All posts by Sean Hull

Is Amazon about to disrupt your data warehouse?

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Amazon is about to launch a product called glue. As you can see below, this is the last piece in the data warehousing puzzle. With that in place, Amazon will own you! Or at least have push button products to meet all of enterprises varying needs.

Even if you’re a small startup, you can do big-shot big enterprise data warehousing. That means everyone can use cutting edge data driven techniques for product & business decisions.

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What is Redshift

Redshift is like the OLAP databases of years past, the Oracle’s of the world purpose built for warehousing data. Obviously without the crazy licensing model Oracle was famous for. With Amazon you can get enterprise class data warehouse for modest hourly prices.

If my recent conversations with recruiters about Redshift demand are any indication, there’s been a sudden uptick in startups looking for redshift expertise.

Also: Top serverless interview questions for hiring aws lambda experts

What is Spectrum?

Spectrum is a very new extension of Redshift allowing you to access & query S3 file data directly. This means you can have petabytes of data that you can access pre-load time. So you will ETL and load portions of it, but with Spectrum you can still access the offline data too.

In the old Oracle days this was called an EXTERNAL TABLE. I mention this only to say that Amazon isn’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Rather they’re bringing these advanced features within reach of everyday startups. That’s cool.

Related: Which engineering roles are in greatest demand?

What is glue?

Glue is still in beta, but if the RE:Invent talk above is any indication, it’s set to disrupt an entire industry. Wow!

Glue first catalogs your data sources. What does this mean, it scans them & models their schemas.

It then generates sample python ETL code. Modify it, or write your own. Share your code on Git. Or borrow other open source pieces, that already address your specific ETL use case!

Lastly it includes a job scheduler which handles dependencies. Job A must be completed before B can run and so forth. Error handling & logging are also all included.

Since these are native Amazon services, of course they’re going to integrate with their dangerously fast Redshift warehouse.

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

What is serverless?

I’ve written about how to throw fastballs at a serverless fanboy and even how to hire a serverless expert. But really what is it?

Serverless means deploying functions directly into the cloud. No servers, no configuration. All the systems administration & automation is hidden. No more devops to argue with! Amazon’s own offering is called Lambda.

Also: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

What is Quicksight?

Amazon’s even jumped into the fray at the presentation layer. Quicksight is a BI tool along the lines of mode, domo, looker or Tableau.

Now it’s possible to stay completely within the cozy Amazon ecosystem even for business insight and analytics.

Also: What can startups learn from the DYN DNS outage?

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Top questions to ask a devops expert when hiring or preparing for job & interview

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Strip by Randall Munroe; xkcd.com

Whether your a hiring manager, head of HR or recruiter, you are probably looking for a devops expert. These days good ones are not easy to find. The spectrum of tools & technologies is broad. To manage today’s cloud you need a generalist.

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If you’re a devops expert and looking for a job, these are also some essential questions you should have in your pocket. Be able to elaborate on these high level concepts as they’re crucial in todays agile startups.

Check out: 8 questions to ask an aws ec2 expert

Also new: Top questions to ask on a devops expert interview

And: How to hire a developer that doesn’t suck

1. How do you automate deployments?

A. Get your code in version control (git)

Believe it or not there are small 1 person teams that haven’t done this. But even with those, there’s real benefit. Get on it!

B. Evolve to one script push-button deploy (script)

If deploying new code involves a lot of manual steps, move file here, set config there, set variable, setup S3 bucket, etc, then start scripting. That midnight deploy process should be one master script which includes all the logic.

It’s a process to get there, but keep the goal in sight.

C. Build confidence over many iterations (team process & agile)

As you continue to deploy manually with a master script, you’ll iron out more details, contingencies, and problems. Over time You’ll gain confidence that the script does the job.

D. Employ continuous integration Tools to formalize process (CircleCI, Jenkins)

Now that you’ve formalized your deploy in code, putting these CI tools to use becomes easier. Because they’re custom built for you at this stage!

