Steve Jobs and the Lean Startup

Steve JobsOn my 25 minute train journey to work each morning I like to pass the time by reading. The two most recent books I’ve read are The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (both links contain an affiliate id). Although one is a biography and the other is a book on project management they actually cover similar ground, and both are books that people working in technology should read.

Walter Isaacson’s book has been extensively reviewed and dissected so I’m not going to go into detail on it. The book is roughly divided into two halves. The first section is on the founding of Apple, Pixar and NeXT. This section serves an inspirational guide to setting up your own company. The joy of building a great product and defying the odds against a company succeeding comes across very strongly. The later section following Job’s return to Apple is a much more about the nuts and bolts of running a huge corporation. While it’s an interesting guide to how Apple got to where it is today, it lacks the excitement of the earlier chapters.

Eric Ries - The Lean Startup, London EditionThe Lean Startup could, rather unkindly, be described as a managerial technique book. It’s much more than that though as it’s more of a philosophy for how to run company or a project. The book is very readable and engaging with plenty of useful case studies to illustrate the point being made. The key message of the book is to get your product out to customers as soon as possible, to measure as much as you can and learn from what your customers are doing and saying. As you learn you need to make a decision on whether to persevere or to pivot, and change strategy.

There are many reasons why Steve Jobs was a great leader, a visionary and a terrible boss. One aspect was his unshakable belief that he knew what the customer wanted, even before they knew themselves. This is the antithesis of the Lean Startup methodology, which focuses on measurement and learning. Eric Ries stresses that a startup is not necessarily two guys working out of a garage. Huge multinational corporations can have speculative teams or projects inside them, that act much like start ups, so it wouldn’t be impossible for the Apple of today to act like a start up. Apple weren’t always huge though, and back in the 1970s they really were a start up.

One Apple trait the Lean Startup methodolgy doesn’t allow for is dramatic product launches. The Lean Startup is a way of working that relies on quick iteration and gradually building up your customer base. It’s hard to quickly iterate when building hardware, but early in Apple’s life they were struggling to find a market for their computers. The Apple I follow the trend of the time of build-it-yourself computers. Just a year later and Apple released the Apple ][ which came with a case and was much more suitable for the average consumer. This represents a pivot on the part of Apple. They could have continued to focus on hobbyists but instead they decided to change and aim for a bigger, but less technical, market.

Reading is a key part of becoming a better programmer. Whether it’s reading about the latest technology on a blog, the latest project management techniques or the history of computers reading will help you become better at your job. I’m not sure I recommend anyone tries to recreate Steve Job’s management style, but as a history of Apple Walter Isaacson’s book is inspirational and informative. The Lean Startup is considerably more practical, even if it won’t inspire you to set a company in the first place.

Photo of Steve Jobs by Ben Stanfield.
Photo of Eric Ries – The Lean Startup, London Edition by Betsy Weber.

iPhone 4S

Apple Store - LondonThis weekend I joined the hysterical masses and upgraded my increasingly ancient iPhone 3G to a shiny new 64GB iPhone 4S. Except that it was actually a bit of an anticlimax. I went into my local O2 shop at about 10:30am on Saturday morning, the day after the launch, and purchased a phone. No queueing, no raging hoards. I didn’t even have to shove a granny out of the way to get one. However, after handing over my credit card while cringing at the expense it was back home to enjoy the famous Apple unboxing experience.

I wish I’d never upgraded my 3G to iOS 4.2. Up until that point it was a great phone. Afterwards it was slow and applications would repeated crash on start up. Did I mention it was slow?

It’s hard to express just how much quicker the 4S is compared to my 3G. Often just typing my the passcode would be too quick for the 3G and it would miss one of the numbers forcing me to go back. No danger of this with the 4G though. Application starting, browsing the web, taking photos are all super speedy.

Although it’s the same as the iPhone 4 the screen is still incredible. It’s so bright and sharp it’s really a joy to use. It really comes into its own when browsing webpages that are designed for bigger screens. The extra detail really helps you to work out where to zoom in.

The camera is also much improved, and I’m sure the addition of video compared to my old 3G will come in useful. I brought iMovie and that seems like an easy way to put together some short videos of my holidays. I haven’t had much of a chance to experiment with this aspect of the phone properly yet, but I can imagine that where carrying equipment is a problem it will replace my DSLR as my primary camera. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic when I’ve been out and about for a while.

