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The Needs of an Agile Team

[A research report written exclusively for CS 5340-Human Computer Interaction, Spring 2012 @ Northeastern University]

Investigate the kinds of interactions that occur in development teams. What does a typical “conversation” look like? What are the communication needs of the different team members?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about effective management of development teams. As you may know, the most popular software development paradigm (especially in the music technology industry) is the Agile method. Through self-organizing and constant communication, smaller teams within the company are able to complete sections of a product and assemble them together. One key stage in Agile development is Scrum, a term taken from rugby, referring to a play where the team stays ‘on top’ of one another to protect the ball and move forward. This iterative process results in quality releases in a timely manner.

There are 12 principle tenets in the “Agile Manifesto”. Many of the principles dictate how a team should work together, including the following two:

  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

This point seems fairly simple: no segregation in the work place. The reason behind this rule is that transparency is essential on a development team. Each team needs to know what the others are doing, and where they are in the process. As each element of the product is being built separately, proper communication is required to ensure a cohesive result. But in today’s business environment, it is rare to find a business where all departments are under the same roof- or even the same flag.

  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

And therein lies the rub. As anyone with development experience can tell you, communication over the phone or email can be frustrating and slow down the process. For example, while working at various software companies I have had the pleasure of having coworkers in far off lands trying to describe how to recreate bugs. The process tends to go like this:

  1. Receive a bug report. The description is either not in english, or doesn’t appear to be, and very few details are included, i.e. “press a button and something might happen.”
  2. Send the obligatory “Can we try that again?” email. At this point in time I typically catch up on some light reading, because e-mail as we know is anything but instant.
  3. Receive the original bug report with a few words rearranged. No, that did not clarify anything. Let’s try for some media…
  4. Receive a screen capture of the bug. Screen capture software, such as PicPick, is commonly used to This may be enough to help, but by now it has been roughly 24 hours (if we’re lucky) since the original report. If the screen capture isn’t enough, we move on to step 5.
  5. Telecom. This could be either a phone, internet based chat, video chat, or in more dire situations a teleconference session with typically >2 participants.

Teleconference systems are pricy, and can be very difficult to use. Some companies have employees whose sole purpose is to facilitate these exchanges. In situations such involving audio software development, hardware peripherals (MIDI controllers, mixing consoles, rack mount systems, etc.) are often present in Digital Audio Workstation systems. When bugs are encountered between software that is in development and proprietary hardware, it is essential to get everyone in the same room to view the relationship between the multiple elements.

Again, this is easier said than done. When I was working at Cakewalk here in Boston, we had to interface with our hardware development teams at Roland’s Japan location. The language barrier was difficult enough to overcome, but without a feasible teleconferencing system it was nearly impossible to clearly get the message across. Design meetings were impossible as well, resulting in products that just didn’t work properly.

Teleconference Systems

Imagine your job is to outfit a small company with a new teleconferencing system. They can’t afford a top-of-the-line Cisco system, so that’s off the table. So instead you turn to a new solution- personal computer based systems. There are many out there, including Skype, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and more. We’ll focus on iMeet, a browser based system with two relatively inexpensive plans:

  • $39/mo, unlimited VoIP connection, 2.9¢/min phone connection
  • $69/mo, unlimited VoIP connection, unlimited phone connection

Both plans include:

  • Unlimited video meetings with up to 15 people
  • Secure sessions on desktops, laptops, even mobile devices
  • One on one training with their specialists

Using iMeet to chat with multiple people in different locations can be useful in an Agile environment. However, as it is browser based, users are limited the their PC hardware. The video quality is poor, as is the audio. With large groups of people this can lead to issues in clear communication, and slow interactions are directly opposed to the Agile philosophy.

iMeet is very easy to get started with, and it’s easy to invite people to a meeting. The elegant design and personal URL complete the experience with what is supposed to have a minimalistic feel. But does it work for a music technology company? iMeet doesn’t provide the picture perfect experience promised- it only runs on OS X and Windows, and will only work on mobile devices running those operating systems. Screen sharing is curiously absent, making exchanges such as bug descriptions and design reviews difficult. It appears that the product managers were more interested in enabling social media sharing (which they call “apps” in what one hopes was a tongue in cheek decision) than actually useful telecom functionality.

Proposed System

I propose a system that allows audio technology companies to integrate software and hardware visibility in a telepresence setting. My system is low cost, and would be easy to implement with existing technology.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the solution to our audio software company’s telecommunication troubles: EPIC. (No I don’t have a cool anagram, I’m in development not marketing).

