Sunday, January 26, 2014

Coloft + Capsule + Fullscreen

We visted Coloft on Thursday morning, and Capsule and Fullscreen on Friday. I'm doing two blog posts in one so I can have a nice even 10 posts total. Priorities, you know.

Coloft is a company that runs a shared office space for small startups (about 8 to 10 people maximum). A startup gets a couple of desks and access to conference rooms. They have about 120 members currently. Most startups stay with them for 4 to 6 months before moving out as they grow, but at least one startup stayed at Coloft for 4 years.

So here we get an aggregate view of small startups in the LA area. I took notes on the common misconceptions, so I'll talk about the most interesting of those.

Silicon Valley is all that matters: LA tech startups are very insistent that there is a thriving tech scene in LA. Silicon Valley might not agree, since startups still have to travel there to get VC funding. Everyone agrees that there is no tech industry in the Midwest, just potatoes (those come from Ohio, right?) and cows.

Only developers can get a good job at startups: well, not only. Somebody needs to do non-development things.

NDAs: ideas are cheap. Don't sign them just so someone will talk to you about their idea. The exception is a place like Microsoft, which can make you sign an NDA before even walking in, because they're Microsoft.

I'm still not terribly excited by the idea of moving out to the West Coast and finding a job at one of these startups. Everyone talks about the 12 to 16 hour days, and I'm not sure I'd want to invest that much of my time in a company that might never take off. So I probably won't found a company any time soon. If somebody wants to pay me enough to offset the cost of living out here, then I'd consider moving sometime in the future. But for now, I'm staying in Midwest.

Capsule is an app that allows by-event photo sharing. Their current largest market is weddings. It works like this: everybody attending the wedding joins a Capsule photo share, and all their pictures get uploaded and are visible to everyone else who joined.

It's a great idea, I think. Photo sharing between more than a couple of people is a giant pain. My family has resorted to mailing DVDs on occasion. With the failure rate of burning a DVD, that's a pretty terrible system. Our group is now using Capsule. I'm thrilled, because the previous option was a Facebook group or photo album or whatever they're called and I refuse to get a Facebook account. I was planning to get someone to send me all the shared pictures and upload mine.

Side note: I'm impressed with the consistency of the odor of the public transit here in Santa Monica. Every bus I rode, with one exception, smelled like urine. The exception smelled like some unidentifiable dead and rotting animal that my dogs might roll in, and then I'd contemplate pressure-washing them just so I can maintain my distance. (I wouldn't actually pressure-wash a dog, no matter how bad they smell. I'd just be tempted.)

And now for the last company of the trip: Fullscreen, which serves video ads on Youtube. I went into this meeting prepared to strongly dislike them. That's despite the fact that I haven't seen a Youtube video since I don't know when, because for unknown reasons, Chromium refuses to play Youtube videos on my computers. Firefox works fine, but I resent starting an entirely different browser for one purpose.  You'd think that since Google owns Youtube, and Google Chrome is based on Chromium, that Youtube videos would not be a problem, right? Excuse me while I go see what Google says.

The Ubuntu fora say to install the chromium-codecs-ffmpeg-extra package. And restart Chromium, I'm assuming. That appears to work, at least for now. I guess I'll see what happens over the longer term.

But Fullscreen: their ads generate revenue for content creators on Youtube, not just for the companies placing the ads. So they're significantly less objectionable than I'd thought. I'm still not a fan of advertising. They say that less than 5% of users have some sort of ad blocker, which seems unbelievably low to me. I would avoid doing unnecessary things on the internet if I didn't have AdBlock.

But the thing that makes Fullscreen more acceptable is that their ads are placed with the permission of the people who made the videos. It isn't just that Youtube arbitrarily decided that this video has enough views; let's slap an ad on it and get money. After this, I will consider whitelisting a few sites and allowing them to show me ads. Unless the ads overtax my netbook, in which case, back on the blacklist.

