Lessons from One Week | One Tool – Part 3, Serendipity

Over the past few months, several people—including several participants themselves—have asked me how we chose the One Week | One Tool crew. We had about 50 applicants. Nearly all of them were perfectly qualified to attend. This made the selection process exceedingly difficult. I have no doubt we could have ended up with another group of twelve and been equally successful. Indeed, I have often joked that with the applicant pool we got we could easily have done "Three Weeks | Three Tools."

In the end, the uniformly high quality of our applicant pool meant we had to make our choices on largely subjective criteria. Who showed the most enthusiasm? Who showed the most willingness to collaborate? Who seemed open minded? Whose writing style showed clarity of thought and energy? Who seemed like the hardest workers? Who seemed eager to learn? Whose seemed like a quick study?

One important thing to note is that we didn’t pick for particular technical skills. Of course we wanted a good mix: a team full of UI specialists or outreach experts wouldn’t have worked. But we didn’t select for PHP, Ruby, Java, TEI, or any other technology. We assumed that if we picked good people with a range of skills, even if those skills were all over the map, we’d end up with something interesting. I think we have.

As it turns out, we have ended up with something even more interesting because of that diversity of skills. Boone said something very telling at the bar on Thursday night: Anthologize probably couldn’t have been built without One Week | One Tool. A single shop wouldn’t have had the necessary range of skills to do it. I know CHNM couldn’t have done it alone. Sure, we have the PHP and JavaScript chops (although not the intimate knowledge of WordPress Boone brought to the table). But we certainly don’t have deep knowledge of TEI and XSLT the team needed to produce Anthologize’s rich, clean outputs. Nor, I suspect, would we even have hit upon TEI as a solution to that particular problem.

There are lessons here for hiring. Pick the smartest people. The best writers. The hardest workers. Pick people with proven track records of working well in teams. People with lots of energy. People who approach heavy workloads with clear thinking and good humor. People who’ve shown aptitude for picking up new technical skills on their own.

These people may not know what you need them to know on Day 1. But they will work hard to learn it. They’ll also bring a host of additional skills you didn’t think you needed, but will be happy to have once they’re there. Having these additional skills on tap may even let you take your work in directions you couldn’t have otherwise imagined.

#oneweek #buildsomething

Lessons from One Week | One Tool – Part 1, Project Management

Three days into One Week | One Tool, I’m beginning to see that one of the nice things about running an NEH Summer Institute as a practicum rather than a classroom is that the organizers learn as much as the participants. For me, this week has reinforced and clarified an important set of related lessons about decision making, leadership, and team building in digital humanities. (I’ve learned some other lessons as well, and I’ll talk about those in subsequent posts over the course of the week.) As you can imagine, things are a little busy around here, so here they are in short.

  1. Snap decisions are good. When faced with a choice between A and B, it often pays simply to pick one and move on. It’s tempting to think that hours of study and deliberation will yield the “right” answer. But the truth is most project management questions don’t have right answers. Furthermore, no amount of research will insure that everyone will be happy with your decision. At the end of the day, some of your stakeholders or team members are going to be disappointed with your decision, and time spent purely in hopes that you can satisfy everyone is time wasted. Finally, no matter how much prior study and deliberation, decisions are always and inevitably made in the moment. Put another way, the moment of decision always involves a snap judgment. You’ll never know if the decision you’ve made is a good one until after you’ve made it. Bottom line: when faced with tight deadlines, do just enough research to understand the consequences of A or B, pick one, and then deal with those consequences.
  2. Leadership is momentum-making. It may seem obvious, but the job of a leader is to move people forward. To keep people with you have to be constantly in motion. This is the importance of snap decisions. People will forgive a leader a bad decision. They can’t forgive indecision. Like a ship, leaders create a wake that pulls people along. If you stop, they will drift away.
  3. Collaboration is shared doing. We tend to think of collaboration as shared decision making. But more important is shared accomplishment. Consensus on a project is certainly important, but strong collaborations aren’t forged in talking, they’re forged in working. As noted above, one or more team members will always be unhappy with every decision that’s made on a project . Trying to understand and accommodate their concerns will help mend any hurt feelings or disappointments, but what’s really going to bring them back into the fold is getting down to work on the task they had previously opposed. Getting people to invest some time in a decision they opposed initially is the quickest way to help them see its merits and reengage their coworkers. Helping them contribute to the team is the best way to make them feel valuable and valued again.

