February 2012

Notes from the Ontario Science Centre field trip

February 1, 2012 - Categories: life, reflection

W- and I volunteered for the school’s field trip to the Ontario Science Centre.

On the bus ride there, I saw this curious case of two kids wedged into one seat. There was an empty seat across the aisle.

One muttered, “I sat here first.”

“No, I got here first.”

“No, I was first.”

“No, I was here first.”

This fruitless exchange lasted three minutes with little variation. Both were aware of the empty seat, which stayed unoccupied even as the bus filled. Both argued over this one seat anyway, and about being right.

Eventually the girl stood. She dried her tears behind her papers and looked glum the rest of the ride.

Isn’t it odd how we get drawn into wanting to be right instead of wanting to be better?


The special exhibition focused on models of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions. The teachers asked the students to sketch at least two of the models in the provided journals, and to complete questionnaires. The students had one hour to do their the assignment. There were four groups, one for each parent volunteer.

As the doors opened, the students spread throughout the area. Some sat before the scale models of various inventions: an air screw, a wire-controlled bird, a lion designed to dispense lilies from its mouth. Others were fascinated by the interactive displays on the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and other creations.

I quickly gave up on trying to keep track of the students in my group. Instead, I browsed the exhibits, occasionally nudging students who had gotten distracted and hadn’t started on their work. It was interesting to see the differences: the students who had come with pencils and sharpeners, the students who scrambled to borrow; the students who completed their work, the students who pursued other interests even outside the questionnaire.


After the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition and a quick head-count, we gathered for lunch. W-, J-, and I tucked into the sandwiches we made with bread I baked this weekend. Mmm.


The students had an hour to explore other exhibits after lunch. It was impossible to keep everyone together, but fortunately they were old enough to be responsible for reassembling near the lockers at 1:45 PM. There were a few primary school field trips on at the same time, and coordinating those must have been much more of a challenge.

The students moved through the exhibits in a loose crowd. People left and rejoined the groups. They chatted with their friends and played with exhibits, mostly ignoring their questionnaires. At the end of the day, many of them said they enjoyed the trip very much. By this time, even the girl who had lost out in the seat battle had cheered up.


I was tired after a full day surrounded by the tumult of teenagers, and it looked like all three of us needed introvert recharging time. J- tried to work on her history assignment after coming home, and she was totally out of it. W- encouraged her to take a break, and she headed into the living room.

I took my own introvert break by working on my computer and enjoying some tea. After my cup, I poked my head into the living room and found W- sharing some tips so that J- can handle her energy better. He told J- that instead of playing with her Nintendo DS when she felt her brain was tired, she should try resting her eyes and brain instead: napping, perhaps, or doing something like tidying up. Games can be distracting and overstimulating. They often leave you more tired than when you started.

W- shared ideas from The Hacker Ethic on how people do things for survival, social connection, or entertainment. We’d like to help J- raise the level of the things she does: to not do them just for survival (good grades), but to motivate herself by tapping social connections or perhaps even to find entertainment and fulfillment in doing the work.

It made me think about play as escape and play as reward. W- and I don’t use games to escape. We occasionally play, but more as a reward for ourselves after chores and duties are done, and because we’re curious about the cleverness designed into the games. Our vacations go even further – not escapes from daily responsibilities, but investments into relationships and routines. This is something that would be interesting for J- to learn how to do.

This is a long post today, but there was much to think about, and more still to digest and understand.

Thinking about how to experiment with business and what I might want to do

February 2, 2012 - Categories: business, entrepreneurship, experiment, life, planning

“So, what are you going to do?” That’s always what people ask after I tell them that I’m leaving IBM in order to experiment with entrepreneurship.

“I don’t know yet,” I say. I explain that I haven’t yet experimented with anything that could be seen as competing with IBM, following our Business Conduct Guidelines – and that covers so much ground. I’m leaving without a solid business plan or a proven opportunity, just itch and curiosity and the sneaky suspicion that there’s probably at least one business that I can build considering how others have succeeded.

The first thing I’m going to do after I leave is to create a structure for experimenting. Despite the associated costs and paperwork, incorporation makes sense to me. Limiting the downside – building that part of the safety net – makes it easier to experiment.

How can I go about testing possible business ideas? There are some conventional things I’d like to try.

Writing: I love reading and writing. If I can combine that with drawing and design, maybe I can create engaging e-books that will help people save time and be inspired. People have earned money from information products, so this has worked for other people before. Some have even succeeded without sleazy marketing tactics and without preying on people’s greed, which is encouraging! =)

I can test this by researching topics I’m interested in, writing blog posts and chapters, and eventually building up to e-books for things that people might buy. I’ll be writing notes anyway, so I may as well invest time into making them more usable for others.

Coaching: I’ve gotten so much value from writing, presenting, and experimenting with life. People find these things intimidating. Maybe I can help build scaffolds so that people can gradually try things out, succeed, and then gain enough confidence to do things on their own. (And I can write about what we learn along the way!)

Self-tracking: I like the results I’ve been getting from tracking my life, and I’m curious about building and tailoring tools for other people’s lives. Can I turn that into a recurring source of income? We’ll see.

Sales and customer relationship management for development: Quite a few developers have told me that they don’t particularly enjoy this part of freelancing, and it’s one of the parts I’m actually the most curious about. Maybe I can get started by helping my friends take better care of their clients and leads, and then see if the arrangement works out well.

Community analysis tools: Considering the success of the Lotus Connections toolkit within IBM, it might be interesting to make it more available to other companies. Right now, some of the functionality is available externally in a plugin for Lotus Notes, but things are still difficult to adopt. If I write a new implementation from scratch and I build the tool based only on externally-accessible information, that might be okay. It’s been quite a useful service within IBM, and it would be great to share it with more companies.

Testing ideas: How meta is that? If I’m going to be testing lots of business ideas and possibly working with other people to help them test their business ideas, then it would be great to gradually build processes and infrastructure for doing so.

Freelance consulting and development: I want to focus on the other initiatives first before I get into freelancing. I’m reasonably confident that I can figure out freelancing (especially with a little help from my friends). The kinds of work I’m considering (consulting, web development, technical writing, data migration) are similar to my work at IBM, so there’s less uncertainty to resolve. Custom work often means fewer opportunities to build compounding value, and I’d like to see if I can build a business that can scale up beyond my time.

I’m looking for things in the sweet spot: the intersection between what people need, what I’m good at, and what I love to do. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably picked up a good sense of what I’m interested in and how I might help you (and lots of people like you!). Is this list missing something that would help you even rock more?

Squeezing another project in

February 3, 2012 - Categories: work

Down to 11 business days before I leave IBM for my experiment in entrepreneurship. My manager wants to know if I can squeeze in working on a non-profit project and helping a developer learn Drupal skills on top of my current project, which is now in user acceptance testing. I say yes. There’s time to help people learn, and time to reduce the risk of future projects. My notes and braindumping and last-minute improvements to extracurricular interests can wait.

I needed to revise the documents of understanding. I had originally estimated and scoped the project assuming that it would be done by a developer with both experience in Drupal, familiarity with the particular nonprofit’s needs, and a thorough understanding of the codebase. This project involves making a site more configurable so that other organizations can deploy it easily. It will be used as a pattern for five or more sites, with the first ideally coming online this year.

To accommodate the risks, I simplified the tasks we planned to do, and reorganized the items in order to fit the timeline. As neat as it would be, we probably won’t need an installation profile or a distribution for five or so instances. I put the most complex tasks up first, before I leave, so that we can power through them with pair programming. With any luck, we’ll be able to complete the crucial parts of it before I go, and the remaining developer will be familiar enough with the key parts of the code to continue. She can turn to one of our coworkers for mentoring.

In the meantime, I’ve been checking tasks off my other project: mostly styling, with some minor content and functionality tweaks. The project manager is impressed because I get things back to her so quickly. I tell her I might work part-time on this and add another project over the next two weeks, which should be fine given the rate at which we find and fix the tasks for this one.

Looks like I might not be able to take that half-day of vacation after all. <laugh> No big deal – it’s all for an excellent cause, and maybe I can get the practice admin to have it paid out instead. Good to be making things happen!

What to do when you have a hard time listening to lectures: adapting as a visual learner

February 4, 2012 - Categories: learning

J- is taking Red Cross lifeguard lessons. She told us that she sometimes has a hard time understanding and remembering the concepts, so I shared a tip that worked for me and that might work for you.

Like J-, I’m a visual learner–perhaps way more than she is. I learn a lot from books and blogs, and I enjoy writing.

I’m not much of an audio learner. I used to fall asleep in classroom lectures. I get impatient when I listen to nonfiction audiobooks, podcasts, or webinars. I hardly even listen to music.

After struggling through some lecture-heavy university classes, I finally figured out how I could use my visual learning strengths to make up for my audio learning weaknesses. The trick is to read ahead whenever I can. Seeing the words gives me a visual “hook” to hang the ideas on when people talk about them. It gives me an outline that I can use to organize what I hear. If I read ahead, I understand what people say better, and it’s easier for me to stay engaged.

There are many situations where I can’t read ahead, such as meetings or presentations. In those situations, I keep my visual brain occupied by writing or drawing my notes. By turning important parts into words that I can see, I can remember things better. I can see the structure of a talk instead of trying to follow a linear narrative. Ideas don’t disappear into the foggy recesses of my brain.

Taking notes also has other benefits. Because I know I can share my notes afterwards, I pay more attention and look for more ideas that could be useful to other people. I’ve had lots of conversations because of my notes, and the conversations often lead to other discoveries.

As J- heads into high school, she’s going to need better learning strategies. W- and I are figuring out how we learned what we learned, and we hope to help her and other people learn things more effectively too. How do you use your learning strengths to deal with your learning weaknesses, and how do you build on those strengths for even more awesomeness?

