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StartUp Podcast

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terrible name, great podcast; Alex Blumberg from Planet Money/This American Life tries to start a company  
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rafeco
10 hours ago
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This podcast is mind-blowingly good.
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I, Cringely The Enemy in HR

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tymaRight now, depending who you speak with, there is either a shortage or a glut of IT professionals in the USA. Those who maintain there is a shortage tend to say it can only be eliminated by immigration reform allowing more H1-B visas and green cards. Those who see a glut point to high IT unemployment figures and what looks like pervasive age discrimination. If both views are possible — and I am beginning to see how they could be — we can start by blaming the Human Resources (HR) departments at big and even medium-sized companies.

HR does the hiring and firing or at least handles the paperwork for hiring and firing. HR hires headhunters to find IT talent or advertises and finds that talent itself. If you are an IT professional in a company of almost any size that has an HR department, go down there sometime and ask about their professional qualifications. What made them qualified to hire you?

You’ll find the departments are predominantly staffed with women and few, if any, of those women have technical degrees. They are hiring predominantly male candidates for positions whose duties they typically don’t understand. Those HR folks, if put on the spot, will point out that the final decision on all technical hires comes from the IT department, itself. All HR does is facilitate.

Not really. What HR does is filter. They see as an important part of their job finding the very best candidates for every technical position. But how do you qualify candidates if you don’t know what you are talking about? They use heuristics — sorting techniques designed to get good candidates without really knowing good from bad.

Common heuristic techniques for hiring IT professionals include looking for graduates of top university programs and for people currently working in similar positions at comparable companies including competitors. The flip side of these techniques also applies — not looking for graduates of less prestigious universities or the unemployed.

The best programmer I know is Paul Tyma, 2014 Alumnus of the Year of the College of Engineering at the University of Toledo in Ohio. Paul later got a PhD from Syracuse University and that is what scored him an interview at Google where he became a senior developer, but it’s doubtful that would have happened had he settled for the U of T degree where he learned most of his chops.

It’s very common for the best programmer in any department to have a low quality degree or sometimes no degree at all. This person, this absolutely invaluable person, would generally not make the HR cut for hiring at their company today. Those interviewers from the IT department would never know they existed.

Same for the unemployed. Layoffs are deadly for IT reemployment. If you don’t know who to interview it’s easier just to decide you’ll only talk with people who are already working somewhere. A bad employed programmer is viewed as inherently superior to a very good unemployed programmer. This of course eliminates from consideration anyone who was laid-off for any reason. Speaking as a guy who was fired from every job I ever had (you’d fire me, too — believe me) if I was trying to find a technical job today I’d probably never work again.

It doesn’t matter why you lost your job. The company moved and you couldn’t move with it for some family reason. Your startup failed. Your boss was an asshole. You were an asshole, but  a brilliant one. You were older and dumped (illegally I might add) to save money. It doesn’t matter how smart or skilled you are if HR won’t even put your name on the interview list.

One way around this is the moment you are fired or laid-off go back to school. When you graduate with that new degree or certificate you’ll be desirable again — in debt, but desirable.

And so we have the appearance of IT labor shortages at the same time we have record IT unemployment. And because the head of HR isn’t going to admit to the CEO that such bonehead policies exist, they are kept secret and the CEO urged to lobby for immigration reform.

Headhunters don’t help, either, because they see the source of their hefty commissions as luring working programmers from one company to another. Unemployed programmers don’t need luring and so don’t need headhunters.

There are exceptions to these trends, of course, but they are rare.

Those ladies down in HR are typically damaging their companies while simultaneously working very hard trying to do what they believe is good work. It’s a paradox, I know, and one that’s for the most part unknown by the rest of society.

The answer, of course, is to either improve the quality of HR departments, making them truly useful, or make them dramatically less powerful, maybe eliminating them entirely from hiring.

I’d recommend doing both.

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rafeco
1 day ago
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This article is mostly utter bullshit. No competitive company in the software business allows HR to override engineering managers when it comes to filtering candidates.
acdha
22 hours ago
Also… that's not so much a whiff of sexism as a putrid overwhelming stench. The only places where I've had problems with the wrong person being hired or or the right one being passed over were simply demonstrating another aspect of broken management culture and that gender balance skewed male — and unsurprisingly that never lead to public debates about being qualified to make decisions.
rafeco
21 hours ago
"You’ll find the departments are predominantly staffed with women ..." What an odious toad.
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Why Didn’t Eric Holder Go After the Bankers?

