The Unexpected Pleasures of Open, Transparent Processes

Every project has a team. How those teams form is an interesting question. For the most part, the “leader” of a project decides who is on or off a team, and then they go off on their merry way.    (N2B)

If that work is done openly and transparently, then that opens up the possibility of attracting other contributors. This is the essential goal of movement-building, where the desire is to get other people to act. It’s also what makes Open Source software projects and Wikis work.    (N2C)

The question is, how open and transparent should the process be? Being fully open invites distraction. When the Chandler Project was first announced, list activity went through the roof, and the signal-to-noise ratio was very low. People were galvanized by Mitch Kapor‘s involvement and, of course, everyone had an opinion. It was a dangerous time for the project, because the goals were not concrete, and the process for how to reach concreteness had not yet been established.    (N2D)

How do you balance the desire to be open (and attract outside contributors) with the need to get things done? The key is clarity of vision and process, as well as a realistic assessment of the risks and rewards.    (N2E)

When Doug Engelbart asked me to lead the HyperScope project in 2006, I knew that it was imperative that we deliver. (Visionaries have a sometimes deserved reputation for never actually delivering a product.) At the same time, we really wanted to spread the core ideas widely and galvanize the community.    (N2F)

We had already decided that the project would be Open Source, which meant that some of the processes would inherently be open — open source code repository, open mailing list, open Wiki, and so forth. We also instituted good practices — regularly posting summaries to the community, carrying on much of our activity online (a key principle of the Apache community), and so forth.    (N2G)

I also decided that our weekly face-to-face meetings would be open as well. This was the biggest risk for a few reasons. Doug was going to attend the meetings, and there was a possibility that people would come just to meet Doug. This, in my opinion, was actually a good thing, as long as we weren’t overwhelmed with people and as long as guests did not prevent us from getting things done. I reasoned that we wouldn’t be for two reasons. First, Doug isn’t as much of a household name as he should be, certainly not as much as Mitch Kapor for example. (This is sad and the topic of a future post.) Second, neither was I. I have a large social network, but it’s not enormous, and it’s fairly intimate with lots of trust. I didn’t think a huge number of people would see my announcement, and I trusted those who did to do the right thing.    (N2H)

I was confident in my ability to tightly facilitate the meetings, and I also felt strongly that the rewards of openness, in our case, far outweighed the risks. I was also prepared for the possibility that no one would show up, despite the openness.    (N2I)

I was blown away by who did show up. We had a lot of folks from the old Augmentation Research Center, which was an absolute delight. Many people told me afterwards what a delight it was for them to have us pepper them with questions about their 50-year old work. We had many friends and friends-of-friends visit, all of whom greatly added to the conversation.    (N2J)

Before each meeting, I welcomed our guests, but I also explained that it was a working meeting, and I asked that they respect our need to get things done and participate accordingly. For the most part, that’s all the facilitation I needed to do. I occasionally had to reign people in, but I usually found myself actually encouraging our guests to participate.    (N2K)

At our launch party, I gave special T-shirts to each team member. Two of the people on the team and on the T-shirt were people from the community who found out about our work on their and dropped in. One was John Deneen, a long-time fan of Doug’s, who videotaped and photographed all of our meetings. The second was Craig Latta, a Smalltalk guru who had worked on a variety of old-school hypertext projects in the past and who ended up helping us tremendously on a variety of technical challenges.    (N2L)

https://i0.wp.com/static.flickr.com/97/236665573_2b0e38419e_m.jpg?w=700  T    (N2M)

When I work with groups, I often encourage them to challenge their own assumptions about openness and transparency. Extra effort is required, and sometimes, the hoped-for benefits do not occur. However, more often than not, folks are pleasantly surprised — sometimes even amazed — by what emerges.    (N2N)

The Chandler Project

Almost 20 years ago, in my old stomping grounds at Dr. Dobb’s Journal, Mitch Kapor published an article on software design. He wrote:    (MU0)

The lack of usability of software and poor design of programs is the secret shame of the industry. Given a choice, no one would want it to be this way. What is to be done? Computing professionals themselves should take responsibility for creating a positive user experience. Perhaps the most important conceptual move to be taken is to recognize the critical role of design, as a counterpart to programming, in the creation of computer artifacts. And the most important social evolution within the computing professions would be to create a role for the software designer as a champion of the user experience.    (MU1)

His manifesto stuck with me over the years, and when I started organizing the first FLOSS Usability Sprints with Aspiration, one of the first people I contacted with Mitch. Mitch not only agreed to sponsor our event, but he put me in touch with Mimi Yin and Katie Capps Parlante, two of the leads of the Chandler project. Both Mimi and Katie were enthusiastic about working with us, and Chandler became one of our first participating projects.    (MU2)

At the time, Chandler was a lot of design and very little code. What intrigued me, though, was their design approach. They were aggressively committed to User-Centered Design, which was totally unique for an Open Source project. In many projects, Open Source or otherwise, interface design plays a secondary or worse role in the overall project. The interface is often designed after the fact. With Chandler, interface design played a core role in the overall design.    (MU3)

