The Pragmatic Contextualist Has MOVED

I’ve been wanting to do it for a while, and I finally managed to devote some time to making it happen: The Pragmatic Contextualist is moving off of and onto over at

I will be leaving this one up for a while, but all content has been moved over to the new location, and eventually this one will come down.

See you over there!

March 25, 2009 at 11:06 am Leave a comment

Highlights from SXSW 2009

Well, I have officially wrapped up my first SXSW experience. So, true to my project manager DNA, here are my lessons learned and highlights.

First, the Highlights:

The person I wanted to meet most was Penelope Trunk. Penelope is probably the only blogger I read for entirely personal reasons on a regular basis (I guess it sounds weird to say I read a career blog for personal reasons, huh?).

She is also one of the few people who tends to give advice that I bears any resemblance to the type of work environments I’ve had in my life (tech startups, largely); and we have a number of other things in common, such as being the primary breadwinner for our family (and the associated sense of pressure and/or responsibility), being a reasonably a slightly bitchy and extremely sassy ENTJ who doesn’t really make any bones about liking to have things go her way; she has an inclination towards being a workaholic that has not always been helpful in her personal life; and her direct approach to damn near everything makes her an anomaly among her peers. She is also one of the only people who writes about finding and building relationships with mentors in any kind of tactical way.

Not only did I get to see her on a panel (full of men, of course) where she was routinely trying to bring up points that were too tactical for their taste, but the next day I got to spend a few minutes with her to do an interview that I’ll be writing for SCM tomorrow.

The ‘entertainer’ or bigger “social media celebrity” I wanted to see was Gary Vaynerchuk. Mission accomplished. As always, he was awesomely entertaining and tremendously energetic. Thirteen hundred people bounded out of that auditorium after he was done speaking on a high simply because of his contagious energy. Aside from being extremely enjoyable, it was an awesome study in the importance of presentation style and crowd interactivity.

From a business standpoint, the person I wanted to see was Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. He’s a little shy and a little nervous and a little uncomfortable on stage, but it’s been a really, really long time since I felt inspired by a CEO and I really needed that. I needed to hear a leader talk about something that was meaningful and compelling and touchingly human. His difficulty entirely relaxing in front of a crowd just made him more authentic.

Intellectually, the person I wanted to hear speak was Chris Anderson (Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine, author of “The Long Tail,” and author of the not-yet-released book “Free”). I love hearing what smart people think. And so much of my current study is directly supported and implicitly explained by much of his work, so it’s always a shot in the arm to know that I’m not totally off my rocker.

In the ‘getting great ideas from smart people’ category, the list is too long to count — but the panel highlights for me were:

Socially, I was delighted to see my old pals Morgan and Ryan, from my JetBlue days. Ryan is now with WMG, so Morgan is the only one of us left at JB, but it was great to even just get a few minutes with them to see what’s going on in their lives and hear some of the cool stuff they are working on. It was a great reminder that, despite the fact that I in no way miss New York, I do miss my friends there.

And that’s not even starting in all the people I got to meet face-to-face after reading their blogs and/or emailing with them. All very cool.

Now, Lessons Learned:

Happily, I followed all the advice and not only wore comfortable shoes, but the first two days I wore my sneakers with my inserts. Amazingly enough, my feet were really pretty good all four days.

Room A in the Austin Convention Center is about 86,000 miles away from the hub of Interactive activity on the 4th floor. You have to walk through Montana to get there. It takes forever.

Whoever designed the elevator/escalator/stairs situation at the Austin Convention Center needs to be shaken until his teeth rattle. Seriously, dude, were you on crack?

There is no good solution for the electronics situation at SXSW. They provide machines at several public stations, which is nice. (Though, they only have them at ACC and not at the Hilton, which is not as nice.) But if you are a writer, you really need your own. But when the battery dies, there aren’t enough plugs to go around. All in all, we were all struggling with the same problems. No real resolution unless someone builds a 16 hour battery.

Food options are great if you’re not ridiculously broke from trying to get a new business off the ground. If you are, then eating shredded wheat out of a ziplock bag in your purse has to make do.

If you arrive at ACC before 9:00 a.m. each day, not only do you get rock star parking, but you get plenty of time to get some coffee, get settled, catch up on email, and re-do your schedule for the day for the 12th time.

So, that’s all of the direct stuff. I’ll spend the next couple of days distilling several of the things that came up in more detailed posts. My mind is racing, but my body is wiped.

March 17, 2009 at 11:24 pm Leave a comment

Amazon, Google & Microsoft Discuss Cloud Computing at SXSW

When Amazon launched AWs in 2006, Businessweek labeled it “Jeff Bezos’ Risky Bet.” However, to Amazon, it made sense: the amount of time, energy and resources the ecommerce company was putting into building a world class infrastructure was immense. It only made sense to try to monetize it.

Today at SXSW, in the panel called “Cloud Computing: Defending the Undefinable,” Amazon Web Services CTO Werner Vogels, Microsoft Azure‘s Yousef Khalidi and Google App Engine‘s Kevin Gibbs discussed the past, present and future of cloud computing for a packed room of conference attendees.

Eating Their Own Dogfood

When asked if the internal teams used the company’s cloud computing services, each of the representatives said yes — and, in many cases, their cloud computing model started out of an attempt to meet their organizational needs for computing services. When asked about how AWS prioritizes vs. their other clients, Vogel insists that does not get preferential treatment. In response to a skeptical audience he quickly noted: “Believe me! The other customers are paying us money!”

At Microsoft, Yousef Khalidi states, the internal teams (often very small) were having to go through an expensive and tedious hardware acquisition process to support the small apps they were developing, and an internal cloud computing model was the a result of needing to support the ‘long tail’ of the small apps deployed in the corporate environment.

The Cloud and Security

“Where would you rather have your money: in your mattress or in the bank?” asked Kevin Gibbs of Google, to the ubiquitous question of how secure is the cloud. Obvious economic quips notwithstanding, his point is that finding providers who are experts in this space allows end users the opportunity to keep focused on the things they do best, without having to invest in the expense and difficulty of building out a scalable infrastructure themselves.

Yousef Khalidi of Microsoft addressed this question very pragmatically, though, with the needs of the enterprise in mind: knowing that there are some parts of a business that lend themselves to cloud computing better than others. Things like collaboration tools or some supply chain systems are quick and fairly easy to move into the cloud with huge amounts of pain or concern. On the other hand, core business data, legacy systems, or systems adhering to various regulatory requirements are less likely to be eagerly pushed into the cloud.

Werner Vogels of Amazon points out, however, that cloud computing solutions are often capable of meeting regulatory requirements, and he cited several examples of healthcare organizations that must meet HIPPA guidelines as AWS clients.

How Green Are Cloud Services

Werner Vogels is adamant that, when it comes to most data center operations, most things that spell “efficiency” (and therefore lower costs) are also usually “green.” As a result, though none of the panelists had any specific statistics to share (and cited a lack of standardization in this area as an issue: what stats are truly meaningful?), he maintains that it is fundamentally in the best interest of scalable infrastructure solutions to be as “green” as possible.

And, per Kevin Gibbs’ response, the very nature of cloud computing is more “green” by definition than it is for a software shop to host their own infrastructure, because on-demand use prevents the expenditure of energy when an application is not in use — which obviously does not happen in self-hosted environments.

The Future of Open Standards

When asked about the support of open standards in the space, each of the panelists expressed a desire to ensure maximum portability and interoperability by supporting open standards in this space – at least as much as possible. However, they were also quick to point out that “open standards” is a broad term, and that how they are applied is the real question that has yet to be answered. As standards are increasingly codified, each team recognizes the value in ‘playing nicely with others’ and respecting the evolution of the community.

Is There Profit in the Cloud Business?

According to Vogel, “Absolutely!” He is emphatic: Amazon would not be in the business if they did not think there was great profit potential in it. And while they do not break out their financials to be able to reflect the financial status of this one area of their business, it is clearly a valuable market for them and they believe in the profitability of it.

Microsoft concurs. Khalidi emphasizes that Microsoft has a history of believing that there is tremendous profit potential in solutions based around economies of scale, which is exactly what cloud computing is. Gibbs notes that, while Google only started charging recently and so it is too soon to tell, they are confident that there are profitable margins to be found in this space – though they could need some time to work out the best way to tap into it.

