Stress-testing monitors

Stress-testing monitors

A critical feature of any presentation app is the management of screens when presenting for a live audience. The presentation needs to show up on the big screen, and if possible, the presenter windows with the slide count, next slide preview, and timer needs to pop up on the secondary monitor.

Messing with monitors under the stressful time pressure of standing in front of a waiting audience requires serious stress testing. I am now doing this for SlideMagic 2.0. Pulling out monitor cords mid-presentation, sticking them back in, closing windows. I removed many bugs, but there are still a few left (the dual operating system set up is causing some additional challenges).

Soon, I will have ironed them out all. But as a precaution, I might not go as far as PowerPoint or Keynote where the user does not see the presenter and audience windows explicitly. I will leave them visible as non-maximised windows so the user can find them and move them around if Murphy’s Law strikes.

To be continued.

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App update

App update

Apologies for the quiet blog this week. I am extremely busy ironing out the SlideMagic 2.0 app. This week the focus is on tightening the integration with the Windows and Mac operating systems:

  • Designing app and file icons that look good and stand out next to other desktop icons (clutter)

  • Linking those icons with the ‘.magic’ file extension on a computer

  • Making sure double clicking icons, recent files, recent files in the dock, etc. works

  • Certifying the app both with Apple and with a certification agency for Windows so that double clicking an installer does not generate scary security warnings

  • Adding SSL security to file downloads

  • Accept-cookie banners, and other regulatory issues

To be continued. Beta testers can check in now and then to download a later version of the installer, I am putting a new one up almost every day now.

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(Careful) beta test for both Mac and Windows

(Careful) beta test for both Mac and Windows

I am ready to release a useable version of SlideMagic 2.0 to a very small group of users. There is an app for both Windows and Mac. If you are interested, you can sign up here: http://cloud.slidemagic.com/beta/apply, and I will let you know in the coming days (maybe week) if you made it to the very first beta test group.

In the not too distant future, there will be a broad/no application beta test program, but at the moment I am keeping things small to make sure I have the bandwidth to support early users.

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

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How I brought my coding skills back up from the 1990s

How I brought my coding skills back up from the 1990s

This list of resources might come in handy for anyone who is considering learning how to code from scratch, or like me, wants to get back into things again. Your objective could be

  1. to land a job as a developer,

  2. have a startup idea and you want to build it, at least build a prototype in a low risk way without the pressure and money required to hire professional developers

  3. you just feel a bit technology illiterate and want to acquire basic coding skills just as an interest.

For me it started actually with number 3, that slowly turned into objective 2. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, you could simple turn on a computer enter a few lines of simple code and get a computer to do things. Now there is actually a bit more ‘overhead’ required before you have a basic piece of code running that can take an input and do something with it.

Option 1. and 2. are very different. Being a developer inside a huge organisation, and at the receiving of incoming feature requests by others is different from building a project that is really yours. Option 1 can actually be very similar to a regular admin job (a ‘cog wheel’ inside a big machine).

Thinking a bit ahead, I think that ultimately I will not be the person to keep un coding SlideMagic if it ever becomes a big and successful operation, but I am convinced that it is very hard (maybe impossible) to run a technology company if you yourself are completely illiterate in the world of coding.

So, my starting point was an engineering degree from the early 1990s, where I mainly programmed in Pascal. What is sort of left is a basic understanding of algorithms, functions, loops, and variable scopes, that is basically it.

So here is what happened over the course of a year or so:

  • After some deviations, I decided on a language: Javascript and stuck to it. Javascript is broadly used, and can be applied anywhere, from front-end web pages to servers. Only one language to learn that covers everything and is modern and fresh.

  • In my spare time I started reading this book: Eloquent Javascript in multiple rounds. (It is free). First pass to broadly familiarise myself with concepts, notation and terminology. Then to understand it better, then to do some exercises.

  • I made sure I set up some kind of environment on my computer to write code, save it, “spell check” it, in my case I use the open source Microsoft Visual Studio Code (this is different from the paid Visual Studio that is geared more towards development for Windows).

  • I made sure I had some sort of project I could focus on to practice my skills. In my case, the first challenge was to interpret presentation files from my own SlideMagic 1.0 system: could I read the file, extract its components and start rendering things on my screen? In this way I could gradually up the complexity: starting with boxes and text, moving to images, and graphs. Doing the actual coding is super important. It is like learning a spoken language, you will never learn if you don’t do.

  • Stackexchange is your biggest friend. There are millions of people trying to learn how to code, they all have the same questions like you, google any question, and this site will give you the answer.

