Category Archives: technology

CS in Schools: September Update

CS in Schools is a not-for-profit initiative at RMIT University that’s focused on helping high school teachers develop their confidence and competence in teaching computer science.

September was our third month out of stealth mode. Since our last update, we’ve formally joined forces with RMIT and advertised for teachers to join our programme. Please share this link with teacher colleagues, friends, and anyone who might want to work with us.

We signed up an eighth school into our free pilot, and we’re at capacity for 2019. We’re now deep in the logistics of timetabling, resourcing, and planning.

Woman Programming on a Notebook

Summary

CS in Schools is part of RMIT‘s Policy and Impact Portfolio. It’s a charity initiative that’s focused on helping teachers confidently teach computer science to high school students in Australia.

Today, most schools struggle to teach coding: there’s a shortage of teachers who feel qualified to teach computer science, and most successful coding classes are run outside of school hours. We believe that today’s teachers can effectively teach coding if they’re supported through in-class professional development. Microsoft’s TEALS programme exists in the US, and we want Australian teachers to have a similar opportunity.

Many of the important and best paid jobs of this and the next generation will require computational thinking. Even if a student doesn’t study computer science at university, it’s essential they have the basics because just about every job will be changed by technology. We want every student in Australia to have this opportunity.

In 2019, we are piloting a programme with eight schools, and studying how successfully we can help teachers ramp-up their skills. Beyond 2019, we plan to launch this programme broadly.

We’ve had an exciting September. In summary, in the past month:

  • We named ourselves CS in Schools, and bought the domain csinschools.io. You can now contact us at hugh@csinschools.io and selina@csinschools.io.
  • We’ve signed-up our eighth school into our 2019 pilot, and we’re at full capacity
  • We’ve become part of RMIT University, giving us access to resources, educators, facilities, and enabling us to become a Tier 1 DGR charity (an important Australian tax status)
  • We’ve advertised for teachers to work with us
  • We’re refining a roadmap for what happens from now until we start the programme in February

To learn more about our programme, see the “Programme” section in our August update.

September Update

September was another terrific month for our programme: it’s all coming together, and building momentum towards our 2019 pilot.

This month, we formally joined RMIT University. We’re now part of the Policy and Impact Portfolio, and have an office inside RMIT’s Activator space. RMIT’s generosity has been amazing: they’re providing offices, finance support, HR and legal support, and support for philanthropic engagement. Of course, being part of RMIT also gives us enormous credibility and opens all kinds of doors. We thank Vice-Chancellor Martin Bean and his team for their kindness and support in helping CS in Schools take a leap forward.

We finalised the schools that we’ll be working with in our pilot in 2019. These are:

It’s likely that somewhere between 10 and 15 teachers will be trained through our programme next year, and over 1,000 Year 7 students will experience our course. We’re excited to be able to study the outcomes of the programme, and hopefully scale it in 2020.

We are working hard on finalising financial support for 2019. After building our draft timetable and revising our budget, we could do with more money. If you have corporate connections or connections to philanthropic donors, we’d love an intro!

We are now hiring teachers. We plan to hire up to three qualified high school teachers who have experience teaching computing. Our job ad is live, and here’s a link to the position description. Please share it broadly with your colleagues, family, and friends who might be interested. Hopefully, in our next update, we can share the news of who we’ve hired, and have made progress on developing our lessons.

The final news from the month is that we’re getting closer to Microsoft’s TEALS programme. Kevin Wang at Microsoft leads this initiative, and he’s been generous in sharing his time to help us learn about onboarding schools, curriculum development, and structure of their engagement with volunteers, schools, and universities. Under an NDA between RMIT and Microsoft, we’ve recently been able to access their materials, and this has helped us not reinvent the wheel from first principles. We hope to further deepen our TEALS engagement over the next month.

Thanks again for making it all the way to the bottom of the update. Let us know if you’d like to learn more about any topic. Cheers, Hugh and Selina.

 

 

Computing in Schools: August update

We are a charity that’s focused on helping high school teachers develop their confidence and competence in teaching computer science.

