FrontEndConf 2013 Recap

We knew we were heading for Switzerland before we even got to Zurich, as already FrontEndConf 2013 was organised better than pretty much every event I’ve ever been to.  Just in case we forgot, within moments of landing we were met by a conference representative and whisked to the ticket kiosk, then directed to the correct train.

“Cool, how long until the train comes?” I asked.  Glancing up at the iconic Swiss railway clock (sporting an analog face) our guide answered, “In exactly 7 minutes.”  And so it was.


FrontEndConf 2013 for me was a great experience, both as a speaker and being able to attend and listen to some of the talks.  I really enjoyed meeting with several of the other speakers as well during the fantastic speaker’s dinner at breakfast at the hotel, and at the conference party.  In addition to some great talks about usability, there were demos of new UX products like the Occulus VR headset and Google Glass.

Although it was the first time giving my talk “How to build the perfect product your users want, but can’t describe”, I was pretty happy with how it turned out.

You can watch it online here (includes slides).

And here are the slides:

Recap of the 2013 Turing Festival

The signet library venue for the Turing FestivalThis weekend was the third annual Turing Festival here in Edinburgh.  I was delighted to have been asked by TechCube MD and Turing Festival founder Jamie Coleman to speak Friday morning.  Due to the fantastic lineup of speakers covering a variety of items, the fact that this event was local, and the tight connection with the TechCube, we ended up taking three Administratives along as well.  All of us enjoyed the experience, the sessions, and a day away from the office to learn, talk, reflect, and listen.

If you’re located in Scotland, I think the Turing Festival needs to be firmly placed within your “Don’t Miss” category of events.  It’s time intensive and expensive to bring visiting speakers like the last three keynotes –  Neal Stephenson, Steve Wozniak, and Richard M. Stallman, but these are individuals that our local community should hear from and be inspired by.  Here are some thoughts from some of the sessions I attended during the festival.

Bill Aulet from MIT
Bill Aulet spent his time addressing the question of whether Entrepreneurship can be taught.  He had just finished a book on the subject which outlines a roadmap for entrepreneurs to follow, and he’d partnered with local startup Stipso to put forth a living info graphic that deals with some of the questions his book addresses.  I thought his points on how education has difficulty engaging with the subject of entrepreneurship due to a lack of datasets was interesting, and he mentioned how easy it is to provide fake or misleading guidance on this subject.  I thought it was an interesting start, if a bit long.  Check out his book here.

Jim McKelvey from Square
Two of the best soundbites from the festival were from Square’s Jim McKelvey, who mentioned that the industry they were trying to disrupt (payments) is “fundamentally corrupt.”  Transparency, according to Jim, is a fundamental ingredient to their success.  He also talked about how much of what Square has achieved came because they were in the right place at the right time, both of which are necessary to achieve huge success.  In addition to being a cofounder of Square, he’s an accomplished glassblower, and board member of the financially focused startup accelerator, located in St. Louis.  Who knew that St. Louis is the second largest financial centre in the USA?  Jim seemed like the kind of guy I’d really enjoy bantering back and forth with – he was opinionated and generated controversy, which is needed at events like this.  He was great to chat with over drinks one night too!

Mike Hearn of Bitcoin/Google
One of the talks I enjoyed the most was from Mike Hearn, of Bitcoin, who clumsily shouted that “HE WAS NOT REPRESENTING GOOGLE” in response to a question from the audience.  Still, he spent most of his time talking about a future 50 years from now that involves digital cash without middle men, and a trade net that’s leveraged by autonomous, self-owning agents who respond to bids for materials and services on both the internet, and the “matternet.”  The latter just seemed to be an attempt to make quadcopters sound cool.  Humans, he contended, will be around for their ingenuity and creativity, which we’ll always have in abundance compared to computers.  The irony of announcing the ultimate invincibility of the Turing Test while speaking at the Turing Festival seemed to be lost.  This talk was enjoyable as it firmly fixated on the future, painting broad yet tangible themes that were all theoretically possible today.

Brian Doll from Github
I really enjoyed the talk about how Github markets and has grown over the years as part of the Growth Hacking session.  Github saw most of its success from focusing on its voice.  Marketing according to Github is the culture transference, and this is how they continue to engage their customers.  In first year of their existence, while building their product, three engineers managed to push out 280 blog posts that were true to their culture.  Their famous “drinkup” strategy is an outgrowth of attending meetups and finding that the chat in the pub afterwards was more valuable then then presentations, thus they sponsor more than 200 drinkups around the world every year, including the after-party drinks at the TechCube as part of the conference!  Focus on your culture, focus on tribes, tell stories, and develop a voice was the mantra of this session and I thought it was great.

Old College venue at the Turing Festival
“Living Infographics” from Stipso
Stephen Drost launched into his discussion of the evolution of infographics with a short history lesson.  The origins of the fundamental charting methods used in infographics today come from the Scottish inventor of statistical graphs (bar chart, line graph, pie chart, and circle graph), William Playfair.  Florence Nightingale, in addition to being the founder of modern nursing was also a highly accomplished statistician whose early info graphics (which look like something you’d see today) were instrumental in proving that soldiers died more from disease than from battle.  Essentially, info graphics have been unchanged for hundreds of year, until now with Stipso.  They’re a combination content and listening tool (notably, Brian Doll from Github mentioned that there were plenty of great content tools out there, but zero great listening tools).  I’m a huge fan of how Stipso is positioning their product, how it can be used to both project and listen, and think it could be a fantastic tool for those looking to make their infographics a continuously fresh asset, rather than something that’s created and dies after a week or two.  As part of their talk they demonstrated one of their living infographics in conjunction with Bill Aulet’s book, which you can check out here.

