Monthly Archives: July 2011

Chicago TechWeek – my thoughts

TechWeek is winding down.  Here are my thoughts on a few of the broad themes apparent throughout the conference-

Data is being liberated

Data rules in this new tech landscape.  Facebook, Yelp, Google, and Bing are companies that have amassed a treasure trove of collective intelligence.  Aneesh Chopra, CTO of the US government, said “Data is the rocket fuel of the internet economy.”  And, oddly enough, the companies with this valuable data (Facebook social graph, Google search results, Yelp recommendations, etc) are giving them away to developers for free.  Go figure.

In addition, the city of Chicago and the US governments are literally begging people to use their gigantic datasets for free.   For Chopra, this is a way to help improve social services under the growing budgetary constraints.  He gave two great examples.  In the first one, a person built a website that mapped federal clinics for US residents.  This application has the potential to reduce Medicare spend by driving users towards these lower-cost clinics and away from higher-cost emergency rooms.  He also highlighted an application that mapped 401k mutual fund management fees.  This app showed that small companies typically paid almost 10% for management fees.  With this knowledge, smaller companies are now setting up 401k pools that they can use to negotiate lower rates.

This trend towards data liberation is great for startups, but also for bread-and-butter businesses as well.  As a solution provider, we can encourage any company to take advantage of these valuable sources of data.  Digitizing metropolitan information is huge for utility construction projects, retailers, real estate companies, and so on.

Velocity is king

Startups prefer to release early and often.  Velocity is king.  This means that coding conventions, enterprise standards, scalability concerns, et al take a backseat to delivering a viable product fast.  Why?

  • Business value rules:  no business, small or large, wants to put a big upfront spend before seeing value.  The rule is to build and grow along the way.   It is only after a company builds value that it scales its application up, refactors for enterprise growth, and re-designs performance chokepoints. Think of this as just-in-time development.
  • Talent and tools over processes: It seems that small business owners are willing to trust talented developers, marketers, sales folks, and other staff to construct a business fast and then change or fix things along the way.  And better tools like cloud deployments, rapid development platforms, and better analytics allow companies to change on the fly cheaply and quickly.  Why worry too much about processes and standards when change is the name of the game?  Those processes and standards (and even the whole business model) may change in six months.

Velocity is king Pt 2

As a development shop, you need to plan to deliver value faster.  1-2 month turnaround times are the norm and are shrinking rapidly.  Even Aneesh Chopra expects his teams to develop a minimum viable product in 90 days.  If you can’t hack something functional together in a few nights, you should upgrade your skillset until you can.  Think about that – the best new companies are looking for great hackers, who can get stuff functionally done even if it’s not the most elegant.  Of course, those who can hack something elegant quickly will be the cream of the crop.

Last decade’s stuff won’t work for the current decade

Development is going towards agile (small-A) tools like Amazon EC, RoR, Javascript frameworks, and small mobile apps.  The popular languages and tools of the last decade (C#, Java, PHP, MySQL) just doesn’t deliver the same productivity and scalability.  If you are a C# or Java developer, add these agile tools to your portfolio.  There will always be jobs for C# or Java programming, but adding these languages will prevent “calcification”.  Unfortunately, if you grew up on Java, PHP or C#, you’re approaching stone-age by tech standards.  Frankly, as you age, you need to demonstrate aptitude with cutting-edge tools just to maintain parity with younger prospects.

Disconnected teams are the new norm

All the companies who presented work with disconnected teams on a regular basis.  Jason Fried, of 37 Signals, said that more than half of his development team is remote.  Providers like oDesk and eLance are helping facilitate this transition.  Startup companies are willing to have remote team members because good talent is so scarce, and because technology support for remote teams (Yammer, Google Docs, etc) is so good now.   The CEO of oDesk (an online staffing company) believes remote work helps top talent succeed, by removing some of the promotion biases that come from underachievers who network well.

Chicago is big

According to JB Pritzker, Chicago had more VC funding in Q2 than any other city other than San Francisco.  Obviously, most of the credit goes to Groupon for this.  Even so, the excitement at TechWeek was palatable.  Whether it was the attendance at TechWeek, the urgency at which VC’s were looking at Chicago, or the unabashed shamelessness of people peddling crappy ideas, the tech scene (including in Chicago) screamed high activity.  Honestly, it also screams bubble – try to take advantage before the bubble pops.