The Four Ways StartupBus Dramatically Grew My Network

This article is a slightly modified version of the article posted previously at New Worker Magazine.

People who know me usually see me as a people person, and I definitely am someone who’s interested in other people and in how relationships and communities work. I have always placed a high value on my connections with others, and have undoubtedly spent a considerable amount of time just entering and maintaining address book and contact data.

When I first came to New York City in 2007 my local network size was effectively zero. I’m a software engineer by trade, so I of course wanted to make inroads into the tech community. At that time the big banks dominated the tech sector in the city, so if I wanted a job I’d have to get into the financial sector. Since I didn’t know anyone and didn’t have the required industry-specific experience, I ended up hanging a shingle and starting a consulting business. And while I did land good business deals and did connect with people (primarily through coworking spaces like New Work City and various Meetup groups), my network expanded explosively after I joined an organization called StartupBus.

Myself and others have written much about StartupBus in the last four years; search engine results will tell you more about it than I could in a few sentences. What’s relevant is that it’s a worldwide alumni group of self-selecting innovators and entrepreneurs who have bonded over the common experience of competing in a three-day road trip hackathon on a moving bus.

Measuring My Network

I discovered the effect that StartupBus had on my network growth when I was analyzing my contacts with a visualization tool. I had plugged my main email account into the MIT Immersion project; it made headlines some time back by being able to analyze the metadata in your email headers to determine what your network of contacts looks like and how they all relate to you (similar to how the NSA has been spying on all Americans). It’s still online now if you’re interested in learning more about your own communications.

The coolest thing about this tool is that it gives you a snapshot of your network at any point in time. I made some screen captures showing my web of contacts and figured out quickly which ones were from the StartupBus network. What blew me away was to see how tightly interconnected and powerful the StartupBus cluster grew in just 36 months. It quickly got to the point where it practically dominates everything else in the graph.

1_sub_network 2_sub_network 3_sub_network 4_sub_network 5_sub_network 6_sub_network

As you can see in the first image, the StartupBus connections (within the circled area) started out quite small, not much different from my other network connections. Each successive image is a snapshot of the network 6 months after the previous image. Every circle represents a person; the size of each circle indicates the number of emails exchanged with that person, and the lines between circles are the connections between all the people. (In case you were wondering, the big circles near the center are my immediate family)

What Was So Different About The StartupBus Network?

This kind of growth didn’t happen for the first 3.5 years I lived and worked in New York; it only occurred after I joined StartupBus. I really had to wonder: what was it about being a part of this organization, as opposed to the other organizations I was a part of, that changed things so dramatically for me? Here are a few things I realized when I stopped to consider what had happened:

1. Instead Of Networking, I Grew Inside A Growing Network

The skill of meeting new people and connecting with them is not an easy one to master. Unless one is born a social butterfly, it always takes a mix of courage and charm to overcome the self-defense mechanism of keeping to oneself and avoiding any potential embarrassment. In ordinary situations, you’re a stranger attempting to associate with another stranger, and there’s no way to know how the interaction will go.

This is one of best things about StartupBus; everyone on the bus starts off as strangers, but they quickly unite to cope with the unusual situation they have all found themselves in. They have all chosen to take the plunge and commit themselves to a cross-country road trip, so they already share that ambition and spirit of adventure, and once they form a team they then share a common goal. Additionally, the conductor of the bus has interviewed and hand-picked every crew member, effectively curating what he or she thinks will be the best mix of people for that year. It turns out that this is an insanely potent recipe for networking success; a wild stew that’s thrown into a pressure cooker, and what comes out of it is anybody’s guess, but it somehow always tastes delicious.

Anyone who’s taken the StartupBus can identify with and bond with anyone else who’s gone on that journey. I have no doubt that when I meet someone from StartupBus Africa, we will become fast friends and will have great stories to tell each other. That common experience overcomes the typical barriers to making connections between members, and what you end up with is an extremely tight-knit group of people who all work really well together.

2. Helping Everyone To Help Everyone

Whenever anyone in my network asks for help, I do whatever I can to lend my support. And while this is true of everyone I know, it’s doubly true for anyone who’s a StartupBus alumnus, because I know that helping other StartupBus members will lead to success for every other member. A rising tide lifts all boats!

Buspreneurs tell each other about open positions at their companies and give sales leads, short and long-term contract work, and candidate referrals. They help each other with their current startups, or join forces to create new startup companies. Buspreneurs share knowledge and advice and expertise. They even hang out together and socialize! And when one or more of us is in trouble, the rest of us rally to their aid.

