Consultants Aren’t People, and Other Fallacies

A long time ago, in a suburb far, far away, I was a solo consultant, making my way in the world doing fun technical stuff. It wasn’t an easy life, but it had its attractions, and few dangers or so I thought. The solo consultant’s only natural predators are other consultants and CFOs who are always looking to stretch payment and cut headcount.

In this long-gone time, I was sitting pretty having just completed a two month contract. All I needed was the check. After farting around for far too long, I’d finally gotten my invoice in the queue and I wasn’t worried. Until I got a call from the friend who’d sold me into the contract. The company was in trouble. Deep trouble. If I wanted to get paid, I needed to get up there.

When I got there, I met the friend, and the new CFO who I realized had been brought in to wind down the company. This guy, who owed me nothing, pulled a check from the bottom of a big pile and handed it to me.

This will clear, if you can get the CEO’s signature on it.

I took a deep breath.  I am not a leg breaker but I really like getting paid.  Thirty minutes later, a very surprised CEO got a call.

tonysopranocar3

I’m sitting in a car outside your house. I have the check you guys wrote me but there’s no signature on it. Could you come outside and sign this for me?

Not knowing that I have a peaceful nature and all the muscle tone of a jellyfish, he hurried out and sheepishly signed my check. I ran to the bank and cashed it.  “Yes, I’ll take that all in cash please”.  Two days later, the sheriff padlocked the doors as the company went Chapter 7. A week later, I used that money to buy a new car for cash.

As I said, the new CFO owed me nothing. But he looked at the mess this company had become, saw that I was going to lose almost 20% of my annual gross out of it and he took care of me. I’ve never gotten to repay that favor and probably never will, but I also never forgot it.

In the intervening years I’ve had occasion to use contractors and remembering that episode, I’ve always been hard on them in only one respect. Get your invoices in. I don’t have to do it, and various CEOs have wished that I wouldn’t.  But I do and a couple of times along the way it’s paid off in a guy walking away with one or two more weeks of money than he would have gotten otherwise.

It’s the same with permanents as I covered back here. Over the years there have been a handful of employees who have done great work for me and I’ve almost never been able to pay them market rate, so you take care of them in other ways. I take care of everyone who works for me, but the performers – I will do anything for them. That’s kind of the deal, everyone who’s done good work for me has moved my career, and that’s what I owe them.

How to Get a Developer to Build Your Healthcare App

As a Google Glass guy, and a bit of a healthcare gadfly, I have doctors coming to me with ideas all the time.  I love them, they’re beautiful people and fun to talk to.  Imagine for a moment that you’re one of those guys.  You have an idea.  Congratulations.

outofhisleagueYou need “a developer”.  So somebody hooks us up.  But there are a few things you need to know about me before we ‘do it’.  I’m really popular these days.  You, on the other hand, are the guy in the hockey shirt.  In dating terms, I’m a 9 and you’re a 6 (maybe).   If I’m any good at all, and I am, I have companies led by non-MDs that could make me sick-rich knocking on my LinkedIn account every day.

So how do you get me to ‘do it’?  Remember that sick-rich comment?  What I hear most of the time when a doc pitches the potential of a project is

this could be made into something by someone who isn’t me if they worked really hard for a long time without  any help from me, because of course my day job saving lives keeps me very busy, none of which should affect the 90% of equity I deserve for having the idea

Seriously, just stay home and learn how to code yourself.  I mean it.  You want better outcomes? So do I.  But if you want some action, make me laugh.  Have a sick-rich pitch.

Don’t tell me you have no money.  In dating terms this is the equivalent of telling her you have no car and live with your parents.  You wear a tie and work for an institution that is both immensely profitable AND non-profit meaning that rich people give it money for no good reason.  There’s an entire department dedicated to raising money for you – they’re called the Development Office.  Go visit them.  You’re in a highly-compensated profession.  All of your peers have money and some of them angel-invest.  Your employer gives grants for ideas about better handwashing.  If you can’t find money to develop your idea either you suck, or your idea sucks.

And speaking of your employer, you signed some papers when you went to work for them.  It’s time to reread those.  If your employer is one of those that claims ownership of everything you think while you work for them, then you and I will not be having a relationship.  You’re like the frat boy who never goes anywhere without a half dozen drunken brothers.  Nobody wants to date that.

engagementIt’s also important to remember that the guys coming at me every day on LinkedIn with the sick-rich pitches aren’t looking for a one-night-stand, they want to get married.  They’re pitching CTO or lead-developer roles with salary and founder-equity on teams that are “going to be the next Uber”.  When you come at me with a one-time idea for an app that will take a few weeks to develop and probably won’t make boatloads of money, you’re pitching a one-night-stand where I pay for the taxi and the motel room and end up feeling used.  You’re not that handsome.  A one-off project that has no money now, and no breakout potential later, is a job for a fuck-buddy.  Think back to your dating days.  How many 9s slept with you on those terms?

