February 2009

Lessons from LifeCamp

February 1, 2009 - Categories: braindump, connecting, event

I had a great time organizing and learning from LifeCampTO at Linux Caffe on January 31, 2009. We started at 10:30 AM, and the conversations continued until around 2 PM. Sixteen people attended, and we had tremendous fun.

I brought along some markers and a pad of paper. Each participant had a piece of paper with a number on it, and they wrote down their e-mail address, what they wanted help with, and what they could offer help with. People then stood up and introduced themselves. As each person talked about what he or she wanted help with, people who could help them raised their pieces of paper up, and the person introducing himself or herself wrote those numbers down. As each person talked about what they could help with, other people who wanted help raised their pieces of paper, and then wrote the corresponding number down. I collected all (well, almost all – one participant is missing!) the papers afterwards, and I promised to e-mail everyone the appropriate introductions.

During the introductions, a few general-interest topics emerged: productivity, entrepreneurship, and networking. We decided to have a few big 20-minute conversations around each of those topics instead of breaking up into lots of little conversations. Here are my notes from those conversations:

Productivity

  • Study Hacks – good tips for academic and non-academic success; check out practices for focus
  • Control your environment to avoid distractions
  • Change your environment if you need to. You may find it hard to work at the kitchen table because you associate that with eating, for example.
  • Break tasks down into smaller, more doable things.
  • Structured procrastination
  • Flylady – good tips for household chores, also breaking tasks down into 15-minute chunks
  • Meditation – breathing is good
  • Taking care of things helps you relax and be creative
  • Doing manual stuff (washing dishes, etc.) can be a form of meditation as well
  • Sometimes doing opposite kinds of activities (ex: away from computer) can help spark creativity
  • Anything can become a meditation
  • Nature walks are nice, too
  • Block out time to do things
  • Try sharing your goals online. Take advantage of peer pressure, and tap your community
  • Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way, morning pages
  • Routines are helpful
  • RescueTime provides good analysis of where your time goes
  • Block time – find an extension that blocks your Internet surfing of time-wasting sites, and get a friend to set the password
  • Make a list of three tasks that would lead to significant progress, and focus on those
  • Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fit available time, so shorten the time you have. Give yourself early deadlines.
  • Pareto’s Principle – 80% value comes from 20%. Find the important few.
  • Examine areas of your life and figure out your priorities
  • Basecamp – a number of people swear by it. Other tools: Remember the Milk, Google Tasks, OmniFocus
  • Inbox Zero – good approach to e-mail. See also Trusted Trio: follow up, archive, or hold
  • Figuring out what you want to do with your life: Covey approach (vision, projects), GTD approach (get on top of little things so you can free yourself to be creative; little things define you)
  • See also The Joy of Not Working, perhaps?

Self-employment, entrepreneurship

  • Services portals, PayPal – international business
  • Business plan, self-employed benefits – Tania Samsonova can help
  • LinkedIn is very useful: connections, testimonials, answers
  • Social networks in general are useful for reaching out, asking for help, offering help
  • Friendfeed – good way to keep in touch with people with multiple presences
  • Check out WordPress integration with LinkedIn Apps
  • GigPark – recommendations for services
  • FreshBooks – invoicing
  • Wesabe, Yodlee – personal financing
  • Social networking – look for opportunities to connect the dots
  • E-mail newsletters – good way to keep in touch
  • LinkedIn – good way to start with an external profile / resume. Less in-your-face than sending resumes to people.
  • Business cards are very useful. Use them for advertising, too. Don’t just list occupation – talk about business benefit. See Vistaprint.ca
  • Take notes. Business card? Watch out for etiquette. Maybe a notebook or PDA. Use keywords or pictures of people to trigger memory.
  • Look for Ugly Betty episode on networking – ask Rochelle Latinsky
  • If you don’t want to give out business cards (eco footprint), carry a notebook or PDA, and get other people’s contact information. Also check out recycled business cards, soya
  • Domain name very useful. People hiring often notice that (compared to, say, @hotmail address).
  • LinkedIn – import your address book and see who’s online
  • Spokeo

Networking

  • Ask people questions and get them to talk about themselves
  • Follow up – ping them, talk about specifics of your conversation
  • Go to diverse events
  • Dealing with interpersonal conflict – Ian Garmaise recommended Swordless Samurai
  • When faced with ideas or events that grow beyond you, let the group culture lead itself, and don’t be afraid to start again
  • Put out your best ideas instead of worrying about people hijacking them
  • Handshake, eye contact, hand sandwich?
  • Live a diverse life – makes you interesting, makes it easier to connect with people
  • OtherInbox – lets you automatically set up alternate e-mail addresses, RSS view. Also see gmail: ___+__@gmail.com. Doesn’t work for all sites.
  • usernamecheck, Naymz – checking your web presence (UPDATE: Fixed link to Naymz, thanks; arrgh, weirdly spelled services!)
  • Mr. Tweet, Tweepler – review Twitter followers (UPDATE: Thanks for MrTweet link correction)
  • Summize, search.twitter.com, Tweepsearch (search bios) – find tweeters with similar interests
  • Mixing personal and professional – not bad, may even be good; helps build connection. “Show that you’re human.”
  • If you’re not comfortable with even one person seeing what you’ve written, don’t put it online
  • Write teasers, put content somewhere< ?li>
  • Check out Toastmasters, good way to connect
  • Volunteering is also a great way to meet people. Conferences coming up: FITC, etc. Google Calendar of Toronto events – where?

My next step is to make a spreadsheet, cross-reference the connection requests, and e-mail each person individual notes for follow-up. =)

If you were there: please keep me up to date on what you’re doing and the follow-up connections you make, and link back to this post so that other people can learn more from the conversations we had. =) If you tag your posts with lifecampto and add a comment here with the link, they’ll be easy to find, too!

Blog posts:

It was great fun. Thanks to everyone for helping make it happen. =) I’m looking forward to following up!

Kitty TV

February 1, 2009 - Categories: cat, photography

Peanuts sprinkled outside glass door + squirrels + cats = fun for everyone

LifeCampTO social graph

February 2, 2009 - Categories: connecting, social

After LifeCampTO, I asked people to give me the list of people they wanted to talk to (or, well, those people’s primary keys ;) ). I’m still figuring out how to do a great little mail merge that reminds people of the keywords, but along the way, I thought I might I’d learn more about network visualization.

Here’s the resulting graph: (click on it for a larger version)

LifeCampTO social graph

So, what does this graph say?

You can see that most people have quite a lot of follow-up conversations ahead. It wasn’t the kind of event where most people walked away with only two or three conversations, although they might have smaller follow-up conversations with different groups of people. It might be interesting to do some cluster analysis around topics, and maybe someday I’ll figure out how to encode the data in order to make that analysis easier. ;) Based on this, our on-the-fly decision to have three big conversations turned out to have made sense, although it would also be interesting to try having small conversations about both popular and niche topics, and then having people come together at the end (or on a wiki).

Getting to this graph (and to the individualized graphs I’ve just figured out how to produce – it highlights each person’s connections) involved a lot of bubblegum and string.

  1. I typed in the data people had written down, using OpenOffice.org to form the upper triangle of an adjacency matrix. Two people’s sheets were missing, and one person didn’t have any connections incoming or outgoing. =( Thank you, programming competitions, for all those lovely data structures.
  2. I copied the adjacency matrix and pasted it onto itself using OOo’s Paste Special – Transpose, Skip Empty Cells. This gave me a full adjacency matrix.
  3. I used a really long and hairy OOo formula to concatenate the cells into Emacs Lisp code as an associative list, with extra information and an edge list.
  4. I copied that into Emacs and processed the associative list’s edges. I needed to do that anyway in order to be able to e-mail people personalized e-mail with all of their introductions, instead of sending one e-mail per edge. Along the way, I got the idea of visualizing the network diagram, so I spun off some code to output a full edge list in DOT format for visualization with circo.
  5. I used a command like
    circo -Gsplines=true < lifecampto.dot -Tpng > lifecampto.png

    to generate the graph shown.

  6. Then I thought it would be cool to personalize the graphs, too, so I wrote some more Emacs Lisp to generate personalized DOT files that highlighted the recipient in green and the recipient’s requested links/nodes in green, too. I used a Bash for loop to turn all those personalized DOT files into PNG files.

Example of a personalized image:

Tomorrow, I’ll work on the mail merge. =)

A little computer science is a dangerous, dangerous thing.

Kaizen: unsqueaking

February 3, 2009 - Categories: kaizen, life, reflection

It’s really kinda strange. Seven hundred people? Not a problem. I can deliver a presentation. Two people? I get a lot more fidgety.

When I’m talking about something I’m passionate about, I find myself speeding up, flicking through things, jumping on tangents, even shaking ever so slightly. This is good for infecting people with enthusiasm, but a little more challenging for comprehension. ;)

It would be good to be able to control this so that I can match other people’s paces, and so that I remember to breathe. ;)

There are several aspects I can work on, and several ways I can work on them:

  • Topics: The more I write or talk about a topic, the more comfortable and familiar I become with it. I learn about what I want to say and how I want to say it. Maybe after 10,000 hours of talking about networking, I’ll get the hang of talking about it. ;) I’m good at not boring myself, so lots of practice won’t be too much practice.
  • Voice: I still tend to squeak when excited. ;) I wonder if voice coaching or lots of iterative feedback will help me bring that under control. It’s a good thing that enthusiasm is part of who I am!
  • Pacing: I need to get better at putting in pauses. I can work on that by practicing saying things slowly and with more breaks between thoughts. Perhaps audiocasting or videocasting? That way, I speak more often.
  • Vocabulary: I blog and speak with a conversational tone. It’d be good for me to be able to shift into a more formal (but not boring) mode as needed. =)
  • Listening: I definitely need to work on pausing at least one or two seconds after people say things. =)

Someday, I’ll get to the point where I can talk to people at any level without anyone feeling nervous or overwhelmed. =)

Conversations about networking; scale, structure, and skills

February 4, 2009 - Categories: connecting

I had tea/hot chocolate with Ida Shessel at Linuxcaffe last Monday. She had come across me through a Google alert when I first blogged about Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon’s book, “Make Your Contacts Count”. When Lynne featured my recent story about using online social networks to turbocharge offline events in her newsletter, Ida reached out with some questions around networking.

