My Beautiful Mind

At Business of Software 2013, Greg Baugues spoke about depression and the stigma surrounding mental illness. The only way to eliminate that stigma is to talk about it. So I am.

pfviolin-young

When I was a senior in high school (1987), I applied to one school, the University of Southern California. I filled out the application in one pass – in ink – including the essay. I had very high test scores, all A’s except for one B (I was robbed!), and I knew where I wanted to go. I was confident bordering on arrogant. Sure enough, I was accepted as a Trustee Scholar, one of 20 incoming freshmen awarded full academic scholarships to the university. I was also awarded a small, additional scholarship from the music department that I could apply toward my room and board.

In retrospect there were healthier school choices for me. I should have gone to a school closer to my home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But I had made up my mind that I was going to study with Eduard Schmieder, who had gained a reputation as one of the best violin teachers in the world. (Here’s part of the audition tape I submitted – I found it in a box the other day … it makes me cringe to listen to it now, but it was an OK effort back then.) I wanted to study with Dr. Schmieder because my friend Pieter Schoeman was going to USC to study with him – I adored the way Pieter played, and I wanted to be like him. (Pieter’s sound is so distinctive that years later, I heard a violin solo during a Lord of the Rings movie and knew it was him. Sure enough, when I got home and Googled it, I found that the London Philharmonic Orchestra had performed the music for the movie and that Pieter was indeed the concertmaster.)

Dr. Schmieder didn’t really understand me at the time. Most of his students were from countries other than the U.S. (Pieter was from South Africa, for example), and he would normally have a new student live with him for a couple of months until they were acclimated to life in Los Angeles. He figured I didn’t need that, since I was an American. He didn’t realize that I probably needed it more than anyone. I was a 108-pound, 5-foot-4, androgynous boy who had figured out how to be reasonably cute in Michigan. Los Angeles is full of beautiful movie stars and wannabe movie stars that continuously breed and make more beautiful people. I was 18 but looked 12, and I didn’t adjust well at all. I wanted so badly to fit into the school at large, but I was a runt and an oddity.

I took way too many classes and honors everything (of course); for the first time in my life, school was HARD. I never did homework in high school, because stuff just made sense the first time I heard it. I’d complete assignments between classes or as the teacher was talking. I won math competitions and aced every math class without trying … until my senior year of high school, while taking second semester calculus from the local community college. Once we got to the point of finding the volume of donuts, math was finally hard – so I just dropped it! The point is that I never learned how to work during high school, so college was a real eye opener for me. Everything was just damn hard.

Music went OK my freshman year, but it was a big adjustment for me to be an average-at-best musician. I was used to being the best in my tribe or close to it, but USC had a great music school, and Dr. Schmieder had a monster class. I was just another violinist who didn’t stand out in any positive way. That was a difficult blow to my ego. My fondest memory of that year was practicing in my dorm room one day and sounding so good that when Pieter heard me through the window, he thought I was someone else.

I have an impulsive side, and somewhere in that freshman year, I found a new religion in Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. Jumped right in and started chanting twice a day. Just made sense to me.

One evening I was offered the opportunity to smoke pot for the first time … I inhaled deeply, and I liked it. A lot. Some people say that they can’t really feel anything different the first time they get high. I am not one of those people – the first time I got high, I visually hallucinated for about 6 hours. I traveled across time and space and visited all sorts of family, friends, and historical figures. Jean-Luc Ponty made sense to me for the first time. It was awesome. I called my mom the next day and told her how great the experience was – I didn’t really understand why she wasn’t as excited about it as I was. I didn’t get high again my freshman year, simply because it wasn’t offered to me. It seemed like a trip to Disneyland – something you did only on special occasions.

On the last day of my freshman year, the dean of the music school called me into his office and told me that they were taking away my supplemental music scholarship. I was devastated. I was also pissed, since I had about a 3.5 GPA. I wasn’t living up to my own standards, but I wasn’t doing THAT poorly. I learned that it was fairly common for the school to take away scholarships after freshman year so that they could get new freshmen locked in. An alternative theory occurred to me about 20 years later, when I remembered that there was a name on the front of that scholarship – I had never bothered to contact the benefactor and just say thanks … maybe offer to serenade them or something. I don’t even remember who the benefactor was. I wonder if that would have made a difference.

Instead of recovering and growing stronger over the summer, I had to deal with my girlfriend breaking up with me. We had a “mature,” “accepting” long-distance relationship (i.e., we knew we were going to sleep with other people), so I thought we’d survive as a couple. I honestly thought I was going to marry her, but nope. She found someone she liked better. That wasn’t just a blow to my ego – it was a rip in my universe. My heart was broken, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I just pressed forward.

For my sophomore year, my roommate and I moved into an off-campus apartment that we shared with a couple of other guys. Guys who happened to get high every day. I figured that if I was only joining in 2 or 3 times per week, I must be exercising restraint. But I learned from these “experts” that I don’t react to pot the way most people do. Apparently, pot affects me the way LSD affects most people. My new druggie friends found my wild hallucinations fairly entertaining, and they were kind of protective of me. They tried to slow me down a bit and said they’d never let me try anything harder than marijuana. I think they were actually a bit worried about me.

I learned later that it was known to be a really bad idea to combine smoking pot with religious chanting. On the one hand I was letting go, and on the other I was winding up. In the moment, I was receiving positive reinforcement, so I thought I had simply figured out something that was expanding my horizons. My violin teacher was quite a bit happier with the way I was playing that year, and I had a couple of communities (pot and Buddhism) where I felt I belonged.

And then I stopped coming down. Even though I wasn’t smoking as much as my roommates, the effects seemed to last much longer for me. After a while, I lost my ability to sleep, staying up for what seemed like days at a time. I started acting weirder and weirder, even when I wasn’t smoking. I have an odd sense of humor anyway, but my filter was OFF. I made bizarre connections about everything – something as innocent as going to the mall seemed like a date with destiny. On one such adventure, I remember having a tripped out conversation with a producer for the Tracy Ullman Show – looking back, I’m pretty sure she was asking if I wanted tickets to a taping. Her conversation with this wacked out kid wearing painted-on jeans and talking in profound aphorisms must have left quite an impression, because Tracy herself referred to a “Patrick Firstman from Grand Rapids, Michigan” in her next show. This of course freaked me out when I saw it on TV (I saw it on a rerun years later and was amused to see that I hadn’t imagined it). These types of self-fulfilling prophesies happen all the time when you act so comically weird that people notice you.

