At dinner last week, my long time friend Dave Jilk (we just celebrated our 30th friendship anniversary) tossed a hypothesis at me that as people age, they resist adopting new technologies. This was intended as a personal observation, not an ageist statement, and we devolved into a conversation about brain plasticity. Eventually we popped back up the stack to dealing with changing tech and at some point I challenged Dave to write an essay on this.
The essay follows. I think he totally nails it. What do you think?
People working in information technology tend to take a producer perspective. Though the notion of a “lean startup” that uses both Agile and Customer Development approaches is ostensibly strongly customer focused, the purpose of these methodologies is for the company to find an maximize its market, not specifically to optimize the user experience. The following is an observation more purely from the perspective of the consumer of information technology.
On average, as people age they resist adopting new technologies, only doing so slowly and where the benefits compellingly outweigh the time cost and inevitable frustrations. This resistance is not necessarily irrational – after a number of cycles where the new technology proves to be a fad, or premature, or less than useful, we learn that it may behoove us to wait and see. We want to accomplish things, not spend time learning tools that may or may not help us accomplish something.
Consequently, for many decades the pattern has been that technology adoption is skewed toward younger people, not only because they have not yet built up this resistance, but also because they are immersed in the particular new technologies as they grow up.
But something new is happening today, and it is evidence of accelerating rather than merely progressive technology change. Discrete technology advances are giving way to continuous technology advances. Instead of making a one-time investment in learning a new technology, and then keeping up with the occasional updates, it is increasingly necessary to be investing in learning on a constant, ongoing basis.
I will provide three examples. First, application features and user interfaces are increasingly in a state of continuous flux. From a user perspective, on any given day you may connect to Facebook or Gmail or even a business application like Salesforce.com, and find that there are new features, new layout or organization of screen elements, new keystroke patterns, even new semantics associated with privacy, security, or data entered and displayed. This is most prominent in online systems, but increasingly software updates are automatic and frequent on mobile devices and even full computer systems. On any given day, one may need to spend a significant amount of time re-learning how to use the software before being productive or experiencing the desired entertainment.
My mother is 86 years old. For perspective, when she was 20, television was a new consumer technology, and room-sized digital computers had just been invented. She uses the web, Yahoo mail, and Facebook, impressive feats in themselves for someone her age. But every time Yahoo changes their UI, she gets frustrated, because from her perspective it simply no longer works. The changes neither make things better for her nor add capabilities she cares about. She wants to send email, not learn a new UI; but worse, she doesn’t really know that learning a new UI is what she is expected to do.
Middle-aged people like me are better prepared to cope with these changes, because we’ve gotten used to them, but we still find them frustrating. Perhaps it is in part because we are busy and we have things we need to get done, but it is interesting to see how much people complain about changes to the Facebook interface or iOS updates or what have you. We can figure it out, but it seems more like a waste of time.
Young people gobble up these changes. They seem to derive value from the learning itself, and keeping up with the changes even has a peer pressure or social esteem component. Yes, this is in part because they also have fewer responsibilities, but that cannot be the entire explanation. They have grown up in a world where technology changes rapidly. They didn’t just “grow up with social media,” they grew up with “social media that constantly changes.” In fact, not only do they keep up with the changes on a particular social media service, they are always exploring the latest new services. Several times a year, I hear about a new service that is all the rage with teens and tweens.
A second example that is more esoteric but perhaps a leading indicator, is the rise of continuous integration in software development, not just with one’s own development team but with third-party software and tools. No longer is it sufficient to learn a programming language, its idiosyncrasies, its libraries, and its associated development tools. Instead, all of these tools change frequently, and in some cases continuously. Every time you build your application, you are likely to have some new bugs or incompatibilities related to a change in the language or the libraries (especially open source libraries). Thus, learning about the changes and fixing your code to accommodate them are simply part of the job.
This situation has become sufficiently common that some language projects (Ruby on Rails and Python come to mind) have abandoned upward compatibility. That’s right, you can no longer assume that a new version of your programming language will run your existing applications. This is because you are expected to keep up with all the changes all the time. Continuous integration, continuous learning. Older coders like me view this as a tax on software development time, but younger coders accept it as a given and seem to not only take it in stride but revel in their evolving expertise.
My final example, a little different from the others, is the pace of client device change. From 1981, when the IBM PC was introduced, until about 2005, one could expect a personal computer system to have a lifespan of 3-5 years. You could get a new one sooner if you wanted, but it would have reasonable performance for three years and tolerable for five. By then, the faster speed of the new machine would be a treat, and make learning the latest version of DOS, and later Windows, almost tolerable. Today, five years is closer to the lifespan of a device category. Your recent smartphone purchase is more likely to be replaced in 2017 by a smart watch, or smart eyewear, as it is by another smartphone. You won’t just have to migrate your apps and data, and learn the new organization of the screen – you will have to learn a new way to physically interact with your device. Hand gestures, eye gestures, speaking – all of these are likely to be part of the interface. Another five years and it is highly likely that some element of the interface will take input from your brain signals, whether indirectly (skin or electromagnetic sensors) or directly (implants). When you say you are having trouble getting your mind around the new device, you will mean it literally.
The foregoing is primarily just an observation, but it will clearly have large effects on markets and on sociology. It suggests very large opportunities but also a great deal of disruption. And this transition from generational learning to continuous learning is not the last word. Technology will not just keep advancing, it will keep accelerating. As the youth of today, accustomed to continuous learning, reach their 40s and beyond, they will become laggards and slow to adopt in comparison with their children. Even continuous learning will no longer be sufficient. What will that look like?
Last week our portfolio company, JumpCloud – who is deep in the DevOps market with their automated cloud server management product – hosted the first annual DevOps conference here in Boulder. It was a huge success – we had over 200 people show up and engage in a full day of deep discussions on DevOps.
We are huge fans of the DevOps movement. Similar to how we got involved in the Agile movement early with our investment in Rally Software, we are long on DevOps with investments in companies such as JumpCloud, VictorOps, SendGrid, Pantheon, Authentic8 and others. We see DevOps instantiating the lean startup culture throughout an organization. DevOps promotes short cycle times, automation, and deep integration across a company with the goal of innovating quicker and more effectively against customers’ needs. In short, we view it as a cultural methodology that increases the odds of success for a company.
The day was fantastic, starting with Raj Bhargava (CEO of JumpCloud) and Paul Ford (SoftLayer) kicking things off with a short discussion about what DevOps is. I was next with a quick discussion framing why DevOps is critical to our companies and their customers. From there, we had presentations by Ryan Martens (CTO of Rally) on learnings from Agile, Nathan Day (Chief Scientist of SoftLayer) on the incredible automation at SoftLayer, and a number of great panels from CEOs, CTOs, and VPs of Engineering of DevOps related companies. Three of our portfolio companies – SendGrid, Mocavo, and Gnip – closed the formal part of the day with case studies on different areas of DevOps.
Later, the full group headed to Bacaro for more casual conversations around DevOps. I ended the night at Walnut Brewery with Raj and a few close friends watching the Red Sox lose game two of the World Series to the Cardinals.
The engagement on the topic of DevOps was really powerful. The questions flowed quickly – it’s clear everyone is struggling with how to define DevOps – what it means, who should be involved in an organization, and how to recruit for it. While the word is quickly becoming entrenched, it’s a new category with a wide range of opportunities.
When Raj came to me several months ago suggesting that we should put on a conference around DevOps for all of the Foundry Group, Techstars, and Bullet Time Ventures companies it was easy to be excited about it. I expected about 50 people to participate – it was amazing to look around the room and see 200 really engaged people. I’m proud of Raj and Paul for putting this on and thankful for all of the effort that our companies made to get there and participate!
When LinkedIn posted LinkedIn Intro: Doing the Impossible on iOS I was intrigued. The post title was provocative (presumably as intended) and drew a lot of attention from various people in the security world. Several of these posts were deeply critical which generated another post from LinkedIn titled The Facts about LinkedIn Intro. By this point I had sent emails to several of my friends who were experts in the email / SMTP / IMAP / security ecosystem and was already getting feedback that generally trended negative. And then I saw this post titled Phishing With Linkedin’s Intro – a clever phishing attack on Intro (since fixed by LinkedIn).
All of this highlights for me my general suspicion around the word “impossible” along with the complexity that is increasing as more and more services interconnect in non-standard ways.
One of the thoughtful notes I got was from Scott Petry – one of my good friends and co-founder of Authentic8 (we are investors). Scott co-founded Postini and a bunch of email stuff at Google after Google acquired Postini in 2007. Following are his thoughts on LinkedIn Intro.
I am all for seamless integration of services. And while “man in the middle” is commonly seen as a pejorative, the MITM approach can enable integrations that weren’t readily available previously.
Postini, which started life as a spam filtering service became a huge email MITM enabling all sorts of email processing not available on the mail server itself. Seamless integration was a big part of our success – companies pointed their mx record to Postini, Postini filtered and passed the good stuff on to the company’s mail server. While controversial in 1999, DNS redirect-based services have become accepted across all ports and protocols. Companies such as Cloudflare, OpenDNS, Smartling, and more all offer in-line services that improve the web experience through DNS-level MITM-type model. Simple to configure and high leverage. They just aren’t thought of as MITM services.
Extending functionality of services by authorizing plug-ins to gain access to your data can be really useful as well. I use Yesware in Gmail to help track messages and automate responses when I send company-related marketing/sales emails. It’s a great service, enabling functionality not previously available, and you could think of this as a man in the middle as well. It is important to point out that in the case of Yesware and DNS style integrations, I need to explicitly approve the integration. The details are made available up front.
New levels of integrated services are coming online daily. And vendors are getting more and more clever with APIs or skirting them altogether in order to get their app in front of us. It’s natural to be sucked in by the value of these services and it’s easy to overlook any downside. Especially given that for many of them, the people who are paid to think about security ramifications aren’t in the loop. They can be installed and configured by end users, not IT. And most users take the security for granted … or overlook it all together.
Last week, on the LinkedIn engineering blog, details on the new LinkedIn Intro app were shared. Intro integrates dynamic LinkedIn profile information directly into the iOS email app. It didn’t get much attention when it was launched, but once the engineering team blogged about how did the impossible to integrate with the iOS email client, the story blew up.
Details on their approach here (https://engineering.linkedin.com/mobile/linkedin-intro-doing-impossible-ios).
LinkedIn Intro does a beautiful job of auto-discovering your environment and auto-configuring itself. A click or two by the user, and they’re up and running with active LinkedIn data in their email app.
All this clever engineering hides the fact that LinkedIn is accessing your email on your behalf. Intro uses an IMAP proxy server to fetch your mail where they modify it, then deliver it to your iPhone. Classic Man in the Middle.
If you remember setting up your mail service on your iPhone, it is a bit clunky. You need to know the host names of your service, the ports, encryption values, etc. It isn’t easy. But you don’t do any of this with Intro. Instead of going through the usual configuration screens on iOS, Intro uses Apple’s “configuration profiles” capability auto discover your accounts and insert their servers in the middle. And since it uses OAuth to log in, it doesn’t even need to ask for your credentials.
They do such a good job of hiding what they’re doing that the significance of the data issues were lost on everyone (except the security researchers who raised the brouhaha).
This weekend, LinkedIn made another blog post. In their words, they wanted to “address inaccurate assertions that have been made” and “clear up these inaccuracies and misperceptions”. The post, here (https://blog.linkedin.com/2013/10/26/the-facts-about-linkedin-intro/) followed the PR playbook to the letter.
With one small exception concerning a profile change, the post does nothing to clear up inaccuracies and misperceptions. Instead, their post lists their reassurances about how secure the service is.
Even with these assurances, the facts remain. LinkedIn Intro pipes your email through their servers. All of it. LinkedIn Intro inserts their active web content into your email data. At their discretion.
With its clever engineering, Intro became a violation of trust. And worse, potentially a massive security hole. If the research community didn’t raise the alarm, the details of Intro’s integration wouldn’t have hit the radar.
