Arrival: Mark Sanvitale

December 11th, 2006 by Team Member

by Lauren Summers

Mark SanvitaleMark Sanvitale remembers vividly the Christmas he came downstairs to gifts splayed out near the fireplace in the living room. It appeared that Santa had dropped the presents when he tumbled from the chimney of Mark’s childhood home in Portland, Oregon. One of the boxes held a new Atari 400, and from that moment on, Mark knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up: work with computers.

When the time came for Mark to go to college, he hoped to enter the University of Washington’s Computer Science program, but at the time the program was too small to accept the large number of applicants. He wasn’t accepted, so instead of taking UW’s alternate mathematics route, he chose the University of Southern California.

After graduation, Mark regularly applied for positions at the same three companies: Apple, Pixar and LucasFilm’s Industrial Light & Magic. He would occasionally also stalk the Apple campus in hopes of meeting and making contacts, and his efforts paid off in August of 1999 when he was hired for testing, even though he wanted to be in development. So, he set a goal: “If I can’t get into development by the end of 2000, I’m looking for another job.” Three months before his deadline, Mark had landed the job he wanted as a developer on the Finder team, where he led the development of many cool features, including “smart folders” and the sidebar. He enjoyed working with the extremely smart and passionate people at Apple, and also acknowledged and appreciated co-workers who weren’t “Apple zealots” because they gave an added dimension to the company. Mark’s biggest peeve was with managers who made changes on a project at the very end, although he humbly admits it usually made the product better.

In 2005, Mark decided to leave the Bay area for Eugene, Oregon to take a break and lead a less expensive life. Many times in his life he has lived without a car, and he seems to like it that way. Mark proudly said that while taking time off he “did a lot of nothing, like hanging out and basketball, and I loved it.” He used some of his free time to travel around Ireland for a month and check out the beaches of Hawaii.

Mark found Exbiblio through Craigslist, which he usually uses to find apartments and to buy and sell furniture and household appliances. He was surprised by Exbiblio’s listing, impressed by the website, and applied for the Software Engineer position. He laughed when he recalled Claes-Fredrik Mannby’s phone call inviting him for an interview: “I realized too late that my outgoing message was one a friend had recorded as a joke. I tried to catch the call before the machine picked up, but I heard the machine scream, “MARKUS BARKUS,” so I quietly hung up and crawled back into bed.” Claes-Fredrik emailed Mark later that day and Exbiblio eventually offered him a job.

Between the time Mark accepted the job offer and his start date, Exbiblio went through the radical restructuring. When Ed Mahlum called with the news, Mark thought that Exbiblio was not in business anymore. Fortunately, the plan to rebound and continue the development of the scanner and its software included Mark’s expertise.

Arrival: Brydie Ragan

November 16th, 2006 by Hugh

brydieExbiblio has recruited an evangelist for its oPen hand-held scanner due out next year. Her name is Brydie Ragan.

Brydie’s career resume made quite an impression at Exbiblio. Her many achievements include developing the East Coast Sales channel for Aldus Corporation, where she managed strategic co-marketing relationships with Apple, IBM, and numerous computer dealers.

Later she helped set up the design and communications firm, Bridgemark, but as you see from this extract from her resume, her interests range far and wide and include Exbiblio’s passion for social responsibility. She is a true “Exbiblio” person.

During my years as co-owner of Bridgemark, I made a personal commitment to social responsibility. Two of my first steps included joining one of the first Community Supported Agriculture farms in America and living without a car in a small city that had no public transportation. In addition, I also became a mentor for Project Soar, a program for women on welfare who were starting entrepreneurial endeavors.

I also decided to heed Thomas Jefferson’s advice to practice “eternal vigilance.” I started by making a commitment to attend all of our city council and school board meetings for one year. After sitting through the first city council meeting (for over four hours), an elderly council member approached me and asked, “Oughtn’t ya be home with ya husband at night?” I will never forget his question, which I now see as the deciding moment that marked the beginning of my deeply-ingrained habit of civic involvement.

