What is your goal?

A couple days ago I’ve had coffee with a couple non-technical startup founders who were interested in my opinion on how to run an engineering team. They already hired Director of Engineering and half a dozen engineers, but were not sure if they are doing the right thing or not.

“How should we implement Scrum?” was first question they asked. If you haven’t heard about Scrum, then you only need to know that it’s a modern project management technique based on iterative approach. Some call it the ultimate solution for all problems. Some think it is a complete BS. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

“Why do you need Scrum?” immediately I knew that this will be a fun conversation.

“All startups use Scrum,” they replied.

“But what is your goal? Use Scrum? Or build the product and the company?”

The two founders made a common mistake – they mistakenly thought that the “tool” is their “goal”. There are many ways to slice the pie. There are some requirements for slicing it (e.g. the number of slices) but the end goal is not to slice the pie but to eat it. If you spend your time designing the best way to slice the pie, then you probably will go home hungry. Focus on the “tool” and you will miss the “goal”. The tool is just a tool at the end.

Another common question I often get asked is about choosing the best programming language, framework or database to build a new project or a product. My answer is typically “it’s irrelevant”. Unless you make a big and obvious mistake choosing C++ for building a CMS-like website, you will do fine with any tool. You should look not at the “best” tool but at other factors, for example, what kind of experience and knowledge your team has. This is way more important than 10% performance gain of language X vs. language Y.

It turned out that the two founders didn’t need Scrum just yet. Their engineering team had some issues but they were delivering mostly on time with acceptable quality. Their Director of Engineering was using an Excel spreadsheet for project management and it was completely enough for the size of the team and the current project complexity. Instead of discussing Scrum implementation, we discussed how the project management system in their company should evolve over time as the startup grows; what metrics they should watch for to make sure things are under control; and how to minimize the project management costs because it is also just a tool.

Good luck, John and Tim! I’ll see you for coffee in 6 months or so.




Information Overload

I read somewhere today that currently Facebook stores more than 100 terabytes of data which is more than half of the size of the digital archive of the Library of Congress. Nobody will argue that Facebook data are way less valuable to our civilization than the Library of Congress archive. And nobody will argue that more people daily read Facebook than the Library of Congress archive.

We are living in the age of information explosion. Each of us gets a daily dose of information that an average man in 19th century would get in a period of few months. Internet, TV, radio changed our information environment forever. We hear or read stories from around the world. And we automatically process and remember things that have no real interest to us. Do you really care in which rehab Charlie Sheen goes? Really?

I remember in the days when internet was young, I was getting about a dozen emails per day. Every email I received back then was important and addressed to me. I remember reading them all, thinking about them and writing pretty long replies. Today, after filtering out all the spam, marketing emails, automatic emails, etc. I receive a couple hundred emails per day. Most of the time, I am in the “cc” list “just in case” and “to be kept in the loop”. I am an information junkie and I actually read all the emails. Well, not “read” read. Just “scan” read. And I rarely think about emails or write more than a paragraph in reply.

We produce tons of information today yet it has a pretty low quality. Most of the updates on Twitter and posts on Facebook should have never been published either because they are trivial copy/pastes (read “link reposts” – I hate to see the same link posted 10 times in one day) or because nobody cares about the topic except the author him/herself. And even if the update doesn’t match the two categories above, more often than not it still has a low quality since the author didn’t have time to think about it, polish it, sleep on it. The few really interesting posts are buried in the mountains of trash. And we don’t have a good way to discover them without looking through all the garbage.

Does this mean that I will stop using Twitter/Facebook, write to the blog and quit email? Not really. After pressing “Publish” button in WordPress I am going to “share” this post on Facebook and Twitter. Yet another small piece of information junk will be added to the pile. I am an information junkie. Are you?

Understand Your Brewing Sticks

Many years ago each Vikings family had its own brewing stick to stir the wort. It was important to use the stick to get the beer “right”. Vikings guarded their family sticks and passed them from one generation to another. They didn’t know why the brew stick works. Only the discovery of yeast by Louis Pasteur in 1860’s explained to us what happens and allowed brewers around the world to improve the beer by cultivating yeast cultures and adapting them for different conditions. Today, you can find yeast designed for beer and wine, ales and lagers, low alcohol and strong beers, low and high temperature fermentation, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

When you build a product, you have many brewing sticks that can make your product better. Each feature you build adds a unique taste to your product. It is important to know why and how it works. To get this understanding, you need to collect data. And this is where many product managers fail. They feel that with limited resources it is more important to get more features out. And in order to do that they remove data gathering and analysis from the product plan. Later on, more features are developed, but nobody actually knows if these features make customers happier or not. As the result, product decisions are made purely based on the “gut feeling”. If you are lucky to have one of these guys with perfect “gut feeling” then you succeed. Otherwise, you fail (and it happens most of the time).

The solution to this problem is to build data gathering and analytics into your product from the first day. This is the most important of all investments you can make. When you try new things, make sure to always measure success and correct things if needed. There are very few companies who have this built into their DNA. The one I know the most about is Netflix. They test all the features in A/B testing on live website on small percentage of users before applying them to everyone. This model is built into the core of the Netflix product and it works absolutely great. Netflix collects enormous amount of data and this provides great hindsights into real customers needs and preferences. I absolutely love my experience with Netflix and it is one of my personal favorite businesses. In the same time, I know (and you know as well) many other websites and businesses left behind in Vikings time with many brewing sticks and no clue what is going on.

The German Beer Purity Law of 1516 named the only allowed components for brewing: malt, hops, and water. With the Pasteur’s discovery, the law had to be amended to also include yeast.