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Amid all the coverage of Eric Holder’s resignation, I still haven’t seen a convincing answer to one question: Why didn’t the Justice Department, under his leadership, prosecute some of the senior bankers whose firms were largely responsible for the subprime-mortgage blowup and the Great Recession? It’s a gap in Holder’s record that historians will ponder at the same time they criticize his record on civil liberties, particularly his endorsement of the surveillance state, and praise him for trying to tackle some enduring problems in the American criminal-justice system, such as the imposition of long prison sentences for minor crimes and the scandalously high rates of incarceration, especially among minority groups.


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acdha
3 days ago
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What are the odds against this question being answered by Holder getting a Wall Street job once he leaves?
Washington, DC
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1984, pop culture's best year ever

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According to Rolling Stone, 1984 was the greatest year in pop music history. And they made a list of the top 100 singles from that year; here's the top 5:

5. Thriller, Michael Jackson
4. Let's Go Crazy, Prince
3. I Feel for You, Chaka Khan
2. Borderline, Madonna
1. When Doves Cry, Prince

1984 was also a fine year for movies and the most 1980s year of the 1980s. Both Bill Simmons and Aaron Cohen agree, 1984 was the best year.

Tags: Aaron Cohen   best of   Bill Simmons   lists   music
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rafeco
11 days ago
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Just like George Orwell predicted.
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2 public comments
digdoug
12 days ago
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'84, '94, '04 were all great. What the hell happened to '14?
Louisville, KY
steingart
12 days ago
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agreed.
Princeton, NJ
cinebot
12 days ago
1982 was the best year for films.
satadru
11 days ago
Also for baseball... well, if you're a Detroit fan.

“Wolf” narrative considered harmful (also biologically unlikely)

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Rands’ “The Wolf” post floated across my Twitters this morning. My immediate reaction was that it was misguided to the point of being potentially harmful. That was 16 long hours ago, but I’m going to see if I can pull the strands of that thought back together.

Michael mentions he’s had the fortune to work with several “wolves” in his career. I’ve worked with a bunch, including teams compromised of nothing but (I guess you’d call that a “pack”). The problem is the post plays into the fantastical narrative of the lone wolf. But here is the secret. No one is a lone wolf. Or at least not completely. “Wolf” is the story that many people want told about them, and that on good days they tell themselves, but in the dark of the soul, we all need help and have doubts. By celebrating the narrative construct rather then reality you perpetuate the dangerous tendency towards isolation that is inherent in this archetype. I’m playing the long game, and in my perspective sooner or later one of two things is going to happen to your isolated “wolf”: either they’re going to run into a hard enough problem that they’re going to need more help then they know how to ask for, or in their bid to maintain their Harvey Keitel-like facade they’ll eventually isolate themselves from new challenges and dead end their usefulness.

So let’s pull back the curtain a bit and understand the archetype:

  • they’re passionate about solving hard problems, and generally they have a few favorite problems they like to gnaw on. That deep personal investment in the solution is what pushed them to develop their skills past the point of their peers in the first place, and also where they find the personal clarity they need to opt out of the clarifying bureaucratic structure of the larger org. With that passion can come narrowness, often expressed as hyper rationality. Pro move: keep supplying hard problems off center of their primary focus.

  • they’ve developed a toolkit. A preferred language, set of scripts, investigative processes, checklist, whatever. And they come back to it over and over again. That disproportionate impact they have, it isn’t magic, its craftsmanship. They’ve mastered their tools to the point where the tools are an extension of their hands. They might see everything as a problem to be solved in Lisp, or via experimentation or machine learning or wireshark. They might have written their own text editor that lacks features what you and I consider non-negotiable, but doesn’t seem to impair their progress. The best of these folks literally generate tools, turning their own idiosyncratic but highly effective approach into tools that the wider org can use. Pro move: create a space and a culture that celebrates investing in tools. Everyone should hone their craft, and a few great tool builders makes everyone if not a 10x programmer, maybe an 8.5x.

  • they’re convinced they’re right. Or at least, they’re convinced often enough that they’re right that they appear convinced all the time. A banal outcome of this is hill climbing. The toxic outcome is stagnation with a hugely talented individual stuck because they don’t know how not to be right. You owe your high impact individuals to surround them with people who challenge them. If they’re really a “wolf” they’re likely to try to wriggle out of this. Pro move: they care about impact, so make the road to impact littered with smart challenging people.

