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Working from Home – Choose to embrace it

I didn’t plan to write about current events, but maybe this will help. 

I have made the transition to work from home a long time ago. The fact that I decided to do that and was not forced to do it, I am sure helped, but here are some things that I have learned that I would like to share with you.

I am also going to assert that you care about your work, and you want to continue, instead of merely taking time off now that “nobody is watching.” 

Your working Space

You need to have your distraction-free working space. It helps you with the discipline of “going to your office” every day. 

Your working Mode

Now that you work from home, you may be tempted to binge-eat while you work, to stay in your PJs, browse the YouTube, and latest news. Don’t do that. It will mess up with your focus and with your ability to do something productive for the day. 

As time passes and you get more disciplined, your working mode may include PJs and peanuts, but don’t start with that. Continue to “dress for success.” All of this is more of a “mind game” than anything.

Do not overwhelm yourself

The home office is a big change. Most humans don’t generally like change. The outside world is also going crazy. Be honest with yourself. Your energy and your ability to focus is not the same as it was before this change. Don’t overcrowd your workday. You are only setting yourself up for disappointment and burnout. 

There are many ways to do time management, but that I would suggest for this time is “the promise for today.” This way, you promise to do one important thing that can be done in a day and you do it. Yes, I said “ONE” (not ten). But I also said “important.” Trust me, drip by drip, you will make steady progress instead of burnout after burnout. 

Take care of your body.

It’s common sense, but let’s make it common practice. Drink water, take some pauses to stretch and walk around, look in the distance to relax your eyes, or better yet close them for a few minutes. This time is not an excuse to get out of working mode and binge on distractions. 

There is a tech solution for almost everything.

I don’t know what your work involves, but there is likely an app, a service, a new way of using technology to help you work from home. From remote access to files, to voice over IP, to Zoom calls and screen sharing, find your tools that can help. It can be done. If you don’t know how to do it, ask for help. Asking for help does not make you an idiot; it makes you efficient. 

We are all in this together.

It can get lonely when you work from home. Setup video calls with your team, even if only for 5 minutes after lunch. Call a friend for a “one on one – how are you doing conversation.”

But most of all, be compassionate and patient. The person at the other end of the line, computer, phone, service is in the same situation as you. They also are going through a big change, they also have family members to worry about, they are also concerned about the unknown future. Humanity first, business second. 

Keep positive

I am a strong believer in keeping your immune system in high gear. Stress can affect it dramatically, so stay positive as best as you can. Take things one day at a time. Make room for humor and play in your work. And when you are done working, I invite you to help another. You may have skills that are needed, knowledge than can be shared, but also a smile, a warm hug, or a deep “I see you” connection can go a very long way. 

“Live long and prosper!”

Business Monitor App

If you spend long enough taking care of websites and making sure they work, you will begin to do the same things over and over again. Is the online store working? Can Google access the website? Do the emails go out as expected? Is the newsletter signup box working? Is my website up or down? 

If you have to monitor only one website and it is relatively simple, then you can do this manually, and it is also likely you will quickly notice if something gets broken. But when you need to manage tens of websites, all these tiny checks add up and eat away at your productivity. 

We live in the era of automation.

We live in the era of automation (possibly the age of AI), so there must be a better way, right? 

Yes, it is. 

Any repetitive action can be programmed. To help me out, I have created a web application that I call the Business Monitor App. 

This web app runs independently of all the other websites, and it is programmed to “keep an eye” on them. 

When an unexpected event happens, it sends me an email alert so I can take action if needed. 

I quickly realized that I could go beyond simple server monitoring and do some business monitoring as well (hence the name of the app). 

This improvement means generating a daily report with what has happened on the website in terms of sales, traffic, sources of traffic, subscribers, and social media activity. All this compared to the previous day. It is a handy tool to make sure that you are on track with meeting your business goals. And if any monitored index drops all of a sudden, that is a clear sign of a problem. That becomes highlighted, and I know I need to take action. 

