Interview with Sacha Chua

I spoke with with Sacha Chua last week. We talked about entrepreneurship, Emacs, having eclectic interests, delegation, and more.

Navigation cons from Sacha's blog

J: I ran into you by searching on Emacs topics. When I look at your blog, I see that you do a lot of interesting things, but it’s a little hard to get a handle on exactly what you do.

S: Oh, the dreaded networking quirky question. What exactly do you do?

J: Yeah, people have said the same thing to me. Not to put you in a box, but I was curious. I see from your site that you do graphic art — sketching and such — and it doesn’t create the impression that you’re someone who would spend a lot of time in front of Emacs. So I’m curious how these things fit together, how you got started using Emacs and how you use it now.

Image by Sacha Chua

S: So my background is actually fairly technical. I’ve been doing computer programming for ages and ages. In high school I came across a book Unix Power Tools, which is how I got interested in Emacs. And because I was interested in programming, in open source, a little bit of wearable computing as well, I got to know Emacs and all these different modules it had. For example, Emacspeak is amazing! It’s been around since the 1990s and it’s a great way to use the computer while you’re walking around. Because I love programming and because I wanted to find a way to help out, I ended up maintaining PlannerMode and later EmacsWiki mode as well.

When I went to university, I took up computer science. After I finished, I taught. Then I took my masters in Toronto, where I am now. Emacs was super helpful — being able to do everything in one place. After I finished my masters, I did a lot of software consulting with IBM. I did business consulting as well. Then in 2012, after saving up, I decided to go on pretty much the same adventure you’re on. I’m completely unhirable for the next five years! Most businesses struggle for the first five years, so I saved up enough to not worry too much about my expenses for the next five years. I’m one year in, four years to go, and that’s where I am.

At networking events, I like to shake people up a bit by telling them I’m semi-retired. I’m in this five-year experiment to see how awesome life can be and what I can do to make things better. I’ve done technical consulting, business consulting, sketching, illustration, writing, all sorts of things. Basically, my job description is context-dependent.

J: I understand that.

S: I use Emacs across all the things I do. When I’m doing technical and business consulting, I use Emacs to edit code, to draft documents, even to outline comic strips. And when I’m doing illustration, Emacs — especially Org Mode — helps me keep track of clients and deliverables, things to do, agenda, calendar, deadlines.

J: I’m basically running my life through Org Mode right now. When you say you use Emacs to draft documents, are you using LaTeX?

S: I used LaTeX when I was working on my master’s thesis and other papers, I think. Now I mostly use org mode and export from there.

J: Are you using Emacs for email?

S: I used to. But I’m stuck on Windows to use drawing programs like Sketchbook Pro on my Tablet PC. So it’s harder to set up my email like I had it set up when I used Ubuntu. Back when I used Ubuntu, I was very happy with Gnus.

J: Do you work entirely on Windows, or do you go back and forth between operating systems?

S: I have a private server that runs Linux. On Windows I run Cygwin, but I miss some of the conveniences I had when I had a nicely set-up Linux installation.

J: When you’re running Emacs on Windows, I’m sure you run into things that don’t quite work. What do you do about that?

S: Most things work OK if they’re just Emacs Lisp, but some things call a shell command or use some library that hasn’t been ported over yet. Then I basically wail and gnash my teeth. Sometimes I get things working by using Cygwin, but sometimes it’s a bit of a mess. I don’t use Emacs under Cygwin because I prefer how it works natively. I don’t run into much that doesn’t work.

J: So what programming languages do you use when you’re writing code?

S: I do a lot of quick-and-dirty things in Emacs Lisp. When I need to do some XML parsing or web development, I’ll use Ruby because a lot of people can read it and there are a lot of useful gems. Sometimes I’ll do some miscellaneous things in Perl.

I love doing programming and putting together tools. And I quite enjoy drawing, helping people with presentation and design. So this is left brain plus right brain.

It does boggle people that you can have more than one passion, but others are, like, “Yeah, I know, I’m like that too.”

J: I think having an interest in multiple things is a healthier lifestyle, but it’s a little harder to market.

S: Actually, no. I finally figured out a name for my company, ExperiVis, after a year of playing with it. People reach out to me and we figure out whether it’s a good fit. I don’t need to necessarily guide people to just this aspect or another of my work. I like the fact that people bump into these different things.

J: When we scheduled this call, I went through your virtual assistant. How do you use a virtual assistant?

