AKF Partners

Abbott, Keeven & Fisher PartnersPartners In Hyper Growth

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Last year I had the chance to hear early Facebook employee Chamath Palihapitiya speak about a broad range of topics. One of the more interesting subjects he touched on was the concept of dilution of culture. He described quite candidly how he viewed his role as a protector of facebook’s culture and that each new employee was a potential culture-diluter. Sure, most candidates were talented enough, but were they adding to the company culture or more likely to suck the life from it?

A great opportunity came for me in 2004 to join a still young PayPal. It was by no means a startup anymore but the entire engineering organization fit into the same medium sized room at that time. It was then that I first learned how important culture is and how vital it is to maintain it as you scale up. Over the course of 9 years I did my best to help hire many team members that would not only help the business achieve its’ goals but maintain & grow that unique culture.

As I embark on a new chapter in my career here at AKF Partners I’m excited to work with extremely talented people both at AKF and with the organizations we serve. I’m excited to learn about the people & cultures that make these companies so successful and to help them scale.

However, priority #1 is clear enough: don’t dilute, add to it!

Thanks for Everything Mr. Jobs

I know I’ll remember where I was and what I was doing when Steve Jobs passed away.  You simply can’t do what we do for a living – what we’ve done for a good portion of our lives – and not have had Steve touch a significant portion of your life.

It’s not just about what Mr. Jobs did at Apple, or about his insane product genius, or about his seemingly super-human ability to bring innovative products to market at just the right time (or almost the right time in the case of the Newton).    While those things alone would absolutely be enough to take a few minutes and remember him, his impact reached far beyond Apple or the direct users of his products.

Steve, though his genius, created new market segments and made existing and dominant players in existing segments even better.  While the Windows interface has been much maligned (in many cases rightfully so) for years, imagine where it would be without Apple and the Mac to chase in usability.  How much longer would we have been fumbling around with CD and Tape Walkmans without the iPod and how much worse would our workouts be because of it?  How many more years would we be lamenting the existing tablet computer industry had it not been for the iPad?  When would computer mice have gone mainstream if not for the Mac?  Would we still primarily be using dot matrix printers without Apple finding a way to introduce the laser printer to the mass market?

You went way too early Steve.  Thanks for everything that you’ve given us – both the things that you and your companies created as well as the standard of excellence you set for your competitors.

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Information Hunter-Gatherers

All modern humans were hunter-gatherers until around 10,000 years ago when we invented farming at least three separate times. Since that time most of the world’s societies have become agricultural, growing and farming for subsistence. We’ve also specialized allowing fewer people to produce food for everyone. Our behavior with information has some interesting parrallels to this evolutionary progression.

For a particular subject area we start off as information-gatherers, reading blogs, articles, and boards looking for information. Then if we have the ability, we become information-farmers, producing information on a particular topic by writing posts or contributing to threads. Finally, we start to specialize and people or blogs or boards become authoritative about topics and the rest of us allow them to feed us.

No doubt the Internet has democratized information but I think we’re starting to see a specialization in the production of content. Like our ancestors who sat around the campfire telling stories, some people created them and others retold them. Continuing the food analogy, a few people create the food but we all buy, cook, and serve it to our families and friends. Today, we are still participants in the process of information delivery but most of us are doing it by retelling the stories. We do this by sharing, “liking”, and +1 information that we enjoy.

Besides the parallels between our evolution from hunter-gatherers to agricultural or pastoral based societies the other interesting aspect of information is how this specialization requires us to build and maintain reputations. In the past reputations as experts were denoted by rank, class, or title that were bestowed upon people by a select few. In today’s world we get to decide on who is an expert and who isn’t.

Bringing this back to something practical, we should all be thinking about this idea of expertise for our careers and our organizations. The world gets to denote who is an expert and who isn’t. If you work hard and earn the reputation as an expert in an area you’ll likely be sought out and rewarded for it.

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Scalability as a Discipline

Just as we discussed in an earlier post about the evolution of roles in technology startups, we’ve seen the same thing in the technology discipline as a whole. Computer science as a discipline started in mathematics with Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.  From there Alan Turing and Alonzo Church formalized the notion of an algorithm and the concept of a Turing machine. The first computer that could run stored programs, based on the Turing machine model, was built in 1948 and called the Manchester Baby.

In the beginning there were only programmers, then came system operators, and DBA’s, and architects, etc. We now have many different disciplines that one can specialize in for either part or all of their careers. One of the missing disciplines, in my opinion, is the scalability architect or scalability as a discipline.

