Oct 28 2010

A Tale of Two Minimalist Systems Engineers

The First Annual Report of Night Train Consulting


On the occasion of Night Train’s first birthday, Jeff and I have taken the opportunity to see how much deep thinking we could project onto our former (younger, brazen, foolish) selves to make us sound wiser and more introspective than we are.  These are our open notes and reflections from that tomfoolery:

First, the fun stuff:

  • Any resemblance of the name Night Train to the following is completely intentional.  Take your pick between Night Train the bum wine, the zulu poem, the song by Amos Lee, James Brown, or Guns ‘N Roses (or the recent album by Keane), or the Olympic Gold-winning American bobsled.
  • When we were not working this year, we were hiking, playing the guitar, traveling, or taking photographs.  We’re no good at any of those yet, which means a lot more practice is in short order.  Practice is a lot more fun in groups, so why don’t you join us for our next hike, class, or jam session?

Our values and long-term vision:

  • We love helping you work out all the angles for your strategy, uncovering inspiration from unusual places, and implementing minimalistic solutions.  Minimalist solutions are anything that make a system a lot more efficient, use existing resources and energy wherever possible, and stay laser focused on the most important objective for the project, while treating all of the rest as contraints.
  • We, honestly, geek out whenever we think of a cool minimalist solution, and it’s even better to get paid when we do.  We have been lucky to find a few of you willing to take that risk on us and, therefore, have been able to do more of what we love lately- research, analysis, and strategy work- compared to when we first started and were doing more building of specific technology applications for the web.  We enjoy analysis and strategy work so much that we would like to be doing that exclusively in the future.  So we are now focused on working on the types of projects and skills that help us reach our goal of doing systems analysis and minimalist strategy projects full-time by 3-5 years from now.  We dream of working all of the time on projects like helping a university create a better evaluation system or helping a public library fix a terrible card catalog system.
  • One of our sources of inspiration for going down this path has been meeting interesting people from other companies already doing similar things, such as the Santa Fe ComplexMayaTeam Rubber, and IDEO.  Like these other companies, our projects would use tools from systems engineering, design, and complexity science (particularly behavioral economics), with a focus on our core values of minimalism and improving community wellbeing.
  • In addition to focusing on improving a few of our personal skills to help us get there, such as writing (why we’re keeping up this blog) and taking on more data analysis projects, we’re also starting to have a good idea of profiles of other people we want to bring into our team to work with us, when the time is right.  We eventually want to invite a few more partners to join us whose skills- like design/arts, great sales and deal-making skills, data visualization and ethnographic surveying- help fill out a robust minimalist system engineering design shop.  We’re already talking to people who have some of those skills and who share our interest in analyzing complex systems, our insatiable curiosity, and our values.
  • We have learned from our experience this year that it helps us when we focus on finding solutions to the problems of a particular community, which is why community wellbeing has made it into our two most important values.  To be more specific, at the moment we love working in the fields of education (particularly open education), social entrepreneurship (and, more broadly, social innovation), and travel, and also particular physical communities like Charlottesville, Virginia.  Improving the wellbeing of our communities and our families tend to make it into that “most important objective” slot quite a bit more often than other things we often hear about much more frequently, like growth, profit and personal income.   Therefore, we will make it a priority to work with those whose primary goal in life is to improve the wellbeing of their communities and their families first, and who see profits and growth as important but secondary objectives- as constraints for improving their community’s wellbeing sustainably.

What we did this year:

We would like to thank our clients for the opportunity to work on the following projects this past year:

  • We worked for Sol Systems, a very impressive and successful start-up in DC who is creating the marketplace for solar renewable energy credits in 13 U.S. states.  Jeff became their acting CTO and did a lot of great work for them over the last few months.  We also have learned a lot from them about running a great business and how to hire great people and treat them right.
  • Alan worked for a Tibetan-run NGO called Machik, both as a volunteer last year in DC and at work in Tibet this summer.  Alan helped Machik, along with many other great partners such as the Tibet Sustainable Governance Program at UVA, organize the first ever Tibet Social Business Conference at UVA in April and in Tibet in July.  He also helped run a summer enrichment program for Tibetan students and taught a few classes on economics and social entrepreneurship.  A lot of development projects fail because they don’t stick to such simple, powerful values as those for which Machik stand.  But because of Machik’s values, they are empowering Tibetans to do some incredible projects in one of the most difficult contexts on Earth.  Their ability to do that with a sense of respect, pose and a commitment is alluring to everyone who knows their work.
  • We built a website for Rainmaker Fundraising, under the gun in less than 48 hours, which included a private content management system, an integrated google map for tracking team activities, and a blog.  We helped them optimize the website for search engines and set up online advertising accounts.  And we wrote a detailed research and briefing paper for the first reconnaissance team that went to Haiti in April to help with reconstruction of L’Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne in Jacmel.  Congratulations to Larry and his team on taking a big risk to get started, assembling a skilled team to go to Haiti so soon after last year’s disaster, and for having their work featured on ABC’s Extreme Makeover, Home Edition.
  • We helped overhaul RateYourStudyAbroad.com under the hood.  We also facilitated a detailed strategy exercise with founders Henry and John, covering a dozen different technical and non-technical options the team could use to increase traffic to the site and to help build the brand.  The strategy exercise gave a team who was starting to show some fatigue a great burst of energy which has resulted in a factor of 10 increase in traffic, new deals with other partners and advertisers, and more focus on the core strengths of the team and the brand.
  • We helped Myers & Chapman build a new website.  We loved working with Myers & Chapman because of their values and clear commitment to great relationships with clients.  We would like to thank Bo South especially for providing good direction, feedback, and much appreciated comic relief throughout the project!  We also worked with them on a pretty awesome proposal they submitted to the City of Charlotte to build an online Green Building Trail, which is an interactive website for local building owners, vendors, and contractors to brag about and find examples of green building technology in use in Charlotte.   [Full disclosure, the CEO of Myers & Chapman is Alan's dad]
  • We also enjoyed many creative or practical brainstorming sessions with friends who are passionate about starting their own new projects, such as Daniel Hudspeth, who is starting a new charter school in DC (and had a baby!), Weipung and Penhao Huang, who want to start a peer teaching network and a Time Bank in Guangzhou, China, Julie Bowes, who is starting an intergenerational teaching network and study circles in Washington D.C., Neela Rajendra who is starting an underground restaurant in DC, Greg Herrington, who is creating MySideVenture.com to help match students and entrepreneurs to work together in Charlottesville, VA, Tedd Determan and Lucas Cioffi, who have a tool called OnlineTownHalls.com, Robert Thomason, who launched GlobalResourcesNews.com, and Allison Basille, who is launching Hub DC and Time Banks DC.  You are all doing cool things and we thank you for letting us be involved in chasing your dreams.

What’s next?

We are now focusing on two main projects and we’d love to get you involved with them.  As you know, we are big fans of open learning.  This year we found a great community of like-minded people at a few different organizations like AshokaUYouth Venture, Wiser-U and P2PU.  Along with Laura White at Tulane, we have helped pull together the energies of a few of these groups to start a project to build the new Change School.  Right now we are running a pilot course on P2PU that has been so successful that many of the course’s participants have told us it has been hard for them to stay focused at school or work.  We are in early stages of getting more course organizers and champions involved, and also are helping develop a vision for that school.  Many thanks to P2PU for offering financial support and to AshokaU for incubating this project, along with the Living Transcript.

The second project, the Living Transcript, is directly related to the first.  The Living Transcript is a tool for earning merit badges for practical life skills and for using those badges to earn new opportunities, like jobs and scholarships.  For the Change School project, we’re starting with merit badges covering the skills of social entrepreneurs, changemakers, and social innovators to prove that they’ve got the stuff they need to take on big challenges in their community- including subject areas (social innovation in education, engineering, maternal health, etc.), skills (systems thinking, root cause analysis, management, community leadership, etc.), and deep character traits (empathy, creativity, vision, etc.).  We’re excited that Mozilla has offered us a scholarship to attend their Drumbeat Festival in Barcelona next week to work on this idea with more than 500 other people who are passionate about the exact same, geeky topic (can you believe it?).  We already have users creating static living transcripts, but we are now actively seeking funding to help us build the prototype this spring.

