Mar 082018
 

I think of scrum and agile as always a work in progress.

That’s because different teams can practice it to different levels of strictness. That’s ok. The naysayers to scrum or agile will call it a top-heavy process, where a “Certified Scrum Master” dictates strict processes.

Sometimes I hear of teams rejecting the ideas of agile wholesale on these grounds (“we don’t need it” / “it doesn’t work for us”). “Agile” is a buzzword, which fundamentally once meant “changing as you go” but now means less and less relevant, at least to me, since so many people use that word so badly.

“Scrum” is a funny word. It comes from a play in England—you see Rugby played to this day across parks in England.

I’m not sure what it is about this particular word, or this particular software development practice —or the lineage between the two, but “scrum” as a practice, is the practice that resonates most with me in my years as a developer, and it is the one that I’ve seen worked the best on the teams I’ve been on and run.

I’m all in support of most of core concepts of “agile,” but I think the word has been watered-down. As any of my peers in the industry have pointed out to me, lots of people think they are practicing “agile development” when in fact they are still that plagued by all the same mismanagement that plagues all other options of software development (that is, “waterfall”).

“Scrum” is a software development practice that has a lineage to some of the best minds in software development and is a set of practices that work. While “agile” has more of a value system involved in it, scrum is a little more focused on the nuts and bolts of the SDLC (“software development lifecycle”).

Scrum, also, is not a buzzword.

Sure, the heart of it is to work in short iterations, but I want to list out a few key elements, for Product managers, which often get easily missed. This post is aimed at Product managers (or “Product Owner” in scrum’s more formal terminology.)

If I could highlight one thesis, it would be this: Scrum is about optimizing the operational efficiency of your team. If you don’t get that, or you aren’t getting that from your practice of Scrum, you aren’t doing it right.

Here the three most significant anti-patterns, or problems, I see on software development teams. These are like red flags you aren’t practicing scrum.

1. Single queued developers. (DON’T) Developers should focus on one story at a time. Period. If you are queuing up a single developer you are doing it wrong. Each dev should finish their assignment and then come back to the team and take the next highest-priority item off the list. Ok, so I know lots of teams and devs work with a ‘back burner’ story in case you get ‘blocked’ on your first story. I get it, and I concede for your team this may not be an absolute. Nonetheless, what this principle gets at is efficiency mechanics, and the blocker for the dev on the first story represents a cog in your wheel. (This is where the Kanban principle of pulling the ‘STOP’ chain on the assembly line comes in.)

2. Unclear definition of done (DOD). (BAD!) Ok, so I didn’t make up “definition of done,” but I like to emphasize it. Traditionally, “definition of done” means the definition by which the team considers the story done. On teams I’ve been on and managed the concept of “definition of done” expands to each step of the SDLC (software development lifecycle), in this order:

Concept
Design/Wireframe or Spec
Execution
QA or UAT (user acceptance)
Delivery to production

This is a specific order. I didn’t make it up. I did combine some steps so your team’s process might look a little different. But the concept is the same: You work on each little piece until you’re done, and then your start again. Wash-rinse-repeat, as they say.

However your team does it is fine: Scrum is not about rigid dictation of process. Scrum is about the concept that each player will hold themselves accountable (or be held accountable) to getting the ball (the story, in software development) to the next step. That’s why DOD (“definition of done”) can and should happen at each and every step. The business owner or CEO signs off on the concept; marketing and design sign off on Design; you (the product manager) sign off Wireframe or Spec (with the developers involvement to make sure they can actually build what you want them to build). The developer writes the code, and the QA person confirms the feature works and you confirm it is acceptable to the customer, client, or will work for the end user. Finally, it is deployed to produdction. Get it? That’s the SDLC. That’s the whole thing. (Agile/scrum secret: scrum looks just like waterfall but you do this whole 5-step process in short, quick, iterations. More on that in another blog post)

Too much formal process? Ok, fine. Then invent an informal process. You can change the rules of scrum! That’s fine. Nobody every said scrum dictated a formal process and whoever said that shouldn’t be speaking about it. But, please, understand this process works for a reason. If you’re going to make your process more informal, know why the five steps are important and make sure your informal process at each of the steps actually works.

Get everyone to agree to this, including the stakeholder, the designers and of course the developers. Sometimes a designer or a stakeholder might say “nothing’s ever done” or “everything is a moving target.” Maybe it feels that way to you on your team. I can sympathize. But if the stakeholder or designer doesn’t want a clear “sign-off” or “thump-up” or “it’s ready now” step then that’s a sign they haven’t bought into the very heart of scrum. Go back to the beginning and start again.

(It’s rare that you have to deal with a developer not wanting a clear definition of done— good devs I’ve worked with are goal and completion-oriented by our nature. Sometimes jr. developers can drag their feet, let projects slip, and not finish things. As the PO, disciplining this kind of developer isn’t your responsibility, but be on the lookout for it and understand the DOD applies all across the whole pipeline, at each and every step. That’s why the two steps—both of which really you can and should be involved with—are so important.)

“Definition of done” (DOD) is such an important thing to scrum. Really, I didn’t make it up. Look it up; it’s a thing. Lack of discipline around “done” is the single most significant team anti-pattern I see.

