Look mum, I'm on TV!

Keep calm, and look like an idiot ;)

Those who have met me will know that I’m not exactly shy when people start asking me questions. I will happily dominate a discussion and will talk at length on subjects that I’m comfortable with. I appear confident when doing public speaking because I generally pick subjects I know well, and I have a pre-prepared script that I can work from.

Turns out, however, that an unscripted interview in front of cameras is a completely different beast. I was interviewed for the Mustard Business Extra show today which, while not an unmitigated disaster, wasn’t exactly my finest hour.

It seems that what I thought was my “look calm, relaxed and cool” pose is actually my “look really uncomfortable and unnatural” pose, and my usually eloquent verbiage was replaced with slightly halting babble.

As I was answering the first question my brain was having the following monologue:

“OK, say something articulate… no! Articulate, you idiot! OK, now hit them with your expansive… er… list of… things you say – dammit, words! Vocabulary even! Too late, keep going… OK, you’re waffling now, bring it to a close. Now to make a strong point about… what was the question again?”

With the large number of YouTube videos I’ve made I have finally become comfortable with listening to recordings of my voice, but I’m still not comfortable watching video of myself so tomorrow nights airing could be a tad excruciating. It doesn’t help that I thought it was a talking head setup so I rocked up in shorts. Good thing you can’t really see my battered old shoes 😀

Drinks and glasses all set up for the guests


I think I surprised a few people last night, which was good. I’d been invited to launch my book at an event sponsored by Birkkets LLP and asked to ”say a few words” to the guests. I’m not entirely sure I’m capable of ”a few words” so I set about putting together a 15-20 minute presentation that quickly spiralled into a 30 minute one.

Ordinarily my talks are technical in nature, and while I try to keep them amusing they are always going to be a little dry. The skill level and experience of the audience can vary from school children to highly skilled techies, but the relative skill level of the audience tends to be constant. A book launch organised by a law firm presented a big problem: the audience was going to be diverse.

Then there is the overriding problem that it’s a book based on a blog that’s probably been read, at least in part, by most of the people present. So what exactly do you talk about?

In the end I talked around some large life events that, ultimately, put me in a position to be at Rainbird and attend Techstars. This was done to the backdrop of a bunch of nice photographs I have.

The sum total of the talk could be condensed to a single, short paragraph:

“How did I find time to write a book? I didn’t, I wrote a blog instead and then published that.”

But that’s not exactly a compelling story. People don’t want to hear the how, they want to hear the why. They want to identify with the experience. The trick is to spin that into a cogent tale. For example this entire post is a segue from a simple statement, to a short explanation of that statement with a big dollop of narrative in the middle in order to justify posting it.

I think I told a compelling story last night. The audience seemed to enjoy it. I know I did. People laughed at the right parts and appeared to be listening intently – this may have been a pleasant surprise to some of the audience. Sadly it also means that expectations will be adjusted accordingly for any future talks. I need to find a new audience with low expectations 😉

Apple Watch: Three Weeks In

I was a little late to the Apple Watch party. Initially I was going to get a small Watch Sport which I ordered on day 1. So oversubscribed were the pre-orders that despite placing the order within seconds of pre-orders opening I was already bumped to the 3-4 weeks delivery timeframe.

I then book an appointment to try on the Apple Watch and realised the device isn’t quite as big as I thought. In fact I much preferred the larger version. So I cancelled my order and placed a new one. Which placed me in June sometime for receiving it.

Then my headphones got washed. At just shy of 1 Apple Watch in replacement cost I was faced with a fun decision. Given how much use my headphones get I cancelled the watch (again) and ordered new headphones.

Fast forward a few weeks and I managed to sell some old camera kit to fund my third attempt at buying an Apple Watch. Successfully this time. I’ve now had it for 3 weeks.

The Good

I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting with the Apple Watch. It’s a bit of an odd device. It doesn’t exactly do much, but then that’s the whole point. It’s just there when you need it, which is great.

I have two kids and do a lot of walking with a pushchair or pram. Trying to get your phone out of your pocket for simple things like checking the time, or the last notification is a royal pain in the behind. having all that on my wrist is a Godsend.

