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program OriginStory;

10 Apr

Facts: In my youth, I assembled computers for fun and profit. I laboured over IO conflicts. I swore blue murder at corrupt DLLs. I taught myself HTML, CSS, BASIC, Visual Basic and Turbo Pascal. I owned a machine that booted into DOS; I upgraded that machine to Windows 3.1. I dallied with RedHat. I battled script kiddies as an ‘@’ on IRC. I slapped people around with a large trout. I read and memorized the words of The Mentor and the colours of the books.

Fact: I did not, at any point, consider becoming a developer of any persuasion. Alright, I did consider it. But I was less than enamored of having to take Mathematics/Further Mathematics/Physics in lieu of my preferred Literature/French/Economics combination. I had also, due to the way my (excellent, all-girl, somewhat myopic in their subject grouping) high school scheduled these classes, not been able to take technical drawing. 

And so it was I went along the path of humanities, with regular deviations to stay up all night when I broke all my domains at a stroke (there was a time, children, when you had to do manual upgrades/reinstalls of WordPress, and those things could go terribly, terribly wrong). And along the way I cultivated a well-developed reddit habit, and never quite got over my fondness for plain text files.

I didn’t study mathematics or computer science, and I could never dare to argue that my dilettantism with various languages, scripts and frameworks would ever qualify me as a developer.

But I am a problem-solver by nature and nurture, and I love technology. And I learn best by doing or teaching. And man, do I love challenges.

So today – partly on a whim, partly because I have for some weeks been surrounded by talented developers of all stripes and inclinations, and partly because I’ve been enchanted by the ethos & team behind Skillcrush – I decided to get my technowonk on and set up (yet another) blog.

The devil is in the details of the ‘setting up’ – SpintoApp, which launched into public beta today (and which I read about on Hacker News, as good international relations majors do) – requires a working knowledge of Git, a more than passing familiarity with the command line and a willingness to spend some time haunting Stack Overflow if you possess insufficient quantities of either. Oh, and a Markdown- compatible editor (I recommend ByWord).

These words might mean nothing to you, or you might be in stitches at the sheer n00bness of it all. Doesn’t matter. There is no One True Path. The tools and technology available today have made it cheaper, easier and more possible than even for ‘non-technical‘ people to learn and experiment. 

I don’t agree with the argument that “everyone should know how to code”, but I do feel very strongly that no one should feel too intimidated to learn. 


AARRR! Pirate metrics vs survey fatigue – what’s a business to do?

18 Mar

Pirate Metrics Cat

I spent much of the past three weeks trying to convince people – friends, random strangers, even people in LinkedIn Groups (I know, I know) – to fill in a survey about their news consumption habits. I cajoled. I implored. I offered dinner, drinks, lunch, babysitting. I received more than one “will I win the new iPad?” query.

And I felt utterly hypocritical throughout.

Because I loathe surveys. I despise forms. I’ve abandoned sign-up processes because the data requirements were too onerous. I angry-click closed those cheery pop-up boxes asking for my feedback. I deeply resent every time I get an email from an online retailer asking, “How did we do?” [In a not unrelated development, I tend to fill in surveys only when I am really, really pissed off about the quality of service received.]

A plague of surveys. An outbreak of requests for feedback.

But why? The NY Times offered the following explanation for the survey epidemic in a piece on March 16:

One reason is that software companies like SurveyGizmo and QuestionPro have made it possible for small companies to create customer surveys at a fraction of the cost of traditional surveys done by established research companies. Businesses of all sizes, desperate to lock in customer loyalty, see surveys as a window into the emotional world of their customers and a database that will offer guidance on how to please them.

I could blame Eric Ries and the rise of the “lean startup” philosophy, one of the central tenets of which is eschewing so-called vanity metrics (like page views and followers) in favour of actionable metrics. I could also blame Dave McClure, who in 2007 unleashed pirate metrics onto the world.

