Are Smartphones Becoming Stale? The Rise of Wearable Technology

Many folks will say that smartphones are in their prime however, 2007, when Apple first introduced the iPhone that changed the smartphone world, seems like ages ago. Certainly, the battle to be the best in the smartphone industry is still going strong, but with new technologies like wearable electronics, the smartphone might be on its last legs as the “thing to have.”

It seems as if the innovation in the smartphone industry has nearly disappeared and with companies like Samsung and Apple fighting for basics like screen size and resolution, there really isn’t much left that excites consumers. Enter the wearable gear.

Samsung’s Galaxy Gear uses their Galaxy line of smartphones to interact with the user on an entirely different level. Samsung claims that it’s easier than ever to answer a hands-free phone call, take a quick snapshot, or even find your favorite local coffee shop – all without ever reaching for your phone.

Google has their own piece of wearable gear with Google Glass. Google says Glass helps integrate its technology into everyday life, switching the user’s focus back up to eye level, by removing the need to constantly look down at a hand-held phone.

Google Glass

Apple has plans to introduce their own wearable technology sometime this summer and I’m sure many others will follow suit.

android refrigeratorAndroid is also working its way into household appliances like refrigerators, coffee makers, dishwashers, and the latest breakthrough of having “Android in your Audi,” showing us that there are many areas of our lives that have yet to be infiltrated with technology, but I can guarantee you all of the major players in the industry will be trying to change that soon enough. Android Refrigerator Screen

I certainly consider myself an early adopter of new technology, mostly due to all of the testing I perform in my every day job here at Algonquin Studios. However, I can’t see myself being an early adopter to these new wearable technologies. I’ve never owned a watch, simply because I’m not comfortable wearing one, so I don’t see myself wearing a “Smart Watch” anytime soon.

samsung smart watch

And, while I know my wife would tell you I have too many tablets and smartphones lying around at any given time, I think I’ll also be hard-pressed to purchase an Android-powered refrigerator due to price point. This doesn’t, however, stop me from spending hours every day researching what’s next in the industry.

All of these new technologies might seem pretty silly now, but how many of us thought that having a small super computer in our back pockets would ever be a great idea? What do you think will be the next viral technology? I would love to hear everyone’s feedback!


Connecting Business Applications with Mobile Customers via Twilio’s SMS Service

In the constantly changing and ever-growing market of mobile technology, businesses face the challenge of finding methods to effectively communicate and connect with their target customers who are always on the move.

In this post, I’ll outline how you can integrate Twilio’s SMS service into a .NET web application in a few simple steps. We’ve recently integrated Twilio into a client’s web application as a means to communicate with employees after-hours, when employees have left for the day but a situation arises that needs further attention.

Before we get into the coding, let’s take a quick look at other methods that are used to send SMS messages from applications.

Email-to-SMS Gateway functionality has existed for a while and offers some of the same benefits, but with a few caveats.

  1. What if you don’t know the customer’s carrier? You need this in order to utilize it (for example, if your customer’s number is 555-777-8888 and is a Verizon customer, you can text them by sending an email to
  2. You cannot control who the message is sent from, for some carriers is the email address of the send, for some it’s the email address of the server
  3. You cannot control what number delivers the message, so the customer may not be able to respond back to the message

Twilio’s SMS service overcomes these hurdles in simplistic fashion. Twilio’s SMS service allows web applications to communicate with mobile customers with a few simple lines of code.

Let’s get started. First, you’ll need to add the Twilio service into your project by following these steps (note that this is for .NET 4.0 application). The installation process can be found here:

Once you’ve installed the service, you’re ready to add your SMS code.

In this case, our function is setup to receive a Phone Number that we are going to send a message and the Body of that message.

Public Sub SendSMS(ByVal receivePhoneNumber As String, ByVal messageBody As String)

Dim accountSID As String = ""
Dim authToken As String = ""
Dim objTwilio As Twilio.TwilioRestClient = Nothing
Dim objMessage As Twilio.Message = Nothing
Dim sendPhoneNumber As String = ""

When you sign up for your Twilio account, you’ll receive the following credentials within their application.
authToken = "111111"
accountSID = "222222"
sendPhoneNumber = "5553211212"

Instantiate your Twilio object
objTwilio = New TwilioRestClient(accountSID, authToken)

And send!
objMessage = twTwilio.SendMessage(sendPhoneNumber, receivePhoneNumber, messageBody, "")

End Sub

So now we’ve sent our message. It’s sent to the end user via a telephone number, just as if you were sending a text message from your phone. What if the end user wants to respond back? They can, with no additional effort on their end. The message will be sent back to the Twilio number, and Twilio will redirect the response to your web application.

