What I've Been Reading...

  • My Share of the Task
  • The Docker Book
  • Programming Elixr
  • Learning Neo4j
  • How to Build a Brain
  • Vagrant: Up and Running
  • Hacking the Art of Exploitation
The Lesson Superman Didn't Teach PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sam Caldwell   
Wednesday, 14 January 2015 20:37

I was driving home today in the usual grid lock traffic and started thinking.  The song "Kryptonite" by 3 Doors Down started playing and as I listened to the lyrics between the start-and-stop rhythm of downtown traffic, I started thinking about Superman and Kryptonite and realized there is a lesson that Superman comics, movies and television shows never taught.  (Disclaimer: I am not a comicbook geek so if I get something slightly wrong, please do not bring down the wrath of the Comic Book Dude upon me.)


Superman was this child who escaped death when his parents launched him off their dying planet (Krypton) in a spaceship that landed on Earth.  He was raised by human parents who came to learn that their adopted child was special.  It turns out that the young boy was made stronger by the light from Earth's Sun.  We also learn that chunks of the planet Krypton (Kryptonite) also fell to Earth and would be later used against the boy as an adult by his enemies.  In the presence of the material, Superman is made weak and powerless.  He loses the powers he has gained by being in the light of the Earth's Sun.


Let's start with the first fallacy I've always had with the Superman thing.  When endowed with superior powers, most senient beings seem (as history would suggest in the human race as well as among animals on our planet) to use those powers to the best interest of the entity possessing the same.  A better way of thinking of this is the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  While it is possible that Superman could grow up to be some noble person, I would suggest that first his nobility would be only after having made one or more bad choices while learning to discipline his use of the awesome powers he possessed and second this implies that he would at some point and in some way abuse those powers then learn from the error.  Guess what folks?  We all do it.


Now comes the fun part, and the part where the story fails to realize its greatest opportunity to teach us about our own condition (which is what stories do, while also entertaining us).  Superman is portrayed as endowed not only with super powers of flight, strength, etc.  He also has this unnatural sense of humility.  That kind of humility is rare, especially when the potential for its abuse is so high.  But the real humility we should see is when Superman is in the presence of Kryptonite.  He is made weak, robbed of his supernatural powers (and effectively stripped of his identity).  This is the point where human beings show their greatest strength often.  But for Superman it is where he fails.


We all have our Kryptonite.  But unlike the fictional Superman who relies upon someone else to remove his source of weakness or other intervention to remove the weakness for him, we as people often find we must overcome our own weaknesses.  We must humble ourselves and "get scrappy" in order to find ways of either escaping our Kryptonite or minimizing its effect.  We become stronger.  I think this would have made for a better story, but then again, as I said earlier, I'm not a comic book person.  I believe in the real world stories of heroes who overcome, adapt and achieve.


A long time ago, I was doing a very physical job.  Some of you who read this will know about that work and the environment.  It was not easy.  It was hot, humid and tiring work at times and I'm not a very big guy.  I was, in fact, one of the smaller people in my work area.  But I could not fail.  It wasn't an option.  To fail would have affected my ability to surive and be here today to write this.  My Kryptonite was not only my situation or past decitions.  My Kryptonite was my lack of physical strength compared to others in the work area.  One day as my coworkers and I unloaded 50lb sacks off a truck with a clear ten-minute or so deadline, I found myself in the middle of a "fire bucket brigade" chain.  At one end, I had a guy tossing a 50lb sack in my direction and at the other end, I had another guy expecting me to toss that same sack to him.  Each bag was exhausting.  Eventually I started using my brain and remembering the law of inertia.  I caught the incoming bags and literally just used my arms to swing them into the throw to the other guy.  Often they came at me hard enough that I didn't have to really add too much more energy in my stage to get them the five or so feet to the next guy.  But it didn't start out that way.


The first few bags were merciless.  But I had to deal with the Kryptonite in my presence.  I couldn't wait on some miracle to appear from off stage.  I had to act, and that first action came through the way I chose to think about the situation.  I went into that place in my brain that had that last ounce of energy and determination.  I found myself saying "I can, I will, I am, I did" in rhythm to the bags hitting my chest and as I heaved them to the next guy.  Even when it became easier and I just swung them to the next guy, conserving their momentum, I still said the same little silent channt to myself.  The Kryptonite was still there but I became stronger and overpowered it.  I never got bigger, but I overcame the obstacle.  It's what we all do when we chose to succeed without regard for the cost.  It's the lesson Superman failed to teach us as kids.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 January 2015 21:38
Paying it Forward: Mentoring PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sam Caldwell   
Friday, 09 January 2015 08:55

If you are like me, you sometimes look back at life with some form of regret.  My regret often comes in the form of seeing those who started out in similar (difficult) circumstances in life who have not had the good fortune to meet some of the awesome people with whom I have worked, people who shaped my career and motivated me to do more with my life.  I spend a lot of time looking for ways to "give back."  But it's not really giving back.  The people who helped me in many cases are long gone (retired, passed away or still pushing the envelope well ahead of me).  The only way I can "give back" is to pay it forward by doing what was done for me for others.  This means mentoring.


There are a lot of talented and awesome people in Austin looking for a start to their careers.  These are people who are hungry for that first opportunity, who want to do great things.  Yeah, sure, there are many alumni of various universities mentoring some of these talented prospects.  Me?  I tend to focus on the underdogs.  Why?  Because they are what I was.  We can relate.  The best part is that these people are often more motivated.  They don't have the feeling of entitlement I see coming out of various universities.  They are driven not by money but by a hunger to build great things and to pursue a better life.


