Category Archives: business

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Figuring out how my temporary sleep schedule interacts with programming, writing, and drawing

I was thinking about how I can use these snippets of time to improve in programming, writing, and drawing. I realized that although I can easily imagine how other people can write or draw using fragmented time (writers scribbling in notebooks on top of washing machines, artists doodling on the subway), programming seems a lot less tractable. It doesn’t feel like you can break it up and squeeze it into different parts of your day as much.

It is generally accepted that context switching is evil when it comes to programming. So I’ve been carrying around this idea that Real Programmers are people who can pull all-nighters hacking on tough problems, holding elaborate structures in their heads. Your standard hero programmer stereotype, with the pinnacle being someone either building complex, cool stuff, possibly maintaining large and useful open source software.

Hence this little mental disconnect. I’m pretty certain I can get there someday if I really want to, but probably not if I extrapolate from current circumstances. Even maintaining a tiny piece of software sounds like more commitment than I want at the moment. (Heck, I might go a week without responding to e-mail.)

Fortunately, I spent my first few working years in a corporate environment, where mentors showed me that it’s totally possible to be an Awesome Geek while still working a roughly 9-to-5 job, having families and hobbies, and getting plenty of sleep. Thank goodness. So I have this alternate model in my head, not of a Hero Programmer, but rather of solid contributors who keep making gradual progress, help teams of people become more productive, and who enjoy solving interesting challenges and expanding their skills.

So let’s say that I want to play with my assumption that programming is the sort of thing that’s hard to squeeze into the nooks and crannies of one’s day, at least not the way writing and drawing can. I know that I can go through technical documentation and design resources even if my mind isn’t completely awake, and I can still pick up useful things.

What is it about writing and drawing that make them suitable even in small doses, and how can I tweak programming? Writers can think about stuff during other activities. I can reflect on ideas while walking or cooking, for example. When I program, I still need more of that back-and-forth with a computer and an Internet connection, but maybe I’ll need less of that as I develop more experience. I can set pen to paper during any spare moment, sketching a quick line and seeing where it takes me from there. I might not be able to do that with implementation, but I can use that same playfulness to explore design. Behavior-driven development makes it easier to break projects down into tiny, clear steps, and have a way of verifying progress (without too much backsliding!). Getting deeper into frameworks and tools will help me do more with less effort when I do sit down at a computer.

Okay. I can do this. Worst-case scenario, I just move slowly until I get past this particular phase. I’ve seen role models who’ve pulled that off well, so that’s totally cool. Best-case scenario, I figure out how to hack around some of my current cognitive limitations, and maybe that might help other people who find themselves in the same situation too.

This could work.

Rethinking delegation

I’ve been distracted for the past two months, since I’ve been focusing on consulting more than on my personal projects. Now that things are stable again, I’d like to see if I can make better use of delegation as a way to expand my capabilities, learn more, and spread the opportunities. There are so many people with talents and skills out there, and there must be a way that I can get the hang of this.

The purpose of going into business is to get free of a job so you can create jobs for other people.

Michael E. Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It (1995)

What’s getting in my way?

Mostly it’s that I haven’t sat down and thought about:

  • The projects I’m willing to invest money into, in addition to time – although maybe I should just treat my time as fungible and delegation as a skill that’s worth learning anyway, so I should open up all my personal projects for consideration
  • Specific processes that I want to delegate, although I do have a decent-sized process library that I even share publicly
  • How I can reduce my involvement in things that are tied to me personally, and focus more on things where I can bring in other people

I also have some guilt about the distinction between tasks I can definitely defend as being business-related, and tasks that are much more personal. For example:

  • Reviewing my accounting records and draft tax return – Definitely business.
  • Transcribing Emacs Chat sessions and recorded presentations – Well… Technically, people sometimes pay me for Emacs-related things and I’m working on packaging some things up as pay-what-you-can guides, so that’s okay, I guess?
  • Filling in recipes from Hacklab cooking nights – Definitely personal

The main benefit of claiming things as a business expense is saving roughly 15% in tax, but if that’s mentally getting in the way of my just taking advantage of this, I should totally switch the contracts over to my personal credit card and just go for it until I’ve gotten the hang of this again. I’m nowhere close to my target of fully replacing the hours I’ve spent earning during this experiment (2829.6 hours worked, 486.8 hours delegated through oDesk, plus more through Paypal). But on the flipside, I don’t want to assign makework that I really should just automate or eliminate. Although maybe I should challenge myself to find something useful, since that gives people an opportunity to work and to improve their skills.

