Blogosphere, Photography

Blocking ads on the Internet is ethical because the business model is broken – but I hope you whitelist Down the Road anyway

I use an ad blocker in my browser, but lately I’ve been unblocking ads on the small-time sites I follow.

The old-car site Curbside Classic was first to be unblocked, when the site’s owner explained last year how ads kept the site barely afloat. It’s one of my favorite places to visit on the Internet, and I wanted to see it continue.

Clabber Girl
Hard to block this kind of ad. Nikon F2AS, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kentmere 100, 2014.

Now that I’m seeing some ads, I rather like that they’re targeted. My online shopping and some of my searches are reflected in ads all the time. It’s a whole lot better than random advertising for stuff I would never buy. People worry about how Google and the other online ad services use the information they track, but I don’t understand why. I don’t think they care about anyone’s Internet history. Nobody’s peeking. Tracking is just an electronic means to a profitable end.

But there’s still more to dislike than to like about online ads. Sites cram ads in everywhere they can, making it hard to find and follow the content. Too often, ads pop up over content (and on a phone can be hard or impossible to clear), or automatically play video. And the ad infrastructure slows sites way down and crams computers full of trackers. I consider these things to be abuses, and a tacit admission that the online advertising business model is broken. There are even well-reasoned arguments on respected sites about why blocking ads is ethical. So I block ads on most sites I visit, and I don’t feel bad about it.

Yet I do feel bad about depriving individuals and independent groups of the few cents my pageviews could bring. So as long as their sites limit the abuses, I unblock ads on them.

If you don’t block ads, you might notice that a single ad now appears after each post here on Down the Road. I signed up for WordPress’s WordAds program and was accepted. You see, I’m a small-time Internet publisher who now wants to fund his site.

Down the Road costs little to run: $64.20 per year for a couple paid features and for the domain. My photography, which is this site’s focus, cost more than $1,100 last year, however.

I’m economizing. The bill for sending my older son to college is growing considerably this fall, and in 2017 my younger son starts college. I’m looking at a number of ways to save money to bear the college burden. If running ads here can offset the costs of running this blog in a way that limits the abuses of online advertising, I’m going to try it.

And as far as I can tell, WordAds does limit those abuses. My blog template allows exactly one ad per page. And WordAds allows no popups, video ads don’t automatically play, and my site seems to be as fast as ever. But I’m sure these ads are placing trackers on your computer. You can’t have it all.

Because ad rates fluctuate and you can’t predict who’s blocking ads, the WordAds people are cagey about how much this will pay. But I found a couple sites that run WordAds and have divulged their payouts, and used that info to do some quick and dirty calculations. It leads me to think that this should at least pay the blog’s costs, and maybe a little more. Any help I get offsetting the costs of my photography will be better than nothing.

And so I hope that if you block ads, you’ll whitelist Down the Road. But if you don’t, I’ll understand. Each of us has to draw the line somewhere.


The hot girl at the dance

“Oh my gosh, Jim, you’re the hot girl at the dance!”

A former boss called to ask about my week on the job hunt, and that’s what she said after I told her.

Potawatomi dancers
This is an American Indian dancing at a Potawatomi pow-wow. This isn’t the kind of dancing I’m talking about, but I’ve taken few photos that relate to dancing! I feel like I can get away with this because I’m part Potawatomi.

What a week it was! I landed a short-term consulting job with a startup software company. It starts today. An interview with a different company went very well, wrapping with the interviewer saying, “I think you need to meet the partners. I’ll schedule that for next week.” Thanks to introductions from a couple key colleagues, I had lunch or coffee with a handful of software-company presidents and vice presidents, and the chief financial officer at a venture-capital firm that funds startup tech companies. And that former boss even admitted that she was trying to make funds appear to hire me.

I am astonished.

Some context: for about the last 10 years here in Indianapolis, tech has been hot. Qualified people are hard to find. The last time I hired someone, I searched four months to find him.

And then in the past few weeks, I learned that the city’s tech scene is even hotter than I knew. A colleague who owns a consulting firm that serves this industry told me that he knows of about 200 local companies that make software. Most are very small, he said, with fewer than 20 people; many will wash out. But new startup companies are forming all the time. The venture-capital CFO told me that in five years, he expects as many as 300 more tech companies to form.

