Blow your own mind
If you want your brain to stay sharp, you have to work it. "I write complex code every day of the week. That's all the brain exercise I need." you say. But you're wrong. If you want to keep your brain alive, you have to do things your brain doesn't expect. The cortex forms new patterns... new synaptic connections in response to novel activity, and PET scans show that far fewer pathways are activated when the brain processes a routine task... even a complex one.
Imagine playing an electric guitar, for example, but hearing a saxaphone. That's what you get with a synth guitar (click on the video button to see and hear the guitar player). At the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Sam Bush band was playing a vintage rock song, complete with a vintage rock organ. But... no keyboard player. Then I realized it was one of the guitar players, on a synth guitar.
The cognitive disconnect between watching someone play the guitar but hearing an absolutely real smokey sax is... mind blowing. (FYI musicians, Roland and others have done a LOT of work on the latency, and the latest generations of guitar synth/midi pickups is pretty damn good now.) Apparently playing a synth guitar is even stranger than watching/hearing someone else. I play a midi keyboard, so this shouldn't have been so surprising, but we expect keyboard synthesizers, so watching someone play a piano that sounds like a violin doesn't tweak neurons the same way anymore.
So what else can you do? The point is to do something different.
If you're into extreme sports, try a meditation retreat.
If you're someone who is not deaf, you might try attending a silent weekend, a total immersion "sign language jam" intended to give non-deaf people a brain-changing (and some say life-changing) experience. I've had friends attend one of these (they hold them in lots of different places) after taking some sign-language classes just for the unique experience--not because they needed to learn sign-language. They said it's extremely challenging... and very, very rewarding.
Or let's say you already tend toward being the quiet, chess-is-my-sport type. Then maybe you need something adventurous like, say, trek through Patagonia.
But you don't need to wait for some Big New Event to make your brian happy. It's more important to try to incorporate brain workouts into your everyday life. There's a fantastic book on all this by Lawrence C Katz, called Keep Your Brain Alive, be sure to check out this page on "neurobic exercises". But here are a few simple exercises from the book that you could do right now:
Turn your world upside down
"Turn pictures of your family, your deskclock, or an illustrated calendar upside down. Your brain is quite literally of two minds when it comes to processing visual information. The analytical "verbal" part of your brain (sometimes called "the left brain") tries to label on object after just a brief glance: "table", "chair", "child". The "right brain", in contrast, perceives spatial realtionships and uses nonverbal cues. When you look at a familiar picture right side up, your left brain quickly labels it an diverts your attention to other things. When the picture is upside down, the quick labeling strategy doesn't work--and your right-brain networks kick in, trying to interpret the shapes, colrs, and relationships of a puzzling picture."
See things in a new light
"Place different-color geletain filters over your desk lamp. Colors evoke strong emotional associations that can create completely different feelings about ordinary objects and events. In addition, the occasionally odd effects of color (a purple styrofoam coffee cup) jars your brain's expectations and lights up more blips on your attentional "radar screen."
But the book has more than 80 others -- including some more ambitious activities to help blow your own mind. I tend to think that I'm doing a good job on this because I have a good mix of activities... programming, skateboarding, writing, reading weird science, skiing. But then I realized, these things aren't unique for me... they don't blow my mind (except for the weird science stuff). I've been doing them for a long time, so they don't tweak my brain. There's a lot of good stuff there, but no Whoa/WTF experience. I need to keep incorporating new things at every scale--from big macro things like adventure vacations to where I keep my paper clips.
So what are you doing to blow your own mind on a regular basis?
Sample Java Exam Questions
For our Java readers here: we just posted 11 mock exam questions from our upcoming update to our SCJP study guide (for the Java 5 version of the exam).
As I've said earlier, the Java 5/Tiger exam is a little more difficult than it was before, with a lot of new objectives as well. This little sample is a good taste of what the real exam is like for some of the new objectives. Yes, we're behind on the book (still expected in late September or early October)... so we decided to get at least some samples of the new stuff out there for you. Remember, the best place to study for this exam is in the javaranch certification forum, and that's also the best place to discuss the sample questions, rather than here in comments. Since this isn't really a Java blog, I'd like to keep the Java discussion on the ranch. (But the questions are still "beta", so if you find errors, we would greatly appreciate the feedback.)
But have fun ; )
You ARE a marketer. Deal with it.
It's so trendy to diss marketing. Especially if you're in engineering, product design, or virtually anything but marketing. A comment for me by pinhut on my "You're emotional..." blog entry reads:
"this started out being so interesting. then you reveal yourself as a marketer. please terminate yourself."
The late (and brilliant) comedian Bill Hicks was an early adopter of the "all marketing is evil" meme:
"By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself. No, this is not a joke: kill yourself . . . I know what the marketing people are thinking now too: 'Oh. He's going for that anti-marketing dollar. That's a good market.' Oh man, I am not doing that, you f***ing evil scumbags." (asterisks are mine)
I was about to protest, "Dammit Jim, I'm a programmer, not a marketer!"
But that would be a lie. In this new open-source/cluetrain world, I am a marketer. And so are you. If you're interested in creating passionate users, or keeping your job, or breathing life into a startup, or getting others to contribute to your open source project, or getting your significant other to agree to the vacation you want to go on... congratulations. You're in marketing. Now go kill yourself.
