⇗ On Being A Senior Engineer

I think that there’s a lot of institutional knowledge in our field, especially about what makes for a productive engineer. But while there are a good deal of books in the management field about “expert” roles and responsibilities of non-technical individual contributors, I don’t see too many modern books or posts that might shed light directly on what makes for a good senior engineer.

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Faves from The Pixel Awards

Pardon the mess around here as I move around some furniture and get ready to start publishing on Mike Industries again, but I wanted to share a handful of sites, apps, and interactive projects that stuck out to me as I finished judging The Pixel Awards today. These projects were from about 20 different categories ranging from Fashion to Experimental to Student Work, so they may all be great at very different things. I found them all delightful and a reminder of the great work going on in our industry. Was also surprised at how many hamburger menus I saw across much of the field, but that’s a topic for another day!

Thank you to the Pixel Awards for having me as a judge. These were my faves:

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On Teleportation

I remember the first time I heard of a real product described as a teleportation machine. It was only a couple of years ago, actually. A founder of a popular photo sharing network described the ultimate purpose of his product as a means to teleport anywhere around the world. I remember reading that sentence and thinking “this is a really great product, but it doesn’t actually make me feel like that.”

Maybe it was the fact that individual photos only provide a split-second glance into someone’s world. Maybe it was that filtering, cropping, and opportunistic life-editing sometimes creates a veneer that doesn’t feel like real life. Most of all though, I think it’s because the experience wasn’t live.

The difference between something typed or captured minutes before you see it and something you experience simultaneously — cooperatively — with the person doing the broadcasting is transformative.

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We Are Expanding the Design Team at Twitter

First things first: we are expanding the Design Studio at Twitter! A few days ago, I opened 8 new positions, which can be viewed here. If you have fantastic design, production, or research chops and you love Twitter, we’d love to talk to you.

Secondly, below is a not-so-brief update on how things have gone in my first month here.

The City

So far, San Francisco has outperformed my already high expectations. It’s an even more enjoyable city to live in than I imagined. The only thing that’s been a bummer is housing selection and pricing. For a 1300 square foot place, I am paying about 2.5-3x what the same place would go for in a nice neighborhood in Seattle; and Seattle isn’t exactly cheap either. I thought I would just have to overpay a little down here in order to get into a decent place, but the reality is that the city is littered with apartments as expensive as $6000 a month that you wouldn’t even want to live in. Thankfully, we got a place on a great block in Noe Valley so at least the neighborhood is perfect for us, but man is it pricey for what it is.

The food in San Francisco has been predictably terrific, and I will just come out and say it: the coffee is better than it is in Seattle. Between Ritual, Philz, Martha’s, and Blue Bottle, just about the only place in Seattle which can compete is Uptown Espresso. That has surprised me a bit. It’s also nice being this close to In-N-Out Burger, which helps (almost) make up for the lack of Skillet down here.

People keep telling me the weather is supposed to turn to shit any day now, but it’s the middle of December and it’s been sunny and mid 60s for most of my time here. I could really get used to this, although I’m sure the summers won’t be nearly as nice as they are in Seattle. I still plan to fly up every couple of weeks during the summer and throughout Husky football season.

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I’m Joining Twitter

Over five years and exactly 10,000 tweets ago, when I first tiptoed into the lonely textfield that was Twitter’s “What Are You Doing?” box, I typed the following:

It was a reaction to many things, good and bad. The ease of publishing messages. The prevalence of insignificant breakfast trivia in the public feed. The lack of any filtering controls. The growing number of my friends becoming instantly addicted to it.

Since then, Twitter has gone from quirky little internet CB radio to exploding social upstart to what I now consider one of the most important information platforms in the world. At its best, Twitter is an international treasure.

As both a user and an information designer, I’ve grown to love Twitter more each year, and so it is with great excitement that I’m happy to announce I have agreed to move down to San Francisco and Join The Flock™ in the newly created position of Vice President, Design.

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A Fond Farewell to Newsvine, NBC, and Seattle

The last time I wrote one of these posts, it was 7 years ago and I was getting ready to leave a great job at ESPN to start my own media company, Newsvine.