3. Developers complain about lack of prioritization (BAD!) Ok, so this is a very common thing on many software teams. You have lots and lots of ideas and stories. New ones come up all the time. You have meetings or stand-up and developers say, “I’m looking at list of unprioritized stories.” If developers say this in your meetings, especially if they say it a lot, you’re doing something wrong.

It is the Product owner/manager’s job to represent the business’s interests, or the customer’s interest, in prioritizing the worklog, or in formal scrum known as “backlog.” This is really, really important. Yes, developers do lots of things related to prioritization of code and code debt that you (the product manager) may not understand. And yes, sometimes developers can be welcoming to prioritization (or, as is often the case, re-prioritization), and other times, developers can be very unwelcoming of re-prioritization. That’s software development. If you want to work with the best dev teams, these are the kinds of nuances you need to navigate as a successful Product manager.

Some other tips

Six more tips for Product managers. Keep in mind these are written from a developer to a Product manager, so take with a grain of salt. These are opinionated and based on my several years of working on scrum teams.

4. Don’t skip user stories. This one seem obvious but I’m amazed how many Product people are so quick to skip formal User Stories. They’re so easy! I’m pretty formal about them, preferring the exact style:

As a ___
When I ___
And ___
I should ___

There are a few variations on this style and any of them is OK.

Learn how to write User Stories and use them. In strict scrum, you have only 1 user story per ticket or “story.” This often doesn’t work. If you have a ‘ticket’ or ‘story’ system. I’ll give you permission now: It’s ok to have more than one User story in a single ticket.

When I write them, I just string them together, right after the other, sometimes lettering or numbering them.

STORY A
As a User,
When I type the right username & password,
And click “Login”,
I should be successfully logged in

STORY B
As a User,
When I type the wrong username & password,
And click “Login”,
I should see a message tell me my username & password are incorrect

That’s fine! So there’s a little repetition. For QA people, repetition is A-OK. By writing the stories up front you are setting up the QA step for success (more on that later).

Don’t skip the user stories. Write them, get stakeholder by-in on them, and believe in them.

(The most common pattern is “As a ___, I want to ___, so that I can ___”. Notice here it’s just like the one I use above except for the “I want to” / “so that I can” part. I have nothing against this pattern but I find it to be one step removed from product specifications—almost as though this pattern is written from the perspective of a business owner rather than the technical product owner, but in many ways and on many teams this is a distinction without a difference so I typically don’t dwell on it. Either “When I ___” or “I want to ___” is ok, the former is slightly more product-centric and the latter slightly more business-objective centric; both are preferable to no stories at all or stories written with implicit assumptions that aren’t clearly written out.)

Forcing yourself (the product owner) to go through this discipline forces you to methodically put yourself in the end user (or customer’s) perspective, and it forces out all of the little extra edge cases which need to be explicitly dealt with by the programmers. This kind of explicitness is nearly universally welcomed by developers, and more work up-front in this area typically makes the development faster and more efficient.

5. Don’t skip wireframes. It’s amazing to me how many Product people try to just have ‘meetings’ with developers. I know some people are better verbal communicators, but your job as Product owner is to document, document, document those meetings.

Like User Stories, wireframes drive the conversation about the software — which is most of the work! It’s the thing you didn’t think of when you just had the verbal conversation that you did think of when you put pen to paper (literally or metaphorically).

It’s that thing that your boss or other colleague thinks of after you show them the wireframe. You didn’t think of it before because some people are visual thinkers, and the feedback loop of translating the verbal conversation to the wireframe is itself the process of refining and improving the requirements themselves.

By getting all those little tidbits out up-front, you are reducing waste in the development process and speeding up the developers.

6. Do QA yourself. The best product people do QA themselves, even if there’s a separate “QA specialist” on the team. Yes, Product & QA are distinct skillsets. Yes, on some small teams, they are the same person. Don’t be one of those Product people who eschews doing QA yourself. If you’re not the best at it, learn to get better at it and QA the projects you are managing. It’ll be better for the team and it’ll make you a better Product manager.

7. Get stakeholder (or ‘exec’, as is commonly heard in startupland) buy-in early and before the devs write a line of code. Really, don’t skip this step. This is your primary job. If you are going back to the devs for revisions after revision, you aren’t doing your job right.

8. Think like a dev but don’t think like a dev. This one is hard. Know some things about what you think is possible with the technology you have and separate that from the technology you think you could have. Understand there’s a constant pay-it-now-or-pay-it-later tension in software development. Give just enough technical prowess without stepping on developers’ toes.

9. Ask for what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask the devs, but try to do so politely and without making any assumptions you know anything. Just report the facts, ask for what you need, and offer any helpful information.

10. Don’t ever say “but it worked before” or “but it used to work” or anything sounding like that. This is never something a developer wants to hear. If you are in a position of software development management, don’t lean on this trope.

Yes, developers are responsible for regressions that happen on their code deploys, sure. And yes, sometimes, when a developer deploys some code, it introduces a regression. But 95% I hear these words coming from non-technical people it is in fact not related whatsoever to anything any developer did. I also happen to think it is an unfortunate trope used by nontechnical people who fundamentally do not understand a concept we call in software development called software entropy. (Really I’m not making this up!).