The word "marketing" (and by extension, "marketers") has a bad rep for sure, as does "advertising" and "PR". But they all share a common goal--connecting buyers and sellers. Isn't that what we're doing?
Except with a Find and Replace:
"Buyers" becomes--> "readers" or "users" or "community participants"
"Sellers" becomes--> "authors" or "developers" or "organizations"
As Guy Kawasaki puts it, we're selling the dream.
But the difference between what we now consider "old-school marketing" (otherwise known as The Four P's -- product, price, promotion, and placement -- heavy on advertising and "branding") and the "neo-marketing" we're doing here is frickin' huge.
Here are a few ideas on some of the differences:
**Real is relative to the desires and perceptions of the user. And who's to say that taking better photos won't in fact lead to more sex?
***rhymes with "hit"
But even if we feel OK about doing some of these marketingish things, there's still the problem of the word "marketing". We need a word that distinguishes the kinds of things we (developers/programmers, ministers, realtors, authors) do from old-school traditional marketing. I just don't know if the marketing-averse among us can rehabilitate that word... it's been too heavily associated (framed) with old-fashioned, negative, sleazy and inauthentic practices (even if much of that was a misconception... doesn't matter).
My "neo-marketing" label is just lame. Open Solaris' Laura Ramsey and I were talking about it this weekend, and she came up with an alternative that might be a good contender: Modern Attraction. We're not marketers, we're attractors. I don't know if that's the right phrase, but it still sounds better to me than "marketing". (Personally, I was voting for "cheerleader", but for some reason I just couldn't get the other programmers to go along with that...cute t-shirt ideas, though... ; )
Others have come up with replacement phrases as well, but none seem to have truly taken hold, and the word "conversation" isn't enough. What do you think? If we believe in something, and we want others to share what we know can be a fun/meaningful experience, whether it's getting involved in our open source project, or joining our cause, or--yes--buying our book or software--we need to get past our "go kill yourself now" thing. If framing it with a new word/phrase helps, perhaps that's a better approach than trying to give the word "marketing" a massive makeover.
Remember -- when people are passionate about something, and in a state of flow--and you have contributed to that by helping users/members learn and grow and kick ass--these are some of the happiest moments in their lives. Trying to promote more of that is something we should feel wonderful about, not guilty.
Build something cool in 24 hours
The highlight of Foo Camp for me was hearing game development guru Squirrel Eiserloh talk on total immersion / ultra-rapid game development. I'm dying to try it for everything from creative writing to learning Flash to composing music to video/podcasting and of course game development. I cannot imagine a better, faster path to creativity, innovation, and most importantly getting something done!
The notion is this: stick people in a house for 48 hours, with a goal to have something created at the end. Depending on the nature of the goal, participants may be collaborating (like building a game together) or working alone (musicians composing, writers writing, etc.). The key is the process--a process that forces you to supress the "inner judges" that stifle creativity, and gives you not just permission but an order to create as much as possible, as fast as possible... even if what you end up with is 97% crap.
The point is to learn something valuable from the experience... something you'd likely never get to in your day job, even when--as it is for Squirrel and his game developer cohorts -- what you do in the jam is what you do in your day job. In other words, by working under the ad-hoc/jam constraints, you're able to "improve your craft" and discover things about yourself and the work that you might never find in your traditional work environment. It takes the idea of rapid iterations to a completely different (dramatically compressed) time scale. What could take weeks, months, or years to evolve suddenly happens in hours. And the work never leaves your personal brain RAM! No more cost of switching contexts as you go from personal life to meetings to actual work to commuting to whatever... this is 100% being in the zone, where each hour spent in one of these jams is worth perhaps 10 or more hours at work in your usual environment.
The idea can be mapped to virtually anything for which you want to encourage maximum creativity, innovation, and most importantly... getting something done. While it may be a Big Deal to start your own Foo/Bar-style self-organizing conference, the total immersion "ad-lib jam" model is something we can all start in our home town, wherever that may be. All you need is a handful of participants (maybe 4-8), some delivery/take-out menus for chinese food and pizza (revise to reflect what goes for "fast delivered food" in your culture), maybe a few pillows and blankets, a whiteboard and some markers, and whatever other tools of the trade your participants need to make things.
(Sidebar: out of the 15 or so people at Squirrel's informal session, the most engaged participant was Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.)
For writers, that could mean laptops or even just paper and pencils. For programmers, that might mean the programming tools (game engine, compilers, source control if multiple participants are collaborating on the same app) or art tools (Photoshop, etc.). For music composition, that might mean real and virtual instruments (guitars, midi keyboards, synth guitars, mics) and sequencing software like GarageBand, Reason, or Logic. And for pure idea brainstorming, whiteboards, post-its, and big flip-chart pages to put stuff up on the walls as things progress.
I won't bother explaining how to run one of these things, because Squirrel and friends have already done this at:
The Ad-Lib Game Society site, which encourages others to start their own "lodges", like their founding chapter in Dallas, Zero Lodge. (He mentions that they've taken inspiration from the earlier Immersion Composition Society, as well as the Indie Game Jam).
