The distant memory that is my last post is not due to me forgetting about this beautiful little bog. I am in the process of starting a new company and, between that and my thesis work, I have not had much time to work on new posts. But alas I am back - and with an exciting new series that chronicles my journey through the thrilling roller coaster that is the start-up experience!
I have some planned episodes (including this one) and have reserved room for additional episodes as time, and challenges, go by. This series will address issues, main concepts, and directions that I have encountered while running my start-up. Also, for those who are interested, my new company is called R-Gauge Metrics Inc.
Along the way I will try provide some reading material that has helped me with my company. Maybe they will help with yours also.
All-righty then! Lets get started!
Episode 1: Inception
Inception: The establishment or starting point of something; the beginning.
I, and I’m sure you have too, have met some people while cruising through life who were extra-keen on starting their own company. This is usually exciting for me and I love to see such motivated individuals strive towards their goals. However, upon further inquiry, I sometimes notice that the person just wants to start their own company for the sake of starting their own company. Their drive is strong and their intentions are good, but without a clear problem to solve, or product to sell, they more resemble the captain of a ship that leaves harbour without a destination to go to: They are more likely to get lost and find trouble.
Introduce the idea. The idea is just that. It is your direction – your purpose. A business does not progress unless it has some goal to progress towards, and, no, making lots of money is not a satisfactory goal to launch a business (although we all hope that we will be able to make lots – we will need something more concrete).
For me, my idea started more than a year ago, and its form was very different than the form I eventually ran with. The original idea was quite simple. I thought many companies were not handling their online reputation well and I thought that I could help them with damage control and bad reputation mitigation. I cited the BP oil spill as an example to my friends while trying to convince them that this idea was the best thing ever:
“Just think. Some company, like BP, has a huge reputation drop due to them doing something – like spilling millions of gallons into the ocean. Now whenever I Google ‘BP’ I get all that bad reputation on the front page: bad for business. What if I was able to provide consulting and help mitigate their online reputation damage.”
It sounded good. I started doing my market research and also looked into who else was working in this industry. Turns out that there were quite a few people who thought the same as I did.
My peers were skeptical. It seemed like a lot of manual work that would only succeed if I did all the work myself (Not really automatable). Not scalable at all. I would only be able to take on as many clients as I could handle myself – or hire lots of people to handle the clients for me.
I decided more discussion and bouncing ideas off of people was in order. I did this for almost six months before the notion hit me: All these sites assume that you know what your reputation is like! How do you quantify it? If I know exactly what it is, I can compare reputations!
It took another six months to generate a rough prototype to see if this was actually possible. Turns out it was! I was on my way!
The key lesson I learned here was quite simple: Really spend the time to understand the problem that you are trying to solve and make sure that people care about solving that particular problem. Understand what your goals are and make sure to express what the value of your solution is in terms of your client: why should your client care in other words. Also, note that the idea is malleable. It can change to what the customers actually want. It doesn’t help to make the best product in the world if nobody wants it.
How do you know if people will use a solution to that particular problem? Well, you could ask them. The simple solution is usually the easiest. In my case, I asked anyone who owned a company or was in mid-to-upper management of any company I could find. I asked them if they would be interested in a tool like mine and carefully listened to their responses.
Things were looking really good. I felt that I had a great product that was relevant to people in my target market. They seemed quite interested in it. It was time to look into this whole “starting a company” thing.
Richard Branson talks at length in his book “Like a Virgin” about various topics in the business world. He addresses issues brought up by aspiring entrepreneurs and seasoned veterans in their journey to provide great products and services.
One of those points Richard addresses is the importance to simply show up. I remember reading that section and thinking that I would take this advice with a grain of salt. What if I am competing against some of the best in the world?
I was skeptical.
A few months passed and I received an email from a prominent financial institution; it detailed a contest where Canadian postsecondary students can submit an essay on what their vision of a responsible financial institution is.
I was intrigued.
I started thinking. I am not a financial institution expert or well-versed in what makes them responsible. All I could do was think of my own convictions. What did I think a financial institution that was responsible look like? It ended up looking like a simple essay with a list of suggestions – and it was. I was certain that I would not win, but I felt strongly about it.
I am surrounded by smart people all day. I would wager that most of them are far smarter than me, but I was the only one who entered the contest. All of them said something similar when I asked them if they would enter the competition: there would be people far smarter than them who would write something and win.
I definitely had those same thoughts, but instead of giving up before I had even written a single word I figured that I would at least try. I showed up.
I wrote something that I felt strongly about. Why wouldn’t I show people?
