John Campbell

Success and Occupational Hazards of Software Engineering

Credit Card Innovation and First World Problems


Yesterday a rash of companies looking to innovate in the consumer payment industry hit the front page of hacker news. Here’s a quick roundup:

Coin is an smart card that electronically holds all your other cards. Quick-take: It relies on swiping so you’re SOL in Europe (where chip cards rule) and their taking of pre-orders seems risky.

Wallaby is a replacement credit card that routes your purchase to your other credit cards attempting to optimize reward points. Quick-take: Not sure if the payment networks can support this–expect potential problems with payment validation, charge backs, etc.

Loop is a kickstarter project that can simulate a credit card swipe using your mobile device. Quick-take: Merchants might not accept it since they can’t prove visual verification of the credit card occurred.

In many of the discussions people wonder why the US retail payment systems are slow to innovate. I suspect there are (at least) two reasons.

Replacing legacy point-of-sale (POS) equipment is expensive. Millions (if not billions) of dollars have been invested in POS systems and retailers aren’t chomping at the bit to replace that investment. As long as people can conveniently pay for purchases there is no motivation for innovation.

Credit card companies (Visa, Mastercard, AmEx) make money based on transaction volume. Credit card companies won’t do anything that may reduce that volume. Could credit card companies use thumb-print scans at POS to reduce fraud? Yes they could–but you’d have a ton of people that wouldn’t use their credit card in that case. Fraud goes down but volume goes down as well. It would be unlikely that savings would make up for the lost revenue from reduced volume.

I don’t expect any major changes at POS any time soon. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see chip cards being supported.) One comment I found funny was a European wondering why carrying credit cards is such a major problem in America. Like so many other of our first-world problems it has a fantastic low-tech solution–carry a single credit card.

3 Things You Need to Land To The Moon


The first satellite (Sputnik 1) was launched in 1957. Apollo 11 delivered the first human to the surface of the moon in 1969–a little over a decade later. That progress seems not only amazing but practically inhuman. (Assuming that we actually did land on the moon and didn’t have any help from our alien visitors.)

Diane Vaughn, in her book “The Challenger Launch Decision”, mentions NASA had three key factors that contributed to the success of Apollo missions:

adequate funding, institutional consensus, and a clear goal

I believe any project–a space mission, a software product, a home improvement project–would benefit from having those three luxuries. Qualifying a project on those dimensions is a great acid test to make sure any project has a good chance of success.

Phoneblock and Open Architectures


Phonebloks appears to be an amazing device. A sort of lego version of a mobile phone where you are allow to pick and choose the parts that are important to you. Longer battery life? Pick a bigger battery. Better camera? Snap in the bazillion megapixel one.

Another part of Phoneblok’s value prop is that it makes mobile devices less disposable. Rather than having upgrade your entire phone every couple of years just upgrade the parts that are long in the tooth.

But the question is can something like the phoneblok outperform an integrated, proprietary platform like the iPhone. Since Apple controls each part of the iPhone architecture (the hardware and software) it gives Apple the ability to optimize for performance.

For example, inertial scrolling is such an important part of the iPhone experience it’s implemented in the operating system in order to take advantage of hardware acceleration. With a modular architecture needed for Phonebloks you would need two or three separate companies to collaborate to achieve the same results.

I love the idea behind Phonebloks but i believe that the value prop is just not good enough to convert people from buying “disposable” phones. It may sell big with the hacker/maker crowd but I don’t see the market extending beyond that.

I See Dead Code


I love to write code. But close behind is my love of deleting code. As much as I like the intellectual and creative challenge required to create new features pruning a code base gives me the same feelings of accomplishment.

Eradicating dead code should be high priority. Dead code can be a barrier to refactoring. Dead code can be distracting when investigating and fixing issues. A side effect of dead code can be additional technical debt as you develop new features–there is no such thing as harmless dead code.

