Are you a good estimator?

Producing accurate estimations for software projects is notoriously challenging, but why? It all starts with understanding what it takes to make a good estimate.

What is a good estimate?

An estimate is an approximation of something, implying that it is based on uncertainty. Clearly a good estimate is accurate, but since this isn’t always possible, it’s more useful if it at least encodes how uncertain we are.

If I say that a project will be completed in 4 months, it removes an important piece of information — my confidence in the estimate. It’s unlikely that the project will take exactly 4 months, but  is it a low risk project which might take between 3-5 months, or is it based on so many unknowns that it could take over a year? The estimate isn’t more useful with a narrow range if it is based on little to no understanding of the problem.

This is the point made by Steve McConnell in “Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art”, where he argues that the illusion of accuracy can be more dangerous for project estimation than a wide estimate. If we can acknowledge that the estimate is not solid, then we can at least start to improve our knowledge of the problem and begin to make it more accurate.

“Estimates don’t need to be perfectly accurate as much as they need to be useful.” – Steve McConnell.

How good are your estimates?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people overestimate their own ability to make accurate estimations.

To show this, McConnell provides a test (which you can try for yourself here), where you have to estimate the answer to 10 questions with a 90% confidence that the correct answer is in the range of your estimation.

Try it, and come back here. How did you do?

Very few people answer these questions with 90% confidence, partly because we are conditioned to believe that a good estimate is a narrow estimate.

In fact, a lot of the comments on the answers page argue that the questions are poor, because you’d have to be an expert to produce any meaningful (accurate, narrow) estimates. But this is precisely the point!

If you can answer with 90% confidence, but with a very wide range, then you are at least acknowledging that you don’t have enough knowledge to accurately answer the question.

And that’s the first step to fixing the problem.

What Does Business Development Mean at a Startup?

To reiterate what the Marketing and Communications Intern, Laney, explained in the last blog post – interning at AetherWorks does not consist of coffee-fetching and paper-sorting.

My title at AetherWorks is Venture Development Summer Associate, and this summer I’ve been devoting my time entirely to their current venture, AetherStore. My focus is on Business Development for AetherStore, but what exactly does someone do in this position?

The definition not only varies greatly depending on the size and type of startup, but it has become a catch-all phrase that seems to change depending on who you talk to. For me business development means continued, methodical innovation with the goal of growing business opportunities. I work with members of the product, marketing and engineering team to track key tasks and identify customers, manage the deal process, align roadmaps and launch strategies.

For an early stage startup like AetherStore, this is broken down into 3 main objectives:

1. Hypothesize

99% of all successful startup ideas start with an itch, or in the best-case scenario, with a problem that needs to be solved. Dropbox Founder, Drew Houston, was tired of having all his files scattered across his devices. Mark Zuckerberg wanted an easier way of connecting with other students at Harvard. This is where my work starts – identify a problem or “need” big enough that a customer is willing to pay for it, and find that customer. If the problem is not worth solving, create a new hypothesis and start testing that.  This might sound like a gross over simplification of Steven Blanks “the four steps to epiphany,” but at the end of the day what I do is a lot of customer development.

2. Analyze

Last summer working with an education-focused startup on campus, surrounded by thousands of students, I could simply walk out the door and start interviewing people about their problems and solutions. Working with a B2B product, customer development has definitely required more creativity and hard work – spending hours tracking people down on LinkedIn, cold emailing, and running around to NYC tech meetups. However, once you move past the first call, you begin to establish a working relationship with a customer.  You understand their job, their needs, and their problems. Key problems are highlighted and analysis is drawn to filter out the noise so the development team can focus on the right features and best integrations, and we can focus on the right partnerships and channels to deliver the best product experience possible.

3. Focus and Implement

Once we have collected enough information about a consumer segment and their problems, we can start to analyze the data and invalidate or validate our hypothesis, target markets, product features and partnerships. We can create validated strategies for taking AetherStore to market.  The kryptonite for any startup is a lack of focus. This hypothesis testing process ensures that the business team is always focused and doesn’t waste time building partnerships that are not adding value to our business or the consumer; and the development team doesn’t waste time building features that customers don’t want.

