Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Alarm Clocks

An article about alarm clocks and my need to post an article about any topic right about now

The alarm clock. The mortal enemy of all that is good in the world.  The worst thing to happen yet, every single day of the week. The thing about alarm clocks is that if you're 'doing it right' you don't even need one. But we all do. Everyone.  It's terrible.

I digress.  Which, if you think about it, is a term used way too loosely.  I didn't actually digress.  What did I even digress from? Nothing, at all.  I started talking about alarm clocks and ended talking about alarm clocks. There was no digression there. Well, I did start talking about 'doing it right', which I guess could be considered a vague digression, but not really. Maybe I just say things.

Maybe this entire piece is me just saying things for the sake of saying things. Who knows? Not this guy.

An actual digression, I think

I always thought that people who really knew wine were kind of pretentious when they talked about it. I mean, it is pretty pretentious. I don't know a situation where you can talk about wine and not sound like a dick. Unless you really are just obsessed with wine and you really want to bore people with the details. Then it seems like you just love the hell out of it and you're just a little kooky. That's not disingenuous.  That's cool with me. But still, be careful about it. You don't want to be a dick.

Same thing with beer. I always thought it was a bit clownish to get into it like that. Now, shameless plug, brewing beer has really opened my eyes (and nose and mouth) to beer in a new way. I was in love with beer before, but now I'm really into beer. You know? You begin to really be able to pick out the smells and flavors and feelings in your mouth that matter. It's very strange the first time you taste a beer and say 'this is way too grainy'.  And you know what the hell you're talking about.  It's still a 'good' beer, but there's an aspect of it that drives you a little crazy. Like, how did they not realize this was so unbalanced before they shipped a billion bottles of it?  See, this is me sounding like a dick.

This article has absolutely no cohesive elements, and I think that's why I'm going to post it.

Obama bless us, everyone.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

I just gotta be me

Intro that I added later on

The morning time is the best time for writing.  Without a doubt.  I'll pop open the laptop and open the text editor, and things will just start coming out.  Most of it is garbage and I'd never post it anywhere, but some of it's not bad, especially when I have an idea that moves me.  Like this one, for example. It calmed me while exciting me, and I think that's a killer combination. Whether or not I translated that into something that makes sense, you can decide, I guess.  Probably not, though. I tend to ramble.

You gotta play to win

I think I've just had an epiphany about myself. I need to figure out the handful of things that I really enjoy and can really excel at, and build my position and career around those things. I thinks it's silly to spend a god awful amount of time scrabbling to better myself at something that I hate just so I can say I'm good at it, when I can easily surround myself with people who balance out those things and can do them instead.

For example: sales. I'm never going to be a veteran salesman. I just don't have the tenacity and good natured communication skills to cold call people to drum up business. I don't have the patience or the stomach to continually check in on leads and make contact with people who hate hearing from me. So I'm not going to. I'll be a salesman for my work in another way, by building awesome and easy to use products that help the people who do sales sell them to our customers.

I need to focus on feature ideas, product, and the road map. Those are my core competencies. I'm also good at public speaking, for whatever reason, so I think I can be a good voice for the company. And by this, I don't necessarily mean in a board room or in a meeting room, showing a product to a flock of stakeholders.  I mean giving a talk to other tech people as part of an event or standing on a milk crate on Fountain Square preaching the pitfalls of premature optimization to random citizens.

That last one was a joke.

Never date yourself, I don't think

In seriousness though, this goes beyond work. I know I normally talk about professional topics, but complementing your situation with other people personally is just as important. Dating specifically: you don't want to be dating a female (or male) version of yourself. You need someone who can be strong when you are weak. Who can be thoughtful when you're acting stupid. Who can make breakfast when you're hungover. If you find that person, marry them. Or at least pretend you're charming so they stay for a while.

I'll probably never win an award for my design work and I doubt I'll land any huge accounts. And that's okay with me. My personal desire to be better than everyone at everything doesn't help anyone. In fact, I'd say it hurts. I need to let people who want to excel at those things do it, and push myself to be the best at what I love.  And then we all win.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Side Project Hell


That's a prime word I would use if I was held at gun point and told to describe how my side projects are going. Normally, sans the threat if imminent death, I would say my side projects are growing organically and on the verge if completion.  Not really accurate. Full of shit, mostly.

