How to be CEO: Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”

This is the beginning of a continuing series of reviews about books on management and leadership. Think of it as a “papers we love” but for folks who have chosen to pursue a non-technical path in their engineering careers.

At some point I figure I’d like to be CEO of my own company. So it was with great interest that I picked up Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”, which is partly a memoir about his time running LoudCloud and Opsware, which he eventually sold to HP in 2007 for about $1.6 billion. Along with Marc Andreessen he then went on to found the well-known Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested in Facebook, Foursquare, GitHub, Pinterest and Twitter, among others.

From this CV it sounds like he has been wildly successful as an entrepreneur and CEO. But like all Hollywood stories (and Wikipedia articles) it glosses over the twists and turns in his career that, for instance, almost saw LoudCloud go bankrupt several times. (He also pivoted the company from being a cloud services and hosting company to a product company, nearly bankrupting it again.) Horowitz claims that many management books out there only give you advice about the happy path, but don’t teach you how to deal with adversity. That’s where the book comes in: no-nonsense advice about the many difficult situations you’ll find yourself in as a CEO. Continue reading

Canada’s mobile network: hostile to visitors

Cutting edge phones in Canada. Just kidding. (CC BY-NC 2.0, Flickr user bec.w)

Cutting edge phones in Canada. Just kidding. (CC BY-NC 2.0, Flickr user bec.w)

Recently my wife and I returned to Toronto for our Christmas holidays. Though we haven’t lived in Canada for over two years, I remember the cellular plans being outrageously expensive compared to the United States or Europe. Since then, it appears they’ve gotten slightly better, but only for residents who have long-term contracts. Visitors, sadly, are out of luck.

Both of us own unlocked iPhone 4Ses, so I thought we could just waltz right into a carrier’s store, buy a SIM card, plunk down some money and get some data for the week. After all, this is what we did over in the United Kingdom in September. Each of us paid £10 for a SIM and got 1 GB of data. (Actually, they give the SIMs away for free. The £10 was just for usage.)

Astonishingly, there’s no such option in Canada. All the plans, even the so-called “prepaid” ones, are designed for long-term-residents. I was told by Virgin and Fido representatives that I’d need a Canadian billing address (!) and the only way to get service for a month would be to sign up and cancel within 30 days. Furthermore, the data rates are outrageous. Here’s what Fido is charging for Data Add-ons for a month:


$35 for 1 GB for a month? Are you kidding me? That’s almost the price of my entire cellular phone plan in the United States for a month!

As a last resort, I went to talk to a third-party reseller, the ones who represent multiple carriers. I told the rep what I wanted. He laughed, then said, sheepishly, “It’s not possible. Canada’s cellular phone companies don’t have pay-per-use data plans.” Then he told me to call Verizon and get a data roaming plan! “It’ll be easier that way,” he said.

If you want to see how good the pay-as-you-go plans are in the UK — and they really mean pay-as-you-go, as in you don’t need a billing address — go check out T-Mobile UK’s “SIM Card Only” page. Reading it again made me think: if Canada Post is saving all this money by killing off door-to-door mail delivery, why don’t they start a telco that’ll give Canada some real competition in cellular services?

Autoscaling Builds with Jenkins’ EC2 Plugin and Chef

One of my last projects at SecondMarket was to automate and rebuild the Jenkins infrastructure. We’d previously had a static setup in the NYC office with a build master and three slaves that ran all the time, but this handled developer check-in storms very poorly. For example, when developers were trying to make code cutoff for a feature, many builds would be queued for lack of available executors. But at other times, these agents would be completely idle. It made more sense to move the entire setup to the cloud and implement some kind of auto-scaling for Jenkins. Continue reading

When Application and Library Cookbooks Fail

Apologies in advance if you’re not interested in a post about the guts of Opscode Chef.

I recently started to adopt Bryan Berry’s application & library cookbook model as outlined in his excellent and funny blog post, "How to Write Reusable Chef Cookbooks, Gangnam Style". But I quickly ran into a blocker, because people are trying to solve problems using the compile phase and not the execute phase of Chef. Perhaps this calls into question the entire viability of compile-phase providers like chef_gem. Continue reading

Automating Atlassian JIRA, Confluence, and Crowd Installation with Chef

As a user, I’ve always been impressed with Atlassian‘s products for software development, issue tracking and documentation. For companies who take these things seriously, JIRA, Greenhopper and Confluence are quickly becoming the go-to products, and with good reason: the products are easy to get started with but have the enterprise features that allow a company to customize workflows as their business changes. I hate to slam open-source products but just try doing what JIRA does with Bugzilla or Trac.

The products themselves, though, can be a nightmare to install, despite the fact that they are mostly just Java web applications living in a WAR file. The products have improved immensely from the days when setting them up involved hacking up a multitude of XML files in WEB-INF (though there still is some of that), and it’s still annoying that Atlassian doesn’t support running the applications as unexploded WARs within Tomcat or another servlet container, probably for the aforementioned reasons. All that aside, though, it’s satisfying when everything is working together and users can single-sign-onto the entire Atlassian suite because of the magic of Crowd, Atlassian’s SSO directory server.

Last week, I released a set of Chef cookbooks I wrote at SecondMarket to ease the installation of the Atlassian tools on a server. I’m still looking to automate more parts of this, including the ability to edit the aforementioned XML files in-place in an idempotent way, so pull requests against our GitHub repo would be welcome.

Special Note on Using Atlassian Products in the Amazon Cloud

I should also mention that my first attempt to set up Atlassian’s products using Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS) as a backing store was a failure. To spare you the pain of finding this out yourself, I’ll just mention the reason: Crowd, JIRA and Confluence expect MySQL to be configured with READ-COMMITTED transaction isolation level, which means you need to configure MySQL to have row-based binary-logging. Unfortunately, binlog_format is not a parameter you can configure in RDS’s DB Parameter Groups, for obvious reasons; it would affect all other clients on that MySQL instance. This has been confirmed with Amazon support, so JIRA/Crowd/Confluence with RDS is a no-go.

ground rules for success in a dynamic, new media environment

In the previous entry, I made the statement that many of us working in new media don’t have a clue about what’s going to be successful and what’s not. I wanted to expand on this topic with a few key points. At first glance, you could interpret these as being pet peeves. My intention, however, is to set some basic ground rules for success even in a space where tools, technologies and strategies change at the drop of a hat. Continue reading

Red Hat upgrade complete!

Those of you who have been following my journal closely know that I’ve been working on a project at work to migrate our main web and Java cluster from SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 to Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5. Well, we did the cut-over tonight and I’m pleased to note that everything pretty much went according to plan. Netcraft will now tell you that is running Apache 2.2.8 on Red Hat. Continue reading