Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Business of Software 2009: Wrap-up

Just a few additional points that did not fit into the lessons learned or relearned...
  1. Most delegates I talked to were attending the conference for the first time too. I think it would be interesting to know what percentage returned from previous years. Most I asked owned more than one company.
  2. Meals and breaks were excellent networking opportunities. Each meal I learned something. For instance, at breakfast one morning we talked with someone with a 5 person company and they completely outsource their Human Resource department and functions. I originally thought you could only do this for larger companies. One of the big benefits is getting into larger group medical plans and being able to offer medical plans in multiple states to a distributed work force.
  3. I really liked the spiral binder used to take notes at the conference. I brought my own paper, but this binder has all my notes from the sessions bound together. Also very important to me too based on no white papers from the speakers.
  4. I like the travel slanket they gave as swag, but a warning delegates to bring a bigger suitcase might have helped some people get it home easier. {g}
  5. Presenters were as well prepared as any I have seen in the many years I have attended different industry events.
  6. Most presenter slides used images instead of bullet points. I understand the approach, but I am not sure of the value to the attendees after the conference. I guess a good white paper makes this irrelevant.
  7. Speaking of white papers, none delivered, no CD with the materials, and no download section :(. I am disappointed with this as I walk away with less value from the conference. Between images on slides and no white papers all I have are my notes and Twitter search (which eventually disappears). Fortunately I took awesome notes and have a friend who also took awesome notes to compare to.
  8. The evaluation forms only allow you to check a rating of 1 to 5, with little room to write feedback. This means I have provided very little feedback to the organizers and the speakers. The lost opportunity for improvement next year is substantial. They also handed out the evals on the last day which is way too late for me to remember exactly how I felt at the time of the session. Evals need to be in the registration packet so I can fill in as I go.
  9. I was surprised at the number of F-bombs delivered by the speakers. Yes we are all adults, but we also are all professionals. I do not see the value or importance of an F-bomb to make a point during a session that cannot be delivered some other way. Just not necessary.
  10. I got a chance to talk with Jeff Atwood (of CodingHorror fame and not on the speaker list) and thanked him for StackOverflow.com and the insight he provides in his blog and podcasts. Jeff was more than willing to talk about all the above. One of the other delegates we hung around with at the conference was asking me how I could just walk up and talk with Jeff. I told him speakers and industry superstars like Jeff are just regular people like we are. Shock and awe, powerful things that get in the way of opportunities for some people.
  11. Great conference, lots of inspiration, but more importantly I have a serious list of concrete items for me to look at and improve my companies.
Definitely hoping to make it to BoS 2010 in Boston October 4-6th. It is the right smack dab in the middle of the time I am cranking on Southwest Fox tasks I own responsibility to accomplish. I guess if I plan for it I should be able to pull it off. They have announced a few speakers already and the line up looks promising.

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Business of Software 2009: Session Lessons Day 3

The last day is like any other last day of a conference, you wake exhausted hoping to cram in just a few more nuggets of knowledge.

Talk sh*t, delegate, and know what you want - Michael Lopp
One thing that never impresses me is someone who talks sh*t, or bull sh*t. To me it means they don't really have something important or insightful, or don't know what they are doing. That is not what this session was about. Software development is a series of big and little decisions. The session is about his perspective on the real life software development cycle, and how you can use improvisation to reduce the amount of decisions needed because each decisions can be a bad one that will lead a project toward failure. In my opinion delegation is one of the hardest things to do in a small company. As you bring on more people you have to rely on their abilities to succeed. This is where the trust component is critical, because if you don't provide the tools for them to succeed and they are not natural successful people, you are likely to let down your customers. Michael took a slightly humorous and slightly vulgar approach to making the points of improvising, delegate work you don't want to do, and know what you want. Putting it all together gives you the best measure/structure and spec. All of this together will lead to successfully delivering the proper software to your customers.
(three stars)

Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play - Luke Hohmann
Instead of taking one of the "standard methodologies" used today to develop software, Luke has a different "fun" approach to collecting requirements, and developing software. To be perfectly honest, he lost me about 10 minutes into the session. I am sure it works for him and his company, just not my cup of tea.
(two stars)

