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?

Friday, February 8, 2013

How Catastrophic Failures in the Super Bowl, Online Video, and Nuclear Power Are Related

Failure is fascinating.

I think there's something ingrained in human nature (and particularly in engineers and designers) that draws us to observe failure and ask "How can I prevent this from happening to me"?  It's why we slow down to look at car wrecks, and why we're glued to TV news coverage of disasters.  People want to feel in control, and like to rationalize why that disaster they're observing won't happen to them.  Even watching celebrity train wrecks from Gary Busey to Honey Boo Boo provides an affirmation that "At least that's not happening to me."

In particular, I find myself fascinated by engineering failures.  As a kid, watching the footage of the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge with my Dad (also an engineer) instilled me with a sense that all of our technical accomplishments are fleeting and fragile.  The question reverberating in my mind for the rest of my life has been "How do we stop these disasters from happening?"

The strange thing is, that drive to prevent these kinds of failures is often itself the root cause of the catastrophe. 

My Catastrophe Story
As an adult now, I've seen the occasional engineering catastrophe up close, though usually resulting in failed video feeds, rather than collapsed bridges.  In "war room" or "control room" settings, I've felt the intense pressure of a major live video event going wrong, and needing to help fix it quickly while the pressure mounts and the audience disappears.  

During the very first internet broadcast of NBC's Sunday Night Football experience in 2009, our war room operation was in a panic.  Our real time analytics were showing a steep drop-off in viewership, and the origin servers streaming out the live video for the event were under incredible load.  It looked like a malicious 3rd party was executing a Denial of Service (DOS) attack against us.  As it turned out, we were our own attackers.

To handle the large load from a nation streaming such a big sporting event, we had configured a Content Delivery Network (CDN) to handle the traffic.  Individuals streaming the event would stream it from the CDN's servers, and the CDN's servers would get the stream from our origin servers.  As a mechanism to ensure that the CDN's servers were always up to date, they would issue requests to the origin servers whenever they needed content.  When they failed to get that content, they would ask at a greater frequency than usual.  At the same time, the configuration files for the online player were also hosted in the same manner.  As it turns out, the configuration of the player and CDN caused each configuration file request to go to the origin servers.  This created a lot of load on those servers, so they stopped responding to the CDN for video requests, which caused the CDN to request video chunks much more frequently than normal.  This led to a cascade of increased load - basically, a denial of service attack on our origin by our own CDN.

So, the system we'd designed to reduce load on our origins caused lots of load on our origins.

The good news was that we were able to keep the main feed up for the whole game for most users, with only secondary functionality taking a fatal hit.  By the next game, we had established a robust testing mechanism to determine proper cache offload configuration prior to the games, and things went relatively smoothly for the rest of the season.

The Blackout Bowl
With that experience in mind, I felt strong empathy for the electrical engineers and operators who dealt with the "Blackout Bowl" this past Sunday, as the largest television event of the year threatened to turn into a total disaster as the lights turned off during the middle of the Super Bowl.  I've been there, and it was painful to watch (even though it gave our Niners a much needed reprieve).

The funny thing is, the device that caused the power outage during the Super Bowl was a device designed to...prevent power outages.  Once again, a situation where the device designed to prevent the problem actually caused the problem.

This is not a unique phenomenon.  Very often, the fatal flaw in safety systems is the very complexity of those safety systems themselves.

Safety System Danger System
This happens frequently.  Over Christmas this year, Netflix went down for an extended period due to an AWS outage.  What caused it?  An engineer performing maintenance on the East Coast Elastic Load Balancing system - the system designed to balance load and prevent outages.

At the extreme end of the severity spectrum, we can look to the worst industrial disaster in human history, the Chernobyl Nuclear Meltdown.  While the most fundamental flaw was in a poor reactor design that accelerated fission during a runaway reaction rather than slowing it, the actual cause of the accident was a test of a safety system designed to prevent a runaway reaction.

The Other Blackout During the Blackout Bowl
Now that we have some perspective on how minor the disasters of media streaming are compared to other disciplines, let's revisit this year's Super Bowl.  While most media focused on the obvious power outage as the big catastrophe of the day, another one was brewing during the live streaming of the event. 