I've preached again and again how vital it is to a web developer to have side projects, to flex your mental muscles. And it's true, that stuff is critical. And it makes you awesome. But it seems like I get 80% of the way through a project, get sidetracked with work or something else, and never finish. Damn it.

I always say to myself, "John, you're so damn good looking."  And that's a topic for another post. But then I say, "Johnny, what if you had 500 bucks coming in every month in passive income?" And I think, well damn you, me, why don't you have that?? I feel like I start a new ambitious side project every 2 months with grand intentions of seeing it through. Arg.

So, what then do we do?

So, what's the answer to this perplexing dilemma?  I know I ain't the only web dev who has a graveyard of near-towards-completed projects out there, shaming me. Taunting me. Giving me the finger.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we work on side projects to try something new and exciting.  Like Node + Express.  Or Angular + Rails.  WHATEVER it may be.  And you realize, after say, 3/4 of the work is done, that you either love the tech and want to use it at work, or you decide you really don't love it and don't want to use it.  Either way, you've lost the 'newness' of the whole experience.  It just becomes either an extension of your regular work, or it becomes a pain in the ass.

So, the answer, I think, is to either A) be a grownup and finish a project.  Get pretty goddam serious about it and just bear through it. The feeling of newness is great, but the feeling of getting your first customer on your own is 20x greater.  And, B) work on some of your side projects in your favorite language/framework/tech.  Like Django.  If we all did our side projects in Django, I think we'd have a 100% conversion rate.

Think about it.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Drive Yourself Crazy

I couldn’t find my car this morning.  I got up for my 5:30am workout, headed out to the parking garage, and my car was not where I normally park it.  It was gone.  I pressed the lock button a few times on the key fob and mildly scanned the level where I expected my car to be.  It wasn’t there.  My mind, still mostly asleep at 5:05 in the morning, started to pick up speed.  ‘Oh, shit.’

That’s when I realized, I haven’t been in or even seen my car in over 60 hours.

I had come home later in the afternoon on Easter Sunday and decided to play it safe and park in the basement level of the garage.  Sometimes the top level, reserved for residents in my building, gets full and you have to exit the garage and circle the block to try again.  Not wanting to mess with that scenario, I went burrowing.  I was initially confused, thinking my car was towed. But then I was thrilled.  I realized that I never worry about my commute ever.  I live downtown and I work downtown.  I have a bunch of friends and coworkers that live downtown.  I can shop, drink, eat, work, exercise, get accosted by bums, and everything else you would want to do.  All within 15 blocks of my apartment.

The number one complaint I hear from my suburban dwelling compatriots is the commute to work.  An hour each way.  HOLY SHIT.  If I spent 2 hours of my day in a car 5 days a week, I’d go crazy.  Do you know how much more stuff you can get done with TWO EXTRA HOURS IN YOUR DAY? I can waltz home from work, make and eat dinner, and watch an episode of Psych on Netflix, and you’re still in your car. Driving.


If not for a handful of things, I could live without a car.

Living in an urban core is an adjustment at first. There are no yards. I do not have an entire house to myself. If I want to lay in the grass I have to seek it out.  I don’t get the privilege of mowing my lawn, shoveling my driveway, cleaning my gutters, or yelling at neighborhood kids for riding their bikes on my lawn.

But then living downtown becomes ridiculously awesome. If you can focus on living your life all the time, instead of traveling from one place to the next, life changes pretty dramatically.

I realize that where you live is a highly personal and highly opinionated choice.  You like lawns and minivans and the illusion of home ownership (the bank owns your house, btw). I hope you enjoy it! I’ll be downtown, spending $20 on gas a month, sitting at my rooftop pool, drinking a beer, never worrying about carpools or DD’s or traffic.

Plus, you should see these calves from my daily walk.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Teach a gal (or guy) to fish

One of the more rewarding parts about being a not-even-slightly renowned web developer is getting to share that skill.  For the past few months, I’ve been an instructor with the organization Girl Develop It Cincinnati.  I’ve been teaching classes of mostly women intro courses in HTML/CSS and JavaScript/jQuery.  It’s been awesome as hell.

I got into it through this wild child named Erin Kidwell, who runs the chapter here in Cincy.  She could see that I was loudmouthed, boastful, and cocky. Or, perfectly suited for molding young minds in the fine art of web dev.  I TA'd for another instructor first, then she took the muzzle off me and I went at it.

What they get, those lucky ducks.

