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David

About David

Creator of Ruby on Rails, partner at 37signals, best-selling author, public speaker, race-car driver, hobbyist photographer, and family man.

Grit is for cowboys

David
David wrote this on 5 comments

The cattle has to be round up. Complaining about the weather or going without sleep for 16 hours isn’t going to do it. So clench your teeth and get the work done. That’s the grit needed to be a cowboy.

But I’m a lot less sure that grit is such a positive trait in other professions, particularly creative endeavors like programming, design, or writing.

If I had more grit, I would probably just have clenched my teeth and dug into that J2EE architectural hole with greater perseverance, rather than giving up and building Ruby on Rails. I would probably have spent more time finishing my math classes as a senior in high school, rather than just plagiarizing my friend, and spending the time running gaming websites in the late ‘90s.

Grit is a convenient trait for enticing others to comply with the uncomfortable or the uninteresting. It elevates the perseverance of such adversity to a virtue in and of itself. Just dangle that long-term goal in front of them, accuse them of lack of grit, and compliance will oft follow.

But far more important than to be capable of suffering for your cause is to ask “what cause”? Am I the beneficiary here, or is someone else? Being high on grit may well mean sticking with a faulty cause for far longer.

Grit is an optimization for local maxima. If you’re able to change the function, drop the grit.

CEOs are often the last to know

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David wrote this on 18 comments

I’m not surprised that Jeff Bezos didn’t recognize the Amazon depicted by Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace, a NYT exposé on its culture. Jeff would never have heard those stories, because nobody would ever tell him. These are the stories you have to dig for, and the NYT did.

Whether the overall, pretty glum, picture painted of Amazon work culture is perfectly accurate isn’t even that interesting. It’s certainly not an adequate defense to deflect the questions raised, as one Amazon high-level but rookie manager tried to do. There are more than enough anecdotes, supposedly gathered by more than 100 interviews with current and former employees of Amazon, to raise more than a few red flags.

How you respond to a red flag is what matters. You can deny its very existence. You can argue that it’s not really red, but more of an orange pink. You can argue that the people holding the flag aren’t true Amazonians. You can argue that the people who caused the red flags to fly were rogue actors, going against the intentions of the company. Or you can simply just claim that since you hadn’t personally seen any of the incidents, the flags are illegitimate on their face.

But the bottom line is that culture is what culture does. Culture isn’t what you intend it to be. It’s not what you hope or aspire for it to be. It’s what you do. There’s no way to discredit, deflect, or diffuse that basic truth.

Here’s how that can play out: High-level manager A gives mid-level manager B a tough, maybe even impossible, goal. Maybe A ties a bonus or dangles a promotion to the fulfillment of that goal. Now set that in context of WE ARE THE SMARTEST, WE WORK THE HARDEST.

How hard do you think B is going to push subordinate C to reach the goal? To not fail BEING SMART, WORKING HARD? Do you think that some meaningful number of times, C might feel such aggregated heat from two layers of management that it could resemble some of the anecdotes from the NYT article (and then imagine 3-4-5 layers of management)? If so, do you think A is blameless, and do you think the organization that serves as context for this scenario is blameless? I don’t.

“But that’s not what I meant” is an adequate, if somewhat naive, excuse the first time you see the consequences of your actions. The second, third, or fifth time, it’s a lot less so. At some point “unintended side effects” becomes “predictable outcomes”.

The NYT did Amazon a favor. They shone a bright light on some dank corners of the organization and its work culture. Corners that had long been rumored to exist. Now it’s out in the open, and Amazon can seize the catalyst for a thorough audit of the gap between what Jeff wants the place to be and how it sometimes isn’t.

To do so, Jeff, and other senior management at Amazon, need to remember that nobody tells you anything when it comes to bubbling-up abuse from the trenches. It’s completely unrealistic to expect someone five levels deep in the bowels of the organization to reach out to the fifth-richest man in the world and trouble him with his or her toils. It doesn’t matter how many invitations to open doors, escalators, or elevators you extend, it’s just not going to happen.

The only reliable way to get this sort of information is to ask. You cannot just extend the “open door” invitation, lean back in your executive chair, and think that you’ve done all you can.

Jeff, or a team he charges with finding facts (and not protecting egos or appearances), has to follow up on the leads, examine the stories, identify root causes, and propose sanctions and remedies. And Amazon has to be willing to accept that maybe some of its systems are producing consequences it does not desire, and that they should change.

