CBR reporter Alex Sword talks to Alex Omeyer, co-founder & CEO of Stepsize, a Virgin Media & Techstars backed start-up.
AS: What was the inspiration for Stepsize? How did you see a gap in the market for its service?
AO: As soon as we graduated from university, the four of us moved in together and worked on a bunch of side projects after hours with the ambition of one day building a business. While taking an online course on deep learning for natural language processing, Nick, my co-founder, started wondering about whether we could apply similar techniques to programming languages which have more structure and less ambiguity than English or French.
Being self-taught developers, we were intimately familiar with the huge learning curve of software development, and it’s such a key driver of progress that the idea of making it more accessible and efficient was really exciting. We started bouncing ideas on how to apply machine learning to the software development process and Stepsize was born.
AS: How did Stepsize develop from there?
AO: After playing around with neural networks using publicly available data from Stack Overflow and GitHub, we concluded that the right approach was to gather and generate the right data that would allow us to iteratively streamline and automate various parts of the software development process. With this approach, programming languages would eventually be abstracted away completely and we’d build a very valuable and important business on the way there.
So we set out to figure out how to help developers with their daily work while performing this data collection exercise. Speaking to many developers working in teams, we came to the realisation that every day they have to contribute to codebases they’re largely unfamiliar with, but no tool specialises in helping them understand the past – the who, why, and when of any given piece of code. We started building Stepsize Layer to contextualise code and allow developers to work on shared codebases perfectly informed.
AS: Stepsize is growing after attracting early funding. What are the key things that other start-ups can learn from this?
AO: If you can, build your start-up assuming that you won’t get access to early funding. You’ll build a better business and you’re more likely to get funded if you need it. This may sound paradoxical, but there are numerous advantages to this approach.
You’re giving yourself a chance to be in a position where you do not even need to raise money for your business. Interestingly, investors seem more likely to invest in your business when you don’t “need” the money. (Note: this might be impossible for some start-ups / sectors but was plausible for us)
It forces you to be thrifty and prove that your start-up is as resilient as a cockroach. A breed of start-ups that a lot of investors favour over the “unicorn”. It forces you to build solid foundations for your business (e.g. In this situation, “How will we make money?” is not a question that you can afford to delay).
It keeps you on your toes and, as Techstars reminded us so often, makes you Do More Faster.
For us, this meant saving up as much as we could over a couple of years, working on our ideas after hours when we still had jobs, relying on the support of the amazing people in our lives, and being prepared to do some consulting work if we still needed more runway. For example, we were very fortunate that Jared (co-founder)’s parents allowed us to live in the small flat on top of the Chinese restaurant they run in Hastings. This significantly reduced our burn rate and allowed us to test many of our ideas and assumptions before we even applied to the Virgin Media Techstars programme and got early funding.
AS: What are your future plans for Stepsize?
AO: With the current rate of technological change and the sheer size of some of the software projects out there, we can’t expect developers to process all the information necessary to make optimal decisions during the development process. In the medium term, we will use AI to reduce the cognitive load on developers by making the information they need available when they need it (think Google Now for devs), as well as assisting them with their daily tasks. They will become much more efficient and effective.
This in itself would already be a huge boost to innovation, but we think AI can do even more for software development. Stepsize is working towards a future where software development is available as a service thanks to AI. Literal software as a service. Code will be abstracted away completely and anyone will be able to collaborate with an intelligent agent to bring their ideas to life.
This will have an unprecedented impact, not only on software development, but on the world. Think about what roughly 20 million developers have been able to accomplish in such a short period of time. They represent less than a percent of the global population, and yet, they are central to modern day human progress. Imagine the impact on the world if it contained as many people capable of developing software as there are people capable of reading and writing today.