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 SixThirty.co, 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.

Life in the Edinburgh Tech Cube

The company I work for is fortunate enough to have offices in the Edinburgh TechCube, a technology and startup accelerator/incubator/hub that opened in January of this year.  I thought I’d show people what life is like working from the “World Class Startup Space” that we have here in Scotland.  The mission of the TechCube is to be a magnet for the area’s technology companies and technologists, help get startups up and running, see them fail or succeed, rinse, and repeat.

The City

For those who have never been, Edinburgh is a breathtaking city, one of the most beautiful in the world.  The entire downtown is a UNESCO world heritage site due to the incredible architecture (dating from as early as medieval times) that surrounds the iconic Edinburgh castle which is perched atop a dormant volcano.  Known for its festivals and culture, it has the highest resident satisfaction of any city surveyed (by MORI), more restaurants per head of population of any UK city, and a temperate climate that has the same annual rainfall of New York City, Frankfurt, and Rome.  Its compact footprint is small enough to walk across, yet it has an excellent public transport system, a great airport, and convenient rail links to other UK cities. (Source)

The TechCube really benefits from being in such an inspiring and historic city that’s just a short flight from most of Europe.  Just a couple blocks away is the campus of the University of Edinburgh and its excellent Computer Sciences and Informatics department which provides a steady supply of top graduates each year.  There’s a lively tech community that has monthly meetups focused on a variety of technical subjects and several annual conferences that attract technologists from around the world.  I can’t think of a better place to live or start up a business.

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The Building and Location

The TechCube began life as the Royal Dick College of Veterinary Medicine, and was constructed sometime in the 60s.  It’s an incredibly ugly building from the outside, but the key to ugly buildings (if they must exist) is to make sure that you’re on the inside looking out.  We have offices on the 1st (2nd floor for Americans) and 4th floors which means we have spectacular views of the Pentlands to the South, Arthur’s Seat to the Northwest, and the Meadows to the East.  It’s an amazing sight to see the Scottish weather rolling in from a distance, experience the rain or snow that it brings, then have a crystal clear view of the sun as it breaks through, all within a couple of hours.

View of Arthur's Seat from the TechCube
View of Arthur’s Seat from the TechCube

The Techcube is just a few steps from the University of Edinburgh, is located on several bus lines, and within walking distance of most of the city centre, the Waverly train station, and airport shuttle.  There are also several excellent cafes, sandwich shops, pubs, and eateries within just a few minutes walk of the building.

The Team

How many times have you been happy with the landlord of your office? It’s rare enough that it warrants mentioning  that one of the things that sets the Techcube apart from other office buildings you might consider is the team that manages the facility.  Composed of managing director Jamie Coleman and his intrepid team, they make being a tenant here completely hassle free, really fun, and they’re very aggressive about consistently improving the facilities and public profile of the building.  Running a startup can be quite an emotional roller coaster, particularly for early stage, pre-revenue startups that need an environment like the TechCube to get launched from, and my guess is the cheerful words and laughter upon entry and exit of the building from the front desk staff are a special kind of therapy to many founders within the building.  It’s really hard to overstate how great the crew behind the TechCube is.

The Resources and Facilities

While the building may be ugly, the facilities available are top notch.  The entire building was renovated from top to bottom and each floor includes ample meeting room space as well as a kitchen.  Access to each floor (as well as 24 hour access) is controlled by RFID proximity cards that make the environment informal yet much more secure than your typical office space.  High ceilings and the freedom to paint and decorate as desired is another major plus.  While the windows look small from the outside, they provide plenty of light, and all outlets and ethernet ports (of which each room has dozens) are located at desk height.  Thanks to a generous donation from Skyscanner, there are free, high quality desks available to tenants to save on office costs.  Offices are well lit, well heated, and quiet (you can’t hear other tenants).  The offices available range from the very small (2 man teams) to very large with space for 20+ bodies.  Electricity is included in your monthly rent and internet is priced at a flat rate per head.  Leases are available for periods as short as 6 months, and all leases allow a break with 2 month notice.

administrate-techcube

Pricing for office space depends on the stage your company is at, with price hikes occurring at important financial milestones such as break-even and profitability.  The goal that later stage companies eventually find space elsewhere to make way for newcomers.

The TechCube is part of the larger Summerhall complex that caters to the arts and creative community in Edinburgh and enjoys the benefits of several shared facilities:

  • The Summerhall Cafe serves coffees, sandwiches, snacks, and provides a great “offsite but not” meeting location.  There’s an outdoor deck for seating during the summer.
  • The Royal Dick brewery and pub is located across the way and serves their onsite-brewed Ale along with other bites to eat, and makes a nice place to have a meeting as well.
  • Summerhall boasts some extremely unique meeting rooms that can be rented as required for larger or more formal functions.
  • There is a theatre in the basement of the TechCube for presentations to audiences up to roughly 150.
  • The ground floor of the TechCube includes a just-completed hot-desking environment which can double as a meet up space or be used for hackathons/special events that require desk and network connectivity.
  • There’s a massive boardroom/meeting room still under construction also on the ground floor.

Another resource that’s connected to the building is a pool of early stage funding currently being raised by the building to have for those companies that meet their (yet unannounced) criteria.  Expect this to be broadly patterned after well known incubators like YCombinator or Techstars.

The Neighbours

While the building is still very new, it’s already almost filled with technology companies that range from product companies to consultancies, pre-revenue to post break-even, funded, bootstrapped, and everything else you’d expect from assembling a wide range of tech companies.  There are still two floors to be renovated, and as companies succeed and fail, I’d expect the range of companies to always be in flux.  There are plenty of opportunities to bump into others in the halls, and everyone operates an open door policy for visitors.

The Intangibles

Most accelerates/incubators/hubs really sell themselves on the intangible benefits they provide such as proximity to other likeminded companies, access to the broader technical community, ongoing events, and the possibility of funding.  TechCube is no exception as all of these things are squarely on its radar and if not already available, are in the planning stages.  Already I’ve been to a few meetups and events held in the TechCube that I normally might not attend as we can just walk down after work, and that is a huge benefit.  Even if you’re like me and a bit skeptical of how much an incubator like the TechCube really matters, right now there are more than enough tangible benefits to make the building a no brainer decision, even if the planned items never materialise.

The Bottom Line

Great people, great culture, a great location, great resources, and a cadre of peers who are all at different stages in the startup journey conspire to create a place that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Whisky Web Day One Recap

Today myself and one of my coworkers attended the WhiskyWeb conference here in Edinburgh, Scotland.  This conference is in its first year, organised by a very small team, and was setup and organised from the ashes of a failed conference in just three months.  Located in the lovely Hub Conference Center (a converted cathedral) on the Royal Mile just steps from the Edinburgh Castle, it’s in a great location for those who have never been to Scotland before.  Most of the hundred or so attendees I met seemed to be from other countries and were really enjoying the city.

The conference technically started last night with a Pub Crawl that started at the bottom of the Royal Mile and worked its way up a series of pubs.  This was pretty well attended and all the speakers were in the crowd so it was a nice way to get introduced prior to the event.

Today the two tracks of talks were help in adjacent halls.  The ending keynote speaker even had a helium remote controlled shark swimming the air above the audience’s heads.  I’ve included some pictures.

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Josh Holmes (@joshholmes) on Failure 

The opening keynote focused on failure, how to learn from it, and why it’s a good thing.  Josh is an American living in Dublin and we got to swap stories about motorcycles and Guiness and life without a car the night before.  I even got drafted to taking pictures of him with his own camera.  A nice short, inspiring, and positive talk to kick things off that was probably pretty foreign for most of the UK attendees.

