We get this a lot: “How do you guys get so much done with such a small team? 5 products, a book, Rails, and a popular blog. We have a lot more money, people, hardware, and technology than you do, but we can’t seem to get anything done. What’s the secret?”
There are two prisoners. Each have their own cell and no cellmates.
Both want to break out. One has a jackhammer and the other a spoon.
The jackhammer is clearly the better tool to break though concrete, block, brick. But it’s loud, big, requires a power source, it’s expensive and hard to hide. You can’t be subtle with a jackhammer. Small mistakes become huge mistakes with a jackhammer. It’s all or nothing with a jackhammer. It’s handy if you are breaking up a concrete sidewalk, but breaking out of a concrete prison is another story.
The spoon is for eating soup. But it’s subtle, quiet, utilitarian, maneuverable, human powered, easy to conceal, easier to repair or replace. It may take a lot longer, but you stand a much better chance.
Brute force (jackhammer) may get things done, but a whole lot more can go wrong—loudly. Subtlety (spoon) gives you more room to work. More opportunities to say no, to slow down, to make better decisions along the way, to change direction.
Pouring tons of money, tons of resources, and tons of people at a problem is like using a jackhammer to break out of jail. Putting a few smart people on the problem, embracing constraints, not trying to solve the wrong problems, focusing on precision, not using seven words when four will do, and taking the time to get it done right is like using the spoon.
We use the spoon.
Neoon 26 Jan 07
There is no spoon.
Jeff Mackeyon 26 Jan 07
You guys continue to inspire. Thanks.
Georgeon 26 Jan 07
Case Study Multics vs Unix.
No one uses multics at all, not one computer. But unix is the only Real Operating System Remaning. Unix was not digsinged by a comity but a 3 guys Kerhinghan, Richee, and Tomson. Multics was a big digsined no limits and was big slow and thats was it.
Jeff Crofton 26 Jan 07
And as an even more direct analogy, Rails is your spoon. Working in a Django shop for the past year, I’ve definitely seen the light on these agile web development frameworks. Compared to monoliths like most Java environments and the utter mess that are most PHP environments, the simplicity, elegance, and flexibility of tools like Django, Rails, TurboGears, and the rest of them allows for so much more rapid development.
The biggest and/or most popular tools aren’t always the best tools. And while there’s no doubt that 37signals’ talented people and smart business philosophies are a large part of your success, having lean, agile, and flexible tools at your disposal will go a long, long way, too.
You guys invented your own spoon. :)
MikeInAZon 26 Jan 07
I’d rather have a spork.
It’s a soup or salad world for me.
Long Time Listener - Repeat Calleron 26 Jan 07
I’m hoping that SVN will have a post related to a product update some time soon… I’ve been waiting for those “coming soon” features in BackPack for a while now…
Jamieon 26 Jan 07
This makes me want to watch Shawshank Redemption again!
Anonymous Cowardon 26 Jan 07
Apparently you dug your spoon into a big bowl of ‘smug’ before writing that post?
JFon 26 Jan 07
It wasn’t meant to me smug. Sometimes it’s how you read into something that makes it smug, not the words themselves. I’ve been guilty of that many times myself. I can assure you there’s no hidden agenda or ego boosting here.
I must get about 10 emails a month asking me the question I addressed in the first paragraph. It’s what we hear most from people. It’s what they are most curious about. I’m just reciting it up top and answering the question below.
Gustavo Beathyateon 26 Jan 07
Good point. The story is really gay though. :)
Mark Halidayon 26 Jan 07
Please do the following:
1. Write another book 2. Release Sunrise 3. Don’t change anything
Hates_on 26 Jan 07
Great post and too true!
Vishi Gondion 26 Jan 07
Use the spoon to tunnel through to the cell mate with a jack hammer.
Use the spoon again to tunnel out of the cell.
Then get the jack hammer running when sufficiently far away from the guards.
What do you think?
JFon 26 Jan 07
Then get the jack hammer running when sufficiently far away from the guards.
Where ya going to get the extension cord? ;)
Matthewon 26 Jan 07
I don’t know, man, I generally like what you write but this seems like just a silly analogy to me. If I was breaking out of prison and the guards were either somewhere out of earshot or deaf or something, you better believe I’d rather have a jackhammer.
In your work, who are the guards, man? Who are the guards?
Elliott Ron 26 Jan 07
I don’t think there is any parallel between the story and the real world. analogies only help find a solution to a problem if the story and the real application are analogous.
