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All CTO/CIO Serverless Startups

I’m speaking at Techhub on Wednesday – stop by!

This wednesday I’ll be giving a talk at the newly launched New York outpost of TechHub. The talk is entitled Intro to building a web/mobile app on AWS

Join 38,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

Although I focus on Amazon Web Services as the default cloud, the concepts could apply equally to GCP or Azure.

Want to get a head start? Download the slide deck here.

1. A short history of application hosting

Just to give some context, I’ll start by a quick walk through compute history. From the server cabinet in the back office, to the early managed hosting providers and then on to today’s modern cloud offerings, I’ll explain how we got here.

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

2. What the heck is serverless?

With that new context in mind, I’ll talk about that evolution one step further, to managed functions. What’s that you ask? Just hand over your code to the cloud, and let them handle running the servers, provisioning load balancers, and reacting to your customers when they hit the endpoint.

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

3. Introducing a reference architecture

No presentation is complete without a proper diagram. My reference architecture makes use of Amazon’s many cloud services, including API endpoint, cognito for user authentication, lambda for serverless functions, dynamodb to store state information, S3 for storing objects, CloudFront for the edge caching network, and Route53 for the domain name.

Related: Ben Horowitz’s choice wisdom for startup entrepreneurs

4. Architecture walkthrough

Each of the components I mention above, requires some explanation. I’ll talk about how to setup a serverless project, how to define and manage your API endpoint. This is where users first touch your application. I’ll introduce user authentication with Amazon’s own service or a third party like OneLogin or Auth0. From there you’ll see how Amazon’s nosql database Dynamodb works, and how you can store your original & edited images in S3. And no site would be complete without an edge cache, and we’ll have that setup too. Then store your domain name in Route53 and point it to your API.

Voila site complete!

Related: How I use progress reports to achieve consulting success

5. About Sean Hull

Of course I’ll also talk a bit about myself. Mostly what I’m doing these days, and the types of boutique consulting services I offer.

I’ll also encourage everyone to Signup for my monthly newsletter. I discuss cloud, startup & innovation topics once a month.

It’s a great way to keep in touch!

Related: Which tech do startups use most?

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All Business Consulting War Stories

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

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On more than a few occasions I’ve been asked what it’s like working remote. The inevitable followup is wow, you’re lucky. You can call it luck, but I just finished talking to 50 companies, put together proposals for all of them, and 49 said no to remote.

Lucky indeed!

Join 38,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

But to be sure, there have certainly been events that I look back on, that have had a seminal influence on my career. I thought of three. Here they are.

1. I got a newspaper route

Yes it’s true. Way back in the dawn of time, news was delivered on paper, and those would often be delivered to your doorstep, every morning. That and for only pennies.

At the time I think I was ten years old, and I was super excited because I wanted to be part of the world. And this was really the only job you could get at that age. It required a lot of organizing. You had a book with lists of all your customers, you had to keep track of who had paid, and so forth. Some wanted to pay monthly, while others insisted on weekly.

Read: 8 questions to ask an aws expert

I was lucky not only to get the paper route, but to have parents that encouraged me in this way, and could teach me how to be responsible and reliable. Yeah those were super important early lessons.

When I saw that I had a captive audience, it wasn’t long before I was selling incidental services. Do you need your driveway shoveled? I got it. How about mowing your lawn or raking those leaves? Or walking your dog? I spun this into a whole bunch of side businesses.

It was exciting because I was making my own money at such a young age, and felt the lure of self-determination. I loved that feeling.

Also: The art of resistence in advice & consulting

2. Linux happened

In the early 90’s Linux came on the scene. It might seem like a meaningless blip on the radar to you, but to me it was everything. At University I worked in the computer lab, where we were the operations staff. Those systems all ran Unix. So to go home and use a windows box, it was demoralizing.

Then out of nowhere this guy from Finland started building off of Tennenbaum’s book, Minix! I had worked on that at University, so I immediately saw the implications. I mean heck why can’t all that great software run on PCs, it’s just a matter of getting the drivers working. Big vendors didn’t want to do it, but millions of hackers around the world were happy to pickup the mantle.

Related: The 4 letter word dividing devops

From there I build a tower, cobbled together hardware, memory, disk bus. Do you want to go IDE Or SCSI? Better choose a graphics card that is supported if you want to get X11 running on that. And of course an optical mouse so that it really feels like you’re sitting at a sun workstation!

