There when you need it

My good friend, Steve, sells legal plans. I’m not actually sure what you call the category, but the brand is Legal Shield. Here’s an overview. Most of his customers are companies, because it’s a benefit that HR departments like to provide their employees (usually at cost), but he can sell to individuals, too. I used to have “group legal” at Microsoft, and I liked it, so a couple of months ago, I bought one of these plans from Steve and hadn’t thought much about it since.

Recently, our health insurance got totally messed up somehow. Multiple different practices have been sending us bills, because some of our claims were rejected. It’s super confusing, so it’s hard to tell whether the mistake is with the providers, BCBS California (my employer’s health plan), BCBS Michigan (my old self-serve health plan), or some billing service. It’s been driving us crazy!

I complained about my insurance snafu to Steve a few times, and he kept encouraging me to contact Legal Shield. I didn’t see why, since I don’t see somebody to sue. “Doesn’t matter – call them.”

Finally, I called (just a few minutes ago). Their process is amazing – a very pleasant lady answered my call (she wasn’t a lawyer … not sure there’s a correlation or not), made sure my info was up-to-date, started a case file, and worked with me to summarize my complaint. Just that process was helpful! Walking through the problem with her helped me understand better where the issue is.

The next step is a lawyer will call me back. I mentioned that I’m on the phone all day, so there might be phone tag, and she said, “What time do you get off work? Would you like a call back then?” Uh … yeah! It’s not a 24-hour thing (although they do have a 24-hour hotline to call if I ever get arrested), but it’s pretty awesome that they can work a bit outside my work hours. I should get a call back in a couple of hours.

It’s too early to tell if my Legal Shield attorney will be the solution to this particular problem, but the process has certainly been positive so far. I’m impressed.

If you happen to be interested in such a service for yourself or your company, contact Steve at Legal Shield, he’ll hook you up! I also got the identify theft protection … had a few fraudulent charges a while back, and I’d like to make resolving that simpler in the future.

API

An API or Application Programming Interface is a feature that companies often include with their software. It lets other programmers write code to interact with the software, almost like a remote control.

Most social media software companies expose APIs, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many more. If you use a 3rd-party client for any of these, those clients only exist because they can write to published APIs. For example, TweetDeck used Twitter’s API to make a Twitter client for power users (and it was so good that Twitter ended up buying them).

Many business software companies have APIs, too – APIs let people build integrations to link together various pieces of business software into (hopefully) coherent solutions.

Moraware has an API as well. It’s not as complete as it could be, but it’s certainly better than nothing. It lets companies create integrations with their products, like this one for a laser measuring tool. It lets programmers write code to automate certain tasks in our software – we even have partners who have based their businesses on building solutions that use our software (inventory is a popular area where those partners have made compelling additions). That means we’re the hub of a software ecosystem now!

One of my favorite work responsibilities is supporting programmers who use our API … I’m in customer support, but I’m also a programmer, so it only makes sense that I’m the one who does this (it’s a luxury many small companies don’t have – usually a programmer who’s busy writing other features has to provide API support, which can be distracting). I always enjoy the transition from thinking about our user interface to thinking about writing code against our API.

I’ve even started answering questions by posting projects and code snippets to github. I’m pretty sure this technically makes me an open-source programmer (and project owner), which knocks an item off my bucket list. It also makes it a lot easier to reuse similar answers for different customers. It makes me strangely happy every time I check something in and share the link with a customer.

There’s a lot we could do to improve our API. I’m the biggest advocate for doing this, but we have finite resources, and these improvements haven’t risen to the top of the list yet (there’s no guarantee they ever will, either). A couple of years ago, nobody was even using the API, but now it’s being pushed to the limit.

When companies don’t provide an API into their software – or provide an incomplete one like we do – programmers end up “hacking” solutions instead … this isn’t nefarious – it just means using heroic ways to solve a problem, or simply doing things with software that were never intended (and aren’t supported). In our case, that means some programmers scrape the web user interface of our software to get the data they need.