Some of his main points:

  • You will fail.  It’s unavoidable.
  • A famous quote by former IBM CEO who had an employee make a 600k (in 1950s dollars) mistake.  Instead of firing him, he responded that he “Just spent 600k training him”.
  • Talked about a personal failure on a technical choice: SOAP vs. Remoting
  • “Losers always lose” – don’t give up and become a loser!
  • When times get tough, that’s the time to press on
  • Failure is always an option, so respect that.
  • Fail fast is a good concept, but doesn’t give you leave to be stupid (referencing a recent Michael Church blog post)
  • How to integrate failure into your life in a positive way:
    • TDD – fail before writing your code
    • Business Development – fail before writing your app or starting your company by doing research on your concept or idea.

A good way to start things off.

Rowan Merewood (@rowan_m) –  Estimation: “How to Dig Your Own Grave”

Next up was a talk on estimation and some common pitfalls.

Some Classic Estimation Mistakes

  • Sales creating estimates
  • One guy creating estimates
  • Creating estimates from detailed task lists
    • you know it will change
    • gives misplaced confidence
    • encourages micro management
  • Estimating a day as 8 hours

Moving on he talked about some strategies to get around some of these areas.  First he talked about how hours are too granular and suggested using half days as an example – “from the start of the day could you finish by lunchtime?” which can bring more clarity.

As a project’s length scales out, scale up the increments to 1, 3, 5, 7 days.  Anything over this and you’re not estimating anymore.  In response to the tendency of Agile folks not wanting to estimate or developers thinking estimates are useles: fine, stop calling yourself an engineer!

The last bit of the talk was spent talking about some conceptual models used to communicate estimation processes and risks to clients which were pretty interesting:

  • Good, Cheap, Fast – choose two
  • Triangle with points of Scope, Cost, Time – as you vary them, you vary the area which is the quality of the project
  • the MoSCoW model
  • the Kano model
    • Basic features don’t deliver high customer satisfaction
    • As performance improves, customer satisfaction goes up in a linear scale
    • “Exciter Features” generate a bigger satisfaction the more of them are added

Sebastian Marek (@proofek) – Ten Commandments for a Software Engineer

It took something like 15 minutes to get the powerpoint working on this talk, so I was annoyed before the talk even started, but Sebastian pulled it out and gave a great talk on software engineering principles important to him.

  1. Don’t disrupt legacy systems – extract, blackbox, hide behind an interface.
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  3. Commit often and make sure your messages are informative.
  4. Document early when the problem and your mind is still fresh.
  5. Don’t fear Q/A – use automated, unit, and functional tests along with a CI server
  6. Design for simplicitly.
  7. Don’t kill maintainability.
  8. Don’t repeat yourself – use copy/paste detection and other tools.
  9. Speak up early and often.
  10. Recognise and retain your top talent.

Brian Suda (@briansuda) on Data Visualisation

This was a very interesting (although I’m not sure how practical) talk that was a bit out of the norm for a technical conference.  Brian lived in the UK for awhile and is currently living in Iceland, authored a book on data visualisation, and spends his time seeing how we can help visualise various data sources.  His very graphically intense presentation was a very refreshing look at some unusual or creative ways to get data in front of users in more practical and memorable ways.

A few points:

  • 3D Charts are not advisable (proportion, view obscure)
  • Pay attention to your “data to ink ratio” (tufte, 1983)
  • reduce visualisation as much as possible e.g. simpler is better, remove unnecessary clutter
  • 2 schools of thought (simple, tufte and nigel holms more complex)
  • He showed several examples of PHP generated SVG visualisations which were really interesting, these are located here: github.com/briansuda

John Mertic (@mertic) – Lessons Learned from Testing Legacy Code

John is a member of the SugarCRM project, and described coming on board a few years ago when Sugar had zero unit tests and zero functional tests.  They’ve spent quite a bit of time changing this, and he discussed some tools to assist on finding bad code.

  • phpcpd – copy/paste detection
  • phpmd  – code quality report
  • phpdcd – dead code detection

He also made great points on the following items:

  • Don’t be surprised when you see crap
  • Better to focus on functional tests first
  • Build a culture of testing
  • Use CI or else tests are useless

Whisky Web Day Two

Tomorrow is a Hackathon located on the exact opposite end of the Royal Mile.  I probably won’t attend but all in all for £50, this conference was a bargain.