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Job Satisfaction (and openings at SynthaSite)

Last year, I was talking to a friend of mine who was in his first job after university, and was really not enjoying it. His company managed him badly, making him spend time on pointless activities and downplaying his real skills, and he felt like going to work was having no real effect on anything. He sent me a link to this video - a clip of an aquarium trainer and a walrus dancing together to Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal - and he said: I want to enjoy my job like she enjoys hers. That in itself is fine, but what he said after that was not. He asked me if I thought it was possible that he would ever have a job that he enjoyed like that. He wasn't even sure that that sort of job existed. Do other people have fun at other companies?

A while back, I wrote a long post about implementing ideas, but there was one thing I said in there that I think is worth repeating. If your job is your only source of income, you will start to consider it essential to your survival, and you will be less and less inclined to consider leaving it. You become tied to your job, no matter how unpleasant it becomes, and you start accepting more downsides because you feel that nothing would be as bad as being left out in the cold.

In this post, I want to say two things. Firstly, if your job sucks, leave it. You will find another one. If you don't find one immediately, you won't die - something will turn up in the end. And who knows, it may actually turn out that being truly adrift might make you realise what you actually want to be doing with yourself. But I promise you, nothing that happens to you will be worse than the soul-destroying grind that is going in to an unrewarding job where you feel you are making no difference, where you just take the corporate shafting without complaint, because you're worried about not getting a paycheque.

The second thing I want to say is to my friend from the first paragraph. Yes, there are jobs that are genuinely enjoyable.

  • It is possible to have a job which you look forward to going to in the morning, and which leaves you satisfied that you are getting real stuff done, and making a real difference.
  • There are companies that listen to their employees, where everybody can actually make a difference and be heard if they have an opinion, or want to be part of the process.
  • There are bosses that guide you to work more productively on tasks that are suited to your abilities, instead of "managing" you as a "resource" that can be applied to some situation in the hopes that it will go away.
  • There are companies whose management realise that the small cost of keeping you happy, and making your work environment a pleasant place to spend time, is more than made up for by the enthusiasm you have for the products and work which you do, and that you will be more productive and a better employee as a result.

On a completely unrelated note, there are some openings available at SynthaSite, where I work. The one which I want to talk about is the Systems and Service Engineer position. This is actually the position I currently fill at SynthaSite - they liked me so much that they're hiring two more just like me. The job-spec linked above actually describes the position quite well, and Neil also describes it pretty well, so I won't try to outdo either of them. Suffice it to say that I have never enjoyed my job more, the work is exciting, and the problems are always changing and interesting. Finally, I think one of the most attractive things about working for SynthaSite for me is that it truly fits into the "world wide" part of the web. This is not a small company that is only relevant to one part of the world. We have a global userbase, and even our offices stretch 16000km across borders. Not a month ago I got back from visiting our San Francisco offices - something that we, as employees, will have the opportunity to do once a year. This new, global perspective on things is really exciting to me in a way I find it hard to convey.

To conclude, if you're interested and fit our requirements, please: send your CV to careers@synthasite.com (with a cover-letter telling us why you think you're good for the job). We'd love to hear from you.

Ideas

Brain Crack

About a month ago, the excellent Avery Edison linked to an episode of the show by Ze Frank, which had quite a large impact on me:

I have transcribed the relevant bit below for your reading pleasure:

I run out of ideas every day. Each day I live in mortal fear that I've used up the last idea that'll ever come to me. If you don't want to run out of ideas, the best thing to do is not to execute them. You can tell yourself that you don’t have the time or resources to do 'em right. Then they stay around in your head like brain crack. No matter how bad things get, at least you have those good ideas - that you'll get to later. Some people get addicted to that brain crack, and the longer they wait, the more they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should be executed, and they imagine it on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals, and everyone's clapping - for them! But the bummer is, most ideas kinda suck when you do 'em, and no matter how much you plan, you still have to do something for the first time, and you're almost guaranteed the first time you do something, it'll blow. But somebody who does something bad three times still has three times the experience of that other person, who's still dreaming of all the applause. When I get an idea, even a bad one, I try to get it out into the world as fast as possible, because I certainly don't want to be addicted to brain crack.