One of the key ideas that came up in our conversation is how many authors and coaches who focus on social networking haven’t quite made the jump to making full use of online social networking. I’ve come across this multiple times. Each time I meet someone who has mastered traditional forms of social networking but is curious about the things I take for granted, I love sharing what I’ve learned. I learn so much in the process.

Last night, at a small get-together I quickly organized for a colleague from the US, I briefly chatted with Will Pate about social networking. He’s another Gen Yer who’s given networking a lot of thought and who makes full use of social media. He’s starting to do a lot of work related to venture capital, and he told me of a study that showed that in that area, the size of your social network correlates with success. I told him of my interest in scaling up networking, creating structures to facilitate connection, and experimenting with things like LifeCampTO. Plenty of follow-up conversations to come, I’m sure!

This weekend, I’ll be talking to Jeff Widman about similar things. He’s also Gen Y and well-connected. (Come to think of it, I need to introduce Will to Jeff. I think they’ll get along really well.)

So, what’s different?

I’m starting to pick up a pattern. I often find myself talking about scale and structure. I also bring a different collection of skills than those I see in primarily business-oriented networking books.

Let’s talk about scale. I enjoy finding opportunities to help or create value for as many people as I can. I rely heavily on associative memory, my notes, the Internet, and group get-togethers in order to do so. Whenever I meet a new person, hear about an idea or a need, read a book, or experience something new, I can get economies of scale because I can connect that person, idea, need, book, or experience to people I’ve met, resources I’ve come across, and things I’ve learned. The more input comes in, the more combinations I can make – so I get network effects as well. It’s a huge game of connect the dots, and I love it whenever I can bring people, ideas, and resources together.

The Internet lets me scale that initial value-creation much better than I can in face-to-face events. I might create less value and I may not be able to make as deep a connection, but I can reach more people and open up the possibility for some people to come forward and continue that conversation with me.

So then networking isn’t a way to gain power or get favors, but almost a game of finding out what could help a person rock, and how to help make that happen. This is related to Granovetter‘s theory about weak ties. If I can build a large network of weak ties, then I can help span boundaries, spread good ideas, bridge gaps. I don’t need to be best-friends-forever with everyone, but I can create a lot of value if people feel comfortable telling me what could help them make things happen and if I’m good at finding people for whom that’ll be a win-win proposition. As for ideas and resources – I can share those practically for free!

That’s why I’m interested in scale. The more people I know, the more ideas I come across, the more resources I find, the more connections I can make between them. As I learn more about this, I’ll be able to reach out to more people, and I’ll be able to connect more dots.

Scale requires structure. While I’ve read about networkers with prodigious memories who could remember every little thing about people even after decades of not seeing them, I’m not one of those yet. I suspect most of them had some kind of cheatsheet anyway. ;)

What I am, however, is someone who enjoys exploring or building the tools needed to try scaling up. I know the ins and outs of my contact management system, and have heavily customized it. I tinker with mail merges that cross-reference all sorts of data. And I’m really curious about the next level: building structures to help other people connect (hence my interest in events). That’ll help me scale even further. I don’t have to know everyone directly. If I can help people effectively connect to a connector–one of those people who just loves playing this game of connect-the-dots–and I can help the connectors connect to each other so that they can refer requests, that would be awesome.

In order to build that kind of structure, I’ll need to develop my skills. The quirky thing I bring to networking is my computer science geek background. I happily build tools, analyze networks, take measurements, draw graphs. As we figure more things out, I may be able to build more of that into systems for more people to use. I’m a big fan of relentless improvement, and I’m always looking for little ways to make things better, little ways I can experiment. I enjoy sharing as much as I can, which is why I think out loud on this blog. I’m not the only one with this combination of quirks, but it’s certainly not something you’ll find in a typical business networking book. ;)

I’ll still need to develop all the other skills. I’m still unpolished when it comes to conversation. I squeak when I’m excited. ;) My communication style isn’t very flexible yet. I can learn how to adapt better. I could probably use a gradual wardrobe update, and over time, I’ll develop my personal style. I can get better at nurturing strong ties, too. And it’ll be fun building on my quirks and seeing where they take us!

There are interesting opportunities opened up by my quirks and interests that traditional networking may not have explored yet. I’d love to help figure things out and make lots of things happen for lots of people along the way.

Thanks for letting me think out loud! =) What do you think about networking, and how would you like to grow?

A thousand ways that didn’t work

February 5, 2009 - Categories: geek

I spent the entire afternoon trying to figure out how I can do a live teleconference with screensharing so that I can show people actual Drupal tips and tricks instead of handwaving through a bunch of slides. Rube Goldberg would probably have approved of all the different things I tried. Unfortunately, none of them worked. <sigh>

The web conference application-sharing feature is only available on Internet Explorer. My development environment is definitely Linux-based. Here are all the things I tried:

  • I thought of running my existing Linux partition within Windows as a virtual machine, but I couldn’t find a free way to work with raw disk partitions with a Windows host.
  • I thought of using VNC to connect my Linux laptop to a Windows desktop, which would then be in charge of running the web conference. I _think_ it works… but I can’t view the shared screen on Linux, and we don’t have another Windows . Maybe there’s something wrong with the version of Java integrated into my browser.
  • I tried booting to Linux and running Windows inside a VM, but the VMWare Server I had just installed didn’t seem to have a way to create an image that uses an existing partition.
  • I eventually figured out how to create a SCSI passthrough device, but I got “Disk read error” when trying to boot Windows from Grub.
  • I found an older copy of VMWare Server on my hard disk. I remembered getting this to work before, and after some fiddling, I got Windows to boot again. Except I’d forgotten my Windows password.
  • After I reset my password, I booted Windows again as a virtual machine. It was really, really slow, and there was no way I was going to be able to run that, Eclipse, Emacs, Firefox, and the LAMP stack without speaking… really… slowly…
  • And somewhere along the way, I managed to break my Lotus Notes installation – I must’ve upgraded or uninstalled one of the libraries it wants. I’ll need to fix that tonight.

It was an exercise in frustration, but I needed to probe this to see if it was doable. I guess it’ll be back to slides for the teleconference, with more details in blog posts or recordings. For my talk at DrupalCon, I can do it live from Linux (assuming I get the projector stuff sorted out).

Ah… It’s a really good thing that W- and J- are so good at cheering me up! =)

Weekly report – Week ending February 8, 2009

February 8, 2009 - Categories: weekly

From last week’s plans:

  • LifeCampTO and a dinner party, oh my! That was a lot of fun. Check out my notes and social network analysis.
  • I’m going to bake a pie =) More like apple crumble – the lattice top was a bit too thin. =) Next time, I’ll try a solid top crust, and I’ll double the crust recipe. Mmm!
  • I’ll review all the use cases for work and ask lots and lots of questions Lost my questions when I messed up my Lotus Notes, but that’s okay. Now in development phase! =)
  • I’ll improve the abstract submission process for my conference system Added a couple of fields they asked for, but I’m not sure if we’ll continue with the face-to-face event.

In addition:

  • Had a great conversation with Ted Stanton, Aaron Kim, Will Pate, and Josh Newman about the ROI of Web 2.0, social networking, social network analysis, innovation diffusion, and research
  • Had a great conversation with Jeff Widman about networking, life, and personal outsourcing
  • Had a great conversation with Ida Shessel about networking
  • Rewrote the sponsorship letter for DrupalCampToronto. Another organizer said the new letter was fantastic! All those sales and copywriting books did sink in after all… Next: Learn about delegating and tracking tasks.
  • Stumbled across agreeadate.com in the process of thinking about how to help Katie Bartlett coordinate appointments. Started using it a lot myself.
  • Moved myself over to Google Apps. Have set up a  workflow involving TwitterCal, Emacs, Google Calendar, and Google Apps Calendar.
  • Messed up my system while trying to figure out good way for Windows and Linux to co-exist while presenting. No reliable solution found, so it’s back to slides for the webconference. Actual DrupalCon presentation will be live, though.
  • Ordered books from Chapters, including a book my mom requested
  • Ordered a webcam and had it sent to a family friend in the US, as part of a birthday gift for my mom ;)
  • Set aside money to try outsourcing, and have identified technical task (migrating website and mail). Hiring people on oDesk. Part of birthday gift to Mom

Next week:

  • Attend Drupal Camp Toronto organizers’ meeting, figure out task delegation
  • Give lecture at York University – Schulich Business School on Enterprise 2.0
  • Give talk on Totally Rocking Your Development Environment for the IBM Drupal Users Group
  • Interview people for system administration project

Finally got my new landing page off the ground! =)

February 8, 2009 - Categories: drupal, geek

I’m starting to get the hang of using Web analytics to look at how people are moving through the site. I’ll go through the numbers in detail, but if you’re in a rush and you just want to check the potential landing page out, I’d love your feedback.

The numbers: Both sachachua.com and livinganawesomelife.com redirect to the front page of this blog, which contains links to all the other pieces. Last month, 1015 people visited this page. About 50% of those people were new to my site. This represents about 7% of the total new visits to the site (I get lots of people coming in through search engines), but that’s still 500 or so people who might be confused by the range of things I write about. Of all the visitors to the front page (including people who’ve been here before), about 166 people followed the “About” link from the home page. Others clicked through the categories I feature along the top.

I’d like to get your feedback on the new site landing page first, before I make it the default. I’m also curious about A/B testing, so if I can figure out how to do that consistently (so that once you’re either A or B you don’t switch unless you want to), that’ll be something cool to learn. =)

Anyway, here’s the potential landing page. It’s Drupal-based, mostly done with unmodified  third-party modules. ;) I’d love your feedback. You’ll also notice that it’s starting to accumulate my reading history. I wrote a Perl script to grab the data from the Toronto Public Library, and it still needs some tweaking to make it more useful. I’ve already started using it to keep track of my notes, but those are private for now. =)

Whee!

DrupalCampToronto organizing notes

February 9, 2009 - Categories: Uncategorized

We had the second organizers’ meeting for DrupalCampToronto 2009 today. I started a number of Google Documents for keeping track of minutes and tasks, and I also shared the sponsorship letter I’d revised extensively. One of the organizers mentioned that he had already found the letter useful. Hooray!

What worked well:

  • Asking someone else to take minutes made it clear that minutes are a rotating duty, which is good because it gets more people to pay attention and contribute, and it’ll help me see other ways of doing things.
  • Sharing all the documents through Google Docs made it easy to see changes in real-time and track the revision history. The interface was also more fluid than typical wikis.

