Wide Teams podcast

In case you missed it – I was the guest on the Wide Teams podcast last week discussing remote work and dancing:

Wide Teams Episode 99: David Tate

Tribal SQL

I am honored to announce that a chapter I wrote has been published in a book. Nope – it’s not the additional Appendix that I sent the author of Everyone Poops, but is instead Tribal SQL. Edited and produced by the infamous Jen McCown and published by Red Gate the books is on sale now.

If you are attending PASS Summit you can pick up a free copy at the Red Gate booth October 16th 6 – 8PM, and you can meet some of the authors Friday October 18th at 10:45AM.

My chapter carries the title Guerrilla Project Management for DBAs and offers advice on how a DBA can use some simple techniques to better communicate what they do, how effective they are, and why they should be given huge raises.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

A DBA’s Place in the Organization

Organizational skills matter more to a DBA than many other technical jobs due to the diverse nature of their workload. In addition, this diversity exposes the DBA to a greater surface area of the organization than is typical for most technical roles. As part of our jobs, we talk to many people:

  • Vendor’s technical resources – mainly to ask why they need ‘sa’ access, but also to request updated pictures of them that are coincidentally the size of a dartboard
  • Internal development resources – mainly to ask politely why they decided that a homegrown triple-nested cursor implementation of GROUP BY was a good idea, but also to enquire, for no particular reason at all, about their food allergies.
  • Business stakeholders – mainly to discuss capacity-planning decisions, but also to find out how to prevent an in-ear Bluetooth headset from affecting one’s golf swing.
  • Internal semi-technical resources (project managers, product managers, business analysts) – mainly to help with decisions about performance, capacity, and future goals for each product that needs database resources, but also to spread misinformation (“What, you didn’t know that using the first column in Excel has been outlawed as part of the Patriot Act?”)
  • Internal IT resources – mainly to work with them in configuring and securing the hardware and software platforms on which the DBMS infrastructure depends, but also to trade Magic: The Gathering playing cards
  • Management resources – to complain about all the above people

Since we talk to so many people, we are at higher risk of finding ourselves in the cross hairs of the blame gun.

Reasons you should buy this book:

  1. All author royalties go the the worthy charity Computers 4 Africa.
  2. There are many other great chapters from my fellow authors including:
    • What changed? Auditing solutions in SQL Server
    • Agile Database Development
    • Verifying backups using statistical sampling
    • Taming Transactional Replication
    • SQL Injection: How it Works and How to Thwart it
    • Building Better Reports

Hit it up Tribal SQL on Amazon to purchase:

Subtle (cost and cultural) benefits of supporting remote workers

One typically hears about how great remote work is from the individual perspective – it allows me to be happier, more empowered, live-my-life-in-harmony-smelling-flowers-blah-blah.  How it helps employers is then left as a given side-effect of this happiness: happy employees mean more gets done.

I believe that there are more direct benefits to having employees that work where they wish.  What follows is for all the Pointy-Haired-Bosses and bean counters; disregarding employee happiness – can you make more money?

Self-Healing Network

Have you ever attended a fire drill? Ever seen the flu take out an entire team? How about somebody plugging in a new machine in your server room and suddenly it’s a bit more romantic with all the lights out?

Now imagine that your workforce is spread out across the country. The following productivity drains are now eliminated, reduced, or are spread out over time to keep people working:

  • Fire drills
  • Bad traffic
  • Network and power outages
  • Severe weather events
  • The ice cream truck driving by your office
  • Flu season, stomach bug, lice, cooties, etc.
  • Forced happy birthday sing-along and the odd awkward sadness they flower

In addition having employees spread out allows you expanded time coverage more easily; an east coast employee can get a three hour jump on customer support for a west coast-based company.  In addition supporting remote workers shifts your IT infrastructure’s costs and outage risk a bit from you to them – they need to make sure that they have a fast internet connection, they should respond and move to a coffeeshop if it is down, etc.

