Friday, May 05, 2006

Thanks, Profes...I mean, John!

I had a great meeting yesterday with John Ousterhout of Electric Cloud.

John used to be a professor of Computer Science at Berkeley, and he's one of the reasons I majored in CS. He was really the ideal professor--the kind of guy who knows every single student's name (even in a class with close to 200 people in it), who blends education with humor (I remember the first day of class, he told us that his name is pronounced "OH-stir-howt," but he responds to anything from "Oosterhoot" to "Easterhat"), and is active in cutting edge technology.

In the early 90s when I worked at Quantum Consulting under Margo Seltzer, I even used his Tcl/Tk toolkit when we ported one of our Windows products to run under Solaris.

Professor Ousterhout moved on from Berkeley to Sun as a Distinguished Engineer (and, I guess, stopped being called "Professor"). After Sun, he started Scriptics, which was later purchased by Interwoven. In short, he's had a stellar career thus far. His latest venture is Electric Cloud.

Electric Cloud is a pioneer in distributed builds--they have great technology and an impressive client list.

I really enjoyed catching up with John, and I very much appreciated the hour we spent together. He is quite an incisive guy: within minutes of sitting down, he was offering fantastic advice about Digipede. We didn't talk so much about the technology (although, as someone who has been working with distributed computing for decades, I'm sure he'd be a great technical resource), but about the business.

Clearly, he has a head for business as much as he as a head for software. I valued his opinion because he's done something extremely difficult to do: taken a development tool (a decidedly unglamorous product when compared with the AJAXy/SocialNetworky/Web2.0ish companies getting funded these days), gotten it funded, and brought it to market.

We discussed pricing strategies a fair bit. None of his ideas were brand new, but it is always great to get an outsider's perspective.

One thing they concentrate on at Electric Cloud is the ability to determine who their customers are in three questions: What platform do you develop on? How many developers do you have? How long do your builds take? The answers to those three questions determine whether a company is a prospect.

I can't boil my customers down to three questions--but I'd really like to be able to. This is a great exercise, and it's one we need to undertake at Digipede. It's not just a useful tool for a junior salesperson. It's also great for us, as a company, to be able to define our customers that way. Investors need to know who the customers will be. We need to be able to refine our marketing to hit the right people. We are sure we've got a huge potential audience for our products--unfortunately, it's amorphous and hard to define. My hour with John made it clear that we need to define it clearly, even if that means shrinking it a bit.

Of course, when our customer base is doing things as different as risk management, Monte Carlo simulation, hurricane simulation, Bayesian analysis of text messages, map generation, gathering web content, PDF generation and genetic algorithms, it's a tough nut to crack.