Anyway.

wpid-2014-11-01-More-thoughts-on-delegation.png

Stuff I don’t particularly enjoy doing, but that could help:

  • Setting up events, coordinating with people, etc.
  • Comparison-shopping
  • Data entry
  • Organizing

What would “getting the hang of this” look like? Future Sacha would:

  • Have these beautifully documented step-by-step processes for consistently getting stuff done, with enough volume and throughput that things happen consistently
  • Work with people who are also improving their skills and doing well

Hmm. One of the things I’m looking forward to learning at work is the ability to sketch out a design or give some tips on how to do a report (which tables, what existing report to build on, etc.) and have someone else learn by doing it.

Maybe what I need is something like that for my personal projects, too. If I get better at sketching out what I want, then I or someone else can make it happen. For example, with Emacs Chats and Emacs Hangouts, I’d like to eventually get to the point of:

  • Having a list of questions or topics I’m working my through
  • Having a page where people can see the things I’m curious about and volunteer to chat with me about them
  • Coordinating with those people about when we’re both available
  • Sharing a calendar and events where people can see upcoming entries
  • Getting everything recorded, processed, summarized, transcribed, and blogged about
  • Harvesting interesting snippets for a guide

And for Quantified Self Toronto:

  • Picture of sign-up whiteboard + copy of videos = processed videos uploaded and blogged about

For Hacklab and cooking:

  • Picture of food + links to recipe = blog post draft with recipe ingredients, photo, links to recipes = updated wiki page

And a few experiments with Fiverr and other micro-outsourcing sites, too, just because.

You know, even if I don’t end up feeling comfortable with calling those business expenses, I’m fine with it being a personal donation, since the communities are awesome. And it’s stuff I would probably end up doing anyway because it’s the Right Thing to Do.

Although it might be interesting to someday build a business around helping developers become even better… Hmm.

Reducing my consulting

I’ve been gradually scaling down my consulting. I started with a plan for consulting 3-4 days a week. Then I shifted to 2-3 days. Now I’m planning to target a regular schedule of one day per week, with extra for when there are important projects. I’ve been helping other team members pick up my skills, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with that. I think consulting one day a week will be a good next step in terms of giving me a deeper experience of self-directed time while still building on excellent client relationships.

What would be different if I work one day a week? I think this might be a new tipping point, since I’ll have a larger block of focused time – up to four days, compared to the bursts of single discretionary days of a Tue/Thu schedule. I’ll find out whether I can keep enough context in my head to make the most of spread-apart days, and if the mental leakage is worth it. Alternatively, I might experiment with working two afternoons a week, which still breaks up the week but allows for more responsiveness and momentum.

At the moment, I find it easier and more fun to work on specific people’s ideas and challenges rather than come up with my own solutions for the gaps I see. That said, I’m starting to branch out and make things that I think people will like, and these have turned out to be surprisingly helpful. Still, I’ve got a fair bit more to learn before I can be one of those idea-slinging entrepreneurs.

What do I gain from consulting?

  • The impetus to solve specific problems (learning a lot along the way)
  • The fulfillment of working on larger achievements
  • Taking advantage of other people’s skills without having to do the coordination myself
  • Feedback and ideas from other people
  • Interaction with a good team
  • A bigger safety net (financial and professional)

What other experiment modes do I want to try?

  • Active leisure: learning, writing, drawing, cooking, exercising, etc.
  • Product development: using writing, drawing, and coding to practise creating things outside the time=money equation
  • Open source contribution/maintainership: learning boost from commitments?

I suppose I could toss myself in the deep end and try a 0% schedule earlier rather than later. I’m planning to take a few months to look into this add-on development thing, and that should give me some more information on what I need to learn and whether I can get the hang of it. =)

Much to try…

Brock Health and setting up my own health plan

I still get a kick out of walking into and out of a clinic without paying anything, just providing my Ontario health card at the appropriate moments. Canada’s public health system covers a lot of stuff. Not everything, though! W-‘s extended health plan from work covers a large portion of many expenses, like dental care and massages.

For the expenses that W-‘s health plan doesn’t cover, I looked into setting up a private health services plan (PHSP) so that I can pay for the remainder through my business. After some quick research, I found Brock Health was a popular choice for small corporations in Canada. The way that it works is that you send them the paperwork for the claim, and your corporation pays them the amount of the claim plus an administration fee. They then send you (as the employee or corporation owner) a reimbursement of the expenses without the admin fee. This is tax-free on your personal income, and is paid with before-tax business dollars. So you pay a little more because of the admin fee, but it works out.

