Thursday, June 6, 2013

New Gig at Amazon

Big news: I've accepted a Product Management position at Amazon Music!

I know what you're thinking: "Bob! You love working at Vertigo and get to create some of the coolest new video applications in the world there! Why would you ever leave?"  You're not wrong.  In fact, Vertigo is special to me for many reasons:
  • Vertigo is populated by crazy talented and creative people, and our small, flat environment means that most people can just focus on building great products.  
  • I've learn from my colleagues here on a daily basis.
  • I consider so many people here to be friends, and this is the most collegial, enlightened, and family-like work environment I've ever encountered.
  • At 5 years, my tenure at Vertigo is far and away the longest of any job I've held.
Leaving such a special group of people is very tough to do. What opportunity could drag me away from such a unique place?

I'm leaving to pursue an opportunity that combines my personal passion for music with my professional passion for directing and creating groundbreaking products.  As a musician myself and as the co-founder of a start-up in the music space, I have always been powerfully drawn to the ways that the digital medium in which I work can impact music.  One of the reasons I moved to San Francisco was due to the great music and tech communities here, and I've spent many a night attending music/tech consortia like Musica Technomica, trying to learn more from the talent behind Pandora, Gracenote, and other innovators in the music space here in the Bay Area.  The digital music world is undergoing some revolutionary changes these days, and I'm excited about the opportunity to be a part of it full-time.

For a long while, I've admired Amazon's leadership in cloud computing and used AWS infrastructure to build out the platform for (the start-up I founded).  As a technologist, I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the powerful infrastructure, tools, and mountain of data that Amazon has used to make themselves the most reputable company in the United States.  As a product manager, I can't wait to use these tools to guide the vision for a product that creates a unique music experience for so many people.

I want to thank everyone at Vertigo and the great clients I've had the opportunity to work with over the last few years for your enthusiasm, drive, creativity, and talent.  I'm certainly going to miss you.

Finally, a burning question that remains: will it make sense for my Blog to be named "Life at 30 Frames per Second" given my new job's focus?  Perhaps not, but it sounds a lot catchier than the audio-appropriate "Life at 96 kHz".

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Workflow Oriented Apps for Connected TV Devices...with Pizza!

Traditional media apps that live on consoles and connected TV devices typically focus on allowing browsing and playback of video content at their core.  Makes sense - that's the entire reason you bought your Roku/Smart TV/etc!  

The recent launch of the Xbox Live Tournaments app powered by Virgin Gaming marked an important milestone for applications on consoles/connected TV devices, in that it was not a traditional media app.  Instead, it was a workflow-oriented application that focused on leveraging the 6-foot TV/couch/living room experience as a primary vehicle for productivity in a situation where using a PC or a tablet would be more interruptive and lose context.  If you've signed in to your Xbox Live profile and want to play games against other users of Xbox Live, maintaining that context has a tremendous amount of value when you want to browse for games, opponents, and tournaments, and that's the biggest value proposition of the Xbox Live Tournaments app.

Where else does the TV itself beat out a tablet, phone, or PC in terms of workflow/productivity apps?  It's hard to imagine Kinect's gesture and voice commands or an Xbox controller providing a faster or richer browsing experience for productivity applications like checking my bank account or browsing email.  However, one compelling use case that jumps out is a multi-user experience.  When a family in a living room needs to make a decision on what to consume, or when a group of coworkers in a board room needs to collaborate to provide input to accomplish something, the TV provides a great interface for viewing, browsing, and acting on content.  

It's in this space that I see a wave of workflow applications for connected TV devices coming in the near future.  

With that in mind, my colleague Keith Craig pointed out that Microsoft and Pizza Hut had launched a Pizza Hut app for the Xbox today.  At first, I reminded him that April Fool's Day is April first.  Sure enough though, this is real!  Pizza Hut's app features a "Create Your Own" pizza tool that users in a living room can use to come up with pizza toppings on which they all agree.

Most of the reaction I've read online shares my initial sarcastic response - see Doug Aamoth's "You can FINALLY Order Pizza Hut Using Your Xbox 360".  This sarcasm is somewhat well deserved: the app appears in the "Social" section of the apps in Xbox Live even though it isn't a social app - a growing pain of being the first in a new category of apps that doesn't yet have a real category.  Furthermore, the value proposition of downloading and setting up an account for a dedicated app to order food from one restaurant is dubious for most users.

However, these reactions may miss the long view of what this type of app represents.  There's a real need for non-media applications in a lean-back experience, and I'm convinced that future apps will come along with very compelling value propositions for connected TV users.

As an example, my wife and I recently had a baby, and as such we've increased the frequency that we use GrubHub to browse menus of local restaurants and have food delivered to our home.  When we do so, my wife often browses menus on her phone, and then calls out restaurants she's interested in to me, at which point I'll often use my own phone or my laptop to separately browse the content.  Accomplishing this task on a shared, large screen would represent a vastly improved multi-user experience.  A single GrubHub app would allow us to order food from ANY local restaurant in a consistent shared experience, and the improvement in the experience would only grow if we had friends or a larger group over.  

I'd love to see a GrubHub app on the Xbox, building on the Pizza Hut concept.  It would provide a fantastic amount of utility for the living room environment!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Virgin Gaming Xbox Live Tournaments App

I'm excited to announce that the Xbox Live Tournaments app powered by Virgin Gaming has just launched!  Our team at Vertigo partnered with Virgin and Microsoft to design and develop a way for Virgin Gaming's community of over 2 million gamers to find and compete in gaming tournaments without having to leave the Xbox console.

Most Xbox 360 LIVE applications are media applications but Virgin Gaming broke new ground by building a feature rich Xbox gaming application with sophisticated workflows and payment system.  It was a lot of fun to be part of the team that brought this unique application to life!

To kick off the new app, Virgin Gaming has decided to host a $100,000 tournament rewarding users for playing on the app. 

Time for me to brush up on my Madden skills...

Video and screenshots appear below, and see the official Vertigo news post and the Virgin Gaming blog for further details.

Monday, March 18, 2013

March Madness: A Load Test for Workplace Culture

March Madness is one of the best tests of your workplace and the nature of how you work.  The NCAA tournament is one of the biggest live online video events of the year, but what makes it special is that the most exciting phase happens during work hours on a Thursday and Friday every year, and many employees stream it over the company network during the day.

This presents several challenges for traditional offices.  Firstly, a massive amount of video is streamed over the company's network, and some companies don't have the bandwidth to keep up.  Far more interesting to me, though, is the cultural clash between management and employees - managers want employees to stay productive and work heads-down throughout the two days of the tournaments, whereas employees (and some of the managers themselves) want to watch the tournament live during the workday and participate in the excitement in real time.

While the IT staff may see the tournament as a good load test for the company's network, I see the flood of employees who want to spend part of the day watching basketball as a great load test for your company's workplace culture.

In engineering, load tests are awesome because they magnify and highlight inefficiencies and problems that might otherwise go unnoticed in a given system.  Fixing the problems you find from these tests make the system work better even when it's not under load, and give you confidence that the system is solid and reliable when there is significant load.

Does Your Workplace Culture Scale?

What I love about the March Madness effect is that it magnifies and underscores broken relationships and expectations between management and employees.  If your workplace can't handle employees taking a few hours to watch basketball in a modern office setting, something is fundamentally broken with the way you work.  

Whether or not you consider your work environment to be officially "Results Only", most information-based work involves employees who are empowered and trusted to do heads-down work, attend meetings, collaborate with stakeholders, and mentor and assist other team members.  It is incumbent on most employees to balance these priorities and drive towards clearly stated expectations for results.  

Broken work environments in the information economy are structured based on the factory or assembly line model, where productivity is directly related to employees being tethered to a position and doing heads-down work at a fixed position in a process for fixed hours.  The problem with this model is that information-based work is laden with unpredictable dependencies.  A task you thought would take an hour may take 4 hours, a dependency you thought would be available tomorrow won't be, and a task you thought could be done solo may require the effort of a multi-disciplinary team.  Beyond that, creative professionals are more effective and happier when they can make decisions at the ground level - the people doing the work are the best people to decide how the work should be done.  The factory approach is a Soviet style "command and control" model, whereas the method of empowering and trusting employees is a much more flexible and dynamic "free market" approach.

Healthy work environments in the information economy are structured to maximize the productivity of empowered employees who can best decide when and how to accomplish their work and achieve the best results.  Do you need to take your child to a doctor's appointment at 2:30pm today?  Don't ask permission - just figure out how to deliver results.  Allowing that employee to shift their solo work to get done later that evening is so much more productive than forcing them to take a half day off to meet a "butts in chairs" requirement.  Are you blocked on your work for the next 2 hours due to a dependency?  Go run some errands or take the rest of the day off, and free up some extra time to knock out your work the next day when the dependency is available.

Incentivizing results produces results.  Incentivizing 9-5 productivity in an office produces people sitting in an office from 9-5 who may or may not be productive.  This isn't to say that there won't ever be "crunch time" when more hours than usual are needed.  The key is that teams are empowered to decide what that time looks like and how it is organized.

So, when the March Madness tournament comes around, what is the freak-out factor among the management of your company?  If your company is already structured to allow employees to focus on results and manage their own schedules to do so, then March Madness shouldn't have any effect.  A few hours of watching video during the day on Thursday and Friday are no different than a bunch of doctor visits and errands that happen to occur at the same time.

If you can't handle having employees unproductive for a few hours during a weekday, you've failed the load test.  This also means that you really can't handle those doctor visits or any schedule flexibility at a small scale, either.  Perhaps, at a small scale, you allow people personal time when needed, but there's likely tension in the air about it, and employees may be stressed out needing to ask about it.  More importantly, you likely emphasize an illusion of productivity rather than real productivity within your work culture. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Managing Remote Teams

Marissa Mayer's decision this week to require all Yahoo employees to work in Yahoo's physical Sunnyvale office created a nationwide conversation.  

Many in the tech world (myself included) were shocked by the announcement, as working with distributed teams has simply become the way software is made.  Collaborating with a team of people building tools for virtual experiences seems to naturally lend itself to collaborating virtually.  A tech company saying that they cannot figure out how to collaborate virtually to build great products promotes the image that they just "don't get it", and won't be able to build great products for the internet. 

However, if Yahoo's remote employees are truly slacking off at home and failing to contribute meaningfully to Yahoo's culture, it's probably the fault of Yahoo's management.  Fire the poor managers who don't even know if their teams are producing productive output.  The solution here is to set up remote employees for success, not to revert to a model of work tailored to an industrial economy rather than an information economy.  

With poor management and a lack of motivation and inspiration, an employee can be just as unproductive at work as they can be at home.  When the unproductive Yahoo employees come in for their first day back at the office, the poor management structure will still be unaware of their contributions or lack thereof, and that's the root of the problem.

While I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, I thought I'd describe how we do remote work at Vertigo:

I typically manage a project team of ~5-10 people, and there are also 4 people that report to me from an H.R. perspective. Of those groups, at least half are remote employees.  This means that our project teams have to find common ground to allow everyone to work effectively whether at the office or remote.  This typically means that we'll need to use online project management tools rather than whiteboards, screen sharing rather than side by side paired programming, and Skype rather than conference rooms for stand up meetings.  

It's weird when a project team consists of a few people who are all at the office and we realize that we're holding a stand up meeting over Skype with each other, but we've built this kind of consistency into the way we work and we barely notice it any more.

Creating this kind of level playing field for remote and local employees goes a long way to making remote employees feel valued, and making local employees understand that remoteness is no excuse for a lack of collaboration.  

Openness and transparency

A hidden benefit that emerges from this methodology is that our processes become immediately extensible and scale-able to our clients, 3rd party stakeholders, and the world.  If a client wants to see the estimates and flowcharts from yesterday's sprint planning meeting, they're immediately visible and available on the online tool in which they were originally created, rather than sitting on a whiteboard.  If we need technical assistance from a technology partner, our 15 minute meeting discussing the problem with screen sharing showing code can be recorded and played back to get people up to speed.

This openness has a positive feedback loop effect as well.  When everyone can see everything, it's very clear exactly what work is getting done.  Remote employees at Vertigo would never go unnoticed, because their work is visible in the same way that everyone else's work is.  The openness encourages collaboration and productivity, as everyone knows that their work will be discussed and used by the team on a daily basis.


Perhaps the biggest drawback to remote workers is that their day to day "water cooler" interaction is limited with the rest of the staff.  I can't take my half-remote team out for a beer after a big deliverable, and that sucks.  

Building a highly motivated team that coalesces around the work depends on healthy culture, so this is a real problem.  My take on the solution is to try to create opportunities for culture to breathe whenever possible.  

Schedule group meetings with enough time for chatting about the weekend for the first 10 minutes.  Take a minute to show that funny YouTube video halfway through a technical meeting when someone mentions a meme.  

Most of all though, make sure the team knows that they are adults, and as such are implicitly trusted to deliver high quality products.  You can't command and control a team into that mindset.  A culture where I deliver that feature because I know my teammates are counting on me is so much more powerful than one where I try to deliver it because my boss is breathing down my neck.  

I'm looking forward to the new 37Signals book on this topic, "Remote".

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Secret Menu: In-N-Out Design

Panera bread gained some attention this week through the revelation of their "secret menu" of items not advertised on the menus in their stores.  West Coasters in the know are aware that In-N-Out has special ordering options that they do not make known, and were for a long time only available via word of mouth.  Even Starbucks has a little baby sized cup of coffee called the "Short" size.

Why do this?  If you offer a feature, why not tell people about it?  If you're In-N-Out burger, why have an insanely short and simple menu and then hide the deeper options?  And how do these principles apply to the software design world?

  • Creating insider information makes your customers/users part of an exclusive club.  Remember that cool tracking shot scene from Goodfellas (a movie with many great tracking shots) where Ray Liotta takes Karen through the back entrance of the Copacabana nightclub, introducing her to the servers and staff while being shown to a private table and skipping the line?  There's no way you could create that with a fast food joint or a piece of boring software, right?  Wrong.
  • These "power users" are far more likely to want to share their cool hack with their social circles.  
  • Word of mouth marketing from friends is orders of magnitude more effective than traditional advertising
  • In the age of Google, anyone who really wants to know can effortlessly find the information you're "hiding", so you're not really denying it to anyone.
  • Simplicity and minimal options are pillars of good UX design (even for restaurants).  Don't Make Me Think.  Put the options behind a curtain.

Friday, February 15, 2013

This Machine Kills Television

As asteroid DA 14 narrowly avoids earth this afternoon, it strikes me that the bulk of the serious coverage is not happening on network TV, but instead on NASA TV's online feed, JPL's Ustream feed, and various other online-accessible locations with niche content streaming feeds from radar stations across the world.  

Of course, all-day coverage of an asteroid would surely not be the most profitable content for the major networks today, so they're ceding this niche to various online players.  It wouldn't make sense for them not to.  The only trouble is, by the time the next almost killer asteroid swings by to say hello to Earth, almost everything will be niche content, and the traditional broadcast and cable networks will see continually decreasing interest in their model of curated linear content.  The combination of high speed internet access anywhere you go on mobile and connected devices with the liberation of content through an exploding number of online services means users will seek content based on their interests and social connections wherever the fewest barriers and interruptions exist.

Those of us in the media technology world are, to put it simply, building machines that kill television.  This got me thinking about the artistic value of literally applying that label to the machines we use to revolutionize television.

Woody Guthrie famously performed with a very unique guitar.  After observing the phrase "This Machine Kills Fascists" written on fighter airplanes during the Spanish Civil War, Guthrie took a "Pen is Mightier than the Sword" view and put the same phrase on his guitar.  This became a legend in music, and several artists have riffed on this concept.  Steve Earle (of HBO's Treme) comments on New Orleans and Katrina with "This Machine Floats", and Don't Forget to Be Awesome went with "This Machine Pwns N00bs":

Ok - my turn.  If I'm creating software that kills television, what's the most appropriate "guitar" with which to proclaim that message?

The mobile device that's driving forward "TV Anywhere"?

The MacBook Pro I use to create that software?

Or the connected TV device that's emboldened a new wave of cord-cutters?