Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cleaning out the backlog...

Working it to death...

It occurs to me that writing a long blog post, then saving it as a draft, and sitting on it for months, occasionally tweaking the wording, then putting it back on the drafts pile to languish is exactly the kind of behavior I was trying to wean myself off of when I started this blog.

Bad Mark! No Biscuit!

So, I'm going to go back through the "drafts" folder and either publish or delete everything in it over the next week or so. So, y'all can look forward to lots of sentence fragments and unfinished thoughts over the next few days.

Team Building: cautionary tales

I happened to read this article over at The Daily WTF, and it reminded me of some previous team-building events I've been subjected to over the years. Don't miss the comments, there are some pretty great stories in there, as well.

What I've learned over the last 20 years or so is that your team either gets along on a day to day basis, or they don't. If management keeps the more dysfunctional members of the group in line, and encourages working together, rather than finger pointing, you've probably already got as coherent a team as you're likely to get, and having them all go go-carting together isn't going to matter.

On the other hand, if the management plays favorites, or allows bullying to go unchecked, or actually engages in a bit of anti-social behavior themselves, no amount of pot-luck parties are going to change that.

Having said all that, here are some of my experiences:
Always remember rule #1: If the activity is competitive, do not divide your larger team up according to their everyday organizational structure - e.g. Marketing vs. Engineering, for example. Do it however you have to (alphebetical by last name?) to make sure that the distribution is essentially random. Inter-group rivalry is exactly what you're trying to eliminate, or should be, anyway.

Athletic Competition: One former employer had a yearly multi-event athletic competition (mostly "fun" events, like a sack race, or water-balloon toss). Any group of interested employees could form a team, and t-shirts were printed up for the event, and medals given out. As you might well imagine, given that this is an Engineering-heavy organization, injuries were fairly common. Over the years, they gradually rotated out the most physically-stressful events, but I think at least one person still gets injured every year - I had a nerve in my hand crushed during the Tug-of-War one year, for example.

The hyper-competitive types still worry way too much about doing well, sometimes dragging other folks into their sphere of influence (I mean really, what kind of person organizes drills for a Pictionary competition?). But overall, it works well, because everybody knows it's just for fun. Since teams are formed on an ad-hoc basis, it has very little of the "you are now part of a team, go be excellent together" aspect of other team-building exercises. Generally, managers don't force their "best" employees to form a team with them, for example.

Okay, so we can't all work at a company that's willing to throw huge amounts of money and time at something like that. Here's some other experiences I've had:

Laser Tag: I have done this a few times, with different teams. There is a bit of a tendency for the more blood-thirsty team members to enjoy themselves a little too much, but at least the chances of physical injury are minimal. The poor losers will whine that "my gun didn't work", or "I totally shot you first", but the rest of us are used to that (they do it at work every day), so it won't be a problem.

Most LT arenas can be set up to report only the aggregate team score, which helps the whole team feel like they're working together (which is the whole point, after all), and cuts down on whining. I highly recommend not getting individual stats for each player - those of us who suck at the game, or just aren't as into it, don't need a reminder of how poorly we did.

Movies: This can be fun, and usually goes over pretty well, but there's relatively little interaction between team members at a movie. Also, consider that some folks aren't going to want to go to any particular movie you might choose, so have a plan for them to have some fun at the company's expense, too.

One thing you can do to make this more of an interactive experience is to combine the movie with a pre-or-post get-together (catered lunch, maybe?) where people can get together and mingle casually - maybe even discuss the movie together. Many movie theater chains have an "events person" to help arrange this stuff.

If you really want to get the biggest bang for the buck, talk to your local theater about renting out an entire theater for your team (if you're large enough), and have the employees choose which movie they want to see, by voting. Or surprise everybody by renting out a theater for the big summer blockbuster movie on opening day.

Pot-luck lunches: You'd better combine this with something else, or you're in trouble. Some of us really like cooking for a group, but for a lot of employees, this just seems like the company trying to cheap out. At the very least, combine the pot-luck with a 1/2 day, or do it for Halloween and combine it with a costume contest, or something. See also: Picnic in the Park, below.

Miniature Golf: This was a surprising (to me, anyway) success. I figured that all the little cliques would go off and do their thing, but we actually had a pretty good mixing thing going on. We played for fun, rather than running some kind of a tournament structure, which probably helped. It's low-impact, so people can chat, and in general, few team memebers are invested enough to get over-competitive.

Bowling: You might want to try to figure out ahead of time if any of the team members are "serious" bowlers - they might not enjoy playing with a bunch of losers who bowl in the low '60s. But in general, this can work out great - bowling is a "do stuff, then wait" kind of activity, so there will be socialization between rounds. Beer helps with that aspect as well, of course.

Picnic in the Park / Beach day: You're probably located not very far from a nice park of some sort. Take all the employees out for the day, and feed them barbeque, or (if budgets are tight) have them pot-luck it, making sure that the basics are covered, using a sign-up sheet. Make sure frisbees and other fun toys are available, and make sure you have some shade. For extra points, make it an "employees and their families" event.

Amusement Park: Yeah, everybody will be really excited about this, but you likely won't see anybody after the initial arrival, unless you have a very large group, or a very small park. You can plan to have lunch together at one of the "group areas", and that'll get everyone in the same place for a while, but as a team-building experience, it's low on interaction.