Dividing people up

The thing is, there are two factors involved - knowing how to do stuff, and doing stuff - and there are four combinations of these two factors. We can all agree that people that neither know how to do anything, nor actually do anything, are not especially useful. Additionally, we can agree that people that have both the knowledge/skill to do stuff, and actually go out and do it, are especially useful. However, the contention comes in when you look at the other two categories of people: people who have the knowledge/skill but don't use it, and people who aren't especially talented or clued up, but still try and do things (badly or not as the case may be).

I think that most people, whether they realise it or not, would consider the talented/intelligent individuals to be "better" (or "more useful"?) than the people that try (possibly unsuccessfully) to do things without having the actual talent to back it up - even though the talented ones don't actually really use their talent for anything "extra", other than getting a job and that sort of thing. I'm finding it difficult to explain this without sounding insulting or condescending, but it's fairly common to hear some very snide remarks about a website that somebody has tried to put together amateurishly, or an implementation of some service which just doesn't work too well. There seems to be a natural bias towards the talented, without regard to what is actually getting done.

Well, I disagree.

It seems like an obvious thing to say, but I don't think people have internalised the full implications: doing something, whether you're good at it, or successful at it, or not, is better than knowing how to do it and never bothering.

Using ideas

Perhaps geeks tend not to implement their ideas because once they work out how to solve a problem, it's not interesting any more. This is understandable, if regrettable. Whether or not this is the case, though, I think that a much more common reason for never implementing an idea is that you think it won't work, or won't work properly, or isn't worth trying. This sort of thing has been said so often that it's almost a cliche, but people still don't seem to believe it: just do something, and it may work.

A lovely example of a good idea that you'd never believe would work is the zipper machine:

zipper machine

As the article says:

I have to imagine the person that first proposed creating this device was thought to be crazy. I suppose they had to fight their way through nay-sayers in their company until someone believed them. However, now that the machine exists it just seems like a natural thing to do.
Every time I see this machine I think it makes a great analogy for IT projects. The more audacious an IT project is, the more crazy it looks. After it is complete and people are benefitting from it everyone thinks it is obvious.

What about closer to home? As Alastair Pott says in the about page of DoStuffCT:

While hiking on Table Mountain I found myself wishing that I knew more of the many available hikes. I realised that a site where users can easily contribute to a collection of activities in Cape Town would be perfect. A Wikipedia of things to do in Cape Town.
I hacked together a quick prototype and the whole idea has developed into something of a hobby for me. I knew that I was onto something useful when I found myself using the site from my mobile phone to get restaurant details. It is my hope that others will discover the site, and that together we can create a useful and complete resource for those looking to enjoy our wonderful city.

This is exactly what I am talking about. Al thought "hmm, that could be cool", and he did it, and now it's one of my favourite sites. A slightly less successful example is Jonathan Endersby's new site, HalfPriceTuesdays. It died in its first incarnation, but he revived it, and it's in private alpha now, so hopefully we'll see it taking off like DoStuffCT.

The ideas behind these two sites are not unique. There are tons of ideas out there, and I bet that you had one just the other day. Just in the course of discussing what I'm saying in this post with some friends, two new ideas got brought up simply as examples to back up the discussion:

  • Find-A-Maid.com - you're in Vredehoek, you need a maid who can work on Friday mornings and is good with children. It's a known problem, and it can be solved. The implementation may need tweaking to be a viable solution (problem: maids don't have broadband, madams do), but it's there.
  • HoldMeAccountable.com - When I say I'm going to do something (implement an idea, write a blog post, fix my car), you can put it on this site, I'll confirm it, and if I don't do it by the deadline, I'm named and shamed. I'd use this.

