Confessions of an Intentional Serendipity Coordinator

A few months back I had a great conversation with Pat McDevitt, a good friend of mine who at the time was the Engineering Leader for MapQuest.   MapQuest is going through some interesting changes and evolution from a product and engineering perspective and the topic of creating, sustaining, and driving a culture of innovation came up.  This of course led us to talking about the concept of Intentional Serendipity. 

We live in a marketplace where management-speak is fast, loose, and most of all abundant.  Most of it makes me sick and you immediately lose “lets go hang out and get a drink” points when I hear you babble one out.  You definitely don’t want to know what happens if you try to combine two of them together in a sentence.   But I have a dirty little secret to confess.   I have to say that no other management buzzword in the last five years has really captured much of my mind share as much as this phrase – Intentional Serendipity.

Now to be clear I am not really sure that it qualifies as “management-speak” just yet.  I really don’t hear to many people talking about it.  It hasn’t made it on to Bloomberg TV.  I haven’t read to much about it in the blogosphere although its definitely out there.  I have heard it only a smattering of times in podcasts.  I definitely know that it has not been thrown around ubiquitously at the conferences and industry events that I attend.    But it may be getting close to a break out.

Or perhaps I am just infatuated with the term because it most closely matches my style of how I like to cultivate innovation in my teams. 

I am not sure where it began and I am sure word-smithy pundits have thought to put these two words together for a very long time. But by and large I am an engineer at heart and its rare for us to be considered word-smithy pundits. 

The definition has to do with placing yourself in a situation where different ideas, processes, people, cultural norms are present (the intentional) and allowing those inputs to combine with your unique experience to create something new.  A new experience, a new idea, a new business, a whole new perspective, whatever.  There are lots of interesting definitions out there, but my personal favorite is short and sweet and comes from a Professional Learning educator for the YMCA in Toronto, named Peter Skillen.    His quote:

“Getting to where ideas can find you!”

 

I have always been fascinated about how the “Spark” of an idea comes to be and what drives the following ignition of that spark into actions and effort to turn into into reality.   Looking at my own life and career , its very clear to me that my own story is one full of Intentionally Serendipitous moments even though I may not have fully understood it at the time.  

Once you realize that it is indeed a real “thing” it can become an incredibly powerful force to harness in business, in your life, in anything.   But most especially for those of us in leadership positions in the Technology and Engineering disciplines.   The Institute of Design at Stanford University or “d school” basically operates on a very formal process by combining multi-disciplinary students and members for creating the fertile ground of amazing moments of inspiration.  Founded on the principles of Design Thinking it’s a pure application of Intentional Serendipity.   There is a great TED talk from Corey Ford at a TED event at UNC that I highly recommend watching.

As a technology leader in an organization I believe its my duty to create these opportunities to create this fertile ground. Referencing back to Skillen’s definition, Its my duty to create the place where the ideas can find members of my teams.   Oh sure, you have things like projects to get done, goals to accomplish, and the like – but providing these kinds of experiences for your teams is absolutely required if you want to create a culture where innovation can take root.

One of the ways I try to do that is by having “Out of the Blue Table Top Sessions” or as they have become to be known – Blue Table Top Sessions.  Bringing in engineering and architects with different skillsets, combine them with product and business people, provide a fun atmosphere, plenty of time, food, and a couple of key ignition questions or challenges to get the ball rolling.  

BlueTableTop1

Creativity is highly encouraged.  The tables are covered in blue paper and everyone is issued a silver marker, and a buzzer.  Drawing on the tables with ideas, notes, thoughts, diagrams, doodles, everything is encouraged.   Throughout the course of a session the ideas generated are captured, technologies explored, and an inventory is created for deeper follow-ups. The teams get to pick which they think are the best/most viable/ or ah-ha! ideas of the session and those are given extra attention. 

Throughout the session the ideas flow, conversation is spurred on, and the only BlueTableTop2requirement is that attendees come with an open mind, assume no constraints or live within the ones defined in the challenges or ignition questions and allow people to have fun.  The buzzers are there for when these basic rules are violated.  Its hard for people to truly get upset when they are buzzed with a loud cow mooing, or dog barking, or like sound.   Its all in good fun.  Someone also has to be in charge of pacing and timing.   The Coordinator.   The Coordinator is an equal member of the team in every way, except that they have the added responsibility to keep the day moving along either by distributing new challenges, making judgement calls, or taking bio breaks.   Its kind of like being the Dungeon Master playing a table top game of Dungeons and Dragons – except you get to be the half-elven fighter/mage too!

This process has been instrumental in many of the advancements on the tech and product sides of  the business.  Allowing the varied life experiences and unique skills of the people around you to contribute to the confluence of ideas is extremely satisfying as a leader and has a real benefit to the goals of your organization.

Whether you lead people formally or not, whether you lead an entire organization or just a small group – having a method of harnessing innovation is priceless.   Are you a Intentional Serendipity Coordinator?  If not…you failed your saving throw.

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CES International 2013

CES

This week I will be at CES in Las Vegas.   For a technologist, this is perhaps the greatest event to observe, explore, and get a good feel for all of the emerging technology trends.  AOL Technology will also have a very large presence from Games.Com to the rest of our media and entertainment sites.   It’s a massive event with so many different tracks that its almost impossible for me to choose.  If you will be attending and would like to connect up and compare notes, please feel free to drop me a line or stop by one of the AOL booths on the off chance I will be hanging out.

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Lots of interest in the MicroDC, but do you know what I am getting the most questions about?

 Scott Killian of AOL talks about the MicroDC

Last week I put up a post about how AOL.com has 25% of all traffic now running through our MicroDC infrastructure.   There was a great follow up post by James LaPlaine our VP of Operations on his blog Mental Effort, which goes into even greater detail.   While many of the email inquiries I get have been based around the technology itself, surprisingly a large majority of the notes have been questions around how to make your software. applications, and development efforts ready for such an infrastructure and what the timelines for realistically doing so would be.   

The general response of course is that it depends.  If you are a web-based platform or property focused solely on Internet based consumers, or a firm that needs diversified presence in different regions without the hefty price tag of renting and taking down additional space this may be an option.  However many of the enterprise based applications have been written in a way that is highly dependent upon localized infrastructure, short application based latency, and lack adequate scaling.  So for more corporate data center applications this may not be a great fit.  It will take sometime for those big traditional application firms to be able to truly build out their infrastructure to work in an environment like this (they may never do so).   I suspect most will take an easier approach and try to ‘cloudify’ their own applications and run it within their own infrastructure or data centers under their control.   This essentially will allow them to control the access portion of users needs, but continue to rely on the same kinds of infrastructure you might have in your own data center to support it.   Its much easier to build a web based application which then connects to a traditional IT based environment, than to truly build out infrastructure capable of accommodating scale.   I am happy to continue answer questions as they come up, but as I had an overwhelming response of questions about this I thought I would throw something quick up here that will hopefully help.

 

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On Micro Datacenters, Sandy, Supercomputing 2012, and Coding for Containerized Data Centers….

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As everyone has been painfully aware last week the United States saw the devastation caused by the Superstorm Sandy.   My original intention was to talk about yet another milestone with our Micro Data Center approach.  As the storm slammed into the East Coast I felt it was probably a bad time to talk about achieving something significant especially as people were suffering through the storms outcome.  In fact, after the storm AOL kicked off an incredible supplies drive and sent truckloads of goods up to the worst of the affected areas.

So, here we are a week after the storm, and while people are still in need and suffering, it is clear that the worst is over and the clean up and healing has begun.   It turns out that Super Storm Sandy also allowed us to test another interesting case in the journey of the Micro Data Center as well that I will touch on.

25% of ALL AOL.COM Traffic runs through Micro Data Centers

I have talked about the potential value of our use of Micro Data Centers and the pure agility and economics the platform will provide for us.   Up until this point we had used this technology in pockets.  Think of our explorations as focusing on beta and demo environments.  But that all changed in October when we officially flipped the switch and began taking production traffic for AOL.COM with the Micro Data Center.  We are currently (and have been since flipping the switch) running about 25% of all traffic coming to our main web site.   This is an interesting achievement in many ways.  First, from a performance perspective we are manually limiting the platform (it could do more!) to ~65,000 requests per minute and a traffic volume of about 280mbits per second.   To date I haven’t seen many people post performance statistics about applications in modular use, so hopefully this is relevant and interesting to folks in terms of the volume of load an approach such as this could take.   We recently celebrated this at a recent All-Hands with an internal version of our MDC being plugged into the conference room.  To prove our point we added it to the global pool of capacity for AOL.com and started taking production traffic right there at the conference facility.   This proves in large part the value, agility and mobility a platform like this could bring to bear.

Scott Killian, AOL's Data Center guru talks about the deployment of AOLs Micro Data Center. An internal version went 'live' during the talk.

 

As I mentioned before, Super Storm Sandy threw us another curveball as the hurricane crashed into the Mid-Atlantic.   While Virginia was not hit anywhere near as hard as New York and New Jersey, there were incredible sustained winds, tumultuous rains, and storm related damage everywhere.  Through it all, our outdoor version of the MDC weathered the storm just fine and continued serving traffic for AOL.com without fail. 

 

This kind of Capability is not EASY or Turn-Key

That’s not to say there isn’t a ton of work to do to get an application to work in an environment like this.   If you take the problem space at different levels whether it be DNS, Load Balancing, network redundancy, configuration management, underlying application level timeouts, systems dependencies like databases, other information stores and the like the non-infrastructure related work and coding is not insignificant.   There is a huge amount of complexity in running a site like AOL.Com.  Lots of interdependencies, sophistication, advertising related collection and distribution and the like.   It’s safe to say that this is not as simple as throwing up an Apache/Tomcat instance into a VM. 

I have talked for quite awhile about what Netflix engineers originally coined as Chaos Monkeys.   The ability, development paradigm, or even rogue processes for your applications to survive significant infrastructure and application level outages.  Its essentially taking the redundancy out of the infrastructure and putting into the code. While extremely painful at the start, the savings long term are proving hugely beneficial.    For most companies, this is still something futuristic, very far out there.  They may be beholden to software manufacturers and developers to start thinking this way which may take a very very long time.  Infrastructure is the easy way to solve it.   It may be easy, but its not cheap.  Nor, if you care about the environmental angle on it, is it very ‘sustainable’ or green.   Limit the infrastructure. Limit the Waste.   While we haven’t really thought about in terms of rolling it up into our environmental positions, perhaps we should.  

The point is that getting to this level of redundancy is going to take work and to that end will continue to be a regulator or anchor slowing down a greater adoption of more modular approaches.  But at least in my mind, the future is set, directionally it will be hard to ignore the economics of this type of approach for long.   Of course as an industry we need to start training or re-training developers to think in this kind of model.   To build code in such a way that it takes into effect the Chaos Monkey Potential out there.

 

Want to see One Live?

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We have been asked to provide an AOL MicroData Center for the Super Computing 12 conference next week in Salt Lake City, Utah with our partner Penguin Computing.  If you want to see one of our Internal versions live and up-close feel free to stop by and take a look.  Jay Moran (my Distinguished Engineer here at AOL) and Scott Killian (The leader of our data center operations teams) will be onsite to discuss the technologies and our use cases.

 

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Your personal Internet Era Communications Dashboard has Arrived!

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Today my engineering teams and I are launching a phenomenal new product in beta that in my opinion will fundamentally transform how you consume electronic communications across email, social media, and beyond.   The product is called ALTO and I wont lie, I am totally pysched that its finally emerging.  In true “eating your own dog food” style I have used every iteration of this product for my own personal aggregation of mail accounts, social media accounts like Facebook and Linked In to name a few. I am sure my engineering teams are sick and tired of my endless “assistance” as the product has matured.  But in my mind it represents a new way to manage all those online communications we are bombarded with every day. 

What I love most about it is that it can be used by people like me with numerous e-mail accounts, online persona’s, and the like.  It can be equally effective for the casual user with a plethora of accounts and social media interactions.  It takes your digital world, organizes it, and returns control to you.

Maybe your red flags are going up already…  Does this mean I have to use AOL mail?  Nope, it definitely works with your AOL mail, but it also works platforms like Yahoo, and GMAIL, and more.  You might be thinking – Oh I see, you aggregate everything to this new Alto thing…forcing me to lose my mail stores across my various accounts right?  Nope.  Your mail stays right where it is, safe and sound.  However – it is now accessible in a format and a location that allows you be a powerful user of your own life!

So what is it?  Here is a quick high level glance…

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Here is the interface at a glance.   One of the great little features that I love is that “Snooze button” on emails.  I can’t tell you how often I get a message that I definitely want to respond to, but I just cant in that exact moment.  I can snooze a message for however long I wish, and when the “alarm” goes off, the message reappears at the top of my mailbox.  Perhaps its small, but I find it super handy.

We are also introducing a whole new concept — Stacks!  Stacks are totally customizable ways of organizing your world and even allow you to create custom rules for those stacks and allow your mail to get organized in ways that matter to you!

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Speaking of Stacks, we also have a few specialty pre-loaded stacks that make life so much easier… Imagine being able to search photos across all email boxes and social media platforms, and gives you an interesting and compelling set of views to go through those pictures.

 

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The same capability is true for all attachments as well, there is a specialty stack allowing you to quickly scan through all attachments everywhere, all at once!

 

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Get a lot of advertising and retail mails?  We solved that as well by creating a special retail stack, making your deal browsing something easy and fun to do…Just in time for the holidays!

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I also love the search capability that allows searching your digital life in ease.  Instantly find matching messages, contacts, pictures and media, and photos.

 

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Want to see more?  How about a nifty marketing video?  Click the picture below to watch the video or click here!

 

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In the coming weeks, we will add additional capabilities and features and are targeting full commercial launch early next year.  So proud of the work done here on something truly innovative and different in our space!

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It’s a Re-launch of Games.com–Now Play games on your computer or phone!

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Today we re-launched Games.Com with a specific focus on cross-platform related play.   With over 5000 HTML5 based games that can be played on your phone or via a traditional web browser.   The interface was re-designed to be much cleaner with a focus on being able to search for games easily, play them and even share!  Additionally we have added a lot of other great goodies such as the ability to see your gaming history, earn badges and points, and the introduction of a new rankings system via our new Social Bar. 

With the large immigration of gamers moving to multiple platforms and the huge increase in mobile gaming this new re-launch helps position us for the future!

The engineering teams worked tirelessly for weeks to prepare the site for its new look and capabilities and I for one am extremely proud of the work that they have done.   

This is only the first of a few exciting announcements this month, so stay tuned for some other great products.

If you have an inkling or some downtime to play a game, give it a try at www.games.com. See you on the Leaderboard!

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Familiarity Breeds “Unsent”–The Modern Email problem at Scale.

Everyone has heard of the old sayings “Familiarity breeds contempt”, so I thought it apropos to introduce it as a less understood concept when it comes to large scale Internet mail challenges.   The “spark” for me was a copy of a TechCrunch article entitled “Why No one has tamed e-mail” by Gentry Underwood that was forwarded to me this morning.  It’s a really good article and highlights some of the challenges the mail space is / has been / continues to go through.  Not sure if it really matters, but for full disclosure TechCrunch is an AOL company, although the content was generated by the guest author. 

The article highlights many of the challenges with mail today and how it is broken, or more correctly how it has become broken over time.  The challenges around SPAM, the content of mail being long and convoluted, most e-mail clients being absolutely terrible and the like.  The author also correctly highlights that it’s a hard problem to solve from a technology, design, and business perspective.  As good as a primer as I think this article is, there are some larger issues at play here to truly fix the mail problem.

 

First Problem – This is not an Email Problem

E-Mail is just a symptom of a larger set of challenges.  I would posit that the problem space itself has evolved and morphed from e-mail into a “Digital Lifestyle Organization” (DLO) issue.  Solving issues relating to e-mail, only solves part of the problem space.   The real challenge is that users are now being bombarded by messages, information, news, and the like from tons of different sources.   The signal to noise ratio is getting extremely high and is resulting people’s frustrations to grow increasingly caustic.   Yes, there is Spam.  But there is an equal amount of opt-in notes and messages, social updates from various social media platforms, RSS feeds, News updates, and a lists of other categories.  It can all be a bit mind-boggling and off-putting.  The real question should not be how to solve the e-mail problem, but rather – how to solve the Digital Lifestyle Organization problem.   Mail is simply a single element in the larger problem.

That’s not to say the points in the article are wrong or cant be applied to this wider definition.  You still face a huge design, interface, workflow challenge trying to organize this kind of data.   The client in whatever form it takes must be easy to use and intuitive.  A task that is elusive in the e-mail space to be sure, and is likely to be even more rare in this new “DLO” world. 

