Collaboratively Choreographed Chaos (with Common Cause)

I recently discovered that the best way to spend some time in Venice is to buy an all day ticket for the Vaporetto (ferry bus), find a seat at the front, and just take it all in. Over time I found my attention drawn to how the various users of waterways picked their way through the Canal Grande.

Elegant Gondole present tourists with a facsimile of romance and a personal tour of the city’s heart.

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Luxurious Taxi d’Acqua provide both the fastest way of getting from A to B and a comfortable way of touring.

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(c) Ted McGrath https://flic.kr/p/dQGrm6

Utility barges bring wine and beer (and presumably other goods) into the city, and take the garbage away.

Lumbering Vaporetti move large numbers of tourists and workers en masse through the city.

And so on, all sharing the same small area of water.

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Given the vast differences in speed, size and agility of all these craft you might expect a series of strict rules and controls to govern all this, but it appears not. There are no traffic lights or aquatic roundabouts, there is no requirement to stick to one side of the canal or other and no clear right-of-way precedence. What there is is a series of calls and signals that indicate the intentions of the pilots, taxi-drivers and gondoliers to each other. There appear to be a number of common-sense conventions based around the needs and abilities of each craft which are applied, or not, as each situation demands. And the men and women that navigate the canals on a daily basis are highly skilled at what they do.

It is a chaotic system in the physics or maths sense of the word: a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random. But it is not the randomness of total mayhem, rather the collaborative choreography of a diverse group united in common cause: to service, directly or indirectly, the tourists who are the lifeblood of the city.

Returning to work I was struck by some parallels between the seemingly random and yet ultimately highly effective Venetian waterways and our development process at Singletrack. As a team we have lots of different demands on our time: core product development, support, customer-specific customisations, new customer roll-outs, support of sales efforts and so on. All of these move at different speeds and have different, sometimes competing, characteristics and constraints.  Our development process is a mild variation of late-90s XP: a variant because we’re self organising and most of the team wasn’t doing development in the late 90s, and mild because those core practices and principles still work. Its very lightweight, everybody understands it, and its very effective.

I’ve recently begun to worry that this lack of evolution from how I learned to do things nearly two decades ago demonstrates an unwillingness or inability to change. To keep up with the state of the art. I spend time looking at new and different processes and techniques but somehow they fail to engage me and, other than the occasional cherry-picked idea, I go back to what I know.

I realise that it can’t be that Scrum or Kanban or Modern Agile are sham approaches that deliver nothing. It can’t be that NoEstimates and NoProjects have nothing worthwhile to say (even if they do seem to be determined to say it in a particularly negative way). MobProgramming must be good for some people somewhere. But I’ve found them to be limited in value to me.

What my Venetian experience helped me understand is what’s important is that you have a set a of calls, signals and conventions that allow you to collaboratively choreograph your movements, not what that those calls, signals and conventions actually are. The ones that are called XP work for me, maybe the ones called Kanban and MobProgramming work for you. What’s important is that your approach actively works towards the common cause of your organisation not that its the one that gets the most hashtag traffic on Twitter.

When I thought about writing this blog post I did a bit of research on Venice and its waterways. It turns out that what rules and restrictions are imposed had remained unchanged for nearly 200 years until the death of a tourist in 2013 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/10268403/Venice-to-control-boat-traffic-on-crowded-canals.html). The response to this tragedy wasn’t to impose a totally new regime of strict controls but simply to update the conventions slightly to reflect Venice in the modern era. Barges have had the hours they can enter the city limited, and illegal docks and piers have been removed, but the fundamentals of the collaborative choreography to suit the common cause remain intact.

So don’t look for the latest or the ‘best’. Look for the calls, signals and conventions that work for you. Find the collaborative choreography that marshals all the disparate people with their disparate needs and disparate talents towards your common cause. Make it work and then keep it working.

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Getting the best out of Tech at Sales meetings

Like most enterprise software there is usually a point in our sales cycle where the prospect’s technical team want to do a bit of technical fact-finding or due diligence on us. As we grow one of the common internal complaints is Sales find it hard to secure time from our tech team to attend these prospect meetings. So I wrote a short guide to getting the best out of tech at Sales meetings which I realised is not particularly specific to Singletrack:

Tech at Sales Meetings

Its primarily aimed at Sales but its also partly about what a tech team should be able to support.