If you really think it “used to work” just before a code change, it’s OK to report that in an evidence-based way when you report the bug to the developer. (As in, “Last successful one was at before the deploy may or may not be related.”) That’s totally cool. In fact, developers WANT you give them as much information as possible. Just do it an nice way and evidence-based fashion. Use your words, use your screenshots, and throw in “may or may not be related.” Go ahead, it’ll work like magic. I promise. 

(Some really passive-aggressive version I’ve seen of this is to NOT tell the developer the key piece of information the Product manager has related to the regression thinking they will ‘test’ or ‘challenge’ the dev to find the bug. This, too, is not cool.)

As a nontechnical person, let me tell you something that the developers you work with really want to scream at you: You understand a fraction of what’s actually going on under the hood. You already know this. I don’t need to tell you this and the developers don’t need to either.

Leaning on “it used to work” consistently is an accusatory sign of an amateur manager who just doesn’t get it. If you find yourself doing this, put yourself in check and ask if this career is right for you.

Conclusion

Being a great Product manager, like all things in life, takes compassion. As a boss and mentor of mine (Rob Rubin) once told me I think smartly: the Product owner is the most leveraged individual on a Scrum team. That is, if you’re in a company and not on the Product team (like you’re the stakeholder), to get what you want out of the Engineers you should make friends with the Product people. (Thanks Rob!)

You have a great road ahead of you should you heed the discipline’s core principles. Fight them, and you may have a rocky time, especially in the areas of code debt, incorrect estimation process, missed deliverables, and mismatches between what the developers are doing and what the client or company needs.

Wherever you are at today is fine. But think about the discipline’s various approaches and think about how to take each piece of your process once small step in the direction of scrum. You might wavier, you might run into various problems, but each of them can be solved by coming back to the disciplines at each step of the chain, always bringing your team closer and closer to its most efficient state. This is why I think of it as “always a work in progress.” Teams typically don’t get it right on the first try, and have to do it inefficient ways before they can move towards scrum.

 Posted by at 9:49 am
Sep 082010
 

Apture – (Tristan Acher) “We give readers power to search and explore information without leaving the page.” Financial Times is their customer. It is embedded software that displays an in-page window popped up when a user selects text on the page. Used by newspapers (NY Times, Reuters, Financial Times, the Nation) to keep users on the page while providing a richer sense of what it is. Publishers will need to add only 1 line of code to integrate.

Nearsay – Micro-journalism site focusing on delivering neighborhood-by-neighborhood news. Allows you to customize the feed you are looking at based on the neighborhoods you select & other criteria about what news you’re interested in seeing. http://www.nearsay.com

meetMoiNow – iPhone app dating service. Keeps track of your location and pushes potential matches to your phone, giving you a 60 minute opportunity to contact that person by clicking “yes.” Live in the Andiod store, they are waiting for iTunes store approval.

Presentation by Google gogles. A tool for taking pictures with your phone and getting instant search results for more information about what you are looking at.

Jibe – The ‘intersection’ of facebook and linked in to aid in your job search. Nice, clean interface, shows you the combination of both networks, sortable by various factors (like industry). All kinds of stats nicely compiled: employment rates, who you are connected to, industries, schools, etc. Looks like a nice clean site. See also hushrecruiter.com. They launch a year ago at TechCrunch 50, but then made a “pivot.” He said “We launched at TechCrunch last year and thought we had an amazing product. We realized we only had a good one, so in the last year we integrated social and have re-launched it in an even more exciting city.”

Grovo – An online dynamic training platform. Has video training content to teach you how to use popular websites (twitter, craigslist, etc).

Kodingen – A cloud development. It looks like a web-based IDE (integrated development environment). Looks relatively slick, nicely thought out, although personally I’m sticking with Eclipse.

Propercloth – Make it easy for guys to get dress shirts exactly the style and fit you want. Allows you to specify you shirt size in measurement, or gives you the option to specify a size of an existing shirt by brand. Made-to-order shirts. 30% off all orders in the next day and a half with discount code “NYTM30”. We recently started manufacturing everything in Malasia.

 Posted by at 7:19 pm  Tagged with:
Sep 062010
 

Last week that Apple said that the new iTunes 10 logo has dropped the CD. This logo change received much bally-hooed flack in the media, with designers even spawning replacement suggestions, such as this one.

Then, the popular spoof Steve Jobs tweeter @CEOSteveJobs sent this: “We’re also taking the booth out of the Photo Booth icon because, frankly, no one uses those anymore either.”

This was a joke, but the point is well taken. The removal of the compact disc from the iTunes logo was probably a necessary evolution, but I think just because an image is “old” or represents something physical doesn’t mean it should be left to the wayside. Language evolves, and like the “car” in carriage, perhaps we should slow down before we throw out our history and keep in mind that words evolve, take on new meanings.

 Posted by at 9:02 pm
Aug 032010
 

This is the 76th NY Tech meetup; September is going to be the 6th year anniversary. Nate has a little self back-patting before getting to the show.

