AWS reorganizes DeepRacer League to encourage more newbies

AWS launched the DeepRacer League in 2018 as a fun way to teach developers machine learning, and it’s been building on the idea ever since. Today, it announced the latest league season with two divisions: Open and Pro.

As Marcia Villalba wrote in a blog post announcing the new league, “AWS DeepRacer is an autonomous 1/18th scale race car designed to test [reinforcement learning] models by racing virtually in the AWS DeepRacer console or physically on a track at AWS and customer events. AWS DeepRacer is for developers of all skill levels, even if you don’t have any ML experience. When learning RL using AWS DeepRacer, you can take part in the AWS DeepRacer League where you get experience with machine learning in a fun and competitive environment.”

While the company started these as in-person races with physical cars, the pandemic has forced them to make it a virtual event over the last year, but the new format seemed to be blocking out newcomers. Because the goal is to teach people about machine learning, getting new people involved is crucial to the company.

That’s why it created the Open League, which as the name suggests is open to anyone. You can test your skills and if you’re good enough, finishing in the top 10%, you can compete in the Pro division. Everyone competes for prizes, as well, such as vehicle customizations.

The top 16 in the Pro League each month race for a chance to go to the finals at AWS re:Invent in 2021, an event that may or may not be virtual, depending on where we are in the pandemic recovery.

Why your organization needs product principles

At Slack, every one of our processes and features has been designed with the primary goal of making Slack a workplace tool that feels human. We see ourselves as our users’ hosts, and we want them to feel comfortable and happy every time they’re in Slack. Our product isn’t just built for work — it’s built for people doing work, and everything we create is meant to forward our mission of making work life simpler, more pleasant and more productive.

Our job is to understand what people want, and then translate that value through thoughtfully designed, well-functioning products and features.

Against the backdrop of an unprecedented shift to remote work, we’ve seen an influx of people turning to Slack to make the transition to a digital-first workplace. Building thoughtful, intuitive products that add value, delight and human-centric experiences into peoples’ working lives has never been more important.

Product principles are essential guidelines that help teams evaluate work across functions.

To ensure we’re meeting our customers where they’re at, we created a set of guiding “product principles” that inform everything we build, and which serve as the foundation for our entire product decision-making process.

There’s business value in improving an organization’s processes, and we’ve been able to provide better experiences for our customers by enacting ever-evolving product principles and using them to evaluate our products and features. Any company can benefit from having product principles — it’s all about how you develop and deploy them across your organization.

First, what are product principles?

Product principles are essential guidelines that help teams evaluate work across functions, as well as up and down the decision-making chain, by ensuring all work ladders up to the organization’s ultimate goals. Better alignment, in turn, leads to better and faster product decisions.

Product principles should always evolve to keep up with the changing ways you work and what your customers need. At Slack, we currently have five principles that guide us:

  1. Don’t make me think.
  2. Be a great host.
  3. Prototype the path.
  4. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  5. Make bigger, bolder bets.

By implementing these principles into all we build across teams — design, legal, marketing and more — they provide a shared framework for decision-making that keeps us aligned and therefore able to make better decisions, faster.

The idea of having principles themselves isn’t a new concept, but the creation process behind building and promoting these principles is often overlooked or underdeveloped.

Start with your product philosophy

Before building the principles themselves, it’s important to first establish your product philosophy, which will inform how your organization will ultimately view and abide by its principles.

At Slack, we embrace an approach we call “getting to the next hill.” While there is a long-term product strategy, we don’t spend a lot of time debating exactly where we’ll be in one or two years from now. Instead, we focus on more immediate, incremental moves to improve our customers’ working lives.

We’ve found that because Slack is used in so many different ways by so many different companies, it’s better to learn from how our customers use our features than from endlessly debating aspirational future ideas.

Twilio to become minority owner in Syniverse Technologies with $750M investment

Syniverse Technologies, a company that helps mobile providers move communications across public and private networks, announced an extensive partnership with Twilio this morning. Under the agreement, Twilio is investing up to $750 million to become a minority owner in the company.

