Category Archives: Startups

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

via GIPHY

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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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Are engineering orgs like Google so different from sales driven ones like Oracle?

Editor & writer in friendly dialog

Over the years I’ve worked with over 100 different organizations. Two decades in the industry you see a lot of things. Some businesses are more engineering heavy, while others are more sales driven.

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So this past week, I was somewhat surprised because I met with two very different organizations, and the contrast stood out dramatically to me. Pando Daily called it the Clash of Cultures.

I wonder will we ever learn from eachother?

1. On Monday I met with CloudOne

I’m choosing a fictional name here, but the meeting was real. We met over lunch to discuss how we might work together. Their org has been around for years, has a phenomenal track record, and they are strongly sales oriented.

Some observations:

o They’re hungry. They pushed for client lists & sniffed for leads.
o They’re margin oriented, they had a clear idea of where their strong suit was, and what types of customers they wanted to work with. That’s because they had a clear idea of their margins.
o They understand the industry well, much better than I did.
o They could certainly talk circles around me in terms of industry categories & verticals.
o They glossed over technical details
o They made broad generalizations & mixed up facts at times

Also: Beware the sales wolf in sheep suits

2. On Thursday I met with DataOne

Here again I’m choosing a fictional name. We met over dinner to discuss my opinions of the market and also if I might have any venture leads or could make introductions.

Some Observations I came away with:

o Their company is all engineering.
o They’re intimately focused on coding & building the product.
o They downplayed product limitations & somewhat out of touch with customer.
o They seemed to be feeling around in the dark for investors
o They seemed to have a weak network

Related: When you have to take the fall

3. Org experience: LearnOne

One of my past customers, also a fictional name here, they were also an incredibly sales heavy organization.

Some Observations:

o Their monthly standups felt like a sporting huddle.
o Lots of ra ra ra & high fives
o They were extremely sales driven, growing rapidly
o They had tremendous problems around engineering.
o They seemed to be boxing wayyy above their weight class.

Read: 5 Things I learned from Dvaid Maister about trust & advising clients

4. Cross-cultural studies

As a consultant I find this all fascinating. It often seems like this cultural style is driven from the top. The big movers are the ones who shape the organization.

I think of Google as an incredible example of an engineering driven organization. Finding top people is always about math & problem solving, but short on personality emphasis. Meanwhile their products lack the UI polish, but are functionally accurate & always fast.

Contrast that with Oracle, which send in a heavy armament of perfect suits to close a deal, negotiate soft until you’re firm is locked in, then jack up the license fees until you bleed. Meanwhile although the product is a sturdy technical construction, it’s every bit the marketing that is smooth & polished.

Also: Why is devops talent in short supply?

5. The takeaway

A winning team needs both. I’m obviously born of the engineering camp, but I agree with Ben Horowitz that the new enterprise customer is much like the old enterprise customer. And yes sales matters more than ever before.

At the same time the engineering team needs to carry equal weight, and decisions for both teams need to be framed as tradeoffs for the other.

Also: Five ways to build an analytics database with Amazon Redshift

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What events are good for tech & startup networking in New York City?

garys guide events

I’ve worked in the NYC startup scene since the mid-nineties. It seems to keep growing every year, and there are so many events it’s hard to keep track.

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Here’s where to look for the best stuff.

1. Gary’s Guide

Gary Sharma hosts an authoritative guide to all the events in the new york tech & startup scene. It’s sort of the one-stop shop for knowing what’s going on.

Lucky for us, in a city the size of new york, there’s an opportunity to meet & network with people everyday of the week.

Also: 5 core pieces of the Amazon cloud puzzle to get your project off the ground

2. Meetups

Meetup.com is another invaluable resource. There are technical groups & social ones, and plenty of niche groups to for specific areas of interest.

For example there’s NYC Tech Talks, NY Women in Tech, Tech for good & NY Entrepreneurs & Startup Network. There are plenty more.

Related: Some thoughts on 12-factor apps

3. Eventbrite

A lot of events us Eventbrite for ticketing, so it turns out to be a great place to search. Some of the startup related events .

