Twitter Bots: A Programming/API Learning Exercise

Robotic BirdIf you’re on Twitter and have a Wolfram Alpha style question, such as “What is the distance between Los Angeles and Lisbon?” or “How much rainfall does Honolulu get?” then the Dear Assistant Twitter bot is what you’re looking for. The Next Web alerted me to this cool little bot, but more importantly, they alerted me to it’s creator Amit Agarwal.

Amit wrote up a post on how to create a Twitter bot like the one that he created. The most interesting thing about the post is that he says that you only need five minutes to create one. Five minutes. That’s all. I know a project that I just moved high up my to-do list for when I have an hour or so. It would be fun to hack together something useful and fun that I could use in conjunction with Twitter. Plus, it would be a great little project to get people looking at some simple programming and at how to work with APIs. So, if you’re interested in either, give it a try!

Google Reader is Dead, Long Live RSS

Google ReaderI’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit upset today when I heard that Google was closing down Google Reader along with a few of their other services. Reader is really the only one of those services that I care about though.  While I’ve seen a lot of people blogging about how sad they are to lose Google Reader, I don’t feel exactly the same as a lot of them.

First off, I was never a user of Google’s web version of Reader. I only used the service to sync my feeds across the 3rd party RSS feed readers that I have on my Macs, PCs, iPhone and iPad. On top of that, I reluctantly used Google Reader even for syncing. I prefer to keep my RSS feeds out of Google because they know way too much about everyone to begin with and I didn’t really want to add to that pool of information further. That’s why I used Newsgator’s syncing service to sync between NetNewsWire on my Mac and various apps on my iPhone. At least I did until August 2009.  That’s when Newsgator shutdown their synching service and started using Google Reader as the backend service for syncing their RSS feed readers. I did some extensive searching at that time and the only option that delivered a syncing ability similar to Newsgator was Google Reader. So, I switched. For the most part, Reader worked, but I was still uneasy with how Google had taken over the RSS feed syncing market.

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There’s No Third Chance

Thumbs DownSome people say that there’s no second chance to make a first impression. According to a study commissioned by Compuware, when it comes to buggy apps, you might get a second chance, but it will also be your last chance. Period. In the study, they found that only 16% of people would try a buggy app more than twice. Want to kill your budding app? Put out a buggy version and potentially lose 84% of the people that try it before you get it fixed.

Think that a mobile web app is your better option because they’re quicker to fix and don’t need to be approved by Apple (for your iOS version)?  Well the study says that users don’t agree. Out of the people polled, 85% said they preferred native apps to web apps. So, if you’re afraid of what might happen if you put out a buggy app, I have one word for you. Good. Start simple, test that app thoroughly with every device that will be able to run it and make sure it’ll work with no problems. You might get a second chance, but what if that second chance is given before you fix it?

Features First, Polish Later

iPhone PrototypeArsTechnica had an article today showing some early iPhone prototypes that illustrate a point that is important for first time entrepreneurs to remember. Your early attempts at designing your product should focus on function, not form. I’ve included one of the photos here to show how Apple approached this with the first iPhone. If you want to check out the rest of the photos, head to the link above.

In this photo, Apple was still developing the features of the product. The design elements that would make the product look polished were quite a ways off. It would be counterproductive to work on that polish first because a lot of the design that was worked on might become unnecessary or irrelevant once certain features were finalized. Waiting until features are closer to completion ensures that less time is wasted on unneeded design work.

Entrepreneurs should definitely take this to heart. Especially, since both time and money are dear commodities for early stage startups. Focus first on developing a product with all the necessary features. Then test it with users, if possible. When you’re reasonably sure of the product, get the design put together in the way that will best present the features and develop that final polish. That way you won’t waste money and designer time constantly reworking your product. When you have a startup, efficiency is key.

The Misconception About Benevolent Dictators

DictatorWe constantly hear about the advantages of benevolent dictators in the business realm. We hear about how the Bill Gates’ and Steve Jobs’ of the world create great companies by making all the decisions and creating great products. That’s a load of garbage. People like Bill and Steve weren’t benevolent dictators. At least no more so than the President of the United States. They were strong leaders and quite often, if you listen to the stories, jerks. Strong leaders do help to make great products and companies, but they don’t deliver those results because they’re benevolent dictators.

The value of strong leaders isn’t in making all the decisions. Their value is in providing a vision, which can point out a direction for their companies to strike out in. Having people working in random directions is counterproductive. It’s like putting horses on all sides of a wagon and having them pull in every direction. You won’t go anywhere and in the end, you might break the wagon apart. The best you can hope for is that one horse is strong enough to drag the rest in one direction very slowly.

That’s why leaders have to step in sometimes and make a decision. It’s not because they make the best decisions. They might not even make a good decision. The value in them making a decision is that sometimes consensus can’t be reached and almost any decision is better than no decision at all. At least if you move quickly, you can make a mistake sooner and correct yourself to go in the right direction. If you stay at the crossroads forever, you’ll never get to where you want to go.

Also remember that having a benevolent dictator instead of a strong leader can cause issues. Dictators tell you what to do and rarely listen. They will rarely admit that they are wrong, so they stick to the wrong path despite all evidence pointing to the folly of their decision. So, if you believe in a benevolent dictator and believe that they are the key to a strong business, know that for that to be true, they have to be willing to listen to others and change direction quickly when they are shown to be wrong. That’s hardly the type of trait that you would associate with someone that you would consider a benevolent dictator. A strong leader, on the other hand, would be much more likely to adopt a new direction when circumstances dictated that it was needed.

Transforming the Ordinary

People think that to make something exceptional, you have to start with something exceptional. I found a video by Nick Bertke that proves that isn’t the case. Nick was traveling across Australia and recording footage and audio all along the way. He took some unusual, but mostly ordinary sounds from his recordings and stitched together an amazing song and music video from them. It’s only two minutes long, so give it a listen. I’ll embed it here.

What the video reminds me of is that creating something exceptional is not only possible for exceptional people(not saying that Nick Bertke is not exceptional, he obviously is). Anyone can do something exceptional. They just need to look at what’s available to them, consider their skills, be creative and work really hard. Easier said than done, but nobody said it would be easy.

Suitcase Startup – Overwhelming

It’s time to check in with Chris Bradley of Publicate halfway through his Suitcase Startup quest. This installment was a whirlwind. The major feeling I got from it was that Chris is overwhelmed at the enormity of everything he needs to do to build his startup in a very short time. That issue is exacerbated by his decision to head to SXSW. I can’t agree that he’s making a great use of his time by adding that event to his current workload, but who knows, it might pan out for him. I just can’t imagine that the benefits of the trip will outweigh the costs. Luckily, we’ll have a better idea of that in a couple weeks when the next episode comes out.

During this episode, Chris did get another interesting insight from Shaa Wasmund of Smarta.com. She told Chris that she wouldn’t cofound a startup with anyone that she wouldn’t want to spend the weekend with. She argued that since you spend a lot of time working, you shouldn’t choose to work with someone you wouldn’t enjoy being around. I think that’s great advice for many reasons.

First off, you don’t want to dread every day of work because a startup is hard enough without adding in someone that you don’t enjoy working with in even the best circumstances. Second, it’s really hard to build a supportive work environment/culture around people who don’t even like being around each other. Third, people tend to like people with similar values and interests. If you don’t share those, how will you be able to agree on what to build?

Increasing Productivity On Side Projects

woman workingI had a few minutes to take a quick break today, so I skimmed through some more of the ebook of Quora’s best answers of 2010-2012 that I talked about last week. The answer that jumped out at me this time was from Kah Keng Tay, who is an engineer at Quora. It was in response to the question:

How can you increase your productivity on side projects at the end of the day when you’re tired from work/college?

This is a question that really resonated with me because I have often searched for the answer to that question because not only do I always have ideas and projects that I want to explore, I also have a 125 year old Victorian that I’m slowly remodeling and two young boys. So, I’m definitely busy. Tay had some interesting points, including a couple that I never even considered. I’ll add a few of my own after his list.

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Simplification With Feeling

strut_appDesign is a passion of mine. There’s something about a product that is designed really well. Some people think that great design means stripping a product down as much as possible while still allowing it to work. I think that’s almost right, but not quite. I think the right balance is to strip something back to the minimum necessary for the item to function while still evoking some feeling from the person using it. I find that the nicest cars are not the ones without seat cushions or interior door panels. Sure, the car will still drive without them, but it won’t feel right. Not to mention that it won’t be much fun to use.

There are a few apps over the years that remind me of that oversimplification problem. I won’t be making any mentions because I believe that most of them are gone or radically different than when I used them last and I don’t want to malign their earlier attempts. Most apps go so far in the other direction thought, that it feels like you need a user manual to do anything. They just pack in feature after feature into nested menus that I swear you need a map in order to figure out how navigate to certain features.

One app that I started playing with today seems to have a struck balance that really works for me. The app is called Strut (iTunes Download) by Thickpolicy, LLC. It has a really clean interface with  limited colors and is focused around a map and just the information and controls you need at that moment. When you are in screens that track stats ore options, the look and feel of the app becomes like a really stripped down, easy to follow infographic. When you gain a new level or badge, there is a nice, basic animation that feels retro modern to me. If you don’t know what I mean(and I have a hard time explaining it), you’ll just have to check it out. After a few minutes of using the app, you’ll have earned your first few levels and badges, so it won’t take long to see what I mean. So, do check it out.

Now, this post isn’t meant to be a review of the Strut app, but I do want to say that I enjoyed playing with it today and I’ll be using it as long as I continue to enjoy it. It’s rare that I stumble across an app that delights me immediately the way this one does. I just love the design aesthetic and the functionality of the app. Plus, I love to travel and I love to explore new places and this app is all about that. Even better, I’ve always had this weird desire to know what parts of town I have and haven’t gone to, so that I can track down the last places I haven’t been, so that I can say that I’ve seen the whole town. This app gives me an easy way to keep track of that effort and a little extra push to follow through with it. So, I find it very cool. Now for the big question. How do they monetize this? They aren’t yet, but I’ll be interested to see what they do with all this data they are gathering. Especially, since I haven’t even been presented with a privacy policy yet.

Be Present

Focus Road SignOur lives are very busy. We’re constantly trying to multitask in order to cram more into the limited time we have. I’m guilty of it as well. I’ll try to spend time with my kids, but check my email or answer a twitter message I received. Inevitably, I’ll knock over a drink and end up frustrated that I’m spending the time I thought I was saving, cleaning up a mess. Later, I’ll realize that I didn’t really spend any quality time with my kids and I responded to the wrong person on Twitter. What was the point? It wasn’t like I enjoyed the multitasking and it turned out to not even be effective.

Multitasking is much harder than it sounds. Studies have found that not only do people perform each task worse than if they were done sequentially, they also lose time in the process. In other words, you could do more work and of higher quality, if you focus on one task at a time. That is true for more than just work. It’s true for everything. If you are present with whatever you have chosen to do at a given time, you will have much better results.

So, when you are with your family, spend time with them and forget about work emails and to-do lists. When you are doing chores, forget about trying to make work calls. When you are at work, focus on what you are working on. Don’t spend time thinking about the project you aren’t working on, etc. You get the picture. Your goal should be to be present in every moment. Give yourself completely to whatever you are doing. That way, you will be able to achieve the most during every moment of the day. You will also make whoever you are with at the time feel like they matter to you and that’s also important. So, be present. With time and practice, you will see the difference in your output, stress and relationships with others.