What Are the Trends Among Transitions to the Cloud?

Werner Vogels says that the two dominant trends AWS sees among clients who move into the cloud is taking advantage of the opportunity to implement automation and scalability.

Kevin Gibbs further notes that the very nature of cloud computing will continue to evolve the field of development, since new apps can often find themselves ‘overnight sensations’ that go from no traffic to off-the-charts traffic in no time. As a result, development practices designed around maximum scalability will continue to be increasingly important to the architecture and development of even the most seemingly small applications.

Convincing the Enterprise to ‘Go Cloud’

The concern of many enterprise organizations when it comes to cloud computing is a common concern, and one that both Microsoft and Amazon are constantly discussing with both clients and potential clients. (Since Google’s focus is web apps, this is less of an issue among their customer base.)

Supporting Enterprise concerns in this area is a large part of what Microsoft has been focused on as they’ve been getting their Azure platform on its feet. Part of the plan they anticipate deploying to support the enterprise-specific issues is the idea of a ‘hybrid’ solution that includes “local cloud computing” and “traditional” cloud computing in combination. This would allow Enterprises to move non-sensitive applications out into the cloud, while gaining ‘cloud-like’ benefits behind their own firewall for the systems they need to keep locally.

Vogels adds another point: historical concerns about cloud computing are dwindling a bit as socialization of the idea takes root, and the novelty wears off. Even more importantly, however, is that with the change of the economic tide, financial savings is a much higher priority than it was a year ago. This factor alone is driving the cloud computing debate in some organizations that had previously refused to consider it.

Of course, the other thing Vogel noted is that we are still only “on Day 1” of the evolution of this space. As a truly “disruptive” solution, things are constantly changing and the eco-system of customers within the marketplace will drive how things evolve more than any other factor.

March 17, 2009 at 10:22 pm Leave a comment

Blogging from SXSW – Monday

Today seems to be the opposite of my previous two days. After deliberately taking everyone’s advice on taking a ‘go with the flow’ approach to the SXSW experience, somehow today has proven crazy-ass busy.

10:30 panel: Beyond Aggregation
This was a great panel where we got to hear wonderful speakers, including blogger Louis Gray, discuss some very tactical tips and tricks they use to sift through excessive amounts of online information, make their own content more findable, and how they track down the best content available for their own blogs/sites. There was a LOT of great stuff in this standing-room-only panel, and I’ll write it up in more detail in the next few days, once I’ve had the chance to test drive a few of the things they discussed. Very cool stuff, though, and one of the most practically useful panels I’ve been to so far.

11:00 panel: Start-up Management (technically a “Core Conversation”)
This was actually my back-up, because I had wanted to go to the CMS ‘showdown’ between WordPress, Drupal and Joomla. Unfortunately for me, so did a TON of other people and they were smart enough to get there early enough to get in the door. C’est la vie. However, having said that, Start-up Management was also worthwhile. The founders of (where I have a page for Zeka, and have for 2 years this week) discussed the growth of a startup where the founders go from developers to managers. Some great dialogue, and much of the same advice (on a micro-level) to what Tony (Zappos CEO) said on Saturday during his keynote: protect your culture; hire slow and fire quickly if you realize someone is a bad fit; don’t fall into the trap of ‘just find a warm body’ because you’ll regret it. Also some good advice for small company layoffs, working with partners, and managing a product roadmap.

Some of the interviews I couldn’t get slotted in yesterday are scheduled for today.

This afternoons panels (which I’ll update about later) are scheduled to be “SEO for Startups” and “Tools to Know Your Users” — of course, this is SXSW, so anything could change.

More later!

March 16, 2009 at 1:10 pm 2 comments

Blogging from SXSW – Sunday

Well, today is day #2 and it’s been quite the interesting ride so far. It’s hard to be substantive at a public computer (no laptop – don’t ask!) while standing on sore feet between sessions, but this is a random brain dump of some different things I’ll be circling back to in more detail over the next week (once I get some sleep):

Yesterday’s Sessions:

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh discussion of “culture as brand.” Nothing new from Tony, but still relevant – maybe even moreso, now that so many companies are facing financial tough times and are finding it increasingly tempting to sell out their culture and values in face of fiscal pressures. Tons of things I want to write about this one in more detail later.

