On Hummus and Choice

Windows Mobile Hummus

Michael Eisenberg published yesterday an important post, titled “The Hummus Manifesto – Part 1“. I consider this post a must-read for the relevant decisions makers – investors, entrepreneurs, software architects and software developers.

Yes, software developers. The number of decisions made by single software developer sitting in front of their favorite code editor and the far reaching impact of these decisions is often underestimated. But more on that later.

The “startups scene” in Israel is amazing. The sheer number of people walking around with great ideas and dedicating their time, skills and energies to make them happen is staggering. I’ve had several opportunities to witness the shock evident on the face of visitors from, say, the US, be it New York or Silicon Valley, when exposed to what’s happening here – the realization that so much is happening here, often under the radar and outside of the Silicon Valley echo chamber.

However, the food chain which powers the transformation of good ideas into successful companies that generate value for all involved – users, entrepreneurs, investors and the country that we live in – is broken in a number of places. Not broken as in “impossible”, but broken as in making this process harder than it should be.

I’d like to refer to some of the points from Michael’s post and share my view on them.

The Microsoft Circle Of Life

Michael says:

Israel Microsoft smartly trains our soldiers in Army intelligence units on Microsoft technologies who then take the Dot-net gospel to the halls of government and start ups. In other countries, the universities like Stanford, MIT and Cambridge are the main source of engineers so you can just open different courses. But not here. Because of our unique structure of army-bred entrepreneurship, the technology decisions made in the Defense Ministry and in the halls of government, dramatically impact the expertise of our developers.

The way this is done should be obvious to any of you who served in one of the tech units in the Israeli military. It’s all oh so very legit. After all, site-licensing of Microsoft software makes perfect sense for an entity as large as the IDF. Once you have a site license, naturally you’d like to make sure it’s utilized properly – read, Microsoft software as a standard on every desktop and as a platform of choice for as many software projects as possible. Hey, after all, we already paid for that license, we might as well use it. Given so much focus on Microsoft software, it makes perfect sense for Microsoft to target these young techies with conferences and events at a reduced price, and for the IDF to support and promote that. It’s all very legit.

Some of my best friends were actually in charge of executing various parts of this strategy, and they’ve indeed done a wonderful job.

What makes this cycle even more powerful is the fact that Microsoft creates kick ass products and technologies. Furthermore, Microsoft creates some of the best tools and development environments for developers.

Throughout most of my career I’ve chosen to rely on Microsoft technologies. DOS -> Win16 -> Win32 -> COM -> DCOM -> Web Services -> ASP -> ASP.NET – been there, done that, and loved it. Sometimes Microsoft tech is the right tool for the job. But sometimes it’s not – and I’d like to have that choice. When non-MS talent is scarce, the choice is not there.

The issue goes deeper than choice of dev platform though. This Microsoft Israel “brainwash” has additional impacts – like the fact that even today many Israeli web sites work correctly only on Internet Explorer. Until recently, IE completely dominated the Israeli web. When you remember that most of the desktops in the military run Windows, have no access to the internet and are very, very likely to keep using the default pre-installed browser, this makes perfect sense. Once you assume this IE dominance, it makes perfect sense to base your consumer-oriented RIA client on Silverlight, because you don’t know that in the bigger Internet Silverlight is simply NOT a viable choice. And so on.

The Open Source Stack

Michael says:

Second, our talent is focused on the wrong technologies. I can’t believe I am saying this but, as a country, we are developing yesterday’s technologies or, more accurately, we are developing on yesterday’s technologies. No internet-scale start up in Silicon Valley is developing on Dot-Net and C#.

Well, there is MySpace. While not really a startup anymore, it certainly is internet-scale. When we set out to build Yedda, we did it using .NET, MS SQL and Windows Server. While not MySpace-size, our platform was able to easily sustain hundreds of millions of page views and widget impressions on a monthly basis, using a single MS SQL database server and a relatively small number of backend machines.

