designers + engineers + empathy = greatness

Empathy

designers and engineers need a deeper understanding of each other’s craft to create truly great products. i’m convinced that engineers need to understand the experiences designers aim to create, even as designers need to understand just know how engineers will make those experience come to life. when the two groups interact for the greater good: they build phenomenal products, with minimal time resources.

it’s all a matter of empathy — loosely defined as understanding the feelings and thinking of others. during my time leading engineering and design on webOS, and later at Twitter, i’ve learned that empathy is core to a product team’s ability to move quickly from designers’ “what” to engineers’ “how.” said differently, a designer knows what to make, and an engineer knows how to make it. when they overcome the communication barrier that separates the what and the how, good things are certain to come.

at palm, for example, we had to deliver a complete reset of webOS, moving the entire platform to a web-centric model. to do that, we put together a unified group of four teams: one team on the kernel, another on the apps, a third on infrastructure and the fourth on design. by working as a unified group, the engineers could empathize with what designers wanted the experience to be, while the designers understood the constraints of the OS.  and because of that empathy, we delivered an entirely new webOS in less than a year. we had achieved a virtuous cycle of product design, the goal of every product company.

the notion of deep, cross-discipline understanding isn’t limited to software development. it can be just as effective when developing hardware, hardware/software systems, and even for manufacturing. it’s not even new. design for manufacturability and assembly methodologies – where designers actually consider whether their designs can be easily assembled and built – have been around for decades.

but without empathy — where the different roles innately understand each other’s goals, assumptions and constraints — those cross-discipline development teams are still prone to misunderstandings and delays. recognizing that there is craft in the what and the how is key – and for the leader to help their design and engineering teams seamlessly understand each other is key.

which brings up the question: how can people with different mindsets and goals understand each other’s thinking? my colleague john maeda, who also happens to live at the intersection of design and technology, suggests early stage companies let designers code and engineers design. while not everyone can make this crossover, those who do will bridge the groups and help accelerate development.  i’ve lived in the valley long enough to see these kind of hybrid design/engineers make a huge difference in companies and now in the startups that they are founding.

for even slightly more mature companies, i believe it’s the leaders who have to crossover  and interact with other teams. they become the bridges who make sure everyone’s on the same page, with the same understanding of goals and constraints. and they also make sure design comes at the beginning of the process. without it, empathy becomes a one-sided proposition, and that just won’t work. so it’s not enough for a leader to keep the “why” in focus for everyone anymore – they’re going to have to get their hands dirty in the what and how, or at least serve as a solid communication bridge.

great execution: balancing order and chaos

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it’s human nature to prefer order over chaos. as a general rule, people want everything to be calm and predictable. we are generally as a species uncomfortable with turmoil.

ironically, in the tech industry upheaval is valued – we love turmoil. as entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, we’re on a constant hunt for new ways to disrupt markets and upend the status quo. the companies that we launch and fund are in a nonstop race for more engineers, more customers, and never-ending revisions that challenge the edges of the CEO’s sanity. working at these places can feel like riding a one-way ticket to crazy-town: an absolute sh*tshow of disorganization with no panic button to be found.

yet here’s the thing. If the environment at a startup isn’t crazy, then something’s wrong. It may seem counter-intuitive, but chaos is an essential ingredient in a startup – it is what catalyzes the innovation. think of it as a necessary state of brownian motion where ideas collide with other ideas as fueled by deadlines and desperation. there’s a limit to the chaos, however, and you immediately see what that looks like because products stop shipping.

the key to a great startup environment is finding balance, as steve jobs did at apple, jon rubinstein did at palm, and elon musk is doing at tesla motors. special kind of leaders know how to orchestrate the simultaneous demands of time, scope and quality. consider what happens when any of those elements go out of balance:

  • time/ fall too far behind a deadline, and you could miss a critical service level agreement.
  • scope/ allow unchecked scope creep, and you could end up with a bloated mess satisfying no one.
  • quality/ let quality decline, and your company’s reputation could get permanently damaged.

great leaders know how to keep the chaos driven by these three factors in balance, and constantly modulate the demands to make the chaos manageable for their company leaders and employees.

seeing is believing

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today, i’m going to riff on a topic i haven’t written about before, but has interested me for years: computer vision on mobile phones. i believe advances in computer vision — combined with the compute power we now take for granted on our cell phones — could improve people’s lives in ways most of us haven’t imagined. i’d better explain how i reached this conclusion.

scientists have known for years that increased blink rates are a great predictor of tiredness or fatigue. that fact came in handy when i wanted to figure out if my 4-year-old daughter would go to bed at 8pm or at 9pm, since that usually meant a big difference in her bedtime routine. i decided to build a mobile app that would record her face and let me count how often she blinked, helping me predict when she would fall asleep — and making a happier evening for parents and child. that’s a pretty simple example of what I mean.

cardiio is a more-sophisticated app that leverages mobile phones’ cameras and compute power. hold up your iPhone to your face in a well-lit area, and cardiio uses the front-facing camera to look at the capillaries on your cheeks. the app then measures the light that’s being reflected to determine your heart rate — useful for tracking fitness levels, calorie burn, and even estimate your life expectancy.

