There’s an excellent, slightly scatological article in The Atlantic on computer scientist Larry Smarr’s quest for the quantified self. The article is by Mark Bowden of Black Hawk Down fame. If you’re interested in the intersection of Big Data, metrics and medicine you should check it out.
On a related note, I recently come across a profile in the New York Times on tenXer, a startup that claims it can turn a ‘1x’ engineer into a ‘10x’ one through data-mining and gamification. The Economist also picked up on tenXer, showing that if nothing else, they have a flair for PR. The media interest derives no doubt from TenXer’s remarkable founder Jeff Ma, a former member of the MIT BlackJack Team featured in the film ‘21’.
I signed up for their beta test to check it out. I don’t want to rush to judgement based solely on their beta, so take this with a grain of salt: From what I’ve seen, their approach is shallow, to the extent that I wonder how much they really understand the great sausage factory of software development. In an interview, Ma states that software is just the start, rather than the sole focus of tenXer; if so, the lack of depth is understandable.
The basic idea is that they gather metrics (counts of check-in’s, lines-changed, emails sent, bugs fixed, etc.) from a variety of sources (GMail, Pivotal Tracker, GitHub, Phabricator and Jira to start with) and provide visualization tools to help you track your “progress” and encouragements to beat your prior bests.
I have two concerns: First, how all these stats relate to effective software development is unclear. Contrast tenXer with the depth of Larry Smarr’s inquiries into his health. Smarr understands that without a model of how it fits together, data is meaningless.
My second concern is that tenXer is all about individual performance. Software development is a team sport, so beware the local optima. The last thing you want is someone optimizing his personal check-in rate to make the tenXer leader board.
Still, I think this is a startup to watch. Data mining is the wave of the future in software engineering and it’s great to see startups moving into this space.
(Full-disclosure: TenXer is funded by Google Ventures and my bank account is funded by Google, Inc. The opinions expressed here are my own. Google Ventures is unaware of my existence, etc. etc.)