Archive for the ‘Freelancing’ Category

Advanced Linux Course… In Chicago… In January!

Friday, January 9th, 2009

You heard it right, folks. I’ll be in lovely downtown Chicago for two weeks. Actually, I’m teaching 4 classes, each one consisting of a week’s worth of half-day sessions. 1 beginner course, two intermediate courses, and an advanced course. I’ll also be returning in February to do an intermediate and advanced course. This was the result of a successful full-week course I delivered in NYC that was 5 full days of advanced Linux training. Of course, what’s beginner and what’s advanced, I’ve learned, varies very widely among training clients. The beginner course I’m teaching next week is geared toward power users of other OSes, so I can assume a lot of basic high-level knowledge, while another beginner course I’m doing in Feb or March for a different client assumes that the user is not even very advanced at being a Windows end user!

What determines “advanced” is different too. Once you are “Advanced”, you can be advanced in different aspects and usage scenarios. The advanced course I’m teaching one client is dealing very heavily with two main areas: scripting/data munging, and system profiling and performance. An odd mix, but I do custom content development for on-site training clients, unless I have existing modules covering the topics they need, in which case they can pick and choose to put together their course, or have me query them for information and put together a proposed package.

There’s still one nagging issue with my Linux training handout. The content is good. I’ve gotten good feedback on it from some sharp people. However, I’m using OpenOffice to put it all together, and I’m having a bear of a time putting together a good index. My belief is that all indexes, for all books, are lacking, but this goes beyond that into “wtf?”-space. The main problem is that the index generating tool in OOo lets you say that this word should be matched on the “Whole word”, but that’s the exact opposite of what I need. What that feature does is it only puts a page listing in the index if the *entire word* exists on that page. What I need is an option that says something like “standalone”, where the page isn’t listed unless the word is surrounded by a word boundary on either side. You’d be shocked at how many everyday words contain standard Linux commands in them. “rm” and “ls” are particularly troublesome. Almost every page would be listed in the index! If anyone has tips on external tools or other OOo techniques, definitely leave links or comments!!

At some point, probably while I’m in Chicago holed up in a hotel, I’ll post the modules I have put together so far on the web site of my business that I perform training out of (I have a one-man LLC these days).

What do you find lacking/awesome in tech training classes?

Friday, December 19th, 2008

Dear lazyweb, 

Over the past year, I’ve spoken to a few clients about performing on-site training for their staff in things like Linux administration, SQL, PHP, etc. I’ve also gotten a few training contracts as a result, and those contracts have gone quite well, and I have some repeat business already! I really really enjoy that line of work (and my consulting work keeps my skillset sharp and insures I won’t get ‘stale’). 

What I think my current clients like is that they already know my work and are confident in my knowledge of the areas I’m training in, and they love that I’ll create custom content for them instead of having static, inflexible, prepackaged classes. 

Technical people, though, are extremely, excruciatingly scrutinizing, though. We’re a lot that likes to find problems with things, because we like to fix problems. We also (some of us, at least) believe that anything worth doing is worth doing right, and that’s my goal. So, although I’m also a part of that scrutinizing, problem-solving crowd, I’m also aware that I don’t have a monopoly on valuable opinions regarding how training is put together, delivered, etc. 

So, if you have had experiences, good or bad, with in-person training classes, or if something in one of those classes stood out to you, or something won’t leave your brain about your experience, I’d love to hear it!

What Ordinary Users Think About IE: Debunked

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

Point all of your chain-mail-forwarding family and friends at this post. It’s a collection of things people have said to me, or that I’ve overheard, that reveal little tidbits about what people are thinking when they use IE.

I have to use IE – it’s my internet!

IE is not your internet. IE is what’s known as a web browser. There are lots of different web browsers. IE just happens to be the one that comes with Windows. It doesn’t make it a good browser or anything. It’s just there in the event that you have no other browser. If the only browser on your system is IE, the first thing you should do is use it to download Firefox by clicking here.

If IE is so horrible, how come everyone uses it?

