A Big Cog in a Small Machine

Or a big fish in a little pond. If your business grew to an unimaginable size, would you be happy?

I work for myself because I have an authority problem.

I have a problem with other people in authority. I have a problem being a part of someone else’s dream. I intend to never work directly for anyone else again, because I’d sooner be a big cog in a small machine than the other way round. Repeat clients are fine and dandy, but when building things for them starts to feel like a job I know our working relationship needs to be adjusted, or it will surely be doomed. This is all just context.

My most pressing side-project is a fledgling e-learning system that’s been in the works since June 2012. It was my friend Leon’s idea, his baby. He roped me in during the neonatal stages, needing someone to turn his Excel spreadsheet prototype into a web application. I became the technical cofounder.

Now, after almost three year and a couple of minor pivots, we’re approaching a release date. We aim to go live on 1st April 2015, and I’m nowhere near ready; still plenty of slog work to do. I’ve got some busy weekends ahead of me.

Three weeks ago, on the night of Wednesday the 14th at a coffee shop in Nottingham, Leon introduced me to Jonathan. Jonathan is new to me, and we’re vetting him to see if he’ll make the ideal third cog in our small machine. He’s a maths teacher and YouTuber, adept at producing polished and professional instructional videos that look like they weren’t just hacked together at a moment’s notice. Leon, for all his abilities, isn’t a details guy – he drags projects forward by weight of charisma, and isn’t afraid to throw money at something when his own capacities fall short. Our second meeting with Jonathan is tonight, and whilst we haven’t come to a decision yet I expect that he will join Leon and me as shareholders as we push to get this thing off the ground. Jonathan possesses the three things that I was specifically looking for: (1) he’s good at what he does, (2) he’s ambitious, but (3) his temperament is closer to mine than Leon’s. That last one was an important feature for me; I need all the help I can get when wrangling Leon’s focus. I need someone who isn’t easily distracted.

Over the years I’ve grown used to Leon’s ways. His ability to pitch ideas and recruit acolytes to his cause has to be seen to be believed. He possesses a nucleus of eager energy akin to a force of nature, and because it isn’t an act – it’s just him – he can’t help but use these skills to full affect. In turn, when in his presence my subconscious automatically adjusts my own enthusiasm levels, compensating for the overload in the room, and thus I become more cautious, more naysaying. In my head I instantly halve the number of any target subscribers/revenues/profits/growth percentages he quotes at me, not because I don’t believe they can be achieved, but because I’ve been bitten by other people’s excited estimates before, thus I now refuse to let myself join in anyone else’s excitement. I’m constantly primed for a horrible fall.

On the Wednesday, towards the end of our two-and-a-half hour discussion, the clock edging towards 9.00 p.m., Leon fervently stated his expectations:

I’m certain that, by the end of our first year, we can have 10,000 sign-ups, at £100 per time for a 12 month subscription, giving us a £1 million revenue.

In my head I halved this to 5000 sign-ups. I then halved this again to 2500. I then halved it again.

Call me dispassionate, but I set my sights much lower. If we get one thousand sign-ups I’ll be over the bloody moon; that’s my target, for the first year – ten times that seems ravenous. If we do reach that number I’ll happily admit that I doubted its achievability all along.

Toying with the notion – if the business did turn £1 million within its first year we’d have to expand operations. The three of us would need to bring on staff immediately, to produce improved video content, to translate learning materials into multiple languages, to write website copy, to manage social media interaction, to evolve the web application…so from the topic of Leon’s ambitious targets the discussion turned to our longer term aspirations for the enterprise. If, against the power of my pessimism, it’s a roaring success, how would each of us expect our roles to morph as the business grew? Leon, as The Big Boss, would still be at the helm. It was his idea, and whilst he may lack overall business acumen I’ll take his hustle any day of the week. If Leon is the marketing cofounder, and I am the technical one, then Jonathan is the content guy, and if we’re to grow successfully then we’ll need him managing the creation of videos and documents that can prise open the enormous foreign markets that both him and Leon have an eye on. Leon plans on having a business ultimately worth £100s of millions…if we execute things right. I told him that I’d happily sell up if we reached a £10 million valuation.

What I didn’t tell him was that I’d actually accept a disposal at much less than that value. On the current face of it, pre-launch with precisely zero paying users, I’d accept a future valuation of £1 million. I say this because, to me, the enterprise isn’t mine. Pre-Jonathan, nominally I have a 40% stake, Leon the other 60%. This business is both Leon’s and mine – his core concept having been developed and brought to life by me – but I still feel that I’m just a cog in his machine. This is fine right now, drifting along as the big cog in the small machine, but if, and it’s a big if, it becomes what we hope it might, will I want to be the big cog in a big machine?

I don’t know if I’m built for big business, even if it is mine.

