AppDynamics CEO: Don’t call my $2B company a unicorn (podcast)


This week’s guest is David Wadhwani, the (relatively) new CEO of AppDynamics. My interview with him is in this week’s podcast.

David Wadhwani

Above: David Wadhwani

Image Credit: AppDynamics

Wadhwani joined AppDynamics as its CEO and president in late 2015, after a storied career at Adobe. AppDynamics, which provides application monitoring services for developers and enterprises, recently raised $150 million in a round that reportedly valued the company at close to $2 billion. Note: Wadhwani wouldn’t confirm the valuation and didn’t want to talk about it too much, which is not surprising, given how much downward pressure unicorn valuations have come under lately. Still, he gets some points for foresight and prudence: I recorded the conversation with him in December, well before this month’s valuation and stock market downdraft.

I talked with Wadhwani about the investment climate, application performance monitoring in general, DevOps, and about how he helped Adobe manage its transition from packaged software to cloud services.

Plus, Jordan Novet and I tell you what to think about:

  • the possible bursting of the “unicorn” bubble in 2016
  • Apple abandoning its iAd platform
  • Google’s AMP platform for faster mobile pages, and
  • Jordan Novet’s home-built Oculus Rift-compatible PC.

You can listen to this episode in the embedded player below:

Or, click here to get the MP3 of this episode of What to Think.

You can also listen to this episode of What to Think on SoundCloud.

And please subscribe to What to Think in iTunes, where you’ll get every episode delivered to the device of your choice as soon as it’s released!

AppDynamics CEO: Don’t call my $2B company a unicorn (podcast)

Dylan’s Desk: At CES, the ridiculous never goes out of style

Segway robot at CES 2016

A lot of us sort of expected CES 2016 to reveal a new, more practical side to the consumer electronics industry.

Guess again. Despite a looming global economic slowdown, the devaluation of tech-company unicorns, and the fact that everybody already has as many smartphones, tablets, and wrist gadgets as they need, CES continued to show us the same cavalcade of craziness and excess that it always has. Smartphone-connected kegel exercisers? A Wi-Fi-enabled Febreze scent dispenser? Modular TV screens? Yeah, baby.

Some of it was even kind of cool.

Facebook’s Oculus division finally announced the price and shipping date for its VR headset, the Oculus Rift. Despite being almost twice as expensive as expected, at $600, eager consumers snapped up all the available preorders almost instantly. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey went onto Reddit to humbly beg forgiveness for understating the price last year, when he led everyone to believe that it would be about $350. Even at $600, it’s still worth it, Luckey said: “I will use whatever credibility I have left to assure you that you are getting a pretty crazy deal.” The Oculus is what most observers regard as the most promising VR headset, and with Facebook’s reach and marketing muscle behind it, we’re sure to hear a lot more about this in the coming year.

Segway announced a combination hoverboard/personal robot, and somehow managed to not get laughed out of Las Vegas. It’s a smallish, self-balancing two-wheeled contraption that rolls around on its own, with a cute little face and optional arms, so it can take photos, carry your stuff, or maybe even act as a tiny personal teleconference robot. When you’re ready to head home, you literally squeeze the robot’s face between your legs and off you scoot.

And several old brands embraced decidedly retro products, in hopes of eking out a few more moments of relevance, perhaps. The most ambitious: Kodak (which went bankrupt a few years back) has re-emerged, teamed up with famed industrial designer Yves Behar, and is planning a revival of the Super 8 camera that launched a thousand film careers. The new Super 8 will shoot movies on film, just like the old one, but will also have some unspecified digital capabilities. We don’t know much, except that it will take film cartridges ($50-$70 each) and will also have a USB port and a slot for an SD card. You may chuckle, you may lust for it, but either way, one thing is certain: Kodak lined up a truly impressive array of Hollywood directors for its press release, with quotes from Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, and a host of others.

This is all in striking contrast to the realities of the marketplace. As VentureBeat learned earlier this week in a conversation with Accenture, the consumer technology market is in a serious global slowdown. Consumers have reached a saturation point — first noticed a year or two ago when tablet sales started tapering off — and are less likely to buy the latest shiny new thing until it’s demonstrably useful and necessary. (Hello, Apple Watch.) Many gadget categories, like smartphones, have matured to the point where the differences between market leaders are marginal at best, based largely on design and brand.

And, as Accenture noted, consumers are worried about security and privacy. Electronics makers have forged blithely forward into a world where your every step is logged and stored in the cloud, and where even your wall sockets and light bulbs have Internet connections. Yet at the same time, over the past year we’ve seen one horrible security breach after another — 76 million customer records here, 40 million there, 240 million there. No wonder buyers are leery: They’re not idiots.

So in the coming year, will you buy an Oculus headset, a Segway robot, a weird digital/film camera from a failed brand, or a fitness tracker with a color screen? Probably not. You’ll hold out for something more useful — and if you’re smart, you’ll wait until you hear more about how these companies are going to protect the increasingly personal data they have on you. Maybe these things will be useful enough, or cheap enough, to buy in 2017.

