Quitting the family business

I’ve always told people that you never quit a family business but here I am trying. For the past 20-something years I’ve been doing computer work for Peel, Inc., my family’s business. I gave my 5-month notice back in July and have been working towards tying off loose ends and getting ready for a hand-off to someone else.

It’s hard to say when you actually start working for a family business since you are raised in it. The business started the year before I was born as Quality Printing & Office Supply – doing both printing and selling office supplies for local businesses. Back then, people still needed business cards, letterheads, envelopes, shipping tags, etc because there was no desktop publishing. I remember doing office supply inventory back in junior high and running the offset press in high school among other job work.

I helped my Dad move us from the TRS-80 systems to the then-new 286-based systems. Eventually we had multiple systems we connected via 10-base-T and NetWare Lite (anyone remember IPX/SPX) — based on that product’s release that was back in 1991. Sometime in the early 90s the business switched from doing typesetting from purely text-based input devices that “printed” out on chemical sheets and we then pasted together on the light-table (the origin of “copy and paste” in a very literal sense) to a digital model using Aldus PageMaker and HP LaserJet 4 printer.

The first program I ever developed for Peel, Inc. was Lable Star1. It was a QBasic rewrite for the PC of a Basic program my Dad had written for the TRS-80 to print packing labels for print jobs. It was super simple: you put in the description and total number of boxes and it would print out labels for each one (box X of Y). Ah, LPT ports, how far we’ve come.

I designed the first Peel, Inc. website. I don’t remember when that was but the WayBackMachine has one that is dated December 19972. Like most back then it was pure HTML although shortly after that in 1998 it was moved to PHP/FI 2.0, which was a step above server-side includes, but just barely. The website remained largely crap up until 2004 when my involvement in the family business took an interesting twist.

By 2004, Peel, Inc. had transitioned from a printing and office supply company into a printing and advertising company. Seeing the writing on the wall from desktop publishing taking over basic printing needs and Walmart taking over the office supply needs, my parents pivoted the business into its strength: offset press printing. Subdivisions and communities in Houston were wanting a way to communicate with their residents and brand their communities. A magazine-style newsletter printed solely for them with relevant news was just the thing. Peel, Inc. entered this existing market with a different approach than some of their early competitors: instead of charging the communities for the newsletter we sold advertising and made it free to the subdivisions.

Peel, Inc. had several ad reps in Houston that would go to businesses and sell ads. They’d fill out a 3-part carbonless form, fax in a copy, and then at the end of the month they’d FedEx all of their contracts in. We’d take the fax and input the data into a DOS-based database program called Q&A. Newsletter designers would take printed reports from the database when setting up the newsletter to make sure all the ads got in its respective newsletter. To my post-dot-com mind this was horribly inefficient. Why not just have a web portal for the ad reps to fill out a virtual form and centralize everything? The designers could access the same data before setting up their newsletters.

Sometime around that summer I approached my Dad with a business proposition: let me implement and design this system for a cut of the contracts that went through it. He agreed and in October of 2004 ConTrack was born. Over the next couple of years this grew to be a central component of the business — everything goes through ConTrack. Today advertisers can log into the system to see their past contracts and pay their current one through PayPal. Residents can log into the main Peel, Inc. website and submit articles and view past newsletter editions. None of this is particularly earth-shattering but it’s been pretty amazing to watch the whole thing grow over the past 10 years.

Also since 2004 the business went from one building in Littlefield to a multi-site operation where newsletters were being set up in Austin yet printed in Littlefield. I designed the back-end IT systems that enabled this workflow. We had one primary designer move to Dallas and I learned about VPNs and how to allow her to be fully productive from there. I’ve dabbled in email, web design, VPNs, Samba, off-site caching, and more. A few years ago the business got a bit simpler as it consolidated down to one building in Lakeway and moved to Macs — removing the need for offsite two-way data sync and anything having to do with Windows.