Weekly review: Week ending February 3, 2012

February 5, 2012 - Categories: review, weekly

Two weeks to go before I leave IBM. My current project is in user acceptance testing, and I’ve addressed practically all the feedback that the client sent. The project manager is impressed at how quickly things get done. There’s nothing like a clear end date to sharpen one’s focus! I want to get as much in before I go.

We’re squeezing another project into my last ten business days. I’m going to help a developer learn Drupal and take over this project for a non-profit based in Toronto. It’s good work, and it would be great for her to pick up Drupal.

Braindumping about how to rock at IBM will probably have to wait until after I leave. Folks can take care of resharing the resources internally. I’ve got quite a few tips to share. =) It would be great to see the ongoing conversations, but oh well!

This week, W- and I volunteered for the students’ field trip to the Ontario Science Centre. That was quite informative. We also spent a lot of time helping J- with her homework, as she has a couple of assignments due this week.

Busy week, but a good one. Next week will be good too!

From last week’s plans

  • Work
    • [X] Discuss project T transition
    • [X] Work on project C styling
    • [-] Plan farewell lunch
  • Relationships
    • [X] Visit the Villanuevas
    • [X] Help with J’s homework
    • Volunteered to help with field trip to Ontario Science Centre
  • Life
    • [C] Look into switching to WIND and porting my number in order to take advantage of their data plan; decided against it for reliability reasons
    • [/] Collect referrals for accountants who focus on small businesses
    • [X] Figure out way to track and highlight exceptions thrown by Quantified Awesome

Plans for next week

  • Work
    • [ ] Work on any UAT issues for project C
    • [ ] Train Regan for project T
    • [ ] Have exit interview
    • [ ] Plan pre-experiment lunch
  • Relationships
    • [ ] Help J- with homework
    • [ ] Get in touch with the Villanuevas regarding museum visit plans?
  • Life
    • [ ] Take more book notes – checked out lots of books from the library!
    • [ ] Go to doctor for regular checkup
    • [ ] Have eye exam
    • [ ] Look into health insurance

Learning research skills

February 6, 2012 - Categories: learning

How do students learn how to research information for school: how to ask questions, find resources, take notes, paraphrase, organize, and summarize?

I’m curious about this because we’ve been running a study group for J- and her classmates, and the kids have such different skill levels when it comes to research. They’re in Grade 8 and are working on history projects about the settlement of Western Canada. In terms of research skills, J- seems to doing okay. She’s reasonably self-motivated, knows that she needs to go beyond just the textbook or the Wikipedia page, decent at paraphrasing, organizing and presenting what she’s learned. She needs more nudging to take notes, though, instead of browsing through lots of pages and relying on her memory. Another classmate of hers turned up with what looked like a copy of a few paragraphs out of a textbook, but hadn’t paraphrased it or reorganized it yet according to the inquiry questions, didn’t seem to have drawn from other sources, and couldn’t answer some of my questions about the material.

When we volunteered to accompany the students on a field trip to the Ontario Science Centre, we saw an even wider range of study skills among the students. Some focused on the assignment they were given, quickly completing the sketches. Others were unprepared. They didn’t bring pencils despite knowing they would need to sketch, and they misunderstood the instructions and needed help getting back on track. I can imagine how it might be difficult to give individual feedback and attention in order to help people develop the skills they need, even with only twenty students in the class.

I try to think back to when I was their age. I don’t remember my research skills – probably middling, at best. I wasn’t particularly academically-inclined, although I loved reading. I remember that some of my classmates were much awesomer. They turned in cogent and comprehensive reports on something or another. How did they learn? How can we help J- so that she learns these skills, too?

W- has been challenging J- to take more notes and to read the resources at a deeper level. I try to nudge her to check the library for books; not everything has to come from the Internet. We help her with mindmapping, organizing, editing. We model constant learning through conversations and the never-ending parade of library books through the house. Homework help takes up much of our evenings during the weeks that J- spends with us. Recognizing that this takes time and confidence that many parents don’t have, we help her friends out with homework when they drop by, too.

I have a lot to learn about research myself. I’ve had the benefit of additional learning, a master’s degree manifested in the slim volume of my thesis. There’s still so much I want to figure out – how to ask my own questions, draw on other people’s experiences as well as my own, organize my research and thoughts, and present them clearly through blog posts, books, and other forms. Maybe J- and I will learn more about research together.

Notes from my exit interview with IBM

February 7, 2012 - Categories: career, ibm, work

I had my exit interview yesterday. It was more of a follow-up, as I had found a list of common exit interview questions, drafted a blog post with my answers, and sent it to Joyce Wan (my interviewer) to see if there was anything sensitive that I shouldn’t share. She was amazed by the feedback. After consulting with the HR partner, she told me that I could definitely share it with my manager, and it was up to my discretion whether I shared it on my blog.

The exit interview was straightforward. Joyce had mapped my e-mailed answers onto the standard questionnaire, so we spent the time on follow-up questions and other things I hadn’t covered. She thanked me for the honesty of my feedback and reassured me that whatever she would keep whatever I said confidential. I told her about what an awesome time I’ve had at IBM, and that it was okay to share my feedback.

There were a few questions about compensation. I told Joyce that I was happy with what I had earned at IBM, and the intangible value of working with the company was amazing. Besides, compared with the median salaries for people my age in Canada, in one of the toughest times in recent history… we did pretty darn well. We chatted about my plans, her own experience of leaving and returning to the company, and about the steps in separation.

Here are my answers to typical exit interview questions, fleshed out some more.

1. Why have you decided to leave the company?

(My “elevator summary” of why I want to leave: I want to experiment with entrepreneurship pre-kids rather than post-kids. At this, every person I talk to nods and tells me it’s an excellent idea.)

I want to experiment with business. I’ve read so much about entrepreneurship and freelancing. I’ve talked to so many people about their experiences. Over the past four years, I’ve applied many ideas I’ve learned inside the company. I’ve looked for internal ways to create scalable value, like the Community Toolkit. I’ve loved the rewards of thanks, recognition, ideas, and mentorship that I’ve received from people all over IBM. I want to see if I can create similar value outside.

2. Have you shared your concerns with anyone in the company prior to deciding to leave?

I love learning from people, and I’ve talked to many people both inside and outside the company. I was concerned about possibly reintegrating into IBM, but I talked to people who had joined or rejoined IBM after other jobs and even other careers, and they had good experiences to share. I was concerned about my ability to make it in the marketplace, but mentors and potential clients reassured me that my skills were much needed.

My main concern now is how to gracefully transition both my work responsibilities and all the wonderful things I’ve had the privilege of helping with at IBM – community toolkits and comics, analyses and initiatives.

3. Was a single event responsible for your decision to leave?

No. I’ve been interested in entrepreneurship and freelancing since I was in school. I also really loved the scale at which we get to work at IBM, and the wonderful learning opportunities it offers. The main reason I’m planning to experiment with entrepreneurship now instead of staying with IBM is that it’s easier to experiment with that before we have young children instead of after.

4. What does your new company offer that encouraged you to accept their offer and leave this company?

The chance to have my own company, to build things and fail and learn from them, and to do so with reasonable risks.

5. What do you value about the company?

I love what we work on at IBM and why we work on it. I’m constantly amazed at this living, breathing organization that works around the world to help our clients make their customers’ lives better. This is a company that helped put men on the moon. IBM invented so many things that transformed business.

I love the scale at which we work. I love the fact that I can help out with things that touch hundreds or thousands of people’s lives inside the company. I love the fact that we can work with all these big companies that touch millions of people.

I love the people we get to work with at IBM. I love the way you can find an expert on just about anything, and that you see people of so many walks of life and so many stages in their career. I love the gender balance and not feeling like I’m the only woman in the room. I love the way I’m surrounded by role models and inspiration, and that mentorship helps me reach for things beyond my grasp.

6. What did you dislike about the company?

I wish I could be in more than one place at the same time. There are lots of interesting opportunities, and I can’t help with all of them. But that’s not IBM, though, that’s me!

7. The quality of supervision is important to most people at work. Are you satisfied with the way you were supervised?

I have gotten along very well with both of my managers and with the rest of the management hierarchy. Both Robert Terpstra and Ted Tritchew have been great advocates, helping me navigate IBM and make the most of the opportunities here.

I have a deep respect for the managers, project managers, team leaders, and resource deployment managers with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. They’ve helped keep a lot of potential headaches out of my way. They sometimes have to balance many conflicting demands, and I think they’ve done a good job at it.

8. Is there anything we can do to improve our management style and skill?

It would be fascinating to see how we can further streamline the miscellaneous work managers need to do. If we can pare the workload down to the essentials, then they’ll have more time for building relationships with both employees and clients. My managers have done a great job of this, but I hear that other people might not be as lucky.

9. What are your views about management and leadership, in general, in the company?

I’ve seen so many inspiring examples of leadership at all levels: the researcher who goes the extra mile to connect with students and industry colleagues, the consultant who shares his knowledge even without a billing code, the software developer who sees not just the widget she’s building but the reason why it matters. I like that about IBM.

Sometimes we trip. Like all companies, IBM is made up of humans. I believe most of our people want to do the best they can (or at least that’s true of everyone I’ve come across!). Sometimes it’s hard to do so under fear, uncertainty, doubt, or stress, but in general, they do. Sometimes short-term stresses make people forget to put in that extra effort to communicate their vision. It happens. As more people learn how to work with the structure and how to reshape it to make it better, I think IBM will do even better.

10. What did you like most about your job?

I loved working directly with clients, building systems that helped them save time and make a bigger difference. I also liked working with open source software and sharing as much as I could about what we were learning from these different projects.