The idea behind the partnership is to combine Twilio’s API communications expertise with Syniverse’s mobile carrier contacts to create this end-to-end communications system. Twilio’s strength has always been its ability to deliver communications like texts without having a carrier relationship. This deal gives them access to that side of the equation.

James Attwood, executive chairman at Syniverse certainly saw the value of the two companies working together. “The partnership will provide Syniverse access to Twilio’s extensive enterprise and API services expertise, creating opportunities to continue to build on Syniverse’s highly innovative product portfolio that helps mobile network operators and enterprises make communications better for their customers,” Atwood said in a statement.

Today’s deal comes on the heels of the company’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Segment at the end of last year as it continues to look for ways to expand its markets. Will Townsend, an analyst at Moor Insight & Strategy who covers the network and carrier markets, sees this deal giving Twilio access to a broader set of technologies.

“Twilio [gets] access to Syniverse’s significant capabilities in massive industrial IoT and private 4G LTE and 5G cellular networking. Both are poised to ramp significantly given new found enterprise access to licensed spectrum via recent C-Band and CBRS auctions,” Townsend told me. He believes this will help Twilio reach parts of the enterprise not connected by WiFI or where the customers are dealing with “a mishmash of solutions that don’t scale or propagate well.”

As it turns out, it’s not a coincidence the two companies are coming together like this. In fact, Twilio has been a Syniverse customer for some time, according to Chee Chew, chief product officer at Twilio.

It’s a case of an old school company like Syniverse, which was founded in 1987 combining forces with a more modern approach to communications like Twilio, which provides developers with APIs to deliver communications services inside applications with just a couple of lines of code.

The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of this deal, is also reporting the company could go public via SPAC at a value of between $2 and $3 billion some time later this year. That would suggest that it has not gained much value since the 2010 deal.

Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research, says the SPAC provides an interesting additional component to the deal. “The high flying stock market creates all kind of new chickens, one of the, being a SPAC, and that’s the financial opportunity that Twilio is likely pursuing with the investment into Syniverse. The more immediate benefit is for Twilio to use the messaging vendor for its services. Call it a partnership with investment upside,” Mueller said.

According to Syniverse, “the company is one of the largest private IP Packet Exchange (IPX) providers in the world and offers a range of networking solutions, excelling in scenarios where seamless connections must cross over networks – either across multiple private networks or between public and private networks.”

The company is currently owned by the Carlyle Group private equity firm, which bought it in 2010 for $2.6 billion. Twilio launched in 2008 and raised over $236 million before going public in 2016 at $15 per share. The stock was up 3.82% in early trading, suggesting that Wall Street approves of the deal.

Early Stage is the premiere ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear first-hand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in – there’s ample time included in each for audience questions and discussion.

DigitalOcean’s IPO filing shows a two-class cloud market

This morning DigitalOcean, a provider of cloud computing services to SMBs, filed to go public. The company intends to list on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) under the ticker symbol “DOCN.”

DigitalOcean’s offering comes amidst a hot streak for tech IPOs, and valuations that are stretched by historical norms. The cloud hosting company was joined by Coinbase in filing its numbers publicly today.

DigitalOcean’s offering comes amidst a hot streak for tech IPOs.

However, unlike the cryptocurrency exchange, DigitalOcean intends to raise capital through its offering. Its S-1 filing lists a $100 million placeholder number, a figure that will update when the company announces an IPO price range target.

This morning let’s explore the company’s financials briefly, and then ask ourselves what its results can tell us about the cloud market as a whole.

DigitalOcean’s financial results

TechCrunch has covered DigitalOcean with some frequency in recent years, including its early-2020 layoffs, its early-2020 $100 million debt raise and its $50 million investment from May of the same year that prior investors Access Industries and Andreessen Horowitz participated in.

From those pieces we knew that the company had reportedly reached $200 million in revenue during 2018, $250 million in 2019 and that DigitalOcean had expected to reach an annualized run rate of $300 million in 2020.

Those numbers held up well. Per its S-1 filing, DigitalOcean generated $203.1 million in 2018 revenue, $254.8 million in 2019 and $318.4 million in 2020. The company closed 2020 out with a self-calculated $357 million in annual run rate.

