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Still not using Log Files in your app?

Have you ever had to contact support for a web app or a plugin to fix a problem, and the first thing they ask is for full access to your web server so they can “debug” the issue? 

This request frustrates me to no end. 

It is unprofessional, and it is lazy. 

The reason support asks for this is so they can run tests and inspect the results on your LIVE server. If that makes you nervous, it should! How can you know that they will not accidentally mess with your customers’ data? Not to mention all the privacy issues that crop up as soon as you hand your keys to a third party with no control. 

A proper way to deal with providing support for your app or your plugin is to add logs—a log file journals the activity and the data passing through your code. Inspecting a good log file will almost always let you know what the problem is and where the problem is. When a customer calls you for support, you only need to ask for the log files, not the keys to the server. 

In my experience, a good log file creates a breadcrumb trail that documents the data flow and the branching decisions in your code. Ideally, inspecting the log file alongside your code allows you to precisely follow along and determine what was wrong, without even having to run any code. 

A common mistake is to be unnecessarily verbose while at the same time not documenting the branching decisions. Silently discarded errors and exceptions are the usual pitfalls, and close second are if/else branches where only one of them leaves in a mark in the log. 

Security and Privacy

Now that you understand why log files are a must, especially in a client-server situation (like all the web applications), you need to be careful not to store sensitive data into the log file. Don’t store passwords or credit card numbers, and unless absolutely necessary, do not store emails. 

If sensitive data is required for you to be able to rebuild the data flow, make that available under a specific “log level” that is only activated on request. And in some cases, the entire log system can be activated only when trying to debug a problem. With this approach, however, you lose historical data that you need to fix the problem.

Always provide a way for an admin to flush the logs. 

Rolling Over

I am an overly enthusiastic user of log files. Simply because they work, and they speed up the process of solving problems. But there is a mistake that I kept doing for far too long. That mistake was no automatic rolling of the log files. What that meant is that the logs grew and grew until they would eat up all the allocated disk space. 

Oopsy! 

When using log files, decide when a log entry is too old and have an automated mechanism to remove those logs. Rolling the log files once a month (log1, log2, log3, etc.) and removing the very old files is a useful approach. 

If you don’t currently use log files, what is your strategy to support and debug your application while it is running on the customer’s LIVE server? I hope you will not say: “get root access and hack away until I find the bug” 🙂

Is your website really helping your business?

I know this seems like a silly question to ask in 2020, but I still see examples of websites that do not actually help (or not as much as they could).

For a website to be helpful, it needs to have a well-defined goal. And if you can track that, all the better!

Here are some examples:

  • it helps sell your products or services
  • it showcases your experience and expertise
  • builds a community
  • makes a bold statement about a cause you believe in and support

Website vs. Social Media

Social media gets a lot of attention today. It is tempting to focus on building a following there. We all know and follow “influencers” on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn. 

But who really owns that audience and that space? Hint: It is not the influencer. It is the social media company. 

On a social media platform, even if you create content, you are still the guest. You are still a product that gets attention back to the social media company. You and your business can be kicked out at any time with no explanation given or a way to get back. And everything you have built can fall like a house of cards. 

This is where your website can help in a big way.

At the very least, your website should build a mailing list as a way for you to be able to contact your audience directly and not depend on “the algorithm” or “boosting” your content. 

Unlike your social media page, the website is yours, and so is the mailing list. You may be forced to change hosting or email providers, but you don’t lose your audience or content, provided you are disciplined with your backups.

A website can be supplemented with a podcast. The podcast shows will also be distributed directly to your subscribers at no extra cost to you. There is no algorithm involved and no need to “boost” your content. A podcast has the added advantage that your distributing content cost does not increase with the number of subscribers, as it happens with your mailing list. You should, however, still invite your listeners to subscribe to your newsletter from time to time. 

The Take-Away

The take-away is that your website should do something, not just take up Internet space.

It should at least:

  1. build trust
  2. invite the user to subscribe to your newsletter or podcast
  3. have a clear value proposition and a call to action on the home page

How is your website doing? Let me know about your challenges in the comment section.

Just Quit!

Or better yet, don’t even start!

Quitting has a bad reputation, but it can be one of the best decisions you can make. 

As children, and later as students, we were often being told to “not be lazy”, and people who are busy or hard-working are applauded. 

But this advice is flawed in a subtle but dramatic way. Busy work is not the same as focused work. It is entirely possible to be busy all day and not accomplishing anything of importance.

