Saturday, February 28, 2009

Range Report

I see that Tam is complaining about it being 31 degrees at the range today. Here in deepest fly-over country it was 11 degrees at nearby big city and with wind chill I think it was around 2 or perhaps a generous 3 degrees fahrenheit at my nearest outdoor range. I went and forced myself to send a hundred rounds down range at 50 yards, but after that I had to jump back in the car to defrost on my way home.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Technology Choices

There is no more opinionated subject matter among geeks than the choice of technologies used for a project. Your choice of technology is a de facto application for membership in a technology tribe.

In an ideal world there would be only the best technologies and we'd all just use that and there would be no arguments. This is not that world. So decisions must be made.

The least contentious is operating system. It still is a contentious decision, but it pales compared to programming language, framework and toolsets. As I want to create a web-hosting business, I need to select a server setup. I had heard good reports of Slicehost and have had a VPS with them for a year that I was gently tinkering with and the stability and reliability have seemed suitable for my purposes. Slicehost only offer Linux hosting, but you do get to choose which distribution you use. I selected Ubuntu as that seems to be the big dog at this time.

With the operating system out of the way the decisions get more difficult. One of my hobbies is learning and tinkering with non-mainstream programming languages. It is very tempting to use one of those for the development work. On the other hand, with the acute lack of time I have, it would be practical to select a more mainstream development environment and save time and effort and have more access to support and knowledge on the Internet.

I pondered on this for a while and decided to go with a pragmatic approach to start with. I'm going with a full LAMP stack and will be using PHP for the programming language. Going with LAMP makes many decisions for me all at the same time. LAMP means I'll be using Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. Once I escape from Corporate America, I'll be able to go back to tinkering and perhaps write some features with those niche languages.

An interesting thing abut PHP is that while it is a very pragmatic choice, after all it was developed specifically for web programming, it is also a very controversial choice with some. I have read many a blog entry blasting PHP and declaring it to be evil beyond compare and totally unsuited for "real web development". I find this funny as I find it nice to use and pretty easy to get things done when I'm using it. I like to think that on my day job I am a "real" web developer, in almost any way you may wish to define "real". While it is easy to write very bad and very unsafe code in PHP, it's just as easy to write equally bad code in Java or Python or Ruby or JavaScript or any other language that people think is better than PHP. As usual, it's the programmer not the language that determines the eventual quality of the code.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I'm Sure That I'm Not Supposed To Say This

I don't like Valentine's Day and I object to what it has become.

It's not that I have anything against romance. The lovely Sis. Geek and I have been married for twelve years and we went out for an expensive dinner last night and held hands and talked and gazed into each others eyes for an evening. Very nice and something I'd repeat in a heartbeat as I throughly enjoy getting all gushy and dopey about my beautiful wife.

So, having established that I'm not just being a meanie, what don't I like about Valentine's Day?

I don't like the fact that it has turned into another Hallmark Holiday and became an excuse to crank the emotional blackmail up to eleven. And how ever did it become all about the ladies and guys are just expected to empty their pockets and cough up flowers and presents? And where on earth did the idea come from to give everyone one and their dog a Valentine card and gift? When I was a lad, you gave a Valentine card only to your true love or the one you wanted to be your true love.

These days the guy that doesn't want to be in trouble had better buy flowers (at least a dozen red roses or you're forever branded as cheap) and jewelry (lots of sparkle or you're cheap again) and then there had better be a romantic dinner for two at some foo foo restaurant where it's impossible for a guy to order anything that he'd actually want to eat. And the lady? She's just expected to graciously accept it all.

I don't know about you, but that sounds wrong to me. Once a year you either survive or you dig yourself so far into a hole, that you'll be lucky to dig out by the following Valentine's Day.

I reject this approach and have made my feelings to this effect strongly known to the lovely Sis. Geek. There is a much better way to go about this romance thing and any lady that thinks romance involves being wined and dined once a year is selling herself, her guy and her relationship short.

What is this better way? Here's what I do. I tell the lovely Sis. Geek that I love her every day. I call her every workday when I go for my midday walk. I try to find things I can do to show her that I love her. (Doing the washing up is one of her favorite ways for me to help, with doing my own laundry a close second.) I make efforts to buy her flowers periodically, especially when I'm not in trouble. I open doors for her, including car doors. I hold her hand when we go places. I complement her when she wears something that I like her in or when she takes time to fix her hair just the way I like it. I let her choose my outfit when we go out on dates (this is a big deal for her, I'm a T-Shirt and Jeans kind of guy around the house). I go shopping with her now and then and take an interest in what she tries on. (I love taking Sis. Geek to Christopher and Banks; they have great priced, nice looking clothes and she looks great in everything she buys there.) When the geeklets were smaller, I changed more than my fair share of diapers and gave them nearly all of their baths. Every year when she goes off to the district Ladies Retreat, I take a couple of days off of work and look after the geeklets and make sure that the house is clean and tidy for when she returns.

