Fajita’s Startup Weekend Experience

Fajita’s Startup Weekend Experience

Here is the link to my Tumblr that I created for the blogging of my experience of the startup weekend.

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Startup Weekend

I have lived in Austin, TX for the last 15 years, they call it Silicon Hills, I have worked for companies that are basically all startups, at various stages of growth. I am not sure that I ever want to work for a truly large company. One company I worked for, Simplified, reached about 230 people, including our office in the UK (outside of London) and a couple of guys in Hong Kong.

At the time we reached 230 or so, there were folks that I didn’t really know, I mean not even their faces, might never even had seen their name except for some poorly done mass e-mailing that included everyone’s email in the TO: field. When I truly realized that I no longer knew everyone at the company, it felt weird.

Bear in mind, I was like employee 12 or 15 (I forget) and at one point I did all of our onboarding (we didn’t have an HR dept back then), so I literally met everyone in the company as they signed their paperwork and such. Probably around 40 or 50 folks in the company, I stopped onboarding, but it didn’t sink in until we had hit that 200 mark, it also sank in about then, because we had three locations in Austin and were looking to consolidate into one location (but that building was too small, so we took down other office space).

Then other companies, I was one of maybe 20, point being of all of this, there is something weird that happens to the way a company works and how it feels to work there once a company reaches certain employee sizes.

I have to say that I do truly enjoy a startup style/size company, you get a chance to be multi-disciplined, which helps keep things interesting, though there are times when having the opportunity to focus on a single discipline is enjoyable, nigh calming and serene.

Back to the title of this post, Startup Weekend, enter the chaos.

Well, hopefully organized chaos or merely chaos theory, there is a Startup Weekend (sometimes called 3-day startup) being held in Traverse City this weekend.

I grew up in Lansing, I lived there for about 18 years. My parents worked for the Red Cross, a bank and finally the great (and very broke) State of Michigan, eg pretty much civil servants. They were not entrepreneurs, my mom did some art on the side (enlarging photos by hand in this really cool ink-dot style, very cool stuff) and made a little side money at it, but neither parent was ever really business oriented. I am not saying that all of Lansing was like this, there were folks out on the hustle and not just sales folk, I mean actual business men.

But honestly, culturally speaking, growing up you heard kids saying what they wanted to do when they grew up and it was the usual ‘Doctor, lawyer, scientist’. The Internet wasn’t really a thing yet and computer programming, while it existed, the Open Source culture wasn’t there, so there were many barriers to entry for teens to think about how to build the next big thing that would make it to an IPO, hell I don’t think I knew what an IPO was until college.

My friends and I would routinely start designing a video game, the content anyway, based upon the latest game we were playing, I remember working up content for several inspired by Dragon Warrior. In today’s day and age, if I was still that middle-schooler, I could in a weekend knock out a playable demo of my content using a variety of Open Source starting engines for RPGs on PC, OSX or a mobile OS (iOS, Android).

That is the world we live in today, where the ability to quickly execute an idea is almost better than what the idea is. Because the sooner you can throw it against the wall and see if it sticks, the faster you can move on to something else (to see if it sticks) or to begin refinements and how to turn that idea into a real money maker.

Upon moving to Texas, and working for a startup (Open Source still wasn’t a big thing yet, but the Internet was in full-swing), I got a real taste for entrepreneurialism. I had coworkers that were insistent that they were just doing what they were doing until they could get their own ideas going. This was a strange and foreign concept to me at the time, since back in Lansing, it really felt like your job prospects were limited to…

  1.  GM / Car Companies (even though none of my immediate family worked for them)
  2. State of Michigan
  3. Michigan State University

But in Austin, you could work for Dell, IBM, 3M, Texas Instruments, AMD, random software startup, University of Texas, State of Texas, or try to start your own. It just seemed like there was so much more opportunity to be had in Austin. And on many levels, there was more opportunity, but I feel that part of it was just cultural.

Back to this coming weekend, I have been trying to keep close tabs on Michigan’s economy, my wife wants to move back here permanently, and well in Austin there are opportunities for consulting business or permanent positions with a wide-variety of tech companies, in Michigan as a whole, not so much, even less when you look at where I would want to live, northern Michigan.