The way we were taught in school was in 50 minutes blocks of something, and then we would be interrupted to do something else. 

The logic, they say, is that children get bored with one subject, and this switching adds diversity to the school day. But what it actually does is prevents anyone from going deep on any one topic. 

We carry this habit of “multi-tasking” into our adult life, and working on multiple projects at a time, doing a tiny bit of each day. 

I used to think that doing multi-tasking, I was productive, but I was just busy.

The Cost of Task Switching

This cost became extremely obvious to me when working on complex software projects. Just getting into the context of thinking where I left off would take up most of the hour, and then I’d have to switch to something else. My mind got an excellent workout, but my output grew at snail speed. 

Repeated task switching does not allow you to go deep and to build expertise. And it costs you time that will add up. It is a perfect recipe to become and stay average

The solution is to quit! Or better yet, don’t even start! 

If you don’t have it in you to finish this project or become the best at what you do, quit and choose something else. Don’t quit soon, quit now. Ignore the sunk costs: “but I’ve already invested so much in this!”

Quit, but quit strategically. Don’t become a serial quitter. Instead, quit so that you can focus on the projects you want and can finish. So you have the time and energy to become the best in the world at what you do. 

Quitting is especially important if you find yourself on a dead-end path. A dead-end path is different from a plateau. A plateau can be overcome; a dead-end cannot. Every second you stay on a dead-end path is a second wasted that could be spent on the other path, which would get you more fulfillment and personal growth. 

Dead-end paths could be a business that is now obsolete and dying, a job where you’ve become stuck in a rut, a project that is not moving forward despite your best efforts, or a relationship with no potential for growth. 

A quick aside about “The best in the world.”

Becoming the “best in the world” can feel very challenging until you realize that “the best in the world” does not mean “the best on the planet”. You get to choose and define your world, your market, the people you would like to delight, to be “the best” for. And you can grow from there. 

I will end with a quote from the book that inspired this article:

“Quit the wrong stuff.
Stick with the right stuff.
Have the guts to do one or the other.”

The Dip – by Seth Godin

Building ZAPs!

Since I recommended you build an API into your service that integrates with Zapier, I figured I might as well give it a try myself, and not just talk theory

I was shocked to finish the integration without having to write one single line of code

But I am getting ahead of myself. 

Part of my skill up plan is to take a deep dive into automation. What a better way to study than looking at what the masters are doing? Or, in this case: Zapier. 

I’ve fired up their tutorial and was getting ready to crank some code! 

I have integrated APIs before, and if the documentation was clear and with relevant examples, I could get the hang of it pretty quickly and then extend it easily. 

As I am progressing through the tutorial, it dawns on me that this integration will be created entirely online, in the Zapier UI, by answering some questions and filling forms! 

My mind was going: “it cannot be that simple! Each API provider has its own interface or authentication mechanism… you would have to write some adapter for that!” 

No, sir! Not so! 

If the APIs follow the standards when it comes to authentication and passing data around using JSON, then Zapier has you covered! 

You answer the questions, you fill out the forms as instructed… and you’re done! No code required! And since there is no code required, there is nearly zero chance of having a bug in your integration. How cool is that? 

Needless to say, I am impressed. And I got another confirmation of why following standards is a good idea. 

Not quite like building with Legos

Even though I did not write any code, it did not feel like building with Lego blocks. But more like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Because the APIs are very diverse, you need to spend some time to connect the right pieces in the correct order. But since everything is built via filling forms, you have validation available and tests. There is immediate feedback if what you are making is not working as you’d expect.

I did spend two hours getting the final step to work. I almost contacted Zapier’s support to inform them that their builder is broken, but in fact, the problem was with me :). 

I had a typo in one of the data fields, and the error message I was getting from the API I was using at the time was very misleading (apparently on purpose). So it took me two hours to find that typo in my configuration and get the Zap to work. Take away here: please make your error messages clear; it will save you time in the future!

Just as with finishing a complex puzzle, seeing the success message was so satisfying. 

Why all the fuss?

Building a Zapier integration is so simple and straight forward that I can easily see AI building integrations and ZAPs in the (very) near future. This means that if you decide to provide an API that can integrate with platforms like Zapier, your service may be used in ways you cannot even imagine. The pieces can be interconnected in infinite ways to create something new, exciting, and why not: disruptive!

Keep on creating the new paradigm. 

New Normal – Collaboration Tools – Asana

As I wrote in a previous post, the remote collaboration will become the “new normal,” so you might as well get comfortable with the tools. 

