Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Two years in paradise

Looking down the peninsula from Timothy Hill upon our arrival

Living on the small Caribbean island of Saint Kitts

The good stuff

One of the things I truly enjoy here is being in the water. I usually snorkel at least once a week and have taken up a bit of a hobby with underwater photography.

Learning to scuba dive was amazing too!

I also try to hike at least once a week. The volcano on the north side of the island hosts the famous "Crater Hike" -- a challenging yet very doable climb up to about 3,000ft.

There's not a whole lot to do (besides chores) on the weekends, so we often head to the beach. Beach days are great. You can often find your own little spot, or join up with friends for a beach BBQ.

What else is great about St. Kitts? It's quiet -- especially outside of tourist season. And you can hang your laundry and have it dry in a few hours.

The not-so-great stuff

So what about the downside to living in paradise? Well, there's a few things.

The price of housing is not terrible, but it's not cheap either. You can expect to pay as much for a 2-bedroom condo as you might in a mid-range North American city like Toronto or Chicago.

Photo: Michael Henville

Food can be expensive. Note that this is $30.30 ECD = $11.22 USD = $14.80 CAD. We end up spending about twice what we do for groceries back home. And we don't eat extravagantly. In fact, there are some food items you just can't get on island, so you often just make do without.

Photo: Only in St. Kitts

Cars, cars, cars... where do I begin? Cars are old. And expensive. And terrible. A "reasonable" car will cost you a minimum of $5,000 USD.  That will get you an "island car."

This generally means that the air conditioning stopped working long ago, several of the doors have locks and windows that no longer work, and most of the engine and suspension components have been replaced with parts that "approximately" fit.

Why not just import a car then? Great idea. You can buy some nice used cars from Japan for less than $1,000 USD. However, by the time you add freight and insurance, you're up to $3,000 USD. Then you add VAT + customs + import duties and all of the sudden you're pushing $9,000 USD.

Photo: Only in St. Kitts

Once you finally get your car, you have to face Kittitian roads and driving hazards, of which there are many. Speed limits are a rough suggestion, so you have half the traffic crawling at 40km/h and the other half passing around blind corners at 100km/h.

Finally, there's the cost of electricity. The average American household uses about 900kWh per month, with warmer states like Texas and Louisiana using as much as 1200kWh. This generally costs between $100-$150 USD/month.

We used a small fraction of that amount (322kWh) since we do not run air conditioning, and our bill came to $225 ECD = $83 USD.  We are paying around $0.70 ECD/kWh = $0.26 USD -- more than twice the average US rate of about $0.125/kWh.


Overall, you can see there are many great advantages to living in paradise, as well as a few downsides.

If you are willing to accept or overlook the annoying parts, you can truly enjoy the island for all of its beauty and uniqueness.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Being wrong

Anyone who knows me knows one simple thing: I really, really hate being wrong.

Everyone does.

Nobody likes the feeling you get when you realize you're going to have to eat some humble pie.

Mmmm... pecan humble pie

But over the years, I've learned important lessons about how to handle this situation.

I had one of these moments recently while registering a new car here on the island -- a long process that takes several hours and visits to 4 different places. (Traffic police, bank, insurance company, inland revenue)

At the very first stop, the police traffic division, we realized that we were missing one of the two vehicle identification numbers. (Unlike American cars, Japanese vehicles have two VINs)

The number had not been entered on any of the previous documentation. I had this situation with a previous car, and they went ahead and entered it with just the one number.

This time they insisted they needed both numbers. I pushed back and tried to explain that there was no number to be found. Several officers came out and looked over the car. They couldn't find the number either, but suggested that maybe it was hidden by dirt.

We actually drove to the store, bought some cleaning wipes, and wiped down the area where the officer thought the number would be. Still no number.

After much more back and forth, they finally insisted that I take it to a mechanic because they would know where the number is.

I was absolutely sure there was no number, but agreed to visit a mechanic, figuring I could get some kind of number that I could bring back.

So we drove to the mechanic. It took him less than 30 seconds to wipe off some dirt and reveal the number.

This was the exact instant I realized I had been wrong.

