Jenn Webb

Jenn Webb is a veteran of the newspaper industry turned freelance scribe, editor, and researcher. She is a nerd with a passion for technology and cultural disruption. She currently serves as O'Reilly Radar's managing editor and helps to investigate topics in the Design, IoT+, Data, and Emerging Tech spaces.

Signals from the 2015 O’Reilly Velocity Conference in Santa Clara

Key insights from DevOps, Web operations, and performance.

People from across the Web operations and performance worlds are coming together this week for the 2015 O’Reilly Velocity Conference in Santa Clara. Below, we’ve assembled notable keynotes, interviews, and insights from the event.

Think like a villain

Laura Bell outlines a three-step approach to securing organizations — by putting yourself in the bad guy’s shoes (without committing actual crime, she stresses):

  1. Think like a villain and be objective: identify why and how someone would attack your company; what is the core value they’d come to steal?
  2. Create a safe place to create a little chaos: don’t do it live, but find a safe place without restriction and without fear to break things, to practice creative chaos.
  3. Play like you’ve never read the the rule book: Not everyone plays by the same rules as you, so to protect yourself and your company, you have to think more like the person willing to break the rules.

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Real-world interfaces are in an awkward and playful stage

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Josh Clark on the world as an interface, avoiding data rash, and the importance of play.

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World_Alarm_Clock_Bob_Bob_FlickrIn this week’s episode of the Radar Podcast, O’Reilly’s Mary Treseler chats with Josh Clark, founder of design agency Big Medium (formerly known as Global Moxie). Clark talks about the changing nature of his work as the world itself becomes more of an interface, how to avoid “data rash,” and why in this time of rapid technology growth it’s essential for designers to splash in the puddles.

The world is the medium

The influence of the Internet of Things is beginning to touch every aspect of our lives, from how we communicate to how we work to how we play. This fundamental shift away from screens to the real-world around us not only is influencing how designers approach their craft, but is changing the medium itself in which designers work. Clark talked about this shift and how it’s affecting his own work:

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found the nature of my work has been changing as well as my interests. I think the culture of digital design is changing, too, as we start moving off of screens. It felt like an opportunity to redefine my own work, so I also did that with my agency and changed its name to Big Medium. The idea of that being that the Internet itself is a pretty big medium, and in fact starting to expand beyond the bounds that we’ve traditionally associated it with, which is the screen. Increasingly, as we’re seeing connected devices — the smart phones were kind of the leading edge of this, but now we’re starting to see wearables and the Internet of Things — this idea that the Internet is becoming embedded in our environment and in everyday objects means that anything can be an interface.

My work is starting to engage more and more with that truly big medium, which is the world itself. Finally, the world is the interface, which of course it always has been, but now we’re able to create digital experiences that belong to the world that we actually move in instead of us having to dive into the screens.

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How Shazam predicts pop hits

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Cait O'Riordan on Shazam's predictive analytics, and Francine Bennett on using data for evil.

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record_player_from_1920s_Marcin_Wichary_FlickrIn this week’s Radar Podcast, I chat with Cait O’Riordan, VP of product, music and platforms at Shazam. She talks about the current state of predictive analytics and how Shazam is able to predict the success of a song, often in the first few hours after its release. We also talk about the Internet of Things and how products like the Apple Watch affect Shazam’s product life cycles as well as the behaviors of their users.

Predicting the next pop hit

Shazam has more than 100 million monthly active users, and its users Shazam more than 20 million times per day. This, of course, generates a ton of data that Shazam uses in myriad ways, not the least of which is to predict the success of a song. O’Riordan explained how they approach their user data and how they’re able to accurately predict pop hits (and misses):

What’s interesting from a data perspective is when someone takes their phone out of their pocket, unlocks it, finds the Shazam app, and hits the big blue button, they’re not just saying, “I want to know the name of this song.” They’re saying, “I like this song sufficiently to do that.” There’s an amount of effort there that implies some level of liking. That’s really interesting, because you combine that really interesting intention on the part of the user plus the massive data set, you can cut that in lots and lots of different ways. We use it for lots of different things.

At the most basic level, we’re looking at what songs are going to be popular. We can predict, with a relative amount of accuracy, what will hit the Top 100 Billboard Chart 33 days out, roughly. We can look at that in lots of different territories as well. We can also look and see, in the first few hours of a track, whether a big track is going to go on to be successful. We can look at which particular part of the track is encouraging people to Shazam and what makes a popular hit. We know that, for example, for a big pop hit, you’ve got about 10 seconds to convince somebody to find the Shazam app and press that button. There are lots of different ways that we can look at that data, going right into the details of a particular song, zooming out worldwide, or looking in different territories just due to that big worldwide and very engaged audience.

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CSS Grid Layout: The modern way of doing layout on the Web

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Rachel Andrew on modern Web layout, and Kyle Simpson defends JavaScript Coercion.