  • Prioritise what you want to learn. The mess that is front end web design can keep you distracted for days trying to figure out how to get things to line up on the screen, during this time you are actually not progressing with your coding skills.

  • To build a web server I followed along with one online video instructor: Academind. (I checked out many). First random videos, then following some of their YouTube playlists for free, then subscribing to their paid Udemy courses: highly recommended.

  • The development world is full of framework that go in and out of fashion. I actually decided to stay away from them at the moment, and learn the pure approach and not to get locked into something specific.

As I am writing this, I am still learning and you could do too. As a profession, as an entrepreneur, as an interest, or maybe as an interesting project to take on with your kids.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

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Sketch - Photoshop killer

Sketch - Photoshop killer

I am (was) a casual Photoshop user. Now and then, I need a tool like this to take a background out of an image, or project een image on a 3D object such as a well.

For more than a decade, I have been pulling my hairs out every time I tried to use the program. I am a pretty skilled computer / software user, but I never managed to get over the dip of becoming an efficient user. In addition, the hefty subscription charge that was introduced does not really make sense for light users such as me.

Now, in my role as coder of my own presentation design app, I actually need a PS-like tool again to manage images that need very precise dimensions and DPIs (something irrelevant in PowerPoint). An inability to create a simple background image that scales on retina displays @2X in less than half hour with the final blow.

So I tried Sketch and everything was done within 5 minutes without the need for any tutorial. Creating the background, adding text, adding shapes, scaling, exporting. Highly recommended!

Sketch is a role model for SlideMagic. The software was started as a graduation project (actually by a student of the same university I got my Computer Science degree), and then moved slowly but surely over the course of a decade to become a market leader.

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Scale economies in sales pitches

Scale economies in sales pitches

For a small company that is just starting out selling, it is impossible to reach out to the world. Not enough people, not enough money, not enough time.

Think about something that people usually use in manufacturing: economies of scale. One approach: invest a huge amount of fixed cost to build a massive plant that then can churn out products at a very low cost per unit (huge fixed cost / huge production volume). The other approach is specialisation. By focussing on just one tiny product in a tiny product segment, you might get to the same scale for that product as big competitors do who have to worry about 5,000 other items.

The same is true in sales pitches. You can scatter yourself and pitch clients in different industries, different continents, of different sizes. Or you can just focus on one industry, learn the “language” the people speak there, understand their problems, get referrals to from one happy client to another.

Which sector? Obviously it should make sense given your product. But after that, it is probably up to you. I guess that most companies that follow this approach got there by coincidence. Somehow you start winning pitches and getting leads in one sector and run out of time to focus on another.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

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How would you introduce it?

How would you introduce it?

When someone asks me for an introduction to my network with an idea that needs to be pitched, I noticed that I can be as effective in explaining the basics of an idea in a few lines in an email as an entire slide deck.

Why?

I really think about my “audience” (usually a friend or business relationship that has a lot of prior knowledge or interest in the thing I am pitching, otherwise I would not bother to make the introduction). Out go the buzzwords, the market stats, directly raising the points that are unusual, surprising, unexpected, to someone who has a decent understanding of this type of business.

Personal recommendations can be much more powerful in an informal email between friends. You cannot put “she was only the junior assistant on the team, but believe me, she single-handedly delivered that project” on a slide.

You can raise risks in an honest way that are not always detrimental to the pitch: “the whole thing hinges on whether they can get product costs down, but I think they have a good shot at it”.

Next time when you write a pitch deck, ask yourself the question, what would a friend who is doing you a favour have to write in the cover of the email? Read the resulting text, and maybe it inspires you to change your pitch deck as well.

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

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App update: Windows!

App update: Windows!

Yesterday I managed to get the Windows version of SlideMagic 2.0 running, generated by a script that eats the same code as the Mac version, but now saving a .EXE file instead of a .app. This means that I can soon open a limited beta testing program across all platforms.

The next challenge is to get certified as a reliable developer, Apple in particular puts up all kind of barriers to installation of apps that have not been vetted.

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Picking the 2x2 axes

Picking the 2x2 axes

Two by two matrices are a popular tool rank options. Watch out when to use them though:

  1. Do you actually have 4 distinct options that can be grouped according to 2 axes? Many situations have only 3 options, where the 4th option that is suggested by your framework is actually not meaningful in reality.

  2. If you pass the first test, make sure you set the axes right: the most favourable scenario in the top right, the least attractive options in the bottom left, the other two the “can’t have the best of both world” scenarios.

Below is an example of a 2x2 used in an article about software lock-in I stumbled across. Flipping the axes makes the diagram a lot clearer.

The original diagram

The original diagram

I quickly created reworked the axes in a SlideMagic 2.0 diagram below:

Screenshot 2019-09-02 18.46.06.png
Screenshot 2019-09-02 18.52.02.png

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Adjusting frameworks

Adjusting frameworks

The world of management theory is full of frameworks designed by MBA professors and/or management consulting firms. Many view in the same of was the laws of physics: this is how you go about solving a particular problem.

That is giving them too much credit. Dogmatically forcing a certain problem/solution into a framework will not work: if it does not fit, it does not fit. Every situation, every problem is different. Here is an example of someone adjusting the famous SWOT framework. Here is my own attempt at modifying a SWOT 2x2.

While frameworks can be helpful start thinking about a problem and planning the work that lays ahead of you, they are often not that good as layouts in presentations that communicate your final recommendations. Frameworks are complicated diagrams, and try to be exhaustive and list everything that is relevant for a problem on the page. For your final slide, that might not be what is needed to explain your findings. Frameworks can be useful to solve a problem, but might not be ideal for communicating the findings.

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But it won't take that much time?

But it won't take that much time?

Many clients do not understand that, no, I really do not have time at the moment to do that small presentation design project, as I am focussing 100% on my coding efforts.

People understand that it is unreasonable to ask for a big project, but that small presentation fix, that should work right? It will only take a few hours.

Here is the problem with those few hours:

  • The opportunity cost of those few hours can be huge, since coding a big feature in the app can take an entire day or more. Knowing that you have to spend a few hours on something else means you won’t even get started on it.

  • Building on that: this small project might actually be an excuse to put off that major feature update

  • Now that I am a bit out of the presentation design flow, what used to take me a few hours, could actually take a lot more time.

  • A small design fix is not a big rewarding project, it is likely to be a fix: a small payment, not my best work, in short a distraction.

Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

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App update

App update

It took me a few days after the holiday to get back into my own code again (scary how fast you forget things). But I am on a roll again. A major achievement for a 1990s computer scientist is that I got the SlideMagic server running: you can log in as a user to activate the pro features (probably spotless and instant PDF and PowerPoint conversion) and equally important, access to a much broader searchable layout database. The latter works now as well, the server responds with dynamically generated slide suggestions based on search keywords.

The next challenge will be to 1) expand the slide layout database, and make the search suggestions smarter, and 2) to make the user signup/login robust. For most developers, 2) is easy (this is coding 101) and 1) is hard (this requires 25 years of slide design experience). For me it is the other way around.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Accurately cropping images

Accurately cropping images

Cropping an image accurately can be tricky, especially when PowerPoint is trying really hard to suggest possible cuts alongside snap lines it thinks are useful. My solution, drag the image to a huge size (without distorting its aspect ratio), crop, and shrink it down again.

Photo by Morgan Harris on Unsplash

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WeWork IPO: elephant in the room?

WeWork IPO: elephant in the room?

WeWork has filed its S-1 documents to prepare for the upcoming IPO. This set of numbers is the big question for investors (quickly put together in SlideMagic 2.0):

Screenshot 2019-08-22 11.36.20.png

Investment analysts are all over this document: unlike Facebook, or Uber, real estate is a relatively well-understood business, so people can apply traditional valuation methods to try to make sense of a valuation. Is this a gigantic money burning operation, or the start of one of the world’s most profitable tech giants that will change how people work together?

I think WeWork needs an investor presentation that takes the questions head on.

  1. What are the economics of a single location (finding. refurbishing, filling, etc.) per square meter, and back it up with data of actual locations. The S-1 contains a graph explaining the concept, but it lacks a y-axis.

  2. Show a scenario of the current real estate business, how many locations/members would you need to get to a stable, profitable operation

  3. Then, what other options are out there to start building other businesses on top of this.

I have not run the numbers, but I suspect that stage 1. and 2. will not be enough to justify the share price, and your decision to buy into the IPO will depend on what you believe the potential of 3. is.

Photo by Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash

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Visualising quantum mechanics

Visualising quantum mechanics

That is an ambitious title to start my first blog post after my return from a summer holiday in Asia!

Through a series of coincidences I ended up reading through a number of popular science books about quantum mechanics. I remember getting all carried away in the briefing session of a presentation design project for a startup in the field of quantum computing. My academic knowledge of this field was basically high school chemistry, so I added this topic to the list of things that needed a refresh. A holiday was the perfect occasion. I am sure I was the only one at the side of the pool dusting of theoretical physics knowledge.