This exercise of the Golden Rule leads to forming incredibly strong relationships and strengthens the entire group. It’s been scientifically shown that when people help each other, they tend to keep on helping each other, and become more and more inclined to help others (The Benjamin Franklin Effect). A network guided by this principle can’t help but become immense and powerful.

3. Using Social Networking Tools To Get Superpowers

The best tools I have at my disposal for maintaining relationships with all my contacts are the fledgling social networking and social media systems we have available today. I say “fledgling” as I feel that effective applications to manage interpersonal relationships still don’t exist yet.

Every time new members join the StartupBus community, I add all of them to every social service I use – primarily Twitter, Foursquare, and most importantly, Linkedin. When we’re attending events en masse and we need real-time chatter, we usually create GroupMe groups and use those to be able to message each other rapidly. Also, lest we forget, there’s the most important social networking tool of them all… email! The StartupBus community maintains a number of internal mailing lists where alumni regularly share news, job postings, etc. with each other.

When I have access to these tools, I practically feel omniscient; I can see what events people are going to, where they check in, whether they’ve changed jobs, who they’re connected to and who they can introduce me to, what they’re having conversations about at any given moment. Being able to tap in to those feeds allows me to show up at places to say hi to people, catch up with folks I haven’t seen in a while, and have something to chat about when I next see them in person (“Hey, I saw you post about your new project on Twitter, how’s that going?”). Monitoring all of these channels can be a significant investment of your time, but there’s a lot of value to be had by concentrating your focus on the people who are important to you.

4. Encouraging Connectivity Between Community Ecosystems

No person is an island, and no individual is a member of just one community. Likewise, no community is perfectly isolated – more often than not, communities overlap with one another through the individuals who represent the intersections between them.

When I became the StartupBus conductor for the 2012 crew of the New York tribe, the first pool of people I recruited from were my fellow coworkers at New Work City. Here was a ready-made community that I knew was full of awesome people, and the result was that both ecosystems grew stronger! Over the last three years, StartupBus has also managed to spin off its own new communities – myself and co-organizer Alice Ng founded Space Apps NYC, the local chapter of the NASA International Space Apps Challenge. Alice successfully recruited some of the awesome people we met through Space Apps for the New York 2014 Buspreneur crew, and once again both communities benefit from that synergy.

Here’s some proof: below you can visualize my Linkedin connections using the Linkedin Labs InMap tool. There are at least a dozen communities and subgroups reflected in the labeled clusters in the legend. Their mapping is not perfect, but you can easily see a number of “nexuses” between the clusters. Those people are the super connectors, the primary nodes that intersect between communities. You can see pretty clearly how community clusters overlap with one another.



Each of us belongs to many communities, whether we recognize them all or not; some may be official affiliations with other workers in our field, others may be less structured or may just be loose groups of people centered around our hobbies or side interests, and still other communities may be intrinsically tied to our fundamental identities themselves. In the case of the map above, I can pretty easily find the people who sit at the intersections of several of my communities. In most cases I’m not surprised when I see certain names as I already know them as superconnectors – but a tool like this can help me find paths between communities I didn’t know existed and identify undiscovered or emerging superconnectors. And imagine how much more powerful this tool could be if I could navigate into other people’s networks, and determine who else might be mutual contacts in those other communities and discover other hidden links to people I haven’t met, but probably should!

I hope you enjoyed this bit of meditation on community growth! Please feel free to send along any questions or comments directly to me via Twitter:

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IBM Watson BBQ Sauce Reviewed, And Here’s The Dinner I Made

IBM Watson Is My New Sous Chef

You’ve surely heard of the IBM Watson human-designed machine intelligence which competed against two human champions and won the game show “Jeopardy!”. If you went to [The Festival In Texas That Shall Not Be Named] this year you very likely ate from a number of food trucks during your visit… but did you see or hear about the food truck that Watson made recipes for?

The IBM Watson team executed on a brilliant plan to showcase the creative capabilities of the Watson system with what they are calling “cognitive cooking”. People used social media to suggest ingredients and dishes, and Watson produced a number of original recipes combining food and flavors in very novel ways. The team partnered with the Institute for Culinary Education in New York City, who would bring the recipes to life in the kitchen and then later on the food truck. I very much regret not attending the festival this year, but I’m hoping the food truck will appear in our lovely metropolis soon!

In the meantime, I was fortunate enough to receive an extremely limited edition bottle of a BBQ sauce dreamed up by Watson. A most excellent friend made this possible, so I returned the favor by cooking us a dinner that would do the world’s first computer generated sauce justice.

