Thursday, November 29, 2007

Your business model called; its leaving (and its not coming back)

Let's say you found yourself a cash cow. Something that made you tons of money; day after day. And let's say that you get better and better at making your cash cow efficient. Pretty soon, you're rolling in dough. At some point you can nearly rest on your laurels while your money machine keeps churning. Eventually, you probably don't need anymore money, but that doesn't stop most people it seems. You just keep on wanting more (and why not, if the cash cow keeps delivering).

Its probably pretty safe to say that at this point in time, the advent of some technology enabled your cash cow. Maybe it was recorded media or a new video format or some computers in need of an operating system. Whatever it was, its likely that some recent technology gave you the building blocks to create your new cash cow business.

And, as you realized that technology enabled your cash cow, you also know that it's just a matter of time before it's going to disable it too. Usually by the advent of yet newer technology obsoleting yours. What do you do then? The best option is to see if you can morph your cash cow to be in synergy with the new technology. Kodak is a good example, they moved from pure film to a strong embrace of digital photography. AT&T is another - land phones are dying - they made sure they were in the mobile business.

Other models however aren't so easy to move with. Music CDs are sort of silly now and the new technology doesn't leave a lot of room for a new business model. What do you do then? You might think that you're the kind of person that if you spent a few years making millions (or billions) producing music CDs that you might eventually have enough of it all. If you truly can't save it then - you can take your millions, smile back upon the fun ride of building something great, and move on to something new.

You might be. But it doesn't seem like this is the way it works. Instead (statistically speaking) if you had an un-save-able dying cash cow, you'd defend it anyway. You'd start to use the millions your cash cow makes to try to change laws, start lawsuits, or stifle technology to artificially keep your cash cow alive. Quite literally, you'd use its own resources to hinder future technology that will hurt it (regardless if thats good, bad, or indifferent for humanity).

Technology enables business, art, and science. And it kills them too, usually by advancing to a point that makes the existing ideas obsolete. A few people miss LP records these days, and surely some still play and collect them. But that number will continue to diminish. I'm sure plenty of folks stuck with a horse-and-buggy because they thought automobiles were a stupid idea. Those people are mostly dead now, just like LP records will be some day.

Now, it might seem like I'm picking on the record industry. I'm not really, they're just a poignant example. Whatever you think, the people in that industry are not idiots. They *know* their business model is dead. Dead, dead, deaddity, dead, dead, dead. Music is really a service, the idea of putting in on a CD was always an artificial means of trying to turn a service into a product.

Instead of teenagers idolizing manufactured rock stars, the internet gives every indie band in the world an open forum. It wasn't that long ago that rock bands begged and prayed to get signed with a big label. Now they can start their own label and reach thousands of listeners, all for the cost of a website. Add a marketing and sales manager and you have a music-making company.

You don't need to be a futurist to predict some corporate business models that will be dead (remnants always remain for awhile) in the near future. Shrink-wrapped software, music CDs, desktop computers, and purely-gasoline automobiles to name a few.

What about if we go just a little longer term - say 30 to 50 years. Now I'd venture to say things keyboards, mice, paper books, bullets, telephones, and batteries.

You might disagree, but I think you're not thinking far enough ahead. I don't think people disagree because they think this idea is wrong. I think just like (or depend) on some of those things and don't want them to go away. If you sell batteries, you'll probably vigilantly tell me that we'll ALWAYS need batteries. In fact, although "30 to 50 years" might not be accurate, my predictions above are pretty guaranteed in some time frame.

A friend of mine disagreed with me when I said libraries were destined to disappear. He argued they won't because people will always like to read from books. "Will always" is a very long time. Most people like books because they're used to them, kids today are pretty used to reading off screens a fair bit of the time. Tomorrow's kids will be even moreso. And would you really be willing to bet we won't invent something better (in all ways) than a paper book in a 100 years? 200? Heck, I'd bet reading itself will be gone by then.

Coming back to the nearer future, the title of this article talks about dying business models. Finding ones in the global corporate marketplace is easy. What I'm more thinking about is *your* business model.

Whether you're a assembly-line worker in a Ford plant in Michigan, a C++ programmer (sorry, I mean "software engineer") in silicon valley, or a McDonald's fry cook. Its pretty damn likely that technology is going to kill your job or career (i.e., your "business model") in your lifetime.

I've read around the net that its a "bad time to be a photographer". Simply put, thousand dollar digital SLR cameras and photoshop have destroyed the historical profession of a photographer. Surely, a skilled photographer can take better photos on average than an amateur. But the rules are now changed. With multi-gigabyte memory cards, I can snap photos all damn day long. And the camera has gotten far better at helping me take great photos. And Photoshop can come in the backside and fix any minor problems I might have. Maybe its a bad time to *be* a photographer - but its a great time to *become* a photographer - anyone can be one in just a few hours! (Of course, thats exactly why existing photographers might think its a bad time to already be one).

Seriously, if I snap a quick thousand photos, its getting more and more likely that I'll snap a really good shot. Then I can sell it on the internet in many instant-gratifying ways for a fraction of historical stock photography. The profession as we knew it is likely soon gone.