Here’s more from one of McClure’s blog posts in 2007:

The basic concept is based on 5 types of measurements of user behavior:

A: Acquisition – where / what channels do users come from?
A: Activation – what % have a “happy” initial experience?
R: Retention – do they come back & re-visit over time?
R: Referral – do they like it enough to tell their friends?
R: Revenue – can you monetize any of this behavior?
(… otherwise known as “AARRR!”, and thus the “Pirate” designation 😉

But I shall save the blame for one Frederick F. Reicheld and his 2003 Harvard Business Review article, “One Number You Need to Grow“.

Cue dramatic irony:

Dramatic Irony

Reicheld argued that a single survey question – “would you recommend this company to a friend?” – was a company’s best predictor of revenue growth. This so-called “net promoter score” has been embraced by corporate behemoths (including Apple) and lean startups alike.

The third R of McClure’s model – “referral” – is just net promoter score with an eyepatch and a peg-leg.

Cue relevant anecdotal evidence:

Grub Hub hopes I like them (I do)

Companies love this kind of data. But the consumers who provide it? Not so much.

Here’s the NY Times again:

Consumer patience may be fraying under the onslaught. The constant nagging has led to a condition known as survey fatigue and declining response rates over the last decade.

The NY Times said companies are throwing money at the problem:

On their register receipts, stores like Walmart, Petco and Rite Aid include a Web address and an invitation to fill out a survey, with the chance to win a prize. At Staples, the prize is a $5,000 store card.At Staples, the prize [for filling out a survey] is a $5,000 store card.

From AARRR to aargh.

Would You Recommend Us? – Businessweek, 2006
What’s Wrong With the Net Promoter Score – ClickZ, 2009
What Do Companies Like Amazon, Virgin America, Apple and Trader Joe’s Have in Common? – Daily Disruption
The Order of AARRR – Market By Numbers

Elsewhere on Ent!
qualitative feedback is most effective when it’s overwhelmingly negative.
in-home research visits are key to Facebook’s continued success.


“the single most important thing product owners can do to add value to their team, their product and…”

12 Mar

“the single most important thing product owners can do to add value to their team, their product and their company is a user test”

The Most Important Thing

Elsewhere on Ent!
Takeaways: Jason Schwartz’s ‘How Product is Built’ class at GA


Takeaways: ‘Managing Startup Teams: Building Culture’ with Anne Libby at GA

12 Mar

Class: Anne Libby of Anne Libby Management Consulting on “Managing Startup Teams: Building Culture”, via GA

Date: March 6 2012, 18:00 – 19:30

When it comes to building teams – especially when those teams consist of people in far-flung offices around the world – I’m yet to be persuaded that anything is more important than culture*.

And by culture I mean the shared stories, the common values, that explicitly articulated and implicitly understood characteristics that inspire people to rally around that cause, that product, that service. The why-you-want-to-work-here-when-X-would-pay-you-twice-as-much. The-this-is-why-I-get-up-in-at-dawn-on-a-day-when-I’m-not-even-supposed-to-be-in-because-the-team-needs-me-and-hey-they-didn’t-even-have-to-ask factor.

I’ve worked on two projects that I may claim to have helped build and shape; both of these projects had quite distinct cultures.

But what they had in common was excellence über Alles. And yes, that included being excellent to each other (or put another way, jerks need not apply).

Two of my favourite blogs both recently featured culture-as-it-relates-to-startups as a theme, and I thought I’d highlight them as the lesson is relevant to the takeaway from the General Assembly class (which was, not surprisingly, all about culture). Continue reading


Takeaways: Jason Schwartz’s ‘How Product is Built’ class at GA

11 Mar

Class: Jason Schwartz of Matchbook on “Introduction to Product Management: How Product is Built”, via GA

Date: March 5 2012, 20:00-21:30

[This session was the third in a series of four; I missed the first two due to travel and schedule madness, but I’m attending the fourth on March 19]

Jason Schwartz, a product manager/UX specialist and the founder of Matchbook (a location-based app), offered a high-level and useful overview of the science of product management. Some highlights from the class are below.

Continue reading


Takeaways: Alex Taub’s ‘Intro II Business Development & Partnership for Startups’ Skillshare class

4 Mar

Class: Alex Taub of Aviary on “Intro II Business Development”, via Skillshare at Aviary HQ

Date: February 29 2012, 20:00-21:45

If you comes from a traditional journalism background (caveat: I don’t), “business development” (BD) is a dirty word, right up there with “sales”.

