Monthly Archives: November 2014

Techstars: Day 9 (Marathon, not a sprint)

So my schedule for the week (Monday to Thursday) seems to be get up at 6, get ready for work, eat breakfast, FaceTime the family, leave the flat at 07:30, get into work for 08:00, do an 11 or 12 hour day with a small break for lunch, head back to the flats in the evening with the team, work on the business plan over dinner, debrief, blog, bed for midnight. Friday mornings are the same, but we bugger off back to Norwich in the afternoon so the plan is leave the office at 15:301 and debrief/blog on the train home.

Now that would be great if I was one of these people who only needed 4 hours sleep a night, or if I could go home and die at weekends; but I’m not and I can’t. I suffer if I don’t get my full 8 hours, and my weekends feature disturbed sleep thanks to my heavily pregnant wife who needs to get up several times in the night, plus early mornings courtesy of my young daughter who doesn’t understand the concept of a lie in.

The net result is that I’m pretty tired already and my body is starting to tell me that if I don’t slow down that it’s going to put me down. Yes, I could just knuckle under, quit my moaning and get on with it but I suspect eventually there is a big brick wall that I’d hit and I’d end up being useless to everyone.

So, day off. Sort of.

Mentor meetings in the morning, [extremely] long lunch with a very good friend of mine and colleague who was able to offer some very interesting advice and some possible introductions, back to the office to do a couple of hours work, out by 19:00 with the intention of going home and going pretty much straight to bed.

Didn’t quite manage that as Chris and I started talking about some issues that had been uncovered during the day and then started throwing around some ideas to fix these issues. Next thing you know the notepads are out and diagrams are being drawn. OK, so it’s not exactly high intensity work – and we did range over a number of topics while also cooking and eating dinner – but we still utterly failed in the task of go home, switch off, go to sleep2.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the mentality of working every available hour and pushing yourself as hard as you can. That’s great, but you also have to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There are no prizes for being the first to collapse in a crumpled heap before the finish line is even in sight.

Some of the Rainbird team playing table tennis

I’m not the only one in the team who decided that a little R&R wouldn’t go amiss – the table tennis table was broken out at the end of the day for a few games

1 Actually ended up being 16:00 last week, but close enough.

2 And it’s going to be midnight before I’m asleep again – tomorrow I really am going to have to make a concerted effort to get to sleep before 22:00.

Techstars: Day 8 (Mentor Madness)

An overhead shot of Mentor Madness

A birds eye view of Mentor Madness taken by one of the Techstars guys

Do any research on Techstars and you quickly come across the term “Mentor Madness”. In the space of 4 weeks1 you have around 80 twenty minute meetings with potential mentors. It’s not a pitch – that much has been drummed into us – it’s presenting your team and your business and seeing if there is a match with the mentor. Think of it a bit like speed dating.

Sit through that many meetings with that many people and you’re bound to get differing advice. This even has a name: Mentor Whiplash. Sounds painful. So far, it’s not as bad as it seems. While we’re seeing polar opposite advice from some mentors, we’re viewing this as A Good Thing™.

The mentor whiplash we’re seeing is on parts of the business we’re not sure about yet. If everyone turned round and said “oh, you just want to do X” then you really need to just go do X – and possibly ask yourself why you didn’t spot that in the first place. If half the mentors are saying “do X” with the other half saying “do Y”, or even “wow, that’s a really hard problem, I don’t know” then you can at least take solace in the fact it probably is a really hard problem – and maybe one with no right answer.

You’ve also got to bear in mind that these guys are getting a 20 minute window onto a company which may not have been explained in the best of terms2 and are then having to think on their feet. It’s only really the easy questions that can get answered in these session. All you can hope for the hard questions is confirmation of the fact they’re hard and a selection of viewpoints on how best to tackle the issue.

So, day 1. We’re feeling positive. We’ve identified some great people who we’d be thrilled to have as mentors. We spent the evening debriefing and prepping for tomorrow, and then it’s just same again. Sadly I probably won’t get to go to all 80 odd meetings, although we’re early doors yet and that could end up being a blessing in disguise.

