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Small solutions to big problems

 •  Filed under Posts

It's often the case with me that I look for a big solution to what I perceive to be big problems rather than the small solution.

The client upgrade

Take for example an upgrade I'm doing for a client. There's a number of steps that I always take when it comes to upgrading web applications for clients, but in this case the steps didn't go as planned.

For a few hours I was banging my head against a wall because of an obscure error. Stepping back I decided to go through the application in more detail. After just a few minutes I finally found the problem and made the change to ensure the upgrade process was working. The error itself was a bit of a red herring, but the obscurity of it had me thinking that I had to do something more to get move forward with the upgrade.

The change to get the upgrade was to update an obsolete library to the latest version and then the client's application was working again. I've updated my notes for further upgrades I do for clients so that the same thing doesn't happen again.

The same thing happened with Ethan last week.

The golf swing

Last week, Ethan had an playing lesson with the club pro, Andy. For a couple of weeks now, Ethan's game has been slipping. It was frustrating to watch as I don't know what to look for in his swing when things go wrong other that what he has learned in the past from his coaching. Heading out to the first tee, Ethan got setup, did the usual pre-shot routine and then Andy chipped in with a little nugget of wisdom, "Stand back further".

The change was instantaneous. The drive went right up the middle of the fairway. Through the lesson the recurring theme in Ethan's swing was that he stood too close to the ball and needed to go back a few inches in order to get the ball going in the direction that he wanted. Whether it was a driver off the tee, a hybrid or iron from the fairway or even a wedge leading up to the green, Andy's advice was always the same, stand back further from the ball.

The small (and effective) solutions

Ethan's focus now is to start including a small check in his pre-shot routine that ensures he's the right distance from the ball. Checking the distance between his belt buckle and the end of his club and making sure he can fit a hand span between them is enough to ensure that he's the right distance from the ball.

In both cases the problem was significant, and yet the solution to each problem was the smallest change imaginable. I wouldn't have thought for one second that an out of date library could have had such an effect on upgrading a web application. I also wouldn't have thought that such a small change in Ethan's swing would have such an effect on the resulting shot.

What this has taught me though is that the smaller solutions should be the ones that we look towards first. Using tried and tested approaches and notes on previous upgrades, I've managed to stream line the upgrade process for a clients web application so that in most cases it takes days rather than weeks. Eliminating the small problems ensures that I'm always working towards a functioning upgrade.

It doesn't always work this way though. Every client upgrade is different and there are exceptions to the rule, although there shouldn't be that many. Most of my clients have similar technology environments when it comes to their web applications so upgrades should fall into the timeline of taking a few days, a week at most. Any number of issues can stall an upgrade and due the technicalities of it, it's not always the case that a simple solution can move it forward.

Keep notes on those solutions

It also doesn't hurt to document your experiences. They're all different but from the notes that I have built I have a process in place that eliminates most the of the problems I encounter when it comes to upgrading client's web applications.

As for Ethan's golf swing, he's determined to use the time over the summer to practice more. Ethan has a full summer of lessons, competitions and medals to play for so that he can keep working towards lowering his handicap. To do that he'll need to remember the small fixes that can have such a positive effect on his swing and resulting shot. He's keeping a notebook of his yardage and his lessons so that he has something to go back to and review.

Rebooting the morning routine

 •  Filed under Posts, Productivity

The morning routine of reading, writing and planning is nothing more than a distant memory these days. I once used to start the day with some writing, some articles from my reading list and a last check that everything was in it's place for the day.

These days I'm sitting down at my desk with a coffee, opening Slack and Trello and picking up the next card of work for the client. Before I know it, it's 5pm and the troops are walking in the door hankering for their door.

It's time reboot the morning routine and get back a sense a of order in the morning.

A spreadsheet will do

 •  Filed under Posts, Freelance

Over the weekend I closed my Highrise account.

In case your not familiar with the name, Highrise is a CRM product for small businesses. It started life as part of the 37signals range of products, but has since branched out onto it's own.

The initial pull to using a CRM tool like Highrise is that I wanted to a tool that allowed me to store important emails from clients as well as track projects and work I was chasing with prospective clients. Highrise has great email integration that allows you to forward emails from clients to Highrise and it will store them for you. It also allows you to track deals which in my case represented prospective work with clients and creating proposals to win work.

I should mention that while Highrise is a great product, my decision to cancel my account with it isn't anything to do with the performance and features of Highrise. It is a great product and under the right circumstances it is worth looking at if you need a CRM for your small business.