“No one has as much luck around the greens as one who practices a lot.”  
–Chi Chi Rodriguez

To me that was pure magic. I mean from boot up to graphical interface, the entire stack was built by people just like me. And I could look at all of it. So cool! Even better that we were fighting the good fight against Bill Gates & the borg! 🙂

Check out: When clients don’t pay

3. Meeting the $65/hr consultant

This is a funny story too. One of the first jobs I had in NYC was not a consulting gig. It was a small design shop in the late nineties. Their biggest customer was Miramax Films. So they were doing really cutting edge stuff. And a lot of cool tech too. After their lead engineer quite, I became the defacto go-to person for all tech projects. I guess you could say I was CTO of a team of 5.

For one of our projects we needed help. The CEO had won business to do some Oracle development, which I didn’t have a lot of experience in. So he hired a consultant to help out. Very nice guy, a bit older than me. In fact I think he was about as old then as I am today.

Read: Is Amazon too big to fail?

As he was a smoker, we stepped outside together at one point, and I chatted him up a bit. I was so eager to learn. I don’t recall if he shared his rate or I learned it some other way. But I was shocked and blown away. To me it seemed like an insane amount of money. I remember him saying something to me. “Don’t worry Sean, someday you’ll be consulting too, and making just as much.”

“No one is going to know or care about your failures, and neither should you. All you have to do is learn from them and those around you. [A]ll that matters in business is that you get it right once. Then everyone can tell you how lucky you are.” 
–Mark Cuban

Well I am a very competitive person. I also knew that I was smarter than this guy, but he had a bit more experience than me. So from there I started sniffing around. I talked to recruiters and anyone I knew. Within two weeks, I had gotten an offer for $80/hr. Shortly after that I gave my notice.

I have to thank that guy for challenging the way he did. And I’ve never looked back since!

Related: When you have to take the fall

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Book Review CTO/CIO Startups

Surprising wisdom – thoughts on Ben Horowitz’s new startup tale

I took a recent flight to San Francisco to have meetings with a few startups. Naturally I needed some good reading to immerse myself in for the flight over and back.

Join 38,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

I have to admit, though I’m not a management consultant, I do pickup the big ones from time to time. Good to Great, How to Make Friends & Influence People, The Lean Startup, Innovators Dillemma & Who Moved My Cheese among my favorites.

I’d seen Ben Horowitz’s book “The Hard Thing about Hard Things” in the news. But I also really love the a16z podcast, and although I don’t know a ton about the VC business, I thought it would be a good read.

Boy is that an understatement! The book is so readable & so accessible, there are nuggets of value in there for anyone in the startup world, or building their career, CEO or not!

On the efficient market hypothesis

I had always assumed Adam Smith’s invisible hand was a good theory, almost as scripture. So to see a different perspective on this, and one backed up by real experience. That’s cool.


“No, markets weren’t “efficient” at finding the truth; they were just very efficient at converging on a conclusion — often the wrong conclusion”. p52

What’s more for investors out there, it means good old fashioned investigative work can still turn up gems, that are worth investing in. Word to the wise.

Related: What I learned from David Maister’s book on trust & advising clients.

Questions for interviews

Add this one to your list of great interview questions. And if you’re being interviewed, why not volunteer this as an action plan. Great advice!


“What will you do in your first month on the job?” p122

Related: A review of Eli Pariser’s insightful book The Filter Bubble

On the Freaky Friday management technique

Freaky Friday was a movie way back in the 80’s. In it a mother & daughter are at each others throats, frustrated with the each other. They end up switching places, and quickly learn to sympathize with the other’s plight in life.

Horowitz decided to put this method to use between two of his managers. Pretty ingenious.

“After just one week walking in the other’s moccasins, both executives quickly diagnosed the core issues causing the conflict. They then swiftly acted to implement a simple set of processes that cleared up the combat and got the teams working harmoniously. p253

Related: A review of the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

On ancient wisdom & hard choices

“In life, everybody faces choices between doing what’s popular, easy, and wrong versus doing what’s lonely, difficult, and right.” p212

Every time you make the hard, correct decision you become a bit more courageous and every time you make the easy, wrong decision you become a bit more cowardly. p213

Boy, can I relate to these bits of wisdom. Running my own business all these years, it hasn’t been easy. There have been ups and downs, and times when people told me to take a different road. But that courage. When you find it, it can be real fuel for you moving forward.