  • the “well defined IC track for non-managers” is probably the project I’ve found most elusive and difficult to execute on. Rands gave me my first key insight into it late one night after much tequila: you have to make sure the role comes with super powers. Management comes with super powers by default, you have a team to force multiply you, and by convention, most corporations share information with managers at a greater rate then ICs. I haven’t found a one-size fits all approach to super powers, but a thing we’ve done is make sure that while the “senior eng org” (super powered engineers) have their own discussion space, they can also ease drop on manager discussions if they so choose.

If you’ve been maneuvered into calling someone “a wolf”, then I hypothesize you’ve let someone who could be transformational to your organization off the hook too easily. Imagine instead of a wolf you had a Intrinsically Motivated Full Stack Product Hacker.

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A Downtime Irony

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So many things can go wrong and often do, but I spend a good third of my time working on infrastructure, monitoring, and analytics so that they don’t.

Here’s what happened: At approximately 4:30pm PT feed fetching ceased. The feed fetchers were still working, which is why my monitors didn’t fire and alert anybody. But I have a second large Mongo database server used exclusively for collecting data about feeds being fetched. There are approximately 75 servers dedicated to feed fetching. These analytics look at average fetch times on a per task server basis. I use these analytics to ensure that my task servers are humming along, as they each use a ton of network, cpu, and memory.

This Mongo analytics servers works in a curious way. If you right-click on a feed and go to Statistics you’ll see the feed fetch history for a feed, stretching back a hundred fetches if the feed has had any issues in fetching. I keep these statistics on an analytics server separate from the regular Mongo server. I do this so that if the mongo analytics server goes down, everything will operate normally.

But the mongo server didn’t go down. It merely gave this error:

OperationError: Could not save document (Can't take a write lock while out of disk space)

Mongo continues serving read queries while not allowing write queries. I didn’t plan for that! And it gets worse. The way MongoDB stores data is that is just keeps growing, even as you delete data. NewsBlur only saves the last few fetches, but deleting old fetches doesn’t give you back any disk space. Every other database server I use has an autovacuum process that takes care of this maintenance work (PostgreSQL, Redis, Elasticsearch, but not MongoDB). It’s unfortunate that this is yet another instance of MongoDB being the cause of downtime, even though the fault lies with me.

The server that is meant to only be used to ensure things are working correctly was itself the culprit for feeds no longer being fetched. This is the ironic part.

NewsBlur’s developer during happier times wearing the 2013 NewsBlur t-shirt in Big Sur

Now comes the painful part. On Wednesday morning (yesterday) I packed my car and headed down to Big Sur to go backpack camping for the first time. I’ve car camped plenty of times, but I felt confident enough to pack my sleeping bag and tent into a big bag and head ten miles into the woods of coastal California.

I headed out, away from cellular service, at 4pm PT, half an hour before the analytics server ran out of disk space. And then returned nearly 24 hours later to a bevy of alarmed tweets, emails, direct messages, and a voicemail letting me know that things were haywire.

But the real problem is that I set a vacation reply on both my personal and work email accounts to say that I’d be out until September 3rd. Now, I hired a firm to watch the servers while I’m at Burning Man starting this Saturday. But I figured I could get away with leaving the servers for twenty four hours. And I neglected to tweet out that I’d be gone for a day, so theories cropped up that I was injured, dead, or worse, ignoring the service.

Brittany, NewsBlur’s developer’s girlfriend, can handle any situation, including driving a hysterical developer three hours back to San Francisco without breaking a sweat.

If you’re wondering, I think about NewsBlur first thing in the morning and last thing at night when I check Twitter for mentions. It’s my life and I would never just give up on it. I just got cocky after a year and a half of nearly uninterrupted service. NewsBlur requires next to no maintenance, apart from handling support requests and building new features (and occasionally fixing old ones). So I figured what harm could 24 hours of away time be? Boy was I wrong.

If you made it this far then you probably care about NewsBlur’s future. I want to not only assure you that I will be building better monitoring to ensure this never happens again, but to also offer anybody who feels that they are not getting their money’s worth a refund. Even if you are months away from payment, if you aren’t completely satisfied and think NewsBlur’s just about the best thing to happen to RSS since Brent Simmons released NetNewsWire back in 2004, then I want to give you your money back and let you keep your premium account until it expires.

I would like to also mention how much I appreciate the more light-hearted tweets that I read while on the frenetic three hour drive back to San Francisco from Big Sur. I do this for all of your happiness. If I did it for the money I’d probably find a way to juice the data so that I could at least afford to hire an employee. This is a labor of love and your payment goes directly into supporting it.

