Up at 5AM: The 5AM Solutions Blog

Lose the Commute, Gain Improved Quality of Life and Work

Posted on Thu, Mar 17, 2011 @ 01:23 PM

As telecommuting has grown in popularity across many industries, working from home is something that many of us 5AMers do at least part of the time. It sounds just about perfect: Work somewhat flexible hours, wherever you want, wearing what you want, and listening to whatever you want. Plus, the rush hour commute from my bedroom to my office could make anyone jealous! These "occupational hazards" of the telecommuter might sound lighthearted, but in all reality, they can (and do) make a huge impact on the economy, the environment, and individual worker productivity. Last April, Inc.com published an article on telecommuting statistics with some impressive numbers as reported by the Telework Research Network. Some highlights of the estimated benefits of working from home - if 40% of our workforce were to telecommute at least half of the time during a one year period - included:
  • $200 Billion
 in productivity gains by American companies
  • $190 Billion
 savings from reduced real estate expenses, electricity bills, absenteeism, and employee turnover
  • 100 hours 
per person not spent commuting
  • 50 Million tons
 of greenhouse gas emissions cut
  • 276 Million barrels 
of oil saved - Roughly 32% of oil imports from the Middle East
  • 1,500 lives
 not lost in car accidents
  • $700 Billion 
total estimated savings to American businesses
Not mentioned in the list is another figure: Approximately 80% of diseases are shown in some studies to be triggered by stress. 80%. Granted, working from home is work like any other, and is not without unique challenges, but eliminating the commute itself, commuting expenses, forced encounters with unpleasant coworkers (ha! in fact where improptu collaboration and inspiration arises), and separation issues with children or other family members requiring care surely help temper the stress level of the telecommuter. Aside from that, not dining out for lunch, keeping time that would have been lost on the road (allowing for more meals cooked in the home) and not going to after work happy hours, in theory, all cut down on the potential for additional unhealthy choices.

Over the time that I have spent telecommuting, I have come to realize that working from home, with all the flexibility and relative lack of occupational stress could potentially relax some individuals too much. It is very easy to sit at the desk in your home office, or at the kitchen table, and work in a pair of sweats or PJs all day. By dinner time, going to the gym (or anywhere else) can start to sound like a true inconvenience. Plus, there is always something else that needs to be worked on - and the home office is never truly closed. So to some degree, working from home can foster the feeling that your work is never done. Not having the black and white structure of 8am to 5pm can mean that the telecommuter workday might end up being 9am until 10pm, or even 10am until midnight. If you are not self-aware, the line between home and office blurs, and personal time and work time blend together. This can be a serious challenge.

I have heard about this problem from many peers, and the identified solution is often the same: Structure and self-discipline. At 5AM, we believe that we are privileged to be a critical part of an industry that has the capacity to change the human condition for the better. Two of our mantras are “Be Good” and “Do Well.” These simple yet multi-dimensional messages don’t just pertain to our business skills and ethics, but are also relevant on a personal level. I want to benefit the human condition through my research, projects, and work. But I also want to "Be Good" and "Do Well" for myself, too. I have come to realize that working from home doesn’t have to lead to a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle without work-life boundaries. To the contrary, by design it allows for more potential hours in the day to be a healthier, happier person - and a more productive and creative employee. The key is in exercising that potential. I have recently dedicated myself to the task of applying some of those estimated 100 hours saved by not commuting to some early morning gym classes. I will be starting my days earlier, and adding a healthy amount of structure, so that I will feel more energized and can optimize my productivity across the board (...and maybe even have an official end of the day once in a while).
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Choosing the right strategy for mobile development - the landscape

Posted on Thu, Mar 10, 2011 @ 01:22 PM

The mobile development landscape has evolved more rapidly than any other in recent memory. Less than 4 years ago Apple unleashed the mobile revolution with the original iPhone. Though it's hard to remember in these app-crazy times, back then there was no SDK for developing native iPhone applications; the only way to get third-party applications onto the iPhone was as web applications optimized for MobileSafari. Today, on the other hand, Apple has a thriving iOS native development platform, with hundreds of thousands of apps earning billions in revenue. Competitors such as Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone have their own native platforms and app stores with varying levels of success. Meanwhile, mobile web applications remain a viable and possible preferable alternate route to users' eyeballs, with the ability to bypass app store restrictions and review wait times. Finally, a variety of cross-platform and compatibility toolkits promise to let you build mobile applications with your existing skill sets, without wading into the scary waters of Objective-C.
Developers are thus faced with an embarrassment of riches in terms of options for mobile development. Yet all this choice can also be paralyzing - the decision is an important one, requiring potentially large investments in hiring, training, and building core capabilities. Meanwhile, each approach has tradeoffs that must be carefully weighed against the business objectives and environment for each specific mobile development project.
At 5AM, we've recently begun work on a mobile product and have had to analyze these options to decide on our development strategy. In this post I wanted to share some of what we found during our analysis. I will look at three primary options: native applications, cross-platform toolkits, and HTML5 mobile web applications.
Native applications
This is what most users think of when imagining a mobile app. Each mobile OS will typically have a primary language, SDK, and developer tools for creating native applications, and an app store for distributing them (though some also allow independent distribution). For iOS, this means writing Objective C code, using Cocoa libraries, and working in XCode and Interface Builder. For Android, you would generally write Java and work in Eclipse (though some code can and often is written in C, notably graphics-intensive games). For Windows Phone, you are looking at C# and Visual Studio.
  • 100% native look and feel, with maximum flexibility for customization
  • Immediate ability to leverage new features of an OS release
  • No extra layers between you and the native platform, meaning the code is generally performs best and is least memory-intensive
  • Typically excellent tools for debugging and profiling applications
  • Large and active developer community
  • Supporting each OS means starting from scratch in terms of codebase and skill sets, potentially an expensive proposition.
  • The language / libraries of a given OS may use quite a different programming style or lack features that your developers are accustomed to. For example, Objective C lacks garbage collection, necessitating explicit memory management. This implies a steeper learning curve or the need to hire specialist developers for that platform.
  • Each release, including bug fixes, must go through app store approval, a potentially lengthy process. App stores have restrictions which disallow certain types of application capabilities.
Cross Platform Toolkits
To address the maintenance and skill set issues associated with native application development, a number of cross-platform mobile toolkits have sprung up. There is a diverse array of options here; some entrants are Titanium Appcelerator, MonoTouch, and Corona. What they have in common is allowing you to program in a single language (that you would presumably be familiar with) across the OS's they support, and providing a set of common libraries for building UIs and accessing phone features that are more or less consistent across the OS's. They do vary in implementation approach and the degree to which they leverage native UI components vs. providing their own.
  • Can build for multiple OSs in a single language and a single codebase
  • With some toolkits (e.g. Appcelerator), can use native UI components, making app indistinguishable visually from a native one
  • Can reuse existing developers' skills, assuming the chosen toolkit aligns with them
  • Often language and toolkits operate at higher level of abstraction than the native platforms, making code simpler, more compact and expressive.
  • OS differences cannot be fully hidden, especially if fully native feel is desired. Some OS-specific code still needs to be written
  • The application still must go through app store process
  • Debugging and profiling support is generally not as good as the native toolsets. Sometimes abstractions leak, making debugging difficult.
  • When new OS releases come out, there is generally a wait time before the toolkit adds support for new features in those releases
HTML5 mobile web applications
The mobile web applications were the original means of getting third-party applications on smartphones, and they still can be an attractive option. Almost all smartphone OS's use a Webkit-based browser, meaning that browser differences are a much lesser issue than for traditional web applications, and HTML5 support is quite extensive, enabling offline capability, local storage, and other advanced functionality. There are several mobile HTML5 frameworks such as Sencha and jQuery Mobile that make it easy to design nice-looking, native-feeling mobile web applications. In addition, with the PhoneGap framework, HTML5 applications gain access to phone features (such as compass, camera, and so on), and can be packaged as native apps, enabling distribution via app stores.
  • Can fully reuse existing web developers' and web designers' skills
  • Have a very fast test cycle by loading app in browser, without need for simulator or device deployment, when not accessing phone features
  • Can bypass the app store and be hosted directly on your server, meaning updates can be pushed at will
  • All OS's truly share the same codebase
  • Cannot use native UI components or interactions. While the HTML5 frameworks provide nice looking components, and can closely mimic the native themes and animations, they do not provide 100% fidelity, and users can generally tell that the app is not native.
  • If not packaged as a native app (with PhoneGap), the application does not receive the benefit of app store distribution, such as rating system, ranking, or possibly being featured
  • Can suffer from the perception among pundits of being a second class citizen of the mobile application space.
As you can see, there is no obvious clear winner for all situations - the right choice depends on the type of application, the intended audience, distribution method, and marketing approach. In my next post, I'll talk about the toolkit we ended up choosing for our application, why we picked it, and our experience with it thus far.
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Confessions of a LinkedIn Junkie: Social Networking in the World of Biotech

