Monthly Archives: January 2015

Techstars: Day 57 (Strategy)

You’d think it would be easy to get the team together for an ‘all hands’ Rainbird meeting, but the rather hectic schedule of Techstars meant that our planned breakfast meeting tomorrow morning wasn’t going to happen. In fact the only time we had left this week where we were all free was tonight. This realisation was made at about 5:30pm.

30 minutes later and we were all ensconced in the ‘management suite’ solidifying our current thinking. Since the onslaught of conflicting advice that was Mentor Madness finished we’ve been a lot more focused in our thinking. It seems that thinking may have been a little off. This in itself isn’t an issue. Techstars isn’t about magically determining the correct strategy on day one, it’s about testing hypothesis and iterating. We had a hypothesis, we tested it, it didn’t quite hold up. So we’re modifying it, although not drastically.

I have to admit that this area isn’t my forte, so I’m happy to take more of a back seat and follow the lead of others who know more about it than I do. I am taking the opportunity to ask dumb questions and make notes though as it’s a fantastic learning experience.

In the mean time the rather abrupt and early end to the day at the office has meant some time to kick back a bit at the flat, something we’re taking advantage of.

Techstars: Day 56 (Noise and bouncing)

This weekend has been a bit of a play weekend for me. I staying in London, partly so I could get on with a few things I wanted to do, partly so I could catch up on my sleep and partly because I wanted to go out.

Kimono, one of the companies in this cohort, have given me access to their API so I spent Saturday writing a [NodeJS][node] client for it, before using that to throw together a chat bot loosely based on the classic IRC infobot. While a bit of a toy it does prove the client I wrote works and paves the way for other, more sensible things, like GitHub integration. The aim for us is to get a Rainbird client written for it.

During the evening I finally made it out to Slimelight, my favourite night club of all time. Age, family, and distance means that attending club nights are difficult when I’m at home. It takes up most of the weekend, it’s a long way, expensive and I never really get to catch up on the lost sleep. Being in London and on my own gets rid of some of those problems. Age is still a factor though, and I had to bail at 4:30am, but not before spending 4 hours on the dance floor having a whale of a time.

Today has been spent doing quite a large rewrite of the Rainbird Neo4j wrapper which we use with the new core of Rainbird. I’ve added a whole bunch of new features which need to be tested before I can release it but I’m pretty proud of the result. A nap also featured thanks to the time I got in this morning.

Add to that two awesome home made dinners tonight and last night and it’s shaped up to be not a bad weekend, all things considered. I miss my wife and Willow like crazy, but they’ll be down here on Friday. Given the speed at which the weeks are passing at now, that will be in no time at all.

Techstars: Day 54 (Haircut One Hundred)

It’s amazing what 8+ hours sleep and a new day can do. My feet still hurt, but that’s getting better, and I woke up in a much more positive frame of mind. There’s also the fact that Friday/Saturday/Sunday are not crazy days. I left the office about 6:15 today, got a haircut, went shopping, forgot the limes I needed for dinner, and got home for just past 7.

Given the lack of limes the light snack I was going to prepare for dinner isn’t going to happen and I can’t be bothered to go back out. Instead I’ll watch a film, eat some nibbles, edit some stuff I need to write and get another early night. It’s practically a day off!

Tomorrow I plan to mess about with the API for Kimono, one of the other Techstars companies, and produce a chat bot. The ultimate plan is to then get it hooked up to the Rainbird API and do something funky via IM, which could be cool.

Techstars: Day 53 (Not playing any more)

So a huge part of writing this blog was about documenting the authentic Techstars experience – which is a lofty goal, and one I failed at Day 3. There’s a reason for this.

Despite not bothering a huge amount about ‘Corporate Image’ this is a public facing blog, and I know how the internet works. You can’t unsay things. So, some stuff needs to be toned down, or omitted entirely. Actually, a lot of stuff needs to be toned down or omitted entirely. There isn’t even a subtext in my day 3 post of the issue that cropped up then.

