Retirement party

I spent a few hours this afternoon at a retirement party for my grandfather, Warren Lincoln, who turns 91 in January. I really wish I had the drive and energy he has now — he jogs every morning, has been working full-time downtown in the mail room at the Indiana Department of Workforce Development for the past 10 years, and comes home each day to work around the house. He went to work early every day, and had so much unused vacation time built up (with no intension of using it) that his boss had to practically force him to take 1/2 days off every week to get rid of it.

Even more inspiring than his drive is his ability to develop a rapport with people and make them smile. It was touching to see all the people stop by and wish him well — from current and former Commissioners to the UPS guy. He's known for telling everyone a different joke every day (he calls it the "daily funny"), and almost every single person that came to the party wanted to hear one of his jokes. Being a special day, he had prepared a dozen different jokes. Here's one of his that was quite applicable for the occasion:

Unemployment isn't working

A crew from Channel 13 (WTHR) followed him around for part of the day and a segment will air on the news tonight at 6pm. Channel 8 (WISH-TV) also picked up on the story and came by to interview him for the 5pm news. Tune in if you're in the Indianapolis area. If you're not, I might be trying to figure out how to hack my DVR to get some video up on YouTube.

UPDATE: clips below.

Practice what you love

I recently watched an excellent documentary, Scratch. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the world of DJ-ing, turntablism and hip-hop. Below is a video of Roc Raida performing at the 1996 DMC US finals. A clip from this set is featured in the documentary. (Check out the DMC videos page for more recent championship performances. I highly recommend C2C's 2005 set).

One of the interesting things I picked up from in the documentary was how much work each of the DJs put into their sets. Roc Raida and Rob Swift talk about how it took months of practice to complete the set above. Earlier in the documentary another DJ, Steve Dee, talks about how he read in a book, "if you practice for one year and give up everything — women, wine — you'll be the best at what you do." So that's what he did, and he went on to become one of the most innovative and respected DJs in history of hip-hop.

(Part of my awe towards these guys could be attributed to the fact that in college I bought a couple turntables and a mixer and set upon what was probably one of the most feeble attempts ever at learning how to become a DJ.)

A few months ago the authors of Freakonomics recently published another very interesting article in New York Times Magazine. The question it addresses is one that I've been thinking about a lot recently, "When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?"

The article presents an answer: people get good through a process of deliberate practice, explained as "setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome." The authors argue that people who are the best at what they do become that way because of hard work, not because they're born with that ability. Related to this discussion, the article points out, "when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good."

As I think about where I am today, the answer posed in the article seems relevant to my experience. Not that I can be compared to Michael Jordan in anything that I can do, but I feel like I'm fairly proficient within my specialties. I know I wouldn't be where I am today if I wasn't blessed with the opportunity to create a career out of something I loved doing.

I had an eye-opening moment about a year or ago was when I was cleaning up some old directories on my computer. I noticed a fully-functional web application I had created a couple years prior that I had completely forgotten about. It was something that I developed as a personal project, with a slight hope that I could sell it to a client someday. As I dug through my archive, it amazed me to see the collection of software that I created on my free time — a web-based email client that I wrote one summer in college, a few solitaire card games that I created for my wife to play (because that's what geeks do for their wives instead of buying flowers), dozens of scripts to automate assorted things (one of which served as the foundation for Ponyfish), open source software that I hadn't touched in a long time (you can still find some here and here), and many half-started or half-finished projects that had been abandoned for one reason or another.

The trove highlighted the fact that I loved creating software products, something that my career was starting to take me away from. It was also eye-opening to think back and realize that the skills I possess today were mostly acquired and developed on my own. I have a degree in Computer Science, but I never had a class that taught me about the web. I've never been at a job that sent me to training to learn to do what I do now every day.

If I didn't love what I do, I wouldn't have spent countless days of free time learning and doing on my own. And if I didn't spend that time, I wouldn't be able to enjoy any of the success I have today.

What if I find my love for software development fading someday? If I don't dust off the dozen business plans I also found, or the short stories and half-finished novel I started in college, maybe I'll get those turntables out of the closet.

Fun with browsers

Early Fun

My first browser was Lynx, back when my Internet connection consisted of dialing into an ISP using a terminal emulator (I still remember the keyboard shortcuts). I still think there's a lot of beauty in the simplicity of the Internet back then — text-only websites, IRC, BBS, Gopher, newsgroups, etc. Even minus the technological advances of the modern Internet, there was still a lot of great information out there, and I spent hours in front of a black-and-white terminal trying to soak it all up.