Within the Twilio client, you can setup a Messaging URL, which will define where Twilio POSTs the response to (for example , Let’s setup that page.

When we setup receiveTwilioResponse.aspx, we’ll need to capture the Page Request and parse out the response message.

Protected Sub Page_Load(ByVal sender As Object, ByVal e As System.EventArgs) Handles Me.Load

Dim fromPhoneNumber As String = ""
Dim messageBody As String = ""

First, we’ll get the Phone Number of the end user who is responding back to us
If Not Request.Form("From") Is Nothing Then

fromPhoneNumber = Request.Form(“From”)

End If

Next, we’ll get the Message Body from the page request
If Not Request.Form("Body") Is Nothing Then

messageBody = Request.Form("Body")

End If

And that’s it! From here, we can handle this data how we see fit.
Call LogDataToDatabase(fromPhoneNumber,messageBody)

End Sub

This is simplified for example purposes. You will want to setup error handling and logging in conjunction with sending the message, and will need to clearly define the business logic of when and who to send messages to.

Learn more about the service here :

You Should Be Using Two-Factor Authentication. Everywhere.

We’re not very good with passwords, although we think we are. According to a recent study by security company CSID, 89% of us think we practice safe password routines. Unfortunately, 1 in 5 of us have had an online account compromised and yet only about half of us change our passwords more frequently than once per year. The best passwords typically utilize a combination of letters, numbers, and punctuation, and the longer they are the better (at least 8 characters). Only 6% of users have passwords that meet these criteria. Even worse, 60% of us reuse the same password for multiple sites. This is a recipe for disaster.

Here’s a quick scenario: Tommy has a forum account on a fan-made music site. The music forum that he visits regularly doesn’t maintain their security patches regularly, and a random hacker manages to hack into the site and steal his password. A simple web search reveals that Tommy works for Company X. Company X uses the Outlook web app, and wouldn’t you know it, Tommy uses the same password everywhere. Through a little trial and error, the hacker discovers that is his work email, and boom, the hacker now has access to Tommy’s work email.

So what is two-factor authentication, and how does it solve this problem? Well, two-factor authentication (2FA) is a multi-stage method of verifying that you are who you say you are. Typically it’s a combination of something you know (a password), and something you have access to (a phone). Most commonly, the second factor of authentication will be a code that you will be sent through a text message or an automated phone call, and it’s only valid for a short period of time. This code will be entered on a secondary screen before you can have access to your account.

Unfortunately a lot of people don’t know what 2FA is – roughly 75% of people surveyed didn’t have a clue. It has also garnered a reputation for being a hassle, which is simply not the case. Most two-factor implementations will allow you to “register” a device as a “trusted device” for a period of time (typically ranging from a day to a month). I know what you’re probably thinking – what if I lose my phone? Then what? Well, the answer to that is “it depends.” Every two-factor implementation has different ways to handle account recovery in the event of a lost device, but this shouldn’t deter you from using 2FA – the benefits outweigh the risks by far.

So where are some common places you should start using two-factor authentication to protect your online accounts? Here’s a list:

  1. Google: Sends a 6 digit text message when you attempt to login from a new device. They also provide a Google Authenticator app for Android, iOS, and BlackBerry that can be used to obtain the second factor authentication codes.
  2. Apple: Sends you a 4-digit code via text message or Find My iPhone notifications when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  3. Facebook: Sends you a 6-digit code via text message when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  4. Twitter: Sends you a 6-digit code via text message when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  5. PayPal: Sends you a 6-digit code via text message when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  6. Microsoft Accounts: Sends you a 7-digit code via text message or email when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  7. Yahoo! Mail: Sends you a 6-digit code via text message when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  8. LinkedIn: Sends you a 6-digit code via text message when you attempt to log in from a new machine.
  9. WordPress: Utilizes the Google 2FA app.

For a more complete list of companies and products that support two-factor authentication, please review Evan Hahn’s list. Ask your local security or IT professional if your organization could benefit from using 2FA for email or work accounts. There are also ways to implement two-factor authentication into your own custom applications and web sites.

