Ala Shiban's Blog Sat, 02 Nov 2019 23:51:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Introducing Cloud Compiler Fri, 13 Sep 2019 07:06:49 +0000 (Originally posted on LinkedIn) this is a purely speculative and imaginary product conceived out of curiosity and necessity  Cloud Compiler compiles and transforms a single...

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(Originally posted on LinkedIn)

this is a purely speculative and imaginary product conceived out of curiosity and necessity 

Cloud Compiler compiles and transforms a single monolith program consisting of classes, methods, and calls, into a distributed microservices-based system:

(Vanilla distributed application, precompilation)

(Compiled application using Cloud Compiler)

Running the service locally is as easy as loading it up in Visual Studio Code and hitting F5. Debugging a replayed user session is an extension-installation followed by F5 again. Cloud Compiler absorbs the complexity through the abstraction in the same way Java or Rust compile down to machine code. Containers, lamdas, VPCs and the rest of the cloud building blocks are the machine code that Cloud Compiler produces.

All developers see are functions, calls, inputs, and outputs— the rest is invisible.

Where do I try it out?

It doesn’t exist, yet. I predict that a variant of Cloud Compiler will exist within the next 3 years, and building microservices directly will be as uncommon as directly writing machine code or assembly.

But microservices are popular!

So was writing assembly, out of necessity. Microservices came about in an age where the early at-scale online companies like Netflix and Amazon needed to serve their exponentially growing user base. The microservices style of architecture composes complex application software from small, individual applications that communicate over APIs, maintaining language independence across services through a shared understanding of how to communicate. The pattern of smaller, self-contained “do one thing well” microservices simplified the testing, scaling and deployment of each unit, and the decoupling pushed distributed system developers to build for failure, creating a necessary culture for fault-tolerant, and highly available systems.

It isn’t magic, however. In the example from the beginning of the post, it became easy to reason about the Movie Catalog, Recommendation Engine or User Preferences services, but reasoning about the flow of the entire Netflix-example application became prohibitively hard. Take into account that Netflix’s real set of micro-services is two orders of magnitude more complicated:

(Netflix microservice based architecture)

Complex as it seems, it gets even more so when you consider the explosive combinatorial mix of startups and tech stacks re-solving the development cycle tooling needs for a microservices ecosystem:

(Cloud Native Startups)

The solutions startups are coming up with include:

  • Compute scheduling and orchestration
  • Storage provisioning, replication, and scaling
  • Code observability, causality, monitoring, logging, alerting and distributed tracing, 
  • Application definition, imaging, deployment, and redundancy 
  • Software-defined networking, security, compliance, configuration, secret management 
  • And so much more

Even with that level of complexity, the reason microservice architecture still dominate the service development headspace for years is because it allows for building large, scalable, fault-tolerant systems that are future-facing and fast-moving.

Paradigms have spun up and down, each attempting to make the horses go faster: Azure Service Fabric, Google App Engine, and AWS Lambdas, to name a few. All those platforms require the developer to manage the application-level complexity.

Having spent the past few years in multiple organizations, with varying levels of expertise in distributed systems, it’s clear to me that this approach does not scale. Companies that leverage the cloud as an enabler won’t have an easy time scaling their cloud development needs with these paradigms; they are too low-level. There are too many moving parts, integration points, and operational complexities. It would take an architect years to understand the intricacies of just one of these ecosystems.

Compilers and Runtimes

The industry has already introduced multiple high-level abstractions enabling developers to wield new platforms with unique characteristics that have high levels of complexity. Multi-core CPUs, GPGPU programming and high-performance-computing all required abstractions and runtimes that simplified developers’ ability to design previously difficult to implement solutions. We now trust those abstractions as a reality-of-life: Go Channels for concurrency, .NET Parallel libraries, NVIDIA’s CUDA for GPU programming, Google’s TensorFlow for Machine Learning; no one in their right mind would avoid using those capabilities today. 

Similarly, the paradigm shift in how services are built and operated at scale will follow suit with a cloud compiler and runtime. For a cloud compiler to emerge and be trusted, it needs to satisfy a few conditions all compilers do:

  1. Correctness: Preserve the meaning or intent of the original abstraction, minimizing leaks 
  2. Efficiency: Produce an efficient translation to the target platform 
    1. Efficient in generating the translation
    2. Efficient while running
  3. Usable:Works well within an ecosystem of tools 

Portability also tends to be cited; compilers can be competitive differentiators, similar to how Microsoft’s Visual C++ compiler has dominated certain verticals for years until open-source C++ compilers became commodities. Vendors like AWS, Azure, and GCP will likely aim to optimize variants of their implementations to produce the best possible translation to their platforms while sacrificing others. In the future, however, open-source variants will emerge to cover more multi-cloud solutions or meta-compilers than bridge vendor-specific ones.

Cloud Compiler – Simple Example

Let’s imagine a straightforward example:

This code exposes a browser-accessible URL and processes a base64 encoded image through a CPU intensive function. 