S: One of the things I don’t like to do is scheduling. I used to get stressed out about scheduling when I did it myself. I’ve always been interested in delegating and taking advantage of what other people enjoy and are good at. I work with an assistant — Criselda. She lives in the Philippines. I found her on oDesk. She works one to four hours a week, more or less, and keeps track of her time.

J: What else might you ask a VA to do?

S: I’ve asked people to do web research. I’ve had someone do a little bit of illustration for me. I’ve had someone do a little bit of programming for me because I want to learn how to delegate technical tasks. He does some Rails prototyping for me. I have someone doing data entry and transcription. It’s fascinating to see how you can swap money for time, especially for things that stress me out, or bore me, or things I can’t do.

Every week I go over my task list with my VA to see which of the tasks I should have delegated. Still working on it!

***

Later on in the conversation Sacha asked about my new career and had this gem of advice:

Treating this as a grand experiment makes it much easier for me to try different approaches and not be so scared, to not treat it as a personal rejection if something doesn’t work.

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People I’ve interviewed and people who have interviewed me

Nobody's going to steal your idea

When I was working on my dissertation, I thought someone might scoop my research and I’d have to start over. Looking back, that was ridiculous. For one thing, my research was too arcane for many others to care about. And even if someone had proven one of my theorems, there would still be something original in my work.

Since then I’ve signed NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) for numerous companies afraid that someone might steal their ideas. Maybe they’re doing the right thing to be cautious, but I doubt it’s necessary.

I think Howard Aiken got it right:

Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.

One thing I’ve learned from developing software is that it’s very difficult to transfer ideas. A lot of software projects never completely transition from the original author because no one else really understands what’s going on.

It’s more likely that someone will come up with your idea independently than that someone would steal it. If the time is ripe for an idea, and all the pieces are there waiting for someone to put them together, it may be discovered multiple times. But unless someone is close to making the discovery for himself, he won’t get it even if you explain it to him.

And when other people do have your idea, they still have to implement it. That’s the hard part. We all have more ideas than we can carry out. The chance that someone else will have your idea and have the determination to execute it is tiny.

You’ve got to do something with the duck

From Seth Godin’s Startup School:

So the first thing about the duck is that there are a lot of people who spend their time getting all their ducks in a row. … If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you spend 15 years of your life getting your ducks in a row and one day somebody says “Now you’re a neurosurgeon.” But if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re an entrepreneur. Immediately. … Along the way you can collect more ducks and get them in a row … You’ve got to do something with the duck.

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Would you rather serve a market or a boss?

Here’s an idea to chew on. Hayek argues that you either have to serve a market or a boss, and that the former is preferable.

Man in a complex society can have no choice but between adjusting himself to what to him must seem the blind forces of the social process and obeying the orders of a superior. So long as he knows only the hard discipline of the market, he may well think the direction by some other intelligent human brain preferable; but, when he tries it, he soon discovers that the former still leaves him at least some choice, while the latter leaves him none, and that it is better to have a choice between several unpleasant alternatives than being coerced into one.

From the essay Individualism: True and False in Individualism and Economic Order

Evaluating weather forecast accuracy: an interview with Eric Floehr

Eric Floehr is the owner of ForecastWatch, a company that evaluates the accuracy of weather forecasts. In this interview Eric explains what his business does, how he got started, and some of the technology he uses.

JC: Let’s talk about your business and how you got started.

EF: I’m a programmer by trade. I got a computer science degree from Ohio State University and took a number of programming jobs, eventually ending up in management.

I’ve also always been interested in weather. A couple years ago my Mom showed me my baby book. At five years old it said “He’s interested in space, dinosaurs, and the weather.” I’m not as interested in dinosaurs now, but still interested in space and the weather.

When I was working as a programmer, and especially when I was a manager, I liked to do little programming projects to learn things. So when I ran across Python I thought about what I could write. I’d wondered whether there was any difference in the accuracy of various weather services — AccuWeather, Weather.gov, etc. Did they use different models, or did they all get their data from the National Weather Service and just package it up differently? So I wrote a little Python web scraper to pull forecasts from various places and compare it with observations. I kept doing that and realized there really were differences between the forecasters.

I didn’t start out for this to be a business. It just started out to satisfy personal curiosity. It just kept growing every year. In my last position before going out on my own I was CTO for a company that made a backup appliance. We got to the point where the product was mature and doing well. ForecastWatch was taking more and more of my time because I was getting more business from it, and so I decided to make the switch. That was March 2010. Revenue doubled over the next year and and it looks like this year it will double again. Things are going well and I really enjoy it.

JC: So you hadn’t been doing this that long when we met last year at SciPy in Austin.