Passwords are becoming less secure all the time, and hackers are getting better at cracking them (check out the strength of your password). Enabling two-factor authentication provides an extra layer of security at a negligible cost. Protect your financial accounts, identity, and your career by using it wherever you can.

Words, Words, Words

So as I sit here, I had a completely different idea for what to write for this, my first Algonquin Studios blog post. Then I took a look around and did a quick inventory; within arms reach I have the following:

  • My trusty tablet (on which I am happily typing this post)
  • My Kindle e-reader
  • My Android phone
  • My wife’s Kindle Fire
  • My daughter’s tablet (yeah, I know)
  • And, of course, the television remote control

And that’s just within arms reach. If you wandered my house, you’d find two additional Kindles, a random mp3 player, laptops, PCs, and more. All of which, aside from the mp3 player (probably only due to lack motivation on my part) can either connect to the internet or can use one of the other devices to do so.

At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man, when did we become so utterly dependent on technology? But, more importantly, is that dependence really such a bad thing?

Sure, it’s become nearly impossible to disconnect from the digital/mobile world without physically locking your electronic devices in the basement. Even as I write this I’m getting texts, calls, and emails from friends and heaven forbid I don’t respond to those people within minutes, they’ll string me up for being “off the grid.”

And it’s important to fight the good fight–to actually get out of the house and off the devices (especially when you have kids). As someone who takes at least week off every year to go out to the middle of the woods and pretend that technology doesn’t exist, I’d like to give myself credit for making an effort. Kinda.

I say “kinda” because I do make a teeny tiny exception when it comes to my annual trip to Allegany State Park. That exception comes in the form of the one device that causes lots of conversation between the plugged-in and luddite camps–my Kindle. The e-reader debate has its own set of pros and cons, but the one that comes up the most seems to be “Books vs. Words.”

On one side, we have the “book” people. I know you well because I was one of you for a long time. We all love books. They feel great in your hand and there’s nothing like picking up a book and feeling the paper between your fingers. I bet you can even smell a book right now–paper-y goodness. Plus, book stores are a dying breed and that’s certainly not a good thing. I realize a large part of the problem is due to the big box stores forcing them out with lower prices and greater convenience, but I also believe the electronic movement contributes to the steady slide of locally-owned (and chain) book stores.

So what pushed me from the side of the book lovers into the world of the e-reader enthusiasts?

Words. Reading. Stories.

I originally picked up my Kindle as a toy. I purchased it as a gift for myself, quite a few years ago, with some tax return money and it was more of a curiosity than anything else. Then I realized something; this “toy” made it incredibly easy to get my hands on books. And not just books, any book. Any book I could possibly imagine was available to me, anywhere I decided I wanted it. Whether I was in my house, backyard, local park, or office lunch room, if I wanted a new book I could get one.

This realization helped me to rediscover something I hadn’t thought about in a while: I absolutely love to read. I’ve read (insert ridiculously high number for sake of argument) times more books since I bought that first Kindle than I’d read in all the years leading to that point. When you consider that most e-books are much cheaper than their paper versions and that you can borrow from many local library systems for free, it’s even better.

Books no longer need to be the stuff of the elite or well-educated. If technology can put a good book in front of a person who wouldn’t normally read one, this is a good thing. My Kindle did just that and it took my reading to another level. We shouldn’t look down on something just because it may not be what we’re used to and it shouldn’t matter if a book is written on paper, stone, or the sidewalk. The idea is to get books into the hands of people who want to read them. Whatever the most efficient way to do that is, let’s do it!

I guess that’s my point. We’re surrounded by technology every day. We can’t get away from it and when we notice this, our knee-jerk reaction might be to be put off by it. But we need to make sure that when we feel technology is creeping in, we’re not automatically dismissing it as useless, silly, or disruptive. I still believe it’s good to disconnect every so often but that doesn’t mean I’m going to leave my Kindle at home this summer when I go camping. What would I read if I did?

The Brand Called You – Growing Professionally

Back in 1997, Tom Peters authored an article titled The Brand Called You for Fast Company magazine. I first read the article in 2005, and while I didn’t (and still don’t) agree with everything in it, it contains plenty of valuable career advice to consider. I recently re-read it and humbly suggest a few more strategies:

Grow Your Web Identity

The place most people will go to find more information about you will be the web, especially if you’re in the IT field. Set-up a LinkedIn profile and get connected to people who you befriended during school and your career. Don’t go overboard filling in every professional detail (that’s what your resume is for), or spamming requests to everyone you’ve ever met. I like to think of my LinkedIn contacts as people who would know who I am if my name came up in conversation.