By contrast, an API implies an agreement with outside developers that says, “This is what we explicitly allow you to do with our software, and this is what we’ll support.” Anything outside those bounds might happen to work, but there’s no guarantee it will continue working.

Now you know what an API is – it’s just a way for programmers to manipulate someone else’s software in a controlled, supported way.

Working with my hands

Most of the work I do all day is writing or thinking or chatting with customers and explaining how to do stuff. It all happens in my head. This isn’t a problem at all – I like writing and thinking and chatting.

But it’s almost time for go-kart racing again … so for the last few weeks, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time working on the kart. I forgot how much I like doing this. I still have to think, of course, but it’s not an abstract kind of problem solving – it involves moving something physical from here to there and seeing if it behaves as expected. That’s remarkably satisfying to me.

This year, I’ve been getting a lot of help from my friend Chuck, so I’m learning even more than last year. I don’t think I could break down a kart and put it back together with my eyes closed yet, but at least I have a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are and how they’re supposed to fit together.

Our big focus this year is making the kart easier to maintain so that I’m more confident on race day. For example, I’m using fewer different types of bolts so that I can check them all without having to use so many different tools. Does that make it go faster? No – but as Chuck always points out, “you can’t win if you don’t finish” … making things easy to maintain helps ensure that you’ll maintain them – and thus finish.

It feels great to do something with my hands, and I’m happy it’s something that makes Gus happy. But now I have to admit to myself – if he weren’t karting, I’d have to find something similar to work on for my own happiness. I really like this stuff.

Regaining Lost Fat

A big news story this week tells of contestants on The Biggest Loser regaining the weight they lost. That totally sucks, and I feel for anyone struggling with their weight for the first time or the 20th time. It’s never easy.

While I’m happy that smart people are studying this scientifically, I’m confused by the conclusions people are drawing from the study. I’m going to sum up the media view as “those folks never had a chance, because their metabolism slowed down after losing the weight.”

This makes no sense to me. Yes, the metabolism of those people appeared to slow down significantly. Let’s stipulate that. But what does that actually mean? In a society where we have so much wonderful food that NOT eating is a huge challenge, then yes, a slower metabolism is a bit of a disadvantage. But our bodies are adaptation machines … if the same people lived in a world suffering from famine, their particular adaptation (having a slow metabolism) would be a superpower. If they want to stay fit, they need to cherish and work within the limits of that superpower.

One of the doctors came to the conclusion that “… the only way to maintain weight loss is to be hungry all the time.” Um … yup. it sucks, but if your body adapted to storing fat (because of that famine thing), then it’s going to take a long, long time to work against that same adaptation and teach it that it doesn’t need to store so much fat. You’re going to be working against hunger. Hunger is your Kryptonite. You have to recognize its unique power and come to grips with it.

If doctors can come up with a safe drug to suppress hunger, they’ll make a jillion bucks, and it will probably do a lot of people a lot of good. In the meantime, anyone who has lost weight (or wants to lose weight) needs to take a spiritual journey with hunger and find out how to coexist with it.

I strongly agree that the people on the TV show weren’t set up to succeed after the contest. It’s unbelievably hard to go from an all-day, every-day experience supervised by professional nutritionists and trainers back to the real world with normal responsibilities and little support. I hope the show does more to set up future contestants with better self-help skills.

In my opinion, there are three key “self-help skills” to succeeding with weight loss long-term on your own:

  1. Separate your weight from your worthiness. You’re lovable right now, and you’re lovable no matter how much you weigh. Love yourself TODAY. Think of your extra weight as a couple of bowling balls you’re carrying around with you: work hard to get rid of them, but always remember, they are not you. Getting rid of those extra fat balls is just an interesting, long-running experiment on yourself that you’re observing.
  2. Count calories and come to grips with a little bit of hunger – not a lot, a little. When you count calories, the goal is literally to run out of energy by the end of each day so you dip into your fat stores. Running out of calories sucks a little bit each and every day. If you let it suck too much by trying to lose too much too fast, you’ll binge and feel bad. When you do, just get back up and try again the next day. The amount of calories determines whether you gain or lose weight (very, very slowly). The quality of those calories determines how you feel. Unfortunately, in my experience, foods like vegetables and high-quality protein tend to make me feel better than similar caloric amounts of chocolate, beer, and many other awesome-tasting foods. Oh well – that’s all part of the spiritual journey of losing weight.
  3. Lift weights (or do similar resistance training). Any exercise is better than no exercise, but weight training is the most time efficient exercise you can do when you’re trying to get or stay fit. With weight training, your body keeps burning calories as it recovers from the training, and it triggers other positive adaptations as well. If you weight train regularly and happen to consume more calories than you need, your body will adapt and use some of those calories to build muscle (though some will still go to fat). For more info, read A Workout Routine. That site has been incredibly useful for me.

Bottom line: if you find something that works for you, do it and stick with it. This is what worked (and works) for me.

Movie Recliners

We watch a lot of movies at home, but once in a while, we like to treat ourselves by going to the movie theater. These days, the only theater we go to is the AMC on Alpine because they have recliner seats. They’re SO comfy … it’s like watching at home (in the good way) but with a much better screen and sound system.Now reclining

AMC must have taken out every other row of the old seats (or even more), because now you can walk freely through a row without having to ask people to move their legs – even with the seats fully reclined. You can’t see heads from the rows in front of you, either, because there’s a little wall behind every row, and each row dips down enough.

The recliners are set up in pairs, and you can lift up the armrest on one side to snuggle with your date (the other side is fixed and doubled up to block out the non-date human on the other side). In the smallest theaters, there’s even a bit of a gap between pairs – bottom line, it’s not a bummer to have a stranger sit next to you, because they’re not actually very close.

And finally – reserved seats! I’m picky about where I sit, and I love the fact that I can buy tickets and pick seats right on my phone without ever standing in line. If I were on the fence about going to a movie, knowing that I could get perfect seats would make a difference in my decision.

I don’t know how this theater is going to stay in business, because it’s never very full. While it is in business, though, you should definitely cash out your IRA and try it sometime.

Oh … we watched Jungle Book (in 3D). It was great. You should see it.

Friday morning walks with my mom

My mom has Parkinson’s. She has studied the disease very closely, and she does everything she can to minimize the negative impact. She takes a couple of different medications, and she seems to respond very well to them. She seems to be handling everything really well – she still just seems like herself to me.

A year or so ago, I started realizing that my mom might not be around forever and that I don’t spend enough time with her. To be clear, she’s very healthy overall, and she isn’t planning to check out anytime soon. I just noticed that I wasn’t spending enough time with her, regardless of her health.

By contrast, I manage to see my dad during the normal course of things, because we play golf from time to time, and he stops by during errands, etc. If we all go out to dinner together, I feel like I’ve spent time with my dad, but I need to have one-on-one time with my mom to feel like I’ve actually seen her. So about a year ago, we started taking a walk every Friday morning, and it’s been great. Exercise is good for Parkinson’s, so that’s an extra bonus.

Today was a cool, gray, slightly damp morning, and we had a very nice walk. We went a little bit earlier than usual today, and her pill hadn’t kicked in yet. It was interesting hearing her describe how she experiences things like that. As usual, we talked about life, philosophy, each other, and other family members. As usual, it felt great just to spend a little time with my mom.

I’m very lucky to have such a wonderful mom and to be able to spend time with her each week. If your mom is still around, don’t forget to spend time with her. Go give her a hug or give her a call … and maybe even take a walk with her.

Different

This week i started reading Different by Youngme Moon. I’m about halfway through and really enjoying it.

I first heard about Professor Moon when I heard her speak at the 2010 Business of Software conference (a very important event for me).

Her basic point is that competing on the same BS marketing language everybody else uses (“new and improved!”) makes everybody the same – and the way to stand out is to be different … so STOP DOING THAT. Instead of trying to fix your weaknesses (or lie about them), focus on your real strengths.