As AetherStore is about to release a beta we are all excited to start delivering the product to Early Adopters, and I can’t wait to see what the next half of this summer will bring!

Intern Update: Marketing and Communications

This week marks the halfway point of my internship at AetherWorks. With the end of the summer now closer than the beginning, the realities of senior year are more pressing and require me to think seriously about what I’ll do once I graduate from Brown next May.

In my last post, I mentioned wanting to work for a start-up after graduation. For several months now, that has been my go-to response to questions about my future plans—encouraged by this article I read last summer and the positive experiences of many friends working at start-ups, but unsupported by any personal experience. I’m happy to report that my five weeks of working at AetherWorks has properly validated that statement. It truly is a great working environment.

Being an intern is often associated with mundane tasks, such as coffee runs or stuffing envelopes, but that doesn’t describe my responsibilities as the Marketing and Communications intern. With the AetherStore beta release on the horizon, today’s to-do list is always different than yesterday’s. Though the variety is certainly exciting and exposes me to the complexity of running a start-up, I have most enjoyed working on some of the larger projects because they give my days more continuity and offer a real-time perspective on the process of getting a product to market.

One major project I’ve been working on is the AetherStore Early Adopters Program. A main goal of this project is to collect information from our Early Adopters to help us address specific use cases and tailor the technology for different industries. As AetherStore is still in development, the type of information we collect can significantly influence the direction we take. As a result, my involvement, from promoting the program to setting up calls, has been a great learning experience.

Moreover, my involvement in this program serves as a great tool to measure both the company’s evolution and my personal progress. The opportunity to be put on this type of project as an intern would be unheard of at most places, but with only 9 people in the office, formalities and hierarchy are noticeably absent.

As AetherStore approaches a public beta, things will be picking up quite a bit here. I’m expecting the second half of the summer to be even busier than the first, and I’m excited to see what adjustments will be made to AetherStore as more people try out the software!

Meet Our Summer Interns

AetherWorks offers internships each summer to take full advantage of the fresh perspective and innovative ideas interns bring to the office. In exchange, we want to provide a hands-on learning experience where interns can be fully involved in all aspects of working at a start-up. This summer is no different, and we spent a long time reviewing resumes before finding the two exceptional interns you’ll meet below.

Laney Caldwell, Marketing and Communications

Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Laney will be a senior at Brown University this fall, where she’s studying Political Science. She spent the past two summers working in Boston for nonprofits, where she focused on marketing and operations. She also works for the Maddock Alumni Center as a student liaison for large-scale alumni events. Laney is a Division 1 Varsity Fencer at Brown and member of Brown Women in Business.


LC HSSSSS 
“I want to work for a start-up after graduation, and was particularly interested in working in the tech industry. I think AetherWorks is the right place to get experience because they’ve created an environment that simultaneously supports, challenges, and motivates the entire team. From brushing up on my technical knowledge to working on new marketing strategies, I’m most excited about the sheer breadth of experience I will gain during the next two and a half months watching AetherStore develop.”   

 

Fredrik Kjellberg, Venture Development

Fredrik is from Stockholm, Sweden, and will be a senior at the University of Michigan this fall where he is completing a double major in Economics and Informatics. He is a co-founder of Michigan International Student Society and active member in the Global Investment Club at the Ross School of Business. He has over 5 years of sales and marketing experience working for OKQ8 in Sweden, where he also had the chance to run a number of small entrepreneurial projects. However, it was not until he was accepted to the University of Michigan’s start-up incubator last summer that he really had the opportunity to test out and launch a number of tech ventures with his team. Fredrik spent the beginning of the summer working with an Intelligence-centric Digital Agency in Stockholm.


FK Headshot“I know I want to work in the intersection of business and technology, and what better way to start than working as a Venture Development Associate for an R&D firm that has both a smart team and some really cool, advanced products and ideas in the pipeline. I am most excited to put my interdisciplinary background to the test working with AetherStore, and also look forward to gaining exposure in the NYC start-up and venture capital world.”

 

 

If you’re interested in working at AetherWorks, check out or careers page here!