E. 10 deploys per day (long term goal)

Your longer term goal is 10 deploys a day. After you’ve automated tests, team confidence will grow around developers being able to deploy to production. On smaller teams of 1-5 people this may still be only 10 deploys per week, but still a useful benchmark.

Also: Top serverless interview questions for hiring aws lambda experts

2. What is microservices?

Microservices is about two-pizza teams. Small enough that there’s little beaurocracy. Able to be agile, focus on one business function. Iterate quickly without logjams with other business teams & functions.

Microservices interact with each other through APIs, deploy their own components, and use their own isolated data stores.

Function as a service, Amazon Lambda, or serverless computing enables microservices in a huge way.

Related: Which engineering roles are in greatest demand?

3. What is serverless computing?

Serverless computing is a model where servers & infrastructure do not need to be formalized. Only the code is deployed, and the platform, AWS Lambda for example, takes care of instant provisioning of containers & VMs when the code gets called.

Events within the cloud environment, such a file added to S3 bucket, trigger the serverless functions. API Gateway endpoints can also trigger the functions to run.

Authentication services are used for user login & identity management such as Auth0 or Amazon Cognito. The backend data store could be Dynamodb or Google’s Firebase for example.

Read: Can on-demand consulting save startups time & money?

4. What is containerization?

Containers are like faster deploying VMs. They have all the advantages of an image or snapshot of a server. Why is this useful? Because you can containerize your microservices, so each one does one thing. One has a webserver, with specific version of xyz.

Containers can also help with legacy applications, as you isolate older versions & dependencies that those applications still rely on.

Containers enable developers to setup environments quickly, and be more agile.

Also: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

5. What is CloudFormation?

CloudFormation, formalizes all of your cloud infrastructure into json files. Want to add an IAM user, S3 bucket, rds database, or EC2 server? Want to configure a VPC, subnet or access control list? All these things can be formalized into cloudformation files.

Once you’ve started down this road, you can checkin your infrastructure definitions into version control, and manage them just like you manage all your other code. Want to do unit tests? Have at it. Now you can test & deploy with more confidence.

Terraform is an extension of CloudFormation with even more power built in.

Also: What can startups learn from the DYN DNS outage?

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Top Amazon Lambda questions for hiring a serverless expert

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If you’re looking to fill a job roll that says microservices or find an expert that knows all about serverless computing, you’ll want to have a battery of questions to ask them.

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For technical interviews, I like to focus on concepts & the big picture. Which rules out coding exercises or other puzzles which I think are distracting from the process. I really like what what the guys at 37 Signals say

“Hire for attitude. Train for skill.”

So let’s get started.

1. How do you automate deployment?

Programming lambda functions is much like programming in other areas, with some particular challenges. When you first dive in, you’ll use the Amazon dashboard to upload a zipfile with your code. But as you become more proficient, you’ll want to create a deployment pipeline.

o What features in Amazon facilitate automatic deployments?

AWS Lambda supports environment variables. Use these for credentials & other data you don’t want in your deployment package.

Amazon’s serverless offering, also supports aliases. You can have a dev, stage & production alias. That way you can deploy functions for testing, without interrupting production code. What’s more when you are ready to push to production, the endpoint doesn’t change.

o What frameworks are available for serverless?

Serverless Framework is the most full featured option. It fully supports Amazon Lambda & as of 1.0 provides support for other platforms such as IBM Openwhisk, Google Cloud Functions & Azure functions. There is also something called SAM or Serverless Application Model which extends CloudFormation. With this, you can script changes to API Gateway, Dynamo DB & Cognos authentication stuff.

If you’re using Auth0 instead of Cognito or Firebase instead of Dynamodb, you’ll have to come up with your own way to automate changes there.