And in fairness, if you come from a traditional journalism background, you’re unlikely ever to have to engage in either.

But for all those newsies making the leap from working in a newsroom to working for themselves – and yes, that includes freelancers – or in a startup environment, understanding business development (what it is, and why it’s important) is crucial.

Alex Taub, who leads business development and partnerships at Aviary, defined BD thus:

BD is about building and maintaining relationships, developing your company, and finding a point of transaction and turn them into repeat occurrences.

(For the difference(s) between BD and sales, see this post at false precision, this pithy explanation by Lincoln Murphy and this Q&A at Quora)

Continue reading


“programming is both incredibly simple and impossibly hard, like so many important things in life.”

28 Feb

“programming is both incredibly simple and impossibly hard, like so many important things in life.”

Red Sweater Blog – Learn To Code


Takeaways: GA’s ‘Making life easy with algorithms’ class

25 Feb

Class: General Assembly session on “Make Life Easy With Algorithms“, led by Adam Levine of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Date: February 22 2012, 20:00-21:00

This was my second class at GA (the first covered mobile strategy). This session, only an hour long, would best be described as “thinking about thinking about algorithms” – it was a high-level overview of the history of algorithms, what they are, their modern applications and a short “how-to” of writing them. Continue reading


“The coding of the frontend is one matter. The backend is another. Linking the APIs together. Then…”

21 Feb

“The coding of the frontend is one matter. The backend is another. Linking the APIs together. Then it’s buying a domain. Setting up the domain. Ftping the files in. Testing it out across all your web browsers and phones. Making sure all that stuff works. This is what making things for yourself and putting them live in the real world teaches you. It opens questions that you hopefully can answer but trying it out.”

.: sermad :. » Blog Archive » Learning to program isn’t the hard part

I always buy the domain first. Result: I have many, many domains.


“In the context of startups, project management tools will always suck”

19 Feb

On Friday 17 2012 the CUNY EJP12 cohort attended a session on product and project management hosted by Nancy Wang and Jeff Mignon of RevSquare.

Both Jeff and Nancy stressed the importance of having a clear project plan, of communicating effectively with your team (and especially your developers), and of prototyping (more on which in another post). And Jeff admitted to being something of a convert to the Project Management Way.

Back in the FT Tilt era, both Ranjan and I spent a lot (a lot!) of time “optimizing our process”. In the end (and indeed, toward the end) I settled on Trello as a way of keeping the globally dispersed editorial team briefed and engaged on where we were up to in terms of sales and development; our London-based developers used Redmine for bug ticketing; and Ranjan and I used a combination of email, Google Docs, Skype and shoulder-tapping/coffee meetings for everything else. I, of course, am a total iDoneThis evangelist, so I also used iDT to keep a running log of what we’d accomplished (or not, as it were).

But along the way we tried (and abandoned) Teambox and Basecamp, and I tested at least a half dozen other options. The issues were always the same: fiddly interfaces; too many emails and checkboxes and lists, not enough “doing”; team objections to yet-another-login/thing they have to use.

(For what it’s worth, I’m using Asana these days and quite like it)

Having been on both sides of project management – i.e. as the manager and the manage-ee, and sometimes both at the same time, I agree with the RevSquares that clear objectives and communication are essential.

But I also agree with the sentiment expressed by “Handsome Code” in a post about project management:

In the context of startups, project management tools will always suck. If you are using a PM tool then you are not designing, coding, or communicating with customers. You are not even communicating with your team. You are putting an abstraction layer between you and your team, effectively saying “I prefer to engage with this UI which makes me feel valuable and productive because I make lists and assign tasks” instead of actually engaging with the people building the product…Getting e-mails that say “UserName has assigned you task: XXXXXX” sucks.

The post also included some strong words about developers not being robots.

But not having any system at all – or heaven forfend, relying on email – is arguably the worst of all possible worlds.

Sure, getting notifications that you’ve been assigned X, Y or Z has never ranked high on Maslow’s hierarchy. But not shipping because no one has any sense of priority or ownership? Epic fail.