CTO Breakfast Report

This morning's CTO breakfast was a lot of fun. We're getting a very good turn out and the discussion is excellent. The tenor of the discussion is different than at other technical meetings because the group has a fair number of CTOs, past CTOs, Director of Engineering types. That said, it's not exclusively that--there are plenty of young, fresh perspectives as well. It's a great mix that leads to good discussion.

We started off with a question about recruiting good technical talent and that led to a 50 minute discussion about hiring, managing, and, when necessary, letting go of programmers. Some of the comments from my notes:

  • There was some discussion of testing and screening candidates with the observation that often seemingly good people can't answer simple technical questions. Is the set-up too artificial (i.e. no access to references, standard environment, Google, etc.)? Are people just nervous or intimidated? How can this be done better?
  • Ask questions about outside interests, particularly those that are technical. Has the person every participated on an open source project? What code do they write when they aren't forced to?
  • You have to be willing to get rid of people that don't work out. Engineering organizations don't always hold everyone accountable for good work. Use a mandatory 90-day probation period.
  • No one in the room has used LinkedIn with any success to find employees although several had tried. some had used it to find jobs.

There was a lot of discussion about DRM and the increasing balkanization (my word) of the user experience. Scott Lemon made the observation that book publishers the next big battle. Textbook publishers will fight things like MITs online courses because it cuts their revenue. Publishers sell textbooks by providing free course material to instructors that's tailored to a book. They all want to know how their "content" and (mostly) their revenue model can be protected.

I posted a short piece on wikis at Between the Lines yesterday and this morning got a comment back from someone to the effect that current wikis are too technical. Regular folk don't want to be bothered with mark-up. I brought the comment up.

There was consensus that wikis are too technical and markup doesn't make sense to most people. Even people who think of themselves as "technical" ask "how do I use this thing?" Written text has a mark-up of sorts called punctuation and even educated literate folks struggle to get punctuation right. (See Eats, Shoots, and Leaves)

We need a web-based editor that really works. There are plenty of Javascript tools out there, but they suffer from two fundamental problems:

  1. Poorly chosen feature sets.
  2. Fragmentation. Its almost as if every document you write had a different editor.

We need 2 or 3 really good editors, not 1000 bad ones.

A few other things that were mentioned and people might want to look at:

  • Ajaxpatterns.org - writing a book in public.
  • Flock - suite of browser tools with an open API and modular architecture.
  • Mologogo - $60 pre-paid cell phone married to a GPS tracking service.