The business monitor takes the guesswork out of how much revenue to expect at the end of the month. Or if the current promotions are working or not. It has made everything more predictable, and you know to intervene soon if it the trend shifts, and it looks like you will not meet your goals at the end of the month. 

On top of the daily report, the app generates a dashboard called “The Business Pulse.” Looking at that page, you can see at a glance where you’re at with what is important to you. Revenue, traffic, user activity, subscribers churn rate, best-performing products. 

Next, I have created some reports that go deeper into the data and link together more websites into aggregated reports. 

Why not just use Google Analytics for this? 

Simply because I like the flexibility of building the reports that are relevant to me and generate the kinds of alerts that I need to take action on. Also, because some of the monitoring cannot be done through the Google Analytics data, and finally, because most reports aggregate data from multiple sources: website databases, google analytics, social media and newsletter service.

This app gives me peace of mind that if something goes wrong, I will find out quickly. And not only that, but scanning the dashboard and looking at the historical trends, I can usually spot instantly what the problem is, saving me a lot of time in having to debug. 

How do you monitor your business to make sure you stay on track with your goals? 

Building a learning community website

The Challenge

Build a learning community website with the following requirements: 

  • subscription-based (behind a paywall)
  • forum for discussion
  • library with classes and materials
  • live calls with the students and the teachers
  • newsletter 
  • easy to use for both the young and older audiences 
  • accessible 

The solution

– base platform: Joomla!. In my experience, it is more secure than WordPress. It is component-based, which to me, makes more sense when you want to build a platform. Also, because it is component-based, it can be faster than WordPress that has to load all the plugins all the time.

– for the forum, I’ve used Kunena. I cannot say I like it a lot, but it was the natural choice for a Joomla! based platform. The interface is also common enough to make sense for an older audience. I have considered using Discourse, but it failed for the accessibility requirement.

– DocMan was the choice to manage our document library. The good part is that it can protect documents from being publicly accessible. The bad part: it feels clunky to navigate on the front end, and for some reason, the download feature is not working correctly on iPhones (but that could be Apple’s fault)

– after trying a couple of things, Zoom is the clear winner and choice for the Video Live Call that we have at least once a month.

– for the newsletter, the AcyMailing component is the professional choice. I like the flexibility of it better than MailChimp, and we get to have all the data. The challenge here was that our server is not doing well with email deliverability, so we did have to get an external mailing service like Mandrill (from MailChimp) to plug into this component. A big lesson learned here: if email deliverability is important to you and your users go PRO with a paid service. It will save you a lot of pain and headache. And in the long run, it may actually save you money by simply providing a reliable experience for your userbase. 

– ease of use was accomplished with custom modifications for the mobile version and by using a user experience that most people are accustomed to. For example, I have discovered that Discourse tends to not make sense for people used to the older forum software.

– accessibility meant we could not use Discourse. And to also consider a high contrast theme for specific users.

– for handling the subscriptions, I have used Community Builder and their CB Subs plugin. I cannot say I love it, but after a lot of customization work, it does the job right and reliably.

Add-ons and Customizations

– added a calendar to help better organize events in the community. DPCalendar does a great job with this.

– added a private messaging system – Udeimm – the code base is super old, and it tries to maintain backward compatibility with older Joomla! software. But it works. And with some custom work, it works very well. I like the fact that it integrates with CB and Kunena. (Oopsy… looks like development for this component has ended. Which is a shame. It was the best PM solution for Joomla!)

– for the forum, I had to code it a tagging system to allow users to tag each other using the @username system. This increases engagement and makes it easier for the users to let each other know if there is something of interest on the forum

– I have installed JChatSocial – it was a “cool thing” in the beginning, but I don’t see it as a popular feature. Also, it is not accessible, and the developers do not plan to make it so. With this plugin, I also have some performance concerns. I don’t think it can work for large communities. 

– added a custom made notification system to make it easier for a user to know when something important is happening: like an event, or announcement or someone tagging them or sending them a private message

– added web push notifications (for those that use Android or the desktop) – allows for better engagement and for users to more quickly respond to what is happening on the platform

– added a custom Joomla component to allow users to track their progress through the material on the website: the classes, the events, and assigned homework

Why a custom build? 

