Conflict is Natural and Good in a Startup

A recent HBR video spurred me to think about conflict. Society teaches us to avoid conflict, which is a decent general survival strategy; however, it benefits us to understand why it’s natural and good–especially in a startup.

It’s Natural

Conflict is borne from differences. As a people, we’re differentiated by gender, race, ethnicity, education, religion, politics, etc. It’s why we have such a rich variety of cultures and individuals. It’s how we get Picassos and Einsteins. But it’s also how we get serial killers. Each of us has a unique point of view and a rich history of experience that shapes how we think. In a startup, you’ll have a group of people who try to use the sum of this knowledge and experience to make decisions that will ultimately decide whether or not the company survives. The personalities of this group is self-selected from the passionate and risk-taking part of society. Furthermore, startups are usually starved for resources, which inevitably leads to hard prioritization decisions. If you don’t fight for your part, who will?

It’s Good

Without conflict, a startup team is missing voices. If people don’t fight for their thoughts and beliefs, the best solution to a problem may never have been presented at all. People are typically poor at making complex decisions individually. If you have an frontend engineer, a backend engineer, and a platform engineer all discuss a problem, they’ll attack it from different angles and bring a broader set of solutions. If everyone’s a backend engineer–well, it’s really about covering all the bases. 

Moving Forward

Granted, this is the optimal case. If you have conflict that focuses on personal grudges that taint every discussion, that’s not gonna help. If you have people who enjoy conflict for the sake of conflict, then watch out. If you a wide range of talents (A vs B vs C players), this can make it more challenging. They key is to realize *why* there’s conflict. If you know that the guy across the table doesn’t agree with you because your goals aren’t aligned–that could be an easy road block to remove. If you recognize that everyone’s fighting for the same finite resources–that could be opportunity to reach common ground. Whatever it is…understanding the other parties in the discussion is the key to making good come out of conflict.

 

What companies are Facebookers leaving for?

Now that Facebook has “quietly” IPO’d, it’s time for Suck to train his army of engineers on more meaningful pursuits. @elonmusk is a good role model. After Paypal, he’s been working on Tesla and SpaceX. Tesla has made electric cars sexy again and SpaceX just launched a Dragon. Granted, the movie “Social Network” was pretty good and it used to be fun thinking of Facebook as David fighting the Goliath, Google. But now, the rebels have become the Evil Empire. What companies are Facebookers leaving for?

Balance of Power in #startups

Startups are like small countries–if the balance of power is not maintained, bad things like death and destruction happen. The following is a set of scenarios you want to avoid.

All Hail Engineers

The technical half of a two co-founder startup dominates all decisions. He starts out as the CTO but muscles his way into the CEO spot, leaving the business co-founder with a VP of Sales position. The company plans to hire 50 new engineers and a minimal sales staff because the CEO believes the product will “sell itself”. Support is dying for more resources, marketing is dying for more resources, but engineers are paid way over market. This is reminiscent of Facebook in its early days and you’ll find many stories of talented people leaving the company because they were unhappy with the fact that the culture was too engineering-centric. Remember the movie “Social Network” by Aaron Sorkin? Avoid that.

Rowing the Boat

The business half of a two co-founder startup dominates all decisions. He is CEO and there is no CTO, just a bunch of engineers. The company is very sales-focused and eschews things like R&D. Engineering is viewed not as a source of innovation but a team of slaves “rowing the boat”. This makes me think of today’s Yahoo. The talented research team was fired, many of the engineers have jumped ship, and one of its multiple personalities thinks of itself as a content company. Yahoo isn’t a startup anymore, but there’s a strong tendency to forget–especially as startups grow up–that in the tech world you innovate or someone will innovate you out of existence. Without a strong engineering voice, you might as well be walking the plank.

