01 – Introduction

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Show Notes / Transcript

My name is Christina Moore. I am a tool-smith. No, my friend, not a tool, a tool smith. For over thirty years, I design and build the tools of the modern economy. My craft and the practice of it evolved from an older time with people working over flames, and forges, and whacking things with hammers. I do wish I could whack software with a hammer – it rarely helps the process.

I design, build, host, and support software. Software is the most ubiquitous tool of our economy and likely the least visible. You may be listening to my podcast on a computer weighing 200 grams – your mobile phone. You may be in a car. In the recent six decades, tool smiths like me have put software into the tiniest of items. We have move software from floppy disks to phone then into The Cloud.

In this podcast, I will explore The Cloud as an evolutionary grow stage of how we manage information and data. By we, I do mean all of us, not just the geekier amongst us. I will explore The Cloud and how it interacted with the design, development, and launch of a new business venture. Two stories for the price of one.

Who is my audience? Let’s start with the curious; curious about technology; curious about history; curious about business processes and entrepreneurship; curious about invention and product development; curious about science.

My stories involve people pushing the margins of technology and exploring. We explore and fail. We explore and change directions.

What is software

Forty years ago, my friend Roz’s family married software with French fry cooker. Why? To standardize and improve the quality of fries/chips at fast food restaurants.

Apps on your mobile phone are software applications. I’ve had really silly arguments with people informing me that apps are different than software and are different than applications and are different than websites and are different than… etc. So, unless discussing starters or hors d’oeuvres, where apps suddenly means small food eaten with fingers, then apps and software and applications and all of those things are equivalent terms.

My Volvo is a car wrapped in software. I can change to sporty mode and adjust my seat with button pushes. I am 100% confident that even the pressure and movement I feel in the steering wheel is manipulated by software.

At school, my classmate, Buck Rogers (yes, a real guy), accepted a job writing software for elevators. Our university then still used a big HP mainframe computer. Which is exactly why I never took a degree in computer science. Buck was soldering circuit board and programming on chips – computer chips, integrated circuit chips. Me, I was teaching myself Borland Pascal after having learned BASIC in high school. This was 1982 and 1983. The IBM PC had been released – we yelled out to our data processing center let’s move forward. They loyally held on to a big ole HP mainframe.

People like Buck and me, we walked forward. My hair, now, is fully grey. And yet, I do take deep offense when some young person offers to pull my phone from my hand to just-show-me-how. Ill advised.

As mentioned, Buck took a job after graduation programming elevators or lifts. Nobody ever thought programming software for an elevator was sexy or cool. But Douglas Adams found a way to poke fun anyway. Adams likely heard about people writing software for elevators then asked: Why? What intelligence does an elevator need? Push a button and it goes (or stops). In the Hitchhiker’s Guide, Adams took the process to the mostly logical extreme: The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Happy Vertical People Transporter has the capacity to see dimly into the immediate future, which enables the elevator to be on the right floor to pick you up even before you knew you wanted it. The result was an elevator that hid in the basement and suffered general depression resulting from the ability to see the future.

Why does an elevator need software? You can start coming up with answer as well as I can. Tell them what to do during a fire. Or alert when there is trouble. There are all sorts of things software can do to optimize and improve performance in tall buildings. 

The software developer has become the modern blacksmith or tinsmith. We create and shape the tools of today. Nobody thinks that I am particularly clever or funny when I say: I just bang on tin and make tools. There is software in your blue-tooth headset. There is software hidden on your credit card. There is software in your microwave and refrigerator.

I am looking around my desk and office. The ceramic plate and water glass have no software. Yet the mouse and keyboard both do. I’ll bet that the LED lights above my head do. My potted rosemary plant does not.

Software is ubiquitously in nearly everything that uses some electrical power when on the mains or battery or solar. Should be fascinating, right?

Telling people that I write software kills conversations nearly instantly. Eyes glaze over and topics shift to anything else. To further the silence, it isn’t like I can say: open your phone, I wrote that. I can’t point to Microsoft Word then say: I wrote that.

