Grounded & Steadfast

est. 2008

My Creative Process

Creating things is messy. Even for tidy, organized people with an iron fist of control, the act of making something new is usually anything by tidy. That’s certainly true for me.

I was thinking of my process a couple weeks back as I prepared for my last Sunday school class. I teach adult classes, always a 60 minute session. The topics vary greatly, but they all have the same starting place (the Scriptures). And I tend to use Keynote to present the information each time, so there is a regular rhythm to how I prepare to teach.

But it sure feels messy when you're in the thick of it.

Preparing

My preparation usually starts with a core idea. From there, I usually end up reading. Books, sermons, web articles. My concordance. I take notes and jot down quotes.

After taking the time to research, I sit down to start bringing everything together. And this is where things feel the most chaotic, with distinct bits of related information floating around in my head while I try to bring everything together to make a point and communicate effectively.

I start by writing a rough outline in Ulysses. All my notes and reference material are written here anyway. But I start creating this rough outline with a vague sense of an end goal, while being sensitive to the fact things could change. As I begin writing, things begin to take shape. I write a little. I pace a lot. I meditate on the idea(s) I’m working on. I refer back to the books and resources I used, reading as I pace. I write a little more.

This continues until I have a fleshed out plan of what I’m going to talk about. “Fleshed out” varies greatly though: sometimes it can be 200 words, sometimes 1,500. It just depends on the topic and how much homework was required. It also depends on how familiar I am with the topic and comfortable I am talking about it. The more familiar I am, the less I feel the need to write things down.

Keynoting

After this, in the week leading up to my class, I move to Keynote. I usually design my own themes for each session I teach, so when I’m to the point of preparing a class, I open up the new theme and start with a title slide (because there’s nothing worse than fiddling with styles when you’re intending to focus on your content). From there, I add slides in accordance with my outline.

Most slides have minimal text (although quotes and Scripture passages can be longer). But where most of the content goes in my Keynote file is the presenter notes. That’s where I put most of my thoughts I want to talk about.

The process is a little different than writing the outline, but shares many similarities. I will still pace about, meditating on a specific point. Shawn Blanc shared how he [used index cards] to build The Focus Course. My Keynote slides are similar for me. They’re the building blocks of my talk and an extension of the outline that started in Ulysses.

Hopefully, it all comes together to communicate the intended idea in an orderly fashion. But in the midst of it, things sure feel any but orderly.

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It’s hard to know where to start with this piece. It’s classic Rands. But it also hits close to home after discussing the validity of product managers recently. There are so many quotable bits from this essay, but let me share those that caught my attention.

Image courtesy of the Wildbit blog.

First, he wisely takes the time to frame the discussion. What is the difference between project, product, and program managers?

A project manager is responsible for shipping a product, whereas a product manager is responsible for making sure the right product is shipped. A program manager is an uber-mutated combination of both that usually shows up to handle multiple interrelated projects like, say, an operating system.

Then he describes some qualities of a good project manager:

A good project manager is one who elegantly and deftly handles information. They know what structured meetings need to exist to gather information; they artfully understand how to gather additional essential information in the hallways; and they instinctively manage to move that gathered information to the right people and the right teams at the right time.

And:

Project managers don’t write code, they don’t test the use cases, and they’re not designing the interface. You know what a good project manager does? They are chaos destroying machines …

Lastly, he describes why a project/product/program manager is important to a team. It’s due to their focus, which is macro and micro at the same time.

Good project managers have a unique insight into the health of the project because it’s their job to have visibility into the entire machine.

If you work as an engineer, this article may help you understand what the people in these types of roles do every day, and how they can help you focus on your coding. A great read!

Note: this article came up recently as Michael Lopp has been sharing older posts from his site on Medium. Although the Medium link came through my circles, I chose to link to the original. If you want to highlight quotes or write a response, the Medium version is here.

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The Changing Financial Industry

It’s interesting to watch the finance industry attempt to catch up to the web and technology in general. In my experience of running a business and working on the web, no one struggles more with the shifting landscape than accountants, lawyers, and bankers. Most are firmly stuck in the brick and mortar world they grew up in.

One classic example of this was my US based business account for running Fusion Ads. If I wanted to send a wire transfer, I had to start up VMWare Fusion, load up my virtual install of Win XP, open the banking site in IE, then insert a USB key fob and log in. Painful! But that was the world in 2011–12 and things have improved.

Most banks now allow scanned cheques. And I’ve been impressed with my personal banking officer. He’s young, he understands that current generations want to do things differently and does what he can to enable that. And now we’re seeing new startups attempting to bridge the gap.

One that caught my eye a few months back was a Canadian based startup, Wealthsimple. With a focus on the overall experience, it’s clear that this team is putting good design at the forefront of a financially focused app. It currently exists as a web app, as well as being available on iOS and Android devices.

I signed up and adding a small bit of funds to check it out. So far, it’s more than decent in terms of the experience. Initially, the process is daunting because it’s far different than most SaaS tools or web apps. On signup, you have to start giving out some private details and signing papers. That is a scary first step and goes against the grain of current web products, where an email addy is usually enough to check things out.

But we’re talking finances here, a very regulated industry, so that’s to be expected. But once you complete all that and add some funds, things are very enjoyable.

Compared with traditional options, Wealthsimple is far superior. I’ve had a friend who runs a financial advisory firm who has handled our investments for years. And while I always enjoy chatting with him, I never log into the web portal they offer. It’s butt ugly, plain and simple. Wealthsimple makes the simple act of reviewing the status of your investments daily a pleasure.

