“I hate you both. Can’t you just tell me already?” whined my colleague. There are few things she loathes more than not being in the know. “Whyyyyyyy do I have to wait until Monday?” It would only be a few more days before we revealed what it was we were working on.
I’ve followed Panic Software, their products, and their company culture for years. In high school I found myself dabbling in web design, creating sites for local companies and turning a bit of profit in the process. The day I downloaded their FTP client Transmit (originally called Transit), I began to understand the value of well-crafted software. Panic had already won me over years ago.
In 2010, the software company posted about an office status board they had cobbled together. It was a beautiful, elegant and magical way to display and disseminate company information in an approachable way. Since 2010, every place of employment I’ve had has gotten my pitch to build a replica, but recreating it was always prohibitively complex, required too much staff time, and seemed to be a pain to keep updated. Fast-forward to a few weeks ago when Panic posted the newest incarnation of their board, this time powered by an iPad app they had created to make building a replica possible for the rest of us.
As much as I love it, I don’t want this post to be yet another app review. You can read any of the well-written pieces that outline the awesome features (right down to the charm of the setup tutorial) or follow the growing ecosystem of user-created widgets that further extend the capabilities of the app on a daily basis.
Instead, I want to explore how a coworker and I turned a playful exploration of the app into a secret project, an internal pitch for funding and resources, and an opportunity to inspire ourselves (and perhaps the company) in the process—all in the course of a week.
Having worked in some form of agency setting over the last six years, I’ve come to know and recognize the signs of creative frustration in myself and my colleagues—feeling bored, run-down, or feeling generally defeated about their work. That’s agency life; we don’t always get to choose the projects (or clients) that come our way. Sometimes, you just need to build something for yourself to feel a little bit more in control. Panic’s new app provided an opportunity and an outlet. My fanboy infatuation with their company meant I was invested in a project I wanted to work on without my job depending upon it. Whatever the motivation, my coworker’s shared intrigue made us destined to ally. A side project was hatched.
This brings us back to my frustrated colleague who was wondering why we were sneaking off to empty conference rooms or sporadically giggling with excitement after exchanging covert IMs. It’s been a while since I got to test the hypothesis that secrets create intrigue and the opportunity to wow. Also, I wanted to get funding for a few TVs. I figured a surprise demonstration of a functioning prototype would be a much stronger sell.
While Applico has had some awesome successes, we’re still a young mobile company working to mature beyond the scrappy startup mentality. We’ve evolved and expanded our scope and skills as a company, but some of our culture has yet to catch up. In some ways, we’re that awkward pubescent teenager who’s not entirely comfortable in his body. And that’s OK. But if you take a quick tour of the office, your first guess may not reveal that we’re a mobile development company (we don’t have mockups on the walls, our devices are hidden in drawers, etc.). Since we’re experimenting all the time to find our versions of the homegrown Panic status board, why not create a highly visible embodiment of our company’s progress, success, and evolving culture?
[Disclosure: my opinions are my own and not necessarily that of my employer.]
Having discussed the process and value of MVP (minimum viable product) with many of our clients, Linke (my co-conspirator) and I approached our covert operation with the same rigor. What readily available information do we want to display? What ubiquitous technologies do we have at our fingertips to make publishing quick and painless? We employed a quick-and-dirty method, stringing together Google Docs, hand-coded HTML, and Dropbox to publish our project data. With a little assistance from Kelly in HR as well as some data entry support from Deana, we turned birthdays, anniversaries, and company holidays into a set of editable Google calendars to power the personnel tickers on our board. Fast-forward four business days and we had ourselves a Panic status board that easily qualified as MVP. We thought it also qualified as awesome.
I spent a bit of time during one weekend putting together a few lead-in slides for our surprise presentation scheduled for that Monday. The app itself is worthy of a guerrilla overview, but I hoped that extolling the virtues of its gorgeous design, playfulness, and utilitarian qualities would add context and value to our prototype. Perhaps in a bit of a nerd-giddy flurry, my planned four or five slides quickly ballooned to thirty-something. It had been a while since I’d put together a Keynote presentation, and my inner design wannabee quickly crept out of the closet. (Lately, I’ve also had a bit of an interest in increasing my public speaking opportunities and have been poking around the internets looking for inspiration; you can see obvious influences from Zach Holman.)
Aside from (eventually) learning that I awkwardly say “and what not” and “um” too much, the presentation seemed to be well-received. You can judge for yourself; I posted an overview with video/slides of the 13-minute ordeal last week. (It also proved just how easy it is these days to share a short presentation—materials and all—with the world.)
