Mister Incredible

31st October 2009: My good friend and partner-in-crime Stuart, gets married and there’s a fancy dress themed reception. Arlene picks out a Mister Incredible suit for me (and she goes as Dorothy).

31st August 2011: For my wedding anniversary, my wife buys me a wetsuit and then insists I wear it, strike a few poses and then posts them on the Internet.

So yes, you can all have a good laugh 🙂

Sweat

In humans, sweating is primarily a means of thermoregulation. Hence, in hot weather, or when the individual’s muscles heat up due to exertion, more sweat is produced. Sweating is increased by nervousness and nausea and decreased by cold.Perspiration, Wikipedia.

Ignoring the weather, sweat is produced by exertion, nervousness and nausea.

And this helps me define sweat equity – because if you’ve been involved in the start of a business and you have not experienced exertion, nervousness and nausea, then you do not deserve equity.

In startup culture, sweat equity is often a vital component especially in economies which have low seed funding. Giving co-founders and early employees a stake in your business (often as a way of making up for below market wages or even just not paying at all) is something that should encouraged for startups without seed capital but it has to be done carefully.

When bringing someone into the company you have to examine not only their ability but their commitment and their intentions. Investigating these factors requires a lot more than technical or purely project management skills, it’s about relating as a friend but at the same time attempting to be objective. After all, as a company director you are bound by law to look after the interests of the company as if it were a child; which in many ways, it is.

My first experience with sweat equity was also my first complete failure to deal with the ramifications. This was my publishing company. Though there was a handful of us, the sweat was all mine. While minor contributions came from others, the vast majority of the work fell on my shoulders and that was in being creative, being an administrator and also, holding down a job to allow others the free time to do their small bits. We used sweat equity because what we were doing was a lot of fun; it wasn’t work in the traditional sense. End result: we didn’t lose money but we didn’t make a whole lot. It was a game, a way of making sure we had somewhere to stow our bags when we went to games conventions rather than something we treated as a business.

My second experience was in my first proper IT company. I gave everyone equal votes in the company despite the drive to succeed being mine, the initial capital being mine and the risk being all mine. And again I failed to manage the experience; my idealism left me woefully unprepared for the concept that some people think that an equal vote means they get to do what they want. Some people don’t understand democracy, I get that now. And I would hope that I have learned something. I did learn that if you start something, don’t give it away unless you get equal commitment from others. I’ve still not made back the money I invested but it’s working, it’s profitable. And it’s a legacy.

My third was in my software company. I started this with my best friend and I believe it is to his credit that we are still on good terms. He pushed himself to create two fantastic products sacrificing sleep and family time and both times we failed to make a dent in the universe. Something that I feel very personally responsible for. Time moved on and now neither of us are part of that company and to be honest I’m glad. It was tricky letting go but it was for the best – you have to trust your co-workers implicitly and after my friend left, I found I could not trust his replacements to the same degree.

My fourth is a public service value project that I feel strongly about. The aim is to create a range of projects which people can place sweat into and the whole of society benefits. There is an opportunity for the individuals and their companies to benefit financially but for the most part, this is about social conscience.

OpenTranslink takes the data from Translink, turns it into something usable, and gives it away. the opportunity for individual companies is to make something compelling from that base, open, free platform. Whether that is a better timetable app, a tour of the tourist sites, or mashups with other services around the city.

OpenLiveNet, which I started earlier today, is an attempt to provide some assistance to the LiveNet project which is being pioneered by Mencap. They need techies, designers and people who think outside the box. And at this point it’s all just sweat. The equity comes into play once something is discovered. They might get paid to produce something or they may see the opportunity to produce something with wider appeal.

My fifth is a new games company. I love the concept of videogames because in the modern day they encompass every discipline from music to animation to documentary film-making, programming and design, user interface experimentation and marketing: everything is needed to make something amazing. I am pretty much alone in this at the moment but I’m hoping that will change – it’s just hard to find people willing to put sweat in. It may because the risk is so high, it may be because making games is hard work. And it may be because we don’t have enough people.

