Listening for Life

In the late 1980s, Donna Stoering showed up in our lives in Southern New Hampshire when my wife sang with Donna in the St. Elizabeth Seton church choir. Donna gave us one of those gifts that keeps on giving when she asked if she could sponsor us to a Cursillo Weekend.  Jamie and I had seen the incredible difference that Cursillo made in the lives of several of our friends so we readily agreed.

The Cursillo process has separate Men’s and Women’s weekends with the men usually attending the three day weekend first and then the women attending a weekend often scheduled within a month of the men’s weekend.  The NH Cursillos are usually held at the Sarto Center several rural miles outside of Manchester, NH.

Donna picked me up and dropped me off at the Sarto Center and then with a cheery goodbye left me in the midst of 30 men I didn’t know.  She made sure that I didn’t have a car so that I couldn’t leave the weekend if things got “tough.”  In retrospect, the weekend was one of those transformative events that change one’s world view and approach to life. During the weekend, I treated the experience more as an academic exercise and went into my cocoon of silent observer.

At the end of the weekend with great energy and emotion the larger Cursillo community came flooding into our meeting room singing the rooster song – De Colores.  Donna was one of the first Cursillistas in the room singing so vibrantly and she immediately came up and gave me one of her wonderful hugs. My bottled up emotions from the weekend came flowing out.

As we all calmed down, our wonderful “three amigos” guitar players started playing and singing “Here I am Lord” by Dan Schutte (hear the song played and sung by Dan Schutte).

I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my peo-ple cry.
All who dwell in dark-ness now
My hand will save.

I who make the stars of night,
I will make their dark-ness bright.
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. It is I Lord.
I have heard you call-ing in the night.
I will go, Lord, where you lead me.
I will hold your peo-ple in my heart.

I, the Lord of snow and rain,
I have borne my peo-ple’s pain.
I have wept for love of them.
They turn a-way.

I will break their hearts of stone,
Give them hearts for love a-lone.
I will speak my words to them.
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. It is I Lord.
I have heard you call-ing in the night.
I will go, Lord, where you lead me.
I will hold your peo-ple in my heart.

I, the Lord of wind and flame,
I will tend the poor and lame.
I will set a feast for them.
My hand will save.

Fin-est bread I will pro-vide,
Till their hearts be sat-is-fied.
I will give my life to them.
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. It is I Lord.
I have heard you call-ing in the night.
I will go, Lord, where you lead me.
I will hold your peo-ple in my heart.

When we hit the phrase “I will break their hearts of stone,” I looked up at Donna and thanked her for the gift of a new spiritual life.

It wasn’t that long after the Cursillo Weekend that we moved to Seattle.  No matter how much you want to stay in touch with special friends distance gets in the way.  We followed Donna’s career as a world class pianist and swapped periodic letters, but our physical world paths crossed precious few times until last Thursday night.  Donna and her current husband, Andy Anderson, stopped by on their way to a wedding in Mt Vernon, WA.  We had not met Andy, so we were delighted to get to know him.

Most of the evening was spent catching up on where our respective journeys had taken us and most especially learning about the journeys of our respective children. At the very end of the evening one of those “oh, by the way” synergistic moments popped out of the universe when Donna shared that she was in the process of fund raising for her Listen for Life for profit entity.  She was particularly excited about the Travels with Music project which is currently in DVD ROM form and will be released as a series of Apps in the fall.

I was excited about the depth and breadth of what Donna had done since founding her organization in 1998:

“At Listen for Life we envision a world where all music cultures are valued and appreciated as the channel for communication. We are dedicated to the service of music through a variety of international and local outreach projects, and by creating a global family of music performers, teachers, creators and listeners.

“Listen for Life is a global organization created for the preservation and advancement of musical culture by serving the needs of music, musicians and music listeners in every region of the world. Through our variety of outreach, education and media projects, we aim to create an international family of music listeners, in community with those who compose, teach, and perform all of the wonderfully diverse musical styles that can be heard on the planet.

“Listen for Life was founded in London, England, in 1998. It then grew eastwards around the globe to encompass volunteers or affiliate studios in many countries, and it recently established new development and administrative offices in Oakland, California, USA.

“One of our goals is to encourage musicians themselves and enable their growth, through workshops, master classes and international retreats. We also encourage them by offering new performance, recording and broadcasting opportunities to relatively unknown but deserving musicians throughout the world.

“To serve both the musicians and the music listeners, and therefore to help advance the cause of music itself around the globe, Listen for Life has developed into an international umbrella organization for a series of outreach projects, with each project happening in many different locations around the world.”

The Listen for Life website is full of sample videos from the project and interviews with musicians from around the world.

I couldn’t believe the timing.  My colleagues and I recently founded a company to produce an integrated media content authoring and sharing tool.  One of the forms of media that we were missing along with the associated expertise was music.  Here was over 400 hours of professionally produced music, and even better it came with associated videos, games and text.  Just the kind of content we are looking for to test the bounds of our tool and to help us do the user research on what “integrated media” really means.

I do love the synchronicity of the universe – “when the student is ready the professor will show up.”  I can’t wait to learn from Professor Stoering.

Posted in Content with Context, Family, Spiritual, Values | Leave a comment

Graduate Students – Best Knowledge Transfer System

Way too many sleeps ago, Russ Ackoff shared that the best information retrieval system and best knowledge transfer system was the collection of graduate students that worked with him at Penn’s Wharton School. “Every morning when I come into the office there will be 2-3 articles taped to my door that somebody thinks is important for my research. They are always spot on” Russ shared.

Last Saturday evening a Tweet arrived from two UW HCDE grad students (Drew Paine and Behzod Sirjani) asking if they could come over on Sunday afternoon and enjoy the view of Puget Sound from our deck on Bainbridge Island. “Of course, we’ll bring the food. All you have to do is supply the wine.”

“Done,” I replied.

Drew is in the process of starting his PhD research on the topic of human centered software development. In all of my focus on using human centered design (HCD) and teaching HCD, I don’t remember ever putting human centered with software development before. I asked Drew what he meant by the phrase.

Drew shared that he was interested in how non-software engineers, like scientists, develop software to support their research. They are self-taught and often use scripting language as a way of making sense of their data. They are able to get important things done, but are doing it without formal knowledge. So he wants to understand how to make computational thinking and computational doing more approachable to all of those professionals who aren’t going to go through a computer science or software engineering curriculum.

Human centered software development conjures up something very different for me. I believed the phrase should mean getting software developers to move from being technology centric to being human centric. I have the hardest time getting software engineers to pay attention to what a user really needs rather than focusing on the minutia of getting a program to actually work. Or worse, the software developer focuses on what would be neat to build.

So I looked to Behzod to share what he thought human centered software development might mean. As he sipped some of the Dominio IV wine, I’d pulled up from our spiral wine cellar, Behzod expressed his belief that it meant we need better tools for crafting software programs. He goes crazy with the arcane languages that we have to express a program to the computer and thinks that something like Scratch should be the way we all develop programs. “It is not just the language itself that needs to be more human centered, but also the system and the way that software developers can collaborate.  That’s what I like with Scratch. And the real problem is that no program contains the knowledge necessary for someone else to pick up and modify the program. That is the area that we need software to be more human centered.”

As you can imagine, with good wine and a great view an enlightening conversation ensued.

The next evening, Bill Knight, dropped by to listen to some of my “rubber meets the sky” ideas about the next tool I want to build and to share some fine wine. Bill has been kind enough to listen to my flights of fancy since we worked together at Aldus back in 1990. Since Bill is an incredibly accomplished software engineer and CTO, I asked him what he thinks human centered software development means.

Bill shared that he thinks the term means embedding software developers onsite with the humans who have the problem that is trying to be solved for. “Most of the time, software developers are many hours or time zones removed from the people that they are developing solutions for. The term means to me that you should embed the developers directly with the key users in the problem space. Human centered software development is problem space focused. It’s what we did at Attenex by embedding ourselves with the Preston Gates eDiscovery lawyers.”

As we continued the discussion, Bill added that by embedding software developers one should shift to focusing on the process and make the process more understandable. “We have to make the software relevant and the only way to do that is by embedding the developers deeply into the problem space.”

With four interesting view points on what human centered software engineering might mean, I can’t wait for Drew to get started with his PhD research and see where he ends up.

And just to have some fun, I decided to see if Google had any images on the subject. Up came an old IBM diagram:

So what do you think human centered software development means?

Posted in Attenex Patterns, Content with Context, Human Centered Design, Knowledge Management, Learning, Software Development, University, Wine | 4 Comments

Shape Planting – The Dominio IV Labyrinth

On a dreary Seattle day, an intriguing invitation from Dominio IV showed up in my inbox to come plant a grape vine labyrinth near Mosier, OR at their Three Sleeps Vineyard. I checked my calendar and I had nothing planned for that day.  It has been way too long since I’d been to Oregon Wine Country so this was a great excuse to have another authentic experience for my wine geek education. I usually try to get down to their McMinnville winery a couple of times a year to see what Patrick Reuter is innovating around the making of fine wine. I also try to arrange to help out in the tasting room or with the fall crush.  However, it has been over a year since I’ve made time to visit my favorite wine making family.  While I’ve been hearing for years about their biodynamic vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, I hadn’t managed to make my way to the property. Clearly, now was the time to go learn some more about fine wine growing.

Wiltshire Labyrinth

Many moons ago when we toured England as a family, our children insisted that we go visit the labyrinth in Wiltshire, England near Stonehenge.  We were fascinated with the distinction between a labyrinth and a maze.  A maze is a complex puzzle while a labyrinth has only a single non-branching path which leads to the center.  We enjoyed walking through the labyrinth and the kids wished that there was one of these closer to home in Seattle, WA.

Patrick Reuter was so fascinated with the experience of labyrinths that he encountered while working at different wineries in Europe, that he chose the labyrinth as the symbol for Dominio IV wines. For ten years, Patrick has tried to convince his co-owner and wife, Leigh Bartholomew, to let him plant a labyrinth on their vineyard property.  Leigh being an amazing vineyard manager at Archery Summit, has resisted because she dislikes driving a tractor in circles through rows of vines.  Maybe one day we’ll all find the real story as to why she relented and decided to support Patrick’s dream of having a labyrinth of grape vines that friends of the winery can come experience the journey to the center.

Three Sleeps Bed and Breakfast

Glenn and Liz Bartholomew who live on the property and run the Three Sleeps Bed and Breakfast along with other family members laid out and prepared the ground for twenty of us to come do the “shape planting.” [Note:  As a way to remember the taste of his wines, Patrick invented something he calls “shape tasting.”] Glenn had prepared all of the irrigation lines and then augered all the holes for the vines. The rest of the family pounded in the bamboo stakes into the planting holes to help guide the upward spreading of the grape vine.

Patrick Reuter describing the labyrinth layout

We all gathered on the front porch of the Bartholomew’s home where Patrick shared his vision and philosophy for the labyrinth. His design challenge was how to lay out the labyrinth so that it would be both an interesting walk and allow the farming and irrigation of the vines to occur. Patrick’s explanation of the labyrinth:

“You’re looking down this row, here, in the center. It’s laid out straight in front of us. There is a pin in the center. There are 12 rows. It is a variation of our Dominio IV logo.  The outer rings are called lunettes which are half circles. The half circles have meaning. There are 28 and a half lunettes in each quadrant. It is a calendar.  These are lunar cycles. So you can mark the year going around the labyrinth. Each one of these is a season.

“So the way we’ve set it up is you are looking straight east, well not exactly straight east. A little bit off so on solstice on June 21st when the sun comes up, it comes up directly over the entrance. So it gives you the seasons in each quadrant. It is an 11 ring labyrinth but we are choosing to plant the outside ring so that when you are walking the outside of the ring you have vines on both sides of you.  This way there aren’t stones on the outside. We’re actually planting the outside ring.

“The inside ring is going to be roses. It will be close to a mile to actually walk it, to go into the center. Then you turn around and you do a loop through the center. Then you exit again the way you came in and go back out.

“It’s not a maze but a labyrinth, so you don’t get lost in it.  As long as you are moving forward, you are where you are supposed to be. The idea of connecting this in a whole circle is that each of these rings will be a different varietal.  The first three rings are Tempranillo. The next two are Syrah. Then it goes to Malbec, Cab Franc, and Petite Verdot.

“So that blend, what we call a field blend, is kind of an ancient way of planting different varietals together that they think will grow well in a region.  Then you make a wine out of it. The idea is to have people come and sign up like you just did.  You guys will be the first in the book. This book will go on for all the people who walk the labyrinth. These walks could go on for a 100 plus years.

“We are putting these vines in the ground.  And if you do your job correctly (not putting the plants upside down), the vines will last. [Lots of laughter.] Everybody is familiar with what the top of a vine looks like, right?

“These actual vines could be in the ground for over a 100 years. What we are creating here is a place for people to come and walk and go through a journey in and out. It is often a meditation for people to do that. In a sense we are planting a sacred place for people to come, which is really unique and special.

“It is awesome that you guys came. You are the special ones in that way. Thank you for being the first and being the special planters. As you walk the vines in a given year, you leave something behind. Something intangible, that we can’t really talk about. Scientifically, it is a process that you go through of going in and going out of this sacred place.

“Every year we’ll make the wine just from this block.  We’ll ferment it in its own fermenter and put it in its own barrels. Then we’ll bottle it on its own. Then we’ll offer the wine back up to the people that walked the labyrinth that year. So whatever your intention, your meditation, will be captured in some way by the vines and taken into the wine and then brought back to your dinner table.

“It’s an interesting circle.