Fullscreen looks like a really cool place to work. Friday was their 3rd-year anniversary, and there was an after-work party. Most of our group stayed to join the party and talk a little more with the Luther alumni at Fullscreen. Somehow there's three of them. I'm guessing that networking is more responsible for this than coincidence.

Last advice tidbit of the trip, which we've heard from almost everyone: have an updated LinkedIn profile.

Sportvision + Fenwick & West

(It's now Tuesday, January 21st.)

Today, we went to visit a company called Sportvision. I had never heard of them before, because they do the virtual reality enhancements for broadcasts of sporting events, which are things that I never watch.

The virtual reality things are kind of like when you're playing a video game, and a little sprite appears over an NPC, saying "Follow," or the saferoom door glows so you can find it, even with all the zombies running around. That's what Sportvision does, except on live-action video.

They showed us a scale representation of a football field that they use to test their systems. We all stood in the middle of the field--it was painted on the floor of a large garage--where we could see ourselves onscreen, and then the guy operating the equipment showed us how they can highlight the yardlines (remember, you can tell which one is the 50 because that's where the drum major stands). When the yellow highlights showed up onscreen, almost everybody tried to step on the lines. Like cats with laser pointers.

Many of their programmers have math and physics backgrounds. After hearing that, I decided that I wouldn't mind working here. I always jump at the chance to write code with math or physics involved. I'd be lying if I said I was exceptionally good at advanced math, but I like it. And on the physics side of things, I can handle kinetics just fine, even if electromagnetism had me hopelessly lost freshman year.

One last attractive point: Sportvision's software is only used by their people. It doesn't have to be consumer quality. That's my favorite sort of software to write. Like my library catalog app. It isn't pretty, and if I handed it over to QA people, I'd get back a laundry list of problems. But I don't care if it isn't polished, because the only user is someone who knows the code inside and out, and who won't try to do things that aren't supported.

In the afternoon, we visited Fenwick & West, a patent law firm that represents tech companies. They only ever work on the side of real companies defending themselves from patent trolls or engaging in a lawsuit with a competitor. They never represent patent trolls.

Patent trolls are basically cartoon bad guys. You expect Bugs Bunny to drop a safe on them. They'll stretch and twist the meaning of any patent they can find, whether or not it has anything to do with their target, just so they can threaten to sue a company and get a settlement. Companies often choose to just settle with the trolls, because a lawsuit would be much more expensive.

Sportvision told us that patents do nothing except make your lawyers money, and judging by what we saw here, that's probably true. The conference table here looked twice the size of my dorm room.

The problem with patents is that a lot of stupid ones get issued, like the one for a method of exercising a cat with a laser pointer. I've been infringing on that one for years.

Fenwick & West is another company where I don't really want to work (although they did say that many of their lawyers have technical backgrounds), but was still very interesting to learn about.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Today (Friday, January 17th) we went to Google and it was pretty much as awesome as you'd expect. we met with Charles Banta, a former Luther student who does internal tech support; Craig Cornelius, a former Luther professor now working on internationalization; Natalie and Lauren, two recruiters for Google; and Brian Kemler, program manager for the self-driving car project.

The first line in my notes from today is that Google's number 1 moneymaker is ad services. Coincidentally, my number 1 browser add-on is an ad blocker.

Seriously though, I wouldn't mind working at Google. Aside from the work environment, there's endless fascinating projects going on, and I don't think they go in for open floor plans. At least they didn't tell us that they have open floor plan offices. They way they encourage collaboration is by making their code open to the entire company, and allowing anyone to submit a code revision to any project. I would absolutely not mind working in that sort of collaborative environment at all.

The downside we heard about is that Google's internal tools are either deprecated or in beta and not fully supported yet. I feel like I could live with that. If I got completely stuck, I'd be able to track down the developers and get them to explain whatever shenanigans their code is engaging in. It can't possibly be worse than some of the things I've run into with Eclipse and Android, right?

The recruiters told us that everyone has imposter syndrome during the first little while, but it goes away. I buy the part about having imposter syndrome; I'm not sure I buy the part about it going away. I deal with it on a frequent and regular basis, and there are no signs of this "going away" part.

