Tag Archives: Steve Jobs

Ownership: Artist or Engineer?

There are varying ways that a client / service relationship can work, and this view can be the cause of harmony or discord in projects. It’s something I’ve understood for a while, but had trouble explaining at times. What follows is an attempt to explain my view of something that knowledge workers need to understand to have a successful and fulfilling career.

The Artist

When an artist does work, we typically think of them as having complete control of the work. This is certainly true in the case where the eventual owner is not yet determined. Meaning an artist creates, and then sells directly or via a gallery to the public. Even commissioned artwork has only varying levels of control. A commissioned portrait certainly falls into the realm of work that would come with constraints. After everyone involved is dead and gone, people tend to remember the artist, not the owner.

The Engineer

When work is not sponsored, but contracted, it begins to fall into a completely different classification. Though you may refer to it as “artwork”, a visual painting done for advertising is really more “creative” work for hire. Certainly work that is more functional (like a bridge) comes with rigid requirements. This is the attitude of the engineer. That work is asked to meet certain goals, and ultimately subject to the approval of the buyer. While the engineer is an expert who expects to provide guidance, but does so at the behest of the client. In terms of credit, this world is muddled. Sometimes it is the architect, other times it is the owner or visionary that is remembered.

What does any of this have to do with consulting, software development, functional work, or any other type of service industry? Don’t get caught up in the work medium (paint, steel, code), or left brain / right brain aspect of the work, but just consider the metaphor in terms of relationship to the client and ownership of responsibility. In my world (consulting in the areas of software development, creative, marketing, etc) this distinction makes a big difference. All of these types of work have a right-brained aspect to them. People think of software development as a very regimented thing, but there is a lot of freedom to work in your own styles and patterns. Languages are fairly abstract these days, and they are high level enough to provide nearly infinite ways to solve complex problems. Certainly I don’t need to discuss how easy it is for a graphic designer to relate to an abstract artist.

Here’s where the risk is of confusing yourself with having the control an artist does, when you do not. The consultant works in a world where the client owns the final product. And the project would never even exist but for the idea and financial commitment of the client. Deadlines, requirements and other constraints are all part of the context. “Ownership” of the direction is a privilege that goes to the person that takes the risk. While an artist that is producing works for sale is bearing the risk that the piece will not sell, the bridge builder is not. It was sold before the project started. Sure, many contracts include shared risk clauses, but for all intents and purposes, the risk is on the client.

It is arrogant and unproductive for a paid consultant to believe they have the final say in work. They have the right to turn down work. And some clients may choose to give control over to the consultant, but that is their choice, not a right of the consultant.

When a consultant is doing work for hire and thinks they have the privilege that come with the artist mentality, it easy to develop a disdain for the client. Whereas in the engineering mindset, it is understood that one can recommend to the client, but ultimately the idea must sell itself. There is no expectation that the consultant wins because they are the subject matter expert. They are expected to be able to convey their idea and it’s merits in plain English and at a level understood by someone outside the field. In short, they must sell the idea.

Am I saying that workers should not have principals? Not at all. Take the story of Howard Roark, the principal’ed architect of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Roark suffered while turning down business as he would only work on buildings where his style of architecture was called for and he had the free hand to build modern and innovative buildings. He turned down others with work that would not satisfy him, but he did so respectfully. In this fictional work Roark has many enemies, but not the clients he turns down. A read sympathizing with Roark may agree with those clients, but it’s hard to see them as malicious.

The problem is that so many give away the right to have those principles for the sake of expediency without realizing they gave up that control. So they still expect the control. As an example, coming to work for a consulting company, you give up that right. Why? I’ve already made the point that the client has control, so you can only control work by selecting projects that meet your criteria, or working with clients who are ceding control. But as an employee of the company, you are giving up the client selection privilege in order to minimize your risk and investment. The consulting company provides you with a salary, book of work, etc, in return for your work. You do not get to control what work the company takes or not. It is your choice to leave if their client base does not suit you.

Too easily do I see people in the business blame owners and clients for work they do not like. But owners and clients anted up. They paid for the right to call the shots. If you want them to call the shots differently, it is your obligation to sell them on those ideas. Not your right to complain if the idea is not sold.