Less time-wasting small talk and gossip

In a typical office people chat about the weather, celebrity news, their personal medical conditions, what type of soup they like, etc. for a surprising amount of time.  These same types of conversations just don’t translate into electronic equivalents.  Ever seen somebody video-chat about the Superbowl for 45 minutes over Skype? Simply not going to happen.  Those tools are great for professional communication, but for informal back and forth they just don’t translate with the same speed and nuance.

You might thinking that it isn’t a big deal that people save a few minutes a day by not chatting socially – who cares?  But remember that this slight barrier to communication reduces another problem: gossip. Negative but not-acted-upon thinking about work (“Man this place stinks”, “That guys is an idiot”, “The company logo looks like a dog drew it”) is poison to a team and ultimately a huge distraction once your company gets large enough to hire a few gossip super-spreaders.

Reduce Human Resources silliness

You don’t care if remote workers leave the kitchen or bathroom a mess.  They do not use your paper towels, electricity, water, sodas, or trip on your wet floor and break their leg.  They do not need to attend workplace violence seminars, be told to not bring life-size cutouts of Gene Simmons into their cubicle, or told to take off their sombrero during the morning meeting.  They do not have to be told how to ‘be a good cubicle citizen’ by avoiding heating up their fish-and-feta-with-pepper-jack-with-curry sandwich. They do not serve sentences on the Party Planning Committee or as Floor Safety Officer, or decorate their office doors for super-wicked fabulous prizes that someone took time to buy instead of doing actual work.

Increased loyalty

Remote work is still not the default choice; many companies are trying it out but it isn’t as common with established companies. For this reason remote employees tend to be more loyal for the simple (perhaps silly) reason that it’s a pain to find and get integrated with a new company. People will stick around more; you get this benefit for free.

Trial hiring

Hiring is super hard everybody.  A new effective trend is to replace the 87 interviews with made-up questions and instead hire them for a small, real project and then determine if their work ethic, communication, and personality fit within the team.  This is quite hard if you try to make them come into an office for a few weeks, but quite easy if you are already setup to support remote work.

Work life balance

Two interesting little tidbits about remote workers: they tend to work slightly more hours and they tend to object less to off-hours work. A common anti-pattern for remote workers is to use their old commute time to just work instead; you get these hours for free. In addition when emergencies happen being able to easily handle them without needing to drive into the office reduces the friction. A remote worker, unlike his cubicle-dwelling cousins, is always a few steps away from logging in to work; plus when he works a bit at night you don’t have to buy him pizza.

Free work while sick

At a traditional office if you are sick and contagious you don’t work. When you work remotely there is a large class of illnesses that are not too sick to work, but too sick to come in; remote workers typically push through this wall and work while sick. You get these hours for free.

Improve your processes

I’ve made this point in a separate blog post, so I’ll just refer you there instead. TL;DR – remote workers need clear processes, clear documentation, and a way to measure how much is getting done to be effective. These things just simply make you better and they organically improve when you support your employees not being present physically.

Employee selection

By hiring people that have worked remotely in the past you are selecting a certain type of person that might be different than a person with a resume just looking for someone to love them.

  • Have an opinion about where they want to work (re: gives MVD [Minimum Viable Damn] about their work)
  • Are a bit above average at written communication
  • Are a bit above average at speaking up over the phone

Be bought or buy more easily

A company that operates with remote employees is more attractive for Mergers and Acquisitions.  It is easier to buy a company without an office and integrate their workers, and it is easier to sell a company that isn’t locked into long-term contracts or physical constraints.  During integration a results-focused fully documented process eases this transition (and nobody has to move or quit because they won’t move).

Hire who you want to

There are certain market segments that you can attract or retain when you seek out remote workers:

  • Sharp young person that worked at an entry-level position but then wants to move away. (as young people tend to do)
  • Experienced person that wants to move away; you can now retain them instead.
  • Workers while they go through a situation that might otherwise require FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), a leave of absence, or resignation. Think mono, a family illness, serious injury, complicated pregnancy, or chronic cooties.
  • That super sharp person that you only know from twitter or your favorite conference.
  • Attract and retain those with hearing impairment*, vision issues, physical disabilities, speech impairments, etc.
  • People that would work out great at your company but would hate to live near your office.

