My Startup Shelf on GoodReads

Books for Startup Founders

Building a startup means learning how to do a lot of things you have never done. Things that are hard (scaling a product). Things that turn out to be really fun (talking to customers). Things that are tedious (filing financial reports, getting people to agree to and sign legal documents). Things you may never have imagined you’d ever have to do (move a company internationally). Lots of other things that you forget about because in the meantime you’re developing a product, fixing bugs, selling, doing customer support, blogging, talking to investors, and nine million other things that have to get done on a daily basis.

Not surprisingly, no one is an expert in all of these things immediately after creating a company for the first time. While I have been reading a lot of great fiction lately (good for clearing your head and helping you think creatively – another thing on your to-do list!), I have learned a lot about building and running Woopie from the books below, several of which I wish I would have read before I had even considered starting a company.



There’s a lot of pressure in startup land to “just get started!” “Get it out there!” “Quit your job!” “What do you have to lose?!” The tough reality is that not everyone has thick enough skin or the determination to create a company, especially a high-growth startup. These books will help you figure that out. If you’re still convinced you have a great business idea and you want to make it happen after reading these, go for it. If reading them has you in the fetal position clutching your 401k with a death grip, you might want to wait a bit.

  • The Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam WassermanMan I wish I had been introduced to this book four years ago, it would have saved me a lot of money and stress. Wasserman has been studying startups that succeed and fail for years. He has smart advice about how to build a team, structure equity and set up a company. If you don’t read this before setting up your company, chances are you’ll have to spend money to fix your company’s structure later.
  • Zero to One by Peter Thiel & Blake MastersA lot of companies get confused when they can’t get funding. Thiel describes the difference between an okay business idea and a VC-fundable company. This book will force you to think about whether you want to focus on a huge problem like the Googles, Facebooks and Microsofts did in their infancies, or you want to build a stable business around an existing market need (note: both are totally fine choices! But knowing which path you want will change a lot about how your company comes to be.).
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben HorowitzThis book makes even my toughest days seem like a much smaller problem. Horowitz has built large companies & huge, loyal teams and carried them through incredibly difficult times. You will not only learn a lot from this book, but it will be helpful for those dark days because you’ll realize how much worse your problems could be.
  • All of Paul Graham’s essays, but especially this one: are entire quora threads on which of Paul’s essays are most indispensible, and I find myself going back to them again and again to remind myself and reality-check myself. Start, What Startups are Really Like, How not to Die are all classics to me, and reminders of what it actually takes to build a product customers love.
  • Delivering Happiness by Tony HsiehWhatever about the problems that Startup City is having right now, this is a great book and will tell you a lot about building a company and a culture that make a difference. Tony candidly discusses his mistakes and lessons in the companies he built, and there is a lot to learn from this book. I found it really inspiring.
  • Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason MendelsonDon’t talk to any investors, whether they’re in an accelerator, an angel, a VC firm, whoever – until you’ve read this book. It explains everything about funding companies, how people will try to screw you over, and how to set yourself up to be an investable company.

Any books you wish you had read before you started working in a startup?

graphic non-fiction shelf ends

On Rediscovering Fiction

In the last nine months, I’ve read more fiction books than I collectively have for the previous five years. How did this happen? I blame one little app.

“I’m not really a ‘fiction reader’,” I remember telling Susannah and Niree, the two women who built Connu. I explained why I would not be their target market: “I’m mostly into nerdy programming books & reading stuff I can apply, like business non-fiction.” But we were friends and shared an office, so I installed the app to dutifully test it out.

Connu is a short fiction mobile app, designed to deliver “commute-length” stories to you, in written and audio format, a few times a week. The authors are mostly new or unknown but recommended by other successful writers like David Sedaris.

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 10.23.34

With my 20 minute train ride from Cole Valley to SOMA every day, I usually used the time to go through my RSS feeds. One morning I hadn’t synched Reeder, so I launched Connu instead.

