If you’re like me, all you’ve heard about in blogging software the last couple of years is WordPress. But as a long-time blogger using Movable Type, I wondered what they have been up to. And then Twitter brought me together with Byrne Reese, Product Manager of Movable Type and Community Leader of MTOS at Six Apart, maker of Movable Type and other offerings. He was kind enough to grant me an e-mail interview.
Before I get to the interview, I want to remind you of how I met Byrne. He was the person at Six Apart that reached out to help me when I was Twittering about a problem with Movable Type that prevented me from posting my blog for a couple of days. I was so struck by this use of Twitter that I wanted to find out more about Byrne.
Me: How did you end up doing this job at Six Apart? What did you do before this?
BR: My background is in engineering actually, but in my last job I had found a passion for leading product development teams and knew that in my next job I wanted to do that full time. So the first thing I did was apply to all the companies whose products I respected the most. Six Apart was on a very short list.
Six Apart stood out for me because of a product they had created called Movable Type. It was a tool that had transformed how I managed every web site I owned online. It saved me hours of work and it was a tool I found myself spending a great deal of time in every day.
But there was something else about the tool and company that resonated very strongly with me as a technologist—their commitment to open source, open standards and amazing design.
At the time Movable Type was not open source, but it didn’t bother me – the same way that it doesn’t bother me that my MacBook running OS X is not open source either. Ironically they have a lot more in common then you might expect—for one, neither would exist without open source. But also, both Apple and Six Apart place a premium upon creating beautiful and well designed products.
I was sold.
And now four years later I could not be more honored to be working on the product that was the impetus behind me working at Six Apart in the first place.
Me: Six Apart has been one of the huge forces in blogging over the years. The last few years WordPress has gotten a lot of attention, but what has Six Apart been doing to take back the momentum?
BR: By focusing more then ever on what we do best: innovation, design and openness. We pay a lot more than lip service to the technologies and products that shape the Internet today. We commit our resources, time, money and energy to things like Atom, TrackBack, DiSO and OpenID. Furthermore we are almost always the first to support cool products and technologies like the iPhone, Fire Eagle and Atom. Then there is all of our open source technology as well, like memcached, perlbal, mogilefs, Movable Type and other cool projects we will be announcing soon.
However, being “open” in our eyes is so much more then creating and maintaining open source software. In this day and age almost anyone can make that claim.
To be truly open is a much larger commitment to embracing good ideas, even when they are not your own, and to supporting the products your customers use, even again, when they are not your own. Take BlogIt for instance—one of Facebook’s most popular applications built by Six Apart. Not only does it allow you to post Vox, TypePad and Movable Type like you would expect, but you can also post to WordPress.com, WordPress.org blogs, twitter, Blogger and others. I think you will be hard pressed to find our competitors actively embracing us the way we are willing to embrace them.
This quality I think really sets us apart from our competitors and is the kind of attitude that I think will draw people to our products.
Most importantly, however, in drawing people to our products is our community. I will admit that, in the past couple of years, we stretched ourselves so thin that we lost sight of our greatest asset: our users. We were so heads down building products that we neglected to make our users feel heard and listened to.
But that is all changing with a reawakening of our Movable Type user and developer community through Movable Type Open Source, the recently launched TypePad Community Advisory Board, and of course of new Media Services division which is devoted to helping bloggers succeed.
Me: How long have you been monitoring Twitter to address customer support problems? How did the idea come about originally?
BR: We actively monitor a number of channels users use to express themselves, from Google, to Tweetscan, to Technorati, to you-name-it. This all comes back to what we are trying to do with our community because at the end of the day what motivates at Six Apart is helping people. When we see a new site launched using one of our tools, nothing gives me (and all of us) a greater sense of pride because we know that we helped someone.
And when a user is expressing frustration with one of our tools, we want to help—not just because we want them to have a positive experience, but because we are constantly striving to make our tools better.
Maybe one day our tools will be so perfect we will transcend the need to monitor Twitter for users talking about our products. On the other hand, if that day ever comes, then there is no doubt that we will have failed to push our products hard enough to stay ahead of the curve of what users want and need.
Me: What software do you use to monitor all those Tweeple? How well is it working? Would any improvements make it easier to do your job?
BR: I use Tweetscan and Summarize. I find most Twitter search tools work equally well, but I switch between tools just to see how those product evolve.
I actually don’t have many suggestions for these tools, not because they can be made better, but because they do what I need them to do.
Me: Can you share with us a story or two of successes that you’ve had in customer service since monitoring Twitter?
BR: Well, this interview comes to mind.
Bottom line the most important thing is the process of reaching out and connecting with people because at the end of the day, that is what really matters.
Me: Do you monitor other mentions of Movable Type on the Web, outside of Twitter? How do you do that?
BR: I monitor inbound links to movabletype.org and movabletype.com using Google Blog Search. I monitor our support forums, and even our internal help ticket system we use with customers.
But strangely enough one of the greatest resources I have are the people out there that I have made a connection with who IM and email me links they find. Believe it or not, not everything is found via Google—sometimes it is an actual human! Hard to believe, I know…
Me: Can you measure how successful this monitoring activity is for Six Apart? Do you have any metrics that you track to see how you are doing?
BR: We are not a metrics-obsessed company. Sure we have them, and I look at them, but I tend not to stress out about it. Each of us at Six Apart is empowered and encouraged to focus on what we love and what we do well—that is one of the reasons we all love working here, but it is also one of the reasons I think we are so successful.
Me: What would you tell a traditional software support manager who finds this kind of monitoring vaguely suspicious, if not a total waste of time?
BR: I can certainly appreciate the feeling one might get from feeling input overload. Part of the trick is admitting to yourself that you can’t, by yourself, sift through it all and then coming to peace with that. Even if you can only do it an hour a week, that is OK, especially if that means for that hour you managed to forge a connection with a new person, friend or customer.
The hope, of course, is that by connecting to one person, you in a sense also connect to their friends and their friends’ friends. That is what social networking is all about.
Me: What’s the most unexpected benefit you’ve found from monitoring the Web for customer support?
BR: There is nothing I like more than the surprise people express when I contact them. “Oh my god, you actually read my Twitter messages!?!?” I think people have a deeply rooted need to be heard, so when you take the time to sit down with anyone, regardless of the medium, look them in the eyes and say, “you have my undivided attention, what can I do for you?” you are fulfilling an important human need we all share. And I love giving that to people.
Me: Thanks so much, Byrne, for taking the time to explain this new style of customer support to my readers.