Scale your company more effectively

Traditional office space is very mind-shiftingly expensive which is why small companies tend to start out in coffeeshops, garages, and Dunkin Donuts. If you aren’t entertaining clients you can eliminate the massive outlay for mildly brownish walls, gray furniture, and is-that-green carpet. For small companies office space comes with additional insurance needs and rental commitments that might not make sense. Even at the bottom of the food chain office space its amazingly expensive – a three person company with nice hardware can easily spend their entire hardware budget for a year in a few months of office space.

Office space is simply one example in which remote workers allow you to scale more precisely. If you are a 10 person company how much office space do you need? How many secondary (admin, HR, IT support) people do you need? You have to choose a number and increase it in large blocks – hire an additional person, rent another large room that you won’t use yet, build a robot to make coffee and the clean the floor, etc.

Remote workers allow you to avoid or lazy load all of these items. Not having a physical office also moves you outside the traditional scaling path: maybe you don’t need to just ‘hire a guy to do that’.  Maybe a cloud service, 3rd party payroll and accounting service, or an internal company blog can replace those things.


Whether or not remote work helps your employees manage their lives and do good work you can save money as you grow, be more flexible in times of crisis, and retain more talented people by structuring your company, processes, and culture such that remote work is support or encouraged.


* For software development a good way to test how well you support your remote workers is to imagine that one of your workers cannot hear.  How could they continue to do their job from another state?

Running at RunLevel 1 : How to function on little sleep for an extended period

Over the last year my non-work life has been an adventure in the original sense of the word: an unusual and risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome. For a number of personal reasons I’ve had to survive on four to six hours of frequently-interrupted sleep while continuing to work and maintain a normal family schedule.

What follows is advice for how I’ve maintained some level of sanity and productivity in the face of such a challenging constraint. Hopefully it will be useful to someone else facing a family crisis, medical issue, or some form of voluntary insanity like trying to write a book, ship a version 1.0 of a product, or simply work at a startup.

Disclaimer: I am neither a doctor nor some sort of sleep scientist.  These are things that have worked for me.  I have not done all of these things 100% of the time; these are lessons learned. Please consult your rabbi, personal trainer, one of George Foreman’s kids, and your local plumber before trying out these techniques for yourself.

Reset your expectations

If you aren’t getting much sleep you need to reset your expectations about what you can physically accomplish. Physical exhaustion leads quickly to mental exhaustion. I halted work on my book and barely limped into writing a chapter in another due to decreased energy, lack of extra motivation, and a creative down period.

On the physical side you need to manage your exertion carefully. The amount of recovery needed greatly increases if you aren’t getting the bare amount of sleep your body requires. Recovering from one hard workout can take days – now is the time for slow walks not marathon training.

Some simple rules about your diet

Physical health is a core requirement for any higher level forms of health. Since you are not fulfilling one of your body’s basic needs you need to be very nice to it in other areas.

Simple things to avoid: alcohol, caffeine, crappy food. I’m not free of sin in these areas but I regretted each drink when I was completely exhausted and found that fast food made me feel worse. Eating clean foods (i.e. foods that don’t have commercials) allowed my body to survive on less sleep.

When many people are sleepy they feel hungry (my body easily confuses the two). You might think since you are awake and moving around more that you might need a lot more calories.  Drink extra water to keep your digestive system thinking it is full and avoid an extra meal.

Random side note: Make sure you are getting enough B6 and B12 in your diet; lack of these combined with lack of sleep made everything much harder.


On the subject of caffeine I’ll offer the following tip: don’t or be very careful. The normal expected reaction to getting less sleep in the USA is to just drink another coffee or pound a Red Bull or Mountain Dew. These substances are additive, taste like garbage, and may or may not contain cat tears.  Ironically these substances are normally B12/B6 overloads laced with caffeine and a series of things that increase blood-flow.  Just eat the real stuff and avoid the unknown side-effects of mind Viagra.