My main reason for moving away from Highrise was more to do with how I wasn't using it to it's full potential.

In the time that I've had to use Highrise, I've used the deals section rarely. It's nothing to do with Highrise, it's just that in the time that I have been freelancing, most correspondence takes place over email and I've rarely had to pitch for work. Most prospective clients like to discuss the work that they would like me to do and discuss my background and experience. After a few emails, most of these prospective clients then decide to exchange contracts to begin the work. I've rarely had to pitch for work and so the deals feature of Highrise has been left untouched.

The email integration with Highrise on the other hand though was used on a daily basis. Client emails went straight to Highrise as well as my replies to them. Although I used this feature daily, there were only a handful of different clients to deal with at anyone time so while the archiving of these emails in Highrise was nice to have, most of the emails involved discussions before work began. My email provider already offers a large amount of space to store emails and they're filed away in a folder. I was starting to wonder if I needed Highrise to manage the storage of emails.

Finally there was the managing of contacts. Yes I do have all my clients contact details, but I rarely have to refer to them. I speak with clients daily when working with them, I use email to send weekly updates and invoices and for all other daily correspondence with clients I recommend Slack. All my clients details are saved on the appropriate devices I need to have them on and aside from that there's no other special requirement to managing this data.

It was starting to look like I didn't need Highrise at all.

After deliberating for a few days I finally decided to export all my data from Highrise and delete my account. Without a CRM though I needed something else. All my client details are already stored in my address book but I needed something else that acted as a more detailed version of their details and allowed me to find and filter contacts based on information I have recorded against each of them.

The answer lay in a document type that I rarely use. The spreadsheet.

After getting the contact columns in the spreadsheet in the right order, I imported the contact details in and started adding the necessary changes I need so that I could filter those contacts.

Right, so the spreadsheet doesn't have all the bells and whistles of Highrise, but for the moment it will do. I've got all my contacts in one place. I can filter them based on the next date with which I need to contact them for a catch up and there's enough flexibility in Numbers in that I can add more information if I need for each client.

If my client base was to increase over the next 12 months and work started to change on a monthly basis then I would definitely consider Highrise again. It is a great product, but I couldn't justify it's use as a simple address book and email archive.

For the moment though, the spreadsheet is enough for me.

What to look for in a blog

 •  Filed under Posts, Blogging

It's come to my attention that I am hardly the good faring blogging citizen I was a couple of years ago. This is going to change this week with a set of single topics. Today's is what to look for in a blog.
When it comes to looking for other blogs to follow, it can be a bit hit and miss of subscribing to that blog is going to be worth it or not. There are a number of things that you can do though that can increase the success rate of the blogs that you subscribe to or regularly read.

A generalist or a specialist

Blogs tend to fall into one of two types when in comes to content. There’s the specialist who focuses on a single topic and there’s the generalist who post regularly but across a wide range of topics.

The specialists have the inside knowledge on the topic that I like to read about. I like reading blogs of this type as the topics often align with what is going to be of benefit to me.

Take the blog of Curtis McHale from British Columbia.

I have read this blog for a few years now and his blog has been a continual benefit to myself as I traverse the world of freelancing. Curtis McHale's blog is about being a business owner and everything that it entails. This is his specialty but the his field of knowledge on this isn't restricted to what happens during office hours, it also includes the other 18 or so hours of the day when he's not working for clients. This includes balancing family life with running a business, the books you should read as a business owner and the tools and services that can help you as a business owner.

A generalists blogs focuses on a greater range of topics. I find that most blogs I follow of this kind are people’s own personal blogs. They post what interests them.

That’s definitely the case of the blog of Kurt Harden from Ohio.

Here you find a blog that covers not just one topic but links, quotes, and many pictures of what's on the grill that evening. I like this type of scrapbook though and it's worth having a few blogs like this to follow. The reason being is that while Kurt's blog doesn't focus on a particular topic, it does include content that is relevant and interesting. And that's a good thing. I've never met Kurt, but I've read his blog for so long that I've come to understand what makes him tick.

Whether you’re looking for a generalist or a specialist is down to you. If you’re looking to learn about a particular topic then I suggest you look for specialist blogs. For anything else a generalist blog is just fine.

