Adapted from my 2018 Ignite Talk

For most people in the tech world, life can be fairly drab They sit in cubicles, at insurance companies, writing code, designing their millionth, mind numbing button, or making cold calls to hostile schmucks all day. It’s a job right? Something you have to be paid to do, because no one in their right mind would do this for free.

On the other hand, we have the guys in Silicone Valley, wrapped in hoodies and self righteousness, planning on getting rich and changing the world (not necessarily in that order). But how do you get from cubicle to your dream? Working on what you love?

“I’m never doing this again”

I would like to tell you about one the best dumb ideas of recent history: The StartupBus. A Navy Seal boot-camp training program for tech entrepreneurs. Or so I like to think.

In 2010, my friend Elias, was working in Venture Capital, and wanted to get a bus with a bunch of friends and go to South by South West – the huge film, music and tech conference in Austin. He thought would be funny to semi-mock Startup Culture in Silicon Valley by having everyone on the bus try and build a tech startup in the three days it would take to get there from San Francisco.

It sounded crazy to everyone, but they all had so much fun, that a group of them decided to turn it into a “my-city-is-better-than-your-city” tournament the following year. They all went back to their respective states, and started recruiting riders for a full-blown competition. 

The format is simple: 30 strangers get selected to get on a bus, as long as they are extremely competent and fall into one of three clichéd categories: Hipsters Hackers, and Hustlers: Graphic designers, Computer programmers, and Marketing and Business Development people.

They then get on the bus day one, introduce themselves, and pitch an idea for a startup. Groups then form around the ideas, and then the teams work like crazy, for three or four days, to make an actual business. With REAL products, and even Customers – In three days!

I was first invited to ride the 2011 Miami bus. I worked on two separate teams, competed against 10 other busses, 60 other teams,  and didn’t sleep for four days, and met some of the most amazing people that are still in my life to this day.

Since then, the competition has grown. There are more and more busses every year from more cities, a separate European competition, and I’ve recently gotten back from the inaugural StartupBus Africa trip, which was epic! But why would anyone do this?

Well, most people are just… terrible at their jobs. I assume you’ve found this yourself. But the bus is different. The sheer caliber of the people you meet if off the charts. Everyone works so hard, and is so good at what they do, that there is a feedback loop of inspiration; You WANT to work harder to show that you belong. 

The result is productivity to an extent not seen in the real world. What can you create on a bus in three days? How about a fully fledged, artificial intelligence food ordering system that will automatically order you lunch every day? Yeah, we did that. 

Nomscription – Built in three days. On a bus.

Internet free chat system for disaster areas? Yup. A career matching system for Veterans? Check. Customized cereal delivered to your door? Yup. A full social network for selling what you grow in your back garden – a team from Tampa built that!

And there are hundreds of others. But the bus isn’t all flowers and roses. In fact it is totally awful. And that is one of the reasons it’s so successful. If you can build something amazing in three days next to a chemical toilet, you can do anything.

There is bad food, motion sickness, team melt downs, spotty power and internet access, and every new hell you’d find in a real startup, but compressed into the equivalent of a long weekend.  As a result, you learn to be flexible, to deal with the chaos, and to thrive.

Then there is the physical side.  Try having a normal conversation after writing code for ten hours doing this. Also, after four days without sleep, you can have some pretty inspiring insights, as well as some mind-blowing hallucinations. Not to mention all the caffeine and alcohol.

The pure squalor of the situation, combined with the amazing team work that goes on, binds you so closely to those people, that you instantly have 30 new best friends. I started referring to the processes as entrepreneurial Stockholm Syndrome. 

But the process opens your eyes. A passionate, five person team, working 16 hour days, for four days straight, produce 320 hours of actual work. That’s an equivalent 40 work days of super productivity. 

If you can build a complete product, create marketing materials, pitch decks, business cards, have customers and sales, etc., all in three days, ON A BUS, what could you do if you gave yourself six months?

I bet that you’re pretty amazing. You just can’t begin to realize how freaking amazing you REALLY ARE until you’ve HAD be amazing waste deep in crap and sleep depravation. There are no excuses. Go and build something, right now!

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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Are School Bus Tracking Systems Dangerous?

There has been a lot of hype recently in Tampa Bay about the “Here Comes the Bus” app. This is system that allows parents to see when their kids have gotten on a school bus, and where the bus is. Some parents are concerned that systems like this one could let malicious users, or government agents track their children. So I’m going to give a quick overview of how systems like these work, and why they are not dangerous. We will also look at what parents SHOULD be concerned about.

How it works

The system is fairly straight forward. Students have either a barcode or a passive RFID chip printed onto their “Bus Pass” – which is just a card they carry around. This card is scanned once the student boards the bus, either with an RFID reader or a barcode scanner (basically the same technology used at grocery stores and clothing shops).

The barcode or the RFID chip carries a simple ID number. This number does not represent the student in any identifiable way – it’s just randomly assigned. The RFID scanner is connected to an internet-enabled device and sends the ID number securely to a server.

Keep in mind, if any data is intercepted up to this point, it is of no use to an attacker. The attacker would at best get a random number that means nothing.

On the other side of the system is the parent’s app. This app is connected to Here Comes The Bus‘ servers, which lets them know that their child is on the bus. The bus also has a GPS tracker on it, which connects to the internet and lets the Here Comes the Bus‘ servers know where the bus is.

That random ID number is then looked up in a database which lets the application know which child has been assigned that ID number. The parent’s device securely requests that information, and it is provided securely down to the app.

It is possible the data coming down to the parent could be intercepted by an attacker. However, as this technology is very secure and is commonly used in almost every piece of software these days (from your health systems to banking apps), it is HIGHLY unlikely.

Could you track kids using their cards?

Some of these bus passes contain a chip, and that sounds scary right? Well, you don’t have to worry too much. These chips are passive RFID chips, the same type of technology that is imprinted in clothing labels to stop theft. Passive means that they need to be picked up by a powered scanner. In order to track a child, you would need to know their ID number (the randomly assigned one), and then set up expensive, high-powered scanners all around town. So it is possible, but there are WAY cheaper and easier ways to track someone. So this seems incredibly unlikely.

Could you track kids if you hacked into the Here Comes the Bus servers?

So the one thing that COULD happen is the Here Comes the Bus’ servers could be hacked. An attacker could break into the database and potentially be able to work out where a child has been, but this does not necessarily mean they will be able to find information on a particular child either. This data is hopefully encrypted, or linked to the school’s secure systems. I can’t speak to how this system has been secured and architected. My best guess is the system was designed with the understanding that this is sensitive data, and great care should be taken over the security. There are also a number of regulations in place that govern the usage and security of student and child data. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) provides strict regulations regarding a child’s data. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These two regulations will have been taken into account by the developers and the school board when evaluating this software.

Should I be worried about this?

No system is perfect and inherently has its risks, but these risks need to be balanced against the rewards. I think that the safety aspects of this application far outweigh the highly remote possibility of the system being misused. There are WAY easier ways to track people than trying to exploit a system like this.

So what should I be worried about?

There are real threats and issues out there for you to be worried about. Kids download all sorts of things to their devices, and these downloads represent real, actual threats. Malware embedded in games, social media apps, and even downloaded backgrounds can track your exact GPS location, leak your phone number, show inappropriate content, or steal personal information.

Instead of worrying about the government tracking your kids while you send them to a Public school, take a look at your kids’ actual devices. Install something like Norton Security Online and Norton Security for iOS or Android, or Malwarebytes. Also talk to your kids about what apps they’re using, and listen to hear for anything strange about their data usage, or content that is coming up unexpectedly, or unusual phone calls they’re getting. These are indicators of real threats to kids’ information and of valid concern by parents.