They don’t, actually. There was a time not too long ago where over 90% of internet users used IE. However, with the constant flood of security issues (IE usage really should be considered dangerous at this point), IE’s horrible support of web standards (which makes it hard for web developers to create cool sites for you to use), and its inability to keep up with really cool features in modern browsers, its share of the internet usage market has been declining steadily over the last couple of years. In fact, this source puts IE usage at around 45% currently, so not even a majority of people use IE anymore, if statistics are to be believed. Accurate statistics for browser use are difficult to nail down, and are probably more useful to discern a trend, not hard numbers. Still, the usage trend for IE is moving downward, steadily, and not particularly slowly. If you’re still using IE, you’re almost a dinosaur. Just about the entire tech-savvy world has migrated over to Firefox, with small contingents choosing Safari (Mac only) and Chrome (Windows only). Very small camps also use Opera and Konqueror.

This is also not to be trusted, but it’s my opinion based on observation of the IT field over the past 10 years: of the 40% of people still using IE, probably half of them are forced to use it in their offices because they don’t have the proper permissions on their office computers to install anything else. The other half probably just don’t realize they have any choice in the matter. You do. There are other browsers. I’ve named a few in this post. Go get one, or three, of them.

Will all of the sites I use still work?

It has always been exceedingly rare that a web site actually *requires* IE in order to work properly. Your online banking, email, video, pictures, shopping, etc., will all still work. The only time you might need IE around is to use the Microsoft Update website. In all likelihood, you’ll be much happier with your internet experience using something like Firefox than you ever were with IE. Think about it this way: I’m a complete geek. I use the internet for things ordinary users didn’t even know you could do. I bank, shop, communicate, manage projects, calendars and email, registered and run my business completely online. It’s difficult to think of a task that can be done on the internet that I don’t use the internet for, and I haven’t used IE in probably 8 years, and have not had any issues. If you find a web site that absolutely, positively CANNOT be used UNLESS you’re viewing it with IE, please post it in the comments, and I’ll create a “hall of shame” page to list them all, along with alternative sites you can access WITHOUT IE, which probably provide a better service anyway :)

I’m not technical enough to install another browser.

Who told you that?! That’s silly. You installed Elf Bowling didn’t you? C’mon, I know you did. Or what about that crazy toolbar that’s now fuddling up your IE window? Or those icons blinking down near the clock that you forgot the purpose of. At some point, you have installed something on your computer, and it was, in all likelihood, harder to do than installing Firefox would be. It’s simple. You go here, click on the huge Firefox logo, and it presents you with super-duper easy instructions (with pictures!) and a download. It takes less than 3 minutes to install, and you DO NOT have to know what you’re doing in any way or be geeky in any way to install it. If you can tell whether you’re computer is turned on or not, you’re overqualified to be a professional Firefox installer.

I Like IE. I have no problems with IE.

Whether you realize it or not, you have problems with IE, believe me. I had a cousin who said he had no problems with IE too. Then he came to my house one day, knocked on my door, and when I opened it, he handed me a hard drive from his computer. He said that all of his pictures of his first-born child were on there, and his computer had contracted a virus, and he couldn’t even boot from the hard drive. So it was up to me to recover the only pics he had of his only son being born. True story. Turns out, I tracked down the virus on the hard drive, and it was contracted by IE. Also, it wasn’t the only virus he had. If you think you’re safe because you have antivirus software, you’re sadly mistaken. He had it installed too, but it hadn’t been updated in 6 months, so any viruses released since the last update weren’t recognized by the antivirus software, and were allowed to roam freely onto his hard drive.

There has never, in the history of browsers, been a worse track record with regards to security than IE. Never. I promise – but you’re free to Google around for yourself. Half of the reason antivirus software even exists is purely to protect IE users (though email viruses are a problem independent of what browser you use, admittedly).

The other reason you might say you like IE is because you’ve never used anything else. As an alternative, I strongly suggest giving Firefox a shot.

Why do you care what browser I use?

I’m a technology guy. I’m one of those people that would work with technology even if he wasn’t being paid. Some people care about cooking, or quilting, or stained glass, or candlemaking, or knitting, or sewing, or horticulture, or wine. Heck, my mom cares about every single one of those things! Me, I care about technology, and I care about the internet. I want the internet to be a better place. Browsers play a non-trivial role in making the internet a better place. Also, one reason I care about technology is that it helps people do things they might otherwise be unable to do. Browsers enable users to do great things, and it allows us developers to make great things available to you. But when countless hours are spent trying to make things work with IE, it just slows everything down, and you don’t get cool stuff on the internet nearly as fast as you could.

