RE: “I Just Need A Programmer”

A few weeks ago Eugene Wallingford, a friend of mine and Comp. Sci. department head at the University of Northern Iowa, wrote an interesting article on his interactions with entrepreneurs.

It was a fun read, especially since I know exactly where he is coming from. As a student involved with entrepreneurship, I meet and encourage many of the entrepreneurs he talks about. When I first started working with other students I tried to give them a glimpse of the tech world, but I quickly stopped that.

I stopped primarily because they were not interested. Most of them don’t think they’ll have to work on the software at all — that’s what programmers are for! However, the lack of even basic software knowledge is a show stopper for many most and a serious limitation for some. It is hard to innovate when you work with the cheapest programmer possible and you don’t know how to update your own web site for simple text changes. Many of them say they’ll learn if they absolutely have to, but even when it is immediately apparent that that is required most of them take no steps towards learning.

This lack of technical understanding tends to be very important. To many software engineers, programming is art; it is creation, in a pure sense, like painting or making music. Without that knowledge and understanding the programming seems like an inconvenient to-do list item.

Even more critical is the fact that these entrepreneurs aren’t aware of what is or isn’t technically feasible, nor are they aware of how much effort or money things may require. More often then not I see this limiting them to small ideas instead of ideas that are too ambitious. It is hard to be ahead of the curve if you don’t know where the edge of the curve is. For example, the unknowing look at our software and think it is cutting edge. Truly our service is, but the software behind it is not. I, like many tech entrepreneurs, sometimes walk around with a goofy grin because I can’t hardly believe what I’m getting away with. If other programmers saw our backend we would all have a hearty, joyous laugh.

As a techie, observing these entrepreneurs can be frustrating and amusing. Open source software has made so many things possible, including a surprising amount of flexibility in designing web sites without the need for programming. All of these entrepreneurs I work with are smart and could learn some of these simple things, but, as Wallingford says, they are “idea people”. There seems to be a disconnect between the thinking and the doing. They do indeed act like the idea is the important part and execution is just an expensive step towards success.

Now days I try to act more as a sounding board. I like to talk out ideas with people, and offer suggestions. I never set out to be a dream killer, so I (usually) keep my doubts to myself. This is important for a number of reasons. In the beginning, it is all about passion. If you lose it, your startup dies overnight. Also, most of them don’t yet know how inherently worthless their idea probably is in its current form, and informing them at the earliest of stages is a disservice. This may sound overly critical, but I was (and probably still am) part of the same disillusioned crowd. Book Hatchery evolved over the better part of a year, and my original ideas and software are all but scrapped by this point. I think Paul Graham sums up ideas nicely in his essay How To Start A Startup:

Ideas for startups are worth something, certainly, but the trouble is, they’re not transferable. They’re not something you could hand to someone else to execute. Their value is mainly as starting points: as questions for the people who had them to continue thinking about.

What matters is not ideas, but the people who have them. Good people can fix bad ideas, but good ideas can’t save bad people.

This brings up the most fundamental point is business, and probably life itself: its all about the people. I’d elaborate, but that’s a topic for another day.

I absolutely agree with Eugene when he says:

..the value of a product comes from the combination of having an idea and executing the idea. Doing the former or having the ability to do the latter aren’t worth much by themselves. You have to put the two together.

I’m a bit more spartan. The fact is, if you can’t execute, you can’t be an entrepreneur. You are just one of billions of people who have ideas. On the other hand, if you can get access to good ideas, you can change the world and make a lot of money doing it. Thus, I think execution matters far more than the idea itself. Execution is what sets you apart from everyone else.

I ran across an article where Dennis Crowley, one of the founders of foursquare, listed his top 5 pieces of advice for entrepreneurs. First and most important:

#1.  Stop sketching and start building.  Pre-dodgeball I went thru 3-4 years thinking I was going to meet some magical engineer who would build all the stuff I was thinking about.  But I never met that person, so I taught myself ASP and MS Access (yikes! eventually PHP an MySQL) out of a book and got to work just hacking stuff together.  I’m still a really shitty programmer (ask Harry Heymann) but I know enough to hack a prototype together (which is what you need to get other people / investors on board).

Stop planning and start doing. It is hard for most people to do. When I talk to would-be tech entrepreneurs, I’m always thinking about how far they could get without any funding if they’d just work at it. Dennis spent 3-4 years meandering before he finally got his shit together and started building.

Our “idea people” don’t have to be a good programmers. What is important is that they understand programming, and that they can prototype something that gains enough traction to actually warrant building it the right way.

Introspection

I learned about programming when I was young. I built my first web site in 6th grade and started learning C/C++ in 8th grade so I could make text-based multi-player games (MUDs). I was overjoyed with having the ability to create whatever I pleased. I’ve also been fortunate to have always been an “ideas person”, at least in the sense that I like to operate on the fringes of possibility, try new things, and explore new ideas. Mostly, I just like to builds things. StrengthsFinder lists Activator as one of my top 5 strengths, along with Learner, Analytical, Input, and Command.

So I lucked into blending the roles of idea generation and execution. Once it became apparent that I needed more business expertise to flesh out my software ideas, the next step seemed pretty obvious: start learning about business. This was also new, fun, and exciting, similar to the way software was when I first got into it.

