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My View on the 15th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction

by Jerry Cavin, Senior Software Engineer

Every year, HCI International brings together thousands of people from all over the globe who are interested in the seemingly endless approaches to interaction between computers and people. This past July, that conference came to Las Vegas, and I was fortunate enough to be invited as a presenter for the poster paper I submitted titled “A HCI/AI Tool for Astronomy.”

HCI-2013-logoMore on my presentation in a moment, but first let me tell you about some of the other amazing things on display at the conference. The conference is divided into three parts: Vendor Exhibits, Poster Paper Sessions, and the parallel Paper Sessions.

Vendor Exhibits

The vendor exhibition was held in The Mirage Hotel Event Center and featured companies of virtually all sizes demonstrating countless products used in human-computer interface experiments. Some of the ones that caught my eye the most included Brain Products and Mindo, who were both displaying portable and wireless EEG monitoring devices. Others, like Smart Eye and EyeTracking Inc. were demonstrating their eye-tracking devices.

These were just some of the companies showing products for monitoring brain activity during interaction studies. But there were also a pair of publishers present that attracted my attention.

One of the publishers present was Springer Publishing, one of the world’s leading publishers of scientific, technical and medical content. They’re also the publisher of my astronomy book, “The Amateur Astronomer’s Guide to the Deep-Sky Catalogs.” At the Springer booth, I enjoyed visiting with their Editorial Director, Beverly Ford. She knew many of the people who were key sources for my book.

I also spent some time with CRC Press, which specializes in producing technical books for engineering, science and mathematics. Here I met with Cindy Renee Carelli, the Senior Editor of Industrial Engineering and Human Factors and Ergonomics. For anyone interested, Cindy is currently seeking writers for a wide variety of Computer Science fields.

Like many conferences, there was also access to past information from preceding events. But, because this is HCI, it was made available in a very interactive fashion. Highly interactive computer systems allowed intricate hand gestures to move backwards and forwards along a timeline to explore past HCI Conferences. Then, you could spend time reviewing pictures and events from each conference before returning to the timeline.

Poster Paper Sessions

Jerry Cavin is also an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science and Astronomy at Park University.

Jerry Cavin is also an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science and Astronomy at Park University.

The Poster presentations occurred over three days toward the end of the conference. There were over 300 poster presentations covering a vast array of topics. I was very proud to present my poster, “A HCI/AI Tool for Astronomy” alongside my son, Zac, who is very knowledgeable in Astronomy and has accompanied me on many visits to observatories across the country observing the night sky with professional astronomers. Zac presented and described the pictures and graphs illustrating the patterns of binary stars, exoplanets and variable stars, while I described how the Expert System based application could analyze the data and identify the patterns.

The conference required that the Poster Paper authors be available for an hour each day to present their topics, however, we found it very easy to spend up to three hours talking with people that stopped by our poster paper. We spoke with people from many different countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Spain, and Germany. We also spoke with biotech researchers from The University of Virginia, and engineers from Sandia Labs.

One gentlemen showed particular interest in how well Expert System-based applications would perform large data set analysis. He indicated that he was working on a project for the London Stock Exchange to design an application capable of providing real-time fraud detection. We discussed several different solutions to his problem of real-time pattern detection, and he returned to our area several times to discuss other challenges of working with “big data.”

The subject of manipulating “big data” came up several times in other conversations, as well. It’s certainly an indication that the manipulation of “big data” is becoming more commonplace in many different industries.

The Parallel Paper Sessions

The Parallel Paper Sessions were held every day of the conference in several small conference rooms outside the Event Center. During these sessions, the authors were given 10-15 minutes to present their whitepapers. One of the sessions I found particularly intriguing was, “Reconsidering the Notion of User Experience.” The session presented several papers describing how to capture subjective and objective measurements of a user interacting with an application to better document the user experience.

Other sessions I attended discussed the tradeoffs between emotions and effectiveness, expectations and efficiency of a user interface design. The objective for the session I attended focused on increasing user satisfaction, allowing the designer to create a longer product life cycle.