So, that's my experience, what's yours? I'm particularly keen to hear from folks that have done more strenuous team-building activities, like the ropes course, or paintball...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Julia Child, International Super-spy

They say "truth is stranger than fiction", and stories like this one prove that beyond any doubt:

By BRETT J. BLACKLEDGE and RANDY HERSCHAFT, Associated Press Writers
24 minutes ago

WASHINGTON - Famed chef Julia Child shared a secret with Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and Chicago White Sox catcher Moe Berg at a time when the Nazis threatened the world. They served in an international spy ring managed by the Office of Strategic Services, an early version of the CIA created in World War II by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Apparently the CIA is finishing up the transfer of old OSS documents to the National Archives, and the list of OSS employees was one of the most recent things to get approved for declassification.

The article on Yahoo! News has a link to this page, a CIA page describing the history and activities of the OSS during World War II.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Pictems, three weeks in

"So, where's my update?"

That seems to be the most common question from our Pictems customers lately. I've been running a bit behind my (unannounced) schedule, but I'm still hopeful that I'll have the first update finished and posted sometime this week. Mark K. has done some awesome updated item artwork (see above), and I think I have a handle on the user-interaction problems we had with 1.0, such that the new version will be easier to use.

"How many downloads have you gotten?"

The most common question from my friends and family seems to be "how many downloads have you gotten?", or alternatively, "are you ready to quit your day job, yet?". We don't actually know how many downloads we've gotten overall, since we haven't gotten our first monthly financial statement from Apple, yet.

I did try some hand-waving estimates, based on traffic on the site. Based on those figures, I figured we had somewhere between 30 and 300 users.

and boy, was I ever wrong...
Apple has just recently given us the last 6 days worth of daily download statistics, and I'm . . . stunned at the number of downloads we're getting. In the last 6 days, we've averaged more than 50 downloads a day. That means we've had as many downloads this week as I was expecting to see from the whole three week period.

Also, despite the fact that Pictems isn't localized for any other language than English, we have downloads from more than 18 different countries. That's pretty astonishing to me, and probably indicates that we'd do a lot better with an application that was localized in multiple languages. I'll have to look into translation costs for application #2.

Where my estimates went wrong
Here's where I think I misled myself and came up with a far too low estimate of our customer base.

"Unique" computers aren't
The "unique hosts" count that our web hosting provider gives us doesn't exactly correspond to the actual number of people that visit the site - someone who looks at the site from home & from work will be counted twice, multiple people hitting our site from behind a web proxy or NAT router would only count as one person, etc. I figured that these would balance out, but I think that the latter factor turns out to have a much greater influence.

Most people will never look at the web site
I figured that some of the people hitting the site would be friends and relatives, and some percentage would be actual customers. I also assumed that some small percentage of people would see the application on iTunes, check out the website, then decide the software wasn't for them.

So I estimated that somewhere between 10-100% of the "website visitors" represented sales. Building on top of the (probably worthless) "unique hosts" number, I compounded the error by assuming every paying customer would look at the site at least once.

As it turns out, I personally have bought something like 10 applications for my iPhone (other photo-related apps for competitive analysis, and a few games), and I've visited the websites for only two of them, once each.

No one signs up for the mailing list
I also had an email address set up so people could ask to be put on a list to be notified of updates when they were available. We've had 6 people (I think) sign up for the mailing list so far. This means that the sign-up percentage is probably substantially below 1%, which was what I figured would be the minimum number that would sign up.

Given that the iTunes App Store will automatically notify customers when an update is available, there's really no reason for them to sign up. I didn't really consider that, but I may just quietly kill off the "updates" mailing list if it never gets above 12 users or so.

So what's your best guess now?
Well, I really don't want to go out on a limb here, but it seems likely that the last 6 days probably don't represent our "best" days, in terms of downloads. They probably aren't the "worst" days, either. If we assume that they were about average, then we've had about 1,100 downloads over the last 22 days. That's not bad at all, by my standards. It's possible that the actual number of downloads is much higher - the first couple of weeks of the App Store being open was probably a bit of a feeding frenzy...

So my current guess is that we'll probaby have sold somewhere between 1,200 and 5,000 copies of Pictems in the first month. If you think you have a better guess, e-mail it to me, along with your t-shirt size, at, and if you have the closest guess, I'll send you a one-of-a-kind Starchy Tuber t-shirt to celebrate your estimation prowess.

So, are you going to quit your day job?
When i was asked "are you going to quit your day job?" for the first time, I decided to sit down and work it out. I figured that if we sold 100 copies in the first month, we'd have lost money on the whole thing, if we had 1,000 downloads we'd actually be making money, and if we had 10,000 downloads in the first month, then I'd seriously have to consider whether it made sense to stay in my "day job", or actually try to make a living as an independent software developer.

I guess we'll know in a week or two if the number of downloads is close to that 10,000 download mark in the sand. Of course, it'd be sheer madness to assume that downloads will continue at the same rate forever, so it'll be several months at least before I'm ready to make that "stay or go" decision.

Hopefully by then I'll have several applications on the store, at different stages in their lifecycles, and at different price points. That should give me a more realistic idea of what the earning potential is. I'll keep you posted.