In the meantime, enjoy the show.



originally published on VentureBeat

Dylan’s Desk: At CES, the ridiculous never goes out of style

How GitHub is building a platform and supporting open source (podcast)

Kakul Srivastava, VP of product management at GitHub.

In this week’s episode, we talk with Kakul Srivastava, the VP of product management for GitHub.

We caught up with her recently to talk about how GitHub has evolved into a platform (and what it means to be a platform), how the company figures out which new features and products to build, and the role of open source software in stimulating innovation.

Plus, we tell you what to think about:

You can listen to this episode in the embedded player below:

Or, click here to get the MP3 of this episode of What to Think.

You can also listen to this episode of What to Think on SoundCloud.

And please subscribe to What to Think in iTunes, where you’ll get every episode delivered to the device of your choice as soon as it’s released!


originally published on VentureBeat

How GitHub is building a platform and supporting open source (podcast)

How Castlight is using data to transform health care (podcast)


1424305_798766343473447_743051478_nWe’re investigating the nature of these Innovation Engines in a series of What To Think podcasts, sponsored by Pivotal Tracker, and columns by VentureBeat editor at large Dylan Tweney. Tune in here to learn the secrets behind the tech world’s most successful platforms.

In this week’s episode, we talk with Jonathan Rende, the new chief research officer for Castlight Health.

Rende oversees his company’s new products and brings perspective from a long career in enterprise IT. In this podcast, VentureBeat reporter Mark Sullivan and I talk with him about how Castlight’s data-gathering and analytics tools are helping its clients (companies) offer their employees more insight into the health care options available to them. That, in turn, can help bring more transparency to the market for health care — a market that has been pretty much the opposite of transparent for decades.

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Plus, we tell you what to think about:

You can listen to this episode in the embedded player below:

Or, click here to get the MP3 of this episode of What to Think.

You can also listen to What to Think on SoundCloud.

And please subscribe to What to Think in iTunes, where you’ll get every episode delivered to the device of your choice as soon as it’s released!

The What to Think Innovation Engine podcast is brought to you by Pivotal Tracker, the Agile tool that’s been organizing software teams since 2006. Tracker’s simple drag-and-drop interface and structured workflow have allowed developers, product managers, and designers alike to build and manage better software, one story at a time. Is your team ready to get on track? Go to to sign up for your 30-day free trial and start delivering better software now.

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originally published on VentureBeat » Dylan Tweney

How Castlight is using data to transform health care (podcast)

Tech billionaires tackle politics the way Batman fights crime

Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham

For more than a decade, people who follow Washington politics have wondered when the tech industry was going to start taking politics seriously.

This week, the tech industry made two big moves that show that tech — or at least its most successful billionaire founders — is beginning to understand how much political power it commands.

Characteristically, these tech billionaires are not taking the traditional approach of hiring lobbyists, making donations to Congressional campaigns, and funding Super PACs. They are putting vast sums of capital to work in order to work with governments, or if necessary around them, to solve the global problems they consider most pressing.

Consider first the announcement by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan that they will be donating 99 percent of their Facebook stock to help promote equality and increase human potential around the world. That amounts to about 45 billion dollars, making the newly formed Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as large as the Gates Foundation in eventual capitalization. (It also leaves a healthy $450 million in Facebook stock in the Zuckerberg-Chan’s family pockets, not to mention almost $2 billion in other assets that they already own, so don’t worry too much about young Max being cheated out of a rich inheritance.)

Notably, the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a limited liability corporation, not a nonprofit. Analysts have pointed out that this means it’s not subject to the usual rules of transparency that govern most nonprofits. It’s freer to spend (or not spend) its capital as it sees fit. It can back political candidates and make political contributions. And, for that matter, it’s free to turn a profit, I suppose. All of those differences mean that the CZI will have a good deal more flexibility in pursuing its aims than most philanthropies.

But the Zuckerberg philanthropy news is only the second big move by billionaires this week. At the beginning of the week, a consortium of billionaires, led by Bill Gates, pre-empted the Paris climate talks by announcing a $2 billion pledge to stimulate innovation in clean energy. Joining Gates were Virgin founder Richard Branson, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, and HP CEO Meg Whitman. It was a joint announcement, in which 20 governments also pledged to increase their investments in clean energy. But I couldn’t help but notice that the initiative seemed to have been led by Gates, who, as with his philanthropic work on fighting malaria and educating the world’s children, seems eager to “route around” the kind of slow, bureaucratic processes that characterize government work.

Taken together, these two events point to a reinvention of not just philanthropy, but of what it means for billionaires to “give back.” Today’s billionaires are not content to wait until their seventies and then disburse their billions to charities like museums, libraries, and hospitals. They’re not patient with slow change. As with the businesses they built, they want to disrupt things and stimulate rapid, transformative change — and they’re deploying their philanthropic money accordingly.

