24 February 2008

Finishers Wanted

When I was a little boy my Mom had me memorize this little poem:

Stick to your task ’til it sticks to you;
Beginners are many, but enders are few.
Honor, power, place and praise
Will always come to the one who stays.

Stick to your task ’til it sticks to you;
Bend at it, sweat at it, smile at it, too;
For out of the bend and the sweat and the smile
Will come life’s victories after a while.
—Author Unknown

I think my Mom had me memorize this poem because she knew I would need it. She understood better than I the old adage that "Life does not reward us for effort expended." Finishing is required.

For me, it is exciting to find a problem and imagine a way to solve it. The creative exhilaration in coming up with a solution that will work within all the constraints involved is almost intoxicating. I have a remarkable tolerance for ambiguity and when the major "problems" as I see them, have been solved, filling in all the details seems so much less important. The hard design work has been done. There's perhaps little glory in all the simple, small and detailed work needed to connect the dots and make the grand vision a reality. However, software is ultimately just simple 1s and 0s and if you don't fill in all the details, then all you are left with is a dream. You've got to have both the vision and the finishing of all those tiny details.

"This is all your app is: a collection of tiny details." - Wil Shipley

Missing a few details can drastically reduce the value of the whole idea. I guess that's why I love Mac software so much: There's the constant demand from both the users and my peers for my concerted effort across the entire spectrum of "pie in the sky" ideal to actual, practical details in implementation. To make it work in software, you need to consistently execute well across the whole spectrum of work. Let me underscore the words consistently execute again, they are very important.

Matt Ball recently wrote a nice post about some up and coming Mac developers that worked so hard on their first release, but since then have produced relatively little. They haven't created new apps, updated their 1.0 apps, even posted to their blogs. Some still have ideas in picture form posted in all their high fidelity glory, but with no application to show or sell to the customers that have been waiting to see the finished product. These developers seem to be struggling with consistently executing against their plans.

Matt goes on to explain that he thinks this is related to their young age. Most of these developers are young (19 years old) and he thinks suffer from some kind of "shiny ball syndrome" where they are easily distracted from one project to the next. I don't know the developers, and they could be easily distracted or they could have absolutely justifiable reasons for their delays, but the result is the same: Doubt builds as to their ability to consistently finish their ideas. Their credibility and reputation weakens.

Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. - Thomas Edison

I don't think it's age. I think that's far too simple an answer. I know developers in their 50s who struggle from this exact same problem. It's not size or lack of resources either. Look at Microsoft. Here's a company where a large part of their problems revolve around consistently producing, not a lack of money or great people or innovative ideas.

The idea is not the thing!

One part of the problem comes from patent law. There is a remarkable and universally held assumption that ideas are worth a great deal. I will not say ideas are worthless, but they are worth far less than most of us realize. Even the most simple idea takes remarkable effort, and follow through to get designed, built, packaged, and ultimately used by others. This is why I felt My Dream App was destined for difficulty. They had enthroned ideas as the product, when in reality it's all the grunt work after the idea that make the product. It's all those pesky little details and the consistent effort required to follow up and deal with each of them that matters.

Finishing is the thing!

When the iPhone was released, there was a collective groan world wide from designers who had years before envisioned the ideas that Apple had now so beautifully produced in a finished product. Kim Lenox, Senior Interaction Designer of Adaptive Path explains:

With the launch of the iPhone, I’ve been hearing many grumblings from interaction designers who’ve worked for various, well known consumer electronics companies. We can all see in the iPhone aspects of our concepts from years past that were brushed aside or died prematurely. Our concepts are suffocating under the pile of NDA verbiage, never to see the light of day. What sets our mere concepts apart from this final product however, is a company with leadership who has the fortitude to take the risk, find the budget, and push the technology for the single cause of designing compelling user experiences. Apple got it right.

Amazing isn't it? Once again, it's all about execution and finishing, not just the ideas. Leadership is important for sure, but finishing the job in a company is so much more than Steve Jobs simply saying, "We're going to build an iPhone and it will have a compelling user experience." It's thousands of decisions made by hundreds of employees at Apple and elsewhere. It's dealing with setback after setback and still pushing forward. It's taking the right calculated risk (EDGE and AT&T) and saying no to other things (10.5 on time, a Dev SDK) in order to finish. That is the task of finishing and at Apple, it seems to be part of their DNA.

Tranquil and Steady Dedication of a Lifetime

One of the most important attributes of a software company I would like to work for, comes from an idea the late Adlai Stevenson a U.S. Democratic politician explained when referring to patriotism:

What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? I venture to suggest that what we mean is a sense of national responsibility ... a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.

In a great software company, there wouldn't be "short, frenzied outbursts of emotion" but a consistent focus on finishing in a steady and sustainable manner. My guess is that those prone to "putting on a big, glitzy show" and those that don't effectively resist the "constant bombardment of new and exciting things to try out" will have set themselves up as an unsustainable business, and ultimately end up disappointed.

Saying No: a feeling of strength in reserve.

One of the biggest challenges is just saying no to things. What's hard about this is often you need to judge between what is "good", what is "better" and what is "best". In order to do that which is "best", you will, you must say no to many, many things that are "good" and "better". This is heart wrenching work, but choosing what you do now to remain focused and finishing, this is your competitive advantage. When asked what work he was most proud of from among his work at Apple, Steve Jobs famously said, "All the products we didn't ship." Many people and businesses talk about focus and priorities, but very, very few actually finish the idea and follow through with the well executed decision making and focus required.

“You must always work not just within but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two. If you can handle ten, then handle five. In that way the ones you do handle, you handle with more ease, more mastery and you create a feeling of strength in reserve.” - Pablo Picasso

Keep Moving Forward!

There is a scene in Disney's animated movie Meet the Robinsons that I love. The story is of a young boy inventor who is learning. During this particular scene he is trying hard to fix a peanut butter and jelly gun, used to automate sandwich building. Everyone is watching him and it looks like he's going to succeed, finally the time comes to try his fix. The whole thing explodes sending peanut butter and jelly everywhere and onto everyone in the room. He is devastated, but immediately he hears cheers and people start to comment on what a great failure that was! "You Failed!" "And it was awesome!" "Exceptional!" "Outstanding!" "Uh, I've seen better." "From failing you learn, from success, not so much." They congratulate him like he succeeded. They ultimately propose a toast to his brilliant failure. He is stunned. The motto of this family is: Keep moving forward!

This is a good motto for anyone working with software. The challenges are so great and the problems so complicated and frequent, you simply must have the determination to keep moving forward, to and through the finish. Start small and build momentum and keep finishing small things, just to keep in the habit of it.

This is not always easy. Sometimes I would come home from work so frustrated with how slow things were going and how little progress was being made, I'd tell my wife I just needed some time alone to cool down. I'd go into my room, open my laptop and write a blog post. I'd post it and point to it while saying to my wife, "There, I did it. I produced something today! It may not be much, but at least I produced something tangible!" You've got to keep in the habit of producing or finishing. You can't let those muscles atrophy.

One of the best development techniques I've seen over the years is test driven development. The pattern is to build a small test that represents an improvement you want to make to your program. Once the test is built, run it and watch it fail. Then write just enough code to make the failing test pass, then run the code and watch the test pass. Repeat. This tends to lead to low coupling and good cohesion and a reasonable test bed. The real hidden value is regular focus on tangible completion in a consistent way, over time. Just keep moving forward step by step and then after some time you'll be impressed as you look back on the mountain of work you've accomplished by such simple means with constant effort.

There are bugs to be fixed, old code to re-examine and refactor, performance problems to analyze and improve, build automation, test automation and website improvements, help docs to write, blogs to read, posts to write, ideas to explore, customers to contact, emails to read and write. Your job is to choose which of all of these you will do now, and then keep moving forward. Those who master the art of consistently and sustainably producing value, are setup for success. Be one of them. Don't quit. Don't stop. Focus on consistently finishing something of value, no matter how small. That's what the world will pay you for, and since so few seem to stick to it, there's plenty money in play for those who pay the price to consistently finish the job.


Anonymous said...

Great post David. This is why I like SCRUM so much. Once you have broken a large task down into many smaller, discrete ones it is very satisfying to mark them as complete in the workbook and know that you have actually accomplished something that day.

Hope school is going well, we miss you...

Shawn @SIDONIEYANG said...

David, this post was great! It contained a lot of really, really great advice and motivation. You also gave a lot of concrete examples and the reasons for why people fail (never finish); it's not common sense what you wrote today, and it's something that many, many people can benefit from.

I know that I've benefited already. The advice you gave today doesn't seem to register in a lot of people's minds - and that goes for me, too.

I loved the movie, "Meet the Robinsons" - so inspirational!

Anonymous said...

Your point about TDD is something that I've been realizing more and more lately. I think part of getting into the groove of unit testing is to stop looking at it as a separate, onerous task. It's more correct and valuable to think of it as akin to the proof in mathematics that demonstrates a theorem is valid. Without that evidence what you've created has much less weight; you might even find yourself returning over and over wondering "did I really do what I meant to do?". There is something intrinsically satisfying in pointing at an artifact that is devoted only to showing the completeness and robustness of your solution. It then reenforces your approach to quality, thinking through your design etc.

Something related that I find valuable is prototyping. Spending hours and hours reading on the latest lickable APIs is fun, especially if you'll be using them, but at the end of the day you have nothing to point at and say "look what I did today". The best you can do is rattle off some of the rapidly fading knowledge you've picked up. I find writing simple little prototypes to flex those new ideas, or even just following the included tutorial, to be invaluable in satisfying my need to produce something during the time I invest.

Mitchell Scott said...

That is such a great lesson, thanks for the insight! You should be a seminar speaker or something :-)

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave, This is a great post, it kind of depicts my current situation, thanks for the insight, i hope to follow it, and complete my started projects one by one :)

Arkar said...

Thanks Dave.

It's rung my inner bell. :)