Skip to Content

Introduction

Describing the mechanics of any project is tough, especially if you’re an insider. Detailing what’s happened with ESME is particularly challenging because it is unlike any other project in which I have participated. At this stage (and remember we haven’t yet gotten to the first TechEd), anything I say is preliminary and tinged with the sort of caution that any ‘beta’ release’ brings.

Regardless of anything else, of one thing I am 100% certain. ESME is a case study in the power of community, the dynamics that can emerge, the value of active cooperation between ‘suits’ and ‘geeks’ and the results that are possible. Put another way, how else might the germ of an idea emerge to become a functional application in less than three months without the benefit of community?

The backdrop

Roughly three months ago, I received a Tweet from Anne Petteroe (@yojibee.) Unfortunately, Twitter doesn’t provide enough history to quote exactly but it went something like this: “Do you know about ESME, we need your help.” I had no clue what was going on. Darren Hague and Richard Hirsch describe a casual conversaton that occurred on Plurk that was the genesis on what we now call ESME -or the Enterprise Social Media Experiment.

The idea was simple. Take the concepts behind Twitter and apply them to business process problems that occur inside the enterprise. But why me? Somehow or other, the people who were mulling this problem thought I might be able to add some business value. This is highly unusual because it is often the ‘make people,’ the geeks who declare they know what’s best for end users. ESME is proof positive that no longer applies as a design principle. 

Within days, a team of people from within the SAP community had either been approached or expressed a willingness to get involved. A few more days, some frantic Twittering and the casual conversation had become a project with a clear goal: Get something ready for TechEd and attempt to get it into DemoJam.

By anyone’s standards that’s ambitious. How can you go from zero to product in less than 90 days with a ragbag of people and an idea? This is where I digress and explain the actors and the relationships that either existed or were formed.

The players

The initial team included Darren Hague, Richard Hirsch, Abesh Bhattacharjee, Oliver Kohl, Anne Petteroe, Mrinal Wadhwa and myself. I personally knew Richard and Oliver from meeting in the Blogger’s Corner at SAPPHIRE Berlin. The rest were only known to me by name. It was quickly suggested that we add more people into the mix in order to get a broad set of suggestions and input from different perspectives. Marilyn Pratt for instance came in as someone who could help us if we were successful in achieving a place at DemoJam. Eddie Herrmann, a past DemoJam alumni could help us shape our ‘pitch.’ I know both these people. Given the short time frame, we needed to use Scrum methodology and for that Adobe’s Matthias Zeller was our early Scrum Master and mentor. The full ‘cast’ of interested parties can be found here.

Since then, the team has changed. Oliver and Abesh withdrew for various reasons (though there is no reason why they cannot rejoin) and we were subsequently joined by Jen Robinson and Kirsten Gay. Jen and Kirsten are key to the design principles needed for the UI. The final key player is David Pollak, the driving force behind lift, the Scala web framework

Why this group?

Each person who has joined the team has been connected to another, either directly or indirectly through the SAP Developer/BPX networks, many of whom have mentor status. There has therefore been in implicit level of trust from the get go. There has never been a question of: “Why is this person coming in?” It has always been assumed that each could contribute something – mostly by way of code – but with the common goal of developing for TechEd and possibly DemoJam.

In other words there has been an affinity from day one to the project and to each other. This is a dynamic that is well understood – affinity groups may have loose ties but they can act as one where there is a clear, common goal. If I look at the Wikipedia definition of Affinity Groups, ESME displays most of the attributes Wikipedia describes:

Affinity groups are organized in a non-hierarchical manner, usually using consensus decision making, and are often made up of trusted friends of a common ideology. They provide a method of organization that is flexible and decentralized.

Affinity groups can be based on a common ideology (eg. anarchism), a shared concern for a given issue (eg. anti-nuclear) or a common activity, role or skill (eg. Black Blocks). Affinity groups may have either open or closed membership, although the latter is far more common.

Group operations

However, this is not enough to sustain any sort of group. There have to be some boundaries and while these have not been formalized, ESME people know that once we get past TechEd, then decisions of that kind need to be taken. Even so, early on it was decided to move the main group activities outside of SDN. 

We were faced with one of those delicious dlimmas that are afforded to a very few. The moment we went public with the DemoJam entry video, we found people coming at us from all sides, clamoring to know more or wanting a piece of the action. This was in part due to the fact that I am connected to a number of high profile bloggers who, once they got a sniff of this, started writing interesting stories. What I didn’t realize was just how much interest there would be, albeit the blogosphere is raging with Twitteresque stories. It is also in part due to the fact the ESME YouTube video was watched some 200 times over a couple of days. The current view count is 369.

As a team, we knew that if we were to stand any chance of making it to TechEd, we needed to control group membership as far as possible and ensure the core team players could be left to get on with what they do best. Therefore, we moved the team to an Assembla environment and established a closed GoogleGroup.

That gave us a lot of advantages. We could for instance control who had access to whom for the purpose of any public statements. We could contain development reports and questions within an environment that allows people to remain focused. 

In any project of this kind, early feedback is essential to keep disparate teams both in touch with the main goings on of the project while ensuring we’re all working towards something with which we can collectively agree. That has been especially important from a design perspective where we know that visual impact and usability are crucial.

In order to meet this need – and bear in mind we’re talking people in at least six countries and 15 time zones – we set up nightly Scrum calls. This has been challenging because everyone is working on this project in their own time and at weekends. Sometimes people can’t make the calls.

That’s OK because Assembla and GoogleGroups keep us up to speed anyway. However, the nightly calls serve a vital touchpoint for encouraging team members, ironing out operational problems and allocating tasks in what is unquestionably a dynamic and high speed environment.

For myself, I made an early decision to keep out of most calls because I’m not a code person and so would have little to add and might become a distracting influence. However, when business decisions have been necessary, that’s where I speak up. 

The how and why of making ESME real

All this goodness still won’t get any team past the finishing line unless there is some sort of glue holding the project together. For that, I defer to some of the team members from whom I elicited email comments. 

David Pollak: “This is the best group I’ve never met that I’ve worked with.  This underscores the power of the various communications technologies we’re using: SDN wikis, Adobe Connect, Twitter, email, Google Groups, Assembla, and last but not least, ESME itself.

The ‘why’ am I part of this team seems to trace itself back to RedMonkOne 2007 at JavaOne. James Governor took note of Lift and me and I took note of him and Twitter.  James and I kept in touch via a number of means including email, blogs, and Twitter.

The ‘how’ is a similar story.  The various pieces of technology that I access via my browser and IP network are integral parts of creating a rich tapestry of knowing each one of you.  We can share ideas synchronously and asynchronously.  We can get vibes and senses of where people are going.  It’s also liberating to be able to try things and get feedback.  We can try because there is not the face to face presure of making sure it’s right before we do it and there’s the energy and momentum from each of us weighing in with our ideas and swirling them around.  The communications mediums we use are varied and I think each of us has great skills across the mediums… and that allows us to create an environment where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Darren Hague: “Two threads, technical and social, came together for me earlier this year: the technical in Scala+lift and the social in Twitter.

I first heard about Scala by listening to The Java Posse podcast, where Scala kept getting mentioned as a language that fixed many of the problems of Java-the-language, while still running on Java-the-platform  – but retaining the ability to use all of the existing Java libraries out there. Looking at Scala led me to lift, David’s amazing web framework, which also introduced me to Comet for the first time – seeing the ability to push messages to the browser was awesome. Back in May, I started to think that this tech could be applied to Twitter. I even thought of a name: Scala + Twitter => Skitter. Then I found a piece of example code in the lift distribution: Skittr. Hmm, someone got there first. 😉

The social thread, in Twitter, started back at TechEd Munich ’07, where Gregor Wolf hooked me up with Twitter and I used it to continue conversations with a bunch of people I met at TechEd, and through them met some new people too. A bunch of us took to discussing the features we’d really like to have in a Twitter-like service, and I took this feature list and set up a Wiki page on SDN to record them. That Wiki page was the birth of ESME, and the whole thing rapidly snowballed from there. It will be almost exactly 3 months from the creation of that Wiki page to the first public demonstration of ESME at Demo Jam in Las Vegas – a feat made possible only because we have a team of people who are the best in their field in their respective roles, who have demonstrated passion and commitment to come together and work on something that is fun, challenging and rewarding. Of course, this is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy – it tends to be fun, challenging and rewarding when you have a bunch of people like this working together.”

Anne Petteroe: “I was installing LiveCycle ES at work, using a so-called turnkey installation, that turned out to be not-so-turnkey after all. (surprise surprise!)

Because this was a part of Adobe’s prerelease program, finding help was difficult and the forums on the prerelease program site wasn’t exactly like the forums I was used to on SDN. Days went by without any answers, so instead of wasting my time waiting for one, I shared my headaches with my friends on Twitter.
My friends shared that with their friends again, and within a couple of hours I had Adobe employees writing to me on Twitter offering their help. The next day all problems were solved and I could finish my installation.
I had already been using Twitter (and other collaboration tools) for a while, but mostly to connect with other SAP/SDN users. I couldn’t really see any (enterprise) business value in Twitter until this happened. The speed with which help found me, made me think that this tool could be useful not only for us “tweeters”, but for normal business users as well.
The second part of my story is the same as Darren’s. (starting from discussing the features in a Twitter-like service) Thinking of it, I have actually met everyone working on the project through Twitter alone.”
Jen Robinson:”I first heard about the ESME project on Twitter. I noticed a mention of SCN with a link to the SDN wiki, and because I believe in the value proposition of micro-messaging for the enterprise, I went to check it out.  I noticed a great group assembling around a compelling mission with a number of respected SCN members, and jumped in.  I volunteered myself and my peer, Kirsten Gay, Manager of User Experience in SAP Global Business Operations.
I got involved in the project because ESME is a solution we need.  My team at SAP uses Twitter for social communication and an internal instance of laconica for more sensitive discussion, but we want more. We want to extend this basic messaging functionality to make it relevant for the internal business user community we support.  Enterprise teams need features that aren’t required on the open internet, such as hooks into back-end systems, and that is what we’re building with ESME.”
Do you see the common threads? Affinity, challenge, social interactions, respect. 
Challenges
This is a motley self-selecting crew, some of whom are SAPpers, some of whom work for other large companies and still others who are wholly independent. Traversing each person’s personal circumstances has not been easy in what is after all a loose collective rather than a commercial entity. That has left us with a couple of knotty problems but we have found solutions. the BIG one being that the first iteration will be open source. We will in other words be turning over to the community, what we have done in such a way that others can follow on. 
The different time zones have been a struggle for all of us but that hasn’t prevented us getting things done. It’s just been inconvenient. But people are remarkably adaptable when there is a clear and common goal 

 

What about leadership?

Leaders emerge, they don’t acquire their position by title or position. Each team member brings a specific skill to the table. There is no point in assuming that one person knows best. We had a design in place, a problem to solve and a time limit in which to get it done. Each person knows what they need to do and when people need to collaborate, it is on the basis of ‘who wants it?’ It is my experience that those most interested in collaboration are the right ones to form sub groups. That’s born out here. Should the project become commercial in nature, then that will change but for the purposes of community based projects operating over short time spans, this ad hoc set of arrangements has worked extremely well.

The community angle

All of this is designed to get readers to understand that community or affinity groups can produce remarkable results. This project would not have been possible without three things: SDN and the informal Twitter networks that have emerged among the various group members on the one hand and a hard floor deadline for a project in which we could collectively believe.

The challenge set by the group would not have been executable if it wasn’t for the fact this community can draw upon a broad range of technical and business skills. In his post, Courious about ESME?

You can argue that this self selecting groupwould have emerged anyway. I disagree. The fact for example that Richard Hirsch is one of the best detailers of business processs scenarios I know is only one element. We needed someone who absolutely understands end user needs and Kirsten is that person. We need a framework that will be highly scalable. David and Darren are the go to guys. We also need Flex and SAP people who understand how it all comes together at the back end. Where else would you find that except in SDN? 

So what is the secret sauce? I sense that if the community is large enough, you’ll always find groups who are willing to push the boundaries of innovation and invention. The fact SDN and Twitter have brought this group together in a discoverable context is more than serendipitous, more than coincidental. It is more than vaguely knowing, learning to trust and having a deeply felt mutual respect for one another. It is because the community exists for EVERYONE’s common good and provides the environment for EVERYONE to get something positive out of their involvement.

Final words

If you look at Mark Finnern’s post, you’ll see some of us will be presenting at various times during TechEd. We believe it is important to share experiences because ESME is a proxy for the good things that wil come out of communities that are tended, nurtured and contributed to. It’s your choice but I’d encourage anyone who has an interest in these things to come along to the sessions. There is much, much more to share.

To report this post you need to login first.

16 Comments

You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.

  1. Mark Yolton
    Absolutely extraordinary story.  Thank you, Dennis, for sharing it.  I am more interested in the social and social-networking aspects of it than the geeky code development stuff (I’m not a geek except to those who are less so; near-Luddites), and Dennis you captured the essence of community beautifully.  I’m extremely pleased to see the level of connection, collaboration, trust, and other factors at work within (and aside) this amazing SAP Community Network so many people work so hard to create and nurture.  It makes the work, the long nights and weekends, and the sweat and worrying and advocacy tangibly worthwhile.  I’m excited to see ESME in all its glory at SAP TechEd in Las Vegas (less than 2 weeks away!), but even more excited to connect with and thank the team members who not only created something new and innovative, but who did so in a new, agile, engaged, collaborative, and innovative way. 

    Regards,
    Mark Yolton

    (0) 
    1. Marco ten Vaanholt
      I have to concur with Mark. I am very interested in both the dynamics, the porgress and the early results. Thanks for sharing. Let us know what next time we would do better or different …good luck at demo jam !
      (0) 
  2. Darren Hague
    Thanks for writing this, Dennis. We’ve all been so focused on building the system, and it’s nice to take a step back for a few minutes and realise how much we’ve accomplished, and how we’ve accomplished it. It was interesting to read about affinity groups on Wikipedia – we have indeed evolved a very similar model, although perhaps with less political aims than is traditional for this kind of group.
    With just two weeks to go, we are now on our final sprint to get ESME ready for TechEd Las Vegas, and from there we will continue to improve the system again and again for TechEd Berlin and TechEd Bangalore. The more feedback we get at Vegas the better the subsequent iterations will be, so I’d really encourage people to go to Community Day and get involved, even if it’s just to sign up for the ESME beta programme.
    (0) 
  3. Frank Koehntopp
    You really should have done a development blog documenting the whole process – that sounds so terribly interesting, it’s a pity not being able to follow the details
    (0) 
    1. Dennis Howlett Post author
      @frank – thanks for that.

      We were genuinely constrained by details that will come clearer after TechEd. We expect to solve the issues in the coming weeks, at which stage we may well be able to put some flesh on the development elements.

      We weren’t deliberately trying to ‘hide’ stuff but we could not be fully transparent. I realize that’s a disappointment but there’s still plenty we hope the community will see as valuable in the story we’re telling.

      (0) 
    2. Darren Hague
      Frank,

      We would have loved to do a development blog, but given the pace of the project and the part-time nature of the team (1 or 2 days per week each), we did not have the time to write both blogs and code. Blogging development is, I think, a luxury afforded only to full-time members of a project. 🙂

      – Darren

      (0) 
  4. Ed Herrmann
    It has been a honor to be part of the ESME team and to see how an application can be built almost using the chaos theory, or perhaps more specifically, the butterfly effect

    “The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in a certain location. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of events. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.”

    From one tiny wing flap during a Plurk conversation to a potential enterprise-scale app in only three months…woah!  To see one of the best team’s I’ve worked with come together to create such this application in such a self organizing manner has been simply amazing.

    (0) 
  5. Marilyn Pratt
    I particularly like the diverse cultures represented in the project.  Geeks and suits (or a least technologists and business professionals), from diverse countries, companies, backgrounds, skill sets.  It’s beyond what I dreamed of back when I suggested creating a BPX Community Project which Dick Hirsch so ably populated and lead.  Regardless of the successful admission to Demo Jam, I’m excited about the behind-the-scene story of folks with ideas coming together and forming a functioning team from: Saudi Arabia, England, India, Germany, Norway, US, Spain and I’m sure I’ve left out some other places.  Cooperative Globalization in its most attractive manifestation.
    (0) 
  6. Anonymous
    To be part of this team and work on this project has been the most amazing experience I have had in my professional career so far!
    Reading about it here, make me realize exactly what it is we have accomplished.

    I still remember the first time we brought up the idea of DemoJam, how we laughed and thought next year would probably be more like it.
    That we would sit here three months later with a product in our hands, was beyond my wildest dreams.

    Even if I haven’t had much free time the last three months, I would work on a project like this any time again.

    (0) 
  7. Mark Finnern
    Hi Dennis,

    There is a reason why you are the full time blogger. You put into word the key elements of ESME and why it is so amazing.

    For me it is the most interesting event since starting SDN. I am convinced that it wouldn’t been possible even a year ago. Being on Twitter on a regular basis creates familiarity creates trust. This is added by the trust and familiarity we create for years here on SCN online and at the upcoming TechEds with Community Days.

    In my view these two elements ignited the ESME rocket and brought an amazing team together with everyone focusing on his part.

    Of course having some friends at ZDNet to stoke the fire was a nice benefit too.

    Can’t wait for more details and the Demo Jam presentation at Community Day, Hacker Night and TechEd, Mark.

    (0) 
    1. Dennis Howlett Post author
      “Of course having some friends at ZDNet to stoke the fire was a nice benefit too”

      @mark – For clarity: I have no influence over what others write and specifically excluded myself from any discussions and interviews on ZDN. The only thing I did was ask certain people to take a look at the story and facilitated discussions with others on the team and in which I took no part. 

      The only connection is between myself and others as part of the ZDN team.

      (0) 
  8. Community User
    I promised I would stay out of this whole conversation simply because I am also hosting the Demo Jam but reading Frank’s comment below I could not resist but to remind everyone that the guys will be presenting at the RIA Hacker Night in all 3 locations (regardless of Demo Jam) – there are still slots open for the Vegas Hacker Night so be sure to sign up to get your “hands” on this little gem.
    (0) 
  9. Alvaro Tejada Galindo
    Dennis:

    On the beginning…I was part of the ESME Team…However, work, daughter and book writing keep me away from it since the beginning… -:(

    It’s completely amazing how the team managed to build such a monster in record time…Can’t wait for DemoJam and Hacker Night…

    Best Community Project!!!

    P.S: Sorry SAPLink…You will be always in my heart -;)

    Greetings,

    Blag.

    (0) 

Leave a Reply