I had no idea that I’m swimming in so much opportunity. I’ve learned of it only as I’ve reconnected with colleagues I’ve worked with long ago. Many of them are now in executive roles and are well connected in the industry, and are bending over backwards to help me. It helps a lot that I’ve done good work in my career and people have (for the most part!) enjoyed working with me.

It makes me wish I’d stayed well connected with the good people from earlier in my career. I wrote about this on my software blog; read it here. Like I said there, I’m an introvert of working-class roots — a fellow who prefers to keep to himself and let his work speak for itself.

I brought this up to another colleague last week over coffee. He was the president of a software company I used to work for, and has since started his own company. “Jim, you now have two jobs,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing to earn a paycheck, and maintaining and expanding your network.” He admitted his own introversion, but said that he’s worked hard to stay well connected. It’s how he’s built his new business. “You can build these habits too. You should.”

I will.


LinkedIn, are you trying to drive me away?


I’ve changed jobs frequently during my career – eight companies in 25 years. That’s not unusual in software development, which is my line of work.

Because of my nomadic ways I’ve worked with many fine colleagues, and LinkedIn has been a great tool for keeping track of them. (If I were only better at keeping in touch with them!) LinkedIn has also helped me connect with people in my industry who I’ve wanted to know. And LinkedIn has been useful for recruiting people to work for me. Heck, the company that employs me now found me via LinkedIn. I wasn’t even looking for a job when they sent me an InMail and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

And so you might imagine that I’m very glad to have LinkedIn. And I am. Except that day in, day out, the service’s behavior is at least annoying and occasionally atrocious and I think frequently about quitting it altogether.

Before I launch into my complaints, let me say that I did finally figure out how to work around or turn off most of LinkedIn’s bad behavior. But those settings were hard to find and not obvious. I couldn’t figure it out on my own. As a guy who makes software for a living, that’s saying something.

Here’s the rub: The occasions where LinkedIn was really useful made me willing to tolerate its ongoing irritating behavior. I was not unlike the alcoholic’s spouse who puts up with the benders and their consequences because of the occasional good times. But I finally had enough and Googled to find out how to tame this beast.

To the complaints:

1. The recruiters, oh, the recruiters

Four out of five times someone contacts me via LinkedIn, it’s a recruiter trying to sell me on recruiting services. They all claim to have a teeming mass of unbelievably qualified people they would love to place on my team.

I’m in management, so I do hire people. But these recruiters remind me of the people who knock on my front door trying to sell me tree trimming or new windows or driveway sealcoating. I don’t know them, I don’t know why I should do business with them instead of with the trusted providers I have used for years, and I don’t like their hard sell and repeated pestering.

This is the only thing I haven’t figured out how to turn off – without also turning off the kinds of contact I do want, such as companies contacting me about new and better opportunities. On average, I get one recruiter contact every week. I ignore them all.

2. The infuriating activity feed

In trying to be a social network, some time ago LinkedIn implemented an activity feed. It’s a wall kind of like Facebook’s, and it’s the first thing you see when you log into LinkedIn.

It’s not all bad. It summarizes what my contacts are up to – status updates, new jobs, and so on. And my other blog about software development automatically sends my new posts there so my contacts can see them. And sometimes my contacts post other interesting and useful articles there.

But by default, LinkedIn automatically posts to the activity feed every time you tweak your profile. So last year when the company where I work changed its name, and I changed its name on my LinkedIn profile, all of my contacts saw this on their activity feed: Jim Grey is now Grand High Muckety-Muck at XYZ Corp! And I got a barrage of clueless congratulations from my contacts, some of whom wondered why I changed jobs a mere three months after starting my last one. And if you have entered your birthday on your profile, LinkedIn notifies all of your contacts on your big day, and many of them will send congratulations for this, too.

All of these congratulations cause LinkedIn to send you an e-mail. And every time one of your contacts tweaks his or her profile or has a birthday, you get an e-mail, too. It’s a deluge! I lived with the annoyance of all of this for some time, getting an e-mail every time one of my contacts so much as scratched their nose. It was death by a million paper cuts!

3. The useless endorsements

People in your LinkedIn network can endorse you for skills you have. As I look at the endorsements I’ve gathered – a couple hundred of them now – most of them are for things I know how to do: software testing, test automation, technical writing, and project management.

But some of my endorsements are for things I don’t do, such as data warehousing and Microsoft SQL Server. I am acquainted with these things, but good heavens, don’t give me a job doing them; I’d fail in a minute.

Worse, all kinds of people who have never seen me use a particular skill have endorsed me for it. Heck, some LinkedIn contacts who’ve never worked with me have endorsed me for skills. Based on what?

LinkedIn makes it too easy to endorse people. When you log in, it often shows you people in your network with buttons labeled with skills, inviting you to click them for easy endorsements. And then with every endorsement, LinkedIn sends me an e-mail: Hey! Someone just endorsed you! Isn’t that great?

Not really. If you want to really do something useful for me, write me a recommendation. As a hiring manager, I actually look at those when considering a candidate. Even if the recommendation is fluffy, I think it has some value because it took somebody time to write it. They had to put a little effort and thought into it.

What about you? Are you on LinkedIn? What about it do you like and what drives you nuts?


Much ado about Flickr

I was shocked when I logged into Flickr last week and found an entirely new interface.

I'm staying right here at Flickr

My shock turned to disappointment and sadness that some of my contacts were super angry about the change, left strongly worded comments on their photostreams, and immediately moved their photos to other services.

I make software products for a living; I’ve seen firsthand how interface changes can alienate users. They become comfortable with a product’s features and usage, even when they’re flawed. They don’t want to learn anything new (which often masks a fear that they can’t learn something new).

At the same time, Flickr (and Facebook and any other thing you do on the Web) is a product, built by a company that is trying to make money in an ever-changing landscape.

I’ve seen it often, and it’s happened at companies where I’ve worked: A company builds a good product that takes off. Success causes the company to grow or to be sold to a larger company. And then some scrappy startup company builds a product in an overlapping market that becomes a new darling. By then, the big company is so invested in what it’s always done that it struggles to adapt to the shifting market.

From where I sit, it looks like all of this happened to Flickr. Founded in 2004, Flickr quickly became arguably the king of the hill among photo-sharing sites. Web giant Yahoo! quickly noticed and, in 2006, bought the fledgling company. Success!

But consider all that’s happened in photography and on the Web since 2006. Most people had just discarded their film cameras for digital cameras. Soon cameras in phones became good enough for casual, everyday use; many of them are now very good. Users found it easy to share their photos across any number of the social networks that had emerged – primarily Facebook, which was founded in 2004, too, but also on upstart Instagram. Today, the three cameras that take the most photos uploaded to Flickr are all iPhones.

The market has shifted. It was a matter of time before Flickr either responded or became a niche product of ever decreasing importance. This new interface is its bid to stay relevant. I’m impressed with Yahoo! for moving Flickr so boldly.

I think that if people give the new interface a chance, it will work for most of them. I’ve heard complaints about slowness; I advise patience as Yahoo! would be foolish not to address legitimate performance problems. I’ve heard complaints about how crowded the interface feels; I’m also sure Yahoo! will tweak the new interface over time for better usability.

Another source of uproar is that advertising now adorns Flickr pages. I hate Web ads too, but really, they are the major way many Web products make money.

I sympathize a little with one complaint: all of us who bought Flickr Pro accounts for unlimited photo uploads now feel kind of let down, given that everybody gets a terabyte of storage now. That much storage might as well be unlimited; you could upload one photo a day for the rest of your life and never run out of space. But Flickr is letting us cancel our Pro accounts with a pro-rated refund, or keep Pro at its rate of $25 per year and never see an ad. Anybody who doesn’t have Pro already will have to pay $50 per year for that same privilege. I think this is a reasonable trade.

Flickr’s real mistake might be in underestimating how attached its users were to the old interface. But if my experience is any indication, perhaps that mistake won’t be fatal. Of my contacts, about five percent of them have moved to other services. I’ll miss seeing their photos. I wonder if they’ll soon miss the rest of the Flickr community.

Cross-posted to my new blog, Stories from the Software Salt Mines.


I believe in A teams over A players

I’ve heard it again and again at work. “We need to hire a real A player for this job, a total rock star.”

A software test team I used to belong to, dressed up for Halloween.

This statement usually comes at a time some critical task or function isn’t being done well (or at all) and it’s causing projects to fail. “If we can just bring in a super-skilled specialist,” the thinking goes, “it would solve all of our problems!”

Sometimes this gets stretched into a one-size-fits-all approach to hiring. “Let’s hire only A players,” the thinking goes, “and then get out of their way and let them perform.”

No doubt about it: A players are extremely talented and deeply experienced. They are heavily self-motivated and especially hardworking. They are creative problem solvers who focus on getting the job done.

But don’t assume that putting A players on the job is like sprinkling magic fairy dust that makes problems go away. That’s setting them up to fail – and setting your company up to fail, too. Companies are much better served building high-performing teams.

A players are no substitute for leadership. The most important step in that leadership is to help your people form solid teams. I make software for a living, and I’ve been in leadership roles for more than 15 years now. I’ve delivered many, many successful software projects with teams made mostly of B players. That’s because company leadership:

  • Created a shared, common vision that everybody rallied around and focused on
  • Built a process framework within which team members worked, which set standards for workflow, quality, and completion
  • Praised and rewarded team members for jobs well done
  • Hired for fit within the company culture, as well as for skill

A players are hard to find. A reason why I often hire B players is because most people aren’t A players. I’d say maybe one in ten people I’ve ever worked with are that good. Many of the truly outstanding geeks move to the coasts or to Texas, where the opportunities are greater. Here in Indianapolis, anybody who wants to hire only A players will soon run out of them and will sooner or later be forced to hire B players too. Those B players will work best under strong leadership and in highly functioning teams.

A players often have the biggest egos. A little swagger is part of the A-player territory. If you don’t lead well and help them gel into a team, conflicting egos will put your projects at risk.

A long time ago I used to follow, a once-popular Internet forum about music. In a recurring discussion thread, members wrote about which musicians they’d put in the best supergroup ever. The debate raged — Eric Clapton on guitar, and Neil Peart on the drums, and Paul McCartney on bass, … no no, Phil Collins on drums and Jeff Beck on guitar! …no! It must be John Paul Jones on bass!

It was fun to fantasize about such things. But do you really think a band with some of the biggest egos in music would gel? I’m reminded of We Are the World, the 1985 charity song recorded by a supergroup of pretty much every popular musician of the time. The famous story goes that someone taped a sign that read, “Check Your Egos At the Door” on the recording-studio entrance – but that didn’t stop arguments over many of the recording’s details, with at least one musician walking out and not returning.

Still, A players can be mighty useful. There are times when it’s right to hire A players. Here are the times when I’ve settled for no less than an A player:

  • Lead roles – I needed someone to figure out some thorny problems, and to set the pace and point the way for the team.
  • Lone wolves – I needed someone for a highly specialized job where I was unlikely to need more people in that role for a long time, especially a role where I lacked the skills to do it myself and therefore would have a hard time managing its details.

Really, I’ve never not hired an A player just because he or she was an A player. Who wouldn’t want their skill and determination on the team? I’ve only passed on A players when they would be a poor cultural fit in my company and in my teams.

Technical problems are easier to solve than people problems. Read why.


Lamenting Google Reader

When I opened Google Reader Wednesday night and saw a pop-up message announcing that Google would retire the service on July 1, I actually gasped and felt dizzy.

RIP, Reader

Reader is Google’s feed-reading service, which is a way of following blogs and other Web sites. Most sites offer a feed in a format called RSS, which has been around for almost 20 years as a way for Web sites to say, “Hey! I have new content here!” Feed readers allow others to subscribe to those updates, so they don’t have to keep visiting the Web site to check for new content.

RSS and feed readers are simple and work really well, but they haven’t caught on beyond the geek crowd. We geeks love RSS and feed readers, and Google Reader was probably the most popular choice. But most non-geeks follow their blogs in other ways, such as via Twitter and Facebook., which hosts this blog, offers a “follow” feature that delivers new blog posts right to your e-mail inbox. Geeks are in the minority on the Internet now, and apparently Google wants to invest its resources on products that get wider use.

There are other Web-based feed readers out there. I will find one, switch to it, and eventually get used to how it works; life will go on. But meanwhile, I’m actually going through the stages of grief! At the moment I’m in denial, hoping that Google is listening to the groundswell of protest against this move and is thinking about reversing their decision.