Volla Phone and Ubuntu Mobile

I have long been interested in alternative operating systems that get me out of the walled gardens of Apple and Android. Yes, I can root my phone, but that has always been a hacky short-term solution that ends up being more annoying, not less annoying than what I actually want. What I actually have always wanted was my laptop in my hand. Microsoft was trying to do with with Continuum before they ended life on Windows Mobile OS. They got the closest, and even had videos made about how great it would be to dock your phone and suddenly get all the power of the laptop, without having to carry it around just to access a file.

So when I saw Ubuntu Mobile I was cautiously optimistic. They claim similar – you can have a terminal and your files, and do anything you want! That’s a pretty good promise, even if the Ubuntu Mobile app ecosystem is lacking as of today. Down the road it could be amazing, and I could even help bring it over that line if I felt it was deserving of that by developing my own apps and publishing them for everyone else.  A truly open operating system without all that Google/advertising garbage in it. Imagine!

My first impression of the phone is that it looked and felt a little odd. A more drastic bevel than the iPhones that I’m used to and a much more rough feel where the sim card sits. It’s so rough that it made me think it was a button at first and after mashing it a few times and realizing it wasn’t I mentally stopped myself from trying. Not too bad though, and after a minute or so, I was already used to it.

The Volla phone came with a German plug, which was a little off-putting to spend hundreds on a phone and have to supply my own US plug. Not a huge deal – I have a thousand of them, but it was still strange that they didn’t have one in the box given they knew they were shipping to the United States.

I ordered one that came pre-installed with Ubuntu Mobile… or so I thought. Upon booting it actually came with a strange version of Android, likely their VollaOS. My impression of VollaOS is that it was so minimal it looked broken. All I could see was the word “Springboard” a thing that said “type anything” with no clear indication of what that is in reference to and a red dot that looked like it was recording something. After messing with it a bit I was able to figure out it was running some hybrid of Android. I wasn’t at all interested in trying out Android, so I immediately went to find the way to install Ubuntu myself. I wasn’t happy at all that I didn’t get what I ordered, but… I guess their company isn’t ready for mass market, by any stretch.

To install Ubuntu Mobile by hand you need to unlock the bootloader. This entails a lot of Android button pressing, running the UBports installer and clicking physical buttons on the phone. But not terrible, considering what things like this use to entail. And after a few minutes I was staring at a fresh install of Volla phone running Ubuntu Mobile. Huzzah! Home free, right? The land of awesomesauce! Uh, no… not so fast.

Before I get into the ugly, let me talk about the bad – the user experience isn’t great, I’ll be honest. I really wanted to like it but the gestures were awkward I felt and it wasn’t the same as Ubuntu in other more important ways.  Ubuntu Mobile doesn’t mimic the desktop version and that’s confusing – things like renaming/configuring user accounts for instance, don’t appear in the settings menu. So it was a lot of learning it for the first time. The gestures were strange, like swiping from the right to switch/kill apps took a lot of getting used to. The double swipe to the left to see apps also felt unnecessary and confusing. I definitely swiped the wrong way more than the correct way. I realize this is likely just the same as learning any new mobile OS, but I felt much less awkward going to any other OS than I did on Ubuntu Mobile – not because I didn’t know what it did, but because it felt somehow backwards or unnecessarily complex.

After messing around with the terminal app a bit, I realized it already had SSH installed. Some might consider that a good thing. I do not at all, especially since there was nowhere ever that said that that was occurring. This seems very scary, given that not everyone will chose a good password for their phone thinking that the only interface of attack is via a physical attack and no one is attacking something in their pocket. But SSH brute force is a very real thing that the Ubuntu Mobile environment seems to allow by default. I’d turn off SSH completely, or disable password based auth, but I have no idea what that would do to the rest of the system since it’s tied with the presentation layer. It also chose a name for me of “phablet“. I almost can’t imagine a worse username to force onto users, and it’s also not random so therefore even easier to brute force. Incidentally the machine name it chose by default was ‘ubuntu-phablet‘. This whole thing feels like it needs a re-think. At a very minimum this needs to be made more clear and give the user a warning.

Updating wasn’t possible due to two lock files in /var/lib/dpkg/ that were stubbornly still there and the real issue was / was mounted read only. I have no idea why the root directory would be read only out of the box – do they really want to prohibit you from using the terminal to install apps? That can’t be, so it seemed like an oversight. An oversight that was fixed with:

sudo mount -o rw,remount /

Things started to work better. I was able to install a couple apps via apt for instance. Okay, so the package manager works – that’s exciting. Like any good sys-admin my next thought was to get it up to date!

There were an enormous amount of out of date packages, even though I just installed this thing moments earlier:

address-book-app anbox anbox-common anbox-ubuntu-touch apparmor-easyprof-ubuntu apt-transport-https cameraplugin-aal
ciborium click-apparmor debootstrap dialer-app distro-info-data dnsmasq-base gir1.2-ubuntu-app-launch-2 hfd-service
hfd-service-tools indicator-datetime indicator-location indicator-network indicator-session indicator-sound
jumpercable libandroid-properties1 libapt-inst2.0 libcaca0 libconnectivity-qt1 libcurl3 libcurl3-gnutls
libdeviceinfo0 libdns-export162 libertine-qt-common libertine-tools libertine-xmir-tools libertined libglib2.0-0
libglib2.0-bin libglib2.0-data libglibutil libhardware2 libhogweed4 libhybris libhybris-common1 libhybris-test
libhybris-utils libirs-export141 libisc-export160 libisccfg-export140 libldb1 liblibertine1 libmedia1
libmediascanner-2.0-4 libmirclient9 libmircommon7 libmircookie2 libmircore1 libmirplatform16 libmirprotobuf3
libmirserver48 libmirwayland0 libnettle6 libprocess-cpp3 libqmenumodel0 libqt5bluetooth5 libqt5bluetooth5-bin
libqt5contacts5 libqt5feedback5 libqt5feedback5-hfd libqt5organizer5 libqt5systeminfo5 libqt5versit5
libqt5versitorganizer5 libqt5webengine-data libqt5webengine5 libqt5webenginecore5 libseccomp2 libsmbclient
libsystemsettings1 libthumbnailer-qt1.0 libubuntu-app-launch3 libubuntu-download-manager-client1
libubuntu-download-manager-common1 libubuntu-upload-manager-common1 libubuntugestures5 libubuntumetrics5
libubuntutoolkit5 libudm-common1 libudm-priv-common1 libunity-api1 libusermetricsinput1 libusermetricsoutput1
libwbclient0 lxc-android-config mediascanner2.0 messaging-app mir-client-platform-android-caf5
mir-client-platform-android5 mir-graphics-drivers-android mir-graphics-drivers-android-caf mir-utils morph-browser
morph-webapp-container nuntium ofono ofono-scripts powerd python3-apparmor-click python3-distro-info
python3-libertine python3-libertine-chroot qmenumodel-qml qml-module-morph-web qml-module-qtbluetooth
qml-module-qtcontacts qml-module-qtfeedback qml-module-qtorganizer qml-module-qtsysteminfo qml-module-qtwebengine
qml-module-ubuntu-components qml-module-ubuntu-components-labs qml-module-ubuntu-connectivity
qml-module-ubuntu-layouts qml-module-ubuntu-mediascanner0.1 qml-module-ubuntu-performancemetrics
qml-module-ubuntu-settings-components qml-module-ubuntu-test qml-module-ubuntu-thumbnailer0.1
qml-module-ubuntu-web-compat qtdeclarative5-ubuntu-addressbook0.1 qtdeclarative5-ubuntu-contacts0.1
qtdeclarative5-ubuntu-download-manager0.1 qtdeclarative5-ubuntu-keyboard-extensions0.1
qtdeclarative5-ubuntu-syncmonitor0.1 qtdeclarative5-ubuntu-telephony-phonenumber0.1
qtdeclarative5-ubuntu-telephony0.1 qtdeclarative5-ubuntu-ui-extras0.2 qtdeclarative5-ubuntu-ui-toolkit-plugin
qtdeclarative5-unity-notifications-plugin qtdeclarative5-usermetrics0.1 repowerd repowerd-data samba-libs
suru-icon-theme sync-monitor sync-monitor-helper sync-monitor-uoa telephony-service thumbnailer-service
ubports-qa-scripts ubports-wallpapers ubports-wallpapers-2018-10 ubuntu-app-launch ubuntu-app-launch-tools
ubuntu-download-manager ubuntu-keyboard ubuntu-keyboard-arabic ubuntu-keyboard-azerbaijani ubuntu-keyboard-bosnian
ubuntu-keyboard-bulgarian ubuntu-keyboard-catalan ubuntu-keyboard-chinese-chewing ubuntu-keyboard-chinese-pinyin
ubuntu-keyboard-croatian ubuntu-keyboard-czech ubuntu-keyboard-danish ubuntu-keyboard-data ubuntu-keyboard-dutch
ubuntu-keyboard-emoji ubuntu-keyboard-english ubuntu-keyboard-english-dvorak ubuntu-keyboard-finnish
ubuntu-keyboard-french ubuntu-keyboard-german ubuntu-keyboard-greek ubuntu-keyboard-hebrew ubuntu-keyboard-hungarian
ubuntu-keyboard-icelandic ubuntu-keyboard-italian ubuntu-keyboard-japanese ubuntu-keyboard-korean
ubuntu-keyboard-latvian ubuntu-keyboard-lithuanian ubuntu-keyboard-norwegian-bokmal ubuntu-keyboard-polish
ubuntu-keyboard-portuguese ubuntu-keyboard-romanian ubuntu-keyboard-russian ubuntu-keyboard-scottish-gaelic
ubuntu-keyboard-serbian ubuntu-keyboard-slovenian ubuntu-keyboard-spanish ubuntu-keyboard-swedish
ubuntu-keyboard-swiss-french ubuntu-keyboard-thai ubuntu-keyboard-turkish ubuntu-keyboard-ukrainian
ubuntu-mobile-icons ubuntu-mono ubuntu-push-client ubuntu-system-settings ubuntu-system-settings-libertine
ubuntu-touch-core ubuntu-touch-session ubuntu-touch-session-mir ubuntu-ui-toolkit-theme ubuntu-upload-manager
usermetricsservice wpasupplicant

