My Course On The Python Language

Have you always wanted to learn Python — but never seemed to have the time to do so? Well, I have a solution: my new online course, which only takes two hours to complete. In it, you will learn about the core basics, such as variables, loops, data structures, functions and so on. I also provide numerous cheat sheets.

Python is the world’s most popular language. And a big reason for this is that it is essential for data science, machine learning and AI.

Interested? I hope so. You can check it out here.

BTW, if you do sign up, reviews are very helpful 🙂

What You Need To Know About Chatbots

According to BI Intelligence, about 80% of businesses will use chatbots — which are applications that engage in interactive conversation using natural voice or text – by 2020. Juniper Research also forecasts that this technology will save businesses about $8 billion annually by 2022.

“Due to advancements in AI technology, natural language processing and speech recognition, the cost of developing chatbots has come down drastically, which is fueling the explosive growth of this market,” said Jeri John Deva George, who is the Head of Zoho’s SalesIQ and Cliq.

Yet it’s customer service that chatbots will likely see much of the traction, at least in the next few years. “With chatbots able to engage customers seamlessly around the clock, this is poised to completely change the online customer experience game, while saving time and money,” said Patrick Welch, who is the president and CMO of Bigtincan. “The main goal of these chatbots is to assist customers with getting to their end goal as quickly as possible, whether it is finding out more information, or making a sale. In the end, it’s ideally to replicate the success of top performing customer agents.”

So then, what are the ways to implement chatbots in your organization? What are the best practices and, well, the gotchas? Here are some things to keep in mind:

Set Expectations: Chatbots are not silver bullets. In fact, there are many ways they can go wrong!

“For a great customer experience it is crucial to not try and ‘trick’ customers into thinking the AI chatbot is a real person – and make it clear when they have switched from a bot to a person,” said Chris Bauserman, who is the VP of Product and Segment Marketing at NICE inContact. “Start with a focused pilot covering topics that you already successfully provide self-service options for, test and learn quickly, then iterate and expand from there.”

Understand The Customer Process: Look at ways to better personalize the experience. Otherwise, a chatbot may ultimately be worse than using a traditional approach.

“Customers may get annoyed if they have to repeat all their details to a human agent after having painstakingly typed it into a chatbot interface,” said Michael D. Mills, who is the Senior Vice President of Global Sales at the Contact Center division of CGS. “Failure to centralize customer service information can lead to negative experiences.”

Focus On Data: In other words, there should be ongoing data analytics to understand trends. “This will help a brand build profiles on its customers which will then personalize the experience even more,” said Jonathan Taylor, who is the CTO of Zoovu. “Collecting this insight will also help brands understand how the navigation of their site works.”

Think Different With Design: Your experience with designing websites or mobile apps may lead you down the wrong path. Consider that chatbots have their own unique requirements.

“How should your company sound?” said Gillian McCann, who is the Head of Cloud Engineering & Artificial Intelligence at Workgrid Software. “Think carefully about brand and personality and what it says about your company. Also be prepared for users to say the most unexpected things and build in conversation flows that can handle going off topic. There should also be an awareness of local or cultural differences in language.”

The Future of Chatbots

While there has been lots of progress with chatbots, the technology is still in the nascent stage.

“I must emphasize that chatbots augment humans, not replace them entirely,” said Antonio Cangiano, who is the AI Evangelist at IBM. “As a result, it would be a mistake to expect so-called strong AI a la Sci-Fi movies, at this stage.”

Yes, this is critical to keep in mind.  But the future does look very promising as chatbots are likely to be impactful for your business. “There will be a shift away from chatbots being simply reactive,” said Stefan Ritter, who is the co-founder and Head of Product at Ruum by SAP. “As AI becomes more advanced and chatbots collect more data, bots will start to develop the ability to predict what a user’s next move might be, or what problem they may be experiencing, and act on it in real time.”

Wall Street Meltdown: What Does It Mean For Cloud Startups?

The US economy does look like it is on solid footing but Wall Street is still nervous. This week the major indexes plunged by more than 4%.

Some of the reasons include uncertainties with US-Chinese relations and Fed policy.  But it also looks like programmatic trading is having an impact. “Much of the trading is not from human beings,” said Ajay Royan, who is the co-founder and managing partner of Mithril Capital. “It’s bot-driven. These bots are backward looking and can trigger at the same time, exaggerating the volatility.”