My Menu, And The Cooking Process Documented

As soon as the sauce came to Brooklyn, we set about unboxing it and examining what we had.

IBM Watson Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce - Read the description
Read more
Back of the label
Read ingredients
Nutrition Facts








If you click on the images above, you’ll see the larger versions of the photos and can read the text for yourself. Though not shown here, the outside of the box depicts a number of wild creatures presenting a variety of foodstuffs which are presumably in the sauce. A tiger coddles the primary ingredient, a butternut squash, and the color of the sauce clearly reflects that this is the case. A quick taste revealed a strange mélange of unexpected flavors, but confirmed that a lean white meat would be the right type of protein to use it on.

That morning we headed out to the McCarren Park greenmarket to discover what local and seasonal delicacies might be available. We saw that heirloom tomatoes were available for a great price and looked particularly luscious, and bunches of white carrots were also available at a super cheap price. I decided then that the menu would consist of the following:

  • Grilled pork chops with Bengali Butternut BBQ sauce
  • Butter poached white carrots
  • Heirloom tomato salad with rice wine vinegar & olive oil dressing
  • Strawberry apple fruit garnish with Mike’s Hot Honey

We proceeded next to the artisanal butcher shop known as The Meat Hook, where I asked our butcher to cut four pork chops to a suitable thickness for grilling (just about an inch thick). When dinner time drew near, I took the chops out of the fridge and seasoned them with salt & pepper and left them out covered to allow them to warm up to room temperature prior to grilling on my cast iron stove top grill. I set about starting the prep for the side dishes, and contemplated how I would apply the BBQ sauce.

Bought from The Meat Hook
Artisanal pork
Farm to table fruit and veg
The side ingredients
Seasoned pork chops
Bringing up to room temp
White carrots about to be poached
Butter poaching white carrots
Cutting tomatoes
Cutting tomatoes
Dressing tomatoes in olive oil and rice wine vinegar
Heirloom tomato salad















My first thought was that I should try to make a glaze from the BBQ sauce and coat the pork chops to try to create a caramelized layer on them while grilling.

Trying to make glaze
Adding water
The chops about to grill
Glazed chops
Chops cookins
Grilling commences








This didn’t seem to work too well, perhaps because I didn’t use enough of the BBQ sauce in the first place, or maybe because there wasn’t a lot of sugar present in the sauce itself; but the fact of the matter was that my friend asked me to use the sauce sparingly, so that others would be able to sample it later (which is why I thought of watering it down and brushing it on, as a way of stretching it out a little further).

Gorgeous grill marks
This was a great idea
Honey & fruit
Let's eat!
The final plate








Regardless of that initial misstep, as you can see, the results were quite beautiful overall. I executed each of the sides very well – the tender and buttery white carrots, the hearty and delicious heirloom tomato salad, and the honey laden fruit (tossed in a little lemon juice) with its spicy sweetness all made the plate sing a chorus of rich flavors. A generous drizzle of the BBQ sauce adorned the grilled chops.

So What’s The Verdict??

Generally the sauce is tasty, but it’s quite difficult to describe. The butternut squash flavor is the most prevalent, but there are other complexities in the sauce that you really don’t expect. There are a lot of “Eastern” ingredients later in the list (as you can see in the label image above), but none of them in particular stands out, not even the heat of the chili peppers really. It’s not sweet or savory, it’s not umami, and it’s not acidic or bitter or sour. It just… is? And it works with pork somehow?

It’s an impressive success given that the IBM Watson system generated it completely on its own – though I’d be curious to know how many crazy combinations of flavors came out of the system before they selected this one, and how many varieties the ICE cooks tried to make that didn’t taste just right. I wonder if this sauce has a numeric batch designation, like Formula 409?

What the pork chops and BBQ sauce really called for as a side was a citrus offering – maybe a roasted fennel and orange salad or something with pineapple or cherries. The sweetness of the apple and strawberry were nice, but I’m certain that citrus on the plate would have really hit it out of the park.

The BBQ sauce really does seem to be a condiment, something to dress a white meat or fish with post-grilling. It doesn’t work well as a glaze as the flavors are too subtle, and it definitely needs to be limited to chicken, turkey, pork, or fish – no red meat like lamb or beef or other umami laden entrée would work. The sauce is absolutely a unique combination of flavors, and definitely doesn’t seem like something a human chef would intentionally concoct or even serendipitously stumble upon while randomly combining ingredients. But while the sauce does have a pleasing taste, it definitely can’t stand on its own and requires a complementary flavor (but this is true of so many types of dish, so I’m clearly not knocking it!). If this BBQ sauce ever became commercially available, I certainly would recommend to people that they buy some – it’s another success for Watson!

