Thursday, June 12, 2008

LiquidPlanner - fuzzy project manager

Like other project management systems such as Basecamp, but built to deal with uncertainty and contingencies.  

LiquidPlanner: Project Management That Deals With Uncertainty
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Microsoft Develops Workstreaming

Although that's not the term they use:
The system is said to resemble Facebook, but with a slightly less entertaining intention. Its goal is to let employees stay up-to-date with industry news as well as their own colleagues’ work and progress. It even has a feature that can let you see when someone has created or updated a document — something that may give bosses an added way to monitor progress.
But also a way for loose teams to collaboratively check status, something that is currently done using IM, Twitter, project blogs, RescueTime, and various other services in different work contexts.
Microsoft Develops Corporate Social Networking Tool
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iPhone 3G: The view from Singapore


iPhone is Next-Gen? You got to be kidding me! at Weikiat.NET
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The Austin Coworking Scene, Part 2: Conjunctured

As mentioned in a previous post, I have been thinking in terms of attenuated work organization for a while, ever since reading Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy. That book led me to read a lot on the information economy as well as related subjects. Some of them obviously related, such as new economy rhetoric, management theory, and communication technologies. Others were not so obviously related, such as asymmetric warfare, education theory, and lots of postmodernist and amodernist theory.

What I've been reading has led me to believe that the information economy is pushing work organization away from hierarchies and toward recombinant networks in which individuals reach across trade, field, discipline, and organizational boundaries to accomplish specific projects. This change is abetted by newly ubiquitous information technologies and is happening even in established organizations, as I've discussed in the upcoming book Network and in my recent TCQ special issue on distributed work. But it's happening even more quickly in smaller, lighter sectors such as small business-to-business services: think graphic design, web design, advertising campaigns, and consulting. In these sectors, since engagements are quite limited in time and in focus, it's possible for Zuboff and Maxmin's "federations" of contractors and subcontractors to coalesce, accomplish a project, and disperse at the end of the project. Such an organizational structure is quite networked, involving attenuated ties and constant boundary-crossing across fields, trades, disciplines and organizations. The falling costs of portable computers, broadband, and mobile telecommunications have meant that such federations can operate on very low overhead.

Some of the more interesting developments in communication-oriented software have come from these emerging federations. For instance, Basecamp was developed to help 37Signals manage their projects in consultation with clients. Google Docs, as I have argued elsewhere, is ideally suited for this sort of collaboration as well.

So it's not terribly surprising for me to see these federations coalescing and dispersing. What did surprise me when I ran across it a few months ago, and again as I revisited it recently, was Conjunctured. The company didn't appear to be a federation -- too stable -- but it certainly wasn't a hierarchical organization either. Was it something entirely new? A hybrid?

After a while, I did the most obvious thing. I asked. That is, I met separately with two members of Conjunctured to informally talk about the organization.

A caveat here: These meetings were not research, were not conducted via a research methodology, were not passed by a human subjects committee, and should be regarded as citizen journalism rather than research.

May 28: Cesar Torres
Cesar Torres was gracious enough to meet me at the coffee shop for an interview. An energetic 24-year-old, Cesar explained that he had recently graduated from UT with a marketing degree, although he was let in as a computer science major. Throughout college, he freelanced (over Craigslist) as well as interning at Apple. When he graduated, he faced the prospect of working at Apple or at a conventional advertising firm.

But he preferred creative control. He had interned at advertising agencies, and he thinks of them as a "big government" model: lots of overhead, layers between creative worker and customer. But technology replaces a lot of the overhead and infrastructure of the agency model: all the creative needs is a laptop and a mobile phone. So he decided to "flip the model."

Flipping a model as established as the agency model is hard. Conjunctured, he explained, is a moving target. The description on the website right now is a February statement, already a bit out of date. Currently, Conjunctured has two sides:

Agency. Conjunctured started in August 2007 with three others. They had begun working together in Jelly meetings and at Social Media Club. Together, they worked on a model of individual work + collaboration on projects that leverage their unique skills. And whereas a conventional agency takes too big a cut due to infrastructure, Conjunctured allows them to get freelancer wages.