My Session on Starting Up in American and Scotland
If you wanted to distill my talk down it would be: “The grass is always greener. Make sure you’re shipping something.

One thing I’ve noticed is that entrepreneurs across Europe tend to fixate on comparing their local market to Silicon Valley, while ignoring their own advantages.  I firmly believe that Scotland is an amazing place to build an incredible company.  While some changes in approach may be necessary (forget building a B2C business here, unless you can demonstrate significant traction), there are plenty of advantages.

A point that I forgot to mention is last year while I was in the audience at the Turing Festival, a panelist based from Edinburgh emphatically said, “Make sure you focus on a small market that doesn’t matter, otherwise, the Americans will find your company, come into your market, and destroy you.”  I’m not sure I’ll ever forget that moment, and it goes into the category of statements that I wholeheartedly disagree with.  With the talent, cost structure, tax advantages, and access to capital we have here in Scotland, we should be able to take on and compete with any company anywhere.

The Venue and Surrounding Events
The Turing Festival was held in three gorgeous venues in the heart of the Old Town of Edinburgh.  Truly some of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever been in.  Some liked the multiple venue approach, some wished for less walking, but I thought it was a nice approach to get people out and integrated into the city.  Lunch was provided in addition to free drinks (thanks Github!) at the great After Party and like many quality conferences, the people who you got to meet and talk with were really great.  I would have liked a bit more attention paid to following the schedule and a few more breaks between talks, but overall it was a great couple of days.

Don’t Miss the Turing Festival


One of the highlights of last year was the Turing Festival, held in Edinburgh during August.  It’s a fantastic event with really great speakers, and it takes place against a backdrop provided by the incredible festivals that all converge on the city.

This year’s program is incredible, featuring speakers from around the world, and the Turing Festival boasts a larger focus on startups, in part due to its close affiliation with the Edinburgh TechCube.  I’m really excited to have been asked to participate on a panel discussing Startups and Entrepreneurship.  Tickets are still available and this is the only tech conference I’m aware of held in the midst of festivals devoted to comedy, books, arts, music, and theater.

An Evening with the United Kingdom’s CTO

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending an event that included a short speech by the UK Government CTO.  I didn’t really know what to expect, and like most who attended, I wasn’t even really sure what a government CTO is supposed to do.  It was being held at the TechCube and as the topic was related to government procurement of small business services, I thought it might be worth an evening to attend and see if we could drum up any business.


Just prior to the session I was intrigued to learn that this was the team behind Gov.UK, which is a highly regarded foray into centralising, opening, and publicising government processes and guidelines via open APIs.

The talk opened in very English fashion, as quite a bit was made of the universities (Oxford) that the CTO and his companion had attended, and I felt cynicism brewing.  What followed was an almost surreal experience.  Liam Maxwell spoke for roughly thirty minutes on what his goals were for the UK government from a technology perspective, which distilled to:

  • Cut wasteful government procurement processes and government IT spending
  • Commit to sourcing at least 25% of government spending from Small to Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) provides APIs and other data for transparency and consumption. provides APIs and other data for transparency and consumption.

Maxwell shared a fact which I found to be utterly staggering: in 2010 the UK government spent 1% of the entire country’s GDP on IT.  Much of this could be categorised as waste.  As an American, government waste isn’t surprising, but the scale of it can be unbelievable in the literal sense when presented with facts like these.  Liam had dozens of anecdotes which he casually referred to throughout the presentation:

  • UK Government data centers are currently utilised at 7% efficiency.
  • After a presentation from Amazon Web Services CTO Werner Vogels discuss the power of cloud based architectures employed at the world’s largest cloud service provider, Maxwell overheard a departing departmental government CIO remark, “We should build one of those!”
  • During an apples to apples comparison of services, a government contract was orders of magnitude more expensive than the same contract from the open market.

Maxwell and his team, who are very new in their roles, are aggressively combatting waste and wasteful procurement processes in four ways:

  • on online government store which is easy to sign up for and which provides market rate services to government entities: the GCloud
  • an anonymous “Bad Request for Proposal” reporting website where ridiculous government RFPs can be brought to light, and shut down.
  • a review board of seven people that must review and approve all government IT projects above a certain level
  • making sure that SMEs are allowed and encouraged to bid for government work

While the presentation was interesting, the ensuing question and answer session, to put it bluntly, blew my mind.  Maxwell answered questions in a blunt, often humorous way.  Stupid questions were rejected and his answers explained why the question was lacking.  He was self deprecating, sharp, and utterly committed to making sure his vision was communicated to the entire room which numbered about 75 attendees.  He relentlessly talked about culture change, asked for direct feedback, took notes of ideas proffered by the audience, and asked some to stay behind for more information.

During the Q&A session, I figured out why the experience felt so strange – Liam Maxwell was solving problems with an openness and bluntness that was commonplace in a well functioning, healthy business.  Or maybe more accurately, a startup.  Not government.  Were there cameras or recording devices?  He didn’t care.  Was he being political?  Only in that he was fulfilling his mission.  He was spending time soliciting opinions from companies across the UK, and he was pitching his idea just like we would to investors.  It was like I was watching a living episode of the West Wing where all of a sudden Hollywood transforms government staffers into extremely competent, hardworking, humorous, and admirable people who work as a team to battle against their problems.

As a UK taxpayer, (even if I am an American!), I was so impressed by Maxwell and my only thought is I hope he lasts.  Administrate is currently signing up for the GCloud if only to support the idea that small companies can sell to government.  I truly hope the Government Digital Services team continues their approach and manages to change the culture over their tenure.