But does it have to be face-to-face?
This was a natural question. And the answer was... probably. A big part of what makes this work is that you are not in your normal environment. No kids, no chores, no I-should-be-doing-something-else. More importantly, it's the energy of the other participants that makes this so effective. You know exactly what I'm talking about if you've ever been in a highly engaged group where everyone's really cranking and you can almost feel the brain power and creativity rippling out of each person's head like Wi Fi.
Squirrel said that while they had tried a virtual jam, it wasn't that successful. One example he gave was that while at home you might hit the wall and give up (or get tired and go to sleep or do something else), when you start to hit that point during a live jam, all it takes is one guy walking by playing air guitar with his head phones on and you're suddenly hit with another wave of energy (or at least that little bit of competitiveness and pressure because you know you've got to demo something in three hours!)
The total immersion part of this is crucial, and until someone figures out a good way to make this happen remotely/virtually, face-to-face is probably going to be a lot more effective. (I have no doubt that there are ways to make this work remotely/virtually, but it would take some real effort and creativity to pull it off.)
Here are just a few of the ways in which I'd love to use this approach in my own life:
We develop our books (Head First books, and the not-yet-announced new series we're working on) from storyboards, as opposed to outlines and TOCs. The storyboard is by far the most important part of the creative process for the books, and it's often the most difficult for authors... including those with tons of previous "traditional" writing experience. Having everybody go off and spend hours with their storyboards (either alone or in collaboration with another person), then periodically getting back together for a show-and-tell with feedback would be amazing. In fact, we did do something like this once -- we called it a "Head First Bootcamp" -- that brought together a half-dozen prospective authors plus our O'Reilly editor, for five days in Colorado, all staying in one house, and with food brought in most of the time. One of the outcomes of this intensive week were Eric and Beth's storyboards for the Head First Design Patterns book, currently one of the top five bestselling computer books.
There's no doubt they would have produced these storyboards back in their own home, but this total immersion week did kick-start things in a big way, and gave them the opportunity for vital real-time feedback.
Learn Something New Jam
I've been trying to squeeze in some time to learn Flash, but each time I never get past the first few tutorials. There's always something higher on the to-do list. But if, say, 4-8 people got together, and we all had a sole task--to learn something new and then create a demo of what we learned at the end (with a checkpoint at the halfway mark), then it would give me the permission to just get in there and have Flash loaded into my brain, with the goal of creating a prototype of something I've been wanting to build. I honestly believe that if I don't do it this way, I simply may never get to it. I need someone to say, "You aren't allowed to do anything for the next 36 hours... no email, no going out to eat, no working on anything else."
Music Composition Jam
This one doesn't need explaining.
Write a [screenplay/article/chapter] Jam
Neither does this one.
Game Development Jam
I did a several year stint as a game developer, but have done virtually nothing since leaving that world to work at Sun (which, sadly, involved lots of enterprise development but NO games). I was thinking that the only way to get to work on games again was to work in the field, but that's ridiculous. There's no reason that me and six of my friends -- including coders and designers and maybe someone who understands audio -- couldn't get together and build a game. As Squirrel points out, we'd probably learn more valuable lessons we could take back to our real work than with just about anything else we could do in that amount of time (including attending formal "training" classes).
Let's do it!
So... if you're in Colorado, anywhere around the Denver/Boulder area, please email me at headrush[at]wickedlysmart[dot]com, and let's start a new chapter/lodge of the Ad-Lib Game Development Society!
(And thanks Squirrel for such an inspiring lesson, and for putting up such great info on your site.)
And for everyone else, I urge you to study the info at the ALGDS site and consider starting your own in your area. And who knows... maybe we can attend jam sessions held by one another's lodges. I'd love to crash one of Squirrel's jams (I'll make the coffee!), and perhaps someone from out of town who wants to do a book could come to one of our book jams.
I'll say more over the next few days about lessons learned at Foo Camp, but this was by far my favorite, and the one I'm most likely to implement soon.
Foo Camp: ad-hoc learning
Imagine turning the traditional conference or classroom sideways--blurring the line between presenter/attendee or teacher/student. That's the model behind O'Reilly's FOO Camp, an annual gathering/camp-out at the O'Reilly campus in northern California. (See the CNN write-up on the original Foo here.)
Breaking the traditional barrier between The Ones Who Know (the presenter/teacher) and The Ones Who Listen (attendees/students) was surprisngly easy to implement... there were NO pre-arranged sessions. There was, however, a giant board that looked like a conference schedule--complete with rooms and times--except the session topics were blank! It was up to the campers to fill them in. A self-organizing learning experience.
This photo shows the board (it's hard to see, so just go with me here...) where the rooms are across the top and the time slots (hours) are on the left side.
In the green circle, you'll see the origin of this blog... it all started with three words I scribbled on the board, "Creating Passionate Users". So I owe this blog, the talks, and the (coming) book to my decision at Foo Camp to "pay my foo dues" by coming up with a topic I could share. Which is just one example of the tangible new things that can come from the self-organizing format.
