Brian Shaler

Occasionally Interesting

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Archive for July, 2009

Utility + Aesthetics

At work, I’ve been brainstorming some data visualization techniques to help live video producers understand their audiences. Fortunately, my company understands the importance of having a Wow Factor. The challenge is to come up with “eye candy” that is both aesthetic and useful.

Some of the most fun data visualization applications are abstract. More art than anything else. This won’t suffice for an analytics dashboard. Customers need to get in and make sense of what’s going on right away.

There are common, traditional techniques that generally do a good job of this, but there is definitely room for improvement — out of the box thinking. The graph and chart “usual suspects” are best suited for structured, statistical data. For understanding trends and relationships, they are usually pretty weak.

For trends and multi-dimensional relationships over large sets of data, one must employ techniques that take advantage of the human mind’s ability to understand shapes, colors, and patterns.

A heat map is an excellent example of a visualization technique that can quickly go from informative but dull to beautiful but data-less.

The goal is not only to overwhelm the user with beauty, but also overwhelm them with knowledge and understanding of the data set they’re viewing.

Activating Advocates

This is a topic that has been seeming more and more important to me, on a personal level. Everyone knows bad news travels far and fast while “good job” remarks are never heard ’round the world. The same goes with reputation and your (or your company’s) brand.

Relying on word-of-mouth, with this fact in mind, seems to be a risky proposition with limited ROI. Some people and companies seem to be able to pull it off wonderfully, though.

Part of what got me thinking about this was noticing how I sometimes become an advocate for companies or products I like. The best examples are for some of my favorite restaurants:

Four Peaks Brewery: I regularly tell people their Arizona Chicken Rolls are the best on the planet.
Chino Bandido: While hearing “Mexican/Asian Fusion” makes some people uneasy, their food is ridiculously flavorful — especially the carnitas and Jad Red chicken.
Firehouse Subs: It’s all in how they make it. When I start going on and on about toasted bread and steamed meat, people assume I’m a Firehouse Subs salesman. Try the Club on a Sub!

In these cases, the companies did nothing to provoke my advocacy for their products. All they did was have a spectacular product and be virtually unknown (in Four Peaks’ case, they’re not unknown, but that appetizer is). If everyone knew how great their food was, I wouldn’t be such a strong supporter. My reward for evangelizing their food is building a relationship with whomever I can convince to go. They try the food, like it, and recognize me as the person who told them about it.

Extracting the principles from that (extracting principles and over-analyzing things seems to be a hobby) and I see a huge problem for me trying to get my name out. Somehow, people got the impression I’m more well-known than I am. Perhaps it was James Archer’s “THE Brian Shaler” meme, or maybe people wrongly assumed that having a lot of Twitter followers means something.

I have actually heard people STOP themselves from spreading the word about something because I tweeted it. They somehow thought that when I spoke, *everyone* listened, and there was no need to say anything after that.

So, I appear to have two shortcomings: not enough reach, and overestimated reach. Together, they can be an impediment of my ambitions to reach many people with my work.

The title of this post probably implied I would talk about how to activate advocates. Instead, it’s merely a topic I have been pondering and a problem I have yet to find solutions to.

You Are an Ambassador of Your Community

I tend to focus on Phoenix tech a lot. Hopefully, people outside of Phoenix who read what I write take the principles and apply them to their own localities and industries.

Curious to see what someone would find if they searched for “phoenix tech community,” I ran the search through Google, Yahoo, and Bing. I think we in Phoenix make a lot of noise from time to time, and we have so much going on that word occasionally reaches people across the country and even around the world. I wondered what outsiders would see, but also what locals would find if they set out to find their city’s tech community.

Astonishingly, this blog was at the top of the results — first on Google and Yahoo, but on Bing, it was second to a blog post about one of my blog posts.

What, am I bragging? Hell no.

I realized that there is room for improvement on my part. My blog post, “The Phoenix Tech Community,” was a good article, in my opinion. However, it is NOT what I would consider a good landing page for the tech community.

When someone searches for “phoenix tech community,” I want them to discover that there is a ton of stuff going on in Phoenix. They should be exposed to Phoenix events and meet-ups, Phoenix blogs, and Phoenix co-working spaces, and more.

I’m taking too long to get back to the title of this post, and it’s getting to be about time to wrap it up.

The pages people will find when they’re looking for the phoenix tech community weren’t deliberately written to be someone’s first impression. I became, without knowing, an ambassador for the community. Also without knowing, I wasn’t doing a great job with this ambassadorship.

It’s one more thing to keep in mind with my (and your) blog posts. You can become an ambassador of your community, simply by mentioning it. Try to be a good one.

Some Updates

I’ve been super busy recently (as always). I’m not going to be able to apologize for being a bad blogger, because I’m not a blogger. I’m a guy who writes code for a living, travels whenever possible, and tries to be active in the Phoenix tech community. Nowhere in there do I define myself as a blogger!

But on the topic of bloggers and blogging…

I happen to subscribe to about 200 Phoenix-based blogs (in part thanks to ReadPhoenix.com). I like to know what’s going on in Phoenix, and there’s no one source for that. There’s simply too much going on. I doubt many people would try to stick the fire hose of information into their mouths like I do.

When the topic came up about having a panel on blogging at a future Social Media Club Phoenix meeting, I skimmed through my RSS subscriptions and picked out a few of my favorites. Here are the bloggers I recommended:

Blogs with micro-communities:
The Wood Whisperer – Marc Spagnuolo
Arizona Coffee – Chris Tingom

Blogging techniques:
The Closet Entrepreneur – Tomas Carrillo
Convince and Convert – Jason Baer
Stealthmode – Francine Hardaway

Blogging about a product:
Method ~ of ~ Failed – Tim Heuer (Microsoft Silverlight evangelist)

PR & News:
Valley PR Blog – Run by a group.
Heat City – Nick Martin

Developer Ignite – July 22

The speakers have been announced for Developer Ignite! Looks like I’m going to be one of them! I’m excited to watch all of these presentations!

Barry Stahl: Simplicity Through Abstraction
The goal of this presentation is to explore, at a very high level, one methodology for software developers and architects to create software that is simple and maintainable, and thus has a lower total-cost-of-ownership (TCO).

Ben Atkin: jQuery Plugin Development
I would like to tell people how to develop a neat and useful jQuery plugin. It will likely be some type of widget. I think it will benefit the development community by encouraging people to explore jQuery and JavaScript and see more of their potential.

Bill Mar: Beagleboard and Spark Community Projects
My presentation is “Beagleboard and Spark Community Projects” to tell the story of how the Beagleboard community project got started and how I and some other people got Microsoft Windows Embedded into the act with free tools for the hobbyist/startup community.

Bret Feddern: What You Don’t Know About ColdFusion Will Knock You on Your A$$
Most of the Developers and Companies I come across are Ruby on Rails, or PHP, or .NET, and they use WordPress, Joomla, or SharePoint, etc. Few know the true potential behind ColdFusion and what CF has to offer. With my 5 minutes, I will give an overview of just how awesome CF is and why other developers in the area should be more open to it.

Brian Shaler: Physical Computing With Arduino
As a software developer with no background in electrical engineering, physical computing was always a little out of my reach. Thanks to Arduino — the exciting open source hardware-firmware-software platform — the barrier to entry for software developers has been lowered significantly. Within minutes, you can be interacting with real world inputs (sensors) and outputs (LEDs, servos, etc).

Chris Chandler: Cryptography
We use RSA and AES all the time, but what makes them tick? What are the other options? Why should we care? The storage, transmission, and management of sensitive data usually requires that it is enciphered. This is a 5 minute presentation on cryptographic algorithms and key management.

Evo Terra: Get Out of Your Cube!
In the last 3 years, Phoenix has seen the creation and expansion of several community-based social groups and activities that are “developer-friendly”. Real people getting together in real life to talk, drink, listen, learn and generally have loads of fun. These formal and informal “meetups” take place all over the valley and each have their own charm. In this talk, I’ll talk about many and point you into the direction where you can find more!

Gary Attarian: Programming by the Rules
(Will be posted soon)

Remi Taylor: You’re Doing it Wrong!
You’re doing it wrong and you should be ashamed of yourself! If you’re not testing your code, your clients should fire you. If you’re not test-driving your code, your co-workers should set you on fire!

Robert Attarian: On Real Time Embedded Systems
(Will be posted soon)

Saul Mora: CSS3 + HTML5 = Awesome
CSS + HTML is how the web works. Let’s go over, not just the cool features of CSS3 + HTML5, but why they will be awesome for future web development.

Scott Cate: Version Numbering your Software
Version Numbering your software. Does this even matter? Are version numbers used more than just to later identify what version a file is? Well in our world it matters deeply. We’ll spend five minutes talking about how source control, an automated build environment, and an integrated version “labeler” can better your software management process.

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