People at dinner tables don’t really know that human beings sat behind a keyboard designed, then wrote Microsoft Word. It’s just been there. It is a tool designed and built by people like you and me.

I am a tool smith – who did not write Microsoft Word or anything sexy, cool, or well known. My software does not land a jumbo jet like autopilot. My software does not fry a wedge of potato. My software typically processes big columns of numbers and tons of documents. Seriously boring stuff, until you start caring about the number or the document, of course.

I have witnessed and participated in my own history, the history of software development and the history of information technology.

Podcast Flow LLC

On the fifth of June 2019, my long-time colleague, collaborator, and friend called me with an idea. Her name is Kelly Dodge. She has two PhDs but I have entirely forgotten what they are in and why she has them. I do occasionally call her Doctor Doctor Dodge.

“Hey, got a minute.”

“Sure”

“I was just listening to a podcast and the presenter released a tool to facilitate the planning and production of a podcast.” Pause, “It is a spreadsheet.” A chuckle. Then Kelly continued, “I know a programmer who could do that about three days and have it on the internet.”

I sure do wish I could remember the next question. Did I ask about market potential or revenue? 

That idea hit, infected, then spread. You know that feeling. This idea will not be un-thought.

I stood with my right foot in the bay window looking into the deep greens of my Vermont forest. My left hand held the mobile phone until the fingers went numb. Our shared tone escalated with excitement.

Kelly did not know that in the prior six months, our team built a project management software application without any viable concept of market.

We built it as a result of momentum. Which sounds rather a lot like an accident. In early June, our firm had a functional robust project management tool written and ready for release then no customers. We did not bother cancelling the effort. We just kept going aimlessly. A busy crew of software developers are happiest when they are building stuff. Want a happy crew? Keep them busy with interesting work: puzzles to solve; tasks to kick off.

I have always wanted my own project management tool. I have known since childhood I’d be part of the computer industry. During my high school years, I learned the programming language BASIC on a Digital Electronics Corporation (DEC) PDP-11 minicomputer. That was between 1978 and 1982. I went off to college with the very first version of the IBM PC that came off the factory line: two floppy drives, a big monochromatic monitor, and a keyboard that was very loud.

Over the decades, I deployed telemedicine throughout Alaska. I build communication systems in the battleground of Iraq. I have design, built, deployed more computer systems and software applications than I can count. I have built six bridges, rebuilt two miles of roads, designed, and build 2 miles of hiking trails.

When our grants management software customers wanted to improve the coordination of their teams, I returned to an old desire: a really, really good project management software application that wasn’t X and wasn’t Y and wasn’t that either. It met my needs.

When I made that decision, I did not foresee the United States government shutting down for 35 days in 2019. Which meant everything related to US government funding, grants, programs, and anything non-essential shuttered. We had been on projects in Puerto Rico following the hurricanes of 2017. Our grants management software had managed billions of grant funds. We were on-deck for multiple more grant management projects in Puerto Rico. The US President decided to not provide the level of support Puerto Rico expected. By June, I accepted that our anticipated projects in Puerto Rico would not be funded, and our business plan edged towards failure.

We write commercial software that we sell via subscription. Unlike building software for a client, we don’t bill anyone during the development phases. No client to bill. We listen to existing customers. We then create tools for them at our expense. Then we sell subscriptions to that software.

Prior to 2019, all our revenue derives from funds that originate with the U.S. federal government. Then our government announced that their operational and spending plans will be erratic.

Oooh. Ugh. How do we shift our focus to a new market? What is that market?

We own, manage, and support a robust and complex application hosting process at Amazon Web Services, AWS. We’ve been through Department of Homeland Security scrutiny – our staff, our software, our tech – all of it. We managed federal funds and documents. Our senior staff hold agency level security clearances. We have made careers of meeting, and exceeding, the cybersecurity standards for Uncle Sam, the US government.