It’s our second month out of stealth mode, and it’s been a good one for us. We’re exploring becoming part of RMIT University, and SEEK and REA became supporters of our programme. We have committed donations from generous supporters, and the first year of our programme is completely funded. We’ve been learning from a similar programme in the US that’s supported by Microsoft. We’ve refined our plans, with a sharper focus on Year 7 teacher professional development. We’ve signed up seven schools into our free pilot, and we’re in discussion with three more — we are pretty much at capacity for 2019!

Summary

We’ve launched a charity that’s focused on helping teachers confidently teach computer science to high school students in Australia. Today, most schools struggle to teach coding: there’s a shortage of teachers who feel qualified to teach computer science, and most successful coding classes are run outside of school hours. We believe that today’s teachers can effectively teach coding if they’re supported through in-class professional development. A somewhat similar and successful programme exists in the US, and we want Australian teachers to have this opportunity.

Many of the important and best paid jobs of this and the next generation will require computational thinking. Even if a student doesn’t study computer science at university, it’s essential they have the basics because just about every job will be changed by technology. We want every student in Australia to have this opportunity.

In 2019, we are piloting a programme with up to ten schools, and studying how successfully we can help teachers ramp-up their skills. Beyond 2019, we plan to launch this programme broadly.

We’ve had an exciting August. In summary:

  • We’ve signed-up seven schools into our 2019 pilot, and we’re speaking to
    two or three more
  • We have committed donations from generous supporters, and the first year of our programme is completely funded
  • We’re exploring a partnership with RMIT University
  • We’ve made progress on becoming a charity
  • We’ve signed up corporate supporters
  • We’re developing a roadmap for what happens from now until we start the programme in February

Programme

Our programme continues to evolve. We’ve refined our goals to:

  • Trial a novel teacher professional development pilot programme in 2019
  • Work with between five and ten schools in 2019. This means we’ll work with between seven and twelve school teachers who’ll teach over 1,000 students
  • Study how effectively we can develop computer science teaching skills
  • Develop teachers who can continue to independently teach computing in 2020
  • Make this programme free for schools in 2019, supported by generous donations

Our plans to deliver the programme are as follows:

  • We will hire two or three teachers who have a computing background, and they will be paid by generous donations to our charity
  • Our teachers will be paired with teachers from the schools in the pilot, and will meet for background workshops between November and January
  • From February, our teachers will work in the classroom with the teachers from the
    schools in the pilot
  • In our first term (or semester) working in a school, our teacher will deliver the syllabus to the students and the school’s teacher will learn through observation and by providing some student support
  • In our second term (or semester), it’s anticipated we’ll switch the roles: the school’s teacher will be the primary driver, with in-class support and training from our teacher
  • We’re hopeful that beyond the first two iterations, the school’s teacher will be independent, and require limited support from our programme

Our pilot is focused on:

  • Helping Year 7 teachers in Victorian high schools
  • A one-term (or semester) Year 7 computing subject of two or three hours per week
  • Providing everything that’s needed to teach the subject, including lesson plans, assignments, hardware, and software
  • Covering the “harder parts” of the Victorian DigiTech curriculum, especially the coding skills. In total, we’ll together deliver around half of the recommended 40 hours of the curriculum, and expect that the other half is delivered in other subjects

August Update

We have made significant progress in August, it’s been an exciting month.

SEEK Australia and Real Estate Australia (REA) have endorsed our plans.  We’re now able to tell schools that SEEK and REA stand behind what we’re doing, and endorse the industry relevance of our programme. We’re also meeting and learning from other organisations, including Google and Microsoft.  In particular, we’ve been meeting Kevin Wang at Microsoft who developed the
incredible TEALS programme in the US; it’s likely we will visit Kevin later this year.

We are hopeful of joining forces with RMIT University, and have met twice this month with Vice Chancellor Martin Bean and several times with his leadership team. This would be an amazing outcome, helping us in several ways:

  • It’d enhance our credibility, opening doors more easily to schools, academics, and
    government institutions
  • It’d improve the breadth and depth of our pilot, by giving us easier access to relevant academics, policy experts, and education professionals
  • We’d have access to facilities, including an office, meeting rooms, payroll support, and rooms for running teacher workshops
  • We’d be a “Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) Charity”, a desirable status for receiving donations
  • We are optimistic we will finalise this arrangement and announce it at the end of September.

