ReWork Rehashed

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about the 37signals book Rework. Each of us will write about the three things in the book that we already do, about three things we will do from now on going forward and about three things that we wish our employers would do from now on. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Rework

Rework

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals and Ruby on Rails fame have just written a new book titled: Rework (you can download a free PDF excerpt). Reading it gave me an ambivalent feeling: these authors are obviously very good in what they do and they have managed to build a successful business monetizing different parts of their talents, but the book feels like a monetization effort too and the number of words per Euro are very low. Arjen Vrielink has written a quite damning review on Goodreads.

Nonetheless it has some interesting lessons to offer. It has about 100 pieces of advice for people starting their own business or working in a business. Some of the advice I already practice, some advice I will try to practice from now on and I wish that the company I work for would practice some of the advice going forward.

Three chapters about things I already do:

Build an audience (page 170)
Traditional PR and marketing is about going out and trying to reach people. The ubiquity of the Internet allows you to let people come to you instead of the other way around.

When you build an audience, you don’t have to buy people’s attention – they give it to you. This is huge advantage.
So build an audience. Speak, write, blog, tweet, make videos – whatever. Share information that’s valuable and you’ll slowly but surely build a loyal audience. Then when you need to get the word out, the right people will already be listening.

Emulate chefs (page 176)
In this chapter the authors make a case for sharing everything you know, something which is anathema in the business world. They use famous chefs as an analogy. The best chefs share their most valuable recipes in their cookbooks. Why? Because they know that their business as a whole cannot be copied. What better way to show you are an excellent cook, then by sharing your recipes?
I am convinced that there are only benefits to sharing everything I know about educational technology and innovation with anybody who is willing to listen. Doing this is the only way to take part in the incredibly valuable discourse on this topic and taking as much out of it as possible.

Forget about formal education (page 215)
Companies still over-value formal education from. I have personally decided to attend as little formal education as possible from here on further. The key qualities that somebody needs to have are curiosity and the ability to learn. If you combine these two, then there is a whole world out there from which you educate yourself. You don’t have to go and sit in a stuffy classroom and listen to some academic lecturing. Don’t get me wrong: academics are hugely valuable. It is just that you don’t have to join a university to engage with them.

Three chapters about things I will try to do from now on:

Embrace constraints (page 67)
This chapter starts as follows:

“I don’t have enough time/money/people/experience.” Stop whining. Less is a good thing. Constraints are advantages in disguise. Limited resources force you to make do with what you’ve got. There’s no room for waste. And that forces you to be creative.

This is a principle that I am already highly aware of (it is actually embedded in every introduction to any Parallax post on this blog). It is not something I am naturally good in though. I love gadgets and these things often create a lot of extra affordances and thus complexity. I need to tone this down to allow a better focus on things that really matter. First step: “downgrade” my current Ubuntu 10.04 setup which allows me a lot of flexibility (and gives me wobbly windows, that’s not me by the way) to the Ubuntu Netbook edition.

Focus on what won’t change (page 85)
This is probably advice that anybody tasked with working on innovation should heed to. Naturally we like to be focussed on the next big thing. The danger is that you will focus on fashion instead of on substance.

The core of your business should be built around things that won’t change. Things that people are going to want today and ten years from now. Those are the things you should invest.

I will try and use this advice while thinking about the next iteration of our learning landscape. Which aspects are lasting needs and wishes and which are just fads?

Interruption is the enemy of productivity (page 104)
I work in an office with about 10 other colleagues (if everybody is in). During a working day I receive about 50 emails in my work Outlook inbox and have multiple instant messaging conversations. This means that I barely have a couple of minutes without any interruptions. I have to admit that I am probably the cause of many interruptions too, as I constantly share the things I find fascinating or funny with my co-workers.
This is definitely not beneficial for my ability to do work on things that require a bit more concentration and need me to be focussed. It takes a lot of time to write anything which is more than a page of two for example. Usually I can only do it if I work from home and I turn Outlook off. From now on I will try to block a couple of hours every week during which I will sit by myself, turn off my phones, IM and email, refuse to look at Google Reader and just work.
It is as the authors say:

Your day in under siege by interruptions. It’s on you to fight back.

Three chapters about things I wish my employer would do going forward:

Meetings are toxic (page 108, available in the free excerpt)
This one is pretty obvious, but we still have a complete meeting culture. Everybody knows that meetings are not very effective at what their intent is to do and still we have way to many. Some of the reasons the authors give for why meetings are this bad are:

  • They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute
  • They require thorough preparation that most people don’t have time for.
  • They often include at least one moron who inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense
  • Meetings procreate. One meeting leads to another meeting leads to another…

If you still need to have a meeting I like their simple rules:

  • Set a timer. When it rings, meeting’s over. Period.
  • Invite as few people as possible.
  • Always have a clear agenda.
  • Begin with a specific problem.
  • Meet at the site of the problem instead of a conference room. Point to real things and suggest real changes.
  • End with a solution and make someone responsible for implementing it.

