Monday 11 April 2011

To be or not to be... a consultant

Those who follow me closely will know that last month Opportunity Links closed it's doors. Whilst it's been sad to see an end to the last five years of work, it's also given me a chance to reflect on which bits of the job I enjoyed and the opportunity to focus on those elements in whatever comes next.

So after reflecting in tranquil forests on the meaning of life, the universe and everything, I came to the clear conclusion that the thing I enjoy most is innovation. I've been at my happiest when bootstrapping some disruptive product into the market, and at my most despondent when dealing with day to day line management issues for a team of 50.

Maybe this shouldn't be much of a revelation, I mean who really enjoys line management? But nobody had told my career which was obliviously heading down an increasingly management route. So this leads me to three options going forward to haul myself back where I should be:

  1. Create my own startup, or join one in the early stages
  2. Join a mature company that hasn't lost the innovation culture (there are quite a few of these in Cambridge)
  3. Become a consultant
After some thought I'm seriously considering option 3 which seems to be the flavour of the month. It will allow me to work on a variety of different projects, applying my skills in software engineering, project management, product management and innovation, and give me the freedom to maybe explore the startup option on the side.

My reticence is two-fold: Firstly I'm getting older and more risk averse - can I pull it off risking a stable income which my kids depend on? Gone are the days when I could live on Ramen noodles while coding from a bedsit. But yes, I think there's work there and my reputation is strong enough to secure it. The second issue is the sticking point - along with most of the business community, I dislike consultants. The majority of them are a waste of space and an expensive one at that. In many cases people turn freelance not because they're at the top of their game, but because they can't get hired. I'm not sure I'm totally happy with the idea of taking on the consultant label.

So I need a description for myself. One that isn't so obscure that it needs an explanation before people understand what I do, but one that doesn't have the negative connotations that come along with having 'consultant' on your business cards. Comments are open for ideas...

Monday 4 April 2011

Creating the BeGrand social media toolbox

Has it really been three years since my last blog post?

Well let me get back into the groove gently. For my grand return I'd like to rescue a post that I did over on the BeGrand blog, which is sadly no more as the project has come to an end. Although some of this is now dated, with some of the services mentioned having disappeared, I do think its worth capturing for posterity and the core concepts are still valid. So here we go in its unedited form...

Creating the BeGrand social media toolbox

October 19th 2009

As with most modern web projects, needs to be linked to the social media web, both to be part of the distributed dialogue around grandparents and to draw interested visitors. However, keeping our finger on the social media pulse, even one as well defined as grandparents, requires a few handy tools to ease the pain.

I’m going to look at three modes of interaction for our social media toolbox; dashboard, asynchronous stream and real-time. These three modes should cover all our roles in the team, reflecting differing levels of attention. For the dashboard view my tool preference is Netvibes which allows you to setup a public tabbed page which you can populate with widgets (Pageflakes is also good for this). To create our asynchronous stream I’ll be using Friendfeed, though again any feed aggregator service will do (Jaiku is also good for this). Finally for real-time I’ll be using Yammer, a corporate twitter clone which works nicely with XMPP services such as gTalk to allow multi-device notifications.

Asynchronous streams

Starting with Friendfeed, I’ve setup three rooms one to pull in discussion of BeGrand around the web – BeGrand buzz, a second to publish all our social media activity – BeGrand zeitgeist, and a final room to aggregate discussion on grandparents across the net – BeGrand clippings.

For the buzz stream I want to pull in mentions of ‘begrand’ on blogs, in comments and on twitter, so I’ve added search RSS feeds from Google blog search, Backtype, and Twitter respectively (you may need to play with your search terms if you’re getting a lot of noise in your results, for instance I added -adrien to google blog search to exclude results from someone named Adrien Begrand who appears quite regularly).

For the zeitgeist stream I added in feeds from all our social media activities; our blogs, Delicious, Flickr, YouTube, Google Reader shares, and Backtype to pull all comments made across the net by our staff (planned future services include Slideshare, Upcoming, GetSatisfaction support topics ). To increase coverage of all this good stuff we’re doing, this feed is also wired into our begrandnet twitter account using TwitterFeed for automatic posting.

Finally the clippings stream pulls together two feeds; a Google blog search and a Google news search for ‘grandparents’. I’m mostly interested here in long form content rather than microblogging services like twitter which would overload this stream very quickly with mostly uninteresting stuff for such a generic search term.

Whilst dipping in and out of Friendfeed may suit many roles in your team who might look at this stuff once or twice a day to take the temperature, there should be someone in your team who’s job it is to scrub it all. Whether you call it your social media, community, or marketing manager, this role needs to read everything that comes through ‘buzz’ and ‘clippings’ and take action. On a practical level Friendfeed isn’t ideal for this kind of activity, so I use a feed reader such as Google Reader to wire in the two streams and maybe a few other bits and bobs such as your competitors output, making it easy to share, respond and archive.


So I now have my three streams, but I don’t want to wait until I next look at Friendfeed to know what’s happening, so we need some real-time notification. There are a number of options here the easiest one being to use Friendfeed’s inbuilt notification settings to send updates to it’s desktop notifier or to a configurable instant messaging account.

However, what’s missing here is some persistence and discussion – the difference between IM and a service like Twitter. Although I want real-time notification, I also want that notification to be shared with the team and to be a focus for further internal social interaction. For this kind of thing we use the excellent Yammer service which is a closed twitter clone for corporates. It allows the wiring in of any number of RSS feeds which can then be subscribed to by the team. It also supports bridging to IM so I can still get messages to my gTalk account and use an app such as BeejiveIM to get push notifications to my iPhone when I’m on the move.


The third perspective needed is the Dashboard. Not everyone is happy with consuming a continual stream; some want a more structured approach as evinced by the popularity of iGoogle and My Yahoo. So I’ve put together a social media dashboard in Netvibes with a number of tabs which are organised around what I pretentiously think of as the four axis of social media:


The first tab attempts to detail how well we’re marketing ourselves. It is primarily the output of the ‘buzz’ stream and as it’s the entry page for visitors, I use it as somewhere to put a couple of core Netvibes widgets.


This tab shows where BeGrand’s attention is focussed, what we’re interested in and where we’re looking. It pulls in our Google Reader shares, our bookmarks and the ‘clippings’ stream.


This tab pulls together what we’re up to and how we’re impacting the social media space. It embeds widgets for Twitter, Youtube, and Flickr as well as dropping in our full ‘zeitgeist’ stream.


The final tab details our writings online, pulling in feeds from our blogs and the comment stream for BeGrand staff from Backtype.


Hopefully between these three views on our social media activity there’s something for everyone. We’ll see how it pans out as BeGrand launches and the volume increases. If anyone has any refinements I’m always interested in hearing how to improve our toolset.