We have signed up several more schools. With some help from good friends, we’re now working with three schools on the Mornington Peninsula: Toorak College, Mount Erin College, and McClelland College. We are working with two schools in Sale: Gippsland Grammar School and the Sale Catholic College. We have also signed up two suburban schools,  Greensborough College and Haileybury. We are in discussions with three other schools, including two public schools and one large private girls school. We’re excited to have a mix of public, private, Catholic, city, and country schools to work with — we know this’ll help us better understand the effectiveness of our programme and provide a more persuasive argument as we go forward in 2020.

We’ve begun to work on our roadmap from September to February. This includes planning for hiring, syllabus development, and teacher workshops.

We look forward to an exciting September, and sharing even more progress at the end of the month. Thanks for reading all the way down here!

Cheers, Selina and Hugh.

It’s a Marathon, not a Sprint…

What makes a career successful over the long term? How do you sustain (or even increase) your professional impact, while also deriving meaning and enjoyment from your life? This was the question I set about answering in my talk at StretchCon last week. To see my answers, you can watch the presentation. You can also view the prezi1966321_313990785474109_1977531760847682083_o

The Backstory

I asked eleven colleagues about their success. I chose colleagues who have made it to the C-suite (whether as a CEO, CTO, or another C-level designation) and that appeared to do it with balance between their professional and personal lives. Ten of the eleven responded, and nine of the ten shared thoughts before my deadline. I thank Chris Caren, Adrian Colyer, John Donahoe, Ken Moss, Satya Nadella, Mike Olson, Christopher Payne, Stephanie Tilenius, and Joe Tucci for their help.

I sent each of these colleagues an email that went something like this:

I am speaking about successful careers being about sustained contribution (and not a series of sprints, all-nighters, or unsustainable peaks). Would you be up for giving me a quote I could use and attribute to you? I admire your ability to work hard and smart, while obviously also having a life outside of work.

Their replies were varied, but as you’ll see in the video, there were themes that repeated in their answers. I shared edited quotes in the talk, and promised that I’d share their complete thoughts in my blog. The remainder of this blog is their complete words.

Chris Caren

Chris is the CEO and Chairman of Turnitin. We worked together at Microsoft, and Chris was (and sometimes still is!) my mentor. Here are his thoughts in response to my questions:

My philosophy:  I do my best work when my life is in balance — family, me, and work.  I need a routine of hard work, but no more than 9-10 hours a day, solid exercise daily, low stress (via self-control), 7-8 hours of sleep at a minimum each day, and the time I want with my family and for myself.  When I maintain this balance, I am maximally effective at work — both in terms of quality of thinking and decision making, and maximum output.  More hours worked actually pull down my impact as a CEO.

Adrian Colyer

Adrian was the CTO of SpringSource, the custodians of the Spring Java programming framework. We worked together at Pivotal, where he was the CTO of the Application Fabric team. Recently, Adrian joined Accel Partners as an Executive-in-Residence. Here are Adrian’s thoughts:

A great topic! Maybe the most counter-intuitive lesson I’ve learned over the years is that I can make a much more valuable contribution when I work* less. So work-life balance isn’t really a trade-off as most people normally present it (I have more ‘life’, but sacrifice ‘work’ to get it), it’s actually a way of being better at both life *and* work!

* ‘work’ in the sense that most people would intuitively think of it – frenetic activity.

When I’ve analysed this, I came to realise that when work crowds everything else out I often end up in a very reactive mode. But the biggest and most impactful things you can do – especially as a leader – don’t come about during that constant fire-fighting mode. The vast majority of my important insights and decisions – the things that made the biggest positive impact on the organisations I was working with at the time – have come in the space I’ve made around the busy-ness of the office to actually allow myself the luxury of thinking! Running, cycling, walking and so on have all been very effective for me over the years. But so is just taking some time out in the evening and not necessarily even consciously thinking about work, the brain seems to be very good at background processing! That time has also given space to allow my natural curiosity and love of learning to be indulged. In turn that creates a broader perspective, exposes you to new ideas, and allows you to make connections and insights that you otherwise might not of. All of this feeds back into the work-related decisions and issues you are wrestling with and helps you to make breakthroughs from time to time.

