Friday, September 14

Previews, Test Accounts, and Screencasts

I was over at RailsRumble this morning, reviewing entries and casting my votes, and I noticed a few things that set some of the sites head and shoulders above the rest: previews, test accounts, and screencasts.

Many of the sites simply had splash pages that said "log in or register" to see what the site did. In most cases, I didn't bother. There's nearly one-hundred entries in the competition; I'm not going to bother creating that many bogus accounts. Kudos to the sites that support OpenID, but Dr. Nic already covered that.

Some of the sites with really slick designs or very clear and concise explanatory text coaxed me in to signing up. But in most cases it was a crap shoot, especially the ones that expected me to read paragraphs of exposition.

Sites with screencasts were immediate favorites. It doesn't get any simpler! A screencast shows me what the site has to offer in a quick and easily digestible format. The creator of the site knows best how to use it to its full potential, and they can explain it all in full motion video while talking me through it. If I were President of the Interwebs, I would make it a law that all sites have screencasts.

Previews in the form of screenshots with annotations are nice, and I highly recommend them as second-best to a screencast, but they require me to read, interpret, and study the presentation. That's work. The less work I have to do to learn what a site can offer me, the quicker I'm going to get to using it.

Test accounts are a double-edged sword. The cons are that once I'm in I have to explore; I have to wander around aimlessly playing with the site, trying to figure out what it has to offer. It also seems that with at least one of the sites, they didn't disable the "change your password" for the test accounts, as I was unable to get into them using the credentials advertised on the front page. However, for those of us, and those particular services, where you really need to "try before you buy", test accounts are golden.

Monday, September 10

Book Review: Founders at Work

Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days is a very large collection of mostly fantastic interviews with people that founded (or were closely related to the founding of) companies that made them ridiculously wealthy, or at the very least dot-com celebrities. They are not necessarily successful companies; in some cases rather miserable failures that burned bright then burned out, and in some cases names I've never heard, and I did my tour of duty pretty deep in the trenches. But they are companies that, for the most part, changed the face of business for the better.

It took me forever to get through this book, and it was worth nearly every page. I could have done without the Woz interview; who hasn't heard his story fifty bazillion times now? I expected the Spolsky interview to be more of the same, having followed his popular blog since its inception, but surprisingly it wasn't a regurgitation of his regular rants, which I appreciated.

The author and interviewer, being female, was very keen to ask each of the female founders about their gender-related challenges, which I found rather awkward and borderline insulting, but they all handled it well. They are probably used to it. I guess I can't relate, since I'm male and haven't made a mint off any of my start-ups.

One thing this book wont teach you is the secret to success. It will reinforce the virtues of perseverance, faith in your ideas, following your dreams, and acting on instinct. But it seems the one thing all these people and their stories have in common is that they were in the right place at the right time, knew the right people, and just plain got lucky. Being the first or the best doesn't necessarily mean jack squat, which can be a hard pill to swallow.

Another thing most of them have in common is that their original goals and ideas were merely springboards to funding. Once they had enough money for offices and employees, they had to change their plans and products pretty drastically to adjust to what the market really wanted and was willing to pay for. I know first-hand how true that is, based on the experience of my last couple ventures, and the ventures of a colleague entrepreneur over the last dozen years.

For me, the book was a prime source of nostalgia, since my career started shortly before the dot-com boom, and I remember watching many of these companies from the sidelines. It was also an inspiration for those evenings when I had to decide between sitting on the couch watching mind-numbing television or picking up the laptop and helping my entrepreneur friend get his latest company off the ground. The latter is much more satisfying at the end of the night.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's going in the top-ten section of my bookshelf. Pick it up and read a few of the interviews; you wont be sorry.

Sunday, September 9

Rails Rumble

I don't know how this slipped under my radar, but I just discovered Rails Rumble on Friday night, right before it started, and as I'm typing this, with only a couple hours left in the competition, I find out a colleague of mine is participating. Take a look at his team. I think he's playing with a stacked deck. I'm about to hit the sack -- I can't keep up with these young whipper snappers -- but first thing tomorrow morning I'll be checking out the results.

Friday, September 7

Why I hate Microsoft Outlook 2007

Sorry, I just need to vent for a second. Outlook has just screwed me for the second time in so many weeks, and I'm pissed. I have (had) a very large "distribution list" entry in my Contacts, containing several dozen members. With the high turnover rate at my current company, I frequently have to update this list. I open the list, select the member that needs to be removed, and click the "Delete" button in the menu bar. But guess what! It doesn't delete the selected member. It deletes the entire distribution list! Oh, but that's not all. There's no confirmation message, and there's no undo! It's gone, completely, the entire list. I have to recreate it again, by hand, only to re-learn this lesson the hard way, again, in a couple weeks, after I've forgotten about the trap.

Sunday, September 2

BarCamp Orlando

It's coming up soon! I plan to be there. Anybody else? I need to get off my butt and find a hotel. This will be my first time, so if anybody has any recommendations, I'm all ears. Thanks! I'll be spending Sunday night at The Lexington at Orlando City Place, which looks to be a stone's throw away from the watering hole. I checked several travel sites ('cause I'm a penny pincher) and found Travelocity's price was $50 less than the others.