A New Way to Setup Teams?

03.26.08 | Permalink | Comment?

What do Ethernet and the original graphical user interface (shown below) have in common?

Xerox Star GUI

Both were ignored by their company. They were invented at Xerox’ famous Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. Xerox didn’t know what to do with them.

These examples illustrate a long standing dilemma of organizations, especially the large ones: how can researchers and innovators get the attention or even the championing of management? Managers face a different issue: when and how do they tell a brilliant researcher that his or her idea is too nutty, that way too much time and money has been wasted on it already?

Shake Up at HP Labs

HP Labs’ new director, Prith Banerjee, is trying to do things differently now. He reorganized HP’s 600-person research operation into 23 groups, each headed by a lab director. According to the March 17 issue of EE Times:

HP gave secret ballots to every researcher in its lab to choose the one lab director “out of 23” with whom he or she most prefers to work. In parallel, HP asked its lab directors to confidentially select their first and second choices among the 20 researchers they would most want on their team.

According to Banerjee, the confidential voting on both sides yielded an 80 percent match between lab directors and researchers.

This sounds simple but is very important for R&D organizations to function well. A research environment has less structure than a typical corporation; it is all about the free flow of ideas and team work. If the lab director does not champion it, a great idea will end up in the Great Graveyard of Great Ideas — or worse, it will be handed on a silver platter to another company, possibly a competitor.

[Full EE Times article “HP Labs braces for impact” and commentary “Will eHarmony work for R&D match-making?”]

On Generic, Annoying Emails

01.22.08 | Permalink | Comment?

Curious ChapWe all have our fair share of gripes about web usability. There are those fields for credit card numbers that do not allow spaces or dashes, making what you type hard to read and verify. And all because a lazy developer wouldn’t spend five minutes to take spaces and dashes out of a string. How hard could it be?

Today, the target of my ire is those confirmation emails that you receive after placing an order. Many of them include the password that you entered when creating an account. The password, I tell ya! Unbelievable. If a company is stupid enough to do that, it just makes me wonder if it understands the difference between hash function and hash browns. The password is not likely to be stored securely.

Stop those generic emails!Others emails are disgracefully generic. Here is one that I received recently after subscribing to a magazine:

If you used a credit card for your purchase, please be aware that your statement will show “(Guess Which Magazine)” for this purchase and a receipt will be generated once your subscription is processed.

If you selected “Bill Me” for your subscription, an invoice will be sent to you via email after your order has been processed.What’s up with those “if you did this” and “if you did that” statements? I have just trusted you, the vendor, with my credit card information. You know whether I used a credit card or not. Is it that hard to send me a slightly more personalized confirmation email?

The confirmation email above was sent by none other than Better Software magazine. How would you define “better”?

Filed under User Experience

ROKR E8: Barely Haptic

01.10.08 | Permalink | Comment?

Curious ChapAfter my first day attending CES, I went back to my hotel room and checked out news coverage of the event by Engadget and other tech oriented sources. This effusive Cool Hunting post caught my attention. It described the new, not-yet-released Motorola ROKR E8(the highlights in the quote are mine):

The latest in Motorola’s line of music phones, the ROKR E8, has a new feature that (believe it or not) rivals the iPhone. The innovation is a little piece of tech called “localized haptic feedback,” which makes pushing a button on the touch screen feel like actually pressing a button. This is achieved by a small vibration under the spot where you touch, and feels like the solid surface really is a button. It’s a tactile capability that we at CH have often wished for and the experience of using it is nothing short of amazing—upon demoing it, I really thought it was a real button (and I’m not easily fooled).

I had already went by the Motorola booth at the Las Vegas Convention Center and had planned on spending my second day at CES’ other location, the Sands Expo. But this, I had to experience. I had to feel a “real button”. So I went back to the Convention Center.

See, when I read the above, I expected that, as I use different apps like phone, music, or camera, that I’d feel different bumps on the surface, as described in the Apple patent:

Haptic Keyboard

But the ROKR E8 is nothing like that. Essentially, the buttons portion of the phone is a single, solid plastic surface. Different icons are illuminated depending on the app, as shown below:

Motorola ROKR E8

When you press one of the illuminated icons, the entire plastic surface depresses and you feel a vibration. No depression is felt when you press anything else (save for a bug that I reported to the Motorola rep).