To the extent I’ve been successful over the years, I attribute much of that not to being smarter than the people around me, nor to working ‘harder’, but to creating the space to think.

John Donahoe

John is the CEO of eBay Inc. John was an enthusiastic sponsor of my work while I was there. When I asked John for his thoughts, he sent me a speech he’d recently given to the graduating class at the Stanford Business School. In it, you’ll find John’s thoughts of his professional and personal journey.

Ken Moss

Ken recently became the CTO of Electronic Arts. Prior to that, Ken and I worked together on, off, and on over a period of nine years. Ken was the GM of Microsoft’s MSN Search when I joined Microsoft, and left to found his own company. I managed to help persuade Ken to come to eBay for a few years. Here are Ken’s thoughts:

Always focus on exceeding expectations in the present, while keeping your tank 100% full of gas for the future. There is no quicker way to stall your career than by burning yourself out. I’ve seen many potentially brilliant careers cut short as someone pushed themselves too far past their limits and became bitter under-performers. It’s always in your control.

Satya Nadella

Satya became the CEO of Microsoft at the beginning of 2014. Satya was the VP of the Bing search team at Microsoft for around half the time I was there, and we have stayed in touch since. Here are Satya’s thoughts:

I would say the thing that I am most focused on is to harmonize my work and life vs trying to find the elusive “balance”. Being present in the lives of my family in the moments I am with them is more important than any quantitative view of balance.

Mike Olson

Mike is the Chairman, Chief Strategy Officer, and former CEO of Cloudera. We have interacted during my time at Pivotal, and also during my time at eBay. Mike was kind enough to invite me to give the keynote at Hadoop World in 2011. Here’s Mike’s thoughts:

I have always tried to optimize for interesting — working on problems that are important to me, with people who blow my hair back. The combination has kept me challenged and inspired, and has guaranteed real happiness in the job.

By corollary, you have to be willing to walk away from a good paycheck and fat equity if the work or the people are wrong. Money is cheaper than meaning. I’ve done that a few times. There’s some short-term angst, but it’s paid off in the long term.

Christopher Payne

Christopher is the SVP of the North America business at eBay. Christopher and I have worked on, off, and on for nine years. Christopher was the founding VP of the search team at Microsoft. He left to found his own company, his company was bought by eBay, he hired me to eBay to help run engineering, and he then moved over to run the US and Canadian business teams. Here are Christopher’s thoughts:

I believe strongly in the need to maintain my energy level in order to have the most impact in my career. To do this I find I have to make the time to recharge. For me this means taking walks during the work day, taking all of my vacation, and not being on email 24/7. With my energy level high I find I can be significantly more creative and productive over the long term.

Stephanie Tilenius

Stephanie recently founded her own company, Vida. While she’s spent parts of her career at Kleiner-Perkins, Google, and other places, we met at eBay where we spent around six months working together. Here are Stephanie’s thoughts:

… my point of view is that you have to do something you love, that will sustain you. You also have to know what drives you, what gets you out of bed, for me it is having an impact (for others it may be making money or playing a sport, etc.) You will always be willing to give it your all and you are more likely to innovate if you love what you are doing and constantly growing, challenging the status quo (stagnation is really out of the question, humans don’t thrive on it!). I am committed to my work and to constant innovation but also to having a family and I could not be great at either without the other. They are symbiotic in my mind, they both make me happy and a better person. I have learned it is about integration not necessarily perfect balance. If you integrate life and work, you are much more likely to be successful. The other day my son was out of school early and our nanny had an issue so I brought him to work and he did code academy and talked to some of our engineers. He enjoyed himself and was inspired.

