Thursday, March 03, 2016

Things I learnt in the past 5 years

“It’s hard to teach a new dog old tricks.” - On many annual letters to shareholders written by the Oracle of Omaha
In the past 5 years, I worked with a team that have 2 product lines being alive while 5 others were dead. It is my pleasure to work with the team that let me learn and strengthen certain tricks. Old tricks take the past to learn and easy to forget, this post reminds my future self.

On risk taking

“Over the years, a number of very smart people have learned the hard way that a long stream of impressive numbers multiplied by a single zero always equals zero.” - Buffett
Startup could try to solve a problem with really new way of doings, only if the environment allows it. In the Valley, the legal and finance system allows a startup to take risky bet until the company gets enough eyeballs and/or moneys. This is not applicable to HK. We don’t have a court that knows technology, law that creates (or, at least try to create) a level playing field, money that supports risky bet, etc. So, being conservative sounds really legitimate here. No matter how much success you have achieved in the past, a single misstep could put you to the end. This also applies to engineering where new technology may not work as advertised, sometimes. Traditional technology with an active ecosystem implies battle scars on the face of others.

On decision making

Data driven is great, only when you can differentiate signal verses noise. Sometimes, a B2B SaaS could use data to drive decision, when the data looks consistent. Often, the sample size is too small to even make a reasonable guess. Leaders give strong opinion but weakly held. When we don’t have the data, we better admit that that is just a guess. (By the way, the infrastructure behinds data collection and data analysis is really hard to get right. I did that 3 times but not even come close to any.)

On product design

Minimum Viable Product means minimum, viable, and throw away. Even before you come up with the right question for the audience, how could you come up with an answer? This translates to “doing the right things is more important than doing things right”. Make tests to validate the question. MVP also applies to engineering. Leaky abstraction is bad but not even starting one sucks, whenever you find yourself repeat more than twice. That abstraction leads you to find your ultimate question. And, pre-mature optimization just wastes your time. Let it runs until it hits the wall.

On culture

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” - Churchill
Values should be deep-rooted while culture would be ever changing. Culture evolves around the values set by the team. Don’t be afraid to start with something small or vague. Once set, stick with it and shape it. Remember, making something up doesn’t mean doing it. Sometimes, peoples do make mistakes and toxic spreads in the speed of light, delay no more to apply the fix. Eventually, the team would be shaped by it. Engineering do also needs culture and value to scale. We shape our codebase and afterwards our codebase shape us. We eager to find something that can be repeated, nicely.

On multi-tasking

Some tasks can be run in parallel and some cannot. Most of the time, the best way is not to multi-task. Take pause, schedule the tasks using whatever you are comfortable with. Delegation enables true multi-tasking. In engineering, data processing shares this as well. Multi-processing sometimes does not work as expected.

On ownership

Ownership implies dedication. No-one can own everything since bandwidth is limited. In short term, sole ownership provides cost efficiency. In long term, that is a trap! Knowledge transfer is a daily routine that cannot be prevented. Being an owner of one thing makes you feel doing good, being an owner of multiple things makes you feel doing nothing. How could we take care of many things with the same level of dedication as one? Ownership transfer re-gains dedication.

On communication

Communication is king. Both written and verbal. Verbal is fast but lossy, written is persistent. They are not mutually exclusive and complement each other. In engineering, written is favored. Commit logs, documentations, source comments, discussion on issues. These help scaling and understanding. Not improving or ignoring it is fool.

On tooling

“Less is more.”
Having fewer things to care give you focus. Managed service like Heroku is always a good place to start with. Don’t try to build a custom PaaS when that is not your business. Though, the eager to reinvent a wheel should be respected, that gives you better understanding. Your business should already take your 80, the other 20 is better not to get more troubles.

On meeting

Meeting has many types and they all need an agenda. It is better used for discussion but brain-storming that could be done alone. Stick to the agenda, come to action items fast. And, treat synchronous meeting as a limited resource.

On tradeoff

“There are many ways to Rome.”
Most of the decisions have opportunity cost, taking one path may lose upsides of another. What really matter is whether that achieves the goal. And, making the tradeoff verbose provides better understanding. That could also gain support from the team.

Last but not least

Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Self-explanatory.
Thanks @anthonycyl for the edit.
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