Why system administrators are excellent to start a company with

2 years ago I started a company with a system administrator and I don’t regret any bit of it. I have been asking myself why this is, because I have seen other system administrators starting successful companies as well. Maybe you should have a system administrator in your management team as well, and this is why:

We have been getting spin-off coaching from Innotek and Dirk De Jongh, one of the coaches, taught us some really important lessons, one of them being: a company is a machine, and the only thing we need to do is turn our start-up ideas into one. And he is right, I would even dare to go further with that metaphor: a machine like a company needs a system administrator, someone who creates the right scripts, someone who updates internal mechanisms from time to time, someone who runs tests and so on.

source: XKCD.com

Get a system admin on board and your machine will be scalable, it will be started and downtime will be minimized, your machine will focus on one thing and will be great at it, you will use the right tools for the right job, perfect load balancing, when tasks are done repetitively, a sys admin will write a script, and last but not least, a sys admin is devoted to the machine.

A company is a machine. That’s what I will remember for the rest of my life.

Thank you Innotek (Dirk De Jongh and Ywein Van Den Brande)


Ik kreeg vandaag, 14/11/2012, een dag waarop er door hen gestaakt zou worden bij het spoor, een mailtje in de mailbox of ik niet me wou aansluiten bij ACOD. Dit is mijn antwoord.

Beste ACOD,

Ik voel me heel erg geschoffeerd door deze mail. Ik heb vanmorgen door jullie syndicale acties een belangrijke vergadering in Brussel gemist die voor mijn doctoraat bepalend had kunnen zijn. Er zijn drie zaken waarvoor ik een organisatie als ACOD heel erg zou kunnen gebruiken:

* om mijn mobiliteit in België te verbeteren, maar dat blijken jullie net tegen te werken

* om organisaties als UGent, NMBS, Vlaamse/Federale Overheid… te overtuigen meer ruwe gegevens te publiceren zodat uitspraken gestaafd kunnen worden aan de hand van harde cijfers. Jullie uitspraken heb ik nog niet vaak gestaafd gezien met een link naar ruwe cijfers/data.

* om online drukkingsgroepen te sturen, en nieuwe manieren van actie voeren te ondersteunen (social media, via gerichte websites, data journalistiek…). Caveat lector: die media misbruiken om net een dag niet te werken wordt daar op boegeroep onthaald, waarbij ik verwijs naar de #30j actie. Je weet wel, één van die andere acties waarbij ik door jullie niet op mijn werkplek graakte.

Ik wil me niet aansluiten bij jullie syndicaat. Mijn werkomstandigheden als wetenschappelijk medewerker, afgezien van mobiliteit dan, zijn uitermate prima in vergelijking met andere Europese landen. Misschien komt dit net door jullie uitstekende werk in het verleden. Momenteel kan echter jullie huidige plan van aanpak, die de crisis wil verhelpen door af en toe niet te werken, niet op mijn begrip rekenen. Er zijn constructievere manieren om momenteel uw stem te laten horen.

Gelieve me dus geen nieuwsbrieven te sturen, noch nogmaals aan te dringen om lid te worden. Ik geloof niet dat in 2012 uw vakbond nog nuttig kan zijn voor mij of mijn collegae (waartoe ik ook de kuisploeg reken).




Disclaimer: this works for me. In my current life I’m mainly an author. I don’t write a lot of books though. I write mails, websites, business plans, blog posts, preparations of presentations, about how and why I made a decision, program code, and so on.

For every task you do in collaboration with others or for others, there are several generic steps. Not doing one of these steps may make your work a burden to others rather than something useful. Most task are for others and some people even manage to make their own another person. Some people manage to make other people their own, but this is another issue.

  1. When you’re not going to do a task instantly, add it to your todo list and communicate the timing to the person who gave you the task.
  2. Make a plan. On paper. Sorry trees.
  3. Do the task, and write documentation pseudo simultaneously. People (this includes yourself) will want to work on it later on if it is valuable what you are doing, so you better write good documentation.
  4. Report to others that you have done the task. That may include writing a blog post about it, or it may be writing a short notice to your supervisor.
  5. Scratch it from your todo-list. Even if you didn’t add it in the first place. It feels good, doesn’t it?