Joe Tucci

Joe is the Chairman of EMC, VMware, and Pivotal, and the CEO of EMC. I met Joe in the interview process at Pivotal, and have worked with him through board and other meetings over the past year. Here’s Joe’s thoughts:

Being a successful CEO is relatively straight forward… 1st – retain, hire, and develop the best talent, 2nd – get these talented individuals to work together as a team (do not tolerate selfishness), 3rd – get this leadership team to embrace a stretch goal that is bigger then any of them imagine they can attain, and 4th – maniacally focus the leadership team on our customers (always striving to exceed their expectations)

I enjoyed giving the talk at Stretch, and interacting with these colleagues in putting it together. I hope you enjoyed it too. See you next time.

Fireside chat at the DataEdge Conference

The video of my recent conversation with Michael Chui from McKinsey as part of the UC Berkeley DataEdge conference is now online. Here it is:

The discussion is around 30 minutes. I tell a few stories, and most of them are mostly true. We talk about my career in data, search, changing jobs, inventing infinite scroll, eBay, Microsoft, Pivotal, and more.  Enjoy!

Armchair Guide to Data Compression

Data compression is used to represent information in less space than its original representation. This post explains the basics of lossless compression, and hopefully helps you think about what happens when you next compress data.

Similarly to my post on hash tables, it’s aimed at software folks who’ve forgotten about compression, or folks just interested in how software works; if you’re a compression expert, you’re in the wrong place.

A Simple Compression Example

Suppose you have four colored lights: red, green, blue, and yellow. These lights flash in a repeating pattern: red, red, green, red, red, blue, red, red, yellow, yellow (rrgrrbrryy). You think this is neat, and you want to send a message to a friend and share the light flashing sequence.

You know the binary (base 2) numbering system, and you know that you could represent each of the lights in two digits: 00 (for red, 0 in decimal), 01 (for green, 1 in decimal), 10 (for blue, 2 in decimal), and 11 (for yellow, 3 in decimal). To send the message rrgrrbrryy to your friend, you could therefore send them this message: 00 00 01 00 00 10 00 00 11 11 (of course, you don’t send the spaces, I’ve just included them to make the message easy for you to read).

Data compression. It's hard to find a decent picture!

Data compression. It’s hard to find a decent picture!

You also need to send a key or dictionary, so your friend can decode the message. You only need to send this once, even if the lights flash in a new sequence and you want to share that with your friend. The dictionary is: red green blue yellow. Your friend will be smart enough to know that this implies red is 00, green is 01, and so on.

Sending the message takes 20 bits: two bits per light flash and ten flashes in total (plus the one-off cost of sending the dictionary, which I’ll ignore for now). Let’s call that the original representation.

Alright, let’s do some simple compression. Notice that red flashes six times, yellow twice, and the other colors once each. Sending those red flashes is taking twelve bits, four for sending yellow, and the others a total of four for the total of twenty bits. If we’re smart, what we should be doing is sending the code for red in one bit (instead of two) since it’s sent often, and using more than two bits for green and blue since they’re sent once each. If we could send red in one bit, it’d cost us six bits to send the six red flashes, saving a total of six bits over the two-bit version.

How about we try something simple? Let’s represent red as 0. Let’s represent yellow as 10, green as 110, and blue as 1110 (this is a simple unary counting scheme). Why’d I use that scheme? Well, it’s a simple idea: sort the color flashes by decreasing frequency (red, yellow, green, blue), and assign increasingly longer codes to the colors in a very simple way: you can count 1s until you see a 0, and then you have a key you can use to look in the dictionary. When we see just a 0, we can look in the dictionary to find that seeing zero 1s means red. When we see 1110, we can look in the dictionary to find that seeing three 1s means blue.

Here’s what our original twenty-bit sequence would now look like: 0 0 110 0 0 1110 0 0 10 10. That’s a total of 17 bits, a saving of 3 bits — we’ve compressed the data! Of course, we need to send our friend the dictionary too: red yellow green blue.

It turns out we can do better than this using Huffman coding. We could assign 0 to red, 10 to yellow, 110 to blue, and 111 to green. Our message would then be 0 0 111 0 0 110 0 0 10 10. That’s 16 bits, 1 bit better than our simple scheme (and, again, we don’t need to send the spaces). We’d also need to share the dictionary: red <blank> yellow <blank> blue green to show that 0 is red, 1 isn’t anything, yellow is 10, 11 isn’t anything, blue is 110, and green is 111. A slightly more complicated dictionary for better message compression.

