Karma in 2014

by Damon Payne 19. February 2014 21:27

I believe in the concept of Karma. Not in the mystic sense, but more in the "Big Data" sense, the Chaos Theory sense, the Economists' "Unintended Consequences" sense, the Software Architect's "Action at a distance" design flaw. Given a sufficiently limiting scope of time ( say a human lifetime ) and a real or virtual community (the state of Texas, the Stack Exchange community, the Milwaukee Startup Scene) your actions will come back to you. It's never a good idea to make that hard sale, it's better to say to that customer "Listen, this is our value proposition, but it's starting to look like we may not be a fit right now." It's better to tell that potential employee "Listen, I'd love to have you, but I get a sense from the questions you're asking that we can't give you that kind of environment right now." Yes, there are many people out there who won't recognize what you've done for them with your honesty. Some will even hold you in contempt for it, "Moron! He almost got me to sign!" Generally speaking, though, people in America are generally good. Half of them are of above average intelligence. The next time that failed business deal needs to be sure they get an honest answer, they may remember the person who gave them the truth to their own detriment. The almost-employee refers their friends to you, the almost-client mentions you to their friends. It's a long term view in a world that focuses on short-horizon $200million startup exits. It's a view worth considering.


Business | Personal | Technical Community

Hard Work and the Golden Hours

by Damon Payne 19. April 2013 20:00

I’ve been reading Alex St. John’s blog for a while, and it’s just amazing. His stories of ancient Microsoft history, his tracing popular video game features to fundamental human behavior shaped by evolution, his insistence on the importance of hard work and commentary American Privilege. A couple of his articles lately, though, have kicked me right in the throat. If you have any entrepreneurial aspirations, I highly recommend:

Educated Idiots

Café Easy

I might also throw in this less recent one from Hanselman:

I’m a Phony. Are you?

Over Sharing Inbound

I sometimes feel like these articles were written directly to me, probably because I’ve internalized a lot of guilt. Guilt about not taking action on my ideas. After all, since software is eating the world it doesn’t seemed too far fetched that every competent software developer is sitting on a gold mine. The only thing between me and amazing success is the will to make it so. Yet, I have no idea what I did with my 20s (professionally) and despite often thinking about and working on business ideas, I’m still a wantrepreneur in my late 30s. The Saint’s comments on work-life balance are what really got to me. My week night schedule might be something like:

•    Get up at a questionably late hour, go to my good-paying job.
•    Come home, make an unnecessarily elaborate dinner.
•    Hang out with kids, clean up, etc.
•    Hang out with wife
•    Devote a few pre-bedtime brain cycles to open source projects, blogging, continuous learning, and modeling stuff for one of my business ideas.

Unsurprisingly, I can think of no successful business owners who share my story. Have you ever read an interview with a truly successful individual that sounded anything like “Yeah, we worked 10 hours a week or so on this, no big deal, until it was done and we hit it big.”

I’m doing better than I ever have before in my life, yet it’s still not enough. One of the reasons why I haven’t been participating in community as much is because I’ve been writing huge amounts of code. It’s not enough, it’s not getting done fast enough for my taste. There needs to be more hard work. Some people may find themselves in an existential dilemma trying to figure out what to cut out so there’s time for more productive work. In my case, this has been an evil exercise. I shouldn’t spend less time with my kids! Surely not less time with my wife! I need my sleep and exercise. I need my movies and video games to decompress from the “hard work” and “stress” of my day job. Yet I shed a tear when I think about how much time I played Diablo 3 last year. (Not really, but I should be ashamed!).

This is where The Saint’s words hit home. If you’re content with the overall trajectory of your life and career, there would be nothing wrong with seeking balance between work/sleep/games/movies/wife&children/hobbies.  If you’re not, though, you need to think really hard about how much down time and “balance” you actually need. If you’ve always wanted to be a blogger with a million followers or a successful Micro ISV writing phone apps, or to become an independent consultant,  what value will you place on ‘balance” when you look back and realize you are no closer to those goals than you were years ago?

Golden Hours

The real problem in insisting that a few days of productivity entitles one to some marathon gaming sessions or re-watching all of Battle Star Galactica is the value of the particular hours when most of us are doing our side work or learning projects. I call these the Golden Hours.