i should mention i don’t have any investments in cardiio or any other mobile computer vision app. i just find the whole space really interesting. MIT, for example, has developed computer-vision algorithms that can tell the difference between frustrated and pleased smiles. now imagine mobile apps that interpret shoppers’ smiles and help retailers fine-tune their merchandising. retailers could also use mobile apps to analyze foot traffic for optimum cross-selling and impulse buys. and thanks to community efforts like PubFig and Labeled Faces in the Wild, computer vision software can recognize faces — with a high degree of confidence — across a wide variety of poses, expressions and conditions (recent NYT article on the advances). it won’t be long before that capability shows up in commercial-grade mobile apps.

mobile computer vision can also help us model our environment and improve crop yields. for years, scientists have been finding new ways to use near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy to detected crop mold and fungi contamination and insect infestation. it’s easy to imagine drones fitted with infrared cameras detecting early signs of infestation.

and then there’s augmented reality — potentially giving humans a sixth sense for understanding the world around us. Google Glass may be the best example so far, as developers continually add new apps that overlay information on what the wearer sees. But I wonder about the effect this sort of enhanced vision has on us. if you wear Oculus for seven hours, does it rewire your brain? for pro and con, mobile computer vision could have a dramatic impact on us and the world we live in.

here is a fun application of a convolutional neural net that i setup with caffe last weekend.

game of drones

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people all across the tech industry are talking about mobile  — one of the largest markets we’ve ever seen. a side-benefit of this mobile revolution is that, in the race fit computers in our pockets, the competitive forces also drove down the cost of components. components, by the way, that have advanced technology in unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones.” and so we have an early market forming and hundreds of commercial applications just waiting to be built.​

i grew up tinkering with hardware (meccano ftw!), and the prospect of drones make me feel like a kid again. forgive the pun, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know drones will be a big deal. but how? and, when? many smart folks in tech have been giving this a lot of thought. fred wilson posted this great pic of a drone in his apt. twitter engineer @stammy has been surveying all of the bay area with his setup. and chris dixon wrote this post about a16z’s investment in a new OS company for drones. so, there’s plenty of buzz about the commercial drone space and we’ve had our eye on it for some time,  and I’m now lucky enough to jump into this game of drones!

today, kleiner perkins is proud to announce our investment in airware. i will join chris ​and john (airware’s CEO) ​ on the board, and will get to work with the ​growing team. we see ​many great opportunities here at kleiner, and i’m privileged to be able to partner with airware​ to build a world-class aerial hardware company and information platform.​

we chose to invest in airware as the frontrunner for a few reasons:

  • platform: unique in their approach, they’re building a platform with software and hardware that will be flexible enough for any commercial application. that’s especially attractive to me because I have built platforms and know how powerful they can be in fueling an industry
  • talent: team is equal parts aerospace and silicon valley – they are plugged in to the industry, know what customers need, have assembled the right people
  • regulation/compliance: they are also unique in that they’ve taken a very proactive approach with regulatory agencies and insurance providers – getting at customers’ needs and addressing them. they will catalyze an ecosystem of commercial drone development – first internationally and then in the US following FAA regulation

for me personally, the interplay between hardware and software will trigger memories of my time with webOS as well as my time building composite software and the data processing product we built.  i’m looking forward to getting started on supporting jonathan and the team on their journey. it’s a dream come true for me to focus on a company like airware.

we are just beginning to scratch the surface of all the dazzling and world-changing commercial applications for drones. airware will help drive the OS for these machines and provide a platform for others to build on.

the future is unwritten. my partners and i at kleiner are fortunate to have our chance to help a great team grow and write their own story. our goal is that one day you be able to lift up the hood of any commercial drone and see airware powering every one of them. this really is a game of drones.

 

coreos: the os of warehouse-scale computing

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sometimes as a VC, you can start to feel overwhelmed by all the old and new business and technical acronyms you hear. it’s a new language, of sorts. well, i just happened to find one that sounds like music to my ears:

“OSaaS”

try saying that out loud. there are a few variants. the version i’m most partial to is “operating system as a service.” OSaaS. now, is that even possible?

turns out, it is. the folks at CoreOS know a thing or two about this emergent field, and they have built the world’s first “operating system as a service.” that’s the kind of creative, technical breakthrough that gets me excited and reminds me of my time as an infrastructure engineer — at composite, microsoft, but especially my days at twitter.

one of CoreOS‘ key innovations is providing updates and patches without the need for major operating system migrations. for some enterprise Linux customers, this will be the last integration they’ll ever need. this is the type of solution i would have given my right arm for in previous roles, and i’m excited to be representing my colleagues at kleiner perkins on the board of CoreOS as we lead a Series A investment into the company and it’s CEO, Alex Polvi.

when i started in venture a few years ago, i did not envision doing a deal like this, largely because i didn’t expect a team to be tackling this. i should’ve known better…as i got to know alex and his team during their time in ycombinator, it was quickly apparent to me that tech was moving even faster than i was in industry. in a relatively short period of time, the CoreOS team has created a foundation for the next generaiton of warehouse-scale computing.