More to come. #oneweek #buildsomething

"Soft" [money] is not a four-letter word

I will be the first to say that I have been, and continue to be, extremely lucky. As I explained in an earlier post, I have managed to strike a workable employment model somewhere between tenured professor and transient post-doc, expendable adjunct, or subservient staffer, a more or less happy “third way” that provides relative security, creative opportunity, and professional respect. The terms of my employment at the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) may not be reproducible everywhere. Nor do I see my situation as any kind of silver bullet. But it is one model that has seemed to work in a particular institutional and research context, and I offer it mainly to show that fairness doesn’t necessarily come in the form of tenure and that other models are possible.

Taking this argument further, I would also argue that fairness does not necessarily come in the form of what we in the educational and cultural sectors tend to call “hard money,” i.e. positions that are written into in our institutions’ annual budgets.

Of course, the first thing to admit about “hard money” is that it doesn’t really exist. As we have seen in the recent financial crisis, especially in layoffs of tenure-track and even tenured faculty and in the elimination of boat-loads of hard lines in library and museum budgets, hard money is only hard until someone higher up than a department chair, dean, or provost decides that it’s soft.

The second thing to acknowledge is that the concept of “hard” versus “soft” money really only exists in academe. If those terms were extended to the rest of the U.S. economy—the 90+ percent of the U.S. labor force not employed by institutions of higher education (although government may be another place where this distinction is meaningful)—we’d see that most people are on “soft” money. My wife has been employed as lawyer at a fancy “K Street” law firm in Washington, DC for going on six years now. She makes a very good living and is, by the standards of her chosen profession, very successful. And yet, you guessed it, she is on soft money. If for some reason the firm looses two, three, four of its large clients, her billing and hence the money to pay her salary will very quickly dry up, and the powers that be will be forced to eliminate her position. This is true for almost any job you can point to. If revenues do not match projections, layoffs occur. One can debate the justice of particular layoffs and down-sizings, but without wholesale changes to our economy, the basic rule of “no money in, no money out” is hard to deny.

Indulge me for a moment in a bit of simile. In some ways, CHNM is very much like any other business. At CHNM we have clients. Those clients are our funders. We sell products and services to those clients. Those products and services are called digital humanities projects. Our funder clients pay us a negotiated price for those products and services. We use those revenues to pay the employees who produce the products and services for our clients. To keep the wheels turning, we sell more products and services to our clients, and if an existing client doesn’t want or need what we’re selling anymore, we either find new clients or change the range of products and services we offer. Failing that, we will have to start reducing payroll.

How is this situation any different or worse than any other sector of the economy? If people stop buying Word and Excel, Microsoft will have to find something else to sell people or layoff the engineers, designers, project managers and other staff that make MS Office.

I understand that so crass an analogy to corporate America will make many people unhappy. The idealist in me recoils from the notion that the academy should be treated as just another business. Yet the pragmatist in me—a side that is certainly stronger than it would otherwise be from dealing for so long with the often very practical, hands-on work of digital humanities and the frequent sleepless nights that come with the responsibility of managing a budget that supports nearly fifty employees—thinks it foolish to reject out of hand employment models that, however imperfect, have worked to produce so much and provide livelihoods for so many. (Indeed, the democrat in me also has to ask, what makes us in academe so special as to deserve and expect freedoms, security, and privileges that the rest of the labor force doesn’t?)

Therefore, in my book, “soft money” isn’t necessarily and always bad. If it funds good, relatively secure, fairly compensated jobs, in my book soft money is OK. CHNM has several senior positions funded entirely on soft money and several employees who have been with us on soft money for five, six, and seven years—a long time in the short history of digital humanities.

What isn’t OK is when “soft” equals “temporary” or “term.” This, I readily acknowledge, is an all too frequent equation. Many, if not most, soft money post-doc, research faculty, and staff positions are created upon the award of a particular grant to work on that grant and that grant alone, and only until the term of the grant expires. I make no bones that these defined-term, grant-specific jobs are inferior to tenure or tenure-track or even corporate-sector employment.

At CHNM we try to avoid creating these kinds of jobs. Since at least 2004, instead of hiring post-docs or temporary staff to work on a particular grant funded project when it is awarded, where possible we try to hire people to fill set of generalized roles that have evolved over the years and proven themselves necessary to the successful completion of nearly any digital humanities project: designer, web developer, project manager, outreach specialist. Generally our people are not paid from one grant, but rather from many grants. At any given moment, a CHNM web designer, for example, may be paid from as many as four or five different grant budgets, her funding distribution changing fairly frequently as her work on a particular project ends and work on another project begins. This makes for very complicated accounting and lots of strategic human resource decisions (this is one of the big headaches of my job), but it means that we can keep people around as projects start and end and funders come and go. Indeed as the funding mosaic becomes ever more complex, when viewed from a distance (i.e. by anyone but me and a few other administrative staff who deal with the daily nitty-gritty) the budget picture begins to look very much like a general fund and staff positions begin to look like budget lines.