Many of us, in our day jobs, are not afforded much focus. We may be committing code on multiple projects, reviewing our peer’s code, and generally participating in various unfortunate unproductive activities. No so during the Golden Hours.

My home workstation setupis slightly better than what my employer gives me. There’s a door I can close and I can play music through my excellent Klipsch PC speakers. The house is quiet, my family is asleep, there’s some red wine on my desk, and the time of night where my mind is most awake and focus approaches. What to do with this time?

If you have the numbers available, take a look at your favorite PC games (or Xbox or PS3) and see how many hours you spent playing your favorite games. Suppose that number was 400 hours last year. (oh, if only it were a mere 400 hours last year) At your day job that 400 hours may represent a fiscal quarter worth of office hours and you may have built a major module or accomplished a similar cog-in-the-machine type of contribution. But now, you’re at home. You’re using only the tools you love, only the libraries and frameworks you love. No architect has told you what you can’t do and how you can’t do it, no scrum master has told you Boring Crud Screen must take priority over Interesting Problem from a later sprint. The Golden Hours where you are awake and in your most productive environment approach. Now what could you do in 400 hours?

This, for me, is the true tragedy of seeking balance with hobbies, entrepreneurial dreams, and the stuff that actually must get done. Many of us have ambitions and skills, but proceed to spend the most productive time we have available surfing hacker news, watching zombie movies, online gaming, engaging in meaningless debates on twitter, or re-connecting with people we hated in high school on Facebook.

You may in fact reach a point where your brain is Jell-O and you truly need some downtime in order to return to productivity. Most of us probably indulge ourselves way, way too early though. I suspect that, like training your body with a “couch to 5k” program, you can train your mind to expect a life of more and more productive work and less and less Archer or Game of Thrones.

It’s easy for a programmer to do incredibly well in America today. If you want more, though, If you want to be really disgustingly successful, you must evaluate every activity through a simple heuristic: is this simply indulging my entitlement to wealth and leisure, or is this moving a possible revenue stream forward?


Personal | Business | Technical Community

On Stock Options

by Damon Payne 13. February 2013 13:26

I have always considered stock options to be Monopoly Money. I came of age in the 80s and 90s and grew up watching the creation of Microsoft Millionairs and .Com millionairs but I never put much stock (pardon the pun) in this as a source of wealth. It's easy to look at successful companies like Microsoft whose stock split so many times and think of stock options as a path to wealth for the average worker bee.

I've spent my career up to this point in the midwest, and I saw some of my friends working heroic hours to make something happen for their company. Their motivation was going public and (at least) paying off their homes with stock sale proceeds. For a long time part of my fear of stock options was due to a bit of small-minded thinking: I couldn't envision any of these small Wisconsin companies making it big, and therefore viewed these stock options as essentially motivating a lot of free effort for the company by promising the moon to employees eager to cash out on a big deal.

My main issue, though, is that I find employees are generally woefully under-educated about exactly what kind of stock they are given and what they can do with their stock options. This Ars Technica article is just the latest in a long stream of examples. Stock Options, and Common Stock in general, often exist at the pleasure of the company. This is not to say that in-writing agreements are discarded at will when it's convienient, but rather that employees are not usually presented with the whole picture. You will happily sign something saying "We are granting you XXXX shares of Common Stock" without knowing there may be so much preferred stock that the likelihood of you getting any money out of a company sale is incredibly small. As Dell employees are now finding out, the bylaws of any company may also allow so many restrictions to be placed on stock options that only the narrowest sequences of events could even lead to an employee exercising & selling in a moderately profitable fashion.

As an aside: this also brings to light one of my personal biases. I'm extremely old-fashioned in that I greatly prefer stocks that regularly pay dividends out of profit. I find this a much more sound concept than the current practice of what essentially amounts to speculation on stock price. So many non-market forces (rumors, etc) can affect the market valuation of publicly-traded companies.

As the article about Dell points out, the higher you are on the food chain the more likely you are to do well with company stock. Call me cynical, but it's hard to look at this situation and call it anything but the top-decision makers fixing the game in their favor. Enron-style practices that allow executives to sell stock while employees are in a blackout period are common. Preferred stock agreements that gaurantee minimum share prices for executives even to the point of employees earning nothing from a sale are common.  The rules are complex and often hidden in secret company charters or in SEC filings that only employees with extremely deep financial knowledge can decipher. While the premise of encouraging the best employee actions by giving them a piece of the pie is a sound one, it's sometimes hard to look at these stories as anything but a case of fraud.