They may not be great ideas, they may not work, but they are ideas.

And here's the nub:

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
--Linus Pauling

Ratios of success

My boss, Vinny Lingham is involved in the venture capital landscape, and he recently gave a talk on investing in startups (which are essentially "people implementing ideas"). As confirmed by the maths here, Vinny said that in order to be successful, a venture capitalist needs about a third of his ventures to succeed, and a third to break even (i.e. make their money back). That's not impossible, but it's a risk that a VC has to take.

However, I am not talking about VCs. I'm talking about you. You don't have that one-third burden on your ideas. Because, no matter how many ideas you implement, you only need one to succeed. If you try six things, and one becomes a success, you've won. If you try twenty things, and only one becomes a success, you've still won. And, of course, the more things you try, the more likely it is that some, or any, of them will succeed. There's, like, no excuse not to!

While you were sleeping

Another thing Vinny went over in his talk was his big idea of "making money while you sleep". This brings us back to the distinction I made earlier between the knowers and the doers. If you're very knowledgeable or skillful, you can make a lot of money by selling your knowledge or skill. You can freelance, or contract yourself out, or even get a permanent position, and the harder you work, the more money you'll get, because you've got the skill and the knowledge to make it happen. But to be really successful, you've got to work really hard. There's a direct correlation between the time you spend and the amount you get back. And that's all well and good, but there's only so much time you have. It's much more efficient (and pleasant) to make money while you sleep. If you implement an idea, and it works, and becomes successful, then you can sit back and let it work for you, and bring in the money for you. Or, better, you can start on another idea, and hope that that one works, too. If, instead of just "being good", you actually produce something that is out there and tangible, separate from yourself, the correlation between your time/energy and the amount you get back no longer exists.

My friend Dom makes an important point about this: if you are only making money from your job, you start to rely on your job. You get tied down, and start accepting more downsides and problems, because you worry that if you don't, you'll lose your job, and have no income. You need to be earning things on the side in order to be free enough to put your foot down when your job becomes intolerable. You may be lucky enough or skilled enough to walk straight into another job, but... you know... you may not.

And now, to my final point.

Cape Town

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor's research findings over the past five years show that the percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 64 in Cape Town who pursue new business are 190% above the national average.
In Johannesburg, it is only 60% above the national average.
But only 5% of new entrepreneurs in Cape Town and only 6% in Johannesburg make use of the latest technology in their businesses.
Only 15% of new entrepreneurs in Cape Town expect to have more than ten employees in five years' time.

We are in the most entrepreneurial city in the country. It has been referred to as the next Silicon Valley. Not only that, but we, as geeks, are also capable of making use of "the latest technology". We're perfectly positioned to take our ideas and make them work (if we have the confidence to "expect to have more than ten employees in five years' time"). I know that a lot of the people reading this have already been nagged by me: this post has been burning a hole in my brain for a month (I'm only publishing it now because I'm presenting this exact material at the GeekDinner tonight). But even if I have already said it to you, it's time to actually do something about it.

Conclusion

So, from now on, some rules:

  • Don't say "I will [ later ]"
  • Don't say you don't have enough time: you're lying
  • Don't expect it to be perfect (or even to work) at first
  • Don't over design

I know I'm the worst of the lot, and let this blog post hold me accountable if I haven't started doing things in six months.

Doing the Cape - Reprise

Recently, a friend of mine told me that he and a friend wanted "something nice" to do on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Cape Town. My response was (transcribed):

