Since we’re all currently in the middle of probably the biggest global crisis since World War 2, many folks in my social timeline are posting/sharing their work from home (WFH) pictures. Whenever I share mine, I always feel like I need to explain the tidiness of it all, because my workspace is one area in my life where I do try to keep things in place.
This picture was literally taken at the end of my morning session of work, during my first coffee break. I left the plate and the coffee cup in the picture to prove it.
Besides a few extra items on the desk (that are only here because I’m currently working from home, my battery powered screwdriver, two remotes needed for this office, my running headphones, a few charging adapters, and some extra batteries) this is how I prefer to keep my area of work at all times. I can’t abide an untidy work area, as any clutter that gathers up gets in my way and makes me less productive.
While the space around me not be as tidy (either my office, or currently the garage) I try to keep my desk as a bastion of clarity, almost like it’s a safe haven amongst the madness that is every day life.
What about you, are you a fellow ‘desk neat freak’ or do you feel your workspace should be as comfortable and/or chaotic as your life is. Hit me up in the comments, ideally with pictures, if you’d like to share.
It all started, effectively 2 years ago, with this tweet.
I’m not sure when I started following Brent on Twitter, but he posts interesting stuff about Laravel and PHP, and I’ve learned a bunch from his blog. Sometime last year he tweeted this and as I dug deeper into the conversation, I realised something. I had, up until a few years ago, been a strong proponent of light themes.
But somewhere along the line, I was tempted by the dark side.
I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but it was recent, since about 2016 or so, that I switched my PHPStorm IDE from a light to a dark theme. I think it was when I first installed the Material Theme, and it defaulted to a dark theme. I’m not sure if I kept it because it was better, or because I was lead to believe it was better, but I’d been using it ever since.
Over the past weekend, I upgraded my workstation to the latest Ubuntu release and one of the new features of the OS is a built in dark theme, so I tried it, and hated it.
On Sunday (exactly 2 years on from the original tweet!) I was thinking about this, and I realised that there are only two places that have a dark theme; my terminal, and my IDE. Everything else I use daily has a light theme. My text editor, my Slack instance, even my browser, is using a light theme. And I got to thinking that every time I’ve tried a new dark theme (in Ubuntu, Slack, Twitter) I’ve hated it. So why am I keeping to a dark theme in the two applications I probably use the most, after Slack and my browser.
So I decided to try an experiment. I switched PHPStorm back to the IntelliJ light theme, I switched my terminal to a light theme (Tango light), and I gave it a day to see if it made a difference.
It’s now been two days like this, and I’m surprised to find that I have not noticed any negative differences. In fact, I’ve found the text in PHPStorm and my terminal more easy to read, and therefore it feels like I comprehend what’s happening quicker. As I’ve always kept my monitor brightness and contrast settings low, it appears I’ve actually been working in a sub optimal way now, for at least 3 years!
Over the course of the past 4 years I’ve experimented with a bunch of different local development environments for my freelance client work. I started with Scotch Box, transitioned to Boss Box, and finally back to bare bones LAMP, mostly because I develop on Ubuntu and I find Apache2 to be an easier web server to configure than nginx. The final addition of mkcert (generating locally trusted SSL certificates) rounded up my local development environment requirements.
The only thing missing was an automated way to provision a new site. As I explain the mkcert article, spinning up a new site requires a few steps I have to follow each time.
create new Apache VirtualHost config files
create a new database
create a client directory in my local sites directory
add a record to my /etc/hosts file
create the SSL certs
restart the Apache2 webserver
And then I have to do the reverse when I want to delete a site.
So I decided to put these commands together in two sitesetup and sitedrop bash scripts.
To install these scripts to your local workstation, download the separate files, edit the HOME_USER, SSL_CERTS_DIRECTORY, and SITES_DIRECTORY variables at the top to match your local setup, make them executable, and copy them to your /usr/local/bin/ directory.
This question, along with “How do I find clients/work?”, is probably the question I get asked the most from folks starting their freelance journey. And then when I tell them what I charge (or used to charge before I started working full-time at Castos), they respond with shock, as it’s usually triple what they were expecting. So this post is a short summary of links which explain my response to that question.