I made the fatal mistake of thinking this was a fairly robust OS given that it’s basically a different UI on top of Ubuntu, and could handle updating in the same way that you’d update a laptop. So I attempted to update it with `sudo apt-get update;sudo apt-get -y upgrade` and everything seemed to be working for a while… until it stopped on:

Preparing to unpack .../wpasupplicant_2.4-0ubports10_arm64.deb ...

And there it sat for about 20 minutes with no indication of anything happening. I had SSHed into the phone to use my keyboard since the software keyboard leaves a bit to be desired – especially when doing more complex tasks. However, my shell lost it’s connectivity and wasn’t responding to commands at all – even hitting the space bar provided no visible input. Uh oh.

I rebooted it… no go. It would get past the Volla boot screen. And rebooted it again… nope. Whelp! It bricked the phone. It will no longer get past the Volla boot screen. If Ubuntu Mobile isn’t meant to be treated in this way, and updated in this way, these update paths should be intentionally broken to avoid accidental bricked devices. Just about anyone familiar with Ubuntu is going to treat it pretty much the same. Day one, hour one, update it to the most current packages, right? Even that is too much to ask for, for Ubuntu Mobile on Volla phone.

That was a very expensive mistake that doesn’t feel at all like something that should have permanently bricked the phone. It won’t even let me re-install the device now. The Volla phone comes with a SIM card tool, which I was hoping would allow me to press something somewhere on the device to hard reset it, but I couldn’t find anything in the manual or online to suggest this would actually work – if it does, it’s undocumented. UBports installer doesn’t even recognize it as a phone anymore, it’s that broken. It is now semi-permanently showing me the boot screen, with no physical switch to turn it off, and no access to the battery to at least give it a fast death. Instead it will slowly fade away and then find a home in the bottom of a box of expensive dead IT.

What I wanted was my laptop on a phone – what I got was a brick in the shape of a phone. There is a lot of work left to do on this for Ubuntu and Volla. I’m sure someone will say I shouldn’t have done X and not Y but with no guardrails and no way to re-install the device, it’s going to be hard to blame the user. Until it’s at least stable, I’d stay away from it unless you like to collect phone shaped paperweights.

To be fair, after letting the battery die down and it did let me go through UBports, and but it appears that no amount of re-installation attempts did complete.  It just kept landing me on UBports Recovery, which apparently doesn’t work in this state, regardless of which options I chose.  It kept saying

Update failed, please reboot and try again...

I still think Ubuntu Mobile has a ton of promise, and I very much look forward to a day when I can use it as a mini desktop environment and can build custom apps for it on a device that is rock solid, but today is sadly not that day.  Meanwhile in other news Microsoft somewhat silently allowed Ubuntu GUI apps to be installed, so there is a lot going on in the Ubuntu world and I’m excited to see what’s next.

Navy Seal Lessons Part 6

This is part six in a series of business posts about things I learned as I was taking a series of defensive shooting classes with a Navy Seal. So if this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip these posts. If you missed part one, you can find it here, part two is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here. and part 5 is here.

As part of the re-certification for my “draw from holster” card, I needed to take a skills assessment test with Jeff Gonzales (the retired Navy Seal Team 4 BUDS instructor, CEO of Trident Concepts and head of training at the Range in Austin). I was worried, because I hadn’t had much range time in a few months at that point due to a few big things that had sapped my free time completely, and I felt that I wasn’t going to do well. I felt that I was having trouble with my shooting and I felt like my sights were set up wrong, and I just wasn’t feeling confident, which is ironic, because in reality I was shooting just fine in hindsight.

I took the skills assessment and failed. I wasn’t awful, but I still didn’t pass. I wasn’t surprised I failed – it’s designed to be an extremely hard test. But the part that did surprise me is that I missed shots that I normally make when I’m practicing on my own. It was something about the testing environment that had made me choke.

One day, I was in the back of the range where the staff offices are, with the owner – a friend of mine, Grant Shaw (also of SB Tactical) – and I ran into Jeff. I told Jeff I was re-taking the skills assessment in a week. He smiled and said over his shoulder as he was walking away, “Are you feeling confident?”

I’m sure he was expecting me to say I was definitely going to pass. After all, I was close to passing the last time. But instead I said, “No. I normally never miss those shots. I’d say yes, but just don’t normally miss those shots when I’m practicing, so…  I dunno! The stress of the test is throwing me off. I have no idea.”

He stopped in his tracks turned around and said flatly, “The previous shot doesn’t matter, the only shot that matters is this one.”

“Focus on the shot you’re making.”

He added, “Just relax. Focus on the shot you’re making.”

I nodded, not quite sure how to interpret his words at first. Then I figured it out. I was just way way too wound up about the last shot. Once I missed a shot, which is very easy to do during his skill assessment because he starts you off at the 25 yard line, the rest of the shots were all way off for me, because I was so upset about missing that first shot.  Once I blew the first shot the rest of the test was hopeless.

The next test came up a few days later. I had practiced like crazy – I had literally done the test at least 40 times on my own practicing for it and focusing on the hardest shots so I knew that there wasn’t an inherent underlying skill problem. No, I was still nearly perfect every time – just like I had been before the test. There was no discernible difference no matter how many times I took the assessment test on my own.  The only thing left was the stress.

Lacking any better options, I decided to heed his advice.  So I made a conscious decision to stop caring if I missed a shot while I was taking the next shot. Sure, it gnawed at me that I missed anything at all, despite how hard the test was, but I just let go.

To be honest, even though I practiced that test 40+ times, I don’t think my skill was wildly better. However, my confidence about each shot was renewed with each round. It was as if I were shooting each round like it was the first of the test. And instead of failing miserably, I got a 98% – I missed exactly once. What an amazing relief!  The problem was between my ears – it was how I was thinking!

In my mid 20’s I was given a product management team to lead. I had a project to deliver – a cool new mapping project.  I was really proud of what my team had built, and it was leaps and bounds better, by all measures, from anything else we had in the company. I was thrilled to see it was scheduled to into production, until one of the vice presidents for the company walked in and told me it was shelved and wouldn’t launch.

Shelved? I couldn’t fathom why – it was supposed to launch within 2 days, the product worked great, everyone loved it. But that was the problem. We were launching it on a platform that the company wanted to get rid of, and if we made the old platform better it wouldn’t entice people to want to move to the new platform. That’s not to say the new platform even had a budget, or a thumbs up from anyone to proceed. So it’s not like I’d just launch it somewhere else. It was effectively permanently dead. Talk about kicking me in the stomach. I was pretty gun-shy about launching product after that. I took it personally, and after that I found myself being a lot more careful about the ecosystem in which I launched products. To be so close and have such abject failure was really a gut punch.

Later I started a consulting company. It was actually pretty successful initially – it got up to about a dozen full-time employees at it’s height, was grossing well over a million a year, and was very well known in the security world for how small it was. But then the mortgage crisis hit, and the economy as well as my small company that I had built from scratch imploded.

I remember standing at a window in a high-rise office building on Wall Street in New York with one of my customers the week Lehman Brothers defaulted. My customer pointed out the window and pointing to various buildings that housed the titans of the financial world. As his finger moved from high-rise to high-rise he said, “They’re gone, they’re gone, they’ll be gone within the week, they’re gone, they’re gone…” I was lucky – my customer was one of the few that had survived.

However, I didn’t dodge a bullet, as much as it seemed like I may have. All of my customers’ budgets dried up immediately. Corporate austerity was placed on any discretionary budgets, including external consulting work, like my company specialized in.

Over night, my little company went from a healthy pipeline of a million a year to a few thousand.  Like any good CEO I had about 6 months of cash reserve for emergencies, but we were hearing things like “We’ll get back to you after the new year when we have budget again.” This was in September and October.  The end of the year was months away! Months away before they’d even talk to us. Then it would take months to get contracts signed, then weeks to months to complete the work, then 45 days in arrears for payments.  We’re talking about 3/4ths of a year minimum to get back to making money.  The company simply couldn’t afford that.  So, after looking at the finances, and some very stiff drinks I decided to pull the plug. I had to lay everyone off, including myself. I literally stood in the mirror and fired myself – it was surreal. The only person left (to this day) was my COO, who was critical for some of our recurring revenue customers.

