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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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Friday, July 27, 2007

Facebook for grown-ups: a first look

It's a wonder I have any time left to blog at all now that I've signed up for Facebook. But I felt I really ought to give it a test-drive, now that I see so many people urging non-profits to look into it. This post is for those of you who have not even peeked into it yet.

I'll tell you my conclusion up front: For non-profits looking for ways to get their message in front of new audiences, especially a younger tech-friendly community, maintaining a Facebook presence is definitely worth exploring. With 30 million members and growing rapidly, it's going to get you in front of a lot of people.

If you have used any of the business networking sites that have appeared over the years - Ecademy, Xing (formerly OpenBC) or SoFlow (slated to close its doors in just a few days) you'll be familiar with the basic model. It's one that is quite different from the LinkedIn approach - allthough LinkedIn has been making incremental moves in this direction. Compared to these other sites, LinkedIn is just an online Rolodex, while Facebook and sites like it make it easy for you and your contacts to stay in touch.

How does it work? Users create a profile page describing themselves. This is your "home page", as it were. Facebook provides tools for messaging other users, and allows any user to create groups with discussion forums. In addition, you can post links, photos, and notes that can be shared with your Facebook network. When someone in your network posts something or messages you, the system wil also send you an email, so users do not need to check Facebook constantly to see what's new.

But the real promise of Facebook comes from its "application" model. Facebook allows developers to create third party applications -- widgets -- that can be attached to member's profiles - tools for calendaring, say, or advanced messaging. So the capabilities of the system just keep growing. Many of these to date have been "just for fun" - there are at least a dozen tools for listing and rating books and movies for example. But then there are tools that allow a user to make a donation to a cause, or spread the word about an issue. And these tools are viral - if you click on one you find on a friend's profile, it will offer to install itself on yours.

Facebook is free, of course - supported by advertising, including classifieds members can place in the Facebook Marketplace. So there is really no reason not to at least take a look at it. You can find me there by clicking the Facebook link I've added to the left-hand sidebar of this blog.

How does a non-profit organization use Facebook? Some create a personal profile under the organization name. Others have members participate as individual's, and create a group page to represent the organization. I think this latter is more in keeping with the medium - it's far more personal.

You will want to assign the task keeping up your Facebook presence to a specific staff member. If you create your account and leave it there untended, like your old static webpage, it will do you no good at all. Someone needs to participate in discussions, answer messages, update the profile regularly, and make decisions about fundraising tools and so on.

But does anything ever come of it? Well, in the two weeks since I established my account, I've volunteered to help one organization with their website, been asked to bid on a project, donated to a friend's personal fundraising effort, arranged to have lunch with a high-school friend I haven't seen in years, and exchanged emails and notes with at least fifty local non-profit folks I'd never met before.

What I haven't done is find time to blog.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Weekend Links

1. Tools: Web-development plug in for Firefox
If you do any web-development work, you'll want to get a hold of the Web Developers Extension for Firefox. This capable tool lets you view -- and more importantly, modify in real time -- the css, scripts, images, cookies, and form elements in any page you are viewing. It was the CSS features that got me to install the plug-in. My friend David from Orchid Suites was helping me debug a style sheet, and I was blown away when he brought the css up in a sidebar of the browser and modified parameters, watching the displayed page change instantly as he did so. Really, this thing can save you hours. Give it a try.

2. Management: Mythical man-month and non-profit workloads.
It's almost thirty years since Fred Brooks published his now-classic book "The Mythical Man Month", which revealed the fallacy that throwing more people (called manpower in those benighted days) at a technology project that was getting late would help bring it in on time. About thirty days ago Michelle Martin made some similar observations about non-profit workloads. Michelle's point is that most organizations could more usefully focus on the inefficient use they are making of their current staff resources.
Before we start thinking that if only we had more staff we could do so much better, I think we need to take a look around at our operations and decide if we're doing everything we can to run "lean and mean" with our current resources. Adding more people to a poorly-run organization only means you have more people doing poor work.
3. Social Platforms: Facebook's Future
In the last couple months there's been a growing interest in the university-centered Facebook platform in the non-profit community, especially as organizations ponder outreach to the Millennial generation. Facebook currently has 25 million subscribers and envisions growing to four times that size within the year. Part of Facebook's appeal stems from its open development platform, which allows third parties to create software extensions that users - and soon groups - can choose to install. On this video I found via Nick O'Neill's blog, Facebook's 23 year old founder and CEO Mark Zuckerman - discusses Facebook's future plans for the platform with a group of developers.

4. And now for something completely different
Looking for a summer tech project to while away the time you should be using to do something productive? This looks like fun.


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Is your printer going to turn you in?

A twitter posting from Andy Carvin alerted me to this unnerving situation. According to Threat Level, a blog on security and privacy issues at Wired magazine,
Manufacturers of color laser printers quietly cooperated with the Secret Service to print nearly invisible tracking codes on every color page printed through laser printers individuals buy, ostensibly as a way to track down forgeries.
According to a page maintained by the MIT Media Lab, a pattern of nearly undetectable yellow dots is printed on each page:
The yellow dots are hard to see with the naked eye, but can be seen under bright blue light or with a microscope. Their arrangement reveals which printer was used to print a particular document, and sometimes also shows when it was printed. Some of the codes have been understood while others are still mysterious, but none of the printer manufacturers has denied that the dots are intended to help track a particular document to a particular printer (or that they can actually be used for this purpose).
The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) has posted a list of the printers and manufacturers known to support this surreptitious tracking.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Industrial-Strength Software

Via Twitterer par excellence Geore Dearing and his Enterprise Content Management blog, I found this article by blogger Nick Carr published in the Guardian. Nick focuses on a rarely discussed side-effect of the move towards internet-hosted applications: the need of software companies to maintain their own vast server farms. Pointing out that firms as diverse as Google, Microsoft, and are all in the midst of plant expansions to boost their online capacity, Nick comments that.'s software companies are finding that, as more computing tasks move online, they have to compete not just on the elegance of their programs, but on their ingenuity and efficiency in buying and deploying physical assets - land, buildings, computers, and other gear - as well as managing the huge amounts of energy required to keep all the machines running.
As Nick points out, one of the industry-shaking implications is that the capital barrier to competing in the software field is beginning to change. Traditionally this was a field that did not demand a backbreaking investment from a start-up, but that may be changing.

Another implication is the energy footprint of computer use. As server infrastructure grows (just glance at these articles on Google's development projects in Iowa, and North Carolina) energy use increases as well. According to a study done at the Lawrence National Laboratory at Berkely, in 2005 server farms already consumed a whopping 1.2 percent of the total electricity produced in the U.S. Clearly online computing is destined to be an even greater consumer of energy. Read more about the energy implications of computing in The Green Wombat.
image of Google Campus originally uploaded as

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Agile Software Development for Non-Profits

"When the road bends, you cannot walk straight." It's an old gypsy proverb. I ran into it as the epigraph to Gypsy Caravan, a great film by director Jasmine Dellal, documenting the six week U.S. tour of gypsy musicians from all over the world. But it's also the secret of effective technology project management.

When I first started out building software, one of the books I read was Tony DeMarco's Controlling Software Projects. It helped me understand the real forces that lead developers and other stakeholders to underestimate timelines and generally plan poorly. But somehow, (maybe it was the title) it left me with the feeling that when I got really good at this I'd be able to map out the path of a project in advance and steer it right in, exactly as imagined. All we needed to do was perfect our techniques at requirements analysis, estimation, coding, testing, deployment, training, documentation, and coffee-brewing.

But it seemed that no matter how hard we tried on each project, the road always took an unexpected turn somewhere. At testing time the clients suddenly thought of an unanticipated set of requirements. At training time, a horrible bug surfaced. On the day the client was going to deploy, their network was brought to its knees by a virus. No matter how hard we tried to control the process, something went wrong that forced us to regroup.

Gradually we were forced to surrender to the reality that significant software projects were always going to take us by surprise now and then. Others have discovered this too, and it's led to the approach referred to as Agile Software Development. Agile development recognizes that the road is going to bend - indeed it is rarely going to be straight. So agile methods stress responding rather than controlling.

For example:
We used to try desperately to assure that during training no bugs would be found and no specification changes would be offered. It was futile. Training rooms, with ten novice users banging at the keyboards are in fact perfect software testing labs that will inevitably find some lurking defects. And a roomful of your staff getting their hands on the new software for the first time are bound to come up with some new ideas.

The fact is there will almost certainly be change requests and problem reports during my training sessions. So let's learn to manage them wisely. Today, at the beginning of a training session, we put up two flipcharts -- one to record any reported problems, and one to park any requested change or enhancement. These items can be acted upon later, but by capturing them here, we have turned what used to be a disruption in the training into added value that moves the project on, around the bend.

In a way, all the repeatable improvements we've made in our methodology are no more than this -- to anticipate the unavoidable bends in the road, so we can take them at speed without leaving the roadway.
Image originally posted as

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Beyond the user experience

This week the e-newsletter put out by consulting giant McKinsey ran a piece about how Merrill Lynch, the global financial services firm, has combined its Information Technology and Operations departments. Their purpose: to enhance the delivery of service to the customer, which more and more depends on the IT infrastructure.

Diane Schueneman, who is overseeing this integration, says:
So the whole reason to combine technology and operations rests on the customer’s needs. And to deliver against those needs requires the best operational processes and the best technology. But you can’t start with one and graft on the other. It’s the integration of technology and operations, from beginning to end, that really allows you to serve customers effectively.
It got me thinking about the structural placement of IT in non-profit organizations. In a great many of the non-profits we've worked with over the years, Information Technology is situated in the finance and administration wing of the org chart. Yet any one of these organizations would probably agree with the statement that the purpose of IT is to enhance mission, not simply to improve administration.

One of the YMCAs we work with recently removed responsibility for our Members Only applications from the CFO's office and gave it to the Marketing Director. Our app is used to manage every one of their programs, and directly feeds their financial system. At first I thought the move was irrational. But I've changed my tune.

The person directly responsible for outreach and retention of clients at this organization is now also responsible for their mission-critical applications. In the past, evolving software requirements were often phrased as "Here's some new information we need to track" or "Here are some business rules we need the application to enforce." These needs are not forgotten about now, but under the new regime we also hear things like "We are trying to improve the experience of the member at the front desk, so we'd like to... "

There is a lot of talk about "user experience" in IT these days. But the focus on experience needs to be expanded beyond your direct users. There is a wide community -- donors, clients, board members -- who are not users of your information system per se, but whose experience with your organization is profoundly affected by it. Delays, user errors, down time, incomplete information - these all interfere with program delivery, client service, and fundraising efforts. Shouldn't more non-profits consider organizationally tying the evolution of their IT infrastructure to the development of their programs and services?
Image originally uploaded as

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