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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ya gotta have the chemistry.

There's a little article in the Economist dated October 12th that cites research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland -- part of the N.I.H -- who have been searching for the biological basis of altruistic acts have observed neurochemical correlates of a complex social act of great interest to most non-profit organizations - the act of making of monetary donation. The substance involved -- the hormone oxytocin -- has been found in other studies to be involved in various forms of social and interpersonal bonding and trust-building in humans and other mammals.

Fascinating. But short of injecting your prospects before asking them for a donation, how can you get this love juice flowing? Well, the old fashioned way, of course - by building real trust. Guidestar interviewed San Deigo philanthropist Malin Burnham recently. Burnham says that the sense of trustworthiness he gets from a fundraiser is the most important quality that person can bring to the table:
"Nothing is more important than integrity," he says. "I look for it every time someone calls on me. If it's not there, I can spot it immediately."
Integrity in fundraising runs deeper than just "Is this fundraiser lying to me?" It rests on our sense of whether the program as a whole has an honest foundation. We get a queasy feeling from campaigns that just don't feel right, that seem to lack some fundemental integrity. Joe Waters of Selfish Giving explores his queasiness about Bono and his RED campaign in a provocative post that demonstrates how leaving people not sure they believe in you can really backfire as they start discussing their unease in public.

Thanks to Ken Goldstein of The NonProfit Consultant Blog for pointing out the oxytocin research, and Amy Kincaid of Fundraising Breakthroughs for noticing the Burnham interview!


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Friday, October 27, 2006

The Rise of Private Blogs

For those of use who blog on technology, politics, marketing, fundraising, and other issues, the public image of the blogger as a teenaged diarist or bored young mom giving the whole world way too much personal information is one we combat daily. But a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust's Society and the Internet Project suggests that maybe we are the odd ones out. By far the largest single group of bloggers are online diarists.

The study found that that there are a lot of blogs:
Eight percent of internet users, or about 12 million American adults, keep a blog. Thirty-nine percent of internet users, or about 57 million American adults, read blogs – a significant increase since the fall of 2005.
And what do they blog about?
37 percent of bloggers cite “my life and experiences” as a primary topic of their blog. Politics and government ran a very distant second with 11 percent of bloggers citing those issues of public life as the main subject of their blog. Entertainment-related topics were the next most popular blog-type, with 7 percent of bloggers, followed by sports (6 percent), general news and current events (5 percent), business (5 percent), technology (4 percent), religion, spirituality or faith (2 percent), a specific hobby or a health problem or illness (each comprising 1 percent of bloggers).
What does the fact that so many people are blogging about their personnal lives say about changing concepts of privacy? Maybe less than we think. I suspect that a lot of people assume that no one see their blog except the friends they have explicitly told about it. According to a piece in the Washington yesterday, Mena Trott, co-founder of Six Apart, the company that now owns blogging platforms TypePad, Movable Type, and Live Journal, sees increasing interest in prvacy options. Her newest venture, Vox, allows a blog to be published to a specific group of members. The newest version of Google's Blogger platform (still in Beta) also allows this sort of controlled readership.

Hard to understand for those of us who live to see our hit counts climb.
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Monday, October 23, 2006

Monday Links

My friend Michelle Murraine took me to task for the presumption that all coders are male in the pronoun choice in my last post, How does a programmer spend his time? To atone, here's a set of links for this week, all from female bloggers.

Open API's.
Let's start with Michelle herself, who posted some comments on the NTEN-sponsored discussion of open API's last week to both the NetSquared site and her own blog. The on-line discussion brought together some of the larger software vendors in the non-profit space and a few very savvy users. API's - Application Program Interfaces - refer to an interface made available by one piece of software to allow other software programs to call its functions, manipulate its data, and so on. I'm convinced that open API's add immensley to a product's value and a vendor is a fool not to provide them: we provide SOAP-based APIs for our Members Only applications, so users can access the data and remote-control Members Only from their own web-based or desktop applications. Michelle's comments raise a lot of good questions about the meaning of openness in this context, the relationship between openness and price, and how security fits into the mix.

Code Like A Girl.
Speaking of programming and women, how could I not point in this post to by Kathy Sierra in her remarkable Creating Passionate Users blog? What does she mean by Girl Code? Kathy quotes from "Morton", who wrote in a comment on another blog.
'As for spending too much time on making the code look right down to the last indentation - my code has been called “girl code” for the same reason...' And there you have it. I think "girl code" is quite a compliment.
Kathy's point is that elegance in design -- down to how the code is typed -- plays an important role in making that code understandable when it needs to be looked at later, or by another developer. Code that "does the job" and is banged out as quickly as possible may end up costing more, when the time it takes to maintain it and enhance it later gets factored in. This really fits right into my post last Friday that talks about how programmer's actually spend their time. (I understand CafePress now has Code Like a Girl T-shirts available!)

Google Heaven: Search Engine Optimization
Nikki Pilkington runs a U.K. based Internet Marketing business, and often has some very nice articles posted there. Just today I got her newsletter pointing to this article on Search Engine Optimization. So often improving your position in Google seems like an arcane art that you can either ignore or spend a fortune on. Nikki gives us a list of ten clear directives for improving our website SEO, including great advice about link exchanges:
It's simple; a good linking campaign is like great sex. You take it slowly, make sure it's focused on great results, and choose your partners wisely. Jumping on anyone and everyone is rarely satisfactory.
In general, Nikki's advice is that there's no magic here: the more text-rich the site is, the simpler the navigation, and the more phrases you think people might search on actually occur on the site, the higher your ranking will climb.

Quick: Tell me what your organization does!
Beth Kanter is one of my favorite bloggers, in part because she so often does interviews of very interesting people in her postings. Recently she interviewed Laura Allen, who runs a consultancy called 15second pitch. If you've ever found yourself stumbling to explain what you do -- or what your non-profit stands for -- in a quick encounter at a meeting or a supermarket checkout line, a look at this interview might be useful. Laura's focus is on distilling the essence of what you do into a fifteen second speech. And you've got to find that essence first!

Blogging Basics for Women
Women have been quite forceful in claiming their space in the Blogosphere; perhaps the best known women's project in this space is Blogher. My friend Britt Bravo - a contributing editor to the site -- has just started a new blog with the sole purpose of providing technical assistance to women entering the world of blogging. With pieces on how to read blogs, how to set up a feed reader, and how to select a blogging platform, Blogging Basics for Women is turning into an ongoing university for those just entering this powerful new medium.

Britt - like Beth - is also a great interviewer. Scroll down her page on Blogher and read some of the "Solutionary Women" series of interviews with non-profit movers - like this one with Nola Brantly.


Friday, October 20, 2006

How does a programmer spend his time?

I just read an interesting post about programmer productivity in Peter Hallam's blog. Peter is a developer for Microsoft; I found his blog via Jeff Atwood's Coding Horror blog. Peter is writing about how to make programmers more productive and suggests that all the emphasis on helping programmers write new code faster is misplaced, because programmers don't really spend much of their time writing new code. His estimate is that the typical developer spends about 5% of his time writing new code, 25% of his time modifying old code, and 70% of his time understanding code he needs to modify. Atwood's posted a nice graphic of this division of labor. Once you realize where the time is being spent, you realize that tools that speed up the writing of new code have very little impact on overall productivity - while anything that make old code more readable and understandable leads to big improvements. Peter uses this argument to suggest his employer is focusing on the wrong features in Visual Studio, Microsoft's flagship development environment.

The 5-25-70 task breakdown also explains why programmers so often make utterly unrealistic estimates of how long a task will take them. They estimate it as if they were writing a tiny application from scratch. But in actuality they are modifying or enhancing an application they need first to understand. You've seen those developer tool demo's where the salesguy writes an entire self-contained application from scratch in 30 minutes. Peter writes:
This does not even remotely resemble real world professional coding. The last time I had a coding project like that I was in college. Early in college. A much more representative task would be to send a coder an existing piece of code that they'd never seen, that was undocumented, badly written, badly architected and had several bugs. Then tell them to add a new feature while maintaining the existing behavior as much as possible.
I think anyone who has worked professionally on large applications will recognize this scenario. We just don't usually recognize its full implications.
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Monday, October 16, 2006

Mike Wyatt's Cone of Uncertainty

Anyone providing any sort of IT assistance to organizations encounters this problem: you've spent an hour or so discussing some emerging need with your users, when they ask,"So what exactly will you do to solve this problem? When will it be done? What's it going to cost us?" And you have no idea yet; you've barely scratched the surface. How do you answer?

Over the weekend I ran into the weblog of Mike Wyatt, who blogs about identity management solutions at Sun Microsystems. Last Monday Mike posted a piece about what he calls the Cone of Uncertainty model, and provides a tool that shows users how the level of uncertainty - uncertainty about requirements, technology, timeframes, and budgets - is steadily reduced as a project lifecycle unfolds.

image of cone, showing uncertainty decreasing with each step in impelemtation

Mike points out that failure to recognize the level of uncertainty by vendors, consultants, and users leads to unkept promises, missed deadlines, and cost overruns.
Even with good change control processes and governance procedures, what both the vendor and the customer think the project will be in terms of cost, time, and functionality at the beginning of the project and what it actually turns out to be at the end of the project will at times differ by a wide margin.
The Cone concept and accompanying graphic strike me as effective tools to educate user communities about the advantage of postponing firm ideas of budget and schedule until a suitable stage in the process. This in turn will lower the pressure on implementors to make promises they very likely will not be able to keep. The events on the horizontal axis of the Cone graphic should be replaced with the steps in your particular implementation methodology and trundled in to your first project meeting!
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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More on Accessibility

Just a quick note - TechSoup has posted another resource relating to website accessibility. Four Web Accessibility Myths adds a layer of relfection to some of the more common recommendations and guidelines.

For example, most checklists begin with the admonishment to provide alt text for every image. This document points out that if the site is full of decorative images that add little semantic content, alt text on each one can actually make the site less accessible to a user working with screen reader. Three other common recommendations - avoiding javascript, avoiding tables, amd providing titles for all links also go under the microscope.

In each case we arrive at the same conclusion - that the guideliness must be applied with common sense or they can actually impede site access. Counting tags or relying on software generated accessibility scores is not going to do the trick -- you need to test your design. Nate Koechley, Senior Engineer and Design Liaison at Yahoo, is quoted as saying: "There's no real substitute for testing and putting it in front of users."
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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Breathing at Work

We've been really busy lately - and the stress can start to take a toll. We have a few old clients wanting tons of custom work, and new clients chomping at the bit to get going. We've got two clients struggling to complete work started by staff members who've quit or retired. (Scary? - check out this old post for some advice.) And I have a tendency to double book myself which doesn't help.

So it helps to get a reminder of sanity in my inbox from Sarah Pullman, whose blog is subtitled Technology, Consciousness and Social Change. Today she's reminding us to breathe. Indeed, she has an entire site devoted to Yoga for Geeks -- "an opportunity for geeks of all stripes to unplug, unhunch and expand." Simple advice, but good. As I've noted before, just calming down can be the first step toward solving a knotty technical problem. I should take this advice more often.

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