Web development is a tough nut to crack. And if you’re a women, it’s a tougher nut.  I’m not going to tiptoe around the fact that we do sort of run a boys club.  No one thinks it’s because we don’t want women around, it’s just seen as 'a guy thing' for the most part.  I don’t know why that is.  I could speculate, but I don’t feel like it.  That is also not to say that there aren’t plenty of female engineers, programmers, coders, and widget-wielders.  There are.  But that number pales in comparison to how many dudes are in the club. It’s a little musky in here, is all I can say.

Anyway, the benefit comes in a couple of ways.  One, it’s inclusive of women. It gets them into a place where they can ask questions, learn in their own style, and be surrounded for the most part by other women doing the same thing. From my own limited perspective, this works great for women. They are great collaborators and sharers.

Two, it’s cheap as shit.  $80 for four 2-hour sessions and one supplemental session on a Sunday morning.  Plus, as long as you’re a student you can email me any time with questions that I try to answer as promptly as possible.

Three, it’s just a great way to get out of the house, get out of the ordinary, and do something fun and useful. Tons of the gals tell me they are in the class to beef up their resume, or to work on their blog, or to help with the company website, or they are designers looking to move to the web.  It’s great. They are taking the reins.

Note: I have no idea what women are thinking about anything.

What I get out of all this

From my experience, teaching is ironically the best learning tool.  You might think you need to be an expert in the field to be a great teacher, and I think the converse is true.  As someone who spends 95% of my time on back-end web dev, teaching specifically for the front-end has taught me a ton.  I have to actually think about how and why something works well enough to be able to explain it to complete novices.

It’s not any easier for me to explain python to a beginner than it is to explain some CSS that I just learned that same day.  Actually, with new concepts still fresh in my mind, it’s a bit easier to verbalize.  Make sense? No? Good!

It's also a great social tool.  I really believe that we build our lives on experiences, meeting new people, and learning new crap.  That's exactly what this is.  I learn every week from these gals. I meet people with different perspectives, lives, views, hairstyles, etc. It's rad.

All in all, teaching has been a great thing for me.  I recommend anyone and everyone with the inclination to be the center of attention for a couple of hours at a time to stand up there and teach some people about web dev.  There’s been a huge push for people to learn programming, and for most people it’s a lot easier to learn in an interactive environment than it is to learn on their computer in their basement.  I don’t know if that’s actually statistically true, but it sounds accurate.

So, get your ass out there and teach.  Or, if you need to learn, get your ass out there and learn.  Here are some links to help you get started:

Monday, March 11, 2013

Cincinnati Startup Scene: An Epiphany

I had an epiphany about working on a startup in Cincinnati.

There is a much different tempo, culture, talent base, and overall timbre in Cincinnati than there is on the ‘coasts’.  Things are a bit slower, less electric, and a hell of a lot smaller.  This rant could probably be applied to many cities across the midwest where the startup scene is trying to explode, but for my own selfish reasons I am going to apply it only to Cincinnati, which is the only place I’m interested in seeing actually explode.

This epiphany I had was started by reading one of those blog article/profiles of some guys who started a checkin app that debuted at SXSW a couple of years ago. You can probably guess it.  There were pictures of the founders head shots.  One of the guys had this smug, shit-eating grin that drove me crazy while I was reading the article.  I wanted to grab him by the front of his shirt and shake him.  Not really professional, but something about that cocky grin was driving me crazy.

And that’s when I realized that’s exactly what we need: swagger.  Please note: I do not under any circumstances approve the use of the word ‘swag’.  If you say ‘swag’ in normal conversation we can never be friends.  Anyhow.  We need some good old fashioned ball-busting boasting, gloating, obnoxious self-aggrandizing.  Someone in Cincinnati needs to be shouting our names from the rooftops.  We should be smiling smugly at chumps reading blog articles about us.

Oh, and we also need to build shit that people want to shout about.  Yes, we have plenty of great startups here, some really brilliant people are working on them.  And that’s awesome.  It’s a beautiful thing.  We need better than that.  We need game-changing, SXSW rattling nonsense.  Who cares if it’s a flare-up and burn out?  A couple of jackasses need to whip up something intense and insane to show off.  The guys at CrowdHall seem like a good combo.

How about Lisnr?  Use that sonic beacon technology to organize a flash mob or Harlem shake at city hall or in the casino.  Piss off someone.

