Squeezing the lemon

Running a company with bloody high fix costs and zero positive cash flow (yet) is super demanding. At times frustrating. Not exactly relaxing. Even with the occasional cash injection, the struggle is permanent and adds to the existing pressure in a way that might be best described by watching one of those videos on youtube in which this swedish guy squishes stuff with his hydraulic press … It hurts. It’s the stuff that keeps you up at night. Everything depends on that magical time to market to turn things around. And if the technical challenges aren’t enough, you have to take care of financial and management issues, too.

But here’s the deal: I think that in the long run, it helps build a solid understanding for everyone involved what it means to make humble decisions in all things money related. Like: No, we can’t afford office desks from designer brand XY – there’s plenty of other ways to get 10 desks for $1000. Also, let’s just scale our cloud stuff for the current situation and demands, shall we? It basically impregnates the idea of efficient spending and efficient working at the very core and into everybody’s mind in a very painful way. Maslow would be proud. Of course, this involves that your people are in the loop. Don’t create illusions. Share the success stories but also the very real struggles. I know for a fact that some do not agree with this. But the only way to make things work is when everybody is on the same page. From my experience, what bonds you as team most is overcoming impossible odds. More so than any award or compliment.

I’ve had the chance to get to know a few start-ups in the hardware and software business that are much, much more well financed than we are. They were either able to bring more funds to the table themselves or they had huge Angel investments. But to have money doesn’t necessarily mean that their product is going to be better, nor that they will develop better as a company. A lot of the products I came across don’t really tickle my interest that much and feel more like me-too stuff than anything really disruptive. The disruptive aspect is more in the slide deck than the product itself.

Of course, we all want to dive into the Google Ballpit or have a fun meeting in a Super Mario themed meeting room, drinking artisanally brewed macha tea from a small coop in Guatemala.. But really, if you run a company that has time and money to think about stuff like that, makes it a priority and actually has staff dedicated to it, you’d better come up with a new product idea and keep people busy with that. Instead of fulfilling each 1990’s internet company bubble cliche available. To me that’s a company with way too much time and money on its hands and doesn’t really care about going forward but dedicates a shitload of resources to decorating the nest and masturbate while watching its success. So, basically, it entered the corporate realm and is on its way to join all the dinosaurs. There’s a reason garage companies are much more efficient and productive. But there’s also a reason they develop and a flatline heartbeat in innovation and creativity as soon as they reach a certain size.

I don’t have anything against perks, au contraire, I spend a lot of time working from home and enjoy that very much, for example. I can focus better and can relax better when I need it.

I’d rather offer my team a yearly one week trip to an exotic location to forget about all the daily business and connect with eachother on a more personal level. Or internal courses and talks and things like that. Whatever they think makes sense. Not what improves the company value. Not what the people detached from that very base think. All the materialistic stuff is just a bait for potential hires. I don’t think anybody gives a shit wether you have playstations in the office or not if they’re completely honest.

And yeah, this is probably really just about hiring people. After all, we all get attracted more to a work place that looks like a freakin’ pre-school playhouse than a chaotic lab with stained coffee mugs. Seeing those well funded playgrounds might leave you with a bit of a jealousy if you have to cut so many corners to keep your own ship over the water.

However, I’m probably a pretty bad example: most companies I worked for in the past have never had such ambitions and the real value was always more on the personal side of things. The concessions we made.. I can think of a lot of people that would never accept that.

For the most part, I think that a lot of tech start-ups are spoiled brats. And it’s easy to come up with things that should be nicer and better at the place you work. But that has nothing to do with the vibe in the offices or the quality of the products. All of that depends on each individual working there. If that happens for the wrong reasons or with the wrong attitude, you can have dozens of gum machines in each corner of the office: it won’t change anything about the fact that everybody needs to work, hard, on a common goal.

The reason why I spent a lot of time thinking about that: there’s not enough qualified candidates around to fill our roster. That’s the same thing for basically every company looking for software and system engineers. And therefore, companies spend a lot of time and effort coming up with ways that, in their opinion, makes them more interesting for the candidates available. Which is depressing because it automatically means that if you are in a position where offering all that stuff is simply not possible due to monetary and workload constraints, it makes you look like you don’t give a damn about company culture.

This is entirely unfair. The large fancy tech giants make superficial promises which is much more attractive on the first glimpse. But once you’re actually there, the job needs to get done anyways and it doesn’t matter much if there’s an in-house Starbucks or a person hired to make PB&J sandwiches for everyone. And if they screen your output and its beyond their expectations, it’s suddenly no longer cozy either way.

So you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: small team, huge project, long hours, massive pressure, tight budgets. Long hours and pressure affect motivation, in order to get rid of that and make it more bearable for everyone, you need to scale. But you can’t scale that fast because even hiring people itself takes a lot of time, since you aren’t in the position to hire someone specifically as a HR person yet because the budget is tight. This puts even more work on the table for a few people that are already at a 120%. And the circle continues.

So yeah, those are the questions and dilemmas that keep you up at night. Not even going into technical details yet. That’s the cherry on top.

One of the agreements that we can reach at this point is that it’s entirely understandable if someone simply drops the mic and walks away from managing such a thing. But at the end of the day, you made it that far and as long as the chances are still on the table, you continue to push forward.

I just hope that all the fancy, well funded projects appreciate their options and the position they’re in. It could be very different. And it can change very quickly. Especially if you lose track of what actually matters.

Argh, where’s my gulp

Being back on WordPress makes writing a few words bearable and still offers enough tweaking potential without having to reinvent the wheel again and again. But it already feels painfully complicated to theme this. I’ve definately spent too much time working with JS only, watchers, livereload and so on. This feels like being thrown back into the middle ages. Eeks!

Dunno how I lived with Drupal for so long. I really don’t feel like revisiting the past. Dammit, I might end up writing a frontend in Angular. 😛

So.. what exactly are you doing?

Blessed be the simple job descriptions. It’s usually quite painful to explain to someone what I do. To the point where it becomes questionable for everyone listening wether it’s actually true..

First and foremost, the way I work is: I need to do A, in order to get A done, I need to learn skillset B. So I go ahead and lean into B, to the point where I have a solid understanding and can start to get the job done. And from then on, it’s trial and error. The added bonus is: if B is something that I’m interested in anyways, it’s actually fun!

This includes everything from IT to graphic design, programming, photography, databases, CAD, hardware prototyping, 3D modelling, media production, managing servers and hosting platforms, business stuff, production management and so on. All of that at some point contributed more or less to me making a living. Either as a self employed worker, at a company or as a freelancer. Look at my Linked In profile. It’s utterly confusing.

I would never consider myself an expert in any of these fields. There’s plenty of specialists that can easily kick my ass. But this broad range of skills come in handy when you have to link certain fields together, with a certain healthy distance and not too much details to worry about. I have a solid enough understanding to focus on the big picture.

This becomes clear to me now that I’m working with large international companies that are basically huge colonies of highly specialised worker ants – hard to find anybody with a broad view of what’s going on, usually. And the coordination ants have no idea what the tech ants are talking about. The recipe for inefficiency, millions of dollars wasted and mediocre output.

What this means is that I’d probably be suited pretty well for management.. Oh my.. 😛

Hey, Lucy, how’s the sky..?

My pet squirrel met with Lucy recently. It told me that she’s pretty colourful and can be a bit rough if you’re not paying attention. But it really depends on what you bring to the table yourself. Good company tho, once in a while.

The tool VS the job

I’ve spent a lot of time making music (or noise) in the past 18 years and I noticed a sort of inevitable progression that ended in the inevitable lack of inspiration for me.

I started off with a simple software sequencer, the music was crappy, but it was fun to play around with the technology and be creative at the same time. I never had much of a background in music theory, never learned to play the piano before, only had a few years of guitar playing in my pocket.. But it was cool to share music with friends and see what they come up with. The whole thing was totally lo-fi and there wasn’t such a thing like software synths. It was really just messing around with samples, recording samples of your own, ripping samples from anywhere.

Soon, things like Cubase, Logic Pro and VSTs showed up and that’s when it started to become way more technical. Dealing with latency, CPU load, et cetera.. Jeskola Buzz was somewhere in between, very minimalistic but still did the job. Didn’t care about reverb quality or sample bitrate. Just made some funky tunes with a lot of noise, breakbeats and distortion.

At some point, I started to collect samples from commercial sample discs. Quality became more of a concern. And the whole periphery war.. that’s probably where it started to get troublesome. While working on a track, I spent way too much time browsing samples, minding the downmix even before a track was halfway there. I was hunting for plugins all the time, new sample libraries, even bought some NI collections at some point. But I never used them, really.

It was about at the same time when I think I got less and less inspired and spent most of the time trying to do something that’s not my style. Which is where I lost interest. Inevitably, I’m a lo-fi, minimal guy and huge arrangements with multichannel 192khz classical instruments really aren’t my thing. Give me a saw, a filter and crunch that thing and I’m essentially happy!

I was thinking a lot in the past few months how I can bring back music as part of my weekly routine since I’m working way too much. Then I start browsing online shops to check out new audio interfaces et cetera.. And I spend way too much time thinking about the tools, rather than the job.

I think it’s really easy to get caught up in the tool-war. Way too easy. I think I have to knowingly go completely minimal. Time to delete the GBs of samples and high end stuff and start from scratch.

Funny enough, this provides food for thought for other fields. Working on a large software project, I know how easy it is to get caught up in tooling discussions, rather than actually pushing for product features. All the frameworks, boilerplates, yeoman recipes.. It all adds to a huge intransparent jungle of workarounds and tweaks that ultimately make things a lot more complicated than they have to be.

Utter reset

Since the start-up took off, I haven’t had much time to write. And even less time to care about some CMS or blogging web app to be up to date and managed. Which is why I’m now using GHOST. I’m getting old..

Unfortunately, I couldn’t import my old blog posts but maybe that’s for the best. Time to wipe the slate clean and leave the old ramblings where they belong, somewhere in a .tar.gz dump of a MySQL database to rot for the next decades.

I have a lot of thoughts that I’d like to share about this and that, right now I feel like doing this again on a regular basis. When I think back, the whole blogging thing was great to gain a bit of introspection.. It’s a rather selfish act and I really don’t care if anyone reads this or not.

Ed.: Irony hits hard. Back to WordPress..