Derrick Ko

Product Manager at Lyft. Product guy. Founded a startup.

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Great Startup Engineers

Early stage startups aren’t for everyone, and they certainly call for engineers with a certain set of qualities. Typically, engineers who have

  • Great technical breadth and technical depth.
  • An immediately applicable skill set.
  • The ability to learn quickly.

But it takes more than that to make an engineer a great startup engineer.


You can focus, and refocus, effortlessly.

In a startup, things crop up all the time that scream for your attention. And you have to respond – whether it’s a bug on production, or a sudden re-prioritization of features. You keep juggling no matter how many balls are hurled at you.

Focusing on a single feature is easy. Having the discipline, attitude and agility to refocus spontaneously is hard.


You have compassion for your users. Engineers traditionally tend to lack this, as layers of product managers and customer support form a pretty...

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What is to you?

There are four types of users joining

  1. Early adopters.

  2. Username gold rushers scared to lose out on “the next big thing”.

  3. Developers unhappy at Twitter.

  4. Curious onlookers with $50 to spare.

This works great for now, but will eventually have to have a degree of mass appeal in order to continually attract users to the service. And, not to mention, sustain itself as a company.

The quality and value of an asymmetric network is defined by who you follow, and who you can follow. Twitter is compelling because we can subscribe to updates of people who pique our interest. Let’s face it,’s target demographic is a subset of Twitter users, so it needs to attract them over. has a great set of seed users – much like Quora did when it first started – which certainly helps. But it has to quickly leverage that, and figure out the right messaging to grow its appeal...

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In-N-Out’s Brilliant Campaign

We can learn a little something from In-N-Out Burger. Yup, that burger chain.

In-N-Out doesn’t embrace the typical fast food marketing. No TV ads, no celebrity endorsements. Instead, they rely on the strength of their brand, which they protect vigorously.

The company is known as a “west coast only” chain that serves up one of the best burgers in the US. They have a stubborn reluctance to blanket the nation with stores in the name of quality. This elusiveness only drives up the mystique, demand, and cult following of the brand.

And recently, In-N-Out has started spreading the word to the rest of the world.

The Popup

No, In-N-Out isn’t expanding internationally. They are, however, opening popup stores as part of a marketing campaign. Over the past year, such stores appeared – just for a day – in cities around the world. And they all ran on the same playbook.

1) Partner a local...

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Why does spec work still exist?

Dribbble’s position on spec work:

Dribbble’s inbox is filled with requests from companies wanting to run contests that leverage the creative pool to crowdsource their product needs. We tell them about spec work and let them know it’s not allowed on Dribbble.

In engineering – a similar value-creation industry – spec work is like asking a bunch of consultancies to build a significant chuck of your idea for free, under the guise of “an evaluation”. Or just imagine a 99designs for code libraries.

In such a world, the consultant optimizes for volume at the expense of quality, since unselected work costs time. The client ends up choosing from crappy solutions, without even realizing it. This just creates a lose-lose situation for everyone. That’s why it’s unheard of.

Spec work is a concept that fails the test of reality. I don’t understand how spec work in the design industry should ever...

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At times, we tend to over engineer and totally forget about our users. We have to balance engineering effort, metrics and user experience. Striking the right balance can give great results.

Mailcheck.js is one example. On one end, we can make users type in their email address twice. That’s optimizing for the 10%, at the expense of the 90% who are typo free. And on the other end, you can engineer a fantastically great solution - predictive analysis, MX record checks, etc. That’s exponentially more work for a marginal return.

Mailcheck was born out of analyzing email bounce data. We knew exactly what we had to solve, and the most engineering efficient solution naturally evolved. This resulted in a big improvement in metrics and user experience.

Simplicity goes a long way. Don’t over-engineer your solution and don’t prematurely optimize. Keep it efficient for engineering, and keep it...

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Rails/Backbone.js practices

A recent post that discusses a couple of Rails and Backbone.js practices I’ve incorporated into Kicksend.

  • Avoid to_json
  • Action cache
  • Keep the UI responsive
  • Modularize
  • Have a single representation of each resource
  • Use a view manager

Check it out.

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Action.IO could be a game changer

Every once in a while, a key piece of an engineering infrastructure hops to the cloud and gets offered “as a service” to much success. First came Amazon, then Heroku and more recently, Pusher and Parse. I believe that Action.IO could be the next in line.

Having a developer setup and manage a development environment is a great learning experience. But it doesn’t scale. Once you have a team, the time you take to setup an environment is precious time wasted. And it gets even more involved as your stack gets complicated.

Companies recognize that. Pivotal Labs spins up fresh machines with the use of Pivotal Workstation. Facebook hosts their environments on an internal cloud, as does Quora on EC2. Not everyone can devote DevOps cycles for that, which is what makes Action.IO so compelling. While you could achieve a similar effect with EC2 AMIs, maintaing a gold standard AMI for a team with...

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Consumer darwinism

The word ketchup originally meant “fish sauce” in a dialect of Fujian province, the humid coastal region that also gave us the word “tea” (from Fujianese te). By the turn of the 18th century, fish sauce and arrack had become as profitable for British merchants as they were for Chinese traders.

From 1750 to 1850 the word ketchup began to mean any number of thin dark sauces made of mushrooms or even walnuts. It wasn’t until the 19th century that people first began to add tomato to ketchups, probably first in Britain.

By the mid-1850s, the anchovies had been dropped, and it was only in 1890 that the need for better preservation (and the American sweet tooth) led American commercial ketchup manufacturers like Heinz to greatly increase the sugar in ketchup, leading to our modern sweet and sour formula.

The evolution of ketchup reads like a classic product iteration; one that spans over...

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Anything But Engineering

In perfect engineering-centric ecosystems like Silicon Valley, there’s a shortage of engineers.

In imperfect, growing ecosystems, there’s a shortage of engineers as well. But for different reasons. Let’s look at Singapore as an example.

“There are Singaporean job-seekers, but they all want to manage projects,” he told me. “I already have enough project managers. I need someone to actually do the work.”

-A recent post by a Singapore Member of Parliament

People – from startups to large corporations – always wistfully remark that Singapore needs more local engineers. On the “bright” side, the country’s relatively liberal immigration policy have given them band aid by allowing them to hire great talent from the region, such as Indonesia and Vietnam.

But the problem still remains: Singaporeans don’t want to become engineers.

Singapore’s focus on finance, R&D and healthcare in the last...

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A new era of fragmentation

With the chaos of different screen sizes and a new generation of Web browsers, the design paradigms of layout and typography have shifted away from static layouts and system fonts to dynamic layouts and custom Web fonts.

We do not just need responsive layouts, we also need responsive typefaces.

Screen fragmentation is the new browser fragmentation.

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