In short, like Bruce Wayne, they’ve grown frustrated with the official ways of fixing problems of pressing public interest and have invented their own, maverick solutions.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I won’t venture to say, yet. I applaud Zuckerberg and Chan for making such a massive commitment so early in their lives. I welcome the help of Gates and his fellow billionaires in trying to address the most massive planetary change since the dawn of humanity.

There is, I suppose, the possibility that these are cynical power plays and attempts to grow the market for their products, an accusation that has been leveled, fairly I think, at Facebook’s initiative. There is also the possibility that philanthropy and politics desperately need to be reinvented, and these guys are doing it.

The proof will be in the execution, and in what kind of difference these organizations actually make in the coming years.

Originally published on VentureBeat

Tech billionaires tackle politics the way Batman fights crime

The iPad Pro might point to the future, but that future’s not here yet

Apple's new iPad Pro is a gas giant, the company's photos suggest.

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The iPad Pro is one of the most hotly anticipated products to come out of Apple in quite awhile. The 12.9-inch work-oriented tablet went on sale this week, and the first crop of reviews came out yesterday.

Unfortunately for Apple fans, some of those reviews don’t look so hot. Reviewers who normally rave about Apple products, like John Gruber and Walt Mossberg, are damning it with faint praise, while pointing out its substantial flaws: the substandard keyboard, the interface inconsistencies, the awkwardness of such a large device, and the lack of apps designed for such a large screen.

Both of those reviews are a bit weird. Gruber, while admitting that the iPad Pro is not for him or for many other people, still somehow believes that it is the future of computing.

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Mossberg, while saying that the iPad Pro is not for him because it won’t substitute for a laptop, goes on to say that it can’t really be compared to its most obvious competition (and inspiration), the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, because the Microsoft product really is meant to serve as a laptop.

Wait, what?

It’s almost as if these guys expected Apple to work some kind of magic to keep them from having to make a decision: Do I want a tablet or a laptop?

The problem is, that decision is not going to go away that easily. Microsoft has been throwing its considerable R&D and design resources at the problem for the past three years, starting with its Surface and Surface Pro tablets and more recently with its Surface Book.

I’ve been using the Surface Pro 3 for the past four months and, while I’m impressed by many aspects of it, I am far from a Microsoft fan. I’m constantly running into shortcomings or little glitches of the type that Gruber describes. But where the iPad Pro seems like a tablet that’s being uncomfortably forced to do double-duty as a laptop computer, the Surface Pro feels like a full-blown computer that’s being forced to do double-duty as a tablet. Its screen is gorgeous, its stylus (which comes included in the base price, unlike the iPad Pro) works as intuitively and responsively as anything I’ve seen, and it runs the full range of highly capable Windows software, making it a real workhorse. But the Surface still drives me up the wall nearly every day, with buttons for maximizing or closing windows that are too small to hit with my finger, screen-splitting gestures that work unpredictably, settings that are complex and hidden, and built-in apps that seem half-baked, buggy, or ill-conceived.

Other reviewers differ with Gruber and Mossberg. Federico Vittici at Macstories gushes over the iPad Pro, saying that he’ll never use a Mac as his primary computer ever again. Wired‘s David Pierce loves the hardware, and even though he dings it a bit for not fulfilling everything we need our laptops and desktops to do, he still believes that the iPad Pro — and iOS — represent the future of computing.

Of course, Tim Cook loves it, saying he no longer needs to travel with a MacBook. But he would say that — he’s Apple’s chief executive, and he does nothing but tout his own company’s goods all day long.

And VentureBeat’s Mark Sullivan was duly impressed with the iPad Pro’s size when he first laid hands on it in September.

There’s little doubt that the iPad Pro is a triumph of engineering, with a fantastic, high-resolution screen (2,732 x 2,048 pixels), remarkably light weight (1.6 pounds), and incredible performance, especially given that it’s running an ARM processor, not the more traditional desktop and laptop-style Intel x86 CPU. It also boasts fantastic battery life: 10 to 12 hours’ worth of serious usage, in these reviewers’ tests, which puts my Microsoft Surface Pro 3, with its 4 hours of sustained usage, to shame.

But the iPad Pro is expensive. The model every reviewer tested, with 128GB of storage and cellular data connectivity, sells for $1,079, and with the $99 Pencil and $169 keyboard, you’re looking at  $1,347 to replicate the experience enjoyed by Gruber, Mossberg, and the others. Yes, you can get an iPad Pro for as little as $799, but that will have only 32GB of storage and will lack cellular, a keyboard, and a stylus.

Who’s really going to shell out $1,000 to $1,350 to purchase a big tablet with a halfway decent keyboard and a really nice stylus, even if it does have a great screen and awesome battery life? I imagine there will be quite a few customers here in tech-loving (and cash-rich) Silicon Valley. But it seems like a hard sell for anyone else.

