Category Archives: Startups

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. :)


“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. :)

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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5 Things I learned from Fred Wilson & Mark Suster

I was recently flipping through AVC.com and saw this interview by Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures. He talks in depth with veteran in the VC world, Fred Wilson.

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Here’s a more in-depth blog post on Mark’s interview with Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures.

1. I’m not into debt

Around the 20:25 in the interview, Fred is discussing a period in his career before some of his first big investments, where things were financially challenging. He makes a rather candid comment about personal debt:

“I’m not that kinda person. I don’t like debt. I’m not into debt”

I think this is key. I also think it frames the whole way people approach business & career.

Also: Are generalists better at scaling the web?

2. Brains & hustle is key

Among the most successful entrepreneurs there are certainly many who are very intellectually astute. Meanwhile there are others who are great speakers, who can sell an idea, and persuade, but perhaps not as deep product wise or deeply technical.

The very best though, tend to have both brains & hustle.

Related: 8 questions to ask an AWS expert

3. Best technology doesn’t win markets

Around 11:45 in the interview, Mark & Fred are discussing Novell & Banyan.

“That was when I learned that best technology doesn’t win markets”

t’s interesting because as you hear the story of how Banyan lost out to Novell, it resonates today with companies that often have the best tech, but don’t win in markets. Interesting.

Read: Why Airbnb didn’t have to fail

4. Find answers through blogging

“It’s like Venus Fly Paper. When I write about topics that are relevant, suddenly anybody with a startup solution in that field will approach us. This works brilliantly.”

Indeed, I’ve found blogging to be crucial myself to career building. It helps in a myriad of ways.

Blogging brings visibility, as your blog gains in popularity. That is certainly big. But also it helps you craft & formalize your voice & your vision. Blogging asks you everyday to think about your perspective, and share it in a way that appeals to a broad audience. And analytics give you real feedback that you are saying something of value to people.

Also: Are SQL databases dead?

5. Listen to the younger generation

Around 1:11:15 in the interview, there’s an interesting point where Mark asks Fred if there were any deals that they regret not getting into. Fred responds that AirBNB was such a deal, as it was a quintessential Union Square ventures company.

As it turns out they didn’t invest because they couldn’t imagine using the service. Meanwhile the younger members of their team had a different perspective.

“We’re not gonna reject anything that we wouldn’t do and the younger team would.”

Interesting point. I think of Venmo as another example of this. I personally wouldn’t use the service, meanwhile it is clearly very popular among teen & twenty something demographic.

Also: 5 Things toxic to scalability

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

sashi [via Flickr]

I was browsing through Career Dean recently, a site that facilitates professionals to share knowledge & experience with more junior & recent college grads about the work world. It’s a great site. I saw the question What’s the luckiest thing that’s ever happened for your career?

I read in John Adam’s AMA his “million dollar piss” (www.careerdean.com/q/howd-you-get-the-job-twitter), which he sowed the seeds of his success basically during a piss. That’s a 1 in a million kind of story I know. I’d like to hear if anyone else has ever experienced anything remotely lucky in that way? =) something fun to come back and read if anyone answers.

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Here’s how I responded…

I moved to NYC & worked at a tiny startup in the mid-nineties. Got to do Mac stuff, windows & Sun Solaris unix as well. Jumped on an Oracle project where I was a bit underwater. The firm hired a consultant to assist me for a few days. I watched what he did and learned like a sponge. Within a few months I dove into Oracle consulting and never looked back.

I felt this was an amazingly lucky opportunity to for a few reasons.

1. DIY

I’ve been consulting for almost twenty years now. And I get asked all the time how to get into freelance or independent consulting. For me the jumping off point was working for a really small ten person startup.

An environment like this is very different from a large corporation where you do one thing. At a tiny shop, everything is very do-it-yourself. You have to be self-serve & lean. It’s a constant challenge to teach yourself what you don’t already know. It’s a very vibrant environment as you enter your career.

Also: 5 Things toxic to scalability

2. Generalist

I also found that I had the chance to really apply everything I learned in computer science. It’s a hardware problem? It’s a software problem? These kind of silos that you experience at university don’t apply. One day you can be doing windows, mac, or Unix operating system configuration, the next you can be writing code. And on the third day you can be doing dba work.