1 Well, 3 technically as week 2 is “time off” to regroup ready for the full on onslaught of weeks 3 and 4.

2 This is only day 1 of these after all.

Techstars: Day 7 (Week 2 Prologue)

Update: I seem to have got it into my head that Demo Day was on a Thursday for some reason. It wasn’t. It was on a Friday. As a result my calculations are all a day out. I was tired. That’s my excuse 🙂

So I had a big long debate with myself over weather I should do weekend updates or not – and also how to deal with the day numberings. Techstars is a 13 week, or 90 day programme. The astute among you will notice that 13 x 7 = 91. Demo Day is a Thursday so they don’t include the last Friday in the count, however, I’m pretty sure that would make it an 88 day programme due to not including the last weekend too.

It gets worse though. Thanks to Christmas we also get a 2 week break with the programme being split into one 7 week and one 6 week session.

So, our Clock of Doom counted down from 102 days which is 14 full weeks and one 4 day week. All of which begs the question: “How the hell do I number these?”

The solution I’m going to go for is to count weeks as 7 days long, and then ignore the two week break. This means that anyone doing any research on what it’s like to be at Techstars London will be able to correlate entries with the actual programme rather than time elapsed for me. Make sense? No? Tough, I’m just killing time on the train.

Which leads me to the reason why I decided I would do an update this weekend: I’ve got a 3 hour commutes most weekends and it’s going to get old fast. I know this because I’m only on the 3rd journey1 for Techstars and it’s already got old. I’ve also previously spent a few months doing the Cromer to London run at weekends when I first started seeing my wife. It wasn’t fun then either.

As to my weekend, it was great to see my family again. When I went into my daughters room on Saturday morning2 I was greeted by an emphatic “Daddy, I knew you’d come back!” followed by her launching herself at me for a hug. This, of course, makes the leaving again all the harder.

Oh, and I got some sleep, although not quite as much as I needed. I’ve noticed, looking back on last week, that the blog posts were getting more and more manic as my tired brain decided to filter less and less3. I suspect this will be a recurring pattern with Fridays post’s being the most flippant.

The Clock Of Doom at exactly 100 days

Yeah, I’m sad enough that I got someone to grab a photo of the clock at exactly 100 (I was in a meeting)

1 Out, home and now back out again. That’s almost 60 hours on the train if I was to do the journey every weekend, and with the inevitable delays it’s pretty much guaranteed to be over 60 hours.

2 She was asleep when I got home on Friday night.

3 Although a fair amount still hit the cutting room floor.

Techstars: Day 5 (Week 1 Summary)

So you’ll recall that I came to London with a suitcase, bag and rucksack. Look – there’s even a photo to remind you.

My suitcase, bag and rucksack

Everything I need for three months… and some stuff I don’t. Doesn’t seem enough

I’ve returned to Norfolk for the weekend with just the bag and the rucksack (no photo, it’s dark – use your imagination and remove the suitcase from the scene). I wouldn’t have bought the bag, but I’ve quite literally not had time to do any washing during the week1. I’ve not really had time to do anything other than work, talk about work and network.

It’s a really bizarre feeling to be heading home. In some respects it feels like I’ve barely been away. It’s not even been 5 minutes since we first stepped into the Techstars office and time is just running away from me. In other respects it feels like it’s been 5 months since I left home and we’ve achieved an awesome amount of stuff. Time is becoming malleable, and my recollection of when events happened unreliable. We were warned this would happen2, I just thought it would take a few weeks to kick in.

Weirdly enough my view on a few things around the Rainbird, Techstars, and the cohort seem to also suffer from many diametrically opposed but simultaneously held theories3. You could describe them as quantum states waiting to collapse, although that’s probably me just talking out of my arse due to extreme fatigue. Who knows.

So, what have we achieved? Well, we’re taken the company to bits and we’re starting to put it back together. We’re likely to find a few washers left over when we’re done (“So where does this bit go?”), but that’s a way away. At the moment we’ve got past the list of bits we should have and are now at the little pictograms of the guy telling us the tools we’ll need, how many people are needed to lift the company during building, and what to do if bits are needed4.