“Take Me Home” by Amy Silverberg was the story of the day. I gasped as I finished the story, and it haunted me the rest of the day. Over the next few weeks I flew through the entire collection. I felt nostalgic for Hilmar, met baby-attacking rattlesnakes, pondered working side-by-side with a full-size chinchilla. The stories were sometimes serious, sometimes fanciful, sometimes romantic or sad, but always interesting and engaging. They made me think differently about things, a bit like yoga for my overactive, analytical mind.

Choice versus Curation

What I loved most was the lack of choice. Every time I opened the app, it had something that fit my timeframe, was curated for me, and began immediately. I was suprised at how comforting it was to not have to choose.

Having gotten through most of the Connu collection, I rediscovered the joy of a great book. When you mostly read non-fiction, there isn’t that “pause, wonder what happens next, what would I do” feeling for most of them. I love non-fiction, but fiction does a different thing to your head & your heart. I found that while perhaps I need advice and learning from my non-fiction books, opening my mind to fiction, fantasy and science fiction is equally useful for my business by improving and expanding creativity.

Fiction Recommendations

Since installing Connu, I have read some fantastic books. I still read business and computer books, but because this blog post is about fiction, here are the very best fiction books I’ve read in the last few months. Some old, some new, but hopefully if you’re looking for a new read, you’ll find something interesting here.

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (read a bunch of other Bradbury stuff too – I also highly recommend the 1966 film, so great!)
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • The Dinner by Herman Koch
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  • The Radio Wall Chronicles by Susannah Luthi (

Any other suggestions? I’m reading Homeland and The Martian now, but looking for any other good recommendations, too!


A New Kind of Resolution

Since I was a teenager, I’ve had a mid-January ritual of reflecting on the previous year and making resolutions for the upcoming year. Mid-January, because I always feel I need to let the year sink in for a couple of weeks before I can properly digest it. I go through my journal, look at what my resolutions were from last year, and analyze each one in detail.

This year, I decided to change it up a bit. 2013 went very differently than I had expected and had a lot of unpredictability. Some of my resolutions didn’t make sense given the changes. I don’t think 2014 will be much more predictable, given that I can hardly tell you where I’ll be more than two-three weeks out at this point!

So I took a new tactic. For 2014 I decided to approach resolutions in an agile manner. Each month I am trying something different in order to see if it makes a difference as a habit or lifestyle change. I was inspired a great deal by Matt Cutts’ ongoing series of “30 Day Challenges.”

Since I came up with this idea at the end of January, I started in February, and for February I started with working out everyday. I like going to the gym, but since relocating to San Francisco in October, I have found that I often had early morning calls with customers or partners in Europe, and work demands often wrecked my attempts to work out in the evenings.

So in February I made a point to either get to the gym or do something physical corresponding to a workout every day. Running with an Americano to the train was not counted!

It wasn’t easy, and it required a lot of planning. I missed a couple of days – our Demo Day weeks in San Francisco & in New York were particularly challenging. But I wanted to address them head on instead of letting them “happen to me.” I picked up a book of resistance exercise workouts I could do anywhere, so that I wouldn’t have an excuse while travelling.

However I feel a lot better right now having done this. It’s always rewarding for me when I work out, and with a lot of the stress from the end of our accelerator and demo day crunch time, it was very useful to ensure I had an hour or so each day to not think about work and to do something good for me. I’m definitely going to keep this up for March.

What does March hold in store? Well – March is the beginning of Woopie seed round fundraising. I had a taste of this last year, as well as while I was converting our company to a US company. Although I feel I have a thicker shell and am more ready for it now, I know it will be incredibly stressful, frustrating and time-consuming.

To try to counteract some of that I’m going to adopt a regular meditation routine for March. Since I’ve been on a super tight budget in San Francisco, I haven’t been able to go to many yoga classes, so I think this will be an okay substitute for now. Not sure when makes the most sense to incorporate into my schedule, whether am or pm, but I’ll do some research over the next couple of days to figure that out.