In short, the iPad Pro might represent the future of computing. But Microsoft saw that future almost three years before Apple did. And to both companies’ chagrin, that future isn’t here yet — which means it is still up for grabs.

IPad Pro, Surface Pro, Surface Book: Pick your compromise.

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originally published on VentureBeat » Dylan Tweney

The iPad Pro might point to the future, but that future’s not here yet

VC Tomasz Tunguz explains his approach to SaaS investing (podcast)


In this week’s episode, we talk with Tomasz Tunguz, a partner at Redpoint Ventures and a noted expert on SaaS company metrics.

Tunguz explains how a law firm internship in South America when he was 17 launched him into tech, building a small software company and then winding up at Google before landing at Redpoint seven years ago.

One of the things that has garnered him a lot of attention is the blog he writes. He posts nearly every day and includes a lot of data-driven analysis, providing useful and concrete insights that entrepreneurs can really use. One of the things that got him started with that? Becoming a father and getting up early every morning to give his son a bottle. The site gets 100,000 views per month on the website, and he also says he has 10,000 email subscribers and 10,000 RSS subscribers.

In our interview, Tunguz explains where he gets his data for his posts — and goes on to talk about what he looks for in startups and why he wound up focusing on SaaS. (Hint: 65 percent of VC dollars go to enterprise companies, and consumer startups only get 15 percent — even though the latter get much more press.)

Also in this episode, Ruth Reader and I tell you what to think about:

You can listen to the podcast in the player above.

Or, click here to get the MP3 of this episode of What to Think.

You can also listen to What to Think on SoundCloud.

And please subscribe to What to Think in iTunes, where you’ll get every episode delivered to the device of your choice as soon as it’s released!

originally published on VentureBeat » Dylan Tweney

VC Tomasz Tunguz explains his approach to SaaS investing (podcast)

Using data to improve diversity — and business performance

Studies show that diversity improves performance of human teams. Not sure about beach huts, though.

Too often diversity discussions in business are framed as a zero-sum game: affirmative action versus meritocracy, minority versus majority, them versus us.

There are some hopeful signs that the tech industry is starting to realize that this is not the case. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Amazon — among others — have all made a point of releasing their diversity numbers, at least insofar as diversity means “gender and ethnicity,” and have done so for two years in a row now, so we can see how little things are improving. At least they recognize it’s a problem.

More significantly, these companies are releasing this data without apology, and with a frank recognition that diversity is a goal worth striving for. It makes companies smarter, it makes them more sensitive to the needs of a diverse customer base, and it’s the right thing to do.

But, as anyone who writes about the topic will discover in the comments on social media about their work, there’s still a sizable contingent of people who believe that companies need to lower their standards in order to increase the diversity of their work forces.

Not so, says Joelle Emerson, the founder of a relatively new agency called Paradigm that applies data-driven social-science techniques to the challenge of helping companies increase their diversity and manage more diverse workforces more effectively. Clients include Slack, Airbnb, Pinterest, and Udacity.

In fact, Emerson said, numerous studies show that diverse teams are more innovative and better at solving problems than teams where everyone shares the same background, race, or gender.

I spoke with Emerson at a discussion on diversity earlier this week at Draper University. Incidentally, Draper was a great venue for this chat. Every time I’ve visited Draper University I’ve been impressed by the diversity of the students (they are truly a global, multiethnic, mixed-gender group) as well as their infectious enthusiasm, curiosity, and seriousness of purpose. They ask great questions, too, and they are unfailingly welcoming and polite, which is something you don’t always encounter in Silicon Valley. Say what you will about Draper’s goofy “hero” iconography, they are doing something right in this department.

So if diverse teams produce better results, why not just focus on results, and let the diverse teams shine through their own merits?

Actually, Emerson told me, at least one study has shown that the more meritocratic people try to be, the less meritocratic their hiring and promotion decisions actually are. In other words, people are more likely to give big raises to men and small raises to women if they’re told to base their decisions exclusively on meritocratic principles. It’s a phenomenon known as the paradox of meritocracy.

You can see that dynamic at work in Silicon Valley, where investors pride themselves on their “pattern matching” and “data driven” decision making, but still somehow overwhelmingly prefer to invest in founders that look like them. When VCs are 91.8 percent male and 77.5 percent white, that’s a problem.

So if companies want to be truly meritocratic, they need to take steps to make more objective hiring and promotion decisions. That should result in better business performance — and more diversity at the same time, since it will eliminate built-in biases.

One such technique is the blind audition, which I’ve written about before. In symphony orchestras where people audition for jobs from behind concealing screens, hiring managers are forced to pay attention to the only thing that really matters: how well the person plays their instrument. Similarly, blind auditions in a tech company can help managers focus on the work a person can actually do, such as writing or coding, rather than on their look or their self-presentation.

I’ve used blind auditions, with reasonably good results, in hiring journalists. I will say this, however: If you’re forced to focus only on the work, it does make the hiring process more laborious, because you actually have to read every work sample very carefully. But there’s no doubt that leads to fairer decisions.