Perceptive readers will by now be asking, “Yes, but how did CHNM get to the point where it had enough grants and had diversified its funding enough to maintain what amounts to a permanent staff?” and I’ll readily admit there is a chicken-and-egg problem here. But how CHNM got to where it is today is a topic for another day. The point I’d like to make today is simply that—if we can get beyond thinking about project funding—soft money isn’t essentially bad for either the people funded by it or the institution that relies on it. On the contrary, it can be harnessed toward the sustainable maintenance of an agile, innovation centered organization. While the pressure of constantly finding funding can be stressful and a drag, it doesn’t have to mean bad jobs and a crippled institution.

Just the opposite, in fact. Not only does CHNM’s diversified soft money offer its people some relative security in their employment, pooling our diversified grant resources to create staff stablity also makes it easier for us to bring in additional revenue. Having people in generalized roles already on our payroll allows us to respond with confidence and speed as new funding opportunities present themselves. That is, our financial structure has enabled us to build the institutional capacity to take advantage of new funding sources, to be confident that we can do the work in question, to convince funders that is so, and in turn to continue to maintain staff positions and further increase capacity.

CHNM is by no means perfect. Not all jobs at CHNM are created equal, and like everyone in the digital humanities we struggle to make ends meet and keep the engine going. In a time of increasingly intense competition for fewer and fewer grant dollars, there is always a distinct chance that we’ll run out of gas. Nevertheless, it is soft money that so far has created a virtuous and, dare I say, sustainable cycle.

Thus, when we talk about soft money, we have to talk about what kind of soft money and how it is structured and spent within an institution. Is it structured to hire short term post-docs and temporary staff who will be let go at the end of the grant? Or is it structured and diversified in such a way as to provide good, relatively stable jobs where staff can build skills and reputation over a period of several years?

When soft money means temporary and insecure, soft money is bad. When soft money facilitates the creation of good jobs in digital humanities, in my book at least, soft money is OK.

[Note: This post is part of a draft of a longer article that will appear in a forthcoming collection to be edited by Bethany Nowviskie on alternative careers for humanities scholars.]

[Image credits: Denni Schnapp, identity chris is.]

Benchmarking Open Source: Measuring Success by "Low End" Adoption

In an article about Kuali adoption, the Chronicle of Higher Education quotes Campus Computing Project director, Kenneth C. Green as saying,

With due respect to the elites that are at the core of Sakai and also Kuali, the real issue is not the deployment of Kuali or Sakai at MIT, at Michigan, at Indiana, or at Stanford. It’s really what happens at other institutions, the non-elites.

Indeed, all government- and charity (read, “foundation”)-funded open source projects should measure their success by adoption at the “low end.” That goes for library and museum technology as well; we could easily replace MIT, Michigan, Indiana, and Stanford in Mr. Green’s quote with Beinecke, Huntington, MoMA, and Getty, Though we still have a long way to go—the launch of Omeka.net will help a lot—Omeka aims at just that target.

3 Innovation Killers in Digital Humanities

Here’s a list of three questions one might overhear in a peer review panel for digital humanities funding, each of which can kill a project in its tracks:

  • Haven’t X, Y, and Z already done this? We shouldn’t be supporting duplication of effort.
  • Are all of the stakeholders on board? (Hat tip to @patrickgmj for this gem.)
  • What about sustainability?

In their right place, each of these are valid criticisms. But they shouldn’t be levied reflexively. Sometimes X, Y, and Z’s project stinks, or nobody uses it, or their code is lousy. Sometimes stakeholders can’t see through the fog of current practice and imagine the possible fruits of innovation. Sometimes experimental projects can’t be sustained. Sometimes they fail altogether.

If we are going to advance a field as young as digital humanities, if we are going to encourage innovation, if we are going to lift the bar, we sometimes have to be ready to accept “I don’t know, this is an experiment” as a valid answer to the sustainability question in our grant guidelines. We are sometimes going to have to accept duplication of effort (aren’t we glad someone kept experimenting with email and the 1997 version of Hotmail wasn’t the first and last word in webmail?) And true innovation won’t always garner broad support among stakeholders, especially at the outset.

Duplication of effort, stakeholder buy in, and sustainability are all important issues, but they’re not all important. Innovation requires flexibility, an acceptance of risk, and a measure of trust. As Dorthea Salo said on Twitter, when considering sustainability, for example, we should be asking “‘how do we make this sustainable?’ rather than ‘kill it ‘cos we don’t know that it is.'” As Rachel Frick said in the same thread, in the case of experimental work we must accept that sustainability can “mean many things,” for example “document[ing] the risky action and results in an enduring way so that others may learn.”

