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? :-)



Getting it wrong

This One Time I Screwed up (or Sorry I Was a Dick)

I don’t think there’s enough analysis and sharing of non-technical mistakes for others to learn from (see a dramatic hiking trip postmortem).

It must have been a year or so ago now, I was sponsoring and exhibiting at a conference. Also exhibiting were a company I’ll call FooCorp from an industry that I have a strong distaste for. As delegates piled in, FooCorp’s team fired up this well oiled process of handing paper to people walking in. As a one man band, I felt a bit outdone.

I’d used twitter ads at events before, and so quickly I fired up a campaign. Trying to be edgy, I said something along the lines of “if you don’t want to be leafletted, and have your email added to a database, come and find me for a chat”. I can’t remember the exact wording, and whilst I don’t think it went any stronger, I can’t find the original copy so I can’t be sure. I thought “heh, why bother leafletting when this is so much more efficient”.

Learning from mistakes
Learning from mistakes

One might think “I don’t care about any companies in this industry, so this is a good approach”. One might think “I have no relationship with these people, so it doesn’t matter”.

Those points may be true (though these days, I have doubts), but I hadn’t anticipated the thing that happened next.

The conference organiser came up to me and said “Tim, we need to speak”, to their absolute credit took me to a private area and lividly explained that I needed to:

  • immediately delete the tweets
  • apologise to the people in question.

A wise or experienced person might have anticipated that, whilst I didn’t have a relationship with the FooCorp people, actually, lots of people around me, whose mutual support I depended on, did have a relationship with the people, and would like to continue to have one after the event. They might want to continue to ask FooCorp people to sponsor events they run etc. I realised that I’d failed to consider this point of view at all. That was poorly thought through. :(

When someone explains reasonably to me that I’ve upset people, and can easily avoid this, I know that I should do as they say.

Apologising to people face-to-face is hard. Apologising to people, who support an industry you have a distaste for, is harder.

But what makes it even more heart wrenching is when you notice that at the end of the day, they’re real people, trying to do good things, to help their children and families have a better life, and that I’d needlessly upset them.

As it turned out, my heartfelt apology wasn’t enough to undo the impression I’d already given them and I’m pretty sure that any memories that remain of me are about “that awful man”. 

Were one anticipating this situation beforehand, one might assume one would be comfortable with that if it happened. Instead, I feel sad that I had to learn this like this.

And I have learnt from this.

I could be chatting with someone whose sector I utterly, totally cannot endorse, and I aspire to treat them with respect and humility. I reserve the right to continue to dislike their sector, even them personally – but if I meet or interact with them, I’ll treat them with the same respect and humility I show to my friends.


So I guess if either of the two parties in the story are reading this – you know who you are:

Conference organiser: I’m sorry for putting you on the spot in front of your other sponsors and for behaving poorly. I massively appreciate your approach to resolving this. You had a multitude of options, and you took the most professional route, and allowed me to do what I could to right the situation. For that, I’m forever grateful.

To the people of the company I’ve called FooCorp: I know I ruined your mood for the day, and I’m really sorry I wrote those tweets. I wish I could have done things differently now, but what’s done is done, and a lesson has been learnt. I’m sorry that my learning that day was at your expense. As you can hear, it’s a lesson I vividly remember many months later, and I hope it’s one I never have to relearn. Thanks for talking to the conference organiser and allowing this to be resolved in the manner it was. I really appreciate your professionalism under the pressure I know and regret that I put you under.

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.

The danger your children escaped! Technology!

At school, I was largely a goodie-two-shoes – however, that is to say – I was was aware of the line, and however close I was to it, I did my best to ensure I wasn’t caught crossing it. I’m dubiously proud to say that I never got a detention.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t always successful, and after a particularly creative, episode of circumventing content filtering systems so I could access my webmail (which for some reason was blocked), my parents and I were called into the headmasters office.

Tut. Bad Tim.

After I explained how I simply wanted a way to check my webmail account every day at school during my breaks, the headmaster suggested I might be “addicted” to technology.

Me, being a being a hot blooded young man, retorted:

I’m not sure comparing an interest in technology to illegal substance abuse is appropriate to this conversation.

Symbolism?
Symbolism?

