Stop complaining about funding, make something valuable

I attended the sold-out SydStart conference yesterday. It’s a great event and it was fantastic to see a real bump in maturity of the conversations and pitches. But conversations in the corridors echoed a familiar, and tiresome, sentiment: it’s too hard to raise money in Australia.

I wrote my rant on this one for Business Insider.

Helping developers (and designers, PMs, etc.) find great work

It’s hard for great developers in Australia to find good teams and projects when they’re looking for something new. About as hard as it is for companies to attract great developers. They’re (both) out there, but seem to only rarely connect. I frequently have both developers and companies ask me to hook them up, but usually come up short when put on the spot. Companies are served, if not well then at least somewhat, by recruiters, LinkedIn, referral bonuses and so on, but individuals don’t have many resources.

I want to help great people find great projects, so I’m trying something new. As a service to engineers, developers, designers, PMs and other people who work closely with them, I’m going to curate a list of interesting places for technical people to work. Great teams, interesting products, strong businesses. Each month I’ll publish an email highlighting a few such companies with a very brief outline of why I think they’re interesting. It will be highly subjective, but I hope useful nonetheless.

You can read more about it, or just subscribe right now.

If you’re in a race, your impact is marginal

Many people are motivated by money, fame and the lure of success. Some of them achieve it. Others, probably a smaller collection, are more deeply motivated by aspirations to have meaningful impact, to make a difference, to change the world (perhaps profiting along the way). This post is directed at you, the aspirational others.

To make a difference, to change a future that has not yet happened, the world needs to end up significantly different thanks to your actions than it would have had you done nothing. This aspect of “what would have happened anyway” that is easy to skip over if you don’t stop to think about it. Will the world become a better place because of your actions, or is it on track to improve in a similar way anyway and you’re just hanging on? Are you actually causing the improvement you wish to see?

This perspective is valuable both within companies and teams, and within society in the large. Michael Abrash tells an enlightening story of his first few weeks at Valve (the company that makes games like Half Life, Counterstrike, and Portal). Valve run a very unconventional organisation, and one of their defining cultural features is that there is no management hierarchy, no authority, and no-one to tell you what to do. So everyone has to figure it out for themselves. This quite understandably leads to an initial period of loss and confusion for people who are used to having at least some direction imposed on them. Abrash found an existing team who were working on a problem in which he was also quite experienced. He writes:

…most of the Source engine team was working on Portal 2 optimization; I’ve done a lot of optimization, so I suggested to Jay Stelly that maybe I should work on Portal 2 as well. Jay said, “Yeah, you could do that, but we’ll get it shipped anyway.” After a couple of discussions like that, I realized that he was saying was that I should think about whether that was really the most valuable thing I could be doing – there were plenty of people who were skilled at optimizing the Source engine already working on Portal 2, so it would be more useful to think about what high-impact things I could do that no one else was doing.

Working on the Portal 2 engine sounds like an obvious fit: joining a great team on a highly-anticipated title, a game that would be enjoyed by some four million people while continuing the genre-defining innovation of its predecessor. But, as Abrash came to realise, his contribution wouldn’t have real impact because all that would happen anyway, without his help. His marginal impact would be minimal, maybe a slight performance improvement or a few weeks earlier ship date. That’s not making a difference.

Think of your role in our society, in our global civilisation, in the same way. We’re all in this together and we (aspirational others) share some common goals and values of improving life and furthering humanity. There are lots of exciting projects going on. It’s an amazing time to be alive. Seemingly boundless possibilities are opening up before us as our knowledge and our technology accelerate us into a future unimaginable a generation or two ago. There is a ton of buzz around some of these ideas and the companies pursuing them, and some of them, no doubt, will have huge impact.

But they’re going to have that impact anyway, whether you jump in or not. Unless you have some unique insight or perspective, a true innovation beyond the obvious consequences, or unmatched talent, your involvement would be marginal. Someone else will probably arrive at a similar insight before too long, especially in areas with a lot of attention. Even if you were highly successful, even if you dominated the market that forms, your impact would be small if someone else would have done approximately the same thing had you not been there (although it’ll be a lot easier to delude yourself about your impact if you do succeed).