Use Twitter as a way to keep a pulse check on the professionals that you may or may not know, projects or groups of interest, and local events related to your field. Feel free to use it as a way to broadcast things you’re currently up to — blog posts you’ve written, things you’re working on, events you’re attending, etc. I recommend adding a touch of personality to your tweets. Don’t be unprofessional, but don’t be boring either. Be sure to voice your opinion on current topics and trends that you care about.

Be a “Something” Expert

What’s your competitive advantage? Find something that interests you, and become a knowledge expert on it. Maybe it’s integrated marketing, database performance tuning, quality assurance, or Salesforce. Immerse yourself in it. Know the options, and be able to list the pros and cons for each of them. Get involved in conversations and share your knowledge. Ideally you’ll be able to apply your expertise in your current organization, but if not, that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to make suggestions on ways to improve current processes or procedures related to your knowledge area, and don’t be discouraged if you encounter resistance either. If you present your ideas in a clear manner and validate your claims with good evidence, you’ve done your part.

Be a “People Person”

I feel like people skills are becoming a lost art these days. Our society has become accustomed to communication through text message, email, or instant chat conversations. When trying to validate a claim, keep a project on track, or get the nitty-gritty details ironed out on something, I still believe the best way to do it is in person. If that’s not an option, you should at least pick up the phone and hash out the details with a conference call. And even though everyone’s busy these days, carve out some time to drop a “Hi, how is everything going?” now and then. Don’t limit this to clients — your co-workers and contacts matter too. Human interaction will always be more meaningful than digital communication.

Stay Current

Things change–quickly. You should do your best to stay current in your field. It’s not reasonable to expect to be an expert on every new topic or trend, but you should at least be aware of them. In addition to the updates I find on Twitter, I devote time daily to scanning through information technology articles and blog posts just to keep abreast of new tools and trends. My goal isn’t to know everything about everything, it’s to know where I can find more information about something should I need to. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dive into something new every once-in-a-while, too.


Ultimately, your growth as a professional in your field is your responsibility. Make the best of your opportunities, and continue to nurture your career by embracing change and improving your skill sets. Make yourself more valuable by strengthening what makes you unique compared to your peers.

SEO Isn’t Just Google

This post originally appeared on my blog.

Back in October I had the pleasure of speaking at Buffalo’s first WordCamp for WordPress users. Before my presentation I made it a point to sit in on the other sessions that were in the same track as mine.

When discussing SEO, all the sessions I saw mentioned only Google. The Google logo appeared throughout, Google’s PageRank was discussed, Google search result screen captures were used, and so on.

The presenters for an SEO-specific session even went so far as to embed a video of Matt Cutts (from Google) in their presentation and declare that Matt Cutts stated that WordPress is the best platform for SEO.

For context, Matt Cutts appeared at a WordCamp in May, 2009 to discuss his search engine (Google) for an audience using a particular platform (WordPress). Matt even said, WordPress automatically solves a ton of SEO issues. Instead of doing it yourself, you selected WordPress (at about 3:15 in the video). He’s pitching his product to a particular audience to validate their technical decision (he’s just saying they don’t need to manually code these tweaks).

If while watching that video you heard Matt Cutts declare that WordPress is the best platform for SEO, then you are engaging in selection bias.

This same selection bias is also happening when developers work so hard to target Google and not any other search engines. If you convince yourself that Google is the only search engine because you don’t see other search engines in your logs, then perhaps you are the reason you don’t see those other search engines.

To provide context, this table shows the ratio of searches performed by different search engines in August 2012 in the United States. These are from comScore’s August 2012 U.S. Search Engine Rankings report.

Google Sites 66.4%
Microsoft Sites 15.9%
Yahoo! Sites 12.8%
Ask Network 3.2%
AOL, Inc. 1.7%

It’s easy to dismiss 16% when you don’t know how many searches that translates to.

More than 17 billion searches were performed in August 2012. Google ranked at the top (as expected) with 11.3 billion, followed by Microsoft sites (Bing) at 2.7 billion. The breakdown of individual searches per engine follows:

Google Sites 11,317,000,000
Microsoft Sites 2,710,000,000
Yahoo! Sites 2,177,000,000
Ask Network 550,000,000
AOL, Inc. 292,000,000

To put this another way, for every four (ok, just over) searches using Google, there is another search done in Bing. For every five searches using Google, there is another one done using Yahoo.

