Advice for the bootstrapped developer

I participated in a panel for Boulder Startup Week, but previous to the panel, thought I’d be giving a 15 minute presentation.  I was going to talk about rules for the bootstrapped developer.  At The Food Corridor, we recently celebrated one year of having customers.  In celebration of that, here are my seven guidelines:

  1. It will take longer than you think.  For any meaningful value of “it”. expect the process to take longer than planned.  Whether that is acquiring your first customer, building your product, finding help, or anything else, plan for it to take longer than you think.  Heck, this blog post is taking longer than I thought it would.
  2. Know your runway.  It’s important to know your financial runway (both for the company and for yourself).  This is fairly easy to calculate–just find out your burn rate and your money in the bank.  If you are looking at your personal financial runway, don’t forget to allow some buffer for you to find a different job–typically you won’t be able to step from a cratered startup on Friday into a full time job on Monday.  However, more important than financial runway is emotional runway.  Talk about the stress with your spouse (if applicable), think about the other emotional difficulties you may encounter, and plan for some high highs and some low lows.
  3. Extend your runway.  Again, for the financial runway, lower your burn rate as much as you can.  This will mean cutting back on spending and savings.  Make sure the family is on board.  Then you will look to find other sources of money to feed and clothe yourself.  This may include digging into savings, borrowing against assets (HELOCs work for this), borrowing from relatives, pitch competitions (TFC won two), selling assets, taking contract work, having a spouse who earns enough for the household, and/or moonlighting.
  4. Talk to your customer. This was one of the great assets that one of my co-founders brought to the table.  She had deep domain expertise and had many connections to potential customers.  We had numerous customers give us feedback, including via interviews, a month long beta test, regular product advisory councils and surveys.  You will note that this point implies you can find your customer and communicate with them in a cost effective manner.  Find where your customer congregates online.  If you don’t find a place, make one and invite your potential customers to join.
  5. Everything is borked all the time. In a startup, you just don’t have time to do everything correctly.  It can be embarrassing, but if you are building something that solves customer pain, and you’ve found the right early adopters, the customers will stick around.  Just keep improving things.  And accept a certain amount of brokenness.
  6. Know your market. This is related to talking to your customer, as that is one fantastic way to learn about your market.  There are other ways too–market research, online reading, etc.  However, as you build your product, you will surprised by what your market wants.  For instance, we thought our market would want a better UX, but were surprised when someone said our v1 UX was “great”.
  7. Make your own rules. Know that my advice and rules above are based on my experience, with my co-founders, product and skillset, in this time.  You need to do the reading and figure out what your rules are.

DynamoDb: What’s left to manage

AWS recently announced that DynamoDb will now scale read and write capacity automatically.  While there was already a lot of database administration that DynamoDb took care of (backups, underlying infrastructure provisioning), setting the proper capacities initially, and updating them as your application changed, was a key task that fell to the user. No more.

I posted a link to the news to a discussion channel I participate in, and someone asked: “what’s left to manage?”. Drawing from that discussion, here are a few items remaining:

  • Appropriate partition keys.  Make sure they are spread uniformly.
  • Choosing the right primary key. Since you typically want to avoid table scans and can only query by primary key, making sure you pick the right one is important.  (I would also call this “data model design”.)
  • Enforcing data integrity, initially and through time.  This is a challenge with every nosql solution.
  • Creating the appropriate secondary global indices for your application.
  • Securing and controlling access to your data.

These are all still important tasks, but DynamoDb is getting easier and easier to use for high performance applications for which nosql is a good fit.  (And for which you don’t mind being tied to AWS.)


AWS Questions: SQS

More questions, this time about SQS, the simple queue service that AWS provides.

  • What was the first AWS service?
  • Are there upper limits on limits on SQS in terms of message/second?
    • FIFO Queues have a limit (300/s), but I wasn’t able to file any hard limits for standard SQS.  In the developer guide they have some examples that reach 2500 messages/second.  I found some benchmarks from 2014, which were able to get to 108k messages/second.
  • Can you create alarms based on the number of messages in a queue?
    • Yes, that is a metric that Cloudwatch tracks: “NumberOfMessagesSent”.  You can use this in combination with an auto scaling group to handle batch processes in a dynamic manner (scale out when you have more work in the queue, scale in when you have less).
  • What is the maximum visibility timeout for SQS?

Interview with a boot camp grad

Lots of folks are moving into development and technical fields these days.  I remember that happening during the dot com book, but back then folks just read one of those “Learn Java in 24 Hours” books.

Nowadays there are a profusion of boot camps that help people gain the skills they need to be a developer. I have interacted with a few of these grads and was interested in learning more about their experience. Noel Worden, one of the organizers of Boulder.rb and a blogger, agreed to an interview.