Read: Why dropbox didn’t have to fail

4. Techdrinkup

Michael Gold’s #techdrinkup event keeps getting bigger & better. More social hour than presentations & such, you’re sure to bump elbows with some folks in NY’s exploding tech scene.

Take a look at some of the event photos on their facebook page.

Also: How do hackers secure their Amazon Web Services account?

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Five things I learned at NY CTO Summit 2015

cto summit 2015

Enjoyed attending the New York CTO Summit yesterday with a notable list of presenters. Looking forward to the slides. Links to follow.

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1. Product is a reflection of teams

Conway’s law was repeated by three different presenters!

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

2. Agile government

Government efficiency can be tackled with startup efficiencies!

Related: Is AWS enabling Angellist to boil the VC business?

3. Learning culture

There are lots of benefits to building a learning culture, not least is making the business succeed.

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. Don’t report to finance

Let’s remember how important which teams report to whom is. It can make or break your technology initiatives.

Also: Is Amazon too big to fail?

5. Course correction & size

The cost of changing course gets bigger as your org does.

Also: Airbnb didn’t have to fail

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Does Linux tell the Gilgamesh story of hacker culture?

stephenson command line

Is the command line still essential?
Was Stephenson right about his Linux

It’s been a while since I read Stephenson’s essay on Linux. It’s one of those pieces that’s so well written, we need to go back to it now & then.

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This quote caught my eye right away.

“…as living in a commune, where much lip service was paid to ideals of peace, love and harmony, had deprived them of normal, socially approved outlets for their control freakdom, it tended to come out in other invariably more sinister ways. Applying this to the case of Apple Computer will be left as an exercise for the reader, and not a very difficult exercise.”

Anyone who has read about Steve Jobs will chuckle at this one.

1. The Hole Hawg of the internet

When Stephenson wrote this it was 1999. Linux adoption was growing at internet startups, where cost was everything, and risks could be taken. Remember this was before the two biggest data center companies even existed, namely Google & Amazon. Without Linux, neither would be here today!

hole hawg power

Linux was and is today more like a Hole Hawg for the internet, powerful, but dangerous in the wrong hands. ๐Ÿ™‚


“The Hole Hawg is like the genie of the ancient fairy tales, who carries out his masters instructions literally and precisely and with unlimited power, often with disasterous unforseen consequences.”

Also: Why I like Etsy’s site performance report

2. Unix as oral history, our Gilgamesh

gilgamesh unix


“Unix, by contrast is not so much a product as it is a painstakingly compiled oral history of the hacker subculture. It is our Gilgamesh. What made old epics like Gilgamesh so powerful and so long-lived was that they were living bodies of narrative that many people knew by heart, and told over and over again — making their own personal embellishments whenever it struck their fancy.”

Also: Are SQL Databases dead?

3. The bizarre Trinity Torvalds, Stallman & Gates


“In trying to understand the Linux phenomenon, then, we have to look not to a single innovator but to a sort of bizarre Trinity, Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman and Bill Gates. Take away any of these three & Linux would not exist.”

And indeed we must thank all three of these characters for where the internet stands today. The cloud is possible because of Linux & cheap intel hardware. And the GNU free software to go along with it.

Related: Did MySQL & Mongo have a beautiful baby called Aurora?

4. On the meaning of “Open Source”


“Source files are useless to your computer, and of little interest to most users, but they are of gigantic cultural & political significance, because Microsoft & Apple keep them secret, while Linux makes them public. They are the family Jewels. They are the sort of thing that in Hollywood thrillers is used as a McGuffin: the plutonium bomb core, the top-secret blueprints, the suitcase of bearer bonds, the reel of microfilm.

Read: When hosting data on Amazon turns bloodsport

5. What about Apple today?


“The ideal OS for me would be one that had a well-designed GUI that was easy to set up and use, but that included terminal windows where I could revert to the command line interface and run GNU software when it made sense.”

Stephenson wrote this before Apple has rebuilt their OS to sit on top of Unix. And that’s where we are today with Mac OS X!

Also: Are we fast approaching cloud-mageddon??