You should make deleting code part of your development culture. Make code deletion a metric. Allow developers a half a day just for deleting code until dead code is minimal. Bestow the title of “Deletist” to the developer who deletes the most code!

Beware of the Living Dead

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong sounds like a jerk. But I think Armstrong makes a few decent points prior to the classless firing of Abel Lenz (Patch’s Creative Director).

Armstrong tries to call out ‘living dead’ employees. He knows that engaged people are going to be more productive and people that ‘eat their own dog food‘ are going to have a better understanding of the product’s value prop and shortfalls.

AOL is pretty much LOL these days and pinning your hopes on hyper-local news doesn’t sound like a slam-dunk to me. But at least Armstrong understands that the key to success is having the best possible team.

Episode Seven Pitch


When Disney purchased Lucas Arts and announced that they would be making a seventh Star Wars movie I had an idea for a website. I was sure that people would have all these cool ideas on how the series would continue and there should be a place to share those ideas…in the form of a movie pitch.

I thought if I worked hard I could build this site in less than 8 hours. I’ll get home at six and by 2:00 AM I’d have it done. All by myself. It was important to launch the site while people were still excited about the news.

Well, I didn’t quite make it and the site languished for at least six months. But when I discovered Patton Oswalt’s Parks and Rec Star Wars Filibuster, I figured I should at least add that to the site.

The site isn’t anything to rave about but here it is…

Episode Seven Pitch

The value of homework (and a high GPA)

As a father challenges there is misplace value on homework

My son can listen to the radio and pick up his saxophone and play whatever he is hearing. […]

But he doesn’t do his homework.

I bought him a book about drawing and he gets up at night and reads it and sneaks around the house sketching things. […] The comics he produces are funny, insightful and engaging. […]

But he doesn’t do his homework.

hacker news user tptacek counters with the indirect benefits of homework fueling a high GPA:

So a high GPA often means that they are not lazy and self centered. It often means a candidate will not sit idle because a task is beneath her, and she will not pigeonhole on a perfecting an ancillary module when there are better things to do.

A student who does not do what is required, who would fritter away on self entertainment via music or finger painting is not someone who can be relied on.

In my experience accomplishments require a good amount of crap work…the homework of the adult employee.

A Glimpse of the new iWatch?

About 30 seconds into the lastest iPhone ad we see a table drummer wearing an unusual watch. Could it be the new iWatch? One thing is for sure–big ad agencies (like Vegas) don’t make mistake on stuff like this.

Athletic Innovation…or Technology Innovation

Fosbury Flop

Fosbury Flop

Mazda has been running an Appleseque commercial that recounts the high jump innovation of the fosbury flop–a technique where you jump over the bar backwards perfected by Dick Fosbury circa 1968 and still used today. But the Fosbury Flop is predated by another essential piece of innovation–the deep foam landing pad.

High Jump Pit

High Jump Pit

Sand pits were used prior to the foam landing pads which required jumpers to be much more cautious about their landings. The foam landing pads allowed for more adventuresome techniques.

Often high-profile technology achievements have deeper technology foundations–YouTube couldn’t have existed without Flash video support and devices that record digital video. Instagram depends on smartphone cameras.

Lots of start-ups are searching for successes based on location technology, near-field communication, or 3D printing. But I bet there is one technology, as unassuming as a foam pit, that will fuel a great startup.

RSS: A Glimpse Back

As Google Reader is readied for retirement (and with no alternative rss reader) we can probably declare RSS dead. RSS was the most successful standard XML format–virtually the only standard XML format that was widely created or consumed.

At one time RSS seemed to have a ton of promise and was a central technology at one of my past employers. Other sites such as FeedBurner and Bloglines are still around but are relics rather than relevant. A syndication-fueled business model never materialized leaving RSS to never establish itself as part of a technology value chain.

But hey, RSS did give us Dave Winer and interesting, opinionated characters such as Dave are always welcome!