On a final note, I’ve got something I’d like to say to Watson…

Watson, if you’re reading this, I have a proposal for you: Let’s build a smarter planet!! For the last three years, my partners and I have organized the NASA International Space Apps Challenge in New York City. NASA charges us and the volunteers we bring to the event to create open source solutions that will improve life for all on Earth and in space. Watson, we could really use your help next year solving problems for our planet! Check out this short video below for more details, and then get in touch with me!

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A Short Screenplay About Your Life

This Is Your Life And You Don’t Even Realize It

[Cue Twilight Zone sounding music. FADE IN to a Rod Serling style NARRATOR standing in the foreground of a LIVING ROOM, lights dim. In the background, softly lit, is a woman sitting in a comfy chair, using a generic tablet or eReader looking device. Lights up on NARRATOR.]


NARRATOR: “Submitted for your consideration: You’re resting comfortably at home, curled up with a good book.”

[Cut to READER, who is smiling pleasantly and reading an e-book on the device. Cut back to NARRATOR and initial shot.]


NARRATOR: “In your hands is the most advanced technology ever made. At your fingertips, the most comprehensive library ever provided to a human being. It’s almost like – dare we say…? Magic. But what’s really happening when you read that ‘book’?” [The NARRATOR uses air quotes.]

[Cut back to reader while NARRATOR voices over.]


NARRATOR: “Let’s imagine that it is magic.”

[Cut to close shot of the tablet in the hands of READER. The NARRATOR passes his hand over the tablet, and READER’s tablet morphs into a normal looking book.]


NARRATOR: [v.o.] “Your home contains a magical bookshelf that reaches into another dimension, where an incredibly large number of books are stored.”

[The READER looks up, and sees what looks like a normal, yet strangely large bookshelf against one wall. Cut to bookshelf, and slowly zoom in while soft, creepy music begins to play. Cut back to face READER, who puts her book down next to her chair, gets up, and walks towards the bookshelf. NARRATOR quietly slides into the background as READER walks towards the camera. Camera cuts to a tighter shot of NARRATOR’s upper body as he watches the READER walk towards the shelf.]


NARRATOR: “You believe that you can walk up to that bookshelf, find any book you desire, and read it.” [NARRATOR now looks directly into the camera.] “But that… Is simply not the truth.”

[Cut to back of READER as she walks to the bookshelf as the music grows a little more ominous. Cut to a side view of the READER, now nearly at the bookshelf, as she picks up her arm to reach out and choose a book. Cut to a tight shot of her hand slowly moving closer through the air… Music builds… Then her hand suddenly jerks back as it almost makes contact with a GENIE’s chest. Crescendo! Cut to her look of surprise as she pulls her hand back to her body.]


READER: [gasps] “What?? Who?”

[GENIE is wearing a shirt with the letters DRM on the front, and is otherwise dressed a bit like a magical yet modern [robotic?] genie would be dressed. He also has tiny, shiny metallic horns on his forehead and otherwise looks a bit Uncanny Valley. He smiles lamely and thinly, and speaks with a mellow, soothing and highly creepy voice. YET HIS MOUTH NEVER MOVES]


GENIE: “Hi.” [cocks head]

READER: [pauses, then angrily] “How did you get into my house???”

GENIE: “I’m always here, Annie. I’m always watching. Just making sure everything is okay.” [GENIE spreads his hands in an encompassing gesture; he pauses, while READER still looks on, incredulous]


READER: [face goes through mixed emotions ranging from fear to confusion, then says worriedly] “How… do you know my name?”

GENIE: “I know all about you, Annie. I know what you like, what you don’t like, what page of that book you just stopped at.”

[GENIE gestures to where READER was sitting. Cut to shot of READER from the back as she turns her head over her shoulder to look back where GENIE points. Her eyes go wide. Cut to shot of GENIE standing beside the chair with his finger in the book. He turns his head to look back, smiles and waves. Cut back to READER, mouth gaping.]


GENIE: [v.o. from the direction of the bookshelf] “Would you like a book?”

[Cut to READER, who sweeps back with the camera and turns back to face GENIE with a stubborn and determined look. She moves to the side of him and attempts to grab a book from the shelf, but suddenly a grating has appeared over the books and she cannot open it.]


READER: “What the hell??!” [she rattles the cage]

READER: “Let me read my books! Why aren’t you letting me access them? I OWN THESE BOOKS!”

