Monday, October 30, 2006

What Interns Are Up To

So last week I told you how we'd discovered The Geek Gap being discussed in a discussion group of the blog Joel on Software. The "Joel" was Joel Spolsky and the funny thing was we'd just watched him on the Documentary Channel. Fantastic channel, by the way!

The documentary was called Aardvark'd: 12 Weeks with Geeks and takes place at Fog Creek Software, Joel's company.

It's the story of four geek interns who travel to New York City to work at Fog Creek for a summer and build a piece of software codenamed Aardvark. We both thought it was pretty good--check it out if you get a chance--but as usual, we didn't completely agree. I wanted a tiny bit less air time devoted to geeks doing something other than their jobs--growing tomatoes or playing games in the office, and a tiny bit more time spent on the actual software they were creating. Bill thought it was perfect just the way it was. "You don't understand," he said. "It makes geeks look really cool!" Anything that glamorizes geeks is very satisfying, I guess because so many of them spent so many years feeling marginalized.

Later I read on Joel's site that he'd initiated the project out of frustration over the stupid business problems contestants have to solve on The Apprentice. From that perspective, the focus on social lives and such makes complete sense. And anyhow, I'm a business technology writer, so of course I want nitty-gritty details that would probably bore the average viewer.

Anyhow, the coolest thing about it was the software they wound up creating. Called Copilot it allows you to use the Internet and, with their permission, take over control of someone else's computer. Why would they want you to do this? Because they want tech support, and it's a lot easier to just take over someone's computer and do what needs to be done than walk someone through a complex operation over the phone. "Now click that button--no not that one!" is how Bill describes it. The great thing about Copilot is neither he nor they needs to buy or install any special software--they just go to a web site and punch in an invitation number.

He can't wait to try it out!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

People are Blogging...

I love Google Alerts!

It's like your own, completely free and completely benign version of a government wiretapping program, where you get to hear what people are saying about you on the Web.

So this is how, a few days ago, Bill and I found out some software developers in a blog called Joel on Software were having a whole discussion about our book. The "Joel," it turns out, is Joel Spolsky, a software developer whose company Fog Creek (in good old New York City), was profiled in Aardvark'd, a documentary Bill and I just watched, about summer interns working on a software project. Paul Graham, whom we quoted in our book and I subsequently interviewed on the future of web-hosted software for, was in the documentary too, with his own set of interns. Which just goes to show you how small a club the seemingly huge world of high-tech still is.

Anyhow, more about the documentary in a later post...

What was fascinating about the discussion was the things people were saying who hadn't read the book (they were the only ones with negative comments). I think they were assuming it was directed at tech people, telling them yet again they have to learn something--anything--about business...the same scolding they've been getting ever since the dot-com bust. Geeks are sick of hearing this, and I don't blame them.

But that's not what the book is about. It describes a clash of cultures, where both geeks and suits need to understand each other, and neither is to blame. So, I hope some of these naysayers decide to at least give it a read someday.

The other thing that fascinated me was where the person who posted found the book: dog-eared and mis-filed in the computer programming section. As if some programmer, perhaps suffering from job frustration, snuck in one day, read the whole thing cover-to-cover, stuck it back on the shelf next to the programming books he or she was also looking at and went away again.

If so, I hope whoever it was at least told some friends about it.:-)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Music Laswuits: The Great Ownership Debate

The title of this post is what I know is about to happen: this is a subject on which the geek and the suit that Bill and I are do not entirely agree. When he reads this post, I can safely predict, he will have a response or two.

We usually have these discussions standing around in our kitchen. Today, I thought I'd do it here instead. :-)

The news is that the music industry is suing 8,000 more people for sharing files online. When he heard about it, Bill used a word I won't reprint here. Insisting on copyright ownership is wrong; demanding payment for shared files is wrong...

I'm not so sure it is.

The open source software movement, in which Bill is an enthusiastic participant, has a catchphrase its proponents love to use: "Free as in free speech, not free beer." But what Bill and the file sharers want from the Internet is free as in free beer. They never want to have to pay for anything they download under any circumstances. They rail against corporate greed.

I agree that insisting users in economically challenged countries pay $200 for word processing software is pretty reprehensible, but...$0.99 for a song? Gather up 15 of them, and you'd have a $14.85 CD that no one would consider overpriced. Is it really so unreasonable to ask people to pay less than a dollar to download a song?