I placed second in the Canada-wide contest.
New York Magazine published an article in February of 2011 that covered research on just this topic. The studies that were referenced identified links in children that were told they were “smart” and their likelihood to try something that was not inherently natural for them. In general they found that children who were constantly praised for their intelligence were more likely to quit when things didn’t come naturally.
I am extending this idea to include self-deprecating mentalities in adults who believe themselves to be intelligent.
Intelligent adults will assess the situation and gauge their ability to succeed based on their own perception of their capabilities. The difference between the study with the children and my extension into the adult realm is that the children actually try before their failure is realized. The adults encounter their difficulty before attempting anything. The result is the same. Both groups do not complete the attempt.
This brings further reinforcement to the saying “you are your own worst enemy.”
I suppose I should be grateful for that mentality as it allows others, such as myself, to try and succeed. I cannot help but wonder, though, what breakthroughs might have happened if those people would actually try.
New York Magazine, How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise, http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/
Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won’t Teach You In Business School, Richard Branson, http://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/books/like-a-virgin
I have always been a (relatively) cautious man when it came to providing personal information online. I know these words come from the owner of calebshortt.com, but willfully disclosing information online is different than providing information that is to be kept private. Different rules apply. Some information can leak though – such as your name in news articles, academic papers, crawlers that scrape social media, etc.
In many talks, courses, and my own discussions I am seeing a trend where the “traditional” sense of privacy, where the idea it to not provide any information unless it is required, is shifting (with the help of social media). This “minimalistic” mentality is great for restricting the dissemiation of personal information – especially online. However, the “new” sense of privacy gravitates towards liberally providing personal information and having complete control on how that information is accessed by third parties (or the original holder of the information).
This is a big change, and it can lead to disastrous outcomes.
Take myself, for example, I limit the information that I add to social media websites (if I use any at all) and I make sure to continually review the privacy measures for each one. I try to apply the best of both “traditional” and “new” privacy approaches. This can work fantastically if you explicitly trust the website (or group) to secure your private information. I even run queries on my name in various search engines to see what are the results. This gives me a rough measure as to how exposed I am to crawlers.
What I did not expect is that, after taking care to secure my own online “identity” and my private information, the weakest link would be my government. I am talking about the current situation with the Canadian Student Loan information breach. A removable hard drive with the personal information of over half a million current, or previous, students disappeared. I was shocked. I suppose I shouldn’t have been.
All of my hard work; circumvented by the carelessness of a person I had never met – someone that I never knew was even handling my personal information.
Through my frustration I have come to be reminded that the weakest link in most security, or privacy, chains is the human link. The link that requires a person the have the correct training, common sense, and authorization to access, transport, and dispose of my personal information correctly and securely.
In my case, this is the second time that a major organization has “lost” my personal information due to a removable hard drive: Note that removable hard drives are usually restricted in general for this reason.
All I can do is take the necessary precautions – now that it’s out there.
When I tell someone that I am a Computer Scientist, and that I am working towards finishing my Master’s Degree in it, many of them remark on how “smart” I must be to achieve such a goal. I am taken aback by this response as I do not view myself as any more intelligent than they are. What, then, makes Computer Scientists fall into such an automatic assumption?
The answer may lie, not in the intelligence of the individuals, but in the way that they interact with their surroundings. Their world.
I am a Computer Scientist, but my skills do not fall solely within that realm. I am an avid baker. I surf and skateboard. I am mechanically inclined and can fix my own vehicles. I can play multiple instruments. I am known to write occasional prose and poetry. I read frequently – and in various topics. I keep up in current events. I have an extensive knowledge of movies and music. I play billiards at the competitive level. I am an amateur scotch taster.
The question is why did I decide to develop these hobbies and skills? The answer, for me at least, is that I was curious. I started baking bread because I was curious how it would work out. I got quite good at it through trial and error. Now, I can bake a decent loaf or two with no trouble at all. I have even made artisan loafs at the request of friends. When I saw a Youtube video of someone playing the ukelele I thought that it would be fun to play. I went to the music store, bought a cheap ukelele, and started to play some basic tunes from online tutorials. Now I can play a variety of songs – which goes well for when I’m surfing.
Many Computer Scientists are just like me. It is unacceptable for them to “not know” what to do if they need to, say, sharpen a knife. They will go out and learn how to sharpen their own knives. If there is a problem, they try to fix it. If there is something they do not know, they try to learn about it so that, next time, they will know. We are constantly learning. This might be brought on by such a fast-paced field – where first-year textbooks can be outdated before the students graduate.