11. What did you dislike about your job? What would you change about your job?

It’s a pity that I can’t easily experiment with entrepreneurship part-time, but I understand the reasons why the Business Conduct Guidelines avoid potential conflicts of interest. So I wouldn’t change that, although it would be interesting to find a structure that works. Maybe coming back in as a contractor for a few things? We’ll see!

12. Do you feel you had the resources and support necessary to accomplish your job? If not, what was missing?


13. We try to be an employee-oriented company in which employees experience positive morale and motivation. What is your experience of employee morale and motivation in the company?

I think I’ve been the luckiest and the happiest IBMer I know, possibly even the happiest in the history of the company. Part of that comes from all the wonderful ways people reached out to me and helped me. Part of that comes from the things we get to work on and the difference we get to make. And yes, part of that comes from a conscious decision to remember that IBMers are human, so even if things get messed up or if things aren’t as well-communicated as they could be, I can still translate that into what people probably meant. (Handy skill. Everyone should learn it!)

14. Were your job responsibilities characterized correctly during the interview process and orientation?

Yes! Actually, since Robert Terpstra helped customize my first consulting position to fit my passions and interests, I think the interview job description was along the lines of “Be Sacha.” I’ve grown into even more capabilities, thanks to IBM.

15. Did you have clear goals and know what was expected of you in your job?


16. Did you receive adequate feedback about your performance day-to-day and in the performance development planning process?

Yes! Both my managers can tell you that I talked to them about performance regularly, and planned my growth with a lot of help from them.

17. Did you clearly understand and feel a part of the accomplishment of the company mission and goals?

Totally. That’s because in addition to my GBS consulting work, I was connected with all these other groups and business units through my extracurricular interests. I felt part of Research’s explorations of social software and collaboration, part of SWG’s development of tools and business cases, part of CHQ’s campaigns and collaboration discussions, part of S&D’s strategy workshops. It was awesome.

18. Describe your experience of the company’s commitment to quality and customer service.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with people who helped delight clients. Sometimes we let internal considerations get in the way of really doing what’s best for our clients, but that’s part of the growing pains of any organization.

19. Did the management of the company care about and help you accomplish your personal and professional development and career goals?

Totally! I wish everyone had the kind of guidance and mentorship I enjoyed.

20. What would you recommend to help us create a better workplace?

I care about helping people share knowledge and collaborate more effectively. I’m looking forward to seeing how people take that further. I heard that our new CEO encouraged people to use Lotus Connections to share ideas on IBM’s strategies – exciting!

Out of self-interest, I’d love to see a more permeable interface, too. Make it easier for people to move in and out of IBM depending on what fits their life, or scale their work up and down as they want. Treat contractors and part-timers better. I hear sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s a hassle, but I think we could be more consistently awesome for people to work with.

21. Do the policies and procedures of the company help to create a well-managed, consistent, and fair workplace in which expectations are clearly defined?

Yes, at least in my experience.

22. Describe the qualities and characteristics of the person who is most likely to succeed in this company.

In addition to all the usual stuff, like being passionate about client success, I’d suggest: Curiosity, compassion, deliberate optimism, and the ability to negotiate the system. That’s an interesting idea there, negotiating the system. Part of it means being able to navigate the system, but part of it also means tweaking the system.

23. What are the key qualities and skills we should seek in your replacement?

Many management books say that you should hire for passion and train for skills. Do that, and I’m sure you’ll find people who will be even better for IBM. I’d love to hear stories about their new adventures!

24. Do you have any recommendations regarding our compensation, benefits and other reward and recognition efforts?

Get better at showing more people how they’re part of the vision – or helping them make their own vision. Treat them better. It doesn’t have to involve money. Real appreciation, transparency, respect – that takes people far.

25. What would make you consider working for this company again in the future? Would you recommend the company as a good place to work to your friends and family?

I’ve loved working at IBM. I’d happily recommend it to other people for whom it would be a great fit. I’d be delighted to come back to IBM if it turns out that I want the scale and power of IBM to make the kind of difference I want to help make.

26. Can you offer any other comments that will enable us to understand why you are leaving, how we can improve, and what we can do to become a better company?

If I could be in two places at the same time, I’d continue working with IBM while experimenting with these ideas. But I want to do the right thing by IBM and our clients, and the right thing is to leave in order to do this experiment instead of trying to do it under the radar or letting it distract me from being fully committed. I think this will turn out wonderfully.

Helping kids build their vocabularies: spell-offs and bedtime stories

February 8, 2012 - Categories: learning, life

We’re working on helping J- learn new words. The more words she learns, the more she can think about and communicate. Yesterday, we tried an informal spelling bee at home, and she seemed to enjoy it. J- chose words out of the Collins English Dictionary, and W- picked words out of the Stoddart Visual Dictionary. You can guess who had to spell words like “articulating”, and who had to spell words like “leontopodium.” I refereed, which mainly consisted of helping J- pronounce the words and giving hints as needed.

That was fun. W- and I developed our vocabularies through, coincidentally, the same geeky habit of reading pocket dictionaries in childhood. If the opportunity to stump her dad gets J- into reading the dictionary, then awesome!

You know, it would be great to have a manga series that used all sorts of obscure words. That might lure J-‘s interest in. Hmm. =)

We’re also reading stories together as a way to help her build her vocabulary. By reading together, we can ask her questions to test her comprehension and help her learn new words. Our bedtime story? Animal Farm. We read a chapter a day, and she has no problems with the material. I love the way Orwell characterized the animals, and we all laughed at the cat’s antics. We’re on chapter 4 at the moment, and looking forward to the rest of the slim book.

Drupal 6: Adding color support to your theme

February 9, 2012 - Categories: drupal

We spent a few hours trying to figure out how to use Color to make our custom Drupal 6 theme configurable. Color rewrites your CSS to include the user-configured colours, and adds the resulting stylesheet link to your header.

The first trick was to get the colour picker to show up on the theme settings page. The documentation wasn’t clear, but the easiest way to get started seems to be to copy the color/ directory from the Garland theme into a subdirectory of your theme, and then customize it from there. You will also need to follow the Drupal 6 or Drupal 7-specific instructions for calling the Color module when preprocessing pages.

Color searches your style.css (and imported stylesheets or other stylesheets defined by the ‘css’ part of your $info array) for colour definitions. Any colour that exactly matches one of the colours defined in the default scheme is replaced by the colour in the selected scheme, with the caveat that the base colour should not appear in the stylesheet. If the base colour is found in the stylesheet, it will be replaced by an empty string. In your stylesheet, make sure your base colour uses the shortened version (ex: replace #cccccc with #ccc) or use a very similar colour instead (ex: #cbcbcb).

So, the easy way to colourize your theme:

  1. Enable Color, if you haven’t yet.
  2. Copy the color directory from the Garland theme into your theme

Color will attempt to figure out unspecified colours based on those colours’ relationship with the base colour. This can lead to interesting combinations. If there are colours you do not want Color to change, put them in a section after a comment like this:

 * Color Module: Don't touch                                       *

All colours specified after that comment will not be rewritten.

Some gotchas to watch out for:

  • It’s probably a good idea to add a comment to your style.css reminding developers to resubmit the colour settings after making changes to the stylesheet. Color rewrites the stylesheet, so changes aren’t picked up until the stylesheet is regenerated.
  • The Color preview appears to use hardcoded HTML. The gradient is created by color.js, and there doesn’t seem to be a way around it. Our workaround is to use CSS to hide both the preview and the header above it. Unfortunately, there is no div that encloses both the header and the preview.

Bridging from intrapreneurship

February 10, 2012 - Categories: career

One week to go before I leave IBM and experiment with building something on my own. I realize that I’m drawn to something familiar about this experiment. It’s not freelancing that interests me, although that seems to be a decent way to create value and make money. It’s entrepreneurship. Looking back, I can see how I’ve experimented with it before, and I want to see if I can make it work outside too.

I started with my blog posts, presentations, shared files, and wiki pages. I found out that if I invested a little time into sharing what I knew, people could learn on their own, even while I slept. For fun, I added metrics to my yearly business results: how many people had viewed my presentations, how many people had downloaded my files. On Slideshare, my presentations have been viewed more than 400,000 times. (Holy cow.) I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations of my ROI, considering the cost of my time and the probable value received by others, considering the thank-you notes and links I’d seen. The numbers were pretty good.

I like writing code and I hate doing repetitive tasks, so I wrote myself a few timesavers that turned out to be popular. As part of a consulting engagement, I needed to analyze the forum posts in a community, so I wrote a tool that extracted the information from the Lotus Connections ATOM feeds. This grew into the Community Toolkit, which eventually helped hundreds of community leaders create newsletters of updated content and export information from their communities.

I wanted to send personalized thank-you notes to people who participated in these community-based brainstorming sessions, so I wrote a mail merge script for Lotus Notes. I blogged about it, and it turned out to be really useful for other people too.

So I guess I’ve had some experience in creating value outside the direct equation of time = money. This experiment, then, is about figuring out if I can do that for non-IBMers, and if I can make a good living and a good life along the way.

Weekly review: Week ending February 10, 2012

February 11, 2012 - Categories: review, weekly

Work is settling down nicely. Regan is learning about Views and the other modules we use for project T. We’ve been adding comments to the code and removing things that were no longer necessary. There are still some things that need to be sorted out with timing and paperwork, but I think the team will be just fine without me.

So now I’m reviewing my blog posts from the past few years, and writing the stories while they’re fresh in my mind. It’s great coming across these memories, remembering what it was like to be new to everything, and to find these unexpected opportunities to learn and to help and to play.

