Archives For March 2014

This is a post inspired by the “Red Matter” Content Creation Club, from our buddies at Burning Red.

This week, we were challenged to come up with a simple “list” piece, choosing the top five to ten “things” that are related to our business.

This has inspired me to finally put together a “top five web apps” list, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while anyway. This is the whole point of Red Matter, to encourage you to make time for your blog, and I highly recommend it.

So without further ado… these are the top five web apps that we’d genuinely struggle to run the business without.

1. Nirvana

nirvana

This is a simple GTD task manager, based in the cloud so everything synchronises nicely between devices.

I use this application constantly. Everything I do, is listed in this application. If it’s not listed, it won’t get done; it’s as simple as that. If someone emails me and asks me to do something, I immediately create a “to do” item for myself (usually with a link to the Gmail URL for that email, which is very handy). I start every day by arranging my outstanding items into order of priority, reschedule those that won’t get done, and so on. It’s not a collaborative tool — you don’t assign tasks to others, or review group progress — but it’s not designed to be. This allows me, as an individual, to better manage my own time.

Nirvana is based on GTD, so it comes with all the features you’d expect to see; a “Focus” list, a “Someday” list and so on. Fundamentally, though, I just find it absolutely vital to have a task list to work through. I’ve tried many, many solutions, but none has worked as well and so seamlessly as Nirvana.

2. Passpack

passpackThis is a secure, online password manager, and another tool that I find vital. All our passwords — all of them — are stored on this site. Again, the fact that it’s based in the cloud means that all our devices automatically have access to the latest data, and all team members can access or add passwords whenever necessary.

Passpack only store encrypted data, using 256 bit encryption, so even if data was lost there would be very, very little risk.

I’m always amazed to see agencies relying on Excel documents saved on shared drives to store passwords, or individual developers running their own password applications and accounts locally. It’s essential for us to have a centralised password database, accessible remotely, and Passpack fits the bill. It’s not perfect; the website could do with a bit of an overhaul, and using it on mobile is a bit clunky. Still, this is definitely something we’d struggle to live without.

3. Bitbucket

bitbucketA technical one, this, and one that all developers will have heard of and almost certainly used themselves.

Given that we usually have more than one person working on a website build — either concurrently, or just picking up various tasks at different times — we need some way to ensure that the codebase is kept consistent, and that it’s impossible to overwrite each other’s work. This is where Bitbucket comes in, as it allows you to host as many private “code repositories” as you want. (If you have no idea what this means, there’s a nice guide to version control here).

Once you get used to working this way, it’s impossible to go back. No more synchronising files over FTP, or asking someone what files they’ve been been working on. Just pull files from Bitbucket, make your changes, and push them back in.

There are lots of other people offering the same service, of course, or you can host your own repositories quite easily. Bitbucket works very well though. It also allows you to maintain a small Wiki for each project, which is useful for setting out the key information about a website that everyone needs to know. They also have a very simple “issue tracker”, which has actually replaced more advanced alternatives (such as Basecamp) for our internal task management. Even better, it’s free, although to have more than five users (as we do) you have to pay a small monthly fee. It’s still extremely affordable, though.

Bitbucket actually had a few very brief network issues the other day (a rare occurrence) and we were literally struggling to get anything done.

4. Deploy

deployAnother technical one. Code repositories, such as those hosted by Bitbucket, allow us to maintain a consistent, shared, protected codebase for all our projects. However, there’s no automatic way to transfer those files to a web server (ie, deployment); at the most basic level, one individual user still has to checkout the latest version of the code, and then FTP everything to the server.

This is where Deploy comes in. Essentially, you give it the name of your Bitbucket repository, and you tell it how to connect to your server. You can then click a big button labelled “Deploy”, and it will automagically copy all the latest files from the repository directly to the server.