the “s” in SaaS can now mean many things…even entire operating systems. i’m excited that even after my days as an operator, i get the chance to partner with alex and his team at CoreOS, to dust off my knowledge of infrastructure and my days at twitter and microsoft to learn more about the next wave of technologies and help the team take the company to the next level.

the bigger story behind ClearStory’s Data Intelligence

i know what you’re thinking — “another big data startup.” yes, it’s true, but beyond the cliche, there is truth and opportunity, and when it comes to larger enterprise businesses, small decisions can have tremendous effects — good and not so good — on the trajectory of a business. that’s where a company like ClearStory Data comes in. as i wrote about earlier at the time of our investment, larger amounts of data will undoubtedly lead to more noise, so businesses may place a premium on harnessing deep machine learning technologies to not only help with data sifting and analysis, but to also facilitate discovery of insights that the human eye may be incapable of observing.

ClearStory’s approach, announced today, is novel. by combining the power of its platform with various data sources and collaboration, Data Intelligence is enabled via a simple and intuitive user experience. up to this point, while decisions in the enterprise were often in consultation with the data, the data itself may not have been so good or as good as it could be – let alone collaboration around the data. here, there’s a larger trend afoot in the market for data intelligence and relative implications for how this data can inform decisions which directly tie to real returns on investment decisions within the enterprise.

the discovery from harnessing big data in the enterprise will spawn many new opportunities. as an investor, i’m obviously excited to meet founders who are thinking about using data to architect new systems and solutions, as well as new business models. it’s the deep learning from the data which excites me most — as the saying goes, “in God i trust, all others must bring data.” well, i’d put a spin on that — others may also want to bring data analysis tools and systems that can answer questions about the data in a collaborative manner in real time. in other words, the data is great, but not good enough anymore. it’s this “anymore” which creates the opportunity for the next set of founders to build something new, backed by hard data, which couldn’t have been known before.

proud to partner with Nivi, Naval, and the AngelList crew.

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well, summer vacation in technology is certainly over. it’s already been an exciting month with news from apple, news from twitter, and as i’m writing this post about our investment in angellist — blackberry is being taken private. and it’s only monday!

back to angellist. as you may have seen, nivi and naval announced a new funding round for angellist, and i’m proud to be leading the investment in nivi, naval, and their colleagues on behalf of kleiner perkins. i’ve known naval for a number of years (back to when he was  starting vast an early investor in composite software jim armstrong introduced us) and we have always wanted to work together. so, when this opportunity developed, there was no way we were going to miss out on partnering.

everyone by now knows that a platform like angellist democratizes financing for startups. it also saves founders time. it enables investors outside of the valley to get access to early-stage deals and helps companies outside the valley echo chamber gain visibility. at kleiner, (like many other firms i imagine) we watch the angellist newsfeed and network with other peers.

on a personal level, as a former seed investor (before joining kleiner), i find the concept of syndicates to be incredibly compelling, both as a follower or the lead on an opportunity. if this existed years ago, maybe i would’ve started my own fund for syndicates!

again, i am very excited to work with nivi, naval, and the angellist crew!

data and the virtualized datacenter

logohello folks. it’s been a while since my last blog post about an investment, but there’s a good reason for that. and, yes, this is about another “big data” startup, but allow to me explain why i’m so excited to announce our latest investment: cloud physics


“big data, again?” you ask. it’s a fair question. big data exists everywhere, really…on twitter, on instagram, or inside AWS and other places you may not think of right away. well, what about the the data sitting inside data centers at the systems level? what if a group of highly experienced hardcore technologists left their cushy jobs to form a voltron-like team of exceptional engineers tackling hard problems around data and simulation?


it’s my job now as an investor to help identify, back, and in a small way, help guide the people and technologies that can breakthrough enterprise technology, and with cloud physics, i feel on the right track. led by john blumenthal (ex-VMware) along with irfan ahmad, jim kleckner, xiaojun liu, the leadership has built a team that can focus on making their customers’ virtualized data centers more efficient not only through software, but by finding patterns inside the collective data of across large numbers of virtualized environments. as new technology companies emerge and scale, virtual data center operations become significant costs, but necessary — therefore, finding improvements in those operations directly effect the bottom-line, and john and his colleagues from VMware had a great view into this opportunity given their experience.



i am very fortunate to partner with a team like cloud physics along side exceptional investors like (diane green, peter wagner and robin vasan from mayfield fund) makes my job easy and fun! what investor wouldn’t jump at the chance to help out the team who helped build the hypervisor and had the depth of operational experience to identify a big whole and market around managing virtualized environments? people want to simulate changes in an virtualized environment before deployment and/or capital expenditures, and set against the backdrop of a world where hybrid cloud management systems need continuous operational maintenance, a team like cloud physics is the type of team i want to back. you can read more about john and his team here.


if you have a deep insight into a market (with a novel technical approach) please drop me a line (regardless if its consumer or enterprise-oriented) . i can guarantee a quick response!