Internet Local Tech

What about 4G home broadband?

This is another article in my series about broadband in Guernsey and what the future might hold. You might like to read the previous articles: Hands on with JT’s fibre to the homeWhy fibre, and why now?Guernsey broadband should aim to lead, not bring up the rear, and some other secondary updates linked in those. Or not; I’m not the boss of you.

I’ve talked before about how I think using the mobile data network to skirt around the problems caused by underinvestment in the physical telecoms network is at best a short-term stopgap, and not something to lean on long term. I still believe that. However, I was still interested in testing the water, because a stopgap might still be useful, so long as it doesn’t lead to (further) complacency.

I’ve recently heard that the next stage in JT’s fibre rollout has been set back a little until early 2016 now, and having spotted that one of our providers, Airtel-Vodafone, is offering a 4G home broadband option (I’m sure it’s no coincidence that they’re the only one without a landline network), I thought I’d investigate further.

Airtel were very receptive to my tweets and offered to send me a SIM and free top-up so I could try their service out using my iPhone 6. My thanks to them for making it easy to try this out for myself, and kudos for being across social media so fast.

Let’s talk about data limits

The other two telecom providers currently don’t sell 4G as a replacement for home broadband, because the mobile data limits just aren’t high enough for that. Airtel have created a separate package though, with higher limits and with cheaper data bolt-ons. The basic package, 100GB/month, is still too low for me, but with bolt-ons which can be combined, you can raise that to a maximum of 250GB/month, which would be enough for my purposes. That would amount to £41.99pm (£16.99 for 100GB + £10 + £15 for 50GB/100GB extra respectively), but this is still lower than my current broadband bill, since I’m on a Sure Pro account, solely because it gives me marginally better upload rates, and I’m willing to pay for that.

So the data cap issue is manageable, for me at least, with Airtel’s packages.

Let’s talk coverage

I’ve had a really poor experience with 4G on Sure’s network so far. I can’t even get 4G in the streets around my house, never mind inside, and I live on the outskirts of St Peter Port, our main town, so hardly out in the middle of nowhere. It’s not just a pocket, this electromagnetic crapzone is several streets across. I’ve reported it to Sure several times over the last few months, to be told that engineers are investigating, but so far, zero actual results. Nul points.

When I reached out to JT, they told me they tested around here just after I asked, and that 4G coverage on their network is good. I can’t test that myself yet as I’m locked in to a contract right now, but my wife is with them so will be able to test once I can convince her to upgrade her phone 😉 Until then, I can only take their word for it, unless you’re on JT and can test in the Ville au Roi / Mound Durand area and can let me know in the comments.

With Airtel, I was able to test myself after receiving their SIM, and I got LTE inside the house just fine, which was a good start. Sure’s coverage is seemingly the one lacking here; wish I’d known before I signed the last contract.

Just tell me how fast it is already goddammit

Ok, brass tacks. I’m comparing with my ADSL2 connection on a Pro account, which runs at 10Mbps down and 1Mbps up. VDSL is not available here, the line length is too long and Sure has nothing in the pipeline, despite this being a populated area in walking distance of the main town. On top of the poor 4G coverage, this area is pretty poorly served by Sure.

I mentioned that I received LTE inside the house on Airtel’s network, and that’s true. What’s interesting is how variable the signal it is, depending on where you are in the house. I tested it all over, including in several places in the loft, where I would put a router if I signed up for this (it’s where the nexus for all my structured cabling is anyway), and tested at least twice in each location to ensure I wasn’t just recording anomalies.  In all cases I used the Speedtest dedicated iPhone app. Consistently there were places not far away from each other where the bandwidth was wildly different. Here are the results, sorted by best to worst download speed:

Location Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Ping (ms)
1st floor North side, on desk 21.37 5.48 58
Attic, roof apex, north side 18.60 17.34 73
1st floor North side, at window 14.51 5.43 67
Attic, middle 14.00 14.66 78
1st floor South side 9.17 7.96 72
Ground floor North side 7.75 2.76 47
Attic, roof apex, South side 1.17 7.31 136
Ground floor South side Failed Failed Failed

I found it pretty interesting how much the results could vary within a single house, but fairly consistently based on location. 4G is supposed to have better penetration (steady on) than 3G, but it’s obviously still fairly susceptible to interference. Clearly the mast is north of me, or at least that elevation is the one with the least interference. The South end of the attic has a sun pipe quite near it, and that seems to totally kill the signal there (sadly that’s also the best place for the router).

Also interesting is how although the download speed is just as good on the 1st floor North side, the upload speed suffers compared to the roof apex. That’s unintuitive to me since I thought they’d have the same interference patterns, but perhaps not. Also odd that I managed to get a better speed on the desk than at the window, interference patterns are not straight forward.

What’s also clear is that if I was living in a bungalow, this wouldn’t work at all. The signal is only good enough at the 1st floor and above.

In my case the optimal solution (without an external antenna) would be to have a separate antenna or extension placed at the north roof apex. I suspect I’d need to add one to whatever router Airtel supply to achieve that. Alternatively the desk location is reasonable, although I could lose some upload speed. Of course the router antennas might have a slightly different absolute performance than my iPhone as well.

Conclusion

Assuming I could achieve speeds of 18-20Mbps down, that’s around 2x the speed of my current line. Upload is more variable; if I could achieve the maximum I saw of 17Mbps, that’s 17x my current upload. Even the more modest 5Mbps is 5x as fast as currently. So that’s pretty significant; it’s not a revolution, but it’s an improvement I’d notice – provided the signal can keep up & deliver that consistently as the network becomes more heavily used. There’s also the question of whether the reliability is good enough; I work from home and a constant connection is essential to me, currently this is a new product with an unproven track record.

Speculating, I have my doubts about the scalability of 4G & peak usage as a home connection if adoption grows, which is why I’m still hoping that JT’s fibre programme delivers in 2016. But if it doesn’t, I may well sign up for this and use it as a short-term solution. It might be worth considering for yourself if you’re in a similar situation.

[Edit]Added the ping values to the table, consistently below 100ms in good reception areas, and often 70ms or lower, which is good[/Edit]

Business Political

Hey Tories: you can be left-leaning AND entrepreneurial

david-cameronI don’t welcome a new majority Tory government in the UK. It doesn’t directly affect me since I live in a politically separate crown dependency, but nevertheless I still consider myself British as much as Guernsey, much of my family live in the UK, and the tone of the mainland does rub off on our culture here in general. I’m a left-leaning liberal and a strong supporter of progressivism, social and otherwise, and I see a pure Tory government as generally regressive, pursuing an ideology that, despite the aspirational rhetoric, largely favours the incumbent wealthy in society.

I say all that having been self-employed for a decade. I’m self-starting and a moderately successful “entrepreneur” (quotes because really, I just like to make stuff); by all rights I should be a heartland Tory, championing the superiority of individual effort, especially growing up in an offshore finance centre which trends more to the right than average. And while the Tory mindset definitely surrounds me here, where most people teach their kids to fear left-leaning politics as dangerous to the economy, I have my own view that a moderately left-leaning government can actually promote more aspiration than a right-leaning one, regardless of what other people claim. Let me explain.

A little history

Once I became aware of politics in my teens I vaguely supported the Tories like a good Guernseyman, for reasons I didn’t really understand other than everyone said we wouldn’t have any jobs if Labour got in (which ended up being proven untrue from 1997, but I digress). I’m not going to go into anything too personal in this post, but my family encountered a few ‘bumps in the road’ when I was younger, the upshot of which being that I grew to understand what being short of money meant – actually a very useful life lesson.