A Paean to Speccy

“Remember the ZX Spectrum?” the Guardian asked a few days ago. Remember it? That fragile black-and-grey box with the jaunty flash of rainbow colours and precariously attached ‘RAM Pack’ set me on a path that has come to define my entire life.

I remember hooking it up to the battered second-hand black and white portable that served as our family TV in the early 80s and loading in a copied game from tape. Brrrrr, chi. Brrrrr, CHEEEEE etc.

I remember getting it to print ‘Hello World’ 10 times using BASIC, and then modifying that to print ‘Hello Paul’.

I remember the hours of typing Hexadecimal from cheap-paper magazines smudged with sweaty fingerprints. “Is that an E or an F”. Like alchemists we toiled over our steaming cauldron of a computer trying to turn the base metal of those listings into the gold of a simple game. We even succeeded once or twice.

I remember the animated Valentine’s card hand-crafted in Z80A for my first girlfriend. Diagonal scrolling, jaunty tune, teenage poetry. She dumped me the next day for reasons I still haven’t fully grasped.

Getting a chord out of a one-channel sound chip. Creating a spinning wireframe cube. Ghhhhheestttbushhhhhterssshh. High Speed Dubbing tape-to-tape ‘sharing’. And Elite. Oh My God Elite.

Eventually, of course, like my Star Wars wallpaper and Superman duvet cover I grew out of the Speccy and replaced it with a ‘proper’ computer – an Atari 520ST.

But i still miss that little box of magic. And that wallpaper.

“Talented, motivated and keen to learn” Yeah? You and everyone else

Singletrack is hiring again. Generally I love the hiring process and I’m looking forward to adding some fresh new talent to our growing development team in the new year. Personal contacts and word-of-mouth referrals only take you so far and we, like every growing business, have to deal with recruitment agents and advertising. I don’t mind: a good agent is worth their fee and ads can bring in unexpected delights.

But what the fuck has happened to CVs recently?

I rarely receive any CVs longer than two pages and the cover letters are bland variations on a theme: “I’m a talented and professional programmer seeking a new challenge. I’m hard-working, motivated and keen to learn.”

Yeah? You and everyone else.

How am I supposed to tell anything useful from a paint-by-numbers cover letter and a two-page resume where the first half of the page is an alphabet soup of programming languages, technologies and methodologies. Where the remaining page-and-a-half is a line or two about the projects you’ve worked on with almost everything about the project and nothing about your work?

How can I get any kind of feeling about you when your CV is devoid of all personal information apart from your name? Worried about discrimination? Aren’t we all but I, as I’d imagine most tech employers, don’t think that way and finding out you’re 50 and have cross-trained to programming after a career as an English teacher is something I’m going to find out pretty quickly anyway. In my case something like that is likely to make you more interesting to me, not less.

Here are my top five tips for getting a job with Singletrack or the many other employers looking for great people to join their development teams:

  1. Write a specific cover letter. Given you’re applying I know you want A job … I want to know why you want THIS job. It just has to be short and specific letting me know you’ve read and understood the job description, that you know a little about what we do and that you think you’re the person we need. 15 minutes of your time is all that’s required and if you can’t spare 15 minutes finding out a little about a company you might end up joining you’re definitely not the person for us.
  2. Write an adequate length CV. This ‘make everything fit on two pages’ approach is bullshit. We generally look for people with significant experience and there’s no way you can adequately tell me about the work you’ve done, the skills you’ve got and the person you are on two sides. Guess what? I’ve been hiring people for well over a decade and I know how to skim-read a six-page CV and spot good stuff, especially if the covering letter has already caught my eye. I don’t want chapter-and-verse but a short, pithy precis of everything you think I need to know about you if we’re going to work together.
  3. Tell me what you’ve done. Okay, I need to know a little bit about what a company or project was about to get some context on the work you’ve done. But its just background. This is your CV so don’t just tell me what the company does or what the project delivered, tell me about your role in it, what you took responsibility for and what you achieved.
  4. Tell me what you’ve learned. I can’t believe how few CVs I read that contain phrases like “On this project/at this company what I learned was …”. The thing about what you’ve done is its generally a factor of time: you can only do so much in a period of time. The thing about learning is its a factor of your capacity, openness and willingness to engage. Between a candidate that has done much and learned little and a candidate that has done little but learned much there’s only one winner.
  5. Tell me about you. Show me the person as well as the employee. Single mum who’s taught herself programming at nightschool? Now that’s hard-working, motivated and keen to learn. Lover of philosophy? Someone who knows about how to think. Fan of 80’s electro music? We’ll no-one’s perfect but I won’t hold it against you; it didn’t stop me founding a company with someone.  Fanatic Mountain Biker? There’s a reason we’re called Singletrack Systems.