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In this week’s episode of the Radar Podcast, O’Reilly’s Mac Slocum chats with Rachel Andrew, founder of edgeofmyseat.com, about CSS Grid Layout and the role responsive design is playing in emerging Web technologies.

In 2004, Andrew published The CSS Anthology: 101 Essential Tips, Tricks & Hacks. Through the years of revisions, she noted in the interview, not that much has changed; sure, we’ve moved on from Netscape 4, she said, but “the [layout] methods we’re using haven’t moved on much since I wrote that book, which is kind of terrifying.” This is why Andrew is so excited about CSS Grid Layout, which she sees as bringing Web layout into the modern day:

CSS Grid Layout is a new spec, an emerging spec. It originally came from Microsoft. In fact, there’s an early implementation of it in IE 10 and 11. It’s kind of moved on now. It’s really a specification for laying out Web pages and/or applications. It’s something that we haven’t really had up to now. The specs and the sort of things that we’re using for layout, things like float and so on, really are quite like hacks to get them to work. Developers have been working around this stuff for years. Grid, I’m quite excited about because it’s sort of the first time it feels like a really modern way of doing layout on the Web.

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A vision of a decentralized IoT stack

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Eric Jennings on the importance of creating a decentralized Internet for the Internet of Things.

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In this week’s Radar Podcast, I followed up with Eric Jennings, co-founder and CEO of Filament, about his vision of a decentralized Internet. In last week’s episode, Jennings chatted with O’Reilly’s Mac Slocum a bit about a decentralized Internet in the context of the Internet of Things, and I ventured a bit deeper into the topic this week.

I asked Eric about the model — what would a decentralized Internet for the IoT look like and how would it work? He likened it to the Web:

We actually take a large portion of our model, our mental model, about a decentralized IoT from the early Web. If you imagine back in the early Web days — way back, mid-80s, early 90s — HTTP and websites had just started coming around, and they were originally focused and designed for academic research papers to link to each other.

Back then there was this entire, and there still is, there’s an entire open protocol stack that the Web runs on. Since any site could link directly to another site, it became very open and friendly, and there were all these wonderful things that emerged from — the Facebooks and Googles and WordPresses of the world were built on top of this standardized open reference platform.

What we like to think is, what would that look like if you took that concept and mapped it over onto the Internet of Things? What similar analogies to the Facebooks and Googles and WordPresses would we see if we had a truly decentralized and open IoT stack, and not necessarily one that’s full of silos and verticalized specific solutions to small industry segments.

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Our future sits at the intersection of artificial intelligence and blockchain

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Steve Omohundro on AI, cryptocurrencies, and ensuring a safe future for humanity.

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I met up with Possibility Research president Steve Omohundro at our Bitcoin & the Blockchain Radar Summit to talk about an interesting intersection: artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain/cryptocurrency technologies. This Radar Podcast episode features our discussion about the role cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies will play in the future of AI, Omohundro’s Self Aware Systems project that aims to ensure intelligent technologies are beneficial for humanity, and his work on the Pebble cryptocurrency.

Synthesizing AI and crypto-technologies

Bitcoin piqued Omohundro’s interest from the very start, but his excitement built as he started realizing the disruptive potential of the technology beyond currency — especially the potential for smart contracts. He began seeing ways the technology will intersect with artificial intelligence, the area of focus for much of his work:

I’m very excited about what’s happening with the cryptocurrencies, particularly Ethereum. I would say Ethereum is the most advanced of the smart contracting ideas, and there’s just a flurry of insights, and people are coming up every week with, ‘Oh we could use it to do this.’ We could have totally autonomous corporations running on the blockchain that copy what Uber does, but much more cheaply. It’s like, ‘Whoa what would that do?’

I think we’re in a period of exploration and excitement in that field, and it’s going to merge with the AI systems because programs running on the blockchain have to connect to the real world. You need to have sensors and actuators that are intelligent, have knowledge about the world, in order to integrate them with the smart contracts on the blockchain. I see a synthesis of AI and cryptocurrencies and crypto-technologies and smart contracts. I see them all coming together in the next couple of years.

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Signals from the O’Reilly Fluent Conference 2015

From user-centric performance to cognitive resources, here are key insights from the O’Reilly Fluent Conference.

Experts from across the Web development world came together in San Francisco this week for the O’Reilly Fluent Conference 2015. Below we’ve assembled notable keynotes, interviews, and insights from the event.

User-centric performance metrics

Paul Irish, PM at Google Chrome, says it’s important to look at performance the right way. Rather than ask “what is slow,” instead focus on “what does the user feel?” Irish outlines four phases of interaction and what users expect to experience. “Focus on the user,” he says, “and all else will follow.”

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Chaos Monkey for systems of people: The ultimate performance hack

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Alois Reitbauer on performance hacking, DevOps applications, and fostering a culture of respect.