If I were to start again today, I would probably look for a platform that has all my requirements built in. I would also consider a hosted service. This would free me up from having to maintain, update, and secure the software. And I could use the free time to engage in other community-building activities. 

However, I am a nerd at heart, so I would miss the flexibility that I currently have to get my hands dirty and customize the entire experience in the way that I or our users like it. Because of this, the platform has grown and adapted to our users instead of forcing the users to adapt to a “ready-made” solution. 

This is a choice that I constantly have to make: do I want to be “the developer” or “the manager.” The developer can feel more rewarding as it appeals to my coding skills. But the manager is enticing too as get to focus more on the human aspect of it, and less on the technical side. 

I will conclude that I am proud of what I have built for WalkWithMeNow.com. 🙂

Innovation is messy

A hard lesson I have learned recently. 

I like to be right. I like to be efficient. I like to do things the correct way the first time around. I would like to believe that my experience would allow me to do so. 

But some projects present an interesting problem. To understand the problem, let’s imagine we are the architects of a tall and spectacular building

We know how the building is supposed to look. We know what purpose it will serve and who will use it. With this information, we can start making our plans starting from the ground up. We design a solid foundation, and then we layer on top of that floor after floor until we finish. 

However, this is not innovation. Is following a well-established workflow where there are little to no unknowns. We can make good decisions about what materials to use where and a reasonable estimate about when the job will be done. We don’t expect many surprises along the way. 

But what if we have this idea to use a new material, and design this building to serve some innovative purpose that no one has done before. Now there is no way to lay down a solid foundation because you cannot answer the question: “solid for what?”. 

You may discover halfway through that most design decisions do not help you achieve your vision due to some unknown limitation that was invisible right until you got to this point. So you have to dynamite the whole thing, learn your lessons and try again. 

Large, innovative software projects are like that. The architecture you started with may have looked great in the beginning but ends up feeling very limiting when you suddenly realize you need to make a dramatic shift in your project, and your “foundation” does not allow for it. Tearing down a software project is free, compared to dynamiting a building, but you still won’t get your money back from all the work that you cannot use anymore. 

But not all is lost. Because in this process of trying and failing, you learn and you grow into your idea. You stumble into the things you didn’t know that you didn’t know. And drip by drip, you make the unknown, knowable. 

This “failing often” is a challenge for me to accept and work with because it feels wasteful. In hindsight, “I could have done better!”. But thinking like that is a trap, and it suffocates the very creativity required for innovation. You need to be ok with failing often. 

Now that we can agree that innovation is messy and it feels wasteful, what can we do about it? 

1. Don’t start with a big spectacular thing. Instead, try to come up with an MVP (minimum viable product) that you can build on (or next to) in the future. 

2. Budget for the messiness and the learning process. Make sure you have enough money to make the mistakes required to get the learning experience you need to bring your idea to life.

3. Aim for many small mistakes, so you don’t make one massive “end of game” mistake. This idea expands on (1) above. Move fast, but take small steps. This approach will make it easier to backtrack and change direction. Significant commitments are giant leaps forward that give you less flexibility to turn around. 

4. Don’t worry about optimization and edge cases in the beginning. If you do, you may end up doing tedious and lengthy work on a feature that may not even make it into the final product.

5. Try again tomorrow. Some days it may feel like you are getting nowhere, and this is all doomed to fail. That is normal. Take a break, go back to the original vision that got you excited and try again tomorrow. 

6. Be patient. You are playing the long game.

7. Once you have your MVP, you can start again and “do it right” this time. It will no longer be innovation because you have learned your lessons. Now is the time for the polished, optimized, and secured product. 

How do you deal with innovation in your projects?

The DEATH of FTP as a deployment tool

Some years back, a client of mine was having issues with her order confirmation emails not being delivered to her clients. 

Testing the website, it looked like the process was suddenly stopping right after the payment confirmation. The webpage was blank, and the logs were incomplete — classic symptoms of a fatal or critical error in the code. 