Work with us

Where do you fit into our vision and projects?  How can we help you?  Let us know in the comments, or email us.

Most importantly, thank you for helping us get to this point!


Oct 25 2010

To preserve it, pass it on

At his funeral this weekend, Lewis Marcum Townsend, my grandfather, was remembered most of all as a hard worker with an incredible can-do attitude and ability to solve problems.


Mr. Townsend was a true self-made man who began working hard from a young age, after losing his mother when he was five.  He never stopped until the day he died.  He paid his way through college by working as a contractor one semester to save money to go to school the next.  After serving as a field engineer for the Navy, he returned home and built his church and both of his homes by hand, with the help of his family and community.  For more than 30 years of his career he was the first call of the Charlotte Mecklenburg School System to fix or build anything that they needed.

Friends and family members all swapped funny stories this weekend about his uncanny ability to solve any problem put before him, often with a sense of humor.  The best way to get him to do something for you was to tell him “I bet you can’t figure out a way to do this,” as my grandmother Virginia told us; “It was as if once he got hold of an idea, he couldn’t let go of it.”  He connected with others through this talent.  He dedicated his whole life to building the things his family and community needed, so that they might have the three things he valued most: strong families, strong schools, and a strong faith community.  So it is fitting that he died doing what he loved; taking care of his family’s beautiful land in the mountains.

As I considered how best to honor my grandfather, I remembered learning about the way the Japanese think about historic preservation.  While it is common for us in the West to think that historic preservation means preserving physical things and structures as they stand, the Japanese place their emphasis on preserving the knowledge and skills needed to build their beautiful historic buildings.  These are made of wood, so they will all eventually burn or fall down in time.  In acknowledgement of this fact, the Japanese pass the techniques for traditional timber craftsmanship down from generation to generation so that they are ready for the moment when they are called upon.  If the memory is preserved, the physical buildings can come and go.

Mr. Townsend was a one of a kind.  ”God threw out the mold when He made Lewis,” my grandmother said this weekend.  That may be, but when we carry forward, through our everyday work and relationships, his unrelenting, can-do attitude and his love of using that talent for building strong communities, we can preserve the mold for generations.

To remember my grandfather, go and build something for the people you love.  Set your mind to their problem, don’t let go of it, and don’t stop until it is solved.

Really… don’t stop until it is solved.

Pass it on.


Oct 13 2010

As Oil Drilling Moratorium Ends, Idea Engine poses a Riddle

Q: Overbuilding : foreclosures :: overdrilling : ________?

In case it is not obvious; the U.S. overbuilt single-family homes before 2008- we built more than we would ever need and did it way too quickly.

Some consequences of that poor allocation of resources, which have been playing out painfully for the last couple of years, include, but are not limited to:

  • Wasted Resources – Both money and physical resources- land, timber, energy, etc.- were wasted building things we did not need, to say nothing of the opportunity cost of not using all of that great human and creative energy in other industries which are still badly in need of innovation, like education and healthcare.
  • Crash – The subsequent drop in house prices has turned many Americans upside down in what for many is their largest investment.  Many people have lost their shirts.  Not to mention the subsequent ripple effect into every other part of the economy.
  • Permanently Lost Jobs – The unemployment rate in the construction industry right now, and other supporting industries, is as high as 60-70% in some markets.  Like the whalers of the 19th century, we must face the reality that many of these jobs will never return.  Many more people trained to be concreters, architects, draftsmen, etc. than there is a sustainable level of demand to justify in the long-term market.  Even if we return to a higher sustained level of building on an annual basis, which we clearly exceeded before 2008, there are not enough jobs in construction for all of these people.  This is a real-life horror story playing out right now in the lives and families of many people who were employed by this over-inflated industry before 2008.

Like any good parent would encourage their child to do, we should of course be generalizing the lessons from that boo-boo when we talk about other overbuilt industries, which can be defined as any industry that will inevitably face a lower sustained level of demand in the future.  (Does that describe the industry that employs you?)

For example, as the White House lifts the moritorium on oil drilling the Gulf today, you will hear the jobs argument made loud and clear by Gulf state’s politicians, residents, and oil companies.  But this is a short-term view on jobs, like a home developer in SW Florida in 2007 begging City Hall to grant just one more housing permit to keep all of those contractors employed.  What else will they do if you don’t let us get back to work building more houses we will never sell?

When demand for oil is not what it is today, oil company profits will not be the only thing affected.  So why are we supporting the overproduction of oil now, when there are so many positive-return-on-investment, technologically simple, readily available options already well known for using dramatically less today?  I am not talking about solar panels on homes.  Chilled beams were used in my former office in Australia and cut the building’s energy use by more than 40% per year, and they are mostly unheard of in the U.S.

Not to belabor the point made so well by so many others, but building new industries around these innovations creates jobs too.  Why not focus on all of the good that can come from that, rather than on the negative of what more drilling means for the environment?  We’ve already proven how good we are at creating soft landings for inflated industries.

* Note: I do not intend to criticize any one individual working in either of these industries personally, but rather to critique the general trajectory their industries are on.  I know many smart, innovative people in both the energy and property industries who are the ones who have the ability to bend this trajectory with their creativity and awesome know-how.  Many of them already are.


Oct 1 2010

The effects of sitting vs. standing

We previously referenced the NY Times article about the ill effects of spending too much of our days sitting down when we shared our fitness/productivity tip of holding company running meetings.  This same topic has become pertinent again for Night Train Consulting recently.

For the last 3 months, Alan has been on the other side of the world helping Tibetans (young and old) become better social entrepreneurs, as I frantically attempted to keep our engine running (sorry…) here in the states and move my family to Charlottesville.  Given our hectic schedules, neither of us ran at all for about 3 months.  It soon became apparent how out of shape I had become on the first (and second, and third…) run back after the hiatus.  What’s interesting is that my hope of commiseration from Alan upon his return to the trails was soon dashed as he easily slid back into running form.

On one of our recent (though, much shorter) running meetings, we speculated as to why this might be the case.  During the 3 months, our fitness routines were roughly similar (read: non-existant).  Before the hiatus, both of us had been running 10-15 miles at a time together, and in the past, we have taken similar amounts of time to get back into shape after various injuries and fitness gaps.  We narrowed the difference down to the fact that while I spent most of the last few months sitting at my desk on the computer each day, Alan was on his feet at conferences and in the classroom most days.  Certainly, there were other factors, but it struck us that the major difference in our fitness levels after the hiatus seemed to be due to the effects of sitting vs standing.

Thinking back, we both remembered experiencing similar effects from extended periods of sitting and/or standing we had been through in the past.  And, while much of this is speculation on our part, various studies are showing similar results.  This correlation pops up in another experience of mine a few years ago.  I entered one summer, after high school, in great shape from soccer, subsequently spent all summer working 70 hours a week (with basically no exercise), and somehow ended the summer in the same shape as I had started.  It would be easy to chalk this up to a youthful body, but I endured similar periods of time where I went off exercising and was not standing, and then did not remain in shape.  As with this past summer, the major difference during that workaholic summer was that both of my jobs required that I stand up for much of the time (for the curious: parking lot attendant, and short order cook).

In an effort to better test this idea, I have decided to build myself a standing desk (buying one seems to be an all too expensive endeavor for some reason), and document the results of the switch.  Alan has also taken to using whatever counters or tables are available to him each day to do the same.  He feels more focused during his work days and also more tired at the end of the day.

Have you noticed a change in how you feel after either spending extended periods of sitting down versus standing up?  Any tips for those of us who work jobs that require long periods of sitting?