Microcosms

The first two scenarios are the most glaringly obvious ones that are easy to spot–others take a trained eye. When a startup hires a stable of VPs and each one is off to the races on Day 1, it’s hard to have them all run at the same pace. Some departments may not even have a horse in the race! It’s subtle, but you will be able the see the effects of unbalanced power. Instead of quick and decisive course corrections, you’ll get reactionary jerks. For example, when Netflix announced that they were raising prices and killing off their DVD service in a cold email, I suspect something was awry in the top leadership because up ’til then, Netflix was known for its customer relations. They refunded customers when service outages happened, CEO Reed Hastings routinely wrote candid emails to customers explaining decisions, employees broadcasted their uber-flexible vacation policy, etc. Certainly, a balanced leadership would not have supported such an uncharacteristic move?

Maintaining Balance

This is damn hard for a startup. You start with 1+1–that’s easy. That’s a simple handshake. You add a VP or two after you get your Series A–not too bad. That’s a basketball team huddle. You add a few more to grow your other departments after you get your Series B–hm… That’s a football team huddle. You add SVPs and let’s not forget the ever-growing Board of Directors after your Series C–shiznit. That’s a village. It’s a challenge, but the company has to listen and weigh equally, every single voice all along the way, even if some are quieter than others and especially to those voices that are missing.

It’s the small things

At 15 crosswords per page and 129 pages, teachers have generated almost 2000 crossword puzzles (it’s been about a month). It’s one of life’s small things, but it’s a nice feeling–that something you built is useful.

Project Management for Startups

In large companies, project management is a must; in startups, it’s a radioactive “hot” potato. Large companies have dedicated project managers and sometimes even a Project Management Office (PMO). Small companies like ours don’t have one and we’re pushing 60 employees now after 18 months. Eventually, it’ll make sense to have a full-time project manager, but until then we want to stay agile so we get by using software, process, and face time.

Use the Right Software

When our Product-Engineering team consisted of CEO, CTO, and two engineers, email was our issue tracker and a whiteboard contained our roadmap. That worked well. Soon we hired a few more engineers and email proliferated. Pivotal Tracker (PT) became our issue tracker (still free then!). PT is simple, light, and an engineering team’s dream–a place where only engineers could hang out. We upgraded to Google Spreadsheets for our roadmap so we can do more sharing and simple Gantt charts. Once we hired some product managers, added a QA team, and started developing many projects at once, it was time to swim in the Olympic-size pool: Jira. Besides being created by a hilarious bunch, Jira does everything. That’s part of the reason we resisted using it early on, since we didn’t want to fill out so many corporate-y fields like “hours worked” (::shudder::). As for our roadmap, it broke Google Spreadsheets and I grew tired of the “aw, snap!” pages. I’m experimenting with a few tools and so far I like Asana and Smartsheet. Find what works for you now.

Evolve Your Process But It’s all About Face Time

We tried to add only as much process as we needed over time. You start out with a fast track from feature conception to release. When you have two people who work on a project, you can sit down and have a heart to heart, nod heads, and then start coding. When a product manager has to convey thoughts to a few developers and a few QA–this is a small team still–details get lost in translation. Not only that, conversations may happen between members of the team that aren’t shared with the rest of the team. Let the frustration and angst begin. For a while, we went with the Product Requirements Document (PRD) approach, which is very monolithic. We’ve since moved away from that. Recurring meetings get moved around and their titles and agendas change. We went from 1-week to 2-week releases. Processes should change when the team changes or when the needs of the team change. It all comes down to getting a bunch of people to share ideas and work together efficiently. All this software and process is meant to cheat time–time to talk to one another face-to-face that is very hard to come by.

 

How to Find a Technical Co-Founder

Finding a technical co-founder is like online dating: too many guys and not enough women, except you skip the engagement and jump straight to the wedding. Often times, what’s really being asked is “How do I learn about starting a company?”. Check out the title of this hugely popular Quora question: “I am a creative guy with a startup idea. Where is the best place to find a rockstar developer to bring it to life?” There are 35 answers and it has been viewed 19870 times. The wording of this question reveals a troubling conceit–the idea that once you have an idea, all you need is to hire a few monkeys to code it up–then profit! The world is richer and more complex than that, my friends.

