Assumptions, exactitudes, perfection and creativity

A while back, those wonderful fellas at Box UK asked me to take part in their Cardiff Web Scene Meet-up #4. I pondered for a long while what I was going to do. The obvious one was an overview of BathCamp: how we put it together, what tools we used to collaborate, and so-on. In the end I decided I’d use the slightly different format (an informal gathering in a bar) as an excuse for a slightly different kind of presentation (an informal gathering of thoughts and slides..), and not just do the obvious thing..

The slides are an expansion on my previous post, Newton vs Einstein, and form an underlying question which continues to be an itch I need to scratch. The question is really summed up in my third slide: When do we need perfection?

[slideshare id=619607&doc=newtonvseinsteinfinalppt-1222420030171861-9&w=425]

The Newton / Einstein metaphor (for those who can’t be arsed to read my original post) stemmed from In Our Time on Radio 4: given that we manage to go about our daily lives (and even carry out a number of fairly stunning technical tasks, such as putting a man on the moon) without worrying about the complex rightness of Einstein, how much can we make do with simple approximations – how much do we actually need to worry about being “right” when we’re in an environment of wanting to get things done, where “rightness” actually hinders rather than helps?

This question isn’t as simple as it first appears. There is no binary position here, no right or wrong, and yet often in IT scenarios, we are asked to choose EITHER the easy, quick, risky, “lightweight” way OR the long, arduous,  “enterprise” one (this Dilbert cartoon, posted by @miaridge on Twitter about museum projects, may seem oddly familiar…). And yet this isn’t just about over-speccing or analysis paralysis. This goes deeper, asking questions about creativity and innovation and what these mean.

Here’s an example. For maybe 5 of my 7 years at the Science Museum, the entire website was published (not served – how stupid do you think I am 😉 ) from an Access database using a simple system I built in ASP during my first year at the museum. This system enabled maybe 20 authors to contribute to the site, whilst maintaining a simple templating system and look and feel. During this time, the site was run out of a single (and slightly battered) web server. Just before I left, we went through a long CMS project, and ended up installing the excellent Sitecore content management system across (if my memory serves me correctly) 7 servers, plus having a re-design which culminated in the current Science Museum website: it is beautiful, clean, well coded, and – frankly – the apple of my eye. 

It would be very, very easy to dismiss the old site and way of doing things in light of the “professional” approach that content management at “enterprise” level brings to the party, but the fact was for five years the old site performed nearly perfectly, both technically and in terms of responding to the content needs of the organisation. It was imperfect, hacked-together, “lightweight” – and did the job. Compare that to now (when I’m betting that 90% of the CMS functionality and 95% of the server capacity isn’t used..) and it’s not immediately obvious to me – and this is a quite open statement, without bias – which is the better solution. I think both bring benefits and disbenefits, and somewhere in the middle is a ground which more of us should be striving to inhabit, rather than hanging on to our notions of “lightweight vs enterprise”.

These questions begin with a bias even in the naming. “Lightweight” seems fickle, faddish, subject to change and risk. “Enterprise” is laden with visions of dull corporate lunches, sales people and multi-million pound pricetags.

The question I ask in the slides really outline the entire theme to this blog and the questions I have been asking over the past decade (eek!) working online. Brian Kelly suggests in this post that “it is time to get serious” – that strategic thinking somehow lives in a different place to the lightweight. He’s referencing the presentation we did together a couple of years ago (Web 2.0: Stop thinking, start doing) – but I can’t help thinking that now is the time to bring strategic and lightweight together rather than trying to drive them apart.

My time as Head of Web at the museum was almost all about strategy, about bringing together digital and real content and about getting things done. Ultimately, I’m way, way more on the strategic side of this stuff than anything else. But…getting creative things done requires making assumptions – inaccuracies and uncertainty are inherent and valuable. 

Ultimately, most of us work in enviroments that are at complete odds to creativity: we are forced to work to project plans, “plan” our time, “justify” our expense, “do” the actions. Web2.0 and “lightweightness” are never going to be comfortable – these approaches are deliberately disruptive. The question is – and always has been – how do we embrace this uncertainty and creativity and move forward but still maintain a clear view of the horizon..?

IT tools I *really* use

I keep having moments of needing to consolidate and simplify. Maybe it’s a puritanical precursor to some kind of horrific mid-life crisis which will see me going nuts and buying cars, motorbikes and a Macintosh Air*.

More likely, it’s the realisation that I personally use IT tools in several different modes, and that understanding these modes is increasingly important to the way I evaluate new systems, paradigms and technologies.

Firstly, I’m a serial tryer-outer. The word serial shouldn’t actually be underestimated here. I am reasonably sure (I have absolutely no way of telling) the number of alpha/beta sites I’ve joined is in its hundreds. I suspect maybe 3-400. Apart from the obvious psychological weirdness of this (please still be my friend), it also means I am constantly installing, un-installing and otherwise evaluating whether tool A or website B actually does anything of any use.

Quite apart from the fact that Windows hates this kind of behaviour and my Gmail account is now full of endless newsletters from Yet Another Damn Web Service, this is actually a very valuable exercise. It very quickly highlights the things I really can’t do without as opposed to the things that are really exciting but not actually of much use. Usually I manage to avoid things that really aren’t any of the above and frankly shouldn’t ever have happened in the first place but every so often these feature too.

The distinction between invaluable and merely exciting is an important one. In fact, it’s so important I reckon it lies somewhere near the heart of the whole problem with IT. That’s another topic altogether, though.

For this post, I’ve chosen the top five applications I use every day – the ones that make a real difference to the way I work. And make no mistake, each and every one of these tools has emerged (following the try-it-out approach above) as the current leader in a harsh and crude evolutionary race. All of them have fought against others in the same space, and won (for now…) – they simply do what I want better than anything else I’ve tried.

1. Syncing = Google Browser Sync and SugarSync (£various)
I can’t even begin to explain the positive impact both of these tools have had on my working life. Google Browser Sync (FF only) keeps your history, passwords, open tabs, bookmarks synced across any browsers that you install the extension for. I’ve tried a bunch of other tools but GBS is low-impact, easy to use and does what it says on the tin. SugarSync does the same thing for files and folders and it is utter genius. You install a client on each machine (PC or Mac), choose which folders to sync. Done. Never again will you arrive at conference and find your keydrive can’t be read. Never again will you get to work and think “arse, I left that document on my home PC”. In fact, you’ll never use a keydrive again. Oh, and did I mention it also provides mobile access…?

2. Email = Gmail
Head, shoulders and several entire bodies above the rest. I’m not going to go on about it here – you’ve all heard of it, you’ve probably tried it and with any luck you’re also using it too. For spam protection, labelling, search, 6Gb+ storage, functionality, mobile access….no other contenders.

3. Images = Picasa
PC only (although I might have read somewhere that it’s coming soon for Mac?) – just simply the best image management system bar none. Chuck in easy re-sizing for emailing files, XML output, online galleries, tagging, yada yada

4. Doc sharing = Google Docs
It’s another Gmail and just continues to get better. The latest stuff (forms for spreadsheets – genius!) and the Google Visualization API reading data straight from your documents just keeps pushing the boundary so much harder and further than the other contenders in this space.

5. Tasks = Tudomo ($30)
I get a fair amount of stick in the office for this one. Yes, I know all about Outlook tasks. Yes, I’ve got Outlook 2007. Yes, I know it all integrates with email, contacts, calendar, yada yada. But the fact of the matter is, if you haven’t tried Tudumo, you’re just simply not going to get it. That’s fine. If you want to continue with slow, clunky, inflexible, shortcut-less control of some corporate, creativity-free nastiness, then carry straight on. If instead you’re looking for a tag-centred task-list which doubles as scratchpad, ideas register, GTD dashboard and reminder system, give Tudumo a whirl. The first time you try it, you think – “well hey, nothing special” or (if you’re me) “desktop app? Soo last year darling..”. But then you realise it’s something pretty special. If you’ve tried online task tools, you’ll be surprised how much better a lag-free desktop tool is for quickly sketching down ideas or tasks. It could really do with a web version which echoed your tasks online, but that’s on the roadmap, so for now I’ll forgive.

Any on your list? Things I’ve missed that could knock my choices off my top 5…?

(* I of course do need a Mac Air. I just need to sell my children first.)