I also now do a lot more walking. The gamification of exercise stats with goals and badges to achieve mean I will actively now go for a walk on more sedentary days (Sunday especially) in order to achieve my daily goal and not jeopardise my weekly and monthly badges. This can only be a good thing.

I spend less time glued to my phone. Alerts come to my watch and I can quickly filter them there instead of getting my phone out and then getting sucked into all kinds of other things.

It took me a few days to get the balance of alerts right – I’ve turned off email notifications for example. I’ve also changed how alerts work on my other devices. Instead of a barrage of alerts on multiple devices the watch now handles most of the load.

And I have a watch back. I like watches, and on top of that they’re a fashion statement for me. My last watch was more expensive than the Apple Watch and did nothing but tell the time and, as far as I was concerned, look good.

So, three weeks in and I’m very happy with my purchase… but it’s not perfect.

The Bad

There are those who would argue you should never buy the first version of any produce (the Rev. A version). Wait for the second version where the flaws and issues are ironed out. This is not an unfounded view, just look back to the original iPhone or iPad.

The Apple watch has problems. It’s slow. Loading a new app can often take longer than the screen stays awake for. Some of the UI elements can be hard to press. Some things are non-intuitive, and I just hate having superfluous apps on there that I’m never going to use (although I suspect that will never change given it’s the same on iOS).

Some of my issues will be addressed in the next version of the OS which is due out in a few months.

I also have no idea how strong the screen actually is. My last watch supposedly had a sapphire screen and I managed to quite conclusively scratch that. I actually take the watch off at the gym for some exercises rather than risk banging it with weights. I’m probably being overly cautious, but I rather that than a damaged watch.

The Ugly

The button above the digital crown is utterly useless to me. I don’t use my watch to initiate contact with people so having a button dedicated to that is pointless. I want to be able to map that button to something else. The activity app would be a much more sensible binding for me.

The calendar app doesn’t show a month view for anything other than the current month as far as I can work out. I can’t think of any reason why. Finding appointments outside of ‘today’ is non-intuitive and the whole app needs a rethink.

Sending the funky animated emoji to non iMessage destinations just fails with a standard “message failed to send” error. At the very least this should be a specific “iMessage is needed to send these emoji” type message, and ideally it should try and work out up front if you can even send them.

The basic strap is a pickpockets wet dream. It’s secure enough to hold the watch on your wrist, but comes off very easily. I was very aware of this when walking around London. I think if I lived there I would have invested in a different strap.

Oh, and the battery…

Is fine. Seriously. I generally have 40 something percent left at the end of each day, and the one night I forgot to charge it I was able to get enough charge on it while I got ready for work for it to be fine throughout the day. I could see how heavy use of the heart monitor, along with using it to play music to bluetooth headphones all day, while messing with the screen lots will cause it to go flat quickly, but that’s not exactly a fair example of usage.

And charging it overnight isn’t a problem for me either. I charge masses of stuff overnight already. I’m not overly bothered about sleep monitoring (had it before with my Jawbone Up and it didn’t do much for me) and I never used to sleep with my watch on anyway.

Techstars – CTO Club Reprise

There is nothing like the buzz of a new Techstars cohort. That raw energy, waiting to be tempered in the forge of 13 gruelling weeks into laser focused businesses that will either win, or die trying.

The Techstars Clock Of Doom

It’s day 3 of the London 2015 Summer cohort, and the first CTO meeting, which I was kindly invited to host. I wrote the following about the CTO meeting in our cohort:

The first rule of CTO club is that you don’t talk about CTO club. The second rule of CTO club is that if you don’t get stuck into the chocolate croissants near the beginning of the meeting I’m going to have eaten them all.

Both rules still stand, and although I didn’t see any chocolate croissants I did polish off the pain-au-chocolates in short order.

I also said:

The CTO meetings are likely to be invaluable to me as, while I bring a fair amount of experience to the table, most of that experience is as a developer. OK, so I’ve been a team lead, development head and even a Head of IT before, but all that’s crammed into the very last portion of my career. Part of me still views myself as a naive 22 year old who’s just starting out in a support team.

As the ”experienced” CTO here to help guide the others I think that whole ”I’m making this up as I go along” holds more now than it ever did. I have a t-shirt that reads ”Don’t copy me, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing”. I may need to wear this more often.

