The Maturation of a Leader

Joe Flacco

Football has a striking resemblance to business sometimes.

Despite moving to Austin, my allegiance to the Baltimore Ravens remains as strong, and maybe stronger, than ever. It’s been an exciting offseason with lots of power moves and now training camp is in full swing.

For third year Quarterback Joe Flacco, this appears to be his coming out year. The Baltimore Sun ran a story about him the other day noting that this offense is now Joe’s offense. He’s taking command. He’s inheriting responsibility. He’s taking ownership.

He’s taking more command and making more adjustments at the line of scrimmage. He’s looking to become more effective in the red zone. And he’s tutoring new backup quarterback Marc Bulger when everyone thought it would be the other way around.

“I want to be able to just run the show and go up and down the field, blow out points on the board and come out successful,” Flacco said after a 75-minute practice featuring rookies and veterans coming off injuries. “That’s what it’s all about.”

That’s the mark of a leader and something that anyone who aspires to leadership is required to do at one point.

Since being in Austin, I’ve been exposed more and more to the startup life – something I used to live in as the Director of Technology at b5media, a company that used to be a blog network but now is something, well, frankly, unidentifiable.

As a result of my new exposure to a startup culture, I’ve already talked to a few companys to get a feel of how they do business. It reminds me of those early days at b5media. Four founders, making decisions by committee, and hoping for the best. Sometimes consensus was a blocker to real innovation.

This mode is common for early companies. Small group. Everyone needs to be on the same page to do anything. And they suffer from paralysis of no decisions. No one is willing to take charge and lead.

At b5media, once we took our first round of VC money, Jeremy Wright, became the CEO. He was forced into a role of trying to get consensus but not suffering from the paralysis of required consensus. Many times, those of us in those leadership roles diverged in opinions and advocated different directions. It was Jeremy’s role to distill this feedback, foster the discussion, and then ultimately take ownership of the situation and make his call.

Sometimes it was the right choice. Sometimes it wasn’t.

Imagine this. It’s a third and long situation. The Ravens offense is backed up on their own 10 yard line due to an unfortunate series of downs involving an incomplete pass and an offensive holding penalty. They are down by 13 points with 6 minutes left in the game. The safe call, and the one called in to Flacco by Cam Cameron on the sideline, would be a slant play down the middle to a slot receiver or tight end.

As the offense lines up, Flacco sees the defense showing blitz and crowding the middle. Understanding from experience that this is a situation fraught with disaster and the need for a big breakout play to energize his offense, he calls an audible. Ray Rice on a draw play – bait the offense to continue to see the pass, but then destroy them with an off tackle run. Rice runs for 24 yards and gets the first down and better field position.

If it wasn’t for the leader having the confidence and insight to see the minefield upon him, he might just go with common wisdom or, more naturally, the wisdom of his advisors. However, he decides that he has the information he needs to make a big play, owns the call and gets a win.

While it’s common for young startups to operate on consensus, sometimes it requires someone with enough balls to make a tough call and own it. A good team will support that and have their leaders back regardless. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be on your team.

Photo credit: Keith Allison

Back in Startup Mode… Announcing WP Engine!

welovewordpress

Since I moved to Austin, I have been very coy about what I’ve been up to. There’s a reason for that and today I can tell you all about it. Especially since my good friend Marshall over at ReadWriteWeb already has. :-)

It was very interesting. Back in May, my friend Pete Jackson, who works for Intridea, started making a point of introducing me over to Twitter to one of his friends in whatever city I happened to be travelling in at that moment.

It was in this way that I met Sean Cook, the manager of mobile integrations at Twitter in San Francisco and, when I was in Austin visiting in May, he made sure that I met Aaron Scruggs of Other Inbox who has since become a pretty good friend.

It was after that meeting with Scruggs in May that he connected me to one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, Jason Cohen. Jason is one of the two founding partners at Capital Thought, an Austin-based incubator. Jason has also built several companies and parlayed two of those into healthy exits. I’ve come to have a tremendous amount of respect for his technical and business savvy.

Jason described to me the concept for a business that he was working on along with Cullen Wilson. A premium, WordPress platform that would cater specifically to the customers who want to make sure their blog is always taken care of from a maintenance and upgrade perspective, but also would offer significant value adds that nobody else is providing in a WordPress-optimized environment.

I’ll get to what all those buzzwords mean in a minute. Stick with me.

We started talking about me joining up with them to take this idea to the bank. Shortly after moving down here to Austin, I joined the team and we’ve been working hard over the last couple months to get to the point where we could reliably take on new customers and talk about our idea publicly.

Today is that day.

So, you’re still probably wondering what the hell WP Engine is and why it’s important, right?

Let’s talk security for a minute. There have been significant security “incidents” in recent months. Most people on the outside simply see “WordPress hacked! WordPress hacked!” – I’m looking at you Chris Brogan, Robert Scoble and Frank Gruber (Techcocktail). In the WordPress community, we know the real issues in these cases were not WordPress but the hosts that the blogs were on. Still, people saw WordPress hacked.

