Striding Edge

#TimOnLoan: borrow me for a week for FREE (worth £3000)

Are you drowning in emails? Trying to get some things done whilst juggling a bunch of other things?

Perhaps I can help? I want to lend out my skills to organisations in Manchester for free:

Is this you?

  • You know decision makers need your product or service but it sometimes feels like they speak ‘different language’ to you?
  • You’ve built a thing, and whilst you’ve almost done the technical side of things, you’re aware that making enough people sign up to the product is something you’ve not thought much about?
  • You have an onboarding flow which could do with improvement?
  • You have a technology setup, but no-one has looked at it in several years – and you wonder if there are better ways of doing things today?
  • You have lots of customers that need talking to, and you wonder if you process for communicating could be more streamlined?

What can I help you with?

Tim Dobson

  • understanding customers / customer development
  • improving your customer support setup
  • how to market & sell to your customers
  • copywriting and email templates
  • linux systems architecture & systems administration
  • photography
Can you apply to this?
If:
  • You’re genuinely interested in what you do
  • You’re in a technology sector, or technology enables an important part of what you do
  • You’re a youngish or small & growing organisation probably with a relatively small headcount
Who are you?
You can see on my LinkedIn I’ve years of experience in technology & sales, I’ve tried building several startupy projects and landing pages.

 

How can I apply?


What people say:

He’s the friendly, approachable face of what can be quite a daunting world to folks like me from outside the natural world of Linux hosting and sysadminry.

I’ve always felt Tim was happy to chat to me and he’s always been full of good ideas both technically in terms of wider business/marketing.

Q & A

How much will this cost me? Nothing. Free. £0.00

My organisation doesn’t quite fit your bullet points? Is it worth me applying? Yes. If you don’t try, you don’t know. Be bold and try!

What if you turn out to not be a good fit? Then it’s great we both find out quickly without losing any money.

When can you start? The first week I want to do this is the week starting 20th of March.

When is the closing date for this? Soon. I’ve not decided yet, but if you’re considering applying, apply now, because sods laws says I’ll close it right before you wanted to sign up.

What if I want you to keep working for me? My standard rate is £600/day, with discounts for block booking & speedy payment (eg 10% 7, net 30). If things are going well, let’s chat.

What do you get out of this? Not being bored. Chance to work with different people. Opportunity to work on interesting real life interesting problems. Insight into how different organisations work. Chance to help customers. Chance to develop my skills.

Will everyone who applies be accepted? Almost certainly not.  Sadly I’m fairly sure practicalities of time make it impossible.

Will you sign <some kind of thing> with us? Probably. I like things in plain english that are easily understandable.

Does my organisation have to be based in Manchester? If you work from an office, then it’d be best if you were at least somewhat based in Manchester. If you work in a distributed manner – sure I’d be delighted for you to apply (I’m mostly in the UK timezone)

Are charities/projects/social enterprises/etc allowed? Sure.

What criteria will you use to choose? A simple one: I’ll choose the one I like the sound of most right now.

I’ve worked with you before, can I apply? Sure!

This isn’t how my organisation’s bureaucracy works. Can you contact us with a CV & cover letter please? Thanks – I suspect we’re not the best fit for right now.

Is this a deep commentary of our socio-capitalistic ritual of workplace subjugation? No.

A great example of big society in action? No.

Are you aware how lucky you are? Yes, I’m very aware that being able to offer this is a privilege I’m lucky to be able to exercise.

I have another question? Leave a comment or drop me an email? :-)



Manchester from above

What no-one will tell you about rocking employment fairs! (specifically the Manchester Digital talent fest)

All you need to know:

  1. Get a ticket
  2. Turn up.
  3. Talk to as many tech companies as possible to try understand what they do and how they operate

All you need to know to rock it:

Do:

  • Ask people lots of questions – especially about the area you’re most interested in. People LOVE anyone who’s interested in learning about how they do things – and this is what is likely most interesting to you. You can ask things like:
    • What technology does you use? What sort of tooling do you use on your frontend projects? What’s your backend architecture?
    • What sort of software development methodology do you use? What’s your process for turning requirements into code?
    • Is there anyone here who I can talk to about networking / programming / how you do project management / marketing etc?
    • What are the skills or technologies you feel most new graduates are missing that I can start familiarising myself with?
    • There is a question people love answering but students never ask: “What’s your background? How did you get your first tech job?” Ask it!
    • What’s it like to be a junior employee in your organisation?
    • How many women do you have in your tech team? 
    • What does your company do to help support minorities entering the world of tech?
  • When you hear something mentioned you’ve not heard of, consider asking “sorry, what’s X?” (Eg. “Sorry, I don’t think I’ve heard of Cucumber?“). It’s ok and very normal not to have heard of things, and asking about them will impress who you’re talking to.
    • When they start explaining, make a note of the name of the thing, and say something like “Thanks for explaining, I’ll look this up more when I get home“.
    • “Do you know where I can learn more about X?”
  • Personally take a note of everyone’s email address whom you meet.
    • You can easily get this “Do you have an email address? Mind if I drop you an email later if I have anymore questions about FooCorp or X technology?”
    • “Sorry what’s your name? Do you mind if I grab your email address?”
    • If they want your email, give it them – but insist on taking their name & email too.
  • Follow up afterwards with everyone!
    • After the fair, on the same day, go home and email, tweet every single company or person you spoke to. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.
    • You can say “Thanks for explaining about XYZ at the event today.
    • You can say “@steve Great to meet you today Steve, reading up about cucumber and test driven development now – thanks for the pointers!“.
    • You can say if you don’t have a name of a person: “Just wanted to write and thank the Foocorp team for taking the time to explain about your project management process to me today – I’m reading up more about Scrum – do you know any good resources I could go look at?
    • You can ask “Great to learn a bit about Foocorp today, do you have any more info or links about that thing you mentioned?”
    • If you can find them on LinkedIn and you had a good chat, add them! (This is not an alternative to following up properly)
    • This is a general life pro tip. If you get good at sending a message after you meet people, you will be lucky much more often than you feel is statistically likely.