I had originally planned to talk solely to the O'Reilly editors about the lessons learned from applying these principles to the creation of the Head First series, but at the last second, I decided that since most of it could be applied to virtually anything for which the notion of "passionate users" makes sense, I would give it a more generic title. If I'd scribbled, "Lessons learned from Head First", this blog would not exist. But because of this format -- which motivated me to try to contribute something to the campers--something new emerged.
I would love to see this self-organizing model (which some are calling the unconference) applied more often in as many settings as possible, from K-12 schools to college to corporate learning.
(No, of course I don't mean that now all teaching should be done by the students, and yes -- some of you were TOO poised over your keyboard ready to send a flame comment about how lame this would be.)
A lot of adult learning environments (including colleges) do have scenarios in which the students/learners are asked to help evolve the course itself... including taking turns presenting some of the material, but these kinds of activities are the exception, when they should be a key component. I've argued with instructors for years over this--as they claim, "Students didn't come here to be taught by other students who don't know anything--they came here to get the facts from ME, the expert."
Oh really? If you drill down, you'd find that most of the students/learners are there to learn. They may have been conditioned through tradition that this means the student listens (and does the occasional "lab exercise") while the expert dispenses facts and knowledge, but that doesn't mean it's truly what most learners want. They want to learn.
And surprisingly little real, deep learning comes from sitting in a chair listening. Think about it... you often learn best (or at least, most memorably) when you're suddenly thrown in the deep end of a situation where you must figure something out in order to keep going or fix a problem. We learn from doing, and we learn from interacting and discussing with others.
But we often learn best that which we have to teach.
It's only when you have to explain something to someone else that you really find out how little you understand. And that realization motivates you and points to the right direction for getting the rest of the story. Imagine this (based on a true story) scenario:
Two groups of fourth-grade kids in an inner-city school:
Group A has a formal semester presentation on programming.
Group B does NOT have a traditional semester on programming, BUT the students are asked to create an interactive multimedia program that teaches fractions to younger kids.
That means Group B must learn--somehow--how to program and develop a teaching game, and at the same time... understand enough about fractions to teach fractions through that game. With Group B, the students had to work in teams and the teachers were there solely as mentors, offering ad-hoc learning to the "developers".
Who tested better for their programming skills at the end?
Who tested better for their knowledge of fractions? (The fact that I'm posting it here is a big clue ; )
Most importantly, if you're a programmer, teacher, parent, learner, I strongly encourage you to check out the video on the project! The quality of the video is poor, and it looks like it was compressed with circa-1994 single-speed CD-ROM drives in mind, so the sound is off too. But... it'll definitely give you something to think about.
So, teach to learn, learn to teach. If we can stop drawing those hard lines between Knowlege Giver and Knowledge Receiver, everyone benefits. And the Foo Camp model is a great implementation of this. Of course... some of those who weren't invited, disagree. Apparently Foo Camp has indeed hit the Koolaid point. With the exception of Robert Scoble's message, some of these "I wasn't invited and now I'm MAD because I'm too important to have been left off the guest list" folks sound less mature than the 11-year old programmers in the video.
Having said that, I was one of the randomly-selected lucky ones invited back this year, so I'll be blogging for y'all from there this weekend. (The fact that they put me on the guest list again should COMPLETELY dispell the myths that this event is just for the "elites" or the super smart. Although having checked the guest list, I think I'm dramatically bringing down the average IQ score of the campers).
In the meantime, please consider ways in which you can run a Foo Camp-like self-organizing gathering of your own -- whether as a conference or a smaller user group meeting, a classroom, or even a dinner party. And there's a very interesting podcast about unconferencing on Johnnie Moore's blog. Definitely worth a listen.
If you're at Foo, please say hello. And as of tonight, less than 24 hours before Foo, I have no idea what I'm going to write on that board. If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them!
The Smackdown Learning Model
What happens to your brain when you're forced to choose between two different--and potentially conficting--points of view? Learning. That's what makes the smackdown model such an effective approach to teaching, training, and most other forms of communication.
Whether you're writing user instructions, teaching a class, writing a non-fiction book, or giving a conference presentation, consider including at least some aspect of the smackdown model. It's one of the most engaging ways to cause people's brains to both feel and think -- the two elements you need for attention, understanding, retention, and recall.
How does it work?
By presenting different perspectives or views of the topic, the learner's brain is forced into making a decision about which one they most agree with. And as long as the learner is paying attention, you won't even have to ask. In other words, it doesn't have to be a formal exercise where the learner must physically make a choice between multiple things; simply by giving their brain the conflicting message, their brain has no choice. Brains cannot simply leave the conflicts out there without at least trying to make an evaluation.
And making an evaluation puts it at the most advanced end of Bloom's Taxonomy. (The further along the hierarchy you go, the more cognitive brainpower is harnessed).
Why is this better than a single consistent message?
More brain flexing = more learning. (Yes, there's a big assumption here that the learner already understands the fundamentals behind the different viewpoints.)
When the learner is given a single message, and led through the topic step-by-step with no apparent alternatives, the learner's brain doesn't have to think as much. And since a single message is often less interesting, the material is less engaging and the learner isn't paying as much attention.
And the more intense the smackdown (i.e. the heat/fight of the opposing views) the more likely it is that the learner will feel something. And remember, we learn and remember that which we feel, not that which we merely hear or read.