What a catastrophe! I was devastated. Depression kicked in. Every interaction, every contract, every engagement – it all ran through my head. Where had I gone wrong? Honestly, I wouldn’t blame anyone in my position for giving up completely. It had been years of my life, and I had no meaningful savings to speak of, no company, and now I had to go on a road-show to tell everyone that my company had imploded.  Brutal!

But looking back on it, now a decade in the past at the time of this writing, I have a sense of peace about it. I learned a lot from that failure. I learned and got better. For instance, I realized consulting companies weren’t scalable. I learned we should have had more diversified customers to sustain the number of employees we had. I learned that I should be focused on recurring revenue more than one-off, ad-hoc contracts. I learned we should have had larger cash reserves and been more cash efficient.  It’s incredibly important to learn from all available information, but most importantly, don’t divide your focus. Focus on the now, not on previous failures or the fear of future failure.

So when I began my next venture into being an entrepreneur, it was done with a sense of calm, not a sense of fear. I had solved many of the problems with the new business model. I had new problems, sure, but I wasn’t going to let the failures of my past define the future. It took years of hard work, and I won’t say it was an easy road, at all (entrepreneurship rarely is) but my company did get acquired eventually. If you crave to run your own business, or seek difficult roles within companies, you have to push the fear of failures away. You need to focus on the now, and give this opportunity in front of you all of your energy.

Whether that be in work, or relationships, or learning a new skill, you need to focus on the now. Focus on what you can control, and unless you’ve got a working flux capacitor in your DeLorean, you can’t control the past. But you can control how you act right here, and right now. Learn from your mistakes yes, but most importantly focus on the chance you have right in front of you, and above all else, don’t mess up this shot.

Thus concludes part 6. Stay tuned for more.

Navy Seal Lessons Part 5

This is part five in a series of business posts about things I learned as I was taking a series of defensive shooting classes with a Navy Seal. So if this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip these posts. If you missed part one, you can find it here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here and part 4 is here.

During defensive pistol training I took with Jeff Gonzales (the retired Navy Seal Team 4 BUDS instructor, CEO of Trident Concepts and head of training at the Range in Austin) we spent time focused on finger placement and how to hold a firearm. It’s not like the movies. You can’t just grab a pistol and turn it sideways and start spraying bullets and have any practical hope of hitting anything accurately. You need proper hand placement.

“A pistol is a fulcrum.”

One of the things that made the biggest difference for me as a shooter was understanding the mechanics of recoil management and something Jeff said, “A pistol is a fulcrum.” That is to say, much of the traditional advice on how to hold a pistol (as high up and as close to the slide as possible) doesn’t make much sense when you realize that the pivot point is your middle finger and the furthest point from the slide that you can put your hand on is the bottom of the tang of the pistol.  When you realize that the pistol is a fulcrum you want to keep your hand slightly lower on the tang and squeeze with your pinkies so you can counteract the recoil.

The major reason to keep your hand high is if you had massive hands where you could be both high on the tang and low on it at the same time and cover both sides of the pivot point. As most people don’t have huge hands, that advice is really just placing the bulk of your hand on the pivot point, giving you less control over the pistol. So for most people without big hands, the common advice of placing your hand close to the slide isn’t that useful.

Imagine you have a slow-moving fan. It would be kinda like trying to stop a fan blade by touching the closest in part of the fan, compared to the outer-most part of the blade. Of course you can probably stop it either way, but you have to apply a lot more pressure and it is harder to do to stop it close to the pivot point.  When a handgun fires it wants to rotate around it’s axis and if your pinky finger is locked into place you’ll reduce the amount of movement substantially.

What does this have to do with business? We’re getting there.

When I think about what compromises a company, I think about things like corporate mission statements, corporate values, corporate aesthetics, the market landscape, founders, the brand, and so on. But one thing many people fail to discuss is the DNA of the company – the contracts.

When you look at the design of a company it was probably inspired by one or a small handful of people who came together with the promise of a good idea, a company name, and went online or found a lawyer to write up some operating agreements. Let’s say in this hypothetical company there are two founders, each with 50% ownership with equal voting rights.  Those details are something they write into the operating agreement and it becomes a fundamental force within the company that will long survive most any other things that happen.

Now let’s say one of those two founders wants to sell the company because they got a great buyout offer before they even got funding.  That sounds great right?  But what if the other founder doesn’t want to sell? They have no built-in legal recourse – there are in stalemate because of the 50% equity and 50% voting rights written into the operating agreements. There is no path forward because the DNA of the company was written to allow that sort of stalemate. It’s the most important decision in the company’s short history and they won’t be able to make it.  This might sound far fetched but I see this kind of thing happening all the time.

The only reason to have contracts at all is for when the bad thing happens and the people involved in the contracts come to a disagreement. At that point every word in the contract governs what happens next.  If you don’t have your company set up right from the beginning it is very difficult to unwind the contracts – especially because the day you’re wanting to make said changes is likely the same day you find yourself in conflict.

But it gets worse. Contracts are additive, and rarely subtractive. So as new people join the company, they each sign their own contracts (heaven help you if they’re all unique). As you take on clients, they too sign contracts. You want an office, you’re signing a lease – which is a contract. You take on a small business loan – there’s another contract. You want insurance – there’s a contract for each of the policies. You use software – there’s a ToS and MSA for you for each piece of software. You want corporate credit cards – more contracts.  You have partners – each has their own non-disclosure agreements, master service agreements, and addendums. It’s a snowball effect and gradually it becomes impossible for any one person to mentally keep track all of what is in each of those contracts. That’s not even including regulatory issues with health companies (HIPAA) or finance (FINRA) etc. Corporate governance quickly becomes a nightmare. But make no mistake, each one of those contracts/rules is lever, forcing the company to move in one direction or another – maybe ever so slightly but it invariably happens.

Over the long-haul, you find that there are some contracts that make an existential change to your company’s values. You may have started with a corporate mission statement about changing the world and have all of the best intentions to keep that mission alive. However, once you take on investors, you may find that the only thing you are contractually obligated to do and your fiduciary responsibility is suddenly to increase burn at a dramatic rate, so that the venture financiers can force you to take another round and dilute your equity even further.  After all, when they know they have a winning hand, they’re going to want to double down on their investment and get more equity in your good idea.

So over time you may find that your company becomes a slave to financing, taking another round, just to waste time, burn more capital, and finally take yet another round, where you get diluted even further, until you’re such a minority shareholder that you have zero ability to control the board, or any decision at all in the future of the company.  That lever was put in place to edge the founder out and make the venture financier extremely wealthy.

An even worse version of this is found when companies go public. Public companies are so focused on short term (quarterly) profits, and investor sentiment that they cannot pick their heads up and look at the long-term strategic needs of the company. That’s one reason you see massive companies who seem to have forgotten how to innovate completely. All of the best people cash out and go to smaller nimble/fun companies, or if the employees stay, they’ve become lazy and stay due to golden handcuffs and become disillusioned by the increased bureaucracy. There’s no faster way to turn a high-performance employee into a 9-5 employee than to add layers of bureaucracy. These companies often turn into a make-shift M&A groups that are poorly designed for the task, integrate new talent/tech terribly and ultimately just crush everything they purchase – all because the IPO contracts they signed require them to.

So much for those lofty corporate goals you had when you were starting the company about saving the world. Now it’s a profit-driven hamster wheel that’s out of your control and one in which you’re unlikely to see any meaningful profits from as a founder while your control and equity approaches zero percent.

With each new contract, you’re increasing the length of that fulcrum and making it harder and harder to control your company until you lose all sense of what it was originally. That is why it is incredibly important to know what each and every contract says, and not give up anything you don’t have to. It may make negotiations a bit more tense, and drawn out, but if it becomes the difference between you having a majority share of a company and abject failure, I think it’s worth the extra legal fees.

In the case of employees, it is the same, just a microcosm. How your vacation policy reads, how your bonus structure reads, how your benefits read… those are all negotiable and it’s incredibly important that you do negotiate them (assuming the company doesn’t have standard levels for all new-hires).  I have run into a number of situations where young security practitioners are worried about the cost of moving for a new job, and I’m quick to tell them that moving costs are negotiable. So are the losses of whatever equity you would have had granted to you if you had stayed in your current job. So is the vacation amount you have. So is a sign-on bonus, and on and on. Every detail of your pay, your bonus structure, and your perks are negotiable – to varying degrees. Want a company car? Want to work from home 3 days a week? All of those things can end up in that contract, depending on how badly they want you.

Each one of those demands gives you more leverage, and by asking for more, you will get turned down on some of it, but the chances are you’ll score more wins than you think. There’s a subtle balance of course – you don’t want to annoy the hiring manager – especially if you’re abilities aren’t unique/valuable. However, you also don’t want to try to fix issues after the contract is signed – that’s like trying to slow the fan blade down from the pivot point – it’s just the wrong place to be negotiating from.

By applying pressure to the contract phase of the negotiation, you can get a better handle on the situation. When things go wrong, you’ll have a lot more leverage than if you didn’t. You can win if you give yourself the right purchase on the situation but that means knowing the tools at your disposal. It’s not that complicated, but like in a firefight, it’s not something you likely get a second chance at, so you had better get it right.

