Starting up with Purpose

It’s not news here in San Francisco,  in the most dominant region of the Silicon World – I’m creating a company. I have built a prototype. I’ve tested with users. I’m no miracle worker, and there’s a long, long way to go. And I’ve got just a couple of months to get off the ground.

What makes it worthwhile is the mission.

End the Digital Divide

The Digital Divide will end. The question is “Why?”. Even with rapid, global smartphone growth and internet from the sky, there’s so much important work to be done to learn, educate and protect.

If we work very very hard, and are very very lucky, only a minuscule part of the world will progress because of our efforts. That part matters. 

Starting a company, especially as a parent, isn’t for the faint of heart. I would be grateful for your feedback and support. Reach out to startup@hai.io, follow at @humanassisted or me @hendler

“Soon the digital divide will not be between the haves and the have-nots. It will be between the know-hows and the non-know-hows.” – Howard Rheingold

More about HAI

For a few weeks I’ve been having meetings with advisors and colleagues. For those I’ve not been meeting, I’ve fallen behind in communicating what I’m working on.

Not a stealth startup, but there’s also a lot that’s yet to be determined. I’d prefer to be open, but there are some specifications that I’ll keep under wraps for a variety of reasons…. When building a stealth aircraft, at the least you can tell people that you are building an aircraft. Skunkworks doesn’t make sandwiches.

Company vision and culture will be in large part determined by cofounders. Here’s where there’s some definition:

  • HAI means AAI (Artificial Artificial Intelligence)  – humans intelligence built into a process that’s usable by computer intelligence
  • Ethical prime directives.  See Friendly AI
  • a sustainable business model early on
  • Company culture of sustainable innovation modeled after Google’s large revenue generating platform supporting R&D.
  • large, very talented, diverse founding team. Diversity is a no-brainer. Large is about five people; I’d rather create value from equity by distributing to founders than funders.
  • Boston still has untapped talent and potential. Even if developers can find jobs easily, what kind of job would an engineer want for the rest of their life?

Earning leadership in parenthood and business.

As a leader, control leaves your hands in one of two ways: by consent, or not by consent. Either way it happens. Choose consent.

Maybe this is the opposite of the Steve Jobs. I really don’t know, but feels like Jobs had a great sense of timing, how far he could fight for what he believed, and when to “give in”.

Perhaps there is no way to stop people from putting beans up their nose. Having insight ignored is painful if you care at all about what you are doing.  If the fight is too extended, no matter if right or wrong, you end up appearing arrogant or stubborn, but if you are right it doesn’t matter. And if a company needs focus and either way is right, it doesn’t matter which is chosen, only that something is chosen and committed to.

I read Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East” twenty years ago. Summary: leadership is service. As a new parent, I think this is especially true.

Startups are built with both Undone and Unsung Engineering

For me, web engineers are the magicians behind the curtain. That can mean not-a-lot of glory.

But for engineers like myself, undone engineering is more painful than unsung engineering.??One of the most difficult aspects of being a good engineer is knowing when to sacrifice good engineering. ??Startups, are by definition, challenging the established way of doing business, so the established way of doing great engineering sometimes isn’t good enough to survive. ??

( Although this is a topic pretty well covered in writing about startups , I try translate the constraints of a startup into what a priority list for technical leadership might look like. )??

Everything in a startup changes fast.??Engineering is managed chaos.??There are new team members, new customers, new data, new open source libraries, etc. Good engineering can accommodate change, but usually change is unexpected. As a side effect, the non-technical team begins to depend on the shortcuts, and the shortcuts begin to show their weaknesses. The design team has new ideas, and you can’t say yes as often as you used to.??

But you survive.??

Here are the priorities I use to keep everything moving for a web application startup (follows an 80 / 20 rule pretty well):

  1. protect the data (files/database, etc)
    1. back it up
    2. make sure data is valid (ideally some smoke tests, unit tests, regression tests on the data layer of an application)
    3. back it up
    4. source control with easy to understand policies and branching
    5. back it up
    6. automate backing it up
  2. fix problems with the user experiences
    1. small visual problems can make people … disgusted. Fonts, cross browser issues take a lot of time, but matter to people who expect things to work.??
    2. client (browser) speed – a small javascript issue can cause a page load to appear to take 5 seconds. Perceived performance is all that matters.??
    3. fix display issues – if they think data is lost, then it is??
    4. integrated QA team – make everyone on the team test the site, but not their own work.
  3. make coding fast
    1. establish team communication that makes product iteration rapid
    2. use frameworks, existing but stable libraries (open source so you can fix critical problems yourself)
    3. keep version control and deployment as automated as possible for the whole team
    4. write easy to understand code
    5. document code and best practices (wiki style)
    6. track problems (bugs and backlogs)
    7. write test code (on critical areas)
  4. housekeeping
    1. refactor
    2. cleanup
    3. more test code
  5. new features/ scaling/performance??- probably the most fun for an engineer, but last on the list. This has been the hardest for me. ??Engineers need to think about scaling when the system is architected…. maybe. But when you have just a 10 customers and the entire database fits in memory… why worry?
    1. database ??- a typical bottleneck. NoSQL and distributed architectures are making this easier
    2. separate web server from application layer. Concentrate core application logic into languages that are better suited for scaling and concurrency issues
    3. load balance, messaging queues, etc

Because of the list above, not every engineer out of a great tech school or amazing high tech corporation adjusts to startup life well. But when the above begins to pay dividends, engineers appreciate the big picture.

The divorce: Adobe Vs. Apple

Apple and Adobe are both claiming a moral high-ground.

At first Adobe was the bad-guy for allegedly blocking further development of open standards like HTML5 and not opening up Flash.

Now, according to Adobe, Apple is the bad guy for not including flash and limiting development options for the iPhone (and iPad).
These are sad times because many are feeling like children of divorcees. Adobe and Apple have long provided shelter for creative geeks. Now the shelter is a crumbling, confusing world. Business and technology, especially when mixed, are sufficiently complex as to seem like magic. No magic here. Each company is changing, and getting over each other. Sorry lads. While tech-magic is love (translate: we will pay for magic, but nothing else) the magic eventually fades. The beginning of the fade is what I’ll call the magic line – the line between illusion, and disillusion. Adobe’s magic may be disappearing.
Is Adobe keeping up with demand for product improvements? Certainly, with software like Adobe’s, it is extremely difficult to sustainably write such complex software that runs the same, and well, on platforms you don’t control.
Perhaps, Apple has more power and responsibility than it realizes. As leaders in tech, Apple straddles the most thorny complex issues like copyright, DRM, hardware, open source; as both an under-dog and monopoly of tech.
There are reasons for the divorce, but they may not matter.

Open source, open platforms, and open standards are really the only sustainable way forward.

I say this not to take sides. As developers and creatives we must make choices that protect our future. Protect does not mean “defend”. Protect here means “ensures sustainable happiness for all involved”. Our destinies are already intertwined, but intertwined should not feel like a lock-in, trap or prison. Freedom can co-exist with interdependence.

At the least – businesses come and go, but openness wins.

 

 

 

Thank you XEROX (for not Patenting the GUI)

Dear XEROX (PARC),

Thank you for not patenting the Graphic User Interface.

Conventional wisdom has been that XEROX missed out on a huge opportunity – and maybe that’s true. However, maybe Microsoft and Apple (and Linux for that matter) would have never been such great successes. Maybe we would all have had to wait for the Newton or the IPad before the innovation could have been surpassed.
Windows 7 was not my idea.