In The Here And Now (2002-now)


Bellingham 2

We arrived in Bellingham on January 2nd, 2002… at 10:00 AM and started moving into our new home. Within a few days we were settled in and ready for the next phase: finding jobs.

Donna had completed the intensive horticulture program at Lake Washington Technical and quickly found work at Cascade Cuts Nursery. Two weeks after our arrival, we were driving across Telegraph Road and Donna said, “I think we made a good choice.” 12 years later, I have to agree with her, many times over.

Office Systems NorthWest

 
Although Donna found work quickly, it took me awhile longer. My networking efforts finally connected me with Ron Taylor, co-owner of Office Systems Northwest (OSNW). Ron, along with Del Vanderkirk and Herm Laninga were all born in same year I was (1946) and they had cut their teeth selling encyclopedias door-to-door. These guys were hard core salesmen. Their value system was based on selling. On the other hand, my value system was based around writing good software, so this was a cultural challenge for me.

OSNW had two divisions: Copiers, managed by Del and Computer Networks, managed by Ron. Ron’s division focused on systems and network administration and provided technical support for lots of local businesses.

Dick DeWaardRon’s team also included Dick DeWaard whose focus was on accounting systems like Microsoft’s Great Plains. Dick had a long history in the county with many local businesses and knew the people and their businesses and was quite adept at supporting their accounting system needs.

Although I built an Accounts Receivable system back in the distant past, I knew just about nothing about accounting systems. And even though I had built many computers and even taught networking in the NAFEC course, I was not qualified to be a systems administrator. So here I was, a software developer working for a bunch of sales jocks with a skill set that didn’t match anybody else’s. And to make matters worse, Ron had had a bad experience developing software in the past and was very averse to going down that path again. This marriage seemed doomed from the get-go, but fortunately I was able to create a niche that did provide value Ron and Del could recognize.

Supporting computer networks is a thankless business. Most business owners see it as a pain in the ass and don’t want to spend any more than the bare minimum necessary to keep their networks alive. When they encounter technical problems, it is often an unpleasant surprise that hits them in the wallet. One solution to this problem is to provide them with a fixed cost they can budget for all technical support issues. I was able to help OSNW implement a program that provided “Managed Services” to our customers. Under this program, we could monitor their networks and the computers connected to their networks remotely and detect (and often fix) problems before the customer was even aware of the problems.

Managed Services transformed the way OSNW’s computer division business worked with its customers, but OSNW was still not a good fit for me. Ron was also looking towards retirement and wanted to sell his portion of the business. With Ron’s blessing, Dick and I left OSNW in December, 2003 and formed DeWaard & Jones Company. Ron and Del sold the computer division to Patty Seaman who turned it into Network Solutions Northwest and then sold the remainder of the business to a local competitor.

DeWaard & Jones Company

 
Dick and I opened the doors of DeWaard & Jones Company in January, 2004. Both Dick and I had already landed our first clients. Mine was ProPack in Blaine,WA. They have three separate but related businesses:

  • Order Fulfillment
  • Warehouse Services
  • Freight Forwarding

When I met with ProPack, I learned that their order fulfillment system was in chaos. They had purchased a fulfillment system that simply wasn’t working for them. Orders were coming in via phone, fax and email, and requiring lots of human intervention. Invoicing was taking several weeks to complete and every new customer they took on was eroding their margins. They made the difficult decision to pull the plug on the system that wasn’t working and asked me to write a temporary solution until they could find a replacement system. Ten years later, that “temporary solution” is the heart of their fulfillment system.

ProPackLogoSquarePropack’s 3rd Party Logistics system (P3PL) completely automated the submission of customer orders and cut the time to invoice from weeks to seconds. ProPack has an online demo of P3PL that gives a quick overview of the system’s capabilities.

Implementing P3PL required us to make some decisions about our technology architecture. We settled on using Microsoft’s ASP.NET, Microsoft Web Services, C# and SQL Server. This is the technical architecture I am still working with today, although I do much more of the user interface work in the browser using jQuery.

