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Legal Tips from a Software Professional

by dave

I am not a lawyer. This is just my personal approach to the legal quagmires of working in the software world. But it does work for me. YMMV and make your own decisions. Also, the legal field is inherently adversarial. So this post approaches it that way, too — that you are in conflict with the people who are giving you contracts. But I also have good friends who are attorneys, and they have an uncanny ability to turn that adversarial switch on and off like a light. It is just part of their work. This is often just a game to them, and maybe that is why they do this job to begin with. So play it, but treat them like people, and don’t take things personally.

  1. When in doubt, seek professional help — The key to success is often knowing your own limitations. This is especially true in the legal arena. If you are unsure, ask. Better to get a clear answer than make a bad guess and get burned in the future.
  2. Read contracts carefully — The fine print does matter. But despite being complicated, legal language is still just English. Read it slowly, and carefully. Match up all the phrases in a sentence to be sure you understand which clause is attached to which, and it will make sense. The context of how it is applied in your jurisdiction and your specific circumstances is where you might need legal advice, but don’t buy into the myth that “legalese” is a different language. If you can structure a software app, you can break down a sentence in a contract and understand it.
  3. Contracts are two-sided — All contracts require “consideration”. This is a basic principle of contract law. If they do not give you something, they cannot demand anything of you.  Often, this means money in exchange for services or other agreements. The value of the two sides of the contract to not have to be equal, but there does have to be a give and take from both sides. If you don’t like a particular contract, but have a business need to make it happen anyway, this is the area in which to focus your negotiations — ask for more consideration. And if someone asks you to sign a contract where they do not give you anything… just say no. Even though it wouldn’t be a valid contract anyway, see the next point…
  4. Don’t follow the advice that “It is OK to sign a contract if it won’t hold up in court.” — I hear this more often than I would expect. There is this idea that if part of a contact won’t hold up in court, than you can just ignore it. This isn’t good thinking. First of all, you would have to fight it in court to get to that conclusion, which is both time-consuming and expensive. So if you believe that part of a contract is not enforceable, just ask it to be removed. Odds are, the lawyers will remove it if it really is that flimsy. And if they do not, well… you have something you need to negotiate with them.  Because litigation rarely ends up getting resolved at trial anymore anyway — it gets settled. So your potential future conflict is being negotiated right now. Settle the differences right now, not years down the road when this contract can be wielded against you, with legal fees and courts attached. Argue your points before signing.
  5. All contracts are negotiable — People say they won’t negotiate, but it is all about power. They want something from you, or you would not be in the position of looking at a contract in the first place. The question is how much they need you vs. how much you need them. If you are signing a contract for an entry level job with 100 other applicants, sure, maybe you have no room for negotiation. But if you are an expert in your field who get thrown a new contract after working at a company for years, asking to change your working relationship, and told sign it or lose your job, trust me — they’ll negotiate.
  6. Negotiation means compromise — I’ve heard it said, and repeated it myself, that you know a negotiation was fair when both sides walk away a little bit unhappy. You need to pick your battles in all areas of life, and contract negotiation is no different. Pick the areas that truly bother you, and fight for those. Don’t get bent out of shape over a couple points, and then nitpick everything in the contract just to be spiteful. Know what you care about. Know what you are willing to accept. Know what you are not willing to accept. And be willing to let the other side win some points.
  7. Negotiations are part of the interview process — Suppose you get a job offer, accept, and are just finishing out paperwork to start, when you find a few gotchas in an employment contract and negotiations get heated. In my mind, this is still the interview process. Not for whether they want you, but for whether you want to work for them. Are they being reasonable towards you in what they are asking in the contract? Are they kind in their approach to you in negotiations? Are they explaining why they need certain clauses, and working with you to find common ground to reach a resolution? Or are they just telling you to sign it, no questions asked? However they are treating you during this process, is that how you want to be treated by your employer?
  8. Do not be afraid to get sued — lawsuits are a mechanism of conflict resolution. If the lawsuit has no merit, just work the mechanisms to fight it, and counter-sue for legal costs. And take it as a compliment that you are doing enough things right that a competitor is threatened by you. Because if you run a successful business, someone eventually will sue you. Consider it a right of passage. Hire a good lawyer. Deal with it. And move on. Don’t run your business in fear of it, or you will stifle yourself. (And if their suit does have merit, take the hit, learn your lessons, recover, and still move on.) Also, lawsuits are the most expensive and painful way to resolve a conflict. If someone went this far, they really are just desperate to resolve a problem. You have an opportunity to seek a better resolution, and I’d take it.
  9. Do not let lawyers bully you — lawyers are not scary. They simply wield knowledge and threats as a weapon within their profession. But patience, research, reading, and your own attorney will solve all things. And nothing a lawyer sends you demands an immediate response. Look things over carefully. Get help if needed, and respond appropriately. Do not let corporate lawyers tell you that you must sign contracts to keep your job. In some places, that is not legal. (Utah, for example.) In others, it may be legal, but you still need to see if the contract is acceptable. No job is worth signing a bad contract. Not if you are a software professional, not in today’s market.
  10. Cease and Desist letters have no authority over you — They are a warning shot over your bow. They may be followed by a lawsuit. You may want to cease and desist, depending on circumstances. Or you may not. You are your own person, and the decision is yours. Just because someone got a degree, passed an exam, and sent you a letter, does not give them any authority to tell you what to do. Of course, the lawsuit that comes next, if they win it, could have authority. So be as bold as you want, but don’t be stupid.

