- Program Synthesis Explained — The promise of program synthesis is that programmers can stop telling computers how to do things, and focus instead on telling them what they want to do. Inductive program synthesis tackles this problem with fairly vague specifications and, although many of the algorithms seem intractable, in practice they work remarkably well.
- Creating a Data-Driven Culture — new (free!) ebook from Hilary Mason and DJ Patil. The editor of that team is the luckiest human being alive.
- Ev Williams on Metrics — a master-class in how to think about and measure what matters. If what you care about — or are trying to report on — is impact on the world, it all gets very slippery. You’re not measuring a rectangle, you’re measuring a multi-dimensional space. You have to accept that things are very imperfectly measured and just try to learn as much as you can from multiple metrics and anecdotes.
- Nature, the IT Wizard (Nautilus) — a fun walk through the connections between information theory, computation, and biology.
Toward unifying customer behavior and operations metrics.
For the last ten years I’ve had a foot in both the development and operations worlds. I stumbled into the world of IT operations as a result of having the most UNIX skills in the team shortly after starting at ThoughtWorks. I was fortunate enough to do so at a time when many of my ThoughtWorks colleagues and I where working on the ideas which were captured so well in Jez Humble and Dave Farley’s Continuous Delivery (Addison-Wesley).
During this time, our focus was on getting our application into production as quickly as possible. We were butting up against the limits of infrastructure automation and IaaS providers like Amazon were only in their earliest form.
Recently, I have spent time with operations teams who are most concerned with the longer-term challenges of looking after increasingly complex ecosystems of systems. Here the focus is on immediate feedback and knowing if they need to take action. At a certain scale, complex IT ecosystems can seem to exhibit emergent behavior, like an organism. The operations world has evolved a series of tools which allow these teams to see what’s happening *right now* so we can react, keep things running, and keep people happy.
At the same time, those of us who spend time thinking about how to quickly and effectively release our applications have become preoccupied with wanting to know if that software does what our customers want once it gets released. The Lean Startup movement has shown us the importance of putting our software in front of our customers, then working out how they actually use it so we can determine what to do next. In this world, I was struck by the shortcomings of the tools in this space. Commonly used web analytics tools, for example, might only help me understand tomorrow how my customers used my site today.
Learn to resist vanity metrics
One of the things we preach in Lean Analytics is that entrepreneurs should avoid vanity metrics—numbers that make you feel good, but ultimately, don’t change your behavior. Vanity metrics (such as “total visitors”) tend to go “up and to the right” but don’t tell you much about how you’re doing.
Many people find solace in graphs that go up and to the right. The metric “Total number of people who have visited my restaurant” will always increase; but on its own it doesn’t tell you anything about the health of the business. It’s just head-in-the-sand comforting.
A good metric is often a comparative rate or ratio. Consider what happens when you put the word “per” before or after a metric. “Restaurant visitors per day” is vastly more meaningful. Time is the universal denominator, since the universe moves inexorably forwards. But there are plenty of other good ratios. For example, “revenue per restaurant visitor” matters a lot, since it tells you what each diner contributes.
What’s an active user, anyway?
For many businesses, the go-to metric revolves around “active users.” In a mobile app or software-as-a-service business, only some percentage of people are actively engaged. In a media site, only some percentage uses the site each day. And in a loyalty-focused e-commerce company, only some buyers are active.
This is true of more traditional businesses, too. Only a percentage of citizens are actively engaged in local government; only a certain number of employees are using the Intranet; only a percentage of coffee shop patrons return daily.
Unfortunately, saying “measure active users” begs the question: What’s active, anyway?
To figure this out, you need to look at your business model. Not your business plan, which is a hypothetical projection of how you’ll fare, but your business model. If you’re running a lemonade stand, your business model likely has a few key assumptions:
- The cost of lemonade;
- The amount of foot traffic past your stand;
- The percent of passers-by who will buy from you;
- The price they are willing to pay.
Our Lean lemonade stand would then set about testing and improving each metric, running experiments to find the best street corner, or determine the optimal price.
Lemonade stands are wonderfully simple, so your business may have many other assumptions, but it is essential that you quantify them and state them so you can then focus on improving them, one by one, until your business model and reality align. In a restaurant, for example, these assumptions might be, “we will have at least 50 diners a day” or “diners will spend on average $20 a meal.”