EF: No, I’d only been doing this full time for a few months. But I’d been doing this part-time since 2004.

I didn’t have full-time revenue when I was doing this part-time. But it’s amazing. Once you have the time to focus on something, the opportunities that you hadn’t had time to notice before suddenly open up. Just the act of making something your focus almost makes your goal come to fruition. For years you think “too risky, too risky” and then once you make that jump, things fall in place.

JC: So what exactly is the product you sell?

EF: There are two main components. There’s an online component that is subscription-based. It provides monthly aggregated statistics on forecasts versus actual observations. It has absolute errors, min and max errors, Brier score, all kinds of statistics. It evaluates forecasts for precipitation, high and low temperature, opacity, wind speed and direction, etc. Meteriologist use those statistics to evaluate their forecasts to see how they’re doing relative to their peers.

The second component is research reports. Sometimes meteorologists will commission a report to show how well they’re doing. These reports are based on standard, widely-accepted metrics and time-frames, so they can’t just cherry-pick criteria they happened to do well on. But if they see there are statistics in ForecastWatch where they are doing really well, they might want to tell their customers. I’ve also created reports for media companies, large Internet service providers, energy trading companies and other companies who were evaluating weather forecast providers or want some other data analysis related to weather forecasts.

Something else, and I don’t know whether this will become a major component, but another area some people are interested in is historical forecasts. I have agreements with some of the weather forecasting companies to sell their forecasts that are no longer forecasts. Some people find this information valuable. For example, a marketer with a major sports league wanted to know how weather forecasts affected attendance. Another example was an investment manager who was looking to invest in a business whose performance he believed had some correlation with weather forecasts. For example, a ski lodge might want to know how far out people base their decisions on forecasts.

I have this data back to 2004. It’s funny, but most weather forecasting companies historically have not kept their forecasts. Their bread-and-butter is the forecast in the future. Once that future becomes the past, they saw no value in that data until recently.

Incidentally, because I’m monitoring weather forecasters’ web sites, I sometimes let them know about errors they were unaware of.

JC: What volume of data are you dealing with?

EF: I have about 200,000,000 forecast data points back to 2004. I’m adding about 130,000 data points a day. My database is something on the order of 70 GB. That’s observation data, hourly forecasts, metadata, etc. Right now I’m looking at data from about 850 locations in the US and about 50 in Canada. I’m looking to expand that both domestically and internationally.

JC: So what kind of technology are you using?

EF: I’m running a LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, Python. Originally I was on Red Hat Linux but I’ve switched to Ubuntu server. I’m using Django for the web site. Everything is in Python: the scrapers are in Python, the web site is in Python, all the administrative back-end is in Python.

There are two web sites right now: ForecastWatch.com, which is the subscription, professional site, and a free consumer site ForecastAdvisor.com. The consumer site will give you a local forecast and a measure of the accuracy for various forecasters for your weather.

JC: And who are your customers?

EF: All the major weather forecast companies. Also some financial companies, logistics and transportation companies, etc. I’m just starting to expand more into serving companies that depend on meterological forecasts whereas in the past I’ve focused directly on meterologists.

JC: Let’s talk a little more about the entrepreneurial aspect of your business.

EF: Well, for one thing, I don’t think I’d ever have done this if I’d thought about doing it to make money. There’s not an enormous market for this service, but in a way that’s good. I came from a completely technical background. There’s not a marketing or sales gene in my body and I’ve had to learn a lot. ForecastWatch has given me a great opportunity to learn about those non-technical areas of a business that were so foreign to me before.

I got into this entirely for my own use. And I thought that maybe there was already something that did what I wanted, and in the process of trying to find what’s out there I discovered an unmet need. Even though all the major forecasters said that accuracy was the number one thing they were interested in, they weren’t effectively measuring their accuracy. I thought that if I’m interested in this, maybe other people are too.

At first pricing was a mystery to me. Maybe I needed a new laptop, so I’d charge someone the price of a laptop for some analysis. I had to learn the value of my time and my product.

***

Some talks by Eric:

PyOhio 2009 talk about ForecastWatch
PyOhio 2010 panel on Python and entrepreneurship
SciPy 2010 talk

***

More interviews
More on entrepreneurship
More on Python

Atomic skills versus molecular skills

Scott Adams has an essay in the Wall Street Journal today entitled How to Get a Real Education. He starts by saying the brightest students should get an academic education and the rest should learn entrepreneurship. I disagree. I don’t see why the choice between a traditional academic education and an education emphasizing entrepreneurship should depend on IQ. I also don’t see why there should be a sharp division between the two. Future professors would do well to learn entrepreneurship and future business owners would do well to learn math and history.