But this isn’t the same the world over. The recent iPadDevCamp had groups of developers and designers working together to create new innovative products. My friend, now in Canada, has inspired a small group of developers to work with him on his next idea, interestingly enough, a game. I can’t wait to play it.

Sweat is always going to be balanced by risk. It’s easier to find someone to give you an opinion or talk about an idea than it is for them to do something more. A few years ago my postman stopped my on the street and asked me if I could look at his computer for free – he had discovered that I was a some sort of computer geek according to the magazine subscriptions I maintained. I was at a loss: this was my livelihood. Would it be appropriate to ask him to deliver some parcels for free?

As soon as you encroach on someone’s day job, then you’re into sweat equity in a big way as most people do not like their work. they may be good at it but the last thing they want to do on an evening is spend even more time doing stuff that they are forced to do on a daily basis.

But what about the rewards. Only the founders of a company can put a value on sweat and it’s important they place that value correctly not only for their own benefit but for the benefit of those early stage employees as well as the retention of enough equity to sate the initial (and later) investors.

And what if you want more than just a little bit of help – what if your needs are pretty much solid work for several months? Taking on a full time commitment is something that is hard for many to stomach. It’s going to either take a massive leap of faith, quick revenues or a sizeable seed investment to get developers to come on board to build your next wonder widget. And it’s harder here than in other regions because on average we are 20% poorer than the UK as a whole. We earn less, our cost of living is the same or higher: we are poorer than our peers. This means we tend not to have savings to fall back on because we simply cannot afford them. This limits our ability to add sweat.

But this does not mean that sweat equity does not exist here. When I see local companies like AirPOS, DataSentiment or Onotate, I am inspired. I know that these guys have worked through their exertion, nervousness and nausea. I know that their sweat was earned and not freely given or taken.

So, about that game company…

It’s been an exciting week.

On Tuesday morning I met with Leo Galway, John Girvin, Conor McCluskey, Darin Smyth and Christian McGilloway regarding the formation of a local ‘games development cluster’. Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea and so now we’re looking for a good brand to help identify the cluster.

This coming week (Thursday 25th March) I’ve organised an event with Belfast Metropolitan College called “INGAGE” which stands for “Innovation in Gaming in Education”. We’ve got an engaging calendar planned out for the day.

During the academic year 2009-2010, Belfast Metropolitan College, supported by Digital Circle and the Department of Employment and Learning, introduced a new extracurricular games development ‘club’ for students taking the games design courses at the college.

This event will serve to highlight the work undertaken by the students in the ‘l33t Creations’ club as well as highlight some work being done by other creatives in the games industry in Northern Ireland.

AGENDA

10.00 am Arrival / Registration
10.30 am BMC Welcome Trevor Smyth
10.40 am Welcome & Overview of Project
Darin Smyth / Christian McGilloway
11.00 am Guest Speaker Greg Maguire
Q & A
12.00 pm Demos
Lunch
1.00 pm Guest Speakers
Straandlooper
Mark Cullen
Brendan McGoran
2.00 pm Closing remarks – Reid Lynas

Attendance is free and refreshments will be provided. Local companies wishing to network are welcome. But you have to RSVP!

And lastly, but not least, I’ve been working on the UI for the game I mentioned the other day.

IMG_0937

I’ve spent this evening documenting the Touch Events which will need to be plugged into Unity3D. It’s my job to document the UI, then to write the story and do the research.

I’m still trying to think of a name for the games company (though I have some ideas) and I’m putting together a team of people who can actually manage to pull this together. I provide the ideas – it’s others who will provide the implementation in many ways.

Anyone want to help?

The Third Generation of Personal Computers

Only a small percentage of people think of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace when they think of computers. Babbage conceived of a mechanical computer and Lovelace became the first programmer. Both were extraordinarily gifted mathematicians and their work underlies the modern world of computing. (In their time, a computer was actually the “operator of the computer”).

DifferenceEngine

Of course, the first difference engine was composed of around 25,000 parts, weighed fifteen tons (13,600 kg), and stood 8 ft (2.4 m) high. (Reference: Wikipedia). The march of progress would quickly change computers from being massive mechanical machines into massive electronic machines; they’d still fill rooms and no-one would really want one for the home.

