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About David

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

What’s more important: An extra gig of RAM or 3D Touch?

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The hardware engineering and software coordination behind 3D Touch in the iPhone 6S is impressive. It’s such an Apple feature. Executed with exquisite diligence because they control the whole stack. Marvelous.

But you know what, it’s not my favorite feature of the 6S. That honor belongs to the low-tech, behind-the-curve addition of an extra gigabyte of RAM. Something that probably cost Apple just a few extra dollars per phone and almost no engineering prowess. (Compare that to the probably hundreds of millions in revised tooling, advanced development, and more needed for 3D Touch.)

Doubling the RAM means apps aren’t constantly being swapped in and out. Which means switching between them is super fast more of the time. Which in turn makes the whole phone feel much better over the course of a day.

It’s been repeated ad nauseam, but it’s still so hard to internalize for most product people: Speed is a feature.

Usually, it’s one of the most important features. Yet it’s also one of the hardest to get right. Chiefly because every other feature is generally at war with speed. Any excess CPU cycles are quickly captured by new, advanced, and ultimately slowing features. Extra cycles are like a surplus government budget: The constituency is going to have a thousand ideas for how to spend it.

It’s not easy to get this balance just so. You have to be fast at what people want and expect. Being the fastest phone running iOS5 or Window OS isn’t going to get you any business.

Comparing this RAM apple and that 3D Touch orange, though, is also a worthwhile reminder that good product design doesn’t deal in distinct categories. It’s all a fruit salad! Customers just want it to be delicious and nutritious.

Service sunsets aren’t the least bit pretty

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Software makers are obsessed with new. And of course we are, that’s our job: making more, newer, better! But as a lot, we’d be well-served to remember this affliction is generally not shared by our users and customers.

Sure, some people love upgrading to the latest version the minute it lands. It’s also a lot easier when it’s a personal device, like an iPhone, where the focus isn’t purely productivity.

But remember all those companies holding on to IE6 for their dear life? That’s the other side of ‘upgrading fun’. Disrupting workflow, processes, and institutional knowledge because the damn fax machine won’t send the important contract until the firmware is upgraded. What possible utility could a firmware upgrade to the fax machine provide that’s worth keeping a document from sending?


Making money along the way

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Remember the Flip camera? From its premiere in 2006 until the business was sold to Cisco in 2009, the little video recorder was killing it. Lavish praise, booming sales, flying high. And then cell phones got good enough at recording video, and that was the end of that.

If you disregard the acquisition proceeds, was Flip a terrible business? Well, that depends: Were they taking profits along the way?

There’s no natural law that states all products and services must endure forever and always. Some companies are glorious sprints, others are slugging marathons. Both can work, but the former is especially sensitive to making money along the way.

The problem is that everyone thinks they’re going to run a spectacular marathon in technology these days. There’s no amount too great to be invested in future growth, because the future is infinite, and you’d be a fool not to capture as much of that as you possibly can.

But what if the time allotted to your capture looks more like Flip? What if your product is going to have a great, booming run, but not for the next 30 years, just the next five?


Disruption is better when it's other people’s jobs

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Many writers and publishers are freaking out after Apple opened Safari to ad blockers in iOS9. Ad blockers have been around for a long time, but the fear is that this is the move that will take the concept mainstream.

That fear appears well justified. The App Store’s charts have been dominated by ad blockers since the release of iOS9 last week. Currently, the #1 paid app is Crystal, an ad blocker, and so is #3, Purify. Clearly some pent up demand.

Another data point is the following poll from The Verge. It was setup with an almost satirically over-the-top slant, and yet readers pummeled them:


Grit is for cowboys

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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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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

Graceful goodbyes

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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.