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The price of free time: programmer’s guide to helping a Non-profit

Congratulations! You have decided to help out a Non-Profit. Full of energy, and good intentions, you have embarked on a journey to use your professional skills to help a cause.

It’s a win-win: Surely, with a better website / CRM / tech, they will be able to help a few more people. You, on the other hand, will meet interesting folk, do something purposeful (as opposed to optimizing button colors at your day job), and learn a few things.

Here is what you need to know to not go insane:

The benefits of helping a Non-profit

You probably have personal reasons to help a Non-profit. Working on hard problems with friends is one of the most fulfilling things you can do with your life. If you are not working on a world-changing startup and you need a respite from the drudgery of corporate existence, a Non-Profit may be your best next bet – the purpose and mission are plentiful.

Non-profits are also a great place to meet interesting, like-minded people. Working side-by-side you can make real friends and create deeper connections, than you would build by exchanging the latest plots of TV shows over coffee at work.

But there also are powerful benefits directly translating to your career.

My entire programming journey started from helping a Non-profit – a scout team I was a part of. I made my first website in 1998, graduated to building one for dad’s business, and later launched a WordPress web agency. Now I work at WordPress.com, periodically reporting to the creator of WordPress himself. During that journey, I helped my high school, a local TEDx chapter, and a non-profit supporting remote work.

Working on projects is the best way to learn – you get to experiment with real-world problems and you get to try out different approaches and fail; building that tacit knowledge that makes one an expert.

Since you are not paid for your contributions, there is a shared understanding of what can be expected of you in a Non-Profit. You have a mandate to play a little, try out things your way, and goof off. To further boost learning, it feels more like play than work, encoding the knowledge much more effectively.

The traps

As with everything in life, the downsides are directly correlated to the upsides. Yes, in a Non-Profit, you can be a bit unpredictable and inexperienced. It does not feel like work and you get a breather from a corporate feel of a professional workplace.

But guess what – other people get to do that too. If you have just reserved a weekend to finish that signup page, and the people preparing the copy (texts) decided to be unprofessional – it suddenly becomes a problem.

The Hero’s (that’s you) Journey

Let’s assume you volunteered to create a website for your favorite Non-profit. Don’t be surprised, if the whole process goes like this:

  1. You start full of energy and ideas.
  2. The non-profit is eager to launch a new website because they have project X coming up.
    Project X is the most important thing, and the website (meaning you) is a blocker.
  3. You jump straight into work! You cannot be a blocker, right? You ramp up and are ready to implement the most important piece.
  4. The texts and promotional materials are not ready, despite previous promises.
  5. You try to work around these requirements – project X is most important, right?
  6. You get a call. It seems that the “About the Team” page is most important now.
  7. Let’s do a photoshoot for the Team!
  8. You still don’t have materials for project X, but you got 10 pages of UI corrections, including a bigger logo, different button colors, and some creative ideas about the slider.
  9. You start implementing those changes, still have no materials about project X.
  10. Wait, there are changes to the changes now. Can you revert to the old button color?
  11. Sometime, after a few weeks, we finally got the Project X page to work.
    The placeholder photos you chose are still there.
    “About the Team” page that got 3 meetings, photoshoot, and 12 hours of your time has gotten a total of 100 visitors this month.

Things to watch out in a Non-profit

The price of free time

Professional environments have learned a long time ago, that time is money. If everybody is salaried, the easiest way to turn a profit is to stop wasting people’s time. The correlation is clear and obvious.

I do realize that corporate environments waste mindblowing eons of their employees’ time. This is due to the scale. Big organisms being less nimble is a law of physics called inertia.

Non-profits, however, have a peculiar relationship with money. They are called Non-Profits. Duh! They get funded through donations, grants, and sometimes sales – but they are incentivized not to run a tight operation. Volunteers’ time is treated as free, so wastefulness is not controlled. It’s up to you to say no, which is hard because non-profits attract precisely the people least likely to defend their time.

It’s everybody else’s side-gig, too

As I mentioned – you can learn, and experiment with new techniques and approaches. But other people do too. If your work depends on graphic design, don’t be surprised when the designer comes up with something out-of-the-box, which naturally will be harder for you to implement, than the run-of-the-mill website.

Other people, like you, will cut corners. The designer has a family to feed, probably a day job and the thing called life. She can’t check every resolution, think about dimensions of headlines when you cram 100 characters in a title and give the proper attention to everything.

Last, but not least – without salary, recognition becomes the currency. Don’t be surprised, that “about the team” is treated as the most important page on the entire website (even if the visitors don’t care) – this is the equity paid to volunteers. Being paid with recognition also drives some folk to seek more of that compensation – they will contribute to discussions, where they have not much expertise nor understanding. These are perfect bikeshedding conditions. Beware.

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Non-profits are passion-driven

Most non-profits have a mission to fix a particular problem in the world. Hunger, poor education, lack of equality, climate change – these are all areas society is failing at and non-profits are stepping in to help.

Many people are driven to work on these problems because they feel strongly about putting up with the collective screwups of society. Non-profits tend to attract people who approach most of the problems with passion and purpose, with no patience for tedious reasoning.

This leads to: 

Passion-driven-project-management

  • Urgency is the sole method of prioritization. Things are made urgent to ensure their completion, not because they actually are time-sensitive.
  • Since urgency=priority, the priorities are fluid over time.
  • Yesterday’s priority is forgotten today because somebody who feels more strongly comes in with more passion.
  • Flashy things are more important than fulfilling the initial purpose. If you are working on a website, prepare for multiple CTAs.

Non-profit survival techniques

These techniques helped me stay sane while working within a few organizations.

  1. Find a senior member of the organization to “report to”. Ideally somebody with corporate experience, and some tenure inside the Non-Profit. You don’t want to report to a committee.
  2. Never agree to do anything ASAP. Chances are, that before you get to it – the original request will change or be forgotten. Save yourself the revert.
    Bonus points for batching change requests into sprints.
  3. They will promise you texts, materials, and whatever else you’ll need. You WILL NOT get them on time. Plan accordingly.
  4. Record yourself changing stuff in the interface – this will be a good v1 for documentation so that everyone else can implement tiny changes themselves
  5. If you are creating a website – for goodness sake, use WordPress. It will save you from reinventing the wheel.
    1. With WP, you have ready tutorials to send people to, so you don’t have to fix every typo yourself. Chances are, that other folks have WP experience too.
    2. The next person dealing with the system will know what to do with it.
  6. Use a ready template, don’t work with an empty canvas.
    Yes, it will be less original than a custom-made design, but you will be able to get off the ground and focus on what’s important – content and functionality. You have no idea how many tiny details come together to make a template work.
    Implementing custom design without an hourly rate will lead to an endless back-and-forth on every detail. It costs them nothing to throw in another change.
    The constraints of an existing template work in your favor.
  7. Every statement you hear will be over-hyped – it’s a function of passion-driven project management. You have to do the mental math of halving the emotional charge of all statements.
  8. Remember to have fun. Despite unreasonable requests, the people you are working with are probably quite awesome. Don’t forget that, and schedule some time to meet them as people – not vendors of website updates.

Working in a Non-Profit is a process of realizing that the corporate environment has its advantages and lessons to teach you as well.

Coming to work on Monday to a well-oiled machine, where every cog (including you) is humming nicely, where the work flows seamlessly through the paths of well-established processes, where everything has its place is a refreshing experience. Of course, sometime around Wednesday you are sick of it all, yearning for the freedom and creativity you get to enjoy in your organization.

Education, the Umbrella Academy, and Wealth Creation

„Artur, your opinions always seem a bit extreme” – my friend, when we were discussing the public education last week. Education is one of my hot topics, and you can expect a related essay from me soon.

I enjoy people having strong opinions, people experimenting with their way of thinking, and trying out something new. That appreciation of experimentation extends to culture. I consider all four Avengers movies to be quite average, but Thor Ragnarok (trailer) is one of the best ones out there. Rise of Skywalker is disappointing, but The Mandalorian is excellent.
Popular franchises suffer from the curse of their own popularity. They have to appeal to everyone and thus cater to the lowest common denominator.

Less-popular offshoots, like Mandalorian, Guardians of the Galaxy, or The Umbrella Academy, are not scrutinized as strongly by studio executives. Not every plotline has to be sanitized, and not every single thing has to be optimized to death.

That leaves room for creativity, exploration, and pure fun. Education could be the same way if we stopped trying to extract production value out of the kids.

3 Interesting effects of the Internet

[Deliberate Internet] – Comet, overprotecting the digital content, and meritocracy

The comet expedition

My wife (whose handle everywhere is Made In Cosmos) is predictably very interested in seeing the Neowise comet before it leaves the sky. The comet will be visible over the next few days and disappear for another 6000 years of its solitary journey.

On a comet-hunting mission, we have couped up in our summer house and have been hunting for comet sights. Yesterday, the sky was perfect and we were trying to aim our telescope and powerful binocular into that elusive tail of a comet. To no avail.

Sometime after I was getting frustrated  – I looked upward and saw a beautiful, clear sky with the Milky Way spread before our eyes – a sight much better than a thousand comets.

What is it that an event like a comet or a deadline gets us all excited and motivated, but we neglect to enjoy what we already have? Humans are such suckers for scarcity.

The Neowise shot by Tony Hallas. Here is another good one.

Overprotecting the digital content

The creators I help to sell put much effort into their work, and they deserve to be paid. They worry about not having a sales copy compelling enough, or their customers copying and sharing the creations, cutting them out of their rightful compensation. They turn to the protection mechanism – password-protected PDFs or locked-down video players to ensure that it doesn’t happen.

Yesterday, I published an article with 10 reasons why that kind of overprotection is hurting your sales, annoys your customer, and is hurting the relationship with them.

3 Surprising Things on the Internet

  • Did you know there is a special shortcut to display a random Wikipedia article? By going to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Random, you will be taken on a random journey, but be forewarned – Wikipedia has MANY articles about random villages and 7th-grade celebrities.

    Me being me, I immediately thought, „Wait, what if I built a WikiRoulette with this?„. It turns out somebody already thought of that! Check out http://wikiroulette.co/.

    Today I learned about Forest Nightshade, Fencing at the 1956 Olympics, and the “List of places in Aberdeenshire”, wherever that is.

  • A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you [Princeton Press] enumerates the reasons why the world is not meritocratic, and the „meritocracy fallacy” is an easy excuse for the lucky.

    The online world revels the idea of meritocracy. Everything is democratized (setting free publishing and commerce is something I contribute to), everyone can participate and, anyone can start something new – they only need a laptop and grit.

    However, like in any human industry, connections, and lucky breaks people have gotten in the past matter a great deal. The world is getting meritocratic (with initiatives like Starlink and Remote work), but we are not there yet.

  • Mario takes a flight in the days of the Coronavirus is an artistic rendition of what would Super Mario first level look like, if the pandemic hit „World 1-1″

Overprotecting your creation hurts you the most

How can I ensure my customer won’t share the video they purchased? Can I protect the PDF I sell to be shared only once? How can I lock my daughter in a high tower, so that no worldly harm befalls her?

The tension between sharing our creations and being paid was always tricky. But the digital world adds another layer of complexity – your creations can be copied and distributed also after the purchase, keeping you out of the loop of future profits.

A natural instinct is to seek the answer in the technology that permitted sharing in the first place – can I protect the content I sold, so that only the customer has access to it?

Yes, but you shouldn’t. Over-protecting your content focuses on extraction over providing value. Here are 10 reasons why (Digital Rights Management)[1] DRMs are a bad idea:

1 – It is just impossible to prevent sharing

Trying to effectively protect content against sharing is like fighting against skilled guerilla units in the digital jungle. Sure, you can deploy your defenses, but they will always find a sneaky way around them while you drain your resources.

  • You will use streaming service to gate-keep your videos, They can use a project similar to `youtube-dl` to download any video file.
  • You will block downloading images on the page, they can just take a screenshot.
  • You can password protect a PDF, they can use a „virtual printer” to generate a new, open one.

If you give a customer any way to access the content, that way can also be used to copy that content and/or record it.

This is a fundamental feature of the Internet. Content is meant to be easily reproducible and shared. The only way to win is to make it easier and more compelling to pay.

2 – You are treating your customer like a thief

Imagine if visiting your friend was like going through airport security. Did you bring any liquids? What’s that in your backpack? Oh no, your belongings are 300 grams too heavy, better pay for extra luggage!

Jumping through DRM hoops is sending a clear message to all your customers:

We don’t trust you. You have to go through this process because we think you may steal something. We’re watching you.

This message gets sent whenever a person who decided to pay you opens their purchase. It’s your biggest fans’ first experience with your product.

3 – People who steal are not your customers

Do you have a portrait of your ideal customer?

Is it a teenager sitting in a warez bulletin board all day and polishing his torrent workflow? If not – why are you focusing on them?

People who download loads of content are not used to paying for it. When they won’t be able to find a free copy of your content – they will steal from your competitor or resign before they open their wallets.

And if you don’t know who your ideal customer is – maybe you should focus on that.

4 – But they may become them

Sure Artur – but what about when somebody buys something and then gives away to all their friends?

  1. What do you think about sharing books? Borrowing a blender? Some sharing is healthy and natural.
  2. It actually benefits you.

Bootleg content is a customer acquisition mechanism.

The most successful Internet entrepreneurs build sophisticated sales funnels. For example, they would have many interactions with the customer before they buy:

  1. A visitor interested in your field finds your article online.
  2. After the second article, they sign up for your email list.
  3. You provide consistent value and build up trust.
  4. After a few months, you release a product and the follower becomes a customer.
  5. Profit.

Even if they try to “convert” their friends to trust you too, the friend lacks the relationship you have built. They didn’t receive your emails and they didn’t laugh at your corny jokes.

Demonstrating the full value of intellectual property requires giving it away. Once the friend sees the value you provide, they will either:

  1. Be blown away by the quality.
  2. Decide it’s not for them and they will never be your customer.

Both of these outcomes are ideal for you and save you considerable time in the signup funnel and marketing.

This is what trial period and discounts aim to accomplish, but they have side-effects. When you repeatedly discount, customers start treating the lower price as the ‘real’ one, and value the product less because ‘it must not be worth the full price’. Keeping a blind eye to questionable behavior gives you a way out. You can demonstrate how valuable your product is, without discounts that lead to price erosion.

People who “sneak onboard” often become customers themselves – and even the most loyal ones! The converted always are.

5 – You are making it hard to enjoy your content.

Open standards empower creators to build new tools or use the content in unpredictable ways. Things are better connected. These are the core assumptions under which the Internet was built. You will not be able to predict all the weird, fantastic, and inspiring ways your content will be accessed.

  • I may read your PDF on an iPad, iPhone, Android tablet, Kindle, or printed out,
  • I frequently save workout or yoga videos to watch while being offline in the garden or on the road,
  • I like to read the text in my Pocket or Kindle apps.

Any sort of „protection” breaks my ways of consuming your content and often makes it useless for me. Sometimes enough to give up on something I have paid for (and that is the reason I stopped doing yoga, your honor).

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I write about the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, focusing on remote work, online economy, and cognitive load. Every monday.

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6 – You are blocking people with disabilities from accessing it at all.

I can manage the inconvenience with some grumbling – however, not everybody has that luxury. Tools that people with disabilities rely on are by nature incompatible with any sort of content protection schemes. Content protection’s entire purpose is restricting access to the narrow subset of users and use cases.

Mind you, that you yourself will join those “people with disabilities”. You will get older, lose a little clarity in your vision, and suddenly the new sexy apps developed by 20-year olds in their glass palaces will become confusing and unusable.

Helping my grandparents navigate the changing digital landscape is a sad and sobering experience. Any additional hoop that you make them jump through may render your content inaccessible.

7 – You are turning your creation into a commodity

The best online businesses rely on fostering the relationship between you and your customers. You share some free content, they are more receptive to trust you with their hard-earned money. It’s a dance of mutual respect and the first sale is only a part. If they like what you are doing, they will return for more, or even support you financially.

DRM software turns this delicate relationship into buying a sack of coal under the watchful gaze of security. Not even a fistful too much! You are being watched.

You are signaling to your customer that this is a purely monetary transaction. They are not entitled to even sharing your work with a friend, because they would be violating rules ?. Oh, the rules.

8 – Are you really losing anything?

If you are selling digital products, what is your marginal cost? How much do you pay to create another copy of your PDF, video, software?

When your content is being shared, it is not stealing. You don’t lose your income whenever somebody downloads a copy. As I mentioned – people who are likely to download illegal copies of your work are either never going to be your customers, or they will because they had a peek.

9 – What is your true motivation for blocking the content?

What is the core motivation for trying to protect your piece? Is it some misplaced sense of justice or is it legitimately best for your customer?

If that content truly makes you proud and you believe it would help them – what is the best outcome if the customer does not want to pay? Is this motivation coming from a place of fear?

  • Fear of your work being „not good enough” to pay for?
  • Fear of the offer not being compelling enough?
  • Fear of not having enough paying customers to make it all worthwhile?

Fear is not a good place to create amazing content people are going to love. This mindset will drag you down and prevent you from soaring into creative skies.

10 – What do you choose to believe about people?

Do you really want to believe that people are only waiting for an opportunity to steal? Or do you want to trust them to appreciate the value you provide?

What can you do instead

  1. Focus on the relationship with the customer. I have written a little more about it in Your product is either hospitality or a commodity.
    I believe that all kinds of digital goods will be commoditized sooner or later. The only “moat” you can build is the customers’ trust.
  2. Put the energy you would spend on DRM into innovation and creating new products. Once your old one gets shared, you should be already releasing a new one.
    Subscriptions are an effective form of protection here – instead of sharing your content once, you drip the value to the customer – and they see the benefits of paying you.
  3. Sell more. Get more paying customers – after all, it’s about how many customers choose to pay you, not how many choose not to.
  4. Raise prices. Focus on the customer who is not driven to pay less, but the one who is driven to get more value. Paradoxically, more expensive products get downloaded less.

Now go, create, and sell.

GPT-3, Artificial Intelligence, and what are they up to?

Hey!

The summer has crept up on us during the pandemic, and I hope you get a chance to disconnect and enjoy nature while socially distancing.
Yesterday, I managed to do a little Wakeboarding and I so love this sport! It’s like riding a snowboard under a lift on a lake. You get to ride and you get wet a lot ?.

In this week’s newsletter, I am going to dive deep into this thing called GPT-3.

What’s the deal with GPT-3?

In July of 2020, Open AI foundation has opened private, beta API access to their newest machine learning model: GPT-3. It’s a text prediction tool that is trained on pretty much the entirety of the Internet. You give it a sample and it suggests the text to complete that sample.

„Specifically, we train GPT-3, an autoregressive language model with 175 billion parameters, 10x more than any previous non-sparse language model.”

A quote that sounds impressive, but tells you nothing.

Since this model has an unparalleled scale, it delivers very extremely good results. My Twitter feed became full of people praising its performance and prophesizing the end of human labor. But as Forbes points out, it has its limitations.

A “Private Beta” means, that a select group of individuals got access and started playing with it:

Q: is my job in danger?

Quite possibly. If your job consists of following the same pattern in a highly specialized task, it is in danger for a while now. Legal, banking, uncreative writing (such as producing listicles for clicks), and copy-paste-coding are going to be hit pretty hard in the coming years. 

As I wrote in „How to protect your job from automation”, the more „fuzzy” your job definition is, the more it needs a human in the loop. The safest careers are going to be the ones that don’t follow a path. Those that sound unsafe when you describe them to your grandparents.

If you want to not only survive, but also thrive – think of GPT-3 (and it’s unstoppable successors) as collaborators. They can be your sounding board, they can do the tedious research and get the obvious ideas out of the way, so you can focus on that deep, human insight. That elusive spark that makes humans different.

If such a thing exists.

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I write about the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, focusing on remote work, online economy, and cognitive load. Every monday.

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General Artificial Intelligence

The pop-culture take on Artificial Intelligence assumes it will take the form of what is called a „General Intelligence” – it will be conscious and good at anything.

It will be like a  (benevolent/evil) human with infinite cognitive power and do with us as it pleases.

I do not believe the General Artificial Intelligence is possible in machines because I do not believe the General Intelligence is possible in humans.

Humans are collections of algorithms interacting with each other, much like machines are. 

The „General Intelligence” concept started from Charles Spearman’s research on what he called „G Factor” in the 20s. Charles Spearman was an army captain-turned-psychologist and was searching for an inherent quality that will predict the success of the recruits. The idea was to fast-track the careers of more capable army men.

To this day, the definition of Intelligence is the result of an IQ test. General Intelligence „domain” is still restricted to a narrow set of tasks because using this raw cognitive horsepower in the real world requires specialized algorithms and mental models.

Humans are not special snowflakes, and the type of intelligence that can rival them is already here. It just needs more training. The biggest threat is the same as it is in humans – who will do that training? What agenda will the „parents” of this General Intelligence have? What scars will they impart on it? How will it cope?

Open AI

Open AI is even more interesting story than the GPT-3. Founded by Elon Musk (no introduction needed), Sam Altman (previously president of Y-Combinator, the most successful startup incubator in existence), and other experts with a mission to “ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity”. I highly recommend reading more in their charter doc.

„Our primary fiduciary duty is to humanity.”

OpenAI but no investment banker ever.

In a fascinating 2015 interview, Sam Altman pitched to the investors that he had no monetization plans. Instead, his vision was to ask the AI to give the founders investing advice once it’s capable enough. But the returns would be capped at only 100x because it could “maybe capture the light cone of all future value in the universe, and that’s for sure not okay for one group of investors to have.”