Finally, some ‘me’ time

When finally afforded some time to escape the conference center halls of The Mirage, I did some window shopping across the street at The Venetian Hotel. Inside The Venetian is a large shopping mall reminiscent of a small Italian village, and includes the store, Bauman Rare Books. Ahh, heaven! The store’s proprietor, Mary Olsson, shared with me a 1927 copy of E. E. Barnard’s “A Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way.” The book is exceptional in that it contains 51 of Barnard’s original linen-backed silver photographic prints. There are only 700 copies of this book known to exist, and I was thrilled to turn the pages of this one. But, at $13,500, it was also a book that needed to stay in the store on this day.

I also was allowed to examine a 1929 printing of “A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae.” This is the first book in which Edwin Hubble proposed that velocities between galaxies were proportional to their distance from Earth — a principle known today as Hubble’s Law, which describes the expanding universe. Although priced a bit lower at $7,500, it too remained with the store.


3 Visible Pillars – Cost, Quality, Schedule

by Phil Smith, Vice President of Operations and Services

Phil Smith Bridge360Searching the Internet for “information technology project failure rates” will provide a wealth of data and information. Data is readily available in depressingly large volumes from studies that indicate that investing in IT projects is high-risk and unwise. There is useful text accompanying the statistics that explains root cause and even classes of failures. I like these sites because the content is well organized and they include recommendations for how to avoid failure.

The sites are:  Why Projects Fail, McKinsey Report Highlights Failure of Large Projects, and Gartner Survey Shows Why Projects Fail.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) was launched in 1984. The PMI material, certifications, frameworks (and everything else offered) are invaluable to any organization that runs an IT project. I applaud the PMI for giving the world of project management context and rigor to not only talk about improvement, but also a way to build methodologies to achieve the improvements.

Yet the statistics available from current studies, over 25 years after the PMI started helping us, are disastrous. According to the Calleam site listed above, a McKinsey & Company survey from 2012 showed that 17% of large scale IT projects fail so badly they threaten the existence of the company.

Again, there is no lack of material or training, even beyond what the PMI makes available, to help our IT industry improve. I often think of the maturity of the IT industry in comparison to the maturity of other industries like medicine, manufacturing, engineering, and construction. History indicates that assuming that customers will continue to invest due to lack of an alternative has turned industries and companies inside out once a suitable alternative becomes available. It is in our best interest to be in control of the revolution.

I know I’ve stepped into a complex dialog here, specifically with the subject of how to get the entire industry to move toward one common set of methods, practices, and cost structures. I argue the absence of common structure creates a gap that is filled by the client’s choice to bring unique and unrealistic expectations for cost, timing, and quality. Most consumers of IT services are well educated and know that writing a line of code only costs as much as the pay rate multiplied by the actual effort, which is not much.  Yes, that is the wrong way to measure cost but it is the way that most consumers elect to measure it in a negotiation, because we as an industry lack structure.  To compare, my recent trip to the doctor cost my insurers over $200, and I only saw the doctor for about 5 minutes.  I’m sure that along with the 5 minutes I was also paying for a lot of staff, infrastructure, insurance, training, equipment, and capability that all came together to make the 5 minutes possible.  And the doctor does not invoice the insurance company for the 5 minutes he spent, instead he associates it to a billable service with a preset fee.  That approach allows him to be there for me when I need him.

In our IT world, individual projects are bound by unrealistic expectations from clients. Referring back to all the sound advice and training available from the above referenced sites, and from PMI, we know that project plans, which incorporate the boundaries of cost, quality, and schedule, must consider everything that is required to deliver an entire solution, not just the individual point in time that an engineer is writing a specific line of code. For example, that line of code, in order to be correct, must be written with an appropriate technology, within an architected solution that is secure, accessible, reliable, tested, and maintainable. Those adjectives are not free.  They are in place because of hard work, training, and process.

The pillars of cost, quality, and schedule are non-negotiable once established. If a project fails, it failed because one or more of these three pillars cracked, or crumbled. Establishing them correctly up front will significantly reduce the opportunity for them to bear pressure during a project. Establishing them correctly requires that we manage expectations that include the teachings from PMI and from the lessons learned in the industry.