But I want to talk here about what I do agree with Scott Adams on. Here’s my favorite part of his essay.

Combine Skills. The first thing you should learn in a course on entrepreneurship is how to make yourself valuable. It’s unlikely that any average student can develop a world-class skill in one particular area. But it’s easy to learn how to do several different things fairly well. I succeeded as a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world. The “Dilbert” comic is a combination of all four skills. The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That’s how value is created.

Academia trains people to think in terms of departments. Achievement is measured in ways that fit into a course catalog: chemistry, French, art, math, history, etc. Those who do the best at the academic game have the hardest time shaking these categories. Someone like Scott Adams could berate himself for not excelling as an artist or a writer. But rather than focusing on these atomic skills, he prides himself on how he combines these skills to do something few could do.

When Adams talks about combining skills, I don’t believe he’s talking about the myth of the Renaissance man. The Renaissance ideal is to be great at several atomic skills, each practiced in isolation. Adams is talking about combining skills that may not be remarkable individually and doing something remarkable.

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Deconstructing Thomas Edison

I’m reading Remarkable Engineers to write a review for a web site. The prose is pretty bland, though it got spicier in the chapter on Thomas Edison. It seems the author felt he needed to take Edison down a notch.

The career of Thomas Edison was not that of a great man of science, or even that of an inventive genius … His only major scientific discovery was the fact that a vacuum lamp could act as a rectifier, passing only negative electric currents. … He was said to have invented the business of invention.

So Edison was an engineer rather than a scientist. This criticism seems odd in a book devoted to remarkable engineers.

Surely Edison was an inventive genius; he held over a thousand patents, more than anyone has ever held. That is not to say anyone believes he came up with over a thousand unprecedented ideas completely by himself. He built on the work of others. He coordinated the work of his employees. He took ideas that were not being used and commercialized them. Perhaps he was more of an entrepreneurial genius than a scientific genius, but he was a genius nonetheless.

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Make something and sell it

I’ve run across a couple podcasts this week promoting the radical idea that you should sell what you make.

The latest Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast features David Heineimeier Hansson’s talk Unlearn Your MBA which he gave to a room full of MBA students.

The latest Tech Nation podcast from IT Conversations is an interview with Jaron Lanier. Lanier is a virtual reality pioneer and the author of You Are Not A Gadget.

Both Hansson and Lanier have contributed to the “free” culture but both are also critical of it. Hansson says he has benefited greatly from open source software and make his Ruby on Rails framework open source as a way to contribute back to the open source community. But he is also scathingly critical of businesses that think they can make money by giving everything away.

Lanier was an early critic of intellectual property rights but has reversed his original position. He says he’s an empiricist and that data have convinced him he was dead wrong. He now says that the idea of giving away intellectual property as advertising bait is unsustainable and will have dire consequences.

Giving away content to make money indirectly works for some businesses. But it’s alarming that so many people believe that is the only rational or moral way to make money if you create intellectual property. Many people are saying things such as the following.

  • Musicians should give away their music and make money off concerts and T-shirts.
  • Authors should give away their books and make money on the lecture circuit.
  • Programmers should give away their software and make money from consulting.

There’s an anti-intellectual thread running through these arguments. It’s a materialistic way of thinking, valuing only tangible artifacts and not ideas. It’s OK for a potter to sell pots, but a musician should not sell music. It’s OK for teachers to make money by the hour for teaching, but they should not make money from writing books. It’s OK for programmers to sell their time as consultants, and maybe even to sell their time as a programmers, but they should not sell the products of their labor. It’s OK to sell physical objects or to sell time, but not to sell intellectual property.

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Plane crashes, software crashes, and business crashes

I’ve run into the same theme in very different contexts lately: people ignore data from crashes.

FlowingData has an article today claiming that, contrary to popular belief, some parts of an airplane are safer than others.  According to the article, pundits routinely claim that all seats are equally safe even though data show that the probability of surviving a plane crash varies from 49% in the front of the aircraft up to 69% in the rear.

Also today, Coding Horror published its second article on software crashes. See Crashing Responsibly and Twitter: How Not To Crash Responsibly. Many applications don’t collect data from crashes, and those that do don’t always make good use of it.

Finally, Scott Shane’s book The Illusions of Entrepreneurship examines small business crashes. Entrepreneurs, investors, and policy makers often make decisions based on myths that are soundly refuted by data.