In hindsight, whilst that clearly wasn’t the way in which they intended the word, I feel this speaks volumes.

During those years of school, I spent many waking hours playing with technology. I certainly spent more time playing with technology than any other single activity, but I wasn’t “addicted” – I was interested, and thirsty to learn.

For inexplicable reasons, there were absolutely no academic opportunities for me to develop these skills, and so using Portable Firefox and Tor to bypass content filtering and access Gmail in my spare time, seemed a relatively productive.

Suggesting I was “addicted” to computers, was just as shortsighted as it would have been to suggest that my more academically studious classmates were “addicted” to revision.

Whilst my punishment (downgraded from suspension to effectively being banned from using any computer in the school), let them keep the perception that content filters work, and stopped me breaking their AUP on a daily basis, they failed to recognise the problem – that they were just years away from being asked why they did not teach “app development”, or indeed any technology subject.

Essentially they were sealing the middle fingered handshake goodbye from me as just a year later, I moved schools, and 18 months later was working in industry.

I hope that in the future, my grandchildren won’t be accused of “being addicted” to their “Raspberry Pi 3000″ – simply because they’re fascinated by how it all works. Please help us make that future.

Stephen Fry at Oggcamp? Awesome or Awesome?

It’s not often I go to events were well known people are speaking. It’s even less frequently where the tech events I go to have well known broadcaster speaking.

However, Oggcamp – the world’s friendliest unconference – is a special sort of event and persuading Stephen Fry to give a video address, answering questions and his relationship with technology went down very well indeed!

Some memorable quotes:

Do I use Linux on any of my devices? Yes – I use Ubuntu these days – it seems the friendliest.

Sometimes I do worry that they [Apple] are a bit tyrannical and a bit silly.

Facebook is really just AOL but brushed up for the modern user generated content world.

It’s really quite watchable:

Stephen Fry – OggCamp 12 Interview

I need your help: challenge me something!

Find a horizon
Find a horizon

In three months, I want to have completed 7 personal challenges.

I’m not too bothered about where the achievements weigh in on a global scale – I’m not trying to set a world record – just a “Tim record”.

I need your help to help me work out what to do. I’ve had a few ideas, some of them are ok, some of them aren’t so great. What do you think I’d find challenging?

A note: challenges have to be vaguely appealing to me – it doesn’t matter whether playing golf or BASE jumping are challenging, I don’t want to do either.

“Fitness”

Other suggestions welcome

  • Complete a street marathon
  • Swim over 100m across open, cold water without assistance
  • Swim 30 consecutive lengths in a 50 metre pool
  • Drop a stone in weight and maintain it for at least 30 days.
  • Be able to do 50 sit ups in 5 minutes
  • Be able to do 10 consecutive pull ups
  • Run 70km over 7 consecutive days
  • Run 10km in under an hour
  • Climb up and down x000 metres in xxhours (how many?!)
  • Do a 20 mile hill walk
  • Do a 30 mile hill walk

“Skills”

Other suggestions welcome

  • Get baseline climbing qualifications
  • Get baseline kayaking qualifications
  • Get baseline windsurfing qualifications
  • Get surfing lessons
  • Go paragliding
  • Bake something new
  • Make a short film (must not be a documentary, music video or advert)

“Culture”

Other suggestions welcome

  • Throw two, 3 course, dinner parties
  • Perform two open mic nights
  • Prepare an entertaining 30 minute talk on notechnical subject and give it at two barcamps
  • Learn the Melbourne Shuffle
  • Write a song for Youtube

“Technology”

If anyone can suggest technical challenges that are actual challenges, that’d be good.

  • Be able to deploy a 4 machine Magento cluster from a script (or systems provisioning system) with mysql master-master replication, Varnish ESI, local CDN, SSL, sane firewalls and low impact scheduled backups.

“Travel”

I’d quite like to have a travel section here, but I can’t think of anything that sounds appealing that’s a challenge. (I’m not a fan of “x countries in x hours” because it seems rather shortsighted, and liable to make sure you only see a bunch of airport lounges, in addition most “visit this country” challenges seem to essentially be “spend some money”, which isn’t really a challenge – the challenge was getting the money or being a creative routefinder.)

