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Becoming a junior rails developer

So I looked for a tech cofounder and infact found almost three. Then a friend who was a developer said they would be happy to “play” and see what comes of it, if we paired (pair programming) as it would be fun, and if he was going to use his non-work time he wanted it to be fun. I agreed this was a better approach, building alone is hard (Thanks Phil)

A bit of context

My father was a computer engineer i.e. he fixed mainframes for Digital, DEC and than Apple II upwards.  My first computer i.e. my dads was Sinclair ZX81 it had 1k of memory and used a tape cassette for storage. I learnt BASIC.  My second computer (this time mine!) was a BBC Micro 32k of RAM. My first serious application was again written in a different form of BASIC and allowed you to paint and draw. My childhood was very unstable and I went to a number of foster homes and many schools (I was little too curious). Anyways eventually I got to college (16 yrs old) and did a (BTEC) Diploma in Computer Science.  

It felt too easy for me and I was more curious about humans so dropped the course (even though I was one of the top performers) and took a bunch of A Levels in Psychology, Sociology, Communications and Human Biology.  At this point I learnt , I was a really bad at written english (it took several years before I found out I was dyslexic). I dropped the courses and went to Northern Ireland for a year or so.  I came back and tried again in one year intensive courses. Someone close to me died and I screwed up my exams.

I got enough to get into the Higher National Diploma for Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.  In the first year I was in the top 10% of my class and got moved up to a Degree program and graduated in 1996. And than than did not code again until 2013.

Becoming a coder, again..

Phil’ comment set me off in a two year journey to become a developer. I took two evening classes a week (about 20 hours a week) and over two years worked seven days a week. In all I did 13 courses (including HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AJAX, XML, SQL, MySQL, PHP, JAVA and System Design).  I started with an intense HTML course and worked my way through the whole stack from front end to back end.

[update] in hindsight these courses gave me confidence, but did not relate to the reality of what it is like to be a developer in a full-time job.

a few of my coding books

a few of my coding books

Rails..

I wanted to learn Ruby and Rails, all along because  I want to build prototypes for my startup (Professional You). Yet there were no local courses. I prefer learning with others, its good to have a peer group. So in Jan 2013, I booked myself on RailsConf 2013 and gave myself a deadline to read and complete Learn Web Development with Rails prior to the conference. I was introduced to a start-up (Thanks Jessie) and started working with them two days a week as a junior rails dev.  I learned a couple things about myself,  I was not good at asking questions from the lead software developer as I was worried about taking them away from their tasks (as they were under a lot of pressure from their boss) and we worked remotely, which is not ideal for a junior. I also found testing before coding was very difficult, in part because thought I needed to know rails better first.  Additional good Rails book that helped in my journey were  Rails 4 in action  Rails Anti patternsPeepcodes Videos on RSpec and rails casts.  railscast are brilliant for an immediate problem to solve but is very out of date, Code School as a selection of rails videos as does GoRails. That said I do not find that anything I learn online or via video sticks, I seem to forget it quickly..

If I was to do it again:

  1. Learn Web Development with Rails there is just no better
  2. Build several Web Apps for yourself e.g. store all your boardgames/books, role up characters for RPG, whatever feeds into your hobbies and use rails casts to add features
  3. Read Rails Anti patterns

Ruby

It becomes clear that Rails does so much and its BIG, but the better your Ruby knowledge, the easier working with Rails, no shit. There are times you have to build your own model without Active Record and connect to APIs.  Everything becomes a little easier, your code gets tighter.

I tried the Well Grounded Rubyist book, whilst I understood all the concepts it was too much without having not built Ruby Apps first. Most of the online Ruby course were interesting such as Code Academy, but they failed to stick in my head, one exception was a course on Lynda called Ruby Essentials, which frankly was brilliant (Teaches the basics and the gets you to apply them in a Ruby App). After that I tried the Ruby Koans. The hard part about coding is trying to remember it all, understanding I think is easy but holding it all in your head is hard.  One senior developer said to me you do not need to remember everything just remember you can, then Google it. The more times you use it the easier it will be to remember. His other tip was to store all of his projects on Google Drive, so he could use it has augmented memory.

Training that actual gets you to build an application, I found to be more useful and gave me extra value, rather then little bits of code. Looking at how other developers tackle the same problem is also incredibly useful.  Peepcode did a bunch of Play by Play videos, which taught me a lot about how they solved the problem and I also learnt how to use different tools.

The other thing you should do is work out how to connect to your local community:

  1. Ruby Rogues podcast is awesome and their discussion site is worth the $10 per year
  2. Find the local Ruby meetup group
  3. Find a peer/mentor who will review your non work code

If I was to start again:

  1. The best beginner book for Ruby was The Book of Ruby: A Hands-On Guide for the Adventurous
  2. Add RubyTapas videocasts
  3. Then follow up with the Well Grounded Rubyist book
  4. Read Metaprogramming Ruby 2

Learning about software engineering/development..

There are a bunch of tools and “behaviours” (ways of working) that you have to learn, some of this comes from you just coding, but some you need to spend a bit of time working on i.e. Git (or other version control)

  • BASH – Re-learning Unix i.e. Terminal on the Mac, SSH
  • Text Editors – Trying out different text editors, BBEDIT, RubyMine, Sublime and finally Atom
  • Version Control – Getting comfortable with version handling i.e Git, how to use GitHub, decided to use command line to embed it in my head
  • Package Management – so home-brew is better than Mac Ports
  • Debugging – Where to find the bugs for debugging, using irb, rails console, understanding the logs and the stack trace
  • Object Orientation learn and understand all the meta language. I have yet to find a good book on this.
  • Data Structures – I am comfortable with, but I have yet to find a good learning option for this
  • Algorithms – The best option I found was Grokking Algorithms
  • Where to find the information that will help i.e. online manual, google, stack overflow, google groups
  • How to tackle the actual problem, when to step away and take a moment
  • Where to ask a senior and not annoy them (still working on this one)

Ready?