Disclaimer: Jeff Bezos personally owns a minority, non-voting stake in Basecamp acquired in 2006. That makes this case personal for me. Factor in that bias. Also, this exact problem, top-level management being the last to know, is why we created KnowYourCompany.com.

Graceful goodbyes

David
David wrote this on 11 comments

Run a business long enough, and you’re bound to say goodbye to employees along the way. You might not think it matters how that goodbye is said – hey, they’re leaving anyway! – but you’d be wrong.

To be honest, we haven’t always had graceful goodbyes at Basecamp. To be even more honest, I’ve said goodbyes that weren’t graceful. And that still bugs me, and it serves as a recurrent reminder of why it matters.

A bad goodbye is abrupt and unexpected. It’s curt. And it’s like that because it’s easier to bottle up small frustrations, on both sides of the table, until they aren’t small at all anymore. By the time shit is spilling over everywhere, the time for small corrections has passed, and cutting ties can feel like the only option. A goodbye that sails through like a break-up text out of nowhere is the last thing you want, and it’s one of the worst ways to see an employee go.

Of course, not all goodbyes are bad. Far from it. People grow, people change. Like all relationships, not all roles are destined FOR LIFE.

In a relatively small company like ours, the career path at Basecamp is generally to become better at your craft. Level up within your domain of competency. Not to climb a managerial ladder, because there isn’t much of one.

We’ve also had people leave Basecamp to go build their own company or to change careers. Those are generally good goodbyes, because they’re the easiest to make. Wishing someone well for pursuing something you couldn’t offer them anyway shouldn’t take much skill (although I’ve been surprised).

But underlying all goodbyes is that they reflect not just on the relationship you maintain with the people who leave, but also with the ones who stay. They set a tone for how you treat people when things get rocky or take a different direction. It seeps into everything else. No goodbye is a single, isolated event.

Say goodbye with grace.

An organization, a social artifact, is very different from a biological organism. Yet it stands under the law that governs the structure and size of animals and plants: The surface goes up with the square of the radius, but the mass grows with the cube. The larger the animal becomes, the more resources have to be devoted to the mass and to the internal tasks, to circulation and information, to the nervous system, and so on.


Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, 1967.

Hiring: Basecamp iOS developer

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We’re hiring another iOS developer to help us build great native apps for Basecamp on all Apple platforms. You’ll join an existing iOS team at Basecamp that’s currently hard at work building a next-generation native app, but you’ll also help keep our legacy catalogue of apps humming.

It’s an offering for an experienced developer. You should have multiple shipped iOS apps under your belt (or one amazing one). You should be well-versed in iOS frameworks and APIs, but also be comfortable going off the golden path when necessary.

Our native development approach at Basecamp is hybrid. We combine great native navigation around WebViews and ground-up native features to get the best of both worlds: Productivity through shared codebases on the web, and great fidelity through native.

So while the bulk of the work is in ObjC/Swift, you should also be reasonably comfortable with both JavaScript and Ruby. Enhancing a Rails application to extend the API or tinkering with Turbolinks to make it work with a native-JavaScript bridge shouldn’t scare you.

It’s a great time to join Basecamp and our iOS team. We’ve recently gone all-in on Basecamp. Millions of people have used Basecamp, and our iOS apps are both well-liked and growing rapidly as the way people use the system. The latest work we’ve been doing, and that you’ll help us finish, will make that even more so the case.

We’re looking for someone who’s ready to do the best work of their career – without risking their health, sanity, or life outside of work. Basecamp is here for the long term. We’ve been in business for 16 years (5 before Basecamp, 11 since Basecamp), and we’ve been profitable the whole time. We’re not beholden to or on any venture capitalist timeline. Private and profitable allows us to set our own course given what’s best for our customers and employees.

We believe in taking great care of our incredible team, most of whom have been with us for a long time. This means lovely benefits to help you be the best you possible: fitness and massage allowances, fresh fruit/vegetable subsidies, helping out with continued education, matching charity donations, and of course great healthcare and retirement assistance (401k match in US). When you’ve been here for a year, you’re also in on Fridays off in the Summer. It’s a great package that’s part of creating a great scene.

Since we literally wrote the book on working remotely, we’re of course also open to applicants from both the Americas and Europe (any further away is tough to get enough timezone overlap). We do, however, expect your proficiency with English to be at or close to a native speaker. If you happen to be in Chicago, we have a great office for you to work from as you please. If not, we’ll pay for co-working space or help you outfit a great home office.

