The following video is the core content of the second part of a Desing Thinking workshop imparted by our friend Michael Gharabiklou, Founder/Managing Partner at Quor Studio. You can watch part one here.
The following video is the core content of the second part of a Desing Thinking workshop imparted by our friend Michael Gharabiklou, Founder/Managing Partner at Quor Studio. You can watch part one here.
On his visit to TangoSource’s México’s Headquarters, our friend Michael Gharabiklou, Founder/Managing Partner at Quor Studio, shared his knowledge about Design Thinking with us.
The following video is the core content of a 3-hour workshop and the first part of a 2-video series. It Includes the Design Thinking process and the importance of empathy in this methodology, among other topics.
“Geek out” might seem like a strange and vague company value, so why write an entire blog post about that value alone? I recently met with a consultant who came down to our main development office in Colima a few months ago, and we were discussing her experience with us. By comparison to different service firms in Mexico, some who have their employees drink the Kool-Aid, she felt that a key advantage for us is one particular cultural element: Geek Out.
When I wrote our company culture document a few years ago, I put a lot of myself into it, based on my reality at the time and my aspirations for what a nearshore product development shop could be. After mulling it over for a few days, I had my list, and I realized it didn’t paint the complete picture of who we are and how we work. I added Geek Out as the last value on the list (at the time) after thinking about how much our team likes gaming, how we’ve all got different personal interests, and how we support each other’s personal expression.
Geeking out means to celebrate all of our respective individuality. In my experience, gaming helps people learn how to communicate and strategize flexibly and effectively. As you learn the rules of new games, you have to adapt. Each game has a variety of hard and soft skills, and tabletop games require that you play both the rules, and the other players. The same is true for music, dance, cooking, sports, and pretty much anything that people are passionate about.
Product and software development could be considered one of the most challenging and rewarding games in the world. It takes years to develop the hard skills which can be more easily observed: Is your code clear, maintainable, scalable, precise, and well architected? It also takes a lot of soft skills to be more than just an efficient code monkey: empathy, proactive communication, knowing what’s going on in tech, and personal ownership of the product and customer success. To be a high-level product person means putting your entire self and experiences into your work.
So if you work with us, or want to, please understand the intent of Geek Out. The best people bring their all into what they do. Rather than stifle individuality, I feel we should help it grow and mature, for all of us to enjoy and learn from.
Curious about senior recruiting and communities? Here’s a talk I did at Hirepalooza 2015. Here are the Hirepalooza 2015 slides, which might help, given a couple jumps in the video. This is the description from the talk:
Even if you have a limited budget you still need to recruit tech talent. Join Eric Siegfried, CEO of TangoSource as he talks about how to find and hire the most critical technical talent on your team– even when you have close to no budget. From this session you’ll learn how to build and leverage an ecosystem, relate more to senior talent, and raise the level of your team.
We’ve been working with Heather Poon to provide open source art for a top down zombie shooter game. It is covered under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license
For those of you who happen to look at other parts of our site, like the portfolio, you may have curious about our personal productivity tool, Todo Zen. It’s a great example of a viable product that was too slow to the market to make an impact, derailed by the success of an incompatible business. So what happened, and what can you learn from our experience?
After trying out our first product that was getting limited traction in a small market, we realized it was time to move on. My cofounder, Federico, suggested that we try creating a task management tool, and introduced me to Kanban. That evening, we went to a restaurant, and wireframed most of what would be in the product with torn up napkins.
The Mac App store was coming in a couple months, and we wanted to try to package a web app that we could launch on multiple platforms. This was our first mistake, since we were beholden to a dev with limited availability, who had some slightly exotic knowledge. This added at least three months of delay to the process, and we gave up first mover advantage in the store. I also was a bit perfectionistic about the design, and a redesign and implementation cost us another 3 months. Clearly we went well beyond MVP to get this out the door.
While all this development was going on, around a year and a half ago we met our first major service customer at a conference where we were demoing Todo Zen, and saw a new business model that could be scaled. Success in the app store seemed like it would be a lightning strike at that point, and I felt like we were competing for a small segment with a lot of devs who are obsessed with productivity too. Faster cash flow also won out, given a couple years at product attempts that had limited traction.