Cloud Compilers’ first run will deploy the entire bundle as a single unit, and inspect the runtime behavior of the bundle. Due to bundle runtime characteristics, it will morph the topology from a single execution environment to a distributed one:

The runtime works hand-in-hand with the compiler, and as it observes usage pattern changes, it applies transformations learned across the vast architectures applied in AWS/Azure/GCP to adjust and continue performing nominally. For example, when traffic spikes are observed, the runtime signals the information to the compiler, which in turn scales out the architecture:

Higher-Order Observability and Causality

When the details of the implementation are left to the compiler/runtime combination, they can inject just-in-time instrumentation on multiple layers of the stack; by wiring up the needed and deepest language/platform runtime layers (Go, Node, JVM), Amazon, Microsoft and Google can build highly integrated experiences for reasoning about the application you’re building. Depending on the workload and signals coming from the compiler/runtime combination, it may choose to use SQS for backing the async RPC implementation, or transition to ElasticCache due to a more appropriate sharding/cost model. 

The significant bit to understand is that developers won’t have to care. F5-ing to run their code locally just works, and variations that allow remote debugging or playback of single calls bridges the cloud development workflow. 

Trust and Efficiency

Based on anecdotal observations of engineering time spent, I believe we’ll see 100X improvements in development times for distributed systems. This hinges on the experience being seamless, and the compiler/runtime combination being flawless. Compilers that produce the wrong code are not used in production. That’s the 100X opportunity, however, and the first vendor to demonstrate a sound combination that achieves these efficiencies will start the new cloud war.

I can’t wait to see communities and companies move into the Cloud Compiler direction, and see how much we can achieve with an order of magnitude of agility in how we build distributed systems.

What would prevent you from using this futuristic Cloud Compiler?

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Unique iPhone Apps Worth Knowing (Part 1) Sun, 01 Sep 2019 21:32:26 +0000 There are so many online lists for apps that are special, unique and useful, but in reality, most of them do nearly the same things....

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There are so many online lists for apps that are special, unique and useful, but in reality, most of them do nearly the same things. The few unique apps that I did need were harder to become aware of or find, so I’m sharing a couple of my favorites (and slipping in one that I made!)

Camera+ 2: SMILE

All the fancy camera features aside, one stands out to me: Smile mode! Don’t take any pictures until the person in the frame smiles. Keep trying and smiling and you’re bound to get a good one:

Look ma no hands!

Voice Activated – Hey Camera

When working on a stop motion video, or hanging out in the pool but wanting to get a group photo, you either find help, set a timer or use some Bluetooth button to remote trigger the camera. With Hey Camera however, saying a word (I chose SNAP) is the remote trigger:

Office Lens – For the Messy Ones

I lose documents all the time. I stack them, pack them and never find them. But since I learned about Office Lens, my first order of business when a document or whiteboard summary comes my way is to snap it, have Office Lens make it look nice, then get Google Photos to archive it:

Chunking Sentences

This one is my own. I’ve been reading more on Kindle lately, and I find myself wanting to listen to portions of the books when I’m on my commute or when showering (it’s a thing). There are several services out there that allow you to convert Text to Speech, but one of the gems is hidden behind Microsoft’s translate service. It turns out that translating from English to English lets you listen to the generated audio of text you paste, but it’s limited to 1000 characters at a time. To work with that limitation, I built Chunker: An app that takes in long paragraphs and a maximum number of characters allowed per chunk, and gives you easy to copy-paste chunks that always end in a proper sentence:


You can try it out on both iOS and Android and add it to your homepage as a Progressive Web App.

Hope you discovered a useful app today! What’s a truly unique app that you found to be useful?

The post Unique iPhone Apps Worth Knowing (Part 1) appeared first on Ala Shiban's Blog.

PCBuilder: Opinions vs. Data Mon, 19 Aug 2019 18:19:24 +0000 15 years ago, I started a web site called HardwareHell with the purpose of covering computer hardware products like CPUs, Motherboards and GPUs: At the...

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15 years ago, I started a web site called HardwareHell with the purpose of covering computer hardware products like CPUs, Motherboards and GPUs:

HardwareHell / HwHell in 2004

At the time, we’d write lengthy narratives about the components we were covering. The Internet was young, and still hungry for content, but as we repeatedly covered very similar components with very similar narratives, the repeated ritual of writing empty words seemed useless. We started looking at more systemic benchmarking and generation of reports – but at the time our user base actually wanted the fluff.


Recently, I looked into upgrading my aging PC. I asked myself a simple question:

What’s the best PC I can buy for my use case, in a certain budget?

I started Googling around, and to my surprise couldn’t find an objective answer. I expect more in 2019 – So I built the solution myself.

PC Builder

I aggregated several objective benchmarking web sites and matched PCs, their performance, components and classifications with the cheapest places to buy those components from.

The result: PCBuilder

Sliders that help you find the right PC

Try it out

We’re adding features and working on a new design for PC Builder – We’d love to know how you’d use it to buy your next PC

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Q&A: “What were the main challenges you faced going from a technical role to a Product Management one?” Thu, 25 Jul 2019 06:34:29 +0000 The post Q&A: “What were the main challenges you faced going from a technical role to a Product Management one?” appeared first on Ala Shiban's Blog.

