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The RoBlog
Sunday, September 28, 2003
I'm Not a Comic Geek, But....Auction Close Percentage
I don't collect comics, but I have friends that do, and being an INTP according to the Meyers-Briggs method, and loving systems as INTPs tend to do, I watch eBay to see how comics, and certain other collectibles, do. I'll be posting observations I've made here periodically.

One of my comic collecting friends says he has noticed a drop-off on the comic auctions he posts on eBay, meaning that less of his auctions are closing with a successful bid. While I didn't check what if the average value of a closed auction did (just lazy), I DID take a look at the close percentage rate over the last 30 weeks for comics and other assorted collectibles that I pay attention to.

The result is that, since March, the average successful close rate of auctions I've tracked has gone from nearly 48% (meaning that 48% of auctions posted received at least one bid, I didn't check for reserves being met), down to nearly 42%, with most of the drop happening in the last 6 weeks. I'm not sure if that's really enough to notice, but the numbers do appear to support my friend's intuition.

I should note that eBay changed their system a bit sometime in the last few weeks, so that could influence the numbers, BUT the volume of transactions has remained steady throughout this period, so I think I feel ok about these numbers.

Interesting to note is the fact that eBay trends appear to be on a 5 week cycle. No idea why, but I can see a set of peaks and troughs that looks very similar over each 5 week period.

Since I wasn't paying attention before March, I really couldn't say whether or not this dip is normal, and that the summer is just slow, or if this indicates something bigger going on at eBay, but it's definitely worth paying attention to.

If you have interest in some aspect of eBay auctions that can be answered numerically, let me know (roblogATthenetatworkDOTcom). I don't have the resources and data to answer every question, but if it's interesting enough, and I have time, I'll take a look and post the results.
The Innovative Company - Employee Blogging
So, I've been doing some thinking about how a company maintains it's cutting edge after the initial wave that drives a company forward has passed. This is the first entry in what I expect will be an ongoing series.

The Opening Tsunami
When a company is first born, it is typically riding the crest of some "great idea". This idea is what captures the imagination of the financers that need to be wooed, the partners that need to be wrangled, and employees that need to be hired. The company is formed, infrastructure is created, and the idea is made real. Then what?

Then comes the task of keeping the company on track; managing its course. Often, such great ideas keep a company moving forward on its own for quite some time, but often the void after the initial rush is filled with competitors, internal apathy, and executive uncertainty. At some point, another wave needs to be generated or the company risks stagnating and being passed by either competitors or otherwise left behind as the situation that initially allowed for the company to come into existence changes.

Inventing Waves
In some cases, the person or persons who brought the company into existence - the ones with the original idea - are driven innovators and can surf change well enough on their own. But it is important to keep in mind that the skills to build a company, the skills to run it, and the skills to innovate are very different, and rarely housed in a single individual.

Whether formally or informally, a company that reaches the point where their initial wave of inspiration has long since passed has to find a way to generate innovation. There are many, MANY ways to go about this, from changing management, to hiring innovators specifically into new positions into the company, to bringing in consultants. The careful distinction you have to make at this point, however, is between those individuals or companies who have ideas in mind already, and those that can foster innovation. My guess is that many a person has been hired to "save" a company on the strength of an idea and that, while I've no doubt that the right idea CAN save a company, once the person was hired it was determined that the idea was untenable and the person floundered as they were unable to adapt to the new situation.

Wow, ok, I need to work on my writing style as I hadn't intended to give a soliloquy on the evolution of corporations. Let's just jump to the main points, shall we?

Waves are Water
What I mean by this is that for an idea to survive, it must live in a culture that fosters its existence, and has the right mechanisms in place to amplify them, when appropriate, and truly affect the company. In my opinion, this means:

Of course, it also means:

Ok, more blathering...here's the core idea I was going for:

Bloggie Paddling
This sounds cliche', but your employees are a hugely valuable resource. They are often the ones in direct contact with how the business runs and what customers are saying. They are also the people who are likely to be thinking about answers to problems they are running in to. So, for any innovative company, maintaining this line of communication is key.

One tool in the set of tools you should be using to foster internal communication is employee blogging. This is more true of large companies than small ones, and more true of companies whose basic field is knowledge and not an actual product. Judicious use of this SHOULD be employed. But for the right kind of organization, giving the employees each a voice that is theirs can be the perfect way to extract current problems, solutions to problems, and, better yet, thinking about where the company should go next. Blogging is the equivalent of an open office space where people are encouraged to listen in on other people's (work related) discussions. If your employees have blogs, and other employees can read them, then they can get ideas off of what other employees are thinking and build their own.

At the same time, executives can keep their finger on the pulse of the company, in much the same way that executive blogging helps employees keep their fingers on it (see Intranet Blogs, below).

There are many danger points here. You don't want this venue to turn into a place where employees prattle on about things not related to the company, and you don't want it to turn into a place where people vent their personal issues with other companies.

For the right employees, however, a company blog can be the right place for them to spew out the thoughts and ideas that they have in their head that they might not otherwise tell you. For example, I have an employee who is THE guy for standards-based computing. He knows pretty much everything there is to know about what standards are emerging and what ones are interesting. But he's never going to tell me because he doesn't want to waste my time (of course, I don't think of it that way, but he's a considerate guy, and that's one of his rules for being considerate). If he had a blog and were encouraged to drop his thoughts into it from time to time, he just might. He could put stuff out there to be viewed, and if no one wanted to view it, then no one would and he wouldn't have wasted anyone's time. If someone DID read it, and his ideas took off, then he gets to feel more important and part of an organization that recognizes his value and that HE can influence (loss of perceived influence in the company is what leads many employees to be disenchanted with their companies).

Ok, so you get the idea. I'll develop this out more at a later point so you can see the beauty a bit better than it was presented here. In the mean time, please feel free to send me your thoughts (and links to your own blog) at: roblogATthenetatworkDOTcom.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Extreme web development?
As with many people for whom programming is central to their work (be they developers or project managers), I recently started feeling like the process of developing something (planning, coding, testing as discrete processes) was not very conducive to actually getting development done. This is exacerbated a bit when the primary focus of your development (as it is with most of the projects I work on) is the creative presentation.

In traditional development projects, it has been my experience that the QA portion generally gets the short shrift as deadlines get missed early in the process, but delivery dates don't get moved. With Internet marketing efforts, an additional layer is added to the mix in the creative development. With this being the focus of many of these projects (and, which clients who are typically marketing folks and not technology folks), now the entire technology aspect of a project suffers from the deadline creep phenomenon (QA, typically, still getting the shortest straw). The result is projects whose primary budget goes to creative development, with little money to build the functionality required by the client, or inherent in the way the creative was designed (especially in Flash projects).

It is because of such an issue with a project we are currently working on that I turned my attention to Extreme Programming this morning; something I had heard mention of from time to time, but had never stopped to take a look at. Somewhere along the lines I got it into my head that it was a more iterative development cycle which might be adaptable to our projects. I'm, admittedly, still trying to get my head around what Extreme Programming (XP) is all about, but the thing that struck me about it, and that, no doubt, strikes most people about it is that it pairs up programmers on the same computer to build code.

While this is an odd idea on the face of it, it struck me as an obvious (in retrospect) way to handle many of the typical time-wasting parts of programming. I'm not going to go into a discussion of what XP is all about and what problems paired programming solves, nor am I going to go into a discussion of what some of the apparent (to me, anyway) problems of this method might be. What ever the pros and cons of paired programming, it was really set up to work on projects of a larger scale than the ones we usually work on where there are at most 3 developers, and in by far the most common scenario, there is only one.

What it took me until late this evening to realize is that we DO, in fact, have a problem that XP can solve: the creative/developer interface.

Let me start by saying that in our office the creative director and the web developer are entirely different people. The web developer being primarily a technical role, and the creative director being primarily....well...creative. I understand that other places handle these roles differently, but in our office, this is the way of things.

The problem is that there is a HUGE breakdown in communication between the developer and the creative as the creative does a good deal of their work on their own answering to internal account staff and the client, typically only touching base with technology on the eve of a presentation. What then happens is that only the most obvious technical issues of the design (those that we can think of on the spot, or very soon after) ever get pointed out to be rectified. Major problems are almost always found after the presentation and then its an issue of undoing client expectations which many an account person is loathe to do. Further, as the creatives build their conception of the site, they often discuss functions (as simple as what an animation looks like) amongst themselves and forget about it for the internal review, or assume that they had communicated it earlier (when in fact they are likely remembering a conversation they had with other creatives), meaning that the technology understanding of the build is out of sync with the creative understanding. And since the creative understanding is often what is sold into clients, technology suffers.

Enter Extreme Web Development. No doubt you see where I am going with this, but to be explicit, I am proposing putting a technology person AT THE DESK of a creative person FOR THE ENTIRE COURSE OF THE CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT. It's true.

No doubt this will drive our developers crazy (as well as the creatives) but for nearly all of the same reasons that paired programming is a good idea, paired designing is a good idea as well. It also has the benefit of streamlining a process that is desperately in need of streamlining. While the creative is working out a particular issue that doesn't immediately require a developer's attention (e.g. color correcting), the developer can be building the base code for the site and incorporating any elements that have been client approved, or aren't dependent on client approval. This removes the current lock-step process where the creative development has to be nearly completed before the implementation can begin. And when the developer has a question about how something should animate, what the timing is, or other details dependent on the creative's brain, access is instant.

This also has the benefit of cross training our creatives and our developers, another big problem in our office. There just isn't time to educate the creatives of what a technology can and cannot do. This often leads us with designs that are needlessly complex in one area, but don't take advantage of existing technology in another. Our creatives aren't tech people and we don't want them to be, but the more they know about what is easy and what is hard to do, the better our designs will take advantage of the technology for the good of all (including the clients).

Obviously, this is not without its drawbacks. In as much as Extreme Web Development (XWD, let's say) gains from pairing in all the ways that XP does, it suffers in all the ways XP does, and probably to a greater extent. Since we're talking about two entirely different job functions, working styles and personality types are bound to clash if the situation is not handled correctly. The up side is that in our office, most everyone is working on more than one project at a time. This provides pairings an opportunity to separate and work in other pairings, or alone (if, for example, a creative is working on an offline project).

The one thing that will make this more possible than it might normally be is the prevalence of laptops. Currently our developers have desktop machines to build on. That will have to change so that they can be more mobile. It is possible to mobilize the creatives as well or instead, but since color accuracy is such an important part of what they do, I expect they'll stick with their workstations for a little while yet.

There you have it. Web developers with their laptops parked at the desks of the creative directors for the entire course of the build. I'm going to push this through on the next project that presents itself.

Wanna know how well it worked (assuming you're arriving here much later than today)? Drop me a line at roblogATthenetatworkDOTcom.

Now, I really need to get to bed.
Intranet Blogs
I hadn't really thought much of the blog phenomena with regards to business. It has its place if you have an audience you can evangelize to and can support a person whose job it is to be the face of the corporation, but generally it seems to me that with certain exceptions, it doesn't make a lot of sense for companies to have a blog for them. The voice of a blog is too immediate. Too personal. And most companies are trying to be several things to several groups of people all at once so this kind of direct contact doesn't necessarily make sense (ok, ok, I can think of ways that most of the SBI clients could use blogging, but allow me to make the bigger point I was going to make, and we can quibble about this detail later).

Anyway, it dawned on me on the ride home that a very good place for this type of communication, indeed where this type of communication is NECESSARY, is inward facing to the company. After a company gets to be too large either in the number of employees, or in its geographic dispersal, for executive level personnel to be in regular contact with the general employee populace, the sense of disenfranchisement by the employees can readily grow. Stiltified internal corporate communications via email do nothing more than a printed newsletter would to give the employees a sense of community and an understanding of who the executives are and what they are doing and why.

Blogging is just the kind of communication to bridge this gap. Now I'll grant you that executives need to be willing to spend the occasional time creating their blog entries (or having them created for them) and they need to be willing to speak in a more casual manner than they are typically asked to do, but I think the cost is low and the payoff is high.