The activity you want changes
We believe most new companies and products go through five distinct stages of growth:
- Empathy, where you figure out what problem you’re solving and what solution people want;
- Stickiness, where you measure how many people adopt your solution rather than trying it and leaving;
- Virality, where you maximize word-of-mouth and references;
- Revenue, where you pour some part of your revenues back into paid acquisition or advertising;
- Scale, where you grow the business through automation, delegation, and process.
Automating NES Games, Code Review Tool, SaaS KPIs, and No Free Lunch
- A General Technique for Automating NES Games — software that learns how to play NES games and plays them automatically, using an aesthetically pleasing technique. With video, research paper, and code.
- rietveld — open source tool like Mondrian, Google’s code review tool. Developed by Guido van Rossum, who developed Mondrian. Still being actively developed. (via Nelson Minar)
- KPI Dashboard for Early-Stage SaaS Startups — as Google Docs sheet. Nice.
- Life Without Sleep — interesting critique of Provigil as performance-enhancing drug for information workers. It is very difficult to design a stimulant that offers focus without tunnelling – that is, without losing the ability to relate well to one’s wider environment and therefore make socially nuanced decisions. Irritability and impatience grate on team dynamics and social skills, but such nuances are usually missed in drug studies, where they are usually treated as unreliable self-reported data. These problems were largely ignored in the early enthusiasm for drug-based ways to reduce sleep. […] Volunteers on the stimulant modafinil omitted these feedback requests, instead providing brusque, non-question instructions, such as: ‘Exit West at the roundabout, then turn left at the park.’ Their dialogues were shorter and they produced less accurate maps than control volunteers. What is more, modafinil causes an overestimation of one’s own performance: those individuals on modafinil not only performed worse, but were less likely to notice that they did. (via Dave Pell)
Open Source Metrics, BitTorrent to TV, Tumblr Value, and Variable Fiction
- Open Source Metrics — Talking about the health of the project based on a single metric is meaningless. It is definitely a waste of time to talk about the health of a project based on metrics like number of software downloads and mailing list activities. Amen!
- BitTorrent To Your TV — The first ever certified BitTorrent Android box goes on sale today, allowing users to stream files downloaded with uTorrent wirelessly to their television. The new set-top box supports playback of all popular video formats and can also download torrents by itself, fully anonymously if needed. (via Andy Baio)
- Tumblr URL Culture — the FOO.tumblr.com namespace is scarce and there’s non-financial speculation. People hoard and trade URLs, whose value is that they say “I’m cool and quirky”. I’m interested because it’s a weird largely-invisible Internet barter economy. Here’s a rant against it. (via Beta Knowledge)
- Design-Fiction Slider Bar of Disbelief (Bruce Sterling) — I love the list as much as the diagram. He lays out a sliding scale from “objective reality” to “holy relics” and positions black propaganda, 419 frauds, design pitches, user feedback, and software code on that scale (among many other things). Bruce is an avuncular Loki, pulling you aside and messing with your head for your own good.
Civil Drones, Fencing the Public Domain, Quantified Spy, and Data Daemons for Fun and Metrics
- Helping Drones Play Nice With Other Aviation — The U.S. airspace is quickly being filled with simultaneously flying drones. To such an extent, unmanned aircraft could soon become a nightmare for the ATC controllers. The ADS-B will improve Predator B’s crew situational awareness making the drone capable to operate more freely and safely in domestic and international airspace in accordance with civilian air traffic and airspace rules and regulations.
- Reclaiming NZ’s Digitised Heritage — Out of a sample of 100 books: 50% of NZ Heritage Books (published before 1890) have been digitised; 90% of digitised texts are fully accessible; 98% of accessible texts are downloadable; Despite all works being in the public domain, only one did not have any licencing restrictions applied to its use. Most groups who digitise then go on to put restrictions around their use. [T]here are also many instances where arbitrary restrictions are being applied to the detriment of the public good.
- Self-Spy (GitHub) — Log everything you do on the computer, for statistics, future reference and all-around fun!
- statsd (GitHub) — Etsy’s data-gathering daemon, written up in an excellent blog post.