 

Write like a 3rd Grader

by dave

The ability to communicate effectively has been a hot topic at work the past few months. Mostly because, frankly, people are doing it badly. Usually it is just minor stuff. Nothing to get too worked up about. But this past week, it was a train wreck. I’m sorely tempted to share details, but I’ll refrain. Instead, I’ll focus on the positive.

I need to first give credit where it is due — when I worked in Denver, I ran our internal collaboration systems, which included the intranet portals, and therefore I was involved whenever company-wide emails and announcements were made. Often, I simply posted them, but over time I started authoring some of them. And at first, I did it poorly. But our Communications Director would edit my announcements and emails, and help me become a better communicator, and by the time that job ended, I could just about write a corporate announcement that would pass her critiques without needing changes. It was a valuable experience, which may not have improve my writing on these blog posts, or even in my day-to-day emails, but does make me capable of keeping a team or an entire company informed of what is going on.

And it really is not rocket science. You need to write just like an elementary school student completing a writing assignment. Answer basic questions — What? When? Who? Why?

What is going on? When is it going to occur? Who will it affect? How will it impact me, my job, my team, etc? Why is it being done? And where do I get more information or ask questions? If your announcement answers those questions, it is good communications. If it does not, it is going to be a failure. It is really that simple.

 

Homeschooling and Parenting Goals

by dave

I noticed that Loretta and I often make different choices in our parenting and in our schooling for our children vs. other parents we talk to. And it frequently comes down to our focus on our long-term goals. I’m not sure that those goals are any different than other parents… but we do think about them when making decisions, and try to avoid getting caught up in the day-to-day routine of school, work, and activities.

Our long-term goals for our children are vague, but simple — we want them to grow up to be adults with the skills to make their own choices, adapting to changes in their lives and their world, setting their own directions for their own lives. We want them to have the intellectual and emotional capabilities to make good choices to build stable lives for themselves, and to build the families they choose to build. We want them to understand the consequences of their actions, and use that when making life decisions.  We want to raise them to be successful adults, not “good children”.

Along the way, we are concerned that they do not make choices that restrict their options later. We care about school performance not because grades matter, but because poor grades might restrict the college options later in life. We care about college not because they have to go (it is not the right path for everyone), but because the choice to not go will impact their career choices later.

And that is what brings these goals down to the reality of homeschooling for an 11 year old girl. In general, when homeschooling, we can focus on helping her advance her skills in various subjects. But we also need to prepare her to be ready to go to college if she chooses, or to decide another path if that does not end up being the correct one.

Our real goal is to teach our children to learn, and to love learning. To help them figure out what their interests are, to learn how to dig deeper into a topic, to learn how to ask and answer questions, and how to manage their own time. We are working on things that many people don’t deal with until after college such as planning out personal time management, setting daily and weekly goals, measuring your own progress, dealing with failure if a project doesn’t work, and figuring out how else to approach a problem. We’re working on how to be an independent learner, how to be productive when someone isn’t spoon-feeding you a schedule, and how to take minimal direction and turn it into a real result.

Of course, we’re covering the actual topics and curriculum needed for kids at their ages, too. That is a given. But again, with the goals of raising adults with the skills to succeed in the world… there is more to it than just the subjects they learn, and test scores.

Seeking My Last Job…

by dave

 

Wait, what? Is Dave leaving his Job? Click for info if that question is concerning to you...

No, I’m not necessarily leaving my current employer…  But we are going through changes, and it is a natural time to think about whether or not it is still the right place for me.

I’m also just kind of done with coding. I’ve accomplished what I wanted to. I could accomplish more… I do like to achieve new goals, but I have no personal ego in having to be the guy who wrote the code to do so. So it is time to consider new paths.

None of this is news to my current employer. We’ve been talking about this for over 6 months, and we may find a new role for me there. Or we may not. Time will tell. We’re in a good place with each other either way. But this post is more about what I am seeking for the future, and less about where I sit in the present, so I’ll just leave it at that.

I’m intending to have a new role at some point in the relatively near future. I do not think of this as my “Next” role, but as my “Last” role.

I have been thinking about my career recently, and have divided it into three phases. Or, really, 2 phases, and I am planning out the transition into Phase 3.

Phase 1 – Building the Career:

These were the early years. Jumping from place to place for more money, more responsibility, a move to a new city, etc. Building technical skills, focused on always growing and improving, and trying to always stepping up in one way or another.

Phase 2 – Running At Speed:

I’ve been here for a while — Fully skilled up, leading projects, building products, running teams, consulting, having more successes than failures, but enough of each to learn lessons. Basically, a solid, reliable, professional tech guy.

Phase 3 – The Last Job:

Time to change gears to the next phase. The last phase, not the next phase. Time to move to my last role.

