Trip Report from the Boston Business of Software Conference!

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Trip Report from the Boston Business of Software Conference!

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Last year, Neil Davidson (founder and boss at Red Gate Software) organized a new conference called the ' Business of Software' Conference.  It must have made quite an impression because for this year's event one of the attendees, Joel Spolsky, the man behind Fog Creek software and the Joel on Software blog, joined him as a co-organiser and he had a veritable dream team of speakers attending.

The event took place over 2 intense days this week in Boston at the WorldTrade Center. It attracted people from America, Europe and as far afield as Australia. Boston is a great place to organize a conference. The hotel was 15 minutes from the airport and on the edge of the city. For any Linux fans, Boston Aquarium is 15 minutes walk away and has one of the world's best collections of penguins...

When I first saw the conference advertised, I thought the title sounded slightly vague but it had an impressive array of presenters (first 3 speakers were Seth Godin, Jason Fried and Eric Sink) and I needed a break from Java code and debugging our PDF viewer so I signed up. 

It was actually rather a descriptive title because the speakers and attendees reflect a broad range of people from companies of all shapes and sizes who are in the 'software' industry. They ranged from Venture capitalists, marketers, managers, founders, coders, academics and even job-seekers. It was a small event (290 attendees), but they had all come to meet and talk so everyone was very approachable, swapping stories and business cards between talks and and at meals.  It was very slickly organized but had a fresh vibrancy to it. 

It was not a technical conference aimed at improving your technical skills, although there were plenty of experts there to chat to at mealtimes. What was offered was a chance to meet lots of other people, swap experiences and get a lot of ideas on the software industry and general skills you need to survive. There were lots of practical ideas and tips on offer as well as stories of how not to do things.

I have written down my edited notes of my personal take on the talks but they don't really do justice to the talks. Last year several videos were published after the conference so keep an eye on http://www.businessofsoftware.org/ and put it on your list for serious consideration in 2009 if you are in any way in the business of software.

Some common themes in all the speaker's talks were that you don't all have to aim to be the next google (there are lots of very successful and rich niche players out there), that everybody in the organization needs to get sales and marketing (even the coders), that the software market is a still a great place to be and above all that the software business is still very much about people.

Monday's Speakers

  • Seth Godin started the conference with a talk about how marketing was too important to be left to the marketing department. He started with the invention of sliced bread and explained how advertising had developed via TV to sell average products to average people.

    With the internet, this has all changed and we are now in the fashion business, taking something good enough and making it remarkable (people will remark about it as unusual and exciting as if they had noticed a 'purple cow'). Lots of people do not get the new market and they end up mixing the reasonable ideas together into a nasty mess, making a 'meatball sundae'. He explained how he had boosted traffic for Squido and his new tribes site.

  • Jason Fried explained how he had setup 37 signals and gone on to develop Basecamp, Highrise and other products. Momentum is critical to success. He made some provocative points about minimizing planning and dumping abstractions such as roadmaps, specifications, roadmaps. He argued we should focus on the things which do not change and concentrate on what matters now and for 10 years time. He told us how 37 signals had reduced its working week to 4 days and seen its productivity rise. He stressed 'underdoing' things - too many features makes software less usable. 

  • Eric Sink recounted the development of Internet Explorer and  Sourcesafe. As well as telling us all about guitars, he ran through the role of a product manager to that of a parent, protecting and developing their 'child' and gradually letting go.

  • Pecha Kucha was a series of 8 speakers with exactly 20 slides and 20 seconds on each. There was a whole range of topics and audience voted the winner Alexis Ohanian (co-founder of Reddit) for his extremely funny take on "How to start, run and sell a web 2.0 startup"

  • Dharmesh Shah gave his experiences on creating a startup, his time at MIT and his latest ventures, www.onstartups.com and Hubspot. He talked about licensing models and SAS and had some harsh views on venture capitalists. He strongly feels many startups end up changing their idea so you need to get into the market with a product and start getting feedback. He argued it was more important to focus on optimizing your site so its easy to find and use rather than over-relying on Google adwords to drive traffic (where outsiders can suddenly drive up the costs for you and you have no control).