A big breakthrough for me was the discovery of ZMODEM, a terminal protocol that enabled me to upload and download files from the Internet. Now I could download all kinds of applications (OK, mostly games) for my computer. I experienced Christmas mornings practically every day — mornings when the night before I had started an 8 hour download over a 14.4k connection, and was overjoyed to find a new toy waiting on the desktop.

From there I upgraded to a PPP dialup account where I discovered the fun of browsing the web with Netscape Navigator 2.0 and reading email with Eudora Light. I was a die-hard Netscape fan throughout the first Browser Wars and just couldn't get why anyone liked Internet Explorer. Even after Netscape lost the war I switched to Mozilla, opting to struggle with periodic crashes and memory leaks of the beta releases rather than deal with ... periodic crashes and memory leaks of IE5.

Modern Fun

It's been a good week for the web, as Firefox 2.0 was released tonight and Internet Explorer 7 came out last week. The new browsers will definitely provide a better browsing experience. Sure, there are a lot of developers scurrying to fix broken web pages and applications. But I don't feel much empathy for them since I haven't run across any problems with my applications so far :)

I have to admit that IE7 is the first version of Internet Explorer that I've liked. If I had to, I could actually use IE7 as my day-to-day web browser — tabbed browsing was a must-have feature that came a few years too late in IE, and the updated interface improves a lot on the clunky IE6 UI. (I still keep IE6 around for testing, thanks to the browser archive). Even though IE7 has its good points, it still doesn't beat Firefox in functionality. I'm really excited about the introduction of spell-check to Firefox 2.0, something that I've found essential in the time I've spent writing this post. The tweaks to tabbed browsing and RSS feeds are pretty nice too.

And Firefox is far ahead of anything else (yes, even Lynx or GET) when it comes to usefulness for a web developer. Extensions like Web Developer, HTML Validator, CSS Viewer, FireBug, ColorZilla, and MeasureIt add on magnitudes of power.

I'm already looking forward to 3.0.

Drivers eat free

I was driving on I-74 recently and saw an Arby's billboard:

Buses Welcome Drivers Eat Free

I thought it was a brilliant marketing strategy for bringing in extra customers — giving a free meal to bus drivers. What could be better for a fast food restaurant in rural Indiana than for a double-decker charter tour bus to drive through?

But then I thought about it a little more and wondered how effective the offer is. Bus drivers may be driving the bus, but how often are they making the decisions about where to go? On a chartered bus, doesn't the leader of the group riding in the bus usually make the decision where to eat?

This reminds me of some good advice from The Art of the Start for generating sales. Guy Kawasaki provides the insight, "Ignore titles and find the true key influencers." He gives the example of a company where a person with the title "Database Administrator III" was the one who influenced major 6-figure purchases for his company, not the people at the top of the org chart.

The billboard brings to mind another insight: it pays for bus drivers to be loved by their customers — they might get to eat free at Arby's.

Personal MBA

I've long been interested in pursuing an MBA. I majored in Computer Science and Mathematics in college, and was a class short of getting a minor in Writing. Despite my love of business, I didn't take a business class (unless you count Intro to Economics). I had wanted to focus on the classes that counted towards my major and figured business classes could wait until an MBA program, if that was in my future.

My interest in an MBA was fueled when I had the opportunity to be a part of the Maynard Media Academy while I worked at the Star. It was a two week management training program held at Harvard University. As part of the program, we had the privilege of being taught several classes by Harvard MBA professors. We even had to read some of the case studies assigned as homework in the real MBA classes. Despite the stigma of homework, I enjoyed reading the case studies, and enjoyed even more the time spent in class discussing them with the MBA professors.

An MBA might still be in my future, but unfortunately starting a new business means that it won't happen soon. It's hard to justify the expense during a period when cash flow is crucial. It's even harder to justify the time when I could spend those hours building the business.

A few months ago I ran across mention of The Personal MBA, which is essentially a reading list to "substantially increase your knowledge of business on your own time and with little cost, all without setting foot inside a classroom." The idea intrigued me. I don't think that reading 40+ books would replace the classroom experience of an MBA program, but I think there is some truth to the fact that one can learn much of the material through an informal process.

I love the quote on the site from Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon's character states:

"You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library."

As I thought about it some more, I realized that the MBA degree doesn't mean a lot to me. I won't get a raise or a promotion as a result of another degree, and it probably wouldn't help in acquiring new customers either. I'm most interested in the education, and using that to grow as a person and build a better business.

While I voraciously read business articles and websites, it's not often that I sit down to read a business book. I know that I would find value out of reading more often, so I decided this week to commit to reading everything on the Personal MBA list — even ones that sound boring, like Essentials of Accounting.

I already started by reading Art of the Start, by Guy Kawasaki and found it to be a pretty great read. I'm looking forward to the next 40.