From last week’s plans

  • Work
    • [X] Work on any UAT issues for project C
    • [X] Train Regan for project T (Views, code)
    • [X] Have exit interview
    • [X] Plan pre-experiment lunch
    • Write notes from my adventure with IBM (eight pages in, and I’m still writing about my first year!)
  • Relationships
    • [X] Help J- with homework
    • [-] Get in touch with the Villanuevas regarding museum visit plans?
    • J- got into the CyberArts program, yay!
    • Helped at study group: polynomials
    • Tidied up
  • Life
    • [X] Take more book notes – checked out lots of books from the library!
    • [X] Go to doctor for regular checkup
    • [X] Have eye exam
    • [X] Look into health insurance
    • Tidied up downstairs desk in preparation for entrepreneurship
    • Prepared my resume

Plans for next week

  • Work
    • [ ] Have pre-experiment potluck
  • Relationships
    • [ ] Help J- with homework
  • Life
    • [ ] Make lots of cookies for pre-experiment potluck
    • [ ] Write up business decisions
    • [ ] Plan the following week

High school acceptance, yay!

February 12, 2012 - Categories: life

J- got into the CyberArts high school program! One of the coordinators called this week to offer acceptance and compliment her on her portfolio. She worked hard on that portfolio, which included a milk carton she designed for a grade 8 project, the digitally coloured Powerpoint sketch presentation she made in Grade 7, and a few sketches.

The program involves classes in art, photography, digital imaging, and photography. We talked to students during the school’s information night. They said that the workload gradually ramps up, and that the assignments can take a lot of work but that they’re worth it. J-‘s mom is a designer and both W- and I are into tech, so we’ll probably be able to help her figure things out. (She’ll still have to do all the work, of course!)

J-‘s drawing skills have improved tremendously in the past year. Her teachers say that she almost always uses her spare time to do something artistic. Inspiring! Maybe that’s one of the things I’ll use my newly flexible schedule for – improving my drawing and sketching skills so that I can create more engaging ways to help people learn.

Exciting times ahead.

Pre-experiment potluck

February 13, 2012 - Categories: career, ibm, work

Today was my pre-experiment potluck, organized by Jennifer Nolan. I brought cookies, she brought cupcakes (which she had frosted with flowers), and other coworkers brought food. A few former IBMers made it in, too, and it was great to reconnect with them. Another milestone in my separation from IBM and adventure into entrepreneurship!

When we were planning this, Jen suggested a potluck (more chatting – great idea!). I suggested that we call it a pre-experiment potluck instead of a goodbye lunch. I like the positive approach to the idea. IBM’s been wonderful, and now I want to experiment with ways to build value. Consulting and coding are cool. What else is out there? Hence, experiment!

Anyway, I spent the rest of the afternoon on a bit of a sugar buzz. =)

Five days to go before I start the next chapter in my life. I’ve been braindumping Drupal development and theming tips on Regan Yuen, who’s taking over one of my projects (and maybe another). In the gaps between questions, I write stories I remember from work, post testimonials on LinkedIn, and tidy up whatever else I can before I leave.

It turns out that leaving isn’t actually that scary. =)

Five things I’ve learned from five awesome years at IBM

February 14, 2012 - Categories: career, ibm, learning, tips, work

I was going to write stories from my five years at IBM (one year as a graduate student, four as an IBM consultant) while they were still fresh in my memory. Then I realized I was on page 8 of a single-spaced document and I was still covering the first year. Instead of writing my way through it, I’ll share the five key things I learned during my adventure with IBM.

Happiness, meaning, and career growth are your responsibilities.

Don’t count on people to tell you why your work is meaningful or to arrange your career so that you’re happy. Do that yourself. Make your own vision and set yourself up for your own happiness and success. There will always be plenty of reasons to feel stressed or unhappy about work. Why not focus on what you could do to improve things instead?

As the financial crisis unfolded in 2008, the mood was decidedly down. Clients were tightening their budgets. Layoffs meant seeing friends scrambling for work despite their talents and skills.

I figured things would happen however they happened. I could either be demoralized by it, or I could focus on the things I could control. I learned more about consulting and development, and I had a wonderful year. (Okay, after I got through my disappointment about great people getting laid off…)

Work sustainably.

Fatigue and sleep deprivation lead to mistakes and lower productivity, and the personal sacrifices are too high. Work at a sustainable pace. If your work requires intense sprints, make sure you don’t forget to rest.

From the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to burn myself out working 80-hour weeks. Although the occasional business trip involved longer hours, for the most part, I kept to the time I budgeted for work. This forced me to focus when I was at work, and to find ways to work more effectively. It also meant I gave feedback on estimates early, so that we could avoid having projects run behind schedule because of unrealistic planning. Result: less stress and more happiness.

Ask for help.

One of the best things about working with a large company is being able to work with people who are great at what they do. Sometimes you have to find creative ways to compensate or thank people for the time they invest in helping you. A thank-you note that includes their manager is an excellent way to start.

I was working on a client project when I ran into a problem that I didn’t know how to solve. It involved Microsoft SQL Server 2000, something I had never administered before. I tried searching the Internet for tips, but I knew I was missing things I didn’t even know to look for. After some delay, we eventually found an expert who could review my work, we brought him into the project, and he billed much less time than it would have taken me to learn things from scratch.

Practise relentless improvement.

Always look for small ways you can work more effectively. Invest time into learning your tools. If you can improve by 0.25% every day, you’ll double your productivity in less than a year.

Working with other people in an IBM location is an excellent way to learn by watching how other people do things. Attending community conference calls is another way to do that, too. Experiment with techniques yourself, and share what you learn.

Look for scalable ways to make a difference. Intrapreneurship is worth it.

Find yourself doing something repetitive? Solving problems other people might run into? Save yourself time, and save other people time as well. If you write about what you’re doing – or better yet, build a tool that does it for you – then you can share that with other people and create lots of value.

I started playing around with intrapreneurship through blogging and presentations. I was learning a lot, so I took notes and proposed presentations to conferences. Many of my proposals got accepted. This is how I got to go to the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange as a presenter in my first year as an IBM employee. Presenting helped me share what I’d learned with dozens of people at the same time, and uploading the presentations helped me share with hundreds and even thousands over the years.

I like building tools, too. I wrote something to make it easier for me to export data from Lotus Connections communities. This grew into the Community Toolkit that many people use to create newsletters or measure activity in their communities. I wrote a script for doing mail merge in Lotus Notes, and that became popular as well. This resulted in a steady stream of thank-you notes from people across IBM (and even outside the company), which came in really handy during annual performance reviews.

What have you been learning at work?

Sketchnotes: Small business network meetup with Kristina Chau at the Toronto Reference Library

February 14, 2012 - Categories: entrepreneurship, library, sketches, sketchnotes, toronto

Notes from the Small Business Network meetup with Kristina Chau

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

I attended the small business network meetup at the Toronto Reference Library. The librarian (Margaret Wigglesworth) explained that the Toronto Public Library started hosting these events after people requested more networking time in the business classes that the library organized. Each session was structured as a short talk and a networking discussion. There were twelve of us seated around a comfortably-sized table on the third floor of the reference library. Many were thinking about starting a business but hadn’t taken the plunge, although there was a high school senior who was the president of his school’s business club and made some money buying and selling phones through Craigslist and Kijiji.

Kristina Chau (notyouraverageparty.ca, @notyouravgparty) shared her experiences in getting started. After working hard for someone else’s company, she realized that she’d rather work on her own. She did some freelance work as an event planner. At 29, she started her own event planning company. She applied to the Toronto Business Development Centre for the Although her application was denied, she found the rigor of the application process to be very helpful. She eventually funded her own company through the services she offered.

Kristina shared examples of the evolution of her brand: the business card versions she went through, her current website, even the Starbucks cookie bag on which she and a friend had brainstormed the business. It looked like a lot of people were reassured by the idea that they didn’t have to get things right the first time around. Kristina also mentioned that getting her website together took a long time and a lot of investment, and people had many questions about that.

In the discussion, a few people shared that they had lots of ideas they wanted to work on, but they didn’t know where to start or what to focus on. If I can figure out these micro-experiments for entrepreneurship, maybe that’s something I can help people with.

I’ve read Work the Pond, the first book that Kristina recommended. It has a particularly good chapter on tag-team networking (see my linked notes), and is overall a good networking book. I’ll check out the other two books she mentioned and post my notes as well. In terms of books on entrepreneurship, Lean Startup is one of my current favourites, and I’m looking forward to trying the ideas.

I’m planning to attend the next meetup on March 13. Got any favourite small business events in Toronto? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Estimating the impact of the Community Toolkit, or how the company got an incredibly good deal when they hired me ;)

February 15, 2012 - Categories: ibm, work

Numbers are good to have when you’re thinking about the differences you’ve made. Let’s see if I can estimate the impact of the community toolkit that I built for Lotus Connections: newsletter, metrics, exports, OPML generator, and so on.

Some metrics from the logs: The web interface has been accessed 94,095 since November 13, 2011, the oldest entry in the web server logs. That was 94 days ago, which means that it’s accessed a thousand times a day on average. Let’s ignore all the page views, and just focus on the times when users submitted an actual request to the system. That leaves us with 10,814 entries in the log.

5,305 entries were for Feedmagic, the RSS embed wrapper I created for another widget. Let’s say that saves people 2 minutes each, because otherwise they would have to click through to the feed itself and then return to their page after reading. That’s around 10,600 minutes saved. Considering that part of the tool took me less than an hour to write, I think that’s great ROI.

1,973 entries retrieved statistics for a community. Let’s say that 80% of them were successful, to account for typos and attempts to gather data for private communities. Manually gathering this information would involve going to each of the components of a community, counting discussion threads and comments, counting blog posts and comments, listing files. For some of the hidden data like wiki views, it would also involve accessing the API. There’s a date filter, so manually recreating this would actually involve checking each item to see when it was posted. Let’s say that takes 1-2 hours of work, maybe 1.5 hours on average. That’s around 142,000 minutes saved.