Semi-Static Compression

Our examples are two semi-static compression schemes. The dictionary is static, it doesn’t change. However, it’s built from a single-pass over the data to learn about the frequencies — so the dictionary is dependent on the data. For that reason, I’ll call our two schemes semi-static schemes.

Huffman coding (or minimum-redundancy coding) is the most famous example of a semi-static scheme.

Semi-static schemes have at least three interesting properties:

  1. They require two passes over the data: one to build the dictionary, and another to emit the compressed representation
  2. They’re data-dependent, meaning that the dictionary is built based on the symbols and frequencies in the original data. A dictionary that’s derived from one data set isn’t optimal for a different data set (one with different frequencies) — for example, if you figured out the dictionary for Shakespeare’s works, it isn’t going to be optimal for compressing War and Peace
  3. You need to send the dictionary to the recipient, so the message can be decoded; lots of folks forget to include this cost when they share the compression ratios or savings they’re seeing, don’t do that

It doesn’t matter what kind of compression scheme you choose, you need to decide what the symbols are. For example, you could choose letters, words, or even phrases from English text.

Static Compression

Morse code is an example of a (fairly lame) static compression scheme. The dictionary is universally known (and doesn’t need to be communicated), but the dictionary isn’t derived from the input data. This means that the compression ratios you’ll see are at best the same as you’ll see from a semi-static compression scheme, and usually worse.

There aren’t many static compression schemes in widespread use. Two examples are Elias gamma and delta codes, which are used to compress inputs that consist of only integer values.

Adaptive Compression

The drawbacks of semi-static compression schemes are two-fold: you need to process the data twice, and they don’t adapt to local regions in the data where the frequencies of symbols might vary from the overall frequencies. Imagine, for example, that you’re compressing a very large image: you might find a region of blue sky, where there’s only a few blue colors. If you built a dictionary for only that blue section, you’d get a different (and better) dictionary than the one you’d get for the whole image.

Here’s the idea behind adaptive compression. Build the dictionary as you go: process the input, and see if you can find it in the (initially empty) dictionary. If you can’t, add the input to the dictionary. Now emit the compressed code, and keep on processing the input. In this way, your dictionary adapts as you go, and you only have to process the data once to create the dictionary and compress the data. The most famous example is LZW compression, which is used in many of the compression tools you’re probably using: gzip, pkzip, GIF images, and more.

Adaptive schemes have at least three interesting properties:

  1. One pass over the data creates the dictionary and the compressed representation, an advantage over semi-static schemes
  2. Adaptive schemes get better compression with the more input they see: since they don’t approximate the global symbol frequencies until lots of input has been processed, they’re usually much less optimal than semi-static schemes for small inputs
  3. You can’t randomly access the compressed data, since the dictionary is derived from processing the data sequentially from the start. This is one good reason why folks use static and semi-static schemes for some applications

What about lossy compression?

The taxonomy I’ve presented is for lossless compression schemes — those that are used to compress and decompress data such that you get an exact copy of the original input. Lossy compression schemes don’t guarantee that: they’re schemes where some of the input is thrown away by approximation, and the decompressed representation isn’t guaranteed to be the same as the input. A great example is JPEG image compression: it’s an effective way to store an image, by throwing away (hopefully) unimportant data and approximating it instead. The MP3 music file format and the MP4 video format (usually) do the same thing.

In general, lossy compression schemes are more compact than lossless schemes. That’s why, for example, GIF image files are often much larger than JPEG image files.

Hope you learnt something useful. Tell me if you did or didn’t. See you next time.

Music everywhere with Sonos

I’ve embraced Sonos as the way to enjoy music and radio in my house.

What’s Sonos?

I was late to the game too, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard of Sonos or don’t quite know what it does. Sonos is a company, and they make several powered speakers, that is, nice little units that contain an amplifier and speakers. They also make a product that allows you to connect your existing amplifier to the Sonos system.

The Sonos family of powered speakers and integration products. At the rear left is their subwoofer. The Play:3, Play:5, and Play:1 are grouped in the middle rear. At the front is Playbar for home theater. At the rear right are the integration products.

