Drop the “Big Data” buzz word

It was refreshing to read Leena Rao’s article in Tech Crunch yesterday suggesting a New Year’s resolution to drop buzz words like big data, cloud and pivot (at least one of these terms is already on the banned words list here at realestate.com.au!). Of the three buzz words she mentioned big data is probably the most over hyped right now. When it comes to data the focus should not be on volume alone but the insights that can be extracted.

By approaching the data space with this thought in mind I’m seeing three categories of vendor offerings

  1. Data warehouse in the cloud (AWS Redshift, Treasure Data)
  2. Enterprise friendly Hadoop (Cloudera, Platfora)
  3. Single pane of glass across multiple data sources (Datameer)

(1) is about cost reduction and cost avoidance. Many organizations are spending significant capex dollars to maintain and grow their on-premise data warehouse combined with teams of ETL and data warehouse experts. In the cloud opex costs are likely to be consistent but capex will be significantly reduced when you take away the need to buy physical hardware. Looking at AWS Redshift costs appear to be around US$1k per terabyte per annum, compare this to US$5k+ per terabyte just for enterprise class storage (not including software, rack space, power etc) and you can see there is going to be huge demand for products in this space.

(2) is about taking Hadoop beyond the realms of your engineering teams and putting it in the hands of the masses (think analysts, managers etc).  It’s highly likely that the analyst community in your organization do not have the skills to use Hadoop. Vendors are looking to address this with ‘business friendly’ applications that enable non-technical people to interact with Hadoop in order to exploit insights hidden in data.

(3) is about providing a unified integration and analytics layer that can query all sources of data within your organization from structured data like My SQL and Oracle to unstructured data like twitter and email. Many organizations suffer from data silos and the nightmare scenario is an unpolished data diamond locked away somewhere inaccessible to the people that could exploit its true value, hence the single pane of glass view into all sources of data. Datameer is built on Hadoop so I could have included it in (2) but it feels different to the other players in this space and the most intriguing.

It’s clear that that we are going to see many more products hit the market from both startups and enterprise software players. The more time I spend in this space I feel it’s less about technology and more about understanding the problem you are trying to solve. All the tools exist today to find any data needle in any haystack but without the right thinking up front to define how a piece of data can be converted into business value the technology investment will ultimately fail.

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Addressing a superstar culture

Do you have one or two employees who seem to work on all the critical projects you have going on? Your execs and stakeholders stress about them leaving, they always pick up the rewards and recognition and they have their fingers in every pie. In the midst of a million projects these people are your superstars smashing through the work and making you look good. Sound familiar? First things first you need to be aware of the impact this will have on your broader organisation (resentment, demotivation, perceived lack of opportunities, lack of collaboration) and also assess the impact on your superstars (burn out, loss of work life balance, perception that other team members aren’t pulling their weight). You also have to be honest with yourself as a leader – am I seeing an issue and not acting because it might make my life harder?

Assessing the cause

Why have you got to the point where a small number of individuals handle such a large volume of work? From my experience there are two factors in play

  1. The team lacks capability and skills meaning the more highly skilled individuals take on extra work and with it don the superstar cape.
  2. Your highly talented individuals lack softer skills such as collaboration, team building, communication and create their own superstar status because they like to work alone or believe it will make them indispensable.

Taking action

If you suspect point 1 is driving the behaviour you need to act fast. If your team lacks the skills required you are massively at risk that your superstar(s) will move on (probably due to burn out) leaving you exposed. You will need to look at restructure options which will require consultation with HR and will be impacted by budget availability (restructures can be expensive) and potential IR risk. My advice is act fast – nothing will destroy morale like fear of job cuts, treat your staff with honesty and respect, consult with HR and external specialists to manage risk. You also want to have new roles approved, job descriptions ready to go and potential candidates in mind to minimise risk.

If point 2 is driving the superstar culture the good news is you already have a highly skilled team so the impact of losing a superstar is mitigated. The bad news is your other staff members aren’t getting the opportunities they crave and deserve. Again my advice would be to act fast and the best place to start is regular 1-1 meetings with you superstar(s). Some probing questions to gauge how they feel about their workload and what opportunities they see to make the team more efficient will help tease out the underlying issues. If you have superstars you are also likely to have mistakes as too much is being done by too few so conducting regular retrospectives when things go wrong will help to identify that work is not evenly distributed and make it easier to achieve consensus that change is needed.