It was great to see the enthusiasm of the CTOs in this new cohort, and wonderful to see the beginnings of the cross-pollination that happens when you put a bunch of tech companies in close proximity. I look forward to seeing their progress.

If you’re interested in following this cohort there is a new (hopefully daily) blog by Rosario Garcia de Zuniga, CTO and co-founder of Headliner which you can find at http://my-leitmotiv.com/.

Of Unicorns and Dragons

One of the GoGo Dragons in Norowich
The tech industry is full of jargon, and it just gets worse when you enter startup land. As this article points out, there’s even jargon for how large a company is. Unicorn (valued over $1Bn) and Decacorn (valued over $10Bn) I’d heard before. The rest were new.

Dragon ($100Bn) is probably a reaction to the fact that Centicorn sounds ridiculous – although I do like the sound of Teracorn, and at a valuation of $109Bn I suspect any investor would too.

The argument is that while unicorns are rare, dragons are rarer. I’m going to argue that this is a ridiculous post rationalisation.

Dragons are everywhere. Norwich is littered with them at the moment. Tales that include dragons are quite common. Tales that include unicorns less so. I’d also argue that while tales with dragons don’t necessarily imply unicorns (Reign of Fire for example), tales that include unicorns generally use a mythology that also include dragons almost by default.

Much easier to rationalise the Unicorn to Dragon scale as dragons are much more badass than unicorns. Simple as.

Of course, eventually inflation is going to mean that Dragon will no longer suffice. Do we simply take from the whole gamut of mythology – in which case may I be the first to propose that a Kilocorn ($1000bn) size company be called a Titan, or do we need to draw from mythology that already includes unicorns and dragons? The latter becomes harder, but we could go with Tarrasque which is certainly more badass than all but the eldest dragons, it just doesn’t really roll off the tongue.

The Eureka Moment

Hollywood is full of tropes, significant and recurring themes that are used for everything from character development to plot advancement. For example, in almost every film where the protagonist is trying to solve a problem there is some seemingly unconnected event that triggers their working out the answer. The “Eureka!” moment is so prevalent it’s getting hackneyed. And yet it’s not as far fetched as it sometimes seems.

Software developers are well aware of how solutions to problems will often come to them at bizarre times. Sometime you just wake up with the answer. Sometimes it pops into your head while taking a walk, or having a shower. In fact, this is so common that at Rainbird we actively encourage people to go for a walk when they’re stuck.

But this isn’t the seemingly unconnected event. This is just giving your brain the space to work on the issue almost subconsciously. Sometimes, however, the mind does need something to prod it in the right direction.

This weekend I was at Wroxham Barns with my family. The children’s menu there has activities on the back to keep small people occupied while they wait for their food. It’s a fairly standard practice at child friendly venues and often gives parents a chance to hone their colouring skills under the close supervision of their children – at least that’s what happens in our family.

In this particular case I was helping Willow, my eldest, to do the maze. I was also using it as an opportunity to start teaching her fairly basic pathing algorithms. We would draw a line to a junction, then check each possible route for dead ends. Since it was a fairly basic maze I could easily check ahead and guide Willow so that we only started drawing again when each incorrect direction has been investigated and discounted.

At one point the maze got a little more complex, with me having to hold a number of junctions in my head and effectively build a tree of routes which we could then go and explore. Not only that, but there were actually multiple routes through the maze. Jokingly I started talking about Dijkstra’s algorithm and A*, knowing full well that we were already well beyond the attention span of a three year old.

Far from being a pointless and throwaway conversation with a small child, the event actually linked two disparate bits of information that had been floating around my head for weeks now. You see, I’ve been trying to move more of Rainbird into the graph to simplify our inference algorithm. I believe I now have the core structure of the graph correct, and have been thinking through how inference would work within this structure.

My working hypothesis was that the answer starts as a linear goal and expands to be a tree as the solution is sought. But there’s a problem with this. For complex Knowledge Maps the tree can get very large very quickly. There is a performance concern here.

Sitting there, messing about with this maze and trying to explain pathing algorithms to a toddler I suddenly realised that the solution isn’t a tree, it’s a directed acyclic graph with multiple paths through some parts. I could collapse large parts of very complex trees, seek multiple routes through the graph at once, and handle complexities such as salience that I hadn’t even considered yet.