So, it’s less about me caring what browser you use. In fact, I don’t really care if you use Firefox or not, it just happens to be the best browser out there currently. If you want to try something completely different, I encourage that too. It’s more about me caring about technology, the internet, and your browsing experience.

Open Source Technology US Conference Calendar

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

One of the best ways to keep up with your field and network at the same time is to attend conferences. It’s one of the things I look forward to every year. After learning that O’Reilly has decided to commit blasphemy and *not* hold OSCON in Portland, Oregon the same week as the Oregon Brewers Festival, I was inspired to look around at what other conferences I might attend in 2009. Turns out, this is a huge pain in the ass, because I can’t find a single, central place that lists all of the conferences I’m likely to be interested in.

So… I created a public Google Calendar. It’s called “US Technical Conferences”. It needs more conferences, but I’ve listed the interesting ones I found. In order to keep the calendar from getting overwhelmingly crowded, I’ve decided that conferences on the list should:

  • Deal with open source technology in some way. This is purposely broad.
  • Be at least 3 days in length

If you want something added to the calendar, I’d be delighted to know about more conferences, so leave a comment! If you want to subscribe to the calendar, it’s public – the xml feed is here, and ical is here.

How Are You Staffing Your Startup?

Monday, December 15th, 2008

I have, in the past, worked for startups of varying forms. I worked for a spinoff that ultimately failed but had the most awesome product I’ve ever seen (neural networks were involved, need I say more?), I helped a buddy very early on with his startup, which did great until angel investors crept in, destroyed his vision, and failed completely to understand the Long Tail vision my buddy was trying to achieve, and I worked for a web 2.0 startup which was pretty successful, and was subsequently purchased… by another startup!

Working in academia for 6 years also exposed me to people who are firing up businesses, or projects that accidentally become businesses, and some of those go nowhere, while others seem to be on the verge of NYSE listing now, while a year ago they were housed in the smallest office I’ve ever seen, using lawn furniture for their workstations.

Of course, I’ve also consulted for, and been interviewed by, a host of other startups – recently, even.

First, the bad news

The bad news is that most or all of these startups are headed by developers, and they have applied *only* dev-centric thinking to their startup. They’ve thought about how to solve all of the app-level issues, mapped out use cases, drawn up interfaces, hacked together prototypes, and done all kinds of app-level work. Then, they’ve hired more developers. Then more after that.

Some seem to have given almost zero consideration to the fact that their application might become successful, and its availability might become quite critical. They haven’t given much thought to things like backups or disaster recovery. They have no plan for how to deploy their application such that when it comes time to scale, it has some hope of doing so without large amounts of downtime, or huge retooling efforts.

They’ve also given very little thought to how to enable their workforce to communicate, access their applications and data remotely without huge security compromises, and generally provide the back end system services necessary to run a business effectively (though, admittedly, most startups don’t require much in the way of things like NFS, or even internally-hosted email in the very beginning).

In short, they’ve either assumed that systems folks’ jobs are so easy that it can be handled by the developers, or they think that scalability lives entirely in their code, or they’re just not thinking about system-level aspects of their application at all. And don’t even get me started about the databases I’ve seen.

I know of more than one startup, right now, months late in going live. None of them, at the time I spoke to them, had a systems person on staff, or a deployment plan that addressed things that a systems person would address. What they had was a lot of developers and a deadline. Epic fail.Yes, even if you use agile development methodologies.

The Good

The good news is that, while some companies hire no systems folks at all and flounder around system-related issues forever, others hire at least one or two good systems folks, and make them a part of a collaborative effort to solve systems problems in interesting ways, utilizing the knowledge and experience of both systems and development personnel to create truly unique solutions. When sysadmins and developers collaborate to solve these issues, I have learned that they can create things that will blow your mind (in a good way).

In fact, Tom Limoncelli wrote recently that systems administration needs more PhDs. Well, I suppose that would help, but I think we’d get really far, really fast, if we could just break down some of the walls between sysadmins and developers, give them a common goal, and let them hash it out. Sysadmins have an understanding of the system and network-related issues that developers aren’t likely to have. Developers, in most cases, can probably write better code, much more quickly, than a sysadmin. Developers and sysadmins working together, sharing their knowledge and communicating with each other, can solve systems problems in new, unique, creative, and very effective ways.

