New Programming Blog

For those of you who have an interest in programming in general, Magnolia in particular, or just can’t get enough of my scintillating writing, I’ve started a new blog over here: Propeller Hat. It’s mostly Magnolia stuff thus far, and will probably be infernally geeky for the foreseeable future, so only visit if you have a fairly high tolerance for that sort of thing.

Virtual Photography

Back in 2001, CBS introduced EyeVision for their Superbowl telecast. EyeVision allowed the broadcasters to combine images from several dozen cameras, positioned and 7° intervals around the stadium, into a seamless playback that could be rotated on the fly, creating an effect much like the famous “Bullet Time” sequence in The Matrix. The technology, while not perfect, was really neat, and offered unparalleled insight into the on-field action. Unfortunately, it hasn’t made a reappearance at a Superbowl since then, and the technology doesn’t appear to have been pushed forward much.

Fast forward to 2011. The Kinect has been released for the XBox 360 and has been enthusiastically embraced by hackers. Microsoft, while initially reluctant to let people fool around with the sensor, quickly realized that they were fighting a losing battle, reversed their position, and now even provides some official support for people doing new and interesting things with it.

The Kinect works much like a WebCam: you point it at something, and it gives you a video feed of what you’re pointing at. The interesting thing, however, is that in addition to the image, it also tells you how far away each element in the image is. Using a couple of Kinects in tandem allows one to actually reconstruct a texture-mapped scene in three dimensions. Once you’ve done this, it’s a simple matter to move around and through the space, much like you would in a video game. Here’s the first proof-of-concept I saw:

And here’s another demonstration that uses a single Kinect panning around a scene to capture the data:

As you can see, once the data is assembled, one can move a virtual camera through the scene, viewing it from angles where there was no camera to begin with. Though these first efforts are still a bit rough, think what one could do with this sort of technology if it were refined and made more sensitive: the Superbowl’s EyeVision technology could be expanded: instead of 33 possible vantage points, you could see a playback from an infinite number of angles, even swooping in among the players. Movies could be filmed with full 3D data sets, allowing one to move through a scene and see it from whatever angles one wished. Professional photographers could not only adjust exposure, contrast, saturation and that sort of thing, but also the apparent angle from which a photo was taken.

I expect this sort of thing to blossom over the next few years, and am anxious to see what happens with it once it gets from the hands of hobbyist technologists to those of artists and producers. It should be a fun ride.

Time for a New Adventure: Magnolia

Last Thursday, I gave my one month notice at the University.

The reason for that was not any particular discontent. While the University has its share of bureaucracy and silly decisions, the management above us has generally shielded us from much of it. And being able to walk to my office, have the freedom to explore lots of crazy stuff as the mood strikes, hone my management skills, have a stable job, and work with some terrific people on a beautiful campus has been great. I’m proud of the work we’ve done, and proud of my team, which has accomplished an amazing amount with minimal resources.

But now I’m going to work for Magnolia, the Swiss company that makes the CMS software that we’ve been using at the University with great success for a number of years. I’m excited about the change for a number of reasons:

  • They are a great team. I’ve worked with Magnolia as a customer for about four years now, and have been really impressed with both the technical excellence of their work and the professional excellence with which they run the business. I also got to meet many of them at the 2009 Magnolia Conference, and was delighted to find that every single Magnolian I met was genuinely kind and pleasant as well. What a great combination!
  • I’ll get to focus in on programming again. While I’ve enjoyed stretching myself into the role of a manager over the past several years, and think I’ve done some interesting and positive things in that position, I do find myself enjoying work the most when I’m able to focus on technical disciplines. While I don’t see a ton of opportunity to exercise the Objective C and Rails skills I’ve built up at the University, I expect there to be plenty of space to go as deep as I’d like with Java.
  • I’ll have the opportunity to do some traveling, both to Basel, Switzerland, where the company is based, and around the United States to get together with other members of the U.S. team, visit customers, and present at conferences. I hope to be able to bring Kathy and the kids along at times too, so that we all are able to benefit from the travel and see a bit more of the world.
  • I’ll be working from home. I’ve done a fair bit of this is previous jobs, and have always found it to be a really nice arrangement. Kathy is great at running interference so that I can really focus when I’m “at work.” But when I’m ready for a break, the family is right there, so it’s easy to have lunch with them, take them down to the park for a bit, or mount a quick trip to the river for a swim.

The new job will include technical pre-sales (talking nerdspeak with prospective customers and building prototypes for them), working on internal projects, raising awareness of Magnolia in the US by participating in community discussion and presenting at conferences, and providing support to existing customers while the team in Switzerland sleeps.