Once we get some excellent, shallow, loud, explosive PR surrounding stuff and pointing it all back to Cincinnati, we’ll start getting the attention we deserve.  I’m getting sick and tired of telling this underdog story.  We have one of the top accelerators in the country, ... and all that other crap people always tout.  But do you think people really see us as a viable option to the coasts?  Come on.
We have the potential here to be ridiculous and eccentric and gravitational in the startup world, let’s just goddam do it.

Our next Startup Weekend should have the theme: “Balls to the Walls: Shake Shit Up.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Open Letter to Rockfish

Dear Rockfish,

You have given me more in the last 18 months than I have given you.  You have been a kind and loving companion.  I will never forget that.  You picked me up when I was down, you carried me on your shoulders when I was drunk, and you overall lifted me up to the level I am today. I hope in some small way I left you in a better place than you have left me. I love you.

The day I started at Rockfish, I knew I was in over my head.  I was a little fish in a big pond surrounded by scary other fish who seemed to know what the hell they were doing.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I think I was the living, breathing incarnation of ‘fake it ’til you make it’.  But I faked it, and I buckled down, and I copied smarter people’s work, and I become a 10x better developer because of it.

I would not be the greatest developer in the world were it not for you.

Actually, there’s a 14 year old kid in South Korea who is a little bit better than me, but I’m a damn close second.  And it’s because of you.

We have shared a hell of a lot of laughs, tears, and everything in between.  We’ve been thrilled together, sad together, and utterly furious together.  We’ve seen friends, clients, and people we don’t really know very well come and go.  Alison has scolded each and every one of us at some point, and it hurt us all the same.

I really, truly, and plainly will miss you, Rockfishers.  All of you.  Every last person in the office is special to me in some way, big and small, and it really does break my heart to think I won’t be around to shout unnecessarily at some of you from the length of the office, or to accost you for eating meat (which is gross, by the way).  And who is going to sneeze without covering their mouth, abruptly and as loudly as possible? I feel like I’m actually on good terms with everyone in the entire office.  Yes, even you.  Now that I think about it, I think I’m generally on good terms with everyone in the company. Now that’s a hell of a track record!

If there are any take aways that I want to keep for myself, they’d be along the lines of ‘always strive for perfection’ or ‘good enough is never good enough’ or some such thing.  In a company this highly regarded there is always someone better than you.  And by you I mean me.  You can’t be a joker at Rockfish.  If you strive to become the best possible at what you do at a company like Rockfish, you will be in an elite group if you ever make it there, trust me. There are people who don’t even have my same job who are better than me at it.

If there is anything I wish I could leave for my coworkers, it would be (appropriately) “Never be afraid to be silly”.  Work is serious business, I know that, but you always have to take the time to laugh at yourself and laugh at everyone else. You get one shot on this big blue rock, and you should laugh about it every day. Work will be there in the morning when you wake up, I promise you that.  If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Last thing: Someone call me, goddammit.  Invite me up for happy hour. Now that I can’t be fired for drinking too much, let’s see what the keg is up to.  I’ll finally let my hair down and be my real self.

Yours forever.

John David Back

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Standing Desk, 4 months in review


First off, I want to say that I was the first person in Rockfish to get a standing desk. There has been some conjecture, but I’m the clear winner.  No more discussion on that.  Anyway, it’s definitely been interesting.  There seems to be a big difference between standing for 8 hours a day vs sitting for 8 hours a day.  Weird, huh?

How I did it

How I actually constructed the standing desk is almost comically easy.  I bought two LACK tables from Ikea (7.99/ea), a shelf (1 dollar), and two brackets (like 49 cents each?).  For total of really effing cheap.  I just set them up on my desk and that’s it.  I am now better than everyone.

I drilled the brackets into the legs of one of the tables, the leftmost one, and put the shelf on it.  I also duck-taped the brackets to the leg because they are hollow and I knew that one ill-placed elbow was going to send my forehead straight to the corner of the desk. That would suck.

John, how has it been?

Thanks for asking!  It’s actually been very good.  The first week or two are the most noticeable.  You don’t get as tired after lunch.  You don’t find yourself being lazy or closing your eyes early in the morning.  You focus more.  I get more excited and exclamatory as I’m coding... I wave my arms and stomp my feet and generally irritate my deskmates much more than I did when I was slumped in my chair pretending to be awake. (Just kidding, Rockfish, I was always awake)

Secondly, it makes you a hell of a lot more sociable.  You walk around more.  You talk to your neighbors more.  You’re generally more likely to walk around to see someone else’s screen.  I don’t know about every work place, but here we often IM when we could talk.  That’s often because we’re  complaining about some bug we can’t fix and our diatribe is laced with profanity, but still.  Now I can curse from a standing position vocally.  It feels better.

