Floating On The Cloud: A New Chapter

Back in October 2007, I left aFreewebs.com, a startup that later sold for $117 Million to VistaPrint.com, to work on my startup which is now called SortIQ.  Along the way I evolved my blog, JobMatchbox, into SocialMatchbox and weathered a nasty recession during the first twelve months of hitting the ground running.  Along the way Juliana and I co-founded a consulting practice that became the foundation for our advising and consulting relationship with many of the Washington, DC tech community’s most successful B2B and B2C startups.  We hosted the largest software product launch event on the East Coast, brought Facebook Developer Garage to DC, and backed or co-organized nearly every key DC tech event until Juliana went back to school to get her J.D. which lead us to Baltimore for four years.  We moved back to DC a year ago this month and have been working on building up her law practice, raising our first child (a baby girl), and in that same time I decided that it was time to shift gears.  Shifting gears for me meant choosing a new direction after being a founder and advisor.  It also meant getting back to my roots.  Having spent a substantial amount of my time working on building software products and advising teams doing as much, I was already spending a lot more time writing code and managing technology (as well as development).  So as I started considering what I was going to do next, I had a few interesting conversations about where things were headed that lead me to a new chapter.

That new chapter happens to be working as a Technology Evangelist and acting in a capacity equivalent to that of an entrepreneur in residence for an award winning organization Vizuri here in the DC area.  Vizuri is a open source team within a larger well established company that seeks to envision and build innovative open source platform as a service (PaaS) products and solutions.

“Why Vizuri?”

I first met the Vizuri team back in 2008 and had some really great conversations with them about the cloud.  They were a low key organization in the DC Tech community because they were working on some very big projects.  The company partners with Amazon, Docker, Red Hat, MongoDB as well as many other industry influencers and leaders.  While it isn’t a B2B or B2C software startup like the ones that I have worked on or with for the most part in recent years, the challenges and opportunities are quite similar.  I really like the team and the projects they are working on including Red Hat’s OpenShift, an open source PaaS (platform as a service) product.

Having utilized the Amazon Web Services stack, SliceHost, and the RackSpace cloud platforms for my startup ventures and as part of numerous startup advisory and consulting engagements I have spent an increasing amount of time working with open source and proprietary cloud platforms which are the life blood involved in building and scaling a software engineering effort.

Along the way to making this decision, I passed up the chance to be the COO of a very early stage startup that raised some seed funding, passed on the chance to work for a couple of rising YCombinator startups in San Francisco, passed up the chance to be the Head of Product (and essentially the GM) of a very well funded startup in San Francisco lead by a team that had a tremendous exit in the 1990’s, and had a few close encounters as a head of engineering/development manager or product manager with Apple in bay area and a number of other companies including a startup here in the DC area.

The decision boiled down to the fact that Juliana and I really want to stay here in the Washington, DC area because her law firm is taking off and despite a lot of really amazing friendships in the Bay Area elsewhere, we have some truly amazing friendships here that we want to keep.  On top of that, this new role with Vizuri is the best combination of what I actually enjoy doing.

“What about your blog Bob?”

This new chapter will ultimately mean that what I am up to will evolve.  People have already started to ask me about this.  The truth is that I don’t know exactly what this will lead to.  I am becoming more technical every day, yet this role will mean that my product management experience will also be utilized.  I will continue to work with B2B and B2C companies so no change there either.  So I will continue blogging about technology, software development, product management and entrepreneurship.

“What about your entrepreneur office hours and events?”

That is a harder question to answer right now.  If you would like some help or have a question feel free to reach out. As I ramp up with my new role I may not have as much available time in the short term so it may take a little longer for me to respond.  There will probably not be any events for a while, but that is still an open question.  I have been working on getting the growth engineers group going here in DC and that will likely still happen. We have space commitments in Bethesda an in Northern Virginia.  I suspect that I may be working up some new event(s) in the near future so check back for details.

Stay tuned and stay in touch.  This is shaping up to be a very interesting and exciting year.

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Marketing For Independent Musicians

As I firm up the details of a planned trip to SXSW in a few weeks to help a friend get some users for a recently launched mobile app, I have spent a ton of time checking out the bands and individual performers who will be in the music lineup this year.  Marketing for independent musicians is really interesting to me as it turns out.

One thing that I am noticing is that people are all over the map, more so than businesses.  There are a lot more “social” sites that you need to put a flag up on besides Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (it is pretty big for musicians).  Among these are SoundCloud and Vevo (similar to YouTube).

It seems like the music industry is single handedly keeping template website companies in business too.  It isn’t just our parents either.  It seems that having a website is really important, but having a really high quality website is more often optional.  At least for early stage indy musicians.  Or maybe it is a resistance to the whole idea of embracing tech in an effort to make the art.

Like the startup community, there are some very interesting and well produced podcasts and blogs like the DIY Musician Podcast.

If you are interested in music tech or music industry marketing that involves tech let me know.


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SXSW Music and Interactive Fest Here I Come

I have started counting down the days until this year’s SXSW Music and Interactive Fest.  This will be my third trip to SXSW Interactive and my first to SXSW Music.  I was there last year helping a friend gather interactive industry feedback and connections for his app that was launching soon.  This year we will be doing the same thing except the app will be live and we will be connecting with people in the music business as well as some select interactive industry insiders.

Having taken more than a decade off between SXSW festivals before the trip last year, I am looking forward to going back with a bit more savvy about how things work.  I will not be hitting the events with lone lines and nothing but loud music – especially ones on the edge of town this year.  I will be spending more time enjoying music and mixing it up with people in small dinners, coffee meetups and happy hours while I am there.  These are the best part of the event which can sometimes be a bit like running multiple concurrent marathons if you try to get to everything.

To get a better idea of what to expect from the Music Fest performances, I have been sampling their music wherever I can find it and creating a list of them via Twitter.  The list is here and samples of music can be found here.

There is a music hackathon (details here) that I plan to participate in this year as well.  If you are interested in joining me shoot me an email ahead of time.  There is also some sort of music tech meetup sponsored app demo event that we are planning to attend as well.

No news yet on whether or not there will be another secret Texas Hold’em game, but if you hear any news about one let me know.

Besides hackathons and poker games, we have been talking about hosting a flash mob or two focused around music apps or a Rock Band contest if we can line things up for it.

If you are going this year let me know.



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Mobile App Analytics Tools I Am Using

I have spent more time on growth engineering for mobile apps recently.  A few of the tools are the same, but mostly because when you have a mobile app you also have a website so there is some overlap involving Google Analytics and web traffic tools.

Here is a quick roundup of the mobile analytics tools that I have either used or am looking at using.  This list will be updated as I use new tools, use my current tool set more comprehensively, etc.  All of these tools have free plans.

Flurry Analytics by Yahoo! (HERE) (Features List)
Flurry Analytics is the best mobile analytics tool that I have worked with so.  It is very similar to Google Analytics and even allows for creation of custom dashboards just like Google Analytics.  Tracking activity for  mobile app is a bit more complicated though so I am not able to get the same data as I thought I would be able to.  There is no official mobile app for Flurry Analytics which mens iI have to log into the app via my laptop.  I really hope they launch a mobile app soon.

Intercom.io (HERE)
Intercom.io is a tool that reminds me a lot of MixPanel.  You can see user paths and some things that overlap directly with Flurry Analytics, but you can also contact a user directly through the app.  Getting all of the data that Intercom.io allows you to track into their system is also a bit more complicated so I have yet to put it to a true test of its potential.  There is a very limited mobile app that seems to be more of a nudge to free users to get them to upgrade than a practical tool.  You can view a list of users in it, but it is not practical to use right now.

mixpanel (HERE)
mixpanel is an advanced tool that I have worked with when adding large groups of new users to study how they use a web application.  It works really well, has a lot of great features, and comes with a bit of a learning curve.  It is very similar to Intercom.io from based on my experience, but I have not used it for a mobile application analytics effort yet.  It is more of a premium product so it is also more expensive after an initial free trial and as your application scales up.

MobileAppTracking by TUNE (HERE)
This is a tool on my to try out list.  It is described as an attribution analytics tool that lets you measure the value of your advertising partner.  I know a marketing agency that uses it, but I don’t know much else about it yet.

TapJoy (HERE)
I have not used TapJoy yet, but it looks interesting and I plan to very soon.  There are a number of solutions offered through the company that provides TapJoy including paid install options (I am not sure how I feel about paid user acquisition when it comes to getting loyal early customers – maybe that is ok for buzz purposes in some categories).  There also seem to be some user segmentation, advertising and analytics capabilities which could all come in handy sooner or later.

If I missed an analytics tool (or failed to mention one since this is a first draft at something more substantial) please use the comments to let me know or send me an email.


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Degrading Call Center Service

I can’t quite put a finger on it, but somewhere during the last five years I started really taking stock of the degrading call center service quality.  This is not my industry and I don’t know how to properly quantify or respond to this change, but I am starting to think that this may be either an opportunity: for startups, for someone like Ralph Nader, or for legislators and other regulators who ultimately serve as the people tasked with serving the public interest.

For startups the answer could be as simple as coming up with a way for customers to register the fact that the call center service they are receiving is a not working.  For example: when my wife and I had a baby recently the Maryland Health Connection/Maryland Health Exchange call center made two major mistakes (not counting mis-management of the overall program from the start).  First, they changed our address to the wrong address.  That wrong address was passed on to Carefirst of Maryland, my health insurance company, by the Maryland Health Connection/Maryland Health Exchange to.  I called in to Carefirst multiple times and they told me that they could not change my address or that the only way to change my address would be through the Maryland Health Exchange/Marylnd Health Connection.  After getting the call escalated to management numerous times with zero results I gave up trying to get Carefirst to update my address.  When I call Carefirst they ask me to verify my address in order to talk to anyone there about anything.  Carefirst also sends mail to the wrong address.  Health insurance is provided with geographic limitations on top of this!  So I called the Maryland Health Connection/Maryland Health Exchange thinking that it would be easy to get them to change my address.  After calling in multiple times and they told me that they either could not change my address or that the only way to change my address would be to buy a completely new insurance policy through the Maryland Health Exchange/Maryland Health Connection.  Seriously?  How hard is it to change an address?  After getting the call escalated to management numerous times I decided to try calling their website technical support line.  Same thing, but after pushing for the call to be escalated I was told that my address would be added to a spreadsheet that would be used to update my address in their system (apparently, I kid you not, the entire system is a website with a web form that provides data in spreadsheet form that someone manually data enters into another system).  They told me it would take a few days or a week so I waited.  Several months later the address is still wrong.  A startup could provide a way to report this to upper management.  Maybe they could have one of those hospital style pain faces scales that you pick out where you pick the face showing that dealing with this problem hurts a whole lot or is a complete disaster that prevents someone from getting health care at all in a case like this.

I mentioned that perhaps this is a problem for someone like Ralph Nader to take up.  In 1965 Ralph Nader wrote a book titled ‘Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of The American Automobile.‘  While someone may not die of a call center episode, their life might be threatened under certain circumstances.  I could see the headline now: ‘Elderly person commits suicide after spending 40+ hours seeking to reverse health insurance denial following typo in spreadsheet by Maryland Health Connection call center worker.’  This may seem extreme, but it is actually not that far off.  The people who work in these call centers DO NOT have the authorization to help people if someone calls in with a situation like this.  They flat out refuse to.

It seems that one of the few options that people have as a last resort is to go to third parties to seek help.  Good luck with that. I called my US Senator’s office (they forwarded me to the Governor’s office.  I left two messages and never heard back from the Governor’s office so I called a third time and was told that they would speak to someone about it.  I received an email shortly after the third call telling me that my address was being updated, but that was a complete fake out.  They did not update my address.

I tried social media. I reached out to @MDHealthConnection twice.  The first time they looked up my phone number based on my Twitter ID (which was probably a violation of my privacy rights under HIPPA or something) and called me using the phone number on on file with the Maryland Health Exchange.  Then they had someone email me to confirm that I needed my address updated.  That person said they would have my address updated, but that was also a complete fake out.  They did not update my address either.

At least if there was a startup allowing people to report their Call Center pain level they could share this data with someone like Ralph Nader or the Governor’s office so that something could be done about it.  Maybe this is an opportunity for social entrepreneurship that will get funded sooner or later.  Maybe it is a project for the Presidential Innovation Fellows although their charter does not include state government or private sector companies.

I called the Attorney General’s office and they told me that the Maryland Health Connection is so screwed up that if you are married and you die then your spouse can’t update the system to get survivor benefits.  I don’t have experience with this, but that sounds like a major problem.

Most of what I am talking about involves the Maryland Health Connection call center customer service team’s inability or unwillingness to help people.  But this is just one example of a problem that is across the board when it comes to call centers.

Something really needs to be done about the degradation of call center service quality.  Companies and governments are putting people in gatekeeper roles and blocking people from getting what they are paying for or entitled to.  This is out of control.


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Counting Source Lines Of Code for Products

While reading through the source code to an app that one of my products depends on I discovered an app called SLOCCount by David Wheeler, a PhD in Information Technology who went to George Mason University.  SLOCCount is short for source lines of code count.  I decided to try it out to see how many lines of code there are in one of my products.  This is is a great utility and if you have a few minutes you should try it out. It took seconds to install and run.

The report delivered by SLOCCount was interesting:

Total Physical Source Lines of Code (SLOC) = 232,451

Development Effort Estimate, Person-Years (Person-Months) = 61.05 (732.59)

(Basic COCOMO model, Person-Months = 2.4 * (KSLOC**1.05))

Schedule Estimate, Years (Months) = 2.56 (30.66)

(Basic COCOMO model, Months = 2.5 * (person-months**0.38))

Estimated Average Number of Developers (Effort/Schedule)  = 23.89

Total Estimated Cost to Develop  = $ 8,246,879

(average salary = $56,286/year, overhead = 2.40).

To refine this report, I would first have to come up with a way to exclude directories for open source code that my team did not write.  Next, I would have to adjust the average salary numbers quite a bit.  I don’t know any developers who would work for $56,286 per year.  I wrote David a note about this so maybe the next release will contain more realistic numbers.

David’s is development effort estimate is interesting.  I can’t help but wonder if this is how people managing CMMI projects measure efforts and outcomes.  Maybe it is how they sell things.  If they do then I can understand how things like the Maryland Health Exchange get screwed up so badly.

At any rate, I am glad I discovered SLOCCount today and will keep it in mind going forward.


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Is Learning To Code Enough?

If you are thinking about changing careers or just upgrading your skill set by learning to code, you have to ask yourself if learning to code is enough.  Being a software engineer or even a web developer is not just about learning how to read and write in a scripting language like ruby, python or java.  Even if you learn to code, you are going to hit walls that require mathematical thinking or different ways of thinking than what you are used to.  At least not if you are a mere mortal.

This post was inspired by the following events:
A few days ago I listened to episode 6 of Alexis Ohanian’s NYRD Radio podcasts where he was interviewing James Altucher.  A few days before that I watched ‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Schwartz‘.  Then I watched Mark Halberstadt‘s Khan Academy video talking about how he went back to school and got his BS in Electrical Engineering after getting a bachelors many years earlier in music.

Mark describes himself as a C student before he spent three years learning math and science through the Khan Academy.  You can watch his video series explaining his process as well as some reflections on going through it via his YouTube channel here.  Mark got a 4.0 GPA when he went back to school at Temple University. Mark comes across as a really smart guy who was not really getting all that much out of school except with respect to music.

James describes himself as having been kicked out of grad school for a variety of reasons including his tenacious pursuit of writing.  He told Alexis that despite having made a ton of money and going to an ivy league school as an undergrad, he would not pay for his kid(s) (I think he said he had just one but that isn’t important here) to go to college.  James comes across as a

Aaron comes was a child prodigy.  He picked up things unusually easily earlier than most and mastered impressed his peers.  Aaron was an add on founder of Reddit.  He came in after the original three founders had started the company and his company that was part of YCombinator stalled.

As someone who got an undergraduate degree in an area that did not require much math or science (Calculus was the highest level math I took in College and Astronomy was the highest level science), I can identify with Mark a lot more than with James.  I think that sometimes people like James think that a system is bad because it was bad for them, but they fail to consider things through they eyes and experiences of other people.

Aaron was certainly gifted, but he also had access to the web early and often growing up.  His family supported his use of computers.  Not everyone has that sort of foundation.  Based on the documentary video, The Internet’s Own Boy, he was a completely autodidactic learner.  He could probably pick up a text on mathematics and make sense of it.  I know a few people like that, but most people are just not like that.

This brings me back to my original idea about whether or not just learning to code is enough. Most people simply need to develop some foundations if they want to be a well rounded and solid software engineer or developer. I don’t know know if these foundations need to be the same as the requisites for computer science or electrical engineering.  Mark is working as a software engineer now.  I have been working on software and doing web development off and on since before college.  The lack of math is not preventative per say, but it is frustrating when I start taking deeper dives into more advanced topics like machine learning, natural language processing and information retrieval which all interest me.  There are times when even things like front-end web development and design involve math at a much less complicated level so someone who assumes that they can just learn to code without studying the foundations may be in for a few speed bumps along the way.


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