What do you have: time, resources or features?

As open source software becomes more popular and is included in more commercial products, the open source software projects face more pressure to produce a “roadmap”. Projects like GNOME have successfully moved to a six month release model which has greatly aided the companies that depend on GNOME technologies. They know when the next release that includes their patch will come out. They can now plan for when patches need to be submitted to make a release, when that release will come out and roughly what it will come out.

With plans for GTK+ 3.0 and GNOME 3.0 being discussed, the pressure to generate a “roadmap” has once again appeared. When will 3.0 versions be released and what will be in them?

The rest of this post is generalizing about open source software projects in general, not GNOME or GTK+ in particular. It’s just that working with them has made me think of these things.

One of the factors that is becoming clear to me is that open source software has a fundamentally different “project triangle” than proprietary software. Every project has three constraining resources: time, resources, and scope. (Resources is often called “money” because in the proprietary world it’s assumed you can buy more developer resources.) Some of these constraints are always more flexible than others – the question is which one is most flexible and which one is least flexible for your project. Typically in a proprietary product, it’s scope that’s most flexible. The project has a fixed amount of money and people and marketing’s committed to a release date, so it’s the list of features that’s most flexible. Occasionally the most flexible item will be resources and a company can throw more money at the problem.

In contrast, in the open source world, the most flexible resource is not scope but time. While resources are not fixed, you can’t easily find more volunteer developers to throw at the problem. So for planning purposes, resources are not flexible. While scope is flexible, time is even more flexible.

Typically open source software projects define a release by saying which features they would like to have in a release (which can change if external circumstances change), put all of the volunteer resources they have at the problem and then remain most flexible with regards to time. They release when they’re ready.

Time is sometimes important in open source but not because a marketing team committed to a date but because you want to keep your project active in order to keep people interested in working on it. New features and new releases are exciting.

While each open source software project is different, I believe that community driven open source software projects are probably closer in priorities to each other than they would be to traditional proprietary softwaree.

For proprietary companies used to a fixed schedule and flexible scope, having a flexible schedule is frustrating. It’s not wrong, it’s just very different than the world they work in, and so makes planning very hard for them.

Companies look to open source software projects for a roadmap that’s fixed in time and flexible in scope. While the open source software projects are saying there’s no way they want to commit to a time because they can’t commit to more resources and they know they have to have the following features to say it’s a “major release.” The projects commit to scope (a set of features) and resources (the project members they have and anybody who wants to join us), and releases when they can.

This isn’t to say open source software projects don’t care about time, it’s just the most flexible of their three constraints by the nature of how they work.

What’s important to Nokia tablet users

At the Maemo Summit, Harri Kiljander shared a
list of the features that are important to Nokia tablet (N800) users.
Currrent users are developers who are very happy with their tablet.
(9 out of 10 of them would recommend it to someone else.) From what I
understood target tablet users are young, socially connected, into
technology fashion, and mostly from developed countries. (He broke it
down a bit more into several different types of users.) His list of
user interface features in order of importance:

  • stability
  • performance
  • ease of use
  • efficiency
  • consistency of user interface
  • personalization
  • usage with fingers
  • aesthetics: look of graphics
  • one hand usage
  • sound effects

People had lots of questions. In
particular a few people seemed surprised that sound was last. (I’m
not the target user, but for the record, I’ve turned off all sound in
my devices that I don’t use with headphones except my cell phone

See … I really was meant to be a community manager, executive director type person

There’s something about those self quizzes in magazines that always grabs me. (Although I have to admit that I usually cheat and check what the categories are before I start reading so I can read each of the answers and see how they relate to the conclusions.) So when someone pointed me to the Color Career Counselor, I had to try it. (Note that it asks for registration information but doesn’t confirm. But unless you’re bored or insanely curious, there’s not much reason to try it.)

What’d it say?



Key Words: Tactful, Cooperative, Generous, Understanding, Insightful, Friendly, and Cheerful [Hmm. Shouldn’t everyone have a balance of good and not so good key words?]

This very social type enjoys working in groups, sharing responsibilities, and being the center of attention. Fields of interest are instructing, helping, nurturing, care giving and instructing-especially young people. They discuss and consider feelings in order to solve problems, lead, direct, persuade, guide, organize and enlighten others.

So there you go. I’ve found my best career. (Well, second best according to them.) Although I keep the young kids at home.

And in case you’re curious, my first best occupation was "CREATOR" which along with yet another long list of greatly flattering adjectives came with jobs that varied from Public Relations to Musician to English Teacher. Let me tell you, I would make one terrible musician.

Now back to work.

If you have a problem, talk to the person!

A long, long time ago, in a land far away, when we used to dial a phone number to get to the internet, HP gave me a 1-800 number for internet access when I was traveling. Since I traveled a lot, I set my default number to the 1-800 number and merrily went along my way, dialing in on the road and at home.

Until I ran into a problem. I don’t remember what the problem was, but I had to call the help desk. The guy that took my call went “Oh, good! I’m so glad you called. You are our number one user, you spend thousands of dollars a month on dial up costs and it’s been my number one priority to lower your costs.”


“Um, you could have called me?”