Jam and Coffee: Resolving the conflict between power and simplicity - Joel Splosky
For those who read this and remember one of Whil Hentzen's many "User Hostile Interface" sessions at GLGDW past (for BoS2009 delegates who come across this blog for the first time, GLGDW is a FoxPro conference held in Milwaukee in the late 1990's and early 2000's ), this session was very similar to those. The difference is Joel was telling a story of why certain interfaces were bad and why software developers should be striving for simplicity in the software they create. Entertaining and thought provoking all in one session.
(four stars)

That was the end of the conference. I had to rush out to the SFO to catch a flight to Frankfurt because I was speaking the next day at the German FoxPro DevCon. I really enjoyed the sessions and I got a lot more out of this conference than I am able to share through the words of this blog. All the more reason you should consider going to the one next year.

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Business of Software 2009: Session Lessons Day 2

How to give your company soul - Ryan Carson
For my money, this was the best session of the conference and was the session that paid for the conference by itself. Basically Ryan stepped through 8 things you have to do to make your company remarkable. While I disagree that all eight are important, I can say doing most of them will lead to a great company. I won't share all the ideas, but there are two really important ones I believe every company needs to work on. The first is to give back to the community. What community? In Ryan's case he is talking about the region where he lives and works. While this is an excellent idea and one I believe in myself, I also think it is important to give to another community. This is why White Light Computing sacrifices all it does for the Southwest Fox Conference, and why each employee has the directive to surf forums to answer questions, step up to do presentations at user groups and conferences, and contribute through blogging and tool development. Sharing is caring. Ryan notes it costs very little financially, but can absorb a tremendous amount of time. I consider it an investment. The other is to love your customers. I know a number of companies that follow the "love them and leave them" model, which fails miserably. Ryan focuses on physically meeting with customers, never allowing backtalk, and never talk disrespectfully. This is hard because we are all humans and have a tendency to want to point out failings or missteps. This was a talk filled with insight and over the top approaches to building a remarkable business. This is definitely something I am shooting for!
(six stars - yea, cheating on the five star scale)

Telling Stories - Paul Kenny
This session was all about story telling to sell your product. I will admit I was thinking this was going to be a session I caught up on email, but in reality I got a ton of inspiration from this session. Probably because he told a story to sell me on the idea {g}. The key quote from this session: "Data explains, stories inspire." Honestly, I want customers to be inspired to buy our services. I want delegates to be inspired to come to one of my conference sessions. Heck, in grade school we got the training we needed for this in the "show and tell" part of class. Why not use this training in our business?
(five stars)

Marketing Flops to Blockbusters - Chris Caposella
I was really looking forward to this session since I recall the time Chris was on stage at the Microsoft FoxPro DevCon in Orlando with Tod Neilson and the "Challenge Me / Could that have been written in FoxPro? No, but it could have" skit they put on. Probably one of the most memorable keynote sessions given at any FoxPro conference. Chris highlighted his career at Microsoft and talked about the big demo crash with Bill Gates demoing a new version of Windows and getting the dreaded Blue Screen of Death. Interesting, that turned out to be a blockbuster because it generated a lot of buzz in the press. Sort of proving once again, there is no such thing as bad press. Chris outlined three different Microsoft products that went from flops to success and one that just flopped (Office Accounting Professional). He discussed the honest reasons why they flopped and why they succeeded, which was refreshing to see. The key questions you have to ask yourself: Are you in this for the long term? Is the product game changing or category defining? This was a good session. Later on Twitter I asked Chris if the "Challenge Me" keynote was completely rehearsed or partially spontaneous. All rehearsed, as expected.
(four stars)

How many kittens is an iPod worth? - Neil Davidson
The Cranky Project Manager got the Swine Flu the week before the conference so Neil Davidson (as organizer) had to fill the slot. Neil has written a book on pricing software so it was not surprising he was going to step in and do a session on pricing. I can read the book to get what I got out of the session. Neil was not a dynamic speaker and the topic was a little dry. Fortunately it was also short.
(two stars)

