Thursday, July 31, 2008

GORBACHOV!

Steph said I should post this:


GORBACHOV: THE MUSIC VIDEO - BIGGER AND RUSSIANER from Tom Stern on Vimeo.

So I did.

Via Dan.

Approach 3: the path to hiring great talent

A big part of my role right now at FreshBooks is hiring software developers. We’re trying to grow this team, to be able to meet the challenges of our expanding business, and that means hiring hiring hiring.

I’ve talked before about the importance of finding great people. But I wanted to talk here about a potential strategy for doing so. I call it “Approach Three”.

Steve Yegge has an interesting take on the problem, and identifies two basic approaches to finding superhero-level developers:

Approach 1: Get Lucky

Approach 2: Ask Everyone in the Whole World


He recommends #1, reasonably enough. I agree that it’s far more likely to yield positive results. Desperate attempts to network are doomed to backfire since anyone can see through that sort of self-centered socializing.

I think there’s a third approach.

Approach 3: Be Awesome



Great people can recognize not-great people really well — that’s one of the skills you need to acquire if you want to be truly great at anything. If you want to be an awesome tennis player, you need to learn how to evaluate other tennis players so that you don’t spend your time playing against crappy players who can’t teach you anything.

So you need to be awesome. The best strategy for finding awesome people is to spend your time making yourself more and more awesome. The great thing about Approach 3 is that even if you don’t find anyone at all, you’re more awesome than you were. Which makes it even easier to attract even AWESOMER people.

Getting Awesome


Start with recognizing that software developers are not factory workers — software isn’t something you assemble, it’s something you design. The energy that generates it is creative, not mechanical.

Here at FreshBooks we’re focusing on a few key things to increase the awesomeness of our team. We’re making sure our developers get chances to work on stuff they think is important. We’re making it easier and faster to deploy safely and reliably. We’re now managing business priorities separate from day-to-day task management. We’re making sure our developers get to spend the majority of their time solving problems in code, rather than sitting in meetings or filling out forms. Or waiting.

It’s working out. Increasingly we get resumes from people who say, “I’ve heard fantastic things about your company — it sounds like the sort of place where I want to work.”

And there’s a very clear correlation between people who say that and people who seem pretty awesome.

Down the road, what we need to do is to focus externally as well — not just being more awesome, but finding better ways to broadcast that awesomeness. But that can’t take away from our basic need to be awesome. Without that, our broadcasting is just phony PR, and the truly awesome ones will see right through it.

In other news, FreshBooks is hiring. If you’re awesome, click here.

Sunir kicked ass editing this. The original post is over at the FreshBooks blog.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Couch Time

We're discussing options for growing our office at FreshBooks, and somebody jokingly said, "Couches for everyone!" -- which got me thinking about the Queen.

See, the Queen came to Vancouver a bunch of years ago, and her route took her past our office at NGRAIN. I don't know where she was coming from or going to, but in any event, somehow everyone knew that the Queen would be going by that afternoon. (if you don't know, I'm kind of a fan of the Queen)

And conveniently, my couch was right next to the window overlooking the street. So everyone gathered at my couch and watched a Rolls with blacked-out windows drive by, flanked by motorcycle cops.

It wasn't really MY couch. Originally it had been somewhere else. In a meeting room, I think, where nobody ever sat on it, which troubled me, because it looked like such a comfortable couch. So I think it was Ivan and perhaps Derek and I who one day just picked it up and moved it to the window beside my desk. We brought a potted plant along as well, and so suddenly beside my desk was this nice little nook where someone could plop down and take a break.

Which turned out to be a great information-sharing device. I was managing half-a-dozen projects for NGRAIN at that time, and so I'd have stakeholders and developers and QA folks come round once or twice a day just to flop on my couch and hide from the crazy levels of work everyone was dealing with. And they'd tell me how their day was going, and very often just happen to mention that they were roadblocked on something, or that a date was not realistic, or that they were done a bunch of stuff ahead of time and really didn't have anything to do.

That couch made me about TEN times more effective a project manager than I would have been if I'd had to walk around and ASK everyone how they were doing. Possibly eleven. It was so easy to find out what was going on because folks would just come round and tell me. I didn't have to insist on weekly reports, or complicated time tracking systems, or anything fancy at all. I just needed a comfy couch.

They took the couch away, of course, and projects started falling over. Way it goes. Nowadays they probably pay a couple hundred dollars a month for some project management software, and congratulate themselves on spending so wisely. "Look! I can sort all tickets by estimate time divided by actual time, superimposed on a calendar and translated to the new Gantt 2.3 format!"

Rubbish.

The lesson I learned from the couch was that if you structure your HUMAN environment so that information naturally flows to where it needs to get, AND you make sure that you're open and available for that information, you don't need a bunch of complicated tracking systems. It's less expensive and it makes for a far more pleasant environment.

We're social creatures (demented and sad, but social). The real art of project management is about understanding our social needs and inclinations, and working with those to help a team work together.

The Queen drove by (at least, I assume the Queen was in the blacked-out Rolls; for all I know she took the Skytrain) and the entire project team sat around arguing over whether or not the British royalty had any worth in today's world. No milestones got knocked off that day, and we didn't track that half hour against any project tasks. But as the team went back to work, I remember being pleased that we'd all come together as the social beings we are, and taken some time that didn't need to be accounted for just to share our worlds with each other. Sitting on a couch arguing politics may not seem like something that improves project effectiveness, but a shared world is really what it's all about. Once a team has built that shared view, anything is possible.

It's not my job to tell people what to do. It's not my job to get them inspired and "motivated". My job is actually very simple: to observe how people are communicating and to help alleviate any breakdowns in that communication, so that a shared world can emerge. One of the best tools I ever found for that was a beat-up old couch.

Photo: Kia Abell

Saturday, July 12, 2008

ENnies, Here We Come!

Fantastic news the other day -- our wildly-hyped product Fire and Brimstone was nominated for a prestigious ENnie award (the primary awards of the tabletop RPG industry) in the "Best Web Enhancement" category.

This is really thrilling news for all of us who worked on this product, tirelessly playtesting rulesystem after rulesystem to ensure our elegant yet simple yet not-very-complicated rules properly delivered every nuance of the sophisticated lava experience so many games fail to deliver.

We are thrilled to be nominated for this award, and expect to deliver the lava experience of a lifetime at this year's ENnies show.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

New Beginnings

Nearly two years ago I started thinking about how to restructure my life so that my work, my passions, and my soul could begin to converge. That process has led me on some unexpected journeys, and introduced me to folks I am now honoured to count among my society, and these days, it feels more and more like I've managed to honestly integrate all the things in my life that matter to me.

A lot of things are helping me with this, not least still Peter Senge's wonderful book, The Fifth Discipline, which is what sparked the original idea of all this in me.

And now I've maybe moved on to a new stage. I've joined FreshBooks as their new Software Development Manager (or as my new business cards say, "Chief Cat Herder"). This is a fantastic company that is based on the kinds of foundations I tried so hard to establish at previous places, only to discover that I can't do it myself.

You can't fake a collaborative environment based on the idea of a learning organization. You can't pretend to hand power over to your employees. It's really one of those all-or-nothing things. Either your employees are trusted to handle their responsibilities, or they aren't. Either you care about bringing value to your customers, or you don't.

I've been at FreshBooks for nearly a month now, and they walk the walk. Everyone here is utterly concerned with making sure our customers are insanely happy. And that translates into making sure our co-workers are insanely happy.

So I'm pretty much insanely happy right now.

And more than that! I mean, it gets better.

I can't reveal all the details yet, but there's a few like-minded collaborators, mostly folks I've picked up in my many travels, who are putting the final touches on a whole new thing. A thing unlike anything you've seen. Pretty much.

The DINO-PIRATES are by no means forgotten, nor have they been left to fend for themselves. We've been working on them all along, and darn soon now, we're going to have some SERIOUS revealage to undertake. These fantastic illustrations are just a backdrop to what's going to put a lot of folks into a great big "Holy Crap!" bit of shock and awe.

It's starting to feel like 2008 is gaining a little traction, and as I surmised, it's turning out to be a year entirely unlike any other. I have no idea where it's going, and I don't feel even a little bit in control. But I'm finding the illusion of control is dropping easily from my eyes, and in its place I find the ability to savour the turns and twists that my life is undergoing more satisfying, and more enjoyable, than any sense of my own power.

I tell my co-workers this all the time: "I'm making this up as I go." It worked for Indy alright, why shouldn't it work for me?

I've been reading some of the essays of Montaigne (French guy, 1500's), and came across this passage in the last of them, "Of Experience":

Have you been able to think out and manage your own life? You have done the greatest task of all. To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquillity in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.


I was engaged in a discussion on a message board I sometimes frequent that got into why folks did or didn't choose to follow particular religions. I didn't post this idea, but it occurred to me in reviewing that discussion, that something I have sought in the study of swordsmanship is a practice that can help me to learn how to, in Montaigne's words, "live appropriately".

For some reason I have faith that if I simply focus on living appropriately, and do not spurn the opportunities that come my way, that things will turn out. That I will be able to "accomplish" things and to do what is required wherever I find myself. This faith has grown stronger all my life, and one thing I've learned in all the upheaval and trauma my life has gone through in the past few months is that often the best thing for me to do is simply to relax.

These are beginnings. In a sense, things are always beginning.