I went through a freeloader phase, where I thought people should just pay for things for me. Sorry, everybody! If I still owe you money, send me a bill! During this time, I played a gig at a recording studio and “befriended” a gentleman who wanted to hang out with me. He bought me a nice dinner, took me back to his place … and was severely disappointed when I rebuffed his advances. As he drove me home, I remember feeling guilt that caused me deep, physical pain, as  if I had been kicked in the balls. At least I think that’s what happened.

I spent a fair amount of time thinking meta “thoughts about thinking.” I remember being aware of multiple threads of thought at the same time and generally being able to maintain them simultaneously. I tried to see how many different thoughts I could keep going in my head at once, almost like juggling. Fun stuff.

As things started getting worse, I remember going to classes and being super weird. The worst was an orchestra rehearsal where I must have been mumbling or something – maybe I was un-showered, maybe I was trying to flirt with my stand partner … I don’t remember anymore – I just know that I was having a great time making music, but somehow I was making everybody else uncomfortable – the whole damn orchestra. At the end, the conductor addressed the orchestra saying something like “please don’t come up and talk to me after this rehearsal.” My face gets red just thinking about that episode, even though I can’t describe it very well.

The memories aren’t all bad. One consequence of my emerging psychosis was that I made connections all over the place. Connections are the foundation of humor – so the world seemed very, very funny to me much of the time. I was just cracking myself up left and right. In Matt Groening’s “Life is Hell” series, he made a mock cover for “Annoying Street Lunatic Magazine.” One of his headlines was “Thinkin’ about String” … that headline captured a certain essence of my experience perfectly – it still makes me laugh every time I think of it.

And Pink Floyd! The Grateful Dead! During this time, they started making sense to me, and I’m still fond of them. I suppose that’s something.

Eventually, however, my short-term memory stopped working, and I even lost my ability to speak for a while. I could imagine what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t form the words. I think it was at that point that I started getting scared – and I noticed the people around me getting more and more scared as well. I was no longer “a little odd” – I was clearly messed up. Yes, it was funny in its own way, but I was hurting pretty badly, too. I had an image in my head of the person I expected myself to be. As my world became more and more complicated, I felt more and more pressure to make sense of myself in it. I expected myself to be perfect, and as I was distorting my own reality with delusions of grandeur, I was simultaneously punishing myself for not living up to those delusions – and for not being able to snap out of what was happening to me and get my shit together.

I could tell more stories, but that’s enough for now.

When I was a small boy, my mom had experienced something like I was experiencing at USC, and she knew she had to do something. She called some relatives that I trusted, and they somehow managed to put me on a plane (I think it was December 7, 1988). It was approximately like checking a cat onto a plane without a pet carrier. I’m pretty sure I shoplifted a Disney-themed toothbrush holder during a layover in Kansas City and gave it to somebody at my gate. Again, sorry. It was an imperative at the time, I assure you.

One of my memories of smoking pot is that the other people in the room who were also smoking pot “glowed” to me in a certain way. I don’t know if it works that way for other people, but for me it was as if the boundaries between people got smeared a little (in a pleasant way). After I stopped coming down, that effect was less prominent but more present. When I got off the plane in Michigan and my parents picked me up, my dad glowed like a neon sign to me, and my mom looked like a beautiful watercolor. It was a huge relief to see them. I forgot to get my luggage (and my parents were a bit more concerned about me than my stuff), so some of the funniest artifacts of this time are lost to me. That’s a bit disappointing. I would have liked to include a picture of my wardrobe in this post – it would have made a hippie proud.

I was pretty distressed by the time we got home. It was exhausting dealing with my spinning thoughts as well as being on the receiving end of the way people looked at me. This whole time, I was still me, even though I was messed up – and I could tell by the way people looked at me that something was wrong. That night, my dad led our family in a rosary, and I remember that made me feel a lot better. It was like chanting, except that my family could join me – so it had an additional, comforting aspect to it.

The next day, my mom took me to our family doctor, and this man might have saved my life. For the first time in weeks, somebody looked completely normal to me. This kind man had been around the block a few times and wasn’t shocked at all to see a kid struggle at college and come back with a screw loose. We had a pleasant conversation where one of us brought up the fact that my mom thought I needed to go to the hospital. I asked him if he thought that was a good idea, and he said, “Yes, I do think the hospital’s a good idea – I think it would do you some good.” OK, then. I’ll do it.

So my parents took me to Forest View Psychiatric Hospital (the better of the two in our city), and I signed myself in. THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT. If ever you are in the situation that my family was in, do your best to have your loved one check himself into the hospital instead of getting him committed. Once I started getting better, it was so helpful to know that I could just check myself out when I was ready. No need to throw a fountain through a window to escape.

The first thing they did was give me sleeping pills. That alone helped a lot. Then a psychiatrist prescribed me a powerful antipsychotic called Trilafon (12 mg, I believe). It was as if all the gears in my brain had slipped apart and were spinning wildly – the drug acted like molasses to slow down the gears so I could put them back together. The psychiatrist also intuited what makes me tick, so he outlined a couple of paragraphs in a clinical book and handed it to me. “Here, this is what you have.” Cannabis Psychosis. There it was, right on the page: “a psychosis brought on by using marijuana, a condition that affects 8 in 20,000 marijuana users” (btw, why the hell didn’t they write that as 4 in 10,000 or 1 in 2,500?) …

WOW! It’s ME! All this time, I thought the world was getting weirder and weirder, and now this smart-looking man with the airplane propeller in his office explained to me that I was sick – it made so much sense! The world was fine all along, but I wasn’t! That was a huge relief, and by simply learning and trusting in this fact, I knew I would get better quickly.

