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It's Software, Stupid
Feb 24, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

Trade shows create implausible levels of hype. Combine several dozen exhibitors, 50 speakers, 10,000 attendees, a couple of industry buzzwords, and mix in an underground conference facility. The result? Generally you get absurd levels chaos. So, just when you thought you had lived through Internet World, along comes Web97 -- the melee-o-hype that invades San Francisco this week.

Everyone says they're tired of trade shows; tired of the need to exhibit, attend, speak, cover, etc. What they're missing is that the trade show can be the perfect place to uncover some of the "below the radar" trends in the industry. I think I've found one. It's called "software."

Yesterday, Sunday, I spent a few hours sitting in on a breakout session at Web97. Delivered by Mark Rettig and Dick Costolo, two folks from Digital Knowledge Assets, it was a two-day seminar on "Design for Emerging Web Technologies." The scale was a little unusual for me -- in my previous job I used to present at conferences to 50 people at a time stuffed in subdivided ballrooms, not to 300 people in an airplane hanger nearly 75 yards long. Yet Mark and Dick were able to hold the crowd, keep them involved, and wander through some, well, obvious territory.

The topic, ostensibly, was how to design for technology like Pointcast, VRML, Java and JavaScript, and how to build community with chat or threaded discussion tools. But as I sat in the back of the room (near the power outlet), a few familiar phrases kept popping up...

"...there needs to be a bare essentials list of features..."
" wants to get their products out into the world..."
"...don't have the lead designer or engineer involved in user testing..."
"...issues related to cross-platform development..."

Then it hit me. This session wasn't about design at all. It was about development. Software development. Somehow I'd been transformed from a severely hyped Internet conference to a mundane client/server software development conference. Requirements definition? Management expectations? Usability testing? Could it be that basic software development and product management tools are finally making their way to the web?

If so, thank God. Because I know a web designer or two out there who could use a lesson in basic development management.

The true technology content of the session was fairly close to nil. The topic was broad enough to cover basically very little of substance, and we were regaled with development anecdotes and stories about how they had trouble with a particular bug in JavaScript or the pitfalls of dealing with the Netscape color palette. The folks that were looking for a bit more meat were probably disappointed; I don't spend my time ironing out the differences between JavaScript and JScript, and I was even disappointed by the technology content.

But the subtext they were delivering was right on the money. They discussed basic things like the "tradeoff triangle" of features, time and resources. They talked about how requirements need to be well defined up front in order to avoid "scope creep." And they talked about getting users involved at every step of the process, and aligning the project with the business objectives of the organization.

All of this provided some delicious context for what happens today, Monday, at Web97. From 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, two competing teams from the right and left sides of the continent will compete in the "Cool Site in a Day" contest. The New York team, led by Kyle Shannon of Urban Desires and, will go head to head against the local folks, led by Glenn Davis -- the man who has forced the word cool down our throats since God knows when. The teams will spend eight hours creating websites for two nonprofits who currently aren't on the web. The sites will be judged at the end of the day by a panel of Web97 conference faculty.

While hopefully this will make good copy for Tuesday's Netly News, it will most likely create issues for these organizations sometime in the near future. How much time will these teams be able to spend understanding what their "clients" need? Will they have any time at all to spend with the end users of these sites? Will the content be designed specifically for the web, or will there be an inordinate amount of shoveling? Will they be judged on technical merit or on utility to the client? And who's going to take care of these sites after the exhibit hall has been torn down?

In my previous life as a software product manager we talked a lot about product life cycles -- the "natural" ebb and flow of the acceptance of a particular product or technology in the marketplace. I have a feeling that the life cycle of the sites created today could last until around 7 pm, when the winners are announced.



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