Skipping Step Zero

Photograph of a frog jumping into a shallow body of water.

No waiting or requirements-gathering. They dive right in.

Hello, I’m Rich, the other co-founder of Aboard. Your regular host, Paul Ford, is busy on sales calls and not allowed to leave the conference room until he closes more business.

Aboard 3 (that’s what we call it, each pivot gets a number) is out in the world now, rough edges and all. It’s been fun to see people circle it like some odd art installation—touching different parts of it and asking: What is it? Bookmarking? Data management? “Groupware”?

Well, it’s a platform. An AI-powered platform. The word “platform” is ridiculous and powerful all at once. Adding “AI-powered” doesn’t make it less ridiculous, frankly. What does it even mean? Taken literally, it means you can build things on top of it. ChatGPT gave me this:

In a nutshell, a software platform is an integrated environment that serves as the foundation for developing, running, and managing software applications, allowing seamless connection of tools, data, and processes.

Sure, but what a platform truly represents is one thing: Skipping steps. The nature of a platform isn’t some magic synergistic benefit that produces happiness, no matter how many times Salesforce pays Matthew McConaughey to ride around in a hot air balloon. The nature of a platform is what it lets you avoid. If you want to cut through all the enterprise sales pitches, the critical questions in evaluating software are: What steps does it let you skip? How can that be proved out?

Step Zero

Consider Brazilian accounting. Most of us will never deal with it. But if you’re a big enough company, you might do business in Brazil. You could build your own Brazilian ledger, but that’s a whole world. Or you could pay SAP…and skip that step.

Most people don’t have Brazilian corporate accounting problems, and when they do, they can call Deloitte Brasil. We’ve focused most of Aboard’s energy in a very different place: What we call “Step Zero.” Step Zero comes before code, almost before requirements. Step Zero is the problem statement.

There’s an awful truth about software that always broke the hearts of our clients: You’re usually going to throw away the first version. “Build one to throw away” is actually a big part of engineering culture. Sometimes we call it prototyping, sometimes we call it “low code.” Years and years of building software have taught us that building is not the hardest part—figuring out what to build is. 

So back to Step Zero: As we visit potential customers for Aboard (not just users, but entire organizations), we listen. And we watch. And we hear about how they work and why things suck and why they’re in so much pain and how much money they’re losing because they’re working so inefficiently. (Get in touch! We’d love to listen to you complain, too.)

What we’re learning is that in this new, AI-powered, lightspeed world of technology, the problems are the same. It could be 2004, 2014, or 2024—the exact same problems keep organizations underwater. Data is all over the place, things keep slowing down, orders go missing, people are grumpy.

Enter the Technologists

There’s a certain type of human—one who is very good at sales—who’s extremely skilled at turning anxiety and knowledge gaps into money. It’s almost like a currency exchange—anxiety units to dollars, stress into product requirements documents. Then you add appendices. Months go by. Then more months. Requirements change. Finally it’s time to build.

Auto body shops use similar techniques to turn your anxiety into revenue.

All of that is Step Zero, and I think the promise of AI is that we can actually throw away Step Zero—the great, unspoken, incredibly expensive step that happens before anything gets built. We can do it by throwing something on the screen that works—the details aren’t always right, but at least you’ve gotten started, which gives people something to react to.

Nothing is more powerful than human annoyance—except for one thing. If someone is annoyed with your solution and asks you to change something, and then you do it, you’ve never seen such joy! People absolutely love when their problem gets solved (especially if they feel they had a hand in directing it). It’s a shame it doesn’t happen more often.

I’ve been reading a ton about AI lately to stay informed. It’s all very forward-looking, very optimistic, and just brimming with excitement. It’s going to solve everything! I kind of doubt that. But I do think it’s an amazing technology for skipping Step Zero and giving everybody one single thing to nitpick together. And that’s what software is all about.