Remember that the free-as-in-beer Internet came to us courtesy of the dotcom bubble: What really paid for all those free services were VC investments, followed by absurdly inflated stock prices, all of which led inexorably to the dotcom bust. No one wants to see that happen again. So the bottom line is, Web sites have to make money. So do the people who record and publish music, and the Internet is now their main distribution venue. I can understand why they object to having their product handed around willy-nilly.

On the other hand, suing everyone in sight just doesn't seem practical. The world is changing and it doesn't matter how many people they sue, they can't stop it. The old model where you sell a set of songs on a piece of plastic are coming to an end and new models are needed. iTunes is one way to go about this. Perhaps some form of advertising-supported free file sharing is another.

No matter how many people they sue, they're not going to put an end to file sharing. I doubt they'll even make much of a dent. The music industry itself seems to recognize this by its choice of defendents: heavy uploaders, not downloaders. Perhaps because there are so many casual downloaders that suing them might lead to public outcry?

Suing file sharing users seems to me a big expenditure of time and effort and, most of all good will that will likely yield dubious results. Wouldn't it be better to spend that time and effort finding a new model that can make money in the world that is, instead of trying to go back to the world that was?

World's first "stealth" fire department? Huh?

The way geeks see things is this:
Many often create free websites in their spare time that offer a service. They mostly do it for fun, but also to try to help people with their coding abilities and imagination. All too often, the technophobes standard response is like they're confronting vampires and need to start wearing garlic to ward off the "evil IT." Good friend, writer and ├╝ber-techie Bruce Miller sent me this, from his local Seattle newspaper, the Seattle P-I (or Post-Intelligencer - I love that name!).

Web site that tracks 911 calls ignites concerns about security

One of the real problems that occurs where Geeks and Suits overlap in business is when one side has decision-making powers over the other. This goes for geeks AND suits. Far too often, this ends up in disaster, or least a monetary loss for the company.
This news item is an excellent example of what happens within organizations when unqualified persons make decisions of a technological nature without at least listening to knowlegable counsel. Of course, one of the ironies is the ones who should be embarassed probably have no idea.
Just realize for a moment that this is a scenario that's repeated every day and night at many levels within innumerable companies, organizations, governments and corporations. Then think of how much time - hence money - is wasted from just this one brush between Geeks and Suits. And that's just one aspect.
That's the Geek Gap for ya. Any thoughts on this? Leave a comment if you want to weigh in.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Girls, get your own geek!

I'm blogging this as a public service for women trolling the singles bars and dating services. Funny, and so true!
Girl's Guide to Geek Guys

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Why I'm the Co-Author

There I was, minding my own geeky business - fixing computers, writing my little tech column in the Woodstock Times, and the occasional magazine article, when my business writer spouse shows me a short description of a book idea. Geeks and Suits not communicating in the workplace? How could I resist? I was hooked.

I'd been dealing with this issue almost my entire life, as pretty much everyone has to some degree. Having spent a number of years managing online communities for dot-coms like Lycos and its assorted subsidiaries (Tripod, Webmonkey, HotBot, etc.) as well as the now-defunct healthsite Onebody, I was smack in the middle of the chasm. I had daily meetings with the geeks who handled the chat and messageboard software, as well as the suits in marketing and management, and neither could stand the other. Not only that, it was pulling teeth just to get both parties to sit down together on any issue. So yeah, it was a subject I knew intimately.

On top of that, Minda and I had regular debates over the same issues, and we came to realize that we each saw things from a different - but equally valid - perspective. Case in point: When Lycos flirted with the idea of having live automatic links to ads appear in chat room text, I railed against what I saw at the time as an invasion of privacy. Meanwhile, Minda saw this as using technology in a positive step towards making chat generate income. Both valid arguements, just from opposing views of how things should work.

It was in the middle of one of these battles over philosophical viewpoints that I actually saw a light go on in Minda's eyes, and the next time we spoke she was handing me this book idea. Like I said - I was hooked.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Paper or Silicon?

I'm currently working on a writing project with a personal finance expert. Very smart guy. Has an elaborate web site with a webmaster, uses Internet programs and sophisticated software to make investments.

We were at a business meeting recently when a colleague asked him if he was available on a date in a couple of weeks to attend an important conference. He pulled out a datebook the size of a coffee table book, opened it and checked the date to see if he was free.

