Week 4 at Mozilla

I gathered up the output from my many discussions with our teams so far, and I’m proposing a plan for shipping a Mozilla Foundation Contributors Dashboard as quickly as we realistically can. I’ll be presenting this next week, and once I’ve had feedback on it, this can be turned into a proper plan of action and shared more widely.

Next week I’m in Toronto with the Webmaker team for a work-week (a pretty focused gathering on getting things done), which I’ve been busily preparing for.

You can see what we’ll be up to here (I’m space-wrangling the Metrics track):
https://wiki.mozilla.org/Webmaker/Workweek

P.S. ‘Space-wrangling’ is official Mozilla terminology, and animated GIFs are our primary means of communication.

Because we work in the open, you can follow live updates on how well we’re shipping our planned output during the work-week:
https://wiki.mozilla.org/Webmaker/Scrumboard

Getting ready for this week involved opening a lot of Bugzilla tickets, so we can track progress during the week. Bugzilla is a bit of a monster (I think it looks like this) but it’s also a good way of getting things done. By the time I’d looked at 20+ tickets my brain was starting to filter out the noise in the interface from fields that don’t get used. I’m sure it will get easier to use with time.

I also learnt this week that there are close to 1 million bugs now logged in that system – which is pretty amazing record of the amount of work done by many many Mozillians over many many years. I reckon as you’re using the internet right now (I hope you haven’t printed this out!), you’re online experience is better as a direct result of at least one of those million bugs.

To wrap this up, I’d like to be about 10 times more prepared for next week, but I think that’s largely the result of not knowing what to expect.

I’m very excited to meet more of my new teammates IRL, but will also miss my wife and our little lunatic, so this picture is my new wallpaper for my travels:

Go work-week!
Go work-week!

The immediate value of working in the open

I’m both excited and a tiny bit nervous about how “open” Mozilla are about the way they work.

As I’m getting to know the Foundation, and the projects and priorities, and to make sense of what exactly I’ll be doing here I’ve been reading lots of Etherpads. If you don’t know what an Etherpad is, it’s a bit like a Google Doc (the ‘word doc’ variety) but less slick and more open. If you give someone a link to an Etherpad, the barrier to them contributing to the document is almost non-existent.

Anyway, the value of this open working process somewhat blew my mind today. While lots of these docs have been useful in a general sense, today I read the documents from the initial planning around MoFo metrics that led to recruiting for my role (so it was pretty relevant!). The final document is a fine and very useful thing, like most summary documents, but what was really useful was the option to ‘replay’ the creation of the doc.

As I watched it being outlined, revised and then shared for comment I was able to see many of my new colleagues jump in to add the points they care most about and to challenge and contribute to the rest of the document.  Better than just seeing the final document is seeing how it started and where it changed direction and who was involved.

Even watching the hesitations and re-phrasing of particular sentences tells you something about where the subtleties and complications in the process exist.

I probably spent 15-20 minutes watching the replay of the writing of this document, and think I got more indirect information than I would otherwise pick up in even two-weeks of introduction meetings.

There is so much information in the history of that document that would be lost in any closed system. If for example, that document was a PDF on an intranet behind a password, the value I would have gotten from it as a new employee today would have be greatly reduced.

Panda Swap: New year, new job.

Giant Panda 02

Red Panda Pensive

After almost five years working for the black and white panda, I’ll be moving to the red panda in the new year. Well, kind of… and that’s close enough to the truth to justify the cute pictures in this blog post.

As of January, I’ll be working for the Mozilla Foundation as their new Metrics Lead, which is about the most exciting job I could possibly dream up.

I owe the web pretty much everything, so the chance give something back and push something forward is both an honor and a privilege.

Mozilla work in the open, which means this blog will hook up a bit more directly with my day-to-day work in the future and I’ll be able to share some of the successes and challenges I face with you here on a more regular basis.

In other news, my Open University study has me spending my evenings writing a screenplay which is a completely new challenge for me. Though the OU is more open than most, I can’t share any coursework publicly until the course is finished. So that work will not be done in the open.

I’m a person who likes to solve problems, and writing drama is mostly an exercise in creating characters you care about and then making them suffer as much as you plausibly can instead of solving their problems. It’s a strange thing when you think about it, but it’s also fun unpicking what makes a story tick and stick.

Degrees of done

With life in a reasonably calm and sensible place right now, it seems like a good time to finish up something I started some time ago.

