Friday, June 26, 2009

TechStars Boulder 2009: Half-Time Report

The other night I attended the first "pitch practice" for this year's set of TechStars Boulder companies. Watching the evolution is always fascinating. So far, my first impressions are holding strong. Those who I suspected would struggle, are struggling. Those who I expected would be knocking it out of the park are doing so.

Comparing and contrasting the 2009 crew to the 2008 crew, I find that this year's companies are, on the whole, more mature than last year's. More companies this year have their products further down the path of where I think they will ultimately end up, than last year. It's been nice to work with teams that are more crystallized in their thinking and implementations. Of course, there's always the crew that bounces back and forth for awhile until they hone things to the point they can walk down a straight line.

For those doing user facing products, the focus on the concepts that will "hook" a user is much better than last year. Too many priorities tend to doom a team, and recognition of this is coming fast. That said, there's a big difference between knowing which features to drop and actually dropping them; it can be hard to let go.

For those doing more infrastructure intense products, the technical skills brought to bare, and understanding of the issues at hand, is much more advanced than last year. The infrastructure plays have a special place in my heart so it's been fun to work with folks doing more backend stuff.

Of course, there's a star burning hotter than the others. This team has taken a problem that billions of dollars have been thrown at, to little avail, and turned it upside down. As a result, they have a phenomenal product that is going to do things for an industry that has been begging for it for decades. Brilliant, and totally cool. I can't say who it is, but it will be apparent when the season's over.

Some technical patterns/themes that pervade almost every team this year:
- Polling. Mashing APIs together is the norm now, and the access paradigm overly leveraged is polling. Conveniently my company Gnip ( is trying to make this easier.
- Queuing. Polling's ugly sibling. More teams are challenged with queuing needs in their application which bumps complexity up a notch. The simplest advice is best here. Queuing Theory 101: if the average inbound rate of items is greater than the system's ability to digest them; you're screwed, rethink the model.
- Data Storage. "How am I going to store all that data in an access efficient manner?" The inbred offspring of Polling and Queuing, data storage challenges are real for a few of the companies. For the others, the age old simple relational DB model will foot the bill.

One thing that will never cease to amaze me is the energy, passion, and commitment that radiates from the teams. Amazing.

Boulder is lucky to have this program, and I'm lucky to be a part of it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Faithfully Breaking Rules

Spending a week on a 15k person island (Martha's Vineyard) with family has made me think about breaking the rules in more ways than one. Reading the local paper this morning reminded me of how important it can be to break the rules. One of the bakeries in Oak Bluffs opens their back alley door at 10:30pm every night to sell doughnuts as they're coming off the line; all night until 7am. I'm sure they're breaking numerous zoning and health code rules in the process, but needless to say with a population of this size, everyone loves it, and no-one cares; no harm no foul.

The "family" aspect of this vacation has me bending/breaking, and enforcing, numerous parenting rules as well. Ice cream everyday? No problem. Licorice before breakfast? Sure.

Reading about President Obama's Finance industry reworking got me thinking about "bigger" rules that affect our everyday lives, indirectly and directly. That turned me to one of my favorite, and brutally simple, rules that we, internationally and cross-culturally, effectively never break: "stay on your side of the road when driving."

Think about it. Everyday millions of people drive two-thousand pound chunks of metal at high-speeds in opposite directions, with nothing more than a couple of feet between them as they pass eachother. There is some base rule that taps into our mortality that truly prevents us from breaking this rule. We have faith that complete strangers will adhere to the rule as well. We hand our lives over to other drivers everyday. I always like coming back to that one as it's an interesting exercise regarding faith in others.

Photo by: William C. Beall of Washington Daily News

Monday, June 1, 2009

"Mommamacations" & Perfect Software

My 6.5 year old son and I built a Lego Mindstorm vehicle yesterday. After constructing it, we wrote the software for it. After watching version 1.0 of our software run for about 5 seconds, we noticed a bug so we iterated, fixed the bug, and ran v2 of the software. After about 30 seconds we noticed another issue with the number of degrees the vehicle was turning when it confronted an obstacle. We tuned the software to increase the angle to 90 degrees, compiled, pushed code to the vehicle, and ran it.

This version, v3, of the software ran for awhile. It ran at home, at his grandparents house, and again this morning. It ran well, for a long time. However, a few minutes ago we found yet another refinement we could make to the turning angle to make it get out of a jam even faster, and I said "aha, I found another modification we can make!" My son replied, "let's make all of the mommamacations [sic] this time." He wanted to write the software once, without bugs, perfectly.

I went on to explain how it takes time to understand how software is going to work in the real-world and how you can't account for all of the variables and scenarios up front. As a result, you build, test, and refine; you iterate. You can't write it once and have it work perfectly forever.

He didn't fully grok it, but its starting to sink in. It was a neat interaction with my boy around what my world is all about. Ha! My daughter just yelled out "am I doing ballet today?" Gotta run.