The clue to look out for, the hint that maybe your impact will be marginal, is whether or not you are (or will be) in a race. If  being first to market is a significant factor in your odds of success, and there is some chance you won’t be, then you’re racing. If you’re racing and you just stop then someone else will win. And if someone else winning implies that the world sees a more or less similar outcome to that you are trying to bring anyway, then your participation isn’t making a big difference. Society doesn’t care who makes the next crowd funding platform, the next group chat app, the next ride sharing market. The good variations on those ideas will be discovered, tested and marketed by the many people motivated by money and success. If you’re racing against them, if you’re worried about being beaten to find those winning combinations, if the pressure is on to launch first, then you are not making a real difference. If you want to have real impact, if you want the world to be better because of your actions, then you need to do something different, something that other people are not doing, something where you won’t be racing to the same finish line.

Don’t confuse this warning against racing as a suggestion not to improve on existing products or ideas, as a suggestion not to do something better (as opposed to just faster). If you can solve a problem better that everyone else, that’s of real value. There’s nothing wrong with making an incremental improvement. Many products which have had huge impact over the past few years started out essentially incrementally, taking an existing idea and doing it better or differently than anyone had tried before. Where multiple social networks had failed to stick, Facebook did it better and is still growing eight years later. Everyone thought search engines were boring and a solved problem when Google set out to make the world’s best. Smartphone and tablet manufacturers could already reflect on years of failure when iOS and Android devices hit the shelves. The market had conclusively proven that no-one really needed a file synchronisation service when Dropbox decided to make one that normal humans could actually use. None of these products were racing against competitors who were producing a similar product with similar quality. Indeed, most were overturning a stagnant industry segment, upsetting a market already thought to be explored. They had real, unique differentiation and their developers had no need to race except behind their desire to bring their benefits to the world as soon as they could.

Of course, the time pressure brought by competition has many advantages: a race incentivises rapid development and release, products reach the market faster, benefits arrive sooner, and poor ideas fail before sucking up too much development effort. But the role of competitive foil is not high impact, it’s marginal. If you have high talent or insight or experience and you really want to make a difference, leave that to someone else. Alternatively, accept that that is your role for now. Accept that together with your competitors you will effect some change and that your part will be small. Understand what your impact really is when evaluating the cost to your lifestyle, your health, your relationships, and your time.

If you’re pursuing something innovative, something really new, then you shouldn’t have to race. You should be laying down the track for everyone else. If you think you do need to race, consider that if you’re right then even if you win, your marginal impact was small. Someone else would have realised the same value a little later. You might succeed in reallocating some wealth towards yourself, and that’s great as a stepping stone to higher impact later, but if you have loftier goals already then consider doing something else. If you really value changing the world, you need to change it some way that no-one else will.

What I value

The period 2008–11, while I was working at Google on Wave, was the high point of my satisfaction in my work to date. I was working hard, but never needed to think about whether the huge effort was “worth it”. At the time it didn’t occur to me to question why I was so content, but I have since reflected on that time a lot. I think there were two equal large contributors to my contentment: I was working with a high-functioning, committed and capable team, and we were working towards something many of us deeply valued. We weren’t building Wave for money—there were financial incentives attached to success, but it was not lucrative during the project. We weren’t doing it for professional advancement—if anything, the project harmed promotion prospects for many on the team. We were building Wave because we were creating something that needed to be created, and that aspirational outlook pervaded the team.

I’ve not quite reached that level of satisfaction since. For the first year or so after leaving Google I was happy to be getting my hands dirty at a start-up, building a great engineering team and nurturing an environment and culture to give us the greatest chance of success. It was a challenge, and the challenge was stimulating, and continually improving tools, product and culture for my peers was highly rewarding. But eventually my work came to feel hollow, and my impact marginal. I couldn’t figure out why for a while, but the pep talks and vision weren’t working for me any more. And slowly I came to realise the problem.

I wasn’t working towards something I valued.