Charlene Li on the Future of Social Networks. Some interesting things, but very high level. Also made some contentions that I’m not sure I agree with. Brilliant woman, but not always the most exciting or dynamic speaker in front of a large crowd.

Politics, Technology and Pop Culture panel. Great, great stuff. Larry Lessig looked like he might tear his hair out at the end, as too much “tech will fix everything” KoolAid was invading reason and logic about the true nature of the modern American political animal. Tons of things I want to write about this one in more detail later.

Meeting with the founders of BatchBlue about an exciting new partnership they have with some other like-minded companies that has great value for small business. Tons of things I want to write about this one in more detail later.

Today’s Schedule:

“Ditch the Valley, Run for the Hills” panel on trying to start tech startups outside the Silicon Valley – the pros and the cons. Scoble was on the panel (which I didn’t realize until I got there), but the person whose involvement brought me there was Penelope Trunk, whom I’ve been wanting to meet for over a year.

Some very interesting debate, but one that I feel strongly still skips over several key points, not the least of which is the totally screwed up expectation of tech companies that they SHOULD be getting VC funding. The sense of entitlement or the sense that is the path that a business SHOULD take is one that I have SUCH an issue with. Your local restaurant or dry cleaner doesn’t get a VC to back their business. Why should a software company? Get over yourself. Suck it up like every other small business owner in the world, and make it happen — if that means you need a ‘day job’ and get your product off the ground at night, then fine. The VC thing is something I find so puerile I have a hard time not getting crabby about it.

For a great overview of the panel – and a more fully fleshed-out version of Penelope’s point – you can check out Louis Gray’s post, “Is the Valley Too Expensive for Normal People to Launch Startups?

With any luck, I’ll get a few minutes to talk to Penelope later. [Turns out not. Scheduled to talk Monday instead.] I’d like to interview her about how CEO’s need to adapt their business models in the face of funding problems. I think it’d make a good story. And it’s an excuse to meet with someone who tends to write a lot of things I often find myself agreeing with.

OpenID and Identity Portability and the Enterprise panel. Very good. Unfortunately, I attended it with Alex Wellen of (whom I gave a brief tutorial on the concept on the walk over beforehand), only to have him try to create an OpenID (on during the presentation and have it err out all over the place. Duh! Geez. Talk about bad PR. The panel was great, though, and one of the few that has actually even ADDRESSED the Enterprise Pink Elephant.

[Related note: I continue to fail spectacularly at explaining to my husband the true value of OpenID in the consumer space. I spent the whole panel thinking that I wish he’d been there, since the discussion was very valuable. Does anyone know of any resources/blogs/articles that break it down really clearly for non-tech people? I’d especially like something that outlines where the technology is today AND where it is going.]

In the afternoon, I with Sunil of FreshBooks new partners for some more interview material on their new web partnership for small businesses.

And then at 5:00 p.m. last night was a large session with the famous Gary Vaynerchuk on Video Blogging. Honestly, I love Gary as a speaker. I really do. He might be a little exhausting to take for too long on a one-on-one basis, but he is NEVER a dull presenter. Ever. And his audience engagement is sensational. It’s really cool to attend an event where people leave (especially after the end of a long day) totally pumped, because his energy level is contagious.

Over-all thoughts and impressions:

Between PubCon and SXSW, I think I am over-dosing on the “social media” KoolAid. Seriously. I feel like the self-congrats in this arena are so much over-the-top preaching to the choir that it’s making me seriously consider giving up all my technology and living in a cabin in the woods somewhere.

The social media celebrity bit is also wearing a bit thin. Not taking anything away from successful industry leaders like Guy Kawasaki, Chris Brogan, Robert Scoble, etc., but the fan thing that flocks up around them is starting to make me a bit queasy. I feel like I’m at a sci fi convention watching hysterical fans flip out at the Star Trek cast’s on-stage appearance. I have no doubt I’ll be writing quite a bit more about this in the next few days also.