Anyone been doing any meditation lately? Recommendations for websites or apps that have been useful? I’ve looked at headspace & but open to any recommendations that folks have found useful.


Forward March

A little over a year ago I stopped writing online, save for a few posts on the Woopie blog. I stopped writing for myself, for other people, for freelance work. What my startup needed at the end of 2012 was focus.

A year later, and what a year! I’m on a plane back to San Francisco from New York where we spent a week showing off Woopie to investors, media properties, friends, advisors and customers, and the reactions from people were incredible and invigorating. We have new customers on trial subscriptions, a queue of people looking to discuss their scenario more and how they can reach a larger audience on Woopie, investors ready to write cheques to sustain & grow our company, and supporters and advisors cheering us on the whole way.

I had been dreading the process of raising our seed round up until now. But at this point I realize we are 100% ready to take this step as a company. Moving Woopie from an Irish corporation to a US corporation was very painful, expensive and time-consuming, but it has prepared us both mentally and logistically to deal with the time-consuming and often frustrating process.

I promised many folks that I would write up an overview of what it took to convert our company, given that it’s really hard to find solid advice from other companies about when & how it makes sense to do so. I think it’s important to share experiences like this to help other people make informed decisions for their startups. I’m waiting for a few final things to go through before I do that, but hopefully will have that live over the next couple of weeks.


The price of focus

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, I had finished an early prototype of my pet project of an Irish-focused tech magazine and was shopping it around to potential advertisers, contributors and partners. I had also successfully convinced the best designer I know, Stewart Curry, to be its design director. Just a side project, no big woop.


Idea magazine on other devices


Fast-forward 365 days. With five issues of Idea magazine published, we’re now working full-time on Woopie, our platform for producing digital publications and just won a place in the new Wayra Academy in Dublin. There are a lot of reasons Wayra is a great fit for us: the great network opportunities, solid start-ups to share with & learn from, huge support from a company that knows mobile & devices, the community space Wayra provides, etc. But to be honest, the greatest benefit for me right now is the freedom to focus.


Woopie platform screenshot


Focus in any business is both critical and expensive. Building companies from scratch is costly, and until the businesses are generating revenue, you have to find other ways to pay your bills. It was important to me that we not go looking for money until we had something of value. I was wary of giving away our company before we even had anything, and bootstrapping was the right thing to do. So in order to fund my two companies which generate no revenue yet and cost me a lot of my own money, I have continued doing freelance work over the last year. Teaching in the evenings, client projects during evenings & weekends, contract work a couple of days a week, a day or two each week dedicated to Idea work, another couple of days for Woopie, and any additional time filled with community events and volunteering. Eventually, something had to give.

Earlier this summer, I began examining what I could hand off. I had many conversations with myself that went like this:

“But honestly, running this event only takes a few emails and a couple of blog posts each month.”

“But I really like volunteering, and it teaches me a lot about designing for users with different needs.”

“But I still have all of these great ideas for organisation X, I can’t abandon it now.”

In the end it comes down to the opportunity cost of focus. I am very grateful to Gareth Stenson for taking over OpenCoffee Dublin and the dynamic duo of Jeannette Vollmer and Christina Lynch for taking over and reviving Girl Geek Dinners. I have stepped down from volunteer work and teaching for now and have minimized community activities and speaking gigs.

All of these things are useful and have been invaluable in my career so far. But they each have a price. Even running an organisation which is free and involves “just a couple of blog posts” has a price. That price is focus. Every time I have to switch context, I lose time. I am slower at things. Developing all day in one language, going home to develop in another, and mentally working through different solutions takes a lot longer when you switch contexts frequently. Even setting up different work environments and rebuilding machines takes a not-insignificant amount of time.


Focus dictionary definition image

                 image courtesy of


Being a part of Wayra means we get to focus on Woopie above everything else for the foreseeable future. It means I can expend all of my energy on working with customers, solving problems and building a great experience. I thought I would be reluctant to give away a part of our company, however small, but surprisingly it felt like exactly the right thing to do. Instead, it validated our approach so far and told us we are on to something that other people can believe in, too.