The End

In the end, issues facing startups now blur the line between development and system administration a bit more than in the past. There are problems that need solving for which there is no RPM or Deb package. These problems require some knowledge of how related or analogous problems have been solved in the past. A knowledge of the systems and development approaches that have worked, and why. Enough experience to have seen where and when things go bad, and why. It also requires creative and critical thinking. I think that good, senior systems and development people have these skills, and much more.

For whatever reason, it seems that the only time these two camps ever meet is on opposite sides of a deployment or application support problem. Perhaps this happens with enough frequency for people to think that the two camps can’t, or won’t, work together. They can, and they will. People with a love for technology will come together if the common goal involves furthering technology and its use, regardless of their background. Sure, it takes proper management like any other project, but it can be done.

If you’ve had experiences, good or bad, with dev/sysadmin collaboration, I’d love to hear your stories!

Drupal 6.x Themeing Tips

Monday, December 8th, 2008

I’ve done some theme customization for Drupal, and I’ve used drupal as “just a user” for years. Recently, I took on a project to take a designer’s theme and make it work with Drupal. I’m pleased to say that, minus a couple of little quirks, it’s been relatively simple. Here are a couple of tips for those starting out:

  • Use CSS for the main layout. If you must use tables for some small part to get it just right, fine — but the high-level layout should be CSS. There are a million reasons for doing this that have nothing to do with drupal, but in addition, the way drupal manages the pieces that it manages (like menus and blocks created in the admin interface) encourages CSS use.
  • Don’t hard code anything that you don’t have to. Use the ‘base_path()’ and ‘path_to_theme()’ functions in page.tpl.php so that if you decide to base another theme off of this one by making a copy of the theme directory, it’ll ‘just work’, instead of having to go through and change every reference to every ‘img src’ in all of your files.
  • Get to know Drupal. You might be thinking you have a div that’s being hidden or isn’t showing up at all. In reality, it might be that you have a drupal block that your current login has no permissions to use, or a menu item that doesn’t apply to the current login, in which case it won’t show up in the menu listing. Also, you might have drupal’s caching enabled, which it shouldn’t be if you’re building a theme or doing development in general. To turn off caching, go to Admin->Site Configuration->Performance, disable caching, and then click on the ‘clear cache’ button.
  • Also under ‘get to know drupal': depending on where your images are referenced, you need to use different paths. So, if your images are all in a directory under your theme dir called ‘images’, then images referenced in page.tpl.php need to be relative to the drupal top-level directory (so, ‘/sites/all/themes/<theme>/images/<imgfile>’). But in styles.css, you can use a directory relative to the styles.css file (so, ‘/images/<imgfile>’). I’m not 100% sure what the difference is, but presumably page.tpl.php gets ‘include’d into the main PHPTemplate theme engine code, which is somewhere else under the drupal top-level dir, which is why you need the full path. Correct me or clarify this in the comments if you know for sure.
  • Try to make time to learn about the Advanced Theme Creation Kit and/or Zen, which might make theme creation much simpler and faster. I did mine from scratch, and it’s ok, but if I had the time I’d rather learn to make use of these tools.
  • Pick up Drupal 6 Themes from Packt Publishing. It’s a great resource for learning this stuff, in spite of the absolutely awful code formatting in places, and some minor-but-annoying errors. Get it anyway. The conceptual parts of the text are fantastic, and the errors aren’t insurmountable. You can download a PDF eBook (with copy/paste enabled!) at the Packt website.
  • Use the CSS reference at w3schools.

Some general development practices can’t hurt either. Use some kind of version control for your theme, like SVN, CVS, Mercurial, Bazaar, git, or whatever. This will make it easy to revert to earlier copies of your work if you blow things up, and if you can host the SVN service somewhere that’s not on your development machine, it can also serve as a backup (though you should be backing up your machines anyway).

If you have other tips, leave a comment!

Linux on Laptop = Epic Fail

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

I brought my MacBook Pro in for a warranty repair yesterday around noon. Since then I’ve been using a Lenovo T61 to get basic work done, and also to see if any progress has been made in the area of Linux support for my laptop. I bought this laptop specifically because a website said that it was very well supported by Linux distributions “out of the box”, including video and wireless. I was sure to make hardware choices that didn’t require special third-party drivers… I’ve been doing this for 10 years, so I have some understanding of how to buy a laptop that I plan to put Linux on. Well, this time I apparently failed.