Clinicians are popping up all over the place building companies with long-term potential based on technological innovations.  See here, here, here and here.  They focus, park their egos, commit their own time, realize that the idea is the seed, not the tree, and they collaborate with people who can do the 99.9% of building a business that they can’t.  You can do well and do good in this business while working on fun technology with smart, dedicated people if you approach it that way.  Be that.

When Is It Okay To Write Shit Code?

poopThe way I’ve always done startups has, as possibly the foundational element, a Jungle Law Rule*:

If you make it to the next level (seed funding, Series A, pilot, first sale …) whatever you did to get there, barring illegality or unethical conduct, was by definition the right thing to do.

Many a beer has been hoisted to that particular gem of wisdom.  It is the “Get Out Of Jail Free” card for writing shit code.  On the other hand, I’m also a big Scrum guy and the way I’ve always done Scrum has, as a foundational element, a National Park Rule*:

Never end a sprint with more technical debt than you started with.

Now it should be obvious that the National Park Rule and Jungle Law are in conflict.  From concept through seed stage Jungle Law may be the only rule.  If you don’t get revenue traction and/or seed, you don’t exist.  You could be coding with your feet, naked in the middle of Times Square and the universe still has no excuse to pay attention to you.  As the computer that’s unplugged is as secure as it can be, so the source base that has no source committed to it is as clean as it can be.  Unlike Catholics, source bases are born free of sin.

As part of Scrum, the National Park Rule is aimed squarely at organizations that have already achieved a level of dysfunctional maturity.  When there’s a substantial code-base, multiple people contributing to it, and chunks of production code whose original authors have gone on to “better opportunities”, the National Park Rule clearly prevails.  So in the production of actual code, Jungle Law prevails at conception and National Park Rule prevails at maturity.  There must be a point where Jungle Law yields to the National Park Rule.  Where is it?  How do you know when you’ve left the Jungle and entered a National Park?

Number of contributors.  Shit code is harder to maintain than the other kind.  Harder means “takes longer”.  That “takes longer” increases exponentially with the number of people who are hacking it.  Experience has shown that a decent rule of thumb for that number is 3.

Availability of original authors. The success of shit code often depends entirely on the presence of the original coder to tweak it.  If you can dish a tweak simply by saying “you wrote that piece of shit, you fix it” then Jungle Law is potentially still viable.  If the original coder is gone, then in the immortal words of @StartupLJackson “you need to fix that shit”.

Product market fit.  One of the few valid excuses for writing shit code is that the concept behind it may be so stupid that the whole thing will be thrown out. Once it’s clear that the product will survive for some length of time then you’ve entered a National Park.  In fact, the presence of product-market fit alone makes the codebase a National Park.  If you want to keep those hard-won customers, you need to continually reduce the chance that they will ever find out just how many crimes against computer science you committed while wooing them.

Now if you have any pride as an engineer, you’re crossing yourself and screaming, “It’s never okay to write shit code!!!”  Well, get a grip Matilda, that’s exactly what I’m saying.  It’s okay sometimes to write shit code.  Here’s how to decide:

  • Are you in a Jungle Law situation?  No?  Then it’s never okay to write shit code.
  • So you’re Jungle Law … have you at least looked into how to do it well?  No? Then why do you think your way is wrong?  Come back after you’ve spent an hour Googling.
  • It’s Jungle Law, you have an idea how to do it right, and it’ll take too long for you to do it that way.  Is there someone else on the team who could help and you just haven’t asked because you’re afraid of showing them how much of a dope you are?  Yes? Come back after you’ve asked.
  • Have you laid the choices out for the management team? If you’re committing crimes against computer science, you’re doing it in their name.  It’s always astonishing how flexible the schedule gets when you tell the CEO just how ugly a hack you’re gonna have to do to make the schedule he’s laid out.  Jungle Law pretty much means that you’re in a life-and-death situation for the company.  That’s really his call, and startup CEOs have an ugly but unavoidable habit of keeping their foot on the accelerator even when the need for that has passed.