In today’s terminology, this role was site reliability engineer or SRE, fullstack developer, tech support, evangelist, CTO, DBA, scalability & performance lead and more.

Related: Are generalists better at scaling the web?

3. Cutting edge

Startups to be sure are on the bleeding edge. They’re constrained by budgets, and through sheer will & experimentation, are cutting their teeth on the newest technologies out there.

These days that might be Cassandra & Kafka, Docker, MongoDB, hdfs, Redshift and so on.

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. Ok to Fail

In larger enterprises, a lot of politics weigh on decisions, and exotic technologies are risky. When you’re at a startup, and by design you are entering uncharted waters, it’s sort of a given that it is ok to fail. This encourages learning, as there is less risk of failure.

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

5. Iterative & Agile

We talk about being agile, and lean at startups. At a very small place like this, you have one or two developers, and you deploy code constantly. It’s agile by default. And that’s a good thing.

Also: Is high availability overrated? The myth of five nines.

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The chaos theory of cloud scalability

The.Rohit - Flickr
The.Rohit – Flickr

Reading Benedict Evans weekly newsletter, you’re bound to bump into something new & useful. His newsletter covers Mobile, but that also means it touches on a lot of other areas of tech, innovation & startups.

This week he pointed me to A Weissman’s The Chaos Theory of Startups. He argues a VC’s job is to help a startup identify the right framework. It’s about finding the signal in the noise.

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I think you can carry this idea over to technical operations today. There are a few key maxims I follow to keep you on the scalable track.

1. Degrade gracefully

You’ve heard it before, but have you done anything about it?

Build a read-only or browse only mode into your application. Do it now. You will thank me. When your database goes down unexpectedly (with RDS this might happen sooner than you think), you want to be able to use your lovely read-only slave database. Browse only mode, forces developers to add read-only support in most application functions, keeping the site up and running, without a full visible and ugly outage.

Which brings me to point two, be sure to have copies of your production database. Real live, only read-only copies. In Amazon speak, this is a read-replica, in MySQL this is a slave database. Most startups I see these days have this, but if you’re one of the ones dragging your feet, do this now.

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

2. Monitor & measure

Amazon’s cloudwatch is fine for what it is, and so is New Relic. But employing a dedicated tool just for monitoring, such a Nagios & cacti can give you much more granular intelligence about what’s happening with your infrastructure. Nagios gives you the monitoring & alerting, Cacti gives you the history. It’s like a BI reporting tool for infrastructure.

Related: Is automation killing old-school operations?

3. Keep components simple

Keep it simple stupid? Don’t adopt new technologies, languages, or versions of software, without first vetting them. Ask questions:

o Is there an existing piece of software or service that can overlap this new one, killing two birds with one stone?
o Does everybody know this new technology?
o Does this choice of technology solve any other broad problems we have?
o Is there a large community around the project?
o Are there a lot of engineers with experience in this chosen technology?

Tellingly, many startups don’t have an operations person to start with. In those, the danger is developers choose new solutions, with no push back.

I asked… Does a four letter word divide dev and ops?

Read: Do managers underestimate operational cost?

4. Don’t force database abstraction

Object Relational Modelers, aka database middleware, are great in theory. We want a library that takes database & SQL drudgery away from developers. Why reinvent the wheel?

The trouble is database independent code doesn’t work, and never has. ORMs are painfully inefficient, selecting all columns, or repeatedly reading rows from tables. This causes serious traffic jams inside your database.

They come in various guises, Cake PHP, Active Record for Ruby, Hibernate for Java, SQL Alchemy for Python.

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

5. Be asynchronous

This means don’t make your application code wait. Make asynchronous calls to APIs & check back later, use software queues so traffic backups don’t clog your components & communication.

Avoid any type of two-phase or multi-phase commit. These are common in clustered databases, forcing a serialization point so nodes can agree on what data looks like. However they’re toxic to scalability. Look for technologies that use eventually consistent algorithms.

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

Get more. Grab our exclusive monthly Scalable Startups. We share tips and special content. Our latest Why I don’t work with recruiters