After a two-fer of deeply annoying arrogance demonstrated by two different VCs on the first business day of 2011 that I’m still pondering (a mix of conflict avoidance behavior and passive aggressive behavior) I’m really looking forward to CES.
Several years ago, my partners and I started going to CES together. Jason and Ryan had being going for a while. I’m not a trade show guy although I diligently went to Comdex for several years in the 1990’s as part of Softbank (which owned Comdex at the time.) Generally, I’m completely overwhelmed by the people and the stuff and the idea of spending a few days in Las Vegas playing trade show monkey makes me tired just thinking about it.
But there’s something deliciously seductive to me about CES. When combined with an attitude change (rather than fighting the crowds, I just roll with it and pretend like I’m in the ocean, swimming around, not really noticing all the dirt and animals), I’m really enamored with wandering around, looking at, and playing with all the new stuff on display. Rather than target specific stuff, I just spend two days looking at everything.
It helps that we have two really fun dinners with a bunch of friends (it’s my year to organize – actually, that means Kelly has done all the work – thanks Kelly). An early morning run, followed by eight hours of walking around playing with technology, followed by three hours hanging out with good friends and colleagues at a great Las Vegas restaurant. Ok – that’s a good day.
In the past we’ve discovered new investments (such as Cloud Engines) and seen lots of companies we are investors in make good progress (e.g. this year I expect both Sifteo and Orbotix to get a lot of airplay based on what they are announcing.)
I’m heading out a day early for a BigDoor board meeting. It seems appropriate that we’d kick of our 2011 gamification of the universe with a meeting in Las Vegas. So make that three great dinners with friends.
I nominate “platform” for overused tech word of 2010. Yeah, I whined about this a few months ago in my post Your Platform Is Not In My Space.
I hear the word “platform” in over 50% of the short pitches I get. A friend of mine who is working on a new startup that isn’t even funded yet (and he’s grinding on the financing) described his goal of “creating a platform for a-phrase-that-only-73-early-adopters-will-userstand.) Entrepreneurs everywhere describe the first release of their MVP (“minimum viable product” – for those of you that haven’t intersected with the Lean Startup movement) app as a “platform”. The first three pages of a google search on “platform” are 33% tech, 33% politics, and 34% other. At least Google image search is more accurate, for example:
Ahem – give me a fucking break. Yup – I get it – it’s great to be a platform. I give you Facebook and Twitter as examples. But real platforms are few and far between. And creating “a platform” is not necessarily the right first move for your brand new consumer facing application. Why don’t you start by being super useful to a bunch of consumers first.
I know I’ve been overusing the word “platform” lately – it’s like a weird brain infection that is hard to diagnose and then eliminate. I’ve found it – now it’s time to remove it from my vocabulary.
As a user, how often have you thought “I wish this web service was faster.” As a CEO, how often have you said “just make it faster.” Or, more simply, “why is this damn thing so slow?”
This is a not a new question. I’ve been thinking about this since I first started writing code (APL) when I was 12 (ahem – 33 years ago) on a computer in the basement of a Frito-Lay data center in Dallas.
This morning, as part of my daily information routine, I came across a brilliant article by Carlos Bueno, an engineer at Facebook, titled “The Full Stack, Part 1.” In it, he starts by defining a “full-stack programmer”:
“A “full-stack programmer” is a generalist, someone who can create a non-trivial application by themselves. People who develop broad skills also tend to develop a good mental model of how different layers of a system behave. This turns out to be especially valuable for performance & optimization work.”
He then dissects a simple SQL query (DELETE FROM some_table WHERE id = 1234;) and gives several quick reasons why performance could vary widely when this query is executed.
It reminded me of a client situation from my first company, Feld Technologies. We were working on a logistics project with a management consulting firm for one of the largest retail companies in the world. The folks from the management consulting firm did all the design and analysis; we wrote the code to work with the massive databases that supported this. This was in the early 1990’s and we were working with Oracle on the PC (not a pretty thing, but required by this project for some reason.) The database was coming from a mainframe and by PC-standards was enormous (although it would probably be considered tiny today.)
At this point Feld Technologies was about ten people and, while I still wrote some code, I wasn’t doing anything on this particular project other than helping at the management consulting level (e.g. I’d dress up in a suit and go with the management consultants to the client and participate in meetings.) One of our software engineers wrote all the code. He did a nice job of synthesizing the requirements, wrestling Oracle for the PC to the ground (on a Novell network), and getting all the PL/SQL stuff working.