It’s Jungle Law, you have an idea how to do it right, it’ll take too long to do it right, there’s no help available and there’s no flex in the schedule?  Okay, you have my qualified blessing to write shit code.  But remember, I’m holding it against you and  you should hold it against yourself.  If you were a better coder, you wouldn’t have to write shit code and I wouldn’t have to fire your sorry ass when we finally get to Source Tree National Park.  Welcome to the startup life.

*, ** Neither of these rules should be confused with The Superhero Rule (formerly known as The MIT Guy Rule):

Whatever I did to get wherever I got was, by definition, the right thing to do because I did it.  Only other people write technical debt.

Google Glass, Taken Seriously (with predictions!)

In my last post I gave a mostly factual, but seriously facetious account of my 10 weeks with Google Glass.  Lest  you think me totally unserious, it seemed wise to post a followup that informs as well as amuses.

Mirror API

Mirror API, just for background, is a server-side API for injecting HTML-ish cards into the UI of a user’s Glass.  That’s it.  You write a web application, deploy it to Google’s AppEngine, and that web application calls Google’s Mirror API to put cards of your design into the timeline.  A Mirror app does NOT run on the Glass as far as you, the developer, are concerned.

The Mirror API is limited, seriously limited. Having thought really hard about it for lo these 10 weeks I have gradually come to understand the thinking behind it but that doesn’t mean I agree. There are uses for it.  Consider, for example, test results in the medical field.  You’re a clinician running around as they all do, but as a test result comes in, it pops onto a card in your timeline, you can click down into it to acknowledge receipt or flag for followup.  As a user experience I think that case makes sense.

The only problem with the Mirror API and the timeline metaphor is that right now it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.  You can’t do anything (official) on Glass that’s not Mirror.  I can see a rework of the timeline such that it’s cooperative with other apps, a timeline View that you can incorporate in your app.  Even a required timeline View that, as an app developer, you have no control over would probably work.  But as a walled garden Mirror doesn’t work.

The Future of Glass

220px-CarnacSo Mirror API is a dead issue.  Google has to figure out how to enable useful apps without throwing away its emotional investment in Mirror. There are strong indications that they already have figured it out and are just rolling it out VERY SLOWLY.

With that as background, let’s put a stake in the ground and make some predictions so that you, my fans, will know exactly what is not going to happen:

  • September update that includes a “hole in the timeline” that allows side-loaded native apps to be invoked and run without jumping through hoops.  Could be as simple as making native apps voice-invokable via the Ok Glass menu.  This update will still require side-loading to get native apps on there.
  • November 15 limited-access trial of a Glass app store
  • February 15, 2014 GA date for the device and app store
  • Only available online through Google
  • Retail price of $299 (h/t to @wareflo who reminded me I forgot to predict price)
  • App store submission includes actual Glass-certification process a la the iTunes app store “black hole of approval”. Much closer scrutiny of apps adherence to usability guidelines and astronomical initial rejection rate.
  • Number of apps in the Glass app store on opening: 5,000

Well, I’ve stuck my neck out.  What are YOUR predictions for the future of Glass?

One Glasshole’s Timeline

I am a Glasshole. There, I’ve said it. If you come here for nothing more than to know what I’m doing, leave now. (Bye Mom!) If you also come to keep up with the latest cultural trends, read on:

Noun glasshole -

  1. insensitive, privacy invading, distracted driving, techno-knucklehead who’d drive off a cliff if Sergei or Larry told him it was a good idea.
  2. someone who got Google Glass before I did.

Alright, the rest of you can go home now so I can talk to myself, as usual.

I’ve had Glass for 10 weeks, so in the spirit of proving my superiority (really isn’t that the point of all blogs?) I deign to share a little of what it’s like to be so cool.  “Timeline”, as all you #glasswaiters know is the foundation of Glass’ much-maligned mirror API so I’ve sketched out a rough timeline of my own Glass-Self-Discovery adventure. On every milestone (timeline card) is a picture, a short description of what happened that week, and the Selfies-Count – i.e. the number of people who borrowed the Glass, usually to take a picture of themselves wearing Glass that they can tweet to the world.