The business continues to evolve. Just last year we released an iOS app for residents to view their newsletters and receive community notifications. This month we rolled out an iPad-optimized version. I didn’t design the mobile apps — not my wheelhouse — but I did design the backend systems that support it (and learned about APNS in the process).

Of course, during all of this time I’ve had a full-time job, first with IBM starting in 2000 and then with EMC Isilon in 2010. This year at EMC Isilon has been the busiest of my professional career and I’ve been unable to focus time on Peel, Inc. This is a disservice to them and it’s been very taxing on me as well.

Which leads us up to now, my last day in the family business. Like any family business I don’t expect I’ll ever be truly out of it — the businesses/contractors that take over the IT systems will undoubtedly have questions that I’ll need to help answer — but it’s at least a formal parting of ways. It’s been a great learning experience in every aspect imaginable and now it’s time to move on.

1 Yes, that’s ‘Label’ misspelled. I was, and continue to be, a horrible speller. English sucks, compare: bible and able to label.

2 And I’m not linking you to it as it is hideous.

Quitting my job as System Administrator

For the past 14.5 years I’ve managed my own server for email (SMTP, IMAP, mailman), DNS, web, and other services. As of the end of this year I’m divesting myself of most all of it. I learned a whole lot by doing it but I’m past the point of learning more and it’s just become more headache than it’s worth.

Two weeks ago I migrated all of my email off of my self-hosted server to Rackspace (bonus: they are an EMC Isilon customer!). All of the domains for which I hosted DNS records have been migrated to the DNS provided by the domain registrar (not a feature freely available in 2000). At the end of this month I’ll have the last email account migrated off and will officially shut down IMAP/POP and DNS. By the end of January I’ll stop being a backup mail server for some domains and will shut down the SMTP server.

Then, and only then, can I finally retire the Fedora Core 4 box that has been dutifully chugging along for almost 15 years. This is one of a few steps I’m taking to drastically simplify my life.

New peelinc.com website goes live

Monday evening I made the new Peel, Inc.1 website live: www.peelinc.com. This is the fourth major version of the website since the domain first appeared circa 1998. The first three versions can be found on the Way Back Machine (sans some stylesheets and images by the looks of it) and were released, roughly, in 1998, 2004, and 2006.

Unlike the prior versions, this one is not designed by me, but by a real designer: Peel, Inc.’s lead designer Jenny Polk. Hence why it looks so much better than all the prior ones. The original plan was for Jenny to design the page frameworks in a tool that would export sane HTML/CSS and hand it off to me to massage into the individual pages. I figured, it’s been 20-something years since the first WYSIWYG HTML tools, surely they’ve come leaps and bounds and do Smart Things. No, oh no. If anything they’ve gotten worse with the advent of CSS (no, Fireworks, I don’t want the whole page rendered into a bitmap and broken up into tiny separate images each within their own absolutely-positioned divs!). Instead she designed all the pages and handed me a PDF of what she wanted it to look like and I dove into vim to put it down into code. After getting past my issues with the CSS box model it went fairly smoothly.

There are still layout things that I’m not completely happy with. It would have been easiest to specify a “page size” in pixels and design everything to that. I hate websites like that, although now I realize why designers do it that way. Instead I designed what I really wanted: a fully-fluid design that scales decently with the window. It isn’t perfect, window sizes < 950 pixels wide don’t layout ideally and sizes > 1200 pixels wide look a little sparse, but it was the best I could do with my crappy CSS skills. With today’s screen sizes these seem like reasonable boundaries.

In the end I’m very happy with the new design. Jenny did an amazing job and it’s by far the most professional looking website the company has ever had. I’m 95% happy with my execution of her design. Maybe after a couple of months I’ll come back and give the CSS a fresh look to see if I can’t iron out that last 5%.

1 It’s become obvious that new coworkers and Seattle acquaintances don’t know the skinny on Peel, Inc. It’s my family’s printing/publishing business based out of Texas. I’m the not-so-humble IT guy who wrangles the 1s and 0s in whatever form they take and have for the past 20-something years. You never escape a family business.

