Mind Blown at Defrag

by Dave Michels

Defrag is an unusual conference. The simplest way to describe it as TED for geeks. Lots of these tech folks are really smart, and when given a forum to speak about whatever they want might result with interesting ideas. The conference creator, Eric Norlin, figured there is no shortage of cloud, social business, mobile, etc. events, but there is a shortage of passion. Eric collects amazing people that are passionate about something they are learning, and creates at Defrag a collaborative playground for ideas.

The event is small – and sold out at 325 souls. The topics were all over the map. This was the 5th Degfrag and they keep on getting better. You know it is a good conference because on entry you get a large shwag bag. The bag alone garnered its own twitter stream as exemplified by Maggie Fox, CEO of Social Media Group “Pawing thru my swag bag from @defrag All I can say is wow.”  The bag included a fine quality “Defrag” polar fleece jacket, a flask, juggling balls, obligatory water bottle and coffee mug, travel coffee mug, an iPad cover, two hardcover books by speakers, and that’s about a quarter of the booty.  The hotel had ample Internet, and the AV system rocked. Check out this opening video – imagine it on a 50′ wide screen with loud sound.

The agenda was rock solid and exhausting. The amount of content at this event was impressive. I’ve selected some of my favorite sessions (in order of appearance).

James Altucher: Success is a Sexually Transmitted Disease 

Altucher is a trip. Best known as a stock wizard and regularly featured on CNBC, this guy actually says what he thinks. His new self-published book “I Was Blind But Now I See” is about how forgetting all the lies we are taught about success, money, religion, etc. is critical to finding happiness. James focused his presentation on branding – and the oxymoron of “personal branding.” James is convinced branding is all about deception, so the concept of “personal branding,” which was invented indirectly by Twitter, is a way of saying “I’m going to lie to you and steal your money.”

He used Google as an example of a corporate brand citizen – because it simply and honestly directs the user to other sites (that lie). Instead of offering content, Google offers suggestions for sites that might have the content desired – and it even shows which sites paid for the referral. James pointed out that Google’s technology was actually adapted from a patent owned by the Wall Street Journal that uses a prior notion of PageRank to find the best WSJ page. WSJ had the idea first, but limited the concept to its own library. Google is happy to refer viewers to other sites, thus its honest approach has made the company many times more valuable. Ironically, the same day as James was speaking, Google announced its intent to pull its Gmail app from BlackBerry devices. A mature, working app is being pulled to hurt a competitor. That didn’t strike me as honest, but Android is a different game than search. The key point was honesty is the ultimate brand. More information here.

Note: With my published TalkingPointz UC reports, I try to be extremely honest. The full story. They are not pro vendor or against a vendor. Agreed on honest branding, and agreed that the notion confuses people.

Chris Moody: Emerging Use Cases for Big Social Data, GNIP. 

GNIP is a social research company mostly associated with Twitter analytics. The company harvests social media information into usable pertinent data. Social media is confusing to many of us, and it was fascinating to hear some of the latest views on its value and where it fits. This presentation was very rich with slides and research which I intend to cover in a separate post. In a nutshell, Chris crystallized what I knew, but didn’t know. That the various types of social media have different characteristics, thus represent different types of uses for research. He compared services such as Twitter, Disqus, GetSatisfaction, and YouTube in terms of depth and effort and correlated them to functional areas such as PR, customer service, product development, and brand management. It was great stuff and showed how all these social tools are differentiating. Watch for more on this.

Aneesh Chopra, CTO, The White House: The Innovation Agenda

The nation’s First CTO popped in and did a presentation on how the White House is promoting innovation. Of course, as with all things political, just revealing your colors causes controversy. The Twitter stream was pretty entertaining during Aneesh’s visit as some where impressed and some were upset about his audacity of hope. Aneesh used the the Veteran’s Job Bank as an example of the White House’s commitment to open transparent government and the President’s innovation strategy. Rather than create a new proprietary job bank system which would have been costly and a long term project, the solution was created with creative tagging, or open publishing. A new schema and a voluntary tag of “veteran committed” on job postings (means the employer would like to fill the position with a vet) meant that 500,000 open jobs were listed on the site’s first day, all of which were consolidated in one place. Effectively, the white house is promoting mash-ups. More information here.

There are several more projects underway. Aneesh talked about education, health data, and energy initiatives underway. He also said that the white house is successfully recruiting some impressive talent on a project basis to get these efforts going. He gave several examples of successful IT projects ranging from DARPA (Open Manufacturing Platforms) to how a virtual cellular based 911 system was created in Haiti after the earthquake. Aneesh was a great speaker, lots of energy, and offered a fairly unique perspective we don’t hear about very often.

