Podcast Episode 6: Happiness is a Deadline

By Paul Ford

Rich and Paul discuss why it’s important to create tangible goals. Which seems incredibly obvious but of course it isn’t. The thing about deadlines, they conclude, is that they are the only path to happiness. Or at least the best way to avoid depression.

Rich Ziade: [00:00:00] Targets rock.

Paul Ford: Are you talking about our relationship with Iran? 

Rich Ziade: No, Paul.

Paul Ford: Sorry [chuckles]. For people who don’t know, I’m Paul Ford.

Rich Ziade: I’m Rich Ziade.

Paul Ford: We’re the co-founders of a new startup called Aboard that we were gonna launch, and then we-

Rich Ziade: Changed our minds.

Paul Ford: Not quite a pivot, and we’re talking about our process and sharing our thoughts. That little, um, Iran joke is because Rich’s Lebanese, and when you work with Lebanese people, first of all, that’s never just one [chuckles]. And, uh, it comes up a lot. We talk a lot about Middle Eastern politics, I didn’t just throw that outta nowhere.

Rich Ziade: It’s true. Um, Paul, I, I envy the, the manager who has to hit his numbers.

Paul Ford: Do you really Rich? Do you really? [chuckles]

Rich Ziade: No, I really don’t actually. But it’s good to have a tangible goal and, and what you can do is you can meet every month and you can say things like: “Guys, we gotta hit that 4.7% growth number. We’re only at 4.3. What can we do?”.

Paul Ford: This is a hard one. This is the [00:01:00] hardest, hardest thing of all the hard things I had to learn. Things like, how to read a balance sheet or things like, understanding that 20% of the company hates you at any given time. The hardest thing to learn is that you don’t have goals half the time. And you have to create goals, you have to create structure around goals, and there is no marker for success unless you say this will be the marker for success.

Rich Ziade: And you kind of have to say it.

Paul Ford: You have to. No, no, no. Because when I used to be a writer and journalist, I’d get my, I’d meet my deadline, and I’d turn in the piece and it would get published, and then I would go on to the next one.

Rich Ziade: The printing press was gonna run on June 5th.

Paul Ford: I better get in there.

Rich Ziade: You gotta get in there.

Paul Ford: And then I would know if I was good or bad.

Rich Ziade: Yeah. This is the power of an externality that is coming at you quickly.

Paul Ford: Let’s talk about something specific, what are we talking about?

Rich Ziade: Uh, we’re a startup.

Paul Ford: We are, we are a software as a service startup, I think is probably how most people would describe it.

Rich Ziade: Yes, I think we’re [00:02:00] bigger and more ambitious than that but-

Paul Ford: We’ve become more ambitious, we’re now just software startup.

Rich Ziade: Just software startup and, uh, we’re, we’ve, we’re self-funded, have a nice runway. How do you motivate a team without a goal?

Paul Ford: Okay, so first of all, human beings including you and me, this is not a criticism of our team, given a problem space without a deadline will continue to explore the problem space.

Rich Ziade: Like round and round.

Paul Ford: I, and I mean, like I said, not a criticism because it is vast. Do you think to yourself, wait, have we really looked at that technology deeply enough? Do you think to yourself, have we done enough iterations and tested the design thoroughly? And there are-

Rich Ziade: I mean, it’s a running joke amongst engineers, right? Like, oh, oh, I have some time, I, I can finally refactor this thing. And there’s a new version of Squiblbydub.js.

Paul Ford: Yes.

Rich Ziade: That I wanna fold in [00:03:00] and off we go. 

Paul Ford: And, you and I, we do this in our hobbies and our side projects and we, we rat hole into all kinds of things, but you have a superpower, which you get very easily frustrated and want to see forward motion and to get things done.

Rich Ziade: Call it a superpower, some people call it a flaw.

Paul Ford: A pathology [chuckles].

Rich Ziade: A pathology [chuckles]. Here’s my fear…

Paul Ford: Yeah.

Rich Ziade: And it comes, it’s, it’s born outta my background, which is time is running out, money’s running out all the time, like all the time. I, I grew up in a pretty unstable environment and so I was constantly worried, all the time. And, and to the point where, uh, I always oriented around surviving the next waypoint so that I can get to the one after it. I never had a five year plan. It was never about that.

Paul Ford: No.

Rich Ziade: It was always about like, okay, we are burning this much fuel. Are we going somewhere where when we run out of [00:04:00] fuel, we can put more fuel back in?

Paul Ford: Notice we’re in a helicopter, by the way.

Rich Ziade: We’re in a helicopter [chuckles].

Paul Ford: The the stakes are high [chuckles].

Rich Ziade: The stakes are high, right? And so that is still tricky though, just because you have that in you doesn’t mean anybody is going to sympathize or really relate to it.

Paul Ford: And let’s, let’s take it from the other direction, which is how do you get software shipped? You can’t just say, “Hey, I would like to see some software”.

Rich Ziade: You can’t, I mean, you can, you can try.

Paul Ford: Yeah. Good luck, good luck with that.

Rich Ziade: Well, I mean, the truth is big orgs, they get to say, “we made a commitment to”, if they’re a level three group, they made a commitment to the level two boss up above.

