Web Summit 2019

This November, I attended Web Summit in Lisbon with a few of my colleagues from our various Infinity Works locations. This is the largest tech event in the world, with over 70,000 attendees and it was an inspiring week with a broad spread of subjects and some thought provoking speakers. Plus it was great to spend some time sharing experiences and ideas with my fellow Infinity Workers over a beer. These were some of the highlights for me.

Are you ready for 5G?

Ronan Dunne (Verizon)

5G will deliver much higher bandwidth than 4G for handheld mobile devices, but the more transformational differences will be the much higher device density which 5G will be able to support (around 1 million devices per sq km, as compared to 4,000 for 4G) and much lower latencies (down from 20–30ms to <10ms and potentially as low as 1ms). Combined, these will enable a new generation of Augmented Reality applications such as remote medical diagnosis, and IoT powered industrial and remote systems control. With such low latencies, the path from the network edge to backing services hosted in data centres will start to be significant, and to deliver latencies approaching 1ms services will need to be hosted no more than 100km from the user, which will require many more edge points of presence enabled with edge compute using technologies like AWS Lambda@Edge, Fastly Edge Compute or Cloudflare Workers. 5G uses much shorter wavelengths than 4G, and uses MIMO to direct signals at individual devices rather than broadcasting in all directions like 4G does. But the shorter wavelength means that the signal cannot travel so far due to increased atmospheric absorption and can’t penetrate or bend around buildings like 4G can, so many more cell towers will be needed to provide adequate coverage. This will clearly need significant investment, which could hamper the spread of 5G. One interesting feature of having many more cell towers and the directional MIMO mechanism is that it will be possible to determine individual device positions much more accurately from cell tower information alone.

Retention as the new conversion

Des Traynor (Intercom)

We have seen large shifts in recent years towards subscription-based SaaS services as the standard economic model for delivering software, rather than one off purchases. This goes hand in hand with a try before you buy, low- or zero-touch sales process and a pay as you go commercial model with minimal lock in. Vendors benefit from a more predictable revenue stream, and frequently from higher overall revenue per customer, while customers benefit from the increased pressure on vendors to respond to their needs and ensure their products continue to provide great service. In this world, retention is more important than conversion. It is key to understand the reasons why users behave as they do, asking questions for each user group such as:

  • Newly signed up — What unanswered questions do they have? What else are they doing? What were they doing before they chose to sign up?
  • Users who sign up and then vanish — What were they looking for? Are they an actual prospect?
  • Those who cancelled a trial — What went wrong? What was missing? What would have changed their mind?
  • Recently converted from a trial — What made them decide to convert?

The speaker also described what he called four forces which drive users to or away from your product:

  • Push toward your product: problems with current solution
  • Pull toward your product: attraction of new product
  • Drag to stay with existing product: existing habits and investment
  • Drag to stay with existing product: anxiety and uncertainty of change

He also talked about the RICE score, defined as reach x impact x confidence / effort, to be used as a guide when prioritising alternative product decisions. His advice: don’t do low impact things, even if they are low effort, which he summed up as “focus on impact, don’t snack”.

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What makes TikTok tick? Inside the world’s top app

Hannah Snow (social influencer), Dylan Collins (SuperAwesome — social media campaign creator)

TikTok is a social media app centred around short-form videos, often based on promoted trends which are partly curated and partly driven through machine learning. It has become wildly popular, especially among under 24-year-olds, and is largely considered complementary to existing social media platforms, rather than cannibalising any significantly. As compared to YouTube it focuses on rapid navigation and snacking on content, and compared to Instagram it encourages a more playful, less image conscious style of content. TikTok is notable for being owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance, a fact which may limit its global ambitions, especially in the US, given the current political climate. ByteDance has received criticism for perceived censorship of content that does not please Beijing, including any which mentions Tiananmen Square or Tibetan independence.

What is the role of a leader

Dave Grannan (Light)

Light produces vision systems for autonomous vehicles based on visible light, using the same parallax effect which allows humans to judge distance, as compared to LIDAR and RADAR which are heavily used by most mainstream systems. LIDAR is expensive, energy hungry and short range, only effective to around 150m. Given typical stopping distances for a lorry in wet conditions at motorway speeds of around 175m, the speaker claimed that LIDAR vision systems are inadequate for safe navigation on their own. But the talk did not dwell on the technology behind the system, and instead focused on the principles used to build it. One of these was to explicitly identify scenarios where there is no perfect choice and the autonomous vehicle must choose between alternative bad scenarios. By presenting humans with imaginary scenarios, they built up what they called a Moral Machine, encoding the ethical decisions made by the test subjects. Interestingly, they found some cultural biases, suggesting that the ethical models built into vehicles may need to be tuned specifically for different markets. For example, in a scenario where the vehicle has to choose between saving young children and innocent elderly pedestrians, individualistic western societies favour saving the young, whereas collectivist societies which value age and wisdom favour saving the old.

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The speaker proposed three principles:

  • Develop products which enable the best of human behaviour — for example, augment human abilities to help them act better, rather than acting instead of humans
  • Embed ethics — as described above
  • Find the regulatory boundaries — work with regulators to develop progressive policies which guide, but do not stifle innovation, for example using regulatory sandboxes

What I learned from building a ‘unicorn’

Melanie Perkins (Co-founder & CEO, Canva), Mada Seghete (Co-founder, Branch), Lucy Liu (Co-founder, Airwallex), Ryan Browne (Tech and Finance Reporter, CNBC)

Definition: “A unicorn is a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion.”

This panel discussed a few points of interest around when and how to scale a business by seeking external investment. One shared a painful story of wrongly assuming that scaling a particular aspect of their business (in their case, the outbound sales team) would simply multiply the effect of the current team, whereas in practice they found they quickly hit a ceiling on the available market, which lead to the team being slashed in size to match that market. The lesson: make sure you at least attempt to predict the effect before you scale any particular aspect. Another cautioned about trying to scale “lifestyle projects” — those which only realistically have potential to grow 2 or 3 fold, as compared to the “10x” or “100x” growth which venture capital investors are looking for.

Leadership

André Penha (Co-founder & CTO, QuintoAndar), Alex Chung (Founder, GIPHY), Bedy Yang (Managing Partner, 500 Startups), Alan Griffin (Head of Digital, The National)

There were three key lessons from this session. The first is that leaders become effective by learning to work with and rely on the people around them who complement their skills and keep them honest. Secondly, they talked about the need to allow an organisation to change as it grows, but to stay true to the core values around which it was formed. Finally, some pithy advice from Alex Chung, founder of Giphy, who said the secret to being a great leader is to listen more than talk and to not “be a jerk”.

The end game: Making purpose real

Frank Cooper (CMO, BlackRock)

This session tackled the subject of how and why you may try to define your company’s purpose. The speaker talked about the importance of understanding and stating the purpose as a way to align and motivate individuals. He said that to gain acceptance and to act as an effective motivator, the purpose statement needs to come from the grass roots, not top down, and it needs to be genuine — not what you would like it to be, but what you really think it is. He described the exercise of defining company purpose as “archeology, not architecture”.

Interactive 3D web mapping, hosted by HERE Technologies

Nino Kettlitz (Principal Software Engineer, @heremaps)

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Here Technologies gave an impressive demonstration of an open source JavaScript mapping library called Harp.js, which is based on Three.js. Harp supports vector and raster map sources, and has a capable rendering engine using custom styling and post processing effects. Overlays and effects can enhance maps by highlighting aspects of interest and augmenting with data-driven features. GeoJson can be used to define polygons and point clouds can be rendered within the 3D rendered landscape alongside map data. The library also includes routing capabilities to find paths between points.

Security and SaaS: Privacy-first culture

Calvin French-Owen (Co-founder & CTO, Segment), Dermot Williams (CEO, Threatscape)

Segment is a system which aggregates and integrates user event streams for use in analysis systems, with support for a large number of inbound and outbound integrations. Interestingly, it also enables data be deleted from source systems to aid with implementing the GDPR right to be forgotten.

AI = Easier access to healthcare?

Constance Lehman (Professor of Radiology, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital), Dr Marco Huesch (Chief Medical Officer , Ping An Global Voyager Fund), Paul Nuki (Senior Editor, Global Health Security, The Daily Telegraph)

This panel discussed a few different areas of technology innovation in healthcare.

Cancer screening. Mammograms are the best way to detect early stage breast cancer, but the process of reading the scans to determine breast health is highly skilled work. Mammographers undergo years of training and are compensated well, all of which makes the process relatively expensive. Machine learning image classification systems are now reaching the point where they produce better results with more consistency — and they operate at a fraction of the cost of manual screening. This allows clinicians to be freed of the tedious work of reading scans so they can focus their time on higher value, more patient-focused work, and it also opens up screening to underserved communities in developing countries which currently cannot afford to perform any screening.

Remote diagnosis. Ping An healthcare insurance provides remote diagnosis and treatment to around 300 million tele healthcare patients in China. Their Good Doctor mobile app collects text, photos and video and uses AI to suggested diagnosis and treatment plans. The results are vetted by around 1300 clinicians, and drugs are dispatched automatically following diagnosis. The low cost of digital communication makes it far easier to give effective follow on care. Through this a time series of patient data is collected which gives a rich source of information to improve patient care.

Living on the edge: The future of edge computing

Tyler McMullen (CTO, Fastly)

As discussed above, in ultra low latency environments, the path from client device to the data centre can be a limiting factor on performance. Edge computing seeks to solve that problem by distributing backing service deployments in edge point of presence locations much closer to the user than traditional data centres. Fastly have developed a novel technology to support safe, high performance, high density deployment of edge compute workloads. For them, the overhead of running workloads in containers — as the current generation of serverless functions as a service do — is too much, both in terms of resource usage and start-up time. Their Compute@Edge technology instead uses WebAssembly packages as the unit of deployment, which are verified as safe and compiled down to native code by their Lucet tool.

Lucet can instantiate WebAssembly modules in under 50 microseconds, with just a few kilobytes of memory overhead. By comparison, Chromium’s V8 engine takes about 5 milliseconds, and tens of megabytes of memory overhead, to instantiate JavaScript or WebAssembly programs.

With Lucet, Fastly’s edge cloud can execute tens of thousands of WebAssembly programs simultaneously, in the same process, without compromising security.

Final words

Web Summit is like no other conference I have been to, both in scale and scope. While deeply technical sessions were thin on the ground, there was a broad spread of interesting topics on offer, from how and when to scale a start-up to how to build a company culture to how to eradicate plastic waste. All in all it was an inspiring few days.

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