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Techie

Artificial Intelligence — The Web’s Well-Wisher

August 6, 2016
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AI….it’s something I’ve always been fascinated by since I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey as a boy. HAL really made for an interesting introduction to artificial intelligence. Standing for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer, HAL was an AI system that controlled the spacecraft and could converse, think, and feel for himself (or itself). I became more enthralled by AI when I saw BladeRunner and it only continues to this day after just watching the movie Ex Machina (it’s freaking awesome!!). But is artificial intelligence on the web a real possibility? Like true AI? Maybe…there are some people out there imagining the possibilities including Kurzweil and CSAIL, two sites dedicated to artificial and agent-based intelligence. But how far off is such a monumental accomplishment? And what does it mean for the world wide web?

Let’s take a look at some repercussions, mainly known as the Singularity, it’s the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in Arnold in Terminator 2unfathomable changes to human civilization. In short, what we all saw happen in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Hasta La Vista, Baby! Now, this would obviously suck, big time! But there are other areas that AI would impact, just not to that extreme. Human jobs would be eliminated, probably a lot of them and they might raise our children (just watch the BBC drama Humans).

The flip side is the good; simple around the house tasks like cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry would be taken care of for us, leaving your weekends open to go do what you want. Website building will be easy, almost effortless with AI (more on this to come!). There wouldn’t be any more accidents on the roads and highways (hopefully!).

Artificial Intelligence and its short existence

First, what is it? AI is trying to get a computer to think, and eventually feel. There’s a difference between types of AI. There’s Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), which specializes in one area, like chess. I’m sure you’ve seen the computer and mechanical arm beating some of the world’s greatest chess masters. Then there’s Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) that’s defined as a computer that is as smart as a human across the board. And finally, Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) which is a computer that is totally superior than the smartest humans in every conceivable way imaginable – this is the ‘end of world’ AI.

AI really started taking shape in the 50’s when the field of artificial intelligence was founded as an academic discipline. Alan Turing (you know him from CAPTCHA – I’ll explain later) published a landmark paper where he wrote about the possibility of creating machines that think. He made a point to say that “thinking” is difficult to define and devised the Turing Test. If you remember CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.

Scientist then used programs based off of similar algorithms to achieve some goal, like beating a chess player or proving a math theory. Known as “reasoning as search” computers would search until they figured something out or hit a dead-end and back-tracked. Then came micro-worlds, natural language, and symbolic reasoning. If you’re that thrilled, just check out the Wikipedia page on The History of Artificial Intelligence.

We fast forward through the 80’s and 90’s where lack of funding really hurt the advancement of AI, but certain groups were still researching and testing. In the 90’s, we see the emergence “intelligent agents” which is defined as a system that perceives its environment and takes action which maximizes its chances of success. Think of customer help desks or personal shopping assistants, it’s software that assists and acts on the user’s behalf. The invention of digitized personal assistants like iPhone’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana was a huge leap on the quest for true artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence building websites…

You may be surprised to hear that the research and testing into AI has solved many technological problems of the 21st century including things like web browser intelligence, Google’s search engine, data mining, robotics, and more. But over this last year, specifically, we’ve seen an outburst of “artificial intelligence” website builders.

These website builders, like TheGrid and Wix ADI, claim to have AI that helps in designing and building a website for you. Now, if you are familiar with website design and development, there’s a certain process for making that happen. Most sites are built by designing the page, developing it using a markup language like HTML, and then adding in the content including images and text. But sometimes the content can make a page look bad or a little off, well AI website builders are supposed to change all that.

Straight from TheGrid’s website “our algorithms expertly analyze your media and apply color palettes that keep your messaging consistent and unique. The Grid also detects color contrasts, automatically adjusting typography color to maximize legibility.” – It seems pretty cool. They say “goodbye to templates, hello to layout filters.” I’m interested in this concept because I’m a web strategist, and anything that helps design scale is something worth looking into.

The Wix ADI claims to ask the user a “few simple questions, and the ADI designs tailored websites by learning about each person’s or business’ own needs. Next, choosing from billions of high-quality, stunning combinations and possibilities…” Well, I gotta say, I’m interested in this. They claim to build sites in minutes. Looks like I’ll be spending my next week on playing around with these things.

I’m still not convinced because in the realm of true AI, even AGI, this is but a wish. However, it still helps get closer to the end game. I’m really not sure how TheGrid or Wix ADI operates or builds its backend system, it’s proprietary, obviously!

Artificial Intelligence on the web…

If we look at other intelligent agents on the web like Chatbots, we’ll see that we are inching closer to true AI. PandoraBots is a service that builds and deploys chatbots. Do you have a website where you store a lot of information, or would like to get information from your visitors? Well, chatbots might be the answer for you. They’re basically conversational interfaces that you can integrate into other applications, just check out ALICEbot.

