Skedsheet Blog

Where we talk about the product, calendars, organization, and business

Archive for July 2009

Take a hike – fun and productive meetings

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Sitting around a conference table is one way to talk about company strategy, but there’s another way.  I like to take a hike.

IMG_0195Getting out of the office is a good way to shake things up.  As time goes by, we are learning that we should actually plan to be out – doing something active really gets our creative thoughts working better.

A few years ago, when we had our sales meeting for JobTracker, we planned to have a little time off to go to the beach, boogie board, and hang out.  It was just half a day out of the whole time we had allotted to get together.

At the beach, while we were all floating in the water, we came up with a new product, new pricing, and talked about new approaches to selling our products.  We didn’t even realize it at the time, but I think we made some fundamental changes to the business – figuring out that we need to keep trying to  undercut our existing products with new ones that are cheaper and easier to use.IMG_0179

About a year ago, Ted and I were trying to hammer out some features – sitting in my office, getting bored and hungry, and not making any progress.  So, we decided that it’d be a good idea to walk to lunch and think about it when we got back. 

Instead, we kept talking through a problem that had been frustrating our customers and making support hard.  And, on that walk we came up with a different approach.  Looking back, we radically improved one of the hardest parts of our software.

Now we just came back from our strategy meeting – and we walked or hiked the whole time.  And once again, we planned some radical changes to our business, marketing and sales.  And once again, my to-do list has 15 new things on it.

Written by Harry Hollander

July 31, 2009 at 7:14 am

Posted in Strategy

Cheating on our own software.

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I’ve been cheating, and it’s time to come clean.

Harry's whiteboardDespite our whole marketing pitch, product, and general company philosophy of centralizing information, I’ve been secretly using a whiteboard to help me manage my job and schedule some of my activities.

Well, maybe it’s not so secret, since the board is about 5’x4’, so anyone who’s been in my office sees it takes up about a third of one wall.

Here’s a picture of it – yes, it’s a mess.  What works about it is that it’s a place I can easily go and have a daily reminder of what I need to do. 

What’s bad about using whiteboard is that it’s hard to move activities, I’ve accidentally erased parts, and since I like to doodle while I talk on the phone – it’s filled with little notes that are out of context or completely unreadable.

How is my whiteboard being used?

30%: Kid’s scribbling.  I work at home and I occasionally allow the kids into my office.  They need the part of the whiteboard they can reach in order to do their artwork. 

30%: To-do list.  There is a giant list of things that I should be doing, but they’re hard to get to on a day-to-day basis.  About once per month I get the satisfaction of erasing something from this list.  Of course, in that time I’ve added four more items.

5%: Sales pitch.  I have 4 sentences on my whiteboard that remind me that when I talk to customers my conversation should be centered around them: “What are you doing today?  What works about that?  What doesn’t? What’s the consequence if you don’t change what you’re doing?”

35%+ Unreadable.  I have no clue what most of this stuff is.  I know I wrote it because it’s in my handwriting, but beyond that there’s no information.  My favorites are the time “3:30” and the ominous number “2365”.

I don’t have any plans to get rid of my whiteboard – but the reason I can have it is that it’s not the only place I have my information.  At least 70% of what’s there has no value after I write it down, but since I’m a pretty visual person, I need to write as I talk or think.  It’s more of a doodle pad than a calendar or a spreadsheet.

Written by Harry Hollander

July 24, 2009 at 9:08 am

Posted in whiteboard

Shifting bottlenecks

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server rack - from is a great day! I finally finished moving all our data to the new servers. I love finishing a project — especially one that involves working until midnight every night until it’s done.

As part of this migration, I outsourced our email hosting to Rackspace, and I couldn’t be happier. They have much better spam filters than we had on our server, and I don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s not that hosting our own email was difficult, but it was a pain to migrate to a new server because you have to time everything just right so you don’t lose mail, or have it directed to the wrong location. Rackspace does it better, and it’s one less thing for me to think about. Well worth the money.