What can work even better next time:

  • Task management – I’ve set up a Google spreadsheet for quickly capturing tasks, but there should be a better way to do this so that people can easily filter the tasks. BasecampHQ would be interesting, but it’s expensive and probably overkill. Maybe Manymoon?
  • Document management – I’ve shared each of the Google docs with the mailing list, and I’ll share more protected documents with individual people. It would be good to put together a central workplace.
  • Next meeting – We decided on the rhythm of meetings (every other Monday, same time, same place), but that would’ve probably been better to do earlier in the agenda rather than at the end, after another Drupal-related discussion.
  • Food – Gotta get better at nudging David @linuxcaffe to nudge _us_ about ordering the specials… =) He’s a great guy, Linuxcaffe is such a nice venue, and I’d like to make sure it works out well for everyone. It’s easy to forget to order and eat when the conversation’s flowing, but you end up starving when things are done!
  • Tables – a gap between tables is a good thing, so people can get in and out easily. =)

Learning more about organizing events… Cool!

Planning meetings, get-togethers, and interviews with AgreeADate

February 9, 2009 - Categories: connecting, emacs, geek, life, productivity

One of the reasons why I love thinking of ways to help people rock even more is that I often end up learning a lot in the process.

For example, last week, I needed to coordinate schedules with Katie Bartlett, Jeff Widman’s assistant, for a chat with Jeff about networking. I thought about how much e-mail was sent back-and-forth figuring out times and timezones, and I multiplied that by the number of appointments Katie probably needed to arrange. That sounded like a lot of work. If I could find a tool to make that easier for our appointment, and she used that tool to organize lots of other appointments, then that would be great!

I checked out a couple of tools such as TimeToMeet, ScheduleOnce, and AgreeADate. Of the tools I tried, I liked AgreeADate the most because it made it easy to create different kinds of schedules and it supported timezones. I sent Katie a few potential timeslots for my chat with Jeff. After she replied, I confirmed the time that was mutually convenient. That wasn’t hard at all.

Then I explored the other features. I found out that I could create a schedule where people could pick a slot. AgreeADate allowed me to specify how many people each timeslot was limited to, and how many slots people could choose. This opened up all sorts of possibilities, and has become my favorite feature!

Things that I’d formerly had been worried about scheduling became so much easier to schedule because I could create all the slots in parallel and then let people choose the slots that hadn’t been taken yet. For example, I’d been meaning to try outsourcing some technical and personal tasks, but scheduling interview times sounded like a hassle. With this system, I just had to set all the slots up and invite people to choose the timeslot most convenient for them. Yay!

AgreeADate isn’t perfect, but it makes scheduling things so much easier for me, and it lowers the barrier enough for me to go and make things happen. In the past week that I’ve been trying it out, I’ve:

  • scheduled a capoeira trial
  • scheduled a conference call
  • set up interviews for a system administrator and a virtual assistant, and
  • set up lunch with a poll on where to eat.

You know, stuff that would’ve taken way too much e-mail if I had to do it by hand. =)

I’d like to see it integrated with my Google Calendar, and one of the AgreeADate folks told me that that’s the next thing on their roadmap. I found myself wondering which slots I’d tentatively offered for other events, and being able to see all the tentative slots overlaid on my calendar would be fantastic.

In the meantime, I read the confirmation e-mails in Emacs Gnus, use Remember and Org to create an appointment hyperlinked to that mail, and then use my own code, the twit.el library, and the Twittercal service to create an appointment on my Google Calendar (on google.com), which is then shared with my Google Calendar on sachachua.com thanks to the joys of Google Apps. It’s quite Rube Goldberg-esque (as many of my bubblegum-and-string tricks are), but so far, it works. Maybe this’ll be something I’ll outsource (except perhaps without the Gnus + Remember + Org part) once I’ve gotten that virtual assistance thing sorted out. =)

For the geeks, some Emacs Lisp to mash together with Org, TwitterCal, Google Calendar, and twit.el (some wizardry required):

(defun sacha/org-as-gcal-quick-add ()
  "Convert the current SCHEDULED: timestamp and header into a GCal quick add item."
  (save-excursion
    (org-back-to-heading t)
    (setq end (save-excursion (outline-next-heading) (point)))
    (when (re-search-forward org-scheduled-time-regexp
			     end t)
      (let (ts default-time stamp plain s0 srp s1 s2)
	(setq ts (match-string 1)
	      default-time (apply 'encode-time (org-parse-time-string ts)))
	(when (or (setq stamp (string-match org-stamp-time-of-day-regexp ts))
		  (setq plain (string-match org-plain-time-of-day-regexp ts)))
	  (setq s0 (match-string 0 ts)
		srp (and stamp (match-end 3))
		s1 (match-string (if plain 1 2) ts)
		s2 (match-string (if plain 8 (if srp 4 6)) ts)))
	(cond
	 (s2
	  (concat (org-no-properties (org-get-heading t)) " on "
		  (format-time-string "%x" default-time) " from "
		  (org-get-time-of-day s1 'string t) " to "
		  (org-get-time-of-day s2 'string t)
		  ))
	 (s1

	  (concat (org-no-properties (org-get-heading t)) " on "
		  (format-time-string "%x" default-time) " from "
		  (org-get-time-of-day s1 'string t)
		  ))
	 (t
	  (concat (org-no-properties (org-get-heading t)) " on "
		  (format-time-string "%x" default-time)
		  )
	  ))))))

(defun sacha/org-to-twittercal (string)
  "Post STRING to TwitterCal. See http://www.twittercal.com for details."
  (interactive (list (read-string "Event: " (sacha/org-as-gcal-quick-add))))
  (twit-post-function twit-update-url (concat "d gcal " string)))

I’ll keep you posted on my experiments! =)

Talking about Enterprise 2.0 and knowledge management

February 10, 2009 - Categories: enterprise2.0, talk, web2.0

UPDATE: Fixed Wikipatterns URL

UPDATE:

I’m giving a lecture on Enterprise 2.0 and knowledge management at the Schulich School of Business (York University). There’s so much to talk about, but I’d like students to walk away with:

  • an understanding of how this is personally relevant to them, and
  • an understanding of the cultural and technological changes,
  • some resources they can check out for their paper,
  • concrete next actions they can take to learn more and make the most of the opportunities.

What I’ll discuss

Enterprise 2.0 encompasses many things. For this talk, I’ll focus on how emerging tools help us organize and share ideas, information, and experiences. I won’t dwell on emerging tools for communication, collaboration, or other aspects of Enterprise 2.0, although as you’ll see in a bit, those capabilities are difficult to separate from knowledge-work. I’m looking forward to finding out what tools class members are familiar with, and which they participate in: blogs, wikis, social networks, asset repositories, and things like that.

Relevance

Let’s start with why it matters. Why should these MBA students care about Enterprise 2.0 and what I have to say about it, and why do I care that they care?

The first and most immediate reason is that their professor has assigned them (or will be assigning them) a paper on knowledge management and Enterprise 2.0, and my lecture can help them find out about resources and understand some of the key concepts.

The second and much more valuable reason is that if they start applying these concepts now, they can deepen their knowledge, broaden their network, and strengthen their reputation – helping them differentiate themselves from other applicants when they look for a job, or helping them differentiate themselves from other companies when they start their own. These ideas can also help them share even if they’re not experts, make a difference even as newcomers, and create value on a scale that was difficult to do before.

The third and most far-reaching reason is that if these MBA students graduate and go into companies with a deeper understanding of what Enterprise 2.0 is like, then eventually, these seeds can grow into the bottom-up and top-down support that can really change the way we work. In Enterprise 2.0, many companies look to new recruits and fresh graduates for a deeper, almost instinctive understanding of new tools and concepts. If these students understand the ideas and tools behind Enterprise 2.0, then they can help their companies move forward.

That’s why I care, and I hope to help them learn more about why they should care too.

Cultural and technological changes

On the surface, it’s easy to talk about tools. E-mail, blogs, wikis, asset repositories, shared drives, group websites… All those tools have different capabilities, and each has advantages and disadvantages. If you search the Net, it’s easy to find examples of companies using any of these tools for knowledge management.

What I’m really interested in, however, is culture. Mindset. Attitude. And I’m interested in that at the individual, team, community, network, organization, and ecosystem level.

So I came up with a list of interesting contrasts. The core idea is still the same (“Knowledge is power”), but there are all sorts of aspects around it.

Document, person, or interaction? What is “managed” under knowledge management? What does knowledge management really mean? Is knowledge all about documents that need to be organized, categorized, and stored? Does it live it people’s heads, so the “killer app” is an expertise locator? Does it come out in the interactions between people and other people, resources, and situations? I want to call their attention to different ways of thinking about knowledge, so that they can be aware of their perspective and they can recognize the perspectives taken by the different papers and resources they’ll come across.
Hoard or share? Is knowledge something to be hoarded and kept secret so that you can gain power by controlling access, or is it something that you share widely so that you can gain power that way? The difference between these two mindsets is one of the key challenges of adoption.
Formal/structured or informal/unstructured? (or the spectrum) Is your end-goal a neat repository of cleaned-up documents, or a platform for ongoing work? In the past, most knowledge management initiatives focused on formalized assets. With Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0, we’re finding that making it easy to share ongoing work can create a lot of value and get better participation. That brings in its own challenges, too, like finding things. Taxonomies vs folksonomies also come into play.
Experts or novices? Do you want contributions only from experts, or can you get value from the work of novices and amateurs? This has implications for learning and search.
One place or many? Are you looking for just one tool for storing, organizing, and searching all the knowledge, or are you looking at ways to integrate many tools with each other? It’s a mess either way. The mix of mindsets adds conflict and tension to adoption, so watch out for that.
Knowledge management or knowledge creation? Do you see KM as the end-point of a process, or as something done throughout a process? This affects adoption, culture, and lots of other things.
Inside or outside? Is the knowledge and experience you’re looking for entirely within your organizational unit, or can you find a way of engaging and learning from people outside?

Hmm, I think Wikipedia would be a good example to use, because they’re probably familiar with it, and I can also talk about corporate use. I’d like to talk about blogs as well, because that’s something they can take away.

