Since our trip to Africa was a family vacation and I really didn’t want business to intrude I wound up not spending time with startups in Nairobi. But I did talk to a lot of people we encountered about their use of technology.
Mobile communication is almost everywhere. Only when we went into more remote Samburu territory did we not have a cell signal. Many people are still using feature phones but Android is making rapid headway. An iPhone is considered to be a real luxury item and very few people have one. I took a picture of downtown Nairobi that shows a big LG and an even more prominent Samsung ad (admittedly not a great picture so you have to search a bit).
M-Pesa, the mobile payment system, is used incredibly widely. It has had some very positive effects, such as being able to pay women who work directly as is done for example by the Leakey Collection who work with Maasai women. That in turn has had a dramatic impact in reducing domestic violence against women. Somewhat surprisingly though, the use of M-Pesa has not reduced corruption. In fact you can now bribe folks using electronic payment instead of cash and some people think that the added convenience has increased corruption. It seems that there is an important tradeoff between adoption and enforcement. If you started to track electronic transactions on M-Pesa as a way to crack down on corruption you might stunt growth of electronic payments (people would be a lot less likely to use EZ Pass if they got speeding tickets from it).
Another big surprise for me was how relatively underdeveloped solar energy is. In fact the official Kenya government policy we were told is to invest more in grid development and fossil fuels which if true is bizarre at best. Distributed solar generation has huge promise in Africa. Fortunately, there are now startups such as M-Kopa, that are focused on helping finance the acquisition of solar devices. We saw one solar lamp in particular that doubles as a mobile phone charger and is very affordable.
We also went to visit a school that is supported by the Lewa Conservancy. One of our kids had done a small fundraiser prior to our trip and bought school supplies. When I first looked at what he had bought — paper, pencils and other very basic supplies — I thought this couldn’t possibly be what they needed. But it turned out to be spot on. When we went to the school we found it had 640 students and 18 teachers. The classrooms had 30-40 students in them with a teacher and a whiteboard. Basic supplies where exactly what was most needed.
Kenya has apparently announced a one laptop per child initiative. Based on our school visit though it would seem that subsidizing smartphones would be a much better route. Many of the kids walk long distances to school and it seems unlikely that they could carry a laptop back and forth. A phone in fact would make that walk safer. Also phones could have direct cellular data connectivity obviating the need for maintaining a local network. The school could add solar panels for charging the phones.
Overall I came away with a sense of optimism about the potential for Kenya. One of the most interesting questions though is what kind of society a country such as Kenya should be aiming for. I will have more to say about that as I shift my writing on Continuations to focus on my thoughts about the Information Age. I believe there may be an opportunity to leapfrog the industrial model.
And here are the slides, including a final slide with image credits (most images come form flickr are CC licensed):
Looking forward to comments and suggestions. I am planning to expand this material over the coming weeks and months.
Last Tech Tuesday I wrote about how engineering led companies sometimes underrate the importance of marketing and sales. One of the comments on Twitter pointed out that the converse is also often true and I replied that I will write a post about that, so here it goes. Many companies founded by a pure business team tend to struggle with technology and fail to deliver the products or services they envision. There are at least three distinct failure modes that I have seen here over time.
The first are teams that outsource their initial technology development entirely. By this I mean that they don’t have a truly technical person on their own team. This hardly ever works. I am sure people will post examples of successful counter examples but most of the teams I see who fall into this category are struggling mightily. Some of them fail to ever ship a product. Others ship something but it is delayed and a far cry from what they had in mind. Based on lots of experience my clear and unambiguous advice here is: if you don’t have a technical member of your founding team stop everything else you are doing and find somebody (I will have a separate post on how to do this). In many situations you would be better off not continuing at all if you can’t do this and instead take time out to learn enough technology yourself to build an initial version.
The second are teams that add a technical person early on but always treat engineering as a substitutable appendage to the company cycling through many engineering leaders and accumulating massive technical debt along the way. Things may look like they are going well initially, but over time the product development cycle for companies like this starts to slow down dramatically as the technical debt makes innovation harder and harder. Churn in the engineering organization also means that there is less institutional knowledge about why things were built in a certain way to begin with.
