Saturday, October 31, 2009

Does Ireland need more engineers?

Many commentators have stated that we need to increase the number of young people in Ireland choosing to pursue careers involving science and technology, but I don't think it makes sense to force youngsters into a career they don't find interesting.

It is true that many young people choose not to continue studying science at 3rd level because the subject has not been very well taught to them at 2nd level (where they tend to study it whether they want to or not). Many schools are forced to hire science teachers whose primary degree was not in science because the science graduates tend to follow more rewarding careers elsewhere. Also a lack of resources forces many schools to teach the subject from books instead of allowing student to learn by doing enjoyable hands-on experiments. This is something which needs to change.

Most science experiments involve building gadgets which is something most youngsters enjoy. It is also possible to design safe experiments which involve considerable amounts of explosions and objects crashing into each other. These are further aspects which most young people tend to consider an increase in the fun factor. It seems obvious to me that anyone who experiences a good science education will obviously choose to follow a scientific career if possible.

However, I have recently come to a shocking conclusion - not all people poeple are like me!!! To my surprise some young people find accountancy, law and similar subjects to be more interesting than science!!!

When I initially realised this I was disappointed. However, on mature reflection I realise that it is good news that there are youngsters who have this attitude. It is inevitable that we will need some people to count the money and tell us if we need to tighten our belts or not. There will also be times when we need people to sort out our legal affairs. Is it not better to have these jobs done by people who genuinely enjoy what they are doing rather than by someone who is secretly pining for a more interesting job that involves science and technology.

People won't do a good job if they don't love what they do. I know that if the only career options available to me were in accountancy or law, I would probably manage to become competent enough in one of these disciplines to make a living. However, I would certainly not be as enthused by either of these areas of work as I am by my current career and I think this would be reflected in the quality of my work.

It is true that the invention of the internet and the radical advances in ICT technology over the last half century have really transformed the world. Because of these changes, everyone now needs to be familiar with the internet and how to use information technology if they are to realise their true potential. But this does not mean that everyone needs to work in the ICT sector.

This is analagous to what happened in the early part of the 20th century when the invention of the car transformed society in many wealthy countries. Almost everyone in these countries had to learn how to drive if they wanted to be successful, but not everyone was working in the automotive industry. Initially cars were very unreliable and so motorists were well advised to have a knowledge of how to do roadside repairs, but now cars have become so reliable that there is very little need of such expertise any more.

I think that computers have now advanced to the stage that there is no need for specialist knowledge of their inner workings in order to use them successfully.

A few years ago the poor state of camera technology and the multitude of complex incompatible standards meant that engineering students with a good understanding of the technology had an advantage over their colleagues in the humanities faculties with regard to posting videos to the internet. However, the landscape has now changed quite dramatically with the advent of cheap video recording equipment and sites like YouTube taking all of the complexity out of the process. Today the engineering students might be more familiar with the leading edge codecs, but videos attracting most attention on the internet are more likely to have been produced by humanities majors whose knowledge of video technology does not extend much beyond being able to correctly identify the record button on their camera.

I think that we do not need to force people into careers in the science and technology sector if this is not what they want. However, it is important that we should ensure that all students are familiar with how to leverage information technology for their field of work. For example, students of literature will inevitably need to use the internet to build an audience their work and it is important that they should understand how to do this. The publishing market is undergoing a a major transformation right now, so any good creative writing course should include topics such as "building on-line communities" and "understanding creative commons licensing"

Technology education also needs to be moved to an earlier point in the education cycle to reflect the fact that children are using the internet at a younger age than before. For example, most youngsters will be active on social networks before they leave primary education. For this reason most enlightened programs in Relationships and Sexuality should include a module on cyber-bullying.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Your Twitter followers are not your friends

There has been a lot of excitement recently about the fact that Twitter have introduced a lists feature At first glance it seems similar to the Facebook feature where you can make lists of your friends. However, the comparison is not totally valid because Twitter uses the concept of a "follower" which is not the same as the Facebook of "friend". If you make the mistake of confusing your followers for friends, you will be making a big mistake.