Does this sound like you?

Then please write jointheteam@37signals.com with [iOS Developer] as part of the subject line. We strongly encourage you to kill on the cover letter, but also to include links to some actual code you’ve written. If the code is on Github, you can share a private repo with dhh. (If it’s not possible to share code, that’s not a deal killer either, if you can blow us away otherwise).

Remember, it doesn’t matter where you went to school (or if you even graduated). We don’t care about how many years of irrelevance you have under your belt. The work is what matters as well as your willingness to improve yourself and everything you touch. We look forward to hearing from you!

(This opening has been cross-posted to WeWorkRemotely.com as well).

Empty stomach, poor decisions

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David wrote this on 10 comments

Entrepreneurial lore is rife with odes to hunger as a foundational necessity of success. Hungry founders are commended as the ones desperate enough to do whatever it takes. Hustle the gullible, bend the law, persevere through endless death marches. Whatever it takes.

But is desperation really the best foundation to build the kind of sustainable and long-term businesses the world benefits from the most? Or, is it rather a cheap trick to juice the odds of a short-term pop to the primary benefit of those who are only ever along for a quick ride?

I believe the latter. That it’s key to a narrative that serves those who extract their riches from the startup mining shafts — venture capitalists.

That’s what really gets to me. Champions of hunger-as-a-badge-of-honor are usually the fattest cats in the land. Extolling the virtue of an empty stomach is unsurprisingly easy when it’s something for others to endure.

And what a rotten virtue in any case. Poor decisions are the natural consequence of an empty stomach. Hunger has a Maslowian way of placing itself on the top of your hierarchy of needs. Whatever focus is gained through the tunnel vision of hunger is quickly overshadowed by the accompanying disregard for all else.

It’s the incarnation of short-term priorities. Primal neural pathways taking over. Fight or flight at every encounter. And not just for the time it takes to get to the first taste of success. Habits formed from hunger, like any other habits, gleefully outlive their founding context, and continue to govern behavior long after it is gone and forgotten.

It need not be this way. It’s not only entirely possible, but vastly preferable, to set off a new venture on a full stomach. Building the new not because of a perceived existential threat if you don’t succeed, but simply because building the new is intrinsically rewarding.

It’s also that much easier to keep your moral compass calibrated and pointed in a sustainable, healthy direction when you can focus on your own thoughts and not a growling stomach. It’s how you build businesses and organizations that aren’t just about fulfilling your own personal and immediate needs, but instead bring about respect – possibly even admiration – from customers, employees, founders, and perhaps even competitors.

Hunger is a stick for nobility to beat peasants into submission. Mistaking its abuse for inspiration is an entirely avoidable travesty. It’s time to pick another source of motivation for starting new businesses.

Moto XOXO

David
David wrote this on 7 comments

I’ve been a vocal critic of Android for years. Compared to the glorious polish, consistency, and coherence of Apple’s iOS, Google’s sprawling, inconsistent, and incomplete operating system always felt less. Yes, occasional rays of brilliance, but a sum less of its parts. And to many – although now fewer – extents, I think that’s still true.

But. I’ve come to realize the appeal that lies in figuring out and taming all that sprawl. It invites spelunking in ways that remind me of an earlier age of computing. Hacking consoles, tailoring icon sets, and finding backdoors and alleyways.

It’s a tinkerer’s joy. It’s riddles and puzzles. It’s computing not for the sake of productivity, but as a hobby in its own purpose. It’s the pleasure of making something your own, something unique. A pleasure in part and exactly because it’s not for everyone.

What really got me lured down this path wasn’t just Android in general, though. It was the Moto X in particular. I love this phone. It doesn’t do any specific technical discipline particularly well: The screen is below par (white balance is way too warm), the camera is distinctly mediocre, the battery is so-so. Processor and speed is fine, but nothing wow.

Yet it just feels right in the hand. The last time I recall this feeling was another Motorola phone, the PEBL, back in 2005. It too was nothing special as a technical exercise, but it also just felt great, like the Moto X. Particularly with the wonderful wood back. The 5.2” is perfect. The screen-to-bezel ratio is excellent.

So I keep reaching for the Moto X. Phones have gotten so good that as long as you’re not dependent on things where big leaps are still being made (like the camera), yesteryear’s tech can play second-fiddle to the personal attachment and emotion of the device. That’s a wonderful sign of progress and invitation to diversity.