Related: Can a growth mindset help you recover from setbacks – Carol Dweck

On instincts


I realized that embracing the unusual parts of my background would be the key to making it through. It would be those things that would give me unique perspectives and approaches to the business. p276

When I work with entrepreneurs today, this is the main thing that I try to convey. Embrace your weirdness, your background, your instinct. p276

I hadn’t really thought of this, and it’s an interesting point. It may be one of the reasons why customers hire me, that I hadn’t realized. Certainly I can give an original viewpoint. But I think I will try to put this to work in the future.

Related: Startup of You – Reid Hoffman’s great book on career growth

On publicity in ventura capital

This is a curious & fascinating point about the history of venture capital. Ripe for disruption indeed!

Marc discovered that the original venture capital firms in the late 1940s and early ’50s were modeled after the original investment banks such as J.P. Morgan and Rothschild. Those banks also did not do PR for a very specific reason: The banks funded wars—and sometimes both sides of the same war—so publicity was not a good idea. p271

Related: A review of Nicholas Carr’s book The Big Switch – Rewiring the world from Edison to Google

On the Andreesen Horowitz business model

This is pretty cool. Apparently the A16Z business model built a VC firm by helping startup founders in disruptive ways.

We decided to systematize and professionalize the network. p269

They modeled the firm after Michael Ovitz’s Creative Artists Agency. They had managed to “shift the economics of the industry from the corporations to the talent” p270

Related: Deborah Tannen offers us insights on conversation & interruption across the sexes

On forecasting

I guess I instinctively understood this one, but it’s interesting to see it in black and white like that.


You should expect experienced people to be able to forecast their results more accurately than junior people. p250

Related: 5 things I learned from Frans Johansson about innovation from his book Medici Effect

On checking yourself

Keep yourself honest, ask this question.

“It’s a good idea to ask, “What am I not doing?” p52

Related: 5 things I learned from Gif Constable in his book Talking to Humans

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Categories
Book Review Devops

25 lessons from Adrian Mouat’s Using Docker book

I spent some time digging through Adrian Mouat’s great book on Docker. Although it’s almost two years old now, it is still chock full of useful information on container goodness.

Join 38,000 others and follow Sean Hull on twitter @hullsean.

I flipped through page after page, and chapter after chapter, and found the bits that I thought were particularly useful. And I have summarized those here.

1. Basics

o docker-compose organizes docker runs with a yaml config
o multiple services in one container is an antipattern
o deleting files don’t reduce container size, because they still exist in previous layer
o export followed by import can be a quick way to reduce image size
o docker-machine allows you to provision containers on virtual hosts locally or in the cloud

Related: 5 surprising features of Amazon Lambda serverless computing

2. Testing

o build a private registry node, then push & pull images through it with deploy pipeline
o unit tests are key and provide tests for individual functions in your code
o component tests are also important to test api endpoints for example
o integration tests can be useful, verifying an auth service or external API is working with app
o end-to-end tests verify that the entire application is working

Related: 30 questions to ask a serverless fanboy

3. Networking

o by default containers can talk, consider –icc=false & –iptables=true
o passing secrets with env variables or better yet use a file, vault or kms
o SkyDNS on top of etcd can provide a powerful service discovery solution
o use registrator project to automatically register containers when they start
o orchestration with swarm (native), fleet, mesos or Kubernetes

Related: Is upgrading Amazon RDS like a sh*t storm that will not end?

4. Security

o don’t run as root – because a breakout would have root on host
o use limits on memory, cpu, restarts & filesystem to avoid DoS
o defang setuid root binaries with a find +6000 & chmod a-s
o use gpg keys & verify checksums when downloading software
o selinux & AppArmor may help, but buyer beware

Related: Is Amazon Web Services too complex for small dev teams?

5. Miscellaneous

o you can use logsprout to send docker image logs to logstash
o add elasticsearch on top with kibana as frontend to give a great searchable logging UI
o Jason Wilder’s docker-gen can streamline config file creation from templates
o we can modularize compose files with the extends keyword (like library import)
o audit containers & use docker diff to find issues

Related: Are you getting errors building lambda functions? I got you covered!

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