Balancing personal energy and greatness in product design

When com­ing fresh from school (if you went to one) as a pro­gram­mer or de­signer in an early stage startup, chance is that you’re used to do things the right way when build­ing.

In lab as­sign­ments, there is of­ten a sin­gle cor­rect, fast, and beau­ti­ful so­lu­tion to the prob­lem at hand. Very lit­tle is left to real world fac­tors”. The only par­al­lel with the real world would be that there’s a dead­line to things, but other than that, the prob­lem is usu­ally well con­strained, has a clear de­f­i­n­i­tion of done, and is quite iso­lated in the grand scheme of things. You bring that set of prob­lem solv­ing mind­set with you, which of course is great and what you go to school for.

Then in your first real world ven­ture, you’re sur­rounded by tough sprint dead­lines, per­for­mance prob­lems you have no fuck­ing idea about what they are, a not-so-per­fect code base that should’ve been split up into proper ab­strac­tions sev­eral months ago. And other things. Like lack of au­to­mated test­ing, proper QA processes, and a list of Issues at GitHub which is grow­ing.

What do you do? What do you do?

You try to make it as good as you can. As al­ways.

You might be able to pour your heart and soul into the prod­uct, to do all those grand schemas and refac­tors and re­designs that you thought about from day one. But what about the long run? How long will you be able to at­tain that en­ergy? Balancing that per­sonal en­ergy, fire, of yours is some­thing I think is cru­cial. Without your cre­ative fire, there’s just a ma­chine that churns out code or pix­els.

After a while, you ei­ther get de­pressed and pro­duce things you deep in­side per­haps aren’t that proud of, or, you find the sweet bal­ance. Think of every­thing you’ve taught your­self this far, put it in a blender and cre­ate a mix that is in­formed, prag­matic, and con­tex­tual de­ci­sions.

Just as in the lab as­sign­ment, there usu­ally is an op­ti­mal so­lu­tion to a startup prob­lem at the mo­ment. Go find it! It might in­volve you not be­ing able to cre­ate a whole new de­sign lan­guage for the web app, or that you need to se­duce dark forces in or­der to get some mi­cro ser­vices to speak with each other in hor­ri­ble ways.

I’d guess that your com­pany even ex­pects you to man­age this bal­ance, since it prob­a­bly does­n’t want you burned out af­ter six months. Working in a startup is a marathon, not a sprint (or is it in fact a marathon of sprints? Nobody knows).

Many pro­gram­mers and de­sign­ers with lit­tle startup ex­pe­ri­ence are col­lid­ing with the business folks” at a com­pany in the be­gin­ning, since the lat­ter al­ways are op­ti­mis­ing for fi­nan­cial suc­cess. The for­mer are usu­ally op­ti­mis­ing for cor­rect­ness, or­der, and sim­plic­ity in all their forms. In a star­tup’s case, its sur­vival is hang­ing on fi­nan­cial suc­cess (VC, prof­itabil­ity — in one way or an­other), so the for­mer group has to re­lease their de­sire for cor­rect­ness, and get on the train. It’s painful, but to­tally doable.

I used to be quite fo­cused on mak­ing things per­fect some time ago. Perhaps not per­fect, but make it re­ally, re­ally good, even if few peo­ple used it. I could sleep at night, got a few pats on the back from the col­leagues. But for what? Don’t get me wrong — build­ing qual­ity things are su­per im­por­tant. A co­he­sive, pretty, and re­li­able ex­pe­ri­ence is gold. But all the other things are not. There are thou­sands of things you can do, what are the things you should do? About Saying no”, and so on.

A com­mon say­ing is:

A job worth do­ing is a job worth do­ing well.

But what is well” here? Is well” the same as shipping it”? Perhaps a bet­ter say­ing is

A job worth do­ing is a job worth do­ing.

in the sense of that if a task is im­por­tant enough, you should do it. Otherwise not.

After some time, you’ll al­most work as a ma­chine when land­ing on the crys­tallised con­clu­sion: when you’re able to iden­tify the work in­volved, the end re­sult (a de­f­i­n­i­tion of done), and pri­or­ity. Exactly like the lab as­sign­ment in school.

This fo­cus of en­er­gies is just as im­por­tant in work as in life. Your en­er­gies are pre­cious and fi­nite.

(By the way: I hope I’m not com­ing off as a know-it-all by writ­ing this in sec­ond per­son for­mat. It’s just eas­ier for me to for­mu­late my­self when I think of me telling this to my­self).