Launch 48

Launch48: inspiring, frustrating, mind boggling, fun, stressful, knackering, rewarding, and probably life changing one way or another. It’d better be anyway, since I’m missing the ThoughtWorks Christmas Party to attend.

Friday

The Conference

I check in at the PayPal offices and receive possibly the largest ID badge ever, for which somebody had the brilliant idea to print the agenda on the back. In the main room, small clusters of men sit amongst empty seats, discussing what I can only imagine are the next big thing in mobile. I’m terrified: I have no ideas, I’m here for the hackathon, where are the geeks and the girls?

Then Cathy sits down and says hello: she’s friendly and smart, and I’m inspired by how confidently she’s networking already. At last, things kick off with keynote speaker Darren. He’s engaging and insightful and I’m soon tweeting the highlights, but, as @otaku_coder comments: “Interesting how it seems to be only me, @ecobela and @jocranford tweeting at #launch48, this is a mobile event!”

@ecobela turns out to be Bela: the girls may be small in number this weekend but we are loud all right. I debate whether to STFU, but nobody’s complaining yet and I’m enjoying myself.

The presentations continue: 15 minutes each, which is the perfect length. John Lunn (Head Wizard at PayPal) is entertaining and I can’t wait to try Appcelerator; the VouChaCha founders give us an insight of what life can be like if we take our newly hatched business forward after the weekend; and Andy Munarriz of Hullomail gives me a new favourite word: featuritis.

Microsoft and Adobe have speakers at the event, which is great, but they can’t quite follow Ian’s countdown timer and overrun.

(Note: for a summary of the talks, Ben Wirtz published a great Launch 48 Conference Summary)

The messages I take away are that it’s hard to make money from mobile, and we will need to market our apps. Targeting more than three platforms is very tough, and the same UI doesn’t work for different platforms.

Pitching

At some point during the day, I decide I’m going to pitch, mostly because I find the whole idea terrifying. Ian draws out the anticipation for as long as possible with a Q&A panel before pitches start, with advice that is spot on although leaves me still with no real warning of what I’m in for.

Once I’ve pitched, I’m desperate to win, and I anxiously try to count the raised voting hands. Competition is fierce with some brilliantly entertaining ideas including “PeePal” and “Flitr”. There’s a tense silence as Tom grapples with Excel, then the results are in; and so am I! YES!

Forming Teams

My team members are a well mixed group, and I’m grinning like an idiot because it’s such a buzz that they chose me, and probably also because the beer has started to flow. We try to Clarify The Idea (as directed by The Launch48 Booklet).

There’s a lot of energy but I feel like creativity is stifled as we debate whether the app should work offline for users abroad, and where to get data. I grab a flip chart and attempt to find something we can agree to focus on, but it’s a struggle, and although we eventually agree on the user scenario, the same issues and questions continue to rear their head all weekend.

Saturday

Getting Started

At Tesco on Saturday morning I stock up on sweets and post-its, and on arriving I decorate a corner of the office with flip chart sheets. Scope control is going to be tough so I dedicate one sheet to Featuritis in the hope that if the ideas are captured they will not derail us. I scrawl “Build the simplest thing that could possibly work, then iterate!”, a mantra which the Launch 48 blog pokes fun at when we can’t agree scope.

The team have been hard at work already: we have a rough PhoneGap prototype, contact list, elevator pitches and a business plan. I write it all on flip charts and ask the team to underline the parts of the elevator pitch that they think form the heart of the app, this turns out to be “Simple” and “Custom Itineraries”. Despite my frequent and sometimes desperate references to this throughout the day, we battle to find a level of simplicity that we can run with.

I take the lead by default, and at first it’s fun. We create personas: Waldo and Susan are immortalised on the wall, but almost immediately we lose traction when we try to figure out how Susan will find our application: is it per city, or one app? The team seems unable to put an issue aside for later, so our first board meeting is a welcome distraction.