Robert Stephens, CTO, Best Buy: A Litany of Unfinished Business

I was a bit confused about Best Buy being on the agenda, but Robert Stephens was one of the most entertaining speakers of the conference. Robert was the founder of Geek Squad which Best Buy acquired to serve the DIFM crowd (Do It For Me as opposed to DIY). The technical audience at Defrag falls more into the DIY crowd, but Robert did an excellent job of connecting the dots and value proposition. The title of his presentation was intended to share more about what Best Buy needs to do, rather than the traditional what Best Buy does presentation many expected. Robert talked about emerging consumer tech areas including fitness tech, home automation, and home security. But don’t think Geek Squad is a pure consumer play – the business is seeing an increasing trend of supplementing (and replacing) IT. This started as the net moved executives and their devices home, and IT is often unable or unwilling to service those home locations. Robert terms include:  “Cloudy Computing” referring to helping SMBs discover the cloud, and “TwelpForce” is Robert’s dream of a network of people to help each other (interesting idea, though Robert also feels it is the stupidest name in history).

A few other notes about Robert – his business card lists his Twitter ID – and that’s all. His presentation did not hit Best Buy’s recent acquisition of mindSHIFT, but he did comment later that it fits into the Best Buy vision (actually Geek Squad vision) of SMB IT services.  Best Buy clearly intends to be a service oriented business that happens to have a retail operation including procurement, upgrades, installation, support, hosted services, mobile upgrade plans, and more. Best quote “Everything at Best Buy now is an accessory for your mobile phone, even your car.”

Adrian Cockroft, Netflix: Netflix Culture: How Freedom and Responsibility Leads to Agile and Intelligent Execution

Times have been tough for the past few years – most companies have dealt with cut backs and layoffs. But you would not know it listening to Adrian. At times I thought Adrian was from a different planet; didn’t they just lose 800,000 subscribers or something? Adrian’s premise was you can’t be extraordinary if you do things the same way as everyone else. So he makes sure that his environment is different, though it seems eerily similar to a Greek economic tragedy. Here are a few of the characteristics Adrian advocates that makes Netflix unique.

No more than one product line (perhaps that explains the aborted effort to spin-off the DVD business), everyone in a single building, no acquisitions (dangerous distractions), no interns (or entry level staff AKA “puppies”) – hire senior people only, abolish the IT department (he considers IT internal only and they do exist at Netflix, but are restricted to internal services rather than the core business), no project managers (project manager, line manager, and product architect roles are one person-this eliminates “time-wasting wrangling”), overpay all staff – give options monthly (instant vesting and no bonuses), push out new code when it is ready (several times a day) – and many more.

It was a great presentation and one that forces questionning of many long held assumptions. Adrian came to work at Netflix as form of a social experiment “Ebay’s research and development lab was just for shits and giggles, Netflix had an experimental culture, but could it continue to scale?” Some really interesting ideas, but following some (or all) of these suggestions would backfire at other places (like 99% of other places). Clearly, Adrian and Netflix have their engineering figured out (yes it is all on Amazon Web Services and has been completely rewritten once already for internationalization), but it isn’t clear to me they have marketing and sales understood.

Best quote: “Thank you for building the internet so we can fill it with movies.”

For more information on the Netflix culture, see this.

Jeff Lawson, CEO, Twilio: Does this come in Ruby?

The title of Jeff’s presentation is now shopping, even for esoteric development tools, is a consumer online shopping cart experience. Jeff’s presentation was about facilitating those that do (do-ers). He draws a distinction between do-ers and non do-ers and puts this up against a purchasing backdrop. The rules have changed and Jeff suggests the old model of vague information designed to lure the prospect into contacting a sales person or dialing a toll free number is obsolete. Do-ers just get frustrated with that and if there is an alternative that meets their needs, they are gone.  Those that do, do. He points to telecom corporate websites that don’t provide clear product/service information, a clear action path, or clear pricing.

This resonated with me because I see it so much in telephony. Jeff gave examples of how Twilio’s customers are doing things – actually completing things faster than it takes to get an enterprise sales rep to respond to a web contact form request. His presentation had some surprising overlap with Adrian (Netflix) in that both discussed the merits of cultivating the do-ers and getting things done. But unlike Adrian, Jeff has the customer in mind: “make someone a hero by enabling them to turn something around quickly – days not months; they will be your advocate!”  To prove his point, he referred to a current InfoWeek article that corroborated his pitch.

His final point, was the need to treat customers equally instead of the more common approach of stratifying the big ones from the smaller ones. Enterprise customers are polite – they don’t disparage a brand from a bad experience, but instead simply move on. However, consumers are not so bashful. Jeff says that consumerization means customers have a (social) voice, and treating a less important customer with less importance is shortsighted.