This is such an efficient way to work, we couldn’t ever go back to using FTP. FTP is a faff. It’s slow, clunky, and actually synchronising files — working out what’s newer, what’s been changed, what can be overwritten and so on — is a nuisance. Theoretically, of course, code repositories help with this, as you can be confident that the files you’re uploading are the very latest ones. However, you’re still unsure which files to upload, so unless you upload the entire codebase each time — which would take ages — then FTP is still fiddly.

Using Deploy, the process of uploading website changes to a site is quick and painless, so much so that it pretty much happens behind the scenes. (Indeed, for “client preview” sites, we usually configure deploy to automatically copy files as soon as we commit them to the repository, which removes any manual steps completely). Reverting to FTP would be a huge retrograde step.

5. Crunch

crunchNot a technical one, this, and arguably not even a web app. However, it is another online service that has removed a huge amount of time-consuming administration and legwork from our normal working day.

Crunch are online accountants, meaning that they provide a full accountancy service. If you have a full Crunch account, you don’t need a separate accountant (indeed, we moved to Crunch from our previous accountants some years ago). However, not only do they manage your accounts, they also give you access to a very comprehensive website that allows you to:

  • Issue invoices
  • File expenses
  • Pay your VAT, PAYE and Corporation Tax bills
  • Review your income, outgoings, tax liabilities and so on

For us, the ability to issue invoices and file expenses directly from the website is brilliant. We no longer have to create an invoice separately, and then make sure that we’ve sent a copy of that invoice to our accountant. Because we issue invoices directly through Crunch, they’re automatically filed with the accountant, so they’re automatically added to our tax record and so on. Crunch then makes it easy to see what invoices are owning, which are overdue and so on.

Similarly, recording expenses in the system means that there’s no separate paperwork, no envelope of receipts to stuff and send off by post. Crunch even have an app called “Snap” that allows you to take photographs of your receipts using your phone, and file them automatically.

Managing our accounts with our old accountants was painful, a slow system of updating an Excel spreadsheet like it was 1996. Crunch’s web app makes everything really easy.

Note: the link to Crunch here is a referral link, which rewards us if anyone happens to subsequently sign up. However, this has no bearing on my recommendation; Crunch are excellent and I don’t know why anyone would use anyone else. If you want a standard link with no referral code, though, it’s http://www.crunch.co.uk/.

So. I found out on Friday (28th) that I have testicular cancer. Don’t worry, it’s very minor and completely curable and no-one’s going to die or anything. However, I thought I’d post a few details here in case anyone was interested.

This is the longer, more personal, naval-gazing version of the client post I put out earlier. In fact, this probably does’t really belong on the company blog at all, but hey, it’s my company so this has to be relevant. And what else is a blog for, if not navel-gazing? Indulge me.

Finding a lump

Maybe six weeks ago, I found a lump in one of my testicles. If this is already TMI, stop reading now.

I went to the doctor pretty much that week; one advantage of being in your late 30s, I think, is that this just seems completely normal and routine. If I’d been 22 I’d probably have panicked and delayed it. I’d have eventually plucked up the courage to call the doctor at Christmas; mumbled something about “a bit of, I mean, something, like a thing? Down there?”, and then dreaded the subsequent visit.

As it was, I called them up, announced confidently to the receptionist that I’d found “a lump in my testicle”, popped along to the doctors and whipped my trousers off practically before I was asked. Approaching 40 does have some advantages, it seems.

The doctor confirmed that there was a lump, and asked me if I’d found it as part of a sensible, rigorous policy of self-examination. “Well, if you asked my wife, she’d tell you that I just sat around on the sofa with my hands down my pants most of the time! Haha!”, I quipped. “So you were checking regularly?”, replied the doctor, either deadpanning brilliantly or just missing the joke/finding me chronically unfunny (OK, it was the latter). “Er — yes…?”

She referred me for an ultrasound scan, so off I went.

Ultrasound scan

This is a fairly tedious affair. You turn up, go and see a radiographer, and they make a huge deal of drawing the curtains and covering you in rolls of blue tissue paper before they examine you. Heaven forbid anyone should see a testicle! Either some patients are very sensitive about such things, or word had spread of my undue eagerness to get my trousers off at my last appointment.

