Note 52: Two cautionary tales

No role models to be found here this week.

Apologies for the lack of Notes over the past couple of weeks. I’ve been extremely busy with work and travel, which allowed me to visit my personal Food Mecca, Fong’s Pizza in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.

Fong’s is a Chinese pizza restaurant attached to a great tiki bar. And by “Chinese pizza”, I don’t mean pizza the way they prepare it in China, but rather pizza piled with Chinese food in a way that’s completely irresistible. Other than our tiki drinks, we enjoyed an Orange Chicken Pizza as well as a Ramen Pizza. And our appetizers were thick mozzarella sticks encased in egg roll casings. I’m getting hungry just remembering it.

We were in Iowa for a post-COVID wedding for a cousin on my wife’s side of the family. It was a nice wedding in an interesting venue, and a short trip to Iowa and back last weekend. And it provided this week’s first Cautionary Tale: the groom’s father - apparently an “I’m going to let Jesus take the wheel” vaccine skeptic - tested positive for COVID on the eve of his son’s wedding, forcing him to miss that special occasion. It was completely foreseeable and avoidable, so don’t miss any special occasions, and get the damn shot (if you haven’t already).

They didn’t cover cash flow in my algorithms course

This Note’s second Cautionary Tale comes to you courtesy of yours truly. One of the reasons that I’ve slacked off on Notes over the past several weeks is that I’ve been scrambling elsewhere in my life to deal with a business cash crunch. You see, I made a number of plans and financial commitments that assumed that I would have approximately $15,000 in-hand at the beginning of the month and those funds are still floating in the aether. I’ve been scrambling to pay some bills from the resources I have access to and that’s been a fraught and stressful process. And it’s an ongoing process, as receiving those funds will be critical over the next work week.

The source of my stress and misery is two-fold. Externally, institutional clients who were paying at a brisk pace for the past year and half have suddenly gotten much slower in paying their invoices. I’ve spoken to more than one university client who explained to me that due to COVID, their financial departments are operating on fewer staff, which leads to delays in your humble author getting paid promptly. I speculate that the difference between the spring and the fall is that prompt vendor payments were easier in the spring before in-person college classes resumed. It was easier to get the check out because there were fewer checks to send. In the absence of vending machines to refill, cafeterias to run, etc., early-2021 universities had many fewer bills to pay, so it was easy for my invoices to get processed early. Late-2021 universities are finding that they actually needed a lot of those people who left over the pandemic and hiring replacements has been slow. I should have been cognizant of this, and planned accordingly. I failed on that front.

Sometimes I question whether I’m building a software company or an extremely convoluted series of pipes to route dollars from one place to another.

The second failing is entirely my own. The technical problems that I work on are hard ones that don’t have obvious solutions, so a lot of the value that I bring to my clients being able to dive deep into those problems, and emerge sometime later with a solution in-hand. This is a drastically different mindset than the one you need to get many small invoices out on a regular monthly tempo, and resist the temptation to invoice for all the work when the project’s launched and you have some spare brain cycles to devote to finances and cash flow. I could have avoided this whole situation, had I been diligent in just blocking off a day every month to get invoices out, instead of sending most of them out in chunks every couple of months or so. Lesson learned (again).

Other than having an overly chonky Accounts Receivable (I’m waiting on about a third of my 2021 annual revenues in total - which for salaried folks translates into not getting a paycheck for the past three months), the other facets of my business are going well. I spent a significant amount of time between projects since 2018 bootstrapping a state machine-based conversational dialog engine, and that project has matured into a core component that I’m bringing to most of my new engagements these days. That one piece of technology is enabling me to build out more reliable systems in less than a third of the time than it would have taken me in 2017. I’m starting to put some effort to start recruiting clients outside the university research world to see if we can’t put it to work in more commercial contexts, such as marketing and customer support. I have some fairly major projects lined up awaiting work, and these projects should help me continue my streak of increasing revenue since I restarted the business at the end of 2015. Life is good.

But before I sprain something patting myself on the back, I need to take everything good that’s going on and temper it with some time to do old-fashioned financial chores. Because regardless of how spectacular the technology I’m developing is, it’s only relevant as long as there’s a viable business entity behind it pushing it. This is not something you learn as part of your CS major (or graduate school education), and I was too impatient to go to business school, or otherwise learn this obviously common-sense lesson before it started biting me in the ass these past few weeks.

The lesson to take away from this Cautionary Tale: Do good work. But also do the less glamorous work that allows you to get paid early, and paid often. Your creditors and blood pressure will thank you.

(And for anyone reading this that is getting alarmed on my behalf - I’ve already been in touch with my various clients and have prodded things along so that I’ll be fine. One university’s financial department was repeatedly losing submitted invoices, and we got this straightened out this past week. And I used that as an example to contact other universities to verify that everything’s on-track, and it is. Work you have to do when you’re slow to send out those invoices regularly!)

Interesting reads

Shipwrecked: A Shocking Tale of Love, Loss, and Survival in the Deep Blue Sea (Boston Magazine)

Future Space Travel Might Require Mushrooms (Scientific America)

Great Wall of Lights: China’s sea power on Darwin’s doorstep (AP News)

The train that shrunk France… and Western Europe (Ars Technica)

What John von Neumann really did at Los Alamos (3 Quarks Daily)

What Do We Do With All This Rage? (Galaxy Brain)

What Went Wrong with Conservatism? (The Bulwark)

Blue Origin ‘gambled’ with its Moon lander pricing, NASA says in legal documents (The Verge)

Russians flock to Serbia for Western-made COVID-19 vaccines (AP News)

Why the Latest Campus Cancellation Is Different (The Atlantic)


I apologize for a shorter-than-usual Note this week, but I felt like I needed to get something out, else my links above would be even more stale. As part of my cash crunch, I’ve used it as an opportunity to Marie Kondo my life a bit and start letting go of those things that don’t bring me value or joy. Furthermore, I’ve used it as an opportunity for getting back to eating cheaply again, so regardless of how the week plays out, I’ll have plenty of Ramen and cornbread to keep me fed. (I’m not yet to the point of considering combining the two, but we may arrive there around Wednesday.)

One of the upsides of this stress is that I’ve been using it as a stiff motivator to get quite a bit of work done and new clients developed so that I can get back to rebuilding a cushion that prevents this from happening in another two years time. I’ve been to this point before, and it’s been useful having the experience of getting through it before to keep my head on straight. Unfortunately, the head that’s being kept on straight isn’t one that’s been reading a lot (though I am starting to chip away at my backlog now) or doing much of anything else a lot. It’s been lots of going to be early so that I can beat the early rush into the office and get in a couple of hours before the phone calls and meetings start. (I’m on the hook for at least 3 hours of Zoom meetings tomorrow.)

Next week, regular posting should resume (along with the normal format) and given that it’s October, I’m also taking some time to revise and polish a cosmic horror short story that I wrote earlier this year as a bonus Halloween treat. Stay tuned for that, CMDRs. o7