You are never ready, its just a matter of choosing the time, finding the courage to be vulnerable and going for it.

Its seems surprising that some of the best times in my life are when its has gone so wrong, you really discover the other people around you in that moment the good and bad.  You could wait to be that perfection and never make a move. I knew that two days a week of coding after working the other five was tiring me out, but I also knew I liked to code, I love problem solving.  That said I had yet to build my GitHub profile, most of my work was private, most of my student work was very specific, so not a complete web application but do this on this page. Whatever, It was time to go full-time. Lets see what happens..

Advertising myself..

The best way to get what you want is to simply ask

Just before christmas 2013, I sent out an email to the Ruby meetup group in Vancouver, BC. The discussion space often has recruiters looking for rails developers, why not flip this and advertise me!  I did not expect much of a response..

—–

Subject: Looking for a Junior Ruby on Rails job

Hello 🙂

I hope you are having a great day and not too bored..

I have computer science degree and most of an MBA. I have played and succeeded in many other careers like communications and being a politician. And I have learnt that I love to create. So I went back to school (BCIT) to refresh my computer skills and learn web applications, after two years I have done a bunch of evening courses with an average grade of 93%. For the last 6 months I have being learning/coding Rails/Ruby on my weekends for a local startup. I have also attended a bunch of Rails/Ruby conferences in the US on my own dime.

Full-time I have being working for Apple as a Genius/IST Support. I know crazy right working 7 days a week for two years.. I am now looking for a full-time software development role with an emphasis on Rails.

You will find all the good stuff in my linkedin profile -> ca.linkedin.com/in/ericbrooke/

Continue having a great day 🙂

Eric
—-

In all I got 80 responses, over a four week period (40 within 48 hours). There were 42 real jobs going, 20 were long term contract, 8 short term contract. 10 were you are the first developer, no not good, go employ a intermediate or senior developer! Leaving me with just 17 companies to talk to, after researching each of the companies, I spoke/emailed to them and then did 14 actual interviews. After which I cut it down to five after second interviews I cut it down to two..

Finding the right team to join..

You are the apprentice and you are looking for master/mentor/teacher/coach/facilitor not a boss, not the brilliant programmer whose ego is big enough for you both.

A couple principles for me:

  1. Those that asked for me to do code test prior to having a first human to human conversation, I did not continue.. I am not your code bitch.. or your slave, talk to the human in me first
  2. How much they truly bothered to explain who they are as a company and their intended culture, mattered to me.
  3. You need patient senior developers who are willing to coach and that their bosses will give them the time/leeway to coach
  4. That you will learn a lot from developers who have different styles and roots, prefer different languages and frameworks
  5. I need to grow and learn fast, how are you going to help me get to intermediate?
  6. Seniors that have being teachers or parents tend to be better at explanation. Just a theory at the moment.

Interview

I want to work with awesome people.

Be they smart, emotional intelligent, creative or just different. The most laughter at work I have had are with teams of such diversity, with so many forms of intelligence, not just the academic kind. I am going to be spend a lot of time together, consider it a road trip, we will get angry, sad and laugh together. The culture, the people that I work with is important to us all. For these people I will have lasting loyalty, forgive and move on, push the boundaries to ensure there is a future and learn every fricking thing I need to learn, take time out of the rest of my life to make my colleagues life easier. So if you send me a coding test before, we know, we like each you can frankly go @@@@ yourself.

A good interview is a collaboration of us exploring each other.

[updated] Questions to ask –

  1. Have you ever had any juniors before?
  2. How do you review code?
  3. What is your test Coverage? What are you not testing?
  4. Do you have Introspectives? What do you do to help developers learn?
  5. Do you use pull requests?How do you use them?
  6. Do you state why the code is wrong in the pull requests?
  7. How will help me growth fast, so I am no longer a junior?
  8. Is there flexibility on which projects/teams I work?

Technical tests

Understanding your capability is hard and is often judged on so many irrelevant things

There are few jobs where you are ask prove you can actually do the job before you actually do it. Some tech interviews felt like you were expected to put out on the first date.

The best I had were conversations and tested practical experience, not theoretical mathematics. The actually best asked we to describe what I know and then sat me down at a computer asked me my favourite coding tool loaded up an example application. They asked where would I find a routes file, explain these routes, where do they take me, asked me to follow the whole path what was load etc. After if I want to add this to the app what would you do? “feel free you access the internet”, explain what you are thinking? The sneaking bastards even had a couple “bad” things in the code to see if I would notice. So I did not mention them until I was about to leave 😉 That was my first job offer

The worst started with theoretic problems to write pseudo code on the board… Funnily enough they started questioning my pseudo code. Some people see an interview as a way to prove their intellect not understand yours.. Have you forget who is interviewing here, you, er no both of us.

For people who did their computer science degree a long time ago or learnt on your own path; I recommend this book Think like a Programmer by V. Anton Spraul.  The most stupid, abstract, non-relevant questions I have every being asked in any interview were all in technical interviews. And folks I was an elected politician.

Testing the “interviewers”

I have learnt more from people, when I have failed or needed help.

So every job interview I find something to fail at and see how the interviewer copes. I will also ask my interviewers how they will cope with my failure and how they cope with theirs.  I will always ask at the end of the interview what do you like and not like about me.  I learn so much from their response.

The type of organization to work for..

If I am going to work on something, I need to care..

Go for an one domain company, startup or for an agency style..

