June 2007


June 1, 2007 - Categories: friends

We made it back to Manila in time for the party for IT geeks at the Museum Cafe in Greenbelt. The event was hosted by Exist and had an open bar. The upper floor of the cafe was packed with people from Exist, Narra VC, Orange and Bronze, and other companies. It was awesome reconnecting with people I hadn't seen in a while, and I also enjoyed meeting new people. Two years (maybe even three) away from the Philippine tech scene, and I still fit right in... I had fun. =)

I owe lots of people e-mail, which is a good success indicator for networking events.

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Global opportunities in software development: talk by Winston Damarillo: 21:37

June 1, 2007 - Categories: geek

I attended Winston Damarillo's lecture on global opportunities in software development today. The audience included faculty from UP, Ateneo, and DLSU, three of the top universities in the country.

I'll write more about it soon, but Winston's key points was that IT is something in which we can be globally competitive, and we should export products and services instead of people. He shared his experiences starting several companies, and a repeatable model for microenterprises that takes advantage of an architecture of participation, instant distribution capability, and promotion through the Web.

Winston is optimistic about this field because of the disruptiveness of technology: as incumbent solutions become overbuilt, space opens up for a small competitor that can focus on satisfying a target market with a simpler solution. That company can easily be based in the Philippines, creating wealth for Filipinos.

There's a lot of work to be done before our graduates can make the most of these opportunities. Here are some of the things we need to do:

  • Inspire prospective and current students through seminars and talks by role models and success stories in person and through mass media
  • Train teachers and students through code camps
  • Take advantage of courseware and resources offered by the industry
  • Incorporate open source technologies and principles in computer science courses
  • Supplement teacher salaries so that there's a stronger incentive to stay and teach
  • Help teachers gain industry experience
  • Address real-world needs in computer science projects
  • Grow a codebase for the university through sponsored, coordinated projects
  • Incorporate business into computer science courses so that students are prepared to identify and fulfill needs
  • Incubate startups through university incubators

Interesting things coming up. Stay tuned.

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High school

June 3, 2007 - Categories: school
Reconnecting with old friends—the sudden, arresting realization of the motion of time. And then of course there's the update—who's where and what are they doing, who have "settled down"—our generation? Settling down? There's no such thing any more. People marry and get on with the rest of their lives. Or they don't and they get on with the rest of their lives. We try to imagine the faces we remember from high school, superimposed on the stories we hear. The stories fit just as well as our faded uniforms do. Wasn't it just yesterday that we were running down Pisay's waxed tile floors?

Get-togethers aren't like the way we hung out before. Now it's all about status reports, plans, stories. I tell a lot of stories. It's a way of understanding what's going on. I'm surprised at how much has happened in my life since then. Is my life really all that dramatic? Like a soap opera, they say. But it's just life. I try to ask about other people's lives. Not a lot of stories to tell yet—they're still thinking, still seeing how life will turn out.

There's a mailing list somewhere, a website. There's probably even an RSS feed telling people of relationship changes, job changes, life
changes. Someday it will tell us of births, deaths, lingering illnesses. I should know about this, but I don't. I never really got to know all my other classmates when I was in high school. I've kept in touch with a handful of people and they tell me of all the rest. I'm not one of those connected people. I don't tell other people's stories. But now it hits me, now I feel this urge to know. We starve for companionship, being part of a cohort of other people learning about life for the same time, the startling glimpses of similarities
with people who seemed irreconcilably different back then.

The rest of them are closer. They go to reunions, have parties, write. I'll be away, but maybe I'll make it back for the tenth anniversary
two years from now. What can one do in ten years, anyway? It seems like barely enough time to finish university and get started in life.
Is that just me? I've been in school. That's what's kept me busy. Other people might have stopped at university. Six years is enough to
do well in a company, or at least get somewhere. But hey, I went to a geek school; other people must have gone for postgrad. I won't be the only one. We'll see.

In the meantime—life needs to be lived.

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Week in review

June 10, 2007 - Categories: weekly
  • Back in Canada to work on my thesis.
  • Outlined my thesis and started panicking about timing of work. Have decided to adjust my expected finish date in order to preserve sanity.
  • Finished notes from screen captures.
  • Found my keys, yay!
  • Got a new SIM and a new charger. My phone's okay now.
  • Finally unpacked and settled in.
  • Found a little time to breathe. Wrote my family a long message. Replied to my sister, too.
  • Still sorting out my schedule for the next few weeks. Will squeeze speaking engagements into weekends.