You’re now a Mobile Viking

Mobile Vikings was my second mobile phone operator. Before that I was a pre-paid Base customer. When I switched, as a student, to Mobile Vikings, I kept paying the same amount of money (€15/month) for almost unlimited text messages and got free Internet with it: 2GB a month. The step was as logical as can be: I get more for the same money.

I’ve changed. Mobile Internet changed how, where, how long, with whom… I work/study. It didn’t only change the way I work, it also made me start contributing to iRail to change the way we plan our travels: Just in time using a smart-phone, not 1 day in advance when you can be doing more interesting things instead of planning. Mobile Vikings made me think free Internet everywhere is an evidence.

In February I started my own company together with @Tuinslak called FlatTurtle. We are developing an architecture which will change the way digital signage interacts with users than it does now, but let’s not go into that. Yeri (Tuinslak) and I thought it would be better to change to a “more professional” network and get invoices and sh… stuff. So we tried to sign up for a new sim-card through Proximus’ e-service platform. That didn’t work, so we decided to go to one of these Belgacom Centers to make us a Proximus client.

The network is better. I agree. But it’s still not what you’d call a problem-free experience: you still can’t have a call during a trainride, and the network is still disconnecting from time to time. I have the unlimited business bundle (“fixed” price €80 without VAT), which allows you to call without limits. And you have 1GB of Internet, and unlimited text messages. So apart from the unlimited calling, I’m not getting a better experience for a lot more money. If you want numbers: I’m paying on average €110/month (without VAT) as I’m regularly abroad having to take calls as well which you have to pay on top of the “fixed” price, and pay for the bus by sms.

Today I got a text message. I have 90MB remaining to use during the rest of the month (3 weeks). It’s true, this 1.5 week I have been on the train a lot (had to go to Hasselt, Antwerp, Leuven and Brussels a couple of times) so I have been tethering. I went to the e-services platform to check on my use and to maybe upgrade my package to something more than only 1GB. This seems impossible. Or at least I didn’t find out how to work with it.

I was used to Mobile Vikings: you send a tweet to @mobilevikings at 11pm and you get an answer immediately. Even if the tweets contained angry messages about technicalities*, you can still get understanding replies. Mobile Vikings’ site is impeccable. I had no idea however how to contact Proximus so I tried to old way: calling the center, which I gave up after 10 minutes (sorry, I’m not giving up on certain standards of living I acquired before).

* With Proximus, I didn’t even had to think of these, as my expectations are lower: do you expect Proximus to provide an API for their advanced users?

Changing back to Mobile Vikings, I expect to pay ~€80/month. VAT,bus & parking tickets, + calls… included.

I’m now a Mobile Viking. And I’m damn glad I am.



Today I handed in my thesis for a degree in applied engineering. It feels good to finally have the result of one year of work and absorbing knowledge right there in your hand.

The purpose of the dissertation was to develop a module upon The DataTank in order to allow developers to work with more appropriately structured information from multiple data sources through a single call. The result of this was a language we designed for this thesis called SPECTQL. You can test it over here.

Before all else, a literature study researches the meaning of open data, the leitmotif throughout this dissertation. Besides discussing current legislation on open data and copyright, the organisation of Apps for Ghent, an open data event, have been discussed. The second part of the literature study focuses on the relational model, explains semantics and gives an introduction to the Semantic Web.

You can read the full dissertation in Dutch over here: http://pieter.demo.thedatatank.com/scriptie.pdf


MIVB/STIB: Let’s move together, from pillar to post

We have made an incredible mistake.

The community of iRail has always been about being open and transparent. The board, Christophe, Yeri and Pieter, have never kept something from the mailing list and never something has been left undiscussed on one of our meetings. This was true until June and I hope this post will help to understand our conformist actions which we now regret.

Let’s get to the point. We have been talking to the MIVB/STIB, the bus and subway company for Brussels about using their data and doing some projects in parallel with our plans for building a mobile website, mobile games and info screens using data from De Lijn (which we can access thanks to @BartNelis). After all, MIVB/STIB was the first company to work to be integrated Google maps, and the first to have a real data sharing policy. We even seem like the ideal partner for this data sharing program: we’re a non-profit and the slogan «let’s move together» could have been ours as well!


