Archive for the 'Productivity' Category

Merry Xmas!…now shut up and start coding.

Just about every entrepreneur I’ve met in Silicon Valley knows how to write more than a few lines of code. The ones that don’t are constantly looking for a partner to build their dream product. You know, the one that will make them a billion dollars. I’d guess you’d have to count me among them. But waiting around for a dream co-founder doesn’t cut it around here. That’s why this Christmas I’m writing code.

I haven’t written a line since high school when the two languages I knew were Pascal and MACOS. In case your wondering, MACOS wasn’t even a proper language, only worked on my Apple II series, and stood for More of A Crappy Operating System. I don’t even know what it was, but it sure wasn’t Mac OS X. I used it for my bulletin board system (BBS for those that remember pre-www). I never saw an instruction book, not sure there was one, but I was able to understand the basic syntax easily enough and hack code from different available sources into something vaguely resembling what I wanted. But that was over 16 years ago. I have no business writing code professionally, but sometimes business requires you to do something unprofessional.

The lack of a critical skills is something that we all have to deal with at some point. Whether it’s the ability to program, an understanding of supply chain flow, or just market knowledge. The difference between a successful entrepreneur and one who goes from one idea to the next is more than likely a function of how they deal with those missing resources. In the startup world, you’re always out of resources, so it makes sense to develop some coping strategies.

No Excuses – Do It Yourself

The biggest problem I usually have in getting things done is usually myself. There’s a ton of things I’d rather be doing than writing code. (Hell, there’s a lot of things I’d rather be doing than writing this blog.) Among them? Cookies, guitar, and Avatar came out this weekend. None of those things can be an excuse, but motivation is an easier hurdle to overcome.  Even worse is the excuse of “I don’t know how.” As in, “I don’t know HTML, CSS, Javascript, Java, or PHP.” Worse still is “That’s not my job.”

When I started my last job at Secude, I didn’t know a thing about IT security and couldn’t for the life of me understand cryptography, let alone what a Diffie-Hellman was supposed to be. It was daunting beyond belief, especially when asked to go and learn about a new P2P encryption technology and report back to our engineering staff on the technical details. I cannot imagine a job I was less qualified to do. The fact that my technical partner for the assignment spoke halting English to match my halting German was no help. Could I have given up? Sure. Could I have assigned the work to someone else? Probably. But I wouldn’t have gotten the information and perspective I needed to do my job for the next four years.

Learn or Die

The business of business is learning. If you’re not learning, you’re probably losing money. Knowing how your business works from the bottom to the top is the only way you’re going to understand your value chain. Do you have to sweep the floors on the factory to be a good CEO? Well, maybe not. But you do need to know how important it is that the factory floors are clean, something that a lot of big-shot CEOs probably don’t know. When machines get dirty, they break. When the floor gets slick, your company loses big in workers comp. Even five minutes sweeping the floor in the factory could give a lot of CEOs a bit more appreciation for the janitor and make them realize that cutting the janitor’s salary and having a disgruntled employee doing a half-assed job is probably more expensive in the long run than paying a decent wage for decent work.

Little gears push the big gears and every aspect of the value chain can be critical. That thinking and the drive to reduce muda (waste) came out of lean production thinking when Toyota discover that they could improve productivity radically by just shifting some machines around. Chihiro Nakao, the great lean production thought leader, was no stranger to getting his hands dirty. In Lean Thinking, Womack and Jones related how Nakao and Takenaka worked over the lunch hour with crowbars to move Wiremold’s massive machines into the proper sequence for single-piece flow while the local engineers, workers, and managers just stared at them with their mouths wide open. That’s no excuse thinking.

Knowing isn’t Understanding

For those that think you can learn something without doing it yourself, good luck. There are a lot of people far smarter than I that can, but I can’t. I need to learn by getting my hands dirty, and I learn up to three times as fast when I’m actively engaged in a task than when I observe someone else doing it from afar. Observation will lead you to know facts, doing will lead you to understand processes. I need to know processes. Even if we bring on two more engineers tomorrow, I’ll greatly benefit from the experience.