Cognative Seduction - Kathy Sierra
Kathy was the most/best prepared speaker of the bunch. She rarely looked at her slides and kept transitioning from one slide to another as if the slides were telling the story while she was telling the story. I am not sure how many slides she had in the deck, but I am guessing more than 150 for the hour. The idea here is marketing to your customers by giving them the deep seeded desire to buy your product or services. I loved here statement: get lucky is not a business model. Although I truly believe luck is an important part of succeeding in business. Her points on giving your users superpowers through your software is another one of those - duh moments. Software should be easy to use and more importantly empower the users to be successful.
(five stars)

Beyond Crack Cocaine: 9 Weird Ideas on Happiness - Jennifer Acker
When I first read what this session might be about I thought it was going to be one of those motivational sessions. You know, do this and you will be happy. It was not. Before the conference delegates were invited to take a survey on what makes them happy. She used the results along with her past experience with similar surveys to convey her message of what makes us happy. Jennifer started out with the statistic that it takes 24 minutes to get into a zone where you lose track of time focusing on the task at hand. The average developer is interrupted every three minutes. Developers and management are happy when people are productive, so we have to remove the interruptions from our work day. I learned this years ago when I moved Outlook to checking email every 3 minutes to 30 minutes. 10x less interruptions in my day. At first Twitter was interrupting me every minute with updates, now it rarely interrupts me. Better time in the zone. Contributing to the social good makes people feel good. Find your productive time and focus on your work during that part of the day (another thing I learned years ago). Time shift until you find your sweet spot. My favorite point she made though is to reward yourself for completing tasks. As I tweeted, this affirms my sushi and ding-dongs reward system! Great session and a perfect way to end the day.
(five stars)

Speaking of sushi, I convinced Dale and Jeff to go out for Japanese food after we went to the bar where one company invited the entire conference out for drinks after the sessions. Sushi was good. Sleep afterwards was also a good reward.

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Business of Software 2009: Session Lessons Day 1

Normally when I blog about conferences I try to cover something about each session I attended on a certain day. The conference is single-threaded meaning you did not choose a session. You go to all of them with all the other delegates. There were some awesome sessions and some sessions that were the suxor, just like most conferences. For me though, I find if I get one thing out of any one session I am ahead of the game and it is time invested well.

At the beginning of the conference I decided to close the lid on my laptop and just listen. I have been to so many conferences over the years where people have laptops open and are multi-tasking. They are listening to the discussion while they surf the Web or play solitaire or mind-sweeper, or not (just playing games). I have been guilty of multi-tasking myself, but inevitably I am not giving 100% of my attention to the person who prepared to share with me something important. At BoS2009 I wanted to see if I could dedicate my full attention to the topic at hand. In between the first two sessions I caught up on Twitter and realized there was this whole back channel of information flowing about the session. So I followed and even contributed on Twitter the rest of the way. And during the sessions I did not like I handled things like email and surfed the Web.

Here are some lessons I want to share from each of the sessions and my ratings out of maximum of five stars:

Succeeding in Turbulent Times: Geoffery A. Moore
You probably have heard of the English translation of an old Chinese Proverb/Curse: "May you live in interesting times". That is sort of what is going on these days with "unprecedented", "never seen in our life-times", economic turbulence. No matter your thinking on how it all started and what group of individuals started the rapid decline of the economy, everyone on the planet has to adjust their personal life to accommodate the changes. As for computers and computer services, the global competition is driving the market towards commoditization. So businesses have to focus on productivity and innovation. His session drove home the difference between core and content. Core is doing what your competitors refuse or cannot do.
(four stars)

Trends to Bet On - Paul Graham
This session was "to be announced" up to the last minute. This is one of my personal pet peeves about the conference from an organizer perspective. How the heck can someone not know what a topic is two weeks before the conference? From a speaker perspective, how the heck can one develop and perfect a conference session with only two weeks preparation, and do their regular job. Answer in this case is simple: you don't really prepare. You just slap together 21 "trends to bet on", put them out there with no real evidence on why they are worth betting on. This session stunk with the smell of spending the time on the flight to San Francisco putting together the list. That said, I still took away a reminder of something important. Super good customer service - because it is easy for customers to switch in today's marketplace. Also care about what you create. Apple cares about the iPhone like Google cares about search, and that is why they both rock at what they do.
(two stars)

