Tech + Social + Collaboration = FAIL.

As a Developer, when I have an issue I’m trying to solve, I turn to Google. Most of my fellow developers do the same thing. Sites like Stack Overflow and MSDN are usually at the top of those searches. This is because the questions are public and the answers can be given either by the community at large or, in the case of MSDN, by Microsoft themselves.Solaborate

When I’m ready to start learning about the next big thing, I turn to Twitter and my long list of follows is always ready with tweets about what I need to care about.

Do we need a unified site that brings both of these concepts together? I’m not so sure. One newcomer to the Social/Collaboration scene believes they have done it.

"Solaborate is a social and collaboration platform dedicated to technology professionals and companies to connect, collaborate, discover opportunities, and create an ecosystem around products and services. Solaborate provides technology professionals a central place with the right tools and services to collaborate in real time. It's a new way for the tech community to be more productive.”

The new social network tries to merge a techie’s need for collaboration and answers with his/her need for knowledge sharing. Unfortunately, it’s centered on LinkedIn-like or Twitter-like connections. This means you’re only going to see information shared by people you connect with. Furthermore, only people you’re connected with will see your posts, even when marked “public.” This potentially solves the Information Sharing or “Social” aspect they’re trying to accomplish. They even offer video/audio calls and text chatting.

However, the same concept of connection-based communications hobbles their ability to be a collaboration center. If I can only ask my connections and can only see questions asked by my connections, how can I be sure I’m following community best practices? I need to be able to ask the entire community. Because of this, I would not be inclined to use Solaborate for collaborations on issues I’m facing; Google will still be my go-to place to solve problems.

If I’m not going to use the “collaboration” aspect of Solaborate, and am only left with the social features, I don’t need it. I already have all of those features on LinkedIn (and Facebook, Twitter, etc.) I think Solaborate has a long uphill battle if it wants to gain momentum in the market.

About the Author: 

Todd Azbill has been a software developer since 2000. His comfort zone is the Microsoft Stack, but he's flexible. In recent years, Todd has become an Agile Enthusiast and he finds himself gravitating towards the realm of Agile Leadership.

Posted in: 
Fun

Blog Response: Internships ARE Worth It

“Internships aren’t worth it.” When I saw this article from Forbes last week, I was surprised, and a little indignant. I grew up being told that the only way to get a job after graduation was by stacking my resume with internships throughout college. And honestly, I don’t think I would be where I am today if I didn’t have those internships.

The summer before I graduated from the University of Oklahoma, I landed a Social Media/Marketing internship at MATRIX in Dallas. The reason I got this internship was a combination of my interview and the experience I had on my resume. My boss would not have hired someone with zero experience to jump into this job that was essentially the voice of the brand.  The Internship

Granted, Henderson is generally talking about unpaid internships in her article. I was fortunate to have a paid internship with MATRIX. But believe me, it was nothing like the Google movie or the rest of these internships that pay more than the U.S. median household income. Even though I wasn’t in a high-paying tech intern program, I would repeat my internship in a heartbeat, paid or unpaid.

To Henderson’s first point: “The work doesn’t help you build useful skills”, it’s impossible to generalize here. Sure, there are internships that don’t build real skills, but I would like to think that these are not the majority. Even though I was just a college student, I was not the lowly coffee girl at MATRIX. I was tasked with building and managing social media accounts from the ground up and driving engagement. I had direction, but ultimately, I was given the reigns on really owning our online brand. My colleague, Jessi Byas, took an unpaid summer internship as a PR/Social Media rep on a political campaign in 2010. She was thrown right into the role and given responsibilities such as writing press releases, managing fundraising events, running social media accounts and more. Even though she wasn’t paid, she honed skills in this role that led her to where she is today. “As a PR major, I was able to use what I learned in my classes in a professional setting. I got a firsthand look of the inside of a campaign and even as an intern, I got to work alongside the candidate as a real member of the team,” said Jessi. There are plenty of companies out there that will treat their interns with this kind of respect.

