The Other Half of "Artists Ship"

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Steve Jobs has said that real artists ship. Paul Graham looks at the other half of that maxim:

One of the differences between big companies and startups is that big companies tend to have developed procedures to protect themselves against mistakes. A startup walks like a toddler, bashing into things and falling over all the time. A big company is more deliberate.

The gradual accumulation of checks in an organization is a kind of learning, based on disasters that have happened to it or others like it. After giving a contract to a supplier who goes bankrupt and fails to deliver, for example, a company might require all suppliers to prove they’re solvent before submitting bids.

As companies grow they invariably get more such checks, either in response to disasters they’ve suffered, or (probably more often) by hiring people from bigger companies who bring with them customs for protecting against new types of disasters.

It’s natural for organizations to learn from mistakes. The problem is, people who propose new checks almost never consider that the check itself has a cost.

Every check has a cost. For example, consider the case of making suppliers verify their solvency. Surely that’s mere prudence? But in fact it could have substantial costs. There’s obviously the direct cost in time of the people on both sides who supply and check proofs of the supplier’s solvency. But the real costs are the ones you never hear about: the company that would be the best supplier, but doesn’t bid because they can’t spare the effort to get verified. Or the company that would be the best supplier, but falls just short of the threshold for solvency — which will of course have been set on the high side, since there is no apparent cost of increasing it.

Whenever someone in an organization proposes to add a new check, they should have to explain not just the benefit but the cost. No matter how bad a job they did of analyzing it, this meta-check would at least remind everyone there had to be a cost, and send them looking for it.

If companies started doing that, they’d find some surprises. Joel Spolsky recently spoke at Y Combinator about selling software to corporate customers. He said that in most companies software costing up to about $1000 could be bought by individual managers without any additional approvals. Above that threshold, software purchases generally had to be approved by a committee. But babysitting this process was so expensive for software vendors that it didn’t make sense to charge less than $50,000. Which means if you’re making something you might otherwise have charged $5000 for, you have to sell it for $50,000 instead.

The purpose of the committee is presumably to ensure that the company doesn’t waste money. And yet the result is that the company pays 10 times as much.

Let’s get to where he addresses Jobs’ maxim:

At big companies, software has to go through various approvals before it can be launched. And the cost of doing this can be enormous — in fact, discontinuous. I was talking recently to a group of three programmers whose startup had been acquired a few years before by a big company. When they’d been independent, they could release changes instantly. Now, they said, the absolute fastest they could get code released on the production servers was two weeks.

This didn’t merely make them less productive. It made them hate working for the acquirer.

Here’s a sign of how much programmers like to be able to work hard: these guys would have paid to be able to release code immediately, the way they used to. I asked them if they’d trade 10% of the acquisition price for the ability to release code immediately, and all three instantly said yes. Then I asked what was the maximum percentage of the acquisition price they’d trade for it. They said they didn’t want to think about it, because they didn’t want to know how high they’d go, but I got the impression it might be as much as half.

They’d have sacrificed hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions, just to be able to deliver more software to users. And you know what? It would have been perfectly safe to let them. In fact, the acquirer would have been better off; not only wouldn’t these guys have broken anything, they’d have gotten a lot more done. So the acquirer is in fact getting worse performance at greater cost. Just like the committee approving software purchases.

And just as the greatest danger of being hard to sell to is not that you overpay but that the best suppliers won’t even sell to you, the greatest danger of applying too many checks to your programmers is not that you’ll make them unproductive, but that good programmers won’t even want to work for you.

Steve Jobs’s famous maxim “artists ship” works both ways. Artists aren’t merely capable of shipping. They insist on it. So if you don’t let people ship, you won’t have any artists.

Why to Start a Startup in a Bad Economy

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

I enjoyed the opening to Paul Graham’s Why to Start a Startup in a Bad Economy:

The economic situation is apparently so grim that some experts fear we may be in for a stretch as bad as the mid seventies.

When Microsoft and Apple were founded.

Public schools aren’t designed to be bad

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Public schools aren’t designed to be bad, Paul Graham notes; they just seem that way:

There is an idea floating around that public schools are deliberately designed to turn out brainless conformists. I don’t believe this. I think public schools are just what you get by default. If you build a giant building out in the suburbs and lock the kids in it during weekdays in the care of a few overworked and mostly uninspired adults, you’ll get brainless conformists. You don’t need to posit a conspiracy.

I think nearly everything that’s wrong in schools can be explained by the lack of any external force pushing them to be good. They don’t compete with one another, except in sports (at which they do become good). Parents, though they may choose where to live based on the quality of the schools, never presume to demand more of a given school. College admissions departments, instead of demanding more of high schools, actively compensate for their flaws; they expect less from students from inferior schools, and this is only fair. Standardized tests are explicitly (though unsuccessfully) designed to be a test of aptitude rather than preparation.

