Work On Good Ideas

Despite what some people might want to believe, there is such a thing as bad ideas. In the context of building valuable ventures, bad ideas are typically bad in a few ways:

  • they’re trivial to implement — ideas that are easy rarely become valuable. Peter Thiel presents this argument as “Competition is For Losers”.
  • they’re wrong, either because they’re built on a misunderstanding of reality or faulty logic. For example, most recent ideas to use blockchain are based on a grossly oversimplified understanding of its benefits without understanding its drawbacks. The early-internet mantra of making up losses on volume (apocryphal though it might’ve been) is an example of faulty logic. Regardless, in this case, humbly remember that you don’t know everything and you could, in fact, be wrong.
  • they’re a marginal improvement in the best case. Even if successfully implemented, these ideas result in incremental improvements (measured in single- or low-double-digit percentages), often for a small audience (tech-literate knowledge workers and people with lots of disposable income are common examples). This is probably the most insidious and pervasive type of bad idea in the modern tech industry, especially because it’s often easy to hypothesize an ideal-although-unlikely world where the idea actually changes how something fundamentally works.

Last week, my team at work launched Disrupt Tech, a blog and community aimed at unsticking our industry from the allure of bad ideas. We see too much capital and talent wasted on incremental problems (like optimizing ad click-throughs) and also-ran products, while there exist big, real problems to be solved. While Trustwork is attempting to solve some of these problems, there are many more in the world, and we want to see more people working on them.

Disrupt Tech’s north star and manifesto is below:

Technology was supposed to make everyone more productive, unleash creativity, and bring abundance to the world. But at some point, we lost our way. As an industry, we’ve gotten caught up in our clichés and euphemisms and forgotten what it means to create real value.

The modern technology era began in the late 1960s, when popular culture collectively envisioned a future of space travel and valuable computation for everyone, and companies like Fairchild, Intel, and descendants kicked off the race to build that future. The subsequent decades ushered in a Cambrian explosion in hardware and software, unlocking world-changing innovations in communication, manufacturing, biology, and countless other fields.

The 90s saw the rise of the Internet, the foundation for an “information superhighway”, a nascent ideal that would’ve enriched the lives of every citizen. Instead, people decided it was more important to build warehouses to deliver pet food.

Since then, the internet has brought massive opportunity to more than 3 billion people, and fundamentally changed the lives for many of the 2 billion who carry access in their pockets. Yet we’ve seen massive amounts of capital and human talent directed towards incremental improvements, made-up problems, and tools for other techies. Our best talent isn’t working on real tech problems that could unlock massive value for most of those people — there is much more we can do with the internet than A/B test ad clickthroughs or build glorified chat apps.

We think our industry has gotten stuck in a rut. But we don’t think it has to be this way. Every day we talk to incredible workers who’ve figured out ways to work effectively and live abundantly. We see examples of human ingenuity, as well as people who want an outlet to express that creativity and build products for the rest of the world. We believe that technology can be a a life-changing tool for billions of people, and, in the hands of great people, we’ll figure out how to continue advancing humanity. And that is why we’re on a mission to disrupt tech.

Cover photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

Tech Stacks are Overrated

In the process of interviewing dozens of junior and intermediate engineers, the questions candidates ask implicitly say as much about them as the rest of the interview. One question that comes up occasionally is some variation of “what tech stack are you using”? List some of the myriad Javascript libraries-du-jour and I get a murmur of approval; mention something mature and be met with silence or a disappointed “oh”. In fact, many outright say that they want to be working with the latest or “bleeding edge” technologies.

I get it, the “right” technologies are cool and shiny and have undeniable appeal. You feel invigorated when using them. For me, I’m excited about Elm, Crystal, and GraphQL.

But focusing on tech stacks and looking for the coolest technology during job interviews isn’t very valuable, and distracts from more valuable questions. Companies build software to reduce costs or capture value. Customers don’t care what tech stack companies are using, as long as they can get things done. A company using Node and bleeding-edge ES2018 doesn’t get to charge a coolness premium over a competitor using Rails; the shinier tech, by itself, doesn’t automatically create more value.

It can, however, increase costs. Mature technologies have a well-worn path to success: there are documentation or blog posts for everything you’d want to do, Stack Overflow questions for any issue you might run into, and a patch for every bug that might’ve existed in a v1. None of that might be true with the new and shiny, where any one of a dozen configuration options or plugins could break everything if you breathe the wrong way. There’s no clear path to a maintainable codebase and your ability to consistently create value in the long term.

Rather than ask “what’s your tech stack”, a more interesting question is why that tech stack makes sense for what’s being built. As a interview candidate, listen for a clear reasoning that makes sense — that’s a stronger signal of a company that’s more likely to be successful (and one where you can learn) than one that picked its technology based on what was cool at the time they started. To a good interviewer, that’s also a more impressive question.

It’s even more valuable to go beyond the technology and focus on the product and problem. What problem is the company trying to solve? How are they thinking about the problem, and what is their proposed solution? What kinds of problems do you want to solve? What kind of products do you want to build? As an interviewer, I’m looking for alignment between what we’re building and the problems and products you’re passionate about. As an interviewee, determine alignment around these questions first — and then you can ask about the technology, and whether that’s a reasonable choice for the problem. It’ll make for a much more interesting conversation for everyone.

If this makes sense to you, and you want to use technology to create value, I’m hiring a few engineers to empower every worker on Earth.

Photo by Jaz King on Unsplash

How I think about salary

Nobody gets rich from a salary.

Aggressive statement; it warrants some definitions. A salary, broadly speaking, is compensation for your labor — for your input into the machination of a company. The same is true for a hourly wage, except the relationship is more obvious there.

People join companies to magnify their efforts — to get leverage in the output. If you improve something 1% in your life, you might not notice it. If you improve something 1% for millions of people, that can translate into thousands or millions of dollars. Often, that’s real value creation, and, if the company is any good, it captures some of that value and translates it into wealth.

Wealth is freedom — the freedom to apply it to do something, and the freedom from having to do something you don’t want to. In the world of business, wealth comes from ownership. You can design and ship a 1% improvement, create millions of dollars of value, and capture it within a few days. Owning, say, 0.1% of the company that enabled you to do so allows you to personally capture some of that value. This compounds in many ways.

In general, a bump in salary leads to a commensurate bump in spending. On average, a higher salary lets you buy a more expensive lifestyle (which isn’t inherently bad), but it doesn’t create more value or more freedom.

Instead, think of salary as a tool to cover your downside risk. Sufficient salary allows you to avoid going into debt, and allows you to buy the experiences, environments, and things that bring you joy, keep you healthy, and drive your productivity. Once that’s met, optimize for finding a great company.

(All of this takes a backseat if you’re carrying debt with an interest rate. In that case, you’ll probably want to optimize for salary and pay that down first).