The concept was simple: license the same content that anchored the majority of most major news sites — specifically the Associated Press newswire — and marry it with original contributions from citizens around the world, all in an editorless environment controlled entirely by the community. Mainstream journalism and citizen journalism would stand shoulder to shoulder on the same stage for the very first time.

It was only the second startup I had been a part of, but the first I had founded and the first I had run as CEO. Together with my four colleagues, Lance Anderson, Mark Budos, Calvin Tang, and Josh Yockey (in alphabetical order) we set off to change journalism and show how lean a news organization could be run if given the right automation, the right strategy, and the right amount of support and passion from the community.

After two quick and productive meetings with Mike Slade and Nick Hanauer of Second Avenue Partners, we closed our Series A, left our jobs, and jumped off the cliff together.

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The Deterioration of Hi-Ball Packaging Design

I’ve been a huge fan of Hi-Ball caffeinated mineral water for a few years now. It’s a crisp, light, sweetener-free way to get a little bit of caffeine in your system on a hot day. In addition to the virtues of the product itself, I was initially drawn to this beverage because of its beautiful packaging. Below is what the the bottle looked like when it debuted a few years ago:

A compact, easily resealable 10 ounce bottle with a very reasonable 80mg of caffeine in it.

Then, a couple of years ago, the folks at Hi-Ball decided to change up the bottle design and go with a taller, skinnier variety:

I didn’t have a huge problem with this change, although I was unclear how it qualified as an improvement. If anything, it was worse than the original since it’s much harder to reseal a glass bottle with a metal cap than with a plastic cap. Still, at least it was in that nice, convenient, 10 ounce size with only 80 mg of caffeine.

Fast forward to 2012 though, and Hi-Ball has completely dumped its beautiful glass bottles in favor of gigantic 16 ounce cans. These things are monsters:

Furthermore, the cans have that gimmicky Coors Light feature where parts of it turn blue when it’s cold as the Rockies. You know how else I can tell a beverage is cold enough for me to drink? Because I keep it in my refrigerator.

Hi-Ball is pitching this change as better for its customers since the can holds more beverage, but that’s actually my least favorite part of the entire redesign. I don’t want 16 ounces of energy drink, and I definitely don’t want 160mg of caffeine. And you know what is really hard to reseal? An aluminum can.

People have suggested just drinking a portion of the beverage and then throwing away the rest — which is what I have been doing — but there’s just something unsatisfying about buying more than you want and then dumping the rest down the drain.

It seems clear to me that Hi-Ball is now trying to compete with the Red Bulls and Monster Energies of the world by offering their 16 ounce can, but even those companies offer smaller alternatives.

I find myself buying less and less Hi-Ball now that they’ve forced this super-size on everyone. I wonder if I’m alone or if others are abandoning ship as well.

Make Your Twitter Stream More Interesting with the Stellar Tweetbot

If you’re like me, you’re both particular about who you follow on Twitter and perpetually in search of more entertainment in your feed. The problem with following everyone who belches out a random good tweet is that you then have ten more ho-dum tweets a day from them in your feed. The disincentive to follow people on Twitter has never been higher than it is now, despite the fact that the service hosts more great content than it ever has.

I have a few ideas for fixing this problem, but one of them came to me a few months ago as I was using Jason Kottke’s excellent Stellar.io service (pronounced “Ste-LAH-ree-oh” by everyone except Jason). Stellar.io is a fantastic web-based service that lets you follow interesting people and receive a feed of all the tweets, Flickr images, YouTube videos, and other content they have faved on other services. In Twitter terms, imagine a feed that doesn’t contain your friends’ tweets, but rather the tweets that your friends have faved. In other words, one degree of separation away from your current Twitter stream.

Stellar is a great way to assemble this sort of feed, but if you’re like me, you’d rather see its output merged into your existing Twitter stream. To put it differently, when I open up my Twitter client, I want to see tweets from the few people I follow (as I do currently) and tweets from people I don’t follow which have been marked as favorites from people I do follow. Have I lost you yet?