Nate toutes his work brokering a connection for NY high school students to
get placed as interns at start-ups.

eventros.com – iPhone app to connect people at business networking events. Looks like it is

marketpulique.com – Web site specialized in selling vintage clothing. Assresses challenges unique to selling vintage clothing on line, extra large photos. Looks fantastic. Wanted to create a destination for vintage. Sellers are vetted to make sure they are selling actually vintage clothing. Incredible site – fast, beautiful, finessed. Pamela, Jon Berger

Turnto.com – online shopping with some connection for facebook of some kind.

Ben – founder of drop.io, making an argument against Clay Shirkey; intrinsic vs extrincis motifivations; free time; cognative surplus; he is questioning the distinction between intrinsic and external motivation;

he says all that is changing is compute, storage and bandwidth – I’ve heard him make this argument before.

indabamusic.com – Chris Danzig, Matt Siegel. Shift in how music was monitized. They are launching something like an artists’ social netowrk. In-browser music mixer utility like Garage Band, looks amazing. More tools to help an artist quickly launch and distribute a song. Someone from the audience gives them a really hard time asking, “Well you actually did distribute some of your artists on the major 4 record labels, didn’t you?” She seem to imply that they are not as indy-empowering as they claim to be, while at the same time implying that they don’t have big name people. Nate dismisses her by asking “Anyone else have a question.” They finish by talking about some integration with myspace platform. Something about this company I dont understand – they seem to be a collaboration platform but also changing the ability for artists to distribute without the record labels.

philo.com – Get push notifications when your friends are watching TV. Points & credits for more TV watching. (I really just can’t even comment on this idea it sort of makes me sick.)

Nate forbids the “where is your revenue model” question. “You know, you get some traffic, you make a partner, you get more traffic, and then you get bought maybe,” he says, pointing out the hallow nature of the question itself. (His attitude is, “duh guys”)

Twilio – He is writing some kind of code to set up a conference call which he is encouraged the entire audience to call into at once. Some kind of PHP output to XML, creates a conference call instantly. Looks like an interesting technology, although I’m not sure exactly what its application is over a more simpler web-based conference calling service.

They have an open source tool called “OpenVBX.” Allows you to create a menu, create a group, basically all the features of a PBX.

Remote presence – remote controller robots that allow someone to activate a robot in a remote place and go talk to people “screen-to-face.” He connects to menlo park and drives the robot around an office – the office of the robotics company that builds these things – surprising the people that they are being broadcast to 800 people at the NY Tech meetup. Willo Garage – built an operating system to support the development of robotics.

Reed Schafner – product manager in charge of Bing’s development platform. He is talking about bing extensions for Safari 5.

 Posted by at 7:11 pm  Tagged with:
Jul 062010
 

Usual round-up of tonight’s NYTM with my brief annotations.

Betterfly.com – A personal betterment site. “Learn look and feel better.” Helps independent freelances find clients. Online booking system, availability is displayed and clients can book freelancers online. Nice look site, looks like it could be rails, Web 2.0 polish. Not sure how this site will distinguish itself or if it will gain traction, but it looks nice.

HotPotato.com – Man how many social networking status-updating sites does the world need? A FourSquare-like idea, creating a “structured status update,” you can connect immediately to other people doing the same thing at the same time.

LearnVest – dedicated to making women savvier about their money. Focused on a specific audience, women age 23-50, who control 83% of household financial decisions. Learnvest bootcamp: Intensive 3-week program. Financial planer “lite” online. Check all that apply screen gives users options to describe their lives (buying a home, having a baby, trying to save, etc), will produce a personalized action plan. Nicely done site, clearly feminine-oriented design (Is it cool for me to write that?).

Frontal – A markup & scripting language that generates flash, built on open web standards, makes it very easy & fast to add dynamic content to your website. I guess they’re trying to compete with HTML5? Seems dumb to me. Their markup looks like CSS. Text-based, SEO friendly.

Foodspotting – A hyper-local visual guide to highly rated dishes. “You can see visually just as you would peruse a bakery window.” Find out how to get to the restaurant, leave reviews for your peers.

Next came one of my heroes, Clay Shirkey, giving us a teaser from his new book Cognitive Surplus… trying to type this fast (he thinks fast and talks even faster).

“Digitial sharecropper” – Andrew Carr. the phenomenon of people uploading content to pubicly traded companies. The idea that people should be bitter about commercial companies offering these kinds of motivations. Why are people being generous with our emotions and creating these shared stories. Not because it is so surprising, but because our previous view of human nature is so flawed.

“Generosity as a design problem”

These sites are in the business of providing platform for us to create value for eachother.

HowAboutWe.com – create amazing first dates. You propose a date. “How about we spend an afternoon exploring the furniture warehouses in greenpoint.” These ideas gets sent out to other members of the site. Very innovative idea, well received by this crowd.

StuffBuff – “a new way to buy and sell online” I guess it is like eBay but you can chat with the sellers? Features: embed code lets you embed the auction onto other sites – blog, facebook, etc. The crowd was a little dubious that this would take off. The owner wanted to make the case that having an “action” on your blog (“right where you’re browsing”) was gonna making buying easier cause it was “right there,” but I think maybe people didn’t quite seem to, ahem, buy that.