In summary, we need to plan for things like validation of requirements with stakeholders. We need to plan for things like training, performance testing, failover, risk management, system documentation, traceability… I could go on. My larger picture argument is that I hope that someday we’ll take this approach as an industry rather than as individual service providers.  We should be differentiated by our ability to deliver rather than win business based on our ability to negotiate ourselves into low cost and inadequate delivery.

Set the pillars in place, build the plan based on the pillars, and deliver to the plan.

Please, share your thoughts and opinions on this topic and let’s see where the dialogue takes us.


What We Can Learn From London Taxi Drivers

by Brenda Hall, CEO

Brenda_Hall_100_x_120They say the US and the UK are very much alike, and only separated by a common language. Although this is intended to be humorous (which I think it is), there’s a little more to it. Anyone who has taken a taxi in New York City, and then somehow managed to experience a taxi ride in London can attest — there’s just no comparison.

Did you know London taxi drivers usually spend anywhere from 2-4 years learning and being tested (written and oral) to achieve the position of a London taxi driver? I didn’t until I started to write this blog. My point is that London taxi drivers take their role and position very seriously. Their taxi’s are uber clean, the driver knows exactly where he needs to go without calling back to his garage for directions, and they don’t use navigation systems. That’s right — they must memorize over 2500 London streets to pass their exams. They see themselves as professionals, and mini-business owners. They care about the fare they carry, their luggage and even though most of them are not ‘touristy chatty’, all of them want to ensure visitors and non-visitors alike move around London under their watchful and careful driving.

If you take a taxi in New York City… not so much. You will usually get a driver that speaks English… though likely with a strong foreign accent, but that’s okay. They will get you where you want to go and often by using technology (navigation systems), or calling back to their garage for additional help. The taxi will likely be well worn; many without shocks because potholes really do a lot of damage to them… so they just don’t replace them. Most taxi’s are quite dirty as well. It’s sad, but that’s my experience for the most part, and I am in NYC quite a lot.

But the real difference, and the point I’m making here, is work ethic. London taxi drivers will do more than simply take you from point A to point B. Returning to the US recently, one actually dropped me at Heathrow and told me to wait in the car while he made sure Virgin Atlantic was open at that early time of morning. Then, he helped me with my luggage; and not just out of the trunk and onto the curb, but in through the terminal door, and pointed me in the right direction to the counter. I don’t see any NYC taxi driver doing that! The message? You’ll enjoy your London experience even more with the help, support and guidance of taxi drivers who really care about your experience traveling in their taxi!

It’s all about customer service! Pure and Simple! And, you know what? I gave the London taxi drivers better tips, too.

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Should “Good Technical People” Manage Projects?

by Phillip Smith, Vice President Operations and Services

Phil Smith Bridge360I’ve seen many people in the IT industry think about shifting from a “software engineering” job over to project management.  When I come across these folks in discussions, I stay on topic with the person long enough to discover their real motivation for change.  I ask them to think about how they want to spend their workday, because it really is important to maintain alignment between the way people are wired and the type of work they are asked to perform.

So let’s talk about the general differences between the two “types” of people we typically see in technical roles vs. project management roles.

People who excel with technical work are a strong blend of “idea” and “action” in terms of the way they are wired.  They love submersing themselves with great technical ideas and they are motivated to make use of all of the available tools and tricks.  They often use their free time keeping up with new technology, simply because they have a passion about it and have an appetite to keep learning.  They may stay up late at night reading manuals, or publications, or tinkering with things on their home network.  I don’t want to discount the teamwork aspects of working with technology, because they are critical to success.  However, working with technology does require a person to be comfortable with working many of their hours independently and somewhat isolated, because they are typically assigned tasks that require research and original thought that is performed at the individual level.

In contrast, project management work is very “people” and “process” centric.  Most of a project managers’ time is spent building relationship and influencing people.  They spend time facilitating meetings, gathering information, and communicating status or resolving issues.  A project manager who is savvy enough to manage their schedule, cost, and risk through constant communication will be even more successful if they also love taking advantage of formal processes.  When I refer to formal process, I’m referring to defined work patterns, tools, templates, and mechanisms for reporting and tracking.  A project manager will go to sleep very quickly if you put him or her in front of a technical manual, but that same person will become energized if you strike up a conversation about earned value or resource leveling.