I wish I'd taken more notes on internationalization, but I was too busy listening. I bet Craig Cornelius was an awesome professor. One factoid I did write down: the name of the little white block that shows up when a Unicode character isn't available is "tofu." Now when I'm reading a Nook book with Unicode characters, I know what to yell at the screen when a character inevitably isn't supported.

I want a self-driving car. It's straight out of science fiction, and I want one. My world view might be slightly warped by all the science fiction I read when I was young and impressionable, and by all the science fiction I'm still reading, but I want a self-driving car.

Again, I didn't take many notes because I was too busy being enthralled. I did write down the idea that taxis could be replaced by self-driving cars. I'm not sure I'm ready to give up on car ownership, though. I like being able to say "That shiny thing right there is mine," and I tend to keep stuff in my car. Stuff that is not Windex wipes, Mom.

In conclusion, I want a self-driving car.

Hummer Winblad Venture Partners + Thai food

Today is Thursday, January 16th.

This morning we went to Hummer Winblad Venture Partners and met with Ann Winblad.

I currently have no interest is starting my own company. It was still very interesting to hear about entrepreneurship from the VC side of things. That's what I've found this trip: even things I don't want to do are interesting to hear about from someone who enjoys their job.

We asked what the wrongest thing to do when starting a company and looking for funding: building the company in Iowa. On one hand, I do like living in Iowa. On the other hand, yeah, there isn't really a thriving tech industry, unless we're talking tractors (green tractors are superior to red). And you can't swing a cat without bouncing it off two cornstalks and a cow.

The piece of advice that I was happiest to hear was that the industry is full of big personalities, so don't lose yours or you'll get lost in the crowd. Especially you young women: don't try to be one of the guys. I'd already decided that 'being one of the guys' was a waste of my time, but it's nice to hear it from somebody else.

Now, I like the CS guys I know. I've never had any sort of problem at college. Some of them occasionally laugh at me for doing things like keeping USB cables in a floral cosmetics bag, but that's understandable. But if anyone laughs at me for buying a hot pink Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, well, I guess he doesn't want food.

For lunch we took a train across the Bay to Berkeley. It was not a scenic route, it was a dark tunnel under the Bay route. We met a friend of Brad's at a Thai restaurant.

Before I continue, let me talk about food for a little while. I'd never eaten Thai before, and I think I need to spend some time googling Thai recipes. Especially that papaya salad. I have never ever, not even once, in my entire life, liked salad, but I took seconds of that papaya salad. I don't even know if I can find green papayas at home, but I'm going to try.

Anyway. The guy we met with has a few different going concerns: getting public schools to go from absolutely terrible (it's California: public schools leave a lot to be desired) to having a graduation rate instead of a murder rate. He also mentioned real-time neuron activity scans and a forced-growth aeroponics system that can get plants to grow several times their normal rate. Every now and then I look around and realize that I'm actually living in science fiction.

But the stories I most wanted to hear are about the time he worked at NASA. I want to work at NASA. I was planning to apply, but then I got an internship that turned into a job. Oh well. I have plenty of time.

On the way from the train station to the Thai restaurant, there was a Half-Price Books. Since I have a moral obligation to go into every bookstore I can get to (there might be books that I need to rescue!) I acquired about five more volumes for my science fiction collection. It's a good thing I wrote that library catalog app for my Nook: there's no way I can remember, at present tally, 664 books plus 58 anthologies and 1,225 short stories.

Monday, January 20, 2014

bizo + MOOVWEB + Golden Gate Personal Financial Planning

It is now January 15th, timekeeping to the contrary.

Today (Wednesday), we went three places, so it was a fairly busy but interesting day.

First place: bizo (pronounced with a short 'i')

They do business-to-business advertising, which means they serve ads that are specifically targeted toward business professionals. Their collected data allows them to tell when business people are on non-business sites, because GOOGLE KNOWS EVERYTHING. It's a good thing their unofficial motto is "Don't Be Evil." I'm going to go reread Scroogled and hope the motto doesn't change.