I think we are especially guilty of inviting too many people to meetings and I would love to meet at the site of a problem instead of a conference room, but am not sure how this is done with IT related issues.

Don’t write it down (page 164)
We spend an inordinate amount of time capturing everything everybody says, needs and wants. We have hundreds of Excel files containing lists of requirements, feature/enhancements requests, issues, etc. We probably spend more time managing these spreadsheets than working on the issues that these spreadsheets are an abstraction of.

There’s no need for a spreadsheet, database, or filing system. The requests that really matter are the ones you’ll hear over and over. After a while, you won’t be able to forget them. Your customers will be your memory. They’ll keep reminding you. They’ll show you which things you truly need to worry about.

Don’t scar on the first cut (page 260)

The second something goes wrong, the natural tendency is to create a policy. “Someone’s wearing shorts!? We need a dress code!” No, you don’t. You just need to tell John not to wear shorts again.

This is how bureaucracies are born according to the authors. They consider policies “organizational scar tissue”. I work for a company that, like most other I am sure, is very scarred. Let’s all stop scarring it more!

I have to admit that a list of three was severely limiting when it came to wishes for my employer. I would have like to have the opportunity to add: Ignore the real world (page 13), Illusions of agreement (page 97), Hire managers of one (page 220) and They’re not thirteen (page 255).

My Top 10 Tools for Learning

Number 10 by Flickr user Downing Street, CC licensed

Number 10 by Flickr user Downing Street, CC licensed

Jane Hart does the educational technology community a big favour by compiling top 10 lists of learning tools which are send to her by educational professionals from around the world. She creates a top 100 list that is an interesting reflection of current (and past) popular technology in education and learning.

Each year you get a chance to update your own list. I haven’t done that this year, so here goes:

Moodle – This open source course management system is my bread and butter and has led me into the free software world. Its community of teachers and its enlightened leadership is second to none.
Google Reader – The only way that I am able to keep up with the things that I want to read. Outsourcing my subscriptions and read/unread statusses to Google makes it possible for me to use my laptop, my cellphone or any random computer and see the same information. I just wish there was an open source project that would do the same and could run on my own server.
  1. Moodle – This open source course management system is still very much my bread and butter and has led me into the free software world. Its community of teachers and its enlightened leadership is second to none.
  2. Google Reader – The only way that I am able to keep up with the things that I want to read. Outsourcing my subscriptions and read/unread statusses to Google makes it possible for me to use my laptop, my cellphone or any random computer and see the same information.
  3. Ubuntu – My operating system of choice. Not only does it give me the freedom to use it how I want, it is also the source of much learning about how computers work. I see it as a critical enabler.
  4. Google Search – Still the best search technology around. I have a couple of stock queries that I do all the time like “better than x” if I want to find an alternative to x and I can usually find what I need in one or two queries.
  5. Wikipedia – More and more the easiest way to find a piece of factual information. I use a lot of materials from the Wikimedia Commons in most things that I create. Wikipedia has been decisive in many kitchen table arguments.
  6. WordPress – I have been blogging for over a year now and the process of writing for an audience has forced me to think deeper about my profession. Writing blogs could a central part of many courses. It really is a heavily underutilised pedagogical tool. I have to admit I don’t run my own installation, but trust the excellent WordPress.com service.
  7. Chromium – Most of the work that on do on my computer is done in a browser window. Google’s open source effort is now my default browser. This is mainly because of it’s amazing speed and the Omnibox. Read this blog post for more of my reasons.
  8. LAMP = Apache, MySQL, PHP – This technology makes it trivial for a non-programmer like me to create my own tools that do what I need them do. Using the APIs of the different web services I can create my own mashups.
  9. Youtube – This has become an indispensable resource. Stuck in a level on a Nintendo DS game? Type the games name and a level to see a walk through. There are endless tutorials on anything that you might want to learn.
  10. Delicious – The social bookmarking site not only remembers all I have seen that is interesting on the net, but it is also an excellent way of finding many good sites on a topic. My slowly expanding network of del.icio.us friend tag interesting pages for me to look at.

It wasn’t intentional, but I now notice that the only things that are not web applications are an operating and a browser (the bare essentials). That must be of some significance!

Why Chromium is Now My Primary Browser

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to include our personal browser histories in the post. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Chromium Logo

Chromium Logo

If you are not interested in Browsers and/or usability, I would suggest you don’t bother to read this post.

I cannot exactly remember the first time I used the Internet. It probably was in 1996 in the library at the Universiteit Utrecht. I wasn’t particularly aware of the browser I was using, but I am quite sure that is was Netscape Navigator with which I did the Altavista searches. I used Netscape throughout my education, only to switch to Internet Explorer 5 when I got my own computer with Windows 98 and a dial-up Internet connection. I then used nothing but IE until I read about Mozilla Firefox in a magazine in 2004. Through Moodle I had started appreciating open source software and I liked working with Firefox and its tabs. I stuck with Firefox for a year or so, feeling quite the rebel whenever a site would only load in IE. At some point I noticed how much faster IE was than Firefox. That is when I switched to Avant Browser, a freeware skin around the IE browser engine which included tabs and some other advanced features. A little while later (somewhere in late 2005 or early 2006) I learnt about Opera. Opera had a lot of appeal to me. I liked how their developers pushed so many innovations in the browser space: tabbed browsing, advanced security features and mouse gestures were all inventions of Opera. I loved how fast it was and how many features they managed to cram in so little megabytes. Its cross platform nature allowed me to stay with Opera when I permanently switched to Ubuntu in the summer of 2006. I switched back to Firefox in early 2007 because of my slightly more hardcore open source attitude and because of its wonderful extensions. The latter allowed me to keep all the functionality that I loved about Opera and more.