We had one big problem. It took 24 hours to run a single analysis. Now, there was no real time requirement for this project – we might have gotten away with it if it took eight hours as we could just run them over night. But it didn’t work for the management consultants or the client to hear “ok – we just pressed go – call us at this time tomorrow and we’ll tell you what happened.” This was especially painful once we gave the system to the end client whose internal analyst would run the system, wait 24 hours, tell us the analysis didn’t look right, and bitch loudly to his boss who was a senior VP at the retailer and paid our bills.
I recall having a very stressful month. After a week of this (where we probably got two analyses done because of the time it took to iterate on the changes requested by the client for the app) I decided to spend some time with our engineer who was working on it. I didn’t know anything about Oracle as I’d never done anything with it as a developer, but I understood relational databases extremely well from my previous work with Btrieve and Dataflex. And, looking back, I met the definition of a full-stack programmer all the way down to the hardware level (at the time I was the guy in our company that fixed the file servers when they crashed with our friendly neighborhood parity error or Netware device driver fail to load errors.)
Over the course of a few days, we managed to cut the run time down to under ten minutes. My partner Dave Jilk, also a full-stack programmer (and a much better one than me), helped immensely as he completely grokked relational database theory. When all was said and done, a faster hard drive, more memory, a few indexes that were missing, restructuring of several of the SELECT statements buried deep in the application, and a minor restructure of the database was all that was required to boost the performance by 100x.
When I reflect on all of this, I realize how important it is to have a few full-stack programmers on the team. Sometimes it’s the CTO, sometimes it the VP of Engineering, sometimes it’s just someone in the guts of the engineering organization. When I think of the companies I’ve worked with recently that are dealing with massive scale and have to be obsessed with performance, such as Zynga, Gist, Cloud Engines, and SendGrid I can identify the person early in the life of the company that played the key role. And, when I think of companies that did magic stuff like Postini and FeedBurner at massive scale, I know exactly who that full system programmer was.
If you are a CEO of a startup, do you know who the full-stack programmer on your team is?
I’m officially in the daily deal business. Check out my new “Brad Feld’s Amazing Deals” store and shop online for some outdoor gear from Giantnerd.com.
Rather than simply observe new things, I like to use them. I’ve been keeping an eye on the daily deal phenomenon and have had an opportunity to explore it in more detail mentoring Deal Co-op, a TechStars Seattle team. Deal Co-op is in the program via Alabama and has been running a profitable online deal company for the last three years. During one of our weekly mentoring meetings, they told me they could turn anyone with good business contacts and an online audience into their own Groupon. They asked me if I knew anyone that fit the bill, and I told them I did… me!
Deal Co-op thinks that daily deal marketing is best served at local levels, with more targeted distribution. I’m interested to see if they are right. My first deal features $50 in credit from Giantnerd.com for $25. Giantnerd is a Boulder based company that specializes in “Social Shopping” for outdoor apparel and gear. You can shop online at Giantnerd.com, so anyone reading this blog can taking advantage of the offer.
I’ll have more offers coming up soon, so sign up for the email alert list, and keep an eye out for more Amazing Deals.
In my never ending quest to use all the things I find interesting, I’ve started an email newsletter called Feld On Work-Life Balance. While I periodically post on Work-Life Balance, Amy and I are working on a book called The Startup Marriage. There is also a chapter on Work-Life Balance in the book David Cohen and I just wrote called Do More Faster. This is a topic that’s long been important and interesting to me, especially as I travel around explaining to my completely unbalanced friends how they are actually balanced and they just don’t realize it yet.
In the mean time, I’ll do some longer pieces on my Feld On Work-Life Balance email newsletter. It’ll also help me better understand yet another vector of media (in this case microsubscriptions) that I think is going to be increasing interesting and important in the future.
BTW – if you missed the Tahoe Tech Talk, we are about 66.7% of the way done and it has been unbelievable. The talks have been from Chris Sacca, Ben Kaufman, Dave Morin, Travis Kalanick, Kevin Rose, Dave McClure, and Alexia Tsotsis. Gary Vaynerchuk who organized it is up on stage doing his piece now talking about his goal of trying to humanize a conference. He’s also trying to say “Fuck” more times than McClure did. Great crowd – powerful stuff – well worth the 36 hours.