Computers are not like this any more.
Computers are not like this any more.

A few decades later and computers were still heavy, complex, static machines and no-one would really want one in their home. It took a serendipitous meeting in an equally serendipitous place to create the first personal computers. This generation had screens, keyboards and it would be possible (and even desirable) to have one at home.

apple2c.big>

But computers were still complex, still businessy and still a little stuffy. There were limits to what could be achieved with that generation and no-one seemed to be up to the challenge of making computers even better. We were stuck in the Bronze Age of computing. It took another set of serendipitous circumstances. A decade later and there was another breakthrough, another generation was born.

macintosh-color-classic

Now computers were ‘friendlier’, a new paradigm had been invented and everyone copied it. The only problem was that as everyone copied they neglected to innovate and computers didn’t change. We were stuck again as the variations seemed to be more about adding different varieties of eye candy. One thing became certain – the newer graphic user interfaces made computers easier to understand, made it easier for non-technical individuals to grasp computing concepts. However – we were stuck in this Silver Age for twenty five years. Whether you used a Mac, the derivative Windows or Linux (which modelled almost all of it’s user interface elements on Windows or the Mac), you were using an interface which was first released to the public in 1984.

So, I’m obviously angling that the iPad is the third generation of Personal Computer, that it ushers in a new Golden Age of computing. And I really believe this. Apple tried it back in the 90s with the Newton – and if you don’t think the Newton was insanely great then you obviously never used one.

201001272309405_apple-ipad-1.gif

It’s true the iPad removes most of the OS from the end user. But is this a bad thing?

If you’re like me you spend a lot of time with the operating system of a computer. I can always find something to fiddle with, something to pay attention to with just the basic OS. With the iPhone (and by extension, the iPad), I can’t do too much other than flick between screens. This is not a bad thing. It’s going to be all about the software.

While there’s a lot of attention on the iPhone towards apps like WeightBot – apps which do one simple thing really well – we’re going to see a whole plethora of new apps which do one complex thing really well on the iPad. We have seen Pages, Numbers, Keynote on iPad and it’s only a matter of time before we see apps like Soulver, Coda, OmniGraffle and even iMovie.

We’ll only see one thing at a time on the screen and again, that’s no bad thing. We can concentrate on the task at hand. (Yes, I believe Apple is going to give us the ability to run certain AppStore-authorised third-party background processes soon so we can run location apps, Spotify and other ‘essentials’) but it will be a task oriented computer. And if Apple released a version of Xcode for iPad, would there be the same debate?

I can’t wait.

(Inspired by Mike Cane’s post regarding Jef Raskin being the father of the iPad)

And even back then in 1979, Raskin saw very far ahead:

The third generation personal computers will be self-contained, complete, and essentially un-expandable.

Open Data

After not travelling long-distance for around 15 years, I found myself in San Francisco twice this year. San Francisco has many similarities to Belfast – a plethora of neighbourhoods, a strong history of civil rights activity and the majority of economic activity being firmly in the ‘S’ part of SME.

San Francisco also has an initiative to open City data such as crime statistics, restaurant health codes and municipal recycling information. This will be stored at DataSF.org. Northern Ireland’s equivalent is the recently launched OpenDataNI initiaitve.

These efforts are aimed at the citizen as well as the entrepreneur. There’s nothing stopping a smart developer/designer from building and marketing a service that uses open data in a new and interesting way. Whether that’s directing individuals to recycling spots around the city or mixing school and crime data together with a property rental service (something I’m guessing we’ll see coming out of Propertypal judging by some of their recent tweets – smart guys!)

We already have some innovators in this arena and Momentum / Digital Circle is working to foster additional development. I’ve been working to develop the already exciting iPhone development community in Northern Ireland. DevDays in April attracted 155 people and Refresh Belfast last Monday got 90 people through the door focusing on iPhone Design despite a literally last minute venue mishap due to double-booking.

