Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

All the Technology but None of the Love

This post has been re-written several times, so please forgive me if it does not come across as coherent as I would like to. The main reason for the re-write was this post by Martin Wedge. Originally I planned to scrap the whole thing but maybe having a different perspective will help, I’ve deleted those parts that he covers and have tried to massage the rest into something resembling a continuous whole but there are still big gaps, apologies for that.

When I wrote this the first time around it was titled ‘Those Cranky Old Men’, which was flawed for two obvious reasons, the fact that it isn’t just the men that are cranky and they’re not all that old. But since the majority of the complainers really are men (or at least, the ones that I’m presently aware of) and that even Linus is now officially old and a graybeard at that it wasn’t the worst possible title.

But it missed out on conveying the most important part of what I wrote. Which is that today, with technology at our fingertips that the majority of scientists and passionate programmers from not all that long ago would have gladly sold their grandmothers or a kidney for we are further than ever away from the future that I foresaw as a young (17 or so) kid finding his way into the world of software, and a good part of that is that there is an enormous influx of people into tech that are in it just for the money and that couldn’t give a damn about how they achieve their goals.

The ‘hacker’ moniker (long a badge of honor, now a derogatory term) applied to quite a few of those that were working to make computers do useful stuff. The systems were so limited (typically: 16K RAM, graphics 256x192, monochrome, or maybe a bit better than that and a couple of colours (16 if you were lucky) a while later) that you had to get really good at programming if you wanted to achieve anything worth displaying to others. And so we got good, or changed careers. The barrier to entry was so high that those that made it across really knew their stuff.

Of course that’s not what you want, you want all this to be as accessible as possible but real creativity starts when resources are limited. Being able to work your way around the limitations and being able to make stuff do what it wasn’t intended for in the first place (digital re-purposing) is what hacking was all about to me. I simply loved the challenges, the patient mirror that was the screen that would show me mercilessly what I’d done wrong over and over again until I finally learned how to express myself fluently and (relatively) faultlessly.

Being a young and very naive kid I ended up working for what today would be called ‘founders’ of companies that had no tech chops whatsoever but that were good at spotting talent and aiming that talent to serve their goals. This made some of those people very rich indeed (and I saw none of the proceeds). But instead of being bitter I learned the ways of business besides the ways of technology and when the internet hit I saw my chance and finally managed to make a (small) dent in the box that surrounded me.

If you’re a regular reader of James Hague, Martin Wedge linked above or any one of a number of ‘old guys’ then you’ll notice this recurring theme. Learned to program as a kid, totally fell in love with it and comes across as a grumpy old man that is about to tell you to get off their lawn.

I think I have a handle on why this common thread exists between all those different writings, in a word, disappointment.

What you could do with the hardware at your disposal is absolutely incredible compared to what we actually are doing with it. Note the complete lack of eye-candy on all these pages? Substance over form. Compare that to the latest github announcement of some two bit project with a catchy name and a super nicely designed logo but only an initial commit of a blank page. All form, no substance.

And then there’s the entrepreneurial climate. That’s a subject all by itself, the dog-eat-dog world of the new exploitation. CEOs of companies with two people, non-technical co-founders looking for a ‘first hire’ at a terribly low salary and with 0.05% stock to create their ‘vision’ which will surely ‘change the world’.

Want to see an entrepreneur change the world? This guy has the right idea. Another way to share cat pictures? Not so much. Most of these guys couldn’t code their way out of a wet paper bag if they had to and just like the people that managed to get my best time for peanuts are looking to repeat history.

Let me give you a hint when you’re looking for employment from a newly founded start-up: If you don’t feel the offer that you’ve received is worth spending $2K or so on a lawyer to have it vetted then you are probably better off with out it (thanks, brudgers).

To expand a bit on that: if you love technology but you are not business savvy you are essentially ripe for the plucking by people that are business savvy and that don’t give a damn about the tech other than when it suits their goals (usually: get rich quick).

The equation for becoming a low numbered employee at a start-up goes something like this:

Let ‘p’ be the probability of failure of a start-up at its current stage (pre-seed, seed, series-A)

Let ‘c’ be your proposed compensation per month.

Let ’m’ be the market rate monthly for a person of your capabilities in your locality.

Let ‘e’ be the average exit for companies in that line of business.

Let ’s’ be your proposed stock grant as a fraction of the total issued stock

Let ’t’ be the time to exit in months for the average start-up

If ((1-p) * s * e) < (m-c)*t

Then you’re much better off just getting a market rate salary, even if you’re not in it for the money there is no reason to set yourself up for being (ab)used.

Simply treat that stock as you would treat any lottery ticket and look at your compensation package accordingly. Don’t let your love of the technology get the better of you and allow you to be used, lest you become another one of those ‘cranky old people’ in the longer term.

You’re probably better of keeping your love of the subject and chasing your own particular variety of rainbow and maybe you’ll come up with something great without burning out on the next advertising or marketing scheme. The world needs more people that love this work and fewer that burn out on crap projects, and that repeat the same mistakes over-and-over again, know your history, what was tried and why it succeeded or failed. This alone will save you years of your life.

Learn about efficiency, learn how that stuff works under the hood, your value will go up accordingly. Of course, that’s easy for me to say. When I encountered computers the revolution was just about to get underway so I ended up taking it all in piecemeal, one little step at the time. When you’re thrown in at the deep end in 2015 it will definitely seem to be overwhelming. But that’s just the surface, it’s all logical and you can dive down as far and as fast as you want to. Keep the love for the tech alive, ignore the get rich quick types and treat programming like you would treat any creative skill, like music, painting, woodworking or making stuff with glass or metal. It’s a craft and an art, as much as people have been trying to make it into an industry, without creativity you can’t make good software.

Please do not become one of those people in tech that are just in it for the money but that actually hate the technology itself.