Emerson herself has a handful of recommendations in a smart article on raising the bar in hiring. Her basic thesis: If you fix your hiring process, you’ll wind up with employees who are both more diverse and more talented. She recommends doing that by democratizing the job application process (for instance, by eliminating the advantages that certain groups have thanks to training on how to interview); focusing on job-related skills; and retuning your “culture fit” questions around aspects of culture that really matter, such as “would I enjoy working with this person?” rather than “would I hang out with this person after work hours?”

This being Silicon Valley, there are a number of startups aimed at helping tech companies with their diversity efforts (in addition to Emerson’s Paradigm). Gapjumpers helps companies conduct blind auditions for more objective recruiting. Textio uses AI and natural language analysis to improve the text of job listings, removing words that might discourage women or other diverse applicants. And Jopwell helps connect black, Latino, and Native American job candidates with companies that want to hire them.

The bottom line: Diversity is — and should be — good for business. Smart companies will embrace this approach and make themselves not only more inclusive, but higher functioning.

For more on these issues, follow VentureBeat’s collections of stories on diversity, gender, and race. And please let me know how your company is — or isn’t — tackling diversity in tech.


Originally published on VentureBeat

Using data to improve diversity — and business performance

I, for one, welcome our new surveillance robot overlords

A Knightscope K5 robot patrols an empty parking lot.

Knightscope founder and CEO William Santana Li is not modest in his ambitions.

He estimates that crime — of all kinds — has an annual global economic impact of a trillion dollars. That’s $1 trillion lost every year due to theft, vandalism, robbery, violence, and more.

He wants to cut that in half. And to do that, he’s building a fleet of surveillance robots.

The Knightscope K5 is a tall (about 5.5 feet), dome-headed, wheeled robot loaded with cameras and sensors. It rolls around at a slow speed, just a few miles per hour, and as it goes it emits a sort of drone-like humming sound. The sound is deliberate, so the robot doesn’t surprise people by rolling up silently behind them, but it also gives it a somewhat eerie presence — a sensation that’s probably appropriate, given that it’s watching your every move with a sensor suite that includes light detection and ranging (LIDAR) devices; high-definition, low-light video cameras; a camera designed to read and recognize the digits on license plates; directional microphones; proximity sensors; an inertial measurement unit; and a GPS unit.

The K5 looks a bit like a cross between R2-D2 and a Dalek, and that’s right where Knightscope wants it. The design challenge, Santana Li told me, is to make something that commands respect but isn’t frightening; that’s serious-looking but approachable. So, for instance, even though the technology might allow it, Knightscope is not going to make black-painted robots that zoom around at 20 miles per hour, because that would terrify people. Like police officers and security guards, the K5 aims to be a constant, calm, reassuring presence.

Knightscope seems to be succeeding in that. I find the robots eerie, but I’m also a born cynic. Most people apparently find them charming, and many people take selfies or family photos with the robots.

Now, Santana Li’s approach might strike some people as a little overly optimistic. Indeed, he had a difficult time convincing any Silicon Valley venture capitalists to back him. “Hardware is too hard,” is the refrain that many investors will tell you: It’s simply too expensive and too difficult to build a sustainable hardware business, particularly in a world where fast, professional, and cost-effective Chinese manufacturing is so dominant.

Santana Li has little patience with that. In a recent onstage interview I had with him at GSV Labs’ Pioneer Summit, he expressed exasperation at the crop of tech entrepreneurs who are tackling social media sharing and apps instead of challenging hardware innovations.

“It’s un-American for an entrepreneur to take the path of least resistance!” Santana Li yelled.

Undeterred by the lack of venture backing, Santana Li raised a total of $7 million from a State Farm-backed incubator, Flextronics, and NTT DoCoMo. The company said it has just four customers so far, but claims to have over 100 on its waiting list.

Santana Li is also impatient with the arguments that privacy advocates bring up. You don’t like having a robot rolling around your neighborhood, recording video 24-7? Well, think how you’d feel if you were a victim of crime, Santana Li said. Now what’s more inconvenient?

I don’t find that argument fully persuasive, but the analogy he draws with beat cops and security guards is a good one: Sometimes the mere presence of authority is enough to deter crime, and — given the recent push to put body cameras on police officers — it’s maybe not such a big step to having a fully autonomous camera-equipped robot rolling around.

Besides, for the most part, Knightscope is punting on the privacy and data storage issues: It will let its customers sort those questions out.

The pricing model is what’s perhaps most intriguing. Knightscope plans to rent its robots out for $6.50 an hour — far lower than the $20 per hour most security guards make. With that, you’d get 24-7 coverage, a web-based console, and a slew of features that can supplement, not replace, whatever security force you already have. Customers could include businesses (for monitoring a mall or a parking lot, for instance), neighborhoods, or maybe someday even police forces.

