Friday 15 November 2019

Richard Rodger: 'Whoever you are, it does you no good at all not to prepare for the pain that will come, which you choose to inflict on yourself'

Startup diary

(stock photo)
(stock photo)

Richard Rodger

Software systems fail. When you build a startup based on running a software system that has to be up 24/7 with no failures, you're going to experience broken software, and a broken website, many times.

It will take a mental toll, and is one of the many stresses you are signing up for when you found a startup.

It is the particular cross that Software-as-a-Service founders must bear. And it only gets worse the more successful you are - 'mo' money mo' problems' are notorious when your company gets big.

The topic of founder mental health is one that has only recently been taken seriously. It's time to step away from the notion that founders need to be superhuman. An attraction to chaos does not, unfortunately, give you superpowers.

Mental health issues manifest as depression, burn-out, bad behaviour, and everything in between and beyond.

Each founder is unique, and will suffer their own unique mental challenges. I do feel that it is an aspect of the creative character, and similar to the suffering of writers, artists and singers. Creativity in business is not just 'innovation'; to build a company from nothing is another level of creative pain. But if you must do it, you must. That's the nature of things.

So be prepared. The day will come when your servers go on fire, and then day becomes night, and the phone calls and Twitter abuse overflow, and you think the world is ending.

It is inevitable. You'll need to think in advance about how you'll survive.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that you can outwit fate. Complex systems fail.

If you are an engineer, then you perhaps appreciate this more intuitively. Nonetheless, a degree of optimism is required to build a startup, and there are none more optimistic than an engineer at the start of a project. You'll do it differently. You'll have rigorous, 100pc unit test coverage.

You'll monitor every metric you can find. Your code will be architected from the start never to fail. You'll have read your dear author's book on micro-services and have drunk the kool-aid. Sun-filled uplands of 100pc uptime await! Seriously, this is exactly how engineers think. I know, because I do it too.

The pain of the failures to come will be even more intense, and you will hate yourself with every bug report, delivering slow and constant damage to your mental health.

If you are not technical, it can be even worse, because not only will you not be prepared for how bad things can get (what do you mean, the back-ups have also been failing for weeks?), but you'll feel deeply betrayed by your technical colleagues.

Surely everyone should be a professional, and just get their job done! If the system fails, it's due to lack of effort. Sadly, you forget the sales meetings you screwed up, the low margins you baked into a project and the fools you hired. Were those mistakes due to lack of effort?

Software engineering is not like real engineering (we've not been doing it for long enough to have it figured out). It's not like accounting or law. It's much fuzzier; much more unpredictable.

Most software projects are late and over budget. Yours will be too.

Now add the stress of trying to keep that project running without bugs or falling over from server crashes.

And when it does crash, you can do absolutely nothing - you are completely powerless. You can buy pizza, but that's about it.

Do not underestimate how much this will impact on your head, especially when it happens time and again.

If you think your management skills will overcome these challenges, you're in for a shock. Isn't it just a case of quality control and putting the right processes in place? Of course, engineers are cowboys, but put a grown-up in the room and we'll soon get things under control.

Have you noticed how often Twitter, Google, Microsoft and others have outages? And the EU did not introduce the GDPR law (which gives you rights over your personal information) for nothing.

If the big tech companies can still mess up on a regular basis, with all their resources, then good luck to your management skills in a chaotic startup.

Whoever you are, it does you no good at all not to prepare for the pain that will come, which you choose to inflict on yourself.

There's a fashion in Silicon Valley these days for founders to take up meditation; it's not a bad idea.

Everyone is different, and finds peace in different ways. Perhaps yoga, or rock climbing? Perhaps religious retreats?

Decide on something in advance before it becomes cigarettes, alcohol or worse (although I hear roller-blading is good). I follow a very strict no-email-at-the-weekends policy. This has been a great help for me (among other things). You need to prepare for bad weather.

Metrics: this week, we have 80 open issues and 301 closed issues

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