Archive for September, 2006

Spending a day doing coding!

Friday, September 29th, 2006

Further to my previous post about how I never get time to do any actual coding… I am doing so today :-) Hooray!

Other technical blogs

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

Blogs in the same technical area as mine:

Err, that’s it as far as I know! There aren’t many Symbian-related blogs out there. If anyone knows of any other ones, let me know!

Classic blogs you really ought to read if you’re in IT:

  • The Old New Thing. Raymond Chen’s classic blog at Microsoft (has been around since before they were called “blogs”). Raymond has had particular responsibility for ensuring compatibility within Microsoft across multiple generations of Windows, and some of the stories he has said about the lengths Windows went to to maintain compatibility are amazing. They’ve been a rich source of anecdotes for the “Binary Compatibility” sessions whenever I’ve given Symbian OS training courses.
  • Joel on Software. A mine of all kinds of wisdom.

Hours

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

One of the concerns I had when starting the business is that I would spend all my time working and become a shallow workaholic human being. I think working hard is pretty inevitable when doing something for yourself. So, just out of interest, here are the hours I’ve worked so far:

Week 1 39.25 hours
Week 2 32.75 hours (bank holiday week)
Week 3 57 hours
Week 4 50 hours
Week 5 55.75 hours

So, the first couple of weeks were quite low (I hadn’t started my part-time contract during those weeks). After that it’s been quite high, but not really excessive. (The past couple of weeks have felt quite exhausting because we’ve been redecorating a bedroom too…)

I plan to aim for about 50 hours a week. I think that’s a sustainable level that shouldn’t burn me out.

However, I am still expecting that at some point I will start working 70 or 80 hour weeks, as people are wont to do in new start-ups. But I am not actively going to try to work 70 hours a week – I suspect it will just happen. The longer I can delay it, the better for myself and for my relationship with my family and friends!

Setting myself targets

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

I’ve been doing this part-time thing for over a month now, out of about six months (hopefully). I reckon I need to think more about the decisions to be made at the end of those six months. How will I know, at the end of this trial period, whether I should continue with it full-time, or give it up and go back to normal life?

My wife reckons I shouldn’t worry about such things yet, as I’ve only been at it for just over a month. She thinks I shouldn’t be setting myself targets until about four months in.

Maybe she’s right, but I think I need to know more concretely what to aim at. For example, do I want to have a tool out there and working, so I can gauge developer’s interests? If so, that would affect my time prioritisation between now and then – I’d spend more time developing and less time talking to people to ask them if they’d want to buy tools.

Any thoughts are welcome.

Grumble grumble Apple grumble

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

I wish Apple would hurry up and bring out their new range of MacBook Pros. Right now I am juggling two laptops – a PowerBook G4 for everything except my Symbian work, and my wife’s ancient Compaq laptop for Symbian OS development. I can’t wait until I can use virtualisation to run everything on the same laptop: this means I need to buy a new Intel Mac laptop. It will make my life hugely more sane (and means Claire will get her laptop back… along with my old one).

But equally, I’m not willing to buy a laptop just before Apple brings out their new range (as has been rumoured since mid-August). I know I shouldn’t pay attention, and I should just get the laptop now. I know that waiting around is a mug’s game, and that if I have an urgent need for a laptop, I should just get it. I know all this. But I just can’t. I would regret it a lot were I to buy the old model, and the new one came out the next week.

(And yes, I know I could just do all my work on the Windows laptop, but escaping from Windows is one of the perks of running my own company. Besides I’ve got a big investment in Mac software).

Reflections

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

I resigned from Symbian about 5 weeks ago.

I’ve finally caught up with the backlog of blog posts I wrote shortly thereafter, too. So from here on, hopefully the blog should keep more up-to-date with what I’m doing right now.

It seems like a good time to reflect. What’s making me happy and sad at the moment?

First the bad bits. I have no income right now, and no prospect of any soon. I had 2 weeks without working. When I’ve worked another week on my contract I’ll be able to submit an invoice to the company I’m contracting to. They’ve got 30 days to pay in the contract. Then I have to do a payroll round and pay myself from the company – which I reckon could take another 30 days. I can probably get cash a little more quickly by repaying my Director’s Loan, but basically I’m going to have to go about 80 days with no income – and lots of outgoings setting up the company.

Talking of which, my accountant’s first bill has arrived – a little more than I expected. I’ve also decided I should do the right thing and talk to an Independent Financial Advisor regarding life insurance, health insurance etc., and also an intellectual property lawyer. Both of these are going to charge an astronomical amount which is a bit scary.