Then there is the fact I’m trying to keep this PG13. OK, so some things lack the forcefulness that a good sprinkling of expletives brings, but again, public facing and on the internet – so we avoid going there.

In some respect’s it’s tad annoying that I can’t be completely open here. I’d have loved to have the ’warts and all’ version to look back on. Realistically there isn’t enough time to do that as well as this blog, plus a lot of the issues probably looked a lot larger at the time than they really were. Perhaps it’s a good thing it’s only the edited version that exists.

Anyway, with that in mind, if you take something like my Day 17 post you can kind of work out that, although the highs can be very high, the lows can be very low indeed.

In fact the analogy I used in that post is a good one. Yesterday was a high. This morning, mainly due to being in quite a lot of pain thanks to gout, I woke up early in a miserable mood. The timing couldn’t have been worse either as we had people visiting us, and Thursdays are the social day. Today would have been greatly improved without people. Any people.

So you can get a sense of what it’s like for me at the moment, imagine your feet in a vice, while at the same time bits of metal being shoved between each joint in your foot so it feels like nothing fits. It gets distracting, and it dampens your mood. It also makes walking problematic.

So come 8:30, or whenever it was, with all of us stood in a crowded pub about to start with the small talk I just decided I wasn’t playing any more. So I walked out and hobbled home.

That’s the public facing version. The reality involves a lot more swearing, or at least it does in my head.

Techstars: Day 52 (All green!)

Code coverage report showing 100% coverage

For the non-technical among you the above picture probably doesn’t mean much. The fact that the text is green and its got 100% dotted about the place probably indicates that it’s likely to be A Good Thing™, and it is.

This is the output from rainbird-yolanda[1], specifically the report telling me how much of the code I’ve spent the past few weeks writing is tested. The 100% means all of it is tested, which is nice.

This becomes important because Ben also hit a milestone today and we’re close to joining the logic he’s written to the infrastructure I’ve written. I may need to tweak a few thinks in order to get everything to fit, and when I do the tests will tell me if I’ve inadvertently broken anything. This gives us a high level of confidence and means we don’t run into unforeseen problems days down the line.

I may be 8 days behind where I wanted to be, but I’m pretty happy with what I’ve produced, and chuffed with the report output.

[1] Yolanda is what we’ve called the rewrite of the internals of Rainbird, because Prolog[2]

[2] ?- happy(yolanda). – it’s a geek thing, I wouldn’t worry about it.

Techstars: Day 51 (Mentor Sanity)

So after the insanity that was Mentor Madness we’ve had 80 potential mentors whittled down to just a handful. With the selection process done we can now sit down with these mentors and get beyond the 20 minute “hi, this is us and this is what we do” [1] and into more meaty discussions. Today Ben and I saw two of our mentors and went over a few subjects with them.

One of these was the small issue of the rather large rewrite of the core of Rainbird. There is always a temptation with things like this to keep adding new features and to make it absolutely perfect. I like to think we’re big enough and ugly enough to avoid this kind of problem, but it’s good to be explicitly reminded of it. Having to explain to a mentor why the delivery date has slipped again is a good way of keeping you honest.

[1] or, more accurately, ”hi, this is us and this is how we’re currently describing what it is we think we do”.

Techstars: Day 50 (Stuff has been achieved)

So after a week of farting about with the core of Rainbird I’ve finally got to a point where I’m happy with how it works and hangs together. The process hasn’t been futile, for starters I think we’ve drawn out better way of explaining some of the fundamentals of Knowledge Mapping. The code itself is also now much more elegant and robust.

That’s not to say what we’ve got is perfect – no code ever is. Ben and I remain convinced that there is an even more refined way of solving questions asked of Rainbird, but we lack the resource to have an R&D team go investigate the problem. That said, chasing ’perfect’ instead of accepting ’good enough’ is a great way to kill a startup. I’d wager that most companies barely have ’good enough’ so we’re off to a good start.