Too much caffeine can also hurt you when you want to go to sleep but you drank something four hours ago and your body won’t let you.  Caffeine intake cannot match the pace of the lack of sleep you are dealing with – this is a slippery slope in which you end up four years from now with stomach surgery and a reputation for being cranky and smelling mildly of tar.

I’ve found that a well-executed nap replaces caffeine in the afternoon. An additional tip I picked up from an ultracyclist (somebody who rides their bike for days at a time) is to drink coffee or caffeine and then take a 20 minute nap during the 20 minutes it takes for your body to absorb it. I call it ‘slingshot napping’ because it feels roughly like slingshoting the moon while riding a unicorn shooting rockets out of its mouth while you both shred a guitar.

If you do need to stay up just drink a lot of water instead. Drinking water keeps your metabolism moving and makes you get up to use the bathroom a lot. A simple, sort of silly, method that is very effective.

Sleep routine

When you have the opportunity to sleep you need to get to sleep fast and consistently.  All the normal advice for how to get a kid to sleep applies here – sleep in the same place, as much as the same time of day as possible, using the same ‘go to bed’ routine.  I’d add that avoiding “screens” of any kind near when you wish sleep is ideal – no phones, TVs, or computers in your bedroom.

One additional tip for managing the weekends – if you have the opportunity to sleep in on Saturday and Sunday take the additional hours as naps and not all as extra morning sleep.  When you are truly in a massive sleep hole 3+ additional hours for 2 days in a row will wreck your body’s natural rhythm and make you miserable on Monday and Tuesday of the next week.  Getting an extra hour in the morning and then taking a short nap Saturday and Sunday afternoon keeps the schedule going but let’s your body rest.

Surviving at work: your mind and memory

You will be a dumber version of yourself when tired – not able to learn as effectively, not able to make connections or recall information that you surely know, not able to problem solve as effectively, etc.  You need to account for this.

Manage your energy and not your time.  If you are less tired in the morning, try to shift all of your difficult work to that time of day.  If you end a task at 4PM but need to stay at work until 5 and are getting tired try to find something that doesn’t require deep focused concentration if possible.  Try – and this is a delicate balance – to do ‘easier’ work during your time of sleep deficit if possible.

Automate as much of your mind as possible. Have a bit of trouble at times remembering appointments? Occasionally forget to perform some small procedure at work (like doing your TPS reports every Thursday)? Under the compromised position you occasionally will turn into always. Use a reminder service or some foolproof system to make sure things get done.

Monitor yourself

Once you get deep into lack of sleep you lose your sense of direction. After a few weeks you are a low-functioning person capable of making terrible decisions and missing important details. The difference between sleepy and it is dangerous to operate heavy machinery is hard to detect due to your friend Mr. Adrenaline.

Learn to detect your level of energy:

  • How moody are you?
  • How long would it take for you to fall asleep if you just sat down?
  • Are mental challenges that shouldn’t be hard taking forever?
  • Are you forgetting a lot of things?
  • Are you willing to take shortcuts to complete something because you feel like you just want it ‘done’?

There are roughly three energy levels when sleep-deprived that require you to modify your behavior:

Well rested: After a string of days of little or interrupted sleep you suddenly get a few extra hours. Do as much as you can the next day. Tackle hard problems; use your focus for good.

Compromised: You have a string of days of less than ideal sleep and have a few hours of great energy everyday followed by rough afternoons or nights.  Do the most important stuff during the hours you can think clearly.

DestroyedYou feel like you are going to fall asleep at red lights and the idea of getting out of this chair to get a glass of water feels like an epic quest. Take a nap; avoid important things until you get back to ‘Compromised’.

