I planned to do a writeup on the talks @ FOWA Dublin, but Dave Concannon did such a great job that I could not add too much without re-iterating what he said, so I’d like to concentrate on just one talk instead, which totally blew me away: Creating Software in the Real World by David Heinmeier Hansson.
Let me start with a bit of background – as a Rails developer for almost 3 years now, this was obviously not the first time I heard about David, 37signals, their Getting Real principles, business practices etc. – however, this was the first time I have seen him live, delivering a great talk. And it made a huge difference.
If you happen to know me, you probably know that I am not a guy who gets ecstatic because someone is an alleged rock star, ninja, pirate or zen master, even if he happens to be author of something as significant as Ruby on Rails which I think is the greatest piece of software since Prince of Persia. I had my own reservations wrt David (a slew of blog posts about him suggest that he is kind of a controversial character to say the least: the potty-mouth Dane, the F-bomb terrorist who always has a curse or two up his sleeve for good measure, brings on the vitriol first and ask questions later etc. etc.) After seeing him perform live, I am quite sure that most of these negative comments are either taken out of context, coming from the sour grape camp or are just plain wrong. Sure, David is not a grail knight when it comes to defending his stance – that’s one of the reasons why he keeps building kick-ass stuff like Rails or Basecamp. He totally pwn3d the stage from the very beginning, and even if I wanted to be very critical, I just could not see that he is the douchebag suggested by his critics.
It also became clear to me that DHH != (only) Rails. While he is often primarily described as the author of the Rails framework, that’s a gross oversimplification of the big picture. I think Rails is “just” the side effect of David’s passion to create web apps in a getting real way. Above everything else, he is a guy with a vision who gets things done, no matter what does it cost – e.g. writing a web framework in Ruby (the language he found the most “getting real” style when he needed to implement Basecamp).
OK enough rambling – here is the summary of the talk (I certainly could not get everything, but I am trying my best)
* “We don’t have 200k RSS subscribers because of my deliciously swirly hair” – a central question (asked also during the Q/A session): how on the earth did Basecamp and other 37signals products become so popular? All of a sudden, they emerged from nowhere! As David points out, it was not that ‘out of the blue’ as it looks like. When they started with Basecamp, they already had 2000 subscribers on their blog, Signal vs Noise, so they built a channel which through they could advertise themselves.
This advice meshes with one of my favorite points from Getting Real which goes something like “Just start doing something”. Really. Start blogging. Creating/contributing to open source software. Get on twitter. Let your voice be heard! You probably won’t have thousands of listeners right away, that’s OK – it takes time. But you can start today!
* “Fuck the real world” – probably the tagline this speech will be remembered for. Taken out of context, DHH critics have yet another flickr snapshot where they can demonstrate arrogant F-bomb usage, good for nothing. Bullshit. It was designed and “dropped” perfectly, kicking off the whole talk! David’s advice is to stop listening to “advice” which goes like “yeah, this is a great idea/concept/whatever, but it will not survive in the real world”. Sure, Rails didn’t look like a great idea when Java and PHP have been the bee’s knees. Today no one (except the hard-core sour-grape Java/PHP/COBOL fanboys) would argue that it made a big impact on how web software is developed (call it web2.0 if you like). David said that none of their current apps passed the “real world” (in the sarcastic sense) test – and look where they arrived.
* “I didn’t start coding when I was 6, but 21, and Jason (Fried) started business school later too” – David de-bunked the myth that you have to be a “natural” to accomplish great things. True, quite a few of the IT related success stories start with “I got my first Sinclair ZX Spectrum/Commodore/Atari/Amiga when I was 4, started coding in xyzBasic at the age of 5, roocked fooBasic at 7 etc. While this is all great, and certainly a big help if one happens to become a professional coder later, it’s certainly not the only path to victory. There is no such thing as “starting out too late”. Just make sure you start today.
* “Forget the _advice_ that you shouldn’t build too simple software” – “Good bye to bloat”, “Simple, focused software that does just what you need and nothing you don’t” are rules 37signals are living by, not just pretending. If you check out their award-winning software, used by over a million people today, you’ll notice that despite of their age (several years) they are still simple pieces of focused apps. That’s one of the secret sauces of 37signals: if it works for them, why shouldn’t it work for you? The point is to create something usable, not bloated.
* “Would I pay for this app?” – a great reality check they are asking themselves all the time. If you wouldn’t pay for such a product, why would anyone else?
* “Running your own business = the power to say no – You should be able to say “no” and stick to your vision rather than trying to add all the bells and whistles required by the customers. Note that this does not mean you should refuse / reject all the requests – some of them are really great, but eventually *you* have to decide which ones to keep and which ones to boot (because they just don’t fit into your vision).
* “startup is a category I hate – you have to build a business” – another great point. It’s so trendy to found start-ups today, it almost sounds like a game for grown-ups. (It’s not, I founded two of them myself and it was the hardest part of my professional life so far. Compared to a startup, regular freelancing / contracting feels like a walk in the park ). You have to plan for long term, have real goals, start making money as soon as possible (vs. wait for google or another Silicon Valley dude with a lot of money), get real. It’s not a game, it’s a business.
* “You don’t need rock stars, but a rock star environment. Your employees are not stupid” – argues that the environment your company is in matters more than the individuals. With a great company culture where you respect and trust your employees (e.g. 37signal employees get a company credit card, with one policy – use it reasonably! wow) your team will live up to their full potential. By creating and nurturing an atmosphere of growth, you won’t have to micromanage everybody and everything – don’t treat your employees as idiots, because they are not.
* “An idea is so small part of a business that it’s almost a rounding error” – So true. I have so many ideas right now, that it would take months to prototype them – but that would eventually become an endless process, because during prototyping I would get new ideas, etc. Ideas are cheap, everyone has them. The question is whether you have the skills and perseverance to make them happen.
* “you have to build massive popularity slowly” – Probably my most favorite point of the talk. As a small business owner, startup founder and entrepreneur I found out on my own skin several times that it’s relatively easy to start something – be it a startup, a blog, an open source project, a client assignment, a relationship/marriage/organization/company/habbit/just about anything. The trick is to keep pushing with the initial vigor (at least) once you reach the plateau – for a long time, until the breakthrough comes (you finish your project, your blog gets picked up, your startup is featured on techcrunch, etc.) That’s one of the main things that sets successful ventures apart from non-succesful ones. Everybody has ideas. Everybody can start. A few of them can finish because it takes time and perseverance. You have to believe in yourself and your idea to make it through, as long as it takes.
Unfortunately this summary can’t capture the atmosphere of the talk – as far as I can tell, the room was on fire, everybody was charged up and motivated by this speech (I can’t imagine who wouldn’t be). For me it was worth the price of the conference alone. Massive thanks to David!