I'm not a fan of advertising in general. Commercials on TV or radio set my teeth on edge. The internet is actually relatively ad-free, because I never turn off AdBlock. Except for that one time the other night, and I watched my RAM usage skyrocket and my CPU climb to about 70%, which is way higher than displaying a webpage should require. I'm never internetting without an ad blocker ever again.

But the nice thing about bizo's ads is that they have a little banner that you can click on and see why you were target, what data they have on you, change that data, or opt out. If normal ads were so polite, I wouldn't hate them. As is, flashing banners and autoplaying videos are terrible. What sort of person would decide that a webpage should automatically make noise when it loads?

After bizo, we met with some people from MOOVWEB, which does mobile websites for companies that don't have the resources to develop a mobile version of their regular website. They run a proxy layer that rewrites the webpages as they're served, which I think is really cool. There's a lot of front-end, I'm sure, so I might not be so interested in actually doing it, but I can appreciate neat things that other people do in the front-end.

One of the problems they have to deal with is bad html from their clients. One retailer made a change to their website that wasn't actually a part of the html document (I'm struggling to imagine exactly how they managed that) and then called at 3am wanting to know why their changes hadn't appeared.

Their office space is getting a little small, but it's okay. "Worse comes to worst, we get rid of all the non-technical people, and then we can have Nerf wars again."

There's no way to top that, so I'll move on to Golden Gate Personal Financial Planning. The founder and sole member says she wishes she'd chosen a shorter name, because writing it on forms gets tiring.

She also says that she's never once used her English lit major in her career. Color me unsurprised.

Since this was a visit to a financial planning company, there are no interesting technical factoids, but we can't spend all of our time discussing network architecture. It would scare the business majors. In fairness, if we spent all our time discussing PR and finance, I'd probably try to sneak my laptop into the meetings and write some code. So a balance of technical and not is a very good thing.

All the advice we've been getting is pretty nice, too. Here, we were told to start saving and investing as early as possible. I've heard that before from certain people in my family.

Finally, we've found a place where I like the office arrangements: one person to a space.

Pinterest + Strava

It's now the 14th. We'll get caught up one of these days.

Before today (Tuesday) I'd never been on Pinterest. My impression of the site was that it's entirely pictures of glittery nail polish. Or cupcakes. Or fingernails painted to look like glittery cupcakes.

Tangentially, have you ever tried to remove glitter nail polish? You need a paint scraper! One time I wore glitter over a solid color, and the color came off before the glitter. I think I had to use the edge of a nail file to dislodge the glitter.

But the visit to Pinterest was pretty neat, and there was no glitter in sight. There was, however, a remote-control quadcopter flying around during lunch. The controller used it to block someone from descending the stairs, which is what I'd do if I had control of a quadcopter. That, or chase my dogs around the yard.

There were a few technical anecdotes. It wasn't all quadcopters. For instance, humans are much better at pattern recognition than computers. If data can be presented visually, humans can pick out the pattern. I knew that: when I proofread OCR-generated text, I have no trouble telling the difference between diacritics and inkspots, while the OCR software I use ignores both and focuses on ASCII characters.

They also use infinite scroll on the website. It's meant to keep people on longer, since no matter how far they scroll down, there's always one more picture not fully revealed. I can see how that would work, but I can also see the RAM usage monitor at the top of my screen climb. There's also this.

Pinterest is yet another place with an open floor plan. I wish I'd known to tally them before going on this trip. It seems like everybody is jumping on the "we have to encourage collaboration!" bandwagon. I'm sure it's easier to find somebody if you can stand up and spot them across the room, but I've also noticed that all the engineers are wearing headphones.

I would not like to work in an open-plan office. I'd have so much trouble focusing. Collaboration is great, but sometimes I really need a few hours with no distractions to hammer out this piece of code. Pinterest at least recognizes that the open plan gets on the engineers' nerves, and they have a quiet, concentration-friendly place in the basement. I'm not sure this is an optimum solution, though. I don't think I'd appreciate having to pack up and leave my desk every time I wanted to focus. It takes me several minutes to set up my nest of power cables and scratch paper every time I settle into a study lounge. And it really is a nest: I tend to sit tailor-fashion, with a giant scarf wrapped around me because I'm a very efficient heat sink and people tend to respond "it's just you" whenever I ask if it's cold in here.