“So that is what we are up to today.

Shape Planting group: “Are we going to live long enough to try this wine?”

Patrick: “Three years.  You have to hold on for three years. We’ll be picking in three years so it will be three or four years before we have a bottle of wine from the labyrinth.

“We haven’t figured out how to mark the vines.  We are hoping to have great examples of the people who’ve worked on the vines or meditated on the vines. We want to have some representation of the great lives who’ve passed through here.  We’ll eventually work that into dedicating the life essence and vitality here. If you want to work that into your planting today, just keep track of which plants you were intentional about and we’ll come back and mark them in a way that stays there.

“So it could be like a Tibetan flag. You know how the Tibetan prayer flag (green, red, blue) is supposed to be flapping in the wind.  As they flap in the wind, the Tibetan Buddhists think that is the prayer going into the wind. Every time they flap back and forth there is another prayer being said. That’s my vision of what we want. The marking would be people’s names but also kind of dangle and flap from the vine and that would be ongoing, significant and intentional.

“The first vines that have gone in are dedicated to my uncle who passed away last year about this time. That’s the special vine so don’t crush it. Let’s get on with the planting.”

Mt Adams rising about Three Sleeps Vineyard

From his winemaker’s view, he is planting an interesting mix of Tempranillo (the majority of the grapes planted on the rest of the property), Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot. His goal is to produce a “field blend” in a couple of barrels that will be available to wine club members and those who journey through the labyrinth. What we are planting today will be harvested in three years and then take two to three years to age before being released. Once again I am reminded of the long range thinking that one has to do in the wine industry – what we do today won’t be available for the market for at least five years.

Leigh Bartholomew on Shape Planting

Leigh then took over to move us from the visionary spiritual to the pragmatics of how we would plant the vines. We moved down to the labyrinth and Leigh went through a detailed explanation and show and tell of how to plant. First, we put some all natural rock phosphate fertilizer on the mound of dirt piled on the side of the hole. She explained that we needed to mix this in with the dirt and put this in the hole first followed by a couple of inches of dirt so that the fertilizer didn’t “burn” the root structure. Ideally, you wanted to have about a fist of root stem above ground right next to the bamboo shoot pole. With the one example we were now educated to go plant our way around the circular rows. I love the process of see one, do one, teach one approach to experiential learning.

Of course I had to encourage Patrick to plant lots more Cabernet Franc which has become my favorite speciality varietal.  I lovingly planted about ten Cab Franc vines with focused intentionality so that they would thrive and Patrick would see the light to plant even more in the future. In addition to the Cab Franc I was able to plant some Petite Verdot and Tempranillo varietals before all of the vines were in their respective holes.  It is amazing how quickly what seems like a forever task is finished with 25 motivated wine lovers.

Many hands makes fast shape planting

As the planting was winding down, I asked Patrick how the journey would flow through the labyrinth vineyard. In his wonderful way, Patrick started with “I’m not sure.  Now that all the vines are in, I have to figure out how to set up a symbol system to guide the flow through these open spaces we have to leave for the tractors. I thought about putting stone markers where people need to turn, but they are so heavyweight for the vineyard.  The tractors will run over them and drive them into the ground compacting the root systems.”

Before we start the labyrinth grape vine planting

I immediately lept to a technical solution to the problem laughing at myself the whole time that I shared it with Patrick.  “Look we could do a quick labyrinth navigation app.  All you would have to do is get one of those augmented GPS transmitters like wheat farmers use to precisely plant a field.  Then the user could look at the app and navigate their way through the vineyard.”

Neither of us could stop laughing at the thought of wine lovers looking to get back to nature and do something spiritual in the vineyard looking at their iPhone the whole time.  Some things are just so wrong.

The planted labyrinth from the existing vineyard

Throughout the afternoon, Patrick and Leigh’s two young boys and a friend were navigating the tall grasses within the maze as they acted out their fantasies of hunters looking to prey on these farmers planting their vines. The lyrics of lions and tigers and bears from Wizard of Oz kept running through my head.

The hunters ready to soak the planters.

After cleaning up a little, we retired to the front porch to have some tacos, fresh vegetables and of course, Dominio IV wines. The Bartholomews know how to put on a fresh food spread. We started with the 2011 Viognier to accompany the chips and salsa and then moved through a progression of reds – Pinot Noir, Syrah, Syrah-Tempranillo blends, and finally a Tempranillo.

As the evening wound down and the labyrinth planters began to drift off, Patrick suggested that Jeff Weissler of Conscious Wine and I chat a bit. Jeff and I had exchanged emails a couple of months back after I’d written the blog post on Shape Tasting and Patrick pointed me to Jeff’s videos on Shape Tasting with Patrick. We did the “do you know” routine to establish our wine geek credentials. We have many mutual friends on our respective journeys including Bill and Barb Steele of Cowhorn Winery, Alan York, Paul Dolan, and the Benzigers.

Jeff is doing some interesting work promoting his four principles and twelve practices of fine wine making.  His focus is on figuring out how to rate wineries over the long term rather than myopically only pay attention to a particular bottle of wine from a particular vintage. I look forward to many great interactions in the future with Jeff as he helps all of us be intentional in what we look for in fine wines and fine wine growers. Jeff posted his video of the labyrinth planting earlier today.

Very early stage grape cluster growth

With lots of hugs for old friends and new wine fellow travellers it was time to head back up the road to Bainbridge Island.

As I headed out from the peace and aliveness of Three Sleeps Vineyard, I once again reflected on Brian Doyle’s insightful quotes from  The Grail:  A Year Ambling and Shambling through an Oregon Vineyard in pursuit of the best pinot noir wine in the Whole Wide World about fine wine growing:

“Grapevines are amazing life forms when you think about it, they plunge their fingers a hundred feet down into the rocky soil, they can live for hundreds of years, they fend off all sorts of insect attacks, and they have been working with human beings for so long, thousands and thousands of years, that you wonder sometimes who cultivates who, you know what I mean?  Are people manipulating and taking advantage of grape vines, or are grape vines deftly using human beings to take over the world?

“On my way back uphill to my car I remember what Jesse told me once, that each vine produces enough grapes to make about three-fourths of a bottle of wine, and I chew on the idea that three-fourths of a bottle of excellent wine is probably just the right amount necessary for two or three people to start telling stories fast and furious,so that each of the vines I pass is pregnant with stories, some of which were never born into the world before, and this idea makes me happy also, so by the time I get to the town where I am supposed to give a talk I am cheerful as a chipmunk.

Posted in Spiritual, User Experience, Visual pattern Language, Wine, Working in teams | 6 Comments

Conveying Complex Thoughts

While preparing for my recent presentation for the Design Strategy Conference 2012, I went through a labor of love trying to make some complex ideas and experiences understandable. To help me with this process, I engaged my colleague, Christine Martell from VisualsSpeak, both to use her consulting process to help me shorten and simplify the message and to add some design sense to the slides.