So generally, I am feeling money pressure right now. Anyone got a fiver? (It’s OK, SWMBO has let me pinch some from the joint account to tide me over).

I’m also not at all sure it will be possible to market the tools I’m developing – but I knew that was an issue when I set off down this road, so that doesn’t come as a surprise!

It’s also a surprise how much time is spent on pure business admin (expenses etc.) I have now got my record keeping etc. into a reasonable shape, but it’s still taking yonks.

Apart from that, everything is good! I am immensely glad I’ve made this decision. I really have been learning loads, which is one of the reasons I did it – I wasn’t sure how much I’d really learn. I’m also reasonably convinced my tools are technically possible, and it’s not as horrifying to be trying to do Symbian stuff outside of Symbian as I’d expected. I’m even enjoying my contract (although I’ll deny that if/when I try to renew it, of course).

And everyone has been very, very supportive. Particular credits go to Andrew and Vero at Pepsmedia, my wife Claire, somebody at a phone manufacturer who was kind enough to spend hours talking to me, and last but not least dozens of people at Symbian. Literally – dozens, all of whom have been very helpful. I have a vast array of potential tools ideas that I could develop, and very in-depth knowledge about the market I’ll be selling to.

In fact I’ve spent so much time talking to helpful people and doing business admin that I’ve had very little time for actual tools development! But they’re still coming along OK. (Still, with marketability now my biggest risk, I need to keep talking to people).

Anyway – I’m still aiming to do it part-time for 3-6 months (ideally 6) and then make some tough decisions about whether to go full-time. I’m now fairly confident by then I’ll have something worth demonstrating… and we’ll see what happens then!

How to resign

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

Resigning, for me, was quite tough. When I resigned from my first job, I was absolutely sure I was making the right decision – this time I wasn’t so convinced.

Moreover, my boss had been in a very difficult situation of having three or four underlings who wanted to get some management experience. He’d juggled the limited management opportunities very nicely such that we all got a slice of the pie. I was impressed – so it felt like a bit of a personal insult to throw it back into his face and say I was leaving. Especially since it was these management opportunities which had prompted me to have a hard think about what I wanted to do, and thus indirectly prompted me to leave.

The good news was that I had been doing a management training course (more of a negotiation and personal skills training course). The week before we had had a session about “how to deliver bad news”.

We were taught two strategies. I decided I should put them into practice…

Strategy one – giving somebody bad feedback, when the situation can still be resolved

Use the “DESC” method. That means, structure your conversation in these stages:

  • D: Description. Describe the problem, describe the history; describe where you’ve pointed this out before.
  • E: Emotion. Say something like “this is making me upset” or “this is making me very worried”. Apparently using emotional words in a business context really makes people sit up and listen, and take you seriously. Makes sense! A highly cynical* ploy of course.
  • S: Suggestion. Suggest how they can solve the problem. Or, ask them how they think they can solve the problem.
  • C: Consequences. Identify the consequences if they do make the change suggested. It’s important to try to be positive – don’t say “you’ll be sacked if you don’t make this change;” say “if you make this change the whole team will be more productive and we can go to the pub earlier”.

Unfortunately, I had already decided I was going to leave – more or less – so I couldn’t use that strategy. I had to use…

Strategy two – giving somebody bad news, when it’s too late

The idea here is to come up with a short script of 3-5 sentences, stating clearly and explicitly what the bad news is. Don’t leave ambiguities.

Then, sit back and take the flack. This is the counter-intuitive bit. Don’t say sorry, or give concessions, or anything. The more you say, the longer it takes the recipient of the news to assimilate it and get used to it. You want to minimise the time they spend dealing with the bad news, for both your sakes, so try to give as little response as possible.

Eventually, they’ll come to terms with it (there were some body language clues to look out for – but you’ll have to go on the course to find out what). Then you can move onto a more reasonable discussion of “what happens next”.

I tried to follow this plan more or less exactly, as I knew my boss would be surprised and upset. He was. He didn’t get used to it too quickly, as I think he was suspicious I had some “real reason” or ulterior motive for saying I was leaving. Still, I think following the plan made the actual resignation conversation easier for both of to deal with.

Anyway, I shan’t be quoting any more excerpts from the (excellent) training course. If you have loads of staff you want to send on it, leave a comment and I’ll put you in touch with the guy who ran it. (Unfortunately I can’t find a web page for him).