During my years as a citizen activist, I have become involved in many issues, including land use and planning, affordable housing, and education. I have attended countless public meetings, conducted research, and written and designed reports, press releases, fliers, and newsletters for many causes and citizen projects, suffering through my failures and delighting in my successes.

In addition to my volunteer work, I incorporated activism into Bridgemark’s business by designing, producing, and distributing a kit for refusing junk mail. I succeeded in selling thousands of kits nationwide with virtually no advertising because I was able to gain national publicity. Substantive articles about the kit appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and in many major city newspapers, prompting stores such as Urban Outfitters, the Boston Museum of Science, and Ben and Jerry’s company store to retail the product.

My effort to reduce junk mail also resulted in invitations to speak publicly about the effort. One of my most memorable speaking engagements was at Dartmouth College, where I enjoyed a meal with the Club of Rome author, Donella Meadows. Luckily, public speaking had been an integral part of all of my work as a professional, so I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity,and others like it, to generate interest in the issue as well as sales of my product.

Morale Boost

October 22nd, 2006 by Hugh

The morale at Exbiblio is noticeably higher than when I was there a month ago – and yet everyone is far more aware of all the numerous tasks that still need to be done to get a functioning prototype in their hands. It’s a strange conundrum. They know better than ever that they are on a long hard road, and yet they feel more satisfaction from their daily work.

Ian MacDuff, who looks like a much happier engineer than last time I saw him, tells me that it comes down to good process starting to be implemented. There is now a list of tasks and milestones. As these get ticked off, people feel they are making progress. What he warns against is the “death march” which describes a project where you continually think that you are almost done, and constantly disappointed to find that you aren’t. It seems never ending, largely because you can’t see how far you have come down the road, or indeed where the road finishes.

Ian believes that good process begets more good process, because as people understand its value, they start to demand more of it. Information empowers, even if it tells you what you don’t always want to hear. There’s a motto pasted on the window of his office: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” (Perhaps those words could apply to transparent blogging).

Ed Mahlum – for the management – also sees a discernible improvement: “I don’t think we were doing as good a job as we could in the way we were managing our work. We are now very specifically tracking all the work we are doing. Everything is much more concrete. This is bread and butter project management stuff.”

So why was Exbiblio not doing this before? I don’t think it’s because the management were naive or inexperienced, but it was a deliberate attempt to foster creativity and experimentation. Ed still says “the presumption of not knowing everything is a very good presumption”, but he now thinks that the creative / development process was too loose, and perhaps there should have been a better defined box to play in.

Ed believes that the improvement in morale is also due to better communication of Exbiblio’s environmental project, Compendia, which is starting to take shape.

“It’s always been there in word, but no one has been working on it, aside from a few conversations here and there. It makes it real to put effort in there and for people to see it.”

Democracy and Leadership in Business

October 3rd, 2006 by Hugh

Kibble DemoOnce upon a time (roughly last Spring) Exbiblio was a bright and bushy-tailed young software company. It was also a very democratic place, where decisions were made as the result of lengthy brain-storming sessions. Its ideal was a ‘flat management structure’ without any job titles. In fact, when I read the ‘people page’ on the website as it stands even now, it’s hard to tell what anybody does at Exbiblio. Most seem to grow organic vegetables and ride bicycles to work. You certainly get no idea of who the CEO is (apparently they are still looking for one).

(more…)

Back to School

September 28th, 2006 by Team Member

By Ariel van Spronsen

Allen Library

Today is my first day back to school, entering the second and final year of my Master’s degree at the University of Washington.. The energy on campus is amazing, especially as compared to how quiet it was the week I was here for the Information Architecture Summer Institute. This feeling of starting anew every fall is one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about returning to school after 10 years. There is a cycle to it, a sense of beginning and end. I remember transitioning into full time work after I finished my undergraduate degree, and after a year or so, realizing that there was no end. I would work for the rest of my life. These days I’ve found work that I am happy to do for the rest of my life, but at that time it was a depressing thought.