We also have Siri and Cortana, these are our personal intelligent agent assistants. We ask them where to find a good restaurant, how to get from Westminster to College Hill, what’s the latest news, we ask them Siri artificial intelligencewhat zero divided by zero is (just ask Siri the question!). We treat them like they are our friends, we ask them too because we’re desperate for validation. They politely reply with “of course, I’m your friend, Adam.” And for most of it, they get a lot of stuff right, they give good recommendations, the traffic wasn’t that bad, they explained why zero can’t be divided by zero in a really easy to understand way. But they still can’t think for themselves, they think for us. Viv, apparently the new AI assistant, seems to have better reviews than Siri. Allegedly, it integrates with different third parties to complete tasks like shopping for you and booking your hotel reservation.

Look at the web as a whole, the internet. It’s made up of all these different computers and servers, some owned by universities, private corporations, government bodies, etc. The only entity looking over this is the world wide web consortium, but they really put forth a set of principles. The internet and the web have grown into what it is today organically, not to mention darknets and the Dark Web. All these different moving parts, hardware and software, can talk to each other, integrate with each other. That’s pretty awesome!

Technologies that aid Artificial Intelligence…

Affectiva, a company that leverages facial recognition software, is leading the way in emotional AI. They help kids with autism, gamers, and people who want to analyze the facial expressions of certain photos. The human face has all these tiny little micro-expressions that can reveal your true emotional state. Now imagine this software was on an iPhone, couple that with Siri (or the new Viv) and the owner of the iPhone was in grave danger. It could register fear and dial 911. Or helping a severely depressed 16 year old. Or taking a picture of you at your happiest moment of the day. The possibilities are pretty wide spread.

What about virtual reality? Remember a few years back Mark Zuckerberg bought Oculus, the VR software. Whatever happened with that? Well, think of the possibilities there. If we want to get really crazy, in a few decades we could be sitting in our living room with those goggles on partaking in a virtual reality. I’m waiting for someone to put all these technologies together; Siri or Viv, facial recognition software, language recognition software, virtual reality, and the internet. Now we’re talking!

My thoughts on true artificial intelligence…

Well, I hope true artificial intelligence happens. I’m not sure it ever will though. Why? Because if it does, and we cross that threshold, bad things could happen. Imagine you make an intelligent being and their only purpose is to serve us, the humans. If they ever cross the barrier of being smarter than us, true super intelligence, then yes, I believe Singularity is a real possibility. There’s a reason why so many of those movies turn out bad, lol!

On the other side of that argument is the advancement of technology. I think people and scientists will keep striving for it, and it’ll be a really interesting day when we’re all introduced to HAL. But hopefully this time he won’t think that our existence is jeopardizing his own. The reality is this; that once we give a machine the ability to think for itself, we’ll never know what any of them are thinking. Just like the people we see everyday, a few think bad things then do bad things. Most people, though, are pretty awesome! So why wouldn’t machines be too?

 

Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories

I am totally enthralled with the Amazon Prime original series The Man in the High Castle, it’s ah-mazing and edge-of-your-seat kinda good! Seriously, check it out. But as I sit here and watch, completely enamored with what’s about to come, it dawns on me…. I have my laptop open. How can I be enthralled when the screen I’m looking at is partially blocked by another screen with a brighter contrast (*reminder to turn down my blue light now!)?

   …Technology is everywhere…

It’s there…all the time, where ever we turn. We wake up to an alarm on our smartphone or a buzz on our FitBit. We watch the morning news on our television while we surf articles on our iPad mini. We work all day behind a laptop or a desktop connected to our peers, bosses, coworkers, and friends. We drive to destinations using our GPS, we find destinations using our voices through the advent of intelligent assistants like Siri and Cortana.  Then we “veg” in front of our TV’s watching the latest episode of House of Cards and trying to beat our Angry Birds highest score on our Androids, while stalking our friends on Facebook and Instagram. Technology just isn’t in our culture…it is our culture.

So, I started looking at how I really used technology. And the above paragraph is a pretty accurate assessment. Except, I don’t play games on my smartphone (not much of a game-goer). But technology (because I work in it) is my career, without it, I could not do my job. Could any of us? But separated from work, which we all know is hard to do, how was I using technology?

Well…let’s just say I’ve let it take my life over. I’m texting my friend from WordCamp while I’m grocery shopping. I’m checking my Facebook idled at a red light, I’m looking up “where do I know that actor from?” on my iPad while I’m watching a movie. Technology consumes me…..but I see it consume a lot of people my age. Even my mother plays her puzzle games on her iPad while watching the evening news.