We’ve not killed each other, fallen out with each other, sniped at each other or had an argument5. This is a good thing and will become a bigger and bigger achievement as time goes on.

We’ve written some code. OK, Nathan has written some code and Ben and I have pissed about with a few simple changes, but hey, you know, teamwork and all that. We’ve even released Beta 0.2.0 which really just means that I finally remembered to increment the version number.

And we’ve met some really cool, and scarily intelligent people which is more than a bit daunting. We’re still getting to know each other, but I can already see that we’re forming bonds that will last well beyond this process.

Oh, and since I know that this blog is read by the wives and girlfriends of Team Rainbird I feel morally obliged to state that we’ve managed to achieve the perfect mix of eating well, exercising properly and looking after ourselves. We’ve also put aside time each day to tell each other how wonderful our families and loved ones are, and quietly reflect each night on how lucky we are while all the time counting the milliseconds until we are reunited6.

1 There’s also the whole no liking tumble dried clothes thing, and don’t worry, I’ll not be dumping the washing on my wife.

2 Hence this blog. It’s more so I can remember exactly what happened than anything else.

3 I hesitate to say beliefs because they’re too transient and intangible. I’ve already completely flipped on one theory in the space of a day.

4 Which seems to involve building your stuff in the Ikea carpark and having a phone on a really long extension cable that reaches into the store if you have problems. I’m guessing they have customer phones in the lobby that reach into the carpark for exactly this purpose.

5 Yet… I’ve been tetchy a few times but have worked hard not to show it.

6 And next week we mean to solve P vs NP7.

7 Google it Chris.

Techstars: Day 4 (Screw the diet)

Before we came to London there was a very real understanding that we were going to have to look after ourselves, insofar as making sure we ate reasonable well, exercised, and all that malarky. The gym has been sadly absent this week, purely down to the lack of gym passes (which should be sorted tomorrow), but I have been making a point of doing some exercises in my room every morning and I use the stairs rather than the lifts.

On the food front it’s been a mixed bag. Dinners have, on the whole, not been great. Breakfasts have been healthy, and lunches haven’t been all that bad. Treats and snacks have been pretty much non-existent – I know, how pious am I?

Except I’m getting 6 hours sleep a night, with pretty much 17 hours a day dedicated to working and networking and the final hour left for me to do mundane things like shower and walk to and from work. Annoyingly I’d like to be able to spend more time working each day, it’s just physically impossible.

You need to consider that I’m basically a highly evolved machine designed to turn sugar into code. It’s what I do. And today I hit the wall. So I did the only thing I knew: headed to the supermarket and bough £15 worth of sugary and chocolatey crap. That did the job.

Obviously a large bar of chocolate, half a box of Ferrero Rocher, a chocolate doughnut and half a large bag of sweets isn’t a sustainable diet, but I do think it represented the bursting of the dam… actually, the chocolate croissant and hot chocolate I had this morning, followed by a fairly large tube of Smarties was the bursting of the dam, this was more like the flooding of the lowlands and the destruction of everything downstream, but I digress.

The choices seem to be scale back the hours, sleep more, eat properly, exercise and generally be sensible; or accept that the diet may need to involve more sugar if I’m going to be able to maintain the pace I’ve set. My personal preference? Given how hard it is to get into Techstars your options are either go large, or go home, so screw the diet1!

The Rainbird team at the whiteboard

I should probably point out that the other 5 are all eating nothing but organic health foods and drinking pure spring water. It’s just me eating the crap, and I’m not just saying that for the benefit of other peoples wives…

1 although not quite to the extent that I did today. Perhaps a couple of bits of chocolate a day just to keep the brain fueled.

Techstars: Day 3 (The first rule of CTO club…)


Psychologically there is a big difference between 100 days left and 99 days left

I think it’s safe to say I didn’t get enough sleep last night. I suspect this is going to be a common theme given it’s 23:50 already and I’m still not quite ready to hit the sack. That said, I think we barely managed a 13 hour working day before buggering off to get some food. Chuck in the fact that I had to run to Oxford Street1 during lunch and it was practically a half day.

