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!


Gluecon 2015 takeaways

Is it too early to write a takeaway post before a conference is over? I hope not!

I’m definitely not trying to write an exhaustive overview of Gluecon 2015–for that, check out the agenda. For a flavor of the conversations, check out the twitter stream:


Here are some of my longer term takeaways:

  • Better not to try to attend every session. Make time to chat with random folks in the hallway, and to integrate other knowledge. I attended a bitcoin talk, then tried out the API. (I failed at it, but hey, it was fun to try.)
  • Talks on microservices were plentiful. Lots of challenges there, and the benefits were most clearly espoused by Adrian Cockroft: they make complexity explicit. But they aren’t a silver bullet and require a certain level of organizational and business model maturity before it makes sense.
  • Developer hiring is hard, and it will get worse before it gets better. Some solutions propose starting at the elementary school level with with tools like Scratch. I talked to a number of folks looking to hire, and at least one presenter mentioned that as well at the end of his talk. It’s not quite as bad as 2000 because the standards are still high, but I didn’t talk to anyone who said “we have all the developers we need”. Anecdata, indeed.
  • The Denver Boulder area is a small tech community–I had beers last night with two folks that were friends of friends, and both of them knew and were working with former colleagues of mine. Mind that when thinking of burning that bridge.

To conclude, I’m starting to see repeat folks at Gluecon and that’s exciting. It’s great to have such a thought provoking conference which looks at both the forest and the trees of large scale software development.





List of Front Range Software Networking Events and Conferences

Updated March 21: crossed out ‘conferences’ because I don’t do a good job of listing those.
Boulder, Colorado, has a great tech scene, that I’ve been a peripheral member of for a while now.  I thought I’d share a few of the places I go to network.  And by “network”, I mean learn about cool new technologies, get a feel for the state of the scene (are companies hiring?  Firing?  What technologies are in high demand?) and chat with interesting people.  All of the events below focus on software, except where noted.

NB: I have not found work through any of these events.  But if I needed work, these communities are the second place I’d look.  (The first place would be my personal network.)

Boulder Denver New Tech Meetup

  • 5 minute presentions.  Two times a month.  Audience varies wildly from hard core developers to marketing folks to graphic designers to upper level execs.  Focus is on new technologies and companies.  Arrive early, because once the presentations start, it’s hard to talk to people.
  • Good for: energy, free food, broad overviews, regular meetings, reminding you of the glory days in 1999.
  • Bad for: diving deep into a subject, expanding your technical knowledge

User groups: Boulder Java Users Group, Boulder Linux Users Group, Rocky Mountain Adobe Users Group, Denver/Boulder Drupal Users Group, Denver Java Users Group others updated 11/12 8:51: added Denver JUG

  • Typically one or two presentations each meeting, for an hour or two.  Tend to focus on a specific technology, as indicated by the names.  Sometimes food is provided.
  • Good for: diving deep into a technology, networking amongst fellow nerds, regular meetings
  • Bad for: anyone not interested in what they’re presenting that night, non technical folks

Meetups (of which BDNT, covered above, is one)

  • There’s a meetup for everything under the sun.  Well, almost.  If you’re looking to focus on a particular subject, consider starting one (not free) or joining one–typically free.
  • Good for: breadth of possibility–you want to talk about Google?  How about SecondLife?
  • Bad for: many are kind of small

Startup Drinks

  • Get together in a bar and mingle. Talk about your startups dreams or realities.
  • Good: have a beer, talk tech–what’s not to like?, takes place after working hours, casual
  • Bad: hard to target who to talk to, intermittent, takes place after working hours.