While understanding the rules, patterns, and principles of scalability are completely achievable by anyone in the technology organization, this does not mean that they are widely known. Scalability architects would be more like evangelist and teachers rather than the gatekeepers of secret knowledge. Unlike DBA’s or network engineers, whose jobs really aren’t to educate any other technology person on how to create an index or open a port, the scalability architect would educate tech people. All other disciplines from software developers to DBA’s could benefit from additional knowledge about scaling.

If you’re serious about scaling is it time that you looked for or anointed a scalability architect?


Evolution of Roles in a Startup

We often see in the life cycle of startups that the organization starts with a couple of engineers who handle all aspects of technology and as the team grows specialization starts to be required. At some point, QA engineers are hired, sys admins take over deploying and maintaining hardware, and DBA’s are brought on board to tune databases. This is a very natural evolutionary process but does require some adjustment by the individuals as they are forced to give up responsibility and become more specialized. One of the toughest hurdles to overcome is getting engineers to relinquish their access to the production environment. Taking control or responsibility away from someone is very hard on people’s egos.

Another often seen necessity in hyper growth startups is to upgrade leaders. A leader who was capable of leading and managing five engineers isn’t necessarily capable of running a 50 person tech organization. Often people in particular leadership roles don’t scale with the fast pace growth rate of the organization. In these cases the individuals either need to relinquish their roles or be replaced in order to continue to scale the company. This doesn’t mean pushing them out but more likely it means finding a more suitable role for them. A great role for many CTO’s who need to step aside is to remain in a leadership and technical role as chief architect.

The key to being successful in this evolution is to be open and address people’s fears and concerns. It is much better to speak openly during reviews about an individual’s capabilities rather than have that person worry about their future. The same goes for engineers being asked to relinquish control of the production environment. Be open, talk to them, and listen to their concerns. An open dialogue about why the organization needs to change at this particular time in order to continue to grow and scale is usually accepted very well.

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Sell Your Idea

Seth Godin, posted a story on his blog, the panhandler’s secret, that brings to light a great point with regard to selling. That point is that you should first engage and then sell. What probably comes to mind for all of us is that of course we engage our bosses or our customers before we try to sell them our latest product or idea. But, do we do this to our peers and our employees? Do we engage them and explain why we think our idea or guidance is the right one or do we just ask them to follow and buy our idea?  These are the same people we get frustrated with because they don’t demonstrate initiative.

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Keeping Score

Sports metaphors are overused in our industry and in corporate America generally, but I’m going to use one here anyway–since I don’t know a better way to express the concept of “keeping score,” and my partners have dibs on the military metaphors. Too often in our industry, people “keep score” in unhelpful–or even unhealthy–ways. If the one with the best score “wins,” then winners in our industry are most often determined by who has the best title, strikes the biggest deal, makes the highest salary, has the largest equity stake, manages the most staff, and so forth.

It’s helpful to examine how you keep score and see if it lines up with what you’re really trying to accomplish and whom you want to be as an employee, a boss, a co-worker, and a person.

These tough economic times present us all with a great opportunity to reflect on our values and our way of keeping score. Everyone needs to make money and pay the bills, and everyone hopes to have a sense of forward progress and professional growth. So it’s perfectly natural to want get that raise or that promotion or that deal you’ve been chasing. It’s also natural to want to help to create equity value and then be rewarded with a piece of that value. But blind pursuit of these superficial measures of success can ultimately contribute to failure on a more fundamental level. How? By forcing you to take a Machiavellian, ends-justify-the-means approach to the way you do business and interact with your co-workers. This can ruin rapport and–worse–break trust in a way that can be irreversible.

We’ve all seen it: Young men and women in a hurry to rise through the corporate ranks. They take shortcuts and liberties with the truth when convenient, and they place themselves and their personal goals over the common good of the company. This behavior can hurt morale and ultimately poison a corporate culture, especially when it happens at the top of an organization. And it can, and often does, undermine the very goals it’s intended to serve.

So what’s a better way to keep score? Think about your reputation. Be self aware and understand how you come across to others. Companies come and go, but reputations are often permanent. If you’re managing a team, are you instilling trust and motivating them in a way that maximizes both productivity and job satisfaction? Do the people you work with respect you? Would they work with and for you again if they have a choice? Are you building strong and durable relationships?

Also, do you like what you’re doing and the folks with whom you’re doing it? Is it fulfilling? Do you want your boss’s job? Are you on a path to get to where you want to be in one year, 5 years, 10 years? If you were told you only had a month to live, would you have any regrets? As you learn and grow as a professional, your way of keeping score should evolve with you. Is that happening for you?

These are the kinds of questions you should ask, and happy answers to these questions mean that you’re keeping score the right way.


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