It’s too good actually, as I’m a firm believer long term investments should be done with a bit of a “set and forget” mentality. A nice UI makes me want to check in more often, not a good thing in this are … and the screenshot above proves my point. It’s been a bad week for the markets :)

Another area that has impressed is personal banking. As mentioned above, the overall industry is improving. And although Simple is still US only, YNAB has been a joy to use the past couple of years. And that team has been hard at work making the newest version, which is completely web based.

No more Mac desktop app. And I couldn’t be happier. Why? Because now they can sync with my bank! For the past 18 months, I’ve been using YNAB by painstakingly adding in transactions manually, one by one. Along with that major improvement for this Canadian, they’ve improved a lot of the aspects of their app (the goals are great, as is the “age of your money”), as well as tightened up their overall approach to budgeting. It fits very well with modern spending habits.

It makes me happy to see design helping real problems. Let’s hope this trend continues to spread (healthcare, anyone?).

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Bethany Heck gives a long, in-depth explanation of why it can be acceptable to go against the widely held opinion of “do not use too many fonts” in a design. She starts by recognizing there is a reason this specific guideline came to be:

We can all point to questionable designs that use an excessive number of typefaces. You can sense when a designer is trying to compensate for a deficiency by throwing more typefaces into a piece.

But she goes on to give good advice for this “rule” (which can be applied to any other guideline as well):

… don’t let one designer’s opinion affect how you approach solving a problem. Given the right content and the right faces, any number of typefaces can work in a design.

From there she goes on to give lovely, nuanced examples. It’s a long read, but a beautiful one that is worth the time. This is the best the web has to offer: someone with talent and experience takes the time to share their knowledge with painstakingly crafted examples that illustrate their point.

Side note: be sure to check out Bethany’s project of love, The Ephesus League. What an example of a master at their craft.

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Diversification

There’s a reason email is so addicting. Like a roulette wheel or a slot machine, there’s always a chance of something exciting coming your way. On the other hand, there’s also an equal chance that terrible news is coming your way in any given piece of electronic mail. The kind of email that makes it hard to sleep at night as your heart races and anxiety kicks into high gear.

That was the kind of email we received from Loren Brichter when he had decided to sell his company to Twitter.

In an interview with Indie.vc (published on Medium. natch), Matt Haughty gives some “lessons on lifestyle business”. As I read the piece, it brought me right back to the days of running Fusion Ads. Matt’s experience was very similar to our own.

For a year and a half, I waited. The revenues kept trickling down. It was this long terrible process, losing half overnight but then also roughly 3% a month for a year and a half after.

We didn’t not have a precipitous drop of this sort, but I do know the feeling of watching this slow decline. Matt summed it up perfectly:

Two weeks later traffic went back to how it was. But in those two years, the ad revenue market had changed. Even with the traffic, we were making half as much money because the market had kind of died in the interim.

That’s exactly what my experience was. We were blessed to get in the business in 2009. And having our ads in Tweetie for Mac (the ancestor of today’s official Twitter client for OS X) enabled our business to flourish. But, like MetaFilter, we had too much of our revenue generating traffic from one source. When that source went away, it was a punch to the gut.

Fusion Ads survived and went on for another two years before we sold it. But the writing was on the wall, the ad business was changing. We got out because it felt like a race to the bottom.

The important lesson I took away from my first business was what every investor learns about: diversification. When you run a business, you want revenue being generated from multiple sources. Hopefully, with multiple strong sources.

I vowed to never make this mistake again. And even further, I vowed to never run a business that was completely dependent on the work of others. Selling ads based on other people’s traffic worked, but it’s hard to run a business when you're 100% tied to other people’s success.

A freelancer wants clients of different sizes, with some retainers and a good mix of new work. A SaaS team wants a varied customer base with related, but slightly different needs (jobs to be done). It’s cliché, but there’s a lot of truth in the old saying. When it comes to eggs, it’s good to have a few different baskets.

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Susan Dominus, writing for the NYT Magazine, writes about the importance of team culture over policy. The focus of the article is to illustrate the point that even when companies tout flexibility through corporate policy, it can take time for team members to feel comfortable allowing their personal life to encroach upon the boundaries of their professional life.

The article is a good one (part of an interesting series titled, “THE WORK ISSUE: REIMAGINING THE OFFICE”). Dominus states that making this type of shift has to start with the employers way of thinking and talking about this subject of work-life balance:

For years, employees and human-resources professionals spoke of the ubiquitous desire for ‘‘work-family balance.’ … at best, balance is perhaps an unrealistic goal: a state of grace in which all is aligned. ‘‘Balance is something you want but can never have,’’ says Cali Yost, whose specialty is helping businesses implement flexibility strategies. She started referring to ‘‘work-life fit’’ to capture the way workers try to piece the disparate parts of their lives together. (The American Psychological Association and the Society for Human Resource Management have started to use this term as well.)

The following point stands out as the most poignant aspect of work that people struggle with:

Workplace stress often is more accurately described as workplace guilt, an especially corrosive form of distress.

Which makes working for a company that includes guidelines such this so enjoyable:

We don’t babysit. Everyone is responsible and accountable for their contributions.

And:

We believe most things are not urgent. Be patient, stay calm, and go home.

I’ve worked in many different team environments and getting the right balance is hard. Our North American sense of self worth is tied to our vocation, so this entire subject is a delicate one. I’m glad to see it getting a lot of attention.

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