Overall, it’s just been a great experience.  I’d recommend it to anyone.  I also got a tall stool that I can sit on if my knees get tired, which they do sometimes.  I also walk to work about a mile so sometimes my feet are hurting.  I do need one of those anti-fatigue pads.  But I’m too lazy after standing around all day to get my ass in the car and buy one.

Anyway, let me know what you think about standing desks!

Edit: People are saying the image of the desk is too small.  So, here is the largest one I have.  You'll also notice I bought a 'TALLASS" chair from Ikea, it was 4.99 or some such nonsense.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Which tools should you use? Don't ask me.

These questions bug me.  Not from newbies, but from experienced developers.

Note: When I say tools, I mean anything: language, framework, IDE, OS, whatever.

Stop worrying so much about which tool you think is going to be the best for any given project.  It’s ridiculous.  Just pick something and use it.  If you love it, that’s awesome, keep using it.  If you don’t love it, stop using it and try something else.  These spirited debates are always kind of funny to read, but they are completely impractical and pointless.  Someone is always going to think that Rails is for posers (I think that), and that Django is for solid devs (this is actually a fact, not an opinion). 

Why the hell do you care what I think?

Even though I may do this for a living, that doesn’t make me righter than you about which tool you should use.  If you know at a basic level that the tool you’re looking at can, in fact, accomplish the task you are trying to accomplish, then it’s simply a matter of what tool feels good in your hand.  What can you see yourself hammering away with for all of eternity?

Just kidding, you're going to die in like 40 years.

But seriously, quit being a whiney crybaby and asking strangers on the internet to tell you which tools to use.  Get your slender, feminine little hands dirty.  I’m embarrassed for you.

A great way to get those soft, delicate hands dirty is to just do the tutorial on the website.  Looking for a javascript MVMM or MVVM or whatever the hell it is?  Try knockoutjs.  They have some of the best formatted tutorials on the web.  Give them a shot.  Looking for a crappy tutorial that isn’t helpful at all?  Try nodejs.

That brings me to another point: GET SOME BETTER DOCUMENTATION! Jesus it’s not a herculean effort to spend 2 hours writing up a really good tutorial for potentially thousands of people who use your shit.  You have to cater to the lowest common denominator if you want to get people through the learning curve unscathed.

Damn, buddy. You’re killing me.


This took a weird turn.  Anyway: Just jump right in and use things. That's the only way to figure out what you like.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ship first, ask questions later.

"If it fits, it ships."

That’s a hell of a tagline used by the USPS to describe their flat rate boxes.  The USPS, by the way, is the best shipper in the country, hands down, but that’s a topic for another post.  Full disclosure: I do think the government can get it right some times.

Anyway, that’s not what this is about.  When I hear the phrase “If it fits, it ships,” I don’t think about red white and blue boxes, I think about MVPs.  MVP is such a loose term these days, everyone uses it to describe their product, and their product is never a true MVP.  I believe in a militant style of minimum viable product development.  It should be small in scope, and then cut out 25% of that.  Then ship it.  Whatever you can fit into that iteration is what you ship.  Make the original timeline you set out for yourself.  Timelines always get pushed.  What you think will take 8 weeks takes 12.  Or 14.  

My theory is: Ship whatever the hell you have finished in those first 8 weeks.  Then keep working.

You’ll have 100% more customers with a half-finished product that's actually on the market than you will with something that only lives in development on your laptop.  I promise.

[Redacted Yoda quote about 'doing' and 'trying']

In this modern web world, it’s those that can ship products that will win the race.  The race is to market.  People get confused and think that their idea is their baby, and they don’t want to be the mother with the ugly baby.  I promise you, by the time you’ve built a gorgeous baby, someone with an ugly baby is already getting paid for their ugly baby.  Sorry, you just missed the baby boat.  It sailed.

I treat writing the same way.  You don’t know it, but I just deleted 50 words I didn’t like.  This article is an MVP of it's own.  A crappy one, I admit.

The Takeaway

You might be asking yourself, “What the hell has this guy shipped?”  And to that, I would like to say: “Shit, I work for an agency.  Do as I say, not as I half-assedly do.”