The New Visionaries: Anatole Varin

I first chatted with Anatole through a very sensible backdoor the company left in Qortex, the work management tool, that allows users to give feedback and ask questions of Qortex’s staff. After a few messages back and forth we arranged a demo, and I was impressed with the tool and the solid thinking and smart design that was behind it. I recently reviewed some of Qortex’s features (see Work management vendors adding more structure and speed to their tools).

anatole

Anatole Varin

About Anatole Varin

Anatole is the founder and director of the Plant, the Tokyo-based company behind Qortex. Anatole has lived in Japan for the past 15 years. Prior to starting the Plant, he was a university professor, co-founded GaijinPot and GPlusMedia and was a one-man development team for their first 5 years.

The Interview

Stowe Boyd: What’s the story behind Qortex?

Anatole Varin: Both our teams as well as our clients are spread out internationally and we often struggled with communications and project management in this environment. First we tried so-called “best in class” web applications such as wiki platforms, chat clients, cloud storage, and corporate social networks. However, we were not satisfied with the options and decided we would try to crack the social collaboration and project management problem in our own way.

SB: You are following some good examples, like 37signals who built Basecamp for the same reasons. Were you aware of that?

With most social network platforms sharing and talking is most of what happens, it’s like water down a river. It flows past you and for a second you notice it, then it’s out of sight and out of mind. There’s no next step.AV: Yes, I’m a fan of 37signals, their products, and philosophies. I would say that we share a somewhat “old fashioned” business approach in the sense that we think that making a product that solves a real nagging problem delivering real productivity is a viable business model.

SB: Aren’t there enough work management tools in the world already?

AV: In some sense, there are too many, but many of them specialize in a small section of things people might want to do on such a platform. Due to this we first ended up having to use several platforms to even cover the basics we needed for efficient online collaboration and then we ran into these problems: All the data was scattered over many platforms, so we didn’t know where to find information or where to share it. Different types of communication like chat, posts, wiki happened in separate silos, and it wasn’t easy to move information from one to the other.

With most social network platforms sharing and talking is most of what happens, it’s like water down a river. It flows past you and for a second you notice it, then it’s out of sight and out of mind. There’s no next step. On these platforms sharing is treated as an end in itself, but in real business sharing is a means to an end. And that end can be many things, like discussion in your team, working together on a document — like a blog entry, a press release or an estimate for a new big project, or documentation of processes — or asking people to do something, then following up on the execution and reviewing the work.

SB: By saying ‘There’s no next step’ you are making the case that there needs to be more than just status updates in a work management tool. There have to be objects that represent tasks, decisions, and actions to be taken, right? This is the notion of purposeful work that Jive has been advancing.

AV: Yes, exactly. I’d add to this that eliminating or reducing the thresholds for taking the next action is an essential point to consider. Any friction here will result in fewer people asking the right people the right questions or taking the next actions. This leads to more misunderstandings, wasted time, money lost, frustrations, and inferior results.

SB: I’d say the Qortex is a work management tool with a strong orientation toward what I call co-curation: the sort of use that others might call knowledge management or social intranet. Is that a fair characterization?

AV: Yes I would say so, but with the General Availability release we extend the functionality to cover other areas that were highly requested by our beta users, such as, project management, including estimates and time tracking, and strong multilingual features to facilitate easy and quick translation of content into other languages. We’re starting with machine translation and will support human translation and related workflows, soon.

Every post can be treated as a presentation. Just check that option and Qortex will create a new slide after every headline, for each section in the text. This is a quick and easy way to prepare a deck of slides for internal purposes without having to export anything or learn more complex presentation software.SB: When we first spoke, I think it was me that said your product has some subtle design features that really make using the product easier. Could you give some examples?

AV: That starts with things as simple — and seemingly obvious — as giving every entry a title, so that later when you want to scan through a list of entries, you won’t have to read the whole text to find the right one quickly.

Qortex only shows you what you haven’t seen/read yet. That means, if there are two new, unread comments, and 13 older comments to an entry, you will only see the content for the two new comments by default, while the older comments and the entry body text are collapsed. This way there’s less “noise” and you know what you see is what you are supposed to look at.

Qortex only sends you email updates when you are not logged in on the browser, and any entries you read in mail will be marked read on the browser, too. So you always know where to take up reading from. That’s our “Read Once” Tracker.

Every post can be treated as a presentation. Just check that option and Qortex will create a new slide after every headline, for each section in the text. This is a quick and easy way to prepare a deck of slides for internal purposes without having to export anything or learn more complex presentation software.

On Qortex you can chat via the browser or your chat client (as long as it supports the open XMPP standard) and Qortex will save all your chats. You can directly share those chats with your colleagues, have them edit their content, comment on them, or turn them into Knowledge Base entries, slide presentations or To-Do’s. It’s an entirely “barrier-free” process and there are no artificial hurdles for turning one type of entry into another. Actually, you don’t even have to convert anything it’s like in natural evolution, entries pass over from one type into another naturally.

With To-Dos, we realized that a task has a life cycle and the information that is reasonable to ask is dependent on the stage in its life cycle. With this in mind we were able to dramatically simplify interfaces to ask the right people for the right information at the right time.

These as well as all other features are based on a few guiding principles that we follow [see here].

SB: I love the presentation notion, and the idea of changing the use of a chat entry into a task is exactly the sort of fluidity that most work management tools lack.

AV: Yes, this is one of my favorite parts of Qortex as well: that ideas can evolve fluidly and be used for different purposes: as the starting point for discussion, the basis for actions, a presentation, or a knowledge asset.

SB: In our first talk, you explained how you slowly settled on a single type of post on which all other metadata — like dates and assignment — led to the determination of whether it was a note or a task or some other sort of thing. Is that going to be intuitive for others?

AV: Actually it will make life much easier, because we completely remove a difficult decision process, that the user doesn’t have to worry about anymore.

We found that most of the time those entry “types” are entirely a matter of arbitrary definition and all they do is create artificial categories, where the borders are actually quite fluid in reality. This forces the user to make decisions that have an impact on the downstream lifecycle of the written content.

On other platforms before even writing the first word you’ll have to ask yourself questions like ‘Am I going to write something that will later become a wiki entry? Or is better to put that in a presentation? Or should it be a To-Do because there is an implied commitment to do something? Or should I discuss this issue with John in a chat, or as a question with a comment thread?’

If you want to write something on Qortex you just do and you know you can do whatever you want with your entry later, if necessary turn it into a To-Do or a knowledge base entry, or even both.

SB: One of the biggest headaches in typed information systems is when you need to change the type of an object. For example, in Tumblr there are various sorts of posts — video, audio, quotes, text, links — but once you have picked one Tumblr won’t let you change, although there is really no reason why they aren’t just variations on a basic post type, with different metadata attached. For example, Tumblr could determine the type of object being connected by an attachment — a YouTube video is different from an .mp3 or an image. But they don’t.

AV: Yes, where the important part here is the idea and the development of the idea. I completely agree that this shouldn’t be hindered by the system putting it in one bucket or another.

SB: Thanks for your time, Anatole.

AV: Thank you as well, Stowe. It was a pleasure to speak with you.