The post Q&A: “What were the main challenges you faced going from a technical role to a Product Management one?” appeared first on Ala Shiban's Blog.

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Biggest Ideas, Humble Beginnings Thu, 07 Jul 2016 06:14:08 +0000 In the late 80’s and 90’s, the world for most kids was the immediate hyper local: the neighborhood, school, the friends. Imagine a world where...

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In the late 80’s and 90’s, the world for most kids was the immediate hyper local: the neighborhood, school, the friends.

Imagine a world where the only people you knew, talked to and experienced life with were people who for sheer coincidence were born around you. That’s the reality of nearly everyone in their 30’s+ today.

One thing did manage to pierce through and burst the locality bubble for a curious fortunate few: BBSes.

BBSes were a pre-cursor to the Internet, a telephony network of barely connected computers, mostly limited to the same city or country you’re in (International calls were expensive).

Those curios few had the opportunity to expand how they thought of the world and the future of communication.

How BBSes looked in the 80's and 90's
How BBSes looked in the 80’s and 90’s

I was among those few. Connecting to BBSes was the first time in my life where the world stopped being local. It lead me to a path of making international friends, joining digital crews, learning how to create a business and a path of believing in the future.

Along the way I’ve noticed a pattern that reemerges in the analog and digital world and I’m writing this to share the observation.

Spirals in Technology

While technology moves forward quickly, the human experience and underpinning motivations move at a much slower pace.

Twitter, Skype, Slack, Spotify, Team Fortress and many other ideas have predecessors that attempted to tackle similar if not the same foundational human needs with the cutting edge technology of their time.

We always want to be seen, loved, feel special and purposeful; We want to compete, succeed and win. We enjoy being around people, individuals and groups (in various forms and extents).We crave a challenge, being comfortable and entertained.

Many of those constants allow us to keep revisiting the means in which we deal with those needs.

Twitter 0.1

OneLiners (left) and Twitter (right)
OneLiners (left) and Twitter (right)

OneLiners was a BBSing feature that would show up every time you logged into a BBS. Every user may post 1 line (hence the name), similar to how twitter limits tweets to 140 chars. It created a unique sense of community on each BBS.

Twitter was born in a time where millions of users were already connected to the Internet – and having one wall of short texts would lead to millions and millions of tweets to scroll through. Twitter redefined the concept with #hashtags, personal feeds, followers, retweets and way way more personalization tools.

It created the technology needed to support an unprecedented number of overlapping micro communities of individuals, loosely coupled around interests, facilitated by new ways of communicating. Users spread consensus through retweeting, a collective megaphone, allowing communities to slice through the noise.

Skype 0.1

Net2Phone and Skype
Net2Phone and Skype

Net2Phone was the first application that popularized calling people over the Internet. Being a kid, I remember ringing up a random person in what I thought of as the land of Anime, Japan.

The idea that the entire world population could fit into one really long virtual list was mind-bending in a hyper local daily existence. “Everyone could be in there” was a transformative idea, the world became flat.

Years later, Skype was the first company that could create a completely free audio (and later video) calling service over the Internet, without driving the company to bankruptcy. They did it by leveraging every users’ Internet to take on little bits of the cost.

It signaled the arrival of legitimate, high value free services that would challenge entrenched industries like the telecoms.

Spotify 0.1

12419378_10153499768890668_1181571147569590429_o (1)
Napster (left) and Spotify (right)
Napster (left) and Spotify (right)

Napster, along with MP3 compression, forced the music industry to re-invent itself. It was the first time you could listen to a song heard on MTV, and 20 minutes later have a copy of it for playback-on-demand.

Spotify in its turn re-invented the category by bringing in millions of users into the streaming world and subsequently working out the business models. It’s still unclear if we’ve settled into how we’ll consume music in the near future, but the hard battles have been fought, and what’s left is the details.

Like twitter, the amount of content and users drives Spotify to have ever growing ways to personalize music discovery. Shaping public perception of stardom takes new forms, and the local radio’s Top 20 list becomes one of the many lists you’re exposed to.

So, Nothings Changed?

On the contrary – everything is changing, all the time. Billions now share the same space, though in different fidelities, and billions more to come. Computing is also continually becoming more accessible and affordable for consumers, and more easily programmable for developers.

That allows for new ideas to emerge, or old ideas to be reimagined for the new computing reality.

New platforms like Microsoft HoloLens, Magic Leap and Oculus Rift might be the frontiers where we’ll redefine every solution to a human need we’ve attempted so far.

Virtual Reality (left) and Augmented Reality (right)
Virtual Reality (left) and Augmented Reality (right)

The constants are us, the human beings, and with our extremely slow evolutionary cycles we’ll continue to invent and reinvent ways to satisfy those needs.

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Bel Balad: The Webseries that didn’t happen Sat, 31 Jan 2015 06:13:23 +0000 2010, 5 years ago, we ventured into the world of dSLR video. My friend and I decided to explore the capabilities of his newly minted...

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2010, 5 years ago, we ventured into the world of dSLR video. My friend and I decided to explore the capabilities of his newly minted Canon camera for creating short videos. That journey lead us to creating a crew that would produce a pilot for a Mystery-oriented Web Series that never launched.

Unlike its final outcome, the journey was delightful, filled with friendships, learning and challenges that I’d love to share with you.

How it came together

Being technologists, and seeing how the Web was democratizing previously exclusive industries, we decided to explore the world of digital videography.

Armed with some video editing tools, a DIY dolly we’ve built and the willingness to hack the limitations of dSLR video at the time, we set off to test what we could produce on extreme low (no) budget.

The outcome was a short video (mostly making fun of ourselves) that would help us test the waters of web publishing and distribution.

Build it and they will come

Launching the video on YouTube and sharing it on social networks helped make the rounds in our immediate circles – friends who were interested or involved in videography were attracted to the seemingly higher quality production, and wanted to be part of whatever it was that we were doing.

Making short video clips was refreshing; It allowed us to augment existing hobbies and events like LAN Parties with self-parodies, getting out there and doing something different that wasn’t part of the daily routine.

Aiming Bigger

Building a couple more entertaining clips got us comfortable with the technology; We figured out what we could and couldn’t do, we had an entire editing pipeline that would bring out the best of our tools, and we knew how to get things on the web.

It was time to do something more meaningful.

We wanted to tell a mystery-filled story; We were all inspired by LOST and its ability to captivate our imaginations while keeping us glued to our seats week after week.

We believed that LOST was partially written on-the-go, back filling stories as the series progressed. We believed in our ability to put together a story arc and approach writing our web series in a lean fashion, bit-by-bit.

It can’t be all that hard, we thought. (Boy were we wrong)

Bel Balad

4 entrepreneurial friends came together, and we started working. We wanted to experiment with 2.0 tools to overcome constraints –


Leveraging collaboration technologies allowed us to scale our efforts across geography and time constraints. Whether it was Skype for conference calls, Google Docs for script co-authoring, Google Maps for locating potential filming locations, DropBox for collecting photos of sights we ran into in our daily routines that we thought would work for the show…

Anything and everything that allowed us to re-purpose parts of our day-to-day routines to get the ball rolling on the production.

Assembling of the team

We had enough for a proof-of-concept story, equipment, technical expertise and locations; The next step was finding actors. We started impromptu auditions, inviting acting students and hobbyists that wanted to experience acting.

We created lightweight drama sessions, where volunteers would act out various scenes, while the crew filmed them; In turn, this put our young artists in front of cameras, revealing both strengths and weaknesses when played back later on.

Other than getting what we needed to keep the show going, these sessions were a terrific bonding experience among friends.

It created more collaborative engagements in the community, brought hobbyists and professionals together for the goal of creating something new, and explored new situations that few of us have been exposed to.

It was a delightfully creative time, bringing out the best out of people.


Building proof of concepts

We assembled the strongest players and went into execution-mode. With a script in one hand, and a motivated group of talented people in the other, we built a timesheet for the weekend and started the filming the pilot.

After ~48 hours, we had hours and hours of material that we could inspect, grade, cut and digest. We learned what worked and what didn’t.


To get all our volunteers pumped, we created a teaser video that would capture some of the vibes we were aiming for; It wasn’t excessively polished, but it motivated the growing number of volunteers to keep going and staying energized.

Internal Dialogue and Challenges

The biggest challenge we found was transforming higher level assets to a final, usable dialogue. We realized, albeit a bit too late, that we needed to enlist professional dialogue writers to help bring our colorful characters and stories to life.

The level of interaction needed to do so was high, more than what we the founders could dedicate to the project.

We also had incompatible schedules – some of us were in Computer Science graduate school, others full time architects and engineers, making the critical asset distillation phase harder than we could handle.


  1. Getting people to help is not only possible, but highly likely. People want to participate; Cast a net, talk to people, and you’ll find enough traction to build your ideas
  2. Companies are willing to help. If you have a compelling project and assets to back it up, you’ll find support. Reach out to company PR and tell them why they should take part
  3. It’s a Full time challenge. While putting together the high level accords, assets, talent and direction is doable (and maybe preferable) as a hobby, taking the production to the next level needs your full attention. Make sure you’re ready to take some time off and shell out some money for the last-mile professional help
  4. The path is magical. The hours spent on the project, even when it didn’t launch, were magical. I got to meet tens of new amazing individuals from different wakes of life

The tools have come a long way since then, but core film making still requires old-school skills. Surrounding myself with an aspiring, talented bunch got the best out of me, and enabled a first-time collaborative experience that I cherish.

Did you try to create something and failed in the process? Share in the comments!

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How To Make Long Distance Flying Easy Fri, 14 Nov 2014 06:12:36 +0000 Once or twice a year, I tend to fly for 16 hours to visit my home town of Haifa, Israel. If we do some quick...

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Once or twice a year, I tend to fly for 16 hours to visit my home town of Haifa, Israel. If we do some quick math, there’s a total of 64 nightmare-ish hours I spend on an airplane (round trip) cramped up like a box.

I’ve been finding ways to minimize the difficulty of the flight, after all there’s been plenty of time to think about it on the plane.