I’m going to be doing things a little differently this year – I’ll be working with Exbiblio part time and taking only two classes per quarter. It’s going to be interesting to see how I manage shifting gears between my student and professional lives. Fortunately I have strong role model in john durand, who is currently doing his MBA while working full time at Exbiblio. Another difference for me this year is that I will be carrying my sexy Exbiblio-issue MacBook Pro to school. I have a laptop PC at home, but it’s large and powerful and not meant to be portable on a daily basis. The Mac, so far, has been much more convenient. I’ve already used it to catch up on Exbiblio email and blogs, as well as review course syllabi in advance of my first classes, and also to type this post while eating lunch in the HUB.

I also just spent several hundred dollars on books for my classes. One of my books, “Looking for Information” by Donald Case, was nearly $100 on its own. When I spend this much money on books I always have a little inner struggle over marking them up. Highlights and notes make a world of difference to how I review information that I’ve read, and also help me to set knowledge in my head. Effective highlighting can mean a huge time savings when I sit down to write papers and have to go back to original sources to locate support for my points. I think I’m going to be an interesting test case for the oPen. I’m going to try using it to highlight and annotate virtually. The important thing is that this be easier than I’ll be a very happy camper. It will have to be easy enough that it weighs positively against marking up my precious, expensive books.

Wish me luck!

Departure: Noah Iliinsky

August 15th, 2006 by Hugh

I speak to Noah the day after it has been decided – by mutual consent it seems – that he is to leave Exbiblio in a week’s time. His view is that the parting is for the best. His primary interest is in User Experience, and he is trying to get away from his earlier career writing code (previous to his Master’s Degree in Technical Communication). Exbiblio would now like him to concentrate on coding. The split seems inevitable, although rather sudden, at least by my European standards. He leaves on what he calls “generous” terms.

Noah doesn’t believe that Exbiblio has a strongly implemented process for product development, and that as a result, his User Experience skills cannot be fully utilized. But first I ask him to explain what User Experience is all about.

“It’s partly Demographic. Who do we believe the audience is? How much money are they willing to spend? What are the comparable tools that they are using? What are the tasks the users are trying to achieve? What are the problems we are solving for them? This is at a different level from asking what features they want – they don’t know what the choices are – but they can tell you what they want to get done in life. They won’t say that they need a scanner pen – but you can watch them work and how they collect quotations from various papers and draw conclusions from those observations.”

At the next stage of development, he sees User Experience as being central to the creation of an effective product experience – its features, interface, and flow – based on the information that has been gathered.

“To do the second half well requires good research from the first phase, as well as knowledge of fields as diverse as graphic design and cognitive psychology. All of these aspects contribute to the creation of a superior product,” he says.

I press Noah a little (It should be remembered that the brief of this blog is total transparency) and he admits to some frustration with the Exbiblio approach to product development, and the way that it rapidly changes its mind about who the early adopters of its technology will be.

“It’s reached the point where if you were to ask most of the development team who is our main audience, they may or may not be able to tell you. It’s an issue if you don’t know who it’s for, because you don’t know what their needs are. It doesn’t make it impossible to make a successful product, but I think it makes it more difficult.”

He believes that if Exbiblio went through a different sort of design process – asking more questions about the users and their problems before throwing resources at product development – there would be a continuing role for him at the company.

For a different view, see the post on this blog by Claes-Fredrik Mannby For Love of Product

After completing his degree in Physics in 1995 at Reed College, Noah worked for a year at a small company in Portland, Universal Algorithms: “Actually, there were some interesting parallels between that company and Exbiblio. They had a brilliant founder with strong ideas about how to do business. In that case his direction ultimately led, in my opinion, to squandering some amazing IP and opportunities.”