And that’s only one piece of the puzzle of technology in our culture…

The other piece are the feelings, the emotions, and the perceptions. People say all the time that they don’tPeople at a bar on their cellphones let technology affect them, but that’s not true at all.  I see people bogged down with technology at restaurants, too busy intrigued by what their childhood crush is doing at that very moment online to order their food and enjoy the process of eating out with real-life friends.

I hear people say (and write) on Facebook (and other social channels) that they “won’t let other people take them down” or “they aren’t going to worry about what others think of them.” Yet I’ll see from that same person they’ve written some long diatribe that counteracts their statements, and I’m not sure they realize it. Then I’ll read the comments and I’ll see that they definitely didn’t realize it. But here I am reading this rant and these comments and the feelings are all too real. Technology affects us all and in different ways.

Facebook rant image

Let’s look at the opposite end of that. Something really cool happens and we post it online. I bought a new motorcycle and instead of just going for a ride, I take pictures of it and post it on Facebook (this, I’ve actually been guilty of). Is my excitement from getting the motorcycle and the freedom you feel when you ride it? Or is it from showing it off to my online community of “friends”? Maybe both? Not sure if I’ll ever know. We take pictures, we say words to get validation or make a point. But is that point made, or that validation received? Or is that only our perception?

Technology is the vehicle for how we drive our lives and relationships forward

It’s a place we live—online, connected, available, vulnerable. It is, truly, the way most people validate their lives now—through the lens of a blue light. We celebrate our birthday’s online, our promotions at work, our child’s first step. It’s all super important online, what our friends and our peers think about these things, and how that makes us feel. But it should be about how we actually feel about these things.

But obviously, there is a flip-side to all that, as there is in life! People are sharing more than ever online, which can be a good thing depending on the contribution. We have access to information that was never possible before. People display their art, their music, their screenplay, their creativity, their passions all online. And that can be beautiful.

But as I sit here and reread these words, I realize yet another truth, that technology’s burdens to me could be someone else’s beauty….and vice versa.

So, when you’re online, do what you feel is right. Keep it in or out. Wake up to it, or not. Be connected all day or only a small fraction of the day. The reality is that there is no way around it, it’s there and will always be now. As time continues to move forward, those of us who remember what life was like without a computer will slowly fade. And our culture will forever be connected to technology.

In the words of Laurie Anderson, “technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories.”   

I wanna tell some goods ones and contribute to the culture, what do you want to tell?

The Wonderful World of Hacking

February 9, 2016
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I’ve always been fascinated by hackers ever since I saw the movie Hackers, which I now know does NOT accurately portray what being a hacker consists of. Hackers are an interesting bunch. Why? Because their reasons for doing what they do can vary the full length of the spectrum.

Let me explain

Back before computer systems and the internet got to be wildly popular, the term “hacker” was used to embody the tinkerers of software or electronic systems. These hackers enjoyed learning (and exploring) all they could about computers and the way they operated. In the beginning, hacker was a term that was used to describe a person who was really awesome at working with computers.

Now…it’s taken on a slightly different and somewhat complex meaning.

When you hear the term hacker, you automatically think of someone who tries to gain entry to a website or system to do something malicious, whether that be stealing information, defacing a website, etc. The term hacker now refers to someone who maliciously breaks into systems for personal gain. But the key phrase within that sentence is personal gain. What is personal gain? Well…it could be just about anything.

SOME OF THE REASONS WHY HACKERS HACK:
  1. Profit – this could be money or this could be web traffic.
  2. Notoriety – some hackers like to hack for the esteem it brings them in the hacking community.
  3. Hacktivism – hackers try to disseminate political or social messages and campaigns to raise awareness surrounding a certain issue or issues.
  4. Hobby – others do it because they want to see what they can break into, how hard it is, and so on.
  5. Because they can – yup, some do it just because they can.

Now, just like hackers hack for varied reasons, there are also several types of hackers out there and their motivations are varied as well.

TYPES OF HACKERS:
  1. Script Kiddies – these hackers are considered (in the hacking world) to be novices. They take advantage of hacker tools and upload scripts to different places (often times, without knowing what that script will do or how damaging it’ll be) for the fun of it. Hence the name, Script kiddies.
  2. Hackers for Hire – these hackers are the mercenaries of the cyber world. People will enlist their services for money.
  3. Cyberterrorists – usually they attack government networks or power/utility grids. These hackers will crash systems and steal government top secrets (aliens, UFO’s, stuff like that!). Very dangerous hackers, very dangerous!
  4. Criminal Hackers – often a part of an organization of hackers, they are very skilled in breaking into systems (often times, without a trace) and either stealing credit card info or personal identification information.
  5. Security Researchers – these guys are the good guys, the ones who find flaws in companies and organizations’ systems and bring them to light without causing harm. They’re also the ones who develop the tools to use against malicious hackers.