1 is the Loneliest Number

Apple had Steve Wozniak, Google had both Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Facebook had Mark Zuckerberg. It’s hard to build successful technology companies without a strong technical co-founder. You really need the wide range of talents from a Marketer, Product Manager, and Designer–it just so happens that the 1+1 combo of a business founder and technical founder can condense this set of skills into two people. With freelancers and advisers, you can keep the team size to two longer, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single person that does it all.

Be Realistic

Be honest with yourself first so you can be honest with others. Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 for this role. Figure out what strengths you bring to the table and what’s lacking. Are you ready to be part of a 1+1? Most likely, this means you’ll be solely responsible for the business side of things including marketing, sales, legal, etc. Should you find a co-founder or should you join a startup to learn some skills first? If you’re not a superstar business guy, you will not get a superstar technical guy to work with you, so have realistic expectations.

Make Friends

Highly sought-after women generally don’t need online dating. A great engineer will have six-figure offers from Google and Facebook on the table. For them to pass on those jobs is like ditching a millionaire for a struggling writer. You better be Ernest Frakking Hemingway carrying a dead lion you just killed with your fountain pen. I suggest you make friends with as many technical people as you can. Go to meetups, conferences, Startup Weekend, etc. Make connections on Twitter and through your extended network. Meet your neighbors who may be trying to build the next Instagram (engineers tend to tinker too much and ideate too little). At some point you’ll realize why the term “rockstar developer” is so passe. If you need some technical advice, introduce yourself on Twitter–I go by @mankindforward.

Why your engineering team needs Vagrant

One of the first things I told our CEO when I joined as the first engineering hire was to buy every engineer a 15″ Macbook Pro. I wanted to have a consistent development environment for my team. I created a Google Doc and at first I ran through this How-To personally on every new machine for every new hire. The last 3 or 4 hires were given this doc on their first day and their setup time became part of the “How quickly can I setup my dev box” game. The record is 4 hours but he had most of the dependencies setup. The longest was two days.

It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Upgrades

In the last 18 months, Apple has changed the processors, memory, and countless other aspects of the 15″ Macbook Pro. OSX has gone from Snow Leopard to Lion to Mountain Lion. Ruby has gone from 1.8.7 to 1.9.3, Rails has gone from 2.3 to 3.1, and I can’t keep track of all the versions of gems that have changed. The development world–it changes fast. How bad could it be, really? Well, I include 4 different manual “patches” in that doc of mine to make mysql work. The working patch depends on whether you have 32-bit or 64-bit OSX, your version of Xcode and mysql, whether you used a tarball or a dmg, whether you use mysql or mysql2 gem, etc. Lately, I just tell new hires to try everything until they find something that works. Even for packages installed via macports, certain version of ports don’t install properly. Some of these can be fixed by editing the portfile with information culled from the Interwebs. Other times, people just give up and use the homebrew version. This is us at 10 engineers.

Remove Doubt

Development and debugging can often lead to situations where you try to find what is different about a working scenario and a broken one. If a test passes on my machine but not on yours, I don’t want to say “it could be because you’re using Rails 2.3 vs 3.2 or Ruby 1.8.7 vs 1.9.2″ or god-forbid “it could be because you’re using Windows”. Ideally, I would like to say “it’s because you forgot to pull the latest code” or  “your custom configuration file is not consistent with mine”. The more differences between one environment and another means the more variables to consider–follow the rabbit down the hole.

Abstraction FTW

Just as rvm helps engineers manage Ruby versions and bundler, Ruby gems, Vagrant helps engineers manage their entire development environment. With the concept of “boxes”, an engineering team can build Virtual Machine images to suit their every need. Want to onboard a new hire? Give then a computer and have them load your team’s starter box in 5 minutes. Want to roll out security updates to all 500 of your engineers? Script everything up using Chef or Puppet and have everyone download a new box. Want to test how your app would run in Ubuntu rather than Gentoo or OSX? I just did that while writing this post. When do I really need vagrant? For small teams (2-3), you’ll probably live without Vagrant. However, if you want peace of mind or plan to scale, check it out now.