10 things I wish I'd known about VC when I was an entrepreneur - Heidi Roizen
Right now if someone asked me if I would ever be involved with a Venture Capitalist I would have to say, no way. I don't currently have a vision to build a start-up with the sole purpose of selling it when it hits monetization stride. Yet Heidi sucked me in with the various stories to back up the 10 things that she wished she knew. Great insight into the mind of a VC and how they think compared to how someone like me thinks about the business. One thing she pointed out is how important trust is between you and whoever you are doing business with. Customers, stockholders, partners, employees, investors, etc. This is not a revelation for me, it is an affirmation of something that is critically important to me. One other thing that is important to a business owner is to get an outside perspective of your company. I have done this every year with Geek Gatherings through the Southwest Fox Conference evals, but it is something I have not done regularly with White Light Computing and our customers. Definitely added to the to-do list.
(five stars)

Ideas for Building Better Software Business - Dharmesh Shah
This was another "to be announced" session I did not have much hope for when planning the trip to SF. At breakfast I heard someone talking about how much they looked forward to hearing what Dharmesh had to say. Then he starts out his session proclaiming his hope to do a better job this year. This gave me a complete disconnect feeling. The fact is, this was the second best session of the conference for me. Dharmesh explained how one of the goals for each business is to improve the odds of success and survival. I know, duh. But the fact remains most businesses get entrenched in the day-to-day operations and forget to plan the things needed for success long term. He discussed how important search engine optimization (SEO) is to a business. Finally, he mentioned how blogging is one of the keys to building a business. This is something I have spoken about at several conferences, the latest during an open spaces session at CodeStock 2009 centered on developers marketing themselves. I do not have solid numbers to back this up as the sole reason, but since I have started blogging my business has grown considerably. This is the first time I have heard someone else discuss the importance of blogging with respect to building/growing your business. I also like his proclamations: "be a superhero" and "have fun!" (both are beliefs I feel strongly about)
(five stars)

I skipped the breakout sessions and from talking with others, it was a good decision on my part. While I am sure they worked for others, they did not fit my needs. It was modeled a bit on open spaces with respect to you picking the topic and having an open discussion. The part it broke down on is the organizers limited it to smaller groups. So depending on the topic and the group you might have won, or lost. I took the time to catch up on some work.

Social Media: the good, the bad and the ugly - Matt Clayton
According to Matt we have 5 seconds to engage someone online. Wow, have we become a society of attention deficit disorder people? His session really centered making your Web site all about the social aspects, and getting your product to go viral. Interesting perspective. What I took out of this is to build community around your services or product. This I am quite aware of because of the long term success of the Visual FoxPro Community and how Microsoft and other companies have tried to duplicate it. What Microsoft never got with respect to this is that the community has to develop on its own. It is not something that can be forced. What we as business people can do however is provide the mechanisms to help the community thrive. From my perspective, this is what Twitter is doing, this is what StackOverflow.com is doing, and this is what FaceBook is doing. Providing the tools for communities to start and grow. Matt discussed the winning tactics and the dark side of the business. I got a lot of ideas out of this session with respect to changes I want to make to the White Light Computing Web site, which desperately needs a complete overhaul.
(five stars)

Pecha Kucha
"Keeping it brief - a presentation of 20 slides with 20 seconds each. That's 6 minutes 40 seconds, done"
What this boils down to is rapid fire topics with the goal of taking you from nothing to something, gaining your attention, and teaching you something useful in a short amount of time. Cut out the bloat and aim to deliver just the important content. I found some very entertaining. I found some interesting. A couple of them failed. All of them seemed well rehearsed and many of the speakers seemed nervous. Each of the presenters got a free pass to the conference, which in itself is a win. The audience votes on the best presentation and the winner gets a Kindle. The negative side of this is I cannot recall which presenter did what. All I know is the winner had a good blend of humor and content and did do the best of the bunch.