  • Travel by as many different modes of transport as possible from A to B

So yeah, which 7 of these should I do? What should I do that’s not on this list?

You tell me.

“Hi I’m An Engineer”

I’ve blogged in the past about my difficulties in explaining my job as a Systems Administrator to my parents

Sadly, this also applies to most other people who don’t work in an internet related field… and even more frustratingly, I don’t have the time to explain it all to those who really want to understand.

I know I’m not the only one who suffers from blank looks and misconceptions when I talk about my day job, so this video really hit home.

For the first time in his life, Khai is about to attend a speed dating session. Not knowing what to expect, he is led through a journey of discovery and surprises.

“Hi I’m An Engineer” by CREATE Film Festival

via Dan Smith

Problem: How long will it take to fix it?

As a geek, one generally gets good at fixing things.

An interesting thing about technology, as opposed to say, carpentry, is that generally it’s very very small things that have significant implications. Frequently you spend a lot more time looking for the problem than you do actually implementing the solution.

Example:

  1. The symptoms: your website is taking a long time to load
  2. Diagnosis: check reproducibility, check server load, check for user error, check server error logs, see strange message in them and google.
  3. The problem: there’s a memory limit in the webserver program that’s set too low
  4. The solution: double a number in a config file and restart the webserver program
  5. The fix: do the solution (takes less than a minute)
The problem with this job, is that you're always 10 minutes from being done.
The problem with this job, is that you're always 10 minutes from being done.

One of the downsides of this, is that it’s really difficult to predict how long it’s going to take you to fix something. If fixing the problem is quick, yet correctly diagnosing the problem is much more time consuming, things can be frustrating for end users who ask the perfectly reasonable question:

When will it be fixed?

which as you can see doesn’t really have an easy answer – by the time you’re completely sure you’ve correctly diagnosed the problem, you’ve probably already fixed it.

Someone on reddit very eloquently summed up how you should explain the situation next time:

“Imagine you had lost your keys. You have no idea where they are. Now, tell me, when will you have found them?”

Inspired by a post on /r/sysadmin

Hackers and Repetition

Sometimes reddit throws up some fantastic stuff about life and work.

Repetitive tasks
Repetitive tasks

This graph really highlights what’s frequently referred to as the first hacker virtue “Laziness”. Instead of being content to do a task manually, they want to sit around and do less of that, thus the second hacker virtue “Impatience” comes in to play. The hacker gets impatient with the repetitiveness of the task and thus automates it – a time vs tasks trade off. They should recieve less “tasks” in the long term but there is an upfront cost in terms of time and effort.

Of course, this is a big simplification, and I feel like I’m botching an explanation – you can read more about all that here.

Anyway, go away and automate something. If that’s not in your capabilities, consider learning.

My first Javascript program

Embarrassingly for a techie, my coding skills are somewhat lacking – despite various dabblings, my focus largely having been system administration without a firm basis in basic programming logic. :(

Clearly, if this is something I’m wanting taught in schools, I should make an effort to learn and understand about it myself however there are plenty of bits of code that I aspire to make small modifications to, yet lack the knowledge to do so.

Codecademy‘s high profile launch of CodeYear, provided the perfect, gentle opportunity, to quickly get to grips with some really basic concepts without feeling patronised or rushed or guilty of wasting someone’s time.

I’ve just completed the Codecademy week 1 courses, and my biggest success so far is putting together this simple Javascript FizzBuzz game program. Not a ground breaking achievement, but considering this is (apparently) a frequently used interview task, it certainly feels like something has been accomplished!

Onwards!

Javascript (execute in Firebug debugger)

// What number shall we play up to?
var number = 100

// for the numbers 1 through 20,
for (i=1; i<=number; i++) {

// if the number is divisble by 3 and 5, write "FizzBuzz"
if ( i % 3 === 0 && i % 5 === 0 ) {
console.log("FizzBuzz");
}

// if the number is divisible by 3, write "Fizz"
else if ( i % 3 === 0 ) {
console.log("Fizz");
}

// if the number is divisible by 5, write "Buzz"
else if ( i % 5 === 0 ) {
console.log("Buzz");
}

// otherwise, write just the number
else {
console.log(i);
}
}