The third are teams that bring on board a technologist but then proceed to let that person build an engineering fiefdom that’s disconnected from the rest of the organization. The failure mode here tends to be an over-engineered solution that invests heavily in technological infrastructure before having found product market fit. There may be no technical debt here in the classical sense but it generally won’t matter because many of these companies never really get off the starting blocks.
The root cause in pretty much all of these situations is a lack of understanding of technology. It is unfortunately easy to go through business school and/or work on the business side of startups or large companies without ever developing any meaningful understanding of technology. That, however, is a recipe for mismanaging technology as it will translate into a fear of engaging and an inability to ask the right questions. If that happens to describe you, then you might want to go and read Tech Tuesday from the very beginning.
Today’s Tech Tuesday is a relatively short note on the “Bleeding Edge” — technologies that are even beyond the cutting edge. Every technology tends to start life at the bleeding edge with early releases that are unstable and poorly tested, many different ways of doing something (instead of an agreed upon best way) and with upgrades that are not backward compatible. It is tempting for startups to embrace bleeding edge technology for several reasons: first, you are starting from scratch, so why not use the very latest? Second, if it works out well it can give you a competitive advantage. Third, it can be a recruiting tool for people who want to get on the next technology trend.
Before you adopt the bleeding edge though, make sure you understand the downsides. In the worst case scenario you find yourself sitting on technology that is no longer supported at all. That will leave you with a tough decision between maintaining it yourself or migrating away. Even in the best case though you are likely to face changes that come from the external technology that force you to rewrite your code (because the changes are not backward compatible). There too you face a tough choice — if you stop upgrading you avoid any rewrite but in all likelihood you are not stuck with whatever version you have which at some point (often very soon) will no longer be maintained.
As a general rule then I suggest to folks that unless you absolutely definitively need it, wait to adopt a technology until it has started to settle down a bit with the vendor (or vendors) reasonably firmly established, the number of releases slowing down considerably and — most importantly — a commitment to avoid backwards incompatible changes unless absolutely necessary. The node.js project for instance seems to be settling down (there are drawbacks to this too as people who were hoping for a different module system were quick to point out), but in terms of adoption this is a big plus.
One of the questions asked by a Tech Tuesday reader was about using multiple different programming languages for different parts of a site. Back in the early days of the web that wasn’t really an issue because you would write the page generation in something like Perl or TCL and that was all there was. Well, not really because even then you had to know HTML but of course early HTML was so minimal that it didn’t really matter much.
Having said that, I think the prime directive should be to use the right tool for the job even if that results in multiple languages. The benefits from a proper match will ultimately outweigh the added cognitive and tooling overheads. Also, you should be very suspect of any engineer who has only ever programmed in one language and does not feel comfortable or interested in picking up a new one.
PS Please ask more questions!
PPS Minimal links today but I am running to catch a flight!
The topic fo today’s Tech Tuesday is one that every startup I have ever seen struggles with: what to do about technical debt. First off, what is technical debt? The Wikipedia page explains it as “the eventual consequences of poor or evolving software architecture and software development” which result in more effort for subsequent work.This is actually quite good because it makes clear that technical debt doesn’t just result from mistakes (the “poor” part) but also from “evolving.” And as you may recall my advice has been to startups to evolve their technology as they grow.
The direct corollary from the above is: every startups has technical debt. And I mean every. Show me a startup that doesn’t have it and I will show you a company that has vastly over-invested in engineering relative to their scale and relative to product market fit. So if every startup has it, the question becomes, what should you do about it? The answer here is not unlike what you should do with financial debt: don’t try to pay it all back at once but also don’t ignore it and let it pile up further.
Why not pay it all back at once? First, because often that will result in the temptation to do a complete rewrite, which as I wrote before is a very bad idea. Second, even short of a complete rewrite trying to pay it all back will tend to slow down development of new features or even plain old bug fixing too much relative to the needs of customers (and hence the business). The best way to think of it is that there is some natural level of technical debt that exists at all times.
Of course you shouldn’t ignore technical debt either and especially not let it continue to pile up. If you do that, eventually making any change to the system gets so hard that your product becomes frozen. So instead what you need to do is allocate some fraction of engineering at all times to paying back some technical debt. This is one of the key reasons why your total engineering productivity (as measured from a user visible standpoint) will never be as good a year or two into the life of a startup as it was in the early days.