I spent an intense week or so as an inpatient that was kind of like being in a monastery to me. I felt more alive, not less. We were a bunch of wounded souls trying to get better, spending most of the day reaching out to each other and sometimes connecting. Someone introduced me to Jethro Tull. We played a lot of ping pong and pool. I tried to like cigarettes but just wasn’t into it (where are the hallucinations? what’s the point?). Family and friends visited me, which was kind of weird, but I was still happy to see them.

After I was “normal” enough to sleep at home, I went back to the hospital every day for about a month. We did group therapy and arts and crafts – pretty much day camp for grown ups. After that, I saw a psychologist once a week for about 6 months or so.

Once I started digesting what was going on (ultimately before I even left the hospital), I was pretty damn embarrassed. Replaying various scenes in my mind was more terrifying than living them, because it was an opportunity to beat myself up and worry about what other people thought of me. Thankfully, I stumbled on a book by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, which describes a bus ride through heaven and hell. A guide of sorts was trying to explain shame to the protagonist:

Don’t you remember on earth—there were things too hot to touch with your finger but you could drink them all right? Shame is like that. If you will accept it—if you will drink the cup to the bottom—you will find it very nourishing: but try to do anything else with it and it scalds.

That sentiment helped and in fact helps to this day – I recognize that this experience is part of who I am and always will be.

But there were practical matters, too. Before landing in the hospital, I had a scholarship to a prestigious university, and now that was gone. I learned that I could get my scholarship back only if I paid for the semester I had just pissed away – and I didn’t have that kind of money. Also, a side effect of the anti-psychotic drugs was that I couldn’t move my fingers very well – it felt as though they were stuck in molasses – so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to play the violin well again. But after a while, they gave me drugs to stem the side effects, and I got back to work.

I called Dr. Schmieder, who was still shaken that one of his students had flipped out but ultimately relieved to learn that I was OK. He suggested I contact his friend Arkady Fomin at Southern Methodist University, which I did. I attended Fomin’s summer music program at SMU, then was awarded a scholarship by the music department and attended the university. I was pretty much back to normal before wandering off in another direction a couple of years later and becoming a computer programmer.


It would be way too easy to blame my experience on marijuana. Yes, it was the trigger, and I used that knowledge to my advantage. It was comforting to know that if pot caused this problem, then just don’t smoke pot … problem solved! But that’s a gross over-simplification. My mom experienced a psychotic episode. So did my grandma. At least one uncle. At least one cousin on the other side of the family. If there’s a genetic tendency toward psychotic experiences, I certainly have it.

I knew all along that there were other factors contributing to this. Remember that girlfriend who broke up with me? That hurt a LOT. My inability to process that heartbreak might have been enough to trigger an episode on its own.

And there’s an even more complicated issue – the parts of me that led to my psychosis are arguably the BEST parts of me, not the worst. I’m an exceptional problem solver and pattern matcher, and I’m really creative. These qualities served me well as a musician, and once I applied those skills to computers, I turned them into a career. Those “good” qualities are the parts of me that spun out of control, and I’m not alone. Research appears to support a link between creativity and madness. I suspect that everybody has the ability to push the limits of what their mind can take, but I just live a bit closer to that edge than most people. I think that if I had been born into a different culture, that closeness to the edge would have been celebrated – perhaps I would have been part of a family of shaman.

That high school girlfriend once took me sailing on Reed’s Lake and shared some profound wisdom with me. “If you never tip your sailboat over, you don’t really know how fast you can go. Of course, if you spend all day with your mast in the water, that’s not sailing, either.” Well, I found out how fast my mind could go … but the boat didn’t just tip over, it ripped apart, and I almost drowned. Although I talk about it with humor, let’s be clear – it sucked, and I don’t ever want that to happen again. But I do want to sail again – I want to do great things, I want to have fun … I want to use my strengths, even if they’re dangerous. Coming back from a crash is hard. I’m still not sure I’ve fully dealt with it. I’m pretty sure I haven’t in fact.

I think the biggest lingering side effect is low confidence when I get close to doing something truly good. I’m fairly extroverted, I generally have low inhibitions, and I genuinely like myself, so most people probably think I’m brimming with confidence. I’m not. I have moments when I get really excited and caught up in solving a problem or being creative, and confidence is simply not an issue. And then I eventually come down, and it’s time to do the WORK, and I have to drag myself through low confidence bordering on despair just to get my name filled in at the top of the page. Yes, I’m like Ricky Bobby trying to get back in a racecar. Once I get immersed in the work again, then I’m fine, but it’s sometimes really hard to get there.

I’ve always loved puzzles, but only ones where it isn’t obvious if there’s a solution or not – I’m not crazy about things like Rubik’s Cube, because I know that there’s an algorithm to solve it, and I just don’t find it amusing to find that algorithm (that’s work for me, not play). Poker, on the other hand, has infinite variability and unknowns (because it’s really about people) – so I love it. The greatest non-obvious puzzle in the world is running a business* – that’s why I love startups. I get so much energy from working on business problems or even just talking about other people’s business problems. Working on my first real attempt at a startup last year with Jody Burgess was a double treat, because for some reason, Jody understands my wacky mind and can handle it. Unfortunately, the flip side of being non-obvious is that succeeding at business is really hard. I haven’t succeeded yet, or at least I haven’t been able to make a living from my own business yet. I’m hopeful that my new job with Moraware (I start in January) will be a nice compromise, because I’ll be working on non-obvious problems that excite me while making a steady living and taking care of my family. The founders, Ted and Harry (coincidentally both USC grads), also seem to appreciate my wacky mind more than most. We’ll see.

About 8 years ago, my wife and I had some serious problems with our marriage (this was the real reason I joined Microsoft – because I was barely hanging on and Microsoft was a life raft). I started seeing a psychologist again while working through that process, and even when we managed to “fix” things after a couple of years and keep our family together (one day at a time), I decided to continue seeing my shrink on a weekly basis – simply because I can. It just seems like a smart, cautious step to have a professional help me keep tabs on my sanity. Why not? Interestingly, we had never spent much time talking about my psychosis until I decided to write about it.