And if Santana Li’s ambitions pan out, it could turn into a very big business. According to the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. spends $179 billion a year on police protection, legal proceedings, and corrections. At $6.50 per hour, supplemental security monitoring might look like a very economical alternative to policing and security guards — and with billions already being spent, Knightscope has the potential to carve off quite a big slice of revenue.

Just as long as it can keep from freaking people out too much.

Originally published on VentureBeat

I, for one, welcome our new surveillance robot overlords

Netflix reveals the future of enterprise tech: Here’s why

This is the legacy: Data centers that most people don't need to think about any more.

I was sitting in a conference on enterprise infrastructure this week when I realized that the generational shift long promised by cloud advocates is finally, irreversibly underway.

That shift is away from “legacy” data centers built on x86 servers, VMware-managed hypervisors, SQL databases from Oracle, and storage hardware provided by EMC. Replacing all that are web-scale (or at least wannabe web-scale) technologies based on containers, commodity hardware, NoSQL databases of various kinds, and flash storage. The new infrastructure is cheaper, easier to scale up to large volumes of data and computation, and more flexible and agile.

But who really cares about that architecture, except the billion-dollar infrastructure companies that are about to take a giant hit in their valuations? And by that I mean Dell, HP, IBM, Cisco, Oracle, and, yes, EMC (which Dell is in the process of trying to buy). These companies might not quite be the walking dead, as Wired called them this week, but they are certainly headed for a world of hurt, which is why Dell is trying to buy EMC: It needs to shore up its legacy business.

Who cares about them, except their shareholders? Because it’s now possible to build a billion-dollar company without ever setting foot in a data center. You don’t have to care whether the datacenter is using HP and Dell hardware or some cheap commodity CPUs built to spec by the cheapest possible manufacturer. All you need are virtual servers you can spin up on a moment’s notice, the ability to deploy containerized apps into that environment, and support for the unstructured databases you need to handle the massive influx of bits you’re about to start collecting and will need to analyze.

Netflix shows what that looks like, and why — for now — Amazon owns such a big piece of that future.

Neil Hunt, the chief product officer and vice president of engineering for Netflix, was speaking at the Engineering Summit on Infrastructure, which had been organized by Engineering Capital, a small, enterprise-focused VC fund. Hunt talked about Netflix’s longstanding use of Amazon Web Services, the market and technology leader in cloud services. But it’s not just Netflix, Hunt said: Everyone is moving toward AWS.

“AWS is now the basic layer of compute services,” said Hunt.

Netflix is not just heavily reliant on AWS — it’s about to become completely dependent. Hunt plans to power down his company’s last data center this year, at which point Netflix will be running almost entirely on outsourced cloud infrastructures, mostly operated by Amazon. (It’ll still run its own content delivery network — CDN.)

Note that this timeline is new. Netflix originally said it would shut down its last datacenter in 2014, and then again this past summer, but the future sometimes comes a little slower than expected. That’s one aspect of enterprise infrastructure that will probably never change.

Still, Hunt would be happy to be less dependent on a single vendor: “That’s a somewhat uncomfortable place: To be dependent on a partner who is also competing with you,” Hunt said, referring to the fact that Amazon also sells a streaming video service.

But up to now, Hunt hasn’t found a single provider that matches Amazon in terms of its capabilities and scope.

“AWS is years ahead of Azure and a year or two ahead of Google in terms of the features and levels of abstraction they offer,” Hunt said.

“It’s getting closer, but Amazon keeps raising the bar in terms of AWS features.”

Gleb Budman, the CEO of Backblaze, which also recently began providing storage services that compete with AWS, asked Hunt if he’d consider using other cloud providers, even piecemeal. For the most part, Hunt said, the answer was no. Apart from a few tests here and there (Netflix is backing up data to Google, for instance), the company is almost entirely based on AWS.

So is the battle for the next generation over? Hardly. AWS has an enormous head start, but there is still no standardization of cloud services — something that Hunt believes will be necessary.

Hunt looks forward to a day when there is more standardization among computing components — and, by extension, more competition for AWS.

“Let’s get it right. Let’s make a standard toolkit that software engineers use when building software, just like hardware engineers use when building a bridge,” Hunt said.

“Then we’ll see an incredible increase in productivity.”

originally published on VentureBeat

Netflix reveals the future of enterprise tech: Here’s why

Twitter Moments joins a long lineup of attempts to curate the news

Twitter Moments screenshot 1

Twitter made its long-awaited move into the news business this week with the launch of Twitter Moments, a new tab in Twitter’s mobile apps that let you see semi-curated summaries of the biggest news stories, as represented by things people are tweeting.

It makes sense, given that Twitter contains — among the 500 million things people tweet every day — an enormous amount of “news,” however you define that. But finding the news you’re interested in has historically been very difficult. You need to spend a lot of time creating lists or following people who actually have newsworthy things to say, and even then, their smartest tweets are often mixed up with a whole lot of stuff that may be interesting, and even funny, but which hardly qualifies as useful information.

Twitter, however, is a latecomer to the social news curation game. Lots of people have attempted to extract useful signals about the news from the huge mess of social data, with varying results. Let’s put Twitter Moments in context:

Techmeme: One of the earliest attempts to bring order to the news, Techmeme focuses on tech news. Tech journalists have a love-hate relationship with it, and can become obsessed with “getting on Techmeme” to the detriment of actually producing useful, well-written news. But by aggregating stories from a variety of sources and giving prominent links to the most useful and/or most-referenced stories, Techmeme actually is a handy way to scan the day’s top tech news.

Google News: Less focused on social signals than textual ones, Google News uses its analytic tools to group together related stories and highlight the biggest ones. Unlike Techmeme, it’s entirely driven by algorithms, and that means it often makes weird choices. I’ve heard that Google uses social sharing signals from Google+ to help determine which stories appear on Google News, but have never heard definitive confirmation of that — and now that Google+ is all but dead, it’s mostly moot. I find Google News an unsatisfying home page, but it is a good place to search for news once you’ve found it.

Flipboard: The closest thing to a magazine experience on mobile, Flipboard arguably presents the most readable, news-centric view of your social stream by letting you view stories that people in your Twitter or Facebook networks have shared. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a lot of filtering or weighting of those stories (to make the most-shared ones more prominent, for instance).

Pulse: LinkedIn has been putting a lot of effort into curating news, and Pulse shows some of the fruits of that effort. Its most useful feature is the ability to notify you whenever one of your LinkedIn contacts is mentioned in the news. It also presents a list of stories based on what people in your network are sharing, which can be handy — but that feed is often dominated by the kind of self-promotional stuff that many people on LinkedIn can’t stop posting. More relevant are the daily news roundups from LinkedIn’s editors.

Nuzzel: This app has been getting a lot of press lately, first because Twitter investor Chris Sacca suggested that Twitter ought to buy it. It’s not a bad idea: Nuzzel actually makes Twitter useful for news by looking at the URLs that the people you follow are tweeting. If enough of them tweet the same URL, it puts that story in your news feed on Nuzzel; if even more people tweet it, Nuzzel will send a notification to your device. That’s handy if you have interesting people in your Twitter feed who tweet about news you’re interested in, but Nuzzel also offers some curated lists that can augment that, and may be expanding its curated feeds soon. I like the Nuzzel experience a lot, even if its algorithm is relatively basic — showing that you don’t necessarily need high-order artificial intelligence to extract the news from Twitter.

Twitter Moments: If you want a TV-like experience showing you some cool pictures and videos from the top news, sports, and entertainment topics, this is the place to go. I’ve been using it for less than a day, since it was first released, but my initial impression is that this is a good way for Twitter to highlight interesting things without asking me to do a lot of work to find those things. The big drawback is that it’s entirely self-contained: None of the tweets link out to stories on the Web, so if I want to see more than just headlines and pictures, I have to go somewhere else.

Upvoted: One more site worth mentioning just launched: Upvoted, a homepage that Reddit has put together out of the stories posted on that social network. One key feature of Upvoted: It’s just the stories, no comments or votes allowed. In other words, if you love Reddit’s obsession with nerd culture, kitten GIFs, space exploration, and geek love stories, but you hate its toxic mix of racism, sexism, and juvenile stupidity, Upvoted is the place for you.

What conclusions can you draw from this admittedly biased and ad-hoc survey of the landscape? First of all, Twitter Moments is way behind the rest of the pack in terms of social curation capabilities. It is hardly the “bold change” Twitter execs want you to believe it is: It’s kinda neat, but ultimately underwhelming.

Second, nobody is really using algorithms of any sophistication, with the possible exception of Google News: All of these sites and apps rely on the most basic stats, such as how many times a URL is shared, and most of them — including Twitter — add a significant layer of human curation. You’d think it would be pretty easy for Twitter — or someone else — to come up with a more effective solution than that.

Third, news consumers still have to put a fair amount of work in before they can get the news they want, consistently and readably. There is still a big opportunity for a company that can figure out how to curate a set of news, tailored to each reader’s interest, with speed and reliability.

Whether there’s a business model in doing that remains to be seen, however: The news has not exactly been a good place to find high rates of return on investment in the past few decades, and it’s getting even worse as online advertising approaches the end of the line. But that’s a topic for another day.

originally published on VentureBeat

Twitter Moments joins a long lineup of attempts to curate the news

You think women in tech have a problem? We all have a problem

women learning to code

The tech industry’s complicated and sorry treatment of women has become a big topic.

Lawsuits have helped blow up the issue. Most notably, former Kleiner Perkins partner Ellen Pao filed a discrimination suit against the VC giant last year, lost the suit this year, and recently dropped her planned appeal.

Also in the spotlight are public speaking appearances by some of the industry’s most powerful women, where they are inexplicably asked to talk about motherhood before they are asked about the billion-dollar businesses they run.

