Sharing This Link is a Crime

I’m not generally a political person, though I do have an interest in the process and outcome of politics from time to time. This is especially the case when it comes to technology, and the future of the web. As the revolving source of my life and livelihood, I care deeply about the usability of the open internet, and how that changes based on the opinions of others.

Tonight, the president will be giving the 2015 State of the Union Address. I won’t be watching it live. I will instead be at Orlando Soup, looking at some upcoming projects to benefit Orlando, and trying to do a small part to help out. I do know that one topic that he is going to discuss is changes to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and will tacitly if not openly be offering support for CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which is being reintroduced for a third congress, ready to get terror support after the recent Sony hack.

Part of the updates to the CFAA involve changing hacking crimes to racketeering crimes. The CEO of Errata Security has posted a bit of what this means, but the short of it that is important to me is that sharing publicly available information (or in some cases viewing it) can be seen as a crime almost as bad as making that information public in the first place.

I answer questions on Quora. I share knowledge at in person events and lectures, share thoughts via Meetup and Facebook groups, link to new information on Twitter, and post some of that same information here, on my own blog. Will I be liable for links that I share to warn people of new hacks and vulnerabilities on their sites? If I give out some information on the WordPress support forums relating to security issues, how am I certain that I won’t be running afoul of the law? By the way, of the many companies that aren’t 14 year old tweeters in basements, even though they aren’t blindly supporting Rep Mike Rogers, Automattic is one of the companies standing up to prove him wrong.

Next weekend I’ll be helping out at Code for Orlando. We’ll be working on tools to showcase what locals can do with open city data, with the goal of producing economic output for the city and the creation of new companies. The ability to view and interact with data that is created by us and on our behalf is important. The control of that data has become more valuable than the control of physical assets, and there’s no doubt that limiting access is an attempt to consolidate that control.

They may say that they want us to share, but what they really mean is that they want a one way street. We’re free share our information with the government, whether we choose to or not, but we get arrested, fined and jailed if we choose to share with anyone else.

CISPA image by Paul Swansen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I Don’t Do NDA’s

Last week I mentioned that I don’t respond to cold partner offers, and some of the reasons why. I’ve been wanting to write this specific post for a long time, but haven’t done so mainly because I had a hard time verbalizing my rationale. I was working on a gut feeling, with the end still serving my belief, but without any support for why that belief was valid. I think that I’ve thought it through enough now that I can give a more concrete answer.

Originally, my argument was that ideas are a dime a dozen, and that I’m too busy to take time stealing your ideas, since I have plenty of my own that I’ve not acted on. As I mentioned in that prior post, I won’t show nearly as much enthusiasm for someone else’s idea, so the chance that I’d implement it would be slim to none.

Note that I’m specifically talking about cold NDA’s, where I’m requested to sign one before even talking to someone about their company. That is a sign of backwards priorities for me. I mentally see someone who has an idea (most likely not even half unique) who envisions themselves as a paragon of business, using their (again, not unique) talents as a business person to marshal others together toward a common goal: making that founder boatloads of “internet money”.

There’s a way to protect your idea: make the value proposition not about the idea (which it already isn’t anyway). Tell me that you have a B2B marketing idea, and you are the exact person to implement it because of your 20 year experience in B2B marketing. Show me that I would be wasting time trying to develop a warehouse logistics tool without your guidance, since your tenure as a VP at a Fortune 500 shipping company gives you insight that I could never have.

If you can’t explain this in your pitch then it doesn’t matter. No matter how good your idea is, if you cannot prove yourself indispensable, then there’s no reason that you can’t be dispensed with.

Protecting an idea is generally an exercise in futility. No one is contacting me who has a wholly unique, patentable process that has not been thought up before. Not only that, but it weakens the state of that idea. I would much rather allow market competition, or the fitness of the executor of any new product or service to determine success, not simply a document gagging others from discussing it. If you share your idea with someone who is in a much better position to make it into a reality, then I’m probably going to buy from them anyway, as will the general market.