In fact, until hearing Greg’s talk at BoS2013, I hadn’t thought about my psychosis more than maybe once a year. After deciding I was going to write about it, I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot and thinking about the lasting impact it’s had on me. I certainly don’t understand all of it, but it seems useful to explore it a bit more. There’s quite a bit of emotional scar tissue … maybe I can get rid of some of it and grow.

That’s all I got. I hope that more people will talk about depression, anxiety, ADHD, psychoses, and other mental illnesses, because they affect people that YOU know and love. They’re a part of our world – they’re a part of us. Why is it so different from breaking a leg? I got sick; I went to the hospital; I got better. It’s just one of many stories in my life.

Thanks for listening. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments, twitter, or by email.

-Patrick

* OK: #1 Women, #2 Business, #3 Poker

Business of Software 2013

Another Business of Software conference has come and gone, my 4th year in a row to attend. A month ago, I assumed I wouldn’t be attending (couldn’t justify it as a consultant), but since I met my new employers at the conference 4 years ago, it seemed only fitting to connect at the conference this year and finalize our arrangements. Harry and Ted always attend, and it’s a huge perk of my new job that I’ll get to join them. I look forward to keeping my streak alive for many years.

This year’s conference was great as always, but I found myself in a very different place. I’ve learned so much from BoS in the past – now I’ll finally get to put that learning into practice at Moraware. I was listening to sessions more calmly than in the past and with a keen eye for things I can use right away.

Kathy Sierra’s presentation on making bad ass users was probably my favorite … the density of information she conveys in such an entertaining and interesting way – she is a virtuoso speaker. And oh yeah, her talk described exactly what Moraware wants to do for its users.

Dan Siroker’s talk on A/B testing and Patrick McKenzie’s expansion on similar topics – these defined key tactics and skills I will be learning in my new job. I was pretty damn excited to hear Patrick explain that learning to do these things will make me quite valuable.

Sarah Hatter always talks about making customer support and the whole customer experience great … well, my business card title will probably be either “Customer Support” or “Customer Experience” at my new job, so everything she says is highly relevant to me (and she’s a blast on stage).

Paul Kenny’s personality profile workshop was incredibly timely and relevant. Ted, Harry, and I all compared our profiles over dinner, and it was very useful. I think we’re going to get profiles for the other people in the company, too, and talk about them at our next get-together (the conversation is as important as the profile).

Bob Moesta and Chris Spiek did a great interview of Tyler Rooney’s car-buying saga and showed us how to uncover the Job To Be Done that customers are looking for. I also attended their workshop after the conference, and it was incredible. Harry, Ted, and I are going to be diving into these techniques the first day I start (and in fact we’ll be practicing the techniques before I start).

Even the Lightning Talks were great. Des Traynor’s (cheating) talk was absolutely brilliant, and I look forward to seeing an expanded version next year.

All the other talks were great, but most of the rest were geared toward owners, so they didn’t apply quite as specifically to me.

The most important talk of the conference was by Greg Baugues. Greg shared his battle with depression and ADHD, and it was deeply moving. The main point I think he wanted us to take away is that we need to talk about mental illness more – and GET HELP. The only thing that makes it different from a broken leg is the stigma we place on it. Patrick McKenzie added to this topic at the end of his own talk. I didn’t know Greg before the conference, but Patrick is a hero of mine – there’s nobody I look up to more. It was inconceivable to me that he struggled with depression sometimes as well. I have a hard time holding back tears just thinking about this. After Patrick’s talk, I chatted briefly with another conference friend who cheerfully implied he struggles, too.

I made up my mind then that I would share my own experience with mental illness. The short story is that I experienced a terrifying psychosis when I was 19, while attending the University of Southern California as a music student. I spent time in a psychiatric hospital and was prescribed powerful psychotropic drugs that helped me recover. I got better pretty quickly, but it left a mark, obviously. I don’t think about this episode at all on a day-to-day basis, but I’ve told a few close friends over the years. It’s a hell of a story, so I usually feel comfortable when I tell it (I like holding court), but I’ve never talked about it publicly. I was surprised to discover how hard it was going to be to do so (for a few hours after deciding on this yesterday, I would well up with tears each time I thought about it). My motivation for talking about it casually is simply to further Greg’s goal and to help remove the stigma about mental illness … but I’m curious about how it will affect me personally to talk about it more, too.

It’s going to take me a while to write it down and do the story justice, so I’ll have to leave you with that teaser for now. If you can’t wait, you can read my mom’s account of my mental illness. It’s chapter 2 of a book she’s slowly writing. Chapter 1 is about her own mental illness. If you want to go all the way there, it might make sense just to start at the beginning. (Chapter 3 is my grandmother’s mental illness … spot a pattern?)

Mark Littlewood puts on a hell of a show. I hope to see you there next year …

Cheers,

-Patrick

Another change of direction

This consulting thing didn’t last long. A few weeks ago, my friends Harry and Ted offered me a job with their small, successful software company, Moraware. I wasn’t looking for a job, but I’ve always liked and respected these guys, so I had to listen. In the end, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’ll be starting to work for Moraware in January.

There were two things that attracted me about this opportunity. The first is that they’re willing to pay me what I’m used to while working for a small company. I didn’t think that was possible – normally, you have to take a near-term pay hit for the long-term upside when working for a startup. That’s not good for me at this point in my life, simply because my son is 10, and his needs are more important than mine right now. I can focus on riskier opportunities when he leaves home, if I still want to.

Moraware was able to offer me an attractive compensation plan because they’re not a startup – they’ve already achieved product/market fit in a small, very specific market (countertop fabricators). And that’s the second, VERY attractive thing about this opportunity. I’m going to learn first-hand how a successful software company works. I’ll have my hands in just about every aspect of the business, and my key goals are simply “make the business better” and “pitch in to make the team’s lives better.” I met Harry and Ted at the Business of Software conference 3 years ago, and we’ve also connected at MicroConf and ISVCon. Together we’ve learned amazing things at these events – my job is to increase the team’s capacity so that we can apply that learning.

I’m going to get paid to learn how to do the stuff Patrick McKenzie teaches. I’m going to get paid to do customer interviews the way the Re-Wired Group teaches. I am SO excited to finally get my hands dirty with these things. And I’ve learned I’m not as effective as I’d like to be on my own … so I’m thrilled to be part of a great team. I can’t wait.