So instead of feeling like we were giving something away, it felt like we were being given the very precious gift of focus. It’s going to be a very busy six months as we revise our product fit and finish based on our customers’ feedback, and continue to design and build Woopie, but I could not be more excited.

Writing Elsewhere Around the Web

I took a short break from Tuesday Newsday and regular writing here to do some guest posts recently. Below is a quick roundup of what I’ve been up to in terms of articles written, podcasts and speaking engagements.


Designing Engaging and Enjoyable Long-Form Reading Experiencesguest article for Smashing Magazine

This article incorporates a lot of concepts that have been driving me crazy about digital content lately, some of which I’ve mentioned in this blog. Bad advertisements, disrespecting the reader, poorly chosen typography and lack of whitespace are just some of the concerns I cover here. If you’re spending time writing for the web, why not make sure it’s visible in a format that is inviting to the reader? Check out this article for ways to show your site or app’s visitors that you’re glad they’re there.


The Top 10 Ways to Create Digital Magazinesguest article for .net magazine

I wrote this post for .net magazine, one of my favourite magazines both in print and in digital, on some of the available methods and frameworks for creating digital magazines. I focused on systems which don’t export to just one platform as I don’t believe that’s a sustainable model for most publishers today. Instead I covered things like Laker Compendium (which we use for Idea magazine) and Treesaver that prioritize great web experiences over proprietary formats.


“Deep, Dark Secrets of Rupert Murdoch” – talk at Dublin’s #BeerMob event

At  the first (but hopefully not the last!) Dublin #BeerMob, we talked about topics of interest to those who are developing sites or apps for mobile. And there was beer. I talked about Rupert Murdoch of all people, and the secrets behind The Daily. I covered why this isn’t a sustainable method or one anyone should copy and what designers and developers should focus on instead for their users. Slides are below:


“Beware the Shiny” – talk at Refresh Dublin on March 15th

I spoke at Refresh Dublin this month on the topic of being cautious of trying to learn too many things all at once. Sounds like a strange topic from someone who lectures in web development! But I see a lot of students spin and spin, not building a foundation as they jump from one shiny framework to the next. We all want to learn new things and keep our skills competitive, but it’s important to do so in a sustainable manner. Below are my slides from the talk:


Guest podcast on the Small Business Show

I had the opportunity to speak with Conn and Kehlan this week on the Small Business Show podcast about current news items in the Irish world of SMEs.


Guest podcast on the podcast with Stewart Curry

Stewart Curry and I chatted recently with Conn and Michele on the podcast, giving a behind-the-scenes view of Idea magazine and


Guest posts for Information Week during Mobile World Congress

Speaking of shiny things, I had the opportunity to attend Mobile World Congress and work with the Information Week team. Mobile World Congress is something I’ve wanted to attend for a long time, so it was great to get to help out such an excellent team. Below are some of the articles I contributed:

Samsung Galaxy Beam Turns Heads: MWC 2012

SecureVoice Encrypts Mobile VoIP Communications

Emporia Telecom: Mobile Phones for Elderly Users

9 Coolest Smartphones at Mobile World Congress

Coyote Systems Driver Info App Expands Across Europe

MWC 2012: Smartphone Apps, Gadgets for Cars

HTC One Smartphone Debut at MWC 2012

ON Voicefeed Aims to Modernize Mobile Voicemail

MWC 2012: Waterproof Your Smartphones, Tablets

Daily Lessons from 2011

At the beginning of 2011, I made a resolution to note one new thing I learned every day. I stole it from this article, which I loved:

I kept my list on tumblr here:

It was both easier and harder than I thought it would be. Easier because when you pay attention, you’re picking up new things all day long. All it takes is writing down one of these things, and once you’re conscious of trying to find something, it comes pretty easily. Harder because it wasn’t part of my routine, and I would sometimes realize that, after a few weeks of having my head down working on something or a week away, I hadn’t updated in a while. Going back through email and Twitter and podcasts and Facebook to find something I had definitely learned that day was tedious, but I wanted to look back on the posts & know they were legit things I learned & not made up.