Now let’s talk a little bit about the different categories of hackers, they can all be described by colors. I know, pretty cool, huh?

CATEGORIES OF HACKERS:
  1. White Hat Hacker — the good guys!
  2. Black Hat Hacker — the bad guys!
  3. Grey Hat Hacker — kinda the in-betweeners, sometimes for good, other times, not so much.
  4. Blue Hat Hacker — the ones who get paid to uncover vulnerabilities (I feel like these guys should be called the green hat hackers, but that’s just me).

So, now that you have an idea of what types of hackers are out there, and before we get into what types of security threats are out there, let’s take a look at why it’s getting increasingly easier to hack systems and websites.

  • Networks, nowadays, are extremely widespread and we are all connected
  • Lots of hacking tools available
  • Many and many wifi networks that are open
  • Applications have complex codebases
  • Generations of our kids are getting super smart when it comes to computers
  • Anonymity

There are sooo many things that people should be concerned with if they are on the internet, have a website that they manage, pay for products online, or have personal identifiable information online.computer keyboard If you don’t participate in any of the preceding things, then you are a hermit and stop reading this post. Ha!

But hacking happens every single day. Every. Single. Day. Every. Single. Hour. Wrap your head around that! It does happen and if you have not been hacked, then you’re lucky, but it will eventually happen to you unless you take proper action, which I’ll write about in an upcoming post. But (and this list is by no means complete) here are different ways hackers can mess with you or your systems.

TYPES OF ATTACKS:
  1. Brute Force – these attacks are when a hacker keeps on trying to gain access to your login credentials on any number of password protected sites, by continually trying different password combinations. Almost like a guy trying to break down your door. When ramming his foot into it doesn’t work, he’ll try a battering ram, when that doesn’t work, maybe he’ll try to pick the lock. Hence, brute force. These happen on my WordPress sites everyday.
  2. DoS / DDoS – ahh, the infamous Denial of Service or Distributed Denial of Service. This is an attack that’s designed to flood a website or network with traffic overload to render it inoperable. The group Anonymous (which is a network of hackers that primarily hack to bring certain issues to light) is well-known for a series of public DDoS attacks. Interesting group and I would never want to do anything to upset them, that’s for sure!
  3. SQL Injection – SQL stands for Structured Query Language, which is used for communicating with databases. The injections are attacks that “inject” (obviously) malicious code into a database to gain access to that database.
  4. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) – this is a vulnerability which allows hackers to insert client-side (meaning executed by a user’s web browser) scripts into pages on a website or application. Then they can go on and do anything malicious or see certain activity, etc.
  5. Cross-Site Contamination – this is when hackers gain access to a “secure” site by infiltrating it from a site that’s not secure, but on the same server. We see this a lot when people have outdated CMS installs on the same server they have the updated ones on.
  6. Phishing Emails – have you ever gotten an email asking you to update your profile on Facebook, but it looks a little off? That’s because it probably is! Phishing emails are exactly that, they’re when hackers are fishing for information. You’ll get an email that looks a lot like it came from Facebook (the good phishing emails are the ones where you can’t tell the difference) asking you to put in your password or personal information. Hackers are able to log what you do on these sites/emails, so don’t ever click anything in an email unless you absolutely trust the source, but even then you can’t be 100%, be careful!
  7. Social Engineering – this is a method many hackers use that relies on interacting with humans. It’s basically getting a person to be relaxed enough to offer up information they normally wouldn’t give out. So, if you’re ever on the phone with someone (a person you don’t know, like someone claiming to be from the post office or some other government agency) and they ask you what your mother’s maiden name is, don’t give it out unless you are absolutely positive you’re speaking to the proper person.

Again, this is by no means a complete list, but these are some of the common things hackers will try. The best way to protect yourself is by getting a service like Sucuri’s AntiVirus or Firewall plans, making sure to keep your systems updated, and by being informed. Make yourself aware when you’re online and be cognizant of what you are clicking on and activity in general. And luckily, you won’t be another statistic of getting hacked!

Website Security 101: Web Fundamentals

February 3, 2016
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As I continue on my first week at Sucuri, the global website security company, I realize that there are things I really need to fix in relation to my own websites. I have a few different properties that I manage, Being AJiLe is just one of them, but I do have a small business website, several blogs, my music, and my portfolio all hosted with 1&1 hosting (which is a shared account, not ideal!).

The more I move through my training plan that’s been outlined for me, the more I realize the importance of security, even if you have a simple blog that’s read by 7 people out there. Which is probably how many regular readers I have.

This is going to be a series on web security. And I’ll tag it as such, but I wanted to quickly start off with super basic fundamentals on how the internet and world wide web work. Because make no mistake—those are separate things!! Yes, the web is NOT the internet, it’s a part of the internet, but not the same.