I do have to wait a bit, though … I have consulting commitments that are going to take me a few more weeks to complete. Hopefully I can finish in time to have a restful Christmas and New Year and then hit the ground running.

I’m fond of consulting, but my heart is in the software product business. I am so fortunate and grateful to land this opportunity.

Of course now I have to change my site again. I had a plan to reach out to an audience of CIOs with this blog, but that never got off the ground. If anyone’s reading this, you’re probably a part of the “startup/micropreneur tribe” I belong to (or you’re my friend Francesca … Hi Francesca!). When I get in a writing groove, that’s who I’ll be writing for again.

To a new adventure … Cheers!

-Patrick

Lumia or iPhone?

I crashed my phone last night, my trusty HTC 8X Windows Phone. It’s been a great phone, but it’s time to upgrade …

I’m agonizing over the decision. Now that I don’t work for Microsoft, I can get any phone that I want. Although I love what Android phones bring to the market (waterproof – brilliant! huge – brilliant!), none of them current speaks to me.

The safe, “default” choice these days is an iPhone, and it’s really tempting. I know they’re fine phones, and I have to admit, it really annoys me when I learn about a new app but don’t get to try it … there are lots of great apps on Windows Phone, but most of the “big brand” apps support iPhone first, Android second, and Windows Phone maybe never.

The problem is that I really love Windows Phone. I don’t want an iPhone – I’d rather have a Windows Phone with all the apps. But that’s the tradeoff.

I’m leaning toward the Lumia 928 – if I’m forgetting some killer iPhone app that would change my life, please let me know. I’m going to replace this broken one tonight or tomorrow.

I might even split the difference by getting the small iPad at some point. Then I could run everything.

Make Your First Dollar

I met Noah Kagan about 3 years ago at MicroConf. He was the 4th or 5th employee at Mint and 30th at Facebook, so he’s got instant cred there. He’s super passionate and smart about business and marketing and life, and he knows how to make stuff work. He knows how to change things.

A few years ago, Noah built AppSumo. He’s taken it in various directions, but in the last few months, he’s become laser-focused on helping people start their own businesses. He built an interactive course called “Make Your First Dollar,” and he’s helping people make significant changes in their lives and begin the journey of making successful businesses.

Right now, they’re running a promotion where the winner gets to spend a WEEK with Noah getting one-on-one help to build the business of their dreams. This is a deluxe, all-expenses-paid trip to Austin to spend time with one of the smartest entrepreneurs in the world (and he’s also just super fun to hang out with). If you have a day job that you’ve thought about leaving, you should enter the contest. Even if you don’t win, it might lead you to check out his course and make an awesome change in your life.

What If

What if your primary data center were completely destroyed? Or what if an event like Hurricane Sandy caused your data center to be without power for a day, a week, or a month?

What if someone vandalized your data center or managed to steal equipment? What if your systems were hacked?

What if a key infrastructure component like your SAN died?

What happens when an employee loses a laptop or their iPad gets stolen with company data on it?

What about scheduled downtime – how do you handle “patch Tuesday” and similar maintenance windows?


These are the types of questions you ask when improving your disaster recovery plan (if you don’t have answers to any of these questions, then you don’t have a disaster recovery plan … you should fix that right away … feel free to call).

There are actually three related disciplines involved with these kinds of questions, oversimplified as:

  • Disaster Recovery (DR) – how to recover your systems after a disaster (large or small)

  • Business Continuity (BC) – how to do business after a disaster, even before your systems are recovered

  • High Availability (HA) – how to prevent your systems from going down at all, even when there’s a disaster

Business continuity is more of a business function than an IT function – BC is ultimately all the “human stuff” that you have to address after a disaster. DR and HA, on the other hand, are core functions of IT. It used to be that high availability was reserved only for key systems, but as DR tools improve and HA costs come down, the lines between DR and HA have become quite blurred.

Instead, it’s useful to talk about the underlying goals of DR – how fast can we recover from an incident and how much data can we stand to lose? The fancy names for these are

  • Recovery Time Objective (RTO) – how fast you can recover

  • Recover Point Objective (RPO) – how much data you can afford to lose

If your company makes offsite backups of all your systems and data once every midnight, then your RPO is about 24 hours. The worst case scenario for you is that your production systems get completely fried at 11:59pm, right before your backup and you lose a whole day’s worth of transactions. When you go to recover, you’ll have to use the previous day’s backup. If your systems got fried right after a backup and before you start work for the day, then you wouldn’t lose any data, but RPO is calculated on worst case, not best.

If you make hourly backups in your data center but never make offsite backups, then you’ve protected yourself against internal disasters like a disk crash (with a 1 hour RPO), but you haven’t protected yourself at all from a big disaster like fire. That’s why you have to constantly ask yourself “what if” when dealing with DR.

Improving RPO

One of the simplest ways to improve RPO is to use “cloud backed storage” in your data center. The idea is that data files are stored locally but duplicated and kept up-to-date in commodity storage in the cloud. This is an extremely cost-effective form of backup, and it gives you nearly instantaneous RPO. If your data center were completely lost, you’d lose only a few moments of data transactions. Companies like Nasuni have taken this basic architecture and delivered an enormous amount of functionality around it for shockingly low cost. I’ll share more detail on cloud backed storage products in a future post.

Improving RTO

Improving RTO is a bit trickier – and costlier. There are a wide variety of techniques to help you recover systems quickly. One approach is maintaining multiple active systems in different locations that can absorb system load if one of the sites goes down. I recently spoke to the CIO of a large web application company that uses this approach extensively. If their website goes down, they lose millions of dollars per minute. Needless to say, the CIO is not going to let the site go down. That said, he still wants to maximize the value of his infrastructure investments, so he chooses not to have any passive data centers or nodes. Everything his team designs favors an active-active approach. They use Akamai to cache the front end, so even if an entire data center went offline, users wouldn’t perceive an interruption. This is the very definition of High Availability – an RTO of zero.