1,730 entries were for the profile summary. This searched Lotus Connections Profiles for combinations of tags and displayed the counts for each of them. For example, if you used A, B, and C as rows and X and Y as columns, the tool searched for A&X, A&Y, B&X, B&Y, C&X, and C&Y. Each total was linked to the search. People searched for a lot of different combinations. You could duplicate this by manually creating lots of links to searches, which would probably take 10-20 minutes depending on how many specs you were looking for. You wouldn’t have the totals, though, and it would probably take another 10 minutes each time to tally things up. If you were just interested in finding an expert using the search, let’s say it saves you 2 minutes of figuring out how to search the system yourself. I’m going to go with a time savings estimate of 5 minutes per request, which balances how people were using it for creating pages, making reports, and simplifying search. That’s 8,600 minutes.

877 entries were for community newsletters. Again, let’s assume 80% were successful. It takes even more work to create a newsletter, because you have to create links and count up new replies. Let’s say that’s 2-3 hours of work, or 2.5 for our estimate. That’s around 105,000 minutes saved.

421 entries were for community data export, which is also handy for determining individual member contribution, wiki page views, and file downloads. Let’s assume that 80% succeeded. This takes a lot of effort as well, because you have to tally contributions by member and copy all the details. I’d say that would take 4+ hours for an community, and you would save that effort for the rare occasions when you wanted to recognize people for their individual activities or justify your investment into building the community wiki. That’s probably at least 80,800 minutes there.

102 requests were for a generic feed export. You could do this manually by going through all the pages in the feed and copying the information, filtering by date. Let’s say that would’ve taken 20 minutes. Assuming 80% success, that’s around 1,600 minutes.

98 requests were for the code to create the feed embedder. You could duplicate this by creating your own page that included the feed embedder information, but that would probably have taken people 10 minutes to figure out. That’s around 1,000 minutes.

56 entries were for the forum exporter. This made it easier for people to analyze community discussions by copying the information into a spreadsheet with the subject, the body, and the author. You could duplicate this by opening each page of each discussion and copying the results into a spreadsheet or document, so I’d say this saved people an hour on average. Assuming 80% of the requests succeeded, that saved around 2,700 minutes.

55 entries were for community OPML, to make it easier for people to subscribe to different community feeds. You could do this manually by substituting the community ID into a template, although the OPML tool was neat because it provided an importable file as well as HTML links. I’d say this saved people 20 minutes. Assuming 80% success, that’s around 880 minutes.

9 entries were for a blog exporter. You could do this manually by copying and pasting all the entries into a document, so I’d say this saved people 10 minutes because most blogs don’t have a ton of entries. Assuming 80% success, that’s around 70 minutes.

There were a number of other requests, too, but we’ll ignore them for this analysis.

Over the 94-day span, then, this tool might have helped save 354,000 minutes. That’s about 3,800 minutes a day, or 2.6 days, or almost 8 8-hour workdays saved every day. Considering that my main focus is client projects and this was a voluntary effort squeezed into the gaps of billable projects, that’s pretty darn cool. This estimate doesn’t take into account the command-line use of the tool for restricted communities or external communities, either.

The tool’s been around for longer than just the three months that we’ve been looking at.  My first blog post about it was in June 2010, when Marty Moore mocked up a web interface and people started asking me to put the command-line tool on the web. That probably meant that I’d been gradually building it and sharing it over the past few months, and it had gotten popular enough for people to ask for a less techie interface than a command-line.

Let’s say the tool linearly built up in value over the 607 days since that blog post, eventually getting to this point where it saved people around 3,800 minutes per day. That means the value is described by a line with the equation y = mx + b. To simplify, we’ll assume that the tool started with 0 value, although it was already used by others on June 18, 2010, and that it eventually gets to 3,800 minutes per day on February 15, 2012. This would have been a great to break out calculus and integrals in order to get the number of minutes under this function (and we probably would, if we were assuming growth was curved or something like that). But it’s just as easy to think of this as a triangle with a width of 607 days and a height of 3,800 minutes/day. The area of this triangle would approximate the total number of minutes saved over the tool’s web-based lifetime, assuming linear growth for simplicity (as more people found out about the tool, and as I added new features). The area of a triangle is 1/2 * base * height, so that gives me 1,153,000 estimated minutes saved over the past 607 days.

I joined IBM on October 15, 2007, and I will leave on February 17, 2012. This is 4 years, 4 months, and 3 days, or approximately 226 weeks rounded down. Let’s say only 90% of those weeks are actually work weeks (holidays, vacations, etc). Eight hours a day, five days a week, for 203 weeks or so – that means that when I leave, I’ll have worked for IBM around 480,000 minutes. The vast majority of those minutes have on client projects. (Ah, the life of a consultant with utilization metrics…) So yeah, net benefit to IBM, which is great.

That one set of tools, which I built in my spare time to save me and other people from repetitive work and to open up new possibilities for communities – that may have saved people more time than I have even worked myself. That’s the amazing thing about intrapreneurship. By breaking the relationship between time and value, you can scale beyond the number of hours you can physically work. The tool probably took me less than a month of development time, spread out over e-mail requests and lunch breaks and calls. Granted, people would probably not have run those reports or crunched those numbers if the tool wasn’t available. But hey, the tool is there, and I’m glad it made these things possible.

I never received any direct monetary compensation for creating the tool. (Oh, wait, there was that Best of IBM award!) The steady stream of thank-you notes came in very handy during performance reviews (and subsequent bonuses =) ). The best benefit from intrapreneurship was meeting a lot of wonderful people throughout IBM and seeing what they did with their communities thanks to the tool.

Special thanks go to Luis Benitez, who’s taking over as the primary contact and who put together the Lotus Notes plugin; Marty Moore and Stephan Wissel, who contributed spiffy designs; Robi Brunner, whose hosting and domain gave it a lot of credibility; John Handy-Bosma and John Rooney, who helped me figure things out with the CIO; Darrel Rader, for suggesting plenty of nifty tools and using them to make his communities smarter; and lots of people throughout IBM for suggestions, improvements, and even the occasional bugfix.

If you haven’t started yet – be an intrapreneur! If you’ve gone down that wonderful road: Have you made something valuable? Can you estimate your ROI?

If my math is wrong or if it looks funny, please help me make it better!

Analyzing my Lotus Notes sent mail since January 2011

February 16, 2012 - Categories: analysis, ibm, lotus

Today is my penultimate day at IBM! Having successfully turned my projects over to another developer (hooray for the habit of organizing project-related files in Lotus Connections Activities), I’ve been focusing on getting things ready for the traditional goodbye e-mail, which I plan to send tomorrow.

I dug around in the Lotus Connections Profiles API to see if I could get a list of my contacts’ e-mail addresses. I fixed a small bug in the feed exporter of the Community Toolkit (w4.ibm.com/community for people in the IBM intranet) and exported my contacts, giving me a list of 530 IBMers who had accepted or sent me an invitation to connect.

Not everyone participates in that Web 2.0 network, though, so I wanted to analyze my sent mail to identify other people to whom I should send a note. I couldn’t find a neat LotusScript to do the job, and I couldn’t get the NSF to EML or mbox converter to work. Because I didn’t need all the information, just the recipients, subjects, and times, I wrote my own script (included at the end of this blog post).

I used the script to summarize the messages in my sent mail folder, and crunched the numbers using PivotTables in Microsoft Excel. I worked with monthly batches so that it was easier to find and fix errors. I decided to analyze all the mail going back to the beginning of last year in order to identify the people I mailed the most frequently, and to come up with some easy statistics as well.


Spiky around project starts/ends, I’d guess.


I wanted to see which roles I tended to e-mail often, so I categorized each recipient with their role. I distinguished between people I’d worked with directly on projects (coworkers) and people who worked with IBM but with whom I didn’t work on a project (colleagues). The numbers below count individual recipients.


Number of people

Number of individual
e-mails sent

Average e-mails sent
per person

colleague 407 827 2.0
coworker 50 562 11.2
client 21 387 18.4
manager 4 109 27.3
partner 9 51 5.7
system 9 21 2.3
other 8 11 1.4
self 1 5 5.0
Grand Total 509 1973 3.9

As it turns out, I sent a lot of mail to a lot of people throughout IBM, mostly in response to questions about Lotus Connections, Idea Labs, or collaboration tools.

Now I can sort my summarized data to see whom I e-mailed the most often, and add more names to my don’t-forget-to-say-goodbye list. If all goes well, I might even be able to use that mail merge script. =)

The following agent processes selected messages and creates a table with one row per recipient, e-mailing the results to the specified mail address. It seems to choke on calendar entries and other weird documents, but if you go through your sent mail box in batches (Search This View by date is handy), then you should be able to find and delete the offending entries.