Decision-making and mood

Have you ever heard that you shouldn’t make big life decisions when you are on a plane? I have no idea if that is garbage or not, but I know you shouldn’t make huge life decisions while lacking sleep. Your mood is affected by your body’s exhaustion level – you will tend to favor short-term decisions as the thought of harder and longer-term work efforts is harder to imagine.

One additional thing to note is that if you get some extra sleep you will feel so much better that you might be tempted to suddenly change course or commit to new things. Ten hours of sleep after you are used to almost none will send signals that you are, in fact, Superman and should signup for the 2020 Olympics in a sport you just heard about.


The main takeaway should, of course, be that you should try to get some sleep and be healthy.  Some of the things listed are just good ideas all the time.  You think better, feel better, and can be more effective when you are well-rested.  Now that the intense period of sleep deficit is over in my life it has been quite refreshing to see how my mood, effectiveness, and life have improved.  You should sacrifice sleep only for things that you deem in the short term to be more important than your health: your family’s health and well-being for example.

On Mayer: Remote workers have a default culture

I was offline due to the birth of our twins during the huge Mayer controversy so coming back into it weeks later and reading through the many opinions (really outrage) was interesting. I obviously think that remote work is a great thing both for employee and employer in measurable ways but also subtle ones.

What was interesting was that my initial reaction wasn’t as extreme as I thought – I didn’t think it was obviously some terrible idea. I think it will be a mistake but my gut feel is that I know why it was done and I can see some benefits for Yahoo’s particular situation. Yahoo’s situation is unique because remote workers were a minority and they are trying to completely reboot.

For an established company like Yahoo, to have a few hundred remote workers means that:

  1. They didn’t really support remote work. They have most likely rejected it for the newer workers who have asked for it.
  2. The ones that worked remotely were likely special cases: long-term employees from acquisitions that stayed where they were, employees that used to work in an office but convinced the company that they should stay on after a big move, people who smelled really bad, etc.
  3. Really key people that were able to bend the rules.

Seems like cutting them all loose would be a very risky thing to do (especially #3).

Mayer is trying to reboot the culture at Yahoo. From some of her other moves it seems she wants it to transform into a smaller startup-style firm like the younger Google that she joined. She wants to start over and redefine the culture and remote employees of the sort that Yahoo had respond more slowly to cultural changes that happen on-site.

Many companies that need more production out of their employees use subtle cultural clues. One of the most effective means of creating culture is enduring shared pain. The effort to launch a new product which translates into long nights at the office with no showers and slurred speech is one example. Psychological peer pressure – the subtle enforcement of 80 hour weeks by people staying until the lights go out – is another. These are the components of building teamwork in its rawest form.  Yahoo should expect some of these actions.

In a remote minority situation not everyone feels the ripples in the pond. Remote employees don’t feel these subtle cues; they don’t hear the ra-ra of employee pep rallies and don’t see the odd looks when they logoff at 6:30pm. They only see work and process – if you send me more work or improve the process more will get done.

Remote employees have a default culture that fills in any remaining space: a culture of working efficiently. They optimize down such that they do the work as quickly as possible. Their entire work paradigm is based on the idea that travel time is inefficient and they are constantly dealing with the fact that they aren’t in the office and have to adjust for any barriers this creates. So to them, arbitrarily working an extra three hours a day to build teamwork is not effective.

So if you are looking to build a startup from within a large, established company by rebooting it; maybe the remote employees are risks. Maybe.

Companies that support remote workers win against those that don’t

Years ago my boss asked if I could use a remote support developer in Europe for off-hours support of a critical system that processed data throughout the day.  He said that they had a sharp technical resource there who had normal working hours right in our support blind spot and that the candidate was interested in helping out.  I froze as the downsides flooded my mind:

  • He didn’t know our system at all.
  • I would never meet him.
  • We didn’t have much documentation of our systems.  All our knowledge transfer was done in person using heavy sarcasm and obscure hand waving.
  • We didn’t have a good ticket tracking system or history of service incidents we could point him at for self-study.
  • I wasn’t sure how I could judge whether or not he was helping or hurting.
  • I was afraid that instead of getting woken up in the middle of the night to solve a problem I would be woken up in the middle of the night to talk to him and explain the context because of the above problems.

All my objections were about how we weren’t ready to support him, monitor him, and grow him sitting where we sat as an immature support team. All my objections were things that we needed to change anyway and that he would serve as a canary and catalyst for these things to actually change.  We would be a better team by moving towards being able to support him.


With the developer job market being what it is  (i.e. a little nuts) some companies are offering work from home as an attractive add-on option – “Work from home Fridays”, “We support remote workers”, “Flexible schedule”.  This is being done as an after-thought and is not part of the core culture.

The difference between a company that can support a remote worker and one that cannot is not a small difference in perks: it is a chromosome-level difference. Companies that truly support remote workers win against those that don’t.


Having now myself been the remote person on the other side over the last 2+ years I’ve found a large range of differences between those that truly support remote work and those that just talk about it.  Think of it as the difference between a watch being water-resistant [you can wash your hands with it on] and diving-level waterproof [you can operate it underwater].

The reasoning is pretty simple: in order for a remote employee to succeed a company has to have clear communication, a standard process, and a clear focus on results above other secondary concerns.

A company has to provide the following:

  • A pipeline of work that is ready to actually be worked upon (It is packaged with its context and links to how to find out information for any questions)
  • Clear expectations for results and the ability to track how things are progressing.
  • Clear communication channels: this might include some permanence and search-ability for work already done but also includes some form of ~democratic decision-making that includes those that includes more people than can fit in a conference room.
  • A teaching culture that includes helpful coworkers ready to answer questions and help out remote workers if there are gaps of context.
  • A Results-Only-Work-Environment (ROWE) culture that allows workers to get as much done as they are able, and processes feedback from those workers about obstacles they encounter.

All of those things are good for the company supporting remote work even without a remote workforce – they create less friction around communication and infrastructure and make results the top priority.  In the end a company that focuses on primary complexity will beat those that are optimized for other things.



Super-productivity is deeply personal – don’t listen to anyone else

This time of year the Interwebs are hit with the same standard 25 productivity posts guiding people to get more done (more quickly and with less cleanup) than ever before in 2013. Today it finally hit me why they all piss me off:

Super-productivity is a deeply personal thing – and you can’t take advice from someone else’s surface-level understanding of how you work

Tapping into your potential for getting a lot of important work done isn’t about figuring out a way to actually get more tasks done an hour – it’s about tapping into yourself emotionally to see what you care about enough to just do what is best for great work to happen. That’s it.

But isn’t there is so much great information on how to get more done?  Not really – all the standard blog posts about productivity tell you surface-level ways to:

  1. Block distractions (turn off notifications, go to a quiet place, tell that herd of rhinos to keep it down or move along)
  2. Guard your physical health to increase mental energy (eat clean, sleep, exercise, no or less coffee/heroin)
  3. Write down your to-do list, goals, and what you achieved (your to-do list should be as complex as your taxes)
  4. Gain 1.5 hours a day by being your best self ever today! (i.e. small foolish tips such as Learn keyboard shortcuts, use auto-responders, hire a virtual assistant, use two monitors, listen to music while working, never listen to music while working)

Great. Outstanding. Well-Done. There are about a million people that read those sorts of “Top 8 Things that Massively-Productive People Do” posts a few times a week.  So I guess they aren’t working.

Let’s turn the tables:

  1. Why do you get so easily distracted
  2. Why can’t you take care of yourself
  3. Why don’t you know your goals, what you are doing now, or what you did yesterday
  4. Why do you need a daily pep-talk from some stranger on the Internet (who may or may not be a cat)

Articles that talk about this stuff aren’t as catchy: “8 Ways to Care Enough to Do Good Work“, “Stop Being Distracted: Do Not Read This” don’t encourage or get page views.  Answering these “on the couch” personal questions leads to some interesting answers:


Calculus cat is aware of his emotions and really likes bookmarks.

  • Well if I get behind on emails its going to look like I’m not working, so I have to check my email every 5 microseconds
  • If I don’t see the latest cool/funny/shocking thing on Twitter/Facebook then I’ll miss out on it and feel left out
  • I want to feel connected even though I’m in this cube/office/airport Starbucks (the saddest kind of Starbucks)
  • I need a distraction that makes me feel good when work is hard because the work makes me feel stupid
  • I need the validation of new email, new notifications, new whatever
  • I don’t feel as if my work is that important, so I take breaks to get through the day

The list above might be nonsense to you – make your own list (that’s sort of the point).  My point is that you have to tap into why you don’t care enough to not tolerate petty distractions and instead allow obvious ways to improve your work occur to you naturally.  You have to care.  Maybe you don’t care about every single cell in this Excel spreadsheet that you are editing by hand but for what it represents – care that it is a way to provide for yourself and others, a way to have time for other things, a lucky accident that allows you to work inside and safely.  Your work has to be important to you either by faith or fact.

If you can tap into those issues preventing you from being passionate then you’ll find that doing well at your work matters more than they do and you will naturally focus, naturally take care of yourself, and naturally figure out your own ways to improve so that you can do great work.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

My 2013 Resolution: Get Way Weirder

My resolution for 2013 is to get way weirder. Not like eat-my-hat-as-per-the-prophecy weird, but maybe make-a-statue-in-my-backyard-out-of-mailboxes weird.

My family in the last few years has already gotten a little weird by adopting all our kids, me working almost exclusively from home, and expecting twins. Just these simple actions have gotten us to the point of feeling like we are different enough to not accept anyone else’s advice without actually sitting down to think it over as our situation doesn’t really easily line up with anything else.

This being weird is a strength as this “normal bubble” is quite dangerous. Most people follow the crowd with small decisions and it becomes a habit so they don’t realize the power it has over them in big decisions like when to buy a house or how to spend their money.

Or infinitely more importantly: how to spend their time. Most people end up spending their lives based on the crowd formula of work vs. family vs. hobbies and it infects their thinking. There are other ways to work than 9 to 5 over 45 and other hobbies to have other than watching TV and playing golf for the love of all things.

The default choice for most people involves other people profiting from it. The default career choice benefits the company at your expense, the default eating habit benefits restaurants at your expense, the default choice of hobbies benefits some organization, and the default financial choices benefit anyone that profits from you being in debt. The smart money influences the crowd to hurt themselves.

So I plan to be weirder with how I spend my time and money and to teach my kids to move far enough away to the crowd’s collective voice and to more easily hear their own. As per the prophecy.

How to be creative: Non-silly advice from John Cleese

Via @danforthfrance via @hotdogsladies comes a talk John Cleese gave about creativity and how to encourage it.  I was amazed at the common sense level advice given that rang true from my own experience and, as always, by Cleese’s ability to speak without appearing to move his bottom lip:

John Cleese – a lecture on creativity

Cleese makes the following high level points:

  • Creativity is a mode of operating and not a talent
  • Creativity happens when you are ‘open’ and not ‘closed’ where ‘open’ means a state of play and ‘closed’ a state of tactical completion-ism
  • Block off multiple small amounts of time (he said 90 minutes) rather than some huge session once a week
  • For creativity to foster you need:
    • Space (quiet, free of distractions)
    • Time (set start and end times so you can let go of other worries)
    • Time (you have to be patient and allow yourself time to think and chew on a problem and not quickly resolve the tension of not knowing)
    • Confidence (that you will think of something and not die alone then get eaten by your cats after never coming up with anything)
    • Humor (it helps us move from closed to open and encourages play and new combinations of ideas)

At an organizational level he raised some interesting points:

  • You can be more creative in groups if you are confident and work well together, but it can go bad easily:
  • It is hard to be creative if people expect you to be (or appear) very decisive
  • It is hard to be creative around people that you are trying to impress
  • To discourage creativity discourage humor and people talking about intermediate ideas that might be bad
I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.