Consistent posting

A consistently published blog is a great blog. It doesn't need to be daily. It doesn't need to be a number posts a day or even a single post a day. As long as that person keeps a schedule going that doesn't involve weeks without a post then it's a blog worth reading.

The single exception to this rule is when the person behind the blog announces a period of time in which they'll be unavailable. Patrick Rhone's blog is essential reading for me, but in March of this year Patrick announced that he would be stepping back from his blog to focus on a project of his own.

We can’t always post regularly and there are times where we need to step back for a bit and they say so on their blog. This is the exception to posting consistently. It's not because you're being lazy, it's because you have something more important to do and that's a good thing. I know that when Patrick comes back he'll have garnered enough new insights for his blog for another year at least.

An RSS feed

An RSS feed is the easiest way to follow a particular blog. Using an RSS reader like Feedbin or Minimal Reader you’ll be able to follow all the blogs you're interested in. Some of you might be thinking that with a blog an RSS feed might be a given these days. Sadly that isn't so. I've noticed a number of websites that have blogs on them but lack an RSS feed to subscribe too.

In this case I would skip over subscribing to a "blog" like this. They've made a decision to not include an RSS feed so that they have more traffic to their blog or they just have a bad CMS that lacks an RSS feed. Regardless of the content that the blog includes I would skip over blogs like this.

Looking for blogs to follow can be a bit of a hit and a miss but if you know the type of blog you want to follow, they're a consistent blogger and they have an RSS feed to subscribe to then you should be onto a winner.

You can even follow this one if you're not already doing so!

Weekend Report #10

 •  Filed under Posts, Weekend Reports

Just when I think we're out of the woods with winter, Drew gets a nasty cold. We skipped his Taekwondo this weekend as he was loaded. Thankfully he started to get better on Monday and he's back to his usual cheeky self.

The weather is finally taking a turn for the better which means there's normally plenty of work to do in the garden. This year its less work than usual to thanks to Victory Gardens & Landscaping who came out last week and did a big chunk of work to tidy the place up. Just got the new BBQ to assemble and we should be ready for plenty of outdoor grilling.

Sunday was another day on the road for me and Ethan as he was playing in the second round of his junior flag challenge at East Kilbride Golf Club. Conditions were great and he really looked a lot more settled than he did last week. Highlight of the day was his eagle on the 7th. He finished the nine hold round with a score of 44 which he was delighted with despite a couple of putts that just lipped out. Next round is in a couple of weeks, so Ethan gets to play in the medal next Sunday at his local club which means I can put my feet up for the day!

Hello Micro.blog

 •  Filed under Posts, Blogging

This week I finally got my invite to Micro.blog.

A few months ago Manton Reece wrote about a project he was working on to bring together micro-blogging using the format of RSS. He started a Kickstarter around it which went successfully. This week, I'm finally getting round to getting my account set up and following a few people.

The idea is simple. You can host your own micro-blog on Micro.blog or you can import an RSS feed from somewhere else so that it becomes your timeline. Rather than fencing people into the product, you can bring your own RSS feed and use that for your timeline. Neat idea.

First Impressions

At first the service looks pretty basic. Your own timeline is a simple list of recent posts from the people you are following. There's options to reply, delete and favourite to posts on your timeline. So far so good.

While your timeline is a minimal affair in the styling department, your own feed can be tarted up with one of six designs that can pick from in your account preferences. There's also the option to add some CSS styling of your own.

There's also an app for the iPhone as well as the ability to post to it from the MarsEdit text editor should that be your preference.

Let's not forget this is a bootstrapped product that began life on Kickstarter. I'm certainly not going to compare it in anyway to Twitter or Facebook, but compared the to launch of App.net it feels slower. It's early days though and it's live which more than can be said of what others have promised when it comes to challenging the establishment.

Using Micro.blog

I considered streaming a tagged feed from this blog as my main feed for Micro.blog but there were was one problem with this. The Ghost theme's feed isn't customisable, so there's no way for me to omit these posts from my main feed. The reason I wanted to omit them is that I might be posting three or more times a day and I didn't want to change the frequency of my blog's posting for this.

So instead I think I might just post from the Micro.blog site and then map my timeline to a sub-domain of this site.

So where does that leave other social media outlets that I am a part of?

Well from here on in I'll be largely using IFTTT to posting to Twitter. It will largely be an automated feed from my blog, my Micro.blog posts, Instagram and any other platforms that I use. Twitter has it's uses and I'm not ready to bow out from it yet, but the for the foreseeable future it will be a "write only" environment for me.