I think the experience was valuable, as it allowed us to learn what’s involved in making product, and it felt like we experienced almost every single one of the pitfalls involved. If we had to do it over again, I would start by choosing a larger market, and leveraging areas where we have an unfair advantage. From the Oracle of Omaha:
In business, I look for economic castles protected by unbreachable ‘moats’.
Buffet is looking for lasting competitive advantages in his investments. Understanding your team strengths, and where it can uniquely exploit the opportunities in front of it, is a recipe for great success. If there’s a large market that has an opening for a different approach, with very few people capable of executing, the odds will be stacked in your favor. According to the Small Business Administration, around half of businesses fail in their first 5 years. My advice? Take every advantage you can get.
Team extension (noun):The service category of helping companies scale their staff with remote contractors who integrate into the current business process.
So where did this term come from? Back in 2009, after a few months of working part time on my first software product, my company announced a voluntary layoff program, due to the excess software engineers in the organization. Within a day, I signed up to sign off. With some self funding, I had an 18 month window to try to find a profitable business after I found a technical co-founder.
During that time period, we killed off one product, started a second, and finally found a working business model, by paying attention to how our business was actually performing. So how did we get to 12 people on payroll from just 2 co-founders in a little over 2 years? Here is the story of team extension, the foundation of TangoSource’s growth.
After our first product failed, we wanted to lengthen our runway by doing outsourced contract work. TangoSource already had a couple of advantages from having an office in Mexico, namely time zone, and software developers with an understanding US culture. Sometimes things went well, other times we had plenty of room for improvement. There were a couple important commonalities that I noticed in projects that didn’t meet our standards.
1. Outsourcers hate losing face. As Malcolm Gladwell mentions in his book Outliers, many cultures recognize status differential more profoundly than people in the US or Europe do. This often comes to light when an outsourced dev should mention an issue, but instead tries to think his way out of the situation. They spin their wheels trying to solve the issue themselves, whether it was a bad requirement, an architectural error, or a mistake that they should have owed up to a long time ago.
2. Fixed scopes create adversarial situations, instead of building teams. From the Thoughtbot Playbook:
“We don’t do fixed-bid fixed-feature-set proposals. This contract style sets the vendor and client working against each other instead of with each other, right from day one. Instead of discussing how a feature should be built, or what assumptions were wrong, you spend time negotiating about what was meant in a document written a long time ago. But it’s worse than negotiating – it’s retroactively discussing something that no one will remember the same way anyway.”
Nowadays, we offer a free 20 hour trial, that would otherwise be spent making estimates. This is in alignment with Agile Estimation and Planning, one of my favorite PM books, which digs into a strong alternative to running fixed bid projects, by using empirical data for each project to reasonably estimate future performance.
In early 2011, at the Launch conference, I ran into someone who would fundamentally change the way we were doing business. I mentioned my access to tech talent, and that we were doing contract work on the side. After keeping in touch over the course of a few months, we started an engagement with one of Seattle’s premiere Rails consultancies.
What I noticed a couple months in, after nailing down communication, process, and training our developer in unit testing, was the gradual decrease in time commitment from our leadership. This engagement was profitable, and easily maintained, and I realized I had a scalable business model. After some soul searching, we decided to shift to a service model, since we didn’t see anyone doing similar work in the marketplace, and saw a serious need. That initial engagement has been ongoing since then, and we have fostered others like it, thereby allowing us to focus on recruiting and training, while having high utilization.
So why did we decide to specialize in a new service category? According to much of The 22Immutable Laws of Marketing, it’s important to be seen as first in the market in some way or another. There’s also a long term strategic benefit to becoming the authority in a category, particularly one that generates value for everyone involved. So what’s in it for our customer?
There are a lot of choices from the toolbox to run a project. Some tools, such as project management (eg: Pivotal Tracker, or a variety of Kanban SaaS) mean picking a single tool for the project. Other times there are a variety of tools that can be used, and it’s a question of using the most lightweight ones that get the best outcomes. Here are a some of the practices that have helped for Team extension:
1. Pair programming. Pairing helps developers work out more complex code issues, by creating a social environment where two people focus deeply on code, as well as easing knowledge transfer. For Team extension, it has a key benefit of allowing a team to take collective responsibility for rough patches in the software development process, instead of an individual spinning their wheels, trying to figure out a way to avoid losing face. Additionally, two minds mean that it’s less likely for there to be an issue to get stuck on in the first place.