Learning more about business also resulted in the realization of an important fact. Business people like business because that is what they understand. Coders like coding because that is what they understand. They each tend to view the other as an equally arcane practice that will be completely impossible for them to learn. Of course this usually isn’t the case; it is far more likely they are too lazy to learn something they don’t think they’ll enjoy. Most people just aren’t willing to jump into what they don’t know. For the rest of us, that’s the fun part.

Regarding Dennis’ quote above, I think I fit into the same mold of simply knowing enough. I’m primarily a systems programmer, and even though I had worked with PHP a fair amount, I’d never built a complete product from scratch. However, I was able to to cobble together the Book Hatchery beta. I did a lot of it without programming or in-depth knowledge of the technologies that I was using. And, more or less, it worked. With that out of the way we get to progress to the fun stages where people far more talented than me can flesh it out while I work on other things.

12 Comments

  • The word “disinterested” does not mean what you think it means. You simply mean “Not interested”.

  • Dictionary.com seems to support its use within the context above. However, I agree that it was a strange turn of phrase, so it has been changed. Thanks!

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by andrei, bock. bock said: @farhan @glennbookingbug re: all I need is a programer http://bit.ly/haOH3s [...]

  • Your very correct, it is about people, and one must love them-self enough to keep going! Thanks for the interesting read! Refreshing, I must look here again.

  • Dictionary.com seems to support it’s use within the context above.

    *cringe*!

  • Anonymous wrote:

    The Oxford dictionary also supports that use:

    2 having or feeling no interest in something : her father was so disinterested in her progress that he only visited the school once.

    Snark is incorrect.

  • @Tobo — LOL, ty :)

  • I’m in the position that I really enjoy programming but I’d love to learn more about the business.
    Where would you start learning about it ?

  • @Paul – I hope you like reading! You can gain a lot of knowledge by examining the words of entrepreneurs and other business people.

    Start by reading essays by Paul Graham (http://www.paulgraham.com/articles.html). Specifically, read the one I mentioned in the article (How to start a startup) and other articles of a similar nature (What startups are really like, Ramen Profitability, Why to start a startup in a bad economy, Why to not not start a startup, etc). Graham is one of the founders of Y Combinator and has great advice for hackers trying to start companies.

    As far as paper books go, I would recommend Good To Great by Jim Collins and Tribal Leadership by the guys at CultureSync. These books will give you great insight on company culture and building a successful business long term. Both sets of authors spent years researching all of the data, and the books use case studies to illustrate the ideas so they aren’t bland to read through.

    Good to Great was recommended to me by Tom Bedell, the man behind the turnaround of Pure Fishing (which later sold for over $400 million). Good to Great and Tribal Leadership have also been heavily promoted by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com as must read books. I figure they are probably good books to have at the top of the list!

    The next place I would look for help is your local university; you may have classes on entrepreneurship or other resources at your disposal. Focus more on entrepreneurship specifically, not business. It turns out they are two different things in terms of academics. Also check and see if you have a small business development center near you. There are many located across the entire US, and they provide free business counsel and can help you tackle just about any business problem. If you don’t have one then look around for a local entrepreneur who might be willing to mentor you. Many entrepreneurs love to help people learn about business, and they can provide valuable connections and insights.

    Also, keep doing things you are already probably doing. Follow articles on Reddit, SlashDot, and most importantly, Hacker News. You can leverage the knowledge of these communities.

    Finally, just jump on in. You will learn more from running a startup then by any other method. Start building a prototype for something now, while you do some reading and research. That way you can actively employ your knowledge as things move along.

    If there is anything I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail at nick [at] bookhatchery dot com :)

  • Even more critical is the fact that these entrepreneurs aren’t aware of what is or isn’t technically feasible, nor are they aware of how much effort or money things may require. More often then not I see this limiting them to small ideas instead of ideas that are too ambitious. It is hard to be ahead of the curve if you don’t know where the edge of the curve is. The unknowing look at our software and think it is cutting edge. Truly our service is, but the software behind it is not. I, like many tech entrepreneurs, sometimes walk around with a goofy grin because I’m not that impressed with my own technology and I can’t hardly believe what I’m getting away with. If other programmers saw our backend we would all have a hearty, joyous laugh.

    …. Highly contradictory of yourself here, you first speak of so much effort involved, then gloat about how little work you actually do. Just pointing this out, not clear what your intention was.

  • @Tom – I suppose my intentions were not overly clear from the way this was written. I never said that we don’t work hard and that there is little effort involved; we have poured as much time, effort, and money as any entrepreneurs have into their products. I simply meant that most hackers would find our software relatively unremarkable since we leveraged FOSS and other existing technologies quite heavily. On the other hand, non-techies are flat-out amazed with what we have done. Because they don’t have a technical background they have significant difficulty judging how difficult or expensive something is. I was just trying to use my company as a case in point, but it may lack an adequate transition.

  • [...] One of my posts was submitted to Reddit and drew some positive comments and about 16,000 readers in 24 hours. It was also retweeted 23 times. (Thanks to Eugene Wallingford, as I piggybacked on his success to some degree) [...]

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