The Aaron Brazell Train Keeps Rolling

This post is quick and dirty. Sort of a braindump of sorts. I just want to get it out there as I’m coming in to land with the WordPress Bible and doing a delicate dance of travel, and final deadlines.

I’m sitting in Orlando International Airport and processing a lot of thoughts. Saturday, I gave my first keynote at IZEAFest which is an event that is, at it’s core, an opportunity for bloggers and online marketers to extend their reach online. My talk was about Influence and is loosely based around the 8 Traits of Highly Effective Influencers post I wrote back in March.

My goal in the keynote was to provide insights that other speakers might shy away from giving because, in general, people like to be coddled and told what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. I knew going into the session that I might ruffle some feathers, but I love the online community so much that I thought it would be a disservice to bring a message that enabled destructive behavior. We don’t need no rockstars, especially rockstars with no substance. What we do need are people who recognize the powerful principles that have made people influencers for thousands of years. There is nothing new under the sun.

I do want to expound on this concept of transparency, a topic I addressed in my keynote. Transparency is absolutely essential, but transparency only makes it easier to see inside. You have to be transparent to sell services, business and trust. However, if the content of your character sucks, then transparency only ensures that the world will see it. Transparency solves no problems if you suck as a person or your product sucks because it just does. It may be better to worry about your DNA then worry about making sure the world can see it. Just saying.

You can see some outtakes here.

There’s been a bit of buzz about the session that you can read too.

IzeaFest 2009 - 55Of course, my new friend Missy Ward made sure I met Murray Newlands: “Oh you need to do an interview with Aaron Brazell!” – I’ll make sure that info is out and about when it happens as well.

In about a week, I’m on my way back to Las Vegas for Blog World Expo and to speak at WordCamp Las Vegas. In case you’re wondering, the topic is a bit clever – Star Wars Quotes: The WordPress Genius They Are (think Yoda’s voice) where I’ll be sharing some guiding principles around WordPress, open source and the community. So if you’re in town for the show, stop by and say hi.

Finally, regarding speaking… I have spoken 28 times in 2009. Universally, I am not paid to speak. In some cases, like with Blog World Expo and IZEAFest, expenses are covered and I’m grateful. Generally, however, they are not. Most of these events are local things and constitute no real travel time, but still impact the timeline I have available for client work, etc.

Beginning in 2010, I’ll be looking to have some sort of fee structure involved with speaking opportunities. While I will always leave the door open for unpaid opportunities where it makes sense, it makes no real sense to do 28 speaking engagements in a year and not get paid for it. I want to provide that heads up as we’re entering the final stretch of 2009 and I’m lining up opportunities for 2010. If you do want me to speak to your company, industry event, or community group, please email me at aaron@technosailor.com so we can start working those details out.

Until then, follow me elsewhere in the interwebz:

Ethical Questions over Apps.gov

It’s been no secret since the Obama administration took office, that a key technological interest for the administrations tech policy would involve Cloud-based, Software as a Service (SaaS) initiatives. To that end, contractors and providers have been jockeying to provide cloud service to the federal government.

One of these contractors, notable for their size and breadth within the government I.T. contracting ecosystem, is Computer Sciences Corporation [CSC], who has partnered with Microsoft [MSFT] to provide a specialized product offering for the government.

Interestingly this week, the federal government jumped on the the “app store” movement, made sexy by Apple [AAPL] and expounded on by BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion [RIMM] and Palm [PALM] and now Google [GOOG] with their Android phones.

Incidentally, I’m including stock symbols for a reason. Follow the money and see where it goes. Thats your homework for the day, kids.

Screen shot 2009-09-17 at 1.52.02 PMThe new government offering, Apps.gov is a new “app store” for the federal government. Unlike other app store offerings that are geared toward mobile computing, this app store, an initiative of the GSA seeks to be a clearing house for cloud/SaaS services for the federal government. I’d be lying if I told you I thought this wouldn’t work in driving adoption by other federal agencies of these services.

The App store is divided into four sections: Business Apps, Cloud IT Services, Productivity Apps and Social Media Apps. Most of the applications found in Apps.gov are for-pay services and they are only available for purchase with a government purchasing card. These pay-services include a variety of products from Force.com, creator of the highly popular (if onerously annoying) Salesforce, and a variety of Google Apps products (all paid).

Interestingly, there are free products as well, and this is where I have ethics questions. Many of the products that are free, mostly in the Social Media section, are tools that are used everyday in social media, blogging, and web culture. Many of these apps we take for granted and talk about everyday. Applications like Slideshare and DISQUS have been used on this blog absolutely free of charge.

However, in the government, there always needs to be a tradeoff. You do something, you get something. Even Freedom of Information Act provisions make getting information a freely available right, but it doesn’t make it free. Most requests must be paid for.

Even when working with Lijit, I spent weeks and months trying to get one of the campaigns to adopt the product, but we couldn’t get it done as a free product without it being considered a campaign contribution. Granted, campaigns are not government, but you see where I’m going with this.

Daniel Ha, the CEO of DISQUS commented that they work with a variety of government agencies but that the GSA requires agreements to keep things official and on the up and up. This does not surprise me. It seems to be necessary. Ha did indicate that he was not aware of Apps.gov though, which seems to indicate that the app store was simply populated with providers who the GSA has a record of. It seems to me there’s some kind of missing piece here and I can’t put my finger on what it is.

When browsing around Apps.gov, it is not immediately known how providers get listed in the store. This is where my ethics questions come up. Companies listed in the store gain an implicit endorsement by the government, and probably immediate adoption in other agencies struggling to identify which services should be allowed and which services should not. This is not a transparent process of product selection or offering that I would have hoped for, though on the surface, it is certainly a good step in the right direction.

The major missing piece here is a transparent statement that informs the public on how apps are selected, if there is money changing hands (pay per play), how companies can get their own apps listed, etc.

This is the same problem Apple [AAPL] has had with the iTunes App store and arbitrary selection. It is such a problem that the Federal Trade Commission is looking into it. It also sets up a possibilty of an FTC investigation of the GSA for anti-competitive practice, though I’m not entirely sure if that is logistically or legally possible.

My point is that GSA is doing the right thing here, mostly. They just need to tweak and get rid of any shadow of wrongdoing or ethics questions.

A Tale of Two Cities: How DC and San Francisco Are Handling Citywide 311

Without a doubt, I am a data whore. I love raw data. I love APIs. I love finding interesting ways to mashup data. With the new found craze in government for openness, led in no small part from the Federal level and work endorsed by the Obama Administration to work pushed forward by Sunlight Labs, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and others, I’d expect the openness to trickle down to state and local levels. And it is.

On one level, you have Washington, DC (where I live) who has been making impressive strides through OCTO (Office of the Chief Technology Officer) with the assistance of iStrategyLabs and the Apps for Democracy competition.

Washington, DC is in production of it’s Open 311 API, a RESTful data API that they are careful to note is in development. (We will be building a PHP library around this API shortly, so keep an eye for that announcement over at Emmense.com).

In using a REST API, DC is opening up the service sector of the DC City government for developers of all sorts to tap into and build applications around. All to meet the needs of city residents.

San Francisco, on the other hand, just announced that they are utilizing Twitter to allow residents to submit issues directly from their favorite web application. Simply by following @sf311 (and being refollowed), citizens are able to DM requests.

Personally, I am partial to DC’s approach but I applaud both cities for pushing the boundaries to bring city government closer to the people. Frankly, I’m a little concerned about San Francisco utilizing Twitter for this purpose, for the same reason that I am hesitant about any business making their business model about Twitter. Twitter has not proved, at least in my mind, that they have the business savvy to keep their service from going out of business. Likewise, they have not proved their technical ability to make a fail-less system. It’s a game of Russian roulette to base a business (or government service) around this application. San Francisco probably has failover plans and this is just another approach though, so arguably it’s not a significant risk.

However, the solution to the 311 problem becomes infinitely more scalable when utilizing a pure API and allowing the pure submission and retrieval of data. And the use of an API keeps responsibility in-house. Twitter is not paid for by taxpayer money, so there is no expectation of quality control. A government owned and maintained API, on the other hand, provides safeguards that make sense.

All that aside, it is clear that both DC and San Francisco recognize that the accessibility of governments to their citizens is an utmost important goal in 2009. They are taking laudable steps to break down the barriers and solve real problems with modern technologies. For that, I can find no fault.

Crossing Over Technology With Government

In recent months, I’ve made a small fuss over the so called Government 2.0 experts descending on Washington expecting to change the way of life in government. Of course, I’ve been also called out for not providing actual solutions. Probably rightly so, but understand that I don’t work in the government space. I am simply an outside observer who approaches problems with some degree of sobriety and realism.

Today, I figure I’ll offer some ideas that can move the conversation forward in some kind of constructive way. Wired’s Noah Shachtman covered a white paper released from the National Defense University that approaches Government 2.0 from the perspective of information sharing. While that is indeed a portion of the solution to the greater problem, the military in particular, probably needs to look at broader solutions (and more specific, less 50,000 foot view), as a more effective technology complement to their Mission.

For instance, while simple communication across the various branches of the service is useful for any enterprise, it would pay to address the core war-fighting mission of the military. For instance, a less than 50,000 foot view that suggests “information sharing”, might propose use of mobile devices that utilize GPS information for tactical war-theatre decision making.

Real-time use of video and photography immediately makes data available to analysts requiring split second decisions (such as the split second decision making by the Navy Captain responsible for ordering the sniper takedown of the Somali pirates this weekend).

It is not useful to simply put out generic information about “information sharing” and suggest blogs, wikis and the like are the solution to the problem. While I understand whitepapers are intended to provide a skeletal framework for further action, it is condescending to organizations who already value and understand the need for “information sharing”. What they are looking for is the “hows” and “whats” to achieve their mission.

As stated in previous articles, this is where the “experts” should be focusing. Realistically, those activities will be classified and not published for public consumption. That’s probably the way it should be. The real experts are working internally, inside their organizations, with their constituency – not in the public forum where context and value are lost.

New York Times Makes Massive Leap in Bringing Congressional Data to the Web

For all the talk in DC about transparency in government, that seemed (at least in my sense) to really come to the forefront of everyone’s attention with the House Rules on social media use issue last July, then escalated with the Senate, the bailouts and finally the election of one of the most social media savvy presidents ever, the status quo has been largely wishing for transparency and talking about it.

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The New York Times decided to take it a step farther today by actually providing data in the form of the Congress API. This data is pulled from the House and Senate websites but I have to guess also includes data that is mined from the Congressional Record, the daily public account of all official business that is still, ironically, published in print form en masse. Up until now, the Congressional Record has been available upon request and is hard to actually get real signal from amidst the noise of process and procedure.

With the NY Times Congress API, it is now possible for developers to build tools that mine the Record for roll call votes, members of each chamber, and information about members including chairmanships or committee memberships.

It will be interesting to see how this data is used and how it can be leveraged to keep the government honest. Developers can check out the technical details here.

Transparency and Handling

Transparency happens to be the number one search term for this blog. Don’t ask me how it happened. I’ll simply say that I talk about honesty and transparency quite a bit. The reason is that it is the cornerstone for business and brand.

Today at the Interact 2008 conference, AOL founder Ted Leonsis dropped a bomb on a largely communications oriented audience. Having a “special place in my heart” for public relations and marketing, I can tell you that your industry is the one that is most in need of transparency.

Of course, your industry is not the only one needing transparency. Anyone in business needs transparency as it is the cornerstone of trust and brand loyalty. However, public relations more than any other industry in my book needs to be transparent. Transparent with customers. Transparent with the press and bloggers. Transparent with clients.

Ted notes that many of your [Public Relations] clients are asking for handling. What they don’t realize is that the more handling they have, the more they will be rejected.

Pure and simple, handling eliminates flaws. It’s the photoshopped model on the magazine cover. It’s plastic. It’s memorex. And, let’s be honest, consumers see right through it. It’s deceptive and in todays age of user-centric communications, plastic is the downfall of traditional communications. It’s all about transparency.

Contrived Transparency

There is way too much talk about transparency going around. Seriously. I’m guilty. Apparently, 40,292 other people are also guilty.

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Transparency is one of those buzzwords people like to throw around to demonstrate that they’re savvy in the business of social media. If we have a blog, says one marketing strategist at XYZ company, we’ll be seen as transparent.

Transparency. See through. Invisible. In social media, it means that we’re open and honest. We don’t try to pull the wool over customers, or users, or readers eyes. We trust openly and want to be trusted openly.

However, this is more often than not, contrived.

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Contrived transparency indicated that this notion of being honest and open is not a culturally accepted thing in a company. It’s a strategic decision made to drive sales. It’s a devious, and by it’s very nature, non-transparent way of saying, “You’re stupid enough to believe that I’m a great person to do business with because I’m doing all the right things and sending all the right signals”.

Yep. Contrived transparency.

Guy: Maybe when we’re done here, we can go back to my place.
Girl: Sure, but you do know that I’m not going to sleep with you on the first date, right?
Guy: Oh, I wasn’t thinking that at all!

Yeah, right.

Lessons in Brand Management from Barack Obama

Note: This is not a political post, nor is it a political endorsement.

Wednesday morning. Just about twenty-four hours have passed since Barack Obama addressed the nation on the issue of race and his relationship to firebrand pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If you’re American, you’ve probably heard the speech by now, or at least heard excerpts. Even if you’re not American, given the high profile nature of this political campaign, you’re probably more than aware of the circumstances surrounding the Wright-Obama relationship.

In summary, Wright is the spiritual mentor and long time pastor for Obama, and has been the catalyst for tremendous questions surrounding Obama’s ability to be a uniter, and the life principles that drive his decisions. As the spiritual advisor to Obama, multitudes of sermons denouncing the United States and white people has created significant controversy and question about Obama’s ability to be qualified for Presidential office.

Watching the reactions of pundits, bloggers and listening to radio call ins, it’s apparent that the field is split as to whether Obama knocked the speech out of the park and put aside the concerns of critics, or if he didn’t do enough and that “true bigoted colors” shown through.

Regardless about how you feel about his success, I personally feel like he painted a beautiful picture of how to manage brand. Listening to critics, it’s apparent to me that those who didn’t think he did enough feel that way because they want politicians to play a political game. Obama has to say just the right thing. He has to do just the right thing. And if he doesn’t, he’s not fit to be President.

I’m of the mindset that politics is not what we need in politics. As I’ve said many times before, brand is about authenticity and trust. Relationship is built on authenticity and trust. I’d have more distrust of Obama if he came out and threw his spiritual advisor under the bus, because his spiritual advisor is part of who he is! Whether he threw Wright under the bus in public or not, Wright would still be a significant part of who Obama is! And that cannot be denied or covered by politics. Faking it will always cause distrust.

A difficult part of blogging, particularly professional and corporate blogging, is the balance between what makes sense in terms of transparency and what could ultimately be detrimental to your company or personal brand. The beautiful thing about Twitter is that the flow of real time conversation allows people to put themselves on display. We see folks for who they are, if you’re like me (and I’m guessing most of you are), we like people and trust them more for it. That’s brand. It’s trust. It’s relationship.

At the end of the day, I don’t know how much the Obama speech helped or hurt him in the polls. We’ll have to wait and see. I don’t know if that makes him electable or not. Time will tell. The transparency of a man who is under fire regarding a very sensitive socio-relational issue in America, makes him more electable, in my opinion, than any politically charged and correct speech he might have otherwise made yesterday.

Again, this is not a political endorsement, but it plays well to the things we deal with daily.

Transparency is a Good Trait to Have for a Startup

Something happened last night that was very, very funny. A number of people showed up at the unofficial PRE MashMeet party. Among those were myself and Ann Bernard of WhyGoSolo who was having a blast taking me to task for yesterday’s post as well as informing me that I didn’t have room to talk about such things, because I wasn’t an entrepreneur and had never started a company (the nerve! ;-)).

Fortunately for her (what with my diplomacy and whatnot), such statements don’t piss me off, they just annoy me and it’s certainly nothing to ruin a relationship over.

Anyway, Ann missed a handshake yesterday. What’s a handshake? a Handshake is WhyGoSolo’s terminology describing a first meeting. She was “handshaking” Ken, who I had never met but in my brief interaction with him last night seemed to be a nice enough guy. We thought it was comical that Ann, the CEO of WhyGoSolo would miss a handshake, but let’s be honest – worse things have happened and they may have happened to you. I know worse things have happened to me.

Bad things happen to people and companies all the time. Sometimes everyday. The trick is, you can’t avoid goofs. You can’t avoid mistakes. It’s part of life. What you do with them is what matters. Ann showed fantastic transparency today by fessing up to the goof publicly. Though all of us thought “OMG, I need to Twitter this”, it was ultimately Ann’s choice whether to “out” herself or not.

This is why, though the DC startup community is not a mature investment pool yet, Ann and WhyGoSolo are poised to be the cornerstone for the growth that will happen at some point.

But what do I know? I’m not an entrepreneur. ;-)