So, what became of all the secrets and intrigue? We got a quick commitment from our CTO to provision a 1st-Gen iPad that had previously made its way to the office’s Device Graveyard. (If you don’t have a shelf of discarded devices, this would be a great use for old, functional but broken-screened iPads, which are cheaply available online.) We’re still working on automating the data a bit more, but I’m hoping interest grows organically as my colleagues find value in the information displayed. No one is running out to Best Buy to snag a few TVs to vertically mount (yet), but I’m hopeful. More importantly, I’ve been catching wind of a few other secret projects brewing in the ranks. Perhaps they’ll need a secret code name for their project to help inspire themselves (we chose Operation: Grand Central). There has been more open discussions about how instituting a 20% time-like program would work and what it might look like. Most exciting, however, is a growing celebration of personal projects, interests, and talents around Applico. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot we can learn from each other. Now, we’re closer to, you know, actually learning.
My urban balcony garden flowers.
The New Yorker put together a swanky interactive infographic that marries median household income to the subway lines, by stop.
New York City has a problem with income inequality. And it’s getting worse—the top of the spectrum is gaining and the bottom is losing. Along individual subway lines, earnings range from poverty to considerable wealth. The interactive infographic here charts these shifts, using data on median household income, from the U.S. Census Bureau, for census tracts with subway stations.
Does it match your expectations? While I agree there’s a huge problem with the income disparity between the richest and poorest, it would probably be similar in most metropolitan areas.
I can’t stress this enough: Do what you love…in between work commitments, and family commitments, and commitments that tend to pop up and take immediate precedence over doing the thing you love. Because the bottom line is that life is short, and you owe it to yourself to spend the majority of it giving yourself wholly and completely to something you absolutely hate, and 20 minutes here and there doing what you feel you were put on this earth to do. — Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life
If you’re even remotely into this whole blogging or content-creation world, chances are you’ve already heard of Markdown. It seemed intriguing in theory, the simplicity and readability (especially compared to HTML) made sense, but I never found a particularly motivating incentive to sit down and teach myself. That being said, I struggled more and more to actually create content, citing the disproportionate amount of time it took to write, format and publish my theoretical posts.
Recently making the switch from retina iPad to iPad mini, I’ve been following the growing discussion and debate around the usefulness and power of the iPad versus a computer. Finding that the portability of the mini has encouraged me to travel with it more often than I had previously, I’ve been increasingly interested in doing more with my iPad. Writing on the iPad always seemed a little daunting, but if so many popular and talented writers managed to do it, perhaps they were on to something. Each and every one of them seemed to extol the virtues of Markdown, which makes sense when you’re writing on a device that lacks a mouse, arrow keys, and makes any kind of rich-text formatting disruptive to the actual writing process.
First things first, what is Markdown?
Markdown is a markup language that was created by John Gruber to simplify the workflow of web writers. Many bloggers, like myself, usually write our posts in straight HTML, which can be cumbersome and difficult to read through. Markdown provides a much simpler and easier to read alternative that can easily and instantly be converted to HTML using any number of free tools. — design shack
Sadly, there didn’t seem to be a fun, engaging app that would teach me the basics of Markdown (I tried finding one), so I settled for a simple YouTube tutorial by Podmetics.
iA Writer seemed super-highly recommended everywhere it was mentioned, happened to be on sale when I was poking around, and was named the Official Mac App of the Year. I purchased it on the spot. After using it for a month or so, I now completely understand why it comes so highly-regarded: it’s barebones, basic, and beautiful, making it simple and streamlined to use. It’s got great support across iOS and Mac devices, and iCloud actually works surprisingly well (it also has Dropbox sync). It’s pretty cool to paste a URL in on the iPad and watch it appear near-instantly on the same document open on my Mac. (My only complaint is that I wish the Preview window was a little more realtime, but I suspect parsing Markdown instantaneously would be a little jarring.)
Watching the tutorials and reading a few blogposts were all good and well, but I knew I wouldn’t really get the hang of it until I forced myself to use it. So I learned Markdown in an evening, writing this blogpost as the actualization and application of my learnings. Each subsequent post has only boosted my proficiency.
Turns out there’s increasing support for Markdown being built into a number of publishing platforms, whether Tumblr, wikis and collaboration sites like Teambox, and even to apps like Simplenote, which I’ve already been using for years. As Gmail continues to bury their rich-text editors and I find myself using Evernote every day for work, I’m often wishing I could be writing in Markdown.
Once you have started with Markdown it is likely that you will come to a point where it is indispensable. What you want is Markdown everywhere. If you’re in the browser typing an email to a fellow geek or in an editor with which has no out of the box Markdown support. — RocketInk
You’re going to love it.
