In the past year or two, I have learned my greatest life lesson. As a lifelong high achiever, it was extremely counter-intuitive yet it was right in front of me all along. First, a little background…
In the past couple of years:
- My father died.
- My aunt (and best friend) died.
- My cousin (who was really like my brother) died.
- My 19 year old cat died.
- We had our first ever family reunion.
- My mother's dementia has turned her back into a child.
Sure we all have great memories and are busy working at building even better futures, but ultimately it all boils down to:
All we have is now.
My pets have been trying to teach me this for years, if only I had listened. And now my mother is teaching me. They don’t really remember yesterday. They don’t care about tomorrow. But they really care about the moment. Intensely.
I have had to really slow down and let this sink in. When I visit my mother in her nursing home, we have a great time laughing, talking, visiting others, and of course, playing Jeopardy. We can’t have the conversations we used to, so we just have new experiences, one time only, in the moment, and only for those who are there. We never talk about the past and she simply doesn’t understand, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I haven’t stopped building my future, but I no longer sacrifice the present in order to get there. I have learned that the process must be as enjoyable as the outcome. After all, the process is “now” and the outcome is just an instant in time.
It may sound cliche, but everyone should take inventory of all the good stuff in their lives (especially other people) and make the most of it “now”. You’ll be surprised how quickly it’ll be gone. Don’t wait half your life to learn my most valuable counter-intuitive lesson.
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but lots of us sure are in a bubble. There seems to be a real disconnect between what people want to build/invest in and what people in the real world actually need and want to pay for. Just as sample of what I’ve witnessed in the past few years:
Ask HN: How do you like my file sharing app?
Ask HN: How do you like my social app for niche ?
Ask HN: How do you like my twitter app?
Ask HN: How do you like my facebook app?
Ask HN: How do you like my iphone app?
Ask HN: How do you like my facebook app that writes twitter apps?
Ask HN: How do you like my game?
Ask HN: How do you like my photo sharing app?
Ask HN: How do you like my video sharing app?
Ask HN: How do I monetize my free flashcard app?
Ask HN: How do you like my app that helps other hackers to do ?
Ask HN: How do I get traffic to my freemium app?
Ask HN: How do I get angels/VCs interested?
Ask HN: Look what I wrote this weekend!
Ask HN: Look what I wrote in one night!
Ask HN: Look what I wrote in 7 seconds!
Customer 1: How can we sell through Amazon.com?
Customer 2: How can we reduce inventory by $300 million?
Customer 3: How can we increase conversion from 2% to 4%?
Customer 4: How can we use software to reduce energy costs?
Customer 5: How can we migrate one app into another?
Customer 6: How can we get our phones to talk to our legacy apps?
Customer 7: How can we take orders through the internet?
Customer 8: How can we get our software package to do ?
Customer 9: How can we reduce credit card fraud?
Customer 10: How can we increase SEO effectiveness?
Customer 11: How can we connect fulfillment and ecommerce?
Customer 12: How can we increase revenue?
Customers 13-200: How can we increase profitability?
“And in my experience when enough people are saying that ‘you can’t do that’ there is an opportunity waiting for you that is proportional in pay-off to the number of people asserting that it can’t be done.”
Most of my most memorable successes were when others said that something couldn’t be done. First you think, “Why not?” Then you think, “What would it take?” Then you figure that you’ll never find out for sure unless you try. The reward is compounded by the initial skeptism.
Just a few silly examples (any of these sound familiar?):
Manager: Shop Floor Control is impossible.
Manager: Because the base data is so inaccurate.
Manager: It would take years to fix all the data.
Me: What if we turned in on anyway?
Manager: The output would be worthless.
Me: Wouldn't it show where the base data was inaccurate?
Me: Then you could fix the biggest culprits?
Manager: I suppose.
Me: So turning it on would expedite data fixing?
Me: So it's not really impossible?
Manager: Bug free software is impossible.
Me: What would it take to make is possible?
Manager: Nothing. Can't be done.
Me: What if we added systems testing to unit testing?
Me: And then built rigorous test plans covering almost everything?
Me: And then enforced User Acceptance Testing?
Me: And allowed nothing into production without passing?
Me: Would it be better?
Manager: Yes, but we can't afford to do all of that.
Me: So, bug-free software isn't impossible, just expensive?
Manager: No, it's impossible. Get back to work.