I bring up again the resistance to change. Know it is there, say “hello” to it, and then persist anyway. There are gems and diamonds on the other side! (And cookies if you like sweets).

Bribing aside, you can find dozens of tutorials on how to use Asana, so let’s instead dive into this question: “why bother?”

The challenges of “self-management”

School, and the first jobs I had, taught me to be obedient and to follow orders. This habit meant that someone else had to do the planning, issue the requests, and track the progress. 

When I broke off, on my own, choosing my projects and collaborators did not mean that I instantly knew how to self manage! Quite the opposite!

I was anxious that nobody was telling me what to do and when to do it. I perceived this responsibility as a burden. (spoiler alert – it is, in fact, great freedom, but it took me a while to wake up to that).

I began by writing my thoughts and things to do on pieces of paper. That worked so well for the first few days until I realized I was losing the pieces of paper, or some of the messages were no longer making sense because they had no context. (I had on a piece of paper this note in big, bold letters: “Very Important: 5“. To this day, I don’t know what was so important about that five.)

Next, I moved my notes to the computer. Each project had a “TO-DO.txt” file where I would write my tasks, and log my progress. This file worked well for many years. And I still use it today for small projects. With larger projects, it was getting more and more difficult to scan the file to see what is “done” what “needs to be done” and what is the deadline for each item. 

And there was another problem. I was continually checking that I did not miss anything from what I promised I would do and that I would deliver on time. This monitoring would crowd my attention by keeping mental track of dates and features and promises. Not much room left for creative thinking. 

I looked for a solution. I knew from the start that it had to be online. Why? Because I did not want to carry my computer with me to check on things. Ideally, I would log into a website and have everything there, accessible from wherever I have an internet connection.

The right tool for the job

I tested a couple of things, and the tool I like the most was Asana.

First of all, it has a free tier that has everything that I need. 

Second, it has an excellent design that makes sense. Think of it as an advanced “TO DO” list manager. That means you can easily add items; you can check them off as done; you can immediately see what still needs your attention.

These reasons were great, but what sold it to me was the feature to add “comments” for each item. I did not even know that I was missing this feature. Comments became essential for complex tasks, where I had to do research and keep track of my findings and have all that information connected with the relevant “to-do item.” A long text file with notes would become so hart to read that it would be useless. But items with their own set of comments, now that is very easy to digest at any time. 

The second thing was the reminders! When you set a deadline for a specific item, you will be emailed a few days in advance that you need to take care of that item. Now, I could relax and free my memory from all the dates and deadlines and allow the software to do that for me, knowing that I will not miss anything. 

The final reason is why I put this into the “collaborative tools” section. You can add more people into a project, share your list of items, add comments, and complete tasks. You no longer have to write emails working out with collaborators what needs to be done. Instead, you can assign a task to someone with two clicks, and they will get notified about it. A follow up to the email problem is that you can keep all the discussion next to the task, so you don’t have to search for an old email.

For a team (and even a solo project), this tool adds clarity! I have discovered that when you are clear on what needs to be done, it is much easier to build the confidence and the motivation to actually do it. 

In Conclusion: choose a small project and give Asana a go. Don’t just read this post and decide, but actually test it out and then decide if this can improve your workflow by freeing your mind to focus on the creative things and not project tracking. Look at this as an investment in yourself and your team.

Automation with Zapier

What do you value most? I hope that your answer is: “TIME.” 

Time is our most valuable resource because it is non-renewable. Wasted time is lost forever. And it could be argued that the reason we work so hard is to have enough resources. Resources that will allow us to spend more time doing the activities that we enjoy: activities like following your dreams, working on your business, spending more time with friends and family. 

I don’t know of any better time-saver in the online environment than automation.

Automation means to identify and formalize processes for the flows that make your business work and then use various tools to set them on “automatic.” This way, they can work even when you are not paying attention. It is like having an employee that is almost free and never sleeps or rests. 

In today’s world, the leading tool for automation online is Zapier

The idea behind Zapier is quite simple and yet profound because of the market they are speaking to. 

What happens is that in the online world of business, you have your website, your store, your payment gateway, customer engagement, webinar, emails, and so on. All these components need to talk to each other. What used to happen before, is that you, as the business owner would have to create and manually maintain this communication, usually based on email notifications you would get from various systems. 

The alternative was to hire someone to do it for you or hire a developer to write a custom program that would automate these processes. Both options could get pretty expensive.