It’s been just over two years since I moved into my current office space, and just over a year since I last wrote about it. As my two major hobbies outside of my work as a developer are jiu-jitsu (which not many folks can relate to), and computer hardware and peripheral upgrades (which most can at least understand) I thought it might be interesting to look back at what changes I’ve made in the tools I use every day, over the last year.
Last year I posted a review of how my workspace had changed over the 2 years since I left employment and become a freelance developer. It included this image of what my desk looks like, with a short run down of everything you see (and don’t see) in the picture.
Today, just over a year later, there have been some small but important changes.
So besides the less bright lighting (more on that later), the more keen of eye among you will have noticed some subtle differences.
Firstly, my peripheral monitors have changed. I was able to pick up a newer Samsung and Dell 24 inch monitor, so now all three screens are LED powered, and the two side monitors are more uniform. I’ve definitely noticed the difference in the visual quality improvement in making sure all three monitors are LED, I no longer feel like I’m having to adjust my eyes when I switch between the different screens.
The other major changes are in peripherals, I’ve replaced the Logitech headseat with a Sennheiser HD 280 Pro studio set, and replaced the short mic stand with a proper desk mounted arm. This allows me better use of my screens and keyboard when I’m in online meetings or recording podcasts (which I’ve not done as much as I’d like to in 2019)
I also treated myself to a Sparkfox Atlas Wireless Bluetooth Controller. This is a great little gaming controller, which I can use connected via a USB cable or via Bluetooth, works on both Windows and Ubuntu and has a very similar layout to an XBox controller.
Finally, as I noted earlier, I’ve switched from using the oppressing overhead florescent lights to a smaller lamp which sits behind the left screen. It gives off just enough light for me to see the things I need, without making my eyes water during the day.
While my workstation has only undergone a few external changes over the course of the last year, I eventually decided it was time for a new laptop this year.
I usually try and use a laptop for at least 4-5 years before replacing it. I’d been mostly happy with the performance of the Dell Inspiron gaming laptop I’d purchased at the end of 2017, but I ended up doing more conferences and therefore travel in 2019 than I had done previously, and two things became clear. First, the laptop and bulky, ungainly charger became heavy when carrying them around a lot, and second, the battery only held around a 4 hour charge.
I’ve always been partial to Dells, and the Dell XPS 15 seemed the logical choice. However, an online friend had recently purchased an Asus Zenbook, and was raving about it.
After researching the differences in price and hardware between the two, and reading a bunch of online reviews, I ended up purchasing the Asus Zenbook UX533FD, and I couldn’t be happier.
It’s super light, has a 10 hour battery life, runs the latest Ubuntu (after a bios update), and is powerful enough that I feel as productive using the laptop as I do on the desktop. At the same time, I also upgraded my laptop mouse to the Logitech M720 Triathlon, the big brother of the Marathon mouse I use on my workstation, and it’s a great wireless addition to the laptop.
The bleeding edge of operating systems.
The other big change I made at the tail end of this year was upgrading both my laptop and workstation OS to the latest version of Ubuntu, 19.10, codenamed Eoan Ermine. I typically only run the latest LTS version on my workstation, and whatever is the latest release on my laptop, but the 19.10 release is so slick, stable and fast that I had to install it on the workstation. I was actually feeling left behind whenever I switched from laptop to PC.
Looking ahead, I don’t think there will be much I will change in 2020, as I’ve pretty much got my perfect set up. But who knows, upgrading computers is the one hobby I do tend to like to spend money on, so I can’t make any promises.
Last night I gave a talk at the Cape Town PHP Meetup introducing the concepts of testing an existing Laravel application. As I did not have time to prepare slides, here are the links to the relevant items I discussed in the talk.
The general recommendation to becoming a better writer, is to write every day.
Besides high school creative writing, I am mostly a self taught writer. I’ve never completed any official copy-writing courses, even though I have three purchased on Udemy from about 2 years ago. I generally don’t understand the finer details that would take me from being a blogger or writing contributor to the ranks of editing someone else’s writing work.