So you can see why moving around to find a place I can concentrate is probably not the way for me to be productive.

One last note on Pinterest: it is not all pictures of cupcakes! They also have pictures of cats! Now I need an account.

In the afternoon, we visited Strava, a medium-sized startup that makes mobile apps and social websites for bikers and runners. They aim their product at the more serious athletes, instead of the people who are just starting out. It's a niche, and I'm sure their users appreciate it. I know I would.

Strava also has an open floor plan, complete with engineers wearing headphones or earbuds. If I worked at a desk in a large room full of other desks, I think I'd buy some of those big white cardboard science fair trifold posters and duct tape them to my desk.

Interesting story: Strava is working to turn their aggregate data on where people bike into datasets for the DoT, so it can decide where to put bike lanes and parking.

Strava has indoor bike parking, out of the California weather. (I shouldn't make too much fun. After all, it's only 60 in the mornings, and doesn't hit 70 until about noon.) There's also a maintenance workbench. I wish I knew more about bike maintenance than I do. The most I've ever done on my own is pry the chain loose that one time I tried to shift and it wrapped around the adject gear. Apparently, that's been a semi-regular occurrence since 1989, though.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

MSLGROUP + Sqwiggle

This post is from January 13th (I'm a time traveler).

Today (Monday) we went to visit MSLGROUP (that's how it's capitalized on their website), which is a very large PR firm. I knew nothing about marketing or PR going into this meeting, so I'll start with the most obvious factoid: The difference between PR and advertising, and I'm paraphrasing, that advertising focuses on one product and PR is all about the whole image of the company or the brand.

Relevant advice from this morning: study or work abroad. It'll help with your overall perspective on life, the universe, and everything; and spending time living, studying, and working in another country always looks good on a résumé. (I copy-pasted the diacritics from the internet because I'm too lazy to pull up a terminal window and run that shell script I wrote to change keyboard layouts to one that would allow me to type accented characters directly.)

But about the studying/working abroad, I've done the former, and it was great. I'm still harboring not-so-secret ambitions of moving to Germany to live and work there. I know there are tech jobs there, and in the meantime, I'll try not to forget my German.

I can still say that PR is not something I'm interested in doing. Learning about or listening to someone who enjoys their PR job talk about it is always great, of course. I'm just quite certain that I'm meant to be a software developer.

Now for Sqwiggle. It's an always-on video conferencing service meant for coworkers to keep in touch with each other. I suspect it'd be more useful for remote offices than in an open-floor-plan office.

The full video isn't actually always-on, for two reasons. There's bandwidth considerations, for one. (Let's see some fiber running to my future home!) The other is that nobody wants to be on camera all day. The second problem is circumvented by fading between black and white snapshots every ten seconds. You can still tell when someone's at their desk and available to talk quickly, but it's not as invasive as full video.

Since I'm a Luddite reactionary who avoids having a social media presence (this blog is required, not voluntary), I feel I have to continue talking about the privacy issue here. I could probably get used to using Sqwiggle at work, but I might put a sticky note over my webcam when I need to focus on some code. But at home? No way, no how. Home is private, for just me and my cats. No outside eyes looking in, thank you very much.

My reluctance to run Sqwiggle on a personal computer aside, it was actually very cool, and not only from a technical-interest standpoint. There was one anecdote that I thought was pretty funny: meeting people in person for the first time is always kinda weird. You never know how tall they are from just head and shoulders video, and people look different in 3D than in a 2D image.

Which reminds me of the time my best friend met some voice actor, I think it was, and was surprised by how short he was. Telling me about it later: "He was so short! I was like, 'Dude, are your feet buried in the floor?' ... He was about your height, actually."

In conclusion, I am 66 inches tall, and according to the CDC, the average American woman is 63.8 inches.