First, I had Ubuntu installed, and I was never able to keep the wireless card working consistently. To be honest, Ubuntu is the best distro I’ve had on this thing so far. Next, I gave OpenSUSE 11 a shot, and there’s been no end to the issues. Of course, it started with the wireless card. I have an Intel 3945ABG wireless card, according to lspci and dmesg output. In fact, here’s my lspci output right here:

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Mobile PM965/GM965/GL960 Memory Controller Hub (rev 0c)
00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation Mobile GM965/GL960 Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 0c)
00:02.1 Display controller: Intel Corporation Mobile GM965/GL960 Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 0c)
00:19.0 Ethernet controller: Intel Corporation 82566MM Gigabit Network Connection (rev 03)
00:1a.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #4 (rev 03)
00:1a.1 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #5 (rev 03)
00:1a.7 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB2 EHCI Controller #2 (rev 03)
00:1b.0 Audio device: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) HD Audio Controller (rev 03)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 1 (rev 03)
00:1c.1 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 2 (rev 03)
00:1c.2 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 3 (rev 03)
00:1c.3 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 4 (rev 03)
00:1c.4 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 5 (rev 03)
00:1d.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #1 (rev 03)
00:1d.1 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #2 (rev 03)
00:1d.2 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #3 (rev 03)
00:1d.7 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB2 EHCI Controller #1 (rev 03)
00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev f3)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation 82801HBM (ICH8M-E) LPC Interface Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.1 IDE interface: Intel Corporation 82801HBM/HEM (ICH8M/ICH8M-E) IDE Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.2 SATA controller: Intel Corporation 82801HBM/HEM (ICH8M/ICH8M-E) SATA AHCI Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) SMBus Controller (rev 03)
03:00.0 Network controller: Intel Corporation PRO/Wireless 3945ABG Network Connection (rev 02)
15:00.0 CardBus bridge: Ricoh Co Ltd RL5c476 II (rev ba)
15:00.1 FireWire (IEEE 1394): Ricoh Co Ltd R5C832 IEEE 1394 Controller (rev 04)
15:00.2 SD Host controller: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C822 SD/SDIO/MMC/MS/MSPro Host Adapter (rev 21)
15:00.3 System peripheral: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C843 MMC Host Controller (rev ff)
15:00.4 System peripheral: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C592 Memory Stick Bus Host Adapter (rev 11)
15:00.5 System peripheral: Ricoh Co Ltd xD-Picture Card Controller (rev 11)

I’m running the KDE4 desktop, and tried using the default NetworkManager icon that’s in the systray to get things working. From what I saw there, it appeared that my card wasn’t scanning. I put in my network details manually, and tried to connect, and it failed with no errors. In the NetworkManager log there was lots of output, but nothing particularly useful. It just said the association took to long and that it was now marking that connection as ‘invalid’. Great. So here I am, trying to use Linux on the desktop, and only 5 minutes after the very first system boot, I’m tailing log files and debugging, and basically playing sysadmin, which is exactly what I don’t want to be doing on my desktop system. Restart NetworkManager, see what dhclient is doing, reboot, check /etc/modprobe.d, lsmod…. fail. Now what?

Well, I opened kwifimanager, and it said that I had indeed associated with an access point. So… I *am* scanning? Hmm. I had no IP address, so I figured I had probably fat-fingered my WEP settings somewhere. Tailing /var/log/messages agrees, saying WEP decryption is failing. So I double-check everything, all looks normal and correct to me, I try again, and No Bueno. *sigh*.

Finally, I reverted to command-line tactics, and ran this little line:

iwconfig wlan0 essid <myssid> key <mykey>

Magically, it works, where all of the GUI nonsense had failed. Now here’s a question: how the hell do you get this to “just work” at boot time? Well, I had about 10 emails to send to clients, so I put that question off and fired up a browser and…. fail. WTF?

I had an IP address, pinged my router, pinged another host on the network, all good. Pinged an external IP I know by heart, fail. Ugh. Ran ‘cat /etc/resolv.conf’ — empty. Apparently, dhclient didn’t update the information it got from my router. It also didn’t update when I set the domain in NetworkManager to ‘home’, because it still said ‘search site’. I added the proper lines in there, and tried again in the browser… fail. Now what?!?

