5 free tools for collaboration with remote teams

Technology has made it easier than ever to telecommute or work with remote teams. At b5media, we have people working from around the world, and have tried and used dozens of tools to make that work go smoother.

Everyday, there are new tools that show promise, but many are tried once and forgotten about. Some are clunky or get in the way of collaboration. Others are a solution in need of a problem. Here are some of the best ones that have gone past the trial, and turned into must-have tools that we use every day.

Cost: free
Skype is best known as a telephone replacement. Sure, being able to make free skype calls anywhere in the world is nice, but that isn’t the real killer app from a collaboration perspective. The best kept secret about Skype is its use in Instant Messaging. Just like Messenger, AIM, or Google Talk, you can create a text chat bewteen people. You can even create a group chat within your team. The one feature you won’t find elsewhere though, is the ability to bookmark these conversations. This means that if someone is offline, when they return they will see the entire conversation they have missed and are able to catch up. With a team spread over multiple timezones, this is really useful, and you never have to worry about being left out of the conversation because you happen to be offline at the time.

Cost: free
Video conference calls add that human touch to a remote team. If everyone has a webcam installed, Tokbox is a really elegant interface to show a “Brady Bunch” style display of your team during a meeting. We’ve used it with up to 6 people, but in theory, you could have many more. With folks scattered around the continent, being able to talk with them face-to-face makes a big difference! We don’t use this for every call, but from time to time it’s really nice to remind us all that we’re all people working as a team.

Cost: free
Skype is great for a short, purpose driven call, but Teamspeak turns voice chat into more of a virtual office. It is client/server software, which means you need hosting, but most Internet companies already have access to servers with extra capacity. Load up the server and you can now have a “push-to-talk” style conversation with your whole team. Have the team hanging out in a Teamspeak channel, and hitting a button is the virtual equivalent to poking your head over the cubicle wall for a quick question. It allows those quick, informal, water-cooler conversations to happen despite the distance. Since it’s a push-to-talk setup, you won’t be burning up bandwidth having a skype call active all day with mostly silence.

Cost: free
There are many desktop-sharing applications out there, but the good ones like WebEx or GoToMeeting cost a lot of money. Yugma is a free solution with all the features of the commercial solutions, including multiple viewers, and both Windows and Mac compatibility. A software download is only needed for the host, not for clients. Desktop sharing is useful for everything from viewing a powerpoint presentation to having several people doing a code review. One person hosts the meeting, and shares his screen, and everyone else can see, in real-time, what is on that screen. Combined with Teamspeak or a Skype call, and you can really see what we’re talking about.

Google docs
Cost: free
Google Docs are a great, free way of maintaining your documents or spreadsheets without using Microsoft Office, however there is also a huge advantage to having documents existing online in the cloud instead of within an application on one computer. Collaboration with Google Docs, specifically Google Spreadsheets, is as easy as inviting others to the document. If two (or 5.. or 50) people open a spreadsheet at the same time, they can all edit individual cells and others will see their changes immediately. If your team needs a common checklist, or you need to get information from many people, this is the easiest and most real-time way of setting this up. Google Documents can also have multiple people editing, but the experience isn’t as slick as the cell-locking based system in Spreadsheets.

These are the five that we use and have stuck with over time. There are many others that we have tried, and haven’t found as useful, but other organizations may. Which tools do you use within your work environment?

Canadian Politicians on Twitter

It seems that @BarackObama stopped using Twitter as of his inauguration, but really, he only has 2 tweets since the election back in November.  (Yes, I know he has taken over the @TheWhiteHouse account, but even that only has a couple of tweets since he has taken the reigns)

I’d love to say that Canadian politicians are making better use of the platform, but sadly, while many of the prominent ones have an account on Twitter, few are using them effectively.  It’s still pretty cool for a casual tweet from your Prime Minister, “Called Mexican President Calderon today”

Regardless, here are some of the big ones in the Twitterverse.

Federal Party Leaders:

Other Notable Federal Politicians and Groups:

Canadian Premiers:

Provincial Representatives:

Other Local Politicians:

Let me know if I’m missing anyone in the comments below, and I’ll add them to the list!

That was built with WordPress?

Yesterday, we at b5media launched the third of our unique look at the blogs within our channels.  Splendicity is a new portal which pulls content from over 70 Beauty & Style blogs within the network, and pulls it all into a customized WordPress instance.  This follows on the launch of Bizzia last week to highlight our Business content, and Starked which highlights our Entertainment and Music blogs.  Yes, it’s been a busy month on the team!

Adding in some custom plugins built by Mike Schinkel, and a slick theme created by Todd Henwood and Bill Erickson, we’ve created a really cool site with all of the features you would expect from a mainstream site.  The best part about it, is that it’s all built on top of a WordPress base.  Taking advantage of the ability to extend the WordPress code using plugins and custom themes, we’ve created the ability for the editors to pull the best content from the blogs within those channels and present it in a way that can drive traffic and create a more mainstream audience.

That is the next great frontier for WordPress.  In the coming weeks, WordPress 2.7 will be released which is a huge refinement of an already robust product.  With this release, WordPress graduates from the realm of the geeky blogger, into a mainstream content tool. 

When sites like these portals, or mainstream news and magazine sites like my last project, Green Living Online, have the tools the WordPress provides, anything is possible!  When I look back on some of the large media sites I have built in the past (like TSN and DiscoveryChannel), there aren’t many (any?) features needed that couldn’t be provided within WordPress. 

I’m not suggesting that the folks at CTV should be rebuilding their tools from scratch, but for people out there looking to create competing products, you’d be hard-pressed to find a tool that provides all of the functionality, and the support community that is found here.

The tech industry in a downturn

We’ve heard how todays economy affects Joe the Plumber and Joe Six-pack, but what about JoeTek? 🙂

This economic downturn has been compared to the Great Depression in the 1930’s, but the technology sector as we know it today wasn’t around at that time.  The dot-com bubble bursting 8 years ago was more of an indicator for how things will shape up for us in the coming months and years.

Economic cycles are to be expected.  They are typically a good thing for our industry – a filtering, a culling of the herd.  The weakest are taken out of the picture, so that the strong can thrive on the other side.  The problem is that some really good companies will not make it, and some really bad companies will. 

We are certainly not as vulnerable as we were in 2000.  We haven’t had the crazy IPOs and unrealistic valuations that plagued us in the 1990’s.  In fact, the big drivers of technology growth in the past 8 years were born out of the last recession – blogging, social media… The poster-children of tech today were all conceived during the last downturn, and grew through venture instead of going public.  We’ve learned from our mistakes in the 90’s and protected ourselves in advance.

The bottom line is that the technology industry depends on the health of the economy as a whole.  The hardware and software industries rely on the banks, manufacturers and big business to buy and upgrade thousands of PC’s on a regular basis.  The web industry depends on advertising dollars from traditional businesses to sustain itself. 

Without health in the overall economy, the tech industry will suffer.  When non-tech businesses are faced with tightening budgets, web marketing, advertising and capital expenditures for upgrades are among the most vulnerable for cuts.

So what should tech companies do in the face of decreasing budgets all around?  In the absence of client business, if you’ve got resources on the bench, now is the time to innovate. 

In the last downturn, web developers with too much time on their hands invented blogging, social networking, and ajax.  They turned static web pages into tools that have been used to connect people and change how we are productive.  YouTube launched.  Facebook connected people.  Even Google hit their stride and overturned the industry by launching AdSense and AdWords during the downturn. 

So, what will you invent as the economy crashes this time?

Microsoft and Yahoo

So Microsoft has thrown it down. After over a year of speculation, they have dropped a whopping $44.6 Billion to buy Yahoo in their bid to play “catch up” to Google. The Yahoo/Microsoft deal is not yet done; it is simply an offer. However, its pretty likely that this will happen, and that Yahoo will be owned by Microsoft at some point. (After a bit of back and forth on price)

This merger has been long rumoured, and is really aimed at combining Yahoo and MSN’s Search products to compete head on against Google’s Search product. There will probably be discussions about combining other areas as an offshoot, but the real story here is search. Microsoft needs to join forces with Yahoo in order to take on Google.

On the content side if this agreement happens, I would suspect that at some point there will be some combination of the Yahoo portal with MSN/Sympatico to aggregate content acquisition between both companies. Google has not competed in this space so this would be a lower priority for them, but they could realize some cost savings by going this route.

As far as branding, I suspect the folks at MSN are probably a little worried this morning. They are not going to get rid of the Yahoo name, but could drop MSN, since that brand is quite dilute already.

We’ll see what happens!

Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act

Stephan Dion announced today his new “tough on crime” platform. In it, he introduces the “Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act” to assist law enforcement in fighting crime.

“This bill will allow the police and CSIS adapt to new communications technology. Telephone and internet service providers will be required, subject to vigorous privacy safeguards, to include an interception capability in new technology, and make subscriber contact information available on request to designated law enforcement officials”

This is yet another example of treating the public as guilty before proven innocent. Essentially, he is asking ISP’s and Telephone companies to search and record the activities of all of their customers; collectively, all of the Canadian population… just in case we happen to be doing something wrong.

We don’t allow officers to randomly search people as they walk through Union Station. Why is randomly searching people online allowed?

What is Web 2.0?

I have been asked that question a thousand times. Usually I describe the latest trends towards user generated content, xml mashups, AJAX technology and new design principles. Web 2.0 is not a simple concept, but a combination of several current trends that make up the next generation of web applications.
Sometimes, however, words can’t convey the significance or importance of this change, and its effect on our daily lives. Why are “You” the Time Person of the Year? What does this mean for existing business? Media? Information?

The folks at Digital Ethnography have done a great job of breaking it down into a quick 5 minute video that walks us through it. Enjoy! (Video after the jump) Continue reading “What is Web 2.0?”

The 10% rule for managing staff

As you move into a management role, the things that you do on a day to day basis will evolve. As a “geek”, you are probably the type that wants to stay hands-on with the technology, yet want to keep your career moving forward. It is important to realize that moving into a management role will require you to spend less time hands-on, and more time managing. The question is, how much time? Continue reading “The 10% rule for managing staff”

Yahoo’s ‘Peanut Butter Manifesto’

Brad Garlinghouse, Yahoo’s SVP responsible for some of the largest pieces of the Yahoo family (mail, IM, Yahoo’s front page), wrote an email memo – a “state of the union” manifesto document – to his staff. This memo was leaked to the Wall Street Journal and is available in its entirety here (all typos included).

In it, he calls for a full on overhaul of the organization, selling off non-core and redundant businesses, restoring accountability within management (“heads must roll”), and a 15-20% reduction in headcount.

He manages to do all of this while building a strong case for the moves and keeping strong motivation for building the business. Most Yahoo employees stopped reading at the 15-20% reduction line, but he still tries to paint the picture and inspire confidence for the road ahead. Well worth a read.

How the Zune will (eventually) kill the iPod

Microsoft released the Zune Player this week. This is simply the latest in the conquests for the MS Technology Life Cycle. Will the success rate halt with the Zune, or should Apple be worried?Most developers are familiar with the Software Development Life Cycle, but Microsoft seems to have modified this process to run their entire business. I refer to this as the MS Technology Life Cycle. It has been used successfully in product after product, and has shaped the technology industry. It has produced some staggering results.

Continue reading “How the Zune will (eventually) kill the iPod”