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Is Amazon too big to fail?

aws fault tolerance

Amazon is the huge online retailer everyone knows well. However there is another side of Amazon, namely Amazon Web Services that hosts many of the internets largest websites.

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In the infrastructure & operations world, Amazon is the Citibank, JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs of cloud providers.

1. Outage takes down Yelp & Netflix

As reported on Thousand Eyes among other places, Amazon had a major outage yesterday.

Amazon experienced a problem with how they route data over the network. Routing is the technical term for how the internet moves data around. When routing goes wrong at a provider like Amazon, the websites they host will go down too.

Also: Are we fast approaching cloud-mageddon?

2. Automation can’t save you

Netflix is famous for their great streaming service, and shows like House of Cards.

On the technology side they’re also pretty famous. They deploy legions of Amazon servers to stream movies using Chaos Monkey. This open source suite allows them to remain resilient even if individual servers or components go offline.

Yet a heavy reliance on Amazon itself, meant a wider outage for them was also an outage for Netflix.

Related: What tech do startups use most?

3. Of cloud monopolies

Amazon’s dominance in the cloud hosting space is incredible. There are providers that can beat them in compute power, speed & price. But with their incredible reach of global datacenters & relentless growth they are still the first choice for most internet shops.

What is the downside of such dominance? What happened yesterday illustrates it clearly. When Amazon goes down, so do financial companies like Experian,

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. Diversify your data portfolio

In the banking world we can put together legislation, regulating banks. We can enact capital requirements or consider breaking up the largest ones. For investors & consumers you can diversify your portfolio, putting money in different asset classes & institutions. If one fund fails, others will balance it out.

We can do the same with cloud hosting. For larger internet applications, deploying on multiple clouds can be very beneficial. In that case an outage at Amazon, would merely mean your global load balancer kicks in, sending traffic to your plan B servers.

Also: Replicate big data to Amazon Redshift with Tungsten

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Are we fast approaching cloud-mageddon ?

storm coming

One look at StackShare’s trending technologies, and you’ll discover the exploding growth of languages, webservers, load balancers, databases, caching servers, automation & monitoring tools, continuous integration suites & a broad spectrum of Software as a service solutions.

The choices today boggles the mind. Choice is good, but too much choice can mean trouble too.

Join 30,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

1. What am I actually using?

Erich Schubert wrote a superb piece about the sad state of the sysadmin in the age of containers. Here’s what caught my eye:

Stack is the new term for “I have no idea what I’m actually using”.

That definitely rings true for me. The customers I’m seeing these days have such complicated stacks, that nobody really knows what’s installed. That’s dangerous!

Also: Do today’s startups assemble at their own risk?

2. Embrace failure more broadly

Recently I wrote a blog post asking Is AWS the patient that needs constant medication?. It got a lot of traction, and here’s why I think that happened.

AWS uses very commodity, cheapo components. The assumption is, with an infinitely redundant datacenter, component failure is ok. It’s ordinary & everyday.

Unfortunately most startups, even ones that employ some Ansible & devops, still don’t have Netflix grade automation.

Those regularly everyday failures are still getting detected by old-school manual monitoring. And that’s a recipe for trouble

Also: 5 Things toxic to scalability

3. What are complex systems?

In this excellent deck, James Urquhart talks about emergent behavior in complex systems. It’s worth a quick read.

***

Read: How I find entrepreneurial focus

4. What to do? Do you like boring?

Dan McKinley formerly principal engineer at Etsy & now with Stripe wrote a brilliant essay arguing for boring technology.

This comes as a shock to many in the startup world. It sort of smacks in the face of open source, or does it?

I worked in the enterprise space as an Oracle DBA for a decade starting in the mid-nineties. Among DBAs there was always a chuckle when a new version of Oracle came out. No one wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole. Sure we’d install it on test boxes, start learning the new features and so forth. But deploy it? No way, wait a good 2 or even 3 years before upgrading.

Meanwhile management was eager for the latest software. Don’t we want the newest? The Oracle sales guys would be selling the virtues of all sorts of features that nobody needed right away anyway.