You *will* lose money working at a startup – why do it?

You are going to lose money working at a startup – full stop. Is it true that some people make a lot of money working at startups? Most certainly – just like how some people worsen their health by exercising through spraining ankles and eating entire boxes of Cheez-its after running (Don’t judge me).

People have trouble calculating small amounts of risk (example: By getting in a car today you increased your chances of dying today 100x) they also have trouble understanding small chances of success.  Since it is unlikely that you win big with a startup you need to know how much you are paying to work at a startup.

Opportunity Cost

Working at a startup means that you need to commit to doing something for a few years. While the normal IT turnover is about two years to really have a chance of making money with a startup you need to be obsessively focused on that one thing for greater than two years – no side work or consulting unless absolutely needed.  You have to turn down that call from a friend who just got a job writing the billing system for Krispy Kreme with – you guessed it – awesome employee perks.

Personal Cost

At a startup you are all-in in most cases. Not all startup are like this, but the average startup is based on building a product that scales from the start as fast as possible to meet a certain market need. You are expected to work longer hours and be more committed than in a traditional job. This means it will cost you personal time – everything that isn’t nailed down or a way to recharge yourself for more work will be replaced by work. Watching TV, hanging out with friends, having a close family, lawn care, listening to podcasts, competitive knitting, blinking contests with your parrot – whatever.

Literal Cost

There are many cases where the startup just costs you straight-up money. You make less at a startup and can’t take on additional work so if the options/equity doesn’t work out you lose money.

Well then why do it?

Every startup is different – not all demand 80 hour weeks, no vacation, and daily blood-letting for 3 years before there is any relief. Some cost less than others – but they all cost something compared to other opportunities; it’s the nature of the risk/reward equation in play.

This post so far has come off as anti-startup – it isn’t. You just need to know what the cost is before you pay it; for many the rewards are worth it. So what do you get from paying all this time/money?

Learn to play offense

Big companies play defense, small companies play offense. The bigger the company the more likely they are to be protecting revenue from existing products which means there is less creation/innovation going on and more maintenance/low-risk activity. This is not as exciting, and not something that challenges every type of worker. In addition big companies play defense with themselves – politics between departments and personalities get ugly and awkward and creepy.

Avoid Defense

Getting tired of the co-worker on co-worker political crime? If you have worked more than a few years in IT working at a startup is a breath of fresh air. No HR, no maintenance, no bureaucracy, no weird politics, no grand-standing, no asking for permission, no entrenched product managers on foobar’d products that aren’t evolving.

Make contacts with people who create opportunity

Working at a big company you can meet more people than at a startup and many of them are wicked smart, but the type of people you meet working at a startup are the type of people that a few years later will probably build another company while the big company people probably won’t. Working alongside people that are smart, courageous, and motivated enough to work at startups can teach you and expose you to more than the default choice of a typical job.

Learn by watching fireworks up close

Working at a typical IT firm you don’t normally get to see the whole picture. How much are we billing customers? Who is our most profitable client, and how do we treat their contract negotiations? What is the CTO/Product Manager doing day to day? How much are we growing, and in what markets? What was the thinking behind this decision, and how was it analyzed and tracked after it was made? At a startup you typically get to see the feedback loop up close since it is a buzz saw moving closer to your neck every day. What features should we put in the product, what market should we go after, what is working, what is failing? These are questions you get exposed to all the time working at a startup.

So should I work at a startup?

Every startup is different and every worker is different and every snowflake is different. For some stability is more important, or better insurance, or maybe there really are people that like awkward corporate work parties. For others the chance to learn to move fast, build something from nothing, rub up against people that want to do things differently, and avoid all the defense and hedging in big companies are worth it.  The experience you gain from being that close to the fire at a super-small business like a startup can all be applied at later jobs with bigger companies – everyone wants someone who can play offense, avoid defense, and make smart decisions.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.