When you get out of college, it’s almost impossible to get a job in an office without some kind of relevant experience. The most likely type of experience prior to entry-level positions? Internships. When interviewing at a company, the interviewer will look at your experience and ask what you did at your previous jobs. They don’t care if it was paid or not; they care about the skills you picked up.

Are internships worth it? I can’t speak for everyone. What Henderson doesn’t mention is how any kind of intern experience will teach you something about yourself. Maybe it doesn’t pay anything, but it shows you what it’s like to work in the business world and teaches you office etiquette before you start your real job. Maybe it trains you on taking orders well and meeting deadlines. (Actual, real-world deadlines, not like the paper you had to turn in to your English class last semester.) Or maybe it teaches you that you actually hate corporate environments and leads you to explore a different line of work. These lessons can be worth so much more than money. Maybe you’ll get lucky like me and your internship will turn into a full-time job. Are all internships going to be right for you? No, probably not. But don’t let lack of pay or articles like this keep you from getting real-world experience that can be the stepping stone to your dream job.

So what do you think: are internships worth it? Does the pay matter to you? Share your internship experiences in the comments.

About the Author: 

Jennifer is the Community Manager for MATRIX. She manages all social media accounts and community partnerships in our different markets while assisting the marketing department. She loves pop culture, Oklahoma football and the great state of Texas. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.

Posted in: 
Job Seeker

A History of Failure: Learning From My Failed Products

Right now you’re reading the blog of someone who has had no major success building a profitable SaaS solution. Writing customized software for clients as a consultant? I have that down (though always looking to grow). But building a profitable SaaS product: not yet. So why should you take my advice about building one? I have a really great track record of failures that I hope can help you when you’re building your next product.Learning from Failure

Building a failure of a product is no fun, but each one serves as a great learning experience. Each one of my failures have influenced the next product I built. I’m building my three new products differently now that I have several failures under my belt.

Lastly, I don’t want to promote the idea that having a failed product is necessary to be a competent entrepreneur. Unquestionably, I’m envious of people who have successful products on their first try. However, I’m always suspicious of those success stories; sometimes a success story is better sold when the list of previous failures is left to lie silent.

Kwolla
The first product I sold online was named Kwolla. Kwolla was the result of a failed startup I was hired to build. Kwolla was originally named Prospect Vista and was a social network for businesses. You could think of it as a merge between YouTube and LinkedIn because a public profile that advertised your business was the value proposition. There are many reasons why Prospect Vista failed, but we decided that the software behind it was still valid, so we packaged it up as a social-network-in-a-box tool. For $79 you could buy a copy of the software, install it on your server, and instantly have your own social network.

Selling Kwolla actually went very well. In total, I sold $2400 worth of software and Kwolla consulting combined.

Kwolla failed because I essentially shut it down. I made two big mistakes. First, I had this notion that I no longer wanted to write PHP anymore, and thus was going to rewrite Kwolla in Scala. Second, I actually started rewriting Kwolla (in PHP albeit)! This was insane. In my hands, I had a product that was making money and I shut it down because I didn’t like the codebase behind it. The code was sloppy in places and it bothered me. So I completely killed it.

It was a horrible decision. I wish I would have kept on building the Kwolla site and product. Over time, I could have refactored the code and made it better. But, the engineer side of my brain kicked in and I couldn’t deal with the bad code.

Key Takeaway: Don’t rewrite major software applications from scratch, and keep on with a good thing.

Accthub Version 1
After I shut down Kwolla, I went to work for an e-commerce company for a while. I concentrated on building my consulting business on the side in that time, and didn’t really work on any projects for myself. While at the company, I had an idea to build a centralized user management API so that our many different e-commerce sites could communicate with this central user management API. I was itching to build a product again, so building this central user API seemed natural.

I wrote out a spec and eventually built the API: Accthub. A hub for all of your accounts. Neil, my co-founder at Bright March, designed a beautiful landing page and we built a great marketing site around Accthub.

We launched to absolutely zero users. We attempted to market it as a Parse for user accounts (even though Parse had user accounts). In total, 76 people signed up for the service and not a single person paid for it.