PhD: Perfect Preparation for a Start-up?

In late 2011 I moved from life as a Computer Science PhD student to my current role at AetherWorks. Going from a town of seventeen thousand people to a city of eight million was a big change, but going from a life in academia to life in a start-up was much easier than you might think.

This post is a response to two sentiments that I’ve often heard expressed, which I’ve paraphrased below:

“It must be a major change going from a PhD to the world of work.” – The “transition” problem.

“A PhD doesn’t prepare you for life in the world of work.” – The “relevance” problem.

Clearly I don’t think this is true, but I think it’s surprising how easy my transition was, and how useful my past experience has been[1].

Transition

Is there a chasm between the roles of a CS PhD student and a start-up founder? I don’t believe so – in fact, when writing down the stages of each role, the job descriptions are strikingly similar:

Find the Problem: In the initial stages your focus is on finding a problem. You search for a gap in existing work that is ready to be exploited.

Initial Research: You spend the initial months of your work scoping out the identified area, examining existing work and figuring out what related areas have potential relevance. In this stage, you work to find out where the problems are, and start to think about the best ways to fix them.

Development: Once you have established the problem space, you start developing your idea. This should be fast, because you want to show the initial results of your efforts as quickly as possible. You start developing your MVP.

The earlier you get your work out, the quicker you receive the feedback that is critical to your progress: Where can you take the idea? Has it been done before? Does it need to be refined?

Pivot: At some point in these processes you realize that your initial idea wasn’t quite as original as you thought, or you find a related area and a problem in much greater need of a solution. You pivot.

Titles: While this is happening you keep a healthy disdain for your job title, because it seems to mean very little. When you work with such a small group of people, you have to wear many hats — the developer, system administrator, network engineer, and barista are all the same person[2].

Collaboration: You spend days with a very tightly-knit group of collaborators, working through ideas and combing over documents[3]. When the work is presented one person might get the credit, but it’s a team effort.

Self-Motivation: When you are one of only a few people working on a project, a week of unproductive work can seriously damage a project’s velocity. You don’t have a boss looking over your shoulder, so you need to motivate yourself.

Networking: You don’t want to develop your idea in a vacuum, so you go out and meet others in your field at conferences and meet-ups. You learn the importance of a good elevator pitch.

Relevance

Every PhD is different, but I find it hard to reconcile my experience with the view that it produces students with an intense focus but few transferable skills[4].

There are periods of confined study, but as with most jobs, there are opportunities for personal development. My ‘job’ happened to be the work of a PhD student, but that didn’t prevent me from developing other interests.

I tutored, lectured, and presented where possible. I even designed coffee mugs[5] and indulged in pointless side-projects, all of which produced a well-roundedness that has served me well in a start-up. The notion that a PhD creates people that aren’t prepared for work outside of academia is not an inherent truth. As with any job, it is what you make it.

Primary Difference

The primary difference between a PhD and a start-up is the end goal. In my PhD I created software with the goal of evaluating it and publishing results, so there were bugs and usability issues that I wasn’t focused on fixing. Conversely my current job is to make the most stable and usable product possible, which leads to a much stricter view of development, tighter schedules, and a more stringent QA process. The end goal of a start-up is to create a useful product that people will pay for, whereas the end goal of a PhD is to create something that advances the state of the art.

Some of the skills I developed during my PhD have proved to be incredibly useful for life at a start-up. I improved my time management and learned what it takes to motivate myself to do my best work, even on days when no-one is looking — skills that aren’t as necessary in a deadline-driven undergraduate degree, and which aren’t necessarily easily obtained in an entry-level job. It also made me a better researcher, and a more analytical thinker.

Ultimately, very few jobs can fully prepare you for life at a start-up, but a CS PhD can come surprisingly close.

 


[1] Major disclaimer: what I’m going to describe is and was true for me. I had a very practical Computer Science PhD, I had to write a lot of code, and I did a lot of work on software architectures. This makes for an easier transition than many other types of PhD even within Computer Science.

[2] Arguably the greatest output of my PhD was a talent for making smooth lattes. You won’t find this on my resume.