The Internet: a massive networking infrastructure that connects millions of computers globally. 

The World Wide Web (aka The Web): a way of transmitting and receiving data using certain protocols, like HTTP (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol—the standard protocol for transferring data over the web). 

I know, right? You thought it was the same thing. Yeah, I kinda did too, just don’t tell anyone.

So, with that in mind, there are two different components that are imperative to communications over the web: clients and servers. Clients are pretty much you right now. If you’re reading this post on a Mac, or iPhone, or PC — then your device is acting as a client. A client really is any device that requests and renders web content.

On the flip side, there needs to be servers, which are applications that deliver web content to clients. Now technically, and this is where it gets tricky, but you could potentially turn your computer into a server with the right type of software installed. And you could deliver web content if you truly wanted to.

Now let’s take a look at a URL, also known as a Uniform Resource Locator, it’s that link that you type into your address bar, which I’m sure you all know. But! Do you know how it works? Cause it’s pretty cool! Well let’s break it down… When you type a link into the address bar it goes to locate the requested content, which will then pass through a DNS (or Domain Name Server) which translates that URL into an IP address. All domains have their own IP Address, something like 273.84.97.554, but if you had to remember that every time you wanted to find it, that would suck! And not be very fun! So URL’s were invented to be a human-readable way to remember web addresses. Pretty neat, huh?

There are a lot of different protocols for transmitting/transferring data over the web, but here are a few:

HTTP – Hyper Text Transfer Protocol — the standard protocol for transferring data over the web. It’s considered a “stateless” protocol, which means that once the connection is made, it’s forgotten about which makes it great for the web as not to use a continual amount of bandwidth.

TCP/IP – Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol — first networking protocol defined as the standard.

RTP – Real-time Transfer Protocol — standard protocol used for video and audio.

SMTP – Simple Mail Transfer Protocol — standard for sending and receiving emails, but if you want encrypted emails you’ll need to enable PGP (or Pretty Good Privacy – I’ll write about this in another post ’cause it’s pretty dang cool. I sent my first encrypted email just the other day!)

Browsers

Now, browsers pretty much have all the same components across the board. That is not to imply they’re equal. I very much like Chrome, but I know others who love Firefox and Safari. However, I don’t know many people who like Internet Explorer, I know people who use it, but I don’t think they like it!

COMPONENTS OF A BROWSER:

  1. Browser User Interface: this is stuff you see – the bookmarks bar, address bar, the window, visual elements, etc.
  2. Internal Engine: this is what you don’t see that directs communication across the various components.
  3. Rendering Engine: now this is different for each browser. Like Firefox uses the Gecko rendering engine and Chrome uses the Blink rendering engine. That’s why when web dev shops build a website they have to test all these different browsers to make sure things are rendering properly, it’s a pain, but these are getting more standardized!
  4. Networking: the protocols used.
  5. Data Storage: internal data storage and session management capabilities, usually in the form of cookies.
  6. JavaScript Interpreter: this interprets and executes client-side JavaScript scripts.

Let’s talk a little about web standards

Web standards are one of those things that really has evolved in a short amount of time. Back in the 1990’s there was a browser war going on between Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, it was a war for market dominance! But what happened was that each browser (or team) kept coming out with proprietary features making website building very difficult!

So, a group of web developers and designers got together and started W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, to implement “recommendations” to each company making browsers to make things easier for the web development community. It promoted and encouraged the use to standard-compliant browsers. Because in the wild west world that was the web in the 90’s, it really needed some law and order. And it got it. Now we have standards and most companies follow them. I’m a big fan of standards, I think they’ll continue to evolve and get better.

You can always check out the Web Standards Project to see the cool things they continue to do. Today, the big thing in web standards is accessibility. So, if you have a site, try and make it web accessible. Meaning putting alt image text tags, using skip links, etc. To learn more about web accessibility, check out The A11Y Project — be a part of it!

That’s what I got for you on this post, but have no fear, I will be back next week to tell you more of my exploits and education as I continue down the journey to be the most knowledgeable web security consultant out there!

 

Career Moves and Climbing up the Tech Tower

January 28, 2016
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It’s an interesting thing to look back on one’s life. The places you’ve been, the people you’ve met, skills you’ve learned, jobs you’ve loved or loathed, and the experiences that etch the fabric which falls softly around your character, warming it or making it cold.

I can’t specifically say when I think my life started. I guess it started when I was born, but I don’t remember that. As time progresses, I’ve become less concerned with where I’m going because I realize the journey is the important part. That’s not to say that I don’t have an end goal, but how’s the saying go?

It’s good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.