On the other end of the RTO spectrum, you can manually recover backups if your primary data center goes down. The problem with this approach is that it takes quite a while – and to make things worse, because you don’t know how long it will take, it’s tough to make the call to failover. The power company doesn’t usually tell you, “we’re going to be down for 93.4 hours” because they don’t know either. Obviously, if it takes longer to recover than you expect the outage to be, you might as well not start the failover … if you have a manual failover, you probably have a manual failback, which means that you’ll probably encounter another disruption in service when the original problem is eliminated.

There’s a lot of benefit in moving to the middle of the RTO spectrum, and you can do so for reasonable cost. The key is replication. Synchronous replication techniques ensure that a transaction on one node doesn’t complete unless it also completes on synchronized node(s). True synchronous technology tends only to be practical within a physical data center, so it’s used for things like database clusters (and at a lower level, SANs themselves).

With asynchronous replication, a transaction (perhaps simply a disk write) on the primary node is complete without waiting. The replication happens just after the transaction occurs, so there is a slight possibility of data loss (i.e., a slightly higher RPO). The advantage of async, however, is that the replication can be transmitted halfway around the globe in a practical and cost-effective fashion. This makes asynchronous replication a great technique for maintaining passive nodes at DR data centers.

VMWare and Microsoft have been building more and more async capabilities directly into their hypervisors. Products like DoubleTake add management tools that make failing over and failing back surprisingly painless. These types of tools can help you restore a given system in 15 minutes or less. Realistically, you can reduce your overall data center RTO from days or weeks for manual failover to hours or even minutes using asynchronous replication tools. Think about the value of restoring your operations after a shared natural disaster significantly faster than your competitors (or vice versa – they might be thinking of it, too). The value is likely many times the cost. For that reason, I’ll definitely share more on async replication in a future post.

Moving to the Cloud

If you run your data center entirely “in the cloud,” then you’ve outsourced your DR/HA to your cloud provider. This is usually a good strategy. I’ve visited one of Microsoft’s cloud data centers, and trust me, you don’t have the same level of resources and capabilities for keeping hardware up and running that Microsoft does. That said, NO data center is perfect – even the best cloud providers experience occasional downtime.

So over the next 3 years, it’s highly likely that Microsoft will experience much less downtime than you will … but here’s the rub – when they go down, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. At least when your internal SAN crashes, you can explain to your stakeholders what a black swan event it was while you lose sleep to fix the problem. When Windows Azure is down, all you can do is say, “it’s down” and maybe cite an estimate of when it will be back up.

Again, in most cases, public cloud providers are going to provide much better uptime than you can (it is, after all, the entirety of their business), so it’s usually a better bargain than hosting your own hardware. But it’s the loss of control – along with all the emotional effects that go with it – that keep companies hosting their own hardware. Many people are still not ready for that loss of control … but the economics will eventually push most into the cloud anyway.

There are always ways to mitigate risk, especially if you’re willing to spend more money. To mitigate the loss of control, you can replicate across data centers of a single cloud provider, reducing the dependency on a single node (for some types of data, cloud providers do this automatically). You can even replicate across cloud providers. You can continue to self-host but use the public cloud just for DR – or make the public cloud your primary site and leverage your existing data center investments for DR. Or you can double down and use more SaaS products like Office365 and salesforce.com – and ultimately outsource even more of the technology/service stack.

Helping companies move to the cloud is turning into one of the main things I do, so I’ll talk much more about these various options in future posts. From a sales perspective, it’s been quite interesting to learn that companies don’t move to the cloud for its own sake – they move for a reason, and improving DR/HA is often that reason. Some of the cloud messaging I shared at Microsoft missed this point and sometimes came off as circular reasoning (“Why move to Windows Azure? Because it’s the cloud!”).

There are many, many ways to improve DR and increase overall uptime. As the sophistication and value of these techniques improve, the cost of implementing them is going down. So if you haven’t revisited your DR architecture in the last 24 months, you owe it to your company to take another look. The cost of inaction could be huge.

What I’ve learned so far

Last week I finished up my first consulting engagement. Or at least I presented my wrap-up summary and final invoice. I probably shouldn’t say I’m “done” until I get that last check.

It’s been an amazing ride so far, and I’m having a blast. I’m learning again. In fact, I’m learning so much that I have that “drinking from the firehose” feeling … there’s a big difference when drinking from the firehose as a consultant, though, because if you mess up you don’t get paid. As an employee, you get a grace period. As a consultant, you don’t.

This is new to me. Before joining Microsoft, I called myself a consultant for more than 14 years, but I really wasn’t one. I was a high-end temporary employee. Good work, but it’s not consulting. I should have called it contracting.

You see, the way you get paid matters. For 14 years, I was paid hourly … actually, for my highest paying gigs, I was paid daily, but I never liked that, because I have a harder time putting in a “full billable day” than most people I know who are similarly useful. I remember being very proud (a bit cocky even) when I crossed over the $1,000/day barrier in the mid 90’s. I used to whisper to myself, “another day, another grand” – that’s pretty obnoxious now that I think about it. But I only felt good about charging for a full day maybe one day out of five, so I ended up essentially translating into hours anyway by charging for half a day here, three fourths of a day there. My standard “billable day” was about 6 hours long, so I preferred billing hourly to avoid any sense of impropriety.

When you charge by the hour, your incentive is to work more hours, to stretch out your value for the customer. I know a little about a lot, so I’m generally handy to have around. I would poke my nose into lots of different situations for a customer, and I would genuinely make myself useful. People would invariably say, “Patrick, could you join us for this meeting? We’d like your perspective on this” or “Patrick, could you investigate xyz while Joe’s out? We need an answer right away.”

In the late 90’s, my friend Linda brought me into a bank in San Francisco, ostensibly to implement column-based security in a custom database app. I was there for more than 2 years doing a little bit of everything, from coding web apps to teaching Java to performing Y2K remediation. Linda called me her “pinch hitter” because she’d bring me into tough situations or put me on projects where she simply didn’t have anybody else who could do the work. She knew I’d figure it out, whatever it was. It was fun and paid well (although San Francisco during the dot com boom was crazy expensive). The only reason I left was that I finally convinced my wife to move to my childhood home of Grand Rapids, MI (you try convincing a Texas girl of that – once you get an opening, you take it). Even then, Linda called me a couple months later and asked me to come back. After all, I was handy – but ultimately, I was just an expensive employee who paid his own benefits and could be fired easily.