After being burned by App.net, I'm aware that Micro.blog is still in the early days of its service life so I'm not going to invest too much time on it. A couple of posts a day should be sufficient.

I'm keen to see how this service grows over the next few months. I'm not expecting drastic changes overnight, but a gradual roll out of new features between now and the end of the year shouldn't be out of the question.

You can find me on Micro.blog here.

Social Media Shifts

 •  Filed under Social Media, Posts

Social media is always on the change. They clamber over each other to promote their best features and in come cases even copy the features of social media networks. I'm looking at you Instagram!

Through all this changing landscape there's been one slow less obvious change that has happened over the last couple of years.

Goodbye Twitter

It's been a quiet on Twitter recently. With the absent Patrick Rhone and Kurt Harden on my Twitter timeline, I found that I wasn't checking in on my timeline as often. There seemed to be little point.

So over the weekend I removed the Twitter app from my phone and I removed all the lists I subscribe too with the exception of one. I then logged in to the Twitter website on my phone and then closed the tab down. The change has been positive.

I'm no longer a slave to the Twitter app on my phone. I'm no longer checking my timeline on an hourly basis. I'm no longer thumbing through the moments tab just to see what's going on. I like Twitter's Moments section but the lack of filtering on topics is infuriating. Yes, I would like to see the latest scores from the NFL, but I can't be bothered with things like celebrity news, football news and trending posts on Twitter.

I mentioned that I removed all but one of the lists I created. While lists were initially a good idea on Twitter they haven’t changed to keep pace with Twitter and now are nothing more than a less useful form of your timeline. I think lists can still have their place on Twitter but as of filtering your timeline rather than being a separate list. You still have to follow everyone on each list but with a change of a dropdown, you can change the accounts that are displayed on your timeline. Perfect for sports enthusiasts who might like to keep an eye on their timeline during major sporting events.

I also have less notifications distracting me. I did have notifications on for direct messages but that's just something that I now check on the mobile Twitter site. Replies aren't so important that I need to know about them right away and knowing about my latest new follower isn't worth checking out unless I'm not working and I have the time to do so.

Twitter has always been something of a necessary evil for me. It's now just a placeholder for myself on that network and I don't see me using it often for anything else but cross posting from other places like Instagram and Pocket. And I think that's a real shame. Twitter had such great promise in the early days but the changes over the last few years have seen the usual crowd I follow fall away from it and finding people with similar interests is possible, but it's not the same as following people that you have connected with and know.

Hello Instagram!

And while Twitter has been suffering it seems that Instagram is flourishing. Multiple photos on posts, stories (although I've still not used these), bookmarks and the soon to come collections has made Instagram a rising social media star for me.

Once I thought of it as nothing more than just a place for selfies, but having spent the last couple of years on it, it's definitely more than that. The creative spark behind a lot of the accounts on Instagram is great to see and the visual timeline is so much more appealing and positive than browsing my Twitter timeline.

It's not without it's faults though. The comments on posts is a nightmare to navigate. Frequently people simply comment with another person's name and that's it. It adds no value to the comments section but it's a quick way of notifying that person about the post. I think Instagram could definitely improve it's comments section by allowing you to filter comments and promote comments that are like by many.

Considering others

And while there are other places like Snapchat, Ello (still going?), and even a couple of new places, I've been slow to consider setting up accounts on other networks. Mastodon is a newcomer to social media and while the promise of a less centralised social media network is promising, the truth is that I simply don't have the time for it.

The recent closure of App.net taught me that it's wise to weigh up a social media network before you create an account on it. Sure, you can grab your handle and start posting, but what real value are you going to get from it? I suspect in most cases the answer is little. Social media networks are designed to be places where you consume data. To do that social media networks try to wall you in with features and formats that are special to that one network.

I'm glad to say that Micro.blog by Manton Reece is hoping to change all that by creating a social network that is powered by one of the oldest timeline tools on the Internet. RSS. Using RSS feeds, Micro.blog aims to break down the barriers of wall garden social media networks and provide something that uses a publishing medium you're already using. Your own blog. I'll be glad to see that released and hopefully soon.

My changing tastes in social media is down to the fact that I’ve less value in Twitter and more value in Instagram. One is getting weaker and the other is getting stronger. Twitter isn’t a sinking ship yet, but it’s far from a great place to be. I’ll stick with the more positive and visual Instagram for the foreseeable future.