Beer in the sun? Or, wait, there's an awesome italian ice-cream shop in Hout Bay, on your right, just before you round the corner that takes you to Chapman's Peak. Drive the long way round though - along the coast as much as possible. I'm not sure that Chapman's Peak drive is open now, but if it is, that would be a win, and it would take you down past Cape Point, and then you can stop in Simonstown and visit Just Nuisance. Then you could go to the jetty in Kalk Bay, then take the Muizenberg Coastal Road, along, ending up in Stellenbosch for supper. You should've started this two hours ago. I think Chapman's Peak drive is closed, actually, but you could still take Ou Kaapse Weg, which cuts across the lower cape, and bypasses going all the way round on Chapman's Peak. You could also go up northish, to Blaauwberg, and walk along the beach there. Go to Blue Peter and have a cocktail while sitting on the grass out front, although that'll probably be a bit crowded. Or go straight out to Stellenbosch, pick up some olives and cheese from the Spar, and go sit on the university lawns and eat them in the sun. Or go up to Rhodes Memorial and have hot chocolate at the cafe. You live in the most beautiful city in Africa, and you come online to ask what to do on a day like this?!
My point was that there are endless things to do in this amazing city. I've said it before, and I'll say it again.

I recently discovered Do Stuff in Cape Town - an awesome site that lets people add activities, tag them, rate them, add photographs and descriptions, and allows you to search for things by a number of criteria. My friend Megan tried to find a similar site for Johannesburg, and did in fact find a site entitled "Things to do in Johannesburg", which basically boiled down to:

  • Shopping
  • Sun City
  • Leaving Johannesburg for a holiday
Now, I don't want to say anything bad about Johannesburg, but... Well, you know... As Simon and Adrianna say, "Dry, flat and perpetually on fire.". But I digress. I come not to bury Johannesburg, but to praise Cape Town.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about wandering around the cape with Megan. Well, she recently returned, and once again, Cape Town didn't let us down.

Starting on Friday night, we had an awesome Mexican dinner at Panchos in Obs, and then went to Banana Jam for cocktails and drinks with some friends. On Saturday morning, after a bit of shopping at Canal Walk, we drove through to Stellenbosch for the Wine Festival. It was a little packed with students, but we had a lovely afternoon of tasting wines and a few other delicacies (oysters, mmm), then picked up some nice wine, and headed back to Cape Town, where we were having some friends over for dinner.

I have to digress here. Oh, Woolworths, how I love thee. I give you money, and you really impress my friends. For dinner, we made:

  • Starter: Philadelphia cheese with almonds and strawberries, drizzled with honey, on crackers.
  • Starter: Avo wrapped in salmon on a bed of rocket, with a lemon wedge.
  • Mains: Fettucine with pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and feta, with a greek salad and garlic bread.
  • Dessert: Pecan-nut pie with ice-cream
And while I am a little proud of that, I'll come right out and say that I couldn't have done it without the love and support of Woolworths, who always believed in me.

On Sunday, we went to Pastis - a lovely french restaurant in Groot Constantia - for breakfast with Paul and Kerry-Anne Gilowey, and Deon and tink, and thence to Cavendish for a bit more shopping (I sat in Mugg and Bean). When we were done there, it was still an awesome afternoon, so we drove down to the Radisson Hotel, where we had cocktails in the sun, and walked along the pier as the sun set. Finally, to top off the weekend, we went to Beluga for sushi and more cocktails. (Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding I had with an airport luggage attendant (he must have thought that the camera in my bag belonged to him?), there was no photographic evidence like last time.)

Now, you'd think that I'd just about said all I could about Cape Town. But you're wrong. A week ago was Heidi's birthday, and a bunch of us went to Grabouw for the weekend. To say that it was beautiful will not suffice. We stayed in charming cottages nestled in a clearing in a pine forest, next to a lake in the mountains just outside Grabouw, and it was lovely. Jacques took this incredible panorama:

Grabouw Panorama

I don't think I can say anything to top that, so I'll tip my hat, once again, to the Cape, and stop.

Just do it

If you have any spare clothes (and I know you do), or any spare cash (and I know you do), please, PLEASE, help out. There are thousands of people left with no homes, and nothing possessions but what they're wearing. Most supermarkets should have donation boxes, but for more ideas of how to help, check out the Treatment Action Campaign site, and there's even a facebook group for you.

Thanks.