The nice man massaged cold gel into my scrotum (as a married man with three young children, this was the closest I’d come to a fumble in a while, but I decide it best not to let this show), and then prodded me with an ultrasound wand. It was all very reminiscent of a pregnancy scan, but they don’t let you see the screen, and luckily my lump didn’t have a heart beat (I’m no doctor, but I suspect this would have been a bad sign).

He wasn’t letting anything slip, so I went home and waited for the doctor to call.

Results

She duly did, and confirmed that there was indeed a lump. (At this point, we didn’t seem to know any more than we did when I first went to the doctors — the lump being the thing that had triggered this whole process — but I suppose they have to be thorough).

She told me I’d be referred to Urology for further tests, and the letter arrived a week later, asking me to turn up at the MRI Oncology ward on Friday 28th. This was the first sign that perhaps this “lump” was something to be a little concerned about.

Off to hospital

Off to hospital, and a meeting with a nice man called Dr Burke. “Let’s cut to the chase”, he announced. “Let’s have a look at this testicle!”. A man after my own heart, clearly not one for hiding coyly behind blue tissue paper. He had another squeeze, told me that yes, there was a lump (oh, come on…) but told me that he wanted one of his senior colleagues to give me another ultrasound scan to confirm it.

I won’t bore you with the details; we all know what this fifteenth scan said. (What was worrying, though, was that the consultant’s opening gambit was, “So, I gather you have a lump in your left testicle?!” Perhaps he was a bit too “senior”, but it’s the right testicle. I advised him to make a really very clear note of that if I was ever to undergo surgery).

Really, I think that from day one, everyone (including me) knew that this was likely to be a cancerous tumour, but there were other possibilities that had to be ruled out. Essentially, this lump is inside the testicle itself. If it’s floating around on the outside, it could be a cyst of some sort, but having a lump inside the testicle isn’t a great sign.

The diagnosis

So, cancer it is. However — here’s the thing. Although saying, “I have cancer” is very surreal, and sounds very drastic, testicular cancer seems to be to be pretty feeble, as cancers go. I don’t mean to trivialise it, and I know some people get very poorly and even die from it. Realistically, though, I understand that about 98% of cases like mine are cured completely by the removal of the affected testicle.

There is a chance that it can spread to your stomach, lungs and brain (or “head”, as Dr Burke euphemistically put it, clearly thinking I was some sort of idiot), but even if it does, that’s apparently very curable as well.

“It’s not a great example anymore,” he explained, “but Lance Armstrong had testicular cancer that spread, and he’s fine!” I felt a little sorry for him; his previously unbeatable “You see! You’ll be OK!” message to patients had been somewhat corrupted. Now it sounded like he was urging me to take EPO to get through it.

Either way, the chance of me dying is pretty much zero, as far as I can tell. (Any doctors reading this — and surely you’re all web developers? — who think I’m being woefully naive, please keep this to yourself).

The hospital still gives you a load of literature — endless leaflets, and earnest brochures called “Understanding Testicular Cancer” and so on. The helpful nurse who’s been assigned to help me through this “difficult period” (i.e., not difficult at all, just a bit of a ballache*) did warn me not to read the later pages, which deal with chronic sickness and untimely death. “That really isn’t likely,” she explained brightly.

Perhaps if I was the 22 year old who’d waited until Christmas, those later pages would have been relevant, but testicular cancer does seem pretty harmless, as such things go.

My nurse also gave me her card, and telephone number, and asked me to call with any problems at all, any questions, and she was so lovely but it all seemed a bit unnecessary. I felt almost embarrassed at wasting her time with something so trivial; people with “real” cancer must need an amazing amount of support, that I’m sure she’s brilliant at giving it. Turns out I just have a rogue bollock that needs to come out.