Second Problem – There is comfort in an old pair of Shoes

One of the interesting things I have learned here at AOL since taking on the role of CTO is that there is actually strata of different kinds of users.  I would place myself in the category of power user willing to try and jump platforms for better look/feel, even minor differentiated features and capabilities.  This layer of “Technorati” are constantly looking for the next best thing.  There are other strata however, that don’t necessarily embrace that kind of rapid change, moderate change, or in fact there are layers that don’t like any change at all!  It’s a complicated set of issues and engineering challenges.  At a rough business level, you can lose users because you change to much or don’t change at all.   Some of my friends in the space consider this a timing issue… of when to perfectly time these transitions.  The facts are however, these different stratas change at their own pace and we should understand that certain strata will never change.  In essence you have a few options – An introduce a platform that changes regardless of the user base desires, stay stagnant and never change, or try to find some kind of hybrid solution knowing that it may ultimately increase some of the cost structures around supporting different kinds of environments.  Unless, of course, you build something new that is SO Compelling at to change the game entirely.  

Candidly speaking, this is an issue that AOL has struggled with longer than just about everyone else in the space.   Historically speaking we have oscillated across all of these solutions over close to 30 years with varying degrees of success.  While we can debate what ‘success’ looks like, there is no denying that we have been looking at the science of e-mail for a long time.  With a loyal user base of tens of millions to hundreds of millions users, it provides us with a rich data set to analyze behaviors, usage patterns, user feedback, costs, trends, and the like.   Its this data that highlights the different usage patterns and strata of users.   Its data that is impossible to get as a start-up, and so immensely massive that categorization is no trivial task.

The process we use in terms of understanding these strata could best be described as ‘Electronic Ethnography’.  There are some interesting differentiations in how mail and Digital Lifestyle in aggregate  is used across a variety of variables.  Things like age, gender, location, locale, friends, social circles, and a host of others all play a role in defining the strata.  Simply speaking there are some strata that simply don’t want to change.   Others are very comfortable with their current e-mail experience and don’t see a driving need to change, etc. 

 

An example of Electronic Ethnography

This essentially nets out to the fact that E-mail and information aggregation is a very complex space.  We must face the fact there will be segments of users that will simply not change because something cooler has come about or some features were added or modified.  In my personal opinion the only way to truly impact and change these behaviors is to come up with something so compelling, so different, that it changes the game and solves the DLO issues.

 

Third Problem – BIG and Complex

While this was called out by Gentry Underwood in his article it cannot be stated enough.  Whether you focus on mail, the larger DLO space, or any kind of personal information aggregation – there are a host of factors, variables, and challenges to really solve this space.   It also drives big infrastructure, operations, and the like.  Its not going to be easy.  As the TechCrunch article headlines – Go Big or Go Home.   It’s a huge problem space, It’s a huge opportunity, and half measures may help but in and of themselves wont do much to move the needle.   Mail and what I call the DLO space is a huge opportunity of the future of our usage of the Internet medium, in fact it may be the biggest.   There will likely continue to be many casualties trying to solve it.

 

Fourth Problem – Monetization

From a pure business perspective – Its hard to make money off of mail.   The most common way to monetize mail (or aggregated information) is likely to be advertising.  However, advertising has a direct negative impact on the overall user experience in general and is a key driver of user loss.  You can easily see this in the overall reduction of “advertising” in mail across a number of key players.   Another method is tying it to an overall paid user subscription. But this is challenging as well, are the features and overall “stickiness” of your product something that customers will see a continued value for.  At AOL we have both models in use.   Interestingly, we have users in both models, that fall into the strategy that consider “change” as bad.  As mentioned in the third problem, mail is a big problem, and will require some kind of monetization scheme to justify some of the efforts.  While the larger players have existing user bases to help with this challenge, it’s a real issue for some of the more innovative ideas coming out of smaller start-ups, and is likely a key reason for their potential demise.  The person or firm who comes up with a non-ad/non-subscription based monetization strategy will truly change the game in this space.

 

With Google’s purchase of Sparrow, the re-design of Microsoft’s Outlook product, some interesting announcements that we have coming out, and a small explosion of start-ups in this space – Things are starting to get interesting.  Hard.  But interesting for sure.  May have to post more on this in the near future.

 

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