Facebook was initially aimed at young people. The conventional wisdom is that it is dangerous for young people to speak with strangers, so the default setting in Facebook is that your updates can only be seen by people that are formally recorded as your "friend". Friendship is a two-way relationship, so in order to record a friendship link both users have to confirm that the friendship exists.

As everyone knows the term "friend" covers a wide variety of relationships. Robert Dunbar famously proposed that people can maintain a maximum number of about 150 real friends. However, a friend on Facebook just means "people whom I don't mind if they read my status updates". This is a very loose definition of friendship and many people who are very open can have hundreds and even thousands of friends on Facebook.

To help people who have large lists of firends, Facebook has a feature called lists. This is a way of recognizing the fact that not all friendship links are the same. For example, I might divide my friends into three lists named "family", "work-colleagues" and "drinking-buddies". This allows me to project a different image to each of the types of "friend". With careful use of the Facebook security features, I can ensure that members of my family will only see updates containing cute pictures of my children, my drinking buddies will see details of my wild revelries and my work colleagues only see updates which contain thoughtful insights in relation to our business. Of course the lists can overlap so that my brother who works for the same company and also joins my in my wild social life will see a complete picture of my activities.

Twitter does not formally record friendship in any way. By default all twitter updates are public and can be seen by anyone. It is possible to place access control on your twitter updates, but hardly anyone does that. Twitter has a concept of "followers". If you record the fact that you follow someone, this simply means that you want updates from that user to appear on the default page shown to you when you log into Twitter.

If any of my friends are on Twitter I normally add them to the list of people I follow - I am sure many of them also follow me. Most people follow this principle so there is a tendency for the "followers" network on Twitter to resemble the "friends" network on Facebook. However, a very significant difference is that while the "follows" relationship can be bi-directional it does not have to be.

Most people follow a similar number of people as who follow them and there is a large overlap between each group, but there are a few notable exceptions to this rule and these exceptions make a big difference to the overall structure of the network. For example, I follow the Irish Times feed to get notified of news stories, but the Irish Times does not follow me (the feed is probably produced by a software program rather than a real person anyway). Many influential Tweeters significantly change the flow of information through the Twitter network. For example, the software pioneer Mitch Kapor has 14,037 followers but is only following 322 people. Similarly the publisher Tim O'Reilly is only following 583 people but has 1,243,295 followers. It seems that there is probably a limit to how many people you can follow (the actual number depends on how much time you spend on Twitter), but there is no limit on the number of people who can follow you.

I created the following lists which grouped the people that I follow by the reason why I follow them. Obviously the lists are not mutually exclusive (e.g. I put any Irish journalist on both the journalists list and the paddies list):
  • Journalists - this list contains professional journalists and official newspaper feeds (actually I originally mis-spelt this as "Jornalists" but I fixed it for fear of getting a reaction like Gordon Brown). I doubt very much if any of these people follow me back.
  • Paddies - people who have some association with Ireland. Some (but not all) of these are friends of mine and might follow me back
  • Gadgets - people who tweet about cool gadgets (mainly a subset of journalists)
  • Linux - people who tweet about Linux and open source software
  • Thinkers - people who write thoughtful articles. I know this is a list I might get some stick about, it could also be called a list of people whose opinion I value.
  • IBMers - people who work for IBM
  • Lotus Related - people who tweet about Lotus products and/or social software in general
As I was playing with the lists interface I realized that you could put people on lists that you are not following. I leveraged this fact to unfollow some of the official IBM feeds (since they are still in my ibmers feed I can easily check them out whenever I want and I don't need to clutter up my home page with too many boring work related Tweets). It is also possible to follow a complete list in one step. I used this to follow Robert Scoble's list of the most influential in technology. This allows me to effectively delegate to Scoble the job of finding influential people writing about technology.