Next week:

  • Write results section of thesis.
  • Get the paperwork started for extension of study permit.
  • Ping people in job search process once I get a more reasonable estimate of finishing time.

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Business cards

June 13, 2007 - Categories: connecting

I changed my business card design again. This time I'm doing a 2 x 2 experiment testing the effect of my tagline ("tech evangelist, storyteller, geek" vs "speaker, writer, storyteller, geek") and the orientation of the text on the back (talking points, etc).

One of the first things that Winston Damarillo asked for when I met him in Manila was one of my business cards, which he'd heard so much about because of my blog. I didn't have any then (gasp, gasp!), so I'm snailmailing him a card with two annotated copies of my business card (front and back).

Here are some of my notes from several iterations of business cards. (I really should archive them...)

Name: Sacha Chua. That's what I go by. =)

Tagline: An unconventional job title (or titles) like "tech evangelist, storyteller, geek" tells people that this is not a typical business card, and usually provides people with an easy question: "so, what does a tech evangelist (/storyteller) do?" A little harder to pull off in non-tech crowds, though, because "evangelist" has other strong (and often negative) associations. I'm trying out a new batch of cards that say "speaker, writer, storyteller, geek", and will give either that or the evangelist version depending on the conversaetion.

Icon: The stylized black-and-white icon is recognizable as my face, but still reproduces well in prints and photocopies. Good visual cue for people who might be going through stacks of business cards after a conference. Also, adds a smile to the business card. People have complimented me on the use of simple images like that.

Tagline: I'm playing around with the tagline. It used to be something about making the world smaller. Now it's about discovering and sharing tips, and it points out the talking points on the back of the card. The tagline's also been very useful, and people have complimented me on it (and told me to put it back when I experimented with no-tagline cards!)

Talking points at back: Various things to talk about. Networking tips, tools, etc. General enough to cover most events, although I'll still customize it for specific occasions.

This isn't the final form of my business card yet. I'm sure I'll come up with other crazy ideas. Kaizen—constant improvement! For example, I still have to test it with a business card scanner. I'd also love to figure out how to more effectively use whitespace to draw the eye and balance the card. And the talking points keep changing...

But yes, business cards. One day I should write a proper article or prepare a good presentation about the evolution of my business cards, how paying attention to the details helps, and some ideas people can use for their own business cards...

Raw book notes: Outside INnovation by Patricia B. Seybold: 15:56

June 14, 2007 - Categories: book

I borrowed this book from the library and finished it the same day. It's a great read for customer evangelists and other people who talk to customers to get awesome ideas for innovation. I'll post a better book summary sometime, but for now, here are my raw book notes.

4 The "outside in" approach is to flip the innovation process around and assume that customers have outcomes they want to achieve, they have deep knowledge about their own circumstances and contexts, and they are not happy with the way they have to do things today.
7 You win by finding the lead users in your industry and commercializing their inventions.
7 You win by engaging with your most visionary customers to co-design new products and new processes
7 You win by enabling customers to troubleshoot each others' problems, hack your solutions, and modify and extend your product to meet their needs.
8 Winning formula: customers/users who are passionate about something they're trying to accomplish or something they want; a deep understanding and appreciation by those customers/users of their current reality: their context, their situation, their constraints, how things are currently doing.; A clear vision by those customers of their ideal outcome
9 Lead users - not necessarily customers, but have explored innovative ways to get things done and are usually willing to share
10 What are the characteristics of lead customers/lead users?
  • Their self-image is deeply connected to the problem domain at hand.
  • They are passionate (positively or negatively) about the outcomes they want and frustrated about the issues that get in the way of achieving those outcomes.
  • They are influential in their organizations and/or in their circle of family and friends.
  • They have thought deeply about their problem space/domain of expertise
  • They are insightful about their own context and they can easily articulate their conditions of satisfaction
  • They are imaginative and visionary
  • They are pragmatic and realistic about the need for viable business models and win/win situations
  • If they are true "lead users," they have already invented their own solution and often are happy to share their solution with other insightful users.
Roles customers play in outside innovation
  • Lead customers are a special breed of innovators. Not finding what they need, they invent new solutions themselves, without being asked. Watch them, support them, and commercialize their inventions. Engage them in co-design activities. Give them innovation toolkits that enable them to extend, modify, and/or redesign your products and services. Then watch what they do and profit from it.
  • Contributors - encourage and acknowledge contributors. Make sure their contributions are recognized and appreciated.
  • Consultants - deep subject matter expertise. Invite them to become part of your company.
  • Guides - they add value by creating new knowledge
  • Promoters
38 For example, in one rapid exchange that lasted two days, two members of this community of innovative hackers designed a version of the brick that was four times as fast as the original.
39 Lego: "What if customers say bad things about our products?" the executives wondered. "We knew from prior experience that if one customer bad-mouths your product, another customer will usually defend it," Soren recalls. (Soren Lund, now director of Mindstorms product line)
39 Hosting your own online forums seems to be a critical ingredient to success in supporting customer-led innovation.
66 Formal lead user program at National Instruments. Hall Martin, product strategist: "Technologists help us to define new products; early adopters help with marketing, positioning and in providing beachhead applications; existing customers help us define and prioritize what should be in the next version of a product; and pragmatists keep us from going too far afield."
132 Many freeformers aren't employed full-time & don't pass credit tests, even if they have assets and the ability to repay.
133 "But now there are also young people coming into the workforce who don't want to follow in their parents' footsteps and join a firm with the idea of working their way up from the bottom to the top. They realize that there probably won't be a 'top' for them. They prefer to design their own lifestyles and incomes around the things they care about."
231 1. Industry-specific solutions, 2. Support services, 3. Custom development - smartest guys in the room, 4. Software as a service
239 Designing the right mix of open source business models: identify a market, certify an open source software for specialized market, add value, identify customer-critical scenario and offer as a service
312 Deck of cards with goals and concerns - priorities
313 want to / have to, now / later