The Ageing Gamer

I may no longer have the skills to pay the bills, but I’m still good for something

Consider filling in a survey, with boxes to tick to indicate your current age bracket. Now consider that you’ve just had to tick an age box that you’ve never ticked before, as you suddenly jump from one segment of the population to the next. It’s as if ageing isn’t an incremental, continuous process, but a discrete one; your body saving up all its maturing strife to be unburdened, in an instant, when time ticks you on from “21-30” to “31-40”. It’s even more annoying when you discover entire statistical age bracketing that you sailed through years ago, without even realising.

And that’s the situation in which I now find myself. I’m 31 years old, and a few weeks ago I read that twitch gaming skills start to decline at age 25. My twitch gaming peak passed long ago, and I didn’t notice, or was even aware that I should be paying attention. Unknowingly, I’ve gotten old – not real-world old – but in the gaming universe I am now firmly in the veteran category.

As a teenager my record at Tetris was about 250 lines, I was the champion of my extended family, with summer holidays spent passing my Game Boy back and forth between siblings and cousins, each hungry for bragging rights. I’ve not played Tetris for around 15 years, so I have no idea how good I would be now. Can my reflexes really have degraded that much?

Tennis players typically peak at age 28. In golf you’ll have maybe ten years at your best, from mid-twenties through mid-thirties. In football (the soccer variety) the peak is 27 to 30. Boxing is more forgiving, some individuals able to continue at the highest level into their 40s. Women’s swimming is at the other end of the spectrum; you’re over the hill at 20. Surely eSports can’t follow the same growth and degradation patterns of physical athletics?

Unfortunately I fear I already know the answer. I didn’t discover Call of Duty until Modern Warfare 2 was out, and I first played that when I was 26. Little did I know I’d already missed my peak.

I was never much good at MW2, and I never could understand why. My reactions weren’t fast enough to compete with any real effectiveness when online, against people obviously half my age (I know this because they would talk incessantly like fucking idiots, while I scrabbled around in the menus trying to turn the chatter off). Domination was my game type of choice, where two teams would occupy a map, starting at opposite sides. The map would contain three territories, marked by flags, and the aim was to capture (by standing near the flag for a few seconds) and protect these areas. For every second your team possessed one of the territories you earned points, and the first team to reach a certain target won the round. Three flags meant the games had a predictable ebb-and-flow, as both teams vied to obtain two territories, and thus the point-scoring advantage.

The territory capture game mechanic was an important feature, as it served to distract my opponents and prevent them from executing me instantly. For me, straight-up deathmatches were nigh-on unplayable; when kill counts were the only objective I didn’t stand a chance, getting cut down from impossible angles by seemingly invisible foes, as if I were Tom Cruise in a constant Edge of Tomorrow style death loop. Domination added that extra strategic nuance that gave me a chance to survive a little longer, and it also gave me something to do so I could feel useful.

I would have the occasional decent game of Domination, a couple of times even coming top of the table for performance that round, but kill streaks of more than 4 were rare for me. I couldn’t fathom it; I’d always been the guy with natural hand-eye coordination, the one who’d grasp new video games with ease. Playing MW2 online was an experience I’d never had before; not only was I not among the best, I wasn’t even among the respectable. My only salient quality was my ability to strategise better than most of my youthful opponents…

…but the problem with being a good strategist is that, in any game played in real-time, you also have to be fast; you have to implement that strategy with lightning speed and utmost precision, and that was where I struggled. I couldn’t draw a bead on my enemies quickly enough, and when I did my accuracy was appalling, so I relied on the grenade launcher to bag-up easy splash-damage kills. I’d linger too long in patches of cover, to be picked off by snipers and flanking guerillas. I’d have some success with shotguns at close range – a forgiving weapon that just needed me to face in the right direction and squeeze the trigger – but on most maps this wasn’t a permissible tactic. At best, in a Domination team, I would be considered a domestique; the guy who runs in to grab the territory while the good players provide covering fire and do the real work of clearing a path. Basically I was just cannon fodder, the distraction who draws attention away from the real players.

Despite my insufficiencies I had a healthy addiction to MW2, enjoying the game without ever earning a feeling of actual proficiency and accomplishment. I tell a lie; there was one time when I felt I’d accomplished something. It was the time I successfully counter-bullied a whippersnapper into submission.

If I recall correctly, the map was a disused fairground, the action taking place amongst the backlot of various helter-skelters and cut-out wooden scenery. Early in the round I’d had my face blown off by a sniper who’d spotted me at mid-range, as I’d cheerfully popped my head above the parapet of some plywood boarding that I’d chosen to cower behind for far too long. I respawned, and for some reason returned to the same spot, once more occupying the same patch of cover…and once more the same guy decapitated me with a single bullet.

Shortly after, on the screen, a message appeared, obviously sent from my assassin:

NOOOOOOOB!!!!

That did it. I was shit, but I was certainly no noob. The difference between a noob and a shit veteran is that a noob makes mistakes and doesn’t understand what went wrong, whereas I knew exactly what I was doing wrong and would constantly scold myself for these blunders, but in the heat of battle I would find myself inadvertently falling into the same patterns. If I was a noob I wouldn’t have minded the slur, but I was no noob; this guy had to pay dearly.

Disregarding the objective of capturing and protecting the territories, for the next 10 minutes I tailed and bedevilled my killer; shooting, exploding and chopping him down wherever he went. The more you play MW2 the more you understand how the respawning system works, and you learn where on the map you can expect your recent victims to soon re-emerge. Thus I was in constant motion; eliminating my adversary then high-tailing it across the map to where I anticipated he’d pop-up next. Of course I was frequently killed by other members of the opposition team, but no matter; I had only one mission, and no amount of personal death would stop me from achieving it.

Every time he paused momentarily to ready himself for a kill I was there, scuttling up behind to knife him. Every time he ran between cover I was above him, spraying dozens of slightly inaccurate but ultimately effective rounds from my assault rifle. Even sticking with teammates for protection didn’t help him, as I’d just sprint headlong into the mix holding live grenades to claim the bastard, even though it guaranteed self-sacrifice.

He couldn’t take it, his youthful lack of patience clearly no match for my seasoned appreciation of constant disappointment. Before the round was over he surrendered; quitting and exiting before the time was up, annoyed at not being given a single second to do anything. I don’t even recall if my side actually won that game of Domination, but I certainly achieved my self-set objective. Whatever the result, my actions were worth it, and I did whatever it took.

As a society we consider the elderly to be no longer useful. If, in gaming terms, I am one of those useless oldies, then I have no choice but to embrace that. But if there’s one thing that the elderly do better than anyone else it’s being persistent and purposefully annoying, and doing whatever it takes to get a job done. If I ever get back into online FPS’s then I won’t be disappointed when I’m shit – I’ve accepted that I’m not supposed to be good anymore, and I missed my chance to ever enjoy that feeling.

But I know my role: I’m the crazy guy with a box of grenades, sinking teeth into legs and never letting go.

How to Write a Roll-On Plan

The momentum from an intense product roll-out needs to be harnessed. Here’s how

In my last couple of articles (which can be found here and here) I detailed my sketchy performance at Android mobile phone app development over the last few years. One of the points I raised in the post-mortem piece was that we, as a team, would have benefited from having a “roll-on” plan in place, which would have come into play once we had finished our initial launch – once the roll-out of the initial version of Indoor Cycling Coach was complete. This sparked a small question in my noodle: what the hell is a roll-on plan?

Googling the phrase “roll-out plan” resulted in pages upon pages of results. Not so for “roll-on plan” – I do believe I have accidentally coined a phrase. I thought I’d run with this, as it’s not every day that I come up with something that has relevance to anything, so the concept of the roll-on plan interests me and is worth exploring. Over the last month I’ve been experimenting, and have come up with a format for a roll-on plan that I’m finding very useful. Writing a roll-on plan is certainly not for everyone, and for large organisations it’s probably a waste of time, but in skeleton crews this could prove helpful.

So what the hell is it?

Let’s start with its progenitor; the roll-out plan. A roll-out is a staged series of tasks and activities, leading to the ultimate result of a product or service being released to a customerbase. The roll-out also includes all activities that are part of the bedding-in period that dictates product acceptance. With this as our definition, a “roll-out plan” is a plan for delivering a release of a product or service, including all the elements that must be put in place for acceptance by the customer/marketplace/end user.

As the roll-out itself fully involves the settling down of the bedding-in period the roll-on plan is nothing to do with the current release-in-progress. The roll-on period is that which comes after a product has settled and nestled into place. A synonym for “roll-on plan” could be “what will we be getting up to next?” The roll-on plan’s main purpose is to ensure a swift and painless re-allocation of people and resources to their next project(s), so that everyone has at least an idea of what they are working on next. It also forces the planner to confront the resourcing conundrum early, which will mitigate later bottlenecks. In a large company the notion of a roll-on plan would be ridiculous, but in a tiny outfit the planning process tends to be more freeform and transient, thus even a diminutive one-page document can make an enormous difference to the rebasing of the business. It’s there to provide a brief mission statement to re-ground the team after the intensity of the roll-out has abated. The roll-on plan should be written at the same time as the roll-out plan – the two documents can be considered siblings. It is no use trying to write a roll-on plan after a roll-out has commenced; you won’t have time.

It’s going to be a short document, probably around half an A4 page and certainly no more than one page, taking the form of a series of headings under which you will write one or two sentences. The headings I’m using are as follows:

  1. Project: state the next project the team will be working on.
  2. Purpose: state the business case for doing the project.
  3. Size: state the expected end date of the project, or a simple description of its scale.
  4. People: state who is involved in the next major project, and what their responsibilities are.
  5. Resources: state what additional resources will be required to make this project happen.

If several projects are to be undertaken simultaneously each heading will need several subsections, briefly describing each project under Direction and Purpose, followed by estimates of the overall time burdens required under Size, and assigning various people and resources to them under People and Resources.

Project
The best way to sum up the future direction of the business is to state the next major project or projects that the team will be working on. This could be the subsequent version of the current product, a revamp of the corporate website, a consulting job, or a whole new product line. It could be development, design work, or even feasibility studies for the next version or a separate product. It might include one or two details regarding the further development of the current version.

If the answer to the question “what are we working on next” is “support” then I’d question my business’s momentum. In business I am not an advocate of constant growth, but if I can’t conjure an inkling of an idea for a future project then I am directionless and at the mercy of my competition. It is a given that large quantities of time will be committed to “support”, so this isn’t a valid answer. The smallest fragment of a kernel of an idea for a future product or project is worth writing down, just to get the brain juices flowing, even if the release of the resulting product will be years away.

A reasonable answer to the question “what are you working on next” might well be “consolidation”, which seems similar to “support” but is an entirely different beast. It’s not unreasonable to have to dedicate lengthy time to restructuring and reinforcing your business practices after a major product roll-out, especially when working with a skeleton crew. It doesn’t seem to be very forward-thinking, but establishing a foothold is as an important task as any. I’d still recommend that the roll-on plan pays lip service to future product ideas, even if these are to be worked on after a lengthy period of consolidation.

Purpose
The project description you stated in the previous section needs justifying: what is the point of doing it? What benefits will it bring? No need for a massive in-depth analysis, keep it short and to the point.

Size
If possible estimate a completion date for the project. If this can’t be conjured then state the size of the project in the number of weeks of work, or even in just very simple terms (small, medium, large). If using the latter method then ensure you keep the size estimates across different projects consistent, so that one person’s idea of “a small project” doesn’t equate to another’s idea of “a bloody massive project”.

People
Detailed project and product brainstorming/planning has no place in the roll-on plan, but you can begin to plan who will be expected to be involved. Answer the question: “who will be involved in the next project, and what are their roles/responsibilities”. If you’re writing a roll-on plan that highlights several projects, and the same person’s name keeps appearing across all of them, loaded with responsibilities, then you know that you’re going to have capacity problems with their time.

Resources
If you have some clarity over the next project to be undertaken then answer the question: “what resources will be required to make this happen”. Possible answers could include additional hardware, the purchase of a JavaScript framework or a plugin for the integrated development environment. The resources plan might be less about what needs to be bought, and more of a feasibility investigation, an example answer might be:

To build the reporting software we’ll need a JS framework that supports rich graphing capabilities. We currently don’t know anything about this, so we need to research and compare various technologies.

Conclusion

For a little perspective, let’s toss a few quotations out there:

Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.

— Winston Churchill


Plans are nothing; planning is everything.

— Dwight D. Eisenhower


No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

— Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

It is not expected that your roll-on plan will come to pass precisely. You might scrap a proposed future project in its entirety, new work might materialise, staff might leave, or you might realise that the new ultra-powerful PCs you thought you needed were never necessary. For me, the purpose of the roll-on plan is twofold:

  1. To focus my mind now: to force myself to have a conversation with myself and my team, to confront decisions that will have to made at some point in the future anyway, and will benefit from the extra time being mulled over.
  2. When the time comes to start something new it forms an instant briefing document for the team, so we can regroup and reorganise quickly. Working in small teams is all about adaptability and speed.

The problem we had at Twelve Gauge Software was that after the roll-out period finished we didn’t have a clue what we were expected to do with ourselves next. The roll-out of the initial version of Indoor Cycling Coach was a protracted affair with no real end – after the app went live on the Google Play store we had a measly few hours of blissful peace before the bug reports and feature requests started to drift in, and we simply bared our teeth and flung ourselves back onto the mounting workload, exactly as we had been doing during the development of the product. With no clear delineation the roll-out drifted and mutated into an ongoing support phase.

We knew there’d probably be a second version at some point, but we never really tried to plan this in advance. The notion of actually planning a follow-up came up when we started to receive feature requests that were clearly beyond the remit of the current version. If we’d sat down together for a brief discussion before the release of version 1 we almost certainly would have raised the question of their being a premium version of the app, and this question would have been quickly answered: “yes, there probably will be”. We would have at least had our expectations primed for the work ahead of us. But we were too busy getting swept up in the excitement of the approaching roll-out to give it much consideration. This discussion should have happened long before the roll-out itself even began. If I’d known the things then that I know now then I’d have arranged things differently, but I suppose that’s the point of hindsight – it’s always 20:20.