While in the middle of preparing the presentation, it felt like all I had left was the trivial.  I felt like the relevant details were being left out in the process of getting at the essence of the core concepts. I was caught up in the process and losing sight of the purpose of the presentation. Dilbert, as usual, showed up with how hopeless this process sometimes seems to me.

With the shortening of what was previously a two hour graduate school lecture to a short thirty minutes, I wondered what if any impact I would have with the presentation. The immediate feedback after the presentation wasn’t very positive much like the “big boss” in Dilbert:

However, as the conference progressed and deeper conversations ensued, there was a wonderful range of engaging feedback. For myself, I am overjoyed at uncovering the essence of what I was trying to say which Christine captured so eloquently with her imagery for the title slide “When Science and Art Dance – Business Results.”

Posted in Attenex Patterns, Content with Context, Design, Human Centered Design, Science and Art, Value Capture, Visual Analytics, VisualsSpeak | Leave a comment

Tilting at the Windmill of New Product Development

I’m getting that three year itch to build another software product. There is just something in me that loves identifying a latent unmet need and then doing the user research to design an appropriate product. As much as I continue to think that I will trip over a pet rock opportunity and start a company just for a quick one hit wonder, I always come back to creating new software.

Yesterday, I came across this wonderful Dilbert cartoon that reminded me of all the skeptics we have to deal with in the software creation process. I live for “fake buy-in.”

The cartoon reminds me of what was often the crippling process of obtaining “buy-in” at Digital Equipment Corporation for new products like ALL-IN-1. We collectively shared the following story to demonstrate the “buy-in” challenge.

It was a close baseball game between the Red Sox and the Yankees at Fenway Park in Boston. The score was tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and the bases loaded.  The batter hits a slow roller to the third baseman.  The third baseman charges the ball and throws a strike to the catcher blocking home plate. The ball and the base runner arrive at home plate at the same time.  In a cloud of dust and the roar of the crowd, the runner and the catcher tumble over each other.  As the dust settled, the catcher raises the ball in his right hand.

The crowd quiets as they wait for the home plate umpire’s decision.  The umpire turns to the base runner and asks “were you safe or out?”

“Safe, of course” the runner answers.

The umpire then turns to the catcher and asks “was the runner safe or out?”

The catcher answers “Out, of course.”

The umpire thinks a minute and then asks the runner and the catcher to meet and discuss the situation. He advises them to come back to him when they have their answer.  He then shares “when you come to an answer, come back to home plate and announce your decision to the crowd.”

Once they announced their decision, the umpire tasks them with gaining the buy-in of the crowd.

And that was the DEC decision making process.

Posted in ALL-IN-1, Dilbert, Humor | 1 Comment

When Science and Art Dance – Business Results

Each year the Institute of Design in Chicago, IL, holds a Design Strategy Conference.  This year, Patrick Whitney, asked me if I would share how we used the human centered design process to develop Attenex Patterns.

The video of the presentation is available here.

The slides for the presentation are available here.

The following is the written script for the presentation on May 9, 2012.

For background on how Christine Martell collaborated with me on the slide presentation see her blog post on “Finding your Presentations Story.”

When Science and Art Dance – Attenex Patterns

Thank you, Patrick.  It is a delight to be back in Chicago talking about two of my favorite topics – design and strategy.

Pat in his unique way asked if I would share my experiences in value creation and valuation capture through the use of human centered design. Well, what he actually said was “I’d like you to describe the universe and give three examples and I’ll give you 30 minutes to do it.”

When Science and Art Dance, Business Results.  Let’s look at an example of this dance – the journey from vision to an innovative visual analytics product – Attenex Patterns.

See What Matters – Design What Matters

As I reflect on my last forty years, the thread that weaves through my professional life is the vision for creating tools for discovering, authoring and sharing to generate extreme productivity – doing things 10 times better, faster, and cheaper.

Along the way, I’ve experienced and researched what makes for a successful product and a successful business.

The start of our journey for value creation begins with Seeing What Matters. Sometimes Seeing What Matters starts with a personal insight that becomes a lens for seeing if others have similar problems.  Sometimes the “Seeing” comes from being awake enough to notice those irritants or hassles in daily life.  Sometimes the “Seeing” comes from a powerful process like the Institute of Design’s Structured Planning.

What we are looking for are two things – a latent unmet need and a need that if solved has real value to the customer – or more precisely to the user, purchaser or influencer.

Once we SEE WHAT MATTERS, then we are ready to DESIGN WHAT MATTERS.

Sleep and Poetry

The See What Matters that led to the creation of Attenex Patterns (the product) and Attenex (the company) started with a late night vision in the fall of 1968 when I was a sophomore at Duke University.  I was a part time research assistant in a psychophysiology lab with my very own “personal computer”, a DEC PDP-12 Minicomputer.  It was a huge closet sized machine with 8000 bytes of core memory and 256,000 bytes of really, really slow magnetic tape storage.

Late that evening I was in the lab avoiding writing a paper on John KeatsSleep and Poetry.”  I was feeling frustrated spending time on this silly English literature course when all I wanted to do was program my “personal” computer.  As I started reading this poem, I experienced the poetry putting me to sleep.


With my natural inclination to procrastinate, I shook myself awake.  I thought I’d warm up my analytical and writing skills by playing Spacewar, one of the earliest known computer games.

At least I’d spent enough time doing library research checking out several books and placing them on the table next to my Mean, Green Machine.

About 20 minutes into the game my wetware synthesis engine kicked in as I stared at the spaceships pulled by planetary gravity while shooting at other computer controlled spaceships.  In my peripheral vision was the stack of books for insights into what others thought of Keats’ “Sleep and Poetry.” I stopped the game and began wondering what if all of these texts were in digital format and I could “fly” through the texts like I was flying through virtual space.  What if I could use selected text from the poem as search criteria into this much larger digital space?

Was I sleeping, dreaming, visioning or maybe just a little too much into the 1960s culture?


Then I realized that if the texts were all digital then I could easily cut and paste the appropriate commentary into a digital document making the authoring and typing problem a lot easier.  It would be much quicker than using a typewriter and whiteout.  In an instant I realized that I could quickly build a tool that would let me digitally edit my English paper and then print it out on the IBM Selectric typewriter we’d recently attached to the PDP-12.  I might not have the best written paper, but I sure would have the best looking paper (with several different fonts, italics and bolding).

The next 24 hours were a blur as I created an authoring and formatting tool AND wrote my paper on “Sleep and Poetry.”

The second part of the vision was realized, the authoring, but there was a long way to go to realize the discovered part of the vision – the connecting to terabytes of digital information.

[NOTE:  The program that I wrote was eventually published through DECUS as Text12. A few years leater I translated the program to the PDP-11 and presented Text11 at a DECUS conference.  The command structure was modeled on IBM’s Text360 which was used to develop SGML which was used as a starting point for HTML.]


With a jolt near the end of the 24 hour coding and writing marathon, I realized that my paper was due on Duke’s East Campus by midnight and I had to run to catch one of the last buses for the 1.5 mile ride from West Campus to East Campus.  While sitting on the bus, I thought about how stupid it was that I had created this research paper in digital format and now I had to physically take it to the Professor’s office.  WHAT IF I could just send it electronically to the professor?

Oh, the things we take for granted these days.

Share – Author

For the next 32 years, I sought out jobs and resources that would let me pursue the vision of Discover, Author and Share.  I could find the resources to advance the content authoring and sharing parts of the vision, but I couldn’t find a business model that would justify the $10-15M of investment needed to create the discovered part of the tool that users might actually value and pay for like they were paying for the authoring capability.

I had the good fortune to work with a wonderful team at Digital Equipment Corporation to create a billion $ a year product called ALL-IN-1 which is still in use 32 years later.  I then travelled west to Aldus in Seattle to manage the development of software tools for the high end professional and consumer market for print and multi-media authoring.  Tools like PageMaker, Freehand and Persuasion.

Who are those guys?

During this journey of product development one of my frustrations was not being able to reliably design a successful product in the first version. While at Aldus in 1992 (yes, Patrick it was that long ago), we held a Graphic Arts Advisory Board Meeting in Seattle.  We gathered a lot of world famous graphic designers. Unfortunately, they were all in “tell mode” (mostly about how wonderful they were). And then there were these two guys (Patrick Whitney and Larry Keeley) from a place I’d never heard of (The Institute of Design).

Who are those guys?  I kept asking myself.  I’ll let you guess which is Butch Cassidy and which is the Sundance Kid.

The two of them kept asking these really penetrating questions that required a lot of thought and reflection on my part. Finally, I took them aside and asked where their questions were coming from.  I’d never encountered anyone that could ask that many questions without having powerful thinking frameworks. They smiled and invited me to come visit them in Chicago.  Little did I know how much of my time I’d be spending commuting to Chicago to learn and teach over the next decade?

Human Centered Design Process

Pretty quickly I discovered that the secret to the human centered design process was seeing – the user observation research.  Humans are very inarticulate if you ask them what they need.  They do all kinds of things like tell you what they think you want to hear or describe some whiz bang thing they’d seen recently or even worse they make stuff up (MSU). However if you know how to observe them, they are incredibly articulate.

As I reflected on the previous 20 years of product design and development it was pretty clear that the successes were the result of tacit user observation and the failures were the result of expert centered design or market research demographic design.

Yet the second step was just as important – prototyping.  That is how can you quickly and cheaply try a lot of things BEFORE you start hiring a lot of expensive resources. Understanding when to use paper prototypes for concept development, behavior understanding or communication was a revelation. It wasn’t a matter of being right the first time, it was a matter of failing fast and cheap – failing forward.

Unlike other design processes, it’s not good enough to come up with something cool; the design needs to create value (make money) for the customer and the company AND support human values.

Lastly, once the product idea is prototyped and the monetization model figured out then the lens expands to what the total user experience should be, the full brand experience in other words.

See What Matters

Let’s look at how this process worked in creating a product and a company.  Let’s See What Matters.

Sea of Bankers Boxes

In the late 90s Microsoft’s litigation expenses were climbing exponentially primarily as a result of the increasing burden of discovering and producing electronic documents.  Whenever a lawsuit is filed a request for production of documents follows.  The request looks something like give us all your documents from 2000 to 2005 from these employees on the following topics. The problem was that as Microsoft was an early adopter of its own products – Microsoft Office and Outlook – they had lots of documents – 10s of terabytes.

The process called for a lawyer to go to each employee’s computer and print everything out and put them in banker’s boxes.  300 to 500 gigabytes equals one Sears Tower full of paper documents.  Then $200 an hour lawyers would go through each box document by document.  Using this method in the year 2000 it took 200 lawyers one year to go through 300GB of documents for a cost of $18M for the Microsoft Department of Justice Anti-trust matter.

The Microsoft General Counsel came to their law firm, Preston Gates and Ellis (yes, that is Bill Gates’ fathers law firm), and asked (well, demanded) that they figure out how to dramatically reduce their expenses.  The GC did not like the trends that he was seeing in both the number of lawsuits and the amount of information Microsoft was being asked to produce for each separate lawsuit.

Lawyer Doing an Outlook Review

The law firm was doing everything they could from a continuous improvement standpoint.  They’d started employing contingent reviewers, lawyers from third tier law schools who were out of work that they could pay $50 per hour.  With contingent attorneys, you only had to pay them when you had litigation.  Further, the law firm shifted from printing documents out and placing them in bankers boxes to taking the electronic Outlook/Exchange files and reviewing them linearly in Outlook.  They dragged and dropped files into Outlook Folders labeled Responsive, Non-Responsive, Hot, and Privileged.

Can you imagine after 7 years of college and law school having a job staring at a screen and monotonously dragging email messages to the right folder for 10-16 hours per day?

Review Room

I was hired by the law firm to observe some of the 200 attorneys and see if I could come up with a technology solution that would dramatically improve electronic discovery and review.

See What Matters – Insights

We spent our initial observation time looking at the hassles that each reviewer went through.

A few of the major insights generated during this User Research phase were:

  • Boolean Search doesn’t work for electronic discovery.  We are so used to Google search that we forget the dirty little secret of Boolean Search – you have to know the answer before you start.  With eDiscovery you don’t really know what you are looking for until you see it.
  • Sequence matters or rather customized sequences matter – reviewers are handed a collection of documents and in a linear review process have to review the documents in the sequence they are given.  That is the most inefficient way to review as each new document means a complete shift in context which takes minutes of re-orientation per document or email.
  • Duplicate Material – there is a lot of it.  At least 30% of a collection of documents is an exact duplicate.  Then another 20% are near-duplicates – that is I email something to you and you respond with a copy of my email embedded.  Just presenting the last email in a sequence cuts out 20% of the material that has to be reviewed.
  • Human Beings tire really quickly with a repetitive task – over the years several published studies confirmed what we found – that human revieweres classified documents correctly only about 50% of the time.  They were pretty accurate in the first hour and then performance quickly declined over the next 7 to 15 hours in a lawyer work day.  Not only was this an expensive process but it was also a low quality process.

These insights served as the basis for our design criteria.

Mapping the Process

We also looked at the complete workflow process from when a document was collected at Microsoft to showing up on a reviewer’s workstation and then produced to the other litigating party.  We viewed this process through the lens of Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints looking for the bottlenecks in the process.

Discover – Follow the Money

It didn’t take me long to realize that this eDiscovery process would finally pay for me to develop the Discover tool that I’d envisioned 30 years earlier.

A general view of the workflow is captured in the Electronic Discovery Reference Model we helped create for the legal industry.  By following the money, we quickly realized that most of the costs were contained in the three steps in the middle.  These three expensive bottleneck steps served as our design starting point while our competitors were trying to find solutions (poorly) for all of the steps.


