My First Startup Session

Last weekend, I attended a Startup Session organized by the Johannesburg Center for Software Engineering (JCSE). On their website the Startup Session organizers describe it as a

“gathering of people that are interested in becoming IT entrepreneurs. Those participants that have a business idea will get a chance to pitch the idea (the elevator pitch). People then volunteer their weekend to help bring an idea that they believe in towards prototype stage.”

Well, it was the first such event I attended. Needless to say, I was quite excited at the idea of meeting other IT professionals of the Johannesburg area. A pre-weekend session was held on Thursday, 17 February 2011 at 18:30pm. I couldn’t attend it since it was held a bit late for me. I mean, knocking off work at 5pm and kind of tired, I really couldn’t find the extra-energy needed to attend the pre-session. However, I understood its merits. The pre-session allows participants to get an overview of the way the weekend startup session will be conducted. It lets everybody understand that they will have to commit themselves, and their weekend, to the startup session.

At any rate, on that nippy Saturday morning I found myself in the Convergence Lab on the first floor of the Chamber of Mines building on West Campus at the University of the Witwatersrand. Prof Barry Dwolatzky, Director of the JCSE welcomed me in. Most participants, about 10 of them, were already present. I introduced myself to each one of them, as well as to Mikkel and Jarrod, the event coordinators. After 15 minutes of chatting and getting to know each others fields of work, Prof Barry presented an overview of what the Startup session was about. He also layed down the rules about our use of the Convergence Lab. Wireless connection was set for those with laptops, which gave us access to a pretty good fast connection. This was meant to give us access to all we would need to work on the projects on which we would work during the weekend.

Then Jarrod gave us more information on the event and explained to us how the whole event would be structured. First, each participant would be given a chance to do an elevator pitch of his project idea. He would have only 30 seconds to do so. Afterwards, those participants with no projects of their own, would chose to join the project “pitcher”’s team. Thereafter, each team would work on its project and try to produce demonstrable code by the end of the weekend. For you to get a better idea of how the whole event was structured, here I share with you the event schedule as it was emailed to me by the JCSE:

  • Saturday 09:00 – Registration – Chamber of Mines building, Convergence Lab
    • 09:30 – Introduction – Convergence Lab, Chamber of Mines
    • 10:30 – Decide if you’re “in” or “out” for the rest of the weekend
    • 17:00 – Group update
  • Sunday 09:00 – Arrive Wits
    • 17:00 – Demonstrations
    • 17:00 – Wrap-up

I wish I could tell you more about the project on which I worked, but its owner, Mikail, had us sign a privacy clause that forbade us to reveal the project details to anybody. What I can tell you is that it was a project relating to knowledge management and based on a UI supposed to facilitate knowledge visualization. In any such environment as that of Startup session, where many skilled professionals will get to see and hear about your idea, it’s not a bad move than to have your team members sign such a privacy clause.

About the team dynamics: Well I must say that it’s always a surprise to me how people, who may not have known each other a few minutes before, just get together and start collaborating towards a common objective. That’s what happened. With the team members we quickly found a working pace. Despite the fact that it was our first time to hear Mikail’s idea, and with his patient explanations, we could break the projects into tasks and agree on the features we wanted the demo app to have. On that first day, the team consisted of a IT project manager, a graphic designer, one java developer/enterprise architect, a web developer/business architect (myself), another web developer and Mikail himself, an electrical engineer/”webpreuneur”. The team was mostly made of young guys, of which, I may have been the oldest. By noon the same day, we had selected the technologies we wanted to use for the project. We opted for a web client based prototype based of a set of open source Javascript libraries. Our guiding principles were simplicity of coding and not having to reinvent the wheel.
On Sunday: We met on the next day in the same venue. Members of the team, the graphic designer and the project manager to be precise, had left us. I think they couldn’t find a way to meaningfully participate to our project. This was a bit surprising since for such a project, both a project manager and a graphic designer would be needed. Was the problem at the skill level? Or was it on a motivational level? Well, we don’t know. Still, we kept working on the project. The closer we were getting to the demonstration deadline, the clearer it was that we were not working as cohesively as we could have. There were a lot of effort redundancy and a damming realisation that we may have under estimated the effort involved in completing the demo app. Moral was slowly going down and moods were going from jovial to definitely stressed out. During the whole process Jarrod and Mikkel were there to encourage us and enquire on the team needs. They were supportive.
Project Demonstration : Unfortunately, we could not produce working code by the end of the session. Prof Barry, jarrod and Mikkel talked with us to find out what went wrong. As usual, it wasn’t any of the members fault. Weirdly enough, it’s never us! As a team, we raised concerns about the amount of time between hearing a project pitch and actually having to deliver the project. For my part, I found that a business focus was missing to the whole exercise. It’s true that Jarrod made it clear that teams should produce business plans for each projects, yet guidance was not provided as to how exactly to go about it. I also mentioned that it would have been a good idea for an agile project management methodology to be applied to the projects. Prof Barry, Jarrod and Mikkel were very attentive to what we were saying and assured us that they were taking what we were saying into account for the next Startup Session.

Conclusion : In general, I can say that the whole event was a great opportunity for me to meet other professionals evolving in the IT industry and to come in contact with great ideas. Even so, I think more structure, as in agile project management, and more business focus could have been applied to the startup projects, through guidance and coaching. I also think anybody attending such event should come prepared. I mean, why didn’t any of the team members mention that use of kanban or scrum for the project? So there quite a bit of responsibility resting on participants to give their best at such events. So will I attend the next session? Of course I will! An did I mention that this event was free, as in f.r.e.e?
To get more information on the next Startup Session, go to:
http://www.startupsessions.co.za/.
To find out more about the JCSE follow this link:

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But it is unlikely that https://topspyingapps.com/ a media event of this magnitude would be arranged to announce an 8gb iphone device

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