The problem was that on my local copy of the website, I could not reproduce the issue. Everything worked fine. 

Many hours later, out of desperation and frustration, I decided to a full comparison between my mirror and the live website. If the code and the database were the same, then I had to get the same results. Since that didn’t happen, I had to conclude that something was out of sync. 

The code was in sync, but some of the files were present on the live server that I was missing on my test machine. Those files present on the server were causing PHP to load a different set of classes than what I would have expected. An older version of code was used that was not compatible with the newer shopping cart.

So how did this came to be? 

Eventually, I realized that by using FTP to deploy my code, I would be able to create new files or update existing ones, but I had no idea that some files had to be removed. 

FTP uploads were always additive. Old, unused files never got removed, and sometimes, their simple presence on the server would mess up with how the code was being loaded and executed. And this issue is rather difficult to discover and debug. 

I tried to manually keep track of files that should be removed before the upload. That works with simple, small projects, but it quickly breaks down when you need to deploy tens or thousands of files. 

I realized that with FTP uploads, I was never sure that my local work was in perfect sync with the LIVE software.

Transitory states

There is another scenario where FTP uploads cause issues. 

Imagine a popular web application with a shopping cart. If we need to update this application with some significant changes for plugins or core updates, using FTP to upload the files one by one creates this problem: for a couple of minutes to half an hour, some of the files are new, and some are old. Visitors who are in the middle of using the web app or making a purchase will suddenly notice all kinds of strange error because the code is in a transitory state: old files mixed with new and not always playing along. Depending on your project size and target audience, this may not be an issue, but if you have a high traffic web store, you may be losing money and also looking un-professional if you do updates like this. 

The final nail in the coffin

I have had this happen to me a couple of times. I am fixing something or working on a new feature. I am testing everything thoroughly to make sure nothing breaks. Once I am confident, I push the upload button on my FTP program, and I watch the progress bar impatiently. When finished, I load the LIVE website, and disaster strikes… errors all over the place, even on the home page. 

My mind races to come up with a possible quick fix, but it comes up blank. How I wish there were a “revert” button in my FTP program! It takes me some very long minutes to manually revert the FTP upload with the previous files and get the site working again. And then I am left with this puzzle: it still works on my test machine, it fails on the LIVE server, but I don’t have a way to test why, without breaking the web app while I am doing my investigation. And that is not very professional in my book. 

A faster, safe, better way to deploy your work

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a “deploy” button that would create a perfect mirror of your work on the live server, with no extra or missing files? And wouldn’t it be nice if this would happen with ZERO downtime for the LIVE app and no transient state for the code? And if disaster strikes wouldn’t be lovely to have a “revert” button and get everything near-instantly back in working condition?

Is this even possible? 

Of course, it is. I think everything is possible in the software world!

Enter “Deployer”

In my quest to find a tool and a workflow that would allow for perfect and zero downtime deployment and the ability to rollback my changes in a precise and complete way, I found a PHP tool called Deployer

And their idea is quite simple actually, but brilliant. On the live server, you don’t have only one copy of the code, but instead multiple versions. 

When you deploy your changes, a new version gets created from your updates, and when this process is complete without any errors, the web app is instantly flipped to the new code! 

If there are problems, there is a “revert” command that instantly flips the web app to the previous working versions. 

To use “Deployer,” you need a certain kind of workflow. 

My favorite is using git and GitHub to get my new code published on the live server. Using git in your workflow means that you need to be able to run git commands on your live server. Another requirement is the ability to use “composer” to download or update the third-party vendor libraries directly on the live machine, significantly reducing the time necessary to create the new version of the website. 

What this means is that you have to choose your hosting carefully (here is my affiliate link to SiteGround) and to make sure that your workflow is compatible with using a versioning system like git. 

This process takes a bit of getting used to and some setup time in the beginning, but the fast, safe, and revert-able deploys will give you peace of mind and speed up the time you roll out your updates or fixes. 

It is time for the FTP Uploads to Rest In Peace.

SSO – Single Sign-On – One Ring to Rule them all!

I am sure you have noticed most of the software services today that require you have an account allow you to “Login with Google” or “Login with Facebook.”