Standards, Consistency, and Network cables

This weekend I’m in Austin moving my parent’s business to their brand new building. The building with an honest-to-goodness server closet and wiring installed professionally. Well, perhaps it was run professionally but the cables were punched down by idiots.

When making ethernet cables (what the layperson refers to as “network cables”) consistency is the most important thing. Pins 1 through 8 on one end must line up with pins 1 through 8 on the other end. To help with this consistency, the industry introduced two standards, T568A and T568B. Following either of these standards will guarantee you a working ethernet cable as long as both ends of the cable are the same.

To assist with this consistency, ethernet punch down blocks and ethernet wall keys contain handy color-coded labels — usually for both standards — on the blocks themselves. Any non-color-blind individual can brainlessly punch down ethernet cables. Which is why I assert that the cables in the new building were punched down by an idiot. The wall keys correctly follow the B standard helpfully labeled thereon. The punch blocks in the server room don’t follow the B standard. They also don’t follow the A standard. This is despite having both A and B standards conveniently labeled just below each punch-down segment. No, the cables in the punch-down blocks follow some hairbrained scheme of the punching madman and, since they don’t match the other ends, they’re worthless.

If this had happened to one or two, we’d sadly shake our heads and agree that punching down 48 of these would result in anyone getting the brown and orange swapped once or twice. But no, all 48 are consistently wrong. To top it off, the cables were supposedly tested by the installer. I can’t comment on if they were tested, but I can guarantee you that if they were tested, they were most certainly not tested with a successful result.

There’s something to stay about consistency — I just wish they had been consistent on both ends.

I’m a spot color guy living in a process color world

Growing up in a print shop gives me a unique knowledge of all things print. Stray too far outside of the spot color domain however and I have to start getting resourceful.

My family’s business has always used offset presses. And even while they have T-heads to enable the simultaneous printing of 2 colors — the ink has always been Pantone spot colors. This means that whatever we designed, be it on the old negative-creating typesetter circa 1980 or Adobe InDesign, would come out black-and-white in the end to be “converted” to a single spot color on the presses. [Aside: I’m not even going to get into the use of halftone screens and the camera in order to make printable photos — lets just gloss all over that and say it all ended up in black and white.] At no time did I ever need to delve into the process color domain. I knew it existed, I grok the basic concepts, but I didn’t have to concern myself with it.

Recently Benjamin was designing a banner in Inkscape that was to be printed by a 3rd party vendor who specifically requested the document be in CMYK. I dug around and discovered that while Inkscape has some tentative support for CMYK, it is unable to export EPS files in that color space. The work-around is to import the SVG file into Scribus and create the EPS from there as Scribus has better color management support. The tricky part is that Benjamin had used three high-resolution JPEGs in the SVG — JPEGs that were in the sRGB color space. I attempted to use jpegicc utility from littlecms to convert the image from the sRGB color space to a CMYK color space using an Adobe ICC file which succeeded. However, viewing these images did not give me a comfortable feeling that they would look good in print. I ended up punting the work altogether and asked a friend to use Adobe PhotoShop to do the conversion. I was then able to do the Inkscape -> Scribus route to get the final EPS format.

The banner was reported shipped yesterday. Hopefully my color space wrangling worked and it’ll look good upon arrival.

DMCA: The law was on our side

I’m not a big fan of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). I think it goes too far to protect the rights of copyright holders over fair use and the public good. That said, the DMCA was on my side this week.

Early last week Kelly emailed me and said that a website (name and link withheld to protect the guilty) had copied verbiage from the Peel, Inc. home page. This was irritating, galling, and funny all at the same time. It was particularly irritating as the offending website was owned by a direct competitor in Peel, Inc.’s newsletter business in the Houston area. Furthermore it was galling in that they had copied text form our website verbatim stopping only to replace our company name with theirs. The funny part was that they not only copied the front page of our website verbatim, they copied the text from another of our competitors in Houston too! After looking at it I determined they had copied the text from an older version of our website circa March 2006 so the offending text had been up for around a year.