About a month ago I wrote a post titled Trying Gmail For A Week. I haven’t thought about Outlook, Entourage, or Mac Mail for a month and I don’t think I’m ever going back. It took about a week to rewire my brain for how conversations worked and what the keyboard shortcuts were, but not that I’m there it’s just awesome.
A few weeks ago Fred Wilson wrote a post titled Inbox Zero. In it he mentioned two Gmail services he found indispensable – Priority Inbox (from Google) and Unsubscribe.com (from James Siminoff who created Phonetag, another great service.) I agree with Fred on both of these, but have discovered a few extra things that are killer. I’ll list them below and for balance talk about a few shortcomings.
Priority Inbox: I’ve seen numerous tweets and blogs about how Priority Inbox doesn’t really do much. These are wrong / misinformed reactions. The trick to Priority Inbox, like many other things, is to actually use it for a few weeks. Part of using it is training it by quickly marking things up to “important” (by clicking +) or down to “everything else” (by clicking -). A small configuration change can make Starred emails (for quick follow up) a different category. I found that it only took about three days of this before I saw benefit and now (a month later) Priority Inbox gets it right 99 out of 100 times. I get over 500 emails a day – there is a long list of them that fall in “Everything Else”. I used to have to check / clear email obsessively throughout the day to stay at Inbox Zero. With Priority Inbox I’m finding solid email stretches a couple of times during the day are more than enough for me to stay on top of everything.
Unsubscribe.com: Like many people, I’m stuck in the endless “unsubscribe from email lists” infinite loop. I get vigilant for a few days and do the annoying unsubscribe drill one by one and knock a few off the list, but within a few weeks I’ve got even more. I’ve never seemed to be able to eliminate all the stuff I don’t want, especially around an election when it all escalates like crazy. With Unsubscribe.com, I simply click the Unsubscribe button in Gmail and the service gets rid of it. Don’t bother with the trial – trust me and just pay $19 for the service for a year if endless mailing list email that you don’t want is a problem for you.
Google Voice: I’ve had a Google Voice for a long time but I never fully switched over to it. The Google Voice integration with Gmail has tipped me over. I’ve been dreaming about getting rid of my desktop phone for a while – I now find myself almost exclusively doing every call from my computer except when I’m not online (where I have to use my cell phone.) More importantly, video chat and text chat is completely integrated within Gmail so from one screen I have email, my phone (inbound and outbound calling) Skype-equivalent video chat, and text chat. While I still use Skype extensively (I’m bradfeld) I find I’m using it much less as I end up using firstname.lastname@example.org instead.
Gist: I’m an investor in Gist and use it for my unified contact manager. Google Contacts is ok, but has a long way to go. But Gist integration with Gmail at a data level is superb. I’m still using Gmail’s consumer service so the integration is primarily at a data level, but I’m now playing around with a full switch over to Google Apps and the Gist + Google Apps integration (via the Google Apps Marketplace) just rocks. In addition, there’s a new browser-based Gist add-on coming out shortly (hint hint) that will provide direct integration into the consumer version of Gmail.
GooTasks: Since I am an Inbox Zero guy, I don’t keep anything (including paper), but I do have a short task lists of things like blog posts I’m going to write. I went through an Evernote phase recently but it’s overkill for me. Google Tasks is perfect, but I didn’t have an obvious way to sync with my iPhone. Now I do.
There are a handful of annoying things. The biggest one is that I have multiple accounts on Google (email@example.com as well as firstname.lastname@example.org) and they aren’t tightly integrated across all services. The other is the weak / inconsistent iPhone integration which keeps pushing me toward using an Android phone full time (I’m now carrying both an Android phone and an iPhone.) My dad’s recent story on the Samsung Fascinate has me seriously considering a full time switch over to Android.
My “while I’m working” migration from a full Windows / Outlook / Exchange / Office world to an almost completely non-Microsoft world has been fascinating. I’m in Seattle next week including a 24 hour stretch at Microsoft for some stuff – maybe it’ll come up and be an interesting discussion that my friends at Microsoft can learn from. In the mean time, I think the next big switch will be an organization one completely over to a Google Apps infrastructure.