In the end, the market does not care about who thought up what first. It cares about who did it best, cheapest, most effectively and efficiently, and most used. Popularity and breaking free of the long tail validates and pushes even more people to use a product or service, and the network effect is one of the few things that cannot be bought.

If the first thing separating you and me from having a conversation is a negatively charged legal document, it may as well be an ocean.

Using Film to Understand our Digital Lives

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of enjoying afternoon tea time at Infusion Tea (it’s tasty, whether it sounds snooty or not :D), followed by a screening of ‘Citizenfour’, Laura Poitras’ documentary on her interactions with Edward Snowden and the NSA file leak that he has become famous for.

Last weekend I watched ‘The Imitation Game’, a stylized biopic of the life of Alan Turing, considered to be the father of modern computing.

Yesterday, marking the two year anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s death, I watched ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’, a documentary about his life and work. The documentary is creative commons licensed, so in addition to supporting the filmmakers by buying or renting it, you can also freely and legally torrent it or watch it on Youtube and other sources.

There are always movies, large and small, that chronicle the lives and exploits of famous people, and many computer industry professionals are becoming famous in their own right. The dot-com bubble may have cast a long shadow over the industry of web entrepreneurs, but the successes of wunderkinds in shaping our digital lives (and filling their physical bank accounts) over the past decade has been a strong factor in making geek and nerd positive, rather than negative terms.

I have a lot that I could say about each of these three men profiled in these movies. I’ve spoken in the past about my love of ‘The Social Network’ and Mark Zuckerberg and ‘The Transcendent Man’ as a biography of Ray Kurzweil, among others. I could talk about how I can identify with Alan Turing, both in inability to connect oftentimes, as well as the outsider status of being homosexual. I could talk about how both Edward Snowden and Aaron Swartz made key decisions informed on their digital prowess, something that I try to do even if nowhere near as monumental as their decisions.

What I think I can say is that films like these – stylized or straightforward, spectacles or small-takes – give us insight into the inner workings of people who are potentially just like us, harnessing the power of computers to affect many others. Increasingly, we’re living in communities that transcend physical borders, but that are still constricted by cultural ones. Watch them, digest whatever lessons that you choose from them, and use that information to develop your own ideas and companies. Just let me know when a film is made of your life, so I can buy my ticket. :)

Photo of Aaron Swartz by gillyyouner is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Setting Expectations With Your Teams

A colleague complained this morning that they had difficulty keeping in touch with other companies and their contractors due to the proliferation of competing chat services. While the many options now available can serve a wide variety of needs, the lack of consistency and connectivity between them can be a roadblock when you just need to get things done.

The teams that I’m on use a variety of tools to manage internal and external communication. We use Trello for general project management, Dropbox for file storage, Google Drive for document editing and storage, and Google Hangouts for most of our team chatting.

While this isn’t a post on the pros and cons of specific tools or a guide on what to use, keeping on top of things is important. Take it from someone who still hasn’t gotten the hang of using a CRM to manage existing and potential clients. Or someone who understands that there isn’t as much search-ability or asynchronicity with Google Hangouts, but takes advantage of the flexibility and integration that it offers*.

What is important is that everyone is on the same page as to what is being used, and is properly setup and knowledgeable of their tools. At a previous job we used Basecamp for client communications and project management. If a client emailed us a file or request, we would copy it into Basecamp, then respond back to them with the Basecamp link and a reminder to use that in the future. This was for the first two times this happened. Future email requests would be ignored entirely.

If you bring new members onto your team, it’s your responsibility to get them up to speed with how you work. Don’t let one team member use Skype, while another is on Slack and yet another only texts or emails. Have systems in place for things that are important, and distribute those tools and processes equally to everyone that you work with. Need to share large files with your coworkers? Get Dropbox for business and pay for everyone’s accounts. These are business expenses, and should be treated as such. The cost of lost opportunity and wasted time is often much higher in the long-term than a recurring monthly fee.

