Category Archives: Tech News

April Underwood is now Slack’s chief product officer

Posted by on 4 April, 2018

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Former Twitter product lead April Underwood is getting another promotion this morning, now rising to the role of chief product officer of what aims to be the dead-simple employee communications platform Slack, according to Fortune.

Underwood previously served as director of product at Twitter, where she worked for five years before joining Slack as its head of platform. Shortly after that Underwood was promoted to the company’s VP of product, and will now serve as the company’s first chief product officer. These kinds of promotions imply some additional responsibility — especially as Slack looks to diversify and pitch itself as a more robust product than just a messenger — but also another point of maturation for Slack. The company hired its first chief financial officer, Allen Shim, in February this year.

Slack is one of those companies that faces a tense push-and-pull as it looks to get into larger and larger enterprises, which all have niche needs. The company is a darling in Silicon Valley thanks to its very simple interface, but with companies with thousands (or, eventually, tens of thousands of employees) just a tool with groups and direct messages could easily become unwieldy. That’s why Slack has invested in a variety of tools, including rolling out threaded messaging a little more than a year ago. Slack is likely one of those companies that gets hundreds of feature requests a year for larger businesses that have niche use cases, but it still has to demonstrate that it’s a simple product without hitting feature creep status.

Underwood getting more authority over that evolution (of which she was already a huge part, including the development of threaded messages) is another signal that the company is looking to tap her consumer background at Twitter to create some kind of middle ground between feeling like a satisfying consumer product while still operating as an enterprise tool. Slack is increasingly looking to apply machine learning to help employees get to answers right away, and it still has to take the same kind of care in rolling out new features that satisfy the needs of larger organizations without sacrificing that simplicity that made it a darling in the first place.

Slack most recently hit a $5.1 billion valuation in a recent investment round, and said it had around 6 million daily active users in September last year. That might be small-ish compared to the size and scale of Twitter, but as something geared toward internal communications at companies, that level of engagement in the workplace is going to increasingly be a selling point for the company as it looks to grow into that valuation.

Zendesk hits $500M run rate, launches enterprise content management platform

Posted by on 3 April, 2018

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Over the last several years, Zendesk has been making the transition from a company that caters mostly to small businesses to one with larger enterprise customers — and their revenue reflects that. The company announced it has crossed the $.5 billion annual run rate since its last earning report in February. It also announced a new enterprise content management product specifically geared for large customer service organizations.

The company was just shy of the goal after its most recent earnings report (pdf) with $123.4 million for the quarter. They say they have since passed that goal, but have not announced it until now, based on revenue that closed March 31, 2018. The company is projecting between $555 and $565 million in revenue for fiscal 2018, according to its last earnings report. When you consider that when the company went public in 2014, it was at $100 million in annual revenue, reaching a half billion dollars in 4 years is significant.

Zendesk reports that 40 percent of its revenue now comes from larger enterprise customers, which they define as 100 seats or more. The company is predicting it will cross the $1 billion run rate by some time in 2020.

“When we IPOed, our run rate was $100 million. We had great momentum, but we were seen as SMB scaling to mid market. To reach a half a billion dollars shows momentum for building up enterprise market and enterprise products,” Adrian McDermott, Zendesk’s president of products told TechCrunch.

As for the new product, it’s called Guide Enterprise and it’s designed to provide those larger customer service organizations with a knowledge base and a content management platform for editorial planning and review. The idea is to empower customer service reps to write up solutions to problems they encounter and build up that knowledge base as part of the natural act of doing their jobs.

Zendesk Guide Enterprise. Photo: Zendesk

That gives organizations a couple of advantages. First of all, the reps can find their fellow employees’ notes and not have to reinvent the wheel every time, and the notes and articles they write can pass through editorial review and become part of the permanent knowledge base.

When customers hit the site or app, they can access solutions to common problems before having to talk to a human. The platform also includes reminders to check the content regularly so the knowledge base stays fresh and stale content is removed.

Finally, the company is applying AI to the problem. The artificial intelligence component can review the corpus of information currently available in the entire knowledge base and identify gaps in content that the company might want to add, allowing for proactive content creation.

The content management idea isn’t new to Zendesk. McDermott says they shipped the first content management product years ago, but what’s different is that this is geared to larger organizations and that the AI piece allows for some automation of this process. “The new workflow brings rich AI concepts like content analytics into the publishing flow,” he said.