Form follows function. Everything evolves into a shape dictated by the demands placed on it. And no one demands more of schools than that they keep kids off the streets till they’re old enough for college. So that’s what they do. At my school, it was easy not to learn anything, but hard to get out of the building without getting caught.

Markov and Paul Graham Parodies

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Jeff Atwood fed the text of the last twelve Paul Graham essays into an online Markov generator, using two word groupings — what Bentley refers to as “Order-2″ — and got this back:

You can feel the need to take advantage of increased cheapness, however. You’re not all playing a zero-sum game. There’s not some fixed number of startups; we fund startups we fund to work on matters of passing importance. But I’m uncomfortably aware that this is part of any illusions about the problem of overeating by stopping eating. I couldn’t simply avoid the Internet had become, because the company is the new trend of worrying obsessively about what it meant for someone, usually an outsider, who deliberately stirred up fights in a startup than just start it. You know how the A List is selected. And even that is more work.

Disconnecting Distraction

Monday, May 19th, 2008

Paul Graham shares one of his tricks for Disconnecting Distraction:

Maybe in the long term the right answer for dealing with Internet distractions will be software that watches and controls them. But in the meantime I’ve found a more drastic solution that definitely works: to set up a separate computer for using the Internet.

I now leave wifi turned off on my main computer except when I need to transfer a file or edit a web page, and I have a separate laptop on the other side of the room that I use to check mail or browse the web. (Irony of ironies, it’s the computer Steve Huffman wrote Reddit on. When Steve and Alexis auctioned off their old laptops for charity, I bought them for the Y Combinator museum.)

My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. And this turns out to be enough. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online.

And my main computer is now freed for work. If you try this trick, you’ll probably be struck by how different it feels when your computer is disconnected from the Internet. It was alarming to me how foreign it felt to sit in front of a computer that could only be used for work, because that showed how much time I must have been wasting.

Wow. All I can do at this computer is work. Ok, I better work then.

Lies We Tell Kids

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Paul Graham notes that adults lie constantly to kids, and whether we stop or not, we should at least examine which lies we tell kids and why:

One of the most remarkable things about the way we lie to kids is how broad the conspiracy is. All adults know what their culture lies to kids about: they’re the questions you answer “Ask your parents.” If a kid asked you who won the World Series in 1982 or what the atomic weight of carbon was, you could just tell him. But if a kid asks you “Is there a God?” or “What’s a prostitute?” you’ll probably say “Ask your parents.”

Since we all agree, kids see few cracks in the view of the world presented to them. [...] The conspiracy is so thorough that most kids who discover it do so only by discovering internal contradictions in what they’re told. It can be traumatic for the ones who wake up during the operation. [...] I remember that feeling. By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That’s why movies like The Matrix have such resonance. Every kid grows up in a fake world.

The most common reason adults give for lying to children is to protect them, which can backfire when 15-year-olds are still treated like 10-year-olds:

But few tell their kids about the differences between the real world and the cocoon they grew up in. Combine this with the confidence parents try to instill in their kids, and every year you get a new crop of 18 year olds who think they know how to run the world.

Don’t all 18 year olds think they know how to run the world? Actually this seems to be a recent innovation, no more than about 100 years old. In preindustrial times teenage kids were junior members of the adult world and comparatively well aware of their shortcomings. They could see they weren’t as strong or skillful as the village smith. In past times people lied to kids about some things more than we do now, but the lies implicit in an artificial, protected environment are a recent invention. Like a lot of new inventions, the rich got this first. Children of kings and great magnates were the first to grow up out of touch with the world. Suburbia means half the population can live like kings in that respect.

Instilling kids with confidence has its downsides:

One thing adults conceal about sex they also conceal about drugs: that it can cause great pleasure. That’s what makes sex and drugs so dangerous. The desire for them can cloud one’s judgement — which is especially frightening when the judgement being clouded is the already wretched judgement of a teenage kid.

Here parents’ desires conflict. Older societies told kids they had bad judgement, but modern parents want their children to be confident. This may well be a better plan than the old one of putting them in their place, but it has the side effect that after having implicitly lied to kids about how good their judgement is, we then have to lie again about all the things they might get into trouble with if they believed us.

If parents told their kids the truth about sex and drugs, it would be: the reason you should avoid these things is that you have lousy judgement. People with twice your experience still get burned by them. But this may be one of those cases where the truth wouldn’t be convincing, because one of the symptoms of bad judgement is believing you have good judgement. When you’re too weak to lift something, you can tell, but when you’re making a decision impetuously, you’re all the more sure of it.

