Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mopping up operations

No administrator means... when things go wrong, we fix it. Well... actually having an administrator means we fix many things anyway, but lots of things the administrator checks up on and sorts out before we get water everywhere.

It's still pretty warm [34C] here in Cyprus and the water cooler is an important part of the office. So, when David came in and found it leaking everywhere it was not cool... well, the water was, but it was now all over the floor.

But the good news is we have an administrator who will hopefully start next Monday. This is definitely and answer to prayer, and she has gifts in other areas too... she has worked professionally in photography and has an interest in art, so maybe there will be more pictures coming out of the office to show you what is happening.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Recession, web 2.0 and the way forward

While I was in the UK I got the chance to visit the CEO of a very big group doing similar work to us, except their budget is approx 200 times bigger than ours. I like them a lot and there is a lot of synergy with them. Because we are in the non-profit area we act as partners rather than competitors.

When I visited I was shown a new integrated social networking and media platform that they will launch in a few weeks. It's close to some of what we had talked about as a group early in the spring. They had the budget to execute it very well. Not that some of the projects we do aren't done well. There is a very creative project we are also about to launch within the next few weeks... but... overnight and today it set me thinking.

This group are also involved with another very large project for audience interaction that I went to see in Australia at the beginning of the year. It's excellent, but very 'heavy weight'. We are working on a module to integrate SMS into that system right now. I have two programmers working on that for the next two weeks.

Yesterday I had an email from the external partners co-ordinator for this project. He challenged us 'Given the rapid changes occurring in social media, this may need to be more a loosely aligned organism rather than a complex system to cope with these changes.' That is what really set me thinking. How and why are projects so difficult to achieve?

We have not always succeeded by a long way, but I always try to be 'fast and light' rather than 'big and heavy' since the world is changing. My target is that if it is not achievable within 6 months then its probably too complex. The Desk Top Publishing [DTP] war is an example of what I mean:

Originally there had been two DTP programs head to head: Aldus Pagemaker and QuarkXpress. By the mid 90s QuarkXpress had become the world leader with Aldus/Adobe Pagemaker a second runner. Both were big complex programs. By 1997 Quark was in version 4.0 and so slow was development it took till 2002 to release a 5.0 version.

Adobe purchased Aldus and then released InDesign in 1999. InDesign was a small simple program with many, many plug-ins. So radical and stable was version 1.0 of InDesign Quark were forced to bring out a 4.1 version within months.

I think that is the way of the future and allows rapid and evolving development. I think their model is right: a small simple core with plug-ins that can be upgraded easily and quickly to do the majority of the work.

I'm looking at one of our projects. It has been excellent with very good audience feedback. It was that project that I mention that in the spring said we needed to integrate social networking into the core of the project. At the moment there is a large amount of interaction, but it still has a significant publishing aspect to the project.

Globally we have two things happening simultaneously:
  • A recession leading to a post-recession
    I believe that early next year there will be a second dip, the upturn will be for the Christmas period only, and will then be approx 12 months before we see a real upturn from the recession.
  • Web 2.0
    Web 2.0 will permanently change the way we do things. Publishing is dead, long live self-publishing. Well, maybe that is a bit strong, but it is the direction of the future.
One respected media consultant put it this way 'While traditional media isn't going away, you basically have two choices: Evolve, or disappear.'

So that's the challenge I have been thinking about today. Chatting with Peter he mentioned that his brother, who is a software developer, said their company only does projects that are achievable within 4-6 weeks. That was exactly what I was thinking about: Light and fast. RAD. Rapid Application Development. And that's the model Adobe took with InDesign.

We have to change - we have to develop a method of working that allows every project to be achieved in 4-6 weeks. Its a different way of thinking. RAD implies developing a prototype very quickly and then evolving it into the final product using customer feedback. So the specification is inevitably light, not tied down.

This doesn't mean that it's flaky - let me quote the media consultant I have been reading again: 'Are People More Creative or Productive Working without Limits? No. Absolutely not. Boundaries matter. One of the biggest threats to not reaching your goal is working without limits.' For us the boundary needs to become time.

When I worked for the BBC many, many years ago I used to work on TV news. The 6 o'clock news went out at 6 o'clock. Plus or minus no seconds! I remember well dubbing a film [yes, we shot film in those days] which was number three in the running order while number one in the running order was going out. At the same time I was listening to production talkback, and hit the rewind button on the telecine machine which would allow a few seconds grace by the time it had rewound ready for play out. The 6 o'clock news went out at 6 o'clock. Plus or minus no seconds!

In so many ways we have lost the concept of deadlines. And computers have caused this. When I was dubbing that film I did the best job I could, then grabbed a few extra gramophone records with sound effects, ran to the studio and added the extra effects live as it went out. It was the best we could do and the audience would have believed all the sounds were real.

But 'the best job I could' doesn't work for computer programs - they either work or they don't work. Looking nice but not working is useless. So we have become used to massive overruns and time slips to make it work.

Somehow we need to change our approach and methods so that we can return to the concept of making something workable within a limited time frame and within a limited budget. But something that is nevertheless good enough that the audience accept it, enjoy it and interact with it. The combination of the recession and web 2.0 are forcing that upon us. We have to embrace it and 'evolve or disappear'.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

October? Where has the summer gone?

October already... where has the summer gone? It's difficult to catch up with a blog 2 months old, but I'll try.

Normally we aim to spend approx 3 months doing security stuff for our servers per year. This involves upgrading the applications and looking at new ways of doing security better. Sometimes it might also involve rebuilding one or two servers completely. That we did over the new year, from November to February this year. It was more painful than we expected, but worthwhile.

We were expecting a new colleague and so some of the extra things we hoped to do were put off... 'David can do that when he arrives...' Well, David has arrived and getting him sorted out has taken time too, and he is now taking some of the load, but... we had three security problems this year which meant that we didn't actually get much break from security and we are still doing it 10 months later!

That's not good news for me as the technical stuff I don't really like. I'm hoping that this month will be the turning point from the technical and I can get back to some media work. We'll see. The big thing we are doing is integrating 'dual factor authentication' to our systems. Dual factor authentication is where you have two 'factors' to get into the system - this is something you know and something you have. Banks use this: Often you log in to an online bank with a username and password [something you know] and a pin number generated by a little keyfob device [something you have]. Our system is similar, but its a really huge job doing it.

In between all this I have been working on the scripts and getting equipment for a pilot for a serious of short films we hope to make next year. If all goes well we will shoot the pilot this November. I'm really looking forward to this as media production is much more what I enjoy and get a kick out of.

September, we went back to the UK for 3 weeks. It coincided with my son's 21st birthday and also allowed us both to meet friends and have some business meetings in the UK. It was good but tiring.

Now, less than a week back we have two programmers out from the UK, working on new code to upgrade our SMS [mobile phone text message] system. One of the programmers has been out before - he developed the original version of this system - and with him is another programmer working on 'web services' to integrate the system.

Web services is a strange, but very helpful new concept where servers go to and read web pages themselves to communicate with each other. In this case it will allow servers to send and receive text messages. Servers sending text messages themselves? Whatever for? Well... one use is for a server to send us a text message to tell us it is having a problem and please could we fix it!

I still have an unbelievable amount of email to catch up with... I HATE EMAIL... well... no I don't really but it seems to be that the volume of communication has increased exponentially and I am having problems keeping up with it.

So that's about it. Not the most exciting summer [you'll have to see my other blogs about other activities which were more interesting] but worthwhile and hopefully moving.