Scanning Crains NY Business recently, I saw an article on ‘starting up’ in 54 hours. It’s the brainchild of Marc Nager, Clint Nelsen and Franck Nouyrigat called Startup Weekend. Startup bootcamps seem to be the current extra-curricular activity of choice these days. Wharton is also getting in on it with their Innovation Tournament. Then there is the 48 Hour Startup and of course let’s not forget the 3 Day Startup.
So what’s my beef? Truth be told I admire the ambition, the optimism, and the openness of these efforts. And for sure these bootstrapping marathons do introduce entrepreneurs to future colleagues and partners, get them asking the right questions about financing, customers, revenue, competition and so forth.
My problem with these events is they frame startups as something you *can* do quickly. As if it were a Lego set or pop-up book that gives instant results and gratification. Sure startups are 21st century tech-driven business that provide innovative products in a very short development cycle but a lot of the day-to-day running of the business are still very mundane 20th century sensibilities; not unlike running a mom and pop store, a laundromat, deli or sandwich shop.
Abbott and Fisher’s previous book, The Art of Scalability received good reviews for shifting the way we think about scalability from merely splitting databases and adding servers, to include the human factors that weigh heavily on its success. Together with the authors’ distinguished pedigree (PayPal, Amazon, and eBay between them), I picked up a copy of their second book, Scalability Rules – 50 Principles for Scaling Web Siteswithout a second thought.
If Art was about laying a strong foundation for a scalable organization then Rules is the reference point for when you actually tackle the growth challenges. It acts as a reminder when you come to a crossroad of decision-taking, to keep with the principles of scaling. Each guiding principle is clearly explained and illustrated with examples. It also prescribes how and when to apply the rules. Continue reading “Scalability Rules for managers and startups”
Walking around New York you find yourself stopping at plenty of different places to grab some takeout for lunch. There are Vietnamese sandwich places, pizza shops, noodle bars, taco stands, juice bars and of course your daily coffee shop. You’ll find an endless variety.
As is customary in New York, even for takeout there is usually a tip jar at the checkout. Many of them have a large bowl, or glass jar in which you can throw your change as tips, or if you really love the place and service, a couple of dollars.
Of late I’ve noticed a few have placed those small plastic boxes with a tiny slot on the top. You try to put some change in the slot, and half of the money falls on the floor. It’s as frustrating as threading a needle while suffering from astigmatic vision. Now when I come to a place that has this plastic box, I don’t even bother tipping. I get a headache thinking about my change falling all over the floor. All I keep thinking is, why make it so difficult to tip?
First things first. This is not meant to be a beef against developers. But let’s not ignore the elephant in the living room that is the divide between brilliant code writers and the risk averse operations team.
It is almost by default that developers are disruptive with their creative coding while the guys in operations, those who deploy the code, constantly cross their fingers in the hope that application changes won’t tilt the machine. And when you’re woken up at 4am to deal with an outage or your sluggish site is costing millions in losses, the blame game and finger-pointing starts.
If you manage a startup you may be faced with this problem all the time. You know your business, you know what you’re trying to build but how do you find people who can help you build and execute your ideas with minimal risk?
Ideally, you want people who can bridge the mentality divide between the programmers eager to see feature changes, the business units pushing for them, and the operations team resistant to changes for the sake of stability.
DevOps – Why can’t we all live together?
The DevOps movement is an attempt to bring all these folks together. For instance by providing insight to developers about the implications of their work on performance and availability, they can better balance the onslaught of feature demands from users with the business’ need for up-time.
Operations teams can work to expose operational data to the development teams. Metrics collection and analytics aren’t just for the business units anymore. Employing tools like Cacti, OpenNMS or Ganglia allow you to communicate with developers and other business units alike about up-time, and the impact of deployments on site availability, and ultimately the bottom-line.
Above all, business goals and customer needs should underscore everything the engineering team is doing. Bringing all three to the table makes for a more cohesive approach that will carry everyone forward.
How to spot a DevOps person – Finding the sweet spot
The DevOps person is someone with the right combination of skill, knowledge and experience that places him or her in the sweet spot where quality assurance, programming skills and operations overlap.