If your logs don’t reflect those ratios in search engines feeding your site, then you need to consider if you are focusing too hard on Google to the detriment of other search engines.

Now let’s take this out of the United States.

Considering Bing’s partnership with the Chinese search engine Baidu, contrasted with Google’s battles with the Chinese government, it might be a matter of time before Bing tops Google for Asian searches. Given the size of the Asian market (over half a billion users), if you do any business there it might warrant paying attention to both Baidu and Bing.


Safeguarding Your Data

Many of us deal with sensitive information on a daily basis. Whether that’s financial accounts, healthcare records, social security numbers, or trade secrets (to name a few), it’s imperative that we take precautions to safeguard this data as best we can. I’m going to share a few free or low-cost options that can better accomplish this.

1. Secure Your Smartphone

A lot of damage could be done if your phone falls into the wrong hands. I’d guess that a majority of us have our e-mail accounts configured on our phones in addition to a decent list of contacts. It would be easy enough for someone to impersonate you by sending a text message or e-mail, potentially gaining access to sensitive information. Minimally, you should make sure your phone is protected with a PIN or password. This should buy you enough time to change passwords and/or let people know that your phone has been lost. A better option would be to enable a Remote Wipe utility on your phone, that allows you to factory reset your phone and wipe away any important data. This article offers a good smartphone protection synopsis.

2. Encrypt Your Hard Drive 

If you use a laptop for work purposes, I strongly suggest that you encrypt your hard drive. It’s a lot simpler to accomplish than it sounds and it provides a great peace of mind for you, your company, and, potentially, your customers. Why take the chance that your sensitive data could be compromised so easily? The EFF outlines a few different encryption options.

 3. Don’t Overreact to E-mails

Phishers and scammers love to prey on your emotions. A popular ploy is to send an e-mail claiming that there has been a security breach and that you need to verify your current credentials and then change your current password. Often, this e-mail will include a link to a fake site that asks for authentication. If you’re not careful and react too quickly to a scam such as this, your entire network could be compromised. It’s best to take a second and ask around first and/or call your security personnel directly and verify the e-mail.

 4. Use a Password Manager

Ahh, password security. You know the drill. Create a secure password, usually with a mix of symbols, upper and lower case letters, and numbers. Oh, and don’t re-use passwords. Oh, and change your password for every account every X days. Make it easy on yourself, and ensure that you’re taking proper precautions to safeguard all of your accounts in the event that one of them gets compromised. An easy way to manage this is to install a password management utility. Most of them work the same way; create one ultra-secure passphrase that opens the utility, then copy and paste the specific password for the account you’re accessing. Once again, this sounds more complicated than it is in practice.

5. Enable 2-Factor Authentication for Gmail

If you have a Gmail account that you use for e-mail, consider enabling 2-factor authentication. It’s a free option that Google provides that allows you to add an additional layer of security to your account. In addition to username and password, you’ll be sent an additional token code (by voice or text message) that you’ll have to enter to verify your identity. If you’d prefer to not enter a token every time you authenticate, there’s an option to designate trusted computers instead. Google outlines their 2-factor authentication options on their support site.

Modern Browsing

If you’re reading this article, then chances are that you’re sitting at your desk using a web browser. Sure, you might be using a tablet, phone, or some other device, but in this blog post, I’m going to focus on desktop browsing.

There are several very good desktop browsers that you may be using right now, or maybe not. Take a moment, locate the “About” option (usually under the “Tools” menu) in your browser, and take a look at what it says.

If you are using the latest version of Google Chrome, Firefox, or Opera, hurray for you! You have made a conscious choice to download and use an alternative browser, a browser that most likely did not come installed on your computer. Maybe you’ve even set that browser as your default.

Now, if you, like many users, are accessing the web in Internet Explorer, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re using Internet Explorer 9 (very soon to be IE 10). However, if you are using IE 6, 7, or 8, you’re really not experiencing the web to its fullest.