For the new server setup, we’ve got a couple dedicated file servers, and we use Windows distributed file system replication (DFS) to continuously replicate files between them. It’s wonderful! I’ve been trying to get to this point for many years, but I was using the wrong tools. Previously I used rsync or SyncBack, but the problem was always the time it takes to scan all the files for changes. (We currently have 700,000 files, so this is a big deal.) DFS instead uses the NTFS change journal to track all the changed files, and doesn’t have to scan the file system to be sure things are synced up. If there’s another 3rd party tool that does this, I’d love to know about it, because the only problem I have with DFS is it requires all the servers to be on the same domain (or in the same forest on a WAN.) The other tools I’ve seen that use the NTFS change journal still say you have to scan all the files periodically to make sure you haven’t lost any changes somewhere along the way.

When we started out many years ago, we had only one server. To backup the data, we first created a database backup, which involves reading in the entire database and writing out a backup file. Then we copied all the files (or just changes) to a backup, so at a minimum it’s scanning all files for changes, then reading all the changed files to send to the backup. That’s a very disk-intensive process, so while the backup was running, it hurt performance of the application. While it would be nice to have frequent backups, the performance penalty meant we could only take backups during off-peak hours.

For our second generation of servers, we bought the fastest drives we could, which doubled the cost of the servers, but meant the backups didn’t hurt application performance as much. That worked OK, but we still had other problems around disaster recovery. If a server failed and took all its data with it, we’d have to recover from backup, which involved moving hundreds of GBs of data, which is slow no matter how fast the drives are.

Now we’re on the third generation of servers, and we’ve taken a different approach. Now the application servers are only responsible for creating database backups to a file server periodically. That’s much less disk-intensive, and has minimal impact on application performance. We’ve shifted all the backup processing to the file servers, and even that is spread out over a couple servers to make sure it doesn’t impact application performance. So this not only improves performance, but it gives us more redundancy, and allows us to do more frequent backups during the workday.

So does this fix all our problems? No way. But it changes things so much, I don’t know what the next problem is going to be. This week I’ll be using the excellent PAL tool from Clint Huffman to analyze the server performance, and start designing the next iteration of the server architecture. Some days it’s hard to tell I’m in the software business.

Written by Ted Pitts

July 18, 2009 at 10:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

You’ve got to set expectations

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Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business. Large stores, gilt signs, flaming advertisements, will all prove unavailing if you or your employees treat your patrons abruptly. 
     –P.T. Barnum

My washing machine is leaking.  It’s under warrantee and I’ve left two messages and sent an email…today.  All I want is a call back or some kind of response.  It’s okay if you can’t come out to fix it this week and I don’t mind if  there’s going to be a charge. 

But, every minute I wait I get frustrated for no reason.  On top of that, I’m cursing, getting worked up, and won’t recommend you to my friends.

I understand why this can happen – I’ve been guilty of not following up when I say I will, not being clear about what I’m doing, and mostly taking on more things than I should.

We try to treat our customers as we’d like to be treated.  No matter how you slice it, most of the time it comes down to one thing:

Set the expectations from the beginning and keep communicating.

We keep improving how we set expectations, but it really comes down to being organized enough to tell your customers what’s going on.  If you’re selling something, you need to end every conversation with a plan for what will happen next. 

If you promise to make a phone call, you need to follow through – especially if it’s uncomfortable or bad news.  Even if you don’t know the answers you’re being asked, just be honest – rather than making up excuses, most people are happy with the answer:  “I’m really sorry.  I don’t know.  I’ll try to help.”

After four calls, I finally caught someone live on the phone.  “Didn’t you know?  Our tech is scheduled to come to your house to fix your machine at 10 tomorrow”.

Written by Harry Hollander

July 17, 2009 at 7:44 am

Posted in Customer Service

What’s my first useful skedsheet?

leave a comment » that we’ve got a working skedsheet (even though we’re still hiding it for a while) I’ve spent some time playing to see how (and if) things work.  I’m really excited about the way it’s shaping up – and despite the fact that it’s really ugly, it actually does a big part of what we want to do.