More on http://blog.irail.be/2011/08/20/moving-together-from-pillar-to-post/

Something about patents

Too much words have been used for expressing the harm patents can cause to innovation. Even huge corporations like Google and Oracle (at least in 1994 they were) or even Microsoft (when they only had 9 patents in 1991) are known discouragers of patents. In 2006 Microsoft filed its 5000th patent and in 2009, only 3 years later, this number has doubled. These big corporations use patents not to stimulate their innovation, but to defend themselves from other big corporations who might eventually sue them. This seems to be an easier approach than checking the trillions of patents that have been filed before.

Oh, I take this personal

The first touchscreen devices were brought to the market 20 years after a patent application for touchscreens. Imagine yourself with touchscreen technology from 2030. Yup, could have been you today. Or do you wonder why you can’t buy your playstation 3 today? Did you know that whenever you buy an android HTC device, some of your money goes to Microsoft?

Becoming one of them

I’m starting my own company soon. No big news, just a small step towards a bigger picture. As I have noticed that these companies started to have a huge patent portfolio I thought I should write my arguments down so you can confront me later if I would have gone mad.

  • Patents are expensive. Not only the registering itself is expensive but you will have to pay for a lawyer to translate your idea in the right words or it will be worthless. Once you’ve actually bought the patent you still have to hire a team of lawyers to check on other companies yourself, because there is no such thing as a patent-police, and finance the lawsuit yourself. For small companies this is infeasible, unless that’s your business model.
  • Everyone wants to protect their intellectual property. It’s normal: I don’t want to see another company filing a patent-application using my idea and suing me over it! In Europe however there’s no need to buy defensive patents. This is because in Europe we have a «first to invent» policy. This means if you have a patent and another company can proof they have had the idea before you, your expensive patent is worthless. Just make sure that whenever you have had a great idea you can proof it. There are various ways of doing that: you can write it down and put it in a timestamped locker, you can tell everyone (the best way for an idea to mature is telling it over and over again) or you can simply apply for an «open» patent.
  • If your company is innovative you won’t need any patents. Once you actually implemented a great idea (otherwise you wouldn’t think about a patent) it will be too late for other companies to start exploiting this idea as well. In the end, ideas are worthless, you need a vision.
I agree that for some other markets where ideas need over 20 years of research and development, prior art won’t simply cut it. Taking a patent however in current legislation is rarely used for the good (read: stimulating innovation). Therefore, as with the copyright system or the federal government-system of Belgium, reform is needed: everyone is aware of this, it has been assigned to someone and no one is ever going to do something about it.

– Pieter

P.S.: I might be wrong. If so, I would be pleased to be corrected in the comments or on the twitters

Oooh Lambert

I remember the sixth of December 1997 as the day I got to know how to read a map. A holy man came into my house, or that’s what I believed according to the legend of Saint Nicholas, and dropped an atlas and a globe on the couch. That day, I learned the capitals of some countries you wouldn’t have heard of in a million years (probably you have now, thank you Geo Challenge) and most importantly, I learned how to interpret coordinates! I spun the globe around and where it stopped I had to look up the details in the atlas. What a joyful way to spend time without social media around, just yet.

We’re 10 years later. Google has just released Google Earth and to my great pleasure I had a much better globe and atlas in one single program. For old times’ sake I flung my globe, that was after all these years still standing next to me on my desk, and chose a random coordinate, put it in Google Earth and… guess what… it worked!

Today, 2011, I’m an open data enthusiast and so much more. I’m working on the iRail project. The project aims at creating a general webservice for public transport in Europe. At this moment it works for the Belgian railway company and we’re working on support for the Dutch railway company and Belgian bus- and subwaycompanies. It’s the latter that made me feel very insecure.

The result of 100 lines of code (maps.irail.be)

This site let’s you convert an address into coordinates. An incredible tool for location-based open data! In the end an end-user doesn’t want to query on coordinates, but on an address. Let’s turn this tool into a webservice right? We scraped the NMBS (Belgian railwaycompany) before so this will be easy! At least, that’s what I though this morning. Today, in my breaks from studying of course, I have spent my time figuring out what these X/Y-coordinates meant:

X: 65591.206
Y: 171629.285

As this site is hardly documented I started googling what they could mean. On a very Belgian-looking (this is not a compliment) website I’ve found documentation: check it out for yourself. Apparently for some reason, please someone tell me why, Belgium started to use its own “Lambert projection” which uses the Hayford1924 ellipsoid. Too complicated? Well, not yet… It seems that this Lambert 1972 projection didn’t do the trick anymore and everyone was in need for a better, Lambert 2005 projection. Which was a lot better because in 2008 they decided to change this projection into Lambert 2008, which was not that bad because if you wanted to use 2008 instead of 2005 you only had to add 499 000m to each coordinate. This is a good thing because now the Lambert 2008 projection uses the GRS80 ellipsoid. Get it? Me neither. In fact, it feels like filling out my tax bill for the first time all over again.

Of course this had some implications since software that supported this projection became confused. They didn’t know what kind of Lambert they implemented and as a result showed wrong locations (typically exactly 1km off: the 1972 – 2005 problem). In fact I’ve had a hard time today writing a function, because there were no ready-made functions out there and because apparently the math is not that easy. If anyone would stumble upon this problem, the PHP code for the Lambert 1972 projection can be found HERE. You hereby get my permission to steal this “tools” class and reuse it elsewhere (WTFPL).

Is there someone who can tell me more about why Belgium is so keen on the Lambert projection? It is used by a lot of Belgian instances and I figured there most be some benefits over the WGS84 standard, which we have all learned as a kid: longitude & latitude… Any comment welcome

– Pieter

Killing dead time

Social media is not about losing a lot of time by being social instead. It’s about being productive in the dead-time-continuum. Let me explain…

If I were to become an autobiographist, «killing dead time» certainly would rank high in a list to qualify for a good title. Not that my life is that interesting – although describing the life of the people in it would be an interesting perspective – but it is true however that my life is filled with time that politely asks to be killed.

I used to love walking. I live in Ghent and walking from one side of town to the other is something I preferred rather than riding a bike. Why? If you would have asked some weeks ago I would have answered: “because I’m too lazy to maintain a bike”. But the main reason lies elsewhere. Being on the road gives you the great opportunity to overthink things. For instance if I go to a meeting on foot I know that when I enter the room I will be better prepared. Taking thought-consuming types of transport, such as a bike or a car, will make you lose your X minutes of thinking-time.

It turns out that I’m not the only one who has dead time – dead time being the time you are not doing your maintask -. A good friend of mine told me he always uses the toilet for approximately 16 minutes. That’s exactly the time he needs to finish this mobile phone game, extending his visit but making it a lot more fun. Of course we can recite an endless list – such as queuing at the grocerystore, waiting for a bus or plane or train, sitting on a bus or plane or train… – but that’s something every person can fill out for him- or herself.

When I discussed this idea with my father, people having too much dead time, we were thinking this could actually have a positive side-effect: people may actually do productive things. As he works as a researching in computer assisted language learning at the university of Antwerp he figured this might be exactly why language learning apps are very important. When are you going to learn a language? Not when you’re at your computer working for that customer whose product should have been ready yesterday, but when you’re at the airport waiting for the plane, or even on the plane, on your way to the next customer.

Seems like we weren’t the first to come up with this idea. Although our idea will get better implementations 😉

I think this is the reason for the success of social media. If you would look up the geolocation of your friends’ tweets (twitter messages) I bet you would be able to find out the exact location of the bathroom in their building. This is also the reason why I like the iRail project a lot: apart from planning your trip, iRail will also try to make your commuting as fun and interesting as possible: providing real-time social media updates from your train, letting your friends know you’re on this train or playing augmented reality games such as http://www.chromaroma.com/.

It may be interesting to know that I just got of my bus, which I prefer taking over walking home now. During the trip I’ve catched up on twitter, I have read my email and wrote this blogpost.


New laptop

What I need:

  • 8GB RAM
  • ~14″
  • battery should last ~5hours
  • Solid State Drive
  • no Microsoft tax (I don’t use Windows™ so I don’t want to pay for it)
  • in €1xxx range
  • at least 2 mouse buttons and a ctrl-key (sorry apple)
  • should be very quiet

Anyone any idea?

I don’t care about gfx card but it’s a plus if it should work with open source drivers.