[3] A PhD is typically thought of as a very solitary endeavor, but it’s easy to forget the countless hours of discussions and input from supervisors and colleagues. Your name is on the document, but it wasn’t created in isolation.

[4] This is a view that I’ve heard from many people, but sadly most of the references I could find online were from PhD student’s themselves [a] [b] [c].

[5] This is the second greatest output of my PhD. Sadly, my most innovative designs were banned by the university’s image guidelines.

Growing Pains: Recruiting as a Start-up

New York is pushing hard in tech start-up world right now. Bloomberg’s WeAreMadeInNY campaign received a lot of press attention last week and hopefully this continuing support by the city, alongside the success stories that are published with chiming regularity, will encourage the best grads and experienced pros in our industry to flock here. But it doesn’t appear to be happening just yet. Not for us anyway.

So, who are we — a small-scale start up — competing against for talent?

One idea is that we are pitted against big corporate.  We see a lot of resumes filled with banking development experience. Multiple jobs lasting 18 months to 2 years. Boredom seems to set in and candidates go searching for the next chapter in their career, invariably another bank. The trend goes on…

I get the impression that these candidates are asking themselves the wrong questions. It has been mentioned to me several times that going to a large company aids career progression in a way that can’t be achieved by going to a start-up. Well what kind of career progression? Better salary? Maybe. Better title? Possibly. More responsibility? I don’t think so! I understand different types thrive in different environments, but from a computer science perspective and someone working in software I’d encourage anyone to read James Currier’s open letter to his computer science alma mater at Princeton. And just in case you don’t, below is a short quote that captures the essence of Currier’s message.

“Big companies teach you how to work through layers of bureaucracy and how to solve problems in very risk-averse ways — in short, how to make something happen in their organization. A big company is not the safe career choice. It’s the risky choice. It risks your mind and your life.”

Here at AetherWorks, we have a very talented group who are all involved in the work and decisions that push the company forward. As a result, we all have a collective responsibility to learn, to achieve, and to progress. We are a team. There are opportunities that present themselves here that I believe would represent valuable experience to anyone at any stage of life, let alone new grads. Sit in on design meetings, take part in product planning, generate new sales strategies for our latest products, pick a topic for our weekly research meetings. We have an environment in which anyone can come forward. We all have our areas of specialty, but we also have the opportunity to learn and assist across the breadth of our business. The best bit? If we do something fantastic, then we’re all going to reap the benefits.

Great, right?

We do need people to take the initial leap of faith though. Our latest recruitment drive has been very challenging and it’s made me aware of a few areas we need to work on to change perceptions.

Pile of resumes.
The resumes pile up.

One notable disadvantage we have, versus large corps and more established start-ups, is that we are less embedded in the systems of recruitment that can help attract talent. AetherWorks has had little time to integrate into the NYC community, we do not have a live product just yet (but we will very soon), we have had limited (but very positive) press, we have had little opportunity to create useful internships that may lead to permanent roles, and maybe more than anything, our alumni network connects us to the UK rather than the US.

We continue, however, to strive to address all of these issues. We are using multiple sources to advertise and post our openings and we continue to raise our profile in the city by attending meet ups & conferences, writing our blog and distributing press releases. On top of that, Fay (Director of Business Development) has been sharing her experiences in schools around the northeast, and Gus (Director of Research) is planning on opening up our research sessions to the public once a month (for more info email us).

It’s a long and competitive game, but hopefully we will see some good results soon. Of course if you happen to be searching for a software engineering role, you know what to do!

Creating Our Ideal Office Space

Office view.
Location, location, location!

For the first of my posts on the operations of AetherWorks, where better to begin than our first real challenge: finding the perfect office for our company.

When we started our search in 2010, we had three options:

1)      Setting Up Within an Incubator.  The tech scene in NYC is booming and there are plenty of options here.  If we had applied and been successful, an incubator would have provided managed office space alongside a range of other services. These vary from organization to organization but often include access to mentors/advisors and strategic help with partnering and access to loans and grants. Being in an environment focused on the development and longevity of start-ups and having bundled expertise on hand was a very attractive proposition. See Dogpatch Labs as an example.

