To leave blueKiwi after so long was not the easiest decision. Last Friday, I said farewell to the people I worked with for the longest in my life, and a handful of them evolved from colleagues to true friends, Pokemon style. Indeed we’ll stay in touch (I hope), but things will never be the same.
However, as I’m starting this post in the middle of a midsummer insomnia, it’s clear to me that Botify offer could not come at a better time. Not only did they offer me a new venture one would hardly refuse, but they provided me with challenges exciting enough to kick me right out of my comfort zone and a probably too well established routine.
I changed a lot since I first joined blueKiwi. Or I’d better say blueKiwi – specially blueKiwi people – made me changed me a lot, for the better. I’ll never thank enough Alexandre Heimburger for pushing harder than anyone ever, providing me with my dose of daily challenges and shaping part of what I am today. I’ll miss working with you dude even though I can’t remember how many times you pissed me off to the point I would happily have (friendly) punched you in the face.
I changed a lot and I learnt a lot too. Even though it’s impossible summarize 6 years in a single blog post, so I’m crafting this one for you with what I believe are the most important things that journey from the small startup to a strategic part of a mega corporation taught me about startups and about myself.
1. Deliver (it’s fun and rewarding)
When I joined blueKiwi, I had ideas, lots of them. I was that big picture “you should do this… what about that… Facbook / Twitter / Google did that so why…” guy who always has a solution for everything as long as it doesn’t imply getting his hands dirty.
Indeed, I had no clue about the problems ins and outs, but I had the perfect solution anyway.
I learnt the hard way that big idea guys have nothing to do in a startup where everyone have great ideas and what you lack is time and money.
After crashing a few times, I learnt something I do love now: delivering. I switched from a culture of
you should to a culture of
I’m sorry, because I screwed up and didn’t ask permission to do it first.
Working for a startup is all about sweat and pain, but it has a fantastic side. Since everything is built from the ground, nothing else on earth gives you that freedom to create what you want the way you want (as long as it follows the company goals indeed). Working in a startup is about creating value, and creating value starts with delivering.
2. You’re never too old to shift
Prior to joining blueKiwi, I had an experience as a Web project manager in small Web agencies. Most of my job was about checking Excel reports to see if we were still on time, trying to convince the client to reduce the functional scope of the projects so we would spend less time building it than previously sold, while bringing bright ideas so we would eventually do some upsell.
I was very bad at this, and even though there were fun times, I hated this job. I would barely sleep at night, and wake up more tired than yesterday.
I joined blueKiwi on a misunderstanding. They thought I would be a good quality assurance manager because I was once able to point out the lack of good practices in a Web site we delivered them. I accepted the job because I wanted to work at blueKiwi, and because I had that bloody big picture of what I would have to do…
This was a double sided mistake. It led to very hard times for both my manager and I, and lasted for 2 years. 2 years is an incredibly long time when your job gives you hell, but for many reasons I could not leave on such a failure. It would have ben devastating.
On August the 2nd 2010, I came back from a 2 weeks vacation to be offered the job of our leaving system administrator. I had worked at that position in the past and was already comfortable with blueKiw platform, so I took the job, giving myself a 6 months probation time before I’d leave for another certain failure.
I was 32 something, and about to give my career a crucial twist.
I loved it.
The first 6 months scared the shit ouf of me. I had a very tough challenge: proving to both myself and the company that I would be able to deliver something valuable - and therefore be someone of value. It eventually worked, and I ended being one of the key players of the company, wiping my first 2 years of almost constant failure.
There was more about these 6 months being scary. For the past 6 years, I had tried to step away from the technical thing I loved, moving to the management stuff mostly because I live in a country where being in the technical field is poorly seen (and often less paid) regardless how skilled you are. For 6 years, I had givent myself hell for a question of ego.
Switching back to be a system administrator raised lots of question, the first on being
what will I do when I leave blueKiwi? The answer is now pretty obvious to me. If I had to switch again to raise llamas somewhere in Peru because I was not made for computer science, I probably would: llamas are awesome animals after all.
3. It’s not always good to work by yourself
I’ve been used to work alone very early. Back in the days, I would believe that working on my own would make me more efficient. I would not lose time with human interaction (irk!), long explanation (so boring), or taking over someone else’s crappy work (other people’s work is indeed always crappy).
Working by yourself is cool until you’re stuck.
You can’t always solve all the problems you’re facing, because you can’t always do everything. If you can do everything, you sometimes need someone else to look at your problem a different way. Or you need someone to brak a tie in an argument about the right solution.
There’s no I in team, but there’s a Y in victory is something I started to believe in only recently, because I had forgoten what working in team was about.
Team work in a startup is not the usual management driven “you take the pain, I take the awards” thing but empowering people knowledge and skills to solve complexe problems in a very short time with little if not scarce resources.
