Changes

It’s been a looooong time since I’ve blogged, and I’m finally dusting this thing off and getting back to it.

Lots of changes have happened. Most notably, I’ve changed jobs. Also ive started a new blog at All beauty reviews for make up reviews. Formerly doing information architecture and content management consulting, I’ve sidestepped fields slightly into web analytics at another consulting firm, LunaMetrics, also here in Pittsburgh.

Web analytics is all about measuring what people are actually doing on websites. You can’t create a good site without relying on information architecture best practices (my old role), but you also don’t really know a site is working as well as it could or should without measurement and experimentation (my new one). My role is again a mix of technical and business knowledge. I have to be able to tweak JavaScript tracking code, but I also need to be able to elicit the goals of a website and interpret the analytics to understand what that means to the business behind it. And, I get to play with numbers, which is fun (I was a math major, after all).

So far, I’m very excited. I like learning new stuff, so I’ve been immersed in web analytics blogs and books, and learning Google Analytics (GA), since we’re a GA Authorized Consultant. Last week we did a one-day training in NYC for about 70 people, where I got to speak about creating a data-driven culture at your company. (The challenges of changing company cultures I am all too familiar with from my previous work.)

So I’m sure you’ll hear more on this blog about web analytics. I also am far, far behind on a post I started writing ages ago about mashups, which I’ll be finishing soon, and I have a handful of other things I’m itching to write about too. It’s been a long dry spell of blogging, but I’m back. Hmm… this place could probably use a redesign, too…

The stupid 5 things

Jessamyn tagged me with the (seemingly totally unavoidable) “5 things you don’t know about me” meme. I really hate bloggy, email-y, chain-letter-y things… but who can say no to Jessamyn? So, with no further delay:

  1. I am familiar with more than half the seasons of the Real World, though I’m not watching The Real World: Denver (this season) because I don’t have MTV any more. I have also had other guilty addictions to reality TV, although currently there’s only Wife Swap. (Watch it. It’s about developing understanding across classes and cultures. Or something. Really.)
  2. Someday, I want to design and build my own house. Other things I would like to build: a boat. A big wooden one, with sails.
  3. I have never broken a bone. (None of mine, and no one else’s either. Except turkey wishbones at Thanksgiving.)
  4. I sometimes burst into song when I’m home alone. Loudly, and with feeling. This time of year, mostly Bing Crosby tunes. The cat thinks I’m a little nuts, but I don’t mind.
  5. If I had been a girl, my parents were going to name me Amanda.

I hate to pass this on, but I’m sure if I don’t a tree will fall on my car or I will be forced to surrender my firstborn child to a mysterious dwarf. Or something. So, in honor of Time magazine’s person of the year, I tag… YOU. Enjoy.

Being a Consultant

Everything I know about consulting can be summed up in the following:

  1. Listen to your customers.
  2. Understand your customers.
  3. Be their trusted advisor.

Listen to your customers. A consultant’s #1 skill is listening. If you can’t listen to your customers explain their problems and needs, you won’t get anywhere. I’ve worked with others who, because they’re consultants, think they already know what the customer needs before the customer has a chance to describe it. It is, after all, the consultant’s job to know what to do; that’s why people hire us in the first place. But this approach is wrong-headed for a couple of reasons. First, “what to do” is highly dependent on what the problem is. Without listening to what makes this customer special, it’s hard to say off the bat what’s right for their situation. Second, listening to the customer gives them confidence in you. They see that you take them and their problems seriously. And finally, often people just really like to get their problems off their chest. When you give them a friendly ear, they unload, and they feel relieved already just because somebody is listening to them, even if you haven’t done anything yet.

Understand your customers. So you have to be a great listener. But the next step is taking what you hear and figuring out what to do about it. This is where the “consultant” part comes into play — your special expertise, the reason people hire you instead of doing it themselves. You need to understand their problems as if they were your own and apply your expertise to give them workable solutions. And by “solution”, I mean the whole deal — not just a tool that fixes their problem or a process sketched out on a piece of paper. You have to consider the whole kit and kaboodle, including the hurdles your customer may need to overcome with their bosses or colleages to actually do something with the tools and processes you’re suggestion. The “solution” should be a way to actually solve their problem, taking into account everything you’ve learned about their situation.

Then, when you have solutions, you have to deliver them in a way that your customer understands. You need to be patient, because they do not have your expertise (remember, that’s why they hired you). You need to be diplomatic, because often your solution will involve telling them they weren’t doing something in the best possible way before, and they could do better. Of course they do want to do better, but they don’t want to be embarassed or feel scolded in the process. This is what we used to refer to as the “your baby is ugly” problem. If someone’s put a lot of time and work into a project — their “baby” — and then the consultant comes along and tells them how awful it is, they’re really put off. You have to be gentle and work with them, and focus on the improvements they can make rather than the mistakes they already did.

