Staying Flexible: Living a Loosely Coupled Life

There’s a term we use in programming and development to describe system interfaces that are designed with maximum flexibility in mind. They are said to be loosely coupled. In plain English, it means that applications have stable and consistent ways for other programs to communicate with them. More importantly, since there are clear boundaries that are well known, it’s relatively trivial to swap one component out for a completely different one. Bringing it down to one word, it means independence.

Sometimes loose coupling can be achieved by designing it in from the start using web services technology — a luxury if you have the opportunity to build everything from scratch. Much more often though, a new program being created needs to talk to some long-running application that has been there longer than everyone in the company. In those cases, making things loosely coupled means creating a layer of abstraction that each of the applications talk to instead of doing it directly &mdash we call that middleware.

If the day ever comes when the legacy program is retired and replaced with something new, the other application should continue to communicate with little to no modifications. Since no assumptions were made about the ugly complexity hidden beneath the middleware, changes can be made there without affecting anything else.

Where am I going with this?

It recently occurred to me that we face a lot of tight coupling in our personal lives. Change creates a very real pain. I think this is especially the case when it comes to how we communicate with others. Let me explain, and offer some tips.

Email Addresses

I know a lot of people who’s sole email address is an account from either their ISP, university, or employer. This is a really bad idea. They are too dependent on an organization with which they have only a temporary association. At some point, they’ll be switching internet providers, graduating from college, or switching to a new job, and when they do, they will be forced to get a new email address and deal with the pain of getting all of their contacts to use it.

What You Can Do

If you face the above problem, the easiest way to deal with it is to get a free web-based email address for your personal use. Use your work address for work, your university address for school, and just plain stay away from your ISP provided one. I love and recommend Gmail, but Yahoo Mail and Hotmail will work too. Not only can you keep these email addresses for as long as you want, but you can use them from any computer with a web browser.

If you want to take this a step further, it’s possible to be completely independent of any 3rd party email provider: You can do it yourself. You’ll need a domain name (I’ve had good luck with Go Daddy) and a little bit of technical knowledge, but it’s fairly easy to setup a [email protected] email address that is managed entirely by you. The easiest way to go here is to link your domain name to Google Apps. For only the annual cost of your domain, you’ll have both the benefits of owning your email address and being able to use the Gmail interface to manage your email.

Telephone

For the longest time, moving to a new physical location or to a different mobile provider meant you had to get a new phone number, creating a ton of pain. This problem was greatly reduced several years ago when Local Number Portability went into affect, because it meant you could keep your number when switching to a different local provider. This leaves the issue of moving to a different geographic area completely unresolved, however.

What You Can Do

I’ve got one pretty good solution to our dependence on carriers and location for our telephones. It’s called GrandCentral, and I just signed up for a free account earlier this week. What it does is give you a phone number you can keep “for life” (your’s, or the company’s, whichever is shorter) that connects to all your phones, whether they’re mobile, office, home, etc. You keep that same number wherever you go and change where it points to anytime you want.

Besides having that number you can take with you, gives you all sorts of really neat features, like customized voice mail greats by caller or group (family, work, friends), switching phones in mid-call, listening live to callers as they leave voice mail, call recording, and more.

Postal Mail

This one is probably the hardest from which to become independent. As digital as we’re all becoming, there’s still the need for good, old-fashioned paper. Here are some ideas for reducing mail pain when moving.

What You Can Do

Even though you can’t be like Kramer and opt-out of mail entirely, you can reduce it to the bare minimum:

  1. Slow the stream of credit card junk mail by opting-out. Go to OptOutPrescreen.com and fill out an online form to stop these offers for five years. Stop them permanently by mailing them a signed physical form.
  2. Go paperless for as many bills as possible. This is also a great for helping to prevent identity theft.

There are also a few ways to create separate between your mail and your physical location:

  1. Have the USPS forward your mail to a different location
  2. Get a post office box and use it instead of your home address. This doesn’t really help much if you end up moving across the country though.
  3. Get your postal mail online. This is actually possible now, thanks to a new service called Earth Class Mail. They give you an address in a major U.S. city, then you get your mail sent to it. They digitize everything, put it online for your viewing, and will even send you the real document if you request it. I like the idea of this, but it appears to be a little pricey right now, so I can’t give it a complete recommendation.

There you go — a few ways to insulate your life from the inevitability of change. I’m sure there are other good personal examples where being loosely coupled pays off, so if you think of any, please post them in the comments.

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