In parallel with our user research and observation, we looked at what technology alternatives might already exist.  We came across the IN-SPIRE project at Battelle Labs funded by the U.S. Intelligence Community.  These tools and projects provided early clues that visual analytics (content analytics + visualization) could improve productivity by at least 2-3 times.

[NOTE:  For a Primer on Visual Analytics see this white paper by Sean McNee.]

The Billable Hour

While we had a good handle on the insights that would help drive our prototyping, it took us another four months to find a business model that would work.  The legal industry is still dominated by the “billable hour” model.  That is, attorneys bill for their work by the hour.  We fully expected to be ten times (@ 10 X) more productive than going through a linear review (either pulling paper from banker’s boxes or going through electronic documents one at a time).  Yet if we didn’t change the business model, it is generally bad form to go to your customer and provide a value proposition that goes something like “use our product and you will make 1/10th the revenue you did before.”

The answer was obvious after the fact but it took us a while to find the new model – moving from the billable hour to a fixed price model.  We landed on billing by the megabyte of documents processed.  We looked at ten years of the law firm’s billing records and created a value based price that gave Microsoft an immediate 30% discount.  The law firm would move from a 10% gross margin to a 40% gross margin.  We were happy to settle for a 70% gross margin billing $1.50 per megabyte processed with our tool.  It was important for us to have a volume based fee instead of the traditional enterprise software licensing model so that we would be paid for the value that we were providing continuously, not just a one-time fee enterprise license.

Design What Matters

We’d spent about six months seeing what matters with a small team.  That’s what I love about the human centered design process if done thoughtfully and intentionally – you don’t have to spend a lot of money until you know WHAT to build.  It was now time to DESIGN WHAT MATTERS.  It was time to bring in a development team and move to rapid prototyping and the agile development method.

Visual Analytics – When Science and Art Dance

The good news is that through many examples of content analytics tools there was a well-developed set of science associated with how to process unstructured documents and cluster related documents.  You can see some of the examples of the mathematics behind content analytics on the left.  My favorite is the Perplexity function from latent dirichlet allocation and its associated Predictive Perplexity function.

Wow.  Who knew there was a mathematics of perplexity.  If only I had a Predictive Perplexity function for my daily life, I’d be one happy camper.

The real problem for us was that we could find no research on first principles for the visualization component.  Prototyping of the visualizations was pure art.  Our designers would conceive of ways to organize the clustered documents and then we’d test the visual art with our lawyer users.  We looked at every published paper and book on information visualization for inspiration.

What became clear over time is that visualization is workflow and context dependent.

Metric Based Development

The “art” prototypes led us to the next problem.  How did we know whether the new “art” was working in our prototype?  We needed a measure of goodness to guide the evolution of the science and art.  We quickly hit on the key metric of “document decisions per hour.”

With each prototype, we could test whether the idea should stay in or not based on a clearly defined metric.  In the first five years we went through at least 350 prototypes and kept about 40% of the innovations that improved our “document decisions per hour.”  If the new design increased productivity, we kept it in.  If it decreased productivity, we took it out.  Over time we identified 12 different categories of productivity.

Rapid Prototyping

Here you see about 15 of the prototypes we quickly iterated through.  At the very center of the prototypes on the left you can see our first 3D interface.  As good technologists we felt having 3 dimensional views would be great (like IN-SPIRE had suggested).  We quickly found out that lawyers (and most humans) cannot understand abstract 3D unstructured document spaces.  So we shifted to representing multiple variables in a two dimensional interface.  This interface worked great and with Patterns V2 we launched the product publicly and regularly achieved >10X productivity improvement over our competitors linear review tools saving our customers millions per litigation matter.

Attenex Patterns V5

After 300 prototype iterations, we released V5 of Attenex Patterns.  Each dot represents a separate document in the right hand semantic network window.  On the left hand pane we have the organization side of the email address in a social network view for the same set of emails.  An email address provides both the identity of the individual and their linkage to their organization.  Both types of social networks are available for viewing.  Each of the two window panes has referential integrity.  In this case, I’ve clicked on the linkages between and (the yellow arcs in the left pane).  In the right hand pane, all of the emails that were exchanged between Preston and Yahoo are highlighted in yellow.  As I roll over each cluster of documents I can see the topics and subject lines of those email addresses to quickly see what the communications were about.  In this case the discussions were around Acme Construction.

Xbox Controller Interface

At the urging of Andy Cargile, one of my favorite students from the Institute of Design, we tried was an Xbox Controller to navigate and “shoot” the documents to categorize them.  We’d returned full circle to my 1968 midnight vision of shooting documents like I shot spaceships playing Spacewar.  Our production tests showed that we would get an additional 1X performance improvement over baseline.

Try to imagine us going to New York City’s largest conservative law firms and selling them on using a game controller to improve the productivity of their review.

Value That Matters

With the rapid advances in our human centered design driven process, we demonstrated that we could create value for all of the participants in our electronic discovery value chain.  Our pricing model was working, so now we were at the next level of Designing What Matters – Valuation Capture.  We needed an expanded strategy to figure out what to do next.

Value Creation

With the improvements in our technology we were able to achieve large gains for our end customers – the Fortune 1000 corporations involved in high stakes litigation.  Prior to our product, 300GB of material (if printed out in bankers boxes they would occupy an entire Sears Tower) took 200 attorneys a year to review.

My favorite example of the product power was the high profile board investigation in 2006 (any guesses?) where the lead law firm partner realized on the Friday before a Monday morning Congressional committee appearance that they were going to have to go through all 300 Gigabytes of material not just the small sample they’d reviewed previously.

The law firm hurriedly called in 65 attorneys from associates to senior and retired partners to spend the next two days reviewing all 300GB of emails.  Most of these lawyers had never seen our software prior to this emergency.  They learned the product, did the review and produced the results to make a midnight Sunday plane from the Bay Area back to Washington, DC.  What an improvement from 200 attorneys working for a year to review the same amount of material.

The astute among you will be asking the question, why is this a great business if you’ve done such a great job decreasing the costs for your end customers?

And the answer is – the amount of electronic information to review expands faster than the rate at which we increase productivity.  Nice business ecosystem to be in.  Last year the industry had its first Petabyte case – that would be 4000 Sears Towers full of banker’s boxes.

Design the Value Chain

Through our efforts at Attenex and our service provider partners we created accelerating benefits for each of the players in our value chain.  From previous company experiences and from academic value chain research (Porter, VRIO – Value, Rarity, Imitability, Organization), we’d learned the importance of making sure that everyone in our value chain would make money.  Because we were owned by a law firm, legal ethics kept us constrained to just providing software to our service providers who provided the distribution for our software.  While we generated $30M of software revenue, our partners generated significantly larger amounts of revenue.