A flood of anger, excuses, and blame filled my head: Stupid car. Stupid place to put a number. Stupid construction with all that dirt that covered up the number. Stupid traffic cops for not just taking the one number and wasting all this time.

A second later, however, I was able to kick back to rationality. I smiled at the young mechanic, thanked him warmly, and give him some money, even though he wasn't expecting or asking for any.

I got back into the car and immediately explained how I had been wrong and the traffic cops had been right. There was a number, and just like they suggested, it had been covered by dirt.

We went back, got our form stamped, and sailed through the rest of the steps without incident.

Specific lesson learned: Sometimes the thing you need is right in front of you, but obscured by filthy buildup.

General lessons learned: 1) Don't be bull-headed. 2) Don't be afraid to ask an expert for help.

And here's the overall life lesson: The very second you realize you've screwed up, you need to:

  1. Admit to yourself that you're wrong
  2. Admit to others that you've made a mistake
  3. Apologize if your mistake has harmed others
  4. Resist the very human urge to blame others -- at least some of the blame lies with you
  5. Most importantly, think about what you can change to avoid making the same mistake again
It's not at all easy, but if you can follow these steps, you'll grow, evolve, and become better at everything in life.

If instead you don't admit it, blame others, and refuse to learn from your mistake, you'll fail, stagnate, and keep making the exact same mistakes... over and over again.

Friday, July 31, 2015

5 years in the smartphone industry

5 years ago, in July 2010, I made a bold prediction that Microsoft would purchase Blackberry.

The Past

At the time, Blackberry was still the clear leader, with over 40% of the market:

Even then, however, the trend was crystal clear. Apple had already caught them off guard, and Blackberry was slowly bleeding away market share.

Meanwhile, Android was gaining quickly at everyone else's expense. Just look at the monthly increase in the graph above.

At the time, it was obvious to me that Microsoft and RIM needed to combine forces if either one was to stand a chance.

There were lots of rumors to that effect -- in 2011, 2013, and even earlier this year, but no deal ever panned out.

Instead, in 2013/2014, Microsoft bought Nokia -- one of the few phone companies in worse shape than Blackberry. Predictably, this turned out to be a dismal failure, with Microsoft writing off $7.6 billion.

The present

Meanwhile, the market shifted much faster than I ever could have predicted.

Blackberry crashed from 40% in 2010 to 6% in 2012. At the beginning of 2015, they had a mere 0.3% of the market.

Recent charts show them as a minor rounding error, lumping them in with the "Other" category.

Windows Phone also dropped significantly, and continues to falter and flutter in the wind.

The future

So I was quite wrong about this prediction, and also completely underestimated how quickly the landscape would change.

Would Microsoft and Blackberry have fared better had they merged? Probably not, but it would have made for some interesting business school case studies.

In the meantime, what does the next 5 years hold for the smartphone market? Will Android continue to dominate? Will a new contender appear?

Or will there even be a smartphone market in 5 years?

Perhaps we will all be sporting variants of Google Glass 2.0 :-)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Saving a bureaucratic software project

A recently published article, "The Secret Startup That Saved the Worst Website in America" details some of the problems with the Healthcare.gov launch fiasco that "so bad it nearly broke the Affordable Care Act."

It also outlines how a small team rewrote much of the software "working as a startup within the government and replacing contractor-made apps with ones costing one-fiftieth of the price."

A key point is something I've written about before, namely that one good programmer equals an infinite number of mediocre ones.

A handful of bright, motivated programmers can easily beat a massive army of corporate drones, middle managers and bureaucrats.

This is related to Brooks' law, which states that "adding manpower to a late software project makes it later." Or in other words, "nine women can't make a baby in one month."
"The government’s method of running software turned on a sequential design strategy known as “the waterfall”: a central calendar, the Gantt chart to end all Gantt charts, that promulgated when every task would finish. The government tried running software development as a bureaucratic process, with project managers managing project managers, and the whole thing broke."
This is pretty much the exact opposite of how you want to manage software development. In fact, it is #1 on my list of Top 5 Software Project Management Mistakes.

Kudos to the "Marketplace Lite team" at Healthcare.gov that did America a great service by helping to teach the government how to build software The Right Way™ :-)