* I’ll be using this joke a lot

Next steps

The next step, then, is for me to have an operation to remove a testicle, making me feel like an over-affectionate cat who’s pissed on the sofa once too often. Losing a testicle is surely never a good thing. However, it only takes 40 minutes, and I should be in and out the same day.

I had assumed that they’d slice a hole in the scrotum, and pop out the testicle like an edemame bean. It turns out that once again, I would make a poor doctor. They slice a hole in the top of your groin and dive in that way, pulling it out past your other delicate bits and pieces. (This reduces the chance of any cancerous lymphocytes being spread elsewhere, or something).

This makes you a bit sore — apparently I shouldn’t lift any toddlers for a few weeks, which will make life a bit tricky — but no more than that. “You might need to take a week off, depending on your job,” advised Dr Burke. “What do you do?”

“I won’t need a week off! I work for myself!”, I gabbled in a panic, thinking of the lost revenue. “Well, you could “work for yourself” as an acrobat, or a hod carrier“. “No, I, er, just ‘do computers‘”. “Oh, that’s fine. You’ll be able to sit at a desk within a day”. Truly, this “cancer” appears to be no more serious than a common cold. It’s the Viz Pathetic Sharks of cancer, as far as I can tell.

Again, I shouldn’t trivialise it. It’s still cancer. And I am going to take a week off, hence my earlier post to clients. Really, though, the downside will be the hassle. Taking a week off isn’t ideal, especially at short notice. Not being able to do much heavy lifting for a few weeks is an inconvenience, especially with having kids, and especially as I’m moving house soon.

I also have to have a full CT scan two weeks post-op, to make sure it hasn’t spread, and to have a single dose of chemotherapy. This will probably make me pretty knackered, although how I can feel more knackered than I do already, running a business and looking after three small children, I don’t know. (Again, this may be flippant). It’s another inconvenience I could do without, but not much more than that.

The sole downside to the entire thing is only having one testicle, but I can live with that. “Do you have any children…?” is a question that the hospital ask quite a lot, looking worried. When I explained that I have three children already, and that frankly, any drop in fertility would be very welcome, they looked quite relieved. I gather that losing one testicle doesn’t even reduce fertility that much, though; losing both is obviously a bit more drastic.

I can even opt for a prosthetic replacement, which initially I found appealing. I imagined myself proudly showing it to friends, like a woman who’s just had her boobs done. I thought it could be a party trick — “Hey, look at this!”, I’d say, walking around like that chap in The Inbetweeners.

At the end of the day, though; they’re testicles. How aesthetically pleasing do they need to be? At 37, married with three children, my days of impressing the ladies with my perfectly balanced scrotum are long gone. I’ll go without the plastic knacker, I think.

In conclusion…

In conclusion… I’m not sure there is a conclusion, really. No great emotional insight, certainly. It does feel very odd to say “I have cancer”, but then, it sounds so much worse than it is. I won’t hesitate to use it in my favour — “You want me to make a cup of tea? Don’t you realise I have cancer?” — but I think this’ll wear thin quite quickly. If I’m still using it as an excuse to clients in September (“I’m so sorry your website is late, but I’ve had cancer) then I suspect they’ll give me short shrift.

Still, that’s now something I can say; I’ve had cancer. But I’m fine. Weird.

Postscript: If you’re reading this in 2015, and I’ve died from testicle-related brain cancer — well, boy, am I going to look stupid. That really does seem very, very unlikely though.

Due to an unexpected medical situation, I will be unavailable for the week commencing 17th March.

Any work that has already been booked in will still be completed as per the agreed schedule. One of my developers will also be available for you to email directly with any important queries; I’ll add details to my out-of-office response next week.

It also goes without saying that any clients with support contracts will still receive the same prompt response as usual.

However, there will be some unavoidable disruption during that week, so please bear with us. I do apologise for the short notice, but I was given very little notice myself!

If you have any comments, questions or concerns at all, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Thanks,

Chris