Now that my Apple and Google experiments have been huge successes, I thought I’d try an Android phone one more time. I like my iPhone 4, but it’s pretty weak with all the Google apps. Specifically, I badly want better contact integration, clean email sync, and Google voice. Plus, AT&T still blows in Boulder.
Any suggestions out there for the “best Android out there today.” I was using a Sprint EVO for a while (and liked it a lot) until it was stolen by my assistant Kelly. So, I open to any choice – suggest away.
Every major software or web company I’ve ever been involved in has had a catastrophic outage of some sort. I view it as a rite of passage – when this happens when your company is young and no one notices, it gives you a chance to get better. But eventually you’ll have one when you are big enough for people to notice. How you handle it and what you learn from speaks volumes about your future.
Last week, two companies that we are investors in had shitty experiences. SendGrid‘s was short – it only lasted a few hours – and was quickly diagnosed. BigDoor‘s was longer and took several days to repair and get things back to a stable state. Both companies handled their problems with grace and transparency – announcing that all was back to normal with a blog post describing in detail what happened.
While you never ever want something like this to happen, it’s inevitable. I’m very proud of how both BigDoor and SendGrid handled their respective outages and know that they’ve each learned a lot – both in how to communicate about what happened as well as insuring that this particular type of outage won’t happen again.
In both cases, they ended up with 100% system recovery. In addition, each company took responsibility for the problem and didn’t shift the blame to a particular person. I’m especially impressed how my friends at BigDoor processed this as the root cause of the problem was caused by a new employee. They explain this in detail in their post and end with the following:
“Yes, this employee is still with us, and here’s why: when exceptions like this occur, what’s important is how we react to the crisis, accountability, and how hard we drive to quickly resolve things in the best way possible for our customers. I’m incredibly impressed with how this individual reacted throughout, and my theory is that they’ll become one of our legendary stars in years to come.”
I still remember the first time I was ever involved in a catastrophic data loss. I was 17 and working at Petcom, my first real programming job. It was late on a Friday night and I got a call from a Petcom customer. I was the only person around so I answered the phone. The person was panicked – their hard drive had lost all of its data (it was an Apple III ProFile hard drive – probably 5 MB). The person was the accounting manager and they were trying to run some process but couldn’t get anything to work. I remember discerning that it seemed like the hard drive was fine but she had deleted all of her data. Fortunately, Petcom was obsessive about backups and made all of their clients buy a tape drive – in this case, one from Tallgrass (I vaguely remember that they were in Overland Park, KS – I can’t figure out why I remember that.)
After determining the tape drive software was working and was available, I started walking the person through restoring her data. She was talking out loud as she brought up the tape drive menu and starting clicking on keys before I had a chance to say anything at which point she pressed the key to format the tape that was in the drive. I sat in shock for a second and asked her if she had another backup tape. She told me that she didn’t – this was the only one she ever used. I asked her what it said on the screen. She said something like “formatting tape.” I asked again if there was another backup tape. Nope. I told her that I thought she had just overwritten her only backup. Now, in addition to having deleted all of her data, she had wiped out her backup. We spent a little more time trying to figure this out, at which point she started crying. I doubt she realized she was talking to a 17 year old. She eventually calmed down but neither of knew what to do next. Eventually the call ended and I went into the bathroom and threw up.
I eventually got in touch with the owner of Petcom (Chris) at his house who told me to go home and not to worry about it, they’d figure it out over the weekend. I can’t remember the resolution, but I think Chris had a backup for the client from the previous month so they only lost a month or so worth of data. But that evening made an incredible impression on me. Yes, I finished the evening with at least one illegal drink (since the drinking age at the time in Texas was 18.)
It’s 28 years later and computers still crash, backups are still not 100% failsafe, and the stress of massive system failure still causes people to go in the bathroom and throw up. It’s just part of how this works. So, before you end up in pain, I encourage you to think hard about your existing backup, failover, and disaster recovery approaches. And, when the unexpected, not anticipated, not accounted for thing happens, make sure you communicate continually and clearly what is going on, no matter how painful it might be.
Sometimes Colbert is priceless. Well – most of the time. This one had Amy and I laughing hard today. Enjoy your five minute break from monitoring your social media and email to see if something important is going on. Matt Galligan reminded me that this is oddly reminiscent of SocialThing’s TechStars Demo Day.
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|The Word – Control-Self-Delete|