Month: June 2010 (page 1 of 5)

Second Week at B-Stock Solutions

As promised, here’s a second post to catch up on everything that’s gone on. I’ll start by going into a little more detail about my placement, B-Stock Solutions.

B-Stock helps large Fortune 1000 manufacturers and retailers liquidate their excess inventories through a private, branded online marketplace. Normally when someone like Walmart wants to get rid of stuff they don’t want to sell in their stores anymore, they go to a traditional liquidator who charges a fixed price and Walmart usually take a steep loss. B-Stock however sets up a buyer auction so the price can be bid up and sellers can get more of their money back. The incentive for buyers is that they know whose stuff they’re bidding for because each brand has their own website.

Why should companies care about liquidation? The thesis behind the business is that liquidation is an easy way to increase profits that most companies don’t take advantage of or don’t have the resources to do so. All you accountants out there know that excess inventory is written off as a loss. However you’ll also remember that your Cost of Goods Sold are basically locked in once you’ve produced or acquired your inventory. Therefore, any increase you get on your liquidation value will go almost completely to increase your profits. If you were to focus instead on increasing profits through sales, you’ll incur additional variable costs which means its much harder to get the same profit increase by just focusing on revenue. Pretty cool concept, it just makes you wonder why no one thought of it before. For those of you who like these sort of accounting exercises, check out this post on the B-Stock blog.

During my first week at the office, I’ve jumped right into the day-to-day. The two main projects I’ve worked on so far are making sure potential buyers have the right paperwork and doing some research about the world’s 250 largest retailers. The founders of B-Stock originally ran a similar product at eBay before spinning it off on their own so a lot of the business plan has already been fleshed out. Since I’m new to the game though, I’m still trying to learn all the ropes of the company and the business. To that end, everyone has been pretty helpful about getting me oriented. The office is really spacious and pretty cool. Aside from work, there’s been some casual chatter about the state of the tech industry and the World Cup. I even got my tail handed to me in a friendly game of ping-pong. I look forward to getting more and more involved with B-Stock and leaving my mark on the company before I leave (in a good way, of course).

It’s my third week here in San Francisco. I finally feel like I’ve hit a stride between my work life and social life. I can finally get off work at 6 and not feel completely dead. It’s great to not feel dead after work.

San Francisco has been an interesting change from New York. Everyone really does seem nicer, or at least less in a hurry, and there are a lot more outdoor activities to participate in. It’s also equally as exciting to see some of the technology entrepreneurs and journalists here that I could never expect to see anywhere else. I’ve had some good conversations on the train and elsewhere with these people I’ve looked up to for years.

Otherwise, my time at VodPod has been fully devoted to making their iPhone application. It has been a great experience, and the application is right on the brink of being finished. I’ve learned a lot about integrating existing systems into an iPhone application and a lot more about user experience. I began to really think about how people would be using this application and what would be the best placement, implementation, or design of every feature to maximize satisfaction.

Thursday was a nice break from work when we went to GigaOm’s Structure conference. The conference is unique in that its sole focus is cloud computing, a rapidly developing sector of the technology industry. It was so interesting to see just the level of detail that just this one part of the technology industry can spawn; from data centers to data algorithms, we heard about everything at Structure, and I came away with just a huge amount of extra knowledge.

TEC only continues to impress and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s weird to think there is only one month left.

Again, I’m Ali and I attend New York University. I enjoy things like Twitter, Quora, Photoshop, Instapaper, Angry Birds, angry birds (as in, birds with a temper),  and 1.7 million iPhone 4’s sold.

Week 3: Change in life and in business

Hey gang,

This week was exciting to say the least. Connor Hood, Ali Shah, and myself went to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco’s double feature on Wednesday night. The first talk was Michael Arrington from TechCrunch interviewing David Kirkpatrick, the author of the hyped new book “The Facebook Effect”, which was a fascinating look into a company that Kirkpatrick began following when it had “only” 50 million users. He found the company’s story so compelling that he quit his Senior Editor of Technology position at Forbes Magazine to write a book about it. Arrington was also quite fun to see in person because he is a notorious interviewer. Overall, the takeaway from Arrington’s TechCrunch article sums up the interview quite nicely, though Arrington is harder on Kirkpatrick for his bias than I would have been (then again, I also got my copy signed by him after the talk!).