I'm sure I'm forgetting plenty of other things that I do, but you get the picture. If there's a "special secret" to this relationship stuff, then I'd say that it would be to pour a little love out on your dearly beloved each and every day. If you do that, things will go well more often than not. You'll make mistakes now and then. Welcome to being an imperfect human-being. But when you mess up, say sorry, make plans to try not to do it again and go back to pouring on the love. Oh, and never buy flowers when you're in trouble, because then she'll wonder what you did when you buy the flowers at other times.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

So, how's that going to Work?

Isn't every every man and his dog selling websites to churches? It does seem that way. So in order to make a go of this, I need to use a couple of old-fashioned concepts, the first being relationship and the second being niche.

You see, people do business with people they like or who are like them. This should cover the relationship side of things. I will target (almost) exclusively churches and pastors within the UPCI. I am trusting that this will give an increased comfort level to churches to do business with one of their own. Hopefully a few testimonials from happy customers in this district will help as well.

I also learned long ago to not fear the niche business. When you do business in the wide-open market, you are competing with everyone (and their dog) and it's a rough market at times. You are effectively a minnow in the ocean. When you start addressing niche markets, you obviously reduce your effective audience, but you also magnify your effect and switch from minnow to shark or even a whale.

I previously worked for a company that sold consumer product repair information. Trust me, selling repair information to people who repair TVs, VCRs and other consumer electronics is a niche market, but this company was the biggest player in the niche by at least an order of magnitude. Everyone else was selling their information on the side for pocket money, while we were 100% focused on that market. It made a huge difference and we were very profitable.

So by targeting a niche (UPCI churches) within a niche (church websites) and perhaps even concentrating on only the smaller churches (like the one I pastor), I can know what they want and will work to deliver a high quality product with good service at a fair price.

As I am my typical customer I have certain amount of market analysis fairly well covered. I know that most churches do not have a resident geek. (Some are tripping over geeks in the congregation volunteering to help, but that's pretty unusual.) Of course, I am my own church geek, but pastoring takes up most of the time that I could offer to myself. In our district, we had a ministry fair last year and I was drafted to volunteer at the "Apostolic Geek" table. I talked to quite a few pastors who were interested in getting a church website, but didn't know what to do and didn't want to buy expensive packages from companies they didn't know whether they could trust.

More than just selling a church a website, I also see a need for filling the role of church geek for these smaller churches. While it would be difficult for me to be onsite at most other churches, I could at least be a technology adviser and take some of the pressure off the pastor so that they don't feel they needed to spend more time understanding technology than the scriptures.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Call Me Crazy

One of the disadvantages of being a bi-vocational pastor is that you don't really fit in at work anymore. What little career aspirations I ever had, have long since dissipated; they are gone like the morning mist when the sun rises high enough to burn it off.

Most of my chain of command don't understand my priorities and a number of them now see me as unmotivated because I'm not the first to step forward to seek extra responsibilities. I do stuff and I try to do it well, but it is viewed negatively that I want to arrive, do my assigned tasks and then go home. To this end, I suspect that should there be a need to reduce head count around here, my scalp would be near the front of the list. Please understand, I'm not feeling sorry for myself here, or asking for sympathy, I'm just being honest about my situation. And I actually work for a pretty good company, but like most corporations, they have trouble seeing past their own walls out into the real world.

So, crazy as it might seem, I am trying to get a startup business going in the evenings. Not that I have much time and not that I'm bored, but I feel the need to escape from Corporate America sooner rather than later. And even if they wanted to keep me around for years to come, the side-income would be reassuring.

So, what on earth can a busy pastor do that others might pay for? A good question and one that I have been pondering for a while.

I read (a few years ago so I don't remember where) of a principle for starting businesses. That principle was "Never move more than one step from your expertise". The example that the article used was the owner of a fish restaurant looking to expand and start a second business. The specialties of the owner were, fairly obviously, knowing about fish and running a restaurant. So options would include starting a different kind of restaurant, steak would be my vote or doing something else with fish, perhaps mail-order. Each of these options would be only one step away from the owner's core competency. On the other hand, starting a mail-order steak business would be two steps from his core, so that would be inviting trouble and it's good friend failure.

I see the logic in this principle and so I'll refrain from selling Tupperware and stay close to my core. As a geek, writing programs is the thing and especially interactive websites. As a pastor I know about pastoring and church stuff. Hmmm, so how to build off of one or both of those? Well ... drum roll please ... how about websites aimed at churches and pastors? Oh my goodness, I think I'm onto something here.