Ran ‘netstat -rn’. I don’t have a default gateway. *sigh*…

route add default gw 192.168.1.1

And I finally have internet access.

Of course, I can’t work 24 hours a day, so I went to bed, and left my laptop running so I could get right back to work in the morning. Or not.

I had foolishly chosen to use an OpenGL screensaver. Overnight, it completely locked up the machine, rendering it useless without forcibly rebooting it. So much for getting right back to work.

Well, let’s see if I can get some of these issues fixed by updating the software, since I’m now at least connected to the internet (of course, after the forced reboot, I had to do the iwconfig->route add routine again). Ran the updater, picked some extra repositories, and it goes off to set things up. Unfortunately, it also prompts me to import probably 50 or so GPG keys. Annoying. More annoying is, after all of that, it fails to update any of my software, even though it tells me there are updates available. Why you ask? Here’s what I got…

Failed to mount cd:///?devices=/dev/sr0 on /var/adm/mount/AP_0x00000001: No medium found (mount: No medium found)

Click ok. Get same error again. Click ok. Get slightly different error…

Unexpected exception. Failed to mount cd:///?devices=/dev/sr0 on /var/adm/mount/AP_0x00000001: No medium found (mount: No medium found)

Click Ok, get another message…

Please file a bug report about this. See http://en.opensuse.org/Zypper#Troubleshooting for instructions.

I go there, the URL isn’t valid. I find the Troubleshooting page on my own, and there’s a bunch of generic troubleshooting information there. More command line sysadmin-ish stuff in there. Just the kind of stuff I don’t need to be spending otherwise billable time on. I give up and decide that I’ll just deal with it in its broken-ass state for the next 10 hours or so until I can get my beloved MacBook Pro back.

On Remote Workers and Working Remotely

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

I’ve been on both sides of the remote worker relationship. On the manager side, I’ve managed some good-sized projects using an all-remote work force. Indeed, I’ve hired, managed, fired, and promoted workers without ever knowing what they look like. On the worker side, I do most of my work remotely, and I have for some time now. Judging by the amount of repeat business I get, I’d say that I’m more than acceptably productive working remotely.

In dealing with various clients, recruiters, prospective employers, business owners, and talking to friends who manage people for a living, I’ve heard pretty much every excuse/reason there is for not wanting to deal with a remote work force. I’ve heard and experienced successes with remote workers as well, and they all have a few key things in common, which are missing from the stories of failure. I’ll talk about them in a minute.

I first want to just say that I’m not some kind of fanboy who thinks remote workers are the answer to every problem. There are valid reasons for not having remote workers. For example, it’d be hard to build cars with a remote work force. Some things (some!) just require a physical presence. Whoever maintains the printers at your company really has to be around to change out ink cartridges and stuff like that.

There are certain classes of jobs, though, that are well-suited to working remotely. There are even classes of jobs that are necessarily performed remotely to some degree (field sales and support technicians for example), that could be made 100% remote with the proper tools and processes in place.

So what makes a remote worker success story different from a story of failure?

Always be prepared…

The number one difference I’ve seen between success and failure in managing a remote work force is that  successful managers spent the time to prepare the managers, the team, the department, the organization, and the remote workers themselves to work remotely.

If you don’t prepare for a remote work force, you will fail miserably. As a result, I’m a big advocate of treating “Let’s go remote!” as an internal project with goals and milestones just like any other project. Preparing an organization to manage a remote work force takes a good deal of forethought, with a focus on communication and collaboration tools, reporting, accountability, scheduling, etc. In addition, you have to prepare the remote workers themselves, to insure they know what’s expected of them in terms of reporting their status, scheduling, communication, etc. They also need to know *about*, and *how to use* the tools they’ll be expected to use from home.

You have to plan this. You have to prepare, or you’re going to be like the HR manager who told me their company no longer allows for remote workers because “we tried it once and the guy made a complete mess of things”. When I asked the HR manager why he attributed that to the geographic location of the worker, he said “good point, he could just as well have made a mess here in the office”. You need good workers no matter where they’re going to work. The workers need expectations and goals from the manager, and the manager needs feedback and communication (and results!) from the worker. Tools help to facilitate these things. This is already a long post, so I’ll probably make a tools list in another post.