I think the lesson here is two-fold:
1) We live in a world where our data is scattered across a variety of disparate systems. It is incumbent on us to understand the risks and weigh them against the reward of the shiny new app promising to make our lives better. If something appears to be too good to be true, it probably is.
2) Vendors need to be more transparent about what they’re doing with our data. Especially if the vendor has a spotty reputation in privacy and security realms. If they’re not, the Internet community will do it for you.
My mom (Cecelia Feld) is having an opening in Denver on Friday 11/1 at Artwork Network Gallery from 5pm – 9pm. I’m heading down to Denver at the end of the day on Friday and will be there from 5pm – 7pm before I head out for dinner (a good son has to eat, right?)
I love my mom’s art and if you’ve ever been in my office you’ve seen some of it around. If you aren’t familiar with it, a piece from the show is below or go check out her website at Studio 7310.
Artwork Network Gallery is located at 878 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, CO 80204 (303-388-7420). I hope to see you Friday night!
As we head into the weekend (which I need very badly), I thought I’d toss up a fun video that the gang at Name.com made recently. They’ve done some funny videos as part of their promotional campaigns (they are our domain registrar – good folks) and asked if Amy and I would do one that references our book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur.
It’s short and I get a silly grin on my face every time I watch it. There are a handful of inside jokes and in the spirit of never taking oneself very seriously, we execute this spirit well. And, as every good salesperson should say, “If you like the video, you’ll love the book – grab your copy of Startup Life now.”
Amy and I just underwrote the renovation of Wellesley College’s new Human-Computer Interaction Lab. The picture above is a screen capture of the Wellesley College home page today (called their “Daily Shot” – they change the home page photo every day) with a photo from yesterday when Amy did the ribbon cutting on the HCI Lab.
Amy went to Wellesley (graduated in 1988) and she regularly describes it as a life changing experience. She’s on the Wellesley College Board of Trustees and is in Boston this week for a board meeting (which means I’m on dog walking duty every day.) I’m incredibly proud of her involvement with Wellesley and it’s easy to support the college, as I think it’s an amazing place.
The Wellesley HCI Lab also intersects with my deep commitment to getting more women engaged in computing. As many of you know, I’m chair of National Center for Women & Information Technology. When Amy asked if I was open to underwriting the renovation, the answer was an emphatic yes!
I’m at a Dev Ops conference today being put on by JumpCloud (I’m an investor) and SoftLayer. It’s unambiguous in my mind that the machines are rapidly taking over. As humans, we need to make it easy for anyone who is interested to get involved in human-computer interaction, as our future will be an integrated “human-computer” one. This is just another step in us supporting this, and I’m psyched to help out in the context of Wellesley.
Amy – and Wellesley – y’all are awesome.
Several years ago on a Saturday I found myself at Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte. I was attending the second National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) Awards for Aspirations in Computing event. I had gone for a three hour run early in the morning on a beautiful spring day in Charlotte and my mind was wandering all over the place.
As I entered the ballroom for the event, I encountered 32 young high school women and their parents. I wandered around and talked to most of the young women. They had a range of backgrounds, came from a bunch of different geographies, and were a mix of ethnicities. But they all had one thing in common – they loved computers.
As I got to know a few of them better, I learned that they did things like lead their First Robotics team. Write software for local businesses. Help out on systems for their schools and local governments. Hack on open source projects.
I was absolutely and completely blown away. And inspired. These young women were completely net native. They were from all over the place. They had a wide variety of teenage girl interests. But they were all fascinated with, and extremely competent with, computing. As much – or more – than I was in high school, and I spent an enormous amount of time with my head in my Apple ][.
On the spot, I called Amy and asked her if we could give each young woman a $1,000 scholarship in addition to the award they were getting. Amy said yes and Lucy Sanders, the CEO of NCWIT, announced it shortly thereafter. The scholarship was given to each Aspirations in Computing winner when they entered college as a freshman.
At this point, 100% of the women have gotten their scholarship. Many have already graduated. It’s incredibly rewarding to look at the list of schools, and the accomplishments, of these young women.