But this is stupid... what about things for which there is only ONE right way?
Ah yes. Multiple points of view works great when it's a browser or web framework war, but what about something like the the speed of light? Or multiplication tables? 4 x 6 is 24. End of story. A fight over that would just be distracting and get in the way.
Maybe not. It's true that there are subjects for which there is no alternative point of view that makes any sense at all... so nothing to evaluate. But in that case, you can still use a smackdown approach by having the information taught from multiple perspectives. For example, if one teacher uses a rote approach, and another thinks an understanding approach is better, then one of the most powerful learning experiences would offer the learner both, with perhaps discussions amongst the learners over the relative tradeoffs of the two approaches. That means the smackdown isn't about the actual content being learned, but about the way in which it's learned. The more you get the learners thinking (about the right things), the better the learning outcome.
How do you use it?
There are an infinite number of ways in which you could implement a smackdown, but here are a few favorites:
1) Presentation Smackdown
One of my favorite sessions at OSCON was Matt Raible's Spring vs. WebWork Smackdown. Two presenters, two frameworks, one guy with the big bell. The room was packed and everybody was paying attention. The presenters kept taking turns, and when a comment was deemed "below the belt" (a cheap shot), the bell guy kicked in.
Bonus benefit: this approach means you can get away with far fewer PowerPoint slides ; )
and you get a lot more audience participation.
Two other examples of a conference presentation smackdown are the Web Standards Smackdown and the JavaOne '04 Web Framework Smackdown. Another Web Frameworks Smackdown was held at JavaOne 2005, and discussed on this server side thread.
And Rick Ross considered a Java IDE smackdown in his Javalobby blog.
2) Head-to-head Review Smackdown
One example of a written comparison review is Ed Bott's TiVo vs. Windows Media Center smackdown. Another written example is a write-up that actually captured a conference panel smackdown on (this is old) J2EE vs. .NET.
Almost any decent and detailed multi-product or multi-perspective review can be considered a smackdown candidate, but really, if there's no heat and controversy and, well, fighting, then I wouldn't call it a smackdown.
What makes it an actual emotion-inducing learning experience is when the learner is at least wondering whether things could get a little rough. And in many cases, the rougher the better.
3) Anthropomorphized Debates
Head First readers might recognize this from some of our books. The implication of a smackdown is that two or more people are in a fight. A fight to win (even if no clear winner emerges). We make our smackdowns a little more personal in our books by breathing life into whatever it is being debated, and let that thing speak for itself. In Head First Java, for example, the compiler and the JVM argue over which of them is more important. Arrays go one-on-one with ArrayLists. And so on... with each "character" attacking or defending itself according to that character's personality and attributes.
Another benefit of anthropomorhpizing the objects of the debate is that the learner can look at things from the perspective of that entity. We want learners, for example, to know what the compiler's motivation is (no actor jokes here ; ). Who better to describe that than the compiler?
The Celebrity Death Match is quite popular. You could do your own version of this with a little Flash work.
And you'll just have to evaluate this one for yourself: Modified Living Sorority Smackdown.
Finally, if you haven't yet spent some time with Googlefight, here's a fun way to kill your productivity.
An iPod Sheep Fights Back
I've had just about enough of being called a sheep for having an iPod. Of being told that I'm a mindless slave to fashion or worse -- slick marketing hype.
It's not actually the raw accusation I mind... after all I do have a somewhat unnatural devotion to my iPod (but this isn't an intimate blog, so I'll just keep the details as my little secret). No, what I object to is the hypocrisy of my accusers.
They smugly sit in judgement of my inferiority... of my purely irrational purchasing decisions. My spending money unnecessarily when perfectly valid alternatives exist with more features at a lower cost. Just so I can look cool.
But check out their closet / garage / house / pocket and what do you find? A $6500 big screen TV. A Really Cool Car. The good toys.
And this makes no sense. After all, nobody needs to watch television. And the cheapest car on the market will still get you from point A to B, and that's what you're paying for, right? For that matter, if you live in a city with decent public transporation, who needs a car at all? Seems kind of lame to have a car just because everybody else has one.
Now that I think about it, nobody needs to listen to music, and certainly not on a portable player. so why have ANY mp3 player at all? Why is the sheep/smartGuy line drawn between the iPod vs. some other mp3 player rather than between having an mp3 player and NOT having one at all? It's an arbitrary line!
Or rather, it's a personal line. Someone decides that simply because they don't see the value (and they have the technical specs to prove it!), that value must not exist.
iPod sheep like myself can flood you with reasons:
"It's the end-to-end experience."
"Attractive products really do work better."
... and I swear there was one more, but it's not coming to me just now...
But none of that matters. What matters is that we wanted it, and we don't have to justify it to you anymore than we expect you to justify YOUR choice of Calvin Klein underwear even though--let's be honest--it's not really working for you.
There is no Sheep's Law that says the actual value of a product is somehow inversely proportional to the number of people who bought it, or the slickness of the marketing. It is possible that we all bought it because... because... because we know something you don't. Yeah, that's it. We're part of a world that, frankly, you just don't have the ability to perceive. It's not we -- the faithful flock -- who are blind--it's you.
