Gas up or plug in?

With the recent increase in the price of oil, Harold nails a very important idea:

An interesting dichotomy is appearing in our world. The price of communication is decreasing while the price of transportation is increasing. Most of our transportation systems rely on oil and it is becoming more expensive to travel any distance.At the same time, many of us have the luxury of cheap global communications, with fixed monthly long-distance rates, e-mail and more recently – voice over IP.

Unlike Harold, I suspect this will not help telework since the reasons why people want to have their employees over company desks is a matter of control. No matter how much it costs, people will want to feel they can control their employees’ time. And this is not some kind of evil plan. The reality is that most people are unreliable: when left alone, most people will not work on their assigned tasks or not at all. I’ve supervised enough students to know what can happen, even with the brightest people.

We have to look at this new phenomenon in relationship with the aging population.

As consumers, we may come to choose to expect goods and services to come to us. The large mall everybody drives to, might be replaced by smaller local stores people can walk to. Night classes might be replaced by online classes.

Paul Graham – What Business Can Learn from Open Source

Just read the latest article from Paul Graham. This guy is so brilliant, it is amazing. Here are some of his insights:

On Business versus technology…

It’s a lot harder to create something people love than to take something people love and figure out how to make money from it.

About online publishing…

Those in the print media who dismiss the writing online because of its low average quality are missing an important point: no one reads the average blog. In the old world of channels, it meant something to talk about average quality, because that’s what you were getting whether you liked it or not. But now you can read any writer you want. So the average quality of writing online isn’t what the print media are competing against. They’re competing against the best writing online. And, like Microsoft, they’re losing.

About working 9-5…

The basic idea behind office hours is that if you can’t make people work, you can at least prevent them from having fun. If employees have to be in the building a certain number of hours a day, and are forbidden to do non-work things while there, then they must be working. In theory. In practice they spend a lot of their time in a no-man’s land, where they’re neither working nor having fun.

About meetings…

The problem with the facetime model is not just that it’s demoralizing, but that the people pretending to work interrupt the ones actually working. I’m convinced the facetime model is the main reason large organizations have so many meetings. Per capita, large organizations accomplish very little. And yet all those people have to be on site at least eight hours a day. When so much time goes in one end and so little achievement comes out the other, something has to give. And meetings are the main mechanism for taking up the slack.

Expert Opinion: U.S. losing lead in science and engineering?

I like Michael though I don’t always agree with him. This time, I entirely agree with his recent post of the US losing the lead in technology. Why are people predicting that the US will fall apart? Because of offshoring. Yeah. Right. Michael says it all:

So, the cost advantage of offshoring will be transitory: enough to jump start high-tech industries in developing countries, but insufficient to do permanent damage to the US engineering profession.

I’m not saying that the US economy will not fall apart in the next few years. It could. Our economies have become very unstable. We are clearly in a highly non linear system and making long term predictions is futile.However, claiming that the not-so-sudden lost of interest of your Americans for some technology topics will be the cause of the US downfall is just silly.

Back in 1990, there were predictions of serious shortages of Ph.D.s People were predicting that we may have to close universities.More than 10 years later, not only do we have no shortages, but we clearly have way too many Ph.D.s even in technology. I don’t have any numbers, but I’m sure we have many barely employed nanotechnology or biotechnology researchers in Canada.

Is the US going to lose its edge? Maybe. Will it lose its edge because all the good engineers will be abroad? Be serious!!!

MYTH: NDAs are a Good Idea

Thanks to Downes, I found this beautiful post on why asking for a NDA is like screaming that you are clueless. This comes back to the unnecessary lack of openess I complain about. For every guy willing to implement an idea, you have a thousand ideas out there if not more. Ideas are simply not that valuable.

What was Microsoft idea? You think it was to create DOS and sell it to IBM’s customer. No way! This only came onto them. Take any successful venture, look at the idea behind it and you’ll notice that it was either wrong or not that brilliant.

Good idea are not important, good people are. An idea without the brain holding it is nothing.

This is why we have universities and not merely libraries, btw.

Marshall’s Web Tool Blog: Blog Possibilities

Wow. According to Marshall, the New York Times reported last year that blogging can be an effective way to get a job:

“It’s a trend on the rise right now,” Mr. Gartenberg [industry analyst at JupiterResearch] said, “especially for employers, who get a much better sense of a person this way. Resumes and interviews are a very scripted process; read someone’s Web log and you get a good sense of that person’s thinking and perspectives.”

I actually believe this. If you are a small or distributed company, this might be a very effective way to find interesting potential recruits.

I don’t think universities are yet desperate enough to hire professors based on Ph.D. students blogs. But for many less “formal” jobs, this seems like a great way to go.

I must be honest: I hired people based on their web sites, and I’ve recommended to students that they setup a web site as a way to increase their employability.

Now, what about me? I’m rather nasty on this blog sometimes, so I probably decrease my employability. What do you think? Do I increase or decrease the probability that I’ll get a sudden job offer by running this blog?

How to Start a Startup

Paul Graham has done it again. He wrote a beautiful article on How to Start a Startup:

You need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed.

I did start what one could call a startup and I failed. I did work like hell for a few short years. I made some good money, but all of it is long gone. However, I learned a lot.

One issue was that we didn’t have the right people. The other issue is that my love of money was not great enough. You’ve got to actually badly want to make money. All I wanted was to find a way to get paid to do interesting work.

