2019 Retrospective Post

🙃 Can’t believe 2019 is over. Fun was had, life was lived. So let’s talk about it

Tech

Most of my work in 2019 was split between conversational technologies (bots and such), Flutter, some Machine Learning and finally some Blockchain stuff. So here is a quick recap of the year:

🤖 Chatbots

I spent a lot of time this year evaluating various technologies in the context of virtual conversational assistants. I still remain very passionately a believer in the chatbots space and even with the fervor around that space dying out with the whole “Bots are the new apps” idea not really happening.

As with a lot of domains of technology right now (VR, Blockchains, etc), the dying out of the initial mania is allowing some really interesting work proceed and evolve the space without a harsh spotlight and investors expecting 10x returns in 2 years.

The problems in that space (IMHO) right now really come down to the facts that:

  • Writing bot dialogue is hard and manually authored conversation trees can’t scale
  • Tools for authoring and previewing bot dialogues are poor
  • AI-based systems that can hold a true dynamic conversation aren’t really there yet and
  • There is very little exploration of the user-experience beyond text and animated gifs.

I still really believe that we will need virtual agents as proxies for ourselves and services we interact with as the digital world becomes more complex. It’ll be interesting to see if this space evolves or becomes the next IVR system that no-one loves

Flutter

Speaking of user-experience, I played a lot with Flutter this year and have already written about it in a previous post. There are 3 reasons I like Flutter:

  • It’s a cross-platform tool that gives me a lot of control over the graphics (unlike, say, React-Native)
  • Dart is enjoyable to code in, having co-opted the best parts of JavaScript/TypeScript and then gone beyond it
  • It’s pushing a culture of advanced UI’s that are simple to build which I felt kinda suffered when Flash died

The fact that Google commissioned GSkinner.com to create some amazing UIs that they gave away the code for others to use in their apps just underscores the kind of experiences they wish people would create with it. Here’s hoping Flutter gets more adopted in 2020

Machine Learning

I finally got to work on some Machine Learning based projects this year which was interesting. While I wouldn’t call myself competent in that domain yet, I feel I could get there in 2020 (hopefully). I am also very interested in the emergence of higher-level tools that make working with ML even easier, like Uber’s Ludwig and tools like RunwayML.

One particular area of ML that I got into this year was Affective Computing. I am fascinated by the idea of empathetic systems (whether they use AI or not) and exploring the area of Affective Computing gave me a lot to think about. Some of that I even shared at a couple of conferences this year, including the PHLAI conference.

Blockchains

I wish I had done more with Blockchains this year, but my efforts in that space this year were mostly limited to managing the Comcast Blockchain Guild, attending the local Ethereum meetup and the Philly BlockchainTech meetup and trying to keep up with the torrent of news coming out of the dev community. My personal goal is to do a little more hands-on coding in that space again in 2020 🤞

Conferences

I attended a few conferences this year which were very different from one another

  • Google IO was really inspirational with a lot of ideas to come back with. It is amazing to see how much Google has embraced AI and the kinds of experiences AI has enabled. I actually kept the Android sessions I attended this year to a minimum as I was getting a lot more interested in other spaces like AI, Flutter and Firebase. I was also very pleasantly surprised by the Chrome experiences on display at IO. Its amazing to see how far the web platform has come.
  • My favorite tech conference of the year had to be EyeO Festival. The conference explores the space at the intersection of art and technology and had some truly inspiring sessions with amazing speakers. You can check out my Twitter thread of some of the sessions I attended but I’d strongly encourage you to check out as many of the sessions as you can from Eyeo 2019 on Vimeo
  • I spoke at PHLAI on Affective AI. Had a lot of imposter-syndrome going on given that I was speaking at an AI/ML conference with some very high profile speakers
  • I was at a panel on Smart Contracts at Coinvention 2019 moderated by the amazing Thomas Jay Rush (of Quickblocks.io)
  • Attended the Blockchain and Other Networks conference by TTI Vanguard which was really interesting, especially with a format where every attendee could interrupt the speaker at any time if they had a question. Someone later recognized me there as “oh yeah, you are the one with all the questions” 😜

Books

Read a bunch of books, half-read even more. Life is too short for bad books 😉 Here is the list of the books that I did complete:

Personal

On a more personal front, 2019 was definitely a great year. I finally got engaged and bought a place in the city (Fishtown, Philadelphia). So far, doing this whole adult thing has been pretty good 😁

A Quick 2018 Retrospective

I am a little behind on my 2018 review, seeing that its almost mid Jan already. But better late than never, so here goes

VR

2018 continued to be a year of tremendous education professionally. For a big part of the year I continued to work in the VR space, specifically using A-Frame and WebVR. I am definitely a fan of WebVR and I really do believe that the app model that is prevalent in the mobile ecosystems is a bad idea for VR. I completely agree with the vision of VR being a web of experiences, and the web technology stack has matured to a point where deploying a VR experience is trivial. Hopefully more people will take up building VR experiences in JavaScript and WebVR. What the community really needs is a diversity of ideas and to grow VR beyond its early base of gamers.

While it was a lot of fun, I am looking at other things beyond VR this year and am excited for certain new ideas I am playing with. Will share more on that later.

Blockchains

I did a fair bit of work on Blockchains in 2018, mostly at the Dapp level. Its early days for this space but I do believe they present a once in a generation opportunity for a step function change in how we use technology. There is a lot of pessimism about the space right now, after the unrealistic craziness that was the 2018 bubble when Bitcoin hit $19,000 but I am excited about where the tech is going.

I spoke at a panel at the Coinvention Conference on the Philly Blockchain scene (Thanks Mike) as well as at the inaugural session of the Drexel Blockchain club (Thanks Adit)

That’s me, that pink blob there!

Besides these, I did work on a LOT of JavaScript and Rails which has been pretty rewarding and learned a lot about Google’s cloud infrastructure, specially Firebase. I need to distill a lot of that into a future blogpost

Reading

I did a fair bit of reading this year but I did abandon a lot of books halfway. I am trying to be okay with that rather than pushing through a bad book, just to complete it. I wish there was a better app than Goodreads for books though

Misc

Some other things that happened this year:

  • Philly Google Developer Group (GDG) continues to go strong in its 8th (!) year since its start as AndroidPhilly in 2011. Its a great community that I look forward to meeting at least once a month and have made some great friends there.
  • I didn’t travel as much for work this year, which was good. My favorite event though was the MIT Media Lab’s Fall Member Event. I do like all the demos that the Media Labs groups present but the best part is the talks with other sponsors from different organizations.
  • I worked with a lot of interns and co-ops this year, mostly from Drexel, and I loved it. These guys and girls are smart, enthusiastic and I find conversations with them refreshing since they question a lot of assumptions I often have. Maybe I should consider some work in academia 😉

2019 is guaranteed to be a year of many changes and I am excited for most of them. Stay tuned.

2017 Retrospective

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2017: The year in a gif

2017 was an intense year of learning for me. A change of charter for the labs group I work in late last year meant we focused deeper on core technology which was exciting as a technologist. This year that list included Unity, WebVR, Blender, React, React Native, Ruby on Rails and Blockchains (specifically Ethereum). Phew!

Oh! And I got recognized by Philadelphia Business Journal as one of the city’s 10 Technical Disruptors to watch

A big part of this year for me was centered around building Virtual Reality experiences. The first half of the year was focused around building these experiences in Unity which is a very different environment to work in compared to as XCode or Android Studio (which I was deep into last year) but more reminiscent of my previous work in Flash. I really do enjoy Unity and this year made me truly appreciate the game development process. My friend and colleague Jack Zankowski (who did most of the design for our earlier VR work) gave a talk on our early VR experiences at a WiCT event early this year.

However later in the year, we started doing a lot more work in WebVR which, though flaky at times, with platform-specific eccentricities, still was a much faster way to prototype VR experiences. Using AFrame, ThreeJS and WebGL  was a fantastic learning experience and hopefully I can do more web animation and 3d graphics work, with or without VR, next year.

I gave a talk on building WebVR experiences at PhillyGDG that you can find below.

One thing I didn’t see coming was how much time I’d end up spending with Blender this year. I had never worked with 3d modeling tools before but our VR project needed 3D models and since I have some experience with illustration and design (I used to work as a freelance illustrator), that task fell on me. In the last 4 months of working with Blender I have gone from god-awful to okay-ish.

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Blender work in progress

 

Another project I was very involved with was an internal knowledge portal for our team that we built with ReactJS and Express. Having never done React till before this year, that was educational as well, and I completely fell in love with it (even given its weird licenses though hopefully thats starting to change).

The project also made me look deeper into React Native as a platform for mobile experiences. Late last year I had started an app (more on that later) that needed a CMS and a native mobile client and gave a talk on that at Modev DC and at React Philly

I built the CMS in Rails, being most familiar with that, though that wasn’t saying much as of last year. This year, I definitely feel I have leveled up my Rails game a bit. Perfect timing as most Rails devs I know are moving to Elixir/Phoenix or Node/Express 😅

A lot of time this year was also spent giving talks on Blockchains to various internal and external groups. Turns out I needn’t have bothered since Crypto-mania swept the US this year and now EVERYONE is talking about Blockchains. But I did get to work on one project on it, so that was cool

That about covers the tech news in 2017, and there are already a few interesting projects in the hopper for 2018. Stay tuned 🙂

2016 Retrospective

Another year passes by.  Here is a quick summary of my professional and academic 2016.

Work
It was a year of a lot of change at work. The make up of the team I work in changed dramatically as we rethought how a corporate labs group should operate. I worked on 2 big projects this year, one exploring the world of bots and messaging platforms and the other around Virtual Reality. The VR project was a great showcase piece which meant a lot of demos at various locations. As used to VR as I have become, its still great to see new people experience it for the first time.

I did a lot more work-travel this year than the previous year (which is saying something) VR on the Lot and Re:Code were probably my 2 most memorable trips, the former at the Paramount Studios Lot and the latter where I demoed our VR app to a few bigwigs in the tech world.

Education
I took a 3 months-ish bootcamp on Entrepreneurship organized by Philly Startup Leaders. It was really educational and I learnt quite a bit on quantitative competition analysis, business model generation etc with talks (and homework) by some of the most successful entrepreneurs in Philadelphia. It was also great to meet some people with a strong “makers streak” in them.

I also spent a couple of weeks at Microsoft (Redmond) learning to code for the Hololens system at their Hololens Academy. Hopefully I’ll be able to carve some time out next year actually do some apps for it.

The other technology I continue to academically investigate is Blockchains and Bitcoin. I am such a fan of the system and its potential to revolutionize the internet. I seem to be having a “I see Blockchains needed everywhere” phase. I started coding some Blockchain based apps this year but didn’t get too far. Hopefully next year I have something to show there.

I also participated in the RET program with UPenn working with teachers from local high schools and PhD graduate students.

Code
I started 2016 working a lot in Swift 2 as we scrambled to finish an iOS app around iOT and bots. We finished that project around March and spent the rest of the year at work mostly in Unity and C#. I have grown to like that system a lot which reminds me of my early years in Flash where creativity and design was so integrated into the engineering process, not the design/developer dichotomy we seem to have drifted back into today with mobile or web apps.

On personal projects I continued to build some Android apps (stay tuned for that in 2017) and learnt enough Ruby on Rails to consider myself fairly proficient at it now.

Android Philly
The Android Philly group I run is still going strong and with a lot of familiar faces there, it has really become a community I enjoy being a part of. One of the big reasons has been the #androidphilly Slack channel on the PhillyDev Slack account that we all connect in in between events.

Android Philly Bootcamp

Talks
I also gave a couple of talks at AndroidPhilly, two at the Coding Bootcamp we organized early this year and one later on building Bot-based apps. I also gave a talk at a Women I Cable Technologies event on VR and a couple of other internal work events.

Patents
I was issued a patent grant on a method for pairing devices this year and another was published on image based group creation. Some others around VR are being moved forward as well, so thats cool.

Books:
The free library continued my reading addiction. Here is what I read this year:

Screen Shot 2016-12-30 at 1.10.31 AM.png

2015 Retrospective

2015 was a eventful year on a lot of fronts. Parts of it were great, and other parts not so much, but one thing it definitely wasn’t was boring.
Tech:
iOS with Swift was definitely the technology I worked on most this year. After some disillusionment on what Swift was trying to be last year, this year was a lot more about just using it for a pretty elaborate app (which, unfortuately I cannot share yet, but hopefully soon). Honestly the thing I had a harder time to learn this year was AutoLayouts. I am still not a fan of the system but I can definitely say I am now pretty productive with it.
Besides iOS the other tech I used quite a bit this year was Ruby and Rails. One personal goal I had for the year was to get really comfortable with a serverside framework that I can use to build concepts quickly. This year I worked with enough Rails code to honestly be able to say that.
React was the one JavaScript framework I really dug into and used for the one web based app I did this year. I like it, though I haven’t dug enough into Web Components enough to see how well they compare. I also dug a bit into React Native and did a small project and talk at one of the Android Philly events. It’ll be interesting to see how it evolves.
My projects got a little more “hardware aware”. I looked at a bunch of things happening in the wearable space and the Quantified Self movement. Looking at hardware development was interesting because it brought back all the memories from my undergrad days (my major was in Electronics and Instrumentation). I think next year I will finally dig a lot more into hardware as I get more involved in the larger IoT efforts at Comcast.
Also, am excited that the open source initiative at Comcast continues to gain steam. It was great to be mentioned in the Technically Philly article on that.
User Groups and Events
I continue to co-manage Android Philly and that goes well, but I’d like to see us grow faster.I finally set up an official site for it and have some ideas in store for next year, so I am excited about that.
I was happy to be able to attend a bunch of events this year including CESSXSW, The Quantified Self conference (that CIL sponsored) and The International Festival of Leadership in NY. Also visited a number of companies and institutions in Philly and SF and it continues to blow my mind how awesome the next few years are going to be.
Books
Here is my list of books for the year (GoodReads link). I feel I spent a lot of time reading this year thanks to the Philadelphia Free Library.
Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 11.33.48 AM.png
Next year promises to be very interesting with some really interesting technology coming to users. Its going to be a big year for technologies like VR, smart devices and Bitcoin and I am looking forward to working with them.

The grand 2010 recap post

Wow, cant believe its that time already.

2010 was a pretty great year for me. In Nov 2009 I moved to the User Experience team hoping to be the voice of technology as new projects were conceived and features enhanced. So the year began with me learning the workings of the UX team which was fascinating. The creative process is, not surprisingly, very different from the engineering one, and sitting in those sessions was ridiculously educational. CIM has some pretty fantastic Design and IA folks and I got to learn quite a bit on concepts such as Mental Models, Task oriented design, User Persona’s etc. I also ended up reading a few books on my new role (of which About Face might be the best one, and I recommend it strongly to anyone in the UX/UI domain) which I never would have done if I hadn’t moved to this team.

Suffice to say, if the year needed to be summarized in a word, it would be “educational” 🙂

Around Feb, I also got involved in a prototype for the project that is now the Xfinity iPad app. As a UX prototyper, I was on the 3 people big prototype team that built the demo that was shown at the NCTA event. After that I ended up working with the brand new Advanced Engineering Team as we rushed to get the final product out of the door. My role in the team was not UX really, but implementation. After the initial learning curve of Objective C, I got pretty comfortable with it and actually realized that user interface frameworks and technologies are pretty similar even with syntactical differences. I wrote about the whole Xfinity App development experience here. In the last few months, I have returned to prototyping but these days they have all been functional additions to the iPad app itself.

While I didn’t write as much code for it as the iPad, I have also become extremely passionate about the Android platform. While less polished than its i-Cousin, the deeper I look into the architecture the more awesome it seems. I built a couple of apps for internal demos that ran on Android (in Java) and that was fun. I feel less proficient in the Android UI framework than in UIKit, just by virtue of time spent developing on it, but its something I hope to get better at next year. The Android world definitely lacks the sexy factor that is going on with the iDevices, and I am really hoping that changes both with upcoming OS updates and developer community maturity. I also played around with AIR for Android a little and it seems pretty decent. I am working on a project using that now. The biggest thing that has going for it is not just the familiarity of ActionScript but also the tooling of the Flash IDE. As much flak as it gets, the Flash IDE is rather fantastic for dropping visual assets for an app. I really wish AIR for Android played nicer with the core Android framework, though there are ways of doing that as mentioned in this post by Elad Erom.

EspressoReader, my AIR app for consuming news (currently as a Google Reader client) continues to evolve. Just building something like that has made me learn so much about the way we consume information. It has also gotten me hooked on books on collective intelligence and text analysis. I will release a new version in the coming weeks that I am really excited about. So if you haven’t tried the app out yet, give it a try by installing it from this link to the Adobe AIR Marketplace.

I ended up travelling for work quite a bit this year, attending some pretty fantastic conferences like the NCTA Cable Show, the Web 2.0 Summit and TechCrunch Disrupt. This is a change for me, as these were more about the business and strategy than my usual fare of tech conferences. From my schedule in Jan, looks like this will continue. Btw, I am heading over to CES so if you are heading there as well, send me a holler 🙂

Finally, looking ahead, 2011 seems to be at a great start. There are a lot of changes afoot which I’d love to share soon. So stay tuned 🙂

The obligatory 2009 recap post

I dont think I have done an end of the year post ever, but 2009 was definitely eventful enough so here goes:

Goodbye Flash Team:
I began 2009 less than super excited. The Flash team I had worked with for the previous 4 years was disbanded in an internal reorg and I was now UI lead for the newly formed Cross Platform Engineering team. The team was going to be responsible for some of the most elaborate Rich Internet Applications to come out of Comcast Interactive Media such as the Remote DVR Manager as well as sites like the Video On Demand channel on Fancast.com, but all programming was done in JavaScript and HTML and no Flash at all. This move turned out to be one of the best things personally, since I was forced to learn HTML/JavaScript beyond the basics I knew till then as well as work a lot closer with some of the smartest engineers at CIM. As a result, today I can honestly say I know it as well as I know Flash which is something I couldn’t say earlier.

Fancast onDemand Tooltips
Above: The VOD channel on fancast.com uses a lot of JavaScript based interactions like AJAX based tooltips and client side data storage.

My First Patent
This was easily the best thing to happen in 2009. I worked on Comcast’s Fan for 4 years through 4 different versions of the application. And in July, Comcast was awarded a patent on the application and I was one of the 4 people on the author list.

OpenPyro marches on
Work continues on OpenPyro, the Flash framework, and its getting to be pretty cool. The 0.6 release is very close and has a bunch of optimizations like Lists with recycling renderers, a brand new Effects framework, etc. I haven’t talked a lot about OpenPyro in a while but believe me the commits have been going in pretty regularly.

EspressoReader 2.0 cometh
Earlier in the year I released a desktop client for Google Reader called EspressoReader. The application got more popular than I had counted on and unfortunately there were a few bugs that caused a lot of people to not be able to use the application at all. Seeing how many people seemed to like it, I started working on the next version of the application, this one written pretty much from ground up and its coming along pretty nicely. I will start talking about it a lot more in the coming weeks but I have already setup a signup for alpha form at EspressoReader.com.

Moving to User Experience
Finally, towards the end of the year, I formally moved out of Engineering to the User Experience team. The move was fairly drastic for me since I have always been an engineer and am addicted to programming, but the new position was a great opportunity to learn new things as well as build more prototypes. I have always been a fascinated with product development and the new position gets me a lot closer to that.

Anyway, like I said 2009 was definitely eventful and I am really looking forward to 2010, releasing EspressoReader and evolving OpenPyro among other things. Hope you all have a great 2010 as well.