Option Public
Dim TempNitem As NotesItem
Dim TempNm As NotesName
Dim session As  NotesSession
Dim db As NotesDatabase
Sub Initialize
	mailAddress = "[email protected]"
	Dim ws As New NotesUIWorkspace
	Dim uidoc As NotesUIDocument
	Dim partno As String
	Dim db As NotesDatabase
	Dim view As NotesView
	Dim doc As NotesDocument
	Dim collection As NotesDocumentCollection
	Dim memo As NotesDocument
	Dim body As NotesRichTextItem
	Dim range As NotesRichTextRange
	Dim count As Integer
	Set session = New NotesSession
	Set db = session.CurrentDatabase
	Set collection = db.UnprocessedDocuments
	Dim FldTitles(3) As String
	FldTitles(0) = "E-mail"
	FldTitles(1) = "Subject"
	FldTitles(2) = "Date sent"
	Set maildoc = db.CreateDocument
	maildoc.Form = "Memo"
	maildoc.Subject = "Summary"
	maildoc.SendTo = mailAddress
	Dim ritem As NotesRichTextItem
	Set ritem=New NotesRichTextItem(maildoc,"body") 
' passing the rich text item & other relevant details
	Set ritem = CreateTable(FldTitles, collection, ritem, "Sent items", "Summary created on " + Format(Now, "YYYY-MM-DD"))
End Sub
Function CreateTable(FldTitles As Variant, doccoll  As NotesDocumentCollection, rtitem As NotesRichTextItem,msgTitle As String,msgBody As String ) As NotesRichTextItem
	'Takes  Documentcollection & creates tabular information on to the passed   rtitem (rich text item)
	Set ritem=rtitem
	Set rtnav = ritem.CreateNavigator
	Set rstyle=session.CreateRichTextStyle 
	'heading in the body section of the mail
	Call  ritem.AppendStyle(rstyle)
	Call  ritem.AppendStyle(rstyle) 
	rows=doccoll.Count +1
	Call ritem.AppendTable(1, cols)
	Dim rtt As NotesRichTextTable
	Call rtnav.FindFirstElement(RTELEM_TYPE_TABLE)
	Set rtt = rtNav.GetElement 
	'heading of the table
	Call  ritem.AppendStyle(rstyle)
	For i=0 To UBound(FldTitles) - 1
		Call rtnav.FindNextElement(RTELEM_TYPE_TABLECELL)
		Call ritem.BeginInsert(rtnav) 
		Call ritem.AppendText(FldTitles(i))
		Call ritem.EndInsert
	Call  ritem.AppendStyle(rstyle)
	Dim count As Integer
	count = 0
	Set  doc=doccoll.GetFirstDocument
	While Not (doc Is Nothing)
		subject = doc.GetFirstItem("Subject").values(0)
		posted = doc.GetFirstItem("PostedDate").values(0)
		Set sendTo = doc.getFirstItem("SendTo")
		For i = 0 To UBound(sendTo.values)
			Call rtt.AddRow(1)
			Call rtnav.FindNextElement(RTELEM_TYPE_TABLECELL)   
			Call ritem.BeginInsert(rtnav)
			Call ritem.EndInsert
			Call rtnav.FindNextElement(RTELEM_TYPE_TABLECELL)   
			Call ritem.BeginInsert(rtnav)
			Call ritem.EndInsert
			Call rtnav.FindNextElement(RTELEM_TYPE_TABLECELL)   
			Call ritem.BeginInsert(rtnav)
			Call ritem.EndInsert
		count = count + 1
		Set doc=doccoll.GetNextDocument(doc)
	Set CreateTable=ritem
	MsgBox "E-mails summarized: " & count	
End Function

I find it helpful to save it as the "Summarize Recipients" agent and assign it to a toolbar button that runs @Command([RunAgent]; "Summarize Recipients").

Weekly review: Week ending February 17, 2012

February 18, 2012 - Categories: review, weekly

What a week! Yesterday, I helped Regan work on one of the projects I’ve turned over to her. I also cleared out my locker, put the finishing touches on internal resources, sent a whole lot of individual thank-yous and goodbyes, and gave my laptop, badge, lock, and American Express card back to my manager. Tada!

Now on to my next experiment!

From last week’s plans

  • Work
    • [X] Have pre-experiment potluck
    • Put together lots of resources internally
    • Left IBM!
    • Worked on pre-contract paperwork
  • Relationships
    • [X] Help J- with homework
    • Helped J- cram for a presentation
    • Emailed many people individual goodbyes before mail-merge fatigue kicked in
  • Life
    • [X] Make lots of cookies for pre-experiment potluck
    • [X] Write up business decisions
    • [X] Plan the following week
    • Added more help text to Quantified Awesome

Plans for next week

  • Business (!)
    • [ ] Monday: Chat with Mel Chua about getting started
    • [ ] Monday: Put together papers for incorporation
    • [ ] Tuesday: Incorporate as a federal numbered corporation (1-3 business days)
    • [ ] Tuesday: Register business in Ontario
    • [ ] Wednesday: Meet with possible client R
    • [ ] Set up business bank account and Mastercard (probably BMO)
    • [ ] Find accountants and select one
    • [ ] Blog about business planning and people
  • Relationships
    • [ ] Build contact database
    • [ ] Reach out to mentors
  • Life
    • [ ] Adjust cellphone plan
    • [ ] Look into getting myself on W-‘s benefits plan

Experience report: Incorporating a federal numbered corporation in Canada

February 19, 2012 - Categories: business, entrepreneurship, experiment

This was not at all as complicated as I thought it would be. After twenty minutes, several multiple-choice and fill-in questions, and one credit card transaction, I had my very own company: a federal numbered corporation ($200) with extra-provincial registration in Ontario (free, yay). On a Sunday, no less.

The government publishes a guide to federal incorporation that explains the different option. The online incorporation form is easy to use, guiding you through the steps with an almost wizard-like interface. Common cluases are available as multiple-choice options, and you have the ability to fill in your own text as needed. The form will tell you what to print, sign, and keep with your records.

If you create a numbered corporation, then you don’t need to wait for name approval. I got my confirmation e-mail with the automatically-assigned corporation name a few minutes after I submitted the form.

In the process, the only thing that gave me pause was the requirement that 25% of the directors be resident Canadians, with “resident Canadian” defined as:

(a) a Canadian citizen ordinarily resident in Canada,

(b) a Canadian citizen not ordinarily resident in Canada who is a
member of a prescribed class of persons, or

(c) a permanent resident within the meaning of subsection 2(1) of the
Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and ordinarily resident in
Canada, except a permanent resident who has been ordinarily resident
in Canada for more than one year after the time at which he or she
first became eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship;

I have permanent residency in Canada, but I can’t apply for Canadian citizenship yet (all those trips cut into the physical presence requirement). I should be in the clear, especially as I plan to apply for Canadian citizenship a few months after I become eligible. (That should take care of any other trips I’ve forgotten to include in my history…)

Still, surprisingly not scary. My next steps would be to:

  • Put together the bylaws and other parts of the minute book: Many of the people I talked to bought a kit from their local office supply store and worked with it. Corporations Canada also has a good set of instructions, complete with examples of by-laws and resolutions. I’ll start with that, and then go for a kit
  • Check the zoning bylaws for my neighbourhood: Toronto City Hall 416-392-7539
  • Set up a business bank account: I’m thinking about either the BMO Business Current Account or the RBC Small Business eAccount. One of my Twitter contacts recommended BMO and there are quite a few blogs praising their business account, so I might go with that.
  • Interview accountants

… and work on sales and operations, of course, not just admin! =) (I figure I should eat the frog first and get the paperwork properly set up…)

It’s okay to not know

February 20, 2012 - Categories: entrepreneurship, planning, reflection

“Congratulations! What’s your new business about?” “What will you be working on?” “So, what do you do?”

I don’t know yet.

One of the most challenging aspects of starting something on your own is this uncertainty. We expect people to have clear, compact descriptions for what they do, even if we don’t understand it ourselves. For example, I got away with describing my work as, “Oh, I’m a web developer,” or “I’m a consultant on emerging technologies and collaboration,” or sometimes even the catch-all, “I work with IBM”. This last introduction often needed little explanation, eliciting an “Ahhh, I see,” from glazed-over networking contacts who probably filed me in their mental category for “people who do stuff with computers.”

What do I do? What do I want to do? What challenge do I want to address? What problem do I want to solve? What vision do I want to realize?

I’m not sure.

I’m tempted to be prematurely certain. I’ve listened to my fair share of “Oh, I’m working on a startup” people who confidently declare that their audience is “Well, everyone, I guess…” and who deflect further questions with, “We’re keeping our plans secret for now.”

I’m tempted to flee into the familiar. Consulting, web development with Drupal or Ruby on Rails… People ask me for these services, and it would be easy to focus on that: well-defined, well-understood. I know I can deliver when it comes to that. I also know that those services won’t take me all the way to where I want to go.

It’s okay to be uncertain. It’s better to admit that I’m figuring things out than to fake this. It’s better to draw people into the experiment than to present a façade. It’s all right to say the words that terrify most people when they try to use those words themselves: I don’t know.

Besides, it’ll be fun to find out.

I might not see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I can figure out some of the steps along the way. Writing is my favourite tool for figuring out complex branches. I want to write about what I’m learning: entrepreneurship, the steps to setting up shop, ways to figure out what you want to do with your life (or at least the next year).

This is a good time, a useful time. I shouldn’t rush out of it. I deal with this scale of uncertainty rarely. I never agonized over what course to take in university. I’ve been into computers since childhood. I remember the ups and downs of searching for a research topic for my master’s thesis, but I had a supervisor’s help. Even marriage was the logical (and emotional =) ) follow-through on a relationship that was already clearly a good thing. IBM was the same. This entrepreneurship, this uncertainty – this is me stepping up to bigger risks and bigger opportunities for discovery, having done well with the training wheels of past circumstances.

It’s not actually that scary when I can call the uncertainty out of the fog and name it. I know it’s there. I know it’s normal. I know it will pass, too. Each step I take throws light on something, even though some steps add more questions. If I do this right, each step won’t be about getting closer to a definitive “I know this to be forever true”, but rather towards springboards for more experimentation.

Experience report: Renting a business mailbox

February 21, 2012 - Categories: business, experiment

If you don’t want to give your home address out to everyone, a private mailbox (say, one from UPS, not a PO Box) seems to be acceptable for business. To reduce the risk of unwanted visitors, you can incorporate with that mailbox, receive business mail at it, and list it as your contact address. I didn’t know about that when I set my company up, but I’ve now changed my address over to the mailbox I just rented.