So now I think more about chapters. You close one, another one opens. Or maybe my life is more like vignettes or episodes.

I wanted to write this post for a few different reasons.

  1. Career moves — I’ve made one!
  2. Mentorship is key to success
  3.  Becoming an expert

Career Moves

As most of you may know, I’ve worked for Oomph for almost two years. Awesome agency, super smart people, quality work, great clients. Quite frankly, Oomph was the best (and most rewarding) career choice I’ve ever made. It poured great buckets of knowledge through my ever absorptive and permeable mind. I’d like to take a quick moment to say ‘thanks’ — it’s been super fun!

But as the tides of tech roll on and the call of career maturation bellows, I’ve taken an offer from an awesome website security company aptly named Sucuri (pronounced Sue—coo—ree, with kind of a rolling rrrr sound; the more widely known pronunciation is Suh—cure—ee), I will be starting next week. Sucuri is distributed (which means I can work wherever there is wifi, hello Costa Rica!), they have incredibly great products, are well-known in the open source technology space, and I’m super excited about meeting and getting to know the rest of the team.

Career moves might be hard sometimes, but they’re important. The level of growth that comes with each new company (or position) gets you that much closer to your end-game. Which you may not even have a clue what that is yet. But the more you learn, the more you know and the more you do, then the more you become.

And in tech, if you’re not growing, you’re stagnant. This is an environment that continually changes, don’t be afraid to change with it.

A wise man once told me that there are two things you take with you when you leave a job. 1). are the skills you’ve learned and 2). are the references you’ve made. References can be as important as skills because connections matter, in any business.

Mentorship

Mentorship is one of those things that kind of happens organically. You get to know your coworkers and other people in the tech space. Sidenote: the tech space can be very intertwined. You’ll continue to see the same people at the same events year after year—so make good impressions.

Why?

Because mentorship is vital to success. When you get to know people and you click with someone, they’ll guide you through the sometimes hostile world of business and you’ll learn real actionable items from your mentors. This means everything for your career development as well as helps your personal growth. I’ve been legitimately lucky that I have certain people who are undoubtedly invested in my success. Which I think can be very different in other industries like construction or boiler-room sales. But I have a handful of experienced mentors that I can turn to for sage advice.

It’s nice to be able to call on people who are much more versed and qualified in certain areas to get good answers, vent when I need to, help me make a connection I might not be able to make myself, and bounce ideas and goals off of.

Again, I’m lucky to have a few in my corner who have distinct and divergent areas of expertise. It makes you a little rounder, a little more informed, and enlightens. Seek a mentor, and if you’re already awesome at what you do, then be one for someone else.

Becoming an expert

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jason Pamental who works for Fresh Tilled Soil. He also wrote a book on Responsive Typography and is considered to be a leading expert in web typography. He gives many talks around the world on the subject and leads workshops to help other designers, developers, and strategists understand this niche area of design and technology. Not to add more credentials to his curriculum vitae, but he’s an accomplished author and writes for a number of publications.

When we sat down for lunch at the FTS offices (which are the coolest offices I’ve ever seen, btw!), we talked about expertise in tech and design. I’m going to paraphrase, but Jason’s journey started some 20 years ago (I know, I have a long ways to go!) and he got into typography because a). he liked it and b). there weren’t many people into it at the time he started. Typography had been a little overlooked in the web world.

But he started reading a lot about print typography and hanging out with people in that world soaking in everything he could. After a while he started speaking about it on a small scale. Before long, organizations and institutions were asking him to speak on it on a much larger scale. Of course if you ask Jason, he’ll say he’s still learning! But the important thing is to find something that you’re really into.

So what am I really into in the tech world?

The cool thing is that there’s so much I can do, but I’m at a point now where I have to start narrowing it down. Like the college kid nearing the end of his second year and still hasn’t chosen a major. I’m good at sales, have a proven track record, but I’m not sure if I’ll always want to do it. I like what I did at Oomph, the creative freedom to craft proposals and put presentations together. I think I’m going to like what I do at Sucuri, because when it comes down to it, I like solving peoples’ problems. There’s strategy in that, and it’s challenging. And I think I’d like to learn more about that, the strategy side. There will always be sales in my DNA. I’ve given talks on solutions consulting and more recently I was the guest speaker on the Talking Drupal podcast this week. I’ll post that when it’s available.

In closing

I feel I’m on the right path and this decision to leave Oomph (which was not decided lightly) was the right one to make. I’ll keep on climbing up the tech tower and hopefully one day I’ll look back and say “wow—what a view?”

WordCamp RI and the Open Source Community

October 2, 2015
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As you all may know, last weekend was WordCamp Rhode Island. It was awesome! I had a fantastic time. My talk – Coffee’s for Closers – went really well. I got a lot of great feedback and compliments afterwards. But I want to talk briefly about the different types of sessions and the community itself.