The first three are really the basics: don’t do these and you’re just letting yourself down. The last two can make a stand-out difference. We’re looking for people to come and spend days, weeks, months and years with us so finding out about the person, not their skills and experience, is the number one priority.

And it all starts with the CV.

“Magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”

“Magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship” is how Derren Brown describes what he does. I’ve long been a fan of Derren’s – I managed to wangle front-row seats to one of his shows years ago and was utterly blown away – but of that list its not the psychology or suggestion that intrigues me, its the magic and, particularly, the showmanship.

The longer I spend doing what I’m doing the more I’m convinced that magic and showmanship are fundamental to the success of a technology product company.

Arthur C. Clarke said “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and whilst I wouldn’t claim that what Singletrack does is so advanced that our customers and users think we’re a group of warlocks and witches, I certainly think there are magical elements to it. Fundamentally I believe software development is close to magic and I’ve written before about how amazing it is to me that we can integrate diverse cloud services to add incredible levels of features and benefits to Singletrack’s product with disproportionately little effort.

But what is magic without showmanship?

Imagine a magician who said “well I suppose I can show you a trick if you want but you won’t like it”. Who said “yeah, but to be honest anyone can do that with a bit a practice”. Who went through their routine in surly silence, sighing at the boredom of it all. Actually that’s not a magician at all its just someone with a bit of dexterity and some specialist knowledge, like a hairdresser or a masseuse*.

Building a product and a product company has taught me to think differently. I no longer see “a simple integration with Amazon S3 using their web api” I see “the addition of an unlimited capacity, edge-cached, versioned document store”. Its not “a bit of AJAX and a few queries returning some data” its “a live data dashboard showing key management information”.

I’m guessing that there is a bunch of people I know who, if they’ve decided to read this and have made it this far, are rolling their eyes and thinking “great, he’s discovered marketing hype”. But that really isn’t what I mean by showmanship. I’m not talking about lying or making inflated claims. I’m not talking about conning the customer or bullshitting the user.

I’m talking about communicating the excitement and the wonder of what you deliver to the people you deliver it to.

I’m talking about making the magic you do, magical.

I love the fact that, over the last 15 years, software development has become so much more open, so much more honest, so much more about delivering quality and value rather than simply working to plans. I love the constant striving for improvement in what we do and how we do it. But I also hope that as we take the mysticism and myth our of our development teams and processes we don’t accidentally remove the wonder and beauty of what they deliver.

That we leave a little room for magic … and showmanship.

* Please note that I have nothing against hairdressers or masseuses, but I wouldn’t pay for front-row tickets to watch them perform for two hours.

In reply to Stop Chasing Exit Strategies …

Jason Gorman has written an interesting article: “Stop Chasing Exit Strategies And Start Chasing Great Software“. @robbowley tweeted enthusiastically about it and I enjoy a lot of what Rob reads and writes so I went and had a look. The whole thing left me with a great big feeling of “Hmmm”. Normally I’d leave a comment but Jason’s blog doesn’t allow them so after a bit of consideration I decided to write this. I hope Jason reads it and takes the opportunity to respond … I’m not really a fan of blog posts that deconstruct other posts but if I can’t comment there, I can only really comment here.

Let’s start with the detail and then think about the overall message. First off the title. Very eye-catching and if it were “Stop Chasing Exit Strategies” I’d have to agree; I’ve long advocated an approach to entrepreneurship that emphasises building a solid, sustainable business on the basis that if you do, exit opportunities will come (should you want them). Hyping the hell out of a business and then cashing in your chips just before the whole thing implodes is a strategy that has worked for some and failed for many others. I’m not saying its wrong but it’s not for me.

But what do exit strategy, or lack thereof, and software quality actually have to do with one another?

Reading on a bit further the impetus for the article is revealed:

Today it was announced … that police state-friendly social networking site Facebook is acquiring pointless image filter service Instagram for $1 billion.