And of course, women continue to be underrepresented in tech, particularly in engineering, executive, and investor roles.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other big Silicon Valley companies have all gotten into the habit of releasing their diversity statistics, which are remarkably consistent: In almost every case, less than 30 percent of their workforces are female. (Amazon is the lone standout, with a 37 percent female workforce.) The transparency is laudable, but the ratio is not changing. When releasing the numbers, these companies all provided pretty much the same predictable spackling of public relations on top of their data: We know these numbers aren’t great, but we’re doing the best we can.

Note: Those poor diversity numbers don’t only reflect the plight of women in tech; they show that African-American and Latino techies are underrepresented in these companies, too.

This is an issue that should concern everyone in tech, male or female, particularly when there is so much demand for talent. The arguments that men are somehow better than women at coding carry no water, especially when you look at the history of computer science, where there were accomplished female programmers in abundance until the past few decades. The industry collectively turning its back on almost 50 percent of the available talent pool is not optimal. It’s also just not right.

That’s why I think everyone who hires or manages anyone in tech ought to read the remarkable book, Lean Out, edited by Elissa Shevinsky. Shevinsky is an entrepreneur and coder, and, as it turns out, an excellent aggregator of passionate, useful, insightful, and infuriating essays about all aspects of gender and tech.

We’ve written about Shevinsky before, when she got the nickname “Ladyboss” while working with Pax Dickinson, a man who got into trouble for being outspoken (and indeed quite offensive) in social media while working as the CTO of Business Insider. She’s hung onto that moniker, even though she has since moved on from the startup she and Dickinson cofounded. It suits her: She seems like someone who is comfortable owning her differences and is able to command the respect of brogrammers even as she pushes to make tech more welcoming to all kinds of women.

Lean Out is clearly a response to Sheryl Sandberg’s wildly successful book Lean In, which convinced a small army of women to step up, “lean in” to their workplaces, and demand more responsibility and more respect. Shevinsky and the authors of the essays in this book take a different angle: If tech companies are unwelcoming places, to hell with them. Start your own company and run it better.

It’s fitting that Lean Out begins and ends with exhortations from FakeGrimlock, a Twitter personality who, as a robot dinosaur, shouts at people to get them to follow their passion and start companies themselves.

But the book is not just directed at women who might want to opt out of the rat race and start their own thing. This book is packed with stories — and statistics — that should give anyone in tech management pause. Katy Levinson’s stories of frequent harassment, and even rape, in corporate work contexts are starker and scarier than most of the anecdotes that make it into public discussion about gender equality. Essays from transgender writers like Anna Anthropy and Squinky show that it is possible to A/B test gender in tech, with some unsurprising, but moving, conclusions.

Katherine Cross offers a somewhat academic, but ultimately sensitive and understanding, portrait of male nerd culture, and how (and why) it only reluctantly accommodates women. Her essay makes it clear why the current nerd culture we have is so gendered — and why it leads to ridiculous outbursts of anti-female sentiment, of which Gamergate is the most egregious example.

And Shevinsky herself, in an essay critiquing the “pipeline problem,” points out that she and many of her female friends have not been able to land jobs at companies like Google — or even get called by their recruiters — despite having over 10,000 hours of programming experience and having held leadership roles at sites with millions of users. She recounts that in her college classes, not that long ago, the students were about equally split between male and female. But at some point those women were unable to find work in tech, or found themselves unwilling to put up with the static that went along with the job.

In other words, tech has a pipeline issue, but not the one companies usually blame: The supposedly empty “pipeline” of girls taking an interest in science in grade school, leading to fewer female engineering majors, leading to a dearth of qualified women.

No, the problem is the pipeline coming from the other direction: The VCs and executives funding and running most Silicon Valley companies are overwhelmingly male, and largely white, and they have been trained through years of “pattern recognition” to place bets where they seem the safest: On companies and new hires that reflect their often unconscious assessments of what quality looks like.

That means they tend to hire white, male executives, who in turn hire white, male middle managers and engineering leads, who tend to hire white, male engineers.

Meanwhile there is a persistent, male-oriented nerd culture that actively drives women out of the field.

Katy Levinson offers a three-point program to address this in her essay:

The first thing is pretty simple: in all organizations, demand that there exists a code of conduct and clear method to report misconduct. …

Second, while there will always be truly malicious people, most people just don’t realize the harm of their actions. There needs to be correction without punishment for people who are not malicious. …

Third, and most important, is making a serious personal commitment to solving this.

The overwhelming sense from this book is of a group of women and transgender people who are just fed up with all the crap. As Shevinsky wrote in an earlier essay, also reprinted in this book, “I didn’t want to think about gender issues but the alternative is tit and dick jokes at our industry’s most respected events.

It’s time to change that. And it’s not just women who need to do something about this. Whether by “leaning out,” or by doing what you can to make the company you’re at work better for women, you need to help fix this. We all do.

originally published on VentureBeat

You think women in tech have a problem? We all have a problem