Every Startup Needs a Gong

This is our third gong. Our first one was a few inches in diameter and sat on a desk. Our second one is about six inches in diameter–a mini version of this beast, which vibrates your soul if you stand too close. Gongs are a meme at Badgeville–a unique story about our company just like “Team Punishment” and Iceland. We hit the gong whenever sales closes a deal and the size of the deal determines the number of gongs (and now also what size gong you hit). Other companies also does this for sales. I hear New Relic gongs and sends a mass email to the entire company when a client goes premium (awkward and funny story around that). I love the gongs because they’re a tangible reminder of progress. As an engineer living in a world of 0-downtime releases and in the past weekly or even daily releases, there’s no party to commemorate the mailing of CDs with your software. Somewhere out there, some VMs turn over in a dark, temperature-controlled room and your SaaS product has been updated.

Gongs are one of the many ways companies develop culture and character. Our name is “Team Punishment”. The origin of the name is oh-so-random but it’s stuck nonetheless. Every quarter we design t-shirts to commemorate the evolution of “Team Punishment”–recent ones featured images from the Godfather and Scarface. I remember one quarter we had one w/ a japanese phrase translated as “team with no worthy enemies”. As we’ve grown to over 50 employees and moved 4 offices and now occupy a fifth across the street, it’s the little things like gongs and team names and backstories that pass on the culture, the essence of the company. The space-time continuum in a startup is compressed–years feel like months and weeks feel like days. It’s very easy to get caught up in Getting Stuff Done (GSD), but it’s these tiny details that help tell the story of your company.

Why Google is Dying to be More Social

It’s tiring to hear that Google doesn’t have “social” in its DNA. I left a comment on the article, but I must elaborate on this battle of epic proportions happening in the tech world.

Arrogance is a Ruse

Google is or can be perceived as being arrogant. It’s unlikely that a company that has transformed the world as Google has can avoid a tinge of arrogance. Hence, it is naive to think that Google’s attempts at “social”, namely Google+, are merely whimsical dalliances of an aging giant. I don’t think anyone at Shoreline realistically thinks Google+ will ever overtake Facebook. The arrogance is a ruse to throw us off the scent–the smell of deepening fear.

Beyond PageRank and Wide Open Spaces

Google’s stated mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. When what all the world knew was Yahoo’s labyrinthian category hierarchy, Google’s algorithm for indexing and searching the growing sea of information was a quite a paradigm shift. This approach is still dominant today but the sea itself is changing. The Internet used to give Google free reign to crawl and index. Today, with digital fortresses like social networks and pay walls, it’s become more and more difficult for Google to complete its mission. For a while, Google had a deal to incorporate tweets into their search results. As of late, the relationship is still strained. Then there was the whole Google-Facebook address book debacle. More and more, the world’s information has evolved from merely flat web pages to intricate graphs containing not only people but brands, topics, and even pets. Companies like Badgeville and lately Facebook as well, go further, building “behavior graphs” where the connections between the content are rich verbs like “watched”, “purchased”, and “performed”.

Social or Bust

Google’s frustration is apparent and with good reason. Think back to Google’s ordeal with the Chinese government last year. The situation is different, but the problem is the same: the world is not as open as Google likes. The government writes the rules in China and Google must operate by them. It took Google a while to realize that. The same battle rages on between Android and iPhone. For better or worse, Apple keeps tight control over its iWorld. Some people like that approach, but for the rest of the market, Android is bringing order to the chaos. Google+ is an attempt to break down yet another set of barriers in another arena. It’s the counterweight to Facebook and its unique way of looking at the world. Whether or not you believe what Google believes, you should respect them for sticking to the mission, even if they don’t always clearly articulate them. However, you really have to wonder how Google will organize the world’s information when it has no access to large portions of it. Or perhaps what will happen if Google stopped fighting these fights.