Thus ends part 5 of the series. Part 6 can be found here.

Navy Seal Lessons Part 4

This is part four in a series of business posts about things I learned as I was taking a series of defensive shooting classes with a Navy Seal. So if this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip these posts. If you missed part one, you can find it here, part two is here, and part 3 is here.

On the second day of Pistol 3 I did a diagnostic test with Jeff Gonzales (the retired Navy Seal Team 4 BUDS instructor, CEO of Trident Concepts and head of training at the Range in Austin). It wasn’t looking good. At 25 yards my shot pattern was definitely listing to the left. My grouping was tight, so it wasn’t a traditional accuracy problem, it was something mechanical – something about how I was holding the firearm that was causing the problem.

Being that Jeff has decades of experience behind a pistol he diagnosed it immediately. I was rubbing the frame of the pistol’s trigger guard with my index finger. It seems incredibly minor and at closer yardages you’d never even notice. But at 25 yards it was noticeable enough that I was off by at least 4 inches of center mass, which is the difference between all of the shots going into the 8″ ring and only half of the shots going in. By increasing the distance it allowed us to highlight a problem that was otherwise invisible.

I just couldn’t seem to find a comfortable way to hold my hand that wasn’t causing the rubbing issue. My hand naturally wanted to sit a bit higher and my index finger wanted to be at a downward angle – frustrating!  I tried a few different ways of holding the pistol until I remembered another piece of advice that I had been taught, that I simply didn’t grok when he said it.

“Point your elbows down.”

He said simply, “Point your elbows down.” He clarified, not straight down, but more downwards than outwards – the idea being that it locks your elbows into place and transfers most of the energy down your arm and into your shoulders and torso, which is a much better place to absorb the shock than in the muscles of your arm.  So I gave it at try.

The simple act of rotating my elbows downward slightly rotated my right hand, and by rotating my hand it was suddenly a lot more comfortable to hold the pistol in a way that my finger was no longer at a downward angle but on a flat horizontal plane. By not being at a downward angle I was no longer rubbing the frame of the pistol. My shot pattern was magically cured. My shot pattern immediately went back to center mass, and I went from missing 50 percent of my shots to missing virtually zero at 25 yards in an 8″ ring.

I was astounded at how such a seemingly minor stance issue that was a foot away from the pistol was causing such an issue, and how easily it fixed itself.  Of course it wasn’t as simple as that – re-learning how to draw and hold a firearm after 40k-50k rounds will take time. But at least I realized finally what the problem had been and had a clear path to remedy it.

In a business context this is like the butterfly effect.  We see it happening all the time. One tiny thing in one part of the company will somehow effect something in a completely different part of the organization in a negative or a positive context. Think about how many times we see one tiny little manufacturing issue cause something like Samsung Note battery-gate or Apple’s antenna-gate.  But it is often a more systemic cultural problem that leads companies to have issues, that are far more internally mundane and less outwardly dramatic.

We all have seen things like poor performance being allowed to persist, sexual misconduct being un-dealt with, people taking credit for other people’s work, or a cultural vampire being coddled.  These tiny cracks in our corporate culture can have disastrous outcomes for morale.

Let’s take a fairly benign example like corporate tardiness. It seems like a completely benign issue – a vice president is running behind and they simply arrive 20 minutes late to a meeting.  Let’s say there’s 10 direct reports to the VP in that meeting – that’s 200 minutes (3 1/3rd working hours) wasted, and worse, it sets up a precedent that that is not just allowed, but expected.  It is expected that if your meetings are more important than the people you work for, that you are allowed to waste their time and it’s expected that your time is more valuable than theirs.  How will your employees feel about themselves if they feel their time isn’t valued?

What about something more obviously bad, like corporate malfeasance. I’ve been asked to work for companies and work on projects a number of times that had a clear odor of industrial espionage, and other unsavory asks of me. I flatly refused to do that work in case you were wondering, but after it was asked of me, I felt a huge disconnect from the companies in question – if their executives turn a blind eye and/or actively support engaging in illegal activities, that shows a huge lack of character. Talk about a morale killer – almost no one wants see themselves as the bad guy.

This butterfly effect of cultural woes can start at the executive level. I like to think there are two types of executives… a peace-time and a war-time executive. In peace-time you want to spend building, repairing, and getting all of your housework in order. In war-time you want to be laser focused on what you’re trying to accomplish, focused only on the mission and not letting any distractions get in your way – it’s win or perish.

Some executives are great a peace-time. They’re great at hiring and inspiring. They excite people about the corporate values, the perks of working there, and they construct a great atmosphere.  But when it comes down to conflict with external forces outside of the company, that’s when you want a war-time executive.  A war-time executive is someone who can rally the room and gets the team hungry to win – it’s not always a great/happy seeming atmosphere from an outside perspective, but when you’re in the trenches, you need a commander who knows how to motivate in dire circumstances and won’t buckle under the external forces. However, if you take that same war-time executive and have them do a fluffy walking tour of the cafeteria and rec-room for new recruits, they might lose their mind, so both types executives are incredibly important for company survival.

It’s a butterfly effect – if you meet someone who is yelling at you to work faster because the enemy is at the gate, when you still don’t know where the copier is, that’ll drive most people to quit. Similarly, if someone is asking where you want to go for the mandatory team outing while high-priority deadline-driven work is crashing over you like waves, you’ll probably snap. It’s a nuance that is lost on most people, and to be successful as a manager, it requires attention to the situation your co-workers are in and how you’re working with those people.

This is where a measure of good corporate culture, understanding of the threat landscape and metrics are your friend. Let’s dig into metrics. Your company should have a dashboard where every employee has a set of metrics that they need to set and meet on a weekly basis. At that point each and every employee is getting a red, yellow, or green light that they, themselves, set. The only things the managers do is make sure that the goals for that week are correct and then set their own goals, rolling up everyone’s metrics. If an employee misses their goals, that likely reflects in the manager’s goals, and their manager’s goals and so on.

Eventually the company’s entire dashboard rolls up into the CEO, who is effectively the chief executive sales person for the company. This way, if the CEO knows there if there is a huge announcement at the customer conference coming up, they can track every person down to employees they’ve never even met who may have a driving force on the success of the launch of the product. The CEO can see the health and happiness of their employees through regular 360 reviews.  The CEO can track sales across the entire enterprise, without having to sit through tons of sales meetings. That is is getting the visibility you need when you intend to lead a successful company.

With metrics in hand, at a glance, the executives everywhere in the company understand how the health of the rest of the org is shaping up. Problem employees can be spotted immediately. Be careful though – is it a bad employee, a bad manager, a bad project, or bad working environments? Don’t jump to conclusions. Projects that are suffering from technical issues can be spotted early. But be careful – is it a bad project or suffering from bad oversight, or does the material they’re working with need more time to be fully understood mechanically and will miss deadlines, etc?  By highlighting and focusing on the issue, you rarely will find that you have a gaping hole in the enterprise that you can’t identify well before it festers into a complete disaster. No one is too far removed from problems and remedies if you have enough oversight.

In companies you only have a certain amount of rounds in the magazine… or a certain amount of attempts available to you. And each attempt is a gamble and comes at a cost if you fail, so you should be gambling with the best odds available to you.  That means that you need to find and remedy the small stuff that’s holding the whole company back.  Those tiny flaws can get amplified into catastrophe if you’re not careful.  So find ways to highlight the failure and then fix all the things that surround and ultimately cause that failure.

Thus concludes part 4 of the series. Part 5 can be found here.

Navy Seal Lessons Part 3

This is part three in a series of business posts about things I learned as I was taking a series of defensive shooting classes with a Navy Seal. So if this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip these posts. If you missed part one, you can find it here and part two can be found here.

During the pistol 3 class that I took with Jeff Gonzales (the retired Navy Seal Team 4 BUDS instructor, CEO of Trident Concepts and head of training at the Range in Austin) we got the opportunity to work close up to the targets and do more lateral and forward movement “shoot-on-the-move” type tests.  It is incredibly challenging to shoot an 8″ target reliably at 15-20 yards two times while walking, trust me. Yet it is an invaluable skill, because standing “on the X” is a dangerous thing to do when someone is shooting back at you. You’ve got to keep moving when you’re shooting until you can find cover or defeat the target.

“Everyone must take a step forward before drawing.”

During the training he made it very clear that we all had to follow his instructions to the letter for safety’s sake.  He said, “Everyone must take a step forward before drawing.” It seemed a little odd at first… wouldn’t you want to go for your pistol immediately, get it in your hands, try to stabilize yourself and the firearm in the 5 yards that you have before you have to make an incredibly difficult shot and then follow it up with another incredibly difficult shot immediately after that? The more time you have with your pistol out and pointed downrange the better, right?

Sure, and probably yes, but that’s within an environment where there aren’t other students. The problem is if I draw from my holster first, and the person next to me takes a step forward, now they’re in front of the muzzle of my pistol. So it is incredibly dangerous situation if one person draws and another person walks.  Having everyone draw first would necessitate everyone taking the same amount of time to draw from their holster, which is less likely to be true, unlike walking where everyone generally has the same walking pace.  Some people are just wildly slower at drawing from a holster than other people. If everyone takes one step first before drawing, everyone is walking at, more or less, the same pace and no one is in front of each other’s pistol.