Jetsetter – incubated by Gilt, luxury travel sales. Like Gilt, employs “flash sales,” product sells for 5 days or less. Photography heavy, seductive images of the places. Daily email goes out gives them a wealth of statistics about people’s interests. “Things go on sale today you have to look at it today – that creates urgency and propels engagement with the content.”

comiXology (http://comics.comixology.com) – You can buy full comic books on your mobile devices. “Guided interface” – pans the comic book in the order you’d read the comic (showing the panel on the left, then panning to the right, in the order of the dialog). They have some partnership with DC Comics. “The distribution of comics has not kept up with the form.” He lists a number of recent movies based on comic books. “What that says to me is that comics really do resonate. They resonate in a way that distribution hasn’t kept up with.”

 Posted by at 7:25 pm  Tagged with:
Jun 082010
 

The most dramatic thing at tonight’s New York Tech Meetup was, far and away, Scott Heifferman, founder of Meetup.com, smashing an iPad on stage (yes, it was a real iPad). Perhaps the furor over Apple’s ubiquitous onslaught of advertising got to him, perhaps it was to be dramatic, probably both. (He was telling us about a new feature on Meetup.com called “Meetups Everywhere” which allows anyone to spark Meetups around a specific topic all over the world.) His move was dramatic, albeit lacking in much of a point (His point was that his innovation is way more cool than the iPad.). http://meetup.com/everywhere

Here’s a brief write-up of some of the other startups that presented. NYTM is at a new space today, the beautiful and spacious NYU Skirball Center. The 500+ person event is now housed in a giant space with two balconies, wonderful lighting, and clearly higher tech A/V equipment than at the FIT Center.

Snacksquare – This is a hot LBS (location-based service) start-up – a cool Web2.0 interface lets a store owner define a square radius from his location. When someone checks in on FourSquare, Lattitude (or soon Facebook when they add LBS), a coupon will be sent directly to that user. http://www.snacksquare.com/

Knowmore – This is an aggregate of all your social networks. I guess it is kind of like a web-based version of TweetDeck. What I like about it is that it shows all content inline – photos, videos, etc, right in the same screen. Looks pretty nice. http://knowmore.com

Fairshare – A mobile app to let New Yorkers share cab rides. You can set where you are, where you are going, and tell your potential ride what you’re wearing so that they will recognize you. http://www.fairshareny.org/

Tynt – Here’s an interesting little innovation that uses Javascript to add a little snippet to the bottom of something you copy out of a web page. You copy text off a web page, paste it into your email program. At the bottom of that little snippet of text a link gets inserted that directs back to the webpage where you copied it from. Of course the user can manually remove it, but you probably won’t. http://www.tynt.com/

Thumbplay – 70 person start-up here in New York. Delivers content to mobile phones – live streaming music? He’s talking a lot about how his cool the site is using HTML5, native HTML5 video, transitions & fades. Not exactly sure what the product does, but his demo is very energetic and is all about how cool HTML5 is. All streaming music down to a mobile phone. He demos 5 HTML5-only tags: auto tag, web database, drag & drop, notifications API, local storage API.http://www.thumbplay.com/

Forrst – This is a private club of developers & designers to discuss tips, hacks, tricks, etc. Was originally written in Ruby/Rails, when it got bigger, he re-wrote it in PHP (LAMP). Do you pay to join? No, it’s free, but it is invite only. http://forrst.com

Perpetually – Visual web analytics, business intelligence and enterprise archiving. There should be a way to perfectly archive web content. Creating ways to capture all the content on the web and find ways to make use of it. Like the web archive, it snapshots sites perfectly in time, allowing you to go back in time and see how a page looked in the past. Primary use is with web analytics. He says that there was a site that couldn’t figure out why their traffic dropped, until they used this tool and noticed that the traffic dropped right at the same time the moved the search box on their site. http://www.perpetually.com/

 Posted by at 7:28 pm  Tagged with:
Jan 282010
 

In 1984 the personal computer industry was forever changed by the first Mac. More expensive and less familiar than the DOS-based computers that were gaining popularity, the Mac was a first: It shipped with a point-and-click mouse standard and its core operating system – the thing we used to tell the computer what to do – was a flat desk-like surface. Once we got used to the idea, we could move the pointer around with the mouse, move “icons” that represent ideas on our virtual desk from one place to another.

The nomenclature would take a few years to solidify: the virtual desk would be known as the desktop, the things we move are “files” and like in an office we would put files into folders and even “trash” them when we no longer wanted to keep them around. The virtual concept was borrowed from the real world, and it allowed us to relate to our computers in a way that was both familiar and more intuitive than typing esoteric commands into a terminal window.

Within years the idea of a point-and-click interface would become standard for the (Microsoft) PC world too.

What made the critical difference was the interface that we used to get what we wanted out of the machine. The first Macs could pretty much do the same things that their predecessors could, but you didn’t have to relate to the machine in a cold, distancing syntax that involved learning a series of special things to type. Admittedly, the new point-and-click paradigm did train us, that is – we had to learn its specific idiosyncrasies – but it met us halfway by making the concepts simpler and the interface more intuitive.

Computers by their nature are impersonal. They expect specific instructions to accomplish specific tasks. In the early days, computer programmers were nerdy, anti-social specialists who worked in a world based largely on higher math. Most software in the early days – and most software that the general population doesn’t see today – crunches numbers and performs calculations at levels of higher math most laymen would have no understanding of.

