Selecting a Project: Instinct or Analysis?

Why choose to go after this need for web charting?

There’s no magic analysis. From a lean perspective, it’s a matter of triangulating at least 3 things:

  1. What are the market opportunities/needs
  2. How close is the available technology to filling them
  3. When can our group fill the gap vs. our competition

For a lean-style micro-isv, we would hope for projects that can launch in weeks, not years. In my case, it’s been 7 years since I’ve done this kind of development. I’m starting from zero on nearly all the technologies I’ll be using to create these web sites and web services: ruby, rails, lots of gems, css, subversion, new editor, etc. I know It’ll be slow going on the first projects. And as I experiment with openly blogging about this project as I work on it, the time window of my head start will be short.

For these reasons — and all the other reasons why short iterations, feedback, and adjustment are important — I have to be especially cautious about scale to keep the project managably short.

Personal interest in the space is also an important factor — even with trying to keep each project as small as possible, it’ll still be a large chunk of life working on it.

Data visualization has gotten my attention in recent years. I’ve spent a bunch of time on large software projects. Large-scale software development is an amazing challenge. Microsoft, which does a lot of it, has been pursuing a strategy of collecting and analyzing a ton of data for the purposes of managing their projects. So much data that it’s simply overwhelming. If you can’t summarize it with charts, teams can’t really digest it. Both inside Microsoft (where they can throw people at the problem), and on the wider Internet — we don’t have tools yet to make this visualization easy enough.

There is competition in this space — one can search for companies offering charting, graphing, visualization web services. This is a good thing, as long as there is breathing room for technical or business model innovation. is one example, that offers 1000 graphs for $12.95 a month (with lots of other pricing options) with a free trial that requires registration.

There are interesting new ideas around for doing things better, like Joe Gregoria’s sparklines service 2-year P/L for single project. This is a wonderful example of taking a underused form of visualization, and making it more approachable with a very well designed, simple site for creating the images, and hosting so the images can be easily included on other pages. I’d like to see something similar which makes it as easy to create larger visualizations.

And there are some exciting technologies to build on. Geoffrey Grosenbach’s awesome Gruff library,’s beautiful SWF/XML charts, and web frameworks like Ruby on Rails to speed development.

So, out of a long list of potential ideas, this one seemed to stand out as one where the need, and the technology gap to fill it, seemed to be a match. Instinct backed up by a bit of analysis.

And, in typical lean fashion, I shouldn’t be betting the farm on this one project. I should complete several projects in a year — and expect that I’ll have several failures and a few successes. It is through that feedback loop with the market that leancode as a business can succeed.

Thinking about a first project

The Internet has enabled us to flood ourselves with data. To make sense of this all, we have to be able to prioritize and summarize what we look at. We have a lot of web tools and web services to help us, but not surprisingly, most of it is text based — and sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

For those pictures, we already have many vertical market sites which provide great charts ( being one common example for stocks, etc.). What we don’t have is a service — and a business model to support it — to bring this kind of data visualization to the “long tail” of other data on the internet. Charting for things like: bugs or checkins to open source projects, historical government spending, census data, or the # of daily classified job postings in your field etc, etc.

In order for that to happen, you’d need a freely available service which lets you point it at data, generate nice charts and visualizations, and have them be hosted so you can link to them from web pages, blogs, wikis, discussion boards, etc.

This is not a big business — there are limits to how much this visualization is worth to people. And for one-off stuff, you can always hand data to your buddy who is handy with Excel. But it’s a nice niche, and it’s part of a much larger category of knowledge mangement and data mining tools, which is an area of work which I love for some reason, and keep getting drawn back to.

What do you think — is this something you could ever imagine using (or seeing someone else use)?

But ideas are cheap — it’s really all about execution. For that, see coming posts.