He followed his intuition and left Universal Algorithms to join another local start-up, Quando, which was eventually bought by Infoseek and Disney. He moved with the company to its new headquarters in Seattle. He had spent his time at Quando – which has a highly specialised search technology – working as a coder, but he says that he had been very aware of design for a long time. This led him to take his Master’s Degree at the University of Washington, where his thesis was entitled Generation of Complex Diagrams: How to Make Lasagna Instead of Spaghetti.

He came across Exbiblio at a jobs fair earlier this year, and was attracted by the company’s vision, its technology, and its approach to business. He joined in April and is leaving with warm feelings about the company .

“It’s a remarkable work environment. People seem pleased to be here. The character of company, its way of doing business, treating employees well, treating partners well, its environmental awareness, and the sort of people it attracts – all of that is remarkable in these days when most companies focus on this quarter’s returns, short term gains and stock market price. But perhaps it’s a little too much vision- guided. Perhaps if it more focused on ensuring success, there might be a different approach to the process. ”

On another occasion, Martin King (Exbiblio’s founder), has told me that experience suggests that the average start-up will part with one in three of its hires. He says it’s the normal course of events, and that there is no shame in it for either party.

On the way to the airport, I give Martin a brief idea of what Noah has said and remind him that he has the right of reply. He has his own views on the problem that Exbiblio is trying to solve, and on how to go about creating a product. His views will surely work their way onto the blog by one route way or another, sooner or later.

Arrival: Ian MacDuff

August 11th, 2006 by Hugh

seattle 007I spoke to Ian just after an employment contract from Exbiblio had landed on his desk. He has been working as a freelancer here since April – an experience which he compares to dating before marriage.

“It was an opportunity to make sure that we had same intentions and same desires and could tolerate each others’ quirky behaviour,” he says.

I remark on Ian’s unmatched red and yellow socks, but he says his quirkiness goes further than them: he doesn’t posses a good poker face, he says, and wears his emotions on his sleeve. Today he seems to be in a buoyant mood, talking rapidly while fidgeting with a springy plastic toy.

“I like lots of explicit communication,” he adds. “So when Ed [Mahlum] came to me and said ‘We want to make you an offer’, I was happy to be invited to be part of the tribe: I like that, but I had a lot of concerns because our relationship is going well, and why change it? How is our relationship going to be different after this change?”

Ian wanted to iron out any potential misunderstandings with his new employer along the lines of:

“If you are imagining I’m going to be come in at 8 in the morning because I’m an employee, then that’s interesting for me to know. And if I imagine that you’re going to put me in charge of strategic development now that I’m an employee, then that’s interesting for you to know.”

I point out that under the laws of Washington State, employees have no more protection from being fired than contractors (I have this from no lesser authority than Exbiblio’s founder, Martin King, himself). Ian agrees, but he sees the contract as being “statement of intention” to make the relationship long term.

“So long as we’re in a contracting relationship, the implication is that we are just sleeping together: it doesn’t mean a thing and I don’t want to meet your family. This (employment) is the way in our culture that you say I like your tribe. I want to be part of your tribe, and I intend to stay with you. seattle 006

Ian admits that he sometimes has less than smooth relations with Exbiblio’s founder, Martin King. He says it’s nothing more than the usual run of things, but adds that this “statement of intention” protects himself from a rash decision on his own part to leave suddenly. He also believes it protects Martin from a rash decision to fire Ian. But he concedes it gives him no long term employment security.

“If a contractor is feeling upset, it’s easy to say, ‘You know what? I’ve got other things to do. God be with you. I’m on my way.’ As an employee, Ian says he will “ride things out for a while,” when they aren’t going well. He hopes that a fast growing company will give him plenty of opportunity to move around and develop. He can work on both software and hardware and he would like to manage projects.

