5 Reasons Why Joel's Business (Probably) Isn't Like Yours
Joel Spolsky has had a lot of interesting things to say about software and the software business, including this week when he had a whole series on hiring. In this week's series, he said lots of things that programmers are bound to like: treat your developers like rockstars, give them all Aeron chairs and super-expensive monitors, build an elaborate atrium with a fountain just to impress your developers.
You have to admire Joel's approach, because it says right on his site that his business is all about programmers:
|Best Working Conditions||=>||Best Programmers||=>||Best Software||=>||Profit!|
If you're a programmer, how can you not like that?
I'm sure his recent series (and maybe his blog in general) has left a lot of people thinking: wow, my company isn't like that. Joel is so much cooler than my company. And, well, maybe he is. But before you go in to your boss and start complaining about how he's cheap, and if he would just run his business like Fog Creek, things would be so much better, here are a few reasons to take his ideas with a grain of salt and think about whether they would really benefit the company where you work.
By the way, I'm not really an expert on Fog Creek or anything, so I'm inferring a lot of this as I go along. And I'm not doing this to trash Joel, because I love reading his writing, so if you're reading this to get to the good parts where I really rip him a new one, well, sorry.
1. Fog Creek is a software business
In a software business, the developers drive the products. Programmers are always going to be pretty vital to a software company. By contrast, at an automaker or a bond trading firm, it's going to be people like car designers or bond traders that are the rockstars -- they're the ones that make the business go.
By the way, here's a corollary: all other things being equal, it's more fun for a programmer to work at a software company than to write software for a business in another industry. Any software company that cares about its products cares about its programmers.
2. Joel doesn't have 2000 people
This is the "not everyone can be a rockstar" rule. The larger a company gets, the harder it is to only hire the kind of superstars Joel talks about looking for. It's not clear that his model scales to bigger businesses.
Then again, he learned the software business at Microsoft which always used to have a rep for only hiring brilliant people, so maybe it's not impossible to scale this model, but merely really difficult.
3. Joel started up with a good-sized chunk of capital
This is just speculation -- I could be wrong. But his basic premise of starting a really cool business with Aeron chairs and an atrium and expensive monitors makes it sound like he (and maybe his occasionally-mentioned business partner, who I don't know anything about) had a bunch of Microsoft options that vested and brought in a bunch of money as seed capital.
I don't mean that in a dismissive way, such as "well, anyone could start a successful software business if they had that kind of capital." That's actually not at all true. Most Microsoft people who vested and started their own businesses completely failed. What it means is, if you start a business by maxing out a Visa card, for god's sake, don't spend the money on an Aeron chair.
Also, because I presume that the capital was mostly his, he didn't have people pressuring him to show a large immediate return. If you have Venture Capitalists breathing down your neck, don't go hook yourself up with an office with a fancy atrium, just because Joel told you to. Keep your burn rate low, like everyone learned from the dot com crash.
4. Fog Creek makes shrinkwrap software
Joel wrote a really good essay a few years ago about the 5 Worlds of Software Development. One of them is shrinkwrap software, which is what Fog Creek does.
Shrinkwrap software is great. Everyone actually pays you to use your software, which, if you do it right, makes it a lot easier to pay your bills than if you write open source and hope to live off support contracts or build a cool website and hope to live off Google AdWords.
Not only do you get paid up front, but the best part about shrinkwrap is that it scales like crazy. If you work in an IT department and build internal software, you work closely with your client, and you usually can't easily add any more clients. If you write software with a heavy customization component, you pretty much have to add new fleets of consultants or VARs as fast as you add clients. But if you sell shrinkwrap, then as you add more clients, the money from the new sales mostly goes straight to the bottom line.
What this means is that if you have a shrinkwrap company, you have the best possible situation to actually generate a return on hiring rockstar programmers and throwing expensive perks at them. You have a situation where you get paid for producing software people want, and there's a significant asymmetric relationship between the work that goes in and the money that comes back if you're successful. The only thing you have to watch out for is secondary costs like technical support, which merely reinforces that you have to build and test it right in the first place.
Here's the thing, though: as evidenced by the fact that there aren't many startups doing shrinkwrap anymore, it's a tough business to succeed at. As you would expect from the asymmetric returns, and as evidenced by Microsoft, it tends to be a winner-take-all business. More sales => more money to invest in products and marketing => even more sales. So what does it take to be successful? Well, one is good products up front, so you can sell some in the first place. This is where the whole rockstar programmers thing comes in, and why it makes sense for Joel to give everyone Aeron chairs.
The other big one, of course, is simple market awareness: get your product in front of people. And that's where the blog with millions of hits comes in. Which brings us to my last point:
5. Joel's target market is programmers
If you've ever heard MBAs wet themselves talking about synergy and thought that it was all a pile of B.S., well, sometimes even MBAs are right. Because Joel's business is just one giant perpetual motion machine of synergy. He clearly spends a ton of time writing blog entries about software development and software businesses, but it all pays off, because his target market is other programmers. Soccer moms and MBAs surely don't have any use for bug tracking software and remote-support applications -- developers do. So Joel's investment of his time in his blog pays off in massive brand awareness among his target market.
Joel writes all these things about hiring, and how programmers should be treated as rockstars. And one benefit is that he must have one monster applicant pool. But another is that it ties right into what his target market wants to hear. Not only that, but after all the time he spends talking about how he only hires the best of the best, who wouldn't want to at least evaluate his software if they need bug tracking? I mean, what kind of schmuck would settle for ordinary software when they can have code written by supergeniuses (even if it is in VBScript)?
Now, someone is going to read this last point and think I'm saying that Joel is evil: he's just doing all of this to trick us into buying his software. But that's not my point at all. The guy has built a business where he gets to go to work in a fun environment and write code with lots of other smart people. He gets to be famous in the blogosphere, and have lots of people hanging on his every word. And as icing on the cake, he gets to profit from the whole thing on top of it. There ain't nothing wrong with that other than that we can't all be that lucky (though really, it isn't luck -- it's a smart business plan).
But like I said at the start, your business (probably) isn't like that. So if you don't have the Aeron chair and the fountain and the 30" monitor, it probably has something to do with one of these reasons.