“Oh shit, we’re here”

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Regardless of your ideal job – whether its to play music, design clothes or build cathedrals – you don’t just move straight into it. It’s a slow process that almost impossible to perceive happening. Like a kind of backwards erosion.

As a kid my dream was to play football or make videogames for a living. When I informed someone about this about 8 months ago they were like ‘Well thats great that you made your dream job come true’. I didn’t realise I was making games for a living until that moment.

I’ve enjoyed myself building different types of software over the years that I hadn’t realised that I’d landed in my dream profession. And for me that kinda proves the whole ‘enjoy the journey’ stuff that you often hear spouted.

Building a good career (or relationship, or music record or whatever) is like an engaging conversation on a road trip. You’re enjoying yourself so much that when you arrive at your destination you’re just like ‘Oh shit, we’re here already’.

Happy Thanksgiving, peeps!

Screw stereotypes

A recent tweet by Marc Andreessen got me thinking about our culture:

“Silicon Valley is nerd culture, and we are the bro’s natural enemy.”

It got me thinking: what is nerd culture?

An interest in programming? Computers in general? Does it exist anymore? As a guy who could most certainly be viewed as a nerd (I started programming on a Commodore 64 as a kid and I could probably give you the rundown of every single game released in the N64/Playstation era), the whole ‘nerd culture’ thing always kinda jarred with me.

There are cultures around music, sport, film etc. Nerd culture is different to these in that its viewed as an exclusive membership. If you liked computers then you spent Friday nights at home playing Dungeons and Dragons, not out catching a game of ball.

When people learnt you had interest in computers they quickly assumed you didn’t have any interest in pursuits outside of technology.

This is understandable. Computers have only had widespread adoption in the past two or three decades. Tech culture is super young in the grand scheme of things. “Outsiders” built stereotypes due to a lack of understanding.

But my issue isn’t with outsiders pigeon-holing us. That happens for every culture eg. Football fans being seen as yobs, art fans seen as snobs etc. My problem is when we start viewing it this way ourselves.

If we ourselves start labelling each other as either “geeks”, “brogrammers” or whatever then we do a disservice to ourselves, to the person we’re labelling and to our industry.

Why? Because nobody is just one thing. I know plenty of people who are crazy sport fans who make great coders and I know plenty of self-proclaimed super-nerdy types who can’t hack for shit.

Here’s why it’s important to kill off these stereotypes now: because we’re at an important changing point in our industry and our culture. A career in tech is possible for more people (and more types of people) than ever before. The vast, vast majority of people considering a career in tech won’t fit into the nerd/brogrammer archetype.

For some people that won’t matter but for others it will make them reconsider pursuing an interest in which they have a very real passion.

Caricaturing the roles in our industry will reduce diversity and will mean that we’ll miss out on some really talented people who could do special things in technology.

What you can do

1. Realise that stereotypes add nothing positive to anything and try to wipe them from your mind.

2. Don’t fit yourself around a stereotype. Are you a programmer with bad social skills? Well then work on it – becoming a good conversationalist isn’t that hard. Are you a sales guy who just “doesn’t get” tech? Work on it. Again, it isn’t that hard.

3. Encourage as many people as you can towards our industry. The days of programmers being almost exclusively neck-bearded white males are coming to an end, people. This is a good thing.

Screw the stereotypes. Encourage people to code. Watch our industry blossom.

Embracing Generalism

When people ask what I do for a living I find it difficult to give a clear answer. My replies range from “Tech developer/designer/entrepreneur-type” on a good day to “I fix printers” on a not so good one.

The truth is I’ve been employed professionally in tech for the past seven years or so and my time has been pretty evenly split between server side stuff (Ruby/Java), front end work (Javascript/HTML/CSS/Photoshop), mobile stuff (mostly iOS) and general startup hustling (marketing/sales/branding).

Needless to say, it’s pretty difficult to find a job description that asks for all that and that’s cool because I’m freelance nowadays.

However, on the days when Imposter Syndrome kicks in, this “wide but shallow” approach to career development really bites. I feel like I should know a lot more about, say, scalable server infrastructure for a guy who’s been developing products for seven years.

Don’t get me wrong, I know the basics (if not more than that) for most of the subjects in my field. My problem is that I want to master them.

But I enjoy every aspect of what I do right now. I love writing server side tech as much as I love working with some awesome CSS framework. Or creating mobile experiences. And selling to clients. Or pitching to journalists. And there’s the rub: spreading myself so thin on all these different tasks means becoming an expert on them is impossible within my given timeframe. It’s a tradeoff that I’m just going to have to embrace.