The mathematicians who became computer scientists were classically not very good at understanding people. Our tendency (in the early days), was to make software that works more like the way the computers think than the way that humans think.

Using a modern operating system today, and particularly Mac OS X, is much easier. First, the computer shows us a graphic representation of what’s available right away – without us having to ask for it first. The Mac OS is organized to have default places for our documents, photos, and music. Let’s face it, who cares where it is on the hard drive? Well, the operating system does. The file/folder hierarchy is an arbitrary (albeit necessary) way to organize ideas and things on our computer whose primary function is to meet the needs of the computer, not the user. This has led to the classic story of users saving things some place and not knowing how to find them later.

To make things easier, Apple pioneered the idea that specific software can be written to address the user him or herself. You can search your hard drive, for example, by entering just a few letters or words that might be contained within the document you are looking for. This search can be “canned” so that you can view all things relating to your daughter’s school into a “smart” folder – a folder that doesn’t really exist but it is a representation of all the relevant files all over the drive.

This is just one example of the paradigm shift towards the rise of what Alan Cooper calls in his 1999 book “human interaction design.” 1 On top of the nuts and bolts that make the computer work are layers and layers of software designed to give a unique, albeit somewhat artificial, experience to the user.

Yesterday Apple announced the iPad – a sleek, 10-inch version of the iPhone whose only input is the sophisticated touch screen surface. Is this the latest in an over-saturated world of gadgets, gizmos, toys?

Sure it is the latest tech-bling, but taking a step back most observers would argue that it represents something larger: a paradigm shift in how we interact with our world. The iPhone has become a staple – a near ubiquitous characteristic of our modern world.

Jobs explained yesterday that they have long asked themselves if there is room for a tablet in the market place – something bigger than a smart phone but not quite the same as a laptop either. “If there’s going to be a third category between smart phones and laptops, it is going othave to be far better at some key things – otherwise it has no reason for being.”2

What makes the iPhone – and now the iPad – a game changer is are three key things: (1) There is no mouse or keyboard, (2) the device is portable, and (3) software can be written for it after it is sold and in the wild.

The lack of a mouse and keyboard matters because it, like the point-and-click paradigm was when it was first introduced, changes how we think of interacting with a computer. The iPad’s fundamental change is that the user interface is entirely based on using fingers to make selections from the screen. The interface designers know this, so the way the interface is created takes this into account. Obscure tasks aren’t hidden away in deep menus and submenus. There are just a few options presented to us on any given screen. Higher level choices let us navigate to places where we can make more specific choices (like a phone tree). All of these facets are native to the iPhone/iPad paradigm and represent a key shift from the desktop computer model which has been predominant for 30 years.

Two, portability. Computer use is no longer a matter of sitting at our desk (or internet cafe) and staring at the glowing box (as a friend of mine likes to say). I can be walking down the street and want to find the nearest place to get lunch, open my iPhone and launch the AroundMe app, and see a visual map with push-pins showing where I am and where to eat.

Of course it is possible to do this on a computer too, but it is unlikely that I would have gone to the trouble. Or if I did, I would have to have done it in the morning before I left my house. The immediacy of the iPhone makes it something that not only is useful on-the-go, but means that we will think about being on-the-go in new ways. Most people with iPhones just don’t use Mapquest or Google maps on their computer anymore, because as long as the network converge is good, we know we have access to a real map showing us how to get where we are going with us at any given time.

Portability affects everything. If we’re waiting for an important email we can go to our kid’s little league practice knowing that the device will let us look for an respond to that email should it arrive.

Finally, the third key difference is that software can be written after the fact. Apple knew that the market and users themselves would drive the way the iPhone was used. The same thinking has gone into the iPad.

Apple doesn’t have to think of every way it could be used, all they have to do is make the best hardware they can. The uses will come, and because you can load new applications on to the devices like a computer, the possibilities are endless.

The iPhone has already changed the way lots of us think about being connected. What will the iPad do? Well, the simple answer is take us a lot farther. The interface is the experience. A bigger screen will mean more possibilities, more screen space to layout information, and that will lead to new and interesting cases for use of the information.

References
1. The Inmates Are Runing the Asylum by Alan Cooper. Sams Publishing, 1999
2. Steve Jobs, Apple Special Event Jan 27, 2010

 Posted by at 2:32 pm
Oct 072009
 

Two of the interesting startups presented tonight at NY Tech meetup underscore one of the crucial facets of the tech industry today: In terms of what will be successful, no one really knows what is going to happen next.

Unless something is really the next Facebook or Twitter, it is going to have to piggyback on existing tools or data sources.

Tagnic (playtagnic.com) is an interesting twist on an old theme. Twitter already lets you mention other twitter users (known as an @ reply), but Tagnic allows you to attach ideas to that person – like rockstar, sexy, or nerd. You can wish someone happy birthday, or good luck. You don’t need to sign up for this service separately from Twitter; it is a Twitter application. You also don’t need to learn anything very special to use it. You just use a plus symbol (+) followed by the tag you are tagging the person with.

If you receive enough tags attached to your name, you get a “badge” from Tagnic, kind of like a scout badge.