These days, the money suck (a professorship is no way to make a living), but I pretty do what I like to do.

I think I still mostly want to be left in peace to my own ideas and work with collaborators I like. I think I’m succeeding at getting what I want. I will never become a big shot professor running a large laboratory (I would hate it), I will never become a filthy rich industry consultant (though I wouldn’t mind doubling my salary) because I will always pick contracts out of interest more than out of greed.

Lesson? I don’t know. Don’t listen to me, listen to Paul Graham and go start a startup, become filthy rich. It sounds like a great plan. I’m a lost cause.

Market Diversification by

Harold has a good post on Market Diversification:

In Canada, we continue to focus almost exclusively on exporting to the US. As Godfrey puts it, Wal*Mart does more business with China than all of Canada does. The business development strategies that I see presented at every “innovation” forum in the region have the same old story presented by analysts, bureaucrats and government. That story is about exporting our products and services to the US. The talk about diversified global markets is negligible. Given the warning signals on the state of the US economy, it would make sense not to put all of our economic eggs in one basket, n’est-ce pas?

I think Canada will probably suffer in the coming years given its very intense relationship with the USA. However, we have many young bright Chinese in Canada…

My experience so far with Google ads

This is depressing. My blog gets millions of page loads per day (not really). So, being greedy (not really), I decided to put some ads on it. Hence, I put some Google ads following Yuhong’s foot steps. Well, so far, not a single click. Not one of you guys clicked on one of the ads.

I never thought I would make any money, but I still expected a few clicks a week.

To be fair, I think these ads are fairly useless. Right now, I see ads about blogging software. Maybe I write too much about blogging?

Consulting: my experience on when to drop a client

I have been consulting for several years. I think my first consultant job was around 1999 or even 1998. I think I told the story on this blog before: I had planned to finish my Ph.D. and then move into industry. At that point, I faced a wall: very few companies in Montreal were looking for fresh Ph.D.s. I cannot blame them, but back then, it was a big disappointment for me. So, I went into R&D consulting with companies outside Montreal (Paris, Ottawa, Marseille…). It seems there is a fairly good supply of companies lacking a solid R&D department, but needing the R&D. At least, that’s true during some economic cycles. So, I provide ideas, software, documentation, against fair compensation over a couple of months or slightly more. I usually get to keep ownership of some of my work though some of it remain secret.

I stopped consulting for a few years while I was at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). But now that I’m back as a university professor, I’m back into consulting.

Why do consulting? Firstly, it is fun: you get to work on mostly exciting (read:new) projects that have some importance. Secondly, it pays well enough. If you contribute significantly to a project, you might even be able to negotiate some profit sharing: I was once offered 5% of a company or some cash (I took the cash). Consulting is also a special kind of business: it is focused on your expertise and not on business expertise. You are may have to write bills and do some accounting, but you don’t have to deal with bankers and venture capital, with hiring 30 people and finding offices. Consulting also keep you on your toes: you have to keep learning about the new trends. It also gives you valuable insights into what is really important in the industry and what isn’t.

Why not do consulting? Uncertain times: you might make $30k in a few short weeks, and then make absolutely nothing for a month or more. If you can live with it, it is not so bad because you can use the free time to do other work like research or learning a new computer language. If times get tough, you might have to do some jobs you don’t particularly care for. Also, consulting is not like building a company or a product: your clients do this, not you. Hence, your growth is limited: you can only sell the time you have and this has some pretty dire consequences on how you manage your “business”.

As a consultant, you sell mostly one thing: your time. And you have a finite supply of it. This means you must be extremely picky about the projects you do and clients you work with. You must make absolutely sure that it leads you somewhere because agreeing to one project means you can’t do some other project someone else will offer you down the line.

This is somewhat counterintuitive at first. You’d think that you’d want to agree to do as many projects as you possibly can, and be nice to all clients. That might be true if you sell T-shirts, but not if you are a consultant.

So, how do you recognize a good project and a good client? Bad projects are not so bad as bad client since most consulting jobs are over short periods.However, sticking with a bad client can have terrible consequences. Fortunately, a good client is somewhat easy to recognize. A good client is someone who wants to work with you specifically and has good reasons to do so.

How to recognize a bad client:

  • He will try to bully you in accepting terms that are not acceptable to you. For example, I’ve had a client try on several occasions to intimidate me into lowering my hourly fee to about a third of my usual hourly fee.
  • He will have a selective memory. As a consultant, you don’t carry along a lawyer, so you need to trust the client to remember the terms you’ve agreed to. This is usually not a problem with real business people as they can’t stay in business with selective memories unless they are called Bill Gates. I suggest that the minute you find out the client as a defective memory, you run away.
  • You don’t see how the client has any need for your skills or the client doesn’t/can’t understand what you can offer. This has happened to me quite often due to the highly specialized nature of my work.

Through Jarche, I found out this nice article in Startup Journal which points out the very same thing. Knowing when to drop a client or a project is one of the most important skill you can learn as a consultant:

(…) I’d just been advised to seek a portfolio of engagements that will spawn new experiences and opportunities, listen to my heart and assess the tradeoffs of each opportunity. So I thought to myself, I don’t love what I do for this CEO and working for him isn’t expanding my network, making me rich or helping me to achieve my long-term goals. Should I allow him to chip away at me every time I see him?

No questions there. I resigned, confident that I can replace the revenue with more fulfilling and remunerative work. More importantly, I began to feel for perhaps the first time that I’m on the right road.