Wayne Sutton may have said it best during the final panel at PubCon on Thursday: “I refuse to mention the T-word!” I love Twitter – and I’ve been Tweeting almost non-stop for both conferences this week. But I am SO SICK AND TIRED of this whole space being reduced to JUST that. Christ. All roads do NOT have to lead back to Twitter. Enough already.

Anyway, that’s my little rant in the midst of what is — so far — a great experience.

I’ve decided that conferences are cool because they are like the best parts of college — cool ideas and great discussions with smart people on topics you actually care about — but without tests and homework and student loans. And even better, it’s on the boss’ dime (in most cases) and all the parties have corporate sponsorship and full bars.

So, off to enjoy more ‘college light.’ More later. Lots and lots more – both here and on Social Computing Magazine.

March 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm Leave a comment

Matt Cutts from Google Announces Friend Connect API at PubCon South

Matt Cutts

Matt Cutts

Matt Cutts from the Google Webspam Team announced the launch of Google’s Friend Connect API during his keynote speech this morning at PubCon South in Austin.

The official announcement will be posted by Google later this morning, but Matt took took the opportunity to share the good news with the PubCon crowd during his remarks. A long-time attendee of PubCon, Matt is a leader in the search engine industry, and is credited with helping change the nature of the relationship between search engine teams and webmasters.

Thanks to the hard work of several different teams at Google, Matt unvieled the value of the OpenSocial-based Friend Connect API to the SEO professionals attending PubCon: the biggest benefit being in helping to foster online community (by making it faster and easier for readers to leave comments on blogs) and by helping to discourage web spam by bots (by requiring validation).

As part of the release, the Web Spam Team developed three proof-of-concept plugins to accompany the release, and which Matt shared with the audience in Austin this morning:

Matt is quick to point out that none of the members of his team responsible for this work had ever built plugins before, and that they really are just proofs of concept.

The code will be placed on later today available for download. Since they are entirely open source, Matt eagerly encouraged the audience to build on what was there to make them better for their own sites.

The Friend Connect API will work with Yahoo! or OpenID accounts, as well as a Google account.

In the early days of search, the relationship between search teams and individual website managers was highly adversarial. It has been through the on-going interfacing between industry insiders, like Matt, with real world business owners and web practitioners that has helped foster the knowledge share and on-going evolution that is essential to the search engine optimization sector today, particularly when it comes to the eternal battle with webspam.

Photo credit from Matt Cutt’s website, from a previous PubCon event.

Cross-posted on Social Computing Magazine.

March 12, 2009 at 11:51 am 1 comment

Live from PubCon South: Fireside Chat with Chris Brogan and Guy Kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki

While normally the idea of a “fireside chat” in Austin, Texas would be a little warm, today’s unusually chilly weather brought all new appeal to the idea. So, in honor of the rainy weather and the keynote title, Chris Brogan obliged by pulling up a fireplace video on his laptop, and placing it on the table between his chair and Guy’s before getting the conversation started.

Covering everything from the strange funding requests that come to VCs to the weaponization of Twitter, social media business strategist and blogging maven Chris Brogan led a “fireside chat” with venture capitalist, entrepreneur and Alltop founder Guy Kawasaki onstage for an eager audience of SEO/SEM professionals at the opening keynote of PubCon South.

Search vs. Content Marketing

Guy Kawasaki quote: SEO StrategyGuy’s work with the American Express Open Small Business Forum – and their future plans to grow the community – are a particular source of pride and interest for him, for several reasons. During the discussion, Chris noted the modern trend towards content-driven advertising value is promising to further undermine historical advertising strategies.

When given advice about how to better search engine optimize any of his websites, Guy’s philosophy is unwavering: focus on valuable content. (He quite amusingly refers to SEO as “witchcraft,” and is first to admit that he doesn’t actually know anything about it.) And though this does pose some interesting questions – not the least of which is, how many sites can exist before good content sources start drying up – for the moment massive content consolidation has not completely changed the landscape yet.


In the early days of the blogosphere, Guy deliberately refused to blog. His take on blogging at the time was that it was too narcissistic to be of interest, and had no value if you were not interested in talking about yourself.

Once he started blogging, he found the first year to be very easy. Content flowed regularly and without tremendous effort, as he used the experiences of his career for material. By the second year, though, it got more difficult. Material was getting more scarce and requiring more effort. By year three, he “hit a wall.”