GENIE: “No, I’m sorry you’re confused, but you do not own these books. These media are rented to you, you only have a license to read our books. Here, look at the user agreement you accepted…”

[A scroll appears in the hand of the GENIE, which he then drops open. It rolls and rolls and rolls across the floor while the camera follows it. At the end it has the signature of the READER in red, above a button saying “I ACCEPT”.]


GENIE: “This is your contract with me. Oh wait, hold on…” [the old scroll disappears, and a new scroll appears in the hand of the GENIE – it is rolled up, but the “I ACCEPT” is easily visible on the front and he beckons READER to press it] “Please agree to these new terms and conditions in your user agreement before selecting a book to read.”

READER: [stubbornly] “What if I don’t want to??”

GENIE: “Very well.” [The scroll disappears, he turns and gestures his hands magically at the bookshelf, and all the books disappear]

READER: “WAIT, what?? You can just take away all my books??”

GENIE: [stops smiling] “Weren’t you listening? You never owned any books. Your rentals have now been removed from your shelf, have a nice day.” [the GENIE seems as if he’s about to leave]

READER: [she lunges forward to grab his arm] “No please, don’t! Please bring the books back! I accept the terms and conditions!!”

GENIE: [again smiling thinly] “I see. You may have access to books again.” [he waves his arm, and books reappear on the shelves]


READER: “Can I please have… that book? Please?” [She points at one]

GENIE: [stares out into space, looking intent; his eyes begin to glow softly] “Processing… Please wait… Fetching license restrictions… Checking user profile… Background check complete. User choice and behaviors recorded. Decoding encrypted content… Done. Here is your book.” [GENIE reaches into the bookshelf as if the cage is not there, and pulls out a book.] “Please enjoy your reading.”

READER: [looking at first relieved, opens the book and flips through it, but relief turns to confusion and anguish] “Wait… This isn’t the version of the book I wanted! Why didn’t you give me the other one?”

GENIE: [pauses to look directly at her, his smile fades again to complete passivity… And with utmost dramatic effect…] “You do not have the right to read that version of the book.”

[The READER looks shocked, then devastated, then utterly lost. She sadly hands the book back over to GENIE, then turns to walk away when she suddenly notices the book by her chair is missing.]


READER: [softly] “Where’s the book I was reading before, the one I had over by my chair?”

[READER is in the foreground turned forward, facing the camera. In the background over her shoulder the GENIE stands fast in front of the infinite bookshelf, once again smiling his tiny smile.]


GENIE: “The terms and conditions have changed. You no longer have my permission to read that book.”

[READER dejectedly trudges back to her chair, and slumps into it. Her tablet device has reappeared and sits waiting for her, glowing softly. An almost inaudible hum comes from it. The camera tightens in to the screen, where a message box now reads ‘We are sorry, you no longer have permission to access this content.’ She sinks deeper into the chair, defeated, and stares off into space. The GENIE is standing behind her, watching her, always, always watching her…]

[Return to the original shot. The NARRATOR steps back into the frame.]


NARRATOR: “Does this seem like an impossible situation? Some dystopian science fiction scenario depicting a bleak future, constant surveillance, your computer being remotely manipulated… your freedom lost? Yet this is exactly what happens to you and everyone else right now, today, and every day… when you read Digitally Restricted – D R M – content on your tablet or so-called ‘e-book’ devices. This Is Your Life… And You Don’t Even Realize It.”

[Lights down on NARRATOR. Fade to black.]



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The Five Lean Lessons I Learned On The StartupBus

In 2011, I went on one of the most arduous and life-changing trips I’ve ever taken – I rode the StartupBus from New York City to Austin, Texas. At the time I thought I was out for a lark, taking a road trip that just happened to end where I wanted to go… little did I realize, the journey I took ended up being one of intense learning and self-discovery and resulted in joining an amazing community of do-ers who have set out to make the world more awesome. And it was a journey that also ultimately led to me getting a job with Neo!

If you haven’t heard of StartupBus, here’s a quick brief: StartupBus is a community that’s building an entrepreneurial ecosystem through unique experiences and inspirational connections. StartupBus produces the most intense startup competition in the world, where top talent from all around the world compete as ‘Buspreneurs’ to build the next generation of technology companies over the course of a 3-day bus ride. StartupBus runs events in North America (since 2010), Europe (since 2011) and Africa (since 2013) each year.