About 10 years ago, when I finished art college I came to the conclusion that going to university would lead to a big old pile of debt, and that I could find a better way to navigate the requirements of professional life.

My studies were in fine art which was a useful exercise in creative and critical thinking, but was never going to pay the bills. And I’m not planning to die a starving artist. Alongside my studies, I’d been building websites (and earning a few pounds doing it). I’d learned enough about writing code that I wanted to study computer science (CS) more formally, but even a distinction in fine art wouldn’t get me into any regular university courses in computer science.

Academically, and even now with professional job opportunities, the venn diagram of visual art and computer science rarely overlaps. I think this needs to change, and probably will. Code and composition are just tools and the more closely they work together the better.

So anyway, the solution I found to my dilemma of not being ‘qualified’ to study for the qualification I wanted, and not being happy with the cost of getting it either, was to study computer science with the Open University (OU).

I was an edge-case OU applicant back then, as very few people at ‘standard’ university age considered the OU as an option. Their students were typically older working professionals or the recently retired. The choice for my peers was typically between a bricks-and-mortar university or to start work. Via the OU I was able to study and start work, avoid any debt and get some significant professional experience at the same time. And by typical graduation age, I had been happily employed for some time. Sometimes I’d get up at 4am to study, other times I’d work through the night on weekends, but I enjoyed it.

And all in all, I’m still very pleased with the choice that the young me made.

Over four years of studying while working, I completed two thirds of a CS degree, mostly using coding skills I’d actually been learning on the job, and then in 2008 I decided to take a year off. In that year-off from study I took a new job working at WWF and have had enough personal projects and general life things to keep me busy in the five years since. The degree is unfinished business, and I’m thinking about finishing it now.

The thing is, I don’t need this degree to get a job (I have a dream job already), but I don’t like leaving it undone. And it’s been bugging me.

So I’ve been looking at what courses are left to finish my degree and I discovered a couple of things.

  1. The OU have swapped around the modules for their courses while I’ve been absent, so I no longer have two thirds of a CS degree. I instead have about a sixth of many of their new CS based degrees. I do not want to do another five sixths of a CS degree. It’s not bugging me that much.
  2. Dave and Nick have been screwing around, and the last third of my degree is going to cost 50% more than the first two thirds of my degree combined. Damn you Dave and Nick.

But there is some good news. For now at least, the OU offer a slightly unusual degree called simply an Open Degree. You can study modules in any topic so long as you have the right number of credits from each level of study to add up to a regular honours degree’s worth of qualification (either BSc or BA). So while my original CS degree has gone out the window, I still have two thirds of an Open Degree.

My plan now is to complete a few more modules in the next couple of years and finish off my degree, even if it’s not the one I started. The “openness” of the Open Degree also allows me to diversify my study a bit, rather than repeat the skills I already use professionally, and that makes it more interesting. I’m particularly looking forward to a course on modeling ecosystems.

The downside to this plan is that the recent increases in UK tuition fees may now require me to look into a student loan after all. Again, damn you Dave and Nick. This is going to be an expensive itch to scratch.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I’ll be doing some studying later this year.

Saying that, I’m doing some studying now so that’s not really news. And on the aforementioned issue of the computer science and visual art venn diagram, the overlap is captured wonderfully in this Coursera course that’s currently running:  “Creative Programming for Digital Media & Mobile Apps” https://www.coursera.org/course/digitalmedia

This course has been so enjoyable, that it’s partly to blame for the expensive year now ahead. Damn no, thank you Coursera. Damn you Dave and Nick.

Why removing evolution from science textbooks might not really matter

This needs more thought, but writing this has helped me to join up a few ideas I was stewing over with my coffee yesterday morning while my son was napping. So I’ll publish this as is, and your thoughts are welcome.

Question the Answers
Question the Answers

While it’s useful to teach the fundamentals of physics, chemistry and biology in schools, I think what we need to start with and to prioritize is teaching the scientific method, the importance of curiosity and the need to question the answers. As an aside: Question the Answers is also the name of my favourite Bosstones album.

Rather than teaching the latest and best hypotheses, we should be showing kids how science as a whole works. How a community of disparate researchers come to agreement on an idea, and how people continue to challenge that idea as best as possible even when it looks like we’ve answered the question well. The value of a published scientific paper is more than just the text it contains; it’s the fact that it has been offered up for critique by the rest of the world, and it has passed this initial test, at least for now. Until people understand the differing value of the words in a newspaper opinion column and the words in a scientific publication, we will struggle as a society to make sound decisions.

This doesn’t mean everyone has to be a scientist, but ideally everyone would know enough to understand what “scientific consensus” means, and not to be surprised when every other day their favourite newspaper is giving them the latest contradicting health advice from “scientists”. Rather than complaining that “scientists keep changing their mind”, we would instead hear people praising scientists for never really making up their mind (which is much more difficult to do). And in this ideal world, people would know enough to understand what a double-blind controlled clinical trial is before they spend money on alternative medicine (though they should of course be free to take whatever medication they want).

The information people need today to research important issues is widely available online. But without an understanding and appreciation of the value of the real scientific process, it’s easy to get lost in a world of pseudo-science websites trying to sell you fifty shades of crap. It’s also worth noting that the the pseudo-scientists and propagators of urban myths spin a fine yarn, and the scientific world can definitely learn from their methods.

It’s good to see that people are bridging the communication gap between the world of science and the general public, without compromising the integrity of the information provided. And in this world of multi-directional communication, the communication itself gets a form of peer-review if the publisher is doing things properly. Rigorous science can be served up perfectly well alongside animated GIFs and cats in space, though I’m going a bit off track with my thoughts here.

What I was thinking about over coffee was that the future of scientific journals will surely require an open-access model to replace the currently prohibitive subscription models and, as an aside, that covering the cost of publishing these journals would be an amazingly good use of public funds given the value it would offer to society in relation to the cost. It would be interesting to compare what Wikipedia has done in terms of access to information versus the public funds spent on distributing educational content in recent years; especially on a global level.

Even if the scientific journals that exist today don’t change their business/access model, it only needs one challenging system to make the open-access model work, and in turn to make the existing publishers obsolete. Again, think of Wikipedia, and then Encarta and then Encyclopedia Britannica.

I’d like to think the future of peer-reviewed science will look something like Stack Overflow does today, where consensus on best-practice programming (including chunks of computer science) bubble up from constructive public debate, and it becomes easy for a member of the public with a small amount of knowledge and an understanding of the process to find a tried-and-tested answer to their given question. And if the answer fails for them in practice, to feedback into the process.

stacks_image_733
This is a consensus, not a debate.

When people understand the scientific method, we can stop using silly phrases like “climate change debate”, and the media will struggle to profit from their deliberate distortion of scientific discoveries. When the scientific method is understood, it doesn’t really matter if some people want to remove a topic like evolution from their local school syllabus. All the evidence, debate and research children need to read in order to understand why evolution makes so much sense is available online right now. They just have to be curious, connected and aware of how science (as a whole) works. And while children have always been curious, today they are more connected than ever.

If the Stack Overflow of science emerges, peer-review and the scientific process can move from being an abstract concept (which is all they are to most people) into something laypeople can witness, interact with and review first-hand. It may not even need specific teaching in schools. Today, if you want to learn how to program or build websites, you don’t need to enrol in a class, you can just start doing. And the people who do, very quickly find themselves reviewing the discussions and conclusions on Stack Overflow.

So maybe we don’t need to worry about the specific topics on the science syllabus any more, so long as we teach the principles of science. After all, it’s the job of the next generation to prove our theories wrong anyway.

For a free and open internet, be quick

“On December 3rd, the world’s governments will meet to update a key treaty of a UN agency called the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Some governments are proposing to extend ITU authority to Internet governance in ways that could threaten Internet openness and innovation, increase access costs, and erode human rights online.” – src: protectinternetfreedom.net

Here are a couple of places you can show your support for a free and open web right away:

If you have a bit more time, you can get creative with Mozilla’s Webmaker kit

You can see who is speaking on your behalf here:

And this article sums up the transparency issues:

Learning Backbone.js and Single Page Applications

Following up my post about the backbone.js book I downloaded, I’ve been playing, testing and learning as much as I can. So much so that I’ve neglected my Coursera design course, though I think this is a better use of my time in the long run. This particular Coursera course was mainly to test out the MOOC process first-hand, and it’s pretty cool on the whole. I’ll still be taking part in the Game Theory course that’s coming up, and I’d give Coursera a big thumbs up overall.

I’ve studied design previously, so the content in the course (while very good) was mostly a re-hashing of old stuff for me, whereas delving into the world of Backbone.js and Single Page Applications has been a great way to challenge my existing approach to web design and development. It’s been a real brain stretch at times, but every new step in the learning process is rewarding, and you can never afford to stop learning if you work with the internet.

I’ve hacked about with Backbone enough now, that I’m starting to apply the learnings to Done by When, and though this equates to almost an entire re-write of the website front-end it’s going to make the app so much more responsive that I’m desperate to get it live. The demos I’ve put together already feel like so much more like software than web pages.

I’m not making any promises for a release date at this point as client work takes priority but I may be able to share something within a couple of weeks.

Also, though I’ve bailed on the Coursera course, I won’t give up on the menu planner, or my intentions to open source this.

I’ll keep you posted.

On 3D printing, and a world unready

With the recent release of the Makerbot Replicator 2, 3D printing tipped into the real world. It moved from a conceptual idea that geeks and tinkerers would try and explain to their doubtful loved ones into something you can have delivered to your door in a matter of working days.

It changes everything, and I think the world will be caught off guard.

Even now, the ~$2,000 price tag isn’t crazy. It’s more than I would pay, but plenty can afford it. And this time next year the price will halve, the resolution will double and it will print slightly bigger things. Same again the following year. In four or five years’ time, almost anyone who wants one will be able to justify the cost of a 3D printer to themselves.

I always imagined playing with Lego with my son when he’s older, but it might be we’re printing our own Lego-esque blocks too.

I can only begin to imagine what this will do to a business like Lego. Sure, it costs you more to print a block than it costs Lego to print a block, but when you pay £10 for a box of 25 Lego pieces you’re not paying for material; you’re paying for branding, marketing, packaging, tax, distribution and their profit. Printing your own blocks will definitely be cheaper for the end consumer and anyone could learn to model a number of Lego blocks in a 3D modelling tool like Sketchup in less than 4 hours.

I had a quick think about the kinds of businesses who sell cheap-to-make, but expensive-to-sell plastic products whose profit margin is primarily the relationship between their business running costs and the perceived value of the end product. I’m not saying there is no merit to the price we pay for these products today, but we’re definitely not paying manufacturing cost plus ~20%.

3D printing changes everything for businesses like these:

  • Lego
  • Tupperware
  • Airfix
  • People who sell spare parts for things like old washing machines
  • Games Workshop
  • People like Shapeways who sell 3D printing as a service (they’ll soon start to look like photocopying shops do today)
  • And there will be many more

Broke your ladle while cooking? Don’t worry, you can print a new one before you need to serve dinner.

It will almost always be cheaper to ship a solid reel of plastic in it’s compact form than the same amount of plastic in its final product form full of holes and empty spaces.

 

Gorilla Pod and Similar MakerBot tripod

In a few years time, will you buy a Gorilla Pod and wait the tedious ~18hrs for Amazon Prime next day delivery (how slow and old fashioned!) or will you print one out right then and there?

While business is a start, a lens through which we think about the future, 3D printing has implications everywhere in this world.

There’s already been plenty of coverage about the ability to print your own weapons. While you can take the plans off of public websites, the digital files are so easy to share that you can’t take them out of circulation. Weapons may well become less regulated (and regulate-able) then they are today.

In politics, what good are trade sanctions when you can move goods digitally across borders for production locally? Hyper-locally even. This is now impossible to stop. We have to re-think international trade.

In development, what does this mean for people who live in rural Kenya. Do aid organizations deliver end products they think will be useful, or spools of printing plastic to people in need?

Maybe we’ll print our own artificial limbs?

So what skills do we need to be developing? 

I don’t think we all need to be taking a course in CAD, because it’s so easy to share 3D files. They’re smaller than MP3s and much smaller than videos and we don’t seem to have any trouble moving these around the world. A few thousand skilled contributors will produce the bulk of the designs used by the billions of people around the planet. Look at all things you can already download and print today.

What’s the future for the businesses affected?


If I ran Lego, I’d be thinking about how to phase out manufacturing while retaining brand and thought leadership. Not immediately, but probably within five years, ten at most. I’d focus on selling amazing plans for kits and give up on trying to own the right to the blocks themselves. The overall size of the business would shrink, but it might be possible to maintain the profits. Selling plans digitally would hugely cut costs and by embracing this new world, Lego can be a relevant and meaningful part of it. Most likely though, they’ll unleash a team of lawyers on any website that offers 3D models of anything that looks like Lego. People will print their own blocks anyway, sales will decline and there will be plenty of negative press coverage about the company who tries to sue the 10 year old girl who made her own Lego-like designs for her friends birthday. I don’t say this because I think that’s a Lego like trait, but because it’s the way all large corporations today tend to behave when they come under threat.

In many ways, the future will be more different than we can possibly imagine.