Choosing boring components takes discipline to fight sexy new technologies & bleeding edge versions. But staid & stodgy wins you everyday in operations uptime.

Related: Is automation killing old-school operations?

5. Use tried & tested components

Do you find your application or stack contains java, ruby, python & PHP? Choose one.

One webserver like nginx, one caching server like memcache or redis, one search server like solr or elasticsearch, one database like MySQL or postgres. Standardize all your components on one image, so you can use that for all your servers, regardless of which you use.

Fewer components will mean fewer interdependencies, less maintenance, & less chaos.

Also: What’s the luckiest thing that’s happened in your career?

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How I find entrepreneurial focus

Brian K

Relentless focus. This is surely a key to entrepreneurial success. But how to find it? And how to maintain that focus through the ups & downs?

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I’ve found a simple system with a few rules has brought me success. I’ve used it for two decades of as entrepreneurial, and still do.

Here’s how it works…

1. keep a list of small tasks

This is the number one thing I do daily. I start out early in the morning, over coffee. Anything that “needs to get done” goes on the todo list, but I also separate out the things I’ll do today.

Todo list items are not big ones, like “save the world” or “get new job”. They are small nuggets of work that take 15 to 60 minutes. If they’re larger, they need to be broken down.

A typical day covers five major tasks. You will get sidetracked. You’ll need to answer calls & emails that aren’t captured on the list.

All this sounds simple, but it actually requires a discipline. Both to keep tasks actionable & small. You’ll learn your work pace with practice. But there’s one more thing to remember.

Also: Are generalists better at scaling the web?

2. trust the list

One thing I find myself doing is pushing just because something is on the list.

I don’t do list based on feelings or moods

This requires a lot of habit building, but it becomes valuable. By doing this over time, you begin to trust the list. You know things on it will get done. So you can safely “add it to the list” and forget about it for the moment.

This lets your mind relax and bcomes a real godsend when you have a mountain of work to do.

Just work list because it’s there. And trust that things that need to get done simply go on the list.

Related: Why airbnb didn’t have to fail

3. done with list, done for day

On days where things get hairy, and you work more, you’ll have to slog through to get everything on the list done. But sticking to it will build a habit that’s valuable.

At the same time some days will be easier. Avoid the temptation to add more work to fill the day.

When you’re done with the list, you’re done for the day

This is a discipline too. Pat yourself on the back, and give yourself a break. You did what you said you would do. Time for a beer. ๐Ÿ™‚

Read: Which tech do startups use most?

4. big projects require faith

Anothe lesson I’ve learned is that really large projects, or ones bringing you into new areas, require a lot of faith. For me, with an engineering background, I don’t have an easy time finding that. I want to measure, and dice up everything from the start.

When I was embarking on a project to buy real estate in Brooklyn, I really learned this lesson. There was so much unknown. How do I work with real estate brokers that have a different style of communicating than engineers & corporate professionals? How do I negotiate? What’s the right price? What about mortgages & their brokers? Architect inspections, land surveys, flood zones, crime maps, loans & assets, legal & closing costs. The list of unknown & nebulous areas of expertise was staggering.

Hang around edges to get lay of land

If I would distill this faith idea down for someone embarking on a new career or diving into a pool of unknown depth, I would say start by hanging around the edges. Pick off pieces that you can, and add them to the todo list.

I went to open houses. I asked questions. I researched online, and I always made sure I understood how agents & players were incentivized. That means believing none of the words people speak, but rather, look behind the curtain and make educated guesses about those realities.

Also: Do todays startups assemble at their own risk?

5. break down & do

It is inevitable that you will experience writers block. Or any other kind of block that manifests as procrastination. Don’t over think it.

Continue to break down to smallest viable unit that you *can* do.

get started on anything to get inertia

With writing I find blocks where I don’t have a solid idea formulated. Maybe you have a topic? So then my todo list for the day is “write five bullet points”. This by itself will take some time, but you know you can write something. By moving past your block, I sometimes find I wanna keep writing and finish the piece. This is the kind of habit you want to form.

Also: Is Fred Wilson right to say speed is a feature?

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