Innovation makes some scary demands. Dorthea and Rachel present some thoughts on how to manage those demands with the other, legitimate demands of grant funding. We’re going to need some more creative thinking if we’re going to push the field forward.

Late update (10/16/09): Hugh Cayless at Scriptio Continua makes the very good, very practical point that “if you’re writing a proposal, assume these objections will be thrown at it, and do some prior thinking so you can spike them before they kill your innovative idea.” An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure … or something like that.

Briefly Noted: Surviving the Downturn; Help with Creative Commons; Yahoo Pipes

The American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) provides cultural heritage professionals with some relevant information on surviving the economic downturn.

JISC provides advice on choosing (or not choosing) a Creative Commons license.

Missed it at the launch? Didn’t see the point? Don’t know where to start? Ars Technica has a nice reintroduction and tutorial for Yahoo Pipes, a visual web content mashup editor. Here’s an example of the kind of thing you can do very easily (20 minutes in this case) with Pipes: an aggregated feed of CHNMers’ tweets displayed on a Dipity timeline.

Briefly Noted: FOSS Culture; Digital Humanities Calendar; Guardian API; WWW Turns 20

GNOME Foundation executive director Stormy Peters has some advice on bridging the gap between institutional and open source cultures. Useful reading for digital humanities centers and cultural heritage institutions looking to participate in open source software development.

Amanda French has posted a much-needed open calendar of upcoming events in Digital Humanities, Archives, Libraries, and Museums.

The Guardian newspaper unveils an open API to more than 1,000,000 articles written since 1999.

20 years ago today: Tim Berners-Lee produced his first written description of the Web.

Motto

I came across this old quote last night in finishing up David Post’s In Search of Jefferson’s Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace. It seems a fair approximation of how things work (should work?) in the new digital humanities:

“We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.”

David Clark, “A Cloudy Crystal Ball: Visions of the Future.” Internet Engineering Task Force, July 1992. [PDF].

Brand Name Scholar

Scholars may not like it, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the 21st century’s fragmented media environment, marketing and branding are key to disseminating the knowledge and tools we produce. This is especially true in the field of digital humanities, where we are competing for attention not only with other humanists and other cultural institutions, but also with titans of the blogosphere and big-time technology firms. Indeed, CHNM spends quite a bit of energy on branding—logo design, search engine optimization, cool SWAG, blogs like this one—something we view as central to our success and our mission: to get history into as many hands possible. (CHNM’s actual mission statement reads, “Since 1994 under the founding direction of Roy Rosenzweig, CHNM has used digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.”)

In my experience, branding is mostly a game learned by trial and error, which is the only way to really understand what works for your target audience. But business school types also have some worthwhile advice. One good place to start is a two part series on “personal branding” from Mashable, which provides some easy advice for building a brand for your self or your projects. Another very valuable resource, which was just posted yesterday, is the Mozilla Community Marketing Guide. In it the team that managed to carve out a 20% market share from Microsoft for the open source web browser Firefox provides invaluable guidance not only on branding, but also on giving public presentations, using social networking, finding sponsorships, and dealing with the media that is widely transferable to marketing digital humanities and cultural heritage projects.

It may not be pretty, but in an internet of more than one trillion pages, helping your work stand out is no sin.

(Note: I’ll be leading a lunchtime discussion of these and other issues relating to electronic marketing and outreach for cultural heritage projects later today at the IMLS WebWise conference in Washington, D.C. I’ll be using #webwise on Twitter if you’d like to follow my updates from the conference.)

Briefly Noted for February 25, 2009

Along with “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” “release early and often” is something of a mantra around CHNM, especially when it comes to software and web application development. For a variety of reasons, not least the invaluable testing and feedback projects get when they actually make it into the wild, CHNM has always been keen to get stuff into users’ hands. Two good statements of likeminded philosophy: Eric Ries’ Lessons Learned: Continuous deployment and continuous learning and Timothy Fitz’s Continuous Deployment.

Lisa Spiro continues her excellent roundup of Digital Humanities in 2008 with a discussion of developments in open access. Readers should also make sure to catch Lisa’s first installment on digital scholarship. Nice to see that CHNM makes an appearance in both.

Drunk History presents “history as it’s never been told before”: by drunks. Check out Volume One, where Arrested Development and Juno’s Michael Cera does a turn as Alexander Hamilton. Thanks, Ken.