Day 1:
 benmustache Hungout with my friend Ben, who also got Glass.  Ben doesn’t really have a handlebar mustache.  Discovered that “doing hangouts” on Glass is Stupid because when you’re talking to someone they want to see you, not the crappe you’re looking at, duh. Spent the rest of the day hanging out with myself trying not to feel stupid. Went to bed convinced I was the coolest kid in America.
Selfies-count: 5, including my 80 year old parents. Dad was surprisingly handy with the touchpad. My children did not tweet out their selfies.
Week 2:
PatientBefore (1) In the second week, my team of crack coders, (including Griffin playing the part of a patient at left), took Glass to AngelHack Boston and built a prototype hospital rapid response team management system called aRRTGlass. We committed several major crimes against computer science, watched the Bruins on the big screen in a Microsoft conference room and violated the unwritten rule against letting me name things. We were the only Glass play at the hack, and by a wide margin the best hack and coolest demo.
Selfies-count: 53 with a tweet-rate of ~73%. The force is strong among the angelhackers.
Week 3:
johnrodley-thumb-300x340-104878 Sulked about not winning AngelHack with our cool Glass thing. Got a nice writeup in the Boston Globe by Scott Kirsner who took, and published, the worst picture of me ever taken.  Considered suicide when I discovered that you can’t do Glass without participating in Google Plus.
Selfies-count: holding steady at 53
Week 4:
 money Returned to work re-energized and waited for @richminer to call and offer us 8 figures to sit on our asses being cool. He must have been on vacation that week.  Fell immediately back into depression as I worked on streaming video off Glass and discovered what everybody else already knows about streaming off Android – it’s torture. Fell further into depression after realizing that the Cost of Sales in healthcare is 1 billion times the Cost of Sales in any other industry except defense or local government.
Selfies-count: 71 including one free 5$ coffee and one free 6$ beer
Week 5:
 moneyno Waited for Glass Collective to call and offer us 7 figures to develop Solitaire for Glass. Made several concerted efforts to “connect” with Google developer advocates for help with Glass development issues. Was told, “Glass developer advocates have very specific goals” right now. Apparently, helping developers write for Glass is not one of those goals.  Discovered that everybody else who knows anything about healthcare is totally depressed about the possibility of fixing it.  Strangely, this made me feel better.
Selfies-count: 77 – fair warning, if you’re a fast-food cashier and you want a selfie, I now expect a freebie in return.  Seriously, don’t even ask.
Week 6:
20130710_182635_393 Hosted the Exploring Glass meetup to explain to the unwashed masses what Glass is all about. This forced me to pause the money-wait long enough to figure out what consumer Glass is all about. This involved loading every Glassware available onto my device and using them. This took about 15 minutes. Ominously, the first card that the CNN Glassware showed me was a video clip about a dog that can ride a scooter.  Sometimes the jokes write themselves.
Selfies-count: 117, a free burrito, and the business cards of 7 hot women. #winning
Week 7:
 hanglass Started wearing Glass in public. Wore it around my work neighborhood in Cambridge (@workbar) and found out what it’s like to be a rockstar. Wore it around my Republican suburb and, paradoxically, got as close as I will ever get to knowing what it’s like to be black. A Learning Experience. Thought I’d sworn off those. Got another nice writeup in the Boston Globe from Cal Borchers who took the one unfortunately colorful thing I said in our two hours together and used it as the punchline of the story. Really Sergei, I don’t think that wearing Google Glass is comparable to running around pointing a gun at people.
Selfies-count: 131, wondering if I should subtract dagger-stares from the selfies-count. Review of the video from Cal’s visit indicate a high sneaky-dagger-stare quotient.
Week 8:
 Fred1 Changed all my social media profile pictures to some picture of me wearing Glass. The transformation is complete. Google starts making noise about a GDK. People who haven’t been paying attention swoon as if you can’t develop Glass apps without one. Those of us developing Glass apps without a GDK grind our teeth and remind ourselves that this keeps the field clear of knuckleheads for another few weeks.
Selfies-count: 152, decided to ignore the dagger-stares. Can’t distinguish the Glass-related ones from the unattractive-middle-aged-man ones.
Week 9:
20130715_110550_277 Got hit by a car while wearing Glass. First car accident in 25 years. I had been stopped for a good minute in the middle lane of the Southeast Expressway at rush hour when the urban assault vehicle behind me gave me a serious love tap. Thought that only happened to other people. Hmmph, another Learning Experience. I thanked The Deity that he didn’t just do the monster-truck-crawl right over my little plastic Element. The Glass was turned off. Wish I’d been recording, though it only would have shown the car jumping forward 5 feet.
Selfies-count: 157 – the mojo appears to be wearing off, though the force remains strong inside Chipotle as I score another free burrito.
Week 10:
 comingsoon Took a pile of existing Android code and developed something useful for Glass. Stay tuned.
Selfies-count: 164 – selfies count seems related to how much I stay at my desk developing code, and how much I go out and show off the Glass. Worth investigating.