Same goes for my iMac G5. And my obscenely expensive bubble bath. And my fine french lingerie when an old t-shirt would do just fine.
And speaking of t-shirts, I'm deeply troubled that even my beloved Hugh McLeod is hurling these accusations -- only he calls it the ignorance premium. He claims we're paying extra because we just don't know any better. In other words, we're ignorant of the cheaper alternatives that offer the same -- or more-- features.
But the adorable Hugh should not be biting the sheep hooves that feed him. In addition to owning an iPod, I am also the owner of a certified limited edition Gaping Void t-shirt. This one (#57 out of 200) is mine all mine, and when the 200 are gone, that's it.
And here's my suitable-for-framing certificate that came with it:
That makes me a certifiable Hugh/Gaping Void sheep. And proud of it. But this apparently doesn't violate Hugh's "ignorance premium" thing because, you know, the shirt is worth it. And that's my point. Hugh decided the shirt's worth it, but the iPod's not. And that's just not his call. It's mine.
I decided that even though I can buy a perfectly good t-shirt for a fraction of the cost of my certified limited edition (did I mention that I have #57) Gaping Void shirt, there was some special magic in having one of Hugh's shirts with one of my favorite hugh-toons, made sweeter by the certainty that out of the only 200 that will ever be made, the chances of my wearing the same shirt to some Blogger Party or Geek Dinner as some other hot blogging babe is outrageously slim.
And I decided that paying extra for my iPod is worth it (but it's not really extra; these folks just don't understand how the whole iPod ecosystem works and it's much too complicated for me to explain here). Unfortunately Hugh (and the eight remaining people in the world who've so far resisted the koolaid) just doesn't get it. His loss.
And to those of you who claim I bought an iPod to look cool, newflash: any idiot who spends that much on an mp3 player and then takes it out in public without covering it up in a military-grade ruggedized kevlar case doesn't deserve to own one.
And one more thing--stop abusing the word "sheep". Sheep are much smarter than you think.
That's one of my sheep (an ex-sheep, now), from a picture I took in 1998, in a little ranch I lived on in Thousand Oaks California. Notice that he's reading Bruce Eckel's "Thinking in Java" book. That sheep has forgotten more about software design than half the guys who call us sheep will ever know.
So all this time you thought calling us "sheep" was an insult... (idiots).
Physics of Passion: The Koolaid Point
You don't really have passionate users until someone starts accusing them of "drinking the koolaid." You might have happy users, even loyal users, but it's the truly passionate that piss off others enough to motivate them to say something. Where there is passion, there is always anti-passion... or rather passion in the hate dimension.
If you create passionate users, you have to expect passionate detractors. You should welcome their appearance in blogs, forums, and user groups. It means you've arrived. Forget the tipping point--if you want to measure passion, look for the koolaid point.
And it would appear that 37 Signals has hit it. Within 48 hours of one another, independently, three groups reviewed the company: this blog, Salon, and Paul Scrivens' blog. Two of the reviews glowed. The other... provided balance in the universe.
Remember folks, we aren't going for user satisfaction. We aren't going for happy. We're going for all-out passion. And that comes with a price tag. Detractors. Lots of them. And they talk. For every passionate user out evangelizing you to everyone they meet, a koolaid-hunter will do his (or her) best to make sure everyone knows that your passionate users have lost their minds. That they're victim of marketing hype. Sheep.
But consider this...
The most popular and well-loved companies, products, and causes have the strongest opponents.
You'll know when you get there, because the buzz goes from pleasant to polarized. Moderate, reasoned reviews and comments are replaced with stronger language and more colorful adjectives on both sides. Those who speak out against you will be referred to as "brave" or "having the balls" (see the comments on Scriven's review) for daring to criticize. They're hailed as the smart ones who finally call the emporer on his buck-nakedness.
Should you ignore the detractors? Diss them as nothing but evidence of your success? Should you just wave them off with a "just jealous" remark? Absolutely not. Somewhere in their complaints there are probably some good clues for things you can work on. But if you start trying to please them all or even worse, turn them into fans, that could mean death. Death by mediocrity, as you cater to everybody and inspire nobody.
It is physically impossible to have everyone love what you do. And the more people do love it, the more likely it is that you'll have an equal and opposite negative reaction. X = -Y the physics of passion.
Would you want to be in 37 Signals' shoes right now, taking all this heat? You bet. Look who's been there before:
* Apple (see the wonderful Cult of Mac blog)
* Extreme Programming (see Matt Stephen's Software Reality blog)
* The Sierra Club
* The Red Sox (see the Yankees Suck site)
* NASCAR (read instanpundit's notes)
* The Hummer (read the official F*** You and your H2 site)
* Britney Spears (see the I Hate Britney Spears site)
* Java (see the delightful No-one-cares-about-my-language-and-therefore-I-hate-Java note, or my special Java fan site, javaranch)
And on it goes.
Oh yeah, besides the "koolaid" word -- another word the detractors will use to marginalize something: "fad". As in, "Oh, that's just a fad. It'll be over soon." I remember hearing that in 1998 about Java, now the leading programming language. The iPod is a fad. Our Head First Java book was just a fad (yesterday on Amazon, out of all 32,000 computer books, there were two Head First books in the top ten). Hip hop music was just a fad. Skateboarding. Snowboarding. The web.
So we'll see. But remember during those dark days when you're fending off the detractors (especially when they have legitmate complaints), that -- as Seth Godin tells us-- "Safe is risky and risky is safe."
You'll never be perfect.
Apple isn't perfect.
Java isn't perfect.
Our books are far from perfect.
37 Signals isn't perfect.
But you can be brave.
37 Signals Passion Review
9 out of 10 hearts for the 37 Signals folks--as perfect a passionate user rating as I'll probably ever give.
From usability to pricing models to support to communication with users... everything they do at 37 Signals demonstrates that users matter most. And they're especially brilliant at knowing what not to include-- i.e. the happy user peak. [Note: this review is not about the products themselves; it's about what they're doing to create passionate users]
When we reverse-engineer passion, we find common attributes among things for which people are truly passionate, and 37 Signals has nearly all of those attributes (or is well on the way). This post includes a summary of some of those attributes, with a note about things that 37 Signals is doing in each area.
37 Signals, for the few who don't know already, makes three delightful, elegant, and "addictively useful" programs Basecamp, Backpack, and Ta-da List. If you don't know about them, stop right now and go to their page. We'll wait.
First, a clue from their main page about why they're products are so damn useful:
"Who are your investors?"
"Our customers. They pay us and we build products for them. We're a private company self-funded through revenues. We don't have any impressive names on our board of directors. We believe that if you build great products for great customers then the rest comes easy."
And here's just a few of the user/fan quotes on their main page, that we'd all kill to have:
"Perfectly conceived... the most elegantly executed web app I've seen"
"Backpack is perfectly conceived and the most elegantly executed web app I've seen. Period. I'm excited again about keeping things organized at work and at home. I plan to be Backpack-ing a lot every day." -Richard Bird
"Genuinely a pleasure to use and interact with"
"We've just started using it, and the reaction from our clients and team has been singularly amazing. For the first time, a project management and collaboration tool that people will actually use - not just because it does the job in a simpler and better way, but because it's also genuinely a pleasure to use and interact with." -Dom Rodwell
"A massive, positive impact on our working practices"
"Basecamp has already been key to winning a project, being the main thing that differentiated us from a very close competitor, and it's had a massive, positive impact on our working practices, even after just a couple of weeks." -Simon Rudkin
"Backpack has changed the way I live"
"37signals has done it again. First Basecamp changed the way I work and now Backpack has changed the way I live! It took about 10 minutes to decide to sign up for a paid plan and half that time was looking for my credit card!" -Hunter Hillegas
When the rest of us read through those quotes, we should ask ourselves, "What would we need to do to be able to have quotes like that for what we deliver?" From software users to church members to real estate clients to blog readers... how could we get people to talk... no feel this way?
People with a passion want to:
1) ConnectPassionate users want to hook up with others who share the same passion. Check out the discussion forums for their Basecamp product, and the high level of activity on the 37 Signals blog. They could do more to help passionate users connect with one another, but they're off to a good start.
2) EvangelizePassionate users evangelize to others. Like I'm doing right now. Try a google search on Basecamp. Yes, you get references to mountaineering, but even on page one, half the results are about this one product. And the deeper you go in the returned links, the more user-evangelists you'll find. People in love... want to share it with others.
3) Learn and Improve (growth and continuous development)Although I listed this as number three, it's the one we consider most important for long-term passion. If users can't grow and evolve and become "Basecamp-heads", the passion will be somewhat limited. I'm not sure how 37 Signals is going to handle this in the future, so I'll give them a 6 out of 10 on this one so far. But they do have a great start by making it easier for users to get better. I have some thoughts on how they could do more here, but I'll save those for another post.
But... there is one dimension on the learning and growth chart where they get a Spinaltap 11 out of 10--they have a road show workshop called Building of Basecamp, where user/developers can meet an learn how to do what 37 Signals has done. Here's a review of the workshop from someone who attended. This tour also gives people another way to connect.
4) Spend timePassionate users will spend an irrational amount of time with the thing they're passionate about. The more 37 Signals does to give people new and more powerful ways to use their products, the more time those users will spend.
5) Spend moneyPeople who are passionate about something want more ways to spend money on their passion (assuming it's worth it, and they always find a way to justify that it is). By using a tiered pricing model, the 37 Signals products offer a great way for users to get, well, sucked in. In a nice way, of course. There are options for going higher up the chain. But for non-developer users, that's where it ends right now. The Building of Basecamp workshops, though, is a fabulous way to offer passionate users (who happen to be software developers) a way to become more involved and spend more time and money.
6) Pride items / Showing OffThey fall down here on that most important step--T-shirt first development.
Yet even their users are asking for shirts. They need a way for passionate users of their products to express to others that they're part of the tribe. Of course, it doesn't need to be 37 Signals that does it... they could encourage others -- especially other passionate fans -- to do it for them. That means less direct revenue for them, but far more passionate street cred if they help support a Passionate Wake.