 

Podium

 
Once P3PL was fully operational, I worked a deal with ProPack to allow me to keep the core technology that drove P3PL and use it as the basis for future solutions. This code base evolved over the following years to include many capabilities:

  • Security – users, groups, and capabilities and page access granted to each group
  • Dynamic User Menus – each user gets a custom menu based on the security rights granted to them
  • Contacts – people and organizations and the relationships between them
  • Email – send, receive and automatically file incoming messages
  • Action Items – small reminders that involve contacts
  • Notes – unlimited notes associated with each contact
  • Documents of any type associated with a person, organization or any other type of record
  • Clients – people and organizations that are customers and need access to Podium
  • Messaging – transmissions of messages between people and organization
  • Logging – page hit logging by user
  • Simple Project Management – project tasks, deliverables and milestones
  • Sales Pipeline – tracking of sales opportunities

Podium was a very large body of code and it was also a learning vehicle for me. Were I to re-implement it today, I would do many things differently, but all-in-all, I am pretty proud of it.

Podium was actually a platform, but explaining it to customers was a challenge. Although we did use Podium as the base for several other customer projects, it never got to the point that it could be marketed as an online service.

The Socrates Group

 
One of the major pieces of learning that my decades in the technology trenches has taught me is that there are no real technology problems: there are only relationship problems. Dick DeWaard and I were 50-50 partners in DeWaard & Jones Company, but we did not work well together. We each brought our own baggage to the table, but that baggage eventually became too heavy to carry. Dick and I reached an agreement that allowed me to buy out his portion of the company’s stock. I changed the name of the company to The Socrates Group and began the re-branding process. Unfortunately, this effort wound up like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The Socrates Group was not a success. Several factors contributed to its demise:

  • The recession that showed up in 2008 made small business owners reluctant to make large capital investments in custom software development projects.
  • Customers want to know how much “It” will cost without defining “It”, so we used a time-and-materials billing model to manage risk. This was necessary for large projects with frequently changing requirements, but it often meant that the project cost more than the customer was willing to pay. This happened in several cases and caused significant relationship challenges.”
  • I did not focus closely enough on the management of each project. Instead I allowed myself to be distracted by the ongoing lure of growing Podium.
  • I was unable to bring myself to let people go when the handwriting was clearly on the wall.
  • And then there was Henry Beeland, but that’s a story for another time.

Conclusion: my management skill set was insufficient to manage the risks of running my business, but I can still handle major coding projects.

Back Into The Wilderness

In June, 2010, after pulling over half of my retirement funds into the business, I realized that it was time to pull the plug. Donna and I took another walk in the wilderness. I filed for Social Security and we resigned ourselves to losing our house. Strangely, I was completely at peace for the next few months. I figured that somebody my age in Bellingham  during the recession was not about to get any sort of meaningful job, but I have learned that I am wrong much of the time. I got not one, but TWO job offers. During the interview for the second job, three fellows from Redmond drove to Bellingham and interviewed me as a group for about two hours. Towards the end of the process, I asked, “How many other people are you interviewing for this job?” “Just you,” was the answer I got.

ERI

 
I started the following week at ERI Economic Research Institute. My office was in the Bellwether complex and I had the entire conference room to myself. ERI is a collection of PHD Economists who have collected a massive amount of compensation and cost of living data that they package and sell subscriptions to. They have a small but solid niche.

I reported directly to Dave Thomsen, owner of the business who worked in Bellingham and was approaching retirement. His son-in-law, Kerry lived in California and was building a team in Newport Beach, CA. Dave’s organization had people spread all over the country, but Kerry was consolidating. My job was to keep Dave happy and to keep him away from Kerry’s team. Dave had a tendency to change directions often and Kerry didn’t want his people defocused or refocused, so he built a solid firewall between me in Bellingham and his team in California. The net result was that I was allowed no contact with his developers. I was completely on my own.

Technology Architecture Revisited

I started out by defining the technology architecture. ERI had chosen Delphi for development of Windows desktop applications and Cold Fusion for web-based solutions. In retrospect, they recognized that both decisions had to be revisited. They had too much code in Delphi to start over with something else, but they did settle on ASP.NET with C# for new web applications. SQL Server was well established as the database engine, but there were several other components that had not been decided. I looked at Microsoft’s Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) and concluded that it was powerful but overkill for our needs, so I settled on simple Web Services. I made increasingly heavy use of web services as my code evolved.

The next technology architecture question I needed to resolve was what to use for a data access layer. I had developed code for Podium that allowed me to perform just about any SQL function I wanted in one or two lines of code, but I was intrigued by LINQ. There were two alternatives available to me: Linq to SQL or ADO.NET Entity Framework. At that time (2010), Entity Framework was not yet ready for prime time, so I settled on LINQ to SQL. If i were starting over, I would most likely go with ADO.NET Entity Framework because it appears much more extensible and because Microsoft appeared to be dead-ending LINQ to SQL.