So what should someone who believes in the artist mentality do? There are people that believe so strongly in the control of their output. Folks like this tend to idolize people they view as uncompromising, like a Steve Jobs. (It’s worth noting that there are a lot of signs that he compromised more than the public perceived).

There are some simple solutions. Being an independent consultant means that you can turn down work that does not fit preferred principles. Owning / building your own consulting firm allows you the control of selecting your projects and clients. The third option is to return to the artists root of non-commissioned work. In other words, start a product company. While your clients have say in the form of sales, you are free to put whatever product you see fit on the market that can be held to only your standards. For all the knowledge workers that idolize Steve Jobs and he uncompromising reputation, it is worth remembering that he started and returned to a product company.

Media is a great analogy. Being an independent musician, filmmaker, or game developer is hard. You have to market for yourself, sell each product, secure distribution, etc. But for that price, you have control of the product. Signing with a publisher makes those tasks easier, but you have to be aware of the conditions you agreed to with the publisher. Like any contract or relationship, you should consider what those terms will mean in good times and in bad.

This is not to say that the rest of us don’t have some control and determination of our own destiny. It’s just that you have to remember you only have one lever to pull, leaving the company. You can negotiate terms based on a company or client’s desire to have you be a part of the team. But to get emotional about it, or think you have a right to control without taking the primary risk is folly.

Flex is a Relic and Silverlight is a Zombie

…or some other catchy metaphor that will grab your attention. These technologies were hot over the last 5 years. Flex gained a particular amount of popularity in the Java community where UI technologies have a bit of a spotty record (that’s like saying my Bengals have a bit of a spotty record over a lifetime). Silverlight gained a lot of traction among Microsoft developers who actually cared about design and UX. Many alpha-geeks of the Microsoft space were running around giving conference talks about the MVVM pattern, and sharing code on codeplex. So what happened?

Both of these technologies are going to fade on the public web. Tablets and mobile devices are too big a share to ignore. Html5, phones and tablets did them in. The heavy hand of Steve Jobs probably gets credit for the coup de grĂ¢ce. The browser vendors and phone OS creators have really put their weight behind Javascript and Html5. If you have have that skill-set right now you can create:

  • Web Content
  • Mobile Web Content
  • Mobile Apps via Appcelerator
  • Mobile Apps via PhoneGap
  • Windows 8 Metro Apps

That’s a pretty wide reach for a markup / scripting language set.

So what do you do if that’s your trade? You work as an AIR/Flex developer or Silverlight developer, what do you do? There are good options for each camp, and some universal options.

Flex Developers

I think this is the slightly less promising path in the long term (despite it hitting a much higher peak than Silverlight). That said, Flash and Air will live on for a while, and you have some time to make a transition. Additionally, the ability to use the Adobe tools to make mobile applications provides a bridge to the hot mobile market. And you can make long term plans to transition to another cross-platform tool (PhoneGap, Appcelerator, etc), or go native. If you’re in the Adobe camp, new tools like Edge are likely to ease the transition to the standards-based technologies of the web.

Silverlight Developers

Similarly, Silverlight won’t be gone tomorrow. Intranet applications that need rich functionality (and simple deployment) are still a nice fit for Silverlight Desktop applications. And the adjustment to WindowsPhone 7’s flavor of Silverlight is straightforward, though I would be cautious and investigate the financial realities of that market. Finally, while Windows 8 Metro Apps don’t specifically use Silverlight, they can use C# with XAML and a subset of the .Net libraries that emphasize a security sandbox and async data connections. Sound familiar? That’s because they re-animated the corpse of Silverlight and made it an option for writing Metro apps. Long term, you should probably learn to use the Html5 / JavaScript hooks for Metro due to the ubiquitous nature of those skills. But isn’t it nice that you can learn the new API (WinRT) while keeping C# and XAML, and then make the languages switch at your leisure.

For Everyone

Both camps should embrace these newer web technologies and the UI skills they picked up during their time with the respective technologies. Good user experience and design are rare skills in developers, and retraining the languages and tools should be the easy part. Keep your black turtlenecks and invest in the next tools rich applications. You already have a leg up.

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?