I've seen this even in computer programming. Coding used to be much harder than it is today. It takes much less devotion and study to make programs these days and its getting easier all the time. You might argue that good programmers write the best code, but you rarely need the best code to get a website up and running. And programming is perpetually going to get easier. (It used to take HTML expertise to make a website, now it just takes a MySpace account).

Scary enough I can boot up Adobe Illustrator (or more precisely, Gimp in my case since I use linux) and I can do things that a professional graphic designer of 20 years ago could only dream of. This is really a frightening thought - I have a really exceptional lack of artistic ability, but Gimp gives me a baseline. I might not be able to reproduce Van Gogh, but I can make all the graphics I need for websites or Christmas cards or whatever.

In a grand view, this is probably a great thing for our world. More people can do more things faster. It all sounds great unless you're personally be obsoleted in the process. Complaining photographers have somewhat of a point. They spent years perfecting their craft. They learned tricks of lighting and developing and who knows what else just to have it taken away by some fancy new camera. Technology obsoleted their craft overnite (like the song says, "Video killed the radio star").

If you're not a photographer and you're sort of not feeling sorry for them, thats ok as long as you're careful to shine that mirror on yourself too. Like I said, if you spent years learning the intricacies of C++, tax law, medicine, or anything else - you surely have job security likely for awhile. But definitely not forever.

Whatever your business model - it is indeed, at some given rate, dying. And its always possible that a technology will come to be tomorrow that will destroy it instantly. And every year we shall see more fights ensue with people looking to save their business model.

Create a cure for cancer? Watch the chemotherapy companies go into action. Build an electric car thats cleaner, faster, and more economical than any gasoline one? Watch the oil and car companies head to Washington. Invent teleportation? Airline industry sponsored laws will quickly be up for debate.

If you're complaining that your business model is dying, you might as well complain that the sun is going to come up tomorrow. Its going to happen and you have two options - keep moving or retire. Be ready to throw out what you learned if you see it becoming obsolete.

If you're lucky you'll be on the forefront of that technology and you can start a company giving you your own technology-induced cash cow. Once that happens, you can sit back counting money. Until the next wave comes and your once new cash cow starts to crumble. Then, of course, you can adapt again or you can become the technology stifler yourself. Somehow I have a feeling that thats one job that will never go out of style.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Howto Pass a Silicon Valley Software Engineering Interview

I do a fair bit of interviewing. This probably averages about 2 to 3 interviews per week - mostly for Java developers. I'm also giving a birds-of-a-feather at the Software Developer's conference tonite in the Santa Clara Hyatt bar on just this topic (7:30pm if you're interested).

Now mind you, being an experienced interviewER does not necessarily give you relevant information on being an experienced interviewEE. However, the latter is hard to gain a lot of experience at. Because of course, if you're good at it, you tend to not do it for very long (i.e., you get hired).

Before Google, I interviewed at several startups in the valley. And combining that experience plus what I know about how I interview at Google and how I interviewed at Preemptive I do have a few guidelines.

1) Don't interview at your dream job first.

If you haven't interviewed in awhile, your first interview is likely not going to be great. It's not because you're not a crackshot developer or a math whiz. It's just because you aren't familiar with the whole process. From getting used to jumping from topic to topic all the way to saying why you want the job. Its always a good idea to interview at your 3rd or 4th choice first.

2) Be positive - no swearing.

You will get asked about your last job. Saying your manager sucked and the dev team was a mess wins you nothing. I've seen candidates attempt to put down some technical faction or previous employers seeking my solidarity with them. Nuh uh. Doesn't happen.

Why are you leaving your current job? Simple - because this new job is a better opportunity. Your last job was a fine career builder but this one's business model or development principles or philosophy or job description or reputation suits you way better. Not to mention your skillset can bring significantly more value in this new position.

Don't tell your new employee what's wrong with their products - mention you hope you can (non-specifically) improve such products. Even if asked what you'd improve, phrase it such that it is indeed an improvement and not a fix for something you think is terrible.

Also - forget technical religion. If you love Agile say so - but don't pretend its the only solution. Millions of people get work done on windows, linux, agile, waterfall, C++, java, .NET everyday. All are solutions - sure, some are better than others and defensible positions are great - but unfounded zealousness is not.

And, I am amazed I need to write this - don't swear. Its a respect issue. You don't know your interviewer. Some people don't mind swearing - some do. There's really no need.

3) Check your attitude at the door.

As I've said in previous articles, if you are the smartest person at where you work - QUIT. Similarly, its a silly idea to join a company where you will be the smartest person the day you start. Therefore, if you ARE smart, you will be looking to join a company where you AREN'T the smartest person. Therefore - you should leave your arrogance about how great you are outside.

I ask most every candidate to rate their Java and C++ skills on a scale of 1-10. Then I write that down for the next interviewer. At Google, you never know who your interviewers are going to be. If you say you're a Java or C++ expert that rates a 10 - you darn well better be - because you never know - your next interviewer could be Josh Bloch, Matt Austern,
Guido van Rossum,
or Ken Thompson. Or worse, someone else you've never heard of that's a super crackshot - and there are plenty of those.

Again, I'm amazed at people that give their interviewer attitude. It's such an obviously stupid act that I have to question the person's intelligence in addition to being annoyed by their arrogance.

4) Be passionate about development.

I have a dirty secret - if Google stopped paying me tomorrow, I'd still come to work (unless they like took my badge too and got Hector the security guard to watch out for me - that dude could smoke me). God forbid that while sleeping I have a dream that solves a coding problem I've had the day before. When this has happened in the past, I found myself sitting awake in bed with my mind racing. I was too excited to sleep and figured I might as well drive into work and start implementing the solution (despite the fact that it happened to be 4am).

The number one thing I look at on resumes (and I don't look at resumes all that much) is extra-cirricular coding activities. I want to hire engineers that I want work with. And those engineers are passionate about cool algorithms, slick code, and new ideas. They do that stuff in their spare time - its not just a job, its what they do because they love it.

5) APIs really don't impress.

People seem so proud they know a lot of APIs. As far as I know, APIs were designed to be easy to learn. I'd really rather hire a smart person that I know can learn most any API than one that brags about the few they already know.

I'm not saying knowing APIs is bad - it's not. It's just not the most interesting thing on your resume.

6) Know algorithms and data structures.

One theme in Silicon Valley is massive amounts of data. And its not always of the classic relational database type of data. Its massively huge datasets that require plenty of processing (imagine the graphs made for page rank).

One of my favorite/fun interview questions (actually, probably one of my ex-favorites given that posting it here means its too well-known) is simply how to sort some objects. The absolute beauty of this question is that very many software engineer interviewees have given me a suboptimal answer for this - whereas my mom (who, despite making crazy good pirogis, has zero computer training) got it right.

Here it is, as I ask it of engineers, and as I asked it of my mom:

Engineer's version: Say you had a million objects in memory (assume we have no memory constraints) all of type UniversityStudent. These objects have two fields:

String name;
int numberOfYearsOld;

What is the fastest way to sort these objects by "numberOfYearsOld"?

... So.. whats the answer? quicksort? mergesort? whats the running time?
The most common answer I get is something like quicksort with an average running time of O(nlogn). For a million objects, that's something like 20million operations (comparisons) to do the sort.

Mom's version: Say you came into a very large room with a million papers in a stack. On each paper is written the name and number-of-years-old of a given student. Whats the fastest way to sort these papers by hand by number-of-years-old?

Mom made stacks. A stack of 18yr olds. A stack of 19yr olds, etc. She needed a possible of about 100 stacks maybe (ages 10-110). How many times do you need to look at each paper? Once. Right. That's 1 million operations or O(n). Go mom.

Of course, Mom got it right because she had no preconceived notions about the problem or sorting in general. A candidate that memorized sorting algorithms before coming to the interview probably robotically responded with O(nlogn) without really thinking about the problem.

If you've written plenty of code, you should be familiar with when to use what data structures and to know their runtime characteristics. You should know that a hashtable's worst case search time is linear - and you should have an idea how to avoid it. And why you might use a binary tree instead of a hashtable even though it's an O(logn) lookup. And that O(1) is effectively the same as O(100). Surely the subtleties are situation dependent - but that's why you understand it - to apply it in the right situation.

This is all datastruct and algorithms 101. I perpetually hear developers tell me that they learned that stuff in school but now forgot it. Personally, I wonder what the hell they have been coding? If you've just been gluing APIs together then thats nice, but its not very interesting. Even if you don't interact with them directly, knowing data structures and algorithms is key to understanding performance. This is not premature optimization - this is choosing the right tool for the job. And that choice is often wonderfully subtle.

And if you decide to do 20million operations when you could very easily instead do 1million, eventually we're going to have some problems.

7) Be an engineer that your interviewer would want to work with.

I don't know exactly what that means because it will vary with every interview and interviewer. Obviously be genuine but be passionate.

8) Know the language you say you do.

I try to phrase all language questions as things that I think any developer that has worked in a language for a year couldn't possibly not know. Tell me about wait, notify, and notifyAll (3 methods every Java class ever created has).

I'm not worried if you don't know Java generics, but if you say you do, I'll ask for some code.

Good interviewing coding questions in my opinion should be meaty, do something, and take no more than a whiteboard.

-------------

There really is a spectrum of good to poor engineers. And the one theme that runs through it all is passion. Not for a given language or system - but for problem solving. And building things. Certainly a good degree doesn't hurt but I promise you its not the whole story. I have flunked MIT Ph.Ds. and recommended-for-hire people with very modest formal educations.

As I've said before - the interview is very very honest. Its about you, the whiteboard, and what you can do.

Bottom line is I want smart, passionate, crackshot developers. They're out there and I want them here - partially because they'll help to make my company better. But also because they're very likely going to be smarter than me - and working with them is going to make me better.

Notes from my BOF can be found HERE


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