Aboard and the Zombie Apocalypse

Photograph of a "zombie" knit doll sitting on top of skeins of yarn

Let’s hope they’re this cute.

Like many people, the very first thing I do when I wake up is grab a device that gives me the news, and soak that up for ten minutes. I’ve always started my day with the news. But lately, reading the news feels like staring into an extreme void. I know it’s not just me, because I hear a lot of people say that they, too, feel like they’re staring into The Void. 

So I do my staring—and then I get up to brush my teeth and help get the kids to school. After that, I head into work at Aboard.

A question that comes up a lot, implicitly but often pretty directly, is, “Why?” Why would anyone build a web-based data management tool in 2024 when there are (1) other web-based data management tools; and (2) the world seems to be on a bad path? Why choose data management over The Void?

I have four reasons, and I hope it’s useful to share them! 

The first is easy: I like the people I work with, and I like using the product.

The second is a do-gooder reason: During the pandemic I watched my wife do mutual-aid work to help at-risk folks in our neighborhood get food and basic necessities, as well as raise vaccine awareness. It turns out there’s a huge data component to work like that. Solutions were spackled together from many different tools, and they all had the same components: Comments, chat, data, kanban, calendaring, ticketing. People spent a ton of time negotiating—or even fighting—over the software. Some insisted you couldn’t do mutual aid unless everything was open-sourced, and so forth. 

At first I was interested, because I like software. But then I was very bummed out, because on the spectrum of most-to-least valuable conversations during that time, software sat at one end, and getting bags of rice to old ladies in Flatbush, Brooklyn sat at the other. I’d spent most of my career trying to have software conversations—but I realized then that I should spend the rest of my career trying to eliminate software conversations.

The third is the business reason: When we go into organizations, we see giant systems with three-letter acronyms like CMS, CRM, ERP, plus bug-tracking tools and the like. Those systems are supposed to run the business. They often cost millions per year. 

But we talk to our friends, and again and again, they tell us their entire world is…spackled together between the systems. Often, the real work happens in spreadsheets that get emailed around every Tuesday. The big systems represent the formal system of the company, but there’s a whole black market of emailed spreadsheets that actually keep the internal economy of the company moving forward—and by extension, the whole global economy. 

That part of the world is very under-served by software—but most people don’t even think of it as software. It doesn’t really have a name. You could call it spackleware, betweenware, pipeware, sheetware. I know we have “low code,” or “no code,” but the people who build sheetware don’t even know about these tools and find them too complicated. Can we make it easy to build attractive, auditable, collaborative sheetware?

The fourth is the cultural reason: Big platforms, whether ERP systems or social media sites, are monolithic—and they require humans to reorganize their activities around the platforms, not the other way around. I don’t think that’s been great for users, though it is great for the giant platforms. Many humans spend as much time working around software as working with software, all day long.

So unlocking all of this—making incremental progress—is pretty motivating.

Screenshot of the zombie apocalypse board
Here is our zombie board, although frankly it’s less about the undead and more about gutters—less about braaaaains and more about draaaaaains.

One board I love working on is called “Click In Case of Zombie Apocalypse.” It’s shared with my family, and it’s where we do crisis planning. The name is admittedly more dramatic than the actual contents. We keep track of how to make our house climate resilient (extend your gutters and plant clover). We also are using other, related boards to keep track of projects that middle-aged parents need to do (making a will, buying insurance, getting ready for weird physical and/or cultural weather). 

It might sound a little depressing, but in truth, nothing is more optimistic than making a plan with your peers and loved ones. In the past we might have made a list, or simply talked about it, but now we have actual data, links, the ability to assign things and move them through processes.

If you’ll notice, all four threads have a theme—whether building this company, helping a community, fixing processes inside of a larger organization, or dealing with zombie apocalypse, absolutely everything comes down to helping small groups of people communicate more effectively and take action more decisively. Aggregating zillions of people has been tried and found wanting. What motivates me is making tools that help a few people come together and meet their goals. You gotta take it one zombie at a time.