Now, this isn’t a sob story, lots of people had it much harder and my parents did brilliantly in the circumstances and always managed to support us, but there were some tough times –  during which they worked extremely hard just to tread water. Bad timing of those ‘bumps’ meant they were trapped in private rented accommodation, paying ever higher rents & could never buy their own place. In the end they found happiness retiring in the UK instead, where costs are lower, healthcare is free (for now, anyway) & there’s more for them to do anyway without paying through the nose for a plane ticket – so it turned out OK in the end. Nevertheless, these experiences would affect my thinking later.

Variability of opportunity

As I grew older, still living the Tory way of ‘head down, work hard and things will be fine’, I started to realise how much opportunity & setback affect people so differently. For some people, a setback can have long term repercussions, while for others it can just be a minor blip. Aspiration doesn’t just mean having dreams and ambitions, it also means having the confidence to go out on the ledge to reach for them, and the resilience & safety net to be able to survive failures along the way. And let’s be clear, there are no successes without failures along the way.

People who have this confidence and these safety nets often don’t realise they have them – some people start with them and don’t realise they’re there, for example if you come from a reasonably comfortable background and you know that at a push you could always lean on your parents for a while, even if it hurts your ego.  Other benefits might be a good education, career history, or helpful personal connections you can fall back on if your new venture doesn’t work. Maybe as you were growing up you saw a family member or friend take some business risks and succeed, despite non-fatal failures along the way, opening your mind to the possibilities. Alternatively, maybe you have none of these support structures and failure looks pretty fatal to you, or maybe you saw someone else crash & burn badly in the past. We’re not all on an equal footing when it comes to practical aspiration.

Fear & conservatism

I’m talking about this because fear is a really powerful limiter to opportunity and aspiration, and in my opinion it’s made worse by conservative policy. Leaving aside that conservatism generally implies a fear of change, when conservatives talk about aspiration, they talk about it like it’s a constant for a person, something you have or you don’t. People are either aspirational and should be rewarded and admired, or they’re lazy or lack initiative and should be derided – their failure to achieve is their own fault. However, I think everyone is born aspirational by nature, it’s just that variations in education, environment and background significantly affect how that develops and whether it gets traded or crushed for pragmatism or even fatalism. This varies and the same person could go in completely different ways, depending on their experiences.

I’ve been fortunate that, with the help of others, I’ve been able to overcome the fear of failure and go out on that ledge. But really from where I started I’ve done this despite a highly conservative environment, not because of it – lack of many government safety nets and a laissez-faire housing market that harshly punished any hiatus from the escalator discouraged it, and certainly the message I received from many was that this was dangerous ground & maybe I should think about a safe job in finance instead. I was helped by a natural stubborn streak but even so, to me, conservatism didn’t come across as very aspirational, unless you’re already comfortable. To anyone else the conservative message seemed to be “don’t rock the boat”, or “work hard but within someone else’s framework, it’s scary out there”. In politics, conservative philosophy makes this worse by removing safety nets designed for people who don’t already have them via family or connections, and fewer safety nets mean less chance that those people will make the leaps of faith required to be entrepreneurial.

Is it partially intentional?

Perversely this can be good for some traditional post-industrial style businesses who want to employ workers as cheaply as possible. Workers who are afraid for their prospects, saddled with debt & with low aspirations accept lower wages & make less fuss over terms. It’s not, however, good for the overall economy which benefits long term from a thriving middle class economy with as many entrepreneurs creating new businesses as possible, and not just the usual suspects.

Conservatism might be great at making big businesses bigger, making the already comfortable more comfortable, and keeping everyone else in subsistence employment, but in my opinion it doesn’t offer regular Joes and Janes with little behind them a better environment to be aspirational in. I don’t believe the conservative rhetoric that hard work and diligence always pays off, because I know that although you do need those things, it’s also something of a crapshoot, and you might just end up on a never ending treadmill to no-where despite your efforts. You need some balancing of the scales too to make sure hard work is not eclipsed by other factors for many people.

But what about the USA?

At this point you might be pointing at the USA, which has some of the most conservative and least supportive environments for people, such as expensive healthcare and lack of employee rights, yet entrepreneurship thrives there, right? Well, actually that can be a little misleading – as a result of having a very large population and and a lot of money, America is bound to crop up often in business successes stories, but that’s not the whole story. And in terms of startups per capita, the US is roughly the same as Canada, Australia and the UK – despite different social policies. My theory is that the general attitude and culture of the US, which is very risk-positive and failure-friendly balances out their less supportive social policies, while the UK in the past has had a much less startup-friendly culture but a more supportive environment (you can be indie and not be crippled by health insurance fees and not bankrupted if you get sick).

I think that a country that combines supportive social policy and a can-do, failure-tolerant culture is in the best position of all.

In conclusion

That’s why despite being personally self-sufficient, I’m for a government that frees and empowers all members of society to reach their potential through :

  • First class education for all, in a form and at the time which matches each person’s needs
  • A healthcare system that means nobody has to worry about finances if they’re sick
  • Decent housing for everyone at affordable rates. Scarce property as homes for people first, not investments
  • A robust safety net for those who come off the rails for whatever reason. It helps us all in the long run if everyone has a viable route back to aspiration
  • Acceptance that everyone has a different story, and those of us whose stories are going well need to give a leg up to those whose aren’t right now
  • Investment in the general populace at large, not further concentration of resources in the increasingly mobile few. Spread your bets, localise your investments.
  • Investment in future success, not in simply helping the already successful preserve what they have. Change is inevitable, you need a pipeline of new ideas & talent, preservation of the old talent only delays inevitable decay

I don’t feel those principles are reflected by the Tories, and sadly, not by our own Bailiwick government most of the time. I also think they’re essential for a truly healthy, sustainable economy; one where wealth is generated across a broader base and more people have opportunities for success and self-determination, rather than simply becoming ever more interchangeable pawns for faceless big businesses. The Tories claim their economy is ‘healthy’ but I don’t buy it – it’s feeding on itself too often, slowly eroding the wealth and support structures of the majority in favour of minority incumbents. On the surface it might look rosy, but underneath that the foundation is weak.

So that’s why I’m aspirational, a supporter of capitalism and a bit of a leftie at the same time – they’re not incompatible.

Internet Local Personal

Hands on with JT’s fibre to the home

Morpheus_fibreI’ve been banging on for a while about why I think the only future for Guernsey’s internet infrastructure to homes and businesses is to embrace fibre broadband, and that technologies like VDSL and 4G are limited stop gaps at best.

Fortunately, there is one telecoms company in Guernsey who agrees with me, and that’s JT (I’m sure Sure will come around eventually). JT have a fibre network to supply our government buildings and schools already, and are actively interested in trying to roll it out to homes and businesses who are near to this network, to free us from the horror of spotty, inconsistent copper-based broadband.

And the exciting thing is, it’s already here; at least it is for a handful of lucky early trial users. Last week, I was kindly invited to visit Lance at his family’s home at Royal Terrace, to see for myself.