Work at SendMe Mobile has begun to pick up nicely. I am given more to do every week and I am encouraged to strike out on my own with new ideas or help with the brainstorming process of things that I am familiar with. It is a strong aspect of startup culture to embrace employee motivation and creativity, which is an aspect I think SendMe really wants to hold on to. That combined with a couple new employees a week gives SendMe a lot of life as it moves forward.

The big event for this week was the GigaOm Structure 2010 Cloud Computing conference. I knew little more about cloud computing than the general overview articles and presentation we got to read in the days leading up to the conference. That said, my inexperience was actually a blessing because it gave me an open mind for the concept. It was very interesting to see very intelligent people talk about this young and dynamic industry. Cloud computing has an extremely bright future and it promises to change the way the business world thinks about IT and computer services. My favorite speaker was the VP of Tech Operations for Facebook (I forget his name and actual title, unfortunately) and him talking about the incredible challenges that Facebook faces in running its half-a-billion-user website. It’s pretty incredible that they have pretty much never had any crashes, bugs, or downtime at all.

The biggest takeaway that I got from Structure 2010 was that businesses are moving to their core competency and outsourcing things that they don’t want to handle. For instance, one of Amazon’s core competencies was having a ton of high-traffic, high-capacity servers but they only got used on Christmas day. So they rent their servers to other companies that don’t want to worry about their servers so they can worry about serving their customers instead. I think that as an overall trend, this is incredibly important. If you look at how employees are trending in the workplace today, everyone is specifying their career into a set of skills so small and targeted that they are perfect for a particular type of job. Though granted, there may not be many of these jobs available, but there are also fewer competitors. The way that Charles Smart put it was that people are “developing their skills in silos”, which I thought was really insightful. As this is slowly happening to the employees of firms, I also realized that the same trend exists with companies. A marketing company like SendMe might someday rent its server space from Amazon (or a competitor), outsource its customer support to a customer support company, and so on. This is encouraging news to me, because the company that I want to start at the end of this summer (as a part-time side project) will hopefully become a part of this trend.

Other than that, my personal life has been very hectic recently due to me moving into my own place. Building Ikea furniture is quite the workout! This song helped me get through what was otherwise tedious work this weekend, and it’s a great example of the capability of electronic music to blend genres. This band, Pretty Lights, has risen to fame by combining house beats with mashed up rock and rap lyrics. Often times, the lyrics are used more as an additional instrument than a completely separate entity. I think this is one of the best examples of effective use of lyrics and human voice in electronic music today. Check it out on Hype Machine.



To MBA or Not to MBA?

Can I just say, one of my favorite things about Silicon Valley is the vibe. I get a lot out of the atmosphere in Mountain View–it’s practically electric. The place is bubbling to the brim with ideas and activity. Sit down in Red Rock Coffee (by now a frequent haunt of mine) and a majority of the time your neighbors will be programmers, either working on their own startup or one they’ve joined. Also, people here talk about tech news like it’s the latest gossip. (“Did you hear what Mark Zuckerberg said…??” *gasp* “OMG no way!”) Love it.

Facebook cult alert! It's what we talk about around the water cooler.

This past Thursday we had the *amazing* opportunity to attend GigaOM’s Structure conference on cloud computing as part of TEC. To be frank, I was familiar with the term and have used applications that took advantage of cloud computing, but a day at Structure quickly showed me how very, very little I really knew about cloud computing. As in, half the terms were Latin to me. Good thing I brought my netbook–I was basically Googling terms nonstop. But it was still an incredible experience! Favorite part: A panel with speakers from PayPal, Engine Yard, Facebook, Zynga, and Yahoo on their experiences with cloud computing–moderated by Facebook’s VP. Actually, take that back. Favorite part: Getting my tweet on said panel retweeted by said moderator. !! Highlight of my Twitter life.

On a side note, a question that’s come up in conversation repeatedly over the past 2 weeks: To MBA or not to MBA? That is,  if you’re planning to go work in a startup. I’m planning on the MBA, but I’ve heard strong opinions on both sides, and I’m particularly interested since the time for making that decision, for me, would be, uh, right about now. So far here’s the arguments I’ve heard–add your thoughts, please!