If you don’t particularly enjoy the loud background noise and screaming babies, keeping reading.

Ingredients of a Great Flight

The key to a great long distance flight, I’ve found, is to not experience it. The perfect outcome is to get into the plane, and get out of it as quickly as possible feeling as closely as possible to the way you first got into it.

Sleeping through it proved to be the most efficient way to not experience the long flight, though without accessories, it’s an impossible mission.

Understanding the Problems and finding the solution

Here are some few ways I found to be helpful:

Neck Pain

The worst of the worst was waking up from deep sleep and feeling my neck wanting to snap into two. Any position that strains the body would be excruciatingly painful after 8–10 hours.

I started by trying out basic plane pillows, and while they improved the experience, they lacked the fine support system to properly hold my head for deep, long sleeps.

Medical situations that require rested heads have figured this out already. Neck braces have that exact function — and by scouting Amazon I found a product that leverages a similar concept:

This product snaps from the front, creating a 360 degree support system, fixing your heads to an upright position.

Neck pain, SOLVED.


Sleeping with the lights on is a chore, and that’s where sleeping masks come in. Traditional ones use elastic bands to keep the mask on, but for 16 hour flights, the band creates enough pressure on one’s head for wake-up pains.

Elastic bands were out of the question, and finding a perfectly fitted mask seemed less likely. But an even more elegant solution had already been created:


The SleepMaster is a lightweight sleeping mask with a velcro-based band. It allows you to adjust the amount of force needed to keep the mask snug just right.

After a bit of trial and error, a minimal set up of force and nose support removed all of the light while maximizing comfort.

Light, SOLVED.


Airplane background noise is intense. A constant humming in your ears for 16 hours will have residual effects, though most of us suffer through similar effects in urban areas, it’s intensified in airplanes.

I started the investigations with noise-cancellation headphones, and they truly reduce the noise to virtually non-existent levels. The problem with headphones however is heat.

On for 16 hours, my ears started cooking and eventually reaching boiling temperatures, either waking me up from deep sleep, or arriving to my destination with a headache. The problem wasn’t the concept, but the means of which it was applied.

Noise canceling earbuds provided the best noise reduction-to-heat tradeoff. While not as sound-proof as the headphones, the buds reduced noises by over 90% while keeping my ears cool and comfy.

Coupled with light music or ambient sound generator apps, you can cover most noises without causing your eardrums to implode.

Noise, SOLVED.

(Advanced Users) Sleeping pills

With your head safely supported by the snug pillow (courtesy of your upper body), eardrums minimally stimulated from surrounding noise and eyes covered for minimal irritation, you can now turn your body off.

While you’ll want to avoid making this a habit, it’s helpful to have a backup plan in case you’re unable to regulate when you sleep.

If you’re arriving to your destination in the morning, you want to get as much sleep as possible before arriving.

Filling out the leftover few hours becomes a matter of selecting the best movie to watch or book to read.

Whenever sleep is needed, half a sleeping pill helps me doze off and get that sleep-mode going.

Can’t sleep, SOLVED.

(Bonus) Battery pack

Smartphones, tablets and eBook readers will give you a well rounded, high quality entertainment system. Whether it’s movies, shows, games, books or music, those devices cover it all.

Long flights require lots of battery though, and most of devices can’t sustain a charge for that long.

The solution is a versatile battery pack that can charge over all your devices and keep them running way over 16 hours.

After I charge the pack at home, I can plug in a USB cable from the battery pack to any of my devices and charge it up quick and easy.

Running out of entertainment, SOLVED.


These 5 tips will make any long flight more manageable. Balancing out fun and sleep while maintaining a rested body will predictably get you to your destination with less headache and more comfort.

Did you try any of above methods? Do you have a few of your own?

Leave some comments below.

Header Image by José Martín

The post How To Make Long Distance Flying Easy appeared first on Ala Shiban's Blog.

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4 Unofficial Things I Love Doing as a PM Fri, 31 Oct 2014 06:11:55 +0000 Being a PM has been the most fun and differentiated experience so far in my exploratory career. While there are better known core PM skill...

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Being a PM has been the most fun and differentiated experience so far in my exploratory career.

While there are better known core PM skill sets and super powers, some of the related habits are more subjective to personality types.

I’d like to tell you about 4 of my Unofficial Things I Love Doing as a PM, and they have proven extremely invaluable in my work.

But first, a tiny insight on building technology and how software happens (and you can skip straight to the tips if you want to)

Technology is all about People

What I find important to internalize is that technology is really all about people. People, who in many cases sit at desks, typing, click clack pounding on the keyboard. And then, as if by magic, something happens.

Those click clacks are the fundamental meaningful building blocks of an industry. They’re not only different in nature, but their effects positively complement and compound one another: Scientists open doorways for new possibilities, engineers solve technical challenges that enable new product categories, designers put together joyful experiences to delight users all the way to service owners who keep the invisible cogs turning.

The amount and variety of engineering expertise tends to be overlooked when it comes to our favorite little apps that we use each and every day.