This is where the DMCA comes into play. The DMCA specifies that ISPs who host infringing material are can be held liable for the infringement if they do not take action to have the content removed. Classically this has been used by the RIAA and MPAA to force them to remove content or shut down the hosting service for clients who illegally post copyrighted music or movies. The DMCA, however, covers all copyrights, not just that for digital media. After finding out that our text had been ‘borrowed’ I composed a DMCA Notification and sent it to their ISP via email and fax on Wednesday the 10th. The notification includes copies of the offending material and samples of the copyrighted material, where each can be found on the web, and of course the name of the allegedly offending entity.

Side note: locating someone’s ISP is not as simple as one might expect. A whois will tell you who the domain name is registered to, but often not who is hosting it. Looking up the IP address of the web server will yield who the address is registered to but that doesn’t mean the company hasn’t leased the address out to someone else who is doing the actual hosting. I’m not clear what would happen if you send the DMCA Notification to the IP address owner and they were simply the upstream provider of the hosting service. Luckily it didn’t matter, the address owner was doing the hosting.

After being notified, the ISP is suppose to forward the Notification to the offender and alert the Notifier (that would be us) that the ISP is acting upon the Notification.

It took a whole week but yesterday evening the ISP forwarded the DMCA Notification to the offending party and gave them 48 hours notice to remove the offending content or their access would be terminated. About 18 hours later the offenders removed not only all of our copyrighted material but also the copyrighted material from our competitors that they had swiped too.

Side note: Alternatively the offenders could have sent back to their ISP a DMCA Counter-Notification if they believed that the material did not infringe on our copyrights. Not sure what happens after a DMCA Counter-Notification is filed. Does it turn into a he said/she said situation with the ISP? Do you have to file suit to enforce your copyright against the offender? I’m glad we didn’t have to find out.

My goal wasn’t to be a bitch to these people (although I did enjoy the power trip) but honestly, if you’re going to compete with someone, don’t copy the entire text of their homepage and put it on your own. Come up with your own content to post on your otherwise crummy website.

Updating the peelinc.com and kence.org infrastructures

I talked Dad into getting two nice Dell PowerEdge servers to be the new DNS/web/mail servers for Peel, Inc. They’ll also power some of the kence.org infrastructure as well. They’re pretty sweet boxes (1×3.6GHz dual-core Intel, 2GB RAM, RAID5 disks, 2×10/100/1000 network cards). They will both be configured almost identical with the usual Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL, BIND, SquirrelMail, Postfix, Dovecot, etc. One will go at the new sales office in Pflugerville and the other will be at the shop there in Littlefield. We have a business ADSL account in Pflugerville and are getting one in Littlefield (to replace the wireless connection they currently have). Both connections are 1.5/384 which is faster than my 144/144 IDSL connection at the house. The Pflugerville box will be the primary box (Master DNS, final SMTP destination, IMAP/POP server, etc) with the box in Littlefield being the backup (Slave DNS, SMTP backup, MySQL replica, etc). I’m in the process of setting the boxes up now and hope to move them in a couple of weeks after I get them finalized and tested.

I’m going to be phasing things onto the new boxes after I get them installed. The first thing to go will be the DNS and web. Followed by mail a few weeks later (the trickier of the two). I’m moving to virtual mail hosting with a MySQL database backend for both Postfix and Dovecot to make administration easier. A big plus will be the ability for users to change their passwords which has plagued me for years now.

After the migration I’ll still have daneel.kence.org set up as a relay for a while although he will eventually be phased out. After consolidating some hardware I’ll be creating a new non-peelinc-web server box to host at the Pflugerville office to replace mcguvnor.kence.org although that’s a couple of months away at the earliest. I’m looking forward to getting the old space heaters out of my office at the house – sure to lower my electric bills in the summer!