In my opinion this is noteworthy but probably not going all that far. Interesting? Yes. Revolutionary? Hardly. One of the criticisms that was mentioned at the meetup was what happens if people tag bad things about you. At best, this could be a friendly jest. At worst, this could be a visceral attack on another individual. Like Twitter mentions, there’s actually no way to erase what other people say about you in a tag. The company had no official response to this social downside.

Something heard not too often in a tech industry sense, when asked “What’s your revenue model?” founder Adam Simon replies bluntly: “We have none.” By the sheer gusto of his response, this statement is met by the 500+ person audience with rapturous applause.

* * *

AnyClip

Only in the tech industry could a business come so far along with a technical platform whose very premise exists on questionable legal grounds. Anyclip (anyclip.com) has created an interesting and innovative technology for movie buffs: a transcribed and time-coded collection of every line of dialog in big production movies.

Aaron Cohen, CEO and Co-Founder, types “stay puff marshmellow man” into the search engine and the iconic scene from Ghost Busters of the giant marshmallow man destroying New York comes right up.

The transcripts are time-coded to the exact point in the movie where the dialog (or thing) appears, so you get a clip of that very scene. Pretty cool, if the idea works and flies.

Personally, I’m not certain about the technology. In his demo Cohen asks the audience for any term. Someone shouts out “bicycling.” When he searched for this, several movie clips with no bicycles come up. While there could be various reasons for this glitch, it seems that the data set being search is large and refinement of the query is a precise science that they have yet to master. (I also searched myself for “I’ll have what she’s having” and couldn’t find the famous scene that takes place in Katz’s deli from When Harry Met Sally.) While not a fatal flaw, it seems like the engine should know based on relevance and popularity what you are probably searching for.

The main elephant in the room for Anyclip is: Do they have the rights to show these clips? Well, er, actually no. As of now they have no deals with the big 6 movie studies (which control 88% of the US Marketshare 1)

Anyclip claims their lawyers say that they can use up to four minutes of a clip for promotional use. Nevertheless, official studio sanctioning is their plan. In september, they told Jason Kincaid of TechCrunch: “I’m not that interested in having tons of content that they dont want us to have. We can’t build a business on the backs of their content illegally and hope it works. Over time we will get it all.” 2

References
1. boxofficemojo.com
2. TechCrunch

 Posted by at 12:00 pm
Sep 222009
 

Two more presentations from TechCrunch worth mentioning. The first, a interesting gift-card auction site that aims to expand retailers market for gift cards. RackUp is an EBay-like site where shoppers can bid on gift cards. The people who bid soonest (unlike ebay) and the most get the gift card, typically for less than the actual amount on the card. (You might pay $50 for an $80 gift card.) The discount you receive depends on a few factors which I didn’t quite catch, but it has something to do with when you bid (rewarding earlier bidders first) and your ‘score’ on RackUp. It sounded like they give frequent shoppers bigger bonuses.

How do they do this? The retailers buy this as a service from RackUp, providing the gift cards at 10-20% discount to company. RackUp then gives a bonus back to the buyer, on average about 8% discount. If you don’t win, you don’t pay anything, so it’s not an auction. The CEO says: “We are actually growing the pre-paid market for retailers.”

The gift card market is 100 billion and, according to the presentation, 7-8% of that is bought online.

Finally, UDorse was one of the best received (by the judges) presentations. By now it must be clearer and clearer that on the internet eventually every square inch of possible attention is for sale – even your private photos. This visual endorsement platform aims to transform the picture you are already sharing online into a product endorsement deal that earn can you money on. No joke. As you browse over the photo, there’s a little “U” icon that you can rollover and see what the thing is – for example, the dress or clothing you are wearing in the picture.

“We call them ‘udorsements’.” co-founder Geoffrey Lewis says. “A cool new brand, a hot new spot, travel (Hotels), anything,” he continues, in reference to what can be “udorsed.”

The floating box which appears when you rollover can include a little caption of the brand, how much it costs, and how you can get it for. While the app doesn’t work direclty on Facebook, the company says they pull in media from all your social networking sites (Facebook, Flickr, etc). They have an iPhone app, plans to expand to Twitter, and build Javascript plugin for your blog.

Marissa Mayer, from Google, responded: “I’ve always thought that this was one of the primary ways social networks make money.”

Tony Hsieh: “I do think it’s a little weird that if I’m your friend, you can get paid so I can look like you, dress like you.”

UDorse is a Manhattan-based company co-founded by Geoffrey Lewis, Trevor Austin, Jonathan Hoffman.

 Posted by at 9:07 am
Sep 192009
 

TechCrunch50, the industry’s American Idol-like startup spring board, wasn’t immune this year to the usual roundup of mediocre start-up ideas. Most of them pimped by overly optimistic business types who have convinced themselves their ambitious yet somewhat dubiously profitable start-up dreams are going to make it.

Of the miss-worthy companies, a website to allow children to be characters in their own stores (“Story Something” is the name of the company); a GuitarHero-inspired game to let you be any member of a band (“ToonsTunes.com”); a service that provides a “seal” to allow someone to have a image that represents them appear across various places of the web they might be represented like blogspot, tumblr, wordpress, facebook, myspace. (“Sealtale”); a hardware device that acts like an “invisible cable” – two usb keys that can be separated and plugged into any two computers (don’t even have to be on the same network), providing instant access to the remote computer’s drives (“iTwin”).