Riding the StartupBus was a very profound experience for me – my team TripMedi won the competition in 2011, I connected and bonded with an amazing group of people, and I gained the confidence to part ways with the co-founder of a startup I was working on and raised money to pursue my startup. I wanted to give back to StartupBus in return for all it’s given me, so I’ve since conducted the 2012 NYC bus, was a Grand Finals judge in 2013 alongside Dave McClure and Robert Scoble, founded the StartupBus: Accelerate unconference and the Space Apps Challenge in NYC, and today remain an active community leader and adviser in the organization.

Since I started working at Neo, I’ve learned how to take lean & agile principles to places where few have taken them before. And I can honestly say that my employment here has been my best work experience yet, contributing to an environment where I can use all of my talents and abilities and be fully appreciated for them. The “full stack” for an employee here, beyond the technical capabilities for their position, has to include a variety of product focus, customer development, and other lean-related skills, and the willingness to grow and learn even more.

I couldn’t have known it then, but the lessons I learned on the StartupBus turned out to be exactly the ones I needed to prepare me for my career at Neo – I work as creatively here as I did on the bus, just without the crazy constraints of working on a moving bus for three days. Here are a few examples that particularly stick out for me:

1. Small, scrappy teams are insanely effective

StartupBus is like no other competition; in three days, small teams must create a working minimum viable product (MVP), outline a valid business model, and develop actual traction for that product in a real world marketplace – all while riding a moving bus! Every person chosen to ride each StartupBus is hand-picked by that bus’s conductor; they select world-class developers, designers, and business people who are willing to do everything they can to get the job done.

2. Build it, analyze it, re-build it

Any work done on the bus has to go through multiple iterations; conditions change so quickly that the only way to make something successful is to build, test, and re-build over and over. Many “Buspreneur” teams end up pivoting multiple times over the course of the three day trip, basing decisions on learning from different types of tests, or various forms of customer development.

3. Time is not on your side

On the bus, you only have three days; it’s a race against time as well a competition amongst teams. If a team spends too much time trying to decide what to do, or spends too much time and effort into making a perfect “fully featured” product, they quickly fall behind other teams who polish less and accomplish more.

4. Other people are building your idea; Yours has to be the best

Each year on StartupBus several teams inadvertently build the same thing (even across multiple buses from multiple regions). That happens because a good idea that solves a problem is often obvious – but in the end, all that matters is execution. When those similar teams are initially judged, the ones that have the best MVP or have gotten the most traction are the ones that get chosen to be semi-finalists or finalists.

5. You learn more in the field than anywhere else

My team on the StartupBus built a product that gave people advice about medical tourism (we called it TripMedi); everywhere we stopped, literally every time we talked to someone, we found people who had a story to share about a medical tourism experience. We were able to ask people how they found information about surgeries, how they made decisions, what factors were most important to them – it was all extremely valuable, and we couldn’t have won the competition if we hadn’t done that legwork. Quite simply, you have to get out of the building (or off the bus) and do real customer development!

In my current role at Neo, I’ve seen all of these learnings proven again and again and I’ve been able to translate them directly into the real world. The small teams I’ve worked with have been highly effective, and I’ve seen firsthand that failing fast and often is the path to success. The agility of a scrappy team being able to make frequent course corrections just makes a heck of a lot more sense than following a set path to an end goal that doesn’t adapt to changing conditions.

In the real world, time is money and time waits for no one – no business can survive for very long without a path to innovation, and the longer a company takes the worse off its position will be in the market against competitors. The road to being the best is littered with the failed attempts of companies that took too many uncalculated risks; a lean approach can help a company determine which direction to take, question and validate assumptions, and distill experimental evidence into right action.

This year’s North American StartupBuses are already on the second day of their journey – check out their progress online!

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How A Kid Became Interested In Code

TL;DR – Read the summary section at the bottom of the page.

NOTE: I may add to or update this post as I gather more information from other sources and reminisce further about my past. Just a warning if you come back and reread this piece and happen to notice that part of it changed… memory, like so many other forms of truth, is a fluid thing.

What’s My Point?

The cause of teaching people how to read programming languages and to write code is one that is near and dear to my heart, for myriad reasons. Whenever people talk about gender divides or racial divides or class divides in computer use, it’s a discussion I want to get involved in because I want everyone to be literate. I truly believe that literacy and education are the path to a better world, and I want to take the necessary steps to make that world happen. Mass literacy and mass publishing of books brought us to today’s world of wealth and the state of enlightenment we live in; I have to believe that things will get even better when everyone is empowered by computer literacy, when everyone can understand and write and publish code that performs important tasks for them – the revolution that Gutenberg sparked with his printing press will be as nothing compared to the one that Tim Berners-Lee has launched with the world wide web. This is why I care deeply about the issue of inclusiveness in the tech industry and why it’s important for me to write this blog post.