Ironically, even though this idea failed for us, two other companies are building it: Stormpath and UserApp. It’s clearly something people wanted, I just hope they have more success than we did building their applications.

Key Takeaway: Do market research before you spend a tremendous amount of time and effort building a product. Launching it to no one doesn’t help at all. Even worse, I originally wrote Accthub in Java and then completely scratched it and rewrote it in PHP because I knew it better and was more comfortable with it.

Accthub Version 2
It’s funny how the key takeaway in the first iteration of Accthub didn’t hit us until after we attempted to re-build Accthub again. The second version of Accthub aimed to be like Mozilla Persona, except not free, not from a major highly respected non-profit company. Essentially, you, the Internet user, would register an account on Accthub and then use it to sign up for other sites that integrated with Accthub. Then, you could give explicit permissions as to what every site could do with your data that you let them use.

This idea sounds really cool, but there are a lot of problems with it. Who is going to pay for it? Internet users won’t, they’ll clearly give their private information away for free without any thought. Companies won’t pay for it, they can just use Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn authentication.

We applied to Y-Combinator with this idea and didn’t even get an interview.

Key Takeaway: Really validate your idea before you build it. With Accthub Version 1 we got some traction. Fortunately, with this version, getting rejected from Y-Combinator was enough for us to scrap it before we built it in earnest.

MajorApi
MajorApi was the first product we built that showed a lot of promise. With the strain of failures behind us, we knew we wanted to approach MajorApi differently.

MajorApi was born from the idea that integrating with QuickBooks is really, really difficult. Way more difficult than integrating with any database (essentially what QuickBooks is) should be. We were working on integrating with QuickBooks for a client and spent a huge amount of time just figuring out how to connect to QuickBooks and send in and extract data. Judging by the the thousands of StackOverflow and random forum posts out there, we surmised a lot of other developers were having this issue as well.

So we came up with an idea: a REST API for QuickBooks. We finally cracked the “integrating with QuickBooks” code, and felt that if there was a service that charged a monthly fee to provide a nice API on top of the horror that is integrating with QuickBooks that developers would come rushing in to use it.

To validate this idea, we set up a simple landing page. It explained the problem, our idea, and our proposed solution. I submitted a link to it to Hacker News on a Saturday night in early December 2012. That night, the post blew up. We had several hundred people sign up for the mailing list saying they were interested in what we were building.

Even more encouraging, Intuit themselves caught wind of the landing page and flew me out to Mountain View to spend a day with them. They offered me a very nice job in exchange for not building MajorApi. Stripe was also interested in integrating MajorApi with their service. So, when Intuit offers you a job to not build something, and Stripe wants to integrate your product with theirs, and you have hundreds of people interested in using it, it’s definitely time to build your product.

I declined the job at Intuit and built MajorApi. And three months later in March of 2013, we launched it. And people started using it – kind of. And then really not at all when you really looked at the analytics. Mailing list people signed up, saw they had to download a piece of software, and it only worked for QuickBooks Desktop and that was it: they were gone.

We also applied to Y-Combinator with this idea which we felt surely would get us an interview only to wind up completely rejected again.

MajorApi limped on for the last year. We finally shut it down in January 2014 and are in the process of open sourcing it.

Key Takeaway: We built a product that people were interested in, but we built it in a silo. We didn’t reach out to any members on the mailing list while we were building it to find out what they really wanted or were willing to pay for. Instead, we kept our heads down and built a product we thought people would have wanted. I would have much preferred to launch to 20 developers immediately ready to start paying $50 a month for this service than 200 people who created a free account.

Final Thoughts
Building a successful product is hard. Very hard. I’m not ashamed at all about my failures. Even the most successful products out there were most likely built by people with a long history of small failures that they learned and grew from.

It’s always best to put another tally mark in the Successful column, but don’t be ashamed of the ones in the Failed column either.

About the Author: 

Vic Cherubini started writing software professionally in 1999. In 2011, he started his own software consulting company Bright March. He loves writing about software engineering, entrepreneurship, and personal growth. To read more of Vic's posts, or get in touch with him, visit his website.