How to be a manager

People talk a lot about “the startup life” and how it is to dive into it from regular employment, but what about the other way round?  Having recently completed a rare stint managing developers at a large-ish company of about 400 people (don’t laugh – that looks big to me) I wanted to share a few thoughts on how it is to go from raw startup life, to life in a big company.

The best part of managing devs at a big company is that if you do it right you can have a substantial number of people writing production quality code together at the same time, doing great big things you can’t dream of at a two-man startup.  I never fully appreciated the joy of that phenomenon until I went big. No demos, no wild pivots, no fire drills, no due diligence, no clueless angels or arrogant VCs, actual QA, a Build Guy (Hi Mike!), no working with crazy people and C players because they’re the only people crazy or desperate enough to work with you. Just big monitors, pricey tools and people who know how to use them going full bore.  The company was hugely successful, the group was hugely productive and for the most part, people enjoyed working there.  I enjoyed the hell out of that part.

Still, it had it’s downside.

irrelevantLesson #1: You are irrelevant Part I.  There is nothing you can do all by yourself.  Even if there is, you won’t be allowed to do it all by yourself so … there is nothing you can do all by yourself.  I often found myself reveling in (i.e. milking) the tiniest little tasks simply because I could do them by myself on my own authority.  The depressive effect of this lesson is offset by …

Lesson #2: You are irrelevant Part II: you are actually irrelevant.  Unless you are prone to huge mistakes, your presence or absence will not affect the business in any material way. This can be comforting if you have a long commute, enjoy long lunches or if you like to turn your phone off when you go on vacation.  But in those fleeting moments between arriving late and going to an early lunch, if you feel like, you know, doing something, you can apply …

Lesson #3: The most productive thing you can do is to hire and keep productive people, and fire unproductive people.   If you’re in a one-new-hire-every-couple-of-months growth mode, the hiring takes maybe ten percent of your time.  The firing, maybe a couple of days per year.  This still leaves you lots of time for applying …

danquayleLesson #4: Keep your crew happy.  In some organizations, happy people are not productive.  For example, prison guards are happier when they’re not watching prisoners.  Fortunately, software development is an addictive activity and thus its practitioners are happiest when working.  The faster they are working, the happier they are.  The harder they are working, the happier they are.  Whether you want monstrous edifices of code, enormous slinky snakes of elegant functionality, or lots of little hacks, well … that’s all the devs want … to be allowed to make these things for you and your only job is to let them do it.   On paper, it’s easier than being vice president.  Dan Quayle could do this job.  Mostly it requires getting the developers to tell you what needs to be done, telling them to do it, and then resisting the urge to tell them how to do it**.  In general, this makes them happy.  As Dilbert said when HR installed a lab-rat feed-slot in his cube wall:

This job is so stressful … but the pellets are excellent

You can hang out with the crew, or brood in your office but all this management by walking around bullshit doesn’t matter.  The only time the crew really needs to see you is when you’re applying ….

Lesson #5: Make enemies of anyone who disrupts “the flow”.  The meeting-callers for example.  Being just a manager who by definition had nothing better to do I used to go to meetings in place of my guys whenever I found them invited to some bullshit meeting.  This cut way down on the meetings, bullshit and otherwise, especially when I told the other participants that I came in Sally’s place because Sally had better things to do and I didn’t.  I made it clear to my guys that I would forgive them for writing bugs, but not for wasting time in meetings.  It got to the point where my guys apologized to me for going to meetings, or worse for calling them.  This is the way you want it, but it will make plenty of enemies.

Then there’s the team-organizers, the guys who want to form a flying squad for every little project that comes into their heads. This squad deals with a single issue and the organizer feels like a hero, then the members go back to what they were doing before … assuming they can remember what it was and why they were doing it and that whatever it was didn’t fall apart because they couldn’t keep a team together long enough to finish it.

Watching the flying-squad phenomenon in action reminded me of those corny TV shows where everyone gets together to put on a show to raise money to put a new roof on the orphanage.  Let’s have a show!

thomasWell actually, let’s not.  When you see one of these trains coming down the track, your dignity as well as your membership in the Agile community requires you to throw yourself in front of it.  Fortunately, as a manager you have nothing better to do than lay on the tracks, waitin’ on the Double E, and this on-the-fly team would probably have lots of meetings so squashing it is a two-fer.  Gumming up the wheels of the locomotive and bleeding all over the tracks ensures that you won’t go far in the company, but even if the train runs you over, you will certainly go to Agile heaven.  And going far in the company isn’t an issue anyway because of …

Lesson #6: So after a) hiring a bunch of good people b) realizing that you’re irrelevant c) letting the devs do pretty much what they think needs doing and d) making enemies of everyone in the company who likes to interrupt the flow, the smartest thing you can do is to not overstay your welcome.  You’re a startup guy.  Every big company needs a dose of that now and again, but too much is toxic.  Don’t be toxic.