  • Jessica Livingstone  told us about her experiences with writing 'Founders at Work' and Y-Incubator. She summed up what she felt were the similar characteristics of successful software company founders, arguing that initial ignorance can be an advantage, but arguing that success is down to flexibility and perseverance. In her latest venture she is always looking at ways for companies she funds to take they products and expand the market.

  • Paul Kenny has huge experience in sales. Nobody ever grows up saying they want to be the sales guy, but products do not sell themselves. Everyone can be a better salesman but sales needs to be given proper importance and time. Research has shown that often there is nothing wrong with the product, customers just do not buy for a variety of reasons.

    He had a number of case studies to show how sales is not about trying to push a product, its about understanding the customers problem and providing a solution to it. So focus on the customer and the 'story' , not your product. In a small organization everyone needs to make sales a task with time set aside. Large companies need to hire the right people to fit the company culture, provide them with direction and support and reward 'good' sales, not just all sales.

Tuesday's speakers

  • Steve Johnson admitted what many of us may feel that developing products is hard. He reminded us friends build products while enemies build documents. He used the example of his will, where 85 pages of dense legal prose (trying to cover all possible outcomes) really amounts to 'the kids split it'. Large amounts of documentation can obscure rather than provide clarity. He ran through his vision of the Development Manager as the person to oversee the development and understand the customer. He reminded us that all companies are carrying out the development managers roles, even if they don't realize it.

    He reminded us that nothing seems hard to people who do not understand what they are talking about. When your sales guys ask you what is so hard about producing a specific product at a set time with a known featureset, ask them why they can't manage to tell you when they will close a deal and at what price. Surely it can't be that hard!

  • Tom Jennings from Summit partners tried to put the record straight on Venture Capitalists. He explained the difference between Venture Capital (money into new fast growing companies for new shares) and Private Equity (buying out existing shares in larger, more mature companies). The audience started with a rather negative perception and he did a good job of trying to disprove the common myths. He argued it was important to good VCs that their interests were aligned with the company founders and they added value to the businesses they invested in.

  • Richard Stallman did an amazing talk with no notes and no slides on the problem of patents and why Intellectual Property is not a good term because it lumps together too many different ideas. He had a brilliant analogy asking what Beethoven's music might have been like if people had been able to patent musical ideas and get patents on certain patterns of notes or symbols.

    He is best known as a proponent of free software and explained why the campaign against patents is being run as a separate site (www.endsoftpatents.org) because it is as much a threat to commercial companies and users. He provided  several compelling arguments against patents and lots of examples of really stupid patents. Some are listed on the site.

  • Noam Wasserman presented some of his research from his work at Harvard on gathering data on small companies (much of which is unique). He revealed how companies that are started by friends tend to be less successful and how equity spits can cause problems.

    Ironically successful founders tend to end up losing control of their companies as they grow to a size where others are better suited to assume control. He suggested that in most cases founders have to choose between being king (retaining tight control) or rich (ceding control to others as the company grows but ultimately ending up with far more valuable shares).

  • Mike Milninkovich explained how the Eclipse ecosystem worked and how it allowed competition and co-operation between players. He debunked the myth that an ecosystem is always a safe place without predators 

  • Steve Krug showed how usability testing could be cheap and simple. A morning a month with some real users can quickly show major issues with the usability of a product and then the worst issues can be fixed with the limited time available. Don't leave it until the end.

  • Lastly Joel Spolsky asked whether we want to produce the next Zune or the next iPod. He showed how important emotion and misattribution are in people's choices and advised us always to take a first date to a coffee shop (where the coffee acts as a stimulant and raises heart-rate and interest) rather than a movie (where the coke acts as a depressant). These emotions will be misattributed as the effect you have on the person!

    He argued that great software needs to make people happy (like giving them control), needs to obsess over the aesthetics (getting all the small design details right) and observe the culture. 




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