Whatever tools you choose to use, consider not just how it works for you but how it works for your contractors/employees/team/clients. Transparency and openness is for more than just your code – it’s for your communication too.

*I recently had a client who first couldn’t find the link to the Hangout chat right in the calendar invite email that they accepted, then couldn’t load the page. They asked me via email to use a “real world” tool, like Webex. Guess stalwarts really can keep making money purely through complacency.

Why I Don’t Respond to Partner Offers

This morning I received an email asking to partner on a project. Generally I can respond or ignore and move on, but the length and number of red flags in this particular email made it worth commenting on. Attached is the full text of the email, minus contact information. Note that it arrived in my inbox, and I’m still not entirely sure that it’s not spam.

Hi Potential Partner,

(1) I am responding to your advertisment on a website, as a web developer, meaning you have invited me to send you this email, however I have no intention of repeatedly sending emails to you, therefore there is no need to ask for unsubscribe. While these contents may not precisely meet your current desires, it is a genuine offer and should be considered carefully, although it is realised it will only attract a high achiever.

(2) A friend and I are building a website but need some help coz currently the learning process is very slow. Free help is not expected. It has been started by using PHP & MySQL. By attempting to enter into hourly rate negotiations with web developers in the past, it has been found to be no faster than learning the process from the Internet, and for that reason web developers on a partnership basis are now sought.

(3) We are seeking one leading developer and also developers who operate in a special industry. The leading developer needs big ambitions, but more importantly works speedily and be very reliable, and be able to help lead a huge project and have the determination to succeed with a burning desire to become very wealthy, both in asset and in knowledge, and be able to set aside personal emotions and conflicts that involve other people. Setting aside personal emotions and conflicts means to behave as if matters did not happen when people upset your feelings by disagreement or for you to behave towards people in a professional manner when you believe they are not nice. Initially part time input, probably 2-3 hours per day, would be acceptable and any full time work can continue as usual.

(4) The intricate details of the intended website cannot be provided coz if they were any person could beat us to the goal line. That is sensitive information which will not be released. Basically, it will be a very unique international trading website that will be able to offer all goods and services at substantially reduced prices, and will provide free advertising for the same, and provide employment opportunities for everyone around the world, and will provide very attractive environmental incentives. It will be 100% legal and will enforce natural justice. It will be a website that every law abiding citizen will want to be a member of. There is no similar website currently on the Internet, as if there was, we would all know about it in a very short time.

(5) There will be no request to any of the web developers to contribute any financial or monetary payments.

(6) Web developers on a partnership basis are required, meaning a “partnership” is that the partners are “self employed” and “share in the profits” and receiving regular weekly or monthly payments or receiving piecemeal payments or money paid up front do not apply. This is not a job that we are offering nor is it an offer to pay cash on completion of a few hours work, nor any other kind of invitation to extract money. It is being part of a very exciting and fruitful business. A business that will in the long term resolve all social and business problems.. The web developers will need to acknowledge that short term rewards have only little profit. The web developers will also need long term foresight, as the rewards from this project are expected to start in around 6-12 months and after 2-3 years they are expected to be in the millions of dollars but all of that will require the utmost dedication, work speedily, and be very reliable.

(7) Consideration is needed for the web developers to invest time of probably 2-3 hours per day, which is not a huge investment, and be paid for that time from the profits of the website which is expected to start in around 6-12 months and in 2-3 years payments should be in the millions of dollars. If a competent web developer is like many who spend 2-3 hours per day entertaining themselves by watching non constructive television, then a wise and constructive exercise would be to exchange that time towards this project.

(8) We only want to receive replies from web developers personally and not their managers, assistants or agents.

(9) We do not want to receive replies from people who cheat and or scam and or people who attempt to extract money without working for it.

(10) We get many people telling us that they are the best to hire, but we have no interest in that kind of propaganda, therefore to enable us to determine the web developer’s level of competency we will require from an interested person to modify some PHP coding. When that exercise is satisfactorily completed we can release further details about the intended website, our history and current circumstances. If you have any questions, doubts or skepticism then those matters will be addressed at that time.