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

2. What are the pros of serverless?

Why are we moving to a serverless computing model? What are the advantages & benefits of it?

o easier operations means faster time to market
o large application components become managed
o reduced costs, only pay while code is running
o faster deploy means more experimentation, more agile
o no more worry about which servers will this code run on?
o reduced people costs & less infrastructure
o no chef playbooks to manage, no deploy keys or IAM roles

Related: Is automation killing old-school operations?

3. What are the cons of serverless?

There are a lot of fanboys of serverless, because of the promise & hope of this new paradigm. But what about healthy criticism? A little dose of reality can identify a critical & active mind.

o With Lambda you have less vendor control which could mean… more downtime, system limits, sudden cost changes, loss of functionality or features and possible forced API upgrades. Remember that Amazon will choose the needs of the many over your specific application idiosyncracies.

o There’s no dedicated hardware option with serverless. So you have the multi-tenant challenges of security & performance problems of other customers code. You may even bump into problems because of other customers errors!

o Vendor lock-in is a real obvious issue. Changing to Google Cloud Functions or Azure Functions would mean new deployment & monitoring tools, a code rewrite & rearchitect, and new infrastructure too. You would also have to export & import your data. How easy does Amazon make this process?

o You can no longer store application & state data in local server memory. Because each instantiation of a function will effectively be a new “server”. So everything must be stored in the database. This may affect performance.

o Testing is more complicated. With multiple vendors, integration testing becomes more crucial. Also how do you create dev db instance? How do you fully test offline on a laptop?

o You could hit system wide limits. For example a big dev deploy could take out production functions by hitting an AWS account limit. You would thus have DDoS yourself! You can also hit the 5 minute execution time limit. And code will get aborted!

o How do you do zero downtime deployments? Since Amazon currently deploys function-by-function, if you have a group of 10 or 20 that act as a unit, they will get deployed in pieces. So your app would need to be taken offline during that period or it would be executing some from old version & some from new version together. With unpredictable results.

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. How does security change?

o In serverless you may use multiple vendors, such as Auth0 for authentication, and perhaps Firebase for your data. With Lambda as your serverless platform you now have three vendors to work with. More vendors means a larger area across which hackers may attack your application.

o With the function as a service application model, you lose the protective wall around your database. It is no longer safely deployed & hidden behind a private subnet. Is this sufficient protection of your key data assets?

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

5. How do you troubleshoot & debug microservices?

o Monitoring & debugging is still very limited. This becomes a more complex process in the serverless world. You can log error & warning messages to CloudWatch.

o Currently Lambda doesn’t have any open API for third party tooling. This will probably come with time, but again it’s hard to see & examine a serverless function “server” while it is running.

o For example there is no New Relic for serverless.

o Performance tuning may be a bit of a guessing game in the serverless space right now. Amazon will surely be expanding it’s offering, and this is one area that will need attention.

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

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What engineering roles are most in demand at startups?

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I was just reading over StackOverflow’s 2017 Developer survey. As it turns out there were some surprising findings.

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One that stood out was databases. In the media, one hears more and more about NoSQL databases like Cassandra, Dynamo & Firebase. Despite all that MySQL seems to remain the most popular database by a large margin. Legacy indeed!

1. Databases

MySQL is still the most popular db by a large margin 56%. Followed by SQL Server 39%, SQLite 27% and Postgres 27%.

Related: Is Amazon too big to fail?

2. Most popular language

Javascript sits at number one for Web developers, sysadmins & Data Scientists alike. Followed by SQL.

Read: Are SQL Databases dead?

3. Most popular framework

Node.js at 47%. It’s followed by AngularJS at 44%.

Also: 5 ways to move data to Amazon Redshift

4. Most loved database

Redis sits at number one here at 65%, followed by Postgres & Mongo.

Also: Myth of five nines – why HA is overrated

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Is on-demand consulting the answer to your hiring woes?

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A consultant costs more per hour than a developer you can hire right? That depends!