Many users reported poor video quality, buffering and other streaming issues that made their online viewing an unpleasant experience.  

My colleague Mio Babic was there with me in that war room in 2009 during the inaugural SNF online broadcast, and as the CEO of iStreamPlanet, he knows a thing or two about high-stakes live online broadcasting.  His blog post this week analyzing the success of the streaming of the Super Bowl makes some great points.  In short - streaming the Super Bowl is an incredibly complex undertaking, but the online broadcast world still doesn't have the same level of commitment to building resilient systems that the TV broadcast world does.  Until that happens, our business of online broadcast will be stifled by executives correctly arguing that TV broadcast infrastructure is superior to online infrastructure:
"So in response to the Monday morning technocrati quarterbacks that highlighted the shortcomings of the biggest and most complex online event 2013 will likely see, and eulogized the technology that helped bring it to millions of connected devices around the world, perhaps we should focus more on operational excellence that ensures quality on par with TV and drives more innovation into the connected device experience."
Operational Excellence
With all this said, how do we achieve high levels of resiliency and operational excellence?  How do you build and operate systems that anticipate common failure patterns but also handle the unexpected?

There are volumes of books written about this subject, but I feel there are 2 key areas that are often overlooked when building and operating highly resilient systems:

1) Simplicity: It's not just for your iPhone
Engineers have a tendency to over-engineer, and that goes double (literally) for engineers building redundancy and failure recovery into systems.  It is now widely accepted in the design world that simplicity provides a superior user experience, and the iPhone is perhaps the most well-known touchstone of that philosophy.

Why does this matter when building a safety or disaster recovery system?  Let's look at all the catastrophes mentioned above.  From our self-inflicted DOS attack during SNF to the Blackout Bowl to Netflix to Chernobyl, almost every root cause is tied to a failure in a safety system designed to prevent a disaster in the first place.  Things just got too complex.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said that "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

The fewer components a system has, the fewer points of failure it has.  The fewer components it has, the better the chance that everyone on an operational team can understand the whole system, rather than just their corner of it.

It is important to weigh the costs vs. benefits of putting complex backup systems in place.  Just as a software team will carefully consider the risk of including a last minute feature before a big release or a live event, it is wise to consider whether a "clever" complex safety system will in fact add more risk of failure than it is designed to prevent.

2) Test Under Load
One of the most difficult problems engineers face in this realm is that you can never truly test a large scale system at a small scale, and it's impossible to test at a large scale.  For instance, you can't fill the Superdome full of power draining equipment and  50,000 people and test the power system.  You can't run a dry-run test of an online media application with an audience of 750,000 viewers.  You can't truly test the Space Shuttle while on Earth.

So, when you encounter that big failure in production, it's because it's the first time you've ever run the process at true load.

Early in my career, I designed software for a "pilot plant" at a chemical company.  In the world of chemical manufacturing, you cannot just take a process designed in a lab and transfer it to large scale manufacturing in a chemical plant.  Heating a chemical in a beaker causes heat to distribute far differently than in a 500 gallon manufacturing reactor, and it won't behave the same way.  So, pilot plants are used as an intermediary step to try the experiment at a medium scale - perhaps using a 40 gallon reactor.  By measuring the difference between the small and medium scale behaviors, you can predict the large scale behavior.

The same principle can often apply to electrical systems and the internet.  For instance, the process we put in place to test our CDN for SNF was to perform cache-offload tests with a medium amount of load.  Before each game, we had a handful of users (10-20) stream test content and use the app for a few minutes.  This allowed us to generate a cache-offload report that would red flag any files that weren't overwhelmingly being served from the CDN's servers (and instead fell through to make requests from the origin).

Constant Improvement - "It wasn't magic"
No large failure is entirely preventable or predictable.  What's key is to have an organizational culture of constant improvement and simplification that focuses on operational quality.  My colleague David Seruyange recently posted a quote from Glenn Reid, who worked with Steve Jobs on iMovie and iPhoto that captures the attitude needed:
"... it wasn't magic, it was hard work, thoughtful design, and constant iteration." 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Using Basecamp to Manage Large Software Projects: Not for Me

I'm a big fan of 37Signals.  I often quote chapters from Getting Real when describing my software design philosophy, and I've even got a copy of ReWork on my desk.