Momentum / Digital Circle are launching a Mobile Application Challenge in the coming weeks. The premise is to get folk out there displaying some of the work they are doing in Mobile Applications (featuring but not limited to iPhone development) and getting them in front of potential investors and also a potential audience. By focusing on the areas of Consumer, Health & Wellbeing, Public Service Value and Enterprise, we’re showing off some of the excellent work that goes on behind closed doors or under license to other companies in other countries. We’re putting together a series of workshops – highlighting design, Connected Health, applications which use the Cellular network and assistance in protection and exploitation of intellectual property.

For open data the possibilities are still yet to be realised and the OpenDataNI staff would love to hear more suggestions on data sources which would benefit the general public. What have we, the public, paid for and yet we don’t have access to?

Dicking around with QR codes..

picture-3

This was generated using Rafael Machado Dohms’ QR Code Generator widget for Mac OS X’s Dashboard.

I then tested it using Christian Brunschen’s Barcodes app from the iPhone App Store – which worked perfectly.

I’m interested in QR codes simply from the point of view of using it to hide messages, whether this be for my own nefarious purposes or for communicating ideas in a Alternate Reality Game.

Over the next couple of days I’m going to see what sort of data I can get in there and still make it legible for the iPhone (which has possibly the worst camera in existence).

Then the game will begin.

Northern Ireland Tech Blog launches…

James Scott launched the Northern Ireland Technology Blog in December 2008 and is providing another useful resource for technology companies and startups.

The site includes news items, profiles on companies, information for startups, details about the vibrant local “grassroots” tech community and information for students as well as a calendar of upcoming events.

The news provided is tech- and province-focussed with information about the whole technology sector in the six counties.

Make the fork not hurt

“Being in IT is kind of like being a doctor with a patient who complains that “It hurts when I stick a fork in my eye.”
John C. Welch writes a quick intro for people new to being a SysAdmin

We, of course, being the logical sort, reply back, in all sincerity and earnestness, “Well, you should stop sticking a fork in your eye then.”

The user, or patient will then look at us like we really are the idiots they believe us to be and say: “No, you don’t understand…I want you to make it stop hurting.“”

I looked at Jack for a minute, like he was fucking crazy, until he said, “The whole problem with IT is that some days, we just can’t make the fork not hurt, and that’s always going to be our fault. It’s why so many IT people drink like fish.”

It’s always been my contention that being a good sysadmin is a vocation rather than a job. Working in IT is 70% personality and 30% technology. You have to fix the problem while, at the same time, making the end user realise that it wasn’t their fault.

And that’s true. If computers worked properly then there’d be no need for sysadmins.

But yes, when a senior manager reads the sentence “clicking this button will overwrite your profile with an older, saved version” and goes ahead, it’s not necessarily the computer’s fault. But when working as a low level IT employee, your manager will receive a call from that senior manager, it’s not the computer’s fault and it’s damn sure not the managers fault, it’s your fault.

Even if you weren’t there, it’s your fault.

You see, you failed to walk on water. You failed to do the impossible.

Geek from "Beauty and the Geek", used without permission

You suck.

Mobile Shell

Back a hundred years ago I used to use my trusty Newton MessagePad 2000 for network support. Armed with a serial cable and a Farallon Ethernet card, I was able to telnet into switches, routers and servers. Add in a modem and it was a mobile email solution for wherever I was. It lightened my load considerably and was considerably easier to use than the company-provided Dell Latitude. The battery life difference (8 hours versus the Dell’s 45 minutes) also made it an easy decision. I also had the external keyboard and, placing it behind the screen on a flight made for an extremely ergonomic writing position. On a 3 hour flight, it was possible to be working for almost the duration of the flight. Not possible with the Dell.

I was therefore somewhat delighted to try out Mocha Telnet Lite, from the guys who brought the first VNC app to the App Store. It bright back a lot if memories considering my iPhone is more powerful than my Dell laptop was (and has more RAM, more storage) while being about a third of the size if the MessagePad.

The UI is easy to pick up and is as good looking as you could expect from an application designed to provide telnet/command line access to a computer.