Posted on Thu, Mar 03, 2011 @ 01:22 PM

I tweet infrequently, I dabble in Facebook, but LinkedIn is a habit. My addiction started soon after receiving my first invite to connect more than seven years ago. On more than one evening I’ve stayed up way too late looking up past colleagues and classmates, seeing where their career has taken them and uncovering mutual acquaintances. Not long ago I even wrote a Firefox extension to help enter my publications into my profile. And since I’m coming clean, I’m sure the day that my connections surpasses that magical number 500 (at which point LinkedIn gives up counting and simply reports 500+), I’ll throw a small, self-congratulatory party – at least in my head.

Before my family and colleagues stage an intervention, let me make the case for why LinkedIn isn’t a habit that needs breaking, but a valuable tool for the biotech professional. First and foremost, in a field where some people seem to change jobs faster than they change their socks, LinkedIn is now my dynamic and up to date address book to keep in contact with old colleagues. Second, LinkedIn is my online resume and professional presence, important when you’re trying to bring in new clients or land a job. Finally, my professional network is a resource that I can tap for referrals and answers to technical questions. That same network serves as a highly targeted audience to which I can promote interesting tidbits like this blog post… or perhaps something of real value.

LinkedIn is just one service in an ever increasing arsenal of social networking tools – including Twitter and Facebook – that are available to biotech professionals. LinkedIn wasn’t built specifically for researchers/scientists, however, and it’s been very interesting to see sites like Labmeeting, Nature Network and the now defunct SciLink (to name just a few) tailor their services to this niche. These sites bring some nice features to the table, for example allowing scientists to share and collaborate on research. With the addition of Groups and more recently Publications, however, LinkedIn has come a long way in becoming a more useful tool for biotechnologists. Still on my wish list is a deeper and more sophisticated integration of publication data (e.g. creating a parallel network of co-authorship and integration with tools like Mendeley and CiteULike) as well as a richer network model where you can identify folks in your social graph by relations such as “boss”, “co-worker”, “advisor”, etc.

Having had the linking habit for this long, I’ve started to develop some rules of thumb to get the most out of LinkedIn that I thought I would share:

  • Tend Your Profile: I once heard Auren Hoffman (RapLeaf CEO and networking guru) say LinkedIn was the way to put your cv online without ticking off your employer. That may be the case, but let’s face it – unless your resume shows up in one of those “how not to write a cv” books, your LinkedIn profile is bound to be seen by a lot more folks than your resume. Keep it polished and current.
  • Tend Your Network: What you can do with your network of contacts depends not only on the number of connections you have but the quality of those connections. My rule here comes from dear old Mom – don’t link with strangers. On the flip side, connect soon after meeting while the encounter is still fresh on both minds.
  • Be a Groupie: So Groups on LinkedIn are a bit hit or miss. Some are just another avenue for spam, but others can bring together folks with common interests. The good Groups have given me interesting tips or links and others I belong to simply to show a little bit more about my interests and background.
  • Watch Your Tells: In poker, a “tell” is a subtle sign that a player makers revealing something about her hand. In LinkedIn, a tell is an action that unintentionally reveals something (secret) about a person or company. When a “random” person suddenly links with multiple folks from a company, they’re probably interviewing there. When you notice that all your friends at Acme Co. have started updating their profiles, things at Acme are likely not going well. If you’re interviewing, working with clients or are just sensitive about public image, think about what information your actions might be giving away.
  • Pay it Forward / Random Acts of Recommendation: When someone asks for a referral or introduction, I usually go out of my way to make it happen. I enjoying helping folks make connections and I know that someday I’ll be the one asking. As for recommendations on LinkedIn, I don’t care for being asked for them but I do like giving them to folks that rock without warning or mercy. This is something I need to do more.
As you can see, my addiction is probably not going away any time soon, but if you want to join my support group, I’d love to hear your stories. How are you using social networking for your job?
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