I set up an account last fiscal year. Based on my calculations, claiming expenses on our tax forms first made more sense last year, so I didn’t have any transactions. This year, my calculations showed that the PHSP might be a better way to do things. I sent in my first claim with a couple of void cheques in order to It turned out that one of the expenses was partially refunded. I called Brock Health to update the claim, and they updated it before processing the cheques.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it all works out in this year’s business tax return. If it’s as simple as I think it might be, my personal health plan might include more massages… =)

Thinking about rewards and recognition since I’m on my own

One of the things a good manager does is to recognize and reward people’s achievements, especially if people exceeded expectations. A large corporation might have some standard ways to reward good work: a team lunch, movie tickets, gift certificates, days off, reward points, events, and so on. Startups and small businesses might be able to come up with even more creative ways of celebrating success.

In tech, I think good managers take extra care to recognize when people have gone beyond the normal call of duty. It makes sense. Many people earn salaries without overtime pay, might not get a bonus even if they’ve sacrificed time with family or other discretionary activities, and might not be able to take vacation time easily.

It got me thinking: Now that I’m on my own, how do I want to celebrate achievements–especially when they are a result of tilting the balance towards work?

When I’m freelancing, extra time is paid for, so some reward is there already. I like carving out part of those earnings for my opportunity fund, rewarding my decision-making by giving myself more room to explore.

During a sprint, the extra focus time sometimes comes from reducing my housework. When things relax, then, I like celebrating by cooking good meals, investing in our workflows at home, and picking up the slack.

I also like taking notes so that I can build on those successes. I might not be able to include a lot of details, but having a few memory-hooks is better than not having any.

Sometimes people are really happy with the team’s performance, so there’s extra good karma. Of the different non-monetary ways that people can show their appreciation within a corporate framework, which ones would I lean towards?

I definitely appreciate slowing down the pace after big deliverables. Sustained concentration is difficult, so it helps to be able to push back if there are too many things on the go.

At work, I like taking time to document lessons learned in more detail. I’d get even more of a kick out of it if other people picked up those notes and did something even cooler with the ideas. That ranks high on my warm-and-fuzzy feeling scale. It can take time for people to have the opportunity to do something similar, but that’s okay. Sometimes I hear from people years later, and that’s even awesomer.

A testimonial could come in handy, especially if it’s on an attributed site like LinkedIn.

But really, it’s more about long-term relationships and helping out good people, good teams, and good causes. Since I can choose how much to work and I know that my non-work activities are also valuable, the main reasons I would choose to work more instead of exploring those other interests are:

  • I like the people I work with and what they’re working on, and I want to support them,
  • I’ll learn interesting things along the way, and
  • It’s good to honour commitments and not disrupt plans unnecessarily.

So, theoretically, if we plunged right back into the thick of another project, I didn’t get the time to write about stuff, I didn’t feel right keeping personal notes (and thus I’ll end up forgetting the important parts of the previous project), and no one’s allowed to write testimonials, I’d still be okay with good karma – not the quid-pro-quo of transactional favour-swapping, but a general good feeling that might come in handy thirty years from now.

Hmm, this is somewhat related to my reflection on Fit for You – which I thought I’d updated within the last three years, but I guess I hadn’t posted that to my blog. Should reflect on that again sometime… Anyway, it’s good to put together a “care and feeding” guide for yourself! =)

Getting ready for my third fiscal year end

Okay. I might actually be getting the hang of this. =)

I’m the sort of person who actually looks forward to tax season. For my tiny company, I set it to September instead of December. That way, I can spread out doing my business taxes and my personal taxes.

I wanted to get a head start on preparing my taxes, especially since I switched to the HST Quick Method this year. After a little over two hours fiddling with my books (reconciling my statements, filling in the gaps, and figuring out quick method calculations), I feel reasonably certain that I’ll be able to do this year’s tax return myself, too. Based on my numbers, it looks like switching to quick method was worth it this year. (Better late than never!)

It was a pleasant surprise to find out that I’d earned the equivalent of almost a month of living expenses through pay-what-you-want e-book sales and $5 Helpouts. Thank you for your generosity! =D I’m looking forward to shifting time away from consulting and towards making more things that I can share with people.

Interest income added up, too, but not as much as equity investments would have. It might be time to learn how to pay myself dividends so that I can personally invest more into the market, or to sort out what holding investments in a corporation would be like.

Now that my trial run of taxes is done, I just have to wait for the final numbers to come in over the next few weeks. How exciting!