Even though I was focusing on the platform, I spent countless nights and days building, debugging, delivering and fixing with the dev team, eventually being able to find my way in blueKiwi’s complexe code when I needed it.
This taught me a log about team work in general, and that’s exactly what teamwork is about: learning faster.
Build silos, and you’re screwed up.
Silos are over specialized teams that can only be activated through a usually complexe change management workflow. Silos act in a client / customer relationship. Triggering a silo is slow, getting feedback and iterating is slow and painful because they’re trained not to work that way.
Hire ninjas and you’re screwed up too
Ninja / Jedi / Rock stars, you name it are silos as well. They’re incredibly good at what they do, but they can’t work in team. They usually work alone, deliver quickly, usually working but hardly maintainable – sometimes willingly obfuscated – code. And they usually can’t forget about their ego too.
People who won’t fit your company culture are silos. It’s sometimes better to wait a few months before hiring someone and split the extra work amongst people that hiring someone who’ll screw your company culture. These people won’t be able to work as a team.
It took us time to be able to work together efficiently, but as I’m writing this, I know learning how to work with my new colleagues will be even more important that discovering the new application and platform internals.
4. Beware of the tunnel effect (and learn to call for help)
When you’re working by yourself, the worst thing that may happen to you is the tunnel effect.
You start to work on a project. Everything’s going fine, but it takes lots of your time. Then, without you realizing it, you start to focus on small, unimportant things; after a few days, they suck all your time and your energy. You’ve entered a tunnel, and there’s no way for you to escape.
13 months ago, I started to run a very long, critical, time and brain consuming project. It involved people from 6 countries over 10 time zones, and a way of working I was not used to. My phone calls used to start around 7 and ended after midnight 6 days a week.
Telcos were sucking all my time. External things were sucking all my energy. And for many internal reasons, I was not working with the people I was usd to work anymore. Without any warning, I ended at the hospital. It was not burnout yet, but my body was sending me a very strong signal I could not ignore.
It’s hard to realize you’re stuck in a tunnel. As you start focusing on details, you don’t raise your head to look around you anymore. You can’t ask for help because you’re too focused on delivering. Or more exactly you believe you’re focused on delivering.
The only way to get out of it is to have someone to kick you in the butt while it’s still time. Or to be humble® enough to ask someone for help.
I have taken some good habits to avoid the tunnel effect:
- Gather with your pals at the coffee machine. The time you spend talking with them will allow you to raise your head from your work and see something else’s hapening in the company.
- Don’t eat alone in front of your computer. Even though you only allow yourself 15 to 30 minutes, to eat a sandwich, eat it with your colleagues. It’s important to give yourself the opportunity to cut on working from time to time, and to give them signs that something’s going on.
- If you’re working as a freelancer, there’s certainly a coworking space you can drop to, at least to meet other people during coffee breaks.
- And finally, if you’re a manager, take care about your colleagues. They may be stuck in a tunnel without realizing.
5. “I don’t know” is not a crime
Ignorance is not when you don’t know about something. Ignorance is about not knowing something and having someone to notice it P. Desproges.
When I was working as a project manager in Web agencies – it seems it was eons ago – my clients would expect me to answer every question by the second. Saying
I don’t know was not an option but an unforgivable mistake. Or that’s what I believes.
As I understand things pretty quickly, I also used to believe I knew everything about everything.
When I joined blueKiwi, I started to work with people who knew much more about my own tools and my own job than I did. I hated that first, because it brought me in a position where I would never feel comfortable.
I had to change.
I had to accept I didn’t know everything, and when you have an ego powerful enough to blow up the Twin Towers, it’s very hard to accept. So I had to leave that ego behind me as well.
It took me some times, but I took a radical shift. I made myself accept that
I don’t know was not a sign of failure anymore, but the opportunity to learn something new, to change my way of thinking, or to work another way.
It had some unlikely, unexpected consequences.
I developed some kind of imposter syndrome unless I’ve actually explored the whole of a problem. So I dove back into my library and started to read about everything as I used to do when I was a teenager.
I drastically reduced my blogging rhythm because I felt like I wasn’t skilled / smart enough to write about a topic. I’ve started hundreds of articles I will never publish because of this, and I don’t feel bad about it.
Ignorance is not a crime, doing nothing about it is.
6. Pivoting is not whirling
I’ve taken different paths before finding what I was looking for. I’ve studied History, Law, and Politic Sciences before switching to computer engineering. I’ve worked as a security teacher, tech journalist, consultant, Web developper, project manager, QA guy and system administrator. For many people around me, this was just whirling.
Pivoting is a part of research and development. You may start with a programming language and a SGDB, then switch to something else because it doesn’t fit your needs anymore. You don’t change a technology just because the hype on Twitter is changing or because you discovered something else that looks fancy.