To create this experience, I wrote a PHP script I call Stellar Tweetbot which runs every 5 minutes via a cronjob that checks my Stellar account for new faved tweets, and then retweets any new tweets to my zombie Twitter account @mike_stellar. Then, I follow @mike_stellar from my normal Twitter account @mikeindustries and I magically have a more interesting Twitter stream.

To see what sorts of things now appear in my Twitter feed, without having to follow any new people, peep the image below (or just follow @mike_stellar):

The first tweet is Rob Delaney making sure a can of Pepsi gets home safe. I don’t follow Rob so I would have normally missed this tweet. However, since I follow some people who faved it, I now see it in my Twitter stream.

The second tweet is to a really interesting article tweeted by Rob Pegoraro. I don’t follow Rob, but I do follow the person who faved it: Tim Carmody (not to be confused with Tom Carmony, who I also follow, but let’s not even get into that).

The third tweet is by the funniest person on Twitter, Ken Jennings. Since I already follow him, I won’t see this as a dupe in my feed. Magic.

So that’s it. The Stellar Tweetbot. I’ve opened sourced it on GitHub, and it’s the ugliest designer-written PHP code you’ve likely ever seen, but it works, yo! If you’re one of those propeller heads who writes much better PHP, feel free to rewrite it, and merge it into the GitHub Branch Repository Chamber Fork Commitment Thingamajigger.

Otherwise, feel free to do what I do and just use it. It will make your Twitter feed more interesting.

The Making of Blood Sugar Sex Magik

Everyone has their favorite album that never appears in any famous “Top 10 Albums of All Time” lists. That album, for me, is Blood Sugar Sex Magik, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. To me, Blood Sugar is the greatest rock album of the last 25 years or so, and it is by far the best album the Red Hots have ever released. Much like U2, their commercial success continued long after their seminal album, but they were never able to match the energy, originality, and overall “breakthroughness” of their early work.

I have a theory that everyone’s all-time favorite album is one they heard during their formative music listening years (usually between age 15 and 25) and Blood Sugar falls right in the middle of that zone for me. There’s just something about how your brain works when you are that age which you can never reproduce later in life. You enjoy music now, but you were shaped by it then.

I remember reading an article (in Rolling Stone, I believe) 10 years ago or so about how this fantastic album was produced. It turns out instead of recording it in a studio, the band camped out in Harry Houdini’s old mansion and laid down each track in low-fi fashion using tools like metal pipe and an empty oil drum. I was amazed to find out how sophisticated of a sound they were able to produce with such a higgledy piggledy setup. The only modern musician I can think of who succeeds at this breed of music production today is Jack White.

So tonight, when one of my favorite cellists, Nick Ogawa (a.k.a. Takenobu), tweeted that he was researching how his favorite bands of old recorded their music, I asked him if he had heard the story of Blood Sugar. He said he hadn’t. I pointed him to a 60 minute documentary on the making of the album which he then discovered existed on Google Video here:

It’s a great documentary to watch if you enjoy this album as much as I do. It’s even been listed in some Top 20 Music Documentaries of All Time lists. It’s a bit NSFW at times, but it’s a great look into how great albums are created: with volatile personalities, at volatile times, in volatile surroundings.

What the Betamax Case Teaches Us About Readability

The Betamax SL6500! I totally had this model!!!

Several really smart people in our industry are arguing very publicly right now about a company called Readability and how great and/or evil their service is. One side thinks what Readability does is wrong, and by extension, that the company’s founders are immoral. The other side says Readability is providing a valuable service, and although they may not have gotten everything right yet, their intent is good.

There are two issues at the center of the controversy:

1. When you save a “cleaned” version of an article (e.g. no ads, homogenized layout) to Readability and then try to share it publicly via Readability’s share tools, the shared link is to the Readability version of the article and not the source. When someone clicks over, they don’t even hit the original content creator’s server.

This seems quite bad to me, and it might even be illegal. By facilitating the public retransmission of an author’s content in a format not authorized by the author, it would seem that Readability is committing copyright violation, en masse. When courts ruled in 1984 that it was ok for someone to make a personal copy of a television broadcast using their VCRs, they did not also rule that people (or VCR companies) could then re-transmit that copy to someone else, without commercials, or however else they saw fit.