From a presentation perspective, the fascinating problem that quantum mechanics struggles with a the lack of either a visual or verbal language to describe concepts. The mathematics is water tight and has proven to be really useful (lasers, semiconductors, LEDs, etc. etc.). But when you try to take a step back and want to understand what it actually all means in the context of your daily routines, things get confusing.

It is all the result of some form of Anamorphosis, projections of phenomena that get scrambled when angles or dimensions no longer line up. Every scientist is looking for that ultimate simple underlying concept that can explain/visualise/link quantum on a small scale to the more traditional physics that we see everywhere around us at a human scale.

In case you are interested, here are 2 books on the subject: Beyond Weird, and What is Real?.

Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

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Font or typeface?

Font or typeface?

Seth Godin in hist latest blog post:

And yes, there’s a mustard analogy in everything you do. In how you shake hands, in the typeface you use in your presentation (and whether you call it a ‘font’), in the volume you choose for your voice when in conversation.

Yes, there is a difference between “typeface” and “font”. Typeface refers to the style of a character, (Helvetica), font is the specific instance of that typeface (Helvetica 12 bold italic), which corresponds to a specific drawer with letters printers once used.

As someone who presents himself as a professional designer, I should be a purist, but don’t tell anyone, but I use the word “font” all the time. It sounds better is shorter, and an issue that is relevant for me recently: “font” is easier to fit in a dropdown menu of an application than “typeface”.

Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

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App update

App update

Things are a bit quieter on the blog as I am continuing to work on SlideMagic 2.0. There was a small personal triumph as I finally acquired the skill to code a web server and remote database and read/write slides and users to it.

This enables me to start finally working on a proper search mechanism for template slides. I have a pretty good idea in my head of a mechanism where a user can click around between related slide layouts, visual concepts, business concepts, but it is (still) tricky to code this in software. When I succeed, I could probably file another patent, but for sure can claim SlideMagic 2.0 uses “AI”, which always sounds good.

To be continued.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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Fancy paper

Fancy paper

Back in university, whenever we had a few more advertisers for the student association magazine, we immediately went for more expensive paper, full colour, or sophisticated binding.

This is a bit like throwing fancy effects at a presentation. In both cases, it does not always work.

Very heavy rough paper works for wedding invitations, but on a magazine, it looks like a brochure for expensive wine fridges.

Heavy satin finish paper looks beautiful on a thick 100+ page, coffee table book, full of A4+-sized pages with lots of white space in it. Not so much for the A5-sized, loaded page with the calendar of the weekly drinks gatherings, plus 10 more pages.

In many cases, black and white photos with just one highlight colour makes things look much prettier than noisy images with random colour palettes.

Fancy is not always better.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

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PowerPoint templates in one file

PowerPoint templates in one file

If you want to download many slides from my template store, the process is a bit cumbersome: you have to add slides 1 by 1 to the check out card, and then download load them individually. My vision (hate that word) was to create a super useful slide search engine which you then accessed on an as-needed basis. The problem is the Shopify platform (which is designed to sell T-shirts, not digital downloads).

Slowly but surely I am building up the skills to start running my own template server, as a web site, as a backend to my new SlideMagic 2.0 desktop app, and possibly as a plugin to PowerPoint itself. Until that is all launched (and built), I am going to make life easier for current store subscribers: making all slides available in one downloadable file.

On request, I put a quick 200+ slide file in PowerPoint 4x3 format up (you can find it here, free to download for subscribers), the other formats will follow.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

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App update

App update

I am posting a bit less frequent these days since all my posts originate directly from the work I do day to day, and presentation design work has pretty much dropped to zero at the moment…

So what is happening with SlideMagic 2.0? I pretty much completed the desktop app but still think it is not ready for public release as small bugs continue to pop up, and I keep on discovering tiny, but annoying usability issues for which I do not need the help of others to discover them. The feature set is frozen, but experience is super important for a presentation design app (the big issue with version 1.0).

Hunting tiny bugs is not the most inspiring things to do, so I split my day now between this, and the next challenge: creating a template “store” with a smart search engine that integrates tightly with the app (unlike the current Shopify site). Technically, this is a lot simpler than the complex desktop app that I created, but for me it is a bigger challenge as I need to dive into the world of server design, which did not really exist when I graduated in Computer Science in 1992.

The potential upside should be interesting though, as this is the final barrier for me to go all out in thinking about what technology can do to help make the creation of presentations easy. Again, I will start with the tinkering approach, slowly iterating towards a product that is useful (which involves backing out of a lot of dead end alleys.

To be continued.

Photo by Christian Kaindl on Unsplash

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