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!


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