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A big firm may cost a few thousand per day. But a smaller firm or one-man shop can bring you savings in line with a team hire.

1. You’re still looking

Have you been looking for 3 months? 6 months? You might find someone. But maybe never? I

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

2. On-boarding takes forever

***

Related: Is automation killing old-school operations?

3. Fulltime hires quit

I’ve worked at a few firms where the fulltime hires quit within a few months. Why? One was a very mismanaged team. They were juggling a lot of technical debt & lacked leadership direction. Devs were frustrated and morale was suffering.

At another firm the CTO left. A new one replaced him who started throwing his weight around. Many of the old team members got fed up & left.

In all these cases a consultant will still be there, working day-by-day, getting things done. I wrote about this How do we measure devotion.

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. Halftime need

Smaller demand? Perhaps your capacity isn’t a full 40-hour week. Then an on-demand hire is really ideal.

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

5. Hit the ground running

Of course the biggest advantage is quicker on-boarding. You can expect productive work right away. That’s because a solo consultant has a lot of experience jumping right into the fray, and making an impact right away.

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

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Key lessons from the Devops Handbook

I picked up a copy of the DevOps Handbook.

This is not a book about how to setup Amazon servers, how to use git, codePipeline or Jenkins. It’s not about Chef or Ansible or other tools.

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This is a book about processes & people. It’s about how & why automation & world-class infrastructure will make your business more agile, raise quality & increase productivity.

1. Infrastructure in version control

With technologies like Terraform and CloudFormation, the entire state of your infrastructure can be captured. That means you can manage it just like any other code.

Also: Myth of five nines – Why high availability is overrated

2. Pushbutton builds

You’ve heard it before. Automate your builds. That means putting everything in version control, from environment building scripts, to configs, artifacts & reference data. Once you can do that, you’re on your way to automating production deploys completely.

Related: 5 ways to move data to amazon redshift

3. Devs & Ops comingled

In the devops world, devs should learn about operations, infrastructure, performance & more. What’s more operations teams should work closely with devs.

Read: Why were dev & ops siloed job roles?

4. Servers as cattle not pets

In the old days, we logged into servers & provided personal care & feeding. We treated them like pets.

In the new world of devops, we should treat servers like cattle. When it begins to fail, take it out back and shoot it. (tbh i don’t love the analogy, but it carries some meaning…)

Also: Are SQL databases dead?

5. Open to learnings & failures

Organizations that are open to failures, without playing the blame game, learn quicker & recover from problems faster.

Also: Is Amazon too big to fail?

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Essential links this week

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Here’s some links & interesting stuff I’ve stumbled on this week. Enjoy!

Join 33,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

1. Start coding

Looking to start coding? Take a look at Open source for beginners. It’s a graphical list of projects on github, great for beginners!

Also: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

2. DIY Serverless

Interested in serverless & wanna dig past the hype? Take a look at this Functions as a Service howto which shows how to build lambda type offering in Kubernetes or Docker Swarm. Cool yo!

Related: Learning from the Dyn DNS outage

3. Serverless Use Cases

Curious when & where Amazon Lambda might make sense? Any and all microservices? Here’s a newstack article on viable use cases for serverless computing.

Read: Does Amazon Redshift have a dirty little secret?

4. Origami design software

Random, weird, and kinda cool! Robert Lang has designed some Origami software called TreeMaker. It replaces the pencil & paper method of designing new origami figures. Use the software to push the limits of paper folding further!

Also: My DIY Disqus.com hack for blog discovery

5. A distributed relational database that works?

Bloomberg LP has designed a relational database called Comdb2. Unlike many of it’s NoSQL peers, this distributed database is relational, speaks SQL, and is also highly available. Amazing!

Also: Are SQL databases dead?

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30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

Everyone is hot under the collar again. So-called serverless or no-ops services are popping up everywhere allowing you to deploy “just code” into the cloud. Not only won’t you have to login to a server, you won’t even have to know they’re there.