As a PM, my role includes researching, defining and working with cross-functional, cross-organizational development teams to execute and deliver high quality software that users need and love. The process is driven both from strategic top-down company-wide directions, and bottom-up ‘this is what our customers are having trouble with and need us to make their lives easier’ direction.

Tasks include bits and pieces of design, pinpointing customer pains through conversations and data analytics; Understanding market trends and technological investments needed to tackle potential futures, thinking about go-to-market strategies and being part of the community. I also get to collaborate with a spectrum of experts: designers, developers, testers, UX aficionados, fellow PMs, marketing, data scientists and Microsoft Researchers.

Here is my list of 4 Unofficial Things I Love Doing as a PM:

#1: Make the daily rounds

Every day, I take 15 minutes to roam the hallways of our Microsoft offices (and team rooms) to visit friends and colleagues. Some I’ve worked closely with, others I’ve occasionally bumped into at one time or another.

The purpose of the drop-bys is to learn how folks are doing, what they’re working on, what challenges they’re running into, and to offer help when possible.

These moments cement the realization that they’re smart people to brainstorm broadly with – and not only experienced professionals in their own domains.

By meeting a few folks every day, I get a glimpse into the organism building software and technology. At times, you will connect a few dots creating an opportunity for your peers and yourself – a tiny extra win for the week.

More importantly, these interactions strengthen relationships with the people I collaborate with every day, investing collective brain cycles to create delightful new people-centric ways to interact with the world.

#2: Be the hallway Socrates

Teams who are building software tend to interact with their immediate crews significantly more than the ‘outside world’. I try to be helpful to members of teams by being part of that outside perspective that inquires more about what they’re building.

Every now and then, I play Socrates: in other words, I ask questions about the customer pain the team is addressing and how they’re approaching the solution. I respectfully ask about how they’ve validated the customer need for their solution, existing solutions and the differentiation that makes their approach more awesome.

Socrates would make a great PM

(Drawing by Simon Fraser)

This practice both helps give colleagues an external perspective, and enriches my understanding of how the various pieces we create collectively fit into our divisional and company’s strategy.

In most cases, I try to listen. The conversation tends to unfold on its own. Questions are much easier to ask than producing answers, as long as the questions are hitting the nail on its head. Insightful follow up questions are significantly harder to ask compared to your initial ones, so make sure you’re engaged in the conversation.

#3: Meet with Fascinating People

Ask anyone working for Microsoft, Google, Apple or the likes about the biggest perk they have at work, and the answer will be “Working with smart, passionate people”.

What’s the next best thing about working for a huge tech company? In my opinion, having the opportunity to meet up over coffee with some of the most influential individuals in the technology world.

All it takes, is sending an email:

And in more cases than not, you’ll have a wonderful reply in your mail box saying:

It’s naturally essential to have an interesting topic to discuss related to the expertise of the individual you’re reaching out to. I tend to read up on what they’ve been recently interviewed on, or the projects they’re involved with. I spend some time thinking about what likely challenges their team would face, and how I would approach their problems.

By simulating the conversation in my head for a few times, I create more conversational opportunities and recognize the questions that might be moot or quickly leading to dead-ends. It also keeps my mind fresh, thinking about a broader scope of dilemmas and solution approaches. Those in turn come in handy when approaching my own tasks.

#4: Pitch the Hallways

We build products and services for people. Those people aren’t normally sitting with you in the office, and occasionally you’ll find the need to bounce off ideas or theories against your target audience.

At Microsoft, and other tech giants as well as startups, we all have channels to reach out to customers, users, potential target audiences as well as analytics engines that help us answer questions.

However, at times when starting out, one of the easiest and quickest ways to bounce off design questions is to grab random people around the company.

Depending on your target audience, you can find a location in the company where passers-by fit a similar user profile and simply pitch, test and gauge reactions.

While that group of people is small and doesn’t help you pick plan A vs. plan B, it can invalidate assumptions you’ve made or reinforce approaches you’ve taken.

The best thing is that everyone is already under NDA, it costs me $0 and very little prep and you get immediate feedback that could shed fun insights about user expectations and behaviors. It’s also a fantastic way to have a reason to meet and bug random people, exercising your offline customer engagement skills (and amygdala).


Even if you’re not a PM, be more proactive with building relationships with your colleagues, reaching out to fascinating people in your company, testing your ideas with more peers, and helping them test out theirs in a Socratic way.

You will find yourself cross-pollinating valuable real-time insights to different parts of your team, creating opportunities for you and others, and most importantly building stronger relationships with the people you work with to build The Next Big Thing.

Which of these principles can you apply today to improve your work? Let me know in the comments below!

The post 4 Unofficial Things I Love Doing as a PM appeared first on Ala Shiban's Blog.

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Running XBMC on Amazon FireTV Step by Step Tutorial Sat, 05 Apr 2014 06:11:12 +0000 With the release of the Amazon FireTV, AppleTV and TheVerge posts around AndroidTV, the 99$er TV set-top box war is getting into high gear. Let’s...

The post Running XBMC on Amazon FireTV Step by Step Tutorial appeared first on Ala Shiban's Blog.

With the release of the Amazon FireTV, AppleTV and TheVerge posts around AndroidTV, the 99$er TV set-top box war is getting into high gear.

Let’s take a step back though. The FireTV sports a 2GB RAM, dedicated GPU, quad core Qualcomm CPU and a full-size USB port for 99$. This is a fantastic low-end PC that I’ll gladly install WinRT / Ubuntu on if it’s possible, but in the meanwhile, here’s a step-by-step tutorial to install XBMC on the FireTV.

Enabling Debug Mode

On the Amazon FireTV, go to:

  1. Settings
  2. System
  3. Developer Options
  4. ADB debugging

Turn ADB debugging on

Now get your FireTV IP address by going to:

  1. Settings
  2. System
  3. About
  4. Network
Getting the IP Details

Write down your IP address

Getting the Android Developer Tools (ADT)

Get the Android developer tools and install the appropriate SDK for your machine. In my case, I got the x64 Windows bundle.

Extract the files and open the folder “sdkplatform-tools” folder.

Getting the XBMC APK for Android

Visit and download the Android flavor of XBMC. Save the APK file into the same “sdkplatform-tools” folder

UPDATE: Consider getting SPMC (XBMC on Ouya Fork), runs better on the fireTV.

Installing XBMC on FireTV

Open a console window in the “sdkplatform-tools” folder and run the following commands:

  1. adb kill-server
  2. adb start-server
  3. adb connect (replace with the FireTV IP you’ve written on the side)
  4. adb.exe install xbmc-12.3-Frodo-armeabi-v7a.apk (or spmc-armeabi-v7a_12.3.3.apk / other version you’ve downloaded)
Commands in the Console

If those steps pass successfully, you’ll now be able to access XBMC on your FireTV

Running XBMC

Back on your FireTV, navigate to the XBMC app:

  1. Settings
  2. Applications
  3. XBMC
  4. Launch application
Running XBMC


At this point, it’s XBMC all the way. The fastest way I found to pass some content in was using Serviio to set up a UPnP server on Windows, but consider using any approach you’d like to set things up.

IceCast on FireTV

Note: You can use a USB keyboard very easily for inputting text – it seems there are XBMC glitches when it comes to text input using the remote.

USB Keyboard

Finishing Touches

Here are a few screenshots from XBMC’s hardware reports:


The post Running XBMC on Amazon FireTV Step by Step Tutorial appeared first on Ala Shiban's Blog.

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Conferences vs unConferences Fri, 30 Aug 2013 05:59:03 +0000 Most people I know have attended or are familiar with entrepreneurship and startup related conferences. Conferences gather people, seat them, and then lecture to them...

The post Conferences vs unConferences appeared first on Ala Shiban's Blog.

Most people I know have attended or are familiar with entrepreneurship and startup related conferences. Conferences gather people, seat them, and then lecture to them on a certain subject. The quality of the conference predominantly depends on the speakers’ ability to inspire the audience.

However, nowadays you can hear some of the best talks on TED and YouTube, and the value of sitting in a room with tons of people isn’t as high as it used to be.

Conferences aren’t the only model for gatherings. My favorite alternative is the ‘Unconference‘ model. Lucky for you i’ve been to both and i’m here to tell you all about it.


I recently attended the SXSW Vegas conference to mingle with the local startup community and learn what entrepreneurs are interested in. Plus, #SXSW is one of the more popular events held in the US.

Having previously attended more unConferences than conferences, I was intrigued to see how SXSW holds up against unconferences.
Fun tidbit first: The conference was held in the hotel I was staying in, the Cosmopolitan. I entered the hotel and was greeted with sexually nuanced video-pillars. Initial thought: ‘Ah, Vegas’.

Setting up for work

If you’ve had difficulties getting away from the office to attend similar events, here’s how I managed: The best part about working with a team that rocks, is our ability to work together efficiently even when remoting in. I checked into the hotel, settled in my room, and started deploying the work surface.

Free Wifi? ✓ VPN access? ✓ Ready to go.

My personal interest in conferences isn’t the content, but rather the attendees. Every conference people who are focused on the similar and interconnected goals. Successful conferences, in my mind, correlate well with their ability in creating serendipitous encounters, or as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh calls them ‘serendipitous collisions’.

Tony, Zappos and many others profoundly believe in the notion of creating opportunities through human collisions. They’ve designed their offices with bottlenecks in mind so people would have to bump into one another more often; satisfying more prerequisites for creative collisions.

Tony Hsieh
Tony Hsieh

While unusual at first, I started recalling the numerous talks I’ve had with folks in the office just by running into them all over. In the cafeterias, kitchen areas, hallways and just passing by their open offices. These conversations lead to some of the most profound ideas that we’ve pushed forward.

With that in mind, I looked for positive mega-collision opportunities with lots of people. Where? After every keynote of course.

I was quickly disillusioned about how beneficial the #SXSW experience was.

#SXSW: Uber Conference

I started talking to folks at the conference, trying to figure out what they’re passionate about, and their reasons for attending SXSW, you know, small talks. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that too many conversations had an undertone of minimal interest, and often it drained to a 5 minute transactional template of a conversation. The highlight of the conversation is their realization that I can’t really contribute immediate benefit to the conversing entrepreneur. Which was followed by:

‘Hey [looks at badge] Ala, do you have a business card?’, and we’d part ways.