This issue seems straightforward to me, and as of this writing, the folks at Readability have apparently changed their tune and decided to do the right thing; although I just downloaded a new Readability Chrome extension and I still see the old behavior.

So, that’s it for the first issue. Bad for publishers? Yes. Bad for readers? Only in that it’s bad for publishers.

Update: Rich from Readability tells me that the only reason I’m still seeing this behavior is that I am clicking the link when I’m already signed in to Readability and the item is already in my reading list. I then tested clicking the link from another browser and it indeed went to the original article, albeit framed with a Readability callout on top. I’m fine with this. So, this problem appears to be resolved.

2. Readability collects voluntary fees from its users (suggested amount: $5 per month) and then attempts to redistribute 70% of this revenue back to publishers, providing said publishers have signed up for their service. This is proving controversial because Readability is “collecting fees on behalf of publishers” without their consent, only distributing the fees back to the publishers if they sign up, and deciding themselves what the details of this arrangement are.

I’ve thought about this a bit — as someone who runs a company that also returns revenue back to content creators (90% in our case, with prior consent) — and I think detractors might be looking at this the wrong way. As I see it, Readability has no obligation to return any revenue to publishers. Unless I’m missing something, they are even within their rights to help individual users make offline, ad-free versions of articles for personal use per the same principles in the Betamax case. A VCR allows me to watch a show later, in another context, while skipping the ads, so why shouldn’t Readability allow me to do the same thing?

The anger about the financial side of Readability seems to come from the opinion that the company is “keeping publishers’ money” unless they sign up, but I guess I look at it differently: I don’t think it is the publishers’ money. I think it is Readability’s money. Readability invests the time and resources into developing their service and they are the ones who physically get users to pay a subscription fee. It’s hard to get users to pay for content and they are the ones who are actually doing it. They realize that the popularity of their service is a direct result of content creators’ efforts so they are voluntarily redistributing 70% of it back to publishers in the only way it is feasible to: based on pageviews from publishers who register themselves.

If you are a publisher and you don’t sign up, Readability doesn’t take your money. It’s all accounted for and available to you once you sign up. I’m not even sure if there is an expiration date on this collection, but there should be. If I were Readability, I’d probably put something like a year limit on it such that if it wasn’t claimed within that time period, it would go onto the company’s balance sheet as revenue.

Readability has no universal contract with the publishing industry, nor do they need one; much as the makers of VCRs had no contract with TV or movie studios. When a reader signs up to pay their monthly fee, Readability then has a contract with the reader. That contract does not say “we will use 70% of your fee to pay your favorite publishers”. It says (paraphrased) “we will take your fee, keep 30%, and give the rest of it away to your favorite publishers, as long as they claim it.” The fact that certain publishers may not want to claim this 70% or may take umbrage as to the details of the arrangement does not change the contract between Readability and its customers. It also does not hurt the publisher any more than other competitive services like Instapaper do.

I would feel very differently about this whole case if our fair use laws weren’t as they are today, but courts have told us that “personal archiving” is a legal activity. As such, it’s legal — and perfectly moral — for a company to create a service which makes personal archiving easier whilst charging a monthly fee for it. That Readability sees a future in which personal archiving may hurt publisher revenues and pushes forward an experiment to counteract those effects should be applauded.

Finally, this whole episode is a good reminder that the problems of the publishing industry haven’t gone away just because the world has gone digital. In fact, personal archiving is an example of a way it’s gotten worse. You never needed a “reading layout” with a magazine or a newspaper because they were already optimized for reasonably efficient reading. Now layouts are optimized for “time on site”. You also never needed a separate service to help you “Read Later” a magazine or newspaper because you could, you know, just read it later. As digital publishing continues to try and balance profits with audience satisfaction, you can expect many more debates like this from smart people like Anil, Gruber, and Zeldman. Just as it’s important for us to defend upstarts who fight the status quo, it’s also important to hold them to as high of a standard as we hold ourselves.

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