Recent browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, and IE9, have very good support for emerging technologies like CSS3 and HTML5, that are already being adopted by many web developers to present web content in new and exciting ways. But there’s more to it than just that. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the benefits you get from a modern browser:

  1. Speed: Modern browsers generally have more powerful rendering engines that handle JavaScript and other technologies better than older browsers. This means that web sites load faster and more efficiently.
  2. Security: Although modern browsers can be subject to security flaws, they’re generally far more secure than their predecessors.
  3. Support: Over time, support for older browsers will continue to diminish. Already, many leading sites like YouTube and Facebook have dropped support for IE 6 and many other sites serve up limited functionality and visuals to older browsers.
  4. More space: Modern browsers generally have less “chrome” and maximize your working space.
  5. Features: Over time, browser developers continue to optimize and expand their products. Modern browsers have some really wonderful and convenient features that serve a variety purposes and enhance user experience.

There are a lot of great features that modern browsers have started to adopt across the board and there’s no way that I can mention them all, but here are some highlights.

  1. Tabbed browsing: If you are still using IE6, you’re missing out on a major convenience that has been otherwise available for many years.
  2. Searching: Many browsers have a dedicated search box next to the address bar for running quick web searches. You can usually adjust the box to use your favorite search engine if the default is not to your liking. In addition, if you type a keyword into the address bar and it doesn’t match a site URL, then the browser will run a web search instead. Chrome has taken this a step farther and has eliminated the separate search field entirely.
  3. Add-ons: Browser developers have opened their doors to the community and allow other developers to create small pieces of software that add onto your browser. These are usually used to complete a discreet function like taking a screen shot of the current web page, but there are add-ons for all sorts of things like news, weather, and music, as well as number of great tools for web developers. In my experience, Firefox and Chrome have the most and highest quality add-ons.
  4. Syncing: Many browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, allow you to sign in to your browser and synchronize bookmarks, add-ons, and other data between all of your computers and devices. This is perfect for when you stumble across something at work that you want to check out later, at home. You can create a bookmark at work and it will be right there in your toolbar when you load up the browser at home.

If you’re running an older browser and it’s in your power to upgrade or download an alternative browser, I highly recommend that you do so. At this point, you may be wondering what browser you should download. Truly, there’s no correct answer because it’s a really a matter of preference, but here’s a quick breakdown of the most common options:

  • Google Chrome: Chrome is fast, secure, has tons of add-ons, and, not surprisingly, tends to work really well with Google products like Gmail. Chrome is the default browser on my machine. Available for Windows and Mac.
  • Firefox: Firefox has recently lost some of its market share to Chrome, but is still a solid browser in many ways. It may not be quite as fast or secure, but still boasts a solid feature set and a massive amount of add-ons. Available for Windows and Mac.
  • Internet Explorer: Although Internet Explorer 10 will be coming out shortly, IE 9 is fast and secure, but lacks the add-ons of Firefox and Chrome. IE 9 is the first version that has included support for CSS3 and other emerging technologies and is definitely a large step towards bringing IE up to current web standards. Available for Windows Vista and higher.
  • Safari: Safari and Chrome are built on the same rendering engine and have many of the same features, although, in my experience, Chrome runs more quickly and is far superior in the add-on department. Safari seems to have dropped support for Windows as of version 5.1.7, so I would only recommend it for Mac users.
  • Opera: Like Chrome, Opera is fast, secure, and has add-ons, though perhaps not so many as Chrome. Opera is also a leader in the web standards community and is constantly innovating new ways to experience the web. Available for Windows and Mac.

If you made it through this whole post without downloading a new browser, do yourself a favor and test drive one of the browsers listed above. You won’t regret it.

Dialing Up The Web

Originally posted by Algonquin Studios CEO, Steven Raines, on September 23, 2012, on his blog.

When I first met Stephen Kiernan over 15 years ago, my business partner, mentor, friend, and the former CEO of Algonquin Studios was already an experienced programmer, analyst, and professional consultant. Just a few years earlier, I’d been in college working on sites for this new thing called “the World Wide Web” but by the time Algonquin Studios was hired to build a claims adjudication system for a national third-party administrator people had decided that this “Internet” thing probably wasn’t going away.

Early in his career, Steve worked in a software development package called KnowledgeMan, an all-in-one database / UI / business logic development environment. He’d kept up his technical chops in the Microsoft Windows environment as the databases became separate and 4GL languages were taken over by object-oriented ones. I viewed him as supremely technically savvy for someone I then viewed as an “old guy,” which is why I found it funny that Steve, despite his keen mind, didn’t use any of the terms for the web that my other partners and me, or anyone else we knew, used. Instead, he used these weird terms that harkened back to the days of Tomcat BBS. As an example, when he wanted us to see something on the Internet, he’d always say “Dial up that web site” as though he was expecting the screech of a modem at the beginning of each browser launch. This engendered more than a little good natured ribbing from the other partners and myself in those early days when half of the work day was sitting around trying to figure out how to be a business that didn’t make “real” things.