Rubenon 26 Jan 07
Someone’s been watching Shawshank on TNT.
JFon 26 Jan 07
Don’t take it too literally.
The point is that what may seem like the obvious tool may not be the right tool. Need to break through concrete? Grab the jackhammer. Well not in this case maybe.
Need to build a product? Grab a bunch of people, grab a bunch of money, grab a bunch of tech. Well not in this case maybe.
Matthew D. Jordanon 26 Jan 07
So I’m going to jackhammer a prison guard who’s eating with a spoon? No – wait. I’m going to sharpen the spoon to steal a jackhammer from a prison. Hold on…
I… No I can do this… Don’t help me.
I’m going to break a jackhammer to get out of a guarded spoon factory. Ah screw it.
For serious though – Amen to this analogy.
Lots of good posts todayon 26 Jan 07
Great analogy. I think that those who enjoyed that will also enjoy this analogy post that came from problogger today also. I’m in no way tied to problogger it is just another post that has stuck with me today.
herion 26 Jan 07
there is something wrong with the analogy because a smart guy with a jackhammer could use it silently like a spoon. the tool in itself is superior. i think this all just boils down to state of mind. a brute with a spoon wont go far for instance.
Dave Con 27 Jan 07
Solid point, but maybe the analogy isn’t so good. Here’s an alternative to the jackhammer: ;-)
A few people taking turns using the spoon, checking for guards, carrying away the debris might represent 37s – focused effort on a particular soft spot on one wall.
A large, slow corporate effort might look like an entire prison block randomly digging with spoons in their own spots, then giving up and working another part of the wall. Even if they tried to coordinate the effort, they’d probably wind up arguing about the best spot, attracting too much attention, and getting caught.
Going Mobileon 27 Jan 07
they have hybrid gasoline/battery powered “mobile” jackhammers with synthetic shock absorbing shanks and efficient noise cancelling mufflers designed by flowmaster and bose you know…
Markon 27 Jan 07
I think I’d rather have this quiet jackhammer that won the Discover award in 2000—
David Barretton 27 Jan 07
JF: “Not using seven words when four will do”
Jason, surely the analogy is a more confusing and obtuse way of explaining your point than, well, just explaining it? You can see from the comments that a lot of people are having trouble understanding what you’re talking about.
It’s forced and painful. It’s not like you haven’t made this exact same point many times before; you can do (and have done) it better.
JFon 27 Jan 07
Jason, surely the analogy is a more confusing and obtuse way of explaining your point than, well, just explaining it? You can see from the comments that a lot of people are having trouble understanding what you’re talking about. It’s forced and painful…
Shit, and I thought I was perfect.
streeton 27 Jan 07
oh god I’m so confused, please don’t put me in prison!
Tonyon 27 Jan 07
As much as I’d like to see what they have to offer in a CRM eventually, I sure am getting tired of the repeated “where is Sunrise?” comments. Also, as far as the topic at hand, doesn’t this tie into the idea of embracing constraints?
Anonymous Cowardon 27 Jan 07
I agree wholeheartedly with you that small teams accomplish big things. I also agree with a lot of the comments that the analogy sucked.
Jason, nobody expects you to be perfect. But, when you have some stupid analogy that makes no sense to try to explain a simple point – you are going to get made fun of. But, I’m sure your skin has gotten a few layers thicker since you guys started this blog. And, of course, I and everyone else that is making fun of this post can’t wait to see your next post. Hey, for every Imagine that Lennon wrote there were probably 100 Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’s.
Josh Blounton 27 Jan 07
1. fuck anonymous cowards. how dare you call someone out, but don’t have the courage to state your name
2. I thought the analogy was great.
dan mcweeneyon 27 Jan 07
Great analogy, from someone who works everyday in the scary world of enterprise software I can say my new motto is, “Walk softly and carry a deft spoon.”
Jimon 27 Jan 07
It is actually a good analogy. The only problem is that 37Signals yelled to the guards and all the other prisoners that they were escaping with the spoon (announcing Sunrise in 05). For the spoon to seem successful, the guards have to come in one morning and find you missing (whoa! here’s a new great program out of nowhere!).
Chao Lamon 27 Jan 07
Great story and very illustrative, Jason! BUT it still doesn’t quite answer the question: how do you guys get so much done? :)
How long did it take Edmond Dantes to spoon his way out of prison?