Not only do they supply their own infrastructure (laptops, mobile phones) at low cost, they use free tools. Cesar describes this approach as learning to intertwine, learning to be efficient early adopters. The agency is an exercise in figuring out the value in social media and social connections.

Coworking space. Cesar went to SXSWi to talk to people about this model. Their advice was to get space. In fact, he met Julie Gomoll of, who is starting a coworking cafe with conference rooms. Gomoll's enterprise is high-end, catering to telecommuters at large companies. Space there goes for $15/hr.

Conjunctured decided to take this model and apply it to a more downscale market:
  • Walk-in: $15/day
  • Part-time: 3-4 days/wk $150-200
  • Full-time: 24/7 access, $250-400
So the space theoretically will pay for itself. This aspect of Conjunctured is not-for-profit. At the time of the interview, Conjunctured had made an offer for space 5 blocks east of I-35. They envisioned the coworking space as functioning as
  • incubator
  • recurring revenue
  • but 80%: network, be in environment with other creatives
Ideally, the space functions as an incubator. Cesar envisions a recurring 7-minute period in which everyone focuses on one project to improve it. Once a company outgrows the incubator, they buy a space next door. And the property is strategically placed near light rail. The space is a house, with the mentality being that of a family rather than a corporation.

Currently the agency model is on the back burner. They had a chicken and egg problem:
  • How do you run an agency without space?
  • How do you obtain space without revenue?
So the coworking space is the main focus right now; once it's nailed down, the agency model can take hold.

How do you handle long-term planning, I asked. He feels it will work itself out. Designers and developers naturally go into the coworking model, But he believes that it will also draw project managers. Meanwhile, Conjunctured's founders will work on that level too.

How does Conjunctured bill work, since it is not a company in the traditional sense? Currently, when one of Conjunctured's members is hired, it's as an individual. That individual hires others as consultants and sends them 1099s. That is, they hire each other as subcontractors and they can write each other off as a business expense. Which is to say that in this sense, Conjunctured closely resembles a federation, but more stable in that the relationships are tighter and meant to outlast the projects.

Conjunctured currently has a DBA and is in talks with a lawyer about becoming a LLC. They are not incorporating in near future.

Cesar was also nice enough to give me pointers to the Austin coworking scene, which is more extensive than I had realized.

About a week later, another Conjunctured member, John Erik Metcalfe, sent me a direct message on Twitter, suggesting we meet as well.

June 6: John Erik Metcalfe
It was raining on the morning of June 6, and as I rode the bus toward my appointment with John (in the same coffee shop), he direct-messaged me on Twitter, letting me know he would be a little late -- he had to go back and get his umbrella. That was fine with me, since I was engrossed in a project management text. I settled in the coffee shop, and soon John appeared.

He explained that he saw the Conjunctured model as white blood cells in the bloodstream. When a hostile organism appeared, white blood cells swarm it. Similarly, Conjunctured's coworkers swarm a project. (This, of course, reminds me of the swarming concept applied in asymmetric warfare.)

John's particular focus is the Startup District, the anticipated cluster of companies that will grow from the Conjunctured incubator. And networking -- not on a money level, he explained, but on the level of human engagement.

Conjunctured's processes, he explained, are based on scrum/agile programming. They're incremental. Dusty Reagan (also of Conjunctured and a software developer) brought this orientation to projects.

John was excited because Conjunctured was signing on space that day. The four founders would sign. And although individual people would be working in the coworking space, Conjunctured as a brand/agency would bring in work.

So here's how that works. Coworking people can work on Conjunctured projects up to 20 hours per week. John used the same metaphor that Cesar had used: Conjunctured is "small government," with low overhead and freelance wages that meant workers would be "making what they should." The rest of their time would be spent on their own projects.

