Product Thinking

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I have a new job!  Still with Mozilla, still doing a lot of what I’ve done in the past, just hopefully more/better/faster.  The group I’m joining has a great culture of active blogging, so I’m hoping the peer pressure there will help me blog more often.

What’s the gig you ask? My new focus is to help the Mozilla Foundation make our products as adoptable as possible.

MoFo (as we affectionately call that part of the Mozilla organization) has a few main ways in which we’re hoping to change the world — some of those are programs, like Open News and the Science Lab, some are products. In a program, the change we’re hoping to effect happens by connecting brains together, either through fellowship programs, events, conferences, things like that. That work is the stuff of movement-building, and it’s fascinating to watch my very skilled colleagues at work — there is a distinctive talent required to attract autonomous humans to a project, get them excited about both what you’re doing and what they could do, and empowering them to help themselves and others.

Alongside these programmatic approaches, MoFo has for a while been building software whose use is itself impactful.  Just like getting people to use Firefox was critical to opening up the web, we believe that using products like the Webmaker tools or BadgeKit will have direct impact and help create the internet the world needs.

And that’s where I come in!  Over the last few years, various smart people have kept labeling me a “product person”, and I’ve only recently started to understand what they meant, and that indeed, they are right — “product” (although the word is loaded with problematic connotations) is central for me.

I’ll write a lot more about that over the coming months, but the short version is that I am particularly fascinated by the process that converts an idea or a pile of code into something that intelligent humans choose to use and love to use.  That translation to me is attractive because it requires a variety of types of thinking: business modeling, design, consumer psychology, and creative application of technology.  It is also compelling to me in three other aspects: it is subversive, it is humane, and it is required for impact.

It is subversive because I think if we do things right, we use the insights from billions of dollars worth of work by “greedy, evil, capitalist corporations” who have figured out how to get “eyeballs” to drive profit and repurpose those techniques for public benefit — to make it easy for people to learn what they want to learn, to allow people to connect with each other, to amplify the positive that emerges when people create.  It is humane because I have never seen a great product emerge from teams that treat people as hyper-specialized workers, without recognizing the power of complex brains who are allowed to work creatively together.  And it is required for impact because software in a repo or an idea in a notebook can be beautiful, but is inert.  To get code or an idea to change the world, we need multitudes to use it; and the best way I know to get people to use software is to apply product thinking, and make something people love.

I am thrilled to say that I have as much to learn as I have to teach, and I hope to do much of both in public.  I know I’ll learn a lot from my colleagues, but I’m hoping I’ll also get to learn on this blog.

I’m looking forward to this new phase, it fits my brain.

Ruminations on front end-centric webapps

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I’ve been poking around firebase & meteor, and sparkleshare+github and dropbox+site44. I’m a bit disturbed (in a good way) by what feels to me like a sea change that’s happening there, and it seems to me that almost anyone thinking about web developers writ large needs to think hard about what this means for their roadmap.

In particular, a few brief thoughts:

I’ve been, for a while now, using sparkleshare + github pages with CNAME support as a way of making trivial static sites that are real. Sparkleshare is an open source git-syncing-to-filesystem client (with nice ergonomics and design, OMG!). With github-pages and CNAME support, this means that I save in my favorite text editor, and within _seconds_ the thing is live on the web. That’s a disruptive flow.

I’ve been coaching the harp.io team through WebFWD, and they have a service which does similar things on top of Dropbox, including coffeescript/haml processing, CDN, load balancing, push-button deploy, screenshotting for multiple user agents, rollback, etc. In other words, you author your webapp locally on a dropbox folder, and they take care of high-quality, high performance hosting. There is no app-specific server-side logic (which means you need to either have static sites or integrate with hosted services for said features).

I recently ran into site44.com, which does a ‘cheap & cheerful’ version of what harp.io does, with no push-button deploy/rollback, and much more like sparkleshare — instant deploy, with little management capabilities (but instant gratification).

Both harp.io and site44 use Dropbox for syncing, which is a Big Idea in my opinion because setting up Dropbox is so much easier than setting up git credentials (what with SSH keys, etc.). Both assume that the user has write access to local files (which may be a problem in some retrograde environments like enterprises and schools, but which could be solved with web-based editors).

I finally bit the bullet and dig in again into Firebase. Firebase is effectively a key-value store, with Pubsub messaging of data changes. They’ve made some interesting progress in their security and auth models (they include persona support, which is cool). Firebase feels like it makes it trivial to add state and real-time behaviors to previously static sites. The API surface area is quite small, so it should be fairly easy to adopt.

I’m also looking again at Meteor. Since they first launched w/ both fanfare and a bit of ridicule due to overhype, they’ve cleaned up their act significantly: the license is now MIT, they’ve announced $11M in financing from tier-1 VCs, announced an enterprise business plan to complement their open source offering, and build a bunch of APIs. Meteor feels like a steeper learning curve, and another “at-bat” for reactive programming (a topic I’ve been interested in for a decade).

Meteor feels like a solid foundation for a potential full-stack offering, and I like the open source option; Firebase feels like a really compelling basis for demoware and hacks. Regardless, syncing from filesystem to websites without thinking too hard about deployment is a huge benefit of front-end-driven sites.

Single-page apps feels to me like the conceptual next hurdle. Figuring out how to manage history and state management so that the app feels as dynamic as the best webapps, but has good URL support, etc., is an engineering challenge (see e.g. history.js). And it certainly challenges the old mental model of one URL -> one file which pulls down other resources. The newer model (especially on mobile, low-latency devices) needs to be one app -> many URLs, with one core application logic which pulls data-as-JSON and builds most state clientside (with serverside rendering as an optimization for high traffic or slow-CPU environments, as per airbnb’s post).

I’m not sure what this means for advanced webmaker skills. At the very least explaining some of the above to a broader audience is something we could do.

I _will_ blog more.

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Twitter’s been great, but it’s very much robbed me of energy to blog, which is unfortunate.  In a possibly foolish attempt to use a public statement of intent to shape my own behavior, I’m hereby saying that I’m going to try and blog more, and likely tweet less.  Not sure how to make it happen yet, as this is not a new desire on my part.

Blog moved

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after much procrastinating, I finally moved my blog.  Old URLs should still work, no feature changes are intended.  Please let me know if you notice anything askew!