Funny detail about that gig – I never actually addressed the security issue that I was brought on to fix! It was kind of a hard problem and there was a lot of low-hanging fruit elsewhere. As a contractor, I was happy to bill hours for anything. Another hour for this customer meant I didn’t have to spend time looking for a new customer. And once there was a way to pay me, my “boss” didn’t really care about justifying my expense for any specific objective. I was useful to her. I solved her problems, so she wanted to keep me around. I made her life easier. That’s nothing to sneeze at – it’s good to be useful, whether you’re a full-time employee or a contractor – but how do you put a dollar value on that kind of usefulness? There was clearly a cap that was intuitively based on the fully-loaded cost of a comparable employee plus a premium for the ability to get rid of me at will.

A new friend recently observed, “You like to do things the hard way, don’t you?” You know what – I do! I already know I can do hourly contracting well, since I did it for 14 years. It’s not interesting to me anymore. Leaving Microsoft, I wanted to do things differently, even as I “returned” to consulting. So here’s the big difference: this time, I’m not charging for my time. I’m following the principles of Alan Weiss and billing based on the value I create for clients. In other words, I’m charging a fixed price for a specific result.

Billing based on value is utterly terrifying – but in a wonderful way. At a deep, philosophical level, I want to go where I can create the most value. I think most people do. Well, if you want to create a lot of value, you have to be pretty specific about it. When I was charging by the hour, I wasn’t specific. My value was always assumed … it was always positive, but it was pretty vague, too. Now I’m talking to customers and attempting to quantify the value I can create for them. Whoa. It’s scary, but it’s also focusing. It forces me to work closely with customers before engaging to find out where I can make the biggest impact. This sales process is real work, hard work – it’s an investment in relationships, not a perfunctory search to fill an opening.

During an engagement, I’m no longer incentivized to poke my nose into any and all issues … instead, I’m necessarily focused on delivering the value I said I’d deliver. That’s a huge change for me, and I’m still adjusting to it. Interestingly, I’m no longer rewarded for being the “smartest guy in the room” (the indispensable consultant, the guy you can’t get rid of) … in many ways I have the opposite incentive. If I collaborate well with employees to accomplish the desired result, I’m actually delivering MORE value than if I did all the work myself (teach a man to fish …). If I make employees look good and inspire them to do more of the work required to generate a result, then I’m increasing my own efficiency and margins. That’s a fascinating change of perspective for me, and I suspect it’s going to teach me a lot.

I have not mastered this form of consulting yet. I have a LOT to learn. For example, the engagement I just finished was supposed to take me 8 weeks, and it took 15. I was off by almost 100%. That’s OK – it was my first engagement, and I was going through a massive transition. There were so many details to figure out. Ultimately, I think I missed on my timing estimates because I rushed the sale – I should have slowed down a bit to get a more precise understanding of scope. I should have invested more upfront time in the sales process. To that end, I’m looking to start a more substantial second engagement with the same customer, but I’m spending a couple of weeks up front to make sure we both understand the scope better before finalizing terms. I assume I’ll get better at estimating as I complete the whole cycle a few times. I’m going to have to.

In the past, I’ve always liked getting to the point in a project where I’m not thinking about money at all, where I’m just focused on the job. It turns out that this might not be in the best interest of my customers. Money is a really useful way to keep score, especially if your goal is to create the most value you can. In the end, the goal of consulting is simple – to improve the client’s condition. My goal is to create so much value for the client that assigning some of that value back to me in the form of compensation is easy and obvious and lucrative.

I haven’t come close to figuring this all out yet, but I think I’m on the right path, so I’m going to keep moving forward. It feels like it’s going to take about three years before I’m an expert in this kind of consulting, and I couldn’t be more excited about the journey.

Of course, it’s not really about me – it’s about my customers. This has been such an intense ride for me that I couldn’t resist writing about my experiences so far. But soon I’ll start writing about the actual problems I’m solving, like migrating a data center to the cloud to improve disaster recovery. That’s pretty fun, too.

Rest

I learned something interesting this past week – I’m not very good at understanding when I need to take some rest. In fact, I’m not very good at understanding the “rhythm” of life that reminds you when it’s time to rest. The good news is that it’s fixable.

Paula (my wife), Gus (our 10-year-old son), and I flew down to Austin to visit Paula’s sisters and our nephews. I had the somewhat deluded idea that I would work much of the time I was there. I actually did at the beginning of the trip (hey, it got me out of painting), but it became impractical as the week wore on.

I noticed a couple of interesting things on my trip. First, I was quite touched by the fact that some very successful friends of mine – people I really look up to – took time out to meet with me. That just made me feel good. But it also made me think … if these guys are even busier than I am (one just added his 50th employee), how could they make time for a visit with me and even seem relaxed and engaged? I suspect they have a better sense of rhythm and priorities than I do.

The second thing I noticed was that after about 3 or 4 nights, I felt really rested, even though I was crashing on a couch and being serenaded in the middle of the night by screaming babies. What was going on?

An analogy popped into my head. Imagine you dropped to the floor and did as many pushups as you can do. Let’s say it’s 20. If you tried again a few minutes later, you could do maybe 1 or 2 more. A few minutes later would be the same. But if you waited until the next day, you could do 20 again. The next day 20 again. A few days later, you’d be able to do 21, then 22, etc. But if you only ever waited a few minutes, you’re never really going to be able to do many more pushups. Just 1 or 2.

I do that a lot with work. I worry a LOT about things I have to do, and then I try to push myself to do more before I’ve really recuperated – and then I flounder. I didn’t use to have this problem as a programmer – I just fell into a rhythm naturally. But now that I’m doing more thinking/analyzing/influencing kinds of activities, I’m much less aware of a natural rhythm.