It took me about fifteen minutes to set up a mailbox. The shopkeeper explained the different options. I chose the Personal + box, which gives me a small mailbox that can receive mail for one business and two people. I filled in a form, specified my company name and other names that would receive mail, chose an available box (somewhere I could reach!), showed two pieces of photo ID, signed the paperwork, and paid the fees.

The 12-month price for this at my local UPS store was $245.50 + tax, including the $10 key deposit and the $15 setup fee. For that price, I get a street address that I can use for my business, 24-hour access to the mailbox, and the ability to check the mail status by phone. (“Not every day,” the shopkeeper said, laughing.) They’ll also accept and sign for packages, which could be handy if I can convince publishers to send me books for illustrated reviews. =)

Changing my corporation’s address to this mailbox was easy and free, using Corporations Canada’s web-based system. I filled in the corporation name and key that I received through e-mail, put in the new address, and completed the form. Now it’s listed as the public contact for the corporation.

See also:

People-centered entrepreneurship

February 22, 2012 - Categories: business, entrepreneurship, experiment

Practically all Many of the books I’m reading about entrepreneurship assume that you start with a big idea for a product or service, and then you find and validate the market for it.

Many of the people I talk to start with the same assumptions, too. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to start my own business, but I’m waiting for the idea to hit me.”

Starting with the idea seems like putting the cart before the horse, and the cart is full of things you want instead of things other people want.

I was mindmapping where I’d like to start with this business experiment. Consulting is handy, but hourly billing’s not going to get me to where I want to go: a family-friendly business where value isn’t directly tied to time.

Every time I tried to come up with a snazzy business idea, though, I hit a brick wall. It didn’t feel right. It felt like I was approaching the challenge in the wrong way.

I thought: Well, if entrepreneurship is about going from having one boss to having a hundred bosses, maybe I can pick the kinds of bosses I’d like to work with. Maybe I should start by picking the kinds of people I’d like to have as clients, then looking for ways I can delight them, then looking for ways I can take advantage of my talents or skills to deliver more value than it costs me.

I figure that if I pick a segment of people who have demonstrated the willingness and ability to pay for products or services, and who have some idea of what they want, then that’s as good a place as any to start experimenting.

The wild “You don’t know what you want yet, but I’m creating it for you anyway” innovation can wait for when I have more business experience. In the beginning, it’s okay to take a well-known model and a well-known product, and look for ways I can put my own spin on it.

So I brainstormed personas representing some of the kinds of people I would love to learn more about and help out. Maybe I can make their lives better. Maybe I can help interesting people do interesting things. Here are some ideas:

  • Ive, the introverted independent
  • Ell, the Emacs enthusiast
  • Val, the visual thinker
  • Em, the excited entrepreneur
  • Quinn, the Quantified Self tracker
  • Pat, the practical parent
  • Bobby, the bashful blogger
  • Chris, the conference commando
  • Cathy, the cat cuddler

More details in this outline view of my mindmap

I “bump” into people like them often. Who knows, you might even identify with one of them. (Who? Tell me in the comments, or e-mail at [email protected] – I’d love to pick your brain!) Don’t see yourself there? Tell me what kind of person you are. =)

I think it would be great to look for small, cost-effective ways to make their (your!) life more awesome. I’m good at building systems, automating, sorting things out, and setting life up for constant improvement. There might be ways to scale across time or across more people. Hmm…

I described what I was thinking about to Mel Chua. She laughed and said it was like user-centered design. That made me think of Karen Quinn Fung, another friend of mine, whom I had met when she was working at the IBM User-Centered Design lab under Karel Vredenburg.

Where can I find more business/entrepreneurship books that start with people first instead of assuming you’ve got some genius idea? =) (Lean Startup is somewhat related to this because of pivots and watching how people actually work…)

Experience report: Opening the RBC Small Business eAccount

February 23, 2012 - Categories: business, entrepreneurship, experiment

Having a business bank account is good for separating business and personal expenses. Reconciling your books is easier when you don’t have commingled expenses, and clean separation is important for minimizing legal liability.

After considering several options for business bank accounts, I narrowed it down to a choice between Royal Bank of Canada’s Small Business eAccount and Bank of Montreal’s Small Business Banking Plan. RBC’s Small Business eAccount was launched mid-January 2012, I heard, which could explain the lack of reviews on the Internet.

Here’s the side-by-side comparison as I understand it:

RBC Small Business eAccount BMO Small Business Banking Plan
Monthly fee $0 $9.50, free with a minimum balance of $4,000; new businesses (< 9 months of operation) pay no plan fee for the first three months
Included transactions Unlimited electronic transactions 15 monthly transactions, unlimited transfers
Cheque deposits $3.50 + $0.20/item $1/transaction over limit; Cheque plan: 20 items included, Cash plan: 10 items included; $0.20 per additional item;
Cash deposits $3.50 + $2-5 per $1,000 if cash $1/transaction over limit; Cheque plan: $1,000 notes deposit included, cash plan: $4,000 notes deposit included; $2.25/$1000 for notes deposited over plan limits, $2.25/$100 for coins deposited over plan limit
Withdrawals $1.50 + cost of cheque if needed $1/transaction over limit + cost of cheque

I do practically of my banking online, and I expect the business will be similar. Because RBC had no monthly fees to start with, free electronic transactions, and another person I know recommended RBC’s online interface, I decided to open an account and see what it was like.

I called the bank and set up an appointment on the same day. It took us one hour to set up profiles and bank accounts because I had never banked at RBC before. I brought my Articles of Incorporation and two pieces of government identification. A senior account manager asked me questions about what I planned to do in business, photocopied my documentation, and walked me through the forms. We set up a chequing account and a savings account (no monthly fee, two debits, free transfers in, $0-$9,999 0.100% interest). He advised me to ask an accountant about the best way to move money into the business: whether it should be structured as a loan, and so on.

When we reviewed the paperwork, I noticed that one of the forms mentioned the banking resolution in Form A. We flipped through the client agreement that the account manager had given me, and we realized he’d given me the consumer banking agreement instead of the business one. Score one for reading closely! Unfortunately, he didn’t know of an electronic copy of the form, so I may have to retype the banking resolution.

The account manager was filling in for the person who normally does business accounts, so he apologized for not being able to set up a credit card for the business as well. I’ll need to follow up on the phone or in person some other time.

I’ll see how I end up using the account. I may open up a BMO account to give that a try, too.

Apparently, banks charge for deposit slips, but other people have used accounting software or printed out their own templates. Your mileage may vary. You can order cheques from places aside from your bank, which can help keep costs down. If I ever find myself using either, I’ll share my experiences!

Experience report: A brief chat with an accountant

February 24, 2012 - Categories: business, entrepreneurship

I checked out two accountants on my way home from opening a business bank account. It’s difficult to get time with an accountant during tax season, but they spared a few minutes to answer my questions.

The first accountant I talked to ran a small office with a few other people. He had just finished talking to another client who did business on the Internet, so that was good to hear. He chuckled when I told him that I had just started a business and I wanted to make sure I did things right. “You can come by near the end of your fiscal year with a shoebox of receipts,” he said. I told him I’d like to be more organized than that. (I’m the kind of person who updates her financial records every week or every other week and uses double-entry accounting for fun…) So I guess I don’t have to worry so much, although I still want to set things up properly. (Hence the separate business account.)

The second accountant I talked to handled accounting, payroll, and tax returns. She seemed busy, so I took her business card and promised to look up her website. I like how she offers year-long consultations, and may probe this further once the personal tax season subsides.

It sounds like picking an accountant is less critical, then, although still a good idea. I’ll find one sooner or later, possibly when things settle down enough for accountants.

Weekly review: Week ending February 24, 2012 – One week into my experiments with entrepreneurship!

February 25, 2012 - Categories: review, weekly

Monday was the Family Day holiday here in Ontario, so my real moment of reckoning was Tuesday morning. W- was about to drive to work for a meeting. I hit my spousal panic button and puppy-dog-eyed him into working from home so that I could get over my first-day-of-business anxieties. Several hugs and encouraging words later, both of us settled into our respective corners of the home office, and I tottered off on my business training wheels to see if I could make it past the fields of paperwork.

I knew it was going to be an intimidating week, and I’m so lucky that mentors shared their time and insights with me. On Monday, @mchua shared how she’s starting at consulting (helping organizations work with open source communities! awesome). On Tuesday, Eric Boyd told me how he went into product development and R&D. On Wednesday, I met clients for an engagement in enterprise social computing. On Thursday, @height8 taught me tons about structures and setting things up carefully. On Friday, @jvarmazis shared lots of tips about life, business, and creating value.

It’s amazing how generous people are, and I’m glad I’m getting to know so many wonderful people. =) I could really use the help, too. There are a lot of things that people have learned from experience and that no one will probably ever get around to writing down. (Not even me – too many knotty things in law and accounting.) Next best thing: get used to making imperfect decisions, ask lots of questions, and learn more along the way.

There’s still a little more paperwork to do. I’m going to pick up the post-incorporation kit of forms and certificate templates and whatnot, which will probably save me lots of time chasing different things down. I’m almost done with the contract paperwork for this consulting engagement, too.

I’ve started writing about The Shy Connector, and I’m looking forward to spending more time on that next week. I’m also pleasantly surprised at how much I learned about enterprise collaboration when I helped IBMers and our clients. We’ll see where that takes us.

Ooh, another good thing that I’ve noticed during this week of entrepreneurship: I exercise more! Way more biking, way more walking. That might just be the mild winter talking, but I think that flexibility of time might pay off well in terms of health.

So far, so fun!