Why “Last?”

Because I’m not looking for just any job to collect a paycheck. I’m looking for something that adds meaning to my life, and to my family. I’m no longer interested in just doing generic tech work to make the  numbers grow for some corporation. I want to build something that is meaningful, and watch it grow.  I want to raise my family, and let them see me work at a long-term product while they grow up, seeing me spend time building something meaningful, and taking the time to do it well. I want a product that improves the world. It doesn’t have to change the world, but it should have a net positive impact. It doesn’t need to make me rich, but it does need to support the family. I want this to bring personal satisfaction to my life, and add meaning to my family. I want my children to see that it is good to be proud of what you do, not how much money you make.

So to find a role that hits those somewhat nebulous goals, I think of my search for my role not as just looking for a job… but as a bigger search for the last thing I will do in this life. It punctuates the importance of the search to me, and reminds me not to just go applying to a job because it is available and match my abilities… but to really think carefully about it and ask myself if it really matches who I want to be, and what I want to be doing for the next 15 years.

Now, of course, I hope that in 15 years I am still healthy and get to do this search all over again, and it isn’t really my last role. But there is no guarantee in life. And I do not want to end up working my life away while kids grow up without it adding meaning to our lives, because if it really does end up being my last role… what a pile of regret that would end up for all of us.

Right now I am young enough to accomplish big things in this world. And old enough to know that if I don’t start doing so right now, I’ll no longer be young enough sooner than I would like.

So this spring and summer, the search is beginning. I don’t know if I will find the right role or not. I could just end up staying where I am, while searching without success… but I am going to search.

 

 

It is that time of year again….

by dave

The end of the year rapidly approaches, which means an arbitrary milestone to take an introspective look at your life, and see if your trajectory matches your desires.

Or, in other words — how was 2016?

Let’s see what I said a year ago, and see if I succeeded:

1) Work Either succeed or fail, decisively.

I failed, decisively. But that is not about work performance. It is about my health.  More details below, but I will be switching jobs at some point. Not necessarily employers… I like my employer. Just need a new role.

I am counting this as a success, though. I’ve been an in-the-trenches technologist for a long, long time. I have other skills that can be applied to my work, too. I’ve built and led teams, I’ve designed products, I’ve done platform transitions… I’m not sure exactly what direction things will head in 2017, but it is past time for a positive change.

2) HealthI want to get to the point that I can exercise again. I want 2016 to end with me able to go on hikes, and be at least smaller than as I was when I left my last full-time office job.

Partial credit here. I am exercising daily. I can hike. I am not smaller than I was when I left my office job. But I am SO much stronger than I was a year ago.

I did hit a new problem this year, where my tendons in my wrist are giving me problems, and I really cannot work at a computer all day, at least not as a coder.  I can work still in tech, but the constant reaching for all keys on the keyboard, especially the special characters used so much in coding, is not working for me. As mentioned above, change is coming, one way or another. I will need to find a role that only has me typing a couple hours a day, not 8+. Or typing content, not code. Or something. I’m open.

3) CreativityPainting, drawing, photography, writing.

I really only did the drawing this year, but I did put together some new ways to merge my tech skills with drawing and photography. It took me months to tweak all the details, but I’m calling this goal as a success despite not actually doing exactly the crafts I was thinking about a year ago, because I am producing creative work.

4) FarmSimple goals – get irrigation systems in for all garden boxes and fruit trees, keep the gardens weeded and watered, and have a non-trivial produce harvest in addition to our current production.

Irrigation… Check! Gardens weeded and watered… Check! Non-trivial harvest… No. Well, at least aside from tomatoes, No. We got heaps of tomatoes. But due to half the year being spent with a wife recovering from injuries, we didn’t hit our farm goals this year. I’m not worried about it either, though. We had bigger fish to fry.

5) FamilySimply have a happier and healthier family at the end of 2016 than we do at the end of 2015.

Sadly, no. My health isn’t better, my wife is far more broken than she was last year. And those things don’t make for a good family year. But part of this yearly exercise is just about self-awareness, so I can fix problems over the long haul. So lets try this goal again for 2017

Moving on, I’ll lay out my goals for 2017 with the exact same categories, but new details:

 

  1. Work — I want to start a new job. Preferably with my current employer, but either way, a new job. Not coding. Probably still in tech though, because it is what I know.
  2. Health — I either want a diagnosis of what has been ailing me for the past 5 years, or to give up and just commit to living with the problems. I want to continue the daily exercise that I have finally achieved this year, and end the year having lost at least 20 pounds.
  3. Creativity — I want to continue to pursue the new ideas I’ve come up with for merging drawing, photography, and tech. (About which I may write more in the future.) Because it is a new project, I’m not going to define specific goals… just to work it and see where it goes.
  4. Farm — Get our dairy and eggs back into production in the spring. Produce more value in food than we spend.  Note: we tentatively have someone else working larger scale gardens on our land this year, and sharing the harvest with us. This should help with making this hobby farm thing a success.
  5. Family — Repeat from last year. Lets end 2017 happier and healthier than in 2016.