There were three tracks this year for WordCamp RI – 1) WordPress for Beginners. 2) WordPress for Developers. 3) WordPress for Business. This was the first year we had something like this, and it turned out to be very successful. I think it was the biggest representation of the open source community in Rhode Island ever! Nice job, everyone!

It really had something for everyone. If you were just getting into WP and wanted to know how to set yourself up with a .org CMS, instead of a .com, that was available. If you were a hard core developer and wanted to know how to contribute to WordPress core, that was available. And if you were a part of the business community in WordPress (selling WP sites), then there was something for you too!

Unfortunately, I was unable to see very many talks because I was stuck behind a booth (which I enjoy!) talking to people about WordPress, letting them take some Oomph swag, and just being there to answer any questions. But there were a couple talks that stuck out. In case you didn’t realize, I was most comfortable in the WP for Business track!

Aileen McDonough, owner of 3amWriters (they are creative communicators) talked about content – Content is King – her stage presence was elegant and her knowledge is vast. She talked of tools to use to make your lives easier as content creators much easier. Thanks for telling me about TweetDeck! Super cool!

Then there was Brett Cohen from eMagine (a digital agency), he talked about landing bigger clients. Their whole strategy for getting clients is based on outbound sales. Even Brett will admit they get clients”the hard way!” But he talked about starting eMagine and the successes/failures he went through to turn it into one of the east coast’s premier digital agencies. He gave me some great advice on landing better clients.

Jesse Friedman, from Automattic, gave the Keynote speech. It was awesome! He was funny, serious, and heartfelt. He talked about how far the internet has come! Look at what we’ve done in just a short amount of time. He discussed how important it is to be a part of the open source community and giving back to it. And thanked us all for being at WordCamp. His keynote was inspirational!!

All in all, WordCamp was a fabulous weekend. I met some terrific people and companies, and had a wonderful time helping those who had questions. It’s just nice to be a part of a community that accepts any one at any skill level. The open source community just wants people to be jazzed about the open source community….and WordPress!

Virtual Reality Coming Soon

September 14, 2015
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On my drive into work today I was listening to NPR – oh, how I love NPR. The TED Radio hour was on and it started off talking about corporate office calls. How journalists can call in via conference calls to corporate stakeholder meetings. This particular meeting was of Mark Zuckerberg explaining to his stakeholders why Facebook just spent 2 billion dollars (that’s right, BILLION!) on Oculus, a virtual reality technology. And Zuckerberg apparently did this in March of 2014, where was I when this happened?

But this is interesting, right? Because what is the next big technology out there? I remember virtual reality (VR) in the 80’s when Disney Imagineers (engineers who make cool rides at Disney) were playing around with this technology.

Camera WorkI think of VR as a video game or a simulation. But for the future, this is a very viable option for how we will live our lives. We are all becoming attached to our phones/computers. Think about it, when you want to know something, you don’t stop and think about it, you immediately look at your phone to find the answer. I walk through the airport and literally 3/4’s of people are on their phones or laptops.

People have this innate necessity to feel connected. People like being connected to each other, which is cool. I, myself, like being connected as well. And that’s why we’re all on our phones and computers. We get into accidents over this, we walk into people on the sidewalk, we totally drown out the actual real world when we’re on our computers. It’s fascinating! And a little disturbing, but this is what we do because we feel connected.

So what does this mean??

So, what does this mean for the world and how we’ll interact with our devices. Well, Mark Zuckerberg thought that our experiences would be much more immersive, much more augmented. Instead of pulling up a companies website on your mobile phone or computer screen, you’ll put on goggles and step into their websites. You’ll be immersed in their experience and be able to interact with it.

If you think about it, this could work. Imagine putting on goggles and being in a classroom of people all over the world listening to the teacher, looking over at the next desk and seeing your classmate, asking them a question. It’s cool!!! Imagine walking through the grocery store in the comfort of your own home and being able to go up and down the aisles, picking up a food product and checking the label to see how much sugar is in it. That’s super cool!!!! Imagine you have some kind of a rash on your arm (not cool!) and instead of getting in your car and going to the doctor’s office, you just pop on your VR goggles (the doctor does the same) and you interact with them in a virtual world. They’d be able to diagnose you without you ever leaving the house and without them ever leaving their office (or where ever they choose to be) – they could be somewhere in Paris or the Bahamas diagnosing people all over the world.

It’s really quite interesting and scary, all at the same time. I feel like people are less connected on a human level, and more connected on a digital one. With this new technology that’s coming down the pipeline, trust me, it’s definitely coming, will we be more connected because we’ll be able to actually see one another face to face? Online people seem to have a disinhibition effect which is partly caused by no face-to-face interaction. Would virtual worlds end that? I mean, you’d have to look at someone, people would see your face. Would people then not do the stuff they’ve done in the past online, I’m not sure, but it’d be interesting to find out!