You can also consider organisational changes to force a more even distribution of responsibilities but you risk disenfranchising your superstar(s) who may have the best intentions at heart. Another option may be to identify development opportunities for superstar(s). For example could you move them into a more strategic role that will enable operational work to be shared across the team? It goes without saying that this should only be considered if the individual has the necessary skills and  is motivated to succeed in this role.

Other factors

Review your rewards and recognition approach and ensure you are rewarding the right behaviour. A superstar may jump into a disaster and work around the clock to fix it, however if the disaster was avoidable you are rewarding the wrong behaviour. Look long and hard across your team and identify the behaviours most closely aligned to your organisational values. Focus rewards on team members who collaborate and share information and those who innovate to solve problems.

Also look at peer review as to drive behaviour change. Let your team provide anonymous feedback on each other to identify superstars who deliver but achieve success without being good team players. I’m a strong believer that 360 degree feedback and peer review should be a formal part of the performance review process.

Recruiting ops engineers

In an earlier post I talked about the high calibre operations team we have assembled at realestate.com.au. It’s fair to say that we interviewed a few ‘less suitable’ candidates along the way. We started off with an unstructured interview process that was time consuming and inefficient. The process made it difficult to compare one candidate to another, time consuming with multiple interviews to get all the necessary people involved and candidates getting through to the final stage before we identified major deficiencies in technical skills. After wasting many hours we went back to the drawing board and worked out a simple, efficient process that has been extremely successful. Here are some of the highlights:

Know what you’re looking for – Sounds basic I know but you really need to understand the minimum requirements for the role. Define the technologies the role will support, the level of expertise needed, and the kind of experience you are looking for. Prioritise the most important attributes of the role to ensure you measure all candidates against the same yardstick.

Make the most of your network – leverage your existing team by encouraging referrals. Some of our best hires have been through referrals, while having a financial reward system for referrals helps, your staff are more likely to be motivated by bringing in great people rather than making extra cash. Advertise all your roles internally and get the word out via internal communication channels, twitter, linked in, facebook etc

Make it a team decision – involve your team all the way through the process from reviewing CV’s to telephone and face to face interviews. You want your team to accept new hires and the best way to achieve this is to involve them in the process

Getting the best out of recruitment agencies – if you are using a recruitment agency you can’t expect them to get the technical assessment correct every time. The agency will have to rely on what they are told and this often means you end up wasting your time interviewing someone who lacks the tech skills for the role. Try conducting a brief technical screening over the phone before a face to face interview. We pick some of our key technologies and have the candidate rate themselves, we then ask a few probing questions to validate their answer. The process takes between 15 and 30 minutes and will help you ascertain if they have the technical chops required to continue through the process. If you do select them for a face to face interview the screening will help determine the technical areas to focus on plus it will also give you an indication of their personality and cultural fit – e.g if they spend the entire call telling you how awesome they are at everything alarm bells will be ringing!

Invest time in making sure the recruitment agency understands the cultural fit you are looking for with tangible examples. There’s no point saying we want someone who is passionate about technology – ask a candidate if they are passionate they’ll say yes. Find other ways to assess passion; who do they follow on twitter and why? do they participate in the open source community? do they attend hack days, dev ops meetups, etc. Getting the cultural fit right is where the recruitment agency should earn their keep so if you spend time explaining what kind of person you are looking for and they keep sending you candidates who don’t match ditch the agency.

The face to face interview – You want to make a decision after one interview so make sure you have the right attendees (senior technical staff to gauge tech skills and cultural fit, HR if required). Use the results from the telephone screening to drive the technical assessment, prepare some specific problems for them to solve and set the difficulty based on their self rating.  If you want them to walk through complex problems choose a meeting room with a whiteboard and encourage them to use it. Don’t just focus on the areas they rated themselves high, you may find some candidates are more modest and rate themselves lower than they really are. Try to make the candidate feel comfortable; offer them a glass of water, encourage some small talk. There’s nothing to be gained from stressing them out.

Don’t burn all your time on the tech side – allow plenty of time to find out what they are like outside of work. What do they do when they’re not a sys admin? Are they going to spark with the team and energise their peers?