Resources

  • Check out del.icio.us bookmarks: enterprise2.0 + km
  • Search for Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0, knowledge management (anything recent probably talks about Web 2.0 as well), or specific technologies such as blogs and wikis
  • Read analysts such as Forrester and Gartner
  • Find research papers
  • Read books like Influencer and Generation Blend
  • Check out Bill Ives’ blog (link is to KM posts) and other blogs about knowledge management
  • Find case studies on Cases2.
  • Look for Enterprise 2.0 and KM-related conferences, and look for related speakers and bloggers.
  • Check out Wiki Patterns for adoption tips and ideas about the challenges people face when introducing KM tools into real-world groups. (UPDATE: Fixed URL, thanks!)

Next actions

If people want to try these ideas out, they don’t have to wait until they graduate and join a company with Enterprise 2.0 tools.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Set up a blog. Share your experiences and your lessons learned. Share what you’re learning. Share what you’re good at, and share what you want to get better at. Teach people along the way. This will help you learn even more and connect with more people. It’ll help you when you’re looking for a job, too – it’s a public portfolio of how you communicate and how you think. If you’re intimidated by the idea of writing in public, give yourself permission to figure things out, and just get started.
  • Organize and share what you know. You’ll probably come across lots of resources while reading. Bookmark them and share them with others. You’ll all benefit in the process.
  • Read a lot. Look for blogs related to your passions and career interests, and add those blogs to your feed reader. Find other resources related to your interests, too. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll pick up the vocabulary and jargon of an area, and you’ll get a better sense of what’s going on.
  • Experiment. Try things out. Curious about wikis? Find out how other people use wikis, then make one. Bonus points if you explore group knowledge management tools with other people, because then you’ll also learn along the way about the challenges of adoption and how to deal with them.

I don’t feel anywhere near ready, but I do feel as if I have something to share, so that’s good. =)

Book workflow

February 11, 2009 - Categories: kaizen

David Seah asked people how they process books. Here’s what I commented:

I read a _lot_ of books, and I frequently refer other people to books that match their interests. When I do so, I love being able to point people to the exact page or quote they should check out, or to send them a summary of the key points in each book. I also enjoy giving books away.

Detailed book notes and a good workflow make this easy and convenient.

ACQUISITION: I often go on reading sprints, checking out lots of books on one topic from the library. Reading many books on one area allows me to read them faster, because many books contain fluff and things I’ve already read in other books. All I’m doing when I’m scanning a non-fiction book is looking for the nuggets of information or insight that are unique to that book.

READING: I keep track of pages with interesting passages on them. Sometimes, if I’m diligent, I use slips of paper as bookmarks. Most of the times, I dogear the lower corner of the page, folding the small dogear towards the side of the page I want to remember, or double-folding the corner if I like both sides of the page. Again, I’m just scanning for “the good stuff.”

CAPTURE: After I finish a stack of books, I scan relevant passages into my computer. I usually do this on Sundays or on days before my books are due. I review each page to see whether I still want to capture the information on it, and then I place the book face-down on a flatbed scanner and scan passages with the 600 dpi line-art setting required by OCR. All of the images get saved into a directory. Sometimes I’ll dictate passages to my computer instead, using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to transcribe.

TRANSCRIPTION: I use the free and open source Tesseract optical character recognition program. It’s pretty darn good. I’ve written a batch file that processes all of my pending images, filing finished images in one directory and text in the other.

ORGANIZATION: When I find free time, I review the transcribed text, narrowing it down to just the passages I wanted, and organizing items into more of an outline. I make any TODO items for follow-up actions, too. I also take that time to think of who else might be interested in a book or excerpts from it, and I recommend the book to those people. (I picked up this tip from Love is the Killer App – handy!) All of these notes go into a somewhat structured text file on my hard disk, where quotes are indexed by books and page numbers, and tagged by topic. When I remember, I write down the ISBN and other edition information as well.

REVIEW: Every so often, I flip through random book notes. Handy way to refresh my memory and think of other connections the books remind me to make.


I’ve started copying my book notes into a custom book-notes management system I’m building. That book-notes management system also automatically builds my reading history based on the books I’ve checked out (handy because I’m too lazy to update sites like LibraryThing ;) ), and eventually it’ll help me see which books are in which stage of processing.

One thing that would make this even better would be for me to figure out what to do during book-scanning so that I don’t get distracted but I still use that time productively. ;) My hands are occupied because I’m scanning books, and I find that if I’m reading something else (either online or offline), I get distracted and I forget to finish scanning my books. Maybe listening to great music or to a podcast will do the trick. =)

Another thing that would make this process even better would be to hook it into a web-based book review system, which I may build into that system I’m putting together. That way, I can easily share my book recommendations.

The book “How to Read a Book” has many tips on choosing the appropriate approach for books and processing them effectively.

OCR works really well for me. Try it out!

Notes from Enterprise 2.0 and knowledge management talk at Schulich

February 11, 2009 - Categories: enterprise2.0, talk

Thanks to Michael Woloszynowicz for typing up these notes from my talk last night!

  • What is KM?
    • Lots of value if you can share the knowledge in peoples heads with others
    • Finding the person that is best suited for a project
  • Enterprise 2.0
    • Like web 2.0 but geared towards companies
    • Utilizes user technologies e.g. Blogs, Wikis, etc.
  • Why care about enterprise 2.0
    • Differentiate yourself, give you an advantage
    • Broaden your network
    • Number of knowledge issues that companies are struggling with
      • Companies don’t know what to do
    • You will be in the position to make a difference
      • Companies will turn to younger generations to help
  • Enterprise KM is not about the tools
    • Tools change
    • It’s the changes they bring that is important
  • Knowledge is power, 10 areas of questions
    • What is knowledge (document? person? interaction?)
      • Can take a document centric view
      • But you can’t write down everything
        • This  is where people come in, find the right person
        • Not what you know but who you know
      • Sometimes you need the combination of the people and the situation
      • When looking at a paper, you need to know what view the author is taking
    • What do you do with knowledge? Hoard? Share?
      • Knowledge is power
      • Knowledge is something to be kept secret or controlled
        • You can charge lots of money for it
      • Another view is that you can share it, and that is power too
        • Why only limit your knowledge to a few people
        • By sharing it you become an expert
        • People come to you looking for advice, this gives you job security
        • People will also come to you with ideas
      • Differences between hoarding and sharing mindset is important
        • The success of your web 2.0 initiative depends on it
        • Some people do not want to share
      • What’s in it for you?
        • In the short term it can help you to find the information you need and help you practices communication skills
        • You get scale, people know about you
    • Formal vs. Informal
      • Sometimes input involves filling out set fields
      • Things such as Wikipedia are much more informal
      • Newer technologies are much more informal then older ones
        • Get the information out quickly and refine over time
        • There are advantages and disadvantages to this
          • Some people like structure
          • Others like the freedom and not be constrained
          • Constraints may stymie information sharing
            • Informality is quick
      • Informality has a lot of value
        • You can refer back to your old information
        • You can pass it to others
        • People can find it through searches
      • By making it easier to contribute knowledge, you get more of it
    • Relating to formal vs. informal is who has the information? Experts? Novices?
      • Sometimes experts are not the best resource
        • Experts can leave out steps because it is second nature to them
      • Really what you may need is someone that knows more than you
        • Novices can teach you the pitfalls and issues in language you understand
      • Enterprise 2.0 is about everyone contributing what they learn along the way
      • People often don’t contribute because they feel they are not an expert
        • But by learning, others can learn from you
        • For example, have a new hire record their learning
          • Expert can check it to make sure they are on the right path
          • Other can then learn from it
      • Experts and novices can get into conflict
        • Novices that share information become go to people and eventually become experts themselves
        • Mentoring can help to prevent this
    • One tool vs. many tools
      • Some people wait to try things only when others are using them while others want to be early adopters
      • Late adopters and early adopters are sometimes in conflict
        • Email vs. Blogs
      • Too many tools lead to integration issues
      • What happens if a tool goes down?
      • In enterprise 2.0 it pays to introduce one thing at a time and choose the tools carefully
        • Start with your business needs and find the best tool to solve the problem you are working on
    • Managing or facilitating?
      • One of the key things about enterprise 2.0 is collaboration
        • It’s not about submitting a document and closing the process
        • Capture what people are doing and learning along the way
        • Facilitation of collaboration
    • Inside or outside?
      • Companies used to feel that they are the experts in what they do
      • Hire other experts and give them tools to collaborate
      • Now people outside an organization are collaborating
        • Opens up lots of opportunities for companies
        • Can pose problems to the general public for a reward
        • When you can tap the knowledge of those outside the organization you can get more variety and better results
        • E.g. ideastorm
      • Enterprise 2.0 blurs the boundaries between inside and outside
        • Co-creation
    • Adoption is not always easy
      • Culture has a lot to do with it
        • Social, generation, etc.
      • How do you deal with these problems?
        • You have to tell people what the personal benefit is
        • If there are no benefits, people won’t participate
        • Monetary incentive is not the greatest approach
          • Can lead to gaming
        • Appeal to other aspects
          • External recognition? Self fulfilment?
        • Make it part of the way people work
          • Otherwise there is no time to input information after the fact
        • Innovators and early adopters are not a great example, find people in the middle to serve as ambassadors
    • Metrics and ROI
      • How do you quantify these initiatives? What do you measure?
        • Do you measure time savings?
          • Maybe time saved isn’t used to the companies gain
        • A lot of the value is intangible
        • Measure savings on travel or other costs
        • Gather metrics on search results
        • Before and after studies
        • What is the percentage of people using it
      • Metrics you choose will influence user behaviour towards the things you want to gain
    • What next?
      • A lot of value is gained by trying it out
      • This can be outside of work, things that you are passionate about

Recording of Enterprise 2.0 and Knowledge Management lecture

February 11, 2009 - Categories: enterprise2.0, kaizen, presentation, talk

So here’s my first experiment with publishing a picture-in-picture recording of one of presentations – specifically, the presentation I did last night.