7) People, Legends, Myths, StoriesWhere there is passion, there are stories and people and gossip. 37 Signals is on their way here--at least two of the 37 Signals team are quickly becoming the geek equivalent of rock stars -- David Heinemeier Hansson (Ruby on Rails creator), and Jason Fried (he has Tom Peters has a fan!). And it's not just "The Signals" that matter. They're doing a great job of capturing user stories as well:
Given how young the company is, I'm impressed with how much they've done in this area. Most WAY larger companies aren't doing half as much as these guys to promote what users are doing... to make the users the heroes. I haven't heard much gossip, although I'm sure there are some stories circulating that perhaps the Ruby folks know about.
8) MeaningWhere there is passion, there is a sense of something bigger and more meaningful. That "if you think it's just about hitting golfballs, you SO don't get it..." attitude. 37 Signals has a Basecamp Manifesto that says, among other things: "Basecamp is more than a product, it's a new way of thinking." And they back it up with specific examples (and a product that lives up to the manifesto). The fans of 37 Signals, or its individual products, or the related Ruby on Rails, seem to believe that there's more here than just software. It's a world view... and a world view that people are finding appealing and consistent with their own values. Being a Basecamp fan, for example, says something about the user. (And t-shirts would give the user a way to tell the world.)
Overall, I give them a 9 out of 10 Hearts on the passionate users scale -- a rating I believe will be extremely rare. That they're doing all of these things at such a young stage in their business is remarkable, and is both a cause and effect of passionate users.
To get a 10, they could do just a little more (although as they grow, they'll need to do more in order to grow with their users).
Here are few ideas, but they're just off-the-top-of-the-head and not necessarily well thought out:
1) Get cracking on the pride items like t-shirts and decals. And they'd get an 11 if they encourage someone outside the company to do it. (These aren't mutually exclusive--it would be great if both 37 signals and other third parties were all offering pride items, support, add-ons, etc.) Take a lesson from the yard gnome photo thing, and come up with a clever way for people to send in photographs of... what? Hmmmm... it can't be photos of the product in use, like you can do with a physical iPod or book. But if you had those cool t-shirts... you could have them send in photos people take of themselves in unusual places, wearing their 37 Signals/Basecamp t-shirts. A lot of your users are geeks. You SO know they'll do it.
2) They should continue to work on building long-term learning and growth opportunities for users -- something they've already got going on in a big way for their users who are also developers, but I'd love to see more learning experiences for non-developer users. Don't just teach me to use your product well, teach me to seriously kick ass at the things I do with your product. Make me a better project manager in areas that go beyond what the software is responsible for. Help me become better organized and spend more time in flow (the premise behind GTD, which they unofficially support. You could say that part of what 37 signals does is to support David Allen's Getting Things Done wake!)
Where there is passion, there is a Next Level, and the 37 Signals folks have one for developers with Building of Basecamp. But they could use more of a Next Level concept for "regular" users. Is there a way to tell when someone is a Backpack guru?
They're already doing a fantastic job with helping users learn and grow -- far better than probably any other software company of this size and scope (sure, it's easy for Adobe and Macromedia to have lots of tutorials, but this is a very small company). And in a way, one of their biggest strengths -- that their products are SO usable -- means they don't really need much support and learning. So my suggestion would be to keep pushing the learning into areas that go beyond the software, and into the realm of ways in which the software helps and changes people's lives. Clearly that's already starting, if we are to listen to the user quotes. And we should.
3) Maybe encourage actual user groups -- which could be both physical and online (an extension of the forums), as a way to encourage connection between users.
4) More stories, please. More about the founders, and more about the users. Maybe some inner knowledge worth knowing and worth talking about could be propogated. Just don't put it on your website... it's worth a lot more if it's discovered.
Way to go 37 Signals. Y'all are most inspiring! I can't wait to see what you do next. And please, please, make your first t-shirts come in extra-small : ) (and FYI my favorite colors are orange and blue).
What I learned about passion from OSCON
What did I get most out of OSCON? One word: Ruby.
Actually three words: Ruby On Rails.
Rails creator/evangelist David Heinemeier Hansson has the passion, and he's infected everybody. (He won the Best Hacker of '05 Award from O'Reilly and Google).
Don't stop reading if you're not a coder; there's a lesson in passionate users here we can all learn from David and his cohorts at 37 Signals--a group understands both software development (as a process) and user passion. They make (so far) three wonderful products, Basecamp, Backpack, and Ta-da. (They also have a very popular Signals vs. Noise blog.)
And if you're not already using one of their products, you'll probably want to (and it's easy to start with the free Ta-da List).
After all the passion I saw at OSCON around Rails, I looked a little deeper into what the 37 Signals folks are doing, and without interviewing them -- in other words, purely from what's readily available to an outsider with a browser -- I did a little passion analysis. Much of what they're doing could map well to virtually anything. And it all starts with what appears to be a core value:
The User Comes First.
I was so impressed that I decided to launch something new on this blog -- Passion Reviews. Beginning with my next post, which is a review of 37 signals, I'll be doing semi-regular reviews that take one company, service, or product and see how well it meets our passionate users checklist.
It makes me laugh (and cringe) to see how I look all serious in this one. Geez. Thanks to everyone who participated in the OSCON passionate users tutorial -- I learned a LOT.