Cyberposium Speakers Tout the Importance of Scarcity Management, User Experience

11/24/09

This past Saturday, almost 700 people showed up for Cyberposium 15 at Harvard Business School, arguably the premier student-organized business school technology conference in the world, with past guests including Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Google’s Marissa Mayer. The crowd consisted mostly of MBA students and other local students but had significant representation from local technology and venture capital firms.

The morning kicked off with a keynote from Jim Balsillie, CEO of RIM, who posited that RIM’s success to date has largely been driven by its competency in scarcity management—whether the scarce resource is network capacity or battery life or heat dissipation and size. Balsillie’s implication was that many other smart phone manufacturers are not as good at managing scarcity across all of these dimensions, although despite our best efforts, we could not get Basillie to actually use the words Apple or Android.

The conference then split off into five tracks:

  • My Life Online, addressing trends in digital media, gaming, lifestreaming, and mobile
  • Life in the Clouds, addressing cloud providers, SaaS, and Big Data
  • Show Me the Money, addressing search, e-commerce, online advertising, and venture capital
  • Changing Landscapes, addressing healthcare, converging devices, and cleantech/greentech
  • Start-up Showcase, with talks entitled From PowerPoint to Product and Scaling to Success.

I helped coordinate the Life in the Cloud track, so I ventured first to the Cloud Providers panel. The initial conversation focused on defining cloud computing. With input from Microsoft, Rackspace, VMware, RightScale, and Cloudswitch, we covered all of the usual aspects—elasticity, metering, responsiveness, etc., as well as some less frequently mentioned characteristics such as the presence of APIs and support/service. The focus then shifted to what would inhibit adoption of cloud computing. The panelists didn’t delve into technical minutiae, but rather discussed the concerns of would-be cloud adopters over data security and lock-in, the actual logistics of transitioning workloads into the cloud, and the lack of government policy and regulation around data ownership and discoverability.

Next, at the Killer SaaS Apps panel, we heard much from Zuora founder and CEO and former Salesforce.com chief marketing officer Tien Tzuo. It seems instructive to me that while Salesforce owns its own infrastructure, Zuora own none—Tien points to how this allowed Zuora to minimize expenses and get up and running quickly. Although neither Salesforce nor Zuora hosts tremendously processor- or data-intensive applications, one can only surmise that were Salesforce being built from the ground up today, it would likely not live in an internal datacenter. Tien then went on to explain the success of Salesforce and his own company as being driven by the “Customer Success Department” and churn management. Mike McDerment, CEO of Freshbooks, aptly pointed out that “Customer service is an opportunity, not a cost center.”

The afternoon keynote was a fireside chat with Chad Hurley, co-founder and CEO of YouTube, moderated by HBS Professor Tom Eisenmann. My main takeaway was simply that the TV delivery experience is hugely important in Chad’s mind to the ultimate success and monetization of YouTube. He predicts that “in a few years, buying a TV without Wi-Fi will be like buying a laptop without Wi-Fi today.” The corollary is that YouTube is in quite an enviable position, with a sugar daddy like Google able to give the company the runway it needs to continue focusing on honing the user experience and address monetization in the longer term.

At the Big Data Panel, Michael Stonebraker, the father of relational databases, said the challenge of data warehousing is getting harder. Data is now being generated faster than disk drives are getting cheaper. Over time, Stonebraker said, storage prices will keep going down—but with all this data, knowing what questions to ask of it becomes more difficult. Data visualization rather than sheer storage and/or processing power may become the bottleneck, he said, while fast data retrieval and the velocity of data remain concerns.  In the arms race of the electronic trading world on Wall Street, response times of only 10 milliseconds are too long. The panel ended with a discussion of the future of database management systems: whether easy-to-use, one-size-fits-all offerings will overtake the purpose built systems we see today, and whether retrospective and real-time analysis can all be done from the same system.

To sum up what I witnessed at the Cyberposium, it sounds like all companies, but particularly startups, must become masters of scarcity optimization and user experience. Resources are never infinite, and technology is only as good as the user interface that drives it.

Jake Flomenberg is a second-year student at Harvard Business School and Co-President of the HBS TechMedia Club. Follow @

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