During its recent years of growth, DigitalOcean has managed to lose modestly increasing amounts of money, calculated using generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), and non-GAAP profit (adjusted EBITDA) in rising quantities. Observe the rising disconnect:

Maze raises another $15 million for its user testing platform

Maze has closed a $15 million Series A funding round led by Emergence Capital. The company lets you run user tests at scale so that you can get feedback before rolling out a design update or test copy.

When you have a lot of users, you don’t want to roll out some changes before testing it first. Some companies run A/B tests on a small portion of users and gather feedback with custom forms and polls. But that involves some coding and complications in your roadmap. Other companies simply spend a lot of time talking one-to-one with some customers.

Maze lets you test something new based on a Figma, InVision, Adobe XD, Marvel or Sketch project. You can design something new in your favorite app and start a new test based on that project.

From your web browser, you can ask your user to do something in your app, provide some context and ask a quick question at the end of the test. After that, you get a link for your next testing campaign.

You can test it on hundreds or thousands of potential users and get a detailed report with a success rate, where your users drop off, answers to your questions and polls and more. Maze now also lets you test concepts without a design.

Essentially, Maze wants to empower product designers and product managers. They can be in charge of the product roadmap with actual numbers to back their claims. And everybody can collaborate on user tests as it’s a software-as-a-service product. It makes it easier to run a design-led company.

In addition to Emergence Capital, Jay Simons and existing investors Amplify Partners, Partech and Seedcamp also participated in today’s funding round. The company plans to grow the size of its team.

Over the past 12 months, Maze has grown its monthly recurring revenue by 600%. It now generates $1.5 million in annual recurring revenue and 40,000 companies are now using Maze. One million testers have completed at least one test on Maze. Customers include GE, Samsung, Vodafone, Braze and FairMoney

Kleeen raises $3.8M to make front-end design for business applications easy

Building a front-end for business applications is often a matter of reinventing the wheel, but because every business’ needs are slightly different, it’s also hard to automate. Kleeen is the latest startup to attempt this, with a focus on building the user interface and experience for today’s data-centric applications. The service, which was founded by a team that previously ran a UI/UX studio in the Bay Area, uses a wizard-like interface to build the routine elements of the app and frees a company’s designers and developers to focus on the more custom elements of an application.

The company today announced that it has raised a $3.8 million seed round led by First Ray Venture Partners. Leslie Ventures, Silicon Valley Data Capital, WestWave Capital, Neotribe Ventures, AI Fund and a group of angel investors also participated in the round. Neotribe also led Kleeen’s $1.6 million pre-seed round, bringing the company’s total funding to $5.3 million.

Image Credits: Kleeen

After the startup he worked at sold, Kleeen co-founder, CPO and President Joshua Hailpern told me, he started his own B2B design studio, which focused on front-end design and engineering.

“What we ended up seeing was the same pattern that would happen over and over again,” he said. “We would go into a client, and they would be like: ‘we have the greatest idea ever. We want to do this, this, this and this.’ And they would tell us all these really cool things and we were: ‘hey, we want to be part of that.’ But then what we would end up doing was not that. Because when building products — there’s the showcase of the product and there’s all these parts that support that product that are necessary but you’re not going to win a deal because someone loved that config screen.”

The idea behind Kleeen is that you can essentially tell the system what you are trying to do and what the users need to be able to accomplish — because at the end of the day, there are some variations in what companies need from these basic building blocks, but not a ton. Kleeen can then generate this user interface and workflow for you — and generate the sample data to make this mock-up come to life.

Once that work is done, likely after a few iterations, Kleeen can generate React code, which development teams can then take and work with directly.

Image Credits: Kleeen

As Kleeen co-founder and CEO Matt Fox noted, the platform explicitly doesn’t want to be everything to everybody.

“In the no-code space, to say that you can build any app probably means that you’re not building any app very well if you’re just going to cover every use case. If someone wants to build a Bumble-style phone app where they swipe right and swipe left and find their next mate, we’re not the application platform for you. We’re focused on really data-intensive workflows.” He noted that Kleeen is at its best when developers use it to build applications that help a company analyze and monitor information and, crucially, take action on that information within the app. It’s this last part that also clearly sets it apart from a standard business intelligence platform.

Google launches the first developer preview of Android 12

Almost exactly a year after Google announced the first developer preview of Android 11, the company today released the first developer preview of Android 12. Google delayed the roll-out of Android 11 a bit as the teams and the company’s partners adjusted to working during a pandemic, but it looks like that didn’t stop it from keeping Android 12 on schedule. As you would expect from an early developer preview, most of the changes here are under the hood and there’s no over-the-air update yet for intrepid non-developers who want to give it a spin.

Image Credits: Google

Among the highlights of the release so far — and it’s important to note that Google tends to add more user-facing changes and UI updates throughout the preview cycle — are the ability to transcode media into higher quality formates like the AV1 image format, faster and more responsive notifications and a new feature for developers that now makes individual changes in the platform togglable so they can more easily test the compatibility of their apps. Google also promises that just like with Android 11, it’ll add a Platform Stability milestone to Android 12 to give developers advance notice when final app-facing changes will occur in the development cycle of the operating system. Last year, the team hit that milestone in July when it launched its second beta release.

“With each version, we’re working to make the OS smarter, easier to use, and better performing, with privacy and security at the core,” writes Google VP of Engineering Dave Burke. “In Android 12 we’re also working to give you new tools for building great experiences for users. Starting with things like compatible media transcoding, which helps your app to work with the latest video formats if you don’t already support them, and easier copy/paste of rich content into your apps, like images and videos. We’re also adding privacy protections, refreshing the UI, and optimizing performance to keep your apps responsive.”

Image comparison from AVIF has landed by Jake Archibald

Obviously, there are dozens of developer-facing updates in Android 12. Let’s look at some in detail.

For the WebView in Android 12, Google will now implement the same SameSite cookie behavior as in Chrome, for example. Last year, the company slowed down the roll-out of this change, which makes it harder for advertisers to track your activity across sites,  in Chrome, simply because it was breaking too many sites. Now, with this feature fully implemented in Chrome, the Android team clearly feels like it, too, can implement the same privacy tools in WebView, which other apps use to display web content, too.

As for the encoding capabilities, Burke notes that, “with the prevalence of HEVC hardware encoders on mobile devices, camera apps are increasingly capturing in HEVC format, which offers significant improvements in quality and compression over older codecs.” He notes that most apps should support HEVC, but for those that can’t, Android 12 now offers a service for transcoding a file into AVC.

Image Credits: Google

In addition, Android 12 now also supports the AV1 Image File Format as a container for images and GIF-like image sequences. “Like other modern image formats, AVIF takes advantage of the intra-frame encoded content from video compression,” explains Burke. “This dramatically improves image quality for the same file size when compared to older image formats, such as JPEG.”

Image Credits: Google

As with every Android release, Google also continues to tinker with the notification system. This time, the team promises a refreshed design to “make them more modern, easier to use, and more functional.” Burke calls out optimized transitions and animations and the ability for apps to decorate notifications with custom content. Google now also asks that developers implement a system that immediately takes users from a notification to the app, without an intermediary broadcast receiver or service, something it recommended before.

Image Credits: Google

Android 12 will now also offer better support for multi-channel audio with up to 24 channels (a boon for music and other audio apps, no doubt), spatial audio, MPEG-H support, and haptic-coupled audio effects with the strength of the vibration and frequency based on the audio (a boon for games, no doubt). There’s also improved gesture navigation and plenty of other optimizations and minor changes across the operating system.

Google also continues to drive its Project Mainline forward, which allows for an increasing number of the core Android OS features to be updated through the Google Play system — and hence bypasses the slow update cycles of most hardware manufacturers. With Android 12, it is bringing the Android Runtime module into Mainline, which will then let Google push updates to the core runtime and libraries to devices. “We can improve runtime performance and correctness, manage memory more efficiently, and make Kotlin operations faster – all without requiring a full system update,” Burke says. “We’ve also expanded the functionality of existing modules – for example, we’re delivering our seamless transcoding feature inside an updatable module.”

You can find a more detailed list of all of the changes in Android 12 here.

Image Credits: Google

Developers who want to get started with bringing their apps to Android 12 can do so today by flashing a device image to a Pixel device. For now, Android 12 supports the Pixel 3/3 XL, Pixel 3a/3a XL, Pixel 4/4 XL, Pixel 4a/4a 5G and Pixel 5. You can also use the system image in the Android Emulator in Google’s Android Studio.

Microsoft’s Dapr open-source project to help developers build cloud-native apps hits 1.0

Dapr, the Microsoft-incubated open-source project that aims to make it easier for developers to build event-driven, distributed cloud-native applications, hit its 1.0 milestone today, signifying the project’s readiness for production use cases. Microsoft launched the Distributed Application Runtime (that’s what “Dapr” stand for) back in October 2019. Since then, the project released 14 updates and the community launched integrations with virtually all major cloud providers, including Azure, AWS, Alibaba and Google Cloud.

The goal for Dapr, Microsoft Azure CTO Mark Russinovich told me, was to democratize cloud-native development for enterprise developers.

“When we go look at what enterprise developers are being asked to do — they’ve traditionally been doing client, server, web plus database-type applications,” he noted. “But now, we’re asking them to containerize and to create microservices that scale out and have no-downtime updates — and they’ve got to integrate with all these cloud services. And many enterprises are, on top of that, asking them to make apps that are portable across on-premises environments as well as cloud environments or even be able to move between clouds. So just tons of complexity has been thrown at them that’s not specific to or not relevant to the business problems they’re trying to solve.”

And a lot of the development involves re-inventing the wheel to make their applications reliably talk to various other services. The idea behind Dapr is to give developers a single runtime that, out of the box, provides the tools that developers need to build event-driven microservices. Among other things, Dapr provides various building blocks for things like service-to-service communications, state management, pub/sub and secrets management.

Image Credits: Dapr

“The goal with Dapr was: let’s take care of all of the mundane work of writing one of these cloud-native distributed, highly available, scalable, secure cloud services, away from the developers so they can focus on their code. And actually, we took lessons from serverless, from Functions-as-a-Service where with, for example Azure Functions, it’s event-driven, they focus on their business logic and then things like the bindings that come with Azure Functions take care of connecting with other services,” Russinovich said.

He also noted that another goal here was to do away with language-specific models and to create a programming model that can be leveraged from any language. Enterprises, after all, tend to use multiple languages in their existing code, and a lot of them are now looking at how to best modernize their existing applications — without throwing out all of their current code.

As Russinovich noted, the project now has more than 700 contributors outside of Microsoft (though the core commuters are largely from Microsoft) and a number of businesses started using it in production before the 1.0 release. One of the larger cloud providers that is already using it is Alibaba. “Alibaba Cloud has really fallen in love with Dapr and is leveraging it heavily,” he said. Other organizations that have contributed to Dapr include HashiCorp and early users like ZEISS, Ignition Group and New Relic.

And while it may seem a bit odd for a cloud provider to be happy that its competitors are using its innovations already, Russinovich noted that this was exactly the plan and that the team hopes to bring Dapr into a foundation soon.

“We’ve been on a path to open governance for several months and the goal is to get this into a foundation. […] The goal is opening this up. It’s not a Microsoft thing. It’s an industry thing,” he said — but he wasn’t quite ready to say to which foundation the team is talking.

 

Justice Through Code is a free coding program for those impacted by the criminal justice system

People who have spent time in jail or prison often face barriers to accessing stable jobs, housing and financial services. These types of barriers are a key driver of recidivism for the more than 600,000 people who are released from prison each year. Between 2005 and 2014, an estimated 68% of people released in 2005 were arrested again within three years. Within nine years, 83% of those released in 2005 were rearrested, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Justice Through Code, a semester-long coding and interpersonal skills intensive that takes place at Columbia University, aims to provide alternative paths for people once they reenter society.

Throughout the semester, students learn the fundamentals of Python and other computer science basics. They also receive career coaching, public speaking training, and learn negotiation skills and how to write a resume. Once students complete the program, Justice Through Code, which held its first cohort last year with just over 30 students, puts them in touch with its partners for paid internships and jobs.