Why not outsource?

Why go through this exercise? Surely it would be better to just outsource a task like front end coding and it’s probably more cost effective than me doing it. Well, sometimes, and in fact we’re exploring several outsourcing options for our front end web development for But sometimes managing outsourcing can be just as time consuming as doing it yourself. The ability to communicate effectively with outsourcers and reduce communication overhead is directly related to your own understanding of the process.

An example: a new CEO outsources his fabulous idea for a new website to a team of four engineers but development falls behind schedule. Solution? Of course! Add more engineers! This would be laughable if it didn’t happen so often. I’m sure every engineer in the world by now has had to explain patiently to their boss that nine women cannot have a baby in one month. If the CEO had spent a decent weekend locked in a room pouring over source code, that would be well understood. You can’t have four people editing the same line of code.

My Just Deserts

So here’s what I hope to get out of this exercise:

  1. Comparative Advantage – I won’t go into the economic theory of this, but in a nutshell: it’s better for my skilled engineers to work on the important back-end stuff. I can waste my time with the “Follow me” button you see on the side of the screen.
  2. Understanding – Knowing the rough difficulty level of a task allows me to plan resources and our hiring strategy better. It also allows me to set more realistic expectations and goals.
  3. Sympathy – You’ll never catch me yelling at someone for being late on a technical issue again. Instead, I’ll roll up my sleeves and try to help by doing research and finding sample code.
  4. Respect – Aside from a better understanding of the tasks my technical co-founders suffer through, I we also develop some respect for each other with the fact that I’m willing to dig into things if necessary. After all, I started a company at least partly because I didn’t like the environment of my last job. Mutual respect among co-workers is the only environment I really want to work in.
  5. Get things done – At the end of the day…our product needs to get out of alpha and it’s going to take no excuses hands on deck to do it.

So this Christmas, send me a link to your favorite PHP resource or your resume if you’re an engineer. But in the meantime, I’ll keep coding. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Seasons Greetings and all that! Hope it’s a good one, and I hope I’ll be able to post about a snazzy new website in the coming New Year.

Best regards,

Productive Chaos: How to Hurry Without Rushing (p. 1)

As founders, we often tend to work ridiculous hours in the hopes that more hours = more revenue. This is often not the case. Instead, we cause a lot of motion and the dust is well stirred, but little is actually accomplished. I have found that most people get about 4 productive hours out of the day, no matter how many hours they actually put in. Especially since the average “I worked a twenty hour day” usually consists of several meal breaks, watercooler BS, daydreaming, IM, office politics, chain mail, the latest viral video, sexual innuendo, and other nonsense.

I’d rather work productively for 4 hours than unproductively for 20. So I retrained my work habits until I could get a normal days work done in four hours, and then I started increasing my hours from there. Nowadays I can get a genuinely productive 16 hour day if I need to, but generally settle somewhere between 7 and 9 with a healthy amount of time for non-goal oriented learning and creative thinking. Here’s a list of little tips that have helped me, many of which come from Getting Things Done by David Allen. It’s worth a read if you’re not familiar with it. Sometime it’s a bit tedious and you’ll find that you already know 50-80% of it, but the parts you don’t know are extremely valuable.

Avoid Context Switching
If you think you can multi-task between five IM screens, your email, facebook, and an actually productive task, well that’s great. Stop reading this. But every time I switch gears from a phone call to and excel sheet to php code I lose about 15 minutes as my brain reorients. This is true of minor interruptions including emails, IM, the phone, etc. and it’s probably true for everyone.

As a founder I have a ton of things going on and it’s hard to shut everything down to focus, but it really helps. If you honestly can’t shut down extra apps, close your door and put up the do not disturb sign, it’s time to get up two hours earlier so you can have an uninterrupted block of time to work. Two hours is the minimum for me to make progress on a complex task. 30 mins for minor work blocks. I need four hours if I’m going to do any programming or one of my uber complicated spreadsheets. You might want to consider useful apps like Concentrate or Rescue Time which enforce this for you.

