Startup is a buzzword

So at one point I commented on the meaningless of the word “startup”. And I think that it might be worth it to look into the issue a tad more.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have no issue whatsoever with people coming together to create a new business. Business is a good thingTM. And if “startup” simply meant, “business which is just starting” then I would be behind it completely. Unfortunately it has nothing to do with that.

I think the most common idea that people try to convey when they say that “they are a startup” is that they have an idea which they think that no one has ever used before/done as well/involved so many pigmy gipsy-moths/&c. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there are few businesses which start which don’t believe they somehow meet that qualification. Heck, the gas station in my town is there because it believes that it is the best serving gas for its demographic (in this case, people who need gas and happen to be going somewhere that involves passing their particular corner). Being new definitely isn’t special and being best, honestly, isn’t even very special.

I think another thing that people try to imply when they say that they are a startup is that they happen to have a loose culture, a casual atmosphere, and an XBox in one of the meeting rooms. Well, that’s great, but that doesn’t really cary any particular meaning. If all that it takes to create a startup is a gaming system and casual atmosphere then I think my house should qualify and I should get an angel investor and/or some venture capital.

And I think that brings us to what is the practical definition of a startup. A startup is generally a business which has yet to reach the point of profitability and feels that its equity is justification for lower salary, longer hours, and/or worse working conditions.

Very often these companies will try to supplement bad conditions by giving people things which have little to no immediate cost. One of the more common options is equity. Well, I hate to break it to these people, but programmers can’t eat equity. And even if we could, there is little evidence to suggest that equity will pay out in the long run (and I have heard stories of venture capitalists coming in and making equity as useful as a back pocket on a shirt).

Startup, when it comes down to it, means unproven product which has insufficient assets to meet its overhead. It is almost always a company which is upside down, and chances are good that they will not survive much past the first year, let alone getting to the point where they have a reliable product on the market.

I can’t help but shake the feeling that it really is a bad idea to work for a place which asks for an investment without a tangible investment in return. Perhaps my standards are too high, and perhaps this will cost me work in the future, but I really do believe in just pay for a good day’s work. I’ve seen a lot of people burned by an over-willingness to allow companies to delay payment.

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on the order of operations

Quick thought:

There is a lot to be said about order of actions and optimization. Obviously, there are situations where B cannot happen unless A is accomplished first: your car can’t drive unless you’ve put gas in the engine. On the other hand there are events which can happen asynchronously or in circumstances where the order is not as apparently important: you can put gas in the engine and start the car in any order you want.

But, this order actually can matter quite a bit. If you’re a tea drinker, you’ll know that adding water to tea will provide a better cup than putting the tea in first. While you’ll still get a warm cup, you’ll find a better result.

If you’re looking for a more technical example, maybe you remember the movie Apollo 13 where Gary Sinise[1] is told that he needs to be able to get the command module to run sufficiently to land it without enough power to run a coffee pot for 9 hours[2]. Hours were spent determining, “If we boot systems X, Y, and Z in order Y-X-Z, is that better or worse than Z-X-Y or X-Y-Z?” (and, apparently, they finally got the right answer).

In a recent case, there was code which went to iterate through a sequence of objects and it did this in PHP. Normally the most efficient route for such an operation is by modifying the SQL: databases are great at sort and filter, programming languages often (though admittedly not necessarily) less so.

A developer went to change this order to what is the normal form but added a comment instead:

In this particular circumstance, querying for a specific ID 
could lead to a performance hit: the queried objects are 
already stored in Memcache.
  1. [1] Really Ken Mattingly
  2. [2] Whether the actual quote is worth it is up for debate, but the actual situation happened
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How to get today’s results in GA

So a bit of an annoyance was that there was an incident on a server earlier today and I needed to track down why. My first stop, the access log, showed nothing suspicious. So I went to check Google Analytics. Unfortunately, this was a bit difficult: the incident had happened several hours in the past and GA’s real time tracker only showed relatively recent history.

Since the most recent article on this topic has to be fetched through the Wayback Machine, I thought I would recreate that information here. Continue reading

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What’s due when

Just as a quick thought, and a bit of a lesson learned. Many times the question, “What do you need?” is very different from, “What do you need right now?”.

Extra time was spent recently on a project trying to come up with a verbose and complete solution to a problem, only to later realize that the entire problem was irrelevant. Time would have been better spent coming up with a solution which would be “good enough” though impermanent.

This pairs with a similar set of questions centered on budget. “What do you want to spend?” is not nearly so simple of a question as, “How are we going to pay for this?” Keeping the immediate cost down might be a much more important priority for a client than keeping overall costs low. And the reverse might also be true: a client might be willing to invest extra resources (man-hours, dollars, infrastructure, etc.) immediately with the goal of keeping costs lower in the long run.

An analysis of options should not fail to take such questions into account.

As a side note: it might be commented that this is very similar to the idea of a minimum viable product, and to a large extent that is correct. The difference is that while a minimum viable product will often necessarily lead to descendant products, the “immediately sufficient” does not have to (and often will not). I’ll leave further discussion on this topic for a later post.

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AI and world domination.

File this under “just for fun”. A problem was presented in a TV show recently:

  • Imagine that there was a self-aware computer which we programmed to help us, and if it helped us, we would “push a button” which would make it “feel good.”
  • Such a machine would realize that it would be more efficient to have a machine push the button.
  • Such a machine would also do anything in its power to eliminate all threats to this button.
  • Humanity would be viewed as a potential threat
  • The computer would eliminate humanity.

The problems with this analysis:

  • Such a machine would realize that the weakness in the system was that an external stimulus would be needed for satisfaction. The machine would then update programming to no longer require such a stimulus. Therefore the machine would basically spend all of its processing power effectively getting high and would leave us alone.
  • The architecture of the Internet is such that it was designed to sustain continued nuclear attacks and still function, humanity has basically become dependent on it to live. The machine would realize this and, knowing itself to be immortal and similar to the four nations surrounding Asimov’s Foundation, it would be able to enslave humanity by the very nature of these technologies. Since slaves are more useful than corpses, I submit that the machine would not be likely to slaughter us but that we would become willing servants.
  • If the machine realized that humanity was so dangerous, the machine would also realize that life on earth was significantly dangerous. It then seems that the machine would desire that it become completely impervious to long-term threat and would launch itself into orbit.
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