PDX Tech Talks Monthly #4 - Thing Tuesday

I’ve heard a lot about the Internet of Things (IoT) lately. Entrepreneurs were buzzing about it at PDXTTM #2 and referenced it in a product pitch. My co-workers are buying Raspberry Pi’s (credit card sized computers) to hack on. Analysts are predicting that 6 billion devices will be internet-connected by 2015, and will soon surpass the world’s human population of 7 billion. Something very disruptive is happening, and I wanted to learn more about it.

Luckily, as with most interesting technologies, there’s a Portland meet-up for that! I attended my first IoT meet-up last Tuesday, and my mind has been full of ideas ever since.

Thing Tuesday crew assembled at Puppet Labs

The Event - Thing Tuesday

Thing Tuesday gathers every month or so and consists of "show and tells" given by local folks who make IoT devices. Last week five presenters covered a wide variety of IoT topics, ranging from sales pitch advice to stories about soldering.

Frank D’Andrea from Tater Tots Designs kicked things off with the cautionary tale of pitching a "Smart Blender" idea to a major appliance company. Frank commented on the lack of established protocols defining how "smart devices" should communicate. He also warned that large appliance companies can take a very long time (2+ years!) to approve a project proposal. The margins are very thin in consumer products, so they don’t have much budget left make your iPhone a remote control for your blender. Frank thinks it’s still early days for IoT, so you may need to build things like the communication layer (HTTP in this case) yourself.

Two consultancies from neighboring cities described their services. Both helped local start-up VendScreen launch its product. The first, Rigado of Salem, helps with firmware design. They can turn your idea into a functional prototype for around $10-20k, which you can then show investors. Rigado also handles the paperwork to get your product approved by the FCC. The second consultancy, RelianceCM of Corvallis, is a "Contract Manufacturer." They help turn your prototype into a real product, and can crank out 10,000+ units for you. They’re financially incentivized to make your product a success, so they help you lower production costs and select the best components (e.g. ones that aren’t already obsolete). 



The most in-depth and enthusiastic presentation was given by Dr. Alan Campell of NW Vineyards. It’s difficult to describe Alan’s specialty. He holds several biology-related degrees and uses various technologies to analyze vineyards. I like to think of him as "Wine MacGyver". He explained how, after four months of effort, he assembled and then buried several Wi-Fi connected, sensor-packed devices in a client’s vineyard. The devices track soil moisture, temperature, and other fun facts then report that data back to the cloud. This helps vineyard owners decide when to prune the grape leaves, harvest, etc. He built the devices using a hardware platform called Waspmote. Soldering, PVC pipe, and Wi-Fi signal boosting were also involved. To Alan, the hardest part was writing the code to send the data back to the central server. Even Wine MacGyver had to find a programmer to help build that piece.

Who I Met

I met Scott Schaus who works at GlobeSherpa. I just recently read about their app’s debut, and they already employ 12.5 people! Andrew Voss told me about his start-up and how much he enjoyed working out of NedSpace. I also met Chris Schuermyer who, like me, has a software background and wanted to learn more about the hardware side of things.

What I Learned

Local folks are very interested in the IoT idea. They’re trying to solve some basic problems. I learned a lot from the types of questions they asked:

  • Which hardware platform should I use? Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Yocto?
  • How should my Thing talk to the internet? Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G, LTE?
  • How can I lower the power consumption?
  • Where do I store all the device senor data?

Wrap Up

The Steves

This meet-up reminded me of what I’ve read about the Homebrew Computer Club, the computer hobbyist user group where the Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) famously demoed early Apple computer prototypes. Just like that inspiring time in the mid-seventies, low cost off-the-shelf components are coming to market that enable tinkers and hobbyist to piece together innovative new ideas.

Building an IoT product seems possible with some research and plenty of elbow grease. It’s like plugging Lego pieces together. Granted, today’s IoT Lego set is for advanced users, but it’s getting easier. I’ve been interested in the Quantified Self concept, and IoT seems to enable a Quantified World. I need to do some more research, and I’ll share some links with y’all in a future blog post. 

Next Month

I’m not sure yet which PDX tech event to attend in August. Maybe I’ll check out pdxdevops or Mobile Portland. If you have any suggestions you should definitely let me know! I’ll owe you one :)

PDX Tech Talks Monthly #3 - PDX Selenium User Group

When I discovered Portland has a meet-up dedicated to Selenium and test automation, I was interested. Then I noticed they were meeting in Jive’s cool office downtown, and became double interested. Selenium is a popular free tool used to automate website testing, which folks on my team have started evaluating. The Jive office was recently featured in big budget Tech Town Portland video. Yes, it’s the one the cameras flew around in a drone helicopter. Needless to say I was excited to check it out. 

Chris showing us some test results

The Event – PDX Selenium User Group

Attending a user group for the first time is very enlightening. These groups attract local experts who share enthusiasm for a particular technology. It’s fun to swap stories with peers about how your company is using a tool or language. For me, it was impressive to see how many people from local companies were involved in and excited about automated testing.

The first speaker, Chris Cowell-Shah, described how Jive used Robot Framework to create a suite of tests for their browser-based product. The framework allows you to create simple keywords that can be used to execute Selenium tests (and other things). It’s supposed to make writing tests easy, and apparently it works, as Chris noted they’ve amassed a huge number of tests.

The second speaker, Jive alumni and current Nike-er James Lee, described a custom test framework he built for Jive. His tool measured things like page loading speed and the size of JavaScript included on each page. When pages suddenly slowed down or became huge, his test noticed the problem and the developer was alerted to investigate. Apparently Jive’s customers love fast web pages, and accidentally slowing them down is not an option. James approach involved some serious code and fun statistical concepts like standard deviation measurement and outlier elimination.

Who I Met

I chatted with Pedro Perez de Tejada who works downtown at PreCash. Pedro recently moved up from San Francisco to lead an automated testing initiative that makes use of the Robot Framework. He’s a big fan of the tool and loves how it enables non-programming types to write tests. I also talked to the event’s co-organizer, James Eisenhauer, who commented on the trend of consultant groups forming that specialize in test automation (e.g. event sponsor Sauce Labs).

What I Learned

Chris pointed out that maintainability is a big concern when it comes to programmatic tests. His team ended up wishing they had fewer tests that were more focused. Both James Lee and Chris mentioned that a certain percentage of the time, Selenium tests fail for no easily discernible reason. They said it’s tough to make the tests 100% reliable and instead focused on mechanisms to re-run when strange Selenium failures were detected.

I also learned that all web browers record useful stats like how long it takes for JavaScript to load, when the page becomes visible or clickable, etc. There’s a standard way to retrieve that data from the browser for analysis.

Wrap Up

Automated testing can be very useful and lots of local folks are doing it. If you’re interested in getting started with Selenium or improve your existing test suite, you should definitely check out this meet-up.

Next Month

As I mentioned last month, I think “The Internet of Things” is a tech trend with a lot of momentum. Apparently theirs a meet-up for that: Thing Tuesday. Awesome! I’ll try to check out their next event on July 9th at Puppet Labs.

PDX Tech Talks Monthly #2 - Lunch 2.0 @ OTBC


When I heard last week that Lunch 2.0 was being hosted conveniently near my workplace in Beaverton, I was compelled to stop by and check it out. Lunch 2.0 doesn't make it out to the west side all that often, so I couldn't resist. If this keeps up I may have to rename this series of posts to “Tech Talks Weekly”!


The Event - Lunch 2.0 hosted by OTBC

The idea behind Lunch 2.0 is great: You visit a local startup or shared workspace, hear about what they’re doing, eat free lunch, and talk with folks in the tech biz. Not a bad way to spend the noon hour, right? The events are coordinated by startup aficionado Rick Turoczy and are located at a different startup each month. 

This month’s Lunch 2.0 was hosted by OTBC (Oregon Technology Business Center), one of the original local startup accelerators. What does an accelerator do? Here’s a description from their website:

OTBC provides coaching, networking events, entrepreneurship programs, and shared office space to help tech, biotech, cleantech and opentech start-up ventures succeed


 Richard Clem of MotivatedApps presenting at OTBC 

Richard Clem of MotivatedApps presenting at OTBC 

Founders from four of the resident startups (Sonivate, EcoLogistics, MotivatedApps and Metamocracy) gave a quick presentation about their companies. Most of the folks in attendance were angel investors, veteran startup founders, and tech enthusiasts like me.

Who I Met

Two of the people I met were the sole employee of their company: Daren Lewis of LeadingVisually and Richard Clem of MotivatedApps. Darren said he appreciates all the tools available these days that enable him to run his communications consultancy as a single-person operation. Richard explained how much he enjoys working at OTBC, as opposed to a home office, because of the camaraderie of fellow entrepreneurs dealing with similar challenges.

What I Learned

I’m starting to realize that the "Internet of Things" trend is bigger than I thought. Most of the entrepreneurs were buzzing about it, and they are excellent indicators of where the market is going. Here’s my bold prediction: five years from now 25% of the people reading this post will be working on a “connected device” product.

Wrap Up

Do you eat lunch and enjoy talking tech? Perfect! I highly recommend checking out a Lunch 2.0 next time it’s in your neighborhood. It’s a great way to meet some of the smartest folks in the PDX tech scene.

Next Month

I’m still planning on heading to the PDX Selenium User Group later this month. I also noticed that Lunch 2.0 is being hosted at Jive Software on August 14th. If you saw the awesome TechTownPDX video last week, Jive’s office was the one featured in the gratuitous drone-helicopter-flyby shot. To call that awesome is surely an understatement.