** Okay, there IS also the small matter of getting Product Management to organize their thoughts, but if you can’t do that  you probably shouldn’t even be vice president, let alone a dev manager.

Your beautiful idea means nothing to me

This one is for all the non-technical co-founders out there and their beautiful ideas.  I won’t sign your NDA.

I’m a technical cofounder looking for a gig.  This is no secret.  I hang out on cofounderslab (Hi Shahab!) and FounderDating and talk to lots of non-technical cofounders.  Great people, I haven’t met one I didn’t like yet. However, a small but energetic minority of these guys insist that I sign an NDA before we talk.  I refuse, but I try to do it nicely. Here’s what I say.

ios-nda1My perspective on NDAs is a lot like Brad Felds.  I talk to a lot of people about a lot of things and literally can’t have an ever-growing paper tail of NDAs (i.e. contractual obligations) dragging behind me for the rest of my life, pretending to restrict what I can and can’t say to people.  Back in 2009 I signed an NDA when I was talking to a web analytics company about a job.  Literally the next five guys I talked to were doing web analytics.  If I took the NDA seriously I couldn’t have had coffee with those guys.  I realized that stupid NDA was working like a non-compete.  I had traded my ability to speak openly about web analytics for a 10% chance of working for this one company.  I’d given something valuable and gotten nothing in return.  It’s the last one I ever signed or ever will, at least in that situation.

If we’ve gotten to the point where you want my JR on an NDA we can do one of two things: skip the NDA and go our separate ways, or have a discussion where the special sauce (i.e. the how) is elided.  I’ve done that with a handful of guys – have the discussion but be really oblique about the special sauce.  The problem for them is that they’re trying to recruit me, but they can’t prove how smart they are, or how wonderful the opportunity is.  And I can’t prove how smart I am because we’re talking around the actual thing.  I wind up underwhelmed and they wind up feeling like they haven’t solved the NDA problem.

unicornNot long ago I was trying to recruit a data scientist and wonder of wonders I found one.  An honest to God, freshly minted PhD in Stats.   He’s standing just out of the picture to the right of the unicorn.  I cropped him out so you won’t steal him.  Anyways … how many shots at a good data scientist am I going to get?  If I scare this one away by demanding an NDA will I see another any time soon?  No.  I need him more than he needs me.  Once I get going and people are coming to me for jobs?  Shoe’s on the other foot brother and you’re signing a reception desk NDA or my hot receptionist is calling security.  Bet on it.  But at that point in time, Mr. Data held all the cards,we both knew it and there was no point arguing about it.

But by far the best reason not to NDA or to play the guessing game with guys like Mr. Data is one that none of you business guys are willing to hear, so close your ears now.  Get over yourself, your idea’s not that great.  There’s zero chance Mr. Data is going to steal it.  That doesn’t mean it won’t make money, just that the money will come from you and Mr. Data working your butts off, not from the inherent beauty of the idea itself.

Bottom line? Be careful about what you say and who you say it to, but you have to take risks.  Do what you have to, use the idea as leverage when you need it, use your other leverage to protect the idea when you can.  Just be firm and consistent in discussions with any one person and don’t throw it open for discussion.  If you’ve decided not to expose special sauce in this discussion with this guy, then don’t do it, and don’t get into a big discussion about why you should or shouldn’t because he won’t be convinced and you’ll look like a dope.  If you change your mind in the middle, schedule a followup.  Waffling makes you look like an amateur.

Take a look at VC blogs like fred wilson brad feld ben horowitz marc andreesenmark suster.  They all say that ideas are like armpits, everyone has two and most of them stink.  Sometimes they’ll analogize a different, singular part of the anatomy.  They also say that they bet on teams, not ideas.  Maybe that’s just self-interested VC bullshit.  Or maybe it’s a fact that most founders overvalue their ideas, overrate their ability to “move the ball” alone and underestimate how much time and effort it takes to execute on an idea.  And guess what?  You are like most founders.  Personally, I’ve stopped thinking I’m a smart guy (no it wasn’t a stretch). If I’m not a smart guy, then any idea I’ve had, someone else has already had it.  If they’ve had it and haven’t made a business of it – it’s either a bad idea or they screwed it up and left an opportunity.