An interesting technical project which caught my attention is FluidHTML, a markup language derivative of HTML that allows you to write in HTML-like markup to create Flash applications. This solves three problems inherent with Flash, an Adobe technology which has received various adoption in the last few years. Once the foremost technology to build beautiful “rich internet” sites (the kind where things fly around, make noises, play movies, and the like), Flash is now experiencing a backlash as big players (most notably Apple with their refusal to include a Flash player in the iPhone) try to thwart the Adobe-dependance that would be created if Flash was the de-facto and only way to create animated sites (Many Web 2.0 site using animation libraries and AJAX come closer to providing rich internet experiences, are seen as competition for the Flash platform altogether).

FluidHTML, however, is not a Flash alternative, it is a markup language to make the creation of Flash embeds easier (and therefore cheaper) to code. It solves three inherent problems: 1) search engines can’t index Flash very well, 2) search engines can’t analyze Flash for deep links (the fundamental idea that pages link to other pages), and 3) browser history doesn’t work work because any “back” and “forth” within the Flash player isn’t part of the browser’s back & forth feature provided by the browser. Fluid HTML attempts to solve all of these problems by turning Flash into HTML-like content which can be search & indexed but is rendered to the user as a Flash movie. “We are making flash work the way the rest of the web works.”

One of the more popular companies was ToyBots and their forthcoming toy call Woozie. The device is basically a small electronic controller that goes inside of a stuffed animal, making the toy an interactive project between the child playing with it and other parents. In fact, ToyBots business plan to to build the platform that will facilitate all kinds of toys being made in this realm. Outlined in this slide, the device features thing a lot like an iPhone- GPS, accelerometer so it can react when the toy is shacked, etc.

The “Woozee” (toy) can wake up the child at a specified time, then tells the kid that she has a message waiting. “Using the accelerometer, I give Woozee a hop and he plays the message.” A message from ‘dad’ pays, saying that he has a great bedtime story to read the kid. The ‘dad’ is away on a business trip but using his iPhone has selected an audio book and remotely instructed the toy to play the audio book exactly at 8:30, bedtime. (Part of me thinks this is cool, and part of me thinks it’s a little creepy, but I don’t have kids.)

The judges response to the Woozie seemed to center around the porn industry and various adult uses of the toy, along the vein of whether or not this technology would be licensed to other people, if intellectual property is locked down and/or open to the public, etc.

“I’m amazed that a nation which can create this kind of sophisticated toy and send a man to the moon, cannot develop a toilet seat which doesn’t fall when you are using it.” – Yossi Vardi

In an impromptu calling up of a representative from Best Buy onto the stage, the judges wanted Best Buy’s reaction. For the most part, the representative was positive about exploring it more, but wouldn’t commit to numbers of how many he though Best Buy could move.

On the internet advertising front, two companies trying to create software to better tailor advertising (banner ads) – something which remains a problem for a lot of high traffic sites that run banner ads. Both attempt to eliminate the problem of inappropriate ads being run on sites that don’t want that kind of advertising. Pornography, or ads with an agenda clearly oppose the site’s because a computer matched keywords off the page but failed to realize that the ad’s agenda is opposite that of the sites, therefore degrading the brand of the site running the ad or the publisher showing the ad. (Like, a pro-Israel ad running on a news article that is politically pro-Palentine, for example)

First of the two was 5to1, a company which is competing in a space which is typically regarded as being dominated by Google: the reliability of targeted marketing advertising. Their claim is that many banner ads which run in the “remnant market” (when Google or their ad networks don’t sell ads at full price, they are sometimes sold to affiliates a lower prices).

Another company, DataXU, a start-up with a lot gusto (they claimed to have “several PhDs” as founders). “We create algorithms that figure out which are the best consumers, sites, and ad creatives are the most likely to drive sales.”

DataXU continually alluded to during the presentation (basically claiming that they had developed an algorithm better than any other for ad matching that was based on, yes, rocket science). When pressed by the judge for the “secret sauce” that he kept mentioning, the presenter offered no more than to say they were applying mathematical models of machine learning to get better ad delivery performance.

Finally, an interesting startup with the attractive charismatic Jack Ratzinger giving the presentation (always helps) describing SeetGeek.com, a concert & sporting events ticket brokerage site that tracks the prices of sales on the secondary-market (tickets bought & sold for an event on ebay, by scalpers, etc). The site attempts to track the fluctuation in price, then predict it as the event gets closer, allowing you to buy the ticket at lowest possible point.

According Ratzinger, the system crawls the internet and pulls in thousands of ticket sales. “We also pull in other external factors that we know that drives ticket prices: who’s playing, are they in a playoff, what’s the pitching match, is the ballpark holding a promotion, what’s the weather like, is there a Bruce Springstein concert right next door.”

As part of his demonstration, he showed the audience a slide with a line graph showing the ticket prices as the event got closer and asked by a show of hands how many people would buy a ticket today or wait (the room was evenly split). The second slide shows in red what actually happened – ticket prices when down.

Ratzinger claimed the software was currently testing at about 75-80% accuracy and improving every day.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm