Tag Archives: Bill Gates

On a Feeling of Ownership, and How it Changes With Size

Through the years, a fair amount of my projects have been with small companies and startups. One thing I notice almost universally, is that members of smaller teams tend to have hunger for success, and a real feeling of ownership over their product. They take personal pride and consider themselves invested in the project.

That tends to change as the team size grows, for better and worse. On one hand, relying on “heroes” can be a dangerous thing, and people need to learn to pace themselves out. So a maturing and growing team can be a step in the right direction. On the other hand, it’s hard to see that desire for success and personal sense of pride in a product die off.

Everyone who has seen a big struggling project knows that feeling. “The wheels of bureaucracy are turning, and all I can do is what the product owner has asked of my piece. Suggesting improvements is just going to cause argument. And besides, why stick my neck out and risk being listed as one of the causes for project failure?” Also, there is a big difference between the amount of responsibility you feel when you are part of a successful team of 10, compared to a successful team of 100 or more. And projects of that size face unrealistic expectations and rarely feel successful.

How do you change this?

Maybe you don’t. I was once part of a startup, the 3rd man in. There was the founder (with a marketing background), a designer / developer, and I joined to help with the the rest of developing. The feeling of pressure and control that we all had on that project is something I’ve almost never felt on larger teams.

However, there’s no need to throw in the proverbial towel. There are techniques to strike a balance. Agile methodologies usually push for smaller teams and more distributed responsibility. And products can be broken into smaller pieces using a module or a SOA approach. (Yes, putting SOA into an agile approach is a challenge, and possibly a contradiction).

In the context of your business and its goals, you have to find the balance. All aspects of the business can be controlled and dictated from the top, but your subordinates aren’t going to innovate and grow organically, and they are only going to work extra hours if you force them. For a mature business with stable returns, that model probably fits. But in industries that face a lot of change and require innovation, you probably need to risk the destabilization of delegating out large amounts of responsibility to small teams. You will have less consistent results, but they will hit some homeruns.

I think Microsoft has seen this in recent years. It’s a common complaint that the teams don’t coordinate and share information there, but they have developed some interesting products. Their having been more surprises than there were under the old centralized management of the Gates’ days. Look at products like ASP.Net MVC, Win Phone 7, Windows 8, WebMatrix and Azure. Not the most integrated products, and some are not commercially successful yet (WP7), but they were more surprising and interesting than a lot of prior products.

The real outlier is Apple. Steve Jobs flew in the face of everything I just described. He notoriously kept the decision making power to himself, yet left Apple workers with a feeling of investment and devotion to the company. Even the customers feel invested. I can’t imagine a Windows sticker on the car of a person whose pay isn’t from or closely related to Microsoft, but I see a lot of cars with apple stickers in the back window.

So as a business grows, you can either try to keep the teams small and empower them to feel invested, or find the next Steve Jobs. Best of luck if you chose the former. Sometimes growth is the mistake. There are industries (like service / partner type models) where growth can risk lowering the profit share per owner / partner / investor. See Managing the Professional Service Firm for more on that risk.

What do you think? What has your experience been? Comment below.

On Outsourcing, Protectionism and Education

Things are often more complicated than they seem. Certainly in the worlds of economics and nationalism. It’s no wonder that as the largest economy in the world, America wants to protect that place and Americans are sensitive to any efforts to move jobs elsewhere. Certainly that is true today, with unemployment currently at 9.1%.

In my own field of software development, the concern is that jobs will go to markets in Asia, like China and India. Chad Fowler’s first edition of The Passionate Programmer was even titled My Job Went to India: 52 Ways to Save Your Job. And at first, it seemed strange that this would happen in software. After all, when all the manufacturing jobs started leaving the country, the prevailing argument behind those who accepted this, was that the labor force would be retrained for higher tech jobs, and ultimately a higher potential wage. So how could it happen that the new jobs start getting outsourced?

I’ve followed Dr. Michio Kaku since I read his book Physics of the Impossible, and he has some interesting ideas around this:

Well, is he right? Based on what I observe, I would say he is. When jobs were leaving the auto industry, there was already downward pressure on the wages (signalling low demand). But software developers make a lot of money. It’s not unheard of for developers without a college degree to make 6 figure salaries, even in Midwestern states. By the way, I’m not equating a college degree with skill, but it’s a fact that when demand and supply are near an equilibrium in mature fields, a degree is usually expected. For example, accounting work was not always done by those with a college degree or certifications, but now that is a normal expectation. So I would say that when there are software developers with little to no formal education past the age of 18 making more than some attorneys and doctors with 8+ years of school (and associated student loans), that software development is a field in high demand, and it sounds like Dr. Kaku is right.

There are areas of development that are more prone to offshoring than others. Consulting style services for large corporations have a higher communication threshold and so cultural barriers and communications barriers can be an issue. So these jobs are not typically easy to outsource. However, small projects, and product creation and maintenance (ISV work) is a little easier to move.

So what does all this mean? What if we did try to protect those jobs? Short term, Software Developers would be happy. Supply would plummet and the demand for the best talent would help salaries skyrocket. But Dr. Kaku is right, it would do severe damage economically. Take the regular IT work of companies, and software / web startups, and double the cost. So much work would not be done, because the ROI would no longer justify the increased cost.

To me, the real way to help keep Americans employed is the fix education. If technology is a high demand industry with a lot of promise, why not supply as many educated Americans as we can do fill those jobs. Dr. Kaku seems to be suggesting that. And if you think that’s a soft sounding idealistic answer to the question, consider who else is making the same point to Congress. Not too many people accuse Bill Gates of being a hippie.

I recently watched Waiting for Superman. It’s full of opinion and outright bias, but there are some really clear points that are hard to argue with. In particular, I thought it made an excellent point about schools being designed in an era when the bottom 50% of students went into manufacturing & agriculture, with the next 30% or so headed into non-degree jobs (office administration, clerical, low-level business, sales), and the top 10-20% going to college for professional jobs (law, medicine). According to those requirements, schools aren’t doing that bad, but that reality isn’t true anymore. College is necessary for many more career paths. Producing those same ratios without manufacturing and agriculture simply floods the service sector. It’s why pay is so low in restaurants and call centers.

To support a higher standard of living, our education system has to support technology and innovation. Technology can be taught, but innovation is harder. I think innovation takes 2 parts technology, 1 part business-savy, 1 part liberal arts, and some God-given natural talent (think Steve Jobs). What do you think?