So, it's strange that as a project leader, I've never used 37Signals' flagship product, Basecamp, to organize my project.  In the past, I've been used to using heavier-weight solutions like Altassian's Confluence and JIRA, and Microsoft's Team Foundation Server.  Recently, my teams have been using TFS both for task management/project tracking and for source control since we need to work in Visual Studio for Xbox-related work.

I'm starting up an Android project this week, and as I was setting up our source control on Github, it occurred to me that this was a great opportunity to experiment with new project management software.  Naturally, Basecamp was the first thing that came to mind.  The prospect of a radically simplified approach to tracking a backlog and burning down tasks in our Agile/Scrum process got me excited.  (Perhaps I need to go skydiving this weekend to recalibrate what gets me excited...)

Basecamp: Too Simple?
I fired up Basecamp, and eagerly jumped in to create my Product Backlog: a collection of stories and sub-tasks underneath each story.

Basecamp works based on To-do lists, so I added a Product Backlog To-do list:

I then started editing my first story "Custom Video Player", looking to add tasks.  Um...I can't.  Ok - let's try to just add each task as a note:

Wait a minute - in Agile/Scrum, tasks need distinct delivery dates and effort estimates.  This approach isn't going to work.

Am I doing something wrong?  Basecamp's simplicity is kicking my ass so far.  Let's try another approach - maybe I just need to think simpler myself:

Basecamp forces me to Simplify
Ok - I think I need to create one To-do list for each story, and then add items under each To-Do list for each task:

Alright - that's looking better!  I can even add milestones on the calendar and apply them to each task/to-do item.  Great!

Now - to apply effort estimates and see what a burn-down chart would look like...


Time for Plugins and Hacks
To my surprise, Basecamp didn't include any affordance for burndown tracking within a Sprint.  

After some searching on the internet, I discovered I'm not the only one missing my full-featured PM tools.  

In fact, a clever group of folks were similarly frustrated by maintaining a parallel Excel Spreadsheet to run burndown graphs for their Basecamp-tracked work a couple of years ago. They productized a solution that creates burndown charts for Basecamp projects called "BurndownGraph".

Perfect - that's exactly what I need in my situation!  However, to make it work, I'll need to:

  1. Give BurnDownGraph, a third party, my Basecamp login and password.
  2. Manually specify duration/estimates in the names of each To-do in a rigid format: "Custom Video Player 8.5h".
  3. Keep all account information in Basecamp and BurnDownGraph synced.
  4. Shell out more money for the BurnDownGraph product.

Does this still make sense?
Suddenly, it dawned on me: "THIS ISN'T SIMPLE".  Going to these lengths of hackery is something I've trained myself over many years in software to recognize not as cool and clever, but brittle and non-scaleable.

The irony of the situation is that 37Signals are my revered proponents of achieving beautiful design and great user experiences through simplicity.

Ultimately, I'm still a Basecamp fan, and I do respect 37Signals for keeping Basecamp simple and easy for the use cases for which it works well.  However, I'm now convinced that it's not the right tool for the job of managing larger agile software projects.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Television Zombies Are...Turning! (to Digital Distribution)

Don't look now, but you'll soon be surrounded by zombies!!!

Let me back up...

Over the past few years, I've worked with content owners, cable providers, and television networks who have realized that their existing distribution channels are someday going to become far less relevant.  Creating engaging digital distribution channels is a key priority for these organizations, who realize that while the traditional broadcast systems still bring in more "analog dollars" than the "digital pennies" seen by online media, the numbers move further in the digital direction every day.  As the world divides into more and more deep niches, digital advertising is bringing in higher CPM than broadcast advertising at the same time that widespread capability for broadcast in HD is reaching every device you own short of your toaster.  Once the numbers hit a critical mass, things will move very quickly.

Very soon, all of the comfortable, familiar TV shows, big sports events, and content you're used to will be organized and distributed by the best digital platforms, not the biggest legacy networks.  The smart networks are doing everything they can to get ahead of this trend now, but it's already too late!  The first zombie has turned, and the infection will be widespread very shortly...

