New Computer from Dell

I was just sent an e-mail advertising a new computer system from Dell: the XPS One 24 Desktop. I’m looking for a new development computer, and I prefer to use Dell, as I have had very good experiences with them in the past. Does anyone have any feedback on this system?

One of the downsides to this system I am already aware of, and that is that you are limited in terms of the amount of customization that’s available. However, I’m not quite ready to buy, and it will likely be another 6 months before I do, so maybe by then, that issue will have been resolved, at least somewhat. But are there any other issues with this system I should be aware of?

Best Practices

I’ve been hearing a lot about best practices lately, and came to an interesting realization. I’m from an IT background, so I will focus on that area, but what I have to say can be extended to essentially any professional area.

In IT, there are two kinds of Best Practices: those that apply to how we operate, and those that apply to our code. When I hear the term Best Practice, I tend to think of a new coding standard, or a particular step in our development life cycle, such as how we do peer code review. I’ve worked on writing some of these practices, and I agree that they are needed. However, there is something missing.

When you have a best practice, be it process-oriented, or task-oriented, make sure your customers know the practice. If your testing process includes 4 levels of testing, advertise it! If you use the Super Special Coding Standards, advertise it (and include a link so that your customers can find out more about that standard)!

While I’ve heard much about Best Practices at work, I only hear about them internally. As a consumer, I cannot remember the last time I saw a company advertise its Best Practices. As a supplier of a a product or service, you choose to use some practices because of some benefit you think it will have, whether it be improving the quality of your product, or make it simply easier to maintain, or some other reason. However, if you tell your customers what you are doing, what standards you use, they can appreciate the effort you are putting forward for them. Why are you wasting an easy opportunity to brag about your high-quality product?

Why I would pay when there's a free alternative

A friend of mine posted yesterday on How to Compete With Free. I would like to address the same topic, but from the perspective of a consumer, as opposed to the perspective of a distributor. After all, to understand how to distribute, you need to first understand how the consumer thinks.

When I look at options for a service or product, I will start with the free options. However, I tend to approach it with a cynical twist, that is, you get what you pay for. So my first reviews are looking for flaws, trying to figure out what the catch is, and why it’s free. Once I have determined that the free alternatives won’t work, I move up the price line, until I find a solution that will work.

What this means is that if you are trying to get me to use your product, and to pay for your service, you have to meet one of two criteria:

  1. Your product is free, and does what I need
  2. Your product is cheap, and does what I need and there are no free alternatives.

Unfortunately, both these models mean you won’t make very much money from me. However, you can take this approach, and apply Craig’s List approach from Jeremy’s article, in which you start charging more for the advanced features.

Like many people I know, once I start using your system, I will continue to use your system if it can meet my needs, even if it costs more than an alternative. Of course, eventually you will hit an upper limit, where if you charge too much for the product or service, I will go elsewhere. That’s why you work with marketing people to figure out what that number is. But if you design your sales model based on giving away or charging a minimal amount for a product that does most of what most users want, and then charge extra to use the advanced features, you will be able to compete with the free alternatives. After all, your product is mostly free too.

Post-Networking

I’ve just come back from a networking event, the first formal such event I’ve ever attended. I drove out through unplowed roads, which made a 20 minute drive take closer to 60 minutes. I wasn’t the only one, however, as about 60 people attended, although some did arrive late.

I had been briefed as to what format these events tend to follow, and so I had my “elevator speech” prepared, a small infomercial rehearsed, and plenty of business cards to hand out. I wasn’t coming to buy anything, but neither was I coming to sell. I was there to meet people, make connections, and hopefully, in a while, once we’ve established some sort of relationship, exchange contracts and clients.

When I arrived, I was given a card with 3 numbers on it. I picked up a cup of coffee and headed over to the table with the appropriate number on it. There was no one sitting there, but then again, I was still about 20 minutes early. A few minutes later, a couple other people sat down at my table, and we started chatting about our work. The formal program had not yet begun, and I was connecting to 2 other people already.

The program kicked off with the room almost filled (10 tables with 6 seats at each) with an introduction by the chair of the Jewish Chamber of Commerce Toronto, Daniel Sonshine, about the purpose of the event, and a small tribute to UJA, with which the Jewish Chamber of Commerce is affiliated. Sarah Lambersky picked up the introduction with our instructions: each person would have 2 minutes to introduce themselves to their table. At the end of 12 minutes, everyone would get up, move to their next table, and we would repeat, and then again for a third table.

In my preparations for this event, I read that before you trade business cards, have a reason to trade. Apparently, I was the only one in the room to have read that advice, because before I could blink, I had 5 business cards sitting in front of me. Oh well, I guess I’ll hand out mine, and hope that people don’t just toss it in the recycling.

The event went well, with my meeting 13 other people during the round table portion of the event (2 people were at my table twice). But in my opinion, the best part of the event started when we stopped the round table, and began to mingle.

First, I went over to someone who had introduced herself to me at the table as a graphic artist. I got her website so that I could see a sample of her work, and will be forwarding her contact information to a few people I know who might be hiring. I then ran into someone I had seen around, and found out what he does. Turns out, he has a need for custom software from time to time, but he usually outsources it to India. He knows one of my current clients fairly well, and is going to be in touch with them for a referral. I then met another IT consultant, who focuses on web design and search engine optimization, which was another card to go into the special to follow up on pocket.

Another person came up to me, looking to strike conversation. He’s in sales, marketing advertising space in a trade magazine. While I don’t think the two of us had much in common, although we did chat for a while, he introduced me to someone he had met earlier in the evening, who has connections to a large number of small and medium sized businesses. I chatted with David for a while, though, and gave him some tips on improving his introduction, as he had mentioned that some people got confused as to what he does. I also gave him the title of the book I had been reading on networking, Make Your Contacts Count, as it may help him with future events.

At the end of the evening, I left with about 20 cards, due to the desire on the part of most participants to hand out as many as possible. Of those, about half will likely end up in the recycling, but 10 contacts for 2 hours of effort is a pretty good return on my time, as long as I remember to follow up on them, which is my task for the next few days.

How Best to Comment on a Corporate Blog

This is #7 on Chris Brogan’s list of 100 Blog Topics I Hope YOU Write.

First of all, I am aware that I skipped #6 on the list. Thank you for noticing.

I personally do not have a corporate blog, and know of only 1 company which does. However, were I to want to post on a corporate blog, I would be sure to use the following as a basic guideline:

  1. Stay on topic, and stay interesting. While a blog gives you room for some freedom in terms of what to say, and a way to informally interact with a company, it is not an open door to say anything to the company. If the post you are commenting on is about a new product being marketed, don’t comment about their stock performance unless you are posting along the lines of “How will this new product affect your stock performance in the near future” or something similar.
  2. Ask questions, post feedback, let other people know what you think. Writing “Great post!” does not tell anyone anything.
  3. If you wouldn’t write it in a letter to the company, think twice before you post it on their blog.
  4. The entire world will see your post, as far as you’re concerned. Check it for spelling and basic grammar before you click post.
  5. Be polite. While you may think this is a license to complain about the company or one of their products for the whole world to see, if you are rude and crass, your post is more likely to be deleted.

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?