2)      Fully Managed Facilities. These facilities are fully furnished and equipped offices that are already in move-in condition. They provide dedicated support staff and are available on short or long-term leases. In addition to reducing your upfront costs, work can begin immediately in Fully Managed Facilities. This is where we were based when we started our search. See Regus as an example.

3)      Traditional/Custom Office Space. With traditional office space you must first decide on the grade of building you are willing to settle in. Grading’s are based on attributes from location strengths (public amenities, transportation etc.) through the building efficiencies (energy management, exit routing, parking etc) and can give a quick overall assessment of the quality of the building. The grading gives a clear idea of how much you will spend per square foot. If you can find a suite, room or floor that has been occupied in the past, and suits your needs, your calculations can stop there.

Alternatively you may find a raw space within a building you like that requires a build out. The landlord may offer to do this for you, with some degree of flexibility over the space, or you can opt to take care of this yourself. If building out your space, there are significant costs for contractors as well as the delay in entering the space while work is ongoing. There is also a great deal of setup involved for services that can be taken for granted in the other options. Leases are standardly 5+ years and as a young company with limited credit there can be large down payments, returned at the conclusion of the lease.  But, this does allow any company to completely tailor the space for their specific needs. See Abramson Brothers as an example.

We found the perfect raw custom office space at 501 Fifth Avenue.  It would involve a comprehensive build-out, requiring a significant amount of input from a number of our employees.  But, having long-term investment, we felt that long-term planning was the way forward.  With a clear vision of where we wanted to be, this would ensure we had the perfect space to operate from and expand into. Little did we know everything else that this would entail. In April’s blog I’ll write in detail about the build out and everything you’ll need if you ever consider going through with one!

Requirements

The only way we could successfully tackle this project was to focus on who we were, what our goals were and, what we needed to achieve those goals.  As an R&D firm, we felt we had a lot of default requirements for an office space that would not be as highly prioritized within a more standard software development company. Yes, we still had to ensure that each individual felt comfortable in their space, had the room they needed and the tools to assist them, but we also needed to consider the research in R&D. Our longevity as a company hinges on not only designing and delivering software of the highest quality, but also continuing to create intellectual property and ensuring our research cycles are efficient and rewarding.

Office Pre-Build-Out
Our office before the build-out.

There are many ideas that claim to contribute to random stimulation and creativity within your office or work space: visual stimulation through artwork and colors, having magazines and journals lying around, providing games and toys for breaks, but here, we had the chance to go a step further. We had the opportunity to create the perfect environment where all these extras would add to the creativity within our space. To this end we knew the pressure was on to build a great space for creative cooperative working and within this requirement, we had to cater for research groups that would often vary in size. We had to ensure that both large and small groups would feel motivated and comfortable enough to spend prolonged periods of creative time (occasional overnights if necessary…) dealing with hard problems – all within our space restrictions in NYC.

Furniture Build-Out
With the walls of the office up, all that’s left to do is make the space our own.

Being rather inexperienced in the world of build-outs, we had yet to discover how important it was to have designers and contractors that bought into our ethos and fully understood what we needed.  We got lucky… the second time.

The office post-build out.
The finished article. Lots of natural light and open spaces.

As I mentioned before, I’ll save the specifics of the design and construction, which inevitably went on far longer than planned and caused an incredible amount of stress, for another post.

Was it the right option?

Building out our space was a lengthy process; the duration from our initial viewing through absolute completion was nearly 18 months. But for all the phone calls, emails, drama, irritation and stress, we now have a fantastic, light, open, creative office that suits us perfectly. We do have a long term lease, and we do have to manage our own services, but having the freedom and flexibility to create our own environment was far more important to us. Everyone now has their own personal space, we have ample room for our research activities, and we also have a great environment for welcoming customers and visitors. Most importantly, if you speak to any of our employees, one of the first things they will say about working here is that we have a phenomenal space to do our thing.

We knew what AetherWorks was, we built what it needed, and now we have an office that shows people who we are. That’s a result.

We value our open spaces, and room.
With plenty of open spaces, we have ample room for creative thought.