It took me a while to fully grok how simple but useful this training advice was. In a business context I think we tend to forget simple things like this. We forget to look around and see what will happen if someone is quick to make changes while everyone else is still cooling their heels.  It can take people wildly off guard, and put them in a position where they feel threatened, left behind, on their own or any number of bad sensations. This is a quick path to a bad corporate culture, or worse.

In today’s consensus-driven business climate, it can feel incredibly annoying to have to wait for others to catch up. Sure, you know the right thing to do and everyone around you is simply failing to see the genius of the potential of your idea. If they would only move faster, or do what you ask! However, if you just sprint ahead, there are people behind you.  Or worse, if you stop while others are marching forward, they can get caught in the crossfire of your cross-purposes ideals of what should be happening.

I’m not personally of fan of bringing everyone into the discussion on every business decision. I find that most business decisions are rarely made better with lots of people in the room. My favorite example for this was a series of vision and mission statements eBay had. For example, “The vision statement of eBay is to provide consumers with an intercontinental marketplace through the world wide web, allowing almost anyone to trade a host of items easily, with this mechanism allowing for a host of financial opportunities across the globe.” That word-heavy corporate drivel is the kind of thing that is created by a huge team of people who lack a unified direction.  Eventually, probably realizing how bad that was long after it had been printed up all over the place, some other team came up with something slightly more readable, “eBay’s corporate vision is to be the world’s favorite destination for discovering great value and unique selection.” – still too long, awful and unmemorable, but at least you know what they’re talking about, sorta. I mean, it’s still wrong, as tons of items aren’t unique, but it’s closer.

Alas, consensus in corporate direction, I shake my fist at thee! That is not to say there isn’t a way to get people’s buy-in. For instance, you could pick two or three options and let people vote on their favorites, rather than have a large group of people all try to invent a single mutant sentence.

So while perhaps ideas and direction should be dealt with by a single person or a very small team of people who actually are good at defining direction (think an instructor) you still need to tell the rest of the organization (think the students in a class) what to do. Without that, your group lacks team cohesion and people simply have no idea what to do. That’s a fast path to morale issues as well. But almost more important than telling them what to do is to tell them why they’re doing it.

If I had just been told what to do without knowing why to do it, I may have considered Jeff’s advice more of a best-practice, and not an outright safety hazard to the people around me. Obviously one carries a lot more weight than the other. Without context, the people in your corporation lack the knowledge and likely the importance of why they’re doing whatever it is you want them to do. You need to gain consensus not just for keeping the peace or morale, but to make sure people are bought in on why it matters – the company’s financial health is at stake.

I worked at a company in the early 2000s that had an daunting product committee comprised of about 8 vice presidents – most of them who had very little understanding of what the company actually did (a governance person doesn’t necessarily know anything about how firewalls are sold). As a fledgling product manager I found that I had to go through this gauntlet for every product I wanted to launch – a daunting task, given that I didn’t have any rapport or power to leverage.  So instead of walking blind into a room of 8 people, one of whom is bound to want to seem like the smartest person in the room and will find anything wrong they can find to show the other VPs that they’re the smart one, I decided to take a different tact: talk to every one of them ahead of time.

By getting buy-in from each and every one of them before I walked into the room, not only had I gained the missing rapport that I didn’t have otherwise, but they all were fighting with each other to explain what a good idea it was. Invariably there would be one minor objection somewhere and I was prepared for that, because again, someone wants to seem smart. But in the end they always said yes to everything I proposed on the very first attempt – a feat not possible if you went in direct as my co-workers found out the hard way. It meant that I was also a high performing employee, not because my ideas were better, I just knew the importance of getting consensus and I found a way to avoid bureaucracy.

So it’s not always a matter of getting consensus for the troops – sometimes you have to lead from the rear and get the generals to do what needs to happen. It’s not always clear from the lofty glass offices what’s going on down in the boiler room and they don’t necessarily know how important something is to the team or the direction of the company, despite their title. Sometimes you have to push to get what you need done and pushing is never easy or fun, but it’s often the only way to accomplish your business objectives. You’ve got to get everyone marching to the same beat, walking forward at the same pace and aiming their weapons at the same targets.

This ends part three of the series. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. There are more coming. Stay tuned.

Navy Seal Lessons Part 2

This is part two in a series of business posts about things I learned as I was taking a series of defensive shooting classes with a Navy Seal. So if this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip these posts. If you missed part one, you can find it here.

When I started taking classes with Jeff Gonzales (the retired Navy Seal Team 4 BUDS instructor, CEO of Trident Concepts and head of training at the Range in Austin) I was very open minded to learning whatever he had to teach me. Unlike many people who I suspect come in just wanting to be cool, or get slightly better, I had a real purpose in mind. I mentally knew how bad I was and knew I needed real professional help. There was no ego at all here – I just wanted to get better.

“In your last encounter, did you win, or did the adversary lose?”

One of the things Jeff said that really hit home for me was posed as a question to the class, “In your last encounter, did you win or did the adversary lose?” In my case, I had to think through what had happened when the man jumped my fence in the middle of the night and tried to get in (which we covered last time – if you haven’t read it, please make sure you do). It wasn’t pretty.

I was so ashamedly under-prepared that there was no doubt in my mind which was which. I had basically lucked out. I was sleepy, without contacts, with only a piece of frosted glass protecting me from the man yelling at me from outside. My firearms were woefully incorrectly set up, my skills were just shy of non-existent and my understanding of what I should do in that kind of situation was bad-at best. What if he had had a firearm? Or even a hammer? Or what if it were more than one adversary? Honestly, I just lucked out. The situation turned out to be virtually nothing in the end, but it really woke me up about how under-prepared I was.

No, I wasn’t good, I was just slightly better than a CPA who was drunk/high and in the wrong yard. That is not much of a bar, to be honest. Clearly, I had a lot of work to do.

In a business context I feel like so often we just float through our day. We aren’t thinking about what the adversary is up to. We aren’t judging the landscape for indicators of shifting tides. We aren’t listening to details in everything our competitors say that might give us clues about the next step they’re about to make. We just react. When you’re only in reactionary mode, and you haven’t built a skill-set necessary to deal with the possibilities of incoming/existential danger, you are unlikely to succeed.

That said, occasionally you will succeed, even still. Said another way, sometimes you’ll luck out, like I did. My dad used to say, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” which is funny and often true. No matter how good you are if you don’t have some amount of luck, you’re still going to lose, however, you’re bound to be a lot more lucky if you are good.

I remember when I was in high school there was a friend of mine who got into a fight with another guy at school. We were all a bunch of nerds (I know, you’re completely shocked that I was a nerd, but it’s true) but somehow my friend ended up getting pissed at another one of the nerds on campus for reasons long lost to the sands of time. Both boys were definitely anything but what you might describe as athletic, or trained. The fight that they ended up having hurt me more than it hurt them, because I was laughing so hard.

The school yard fight began with a negotiation with the two of them both deciding to fight “fair” and take off their shoes first, and no punching to the face or groin. Also, no kicking… for some reason, since they had taken off their shoes. And only on the grass, not the asphalt nearby. I was dying… absolutely dying laughing. The fight consisted of a few dozen weak punches to each other’s chests before the other guy got exhausted and gave up. No blood lost, just one ego shattered and of course I split my sides laughing… seriously, I think I gave myself a cramp. Somehow my extremely un-athetic, and comically under-prepared friend had won. I had no illusions about his ability to handle himself in a fight, but I still treated him as a hero nonetheless.

Sometimes it’s a messy comedy of a fight and you’ll still end up winning. Does that mean you’re suddenly capable in a fight? No, it means you just fought someone even worse than you are. My friend had the luxury of picking his battle but you don’t always get that luxury. What happens when the next fight is harder and chosen for you?

Just because you won one deal, doesn’t mean your competitors are good and you’re better, it means that you were just better than they were in that moment in time. Maybe they had a bad showing. Maybe their marketing materials aren’t up to par yet. Maybe their sales guy got stuck in traffic and annoyed the buyer by being late. What if they weren’t really bad at all, but just had an off-day? Or what if they really were bad compared to you, but then they get better and you stay the same? If you stay stagnant, will that competitor continue to let you win deals, or do you need to up your game?

What about at the office?  Are you fighting for a new job, without learning any new skills? Are you the same while your co-worker is quietly taking classes at night?  Are you finding new ways to increase your capabilities? Are you meeting people at night and on the weekend who might be able to help you and your career?  Are you finding ways to excel, while others sit at home?

One of the pieces of advice I give to people just starting their career is to never assume anyone will give you anything, and if you want it you need to ask for it. Often times bosses simply assume everyone else has what they need. In that case the squeaky wheel definitely gets the grease. Even if they aren’t just lazy bosses, sometimes they have a misguided sense of protectionism and want to stop everyone else from advancing. More often than not advancement requires more than asking for it – sometimes it’s fighting for it. Sometimes you have to prove your metal. Sometimes it’s covering your ass and documenting every success meticulously. Sometimes you have to do what the other person vying for that job won’t do to win.