I’d never thought explicitly about what I valued, what ends I held worthy above others, what aspects of a product, process or culture should serve as motivation for pursuing it. I couldn’t articulate what my personal values were, but I could tell that I wasn’t putting the bulk of my effort toward them. So, pained by abandoning my colleagues, I left to take time to figure them out.

I can’t recommend highly enough the taking of several months time out to think about what you value, about the shape of the impact you want to have. I am lucky to have been in a position where I didn’t need to work to live, but there is no way I could have reached the relative clarity I now have had I been distracted by the day to day of employment. Instead, I explicitly allowed myself three months of almost complete non-productivity, so that I might direct the years of productivity to follow toward something I truly valued.

By the end of three months I had settled on the values below. It’s far from a complete list of valuable ends, but I’m pretty sure they’re my top three.


 

Learning

I value learning, in all forms, by everyone. Our minds are unique (as far as we know) in their capability for abstract symbolic thought, thanks to the evolution of language. It is an essentially human act to come to understand some phenomena, either directly by experience or indirectly by education, and with that knowledge synthesise new thoughts, new ideas, new learnings. Learning about our universe, learning about our societies, and learning about ourselves enable people now and in the future to better realise whatever other ends we value.

We are special, possibly unique, in our ability to conceptually model the universe we live in. Scientific endeavour towards understanding the very big and the very small helps us to understand our place in the universe, and learning about the very complex, human scale in which we live helps us to make that meaningful. The quest for knowledge is a great adventure, a grand challenge, both in academia and everyday life as we navigate the complexities of living together. Learning makes us human. Advancing learning both pushes the limits of what it means to be human, and is as human as we can be.

Collaboration

People can do more together. Together, we can take on challenges and produce feats that no one could accomplish alone. Effective collaboration on some problem almost always produces better results than solo effort, and so, like building knowledge through learning, improving collaboration yields huge impact by helping many others achieve ever greater goals. Our great body of human knowledge, simultaneously a great triumph and a work in progress, is the product of social learning, the intersection of learning and collaboration to exchange knowledge, ideas, and practises.

Collaboration is also good for social cohesion. Likely for evolutionary reasons, people demonstrate increased affinity for each other after collaborating. You like the people you’ve achieved something with. And as the stresses of a growing population overreaching limited resources inevitably increase, achieving things together, empathising with, and liking each other will be critical avoiding catastrophic consequences.

Happiness

I value happiness, mine and others’. I know it seems weird to state it, but I think happiness is an end that needs no justification. I won’t attempt a definition of happiness, but I’m talking about both long-term contentment and the more transient moments of joy. A life with happiness seems just… better. More lived. We find unhappy lives sad and incomplete. In love, we find joy and contentment bound in shared experience with another (collaboration), and in satisfying work we find happiness from personal growth (learning). Without happiness, we are not living into our human potential.

Acting to create happiness in others needs no further justification and I have ever-growing admiration for those who do so continually or at scale: writers, composers, artists, filmmakers, comedians, and many others who include delivering happiness in their every day.


 

Having identified these things I value I’m determined to have them inform both what I put my efforts toward and how I do undertake that work. It has been enlightening to realise how much else I think good can be traced back to these values. For example, my management style tends towards the empowering rather than authoritarian, and I can see this emerging from my values. Now-common best practises for technology product teams like code review, continual integration, releasing early and iterating are all motivated by learning early and often, and collaborating with not just each other but with customers and users. Taking risks, accepting failures and innovating are all necessary for learning. My desire to work with and produce only high quality products, code and peers might stem from the moments of happiness that each can bring. And it’s clear why I was content working on Wave, where I was building a collaboration tool and learning a lot.

I’m looking forward, now, to motivating my future work with these values and to making decisions by them. They’re not a complete set of values for a team: since I value collaboration, that must include the values of my future peers. I’m definitely missing something about ambition, reaching far, thinking big, acting fast. But I’m confident that working toward these values will put me, and a team that share compatible values, in a position to achieve sustained positive impact, and enjoy doing it.