Paul Ford: Yes.

Rich Ziade: And they’re like, “listen, we’ve got that July presentation, I gotta show ’em real software guys. No more PowerPoints, we have to be ready. And we don’t want level two guy to be– we gotta impress him”.

Paul Ford: But let’s be clear, software and [00:05:00] God knows we have tried everything, has its own schedule. You can’t just will it into being. And, and the rough draft doesn’t work, right? So I when you, if you came to me as a writer and you said: “Paul, I need that article”. I can get you a couple thousand words.

Rich Ziade: Yes.

Paul Ford: And they might be terrible, but there we are. You can’t quite get there, with software, you can get a, you can get an alpha, you can get a prototype, but it’s not, there is no like single individual effort that will get you everything you need.

Rich Ziade: And, and look, I used to get yelled at Paul at the agency I used to get yelled at for like making time commitments-

Paul Ford: Oh yeah.

Rich Ziade: Around delivering software and then going back to the team and telling them.

Rich Ziade: Um, but-

Paul Ford: [chuckles] It is a comedy though, talking to an engineer, um, actually no one at Aboard, we have very good responsive engineering group.

Rich Ziade: We have a tight feedback loop. We’re still small.

Paul Ford: We really do, but there, there would be times where it’d be like, “how long will it take?”, and it would be like, kind of like to update a webpage and it would be like.

Rich Ziade: Five weeks.

Paul Ford: Five to six [00:06:00]weeks.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And it’d be like, “well, I’m gonna go in and do it myself”, and then suddenly it’ll get done.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, well look, and this is not to to, to shit on engineers and whatnot, but engineers wanna get it perfectly right. And, and they, look, part of the division of labor is that they’re not supposed to sweat the other intangibles around cost and time.

Paul Ford: No, they’re supposed to be, they’re supposed to be good at their craft.

Rich Ziade: They’re supposed to be good at their craft, and so they’re like, “look, yeah, of course I could hack it”,and sometimes I say: “Hack it”.

Paul Ford: From their point of view-

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: You are asking them to corrupt their craft. That is ultimately, I have found as a boss, especially as an agency, my entire job in life was to look people in the eye and say, everything you believe, I am going to destroy it now. And everything you cherish, I will devalue for you so that you might look at me as the person who ruined everything you love.

Rich Ziade: I got that feeling, I got that feeling from like some of the most senior engineers in the past, because they thought I didn’t appreciate the nuances about what they were doing. [00:07:00] Meanwhile, I actually did.

Paul Ford: Often yeah, yeah.

Rich Ziade: I often did. And I’m not, it’s-

Paul Ford: Well, there’s, there’s nuance and then there’s the nuance on the nuance. You gotta be careful here.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, yes. And, and, and look, I’m gonna, I’m gonna defend myself for a brief moment here.

Paul Ford: Oh, thank God.

Rich Ziade: I understand software, I get it. I know how long things take, I really do. Uh, and, and yes, I understand the challenges around it and I understand the shortcuts around it. I’m not like a, an ignorant manager who just wants what they want. Like I actually have an appreciation for the work involved, but I also know how it can spin out of control. And, it can do that, and the truth is, no matter what, if I’ve stomped my feet and say “it’s this timeframe”, it’s not a good feeling. It’s not a good-

Paul Ford: Lemme make an observation here, do you wanna depress an engineering team? Do you wanna turn them all into miserable people? You probably don’t want to, but let me say-

Rich Ziade: I’d rather not-

Paul Ford: But if you want to, here’s what you do– “Absolutely take the time. Let’s do it. Let’s get it right, this time”.

Rich Ziade: Mmmm, mmm, mm-hm.

Paul Ford: And then you don’t ship, six months go by [00:08:00] nothing to show, No, Github, commits nothing.

Rich Ziade: Mm-hm, yeah.

Paul Ford: I’ve seen it, and you know what, everybody, everyone’s depressed. It’s not that they actually had the time to go think their thoughts and get it right.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Ford: They get sad.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: People get sad, I know this myself, you go– if you go too deep but don’t produce you, you feel trapped and immobilized. You can’t claw back out of the the abstraction pit you’ve dug yourself into.

Rich Ziade: You gotta help them get it out, right? And, and, and we’ve thrown big events where we launched software and the engineers milling around that party is a funny thing.

Paul Ford: Yeah.

Rich Ziade: Because, yeah, because it feels like everyone there, first off, it, it feels good to be appreciated that you launched your thing. 

Paul Ford: And you did it, and it’s hard. Everybody knows it’s a hard job that requires smart people.

Rich Ziade: It’s a hard job that requires smart people, but there’s also sort of a tinge of them observing the crowd and concluding that no one understands anything.

Paul Ford: Boy is that true though? It is true [chuckles].

Rich Ziade: [laughter].

Paul Ford: No one in the crowd, because all people react to is the design what’s on the screen.

Rich Ziade: The colors are, oh, the spacing of [00:09:00] the fonts and be like, do you understand what it took to make those words show up on the screen?

Paul Ford: Of course, of course.

Rich Ziade: So, what’s the trick? And, and we’re experiencing this now, we’re gonna have events in the future, those are nice– uh, if you ever seen like an ILS, do you know what an ILS is on a plane?

Paul Ford: No.

Rich Ziade: It’s the instrument landing system. It’s really cool.

Paul Ford: Okay, okay.

Rich Ziade: It creates these, it’s almost like a video game. You have to kind of fly through the boxes. That means you’re descending at a certain speed.

Paul Ford: Oh I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it in flight simulator.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, flight simulator, you’re, you’re descending at a certain speed and you’re at a, you’re descending at a certain speed and you’re accelerating, you’re decelerating at a certain rate.

Paul Ford: I crash in the Rockaways every time.

Rich Ziade: I’m sure you do [laughter]. That isn’t, you can’t see the airport yet, but directionally there is forward motion towards something, right?

Paul Ford: Sure.

Rich Ziade: And as a leader, that’s really necessary. And we look, we’re starting to have meetings and this is the trick, here’s the parlor trick.

Paul Ford: When I use the trick, okay look, we have meeting people– Aboard is at a certain point and we’ve [00:10:00] actually done some neat stuff to it that we’re gonna share soon. And, uh, people wanna talk to us. Suddenly we’re, um, people are interested in us [laughter]. They weren’t as interested like two months ago.

Rich Ziade: So here’s the thing, the ultimate trick, is that we are making commitments to people outside the org. That’s it.

Paul Ford: Well, and you and I, if we are not able to show what we promised, we’d show, frankly we will be humiliated. It’ll be a really bad feeling.

Rich Ziade: And I think they know that, and they want us to do well, and they want to arm us well.

Paul Ford: We, we represent the company, we gotta go out. This is, everybody’s success depends on, on us going and getting the money and making it work.

Rich Ziade: I’m generalizing here, but our job is to go advocate for this product that we’re asking them to build out in the world.

Paul Ford: Yes.

Rich Ziade: Partners, investors, customers, prospects, everybody. That is our job, that if we don’t do that, they could build the best software in the world and it’ll fall flat on its face. Like it is part of the job.

Paul Ford: This is what hurts, right? Because the narrative, the classic [00:11:00] startup narrative is you create something so brilliant alone in your room that millions of people wanna look at it. And that’s literally like what the, the plot of the film, the Social Network is, oh my God.

Rich Ziade: Dorm room, here we go.

Paul Ford: Here we go. Um, and I, I think there are moments where the world aligns and people make brilliant decisions and that can happen.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: But, uh, counting on that as a middle-aged man, working with another middle-aged man would be the height of foolishness.

Rich Ziade: No.

Paul Ford: We have to promote, market, communicate, and explain what we’re doing so that people can understand it.

Rich Ziade: That’s right. And I think on another podcast we should talk about, uh, the sort of east coast mindset of pounding the pavement, and why we think it’s important.

Paul Ford: It is true.

Rich Ziade: I think it’s worth talking about because, because it’s anti-Silicon Valley a little bit.

Paul Ford: It’s really funny, the, the, the tension between Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley does not believe in the salesperson.

Rich Ziade: They believe in automation and transaction optimization.

Paul Ford: Yup, and deep down, I know at some point in my life, I, it doesn’t matter [00:12:00] what I’m building, I’m going to a bank or a consulting firm and I’m putting something on a screen and saying, isn’t that cool?

Rich Ziade: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Ford: Yeah. And, and people who have really good degrees are gonna look at me and go, uhhh, maybe…

Rich Ziade: This is why I have respect for Salesforce, that giant pile of corn-beef hash software-

Paul Ford: [laughter].

Rich Ziade: That is sold needs humans to sell it, and I appreciate that.

Paul Ford: It’s just people, just people.

Rich Ziade: Call Salesforce [chuckles].

Paul Ford: Just people in a grinder, yeah.

Rich Ziade: Um, in a future episode, we’re gonna talk about getting out there and how to go out there and how to tell stories. I think that’s a huge part of, of making Aboard successful. And then soon after, Paul, we gotta start to talk about the actual thing.

Paul Ford: We really do.

Rich Ziade: Yeah.

Paul Ford: And off we go. We’re gonna have a meeting now, we’re going to a meeting tomorrow that we’re all excited about.

Rich Ziade: It’s gonna be great. 

Paul Ford: Let’s have a good meeting.

Rich Ziade: Follow along [00:13:00] as we reveal this non-software, software product.

Paul Ford: [laughter] Our journey of abstract chit chat.

Rich Ziade: We, trust us when we tell you we are genuinely excited about the new direction for Aboard. We’re gonna share it very soon.

Paul Ford: Oh God, it’s real. I don’t even wanna talk about it because it’ll just sound fake and markety.

Rich Ziade: Yeah, but yeah it’s very cool.

Paul Ford: There’s some good stuff happening.

Rich Ziade: Yes. Uh, follow along, uh, on all– on your favorite podcast app and spread the word, we’re also, uh, @aboard, uh, on Twitter and @aboard.com.

Paul Ford: Hello@aboard.com.

Rich Ziade: Yep, have a lovely day.

Paul Ford: Bye.