Work

The BBC “across”

The term “across” is absolutely endemic at the BBC and because so many people in UK media pass through the BBC it also crops up across the sector generally. Although I was initially scornful of it as a term I have long since caved to the inevitable and use it as well.

Being “across” seems to have originated in the fact that the BBC have multiple media streams and when a journalist talks about being “across” things they might well mean that they are producing pieces on a topic across multiple media, say television and radio. It might also mean that they are tracking a breaking story and are watching other media outlets for what they are saying about a story.

Outside this context though the word more or less means “understanding”. So when someone from the BBC is “across” something it means they understand it, sometimes if they are “across” it enough they can also make decisions about it. When someone isn’t “across” something then they do not feel they understand it or they are unprepared to answer questions about it.

Ironically this meaning then seems to seep back into broadcast journalism and I have heard journalists on air saying that they are “across” developments such as the formation of the coalition.

At this point “across” feels kind of ubiquitous apart for people who have been raised in single stream media so I think it’s worth you being “across” it too.

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Work

Success looks like success

One useful thing I have learnt by working in an early stage startup is that success looks and feels like success. If you are doing something and it does not seem like it is being successful then it isn’t. This might seem like something that is completely obvious but it is really not.

There are many kinds of “not success” (or failure to give it it’s true but cruel name). The worst is the “almost success” where something works and delivers on its promise, but not very well. Almost success creates this dilemma where perhaps with a little iterating and more effort you could turn it into a real success.

When this kind of success creates ongoing liabilities in terms of customer expectations then the situation is even worse. If you try and cancel things or do a lean startup pivot then you are guaranteed to alienate your current customers with only the hope of gaining more of the true customer base you originally envisaged.

Weak success is a little better, weak success is not outright failure but is so unsuccessful that people completely understand if you want to knock it on the head.

In a large organisation though things are far more difficult. Both almost success and weak success are ironically more dangerous in a big and profitable organisation due to two factors: personal reward and hidden cross-subsidy.

If someone achieves any degree of success in an organisation they expect to be rewarded for it. Perhaps justifiably, perhaps not. Either way there are serious morale implications if at the end of period of exertion by any group or individual you kill off the object of all their efforts, no matter how rational and correct that decision may be.

In general people are conflict averse so they prefer to reward almost success and move on to other activities that might be more successful.

However a set of almost successful activities all have real costs and the minute any of them fail to generate revenue sufficient to carry their costs then you are in the world of the hidden cross-subsidy where all your almost successful projects and products start to drag down any aspect of the business that is profitable.

It is a tar pit that can be difficult to escape unless you have really good accounting to see where money is coming and going. It is only easy in a startup because generally you only have one product and therefore all profit and loss is easy to tally and attribute.

So everything in your business that is not a success is a potentially business-killing failure. And for that reason, even though it is hard, you need to end almost success just as much as you need end failure.

The question to ask is not “Is this successful?”; if you are asking that question then the answer is simply no. If you are successful then the question you ask is “How are we going to deal with all this success?”.

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Programming, Software, Web Applications, Work

Names are like genders

One thing I slightly regret in the data modelling that is done for users in Wazoku is that I bowed to marketing pressure and “conventional wisdom” and created a pair of first and last name fields. If gender is a text field then how much more so is the unique indicator of identity that is a name?

The primary driver for the split was so that email communications could start “Hey Joe” rather than “Hey Joe Porridge Oats McGyvarri-Billy-Spaulding”. Interestingly as it turns out this is definitely the minority usage case and 95% of the time we actually put our fields back together to form a single string because we are displaying the name to someone other than the user. It would have been much easier to have a single name field and then extract the first “word” from the string for the rare case that we want to try and informally greet the user.

My more general lesson is that wherever I (or we more generally as a business) have tried to pre-empt the structure of a data entity we have generally gotten it wrong, however so far we have not had to turn a free text field into a stricter structure.

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Work

Google Apps and App Engine

If you use Google Apps to provide you with email then you should also really be thinking about enabling and using Google App Engine as well. Internal applications are much easier to deliver to the business as a whole and having a ready-made platform makes it easier to try out ideas that previously would have been impractical.

The first advantage is that Google Apps that are bound into your domain allow you to create something that is easy to access for an existing user (no additional login is required) but also gives you peace of mind that you are exposing virtually zero surface area for attack.

The second is that for Python at least it is easy to access a very full featured environment with a minimum of code. Want to send emails, have task queues, access to memcache, serve static content? It is all a YAML configuration line or import away.

I love services like Heroku but a lot of internal apps have relatively light usage and benefit from the batteries included approach rather than combining various plugins. It makes it easy to switch between different approaches and react to different demands.

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Work

Is this really the manifesto we want?

Silicon Milkroundabout tried to produce a manifesto for why people should consider working at a startup. This is the outcome.

The first time I saw it I was very disappointed. While I cannot knock its authenticity it is a profoundly depressing document. While there are the standard statements about passion and having the freedom to make what you should rather than what you are told to; there is much more about poverty, tiredness and scarcity.