Domain companies tend to give you a position and you have to earn your right to grow, the structure tends to be more rigid, yep be a junior for three years. You get small parts of a big cog. But you would learn about scale to a higher degree. And maybe they may have systems/coaching/mentors/learning plans in place to accelerate growth of juniors. That would make sense would it not?! not one on my list.

Startup, happy to take the risk but you have to love it and I did not love any of the startup offers. Also they tend to lack the numbers of senior developers you can learn from.

I went agency i.e. build prototypes, because I wanted to work on a lot of different products in different domains, I felt I would learn more faster, and so far that is true comparing my growth to my friends. With prototypes you have to do the beginning a lot and then you finish, and then you do it again, there is opportunities to grow in each project.

The job I took

It felt like a conversation between curious people.

It started on the phone, progressed to face 2 face and then there was a take-home coding test. They were good questions that I had to think about. The whole process felt open, unstressful, they trusted me and I trusted them.

I asked my boss what does he look for?

“People with a wide life experience who can clearly show they can learn”

So far it is pretty awesome I get to work with three seniors who have different approaches and the diversity is already teaching me a lot.

Updated

So after two and half months I got laid off.  They removed the Junior developer position (it affected two positions), and I was the least experienced, through out the company).  Two weeks later 11 more people got laid off, then another bunch a couple weeks later.

It was also reminder whilst you can test the people you get to work with.  But their bosses can(may have to) change their mind (and in fairness it may be outside of their control).  So in future I will look at the leadership and their track records.

I would still make the same choices, and worked there.  I learned an incredible amount and worked on 4 projects.

All of that said, I ended up in another startup mybesthelper where my first job was to get our tests over 85% and upgrade their Web App to Rails 4.1, fun 🙂

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Good blogs to read for tech startups

I was recently asked what are the sites or the blogs you keep up to date with. I will not add the solely programming sites I follow.  Happy to take other recommendations to add to the list 🙂

First without a doubt subscribe to the Startup Digest

http://startupdigest.com

hacker news is very popular but it is a fire hose of information – http://news.ycombinator.com

Personal Blogs

Dave Mcclure

The street fighters of startups. Connected with 500.

http://500hats.com

Brad Feld

This guy is doing a lot to help us understand startups and the communities they need to exist. His blog is more personal , you feel like you know part of him and his journey. Connected with TechStars.

http://www.feld.com/wp/

Fred Wilson

A man with a lot of wisdom. He has built up an impressive community in which he engages. Connected with AVC.

http://www.avc.com/

Steve Blank

Occasionally has some really interesting posts

http://steveblank.com

Eric Reis

This used to be a really good site but now just feels like a marketing machine

http://www.startuplessonslearned.com

Knowledge Sites

InfoQ – I love InfoQ they have great videos, great tips on how to handle specific technical issues http://www.infoq.com

Smashing magazine – For design it is the king of the hill – http://www.smashingmagazine.com

Mozilla Developer Network – My favourite reference site for web stuff https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/

W3Tech – Which technologies are in favour – http://w3techs.com

Ted.com – just in case you do not know – do not just watch the videos you thinking might be interesting, find ones that may challenge or add another perspective to your life.. http://www.ted.com

DZone – The odd good technical article – http://agile.dzone.com

News Sites

TechVibes – Great for Canadian startup news – http://www.techvibes.com/global

GeekWire – http://www.geekwire.com

Tech Crunch I used to read this but its re-design actually offends me – http://techcrunch.com

Community, Incubators and alike

Startup Weekend

Awesome fun for your weekend and a great way to find people you want to work with.

http://startupweekend.org

500 startups

The place for the scrappy startup

http://500.co

Techstars

The professional startup educators. Check out their online TV series “The Founders”

http://www.techstars.com

Y Combinator

For the elite and the top of the class

http://ycombinator.com

GrowLab

Accelerator based near the best boarding and skiing on the planet

http://www.growlab.ca

Angel List

For the startups look for funding

https://angel.co/home

Business Model Innovation Hub

Formed out of the Business Model Generation Book

http://businessmodelhub.com

Others

37 Signals

Signal vs. Noise – a company blog, which occasionally has really interesting articles.

http://37signals.com/svn

what if

Great nerd site – ANSWERING YOUR HYPOTHETICAL QUESTIONS WITH PHYSICS, EVERY TUESDAY.

http://what-if.xkcd.com

Who did I miss?

You see the format tell me who I should add, thanks 🙂

Choosing a name for your startup

Through my marketing career I have helped companies name themselves and their products.  Each journey is unique, sometimes it is quick and sometimes not, it should not be rushed. More recently I have helped out a couple tech startups, think this through. Here are my insights from the perspective of a startup or small business. I will assume you do not have a large advertising budget to educate your consumers or users.

The strongest names tend to be:

  • Unique
  • Easy to say(pronounce) and easy to write(spell)
  • Easy to understand
  • They tend to reflect Values or Benefits of the product not features, not sure of what FBV are? Look here
  • Have emotion as they describe inherit values
  • They may use words, with inherent trust in them, or coming a mythology already in place
  • They may be counter-culture, to rest of their sector
  • At least one noun
Bad names:
  • incorrect spelling
  • acronyms
  • boring
  • based on the latest trend
  • swear words
  • when using two words or more there is an inequality in the power of the words
  • adverbs

Things that do not matter:

Too many companies choose names based on what is available on the web.  URL vs Google search – in my humble opinion people rarely type in the URL bar, but instead will type the company name straight into their search engine (Google, Bing or Yahoo).

Corporate or product naming

Corporate branding – about the values, behaviours and thus culture of your organization.  So that you can attract the right talent to your organization.  In Simon Sineks’ book Start with the Why – people don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it

Product branding – All about your customers and their needs/desires.

