Smaller buckets and bigger thimbles

Just came across this essay I wrote on my morning commute from Long Island to NYC in 2007, while I was a software engineer for Morgan Stanley.

I was joking with some friends the other day that my “to read” list keeps growing every day, and it only seems like things are added but never removed. I made the following analogy: it grows by the bucket full and shrinks by the thimble full, to which my coworkers replied, “you need bigger thimbles and smaller buckets.” If only it were that easy.

Unfortunately, I’m not getting used to this 9-to-5 stuff even if it is only 9-to-5. The other day I watched a video of Andy Hertzfield (one of the original software developers on the Mac team at Apple) and he was talking about how when he was my age he would work 80 hour weeks and just poured his heart and soul and to work. And I thought: I can’t do that on my current project. Why should I?

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Data Rules

Poynter smartly rang the bell feeling it was necessary to tell publishers Buzzfeed is a “real news site.” Yes, it is. It’s a news website and it’s the future. Buzzfeed is data driven, and it knows in a real and provable way what its readers want – and it’s growing like gangbusters. As HuffPo proved – and as the history of digital media keeps proving again and again – data rules. Data is how you find audience. Data is how you retain it. Sure, old guard websites deploy analytics to track usage patterns on the sites themselves, but they are missing the boat on analyzing the important stuff – share, search and social – to inform their edit and product decisions.

from Print is Dead, Long Live Print?

The Future of News… in 1992

Just came across this article from Recovering Journalist discussing A Vision for the Future of Newspapers — 20 Years Ago.

Bob Kaiser, an editor of the Washington Post, wrote the following memo to his colleagues in 1992, forecasting (mostly correctly) the next 20 years in computing, the changing content ecosystem, and the remaining role for editors:

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Why Startups Die

Startups die due to a variety of causes. Over the course of the last three years, I’ve watched many of my friends pour their hearts and souls into companies that, for one reason or another, just fizzled out of existence.

In 2007, Paul Graham gave a variety of causes for startup death in How Not To Die. He wrote:

When startups die, the official cause of death is always either running out of money or a critical founder bailing. Often the two occur simultaneously. But I think the underlying cause is usually that they’ve become demoralized. You rarely hear of a startup that’s working around the clock doing deals and pumping out new features, and dies because they can’t pay their bills and their ISP unplugs their server.

The other major thing Graham advises startups not to do: “other things”. Namely:

[D]on’t go to graduate school, and don’t start other projects. Distraction is fatal to startups. Going to (or back to) school is a huge predictor of death because in addition to the distraction it gives you something to say you’re doing. If you’re only doing a startup, then if the startup fails, you fail.

In early 2011, I wrote a post, Startups: Not for the faint of heart, that discussed Parse.ly’s survival through a one-year bootstrapping period after Dreamit Ventures Philly ’09. Since then, I’ve witnessed yet more startup deaths, and especially extended “troughs of sorrow”.

As a result, I’ve had a kind of mild survivor guilt, and have started to look for patterns in causes in the deaths I have witnessed.

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Reporting is not enough

A great article came out today in INMA entitled, “Industry metrics: Is it time to say goodbye to the pageview?”.

In it, the authors write:

Reporting is sufficient for showing whether or not we had a good month, but not insightful enough to tell us what we were doing right, where we went wrong, and what we might replicate and discard to perform better in the next reporting period.

Relying exclusively on the pageview — an important and dominant metric in online media — leads to some startling conclusions.

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Information fanaticism

On finding alternative sources of news in the pre-web era (this quote comes from ~1992):

The information is there, but it’s there to a fanatic, you know, somebody wants to spend a substantial part of their time and energy exploring it and comparing today’s lies with yesterday’s leaks and so on. That’s a research job and it just simply doesn’t make sense to ask the general population to dedicate themselves to this task on every issue.

[…]

Very few people are going to have the time or the energy or the commitment to carry out the constant battle that’s required to get outside of MacNeil/Lehrer or Dan Rather or somebody like that. The easy thing to do, you know — you come home from work, you’re tired, you’ve had a busy day, you’re not going to spend the evening carrying on a research project, so you turn on the tube and say, “it’s probably right”, or you look at the headlines in the paper, and then you watch the sports or something.

That’s basically the way the system of indoctrination works. Sure, the other stuff is there, but you’re going to have to work to find it.

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The End of PowerPoint

Edward Tufte is the father of modern information visualization. If you don’t know who he is, you probably should, and you can get up to speed by reading this profile in Washington Monthly, The Information Sage.

Last year, I attended one of Tufte’s one-day courses in NYC. I even showed him an early, prototype version of Parse.ly Dash. His feedback — even if it came quickly in 5 minutes — was helpful in understanding how to move the product forward.

I thought, when attending his presentation, that my main takeaways would be in the field I associated with him, namely, information visualization. But actually, my main takeaways were about communication, teaching, and journalism.

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Fully distributed teams: in lists

Things fully distributed teams need:

  • real-time chat
  • hosted code repos and code review
  • async updates
  • email groups
  • basic project management
  • bug / issue tracking
  • customer support tools
  • easy way to share files
  • standard way to collaborate on documents and drawings
  • personal task lists
  • personal equipment budgets
  • wiki
  • team calendar
  • webcams (caution: use sparingly)

Things fully distributed teams are happy to live without:

  • constant interruptions
  • long commutes
  • “brainstorming sessions”
  • all-hands meetings
  • equipment fragmentation
  • slow, shared internet
  • 9-to-5
  • “that guy”

Things fully distributed teams do miss out on:

  • face time
  • a good, group laugh
  • after-work beers
  • office serendipity

My old backpack

Ten years ago today, I bought myself a birthday present. It was a Brenthaven Backpack.

At the tender age of 18, I coveted few things. But among the web designers and programmers whose blogs I read regularly and whom I looked up to, this backpack was the ultimate in durability and functionality.

It featured a padded, hardened laptop sleeve that could sustain even a dead drop from ten or fifteen feet. It had padded, adjustable shoulder straps. It was made from a seemingly indestructible material. It had hidden pockets everywhere.

At the time, I didn’t have a laptop — just a desktop computer. It ran Windows and Linux, and I used it mostly for web design and Macromedia Flash programming. Adobe hadn’t bought Macromedia yet.

Notebook computers were generally clunky and underpowered devices — not meant for doing “real work”. But my Dad purchased me a used MacBook Titanium from a friend of his — and I knew this was a true luxury.

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Progress Tiers: Epic, Story, Task, Step

I realize that for about 10 years now, I’ve been doing project-oriented work — generally, writing software with working software taking shape over the course of months and even years.

I have developed a theory of “progress tiers” in how this work is optimally managed.

Epics are high-level themes of functionality that manifests in software. For example, “E-mail Notifications”. This is too vague to express a specific user feature, but does express an area of strategic importance to the product. For example, it may be that the product is used primarily via the web, that it lacks engagement from some users, and that all users of the system are also active e-mail users. Therefore, it makes sense that the application would generate some e-mail notifications — but, it’s not yet clear which ones are the right ones, how they should look, how frequently they should arrive, etc.

Understanding the priority of Epics helps the team understand its product roadmap and vision, and the strategic context for the functionality they deliver.

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