For example, our CEO recently spent some time visiting many of our offices talking to key individuals and generally getting in touch with the company. In a corporate email he was only able to summarize what happened. Had he gone into great detail his email would have been unbearably long. How interesting would it have been if he had updated a corporate blog daily on his activities and the interesting things he discovered in each office?

Certainly this shouldn't be a light undertaking, or at least it should be approached with a bit of common sense. It is in the executive's interest to be personable and casual, but that can lead to slips of the tongue that could cause further disenchantment by the employees. In many cases it may be required to reign in an executive's enthusiasm to prevent him or her from disclosing what fun he had driving his Rolls to the Hamptons. An internal marketing person, in most cases, should be rigorously used to review updates before they are posted. The original content, though, should come from the executive rather than a marketing person, with marketing only providing a list of discussion points at most; otherwise the result will be obvious corporate blather and no one will pay attention to it.

It certainly wouldn't be necessary for an individual executive to be writing entries daily. But if one or two executives were to write a couple of entries a month, that would probably be enough to give the employee community a sense that the blog channel is a worthwhile thing to monitor to get a sense of where the company is going and why.

It is probably worth accepting comments on entries from employees as well, and in an unmoderated fashion. Sure you'll get the occasional employee spouting off, but if their entries include their names (and it's not readily open to forgery), then people will likely self moderate and only speak when they are passionate about something. This is a good way to take the pulse of the company, as well as field interesting ideas. If an employee DOES spout off in an inappropriate manner, deft handling of the situation can boost the perception of the executive as well.

I certainly advocate a thoughtful approach to internal blogs, but a problem I see again and again is that front line employees feel that they are out of touch with management and that management is out of touch with them, creating an "Us versus them" mentality and the lack of a sense of a common mission or purpose among employees. Blogging is not going to solve all of your internal corporate relation problems, but it is part of an internal marketing/communications infrastructure that any mid to large sized company should have in place.

I should also mention that this concept works equally well at the division or group level, especially if these units are fairly large. Even at a project level, a blog can be a decent place to vet concerns, communicate direction, and otherwise keep in touch with project staff (though, depending on the project and the company, there are other, better group collaborative tools that can be put in place).

Thoughts? Comments? Thoughtless comments? I welcome them all (for now). Send me an email at roblogATthenetatwork.com.
No comments
Hmmm...I just noticed that Blogger (at least the free version) doesn't appear to support comments (or I can't find how to turn them on). The bitter, bitter irony.

I don't expect anyone will run across this, but if you're here and you want to leave a comment, send it to roblogATthenetatworkDOTcom, and I'll post it here.

At some point I'll get this all installed on one of my machines so I can add that ability...some day...
RSS spec needs an expiration element
I'm new to RSS, having only given in to the nagging suspicion that I should look into it last week, so take this comment with a grain of salt, but the RSS spec(s, choose your favorite) need a way to indicate that the feed is no longer active. This would allow feeds to be auto-removed from a consuming application (be it a web aggregator or computer-installed RSS reader), potentially alerting the user that the feed is no longer available.

This is certainly useful for stopping feed readers from repeatedly visiting a server that no longer hosts a feed (come to think of it, is there a way to indicate that an RSS feed has moved?), but, more interestingly, this would allow ad hoc RSS subscription communities around transient topics. For example, one could subscribe to the comments for a particular entry on someone's blog. The server might have a rule that if no new comments are posted in 5 days to expire the feed for that set of comments. It could also be used to subscribe to a particular topic (and that topic only) on a bulletin board.

I can't count the number of times (in the last week) that I ran across an particularly interesting blog entry somewhere, and wanted to read the comments as they were posted (due to the nature of RSS, it's possible to view a comment as it's posted so that no one has had a chance to comment yet). This dovetails in with my desire to get bulletin board updates on a particular topic via email as well.

Now that I think of it, if you could subscribe to comments (which an expiration attribute helps make more feasible) AND you could indicate that the feed location has moved, you could get ad hoc groups of interest chatting about a thing spawned by a blog entry, and then move the whole thing to its own board or feed. Now THAT would be truly taking advantage of the power of the Internet.
Blog initiated.

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