Robots only eat old peopleI don’t intend to make this an in depth review of the phone, there are many hundreds of better places that you could go to for that. One feature that I can’t not talk about is Siri. I struggle to see why, for a non-blind user, you would use it after playing with it for a bit. If you are blind then dictating is clearly a huge help, and the biggest surprise for me is the quality of the voice recognition. I don’t have a strong accent so I suppose that if it didn’t work for me then it wouldn’t work for anyone. Still though, for someone who hasn’t used voice recognition for ten years it’s amazing just how far it has come.

There’s lots of talk online about the funny answers that Siri comes up with if you ask it question like “What’s the meaning of life?” It’s certainly to Apple’s credit that they’ve given it so much personality and it’s not just a bland robot. These questions are not a long term use case though.

Where Siri really succeeds is as an interface to Wolfram Alpha. Like most people when Wolfram Alpha was launched I played with it for a bit and then forgot about it. The ability to say things like “What’s the distance from the Earth to the Moon?” and have Siri return the correct answer is quite amazing. People are used to typing a few words into Google but Wolfram Alpha needs a bit more than that. A voice interface seems so much more natural and is probably Siri’s killer application.

Unfortunately as I’m in the UK Siri doesn’t do mapping or business search for me. Roll on 2012 when that is supposed to be added.

It’s early days yet, but I’ve fallen in love with my phone all over again.

Photo of Apple Store – London by nabekor. Photo of Robots only eat old people by Mark Strozier.

Making History by Stephen Fry Book Review

Time Travel: We Leave For New Zealand Today. by americanvirusThis book poses an interesting question, what would happen if you could stop Adolf Hitler from being born? Ask anyone if they had the choice, would they take it and I imagine that almost everyone would say yes. When Michael, the lead character in this story has that choice he takes it with both hands. Unfortunately though, things do not go according to plan.

Stephen Fry is a British institution and a well known upper class intellectual. In this book he is clearly writing about what he knows as it focuses on a post-graduate student at Cambridge. The book is full of colour and detail and has an air of authenticity that draws you into the world effortlessly. There seems to be a significant amount of himself in the lead character and he writes as he talks. At first I found the overly intellectual mode of writing to be annoying and distracting from what the author was trying to say. Persevere though, and you’re rewarded with a charming, warm and funny story that will also make you think about history and the choices we make.

This book can easily be described a genre-defying as the time-travel premise means it clearly fits into science fiction. Don’t worry though, this book is not about spaceships or lasers as the two moments of time-travel are tiny compared to their consequences, and combined with flashbacks into the two world wars, the book fits into historical fiction as well. Is historical science fiction a genre? It is now.

This book was first published in 1996, and if you haven’t read in the last fifteen years then you should definitely go and hunt down copy. You’ll read it and imagine that it was written yesterday.

Photo of Time Travel: We Leave For New Zealand Today. by americanvirus.

Why Does e=mc2? Book Review

The Atomic Explosion and Mushroom Fallout at Sunset by stuckincustomsRock star turned physicist Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw have written a book with a deceptively simple title, Why Does e=mc2? With a title like that you might expect that the book will be along the same lines as the New Scientist books How To Make A Tornado and Do Polar Bears Get Lonely?. Instead though, you get a book that takes you on a in-depth journey through deriving the equation from first principles* and on to the many things that it implies.

As you might expect for a book from two physicists it is a fairly specific book, focusing on entirely on the equation and the mathematics and physics that surround it. If you’re looking for a history of the equation and the Einstein then this is not the book for you. That’s not to say that it’s not well written, or not accessible because it is both of those things. The jovial nature of the writing and understandable metaphors really help you to follow the progress of the book, especially when four dimensional space-time is being discussed.

This book is well written, informative and entertaining. If you’ve ever wanted to know why e=mc2 and you’ve got a basic understanding of maths then “Why Does e=mc2?” will answer all your questions and more.

* Well, from an fairly basic set of set of assumptions.

Photo of The Atomic Explosion and Mushroom Fallout at Sunset by stuckincustoms.

Championship Manager 2010 for the iPhone Review

Soccer Ball by jbelluchI often pass some time while traveling playing a game or two on my phone. Being a football fan I was interested to see that a version of Championship Manager was available for the iPhone.

Early impressions of the game are good. The interface is polished with plenty of options and buttons to press. The game also features a pretty complete set of teams and players with all the usual statistics that you would expect from a football management game.