I’m starting to feel good because skedsheet is going to bring value to the people and companies we know well – construction subcontractors.  And, I think it’s more widely useful than that.

So, I want to figure out a way to use it for myself – I guess the entrepreneurially correct phrase is “eat our own dog food”.  For JobTracker, we ended up using it almost immediately as a CRM system, even though that was a bit of a stretch…it turned out that using our own software on a day-to-day basis was very useful, especially early on.  What can I do?

1) Marketing calendar.  I have a spreadsheet of things that need to be done marketing-wise.  Trade shows, ads, articles, mailings.  One of the problems I run into with my marketing spreadsheet is that it’s hard for me to follow what needs to get done today or this week.  I think having a calendar would help.

2) Supporting customers. I’m wondering if there’s another level of detail that skedsheet could help with in managing some support tasks.  Probably not, since we already have an system for managing this.  But maybe, a calendar spreadsheet would be good in helping our JobTracker customers plan their implementations.  “here’s a schedule with dates, who’s supposed to do what, and what are the milestones or prerequisites.”

3) Personal stuff. I’ve got a spreadsheet for a workout schedule, and a spreadsheet of some of my kid’s activities.  I think the kid activity spreadsheet would be really cool if I can convince some friends to read, edit, and add to it, too.

Written by Harry Hollander

July 15, 2009 at 8:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Making a mock-up or a mockery?

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mock_by_leeksI had lunch with a friend who’s a “product innovation” consultant, and although we try not to talk about work too much, that’s inevitably the topic that comes up.

My friend’s premise is that making and showing off paper (or PowerPoint) mock-ups is worth it.  Because…before you spend a minute of development time, you’ll want to make sure that the product you’re planning is worth it. 

Now some people disagree, and I’ve personally believed you need a product to show before you can talk about it – the opposite is just vaporware.  But there are some good arguments for trotting out your ideas on paper before you build.

So, why should you show a paper design to a prospective customer?

  1. Get immediate feedback, before you spend time writing code.  If an idea isn’t worth anything to a customer, you get away with a much smaller investment – drawing out a design on paper could take hours or days, but writing code could take months.  Or more.
  2. Don’t set the expectation that it’s real, so customers don’t get hung up on faults.  If you see real software, even with the disclaimer that it’s a prototype, you’re going to be drawn to the worst parts or repulsed by how ugly it is.
  3. Prevent yourself from falling in love with your design.  There’s a tendency to value the work that you do and not be willing to throw it away.  We’ve managed to steer clear of that in the past, but once you’ve got a framework built for a particular design, it’s painful to give up.
  4. Start getting the word out, before your product is ready to show.  Through the skedsheet blog, we’ve tried to explain what we’re doing and why, but we’re not talking about the specifics or making promises about features.  We could take it to the next level by showing a bit of what we have in mind…today.

I’m still torn, but I spent a few hours last night mocking up a design, purely to practice a demo.  Almost everything I wanted to show could have been done in the prototype we’ve got running already, but it felt more honest doing it with just a sketch.  Will I show it to anyone?

Written by Harry Hollander

July 13, 2009 at 8:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The first Skedsheet!

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We reached a milestone today. We moved Skedsheet from the development servers to the production servers at

This doesn’t mean it’s done or ready for public viewing. We’re just putting everything on the public site so we can have an outside web designer help us make it look better. (At this point, it couldn’t look any worse. So I think she’s set up for success.)

After installing the software, Harry and I signed up as the first users and created a few Skedsheets. We also confirmed our email addresses (to prove we are the rightful owners of them) so we can now share these Skedsheets with each other.

If we lived in the same state, we might have raised a toast to this little milestone. Instead, I wrote a blog post. 🙂

Written by Ted Pitts

July 6, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized