But nobody rocks like… [your town]

Yesterday I saw this conversation on Hacker News about a post titled "Can Montreal Become an Open Source Startup Hub?"

Technology ecosystems – most business markets, actually — have network effects. And that means that the only rank to have, as an ecosystem, is first place. Best in the world.

 The post makes the case that Montreal cannot compete as a web startup with the Bay Area, or even for second place with New York. What's left? Picking a niche and dominating it. The author further argues that for Montreal this is Open Source software startups. Maybe he's right, although I have my doubts. What the post did is make me think about other cities in the world with vibrant startup communities and large pools of engineering talent. Buenos Aires is the first example that comes to my mind, because it's my hometown. It could be Sao Paulo, Madrid, London, pick your favorite major city.

So what's special about Buenos Aires? Could the cradle of Tango become a hub for any kind of software startups? On one hand, Buenos Aires has an lots of bright software developers. On the other hand, Argentinian culture (just like that of most countries in the world, perhaps) is very risk-averse when compared to the US. That can be overcome with time and examples of successful companies and will encourage others to take more risks. There are a few already (Mercado Libre, even though it's an outlier of sorts). On the other hand, one thing the US does well is concentrating different industries or activities in different hubs:

  • San Francisco Bay Area – startups
  • Hollywood – film
  • New York – finance
  • Detroit – car industry (disregard the current state of affairs)
  • Cleveland – well… 
Buenos Aires is a very diverse city, and it has so much going on. You won't see very many waitresses waiting for their big break or overhear many nerds discussing their programming language of choice unless you know where to look. This diversity reduces the serendipity of running into opportunities in a small world like the Bay Area. Also, it makes a talented software developer feel more isolated and willing to emigrate and try to compete in the big leagues. Essentially, I doubt Buenos Aires or any other city can quickly become a hub for any kind of niche software startups mostly because it will have a hard time retaining the necessary talent. Sure, there will be some startups that will do fine but I don't expect the next Google or Facebook to pop up there. What will happen for sure is that startup gurus will visit the city on tour and tell everyone willing to hear them that it's possible for them to pick a specific niche and rule it. Casual gaming perhaps? Latin-American adaptations of concepts that worked in the US such as eBay or Groupon? It's a bit of a consolation prize for the world-class brains who, if born in California, might have created the next Apple. For the time being, the Big League is in the Bay Area.

BTW, the title of this post is a reference to The Simpsons, Episode 22 of season 3.

Nigel Tufnel: [addressing the crowd] We were told they knew how to rock in Shelbyville. 
[the crowd 'boos'
Derek Smalls: But nobody rocks like… 
[looks on the back of his guitar where he has placed a reminder of the name of the town they're playing in
Derek Smalls: Springfield!

Lamabot (fortune cookies and Markov chains)

If you are on Twitter, there is a chance you follow the Dalai Lama or have seen one of his cogitations retweeted by his ever-growing following. If you're like me you may think he actually runs a factory of fortune cookies, or that he wrote an advanced phrase regurgitation algorithm.

So I was at the office yesterday, Friday afternoon. It was a long week, and I had the idea of downloading His Holiness' most recent 200 tweets to play with. If you studied computer science or engineering you may be familiar with the concept of Markov Processes. To explain it in a simple way, a Markov process is a series of states in which each state depends only on the previous one. Not only that, but it's random. A very basic one: follow a road until the next fork. When you get there, pick one path at random. It doesn't matter how you got to that fork, but given that you are there it's possible to make statistical predictions about where you'll be later.

The idea of using Markov chains to generate random but semi-coherent text has been around for a long time. The gist of it is to analyze some text, find groups of words that are likely to be together and generate chains of text of arbitrary length attaching a group to the next (last word of a group is the first of the next). It's not hard to code this, but I was ready to play with the tweets and wanted to get going. I did a quick search for Markov chains in Ruby and found this blog post with some code ready to use.

Five minutes and ten lines of code later, Lamabot was online thanks to Sinatra and Heroku (making web apps has never been easier). Yes, it's crude and it could be improved to be much more realistic. Some Dalai-esque pearls of wisdom that came from it:

"We need self-confidence and therefore ethical conduct for the world is the Sunday edition of envy and love." (he's been listening to the Arcade Fire?)

"We need to be possible as a warm heart, warm heart." (I don't know, James Blunt?)

"We need self-confidence and recent scientific findings." (yeah, I agree, making some sense here)

"We can't be fearful of the needs of universal dimension." (I want what's he's having)

"We must use violence, you may neglect our responsibilities toward each other differences, all beings must create peace." (yeah, rock'n'roll, let's break some chairs and then be friends again)

And my favorite, nobody could argue with this one:

"We cannot overcome anger and bears with the confines of World Summit."

Why Non-engineers Think Engineers Are Better Off Joining Startups

Generalizations almost always have exceptions. In this case, the exception is perhaps the majority of instances. If you are going to make the claim that the best option for an engineer is to join a startup, you’d better have compelling arguments.

I just read Why Engineers Are Better Off Joining Startups by Bindu Reddy on Techcrunch and found a couple of “jewels”:

“All this has caused a severe shortage of good engineering talent. Which is why, the time has never been better to work at a startup.”

“More importantly, the one thing that every passionate engineer cares about—the ability to build and ship products—is harder at large companies.”

As an engineer, it’s easy to destroy this kind of logic. The first sentence says that because of a shortage of engineering talent, the time has never been better to work at a startup. Well, for one you cannot make decisions in a time other than the present. If you are looking for a job, the only time that matters is now. A current shortage of engineering talent may affect the decision of someone who is choosing a career, hoping the shortage will persist in time. If you are already an engineer, it’s a case of the rising tide lifting all boats. Higher demand means that you will get a better salary either at a startup or a large company. I know that in the Bay Area companies like Oracle are paying very high salaries to attract talent who otherwise would go to more interesting places. This is why many of my friends went to work for HP rather than startups in 1998. A shortage of engineers does not magically make it more attractive to go to a startup than to a large company.

The second sentence is even easier to deal with. There is no “one thing” that every passionate engineer cares about. Most likely passionate engineers do care about building and shipping products, but we also care about being healthy, having families, traveling and doing other human things that non-engineers also enjoy. Some people just cannot deal with the lifestyle of a startup for external reasons. Even if you decide to make all sacrifices because you really want to be involved in the building and shipping of a product, there are a few things you must know:

  • Startups change all the time. You will work on dead ends, and it will be frustrating.
  • You may have to take off you engineer hat. Sometimes the company needs customer support. Or extra marketing, or sysadmin/operations. Or sales. Sometimes you have to first sell things you don’t have, and then build a crappy, I-hope-nobody-sees-this-code prototype.
  • Your skills may become irrelevant if the company pivots. Say you are an expert in information retrieval and the company morphs from a technology vendor to a user destination site. You will be asked to make the website prettier, to optimize load speeds or to write blog posts. 

In contrast, at a large company:

  • You will have stability. If you are hired by Oracle or Google to improve the garbage collection algorithms of the JVM or optimize where to display certain types of ads, chances are you’ll be able to work on this specific problem for long enough to accomplish something.
  • You will work reasonable hours that will allow you try being a “well-rounded person.”
  • You won’t have a lot of impact on whether the company lives or dies. Whether this is good or bad depends on your personality.

I am the CEO of a small startup and I haven’t worked for a large company since the 90s. I love what I do because it’s a job, a hobby and a game at the same time. Our employees enjoy the game too, but it would *never* cross my mind to make a blanket statement that all engineers should work at startups. Sometimes I interview people to whom I plainly tell that I would not be looking for a startup job if I were them.

If you are a smart engineer, don’t believe the hype. Do what you’ve been trained to do: gather information, weigh the pros and cons, find the compromise that works for you and decide for yourself.

Ah, Southwest…

At the Southwest SFO check-in counter a few minutes ago. The desk guy tells me that my bouldering pads are oversized: each one is 67 linear inches (width, length and height added together) and the maximum allowed is 62. He'll have to charge me $50 per item. I smile, beg for mercy, he won't budge. Ok, you got me.

I give him my credit card, he takes forever to process it. In the meantime I check my email with my phone, almost a reflex at this point.

Guy: "Sir, by any chance did you take my picture?"
Me: "What? No, I was checking email."
Guy: "Ok, because some people take our picture and that's illegal."
Me: "(speechless)"

Of course, Guy never told me that I could have simply tied both my pads together and paid $50 for one oversized item instead of $100. I bet he gets two "employee of the month" credits for making Southwest $100 (and deeply annoying a frequent flyer).

About the illegality of taking his picture: WTF.

Double Sunset

This weekend I flew from San Diego to San Francisco on Southwest Airlines. Thanks to an early check-in I was able to grab a window seat on the left side of the plane, facing the ocean when flying north. My flight took shortly after sunset, and as the plane climbed the sun rose again. I saw a second sunset and felt like the Little Prince from Saint-Exupéry’s book. This is the second sunset, over the Channel Islands.

Sunset

The Upside of Irrationality

Just finished reading The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely (highly recommended, just like Predictably Irrational). One take-away from this book: if you thought making decisions while under the influence of strong emotions was a bad idea, now there is hard data to back that up. It's worse than you thought, because those decisions affect your future decision-making patterns.

Side note: this book was a pleasure to read on the iPad.