Thursday 30 April 2009

One week in startup-land

The last month or so has been a period of change for me - in that time I started one job, left it after two weeks, had a week off, and started another one! As a result of which I haven't really established any kind of routine and haven't been very good at blogging (although I have been "tweeting" or micro-blogging - you can follow me on Twitter as @alexbfree).

The first job was a web development job I found via PHP Québec, and it was the first tech job that came along really. It was perfectly ok, and helped me brush up my PHP and MySQL skills, but as you will have realised from my recent posts, my heart's not really in it to "just" be a programmer any more. I want to work with real teams and businesses, develop ideas and do stuff that matters.

A Serendipitous Moment

I felt it was a most fortuituous occurrence when I discovered this job ad back at the start of April. I knew I had to apply; it described an ideal candidate with insatiable curiosity, an analytical mind, a passion for all things Internet, an awareness of GTD for organisation and most of all a desire to change the world a little at a time. It was like reading a description of myself. I knew I had to apply.

Over the next week and a half, I spent many hours completing a number of "assignments" which formed my application for the job - including researching social network monitoring to write a blog post on the subject, producing a taxonomy of Twitter analysis tools, describing how I would overhaul the company's information management, and preparing a presentation on cloud computing. The great thing about doing these assignments is that they built on my existing skills but also taught me about new areas such as using social media (e.g. Twitter) for marketing - something I'd not considered - and also Cloud Computing - which I had heard a little about but didn't really "get" until now. (For the unitiated, cloud computing is the next big thing after Web 2.0, and it's about outsourcing your hardware, software, processing and data storage to web-based services provided by companies like Amazon and Google - allowing businesses to adapt and scale much more quickly and cheaply).

I must have done something right, because Alistair (my soon-to-be boss) was very impressed and invited me for interview a couple of days later, whereupon he offered me the job! I gave in my notice for my first job the next day, and as I was still in a trial period I was able to leave without having to work any notice. Nonetheless, I took a week off in between jobs to catch up on a few bits and pieces (and not least because I could!)

We're not in Kansas corporate-land any more!

I started my job as Program Manager of Rednod last Thursday, so I've now spent a week in what you might call "startup land". I hadn't appreciated the extent to which Montréal is like a mini Silicon Valley - I really am very lucky that Alex ended up getting a role here and not somewhere random like Oregon or Texas as it turned out to be the ideal place for me to take my career to the next level.

This first week has been total culture shock - but in a good way. I had had some exposure to startup culture when working in IBM for an acquired startup company (Trigo, which became WebSphere Product Center) but this is much smaller and at an earlier stage. One of the biggest differences is the complete lack of any pattern to work hours. I can more or less come and go as I please, provided I get the job done and make an effort to check in to the office regularly when my boss is in town. This is made much easier by my shiny new MacBook (one of many perks of the job) - and given this is a city with lots of free wi-fi about, I really can work from anywhere. This is in stark contrast to the previous role where we had fixed hours, fixed lunch break and even recommended times for a 15 minute break in the morning and afternoon. I really do think that in this day and age the smart employers are the ones who let their employees have a life, give them clear tasks and responsibilities and hold them accountable on that basis rather than arbitrary things like being in the office for set hours. This way employees are happier and people can work when they are most productive.

And it's not just the lack of normal work hours that make it different... the lines between work and play are much more blurred.. On my first day my boss took me for lunch, and some of the conversation was social, some work related, and the latter part of the day was spent in the beer garden of a nearby pub, partly on work discussion and partly just chatting.

I've learnt that while I've always been quite strict on work/life balance (believing in "work to live" not "live to work") this can be somewhat turned on its head when the work you are doing is so close to what you might do for fun anyway - and when you get to hang out and talk tech and bounce ideas around with like-minded people as you might choose to do anyway even if you weren't getting paid! It's early days of course, and I'm sure there will be busy times too - but one thing's for sure, it's unlike any job I've done before.