TL:DR;

It’s fast. Almost inconceivably fast. I had to keep reminding myself this was a real person’s house, in Guernsey, not some kind of demo ‘show house’ in some high-tech city. Lance and his family are getting a solid 1Gb/s download and 100Mb/s upload, all the time. No ‘up to’ caveats, this is a dedicated fibre line just for their home with none of the distance / interference issues you get with copper. And it’s worth remembering that these rates aren’t even the physical maximum for fibre.

What it means in practice

To start with, here’s a picture of all of Lance and his wife’s mobile devices, plus an internet radio streamer, all streaming the best quality media they can at once:

IMG_0803

This was pretty cool to watch, but what you can’t see is that out of shot 2 large TV’s in the house are also streaming full HD content at the same time, and we’re also still surfing the web and downloading/uploading large files (fast) without really noticing anything’s going on. There’s no buffering; Netflix takes a few seconds to realise the bandwidth is way more than it would ever need, and before it upgrades House of Cards to the full resolution it’s capable of (which looks amazing).

Now, clearly in this instance there are more devices than people to watch them, so this is somewhat engineered. But what it means is that Lance & family can stop thinking about internet speed, and just get on with whatever they want. Maybe 1Gb/s is still a little overkill for most people right now, but so was 512Kb/s when ADSL first came out. People change their habits and quickly take the headroom for granted. People stream data more, they back up to the cloud instead of to removable drives, they keep more and more personal video data and share it/back it up online. Maybe they work from home more often, and perhaps most companies don’t need a dedicated disaster recovery site any more, because working from home is just as fast in an emergency. There are lots of work & lifestyle changes that this sort of speed makes possible.

The bottleneck is no longer the internet, it’s your devices & wifi

It’s interesting that once you have extremely fast internet, you start to see the limitations of the rest of the infrastructure. The only thing that started slowing down the multi-device tests we did at Lance’s house was the WiFi, which became saturated long before the internet pipe did. Many modern houses have structured cabling (I’ve recently installed a bunch while renovating my own house), and Lance’s has this too – the TV in the bedroom was wired and once we had the WiFi saturated it happily streamed more data that way. So what’s likely to happen as more people get access to fibre is that they’ll realise they might need to upgrade their WiFi routers and maybe even think about cabling – or simply use a smaller plan (likely plan levels will be 50/100/1000 download).

Also, getting to see the full 1Gb/s speed on a single device is quite hard, because only a few devices are capable of using all of it at once. You need a really fast, wired connection and a fast drive to get SpeedTest.net to report the full ~1Gb/s download – we managed it with an SSD MacBook Pro with wired ethernet, but it’s one of the few devices to manage it alone.

In practice though, homes are increasingly full of internet connected devices, each one taking a slice out of the bandwidth, so the real practical improvements most people will see are about each device having a much more reliable slice of the pie. People like me have home offices and servers which we’ll connect to ethernet cables and thus be able to leverage the full 1Gb/s when we want, but most people would probably be very happy seeing a consistent 2-300Mb/s on each device regardless of what anything else is doing.

The setup

So let’s talk hardware details for all the geeks like me out there. It all looks pretty unassuming, actually – far from consisting of a giant Tron-like futuristic edifice, inside a cupboard in the kitchen, there’s one of these:

Fibre ONTThat yellow wire is a fibre optic cable, and it’s 90% plastic housing & reinforcement, the actual glass fibre that does all the work is about the thickness of a human hair. The box it plugs into in the house is called the Optical Network Terminal (ONT) which turns electrical signals into laser light and vice versa. This little cream-coloured box might look a bit dull, but it’s not. It’s cool, because everything’s cooler with lasers.

In turn the ONT has to be plugged into a router capable of supporting a gigabit over its WAN port. Right now JT provides these Tilgin routers but I guess there will be no reason you couldn’t replace it with one of your choice if you wanted.

And that’s kind of it.  As a wise philosopher once said: “She might not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid”. 😉

At the other end

So where does that yellow cable go? When this system is rolled out further, it will lead to a fibre router in JT’s datacenter in First Tower Lane, Guernsey. Right now the other end of the cable for the handful of trial users is actually across the water in Jersey – since they’re ahead of us in fibre rollout it was simpler to do that for the first few. But, JT gave me a tour of First Tower Lane and they have the equipment there ready to go for the next phase, so that soon this one in Guernsey:

IMG_0806…will look more like this one in Jersey:

image001With each one of those little yellow cables delivering 1Gb/s to homes. Personally what I’d like to see is the racks in Guernsey get filled up, and more racks added. I can dream.

What’s happening next

The next phase will involve a couple more larger test sites with more homes at sensible test points along the fibre network – clos and multi-residencies are good tests in terms of bang-for-buck. Beyond that, we’ll just have to see. At all stages this is very much a test of the market, but we’re all hoping it’s going to pan out from a practical, commercial and customer demand stand point.

I’m going to carry on being a bit of a cheerleader for this, because as you know I believe strongly that starting to roll out fibre to everyone is the only realistic option for Guernsey not to get left badly behind in the world in the next decade or two. To be clear, I have no commercial association with JT, and indeed right now my internet and mobile are with Sure :) Similarly JT don’t tell me what to write, or edit / vet my comments here or on Twitter. But I’m supporting them in this because they’re willing to try to push the boundaries out in ways that I wholeheartedly agree with. My hope is that eventually Sure will realise they have to start providing fibre options too, so that we can have a competitive marketplace on this, but so far they’ve stonewalled on that, claiming VDSL is fast enough for everyone (my response: see Bill Gates’ 1981 quote on 640K 😉 ). As it is, Sure have been unable to even deliver VDSL to me at either of the houses I’ve called home in recent times, neither of which is exactly ‘out in the sticks’ (south St Peter Port & Cobo village), so it’s very much an empty claim to me. Until they change their minds, I’m helping JT as much as I can under the grand principle of mutual self-interest.

There could be very exciting times coming. Fingers crossed. In the mean time, we can all be jealous of Lance and the handful of others who are living in the future right now. With luck, more of us can join them soon :)

Business Personal

Timing

Warning: this post contains images of me over the years. I take no responsibility for the damage this may cause to your retina and/or mental state.

Time’s a funny thing; it just keeps on passing. There it went just now. And again. And here I am, burning your actual time postulating about how time passes. And again, with that apology. Sorry. I should stop now.

Another thing is that we have this impression that there’s a “right time” for things. Sometimes there is. Most of the time, the right time is just whenever you actually do it – that’s mostly how I view things. JFDI and there it is, it’s the perfect time.

But the concept of timing has struck me recently as I’ve watched my local community and the world suddenly ‘discover’ the idea that maybe tech, creativity and startups are things we should be doing more of. It’s all the rage right now, with talk of co-working hubs and building a community of like minded individuals. This is unquestionably a great thing and I intend to help out where I can. But there’s a little bitter voice at the back of my head, even while I enthuse with others about the possibilities, that keeps saying:

“Where the hell were you guys 10-20 years ago?”