One thing I noticed after only three months was how much fun it was to look back already. Three months! Think about where you were in, for example, June 2009. In the absence of a life-changing event like a birth, death or marriage, it’s pretty hard to remember what was generally going on around that time. I have always kept hand-written journals but without them or my blogs or other online sources of events, pinpointing a point during that time other than “I was working at Microsoft in Ireland…I was probably giving some tech talks…?” is pretty tough, at least for me.

Some people would argue that *because* I have always kept journals I had relieved my brain of the need to recall great detail, sort of like the GTD philosophy. But I’ll leave that hypothesis alone for now.

Link to The Daily Lesson

What was most fascinating to me, however, is how vivid a memory I can get from a day with often just a line or two about what I learned. I look at April 5th & remember the tamale-making class I took with friends. Reading June 11th reminds me of my long conversation in a fishing shop when I bought my first rod probably since I was 14. November 3rd places me vividly in the place where I decided to go fulltime with Idea and Woopie and felt scared but more excited than I ever have about something I’ve worked on.



I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to do it again. While it’s not really time-consuming, my schedule is going to be much busier this year than last and I don’t want to half-ass it. However if you’re looking for a fun and different new year’s resolution, this is a good one.

Quantified Self Europe Review

Quantified SelfOne of the first things I discovered this past weekend in Amsterdam at the first ever Quantified Self Europe conference is that I clearly do a bad job explaining what QS is. When asked why I obsessively track things in my life like sleep patterns, exercise habits, food intake, skin condition, and others, I usually give a rambling answer about measuring things to make life better and improve myself and make changes and I like numbers.

Then I’m met with a blank stare which reads, “Freakshow.”

However I spoke with a lot of people this weekend (many of them wearing tracking devices like fitbit & jawbone) who mentioned that when they talk about using RunKeeper or a Withings scale, the response is often “Wow cool, I want to do that too!”

So I’m obviously not a great spokesperson for the movement. However measuring and tracking data about myself is something I’ve been doing ever since I was a little kid, tracking what I spent my babysitting money on and my pet rabbit’s snack intake. I once made a chart extrapolating out all of the possible outfit combinations in my closet (this wasn’t as hard as it might sound, I wore a school uniform during the school year & a camp uniform during the summer, and my mom made the rest of my clothes – it was slim pickings). I was born a data nerd.



I’ve already disqualified myself from answering that question, so I’m stealing the definition from the Quantified Self site: “Quantified Self is a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self knowledge through self-tracking. We exchange information about our personal projects, the tools we use, tips we’ve gleaned, lessons we’ve learned.”  There. Make sense?

I discovered QS through two of my heroes:  1) a researcher named Seth Roberts, who has been blogging for years about his attempts to improve his lifestyle through self-experimentation and 2) Nicholas Felton, creator of the annual Feltron Report, a collection of beautiful graphics illustrating achievements and quantified activities of Felton throughout the year. Both of these individuals inspired me to begin tracking data to find correlations and improve my life.



Quantified Self meetups happen all over the world (and just started in Dublin!). People use them to share what they’ve learned, ask questions and grow together. It’s a community movement of people who want to make their lives and the world around them better.

Show & Tell meetups allow people to discuss things they’re trying, problems they’ve had, get suggestions and then report back on their successes or issues.  The conference is an annual event for both users and those building apps and tools for self-trackers to meet and discuss the needs of the community.


Quantified Self EuropeQS EUROPE

You know you’re at a Quantified Self meetup when people show up in the morning with kinks in their hair where their Zeo band was. I can’t tell you how much I learned from the insightful and forward-thinking people at QS Europe. I am very glad I went. I learned about personal data visualization integration, building tools for others, objective versus subjective tracking, and lots in between. I met many inspiring people and returned to Dublin quite energized and enthusiastic (and with some ideas for my Christmas list this year like the jawbone bracelet tracker!).



