Innovation, Lead Guitar and web performance best practice

Date: 19th January 2011
Author: Deri Jones

Fame seems to be beckoning this week – firstly, SciVisum was runner up in the ‘Innovation in E-commerce’ awards 2011 announced on Monday.

And, it’s not every day that a web performance tester gets to play lead guitar to an audience of 100.  But with rather more suits in the crowd than your usual gig!

Certainly, I didn’t have my guitar with me last night when I headed across Canterbury to the Innovation Centre, up at the University.  The Innovation Creativity and Enterprise Centre was hosting a seminar for innovative companies on leadership – Myths and Riffs of Leadership:  “Lessons from academia and rock music” .

It was definitely not a hum-drum event (excuse the pun) – after a 20 min intro by (coolly titled: Professor of Leadership) Prof. Dennis Tourish on the 7 attributes of a leader in the 20-tens (forget the old-school leadership vs management split), the main content looked at the parallels between leading a team in business, and leading a band:  juggling the three factors of structure (the score, or chords), innovation (improvisation), and the interface to customers (audience) – and with plenty of real-world examples from both: Peter Cook from business and John Howitt with stories from many years working in the world of rock stars and professional music – from Selena Gomez to Prince.

Half way through, Peter asked if anyone could play guitar. 30 seconds later I had a guitar in my hand, a silly rock-star wig on my head, 100 faces looking up and Peter saying: “ok, you’re playing lead guitar, is a 12-bar blues in G  OK? ” and counting us in. Gulp!

Being put on the spot like that reminded me of how some website Load Test projects go – half way through the project, with an interesting initial set of findings but not having finished, a daily conference call can suddenly take on a new level of seriousness, when a board-level member of the client comes into the call and asks how it’s going and when will everything will be fixed!

I can’t say my guitar playing was smooth – but in both situations it’s a case of building on the mind/muscle memory of having done lots of 12 bar blues – lots of web site load testing;  and having the current facts in front of me:  Key of G,  the tempo, etc – the graphs of the User Journey performance we’d measured so far, peak throughput for each different one measured in completed user journeys per minute: and tables of errors – at what steps they occur and what root cause.
On guitar, maybe I managed to get half the notes in the right places but on the whole, I believe my load testing performance takes the lead!

Peter and John let me back to my seat and continued their presentation. The keynote was how to lead innovative organisations, and get the whole team to be part of the improvisation to keep ahead of the market and technology – with some of their own songs thrown in on the way; it was a new angle and I see that I’ll have to spend some time on Peter’s Academy of Rock website after this.

Then as a closing song, as no one else in the audience admitted to being a guitarist, they called me back up – to play Ian Drury and the Blockheads song ‘Sex and drugs and Rock and Roll’ – with a different set of lyrics up on the screen: and a nod to me: ‘Key of E’.  I knew the song but had never played it before, so when the chords modulate in the middle I rather lost my way, but at least finished back in the right key!  (The evening was video’ed: I’m not sure that I’ll have, when it’s  posted on their site, confidence that they’ll have edited most of the bum notes out!)

Canterbury (UK) is not a huge city but has quite a few software and innovation companies.

At the event, I had an interesting chat with one guy about the challenges of benchmarking website performance using 24/7 monitoring, comparing a couple of open Source CMS products with a commercial one his company uses (Joomla and Drupal performance testing.)

Another person who provides web applications into the public sector locally shared how their biggest challenge was not technology, but just getting the organisation to change and actually use the time-saving cloud-based tools and give feedback as to how they could be made better.  His agile rapid iteration approach struggled from lack of user feedback.
There were overall a surprising number of web professionals there, (it wasn’t a pure tech event, unlike Canterbury Geeks Night, or the planned Canterbury HackFest). Overall, I ended up talking website performance issues across a range of platforms from plain PHP, to Django, TurboGears, and Ruby on Rails testing.

So the moral of the evening was – be ready for anything, even when you haven’t got your guitar /favourite gadget or tool with you!