Selling to the government often represents a distinct business unit due to its complexity. A maze of regulations. The sales cycle that is rarely shorter than six months, often exceed two years. And the process of getting paid? I stomp around my house muttering and ranting about how many cars I could buy with the money some government owes us. How many houses I could buy? Let’s clarify that I don’t want houses and cars. The cash value of houses and cars permit me to measure my pain. January – February, we’ll likely be paid by someone. Then maybe again in July or August. Fast, feast, fast, feast. We’re skilled at it. And I rather hate it.

During the spring of 2019, I think: our business model is flawed. Damn.

We have big tools designed for a big client.

Retail software? I am ignorant of retail process.

Maybe, we focus on the business-to-business market? That’s a fair direction.   We have trust credentials that ought to transfer. We may even have a few contacts to leverage.

We are really good at building software, hosting that software, supporting the users. These technical skills are useless until supported by sales, marketing, and paying customers.

Doctor Doctor Kelly Dodge calls me with an idea on the 5th of June 2019. I hear: recycle an existing, but unsold product. Paint it with pretty colors, shape it for new market then sell to appreciative and paying client base.

That’s a solution. I know how to do that. I don’t know how to market it. Kelly does. She is wicked smart. She markets products and firms successfully. Firms pay her well to add a few zeros to their top (and bottom) line.

We three, Kelly, John (my business partner) and I did not fully understand the magnitude, scope, or duration of this project in June of 2019. Take an existing product, paint it pink and green, strip features: done.

None of that proved true.

Gradually, we comprehended the opportunity and niche we found. The better we understood, the more focused we became. The focus corresponded to investment as well.

The Epoch

In 2020, people barely remember that the United States Government shutdown for 35 days during the early part of 2019. Our firm, focused on supporting people effectively manage disaster recovery grants from the government, recognized that the instability in our government posed a greater risk than we saw. The executive branch threatened states, and governors, and segments of the population with various means removing funding. Our software, Tempest-GEMS, prides itself on the detection and prevention of fraudulent practices.

Was it possible that our nation became less interested in preventing fraud with public sector funds? I faced an anxiety about that. Silly me. That was only 2019.

We developed our product Podcast-Flow and refined it during the fall of 2019. Kelly worked on marketing plans. In December asked if we could build a learning management system to support her class on podcasting. Her thought was that software alone seemed to be an incomplete solution. We should coach and provide high quality training.

We postponed the launch while expanding the scope of the projects for Podcast Flow LLC. We invested more money and paid more salaries. The R&D budget approach those big benchmarks such as “2 cars” then “1 modest house” then “1 really big house”. We’re launching soon. We doggedly held on.

The January 2020 launch date slipped. Then February 2020 launch date got pushed only a few weeks. When I got back from presenting at the New Mexico Department of Health meeting near Albuquerque in late March, the world fizzled to a stop. On my flights to and from New England, my fellow first class passengers carefully and ritualistically washed every surface around their seats. We all knew COVID had come to stay.

In March, our team stopped lying to ourselves admitting that if people cannot buy toilet paper then thinking about a podcast as a side-hustle is a missed opportunity.

How many business launched in January and February of 2020. Tom Bodett famed for saying: “I’m Tom Bodett for Motel 6 and we’ll leave the light on for you” started a lovely shared makers space down the road in Brattleboro Vermont in February. Just bad timing, horrible timing.

We put the breaks on Podcast Flow. Our plan involved three elements that should never be in any business plan: wait, hope, watch.

On the 13th of October 2020, Podcast Flow LLC launched its first product to a limited audience.

From the first days of this project, I journaled my experiences as a business owner and technologist. I observed a subtle and massive (is that possible) shift in the architecture of software.

In 1982, Tracy Kidder published a book called “The Soul of a New Machine”. He precisely captured the transition between the traditional big-iron landscape of the computing industry as we adopted smaller desktop units. During 2019 and 2020, I recognized that software and hardware had again made a similar step forward. In homage to Mister Kidder’s insights and timing that have named this work: “The Soul of an Internet Machine”

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