Manager: A web app is impossible.
Manager: Because it depends upon data entered by regular people.
Manager: People are idiots. They enter wrong data all the time.
Me: What if we trained them?
Manager: Impossible. They don't work for us.
Me: What if we made the software smarter?
Manager: What do you mean?
Me: Data validation.
Me: Data reasonableness based upon rules or history.
Me: Crowdsourcing data validation.
Manager: The data would still be bad.
Me: What would it take to make the data good?
Manager: Nothing. Impossible.
Teen years - flipped burgers & partied
Age 21 - graduated college, flipped burgers, & partied
Age 24 - touched my first computer
Age 25 - wrote my first program
Age 27 - touched my first PC
Age 31 - wrote my first low level code
Age 32 - started my first business
Age 39 - started my second business
Age 41 - accessed the internet for the first time
Age 44 - wrote my first browser-based app
Age 51 - found Hacker News
Now - having more fun than ever
It’s never too late, you’re never too old, and it’s not whether the glass is half full or half empty.
It’s about getting up off your butt and filling the glass the rest of the way.
The old town drunk died. His two sons, the bank president and the new town drunk were at his funeral. An onlooker, surprised at how different the two sons were, asked each one how he turned out the way he did.
The bank president responded, “With a father like that, how else could I turn out?”
The new town drunk responded, “With a father like that, how else could I turn out?”
For what it’s worth, I am like the bank president. I have no idea why. All I know is that no matter whatever anyone ever did to me, it didn’t matter. I have no idea if someone who turned out like the new town drunk can change (although I imagine it happens all the time). All I do know is that “it is possible” for a victim to succeed and overcome all of his “darkness”.
I try to approach not to change the world, not to build cool stuff (well maybe just a little), but to genuinely help people. For a business person, this thinking is difficult and counter-intuitive.
Why do I do this? Because of my first mentor (and co-founder).
He was relentless in everything he did. I learned to stay up all night, keep calling on customers, and stay with tasks until we got somewhere with them. I remember many nights with thousands of invoices spread across the carpet, watching the graveyard shift run their machines, or scanning reports on-line, looking for clues. He wouldn’t quit and the reason was always the same, “These people need help and we can help them. So we do. Don’t worry about how hard it is or how much time we spend, it’ll all work out in the end.”
Sometimes I think that this is the attitude very successful people must have. It’s too easy to give up when it’s for ourselves, but much harder when we know that someone else needs us to get the thing done.
I never say “No”.
I just say, “Yes. And this is what it will cost you to do it right:”
- Projects X, Y, Z will all be pushed back 2 weeks.
- Prerequisite Project will have to come first.
- weeks overtime for people = $z.
- Joe and Mary will have to be pulled away for 3 weeks.
- Interim solution will only take 1 week, but won't work.
- We will need your top supervisor full-time next week.
or, best of all:
- We don't know. We need a project to find out.
Note that “doing it wrong” or “doing it quick & dirty” are not options.
People understand “this is what it will take” a lot better than “no”. They also understand the trade-offs and sacrifices needed. Then they will work with you to make the best decision for everybody.
My customers do great things. They often need my software, built and functioning properly for years to do these things. I love building stuff, but they are the real heroes. Just some of the things that they do:
- get the right drugs get to the right people
- get the ambulance to the right address
- get the right materials purchased and delivered
- get the right product built, on time and budget
- get the right product shipped accurately and on time
- make sure the parts going into that airplane are certified
- make sure your insurance claim gets processed properly
- make sure they make enough $, so they can keep doing it
I can go on and on, but you kinda get the idea. I love to learn, to optimize and refactor, and to build beautiful things. But what I do pales in comparison to what they need to do. I never forget that.
1. I write software: business applications. I love what I do. I love getting something to work right the first time. I love seeing people use the software I wrote to do their jobs and run their businesses. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
2. The software I have inherited in all 88 companies I have worked at has sucked. I mean really sucked. Nothing to be proud of. Nothing to want to work on. I think it’s because business software is now where medicine was 100 years ago.
So I have a choice. Work on other people’s crap or write my own. I have done both, but I have to write my own to be happy in this industry. If I could only work on other people’s software, I think I’d rather work in a grocery store.
Starting a software business is the most direct way to do what I “really” want to do.
I realize that other people have different reasons; this is just one answer to your question.