So tell me your idea and let’s see if there’s a deal to be made.  Or not.  That’s cool too.  Just leave the NDA out of it.

Sometimes the little things aren’t so little

In my last post, I gave myself and all the devs a beating for being passive-aggressive about marketing-driven name and terminology changes.  For not being-with-the-program when the product team wanted to make an itty-bitty change they’re entirely within their right to make.  In thinking back over some of those types of situations, there was really only one good reason for being a dick about that stuff – when we had the old name embedded in the source code of the product itself.

babynamesLet’s say we have a product called BottleRocket.  Well, then we probably have a java package named com.pointyhairedstartup.bottlerocket.  Then let’s say we rename the product to Kite.  Okay, renaming a package is no big deal.  We probably also have a class named BottleRocketMain.java.  Again, renaming a class isn’t a big deal.  But maybe it’s a webapp and we have a war file called BottleRocket.war.  Ooh, that’s a little uglier, because that means we have URLs calling http://pointyhairedstartup.com/BottleRocket.  And the tools for refactoring URLs within a project are not as good as the ones for refactoring class names.  And URLs are also abused – called willy-nilly from wherever someone who wants to call it can jam a hard-coded URL in.  They live in config files or are constructed dynamically in ways that are hard to detect.  And you won’t catch them in the build like a bad class name.  You’ll catch them at run-time, when some sad little user clicks a dynamically constructed URL that has the old name in it.  If you’re lucky, you have tests that exercise the URLs.  If you’re lucky.

So you rename the war file, march with the new URL and alias the old URL to the new one, which adds inexplicable cruft to your web configuration.  Two years from now, the new guy will delete the alias as being nonsensical (WTF is a BottleRocket?) and of course end up breaking something that nobody knows how to debug.

And of course no product is useful without a database, and databases need names so we have a database named BottleRocket.  Hmmm, this is a tough one.  Having a DB with a legacy product name isn’t THAT bad.  But it’s not good either.  But doing a database upgrade is ugly and dangerous, so doing it just for the DB name doesn’t make sense.

Wow says the product guy, this is way more complicated than it looked.  But let’s make it really ugly.  We’ve decided to go full touchy-feely because that’s what marketing is all about and now we refer to our users not as “customers” but “guests”.   Well that’s good for our customers … er guests … but guess what?  We have a table in the DB named “customer”.  And as I said before, database upgrades are ugly and dangerous.  But table names are different than database names.  If you don’t rename that table then engineering will always call users “customers” and they’ll have every right.  At the same time, they’ll have every right to bitch you out about doing a DB upgrade to change a table name.  One of the perks of being a dev – you can look down on product guys because situations like this prove that God does not love them.

It gets worse.  There are probably references to “customer” all over the code, in field prompts, embedded in graphic assets … If you’ve been good about your strings, that refactor is probably safe (unless you’re localized), but the graphics are another problem altogether.  Somebody has to own verifying the assets.  Shitty job.  And remember Mister Product, you’re doing all this work and getting not even one little bit of added functionality.  This drives devs crazy.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  Product guys – rename shit at your own peril.   Devs – protect yourself.  If you use marketing terminology internally in the product then the minute that terminology changes you’re actually going to be worse off than if you’d adopted an abstraction to begin with.  Know going in that terminology will change and abstract stuff right from the get-go.

And if you still end up with an ugly name change, suck it up, do the refactor and march to the new terminology like a good soldier all the way to that Facebook style exit.  And be nice to the product guys.  They make less than you, have to talk to customers and as was pointed out earlier, God does not love them.

Next week: why doing what I said in this post (i.e. abstraction) is a bad idea too.

It’s the little things …

… that make the difference between good/fun and not-so-good/not-so-fun.

Terminology for example. (Oy, here he goes again on the name thing!) There are a fair number of things that have to be named when you’re trying to make something from nothing.  The company, the product, individual projects, components, workflow states and transitions, interfaces, even the term you use to describe customers (guest, client …).  They all have to be named.  And as close readers of this blog know (Hi Mom!) the first name you pick for something usually sucks.  Which means that not only does everything have to be named, it usually also has to be renamed.

When product (and seriously it’s always those guys leading the renaming charge) decides to rename something it takes a while for the terminology to work its way through the org, whether your company is 4 people or 400.  For some things, in some organizations, you never really flush out the old name.  The dual names then become a form of low-level, everyday friction.  C’est la guerre, right?  Well, no, it’s not.