When I initially joined Twitter I was anxious to build up a network and clicked the "follow" button quite liberally. As a result there were a few people on my follow list that I didn't really know who they were and hence I could not decide which list they should be on. I decided that it was probably best to unfollow these people. After this exercise, I see that of the people 157 who follow me, I follow 100 of them back. I think that this probably a good ratio, because it is not good to be in a clique where all of my friends are also friends of each other and we only talk to each other.

In general the lists feature makes Twitter more useful, but most importantly the exercise reminded me on the key difference between friends and followers.

Update: I just found this useful article which gives advice on how you can use Twitter Lists.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Are Powerpoint slides an essential part of every presentation?

There has been a lot of hype recently about the fact that PowerPoint celebrates its 25th birthday this year. The popularity of Microsoft's PowerPoint program has led many people to believe that it is not possible to give a presentation without having a slide show be presented on a screen behind the speaker. Strangely PowerPoint continues to be a big source of income for Microsoft, despite the fact that there are now many alternatives to PowerPoint available which are just as good and many are substantially cheaper (e.g. Symphony and OpenOffice are free).

Although most people use slides for their presentations, I notice that the best and most engaging speakers often don't use any.
  • I recently give a presentation to the UK Lotus User Group without the benefit of any slides. Although I would not claim it was a brilliant presentation, it certainly was a much more interactive session than if I had been presenting a pre-prepared deck of slides.
  • At a recent diversity conference within IBM, I noticed that the majority of the speakers simply used a single slide with their name and affiliation. Since the speakers were mainly speaking about their own personal life story and how they had managed to overcome discrimination it is not surprising that they could speak passionately about the subject without having to rely on reading out slides.

Thinking about this, I came up with the following observations about when sideshows are both good and bad.

  • The slides can serve a useful reminder to the speaker about what they intended to say and/or they can serve a useful reminder to your audience of what you said if your circulate a copy to your audience.

    • People often forget that it is possible to put something different on the screen from what is in the notes shown to the presenter. I strongly suggest that speakers should remember this because otherwise the audience will simply read your slides (quicker than you can speak) and tune out from listening to you.
    • Many academics report that students read the slides in advance to decide whether or not it is worth their while to attend the lecture. For this reason some lecturers often deliberately leave out key facts from their notes in order to encourage attendance

    • If you need to see the slides to remind you what you intended to say, it is a sure sign that you did not do enough preparation.

  • The slides can discourage questions because they give the impression that the speaker has a tightly prepared script and does not welcome any interruptions. If you are presenting to a very large audience this might be good, but in most situations it would be better to encourage the audience to enter into a dialog about the topic.

  • The slides help remind you whether you are going too fast or slow. Some people aim to spend 3 minutes talking about each slide. While it is bad to be so rigid in your timing, it is perhaps good to have some indication about whether or not you need to speed up or can afford to slow down (keeping in mind the points above that there should only be a loose relationship between what is on your slides and what you say).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reunion a great sucess

The Loyola team was thrown into chaos before the start of the soccer match due to the fact that Eamon Maloney decided to follow Roy Keane's example and defected from the team because he felt he should have been captain. However, Paul Prendergast was only too happy to defect to the opposition and so we were able to start the match with seven players on each team.

When the match got under way it was Xavier's turn to panic. It soon became obvious that some of the Loyola team had diverted from the spirit of the competition by having kept their soccer skills honed over the last 30 year. Loyola built up a 3 goal lead. Luckily Xavier had the cunning to match the Loyola soccer skills and as soon as Cor MacDonagh made a few minor adjustment to the goals the match became much more level.

The match continued for longer than planned, because everyone was mentally thinking they were back in school and they were waiting for the bell to ring to indicate that it was time to go back to class. At the end nobody was sure exactly what the score was, but everyone agreed that they were thirsty and as soon as people had a quick shower we adjourned to Wards Hotel.

Several non-athletes joined us in the Hotel to make up a very respectable turn out. As the beer flowed, memories of our school days cane flowing back. Soon everyone was mentally back in their teenage years and it ws as if we were back in the Cellar bar 30 years earlier celebrating the night of the leaving cert results.