I felt let down. The Cool Hunting post was overly nice to this clunky phone. Being able to control whether you feel a button depression or not is nothing new. In fact, I had looked at using piezo switches 5-6 years ago for possible use in our response pads. Piezo switches let you vary the activation force that is needed. All Motorola added was a sense of vibration when the plastic surface is depressed.

Big deal.

The Myths of Innovation

12.31.07 | Permalink | Comment?

Curious ChapWelcome to 2008, and Happy New Year to all.

I just finished reading Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation. Scott does an excellent job of debunking a number of myths, explains how innovations are diffused, and describes the various obstacles that slow down their diffusion.

I won’t provide a thorough review — plenty of readers who are more qualified have already done so on Amazon. But I would like to share my two most important lessons from the book. The second lesson is the one that’s relevant to software development.

The Apple Didn’t Do It

The Myths of InnovationScott demonstrates how the popular media likes stories of epiphanies. An example is the apple that fell on Newton’s head, providing him with the crucial insight into gravity. Did an apple ever fall? Scott says that there is no proof. But more importantly, the story of the fallen apple makes no mention of the twenty years of research that Newton had done. An apple fell: poof! Newton gets his epiphany. Gravity is discovered!

Not so, baby. Behind every apparent epiphany are usually years of research and thinking. “Eureka moments” happen only after a person has spent a lot of time thinking.

The Importance of Incubation

Scott provides the insight that early research and development is typically followed by a period of incubation, a lull during which ideas sink in. This is something that I knew instinctively, but I am grateful to Scott Berkun for highlighting it. It is during those periods of incubation that Eureka moments typically strike, and they are a necessary part of the process of innovation.

I find that this applies to software development in a big way at the design stage. By design, I mean the process of developing the specs for the software and its user interface. After this is completed, it is important to let the design sit idle for a little bit while you keep pondering it. This allows time to think through real world situations and see if the planned design helps address them. A period of incubation is even more important if the design is for a new version where it is important to think about the problems that your customers had in the past and whether the new design helps. If your company has online forums, visit them and review the complaints that your customers took the time to write about.

If you have spent some time writing code and debugging, then you probably understand the importance of stepping back every once in a while. This is a form of incubation as well, although usually of much shorter duration. It happened frequently to me: I would be trying to fix a bug unsuccessfully. Then I leave the office and go home. My “Eureka moment” would sometimes come before I even get home (my commute is all of two miles). You have probably experienced something similar in the past as well.

Vista Blues — Literally

12.27.07 | Permalink | 1 Comment

Curious ChapIn the what-were-they-thinking department, here’s a quiz:

See this next Windows Vista screen.

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The answer is two. Yes, two. In the screen snapshot above, only “RoboHelp Office” and “SuperLab 4.0″ are selected. The first folder, “Merge Utility”, only happens to have the mouse cursor pointing at it.

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Filed under Design, User Experience

Apple Addiction?

12.24.07 | Permalink | Comment?

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More On App Development vs. Consulting

12.06.07 | Permalink | Comment?

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ace=”0″ alt=”Curious Chap” title=”Curious Chap” />Shortly after I commented on The Two Types of Software Development ( application development vs.

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Ever eloquent, Joel does not mince his words: it sucks to be an in house programmer. T he arguments

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He points that “a programmer is never going to rise to become CEO of Viacom, but you might well rise to become CEO of a tech company”:

And I could tell that no matter how critical it was for Viacom to get this internet thing right, when it came time to assign people to desks, the in-house programmers were stuck with 3 people per cubicle in a dark part

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How to Flatten the Apple Keyboard. Or Not?

12.05.07 | Permalink | 5 Comments

Curious Chap

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e=”Curious Chap” />After my earlier post where the ultra thin Apple Keyboard was taken apart (Apple model number MB110LL/A), Ben FrantzDale wrote to ask if the “bump” where the USB connectors are found can be removed.

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In other words, instead of this standard issue keyboard:

Apple Keyboard, standard issue

Ben would like:

Apple Keyboard, flattened

I have an idea on how to accomplish this, though it’ s non trivial.

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But first, here are more tear down photos.

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I’ll start by highlighting one of the two ribbon connectors that link the keyboard matrix with the printed circuit board, or PCB:

Apple Keyboard, the ribbon connector

See how the PCB is housed (click on photo for larger version):

Apple Keyboard, how the PCB is housed

The PCB sits right in that bump that Ben would like to remove.

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Further, it is held in place by four screws, shown circled in red. They span the entire width of the keyboard, so one would need to take apart the entire keyboard.