The same applies to companies. Pivoting is part of the story of every startup. It can be a business pivot, because you need to find your model. It can be a product pivot, because the market doesn’t want to buy what you have to sell. It can be a technological pivot because the solution you picked up for your MVP won’t scale 1 million users.
If you can decide to go SAAS, give you all the keys to ensure the problem is the model not fitting your product, not the way you tried to implement it. If you want to use a NoSQL database instead of a relational one, make sure you explored every option before changing your mind.
As a consultant, I’ve seen at least two startups failing at some point because they were paying too much attention to their competitors. If you pay too much attention to your competitors, you’ll take a new direction every time a new one appears, or every time they add a new feature. Running after the competition is the best way to forget about making new clients, which is, after all, the best way to win against your competitors.
7. Agility is a question of DNA
My first memories of using agile methodologies take me back to school when we used pair programming to finish a 2 weeks project in 3 days. It was incredibly fun and incredibly efficient.
Then, in 2005, I used to join a team in a bank that was supposed to use agile methodologies. If you consider being alone to code a project that was designed by a 5 people team and managed the old way agility then… you name it.
I became reluctant to agile methodologies because most companies were doing them wrong.
At blueKiwi, we used Scrum, then a mix of Scrum and Kanban, 2 agile methodologies with 3 weeks iterating cycles… when everything was going OK. We introduced test driven development, and continuous deployment. These are part of agility, but this is not agility.
Agility is not methodology, agility is a state of mind. It’s part of your DNA. Either you have it, or not
Agility is a a capacity to react very quickly to the evolution around you in a positive way, and to turn that reaction into a delivery. It’s the hability to mak order out of apparent chaos.
Agility is not a marketing word to hide disorder. Actually agile methodology are quite formal and bring lots of processes through the use of tools. As what you do make what you are, the use of the tool define the process. But methodologies, tools, processes come after the state of mind to ensure things are in control.
Agility is not linked to your age, even though young people are supposed to be more agile than 60 something. Truth is I’ve met 25 years old developers who were unable to adapt to agility, and 70 years old people who still had an incredibly agile state of mind.
8. Give yourself the means of your ambitions
For a long time, I’ve been living with very high standards and very low self expectation. This can look paradoxical, but it can easily be explained: it’s easy to expect a lot from your pals and not give anything when no one comes to push you hard enough to make you accept the challenge (or even to challenge you at all).
For the past 6 years, 2 things happened to me:
- I met 3 people really challenging me enough so I had to leave my comfort zone and compete.
- I’ve seen many people and companies around me failing.
Most of them did not give themselves the means of their ambitions.
It was for many reasons, each of them deserving their own article.
Some of them were aiming at too many things at the same time, and did not allocate enough resources to what they actually had to deliver.
Some of them were too self sufficient to imagine how much work and money they had to invest just to leave the ground, believing they were already in low orbit.
Some of them simply did not believe enough in what they were doing.
If I had one advice to give to my kids before I die, it would be that one: chose your targets, and give yourself the means of your ambitions. You can’t aim at the stars while staying in the gutter.
9. Startups is where I belong
Last but not least.
Startup life is not for everyone. I know many people who would not bear more than one day working in a startup: some of them were made to work in huge, structured corporations, some other as freelancers. Startups is where I belong.
I’ve knew it since 1998, when I read the hors série of the French newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné about the first .com boom. I was dreaming about startups then, but it took me 10 years and numerous adventures before I actually joined one. I’m now convinced I was right from the very beggining.
I love working a lot, under pressure, on many topics at the same time. I love solving simple problems using compex solutions (or the opposite).
I believe in what my mother used to tell me: doing and undoing, it’s still working. I can spend weeks working on a topic, then trashing everything and chosing another path without the frustration because what I did was not released. I love delivering, exploring, moving, switching, thinking, sharing and sweating on every single topic one can imagine.
I a great experience with failing, but even more important, I have a great experience at bouncing back everytime I fail. I’ll write more about this one day, but many people think I’m lucky. That’s false. I’m incredibly unlucky, but I have a great boucing capacity so it looks like I’ve luck.
In other word: I was made to work in startups.
I’d probably write until the end of time, but every story must come to an end.
A popular belief says your 18-25 is the part of your life where you change the most. Evn though my 20 something were kind of a roller coaster without a harness, I feel like the past 6 years are the one that made me grow up the most.
When I joined blueKiwi, I was still a childish 20 something, with a wife and a kid. 6 years later, I’m father of 3, I’ve lost 18 superfluous kilos, haven’t drank a single drop of alchohol for 2 years and I can join tennis tournaments for people of 35 and above.
For me a new journey’s starting.