Act fast – If you like them make an offer on the same day subject to references. It’s a great feeling to get a call back when you’re still on your way home saying ‘we want you!’ This comes back to making sure you have all your ducks lined up so get the decision makers in the interview. I don’t understand why a second interview is ever needed – it smacks of red tape.

Other resources – I came across this list of questions for webops engineer candidates on John Allspaw’s blog http://www.kitchensoap.com/2010/05/26/some-webops-interview-questions/ These are a great starting point when drawing up your technical questions

How to (not) avoid injuries

It’s been a while since my last blog and the reason for the silence is I’ve had my head down training hard in prep for Ironman Melbourne in March and Ironman Australia in May. I’ve always been lucky in that I haven’t suffered with injuries but that luck came to an end on new years eve when I tore my calf muscle. Doing the math and Melbourne is a no go considering I can’t run for 4 weeks (and it will be at least 2 more weeks before I get up to full bore). IM Australia is possible providing everything goes to plan but it’s touch and go.

To be honest I’m absolutely gutted (no surprise). I’ve worked hard for the past 6 months to build a solid training base and I felt like I was in great shape for Melbourne. At the same time I know that I need to man up and deal with it. There are aspiring pro athletes who race for endorsements and prize money to pay the rent. This could be a WHOLE lot worse.

So now what? I need to learn from this, pick apart what has led to this injury and put it right. Here are my lessons learned.. the hard way. Hopefully by sharing these I can get some get well quick karma 🙂

  1. Recovery is important, especially if you are 30+. The first lesson is I’m not 24 anymore! By that I mean the older you get the slower your body recovers and trying to smash out a hard ride on a saturday and a long run on a sunday is asking for trouble. Once you are over 30 recovery becomes even more important and planning a training schedule that incorporates sufficient recovery time will help you to avoid injury.
  2. Listen to your body, even writing this I’m thinking ‘duh! you think so’. I started out on a long run the day after a long ride and I didn’t feel great, I felt fatigued and my legs were heavy. At that moment I should have been smart enough to realise that I wasn’t going to get much out of the session and I was risking injury. What did I do? I got my head down and tried to finish out the distance, 12km later and I got the sniper shot to the calf.
  3. Build your sessions slowly. Prior to Christmas I started to ramp up my training sessions adding in speed work on the bike, hill running and tempo running. These are high value sessions but ramping up quickly in a short space of time put my already fatigued body under additional strain and more than likely contributed to the injury.

Probably the most frustrating factor is that there’s nothing here I didn’t already know. Anyone who puts them self through an Ironman is going to be anal by nature! It’s not the kind of thing you just have a go at on a weekend, it’s a 6 month + journey. Amateurs like me scour the internet for training information, stretching guides and blogs. We always do our research and we are meticulous in our preparation. Just as we are meticulous your average IM competitor is also going to be a little bit pig headed and stubborn. How else do you drag yourself around 226km’s of hell?! The down side of this stubbornness is we think we know best and despite doing all the research we end up ignoring it. It’s a pretty shitty feeling to be flat out on the couch knowing that if you’d have just skipped that run, that probably wouldn’t have added to your fitness anyway, you would be out training rather than feeling sorry for yourself. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Hopefully I’ll see you all at Port Mac, competing not spectating 🙂

Ironman training for the mind

I recently came across a quote from Roger Bannister, the first runner to break the four minute mile, that resonated with me –

It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ”

As part of my Ironman preparation I spent a lot of time analysing previous performances in order to pinpoint areas for improvement. One area that stood out was my ability to handle the mental challenge faced over an endurance race. One of my favourite articles about IM comes courtesy of active.com and introduces the concept of the line. Essentially the line is a place every IM competitor will reach during the race. It’s the point at which your mind throws in the towel and orders your body to quit. The article outlines a very simple approach to iron distance racing – get yourself to the line in the best shape possible and, when you hit the line, be prepared to deal with it.

The main takeaway from this article is that hitting the line is a matter of when rather than if. Every competitor from a first timer through to the race favourite will reach this point during the race and it all comes down to how you handle it on the day. As Roger Bannister observed mental conditioning and preparation will be equally, if not more important, than physical.