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This next photo was taken for the sake of completeness.

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It shows the PCB unscrewed and removed from its housing:

Apple Keyboard, unscrewed PCB

To Flatten or Not to Flatten

That is the question.

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If it is possible to completely flatten the Apple Keyboard, the only way I can think of it is to use two keyboards: you get the PCB from the first one as illustrated in these photos, and you get the keys

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On Roxio, or How NOT To Do Electronic Commerce

12.04.07 | Permalink | 2 Comments

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She asked me to make copies of those precious 15 minutes of grainy video so that we can pass them out to family members. “Sure honey, no big deal”.
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It contained a link to what looked like an FAQs page. Try as I may, I found no valid download link on that page.

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The Two Types of Software Development

11.28.07 | Permalink | Comment?

Curious ChapI’ve been thinking for a while about the difference between application development versus contract programming, a.k.a. consulting. I have done both and clearly prefer application development.

Wh at

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spurred me to ink my thoughts is Ben Collins-Sussman’s recent Version Control and “the 80%” post where he separates developers into two groups: the 20% alpha geeks and the 80% folks. Ben, one of Subversion’s developers, dares to write:

There are two “classes” of programmers in the world of software development: I’m going to call them the 20% and the 80%.

The 20% folks are what many would call “alpha” programmers — the leaders, trailblazers, trendsetters, the kind of folks that places like Google and Fog Creek s

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These folks were the first ones to install Linux at home in the 90’s; the people who write lisp compilers and learn Haskell on weekends “just for fun”; they actively participate in open source projects; they’re always aware of the latest, coolest new trends in programming and tools.

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They’re not stupid; they’re merely vocational. They went to school, learned just enough Java/C#/C++, then got a job writing internal apps for banks, governments, travel firms, law firms, etc. The world usually never sees their software.

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They use whatever tools Microsoft hands down to them — usually VS.NET if they’re doing C++, or maybe a GUI IDE like Eclipse or IntelliJ for Java development.

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They’ve never used Linux, and aren’t very interested in it anyway. Many have never even used version control.

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If they have, it’s only whatever tool shipped in the Microsoft box (like SourceSafe), or some ancient thing handed down to them. They know exactly enough to get their job done, then go home on the weekend and forget about computers.

I agree. I also realize now one of the reasons why I moved away from consulting in 1994 and never looked back: most of the alpha geeks are not

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there. They are in application development. There are several reasons why application development attracts alpha geeks while consulting repels them.

Disclaimer: I’m sure many consulting outfits do a great job; no offense is meant to anyone.

The Feedback Loop

In application development, a developer receives a lot of feedback.

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This could be in the shape of email, forum posts, phone, or by meeting customers face to face at a convention or trade show. The developers also receives critical feedback from the technical support folks; this helps them identify bugs or weaknesses in the app and challenge them to do better. The feedback often includes feature suggestions and sometimes even an entirely new product idea.

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This feedback loop is not usually found in consulting.

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He was not a developer, didn’t understand developers, and didn’t care much for them other than how many hours the customer could be billed. There was no direct input to the developers before the project started and no feedback after delivery.

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Geeks Are Not Just Coders

Alpha geeks like to develop, not just code. There is a huge difference between the two.

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A developer has the opportunity to be creative and help shape the product. At consulting companies, coders rarely have this opportunity.

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Who’s In The Driver’s Seat?

In application development, developers are in the driver’s seat along with managers, helping build quality products that customers will love.

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Overloaded project, err donkey In consulting, the dynamic is completely different.

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MBAs are usually in the driver’s seat. Billing is the primary motivation and it often conflicts directly with the goal of quality.

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Imagine the following scenario: Mr. MBA convinces Mr. Client that adding database replication would be a spiffy idea. Mr. MBA rushes to the computer lab and informs Ms.

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MBA cares? He’s only thinking about how much more he’s going to be able to charge the client. Perhaps the firm will even make him a partner. Imagine that!

What I just described is one of the reasons why the FBI’s $170 million Virtual Case File (VCF) project failed. According to the Washington Post, the FBI didn’t manage the project well and the contractor, SAIC, “knew the FBI’s plans were going awry but did not insist on changes because the bureau continued to pay the bills as the work piled up.”

Geeks Like to Work With Geeks

If most alpha geeks are found in the application development area, that’s where budding alpha geeks will want to be. It’s as simple as that.

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