Chunk Similar Tasks
Along the same lines, I like to eliminate interruptions by getting a block of similar tasks done at once, like phone calls which are prime procrastination material. (Think: “I’ll just take a quick break and call David Wallace.”). But obviously, you’re setting yourself up for major distractions when you start getting call backs unless you unplug your phone afterwards. I like to walk to work in the morning which takes about 45 minutes. I make calls on the way, generally get any callbacks I need, I get exercise, and it clears my head.

The (Un)Glory of Caffeine
I don’t find this all that helpful as an all purpose solution, but from time to time is a lifesaver. Your body tends to get used to whatever drugs you put into it, and caffeine is no exception. If you have a cup of coffee every day, you’re not actually more awake and aware than if you didn’t have any caffeine at all. It’s only when your caffeine intake has an abnormal spike or dip that there’s any real change in your energy level. So if you normally drink a coffee every day and skip it, yes…you’ll feel awful on that day and receive no real benefit when you have your “normal” dose.

I cut out all caffeine (including sugary sodas) and had a miserable couple of weeks, but then my body re-calibrated and now I get a nice boost on the once a week occasion when I need caffeine to pull me through an all-nighter. In addition if I don’t drink caffeine after 11 or 12 am, I sleep a lot better, which makes me more rested and more productive the next day.

Sleep is critical, but difficult. When I have something on my mind, I tend to wake up at 4 am and can’t get back to sleep. If this happens, I’m better off getting out of bed and dealing with it than just laying there stressing out. But then it’s up and at ’em, cook breakfast, take shower, and make a day out of it. Doing something halfway and then trying to get back to sleep never works well and I’ll probably just dream about it anyway, which isn’t very restful when you’ve got excel tables in your head.

Best of all is clearly to not have something on your mind. For those that can meditate, that’s great. I’ve never been able to, but I clear my mind anyway by making sure that I have a system in place that logs all my To Dos. I can have 100 upcoming tasks, but as long as I’m confident that I won’t forget one (because I wrote it down) then I can sleep through the night. For this reasons I highly recommend having a system that you trust like Getting Things Done. But it doesn’t really matter what system it is so long as you trust it and it works for you. A piece of paper will do.

Time Tracking
I love time tracking software, but you don’t need software. Again, a piece of paper will do. The principle is pretty simple and it is consistent with every productivity guru I’ve ever heard. You can improve what you measure. So measure how much time out of each day is actually productive and you’ll find that you can focus on beating that amount the next day and the next week. Just keep track.

What does actually productive mean? If you spend 8 hours researching, but have not managed to put any of that research into effect, you have accomplished nothing. At the minimum, research needs to result in a useful summary or notes, meetings must result in action items, and coding must result in something that runs (even if poorly). If you just held a 4 hours meeting to “motivate” employees with your vision, you probably didn’t accomplish anything except maybe made yourself feel important and useful. But hey, maybe you’re Tim Robbins, so go for it. I’d rather motivate my staff by working hard and helping them directly with issues that they’re facing or problems they might solve. If you explain your killer vision to your staff in the context of the work they do, it’ll be that much more meaningful to them.

If you have any useful tips of your own, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to work smarter while remaining relaxed. There are some other topics I’d like to cover, but will continue in later posts:

  • Useful breaks
  • Exercise
  • Working with co-workers
  • Food


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Tristan Kromer's Profile Pic

Tristan is an entrepreneur that loves solving problems and getting his hands dirty. He manages the primary business functions of and is strongly committed to the customer development process. An entrepreneur at heart, he has been involved in a variety of ventures for the past 13 years including IT security, music, real estate, and marketing. His most recent position was working as the General Manager of SECUDE International LLC in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Tristan will gladly play you a game of chess.