Comcast’s announcement that they are going to add a usage limit to residential customers – a usage limit of 250 GB that won’t affect 99% of their customers – reminded me of that conversation. Um, why don’t they just call their residential customers that use over 250 GB and see what they can work out? And not worry or anger the 99% of people that aren’t a problem.

If I hadn’t called the help desk, I could imagine the company starting a policy that nobody could use the 1-800 number for more than 10 hours a month which would have inconvenienced hundreds of people and still cost them extra money if I used it 10 hours a month at home when I wasn’t traveling. (The solution we came up with was a local number to call when I was at home.)

Companies are not people – to think so is dangerous

One of the things that concerns me most with our society and legal system is not copyright law, it’s not patent law, it’s not our overcrowded jails, … it’s how we treat companies as people. Not only do our laws treat companies like people, but as people tend to do, we anthropomorphize companies. Companies are not people and we cannot expect them to behave like people.

It worries me when people attribute good or bad intentions to companies. Such as when Matt Asay points out the pitfalls in Google’s Chrome license and then says (I added the bold):

My concern is that this language is so broad that Google could, if it
were so inclined, invade user privacy on a grand scale. The terms of
service allow it. Only Google’s best intentions prevent it.

I also believe that Google’s current management has no intentions to do evil things with the data that Chrome gathers. But Google will own the copyright to all that data, and Google is a publicly traded company. Which means that Google can be bought. And no, that’s not bought like a person’s loyalty can be bought. That would be anthropomorphizing. Google could be literally bought – everything they own, including that personal data, could be sold, for money, to the highest bidder. And all that personal data would be owned by somebody else – or some thing else. And they might feel like they had a right to use it since they paid for it. They (if they is a company) might even have a legal obligation to their shareholders to use that data to make money.

So speaking of companies as people, with intentions, with goals, as good or evil, is a very dangerous way to think.

Companies are not evil. They are also not human beings. They can do great good or great evil … but not for the same reasons that you might do great good or great evil.

How I’m learning to create effective presentations

Creating effective presentations is really hard. Here’s a short summary of my journey and the two books that helped me. (This started out as a book review and I realized that what I really wanted to write about was how I was learning to create presentations.)

The number one thing that has helped me give effective presentations is giving lots of presentations. Practice makes perfect.

My very first professional presentation was at an HP Unix conference. My boss’s boss’s boss was in the room. He told me later that he wrote "SLOW" really big on a piece of paper and held it up over his head. I missed it.

My topic was interesting though and people hung on through my 100mph presentation and stayed after wards to ask lots of questions. That’s how I got hooked – you can pass on lots of interesting ideas and start lots of interesting conversations through presentations. (Hmm. My parents are teachers – think I got this from them?)

I also got the chance pretty early on to take a two day executive presentation class from Communispond that gave me a lot of really concrete tips and tools to remember some basic presentation skills. Things like how to make eye contact, "clear a slide", face your audience, etc.

So a couple of years ago I felt like I was doing pretty good but that there was still a lot to learn and no obvious place to learn it unless it was one on one coaching.

Then during GUADEC 2007, I was suddenly struck with the fact that my slides were old fashioned and ugly. (And that meant that part of my message was not getting through.) I resolved right then and there that I was going to get rid of all the words and ugly templates.

Luckily Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen came out shortly after. By my keynote at LinuxConf Australia, I managed to recreate my GUADEC presentation into a nice picture and word per slide format. I got a lot of great feedback on the style AND on the message I was trying to tell.

I got quite a bit out of Presentation Zen and I mean to reread it. Things like:

  • one concept per slide
  • how to pick an effective image
  • where to get images (flickr and istockphoto)
  • very few words on a slide
  • slides used during the presentation should not be the same as standalone slides that are passed around
  • use a remote to advance your slides
  • skip the long intro, you have the first couple of minutes and the last couple of minutes to make your point – that’s when the audience is listening
  • spend a lot of time on your message and your slides – think about how much audience time you are using (100 people times one hour is a hundred hours of other people’s time)
  • get feedback after every presentation

I learned a lot from Garr’s book. However, it felt like I’d learned one style (image and word per slide) not that I’d mastered the art of putting together an effective presentation. I mean, I knew how to keep it simple and how to use images, but I was figuring out that wasn’t always the answer I was looking for either. My slides still looked ugly sometimes and they didn’t always convey exactly what I wanted.

When I saw that Nancy Duarte had published a book, slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, I jumped on it. (And I ordered a hard copy – I just couldn’t imagine reading about slides and images would be effective on the Kindle‘s screen.)

slide:ology has a lot of really good information. (Although what has impressed me the most is how much work goes into an effective presentation.) slide:ology is about the nuts and bolts of designing the presentation. (Nancy Duarte is one of the founders of Duarte Design.) Nancy covers things from how to brainstorm image ideas, create effective graphs, draw stick figures, lay out your slides in a consistent style, pick colors, fonts, etc.

So look for a new style coming from me soon as I figure out how to put the Nancy’s advice to work.

It’s going to take me a while though. When I first started using the one image, one word style, one of the most common questions I got was "how long did
that take you?" A long time. Turns out Nancy Duarte recommends 20-60
hours of slide prep time for a one hour presentation. Creating an
effective presentation takes a long time. Learning how to create a presentation in a new style with new concepts in mind takes even longer.

The next book on my list is The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Got any others for me?