David Tate

Mastering the Art (and Science) of Remote Work

Category: product development

Can you learn anything from a vlog?

Vlogging, “video blogging” – fascinates me. Not the idea of me doing it – how it feels to watch a vlog, and what it might change long-term.

I started watching vlogs after I saw my kids watching them. We let our kids use the YouTube Kids app for a bit each day, and they watch popular blogs such as Shaytards and The Engineering Family.

I also watched every day of Casey Neistat’s vlog for almost a year and showed many of them to my kids. I was a long-time fan of Casey’s Youtube channel (it was my only subscription for years) after seeing a video about his functional office and hearing him complain about the way the intern had built one of his shelves. I loved the attention to detail, and recognized the desire to have everything you need within an arm’s reach.

The interesting thing about watching Casey’s vlog is that I legitimately missed it when I stopped watching. When I returned to watching it later I was surprised to see that his daughter had, as children do, gotten older. The sensation was one of seeing an old friend after a few years. But I don’t know the Neistats. When I heard that he had sold Beme to CNN I was happy for him in a deeper way than if I had read a blog post about a popular blogger selling his company. The bond was greater, the intimacy higher.

It used to be that we read each other’s blogs to see what was going on in other people’s heads and to learn from their mistakes. Blogs were the teachers and the quality of writing created influencers. Now we listen to snarky musings and jokes on twitter, and fewer people read. Video is the next wave of extreme followership, and it is very different than previous formats in a few key ways.

Intimacy and Authenticity

My new favorite vlog takes the camera home but also teaches: Nathan Kontny. The intimacy that this builds is strange, raw, and powerful.

When Nathan explores an idea related to his business, I’m listening. As a paying Draft user, I have read on Ninjas and Robots (his well-named blog), but his deep credentials aren’t why I’m listening.

His transparency on the vlog lends him the authenticity that you can’t get on a blog no matter how self-deprecating your “about” page is. He starts filming before he gets all cleaned up for the day and mentions how he has “parenting insomnia”, that his family is sick often, and mentions when his young daughter has a tantrum. While the fact that he is a father doesn’t seem related to his work, it somehow matters deeply. I’m listening to his stories because of the greater context I see of his daily life and family; honesty in one area indicates honesty in another. And he tells some interesting stories that feel more real within this context.

Long Term

I believe that vlogging is the way that the next generation of “influencers” will emerge. For software engineers, this might mean that the ones with the personality to pull off a daily vlog might have more influence than they do today. Should all developers go get haircuts and take that terrifying improv class? Probably not, but vlogging might turn into what doing a tech talk is now: a right of passage for those that want to move to the next level of influence.

There are some interesting implications here regarding personal usage. You can’t watch 10 vlogs a day, even at the 6 to 9-minute standard that seems to have been established there just isn’t enough time. So a winner-take-all system will develop in which you most likely watch one, and occasionally binge on the rest like TV shows. While Casey Neistat’s vlog was interesting, I found myself wanting to know more about Beme and thus eventually got tired of hearing about drones, skateboards, and pep talks and stopped watching. Something like Nathan Kontny’s vlog matches my interests more directly – daily stories of business or personal challenges that I find relevant to my life and work. I look forward to it every day.

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.

What is Cloud Computing and how does it affect my IT Budget?

I wrote a high-level overview of cloud hosting for SolTech:

What the cloud changes

Your local IT staff leaves the best practices to the experts who worry about security and patches fulltime. They still help with the setup of servers but focus more on the configuration and not the “build” piece as the cloud vendor can provide off-the-shelf configurations. This frees up your local IT staff to focus on support specific to your business.

There are some other specific advantages of the cloud infrastructure as well:

  • Pay as you grow: Instead of paying in large 25K server purchases you pay as your needs increase slowly
  • Geographic independence: Instead of one datacenter where you hope nothing happens you have increased fault tolerance and performance of multiple locations of your resources
  • Easier deployment: Cloud vendors provide services that allow you to easily upgrade your services and rollback if there are issues

Check out the full post here.

Should I build a mobile version of my existing product?

I’ve been consulting with Soltech, a provider of custom software solutions, and recently wrote a blog post for their client corporate blog about the challenges, opportunities, and a common-sense strategy for mobile application development for your current products.

A blurb:

Functionality and Constraints

So let’s assume you have a mobile-friendly version of your site but your product is either a traditional web application or desktop application. Should you build a mobile version?

The mobile device, due to its constraints, presents some challenges:

  • It is hard for the user to enter data as the on-screen keyboard is slower and error-prone
  • Due to slower network speeds it is harder for the user to consume large content or have to click multiple times to find the information they need
  • The smaller overall form factor means that visually intense or detailed information is hard to consume

Yet mobile devices, due to their features, offer some opportunities as well:

  • The accelerometer (the magic part that allows the device to tell which direct it is tilted) can be exploited to present completely new experiences
  • A touch screen provides fast intuitive access

The mobile experience is different due to typical use patterns:

  • People use their mobile devices during leisure time as well as work time
  • Users are out in the world while using mobile devices so location-based data can be exploited
  • Mobile users like to try new things out more than the typical desktop user (easily searchable marketplaces and free apps help this)
  • People have their mobile devices with them all the time so this increases the amount of advertising or usage that can happen
  • People are more likely to be interacting with other people (and new people) when they have their mobile devices instead of sitting in a cubicle or at home

Check out the full post here.

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