This trait is not limited to Computer Scientists. There are many who are driven to better themselves. Sure, it takes some grades to get into Computer Science, but it takes grades to get into many fields of study. The “smart” that seems to be automatically associated with Computer Science may derive from this need to better ourselves – and solve problems. This builds a large skill-set that helps us solve even more problems.
And solving problems is something that we are very good at doing. Maybe that is what “smart” is after all.
It happened! Your company just pushed your new software product out. Months (or years?) of hard work culminate into this single moment. Your “baby” is now out in the wild – there to fend for itself.
It is perfect. You know it is. You and your team are using the latest in safety-rigid development life-cycles. You even pushed back your release date to finish your extensive test suite. There can’t possibly be a safety issue with your software.
The phone rings. There’s been an “incident”.
Safety in software is a troublesome topic. Much of safety testing and “assurance” relies on subjective and incomplete data or processes. These may leave significant voids in the identifying, analysis, and mitigation of safety “threats”. Test cases rely on the developer thinking of the possible ways that the test subject could be used, but what if the safety threat came from “legitimate” (passed validation) user input?
Tim Kelly argues that Safety Assurance Cases may be able to fill in the gap – and more.
Safety Assurance Cases are evidence-based arguments that prove (or disprove) the safety of a software system in a given context. They include technical and non-technical aspects of the system. This allows them to identify more than just the safety threats associated with validation, etc.
Kelly et al, in the paper “Introducing Safety Cases for Health IT”, describe the Safety Assurance Case in respect to the healthcare field. They discuss the evolution of the Safety Assurance Case along with the software (from requirements to deployment and maintenance). The process of claims is supported by arguments that are further supported by evidence. At the highest level is a claim about the overall safety objectives. This claim is supported by a series of arguments that further claim that some sub-aspect has been addressed. These arguments are further supported by evidence about the sub-aspects being addressed.
What Safety Assurance Cases do is give a solid argument for the safety of a system. They also identify weaknesses in the safety arguments of a system that may require additional evidence to support. Thus a Safety Assurance Case contributes externally and internally for the purpose of safety in the software system.
The story is well-known and so are Thomas Edison’s words: “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.
Those words, spoken or not, highlight the essence of “failing”. I use that word with some sense of disdain; for I am a firm believer in its non-existence – at least for me. Definition: Fail: “To be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal”. Thomas Edison would eventually discover a method, and the correct materials, to construct a long-life light bulb. He achieved his goal and so I see no failure in his method.
Too many times there are those who speak prematurely. A goal is the intended completion of a process set out at a previous time. This usually includes a “bar” or standard that will be met and will signify the meeting of that goal. The goal is at the end of a process – a journey. How, then, can someone label the process a “failure” if it is still in motion? The answer is that they cannot. The only person who has the ability to convert a process into a failure is the one who set the goal. How refreshing it is, then, to know that the only way that one can fail is if they choose to stop progressing towards their goal.
I have encountered this extensively in both my academic and professional careers. I have failed extensively in both, but I found that what is more important is not how much a person “fails” but rather how much that person sees things through – how they pick themselves up and keep moving. Out of my original group of post-secondary friends only a third ended up graduating from the Faculty of Engineering. I was one of them. I can confidently say that I was not the most naturally gifted of the group, but I was driven. I saw my goal and I wanted to meet it – be it hell or high water.
This quality is also prevalent in entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs have a higher threshold for risk. This means that they take chances. They may be calculated, but they are still risks. Sometimes those chances do not work in the favour of the risk-taker. Some may call these occasions a “failure”, but what an entrepreneur will tell you is that it was a learning experience. A life lesson. One way to not do it. Just one bulb in Edison’s 10,000.
When I find out that a “bulb design” didn’t work I don’t whine about all of the hard work it took to make it. I move on. I start designing the next bulb based on the lessons learned previously. This is a process, and I haven’t met my goal yet. But I will.
… Or so says Jonathan Jones of The Guardian – and I agree with him.
The 17th Century saw such iconic artists as Michelangelo and Rembrandt. They were masters of their craft to be certain, but they were not the only painters of their time. For every master there must be countless apprentices in the craft. This is how I see the craft of photography in the 21st Century.
Ah yes, the stereotypical college student gets their first camera and begins to capture anything and everything. No object is safe from their snaps, clicks, and instagrams. Some may pass as acceptable, and some may be heralded as proof in the imminent coming of the antichrist.
But with such exposure and diffusion of the craft it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that, from the pile of mediocrity, a master will arise. Who are we, then, to judge these people when their presence signifies the full maturity of the craft?