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March 12, 2010

Cooler: Innovating to Collaborate

Cooler TeamDo you think conversations over lunch are a great source of ideas? Cash Costello does. He and some colleagues were in the APL cafeteria discussing better ways to share information and keep updated on what people are doing around the Laboratory. With more than 5,000 employees and 30 buildings spread over 400 acres, this can be challenging. Costello and his colleagues wondered what would happen if staff had access to an application focused on social networking and collaboration. A quick Google search turned up an open source framework called Elgg. Costello installed it on a server and launched Cooler, the name he gave to this experiment in staff collaboration.

Initially, only the people from those initial lunchtime conversations used the site. Slowly, by word of mouth, other employees heard about Cooler and joined. It took over 6 months to reach 100 members. Less than 1 month later, there were 200 members. Within a year, however, Cooler has grown to over 1,000 members. Costello thinks the grassroots, word-of-mouth approach was one of the keys to success. “Collaborating with yourself is not much fun. Growing by word of mouth means you are already set up with a network of people when you join. It makes it easier to reach that critical mass that a social site needs.” Cooler is still growing and is now one of the most visited sites on APL’s intranet.

Cooler offers many of the features that people use on the Internet for social interaction and collaboration. It combines the microblogging of Twitter, the social bookmarking of Delicious, and the social networking of Facebook. These are but a few examples of its evolving capabilities. Many feel that Cooler’s strong suit is the interaction available through its groups tool. Anyone can create a group and attract people with shared skills or interests. Each group gets a discussion forum, file sharing, bookmarks, and a group blog. There are almost 150 different groups on Cooler over an eclectic set of topics ranging from Mac computing and MATLAB support to photography or finding the best restaurants in the area.

Costello likes to describe Cooler as an organic platform. “By organic, I mean that Cooler evolves with its users. Anyone can contribute an idea to improve it, and anyone can write some code to add a new capability,” he stated. Ten developers have taken advantage of this freedom to have their code added to Cooler. The development team is made up of individuals from across APL. Most of them did not even know each other before they started working on Cooler.

The team has been introducing new functionality to the site almost every month. Sometimes the improvements are refinements suggested by users. Other times they are the addition of a significantly new capability, such as a question and answer service similar to Yahoo Answers or Stack Overflow. “One of the nice things about Cooler is that it empowers our developer community. Instead of wishing for capabilities and features, we are free to create them,” says Daniel Dutrow, one of Cooler’s newest contributors.

The developers meet for daylong development sessions they call “code jams.” They reserve a conference room, bring their laptops, and then spend the day hacking away on the code. “Cooler code jams start with a brainstorming session where people kick around ideas for interesting enhancements, pick an idea that sounds good, and then try to crank out as much of it as they can. Even when people don’t complete their idea at the code jam, they often finish it offline. You also get to meet new people, learn new things, and step outside your typical work environment for a day—and maybe produce new functionality that people will like, or even help the Lab achieve results,” says Clark Updike.

What started out as a lunch conversation topic has turned into a powerful tool for collaboration. Cooler is now an important part of APL’s knowledge-sharing initiative. Most of all, it has made APL a “Cooler” place to work.