Thursday, June 26, 2008

So that's what backchannels are!

Ever had that disconnect where you learn a new concept, but don't have a name for it, and you come across a new term but don't understand the concept, only to realise the new term is actually describing the new concept?

That's happened to me recently with the concept of using Twitter + Hashtags at conferences to keep up with what's happening and the term backchannel. It turns out they are one and the same (and now you know too!).

So, why bother blogging about it? Or more importantly, so why should you care?

Google Developer Day 2008

Good question. The interesting thing about backchannels is that they not only enrich your conference experience, but they also help you process the sessions you are currently in.

So how does it enrich the experience?

  • You get to find out what's going on in other sessions.
    At Google Developer Day 2008 this helped me work out that it was worth switching streams when I found the OpenSocial one was not meeting my expectations.
  • You get the benefit of others' viewpoints.
    We all know that sometimes the biggest "aha!" moments around a conference are during those in-between sessions conversations with other participants. Backchannels allows you to get some of those during the session.
  • You get extra content.
    When twitterers know which link the presenter is talking about, or do a bit of impromptu research in the midst of the session, then you get the benefits of finding out more about what is being said and can often be downloading the code being discussed during the session.
  • You get to give too!
    Each of the above benefits is because other people in the backchannel are sharing what they see, know and feel. You get to do the same too, and this reaps benefits in terms of reputation and new contacts. At both CodeCampOz 2008 and Google Developer Day 2008 I met new people who I would have probably not gotten to know except through the conference backchannel. Be aware that the conference speakers may check out the backchannel after their sessions, and set the tone of your comments appropriately.
  • You've got something constructive to do in boring sessions.
    You can always surf the web, but that takes you out of the flow of the conference, being able to participate in a backchannel discussion means that you can sometimes re-assess the usefulness of the current session or at least plan which pub to meet everyone with afterwards more easily!

The other element is more about how you process the sessions in order to internalise the knowledge and practices being shared. Sometimes the fact that you are researching topics in the midst of the session means you can multiply your understanding about a topic at the moment when you're most interested in it.

I certainly found at CodeCampOz that some of the sessions might not have made sense to me were I not pushing myself to find relevant links about them in order to add them to tweets sent during the sessions (yes, backchannels can make you competitive!). It does mean you are paying less attention to the speaker, but sometimes that would have occurred anyway (like when something goes over your head, is boring or relates to a question you already know the answer to).

However, I don't think that I would have grokked the advantages of backchannels had Craig Bailey not pushed me to use Twitter before Code Camp Oz 2008, and then the organisers of that conference not provided free power and wireless internet access. I highly recommend you give it a go yourself.

Why not drop me a comment here if you find it has worked for you, or alternatively if you thought it was a waste of time?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Google Developer Day 2008 (Sydney)

I spent yesterday at the Australian Google Developer Day 2008 at Wharf 8 in Sydney. It was an interesting event to attend and I met up with some great people. Like most events there were both positives and negatives:

  • Positives:
    • Good turnout, lots of interesting people to meet and chat with (big shout out to delic8genius, dcw303, stuandgravy, garthk and Dr Yogesh).
    • Great food and drink.
    • Great keynote session with cameos from a bunch of different developer advocates and product managers who gave us interesting peeks at their developer products.
    • Lots of nice new additions to Google Maps API, the Google Earth API was especially sexy.
    • The Android keynote demo was cool, especially the Compass feature that allowed StreetView to track the physical movement of the mobile device.
    • The App Engine sessions got me interested in using IronPython as it has a syntax similar to Ruby and might even be compatible with App Engine (the App Engine guys weren't sure about this one).
    • The event was free (as in beer).
  • Negatives:
    • No caffeinated soft drink. Negates all the good food and drink. Coffee lovers were looking for better sources of that beverage too. It would have paid off to hire a decent coffee stand for the day and allowing delegates to pay for it themselves.
    • Nobody mentioned how to access the wifi network (I talked to the events manager and Alan Noble was supposed to in his keynote speech ... hehe).
    • Audio bleedover between sessions, the Blue and Green rooms shared a flimsy wall that allowed sound through, particularly annoying when in the back of the Blue room.
    • Presentations became less interesting as the day wore on. The first OpenSocial session was a complete bore, basically a project report.
    • I missed the code labs, but up to that point the last 2 sessions had been both very short, using only half the time allotted. Remember the Milk forgot to turn up to explain how they use Google Gears, so that explained why their sessions was short. I spent that time tweeting and mingling, but would have preferred more content.
    • It's all Beta. Many of the most interesting things mentioned are still unavailable, that's probably unavoidable at this sort of event, but it was a bit galling to hear yet another "this is only in prototype" explanation.
    • It started too late, 10am is a ridiculously late time to start, mind you, I enjoyed playing Halo 3 on the XBox 360 they nicked from Google's Sydney office. It also ended late at 6:30pm, which meant I missed the last 2 sessions (mostly code labs). I might have stuck around, but my wife had a prior commitment I needed to be home for.
    • The event took a whole day (as in working day), but really only offered half a day's worth of content.

You can check out the #gdd08au tag for the tweets from the conference. I was a bit lonely there for a while, but it eventually took off.

OpenSocial was the big disappointment for me, the material we were shown in the sessions I attended covered client-side gadgets, hardly an exciting line of development especially given the increasingly popular view that most social mini-applications are no more than viruses. Two thirds of the first session was spent looking at differences between v0.7 and v0.8 - only after we were all bored to death did the presenter ask how many were already using the API, and then only 3 hands went up! Perhaps I should have hung around for the Apache Shindig session to see server-side details, but the first session was too boring for it to earn more of my attention.

The App Engine sessions were the surprise bonus for me. Firstly there was the news that Python is only the first language they intend to support (star this support issue to see C# supported). Then I realised that Python reminds me of Ruby, a lot. Nice.

The best bit about App Engine was that we had good speakers, Tom Stocky (leader of the product managers that work on Google's developer products) and Brett Slatkin (an engineer on the App Engine team). They made it very easy for us to understand what App Engine was all about, and particularly why we should care about it (it makes it easy to start an app for free, and then scale it easily if it takes off).

The discussion about App Engine's Bigtable datastore was gold, especially the coverage of some basic issues that frequently catch out relational database developers (namely there is no count kept of the table). This really brought home to me the smarts behind data shards (which I might blog about soon) as well as providing us with the 'right' way to handle problems like global counters and list paging. This is core to Google's success and they obviously have some great lessons to share with the developer community about how to build scalable web applications.

Tom and Brett had very strong messages (repeated often) about how much they value the privacy of your data and code, and an awareness that for App Engine to take off they must make it as easy for people to get data out of the system as into it. Clearly if you design your applications to fit App Engine you will find it relatively easy to get started on any distributed LAMP hosting platform, although you will need to build some of the infrastructure bits for yourself - like Bigtable. However the premise is that if you build up your application on App Engine then you avoid the sort of scaling problems Twitter has experienced.

I missed most of the first Gears presentation (I was stuck in OpenSocial's yawn-inducing first session), but the 10 minutes I did catch was interesting. They made the point that Gears was all about unlocking the capabilities of the client machine, not necessarily working offline (although Google Docs seems to support this just fine!). This includes utilising the client's power to process data (searching, sorting and indexing) and accessing client information (such as geolocation information).

One great question was how was it different from Adobe Air, and other than being open-source, the main difference is that Gears seeks to enhance HTML 5 and JavaScript, Air is creating a separate (proprietary) platform. In this sense Air is pretty similar to Microsoft's Silverlight model.

The MySpace presentation on how they have used Google Gears was very interesting. They handle roughly 160 million messages a day, fortunately they do not have Twitter's distributed messaging model, but it still is a huge number to handle. Each of their physical databases handles about 1 million users, with approximately 1 Terabyte of data in each. A big issue for them is how to enhance the messaging experience for users with large numbers of messages (some have hundreds of thousands). Offering searching and sorting is an obvious feature, but one they cannot easily handle given there large volume of users and messages.

MySpace's solution was to offer Google Gears to users with over 5,000 messages (soon they will lower the limit to 2,000 messages). For these users Gears could locally store their messages, indexing them on the client machine and then enhancing the (online) website so that searching and sorting could be offered. For these users the page data would be drawn from a mix of their standard online datastores and the local one - providing much faster response times, and putting less load on the MySpace servers. They are also looking at how to help users with large numbers of friends (some have 1 million+ friends!)

However implementing Gears was obviously not a trivial change, and I would hesitate to recommend it unless:

  • It was inside a corporate environment (where you have strong control of client machines); or
  • There was a very well funded business case for moving processing off the server architecture; or
  • The functionality of offline access or geolocation was key to your application.