May GeekDinner

As I said on the GeekDinner announcement list:

Since the last GeekDinner was held at the end of March, and since we hold the GeekDinners bimestrially, it seems we are due another one at the end of May. This is the eightthhth GeekDinner, and we're calling it "Happy Habanero". What with the habanero being the national vegetable of Azerbaijan, we're going to hold the dinner on Azerbaijan's Republic Day, which, according to wikipedia, is Wednesday, May 28th.

The venue for this dinner is Mel's Kitchen, in Rondebosch Village, just off Klipfontein Road.

As usual, you can sign up, and check on the other details, on the wiki page.

We're now in our second year of GeekDinners, and they seem to be going strong. We have a good model, mostly sustainable, although it is slightly dependent on the core group of organisers to get things moving. We have a solid set of regular attendees that should provide the dinners with enough momentum to continue, though, should anything happen, and I'm very positive about the future of the dinners. We're also managing, for the most part, to keep talks short and interesting to all comers - I know that newcomers always worry that everything's going to be "too hardcore techie", but honestly, it's not about microchips and "ones and zeroes". My favourite talks have been about hippies and the buttons on car radios. So, please, if you haven't been before, why not come along, meet some new people, share some free wine, and enjoy some excellent food.

The slideshow karaoke has become a regular feature of our dinners, and is always one of the most entertaining parts. The way it works is, somebody prepares a set of slides on any topic they want (we've had "Etiquette when dealing with British Royalty", "Common problems with cement tiles", and "A primer on lesser known Norse gods"). Somebody else then presents a talk based on these slides without any prior knowledge of the topic, or of the content of the slides - always to amusing effect. This time, Darb is preparing the slides, and we have yet to find a volunteer to present them. If you're keen, do volunteer. If not, maybe you have something interesting you'd like to talk about anyway - we have no volunteers for speakers yet.

If I've sold you, sign up on the wiki, and we'll see you there!

Garrulous Grape

Last night was the seventh Cape Town GeekDinner, held at Greens in Plattekloof. For all that it was a bit disorganised, I think it went fairly well. Through a bit of miscommunication we ended up with two projectors, and no screen, so Dave and I made a rushed mission to Pick n' Pay, and came back with a roll of ten white rubbish bags, which we stuck to the wall of the restaurant, which actually worked fairly well.

Ian gave his usual stellar performance, talking about the difference in attitude to change and new technology that geeks and "hippies" (green people, ecowarriors, etc) have. He discussed how common it is for people to make a snap decision, and then find facts to back the choice up, and challenged us to try it the other way round.

Bob Meredith then gave quite an interesting exposition of what one needs to do to have credit card certification, after which we had Darb doing an excellent Karaoke Slideshow on problems with concrete, put together by Tania.

The venue was great - very accomodating, with friendly and efficient staff, and excellent, excellent food. And they let us stick stuff on their walls. Thanks very much to Greens in Plattekloof!

Finally, profuse thanks to Tim from Wired Communications and to Perdeberg winery for supplying us with 30 bottles of very nice wine. They came through at very short notice and we really appreciate it. Please support their Clink-to-win campaign, or order some wine from their website!

StarCamp - Lessons learned

StarCamp finally happened, and went off pretty well. I was a bit late for the first morning, since I had to move house (again), but the rest of the weekend was great.

From an infrastructure/organisational point of view, things were basically perfect. The large room where the talks were happening was fine for our needs, and there was enough space for everybody, although we had to open up the back to accomodate some more people at one stage. AIMS provided tea and coffee for everybody, and lunch on both days was a huge amount of great wraps from Kauai (generously sponsored by Sentient Communications and CLUG). ProsperIS sponsored computer equipment for the small venue, for the tutorials and sprints - these unfortunately only got set up halfway through the last day of *camp, which is something we must fix for next time. And, of course, there was Neil's Nintendo Wii, which provided some great fun, and was greatly enjoyed by the students at AIMS.

The talks were generally very interesting. As Ian says, the high points were probably the three talks by our foreign visitors - Alex and David from Princeton, on Electronic Voting and Net Neutrality respectively, and Phil Barrett from the UK on User Experience. I did enjoy quite a few of the others, although I'd like lots more non-technical talks next time. I think that in-depth nitty-gritty technical talks should be saved for either CLUG talks, or the tutorials: one can't take in enough from those talks for them to be useful otherwise.

The people were great. It was nice to see quite a few new faces (i.e. not part of the usual CLUG/GeekDinner crowd), although I wish we'd had a bigger turnout overall. This probably ties in with the talks: the nature of an Unconference is that the attendees shape the events, rather than the other way round, which is the norm for traditional conferences. If we had lots of artists, we'd have lots of art-related talks, if you see what I mean. I know that there were a few people who felt a bit trepid about attending, because they didn't think it was targetting them as an audience. This is not how an Unconference works! If you're in the audience, you participate, and you define how it goes.

Lessons learned

Venue, venue, venue: This is not so much a lesson we've learned from organising StarCamp, but a lesson I've picked up over a year of trying to organise this sort of event. If you don't have a venue, all other organisation stalls. You can't pick a date with absolute certainty unless you know the venue will be available on that date. You don't get attendees signing up unless they know what date they are signing up for (and, in some cases, how far they have to travel). You don't get speakers if you don't have attendees. Basically, it all boils down to finding a venue - once that is done, everything else falls into place. In this case, we only settled on AIMS a week before the event was due to happen, and even though everything went off beautifully after that, it was a bit touch-and-go up until then.

Attendees: We blogged the event, and sent out reminders on the mailing lists, and we got a fairly good sign-up rate, but it could have been so much better. Some of the best returns-on-investment in this regard were the personal invitations we sent out: directly approaching a person/group/company and saying "We're having this thing, and we want you to be there". Neil did an awesome job with this in the week before the event, but we really need to get the word out there beforehand, and make sure that people know what sort of event it will be (and that if they come, it'll be the sort of event which they want to attend).

Sponsors: people are surprising willing to sponsor things, if you ask them to. Make a note of that.

Set up: wasting half of the event time on setting up tables/power cables/a lab of computers is really counter-productive, and we lost some valuable presentation time because of this. But, of course, it's all a learning experience, and we know better for next time.


All in all, I think the event was a great success, and I'm really looking forward to the next one... Which we should start organising NOW.

GeekDinner, *camp, again

Once again, it's time for a Cape Town GeekDinner. The next one - dubbed Eccentric Eggplant - is being held upstairs at Ferryman's at the Waterfront, this Wednesday (the 28th of November), at about 7pm. We're getting sponsored wine from Wine23.co.za, and there are some talks which look quite interesting.

Something new that's happening at this GeekDinner is the Slideshow Karaoke. Bryn Divey and I are the victims in this case - we will be presenting two talks based on slides written by Russell Cloran and Jeremy Thurgood. We will not have seen the slides before, nor will we even know what subject they are on, until we start presenting the talk. It should be interesting, at the very least.

And then, of course, there's the *camp coming up. We're still struggling a little bit with the venue, although we have some good offers. Please, go look at the wiki, and come along!

*camp

The Open Content Party

On Saturday, we had the Open Content Party with Jimmy Wales and Heather Ford. I won't say much, since Arno and Christel have both given rather good roundups of the atmosphere at the place, and I can't really top that. It was a great evening, with all sorts of people bring what they could. Photos are up.

See you all at the GeekDinner next week!

Fourth GeekDinner coming up

The fourth in the new series of Cape Town GeekDinners will be held on Thursday, September the 27th, at Summerville in Camps Bay, at 19:00 for 19:30.

Details can be found on the wiki page - head over there and sign up to the wiki if you want to come along.

We also need speakers - if you have an idea or something interesting that you want to talk about, let us know, or just add it to the wiki. Talks are only 5 minutes long, followed by a few minutes of questions, and everything is very informal.

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