  • The NETWORK. As one MBA student put it to me, “Business school is one big networking event.”
  • You gotta learn those accounting/finance skills sometime. And the only way you will is by getting it shoved down at B-school.
  • Yeah, you might want to work in a startup at the moment. But if you ever change your mind, an MBA will get you in a lot more doors. Might as well hedge your bets.
  • Despite popular opinion, the classes are actually substantial, informative, and useful! Really!
Not to MBA:
  • Nothing you learn at B-school is actually useful for real life. Sorry kid, go get some work experience instead. And you can learn accounting/finance on your own from a book with some self-discipline.
  • Why waste two years? That’s two years earlier you could have founded your startup!
  • Huh, let’s see, did Bill Gates have an MBA? What about Mark Zuckerberg? Looks like you could do just as well by dropping out of school right now.


Never doubt it before you try it!

As a software engineering intern at Spectrum Bridge, my main responsibilities include fixing bugs in existing code, documenting existing code, and writing new code. With everyone in my team having an average of ten years experience in programming language used by the company, and my lengthy experience of less than one month, I find myself frequently seeking their assistance.
As I begin to need less and less assistance, and get more comfortable with the language and platform, I’ve come to like it quite a lot. For many years, I have been happily using and promoting a set of technologies and tools that are a direct competition to the ones employed by Spectrum Bridge, so I was naturally a little hesitant at first. But now that I got my feet wet, I realize that it is a robust and powerful set of tools, and more importantly, I realize that certain tools are more perfect than others for certain jobs, and Spectrum Bridge’s team of engineers and computer scientists have made the right choice.
I will forever value this lesson, never doubt something before you at least give it a reasonable evaluation.

Cloudy with a chance of SaaS

Hello everyone, I’ve finally made it out to the Left Coast, so no more “London Blogging” for me. I’ve only moved in and started working for a few days, so I’m still making some adjustments. For one, my circadian clock is still in off the coast of Newfoundland somewhere, and it’s made me a morning person for one of the rare times in my life.

There’s been so much going on this week that I may end up doing an extra post instead of one overwhelming wall of text. I thought I’d start talking about this past week’s GigaOm Structure 2010 cloud computing conference. I got up before the crack of dawn to catch the Caltrain into San Francisco. It was an unusually cold morning so the warm and cozy train ride was greatly appreciated. I finally got to meet the TEC group in person and right side up. They seem like a really cool bunch and I’m looking forward to hanging out with them the rest of the summer. We got kind of lost heading to the conference and ended up cutting through a sketchy looking warehouse complex (though not as sketchy as some of the officiating in the World Cup).

I had a very elementary understanding of cloud computing going in; all I knew was instead of running software and storing data on your own machine, you’re running it off of someone else’s server. So when the first panel of the day started talking about databases and NoSQL, this poor finance major was as lost as England after being eliminated 4-1 from the World Cup by Germany. Fortunately the topics got a little less technical as the day went on and we TECers helped each other out by explaining what we understood and (mostly) commiserating. My favorite panel involved representatives from Facebook, Paypal, Zynga and Engine Yard. I understood what their companies did and it made their discussion about scaling easier to follow. Throughout the day, I took down some terms and acronyms I’ll Google when I get home to translate some things into plain English. Overall, I was able to pick up some general trends and themes during the day but more than anything it seems there are more questions than answers right now.

It was a long day to be sure, but nothing compared to the epic 3 day, 11 hour, tennis match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahmut. As you can tell by my jokes, I’ve been watching the World Cup and Wimbledon during my free time, in addition to connecting with some old friends in the Bay Area and learning to cook for myself (read: boiling pasta). In fact, I’ll probably make a theme for my jokes every week (quality not guaranteed). Check in later this week for a post about how things have been going at work. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter, my personal blog, or if you’re a wealthy and influential banker, venture capitalist, or business owner, Linkedin.

P.S. Couldn’t resist posting this.

USA! Week 3!

Wow! Third week working at Inventables in Chicago! Things seem like they are moving at a mile a minute.

First I must congratulate USA on a great World Cup! The last ten minutes of the Algeria game was absolutely sensational. Just amazing! Of course the game against Ghana yesterday was a let down, but we gave it our best shot. Not to jump on any bandwagon, but I think I’m going to have to back Argentina for the rest of the tornament. Messi is just too amazing.

