Monday, July 9, 2007

Bringing back the fun

With all the buzz around the iPhone, I've started thinking about what is getting people so excited. Jobs and Apple are masters at creating the buzz, but what is it about their products that people connect with?

The answer lies in their approach to consumer products. Technology companies (from VCRs to cellphones) have conditioned us to think of technology as something that can give us something we want, but for a price. I can record television shows, but it's impossible to set the clock; I can make a cell phone call, but I have to search through a thousand menus to store a phone number. The classic example is Microsoft's impossible error messages.

Along comes Apple and says, "Here: it does what you want/need it to AND it's fun." Mac users have known this for years, but what I think is interesting is that business is waking up to the idea that fun is not only OK, but maybe even preferred at work.

I've been leading an Agile (see previous post) team of software developers lately and one of the most intriguing things about their methods is how fun is consciously part of the plan. We invited our CTO to our weekly post-mortem meeting (what an unfun name) and he couldn't get over how much fun it was (see his post here).

And it's not fun that exists as a diversion to allow us to continue doing our (unfun) jobs for longer hours, it's an integral part of the way in which we work. It's an acknowledgment that we've chosen a field because we enjoyed something about it; let's not strip all of that enjoyment out, now that we're getting paid to do it.

It's also a recognition of the fact that happy people who are enjoying themselves are more productive. And from Apple's perspective, making people happy is good business.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Back to Agile

One of the reasons that I started this blog was that I found myself doing a lot of reading and talking about Agile development. Agile is a term for a group of software development methodologies (see here for more info) that we've been trying out here at Kaplan.

and then of course, I started reading fiction again and that was the end of that.

One of the things I like about Agile is that it is (like a blogger) enormously reflective. One of the principles is that the process is totally transparent and open for discussion and improvement. To facilitate that, we have a weekly process improvement meeting called a Kaizen, a Japanese concept taken from the Toyota engineering process.

At our last Kaizen, our CTO attended and was incredibly energized by it. He blogged about it on his blog and has been talking about adopting some of the practices in his weekly meetings.

To keep this short, here are my favorite parts:
1) Energy - people put their picks for best and worst aspects of the past week on the wall with sticky notes. So everyone has to get out of their chairs and walk to the wall, avoid everyone else and stick their notes to the wall. We then vote on the notes and everyone dances around everyone else to get to the notes they want to vote on.
2) Democracy - The worst meetings are the ones where someone is deciding what will be discussed and the people attending are not interested. At the Kaizen, we talk about issues raised by the people attending in the order that they voted. The people set the agenda.
3) Openness - We start the meeting with the prime directive which states that the purpose of the meeting is to improve everyone's process and not to blame anyone for things that went badly. This frees people up to talk about the good and the bad.
4) Timeliness - It's weekly, so we're identifying and addressing issues right when they come up and not letting them fester or get forgotten.

Stay tuned for more agility in coming posts

Friday, June 8, 2007

...and Absurdistan

Keeping with the fiction trend, I've moved SE and a little more ridiculous and been reading Shteyngart's latest, Absurdistan.

Lots of fun, very entertaining, he's got a really good sense of the absurdity of modern life in the Soviet Union, life post 9/11, war in the age of terrorism and media, and the new reality of outsourced conflicts (Halliburton et al).

It was lighter than the last two and it took me a while to get into it. But Shteyngart's not aiming as high as Chabon or Lethem and once I accepted the book for what it is, it was pretty good.

Next up, back to work-related non-fiction. I've got a growing reading list about Agile Software Development Methodologies and hope to add some inches on that topic.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Off in Sitka

Haven't submitted in a while because I've been reading fiction. I'm finding that I only have room in my day to day for either imputs or outputs - if I'm filling my head, there's no time for letting stuff out.

So I've been spending my time in Boerum Hill (Fortress of Solitude - Lethem) and Sitka, Alaska (The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Chabon). Very different worlds, both very entertaining.

Lethem loves Brooklyn and here he's written a remarkably evocative book of Brooklyn in the 70's and 80's. It's not a nice book - drugs and crime and graffiti and all sorts of nasty things happening - but he really knows how to paint a picture. It almost reminded me of the Corrections in that you feel like you know his main character by the end. This is a real person living in a real place and you're right there with him. So much so that the fantastical elements of the story don't even linger in the cumulative feel of the book when you're done. It's such a realistic portrait that the supernatural piece just sits within it without altering the overall feel. Kind of like a gritty magical realism.