A conversation on Twitter about the latest controversy of who can or cannot be a Silicon Valley tech founder led to me becoming introspective about my own beginnings as a coder. I’d like to think that I have achieved a high point in my career as a software engineer (with much more awesomeness to come, I hope); I’m not a startup billionaire, but then again, neither are you (probably). But I have to think that I have arrived where a lot of people who are starting out with programming would like to be – doing cool stuff that I really enjoy, getting to work alongside brilliant people, having the opportunity to use amazing technology and building stuff that solves real problems.

But what was my path to get to this point? I can still easily recall my college days, but if I’m to revisit my life experience to discuss how to reach thirteen year olds to get them interested in reading and writing code (and I believe that we need to be thinking even younger than that), I have to go back to my earliest days with a real computer and consider all the factors that came before then to lead me to that point: my socioeconomic situation, what my parents taught me, what I learned in schools… all of it. So I started writing this ridiculously long blog post to examine all of this, to understand what all of my advantages were, to reflect on my personal history, and to maybe figure out what things led to me getting excited about writing software.

Where Did I Come From?

I’m a third generation Italian American; when my paternal great-grandfather immigrated here, Italians were just the latest bunch of “off-the-boat freeloaders” (untrue by a long shot). Our whole family is solidly working class, a blue-collar bunch of butchers, police officers, utility workers, factory workers, homemakers, hairdressers, and cooks in schools and restaurants. My dad’s younger sister was one of the first in the family to go to college, and my sister and I were part of the first generation to all make it to college. All of us attended public schools for primary and secondary education.

The author at the age of writing his first computer programs.

My parents ran a successful dual income household; they were solidly above the median income range, and over the course of a decade, from 1975 to 1985, they were able to raise their income from two times the median to about three times over the median. The mid-eighties were a very successful time for them both. They owned a home, built equity, and gave my sister and I a very comfortable middle class life, though I spent a chunk of my early childhood as a latchkey kid and I didn’t see them as often as I would have liked. But they made up for it with lots of family vacation times, and being very communicative and present when we did have time together. I was lucky to have that big extended Italian family and the constant presence and support of many aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Did I Learn To Code In School?

I was also lucky to have parents who stayed very involved in my schooling, right from the beginning. In 1980, I was having trouble in 1st grade – the teacher was constantly punishing me for not paying attention in class, and kept calling my parents in for conferences to tell them how remedial I was. My mom basically asked my teacher: “Is he bored?? Maybe he’s not dumb, maybe he’s really smart!” and then requested that I be put through testing. The test results showed that I was reading three or four grade levels above where I should have been; the teacher who scolded me now beamed with pride and showed me off to other teachers, her “prize pupil”. Unfortunately, the New Haven public school system did not have a program for “gifted & talented” students of my age at the time, so they literally just had me attend classes in advanced grades… Not exactly easy being around kids three years older than you, being teacher’s pet and having that teacher goad the older students by telling them you’re a better reader than they are despite being three years younger.

An example of comics vocabulary

I began reading at an early age, sometime between three and four years old. I literally picked up every book I saw and just read it. My maternal great-grandfather started my comic book collecting habit shortly thereafter (he always called them “funny books”). Those late seventies / early eighties comics had all sorts of fantastic vocabulary in them and they fired my imagination. My mother always allowed me to buy books anywhere, anytime. I ordered books through the mail at school, I grabbed them off the shelf at supermarkets… and no other kind of book captured my attention more than the Choose Your Own Adventure genre (the analog version of hypertext), both the original series and all the knockoffs that came after them. I still have tons of them in my bookshelves!

My schooling changed when my parents moved us to the suburbs in 1983. At Jerome Harrison elementary school in North Branford they placed me into the “Creative Learning Program” – independent study classes I attended in addition to the “standard” curriculum. My teacher in those classes exposed us to all kinds of puzzles, games, and lateral thinking strategies. We did things like building ELDs (Egg Landing Devices) from common materials, and dropping them off the roof to see if the egg survived the landing. We also did “future problem solving” where they taught us how to think critically about big problems; how to decompose them into smaller problems; how to brainstorm solutions to the smaller problems; and how to present those solutions before our peers, accept criticisms, and refine them.

I don’t exactly recall whether it was CLP that introduced me to logic puzzles, but I feel like that’s where my love of logic, word problems, and riddles started. I think it was also where I was first introduced to GAMES Magazine. Logic puzzles were a great way to sharpen my deductive and inductive reasoning abilities; and GAMES was unique in that it was literally a publication that devoted every page to some form of game or puzzle or thought problem, and I soon became a regular subscriber.

