway, that was to be Java and browser based, but which the largish development shop migrated into a standalone Java app, with Windows support immediately and Mac support eventually. Backending the app were IIS and SQL Server. When they showed us a user interface prototype, and we had changes to suggest, they were almost uniformly “out of scope” (silly me, I thought the client could best define the project’s scope). It wasn't a great surprise when the company filed for bankruptcy before they completed the project.

I'm a Mac bigot from way back. My experience at CNN reinforced my experience supporting the Mac users at Coca-Cola, and in mixed lab environments at the University of Georgia that Macs are (and, even before OS X, were) easier and less expensive to keep running (and most of those studies don’t factor in the most important cost, the cost of lost output for users while some tech is banging on their PC).

MTNI was a mixed environment; we had Linux and Windows servers, Macs and PCs on desktops, and signs running embedded DOS. The Linux servers ran custom Python code that gathered and distributed news, sports, and weather, transit updates, and provided a web interface to the signs. To adequately support the Windows servers, I hired a Windows system administrator I had worked with at CNN, who knew all about Windows, but used it anyway.

The new company is significantly more Unix-y, with a PC laptop for the CFO and the CEO, but Macs for everybody else, and Linux servers running Python and PostgreSQL all around. I gave my developers a choice when I brought them aboard, and they both wanted Macs. They're both new-generation Mac users, with zero or little experience before OS X, and their primary editor and development interface is vi, despite my offers of BBEdit or whatever else. I've bought copies of MS Office for everyone — it's still more work not to have it than to have it.

I hired the same, now former, Windows system administrator, but got him a 15" PowerBook, with Virtual PC, in case he backslides. I don't know if he's even fired VPC up yet, but he keeps dropping things he can't believe are so much simpler on his Mac.

Since they're vi users, I couldn't even see the point in buying the developers G5s, so we saved quite a bit of money by going with 17" G4 iMacs. I spent an hour or two on each of the machines, and I have literally never logged into them since, and none of our Macs has (knock on wood) been down or required any support attention in a combined 3.5 man-years of use.

Since there's literally no work involved to support it, we use Rendezvous to share iTunes, and chat and transfer files over iChat. I wish Address Book had Rendezvous sharing, so we could publish a subset of our contacts. Update 2/4/04: Now you can.Update to Update 2/4/04: Address-o-sync is a neat proof of concept, but we had some issues almost immediately, and I think I prefer the “iTunes” sharing model (pull from whatever computers are visible) to the “iSync” sharing model for contact data.

We've had to spend a good deal of time, and a fair amount of money, building our own interface to manage some signs that also offer a limited Windows interface through a proprietary DLL, but the capabilities we've added by developing it ourself and the deeper knowledge we've gained of our key products more than outweigh those costs.

Python gives us development flexibility, the ability to easily add in other libraries, and fairly simple integration with databases. Since developers tend to write about the same number of lines in whatever language they're using, my programmers have been very productive, and better able to deal with quirks introduced by flaky bosses. For more on the advantages of scripting languages in comparison to traditional system languages, check out John Ousterhout's Scripting: Higher Level Programming for the 21st Century, from the March 1998 edition of IEEE Computer.

I really can't think of anything we've really needed, and been unable to find for the Mac. I've had to convert CAD drawings into other formats to view, but the average business doesn't have PCs with CAD software installed, so I think that's a wash.

Where our 6 Macs have required essentially zero support (again, knocking on wood), the two PCs have not. The CFO had a Toshiba Satellite, and now an IBM ThinkPad, that between them have chewed up several days of support, over setup for her MP3 player, upgrades to her accounting package, and problems upgrading Norton Antivirus. And that's ignoring what a pain it is to switch it onto our wireless network when she visits, between IBM's wireless card interface and XP's wireless control panel, and the need to convert the alphanumeric WEP key we all have memorized into a hex key to log her in. My Mac switches between three different access points, and two wired connections, and I never have to type a password.

I'm not saying that Macs and Linux boxes are no work, but the work, it seems to me, is focused on the solution at hand, rather than the problem of the moment. It looks like I'm continuing to marginalize the Windows boxes — our CEO wants an iMac when we move into our new space next week.

Update: I've posted some more details of how we work.

February 4, 2004 in General computing, Work | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

December 02, 2003

What's Frank been up to?

The company that's arisen from the rotting carcass of MTNI is called The Transit Grapevine. We've assumed the long-term agreement with the Cleveland RTA, and recently completed an agreement with MARTA in Atlanta. We've installed half the signs in Cleveland, and are displaying content from, (coming soon) scheduled train departure data from the transit authority, and (again, we hope, coming soon) advertisements.

Here's a collage of a sign in action (click through for a larger version):

December 2, 2003 in Work | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 16, 2003

Startup mode

So I'm back in startup mode. My latest company is about to start a long-awaited installation in Cleveland, we've recently gotten the go-ahead from another full-installation client, and we're working on a pilot project for a third client.

That's the great news; after my six-month-plus hiatus in 2002, it's good to have a stable position with a company with good prospects. So for this I'm thankful. But there's also a part of me that's just glad to be back in the ramping-up process. Sometimes it seems I've been ramping up since I was 12.

What do I mean? Well, when my family came to Atlanta in 1978, the area we moved into was in the middle of a boom that made it for a time the fastest-growing county in the United States. The county was throwing up schools as fast as it could, and typically bringing in trailers about the second or third year. I started middle school in a brand-new school (in fact, since it was behind schedule, our middle school shared space with a nearby high school). I then started high school in a brand-new school, which had no organizations, no traditions or legends, no history of any sort.

Off to college, and I joined the student newspaper, which cycled the entire staff every quarter. Startup, teardown, startup, teardown...Took a job with University Computing, a well-established campus organization, but in their first public-access Mac lab, and helped set up a number of other campus labs.

After that, I had my only completely non-startup job, at Coke. That was a blast, in many ways, as this was when Coke was fat and sassy, with a specialist for everything, so the workload was great -- not too heavy, not so light as to get boring.

From there, off to CNN Interactive, where there were 50 or so employees when I started, and 425 when I left. We were buying equipment, building out space, and launching new products like you wouldn't believe.

And I like that time in a company's life. Nobody can say, "We don't do it that way" in the "just because we don't do it that way" sense. You can generally see the results of what you're doing, and you certainly feel like an essential cog in the machine.

On the other hand, there's not usually a lot of time for contemplation during startup mode. Over the next three months, I expect we'll hire 4-6 more people, roll out in one full-production and one pilot market, move into a new office, finally launch a website, and finish completely reengineering and redeveloping our product from the prototypes we launched at a different company 3 years ago.

Beats the heck out of what I was doing a year ago.

October 16, 2003 in Work | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack