Give Engineers Room

The Google Way: Give Engineers Room

New York Times, October 21, 2007

GOOGLE engineers are encouraged to take 20 percent of their time to
work on something company-related that interests them personally. This
means that if you have a great idea, you always have time to run with

Bharat Mediratta taking part in a “grouplet” meeting at Google,
reflecting its emphasis on allowing employees time for independent

It sounds obvious, but people work better when they’re involved in
something they’re passionate about, and many cool technologies have
their origins in 20 percent time, including Gmail, Google News and
even the Google shuttle buses that bring people to work at the
company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

If your 20 percent idea is a new product, it’s usually pretty easy to
just find a few like-minded people and start coding away. But when the
thing you really want to work on is to make a broad change across the
whole organization, you need something new — you need a “grouplet.”

These grouplets have practically no budget, and they have no
decision-making authority. What they have is a bunch of people who are
committed to an idea and willing to work to convince the rest of the
company to adopt it.

Consider the collection of engineers who wanted to promote “agile
programming” inside the company. Agile programming is a product
development approach that incorporates feedback early and often, and
was being done in a few scattered parts of the organization.

The Agile grouplet formed to try to take this idea and spread it
throughout the organization. It did so by banding together and
reaching out to as many groups as it could to teach the new process.
It created “Agile Office Hours” when you could stop by and ask
questions about the process. It handed out books and gave internal
talks on the topic. It attended staff meetings and created the concept
of the “Agile Safari,” in which you could volunteer to work for a time
in groups that were using Agile, to see how it ticks.

When you’re moving as fast as Google is, you don’t always get the
chance to button up the little things, and over time they build up and
become annoying. In addition to the efforts of our professional
quality assurance team, we have the Fixit grouplet, which coordinates
special Fixit days when it tries to have our engineers focus on
solving one class of problems. Sometimes we have Documentation Fixits,
when we try to catch up on all the internal documentation that we have
let slide.

Or my favorite: the Customer Happiness Fixit, when we fix all those
little things that bug our users and make them sad � for example, when
the hotkeys aren’t just right on mobile phones. Many of these events
come with special T-shirts and gifts to reward the engineers who take
a little time out to work on them.

In my 20 percent time, I started the Testing grouplet. This was born
of the idea — not mine — that if developers wrote automated tests as
they wrote their code, their code would be better for it. Less time
fixing bugs means more time building stuff.

We started with engineers from all over the company meeting every
couple of weeks to brainstorm. Slowly, over time, we started turning
into activists, planning to actually start improving things.

We started building better tools and giving informal talks to
different technical groups. We started building a curriculum for our
Nooglers — newly hired Google employees — so that they would start off
right. With our pooled 20 percent time, we slowly turned the
organization on its axis and made developer testing a common part of
the development practice.

Google works from the bottom up. If you have a great technical idea,
you don’t have your V.P. send out a memo telling everybody to use it.
Instead, you take it to your fellow engineers and convince them that
it’s good. Good ideas spread fast, and this approach keeps us from
making technical mistakes. But it also means that the burden falls
upon you to spread your idea.

In the Testing grouplet, our idea was to have developers start writing
their own tests. But no matter how hard we tried, we weren’t reaching
engineers fast enough in our growing organization. One day, toward the
end of a long brainstorming meeting, we came up with the idea of
putting up little one-page stories, called episodes, in bathroom
stalls discussing new and interesting testing techniques. Somebody
immediately called it “Testing on the Toilet,” and the idea stuck.

We formed a team of editors, encouraged authors to write lots of
episodes and then bribed Nooglers with books and T-shirts to put up
episodes every week. The first few episodes touched off a flurry of
feedback from all corners of the campus. We received praise and
flames, but mostly what we heard was that people were bored and wanted
us to hurry and publish the next episode.

Eventually, the idea became part of the company culture and even a
company joke, as in, “Excuse me, I need to go read about testing.”
That’s when we realized that we had what we needed: a way to get our
message out.

OF course, the grouplets need guidance to make sure they are aligned
with the company interest. Having a lot of people who are
self-organizing can be powerfully positive or negative, and not every
idea is a good one. To help deal with that, a number of grouplet
organizers meet once a week to make sure they are not at

But when you give engineers the chance to apply their passion to their
company, they can do amazing things.

When work becomes a game

When work becomes a game
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website
Monday, 22 October 2007

A generation is growing up playing immersive online games
Video games are big business and soon they could be big in business too.

A whole generation is growing up for whom video games are a key part
of how they relax, whether it be fragging friends in a first person
shooter or backing up the main tank in a Warcraft raid.

And it is not just youngsters. There are plenty of older folks who
shake off the dust of the working day in many different virtual

Statistics from the the US Entertainment Software Association (ESA)
back this up. It claims that the average player is 33 and has more
than a decade of gaming under their belt.

All of a sudden, say academics and researchers, companies have
realised that all the time employees spend gaming in virtual worlds is
changing them.

Ian Hughes, IBM’s metaverse evangelist, said many organisations were
considering ways of harnessing the skills and familiarity their
employees have with virtual environments.

This familiarity has driven many organisations to consider virtual
worlds as places where employees can meet, mix and get on with the

“A lot of people are more accepting of that way of working just
because of games,” he said.

“It’s about harnessing that ability to play to get work done.”

The formidable organisational skills needed to run a game team or
guild, organise raids involving perhaps 40 people and co-ordinate
their different abilities to defeat a game’s strongest foes are all
relevant to work, said Mr Hughes.

Game gear

But it is not just the skills that gamers hone in futuristic or
fantasy worlds that businesses want to co-opt. Some are taking their
inspiration directly from the way that online games are structured.

Screenshot from World of Warcraft, Blizzard
Skills learned on raids in games could apply to work too
Dr Byron Reeves, a professor of education at Stanford University, said
some firms were taking elements from games to overcome the
difficulties of working life in the 21st Century.

“The problems associated with distributed teams, collaboration and
information overload right now are so severe, and the opportunities so
good, that they are willing to look at anything,” he said.

Dr Reeves has founded a company called Seriosity that applies game
elements to workplaces.

It was working with five or six unnamed Fortune 500 companies to
harness the efficiencies of those game mechanics, said Dr Reeve.

One of the programs developed by Seriosity adds a virtual currency
element to e-mail in a bid to help people cope with information

Anyone sending a message adds some of their limited supply of virtual
coins, called Serios, to show how important they consider that e-mail
to be.

It was a more finely grained grading system than the low, medium or
high importance flags found in most e-mail programs, said Dr Reeves.

It had other benefits too, he said. It revealed not just the flow of
messages but also started to show who people pay attention to and who
did a good job of getting responses.

Some companies were starting to adopt even more of the elements
familiar from games.

“There are people right now trying to map it one-to-one,” said Dr Reeves.

Level playing field

Convinced that games can help them thrive some companies have turned
work groups into guilds, rewarded staff with experience points when
they complete tasks, giving out titles and badges when a guild
finished a project and portraying objectives as quests.

Virtual worlds could become key to future business life
Some were also considering using a virtual currency as a reward system
allowing workers to cash in their savings for benefits or extras for
their office space. The top performing guilds also get to do the best

None, so far, he said, were tying wages to how people performed in the
quests and against other guilds.

“Mapping levels and points on to wages is the most extreme
application,” he said.

Companies were adopting game mechanics for several reasons, said Dr Reeves.

Partly because workers were so familiar with this structure, he said,
and because people become powerfully motivated when they know how they
compare to their contemporaries.

The main reason was for the transparency it gave to the way workplaces
were organised and for revealing who got things done.

“It exposes those that do and do not play well,” said Dr Reeves.
“There is a leader board and you know the rules.”

It had the potential to turn workplaces into meritocracies where the
most accomplished are easy to spot because they have racked up all
rewards, achievements and levels required for a particular post.

While it may not sweep away systems of privilege or end nepotism it
had the potential to make workplaces fairer and take some of the grind
out of the day job, he said.

“The whole idea here is to get the objectives of the individual
players aligned with the objectives of the organisation,” said Dr
Reeves. “Do that and you have something good.”

Angela Barron, an advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Development, said games had long been used in training to expose
personal preferences and prejudices.

Many organisations also used courses that revolve around games to help
make teams work together better or expose power structures among

She said this was the first time she had heard of elements of online
games being used in a similar way.

“I would not have thought enough people play games for it to be a
great motivator,” she said.

But, she said, anything that helped staff develop a better working
relationship and promote team work was likely to be a good thing.

Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web

Libraries Shun Deals to Place Books on Web
The New York Times
October 22, 2007

Several major research libraries have rebuffed offers from Google and
Microsoft to scan their books into computer databases, saying they are
put off by restrictions these companies want to place on the new
digital collections.

The research libraries, including a large consortium in the Boston
area, are instead signing on with the Open Content Alliance, a
nonprofit effort aimed at making their materials broadly available.

Libraries that agree to work with Google must agree to a set of terms,
which include making the material unavailable to other commercial
search services. Microsoft places a similar restriction on the books
it converts to electronic form. The Open Content Alliance, by
contrast, is making the material available to any search service.

Google pays to scan the books and does not directly profit from the
resulting Web pages, although the books make its search engine more
useful and more valuable. The libraries can have their books scanned
again by another company or organization for dissemination more

It costs the Open Content Alliance as much as $30 to scan each book, a
cost shared by the group’s members and benefactors, so there are
obvious financial benefits to libraries of Google’s wide-ranging
offer, started in 2004.

Many prominent libraries have accepted Google’s offer — including the
New York Public Library and libraries at the University of Michigan,
Harvard, Stanford and Oxford. Google expects to scan 15 million books
from those collections over the next decade.

But the resistance from some libraries, like the Boston Public Library
and the Smithsonian Institution, suggests that many in the academic
and nonprofit world are intent on pursuing a vision of the Web as a
global repository of knowledge that is free of business interests or

Even though Google’s program could make millions of books available to
hundreds of millions of Internet users for the first time, some
libraries and researchers worry that if any one company comes to
dominate the digital conversion of these works, it could exploit that
dominance for commercial gain.

“There are two opposed pathways being mapped out,” said Paul Duguid,
an adjunct professor at the School of Information at the University of
California, Berkeley. “One is shaped by commercial concerns, the other
by a commitment to openness, and which one will win is not clear.”

Last month, the Boston Library Consortium of 19 research and academic
libraries in New England that includes the University of Connecticut
and the University of Massachusetts, said it would work with the Open
Content Alliance to begin digitizing the books among the libraries’ 34
million volumes whose copyright had expired.

“We understand the commercial value of what Google is doing, but we
want to be able to distribute materials in a way where everyone
benefits from it,” said Bernard A. Margolis, president of the Boston
Public Library, which has in its collection roughly 3,700 volumes from
the personal library of John Adams.

Mr. Margolis said his library had spoken with both Google and
Microsoft, and had not shut the door entirely on the idea of working
with them. And several libraries are working with both Google and the
Open Content Alliance.

Adam Smith, project management director of Google Book Search, noted
that the company’s deals with libraries were not exclusive. “We’re
excited that the O.C.A. has signed more libraries, and we hope they
sign many more,” Mr. Smith said.

“The powerful motivation is that we’re bringing more offline
information online,” he said. “As a commercial company, we have the
resources to do this, and we’re doing it in a way that benefits users,
publishers, authors and libraries. And it benefits us because we
provide an improved user experience, which then means users will come
back to Google.”

The Library of Congress has a pilot program with Google to digitize
some books. But in January, it announced a project with a more
inclusive approach. With $2 million from the Alfred P. Sloan
Foundation, the library’s first mass digitization effort will make
136,000 books accessible to any search engine through the Open Content
Alliance. The library declined to comment on its future digitization

The Open Content Alliance is the brainchild of Brewster Kahle, the
founder and director of the Internet Archive, which was created in
1996 with the aim of preserving copies of Web sites and other
material. The group includes more than 80 libraries and research
institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution.

Although Google is making public-domain books readily available to
individuals who wish to download them, Mr. Kahle and others worry
about the possible implications of having one company store and
distribute so much public-domain content.

“Scanning the great libraries is a wonderful idea, but if only one
corporation controls access to this digital collection, we’ll have
handed too much control to a private entity,” Mr. Kahle said.

The Open Content Alliance, he said, “is fundamentally different,
coming from a community project to build joint collections that can be
used by everyone in different ways.”

Mr. Kahle’s group focuses on out-of-copyright books, mostly those
published in 1922 or earlier. Google scans copyrighted works as well,
but it does not allow users to read the full text of those books
online, and it allows publishers to opt out of the program.

Microsoft joined the Open Content Alliance at its start in 2005, as
did Yahoo, which also has a book search project. Google also spoke
with Mr. Kahle about joining the group, but they did not reach an

A year after joining, Microsoft added a restriction that prohibits a
book it has digitized from being included in commercial search engines
other than Microsoft’s.

“Unlike Google, there are no restrictions on the distribution of these
copies for academic purposes across institutions,” said Jay Girotto,
group program manager for Live Book Search from Microsoft.
Institutions working with Microsoft, he said, include the University
of California and the New York Public Library.

Some in the research field view the issue as a matter of principle.

Doron Weber, a program director at the Sloan Foundation, which has
made several grants to libraries for digital conversion of books, said
that several institutions approached by Google have spoken to his
organization about their reservations. “Many are hedging their bets,”
he said, “taking Google money for now while realizing this is, at
best, a short-term bridge to a truly open universal library of the

The University of Michigan, a Google partner since 2004, does not seem
to share this view. “We have not felt particularly restricted by our
agreement with Google,” said Jack Bernard, a lawyer at the university.

The University of California, which started scanning books with the
Open Content Alliance, Microsoft and Yahoo in 2005, has added Google.
Robin Chandler, director of data acquisitions at the University of
California’s digital library project, said working with everyone helps
increase the volume of the scanning.

Some have found Google to be inflexible in its terms. Tom Garnett,
director of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a group of 10 prominent
natural history and botanical libraries that have agreed to digitize
their collections, said he had had discussions with various people at
both Google and Microsoft.

“Google had a very restrictive agreement, and in all our discussions
they were unwilling to yield,” he said. Among the terms was a
requirement that libraries put their own technology in place to block
commercial search services other than Google, he said.

Libraries that sign with the Open Content Alliance are obligated to
pay the cost of scanning the books. Several have received grants from
organizations like the Sloan Foundation.

The Boston Library Consortium’s project is self-funded, with $845,000
for the next two years. The consortium pays 10 cents a page to the
Internet Archive, which has installed 10 scanners at the Boston Public
Library. Other members include the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and Brown University.

The scans are stored at the Internet Archive in San Francisco and are
available through its Web site. Search companies including Google are
free to point users to the material.

On Wednesday the Internet Archive announced, together with the Boston
Public Library and the library of the Marine Biological Laboratory and
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, that it would start scanning
out-of-print but in-copyright works to be distributed through a
digital interlibrary loan system.

NYT: A Hipper Crowd of Shushers

A Hipper Crowd of Shushers

Michael Nagle for The New York Times

EAT, DRINK, BE LITERARY From left, Jessica Pigza, Maria Falgoust, Jeff Buckley and Sarah Murphy at a social event for librarians where the author Robert Sullivan, far right, spoke.

Published: July 8, 2007

Correction Appended

ON a Sunday night last month at Daddy’s, a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, more than a dozen people in their 20s and 30s gathered at a professional soiree, drinking frozen margaritas and nibbling store-bought cookies. With their thrift-store inspired clothes and abundant tattoos, they looked as if they could be filmmakers, Web designers, coffee shop purveyors or artists.


Skip to next paragraph

Michael Temchine for The New York Times

A NEW SPIN An interest in social activism and music led Pete Welsch, a D.J., to library school.

When talk turned to a dance party the group had recently given at a nearby restaurant, their profession became clearer.

“Did you try the special drinks?” Sarah Gentile, 29, asked Jennifer Yao, 31, referring to the colorfully named cocktails.

“I got the Joy of Sex,” Ms. Yao replied. “I thought for sure it was French Women Don’t Get Fat.”

Ms. Yao could be forgiven for being confused: the drink was numbered and the guests had to guess the name. “613.96 C,” said Ms. Yao, cryptically, then apologized: “Sorry if I talk in Dewey.”

That would be the Dewey Decimal System. The groups’ members were librarians. Or, in some cases, guybrarians.

“He hates being called that,” said Sarah Murphy, one of the evening’s organizers and a founder of the Desk Set, a social group for librarians and library students.

Ms. Murphy was speaking of Jeff Buckley, a reference librarian at a law firm, who had a tattoo of the logo from the Federal Depository Library Program peeking out of his black T-shirt sleeve.

Librarians? Aren’t they supposed to be bespectacled women with a love of classic books and a perpetual annoyance with talkative patrons — the ultimate humorless shushers?

Not any more. With so much of the job involving technology and with a focus now on finding and sharing information beyond just what is available in books, a new type of librarian is emerging — the kind that, according to the Web site Librarian Avengers, is “looking to put the ‘hep cat’ in cataloguing.”

When the cult film “Party Girl” appeared in 1995, with Parker Posey as a night life impresario who finds happiness in the stacks, the idea that a librarian could be cool was a joke.

Now, there is a public librarian who writes dispatches for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a favored magazine of the young literati. “Unshelved,” a comic about librarians — yes, there is a comic about librarians — features a hipster librarian character. And, in real life, there are an increasing number of librarians who are notable not just for their pink-streaked hair but also for their passion for pop culture, activism and technology.

“We’re not the typical librarians anymore,” said Rick Block, an adjunct professor at the Long Island University Palmer School and at the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science, both graduate schools for librarians, in New York City.

“When I was in library school in the early ’80s, the students weren’t as interesting,” Mr. Block said.

Since then, however, library organizations have been trying to recruit a more diverse group of students and to mentor younger members of the profession.