Of the students in the first cohort who were interested in finding jobs or internships after the program, more than 80% of them were placed in relevant roles within six months, Justice Through Code founder Aedan Macdonald told TechCrunch. Antwan Bolden (pictured above) is one of the graduates who secured an internship after the program. Bolden has been interning full time at Columbia in the school’s IT department since December.

“It was just amazing that within one year of me coming across that flyer [for Justice Through Code] on Facebook, I’m actually working an internship at Columbia,” Bolden told TechCrunch. “And it’s just been tremendous. I mean, it’s been nonstop learning every single day.”

Before that, Bolden spent time at Emergent Works, where he helped build a no-police alternative to 911.

“It really gave me my first opportunity of using the theory that I learned in the program in a work setting,” Bolden said.

Justice Through Code works with a handful of tech partners to support its program and its students. Amazon Web Services, for example, provides laptops to students who need them while technologists from Google, Slack and Coursera speak to students on their experiences in tech.

AWS has yet to hire folks from the program but AWS Senior Manager of Corporate Reputation Sofia Mata-Leclerc says the company is excited to present opportunities to graduates.

“It’s definitely our intention to hire individuals from this program,” Mata-Leclerc told TechCrunch.

Justice Through Code is now accepting applications for its third cohort, which Macdonald says he hopes will have a class size of up to 60 people. While Justice Through Code does not require applicants to have any prior coding experience, the program does want participants to be comfortable using computers. The application process also seeks to determine how well someone may be equipped to deal with the frustrations that come with learning how to code.

“So much of learning how to code is being in a kind of state where you don’t know everything,” Macdonald said. “And it can be highly frustrating. And so I think seeing how the process of how people work through problems [is beneficial]. We do a couple logic problems in the interview, and it’s really not a matter of does somebody have the answer to this, but we actually have questions in pairs. So if somebody struggles on one question, we’ll go through in detail how to solve that and then see what their process is of applying that same principle of logic to the subsequent question that utilizes the same principle. So … how people are responding in a learning environment, as well as kind of curiosity about the the industry and just a real drive to succeed if they’re selected to participate in the program.”

Justice Through Code is not the only program that serves folks impacted by the criminal justice system. The Last Mile teaches folks business and coding skills while incarcerated, and similarly has partnerships in place with tech companies to help returned citizens find jobs.

Macdonald, who himself spent time in prison, says he hopes Justice Through Code can help to shift “the negative stereotypes of the formerly incarcerated as not having any future beyond a minimum wage job.”

Datadog to acquire application security management platform Sqreen

Cloud monitoring platform Datadog has announced that it plans to acquire Sqreen, a software-as-a-service security platform. Originally founded in France, Sqreen participated in TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield in 2016.

Sqreen is a cloud-based security product to protect your application directly. Once you install the sandboxed Sqreen agent, it analyzes your application in real time to find vulnerabilities in your code or your configuration. There’s a small CPU overhead with Sqreen enabled, but there are some upsides.

It can surface threats and you can set up your own threat detection rules. You can see the status of your application from the Sqreen dashboard, receive notifications when there’s an incident and get information about incidents.

For instance, you can see blocked SQL injections, see where the injection attempts came from and act to prevent further attempts. Sqreen also detects common attacks, such as credential stuffing attacks, cross-site scripting, etc. As your product evolves, you can enable different modules from the plugin marketplace.

Combining Datadog and Sqreen makes a lot of sense as many companies already rely on Datadog to monitor their apps. Sqreen has a good product, Datadog has a good customer base. So you can expect some improvements on the security front for Datadog.

The company raised a $2.3 million round from Alven Capital, Point Nine Capital, Kima Ventures, 50 Partners and business angels. It then participated in TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield — it made it to the finals but didn’t win the competition. The startup attended Y Combinator a bit later.

In 2019, Sqreen raised a $14 million Series A round led by Greylock Partners with existing investors Y Combinator, Alven and Point Nine participating once again.

Datadog and Sqreen have signed a definitive acquisition agreement. Terms of the deal remain undisclosed and the acquisition should close in Q2 2021.