Saturday, October 28, 2006

BarCampZurich - Thanks for Coming!

Thanks everyone for coming to BarCampZurich and helping out! I think the unconference was a success: 99 people came in total. At our first planning session in August, I made a bet with Paul H. that more than 50 people would show up. Looks like I won that one.

Our goal was to provide a balance between a highly structured shrink-wrapped conference, and total chaos. Sign-ups were free, people were casually dressed, and everyone could talk. Still, we did try to keep the conference on schedule, to allow people to switch between parallel tracks (up to 4 at a time). The speakers didn't seem to mind me jumping in at the end of each time slot, telling them to finish up quickly.

The majority of people at BarCamp were native German speakers, but we had lots of attendees who did not speak German. As often in Switzerland, speakers resorted to English. As one of my professors at ETH Zurich likes to say: "We need to schpeak English in clässes because we don't want to be se best technical university in just Eastern Switzerland, but in se world."

The BarCampZurich concept seems to have worked quite well here. The one-day format was the right choice: Lots of people couldn't have showed up for the entire weekend. On the other hand, since we had such a huge number of speakers, many interesting sessions were scheduled in parallel.

Some interesting talks I attended: Sascha Corti talked about Ajax based on Microsoft technologies, the Coding Monkeys explained SubEthaEdit, and Douwe Osinga showed off his Artificial Life projects. I also joined discussion about how we could encourage entrepreurship in Switzerland, with some great insights from experienced founders. We need to have more of these discussion slots next time around!

In my presentation, dubbed "Organizing Email", I gave a short overview of existing research work and showed off a demo of a tool I wrote. From a quick initial discussion of problems people have with email, it seems like this will remain an interesting problem for years to come.

There are already plenty of photos on Flickr (tags: barcampzurich and barcampzurich2006). Almost all of the sessions were recorded and Corsin has already started harassing me with clips from my talk: I really needs to get rid of my "errms". You'll find these and other videos online soon. Go here to get the slides.

Thanks everyone for coming! We hope you liked it!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Off to Hamburg

I'm off to Hamburg, Germany for a relaxing weekend visit. My friend Peter now works for Lufthansa Technik and kindly invited me to hang out. If you have suggestions about what to do there, drop me a line.

Last night, I saw Snow Patrol play in Zurich. I'm always surprised by the large size of the expat population in Zurich - it was a crowded concert hall, and at least half the people there were from the US, the UK, or Australia. Slightly disappointed by the performance, though: The first half of the concert could easily have been recreated by putting some dancing monkeys up on stage and playing their album really loud. These guys sound just like their record.

Rules, Revisited

From a recent article about the perceived chaos at Google in Fortune Magazine:

Take the case of Sheryl Sandberg, a 37-year-old vice president whose fiefdom includes the company's automated advertising system. Sandberg recently committed an error that cost Google several million dollars – "Bad decision, moved too quickly, no controls in place, wasted some money," is all she'll say about it – and when she realized the magnitude of her mistake, she walked across the street to inform Larry Page, […]."God, I feel really bad about this," Sandberg told Page, who accepted her apology. But as she turned to leave, Page said something that surprised her. "I'm so glad you made this mistake," he said, "Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don't have any of these mistakes, we're just not taking enough risk."

I was happy to see this article after writing a few weeks ago that my fear with joining Google is the intricate system of rules they may have devised by now. The Fortune Magazine article also mentions the book Competing on the Edge by Shona Brown, Senior Vice President of Business Operations at Google, and co-author Kathleen Eisenhardt. Since it's a hobby of mine to read vintage material from the last business cycle, I picked up a copy of this 1998 book at the ETH library. While the book's examples are clearly from a past era (Remember the AOL flat-fee capacity crisis? Or the Steffi Graf vs. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario matches?), the ideas are surprisingly up-to-date.

The book deals with creating technology businesses that are successful in very competitive markets. The focus is on creating a framework and a culture that encourages innovation. The book advocates structured chaos: There are rules, there is supervision, and there is cooperation, but just barely enough of it to hold it all together. This is the way things are apparently done at Google.

One of the early chapters deals with the trade-off of regulation vs. creativity. Too many rules stifle innovation but increase effectiveness: The company will crank out widgets cheaply and quickly, but will miss the next big thing – it's stuck in the bureaucratic trap. The other end of the spectrum is the chaos trap, where there are no rules and those that exist are consciously broken. Creativity ensues, and innovative products come out, but because the business lacks discipline, these products are too late to the game, strategies stay unrealized, and market position is lost.

The optimum is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Personally, I'm most comfortable just on the edge of chaos, which is exactly where Fortune Magazine places Google. Phew.

Monday, October 16, 2006

(Yet Another) BarCampZurich Update

Another quick update on BarCampZurich.

Room upgrade: Initially, we had only one room as we didn't expect this many people to sign up as attendees and speakers! Gladly, the friendly people of ETH Zurich Corporate Communications were happy to help, and we now have three of the finest auditoriums at my school. These were just renovated and have new audio systems and projectors; the paint is barely dry. I'm so happy we got these rooms: They are perfect for BarCamp!

Attendees: Two weeks before the event, we still have 39 empty seats -- sign up now!

Sponsors: Google is sponsoring the event (yes, they're paying for food and drinks, you guessed it!), and we're in talks with another high-profile company for more yummy stuff.

I hope to see y'all in Zurich on October 28!

Friday, October 06, 2006

An Era Ends

Earlier this week, I handed in my Master's thesis. The realization that my student years are over hasn't hit yet, partially helped by the fact that the final presentation isn't until next week. The title is "Organizing Email" and it will be online sometime in next month.

As always after bursts of immense productivity, the last couple of days have been a mixture of sleeping and running around town to take care of errands. I also participated in what seems to be a twice-yearly ritual at ETH: Saying goodbye to other students leaving for internships, work, or years abroad. Vanja left for Frankfurt and Chicago to join Accenture. Peter is off to Hamburg to work at Lufthansa Technik, and Moritz is leaving for Mountain View to intern at Google. The economy seems to be doing very well: Former students who just started working are now paying dinner with Amex Gold cards.

BarCampZurich is on track: We now have 47 signups and have found our first sponsor. I met with Corsin yesterday to discuss our plans. I hope to see y'all there!

As promised, there will be more blogging in the next weeks.