Story time: Lessons Learned from Contract Work

June 11, 2016 at 3:21 pm (Computer Science, Rant, Thinking) (, , , , )


A while ago, before I started my Masters degree, I tried to find contract work for the summer. I figured I’d need some extra cash when I would move to the east coast to do my Master degree later that year. One of the companies I approached needed a new website; their current one had information crammed in every inch of the view space and it only served up static data. I met with them to figure out exactly what they were after and then set out to build a prototype for them. It was very clear that they knew very little about technology or even what a new web site could do for them.

I took a week to build this prototype for them. It was an ASP.NET web portal with a database back-end, and the whole site was localized as they had a lot of international clients; which I saw as their most important requirement. For the front-end, I scraped most of their base website as their needs were mostly to provide clients with a private access portal, where they could manage their accounts and services. I contacted the company again and set up a meeting to show them what I had made. It had some rough edges (mostly because re-vamping their business-specific pages was a monstrous task that required subject expertise), but it met their needs and was maintainable. More-over, the prototype actually worked; users could sign in, register for services, and communicate using an internal messaging system.

During that second meeting, I received criticism and sarcasm over my prototype. His comments were along the lines of “why would I pay you for a website I already have”. Despite my explanations, he seemed unable to grasp the idea that his $10/month static website hosting was not capable of any of the things his company needed to provide. Because the interface consisted of the same content that he already had, he didn’t understand the amount of new functionality that he would have had with this new piece of software. I was pretty baffled that he couldn’t understand what I had created for him just to GET the contract; not even as a final product.

After several more days of back and forth and modifications to the front-end, I had made a very professional-looking product prototype. I spent effort to make sure it was organized and easy to follow (as far as a mock-up could go), and it still functioned very well for what his needs would be. As it turns out, he loved what it did (finally), but he decided to change his offer: his new offer was on the scale of $10 an hour (citing a bad economy). In addition to creating the whole thing, he also wanted permanent support for it, and he announced that since he was already paying for [static] hosting, he wasn’t going to pay a cent more for it.

At that point I decided I was done with trying to chase this contract. I very politely declined his new offer, and excused myself from his office. I had wasted about two weeks working on this prototype as well as the cost of parking for all of the meetings. I learned a lot of valuable lessons from the whole situation. Firstly, not everybody is capable of understanding vision; some people are just moving objects, not able to see where they’re going. These people need to be dealt with very carefully with “kid gloves” to avoid them from getting in the way of themselves.

Secondly, assertive communication is of paramount importance. If I had forced the questions that I knew needed to be asked, I could have perhaps avoided the whole situation. I wasn’t prepared for others trying to take advantage of me, and I definitely did not ensure we were on the same page. Always be assertive, especially in business.

Lastly, never underestimate the power of idle time. I ended up taking the rest of the summer off to relax and mentally prepare for the stress involved in moving across the country and starting a new endeavor. I finally understand how critical it is to step away from life and take time to clear one’s head.

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Updates: June 10, 2016

June 10, 2016 at 10:55 am (Art, Java, memory palace, Programming, Rant, Thinking) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )


I’ve been working on a number of different things as well as thinking about my next steps and goals for the year. Here is a point-form list of some of the projects and endeavors I’ve been spending effort on in the past couple weeks:

  • I set up a home Linux server. I wanted a local, private Git repository as well as a machine to host some automated processes and apps. Things have been working out very well on this front. It’s been a great learning experience on top of it as well as I haven’t really used Linux in a decade or more. I installed a desktop version of Ubuntu, but I’ve been sticking to using the terminal as much as possible to expand my sphere of knowledge.
  • I’ve been working on my coding skills and algorithm knowledge. I always have some sort of coding project on the go, but recently I’ve been so focused on my front-end skills that I’ve let my core skills droop a bit. To get back up to par, I’ve been solving a lot of coding problems in Java as well as figuring out some algorithms that I haven’t touched in a while. I decided to start basic with heaps and heapsort, then moved on to KMP string matching, and now I am working on suffix tries/trees. I’m going at a slow pace with this though so I can not only code solutions, but also store them in my mind palace.

   Preparing an algorithm for long-term mind palace storage pretty much consists of tearing the algorithm down to its basic elements in your mind and trying to make a story out of it. For example, I’ve decided to store the KMP string matching algorithm in a kitchen in one of my mind-rooms, so I compared the process to making spaghetti. Comparing noodles of different length was the basis of the story. I also had to work in the generation of the prefix table for the search pattern. For this, I’ve been toying around with adding some sort of “sauce” to the story to indicate the comparisons of the prefix to suffix for each length of the pattern noodle.

   I think that I’m finally starting to outgrow the hub room I’ve been using for my computer science mind palace. It was a good index for classes of algorithms so I could always see what tools were at my disposal, but it’s getting too cluttered now.

  • I’ve also been doing a lot of general-purpose reading. I visited the library not long ago and “accidentally” walked away with between 10-15 books. Some of these were painting-related so I could learn some new techniques and composition skills, but I also picked up some interesting biology books. One of these is a book on viruses (the non-computer version). I’ve been learning a lot about how they operate as well as how they’re being used/manipulated today. Bacteriophages are being produced to one day replace antibiotics, and I find the whole thing fascinating (phages are a type of virus that goes after bacteria instead of humans).
  • In addition to practicing my coding/problem solving skills, I’ve also been working on learning and using some new technologies; at least new to me. I’ve been fiddling with the Play framework, which is a web platform. I wasn’t really impressed with it at the start as you have to use a self-hosted web app just to create a project structure, but beyond that it seems really nifty. My next area of interest within this framework is the Ebean integration, which allows for a fun way to connect objects to databases without having to write scripts and stored procedures. There are also some features to allow syncing a database to ElasticSearch automatically, which will be fun.
  • The Android platform is another area I am learning about lately. I’ve set up my development environment and I’ve been learning about the SDK for creating apps. It seems like there are a lot of different approaches to building Android apps, especially as the SDK has been evolving. It has made things a little awkward to get started (as there are many references on the internet to doing things the “old” ways), but I think I’m past that hurdle now. My only real problem now is that I haven’t been spending enough time on this project.

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Painting: Roughly Autumn

June 2, 2016 at 10:34 am (Art, painting) (, , , , )


Here’s one of my paintings from last month. I used an existing painting to get a better idea for subject matter. It’s acrylic paint on a 10″ x 10″ canvas.

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