Ian’s been in a management roles before, and he recognises that managers value reliability and predictably more than technical brilliance. A manager wants to know that an assignment is going to be done, and if it isn’t, to be warned in good time and given a reason. This can be difficult in a technical environment where the tendency is to do “cool thing” and really stretch to pull something out of the hat at the last moment.

He says that Exbiblio is unusual because the financial backer is the “wacky inventor” in the person of Martin. Usually shareholders or venture capitalists are pushing for a safer and more boring approach. Martin is always shooting for the heights. Ian finds that it’s new for him to discover that he is taking a more conservative view than the manager. But that’s one of things he likes about Exbiblio. “In the end, I want a story to tell. A good story is either a massive success or a massive failure, but not putt, putt putt putt…..’

Profile: Tommy Arends

August 10th, 2006 by Hugh

Tommy 001 Tommy describes himself as an “all purpose engineer”. He notes that you don’t see many job advertisements for someone with such a broad qualification. Usually employers are looking for someone to fill a specific role. Still, he believes there is real value in being able see the big picture, and find trade-offs between the hardware and the software. With the perspective arising from a background in mathematics and physics, Tommy has found more similarities between the disciplines than differences.

Tommy is a freelance consultant who is helping Exbiblio with its hardware project. During his career, he’s had many jobs, both employed and freelance. His first job in 1969 was with a company that was trying to make a commercial success out of holography. It didn’t. Later he worked for a firm in Florida that was doing lots of things for the “secret guys” during the cold war. He moved to Texas to join Datapoint, one of the first companies to network computer terminals together. He saw the onset of IBM’s PC and a whiff of scandal destroy Datapoint’s value from $800m to next-to-nothing.

“I got to watch what happens when greed takes over in a company, and people start to do stupid things. Sometimes wealth and position don’t imply wisdom,” he says.

Another lesson for Tommy over the years has been that when the going gets tough for a company, the R&D people are the first out on the street, but he’s learned that he can survive the ups and downs of working in the technology industry.

Here in Seattle, Tommy has worked for the city’s richest and most famous son: Bill Gates. He was part of the team that developed the technology for Gates’s house. He worked on the tracking technology that follows people around the house. Among other things, it switches around the pictures on the walls. The spec for the project changed as Gates acquired a wife and child before the house was finished. He was present at some meetings with Gates and saw his style at first hand:

“He would ask a few narrowly focused question to make sure everybody was on their toes, provide a little bit of feedback, and then he got out of the way.”

Tommy says that the fast schedule of the Exbiblio project is fairly typical for a start up. As the deadline approaches for the first prototype of the scanner pen, Tommy predicts how it will turn out:

“I’ve seen it happen dozens of times. Everybody feels that it’s looking good. You’re on schedule. The parts come in. It looks nice and there are pretty pristine circuit boards. And then you turn it on and smoke comes out – that’s figurative smoke. Then usually there are several days of sleepless panic. You rummage through and find all the little things that are wrong – they are usually relatively minor problems, but they can be hard to find. Finally it works, but those circuit boards aren’t so pretty anymore and there’s a hole in the case where you don’t want it.”

A second version will clean up the major issues. A third will sort out some of the commercial problems, factoring in cost and making it practical to produce in large enough quantities: “That third generation is the one that you can have a reasonable expectation of being a successful product.”

As for the potential for Exbiblio’s product, Tommy says, “I think if we can get it out in the market place most of the anticipated uses will be greeted with “okay that’s nice”, and the one that really takes off will be thing that nobody ever thought about – that will be a surprise and it will be fun.”

Where Tommy thinks Exbiblio is more unusual is in its setting out of its corporate culture and values from day one: “Usually that happens by default and the company will take on the personality of the founder or the most dominant person. Here the corporate values seem to be set in place by design not default. That’s unusual for a company of this size where success may be some years away.”

Tommy interests include cycling (he pedals 11 miles into work) and chamber music. He and his wife both play early woodwind instruments, including the recorder, the crumhorn, and the rackett.