Today was a bit different for me as I had CTO club. 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 all2.

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.

We also had our first Deep Dive with Jon Bradford and his team. It was nowhere near as brutal as I was expecting – in fact it was practically pleasant. Yes, there are issues that we need to address, some quite large, but then that’s why we’re here; to get help and guidance on some of these larger issues. There’d be no point in doing the programme if we had it all worked out.

We topped the day off with dinner and a team discussion over the outcome of both the Deep Dive, and last nights homework (which was very much an exercise to get us thinking about the kinds of issues that would be bought up in the Deep Dive). I also have some of my own ideas, but I’m reserving judgement until after the first week of mentor meetings.

I then utterly failed to get to the supermarket to buy the growing list of things I could really do with buying. The likelihood is that I will completely fail to get to the shops tomorrow today too as we’ve got a 6pm meeting, followed by a Techstars Alumni panel, followed by drinks… also, how the hell is it Thursday already?

1 I now have shoes.

2 Although to be fair there were only 2 or 3 of them and I did offer them about before stuffing my face.

Techstars: Day 2 (Daddy needs a new pair of shoes)

I need a new pair of shoes, quite desperately. The why’s and the wherefores are unimportant. I simply need to go to a shop, try on shoes, find a pair that actually fit and purchase them.

Given day 2 of Techstars is ostensibly a “day off” – that is no activities or meetings are planned – I figured I could pop out over lunch some time. I was wrong.

Cue one fifteen and a half hour day focusing on our “homework” (the real reason we had the day off from other activities), actually getting some work done, waiting for photographs to be taken1, having working lunches, having a working dinner2, and finally finishing our homework3.

Maybe “day off” was a poor choice of words.

Tomorrow is morning is rammed with meetings, but the afternoon is looking promising to steal some time and sort the footwear problem. I could probably do with going to a supermarket too. And sleep. Sleep would be nice. So with that, I bid you goodnight4

The Rainbird team working hard

Burning the midnight oil

1 This was when the work actually got done as we were all at our desks waiting to be called for a couple of hours

2 OK, so the intention was to have a working dinner. Space considerations and a need to take a break put paid to that though.

3 For a given definition of “finish”. It was late, brains were fried and we may have been a bit less diligent with the last few bits.

4 It is quite literally 00:15 and I have a meeting at 08:30 so you’ll forgive me if I don’t refine the wording of this post, polish the prose, and make it the normal eloquent drivel you’re used to reading here – I suspect quite a lot of the posts are going to be rawer due to the lack of time and lack of sleep.

Techstars: Day 1

Arrive, early. Watch as one of our team manages to bugger up the entry system (albeit not too badly). Get settled. Start introducing ourselves. Sit through a long (but interesting) introductory presentation. Get introduced to everyone. Instantly forget everyones name. Lunch. Head out for a treasure hunt. Decide not to take umbrella because, hey, whats the worst that could happen? Get wet. Meet some really cool new people. Rescue team member who gets separated from their group1. Have a few beers. Meet more people. Have a curry. Meet more people. Head back to the office. Grab stuff, go back to the flat2. Check email. Check Twitter. Check chat. Blog. Die.

And in the background, relentlessly ticking down, is this thing.

Clock counting down the time until demo day.

The Clock of Doom

Today has been mental, but we do now have this guy on the team.

Our team mascot, Storm

Storm, the team mascot from todays activities

1 Yup, same team member that had the issue with the entry system…

2 I’m in two minds as to call the flat ‘home’, or Techstars ‘home’. I suspect it’ll end up being the latter.

Techstars: Prologue

I’ve done enough research over the past few weeks to know there is a metric crapton of information on what Techstars is. Illegitimate child of YCombinator, huge international tech accelerator. Blah. Blah. Blah.