How long did it take David to program Basecamp? 4 months? While going to school? AND generously extracting it to gift Ruby On Rails to the world?
You guys are an inspiration!
Dave Carlsonon 28 Jan 07
Not everyone can be Wayne Gretzky or Tiger Woods. And not everyone will produce the same quantity and/or quality of code.
If you scan the stats, the idea is roughly that 20% of the top scorers in the NHL produce 80% of the points and the remaining 80% of the players generate the balance. Same kind of an idea here.
Obviously, you’re observing a small cast of players with an above average output and therefore have been able to affect a noticeable change with their efforts.
Should that cause everyone else to be demoralized by that, no, it’s a wonderful demonstration that people can affect a significant change.
After all, the most of humanities achievements were carried out by individuals.
So the key here is to step up to the plate and make it happen and pay attention to doing it effectively through your choice of tools and your approach.
Olyon 28 Jan 07
It doesnt matter what kind if prison you’re in or what equipment you have, the fact that you have creative thinkers such as David means you will likely get out of prison better than the other guys.
Difference is Jason would return to the prison and hold seminars on how they got out their cell and would probably use some kind of smug software development analogy to explain it all
Simon Monkon 28 Jan 07
I love this. It’s so true. Made me laugh, which is hard on a Monday morning!
Having only a tiny team ourselves, we aspire to this.
My question is this: do you ever launch stuff that you aren’t entirely happy with, accepting that you can always adjust or refine it later?
Ufukon 28 Jan 07
If you don’t have something that others do, try to make “not having it” the thing to have. :-)
random8ron 29 Jan 07
Funny how a question actually holds the answer in it usually, isn’t it? For instance, “We have this and this, how come you, with not this and this, can do so much more?” Answer: “Because you have this and this, and we don’t have this and this”, but reformulated to be more understandable, often with lovely analogies, parables and other lubricants. ;-)
George Richardsonon 29 Jan 07
“You can see from the comments that a lot of people are having trouble understanding what you’re talking about” Barret.
... well I just guess I am not a lot people.
Timon 29 Jan 07
Are you trying to talk about software creation or are you trying to tell parables in a feeble effort to recreate the Sermon on the Mount?
You guys make products, some pretty good products, but you also make a lot of hot air.
Your post reminded me of too many essays I read back in 11th grade where some pretentious little girl (or boy) used way too many pointless analogies. Granted, you only used one, but come on…
Bon 29 Jan 07
Tim, your comment reads like a lot of hot air. What value did you add to this thread? There’s not an ounce of substance in your comment.
Timon 29 Jan 07
Thanks, B. Is your name short for Beseph?
The value I added was through my critique of Jason’s writing style. As with creating software, there are many different tools to choose from when writing. A poor (imho) analogy is one of those tools. A good analogy would be better. A story that relates the same information as a good analogy would be the best.
Good writing gets a point across from one person to another. Jason clearly has a viewpoint on how to make good products, but I think he didn’t do a good job getting it across.
Daryl Lucason 29 Jan 07
I do like your analogy, but I’m not sure it answers the question. It sounds as if you’re saying that you get a lot done with less than other shops because you use “Subtlety,” whereas they use “Brute force.” That sounds to me like a description of appearances, not a description of methodology.
I’m also not sure I buy the term “Brute force” as a descriptor of bigger shops. What exactly does that mean?
At any rate, it seems to me you’re describing your management style, or perhaps your culture. That’s cool. I just don’t see the answer in there.
Bon 29 Jan 07
Tim, it’s funny that you think you writing is “good.”
First you insult Jason’s idea (“a lot of hot air”) then you say his writing reminds you of pretentious 11th graders using pointless analogies.
Good critiquing doesn’t require condescending jabs.
Dannoon 30 Jan 07
Okay, I think I get it, the goal is to put a hole in a wall without anyone noticing.
The solution that’s better than either a Jackhammer or a Spoon is to make sure that the wall you’re contained by has a You sized hole in it already.
Then all you have to do is walk through.
The most optimal tool is therefore a door.
Bystanderon 31 Jan 07
When you have no deadlines, no external variables, a simple focus, and decision-makers without a changing agenda… being the product business seems better than the service business.
Jon 01 Feb 07
Surprised not to see any references to the classic bit about using a spoon to escape from a prison at the end of Huck Finn. Read it and enjoy, I’ll let you decide how the metaphor works here.
This discussion is closed.