Last fall, Chandler participated in the fifth incarnation of our sprints, and it was amazing to see how much progress the team had made. Not only was there working code, but there was an active developer and user community, and there was an ongoing commitment to their design approach. The project was also about to face a major transition, having reached the end of its incubation phase under Mitch.    (MU4)

After reconnecting with Mimi and Katie, I decided it was time for me to start using Chandler. The timing for me was good. I had been a very happy user of todo.txt for personal use and a reluctant user of Basecamp for group projects. I wanted something that could replace both. The fact that it was a cross-platform desktop application was also appealing, because I regularly use three different platforms (Linux, Mac, and Windows) and because some of the people I’m currently working with do not have consistent access to the Internet.    (MU5)

The Why of Chandler    (MU6)

At its core, Chandler is a task manager in the spirit of David Allen‘s Getting Things Done methodology. You have items that you can organize into collections and prioritize as “Now,” “Later,” and “Done.” If you add a date to an item, it will appear on your calendar. And you can assign items to others.    (MU7)

You can view your list of “To Do” items by collection, in a calendar (if they have dates), or in a dashboard view that provides an overview of all the different things you have to do.    (MU8)

Simple, right? Well, yeah. That’s a good thing. But if you dig a bit deeper, you can see that this simple design has some very powerful consequences, and it all centers around this notion of the item.    (MU9)

Items have titles and descriptions, which are free-form text. They have priorities and possibly dates. Items can belong to as many or as few collections as you’d like. Items can be shared with or assigned to others.    (MUA)

The notion of an item is pretty generic, and in fact, you can see it in a lot of other applications as well. Email is the classic example. An email message can be thought of as an item. In fact, many people use their email as task managers. If they want to share an item, they email it to others (which is how Chandler works as well). If they want to categorize an item, they move it to a folder. If they’re lucky (for example, if they use Gmail), they can give an item multiple tags.    (MUB)

But email has downsides. The interface is not optimized for task management, although there are plugins that help. Most clients do not support tagging, which means that you have to copy items to multiple folders, and those items do not stay in sync. And email messages are static, whereas an item should be able to evolve over time.    (MUC)

Other applications that use this exact concept of an item are, well, other task managers: Basecamp, Remember the Milk, Bugzilla, RT, Trac, etc. In many ways, these are competing products, but in the Chandler world, they are actually complementary products.    (MUD)

This is the hidden beauty of Chandler. Chandler recognizes that people will be using a lot of different tools, from email to RSS to other task managers. It doesn’t try to be The One Tool. Instead, it is designed to be interoperable. You can write plugins that synchronize items in other applications with items in Chandler, so that you can use Chandler to do what it does best, and other applications to do what they do best, and all the data stays in sync.    (MUE)

Chandler essentially becomes a dashboard for knowledge work, a place where Knowledge Workers can live and get things done. Right now, email fulfills that role for most people. A tool like Chandler has a very good chance of supplanting email in this department, because it offers an interface that is more in line with what Knowledge Workers want to do. More importantly, it works with email rather than trying to replace it.    (MUF)

Chandler works right now. I use it every day, and I’m productive in it. However, its great potential is still largely unfulfilled. The interface is still rough, and there are very few plugins that take advantage of the synchronization capabilities. Every once in a while, I find myself longing for todo.txt (although it should be relatively straightforward to write a command-line based interface to Chandler that emulates it).    (MUG)

However, I believe that this roughness still works in Chandler’s favor. Why? Because as I noted earlier, Chandler is perhaps the only Open Source project in existence that aggressively integrates Open Source development principles with user-centric design. What we’re seeing right now is a spike, a product of Release Early And Often. But if you follow the design discussions — and you can, because it’s Open Source — you can see the ethos of User-Centered Design come through. The interface for the upcoming 1.0 release is going to be significantly better than the current design (0.7.4.1), and that will merely be scratching the surface of what is to come.    (MUH)

Chandler has the potential to be a really great tool relatively soon. It’s not there yet. But if you’re excited about the idea that an Open Source development process can actually result in better software for real people, you should take a look now. More importantly, you should participate in the community, which is fantastic, thanks largely to the expert guidance of Ted Leung and the development team’s active participation. Chandler is definitely a project to watch.    (MUI)

Web 1.0 VC Pitch Champions

The highlight of my Wikimania experience came at the party on Saturday night, when Ross Mayfield and I won the Web 1.0 VC Pitch competition, judged by Mitch Kapor, Brewster Kahle, and Jack Herrick. The pitch? Ross’s first startup, which at one point had a market cap of $1 billion and a fat $60,000 in total revenue. Gotta love the bubble, baby! As Jack said when announcing the results, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.    (L02)

I did my part by doing my best Steve Ballmer impression, only ignorant and more obnoxious. We may have been the only pitch that the judges actually heard, thanks to our shouting and gesticulations. Here we are proudly showing off our spoils — Wikimania staff T-shirts and Wikipedia lanyards:    (L03)

https://i1.wp.com/static.flickr.com/84/207953953_4c447c8f34_m.jpg?w=700    (L04)

Ah, sweet, sweet victory. If only it really were 1998 again….    (L05)