* = Yes, I hate it when people use the word “cynical” this way too. Oh well. It seems to be an acceptable modern usage.

Ade on a train

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

Very much so. Nine hours and 10 minutes on trains today, to be specific. And I’m off down to London tomorrow and Friday – lots of train-time then.

(As some may remember, “Ade on a Train” was once going to be the title for this blog).

Why was I on the train? My first meeting with a phone manufacturer, to discuss whether I’m mad, and whether I’ll be able to sell tools. The verdict? Ambiguous. Yes, there’s a lack of tools in the areas I’m developing them, yes, my tools sound good. Will I be able to get mainstream developers within licensees using them? That’s less certain though by no means impossible. But, there are other avenues for other groups of engineers within licensees, and possibly operators too, who would be very interested in a slightly different set of tools…

So, perhaps some replanning needed, but perhaps not. I’m going to start exploring the new possibilities as well as keeping going on my mainstream debugging tools.

Hmmm…. decisions decisions.

Meanwhile I am very, very glad not to be on a train any longer. At least for another 10 hours…

Do I feel lucky?

Sunday, September 17th, 2006

“So, let me get this straight. You’re producing tools which may not be technically possible, trying to co-operate with a large company that could decide you are a competitor at any time, and trying to sell to a limited market who may not be interested in the tools in the first place?”

Err, yes.

That’s three big obstacles, any one of which could sink the whole idea. Actually, I believe that if the tools are possible, and co-operation with Symbian is possible, then the tools will be marketable. I may just be saying this as I have no experience of marketing, but either way, it’s the other two obstacles I’m most worried about. *

Firstly, by not being too dedicated to it. I’m going to be working part-time on my new company, for at least 3 months and hopefully longer. That will give me time to get a view on all three of the obstacles – I will have a go at producing a prototype, talk to customers, and see how easily I can co-operate with the big monster company.

This part-time decision seems to be controversial. Several people have said it will be impossible to get anywhere unless I focus on my plans 100%. They’re probably right, but it’s just too much risk right now to cut myself off from an income stream. There’s no way I’d have left my full-time job if I had to face that level of risk. However I do accept that one of these days I may have to go full-time… and that’s when the really hard decisions become necessary.

Secondly, by focussing on the obstacles. I’ll be working really hard to talk to Symbian and the customers, and face up to the technical risks. In particular I have to talk to the phone manufacturers before I make a major commitment – if they won’t buy, there’s no point in doing it.

Thirdly, by having back-up plans. The company could evolve into a more general Symbian tools consultancy company. Or I could give up after a while and do something else instead!

But what about risk in general?

I tend to think of myself as a fairly timid, risk-averse person. But, as someone pointed out, I tend to fall off my mountain bike and snowboard quite a lot (especially lately). I personally think this is incompetence rather than an appetite for risk. Certainly I find it much more acceptable to take known, simple risks (e.g. a 0.1% chance of breaking a bone) than the complicated risks involved in setting up a business. Oh well. It still seems like the right thing to do, to give it a try.

fruitmachine.jpg

* = I wrote this post about a month ago. I am now suitably worried about the marketing side too.

How to choose an accountant

Sunday, September 17th, 2006

The other thing you need as a start-up business is a good accountant.

I was very lucky here – a friend works in a small company, and her boss is a very friendly approachable sort of entrepreneur. The friend kindly arranged for me to have a long chat with him in a pub one lunchtime, and he gave me lots of useful advice. (If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have left Symbian).

One bit of extremely practical useful advice was the name of a good local accountant with a small business focus. I had a chat with him; he was great. One of the first things he said was that I should shop around for other accountants – a good sign in itself – but I didn’t, because I think a personal recommendation goes a long way and can save important time that can be spent on other aspects of the business.

I think I probably could have done all the accounting/paperwork myself, but I’m absolutely sure it would have driven me mad. I could easily have spent all my first month just reading up on the tax situation, and the rest of the year dreading the arrival of the tax returns (VAT, income tax, corporation tax…)

One thing I hadn’t expected was that the accountant might turn out to identify significant tax savings. A friend says the same thing; he was already running a small business but getting set up properly with the same accountant looks as though it will effectively pay for itself.

It’s also great having somebody to talk to, who knows the answers to all the business-admin decisions you have to make. I would very strongly recommend anyone starting a small business to find a good accountant. I’m happy to pass on the name of my accountant to anyone in the Cambridge area starting a small business.