Being a technical consultant has advantages, in that you can work from just about anywhere, you just need a client that doesn’t need you physically present much. Technology has helped with this immensely as well, Instant Messenger helped to supplant phone calls (and long-distance bills), and the likes of Skype video or Google Hangouts mean that you can feel more connected with remote clients/coworkers than ever before.

But if I had to find a permanent tech position based out of northern Michigan (or on some level anywhere in Michigan), I feel it will be fairly difficult, that is until the last couple of years. I saw a few things happen that told me that the tide is changing.

  1. Broadband access, the ability to get high-speed cable modem, and I don’t mean like 10 or 20Mbps cable modem speeds, 100Mbps speeds became available up here in Bellaire, which is a town of like 1,200 people and I am not sure that census doesn’t include some snowbirds.
  2. Mobile coverage, three years ago, my cell phone barely worked out on the edge of the dock. Now I get 4G and LTE coverage pretty much everywhere in a 15 mile radius, barring the movie theatre that place is like a faraday cage (that and Mrs. Pete restaurant, dead zone inside).

And last year, while I was looking on Tumblr, I happened across a reference to Coolhouse Labs, a tech accelerator located in Harbor Springs (north east of me by just over an hour). This was BIG, there were some minor tech players in Traverse, but a whole accelerator in a town that is almost 3 hours away from Traverse, that seemed like a significant step up for Michigan’s tech scene.

And this year, Startup Weekend.

For the record, I have one major client right now and they keep me plenty busy as their CTO, but I am compelled to participate in the Startup Weekend.

Next year maybe I will try to be a mentor or something, we shall see, but this year, I am going as a developer. I wish I had the whizzy iOS and Android skillz that I have no doubt will be in demand this coming weekend, but what I lack in the mobile development space, I make up for in solid database design and strong fundamentals of web application and web services API architecture designs.

I have half a case of redbull and I am going to try and get a couple of good nights sleep before the weekend.

I will blog it some on here, but I think I will probably turn on a new Tumblr to blog the weekend’s events.

I don’t know what will come of it, I hope I make some friends in the tech space, it would be nice to be able to talk shop with folks.

 

 

Tackling large project

Really, I guess the approach I want to describe encompasses any project that is going to take more than a few hours. 

Break it down into easy to consume chunks, it creates a nice list that you can cross things off of. There are plenty of articles and blog posts out there that talk about how it gives you a sense of satisfaction and the feeling your making real progress. But it really does work, try it out.

When I am looking at estimating a project, the first thing I do is to break down the project into logical sections, then those sections into individual tasks. This will allow for the creation of fairly accurate estimates and provide a natural roadmap for the project.

Depending upon the size of the project and the number of players involved, the need to use software to track the tasks that provides dependency links and Gantt charts and all the really nifty and fancy project management tools is probably going to be required.

In regards to project planning, over the years I have taken to using a four hour estimate as the lowest number of hours, this generally is for producing new code, as that code will require me to test it as I write it, many times it will require documenting (I write a lot of API methods). Now sometimes, I am spot on and finish either exactly at the estimated number of hours, other times it goes a little bit over and in some cases the work is similar to something else I recently finished, so I can re-use some code and I finish in what seems like a crazy little amount of time.

There are times when I know that a task will only take me an hour, so I budget about 90 minutes, as to allow for room that something might go wrong.  But the four hour task tends to be a good default when dealing with a coding task you are not intimately familiar with, the big issue is setting expectations for yourself, your boss and or your client.

I recently broke down most a project’s tasks, there are some more I need to do, but interlacing with the other tasks of doing of the day, ran out of time. But I followed the four hour concept, with the exception of one where the changes are a few lines of code here and there, simply altering a query return to include a new field.

But I wanted to make some more progress on my redux of my old Product Management paper, I need to break it down into tasks, since it is a writing project, generally I just call this an outline. I also have a project I am working on that I need to start defining the tasks for as well, I have designed most of the database, but I really need to break out the tasks and get a scope of the project, I have a feeling I might finish it by the end of fall.

Outline

  1. Overview 
  2. The way it should be
  3. The way it probably is
  4. Don’t try to fix it, focus on common goals of all parties
  5. Right tool for the job

Chicken and Egg Debate

“Which came first, the chicken or the egg.”