The part of an agency that many contractors find uninteresting, he explained, "is client service." Conjunctured handles that part by obtaining clients, chunking out projects, and distributing the chunks to a flat structure of people.

Here's the project management process John described, based on scrum.

1) Conjunctured talks to the client and asks, "What is the project?" They get an explanation, then promise to "put it into our system." Each project is an opt-in project.

2) Conjunctured creates a Google Doc with the project description. It's shared with everyone. Coworkers opt into the project by adding text on the GDoc. If not enough people opt in, Conjunctured declines the project. (It's all about opt-in.) But if there are enough yesses, the project is a go.

(John envisions a Digg-style list for projects: The most popular float to the top. This system would serve to aggregate interest and priority.)

3) Conjunctured then meets with the client, along with appropriate coworkers. They ask questions to create large chunks of the project. For instance, a branding project might be chunked into an identity system, website, etc.

4) Conjunctured then goes back to the group and presents the chunks: "Here's what needs to be done. Check in to do them." Members use the GDocs spreadsheet for tasks and time estimates. One column, "Dusty's gut," is used for developer Dusty Reagan's time estimate; others comment on the estimates to refine them and produce a firmer estimate. (Notice that this functions as a market-type system with free bidding inside the organization.)

5) Based on the breakout, the project lead calculates total length (which is to say, reads the total at the bottom of the spreadsheet). A line for client service is added, automatically estimated as a ratio of the project total.

6) If the client agrees with the estimate, Conjunctured asks the opt-in members to break their chunks into detailed tasks with time estimates. These tasks can be parceled out and managed recursively: the task's owner can manage the individual tasks and get more opt-ins, meaning that someone could work on as little as two hours of the project. Doing this means that parts of the project can be subcontracted and managed at a very low level of granularity; think of it as a federation with subfederations.

It's an intriguing process. However, John pointed out that Conjunctured has done few projects so far with this method. He expects that it will continue to evolve and refine.

What if someone doesn't meet their commitment? John points to the Conjunctured Manifesto, which states that "The community should call out members who aren’t pulling their weight"; members can call someone out at any time and judge them openly within Conjunctured. He also envisions a reputation system. They have implemented an initial version of this reputation system which allows them to give stars to coworkers; eventually, he envisions a thumbs-up or thumbs-down ranking on any project.

This process has some resemblance to project management, but also many differences. John says that Conjunctured expects to work out project management eventually, via a software solution that lets members look at
  • the availability and reputation of available coworkers (a la eBay)
  • the popularity of given projects (a la Digg)
He points to -- being developed by a fellow Austinite -- as one possible way to go.

What does it all mean?
It would be easy to characterize this young, rapidly developing model as a case of idealism overdose. Certainly it faces some key challenges in terms of project management, scaling, stability, and sustainability. However, I see some really interesting things going on here that resonate with the sorts of trends Beniger and Malone have talked about, among others. In certain project- and campaign-oriented, limited-engagement sectors, such as graphic design, advertising, and web development, freelancing and sole proprietorships have thrived; people have gotten used to flexible hours, to working on projects that interest them, to choosing people with whom they would like to collaborate, and to supplying or foraging infrastructure. At the same time, social software has begun to support opt-in collaboration on a broader scale. Federation-like structures such as Conjunctured are an attempt to scale up the freelancing model to preserve these desirable characteristics while providing enough stability and planning structure to support longer engagements.

The details are still being worked out, and I expect the model to evolve considerably over the next year or so as Conjunctured continues to coalesce as an organization. In particular, the freelancing/sole proprietorship model tends to focus on the tactical, reactive level, and Conjunctured will have to focus more on the strategic level as it evolves, in order to maintain a steady stream of clients and a stable identity. One way to handle that would be to shed the ideals and become a traditional agency, but another harder way would be to continue to evolve tools and practices in line with the Manifesto.

In any case, the emerging organization is really interesting, and I expect to keep in contact with them to see how things develop.