Again, my point comes back to the question of how a person likes to spend their day.  If they are passionate about technology they are likely to be miserable if their job requires them to navigate organizational politics and never gives them time to work through the riddles of writing efficient code.  To this I say, let them be architects and engineers—why ask them to be project managers?

I will concede that there are a few people around who are oriented strongly as a mix of people, process, idea, and action.  These people are sometimes confused by the distinctions I’ve presented here because they are just as happy to be accomplishing something on their own in isolation as they are accomplishing things in a group setting where a lot of people interaction is required.  These folks can leap from a PM role to a technology role quite comfortably.  You’ll often find them excelling in various parts of the software development cycle as product managers, business analysts, technical leaders, or as quality assurance specialists.  These roles require a mix of technical understanding and desire to work with people and process.  So next time one of your technical people talks to you about doing project management work, ask them:  “How do you like to spend your day?”

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The U.S. Department of Commerce Honors Bridge360

Austin-based Software Company Acknowledged for Dedication to International Trade Operations

Bridge360, a custom software application development company, has been granted a Certificate of Appreciation from the U.S. Department of Commerce for its commitment to helping companies prepare for international markets by providing internationalization, localization and software testing for foreign markets.

Brenda Hall CEO accepts the award on behalf of Bridge360 from U.S. Department of Commerce – Commercial Service Director, Karen Parker

Bridge360 has enabled software and developed software applications for businesses of all sizes and industries including major automobile manufacturers, high fashion retail, mobile technology, education, and finance. “Bridge360 believes that doing business globally strengthens our clients’ businesses and our country through international trade and understanding,” said Brenda Hall, Bridge360 CEO. “Making sure software works anywhere in the world has always been a core competency for us and receiving recognition for our work is a testament to Bridge360’s contribution to our clients’ successes.”

Bridge360 CEO Brenda Hall has been member of the Camino Real District Export Council (DEC) for over ten years. She served as the DEC’s chair in 2007 and as the Secretary / Treasurer of the National DEC Steering Committee from 2010 – 2012. The U.S. Department of Commerce grants these Certificates of Appreciation in recognition of outstanding contributions to the Department’s promotion of U.S. international trade.

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Creating and Sustaining Culture as a Company Grows

by Bonnie Caver, President of Caver Public Relations

Growth for a company is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t come without a little pain. One of those annoying pain points is around creating and sustaining internal culture. As founders start a company, they have a vision for what the company will accomplish, the way it will operate, the customers they will serve and the problems they will solve.

Their passion for what they are doing is clear and contagious. Dynamic leaders are able to get people onboard with their vision and help a company grow rapidly. But then growth begins to happen. To support growth, the CEO needs VPs, then directors, then managers, and pretty quickly, there are several layers between the leadership team and the rest of the organization. And breakdowns or cracks in communication, vision and culture begin to happen.

Companies that are growing rapidly generally have cracks beginning at around 50 employees, then again between 150-200 and again between 400-500 people.  Just like a crack in the foundation of a home, these are often ignored until they cause a stumble or even until foundational separation is visible. In business, it is best not to bury your head in the sand but to address changes proactively before the cracks begin to show, because breakdowns in culture are often core to reputational risks.

Here are four strategic steps to help mitigate cracks in communication and culture, address them as they are forming and repair them when they are visible.