The question is how do you develop a strategy to train your mind so on race day you can overcome your demons and achieve your maximum potential? I took some inspiration from Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack’s outstanding book I’m here to win. In the book he talks about a mental filing system where he stores memories that can easily be retrieved when he hits the line. For example 120km’s into the bike the mental demons might start throwing thoughts into his mind like “this is a hilly bike course, have I done enough training to get through”? At this point he will go back to his filing system and retrieve a memory of a recent hilly training ride where he performed well and remind himself he’s done the training and he can get through this race.

I’ve taken this thinking and applied it to form my own strategy, now this may make me appear a little schizophrenic but there is method to my madness! When I analysed my previous races I identified three destructive personas that can emerge and negatively impact my performance

  1. Tantrum James – Maybe it’s windy, maybe it’s wet, maybe my gears keep slipping, maybe all of the above. As I get tired and the pressure starts to build I can throw my toys out of the mental pram. In my head I feel like the world is against me, it’s all a big conspiracy and I may as well just give up, go home and sit on the couch.
  2. Negative James – This race is really tough, why am I doing this, I’m not strong enough, it’s too hard. This is definitely the most damaging persona as the metal doubts can swarm through my mind and before I know I’m walking the run course.
  3. Tetchy James – This can often be a prequel to Tantrum James making an appearance. Little things like tightness through the shoulders or sore hamstrings can start to wear me down mentally. These minor issues snowball and before I know it the toys are out of the pram and I’m heading home to the couch

I know that to achieve my IM goals this season I need to deal with these personas and control them during the race. First of all I need a plan to handle these personas when they appear in the same way Macca uses his filing system. Secondly I need to take Bannister’s advice and practice this strategy as part of my training so I’m prepared come race day.

My approach is really simple and a bit dorky but it seems to be working for me. I go through a process where I visualise my negative persona – e.g tantrum James jumping up and down throwing stuff all over the place – and I put them back in their box. To do this I use some of Macca’s logic and recall examples of the tough training sessions I’ve completed and remind myself that I’m ready, I can handle the course, and to stay positive. As I go through this process I visualise my negative persona getting back into their box which gives me a sense of closure and I can get back to focusing on the race. As I write this I realise this must sound extremely weird or even borderline crazy but so far I’ve found it to be really powerful. What I learned from this exercise –

  1. Be honest with yourself. I spent some time looking at my previous races and was really honest with myself about my performances. Admitting mental weaknesses to anyone, including yourself, isn’t easy but once you do it becomes a lot easier to take positive action. I think the catalyst for action was seeing a photo of myself from a race last year and I look really pissed off! If I’m going to invest so much time and effort in my training surely I should be loving race day, it’s the day when all your hard work comes to fruition. Looking at the photo made me realise that a negative state of mind was impacting my ability to perform to my potential and, left as is, would probably make me end up hating the sport one day.
  2. Learn from the experts. I’ve referenced just a few resources in this post and there are plenty more out there. I don’t mean take what every ‘expert’ says as gospel but invest time in studying what rituals and routines the elite swear by and apply them to your own training regime.
  3. Simulate race conditions during training. I’ve placed a much greater emphasis over the past few months on attempting to  simulate race conditions during my training. I certainly believe this has provided some physical benefits but the primary benefit has been mental conditioning and preparation. I still have a lot of work to do but I feel mentally stronger and better prepared to handle the stress and pressure of race day.

The greatest athlete on the planet?

I came across this article in today’s press suggesting that David Beckham is on course to be Knighted at the end of the year. One quote in particular caught my attention “I can’t think of anyone in sport more fitting to be awarded a knighthood than David Beckham.. he has been a fantastic ambassador for the sport both on and off the field, a true gentleman and role model.”

Firstly who am I to argue, Becks is a legend and apart from the occasional discretion has been a fantastic role model. However I think there’s a British sportsperson who is more worthy of this esteemed honour than old golden balls. She has dominated her sport in the same way that Roger Federer, Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher have, she is renowned for competing with a smile on her face and for inspiring people all over the world and is actively involved with a number of international development charities. Her name is Chrissie Wellington and, to use a boxing phrase, I think she’s the best pound for pound athlete on the planet.