That being said, since I was accepted as a freelance contributor on the Skyword platform early last year, I’ve probably completed at least two written assignments per month. I’m definitely writing more than I ever have, and it’s definitely paying off. I’m seeing the benefits not only in my paid writing work, but also in the general content of my blog.
I thought that it might be useful to share the process I follow, when I am writing content for money. If nothing else, it allows me to write something else today 😉
While the image above my not be pleasant, this is always my first step. When working on a specific assignment, I will have certain guidelines I need to follow, in terms of article content.
I’ll create a new blank Google Doc, paste any relevant information from the assignment at the top of the page, and then just type out whatever comes to mind. This is usually just a few words or phrases, maybe a title, or a sentence or two.
Once I’ve put down the thoughts I have in my head about the topic in question, I’ll start doing some research. Often this is to clarify some points of (mis)understanding, or to fill in some gaps in my knowledge. The assignment topic will define how much research I do. If it’s in an area I know little about, I can spend up to an hour researching. As I am researching the topic, I’m starting to put together a plan of how the article will look and what the story is I want to tell.
I then start writing my first draft. This is just everything as it enters my head. I might make minor edits here or there, but mostly I just write as the thoughts come to me.
This is a pretty important step, but I then take some time away from writing. I find this allows me to think about what I’ve written, if there’s anything else I want to add or take away, and allows me to come back to review what I’ve put down with ‘fresh’ eyes.
This is the most edit heavy process. I read through the content and do my best to self edit my work, taking out repetitive words, looking for other words or phrases that will convey what I’m trying to say. This is usually where I will also start adding links to relevant content, including images, and generally trimming down the content to fit specific criteria. I may also take out sentences, and sometimes whole paragraphs, that don’t fit into the edited article any more.
Immediately once the first edit is complete I’ll start the second, and final, edit. This is where I try to just read the article from top to bottom, as a reader would. Usually this is also where I look for complex sentences and try to uncomplicated them, as well as a more detailed focus on spelling and grammar errors. I will also look at the flow of the sentences and prune them where necessary.
I’m sure my process is nothing new or unique, but it’s evolved over time and I find it works for me.
I’ve been freelancing full time for just over three years now, having spent 10 years developing for either digital agencies or small to medium sized businesses, in various roles.
In the 3+ years since I switched to freelance development, the two sentences that I’ve heard/read the most from clients, and the ones that illicit the most negative responses in me, are:
“This will only take x minutes”
“This will be easy for an experienced developer”
If you are a freelancer, and you’ve been on the receiving end of these phrases, you’ll know what I’m talking about. This post however is not for you, it’s for anyone who has ever said one of these phrases to a developer, or who might not understand why they are so negative.
“This will only take x minutes”
x is usually a variable number, ranging anywhere from ‘a few’ to 30. Sometimes minutes is replaced by hours. Either way, the reason this phrase is so despised by freelancers is that it indicates to us that you think you know more about what we do, than we do.
If you know something will take 5 minutes, that means you understand the problem fully, as well as the possible solutions required to solve it and also which one to apply to solve it within 5 minutes. This means you can do it yourself. And it is therefore a lie, because if you could do something in 5 minutes yourself, you would not be hiring someone to do it for you.
“This will be easy for an experienced developer”
Personally, this one is worse than the previous phrase, and here’s why.
This phrase tells me you understand that I am experienced in my field, that I am knowledgeable, and you recognise that I can fix your problem. What it also tells me is that while you recognise my ability to fix your problem, you don’t value my knowledge enough to pay what it’s going to cost.
What is happening in both instances is that you’re trying to get me to keep my price down, because you think it will be a simple solution and you assume therefore it will be quick to fix. Unfortunately, in most cases, you’re making the same mistakes as the folks who thought that Titanic was unsinkable.
If the problem was a 5 minute solution, you wouldn’t need to hire me to fix it. And my experience, comes with a price. You either value the fact that I am capable of solving your problem, or you are looking for a cheap solution, which usually means taking shortcuts, something that I am not prepared to do.
Successful solutions take time, planning and thorough testing. By making assumptions up front, you are setting the project up for failure, and nobody wants that.