Noticing that, I think it’s going to be pretty easy to change, because I have several different types of activities that need to be done on a regular basis: communicating with customers, researching, creating architecture documents, selling/marketing, project managing, etc. Those are different activities that require different kinds of energy, kind of like doing pushups, then sit-ups, then cardio, etc. I need to figure out how much of each kind of activity I can do in a day, and then develop a more deliberate “cross-training” pattern that optimizes my time and energy. I’ve been beating myself up about some activities when I’d be better off simply calling it a day on those and moving on to a new activity.

These are somewhat philosophical thoughts that were driven home by the passing of my friend Allen Stern, founder of CloudContacts. I met Allen when I interviewed him for my podcast and then became a customer of his. Over the last couple of months, we had been exploring a business opportunity together. I grew very fond of him and impressed with his kindness and generosity. We were planning to meet when I got to Austin, but he didn’t reply back to my emails and calls while I was there. Fearing the worst, I eventually did an Internet search and discovered that he passed away.

I don’t know how Allen died, but I know he had health issues. Still, his death felt sudden to me, and I really regret not being able to meet with him in person (and run together). He was a good, good man.

Allen’s death reminded me that life’s too short for bullshitting about anything, especially work. Just do what you gotta do, do it well, do it generously … then drop it and enjoy spending time with people you love. When I do that, I seem to wake up more rested and happier, so I’m going to try to get into a better rhythm and live like that every day.

Thanks for your kindness and inspiration, Allen. You will be missed.

New Adventure

In the next few days, I’ll be wrapping up my tenure at Microsoft and jumping into a consulting engagement for the CIO of a major non-profit.

It’s very difficult – painful even – to leave Microsoft. I really do love this company and the people I work with. Microsoft makes great products for billions of people, and it’s taken care of my family very well for the last 6 ½ years. I’ve made some great friends and worked with great people. I learned what it means for a teammate to have your back at Microsoft, and it’s not easy to leave that. I felt very sad when I told my boss I was leaving, partly because I felt as though I was letting down my teammates.

Why am I leaving then? Well … it’s just time. I took the opportunity to work at Microsoft because I realized I had grown stagnant as a consultant after thirteen years. The same is now true in reverse. I had been in approximately the same role for six and a half years, and I didn’t see much room to grow. Don’t get me wrong … there are GREAT opportunities at Microsoft, and I recommend working there to anyone – but at a certain point, I would have had to move to the Seattle area to do my best work at Microsoft, and Seattle isn’t a good fit for my family these days. It’s time to go, but it still hurts.

I’m excited to be returning to consulting, but I’m approaching it quite a bit differently than I did in the past. Before Microsoft, I was more of a contractor – a temporary employee, really – mostly as a programmer, sometimes as a true architect. It was good work, and I enjoyed it. But I tended to bounce around from one gig to the next without building on previous successes.

As I venture into consulting this time, I’m following the specific approach that Alan Weiss describes in Million Dollar Consulting (and 29 other books). I’ve long said that I want to go where I can create the most value, and Weiss’s approach is based on that tenet. I’m using all my experience, creativity, skills, and connections to help companies get more out of IT. Based on my initial leads and first customer, it appears that I’ll mostly be working with CIOs at companies with medium-sized IT organizations. I’ll probably also work directly with CEOs at smaller companies and with directors at really big IT organizations, but clearly my bread-and-butter customers will be CIOs who want to innovate faster.

I was inspired to take this approach by Patrick McKenzie. He’s the most bad-ass consultant I personally know, and he often emphasizes the importance of focusing on the value you create more than your needs or competitive rates. Of course, if you want to make money for yourself, you have to go where money gets made – if you want to be valuable, you have to make an impact on the bottom line. Patrick is also unapologetic about being both a consultant and a “product guy.” They are both just part of his overall business life. He’s simply an entrepreneur.

I’d like to go down that road as well. Consulting is a business that creates immediate revenue, but when you stop working, the revenue stops. Products have the opposite profile – they require lots of up-front investment before you get revenue, but then the revenue continues beyond the initial investment. To me, they’re just two sides of the same coin. I need revenue to feed my family, so consulting is the way to go. I’m taking it very seriously and becoming a student of the profession. Doing it right will force me to learn more about marketing, sales, managing revenue, and prioritizing my time. And frankly, I enjoy it.

After an initial transition period, I intend to reserve some of my time for product work (like Tribbon). For this work, I have an amazing cofounder in Jody Burgess, and we’re going to keep experimenting with product ideas until we find one that works. We WILL succeed at this, but it might take us years. Consulting gives us both an outlet to use our strengths for other companies. We’ll also learn more about successful companies, while we put food on the table. Jody and I thought about joining forces as consultants, but we decided not to for one simple reason: you should only formalize a partnership with someone when 1+1=3. For our product work, Jody and I add up to 3 … but as consultants, we’re 1+1=2. We bring such different skills to such different customers that we don’t make a compelling package deal (at least we haven’t discovered that synergy yet). So we’re separate consultants, but we’ll continue to work on products together.

Moving forward, I’m going to be blogging for a specific audience – CIOs of medium-sized organizations. I won’t be quite as pensive anymore, and I’ll be providing updates of my son’s gymnastics exploits at his own blog (coming soon).

Finally, as I leave Microsoft, I’ve been thinking a lot about what worked and what didn’t. My best work at Microsoft was more “extra credit” than part of my job: the Startup Success Podcast that I did with my friend Bob Walsh. The podcast allowed me to meet many amazing people (both listeners and guests) … one that had a surprisingly deep and lasting impact on me was Seth Godin. Since interviewing Seth three years ago, I’ve been reading his blog every day and every new book he writes. He inspired my first lightning talk, Give More Than You Take. In his blog and recent book, Icarus Deception, he talks about being vulnerable – and while it’s prudent to stay in your “safety zone,” it’s dangerous to stay in your “comfort zone.” You only grow by breaking free from the bounds of your comfort zone and doing new things.

Ultimately, that’s why I’m leaving Microsoft – it’s time to expand my comfort zone and be vulnerable in a new endeavor. Thanks for your support.

Big changes coming

I have a brand new site design up and running at WPEngine. I’m about to change DNS settings for patrickfoley.com to point to the new site, and then I have a big announcement to make … so if you see this in your RSS reader but don’t see the new site by Thursday morning, please send me an email at pf@patrickfoley.com to let me know. Thanks!