As your code is called, but cloud events such a file upload, or hitting an http endpoint, your code runs. Behind the scene through the magic of containers & autoscaling, Amazon & others are able to provision in milliseconds.

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Pretty cool. Yes even as it outsources the operations role to invisible teams behind Amazon Lambda, Google Cloud Functions or Webtask it’s also making companies more agile, and allowing startup innovation to happen even faster.

Believe it or not I’m a fan too.

That said I thought it would be fun to poke a hole in the bubble, and throw some criticisms at the technology. I mean going serverless today is still bleeding edge, and everyone isn’t cut out to be a pioneer!

With that, here’s 30 questions to throw on the serverless fanboys (and ladies!)…

1. Security

o Are you comfortable removing the barrier around your database?
o With more services, there is more surface area. How do you prevent malicious code?
o How do you know your vendor is doing security right?
o How transparent is your vendor about vulnerabilities?

Also: Myth of five nines – Why high availability is overrated

2. Testing

o How do you do integration testing with multiple vendor service components?
o How do you test your API Gateway configurations?
o Is there a way to version control changes to API Gateway configs?
o Can Terraform or CloudFormation help with this?
o How do you do load testing with a third party db backend?
o Are your QA tests hitting the prod backend db?
o Can you easily create & destroy test dbs?

Related: 5 ways to move data to amazon redshift

3. Management

o How do you do zero downtime deployments with Lambda?
o Is there a way to deploy functions in groups, all at once?
o How do you manage vendor lock-in at the monitoring & tools level but also code & services?
o How do you mitigate your vendors maintenance? Downtime? Upgrades?
o How do you plan for move to alternate vendor? Database import & export may not be ideal, plus code & infrastructure would need to be duplicated.
o How do you manage a third party service for authentication? What are the pros & cons there?
o What are the pros & cons of using a service-based backend database?
o How do you manage redundancy of code when every client needs to talk to backend db?

Read: Why were dev & ops siloed job roles?

4. Monitoring & debugging

o How do you build a third-party monitoring tool? Where are the APIs?
o When you’re down, is it your app or a system-wide problem?
o Where is the New Relic for Lambda?
o How do you degrade gracefully when using multiple vendors?
o How do you monitor execution duration so your function doesn’t fail unexpectedly?
o How do you monitor your account wide limits so dev deploy doesn’t take down production?

Also: Are SQL databases dead?

5. Performance

o How do you handle startup latency?
o How do you optimize code for mobile?
o Does battery life preclude a large codebase on client?
o How do you do caching on server when each invocation resets everything?
o How do you do database connection pooling?

Also: Is Amazon too big to fail?

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Some irresistible reading for March – outages, code, databases, legacy & hiring

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I decided this week to write a different type of blog post. Because some of my favorite newsletters are lists of articles on topics of the day.

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Here’s what I’m reading right now.

1. On Outages

While everyone is scrambling to figure out why part of the internet went down … wait is S3 is part of the internet, really? While I’m figuring out if it is a service of Amazon, or if Amazon is so big that Amazon *is* the internet now…

Let’s look at s3 architectural flaws in depth.

Meanwhile Gitlab had an outage too in which they *gasp* lost data. Seriously? An outage is one thing, losing data though. Hmmm…

And this article is brilliant on so many levels. No least because Matthew knows that “post truth” is a trending topic now, and uses it his title. So here we go, AWS Service status truth in a post truth world. Wow!

And meanwhile the Atlantic tries to track down where exactly are those Amazon datacenters?

Also: Is Amazon too big to fail?

2. On Code

Project wise I’m fiddling around with a few fun things.

Take a look at Guy Geerling’s Ansible on a Mac playbooks. Nice!

And meanwhile a very nice deep dive on Amazon Lambda serverless best practices.