First board meeting

We sit in a row in front of the mentors. Ian grins at us like a child hiding something unpleasant behind his back, and I worry that a grilling is coming. It’s not as bad as I’d anticipated though, and we survive the gentle questioning. We admit that we have a data issue. The mentors suggest Yelp, Wikitravel, YQL. We need to sort it, and fast.

Ian gives us a to-do list. Blog post, marketing plan, business plan, technical architecture, UX designs. I’m slightly baffled; it’s a lot of businessy stuff, when do I get to hack a cool app together?

We divide and start to conquer the to-dos, and we make some serious progress on the business and marketing plan, at the cost of fragmenting the team.  The business team come up with an awesome name, Itiner8, and Patrick grabs the .com.

Progress on the UI sketches stalls: we can’t agree on how many buttons the initial screen should have. I want to JFDI, the others want an optimal UI now, and time slips away. Mentors stop by to lend their experiences, but even with this incredible expertise we struggle to reach a conclusion.

I’m tired of wading through mud; I want to code. We watch the Appcelerator demo, but Patrick seems pretty set on using PhoneGap, which he’s already familiar with. Data is still an issue, nothing seems to meet our requirements, perhaps because nobody really knows what they are.

Mentoring

Mentor Dan Moon visits our sofas and delivers a solid kick in the backside: choose a project manager and get going with building something, fake the data, just get it done. He doesn’t understand why everything is such an issue. Most teams are already halfway through their app.

Mark asks if I want to project manage, but I firmly decline and point out that he’s doing a far better job at the moment. Blatant flattery maybe but it releases me from the responsibility.

Coding doesn’t get far before I am distracted by the UI designers, who are sitting around a table producing pages of beautifully drawn iPhone screens. They are discussing aspects of the application that I don’t feel form the meat of it. I bluster in and announce that we need to keep it simple, and they are overcomplicating it. This is not what we discussed this morning. I succeed only in convincing them to dig their heels in further, and I want to tear my hair out.

I seek out Dan, who advises that we should get together, sort it out and move forward. Feeling like I’ve just grassed someone up to the teacher, I return and ask Mark to call the team together. My emotions and frustration are running high, and things get sticky when we try to discuss scope – neither side is giving an inch. With only ten minutes until our next board meeting, voting is 5-5, and we head in to get our mentors’ advice.

They’re not impressed either, the app should be mostly done by now. We file out and get back to work: I struggle with the back end while Patrick tries to get the PhoneGap app working.

The business guys have an excellent idea: write a short survey to gauge a price point, so we tweet the link.

Finally I head home to continue working on the back end and source some Yelp data, which turns out to be pretty good. I wish we’d tried it earlier.

Sunday

Prototyping

I’m early and take advantage of the quiet to indulge in playing with Appcelerator. After trying to keep the team focussed, I really shouldn’t be wasting time when we have half a PhoneGap app already, so it’s a guilty pleasure.

Overnight the results to the survey have poured in, and Rafael has produced an impressive looking HTML prototype overnight. I suggest that we take it to Starbucks and try it with real people. Later on, they do, and it goes down well.

We sail through the board meeting, although our actual app development is sorely behind schedule. I discover that Ernesto is a Ruby wiz, and suddenly we are rubbing along a whole lot better. He introduces me to Mechanize and soon we are pulling wiki data for our descriptions.

When Patrick has to leave unexpectedly, I opt to try and build something simple in Appcelerator for the demo on Sunday evening. This backfires when I run into an awkward bug, and the final offering for our demo is fairly pathetic. I had a lovely time coding it though.

Final Presentation

The final presentation has been written by Mark and the others so as we line up at the front I’ve only a vague idea what they’re going to say. Mark dodges the awkward questions about our finances, as investment banker Zuza put them together and she’s left already. We have to swap laptops halfway through to demo, and we can’t get the slides back up afterwards, so we’re not looking too smooth here. In our defence the presentations had been brought forward due to the tube strike. Ultimately, Mark does us proud, and Rafael’s prototype looks slick.