There's a blog at http://outsideinnovation.blogs.com .

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Monday rituals

June 18, 2007 - Categories: life

It's Monday!

Mondays are getting easier and easier for me. My Sunday ritual of reviewing the past week and planning the next one is really paying off. I love knowing what I want and need to do and when I'm going to do it, and I love working on those things while feeling great about all that went well last week.

Last week, my major accomplishment was getting the qualitative section of my thesis off the ground. I organized and summarized all the quotes from my usability study. I've also scrubbed it of all IBM references, so it should be good to go. I sent a link to the first draft to my research supervisor. I'm still waiting for feedback from him, but I can work on the rest of the thesis while waiting. I was surprised to discover that the section comes to around 50 double-spaced pages. I'm looking forward to editing it down ruthlessly! =)

I also made a little more progress on my job search. I mailed the employment application for one position and I scheduled interest interviews with two others. I feel uncomfortable not being able to properly estimate my completion date, but the range of estimates (thesis completed end of July, defense in August or September?) will narrow as I get closer and as I learn more.

I gave a short demo of Emacs at a recent IT event. The demo was sparsely attended, but it was fun hanging out with the other speakers and with new people in the audience. I have another speaking engagement coming up: Open Cities, at which I'll talk about open source and participation. The main thing I realized at the EnergizeIT event I spoke at last Saturday was that I should spend more time hacking on cool and interesting things. People out there are making really amazing systems! I'm going to set aside more time to prototype stuff, and I have a few crazy ideas I want to implement.

I'm happy with my exercise. I went for three short runs and spent around 15-20 minutes in my target zone. A friend lent me his heart rate monitor and I've really enjoyed being able to measure myself. It's nice to know that I can push myself further, and it's also nice to know when I should relax! I love measuring things. What gets measured gets managed, after all. I probably won't do krav for a while because I can't make the most of it getting fatigued so quickly, but I might pick it up again when I'm fitter. (How do I measure that?)

I'm happy with last week's balance between self, others, and work. My weekdays were for working on my thesis and running around on errands. I got a lot of work done and I don't think I wasted a lot of time. It was nice to get home and put aside my thesis so that I could work on my own projects and spend time with people who are important to me. I read two business books (_Outside Innovation_ and _Selling is Everyone's Business_) and two books on life and relationships. I've been getting up early to write. I love being able to write private notes in my Planner before I need to do anything else.

I met a few interesting new people last week. I had a few wonderful conversations, too. I really appreciate the breadth of the things W and I can talk about. I also really appreciate the insights that Ian shared with me about business and sales.

I'm looking forward to another week like the last one, or maybe even better. I plan to draft the quantitative section over the next few days, and have brought my textbook and thesis binder to work. I'll soon have everything I need for the paperwork to extend my study permit, too. I've got good questions for my interest interviews, and I look forward to grilling people to find out more about their work environment and their team.

My personal goals include doing more exercise - maybe 110% of my goals last week, to be tracked on Facebook? - and writing one or two good blog entries. My people goals include catching up with friends and getting to know new people over a walk or a beverage—three already scheduled this week, and one scheduled for two weeks from now!