There has been a shift in the past few years. Each of these services exposes an API. This API allows them to talk to each other in a clear and standardized way. With this option available, you would need somebody to integrate these APIs. To connect them in ways that make sense for your business. 

Here in comes Zapier! The beauty of it is that they have put together a platform that allows non-developers to visually express their processes and to connect all these components in a way that makes sense. This flow is testable (which is very important, you want to make sure that your automation works as intended), and you have analytics and an overview of what is happening.

There is a free tier for Zapier, but I want to get into the paid one because I think that is where the power is. You may shy away from paying them the monthly fee. So let’s explore that a bit. 

The way to think about choosing a paid plan is to make a business decision. Would paying Zapier a monthly free enough time and generate enough sales to cover for the costs and then some?

If you get their $20/mo plan, you need to only generate an extra $20/mo in sales for this option to make sense to you. But not only that. Also, consider the free time you now have to do something else, and how much you value that. Consider the money you would spend on a developer to set this up for you and then have it maintained. (By the way, I am not an affiliate for Zapier, I am just using them as an example to talk about automation)

In conclusion, we live in exciting times, where with a bit of patience and thinking through your processes, you can build your website and connect the required components with no need for a developer if you use a tool like Zapier. And this excites me because it enables even more people to express their creativity cost-effectively!

If you are reading this and you are a developer, then seriously consider exposing and API for your services and products and have them seamlessly integrate with Zapier. 

The Power of Using APIs

Many years ago, I had set up my very first website. It was a Sudoku generator based on a selected difficulty level.

To promote the website, I wanted to have a newsletter so I could email my subscribers a daily puzzle to print out.

At the time, I was using AWeber as my newsletter service.

I was very annoyed with the fact that to capture the email of my visitors I would have to send them to a new AWeber page where they would fill out a form, and then instruct them to go to their email to click the confirmation link, and that would get then to a confirmation page on AWeber, and then finally back to my website.

Those were way too many clicks to get yourself a printable sudoku puzzle!

What I wanted, was a way to plug into the AWeber service, and communicate with them, on my visitors’ behalf, while the visitors were staying on my website. What I wanted was an API, which is short for Application Programming Interface.

They did not offer that at the time, so I decided to simulate one by using a “fake browser” to make it “as if” the user has opened their page instead of my mine.

I was very proud of my solution, and it worked very well for about ten days until my account was banned for violation of terms of service.

Today they do offer an API, so I don’t have to resort to “shady tactics” to keep the users on my page.

I use this little story to make it evident why APIs are so powerful. I am all about automation and integration and the APIs make all this possible in a way that is reliable and makes sense and does not violate any agreements 🙂

I don’t think it makes sense to create an online service in today’s world and not to develop an API for it. Interconnectivity and interoperability increase the rate of adoption of your service. And you open it up to be used in ways that you may not even have imagined before and if you connect it, for example, to a platform like Zappier.

In conclusion, I feel that all software development is moving towards building APIs that will talk to each other. Even the front-end of websites will be a templating API making requests to a back end API.

This change will bring about dramatic shifts it what software developers do and will open the doors for non-developers to be even more expressive and sophisticated in their creations. Add AI to this mix, and we can only guess at the limits 🙂

The New Normal – Collaboration Tools – Google Docs

A new era of remote work and collaboration is upon us. And it is time to build a “new normal” as we have this excellent opportunity for a reset. 

I have mixed feelings about Google, but leaving that aside, for now, let us have a look at their Google Docs platforms and how to use it to collaborate with your team. 

My idea here is to share with you what is possible so you can make an informed decision if this is something you can use to support your project and your people. If you do like these features, there are plenty of YouTube tutorials on how to use them. 

As you go through this keep in mind the “sunk costs” of using old technology (MS Word… I am looking at you!):

– I am used to it, and it works just fine

– I don’t have time to learn something new

– This is too confusing…

Note that this is your brain resisting change. When you evaluate a new tool, honestly consider the question: “if I were a master as this would this help my project and my team?” and try to ignore the “I don’t want change” mind chatter. 

Back to business! 

To get the most out of this tool, you will need a Google Account. It’s free to get one – free as in you pay with your attention and your privacy. If that is fine with you, then let’s proceed. 

Top collaboration features:

1. Multiple Live Editors of the document

This is ideal when you work with your team over a Zoom or Skype call. It allows everyone to open the document on their device and start working on it. The changes will be visible to everyone nearly instantly. No more sharing of Word Documents around! 