20+ years ago

Coding in DOS in 1993

Me coding in 1993

I always knew I had an itch to write code and make stuff happen. After tinkering with things while at school I finally taught myself C aged 16 in 1989 from a book, and started to get a bit more serious about it.  But the thing is, I had no idea that was something I’d ever be able to make a living out of. Everyone I knew said you just had to get a job in finance related subjects, and I tried accountancy until it bored the tits off me. I had no Internet access, and no real contact with anyone doing what I was trying to do until I bought a modem in 1993 and started connecting to BBS’s, including a local one called Black Ice run by Damien Guard, who would become one of the few local people I knew who wanted to push the boundaries a bit and hence a fast friend in a sea of an otherwise boring environment. We’d scheme and plan and write code but really we had no idea what we were doing, and had basically no-one to advise us. We just had to make it up, fail, try again, over and over. At the time, I tried to get jobs in game dev off the island, but no-one would give me the time of day without a CS degree. Both Damien & I had dropped out of school, taught ourselves & then aced part-time CS degrees later to prove to idiot HR depts we were worth talking to, then never really used the degrees again. Lets just say this early experience naturally led to a lack of faith in authority & conventional structures 😉

There were pros and cons to this style of early development. On the one hand, if I’d had someone showing me what was possible, and an Internet to learn from, I’m sure development in those early years would have been faster. But on the other hand, I’m sure having had to do this mostly alone built a certain level of character, independence and pure stubbornness that has been useful.

~10 years ago

2006: My Independence Day

2006: My Independence Day

11 years ago in 2004 I set up my first company, through which I started to work part-time for people around the world using my project at the time, Ogre3D. My partners were a mixture of British and American, and I mostly worked for American and Canadian companies. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and all attempts to access advice locally met with blank stares and “well if you were making a finance company, or trading locally…”. Useless. I just took the plunge anyway, hired lawyers in foreign countries where necessary, bricked myself a lot, and somehow, it all worked out. By 2006 there was enough demand for my ‘part time’ work that I was killing myself so I had to choose – and I chose to quit my day job and run my company full time. I started to experiment with different business models and eventually made the transition away from contracting to making my own products, which is where my passion really lies.

It’s probably this period I feel most bitter about – the local business assistance was really poor around the time I needed it most, in those early days, and the very strong impression I got was “Why aren’t you doing something from this small list of ‘Team Guernsey’ things? We’re not really interested in anything else”.

Now of course, tech is fashionable and I’m asked to pitch in & help. Which I’ll absolutely do for the benefit of the new people coming through today. But I can’t help but roll my eyes at the kind of people who were around back then, and who are now having a sudden epiphany like some born-again tech evangelists, and who want me to help them out.

Today

The grey does not lie

The grey does not lie

Today, I have all the opportunities I wished I’d had 10-20 years ago, but mostly I’ve moved beyond wanting them. :) Today, all I want to do is work on my own ideas & passions, make the products I want to make, and be able to do that without being beholden to investors or bosses. 10 or 20 years ago if you’d offered me any job at somewhere like Google or Apple, working on anything, I would have snapped it up. 10 years ago if you’d offered to invest in my startup, I would have probably taken it.

Today, I just really like making things that I find useful, the way I want, undistracted by investors, bosses or anyone else. I like doing it in my quiet home office, provided with coffee from my own setup, with a cat by my side. It’s somewhere I can get up, walk about, wave my arms and talk to myself (or the cat) and that’s totally OK. I don’t mind too much how big anything I make gets, or whether it makes a ton of money, so long as it’s useful, I like it, and I can afford to keep doing it.

So yeah, my timing has been totally off if you consider that the tech-friendly environment today would have been perfect for me 10-20 years ago.

But then again, right now I’m pretty much exactly where I want to be. So maybe it’s been perfect timing all along.

Just like always.

Development Personal

[self.sourceTree exit];

Four and a half years ago, I decided to write a Mac tool for Git and Mercurial, which I’d eventually name SourceTree (aside: names are hard, and I was quite pleased with this one). I wasn’t happy with the Mac apps that were out there at the time and thought I could write something that fit my needs better, and by extension the needs of other developers who felt like I did. I’d never written a Mac-specific app before, and I thought it would be fun to learn how. I also knew that the Mac was a platform where independent app developers could make a living on ‘premium’ apps, so it made business sense. I could see the beginnings of the trend away from Subversion to git/hg and felt there would be an expanding market for such a tool. So, I took a punt.

With a little apprehension I quit all my contracting gigs, bought a couple of books on Objective-C and Cocoa and got my head down, trying to ignore the dwindling bank balance as the months passed. The words JFDI, Lean Startup, Customer Development all rang in my ears. 6 months later, and almost exactly 4 years ago today, I announced the launch of SourceTree version 1.0 on this blog. It was a slow start, but I was prepared for that, and in many ways it was a boon because it gave me time to refine the product with a small but growing gang of early adopters. I took a little more contracting work on the side for a few months to stabilise my finances while I iterated, but only 5 months after that initial release, SourceTree passed an inflection point and adoption started climbing – it was in profit and growing at a good speed. Around this time Atlassian approached me about an acquisition; at the time I was happy to just have a profitable product that meant I could afford to work on what I wanted, but they were convinced that together we could take this product to a whole other level. I eventually decided to accept, and boy, were they right.

The blur of the following 3 years included: porting SourceTree to Windows; hiring fellow Guernsey developer Kieran Senior whom I mentored with all the subtlety of the Eye of Sauron; morphing into a team spread across Guernsey/Amsterdam/San Francisco/Sydney with a real designer, support and marketing folks, and above all, watching a ton more people start to use SourceTree. More than I could ever have imagined. When I stepped down from Ogre I wondered whether I’d ever build anything that popular again, but it turns out the answer was yes, and then some. It’s been a pleasure, and my thanks to everyone who helped make this possible.

However, as much as I love SourceTree and have enjoyed this amazing journey, it’s time for me to seek a new challenge. Four and a half years is a long time to work on one product, and there are so many other problems I’d like to solve. We hired Mike Minns earlier this year to lead the team, he’s a seasoned lead developer located in Sydney (and ironically an ex-pat – we don’t deliberately recruit everyone from the British Isles, honest!), and together with Kieran will be responsible for all future SourceTree development, while I bow out and take a merely advisory role when needed – which will likely comprise of ‘Steve, what the f*** is this code??’ ;).

I’m starting work on one of the (many) projects I shelved a while ago – unsurprisingly it’s one of those problem areas that bugs me personally (what else?) and I’m pretty certain that other people will see the merit in addressing it the way I have in mind too. Hopefully :) I’m still with Atlassian, because they’ve been great about giving me freedom and this particular project very much suits doing within this environment. I’ll talk more about this when the time is right of course. *tease*

I’m posting about this on my blog because a number of people know me personally as the go-to guy for SourceTree, and sometimes short-circuit the official reporting channels for feature requests and bugs on Twitter and email. This was fine, I always like to connect personally with people using my products, but obviously in the future this won’t work any more. Thanks for all the feedback and support over the over the last 4 years, I’m so lucky to have managed to make another tool that developers really connected with. SourceTree will continue without me and I’m sure we’ll see great things from the team in future. Now I’m off to see if I can do something else useful :)

Local Personal Political

Why fibre, and why now?

This is part of a series of arguments I’m making for Guernsey to take the plunge and invest in all-island fibre broadband. I’m currently working with JT on their market test of small extensions to their existing fibre network to evaluate the viability of connecting some people to fibre with only private sector funds, but ultimately I’d like to see our government following examples elsewhere and investing in public/private fibre infrastructure across the whole island. My previous articles on this can be found here: Guernsey broadband should aim to lead, Guernsey’s digital strategy update: my viewDiscussing fibre to the home with JT.

In this article I’m going to discuss why we should be looking at fibre at all, and why we should be doing it sooner rather than later.

Why Fibre?