(11) I am a New Zealand citizen and have operated businesses there for many years however I’m not in that country at this time.

(12) If you were born in a poor environment, like me, that was not your mistake. But if you die in a poor environment that is certainly your mistake. Like most people, I have made many mistakes in the past however I have learnt from them. But dying in a poor environment is not likely to be another mistake. A web developer who ignores this opportunity may later realise the mistake.

(13) It is an ENTREPRENEURIAL WEB DEVELOPING PARTNER we are searching for. Someone who is ready and willing to invest the small amount of time of only 2-3 hours per day. A real entrepreneur is a person who undertakes calculated risks together with business innovations in an effort to transform those innovations into economic goods or services and is willing to rely on the payments that satisfied customers are ready and willing to pay. And if an innovation fails to meet customer’s satisfaction, a real entrepreneur will search for a remedy so that customers are entirely satisfied, but a real entrepreneur will never quit, works speedily, and is always reliable.

(14) Conclusively,
(a) PLEASE DO NOT reply to this email if you do not fit the description of a real entrepreneur.
(b) PLEASE DO NOT contact me if you are desperate for money to satisfy reckless spending.
(c) PLEASE DO NOT attempt to convince us that you are the best by words alone or to try hourly, weekly or monthly payments or post or pre paid services.
(d) PLEASE DO NOT ask me to chat on Skype or other instant messenger. Communication by email, which keeps good record of what has been said, is preferred.
(e) PLEASE DO NOT expect a reply to any message when it is obvious this paragraph has not been understood.

My breakdown of this email will be very brief, because I could probably talk about it for a few hours, given the amount of content that I have to work with. What it boils down to for me is:

  • The tone and grammar of the email does not match the clients that I choose to work with, let alone anyone that I would partner with. While this person couldn’t have known that in advance, they may have been better off playing it safe with a much shorter email to gauge general interest before scaring me off.
  • The whole “we only want to work with awesome people” pitch doesn’t work as well in real life as it does in movies. It reeks more of arrogance than ambition.
  • Cold-pitched partnership requests like this always say that they don’t expect free work, but want to pay on the promise of the product’s success later. While many new companies succeed, the odds are stacked against most ventures. On a purely practical standpoint, I’m making a risky gamble on any new project. I may as well make it one that I’m truly passionate about.
  • I have intended on writing a post on why I am not a fan of NDA’s for a while, but basically, if the only thing that you have to succeed is secrecy, you’re probably not going to get very far. I don’t want to know that you have an idea that no one has thought of. I want to know that you have a skillset that no one else has to develop that idea.
  • Telling me what to do with my time (set aside emotions, work non-stop instead of “non-constructive television”, don’t talk myself up as a hire with “propaganda”, let my circumstances be guided by “my mistakes” and so on) is arrogance at the highest level. Prove to me that you know better than me before expecting me to take your advice.

There is so much more that I want to say about this particular email, but my main point is that almost any offer to partner on a tech project is going to be a hard sell to me. I don’t particularly have the need or interest in stealing other peoples’ ideas, as I’ve got more than enough projects of my own that are languishing. Similarly, I find a hard enough time making time for my own projects, let alone something to directly benefit someone else with no promise of payment for myself.

My suggestion for people looking to find partners is not to blindly reach out, but instead put yourself into the community and make it known where your passions lie (you are passionate about your business idea, right?) so that like-minded individuals will be attracted to you. Be the flame to the moth, not the net. This will ensure that you’ve got someone who has just as much interest in the success of the business as you do, and not just a payout. They’ll keep momentum up at moments where you falter, and have a commitment that you won’t find from cold-emails, which will most likely result in play-for-pay individuals, if any response at all.

I’ve known most of the people that I work with for several years, and have worked with them on other projects before moving into anything more serious or full-time. There’s no question that they are committed to what they do, and I’ve got an easier time making a pitch if I want them to partner with me on a new venture. I cannot think of a better pool to pull from.