Remember the Milk was going to turn up for the second half of this sessions, but for some reason were not there (and AFAIK no announcement was made about their absence - maybe they were busy at Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference?). They are an Australian startup that offers a free and simple To Do list function for users anywhere. They have been quite popular globally (half a million users) so it would have been interesting to see what they did different to MySpace (update: they have blogged about using Gears and it sounds like they use it for offline access, would have been very interesting).

Overall I'd give this a 7/10, and I would definitely go again, but I expected Google would do better. It goes to show how hard it is to run a good conference, especially when expectations are so high.

UPDATE: Got the hashtag wrong, it's now correct.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Apparently I'm in marketing now

There's an ongoing joke in the dev team at Elcom that I'm actually a sales guy, due to the number of sales meetings I've been doing recently. Well apparently I'm in marketing too, because this blog just appeared in the inaugural Top 50 Australian Marketing Pioneer Blogs list, compiled by Julian Cole and to be published in the August edition of Marketing Magazine.


I am honoured to be in that list (at #33) as a large part of what I do is thinking about how IT products or services can offer better value to customers, including innovating beyond the current market space - which is certainly included in the Wikipedia definition of marketing.

Having said that, you might have to look hard to find anything specific to marketing on this blog. So for anyone who has just come from the Top 50 list, here's a summary of my posts that might be interesting from a marketing viewpoint (especially if your product includes software):

Thursday, June 05, 2008

What is Work Literacy?

Elcom has recently launched TrainingManager.NET, our first step into the eLearning space. As part of this I was asked to review our product strategy and get to know the eLearning space better.

Tony Karrer's eLearning Technology blog has been tremendously useful in helping me cover a wide range of topics very quickly. He also is webmaster for the Learning Circuits blog. Larry Irons' Skilful Minds blog has also been very helpful, and numerous others have provided good reads. It's also caused me to take a fresh look at some old favourites, such as David Maister's professional services blog.

Karrer and Michele Martin have just launched Work Literacy, which is:

"a network of individuals, companies and organizations who are interested in learning, defining, mentoring, teaching and consulting on the frameworks, skills, methods and tools of modern knowledge work."

They intend to allow the intent of the network to be emergent, so it is intentionally vague about what they want to do. One aim however is clearly to help raise awareness of the latest eLearning thinking amongst knowledge workers, and not just their learning managers/corporate trainers. It looks like an interesting site to follow.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

More stuff-ups is just full of interesting weirdness today, here are my two personal favourites.

From an article about Senator Obama winning the Democrat nomination:

"Excerpts of Senator Obama's speech were released prior to him taking the stage, but his first personal claim of victory came in a post he sent to his Twitter feed.  'IN St Paul, MN speaking after securing the nomination,' he tweeted."

I am sorry, but nobody seriously believes that the charismatic senator is responsible for writing his own twitter feed! There is some campaign flunky knocking these out as part of their media blitz duties.

At least they got their terminology right ... you tweet via Twitter.

The other I saw was a snippet advertising one of their video reports on a very serious issue:


'Doubling' and 'jumping by 50 per cent' are not the same thing. Perhaps someone with some maths sense should have checked that one for typos first? As it is I have no desire to wait for their ads to load before watching this story, so I'm still not sure how big the jump is, but it sure is worrying.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Scribd - Assessment 2.0

I found this interesting document about Assessment methods using Web 2.0 ideas on Scribd.

Read this doc on Scribd: Assessment 2.0
Scribd is an interesting find for me. I've seen it before, but now I'm looking at it as a potential publishing platform and seeing the value it gives people, especially seeing as you can embed the content in a blog or wiki page (as I have done above).

How do you make training useful?

One of the consistent problems that managers I have worked for have had with training is that they did not see how it was immediately useful to my job. Now that I'm helping set the product strategy for our new TrainingManager.NET application this bothers me more than it used to. After all it's nice to say we've got a tool to help you manage your staff or customer training, but many managers will see training as irrelevant to them.

By and large my managers saw training as either something hateful but legally necessary (such as Appropriate Workplace Behaviour), a junket/bonus (such as TechEd attendance) or, very occasionally, of limited usefulness, but worth doing if it was cheap enough (such as in a new management application). Now that many employees have multiple competing demands for their attention there is even seen to be an attention crisis amongst staff who may well spend their attention on things other than corporate training's reference and help material (often not to the benefit of the organisation).