My last day at the University will be Thursday, March 3. I’ll take that Friday off to go blow some things up with Jason Young (we’re planning on building a jam jar jet engine), and will then dive in at Magnolia on Monday, March 7.

The Penny Game: A Way to Prioritize Tasks Among Many Projects

I’m a fan of agile practices in programming, and encourage my team to work along agile principles as much as possible. One thing that has always been tricky about that for us, however, is that we don’t really match the usual profile of a software team.

Most agile teams (at least in the literature) are focused on a single project, and have multiple people working together to get that project done. We, on the other hand, do all the development work for Texas State University’s Learning Management System (about 32,000 users), Content Management System (287 sites at current count), an Event Calendar system, the University iPhone app, a reservation system for training classes, a custom web content caching system, various custom-built content management systems for accreditation and regulatory compliance, and a bevy of internal tools — all with 6 people.

Needless to say, I’m very proud of my team.

Prioritizing the time of six people when we have ongoing responsibility for more than twice that many projects is, however, a daunting challenge. Our approach for a number of years had been to set release milestones for each project, to do release planning meetings to determine what should go into a given release based on our Planning Poker estimates, and then to try our best to get the work done in time.

This approach had a few problems:

  1. Release planning meetings were long and boring. We would walk through the list of unresolved tasks for a given project one by one to see if anyone wanted to prioritize that task. 90% of our time was spent saying “Ticket #666: add a green widget to the defrobulator. Anyone interested? Anyone? Class? Bueller?” (Only to have Bueller pipe up three tickets later: “Can we go back to ticket #666 for a minute?”)
  2. It was easy for people who had an interest in one project to commit 100% of the development team’s time to that project, while folks who were keen on another project would commit all of our time to that project as well. Our planning process didn’t reflect the fact that all the projects were competing for the same resources.
  3. If we finished all of the tickets for a release early and had extra time (a pretty rare problem, admittedly), we didn’t know what to work on next.

So a few months back, I decided to try an experiment. I got the stakeholders for all of our projects in a room together, gave them each 10 pennies, and explained to them the rules of the game:

“Today you are going to help the development team set our priorities. You each have 10 pennies, which represent tasks you can vote for. In order to vote for a particular task, write it on an index card, put that card in the middle of the table, and plunk down as many of your pennies as you’d like on that card. You can use all of your pennies on one task, or spread them among as many tasks as you like. Also, I encourage respectful argument. Try your hardest to persuade the people around you that they should put their pennies on the tasks you like as well. When we’re done, the number of pennies on a task will help determine its priority for our team.”

Good natured chaos ensued for the next 30 minutes as we wrote cards, passed them around, combined them, discussed the relative merits of the tasks ahead, bumped into each other as we moved around the table, tried to figure out what the heck some of the cards meant, and generally made a mess of the conference room we were working in. When we were done, we had a big, unruly pile of index cards with big, unruly piles of pennies on each:

After the meeting’s conclusion, the dev team took another 15 minutes to count the pennies on each card and put that count into a special “Bounty” field in our ticketing system, creating new tickets as needed. (We use “bounty” and “pennies” interchangeably.) When I was done, I told the system to sort our tickets by bounty, and suddenly had a prioritized list, across all of our projects, of what tasks had the most business value. Beautiful!

Task List Sorted by Bounty

Task List Sorted by Bounty

Of course, the number of pennies on a given ticket doesn’t directly determine the order in which we work on things. We also factor in the estimates for a given task we’ve come up with individually or during our Planning Poker sessions. One can divide the pennies by the estimated hours to get a “bang for the buck” rating for each of the tickets — a much more useful way to prioritize one’s work.

I don’t like to assign tasks to people on my team directly more than necessary. I find people to generally enjoy work much more when they are able to make their own decisions about what to spend their time on. On the other hand, I do want us as a team to provide the most real value we possibly can to our various customers. Since the penny game provided us a “here are tasks with business value” list, I decided to provide a couple of incentives for folks who were completing those tasks:

  1. I took a bizarre southwestern style pot that I had sitting around, labeled it the “Pot of Honor”, and told the team that it would be filled with candy and awarded to the team member each week who managed to complete tasks worth the most pennies during that span. Battling for the dubious honor of having this homely artifact rest on one’s desk for the week provides some silly, low-level competition and recognition for individuals.
  2. I set the team a collective, cumulative goal and told them I’d take them to lunch when they reached it. When we tally pennies for the awarding of the Pot of Honor, we also add up the number of pennies the whole team has completed and add them to a running total. Progress is noted on our work-area whiteboard, so we can all see how close we are to getting to have free food.
The Pot of Honor

The Pot of Honor

I’ve also made space on the whiteboard in our team area where we have our daily stand up meetings to put up the “Top 10” list of tasks that have accumulated the most pennies to help maintain focus on those high-value items.