Posted in: 
Development

Questions Job Seekers Should Ask

You will want to be ready with good questions—especially at the end of the interview when you are asked if you have any questions. The type of questions you ask will depend upon what stage you have reached in the interview process. The questions you ask at the end of a first interview could vary greatly from what you would want to ask at the end of a third or fourth interview. Questions Job Seekers Should AskWhat you ask and when is up to you. The answers to your questions are important and will help you decide whether or not to accept the position. Some questions you might want to ask, provided you are not already expected to know the answer because of your research, include:

Questions about the organization:
•    What position does the company have in the industry? Is it the market leader, in the middle, or does it have to market through other avenues?
•    How does the business market its products or services to clients or customers?
•    Does the company have a policy of promotion from within or does it generally look outside for talent?
Questions about job duties and responsibilities:
•    What kind of authority does the position have? What decisions could I make without getting higher management or committee approval?
•    Can you describe a typical day for me?
•    Does this position involve a lot of travel?
Questions about the department:
•    What is the current status of the department? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
•    What is different about this department that sets it apart from other similar departments in the company?
•    What is the rate of turnover in this department?
Questions about compensation and benefits (don’t get into this unless you have a job offer):
•    What part of the compensation plan is tied to performance?
•    What kinds of benefits are available in terms of medical, dental, life insurance, etc.?
•    Would I have to sign an employment contract? If so, what are the terms?
Questions about relocation (if you have to move):
•    What moving expenses does the company pay?
•    Will they pay for one or more trips for my spouse to see the community and look for housing?
•    If the move is delayed for any reason, will the company provide transportation for me to visit my family regularly?

These sample questions are a good place to start, provided of course that you are not expected to know the answers as a result of your company research. You do not want to ever give the impression that you do not know anything about the company that is interviewing you, or ask a question to which you should know the answer.

Take notes during the interview, but ask permission to do so. The person conducting the interview will not refuse your request. Have a pen and paper ready to jot down important items. This will help you make a good impression and will provide you with the information you need for your interview summary later and for the follow up letter.

In addition, there are questions you can ask to help you determine in a diplomatic way whether someone higher than the interviewer will make the final choice. Example:

•    Who would supervise the person in this position?
•    Is there someone else who will be involved in the final hiring decision for this job?

Another question you may ask the interviewer is how he or she would rate your qualifications for the job. The reply should help you learn whether or not you are in the running for the job. It may also give you information about a point the interviewer saw as a problem, but would not have discussed with you otherwise. This then gives you the opportunity to explain, defend or clarify the point of concern. If there is concern over a perceived weakness, you could assure the interviewer of your willingness to work to overcome it. The interviewer may, of course, tell you she is not ready to give you feedback at that time. Even this reply can set the stage for you to briefly summarize the strengths and weaknesses you could bring to the job.

There is one final question that candidates often overlook: ask for the job. Ask in a pleasant and confident manner, and you will not appear “overly aggressive.” This does not mean that you should say, “May I have the job?” However, do let the interviewer know that you feel you are a good candidate and why, that you are very interested in the job and hope you will be the selected candidate to fill the position. You may also ask when she will be making a decision.

Asking questions may be difficult for some candidates, either because of a lack of interview experience or because they have difficulty feeling it’s appropriate. However, the interviewer expects you to have questions. A candidate who has no questions might cause as much concern in the interviewer’s mind as the candidate who goes overboard and asks too many questions.

Before you leave the interviewer’s office, ask about the next step in the selection process. When can you expect to hear from the interviewer? Job seekers often neglect to get this information. They wait and wonder when and if they will hear back from the person with whom they interviewed. (If no one contacts you by the date given, do not hesitate to follow up by telephone. It demonstrates a sincere interest in the job and shows that you know how to take initiative).