Last post, I wrote about my first Giordano’s deep crust pizza and its spectacular. Since then, I’ve embarked on a personal quest for the best pizza in Chicago. Since then, I’ve had Giordano’s again (so good) and last night visited another Chicago classic called Lou Malnati’s. Although most would  rank Lou Malnati’s above Giordano’s, I have to disagree. So my current rankings are #1 Giordano’s #2 Lou Malnati’s. Hopefully it will be a more substantial list before summer is over.

Pizza aside, much of what I’ve been up to in the office has been motivated by a talk Dan Siroker, co-found of CarrotSticks, gave at Stanford last year. Siroker left Google to become the Director of Analytics for Obama’s campaign. One of his cardinal messages was that the assumptions you make about your business are not always true. On Obama’s website pre-campaign there was a button that people could use to donate. Siroker polled the crowed and asked which was the best text to use on the button: Donate Now, Please Donate, Why Donate?, Donate and Get a Gift and Contribute. The audiance overall thought “Donate and Get a Gift” was the best text to display. When Siroker collected data using Google Website Optimizer, he found that it depended. For first time visitors, “Donate and Get a Gift” generated the most money. For visitors who had already signed up to the mailing list however, “Please Donate” generated the most money.

This illustrates two important points. First, don’t assume anything. Just because you might think one of the texts option is better doesn’t mean that it necessarily is. I recently heard an entrepreneur say that his product would do well because everyone he talked to said they would buy one. Well, someone saying they would buy a product and them actually buying it are too different things. Don’t assume them to be the same.

Also, don’t over-generalize. All users coming into the site aren’t going to behave the same way. First time visitors are different from frequent visitors. People coming to the site from a search engine are different from those coming from an e-mail link.

So you shouldn’t assume and you shouldn’t over generalize. How do you avoid this? Analytics are the answer. It is important to build analytic into your web site so that you have data to look at to maximize the performance of your site. Google Website Optimizer is a great tool to run experiments to test what images and text works best to achieve your goals.

Ok, so that is all I got for this week! Next week among my plans are to attend the Taste of Chicago festival, get deeper into analytics and expand my Chicago pizza ranking. Oh yea, Fourth of July on Sunday! Should be a blast! Till then – hasta la bye bye!

The woes of the World Cup

This past week I have been watching along with the rest of the world as the U.S. soccer team competed against Algeria and Ghana in the World Cup.  It was exhilarating to see Landon Donavan lead the team to glory as he scored in the last two minutes of the game against Algeria.  I was really hoping that the U.S. would be able to advance in the World Cup tournament.  However, after our game against Ghana this past Saturday that dream was shattered when Ghana scored in overtime.

After the game Saturday I was saddened by the fact that the U.S. was no longer in the tournament, but as I reflected on the game my thoughts were drawn to a recent podcast that I had listened to.  In this particular podcast Om Malik, one of the featured guests of the week commented on U.S. companies in the mobile phone market.

In his comments Om mentioned, that in the past four years, the mobile phone market had been turned upside down by U.S. companies such as Apple and Google.  Prior to the emergence of Apple and Google as powerhouses in the mobile market place, other foreign handset makers had dominated the market.  The amazing thing about these American companies is that in as little as four years they had gone from being companies not in the mobile handset market to becoming the dominant players in the mobile industry.

My hope is that in these next four years the U.S. soccer team will be able to replicate what these companies have done in the last four years and become the dominant team in the next World Cup.  On another note, the story of Apple and Google is also similar to the start-up that I currently work for, SendMe Mobile.  SendMe Mobile has gone from being a three-man start-up to become a relatively speaking large company all in the span of less than four years.

What I have learned from my time at SendMe thus far is that great people working together make great companies.  My work at SendMe has been both challenging and rewarding.

Quote of the week:

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” –Steve Jobs

Chapter 3: Old School vs. New School

The highlight of this week was GigaOM’s Structure 2010 conference on the future of cloud computing.

GigaOM logo

Cloud computing is quite a hip and happening thing in the tech world; it flips the paradigm of how companies access and manage their resources on its head.  Rather than storing information on a local server in the traditional manner, information is stored in a remote location and accessed via the Internet.

As you may recall, this summer I’m working at customer support platform Assistly.  The Assistly platform is part of a new wave of software made possible by cloud computing: software as a service, or SaaS.  SaaS, pioneered by CRM companies like Salesforce, licenses software that is accessed by the client over the Internet via a browser, rather than installed on a CD-ROM as before.  I spoke to CEO Alex Bard about why the team chose Amazon EC2 to power Assistly.