Be their trusted advisor. Through this process, your customer comes to trust you. They rely on you. They call you up or have you sit in meetings to get your opinion about this thing and that thing, and they bring you in because they’re starting Phase II and they want your input. This is the kind of relationship you have to strive for — being your customer’s trusted advisor. (I’ve never read The Trusted Advisor, but it’s come to me with high recommendations. I’m adding it to my reading list.) This kind of relationship smoothes over the sales process, because you don’t have to prove yourself to the customer. They know you and they like working with you, and they trust your abilities in guiding them to do the right things. Moreover, they trust you to treat them with regard, to handle their problems delicately, and to not embarrass them with their boss.

That’s it; that’s all there is. Consulting is all about relationships, and if you have good ones, you almost can’t fail. You can be a top expert in your field, but if you can’t do these three things, clients won’t like working with you because even though you’re smart, you don’t feel very helpful. I’ve seen consultants who were really good at listening to customers, understanding them, and being trusted advisors — and even though not all of them necessarily had top-notch expertise on tools or technologies or whatever the client actually needed help with — those people get repeat business, because clients actually feel that they are getting helped.

Of course, to be the best consultant, you really do have to have the knowledge that the client needs. That’s the second part of what I said.

Open Library architecture

You’ve no doubt already heard about the Open Library demo site from the Internet Archive, brainchild of Brewster Kahle and Aaron Swartz. I think it’s a really exciting project, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it soon.

One thing that struck me as interesting is a technical detail. On the “About the technology” page, there’s this tidbit:

We wanted a database that could hold tens of millions of records, that would allow random users to modify its entries and keep a full history of their changes, and that would hold arbitrary semi-structured data as users added it. Each of these problems had been solved on its own, but nobody had yet built a technology that solved all three together.

So we created ThingDB (tdb), a new database framework that gives us this flexibility. ThingDB stores a collection of objects, called “things”. For example, on the Open Library site, each page, book, author, and user is a thing in the database. Each thing then has a series of arbitrary key-value pairs as properties. […] Each collection of key-value pairs is stored as a version, along with the time it was saved and the person who saved it. This allows us to store full semi-structured data, as well as travel back thru time to retrieve old versions of it.

This sounds really interesting. It also reminds me very much of Maya’su-forms (pdf), aside from the fact that the identifiers aren’t UUIDs. Although I’m not really database-savvy enough to know much about the underlying infrastructure that makes any of this happen, so my interest is something like an ape staring at a power drill, but still, I thought it worth noting.

What is venture capital, and is library automation getting any?

I’ve seen the phrase “venture capital” bandied about in reference to Vista Equity Partners’ recent acquisition of SirsiDynix (pdf), and the earlier acquisition of Ex Libris/Endeavor by Francisco Partners. Venture capital is a somewhat nebulous term, meaning different things to different people. Since the rise and fall of the dot-com era, however, it’s most often applied to capital offered to start-ups, anticipating large returns for the relatively high risk of investment. It provides an infusion of cash to a new or small company, enabling innovation. Sometimes “venture capital” is also applied to an investment in a beleaguered company in order to turn it around, which can be similarly high risk/high reward.

Though I can appreciate the hopes of library automation customers that the recent acquisitions may signal an infusion of cash that will fuel innovation, that’s not exactly what’s going on here. These are buyouts by private equity firms of large, established companies. Although we sometimes talk about the state of library automation software in terms that might be described as “beleaguered”, I’m not really sure that describes these companies’ financial situations.

It may indeed be the case that Vista Equity Partners and Francisco Partners intend to invest resources into these companies to make them better and more profitable, and if so, I think that’s great. (I, for one, welcome our new private equity firm overlords.) On the other hand, these acquisitions could be an example of what’s known as leveraged buyout, a strategy by which private equity firms acquire companies by borrowing against the assets they acquire. Often this involves paying themselves a big cash dividend, and then doing just enough to keep the company afloat under the sometimes excessive debt burdens they have inflicted during the acquisition, and attempting to sell it off again in a year or two.

I’m not saying I know which will happen, or even which is more likely. I didn’t do much research about Vista and Francisco’s previous acquisitions and what’s happened to them. I just wanted to make the point that we ought not look at acquisition of large companies like these the same way we look at VCs financing a startup. In these sorts of deals, there’s often a lot of fancy accounting going on that obscures the motives.

Tags and Subject Headings in LibraryThing

When I finished library school in August, I put all of my papers in some boxes and haven’t looked at them since, because I really needed to recover. Happily, yesterday’s post about folksonomy finally forced me to dredge them out and bring to light a paper I did for my indexing and abstracting class on the use of a folksonomy alongside a controlled vocabulary in LibraryThing.

The first part is a sort of “literature review” on folksonomy (such as it is) and an overview of the concepts involved. The second part takes a look at LibraryThing and compares tags and subject headings.

The full text of the paper follows, or you can download a pdf for printing(warning: it’s in ugly, formatted-to-turn-in-for-class format; one of these days I’ll get it prettied up). Some discussion of the features of LibraryThing are slightly out of date (Tim & co. move fast!), and the statistics about popular tags and subject headings certainly are, but I think the main points are still relevant. I’d like to do some more in-depth analysis, especially of the statistical data, at some point in the future.