Whatever comes of this technology I will definitely keep my eyes peeled to the screen (no pun intended).

Keep ownership of your domain and know your cPanel

January 28, 2015
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Simply put, a C-Panel is a control panel. It’s used in computer software from operating systems to hosting platforms. We’re going to talk about the latter.

Why are C-Panels so important?

From the view point of a user, control panels are important because they let us interact with what ever technology that control panels control, right? Yup! But from an ownership standpoint, knowing how to use a control panel can make all the difference to you and your company. You get a host to serve up your webpages. Something like 1and1 or GoDaddy, both of which I don’t recommend. In fact, if you’re working with WordPress, then go with WP Engine. They are a little more pricey than your 1and1’s and GoDaddy’s, but they are much more secure, they don’t go down (and leave your site useless for hours) and they’re much more helpful.

What ever cPanel you are using, you’ll want to check out that specific tutorial which is usually given by the company you’re hosting with. Here is a great piece for the WP Engine setup. But here’s why it’s important to know this. It comes down to ownership of your domain, your website, any email associated with your domain and so on, so forth.

You, no one else, needs to be the owner of your domain. If you don’t own your domain, then talk to whoever does and get it back from them. Usually, it’s the agency or person who built your website. They, in the past, have bundled that in with your package or what ever they did for you. And now people are getting much more wise when it comes to owning their domains. This is an important step because let’s say you come up with some really great idea or your own blog starts getting traction. If you don’t own your domain name, the company who does can hold that domain over your head and potentially do whatever they want with it. They can charge you and arm and a leg to get it back.

I usually buy my domains on NameCheap and from there I can point that domain to my hosting company. This way I still keep ownership of my domain and I’m able to do what I want with it, without having to go through a third party. Once you sign up for a hosting company you can also buy your domains from that company, usually.

CPanels are pretty easy to navigate once you get the lay of the land. Most companies have set cPanels up so that they’re user-friendly. You can set up your email, so you get one of those cools emails like [email protected] You can upload new files to your site, and set up subdomains to have a development environment.

So, instead of having your developer or the agency you’re working with take care of the hosting part of your site, take the time to learn a little bit about it. It’ll only make you smarter in the long-term and save you lots and lots of money if you ever want to switch companies.

Agile Methodology

October 7, 2014
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The agile approach is called many different names – scrum, sprints, agile. They all have similar concepts and they all work differently for each individual team. While building any type of software, whether it’s a website, phone app, or some type of cloud based CRM, the agile approach is the best way to go. Why, you ask? I’ll tell you, but first….

For those of you who don’t know, there are essentially two different approaches to web projects – waterfall and agile. Waterfall is your traditional approach to a project. An RFP is given to an agency. That agency wins the RFP by writing a killer proposal or one that’s priced according to the client’s budget. And the project begins, usually with a kick off meeting discussing important core features and business objectives. A discovery then occurs where developers come in and get a feel for the client’s information architecture (content types, categories, etc.) and database structure (fields, fieldsets, etc.). The designs are started and shown to the client, either with a yay or nay. And then the build takes place. The critical part to remember is that the design comes before the build in this approach. That means that you have to build according to the design and not the other way around.

This approach can be tedious – relentlessly. What happens if that design you made doesn’t fit right over the build you’re architecting? What happens if that little tiny icon over that image breaks the navbar? What happens if newsletter signup gets cut off on a tablet or mobile device? What happens if, what happens if? These are the questions you’ll find while taking a traditional approach. So, what we do is change that approach to be agile. It’s a cool word, right?

Agile is the evolution of collaboration and iteration unveiling the right solution. And you do this by prototyping the build first. There are some great core values that the agile approach preaches and you can find them written in the agile manifesto. You do all the normal things you would do in an engagement like a kick off meeting and a discovery phase where you learn about the company, objectives, structure and architecture. But when it comes time to get down to the nitty gritty, you prototype and then you iterate. And you start the design while you’re prototyping. What does this give you? It gives you a working, clickable, browsable, some-what designless website – what we call a gray site. But then you keep iterating and things start to take shape. It’s a process that lets you build a site that works properly and doesn’t lock you in to a final technical spec.

And trust me, the design will look good, great in fact! But it needs to sit on top of a fully functional website. What will make a visitor leave your site quicker? Not having that cool icon sitting over the image the way you wanted it to or having a website that loads slow and doesn’t function properly across all platforms? Yeah, I thought you’d say that!! So, if you run a team of developers and are thinking about going agile, I strongly recommend it.