With the presentation over, the emotional blackmail begins: are we going to carry it on? There’s a weak desire to meet up and see what happens, but by the end of the evening Mark admits that he’s not going to drive it any further. Caught up with everybody’s enthusiasm it’s difficult to say that this is it, but my heart’s not in it either.

They think it’s all over …

I tidy up the flipcharts and post-its and pack my computer away. Finally it’s over. I find a beer and mingle with the people I’ve met this weekend, and make sure I’ve handed out my business cards. I chat to some of the mentors and marvel at the quality of people I’ve met.

For all the frustration and craziness, I can’t wait for the next Launch48.  This weekend has already changed my life. Monday morning: I steam into work, ready to go, with more energy and drive than I’ve had in weeks. I’ve already got another mobile app idea turning over in my mind, and this one, I will finish. Maybe.

Encouraging Diversity

Encouraging diversity within the IT industry and the software teams in which I work is a cause that has become increasingly important to me over the last year. Women are an under-represented group within IT, and for me this is a key area I would love to see improve.

It’s not uncommon to interpret ‘encouraging diversity’ as ‘having targets’, and this was exactly my opinion not so long ago. My recent experiences, however, have shifted my views and the more I learn, the more I want to contribute to the cause.

Why is it so important? Because more diverse teams are generally more productive, with a better variety of ideas, and are more pleasant places to work.

In my personal experience as a consultant, I’ve also found it much more pleasant when working away from home to have another lady around to socialise with.

Targets are bad. They shift focus to hitting a goal of a number – by the right or possibly the wrong means – instead of instigating a lasting change. But encouraging diversity, particularly gender diversity, means truly understanding and tackling the underlying issues that cause IT teams to be so male-dominated – in a way that can change the industry for the better, and for the long term.

As a lady in a male-dominated industry, I’ve always worked on teams with at least one female member (obviously). Watching the first two episodes of The Apprentice this season, I found it interesting to see the marked difference between the infighting in week one – where the teams were split by gender – and week two when at least on Team Apollo, Stella took a firm hand with the bickering boys.

Over time, I do hope to see attitudes shift. One day, maybe the majority of teams I work in will be balanced between women and men!

Once upon a time, there was a developer …

I started out in my career as a developer, but it wasn’t long before frustration kicked in. Frustration, that is, with the business: they wanted everything. All at once. And sometimes, they wanted things that were daft, or pointless, in my lowly developer’s opinion.

When the opportunity came up to become a product manager, I jumped at the chance to try and influence the prioritisation process. Our team was successful to some degree (some people will never stop asking for daft things) but I missed being part of the technical implementation, and within a couple of years I found myself back in the role of a Program Manager, a special combination of business analyst and project management roles (different to the programme manager role as I understand it now).

Our team were the first in our company to try using agile techniques. In an environment that was increasingly process heavy, it wasn’t always easy. Our immediate management were both a help and a hindrance, finding creative ways to circumvent the heavier processes but ultimately not doing enough to change the company as a whole. We had the enthusiasm for Scrum but not the experience to optimise it for our team. Ultimately, I chose to move on to ThoughtWorks – a company known for promoting agile that I had long admired, and hoped would be a place to gain experience by working on many different projects.

As a business analyst in an agile team, I found that the work ebbed and flowed. I envied the developers, working on one story, with a (mostly) continuous flow of work. These people cared about what they developed, about writing good tests, long term maintenance, finding new technologies. The seed of an idea began to form in my mind – could I go back to development?

It was a scary thought. Would it be like going back to the beginning again? Would I be any good at it? Would they want to halve my pay?

It turns out that yes, it’s pretty scary, but yes, it can be done. And no, they didn’t halve my pay either. As for whether I’m any good: well, time will tell, but I don’t think I’m doing terribly badly.

I’ve been meaning to get back into blogging for some time – work and life seem to keep getting in the way – so I don’t know yet if this will be successful, but it seemed a good excuse and a good place to start!