“When I was at college I found an old recorder lying around the house. I noodled on it, and still do. Playing chamber music is very satisfying when you are in the right group.” – hence the muscial notes on his t-shirt.

Profile: Lauren Summers

August 10th, 2006 by Hugh

LaurenLauren runs Exbiblio’s HR and is the office administrator, working primarily with Henry “Hap” Happel, but also helping out everyone when there’s a need.

She was the fifth person to join Exbiblio, back in March just before the company moved to its current base in a stylish former hotel on Seattle’s 1st Avenue. She admits that she and some of the other newcomers did not fully understand what the project was about at the time of joining. Fortunately, Janinne (formally a big part of Exbiblio who moved on recently) did a good job of persuading her that it was going to be exciting. Lauren recalls that the early days involved a great deal of discussion about the project’s direction, but soon the developments started roll, and the prototype designs started appearing. New ideas started to emerge at virtually every company lunch – traditionally held on Wednesdays.

Lauren has used the third party C-Pen to scan notes for the research project into Word. Although this is only the very starting point of Exbiblio’s vision, it was the point at which it all became real for her.

Appropriately, she loves gadgets. Her latest favourite “toy” is the sleek Motorola SLVR phone which incorporates iTunes music software and lots of other “cool stuff.”

Exbiblio’s idealistic culture helps her to feel comfortable working here. “I grew up with my mother who was a nurse. When I first graduated I worked for a medical company where the definite purpose was to make money – I didn’t enjoy that. I enjoyed working in academia where was more a social service.” Lauren respects the way that business is done at Exbiblio – for instance, in her role she can see at first hand that creditors’ bills are paid promptly – instead of leaving payment for as long as possible – an all too common business practice.

Lauren and her husband run a design studio out of their home, and she handles the sales from their website. Her husband has designed concert posters for the likes of REM and Wilco – the latter being one of her favourite bands. Lauren graduated in journalism, and still enjoys writing for herself – mostly essays – and reading social commentaries.

Profile: Damon Lanphear

August 9th, 2006 by Hugh

Damon 001

Damon joined Exbiblio in June, one of a clutch of recruits who came over from RealNetworks. A friend at Real who was job hunting pointed out the Exbiblio website. Damon was immediately attracted by Exbiblio’s culture, vision, and the direction it wanted to go in with its technology.

“It’s a big vision. It’s a vision that isn’t limited to ‘We are going to make blog writing easier’, or ‘We are going to let you buy coffee’ or ‘find cheapest tickets’, but it is, “We are going to do something epic for humanity.’”

He also liked the idea that it involved real technical challenges that needed to be overcome, and which would establish Exbiblio as a leader in its field.

Damon’s particular role is to work on the search and indexing side of Exbiblio’s project. Without going into detail – Exbiblio’s index will work in a way that is substantially different for others currently in use. He has been given a deadline of the end of August for the first working model that can be put on desktops internally. When you consider that Damon only arrived in June, that deadline is rather tight.

He describes the current work as “drastically trying to pull something together that demonstrates the vision in a short space of time.” The early results will involve some trade-offs, but the aim is have a proof-of-concept that can attract funding if necessary.

He compares the current state of Exbiblio to the early days of personal computing, where the vision of a computer on every desk was in the province of geeks, and not really understood by the business community.

“Before you cross an ocean, you have to build a boat,” he says.

While Damon has been at Exbiblio, there’s been a lot of lively discussion that could have pulled the project off in a variety of directions. Even now there there are developments afoot that could change or add substantially to the vision.

He likes the fact that the destination of this particular journey is not always clearly in view.

“If you are walking towards a peak, the journey is not so interesting because your focus is always drawn to that end point. If we wander on the way, we will have some adventures. We might find that that peak we’re headed towards is not what we want. Perhaps we will find a lovely waterfall on the way up to this peak, and decide that in fact, that’s what we want after all.”