We take this very seriously and have partnered with a provider that has multiple levels of security including Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) outside of our boxes. We have gone to great lengths to keep our customers connecting to us in very secure ways and keep a close eye on the activity happening on our boxes. This is all very important because if an attacker could get through our outside defenses, chances are they couldn’t do anything malicious without us knowing about it.

Our infrastructure is also built with optimization and blazing, fast speed as a core expectation and deliverable. We don’t overload servers and have the means to see potential performance problems before they arrive. With our dual nginx-apache server configuration, we are able to handle sustained high-volume traffic as well as spikes that are the pain point for WordPress bloggers who suddenly get a story featured on a prominent site.

For the people who claim WordPress doesn’t scale… I call bullshit. We believe we know exactly how to make WordPress scale.

But we’re not just a hosting company. If we were that, we would be our competitors. We are also working on additional features such as “Curated Plugins” which are plugins that are entirely open source, that are popular or in demand from our customers and have been vetted from a security standpoint. These are plugins that we support 100%. This does not preclude customers from using other non-supported plugins, and we don’t dictate what bloggers can have on their blog as some of the other hosted WordPress solutions do. We just say, “Hey, if you use one of these, we’re gonna have your back”.

Other things that make WP Engine different:

  • 3 Smart guys supporting customers personally
  • A “Staging” area for one-click deployments and testing
  • We give back to the community. In fact, I made sure that I could work on the WordPress open source project, write the second edition of my book, and that much of our work will be returned to the community. Code is a commodity. The people and service behind the code is not.

We are not perfect yet, nor do we claim to be. We are a young company and have hundreds of things still to do and hopefully learn from. We are in an “invite only” mode at this time as much of the stuff we are doing and want to do is still not ready. But we are open for business and taking customers. And for $50/mo 1 for a dedicated WordPress environment that has optimization, speed and security plus the flexibility of you doing your own thing with a safety net… it’s a steal, really.

Photo used with permission by Donncha O Caoimh

Notes:

  1. For most customers

The BASIC Cloud Framework API

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Last night, I spent the evening with a bunch of PHP developers in DC. This informal gathering in the DC-PHP community is a regular occurrence known as the DC PHP Beverage Subgroup – Virginia Chapter. There is also a DC-chapter that meets once a month as well. These two informal gatherings are for the sole purpose of getting together, enjoying some food and cold beverages and generally just talking about anything and everything. It complements the official DC PHP meeting which is generally a technical presentation directly related to PHP.

So last night, we were yukking it up about how PHP has re-invoked the GOTOoperator, a programming mechanism that, we thought, died with the BASIC programming language of yore. Coding in BASIC was very procedural and not very rich in its abilities.

1
2
10 PRINT "Hello World!"
20 GOTO 10

One of our number suggested that PHP, since they regressed so badly with the GOTO operator inclusion, should also adopt line numbers in code as well. :) This conversation devolved into all the cliché buzzwords of our time and eventually, it was suggested that what we really need is a “BASIC Cloud Framework API”.

Putting aside BASIC, which is not really practical or desirable, the concept of a Cloud-based Framework API, whatever it actually is, is not all that undesirable. If you think about it, we already have a Cloud-based API for APIs (yes, I realize this is very meta) with the super-cool Gnip which we covered last year when they launched. Social services channel their data through Gnip and Gnip provides a single API layer for data access. And it’s built in the cloud.

Similarly, up until a few years ago, Javascript was painful to write because developers had to write code for all the browsers and all their nuances. That was before Javascript libraries — or APIs, if you will — like Prototype or jQuery came along providing the developer with a single layer of javascript programming that would work seamlessly on all browsers.
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The concept of single layer APIs is not a new one. Why can’t we have an API for cloud-services as well?

Think about this. Right now, anyone wanting to build an application has three options. They can build out a server cluster or farm that physically scales and, by proxy, ends up costing a lot as physical hardware costs a lot. A second option would involve a virtual cluster made up of virtual machines. You still need hardware, but each server souped up with up to 32G of RAM can theoretically host tons of virtual machines all acting as a physical server. An entirely virtual solution is hosting applications in “the cloud”.

Cloud computing is not without it’s challenges. I’ve challenged the reliance on it in the past, and I still do. However, with cloud services like Amazon’s EC2, S3 or Google’s App Engine, it becomes entirely possible to not only store data in the cloud, but also run and maintain entire services in the cloud.

The problem is, each of them require different things. Amazon has a suite of developer tools that are needed to build against their cloud offerings. Google App Engine only supports Python, Ruby or Java.

There should be a way to abstract this development to a single layer — or API, if you will — to take advantage of this.

Laugh it up, chuckles. A cloud-based framework API is not all that ridiculous of a concept. The world once thought the earth was flat as well.