Within any organization, be it a software company, a non-profit animal shelter or a telecommunications service provider, at some point a debate will occur between the various departments that is something to the effect of…

“Without my department’s efforts in getting the money, you would not have a job.”

And the rebuttal is then…

“Without my department, you wouldn’t be able to get the money.”

Within a standard corporation, this debate generally happens between the sales department and the department that is responsible for creating the product.

I actually had the privilege of witnessing a ‘debate’ happen at the very first company I worked for between one of our sales guys and one of the software leads. I believe there was beer involved, I forget, but I do remember it wasn’t a ‘Fsck it I am out of here.” type of debate, but there did seem to be some actual hurt feelings on the part of the sales guys.

I have by proxy witnessed the debate happen at other organizations. I mean it is inevitable, the debate will happen, as folks want to feel that their work is important and special. But the issue is, all the departments are important, so they are all necessary parts of the picture to make money, regardless of profit or non-profit.

I generally feel that the best way to end the debate is for someone to point this out to the parties involved and to try and congeal the departments at a unified team, but to accomplish that, you need a true leader. And to be quite honest, true leaders within the business world are few and far between. There are those with the title that can rule through fear (eg, do what I say or I will fire you), but for those that can inspire others to go above and beyond because they just feel compelled to do so, that is true leadership.

I’ll write more on leadership later, but for now, the debate happens, how it ends is more important.

Inspiration

I formed Red F Tech Consulting, in April of 2011, three years ago and I have never really done anything public facing with it. I am a tech consultant, I have a steady client that keeps me very busy, sometimes a little too busy and I have managed to find time to have other clients, sometimes those projects went well, sometimes they didn’t, it happens.

But recently, and it could be due to recovering from sleep deprivation, I feel inspired to work on some of my own ideas, rather than consulting work.

I am in the midst of cleaning out the garage, which involves putting things in order within my home office (because much of the mess in the garage is from when I closed down an office I had a couple of years ago and also when I renovated my home office), so as part of my process of cleaning, I reminisce about the things I am cleaning up, one such items in a paper I wrote back in August of 2004, that is almost ten years ago.

Seriously, a decade has passed since I wrote “Product Management – Concepts and Opinions”.

At the company I was working at, there were I guess about four of us, I was the only one that I guess felt they were a writer, to which I generally say “I can write, but it isn’t a passion of mine,” as I studied Journalism in high school, technically in college as well (though I didn’t attend class as much as I should) and I have a tendency for run-on sentences,  to which I say “Everyone can use an editor.”

Point being, the four us were given an assignment and in the end it fell to me to write it up. You might be wondering what the assignment was, I don’t remember the exact specifics, but the short of it is, the company was going to attempt to have a Product Management department and the CEO/President decided that we four would be the first group to hold the title of “Product Manager”, though I don’t quite remember anyone else really having the title, I had the title for a while (later it had Senior added to it), probably selective memory.

The paper was nine pages, including title and table of contents, for nine pages, the title and table of contents seems a little over kill (in retrospect), but I guess maybe if it was 12 pages in total, I feel that it would have been fine.

The paper covered the ideas of how Product Management should work. Given that I had not really done product management at that point, or any of us had, it felt weird to be writing a paper about how it all should work. Now to tie this all back to the title.

I re-watched John Adams on HBO-Go recently, it covers the life of the 2nd President of the United States of America, from the time just before our forefathers declared independence until both he and Jefferson died on the same day. Yet, I digress, John Adams (or at least Paul Giamatti’s portrayal) showed such fervor in the designing and writing of the foundational articles, bills and various other documents that form our government.

Looking back through my life there are few things that I feel I have real opinions on, I mean we all have opinions on which way the toilet paper roll should go or whether or not Hans or Greedo shot first, but I mean real opinions, opinions that you would passionately defend.

Product Management and the way in which a high-tech corporation should function in terms of Pre-sales, Post-Sales and Operational duties is a subject I have real opinions about, that and the fact that quick breads are actually a form of cake, seriously bread must have yeast, no yeast, no bread.

Given that I wrote the paper as an assignment while I was an employee, I cannot in good conscience just re-type the paper and publish it online. But I do feel that I can write a new version that covers all the same points and surpass those nine pages, maybe even get to 15 pages.