One more time: Security by obscurity doesn't work

A federal judge who was recently on the short list for Supreme Court nominations recently discovered this:
Before the site was taken down, visitors to were greeted with the message: "Ain't nothin' here. Y'all best be movin' on, compadre."

Only those who knew to type in the name of a subdirectory could see the content on the site, which also included some of Kozinski's essays and legal writings as well as music files and personal photos.
The music files were copyrighted. The photos included porn.

Alex Kozinski, 9th Circuit chief judge, posted sexually explicit matter on his website - Los Angeles Times
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Houston Congressman twitters from House floor

Just amazing. I wonder how many direct messages he'll get as the result of this post?  

techPresident – CrackBerry Addicts vs Twittering Sunlighters on the Floor of Congress
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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why not to buy an iPhone 3G

Tomi Ahonen has a long post asking: what's the big deal with the new iPhone? And points out that with the low (subsidized) price, the iPhone has switched market segments -- and Apple is not ready for the switch.
Now Apple abandons that strategy of premium pricing. It jumps into the fray of the mid-field. Partly the iPhone exclusivity will be lost when everybody has it (or can afford it). Partly the cool factor disappears when iPhones are on every table. Partly the very fickle nature of the customer tastes in the industry will bite back at Apple. They cannot wait 12 months for a new model (from year to year into the future) if they intend to take on mid-market Nokia, Samsung, LG and SonyEricsson model ranges - who release models every month, Nokia releases new models almost every week. I've said before, that it advanced markets the replacement cycle among young employed adults is 6 months - two new phones every year - such as in Japan, South Korea, and here in Hong Kong for example - so if the iPhone does not evolve and improve - it will soon suffer as a mid-field phone model. At the top luxury end, you can wait, but not in this crowded mid-field.
He reminds us that the US is the "backwater" of the mobile industry and that the iPhone is missing some of the basic features of European and Japanese phones. He also doesn't think RIM has anything to worry about.
Communities Dominate Brands: Apple iPhone 3G, what gives - great price but still..
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Monday, June 09, 2008

Austin 3.0

Kristine and Joey from UT's ACTLab run down Austin's tech-creative scene, including coworking. They're a lot more plugged into it than I am (for now).

Austin 3.0 » Blog Archive » Austin’s Geek Summer “stuff maker” scene
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Two more approaches to mobile geolocation tracking

One is Citysense by Sense Networks. It anonymously tracks phones' geolocations and displays them on heat maps on your own phone:
Citysense is built on top of the company’s main technology platform, Macrosense. The company ingests billions of data points about people’s location from cell phones, GPS devices, WiFi, and even taxis. The company also collects geo-location data from everyone who downloads Citysense, or any future app (although, the company considers the data to be yours, and you can delete it from the database at any time).

The other is Buzzd, an app that was automatically bookmarked in the new Opera Mobile download. This one is opt-in and focuses on "buzz" around specific events, particularly music events. It's also location-specific, but it's opt-in and therefore not anonymous. Accessible via SMS and mobile browser.
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The phone is the new identity locus

A USA Today story about the new iPhone has this throwaway line:
The software add-ons have the potential to turn the iPhone into the pocket computer of the future, as essential, Apple hopes, as the keys in your pocket or purse.
The reason we put things on our key fobs is that keys have, until recently, been the locus of our identity. We use keys to get into our own private spaces (home, office) and shared areas. So we keep them on us all the time.

The phone is the new locus of our identity. I don't know about you, but my phone is on or near me all but 1.5 hours per day (they don't allow them in the gym). I stow my keys in my luggage when I travel, but my phone is on me all the time. Keys represent access, but the phone represents communication and self-mediation, connecting me to all of my contexts and contacts. I suspect that's already true for many people, so the line from the USA Today piece seems a few years late.