I was forced to think about this by a stark counter-example.  I was sitting in a meeting one day, not paying much attention when I realized that we’d been talking for awhile and all three people from one particular group had nailed the just-changed-yesterday name for the product in question every single time.  The rest of us were all over the map.  It stuck in my head as a data point that probably meant something.

bossPersonally, I was always bad at this and tended to hang on to the old names.  I’m not very good at remembering people’s names so why should it be any different for things?  But when I thought about it, I realized that I didn’t hang on to old names for things because I couldn’t remember the new ones, at least not most of the time.  It was because I thought that renaming things was stupid and I was annoyed and often had “the juice” politically to get away with hanging on to the old name.  Passive aggression at its finest.

Very occasionally I see product people get annoyed by this phenomenon, but I’ve never seen anyone take it seriously.  From the product side of the house I suspect that this inability to make a name-change and have it stick quickly is a low-level irritant that decreases their effectiveness and quality of life, but never rises to the level of “I have to do something about this”.  It’s one of those things that leaves you pissed off but you’re not really sure why.  Well now you know why – you’ve been passively aggressed.

When you’re building a team and trying to get some momentum this is one of the little things you can watch, and use to prevent problems you’d otherwise have to ‘fix’ later, probably by firing someone’s sorry ass.  Somebody who consistently uses old terminology is actually arguing with your right to name things.  He’s saying “you’re not the boss of me”.  Fix him now, or fire him later.

For my part, hereby resolved – the next time I’m leading a crew, this is one of the things I’ll be paying attention to, for myself and for the crew.  Perhaps I’ll make a point of explaining it up-front. Or now that I recognize the root of the issue maybe I’ll just jump on anyone who’s not with the program.  Fair warning.  And to all the product people in my past – my bad.

How Startups Are Like Bejeweled Diamond Mine

Last year, my friend Ernest (@ernestw) did me the honor of including me in a pitch to get his game startup, Woo Games, into the MassChallenge accelerator.  This was mighty big of him since I didn’t know shit about games.  We didn’t make it into MC** but we had fun, learned some things and moved the business forward, so it wasn’t a loss.  As part of my crash course in the games business I started playing all sorts of games and there was one game that stuck with me.

diamondmineBejeweled Diamond Mine from Popcap is a simple but beautiful iPad match-3 that, as it’s hook, includes the notion of digging.  Match a diamond that’s touching the ground and it digs down one block.  Deceptively simple.  Having played Diamond Mine for a while now it has grown on me over time that the rules for success in the game mirror a lot of things I’ve discovered about startup life.  And since no one ever hesitates to compare business to unpleasant things like war, football and politics, I hereby present the definitive list of ways in which startups are like Bejeweled Diamond Mine:

  • Speed trumps accuracy.  In other words, one “right” shot is way less productive than three “now” shots.  To get into the million point club in Diamond Mine you have to move fast and continuously. Stopping the flow to consider the merits of one move versus another or to find a better move than the one right in front of your face is nearly always fatal.  As the ladies say, it’s the difference between Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now.  Until you are literally no longer a startup, always leave any party with Mr. Right Now.  There’ll be another party tomorrow.
  • Always be digging.  There are moves that get you somewhere and moves that don’t.  Matching a diamond that touches the ground gets you somewhere, everything else is waste, or as we say in the startup world, networking.  But JR, you say, this contradicts speed vs accuracy doesn’t it?  Nope – it’s a question of priorities.  Always work your priority list and digging is the top priority so look there for Mr. Right Now first.  To join the million point club, you have to look for digging moves first and only resort to non-digging moves if you don’t find any, then return to digging asap.  ABD – always be digging.   Every startup has its digging analog, new signups, revenue, key hires ..
  • Ignore the sound and the fury.  I’ve noticed that turning on the sound, while it makes the game more fun, is almost always less productive.  This is a pre-requisite for and also paradoxically a by-product of, focus.  Professional athletes typically claim that when they are “in the zone”, crowd noise disappears.  Focus is a self-reinforcing habit.
  • Design matters.  I notice new details about the game almost every time I play it.  Some of them are fluff, but a stunning number of them actually matter.  There are different sounds and visuals for each type of match and they’re tuned to convey the importance of the move.  Non diggers get one sound, diggers get another.  When I see a product like this it makes me think hard about where you draw the line for an MVP for different products in different industries at different points in time. If you ever wonder what Product Management is about, take Bejeweled Diamond Mine and ask youself, which of all these details are MVP, which aren’t and how would you know if you were right?

**Entering MassChallenge is a great way to move your business forward whether or not you get in.  If you want to know more about it, feel free to ping me.

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