I taught myself LINQ and made a simple architectural decision: no website code talks directly to SQL. Everything goes through a separate layer and all database calls will use LINQ. This wound up requiring some up front loading to get things started, but in the long run, it made access to databases very easy and secure.

Google, My Best Buddy

I worked on several projects at ERI, but I worked alone almost all of the time. Although there were some very positive aspects to this, I found myself wishing I had more socialization. There was an interesting and very useful upside to this isolation: Google became my most valuable tool and my best buddy. I learned to solve virtually every challenge by searching Google. I learned which sites were the most likely to be useful (StackOverflow.com) and which to stay away from (too many to list here).

For a short period, I had another developer working with me. He was strong in Cold Fusion and jQuery but did not have any grounding in Visual Studio, ASP.Net or C#. It was like working with a co-worker who spoke a different language, but it put jQuery right in my face, and I had a very hard time with it.

jQuery

jqueryjQuery is an extension to JavaScript, and although JavaScript looks a lot like C or C#, it is very different. C# is “strongly typed” which means that a variable has a known type. It is an integer or a date, but not both. Strong typing makes it possible for the compiler to catch errors very quickly. JavaScript is just the opposite. Any variable can be a number in one moment and a function the next. The compiler is of little help and debugging is correspondingly more difficult.

jQuery is a library of JavaScript code that extends the capabilities of pure JavaScript and makes it easier to write code that will run on different browsers, and jQuery was a real challenge for me. In simple terms, jQuery operates on sets of web objects that appear on the web page. For example, a single line of jQuery could style all <H2> elements with 14 point pink comic sans font text and turn the text black when it is clicked on.

My Resolution for 2013

In January, 2013, my men’s circle had meeting where we each set a goal (made a resolution) for the entire year. Mine was that I would master jQuery by the end of 2013. I met my goal, but it wasn’t easy. I pushed myself to learn the basics of jQuery and then dove into the deep end and learned “plugins” and “widgets”. It took me considerable work before I could understand the difference between a plugin and a widget, but now I have a clear picture of the benefits of each and how to write them.

Learning JavaScript and jQuery was hard work for me, but I take considerable satisfaction from the results of that work. I did, however, find myself grumbling about Kerry’s firewall. I was also getting exhausted by the amount of time I was putting into learning and coding. I spent at least 40 hours a week at the office and up to another 20 at home, and I could feel the exhaustion setting in.

The Universe Listens

Ironically, just about the time I felt I had mastered jQuery and was ready to apply my newly learned skills to the next phase of the work I was doing for ERI, I got an unexpected visit from Kerry. He was waiting outside my office when I came into work on November 4th, 2013. As I put my coffee cups down I noticed that something was different about my office, and Kerry got up and immediately walked in and said, “Bob, I have some bad news.”

Normally when I encounter bad news, I feel a tightness in the pit of my stomach and I feel fear. But when Kerry spoke, I knew immediately what was going on. The Universe (higher power, God, Allah, The Big Kahuna or whatever you want to call it) had heard my grumbling and was giving me a gift. Kerry gave me a nice severance package, I cleaned out my desk and went home to tell Donna.

Although Donna was initially scared about my losing my job, I wasn’t. I saw it as an opportunity to restructure my life. The next day, I started taking a yoga class at 3 Oms Yoga studio. I signed up for an unlimited membership and now show up religiously three times a week for a 1 1/2 hour class. I puff and sweat and have to sit and rest much of the time, but I am surrounded by beautiful women (and only a few men) and everyone is very warm and encouraging and I love it. And there is no way I could have made this work before I got laid off.

Not Quite Really Retired

I see myself as entering semi-retirement. My days of working full time are (hopefully) over, but I am by no means finished working. I just don’t want massive projects working alone. What I am looking for now are opportunities to teach and give back some of what I have learned, and to keep from getting rusty by working on smaller projects… with other people.

Happy New Year!

I gave myself November to update my long range financial plan and December to enjoy the holidays and my wife’s Christmas cookies and prepare to transition to Medicare. As I write this on January 1st, 2014, I have given myself the rest of this week to complete this chronology of my long strange trip. Next week I will begin to look for work. I don’t need much and it will be quite interesting to see what possibilities open up.


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