It's presto, change-o as new iPhone is unveiled -
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Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Austin coworking scene

Longtime readers may remember that I reviewed Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy four years ago, and despite some of the book's problems, I found it to be very useful in thinking through some of the phenomena I had been seeing in a study I was analyzing. (That study is the basis of my second book, Network, out this fall.) In particular, it helped me to better theorize and analyze blurred organizational boundaries, horizontal learning, and recombinant relationships among employees of the same and different companies.

One of Zuboff and Maxmin's more interesting statements was that we would begin to see more federations, or organizations that come into being to achieve a specific project before dispersing again. One good example is that of a graphic designer who owns a sole proprietorship: when she is contracted, she subcontracts other specialists to do parts of the work, then provides the "face" for that federation until the project is over. At that point the subcontractors disperse. Some of them might be employed in her next project -- and she might in turn be subcontracted by one of these others in their next project. I'm currently conducting a research project on small graphic design shops, and we're seeing this quite a bit. And although the contractor/subcontractor relationship has been around for a while, technological developments are making it really take off: mobile phones, laptops, and high-speed internet connections in particular.

Certain trades, such as graphic design, web design, and marketing, are particularly amenable to this sort of work organization. These trades' work is largely comprised of one-off engagements and mediated largely through digital technologies. So we're seeing a lot of people who work when they like, where they like, especially as contractors or freelancers. In fact, they tend to get better wages that way, since they don't have to pay the company for overhead. (The tradeoff is that they have to supply their own benefits and find their own work.)

But it's lonely working in your home office. So we're increasingly seeing a phenomenon called coworking. Put simply, these contractors and freelancers arrange to meet with other contractors and freelancers -- say, at a coffee shop with free wifi -- and work in the same physical space on their different projects. If you're an activity theorist, you might think of these meeting spaces as the intersecting penumbras of the individuals' work activities. They're working on different projects, but in the presence of others in the same or affiliated trades.

But, importantly, these can also be collaborative spaces and networking spaces. Someone who works close to you on a different project today might become your subcontractor -- or subcontract you -- tomorrow. And even if that never happens, you might end up being their sounding board, critique partner, technical support, or drinking buddy. I think this trend bears watching.

One flavor of coworking is called "jelly"; it's informal and irregular. It got its name because its founders (inventors?) were eating jelly beans when they conceived the idea. (But it reminds me of the "gels" that Sheller discusses: "whereas a network implies clean nodes and ties, then, a gel is suggestive of the softer, more blurred boundaries of social interaction" (p.47).

As you might expect, Austin is one of the few places where Jelly has taken off in a big way. JellyInAustin is a website for coordinating (or "forecasting") Jelly meetups, and acts as a community site.

Affiliated is the Austin Social Media Club, which hosts leading thinkers on social media and proponents of coworking (there's a lot of overlap). SMC describes itself as "part think tank, part curiosity, all new media."

Since coffee shops are not necessarily the best place to cowork -- and certainly not the best place to meet clients -- at least two efforts are being made to create coworking spaces in Austin. Julie Gomoll's Launch Pad Coworking launches in September 2008; and Conjunctured is partnering with to open up another coworking space this summer that is meant to anchor a de facto tech incubator. In Conjunctured's case, the idea is to provide independent contractors with stable collaboration spaces, but also stable relationships with other entrepreneurs. Coworkers could freely subcontract each other for jobs as short as two hours, could form more stable teams, and could share expertise and participate in mutual critique. If stable teams decided to develop their own companies, they would be encouraged to lease property nearby, creating a de facto startup district.

Coworking is a really interesting trend, going beyond project-oriented organizations, beyond federations, and further toward entirely networked organizations. At the same time, it faces significant challenges in terms of accountability, reputation, trust, stability, and project management and planning. Those challenges are already being addressed with some emergent systems, practices, and expectations, but I expect significant further development. I'm going to be watching these developments closely over the next several months and will blog about them here when possible.

Soon I'll also be blogging about recent conversations with two members of Conjunctured. They're fascinating, and should provide further insights into the challenges above. In my view, we have to keep close watch on these challenges, not least because some of our students will be facing them soon.
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