2. Text standups. Having minutes of what people have accomplished, what they’re planning on accomplishing, and where they’re stuck can be helpful for Team extension. First off, sometimes customers can’t always attend a SCRUM standup. Second, some devs may have good written English, but are not easy to understand via voice. This practice has helped avoid a lot of miscommunication.
3. Use a good task tracker. Transparency is key when building teams, possibly more so when certain members are remote. Being able to see what’s going on with a granularity that’s helpful, but not onerous, gives PMs and product owners the chance to help clear roadblocks to productivity.
There’s also a bit of secret sauce that goes into setting up projects, managing software development, and training developers. I’ll probably write a separate Team Extension best practices article sometime in the future.
If you’d told me 3 years ago if I’d be running a service business, I’d have been incredulous. Once I saw what was happening objectively, with a reality check from mentors, I was able to lead the evolution of an advantage into a working business. If you happen to lucky enough to be able to validate a business model, I suggest you press every advantage available to establish your position in the marketplace.
When you’re trying to create a new product as a non technical person, it might seem easy at first, until you start looking for real technical partners. Either you need to pay more than you can afford, or they simply aren’t interested in what you want. As a potential technical co-founder, there’s often so much work that has to be done before an idea gets validated, it sometimes feels like you’re on your own, with a non technical co-founder just waiting for things to happen.
Creating true partnership is what’s required to if you want to offer your deep gifts to the world. For myself, it took a while to find a real technical partner. Hopefully this post will make your efforts a bit easier.
I was at a tech mixer recently where I was talking to a gent, let’s call him John, who had been looking for a co-founder for months, with no success. His project was technically challenging, leveraging a monetization strategy for a platform that had no track record. John was banging his head against a wall. He didn’t realize the sacrifice that his potential technical co-founders would have to endure for a risky startup. I felt bad for him, and explained most of what I’ve put in this post. I’m hopeful that this effort will help you avoid some of his pain.
When joining a startup, founders implicitly agree to a multi year commitment to each other. It takes time for ideas to prove out or fail, and there’s a huge opportunity cost. People could take paying gigs instead, or simply do a different startup. The startup is like a baby, that could mature into something great, but there’s a required sunk cost that could be years of work before the magic happens. Because of this, your partner should be someone who you enjoy sharing the journey with.
Technical co-founders early on in a startup really are playing the nurturing role. So much of their time goes into product, whereas it’s sometimes hard to see what a business co-founder brings to the table other than cash. When approaching someone for a possible committed relationship, ideas by themselves are cheap, action is what counts. If you were to approach a potential mate and simply say, “we should get together and have sexy children” that wouldn’t cut it, and neither is a simple business idea.
This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t form relationships, as successful ones happen all the time. It just means that you have to create the foundations in yourself before approaching someone, expecting a positive outcome
1. Be authentic. If you want to show that you’d be a good partner, you need to be human and genuinely relate with people, not objectify them by assuming they are there to do things for you. Interact with the WHOLE person by talking with genuine curiousity about their interests and desires.
2. Validate your product idea. If you’re providing business skills for the startup, back it up with action. Take steps towards product market fit, such as getting signed Letters of Intent (LOIs) which show that your product will have revenue on day 1. You could also create a business model canvas, and collect real world data for each section of the canvas.
3. Cocreate an experience. There’s value to be found in most social interactions. Don’t presume an outcome, go with an open mind and a belief that there is some spontaneous positive result that can happen if you have an open mind. You can create with the other person, and meet them where they are to get to a new place. It’s hard to tell if you’ll work well with someone until you actually do so in some way. Startup Weekend is a great shortcut that can help see how people work.
4. Give a gift regardless of expected outcome. In a recent article, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman talks about “giving helpful help” as a means of nurturing new relationships. To be able to do so, you need to know the other person well enough to figure out how you could help them with a reasonable investment of time. In the past, I’ve pointed people to different books, or made introductions. As long as this feels like a personal gift, you’re golden.