You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to determine that Jason isn’t a fan of either Facebook or Instagram and I understand that as neither am I. But it does reveal a prejudice. I know a number of smart, savvy people – many of them top-class developers – who think Instagram is fantastic. I also read this interesting piece by Om Malik where he says (at the bottom):

People love Instagram. It is my single most-used app. I spend an hour a day on Instagram. I have made friends based on photos they share. I know how they feel, and how they see the world. Facebook lacks soul. Instagram is all soul and emotion

From Jason’s article:

My goal is to create better software (and, more recently, to try and help other people create better software). Most important to me is what value software brings to the people who use it.

By Jason’s own definition it sounds like Instagram has hit the nail on the head with the quality of their software in that their users get a great deal from their service. What’s more its not clear to me that Instagram have been chasing an exit in the sense of hyping the hell out of it before it implodes; they’ve grown very quickly and taken on a lot of VC money, and I can’t say whether they are really worth $1B to Facebook or not. But, from what I’ve seen, they’ve taken an idea that people like, have developed it in the face of real user feedback, have scaled their operation and so have attracted an exit opportunity. What’s the problem there?

Okay, enough of the nit-picking. Perhaps Jason just picked a bad example in Instagram. What about the general concept that chasing great software will lead to a good business?

Er, well, no. What defines a ‘good’ technology business, or any business for that matter, is its ability to make money and we all know of many successful businesses, including ones that have been around for many years, who get away with pedalling shit software through weight of market share, iron-fisted defence of patents, or just lack of credible competition. But like Jason I’m personally not interesting in pedalling shit software just because it makes money. However I am interested in making money with my business because that’s what pays our salaries which enable us to keep developing software. And here’s where things get tricky. You see quality software does not necessarily equate to software that users get value from. And users getting value from software does not necessarily equate to a good business model.

But a good business model is necessary for a good business, whether your own or one you work for.

Returning to Jason’s article:

A classic example of this kind of thinking is the very damaging advice being propogated among the tech start-up community that the software that powers your new business only needs to last until you find a buyer.

Jason doesn’t name Lean Startup or Customer Development so maybe he is talking about something else. However, if he is, then I think he’s got the wrong end of the stick. Both Lean Startup and Customer Development – of which I am a passionate advocate – are about understanding what it is your customers want and how valuable it is to them without spending lots of time and effort (yours and theirs) that turns out to be wasted. Its about learning how your business can work. Jason has it absolutely right when he says

The game’s afoot when we start getting feedback from real users. That’s when we really start to learn what works for them and what doesn’t.

Spot on. But let’s not confuse good software that users like with software that customers will buy, or confuse sellable software with a good business (with our without exit opportunities). Personally I think you need to figure what you want from a given situation and work to make that happen. If you want to play high-stakes all-or-nothing exit strategy chasing, be my guest but count me out. If you want to produce software that users love without reference to whether the business makes any money or not, ditto. If you want to produce, and keep producing, valuable software then you need to constantly balance, and rebalance, the many opposing forces in software development, software delivery, sales and marketing, customer acquisition, customer retention, investment, and so on. You need to listen to your users, your customers, the market, your peers, your competitors, current and potential investors and to that little voice which tells you what’s right despite all the evidence to the contrary. You need to work out what makes your software valuable, not in the ‘oh, gee, I really love this” sense but in the “I’m prepared to pay $XYZ for the opportunity to use/advertise through/invest in/acquire” sense.

Fair enough: Stop Chasing Exit Strategies. But don’t Start Chasing Great Software if you’re aiming to build business value. Instead: Chase a Great Business.

Stopping Starting-up

I love start-up. The early ‘wouldn’t it be great if …’ conversations, the commitment to going on a journey into the unknown, the first days when absolutely nothing is in place and things like name, logo, and website are the focus of endless creative conversation, the first customer, the first hire …

Its a hell of a ride.

There’s a huge amount of start-up advice around for the would-be entrepreneur. May favourites are the writings of Steve Blank and Eric Reis; Customer Development and Lean Startup have more to say about how to go from a vague idea to a functioning startup than any other business approach I’ve seen. There’s an increasing amount of support for start-ups, in the UK at least, from various tax breaks for would-be investors to the well-intentioned but somewhat ill-executed Startup Britain. There’s also a lot of very early stage investment money washing around from Angels and Micro-VCs; let’s face it if you’re going to invest in a hare-brained, high-risk scheme dreamt up by a bunch wide-eyed idealists you’re probably better off taking a punt on someone’s idea for a new type of social network than buying Euro-zone bonds.