When I came to this conclusion, I tried to imagine what my future might be. If I was an expert in, say, machine learning (which would probably take a lot longer than seven years but whatever) then I could probably get a sweet job at the likes of Facebook and get well paid for it. But Facebook wouldn’t look twice at a generalist like me – in fact, the best tech companies probably wouldn’t.

But there’s an upside. Being able to build, design, market and sell your own product gives you a freedom that a high-profile job or perceived guru-status never could. To be able to identify a market opportunity and take it all the way from “git init’ to selling to over 7,000 paying customers (not recurring but whatever, it’s a start) is pretty neat.

Of course that’s not to say that there’s no company out there who would hire me – when my last startup went bust I had more than a few job offers (and still do because I know a few awesome people around the tech startup scene in Dublin).

I guess what I’m trying to say is that in my line of work there’s a certain liberty in not being “any one thing”.

Interested to hear feedback on this and any stories of people who have been there/done that when it comes to this stuff.

What’s your anchor?

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After launching a product, you’ll likely be inundated with feature (and support) requests. There will be features that tons of people ask for, others not so much.

The big reactions come when you make an update to your product, though. I get contacted on a daily basis by people who say my latest game is too hard. Others say it’s too easy. Some say it has a good UI, others say its really unintuitive.

It’s super important to have an anchor when faced when all this feedback is trying to pull you in different directions. An anchor in this case is an ideal that gives the good ship Startup the ability to take on the storm of this (sometimes vitrolic!) feedback.

The anchoring ideals for my app, Hipster CEO, are (in priority):

  1. Does this change improve the player’s understanding of how a real startup works?
  2. Does this change improve the overall app experience?

Like most things in life, these two questions are subjective so some expertise needs to be applied.

I’d encourage you, before you even begin building an app, to consider your anchors. Some good ones:

  • Does this change add value that people would pay more money for?
  • Will this feature be used by 80% or more of our customers?
  • Does this change come at the expense of another key feature?
  • Does this affect our main goal or key message?

When your business has a core belief then decision making gets a whole lot easier.

Snapchat: the Miley Cyrus of the startup world

miley“Disturbing”, “Nightmare-inducing”, “Vulgar” – it’s kind of interesting how many parallels can be drawn between the Miley Cyrus’ epic marketing machine transition to adulthood and Snapchat’s ridiculous valuation.

The pop star’s critics complain that it sets a terrible example to kids and will surely create a generation of tongue-proffering, foam-finger-violating, wrecking-ball-riding, weed-smoking twerkaholics. Similarly, I’d argue that multibillion dollar valuations of revenue-less companies are creating a dangerous precedent for entrepreneurs the world over.

Hyperbole aside, it’s simply brainless to place such a valuation on any company based on potential revenue streams.

However, the issue I want to address is that a lot of fresh faced entrepreneurs out there will look at Snapchat and think that the way to creating a successful tech company is:

  1. Create something that gets millions of users.
  2. ????
  3. Profit/Sell for a few billion and retire at the tender age of 26.

snapchat-1The initial problem is that people fail to realise how much work it takes to get to the first step (or even to 100k users).

Building a product that’s purely designed to get signups will most likely lead to a generic product that won’t serve anyone especially well. You’d probably struggle to get 100 users with such an approach.

Secondly, a lot of the press around the Snapchat valuation focuses solely on the money. That’s not a huge criticism seeing as it was based around a purchase offer from Zuck & Co. but it’s telling just how little was mentioned about the product (exploding pictures/videos) and possible revenue streams.

For those who say Snapchat can make money whenever they want by turning on advertising, let me make this clear:

If your monetisation strategy is the biggest reason your users turn away from the product then it is not a viable one.

The sad part is that “one year old company valued at X billion dollars” always makes for a better headline than “Company experiences steady and sustainable growth for third year running”. However, from an educational perspective the latter would most likely make for a better articleUnfortunately, the media is generally more concerned with headlines than delivering quality content.

So what can you and I do about? Firstly, take the likes of Snapchat, Facebook and Google out of the conversation. They’re very much exceptions to the rule and to try to emulate them is a fool’s errand.

Secondly, let’s promote the following three step-process:

  1. Identify and validate an idea.
  2. Build a quick & simple version.
  3. Charge for it from day one.

That right there, friends, is an actionable list and one that’s actually pretty to execute for most tech products. You can even practice it on your iPhone.

Leave the Snapchats to ponzi-scheme-peddling VCs; let’s create real businesses.