In response to Yahoo’s work-from-home ban, there’s been no shortage of thoughtful pieces weighing the pros and cons of a telecommute-friendly office.
David Fullerton from Stack Overflow took the opportunity to write a great rebuttal to the Marissa Mayer situation: Why We (Still) Believe in Working Remotely. Read it. I’ll wait. It’ll only take a moment.
I’ve experienced both sides of the argument. The perks and freedom working from home can afford are no stranger to me; I’ve logged-on from flyover states while visiting family and I’ve also worked in sweatpants from a sun-drenched NYC home office. I’ve also endured the challenges being removed from your team brings. As project/product manager, my capabilities are significantly limited without the freedom to walk to the other side of the office and tap my teammate on the shoulder. (I’ve written previously about the tools used to try to overcome distance.) Still, managing and detecting the needs, moods, and sentiment of coworkers doesn’t often translate to flattened conversations on IMs, in a chat room, or via a phone or Skype session. Things take longer. Process becomes even more unwieldy.
I’ve been working remotely or with remote team members for so long, it actually surprised me how much more productive, effective, and fun my role as a manager has become after joining a primarily co-located team last Fall. Even still, we struggle with the challenges of those working remotely. We’ve got some incredible talent that commutes to NYC from Philly, New Jersey, and various parts of Long Island. We’ve also got a few developers in Boston, as well as an LA-based sales team. On occasion, the realities of weather, children, and the cable guy still force us to adopt some of the techniques used in a remote workplace environment.
Let’s come back to Stack Overflow’s retort. Not only did Mr. Fullerton make a few great points as to how he’s found a remote workforce beneficial for his company, but he took the opportunity to mention that they’re hiring, raising a flag to attract talent that might connect with Stack Overflow’s work-from-home policy. Or at very least, entice talent that respects the company’s values for embracing social technologies and an open-minded WFH policy, even if they themselves would prefer to work in-office.
That’s not the only carrot Stack Overflow is dangling to their talent. Take a look at the rather-attractive benefits they offer employees:
• 20 days vacation
• Flexible hours
• Ridiculous health insurance (no copay)
• Insanely great workstations, chairs, and desks
• All-expenses-paid conference of your choice once per year
• Gym membership reimbursement
• Free catered lunch and monthly metrocards (NY office)
• Employees will never be poked with a sharp stick
Speaking of perks, did you see that if a Google employee dies during their employment, their widowed spouse receives 50% of the Googler’s salary for a decade? No tenure requirement whatsoever. A huge feel-good perk with (I’m assuming) a very low payout risk to the company.
Other tech companies are becoming more and more transparent as to the flexibility they allow in day-to-day work. Zach Holman regularly speaks and writes about the (incredibly) flexible work schedule at Github:
Hours are bullshit. Hours are great ways to determine productivity in many industries, but not ours. Working in a startup is a much different experience than working in a factory. You can’t throw more time at a problem and expect it to get solved. Code is a creative endeavor. You need to be in the right mindset to create high-quality code.
By allowing for a more flexible work schedule, you create an atmosphere where employees can be excited about their work. Ultimately it should lead to more hours of work, with those hours being even more productive. Working weekends blur into working nights into working weekdays, since none of the work feels like work.
In the end, work-from-home policies will remain a conscious choice for companies based on their values and business priorities. The continued debate will force leaders to clarify their policies to both existing and future employees. Yahoo is bound to lose great talent, but may make huge strides in efficiencies and innovation. We’ll all be following Ms. Mayer’s experiment closely.
Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently. — Laura Vanderkam (via swissmiss)
The problem with apps, particularly ones that suck, is that we often feel nothing when we use them. They are not refactored and refactored and loved before they are wildly given to the public. They are released as ‘minimum viable products’ and we make pathetic sequels that make the story marginally better and we expect people to come back each time, pay their money and sit for hours and watch. They watch while we flail around and try to get them to use the app, or figure it out. Frankly, it’s embarrassing.
Chances. is a fantastic piece from Aubrey Johnson (via Svbtle) arguing the ways mobile app development could learn from the artistry and process of Hollywood. She also argues how some of this arcane blockbuster-driven institutional knowledge should be challenged when applied to app development and the general tech industry.
Continuous improvement, experimentation, and tweaking almost always produces a better app—it’s just that most clients don’t want to pay for it. In an agency setting, they want a fixed price, ever-ballooning feature sets, and are seldom interested in this type of long-term engagement.
BLOKK is a font for quick mock-ups and wireframing for clients who do not understand latin.
I absolutely love this.
hat tip @gogobrooklyn
I really love the meta-skeuomorphism that is the YouTube error. The scan line is my favorite touch. It won’t be but a few years before this doesn’t even make sense to kids.