The next time we played the penny game, a month later, it went much more quickly: we already had cards on the table from the last meeting, everyone had a better idea of what we were doing, and some folks had looked through the tickets in advance to see which tasks they wanted to support. I was surprised to see that, as we got more practiced, we were able to finish the entire exercise in about 20 minutes. We simply added the new pennies to the existing bounties in the ticketing system, making them increasingly juicy as they got older and people still had interest in them.

We’ve been playing the game for a number of months now, and I count our experiment a solid success. Advantages it has provided for us:

  1. Prioritization is way more fun and engaging. It also goes considerably faster than all of our individual release planning sessions did.
  2. The development team always has a clear idea of what our business needs are, and which of our tasks will provide the most value.
  3. Stakeholders cannot say “everything is top priority”, but are forced to choose where to allocate their pennies. The finite scarcity of pennies reflects the limits on developer time.
  4. Individual developers can exercise a good deal of autonomy and choose their own tasks while we still, as a team, deliver on the things we need to.
  5. There are a number of tasks that, while people say they are important, apparently do not merit the expenditure of a penny. As these persist for a sufficient period of time without accumulating any pennies, we can close them as not really being a high priority. (We can always reopen them later if someone decides to spend a penny to raise them from the dead.)

We’ve introduced a few refinements as we’ve gone along: Because some of our systems have tens of thousands of users, it’s ill-advised to get all of the stakeholders in a room at once. To account for this, we give the support staff extra pennies to distribute as proxies for the absent users. We’ve started writing project names and ticket numbers on the index cards to make it easier to correlate them to our ticket system. We’ve begun bringing as many laptops and iPads as possible to the meetings so that people can see the details on the various tickets in question. We now add a penny to each task whenever a user request comes into our support team.

I should note that during the time I was designing this process, I was also reading through Total Engagement, and consciously built in many of their 10 Ingredients for Games: Feedback across a range of time scales (completion of individual tickets, weekly discussion of bounties cleared, longer-term goal of team lunch), Reputation (the awarding of the Pot of Honor), Marketplaces and Economies (the game itself is a market to “buy” the development team’s time), Competition Under Rules that are Explicit and Enforced (there’s no ambiguity about how many pennies are on a ticket or how they’re assigned), Teams (working toward the common lunch goal), and Time Pressure (weekly tallies of points, implicit time pressure of not wanting to be the last person with pennies left to spend while everyone else sits around). I think these elements have been critical in making this a more engaging way for us to do things.

So, if you’re facing a similar challenge with more projects than you have people, feel free to swipe any of these ideas that look helpful. I hope they’re of some use to you. If you do give the penny game a try, please post here and let me know how it goes. Good luck!

Mojo

All of you folks who are as interested in location-based gaming as I am have been checking in on Gowalla, Foursquare, SCVNGR, Facebook, Rally Up, or Yelp for a while now. But the lame thing about those services is that you actually have to go somewhere and do something to earn points! Enter Mojo, the web-location based game for folks who are shackled to their desks all through the day but still want the spurious sense of accomplishment that these games bring!

Teasing aside, it’s an interesting concept: allowing people to check-in on various websites and engage with the content there in various ways to earn credit. I’ve added it to the site here; feel free to play around with it if you’d like to see how it works. Just click that little “Earn Mojo” tab on the right to get started. (Though given how infrequently I get around to posting, if any of you earn the “365 Days in a Row” achievement, I’ll be forced to come over there and cut off your internet privileges. Don’t think I won’t.)

Ditching Titanium

Back in March, I posted my Thoughts on Titanium, which we were using at the time to develop Texas State’s iPhone application. Since that time, we’ve become increasingly frustrated with the system, and have finally decided to leave it behind and rewrite the application in a combination of native Objective C code and HTML/CSS/Javascript.

This isn’t a decision we made lightly. I actually resisted it for a number of months, even when some of the other developers on my team were lobbying pretty strongly for it. The promise of Titanium, which allows developers to use Javascript to create native applications for iPhone and Android platforms, was great. Unfortunately, it has never lived up to that promise for us.

The first reason we decided to leave it behind was Apple’s Developer Program License Agreement. When iPhone 4.0 was released, the Agreement was amended to prohibit using intermediary layers like Titanium. The folks at Appcelerator quickly moved to quell their customers’ fears, pointing out that Apple was still approving Titanium-made applications. While it is true that Apple hasn’t lowered the boom yet, these apps still violate the letter of the agreement, and could therefore be pulled from the App Store at Apple’s whim. Further, when RunRev, a company that creates a development tool similar to Titanium, tried to reach an official understanding with Apple, Steve Jobs made it very clear that Apple wasn’t interested. Given this level of hostility to other development tools, staying with Titanium would obviously increase the risk that we’d run afoul of Apple in the future.