Rapidly dispelling any notions that he was a highly structured, well-planned writer (for either his personal blog, or the blog he writes on the American Express Open Small Business Forum), he admitted that blogging for him now is an asynchronous, interruption-driven activity. And, if he feels the pressure of a deadline or a need to produce content, he often looks to Alltop for inspiration – newly published studies are often what he needs to jump-start his writing energy.

Chris Brogan added that, for him, a good source of new writing inspiration is photography. He takes pictures all day, and then finds interesting things in them that inspire him to write.


Guy Kawasaki quote: The sincerest form of flattery is a RetweetThe difference between blogging and microblogging, in Guy’s case, is all the difference. As he says, “I was born to Tweet.” And even though it took a bit of time (about two months or so) before he really started to get the hang of Twitter, once he got into the swing of things, he fell in love with the format.

“One hundred and forty characters is just perfect,” he said. “I wish I had an email client that only accepted 140 characters. Do you know how much better life would be if email were limited to 140 characters?”

But anyone who follows Guy on Twitter knows that the bulk of what he posts are Alltop stories he finds interesting and wants to share. He refers to Twitter as “a weapon,” and uses it accordingly. He describes his “mental model” when it comes to Twitter as “PBS plus QVC.” Provide quality content that people will enjoy, and they will be more willing to forgive shilling your product.

And while he laments that he cannot exercise his fantasy of saying “I quit!” to the blogosphere in general, he describes himself as still being “in the honeymoon phase” with Twitter, and not at all eager to give that up.

Twitter Tools

The three tools that Guy credits with his Twitter addiction are:

And while the recommendation of TwitterHawk came with a caution about judicious use, it also came with some good examples, including some valuable usages for brick and mortar businesses that are able to leverage the geo-targeting capabilities to find a local market.

Responding to Criticism

Guy Kawasaki quote: Marketing vs. Spam.As with any high profile figure, Guy has learned not to take criticism personally. His philosophy is that if, out of more than 50,000 followers, he has less than a dozen people per day upset with him, then he can roll with it.

And what does he say when the feedback he gets is that he’s doing too much shameless self-promotion? “UFM.” What does that mean? “Unfollow me.” Noting Twitter’s opt-in nature, Guy dubbed “Twitter spam” as an “oxymoron.”

The New Book

Guy’s new book, “Reality Check” is, in his words, a “Chicago Manual of Style” model that aggregates his prior works – other books, blogs, presentations, etc. – into a reference broken down by topic. His vision is not that someone will “take it to the beach one weekend and read it cover to cover,” but that as need for advice on a specific business issue arises, his book can serve as a quick guide to someone flailing in unfamiliar waters.

He quickly admits that there is not a lot of new material in the book, but that it’s a much more concise reference than lugging around several years worth of blog posts, printed up and stuffed in a three-ring binder.

Being a VC in a Recession

Guy Kawasaki quote: Fund stupid ideas.When asked by a member of the audience if recently laid-off professionals who’ve been wanting to start their own business should use their current unemployment to do that, or if they should focus on finding a new job first, both Chris and Guy were in agreement: find a job first.

Chris, who will be on a panel at SXSW this weekend on called “Dad is the New Mom,” was emphatic about having a steady source of income before trying to build something from scratch.

And, while not as emphatic as Chris, Guy agreed: unless you are “a trustfund baby,” a person with other responsibilities (especially a family) is usually better off focusing on re-establishing a source of income capable of meeting daily obligations, and building a new business after hours. He also suggests that is a better sales pitch for getting your project funded once it’s on its feet.

As a VC, Guy’s advice in this area is very direct: build a product, develop a user-base, show value/demand, and THEN go to a VC for funding. Coming to a VC with just an idea is a much harder case to make, and one that the current economic conditions will not support. Guy eagerly champion’s a strong sense of entrepreneurship, but he recommends a healthy dose of pragmatism, particularly in a market where even the VCs are tightening their purse strings.

After all, he noted, his VC firm isn’t called “Garage Technology Ventures” for nothing.

Cross-posted on Social Computing Magazine.

March 11, 2009 at 11:40 am Leave a comment

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