  1. Articulate your culture, values, purpose, vision – These are often difficult things to articulate companywide. The founders have this branded in their heads and talk-the-talk at the beginning, when they are hiring and are cultivating funders. But these core company philosophies can become diluted as a company grows, and they can change as more people, ideas, expertise come into the company. Revisit your core philosophies with your entire organization and make sure they are something you can all articulate and understand, whether there are 5 people in the company or 500.
  2. Create a culture of communication – Communication is a continuous management function, and culture is created through communication. Therefore it is important that your company’s communication delivery, behaviors and message match that of the culture you want to create in your company. If you want everyone to work toward common goals with a clear understanding of your values and vision, those things have to be communicated in ways they are heard and understood. Everyone needs to know the individual role they have in the company’s purpose and vision and take ownership in it. And they need an opportunity to be part of the discussion. You are creating a collaborative company, not building farm silos in the Midwest.
  3. Work your culture – A culture is not something that comes from reading words on a coffee mug or wall everyday. It is something that a company has to create, work on and hire to. Creating benchmarks and measuring to those benchmarks are important to follow progress. Best Places to Work nominations are great ways to gather benchmarks. Though you may not win an award, what you are really trying to do is create a best place to work, not necessarily win an award. Use this information to make appropriate changes and get everyone rowing in the same direction. And never forget that new people can change your culture instantly for good or bad. In a company where cultivating a certain culture is important to management, you must hire to that culture. How people fit within your company is crucial. You are building a team where each person has a role, and you can’t build a lasting championship team when you have bad apples, even if some are superstars.
  4. Reward – Show your appreciation for jobs well done. Not just completion of projects or getting new clients or meeting financial goals, but show appreciation for living the internal culture, for pushing the company’s brand forward and for delivering on the brand promise.

Creating and maintaining the culture you want in your company is possible no matter how large your company grows, but you are never really finished. Understanding that building and maintaining your culture is an intentional and ongoing strategic decision is crucial to your success. It’s hard and requires a lot of effort, but the payoff is the core of guiding your reputation.

Writer’s note: Recently, I worked with Bridge360 to develop the Bridge360 Way, a collaborative effort of the entire Bridge360 team, including all management and employees. The Bridge360 Way represents the core beliefs and business practices of the company, and it’s the way the company works as a team to bring excellence to software.  

Bridge360 management was intuitive to the way growth was changing the company and made a visionary decision to intentionally guide the culture—to make it something everyone was part of while proactively addressing challenges brought about by the pains of growth.

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Bridge360 CTO, Chris Durand comments on the Austin Chambers’ new Tech Connection

Austin, Texas, sometimes known as Silicon Hills, has a reputation for being a great place to live and work. It’s also home to a large talent pool of highly skilled and experienced technologists who remain in high demand. Yet even in a place like Austin where referral is a way of life, finding the right candidates for your company can be challenging—especially for a growing mid-size company in a tight job market.

So when the Austin Chamber of Commerce announced a new job portal designed to match candidates and companies while promoting our community and its assets, we at Bridge360 were excited to be a part of the pilot program.
AustinTechSource.com was officially launched on May 17, 2012.  Bridge360′s CTO, Chris Durand, participated in the roundtable discussion promoting the website.

In an interview with impactnews.com, Chris said that like many Austin-based companies that strive to attract talent from around the country, Bridge360 is always looking for new ways to recruit top talent.

According to the Austin Chamber, over 2,000 candidates have already registered on the site and over 30 Austin-based companies have a new talent pool of highly qualified professionals.

If you are looking to make a change in your career or looking an Austin company with positions to fill, we recommend checking out AustinTechSource.com!

Read the impactnews.com article by Amy Denny.

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Happy New Year – Again?

By Brenda Hall, 

Yes, again!  China is celebrating the Year Of The Dragon starting today, and we all wish them health, success and good fortune this year.  Some of you may be wondering what the big deal is all about, so here are a few reasons why this Year Of The Dragon is so special for us, as well.

 First, I expect 2012 to be a year where we Americans continue to climb higher up the economic slope and regain more of what has been lost since 2008.  Dragons can help do that.  They are a symbol of good fortune and a sign of power in the Zodiac, and like our friends in China – we need to see Dragons as ‘good guys’ who are fearless and rise to tough challenges.

Dragons make good leaders because they tend to be successful; they question ‘the rules’.    Most Dragons also trust their instincts and open their minds to creative ways of solving problems.  Dragons also have a ‘soft’ side as well – they like to attract others to build relationships.  If YOU have been fortunate enough to be born a Dragon…. congratulations!  Happy New Year!  And may your year be healthy, prosperous and fun!  I, for one, look forward to 2012 to be an even better year than 2011….and I know it will be with all of you Dragons out there.