Here are some pictures that were taken by myself and WIllie Ruane (click on the pictures to be taken to more).

I was surprised that some people had not heard Willie's specially composed song for the reunion. Goto if you want to hear it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is Google Wave the next big thing?

There seems to be a lot of excitement at the moment about the release of Google Wave. Unfortunately I did not get an invite so I didn't try it out myself. I read an excellent review on Lifehacker. So I have a good idea of how it works (although it is complex). I think that there are several great ideas implemented in the Google Wave product. However, the major issue that will stop its adoption is the fact that everyone involved in the wave must be using Wave.

I know you might think that this is an obvious restriction, but that need not be the case. Gmail was a radical overhaul of the mail interface. Although I am a big fan, I would never have switched over if I could only send and receive email to people also using Gmail.

I think Google needs to give some consideration to a mechanism to allow non-Wave users to participate in a Wave (e.g. by receiving email summaries and being able to contribute by sending email to a special address to update the wave.).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dogeared Steel waill be playing at the Jes Reunion on Saturday

Dogeared Steel
Originally uploaded by Brian O'Donovan
The clock is now ticking with only 5 days left until the Jes Reunion on Saturday the 17th of October.

We are happy to say that the agenda has expanded. The festivities will kick-off with a 5-a-side soccer match between Xavier and Loyola being held in the school at 5pm. If you are interested in playing, please get in touch with the captain for your class (Xavier=Cor McDonnagh and Loyola=Pa Lowry).

Anyone who is still walking after the soccer match can make their way to Wards Hotel where we plan to meet up from 8:30pm until late. I am delighted to announce that we have lined up Dogeared Steel to provide musical accompaniment for the night. They will be playing their new smash hit The Jes on Sea Road.

I hope to see you all there and hope we are able to recognise each other.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Hackday presentation at UKLUG

This morning I hosted a session at the UK Lotus User Group (UKLUG) in Edinburgh about encouraging innovation through Hackdays. Instead of using a traditional slideshow I based my presentation upon the contents of the blog post I wrote earlier.

The attendance was smalller than I hoped, partly because many people had stayed late at the ceilidh the night before. However, I think that I got their interest by playing music and lively videos.

At the end of the session we had an interesting discussion about how the people attending could apply this idea in their own organisation. Most felt that they would need to customise the idea to make alloweances for the skills (or lack of skills) of their user populationm, but there was a cocensus that end user satisfaction with their IT applications would be greatly improved if people we shown how to hack around and customise the tools to match their working style.

I am really sad to have missed the fun of Hackday 007 back at work. I am looking forward to seeing the results next week.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Report on day one of UKLUG 2009 conference In Edinburgh

The opening general session was given by Bob Picciano who gave a good overview of the Lotus strategy. A good soundbite from his talk was "clouds without structure are just fog".

Bob's speech was followed by an excellent demo of Notes 8.5.1 by Ron Sebastian and I saw a feature that I never knew before - it is possible to drag an email from your inbox onto your calendar and it automatically converts the email into a meeting record. i know that there already is a tool to do this in the menu, but I think drag and drop is much more user friendly.

The sponsor showcase was good and I met lots of old friends.

The most interesting session in the afternoon was "XPages 101" by Tim Clark. He gave an introduction to XPages by developing a real application live on stage. the session was packed out with lots of people standing in the aisles. I guess everyone has heard the hype and wanted to see what the fuss was about. I think they were generally very impressed.

The next session on the agenda is an open bar sponsored by BE systems. I can't go too crazy because I will be presenting tomorrow morning, but I think it would be safer to post my report now instead of waiting until later :-)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hackday talk for UK Lotus User Group

The Hackday concept is all about being innovative and different and so I thought I should not use anything as boring as a slide based presentation for my talk at the UK Lotus Users Group in Edinburgh. Of course the other advantage is that anyone not at the event gets to see what I covered.

