Minnebar: How to build a kickass web development team

Now in the discussion session on “How to build a kickass web development team”.. facilitators are from Bloomington, Minnesota web development firm Sierra Bravo.

“some of our success has come about by growing the talent within…”

Star Tribune’s project manager for the internet – “my development team is moving onto another floor – how do we handle this when we’re used to just yelling over the cubicle wall?”

interesting discussions here about roles within a team – do you have dedicated project managers or not? Where should this go?

Be careful of pigeonholing people into specific roles – better to develop generalists rather than focus too much into one single area…

typical team for Sierra Bravo is 2-3 developers looking at a 400 – 1000 hour project

SB guys: “our philosophy is that collaboration is king. within the interview process we’re asking ‘if you have a really hard problem, what are the steps to solving that problem'”.

“we encourage people to get up talk each other – move about, etc”

“we encourage you to work closely together and have alot of collaboration… we want to give you power to innovate…”

innovation clearly becomes more challenging as a company grows…

in-house development teams have different priorities and roles..

U of MN Medical Education group – no web development team (formal, anyways) – team of 3 that have taken on web development but lack a project manager – just now putting some processes into place to deal with this..

discussion about how to expand teams with getting better & stronger people on the team… how do you build a cohesive & effective group.. getting bodies is a challenge…

getting out and into your local user groups is a good method for building our your teams.. if your team is happy and content then you’ll have an easier time recruiting folks…

How do you ensure a cultural fit within your corporation or team? — is it about the interview process? Formal and informal?

Do you require code samples from programmers or design samples from designers? Mix of about 50/50 in the room on this question…

Code samples do allow you to look at how the individual tries to solve the problem…

Minnebar: Distributed Teams

Sitting in on the panel discussion about Distributed Teams. I was asked to be a part of this panel and declined since my main intent here at Minnebar was to cover the vent as a blogger/journalist for The Blog Herald.

How do you build a strong distributed team for your projects(s) will be the theme here.

“Distributed ain’t all that…” says one panel member.

“Have any of you worked with a remote team that has gotten it done better, faster, and chaper because of the remote team?”

“Have you had any issues with passing the work back and forth amongst the teams”

Structure of the team will be part of your success – particularly with software projects

Is it advantageous to have a remote team or not?

Audience member: “With distributed teams, the management overhead can really become part of the problem…”

Economic value of the dollar is also impacting the ability to offshore..

24×7 reality with the right software and management solutions can make problems be solved faster – and push a product forward in a much faster timeline – but this experience is relatively rare.

Barry Hess: “I’m the small team guy here… our company is all about the people. New designer at the company is based in Portland because he was the best guy that applied…”

Cost reduction / cost savings is the driver in some companies – china/india is much cheaper than US based labor…

“How many jobs are moving overseas – is this what is driving some of this…”

U of MN CompSci Professor: “Population since 2001 here at the U of MN in computer science is way way down… the bubble had an impact…”

Some companies shift to outsourcing because they can’t manage software projects – so they outsource or offshore in order to drive down costs… and then find themselves with an even bigger issue because now they can’t manage distributed software projects…

audience member: “a distributed team is much more than just designers and programmers”

We’re finally getting to talking about tools rather than some of this philosophical stuff around whether or not this is the right thing to do…

“how do you convince your client or employer to allow you to work remotely” as your own distributed team? Rather than having to work onsite… – trust and having a personal connection is a big part.

“sometimes communication amongst distributed teams is better because in a colocated team we talk more than we document and build processes correctly from the start…”

“sometimes you have to distribute a team in order to increase productivity…”

Many tools mentioned – including most of the 37signals applications.

“is anyone using sharepoint? does anyone like it?”

Google is using high def video conferencing on all day in order to have two halves of one team work together across multiple locations (Mountain View, CA + Boulder, CO)…

I’ll be writing a follow-up post later about how to manage distributed teams along the lines that I’ve seen during my time as a blogger and blog network owner as well.

Minnebar: State of Technology in Minnesota

Now in the panel discussion on State of the Technology in Minnesota with speakers from Microsoft, Split Rock Partners, Dow Jones, Geek Squad, and elsewhere…

Discussion around the level of talent in Minnesota – and seeing more folks moving back to Minnesota from silicon valley in order to work for some organizations here. Adobe has had an office here since 1995 in Arden Hills, MN, for example.

Split Rock Partners – big booster of talent locally – more than $200m invested in local tech startups and in the area of healthcare as well… but don’t kid yourself – it’s a brutal competitive marketplace.. we just believe that this standard is being hit on a regular basis here in Minnesota – but there does happen to be more density of that sort of activity in Boston, Austin, and elsewhere..

“we need more of… people who get the business of software” – Dan Grigsby

“it’s about leadership – great leadership is hard to find, they don’t grow on trees… U of MN is not a top Computer Science School.. it’s not a top school for business”… This is interesting since Carlson School of Business is a Top 25 business school

Geek Squad founder: “so when geek squad acquired best buy… ;)… my dream is to turn the death star into a theme park, not to blow it up… no one is trying out the $500 idea within best buy because is costs us $100k to get the $500 idea through the theme park…”

Robert / Geek Squad: “Maybe we could get an API that would cause the IT department to calm down…”

“How do we knock down this barrier to risk… with open source, there’s nothing holding you back…”

Concept of Silicon Prairie as a nickname for the midwestern technology centers, like Minnesota….

“doesn’t take alot of money to write software.. it takes guts.. be bold and do what you think is right.. especially in corporations, it’s appreciated much more than you might think it is…”

“great example of big large successful companies like Skype.. rumor is that no two developers live in the same city.. we do not have to look at geography as a huge limiter…”

Minnebar: Enterprise Data Mashups Session

U of MN professor teaching the session – also works at IBM.

First mashup – Mapdanjo. In the words of one participant “most crap thrown up in one place”

Again, audio/visual problems in this session (same room as last session).

Some of the mashups allow for integration of behind the firewall information as well – he’s referring to Google though as “the google” which is entertaining… Google Maps can also be brought inside the firewall completely through some of their licensing options…

IBM has an internal Map Analytics ‘2008’ application with a whole ton of options – but unfortunately it appears to be internal only at the current time… The capabilities are pretty impressive though…

Solutions could look like: Trusted secure reusable information services + web 2.0 + data visualization. Everything from metadata and web 2.0 information merged with various business problems to create unique internal mashups…

Minnebar: Social Search in the Corporate Environment

Now in the 10am session on Social Search in the Corporate Environment here at Minnebar.

Presenter is Rich from Honeywell Labs – he built the first websites for Honeywell back before the graphical website days when most folks were browsing using Lynx and other text online web browsers.

Original blogging platform at Honeywell was Movable Type under their commercial license approach – we’ll find out in a bit if he’s still using that internally. Session will be focused on social media and search within a large corporation.

Honeywell using alot of open source based software within the firewall for social media and social work.

Appears that they are using Connectbeam for social media search inside the firewall – and also using a Google Search Appliance for internal search. Mmm, I’d love one of those at some of my clients.

Connectbeam integrates with Exchange Server, if that’s your poison, and integrates with internal Google search appliances as well as external Google searches as well. It’s not an issue integrating services like LinkedIn, Facebook, and others into the Connectbeam platform. Interesting..

Unfortunately, his projector is not working so we may go without any live examples…

<5 minutes later> PROJECTOR IS NOW BACK UP. Yay

Connectbeam appears to integrate directly into Google Search and other search engines – displays bar on the right with related internal content and tags…

10 licenses for $1k – rather cheaper than what I would have probably expected.. upcoming versions will have RSS feeds and an API…

Confluence is their wiki platform – $3k for a license… 16,000+ users are contributing to their wiki..

Wiki has a tag cloud already associated with it – plus can be tagged for use within ConnectBeam..also has a Sharepoint 07 tie-in.. very semantic web connections here… looks like the goal is to provide discovery within the enterprise..

Honeywell has tried for years to build a skills database to let folks connect with each other – the tagging within Connectbeam has really fulfilled that function.. Senior leaders (direct reports of CEO) are using the system to some extent – and want to foster more connectivity amongst individual contributors throughout the company…

Using some simple windows based feed readers inside the firewall – doing this to read competitive intelligence feeds and other RSS feeds within the corporation…

technical library showing information on various pre-built RSS feeds on key topics for research to keep team members and employees informed on their competition, etc.. using Compendex Plus for some of this (license fee involved)…

Honeywell running daily rss searches/google searches on the names of key engineers at their competitors

Rich’s blog is at eContent.

Minnebar: Small Teams, Big Results Session


Sitting here at Minnebar in the session on “Small Teams, Big Results” along with the guys from August Ash, Inc., a web design firm here in Minneapolis.

The session is being led by Ben Edwards of Refractr. Ben happens to also be the co-organizer of Minnebar.

Ben’s key point here is that small teams can be as highly effective as large teams – and often without alot of the administrative overhead that large organizations bring with them. Being small allows many teams to simply “be nimble” – able to move with extreme agility as needed.

Should development teams be co-located with the business teams in larger organizations? Ben recommends that even if you can’t co-locate then try to find ways to incorporate the teams together through effective meetings… not just meetings to have meetings.

Small teams often have more accountability – “one’s ass can really be on the line”.

Many references made to later session on Distributed Teams which I’ll also be liveblogging this afternoon.

Audience is now stepping up and participating…

“Small Teams need smart generalists” that are good at a number of things – agile, self-curious, self-driven are all attributes that will be critical for success in this environment.

“Hire passionate and curious creators” – people who do creative things… and do so with passion.

Book references – “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman.. “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink – both excellent books.

“Ensure that team members can manage themselves…”

“Fire prima donnas and complainers” – great advice – the highest maintenance bloggers that I’ve had on small teams have been poisonous – I was happy when they chose to move on…

Asking audience for thoughts now… on how to build small teams

“Look for people that dabble in alot of different areas…” – look for who is building something and are naturally curious..

“Most business side folks don’t understand the soft fuzzy side of software project management estimation…”

Lots of discussion around firing prima donnas – some are saying they’re the best people on the team – others saying that they are poison…

“don’t overdo your processes” – empower your team to make decisions.. i.e. “empower or take power”

“do, don’t document”

“use unobtrusive tools” – best question so far today “Has anyone found an actual job for Microsoft Project?” hahaha… I am personally not a fan of MS Project – simple tools like BaseCamp is much easier to use..

Choosing between Twitter, live blogging or fast publishing

I love it when bloggers write about conferences I cannot attend. Blogs and Twitter are my main resources to stay in touch with conferences such as the Web 2.0 Expo in San Fransisco last week. Bloggers take different approaches to cover conferences which all have their advantages and disadvantages. The main three approaches are using Twitter, live blogging tools or fast publishing.


Twitter is a useful tool to stay in touch with both conference organizers and attendees. Stay up-to-date with schedule changes, keynote transcriptions and videos and people in the room. Twitter is used more and more often by speakers to answer questions from the audience or from people who are not attending the conference. The downside of such interaction is that there are always people out there to get their 140 characters of fame and add a lot of noise to the signal.

One of my favorite uses of Twitter during conferences is a backchannel people can send their posts to. During the Next Web conference in Amsterdam a few weeks ago a backchannel was created where all posts that included #nextweb were posted. By following the backchannel you can get information from everyone actively participating in providing content from the conference.

Live blogging

CoverIt Live is one of the most popular tools used for live blogging. It provides an easy and instant way to provide your blog readers with the latest news without having to refresh the page:

Your commentary publishes in real time like an instant message. Our ‘one-click’ publishing lets you drop polls, videos, pictures, ads and audio clips as soon as they come to mind. Comments and questions from your readers instantly appear but you control what gets published.

It is an excellent solution for blog visitors if you are “live reading” the blog. However, for archival (and SEO) purposes I am not too fond of using such tools. For example, I wanted to check out Mashable’s post on Matt Mullenweg Announces Related Posts and Themes for Photo Bloggers. If you use an external service such as CoverIt Live the content is not actually a part of your blog but it is embedded into your blog from their server. The fact that your content is embedded has consequences for indexing and finding the content. Be aware when using such tools that your live coverage will not be indexed nor be part of your blog’s archive.

Fast publishing

This is my personal preferred method of blogging conferences and keeping up with conferences. At the Next Web Conference we covered the whole conference with only two people and took turns in covering the keynotes. After a thirty minute keynote we would have another thirty minutes to turn our notes into a blog post and publish it online. While thirty minutes to edit your notes is not much it provides you with just enough time to turn them into a coherent blog post.

Why do I prefer fast publishing over Twitter or live blogging? Your blog is not as good as its latest post, it is the archive that counts. Which is your preferred method?