An example from a startup weekend (54 hours – No talk, all action):

We wanted to build a tele-presence (e.g. you could control it from a web browser) robot (on wheels, inductive charging and video camera) that people were comfortable with having in their home, it would either check to see if their pet was ok, used to communicate with tech-phobic granny or sweep the house to see if all was good.  We felt the biggest market was to look after or checkin on either pets or grannies, our price point was $300. Women cared most. So I went to a dog park to see if small dog owners in apartment block inner cities would be interested.  There were more women the first morning, all small dogs, about half could not get home to check their pet at lunchtime and would then rush home after work.  They said “I would love to check-in with Frankly, he is so cute”. The term check-in appeared a lot in conversation.  However they did not like the idea of a robot, it felt too un-organic, but one suggestion was “well if it looked like a bear that would be cool.  So I started asking what animals people liked.. They seemed to reflect the movies of the time so, chicken, panda, penguin and monkeys.. so it made sense to call it ANIMAL + CHECKIN.  So I tried Chicken Checkin – people reacted with a surprise and then a smile (That is good). This played well with the audience would buy it for their grandmother as well (the grand daughters using their own or mothers money for their grand mother). I then used animal names people wanted most on the higher price scale, aspiration and all that. Chicken checkin as the cheapest base model, Chatty Panda for the good model (two way video conferencing) and periscope penguin (extendable neck – kitchen counter).

One other thing I knew the leading competitors at the start-up weekend – one was being led by a local Venture capitalist on home security – so i was guessing they would be going for rational proposition, a touch of fear (of home invasion), republican and money.  Another competitor was being led by a local Angel – another way to give money to homeless people, so very emotional, democrat, and fair.  In terms of name and brand I was looking for humour, clarity, independent, emotional but tying into common sense.  Essentially I was ensuring we would portray something very different in the pitch, not just in product but in style. It worked to a degree we won best presentation.

You can read the start weekend post here.

The importance of emotion

Every word comes with a meaning to a person, it may even not be about the word but the letters used.  They may not or love the name simply because of their history. People always come with baggage.

Literal versus abstract names – its on a scale

Personally I believe the more literal the name, the less education(marketing) will be needed for people to place you. And it is important(why psychology and memory) for people to be able to place/position you if you want mass market rather than just visionary buyers.

Comparisons

How would you choose a child’s name? Why do certain names mean more than others? We have a surprisingly amount of prejudices/emotion based on human names, often based on the first person we met with that name

Process

If you are finding difficult here is a process that may help you discover the name. This journey may help you explore more than just your name but your whole business. Its important to keep it separate from the design process.

Stage One: Research

  • Know your shit – the business, the sector, the competition
  • Know your values – a process in its self, which should really involve others
  • Research your stakeholders – Porters five forces (Customers, Suppliers, Competition, New Entrants, Substitutes)
  • Choose a perspective (Who are the first set of customers you want onboard, who will champion your cause – what is their psychological makeup? What words do they like and use)
  • Your name is not alone – Type, colours, logo – will add clues to what you are about and can dramatically change the way words are perceived.

Stage Two: Get past the NOW

Sometimes people are so fixed about their idea, filter and prejudices that they cannot see clearly.  As the startup journey is very often emotional, it can cloud us from ration thought, which can be helpful.  That said a good name depends on having a strong emotional connection.

First Impressions

Get your team together and put the following questions on flip chart paper – give everyone post-it notes and a felt tip (it limiteds the number of words used) and describe:

Q1 – What do you(the organsation) do?

Q2 – How does your consumer/user benefit?

Q3 – What do you change in your consumer?

Q4 – Why are you unique? This one tends to get more bullshit answers than the others, be honest.

Q5 – What are your values and how does this reflect in behaviours and product/services? (If you are seeking actual behaviours then your values are not a reality, yet..) You should know this BEFORE you consider your name.

Everyone gets to put up there own views, no filtering or founder bullying.  Each idea should be discussed (people can keep adding) and grown. Brainstorming – not sure how? Have a look here.

Stage Three: Record the journey

Reserve a lot of wall space..

The Wall of Names – somewhere there should a wall of ideas, post-it notes with names, all are valid ideas. Each person would try to grow each idea, or help it down the evolutionary ladder. The more people you allow into the process the more ideas you will get.  This wall is not limited to words , pictures, sketches and photos are equally good.

The Wall of Customers (for product name) – the same as above but describes the customers you want. Their personalities, their drivers, fashion, music, everything

The Wall of Talent (for corporate name) – What are the types of people you want to attract? We all want smart people to work for us. But what kind of smartness? At a small business level your talent will be limited by the personality of the founder/leader. The unaware founder will want lots of people like them, but with different capabilities. The smart founder will be looking for different types of personalities as building a team is often about weaving, very different people together (as they all have different perspectives and will be able to see different problems and solutions).

Stage Four: Step out of your space

A fair degree of innovation comes from looking at other people doing other things, in other places and seeking what we can learn from them.  In part this happens so often that Michael Porter had two elements (Threat of New Entrants and Threat of Substitutes) in his Porters Five forces model to account for people who can come from another sector and replace what you are doing e.g. Apple taking over music and in part mobile.

Look at other organizations in other sectors (not your own) – which organization would you want to be from any sector profit, non-profit or governmental.  You are looking for the organizations that you admire and would like to emulate in some way.  For each organization breakdown why you like them, into values, people, products/services, get a little deep here, you are trying to truly see past the marketing/propaganda to see how they are connecting with you.

Unique possibilities

After you have reviewed the organizations consider what does not occur in your sector that already exists in another.

Stage Five: Deciding

Choosing a name is not an easy process.  Some people start with code names e.g. Project ALPHA, so they can just label it. Labelling is important for most humans.  If you are on a timescale I would suggest taking everyone out of work to start the above process, allow for no distractions, if possible get an independent to help facilitate the session.  They will concentrate on getting the best out of people in terms of ideas.  What ever you do always sleep on it.  The brain generally does some amazing stuff whilst you are asleep.

Names are like falling in love, you know it.  This can take time. Everyone will feel it.  That said even after choosing you may have doubts, thats ok.

The advocate – you will need at least one person to love the idea and explore its possibilities. Without a true advocate you do not have a good name.

Good places to think about it – Road Trip (with the team, not alone) you are together but in the real world with different stimulations, walk around a shopping mall, go to a conference about something you know nothing about, read an autobiography of someone with a completely different life to you. Lack of sleep can help 🙂 Expose yourself to different forms of stimulation.

Good books

These books are not directly related, but each has taught me something with naming:

Sticky Wisdom – Understanding and growing creative cultures

Eating the Big Fish – About branding when you are the punk on the block

How to have Kick-Ass Ideas – Shake it up

Visual Meetings

Logo Design love

If you want to deeper into branding here are a couple other reccomendations

Designing Brand Identity 

Brand Sense

Brand Portfolio Strategy

I welcome your thoughts and experiences.  Where did your names come from?  What are your favourite names?

A cold startup weekend in Seattle – The rise of the designer

After Vancouver Startup weekend, I pretty much decided to head to the next Seattle event.  Mujtaba Badat @MujtabaBadat (he presented Duke Nuke – one of the winners) and I became friends after the Vancouver event and so drove down to event from Vancouver together.  The Seattle event was themed the “Rise of the Designers”  on January 13 – 15th 2012.

Bootcamp (Thursday night)

I loved the idea of the bootcamp, but we could not get down on thursday night.  In the last event I helped out with business model, marketing, wire framer and social media setup. This weekend I wanted to help out with front end web dev. The bootcamp offered the following:

    1. Get your computer configured with all the tools needed to work collaboratively with your future team members.
    2. Setup and configure a GitHub account with a skeleton project including:
    3. App Engine – web framework with simple user accounts, database, and hosting.
    4. Bootstrap – HTML design toolkit
    5. jQuery – client side Javascript framework
    6. Backbone.js – Rich application HTML5 framework

FRIDAY EVENING

Entering into the venue there was real energy, most people were up and talking to each other.  There was the fresh smell of pizza, beer and excitement, it was infectious.

Networking

I met as many people as I could without being rude.  Sometimes I forget that I have a British accent and I find that americans tend to listen to my accent more than my words for at least the first sentence.

Speaker – Matt Shobe CEO Big Door (@shobe)

Here are some highlights I took from his presentation.

  1. Surpass fear (learn from everyone, the answer is yes to any reasonable request)
  2. Successful teams (speed of execution, empathy, transparency (Good honest arguments))
  3. Openness (No such thing as a private conversation with your customers, Admit your mistakes publicly)
  4. Personality (The spirit of the people who created the product, find opportunities to high-five your customers when they succeed)

Preamble

The event was hosted by John Morefield (@jamorefield) and Shane Reiser (@shanereiser). There were about 36 designers at the event and 20% returning from other startup weekends. Ideas

So one difference at this event from Vancouver was that you had to put your pitch online.  I liked this, as it made it easy to track which ideas you like. There was about 50 pitches. The ones that stuck with me include:

  • QR Codes for giving to homeless,
  • Robots – Here is Justin’s initial pitch
  • Writing community
  • A wish list of places you want to go
  • After party mobile app
  • make the most of an event
  • A mobile app to plan surprises for people
  • Bus route app
  • Web monitoring to provide affordable home security
  • Superheros mobile app where you could conquer real life locations

The ideas were presented and we than got a chance to meet the pitchers and discuss further. I was looking for an interesting idea, but also people who would be fun to work with.  I wanted to avoid people who came over as too serious or who appeared to need to control. I also wanted to avoid ideas that had being researched in great detail, as then focus tends to be narrowed and there is less clay to play with (although they are more likely to win).  I did not care about how good a presenter the idea pitcher was.  We were given three votes.  After the vote 15 ideas remained.  Each pitcher got 60 seconds to tell us who they were looking for.

Deciding who to join?

  1. QR Codes for homeless donations I really liked and they had a decent sized team.
  2. Robots: the pitcher (Justin Wu) I had met during networking and I loved his energy but he had only two others on board, one tech and one interior designer.
  3. The Surprises App had a really big team, maybe too big.
Here is Justin’s initial pitch:

The Team In the end I decided Robotic team, as they had no business person (yes I wanted to code, next time), I had never worked on a physical product before and I knew I would enjoy working with Justin (he has sooo much of energy, and surprisingly he works at Microsoft!). We moved quickly to find the best location, a window for light, a white board and near where the food would be setup.. The team consisted of Justin @jzwoo (Microsoft engineer) – standing at the back, Guru (Microsoft engineer) sitting down on the left , Elijah (Interior Designer) hiding at the back on the left  and me (the nutter in red). Justin basically wanted to find a business model excuse for playing with robots!  We brainstormed use cases, the strongest seemed to be:

  • Checking in on elderly parents
  • Playing with your pet at lunchtime
  • Security for second home owners or people who travel a lot

Getting to know Robots

Justin talked about the capabilities and what we would have to build ourselves.  From this we felt that an Open source robot operating system, with a modular chassis into which you could plug and play extra hardware and sensors. The intention was to allow the shell to be different shapes and materials. We also considered giving 1% of profits to WWF and modelling our robots on endangered species Making money with a consciousWe live on one planet when it’s done it’s done. So we considered what could we do sustainably. 100% Organic Polymers seemed easy enough. We debated the concept of Cradle to Cradle – essentially we take back your dead robot to recycle and reuse.

We broke up for the night and I started playing with some ideas for names, concentrating on the product rather than the company.

SATURDAY

Up early with the Dogs

In the morning I went to the nearest dog park to gut-check some early name and price points with the locals and to see if I could learn anything to help us. I learned that the most receptive target market was young, professional woman, who live in small apartments (especially tower blocks) and whose commute to work was at least 25 minutes.  The price point seemed to be under $300  I tested a number of names and found that animal concepts worked well, but that most women did not like made up names.  The name “Chicken Checkin” brought a number of smiles to people’s faces.  Pushing a bit further, most of the people I spoke to had grandmothers who they all felt guilty about not interacting with enough and that about 50% did not live anywhere near them,

Name

I sold the “Chicken Checkin” idea to Justin and the rest of the team as they came in, and updated them on what I’d learned. Justin worked on giving an us a set of robot feature set that would cost under $300. This was a product name only, the company name would be Life Style Robots.

Drafting the Business model

Version One Life Style Robots

I found some research conducted in Japan that showed elderly people preferred robots to look like robots or animals but not humans (maybe they watched Battlestar Galactica). Also women tend to care more for aesthetics of a device (and this was rise of designer weekend). So I played with some concepts and trialled them out on random women in coffee shops and fellow weekenders. I worked on animals that had fat bellys so to be able to accommodate the chassis.

  • Chicken checkin – to be our cheapest option under $300
  • Chatty Panada – Use an iTouch equip device and allow for two-way video and be under $600
  • Periscope Penguin – To be able to see above a kitchen counter to be under $700
  • Reaching orang-utan – with long arms

Mentors

So during saturday several mentors came over to ask what we were up to.  After describing our idea they would give their perspective. Early on some of the advice was tough to listen to as it was extremely critical.  Each of them had some really different styles.  The style that really worked was those mentors who owned their perspective and gave what they saw as our weaknesses with ideas about how we could overcome them. At some point on saturday we had two mentors come and give their perspective, both were pretty aggressive with their opinions.  Some of their advices was not helpful as they wanted a lot and we just did not have the resources (people to carry them out). We as a team felt really deflated.  Justin had being to a couple of events and he said he called this “Mentor Whip Lash” and his perspective was to take the good advice and follow our instincts.  Labelling it seemed to help. For the mentors that came after this, whilst we listened, and I wrote copious notes and then we also chose what to ignore and what to take on. NOTE – this is not say that the advice that was given was wrong, in some cases we needed to process it, others we wanted this to be our path, and not the mentor’s. That said mentors sometimes need to tell us the uncomfortable things.

Social Media

Facebook page is the easiest, least resource intensive way of getting a presence on the internet.  That said, you need 25 likes of your page before you can own the URL for the page. So my poor Facebook friends got spammed.. I asked some of the other teams to help out too. www.facebook.com/chickencheckin/

Mock design

Elijah (our interior designer) took the Chicken concept to heart and started to mould a physical mock-up.. Of course we are building a physical product! Clearly the egg came first.. Software

Justin and Guru concentrated on the software: in our perfect world we want to show the robot being controlled by a web browser or via smart phone whilst video chatting.

Who should pitch

Sometime during the day Justin said that his head was going to be in making sure we could present the robot and asked if I could present the pitch. I nearly said no but he looked stressed when I started to, so I agreed.  We talked about how to divide the pitch, I would get two and half minutes (out of four) leaving the rest for the robot. At some point on sunday one of the mentors check us out and the presentation and told us that Justin should pitch as does not sound “above the audience”. Sidenote – Over the last couple years US TV and film has put a lot of English people into ‘evil’ character roles. I wonder sometimes if is becoming part of the american psyche to assume that we are.  (Mwa-Ha-Ha-Ha-Haaah!!) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2hmP8_mXUc&feature=related

UPDATES

During the day, teams stopped for 15 minutes to give each other updates with where they were, including accomplishments and problems.  Most teams stayed in the same space which kept the energy high.  I believe a couple of teams went to a VC’s office and another some other office space. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pH9Gx_IdLic&feature=related

Drafting the pitch

So as the cards fell out, I ended up  building the presentation deck as I was the only one comfortable with design and presentation software.  So I built out the skeleton of what we need to cover. My process is to put down everything, work out what is missing, fill it out and then replace all the words with images.

Drafting Business Model Version two

Website

Saturday night I worked on the website as I was the only one with any front end web skills.  I did not finish it for the weekend.  I was looking for a playful style, that showed a prototype mentality. Its in HTML 5, Css 3 and Javascript so it may not work on IE9

SUNDAY

Concept diagram & logo

Elijah built a couple of concept diagrams so you could see our device to scale and then he started on a logo. Building the pitch deck

I pitched a couple of times to mentors and strangers alike. I am an amateur designer and would loved to have a graphic designer on the team to help me build out the visual story.. We got some good news the pitch length was going to be five minutes.  Now we could really cover the business model.

Business Model version three

At some point we narrowed down our target market to provide senior citizens with life style robots and dropped home security and pet care. Whilst they were nice additions there was no way I could sell all three markets in three and a half minutes. Better to focus. Guru pulled a competition analysis together. Elijah helped me pull out some more figures together and Justin gave us the final breakdown of components and costs.

Research

During the day I kept researching to find some real nuggets of information and to be ready for the Q & A. I think this is where our team size hurt us as if we had another person we could have worked out all the figures we needed for a professional, investor pitch. I went to a couple of stores to find some senior women (over 65) or women in their fifties (their daughters) to talk about our Chicken checkin. I spoke to five woman in their fifties, three out of five liked the idea, but on two occasions they were with their daughters (grand daughters) who really liked the idea.  Again, three out of five (woman in their 50s) did not live anywhere near their mothers. I had a great conversation with one elderly lady who frankly I wanted to adopt as my grandma! She had a great sparkle in her eyes and was very cheeky. Practice, Practice, Practice

I found a quiet spot and practiced my pitch out loud and timed it.  I was coming in at three minutes forty. I showed it to a couple of others in another group and got feedback. Later, I joined the locals around pioneer square, talking out loud whilst wandering around. 😉  I even practiced my chicken noise with a homeless guy for a while. I got back to find the pitch length was back down to four minutes.. back to two and half minutes. I watched Mujtaba give his (it was very good for CloudSense) and I gave mine.  We gave each other honest feedback.

Err.. Snow in Seattle!

I love snow, trying to think about the project not skiing down a mountain 😉 Maybe we could put the robot on skis or a board and test it.. Pitch order and technical check in

About 4pm we chose our pitch position. Our team felt going near the end to help us buy more time to get the robot ready, so we might learn from the other pitches and be more likely to be remembered by the judges after 14 pitches (a lot to remember).  We ended up pitching last!

The other pitches It’s really hard to pay attention to all the other pitches, when you are waiting to do your own.  I think I watched nine:

  • Iron Curtain was polished, this was led by Seattle venture capitalist Greg Gottesman, who also pitched.
  • Street Code was powerful, this was pitched and led by one of the judges (Mike Koss who was replaced by Adam Philipp). They had two pitchers.
  • Suprize had a lot of bumps but was immensely funny (in a good way)
  • WhichBus was gorgeous
The Judges were well natured, yet asked some good questions.  Adam took on some of the aggressive business questions.

Our Pitch

I knew I had to bring the audience back to life after a long weekend and 13 other pitches and Q&A. I had to give them all the energy  I could muster (I was balancing my drinking of energy drinks with water), but being sensitive enough to feel what they wanted from me.  Our pitch can be seen (well just heard really) on Ustream http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/19798455 and starts at 45:20 it misses about 10 seconds but the sound quality is really good OR or you can see below on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2978E3H1cTU&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNNpuR7mBEw&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL It starts with Chicken Checkin Screen and ends with Demo Time.. Sorry cannot get the slide show to exclude the other images..

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I started the pitch with a Buuraaa ac (chicken noise).  A couple slides in I noticed a big spelling mistake in one of the slides (I changed the word right at the last moment).  I would have liked to allow some of the jokes to rest with the audience but I did not have time.  At the end of my section I asked the audience to cluck to encourage our chicken checkin robot to come out.  The audience was awesome! 🙂 I am pretty sure I even heard a judge cluck 🙂 I then handed off to Jason at 2 minutes 40ish, to demo the robot.  Of course there were a couple technical hitches but we showed it working.

The Q & A

The judges were speechless. “The obvious question is… I guess there isn’t an obvious question….”  was tweeted out referring to Scott Rutherfords’ reaction (one of the judges).  I got asked some good questions and I gave OK answers, but I should have practiced this more. There were questions about the serious uses of the robot, what market validation had we done, an offer for help and the cost margins.

F*ck, we won something..The judges awarded five companies and we won best presentation and came third, prizes for which included:

Iron Blanket (@Iron_Blanket)came out top with the best business model, followed by Street Code(@StreetQR_Code) with the best market Validation, followed by us (Chicken Checkin) for the best presentation, followed by Surprise with the best UX.  With honourable mention going to WhichBus for best design. More detail can be seen here on Geekwire.  For the other teams have a look here http://swsea.posterous.com/

Reflection:

We had to drive back to Vancouver, so we headed, straight after the event (with the snow we were not sure how icy the roads would be), so we missed the after party 😦 .  Mujtaba and I reflected on what we learned, how it was different from the Vancouver event, how are respective pitches went and what we would do differently next time.  It was at this point I noticed how HUNGRY I was, having not eaten since breakfast..  Junk food here I come..

1.  The size of teams

I think Iron Curtain had 14 bodies and Surprise was 13 bodies, having that many people really helps what you can deliver in a weekend. Clearly you need good leadership if your team is that big. At just 4 people we needed more people, but we did good.

2.  Graphic Designers and Artists are important 

We did not have a graphic designer, in fact 75% of team were engineers. Having that capability on your team will make such a difference in UX, branding and story telling. I need to find a way to recruit one next time.. Maybe show them a very badly drawn presentation that breaks ALL of the principles..  Just in case you want more proof, here are the sketches I did in my hostel for the pitch for the website (saturday night). 3.  Pre-weekend work

Both in Vancouver and Seattle it felt like, those that had some good pre-market research done before the weekend started. This gives a team a real edge, as it can be quiet difficult to do effective market research at the weekend.  Some people avoid their e-mail, some businesses are not even open, depending on the weather it maybe possible however to find people shopping, which gives the possibility of some direct marketing (face to face clipboard questioning).

4.  Accessible network

Having friends to help out to cover spots that your team is missing is really helpful, I saw this happen both in Vancouver and Seattle..  As well as having friends respond to your survey to get some serious validation. Maybe give some of your specialist friends a heads up and an offer for beer..

5.  Awards

Having the awards broken down into why they were in best was really good. However, there was a little confusion (and a lot of emails) as the judges did not state beyond best design, best UX, best presentation, best validation and best business model any order of winner(s). But this was cleared up after Geek Wire published an article declaring the winner – Iron Curtain (well done guys) and that the order reflected the position of the winners (reverse). We just have to work out how to reward developers with some credit now.