It costs a lot of money to install a new landline to everyone’s homes, and causes a fair amount of disruption while you’re doing it. There are options that can sometimes reduce this such as micro trenching and using existing pipes (shared ducting, sewers, even water pipes), but it’s never going to be cheap or easy. So why would you do it?

Firstly, in 10 years we’re going to need considerably faster internet speeds available to the general public than we have today. This is simply basic math – broadband was introduced in Guernsey around 2001, at which point we had download speeds of 512Kb/s. Shortly before that we were operating on 56Kb/s dial-up. Today, 5Mb/s – what I’m currently getting at Cobo – is considered a pretty crappy internet speed (it’ll just about work for Netflix but it’s not fun). So in not much more than 10 years, expected Internet speeds have increased by at least 100x. There is little reason to believe that that trend will not continue as devices get ever more powerful and expectations climb ever higher. So what technology can deliver a 100x improvement in speed in the next 10-15 years? There is only one – fibre.

Why not ‘fast’ copper?

What about VDSL and future technology that makes better use of the existing copper network? Truth is that the faster these get, the worse the degradation due to distance, meaning you have to install more and more cabinets to be within the required distance of a property. Each of these cabinets needs equipment in it to convert from the fibre backbone to copper. If this was an easy fix, in a tiny island like Guernsey we’d all have good VDSL access by now, but we don’t. South St Peter Port is a black spot, as is a large chunk of the west coast – I’m sure there are more, but these are the 2 I’ve had personal experience of. And even if the cabinet rollout had reached everyone, the average practical 20-25Mbs download / 5Mbps upload you can expect from it is only adequate today. It’s not going to  cut it in 5 years, never mind 10-15. Those copper lines are just not good enough.

Why not wireless (4G+)?

Why not just use modern wireless tech like 4G and beyond and forget the physical network? Mostly because wireless just can’t keep up with a fibre connection. As impressive as 4G is compared to 3G, practical speeds are usually about 1/3rd of the maximum advertised because of interference and distance, and contention is an issue because ultimately you’re sharing a tower with lots of people. If you started to connect people to 4G in their homes as well as their mobiles, it would work well for a while, but eventually it’s just not going to be able to keep up with the demand – there are a finite number of towers (and planning / people are against building more of them in general) and while the network can cope with fast access to mobile phones, can it really cope at 8pm on a Saturday evening when a ton of people are streaming HD movies to their homes all at once? I don’t think so. Each wireless generation gets better, but they’re all limited by this issue – I think if you double-down on mobile as your primary network you’re just going to find yourself back in the same position again a few years down the track, with people complaining that their connections  just can’t keep up with expectations (as even sleepy Cornwall has 95% fibre coverage).

What’s so great about fibre?

Scalability. Once it’s in the road, it’s going to serve you for at least 20 years, and probably far longer. Even with today’s technology it’s capable of a symmetric 1Gb/s (upload and download) – the only thing limiting that right now is data costs, not the tech itself. But more than that, we haven’t even hit the limits of what you can do by shining lasers down glass fibre yet; as tech changes you can put different equipment on either end of those connections and get more out of it. You might not think we need that, but then many people didn’t think they needed broadband over dial-up until they had it, and history is littered with people making predictions about future tech requirements being modest and getting it spectacularly wrong. Fibre is truly an investment in the future: it’s better than anything else can offer right now, and doesn’t hit the same brick walls in the future that the alternatives do. Everything else is a short-term band aid, IMHO.

Why do it now and not later?

So assuming we accept that fibre is better than the alternatives, why should we do it now? Couldn’t we just use the cheaper alternatives for a few more years instead, since they’re likely to be at least adequate for a little while?

Sure, the alternatives (VDSL if actually finished, 4G) will be adequate for a little while, max 5 years realistically. You could put off fibre investment for that time and, although we wouldn’t be competitive with other places – even a similar island only a few miles away – we’d manage. Nothing to write home about, but OK I guess.

But what have you actually saved by kicking the can down the road? Maybe you think fibre will get cheaper in the future? Unlikely – the majority of the cost of fibre installation is in the cost of installing it in the roads, not the equipment. It’ll maybe get very slightly cheaper because of that equipment change but it’s a minority of the cost and the labour costs will increase with inflation so honestly, you’re unlikely to tell much difference. Or maybe you think wireless tech will keep getting better so you’ll never have to bother? It will, but you’ll never eliminate the physical interference & tower contention constraints of wireless so you’ll always be second-best compared to jurisdictions that invested properly in their infrastructure. And forget copper improvements – copper is done.

Realistically all that delaying fibre upgrades does is save the current government from having to be the one to decide to make the investment. It’s going to have to be made some time, if you intend Guernsey not to eventually become a digital backwater, the only question is when. The cost & inconvenience is likely to be roughly the same whether it’s now or later, the only question is how far you let others get ahead and how many short-term fixes you try before you eventually admit you have to do it properly.

Personally, I think delay has more downsides than upsides, but I’m not a politician.

Internet Local Personal

Discussing fibre to the home with JT

95341973_internet-630pxx0Those of you who follow my blog know that I have a keen interest in the provision of high speed broadband in Guernsey, including to homes. If not, you can catch up with my reasoning in this post a year ago, and this one a few days ago.

The main issue right now for home broadband in Guernsey is that Sure controls the main fixed line network, and they are currently committed to a strategy of VDSL (fibre to the cabinet, copper to the home), which can provide a pretty decent, if not particularly future proof, service except for the fact that the rollout of new cabinets has been slow enough that there are still quite a few gaps where line distances make VDSL impractical; including both of the addresses I’ve lived in 2014. Sure doesn’t provide a map (as far as I know) of where the upgraded cabinets are, or where new ones are planned; all I’ve been able to determine is that friends in rural St Peters are doing a lot better than people in many areas of our main town, St Peter Port, perversely.

You may already be aware that in Jersey, they have a strategy to install fibre to all homes and businesses, and a number of people I know have been connected now. Not without issues, certainly, but they’re gradually being resolved and the direction of travel is clear. JT is doing this, and is able to do so because of a combination of government funding for the plan, and some long-term investment of their own. We simply have nothing of that kind here yet in Guernsey, and as far as public information goes, we don’t know if we ever will.

JT is rolling out fibre in Guernsey, but it’s been as part of a contract to supply States buildings and schools; they’ve published a rough map where you can see it’s focussed around the east coast with ‘fingers’ into specific locations elsewhere. I knew about this, because one of these cables runs up the road beyond the bottom of my garden, but I didn’t think there was any prospect of gaining access to it for the home. However, after Charles Parkinson suggested there might be a possibility on Twitter, I fired an email off to a generic JT email, asking about the possibility in future, because I’m renovating my house right now and could put some ducting in while I was at it. It felt like a moon shot, I really didn’t expect anything more back than a vague ‘Yeah, we hope to do this in the future if the stars align’, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

Imagine my surprise when, not only did I get a fast response indicating that they’d like to talk to me about it in more detail, but that it was from a former boss of mine, Nick Marquis, who is now the Programme Manager for JT’s fibre rollout. I worked for Nick well over 10 years ago now, and I have huge respect for his technical abilities, general tenacity and no-bullshit attitude. I knew he worked for JT now but I didn’t know in what capacity and we hadn’t spoken in a while, so this came as a complete surprise. I remember grinning widely, getting a little over-excited and phoning him immediately even though he’d already said it was his day off, and to his credit he didn’t yell at me 😉 But I was suddenly a lot more optimistic.