Big Sur is where a good many new ideas are thought.
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rafeco
38 days ago
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Don't feel bad, databases gonna database.
acdha
39 days ago
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This is such a perfect sysadmin story. Kudos to Samuel for sharing the details.
Washington, DC
samuel
40 days ago
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Ugg, I feel so horrible about the downtime, and so soon after feeling so wonderful.
The Haight in San Francisco
sredfern
40 days ago
I'd rather you have a holiday and I deal with a couple of hours of downtime :)
brucealdridge
40 days ago
you deserve a holiday ... and 75 feed servers?!?!
samuel
40 days ago
That's only the feed fetchers. I also have a few dozen apps servers and a dozen different database servers. NewsBlur's a hungry beast!
larand
40 days ago
Stuff happens. Thank you for all the work you've put into NewsBlur, and I have absolutely no intention of asking for a refund. Hell, I'd renew early if need be.
mp4328
40 days ago
have an amazing Burning Man experience!! - don't worry about us while you're out there.
jqlive
40 days ago
No worries man. Stuff happens. Enjoy Burning Man. Thanks for all the hard work.
rikishiama
40 days ago
no worries here too. great honest post that makes me feel good I'm a year-plus paying user.
wreichard
40 days ago
Ditto to all these comments!
acdha
39 days ago
Enjoy a break. The rest of us can use some practice dealing with not clicking refresh like a rat in a behavioural study…
kpjackson
39 days ago
Let me add my note of appreciation for your honesty and dedication to this great product. Downtime happens and we can all learn lessons from our mistakes. It's when we don't learn that we should really feel horrible. Oh, and I plan to be a happily paying customer for years to come. Also, any plans for a 2014 NB Tee?
StunGod
39 days ago
Having been in similar situations in the past, I totally understand. You're doing good work here, and NewsBlur is the only reader I use. I'll be paying for it as long as you're willing to accept payment.
samuel
39 days ago
I would love to get a 2014 NewsBlur t-shirt out there, but I haven't found a designer yet. Most want $1000+ for a design, and I'm telling them there's only about a hundred of these things that are going to sell. Happy to hear ideas!
getwired
39 days ago
So sorry that it had to happen while you were away. Thanks for the status update - but mostly, thank you for the wonderful service you've built. It's invaluable to me (I feel like I owe you more than I pay.) Thanks!!!
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28 public comments
laza
39 days ago
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Don't feel horrible, this just showed us how valuble Newsblur is for our workflow or procrastination :) , and i'm so jealous that you are going to Burning Man, you should write a blog post about your experience there.
Belgrade, Serbia
samuel
27 days ago
Writing that post right now. My work made the national news a few times. Look for the heartbeat lotuses.
emdot
39 days ago
reply
I absolutely love NewsBlur. Thanks to Samuel for the update -- things like this make me even more happy to use the service. Thanks for your hard work.
San Luis Obispo, CA
satadru
39 days ago
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I'm considering it a hallmark of the intensity of the academic program I'm in that I didn't much notice the Newsblur downtime.
New York, NY
jbouvier
39 days ago
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Any developer knows downtime happens. The only thing you can do is your best to prepare, and when the shit hits the fan, be honest about the cause. This is how all developers & companies should treat these inevitable occurrences.
Chicago, IL
chengjih
39 days ago
reply
Hah, I am so far behind on my feeds I didn't even notice the issue. 6000+ unread articles before the outage, 6000+ after.
llucax
39 days ago
Same here, I don't have as many unread stuff, but this is just a RSS feed reader, come on! Let this guy have a day off!
loic
39 days ago
reply
Murphy + mauvais timing + gestion de crise = super post
France
smadin
39 days ago
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Well, here's what happened with Newsblur.
Boston
smilerz
39 days ago
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Murphy strikes again.
Chicago or thereabouts
sirshannon
39 days ago
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Exactly.
Cafeine
40 days ago
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That combo of bad timing and technical glitch is just crazy. -_-;
Paris / France
Berstarke
40 days ago
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Meh. No worries here. Murphy happens to everybody, man.
bronzehedwick
40 days ago
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No intention of asking for a refund. :)
Brooklyn NY
gradualepiphany
40 days ago
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Hopefuly it doesn't put you off going backpacking again. Thanks for being so diligent!
Los Angeles, California, USA
samuel
27 days ago
Actually more likely to backpack, since what are the odds this happens next time? (I know, I know, independent events have independent odds)
sredfern
40 days ago
reply
Here here.
Sydney Australia
lkraav
40 days ago
reply
What needs to happen in order for Sam to be able to hire an employee? How much would the yearly rate go up?
Tallinn, Estonia
renefischer
40 days ago
Thats a question I also want to raise. There definitely need some kind of business continuity for situations like that (or even worse one). I really appreciate the work Samuel is doing here and I love Newsblur, but I also see that its to heavily depends on one person.
samuel
27 days ago
Going 24 hours without internet and not paying a server babysitter is pretty new. I often go without access for a few hours, but I almost always have Twitter and email on me and can post status messages. This was a one-time thing.
lkraav
26 days ago
Well I think there comes a time in every genius' life where a delegation sidekick just leaves more energy for saving the world from bad feed readers.
jlvanderzwan
40 days ago
reply
Gotta work on your bus factor, Sam! :)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_factor
renefischer
40 days ago
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I realy like what you are doing Samuel. I hope there is some kind of business continuity just in case something urgent is happening to you and you can't react personaly to help this lovely service. If not, please take that downtime as a signal to think about something to prevent situations like that. Newsblur is IMO too heavily depending just on one (great) person.