EPIC Telecom System (graphic by Julie Vera, CC BY)

The EPIC system consists of two identical mock production studios in each location. It is made up of five key components:

  • A – Screen Sharing Monitor: Your typical computer monitor, with the ability to switch between viewing the local or remote screen. Each location can freely switch between views, allowing for ease in communication.
  • B – Telepresence Screen: Anyone who has been in a recording studio knows that there are two rooms, the control room and the performance space, often separated by a window. In place of a window we have a teleconference screen, which places the participants in the remote location on the other side of the mixing console. Ideally this screen will be very large to complete the experience, and will be equipped with cameras to broadcast the local participants. Each screen is outfitted with a re-positional camera that can be used to display hardware interactions, such as  MIDI controllers, rack mount systems, direct input boxes, etc.
  • C – Virtual White Board: Software developers, hardware engineers, and business teams rarely see eye to eye, but they all have one mutual friend in common: the whiteboard. This will allow marketing to draw what they envision, software engineers to diagram the program architecture, and hardware engineers to explain the signal flow.
  • D – Mixing Console: It’s very important to be able to represent interactions between hardware peripherals and software applications. The age of digital music brought about computerized faders and digital encoders, both of which are standard in modern mixing consoles. Using this technology, EPIC creatives a responsive environment where actions on one console are mirrored in real time on the remote system.
  • E – Wacom Tablet: To be used in conjunction with the virtual white board. Arguably the most fun part of our system.
  • The Software: Everything will be controlled by a cross-platform application with a simple, straight forward UI. Simple controls will allow the user to change which screen is displayed on the Screen Sharing Monitor, turn remote console fader controls on/off, adjust microphone levels, etc.

In many business situations, meeting participants may look at presentation notes and visuals, but the majority of their attention is directed at each other. Existing teleconference and telepresence systems are useful in those situations, but not for a music technology company. In a situation such as ours, the interactions and responses occurring in the hardware and software environment drive meetings in an Agile development cycle.

The EPIC system is not only useful, but it is practical. The screen, monitor, whiteboard and tablet elements all exist and are fairly affordable. A mixing console would be found in house at any company of this ilk, and the software can be easily built. Businesses often underestimate the importance of a strict Agile development schedule, and skimp on teleconferencing tools. A system such as EPIC would equip teams to effectively coordinate their work and provide salient solutions for disruptions in the development cycle.

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In designing the Toscanini interface, I used the Texas Instrument EZ430 Chronos development kit to record accelerometer information. The watch is simply an enclosure for the CC430 system, complete with a 3-accelerometer array in XYZ configuration, pressure sensor, and temperature sensor. For an extra $50, they’ll throw in an extra peripheral that can monitor heart rate.

Upon opening the box, the first thing the user will notice is a piece of paper proclaiming that the watch is a development kit, and therefore still considered ‘experimental’ technology.  This is the first sign that the device is not for technological laymen. After plucking the device out of the box and removing the protective plastic, it’s relatively easy to get turned on and the time set. The device comes with two USB dongles, one for programming and debugging the microprocessor and another for receiving transmitted data.

Again, this is not an every-day watch that also has cool geeky features. The EZ430 chronos is a development kit, meant for techies who are interested in learning about microprocessors and physical interfaces, hackers, and technologically advanced users with active/athletic needs. The watch itself doesn’t keep time very well, and it’s not a fashionable device. Clearly not a good gift for a geeky friend in need of a time piece, but as it can be strapped to a users wrist, it’s the perfect MIDI controller, golf swing analyzer, and power point presentation tool.

I personally enjoy the design of the watch, though it is fairly bulky. The buttons, 3 on one side and 2 on the other, are difficult to reach and sometimes aren’t very responsive. The system itself is not necessarily an elegant design but it is functional and simple. The included USB dongles do not have their own encloses, and are very fragile, which can be a bit disconcerting especially when trying to use the device on the fly. Overall, it is designed to be useful and for ease of use, and is a wonderful tool for prototyping interfaces and firmware, but not something that should be passed off as worthy of  the technology consumer market.

Moving on to how the device works, I have devised five guidelines for to judge whether or not it is ‘good’.

1. Is it comfortable?

The user has to wear the device, and sometimes perform sensitive tasks with it on. In all, the device is wearable, but not exactly comfortable. I tend to take it off after a few hours.

2. Does the hardware work?

The buttons are mostly reliable, but after opening the back of the watch to access the microprocessor chip for reprogramming, they will never, EVER work the same.

3. Is it easy to connect?

Connectivity isn’t an issue, just plug in the dongle and press the watch button. And even though the transmission is done over RF, the range allows you to be over one hundred feet from your computer (I’ve tested it at approximately sixty with no dropout).

4. Are the accelerometers accurate?

The device is equipped with a MSP430 microprocessing chip with integrated <1GHz wireless transceiver. The chip is reliable, and broadcasts reliably with very little latency.

5. Is it easy to hack?

If you can use a screw driver to remove the backing of the watch, have the ability to attach the chip to the programming module and insert it into a USB drive, then you can hack the watch. Well, as long as you know how to write C code, but if you don’t, then why are you hacking and not reading?

Overall, I think the device is quite useful for those in the target market, but only at first. After having designed the Toscanini interface using this watch, I couldn’t move forward re-selling these devices as part of the Toscanini system. At a certain point one desires blu-tooth transmitting, if not only for easier pairing with Apple machines. The design could also be slimmer, but then the price point would be higher. While the device has been instrumental in the design of the interface, it has slowly started to result in poor responses during demonstrations.

Luckily, Bill Geiser has started another venture, dubbed the MetaWatch, which promises to be the next best thing in wearable technology. Hopefully I can get my hands on one soon to see how the two compare.

If you recall, last year I curated a few panels for Together 2011. I had a great time working with the festival producers, and this year they asked me to take on the roll of Technology Coordinator. For those of you who don’t know, Together Boston is a festival that takes over the city with events pertaining to Music, Art and Technology. So in short, I’ll be covering the third category. That includes putting together panels, contests, and events that showcase the music and technology that I surround myself with on a daily basis. Yesterday we met to plan some panel topics (some of which were tweeted), and tomorrow we’ll be meeting with some venue representatives at a really cool location in Cambridge Place. More updates to come, and comment here with any ideas/comments/haikus.

Check out Toscanini at Together 2011

I’m back, after a short break from the blog. As you’ll recall, I was last seen finishing up my graduate applications and the second to last semester of my undergraduate career. Things were a bit hectic so I haven’t had time to post, but as today is the first day of my last undergraduate semester ever, I thought it would be a good time to get back in the swing of things. Now that my applications have been turned in, I am thinking about the future- where will I be in a year? What will I be doing? Who will I be? As I wait (im)patiently for my responses to come in, I’ve decided to distract myself by thinking about the last year, and all that has happened. I like to think that once a year I redefine myself, and 2011 was no exception. Here are a few highlights:

January:

  • I began working at RIM. My first (and only) NU Co-op began when I returned to Boston from visiting the in-laws for the holidays. This was a big leap for me as a developer, and I was incredibly optimistic about the opportunity. Unfortunately, I joined at a rather bad time for the company, and my experience was marred by corporate layoffs and a general lack of work to be done.
  • I brewed my first batch of beer. Ever since I had visiting a local home brew store with Julie and our friend Robby Roufail I dreamed of making my own fermented malt drink. Now that I had plenty of time on my hands, the three of us started our first batch, which we titled Pig Snout Oatmeal Stout. I am currently sitting next to the batch number six, a honey porter in primary fermentation.
  • I decided to apply to graduate school. RIM was already turning out to be not what I expected, and I realized that corporate life just wasn’t for me. I’m a musician, a developer, and all around a creative person, and I needed to be surrounded by like-minded individuals. Watching Julie finish up her masters at Brandeis, and meeting people involved with the MIT Media Lab, I realized that the only way to let myself grow is to pursue graduate research. This way I can experiment while also using my time wisely, and stay on the cutting edge of technology with the help of academic funding. My search for schools begins!

February:

  • Beer batch #1 is finished. It was delicious, and we promptly began batch #2- a blackberry wheat ale (get it, I worked at RIM?).
  • Winter set in. I was working 40 miles out of town, which meant a 1-2 hour drive depending on the weather. And this winter was horrible- I saw some crazy accidents. This month I spent sitting on my couch and playing video games. I’m not proud of it, but you have to survive the lows to get to the highs. And things were on their way up from here, as next month…

March:

  • I delivered a lecture at Tufts University on designing the Toscanini interface. This moment was huge for me. After this story was published in the Boston Globe, I received a few responses from readers around the country. The most exciting correspondance came from Paul Lehrman, professor of Music Technology at Tufts. He invited me to demo my technology to his Instrument Design class, and give them insights into the decision processes involved in development. This moment was a major milestone for me, as it cemented my decision to pursue a PhD and work towards my goal of teaching on a university level. Not to mention that it was a great time- and the first time I ever received an honorarium!
  • I became an audiophile. More or less- I ordered my first pair of Grado headphones, and yes, this was a life changing experience. I got the sr80i’s, which are, in *my opinion*, the best headphones you can purchase for ~$100.
  • I turned 22. Only half way to 44… yay?

April:

  • I coordinated two days of panels for the Together festival, and sat on one myself. I got involved with Together Boston through Northeastern. I was asked to assist Coleman Goughary and David Day assemble panels on various Music Technology based topics to accompany the week long electronic music festival. They found my work with Toscanini interesting, and let me coordinate a Gestural Controller panel including Ian Headley and his glove controller, Jacob Fenwick and his kinect dubstep controller, and myself with Toscanini. The panel was moderated by my good friend Jeremy Van Buskirk.
  • I also presented Toscanini at Bar Camp Boston 6. Julie and I dropped into the annual un-conference, held at the NERD center, and I dropped a little gestural controller knowledge on a group of interested individuals. I remember this event as my first lesson in miming: the watch crashed, and I had to use my free hand to move the controls on my laptop while I distracted the audience with broad movements. Wasn’t my fault, I didn’t even touch the firmware!
  • We all mourned the passing of Max Matthews. This was quite a sad day, as I never had the pleasure of meeting Max. I have studied his work extensively, and always championed him as the Les Paul of computer music. When I visited CCRMA later in the year, I saw his desk in the aptly titled Max Lab. It was humbling to say the least. A picture of the desk was included in the california post’s slideshow.

May

  • I was hired by MIT. My friend and classmate Jonathan Millman introduced me to Alexander Stimpson, a PhD candidate studying in MIT’s Humans and Automations lab. Alex was looking for a full time developer to code algorithms for a procedural adherence study. Originally a two month assignment, I stayed on to help design the metric algorithms and create a front-end graphing library which can be found in my portfolio.
  • Julie graduated from Brandeis with her Masters in Sociology. My partner in crime continued on from Northeastern to Brandeis, receiving her second degree before I could even get one! After graduating, she was an intern for a brief time before being offered a fulltime position in the paid search department at Overdrive Interactive. Her blog, TechMess, can be found here.
  • We showed Toscanini at Dorkbot WHIRL. I met Kawandeep Virdee at the Gestural Controller panel back in April. He was really excited about Toscanini, and we talked about the cool things he has his hands in. Turns out he is an amazing networker, and knows how to throw insane parties as well. He brought Julie and I to WHIRL, a tech-fair-slash-dance-party held in Cambridge. This was the most fun I’d had showing off Toscanini, the music was great and the people were awesome.

June

  • We launched http://www.ConductiveIO.com. The website was a while in the making, but our friends at iDesign Co. delivered a site that perfectly fit our needs.
  • I went to my first dubstep concert. True story. Saw Borgore in the basement of the Middle East. I felt old, but at least that meant I could drink.
  • I left RIM and started MIT. I have a thing for 3 letter acronyms, so I swapped out RIM for MIT and officially began working in Kendall Square.

July

  • I left the country for the first time in years. It was only for a weekend in Montreal with Julie, but I had a wonderful time. Hopefully we’ll get back there when it’s a bit warmer!
  • I entered the Lenovo Student Entrepreneur contest. I’m not really the contest type, but in true Robby form, I entered, got into the final round, and didn’t win. This happens to me often in contests, and I’m ok with it. I prefer doing things the hard way, and I’d rather not taste too much fame just yet- I don’t want to go crazy with it.
  • I met Wouter Van Der Broeck at the HAL lab. Wouter was a visiting researcher from Belgium. He was here for 6 months, in which time I played his guide to living in Boston. We introduced Wouter to kayaking on the charles, biking the roads of boston, the American gratuity system, and Slurpees. He survived the experience, and is back home now. Hopefully Julie and I will make it out there this summer to visit, and to experience Europe before I (hopefully) ship off to grad school!