And that first zombie is..."Zombieland"!  

You may know that the movie Zombieland was originally conceived as a TV series, and it was recently announced that is, for the first time ever, going to take that TV series and skip a planned TV-based broadcast entirely, heading straight to digital distribution via its Amazon Instant Video Offering.  Looking back 10 years from now, perhaps no one event in the history of this massive shift to digital distribution will be more significant.

Of course, Netflix has already announced they'll be producing a revived Season 4 of Arrested Development, but now we're seeing this happen at the beginning of a new original TV series originally designed for broadcast television.

Amazon certainly has the reach to make this show a hit 100% online, with Instant Video available on iOS, Android, the web, all 3 major game consoles, and a collection of smart TVs and other devices:

Now that the first zombie has turned, it won't be long before it infects others.  Is your zombie preparedness kit ready?  No, not the one they sell on Amazon - your digital zombie preparedness kit!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

UPDATED! 4K Resolution: Will it Ever Matter for Online Video?

CES 2013 is going on this week, and we have a few representatives from Vertigo in attendance.  While we're used to seeing 3D technology hyped and over-hyped at CES, the word on everyone's lips this year seems to be "4K".  

4K televisions are being displayed by multiple manufacturers, and are being touted as the last HD resolution you'll ever need in your home.  The $17,000 LG 84LM9600 will be the largest LCD on the market, and the first with 4K resolution:

4K is the next frontier in High Definition video resolution: it refers to 4096x2304 pixels, four times the definition of 1080p.  Another similar consumer-targeted resolution of 3840x2160 is being marketed as "Ultra HD" - the technical standard being named "Quad HD".  

How big does 4K "feel"?  Take a look at this image, keeping in mind that MOST content that you watch on your HDTV via cable or satellite is 720p, and Blu-Ray discs are 1080p:

That's a pretty impressive increase in pixels.  Both 4K and 2K come to us from the world of cinema.  George Lucas pioneered shooting digitally to avoid the cost of film stock, and originally shot "Attack of the Clones" in full 1080p HD.  Digital Cinema Initiatives was formed in 2002 to determine global standards for digital cinema, and devised two standards: 2K (slightly larger than 1080p HD) and 4K.

So, what does all of this mean for online video?  In short, we won't be seeing it for a long time, for 2 key reasons:

1) You don't need it:
Geoffrey Morrison's CNET article entitled "Why 4K TVs are stupid" goes into a good level of mathematical detail about why 1080p is really more resolution than the human eye can see anyway unless you're closer than 6 feet to your TV.  The human eye with 20/20 vision can resolve 1 arcminute, or 1/60th of a degree.  Doing some trigonometry based on your distance from your TV and its screen size can tell you whether a resolution greater than 1920x1080 even matters.

Other sources indicate a small sliver of distance/size where Ultra HD/4K may make a difference for you.

Of course, we're talking about online video, and TVs aren't the only display in town.  What about Macs, PCs, tablets, and mobile devices?  Panasonic has demonstrated an Ultra HD tablet intended for architects and other workers who may need super high resolution in a tablet form factor:

This could eventually lead to 4K screen technology in the home, but the bottom line is still that the price will have to reduce dramatically before the dubious value proposition to most consumers is anywhere near worth it.

2) You can't stream it:
Those of us with high-speed internet at home typically see speeds around 10Mbps.  This can fluctuate, and while streaming 720p content is usually a pretty consistent experience these days, streaming 1080p content is often a buffer-fest. 

1080p content (1920x1080 pixels) has 2.25 more pixels per frame than 720p content (1280x720), and consequently takes about 2.25 times greater bandwidth to download.

4K content (4096x2304 pixels) has 10.24 more pixels per frame than 720p content.  Roughly, this means you'd need a connection providing around 45Mbps in order to stream 4K content. 

In a world where home internet providers are moving towards monthly usage caps, the massive size of the video being downloaded is perhaps more of a challenge than even the daunting speed requirements.

One factor that could help here is the upcoming H.265 High Efficiency Video Coding standard. With claims of double the efficiency of H.264, 4K content comes a bit closer to the reach of users at home.