5. If needed, bring cash. Just like the technical co-founder who is putting tons of hours in, you need to have skin in the game. Executing the non-technical parts of your business plan is a must, but often this translates to providing funding for enough runway for V1 and possibly a major pivot afterwards.
Just like dating, it helps to know what you’re looking for if you want to avoid wasting time, and create something wonderful. Have a set of criterion, such as values, skillset, and work ethic, which will help you select on a logical level.
So how do you know if your values are compatible? Here’s a shout out to Tony Wright, who shared some key startup values with me. Here’s a paraphrasing:
A lot of these values are about risk. If you’re serious about the same problem, agree on the financial risks, and are going for the same sized goal, you probably are compatible with respect to risk.
Finally, a major benefit of being genuinely selective is that it projects that you value yourself. Most people want to be with someone that knows their own worth. It also helps to listen to your gut, because you’re deciding on a relationship, not solving a mathematical equation.
It helps to have a solid network of friends, not only to have more candidates, but to lay the groundwork for business partnership. I go over an example of this in my blog post about volunteering for a non-profit, Vittana, which ended up turning into business. In general, what you want is a T shaped network, which is wide and sometimes deep, as a catalyst for great ideas and partnerships.
Just like dating, you need to get out there a lot! Ideally spend time in places that you’d enjoy, regardless of outcome, such as a tech gaming night. Building up a group of friends in the startup community takes time, but like anything worthwhile, the time spent pays off in profound, life changing ways.
Does free work sound like a bottomless pit of time expenditure, with no chance of compensation? Have you ever wondered how to do pro bono work in a way that not only improves the world but helps out your bottom line? Our team just released some pro bono work for Vittana, which I think was time well spent. Below you can find out how it came about, why it was worthwhile, and read some lessons learned to improve the odds of success for your next pro bono project.
When I ran into my friend Kenji at a mixer a couple weeks ago, it seemed like a usual incidence of our paths crossing, given that in one recent week we ran into each other 4 times at various tech events. Little did I know that the project I’m posting about now would be revealed. Kenji mentioned trying to raise awareness for Vittana as a means of making a difference, via a blogger challenge. For those not in the know, Vittana provides microloans to students in the developing world, and donors can choose how funds are distributed, as well as distribute funds each time students pay back their loans.
Over drinks, Kenji and I bounced around a bunch of ideas and eventually we came together with a plan to create a blogger challenge with a leaderboard sorted by tweets and dollars lent through the challenge. It took a bit of back and forth, but eventually we were ready to rock.
In order to keep the project from spiraling out of control we:
Defined Scope:I’ve talked with people who have done pro bono work, and one of the worst outcomes is ever expanding project scope, with no end in sight. To prevent this, we established some ground rules to keep it from getting out of hand. By the time that the contest started, we agreed that we would hand over the code, and give maintenance responsibilities to the Vittana team.
Established the Concept:Our first task was to establish the concept before any serious coding began. We wanted to create some background tasks that made Twitter API calls to search for number of retweets associated with a given blog post. To narrow the search down, we suggested using hashtags. A possible side bonus is that we could create a trending topic and create some buzz.
Minimized Reliance on the Vittana Team:To ensure we didn’t have to take a deep dive into their code base, the Vittana team gave us JSON feeds containing all of the necessary fields (including donation totals) for each of the bloggers. Given the nature of the work, we were able to have a quick pile on of a few developers, giving them a change of pace for a couple days, and then allowing them to move on cleanly.
First off, I’m always happy to make my friends look good and improve the chances of a successful project. Given that the Vittana team was already slammed, I saw a great way to help out a friend. I was also able to do some good for a cause that I care about personally and professionally. TangoSource trains developers in our locale to increase their odds of professional success after college.
We also have a few developers that we’ve been training and were just about ready for production quality code. I believe that real work is more interesting and effective in training junior developers. This seemed like a good opportunity to expose some guys to a real world project.