Another reason we lie to children is to keep them innocent — but why?

It’s not surprising we’d have an inborn desire to love and protect helpless creatures, considering human offspring are so helpless for so long. Without the helplessness that makes kids cute, they’d be very annoying. They’d merely seem like incompetent adults. But there’s more to it than that. The reason our hypothetical jaded 10 year old bothers me so much is not just that he’d be annoying, but that he’d have cut off his prospects for growth so early. To be jaded you have to think you know how the world works, and any theory a 10 year old had about that would probably be a pretty narrow one.

Innocence is also open-mindedness. We want kids to be innocent so they can continue to learn. Paradoxical as it sounds, there are some kinds of knowledge that get in the way of other kinds of knowledge. If you’re going to learn that the world is a brutal place full of people trying to take advantage of one another, you’re better off learning it last. Otherwise you won’t bother learning much more.

Read the whole thing.

The secret to making money online

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals — that’s the guy behind Ruby on Rails — explains the secret to making money online at Paul Graham’s Startup School:

Be Good

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

Paul Graham says, Be Good:

When you’re small, you can’t bully customers, so you have to charm them. Whereas when you’re big you can maltreat them at will, and you tend to, because it’s easier than satisfying them. You grow big by being nice, but you can stay big by being mean.

You get away with it till the underlying conditions change, and then all your victims escape. So “Don’t be evil” may be the most valuable thing Paul Buchheit made for Google, because it may turn out to be an elixir of corporate youth. I’m sure they find it constraining, but think how valuable it will be if it saves them from lapsing into the fatal laziness that afflicted Microsoft and IBM.

Why There Aren’t More Googles

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Paul Graham explains why there aren’t more Googles — money guys undervalue the most innovative startups:

The reason there aren’t more Googles is not that investors encourage innovative startups to sell out, but that they won’t even fund them. I’ve learned a lot about VCs during the 3 years we’ve been doing Y Combinator, because we often have to work quite closely with them. The most surprising thing I’ve learned is how conservative they are. VC firms present an image of boldly encouraging innovation. Only a handful actually do, and even they are more conservative in reality than you’d guess from reading their sites.

I used to think of VCs as piratical: bold but unscrupulous. On closer acquaintance they turn out to be more like bureaucrats. They’re more upstanding than I used to think (the good ones, at least), but less bold. Maybe the VC industry has changed. Maybe they used to be bolder. But I suspect it’s the startup world that has changed, not them. The low cost of starting a startup means the average good bet is a riskier one, but most existing VC firms still operate as if they were investing in hardware startups in 1985.

Howard Aiken said “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” I have a similar feeling when I’m trying to convince VCs to invest in startups Y Combinator has funded. They’re terrified of really novel ideas, unless the founders are good enough salesmen to compensate.

And yet it’s the bold ideas that generate the biggest returns. Any really good new idea will seem bad to most people; otherwise someone would already be doing it. And yet most VCs are driven by consensus, not just within their firms, but within the VC community. The biggest factor determining how a VC will feel about your startup is how other VCs feel about it. I doubt they realize it, but this algorithm guarantees they’ll miss all the very best ideas. The more people who have to like a new idea, the more outliers you lose.

Whoever the next Google is, they’re probably being told right now by VCs to come back when they have more “traction.”

How to Disagree

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Paul Graham notes that “the web is turning writing into a conversation” and discusses how to disagree — which leads him to produce a disagreement hierarchy, from DH0 – Name-calling through DH6 – Refuting the Central Point.

Trolls

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

Paul Graham compares Internet trolls to graffiti taggers:

Graffiti happens at the intersection of ambition and incompetence: people want to make their mark on the world, but have no other way to do it than literally making a mark on the world.

Six Principles for Making New Things

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

Paul Graham shares his Six Principles for Making New Things:

I like to find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1, then (f) iterating rapidly.

When I first laid out these principles explicitly, I noticed something striking: this is practically a recipe for generating a contemptuous initial reaction. Though simple solutions are better, they don’t seem as impressive as complex ones. Overlooked problems are by definition problems that most people think don’t matter. Delivering solutions in an informal way means that instead of judging something by the way it’s presented, people have to actually understand it, which is more work. And starting with a crude version 1 means your initial effort is always small and incomplete.

How to Do Philosophy

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

In How to Do Philosophy, Paul Graham notes that “judging from their works, most philosophers up to the present have been wasting their time”:

Traditional philosophy occupies a kind of singularity in this respect. If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students. Till one knows better, it’s hard to distinguish something that’s hard to understand because the writer was unclear in his own mind from something like a mathematical proof that’s hard to understand because the ideas it represents are hard to understand. To someone who hasn’t learned the difference, traditional philosophy seems extremely attractive: as hard (and therefore impressive) as math, yet broader in scope. That was what lured me in as a high school student.