Sadly this isn’t Hollywood, and I didn’t get to just run off an implement the solution. I had to continue entertaining the child until lunch came and wait until we were back in the car home before I could jot down some notes. I also won’t be able to code up the solution in a single sitting with beautiful, bug free code that works first time. Instead I get to test my new hypothesis on paper, see if it works, and then slowly integrate it into the existing codebase over the coming months.

So yes, the eureka moment isn’t that far fetched. It’s just everything that happens around it that is.

Techstars: Sleep analysis

So I’ve published a book book[1]. It’s really Jon Bradford’s. After all, it was him who suggested that I blog every day. Then Techstars asked him if they could use excerpts from my blog in their [blog series][techstars blog] about what it’s like to go through the programme[1].

Jon’s response was:

[…] Actually we would love to turn this in a full ebook […] and then it would make sense to publish extracts.

Dom – What were you thinking?

Now, to be fair, I am in the process of writing a proper book that I’d love to get properly published, but I read Jon’s email as:

Dom, turn your blog posts into an ebook.

So I did. It’s free and, when I last looked, listed on the best sellers page for the “startups” section. People have also elected to pay for it. By my reckoning this makes me a best selling professional author. I’m pretty sure Chris would say it makes me a douche.

Ultimately it’s a tidied up, corrected and properly formatted rehash of the blog posts I did while I was at Techstars. But it got us thinking. There’s some interesting data buried in it.

Each day has a time it was posted, which I can roughly correlate to my bed time. Most posts were written in bed as the last thing I did. I would literally post, shut the laptop lid, put it on the floor next to the bed, roll over and die. Where I didn’t have proper times (Friday nights and weekends mainly) I could take a good guess at them from my regular routine.

I also knew what time I woke up each morning (basically 6am for most of them). From that we can estimate how much sleep I was getting. And then we can chart it.

What’s interesting is that I wasn’t actually getting by on as little sleep as I thought I was. The actual amount of sleep in a day varies wildly, with some nights seeing me have as little as 3.5 hours, and as much as over 15 hours (although that was in a few chunks). Bung a linear trend line on the data though and that starts at just over 7 hours sleep a night and ticks up towards 8 hours sleep a night as the programme ends. Which sounds like I slept quite well.

A chart showing how much sleep I got on any given night at Techstars

Indicative sleep durations for each day I was at techstars

Slice the data another way, however, and you get to see how much of a sleep deficit I really built up. For the first 2 and a half weeks I built up a deficit of one full nights sleep a week! This then levels of until after Christmas where the deficit start increasing again, peaking at just over three and a half nights sleep lost.

A stacked area chart showing the increasing sleep decifit

The running sleep deficit (assuming I need 8 hours per night)

Its hard to know how my sleep was affected by Christmas. I was at home, so not doing insanely late night, but I had a young daughter who has me up early and a heavily pregnant wife who would get up multiple times in the night. In the end I’ve treated that period as neutral and ignored it in the data.

It’s also hard to know how much of the time marked as sleep I was actually sleeping for. I seemed to sleep remarkably well in the flat in London, but without a sleep tracker I can’t know how quickly I fell asleep and how much of that was good sleep.

Still, as a set of indicative data it provides an interesting conclusion: if you want to have, on average, a fairly good nights sleep, go to Techstars.

In future posts I hope to do things like sentiment analysis on each of the entries in the book and correlate that to the amount of sleep had, and the current deficit I was running. It will be interesting to see fi there’s any correlation there.

1 So technically this is me blogging about Techstars blogging about me blogging about Techstars… It’s turtles all the way down.

So I pre-ordered an Apple Watch

Unsurprisingly the Apple Watch has sold out fast. Incredibly fast. Pre-orders were supposed to open at 8:01 in the UK. They were a few minutes late getting the Apple Store back on line (I know, I was hitting refresh every 15 seconds). I then went straight to my preferred watch, double checked the size using the scale images, and hit order. It can’t have been 60 seconds after the UK pre-orders went on line. And yet they had already sold out of my chosen watch. Delivery date for me is sometime next month. Which kind of sucks.