The key part of a football management is the match interface. Choosing your formation and assigning players to positions is incredibly easy with the touch interface. The actual view of the match is top down and feels really cramped on the small screen. Reading the text commentary is simple, but watching the tiny dots running around on the pitch is very difficult to follow. You cannot help but feel detached from the action.

Post-match you are often treated to a press conference where you pick a journalist who asks you a question. You then pick an answer from a number of options, trying to balance the happiness of your players, board, fans and the media. Different answers will improve your standing with some and reduce it with others. Oddly along with the text of each answer the game shows you the exact effect the answer will have. A really manager has to guess at how their answer will be interpreted, they don’t have a help set of red and green numbers.

I was quite surprised to see a football management game on the iPhone. Both Championship and Football Manager are well known for needing substantial amounts of CPU power and memory to run well even on a desktop PC. The game does run pretty well, although some of the menu transitions are a little sluggish. I’m sure it would run better on a 3GS rather than the 3G that I have. Another issue is that the game is a huge battery drain and you can probably only get an hour or so play on a fully charged phone.

While Championship Manager on the iPhone was never going to be a graphical marvel, but it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive games on the system. At just £2.99 it’s an excellent purchase.

Photo of a soccer ball by jbelluch.

FlightControl Review

On Friday I download a fun little puzzle game for my iPhone, FlightControl.

The premise of the game is that you’re running air traffic approach control for a small airport and you need to arrange for the two types of passenger jets, light aircraft and helicopters to land in the appropriate places without crashing into each other. A simple concept with even simpler controls. You tap on the plane you want to direct and then drag the plane to the runway. It will then follow the path you dragged out. It’s incredibly easy to use and really lets you focus on the goal of stopping those planes from crashing.

The graphics and sounds are excellent. The game has a great cartoon feel and although the menu and ui are minimal it has a very consistent look that clearly didn’t happen by accident. The map and airport look good and there are plans to add more airports to the game which I hope will be done to a similarly high standard.

The game starts off very easy to let you get the feel for the controls but the difficulty level ramps up pretty quickly and you’ll soon have to deal with five or more planes at once. When you’ve got two planes flying at different speeds trying to land on the same runway your brain will start to melt, but in a good way.

The game features online leaderboards which is a nice touch, but like with most online stats the leaders are way out of most users reach. The current all-time top score is almost 15,000. My best is 53.

My only criticisms are that the airport is perhaps a little large which means you don’t have much room to sort your planes into stacks as you wait for them to land. The game also has an annoying habit of letting new planes enter when an existing plane is right by the edge so they crash before you can do anything. A warning icon does appear to give you time to move a plane out of the way, but it’s frustrating to lose a game in what seems like such an unfair manner. Finally I think the game could be improved by putting ticks on the planes paths so you see more easily when they well get to a certain point on the map. A small marker every five seconds of flying time would be very useful.

The game is a great pick-up-and-play title, and you won’t be able to play it just the once. With the game currently selling for a greatly reduced price it should be on every casual gamer’s iPhone.

Wolfenstein 3d iPhone Review

ID Software have taken time out from letting you play Quake 3 in your browser to release a port of the granddaddy of all first person shooters – Wolfenstein 3d. The iPhone is really beginning to show itself as an excellent gaming platform, and despite its age Wolfenstein really looks at home on the phone.

The graphics are, quite frankly, rubbish. However, they’re exactly as they were when the game was released in 1992 which is exactly the point. The sound has faired much better and sounds great. The voices of the German soldiers still send shivers up your spine. It’s an extremely faithful port of the game, and the addition of an automatic save feature means it really works as a pick up and play game. It’s very easy to dip in and out of taking one level at a time.

The controls have naturally been revamped for the iPhone’s unique control system. You steer by moving your left finger over up/down/left/right arrows and fire by tapping your right finger on a button. This works really well and it is very easy to pick up and to start running around the Nazi prison that you find yourself in. The controls do rather feel like driving a fork lift truck. You regularly find your self reversing backwards around a corner, which is not how a person would move, but it’s easy to forgive and hard to see how else it could be done.

The game might seem a little expensive at £2.99 but you get all six episodes of the game which will last you many hours. It’s available in the App Store now, and for such an old game still shows its class amongst the other games available on the iPhone.

If you’re interesting in the process of making the port then John Carmack has written a detailed post describing it.