AWS logo

From his responses, as well as what I heard at Structure, it seems that the two main draws of cloud computing, as applied to an entrepreneur, are:

(1) Flexibility

Rather than buying physical servers each time Assistly needs more space, Alex can increase Assistly’s cloud space online with just a few clicks, so that the company pays for precisely as much as it needs.  Conversely, in less busy times, Alex can decrease space and save money.  Not only is this more economical, but Assistly won’t be stuck with surplus or outdated hardware in the future.

(2) Peace of mind

Amazon has the experience and facilities needed to keep servers running — giving them an absolute advantage over Assistly in that area.  And Assistly’s happy to pay Amazon to do it so that the team can focus on what they do best, like running the business and building the application.

Not everyone’s thrilled about the advent of cloud computing, however.  Given the way it changes software distribution, some question whether hardware – and traditional systems vendors – will still be relevant in a cloud computing world.  Some hardware companies have anticipated this trend and reacted aggressively.

Dell HP logo

Structure featured an interview with Forrest Norrod of Dell, in which he discuss the company’s efforts in building servers specifically designed for the scalable environment cloud computing is based around.  Meanwhile,  HP is offering a Cloud Design Service for larger clients with internal cloud needs.

What the future of cloud computing holds for hardware manufacturers and entrepreneurs alike remains to be seen, but GigaOM’s Structure gave me a glimpse into that future, and I’d like to sincerely thank Om and the rest of his team for their generosity in giving the TEC interns complimentary tickets.

Old School vs. New School

Old School vs. New School: cloud vs. client-server, in a nutshell.

You are an Engineer? You are Hired

Hello readers! I can’t believe it has been 3 weeks already. I mean, I am almost half way through this internship experience.  I feel like my life is an action movie on fast forward.  It is incredible! I am starting to develop a daily routine and getting into the rhythm of things.  For example, I no longer get nervous of missing my stop on the bus, I have developed a pretty good intuition for when I am suppose to get off. This is good because I can read without looking up every 30 seconds. At work, I am more productive than ever before because I have been really involved in our goal of creating a “process” (sorry I can’t go into any details). I am beginning to see how the each individual piece fit together and how my work becomes a part of the larger picture. This week we were supposed to write about the future of cloud computing, which we learned a lot about at the GigaOm Structure conference. However, I figure I’ll let the other interns write about it. To be honest, I feel like I still need to do a lot more learning, and I don’t want to pretend I am an expert in something I am not. Instead I will reflect on my experiences so far and comment on the culture in the valley.

Living in Silicon Valley and working for a technology startup has really changed my perspective on the value of having a technical background. Before this summer I wouldn’t say I was passionate about coding. I mean, I found it interesting and I did well in my classes, but I never developed a strong interest to do too much beyond the school requirements. I never even saw myself working as a programmer because I thought it meant I would just end up working for someone else. Which is the opposite of my definition of success. This typical east coast point of view is skewed. In Silicon Valley, engineers are the gold. If you have a technical background- you are the center of attention, you are the rock star, and most importantly you are in control of your future.  I vividly remember on my visit to Intuit on Tech Trek, Bill Campbell told me: “ You are an engineer? You are hired”. Since I have been here I have met so many successful entrepreneurs who have a technical background. Needless to say, I have gained a new appreciation for my choice of major.

However, this new appreciation also brings an unwanted sense of insecurity. Silicon Valley attracts the best and brightest engineers from all over the country… scratch that…from the world! (Every morning I sit on the a bus full of Asian immigrants who works at Yahoo) I have realized that relative to everyone else, I feel pretty nontechnical for a technical guy. I have realized that what I learned and practiced in school is the bare minimum of what I need in to compete in the real world. A good example of this is in a classroom, the professor takes the responsibility of coming up the problem sets. The professor breaks down the problem into steps and big concepts. Now I realize, the professor is really doing half of the work for you. In the real world, identifying the flaws in a design is often the hardest part. Realizing my own areas of improvement is not enough is the first step forward. This is why I am rededicating my self to my computer science major.  The internship offers me a great opportunity to learn new technologies and a chance to learn what I can’t in school.

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