In the last year, I turned the same age that Stephen was when I first met him. In looking back over those years I realized how many of his antiquated (in the sense that things that are older than three years are ancient in the technical world) ways of referencing things had become my own. Not that I’d adopted his specific terms so much as developed my own which must seem equally ridiculous and anachronistic to the young men and women we have hired.

It’s not that I don’t know what I am talking about. It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert and as anyone who has started a business knows, you invest far more than 2,080 hours a year to grow one. Technology doesn’t grow at a pace that can outstrip that much effort and experience, at least not in just a few years. Instead, it becomes a badge of honor to reference those earlier days when things seemed simpler, whether they really were or not. There is an implication that somehow the things that are done after what you have been through are less visceral and meaningful; somewhere between “you kids have it easy” and “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Steve could have done all of what we did. Most of the technology was based on things he’d done early in his career. Still, as far as the web was concerned, he decided that it was best left for new dogs. It may be that you can’t escape the technological mindset that you have when you are young and obligation free enough to throw yourself fully into the technology and as you get older you eventually hit a threshold after which the only thing that matters is whether something works… not whether you made it with your own hands. What he kept for himself and shared was his reflections on his triumphs and mistakes and the lessons he’d learned working in those early systems that were in some ways much simpler and in some ways so much more complicated than what we were doing. I know it was a hard transition for him to make… from player to coach, especially now that I find myself in the dug out with my only at-bats in a cage demonstrating mostly to myself that I can still hit the ball.

More than once I have found myself using my own “backward” terminology with my team on purpose, like an inside joke with only one participant. I wonder now whether it was really Steve who was the one messing with us when he used to “dial up” that web site instead of the other way around.

I do find it ironic after all those years of chastising him for it we are now on the verge of having the majority of web use being from mobile devices. It turns out that maybe Steve was right in hanging on to that old dial-up reference. We are now far more likely to use a phone to get to a web site (or at least web services) than we are to make a call. I was recently looking at my phone and found myself thinking “Why do I have the phone icon pinned to every screen when there are plenty of apps I use WAY more often?” Perhaps it’s time to revisit some of his other anachronisms to mine them for the next big thing. After all, don’t they say everything old is new again?

Learning on the Job

I’ve been the receptionist here at Algonquin Studios for more than six months now and I have to say, working at a technology company when you don’t have the same level of technical knowledge and understanding as your co-workers can prove to be pretty challenging.  Fortunately, it can easily be informative and rewarding as well!

If you’re at all like me, you’ve experienced the complete confusion of overhearing a conversation and not understanding a single aspect of it. Obviously, at a company that develops custom software and web sites many of my fellow employees discuss their code and designs frequently, and although I sometimes get lucky with lunchtime discussions that revolve around the most recent Bills game, fantasy football, or the NHL lockout, I often feel lost just listening to them when the topics veer back to HTML, database design, or requirements analysis. And, of course, technologies are always changing, so as soon as I think I might  have a good grasp on something, it changes, or gets “improved,” and I feel like I’m back at square one.

But, the flip side of this coin is that for all of my confusion there’s an opportunity to learn.

One of the best things about Algonquin Studios is that it’s a company of technology consultants. While I’m certainly a competent computer user – I can download music, install new hardware and software, and surf the internet with confidence, knowing I’m not going to get a virus – working with developers and designers who spend their days, not just staring at a screen, but actually interacting with our clients, having real conversations with them, asking the questions that get to the root of their problems, and then buckling down to develop the right solution for that problem, means that I’m in the enviable position to pick the brains of people who can really break things down for me and explain them clearly and simply. I can ask questions about things I don’t understand and gain better understanding of constantly evolving technologies. And, since I’m a pretty fast learner and I like being able to share new things with others, I enjoy being able to take the knowledge I gain here and pass on to my family and friends.

I think it’s important to remember to keep an open mind, not just about new technologies but also about your own ability to understand them and use them in your daily life. And it’s equally important to find people who are willing teachers. Fortunately, at Algonquin Studios, my inquisitive spirit is complemented by a group of really helpful technology experts!