And yet there’s very little information on what it actually is – as in what does it really mean to be going on a three month boot camp with some of the best startups in the world? There are a couple of very interesting blogs which help give an idea, but I’m really not sure what to expect. I guess we’ll find out…

So yeah, I joined a startup and in, what… less than five months(?!)1 I’ve managed to hitch a ride to Techstars. I do know one thing: it’s going to be mental!

Last week we mothballed the Norwich office, sent our kit down to our new office space and prepared to say goodbye to our families. For the next three to four months we’re going to be living and working (and working, and working) London.

So what do we know at the moment? Well going to London isn’t a huge issue – we’re living and working in my old stomping ground. I can get the “essential”3 parts of my life into a large suitcase, a gym bag and a rucksack (and I could have done away with the gym bag if I really had to) – really doesn’t seem enough. I know I’ve forgotten something, I just don’t know what yet. Oh, and explaining to a three year old that she won’t see me until next weekend isn’t easy4… especially since there are going to be much longer periods where she doesn’t see me.

Sad that I am to leave my family for so long I need to be pragmatic. I’ve done the Cromer-London weekend commute before and it’s punishing. Chuck in weekend engineering works, long work hours and the mountain of work that I know is coming my way and I can see me burnt out before Christmas – I am, after all, rapidly approaching 40.

So, next stop London5, although you’ll not see this post until a bit later as it’s all a bit hush hush at the moment. By that point I’ll already be in at the deep end 😉

My suitcase, bag and rucksack

Everything I need for three months… and some stuff I don’t. Doesn’t seem enough

1 Has it really been that long? Time really does fly when you’re having fun!

2 _Although spare a thought for poor Chris as he drew the short straw and is sharing an apartment with me. He’s going to need time away and therapy after 3 months of that 🙂

4 Not entirely sure it’s all essential. I’ve got gym kit, clubbing kit, about 100 glowsticks, a few kitchen gadgets, double the number of tshirts I can wear in a week and who knows what else in there. It’s scary how small you can pack your life down to if you need to.

4 “Daddy, it’s nap time, not work time. We say ‘goodnight’ not ‘goodbye’!”

5 Actually, technically, the next stop is Salhouse, I’m just not getting off there; I’ll be changing at Norwich – see what I mean about Chris getting the bum end of the deal?

A Troubling Trend

Yesterday I gave 4 lessons1 to 4 different year groups at my local secondary school. The lessons were on IT in general, and covered Ariane 501. Ariane 501 is a great case study for how a trivial oversight in software can cause a catastrophic failure, but it’s also quite a complex subject. You really need an appreciation of binary and integer overflows, and a familiarity with programming, especially Ada, helps. I usually do the talk for university students and above.

Given I had absolutely no expectation of secondary school kids knowing about integer overflows and Ada, or indeed any programming beyond Scratch and maybe Python, I took it back to basics and disguised learning about binary and bytes as ‘fun’ by wrapping it in rockets going boom. It seemed to work well.

I did, however, notice a troubling trend.

The year 72 group were hugely engaged, with the whole group (boys and girls) actively answering and asking questions. One girl even managed to work out what went wrong with Ariane 501 five minutes into that part of the talk. I was seriously impressed.

As you go up through the year groups the engagement reduced. This was expected; as the kids get older they get more self conscious – and this doesn’t stop at childhood, we adults are just as guilty. What wasn’t expected was the difference in engagement between the girls and the boys.

With year 7 the split was almost equal, 50/50 girls and boys answering, and asking the questions. By year 103 I’d guess only 10% of the hands were girls. And yet they knew the answers. One girl, who had been separated from the group for being disruptive at the beginning of the class, was whispering the answers to herself, and was getting them all right.

It saddens me to think that in 4 years a 7 year old, who practically left me speechless with her powers of observation and deduction will, for some unfathomable reason, likely also be whispering the answers before giving up on tech for good.

1 I’ve been giving a lot of talks of late which is part of the reason I’ve not been blogging so much. My usual blogging time has been taken over by me trying to get all my prep done in time.

2 Aged 11-12

3 Aged 14-15