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In this week’s episode of the Radar Podcast, O’Reilly’s Courtney Nash chats with Alois Reitbauer, chief evangelist at Ruxit, about how DevOps is deeply woven into the Ruxit culture. Reitbauer also talks about how the term “performance hacking” came about at Ruxit, why Chaos Monkey should be applied to systems of people, and why trust across — and between — all departments in an organization is essential.

DevOps beyond DevOps

Performance hacking is a term that emerged at Ruxit about a year ago as the company prepared for the beta launch, Reitbauer said, when they realized as the company scaled up, they needed to bring everyone from all their teams together. “The idea of performance hacking, then,” he noted, “was really, how can we scale up this collaboration between the DevOps teams, the product development teams, and our go-to-market growth hacking teams while we grow as an organization.” The ultimate aim was to figure out how to continue to act like a three-person, one-room startup as the company scaled to a couple hundred people.

One of the approaches embraced at Ruxit is to apply some of the DevOps best practices to their growth hacking and product development strategies. As an example, Reitbauer offered up the idea of Chaos Monkey, as applied not to AWS instances, but to the organization as a whole. The way it works, he explained, is to send a member of a team — any team — away on short notice (or no notice) and see what breaks. Reitbauer said that they’d actually done this and outlined what they learned from the exercise:

We have done it, and it also came up as part of our regular organizational practices. Like, when we had our first very strong conference season — we sent people to different shows all over the place; we picked people from the team who had to go somewhere. And even if people knew they were going to be out of the office in a couple of weeks, they still started to behave as if they would be around all the time, that they wouldn’t be leaving the office. Then, suddenly they were on a plane. They had no time to do their everyday work, and suddenly they realized where they really needed help. So, you don’t even have to make it a total surprise. You just have to plan how to get people out of their regular working behavior to do something else. Then we were able to figure out, ‘We really need somebody else to be able to jump in here or to help somebody out over there.’ It might be a regular holiday or just not daily routine.

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Experience design gives you the competitive edge

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Andy Budd on the rising value of design, the bright future of agencies, and designers on the brink.

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This week on the Radar Podcast, O’Reilly’s Mary Treseler chats with Andy Budd, a partner and UX designer at Clearleft. Their wide-ranging conversation circles around lessons learned at Clearleft, understanding who your user really is, and why design agencies have a bright future. Budd also offers some insight into the people and projects he’s keeping an eye on, or rather, as he explains, keeping a look out for — the next big things probably aren’t yet on our radar, he says.

As Clearleft, a user-experience design consultancy, has matured over its 10 or so years, Budd says they’ve gotten a lot more interested in the psychology and philosophy behind design, how designers’ actions affect the world and society in general. The value of design, Budd notes, has been increasing over the past few years, becoming equal to — or even beginning to surpass — the prominence technology has traditionally enjoyed:

When I used to go to technology conferences, six, seven, eight years ago, the general narrative was around actual technology. It was around the developers as heroes around the technical stack being the main differentiator. Design was often lost in the conversation. Now, I think that’s changed. I think in the last three or four years, actually the technology stack, and the technology in general, has become a lot more commoditized, with the rise of rapid prototyping tools, with the rises of libraries and frameworks, and also just the general maturation of products. I think it’s very rare nowadays that a startup or product company will have, particularly in the Web space, will have a massive competitive advantage, just through technology alone. Read more…

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Better currency through programming

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Vitalik Buterin on bitcoin, the blockchain, Ethereum, and the future of money.

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In this Radar Podcast, I chat with Vitalik Buterin, founder of Ethereum and co-founder of Bitcoin Magazine. We met at our Bitcoin & the Blockchain summit in San Francisco to talk about the disruptive potential of the bitcoin and blockchain technologies. He also outlined some of the problems he’s trying to solve with Ethereum and weighed in on how the use cases of money are going to change over the next 10 to 20 years.

Buterin told me that his father initially introduced him to bitcoin in 2011, and he wasn’t immediately interested — in fact, he outright rejected it, thinking, “It looks like it has no intrinsic value, and it’s obviously not going to work.” As he kept hearing about, he decided to investigate more and came to the realization that ultimately led him to create the Ethereum platform:

I immediately recognized that the way bitcoin works is the way that money should work. It’s exactly the correct approach, where you have: here’s the address you’re supposed to send to, here’s how much you want to send, here’s the button to send it. It’s money made for the Internet, not like the credit card approach, where you just basically give everyone the details to take as much as they want from your bank account.

On a trip to Israel, Buterin encountered projects, such as Colored Coins and Mastercoin, using blockchain technology for things other than bitcoin currency. “They were trying to let people issue their own assets,” he said. “They were trying tack features on top, tack financial contracts on top.” The protocols, Buterin noted, were overly complicated and he realized there might be a better way: “You could make it much simpler just by replacing everything with a programming language, and then if you do that, then people can write as many features as they want in the programming language after the fact.”

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