Being the capitalist that I am, I wanted to gain more of the value we were creating for others.

Our Design Strategy challenge was figuring out our option space for our products and business model.  Our design strategy options for increasing our valuation were:

  • Should we sell the company now?
  • Should we expand our way up the value chain by becoming a service provider or a review provider?
  • Should we move to an adjacent market like patent analytics?

We needed a framework for evaluating our Design Strategy options.

Valuation Capture

From my academic research, I was fascinated with the proposals and frameworks for understanding knowledge based companies through the lens Intellectual Capital accounting methods.  Yet, I couldn’t figure out how to bring Intellectual Capital to bear in a real life situation.  Given our Design Strategy option space, it occurred to me to combine the types of Intellectual Capital (Human, Structural, and Relationship) with a map of product and service categories.

Remembering that “All Models are false; however some are useful,” this framework quickly focused our strategic conversations on which way we should Design What Matters for the future of Attenex – with the products, the business model and the kind of company we would become.

At that time, we were a software provider and were in the upper left quadrant.  If we sold the company we could expect to sell for $120 to $180M based on our revenue and the typical multiples of revenue in this quadrant.  In our value chain, the service providers were primarily professional services providers so they were in the bottom right quadrant.  The review services providers all used contingent temporary lawyers so they were in the bottom left quadrant.

Since the content we all used was highly confidential and sensitive, none of us in the value chain had an opportunity to move to the upper right quadrant where the potential for the highest multiples of valuation are located.

From our previous slide seeing the large revenue numbers ($900M) of the review providers, I argued that we should go into the review services business – the Contingent Services quadrant in the lower left.

However, I saw it was a 1X multiple opportunity, so even if we got significant review services revenues we wouldn’t increase our valuation that much.

With this framework, I argued for us to move from the Upper Left to the Upper Right Quadrant by moving to the adjacent market of Patent Analytics where we could leverage free publicly available content and use our software as is.

The executive team and board elected to sell the company to FTI Consulting for $91M.

I was in for the surprise of my life at the explanatory value of this framework when FTI Consulting announced shortly after our acquisition that they were going to spin off a minority interest in the division that had acquired Attenex for $1Billion.  They saw the opportunity to use the acquisition of a software product company to move from the professional services 1X quadrant to the software 6X quadrant.  Brilliant.

What’s Next?

Every time I think I am done with starting another company, I get the itch to build something.

Stories that Matter

While listening to Steve Jobs introduce the first iPad, I was captivated by his vision of a device which could integrate text, video, audio, and images to tell powerful stories.  The past few years have been disappointing in the lack of software which does integrated media rather than the simple handling multiple media.  And no one seems to be looking at combining discovering, authoring and sharing in a single tool for this magnificently rich hardware platform we now have – the iPad.

I keep waiting for somebody to make this leap.  Since nobody has, it’s time for me to build it.

Stories are the joy of life.  We need a better way to discover, curate and tell the rich stories that create our cultures.

I am reminded of many past interactions with Sundance (sorry, I mean Larry Keeley) while teaching at ID.  I’d get off the four hour flight from Seattle to Chicago with all kinds of new ideas for innovations and run into Sundance.  I’d immediately start sharing at a 100 miles an hour these ideas to get Larry’s insights.  Larry would listen not so patiently for a minute and then interrupt with – “Skip, tell me a story.”

Or more specifically – tell me a story about your idea that matters to me.

Integrated Media – Wasteland

Perhaps the closest example I’ve seen to what Steve Jobs was hoping would happen on the iPad is the implementation of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland for the iPad.  This image shows a contemporary poet reading the poem with the written text simultaneously highlighted on the right.  Or you can continue listening and jump to one of several Eliot experts critique the poem.

Yet, I can’t add to the “hard coded” work.  I can’t share what interests me with any of my colleagues.  I can’t discover related articles and books and videos by using some portion of the text to search the internet.  And it took >$500K and eight months to produce this hard coded limited scope app.

What if I wanted to tell my life story and load all the digital accumulation of 30 years of email, documents, digital photos, video, and audio recordings.  I have 5 Terabytes of my own source material sitting on my desktop PC.  Not to mention the thousands of 35mm slides and photos from our own family and deceased relatives.

How do I curate multiple journeys through this stuff?  How do I make meaning of my shared personal history?

Personal Authoring and Discovering

Near the end of my time at Attenex, we had the bright idea to combine authoring and discovering in a single tool.  We started by creating a single user version of Patterns.  We demoed to anyone who would sit still.  They expressed only mild interest.  It wasn’t until we went back to observing users trying to combine authoring and discovering that we hit on a key insight – authors wanted to use whole blocks of text or an entire document to search their archives, not simple keywords – because they weren’t really sure what they were looking for.

We prototyped the slider bar interface where you simply highlighted the text you wanted to search.  Using the text as a giant Boolean “OR” statement we retrieved everything that remotely matched.  But as we’ve all found with Google, seeing millions of responses in a list doesn’t help.  So as you move the slider bars to the right we intelligently Boolean “AND” phrases together and look for those phrases in proximity to each other.  As you look at the count of hits you get to the point of narrowing down the search to something reasonable and then you visualize the results.

The first person we showed the demo to, our patent attorney, grabbed our laptop and said I’ll take it.  He could immediately eliminate a paralegal saving him $50K a year.  Would you pay us $25K for the app?  Gladly he said.

A few days later the CIO from a large Regional Telephone company was in and he did the same thing.  He grabbed the laptop and said I’ll take it.  What would you pay for it we asked again?  Several hundred thousand dollars if I can get a copy for all my managers.

Once again I was reminded of the power of SEE WHAT MATTERS – DESIGN WHAT MATTERS.  Potential customers immediately saw the value in this prototype of discovering and authoring with the same tool.

Potential to Discover

What might an integrated media authoring tool with the “potential to discover” look like?  The tool needs to work with four constituencies – authors, readers, the clan (or the community of practice for the reader or author), and the larger community (the public).  Each of the constituents should be able to dip into the sea of media on the internet and their personal clouds and discover what matters as they join their experience with the authors creating a layered integrated media.

The quality of interaction between reader, clan, author and community is critical.  With the current generation of students I’m seeing this repeating process of – study it a little, socialize it a little, personalize it a little.

What if a fiction author’s original work could serve as the framework for adding “Fan Fiction” material or what if a professor could provide their core text which their students could add to or what if I could curate my content so that my family and friends can add to my legacy and each of us can make meaning by the stories that we tell and SHARE.

What if all my content was an integrated combination of text, images, video and audio?

What if?  Why not?

William Blake – Illustrated Poetry

To learn more about story-telling and how to Design What Matters, I’ve been spending most of the last six months with the Digital Humanities crowd (see the Manifesto).  Until six months ago, I didn’t know such a realm existed. Then I ventured into a Modern Language Association conference panel discussion where two renowned English professors shared the podium with two distinguished computer scientists.  I thought I’d fallen down the Alice in Wonderland “rabbit hole” when the English professors were talking about “big data” and the computer scientists were talking about the need for curation and story-telling to make sense of the petabytes of data being collected every day.