Start-ups will save us from the global economic crisis!*

But once you’ve started your startup, you’ve done some customer development, you’ve perhaps pivoted your idea, you’ve reached a core of a product and you have some paying customers, then what? Its time to stop being a start-up and establish your business. Steve Blank calls this phase ‘Company Growth’ in Four Steps to the Epiphany.

In my experience** there are a few things you need to stop being a start-up:

A sustainable business model

On day one of your start-up you are concerned with the necessary detail of the company: what are we called, what do we do, where do we work? On day two you should be out there discovering your customers and understanding your potential market. On day three you should be trying to show those potential customers why they should become actual customers. And so on. You shouldn’t be worrying about sustainability, about what you need to keep being successful in 12-18 months time because unless you focus on finding your customers and your product-market fit you won’t be around in 12-18 months time.

But at some point you’re going to know roughly who your customers are and your product will have demonstrated a reasonable fit with the market. At this point you need to be worrying about sustainability because things like cash-flow, excessive overheads, technical debt and the like might just prove fatal if you don’t deal with them.

A sustainable business model is simply one where the revenue exceeds the cost (and beware hidden cost; many lean start-ups rely on the early joiners living with a reduced or waived salary in return for a stake in the long-term success of the company, which is an inherently unsustainable situation). It doesn’t necessarily have to be by a lot and it doesn’t necessarily have to make month-on-month profits, but it does need to support itself. But whilst it is defined by financial security, sustainability is about more than just about the money: a sustainable company will retain its employees, improve its processes, and learn from its internal influences as well as its external ones.

Less Product-Market Fit, more Market-Product Fit

A good product, one that meets the needs of its customers and has established itself in the market, should start to distort that market, no matter how niche (“Find your niche and dominate it”† was one of the excellent pieces of advice we were given on starting Singletrack). Disproportionately successful products like the iPad and Facebook demonstrate this in extremis; the newly-perceived tablet market is actually an iPad market, many times greater in size than the tablet market ever was, and early social networks simply never imagined the market was as big as Facebook has demonstrated it to be.

But all successful products demonstrate this effect to a degree. The current dominant player in our market does one thing well and many other things poorly (according to their customers we’ve talked to). They have distorted the market to be all about their core strength and we are actively seeking to displace them by redefining that market. Some of their customers will buy into us, some won’t, but we hope that in the next couple of years, when people talk about the market we’re in, the conversation will be much more diverse than it is today.

What I’m not saying is that Customer Development is a short-term process, or that an established company no longer listens to or learns from its customers. What I am saying is that in the early days a lean startup will do almost anything (within boundaries of ability, desire and possibly legality) that customers commit to paying for. But as time goes on you have a lot more data to go on and a lot more experience in your market and there will come a time when leading your customers on a market-defining journey is more valuable to you and them than focusing on fitting your product to the market.

Weaning off the founders

In the early days the founders are the company. As the company grows this effect lessens but it will be quite some time until the company is immune to the loss of some or all of its founders. But that is precisely what an established business needs to be. In the early days people will buy into the founders of the business as much as they buy into the product.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that believing in the founder has far more to do with an early customer making a commitment to buy something that doesn’t actually exist yet as whatever it is the product is portrayed as shortly to be doing.

But as time goes on the founders’ need to replace themselves with others who do the jobs they’ve been doing better than they can. They need to reduce their day-to-day involvement and ensure they are steering the company in the right direction. This doesn’t mean they need to make themselves redundant or irrelevant, just that the company should continue on if and when the founders decide to leave.††

In Conclusion

These are the things I think you need to stop being a start-up and get established. But I’m sure there are more and am interested in other people’s experience. It seems to me that with all the buzz about start-up around at the moment, a good body of experience and knowledge about how to successfully stop being a start-up is going to be increasingly important.

*Actually start-ups won’t save us from the global economic crisis but they might just create a few much-needed jobs, create a bit of excitement and confidence, and instil more entrepreneurial spirit in this country.

** Background: I’ve started three companies. The first never got out of being a start-up and died midway through its second year. The second was modestly successful and is still around after 10 years. The third is currently making the transition from start-up to established business.

† Parker Harris, co-founder of Salesforce.com

†† I’ll know Singletrack is doing okay when the team start telling me to shut up and let them do their jobs. I’m looking forward to that day.