Then you switch to Chabon and boom! No realism here. A yiddish speaking nation living in Alaska?! A down on his luck cop walking the mean streets of Verbover island with his sholem (idiomatically, "peacemaker") in his holster?! Craziness! But fun.

Chabon clearly loves genres and alternate histories of niche communities. Parts of this reminded me of Kavalier and Clay and how he tried to weave in realistic elements to that book (footnotes, references to New Yorker articles about his protagonists). Here, the whole world has changed: 2 million dead in the Holocaust, israel loses the battle for independence, the US bombs Berlin with the atomic bomb... And he does a good job putting all that in that background so that he can focus on this crazy little pocket of alaskan jews and what would have happened if the vibrant, contentious, yiddish-speaking, european world had not been extinguished through genocide and assimilation, but rather had been preserved like a frozen gefilte fish in this bubble of sitka. Yiddish cops and chasidic gangsters, dead heroin addicts, chess players and a potential messiah. Like I said, lots of fun. Makes me nostalgic for a yiddish that I never learned.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Community, part 2

I think there are two problems with choosing to affiliate yourself with like-minded people who do not necessarily share geography with you.
1) They're like-minded people
2) They don't share your geography

1) When the only people you interact with are ones that agree with you, you will never have a reason to moderate your opinions. I think this is most obvious in the case of politics and has been widely-discussed. The echo chamber effect of listening to cable channels and pundits who agree with your world view and then establishing online relationships with people who think the way you do only serves to prevent people from acknowledging the possibility that others can think differently. It's like we can now all live in a small village of close-minded people who think that everyone outside the village is wrong and evil. Somehow, I don't think that's what "global village" is supposed to mean.

2) No matter how much time you spend in virtual space, most people are going to eventually leave their rooms and interact with others in "meatspace". If we are moving towards a future where you will not necessarily have anything in common with the people that you meet each day and may even have disdain for them since they are not part of your selected micro-community, then what kind of civic discourse can you have with them? Where is the chance encounter? the random stranger on the bus, the quirky cabdriver?

It's almost like the difference between searching on Amazon and browsing in a used book store. Amazon is all about searching with laser-focus for something you want and suggesting things that are like it. Browsing in the Strand is all about your eye catching a random spine on a topic you weren't even thinking about and that you know nothing about. Are we losing the randomness that leads to eclecticism and acceptance of difference?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Long Tail and community

Trying out this blogging by blackberry thing.

The reason why this is such a big deal to me is that what's been keeping me from blogging more frequently is time and routine.

Just so happens that I have time on my highly routinized commute home every day. I expect far more output going forward (unfortunately, that doesn't guarantee greater profundity).

So one of the points of The Long Tail is that the blockbuster is busted. No longer will we have the one TV show that everyone in the country is watching at the same time. His point is bolstered by some numbers from Nielsen. For example, the number one show in 2006 would not have made the top 10 in the 70's. And that's despite the increased number of televisions, greater population, etc... There are just many more options and the pie is split into far more slices.

So my question is: what does this do to our sense of community? Used to be one could go to work and bond at the proverbial water cooler over Archie Bunker or M*A*S*H. Now, we're all segmented and you watched american idol, but I watched korean soap operas or downloaded a video or watched youtube instead.

Does this trend, only accentuated by the rise (once again) of personal entertainment devices separate us into balkanized city-states of personal interest?

Anderson's answer is that it just redraws the community lines. Instead of connecting to that yahoo next to me on the subway who also watched the big game last night, I'll reach out to the (international) online community of passionate high school curling fans who can share my anguish over the big loss.

And that connection, possibly, will be more important. Because I am choosing it. Fighting arbitrary distinctions of geography, I have sought out and found my cohorts, however few and far flung they may be.

All well and good. But there is the niggling little human need for contact - actual physical, eye-to-eye contact. Can we really replace that with blogs and forums?

More on this later

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Burned by the network

So look at me, so excited to put up my first post that I immediately put a link to it on my LinkedIn page. What a good way to get people to start looking at my blog. Aren't I clever? Not!

So everyone in my network gets an update instantaneously that I've changed my profile and I've started a blog. But I haven't actually posted anything yet! I have no idea how many actually checked it out, but the fact that the three or so of my co-workers who mentioned it did was enough to make me want to hand in my tech-savvy credentials.

I guess the whole exposing myself publicly aspect of blogging will take a few more posts to sink in.

And now I suppose that I'll have to write something worth reading. I only hope that the few brave souls who ventured in weren't too burned to try again.

What have we learned:
1. Beware the power of the network - it works! See Linked: The New Science of Networks.
2. Be careful what you wish for.