My vision quest came full circle when I ended up in the office of Kate Hayles on Duke University’s East Campus. Her office was two doors down from the office that I had to submit my Keats paper at midnight 44 years ago.  Kate is a prolific scholar at the intersection of English literature, digital humanities and software development.

She described the classes that she is teaching on comparative literature, where the texts are that of the great authors side by side with the software that mediates them, like the Wasteland iPad app.  She shared that it was exciting for the students to apply the critical thinking skills of literature to a well written software program.

The thought of humanities students programming and thinking about literature through software was too much.  Kate noticed my disbelief and confusion and brought me full circle when she pointed out that the best authors have always been integrated media creators.  Say what? She reached into her bookcase and pulled out a copy of one of William Blake’s books.  “Blake wouldn’t let anybody else publish his works because he wanted each line of his poems to be accompanied by his own illustrations.  Blake was a poet, illustrator and printer.”

Kate looked straight at me and with an all knowing smile said “your new ideas are just so old school.”

[NOTE:  For longer descriptions on the interactions with Katy Hayles see the blog posts on “Digital Humanities – Really?” and “Too Much to Know – The Death of the Long Form Book?”  Also see Kate Hayles new book coming out shortly – How we Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis.]

See What Matters … Design What Matters

We are living at an exciting time of great convergence between science, art, design and engineering. Our challenge is to collaborate through differences and employ project based learning with an integrated media tool no matter what our profession.

This transition all starts with Seeing what Matters so that we can Design What Matters.

When Science and Art Dance, Business Results.


So I invite each of you to join this important conversation on the future of story-telling through integrated media.  Whether it is with me or your colleagues join the conversation and share a story that matters.

For the references and resources mentioned go to

I’d like to thank my colleague, Christine Martell, for her powerful process of VisualsSpeak and her artistry to help me See and Design What Matters for this presentation.

Thank you for your kind attention.  Conversation anyone?

Posted in Attenex, Attenex Patterns, Content with Context, Curation, Design, eDiscovery, Human Centered Design, Intellectual Capital, Value Capture, Visual Analytics | 9 Comments

FroggyCut – Girls Rule Technology

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Technovation Challenge competition for high school girls at Twitter Intergalactic Headquarters in San Francisco put on by Iridescent Learning and sponsored by Google, Twitter, Adobe, Microsoft and Intel.  My daughter, Elizabeth Shelly, was one of the women mentors for the FroggyCut team.  When she called a couple of months ago to let me know she was doing the mentoring I asked her to make sure I knew when the competition was going to be so I could attend.

Jessica demoing FroggyCut

The competition is designed to encourage high school girls to get interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education and professions.  This year’s challenge was in ten weeks to design and build a working Android mobile application for scientific learning and then build a business plan.  At the regional competition, eight teams displayed a poster and demoed their apps and then gave a four minute presentation along with answering questions for four minutes from industry judges.

FroggyCut Mentors

Teams of four high school students (sophomores through seniors) enter the competition.  Each team has two women industry professionals assigned as both technical and business mentors.  Each team also needs to have a teacher who will work with them at school for the 10 weeks.  None of the girls that my daughter worked with had ever programmed before.  So for the first four weeks a woman computer science grad student from Berkeley taught them how to program using the AppInventor visual programming language.

The weekly mentor meeting is held at the facilities of one of the sponsoring companies.  So Elizabeth’s team met at Twitter.  Along with the regularly scheduled mentors, two Twitter women software engineers worked with them each week and gave them tours of the facility to see what it would be like to work in a high tech company.  Lots of great role modeling throughout the whole process.

With four weeks learning how to program, the teams only had six weeks to develop the app, develop a business plan, create a presentation and create a poster for the poster session.

Getting ready for the presentation – FroggyCut team and judges

Elizabeth’s team FroggyCut won the challenge for their regional.  They went to Intel HQ in San Jose for the Nationals presentation and made their pitch (alas FroggyCut didn’t win at Nationals).

Quite simply I was blown away by the professionalism of the young women, the thoughtfulness of their designs, and the enthusiasm they had for demonstrating their product to anyone who came close to their poster.  Jessica, the young woman pictured above, grabbed me by the arm when I got close to her poster, gave me a 30 second pitch for their product, and then placed her Android phone in my hands and insisted that I play the whole FroggyCut game.  Most marketing professionals at trade fairs are not nearly as engaging as this young woman.

FroggyCut Presentation

I couldn’t believe it.  They produced a fully working app which the judges both loved and loved the value proposition for the app, particularly for international markets.  Not just an app, but a business plan.  Amazing.  And all of the eight teams at the competition were from inner city San Francisco public schools.  Clearly something amazing happens when an interdisciplinary learning environment is set up for success.

The Winning Team

The program is organized by Iridescent Learning which is a non-profit that also creates and sells educational mobile learning apps for high school students.  So from a virtuous cycle standpoint they are performing an important social service, encouraging young women to enter STEM professional fields, and then gaining some market information on what high school students might like and use.  Every single student team presentation started with some form of “text books suck” and we need a better way to learn that isn’t so old school.

This year the Technovation Challenge required each team to have a teacher from the girls high school to help guide the team in addition to the mentors.  Glen Botha (pictured above) was the science teacher working with the FroggyCut girls at June Jordan School for Equity. In addition to his teaching work, Glen got frustrated a couple of years ago that there were no Android apps for teachers.  So he taught himself how to program using AppInventor and created TeacherAid.  He was amazed when withing two days of publishing the app there were 500 downloads.  Glen enthusiastically demonstrated one of the apps for taking attendance.  Not only can he quickly touch and click to identify who is present, but if somebody isn’t in class an SMS text message is immediately sent to the parents.  I sure am glad teachers didn’t have this capability when I was in high school.

Iridescent also helps those young women who actually want to start a company and commercialize their app to enter other competitions to gain additional startup funding.

Along with their financial support for hosting the teams during the ten weeks and at the competitions, the corporations are also doing further encouragement.  Google for example offered every single participant (550+) the opportunity to participate in a summer bootcamp at Google to continue their app development education.

The program is only three years old and has grown from 40 girls the first year to over 550 this year.  They got a lot of their  vision from Seattle based Startup Weekends and from the high school student Robotics Competition (250,000+ participants which are mostly boys).

I am very excited about the success of this program and the organizers.  I am encouraging them to come to Seattle.

Great fun.  Great learning.  And it was a joy as a father to see my daughter acting as a wonderful role model for other young women.

I loved the framed print hanging in the Twitter HQ Lobby – “Google before you Tweet is the new Think before you Speak.”

Posted at Twitter Galactic HQ Lobby

Posted in Content with Context, Design, Learning, Teaching, Working in teams | Leave a comment