The second, and more important, reason was this: Titanium’s engineering is just not good enough for our purposes. It works great for small-scale projects that people want to get done quickly. But as we have tried to build large-scale projects, we have repeatedly run into problems that we would spend hours trying to solve, only to find that there was an issue in Titanium’s code that we couldn’t work around. New versions of the software would cause portions of our code that had worked fine before to stop functioning. Version 1.4 of their framework was released well over a month after they had originally promised it.

As one of the programmers on my team put it: “When I work in [another development environment], I’m 99% sure that any problems I have in my program are because I’m doing something wrong. With Titanium, I’m only about 50% sure.”

To be sure, the folks at Appcelerator have taken on a huge technical challenge, have ramped up quickly, and are working as hard as can be to make their product feature-rich. But after months of frustration, we’re not willing to keep investing in a system that keeps us so far from our programming happy place. Objective C, here we come!

Training Registration System

At the University where I work, there’s always a ton of Professional Development activity going on around campus, most of which is centered on training sessions for which people can register. That has always been an arduous, labor-intensive process, with real live humans handling every aspect of managing those registrations — reporting on class sizes, processing registrations, processing cancellations, maintaining a waiting list, communicating with attendees, etc.

To ease that chore, I’ve started work on a piece of software that manages all of those common tasks, driven by the requirements of our training organizations. So far, it allows a user to register for a class, cancel a reservation, subscribe to a webcal calendar that shows the training for which she has registered, download an ICS file to put the event on an existing calendar, receive email confirmations of registrations, to sign up for the waiting list for classes that are full, and to receive email notification when they get moved from the waiting list to the class roster. It’s also the most rigorously test-driven development I’ve done to date, so the code should be of good quality.

I’m managing it as an open-source project, so if you’re comfortable with Ruby on Rails and are interested in jumping in, or would like to download a copy to fool around with, you can visit the project on Google Code. I’d be delighted to have other contributers if it turns out to scratch anybody else’s itch as well. It is still very much geared toward folks who know a little bit about Rails and are willing to customize it to their needs. If that’s not you, you might want to steer clear for now.

More Good Thoughts on Games and Work

I wrote a piece about a year ago called Workplace Motivation and Game Mechanics which summed up some of my ideas for bringing some of the compelling character of video games to the office. Since then, some much smarter people have been doing some thinking and experimenting with similar ideas.

Jane McGonigal gave a terrific talk at TED called “Gaming Can Make a Better World”. It’s well worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch:

Additionally, I’ve started reading Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete. It covers the authors’ experiences in this area, starting with poolside conversations and ending up with forming a company around these ideas. It’s a good read so far.

Based on these, it looks like the invasion of games into the workplace has the potential to create some important productivity gains and is already underway. It should be fun to see what the next decade brings.

Brief Thoughts on the iPad

I’ve had intermittent access to an iPad for about two weeks now through work, and finally feel like I have a grasp on what it is, what it’s good at, and what it lacks.

First off, the iPad doesn’t do everything. It’s not a full-on replacement for a computer. In fact, you can’t even get it running without a computer to which you can connect it. It lacks a camera, so you can’t use it for videoconferencing or photography. While it’s better for content creation than the iPhone, thanks largely to its bigger screen and support for Bluetooth keyboards, it includes no facilities for printing out the content you do create. For that, again, you’ll have to rely on a computer.

That said, it does 90% of what people use a laptop for, and does that 90% beautifully. Web surfing is a smooth, fast delight. Dealing with email goes smoothly and quickly. The Calendar and Map applications are lovely to look at, and a pleasure to use. Listening to audio and watching video, while hampered a bit by the monophonic built-in speaker, is likewise a pleasure. The vibrant high-resolution screen makes it great for showing off photography. (In fact, I’ve already heard of a graphic designer friend-of-a-friend who got a job because he’d loaded up his portfolio onto the iPad to show it off.) Writing works great, especially with a hardware keyboard. And of course, there are a wealth of applications designed for the platform that make it even more versatile and capable.

Is it for the person who likes to tinker with computers? Probably not so much. Apple takes great pains to keep the iPad and its related platforms, like the iPhone and iPod Touch, locked down and controlled. On the other hand, this is a device I could give my Mom and expect her to actually use it. If one wants to do the things the iPad does, there’s not much way to do those things better, faster, or more intuitively.