Room with a view

The work environment is amazing - a downtown 24th floor office (with a spectacular view) divided into a number of small offices, each holding one or two small startup companies. It's a real hotbed of innovation and interesting things are happening all around me.. In one office some smart people are reinventing the book publishing industry; in another, a small team is plotting the next innovations to one of the web's biggest budget travel sites. And we have a really great common "living room" area too, complete with a bean bag chair, which I worked from the other afternoon - just 'cause I could.

Clouds, Customers and Creating Conversations

Let me tell you a bit more about the job itself. There are two aspects to my work. Rednod is a "startup accelerator", that is, a company providing business and technical consulting to startups, and much of my work involves supporting that work through research, report-writing or working with customers to improve their processes. As part of my job I am also an Analyst for technology blog Bitcurrent which involves researching and writing articles, and helping to organise technical conferences. To give you a flavour of the sort of things I'm doing, here's some of the things I've been doing this week and that I've got coming up

  • I've created a wiki to help manage our internal information.
  • I've done some research and preparation for our GigaOM post about the way e-mail is changing - which has generated some great debate - and am interviewing "Inbox 2.0" vendors to collect more in preparation for a follow up post on Bitcurrent
  • I'm making preparations for a demo I'll be supporting at the Enterprise Cloud Summit, which Bitcurrent runs as part of the Interop 2009 conference in Las Vegas.
  • I'm working with a programmer in St. Petersburg to port an Amazon cloud application to Google App Engine (which involves learning some Python, Django, and Google App Engine).
  • I'll be doing some process improvement work and custom tooling with one of our customers to optimize their community management
  • I'll be helping to organise more conferences such as the 2009 return of Bitnorth.
  • And I'll be developing ideas about the next big thing in tech, blogging, researching and all manner of other things besides.
In case you haven't noticed, I think I may have found something very close to my ideal job!

I'll wrap up with some insights on startups vs corporates in the IT industry, from this first week and my past experiences. Three things startups do that big business could do more 1. Customer focus I know that big corporations answer to their shareholders - and this means profit and growth become top priorities. But really, shouldn't it be about customers first and foremost? Solve their real problems and they will pay and think highly of you - employees will be happier too because they will feel that their work matters. 2. Employee freedom As I mentioned above - more companies should focus on holding their employees responsible for tasks - not time at the desk. This is what pays the bills, ultimately - and results in higher productivity and less stress in the workplace. 3. Employee perks New startups seem to give employees more - whether it's free tea and coffee (or even beer!) or the occasional free lunch - or just nicer office kit.. It can make a real difference to employee happiness and hence productivity. I remember having to pay 13p for a cup of hot water at IBM. Last Friday, my boss came in my office at 2.45pm and presented me with a beer - the first of several. That contrast says a lot about how differently two companies can value employee happiness! Three things big business does that startups could do more 1. Structured planning Because the focus of a new company is satisfying a need, it's easy to create unrealistic goals or take on many new projects at once. Big businesses have learned that the key to meeting your goals is making sure they are sized and scheduled realistically. 2. Clarity of roles and processes In small companies people are naturally multi-skilled - they have to be - this can result in ambiguity about who should do what. Sometimes person A has the skill but person B has the time or the contacts/resources. I think multi-skilled teams are the way forward.. but without set teams or roles, you have to be really careful that everyone is on the same page about who's doing what. 3. Instant messaging This is perhaps a personal one, but one thing I've really missed from IBM is "Sametime" (the internal instant messaging application). I hadn't realised how much I relied on it. Knowing that everyone is almost always logged on and that you can quickly reach them without having to rely on voicemail or email is a huge benefit. Of course one of the problems is that with no IM standard, and no IM "directory", it is much harder to build a network especially when your network of contacts spans several companies.

If you'd like to read more about what Alex and I have been up to the last month, take a look at Mrs Alex's blog. I'll be uploading some more photos to Flickr soon as well. As always, thanks for reading!