Sadly all of my servers but one have switched off telnet access so I’ve only really had the chance to use it to test some SMTP server settings.

Looking forward to Mocha SSH!

Coworking Microsupport

Microfinance

see Microcredit. –noun
the lending of very small amounts of money at low interest, esp. to a start-up company or self-employed person.

The problem with Microfinance and Microcredit is that, at the end of the day, someone ends up owing someone else money. And that’s a shaky way to get started in anything.

The concept of Microfinance for small businesses in return for equity in the business has already been successfully applied via Paul Graham’s Ycombinator.

Y Combinator does seed funding for startups. Seed funding is the earliest stage of venture funding. It pays your expenses while you’re getting started.
We make small investments (rarely more than $20,000) in return for small stakes in the companies we fund (usually 2-10%).
What happens at Y Combinator? The most important thing we do is work with startups on their ideas. We’re hackers ourselves, and we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to make things people want. So we can usually see fairly quickly the direction in which a small idea should be expanded, or the point at which to begin attacking a large but vague one.

This seems to me to be a different slant on the pre-Bubble concept of ‘code for pizza’. I knew a couple of smart guys back pre-2000 who worked full time for companies in return for pizza and promises while in receipt of unemployment benefit – they were doing the right thing after all – making a real concerted effort to get off the unemployment line by trying to be employable. None of them are gazillionaires right now (which shows the benefits of contracts over promises).

While Northern Ireland has had the concept of the incubator for years (the first one I visited was the Fujitsu/University of Ulster funded incubator where I met the guys who were ‘Osarius’ who have now all moved on to bigger and better things), it was definitely in a larger scale. There were desks, offices, stationery. That’s not the sector I’m interested in.

With the work being done for the co-working space in Northern Ireland, it is my intent to fund a desk or two and provide some desktop computers (intel iMacs) in order to foster some idea of Microsupport for potential startup companies. It’s not about funding their pizza or foozball lifestyles because people who want to get things done will find a way – this is operational expenditure. The hard part for this sector is the capital expenditure. By providing up to date hardware and taking advantage of the bountiful free time that ‘young people’ have, I think there could be an excellent environment created in the co-working space to foster new and cool innovations coming out of Belfast. David Rice wrote that the co-working initiative is designed to espouse this single concept:

Bringing silicon valley thinking to Belfast by creating a cutting edge work space for digital and creative workers.

It’s my aim that one of the rooms in the upstairs be allocated to ‘incubation’ for a few potential movers and shakers out there who need that extra bit of support to get started. I don’t care whether they want to become movie makers, software engineers, web developers or digital artists – as long as they don’t just sit around surfing the web, it’s got to be better than nothing. I’ve not really talked about this with David, Andy or anyone else central to CoworkingBelfast so they may throw their hands up and tell me to piss off – but this is the concept. Most of the individuals involved in CoWorking Belfast are young men who probably would have loved to have a co-working space available to them especially with some up to date hardware starting up.

What would Co-Working Belfast get out of it? Another raison d’etre. Karma. Kudos. Reputation. And the feeling of doing the right thing. Maybe if they’re a success they’ll help fund the next iteration of CoWorking Belfast or whatever the new fad of the day is.

There are other similar methods of support out there which have a similar model but are not the same and therefore I think this brings a certain uniqueness. For example, Google’s Summer of Code provides a $5000 stipend for student developers for summer (around 3 months) of work on open source projects. Google funds around 400 students each summer this way (putting the bill at around $2 million) but then they are Google and have infinite money. There are also business incubation services in Northern Ireland available through InvestNI but the pitch is for the slightly later stage when the individuals know what they’re doing and need the incubation from hatchling to maturity.

To extend the metaphor, I’m talking about supporting the egg itself – until the egg cracks. It’s never been easier to start up a business and become the next Twitter, Youtube, Big Word Project or 37Signals and it is these kinds of business that we should be fostering. I think that the people involved in starting the co-working space in Belfast are best qualified to determine who uses the ‘hatchery’.

The co-working space itself won’t make Belfast like Silicon Valley by it’s presence, but by it’s vision.