I couldn't help myself: "You are so low-tech," I said.

"I like having everything in one place," he answered.

The funny thing was, I'd just gotten finished reading a book in which the author described having her purse snatched with her address and date book inside it. Then, faced with a family emergency, she couldn't cancel her work appointments because she'd lost all her contact information.

This, I thought, is the result of having everything in one place. My handheld syncs with the desktop and the desktop (using Airset--great software, check it out, much better than Google Calendar) syncs with the Internet. If information is important, isn't it better to have it in three places, rather than one?

The same issue came up again this afternoon when Bill and I were being interviewed by a Colorado radio station. The host--again, a smart financial guy who's expert at mortgages and uses software in his work--insisted he had to have everything on paper and had actually thrown out several handheld devices given to him over the years.

Why are people so attached to paper date books? I can make an educated guess--because I am a late, if enthusiastic, convert to the handheld myself. It's the same cost/benefit analysis suits conduct all the time when faced with the opportunity to adopt, or reject, a new piece of technology: Will the time it takes me to learn this be worth the advantages I'll get from it? If it seems like the answer is no, then we don't bother. That's why, for years, I clung stubbornly to paper for tracking appointments and contacts.

The only problem is that we suits can't really know what the advantages are of adopting a new technology until we've spent the time to learn how to use it, so to some degree the analysis itself is useless. I never would have hesitated had I known all the different uses I'd find for my (now fourth generation) handheld: it's not only replaced my date book and address book, but also my checking account register and the paper photos of Bill I used to carry (now on display in my handheld whenever I want them). I use it to read magazine articles, listen to recorded short stories, check my e-mail, surf the web... It's obvious that my original cost/benefit analysis was dead wrong.

The problem is that often suits conduct a similar cost/benefit analysis on behalf of their departments, or even their entire companies. When they reject a piece of new technology because they can't see enough of a benefit, they may be dooming themselves to fall behind the competition, if that cost/benefit analysis is equally wrong.

The solution should be to depend on the geeks to help us with that cost/benefit analysis. The problem there is geeks always gravitate toward learning new technology--that's what their jobs are about. From their point of view, adopting the newest and coolest is nearly always worth the trouble.

So what's the answer? I don't know. Just as I don't know why so many people, even technologically sophisticated people, still insist a paper date book is better, or how to convince them that it isn't.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Why We Wrote the Book-Part 2

And then I procrastinated. I wandered around, thinking about what I tentatively called "Geeks vs. Bean-Counters." I told friends about it when they asked about future book ideas. But when it came to actually writing a book proposal...well, I didn't.

Eventually, I begged my agent to have lunch with me so I could talk over some book ideas with her and maybe get myself going on something. She kindly agreed, and when I started talking about this idea, not only did she really get it, she came up with the Geek Gap title, which I instantly loved. So much that I called home and asked Bill to snag the domain name forthwith.

When I got home I wrote out a chapter outline and gave it to Bill to see what he thought. His response: "I want in on this project!" He said afterward I needed his point of view, and--he was right. The fact that we look at the business/technology disconnect from opposite sides of the fence is exactly the point.

We've had heated arguments when his company made a move that I thought might help them create a profit and he thought misused the technology. Those arguments segued into similar discussions while we were actually writing the book.

In the end, the book represents both points of view, the geek and the suit, even when the two are in conflict. And, like everything else in the work world today, neither of us could have done it without the other.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Why We Wrote the Book-Part 1

I spent five years writing articles for business/technology publications like Computerworld and Smart Business and EContent, articles about things like how to recover from a failed project or what to do if your project's business sponsor leaves in mid-project, and on and on and...pretty soon I started feeling like the underlying subject--in many different disguises--was always the ongoing culture clash between business people and technology people that seems to plague nearly every organization.

And through five years of interviews, I listened to them gripe about each other. Geeks complained that suits couldn't be bothered to learn the most rudimentary technical skills--sometimes not even how to attach a file to an e-mail. Suits complained that geeks were fasincated only by technology and were completely indifferent to the fate of the companies that employed them. And why should we care, geeks countered, when all the suits care about is money--and they'll outsource my job to Bangalore first chance they get?

Well. You get the idea. Pretty soon, I got interested in writing, not about who was right or wrong, but about the disagreement itself.