Getting Physical

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“I love software,” my friend used to say, “But it’s soooo dehumanizing!” Perched 18 feet in the air atop a scissors lift the other day — I resisted the urge to shout, “I’m the king of the world!” — it occurred to me that variety in work not only makes work more enjoyable, it’s essential . . . especially, something physical to contrast and complement time spent at the computer.

Now, I’m not even a developer — most of my work on our social-networking app was wireframing and flowcharting with Adobe CS tools . . . when I wasn’t writing user agreements, business plans, and corporate docs. Still, I remember euphoric moments solving a UX problem, then excitedly assembling dozens of wireframes until 3am. World blocked out, mind starting to numb up, clicking command-O or command-shift-S and forgetting what it was I wanted to do. I can only imagine what it would be like to find oneself having similar brain-farts deep in the weeds of multiply nested subroutines. No wonder coders get cranky!
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But my hacker friend gets physical breaks. A lot of his code gets programmed into chips, so he’ll be at the “˜bench’ some days, sticking parts into sockets, occasionally breadboarding things up, soldering.

(An EE and inveterate tinkerer, I love the smell of rosin-core solder in the morning. If I weren’t so afraid of the time-sink it would become, I’d so join HacDC. Have you seen the creativity springing forth around Arduino microcontrollers in the pages of Make? Btw, it’s a bit late, but the kits make great stocking-stuffers!)arduino-serb1

There’s a lot to be said about mixing it up. Adobe actually instituted a program to get their programmers away from the screen for a few days at a time working on physical projects — soldering, even — to refresh weary neurons and foment new thinking. I love the ‘real photoshop’ photo above (hat-tip, Keith Casey). I imagined whoever built it was staring at the interface with bloodshot eyes, got the brilliant idea, and stayed up all night gathering the ingredients, cutting and folding cardboard, and lastly whipping out the camera for the glorious shot. (Turns out, it was actually some agency work — but we’ve all had these moments, when we jump out of our genres, driven by inspiration.

We humans need that variety. Even when we’re doing something we really, really enjoy, it goes stale. Few writers just write. Workout routines become drudgery without variety. Even eating, veritable survival, gets uninteresting when day after day, it’s same-old, same-old.

Which is why I was having the time of my life (well, a good day at work) on a scissors lift, checking out the HVAC in our warehouse space. We build next-generation components . . . but right now I’m supervising the buildout of a clean-room area where some macho processing equipment will be housed. I really enjoyed surfing the web for a used 408V to 380V transformer (50kVA, three-phase, of course). Anyone got one?

My Illustrator skills came in handy, doing electrical, plumbing, and other floorplan drawings. And after unloading boxes of ceiling tiles and HEPA filters arriving from trucks, it’s really comforting to return to the computer. (Even to update my Project file . . . or Sharepoint — I will not let it beat me!) And vice-versa.

One programming friend builds boats. Another does stand-up comedy. Many are great cooks. Tell me: what do you do to mix it up? (Drinking doesn’t count!)

Adobe Selected as Video Platform for MLB.com for the Next Two Years

Adobe and Major League Baseball announced today that they have signed an agreement for Major League Baseball to power all their video content, including the live MLB TV content that is wildly popular.

The announcement indicated that video content will also be available offline with use of the new, yet popular, AIR platform.

Competitors to the Adobe Flash platform include Microsoft Silverlight and a variety of Ajax/Javascript frameworks, though one SproutCore seems to be Apple’s choice for rich media applications. It is unclear if it will develop into something more full-featured with the ability to handle video.

Pony in the Pile

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This week’s Interact 2008 conferencemad men 2.png — all things interactive media — began upbeat enough, with Ted Leonsis‘s inspirational keynote signaling an ‘anything’s possible, mix-and-mashup’ world of opportunity where entrepreneurs can offer (and perhaps find) fulfillment by providing one of the five keys to self-actualization: relationships, community, self-expression, giving back, or pursuing a higher calling.

But then, the sky began to darken.

With each successive speaker and panel, the mood turned increasingly somber, until by the end of the afternoon — terrabanged by the announcement of the failed bailout and a Dow plummeting 777 points — somber turned to sober . . . and the ad/marketing audience lit out to quench the condition at Happy Hour.

Actually, Leonsis foreshadowed the day’s drama with his own sobering statement: “Today, a marketing person needs to be a mathematician,” and not the English major that he was. Everyone knew exactly what he meant, of course. It’s about metrics, and testing, and deliverables that can be measured — a theme echoed several times during the day. Google VP of Search Product and UX Marissa Mayer talked about nuanced A/B testing, where reducing spacing a single pixel-width — or bathing paid search in a field of yellow rather than blue — resulted in 20% to 40% more click-throughs. Launchbox Digital‘s Sean Greene had asked the panel he was moderating on ‘The Evolution of Advertising Models’ what the near-term effects of the dismal economy would be on ad spending, and the unanimous response was “a shift to what’s measureable” (hopefully, social ads in search of the elusive ‘engage’ metric won’t be left twisting in the wind).

You could almost feel the room heave a collective sigh: “We know, we know — we need to bone up on this technical widgified social media stuff.”

But there was little letup. Avenue A/Razorfish‘s Joe Crump was nearly morose, acknowledging (in a talk aptly titled ‘Digital Darwinism’) that not only is the rate of change of technology overwhelming, but current org charts are woefully ill equipped to deal with it in creative organizations. By early afternoon, Adobe evangelist Duane Nickull and Clearspring CEO Hooman Radfar had applied a thick coat of glaze discussing SOA (tell the truth: did you know that it stands for Service Oriented Architecture?) and widget distribution strategies. Finally, the afternoon wrapped with a panel presenting a glass-half-empty outlook for interactive media employment that could be summed up as a grey-hair lament something like: “We need to hire more whiz kids that understand this stuff . . . but they’re a dickens to manage.”

Good thing we entrepreneurs are optimists. Why, there must be a pony in this pile!

The great words of someone famous come to mind: Out of adversity comes opportunity (or is it creativity?). Either way, there’s a dislocation, a discontinuity, a gap that begs for a solution. Here, the gap is agencies’ and marketing departments’ inability to keep up with technology of social media. So might be the solution?

Maybe training.

Maybe analytics tools or services.

Maybe app-building for hire.

Now, Crump shouldn’t actually be complaining — of Avenue A/Razorfish’s 500 employees, 200 are technical. But I’m not sure any of the best and the brightest (you know who you are) want to bury themselves in an agency with a salary and long hours.

So what’s the entrepreneurial play here?

Although VCs have historically shied away from service businesses — the multiples were usually far greater in product businesses — that scenario has changed. And in fact, it could solve several problems at once. If you’re dismayed that VCs want you to recite your revenue model (even though, like me, you expect you’ll figure it out once users have embraced you), there could be an alternative to raising money altogether: How about getting paid for what you love to do (and do well)? If in the course of providing your service, you’re also building a product, or developing some intellectual property (IP), then you’re in fact building equity in a service business.

I wrote about BuddyMedia creating ‘branded’ Facebook apps (They actually received funding from Bay Partners and others), and they’re a good example of ‘filling the gap’ for big agencies. But a better example may be Set Consulting. President/founder Jared Goralnick is passionate about productivity, and Set gets paid to improve clients’ productivity. But in the course of doing his work, Goralnick also built a product — AwayFind — aimed at avoiding ‘email bankruptcy.’ Voila! . . . a cashflow business, with an equity kicker.

And no VC. Ironically, when you get that combination working for you — and you really don’t need the money — is when the VCs come a-knockin.’