August

  • I took the GRE’s. This was the first step to applying to graduate programs, and I pretty well. Felt good to take a standardized test again (not sure if this is meant to be sarcastic… -Ed.).
  • I survived my first earthquake. “Who’s shaking their leg? Oh… nobody? Guys.. my desk is kinda shaking… is it just me? …was that an earthquake?”
  • I finished my graphing library at MIT. In Java, I used Swing to create a dynamically scalable graphing library that I am using in the GUI for the Standard Deviation Metric calculator. The code can be found in my portfolio.
  • My final summer as an undergraduate came to an end. Time keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking…

September

  • Julie and I celebrated our three year anniversary. This was the most significant event in 2011. A good friend of ours recently referred to Julie as my “Much, much, MUCH significant other”, and I couldn’t think of a better way to put it.
  • I attended the Belgian Beer Festival in the South End. My friend Dave Lambe and I drank our way through Belgium, and I got to meet the guys from Unibroue brewery in Quebec. I even got a Trois Pistoles shirt! /beergeek
  • We showed Toscanini at World Maker Faire NY. One of the largest DIY fairs in the world! Had an awesome time immersing myself in new technology, and we bought an Atari Punk Console kit which is now being housed in an old audio interface case. This would be the last big event for Conductive IO in 2011, as my time was now being devoted to my senior year and applying to graduate programs.
  • I began graduate applications. My job, day and night, would be to analyze every decision I’ve ever made and to decide on the school(s) that would be the best fit for me. In the end, I decided to apply to the MIT Media Lab, Stanford’s CCRMA, UC Berkeley’s CNMAT, and UC Santa Barbara’s CREATE. Next year, we could be relocating to California. It would be nice for a change in scenery, but I wouldn’t mind staying in Boston (especially if I’m studying at MIT).

October

  • I debuted my piece ‘Animal Science’ at Northeastern. Every semester Mike Frengel puts together a student composers concert. My plunderphonics piece, ‘Animal Science’, was diffused live by the composer at Northeastern’s Fenway Center.
  • I started this blog. I’m not sure why I did it, maybe it was because Julie is getting me hooked on social media, but I thought it was time to create a place to document my studies, experiences, and interests. Hopefully you’ve all enjoyed what I’ve posted so far, there will be plenty more to come in the new year!
  • I visited CNMAT and CCRMA. Having already visited the Media Lab multiple times, I wanted to check out some of my west coast options. Due to the close proximity, I was able to hit both UC Berkeley and Stanford in one quick trip. I met some amazing people, and fell in love with the San Francisco Bay area. This trip gave me the motivation to get my portfolio, applications, and essays completed to the best of my abilities.
November
  • I worked on my applications. And worked and worked and worked. Special thanks to my friend and mentor, Riccardo Pucella, for responding to my emails at all hours of night and proofing countless iterations of my essays.
  • I participated in another Boston Music Hack Day. Jeremy Sawruk and I created a streaming radio application for the Free Music Archive of NJ. Julie helped with the UI design, and we had a great time doing it. Web dev is, however, not for me. It was great seeing Jeremy again though, and he brought me a case of Yuengling Porter- a win all around.
  • I attended the Sam Adams Infinium tasting. I attended the tasting at the Jamaica Plain brewery with my friend Kaween Fernando. The event was really cool, but I was really excited about getting one of the first bottles of this limited brew, which will remain in my fridge until graduation.

December

  • I finished my graduate applications. And portfolio, and essays. And they’re all sent in. Gone. Out of my hands. My future is uncertain, but for now, I am keeping my fingers crossed and my hopes high. I’m casually poking around at possible jobs, in case nothing comes through. And as a result of finishing my applications…
  • I got Skyrim, and I am the Dragonborn.
  • I assumed the role of Technology Coordinator for Together Boston 2012. Planning some really awesome events this upcoming April, hopefully you’ll be able to join us!
  • I finished my semester with all A’s. This was a feat for me, as the semester was fairly difficult. I took a lot of stress the past few months and let it build up and build up, and I survived with an improved GPA as my badge of honor. If nothing else, I’m proud that I took on a challenging schedule and the difficult task of applying to graduate programs and got everything done to the best of my abilities.
  • The year ended. Julie and I aren’t much for holidays, so we spent our winter break in Boston. The city was empty, no college kids around, and we spent our time off together. It was the first break either of us has had in at least a year. We spent new years with our friends Dave and Annie, ringing in the new year at the Wharf with fireworks.

I had a long, stressful year, but a productive one at that. As you can see, I’m not the same person I was a year ago. And a year from now, I won’t be the same person I am now. I’m sure you understand how time passes, so I won’t go into the dirty details, but suffice to say that I look forward to further evolving as a composer, a developer, a friend, a professional, and as a person.

I’ll keep you updated on the graduate applications as news comes in, and other cool stuff in music and technology. And get ready big things, because 2012 is going to be my year.

New Years Eve 2011

New Years Eve 2011