I'm going to renew my subscription, which is ending right now to support the further development of this great service.
Pliening
wmorrell
40 days ago
reply
It is honest self-assessments like these, and the overall openness of NewsBlur, that makes it better than GReader for me. I remember a few downtimes there that were real downtimes, not just "it takes slightly longer to view feeds".
lasombra
40 days ago
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Samuel, it sucks, but it's part of the job. I love NewsBlur and paid for a premium account after 1 hour of using it. I'm on the second run and all I have to say is "Great job man!"
UK
pablooo
40 days ago
reply
$PWD
DrewCPU
40 days ago
reply
The whole day, I thought "Poor Sam, he's gotta be going nuts!" I hope you enjoyed your much-deserved offline day.

Meanwhile, I was looking at all of my feeds manually and realized that I didn't need some of them and did some cleanup.
New Jersey
kazriko
37 days ago
Hah. I was doing the same, but mostly moving sites that haven't updated in years to my "Dead Sites" folder. I keep them there just so I can see if something suddenly revives on me.
rewingau
40 days ago
reply
The main thing I learnt from this downtime was just how much I value Newsblur. Hint - a lot!

And as for the downtime - the demon Murphy laughs at your camping trip...
Canberra, Australian Capital T
alannashaikh
40 days ago
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This is really no big deal. Stuff happens.
rtreborb
40 days ago
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Hard to be upset with you, Samuel. Thanks for all you do!
tedder
40 days ago
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it's all good. you have a great story to tell at a conference now.
Uranus
DavidForest
40 days ago
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Thank you for the explanation. I value it when services I use break explain what occurred. Things like this happen, as anyone in technology based roles would know. I for one still really like using NewsBlur and will continue to do so as a paying customer. Keep up the good work and enjoy Burning Man.
rubin110
40 days ago
reply
Thanks for rocking the thin blurry line between open source and able to financially support you and your work. In all honesty a random day of down time is a blessing with the number of feeds I've got going. Thanks again for all you've done.
San Francisco, CA, USA
kazriko
40 days ago
reply
No chances for requesting a refund here. The service is too good, and has been too stable. This is a really unusual bit of downtime. Thanks for being on top of it for so long. I was still able to fetch and read the important feeds by instant-fetching then looking at each feed separately, so no real issue other than being time consuming.
Colorado Plateau
denubis
40 days ago
I completely agree. Downtime happens, and developers deserve vacations. This is a wonderful service.
g_hoges
40 days ago
+1 from me too. I love the service, and tolerate far more downtime from things like banking platforms. Continue to rock, Samuel
lasombra
40 days ago
Right on man. Downtimes happen and Samuel has been rocking on the downtime arena for a very long time. It wasn't the end of the world. It sucks, but happens.
murrayhenson
40 days ago
Seconded. Also, Samuel took the time to quickly comment on what went wrong and to really accept responsibility. You can't buy that but it's worth a hell of a lot.
JamesDiGioia
39 days ago
And the thing about it is it's not strictly "downtime" - you could access the service, and with some minor hacky workarounds, continue to use it. Definitely not asking for a refund.
JimB
38 days ago
I quite agree with you. Everyone is entitled to a break from the grind, and *sometimes* computers do unexpected things. The amazing thing is that you sorted out so quickly once you found out.
cmarshall
37 days ago
Every system has issues occasionally - the important thing is how you handle them. The two keys are communication and getting it fixed. You done good.
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