As an example, think about Ikea – they’ve never shied away from their weaknesses compared to other furniture stores, yet their customers actually stick up for them concerning those weaknesses:

  • Their furniture is shoddy (“who wants to keep furniture longer than 5 years anyway?”)
  • The have few stores, so I have to drive far (“it’s an adventure!”)
  • I hate assembling it (“I hate waiting for deliveries even more”)

It’s very rare that a strength can exist without a corresponding weakness – everything is a tradeoff – so if you want the marketplace to embrace your strengths, you better be willing to embrace your weaknesses, too. I’ve always said for individuals that our strengths and weaknesses point to two sides of the same coin. Apparently, it’s true for organizations as well.

Even though we don’t have a whole lot of competition at Moraware, we still have a distinct perception in the marketplace … I want to understand better what that perception is so we can do what Professor Moon suggests: lean into our strengths and double down on them. Instead of trying to shore up our weaknesses (real or perceived), embrace them. It’s better to be something real with strengths and weaknesses instead of some bland caricature that stands for nothing.

This isn’t the easiest thing to examine, and I’m not the only stakeholder here – but my first take at our biggest strengths and corresponding weaknesses would be something like this:

  • Strengths: No-nonsense, stable, straightforward
  • Weaknesses: Unresponsive, slow to change, incomplete

I don’t know exactly what to do with that yet, but I think it’s true (at least as a perception of us it’s true). Our best qualities have predictable weaknesses as tradeoffs.

What about you? What are your organization’s strengths and corresponding weaknesses? How are you going to lean into those? Let me know in the comments or on twitter.

Aspirin Business vs Vitamin Business

A few years ago, I heard Rob Walling explain the difference between an aspirin business and a vitamin business: in an aspirin business, you don’t try to convince customers that they need your product. Instead your customers have a problem – a “headache” – and they know it. They go looking for a solution – your “aspirin” – to make their problem go away (or at least make it better).

On the other hand, if you have a vitamin business, you constantly have to convince your customers they need what you’re selling. Vitamins supplement our diet and supposedly make our lives better in some way – they promise to make us healthier, more vibrant, etc. In a vitamin business, your customers can survive without your product, so your job is to show them how much better their lives will be with it.

You can build a great company selling either aspirin products (like this one) or vitamin products (here’s one I use and one I don’t use), but it’s extremely important to know which kind you have and to be intentional about which selling approach you take. One of my favorite products, You Need a Budget, is so useful to me that I thought for a second that it was an aspirin company – but actually, they’re an extremely effective, high-quality vitamin company.

The company I work for, Moraware, is very much an aspirin company. Our customers reach out to us, typically as they’re growing, either with a scheduling problem or a quoting problem. We have a product for each, and our sales approach consists mostly of making sure that customers indeed have one of the problems we solve. Our ongoing product development approach attempts to solve those problems slightly better each day (an extremely slow process) and occasionally to solve a new problem (an even slower process).

Aspirin businesses like Moraware tend not to be sexy but instead try to be useful, consistent, and predictable. Our biggest responsibility is simply to make sure we don’t screw up our customers’ data, because our customers now depend on us to run their companies. Our biggest challenge is that our customers have many more problems that they’d like us to solve – most would prefer our regular-strength aspirin to morph into extra-strength (OK, I’m almost done torturing the metaphor, I promise). Unfortunately, even the tiniest improvement takes a long time to implement.

I often get frustrated that we don’t have every feature our customers ask for – and they get frustrated, too. What I’m ever-so-slowly learning is that we’ll never have every feature that customers ask for! Because of that, it’s better to focus on each customer’s problems that they’re trying to solve whenever they reach out to us. By focusing on their problems, then we’re in a better position to say “here’s how we can help” (whether it’s a great solution or a mediocre one) or simply “we don’t help with that problem, but maybe look in this other place.”

Over time, we’ve added significant capabilities to our products and will (slowly) continue to do so – but at any moment in time, we can only sell the product we have, which means we can only solve some kinds of problems well. It sounds so simple, but those end up being the problems we focus on – the ones where we actually can provide good solutions. That’s the essence of being an aspirin business.

