“We’re killing it”

Good post today, A “Third Way” in Entrepreneurship, that discusses the “always be winning”, annoyingly positive veneer of most startup entrepreneurs. This is a community where many founders you meet always share their latest victory and pretend that failures rarely happen.

… entrepreneurs are pressured to maintain a totally positive face to the outside world about the state of their company. In San Francisco, “we’re killing it” is almost now an inside joke because of the ubiquity of that response when someone asks an entrepreneur how their company is faring. Most of these companies are not “killing it”, and the entrepreneurs probably know that.

There is also a nice comment thread discussing the “we’re killing it” phrase, a discussion to which I contributed an anecdote and interpretation.

The comment I added to the discussion:

A friend once relayed a story to me of a dinner meeting of ~20 early-stage high-tech executives he attended that was sponsored by a startup organization. The moderator asked one question as an ice breaker to kick off the night: “What is the greatest challenge that your startup faces today?”

My friend was the first one picked to share. Being a very level-headed guy (who personally hates the term, “killing it”), he suggested that one of his biggest challenges was maintaining work/life balance & personal relationships, for himself & also for his employees, so that they don’t burn out on the job.

The baton then got passed to the next entrepreneur, and, as my friend tells it, entrepreneur after entrepreneur shared their “greatest challenge”, though they were only “challenges” in the weakest sense of the word. For example: “handling all the new customers we have”, “scaling our servers for our massive user-base”, “hiring enough software engineers to keep up with the business growth”.

He realized then that every entrepreneur was “positioning” the answer to make it appear that the greatest challenge faced was dealing with the company’s illusory massive success.

I think this anecdote describes the “killing it” mentality quite well — even among peers and in a setting where people should be comfortable sharing their fears, this community prefers reality distortion.

Uninterruptability

Paul Graham, in a footnote from his essay on “How to Make Wealth”:

One valuable thing you tend to get only in startups is uninterruptability. Different kinds of work have different time quanta. Someone proofreading a manuscript could probably be interrupted every fifteen minutes with little loss of productivity. But the time quantum for hacking is very long: it might take an hour just to load a problem into your head. So the cost of having someone from personnel call you about a form you forgot to fill out can be huge.

This is why hackers give you such a baleful stare as they turn from their screen to answer your question. Inside their heads a giant house of cards is tottering.

The mere possibility of being interrupted deters hackers from starting hard projects. This is why they tend to work late at night, and why it’s next to impossible to write great software in a cubicle (except late at night).

One great advantage of startups is that they don’t yet have any of the people who interrupt you. There is no personnel department, and thus no form nor anyone to call you about it.

PyCon 2013: The Debrief

PyCon US 2013 is over! It was a lot of fun — and super informative.

pycon_panorama

The People

For me, it was great to finally meet in person such friends and collaborators as
@__get__, @nvie, @jessejiryudavis, and @japerk.

It was of course a pleasure to see again such Python super-stars as
@adrianholivaty, @wesmckinn, @dabeaz, @raymondh, @brandon_rhodes, @alex_gaynor, and @fperez_org.

(Want to follow them all? I made a Twitter list.)

I also met a whole lot of other Python developers from across the US and even the world, and the entire conference had a great energy. The discussions over beers ranged from how to use Tornado effectively to how to hack a Python shell into your vim editor to how to scale a Python-based software team to how to grow the community around an open source project.

In stark contrast to the events I’ve been typically going to in the last year (namely: ‘trade conferences’ and ‘startup events’), PyCon is unbelievably pure in its purpose and feel. This is where a community of bright, talented developers who share a common framework and language can push their collective skills to new heights.

And push them, we did.

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Solidify your Python web skills in two days at PyCon US 2013

PyCon US 2013 is coming up in March. It is in beautiful Santa Clara, right outside of Palo Alto / San Francisco.

The main conference is sold out, but there are still a few spots open for the tutorial sessions.

(Here’s a secret: the tutorials are where I’ve always learned the most at PyCon.)

Most of PyCon’s attendees are Python experts and practitioners. However, Python is one of the world’s greatest programming languages because it is one of its most teachable and learnable. Attending PyCon is a great way to rapidly move yourself from the “novice” to “expert” column in Python programming skills.

This year, there is an excellent slate of tutorial sessions available before the conference starts. These cost $150 each, which is a tremendous value for a 3-hour, in-depth session on a Python topic. I know of a lot of people who are getting into Python as a way to build web applications. There is actually a great “novice web developer” track in this year’s tutorials, which I’ll outline in this page.