And yes, the tech sector has suffered the brunt of the selling.  Just look at the cloud stocks. Companies like Zuora (NYSE:ZUO), Docusign (NASDAQ:DOCU) and Dropbox (NASDAQ:DBX) are well off their highs.

So in light of all this, might the environment get tougher for cloud startups – say with funding? Or is all this trading activity just noise?

Well, according to Cloud Apps Capital Partners’ Matt Holleran, he thinks the situation could get tougher in the coming months. His firm provides venture capital to early stage cloud companies.

“Will this market correction hold?”, said Matt. “I predict it will and that it could be deeper and longer than most people anticipate.”

First of all, he believes that late stage fundings for cloud companies will cool down, especially with new series C and D financings. “VC firms leading large rounds are increasingly unsure about valuations,” said Matt. “They also don’t know if the IPO window has shut and whether and when late-stage cloud companies will still be able to go public. As a result, late stage firms will work with the CEOs of their portfolio companies to reduce the overall rate of spending in 2019 including reining in hiring that will temper employee salary expectations throughout the industry.”

Unfortunately, the mortality rate of seed stage deals will rise. This will largely be due to “headless syndicates” of angels. “The problem is that the companies they’ve already funded start looking for more capital to weather the storm just when more capital is growing scarce,” said Matt. “It’s scarce because the large series A and B firms that would typically provide the next round of funding will instead concentrate their capital and time on helping their existing portfolio companies to buy time to grow into their last round valuations.”

But with lower valuations, there will probably be a pick-up in M&A activity. Let’s face it, old-line tech companies need to find ways to retool their platforms for the cloud. “The M&A wave is already on its way,” said Matt. “A notable example is SAP’s acquisition of Qualtrics. The company was planning to go public and was days away from announcing its IPO pricing. But clearly the high acquisition multiple and the unsettled public markets caused the Qualtrics board to reassess. I expect to see similar deals in the coming months, as both strategic buyers and sellers in the cloud market recalibrate their thinking post the correction.”

Now for entrepreneurs, the changed environment has its benefits. It means that there should be less competition and there will be a need to be more lean (which usually benefits smaller companies).

“Historically, some of the best technology companies, including Google and Salesforce, have been launched in down periods,” said Matt. “Similarly, for the right entrepreneurs focused on the right opportunities, 2019 will be the perfect time to grow their businesses—the old-fashioned way. By that I mean hiring the right people with the right salary expectations, and raising the right round sizes at the right valuations from the right firms.”

IBM + Red Hat: What Does It Mean For Open Source Startups?

But it was really the best thing that could happen to him. You see, Young would start a business — called Red Hat — in the emerging category of open source software, with a focus on the Linux operating system. The early years were a struggle but he persisted.

Of course, as of now, Red Hat is a massive company and has recently sold out to IBM for a hefty $33 billion. It’s actually Big Blue’s biggest deal in its 107 years. What’s more, the move is not necessarily surprising either. “It is important to note that IBM has embraced open source for quite some time, at over 20 years,” said Mark Brewer, who is the CEO of Lightbend.

So what does this all mean for the open source community? How might the deal impact startups?

Well, first of all, there are considerable risks. Let’s face it, tech deals do not have particularly good track records.

“If IBM uses a heavy-handed approach to try to change Red Hat to fit into their corporate mold, I don’t see anything good coming from that,” said Peter Zaitsev, who is the co-founder and CEO of Percona, a provider of open source database software and services. “I’m sure a lot of Red Hat customers and partners are concerned about which direction this will go. This will be a great time for alternative Linux distributions like Ubuntu on SUSE to gain market share.”

Karthik Ramasamy, who is the co-creator of Apache Heron and the co-founder of Streamlio, also has some concerns: “One risk is that large, established companies may make more direct efforts to gain control over key open source technologies, attempting to crowd out startups and other smaller players. Although large companies have for a very long time aimed to influence and leverage open source projects, this acquisition represents the boldest step yet by a large vendor to gain control over the commercialization of open source technology. Another risk is that innovating in core platform technologies becomes difficult because of the consolidation of core platform technologies into the hands of a few large vendors. In both cases, startups built around open source need to focus on differentiation that delivers clear benefits and addresses important pain points.”

Interestingly enough, if the IBM deal falters, this could open up some interesting opportunities for startups. It could mean that there will be new avenues for innovation. “This acquisition could give rise to other Linux distributions, container platforms and cloud solutions as customers seek to maintain agility and vendor independence,” said Gary Tyreman, who is the CEO of Univa (a developer of intelligent cluster management software).

But the core business model for a startup is likely to be essential. “Many open source companies try to sell ‘consulting and support’ but there just isn’t enough margin in that to become the next Red Hat,” said Mathew Lodge, who is the SVP of Products & Marketing at Anaconda. “Instead, a new breed of start-ups is following the RedHat model of building strong subscription software businesses around open source.”

Regardless, the IBM deal is still a big-time validation, showing that there is strategic value to open source. And the transaction is not a one-off. There have been other large deals for open source companies this year, such as Microsoft’s $7.5 billion purchase of Github and Salesforce.com’s $6.5 billion acquisition of MuleSoft. More importantly, the consolidation is likely to continue. “I think the next wave of consolidation and acquisition is going to be around developer productivity,” said Fred Stevens Smith, who is the co-founder and CEO of Rainforest QA (the company operates an on-demand QA platform).  “You have a ton of super interesting companies in the space right now, especially the continuous integration, continuous delivery players – like Travis, CircleCI and Jenkins.”

But for the most part, success for a startup is more than just picking a certain technology roadmap. It’s also about finding real solutions for customers.

This is how Jyoti Bansal looks at things (last year he sold his company, AppDynamics, for $3.7 billion to Cisco). “Whether open-source or closed source, what really matters are great products, and for the business’s ability to monetize those products at scale to generate sustainable revenue and profits. Red Hat has solutions that consumers love, and it has done a great job at commercializing its products at scale.”

Leadership Lessons From Cisco’s John Chambers

When John Chambers came on board Cisco in 1991, the company was a small network operator, with a focus on routers. But of course, the company would rapidly turn into an industry giant. During the 1990s, Cisco’s revenues grew by an average 65% per year and as of the year 2000, the market cap was a staggering $550 billion – which was larger than Microsoft’s. During this period, more than 10,000 employees would become millionaires.

But when the dot-com boom burst, Cisco came close to imploding. In a matter of 45 days, the sales went from 70% growth to a 30% drop. Inventories piled up and about a quarter of the customer base was wiped out.

Despite all this, Cisco was able to adapt and eventually get back on track.  Although, many of its rivals failed, like Nortel.

As of now, Cisco generates revenues of over $49 billion and has dominant positions in 18 different product lines.

OK then, so how did Chambers do all this? Well, he recently published a book on this topic, called Connecting the Dots. In it, he covers his core philosophy on leadership – with many great stories.

Chambers boils down his approach to four key areas: anticipate and get ahead of market transitions, find ways to innovate at scale, build a culture that is focused on the needs of the customer and develop a flexible network infrastructure.

The Chambers’ Way

Chambers had the advantage of working at IBM and Wang before coming on board Cisco. This meant he learned some tough lessons before he became a CEO.

For example, while at Wang, he saw the importance of anticipating market transitions. The company, which was a leader in minicomputers for word processing, failed to evolve its product to the PC market. As for IBM, Chambers learned that a company should never think it has all the answers.

Now when Chambers joined Cisco, he wasted little time testing his approach. He pushed to make a transformative acquisition of Crescendo and was willing to leave the company if it did not happen. At the time, Cisco had only $70 million in revenues and 400 employees. So the deal was a considerable risk.

But Ford Motor, which was a customer of Crescendo, talked to Chambers about the merits of the company’s switches. The more he thought about it – analyzing the market and the trends — the more he realized that this technology would be critical for networking. And it was. It was the kind of deal that would allow Cisco to differentiate itself from its rivals, many of which no longer exist today.

Dealmaking

Acquisitions would be a major driver of growth for Cisco. During a period of over two decades, the company would strike 180 deals, of which 12 were over $1 billion. The goal was clear: to acquire next-generation products that would make Cisco the leader in a category.

Yet about a third of the transactions turned out to be losers. Although, this would still be a much better track record than a typical tech company.

According to Chambers: “We couldn’t just build our way into being a market leader in every business that we wanted to be in. Nobody can. There’s simply not enough time. If you’re not one of the first three to five companies to enter a new market, you rarely get a shot at becoming a top player by doing it yourself. It’s far more efficient to buy a leading player and adapt that technology than to try to create it yourself after a market is already populated with strong players.”

Keep in mind that this strategy is likely to be even more critical in the future. Chambers notes that 40%+ of businesses today will not exist ten years from now because of the wrenching technology changes. This means companies need to seriously rethink their strategies — and Chambers’ book is a good place to start with this process.