6. Pitching

I learned from my first startup weekend that you need to always focus on how, what you are doing is going to help the pitch. I think I took too long in letting go of parts of the pitch (e.g. the two other sectors – pet owners and house security), mentors certainly told me what to concentrate on, but on occasion I resisted (because targeting 50 year old women seemed a tough nut to crack and maybe not so fun).  I think my pitch was OK, but not brilliant.  Areas I could have strengthened it were in demonstrating the market validation and building out the finances. Maybe having that extra slide with component prices etc, ready for the Q&A.  And of course I should have practiced the Q&A with some of the team to be stronger on the answers. Don’t get me wrong I am extremely proud to be part of a team to win best presentation and win some prizes, I just want to learn and be better.

7. A place to reflect and share

As there was no online announcement, there was no place to see the final winners and prizes given. In additional people like myself write blogs, to reflect on the experience, process it and hopeful learn (and publicly show off our failures and successes).  It would be good to have a final page listing the winners, the final teams and who was in them (with contact details) and blog postings. On this occasion the GeekWire Article and the #swsea(twitter tag) became the informal places to carry on the conversation.

8. An idea? Angel List for Startup Weekends

It would be awesome if Startup Weekend started to keep an archive of all the startups, maybe even profiles for people who do it on a regular basis. Maybe even game it like foursquare? Maybe that could be my next pitch??

Other Perspectives:

After finishing this article I re-surfaced and found some other posts, have a look: Harmony Hasbrook  on the team “Hungry, Thirsty, Bored.” Dwight Battle on the surprise team. Paige Pauli on the WhichBus team. Katie Kuksenokon multiple teams.

[Update] Here is a promotional video looking at the Designer story.

BIG Thanks to:

A place to stay Not from Seattle I stayed in the Green Tortoise Hostel

The Venue – The Hub A great location, one BIG room. Thanks to Lynsdey  who was an awesome hostess.

The Startup Weekend Crew  Thanks to John, Sean and Ashley (@A6Hodgson) – You are a great waffle maker 🙂

The Food Was awesome, particular the Thai food on saturday night.

T-Shirts Thanks to Rohre from Five Bamboo for the T-shirts.

Extra Video Thanks @adamlovering for the extra video!

Why should I be your next CMO/VP Marketing

Dear CEO,

There are Marketers who are marketers… then there are Marketers that are techies, entrepreneurs, educators, leaders, community-builders… and marketers. I’m not your average Marketing VP: I’m a Marketing VP with benefits and I’d love to help you take your company to the next level.

To cover off on the traditional stuff first, I’ve chalked up about 19 years total in marketing, communications and campaigns. My experience in every sector from government and non-profit to private corporations, and in several markets, reflects a breadth that mirrors your client base. There are few-to-no delivery channels I have not explored, and I have a habit of driving organisations to get a ahead of the wave in using the latest and greatest, with social media no exception. I’ll leave my resume to provide the details of my engagements and achievements.

Now onto the bonus material…

You’ll find I have zero distance to travel when it comes to creating marketing strategy around a SaaS model. Spending the last two years creating a tech start-up has honed my product management, development and business model know-how to a fine point. In fact, technology is and was my first love: I have computer science degree, an IT consultancy to my name, led 110 people IT department and more recently refreshed my hands-on experience with a web dev qualification.

In addition, my career here in Canada began as VP Marketing for a Vancouver SaaS success story, Vision Critical, where I led a major re-branding initiative, a new website launch and contributed to sustained growth throughout the recession despite major marketing spend curtailments. Speaking of which, you can’t get away with working at a market research company without great data to inform and back-up your efforts: whilst there, I initiated the first customer satisfaction system. In all marketing I do, I expect to deliver ROI metrics.

I have a passion for people: I love them. I just can’t help it.

This has taken me down a number of roads, including serving, developing and communicating to communities (and the multiple groups, agencies, businesses and services therein) as a politician.  What this brings to my marketing (aside from experience of managing budgets of £71 million and approximately 400 staff) is getting the balance between a results-driven and value-driven approach. All great brands are built around emotions and values.

My bordering obsession with human psychology helps me to both understand client needs, both in product features, but also in terms of the complete customer experience and the messages they want to hear. It also makes me a great leader. I’m the guy that puts out a lot of positive energy and gets to know everyone. I also relish the opportunity to grow those around me: you’ll see that education and training forms a major theme throughout my career. Right now, I teach Marketing, Public Relations and Advertising part-time for BCIT.

CEO, I hope this provides a sense of what I can bring to the table. Successful marketing requires a great CEO – Marketing relationship, so I believe fit is as important as capability and I would love the opportunity to see if we get on. 🙂

Kind Regards

Eric Brooke

P.S. Here are a couple of opinions about me:

“Eric is a prolific thinker and one of the most well read individuals I know. While he is skilled in Marketing and Communications, he is a strategist at heart, looking for greenfield to take companies and pushing organizations to consider bold new directions. While visionary in his thinking, Eric is equally tactful in his negotiation. He is one of the few people I’ve met who can succinctly articulate and communicate multiple sides of an issue without offending anyone in the room. He knows when and how to move around roadblocks, invite debate, and get things done. Eric is someone who can really make a difference in organizations large or small if given the runway to do so.” Jason Smith, President, Vision Critical

“Eric Brooke is a professional, thoughtful, inventive and provocative marketer and communicator. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Eric on a number of projects, most recently and most deeply on a task force charged with rebranding Vision Critical and Angus Reid Strategies. In this role, Eric brought a tremendous amount of energy, branding experience and resourcefulness to the task. He did an excellent job balancing the need for being a team player with being willing to challenge conventional thinking and the status quo – a role we needed him to play.

In addition to understanding marketing, Eric also has a deep knowledge of communication, change management and organization development – in our case bringing a company brand/vision to life for staff and customers. This is something that sets him apart from those who have only had experience with traditional marketing and will be truly valued by those who require successful transformation.” Andrew Grenville, Chief Research Officer, Angus Reid Strategies