Finally, we were presented with a chance to expand our business. Despite being relatively young, Vittana has a strong brand with a lot of awareness, which was a chance for great exposure. The possible value for the TangoSource brand seemed significant. Here’s a screenshot of the link we were given on the contest page:
I also found out recently that the Vittana team is interested in discussing TangoSource doing paid work. This should not only provide us a means of growing the business, but also help us do good at the same time.
1. Don’t rely on others to test your code.To a certain extent, we assumed that the other team would test our code on production. We ended up having to do some last minute patching that would have been more efficient if encountered earlier in the development cycle. Initial testing also exposed some places where the interaction design was broken on the admin side that would make further testing difficult, and we had to code out a much more involved administration panel. This was an affirmation of test early, test often, with a realistic scenario.
2. Remember to nail down the environment before writing a line of code.In this case, we assumed that Vittana was using the same database as what we were testing for in our local environment. That mistake was an fast way to waste a couple hours. Also, unit test your code regardless of the scope of the project. We wasted a fair amount of time on regression errors.
3. Whenever possible, try to limit scope in a way that’s win-win.It makes sense for the Vittana team to take ownership of our code. The more complex our product, the more work needed on their side. Also, since this was a new type of initiative, we were able to execute a lean exercise for them without too much investment for either party.
4. Networking is valuable but often in an intangible way.Deeper connections are more useful, but take work to find and cultivate. For me, this means meeting plenty of people to find those that I connect with. Afterwards, there’s the enjoyable investment of staying in touch, which helps create opportunities.
5. Genuine altruism is a great business strategy.You never know what might result from doing good. After starting work, I ran into the some of the Vittana leadership, who mentioned they might need some development help on future projects. This was confirmed in later communication, after they performed some code review.
With 90 hours of work total, I feel this was a worthwhile way to spend our time, even not including the chances to grow TangoSource’s business. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, this effort will probably pay out regardless. Subscribe to our blog to find out!
During the course of the blogger challenge, check out Vittana Twitter and the leader board we helped create:
Be sure to spread the word to help fund students around the world.
Also, we’re planning on releasing a Rails gem that does the majority of the Twitter heavy lifting, so keep an eye on the TangoSource blog if you want help automating the tracking of tweets.
Does your outsourcing experience resemble the image above? A ton of strangers, randomly trying to find work? And after finally choosing someone from the crowd, having to deal with a lack of accountability, poor work product, and lack of passion. I know, I’ve been there, and I’ve learned many lessons. Hopefully my story will help you save time and anguish.
TangoSource’s 1st product was, drumroll, a social network for tango dancers! After the bliss of the first couple of months, I realized that our market wasn’t big enough, so I included ALL social dancers and created DanceHop, an events 2.0 website. I’ve outsourced the design to Yilei Wang and Ruby on Rails development to a local developer, who I’ll call Ahab.
Ahab repeatedly apologized that it was taking him so long, which should have been a red flag. Fast forward, he quit after 3 months of work and gracefully declined equity. This forced me to look at Working with Rails to find a replacement. I settled on an Argentinian developer, Rodrigo. He started coding, and Ahab said I’d found “a diamond in the rough”. Now being smart, I’d engaged a local Seattle Rails guru a couple hours each week for code review to ensure I’d only keep developers that were improving.
A month in with Rodrigo, it became clear he could only code part-time, so I was back looking for help. This resulted in a string of devs, including an Indian developer, Dibya, who delivered but was a bit expensive; a cheaper Indian developer who didn’t deliver; and two more part-time Ukranian developers Dmitry and Igor who eventually also dropped out.
A month after Rodrigo dropped off, I found my co-founder, Federico Ramallo, on Working With Rails. After a long and enjoyable interview with Federico on Skype, I asked if he was open to taking equity to offset some of his compensation. I’d already seen that his life values were compatible with mine, and our personalities jelled together well. He was open to equity, and after a month trial, with my Seattle Rails guru overseeing the process, we started a professional relationship that turned 2 years old as of September 2011.
Federico eventually moved to Colima, and we set up an office/co-working space there, which has been fantastic for recruiting. At that point, any thought of recruiting outside of our realm of influence was gone. We’ve trained up some great devs, found others, and the investment has been paying dividends in terms of output, and company culture. To wrap up, I’ve included some guidelines that I learned through my hiring experience, which I may go into detail in future posts.