That is very convenient for your potential users and customers as Facebook and Google are so ubiquitous. 

The process above is a form of Single Sign-On. The user logs in only once into Google and then uses that login to authenticate themselves into various other software services that accept Google as an “identity provider.” 

The term “identity provider” is what Google and Facebook do when they allow you to use their services to authenticate your users. 

I was reluctant to use an external identity provider before, because I had assumed that it would mean that you do not “own” your user base, but instead Google does, and they could cut access on a whim. But that is not the case. If you request and are granted access to the user email, you can still get in touch with them, even if Google or Facebook will refuse to do business with you anymore, for whatever reason. 

So it makes sense to add such a feature to your service because it will make it much easier to adopt. 

For larger companies that manage multiple applications and services, it is possible, and it makes sense to implement their own Identity Providers to create the Single Sign-On capability.

Potential Pitfalls

A big challenge that I found with using Identity Providers is “session management,” which means keeping track of the “logged in user.” For example, if the user logs out of Google and logs in with a different account, your application needs to be able to spot this and create a new session for the new account. Otherwise, you risk exposing private data to the wrong person.

The Technical Side

Implementing Identity Providers and consumers it is relatively easy now because they are standard, so you can find ready-made libraries that will make the connection a breeze. 

The libraries I have worked with that I can recommend are:

For Php Composer:

– The PHPLeague / OAuth2-Server 

– The PHPLeague / OAuth2-Client 

WordPress Client Plugin:

– OpenID Connect Generic Client (this required some modification as it was not implementing all the requirements out of the box.)

What does it mean to add value to your customers?

“How can I add value?”

This is the question I write at the bottom of my daily planner almost every day. Why? Because I want to train my brain to think in those terms. Why? Because I hear this is the key to success.

I never managed to answer this question adequately. And I had the insight that I need to answer a different question first! And that is:

“What does it mean to add value to your customers?”

Looking at this question, I realized that my efforts have been selfish. I was concerned with “my success.” The reason I wanted to add value is that I become successful by doing so. 

This question forces me to face the fact that I don’t know what “value” means for my customers. Yes, I can make guesses, but I don’t truly know. 

So many times, I have been tempted and followed through with this idea: what I do is valuable to me, so it must be valuable customers too. And if they didn’t see the value, that was their loss! This approach has resulted in projects that are too complex or in features that I thought were cool, but the customers did not care about them. 

And this has happened because I never paused to ask: “what is valuable to my customer?”.

Value is very subjective, I have discovered. I don’t handle loss very well, so I have a reliable backup policy. But others are much more willing to start over again, so backup is not essential. 

I value aesthetics and elegant design. But most of my customers value ease of use and the ability to manage the website themselves. 

I also have discovered that I am biased. And my bias is not the same as my customer’s bias. 

The first step in discovering what it means to add value to my customer is to be humble enough to admit that I don’t know and that I need to have a discussion. In this discussion, I need to ask the customer what is valuable to them, and if required, to help them discover their values in that process. I also need to set my bias aside and truly understand where the other person is coming from. 

The second step is for me to determine if we are a good fit. Based on what I now know about my customer’s values, can I truly serve them in their best interest? And sometimes the answer is no. And in this case, I have to send them away. 

But there is a way to refuse to work with someone that is not selfish. You can still add value by making a recommendation and send them to a specific someone else (your competition), instead of simply turning them down. This way, interacting with you has still got them one step closer to solving their problem, and you have been generous and trustworthy enough to recommend another person for them to work with. You may have lost a client, but you have earned trust, and in today’s world, trust is precious. 

So how can I add value to my customers? It first starts with showing empathy and meeting them where they are at. And in some cases, it means saying “no” and pointing them in a different direction.

Credits: my viewpoint on marketing and adding value is shaped in great part by people like Chris Do, Seth Godin, and Blair Enns.

Why do I write?

I am writing for both selfish reasons and generous reasons.

The selfish reason is that as I write, you will perceive me as an expert: someone who knows what he is talking about. And when you need help with your online business, you will feel confident to ask me.