  1. I intend to start by playing some of the video hackumentary from Yahoo to acknowledge the Yahoo events ad the inspiration for the IBM Hackdays (but I will mention that Yahoo were not the first - just the best publicised).

    Open Hack Day 2008 - a hackumentary | Part 1 from ricky montalvo on Vimeo.

  2. Next I will hare a Google map that shows the spread of the Hackday meme.

    View Hackday in a larger map

    Then I will show where the Hackday 007 local events are happening

    View Hackday7 Local Events in a larger map

  3. Next I will tell them about out local Hackdays by showing them the map of Hackday pictures on Flickr

  4. I will share some statistics of the growth of Hackday from HD1 through HD6

    Hackday Date Projects Participants

  5. I will speak about the concept of "winning" Hackday. Mostly the prize is the recognition of your peers. Occasionally we run special contest in conjunction with Hackday. There will be special conditions/criterion associate with the competitions (e.g. the best example of using a particular tool/technology). The competition winners can win a substantial prize e.g. US$1,500 or a trip to Lotusphere.

  6. Finally I will how a few example hacks such as

    1. IBM Travel Maps - a cool map/mash-up which allows IBMers to see IBM offices, IBM Approved Hotels, Airport etc. for a city that they plan to visit.

    2. Google Gadgets in Notes - this was an early version of a feature which subsequently became Notes Widgets. At the time we had a composite application programming model, but no components were available to be assembled into composite applications.

    3. Sametime command line - a simple command line interface to Sametime. Typical use case is a build script which sends a Sametime IM message to members of the development team when the the build is complete.

    4. MicroBlogCentral a notes side shelf plugin which sends updates to the Lotus Connections Porfiles site - and also sends to Twitter, BlueTwit, BeeHive and several other services.

  7. Finally I hope there can be some open discussion about whether or not it would be feasible to run Hackdays in other large companies and/or in conjunction with Lotus User Group events.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Does your employer own the rights to your reputation?

During a recent IBM Academy of Technology conference a speaker gave a presentation about how IBM could/should make sure that it effectively harnessed the good reputations of its many employees who have built up good reputations on the internet. During the discussion that followed one employee brought up the question of whether or not IBM was entitled to profit from its employees' reputations.

IBM employees (in line with industry practice)sign an employment contract which clearly gives the company the rights to own the copyright and/or patent rights to everything we create while employed by IBM. The contract does not explicitly cover the topic of whether or not the company owns the rights to our reputations. However, despite the lack of a formal contract it is inevitable that you employer will effectively benefit from any positive reputation you build up as well as be harmed by the negative reputation that you might gain from doing something stupid.

In the software industry we do not normally distinguish between the ownership of the intellectual property rights to exploit a creative work and the ownership rights of the reputation which comes from being involved with its production. The copyright statement with a piece of software will normally state which company owns the copyright, but will make no mention of the individual employees who worked on the product. This is in sharp contrast with the music and film world who normally give careful attention to recording and publishing a list of everyone who is involved in each piece of work. The credits at the end of a movie will normally list everyone who was involved in creating it - not just people with major roles such as the actors, director etc., but also people with more minor roles such as looking as looking after the catering arrangements for the people working on the set.

The reason for this practice is because the people involved are constantly moving from job to job and as result they need a way to provide proof of their portfolio of work. For example if I applied for a job doing the make-up on a new movie and claimed credit for working on the Harry Potter movie, the prospective employer would probably check the credits at the end of the movie and if my name was not mentioned assume that I was telling lies.

Perhaps the software industry should follow their example and find a way to give credit to all of the people involved in creating products. There used to be a tradition of inserting a hidden easter egg into software products to allow the people involved in creating it have the thrill of seeing their names visible in the product. However, this practice was never formally endorsed by the companies funding the product and it seems to becoming much less common recently. However the practice of having a job for life is no longer common and software engineers would benefit from having a way to prove their portfolio of work.