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://sachachua.com/notebook/2009/talks/200802-enterprise2.0-and-knowledge-management-3/200802-enterprise2.0-and-knowledge-management-3_controller.swf?csConfigFile=http://sachachua.com/notebook/2009/talks/200802-enterprise2.0-and-knowledge-management-3/200802-enterprise2.0-and-knowledge-management-3_config.xml” height=”355″ width=”560″ /]

Slides and class notes
Planning the talk

Lessons learned:

  • The audio from the webcam turned out to be much clearer than Camtasia Studio’s recording, because Camtasia picked up only the audio from the computer’s microphone. I need to fiddle with the settings some more to get Camtasia to listen only to the webcam. The audio was better than the audio on my voice recorder, too. That’s probably because my voice recorder was on the table behind me, and I didn’t have a lapel microphone. If I add a belt clip to my voice recorder and dig up that lapel mic I bought some time ago, that would be a good experiment.
  • I remembered to set everything up! Hooray! Voice recorder, webcam, and Camtasia recording of slides.
  • Splicing the slides and the webcam video was easy, although I kept running into weird problems – my silenced audio still kept showing up in the finished video. I deleted the Camtasia recording of my presentation and manually inserted my slides.
  • I lowered the video quality to 3 frames per second. It’s a bit jerky, but it does shave off some 20MB of disk usage. What do you think? I could also try rerecording this (or recording a different talk) with a close-up webcam video.
  • I’m hosting everything on my own site, as I haven’t found a good place to put things like this yet.
  • I spoke slower this time. Occasionally sipping water reminded me to slow down and breathe. This is good.
  • I enjoyed answering and asking questions. If I were to do this talk again, I’d probably trim this down to five or seven items and then have more of a discussion.
  • It was a good idea to get someone to promise to take notes and share them. Yay! I should build up a store of things to give away.
  • My computer was at stage left, so I could read the screen without looking back.
  • I suspect I’m right-biased in terms of eye contact, so I can make more of a conscious effort to look to the left. I did make sure to make eye contact with folks there some of the time.
  • My left mouse click is still broken (it’s software, not hardware; very strange) and my wireless mouse ran out of battery. Fortunately, I figured out how to use Microsoft Windows MouseKeys, so I could still set up everything I needed to set up before the presentation.
  • W- was there for transportation and moral support. I’m so lucky!

To make this even better next time, I can:

  • Put the webcam on stage right instead of stage left, for a more natural orientation when viewing the video and slides. This could be a challenge, because projecting stations are usually on stage left.
  • Offer other incentives for people to take notes and share them
  • Figure out better hosting for the video
  • Experiment with different video and audio settings
  • Start saving up for a digital camcorder?

Kaizen – relentless improvement! =)

Weekly review: Week ending February 14, 2009

February 14, 2009 - Categories: weekly

From last week’s plans:

  • Attend Drupal Camp Toronto organizers’ meeting, figure out task delegation Everyone was happy with the sponsorship letter I drafted, and we’re working out a system for managing tasks.
  • Give lecture at York University – Schulich Business School on Enterprise 2.0 That was lots of fun! Recording is on my blog. More than 500 people have viewed this so far… wow! Current est. ROI: offline: 134%, online: 9900%, total 2631%.
  • Give talk on Totally Rocking Your Development Environment for the IBM Drupal Users Group That went really well, too! It was a sneak preview of my upcoming DrupalCon 2009 talk, and I learned that I somehow managed to pick up a bucketload of tips while working on various Drupal projects. I have way too much material to fit into the real talk, so this will be interesting.
  • Interview people for system administration project This has been going well. Turns out interviewing people is less scary than I thought it was! In fact, scheduling things was so painless that I’ll be interviewing a whole bunch of people for a potential part-time personal virtual assistant position too…

In addition, I:

  • Finally got all the test cases to work again! Fighting bit rot and interactions is hard work!
  • Had lunch with a bunch of interesting Web 2.0 folks at the Social Friday 2.0 lunch organized by Aaron Kim
  • Delighted my project manager by referring him to the social media consulting tips for community tools that I’d developed in January last year
  • Delighted various IBMers by referring them to my bookmarks for Enterprise 2.0 metrics and ROI, my presentations, and other cool things
  • Survived a week of many meetings and presentations
  • Figured out how to post picture-in-picture recordings of my presentations
  • Am getting better at remembering to set up everything I need to record, and at having backup ways to capture my presentations
  • Received the coat and books I’d ordered online
  • Upgraded to the latest version of WordPress
  • Had to have my iPod reflashed
  • Baked some blueberry muffins
  • Attended a geeky get-together at HackLab celebrating the 1234567890th epoch second.
  • Chatted with a number of people about networking
  • Explored systems like BatchBook, Relenta, and SugarCRM for web-based contact management; jury’s still out on this one
  • Fully moved my calendar and mail over to Google Apps for my domain
  • Got treated to daing na bangus from scratch by the ever so wonderful W-, who deboned the fish himself (!)

Happiness. =) (And Inbox Zero, for the most part!)

Over this weekend and next week, I plan to:

  • Move Transition2 to the latest version of Drupal 5 and make sure all the test cases still run
  • Start doing more integration testing, now that others have made progress on their parts
  • Interview more candidates for sysad and virtual assistant positions
  • Sew myself a circle skirt
  • Experiment with a magazine-style WordPress theme
  • Send books to my mom

Luke looking up

February 15, 2009 - Categories: cat, photography

Luke looking up

Reflections on presentation; looking for a coach

February 19, 2009 - Categories: kaizen, speaking

Photo (c)
helios89, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license

“So, who’s your mentor? Who’s on the hook for you?” asked my manager during our one-on-one session. He had been reading my posts about presentations and meetings, and he wanted to know what–or who–could help me take it to the next level. I was very good at sharing my enthusiasm and technical knowledge with others. If I could figure out how to communicate with managers and executives, I can do even more.

I told him that I still get nervous in small meetings and I still let my enthusiasm run away with me, and that I’d like to learn how to talk to different perspectives, personalities, and learning styles. I also shared how I’d been thinking about getting a presentation or speaking coach. I enjoy giving presentations and it seems I can create a lot of value with them, so it makes sense to learn how to do them really, really well. I’m particularly interested in learning how to do remote presentations and small in-person meetings well. Remote presentations and video will give me much more reach, and small in-person meetings are similar to the kind of work we do in consulting.

After our meeting, I thought about what could help me get even better at communicating in both large presentations and small meetings.

I’d been to Toastmasters in the past, and I had completed the ten-speech introductory program that earned me the Competent Communicator designation. I appreciated the structure of each meeting and the clear objectives for each speech, and the contests and international conventions were great places to see good speakers. In my weekly Toastmasters meeting with a downtown club, though, I found myself wanting more. I needed:

  • feedback that focused on deeper skills, not just delivery techniques,
  • inspiring role models who could deliver effective interactive presentations remotely as well as in person, and
  • insight on structuring longer talks or remote talks to keep people engaged and to build on interaction.

Presentation skills: content, organization, and delivery

Many public speaking courses focus on the mechanics of delivery. There’s certainly a lot of value in polishing technique: eliminating “ums” and “ahs”; learning how to use pauses, body language, and props; using rhetorical structures and dynamic voice. If you want to improve your delivery and gain confidence, Toastmasters is a good way to do it.

I’m pretty happy with the way I deliver presentations. I can improve my delivery in small-group meetings, but that’s probably a matter of practice. I’m a good presenter, regularly receiving high ratings. Although my current toolkit of delivery techniques don’t cover all situations, I do pretty well.

What would make a real difference, however, is getting _really_ good at content and organization. Based on my Toastmasters experience, I think it and other public speaking resources are great at teaching delivery, but don’t go into as much depth when it comes to content and organization.

There’s no shortcut to developing good content. I need experience, and I need to learn as much as I can from other people. I’m doing several things to increase my chances of stumbling across good content:

  • I read a ton of books and blogs, looking for insights and stories. This gives me raw material for talks and helps me draw connections between topics.
  • I ask and answer lots of questions, learning a lot in the process. This gives me a sense of what people are interested in and learning more about, and I learn about their perspectives too.
  • I constantly test ideas by posting them on my blog, volunteering to give presentations, and creating other material. This gives me feedback on what people want to learn more about and what I can teach them, helps me improve my communication skills, and grows my network (often leading to other speaking opportunities). Over time, ideas grow from mindmaps to blog posts to articles to presentations to related ideas.

Good content is good, but good content combined with good organization is memorable and effective. This is where illustrations, mnemonics, alliteration, storytelling, and other structures come in handy. If I can learn how to get really good at organizing ideas, I’ll be able to apply that skill to writing, speaking, and other things I do. Here’s what I’m doing to learn more about organizing content:

  • I practice illustrating complex ideas with photography, sketches, and diagrams. This helps me understand topics better, engage visual learners, and communicate more effectively.
  • I take apart and reassemble other presentations, reflecting on how I would’ve structured them. Example of my reconstruction
  • I mindmap, write and speak a lot. This challenges me to structure what I’m thinking and what I want to say. Once I’ve gotten things out of my head, I can refine the structure to make it better.
  • I read articles and books, check out presentations, and watch talks, keeping an eye out for how people structure their communication. (It’s quite meta.)

Stay tuned for more posts about role models, long or remote talks, and coaching!

Creative encouragement and following passion

February 19, 2009 - Categories: life, passion

Over lunch at the Craft Burger at Yonge and Bloor, Stephen Brickell and David Ing gave me advice about life, careers, and all sorts of other great things. (I’m such a lucky newbie!) Here’s a story from that conversation that I knew I just had to share with others.

Photo (c) 2007 grendelkhan (Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 License)

Stephen told me about the advice he had recently given Philip, his 18-year-old son. Philip had initially thought of taking engineering in university, probably because that was what he felt his parents wanted him to do. Stephen and his wife reminded their son that while they were happy to give advice, it was ultimately Philip’s decision, and he should take full responsibility for it. Stephen also shared how people who find and follow their passion end up doing much better than people who just focus on the money.

After a lot of consideration, Philip realized that he was really interested in horticulture. He worried that he’d regret taking horticulture instead of a more promising (and lucrative) career. What if he made a mistake and it wasn’t his passion after all? He didn’t feel that it wasn’t a university-type course, and he knew that his parents strongly wanted him to go to university.

Stephen told him that with global warming and other changes, food is going to become even more important – and an expertise in horticulture could very well be a way to make money. He also encouraged Philip to keep an eye out for opportunities to connect studies, entrepreneurship, and other things. For example, Philip enjoyed the culinary arts course he took in high school, and he could combine that with horticulture and entrepreneurship by growing restaurant-quality herbs in a greenhouse.

What I liked was the creative encouragement that Stephen gave. We’ve all heard advice to “do what you love and the money will follow,” but Stephen went one step further and helped Philip imagine concrete ways to make money doing what he loves.

What if Philip made a mistake and horticulture wasn’t what he really loved to do? Stephen reassured him that even if it was a perfect fit for him now, there’s still a chance that he’ll change his mind, grow out of it, or discover something new–and that’s okay. When that happens, Philip can just figure things out again. (And he might be surprised at how much of his skills he can transfer over to whatever new field he becomes interested in!)

I liked the way that Stephen made it clear that it’s okay not to figure everything out the first time around, and that life is about continuous learning.

What about university? Stephen said that he wanted his son to attend university because it would expand his mind. That said, Philip could go to university later, or take a business degree, or learn about all of these things later. Horticulture seemed to be a better fit at the moment, and the credits that Philip could earn there would be recognized by partner schools.

I liked the way that they had clearly thought out reasons for university, but they weren’t tied to the convention of university immediately after high school.

I’m glad Stephen shared that story with me. I asked him right away if I could share it with others, and he was happy to agree. There are a lot of interesting things in that story that I’d like to learn how to do well, particularly when it comes to encouraging others to find their passions and create opportunities.

Scaffolds and structures

February 20, 2009 - Categories: development, drupal, kaizen

I often talk about leverage and scale: creating as much value as I can for as many people as I can. Now that I’ve been with IBM for a while, I see the personal benefits of that practice in the assignments I get and the help I offer my coworkers. In a way, I build scaffolds to help people to do more.

Scaffolding Photo (c) 2008 Kevin Dooley (Creative Commons Attribution License)

One of the ways I’ve contributed to my team is by integrating a regression-testing framework into our Drupal project.On the team call last Tuesday, the project manager asked if everyone had seen the e-mail he had sent about testing, and if anyone had any comments. I reported that I had built the features that were assigned to me, but I was waiting for someone else to confirm testing. He asked if we could look into automated regression tests, too. I laughed and said we’d had them for months. I had even integrated them into the build and deployment script I’d written, but the other developers said that running the whole regression suite of project-related tests took too much time, so I turned that off. Still, I regularly ran full regression tests on my system, using customized versions of Drush and Simpletest.

I enjoy doing things like that: completing my tasks ahead of schedule and using the rest of the time to think of ways to optimize how people work. =) Kaizen – relentless improvement!

What does wild success look like? Kaizen and life; tweaking mornings

February 21, 2009 - Categories: kaizen, life, reflection

Photo © 2009 david.nikonvscanon (Creative Commons Attribution License)

“What does wild success look like?” I often ask that question when I want to clarify what we want to do and how we want to get there. I ask myself that question as well. If I could be wildly successful at whatever I want to do, what would life look like? Sketching a picture of what I want or writing about how it feels helps me figure out what kind of life I’d like to grow into, and the vision helps me figure out what I need to do to get there.

Sometimes I think about grand things, like the kind of difference I’d like to make. Sometimes I focus on the mechanics and the details – what does the day feel like? What are my routines? Who do I talk to? Both perspectives help me flesh out my sketch.

Sure, there are erasures as I change my mind, smudges as I blend different colors together, and lots of different versions of wild success depending on what I’m thinking about or how I’m feeling, but it’s a terrific tool for thinking long-term.

For example, here’s something I scribbled down on my iPod Touch while on the subway:

I wake up at 5:00 AM to opera, light, colors, cats, kisses, or whatever gives me a great start to my day. I exercise a little to get my blood flowing, and I have a healthy breakfast of steel-cut oats or fresh fruit. Then I gear up for a morning of creative work, settling into a comfy chair or setting up on the kitchen table for a four-hour session of brainstorming, writing code, and preparing articles and presentations. I snack on fruit and nuts along the way. I have a light lunch or head out to lunch with friends. Then I tackle more routine tasks: responding to mail, following up, editing and formatting documents, testing code, taking care of chores, reviewing delegated work, and other things. I make dinner and enjoy it with people I love, and spend the rest of the evening reading or enjoying people’s company. After tidying up and taking care of other things, I go to bed, happy with the work I did that day.

There’s more to it than that, and there are multiple versions too, but this is the one we’ll focus on for this blog post.

One of the advantages of envisioning wild success is that you often realize that it’s not too difficult to make it happen. The routine I’ve outlined doesn’t look too different from my typical day working at home. Because I’ve sketched the different components of my “ideal day”, I can start testing those parts to see if I can fit them into my life and if they really do contribute to happiness.

For example, I’ve been testing out this early-morning wakeup thing. I know that waking up and rushing through my morning routine is Not Fun. I also know that I enjoy creating “flow” space to do creative work in the early morning, and that I enjoy making breakfast for W- and J-. So an early morning wake-up time makes sense to me. But there are a couple of things I need to figure out in order to make this really work:

  • I don’t like waking up and bearing a grudge against the alarm clock. I’ve heard that gentler wake-up systems that use light and music to ease people into wakefulness are helpful. Dawn simulators (daylight alarm clocks) are a bit pricey and I think I’ll get more use out of an iPod clock radio with speakers, so I’ll go for that instead. Gradually waking up in the process of making breakfast seems to work too.
  • I feel guilty about disturbing others when I set the alarm clock very early, particularly as I’m also prone to hitting the snooze button. The way to deal with this is to fill my mornings with stuff that makes me want to jump out of bed. =)
  • My timing is not quite right. If I wake up really early and go to bed really early, I might get too out-of-sync with the rest of the folks. If I wake up early, but not early enough, and I need to go to the office, I don’t get as much flow time because it gets broken up by breakfast and the commute. I prefer commuting during daylight because it’s a bit warmer and brighter then. Given that, there are a couple of ways I can tweak my timing:
    • I can let myself wake up naturally, have breakfast and go to work, and then have a late lunch (buoyed by a morning snack). This gives me flow time.
    • I can wake up at 5, stumble through breakfast, eat something quickly, and work from home in the mornings, coming into work in the afternoon if needed.
    • I can wake up at 5, stumble through breakfast, eat something quickly, commute to work, get lots of stuff done, come home early, and enjoy people’s company at dinner.

So if I want to wake up even happier and have even more productive mornings (which is difficult if I feel tired or stressed), I can tweak my life so that:

  • I experiment with ways to wake up gently
  • I wake up with a clear idea of things to look forward to and some activities to do as my brain warms up
  • I never commit to anything in the late evening so that I can go to bed whenever I feel like it

Then I’ll be a little bit closer to figuring out what a wildly successful day looks and feels like… =)

What does your ideal day look like?

Photo © 2009 david.nikonvscanon (Creative Commons Attribution License)

LifeCampTO: Tweaking the plan!

February 22, 2009 - Categories: event

Yesterday, Jordan Baker and I had a great conversation about how to make LifeCampTO even better. We wanted to figure out how to give people more time for quick connections and discussion. =)

So here’s the plan for the next LifeCampTO:

Intros: (10:30 – 11:00, 30 minutes) – 2 minutes per person, strict.
Come prepared with the ONE THING you _most_ want help with and the ONE THING you’re really good at and want to offer help with. We’ll keep the number system and use that to track who wants to contact whom after the meeting. Some people missed connections because neither person wrote down numbers, so we’ll keep a running tally on a whiteboard or a projected spreadsheet. If you don’t want your e-mail address to be included in the automatic matchmaking list, tell me during the event and I can make a note of that. Numbers might be pre-assigned before the event, and you can post your intros then, too. Come early and eat brunch. =)
Small Conversations (11:00-11:40, 40 minutes):
5 rounds of 6 minutes each, with a few minutes between for a mad scramble to find the next person you wanted to talk to. A timer will announce the halfway mark so that people can switch to offer help to the other, if they require this prompting. If people feel up to paying a small fee, we can arrange for appetizers to appear.
Large Conversations (11:40-12:30, 50 minutes):
2 rounds of 20 minutes each, for large topics that bubble out of the introductions. People can self-organize into whatever-size groups they want to talk about stuff. Ideal time to grab a quick snack.

Think Tank (12:30-12:45, 15 minutes):
Someone wins the think tank lottery! The lucky winner shares his or her goal/challenge/topic of interest and we collectively brainstorm how to help.
Wrap-up (12:45-12:50, 5 minutes):
Thanks, follow-ups, etc. People are invited to stay and chat over lunch with new-found connections. If you have any additional connections you want me to make, give me the numbers and I’ll update my spreadsheet.

After the event, I will run my super-fantastic automatic matchmaking thing to connect people with other people through e-mail (omitting e-mail addresses for those who opted out of the process). You can then take that information and schedule your own followups.

So that’s the plan. Now, we can either make a mad scramble for it and do it on February 28 (a week’s notice!), or have the next one on March 28 or 29 or so. Personally, I’ve got a few talks coming up and I may need some time to cram, so I’d prefer to postpone. But hey, if you want to get together and make it happen, go ahead and run with it! =)

Looking forward to experimenting!

On the other side of the (virtual) desk

February 23, 2009 - Categories: kaizen, management

If I’m going to take over the world, I need to learn how to delegate. ;)

It’s a simple matter of mathematics. There are only so many hours in the day. I can’t achieve infinite productivity. Scaling up means figuring out how to work with others and how to delegate.

The traditional way of learning how to delegate involves being promoted to a management role, and that takes time and opportunity. With a little of the money I’ve set aside for my Crazy Idea Fund, I can experiment with delegation and personal outsourcing now. (Naturally, I delegate only non-IBM-confidential things.)

I interviewed almost 10 candidates out of more than 40 who applied. I’ve hired five people on a trial basis and assigned them a few tasks. In the process, I learned so much already! <laugh>

  • 80% of success is showing up. Half of the applicants didn’t notice the timezones on my invitations to pick an interview slot, even though I chose a tool that made it easy for them to translate the timezones to their own. And I’d already picked really early and really late times to make it easy for them to fit it into their schedules! Result: Many candidates had to reschedule interviews, and I lost time and sleep while waiting around. Making this better: Next time, I’ll assume people don’t know anything about timezones and I’ll point out the feature for changing timezones.
  • I’m a personal-development kind of manager. I’m pretty flexible in the tasks I assign, and I like finding out what people’s strengths and passions are so that I can find the intersection between my needs and their interests. I like how oDesk lets me get a glimpse of how people work, and I offer suggestions based on that. I also encourage people to take some time to reflect on how to make things better.
  • I tend to underestimate the time other people need. I find things on the Web really quickly because I’m used to opening a gazillion tabs and using web clipping tools like del.icio.us to store quick notes. I also speed-read like anything. Most people aren’t like that. I need to either scale up my time estimates or help people develop their skills.
  • A two-hour chunk is too short a time, particularly considering people are still getting started. I need to give people at least four hours to do a task. Maybe they’ll even get into a flow state.
  • I should start with highly-focused tasks or give people more time to become familiar with something. Web research might be difficult for VAs because they’re not yet familiar with the terminology, and I remember how it takes a bit of browsing around to get a sense of what things are called and where to look for information.
  • Trying people on a temporary basis is good. One of the advantages of working with small tasks and a structure like oDesk is that instead of betting the farm on one VA, I can try several VAs in parallel and then pick one who’s really the best fit. This is probably more expensive up front, but I learn a lot more because of the variety. After a month, perhaps I’ll decide which VA to work with going forward.

So the next thing that would make this VA experiment better would be to give people a four-hour task (perhaps building on what they’ve already done), and then continue with those who can keep up. I can also reevaluate my budget for the experiment, maybe add some more so that I can give people longer tasks and get a better sense of how people work, and then go from there. I think it’s worth continuing to invest in learning how to delegate, and it would be awesome to eventually build a support structure that can help me scale.

I suspect that after a short trial, I won’t find anyone whose skills will blow me away–but that goes back to what I’ve reflected on before, with employers who expect that people will have all the necessary skills right off the bat.

Yes, some people will figure out what they want to learn and invest time in learning those things. It would be awesome if I come across someone like that – but then I would want them to do more in life than handle other people’s web research and calendars! ;) So in the long run, I think it makes sense for me to invest in improving people’s skills.

Managers and companies sometimes complain that the people they invest in end up moving on. It’s okay if people “graduate” from working with me and go on to do other things. That’d be terrific, and it would give me even more return on my effort! In the meantime, the training materials I build to help people learn how to work can help the next person, and the next person, and so on. In fact, having more newbies go through the system would be great for improving it.

Writing this blog post seems to have fleshed out my reasons for doing this experiment, and what I can do with it… Can’t wait to learn even more!

Feel free to use your laptop or your phone in my talks! I love the backchannel

February 24, 2009 - Categories: presentation, speaking, web2.0

If you ever find yourself in any of my face-to-face presentations, please feel free to bring out your computer, your phone, or whatever else you use. It’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. I love it.

Some people–particularly presenters–hate it when others have their laptops open and are typing away. They feel it’s disrespectful and distracting.

Me? I love it when people have their laptops or phones open. Go ahead. Liveblog. Chat on the backchannel. Look up stuff I mention. Write things down on your TODO list. Doodle if you want to.

And yes, if there’s something else on your mind that you’re worrying about–a report that’s due, an emergency that just came up–by all means go ahead and work on it, because even if I instituted a no-laptops-or-phones-open policy, you’d still be thinking about it anyway. Better that I’m there in the background for you to catch an interesting snippet and look up (thanks to the cocktail party effect), than for you to resent me for taking up valuable time and making it difficult for you to edge out of the door in a graceful manner. (Because you sat up front, right? Best seats in the house.)

And if I can’t keep you interested enough so that you don’t get distracted by mail or I Can Has Cheezburger, then that’s my own fault. ;)

I’m not afraid of the backchannel–the online conversations that go on behind the scenes, a scaled-up version of passing notes and whispering in the crowd. If you’re talking about the ideas that I’m presenting, fantastic! I’ve engaged you in a much better way than I could ever have if you just sat there passively listening. If you’re looking up examples I’ve quoted and bookmarking them for later reading, hooray! I’ve said something that’s sparked your interest, and you’ll take it from there. If you’re asking or answering questions about what I’m saying, wow! You jumpstart the discussion and save other people from being confused. If you’re liveblogging what I’m talking about, you help even more people learn from it, and you give me even more results on the time and effort I invested in preparing the presentation.

I wish all of my talks had backchannels! One of the things I love about giving virtual presentations is that I can open up a backchannel where everyone–even the non-Tweeters–can chat about what we’re talking about, and that conversation is easy to watch while I’m giving the presentation. That means that I can see what people are picking up on, what people are curious or confused about, what questions people have–without interrupting my flow or introducing too many awkward pauses for questions. I’ve seen people provide further examples and answer each other’s questions, and that helps me learn even more while I’m giving the presentation.

What I love about the backchannel is that it changes the entire dynamic. It’s not about me, presenter, speaking at you, audience. It’s about all of us learning together. My job isn’t to be a high-and-mighty expert with all the answers. My job is to spark interest, facilitate conversation, and connect the dots. The backchannel not only democratizes the actual talk, acknowledging the expertise and interest you bring, but it also extends our reach and starts bigger conversations.

Recent example: I was giving a virtual presentation on Totally Rocking Your Drupal Development Environment. The backchannel let me quickly poll people and collect their questions and tips.

Another example: I was on the Generation Y panel at the City of Toronto Web 2.0 Summit. The venue had WiFi, so I checked out the Twitter backchannel on my iPod Touch. Thanks to Twitter, I could tell that people were dissatisfied with the slow and moderated online questions process, skeptical of the event and the speakers, and interested in engaging further. I announced that I’d be watching the Twitter backchannel, and during our panel, I kept an eye on the questions and comments that flowed past. That let me shape what I said to incorporate other people’s perspectives and points of view, and that totally rocked.

And next time, I may even have Twitter breaks. ;) And I may put up a sign directing people to sit on the left side or the right side depending on whether they want to engage in the backchannel, so that others who are easily distracted by the clackety-clack of fingers on a keyboard can cluster together. I don’t think I can arrange for beanbags in the front for bloggers, though – that requires more planning than most of my talks have. ;)

Go ahead. Make my day! =) Next time you’re in one of my session, join the conversation. We’ll all learn so much more if you do.

Inspired by Olivia Mitchell’s excellent post on How to Present While People are Twittering

UPDATE: Also check out Beth Kanter’s blog post with lots of links to resources on backchannels: The art of the backchannel at conferences: tips, reflections, and resources

UPDATE: … and Olivia Mitchell’s follow-up at Is Twitter a good thing while you’re presenting? (thanks to Beth for the reminder!)

VA Days: Calendar Management

February 24, 2009 - Categories: -Uncategorized

Hey, this actually does work. =) I experimented with outsourcing calendar management, and the results so far are promising.

I invested some time in writing detailed calendar management instructions, and then I forwarded details for five events I’d like to arrange over the next couple of weeks. The VA I assigned the task to entered in all the details. The only part she forgot was to create appointments on my tentative calendar for each of the events, but that’s okay. The oDesk work diary shows me that she created them, but they were on her own calendar.

She took an hour to set up her account and type in the events, and she’ll probably do things even faster next time. And the process works! =)

Here’s my process so far:


Calendar Management

I use AgreeADate (http://www.agreeadate.com) to set up appointments, and Google Calendar (http://calendar.sachachua.com) for my calendar.

To find timezones agreeable to people, use this Meeting Planner: http://timeanddate.com/worldclock/meeting.html. I am okay with meetings after 7:00 AM EST and before 11:00 PM EST (Canada – Ontario – Toronto).
To convert between timezones, use http://timeanddate.com/worldclock/converter.html.

See XXX for password information.

Setting up potential appointments

  1. Open my main Google calendar in a separate window so that you can see when I’m available. You can access it at XXXXX with your username and password.
  2. Log on to http://www.agreeadate.com with the given username and password in Accounts and Passwords.
  3. Click on “Add a New Event”.
  4. Set up basic event details.
  1. Type in the event title (and venue, for in-person events), and the duration I specified
    Preferred venues:
    • Lunch during weekdays
    • Ichiriki – Japanese – 120 Bloor Street E, Toronto  Hours: 11:45 – 2:30?
    • Camros Eatery (http://www.camroseatery.com/) – Vegan Hours: M-F 11:30am to 7:30pm  (no travel time necessary)
    • Weekends: Linux Caffe (http://www.linuxcaffe.ca) – 326 Harbord Street, Toronto. Hours: M-F: 7am to 11pm, Sat 10am to 11pm, Sun 10am to 5pm
  2. Set AgreeADate to send a reminder 1 day before the event. 
  3. Add additional text:
    • If people have not indicated their phone numbers, add

Please use the “Send message to host” feature to send me the phone numbers / Skype ID I can reach you at just in case something comes up.

  • For phone appointments, include the following segment in the Additional text box:

    Times are given in Eastern Standard Time. If you need to change the timezone, use the link on the AgreeADate reply page labeled

    “Not your time zone? To convert time zone click here.”

    Sacha Chua’s contact information
    Skype ID: XXX
    Mobile number: XXX
    Work number: XXX
    E-mail: XXX

  • For in-person appointments, include the following segment in the Additional text box:

    Sacha Chua’s contact information
    Mobile number: XXX
    Work number: XXX
    E-mail: XXX

  • Click on the Next step.
  • Set up dates
    1. Offer 3-5 choices, making sure that they don’t conflict with events on my main or tentative calendars.
    1. For in-person meetings, I prefer lunch (12:00 PM – 1:00 PM) or coffee/tea/hot chocolate (any time between 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM), preferably on a Thursday or Friday
    2. For phone meetings, I prefer calls on Saturday or Sunday (9:00 AM – 9:00 PM), preferring Saturday afternoon
  • Create Google Calendar events for each slot on the Tentative calendar. That way, I can glance at my main calendar + tentative calendar to see where I might potentially have appointments.
  • Click on the next step.
  • Invite people.
    1. Type in the e-mail addresses of everyone I want to invite. You can generally skip the names, although I’ll ask you if I need the names typed in.
    2. Click on “Save changes.” DO NOT SEND INVITATIONS YET.
    3. E-mail me at XXX with a link to the event to tell me that it’s ready for review.

    When I ask you to copy the calendar information:

    1. Open the event on http://www.agreeadate.com.
    2. Click on Review and Select.
    3. Open my Google Calendar in another window.
    4. For each confirmed slot, update the corresponding calendar event. Set the event title to the event subject and invitee name(s). Copy any contact details (see the bottom for the messages sent to the host, and your e-mail for other contact information) into the body of the calendar event. Move the event to the main calendar.
    5. If all the appointments in this event have been confirmed, delete the other tentative calendar events from my tentative Google Calendar.
    6. Report completion through e-mail in your status update.

    I use the Google Labs “Canned Responses” feature to set up the following mail template:

    Hello, XXX!

    Could you please set up the following event:

    Event type:
    Title:
    Venue:
    Duration:
    Your timezone: Leave this at Eastern Time
    Dates and times:

    Invitees:

    Additional text:

    —–
    For your reference:

    Link to calendar management instructions: XXX
    Link to accounts/passwords: XXX
    AgreeADate site: http://www.agreeadate.com
    Google Calendar: XXX

    Thanks!

    Weekly report: Week ending Feb 22, 2009 (yes, a bit late)

    February 25, 2009 - Categories: weekly

    From last week:

    • Move Transition2 to the latest version of Drupal 5 and make sure all the test cases still run Yup. Until something broke again. Still have to figure out what’s going on with our tests
    • Start doing more integration testing, now that others have made progress on their parts Working on other features while waiting
    • Interview more candidates for sysad and virtual assistant positions Hired a bunch of people, yay! See my VA-related blog posts.
    • Sew myself a circle skirt Done. Totally channeling the 1950s!
    • Experiment with a magazine-style WordPress theme Tweaked my theme.
    • Send books to my mom Not done yet.

    In addition, I

    • Had great one-on-one sessions with my manager and with my manager’s manager
    • Helped my team members do a lot with Drupal
    • Learned a lot about delegation
    • Picked up a lot of fabric! =) Started making slacks.

    … but as is usually the case when I write late weekly reports, there’s a lot more that has slipped away because I hadn’t written it down somewhere. =|

    Next week (or what’s left of this week, really):

    • Clean up source code and get it ready for a week’s absence
    • Get ready for DrupalCon trip
    • Delegate some more tasks and figure out how to help people become better web researchers
    • Try capoeira
    • Delegate calendar management

    Your subconscious is your friend

    February 26, 2009 - Categories: life

    What do you dream about?
    Sleeping cat (c) 2006 dominiqs81 Creative Commons Attribution License

    I often have vivid dreams about upcoming important events. If I have a presentation the next day, I dream about waking up too late, forgetting the presentation, or forgetting what I have to say. If I have an upcoming trip, I dream about little things that could go wrong, like not having an up-to-date passport.

    I often recognize that I’m dreaming, and I can influence the way my dreams run. For example, I might repeat a scenario again and again until I figure out a good way to deal with it, or I might explore something else.

    Sometimes I prime the pump by thinking of upcoming tasks or events right before I go to sleep, letting my brain think about what can go wrong and what can go really well. Other times, I’ll think of a problem I’m trying to solve or something I’d like to figure out, and I’ll let my brain play with it while I sleep. On more than one occasion, I’ve dreamt in code. (It’s very strange!)

    It’s helpful. I think of things I might not remember in real life, and I get to practice different scenarios until I’m comfortable with the way I deal with them.

    Try it out. When you go to sleep tonight, ask your dreaming self to spend some time thinking about what’s on your mind. =)

    Photo credits: Sleeping cat © 2006 dominiqs81 Creative Commons Attribution License.

    VA Days: Refining web research process for virtual assistance

    February 28, 2009 - Categories: kaizen

    I do a lot of web research, and I’d like to be able to outsource that to a virtual assistant. Web research is also one of the common services offered by virtual assistants. My coworkers tell me that I find information on the Net very quickly. If I can teach those skills to virtual assistants I work with, then we’ll all benefit.

    What’s different about the way I do things? I think the following factors affect my speed:

    • I come up with alternative queries and am good at detecting information scent. After a bit of background reading, I can get a sense of what things are called and what I can use in my search queries to find information. I’m also good at finding interesting links that lead me to more information.
    • Speed-reading lets me quickly look for relevant portions. I don’t read entire webpages. I skim them to find things of value, such as case studies and good quotes. There are two parts to speed reading: the skill of reading quickly, and enough familiarity with the subject matter to know which parts of the text don’t add anything new to the body of knowledge.
    • I use tools to find, organize and share content. I make the most of tabs in Mozilla Firefox, and I sometimes use other browser features and extensions to work even faster. In addition to regular information sources, I search bookmarks and blogs to find information that other people have filtered. Del.icio.us lets me bookmark webpages worth revisiting, storing excerpts in the notes. With the Ubiquity add-on for Mozilla Firefox, I can bookmark things without using the mouse. =) End result: I don’t waste time copying and pasting documents into a master document and trying to make sure that I can find things again, and I accumulate an archive of useful information.
    • I use breadth-first search. I often branch out from the search results and open a dozen tabs at a time. This lets me explore a lot of sites, then go deep on one or two sites that have good information density.

    I want to help my virtual assistants learn how to work like this, or to refine their own process for finding information on the Internet. Here’s the process I’ve documented so far.


    There are several kinds of web research I might ask you to do. Sometimes, all I want is a brief overview of available resources, with excerpts for ease of scanning. Other times, I want to find specific examples. Yet other times, I want to fact-check something, or re-find something I’d seen before.

    These instructions are for doing web research to get a brief overview.

    Output: At the end of your Web research, I would love to get a list with lots of hyperlinks and with the key excerpts from your reading. You can create a page on this Google Site. I would also greatly appreciate it (and you probably will too) if you use a social bookmarking website to bookmark interesting pages as you come across them.

    Preparation – using del.icio.us:

    I’d like you to still be able to take advantage of your bookmarks and your research even if you decide to stop working as a VA or work for someone else. One way to do that seems to be to use social bookmarks. I find that del.icio.us is the easiest one to use and share.

    1. Go to http://del.icio.us and register for an account.
    2. Follow the instructions to add the buttons to your browser. If you want, you can also install the del.icio.us extension for your browser.
    3. Go to http://del.icio.us/sachac and click on Add to my Network. E-mail me your user ID.

    Now let’s try bookmarking.

    1. Go to one of your favorite sites for learning. (If you don’t have one, now is a good time to quickly look for one!)
    2. Click on the Bookmark on Delicious button to pop up a window. Copy an excerpt or type in a short description of the page in the Notes text field. For Tags, use for:sachac plus whatever other keywords you feel describes the content. You can use as many keywords as you wish. Separate keywords with spaces. If this is for a web research project, add the keywords for the project too. It may help to have a text editor open with for:sachac and the project keywords, so you can just copy and paste them in.
    3. Click on Save.

    See my bookmarks at http://del.icio.us/sachac for examples. In particular, I tend to be good at remembering to grab excerpts for http://delicious.com/sachac/web20forbiz . Compare a few of those bookmarks against the original pages to see what I focus on.

    ADVANCED TIP: If you’re comfortable with Mozilla Firefox, install the Ubiquity add-on and go through the tutorial. You will then be able to create del.icio.us bookmarks by typing Ctrl-space share-on-delicious description tagged tags. Bonus: It remembers the tags from the last time you called it. You don’t have to type in the full “share-on-delicious” command – use TAB to autocomplete.

    So here’s my recommended process for doing web research:

    1. Start by searching Google. Google News (http://news.google.com) and Google Blog Search (http://blogsearch.google.com) often give you newer content than a straightforward search on http://www.google.com does. On Google Blog Search, try both Sort by Relevance and Sort by date to find interesting and recent posts.
    2. Quickly scan the first page of results. When you see a promising page, use Ctrl+click to open it in a new tab. Continue scanning the first page of results, opening pages in new tabs. You’ll probably have lots of tabs open.
    3. Go to the first tab and scan the text. You don’t need to read everything. Just look for the key point(s) of the webpage or article. This is usually near the end. Keep an eye out for specific examples, results, and tips. Sometimes, there’s nothing worth copying, because the article or post just repeats other things you’ve already read. If there is something worth saving, though:
      1. Click on the Bookmark on Delicious button and make a bookmark for it, following the instructions outlined in the previous section.
      2. If I’ve asked you to prepare a report in another format or a longer format, copy the information into that document or spreadsheet, including a link to the webpage.
      3. Use Ctrl+w or the tab close button (if any) to close the tab, and process the next one. Repeat until you’ve finished all the tabs.
    4. Look at the next page of results. Repeat the process until you feel that it’s getting hard to find useful articles or posts.
    5. Try a different search query and explore. As you briefly scan the webpages you’re bookmarking, you’ll get a sense of other words people use to describe things. Try searching for those synonyms. By looking at the first few pages of results, you can get an idea of whether that search will get you new information. You can also check your del.icio.us bookmarks list by going to http://del.icio.us and clicking on your username. If any of your bookmarks have a number in a box on the right side, that means more than one person has bookmarked the same page. Click on the number to see the list of people and the tags they’ve used to categorize that bookmark. Explore by clicking on people’s tags to view _their_ bookmarks, and so on. You can follow links from interesting articles, too.

    At the end of this, you’ll have:

    • a whole list of bookmarked sites, which I can automatically check out (with your excerpts), and which will be available to you even if you decide to work with other people or stop working as a VA, =)
    • maybe an additional report (documents go in this Google Site, spreadsheets should be created in Documents and shared with me at sacha@sachachua.com; files can be e-mailed to me if you run into problems or can’t figure out how to share the information),
    • and a lot of new knowledge. Hooray!

    If I asked for a report, I’ll look at that first, and I’ll also look at my del.icio.us inbox (which contains all of those things that were tagged for me).

    Please feel free to ask questions or make suggestions on how we can improve this process!


    We’re going to try this new process out next week. =)

    VA Days: Rethinking web search and virtual assistance

    February 28, 2009 - Categories: kaizen

    While preparing a 6-minute demo of the way I use del.icio.us and Ubiquity to organize my web research, I had an aha! moment about how I find things on the Web.

    You see, the process I outlined for web research is about finding and bookmarking lots of pages, but what I really find useful isn’t compiling a list of individual pages: it’s finding one or two sites — or one or two people — who keep large, up-to-date collections of information. For example, in that search for Government 2.0-related sites, the key resources are a Government 2.0 Best Practices wiki and this Gov 2.0 Resource Center. Both pages are packed with examples.

    The first priority in web research, then, is to identify those key resources: lists that compile links to other resources, and bloggers who filter lots of news and post what’s going on. I can review the list and add the bloggers to my Google Reader. Only if these resources have not yet emerged will I find lots of individual pages useful. In essence, what I’m doing is building a network of mavens. I don’t need to know everything myself, but I need to know who would know or where to find information I want.

    Along the way, I also discovered Ubiquity goodness. =) It’s made social bookmarking so much easier.

    Anyway, here’s a demo of how I find things on the Net: