TITLE: More Visibility from the Blog
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: November 09, 2005 6:54 PM
Back in March, I was
contacted by my local paper
article on local bloggers.
That was, I think, the first time that someone
outside my expected audience had contacted me
about my blog.
Last week, I was contacted by a gentleman named
Alex Gofman, who is CTO for
Moskowitz Jacobs Inc.
and is writing a book on the marketing techniques
of his company's founder, Howard Moskowitz. If
you have been reading this blog for long, you may
remember a nearly year-old article I wrote entitled
What Does the iPod have in Common
with Prego Spaghetti Sauce?,
in which I discussed some ideas on design, style,
and creativity. My thoughts there were launched
by articles I'd read from Paul Graham and Malcolm
Gladwell. The Gladwell piece had quoted Moskowitz,
and I quoted Gladwell quoting Moskowitz.
Mr. Gofman apparently had googled on Moskowitz's
name and come across my blog as a result. He was
intrigued by the connections I made between the
technique used to revive Prego and the design ideas
of Steve Jobs, Paul Graham, agile software methods,
Art and Fear.
He contacted me by e-mail to see if I was willing
to chat with him at greater depth on these ideas,
and we had a nice 45-minute conversation this morning.
It was an interesting experience talking about an
essay I wrote a year ago. First of all, I had to go
back and read the piece myself. The ideas I wrote
about then have been internalized, but I couldn't
remember anything particular I'd said then. Then,
during the interview, Mr. Gofman asked me about an
earlier blog entry I'd written on the rooster story
from Art and Fear, and I had to scroll down
Our conversation explored the edges of my thoughts,
where one can find seeming inconsistencies. For
example, the artist in the rooster story did many
iterations but showed only his final product. That
differs from what Graham and XP suggest; is it an
improvement or a step backward? Can a great designer
like Jobs create a new and masterful design out of
whole cloth, or does he need to go through a phase
of generating prototyping to develop the idea?
In the years since the Prego experience reported by
Gladwell, Moskowitz has apparently gone away from
using trained testers and toward many iterations
with real folks. He still believes strongly in
generating many ideas -- 50, not 5 -- as a means to
explore the search space of possible products. Mr.
Gofman referred to their technique as "adaptive
experimentation". In spirit, it still sounds a lot
like what XP and other agile methods encourages.
I am reluctant to say that something can't happen.
I can imagine a visionary in the mold of Jobs whose
sense of style, taste, and the market enable him to
see new ideas for products that help people to feel
desires they didn't know they had. (And not in the
superficial impulse sense that folks associate with
modern marketing.) But I wouldn't want to stake my
future or my company on me or most anyone I know
being able to do that.
The advantage of the agile methods, of the techniques
promoted in Art and Fear, is that they give
mere mortals such as me a chance to create good products.
Small steps, continuous feedback from the user, and
constant refactoring make it possible for me to try
working software out and learn from my customers what
they really want. I may not be able to conceive the
iPod, but I can try 45 kinds of sauce to see which one
strikes the subconscious fancy of a spaghetti eater.
This approach to creating has at least two other benefits.
First, it allows me to get better at what I do. Through
practice, I hone my skills and learn my tools. Though
sheer dent of repetition and coming into contact with
many, many creations, I develop a sense of what is good,
good enough, and bad. Second, just by volume I increase
my chances of creating a masterpiece every now and then.
No one may have seen all of my scratch work, but you can
be sure that I will show off my occasional masterpiece.
(I'm still waiting to create one...)
We should keep in mind that even visionary designers like
Jobs fail, too -- whether by creating a product ahead of
its time, market- or technology-wise too soon, or by
simply being wrong. They key to a guy like Jobs is that
he keeps coming back, having learned from his experience
and trying again.
I see this mentality as essential to my work as a programmer,
as a teacher, and now as an administrator. My best bet
is to try many things, trust my "customer" (whether user,
student, or faculty colleague) enough to let them see my
work, and try to get better as I go on.
In part as a result of our conversation this morning,
Mr. Gofman -- who is a software developer trained as a
computer engineer -- decided to proposing adding a chapter
to his book dealing with software development as a domain
for adaptive experimentation. I learned that he is an XP
aficionado who understands it well enough to know that it
has limits. This chapter could be an interesting short
work on agile methods from a different angle. I look
forward to seeing what may result.
As Mr. Gofman and I chatted this morning, I kept thinking
about how fear and creativity had come up a few times at
OOPSLA this year, for example,
But I didn't have a good enough reason to tell him, "You
should read every article on my blog." :-) In any case,
I wish him luck. If you happen to read the book, be on
the look out for a quote from yours truly.