The whole Apple Watch thing has been a dilemma for me. I like wearing watches. For a long time I wore a very nice black ceramic watch. Sadly it was fragile and when I broke the strap a second time I decided I would keep the hundreds it would cost to fix and wait for Apple’s offering.

When the Apple Watch was finally announced I was… conflicted. I love what it does, although I do find it ironic that I want some of the features to save me having to get my overly large iPhone 6 out of my pocket. I’m not sure about the looks. They’ve grown on me, but it’s very iPhone, or iPad 1. Chunky would be a good adjective.

And herein lies the problem. The Apple Watch I wanted, with the black link strap, is damn near a grand. At that price it’s jewellery and my expectations for looks go from high (as they are for consumer hardware) to extremely picky. Then there is the question of resale value if I want to upgrade – how much of my thousand pound outlay will I lose? And finally the whole thing is an unknown quantity. Is it just a gimmick that I will tire of in a month? Or will it become central to my life like my laptop and my phone?

Oh, and it’s ‘Rev A’ in every sense of the word. It’s the first run of this model, and the first ever consumer build of a watch they’ve done. It’s likely to be less than perfect. I expect Apple Watch 2 to be sleeker, faster, better and have longer battery life. And I expect that in 12-18 months time.

So splashing a grand that I don’t have on an unknown quantity that doesn’t quite flick all the aesthetic switches becomes difficult to justify. But I still wanted one.

The obvious compromise here is to go for the Sport version. It’s considerably cheaper and will loose less money in real terms when it comes to resale, be that for an upgrade or because I no longer use it. And if I’m compromising I may as well go the whole hog and get the smaller watch. It’s £50 cheaper, slightly less bulky and could potentially go to my wife if I did upgrade.

Call it dipping a toe in the water. I get a seat at the party, albeit a few weeks later than some. I get to live with a smart watch for a while and have time to put together stupid amounts of money for Apple Watch 2 if it turns out that it is everything I hope it is.

Back To Work

Since leaving for Techstars I think I’ve been in our Norwich office for the grand Total of 5 times, and two of those was for less than 10 minutes. What with 3 months working in London, over a month working from home, Christmas, Easter and Paternity leave I actually feel like I’ve been on sabbatical for 6 months. Which is odd really since a lot of that time I was working stupid hours – certainly more than if I’d just been coming into the office as normal.

There’s also been a strange juxtaposition. For 3 months I was living on top of everyone, working every hour possible and being involved in even the minutest decision. Then I had a month of working from home and being very isolated from everything (remote working is not something we’re good at yet). Then two weeks paternity leave where you just forget about work entirely.

I’ve created a huge brain dump of everything I need to catch up on (with the wonderfully vague ‘sort email’ hiding I don’t know how much work), but top of the list is picking everyone’s brains on just where we’re at. In an organisation as dynamic as a startup there is absolutely no point in diving in head first until you know what direction you’re swimming in.

Speed doesn’t kill

Speed doesn’t kill. Coming to rest in a short space of time does. The issue with Accelerators is there doesn’t appear to be any time to brake at the end of it. The day after Techstars finished, with less than 5 hours sleep under my belt, we packed up our office in London, moved it back to Norwich and attempted to reintegrate ourselves into “normal” life. In my case this meant heading straight back down to London for two days last week before returning to do two slots at nor(DEV):con. Part of the reason for being in London was to give a talk on our Neo4j driver. So, come last Monday I had one 10 minute talk, one 45 minute talk and one 90 minute workshop to prepare for, none of which I’d started. The workshop I fobbed off onto Ben and Chris so I only had just shy of an hours worth of talks to prep for. There wasn’t much time for anything else.

This week is the first where I’ve been able to stop. Take stock. And work out exactly where I am.

My inbox is now empty, with 15 flagged items awaiting action later. My todo list for today is todone, with items for the week and beyond mapped out. And three plus months of charging headlong has now been tamed slightly with a list of what’s outstanding and something that looks like a plan. Despite achieving nothing on the surface, today has been incredibly productive.

Getting back into something vaguely like a routine with my family is going to be slightly harder. Working from home while we wait for the birth of our second child is helping here, but it’s going to take more than an empty inbox, well ordered todo list and a project plan.