Jumping The 20 Fence

Before I worked at Microsoft I worked at/with/for various startups. Depending on who you talked to, I was involved in building rockets, the Next Big Thing, and a Super Whamadyne Paradigm-Shifter. Since I’m not a millionaire and you don’t see my face on Wired you can guess that those things didn’t quite pan out.

There are a lot of reasons why projects don’t “pop” – but in some ways I think people can tell if they are “gazing wantonly in the pond’s reflection” by constantly asking a set of simple questions:

    • What are we doing?
    • Why are we doing it?
    • What do we hope to get out of it?

A lot of people would say “sure – that’s what ya call a Mission Statement Rob!” and in some ways, I spose it is. But the next part is the hardest:

Does it motivate you?

The Hard Truth
In every human endeavor the 80/20 rule (aka Pareto principle) cruelly applies – which is effort/payoff are inversely related. This principle is at the core of the just about any time/management book/philosophy – and these things usually boil down to constantly shifting your focus to “what’s important” (aka the 20%).

It seems the 80/20 thing is built in to the fabric of the universe, along with some other groovy numbers. Most large software companies have come to realize this – including Microsoft:

"One really exciting thing we learned is how … a relatively small proportion [of bugs] causes most of the errors," Ballmer wrote in his three-page memo. "About 20 percent of the bugs causes 80 percent of all errors, and–this is stunning to me–1 percent of bugs caused half of all errors."

If we apply logic here then the opposite of this statement must be true as well:

80 percent of the bug-free functionality is produced by 20% of the code.

If that’s true – we’re writing way too much crappy code. Let me reword that – 80% of the code we write does 20% of the work and contains the bulk of the bugs (my math skills got lost there). Which side of the 80/20 code pool are you swimming in?80-20-rule-coops-manhattan-real-estate[1]

Sherman, Set the Wayback Machine
It’s 2000 and I’ve just ordered a tin of Pringles and The Fragile (Right and Left) from Kozmo. It’s 11pm and I should be at home, but I’m hammering away on my client’s app, trying to get a demo ready for Yet Another VC Who Wants To See Stuff Spin. I’m cranky, tired, and my wife is getting tired of this constant circus of late nights.

The phone rings as the speakers are blaring in our Live/Work Loft/Office on 2nd and Brannan and I’m listening to Trent growl his way through “The Wretched” and I see the area code – it’s New York. My client. Crap.

After 10 minutes of telling him everything’s on pace, he recaps what he wants to see. Amazing – he added 4 new requirements! How very … like him.

I ask him the question:

“What are we doing again? I mean what’s your goal here anyway once all of these demos are done and you’re really rich.”

I hear gasps on the other end of the phone, some choice swear words that involve an ice-pick and my retina, and then *click*.

The phone rings 5 minutes later and it’s The Client. “Do you mind telling me just what the **** you’re asking me these questions for you ****in moron?”. I’m used to “the East Coast” thing by now and I reassure him I know his requirements – I understand the specs and priorities – we’ve been through it a ton. I know about the demo.

I want to know about the day after the demo.

His answer was simple: “We’ll be millionaires. Who gives a **** what else – we’ll be the next tech IPO and you can buy your wife a maserati so **** off and build my ******* app!” (the East Coast thing gets annoying at times – but you get used to it. Don’t get me wrong – I like the other side of the country and all, but they can get pretty spun up over there).

We got the funding – a lot of it. And the company still managed to fail – I think it’s when investors figured out my client was full of crap. I should have figured it out too – but back then everyone was involved in an IPO or buyout. It was a “Craigslist Party” of geeks and power money and you just didn’t ask questions. Or so I thought.

What’s Your Answer?
Twice I’ve worked on a winning application – and it feels great. And by “winning” I mean the client and their clients were stoked, and it literally made people cry. One of my very first applications – an info portal for Ameritech (now PacBell) was one such application. It was so very, very simple that it had to work – it was a classic ASP app (I wrote this in 1998) that used IndexServer to crawl over 12,200 documents scraped from their mainframe.

Their existing app was a terminal-based app and it was all paging and CTRL- shortcuts the user had to memorize. I made a web interface (we called it the “Yahoo UI”) that worked on fuzzy search and BAM – scraped 30 seconds off the average “satisfaction timer”. This meant the call center reps could answer people 30 seconds faster than before without the carpal-tunnel and by using the “new web thing”. I’m not kidding you – one of our User Acceptance participants (an actual rep) started to cry.

If you asked me or any member of that team what we were doing we would have said the following (with minor variations):

    • We’re building a web app to reduce the time to answer for call centers
    • We’re doing it because our existing app sucks and it’s too hard to learn. Turnover is killing us.
    • We hope to have happier call center folks and happier customers

These answers are all kinds of win because they’re grounded in something real: making a job easier/better/faster. They don’t involve greed and aren’t out to change the way the Earth spins – simple and direct and dare I say truthful.

Smelly Answers
I’ve asked these questions various times over the years and aside from my client from hell above, I’ve received some real winners:

  • “We’re going to be the Premier [WHATEVER] and direct all buyers of [X] to use our service and we’ll make wads of cash”
  • “We’re going to Change the Game with this app, and in doing so make wads of cash”
  • “We’re going to dominate the [BLAH BLAH] space – we’ll actually become the internet. We’ll make wads of cash”
  • “Right now there’s a massive void out there and we’re going to fill it. We don’t know how we’re going to make money – but we’ll get there soon enough”
  • “I don’t know really – I’ve been told to build this thing so I called you. I need a beer.”

People and technology are funny and scary at the same time. Sort of like clowns. When I tell people what I do they get a really weird look in their eye (you know the look I mean) and sometimes I don’t know if I’ll be “fixing their internet” or hearing their great new idea to make tons of money. I, evidently, am a bit like Willy Wonka:

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams”

Mr. Wonka also offered a followup – which I hold to very tightly:

“You should never doubt what no one is sure about”

If we agree, by now, that this 80/20 thing has some merit, then it stands to reason that there’s an 80% chance you’re working on a project with a smelly set of directives. You ended up here by the various laws of the universe that sprinkle geeks across projects like salt and pepper – but you don’t have to be the 80% tripe!

You can change this: you can jump the 20% fence. You just have to help your team face the problem plaguing them – which is usually a weird direction that has to do with wads of cash, changing the game, or shifting some paradigm.

Get their heads back in the game and make sure you’re kicking ass for humanity – and you can figure this out pretty quickly by asking some simple questions and listening for:

  1. Delusions of grandeur
  2. “Wads of cash”
  3. “I don’t know yet” spoken 2 or more times
  4. The solution isn’t a win/win (you, client, end-user)
  5. Frustration at the question

If you don’t get concrete answers point to YouTube: a really dead-simple app that makes people really happy. Just like a puppy or a kitten – without the poop. Or Twitter – one of the silliest, most relevant applications ever made (that has yet to make a dime… but anyway).

You can change things – you really can. As long as your team is willing to listen and engage and if they’re not, well maybe it’s time to look for the golden 20% out there.

This entry was posted in Blather. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 Responses to Jumping The 20 Fence

  1. I think you’ve discovered the Peter Principle of VC

  2. You’re right on the edge of Lean principles, here!

  3. Yeah, I’ve written code for that demo too.

    Good Technology != Good Idea

  4. Lee Carter says:

    Words to live (and code) by – thanks.

  5. José Filipe says:

    Hi Rob!

    Great post, really made me rethink a bunch of things.

    Keep those words coming! :)

Leave a Reply