About the Author: 

Carol Hacker is the former Director of Human Resources for the North American Division of a European manufacturing company, Employee Relations Manager for the Miller Brewing Company, and County Office Director for the US Department of Labor. Headquartered in Atlanta, GA, Carol has been the President and CEO of Hacker & Associates since January 1989. She specializes in teaching managers, supervisors, team leaders, HR professionals, and executives how to meet the leadership challenge. Carol is the author of over 400 published articles and 14 books including the bestseller, Hiring Top Performers-350 Great Interview Questions For People Who Need People. She earned her BS and MS with honors from the University of Wisconsin. She can be reached at www.carolahacker.com or 770-410-0517.

Posted in: 
Job Seeker

Transitioning to IT: How "Office Space" Almost Ruined My Life

Follow along in this blog series to get a firsthand look at making the switch to a career in IT.

I went to film school in LA out of high school. After just one year, I transferred to the University of Oklahoma where I completed my Bachelor's in Aviation and earned a commercial pilot's license. Naturally, after graduation I sold ski boats for nine months in Texas before enrolling in graduate school for Computer Science at the University of Chicago.

Despite what it seems, going through three schools and three entirely unrelated fields was not completely sporadic. I loved programming in high school. I took as much as was offered. This was back before the iPhone, and when the world thought Google was just a web search. It was just not obvious to a 16-year-old kid that jobs in computer science were the way of the future. My entire frame of reference for a computer science career was based off Mike Judge's film, “Office Space”. Tiny cubicles, fluorescent lights, short sleeve button-downs, and the world's worst boss was not my idea of a dream job.Office Space

I went to film school with dreams of creating something that made an impact, but I was unaware that the film industry was beginning its decline. Avatar was about to set the world into a 3D visual drug frenzy that was the killing blow to a once artistic and innovative medium.

While at film school, I watched “The Aviator” and got into my head that I was Howard Hughes and needed to fly airplanes. So I went to the University of Oklahoma and majored in Aviation. Flying was incredible. I thought I owned the sky. It turns out I didn't. The regulations and robotic work environment of a professional pilot burned me out before I even became a professional pilot.

Upon graduation, the search for a career path began again. I took a job selling ski boats while I tried to get a hold on what I wanted to do. I found myself continuously regretting not majoring in computer science. Everywhere I looked there was an article about how good it was to be a programmer. Any kind of programmer. This Smart Planet article for instance. Over half of TheLadder's top ten most popular job listings are tech related. The industry is only expected to grow faster as automated systems begin to make human jobs obsolete. I don't want to work a job that a robot can do better than me. I want to work for Google, or some web startup, or help program the robots.

Once I finally realized it wasn’t too late, I started hard research on my options for getting a computer science degree. I explored getting a second Bachelor's, but quickly found that universities prefer undergrad applicants without previous degrees. I then started looking into Master’s programs. Many require a computer science or mathematics undergrad, but not all. I discovered The University of Chicago has a Computer Science Master’s program that offers “immersion classes” designed to make up for lost time in programming and math. Despite U Chicago being a very prestigious school and my undergrad performance being mediocre at best, I was able to get in with a good GRE score and quality recommendation letters.

I’ve been in Chicago for almost three weeks now. I tested out of immersion programming and am currently taking the immersion math class. I’m still on the job hunt, but the outlook is good for finding work in an IT field even while I'm in school. The math class is the hardest class I've ever taken, yet I have never been this excited for school in my life. Though I'm disappointed I didn't get started earlier, the future holds unlimited potential. I will be in school for about a year, or maybe longer if I pick up a full-time job. I will most likely be a software engineer or web developer after graduation.

I clearly have a history of ADD, but I believe it stems from my curious nature. Computer Science is one of the few fields that allows for innovation and exploration on par with Aviation in the 50s and Film in the golden ages of Hollywood. I feel confident that I made a great decision and will hang on to a distrust of Mike Judge for a long time to come.

We’ll be checking in with Connor to see how his transition into IT is going. If you have any questions for him, make sure to leave them in the comments so that he can address them in his next post.

About the Author: 

Connor Egbert is currently getting his Master's Degree in Computer Science at the University of Chicago. He's also looking for part-time work in IT as he goes to school. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn.

Posted in: 
Job Seeker