Another selfish aspect is simply training. When I sit down to write, I have to put my thoughts in order. I make a mental plan; I consider what the message that I want to share is, why would you care, and how can I make it interesting. Writing gives me clarity, and it also forces me to consider the value of my processes.

The generous reason for writing is to teach. My aim with each post is for you to feel you have learned something useful that you can apply in your online business. Reading this post, you may feel inspired to write too. And a tip I have is: don’t write about you. Instead, write for your customers or the people you want to serve.

I will end this with a thank you to my brother. He is the one who first encouraged me to write and got me over: “my writing has no value” mindset.

How do you find customers?

I know this is a burning question in the minds of many entrepreneurs and freelancers. 

I don’t have a “how-to” guide that will guarantee your success, but I would like to share my perspective because it is not just about getting more business, but also about creating a better world for everyone :). I also admit that what I about to share does not apply to everyone or every business model.

My first customer was my first employer. They were buying what I had to offer, my unpolished, raw programming skills fresh out of school. I did not like that customer, but they taught me a lesson: 

your customers should find you, rather than you finding them. 

It took me almost a decade to understand it, though. 

My second customer was my second employer. But this time there was a big difference. They called me, and I had to decide if I wanted to work for them, not the other way around. They had already decided they wanted me there.

This may seem like luck, and that is what I also thought for a while. But it happened again with the third employer. And after that, I stopped being an employee and became a freelancer. And the people I work with today found me. 

It wasn’t until I read about inbound marketing that I understood what was going on. And that, in fact, luck was just a part of it, and maybe not the most significant part. 

What I was not doing was not sitting around, waiting for clients to call. I was continuously working. Either to improve my skill or to generously solve other people’s problems. 

When I began my freelance work, I’ve spent the first two years doing volunteer work. And they have been the best years. In those times, I would only do work that was profoundly satisfying to me. And I discovered how nourishing it is for the soul to be able to choose the people you are working with or working for. 

To paraphrase Seth Godin, the way to get clients is to do work that matters for people who care and to do so generously.

Contact forms done right!

What is worse than nobody contacting you for business? It is having to deal with a lot of Spam. Spam takes away from your attention, and it can potentially drown a valid contact request or a genuine request for support. 

I will be talking here about WordPress and specific plugins, but the general principles apply to other technologies as well. 

The contact form is an essential part of your business. You can get both feedback about how you are doing, but also it is a way for customers to quickly reach out to you, or for leads to ask presale questions. 

The easiest way to get a contact form in WordPress is to use Contact Form 7

But just installing and activating the plugin is not enough. There are two extra steps that I suggest you do:

First: get rid of SPAM. 

Yes, I know, in the first few weeks or months there will be no problems, but as soon as a script bot discovers you it will send a ton of Spam, and that will also affect your server reputation and your ability to send out email. Don’t wait for that to happen. 

To get rid of Spam activate and configure the CAPTCHA test. The one from Google works best, and I choose it most of the times. (If privacy is a big concern from you, I don’t know if Google can be trusted, so shop around!)

Second: Safeguard against email failure.

The way a simple contact form usually works is to accept the submitted message and then email you (the website owner) with the contact message. 

This way used to work well, but with the ever-increasing Spam problem, there is a chance that the contact email will never reach you. When and if this happens, you will never know. Unless…

Unless you also save the messages on the server where you can review them later. For this, I use the companion plugin Flamingo. Aside from making sure you don’t lose your messages, this collection of data can become a treasure when it comes to customer research: most common questions asked, or problems in interacting with your products and so on.

Bonus: Integrate with an auto-responder.

When you begin to get more messages than you can quickly respond to, a nice touch is to use an auto-responder to provide some quick tips or to reassure your visitors that you will get back to them as soon as you can.

When you do use Flamingo or an auto-responder, make sure you update your privacy policy to inform your users about that and be GDPR compliant.

A look into the (not so distant) future.  

Soon contact forms will be replaced with virtual agents/assistants. This is already happening, and it will be a game-changer — more about AI in a different article.