Stackery lands $5.5 million for serverless platform

Posted by on 3 April, 2018

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When Stackery’s founders were still at New Relic in 2014, they recognized there was an opportunity to provide instrumentation for the emerging serverless tech market. They left the company after New Relic’s IPO and founded Stackery with the goal of providing a governance and management layer for serverless architecture.

The company had a couple of big announcements today starting with their $5.5 million round, which they are calling a “seed plus” — and a new tool for tracking serverless performance called the Health Metrics Dashboard.

Let’s start with the funding round. Why the Seed Plus designation? Company co-founder and CEO Nathan Taggart says they could have done an A round, but the designation was a reflection of the reality of where their potential market is today. “From our perspective, there was an appetite for an A, but the Seed Plus represents the current stage of the market,” he said. That stage is still emerging as companies begin to see the benefits of the serverless approach.

HWVP led the round. Voyager Capital, Pipeline Capital Partners, and Founders’ Co-op also participated. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $7.3 million since the company was founded in 2016.

Serverless computing like AWS Lambda or Azure Functions is a bit of a misnomer. There is a server underlying the program, but instead of maintaining a dedicated server for your particular application, you only pay when there is a trigger event. Like cloud computing that came before, developers love it because it saves them a ton of time configuring (or begging) for resources for their applications.

But as with traditional cloud computing — serverless is actually a cloud service — developers can easily access it. If you think back to the Consumerization of IT phenomenon that began around 2011, it was this ability to procure cloud services so easily that resulted in a loss of control inside organizations.

As back then, companies want the advantages of serverless technology, but they also want to know how much they are paying, who’s using it and that it’s secure and in compliance with all the rules of the organization. That’s where Stackery comes in.

As for the new Health Metrics Dashboard, that’s an extension of this vision, one that fits in quite well with the monitoring roots of the founders. Serverless often involves containers, which can encompass many functions. When something goes wrong it’s hard to trace what the root cause was.

Stackery Health Metrics Dashboard. Photo: Stackery

“We are are showing architecture-wide throughput and performance at each resource point and [developers] can figure out where there are bottlenecks, performance problems or failure.

The company launched in 2016. It is based in Portland, Oregon and currently has 9 employees, of which five are engineers. They plan to bring on three more by the end of the year.

SalesLoft soars with $50 M Series C

Posted by on 3 April, 2018

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SalesLoft, an Atlanta-based startup that helps companies manage the contact phase of the sales process, announced a $50 million Series C today.

Insight Venture Partners was lead investor with participation from LinkedIn and Emergence Capital, which also participated in the company’s A and B rounds. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $75 million, so this was a significant capital infusion.

What attracted investors was that SalesLoft has concentrated on an area of the sales pipeline called ‘sales engagement.’ It provides a framework for sales people around how to contact potential customers, how often and with what language. It is significant enough that it caught the attention of Jeff Horing, co-founder and managing director at Insight Venture Partners, who was willing to write a big check.

He sees sales engagement an emerging and fast-growing area of the sales stack. “SalesLoft consistently helps customers increase their pipelines, but also strengthen their relationships with buyers — that’s a huge differentiator,” Horing said in a statement.

Kyle Porter, co-founder and CEO at SalesLoft says that what his company does is essentially create a contact workflow for the sales team. It provides a framework or blueprint, while applying a measurable structure to the process for management. Whether the sale is successful or not, there is an audit trail of all the interactions and what the software recommended for actions and what actions the sales person took.

That involves providing the sales team with the next best actions, which could be an email, a phone call or even a handwritten note.”The suggested email content and phone scripts come from experience with buyers. Here’s the right way to communicate,” Porter said. “At the end of the day, we are enabling our customers to deliver better sales experience,” he added.

The software can recommend the best person to email next with suggested text. Photo: SalesLoft

Machine learning will play an increasing role in building that workflow, as the system learns what types of interactions work best for certain types of customers, it will learn from that, and the system’s recommendations should improve over time.

It appears to be working. The company, which launched in 2011, currently has 230 employees and over 2000 customers including Square, Cisco, Alteryx, Dell and MuleSoft (which Salesforce bought last month for $6.5 billion.) The company reported that they have increased revenue over the last two years by 800 percent (yes, 800 percent).

Porter says this money sets them up to really scale the company with plans to reach 350 employees by the end of the year. In fact, they have more than 40 openings at the moment.

InVision acquires design visibility tool Wake

Posted by on 3 April, 2018

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InVision, the NY-based design platform focused on collaboration, has today announced the acquisition of Wake.

Wake is a design tool focused squarely on supporting design visibility throughout a particular organization. Wake allows companies to share design assets and view work in progress as designers build out their screens, logos, or other designs. Design team leaders, or other higher-ups at the company, can upvote certain design projects or give feedback on specific tweaks.

InVision CEO Clark Valberg said that one of the most attractive features of Wake is that sharing on the Wake platform was implicit, rather than on InVision where designers have to take an extra step to upload their prototypes on InVision.

Wake will continue to operate independently within InVision, and Valberg has plans to integrate some of the Wake tools into the InVision core product. Moreover, as part of the deal, Wake will be introducing a free tier.

“We’re in the midst of a shift,” said CEO Clark Valberg. “The screen is the most important place in the world. Every company is now a digital product company. The world of design is growing and the Wake product represents a very interesting philosophical vector of that market.”

The entire Wake team will join InVision. Wake was founded in 2013 by Chris Kalani and Johan Bakken, with a customer list that includes Capital One, Spotify, Palantir, Stripe, and Airbnb. In fact, InVision’s Valberg said that Wake’s customer overlap with InVision was one of the first things that alerted InVision to Wake.

Wake has raised a total of $3.8 million, with investments from FirstMark Capital and Design Fund.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

JPMorgan’s blockchain head is leaving to start her own business

Posted by on 3 April, 2018

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JPMorgan’s key blockchain executive is departing the bank for the world of startups, it has emerged.

Amber Baldet heads up JPMorgan’s Blockchain Center of Excellence, which explores the development of distributed ledger technology and uses cases of blockchain technology across the firm’s business. A high-profile figure in the blockchain space in her own right, she is leaving to start her venture, according to Reuters.

Baldet set up JPMorgan’s blockchain strategy and headed up its enterprise-focused Quorum blockchain, which is reportedly being considered for a spinout. As Baldet’s six-year tenure at the bank ends, she will be replaced by Christine Moy, who led blockchain services across the bank’s Investor Services and Capital Markets segments, according to Fortune.

The exit is an example of a talent drain that is beginning to take shape in banking and financial services with engineers and business execs moving over to blockchain and crypto projects that are seen to have serious growth potential.

That’s despite a rocky year to date for crypto, at least in terms of valuations.

Bitcoin reached nearly $20,000 per coin in December but it spent much of March below $10,000. As of today, one bitcoin is worth $7,387, according to Coinmarketcap.com. Top tokens like Ethereum, Litecoin and Ripple are also down significantly on their record January-December prices.

There’s a strong case to be made that a more stable crypto market is for the best, even if there is a loss in value. High prices led to high transaction fees, which made life difficult for developers whilst also adding uncertainty for market speculators and token collectors.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life. (That’s definitely the case lately.)

Apple, in a very Apple move, is reportedly working on its own Mac chips

Posted by on 2 April, 2018

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Apple is planning to use its own chips for its Mac devices, which could replace the Intel chips currently running on its desktop and laptop hardware, according to a report from Bloomberg.

Apple already designs a lot of custom silicon, including its chipsets like the W-series for its Bluetooth headphones, the S-series in its watches, its A-series iPhone chips, as well as customized GPU for the new iPhones. In that sense, Apple has in a lot of ways built its own internal fabless chip firm, which makes sense as it looks for its devices to tackle more and more specific use cases and remove some of its reliance on third parties for their equipment. Apple is already in the middle of in a very public spat with Qualcomm over royalties, and while the Mac is sort of a tertiary product in its lineup, it still contributes a significant portion of revenue to the company.

Creating an entire suite of custom silicon could do a lot of things for Apple, the least of which bringing in the Mac into a system where the devices can talk to each other more efficiently. Apple already has a lot of tools to shift user activities between all its devices, but making that more seamless means it’s easier to lock users into the Apple ecosystem. If you’ve ever compared connecting headphones with a W1 chip to the iPhone and just typical Bluetooth headphones, you’ve probably seen the difference, and that could be even more robust with its own chipset. Bloomberg reports that Apple may implement the chips as soon as 2020.

Intel may be the clear loser here, and the market is reflecting that. Intel’s stock is down nearly 8% after the report came out, as it would be a clear shift away from the company’s typical architecture where it has long held its ground as Apple moves on from traditional silicon to its own custom designs. Apple, too, is not the only company looking to design its own silicon, with Amazon looking into building its own AI chips for Alexa in another move to create a lock-in for the Amazon ecosystem. And while the biggest players are looking at their own architecture, there’s an entire suite of startups getting a lot of funding building custom silicon geared toward AI.