Anyway, the appeal of the Moto X has sucked me deeper into that sprawling Android land. No, I haven’t given up on iOS. I need to double-carry anyway to deal with two sim cards. But I really appreciate Android culture as distinctly different. Worse in so many obvious ways, and probably for most people, but also alluring and appealing in many other subtle ways.

Some times worse and flawed are just different angles of affection.

The stories we tell ourselves

David
David wrote this on 7 comments

The progress of technology needs a full spectrum of adoption to work well. From early adopters who jump in before kinks and warts have been banished, to a late majority who bring scale to the now-safe choice.

If we didn’t have any early adopters ironing out the kinks, there’d never be a now-safe choice for the late majority. And if everyone always jumped on the latest thing on day one, society would waste needless cycles churning through the broken glass of beta software.

But usually people see things a little narrower. They’ve picked a group to belong to, and along with it the story that serves it just. I find that a constant and fascinating example of how we’ll all tell ourselves what we need to hear to feel good about our choices.

In most cases, for example, I like to be an early adopter. Take getting the first version of the Macbook Air, while many fretted about and scorned it for too few ports or not enough speed. I accepted the shortcomings by telling myself that this is ultimately The Future, and I want to be among the pioneers that drags us there, even if it’s a bumpy ride across the frontier.

Further, that if everyone wanted to wait until all the bugs were squashed, the bugs would never be found in the first place, and thus never squashed. See, isn’t that a lovely altruistic cover story for what could just as well be labeled as technological ADD, and just wanting the latest thing BECAUSE?

Same deal works on the other end. There are all these great stories available about how you’re being prudent by waiting to take the plunge on a new product, such that you don’t waste money or resources before the inevitable version 2 or 3. A story filled with the virtue of restraint: An ability to resist the draw of SHINY NEW THINGS.

What’s great is that all these stories can be true at the same time, even if they’re individually in conflict. I can even feel good about a chosen story for my current choice, and then swap to the opposite story for my next choice. Self-deception is grand.

Programming with toys and magic should be relished, not scorned

David
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In the early days of Rails, a common dismissal of the framework and its Ruby roots were that these were just toys. Something for kids or amateurs to play with; to build a quick throw-away prototype or system of no consequence. It was most certainly not a tool for professionals building real systems for enterprise, king, or country.

Explicit in this charge against Rails and Ruby laid a grander, sweeping dismissal of toys of all kinds. And more specifically, a rejection of fun and enjoyment as valid reasons for adoption of technology that remains prevalent to this day.

The implication that real professionals do not bother with such childish indulgences. Making Serious Business Software is meant to be a chore. Something to be endured, not relished. An activity worthy of a stiff upper lip, not a smirk.

This charge against childish affection for unserious toys is often expanded to all sorts of wonder, and in particularly magic. In some circles, magic is now downright a dirty word. A label to be applied to anything appealing to greater aspirations than the khaki slacks efficiency of all that oh-so-serious Real Business Software.

But take a step back. Why on earth would we want to associate such joyful memories of learning about the world and its mysteries through toys and magic with that which is beneath us? Even though our goal may well be Serious, why must our approach? Since when is fun, novelty, and exploring the unknown at odds with productivity or value?

A phrase that’s been bothering me for a long time ties all this together: “Use the best tool for the job”. It implies that there is an objective, “best” tool for any programming job. And it leads the search towards those beige horizons of key-point comparisons and feature charts. This does X, Y, Z, thus it must be better than that which only does X and Y. It allows no room for simply preferring A to B on the account that it’s more fun!

Today Ruby and Rails are rarely accused outright of being toys. After more than a decade with roaring, overwhelming success creating an endless stream of “Yup, That’s Serious” business applications, the charge is now obviously preposterous.

But the same charges are still constantly brought against many things new, and as a favorite euphemism for toy goes, “unproven”. If there’s any sense of wonder or unexplained advantage, it readily gets that scornful label of “magic”.

It’s the lingua franca of the incumbents. The manifestations of a rigid minds trying so hard to appear above that childish sense of wonder.

The bottomline: Waging war on toys, magic, and wonder is simply a poor frame of reference. Many of us got into programming exactly because it seemed like magic, like playing with toys. Constructing intricate worlds out of nothing. Legos of logic and rabbit holes of learning.

Love thy toys; love thy magic.