Communicate, and set expectations

Before the tools come other higher-level decisions and communication. For example, one problem I’ve heard more than once about remote workers is “we can’t hire a remote worker full-time, because then everyone will want to work from home”. As if they didn’t already all want to work from home! Everyone would love to have the option! Even if they didn’t take advantage of it, they’d consider it a really cool perk! They’d tell all of their friends about it, because it would make them jealous, and guess who their friends will contact first when they start to look for other opportunities?

You have to start somewhere, and you can’t just swing the barn doors open and let everyone go their own way on day 1. If you have an existing corporate structure in place with assets and services and regular meetings and the like, then you have to decide who can make the most benefit from a remote situation the soonest, make them the pilot group, and manage the expectations of the rest of the organization while the pilot group prepares to move to a remote workspace.

1, 10, 100, 1000

A common software application rollout strategy is to make it accessible to 1 user, then 10, then 100, then 1000, then… move up from there. In preparing your organization or department, you might consider a similar strategy.

I work for a client right now where I’m the “1”. If I can work effectively with the rest of the team (in the office), if I can produce results, remain accessible as-needed during working hours, manage the expectations of my team with regards to my presence (appointments happen), and overall be an asset to the team, then the management may decide that it can work on some larger scale – even if ‘larger’ means 2 instead of 1. It might also be useful to do a ‘remote rotation’ so that glitches can be caught early before making a physical presence in the office optional.

Success, of course, means getting together with the team and figuring out what tools will be used to best emulate an office working environment. We use IRC for 99% of our communication, falling back to email when we need to cc managers, we have a wiki for documentation and status updates, we have a trouble ticket system, everyone has everyone else’s phone number, blackberry PIN, or whatever. We’re a technical group doing system administration. It’s working wonderfully.

“But if the sysadmins work from home, the developers will want to work from home!” Maybe so. That’s where you have to manage expectations, and communicate with your workers to let them know that the company’s ‘office optional’ project is in an early alpha stage, that it’s being tested on the group most familiar with the technologies involved, and most capable of exploiting those technologies successfully to produce results. Once the geeks work out the shortcomings, and management is able to evaluate the effectiveness of the plan, the tests will become more widespread.

Really, it’s not a whole lot different from doing anything else that affects the whole company: changing payroll providers, healthcare options, software and desktop hardware upgrades and replacements… it just takes communication. The process has to be managed, just like every other process.

There’s more than one way to do it!

There’s no one solution out there. When I joined php|architect Magazine in 2003, it was run by Marco Tabini, and I was a remote editor. A couple of months after joining, I became editor in chief, and was in charge of remotely managing the magazine. I did it differently from Marco, but he still remained involved and engaged through good communication.

Python Magazine was created and managed by me, and for the entire lifespan of the magazine, I have not seen anyone else involved in its production in person. Ever. Design, production, web site admin, executive administration, tech editors, authors, accountants… time lines, budgets and planning documents… all remote, and mostly delegated. I started the magazine with the thought that at some point someone more engaged in the community and with Python should take charge — I was just a “temp” to get the vision off the ground. Sure enough, when I handed the magazine over to Doug Hellmann, he did things differently from me, and it’s working out wonderfully for him as well!

Everyone has their own management style. Don’t think that just because your management style is a little unique you can’t handle remote workers. Good managers are creative, and aren’t afraid to execute on creative solutions.

Freelancing: What’s working, what isn’t

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

So, I’ve been a full-time freelance consultant now for almost 3 months, and I’m happy to say that business is going well so far. I’ll be coming off of a 3-month contract at the end of this month, and I’ve already had some success in building the business in that time. I’ve also had a really important “lesson learned”. I have clients and projects to carry me through the next few months, and a few contracts that are still “pending”. Here’s a list of things that are working, and a couple that aren’t:

What’s working…

  • Face time: Being able to meet people one-on-one has been invaluable in ways I hadn’t even imagined. I spend all kinds of time in front of a computer, answering emails and such. The conversations are very different when you can hear a voice, read body language, and make a personal connection with people. They feel more comfortable with me, and I feel more comfortable with them as well.
  • FreshBooks: I tested out 3 or 4 different systems for invoicing, time tracking, estimates, and the like, and I settled on FreshBooks, and I’m very happy with it. It’s not the most AJAX-y slicker-than-snot-on-a-doorknob web2.0 gooey application on the planet, but it’s quite mature, well-supported, bug free so far, and it helps me maintain a professional image *and* track sent/paid invoices. It admits defeat in certain areas, like project collaboration, but for things outside of its core competency, it integrates with existing tools like BaseCamp.
  • Google Apps for Your Domain: I got my business “brochure” web site up and running in no time (though I really want to create a new one with more features, probably using Django). With the domain registration and web site out of the way, the next thing to do was set up email. I’ve deployed Google Apps before, and was surprised at how much I used features I didn’t put much value in at first. Long story short, it took me less than an hour to set up Google Apps, change my DNS records, set up the SPF record, and verify to Google that I owned the domain. After that, everything ‘just worked’.
  • Networking: Almost 100% of my income can be traced to a friend, associate, someone I’ve helped in some way, or a former employer. I read a blog post once that networking doesn’t make that big of a difference. Turns out it was written by someone who hit a dry spell, and then tried to dive into networking, as if it were some kind of quick fix. Don’t do that. Don’t network because you have to. Don’t network as an “angle” to get more business. I’ve done the exact opposite: instead of consulting and then networking to help my business, I have *always* networked, and the friends I’ve made by just being social and being involved in things that interest me gave me a lot of encouragement to “go solo”.
  • Digital Ubiquity: I have accounts on LinkedIn, facebook, twitter, brightkite, yelp, guru, myspace, and jaiku. I’m a regular on probably 10-12 different IRC channels. I’m on several different mailing lists at any given point in time. I write on my blog here, which is syndicated in a few places, and I write for other sites and publications as well. I make an effort to contribute code to the projects I use, or otherwise release code I write in the course of doing my work, either on my blog, my old web site (well, it’s still mine, but it’s old), or on a project hosting site. The income I have which is not traceable to someone I know is traceable to one of these online presences. One client found me because he was looking for a local presence that could complement his business, so he found me on Guru.com by searching for people in his area. That’s actually the only good Guru has ever really done me, to be honest, but it was worth it! Others have found me on O’Reilly, Linux.com, or my blog.

What’s Not Working…

  • Trying to be a bargain: I have a client who is also someone I consider a friend. A long time ago he told me to give him a rate that is low enough that I could make money, but they could get some of their mounting projects done. I gave them a really low rate, and you know what? It turned out to be a complete disservice to him. I didn’t do him any favors at all. By giving him a steeply discounted rate, I was basically forced to turn down all of his projects because even contracts that came in that were relatively cheap were still paying quite a lot more than I was charging him. I wound up with enough work that I could no longer justify doing work at the lower rate. In a way, it’s good news for me, but it’s bad news for my friend, and it wasn’t intentional at all.
  • Working at “hotspots”: I have a great working environment at home, but occasionally I used to try to work outside the house for a change of scenery. It was a bust. Panera would be great, except that they only allow 30 minutes of internet access between 11am and 1:30pm. I can’t be disconnected for that long, so if I go there, it’s at 7:30am, I have breakfast there, and then I’m cut off at 11:30. At that point, I leave. I’m not going to eat lunch for 2 hours, and I’m not going to kill time waiting for the ‘net to come back. Border’s isn’t bad as a working environment, but they charge a lot for ‘net access, and the food there has never been anything short of horrid. Other places are further away, or are too loud, or don’t have enough power outlets, or…. whatever. I haven’t found a reliable spot yet. I’ll let you know if I do.
  • Recruiters: In the past few months, I’ve received *AT LEAST* 100 “opportunities” from recruiters. Useless. They fail to read even the first sentence on my CV or profile. I’m a hands-on system/db admin and trainer and project manager in NJ. They’re contacting me for 6 month senior java developer positions in Massachussetts. No, I’m not kidding. I have not only not received a suitable opportunity from a recruiter, I haven’t even seen a single one that was in the ballpark enough to respond to. The problem with recruiters is that it’s all automated, and the automation systems SUCK. As a result, they end up becoming what amounts to a spam shop: they fire off 5000 emails to fill one position in the hopes that 5 people respond.

What’s working for you? What’s gone horribly wrong?