If I read this I would say that working for startups is a mugs game. You’re far better coming in during the expansion phase when salaries are higher and the business case better proven.

The many references to tiredness and lack of sleep is also revealing. What I have discovered is that tremendous pressure is put on you to deliver product in a technology startup and this should be resisted at all costs. Sustainable pace is more important in small organisations than in large ones. In a large organisation you can actually burn out a team to achieve a goal because you probably have access to the resources to replace them. In a small one, once you’ve wrecked a team (probably including yourself) you have no way of replacing them and a death spiral will inevitably set in as decision making becomes progressively worse. Remember that a startup should aim to deliver progress not product. Don’t work with people who don’t understand this.

Money, frankly seems to be the missing ingredient from this list of reasons. Maybe adding “because late-stage equity options are worthless” would ruin the overall tone. Many people, especially investors, are involved in startups because they offer potential massive returns in a low growth environment. Americans are much more open and brash (you might even say vulgar) about this with talk of flipping and sale valuations of millions of dollars (often farcical as in the case of Groupon who merely had the bad luck to be caught before their IPO).

Even then this reason is foolish because if what you want is money then you should go to the City. The money is guaranteed, guaranteed in fact by the government which not only underwrites it, bails it out but then charges off into Europe to protect it from legislation that might affect its lucrative tax haven and money “recycling” business. In contrast being involved in “entrepreneurship” is a rather romantic and significantly more challenging way to achieve wealth.

I do work at a startup though and I was at Silicon Milkroundabout trying to encourage people to join me in doing this.

My personal motivation is that for me a startup is a business that is complete but small enough that you can actually see and understand all parts of it. The interesting thing is that organisational dysfunction is actually just a likely in a startup as a larger firm. Often the problems are actually exactly the same, simply orders of magnitude less significant.

Being able to pull the curtain aside is fascinating. Working in the small also removes the mystique that gathers around things and people that generate large revenues. Once a certain number of livelihood’s become involved in a particular process or product you lose the ability to tinker with things or even to question why things are the way they are. In an environment with no money and no customers any change is either positive or at least neutral.

Working in a startup for non-cynical reasons means creating something that is of profound personal interest. I really am interested in trying to remove friction from the process of turning ideas into reality. Wazoku is a product that I do believe in and what I was saying to a lot of people at Silicon Milkroundabout was try the product. If you are interested in solving the problem and the solution in turn solves some of your problems your work is satisfying at all levels. If there is not a satisfactory solution already in progress for your problem then a startup is the only way that you can initiate that process of moving to a more perfect world.

Working for a startup is a last resort; need should be part of your motivation; ignore idiots and their advice; make sure you get enough sleep.

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Work

Silicon Milkroundabout Roundup

Interesting time at Silicon Milkroundabout this Sunday. There were kind of three levels of activity going on, first of all there was the element of developer goofing off with arcade machines and free stuff. Then there was the opportunity to network, first of all between the startups and secondly between the developers (although I am not sure how much mixing between different dev teams was actually going on).

Finally there was the recruitment activity. Unlike the first event this really was more of a milkround with a younger, less experienced audience. The format did seem to be pitching for talent which is interesting as I am not convinced that people are going to find the best role by going with the best sales pitch. There has to be a better way of understanding the culture of the firm you are potentially joining.

The different streams of activity make the event quite weird in its nature and purposes. It feels like there is a need for a kind of startup expo to allow startups to see and meet one another without the pretext of seeking to employ people. There is also a need for a kind of elite coder event on a quarterly basis that is maybe a little select, a bit like a mini-conference, that allows for networking and swapping of intelligence and gossip on what is really going on at various firms.

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Work

The Pretentious CTO

I currently use the title CTO in my job despite the fact that I only directly manage two people. A classic example of the “fake” CTO. So naturally I felt a little defensive in a recent discussion with Jon Hartley about why I feel that the title can be justified by people who work in small businesses.

Let’s start with an entirely pragmatic answer: the job title is something that is well understood. While the majority of my activities day to day would be adequately covered by the title “lead developer”, the truth is that technical authority and decision making resides solely with myself. The easiest way to convey that to suppliers and recruitment agents (and stop them seeking to go over my head to my non-existent boss) is to use the most commonly understood title.

I find it ironic that I have managed much larger projects with a much junior title. In terms of experience I do not feel a particular gap with other startup CTOs but obviously there is a bigger gap as you move into the equivalent role in larger organisations. A lot of those people come from non-technical backgrounds reflecting the greater need for people management at larger scales. The number of people who have technical backgrounds and have managed groups greater than a hundred people strong onshore are probably pretty small.

For me the key differentiator in my current job is that I do hold a technology portfolio within the management and report on the whole technical area to the management team as well as the board and investors (although to be honest the latter too are not that bothered so far). I would happily concede the “Chief” as I have no other senior technology reportees but I think it is a different kind of pretension that seeks to do down the unique aspects of a role you have in an organisation. I am an officer of the company and I do make the key decisions for technology and I am held to account for them. CTO is the common title and I am comfortable using it.

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