The talk I gave was one of the hardest I’ve ever given because it was so personal. I’m very comfortable giving tech talks, discussing APIs and doing programming demonstrations, but I don’t usually talk about personal things.

One’s face is very personal. When I moved to Ireland in 2007, I began to have skin problems. It began gradually and I attributed it to the move, to stress, to late nights drinking with developers and clients, to travel, to whatever excuses I could think of. The stress was multiplied by the anxiety of being embarrassed about how my face looked, but also because my new job in Ireland involved me being on stage in front of large audiences constantly, often several times a week. A year later my skin was perpetually inflamed, red, full of sores and very painful. When one spot would go away, two more would spring up in its place. It was a tough time. I cried a lot.

Frustrated, I went to see my hometown dermatologist while I was home for holidays. He told me that a) this was completely normal and b) there was nothing I could do but go on antibiotics for a year (in addition to spending a fortune on creams and pills). I didn’t believe either of those things.

I was not interested in being on an antibiotic for a year, nor was I interested in Accutane (my best friend has had it multiple times and it hasn’t had long term results, plus it can be risky). What I was interested in was figuring out why this was happening and changing my life to make it stop. I refused to accept my dermatologist’s insistence that what you put in your body has no effect on how you look and feel.

I began systematically cutting things out of my diet to see how I reacted. First chicken and soy, based on a recommendation from a food allergist. Over the course of a year I cut out sugar, gluten, carbs, starches, caffeine, meat, fish until finally the magical month of December 2010 when I cut out dairy. My skin was my own again by New Year’s day this year.

It took a year to figure it out. It was completely worth it. There’s nothing wrong with Irish dairy, it just doesn’t work for me. I drink Americanos instead of lattes now, I don’t eat cereal; none of that is a huge deal. For what it’s worth, I can drink goat’s milk.

It was worth it but it was still tough. So I spoke at QS Europe about my journey in the hopes that it can help and inspire others who are embarrassed about their skin condition or scared of long stints of antibiotics or potentially risky treatments like Accutane. My slides, while not very exciting since it was a lot more storytelling than slide showing, are below. If you are going through something similar I encourage you to find a group of kind and helpful people like QS-ers, or use a community forum like to help get support and suggestions.


Quantified Self isn’t for everyone, but everyone should feel they have the power to change things in their body and their life for the better.

Transitioning From Working in an Office to Working From Home

There are many different adjustments required when you move from working in an office for someone else to working from home by yourself. For me, one of the challenges has been scheduling time to catch up with people. 

While working at Microsoft as an evangelist, part of my job involved meeting up with people, grabbing a coffee and finding out what they’re working on, often to see if there might be a helpful solution for them in Microsoft’s developer tools and frameworks. I enjoyed the chance to get out of Sandyford, visit other offices and just generally hear about interesting projects.

Now as I am working from home in Dun Laoghaire for myself and billing clients, I find the days absolutely fly by and I have precious little time to get everything done that I want to do.  Spending three hours to head in to town, meet someone for lunch or coffee and then head back south, is now a luxury that I can’t always make time for.  The hard thing about this is that it was a part of my job that I really loved, so it can be tough to say no to people because saying yes often comes at the cost of working late into the night or being behind on projects (and sometimes both).

Yesterday I asked Twitter how people do this, how they turn down people whether it’s because they no longer have the time, the conversations are less relevant or they don’t want to give away consultation work for free.  I received some very interesting, mostly useful answers and thought I would share them. It seems to be something many folks have dealt with or are anticipating dealing with, so I hope this is useful for others as it was for me.


“Sure I’ll let you know when I’m out your way.”

Suggest a halfway point or post-work hours where it’s handy for both

Tell them you now have to be strict with your breaks, now that you’re a freelancer.

Post something on Twitter about how you no longer have free time to meet for coffee :-)

Tell them you’re very busy with your new consultancy, etc. and that they can schedule a site visit or such

“I am sorting my belly button fluff for a mixed media presentation.”