So Amy and I decided to do this again. We are giving another $1,000 scholarship to each winner of this year’s NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Award. There are going to be 35 this year, so that’s a $35,000 gift to NCWIT. Hopefully that will encourage some additional young women to apply.
I’ve been chair of NCWIT for a number of years and I am very proud of what the organization has done to encourage women at a young age to get involved or continue pursuing STEM fields. Each year, NCWIT selects a set of high school girls that show remarkable promise in the fields of computing or IT and recognizes them for their aptitude, leadership, and academics. This award also creates an environment for those students to succeed in college by offering them scholarships, internship opportunities, and much more. The business community and the academic community, nationally, have really come together to make the awards substantial and impactful. I encourage you to jump in and help out, and here are a few ways how:
These awards are a few steps in the right direction but there’s always more work to be done. If you have thoughts about how to get more young women in this generation into innovation field, I would love to hear them!
The application for the NCWIT Awards for Aspirations in Computing is open until October 31, 2013. Apply here.
An event called Startup Phenomenon is happening In Boulder on 11/13 – 11/15. It gets to the heart of how startup communities are developed and I’d love to have you join me at it. If you register to come, use the code “feldfriends” for $100 off the $995 price.
You may have seen the recent Kauffman Foundation study that ranked Boulder tops among all cities in the U.S. in terms of tech-startup density. That Boulder was number one was interesting, but what’s more exciting is that there are so many emergent startup communities around the United States that it’s now worth ranking them.
Startup Phenomenon is designed to bring attention to these communities, from small towns to large cities, as we explore how this startup phenomenon works. We’ll cover topics including:
On the third day of the conference we will provide a deep look into what’s going on here in Colorado. That Kauffman report of densest startup communities actually had four Colorado cities in the top 10 (Boulder, Ft. Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs.) And you may have seen that the New York Times recently dubbed Boulder “Silicon Valley for Ad Agencies.”
The speakers list is awesome. As a special treat, I get to interview Jim Collins author of Built to Last, Good to Great, How the Mighty Fall, and Great By Choice who happens to live in Boulder.
This will be a great opportunity for you to bring attention to your work and to learn about the entrepreneurs and investors who have come together around the world to build vibrant, open startup communities.
Now that our federal government is back at work and the short term debt ceiling thing is resolved, it should be no surprise that the news cycle is now obsessed with Obamacare and its flawed implementation. Over the weekend I must have seen a dozen articles about this online and in the NY Times, and then I woke up this morning to a bunch of new things about the Healthcare.gov site underlying tech, how screwed up it is, and what / how the Health and Human Services agency is going to do to fix it.
The punch line – a tech surge.
To ensure that we make swift progress, and that the consumer experience continues to improve, our team has called in additional help to solve some of the more complex technical issues we are encountering.
Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov. We’re also putting in place tools and processes to aggressively monitor and identify parts of HealthCare.gov where individuals are encountering errors or having difficulty using the site, so we can prioritize and fix them. We are also defining new test processes to prevent new issues from cropping up as we improve the overall service and deploying fixes to the site during off-peak hours on a regular basis.
From my perspective, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Many years ago I read Fredrick Brooks iconic book on software engineering – The Mythical Man-Month. One of his key messages is that adding additional software engineers to an already late project will just delay things more. I like to take a different approach – if a project is late, take people off the project, shrink the scope, and ship it faster.
I think rather than a tech surge, we should have a “tech retreat and reset.” There are four easy steps.
If Harper isn’t available, ask him for three names of people he’d put in charge of this. But put one person – a CTO – in charge. And let them hire a team – using all the budget for individual hires, not government contractors or consulting firms.
Hopefully the government owns all the software even though Healthcare.gov apparently violates open source licenses. Given that, the new CTO and his team can quickly triage what is useful and what isn’t. By taking the whole thing offline for nine months, you aren’t in the hell of trying to fix something while it’s completely broken. It’s still a fire drill, but you are no longer inside the building that is burning to the ground.
It’s 2013. We know a lot more about building complex software than we did in 1980. So we should stop using approaches from the 1980s, admit failure when it happens, and hit reset. Doing a “tech surge” will only end in more tears.