So today I met for coffee with Nick and his colleague Caleb Zunino, who has been through the whole engineering, network support and now product management / business dev path at GT and Cable & Wireless before JT. I already knew where I stood with Nick, and I was glad to find that I got on with Caleb well too and we had a lot of compatible views.

It turns out that JT have already been thinking about how they can start to offer fibre packages to businesses and homes, and they’re in the process of identifying locations to test this idea out. Because there isn’t the kind of blanket investment available as in Jersey (and they’re also not the incumbent with lots of existing infrastructure), this would be limited to areas that are already near to the fibre network they’ve laid for States buildings and schools, and the main issue, as always, is how to cover the cost of extending that to premises. They have a bunch of ideas on that, and will be testing some of them – one of those is the No. 1 St Julians Avenue building for example, but they also want to test situations like a clos (a private estate for non-Guerns).

To my surprise they’d already costed up 3 illustrations for my own house; the cheapest & easiest being to come directly over my back garden to my house. As great as that might be for me, and as much as it bypasses most of the trickier hurdles, we all felt that was too selfish and above all it just wasn’t ambitious enough. They also had costings for extending the network to various parts of my area, which would obviously require that I convinced enough of my neighbours to sign up for it to have any chance of being viable. To be honest, the numbers weren’t as high as I thought they might be and there are definitely benefits of scale. It’s important to realise this is all very theoretical at this point – many things remain to be ironed out such as what kind of packages would be required to justify it commercially, how many people would sign up, what kind of bandwidth charging would be needed, whether permission to dig up the roads would be forthcoming, and so on. It could all fall apart and not work. But I got the real sense that JT wants to experiment with this, which I found quite refreshing. They’re willing to try, even if it falls on its face, and I respect that a lot – it’s how I work after all :)

Now of course, my preference (indeed everyone around the table’s preference) would be for the whole island to have fibre access, just as is planned in Jersey. To that end I’ll keep lobbying government about funding for infrastructure in the hope that eventually something will happen. But I find it encouraging that JT isn’t just waiting around for the next strategy update, but is willing to try some things out proactively in the mean time. Perhaps if we can prove the concept that fibre broadband to the home is viable and a useful addition to people’s lives, then it will help provide the impetus to move as much of Guernsey into something resembling the future as possible.

So over the next few months I’ll be having more detailed discussions with JT about this and working with them on their ideas. They’ve asked me to give them honest feedback about the proposals and ideas they have, and have said up front that they’re totally happy for me to blog & tweet about it, both the good and the bad. They know I’m not the kind of guy who likes secret arrangements, nor am I someone who would toe some agreed marketing line in public, so that wasn’t even on the table. We’re talking about an open, honest discussion about what may or may not fly, and seeing where it takes us. It helps a great deal that I’ve worked with Nick before and trust his judgement & integrity, and I get the feeling I’m going to get on well with Caleb too.

Who knows what might happen in the next 12 months on infrastructure – no-one really knows where Commerce & Employment will end up going with that element of the digital strategy – but after so long of just being told to wait while secret discussions happen, and zero news from Sure about where even new MSANs might appear in the next couple of years (while being depressingly aware that even full VDSL coverage will leave us behind others in a fairly short amount of time), it’ll be refreshing to be involved in something tangible, open, and a little more forward-thinking. But remember, this is only currently about proving the concept on a small scale, and may not work at all; don’t rush out and ask JT when your fibre will be available, OK? Baby steps. But maybe, just maybe, this could be the start of something interesting.

Internet Local Personal Political

Guernsey’s digital strategy update: my view

Aside: I’ve decided in future to share my thoughts on local issues primarily through my blog rather than doing media interviews, for a number of reasons. I’m better at writing than I am at speaking, and I’m not as comfortable with the reactive, off-the-cuff and time-limited style that I’m forced to adopt when doing interviews. Sharing here on my blog I get to say what I want to say, at my own speed and in the way I intended, without someone else driving the direction of the discussion or editing my responses. This is how I’m going to do things in future; it’s not because I think the media has misrepresented me (they haven’t) or that I don’t want to deal with them (I do, they’re nice people), but because I think the limitations of air time and column inches don’t suit what I want to say most of the time.

In last week’s episode…

Last week I was invited to do a radio interview on BBC Radio Guernsey to discuss my view that Guernsey is falling behind Jersey when it comes to progress on digital strategies. My points were basically these:

  1. We all appreciate the efforts of Deputy Kevin Stewart, Minister of Commerce and Employment. He genuinely seems to understand where we need to go in future and we’re glad he’s promoting that in government.
  2. Jersey have had a long road to where they are now too, and it certainly hasn’t all been plain sailing, nor is everything perfect (connection issues and disappointing upload rates being issues I hear about a lot).
  3. Having said all that, over the last year Jersey has managed to get more people connected to fibre in their homes & businesses, and has opened the Digital Jersey Hub. These represent tangible progress which although not the end point is very encouraging for our sister isle.
  4. In contrast, here in Guernsey we’re still mostly just talking strategy, and we don’t hear a lot publicly about what sort of timescales we’re expecting to get started on action. Again, I tried to make clear in the interview that I don’t want to bash people like Kevin Stewart’s efforts because I appreciate them, just that time is ticking along and we’re all eager to find out when we can expect concrete actions to start kicking in.

The twist

Now, as it turned out the day after I did that interview, Commerce & Employment released a 6-month update to the Economic Development Framework, which included the digital ‘work streams’. Had I known this was going to appear the day after I probably would have turned down the radio interview request until I’d seen it, but there we are. Kevin Stewart went on radio the day after me and said there was ‘no evidence’ that Guernsey was behind Jersey, although I would point to the above as being fairly obviously evidence. After all, which jurisdiction can I walk into a startup hub tomorrow, or get fibre to my house in at least some areas? He also said that 3 years ago an Oxford Economics report rated us either equal or slightly ahead of Jersey, but 3 years is a long time and Jersey is already started on the implementation phases in the mean time, so I think that view is outdated. Still, again I don’t want to bash Kevin here – I really do appreciate that there’s a ton of work to do and I’m glad he’s doing it – but I do think there’s a danger of trying to spin this too much such that it becomes an outright denial of reality.

So now that I’ve read the update that finally appeared on the gov.gg website, what do I think?

Well, there’s clearly good news and bad news here. To avoid further accusations of negativity, let’s do the good news first.