Plans from last week

  • Business (!)
    • [X] Monday: Chat with Mel Chua about getting started
    • [X] Monday: Put together papers for incorporation – actually finished on Sunday!
    • [X] Tuesday: Incorporate as a federal numbered corporation (1-3 business days) – Finished on Sunday!
    • [X] Tuesday: Register business in Ontario – Part of federal incorporation!
    • [X] Wednesday: Meet with possible client R
    • [X] Set up business bank account and Mastercard (probably BMO) – went with RBC eAccount for now
    • [-] Find accountants and select one
    • [X] Blog about business planning and people
    • Planned trip to SFO in September for Quantified Self conference
  • Relationships
    • [X] Build contact database
    • [X] Reach out to mentors
  • Life
    • [C] Adjust cellphone plan – will check my use first
    • [X] Look into getting myself on W-‘s benefits plan

Plans for next week

  • Business
    • [ ] Finish resolutions
    • [ ] File initial notice
    • [ ] Review and revise The Shy Connector
    • [ ] Talk to accountants
  • Relationships
    • [ ] Attend Tania’s get-together
    • [ ] Plan a get-together for March
  • Life
    • [ ] Quantified Awesome: ending timestamps
    • [ ] Quantified Awesome: experience points

Experience report: Applying for a Harmonized Sales Tax account

February 27, 2012 - Categories: business, entrepreneurship, experiment

In Canada, corporations are required to collect and remit Harmonized Sales Tax if their revenues are over $30,000 in a year or if they meet certain other conditions. If you’re starting out, it might be a good idea to register for an account anyway. That way, you don’t have to change things when you do earn more than $30,000 (doable with consulting), and you can claim input tax credits for the taxes that you pay (with some exceptions).

Registering for an HST account turned out to be more of a convoluted process because Revenue Canada didn’t have my ownership information on file. I had created a federally-incorporated company just the weekend before, and the process didn’t ask for the information that Revenue Canada needs. If you happen to want to register for GST/HST for a newly-incorporated federal corporation, the easiest way is to call Revenue Canada (1-800-959-5525 – redial if you get a busy signal), explain that the business registration online system won’t let you register for a GST account probably because you don’t have information on file, and give that information (SIN, etc.) to the call center agent.

Me, I took the scenic route.

First, I tried the Business Registration Online system. It asked for my business number. “What business number?” I asked. I couldn’t find anything remotely resembling it on my incorporation certificate. I called and found out that I could use Industry Canada’s Federal Corporations Search to get my business number. Okay.

With this business number in hand, I tried registering for an HST account through Business Registration Online. It reported that my details didn’t match the owner they had on file. I called the agency to clarify, and found out that it was because they didn’t have any owner information yet.

The first call centre agent I talked to directed me to the RC1A form for opening a GST/HST account, or to the RC1 form for registering a business number and applying for a number of other accounts. The RC1 form looked more complete, so I filled in the general information section and the GST section, checked the box for the corporate income tax account (I’d probably need that!), and attached a copy of my certificate of incorporation. I figured that if the business number I looked up wasn’t the business number they were looking for, they could get the right one.

After I sealed the envelope and put a stamp on it, I hesitated and decided to call for confirmation. Was I sending the right form in? Would it create a duplicate account? Would sunglass-wearing agents from the Canada Revenue Agency break down my door?

I explained my situation to the second call center agent, who told me that yes, the ownership information wasn’t on file, but this was something that we could set up easily over the phone. I gave her my social insurance number and company details, and she set up the corporate income tax account and the GST/HST account for me. By golly. We were done in ten minutes or so.

So, if you want to set up a Harmonized Sales Tax account and the online forms just aren’t working for you, see if you can do it by phone. Sometimes that’s faster than trying to do things yourself.

See also:

Experience report: So much for having a virtual bookstore

February 28, 2012 - Categories: entrepreneurship, experiment

As part of my experiments in entrepreneurship, I decided to try out selling used books online. I like books, and am happy to keep a small library of my favourite titles in order to reread, give to friends, or resell.

I checked out Toronto Reference Library’s bookstore, focusing on donated hardcover business books that had never been in circulation and limiting it further to books that I had liked.

Listing my books on Amazon was quick and easy. I described the condition and picked a price in the neighbourhood of the other sellers.

After two weeks, I received an e-mail telling me that someone had bought one of my books: Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick, an excellent book on how to make ideas more memorable. I wrapped the book in bubble wrap and dropped it off at the post office as soon as the store opened on Monday.

Here’s where the wrinkle is: Canada Post is expensive. Let’s break the transaction down.

Price of book CAD $10.50
Amazon fees CAD $-3.31
Shipping credit CAD $6.49
Actual shipping cost (regular parcel, no insurance) CAD $-13.71
Cost of book CAD $-1

Net: $-1.03, not including packing costs and time. (“That’s all right, we’ll make it up in volume!” as the joke goes…)

There are probably cheaper ways to ship, but I can’t imagine that they would be drastically better, or result in anything close to minimum wage.

On the plus side, I got a blog post out of it, so that’s not too bad. I’ve increased the price on the other book I listed, but I don’t mind not selling it either – the benefits of picking books I like anyway.

Selling books online might work fine in the US and other countries with inexpensive postal systems, but probably not here. I think my future experiments will focus on things that don’t need to be physically shipped! =)

This is what five years looks like

February 29, 2012 - Categories: business, entrepreneurship, experiment, planning

I was thinking about my experiments with entrepreneurship the other day, and I realized that I have a lot of room to learn things. Books tell me it takes about five years for many businesses to shake out the bugs and settle down; even then, only about half of new ventures survive the first five years (according to US statistics). As a relentlessly optimistic person, I immediately read that as, “Cool! Half of new ventures succeed in surviving their first five years!”

Anyway. Five years is a long time. This is what five years looks like:


Five years is longer than my university degree. It’s longer than the time I worked at IBM. If I work hard and I work smart, I should be able to learn lots of things in five years.

Things I am curious about:

  • How to help people, groups, and organizations adopt different ways of working: This is a challenge! It’s difficult to help one person change, much less a team, much less a community. But it’s essential because otherwise people will miss out on all these productivity improvements from technologies or processes. They’ll waste time. They’ll get frustrated. They won’t make the best decisions they can make. I want to help people work better so that they can focus on things that make the most of their skills and passions.
  • How to document and improve processes: Many organizations struggle to grow beyond one person or a small team. So many things aren’t written down. There are few processes in the beginning. Then there’s no time to document operations because there are too many things to do. Besides, people don’t feel like they can write down what they’re doing, or they’re too close and they forget what else other people would need to know in order to do their job. I can interview people and watch how they work, write those steps down, and make it easier for people to scale up by delegating, automating, or eliminating the things that they do.
  • How to communicate effectively and engagingly: People want to learn, but they don’t have the time to read lots of books or listen to lots of talks. I want to help people learn more effectively. People like the things I sketch or write about, and they like my presentations too. I want to learn more about things that help other people, and I want to get better at organizing and sharing what I learn.
  • How to build a scalable, sustainable business: I want to build a business that goes beyond the time = money equation. More than that, I want to learn how to systematically build these businesses, so that I can help other people do so too. That’s because there are a lot of people whose talents and skills aren’t sufficiently used because of their time requirements, their location, or other factors. I want to help more people have these options and create the kind of value they can create.

Five years should be a decent length for a self-made program. Maybe a Master of Business Awesomeness? Here we go. =)

Visual book notes: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

February 29, 2012 - Categories: book, reading, sketchnotes, visual, visual-book-notes



Please feel free to share this! (Creative Commons Attribution Licence)

Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup book is popular, and for good reason. Ries shows people how to make the most of the Build-Measure-Learn loop whether they’re starting a snazzy technology company or creating an intrapreneurial venture within a corporation. Many people get hung up on the idea of launching with a big bang, but if you take this Lean Startup approach, you might learn a lot more by talking to actual customers and by experimenting with with your business. I particularly like the reminder to simulate technology with people first, as it can be tempting to procrastinate getting market feedback because your technology isn’t built yet. Do it by hand. Do it for one person at a time, if needed. There’s plenty to learn, and you don’t have to let development cycles slow you down.

Ries also emphasizes the importance of pivoting, which is what you do when you realize that your original business idea was off the mark. Pivoting is about listening to customers and growing into the business they want you to be, while taking advantage of the things you’ve learned in the past and the assets you’ve already built. Sometimes you should persevere instead of getting distracted by one or two stray opinions, but other times, you should listen to what people (and your experiments!) tell you.

Another key point in this book is that of accelerating this feedback loop. Get faster at building, measuring, and learning from the results. Orient your organization towards it. Practise relentless improvement until your build-measure-learn loop is fast and smooth. Then your company will be an incredible engine for learning!

Whom this book is great for: Starting a company? Read this book. You’ll get lots of tips from it, and you could save lots of time, money, and frustration along the way.

Interested in making things happen even within a large company? You might be able to use the build-measure-learn loop to make your day job even better, or to create scalable value outside your typical job responsibilities.

What I’m learning from this book: I’m using the concierge approach to help people with Quantified Awesome, because it’s fun building something that’s tailored to the way people work and what people want to measure. My goal is to get to the point where people are happy to pay $1-5 a month for tools to help them ask and answer questions about their life using data. I’m also going to work on using the build-measure-learn approach for entrepreneurship (a meta-experiment!), and using the minimum-viable-product approach to writing a book using LeanPub. Someday I might even use split-tests – or better yet, help businesses use them to set up experiments!

The Lean Startup
Eric Ries (2011: Crown Business)
ISBN: 978-0307887894
Buy this book: Amazon.com (Hardcover, Kindle) Amazon.ca
If you buy stuff through the links above, I get a small commission, yay! I’d tell you it’s a good book even without the commission, so here are some other links: Google Books, Toronto Public Library (book, e-book)

What do you think of this format? Do you want more detail? Less detail? More drawings? More hand-writing? More stick figures? What other books would you like me to visually summarize? I’m near one of the world’s biggest library systems, and I love learning from and sharing good books.