Business | Personal | Technical Community

The Future of Retail

by Damon Payne 27. December 2012 15:40
TL;DR – The retail industry should look closely at current and future reality. Many retail businesses should accept that consumers like “kicking the tires” at brick-and-mortar locations, but want the prices and service of etailers like Amazon.com. Create a hybrid model where you go try that TV out at a Best Buy a few miles away, but it nearly always ships from a warehouse rather than you taking it home that instant.
Over the past 15 years I have watched industry after industry fight the advance of technology.

Let's think about some industries in the age of the Internet:

Real Estate.

The way we’re doing things now are profitable, proven, known, safe, comfortable.

Some of these battles are still going on; some of them are clearly over. I’m sure I’m not the first person to observe that each of these industries faced a challenge, a choice, and an opportunity. The challenge is that old models are clearly going to be attacked. Consumers want something new. Consumers can see that the technology exists for them to get what they want in the way they want it. The choice and opportunity is to either fight the new way, or to own it. The music industry could have owned digital content distribution. They chose to fight it instead, and now Apple is eating their lunch. I have a few contacts in all areas of the music business and related fields including artists, studio owners, and electronics manufacturers. They all live in fear of Apple. Apple says how high to jump. Apple owns it, because they waited too long and fought too hard.

Listing your home, inexpensively, using the Internet works. Your local Realtor would surely rather you pay them a 6% commission to do the same job. In my state and others, they spend a lot of money lobbying state legislatures to craft incredibly ridiculous laws that make some parts of the business models of Zillow, Trulia, or our own BuyHomes.com, illegal: under the guise of “protecting consumers” of course. The truth is these are all distortions of reality. It is reality that consumers want and can get music electronically: one way or another. It’s reality that when I sold my last house I paid BuyHomes.com $500 and a real estate attorney $400 and saved a fortune in commissions. When you tell consumers to ignore the man behind the curtain so you can keep doing what you have always done, you eventually lose.

What Year Is It?


I have, many times, been standing in a Best Buy needing help. For a long time. Maybe I need an employee to scan this iPad to tell me if it’s the new retina display model (it’s not indicated clearly on the box). Maybe I need to know if this TV is in stock. I’ve also had a 16 year old who doesn’t realize they’re talking to a life long Audio/Video nut try to tell me what this amazing Monster Cable is going to do for my sound system. I feel like Best Buy is practically pushing me out of their stores towards online sellers.
 As I consider myself an ethical person, I feel downright slimy on the (extremely few) cases where I have “kicked the tires” on an item in a store and simply bought it for less online. In other cases, like Best Buy, I feel they had a chance to earn my business and failed miserably. In still other situations, I went to Kohl’s to buy a pair of shoes and they didn’t have my size in stock. The salesperson dutifully offers to order them and they’ll be in in a week. A week? What year is it? Amazon will have these to me in two days, thank you very much. Now Amazon is even working on Same Day Delivery!

So What Should Retail Do?


Admit to reality and work witin reality?
There are obvious benefits from being able to walk into a brick and mortar location and kick the tires on electronics, clothing, etc. The cost of having a big enough store to have hundreds of TVs and 300 of the latest Xbox in stock is huge. The models for how the stores are ran and laid out are ancient. Amazon.com is just going to undercut you anyway. Consumers want to kick the tires and then buy online, so embrace this model.
I can envision a future where I walk into an Amazon.com branded electronics store. They have ONE of various models of TV, ONE BluRay player, etc. I can kick the tires. Only the most obvious new release movies & music are there for me to carry out of the store. Only the most current game releases are in stock. They have close to zero shipping/fulfillment because there’s essentially no inventory, no more in the back. There are kiosks positioned throughout the store where I can sign in and order the TV I was just looking at. I get my Amazon points, my Amazon Prime shipping, and everything else I’ve grown accustomed to since first becoming a customer in 1997 or so.
Best of all, I have not a shred of guilt. The store manager isn’t looking at me sideways, knowing I’m going to go home and shop around for the best deal on that wine ‘fridge. Retail will only exist in its current form in Boutique settings.


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About the author

Damon Payne is a Microsoft MVP specializing in Smart Client solution architecture. 

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