Of course, every silver lining has a cloud, and I’m still not where I wanted to be at the end of the Christmas break. Or, to put it another way, I’m 8 days behind. There’s still plenty of scope for that number to grow.

Techstars: Day 49 (Breaking point)

For those not paying attention (or for those who haven’t been reading the entire story) my family live in North Norfolk and consist of my heavily pregnant wife, 3 year old daughter, 3 mice and some fish. The journey home is 3.5 hours and entails about 30 minutes of walking and two trains. On a bad day it’s around 5 hours and involves busses as well. Today is a bad day.

Before going to Techstars I researched the hell out of it. One thing that is made abundantly clear is that if you have a family or partner, they are going to suffer. With that in mind I set expectations with my wife to be low. Very low. Like 5 minute video call once a day and back home every other weekend at best low. Unsurprisingly this caused an argument, but not a major one. I was the first to admit I was being horribly selfish, and the hoped for outcome benefits the entire family hugely. We both understand that.

So my heavily pregnant wife (due on the 18th of March) is effectively a single mum for 3 months with flying visits from me for 48 hours at a time every two weeks or so. Not insurmountable, many wives have endured that, but not exactly easy either. It seems this departure was the breaking point.

I don’t know if it’s the fact I’ve recently been home for 2 weeks, so she’s got used to me being home again, or if it’s the fact that I’m away for 4 weeks this time and we’re not seeing each other until my wife and daughter visit me in London in 2 weeks time, or if it’s the constant goodbye’s and the fleeting visits, or if it’s all of the above, but todays goodbye was tearful.

I now get to throw myself into work with no time to think about anything else. My wife has to keep the house and family together for my return. All I can say is that if your partner bears up as well as mine you’re onto a keeper there.

Techstars: Day 47 (Making progress)

Week 7 draws to a close with my code being no further along, in terms of functionality, than it was when I started. In terms of how it’s structured and what it can support, however, it’s progressed in leaps and bounds. I’m now at a stage where I no longer feel like I’m faking it when it comes to the core of Rainbird. I know how it works, how it thinks and I know what we can make it do – both what it’s currently capable of, and what we could do with more people, money and time.

Now you may ask why a CTO has only just got to this point, but you’ve got to understand that we’re taking something that’s been over a decade in the making, written in a language I barely understand by someone who has a huge amount of knowledge in the problem domain. It’s not just a question of joining a startup, getting the code handed over to you and then getting up to speed with NodeJS. That was the easy bit. We completed that by about week 1. The rest was learning all the disparate fields and disciplines needed to understand how everything works. And even that I’ve only done to a basic level. I could spend years learning the idiosyncrasies.

If Rainbird were easy to create everyone would be doing it. Building this type of tech well is hard; it’s why, historically, it’s been so expensive to do. It’s why we fervently believe that Rainbird will succeed. Companies can use Rainbird to avoid precisely what I’ve been through in order to help write it, and what’s really cool is we’re now starting to see companies do exactly that.

Techstars: Day 46 (The brutal truth)

It’s Thursday, so All Hands day. Turns out yesterday was the half way mark, so it’s the downhill run now until demo day. All Hands will now be dedicated towards rehearsing and polishing our presentations. Hopefully we’ll continue to have the founder stories afterwards as I find these to be really useful.

The founder stories can be very open and honest, so I’m not going to mention names for tonight’s session or recount any of the amusing stories that were told. The talk was a hysterical look at how you can royally cock things up with team and culture without even realising you’re doing it. At points it could nearly be entitled ”how to kill a startup”.

Given most people hear ‘startup’ and think the multi-billion dollar success stories it can be easy to forget that for every Facebook there are hundreds, if not thousands of companies that have failed for some reason. Creating a startup is hard and hearing others say ”you know what, we found it really hard too, but we’re doing OK now” reminds you that you’re not alone – everyone finds it hard because it is hard.