Whither Computers?

So a lot of this so far really wasn’t about computers, just the context of how I was raised and schooled. I really appreciate you reading this far! We’ll get into the tech stuff now…

The Coleco Telstar Alpha, with 4 KINDS OF PONG!
The Coleco Telstar Alpha, with 4 KINDS OF PONG!

Like many others in the tech industry today, I grew up with personal computing, having a computer in the home. Generation X was the first age group raised from infancy with home computers. The very first electronic thing I ever played with was a Coleco Telstar Alpha game system – a PONG clone.

Not too long after that, my parents got my sister and me an Atari 2600, and we spent many hours blowing each other up in Combat. We were lucky enough to get devices like these because our parents had the means, and they were early adopters of new technology, which was likely also a lucky break on my part.

In 1984, my parents decided it was time to buy a full on computer – and they decided that was going to be a Commodore 64. It wasn’t my idea to get one, but they felt it was time that my sister and I had access to something more “useful” than a Nintendo Entertainment System. We never owned any kind of Nintendo system in our household; in fact, my parents completely believed the television news stories that claimed that kids who played video

Sixty five thousand five hundred thirty six bytes of RAW POWER

games were becoming transfixed zombies, and they generally thought it was ridiculous to sit in front of a screen to play games. They recently told me they felt that would have been a waste of my talent, even though they figured the C64 probably wouldn’t be used for much beyond just word processing and playing games. They never thought I would actually program it… But that’s exactly what I did.

The very first thing I wrote in code was an interactive fiction adventure in BASIC that I called “ISLAND” inspired by games like Zork! and my beloved CYOA books. It had a Big Ugly ASCII Graphic and EVERYTHING. Told from first person perspective, your goal was to escape the island – in the latter stages of the story, you stumble upon a mysterious complex filled with strange equipment and eventually teleport yourself to freedom off the island. Suck it, J.J. Abrams!!

It was pretty simple code, it had GOTOs and some IF statements to check input and what not. To be honest, I don’t recall how I actually figured out how to do even that much – it might have been from reading code in RUN magazine, or from reading stuff from “Games Commodores Play” or maybe even from a CYOA genre book called “Save The Venturians!” where you could only proceed through the tree fiction by inputting BASIC code and running it.

So Production Value!!
So production value!! Such interactive game! wow

Unfortunately, that was my programming high point for a very long time. I lost a bit of interest in programming and just used the computer for things like Bank Street Writer and Donkey Kong for the next 5 or 6 years. Without mentorship or any readily available resources that could take me further, my computer programming skills never grew beyond that bit of expertise. There were a lot of missed opportunities; at one point my parents asked me if I wanted to go to computer camp – but I was really too afraid to leave home and be by myself with a bunch of strange kids (bullies tormented me as a child, that trauma has followed me all my life). North Branford Intermediate School had gotten a bunch of C64s, and were actually teaching a “computer class”… Unfortunately the teacher only taught us touch typing, and never how to code. I remember him pacing proudly around the classroom, hands holding his jacket’s huge lapels, saying “A S D F! Colon L K J!” over and over again… I guess the public school couldn’t afford someone who actually knew how to program?

I often wonder how differently things would have gone for me if I had gone to a private school for high school. My parents offered me that option when I was in my freshman year back in 1988, but I chose to stay in the public system. They told me recently that the school would even have accepted me for no tuition… For all I know, I would have bloomed earlier learning among a larger group of intellectual peers the way that I did when I got to college. I might have even gotten into an Ivy League college. In any case, I never even thought of myself as being capable of writing code of my own until midway through my sophomore year of college, despite my prior experiences with computers at home.

Summary – Recipe For A Coder

I condensed this whole history into what I think may be the salient points of “how” and “why” I became a software engineer:

  • My family was supportive, early tech adopters, upper middle class
  • I was a voracious reader (and a creative writer, and Grammar Nazi editor)
  • Video games & interactive fiction were always a part of my life
  • I got extra attention & schooling in public schools that others did not get
  • Others introduced me to advanced puzzles, logic, & problem solving at age 9
  • My first programs were interactive fiction I wrote at age 10
  • I did not take more opportunities to further my programming skills and education, and that may have delayed my growth until college

What do you think? Are any / many of these things missing from today’s education? Did I miss something in the summary, or do you think there are other factors I am not taking into account? Thanks again for taking the time to read a couple thousand words of self-reflection!

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