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Smaller buckets and bigger thimbles

Just came across this essay I wrote on my morning commute from Long Island to NYC in 2007, while I was a software engineer for Morgan Stanley.

I was joking with some friends the other day that my “to read” list keeps growing every day, and it only seems like things are added but never removed. I made the following analogy: it grows by the bucket full and shrinks by the thimble full, to which my coworkers replied, “you need bigger thimbles and smaller buckets.” If only it were that easy.

Unfortunately, I’m not getting used to this 9-to-5 stuff even if it is only 9-to-5. The other day I watched a video of Andy Hertzfield (one of the original software developers on the Mac team at Apple) and he was talking about how when he was my age he would work 80 hour weeks and just poured his heart and soul and to work. And I thought: I can’t do that on my current project. Why should I?

Continue reading Smaller buckets and bigger thimbles

Data Rules

Poynter smartly rang the bell feeling it was necessary to tell publishers Buzzfeed is a “real news site.” Yes, it is. It’s a news website and it’s the future. Buzzfeed is data driven, and it knows in a real and provable way what its readers want – and it’s growing like gangbusters. As HuffPo proved – and as the history of digital media keeps proving again and again – data rules. Data is how you find audience. Data is how you retain it. Sure, old guard websites deploy analytics to track usage patterns on the sites themselves, but they are missing the boat on analyzing the important stuff – share, search and social – to inform their edit and product decisions.

from Print is Dead, Long Live Print?

Why Startups Die

Startups die due to a variety of causes. Over the course of the last three years, I’ve watched many of my friends pour their hearts and souls into companies that, for one reason or another, just fizzled out of existence.

In 2007, Paul Graham gave a variety of causes for startup death in How Not To Die. He wrote:

When startups die, the official cause of death is always either running out of money or a critical founder bailing. Often the two occur simultaneously. But I think the underlying cause is usually that they’ve become demoralized. You rarely hear of a startup that’s working around the clock doing deals and pumping out new features, and dies because they can’t pay their bills and their ISP unplugs their server.

The other major thing Graham advises startups not to do: “other things”. Namely:

[D]on’t go to graduate school, and don’t start other projects. Distraction is fatal to startups. Going to (or back to) school is a huge predictor of death because in addition to the distraction it gives you something to say you’re doing. If you’re only doing a startup, then if the startup fails, you fail.

In early 2011, I wrote a post, Startups: Not for the faint of heart, that discussed Parse.ly’s survival through a one-year bootstrapping period after Dreamit Ventures Philly ’09. Since then, I’ve witnessed yet more startup deaths, and especially extended “troughs of sorrow”.

As a result, I’ve had a kind of mild survivor guilt, and have started to look for patterns in causes in the deaths I have witnessed.

Continue reading Why Startups Die

Reporting is not enough

A great article came out today in INMA entitled, “Industry metrics: Is it time to say goodbye to the pageview?”.

In it, the authors write:

Reporting is sufficient for showing whether or not we had a good month, but not insightful enough to tell us what we were doing right, where we went wrong, and what we might replicate and discard to perform better in the next reporting period.

Relying exclusively on the pageview — an important and dominant metric in online media — leads to some startling conclusions.

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Information fanaticism

On finding alternative sources of news in the pre-web era (this quote comes from ~1992):

The information is there, but it’s there to a fanatic, you know, somebody wants to spend a substantial part of their time and energy exploring it and comparing today’s lies with yesterday’s leaks and so on. That’s a research job and it just simply doesn’t make sense to ask the general population to dedicate themselves to this task on every issue.

[…]

Very few people are going to have the time or the energy or the commitment to carry out the constant battle that’s required to get outside of MacNeil/Lehrer or Dan Rather or somebody like that. The easy thing to do, you know — you come home from work, you’re tired, you’ve had a busy day, you’re not going to spend the evening carrying on a research project, so you turn on the tube and say, “it’s probably right”, or you look at the headlines in the paper, and then you watch the sports or something.

That’s basically the way the system of indoctrination works. Sure, the other stuff is there, but you’re going to have to work to find it.

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The End of PowerPoint

Edward Tufte is the father of modern information visualization. If you don’t know who he is, you probably should, and you can get up to speed by reading this profile in Washington Monthly, The Information Sage.

Last year, I attended one of Tufte’s one-day courses in NYC. I even showed him an early, prototype version of Parse.ly Dash. His feedback — even if it came quickly in 5 minutes — was helpful in understanding how to move the product forward.

I thought, when attending his presentation, that my main takeaways would be in the field I associated with him, namely, information visualization. But actually, my main takeaways were about communication, teaching, and journalism.

Continue reading The End of PowerPoint