“I think we’re getting more progressive and hipper,” said Carrie Ansell, a 28-year-old law librarian in Washington.

In the last few years, articles have decried the graying of the profession, noting a large percentage of librarians that would soon be retiring and a seemingly insurmountable demand for replacements. But worries about a mass exodus appear to have been unfounded.

Michele Besant, the librarian at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the Association of Library and Information Science statistics show a steady increase in library information science enrollments over the last 10 years. Further, at hers and other schools there is a trend for students to be entering masters programs at a younger age.

The myth prevails that librarians are becoming obsolete. “There’s Google, no one needs us,” Ms. Gentile said, mockingly, over a drink at Daddy’s.

Still, these are high-tech times. Why are people getting into this profession when libraries seem as retro as the granny glasses so many of the members of the Desk Set wear?

“Because it’s cool,” said Ms. Gentile, who works at the Brooklyn Museum.

Ms. Murphy, 29, thinks so, too. An actress who had long considered library school, Ms. Murphy finally decided to sign up after meeting several librarians — in bars.

“People I, going in, would never have expected were from the library field,” she said. “Smart, well-read, interesting, funny people, who seemed to be happy with their jobs.”

Maria Falgoust, 31, is also a founder of Desk Set, which took its name from the 1957 Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy romantic comedy. A student who works part time at the library at Saint Ann’s School, she was inspired to become a librarian by a friend, a public librarian who works with teenagers and goes to rock shows regularly.


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Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

SOCIAL BOOKWORMS Maria Falgoust helped start Desk Set to meet like-minded librarians.

Since matriculating to Palmer, Ms. Falgoust has met plenty of other like-minded librarians at places such as Brooklyn Label, a restaurant, and at Punk Rope, an exercise class. “They’re everywhere you go,” she said.

Especially in Greenpoint, where Ms. Murphy and Ms. Falgoust live about 10 blocks from each other and where there are, Ms. Falgoust said, about 13 other librarians in the neighborhood.

How did such a nerdy profession become cool — aside from the fact that a certain amount of nerdiness is now cool? Many young librarians and library professors said that the work is no longer just about books but also about organizing and connecting people with information, including music and movies.

And though many librarians say that they, like nurses or priests, are called to the profession, they also say the job is stable, intellectually stimulating and can have reasonable hours — perfect for creative types who want to pursue their passions outside of work and don’t want to finance their pursuits by waiting tables. (The median salary for librarians was about $51,000 in 2006, according to the American Library Association-Allied Professional Organization.)

“I wanted to do something different, something maybe more meaningful,” said Carrie Klein, 36, who used to be a publicist for a record label and for bands such as Radiohead and the Foo Fighters, but is now starting a new job in the library at Entertainment Weekly.

Michelle Campbell, 26, a librarian in Washington, said that librarianship is a haven for left-wing social engagement, which is particularly appealing to the young librarians she knows. “Especially those of us who graduated around the same time as the Patriot Act,” Ms. Campbell said. “We see what happens when information is restricted.”

Ms. Campbell added that she became a librarian because it “combined a geeky intellectualism” with information technology skills and social activism.

Jessamyn West, 38, an editor of “Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out” a book that promotes social responsibility in librarianship, and the librarian behind the Web site (its tagline is “putting the rarin’ back in librarian since 1999”) agreed that many new librarians are attracted to what they call the “Library 2.0” phenomenon. “It’s become a techie profession,” she said.

In a typical day, Ms. West might send instant and e-mail messages to patrons, many of who do their research online rather than in the library. She might also check Twitter, MySpace and other social networking sites, post to her various blogs and keep current through MetaFilter and RSS feeds. Some librarians also create Wikis or podcasts.

At the American Library Association’s annual conference last month in Washington, there were display tables of graphic novels, manga and comic books. In addition to a panel called “No Shushing Required,” there were sessions on social networking and zines and one called “Future Friends: Marketing Reference and User Services to Generation X.”

On a Saturday, after a day of panels, a group of librarians relaxed and danced at Selam Restaurant. Sarah Mercure nursed a blueberry vodka and cranberry juice and talked about deciding on her career after hearing a librarian who curated a zine collection speak. Pete Welsch, a D.J., spun records and talked about how his interest in social activism, film and music led him to library school.

But some librarians have found the job can be at odds with their outside cultural interests.

“I went to see a band a few weeks ago with old co-workers and turned to one and said ‘Is it just me or is this really, really loud?’ ” said Ms. Klein, the former publicist. Her friend, she said, “laughed and said, ‘You have librarian ears now.’ ”