Viggle, Mechanical Turk and the Talent Cloud
It takes me 20-30 minutes to complete a crossword or Sudoku puzzle. I am in no hurry, and I find the process relaxing. But what if you were paid to complete a puzzle? In that case, finishing the puzzle sooner, in fewer minutes, means more money in your paycheck per hour worked! However, getting paid would mean that doing these puzzles may no longer be fun or relaxing.
The idea of converting a hobby into a revenue-generating activity is not new. Who wouldn't want to earn money doing something you were planning to do already? The television is full of commercial advertisements for credit cards where you can earn Double Miles or Cash Rewards just for spending money on things you were going to spend on anyways.
But is "earn" the right word? The merchants pay a percentage fee every time a patron uses a credit card, and the bank is just providing a marketing incentive in the form of a portion of those fees back to the consumer, to encourage more usage of their card versus other forms of payment. Sort of like "profit sharing".
I am almost fell out of my chair when I saw that [iPhone app Viggle rewards couch potatoes for watching television]. For those not familiar with American slang, the term couch potato refers to [a lazy person who does nothing but sit on the couch and watch television]. But you can't be called lazy if you are getting paid to do it, right?
(FTC Disclosure: I am a full-time employee and shareholder of the IBM Corporation. This blog post should not be considered an endorsement for anything. My opinions and writings are based on publicly available information and my own experiences doing freelance work prior to my employment at IBM. I have no hands-on experience with Amazon Mechanical Turk, neither as a worker nor requester, have not participated in TopCoder contests, nor have I used the Viggle app. I do not have any financial interest in Amazon, TopCoder, Viggle or any other third-party company mentioned on this blog post, nor has anyone paid me to mention their company names, brands or offerings.)
Here's how it works. You get the app on your phone, and register each television show as you watch it. You can watch the show live, or much later recorded on your Tivo. You watch the shows you were going to watch anyways, and just provide your demographics, all in the name of market research. You get two points per minute of watching, and after 7,500 points, you get a $5 gift card from retailers such as from retailers such as Burger King, Starbucks, Best Buy, Sephora, Fandango, and CVS drugstores. For the typical American, it would take about three weeks to watch that much television!
Of course, this is not the only way to earn money working from home. A reader asked me for my opinions of [Amazon Mechanical Turk]. While the other examples above are done for marketing purposes, Mechanical Turk can be used for a variety of other things. Up to now, the IT industry has regarded the Cloud as the delivery of computing as a service, with the infrastructure, hardware and software existing on internationally networked servers, effectively invisible to the end user. This model is now to being applied broadly to people.
Basically, Mechanical Turk acts as a marketplace, where employers post Human Intelligent Tasks (HITs) that workers can do. Most can be completed in minutes and you are paid pennies to do so. Some examples might help illustrate what a HIT looks like:
As a Mechanical Turk worker, you only work on the HITs you choose to work on, presumably those that interest you, and that you can do well and quickly. Workers can do this anytime, anywhere, such as 2:00am in the morning, at home, when you can't sleep or taking care of children. You can choose to work as much or as little as you like.
The employers--referred to as Mechanical Turk requesters--put money into their payroll accounts, load up their tasks, and hit publish. This gives them immediate access to a global, on-demand 24-by-7 workforce that can help complete thousands of HITs in minutes. These employers won't have to put an advertisement in the want ads and interview potential candidates, just to let them go later when the project is over.
Just like any other job, Mechanical Turk wages are reported to the IRS, and each person's work is evaluated for quality. In doing these tasks, you build up your "digital reputation" that will either prevent you or allow you to work on certain HITs. You can also take tests to reach Qualification levels to be eligible to work on HITs not available to everyone else.
Software engineers would have a hard time writing an Artificial Intelligence [AI] program to do these simple tasks, so being able to generate a HIT for something in the middle of a computer program might be the easiest way to get past a difficult part of an algorithm. Amusingly, Amazon describes this form of [crowdsourcing] as an artificial form of Artificial Intelligence!
While this approach may work for small, easily defined tasks, what about works that require a high amount of Human Intelligence, like storage software or hardware development?
When I was working for IBM as a software engineer in the 1980s and 1990s, it took us years to get a project done, using the traditional [Waterfall Model]. My job as a software architect was to estimate the thousands of lines of code (KLOC) a project would require, estimate the number of Person-Years (PY) it would take, and recommend the appropriate sized team. Back then, each engineer averaged only about 1,000 lines of software code per year, so KLOC and PY were often used interchangeably. Fellow IBM author Fred Brooks wrote an excellent book on the process called [The Mythical Man-Month].
The Waterfall model has the advantage that people only have to work a portion of the cycle on the project. In between, there was plenty of downtime to attend training, improve your skills, or take vacation. As our director Lynn Yates would often complain, "if they are only writing two lines of code in the morning, and two in the afternoon, why do they need time to rest?"
The Waterfall model was not perfect, and had its share of critics. One downside was that the clients didn't see anything until General Availability (GA), with a few getting a glimpse a few months earlier during our Early Support Program (ESP). By the time clients could tell us it was not what they wanted or expected, it was too late to change until the next release.
To address this concern, 17 software engineers wrote the now famous [Agile Manifesto]. The authors felt that collaboration, between the developers and with the clients, is critical to success. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. The result is an iterative approach that allows the client to see working prototypes early in the process, allowing last-minute changes to requirements to influence the final product.
Combining the Mechanical Turk concept with Agile programming methodology gives you what IBM calls an "Outcomes Model" approach. In the IBM research paper [Software Economies] (PDF, 5 pages), the authors argue that there are four fundamental principles needed for an "Outcomes Model" approach:
I was surprised to see that [the TopCoder Community is 390,593 strong], nearly the size of the entire IBM company. TopCoder is focused on computer programming and digital creation using the Outcomes Model approach. Rather than paying everyone for their work, however, the platform is designed around challenges and competitions, and the top players or contributors are rewarded with cash prizes.
Does it make sense for permanent IT staff to become freelancers in an international "talent cloud"? I can understand why large corporations would prefer [international employment contracts that help circumvent restrictive regulations of certain countries], but can they convince enough people to give up social security protection, guaranteed salary, paid vacations and sick leave, just to have some added freedom and flexibility? According to Matthew Ingram from GigaOM, [many people are choosing a freelance lifestyle].
As an innovative company, IBM constantly explores a variety of means and approaches to offer value to its clients and customers. These new approaches may have some distinct advantages not just for IBM and its shareholders, but also for its clients and the freelancers hired to work on these projects. The global marketplace is getting flatter, smaller and smarter. It will be interesting how this plays out. If the discussion above encourages you to hone your technical skills, perhaps that is motivation enough to get off the couch and stop watching so much television!