Sharing is a competitive advantage

Why the Velocity conference is coming to New York.

In October, we’re bringing our Velocity conference to New York for the first time. Let’s face it, a company expanding its conference to other locations isn’t anything that unique. And given the thriving startup scene in New York, there’s no real surprise we’d like to have a presence there, either. In that sense, we’ll be doing what we’ve already been doing for years with the Velocity conference in California: sharing expert knowledge about the skills and technologies that are critical for building scalable, resilient, high-availability websites and services.

But there’s an even more compelling reason we’re looking to New York: the finance industry. We’d be foolish and remiss if we acted like it didn’t factor in to our decision, and that we didn’t also share some common concerns, especially on the operational side of things. The Velocity community spends a great deal of time navigating significant operational realities — infrastructure, cost, risk, failures, resiliency; we have a great deal to share with people working in finance, and I’d wager, a great deal to learn in return. If Google or Amazon go down, they lose money. (I’m not saying this is a good thing, mind you.) When a “technical glitch” occurs in financial service systems, we get flash crashes, a complete suspension of the Nasdaq, and whatever else comes next — all with potentially catastrophic outcomes.

There are some massive cultural and regulatory differences between web companies and financial organizations, yet both have a relentless focus on rapid growth. However, they’ve approached growth (and the risk management associated with it) in two very different ways. Financial companies are highly competitive in a very closed manner — trading algorithms are held close to the chest like cards in a poker game. Conversely, the kind of exponential growth seen in the web industry over the past 20 years or so is borne out of a uniquely open ethos of sharing. Don’t get me wrong, startups are competitive, as they should be. And yet, in the second year of the Velocity conference in 2010, there was someone from Facebook operations talking about how they keep the site running, and another person talked about their front-end engineering frameworks, tools, and processes. And the same from Twitter.

In 2011, things got really interesting. People started talking about how they’d screwed up — and this wasn’t just swapping disaster stories; they talked about how to learn and benefit from screwing up, how to make failure a feature — something planned for and expected. A robust, honest culture of sharing information has evolved at Velocity that reflects a unique, counterintuitive startup mentality: sharing is a competitive advantage. Being able to see and talk openly about what other companies were doing spurred innovation and accelerated the rate of change. A thousand developers fixing bugs in Apache is more efficient than 1,000 developers fixing bugs in 1,000 different proprietary web servers. To those familiar with open source software, admittedly, this will not seem such a transcendent concept, but in other industries this could rightfully be considered the exact opposite, and giving away your competitive advantage.

Velocity is doing something different from just sharing software. It’s sharing ideas about operations and performance in high-stakes environments. And if the stakes are high in Silicon Valley, they’re that much higher in NYC. So, what can someone in the finance development or operations world learn from Velocity? For starters, dig a bit deeper into reports on recent outages and you start to see that the “technical glitches” are more often than not some combination of manual configuration and human error issues — they exist in the fuzzy boundaries between human decision making and automation. This is a problem space that the Velocity conference and community at large has been investigating and innovating in for some time now. Automation — of configuration management, development hand-offs, testing, and deployment — has had a dramatic effect on the speed, stability, and precision of web software in recent years, and I’d argue a similar shift needs to happen soon for financial software as well. That said, automation in a vacuum, or done poorly, can be worse than the alternatives.

It’s these types of conversations we aim to bring to a new location and new industries come October. We hope you’ll join us there.

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