One of the creative highlights: Shannon Newton
One of the creative highlights: Shannon Newton

According to the organizers of the conference, SXSW Vegas attracted 1500 attendants, which is ~1/10th of SXSW Austin. If the former felt impersonal, how would the latter fare?

I couldn’t help but think: “Maybe it’s just me”. I started jotting down reasons as to why someone would attend a conference. I came up with the following:

  • Finding like-minded people to connect and potentially cooperate with.
  • Learn more about entrepreneurs’ future endeavours.
  • Raising money by interacting with important benefactors like VCs and angels.

Then I tried understanding why these points weren’t working out at SXSW:

  • Finding like-minded people to connect and potentially cooperate with.

While this is possible, the last thing you’re interested in is a partner you can’t work with. While first impressions can give you a very early indicator on chemistry, a deeper understanding of the person is hard to establish when 80% of the time is spent in listening to panels and keynotes, and the last 20% everyone is rushing to ‘speed-date’ hoping to find ‘the one’.

Also, by relying on conferences for meeting people, you’re relinquishing control of who you should be meeting, either to chance, or to the organizers at best.

One needs to figure out key aspects:

  • Who do you need and why?
  • Where do you find them?
  • Why should they dedicate time to you?

Answering these questions helps the search. Many entrepreneurs, angels and VCs are surprisingly approachable, it’s getting their interest that requires that extra mile from you.

  • Learn more about entrepreneur’s future endeavours.

Use, and the likes. If you can’t reach them, you probably shouldn’t yet.

  • Raising money by interacting with important benefactors like VCs and angels.

Getting referenced by someone a VC or angel trusts is more likely to be beneficial. Build relationships with those circles and prove your worth to them. If you’re not succeeding in reaching out to that circle of people, spend time figuring out why, improve, and persist.

The Bright Side

All was not lost, though. I started running into some amazing folks who actually listened, asked questions, and didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Hours passed, and we’d find ourselves gravitating back and forth with more and more people joining the ‘Bonding’ clique. That’s the group I’m staying in touch with. Yay!


“A loosely structured conference emphasizing the informal exchange of information and ideas between participants, rather than following a conventionally structured program of events.”
The Tel-Aviv startup scene rubbed off on me. Events with 300-500 attendees are considered large, and the ‘cozy’ events are around 60-100 people. The more successful events are casual gatherings: entrepreneurs meeting over a beer, hackthons, geekcons and startup-weekends.

These types of encounters serve as safe hubs for creative and positive collisions that produce meaningful relationships, serendipity on steroids.

What unconferences are all about

You! In unConferences the attendees becomes an active integrated part of the process. Talented, passionate people contribute to fruitful discussions and a much more engaging event.


Speaking of successful unConferences, I would like to talk about Yossi Vardi’s Kinnerent event, which I was lucky enough to take part in. To sum it up in a few words: a 3 day entrepreneurs fun camp – by geeks and for geeks.

Yossi’s fundamental Kinnernet rule – No business cards! This creates an atmosphere where people focus on the personal stories of what they do and care about. While business does come up, the ‘frowned upon’ topic gravitates the majority of conversations towards honest, fun, insightful interactions.

Working groups start preparing months ahead. Putting together fun contraptions, robots, art projects, cool tech demos, air shows, gadget shows, costume parties, game rooms and a ton of other activities.

Kinnernet Overview
Kinnernet Overview

Participants also prepare several of the munchies, building several inpromptu outdoor food stands. They bring the food, prepare it, cook it, and serve it to an army of hungry geeks.

100% Crap
100% Crap

Now, to the intellectually stimulating part. The first day you arrive, you’re confronted with two whiteboards, with times and rooms.

If you want to share your knowledge with others, or get others to discuss a topic you’re interested in, simply add it to the board. You create the creative space and participants fill it out.

Attending Kinnernet was the first trigger that accelerated my personal growth. Being around positive, humble, helpful and caring entrepreneurs gets you to perceive things differently. Being with other ‘misfits’ who are crazy passionate about what they do got me closer to better understanding how I imagine my future professional life.

The most amazing thing about unconferences is building relationships that last. I’m grateful to call a bunch of folks that I bonded with in unConferences, friends. I love you guys! <3

Moreover, Yossi always made sure he invited some of the most amazing people in the international industry. Imagine 3 days of hanging out over beers with Tim O’reilly, Craig (sList), Jeff Pulver, Debbie Berebichez, Blaise Aguera y Arcas, Daniel Dubno and Ludwig Siegele.


After experiencing both models, here are some personal anecdotes:

  1. Connecting with people is easier in unConferences and smaller sized conferences
  2. Connect between interesting people you meet, the compounded serendipitous effect quickly adds up.
  3. Never decline an invitation for meeting after the official program, only good can come out of it.
  4. I miss my Tel-Aviv friends.

Let me know if you participated in an unConference and enjoyed it. Comments are your friends.

The post Conferences vs unConferences appeared first on Ala Shiban's Blog.

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