Chrissie is the only triathlete, male or female, to have won the Ironman World Championship less than a year after turning professional. She has lowered the world record time every time she has raced one of the toughest events, Challenge Roth in Germany, she has gone on to win the World Championships three times in a row and has never been beaten at the Ironman distance. Let me just repeat that.. she has never been beaten in an Ironman distance race. An ironman race involves swimming 3.8km, riding 180km and running a marathon. There is so much that can go wrong from mechanical problems, bad weather, accidents etc and despite all this she has never lost a race. In fact it’s a foregone conclusion that if Chrissie races she will win. Federer lost the occasional game, Woods the same but I can’t recall anyone who has dominated their sport like Chrissie, especially such an unpredictable and high risk game like Ironman.

Chrissie’s performances this year have been even more remarkable. At Ironman South Africa in April she beat her own world record by 2 minutes, beat the second placed female by 35 minutes, finished 8th overall and ran the fastest marathon time of the day (men and women). At Challenge Roth in Germany in July she again beat her own world record, finished 5th overall (men and women) and the only person who ran a faster marathon was the overall winner and he needed a new world record time to beat her.

The reality is if Chrissie competed in another sport she would be one of the most well-known athletes on the planet but triathlon just doesn’t have the same profile. I would love to see the British press get behind a campaign to lift her profile and the British people rally support for her inclusion in the new years honours list. She’s a true champion and will go down in history as one of the greats, lets not wait until she retires to realise this.

Amazon Web Services @ realestate.com.au

To say there was a lot of interest in the first Amazon Web Services (AWS) events here in Australia would be an understatement. How many vendors could put on an event without a glamorous new product launch, strategy update or market specific announcement and pull in close to 1,000 attendees in both Sydney and Melbourne? I guess that’s the difference between a market maker and a market follower, there’s no disputing AWS are the most powerful player in cloud computing and when they talk everyone wants to listen. I presented a customer case study at the AWS Melbourne event and provided an overview of our cloud strategy and the key role AWS plays in delivering this strategy. I’ve attached my slides to this post, here’s a summary to provide some context.

As a growth business we are scaling rapidly and IT has undergone significant growth with a 50% increase in our development headcount over the past 12 months. To be productive these developers need to test their code in an environment that looks, feels and behaves like realestate.com.au and we need a highly efficient deployment pipeline to move code from developers brains to our sites as fast as possible.  As an ops manager I want my resources (dollars and people) focused on optimising our production environments and not on dev/test.

To address this we migrated dev/test environments from on-premise to the AWS cloud and developed a deployment pipeline that enables push button application deployment. Our deployment toolset leverages the fog ruby project which enables you to control a number of cloud services through a unified API and hooks into our Chef and Gitorious artefact repositories. Now any developer can push a button and have an end to end development environment to test their code against and, from a management perspective, I’m confident our deployment toolchain is cloud agnostic – if we decided to switch to Rackspace tomorrow we wouldn’t need to redevelop the tools and processes.

We recently invested in VMware’s Vsphere and Vcloud products to build a ‘private cloud’ across our global DC’s. We want to be able to deploy code to AWS or to our VMware environments using the same deployment processes. Unfortunately the Fog library didn’t support Vcloud so we decided to add it ourselves, check out our techblog for details on how to use this.

With the recent establishment of an Australian sales presence and the AWS cloud tour events there has been a lot of speculation that an Australian availability zone is imminent. The timing of an article published in the Australian the day of the Melbourne cloud tour event added even more fuel to the fire. Whether there’s any truth to the Australian article or not the general consensus within the industry is that it’s a matter of when rather than if AWS will have a physical presence in Australia. From my perspective this will have a huge impact on the hosting industry within Australia, AWS would become the first heavyweight global cloud provider to land on Aussie shores taking away many of the risk / data jurisdiction concerns that prevent large corporates and government from embracing cloud services today. It would also put significant cost pressure on some of the more established Australian hosting providers and drive a more rapid rate of innovation across the industry. However the biggest opportunity I see is to provide the catalyst for a new era of online entrepreneurship within Australia, there are so many Aussie success stories – think Atlassian & Freelancer.com – that underline the tech savvy entrepreneurial culture within this country however getting these ideas off the ground is a significant challenge with the high cost, inflexible hosting market. Local players like Ninefold, Interactive and Telstra are all making moves in this space but the arrival of AWS would turn the industry on its head.

Judging by the 2,000 people who attended the AWS cloud tour events in Australia, I’m not the only one that sees this as something big.

Amazon Web Services @ Realestate.com.au