Startup Weekend Seattle Reflections

SkillBit is live! (well, in beta anyway). SkillBit is the name of the product we launched at this weekend’s Startup Weekend Seattle event. It was initially described as “Match.com for Enterprise” as a shorthand way of presenting the gist of the idea. It morphed slightly into:

SkillBit helps managers quickly identify existing employees with unique skills for high priority projects and business challenges. SkillBit provides an easy way to manage, collect, organize and utilize your existing employee’s skills and experience. We help companies save time, money and move business forward faster and more efficiently using existing resources.

(h/t Ben Gerstein, from Basecamp)

If you read my earlier posts you’ll remember that there was some confusion and angst about the product idea for this iteration of the Startup Weekend; also see excellent perspectives by Andrew and Elizabeth on this issue. Speaking only for myself, I didn’t really get too concerned about the Friday night product debates and reversals. That’s because I had several overlapping goals for the weekend:

  1. Help create a startup company and develop an awesome product
  2. Meet interesting people and get exposed to different perspectives
  3. Have fun; get jazzed; get motivated
  4. Learn new technologies, tools, and processes

So let me reflect on my SWS experience using those goals as a guidepost.

Help create a startup company and develop an awesome product

I think I may have mentioned earlier that SkillBit was not my first choice of product idea. To be honest, it may not have been in my top three. Nevertheless, I came in intending to commit to WHATEVER the idea was – and I had fun. I heard, or more accurately, suspected, that a couple people didn’t return to SWS after the first or second day because of the choice of the idea. Their loss.

As far as the awesomeness of the product goes, well, SkillBit definitely has a lot of upside. My hunch is that this is the type of technology that could be sold to an existing people aggregator like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. that would allow corporate types to quickly survey their people. To succeed in this space, however, it seems like we need more of a planning/organizational support system. The quick, one-off “who knows Mandarin?” idea will only take us so far.

Finally, in terms of actually launching a product, well, I’m amazed we actually got as much done as we did. As a software person, I naturally think in terms of the efforts of the dev team, but I am just astounded at how much EVERY team did — there was a lot of concentrated effort by everyone across the whole spectrum. Yes, it needs work; yes, there are holes, but we did a great job.

Meet interesting people and get exposed to different perspectives

Startup Weekend Seattle exceeded every expectation I had in this category. I met tons of people from so many diverse backgrounds that I wouldn’t have been exposed to in a year of my “normal” job. Let’s be honest here. This was a group of web / software people, so we all had a lot in common. It was not exactly an eye-opening clash of cultures. No Lord Greystokes, no Commander Perrys, no Connecticut Yankees. But I would probably have not met 2% of these interesting, intelligent, creative people under any other circumstances. And much more importantly, I would not have worked with them in the same way in a million years. Yay for SWS.

Have fun; get jazzed; get motivated

Another huge win for my personal goals. I’ve been reflecting on the word “fun” a bit since I tend to use it a lot. “Fun” doesn’t exactly describe the experience I had at SWS. It was fun — in a professional context, which combined the best parts of what you mean when you use terms like enthusiasm, motivation, challenge, creativity, diversity, novelty, social interaction, and accomplishment. Playing Super Mario Galaxy is fun. This was a couple orders of magnitude different — and better. It’s like the difference between seeing a picture of Scarlett Johansson on IMDB, and hooking up with her at the Viper Room after a movie premiere (not that I would know about that). :)

Coming out of SWS I am more professionally motivated than I’ve been in a while, and that is sure to manifest itself in better, more fulfilling work. The little personal irony for me is that I’m on sabbatical right now, but I have a couple side projects I’m eager to continue moving forward.

Learn new technologies, tools, and processes

Here are the things I actually used to get work done that I had never, ever used before:

Not too goddamned bad for a single weekend. No wonder my brain hurts! (in a good way). A fourth and final big win for SWS.


Feedback and Critiques

Let me take a minute to make some suggestions that might help future SW events. These are totally my personal perspective, and I may be full of shit here.

Ramp up IT and SCM much more quickly

The dev team could have made even more progress had the networking and SCM components been set up earlier. Since this stuff is mostly platform-neutral, it could be done Friday night by a couple people. I’m talking WiFi, source control, continuous integration, etc.

Train on the chosen technology up front

I think an early hour spent with the experts in front of a big whiteboard would pay huge dividends for future SW events, especially ones in which there are 37 developers to start. I wonder how many people left because they didn’t feel comfortable with the technology? Dunno.

Coordination vs. “work” and program management

This general concept is a huge hot button for me. Some people think that coordinating activities is not work — but it is. Even if you don’t have your nose pressed to a monitor, you can still play a vital role in the project. I heard some secondhand rumor that some of the program manager types left SWS because of some issue with whether or not they could effectively contribute. They could have. To my mind, some of the most valuable work done this weekend was done by the “floaters” — I’m thinking of people like Matt, Sherry, Mike, etc. My advice? Tell the PMs something like this:

Look, I know it’s probably unreasonable to expect a project plan and 60-page requirements spec done for this weekend. However, it’s crucial that we have people coordinating the activities of all the different groups. We need you to assign yourselves as liaisons, based on your experience and interest, and help the teams work at maximum effectiveness.

I think this might work.

Get builds out early

This one comes from my experience as QA lead. We were late into Sunday before we got builds on staging that we could effectively test. Some of the stuff that was launched to beta at 8:59 PM was never tested by QA. I’d recommend getting a basic “Hello, World” page (with framework and database) installed Friday night or first thing Saturday morning, and have a CI system in place to launch new builds whenever there’s a commit. Get the non-technical people testing early, to flush out problems (ex: our WiFi router died, and we had to cobble together a ghetto wired network setup).

Emphasize the seven minute meetings

I generally liked the light touch that Andrew Hyde exhibited during the weekend. It worked well and gave smart people the freedom to tackle their challenges with their teams, from the bottom up. However, I think a more strict seven-minute meeting schedule (three times a day?) with participation required would pay dividends in terms of keeping everyone on the same page. By Sunday, the seven-minute meetings were sort of haggard and optional.

Overall: I’m so happy I went to Startup Weekend, and committed to the full weekend.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I will definitely be back the next time SW comes to Seattle, and Andrew was lobbying for us to come to Portland later in the year — who knows?  Maybe!  :)

Oh, and if you want to see photos of the weekend you can check out my Flickr set here.  There’s a SkillBit Flickr group here with everyone’s photos.  If I wasn’t so dumb I’d figure out how to link my personal set to the master set.  I’ll work on that next.

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