– what was your background before you were a developer?

I got my degree in fine art photography, spent 5 years working in NYC as a Digital Technician in the photo industry, then moved to Colorado and was a cabinetmaker for 3 years.

– how did you land your first job?

I found the posting on the Denver Full Stack meetup whiteboard (https://www.meetup.com/fullstack/)

– what surprised you about the software industry?

How willing everyone is to help. It’s very different in the photo world, [which is] much more competitive, it’s hard to find guidance and mentorship.

– how did you pick your boot camp?

Bloc had one of the longest curriculums I could find in an online program. I figured when push came to shove, having more experience under my belt couldn’t hurt when competing with other junior [developers] looking for that first job. Bloc also has a part-time track, which allowed me to still work [a] full-time job while going to school.

– what is good about the job? What is challenging?

I appreciate the balance of being challenged but knowing I have the full support of any other engineer on the team if I need to reach out for assistance. Canvas United [ed: his current employer] has a lot of projects that I’ve been maintaining lately, and all are running different versions of Rails, which makes for interesting challenges. 

– what do you see current boot camp students doing that you’d advise against?

Not getting out and networking while going to school. This industry is all about networking and if you’re hoping to capitalize on the advantages of a good network you have to be building it while still in school.

– why did you want to transition into technology and development?

I wanted/needed a career path where the leaning curve wouldn’t plateau. I’m not a ‘cruise control’ kind of person, as soon as the challenge isn’t there for me anymore I lose interest.

– how can employers help boot camp grads in their first job?

Be ok with answering questions, and be transparent with the employee about the proper channels to ask those questions. Also, be upfront about the fact that it’s ok to fail (assuming that’s the case) a few time before you get to the best solution [ed: if it isn’t ok to fail, find a new job!]. Also also, a healthy balance of low hanging fruit and multi-day problems. Nothing kills my morale faster than ticket after ticket of problems that grind me into the ground.

– should employers have any different expectations of a boot camp grad vs someone who just graduated from college or high school?

I definitely think that it takes a particular type of management style to successfully level up a boot camp grad. If you’ve hired them you must have liked something about them, play to those strengths, but also sprinkle in challenges to help that developer evolve.

[This content has been edited for grammar and clarity.]


AWS Questions: Windows Servers

Windows servers are supported on AWS, but recently I had students ask a bevy of questions about them.  Here are some answers.  As a reminder, I speak solely for myself with these blog posts, not for AWS or any employer.

  • What versions of Windows are supported?
  • Can I create an AMI from an EBS snapshot of a Windows root volume?
    • Unlike with a linux EBS snapshot, you cannot create an AMI from a root volume.  You can create an AMI from a running instance, however.  The reason for the limitation is that sysprep must be run on the Windows server, and you can’t run sysprep on a EBS volume that is not running.
  • In order to take an accurate snapshot, I need to quiesce the disk.  How can I do so?
    • This is a thorny problem and I don’t think there’s a great answer. You want to shut down as many apps as you can. You also may find the Volume Shadow Copy Service useful. You may want to review the answers here on this reddit thread.
  • I have a Windows bastion host, and I want to allow more than two users to access this host at one time.  How can I do this?
    • You need to purchase additional Remote Desktop Services licenses.  From the FAQ: “Amazon EC2 instances come with two Remote Desktop Services (aka Terminal Services) licenses for administration purposes. If additional Remote Desktop Services licenses are needed, they should be purchased from Microsoft or a Microsoft license reseller. Remote Desktop Services licenses purchased with Software Assurance have license mobility benefits and can be brought to AWS multi-tenant environments.”
  • Is powershell a first class citizen with the same functionality as the CLI or the supported SDKs?
    • Nope.  From the Powershell page: “The AWS Tools for Windows PowerShell lets you perform many of the same actions available in the AWS SDK for .NET. You can use it from the command line for quick tasks, like controlling your Amazon EC2 instances.”  (Emphasis added.)
  • Do you have any example userdata scripts for Windows AMIs?

Amazon Machine Learning: An Introduction

From my book, Amazon Machine Learning: An Introduction:

Amazon Machine Learning, or AML, provides you access to widely applicable machine learning algorithms without having to run any servers.  This type of learning is useful for making predictions based on a set of data for which answers are known.  AML supports supervised learning with the stochastic gradient descent algorithm.  The end goal of AML is to create a model, which is what will allow you to make further predictions based on past data.

AML supports three different kinds of predictions.  For binary outcomes, where observations lead to a yes/no result, AML supports binary classification.  An example would be whether or not a prospect is likely to sign up for a new account, given their past interactions with your company.  For multi valued results, where observations lead to one of N results, AML supports multi class classification.  A good example of this would be which product to show a customer, given what they’ve looked at and bought in the past.  And, for numeric values, AML supports regression.  An example of that would be predicting house prices based on sales data and house attributes.