This singularity is even more singular in having its own defense built in. When things are hard to understand, people who suspect they’re nonsense generally keep quiet. There’s no way to prove a text is meaningless. The closest you can get is to show that the official judges of some class of texts can’t distinguish them from placebos.

And so instead of denouncing philosophy, most people who suspected it was a waste of time just studied other things. That alone is fairly damning evidence, considering philosophy’s claims. It’s supposed to be about the ultimate truths. Surely all smart people would be interested in it, if it delivered on that promise.

His proposal:

Perhaps we should do what Aristotle meant to do, instead of what he did. The goal he announces in the Metaphysics seems one worth pursuing: to discover the most general truths. That sounds good. But instead of trying to discover them because they’re useless, let’s try to discover them because they’re useful.
[...]
The test of utility I propose is whether we cause people who read what we’ve written to do anything differently afterward. Knowing we have to give definite (if implicit) advice will keep us from straying beyond the resolution of the words we’re using.

How Not to Die

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

Paul Graham explains — to the startups he’s funded — How Not to Die:

A couple days ago I told a reporter that we expected about a third of the companies we funded to succeed. Actually I was being conservative. I’m hoping it might be as much as a half. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could achieve a 50% success rate?

Another way of saying that is that half of you are going to die. Phrased that way, it doesn’t sound good at all. In fact, it’s kind of weird when you think about it, because our definition of success is that the founders get rich. If half the startups we fund succeed, then half of you are going to get rich and the other half are going to get nothing.

If you can just avoid dying, you get rich. That sounds like a joke, but it’s actually a pretty good description of what happens in a typical startup. It certainly describes what happened in Viaweb. We avoided dying till we got rich.

It was really close, too. When we were visiting Yahoo to talk about being acquired, we had to interrupt everything and borrow one of their conference rooms to talk down an investor who was about to back out of a new funding round we needed to stay alive. So even in the middle of getting rich we were fighting off the grim reaper.

You may have heard that quote about luck consisting of opportunity meeting preparation. You’ve now done the preparation. The work you’ve done so far has, in effect, put you in a position to get lucky: you can now get rich by not letting your company die. That’s more than most people have. So let’s talk about how not to die.

We’ve done this five times now, and we’ve seen a bunch of startups die. About 10 of them so far. We don’t know exactly what happens when they die, because they generally don’t die loudly and heroically. Mostly they crawl off somewhere and die.

For us the main indication of impending doom is when we don’t hear from you. When we haven’t heard from, or about, a startup for a couple months, that’s a bad sign. If we send them an email asking what’s up, and they don’t reply, that’s a really bad sign. So far that is a 100% accurate predictor of death.

Whereas if a startup regularly does new deals and releases and either sends us mail or shows up at YC events, they’re probably going to live.

I realize this will sound naive, but maybe the linkage works in both directions. Maybe if you can arrange that we keep hearing from you, you won’t die.

Holding a Program in One’s Head

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

Paul Graham shares some tips for Holding a Program in One’s Head:

It’s striking how often programmers manage to hit all eight points by accident. Someone has an idea for a new project, but because it’s not officially sanctioned, he has to do it in off hours — which turn out to be more productive because there are no distractions. Driven by his enthusiasm for the new project he works on it for many hours at a stretch. Because it’s initially just an experiment, instead of a “production” language he uses a mere “scripting” language — which is in fact far more powerful. He completely rewrites the program several times; that wouldn’t be justifiable for an official project, but this is a labor of love and he wants it to be perfect. And since no one is going to see it except him, he omits any comments except the note-to-self variety. He works in a small group perforce, because he either hasn’t told anyone else about the idea yet, or it seems so unpromising that no one else is allowed to work on it. Even if there is a group, they couldn’t have multiple people editing the same code, because it changes too fast for that to be possible. And the project starts small because the idea is small at first; he just has some cool hack he wants to try out.

Even more striking are the number of officially sanctioned projects that manage to do all eight things wrong. In fact, if you look at the way software gets written in most organizations, it’s almost as if they were deliberately trying to do things wrong. In a sense, they are. One of the defining qualities of organizations since there have been such a thing is to treat individuals as interchangeable parts. This works well for more parallelizable tasks, like fighting wars. For most of history a well-drilled army of professional soldiers could be counted on to beat an army of individual warriors, no matter how valorous. But having ideas is not very parallelizable. And that’s what programs are: ideas.