Do you think 4K will be relevant to our work in online video in the next few years?

My expert video compressionist friend Alex Zambelli did a lengthy analysis describing why H.265 will actually get us very close to being able to stream 4K some time soon.  Check out his post here.  The key exerpt (below) is that you cannot take current bandwidth requirements for 720p/1080p and do simple multiplication based on the number of pixels - the relationship is non-linear:

I believe that the relationship between bit rate and picture size is not linear, but closer to a power function...
In other words, I believe that as the pixel count gets higher a DCT-based video codec requires fewer bits to maintain the same level of visual quality.

Thanks for the detailed analysis, Alex!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Gamify your Online Media Experience!

Your online video audience is about to get up and leave you.  

It's not that your content isn't interesting or relevant.  It's not that your delivery pipeline is unreliable.  It isn't even that you've monetized too aggressively with too many ads.  So what's the problem?

The experience of consuming your content isn't fun enough or social enough in itself.  Let me be clear - I don't mean that your content itself isn't fun.  That cat sail video was hilarious, as was the landord one.  I'm referring to the enjoyment users get from the actual process of navigating and consuming your content.

Welcome to the world of gamification.

Working in the media world, I often tell my clients "Content is King" when discussing design approach.  However, in a world increasingly full of consumers who list video games as their primary source of entertainment, simply having the best content is no longer good enough.  This new generation of younger people is often derided as having zero attention span, but they're not the problem - the rest of the world just moves too slow for them.  As content providers and media developers, we need to catch up to their speed!

Gamification Makes Content Fun and Social (and changes our brains!)  

Studies of gamified learning environments show that classrooms of students whose curricula include gamification perform far more effectively due to the inclusion of those game mechanics.  These students cite as the leading drivers of their increased engagement the fun and multiplayer nature of the new approach.

Why is gamified content exploration so rewarding?  Playing games actually changes your brain.    It's widely known that the cycle of reward that games offer releases dopamine in the brain, but beyond that addictive effect, studies are increasingly showing that gaming increases the fluid IQ of the gamer and builds neural pathways related to creative problem solving.  

There is a school of thought that gaming is one contributor to the Flynn Effect, the sustained increase in intelligence test scores since the 1930s (about 0.36 points/year in the U.S.).  The additional stimulation, challenge, and creativity that come about from gaming may actually make us smarter.

Who else is gamifying their content?

Gamification is taking over the business world.  The Gartner Group's analysts predict that by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.  The New York Times recently ran an article on gamification in business that was itself gamified. 

Ford's Fusion hybrid displays its MPG-meter not as a gauge with numbers, but as a tree that drivers can grow or decay based on their driving habits:

Real money can be at stake in these games as well.  Kevin Richardson won a contest that sought to reduce speeding.  He created a "Speed Camera Lottery", whereby motorists were rewarded with a cash payout for driving slower than the speed limit when captured by automated speed cameras.  The payout?  The fines levied against the speeders caught by the same camera.

Ideas to Gamify your online media experience

So, how do you prevent your online audience from leaving you by gamifying your content?  Here are two of my ideas:

1) People Living in Competition

One of the key elements in gamification is the social aspect (think Foursquare checkins, social games like Zynga's Farmville, etc.)  Imagine 4 groups of video consumers:
  • A classroom of 20 students for an online university
  • Attendees at a virtual online conference
  • Netflix subscribers watching videos on Xbox consoles with their friends
  • Ad-supported audiences watching the Super Bowl on NBC via tablets
Any of these audiences are prime candidates to compete with their peer viewers.  Online video is unique in that it allows the kind of direct audience interaction that allows viewers to observe the activity of other users - why not make it a competition?  Rewards for most videos watched, most sharing with others, etc. can motivate much higher dwell times.  This actually leads into the dopamine-generating cycle of fun that makes video games addictive.

2) Show me the Money

As mentioned above in the Speed Camera Lottery, real monetary rewards are becoming more commonplace in gamification.  Video game players are seeing their game playing as more and more of a money-making sport, and the same expectation extends to gamification of video.  That group of students might win a homework holiday for watching the most independent physics videos.  The Netflix subscribers might win a free month of service.  The possibilities are endless.