Brandur Leach explains how to build awesome APIs aka ones that are robust & idempotent

Meanwhile Frans Rosen explains how to 0wn slack. And no you don’t want this. 🙂

Related: 5 surprising features in Amazon’s serverless Lambda offering

3. On Hiring & Talent

Are you a rock star dev or a digital nomad? Take a look at the 12 best international cities to live in for software devs.

And if you’re wondering who’s hiring? Well just about everyone!

Devs are you blogging? You should be.

Looking to learn or teach… check out codementor.

Also: why did dev & ops used to be separate job roles?

4. On Legacy Systems

I loved Drew Bell’s story of stumbling into home ownership, attempting to fix a doorbell, and falling down a familiar rabbit hole. With parallels to legacy software systems… aka any older then oh say five years?

Ian Bogost ruminates why nothing works anymore… and I don’t think an hour goes by where I don’t ask myself the same question!

Also: Are we fast approaching cloud-mageddon?

5. On Databases

If you grew up on the virtual world of the cloud, you may have never touched hardware besides your own laptop. Developing in this world may completely remove us from understanding those pesky underlying physical layers. Yes indeed folks containers do run in “virtual” machines, but those themselves are running on metal, somewhere down the stack.

With that let’s not forget that No, databases are not for containers… but a healthy reminder ain’t bad..

Meanwhile Larry’s mothership is sinking…(hint: Oracle) Does anybody really care? Now’s the time to revisit Mike Wilson’s classic The difference between god and Larry Ellison.

Read: Are SQL Databases Dead?

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5 surprising features in Amazon’s Lambda serverless offering

Amazon is building out it’s serverless offering at a rapid clip. Lambda makes a great solution for a lot of different use cases including:

o a hybrid approach, building lambda functions for small pieces of your application, sitting along side your full application, working in concert with it

o working with Kinesis firehose to add ETL functionality into your pipeline. Extract Transform & Load is a method of transforming data from a relational or backend transactional databases, into one better fit for reporting & analytics.

o retrofitting your API? Layer Lambda functions in front, to allow you to rebuild in a managed way.

o a natural way to build microservices, with each function as it’s own little universe

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Great, tons of ways to put serverless to use. What’s Amazon doing to make it even better? Here are some of the features you’ll find indispensible in building with Lambda.

1. Versioned functions

As your serverless functions get more sophisticated, you’ll want to control & deploy different versions. Lambda supports this, allowing you to upload multiple copies of the same function. Coupled with Aliases below, this becomes a very powerful feature.

Also: When hosting data on Amazon turns bloodsport

2. Aliases

As you deploy multiple versions of your functions in AWS, you don’t want to recreate the API endpoints each time. That’s where aliases come in. Create one alias for dev, another for test, and a third for production. That way when new versions of those are deployed, all you have to do is change the alias & QA or customers will be hitting the new code. Cool!

Related: Are you getting errors building lambda functions?

3. Caching & throttling

Using the API gateway, we can do some fancy footwork with Lambda. First we can enabling caching to speedup access to our endpoint. Control the time-to-live, capacity of the cache easily. We’ll also need to invalidate the cache when we make changes & redeploy our functions.

Throttling is another useful feature, allowing you to control the maximum number of times your function can be called per second on average (the rate) and maximum number of times (burst limit). These can be set at both the stage & method levels.

Read: Is Amazon too big to fail?

4. Stage variables

Creating multiple stages, for dev, test & production means you can separate out and control environment variables with more granular control. For example suppose you have access & secret keys to reach S3. You can set environment variables for these to avoid committing any credentials or secrets in your code. Definitely don’t do that!

Allowing multiple copies of stage variables, means you can set them separately for dev, test & production.

Also: How to deploy on Amazon EC2 with Vagrant?

5. Logging

You can enable logging in your Lambda function configuration. This will send error and/or info warning messages out to CloudWatch.

You may also choose the log all of the request & response data. This is controlled in the API Gateway settings for individual stages.

Also: Is Amazon RDS hard to manage?

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