Tip: it may be a good idea, for some projects, that each editor uses their own color, so you can know later on what you wrote and what others wrote. (This is just a simple solution to this the advanced way is “version control” explained last)

2. Make suggestions instead of edits!

This is based on (or similar to) the MS Word “Track Changes” feature. You need to change your editing mode to “Suggestions,” and now, all the changes you make will have your name attached to them, and they will be next to the old text (instead of overwriting the old text). This feature allows anyone to chime in when doing brainstorm and review. At the end, the author of the document can review all the suggestions and approve or reject them. This is such a powerful tool because you can instantly see on the side of the document if there are changes that you need to review, and you have the name of the person who suggested the change. On top of this, each change gets a comment section where you can ask for clarifications, or you can explain why your suggestion should be accepted. 

This is, by far, my favorite tool to use when working on a document that requires the team’s input.

3. Comments

This feature is similar to the previous one. But instead of editing the document in “Suggestions” mode, you select a piece of text and make a comment on it. 

This comment will create a discussion box around it. This feature is useful in some cases, but it lacks the quick “accept/reject change” buttons that a suggestion has. So any editing suggestion you make as a comment has to be manually typed into the document later. 

Comments are great to give feedback on the text regarding legibility or clarity because you are not suggesting a change, you just need the author to make some clarifications. 

4. Assigning Tasks

This tool does not replace a proper project management tool (like Asana or Trello) but, for small teams, it can work wonders! Using the comments or suggestion features, when the discussion box is open, you can notify someone (prefix their name with @), or you can assign that item to someone (prefix their name with +). 

The beauty of this is that they get an email notification, so they will know their input is required. And if you have assigned the item to someone, in their google drive view, next to the document name, they will see a number of pending issues that they need to resolve. 

I hope it is obvious how this can be used to keep track of what needs to be done in a small project, so you don’t have tasks being forgotten or now knowing who is supposed to work on them. 

5. Version History

This is the least used feature, but one of the most powerful. I am a big fan of backups. It allows me to move quickly and to make mistakes, knowing that I have a solid safety net. If I screw up, I can restore the old version, and everything is good again! 

For large documents and documents that need to go through many revisions, sometimes it is helpful to see a “history” of how the document grew, what was changed, why, and by whom. Google Docs allows you to do that out of the box because the document has in it a history of the changes. This is tracked automatically, you don’t need to do anything. 

You can, however, at some point, label one of the versions as, say, “Final Draft” or “Version 1 – Published” and later one “Version 1.1” and so on. These labels that you create make it easier for you and the team when you go back to look at the timeline to make sense of what are the important edit points. 

In software development, this tool is used a lot, and I know how powerful it is. If you are new to this “version control” thing, you may not see the power of it right away, but give it a go in a big project, and you’ll not regret it. You will no longer be afraid you make a mistake, or that someone in the team got in and accidentally destroyed the document with large copy/paste operation. You can always “go back in time,” to when things were in good shape! And when you are no longer concerned with making mistakes, you can allow your creativity to shine!

In conclusion 

I’ve stormed through these features. If there is one in particular that you like, look for YouTube tutorials about it and put it to good use! 

Go create something amazing!

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!”

Say No, so you can say Yes

My son was born two months ago. It feels like time got compressed. I used to be able to do so much and still have spare time.

But these days, I often find myself not able to finish doing what I set out to do. It often happens that I feel overwhelmed.

The new situation has forced me to look deeper at the concept of prioritizing your day.

A to-do list does not work.

Prioritizing is hard. It is hard because it is emotional work.

It is easy (and lazy) to say: everything on this list needs to be done today. It is hiding from the hard emotional work of prioritizing.

When you think about your priorities, you need to get clear with yourself about what is truly important for you. Where do you want to get, what do you want to accomplish, whom do you want to spend your time with.

You have to say “No” to many things on your list so you can say “Yes” to the most important one.

If I say “yes” to more computer time, I have to say “no” to more rest time, or I have to say “no” to more family time.

The truth is we all get 24 hours a day, and saying “yes” to everything is a trap. You are not being honest with yourself, and you are not brave enough to say “no” to distractions and to other “world emergencies” that have nothing to do with you.

When you work on a project, it is easy to want to do everything right from the start. From week one, if at all possible. But I have discovered that breaking down what I want to do in a list of priorities helps me ship the project faster and with the most impact. It also removes all the distractions I would hide behind. It shifts my thinking away from “what would be cool and pretty” towards “what has the most value and how can I deliver that most effectively”?

How about you? Does prioritizing come easy, or is it something that you avoid?