BarCamp

  • Originally started, I believe, in response to FooCamp, this is an unconference. On Friday attendees get together and assemble an interim conference schedule.  On Saturday, they present, in about an hour or so.  Some slots are group activities (“let’s talk about technology X”) rather than presentations.  Very free form.
  • Good: for meeting people interested in technologies, can be relatively deep introduction to a technology
  • Bad: if you need lots of structure, if you want a goodie bag from a conference, presentations can be uneven in quality, hasn’t been one in a while around here (that I know of)

Ignite

  • Presentations on a variety of topics, some geeky, some not.  Presentations determined by vote.  Presentations are 20 slide and 5 minutes total.  Costs something (~$10).
  • Good: happens in several cities (Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins) so gives you chance to meet folks in your community, presentations tend to be funny, wide range of audience
  • Bad: skim surface of topic, presentation quality can vary significantly, not a lot of time to talk to people as you’re mostly watching presentations

CU Computer Science colloquia

  • Run by the CU CS department, these are technical presentations.  Usually given by a visiting PhD.
  • Good: Good to see what is coming down the pike, deep exposure to topics you might never think about (“Effective and Ubiquitous Access for Blind People”, “Optimal-Rate Routing in Adversarial Networks”)
  • Bad: The ones I’ve been to had no professionals there that I could see, happen during the middle of the work day, deep exposure to topics you might not care about

Jelly

  • Cooperative work environments, hosted at a coffee shop or location.
  • Good: informal, could be plenty of time to talk to peers
  • Bad: not sure I’ve ever heard of one happening on the front range, not that different from going to your local coffee shop

Boulder Open Coffee Club

  • From the website: it “encourage entrepreneurs, developers and investors to organize real-world informal meetups”.  I don’t have enough data to give you good/bad points.

Startup Weekend

  • BarCamp with a focus–build a startup company.  With whoever shows up.
  • Good: focus, interesting people, you know they’re entrepeneurial to give a up a weekend to attend, broad cross section of skills
  • Bad: you give up a weekend to attend

Refresh Denver

  • Another group that leverages meetup.com, these folks are in Denver.  Focus on web developers and designers.  Again, I don’t have enough to give good/bad points.

Except for Ignite, everything above is free or donation-based.  The paid conferences around Colorado that I know about, I’ll cover in a future post.

What am I missing?  I know the list is skewed towards Boulder–I haven’t really been to conferences more than an hours drive from Boulder.

Do you use these events as a chance to network?  Catch up with friends?  Learn about new technologies, processes and companies?


Boco: Colorado’s SXSW?

I spent yesterday at boco.me, a one day, one track conference in Boulder Colorado. The focus was on three different areas: food, tech, and music.  Apparently, South by Southwest (SXSW) has a similar multidimensional focus.

I was looking forward to meeting people from different spheres with different interests, and it certainly delivered that. Most attendees I talked to were tech people, however. Many thanks to Andrew Hyde and company for organizing this. I hope it’s the first of many.

Before signing up and actually before the conference, I did not have a very good idea of how much I was getting.  It was actually quite affordable: $99. For this modest price, attendees received:

  • entry to a concert: value $15
  • $30 worth of dinner at one of Boulder’s many fine restaurants
  • happy hour with beer and wine and apps
  • three sessions with about six speakers per session
  • three breakout sessions
  • a free T-shirt
  • a thank you note from Andrew(!)

Boco was, to put it mildly, a hell of a deal.

The conference had, as first year conferences tend to, a few flaws. The things I would change were:

  • allow users to ask questions of the speakers
  • have the breakout sessions be a bit more organized–they felt very ad hoc.

What follows are my notes from yesterday.  Here’s what the Daily Camera had to say.

First up was Rachel Weidinger (her slides are here). She mentioned the “big here and long now” and talked about tools that make our here bigger–“handheld awesome detectors”.  The tool that excited me the most was the Good Guide. This site offers what I’ve been looking for for a long time, which is detailed information on products, so that price and marketing are not the sole guides when you purchase something off the cuff. This guide has an API so that third-party developers can access their data. Oh, and Rachel is also looking for someone to build snake detecting goggles.

Next, Mark Menagh spoke on the differences between eating organic and eating locally.  I paraphrase, but he said that folks who eat organics are pessimists who want rules to prevent bad things from happening to their food and locavores are optimists.  He also emphasized that this November, Boulder voters are going to be asked to extend the Open Space sales tax ( till 2034! [pdf]) and that while we do that, voters should let the county commissioners know how they feel about GMO crops on open space land.

Then, Justin Perkins, from Olomomo Nut Company discussed some of the similarities he had noticed between building a band fanbase, as he did in the 1990s, and building one for a local food company, as he is doing now.  I can tell you from experience that his nut products are quite good.  He talked about engaging users in the product so that they feel it’s part of their story. Takeaway quote: entrepreneurs “have to be consistent and persistent as hell”.

Cindy O’Keeffe spoke about her experience fighting the GMO beets on Boulder County Open Space land.  I had heard about this issue before (Mark also discussed it), but she gave a good overview of the issues, and she had a compelling story about her personal journey from detached global environmentalist to local leader opposing the GMO planting.

Rick Levine, an author of the Cluetrain Manifesto (read it if you haven’t!) and now chocolatier, gave an overview of the Cluetrain ideas, and then talked about his new venture into high end chocolates, including some of the physics of chocolate.  Seth Ellis, his company, have shiny candy bar wrappers that he claimed were home compostable.  When talking about the Cluetrain and his experiences in technology, he offered up the observation that while he had been really interested in technology, his really great moments were talking to people.

The Autumn Film, a two person Boulder band, talked a bit about their experiences in music creation at this time.  Takeaway: music used to be “work hard, get lucky, hit it big”, but the industry changes have now just made it “work hard, hit it big, work harder”.  You can check out some of their music for free (well, you have to give them some of your personal information). Then, one member of the band performed.

I enjoyed the first breakout in which five of us gathered outside and discussed a wide variety of topics.  It was great to have a framework for getting to know the other conference participants.

Amber Case led off the second session by talking about cyborg anthropology–basically the idea that humans extend themselves via their tools, and that the malleability of current tools (think iphone) far exceeds the malleability of previous tools (think hammer).  Several of the other attendees found her ideas fascinating, but I wasn’t as astonished.  I guess I have thought about this topic, though certainly not with the rigor that Amber has.  (reading Snow Crash is no thesis.)  She did have some neat pointers to other work going on in this field: human-blender ‘communication’ and hug storage. Humorously, her email sig reads “Sent from my external proesthetic device“

Rich Grote and Dave Angulo then talked about what makes an online influencer–relevance, audience, access and one other thing I forgot to write down.  They are working on a company, which I was unable to find a link to, to leverage online influencers for marketing purposes.  It reminded me a bit of what Lijit presented on in June at the BDNT.  They also talked a bit about Dunbar’s number, which is the “theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships”.

Scott Andreas discussed his experiences building social software for non profits.  The takeaway for me was that when you have a cohesive group and you provide them social software, it can enrich the community.  The most important thing is that the community (and their norms) exists and is enforced outside of the software.  He also talked about Sunlight Labs, an open data source about the US government. Also, Andrew Hyde mentioned at this time the idea of floating your revenue through Kiva.  I certainly am not earning a lot of interest on my business savings right now, and using the funds to do microloans could be a great social good.  I would be a bit concerned about loan losses, though (98% loan repayment is a bit worrisome).

Sean Porter of Gigbot gave a breakdown of the live music industry ecosystem.  There’s a lot of middlemen between the fan and the band when it comes to concerts–ticketing agencies, promoters, management.  He started down the path of explaining how much of the ticket price you and I pay each of these folks get, but didn’t go all the way; if he had, I think his presentation would have been much stronger.

Ingrid Alongi talked about how she learned about work life balance, and techniques for maintaining it.  Good ideas in there–having a status meeting with coworkers while on a bike ride was probably my favorite, though.  Incidentally, she was laid off on Monday and had found a new job by the time she talked on Friday

Grant Blakeman and Reid Phillips (the latter being a member of The Autumn Film) talked about the new music business models.  Takeaway quote: “things always change”.  Sounds like Abe Lincoln. They are building tools that allow musicians to use some new media to market and connect with their fans. I enjoyed their insistence on musicians retaining control of their work, and using new technology to facilitate that.  It reminded me of this great article by Joel Spolsky where he talks about how your business should never outsource core business functions.  Fan interaction seems a pretty core part of the band business, so I doubt it should be outsourced.

Ari Newman of Filtrbox talked about the realtime web: how we’ve reached a technology tipping point and that Twitter and its open API pushed the real time web into the forefront, but that it is larger than the Twitterstream.  Ari also mentioned how the real time web actually isn’t all that real time–even if the technology delivers news to your computer in half a second, if it is not in front of you, it doesn’t matter.  Maybe he should collaborate with Amber on some goggles that would push realtime news to you all the time 🙂 .  He had real neat slide effects, too.  I chatted with him a bit and it was great to hear stories of his old sysadmin days–Linux on a Mac 8500!

The second breakout session was over lunch.  Was really interesting to talk with Ryan and Angie of Location 3, a Denver interactive agency, as well as Andrew Hyde, Ef, Rahoul(sp?) and Dan Kohler; wide ranging discussion and not too focused.

The third set of sessions was more informal.  Half of the speakers did not follow their topics on the program…

First, Emily Olson, from Foodzie, discussed how she had turned her passion (food) into a job (Foodzie, among others).  Her main points: pay attention to what you do in your free time–that’s an indication of your passion; find a mentor; be willing to work for free, especially at first; don’t try to find the one true vocation.

Dan Kohler, of Renegade Kitchen, discussed how to not have your blog/website suck.  He had 3 people up on stage read 3 different posts, and critiqued them.  Takeaway–“put your voice into” your blog.  I have a pretty vanilla voice on this blog, but part of that is due to professional concerns; however, Dan made the point that really, if you do drive some people off with the tone of your blog, the people you have left will be fiercer fans.

There was a panel on where the local music scene was heading, moderated by Sharon Glassman, a local bluegrass musician, and featuring Jason Bradley and Ira Leibtag.  I stepped out during this panel, but I do remember Jason Bradly discussing how “lots of people live in a box” in reference to his bringing an accordion to a bluegrass jam (and the reaction of the other players).

Brad Feld discussed the startup visa movement.  The idea is anyone who wants to move to the United States and start a company would get a 2 year visa; it would be automatically renewable for achieving certain goals (raising more funding, employing a certain number of people).  The founder would have to show proof of funding.  More information here.  I like anything that gets more smart folks to move to the USA.

Elana Amsterdam spoke on her experience turning a blog she wrote into a recipe book, and stated that her experience showed how you could really build a full fledged business out of a blog, using your passion and the blog as a platform to publish.  She also recommended “Write the Perfect Book Proposal” by Jeff Herman.  Updated 10/4: I asked a friend in the book publishing business about this book and she said: “Yikes. Any book that says “it’s easier to get published than you think” makes me want to hurt myself. Proposals aren’t about capturing a publisher’s attention. They’re about showing your expertise, your marketability, and just plain having an idea that fits within what a company actually publishes.”  For what that’s worth…  I think that she’s absolutely correct, for certain kinds of blogs.  I know that Eric Sink did the same thing with “Eric Sink on the Business of Software”, a fine book that has a collection of blog posts at its core.

Finally, Lilly Allison, a personal chef, spoke about eating seasonally and consciously.  She is using the web to extend her reach (and her brand!) as a personal chef–if you sign up, she’ll send you meal weekly plans with in season menus.  I signed up and will let you know how it goes—I do have lots of food from my CSA (here’s a list of Colorado CSAs).

There was a third breakout session, but I had to run some errands, so I missed it.

Then, it was happy hour time.  Off to the Boulder Digital Works, above Brasserie 1010.  It’s a beautiful space in downtown Boulder, and I talked with some of the incoming students who are doing the first 60 week advertising certificate.  In addition I had conversations on a variety of topics from the success of boco to how to scale a custom chocolate business to whether presenting at BDNT helped business (answer, indirectly, yes) to what to do with consulting requests that interfere with your core business (with the Occipital folks)

At the end of happy hour, we gathered into groups of four.  I had dinner with with Scott Andreas, Dan Kohler, and Jen Myronuk; a fine meal at Centro and then to a concert at the Boulder Theater: Paper Bird.

All in all, a fantastic conference.  It was eclectic and not as focused as other conferences I’ve been to, but for that reason alone has value.  I get bored if I only educate myself in one dimension.  Thanks again to the boco team, and here’s hoping that next year is as good, if not better.


Advice for Attending Technical Conferences

I just got back from Google I/O.  This two day conference was the successor to Google Developer Day. There were a wide variety of topics covered.  I hope to get my notes written up, but for now, I just wanted to capture some advice on conference-going, mostly for my future reference.

  • Go to more conferences, at least one a year.  Sure, they take time and money away from real work, but they refresh you, expose you to new technologies and people, and recharge your batteries in a different manner than a typical vacation.  If you are not excited by the end of a technology conference, maybe you shouldn’t be in technology.
  • Realize that you probably won’t find a solution to a specific problem you have.  Why?  Because your problem is probably very specific to your current situation.  Talks at conferences tend to focus either on general introductory material, or very specific, in depth explanations of other people’s solutions to problems.  Chances are their problems weren’t yours.
  • That said, come with specific questions/areas of interest.  This lets you have focus when you are confronted with the vast feast of knowledge that most conferences display.  Make sure you read the schedule and note interesting talks.
  • Don’t eat all the snacks provided.  There’s a temptation to take advantage of all the ‘free’ food, but gorging yourself will make you sleepy.
  • Realize that you can’t see all the interesting sessions.  See if the conference is posting video later.  Google I/O is (supposedly by June 6).
  • Talk to people.  This is one of the hardest things for me to do–there are a ton of strangers at a conference, I’m not sure if they’ll have valuable information, and it’s so much easier to sit back and wait for someone else to talk to you.  But everyone I talked to at I/O had an interesting story to tell, and most everyone was interested in what I had to say.
  • Get people’s business cards.  It’s flattering to be asked for a card, and you never know when you might run across an article or project that might be of interest to someone you’ve met.
  • The informal meetings (Birds of a Feather, Fireside Chats) are worth far more than the organized talks.  There is a fantastic amount of formal and informal articles, blogs and videos about technology that you can consume at your leisure, in your bathrobe at home.  Far less common is interactive descriptions of problems and solutions, including face to face time.  While mailing lists and newsgroups take care of some of these needs, social time at conferences is an even easier way to have these kind of thought provoking and wide ranging discussions.  Also, it’s easier to talk to people when that is the purpose of the event.
  • Sit at the back of the session, and on the sides of the row of chairs. This lets you exit easily if you need to.  (Of course, not everyone can do this.)
  • Verify how feedback will be given to the speakers before you spend any of your precious time filling out feedback forms.  Conference organizers, this is a call for you to step up and tell attendees how their feedback will be delivered–I heard at least one speaker say that in ten years of attending conferences, he had never seen any feedback forms.
  • Keynotes are interesting, high level, and great places to finish breakfast.
  • Use a notepad, not a laptop.  For I/O, I took a laptop one day and a notepad the next.  I have a hard time taking notes on a laptop and not being distracted by email, searching for concepts/tools/projects that the speaker mentioned, and upcoming work.  (I’m not sure I’m NADD compatible.)  With a notepad, you can capture everything you feel is important, and if it is really important, you can revist it later.
  • Review your notes.  Perhaps for a blog post, but definitely review them and break out action items–projects to investigate, articles that you should read, information to pass on to colleagues.  Act on those action items.
  • Bring a water bottle.

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