Truth be told, there is no way we could have done it without tremendous help from a lot of open source Linux based components, from Memached to Varnish and many more.

We chose the MS stack because we knew that given the team’s current expertise it’d be the fastest way to get a product out there.

Could we do it with an open source stack? absolutely. It may or may not have been more scalable, and it almost certainly would have been cheaper (in terms of licensing and hosting).

The key here again is having a choice – it’s easier to start a company and recruit the right skill set relevant to the problem if the relevant skill set is widely available, which is not the case in Israel to this day. .NET developers are easy to find. LAMP developers are still rare.

I’d like to run into more people here who know what are the pros and cons of Varnish compared to nginx, when does it make sense to use Scala, compare Cassandra vs HBase or Redis vs Voldermot. I’d like to see more developers in Israel who care passionately about cross-browser HTML, CSS3 and HTML 5 vs Flash. I’d like to see more developers who care about Accessibility and who heard of Section 508. I’d like to have folks around who can discuss the scalability of Ruby on Rails based on experience and not on hearsay from across the ocean.

There is another point worth mentioning. Justified or not, given the sentiments Michael brought up, your choice of technology may affect your exit options. We actually had a potential buyer back off due to our choice of platform. As for the “justified or not” question, the same buyer ended up acquiring an inferior comparable product at a much higher price several years later.

Thou Shall Not Pass

Michael also touches other related points:

Speaking of new technologies and next generation, ask yourself how come there were no Israeli companies or entrepreneurs with early apps on the iPad? Why were we not represented on those Apple ads for the iPad and its apps. It is because our Ministers and bureaucrats block advanced technologies at the border rather than welcoming them with open arms. Dear Minister Kahlon, here is a different idea for you: How about going to Apple and asking to buy 10,000 pre-release iPads. You could give them out to entrepreneurs so we can be first to market with iPhone apps and offer to be the first country on the planet to convert its educational curriculum to the iPad.

I certainly agree with Michael on this one. If we want this country to continue to be a tech leader, we need to find ways to make the latest tech readily available. While other issues might be solved in a grass roots manner, when it comes to importing physical tech into Israel, it’s the government that holds the keys, and there is no way around it. WiFi, Bluetooth, iPhone, iPad – all of these technologies (some of which developed by Israeli companies) had major delays in their availability to the Israeli market. It’s not just devs that need to have access to them. We need consumers to have access to these experiences, so that we can get a feel (yes, that abstract “feel”) for what needs to be developed.

BTW, there are a few examples of Israeli entrepreneurs with early and widely successful iPad apps, such as Omer Shoor and his Photogene for iPad app. This happens despite the lack of support though, not because of that.

The Right Size

On the size of the companies that can grow from the local startups, Michael says:

Firstly, there are too many start ups in Israel. We are a small country whose plethora of large angels, individual investors and even VCs have seeded a ton of companies. In Israel, the two man start up is not a path to building the next Facebook but, rather it has become a path to a 5 person company who will try to sell its feature quickly.

Putting the somewhat judgmental “feature” thing aside, I actually tend to view this phenomena as an opportunity rather than as a problem. While small, focused startups with a potential exit of, say, $20-$60M do create an issue, the issue is mostly related to their impact on the common large-fund VC model. There are several other alternative models for funding startups, some of which will actually benefit from this characteristic. Assuming that we’d like to fix what may be broken in the Israeli tech industry and not necessarily fix the broken bottom lines of some of the large VC funds, creating $1B companies is nice, but may not be prerequisite for an economically viable high tech industry.

The Fix What Needs to be Fixed Committee

Regardless of specific agreements or disagreements, I’d like to thank Michael for putting down his thoughts in the form of the Hummus Manifesto. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the manifesto. Perhaps as an industry will be able to rally around it, fix whatever needs to be fixed and continue to benefit, at the national level, from the value created by all startups, big or small.

So, who wants to see Michael Eisenberg as Head of the Fix What Needs to be Fixed committee? Click the Like thingie to show your support :)