AIAIO: Our Blog

AIAIO: Our Blog

The pulse and reviews of Alexander Interactive

FLASHBACK: Seven Years at Ai

Seven years ago today I walked into an office of 11 on Park Avenue South, a wide eyed college graduate with no knowledge of what it took to build a Web site, let alone manage the entire process.  I remember signing the contract in my college dorm room a few weeks before graduation to become a full-time Jr. Project Manager at Ai.  What ensued from there was more than I could have imagined.

In seven years, I’ve worked with some of the most smart, talented, people who all exhibit the DNA that makes up the humans who call Ai their home.  I’ve gained experience managing projects, managing relationships, and contributing to the overall improvement and quality of Ai’s processes among other things.  I’ve learned how to problem solve, how to communicate based on my audience, and how to consistently manage against living project plans and defined budgets.  I’ve contributed to the launch of dozens of Web sites, went from being the interviewee to the interviewer, and grew up a member of a passionate team of creative tech nerds.

That office of 11 grew into an office of almost 40.  The suite on Park Avenue South became an entire floor on 5th Avenue, and that inexperienced college grad became a project leader and Ai veteran teaching those who come after her the lay of the land.

A lot has changed over the past seven years, between people who have come and gone, Mayor Jack Reynolds transitioning from a young pup to a well-groomed VP of Security, two office relocations, and a newfound respect for our beloved Morgan Freeman.  But, through the past seven years, a few things have remained constant – Ai has always been a place to recognize the potential in its employees, to encourage an open forum for new ideas, and to seek innovation and improvements on a process that will forever be evolving.

Tonight my little sister graduates from college, and I can’t help but wonder how her next seven years will unravel.  I can only hope she gets the opportunity to grow in the same ways that I’ve had the chance to by being an employee of Ai.  So, on my seventh anniversary of beginning my evolution from a college grad to a Senior Project Manager at Ai, I look back and can only feel proud and fortunate to have witnessed all the growth Ai has seen and that I’ve seen within myself.


Visit Ai’s Booth at IRCE 2013


AI is heading to Chi-town, and we want to see you!

We will be at the 9th annual Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition from June 4-6th at McCormick Place West. Please stop by Booth #1666 to say hi and talk shop… or just talk.

IRCE is the world’s largest e-commerce event and is a major educational event that offers online retailing and wholesaling professionals and consumer marketers the insights and analysis they need to give their businesses a competitive advantage in this expanded world of possibilities.


wEbVOLUTION Timeline

A history lesson and evolution timeline brought to you by Ai…


The World Wide Web debuted to the public, for free, 20 years ago today. Yup, only 20 years ago. Here was the first website, which has been re-released by CERN for this occasion:

First WWW web site


Our founder, Alex Schmelkin, made his first website for Hofstra University 17 years ago. Check it out:

Alex's first web site


The year Ai’s created its VERY FIRST WEBSITE. The lucky client?

Ai's very first web site


We developed our first ecommerce website for is ranked 153 on the Internet Retailer Top 500.


That’s now! This month we launched, with e-commerce and custom product configuration. Voila!

Any guesses what websites will look like and what technologies will be important in another 20 years?


Digital Directors

Recruit Digital Directors to Corporate Boards

I recently shared some thoughts with Directors & Boards Magazine on the critical importance for corporate boards to recruit Directors with backgrounds in technology and digital media.

On the topic of recognizing the importance of digital in today’s business model:

Corporate boards that lack leaders who are fluent in digital media are doing their shareholders a disservice. Every industry, every corporation is being disrupted by the ever-shortening distance between brands and their consumers. It’s not enough for a board to expect management and their reports to understand the latest developments in social media, mobile innovations, and marketing. Instead, such strategies should be discussed at the highest levels, directly between the board and management, and incorporated into a company’s long-term plans.

Read the entire article on recruiting Directors with technology experience to corporate boards.


GetTaxi Brings Israeli Startups to Ai Offices


Ai’s office was proud to play host to GetTaxi’s Israeli tech startup gathering and Ron Huldai, the Mayor of Tel Aviv, this afternoon. A wide array of Isael-based tech companies met in our uber-comfy Sofaplex to discuss technologies ranging from mobile payment systems to personalized video advertisements their firms have developed.

Host GetTaxi is an Israel-based smartphone app whose New York location is managed out of Ai’s NYC office. Their app, which is currently live in Tel Aviv, London, Moscow and St. Petersburg, digitally hails taxis for 10,000 rides per day. GetTaxi is planning on launching its New York City service this year.

Other companies that displayed their wares at today’s meeting included: Wix, Pango, BillGuard, ADagoo, Mobil, LoyalBlocks, and Eyeview.

“Tel Aviv is home to 700 startups,” said Huldai ,”and we are excited by those that spread their branches to include the Big Apple.”


Usability & Design: When Does One Trump the Other?

Josh Levine, Ai’s Chief Experience Officer, presented his session: “UX & Design: When Does One Trump the Other?” with Jordan Lustig, Director of Product Management for Saks Fifth Avenue.

Josh Levine, Ai’s Chief Experience Officer, presented his session: “UX & Design: When Does One Trump the Other?” with Jordan Lustig, Director of Product Management for Saks Fifth Avenue.

The presentation explored the delicate balance and interplay between User Experience and Design in e-commerce website production from both a designer and retailer’s point of view.

Check out Josh’s presentation below or download the full presentation.


Technical Debt and The Planning Fallacy

Construction of the Gatun lock, Panama Canal, 1912.

If you ask me how long it will take to do a familiar but substantial task, chances are I’ll give you a wrong answer. I will tell you, “That will take me two days,” when in fact it has never taken me two days. Perhaps it has always taken at least three, and usually four. But I’m unable to think accurately enough about the past to reach this conclusion, especially if you ask me directly. This is a rough explanation of the Planning Fallacy, one of the most fascinating and pervasive cognitive biases. We all suffer from it when we make estimates, and it is especially acute with off-the-cuff estimates intended for an audience. We feel the pressure of judgment on our estimates, and unconsciously seek approval by providing optimistic and incorrect numbers.

Hofstadter’s Law formulates the cognitive puzzle embedded in this fallacy:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Knowing about the Planning Fallacy isn’t enough to escape its influence.

Multiply this estimation inaccuracy by a large number—a factor determined by the complexity of the project—and this accounts for the primary reason that most projects fail to deliver on time. The “padding” that individuals, their managers, and their managers’ managers regularly add to work estimates is often whittled away during the piecemeal negotiation that falls between the estimation and commitment phases, leaving the original, overly optimistic estimates.

The bottom line is, and always has been, that estimates we make at the beginning of a project, because they are made in ignorance of the future, and because the Planning Fallacy distorts our thinking, all too often range from Pollyannaish to tragically mistaken. See Jim Benson’s Why Plans Fail for a concise and revelatory spelunking into the depths of the planning mind.

When we allow a project to be bound by our initial estimates, whether they were constructed with the best of intentions but subject to the Planning Fallacy, hampered by a misunderstanding of the requirements, distorted to meet the demands of the client, or simply doomed to irrelevance by the inevitable array of exigencies that befall every project, we force reality into an inappropriate container.

But we still need to execute on the project plan, whatever its condition. Content strategy, UX, information architecture, conceptual design, applied design, rounds of approval and review: these initial phases may expand as they attempt to capture the entirety of emerging requirements, and subsequent phases become necessarily further compressed.

The technology team deals with this compressed time frame by (a) being galactic geniuses (I am not biased) and (b) making compromises. Compromises can be deliberative and explicit, panicked and hidden, or half-heartedly considered and partially documented by inline code comments.

Some compromises are driven by a clear-eyed assessment of the border between Minimally Sufficient and Fancy. Although programmers are famously lazy, they are just as often driven (by Larry Wall’s #3, Hubris) to engineer the perfect solution where an adequate one is the optimal path. Choosing adequate over perfect means that we can reserve precious engineering time for the hairier tasks, or the unexpected but inevitable road bumps that put further pressure on development schedules: bugs in the platform or a crucial module, foibles of the programming language, unexpected complexity in meeting a functional requirement, iterations between UI design and software implementation, and so on.

We can expect road bumps, but we can’t plan for them. If we start a development cycle with an unrealistic schedule estimate, then we can just expect to be late from the start. In an atmosphere like this, ill-considered compromises are almost inevitable. These compromises constitute the primary source of technical debt introduced to a new code base. We can only hope that the developers at least take the time to add TODO-style comments to mark the code they’d like to refactor in the future.

You can find these later:

$ find . -type f -exec grep -i todo {} \;

(Try that in Magento Enterprise 1.12’s app/code directory: 171 of them. It happens to the best of us.)

There are basically two strategies here:

  1. Minimize bad technical debt* and stress by renegotiating the release schedule
  2. Plan to address bad debt in a subsequent release

#1 is vastly preferable. #2 is only possible if you can isolate and track the debt, and push off developing new features in favor of addressing old problems. This often requires a heightened level of transparency between the technical and business teams. Otherwise, building new features on top of crufty, debt-ladened code will hinder progress on the features, slow your development velocity, increase the overall error rate, and reduce your ROI by alarming numbers.

How to minimize contact with this Planning-to-Debt problem: Plan to revise your estimates. Regardless of your project methodology and how it incorporates estimates, educate all project stakeholders as to the reality of estimation, if it’s not already abundantly clear. Help the team to understand that the process of estimation is more valuable than the estimates it produces.

* “Bad technical debt”: Not all technical debt is bad. Another useful distinction is short-term versus long-term debt.


Come See Ai at IRWD

Design vs. Usability

Ai is back in Orlando, Florida, and we want to see you!

We are at the Internet Retailer Web Design and Usability Conference at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate. Our booth is #400 in the Conference Exhibit Hall, and we are discussing the latest and greatest in web design through tomorrow, Wednesday, February 13.

IRWD focuses on the latest strategies to communicate product quality, brand identity and increase conversion rates on the web.

Josh Levine, Ai’s Chief Experience Officer, will be presenting a session titled “UX & Design: When Does One Trump the Other?” tomorrow at 1:30pm with Jordan Lustig, Director of Product Management for Saks Fifth Avenue. We would love to see you there. The presentation will discuss how to balance the best of user experience and design from both a designer and retailer’s point of view.

IRWD Booth 400