The Home Office

As a follow-up to an earlier article I wrote about working at home, this article focuses on what it takes to set up your home office to maximize your productivity. No, not everything I say here will apply to everyone, but think about the ideas, and perhaps you will find a few good points that will help you be successful at home.

  1. Get dressed to go to work every day. Working at home provides the opportunity for more distractions than you would have at the office. To help you counter that, pick a style that you think represents what you and your business stand for, and stick to it. Whether it is strictly formal, or business casual, dress yourself each day as though you were going to be meeting your clients. You never know, they may need to drop by.
  2. Set aside space to work. This means that you need a place that is called your office. With a door. When you go into your office, you are at work. This helps you to block out the distractions from around the house, and tells the people you live with that when the office door is closed, it means you are not to be disturbed.
  3. Set up a “disturb policy”. If you were at the office, your wife would not interrupt your work to ask you for help with the dishes. The same should apply while you are working at home. If the door is closed (see the previous point) then for all intents and purposes, you are not home. The only reason for opening that door would be for an emergency that would make your spouse call you home from your downtown office.
  4. Keep your space clean. It’s a distinct possibility that a client may see your office. Your reputation can gain or lose standing as a result of the cleanliness of your office space.
  5. Set aside some space for meeting clients. While you may feel comfortable curling up on the couch while you write a report on the pros and cons of using a certain piece of software, your clients won’t. It comes across as unprofessional, so set aside some space, keep it clear of your baby’s toys, and make sure it includes a table and space for meeting with several people. If you are tight on space, you can use your dining room table as your conference area, as long as you keep the area clean.

Let me know if you have any other ideas that would help make your home office successful, I would love to hear from you.

Company Launch

As of this morning, I am now the owner of Optimal Upgrade Consulting, registered as a sole-proprietorship in Ontario. I have put up a quick website (www.optimalupgrades.com) and will be making changes to the site in the near future.

Developing a Network to Network

During a recent conversation with a friend, we discussed creating a network of professionals in the IT industry. The basic purpose of the network would be to share business leads. The conversation progressed from there, and a couple of weeks later, we met again, this time with a third person. At this point, we realized we had a small problem – where do you start?

Initially, the idea sounds simple. We get a small group of people we know who work on independant contracts, and create a semi-formal envirnonment in which to pool and share resources. However, as we talked, we realized that what isn’t clear is how you start forming the group. There are a few options, and I’ve outlined them below.

Option 1: Paper First

With this option, we create the paperwork first, and then, once that is complete, find new members. In more specific terms, the three current members decide the kinds of contracts we need, how people apply to join the group, what kind of financial arrangements will be endorsed, various types of Non-Disclosure Agreements must be written, fees must be set for different types of work, a website is put up describing the group’s potential, etc.

The problem with this is two-fold. First of all, the first 3 members are going to be diong a lot of work on their own. Considering that the target size of the group is less than 20 members, this work could be done more quickly by dividing it among more people. Second, many of the documents produced will be determined to be redundant, irrelevant, or inaccurate once more members join. For example, while the initial members can guess at a fee schedule, once they have more members, it may be determined that the numbers used are completely inaccurate.

Option 2: People First

Under this option, we set out to get people to join, and then divide the required paperwork, as described above, among all the members. The advantage to this is that you know what all your members want, no single member is required to do a large amount of overhead work, and the work done reflects the actual needs of the group.

The problem, of course, is that without some of the paperwork in place, you lack a documented common goal, and run the risk of having people join without a NDA and then leaving. As well, it is difficult to attract people to join when you can’t describe accurately what you are asking them to join.

Option 3: Mix and Match

The third option, which sounds obvious, is to do a little bit of both. Determine which parts of the paperwork need to be done before you can start attracting additional members, and once they are ready, begin attracting more members, who will, as part of joining the group, help complete the remaining paperwork.

There is, however, a problem with this approach, and that is in determining what paperwork is needed before opening the group to new applicants. Beyond the NDA (to protect ourselves and our members), what documents would you consider to be fundamental to forming such a group?

Why You Have to Love Tech Support

After yesterday’s post about why I hate tech support, I read a short story about a tech phone call that made me appreciate tech support. Yes, they don’t know how to deal with people who understand computers, but that’s because they have to deal with people like Bob:

Tech Support: Ok, Bob, type a capital B, then press enter.

Customer Named Bob: A capital B?

Tech Support: Right, capital B as in Bob.

Bob: Capital B as in Bob?

Tech Support: Exactly. Capital B as in Bob!

Bob: [Pause] That’s the one with two loops, right?

Why I Hate Tech Support

I have a degree in computer science, and work as a programmer for a large company (over 500 members of their IT group, if I recall correctly), in addition to working writing custom desktop applications for my clients. I think it would be safe to say that I know a thing or two about computers.