About two weeks ago I switched to Chromium. This is Google’s relatively new open source offering in the browser market. I am able to automatically download new builds every day through the PPA for Ubuntu Chromium Daily Builds. Even though it is still beta alpha software, it is highly usable.

So why did I switch? I think there are three reasons:

1. Performance
Since a couple of months my private computing is done with a Samsung NC10. This Intel Atom based netbook is slightly underpowered. You really notice this when you are doing things like recoding a video or doing some CPU intensive image editing. I also noticed it terribly in Firefox. Things like Google Reader, DabbleDB (watch that 8 minute demo!) and the WordPress admin interface were nearly unusable. A cold start of Firefox (the 2.x version that comes with Ubuntu 9.04) takes nearly a minute. Chromium on the other hand starts up in a couple of seconds and is very spiffy with Javascript-heavy web-apps.

I tried to quantify my unmistakable feelings with some benchmarking. I used Peacekeeper, but Firefox could not finish the benchmark and would crash! I then used the Sunspider Javascript benchmark and got a total score of 3488.8ms for Chromium and a total score of 18809.6ms for Firefox. This means that in certain cases Chromium would load something in less than one fifth of the time that Firefox 2.x will load it.

While writing this post I decided to try installing Firefox 3.5 (without add-ons) and see how that would perform. After a sudo apt-get install firefox-3.5 I could start Firefox by selecting “Shiretoko Web Browser” in the “Internet” menu. The total score was 5781.2ms, a major improvement, but still more than one and half times slower than Chromium. Its interface is also still less responsive than I would like it to be.

Another nice aspect about Chromium’s performance is that each tab is its own process. This so called Multi Process Architecture isolates problem webpages so that one Flash page crashing does not affect the other browser tabs, something that happened very often to me with Firefox.

2. Screen Real Estate
Another thing that a netbook lacks is pixels. My screen is 1024 pixels wide and 600 pixels high. Especially the lack of height is sometimes taxing. I have done a lot of things in Ubuntu to mitigate this problem (if you are interested I could write a post about that) and I had to do the same with Firefox.

In Firefox I used Tiny Menu, chose small icons, used no bookmarks and combined many toolbars into one to make sure that I have more content and less browser. To my surprise I had to do nothing with Chromium and still got a bigger canvas with a bigger font in the address bar! Compare the screenshots below to see the differences: 

 

Screenshot Firefox (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Firefox (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Chromium (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Chromium (click to enlarge)

 

Chromium shows more of the page and accomplishes this by doing a couple of smart things:

  • There is no status bar. I could have turned the status bar off in Firefox, but I need to see where a link is pointing to before I click on it. Chromium shows this information dynamically as soon as you hover over a link. When you don’t hover it shows nothing.
  • The tabs are moved into the title bar. It looks a bit weird for a while, but it uses some very valuable space.
  • Some things only appear when you need them. The bookmark bar, for example, only shows up when you open a new tab.

3. It is a fresh look at what a browser should/could be
Most of my time behind my computer is spent using a browser. More and more of the applications I use daily have moved into the cloud (e.g. mail and RSS reading). It is thus important to have a browser that is made to do exactly those functions.

The developers of Chromium have looked at all aspects of a traditional browser and have rethought how they work. A couple of examples:

  • The address bar is actually a tool with four functions. It contains your web history, typing some terms will execute a search in your default search engine (saving me two characters compared to how I search in Firefox), you can type a normal web address and you can use keywords to search. If I type w chromium in the address bar it will search for chromium in Wikipedia. The keyword search also works in Firefox, but Chromium has a prettier and more clear implementation.
  • When you open a new tab, you see a Dashboard of sites you use often (a variant of another Opera invention). That page also conveniently displays recently closed tabs with a link to your browsing history. The history page has excellent search (it is Google after all!) and has that simple Google look.
  • The downloads work in a particular way. They automatically save in a default location unless you tick a box confirming that you always like to open that type of file from now on. This takes a little getting used to (I like saving my downloads in different folders), but once again the download history is searchable and looks clean.

In conclusion: Chromium is a browser in which some hard choices were made. No compromises. That means that I, as a user, have to worry about less choices and settings and can focus on being more productive. Making tough interface design choices can be a very successful strategy: witness Apple’s iPod.

For now I will be using Chromium as my primary browser and will use Firefox when I need certain functionalities that only Firefox add-ons can provide.

I am looking forward to what the browser future holds!