The Good News

  1. Digital Innovation Centre. Not just a startup hub & co-working space, but a training centre. This sounds good if it’s done well – it has a 2015 target and will apparently be before the States in more detail in the next month. I look forward to seeing the details and this could be a very good thing indeed. I look forward to getting involved, perhaps as a mentor in due course.
  2. Broadband sampling. Not in this report but apparently a third party who did research for Ofcom has been surveying local broadband with a view to making recommendations. I heard later that it covers only 20 properties though, so I hope that’s enough to get a reasonable view. Broadband in Guernsey varies wildly for such a small area, from full VDSL2 if you’re lucky to be close to an MSAN (and bizarrely my friends out in St Peters seem to be the best off here), to a poor ADSL2 service if you’re not (like South St Peter Port or Cobo, the 2 places I’ve lived this year). Nevertheless, I consider it a positive that real statistical data is being collected and it’s by an independent party from the telcos.
  3. It’s honest. It doesn’t deny that in terms of the infrastructure component of the digital work streams, things are behind and almost everyone is disappointed & frustrated with that. This might sound like a bad thing – well, the situation itself is but the admission of it I take as a positive. I get concerned sometimes that at least in the public domain there’s a spin from both government and the telecom’s companies that “Everything’s fine, we’re doing great!”, and I treat that as hugely damaging. In some ways I don’t mind if we’re behind in infrastructure, so long as we admit it and therefore realise the necessity of getting our arses in gear. I hear the marketing blurb far too often from Sure et al of all the great stuff they’re doing, and yet what I actually see on the ground is a pretty terrible broadband service for 2014 in both places I’ve lived this year (both populous areas not the sticks), and when asking Sure’s planning department they tell me that no new MSANs are due for installation in either region within the next 18 months. That’s just depressing. Sorry, that became a little negative there and that’s not allowed in the Good News section. 😉 What I’m saying is that admission that we need to do better on infrastructure is good news compared to the outright denial that anything’s wrong that I see far too often. So, +1 points for that even on a lagging item.

The Bad News

  1. We’re still just talking strategy. Whilst I accept this is absolutely necessary, especially since public funds will be involved, other jurisdictions are already moving, including the one only a few miles to our south east. Everyone realises that it seems, but it doesn’t change the fact that none of us will be happy until we’re actually acting & hitting some tangible milestones. What I’d like is for people not to take this comment as negativity, but of encouragement that we’re behind getting on with this thing.
  2. Infrastructure is lagging. As I think most of us already realised, CICRA hasn’t delivered on the broadband review yet and in general this work stream is lagging & frustrating most of us. As mentioned above though, at least the update admits that & knows it’s not good enough. To be where we are and not have the data we need to even form the strategy, never mind pin dates on it and get started, is not great.
  3. Some people still don’t get it. What’s arguably more worrying is some of the reaction afterwards, for example Deputy Matt Fallaize, who commented in relation to home broadband speeds in the Guernsey Press that “I would not like to spend public money so people can play games”. I’m guessing his view is that all we have to do is get good connectivity to offices and schools and that everyone at home is just wasting time on Call Of Duty and watching Netflix so that has no value to justify spending public money. In this way, he completely misses the point of a digital economy. [edit] I’ve since had an extended email discussion with Matt, and the Press really didn’t do him justice with this soundbite. His views are considerably more nuanced than this, he’s been receptive to the points I’ve made, and while he has concerns over the spending of public money, he is willing to listen.[/edit]

What’s the big deal about infrastructure?

I still hear from some people that investing in domestic internet infrastructure is a waste of time & money, and that all we have to do is connect the main businesses, tech hubs and the schools, and people’s homes should be an afterthought.

But here’s the thing. If you’re investing in digital, the assumption is that you want to promote its use for the good of the economy. That means a number of things:

  1. Existing businesses should be able to utilise good connectivity to keep up with the evolving business landscape, which is to say increasing reliance and exploitation of technology. Not to do this is to be left behind regardless of what industry you’re in.
  2. Schools should be able to consume and publish information quickly and efficiently in order to keep up with 21st-century demands.
  3. New startup businesses should be encouraged, and a lot of those will either be in the digital sphere or rely heavily on it to disrupt less agile incumbents. Digital allows a far easier route to exporting than before where geographical constraints on a small jurisdiction put it at a disadvantage.
  4. Flexible working practices enabled by technology should allow the workforce in general to be more efficient, to work across borders, but also allow people previously excluded from being economically active due to things like care of children/family, disability etc to fit work around their lives.

The idea that only business hubs and schools need good connections only deals with half the points on this list. Startups don’t usually start in big glass office buildings, and very few of them get their beginnings even in a startup hub (although that can help them scale). The majority of startups begin in home offices, or a few people over coffee playing with some ideas and they collaborating from various locations including their homes. Apple started in a garage. Facebook started in a dorm room. My entire startup journey began at a desk in my house; I ran it from there when I had 10 users, and I still run it from there now I have hundreds of thousands. And this is how new things happen in the 21st century folks; not in board rooms or cubicle farms, but in your house.

EDIT: Diversification is often talked about. That will come about one of two ways; from existing local people switching to new industries, perhaps starting as freelancers (as I did in the 3D industry) and growing organically, or from larger external investments where people come in from outside to jump-start something. The former generally starts at home just like startups, and may even continue from there indefinitely. Projects in the digital economy increasingly collect together people from wherever they are in the world and build a functioning team from that; my own team is spread across Guernsey, San Francisco, Sydney and Portland. This is not unusual today, and we rely on our home connections to work. As for diversifying through external investment, do you really think people in digital businesses will want to come & work in Guernsey if they know their home connection is going to suck? When they can look at other jurisdictions where fibre is almost universal?

And what about kids? Sure they learn a lot at school and they need good connectivity there, but where are the hobbies and passions that end up becoming their vocation later cultivated? Partly at school, but equally if not more so at home. Kids teaching themselves programming, 3D modelling, digital art or music sequencing – they’ll be doing most of that from home. They’ll want to watch videos, experiment, collaborate with others, and develop their skills from home. These are the future geniuses that industries are built on, and you’re telling me they don’t need good internet connectivity in their house to do that? Rubbish.

The fact is neither you nor I know where the next innovations will come from. It could be from that house across the street, or it could be from your kids bedroom upstairs. You don’t know, and neither does the government. What I do know is that by not providing good connectivity to everyone, you’re lessening the chance that something like that will crop up, or you’ll at least slow it down. This is why I make such a big deal about universal access to good broadband in Guernsey; because I want anyone out there to be able to succeed, and poor broadband holds people back.

Sure, I want good broadband too, so there’s some self-interest here, but arguably I’ve already made it. I’m middle-aged, I’ve already made a bit of a name on the Internet, have had enough success to live okay, and have done it through a time where the range of poor to good broadband was more of an irritation than anything. But things are accelerating, expectations are rising and to be left behind in the next 20 years as the world economy becomes increasingly virtual will be a lot more serious than it was in the last 20. We have to keep up.

The Mindset

Complacency is a terrible thing. Guernsey has had it pretty easy over the last 30 years and people could be forgiven for thinking that things will just sort themselves out in time, and maybe for patting themselves on the back for a job well done in the past. But that’s not going to help at all in the future; the moment you think you’re ahead and you can relax is the time you get lazy & get beaned by the guy racing up from the rear. Now for whatever reason I’m the kind of guy who is never satisfied – with myself, with my work or anything else. I’m always hyper-aware that there are a ton of things I could be doing better, and I’m always trying to improve. I’m not really put off by failure, because I consider it an inevitable stepping stone to figuring out what works; I’m also not put off by criticism, because that’s information you can use to improve (even if it’s to learn which opinions to ignore ;)).

For a long time I assumed that everyone thought like this, but recently I’ve realised that this is a specific mindset, some people refer to it as a ‘growth mindset’. I beat myself up a lot about stuff that could be better, and I’m equally critical about other things I think could be better. That sometimes rubs people up the wrong way, and I realise now that it’s because not everyone is happy with that mindset, that they’d rather be talking about past successes and enjoying that positivity, rather than being pushed forward and getting down to the brass tacks of being honest about what sucks and what we do about it. I try to be a little more tactful these days, but under the hood I’m still that crotchety bastard who just wants everything to be better. It’s for the best of reasons, honest, even if I piss you off. 😉

Summary

So, I’m going to keep talking about this until it’s sorted. I know I’ll probably annoy well-intentioned people in government who are trying their best to progress things but are meeting resistance – whether from telcos, penny-pichers with no vision and from procedural requirements in general – and I’m genuinely sorry if that’s the case, but it won’t stop me talking about it, because it’s important. My hope is that my commentary on this can be taken as strong support for those pushing through these barriers, and not accepting excuses.