Of course when the shoe was on the other foot and we were training clients in applications we had custom built for them (or more often, training the trainers), it was seen as a necessary and useful part of our service delivery.

Professional services guru (and business trainer) David Maister gives a great analysis of the problems managers can have with training in his article, Why (Most) Training Is Useless. He says that:

"I now believe that the majority of business training, by me and by everyone else, is a waste of money and time, because only a microscopic fraction of training is ever put into practice and the hoped-for benefits obtained."

Ouch! OK, if managers are really thinking that way then that explains training's bad name, but why is this so?

"The truth is that most firms go about training entirely the wrong way. They decide what they wished their people were good at, allocate a budget to a training director and ask that training director to come up with a good program."

Re-read that last sentence - doesn't that sound like the core of most managers' reasons to train their staff? What is wrong with that? His point is that training is usually intended to bring about organisational change, to deliver real business value, but that requires that four key areas are addressed; systems, attitude, knowledge and skills.

  • Systems: Does the organisation actually monitor, encourage, and reward this (new) behaviour?
  • Attitude: Do people want to do this? Do they buy in to its importance?
  • Knowledge: Do they know how to do it?
  • Skills: Are they any good at implementing and executing what they know?

Education addresses knowledge and training addresses skills, but these are the last two that should be looked at as systems and attitude trump them both when it comes to actually deciding people's behaviour.

At our TrainingManager.NET launch last week Dr Denise Myerson challenged attendees to track the positive effects of their staff training and make sure they could demonstrate business value to the executives. She made the point that too often training seems irrelevant to the trainees' daily work (her "Let's Learn Fijian" example demonstrated this nicely) and reminded us that managers are responsible for ensuring staff understand why they are being trained (which matches Maister's attitude key). She has a blog post dealing with this in more detail.

"Like any management professionals, we should ask ourselves if the results of our training are both value for money and properly aligned to the goals of the organization."

The point is that training is usually brought in as the first thing to do to ensure organisational change, when in reality it should come much later in the piece. So most managers problems with training are in reality borne out of their misuse of it - so how does Maister think it should be done?

"The summary is this: if the training has been in regular operating groups, in carefully chosen topics, right when the group can use the training, and with the group’s leader in the room, they can immediately begin a discussion of how they plan to integrate the training’s ideas into their practices. With the right preparation and follow-up, training can be immensely powerful."

In more detail Maister's training tips are:

  • Get the strategy right first (what do want people to do, and do we really know why they are not doing it now?).
  • What does top management behaviours and measurements need to change to reinforce the strategy?
  • What has to happen before training starts? What must be in place the day it finishes? (e.g. logins to the new system)
  • Train people in the groups they normally work with, rather than drawn from across the organisation.
  • Small training sessions are more effective (smaller in time and people).
  • Training should be scheduled on topics that can be applied immediately, not left to atrophy, or fade away.
  • The best training is done by your own staff. It's more credible and real.
  • Training must involve group leaders/managers if it is to be action-oriented and the commitment to change credible (i.e. place the group leader/manager in the course with their staff).
  • Courses need mandatory pre-reading and pre-testing to ensure all participants are equally prepared and committed. Don't waste people's time by allowing some to attend unprepared.

Larry Irons points out something similar in his blog post Leading the Business-Centered Learning Experience where he says:

"In other words, it is just not sufficient for leaders who manage the learning process in organizations to focus on measuring learning outcomes that remain course-centered. Meaningful learning outcomes are business-centered and require that level of measurement to remain relevant to the organization’s objectives."

Irons discusses an article by Forrester's Claire Schooley, Learning Director: Are You Ready for your New Role? The key quote Irons pulls out of the article is this:

“What are the critical areas of investment in people? Answering this question requires opening direct communication channels with top company executives to understand the business strategy and road map and then to align and create appropriate formal and informal employee learning experiences that support the road map.”

I'm a tools builder, so it's nice to think my tools are what is most important in making organisational change happen, but the reality is that while tools can enable change and make it cost-effective, like most things of real business value, the biggest factor is whether the organisation commits to the change from the top down. (I'm probably not a card-carrying Edupunk, but the principles are similar enough to ALT.NET for me to appreciate the viewpoint, and I think it is a reaction (mostly in education circles) to this same sort of problem, getting the trees confused with the forest, or more importantly, the way out of the forest!)