Don’t:

  • Whilst you’re there, you may see people “drive-by-CVing” where they’ll waltz past a stand, give their CV and run away. This is a time consuming method advanced method called “not getting a job”. Sure, perhaps someone has a story of it working, but a stopped clock is right twice a day.
  • bother asking about pay. Lots of people will tell you highs, lows, and averages – but they’re all pretty pointless. You’re most interested in learning what YOU will earn. No-one will tell you until they interview you and offer you a job.  And there’s so much more to your first job than pay – for example – whether you hate everyone you work with, or like everyone you work with. Tech salaries are good – there is a time to ask and think about whether what you’re being offered is fair – but don’t bother trying this part at the employment fair stage. :)
  • The employment fair isn’t about your porfolio, level of experience, CV, etc so I’d suggest not focusing on these things too much beforehand. It’s just not time well spent. If you want to help yourself, read the next section and/or consider making index cards of questions you could ask people.

All you need to know to rock it and be one of the wisest people at the event:

Do:

  • Before the day, Google each of the companies who are listed as coming. Make a note of those who you’re most interested in talking to, and least interested. Prioritise your time and chat to those you’re most interested in learning more about. The companies will be very happy if you know vaguely what they do already too.
  • Turn up early. I don’t mean on-time, I mean, be there 10-15mins early. There’s a lot of companies to talk to. Even if you’re not allowed in early, it’ll be worth it. If you are let in early, go talk to people who look mostly setup and ready.
  • Talk to the downtrodden, small, less grand, stands. They may be smaller, they may look the least organised – this may be indicative that they’ll more focused on doing the thing you’re interested in, rather than “professionally hiring people”. Be wary of flashy, well organised stands with lots of branded outgoing people. They may not be as representative of organisations that value all the things you value most. Give the small and large stands equal attention.
  • As well as real life, talk to everyone on twitter.
    • I get it – chatting to people is your worst nightmare – that was why I first started playing with computers too. Talking to people gives you a massive edge – even when you feel you’re pushing yourself to be the most social you can be. It’s not easy, and face-to-face is hard and scary. Fortunately there are tools that can can make it slightly less intimidating.
    • Ask other people on twitter who you can see who went to the event “@jane12345 I loved #eventhashtag too! Who were your favourite people to chat to?
    • [Before the event]: Companies who you want to chat to  “@foocorp Looking forward to chatting to you on Fooday! Will there be anyone at #eventhashtag who I can chat to about <specific area you’re interested in – eg front end, back end, java, project management, marketing, whatever>?
    • [After the event]: Companies who you
    • To the organisers: “@eventorganisers Thanks for organising #eventhashtag today – so great to chat to everyone – thanks for all the effort you put into making it happen”
    • Use the hashtag in all your tweets.
    • Keep a twitter search going for that hashtag.
    • Follow every who looks mostly relevant.
    • psst. I think the hashtag is #MDTalentDay ;)

Don’t

  • bother chatting to recruitment agents or recruitment agencies. They’ll be very good at talking. That’s their job. They’ll be very organised. This is their job. They’re also 100% less worth chatting to at this event than the companies who hire people directly. And if you get hired directly, you’ll probably work for a company where you’ll be happier, who’ll pay you more. And everyone will be happy about this. All recruitment agents will dispute this assertion, and suggest that they’re different from the majority in this regard.  My suggestion is only to talk to recruitment agents when you’ve spoken to every single other company at the event. If you find yourself in a conversation with one by accident, here’s some ways to escape:
    • Great to chat to you. I’m going to go mingle and make the most of the event.
    • I’m supposed to be meeting my friend now – catch you a bit later.
    • Sorry I’m not interested.
    • Thanks, I already gave you my info though!
    • “I’m not a student sorry!”
    • <speak in foreign language>
  • care about freebies. Freebies are dull. Competitions are rubbish. Get a job. Then buy yourself “freebies”. 10 minutes of your time at this fair is worth more than a mars bar.
  • go round in a group. Let your friends go round separate from you. You’ll be at an advantage on your own or in a pair.
  • Stop chatting to employers after you have one good conversation. Chat to as many people as you feel able to.
  • Pick up leaflets without talking to people. Find some kind of question to ask them. I’ve given you plenty – asking what technology they use is a good one. :)

What do you know about this? I got my first job through the precursor to this event and since then I’ve helped other friends meet their future employers at the event.

What other questions could be asked? What would you say?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


Used this article to get yourself something good? Consider dropping me an email or leaving a comment to say thanks!

Plans on the horizon

Nearterm 2017 plans!

My plans for the next month or so, are fairly focused:

  • Setup the #DigiClimbMCR meetup
  • Research how people climb, and use fitness apps, by spending almost as much time at MCC as possible.
  • Launch #TimOnLoan and loan myself for ~2+ weeks to small/exciting companies in Manchester

I’m looking forward to sharing how I get on with you all as I go along.

Thanks for all your support this year you all!

My favourite parts of Upfront Mini 2015

Yesterday I was lucky to attend Upfront Mini – a smallish (150 person!) one day conference about Front End Web development – the parts that appear in your browser!

I particularly liked this part of the introduction:

First up was Lily Dart talking about how the skills of a good designer: empathising, taking responsibility etc are also the skills of a good leader:

I don’t write front end code. I wish I could, but my role is that well known sweet spot between systems administration, user research and sales, and so like everyone else – I was there to learn. Being able to understand, empathise and mentor customers and colleagues is a really useful skill and I strongly agreed with some of her points.

Her slides are here:


I enjoyed Sam Beckham’s talk about the Polymer library and Web Components.

Most of my front-end experience was gained 5-10 years ago, in xhtml 4.0 where you felt lucky if you avoided a frameset so I find HTML5 (and Web Components in particular) mindtwistingly futuristic – perhaps how the internet must feel to people who group in the era of letters and telephone operators.

By chance I read this great article about web components the night before the conference, and Polymer is a library (a HTML library actually – how about that?!) that makes Web Components easier.

In the most basic, layman’s terms (probably with inaccuracy and missed subtly), Web Components are a way to create snippets of html, and call them back later in a simpler form – perhaps slightly like creating a function in code. Say you want something to create a slider or something, but don’t want to copy all the setup code everytime you want to call it – so you can import the html library that defines it, and then simply reference it with a simple tag. It looks like this is the future.
Unfortunately, currently: Browser support = patchy.


Emma Jane Hogbin Westby’s git talk was interesting (here’s the slides and notes) – and fortunately a few days before, I’d also read this great article on git branching – so I was able to follow along and understand most of what was being said. because I don’t really touch code, and only touch git for hobby projects , I don’t have such a deep understanding of that part of software development. As a result of the talk and the article though, I now know a bit about where you might want to keep all the individual commits that make up a feature and where you might want to squash them into a single object.


Amy Philips’s talk about mobile testing gave me an incredible headsup about how little I know about testing. Basically, testing mobile software is super hard – because there are so many different platforms, software versions, levels of connectivity, accessibility settings that testing becomes super-hard! I now feel extra inspired to go listen to Gem Hill’s Let’s Talk About Tests Podcast and understand more about the subject.


Benjamin Hollway gave a talk about young people and technology – nothing out of the ordinary I thought – just another youngish developer talking about the issues of being young, and trying to get into the technology community. Then after the talk, it came to Q&A, and it was revealed that Benjamin was 17. I was floored. Of course, I should have spotted the clues, but to the organiser’s incredible credit, they hadn’t billed the talk as anything different, they hadn’t said the presenter was young. It was very well executed. The Q&A were lively, with some people clearly inspired to see 17yros doing impressive things, suggesting that perhaps agencies should be recruiting people pre-university. Other people were unconvinced, wondering if pre-university young-people would be able to concentrate through a 9-5 day. They were roundly put down when it was pointed out that most normal developers can’t concentrate through a 9-5 day, not to mention that school/college is basically a 9-5 commitment before that point!

I could empathise with Benjamin a great deal and was psyched to see another YRS alumni going on to fulfill their own dreams and forge their own path. I didn’t go to university, got a job straight out of college, and heard lots of people telling me lots of conflicting information at that time. I always love the conversations that arise when a conference supports a young speaker like that, and I really appreciate that Benjamin and the conference organisers made it happen.


I had a good time catching up with Katrina and talking to Nathan about design processes and how to build things, meeting Goose, working out scary tech halloween costumes with Chris, finally chatting to Nick in real life and Andy about marketing & deals.

As the first event in the upfrontconf/speaktheweb that I’ve attended, I really enjoyed it – the organisers – Simon, Rachel, Katie, Dan & Jack, deserve a high five for putting in all the effort to make such a great event happen. Thank you all!

Pieline.net

What we learnt from building a jobboard

A few months ago we built a jobboard — pieline.net. It was mostly a programming challenge — we wanted to learn more about databases and Node.js, and we thought that this would be useful and straightforward.

There used to be the Geekup Jobboard, run by Andrew Disley, free and for everyone (except recruiters). It was split up by functional areas — business, design, development and others. A few years ago, Andrew focused his efforts on a better solution — NeedHQ and the site received no new jobs.

Pieline.net
Pieline.net

Tim had talked to an Agency owner who was sad that the site had gone and we also knew new developers who weren’t aware of the volume of jobs available, because they didn’t know the names of all the different companies to look at their websites. Other jobboards didn’t have jobs outside of London, didn’t have a clear UX, or were full of recruiter jobs which obscure the name of the comapny you’d be working for.
The idea was to create a simple job board — listing one job from every tech company around Manchester for 30 days. Ideally, people would submit their jobs to us. In practice for the time we ran the site, we manually added ~200 jobs by hand, and never had one submission.

Learnings about companies

Companies are hiring all the time. Even the small ones. Everybody would like another developer or two.

Most companies suck at designing their websites with recruitment in mind. At least half of the sites we visited buried their recruitment page — we often found ourselves trawling sitemaps for a link. Given how competitive it is to recruit developers, we thought that every company would list the main technologies a developer would be using in the job, but all too often we found that ‘Front End developer’ really meant ‘PHP developer’, or there were just no useful details at all. When we looked over recruitment pages, we were struck by a unifying theme — they put no effort in. We rarely had enough information to say whether we could do a job, let alone if we wanted to choose one over the 200 other jobs in Manchester.

When we talked to employers, whilst they were interested in receiving better people, they were totally uninterested in yet-another-jobboard — especially without any candidates already coming in. There are many job boards, and it seemed like putting the jobspec together at all was a labour. They were understandably deeply suspicious of anything that resembled cold calling recruiters (even when we approached via email!).

A very small minority of companies listed clear breakdowns of the job and requirements, with renumeration, perks, and insight into company and engineering culture. We’d probably say AO.com has one of the best hiring pages of the companies we’ve reviewed. If your page is half as good as theirs, you’re above average.

Learnings about technical things

If you don’t know if you’re building the right thing, use duct tape, not superglue

On the technical side, we learnt how you (in a very hacky way) use Node, Express, Bootstrap, CSS, MySQL (especially joins), resolve git conflicts, and Tim learnt some JavaScript. We wanted to use a fairly lean approach, and we had a somewhat functional site live within hours. This was possible because we borrowed a lot of the backend from an open source Node CRUD app.

When we needed to secure the admin area where we could add and review jobs, we didn’t want to learn about authentication in javascript — so instead we created a password protected area via nginx and left it at that. Not rock solid, but good enough.
We never had a staging site — we deployed straight from our git repo. This wasn’t ideal but did force us to test a lot, and fix it if we broke it. When we wanted to move fast and get it out the door — we got it out the door.

Learnings about UX

To figure out how it worked in the hands of users, we went to tech meetups, and asked people if they wanted to see this thing we’d been building, and when they said yes, we asked them to apply for a job on the mobile site. As we watched them use it on their phone, we saw them click on the wrong bits, expecting things to work differently, and instantly gathered feedback about which bits worked and which bits didn’t. Some more experienced developers (I’m thinking Bobby and Martin in particular) were kind enough to critique the UI for us as well, which helped us get some of the common-sense navigation in place. We were reading Lean UX at the time, which gave us some great approaches for iteratively improving the user experience.

Users said many things — often they asked for features we didn’t want to implement in an MVP like search. Almost everyone wanted a clear salary range and we just didn’t have the data.

One of the challenges was that people often didn’t know what jobs they wanted.

People who could be hired into junior or graduate jobs, didn’t know whether they had the qualifications, when all they really needed was enthusiasm, the ability to learn and not being unpleasant to work with.

For more senior people, it often wasn’t really clear what the most useful details were to put in front of them. “Can I actually do the job?” seems like an important question, but understanding what the company is like, why they might want to work there more than where they work now, is also important information, which we couldn’t figure out a way of displaying.

One idea we had was that most job adverts are sparse on details, and so it seemed like the ability to ask each company a question — in an anonymous, ebay-style public Question & Answer might be an appealing feature.

The Q&A feature
The Q&A feature

We still think it’s a good idea — imagine: You read the job advert, you’re happy with the salary, you know where they work, you have the skills, they seem nice enough — however, you have some questions…questions that might be awkward to bring up in an interview. Questions like “do people ever pull all-nighters to finish things for a deadline?” or “will I be able to leave early some days to pick up my kids from school?”. Ultimately, although we tried our upmost to seed the board with questions, and use this feature to add value — we weren’t able to get it moving. We think it’s a neat idea, and perhaps might work really well — unfortunately we didn’t hustle hard enough to see any traction.

We tried adding Optimizely A/B testing to gather data about incremental changes. We might have been better off testing more radical variations but we learnt that with the amount of traffic we had, we were never going to learn much fast with very subtle A/B testing. Ah well.

Learnings about Growth

We never had a growth strategy that was sustainable, real or existant. We tried some paid adverts to get traffic, but since we never received any revenue from the site, this was clearly unsustainable. The idea never had a ‘purple cow’ so there wasn’t much virality potential. The question feature is probably the closest we came to it.

We feel this is an area we would give more thought to next time. Really, we should have tested this part first. ;)

In conclusion

One great outcome is that a several people found jobs because of pieline! This was without doubt the best part of the experience — we’ve heard from a couple of people who found companies on pieline, applied for the jobs listed and got them, which is very satisfying. One of them became a good friend, and we got to hear all her stories of starting her first development job. It was also a great side project for Clara to show off to employers as she was looking for her first coding job at the time.

We learnt a lot from the project — about technical things, about product, about UX. I think the main thing we learned, was that a job board isn’t the best way to solve this problem. We’re not sure what the best solution is, though better company careers pages are clearly somewhere to start.

The site is mostly now offline, though it survives on archive.org, Github and trello. As for us? We’re better prepared for our next adventure.

Pieline was made in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire with love by @czmj2 & @tdobson.

The van

When I first thought about this, I worried I might lose friends, then I realised it was the right thing.

 

“Imagine that money wasn’t something you had to worry about – what would you do?”

Once you figure out the answer, you’re meant to head down the most efficient path there. Working ‘to get rich’ when you’re seeking to ‘have a happy family life’ may not be the most efficient route for you. It’s not a new concept, and worth reflecting on.

Today, I want to share with you how I’m answering that question.

The Plan

Parking the van at work
Parking the van at work

The plan is to buy a van, convert it into a live-in stealth campervan, and live in it. By June ~30th 2015.

Current status: I have bought a Mercedes Sprinter 2008 long wheel base 311 CDI 2.1 with ~150,000 miles – should go to ~300,000. It’s in fairly good nick.

This is my first car, and first thing I’ve driven on my own, so driving around Manchester is fun at times.

Instant FAQs

Where will you park it?

On the street, in different places – wherever we want to be at that point in time.

Will it have internet?

It’ll have 12V onboard electrics powering a 3G/4G wifi router. 25GB of data on EE these days is £30/mo on a one month contract.

What will you do about a toilet?

There will be an onboard Thetford c200 cassette toilet with SOG (so we won’t have to use chemicals). We will be using grey water from the sink for flushing.

What will you do about showers?

Not having them onboard. Showers exist in modern office buildings, swimming baths, sports centres etc.

Who’s going to do the conversion?

Me (with help from my girlfriend Clara).

What van conversion skills do you have?

Ability to read instructions, a nice powerdrill, blind optimism. You only learn when you try.

Why not buy a readymade campervan?

  • Most campervans are built for weekend trips away to caravan sites – where you get an electric hookup, and are never designed for constant use.
  • Parking up in a city, we’d prefer to look “stealth” – just like one of the unmarked white vans you saw today – that you didn’t give a thought to.
  • We dislike the 80-90s retro interior design of the campervans we’ve seen. The white/grey plastic makes me want to vom.
  • When you build something yourself, you value it more highly, so we think building our home will make us better appreciate it for what it is.

Why not buy a house?

You can’t drive a house to another place.

Why not build a house?

You can’t drive a house to another place.

Why not live in a canal boat?

You’re limited to canals, and travelling at about 8mph. So spending a week in the Lake District is kind of hard work.

What will you be doing about washing clothes?

Somehow, laundrettes still exist. Also, lovely friend’s houses. :)

What will you do about an address?

My parents live relatively nearby. That’s a good place to direct snail-mail to.

How will you power your electrics?

Initially, from leisure batteries and a split charge relay from the alternator. I’d love to have solar panels for charging the batteries, and as soon as I have time/money/energy, they’re on the agenda for the roof.

Once I can afford a Tesla Powerwall, and it’s easily available in the UK, it’s of serious interest to me.

Will you be on your own? (How will you ever get a girlfriend?)

My girlfriend Clara has been helping me with the CAD plans and seems open to living there with me.

How does she feel about it?

Clara says:

“*shrug* – it sounds like an adventure. If it’s not a fun adventure I will move back to my place in Sheffield. I’m super happy for my lovely boyfriend to do what makes him happy.”

How much will this cost you?

Hopefully less than a house, and less than rent, and more flexibility. I bought the van for £5,500.

I know someone else who’s done this!

There’s an entire community about it at /r/vandwellers

How did you get this idea?

I took some inspiration from VanDogTraveller and my friend Dan Woods who lived in a van during his University years in Manchester. I also listened to (and sometimes ignored) suggestions from Matt Bibby, Dave Crossland and others. I’m really grateful for their inspiration and advice.

In the ’50s, when my mum was little, she and her family lived in a converted double decker bus.

In the past I had an idea to travel around the country, spending a month in different AirBnBs. When I had the van idea, it felt more efficient and became the plan.

Won’t you be very cold in the winter?

Hopefully not. It will be chilly, for sure, and we’ll have to look carefully at how things are going as the temperatures start dropping, but we’re fairly optimistic that we can make it work. Staying warm in bed should be fairly straightforward, and one of the nice things about a van is that it’s a much smaller space to heat than the average house. We’re going to insulate it well.

Won’t you be very hot in the summer?

This could be an issue. The van is white and we’re planning to insulate it fairly well. The UK is hardly Morocco though. We count our very hot summer days, when it reaches 20C+, on one hand. If the van is unbearably hot we will go and enjoy the sunshine outside!

Aren’t you just demonstrating how incredibly privileged you are?

Yep. I’m a white well-educated, cis male, from a well-off background, with a great job and supportive family, in a first world country, with a social welfare system and a nationalised health service. I have to acknowledge that in almost everything I do. I have a lot of people to be grateful for, and I must be mindful not to take anything for granted and to do what I can to help those who’ve been less fortunate in the privilege lottery.

Aren’t you worried about what people will think?

In short, “no”.

I gave this some thought, I was worried my friends might instantly unfriend me. I realised that my friends don’t judge people by their living arrangements, but by what they’re like as a human being. I plan on being the same person, and anyone who wishes to pigeon-hole because of my living arrangements probably doesn’t know me.

Is this forever? Will you never get a house?

I may get a house in future. Who knows? Let’s figure that out when the future arrives.

I wouldn’t do this.

That’s absolutely ok!

Background:

Since about 2008, I’ve noticed that the internet has helped me geographically distribute myself. I noticed I didn’t seem to get homesick because the things I cared most about tended to be accessible via the internet.

(NB. This doesn’t apply to pets. I wish I could have emailed hugs to my dog, and got licks and snuffles by SMS.)

I realise about myself:

  • I love travelling when it seems like the right thing – I love mountains, outdoors, sea sides, long beaches, camping and exploring.
  • I also love technology, though perhaps that’s less obvious – I post fewer photos of it, try to avoid being relentlessly gushing about it – and yet, me and it often work hand in hand every day.
  • I’m fairly independent – I’ve never been in debt and I’ve been financially independent since I got my first job when I was 18, but I’ve been supported and effectively self-directed for sometime before then. For better or for worse, I don’t seem really be afraid of blazing my own path on my own, even if it turns out in the end just to be an interesting footnote.

Realisations:

  • I’m 24. I can make mistakes. I should make mistakes. I should make mistakes NOW.(I don’t seek to make mistakes, just be aware that they provide the most powerful opportunities to learn from, and that it’s easier to make bold decisions when you support fewer people.)
  • If this turns out to be a terrible idea, the downside is not fatal. It allows for learning. In the context of my life, it’s a small bet.
  • I feel that most of my relationships with my friends and family are location agnostic. Sure, I need turn up at my friend’s party, just like I should be at a family wedding – but the rest of the time? I’m not convinced physical proximity is super important so long as you’re there at ‘the right’ moments.
  • Being in one fixed location is less relevant to day to day job than it ever was. Most of my work is conducted over email and phone calls, and last summer I spent three weeks, working remotely from Bulgaria – more recently, close online collaboration in a distributed team seems to be working well.
  • I don’t want to buy a house, until I know I want to live there for ~10+ years. I don’t know where I want to be living in ~10+ years time, so I don’t want to buy a house.
  • There are two unfulfilled ambitions I think I have: one is to travel more, the other is to build something big.

So what’re the next steps?

I’ll be blogging, tweeting, facebooking about it as much as I can as we build it. You can also follow the github repo which contains the the CAD plans (or the cartoon simplified version) and things we’re working on.

The next step is for me to stop writing this blog post and insulate it! :D

The Van
The Van

I’d love to hear from you! Any thoughts? Any unanswered questions? Well wishes? Stories? Things I might want to think about? Let me know in the comments!

YCombinator

YCombinator? I’ll do it

Stanford University
Stanford University

One day last November, I was sitting in the student cafeteria, at Stanford University in California with Josh catching up with Paul, an old friend of mine who was studying there.

We’d had just ordered a coffee from Starbucks, naively answering telling the barista, “yes, we would like cream”, so now we were eyeing up these containers filled with half-coffee, half-squirty-cream monstrosities.

We complaining there was “too much cream in your coffee”, in Starbucks, at Stanford, must be the pinnacle of “first world problems“…


Then Josh checked his email, and we found that the past 3 weeks of blood sweat and tears had been for nothing.

We were wrong. This was the epitome of first world problems.


On April 1st, 2011, I posted on my facebook wall that I was imminently moving to California.

I didn’t actually think anyone would believe me, but somehow, a few people did:

April Fools!
April Fools!

In October 2013, I was having a beer with Josh whom I’d known from the YRS2010 days where he’d done cool stuff along with everyone else. :)

Over the course of the evening, he explained that he’d recently been working on a side project to help people to save money:

Lots of people (even in the UK & US) live paycheck to paycheck. When they want something expensive, they either buy it on finance/a long contract or they drop an entire paycheck on it, and struggle to eat for a month. It’s not ideal. Saving is one of those things that people know they should do (like getting more exercise, eating more healthily) but struggle to do. The application he was developing, Dripfeed, helped people visualise what they were saving for and develop a healthier financial approach to buying things.

Josh told me he’d been accepted to interview at YCombinator – the most prestigious Startup Accelerator in Silicon Valley. The interview was two weeks away.


(A startup accelerator is a programme or boot camp of sorts, often aimed at high tech, high growth new businesses. It’s a strange world.Wikipedia explains more.

YCombinator is *the* best of the best – if you’ve heard of Dropbox, AirBnB, Scribd, reddit, or Disqus – then you’ve heard of a successful company that’s come out of the other end.

If you apply successfully, you gain a (relatively small but not insignificant) amount of cash, you & your team moves to San Francisco for the 3 months, whilst you work on your thing are introduced to, and given advice by mentors, investors and listen to seminars from people who know what they’re talking about and a bunch of other stuff. In short, it’s a good place to be.)


Josh had a problem – YCombinator don’t like accepting companies with single person teams – and so he asked if I wanted to come to San Francisco with him to interview with him. If we were accepted, we’d go 50/50 on it, if not, we wouldn’t. The caveats: the interview was in less than 15 days, and I’d need to pay for my own flight.

 

So for the second time that autumn, I booked a holiday from work and some trans-continental flights at less than 2 weeks notice, and prepared to go to yet another place I’d not been before.

The San Francisco Bay Bridge... and me.
The Bay… and me.

YC’s interviews are are tough.

No matter how much cramming of interview techniques, no matter how much brainstorming of possible questions you could be asked, no much how much you read up about which federal US authority governs which the financial laws you care about, they’re still tough.

Inside the YCombinator's "secret layer"
Inside the YCombinator’s “secret layer”

Firstly, you’re being interviewed by about 5 or 6 people at the same time, all of whom likely know a great deal about building something new “things” with the internet. You’re trying to impress them by showing that you’ve with a slightly offbeat idea, you’ve thought about everything, and that you know how to execute it.

Secondly, the interviews are only 10 minutes long. This means every second counts for quite a lot, being eloquent, concise, knowledgeable counts. Qualifications are worthless. Knowing your area and know the idea kick ass idea, counts.

On top of that, you’re thinking – these next ten minutes influence the next three months of my life and the path I take from here. Will I have to spend three months (probably more), working my arse off, thousands of miles away from my friends and girlfriend? Will this be a big step into a stage of perpetual uncertainty in my life?

I don’t remember exactly who interviewed us, I know Paul Graham was not there though the new head of YC, Sam Altman was in our interview.

The good thing about the interviews, is that you find out if you got in, later on the day of the interview.


Stanford University Memorial Church
Stanford University Memorial Church

We didn’t get in.

As we said bye to my friend Paul in the Stanford University cafeteria, we knew we probably weren’t going to return anytime in the near future.

And then the self-evaluation kicked in.

“Which bit did they not like?”, “Could we have done better there?”, “What if things had been different?”.

Two questions stuck in my mind – probably the two we had the poorest answer to:

  • Q: What’s your plan to promote this thing?
    • A: Reddit Ads – Tim has experience with social media ads.
    • [Response from interviewers: no that’s not the answer]!
  • Q: You’re both experienced hackers – why this? Why not work on something more exciting?
    • A: “errr, it’s not easy – it’s a hard thing to do… etc.”

There are good answers you could give to both of those. We didn’t.


San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay
San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay

As I spent the rest of my time in San Francisco touristing, I reflected that actually, I wasn’t as sad or disappointed as I’d expected I might be.

I’d been hit by more culture shock than I’d imagined. I found that it was hard for me to accept parts of US culture as the status quo, despite finding similar differences straightforward in non-English speaking countries. Urban areas generally don’t excite me much, and I’m sad I didn’t get out to Yosemite. Despite Silicon Valley and San Francisco being nice places they didn’t really feel where I wanted to be right then.

I realised that whilst the experience had been good, and I’d learnt a lot from it (particularly, what I didn’t know!), perhaps not all the variables had lined up 100% that time, and that actually, I was probably happier as a result.

Returning to the UK was easy…. not that the weather helped! It was 24C and sunny in California and 5C and raining in the UK! But I knew what I was returning to and I could plan parts of my future again. I also knew where I could improve myself, what areas I was weak on, and more about what makes me tick.


And the April Fools day joke on Facebook?

My parents aren’t massive April Fools day fans. Fortunately, they’re not on Facebook so I’d made sure it was just a private prank on my close friends.

Unfortunately, my sister had phoned my mum that day, and just casually asked remarked she hadn’t heard about my emigration until that day…

Well neither had my mum!

In the end, it was all resolved with phone call, leaving just an amusing lesson about how hoaxes go viral.

Maybe that was the scale of first world problems, I enjoyed having… ;)

Happy Late April Fools day! :)


Also see: DripFeed.

BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

I protested BBC iPlayer in 2007, and I don’t regret it.

During the summer holidays of 2007, I was a teenage sailing instructor who was volunteering locally, to teach younger teens how to sail (better) for a week.

On Tuesday, I skived off teaching, jumped on a train to Manchester and changed my life forever.


But that’s not the beginning… A few months earlier I was prowling the school library looking for anything to dull the boredom of actually studying when I stuck my nose in the computer section, and found that, for some reason, they had a copy of Free As In Freedom, a biography of Richard Stallman.

In the book, Sam Williams, the author, interviews Stallman a number of times, and explores the backgrounds to his principled stances with regards to software.

In spring 2007, I ran Ubuntu and Windows XP in dual boot and so I found it very relevant to my interests and persuasive.


One weekend, I was reading The Register, and I saw a headline…

Free Software Foundation plans protests at ‘corrupt’ BBC

The article explained that planning protests outside the BBC headquarters in London and
“outside the corporation’s Manchester offices on Tuesday, 14 August.”

My ears pricked up…


At this point, you might be thinking:

iPlayer? You protested against iPlayer? Why? iPlayer is awesome.

Let’s go back to 2007.

When the BBC announced iPlayer with a fanfare it was to be:

  • Internet Explorer only, Windows-based peer to peer service
  • where you downloaded a DRM’d Windows media file
  • and the DRM meant you could only watch it for 30 days.

To make the perception of a dotCom era Microsoft: “embrace, extend, extinguish” even worse, Ashley Highfield, the BBC manager in charge of delivering it was an ex-Microsoft exec. Small world eh?


When pressed about the lack of cross platform support, the BBC said:

“It is not possible to put an exact timeframe on when BBC iPlayer will be available for Mac users. However, we are working to ensure this happens as soon as possible and the BBC Trust will be monitoring progress on a six monthly basis.”

To be it seemed incredible, that in 2007, our national broadcaster could release a platform that I was unable to use without a Windows operating system and to exclude Mac, Linux and emerging mobile platforms – it just seemed such a massive strategic error on the BBC’s part.

And I kept thinking

“I really like the idea… Just not the implementation. Not this implementation.”


I barely knew Manchester, and even getting from Piccadilly Station to the Oxford Road BBC building seemed like a large challenge to me. I’d never been to a protest before, I’d never spoken to any techies who weren’t family, friends or classmates, and I was somewhat terrified. I had no idea what to expect.

The protest itself was actually relatively low key – the concept was that DRM was defective by design, and by extension so was iPlayer. So we stood outside the BBC in hazmat suits, with placards, and handed out leaflets to passersby.

BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)
BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Afterwards, we retired across the road, to the upstairs of Odder Bar; for me this seemed like the first criteria for success: it appeared that no-one had been arrested, or hurt.


The protest had been organised by Matt Lee with help from Noah Slater, and as a result I became involving in the first days of Manchester Free Software group, and started hanging out and demonstrating naive youthfulness in various related IRC channels.

The first talk I went to was about hosting and free software and was by Matthew Bloch of Bytemark Hosting… Hmmmm.


As a direct result of getting to know people, Noah first gifted me the tdobson.net domain, and Matt gave a xen VM on his Bytemark dedicated server to play with for a while.

I continued to debate BBC iPlayer strategy on the BBC Backstage mailing list, I made friends with Dave Crossland and Ian Forrester, and as a result, later on I ended up contracting for the BBC and living with Ian.. but that’s another story.

In addition, I started to discover the other emerging communities in Manchester, I remember dragging myself to the “BSD User Group” – essentially a drinking club with jolly good taste for pubs, Geekup, currybeer and my first barcamp of many more.


And BBC iPlayer?

After some drama where Ashley Highfield annoyed Linux users some more, and I suggested he talk to Groklaw, and he did, they quickly put together a compromise: a streaming solution via Adobe Flash.

By January 2008, the Register was reporting:

The BBC’s Flash-based streaming service has gifted a massive traffic boost to the iPlayer site since it went live in mid-December, independent figures have revealed.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a project that was floundering a few months back. The DRM-timebombed and buggy P2P version limped into the limelight in summer 2007 after years of troubled development.

It had attracted consternation from Apple, Linux and Windows Firefox users, who were shut out by the use of Microsoft DRM, despite being the people most likely to be early adopters of new net services.

The cross platform iPlayer you know and love is the great grandson of this service.

I like to think my criticism of the implementation helped iPlayer achieve the success, just much like the BBC’s initially poor choice of platform, helped me find my feet in the world of technology.

You could say I took an arrow to the knee…

We don’t like to talk about much, but there’s a time to look at “crazy” challenges with a face of sensibility.

Sometimes it's important to check how you're doing... (Sweden, 2012)
Sometimes it's important to check how you're doing... (Sweden, 2012)

Last year, I did a 26 mile [sponsored] walk around Manchester, and so this year, I signed up to do the 55 mile version. I’m undoubtedly fitter than I was a year ago, and it looked like a tough, yet probably achievable challenge.

In November, I went for a hike. We went fast, the views were amazing, my photos were great, and it was a great day – however since then my right knee has started behaving in a temperamental fashion – sometimes being randomly painful to bend, whilst often being painful after a days walking.

In late December, I missed out on many exciting hikes in the snow because of it, and whilst I’ve done some fun things more recently, it’s still by no means on form – just the other day I did no serious walking at all, and yet found it painful to walk upstairs – not good. With my knee being in such uncertain condition, I thought it’d be prudent to have done at least one 20-30 mile training walk in advance of the real thing and I’d set myself this weekend as the deadline, however I don’t even feel up to the training walk really.

Starting and “seeing how I do” isn’t an option – once I cross the starting line, the red mist will come down and the only thing on my mind will be the finish line, the state of my body will not be in the equation.

I’d rather not jeopardise fun plans for later in the year, by doing something ostentatiously crazily difficult, and so, with sadness, I’ll be withdrawing from the Bogle Stroll 2013, to allow my body to sort itself out.

There’s nothing good about missing fun and exciting things 12 months because you tried to do something stupidly strenuous, when you knew you weren’t up to it.

(I’ve let the guys at mySociety (my would-be sponsoree) know I won’t be walking and they’re understandingly supportive about it.)