Apple declined to comment.

Microsoft launches 2 new Azure regions in Australia

Posted by on 2 April, 2018

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Microsoft continues its steady pace of opening up new data centers and launching new regions for its Azure cloud. Today, the company announced the launch of two new regions in Australia. To deliver these new regions, Azure Australia Central and Central 2, Microsoft entered a strategic partnership with Canberra Data Centers and unsurprisingly, the regions are located in the country’s capital territory around Canberra. These new central regions complement Microsoft’s existing data center presence in Australia, which previously focused on the business centers of Sydney and Melbourne.

Given the location in Canberra, it’s also no surprise that Microsoft is putting an emphasis on its readiness for handling government workloads on its platform. Throughout its announcement, the company also emphasizes that all of its Australia data centers are also the right choice for its customers in New Zealand.

Julia White, Microsoft corporate VP for Azure, told me last month that the company’s strategy around its data center expansion has always been about offering a lot of small regions to allow it to be close to its customers (and, in return, to allow its customers to be close to their own customers, too). “The big distinction is the number of regions we have. “White said. “Microsoft started its infrastructure approach focused on enterprise organizations and built lots of regions because of that. We didn’t pick this regional approach because it’s easy or because it’s simple, but because we believe this is what our customers really want.”

Azure currently consists of 50 available or announced regions. Over time, more of these will also feature numerous availability zones inside every region, though for now, this recently announced feature is only present in two regions.

Activist investors Elliott snag 10.3 percent stake in Commvault

Posted by on 2 April, 2018

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Elliott Management, an investment firm long known for its activist streak, set it sights on Commvault today, purchasing a 10.3 percent stake and nominating four Elliott-friendly members to the company’s board of directors. It likely means that Elliott is ready to push the company to change direction and cut costs, if it sticks to its regular MO.

As an older public company founded in 1988 with a strong product, but weak stock performance, Commvault represents just the kind of company Elliott tends to target. In its letter outlining why it acquired its stake in Commvault, it presented a stark picture of a company in decline.

As just one small example, Elliott discussed the stock performance and it didn’t pull punches or mince words when it stated:

“Commvault’s strategy, operations, execution and leadership over the past eight years have failed to generate returns to shareholders, despite a leadership position in a growing market with a product set that customers like and competitors respect. Commvault’s underperformance has been so profound that an investor would have been better off buying the NASDAQ index instead of Commvault’s stock on 99% of trading days in the last eight years. …”

Ouch.

As it is wont to do, Elliott buys a stake and then forces its way onto the board of directors and this deal is no different where it will be adding 4 members:

“Given the long-term issues at the Company, we believe the Board would benefit from fresh perspectives, primarily in the area of operational execution, software go-to-market experience and current technology expertise. The level of required change at the Company is significant and requires a Board with new and relevant experiences to guide the Company’s turnaround. We have been involved in dozens of similar situations and have worked constructively with many companies to add top-tier, C-suite executives and experienced Board members to these companies. For Commvault, we are submitting a group of highly qualified director nominees with what we believe is the right experience to help guide the Company on its path forward.”

As some examples of that past experience it alluded to in the letter, Elliott bought a stake in EMC in 2014 and began to pressure the Board to sell its stake in VMware. The company turned back the attempt and eventually sold out to Dell for $67 billion, still giving Elliott a nice return on its one percent investment in the company, no doubt.

More recently, it bought a  6.5 percent stake in Akamai in December. At the next earnings call in February, the company announced it was laying off 400 employees, which accounted for almost 5 percent of the worldwide workforce. The layoffs are consistent with cost cutting that tends to happen when Elliott buys a stake in a company.

What happens next for Commvault is difficult to say, but investors obviously think there is going to be some movement as the stock is up over 11 percent as of this writing. Chances are they are onto something, and given Elliott’s track record they are probably right.

SiFive gets $50.6M to help companies get their custom chip designs out the door

Posted by on 2 April, 2018

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With the race to next-generation silicon in full swing, the waterfall of venture money flowing into custom silicon startups is already showing an enormous amount of potential for some more flexible hardware for an increasingly changing technology landscape — and Naveed Sherwani hopes to tap that for everyone else.

That’s the premise of SiFive, a startup that’s designed to help entrepreneurs — or any company — come up with a custom designed chip for their needs. But rather than having to raise tens of millions of dollars from a venture firm or have a massive production system in place, SiFive’s goal is to help get that piece of silicon in the hands of the developer quickly so they can see if it actually works based off a set of basic hardware and IP offered, and then figure out when and how to move it into full-scale production. The company starts by offering templates and then allows them to make some modifications for what eventually ends up as a piece of RISC-V silicon that’s in their hands. SiFive today said it has raised $50.6 million in venture financing in a round led by Sutter Hill Ventures, Spark Capital, and Osage University Partners.

“The way we view it, is that we think we should not depend on people learning special languages and things of that nature to be able to modify the architecture and enhance the architecture,” Sherwani said. “What we believe is there could be a high-level interface, which is what we’re building, which will allow people to take existing cores, bring them into their design space, and then apply a configuration. Moving those configurations, you can modify the core, and then you can get the new modified core. That’s the approach we take, we don’t have to learn a special language or be an expert, it’s the way we present the core. We’d like to start with cores that are verified, and each of these modifications does not cause to become non-verifiable.”

SiFive is based on a design framework for silicon called RISC-V. You could consider it a kind of open source analog to designs by major chip fab firms, but the goal for RISC-V chips is to lean on the decades of experience since the original piece of silicon came out of Intel to develop something that is less messy while still getting the right tasks done. Sherwani says that RISC-V chips have more than 50 instruction sets while common chips will have more than 1,000. By nature, they aren’t at the kind of scale of an Intel, so the kinds of efficiencies those firms might have don’t exist. But SiFive hopes to serve a wide array of varying needs rather than mass-producing a single style of silicon.

There are two flows for developers looking to build out silicon using SiFive. First is the prototype flow, where developers will get a chance to spec out their silicon and figure out their specific needs. The goal there is to get something into the hands of the developer they can use to showcase their ideas or technology, and SiFive works with IP vendors and other supply chain partners — during this time, developers aren’t paying for IP. Once the case is proved out (and the startup has, perhaps, raised money based on that idea) they can switch to a production flow with SiFive where they will start paying for IP and services. There’s also a potential marketplace element as more and more people come up with novel ideas for operational cores.

“For any segment in the market there will be a few templates available,” Sherwani said. “We’ll have some tools and methodologies there, and among all the various templates are available show what would be the best for [that customer]. We also have an app store — we are expecting people who have designed cores who are willing two share it, because they don’t need it to be proprietary. If anyone uses that template, then whatever price they can put on it, they can make some money doing that. This whole idea of marketplaces will get more people excited.”

As there is an intense rush to develop new customized silicon, it may be that services like the ones offered by SiFive become more and more necessary. But there’s another element to the bet behind SiFive: making the chip itself less ambiguous and trying to remove black boxes. That doesn’t necessarily make it wildly more secure than the one next to it, but at the very least, it means when there is a major security flaw like Intel’s Spectre problems, there may be a bit more tolerance from the developer community because there are fewer black boxes.

“All these complications are there and unless you have all this expertise, you can’t do a chip,” Sherwani said. “Our vision is that we deliver the entire chip experience to that platform and people can be able to log in. They don’t need a team, any tools, they don’t need FPGAs because all those will be available on the web. As a result the cost goes down because it’s a shared economy, they’re sharing tools, and that is how we think dramatically you can do chips at much lower cost.”

While there is a lot of venture money flowing into the AI chip space — with many different interpretations of what that hardware looks like — Sherwani said the benefit of working with SiFive is to be able to rapidly adapt an idea to a changing algorithm. Developers have already proven out a lot of different tools and frameworks, but once a piece of silicon is in production it’s not easy to change on the fly. Should those best practices or algorithms change, developers will have an opportunity to reassess and redesign the chip as quickly as possible.

The idea of that custom silicon is going to be a big theme going forward as more and more use cases emerge that could be easier with a customized piece of hardware. Already there are startups like Mythic and SambaNova Systems, which have raised tens of millions of dollars and specialize in the rapid-fire calculations for typical AI processes. But this kind of technology is now showing up in devices ranging from an autonomous vehicle to a fridge, and each use case may carry different needs. Intel and other chip design firms probably can’t hit every niche, and the one-size-fits-all (or even something more modular like an FPGA from Intel) might not hit each sweet spot. That, in theory, is the hole that a company like SiFive could fill.

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