Birthday reflections

Today was my 47th birthday. In most ways, it was just another day, but I got to enjoy a nice dinner with my family, and my parents even came over for cake after their line-dancing class. Life is good.

Since today was a work day, I spent time reflecting on my career. I tend to focus on things I haven’t accomplished … but today seemed like a good day to look back on all the good things I have done and to appreciate the work environment that I enjoy today.

I work for a great company with great people. I’m not solving world hunger, but I do help people build better businesses (albeit in an extremely narrow niche). I’m building new work muscles – particularly in the simple-but-critical area of helping customers. I work hard, and I learn something new every day. 

My job affords me the opportunity to develop myself and improve. I figure I have 10-20 more years left in my career, and I’m looking forward to finishing it strong. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to learn over the rest of my career, but I’m sure looking forward to figuring it out.

Onward and upward!

Moraware is hiring a programmer

Moraware is looking for a programmer. Not just any programmer – the right programmer. The right programmer has these qualities:

  • Very good with C#, SQL Server, and HTML/JavaScript (plus not afraid of learning anything else)
  • Great problem solver
  • Awesome to work with

There’s one more tactical requirement – being in the Pacific timezone or acting like you are. Getting up to speed will require plenty of time communicating with Ted, our founder and lead developer. We’re only a 6-person company (4 of us on the customer team and 2 on the development team), so we don’t have a lot of ceremony. Instead, we talk to each other. A lot. The right programmer has to enjoy getting on the phone and working through things as much as necessary. That’s just easier if you’re in the same timezone. For the first six months or so, it will probably be nice to spend some time in the same room together, too, and travel tends to be easier if you’re in the same timezone. We currently have developers in Reno (Ted) and California (Derek).

Everyone in the company works from home, which I happen to love. Moraware got me a stand-up/sit-down desk with a couple of big-ass monitors attached – based on my experience, having a good work environment really makes a big difference in your productivity, health, and simply enjoying your job. Moraware will make sure you’re comfortable while you’re working.

Moraware also pays really well, and we share in the profits of the company – which have been going up steadily for years. I currently make a little more than I did at Microsoft, so I’m quite happy with the pay.

More importantly, I enjoy getting up to work each day. We have about a thousand customers paying us money every month, and keeping everything running smoothly for them is a big responsibility. It’s amazingly interesting and motivating trying to figure out ways to make our customers more successful. And while we’re all focused on the challenges of growing our business, we’re not at all uptight about it. I’m healthier than I’ve been in a decade, and I’ve been able to get there thanks to an awesome work situation.

As for the software development work itself … it’s all about solving problems for customers, not using technology for its own sake. If using carrier pigeons is the right technology to solve a problem, then we’ll use carrier pigeons. More specifically, we deliver a browser-based SaaS solution. We’re still using a home-grown C# display library that spits out HTML – Ted wrote it long before ASP.NET MVC even existed, and there’s currently no reason to change it (although improving the mobile UX might prompt us to do so in the future). We use SQL Server as our data store, not some fancy document database, and we have a separate database instance for each customer. A lot of the heavy lifting happens in the database. We also do some crazy, modern, awesome things with JavaScript (see www.moraware.com/countergo – that’s all done in a browser!). If you just want to use the latest and greatest technologies, this isn’t the job for you. If you want to use whatever technology is currently the best fit (based on all sorts of messy, real-world factors) to solve problems for customers, then reach out to me at patrick@moraware.com to start a conversation.

I wrote about a customer support / sales position last year – I should have followed up and mentioned that we interviewed lots of really good people, and we hired two as a result. One is my sister, Kathleen Teodoro … Harry didn’t want to hire family, but Kate is simply amazing at customer support and sales. We also hired my friend Jason Pliml, because he’s a rare business talent who influences the company in a variety of useful ways.

After that round of hiring, we wrote down some of what we learned – most importantly, we learned that we need to hire people who support our values. I’ll share them with you if this job sounds interesting, and you think you’re a good fit. To get started, just email me at patrick@moraware.com with your qualifications and reason for interest.