Happy Monday! What do you do to switch yourself into weekday mode?

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zomg, I’m a graduate student

June 19, 2007 - Categories: school

Life has a way of creeping up and surprising you at the strangest moments. Today I had my "Oh my goodness, I'm actually a graduate student" moment. W. and I were talking about the development of expertise. We were planning how to spend our leisure time. I mentioned this little tidbit I picked up from somewhere: expertise takes around 10,000 hours to develop. This is around ten years of practicing three hours a day, and you can start now.

W. found this bit of trivia interesting. I told him how I remembered reading the abstract but hadn't tracked down the paper. Naturally, this made me want to look it up. While I was taking a break from writing my thesis, I looked up the webpage from which I got the tidbit. It cited two books. The Toronto Public Library didn't carry the books, so I searched for other citations and full-text copies of papers.

The University of Toronto has an awesome research library. Granted, there were a few papers I couldn't easily access, but I could get copies of all the seminal works. Not only that, but the academic search services even let me filter through the papers that cited these works to see follow-up papers in computer science and engineering. Wow.

Which brings me back to my zomg-I'm-a-graduate-student moment: an off-hand comment during a casual conversation prompted me to look up not only the original paper but also the papers that cite it. I have access to such a vast array of knowledge through my university library. *And* I know how to read the research papers now, and maybe I can even translate them into ordinary-speak...

Two years of my life in exchange for access to centuries of knowledge. Not a bad deal, not a bad deal at all.

How do you know if an idea is innovative?

June 21, 2007 - Categories: school

How do you know if an idea is innovative? You might feel that your pet idea is amazing, only to find out it's not only obvious but can already be found in several open-source implementations. (Been there, done that, got the T-shirt!) Patent searches are difficult because patents are intentionally vague. Your best bet? Ask subject experts, or just put it out there and see if anyone complains. As long as it's innovative to some people, it's okay, right?

I wonder if the most missed opportunities, however, are when we don't think an idea is innovative, when we think it's blindingly obvious to everyone. Some things come naturally to us because they makes sense given our experiences and our situation, and we forget that even if we're in the same situation that other people find themselves in, our experiences give us a unique perspective on things. How can we recognize our innovative ideas if we think we're ordinary?

Here's what research into creativity and expertise has to say:

The empirical evidence on creative achievement shows... that individuals require a long preparatory period during which they master the relevant aspects of that domain until they are even capable of making creative contributions to the domain. ... Extended education is, thus, necessary even to recognize major innovations and distinguish them from products matching acknowledged achievements previously created by earlier eminent performers. - K. Anders Ericsson, 1998

In order to recognize that something is new, you should know the old stuff. Pretty straightforward, right? That can involve a lot of work. Even in science and other well-documented fields, people specialize because they can't keep track of everything going on. Where's the pay-off for this work?

...the extended education of expert performers primarily elevates the level of play and search by providing the appropriate tools and the rich knowledge about previous achievements. - K. Anders Ericsson, 1998

The more you know, the more you can play with, the wider the solution space you can explore. Every programming language you learn opens up new worlds for you. Every tool you try out adds value in a combinatorial explosion. The further you go, the likelier it is that you come up with ideas that few other people could have come up with, too. And the more you learn about what's already there, the better you'll be at recognizing when something's new.

Right. But you don't have time to do that. So what can you do?

Here's how I deal with personal-level ideas:

If an idea seems innovative to me, it's probably innovative for at least one other person. If I can, I want to find that person and make his or her life better. ;) If I come across lots of people for whom this is a new idea, I might really have something good on my hands.

If an idea seems obvious to me, I'll keep it in mind anyway, and I'll share it with other people. Chances are, it's innovative for at least one other person, etc. Sometimes I'll realize I have cool ideas by just talking to other people and thinking about how we deal with things differently. I usually share the details of my little idea as a blog entry because I just know I'm going to run into more people who want to hear about it. I almost always come up with even better ideas while I'm describing the original one. So I really like sharing ideas with people, especially people who share their own ideas with me. We all grow.

I'm not too concerned yet about Really Innovative Ideas that need IP protection. I'm just practicing the skills of coming up with good ideas and making them happen. I have a growing collection of the cool ideas I spot or come up with, which I keep on index cards because index cards are the best for rapidly flipping through stuff. Starting with the idea that everything is innovative to somebody, the task then becomes one of filtering through this whole list of ideas to find one or two that can make someone incredibly happy. Sometimes I'll start with that someone in mind, and then my brain will kick into high gear and come up with suggestions. (I love that!) Sometimes I'll start with a cool idea and then, just for fun, see what I can apply it to and who might like it.