Years ago I worked with a woman who was hired from her job as a stripper by the owner of a company where I worked.  She had no technical experience, no education beyond high school.  In fact, she didn't even own a computer.  Her closest technical experience was the once or twice she had worked as a receptionist.  I had lunch with her a few days ago.  She's now a project manager for a software company.  No one knows about her "stripper days" as she describes them.  But they made her into the rockstar project manager she is today.  This is a woman who raised two kids back in those days and took a huge pay cut to do entry-level technical work because she wanted more.  Until this week I didn't know how much she sacrificed to get where she is now, and my respect for this professional is more than it ever was.  She went from making a nice income as a stripper to making $9.50/hr as an entry level technician a decade ago.  She shared custody of her two kids with her ex-husband and when the kids were away she would turn off all of her utilities in her apartment to save money (that means cold showers in the dark, people).  But she did this so that she could start a career "she could tell her kids about as they got older."  It's been ten years, and over the past decade she has earned an associates degree (from ACC) and multiple technical certifications.  I didn't do much to help this person.  She did 99% of the work on her own.  The only thing I did was work as her team lead and give her the chance to shine...while explaining Linux commands as needed.  Her's is one of the many stories I can tell about some awesome people in Austin with whom I have worked over the years.


I'm telling this story not to brag or to inspire similarly situated persons to rise to the challenge of self improvement.  Instead, I want to encourage everyone like me who has "made it" to reach out and help others, even if just to answer questions and encourage people as they get started.  There have been times where I have seen technical "experts" berate others and put them down for not being knowing everything.  Instead let's focus on building people up to their potential.  That doesn't mean we should tolerate laziness or a lack of ambition.  It means we should carefully identify the hard-core subset of newbies with potential and build them.  Doing so means we will build our industry's labor pool and as a result reduce the number of failures and inefficiencies that threaten the value and stability of the industry as a whole.

The Opportunity of Extending Beyond the Box in Texas PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sam Caldwell   
Sunday, 04 January 2015 12:14

Yesterday I went for another of my little road trips into west Texas.  I was born in San Angelo and learned to drive on the back roads near Sonora, San Angelo, Junction and various points between and beyond.  When I need to think, I often drive through these old roads and stop to enjoy the real Texas countryside that Austin has long-ago lost to hipsters, high prices and California politics.  But last night I found myself thinking...and in a very unexpected place about the opportunities most are not even aware exist in Texas.


There are a lot of startups in the Austin area.  There are a lot of companies looking to keep their costs low until they can emerge from their stealth mode and vie for their chance at market success.  It's the dream so many in the technology sector share, but they also share the misguided idea that being inside Austin is the avenue to success.  Accordingly they find themselves competing for finite venture capital funding against a backdrop of ever-increasing costs.  Shockingly few really know Texas, its history or the opportunities west of Loop 360.  Here are a few suggestions, I want to make to the entrepreneurs in Austin who want a competitive edge.


First, stop thinking that your entire team needs to be in Austin.  Sure, your sales team and your executive team need an Austin presence because it looks good on a business card and website.  After all, no one has ever heard of a small town like San Angelo or Midland beyond the borders of the Lone Star state.  (Side note: Dell is based in Round Rock...a fact that put Round Rock on the map, but it started in Austin.)


Second, prices are cheaper in some of the lesser urban areas of Texas (e.g. Midland) and the infrastructure exists in these communities to support technology companies.  For example, in the Midland-Odessa area, Grande Communications already has a significant fiber optic network and foot print capable of supporting the software industry.  Lower costs would allow a smart and scrappy startup to house an engineering or support team in this community while the sales and executive team operate primarily from Austin.  This means less stock dilution by investors and a greater opportunity to build a profitable company.


Third, consider wage levels in these communities.  Last night I was at a bar in Sonora, Texas, talking with a few local business people over beers.  Wage rates for general labor are much lower in this community.  Rents, as expected, are also lower.  Imagine a community with a two bedroom house rented at $400 per month.  That means your "competitive" technology wage for engineers and support personnel against these lower costs is a hell of a raise when compared to the same wages against the backdrop of $1,000 per month rents in Austin.


Fourth, and this is the best part, consider the traffic situation.  Moving a small startup to a small town like Brady or Johnson City (again with a small foot print in Austin) allows employees to avoid traffic problems they now face (the economic impact of which is another effective pay raise as well as stress reduction).  These communities are close enough to large cities to be "accessible" but the daily grind of work is not exacerbated by a one hour commute.


Given the recent drop in oil prices, the Texas oil industry is going to be headed into another of its periodic downward cylcles.  This means resources in these communities will be free at good prices.  One would expect that a scrappy entrepreneur would see this and step in realize the low price points even as a proof of the concept.  I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest that investors would be best served by attaching lower funding levels to incentives to exploit these lower costs.  I will even go further and suggest that a coder, relocated to Midland-Odessa or San Angelo, could probably be convinced to take a modest pay reduction in these lower-cost communities in exchange for lower-cost stock options.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe I'm just seeing only part of the picture.  If I am, please let me know.  But I will say that the upward spiral of costs and salaries in Central Texas is not sustainable.  After all, the same trends in California have lead to so many jobs coming to Austin over the past two decades that the handwriting is on the wall for our own future.

Last Updated on Sunday, 04 January 2015 12:52