There are also a few distinguishing characteristics that will help identify such an ideal candidate.
Imagine the beads of sweat forming when a developer tells you: “We’ve made the changes. Nothing is broken yet.”
This is like stepping on glass because it implies something will actually break. The point is savvy developers should be aware that the majority of people do not think along the same lines as they do.
Assuming your candidate has all the required technical skills, a programmer with writing skills tends to be better at articulating ideas and methods coherently. He or she would also be less resistant to documentation and be able to step back somewhat from the itty-bitty details. Communication, afterall is at the core of the DevOps culture where different sides attempt to understand each other.
Even rarer than good writers are good listeners. Being able to hear what someone else is saying, and reiterate it in their own terms is a key important quality. In our example, the good listener would probably have translated ‘nothing is broken yet’ into “the app is running smoothly. We didn’t encounter any interruptions but we’ll keep watch on things.”
Lean towards pragmatists and avoid the fanatics
We all want people who are passionate about something but when that passion morphs into fanaticism it can be unpleasant. Fanaticism suggests a lower propensity to compromise. Such characters are very difficult to negotiate with. Analogously in tech, we see people latch on to a certain standard with unquestioning loyalty that’s bafflingly irrational. Someone who has had their hand in many different technologies is more likely to be technology agnostic, or rather, pragmatic. They’ll also have a broader perspective, and are able to anticipate how those technologies will play together. Furthermore a good sense of where things will run smoothly and where there will be friction is vital.
Look at technology interests, areas of study, or even outside interests. Does the person have varying interests and can converse about different topics? Do they tell stories, and make analogies from other disciplines to make a point? Do they communicate in jargon-free language you can understand?
Sniff out those hungry for success
As with any role, finding someone who is passionate and driven is important. Are they on-time for appointments? Did they email you the information you requested? Are they prepared and communicative? Are they eager to get started?
Hiring usually focuses on skills and very well-crafted resumés but why do you still find some duds now and then? By emphasizing personality, work ethics, and the ability to work with others, you can sift through the deluge of candidates and separate the wheat from the chaff for qualities that will surely serve your business better in the long run.
Recently at Surge 2011, the annual conference on scalability and performance, Google’s CIO Ben Fried gave an illuminating keynote address. His main insight was that generalists are the people that will lead engineering teams in successfully scaling the web.
In a world where the badge of Specialist or Expert is prized, this was refreshing perspective from an industry bigwig. As tech professionals, or any professional for that matter, we don’t welcome the label of generalist. The word suggests a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. But the generalist is no less an expert than the specialist. Generalists can get their hands greasy with the tools to fix bugs in the machine but they are especially good at mobilizing the machine itself; with their talents of broad vision, and perspective they can direct an entire team to accomplish tasks efficiently. This ability to see big-picture can not be underestimated especially during times of crisis or pressure to meet targets. For a team to scale the web effectively, you’re going to need a good mix of both types of personalities.
Could pro-waitering serve up some lessons on web scalability? Observing peak hour dining at a New York restaurant gave us some insight.
I was dining at a restaurant the other day with friends. It was a warm and cozy place, nicely decorated with a long, narrow dining room. The food was scrumptious, yet we were getting increasingly frustrated by the service as the night went along.
With some waiting experience behind me, I could immediately see the problem. The waiters, probably through lack of experience, were making the mistake of doing one thing at a time. They would go to a table, respond to one customer’s request, and go and fetch that item. Back and forth, back and forth they would dart, but always dealing with one request at a time. Continue reading “iHeavy Newsletter 84 – Restaurant Scalability”
One of the great things about the Internet is how it has made it easier to put great ideas into practice. Whether the ideas are about improving people’s lives or a new way to sell and old-fashioned product, there’s nothing like a good little startup tale of creative disruption to deliver us from something old and tired.
We work with a lot of startup firms and we love being part of the atmosphere of optimism and ingenuity, peppered with a bit of youthful zeal – something very indie-rock-and-roll about it. But whether they are just starting out or already picking up pace every startup faces the same challenges to scale a business. Recently, we were reminded of this when we watched Inc’s video interview with Birchbox founders, Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp. Continue reading “Scale Quickly Like Birchbox – Startup Scalability 101”