10 Rules for Successful Products - Don Norman
Don methodically discussed 10 rules needed to have a successful product. The key with this session is he also backed each rule with a story or example so you could validate if the rule applies to your business. For me the rule: "It is all about the experience" really hit home.
(four stars)

Conference Party
Monday was a long day. After the sessions ended we attended the conference party at the ThirstyBear Brewing Company. I was able to talk with Joel Splosky about StackOverflow, the BoS conference, and how he roomed with Chris Capossela when Chris was on the Fox Team. Later I barely lost to Dale Zimmer at Foosball, kicked his butt at car racing (video style instead of go-carting), got my butt kicked at darts by Dale, later beat Dave Bernard who beat Dale at darts (making me the overall champ {gd&r}). It was a fun way to end the first day.

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Business of Software 2009: General info

The Business of Software 2009 - A Joel On Software Conference was held in San Francisco from November 9th to 11th. I attended it for the first time even though this is the third iteration of the conference. I have been trying to get to it for the last couple of years. It is not a technical conference, which is normally the type of conference I attend for the last couple of decades. Nope, this conference was for the other half of my job, running a software development company. As much as I love designing, programming and developing solutions for my customers, I have a second role as the president of a growing company. I also love doing things like sales, marketing, hiring good people, sub-contracting, accounting, invoicing, and numerous other tasks I bundle under the term: "administrivia." This conference was more about the administrivia side of my job than the technical.

The conference was not inexpensive like a code camp, SQL Saturday, or even a regional conference like Southwest Fox. In fact the registration cost me US$1695 (early-bird saved me $300), flight was US$400, and the hotel was US$275 a night. All said and done, I spent close to US$3000 to attend. So why would I spend this much money on a conference? The marketing was simple in an email from the conference organizer Neil Davidson (founder and president of Red Gate - makers of SQL Server and .NET developer tools):
  1. It'll pay back for itself many times over. You'll come out with ideas and practical advice that will change the way you run your business.
  2. You'll meet hundreds of like-minded people. Running a business, or a team, can be lonely as well as hard. At BoS2009 you'll meet loads of people in the same boat as you. You'll be inspired, but also challenged and reassured.
  3. It will give you perspective. Two days in San Francisco, out of the office, will give you a much-needed perspective on the things that really count. It's amazing what you can get out of a bit of breathing space away from the daily routine.
  4. You'll get to hear from top people in the Business of Software. The speakers have been chosen because they have something to say, not because they have something to pitch. They are Joel Spolsky, Geoffrey Moore, Don Norman, Paul Graham, Heidi Roizen, Jennifer Aaker, Michael Lopp, Ryan Carson, Paul Kenny, Dharmesh Shah, Kathy Sierra and The Cranky Product Manager.
Neil had me with the first two, and the final two were just icing on the cake. Actually I was sold before his email as I had watched a couple of videos from prior years and talked with a couple of FoxPro friends about their experiences at prior Business of Software conferences. The only thing that stopped me from attending before was the scheduling and conflicts I could not resolve.

Since I was not speaking at this conference I had very little prep work, which was nice. The only four things I did:
  1. Reviewed the topics in advance to see which ones I thought I would get the most out of.
  2. Noted several questions I had that I was hoping to address with other delegates at the conference.
  3. Polish up the 30 second elevator speech about White Light Computing so when I was asked what I do I would have a good answer.
  4. Packed some additional business cards.
I attended with my friend Dale Zimmer (president of Detroit Area Fox User Group). We flew out to SF on Sunday, which is the day before the conference officially starts. The flight out Dale and I talked about a number of things we were hoping to get out of the conference. Honestly, based on our conversations during the 5 hours to SF and the things I learned, the conference was already in full gear before it was wheels down at SFO. Once in SF I was checking the Twitter stream to see how the welcoming reception was getting into full craziness. By the way, if you are interested in reading other people tweets about the conference, search for #BoS2009 and you will get time line with lots to read. During the conference several delegates were basically taking notes via their Twitter client. I was learning a lot reading their perspectives while listening to the speakers share their topic.

We dropped off our luggage and headed to the reception once we got to the Westin Market Street (conference hotel in downtown SF). We talked with some of the other delegates, and eventually hung out with Dave Bernard (another Visual FoxPro developer and business owner from Atlanta). I did get a chance to talk with Neil Davidson and thanked him for all his efforts in putting on the conference. As an organizer I know how much I appreciate when people let me know they appreciate the conference and the work that goes into it. Exchanged a few business cards and then headed back to the room to get some rest before the real kickoff on Monday.

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