If you are not trying to use existing data and create predictions out of it using supervised learning, but are trying to instead recognize images or tease out patterns in text, you may want to consider alternatives to AML.


Boulder Startup Week

If you are into the tech scene in Boulder, Boulder Startup Week is a great set of events–it’s coming up May 15-19 this year.  This is a totally volunteer run set of events which highlight various aspects of startup and technology in the Boulder area.  You can learn more at the website.  It’s a great place to network and to learn about new things.

I’m lucky enough to be participating in two events this startup week.  I’ll be hanging out at the Engineering Leadership dinner.  And I’ll be presenting on bootstrapping a startup as a developer with a few other bootstrappers.  Most of my short presentation will cover lessons I’ve learned from joining The Food Corridor.  I’m especially looking forward to hearing about Brian and Inversoft that day, because I’ve been friends with him for a number of years and have followed along with some of his trials and triumphs.

Hope to see you there!


AWS Questions: EBS

So, more questions about AWS from students (and my own research/curiosity):

  • What happens when general purpose ebs volumes run out of credit because you’ve used too many IOPS?
    • Your disk performance reverts to the baseline performance: “If your gp2 volume uses all of its I/O credit balance, the maximum IOPS performance of the volume will remain at the baseline IOPS performance level (the rate at which your volume earns credits) and the volume’s maximum throughput is reduced to the baseline IOPS multiplied by the maximum I/O size.”
  • Before you take a snapshot you should quiesce the disk.  Can you do that via an AWS command?
    • You need to use whatever operating system or application command is recommended.  You can use EC2Run to execute that command, but you must determine what that command is.  From the backup and recovery whitepaper: “For this reason, you must quiesce the file system or database in order to make a clean backup. The way in which you do this depends on your database or file system. ”  Note also that the quiescing of the disk can be for only a few seconds, as the EBS snapshot process can be started quickly, though it may take a while to complete.
  • Can you be notified of snapshot completion via an event or do you have to poll?
  • Can you automate your EBS snapshots?
  • Does EBS encryption cost extra?
    • Nope: “This frequently requested feature provides you with seamless support for data encryption on block-level storage, at no additional cost.”

Getting the good content out of a Facebook group

I am astonished at how hard it is to get information out of Facebook groups.

The startup of which I am a part has created a Facebook group for dissemination of information of between commercial kitchen operators.  This was easier to get started than a forum and has the advantage of everyone being a “real person”, or at least real enough to get a Facebook account.  It also benefits from the ubiquity of Facebook–many many folks have it on their phones and get notifications about group activity.

However, it has the detriment of being a “walled garden”, with the content of the group being unavailable for searchers on the web.  Some might argue that privacy actually is a good thing, because it will encourage folks to be more honest, but really, anything you put on Facebook can be cut and pasted and made public, so I’m not sure I buy that argument.

Regardless, I wanted to find an easy, automated way to take the Facebook group content and pipe it elsewhere, where it could be reified and curated.  A human could do that, but I’d like an automated solution. And, other than the Facebook API, I haven’t found many.  Zapier (my go to integration choice) only recently released this as an option (I’m thr last few months.  IFTTT doesn’t have it.  There’s no commercial solution that I could find that does this.  There are, however, some open source solutions.

The Facebook API makes it fairly easy to grab the posts of a group, and from the posts, the comments, but frankly, I really want a solution that doesn’t require coding up the JSON parsing/pagination handling/Oauth access.  I just tried the facebook-export tool and it seems to work just fine (though I had ended up having to update the leveldown/levelup versions to 1.5/1.3 to get past a compile error: leveldown.target.mk:114: recipe for target 'Release/obj.target/leveldown/src/batch.o' failed). It gives you all your posts as JSON.


Amazon Machine Learning Video and Book

I’m working on a video series and an ebook about Amazon Machine Learning, or AML.

AML  is a great way to get started with machine learning, since you can focus on the key concepts of building and using a model and not worry about any infrastructure.  AWS takes care of provisioning all the underlying IT infrastructure–you just worry about getting your data to S3, choosing how to build the model, and then using the model.  Which, trust me, is quite enough to tackle if you are a machine learning newbie.

You can use the model to get predictions either in real time (with a default soft limit of 200 requests per second) or via batch processing, where you can upload up to 1TB of predictions to S3.  Like everything in AWS, you can control the entire process via a well documented API or from various SDKs.

AML isn’t a fit for all machine learning needs–it processes text that is in CSV format and supports only supervised learning.  There are other options on AWS (and other places as well).

The book is currently in progress, and I’ll be starting on the video soon.If you’d like to follow along as the book gets written, you can at leanpub: Amazon Machine Learning: An Introduction.



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