Be honest about how busy you are and how valuable your time is.

It’s good to talk so fit them in if possible; a good test is to get them to come to you.

“No, but I can meet up after 6pm. And you’re buying the coffee.” :-)

I’ve decided nothing in life is free, so either do a free consultation if they’re going to pay, otherwise they can pay for just the consultation.

Barter. One hour of my time consulting on my specialty, then one hour on what they know about or another trade for which they’re paid.

Pre-invoice them for the time.

Invite them to your office to save your travel time.

Handle it with a call. Give high level information on the main changes needed and 2-3 examples from their site/app.

Pop over for a coffee and I’ll tell you how to deal with this!

Tell them to meet you at fastfit where there are loadsa types.

You gotta be blunt, it’s not show friends, it’s show business!


Many thanks to @blowdart, @janeruffino, @jkeyes, @mike_ireland, @jamfer09, @CAMURPHY, @dermdaly, @jaimekristene, @dotnetster, @enormous, @irishstu, @lucidplot, @User_Story, and @WebDublin for your very helpful ideas and tips.

Getting Out of the Bubble

When you live and breathe one industry for most of your professional life, what happens?

Usually you end up living in a bit of a bubble.  That bubble is reinforced when your friends, peers and colleagues are in the same industry.  This is dangerous because it changes your perception of reality.

I recently moved from being a developer in the tech industry to being a techie in the publishing industry.  Here are a few of the many things I have had to learn so far:

  • JUST SHIP IT: In software development, even when you’re trying to ship a product and the deadline has slipped and it’s massive panic all around, there still comes a time when people staying awake and checking in code does more damage than good.  You tell everyone to go home, get some sleep and come back in the morning to finish the work.  In publishing, there is no concept of go-home-before-you-do-more-damage.  There is only the concept of the publisher’s deadline.  Which is gospel.  You stay until it’s published.

Photo courtesy of delgaudm

                                        [Photo courtesy of delgaudm]

  • – NEW/SHINY == BAD: In the tech world, you can throw a new system, framework, device or design at people and they’ll intuitively figure out how it works.  In the publishing world, people rely a great deal on their systems working the same way.  You cannot introduce changes or features without ample training and/or documentation or you risk a massive productivity loss.
  • MY PHONE ISN’T BROKEN, THE SITE IS: Techies generally keep their software and devices up-to-date.  We’re interested to know if the new features are good, if performance is improved or if security holes are fixed.  Outside of the tech world, many people don’t update because they don’t know they can or they don’t know how or, more often, they just don’t care.  Telling people to upgrade their iPhone software can come across as an insult instead of the helpful tip you thought it would be.

Why does any of this matter?


                                    [Photo courtesy of shutterbc]

Living and working inside a bubble helps us to forget who our customers really are.  I observed this in my first full-time job working on a brand new development framework at Microsoft (codename Avalon, now WPF).  We spent months designing and architecting cool API test harnesses which dynamically integrated all APIs and extrapolated every possible combination of values.  It was a tough piece of work but no one else had done it, and we were so proud.

Walking into a meeting with the other 100 people on the team, we sat down ready to hear praise for our unprecedented and forward-thinking accomplishment.  Instead, the director got in front of us, said nothing and opened his laptop.  He opened Visual Studio, selected “Create new Avalon project” and hit F5 to compile and run.  Visual Studio crashed.  In all our discussions about ascertaining perfect quality, we hadn’t once thought about who was going to use the framework and what their process would be like. We failed.  From then on, at least 50% of my time was spent testing by “using the product as a customer.”  We shipped a much better product because of that change.

As G.I. Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.”  Knowing you are in a bubble is the first step towards being able to change your behaviour and do the right thing for whoever your customers are.  My customers right now are editors, copy chiefs, photography editors and print designers.  I still have a lot to learn, but each time I observe their work styles and habits, I can creep a little bit more out of my bubble and build a little bit better software for them to use.