You need to learn more skills, you need to give more of yourself and you need to push against any perceived barriers you have for yourself. You do need to find those doors and push through them – asking for what you want and having the skills to back up the fight when you have to defend the reason why you should get what you want. You need to be better than the adversary, not just be lucky that they’re bad.

That concludes part two of Navy Seal lessons. Part three can be found here.

Navy Seal Lessons Part 1

This is part one in a series of business posts about things I learned as I was taking a series of defensive shooting classes with a Navy Seal. This is business oriented, and less about life using only a mobile phone for work. So if this isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip these posts.

It was around 4 in the morning, February 18th, 2018 and my ex-wife started pushing me, waking me up, saying, “Someone is trying to get in.” Being someone who’d worked in Infosec for well over 20 years at that point and put a number of baddies in jail, I had received my fair share of death threats (some credible, most not). Purely as a defensive measure, I’d had firearms in the house for the better part of my career. So being jostled awake my instinct was to go for the 12ga shotgun under the bed and go meet the unknown with deadly force.

Buck naked, I stood up and went to the back door, I began a shouting match with the would-be adversary who was aggressively trying to get into my house.  He was yelling at me, and belligerent. It was in that moment that I realized that I was squeezing the shotgun so hard under stress that I couldn’t depress the slide-release to rack a round into the chamber. I had, for all intents and purposes, a giant club in my hands. I had probably put 1,000 rounds through that shotgun but had never trained under stress and never thought about how strong/dexterous my thumb would have to be to push that little button that I had pushed so many times before without an issue. No matter how much I tried and knowing full well what the problem was, I couldn’t relax my arms enough to allow my right thumb to press in the tiny button by the trigger to allow me rack a round.

So I told my ex-wife to grab my pistol, which I used when I was traveling (when a shotgun just isn’t stealthy/compact enough). Still buck naked and without my contacts on, I was finally at least armed with something that I could operate under stress. At this point the strange man in my back yard backed off and was no longer immediately at the door, so I opened the door a crack and make it incredibly clear that I was armed.  He backed off further, still yelling profanities at me. Without my contacts on, I couldn’t make out anything more than a shape, build, height and stance. I gave him to the count of ten to get out of my yard – which was really a delaying tactic to allow myself some time to get some clothes and my contacts on.

I closed and locked the door, went into the closet while my ex-wife called the 911. I quickly threw on some clothes and my contacts, and headed outside again (a terrible move by the way – I shouldn’t have gone outside, but I wasn’t thinking clearly).  I headed outside, and after a few seconds of searching I found the would-be home invader stuck in a 12’x12’x6′ shrub in the back of my yard. He was attempting to climb out of the yard but he was so drunk/high that he couldn’t.

So using my outside-voice and every curse word I could come up with, I made it very clear that he wasn’t going to be allowed to jump the fence into my neighbor’s yard (who happened to have two very young little girls living there – can you imagine?).  I ended up “coaxing” the man out of the bush using my rather aggressive form of speaking. Try to picture my 4AM coax-a-would-be-home-invader out of a bush at gunpoint voice. He complied begrudgingly and I got a decent look at him for the very first time. He was wearing a nice white button down shirt, black slacks, nice shoes and he looked clean cut.  This wasn’t some run-of-the-mill home-invader, this is just someone who’s drunk/high and belligerent.

Even still, he was so out of it, I couldn’t tell if he was actually a threat, because he was acting so erratic. So I got him to kneel on all fours, but he didn’t want lie all the way on the ground – presumably because he didn’t want his nice white shirt to be smeared all over my dirty back yard, I’m guessing.  So I proceeded to hold him, at gun-point for what felt like an eternity.  He began to reach for his back pocket at one point… My mind went crazy… did he have a pistol? A knife? He wouldn’t get all the way on the ground, so was this a pending attack? There really was no way of knowing, so I used some more very loud verbal commands to let him know he was risking his life by reaching for whatever it was he was reaching for.  He claimed it was his cell phone and that his buddies were calling.

That was a relief, and plausible, but he was still cussing me out, even with a pistol pointed at him – idiot. He was doing everything wrong and made it extremely difficult for me to assess his level of threat. It was at this point that I realized I wasn’t sure if I had the safety enabled on my pistol, or not. To make matters worse, I also wasn’t 100% sure if I had racked a round into the chamber or not. Surely I had… I must have. I had practiced doing that countless times and it was so ingrained in me I definitely must have.  But did I?  I simply wasn’t 100% sure, and the last thing I wanted to do was mess with the pistol, trying to debug what state it was in. Talk about destroying your credibility with the adversary, who at this point believed that he was in danger.

I also realized that my point of aim was way way off. I was so cold (it was about a 40 degree difference between my bed and the back-yard) and I was so tense that my muscles had contracted and the muzzle of my pistol was pointed way to the left. There is no way I would have hit him on the first pull of the trigger.  I might have deafened him and put a hole in my fence but that was about it.  I corrected my aim and made mental note of how stupid this whole situation was, how incredibly poorly trained I was and how bad my home defense setup was.

12 agonizing minutes later, the police arrived. Just imagine what was doing through my head for 12 minutes – and I lived downtown, no more than 8 blocks from a police station at the time. When the police did arrive my ex-wife had the smarts to tell them that I was the guy with the pistol and made sure they could verbally replay to her which one of the two people in the back yard was the good guy – the guy with the pistol – before she would let them into the back yard.  The officers came out, one towards me, and one towards the guy on the ground.  The one that came towards me asked me to lower and drop the pistol and step back – which I did slowly and with my hands in the air.  The other officer took one look at the guy who refused to get all the way on the ground even after receiving verbal commands to do so and proceeded to smear that guy’s nice white shirt through my back yard. So much for that nice white shirt.

In the end, a few days after it was over, I figured out exactly who the guy was (go figure, I’m good at finding everything about people online) it turned out that the guy was a CPA for a prestigious accounting firm and it was just before tax season so he and his buddies flew in to blow off some steam in Austin’s bar district and get super drunk/high. He had had a prior drug conviction and changed his name so that he could more easily get a job, so he was tricky to find, but alas… I’ve got a special set of skills. After the bars closed he had walked back to and jumped the back fence of what he thought was his AirBnB and tried to get into the back door. Imagine his anger and surprise when one of his buddies was holding a pistol to his head… except I wasn’t one of his buddies. The perils of alochol/drugs.

We had an outside chain link fence and an inside privacy fence, so it was easy to get in but very hard to get out. So basically we created a CPA-trap and low and behold, I caught one. CPAs are apparently rampant just before tax season. Really, both of us were lucky that I didn’t shoot – he was doing everything wrong – being non-compliant, rude, aggressive and loud – and I wasn’t well trained enough to know how to deal with the situation at all. The officers told me I was well within my rights to shoot him too (it is Texas after all), but were thankful I didn’t.

That night I wrote down everything that went wrong. How many mistakes had I made, the problems with my setup, my training, and my actions. I needed motion detecting lights in the back yard, I needed a light on my pistol, I needed a striker fire single-action pistol, I needed one with no safety to mess with, I needed sites on my pistol that were visible in low-light, I needed to carry with one in the chamber etc… etc…  There were a lot of issues. Too many to enumerate here.

So problem number one was the equipment. Clearly, this setup wasn’t working. So my buddy, hearing the story, took me out to the Range At Austin which is kinda like the Beverly Hills Gun Club if you’ve ever seen Beverly Hills Cop 2. It’s a beautiful range just a few miles south of downtown Austin. That’s where I met Jeff Gonzales who is the CEO of Trident Concepts and the head of training at the range. He’s a retired Navy Seal (Team 4 – which is South America), and BUDS instructor – his job was to fail Navy Seals for a living, and he’s no joke.

I really just wasn’t sure what to purchase, so I wanted his advice. I proceeded to verbally pour my situation out to Jeff – I think he could tell I was distraught/shaken by the events of the previous night. I got to the point about me being buck naked, and trying to defend my home, and he stopped me and said something that I’ll never forget.

“Firefights are clothing optional.”

I laughed both outwardly and… and I just kept laughing internally. Because how silly is it to worry about what you’re wearing when you’re defending your life (or believe yourself to be in any case). It was such a huge relief to hear that… such sound and simple advice… with such a measure of practicality that I had to stop and really think through it.

I decided to start going to the range to practice regularly – clearly I needed a lot more practice based on my weak performance. I wanted to learn how to draw my pistol from a holster at the range, but for safety reasons the range requires that you need to take and pass Pistol 2… which is an extremely difficult class, don’t let the name fool you. In fact, I took it twice in in both classes I was the only person I saw who passed it. I’m not what you’d describe as a “gun-nut” but I did feel like if I was going to own and carry a firearm I should get proficient at it.

“In an emergency human instinct is to fight, flight or freeze.”

During his Pistol 2 class, Jeff went over the different types of people. He said that, “In an emergency human instinct is to fight, flight or freeze.” I have always been the fight type. I am the guy who runs into the fire – probably one of the reasons I’ve had operational security roles for a big chunk of my life. I’m not afraid of a hard fight, and find situations where others are in danger to be the time when I excel the most – and the times that I am the most dangerous to the enemy.

Others have different approaches. Some people want to distance themselves from conflict. Others hide in closets and wait for the police to arrive.  There’s nothing inherently wrong or better about any of these, and in fact, in some cases simply avoiding conflict is definitely the smarter choice, so really, it is case dependent. Like it or not, I’m the fighter type, and I head directly towards danger.  But as I learned fighters are also the defenders – the people who keep others safe. They’re the people who are looking for how to help when all hell breaks loose. So if you find yourself in a fighting situation, you had better be extremely good at it.  If you’re a fighter, train like your life, and the lives of the others who you care about depend on it.

Yesterday I stunned myself as I passed Pistol 3 (as advertised it is for “skilled shooters and professionals”). It’s so much unbelievably harder than Pistol 2, which was already incredibly hard, that mentally I gave it a zero percent chance I’d pass going into it. It wasn’t a positive mindset, but I just didn’t want to stress myself out worrying about the outcome. I just decided to have an open mind and learn what I could and maybe I’d just get enough knowledge to pass it the second time around.  But shockingly, I passed on the first attempt (myself and another guy who happened to also be a firearms instructor out of a class of 7 amazing shooters). I sat there listening to Jeff talk and I could barely hear a thing. How on earth did I pass this crazy-hard course on the first try? It must be wrong, I thought, but Jeff doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes. Every point is written down meticulously and he doesn’t let people pass because he likes them (and I’m not even sure he does like me – nor would that necessarily help him teach). I’m still shaking my head, even now as I write this. It’s unbelievable and definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished to this day.

On the drive home, having completed a total of around 60 grueling hours of firearms training by a Navy Seal, I realized much of what Jeff was teaching me wasn’t just about shooting. It was a way of being, a way of thinking. It got me thinking that I should write a bit about it. So this post represents the first in a series of blog posts about how to re-frame some of his Navy Seal/shooting concepts and some of the things I learned along the way into a business context, starting with number 1: “Firefights are clothing optional.”

When I think about business, I think of warring parties. You’re not just fighting against your competitors, you’re also fighting against regulation, adversaries/hackers, bad press, the economy, lazy vendors, difficult partners, choosy customers, internal politics, etc, etc…. It’s brutal!  Some people will flee from organizations/work at any hint of conflict, and some people will freeze in their tracks, paralyzed by choice and fear – hoping someone else will chose for them. It’s often left up to the fighters in a company to win or at minimum to lead others to victory.

When you find yourself in a fight for your very life – when it’s your company or livelihood – you need to pull out all the stops. You need to fight as if it matters, and stop worrying so much about doing it clean/perfect. Sometimes you have to fight with whatever you have in whatever way you’re dressed at a moment’s notice, and if you’re going to victoriously defend your company and/or your livelihood you have to do it with purpose and determination.

The sale may seem impossible for every other company but it may just a matter of doing what the competitors won’t. Your boss may overlook you for promotion until you reach for the absolutely crazy goal and achieve it. It’s not always going to be pretty, and some people may make fun of how you achieved your success, but in the end, if you and your team come out victorious and avoid disaster/hurting the innocent/breaking the law in the process, does it really matter?

This is concludes part one, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Part two can be found here.

iClever Keyboard and Yonisun Stand

It’s been a while since I updated this site with clever phone-as-desktop updates, but not for lack of thinking about it a lot. I ran into several fairly large issues with my setup that caused me to re-think how to compute in a lightweight format.  That lead me down a weird path of experimenting with a variety of setups.

It started with the iPhone 8 and it’s wireless charging – which is to say, the backplate must be easily accessible. So much for ring stints! I could opt to do everything with a cord but I kinda wanted to stay away from that except for travel. I’m a bit paranoid about wear and tear on internals with plugging in and taking out cords over and over again. I’ve seen a great many phones break due to this wear and tear. So wireless charging speaks to me.  But no ringstint is a big deal.

iClever Bluetooth keyboard

The second big problem is that I often don’t want to carry a backpack around with me – especially to bars but I had to due to the huge Apple keyboard. It’s just so easy to forget, or get messed up, and like my age old complaint – I really don’t like the idea of carrying a backpack to the bathroom. It’s much nicer to have everything on my person. So I started researching different types of stands and different types of keyboards.

I landed on the iClever wireless keyboard after doing a lot of research. It’s a tad large but technically it does fit into a larger back pocket. It folds open and has a number of interesting features. For instance, it has the ability to be used with both a phone and a tethered computer with just a single keyboard command (the modern day KVM setup).

The iClever also has backlit keys (though I wouldn’t recommend them if you want to use it for a prolongued period of time – it does burn batteries). It has various brightnesses and color schemes which is very cool.

The iClever keyboard has dedicated select, cut and paste keys, which were a bit annoying at first, but I quickly learned that they’re pretty useful and I kinda wished all keyboards had them. It lacks an escape key (or at minimum it doesn’t send the escape ASCII key – instead it’s the home button). Which gives you a severe disadvantage if you’re a VIM user, but you can use the ctrl-[ keyboard combo to send that character. I find this pretty darned annoying, but it’s managable once you get used to it.

The iClever keyboard has little kickstands to keep it stable, which is nice, but it doesn’t have a feature to keep it open, so for positioning on unstable surfaces like your lap, it’s a bit of a chore compared to other keyboards. I do wish it had some sort of locking feature to keep it open.

Other positives are a dedicated search key, which makes context switching way easier. Just hit f1, then type in “safari” and hit enter to jump into Safari. It’s still nowhere near as nice as an alt-tab feature, but I blame Apple for that, not the keyboard.  I do wish there was software to configure the keyboard, but other than that, it’s a really nice keyboard, and I spent an entire day using it at a coffee shop with virtually no discomfort at all.

As for the stand, I decided to try out the Yonisun Smart Phone and Tablet Stand – Foldable Vertical and Horizontal Mount which is a really lightweight and foldable stand, that easily fits in a pocket. In early tests it seems compact, lightweight, works well in both landscape and portrait mode.  Thought it does make it slightly hard to see something if the text is butted up against the bottom of the screen, and there’s a bit of an unnecessary amount of material that could have been removed to save weight – though to be fair it’s already very light.

My only other complaint with the Yonisun stand is you can really only use a charging cable if it’s in landscape mode. Not a huge deal, but will certainly be difficult for some people who need to use apps that only support portrait mode.

Overall I’m happy with this setup for the time being, and will keep trying it out to see what other issues pop up.  For now though, this setup all fits in my pockets and that is really what mobile life is all about.

OutsideIntel Acquired by Bit Discovery

I’m happy to announce that OutsideIntel, my business intelligence platform, has been acquired by Bit Discovery (bitdiscovery.com). I will continue my work on the platform as the CTO of Bit Discovery; staying involved was always part of my plan for OutsideIntel even if it was acquired, so, for me this is perfect. OutsideIntel will be the back-end tech behind Bit Discovery, which is a much more sophisticated front-end on top of the high-performance data lake that I’ve been amassing for years. This acquisition was made possible through a venture financing round which allowed Bit Discovery to acquire my tech as well as the staff necessary to build out and improve upon the technology.

In case there are any entrepreneurs out there who want to learn a bit about what it took to get here, I would like to share some of the lessons learned along the way:

  • It took about 20 years of wanting to build this idea. It wasn’t an idea I could easily explain though, nor could I afford it. So it sat in the back of my head eating at me for two decades. People thought I was nuts when I first explained what I wanted to do. Even my wife-at-the-time, who was normally extremely supportive said confidently and with amusement, “You can’t do that.” Sure, collecting years of meta data on the entire Internet in your basement sounds nuts…. Building a data lake by yourself is crazy. Doing corporate intelligence in your basement is crazy. I probably am crazy, but it worked. It wasn’t that the nay-sayers were wrong necessarily. Had they been talking to anyone else they would have been right, but in my case, they underestimated my willpower, my stubbornness and my vision. Lesson learned: Your dreams may not be as crazy as they sound.
  • When I first started showing early prototypes of the tech I got a lot of comments like, “this UI needs a lot of work” and “no one should ever see this” and even “it is ugly.” Ouch. My expertise is not in UI, sadly. I had a number of long conversations with friends here in the US and overseas and one idea began to take hold after talking to my friends Simon and Pascal: I needed to completely stop talking about the UI. So, I shifted away from the front-end entirely and treated the front-end as merely a demonstration of what the back-end was capable of doing. By shifting that conversation away from the UI and to the APIs, it wildly changed how people perceived my work. Suddenly they could see dozens of use cases and it spawned partnerships and eventually helped OutsideIntel to get acquired. Lesson learned: Focus on what you’re good at and use that as your selling point rather than just the vision. Confidently flaunt the merits of your accomplishment.
  • When I first started building the back-end for OutsideIntel (it was called Siftint back then, as in “sift through intelligence” – a short-lived name that still resides deep within the code and in my memory) I thought it would become a business intelligence platform for stock prediction. Gradually I realized there simply wasn’t a market for that, despite what everyone will tell you. It turns out people are afraid of this tech, and want more ordinary data sets that they can more readily comprehend. So, I had to make a very fundamental shift in how I talked about the data. Sure, it was good at finding correlation between market movements and IT infrastructure, but it was also good for security, and M&A, and sales enablement, and compliance, etc. Decisions, decisions. I had to find each and every use case and explore them individually. I eventually decided sales enablement was probably the best fit, and then, of course after making that decision Bit Discovery comes along and loves it for asset management. Cue me, flipping a table. So, you never know how other people are going to see your product/service. Lesson learned: You have to be flexible. Adapt to the market need.
  • It took money – lots of money. You can’t properly estimate how much a startup will cost you until you do it.  It’s always expensive. In my case, excluding opportunity costs, it cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of that was in legal expenses, some of it was in hardware, some of it was in hosting, some of it was in software, some of it was in data, some of it was random equipment to perform tests. It adds up. My wife-at-the-time said that if we didn’t have my company we could afford a ski condo somewhere, and she was right. There’s no way I could have done this without a big nest-egg or a family income to support me. Even still, I literally ran the company out of my basement for a year to save money.  I had to have the power company come out and install 2×20 amp circuits to power my basement because it was becoming a fire hazard. As the infrastructure grew the noise got to be too much for me. I measured the decibels near the end and it was as loud as a gasoline engine running. All to save money. Lesson learned: Success often speaks to privilege. If you’re privileged enough you can try something that on the surface seems virtually impossible. But be frugal and careful with how you spend.
My janky “sound-proofing” system in my basement before the equipment went to the datacenter. This “feature” of my basement did cut down about 5db-10db of noise so it was worth doing. Not seen here is the baffling and ducting that was added later. It bugged me more than my ex-wife, surprisingly. It was especially bad when the bulk processes would start and the small fans would kick on. Try relaxing when it sounds like someone’s got an engine running in your basement.
85 decibels in my basement at about 6 meters while no bulk processes were running . This is after my “sound-proofing” was built. It was closer to 90-95db at the rack while processing. Notice the needle is in the red: the “safe” amount of time to be in my basement was 8 hours, after which hearing damage may have occurred. I wore earplugs every time I went down there.
  • One of the reasons this deal went through is because I know all of the players involved. I know the people who produce the data, I know the people collecting the data sets for sale, I know the customers, I know the devs working on the projects I needed, I knew the people who needed the data, and ultimately I knew the acquirers who happened to be long-time friends. I became friends with all of these people by being a trusted expert in the space, sure, but I kept them as friends because I never looked at them as a client or someone who could do me a favor. I treated everyone the same – as people with hopes and dreams and a desire to be happy in their home-lives and businesses alike. I try to help people when I can in whatever way I can. Sometimes that means I help them get jobs, sometimes I mentor them, sometimes I just let them talk about issues. Lesson learned: Never stop meeting people, and find ways to help them if you can. It ultimately works itself out.
  • I built and re-built the software back-end of OutsideIntel four times. I spent hours talking to my wife-at-the-time who had to listen to my rants about the right and wrong way to build my infrastructure, or how pagination was broken even on sites like Google and Bing, and how was I supposed to get it right if they cannot? Or how modern hardware runs into IO blocking issues. Or how relational databases were too slow so I’d have to build my own data lake from scratch. Or how Perl wasn’t going to work at all and how I’d have to switch to Python after already having written tens of thousands of lines in Perl. Or the perils of Python’s strict typing and poor support on FreeBSD. It wasn’t just the software either. I had to re-build the hardware infrastructure three separate times to support the four different software builds. It took me years and countless bugs/revisions and hours of pacing around trying to design something that was fast, cheap, and would fit on the hardware I could afford before I settled on a design that appeared to finally work. I have no doubt it will take another re-build at some point. But that never stopped me. I wasn’t afraid of the hard work, and in fact, each new puzzle felt like a challenge, not a burden. Lesson learned: Don’t be afraid to fail fast. Just make sure you keep going.
Here I am hauling the first server as part of version 2 back to the house. It turns out a 2U chassis does not fit in the trunk of a Z4 so it had to ride shotgun. Thankfully it was a convertible, or I wouldn’t have been able to get it in the car at all. I sold the Z4 shortly afterwards to cut insurance costs and also… what trunk?
Setting things up for version 2. This ultimately became a costly failed version that lasted only a few months. My dining room was the de-facto staging area. My wife-at-the-time was very understanding.
First computer being constructed as part of version 3. This was a complete re-think of the hardware. Once again, my wife-at-the-time let me “borrow” the dining room for a few days. Each drive bay costs around a grand once populated with an SSD and there are two drive bays hidden on the back as well – you can do the math. After fully constructed, this single computer and the subsequent drives cost more than what I sold my Z4 for. Seems like a fair trade.
  • A few years ago I really started eating my own dog food. Whenever I’d have a meeting with someone I’d use OutsideIntel to understand their company ahead of time, not just from a demo perspective, but to talk eloquently about what they were up to. I used it against corporations and even individual people with whom I was about to meet. That meant it had to be fast, and it had to be accessible from my phone, which lead me to do a backend redesign to support even faster lookups, pagination so that the browser wouldn’t crash and a frontend redesign to support mobile devices. That was messy, time consuming to do, and didn’t improve the look and feel very much, but it came in very handy, when, at a meeting I could look down at my phone and say, “Oh, I see you have an exposed QA server over here named XYZ.” People would say things in shock like, “Oh, I thought you were just texting someone. I didn’t realize you were hacking us.” I’d explain that it wasn’t hacking anyone and it led to a great conversation every time. That made a huge difference, to be able to show them the platform in real-time and use it as it was intended. It had to work on my cell phone too, because during travel I never carried a laptop (after all, I am the Smartphone exec). Lesson learned: Eat your own dog food and make sure it works anywhere and anytime you need to do a demo.
Mobile design for one of the search types, with pagination, responsive design with sub-second lookup times. It may be a little ugly, but it works great.
  • It took doing something no one had done before… sort of. At a very minimum the people who have tried this before were different people with different experiences and different ways of thinking about things. Not to diminish their work or their expertise, but my way of building OutsideIntel was different, interesting and it made the company valuable. That means that someone’s experiences and perspectives are worth something even in the case where others have “claimed” the domain of expertise. I didn’t let the presence of others dictate that I couldn’t touch their areas of interest – I just pushed through and built what I thought should be built in the way I thought it should work. Lesson learned: Any expert or leader in any category can be dethroned. You don’t have to be first mover necessarily, you just have to be the best and/or sufficiently different.
  • A thousand things could have gone wrong. I had everything fighting against me on this project. It just seemed to be something that no one believed could be built until it was built and even when it was built they questioned how it could have possibly been built. Even when I was showing people demos they assumed it must be pre-canned because it couldn’t possibly be that fast if it weren’t. Virtually no one had faith in me. Subsequently, I was inundated with hair-brained sales ideas, or poorly thought out plans for monetization. Even my partners for the most part seemed to get excited for a few weeks or months ultimately only to lose interest and discontinue help. I couldn’t blame them, actually – nothing about OutsideIntel is easy. In the end I think this was largely luck. I was lucky to build something that was hard enough and useful enough that very few others would attempt it – especially on their own with zero outside funding. I was lucky that I found my acquirer when I did. I was lucky that despite the fact my wife-at-the-time didn’t believe it could be done, she supported me anyway, even as our bank account dwindled. I was lucky to have enough income to make it work. I was lucky to have the know-how and support of my friend James who helped me keep the hardware purring. I was lucky to catch issues and be able to afford them when multiple times bills unexpectedly spiked to 200% above the datacenter’s estimated costs. I was lucky to have an awesome partner/customer who became the acquirer. I was lucky that I stuck it out long enough when I had every reason to fold the company as the stress mounted –  thankfully my cat does advocate for a low stress work environment, which helps. I was lucky – any one of those things could have been missing and it could have cost me a lot more… or even sunk the company entirely. Lesson learned: It’s not just expertise and willpower. It also takes luck. Without luck you have nothing.
Rasmus and I doing pair programming. Seen here reviewing my code. By his expression, he’s unimpressed by my UI.
  • Even though I mostly built the company from nothing, I did have help along the way, from friends and family who helped me write content, think through how to position myself and even try to help with sales. Even though much of that effort was ultimately unsuccessful, it meant a lot to my mental well-being as a founder of a company with an uncertain future. Don’t underestimate how lonely life can be when you’re the only cheerleader for your company. Lesson learned: Make sure you have a close network of friendly people to talk to. You’ll need a support system.
Sitting on the ground at the datacenter in the middle of the night debugging a process that is crashing access to the data lake. This night triggered a huge software re-build. It’s a lonely business when you’re the only one. You need non-cat friends. For the eagle eyed: this was one of the last days I used a laptop outside of the house – switching entirely to smartphones for work while away from the house shortly thereafter.

Bit Discovery is the new home of OutsideIntel’s tech, and I’m proud to be working with one of my oldest friends, Jeremiah Grossman, who saw the vision and decided to make the leap. I can’t be more thankful for how things turned out and I’m ecstatic to be able to work on my favorite project for the foreseeable future. I’m happy to have found a team who understands how to turn my vision into something actionable and relateable – translating my brain and tech into enterprise discovery and asset management. Check out the website and if you want a demo of the Bit Discovery platform, please let me know!