Business Personal

I believe in the cumulative power of small steps

I’m now sometimes referred to as an ‘entrepreneur’, and occasionally I spend a little of my time trying to figure out what that actually means. I realise that a lot of the time, how other people perceive it is quite different to how I see myself. Much of the talk around entrepreneurship is about blue-sky thinking, of aiming for the moon shot, of being the big-talking guy who is always selling his next grand vision of the future. I have opinions, sure, and I don’t mind sharing them and sometimes they get me into trouble. But that big talker with grand visions is not me.

I’m like a snowball, or a stalagtite. I’m like that underground stream that’s been carved out slowly out of sight underground. Little by little, without anyone really noticing for a long time, I’ve built things in small steps, one after the other. One day that suddenly got noticed by a few more people than I was used to. I owe everything I have now to a series of tiny steps over the last 20 plus years, just by deciding to keep walking the path. The thing is, you don’t even have to know exactly where you’re going, just so long as you keep walking. A wise man once said: “There’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path”, and he knew what he was talking about ;). Tiny steps are inherently powerful once accumulated.

This concept permeates everything that I do. I build software, and that’s naturally built up patiently in small incremental steps. When I build stuff I do it not by imagining a grand sprawling vision that will dwarf all others; I start with a small, manageable picture in my head of something that solves a genuine problem – usually one that’s annoying me – and  I put one block on top of another until I have something that I like the look of.  Then I show other people, take bits off, put them back, add new bits where they make sense. And I keep doing this, over and over and over until what I end up with is something far bigger than I originally envisaged, but which was shaped by my evolving understanding of the problem, and the feedback from people who encountered it. And sometimes, just sometimes, it becomes a big deal during that process – but if it doesn’t, you keep walking the path anyway to the next way station.

A lot of people don’t see how this can work. We’re sometimes sold on an impression that to be an entrepreneur or to evoke change in any way at all you need to have a grand vision & strategy, usually with large amounts of money sloshing around to fund it. But being big and beholden to people who’ve funded you comes with a whole host of its own problems, and there’s a lot to be said for being a scrappy, hungry startup with little money, just finding a way through via inventive thinking and experimentation. Worse is when I see people look at small incremental actions and think “that’s not making a difference”, “that’s not good enough, only the big steps make a dent”, as if giant leaps from A to B are all that’s worthy of spending time on. Sometimes this leads to people seeking money from others to accelerate things when that’s really just going to make them miserable. In reality the vast majority of things that are perceived as giant leaps were actually a very long sequence of small hops; that’s just skimmed over in the marketing brochure.

My message is this: value the small steps, embrace the journey. If progress looks small by day, trust me that when you zoom out you’ll be surprised at how far you came – but that only works if you keep on walking. Don’t devalue apparently mundane, everyday progress because that’s what giant leaps are actually made of, if you look a little closer. You don’t need a special rocket ship, all you need is the passion and determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other and to keep your wits about you. It might sound too simple to be true, but it works for a surprising number of people.

There was a great quote I saw on Twitter recently:

It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop.

Personal

Imagination is an asset

Remember when you were a kid and pretty much everything was a spaceship? A cardboard box, an egg carton, a bottle of washing up liquid. There were spaceships everywhere in those days, you couldn’t go from the kitchen to your bedroom without tripping over three of the blighters. And to think NASA were paying top dollar for theirs, when the damn things were just lying around.

Then you grew up and the skill of being able to turn anything into a spaceship with a single thought suddenly lost a great deal of its currency as a marketable skill. In its place, perceived value was shifted to the skills of holding down a job you don’t like, saying ‘yes’ to idiot managers, and being able to borrow eye-watering amounts of money without having a nervous breakdown and running naked through the street with nothing but a Post-It to cover your modesty. But  you know what? That spaceship-making skill was always better.

Really, we should be proud of and fully indulge the human ability to make crazy sh*t up all the time, because we’re naturally great at it. Let’s be honest, all those traditional middle-class jobs where you sit pushing paper around in formulaic ways all day are going the way of the Dodo, replaced by machines who frankly are much more suited to that job than you ever were anyway. You’re inconsistent, have fleshy needs like eating and going to the bathroom, and despite years of training in the corporate machine you will still accidentally daydream about spaceships when you’re supposed to be doing something else instead. No, instead the future of the middle class is creativity – dreaming things up out of nowhere, making them happen, improvising – all those things that machines are terrible at. This is your trump card, people – creativity is the one thing that ‘they’ are unlikely to be able to source from a battery farm or make armies of electronic slaves do in the foreseeable future. Why wouldn’t you want to get in on that? Believe me, letting your imagination muscle atrophy because your parents told you you should get a safe white-collar job will turn out to be a false economy, and you’ll wish you’d spent more time playing video games and fantasising about whizzing around other planets in a badass jetpack.

Personally I read, play video games, enjoy movies, but one of the most important exercises for my imagination muscle is pen & paper roleplaying – this is where you get together with friends around a dining room table and basically make sh*t up as a group for a few hours. My friends and I are over 40 now, and we’ve been doing this for 25 years, yet it remains a uniquely amazing thing – somehow a bunch of people come together with nothing more than ideas, some dice and pencils, and using that create a rich world which only ever exists in their collective heads, and turn it into a kind of virtual epic serial. Right now, I’m running a campaign set in the modern day where my friends play members of a secret organisation which investigates ‘unusual’ events, kind of like the X-Files or Fringe. They’re currently in an undersea station trying to figure out why the inhabitants disappeared. I pulled the idea for this scenario out of my head one weekend and they’re enjoying figuring it out in our weekly play sessions, experiencing the story structure I created via characters pulled from their own imagination, from washed-up actors to on-the-run translators. Each week we effectively advance the story together – I know the environment and story constructs, but it can all change based on what the others decide to do – we’re all making it up on the fly.

I’ve no doubt some people think this is a weird thing for grownups to be doing in their spare time. And yet most people wouldn’t think twice about going to the cinema to watch the latest Hobbit or superhero movie, or to devour a box set of Fringe or Game of Thrones. There’s been a resurgence of interest in science fiction and fantasy in recent years, which can only be a good thing IMO. Pen & paper roleplaying can be considered much like a weekly TV series, if you imagine that one person is the writer, and the others play characters in the show – except there are no fixed scripts, just a concept, environment and story framework that the writer sets up, and which evolves dynamically based on the actions of everyone in the room. Sometimes, as the ‘writer’, it goes in a completely different direction to what you expected, and you have to pull things out of your ass which both deal with the unpredictable actions of the other players, and that somehow remains consistent with the overall story arc. Challenging though that is, that’s often when it’s most awesome. I strongly believe that this has taught me to improvise, think on my feet and generally be far more imaginative than I would otherwise have been, and I also believe those are very valuable skills today.

In a world that is moving towards automating mundane work, IMO your imagination is a more powerful asset than ever, so you should exercise and indulge it. Screw being a sensible adult, bring on the spaceships and dragons.