What is the right fraction? The answer is of course: it depends. But as a broad rule if you are a couple of years into it and you are not spending at least about a third of engineering time on rewriting some code (paying back technical debt) you are probably in denial about the extent of your technical debt. And conversely if you are spending more than two thirds of engineering resources on a sustained basis you are probably being overly aggressive.
If you have great examples of different types of technical debt that you have encountered, I would love to hear them. And of course if/how you managed to deal with them.
I still have quite a few great topics suggested by readers to work off for my Tech Tuesday series on technology in startups. But today I want to take on a different issue because it has been on my mind. I have now been programming computers in one way or another for over thirty years (yikes) and have seen a lot of technologies come and go during that period. So when something new comes along I tend to think of the great French saying: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change the more they stay the same).
One of these constants has been that new technologies all too often wind up being seen as a silver bullet: something you can use to solve a difficult problem (werewolves, server scaling) with a solution that is simple and yet super effective. Unfortunately, technology silver bullets are as mythical as their werewolf counterparts. That’s not to say that we haven’t made progress and that every once in a while something that was previously hard becomes easy (or at least easier) but those are few and far in-between.
For a while recently people were treating node.js as a silver bullett and now it appears to be Go. So you wind up hearing things like “our xyz isn’t scaling so we should rewrite it in Go.” Now for some cases it may well be true that you need to rewrite a portion of what you have and use a tool that gives you more speed. But before you jump from there to the conclusion that you need the silver bullet du jour keep in mind that people have been writing high performance systems for a long time in existing languages.
So almost inevitably the answer is: you need to either restructure your existing team and/or hire some new folks. When you do that beware of anyone claiming to be an expert in a specific language or technology, especially one that is less than a decade old. If you need say a super low latency in memory server find someone who has written a bunch of those in whatever language rather than a self-declared expert in node or Go.
PS I spent a couple of hours over the weekend looking at Go and it does indeed seem like a promising alternative for situations in which you might have previously resorted to C or C++.
Last week in Tech Tuesday I asked for topics to write about in my series on technology in startups. There seemed to be a fair bit of interest in security, so here we go. First off a disclaimer. As with any general purpose advice, you need to think a lot about what it is you are trying to do. The security requirements for a bitcoin startup are vastly different from those for a social media one.
When you are just getting going you should treat security the same way as scalability: make sure you have the basics covered but don’t spend too much time on it as your bigger problem is to build something that people actually want to use. Again, please keep the disclaimer from above in mind though!
As it turns out even the basics still seem harder than they should for a lot of folks. Here is what I consider to be included: hashed paswords, SSL for all logged in users, safeguards against SQL injection and cross site scripting attacks, two factor auth or VPN requirement for web based site administration, key based auth for all server access (and limit dramatically who has server access), disciplined access to all cloud services.
One way to get a lot of the basics is through widely used web development frameworks. That comes with a *very* important caveat. Because those frameworks are widely used lots of people are looking for exploits and when a zero-day exploit is found you will be vulnerable and you *must* apply all security patches immediately and generally stay up to date with the framework.
For managing coud services access there are two promising startups: Meldium and Bitium. These are both relatively young and so might turn out to have their own security issues but they are a lot better than emailing cloud services passwords around or keeping them in Google Docs which is what a lot of startups are doing right now.
Bottom line: when you are just getting going be pragmatic and focus on the must have items. Once you start to grow though make sure not to neglect security — you will need to upgrade as you scale.
The current Tech Tuesday series is about technology in startups. I started the series out with posts on initially choosing and evolving your technology. Since then I have been writing about best practices for growing and structuring your engineering team, with separate posts on hiring and retaining engineers and one on remote team members.
Now that I am eight posts into this series, I am curious what questions readers may have that I should cover in upcoming posts. Here are some ideas to get things going: addressing security (when and how?), using frameworks (good, bad, indifferent?) and technical debt (what to do about it?).
Please ask away in the comments!
If ever we needed a reminder that technology can both make our lives better and more terrifying this week provided plenty of them. Pressure cookers for cooking and bomb making. Fertilizer for agriculture and explosions (sadly also used in the Oklahoma City bombing). Social media for collaborative (re)search and public witch hunts. This is why we need values. Without being guided by strong values we will not enjoy the benefits of technology but will be leaving in fear of it instead.