I had a need to call technical support today for an issue with inserting a large number of data records into a remote database. I recieved a fairly generic error each time I tried to run my query, regardless of how I accessed the server. I checked their knowledge base, and found 3 methods for doing exactly what I was attempting, and tried all 3, all of which failed. So I braced myself and sent an e-mail to the server’s tech support asking if there was an internal issue.

This is not the first time I’ve had an issue with this particular provider, and their service has been pretty good to date. This time, too, despite the fact that it was early Sunday morning, I was called back within 30 minutes. They asked me to describe what I was trying to do (this was already sent to them in the e-mail they were responding to). They asked me to try the 3 options from their knowledge base, which I had already told them I had done. They asked me to send them a copy of the data I was inserting, also already attached to the original message.

After examing all this information for a second time, they came to the conclusion I had made before I started working… the problem was on their end, not mine. Note that I was sending them an e-mail because the error message I had received SAID it was an internal error on their end. Four hours later, they resolved the problem (at their end) and we’re back to work.

This incident is fairly typical of dealing with tech support. They assume that you have not read the manual (which in general is probably true, so I don’t hold that against them) and that you did not do any of the things you told them you did. This is why they make you repeat all the steps YOU ALREADY TRIED. And told them you already tried. Even if you call and tell them the error message, they insist that you replicate it for them right now. Never mind the processing time to generate the message is between 15 and 30 minutes. They want it now (although you did send them the exact time you last tried it, so they could check their logs from then).

When I deal with tech support, I generally want them to do the following:

  1. Read my message. I probably explained exactly what I did. And the error I received.
  2. Ask me if I looked in the knowledge base, and if you have a reference to a particular article, send it to me and ask me if I followed those instructions. You don’t have to walk me through them, I can read.
  3. Don’t assume I’m an idiot when it comes to technical issues. I get asked to make tech support calls for family members, and I’m told by friends that this is normal. So even if I’m not the one with the original issue, I am still likely to be computer literate.

Technology that Empowers Me

This is #5 on Chris Brogan’s list of 100 Blog Topics I Hope YOU Write

Oddly enough, the technology that makes the biggest difference to my day-to-day life is one which most people don’t think of as a technology, if they think about it at all. I refer, of course, to the coffee maker.

I am not, contrary to popular belief, a coffee addict. I prefer to think of myself as a coffee connoisseur. I can, and have, quit drinking coffee completely. When I was in university, I would quit from May through August, when I had no need to stay up late or rise early. I resumed when school started again and I knew I would be getting less sleep than I need. Now that I work full-time, as well as work on some small contracts on the side, I am once again not getting a sufficient amount of sleep, and so use coffee as a sleep alternative.

However, my use of coffee goes beyond the caffeine. I appreciate a good cup of coffee. I roast my own beans fresh on a daily basis when I am able. I use coffee to mix with other drinks. I use the coffee flavor in desserts. I have made coffee liqueur.

The truth is, though, that without a coffee maker, I would have a choice of drinking instant coffee (shudder, and besides, if there weren’t coffee makers, there probably wouldn’t be instant either, although I am not certain which was created first), or drinking coffee made with an old-fashioned press, spending more time getting my stimulant than making use of the stimulant, which defeats the purpose of the stimulant.

It is coffee that drives my day, and it is the coffee machine that makes it possible.

A Community I Love

This is #4 on Chris Brogan’s list of 100 Blog Topics I Hope YOU Write

I recently joined the Stack Overflow community, and have been loving it. The site is primarily a programming help site, which is run by the users. Anyone can post a question or answer, and your peers are the ones who rate the quality of question or answer. The better the questions and answers you post, the more features of the site become available to you.

While some of the features of the site are debatable (for example, equating high usage with responsibility, as is done by their reputation system), the overall idea is excellent. I have taken to using the site almost exclusively for any programming and related questions I have, and the quality and timeliness of the responses has been astounding. I rarely have to wait more than a few minutes to get a few responses, and users are responsible in that they will ask appropriate questions and rephrase their responses according to the answers. If I ask a question that has already been asked, someone will direct me to the original question.

While this community is still developing, I am happy to be a part of it as it grows.

Should My Town Use Social Media?

This is #3 on Chris Brogan’s list of 100 Blog Topics I Hope YOU Write

The use of a website by a city has some obvious benefits. The user of Social Media, however, will serve little point in the vast majority of cases. If the town is small enough, then there is no need for the social media, as everyone knows everyone else without it. If the town is large enough, then you run into the issue of attracting the locals to the media. People have a hard enough time keeping up with people through their personal social media sites. They certainly don’t need another medium in which to waste their time.