The Sonos family of powered speakers and integration products. At the rear left is their subwoofer. The Play:3, Play:5, and Play:1 are grouped in the middle rear. At the front is Playbar for home theater. At the rear right are the integration products.

One thing that’s cool about Sonos is that the powered speakers don’t need to be wired to a system. You put them where you want, and they connect wirelessly to a base station that’s plugged into your home wireless Internet router. Alternately, you can wire them to a standard Ethernet socket if you’ve wired your house. Sonos call their base station a bridge, and right now one of those comes free with any of Sonos’s speakers.

What makes a Sonos system cool, though, isn’t just that it’s portable and unwired. It’s that it sounds pretty darn good, and it integrates reasonably nicely with popular music services such as slacker and tunein radio. That means you can pay a few bucks a month and play a large library of music, and you can listen to a vast array of radio stations. You control this experience using your smartphone, tablet, or PC.

Playing music

It’s pretty simple to play music. You select the room you want to play — the available rooms are shown on the left in the image below. Then you select a source you want to play — you can choose from your own music library, or one of the streaming services, or a line-in input into one of the devices.

The Sonos Mac OS X application. Very similar to the Sonos iPad app. On the left are rooms, on the right are sounds sources.

The Sonos Mac OS X application. Very similar to the Sonos iPad app. On the left are rooms, on the right are sounds sources.

You can group rooms together to create a zone, and have the same source playing throughout part or all of your house. For example, I often put on the radio, and group together my bedroom, main living areas, garage gym, and outside patio so that I can listen to them as I move around the house.

I’ve got a turntable, and I’ve connected that to one of Sonos’s larger Play:5 systems; the smaller Play:1 and Play:3 don’t have a line-in input. I needed a pre-amp between the turntable and the Play:5, and picked up a reasonable one at an online store. With this setup, I can listen to vinyl throughout the house in the same way as I can listen to the rest of my music.

I sometimes plug other sources into another line-in socket in another Play:5. For example, when I want to listen to Major League Baseball, I fire up my MLB At:Bat app on my iPhone, and connect the iPhone to the Play:5. Then, I select the Line-in as a source in the Sonos app, and we’ve got baseball in the house. (Go Mariners!) The drawback is that if I want to adjust volume or settings, I have to walk to the Play:5 and fiddle with the iPhone.

What’s Great

Here’s the top five things I love about Sonos:

  1. Sounds good to great. I can’t get over how much sound is in the Play:1 for the size and price. The thing is about as big as a coffee tin, and it has nice bass response and looks good. The bigger Play:5 is a serious unit, and has five amplifiers and five speakers — when you pair two together to create a stereo system, and add a subwoofer, you’ve got a serious sound system (and it’s priced like one too — you’re talking US$1500)
  2. Music and radio everywhere. Buy a few units, put them around the house, and your life will be better. You’ll be better connected to the world through radio, and you’ll enjoy your music even more
  3. Easy to set up. When you buy a new speaker, you can use any Sonos app on any device to register the unit. It takes about two minutes to add the unit to your house
  4. Range. I can put speakers anywhere in my house — in locations where I don’t get wifi on my laptop or phone — and it works just fine. I can take one of them out in the yard, and all is well
  5. It’s an alarm clock. It’s easy to set up an alarm on any Sonos device, and choose a source. I wake up to KQED radio, and it gently fades in. It turns off after an hour (that’s configurable). The rest of my family uses this feature too

What Needs Work

Here’s where there’s room for improvement:

  1. It’s expensive. The Play:1 is the first sub $200 offering from Sonos, the Play:3 is $299, and it’s upward from there. The Play:1 is great value, but fitting out your house is an investment. Be warned: these things multiply, you’ll buy one or two, and you’ll be back for more
  2. The service integration is a bit clunky. I really like Slacker’s iPhone app — but you only get a fraction of the features when you use the Sonos app to stream the Slacker service. The Sonos folks use the APIs that these streaming companies provide, rather than the streaming companies integrating Sonos capabilities natively into their apps. You can also tell Sonos has no relationship with Apple — the music library integration is pretty clunky, it’s at the file system level
  3. The apps need a little bit of a rethink and redesign, they lack the beauty and simplicity of the hardware. The app paradigm is you select a room, then you select music. That isn’t always how you think — sometimes you want to dive into the music, and then select the room. You can do it, but it’s a little clunky (and sometimes you’ll surprise someone in your house with a blast of music). Still, I’ve seen tweens using it easily enough
  4. The apps or the network or something can be sluggish. I find that my iPhone is a little frustrating as the interface to Sonos — my iPad and Mac are much better. It sometimes takes a while for the iPhone app to find my Sonos system, and the app can be unresponsive to interactions sometimes. It’s also not a reliable device for streaming my music library
  5. It needs power. The Play:1 looks portable, but you need an electrical outlet

All up?

Pretty awesome. A game changer at my house. The hardware is amazing — and that’s what’s actually important. Software and music service integrations can be fixed, and they’re improving with every version.

See you again soon.

What’s Big Data anyway? Part Two

Last week, I shared a few ways in which big data adds value. This week, I share a few more.

Predictions

You can predict the future using data. Google gets publicity from predicting flu outbreaks.

I did something similar, years earlier, that is thematically similar and illustrates the idea of using big data to predict the future. I was interested in what queries users typed before and after the query stomach ache (and a few synonymous queries). Google and Bing both give you examples of what users type next, including: diarrhea, nausea, constipation, peptic ulcer, and stomach acid symptoms. Why was I interested? I wanted to see if I could figure out which drugs had side effects that included stomach upsets.

Talking about eBay's use of big data at the 2012 PHP UK conference

Talking about eBay’s use of big data at the 2012 PHP UK conference

I collected all the queries that users typed before and after stomach ache (and its synonyms) over the period of two or so years. I then threw away all queries that contained only English dictionary words, leaving queries that contained one or more non-dictionary words. What’s left? Drug names, and a ton of other junk (places, people, websites, misspellings, foreign words, and so on). What I found was that users were typing the names of drugs they were taking, learning about them, and then searching for information on stomach problems (and vice-versa). I could also see how frequently each drug was associated with a stomach ache.

I looked up some of the drugs on various websites, and learnt about the side effects. Guess what? More than half of the drugs I checked had a side effect of a stomach ache. Less than half didn’t — but I suspect that probably isn’t right. If you have enough users, you can learn about the future — and I know that at least a couple of the drug side effects have been updated to include rare incidences of stomach aches. See: you can predict the future!

The world of big data has many companies built on predicting the future using vast amounts of historical data. One of my favorites is The Climate Corporation (who recently were purchased by Monsanto) — they invested their time in doing a better job of predicting the weather than existing weather providers, and commercializing the insights through selling insurance against weather events.

Relative Performance

Every major website is running A/B tests. The idea is pretty simple: show one set of users “experience A” and show another set of users “experience B”. You do this for a while, and then compare various metrics between the populations. You might learn, for example, that customers prefer a blue button over a grey button, or that customers buy more products if you show them better product imagery. I’ve written about this topic previously.

Why’s this related to big data? Well, you have to collect and process an enormous amount of data to derive insights. To find statistically significant differences between the behaviors of populations of users, you typically need tens of thousands of users in each test and a reasonable time period of tracking all of their behaviors. If you multiply this by the number of tests you’re concurrently running, you plan to keep the data forever, and you want to produce many different insights, you will have petabytes of data on your hands.

Creating Feature Ideas

My third ever blog post was about inventing infinite scroll on the Web. It’s a good example of how you can use data to understand customers, and then create intuitive insights based on that understanding. In that example, we saw that users of image search paginated a ton, and we created a future without pagination — what’s now known as “infinite scroll”. You need lots of data, you need to keep that data, and you need to be able to create insights from that data to have these kinds of feature ideas.

Afterword

I don’t intend this to be a taxonomy of big data themes. There’s much more you can do with data — this is a stream of consciousness of themes I’ve seen in action. In my world, very little happens without big data: you’re using data to understand users and systems, you’re creating new ideas with that data, and you’re iterating on those ideas by measuring them at scale. Even the big leaps — like infinite scroll — aren’t ideas that are created in the absence of data.

See you next time.