Is an idea innovative or not? I don't think it really matters to me. I have a feeling it should matter—after all, I'm currently doing my master's research—but I'm much more interested in whether it's worth it to find people it's new to (and everything is new to someone, which you know if you've ever tried teaching someone division), and what else I can do with the idea. That's why anyone who spends a few minutes with me at a networking event will come away with bucketloads of ideas and things to check out if they give me any sort of clue about their interests. That's why I love listening and sharing stories, because that helps me add people's experiences to my idea pool and lets me exercise my brain.

And then it becomes true: the more I learn and try out, the more ideas I have to play with, the more clearly I can recognize when most people will think that an idea of mine is crazy or cool. And that's not work - that's fun! So I think that's a great way to practice being innovative. Don't worry if your ideas are innovative or not! You'll always be able to find people who'll think those ideas are new and useful (although in some cases, you'll have to look very very hard). If these ideas make your life better, go for it. If they make other people's lives better, great! As you practice, you'll learn more and more about what other people think and how other people think, and you'll get not only a better sense of what's new but also what could be!

Ericsson, K.A. (1998) "The scientific study of expert levels of performance: general implications for optimal learning and creativity", High Ability Studies, 9:1, 75—100

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Expertise is more than meets the eye

June 23, 2007 - Categories: research

Last Wednesday, I shared this amazing anecdote from a research paper on expert levels of performance (Ericsson, 1998) about the Italian violinist, Paganini:

According to my father's account, during one of his concerts Paganini experienced a problem—one of the strings on his violin broke; after a brief pause, he continued playing the music on the remaining string. A little later another string broke but he still resumed playing. Yet another strong broke, and Paganini finished playing the concert on a single string while producing the most beautiful music. Such a demonstration of an immediate unexpected reorganization of one's music performance is mind-boggling.

So what's the explanation for this amazing feat of genius? Ericsson went on to explain that in the 19th century, performers generally composed their own music. Paganini set himself the creative challenge of composing musical pieces that could be played on only one string, developing new techniques along the way.

The audience didn't know that, of course! Paganini started off by playing the pieces on all strings. Easy enough if you're used to playing them on one string! Ever the showman, Paganini would sometimes intentionally snap the other strings in the course of his performance, finishing—to great applause—on the single string that he'd planned all along.

So what seems like a miraculous gift is really more about lots and lots of practice and preparation, with a little bit of trickery thrown in.

Now I have a sneaky suspicion that I've seen this trick before. Not only that, but I completly fell for it too! I was in Tokyo watching a shamisen performance. In the middle of a frenzied passage, the plectrum a blur over the instrument's three strings, snap! went one of the strings. Not a problem! He adjusted the tuning peg and kept on playing! I was *so* impressed. But now I'm onto you, Mr. Shamisen Player. You probably break strings all the time while practicing. You might have even been playing a one-string piece and had snapped your strings intentionally to impress us. Hah!

Do we have anything like that in IT? What's our one-string piece with which we can astound other people?

Ericksson, K. A. (1998) "The scientific study of expert levels of performnance: general implications for optimal learning and creativity." High Ability Studies, 9(1), pp75—100

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Follow up: JM Ibanez

and from Paul Lussier:

Practice can't account for all of it, actual, real life experience handling catastrophes and routing around unforseen problems on the fly helps a lot :)

Paganini obviously knows his music and his instrument to such a level that he's able to pull this type of thing off. But anyone so versed in music could do the same thing. Ever listen to extemporaneous "jam sessions" from the likes of Eric Clapton, BB King, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Satriani, Pat Methany? They're all unbelievable guitarists who can make the guitar do things you never even dreamed possible.

My manager, at 2:00am, faced with a dual drive failure in a mirrored system running an ancient, monolithic, non-moduler Linux kernel specially compiled with certain drivers long since lost, pulled off an unbelievable feat of grafting a very recent, very moduler 2.6 kernel from a Knoppix CD onto this system and was able to get it back up and serving NFS long enough to move the entire terabyte array to a new system.

It's the same thing. Years of practice and familiarity coupled with knowing *what's* possible, then working around catastrophe using this knowledge and experience!

Someday you're going to pull off the impossible too, but it won't seem so hard to you. It will just be "the natural thing to do" given the circumstances at the time. To everyone else, it'll be a miracle :)

Remember what Arthur C. Clark said:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinquishable from magic."

Where "sufficiently advanced technology" can be defined as any area in which you are more expert than the average person :)