What Voltaire and the Flaw at the Heart of Economics Have to Teach Us About Software That Doesn’t Exist
Voltaire’s Candide juxtaposes an optimistic philosophy with unbelievable tragedy. He was angry at the 19th century philosophers who proclaimed that we lived in the best of all possible world while destruction and death unfolded around Europe on an epic scale.
We might hear the claim that we live in the best of all possible words and scoff. Of course, we’re too enlightened to be such naïve optimists. But are we? Isn’t the belief tempting? Or even, doesn’t the behavior of those around you make more sense if you realize they believe this, at least a little bit?
Economists are theoretically rational, analytical, big picture thinkers, but at the root of modern economics is a belief shockingly close to Candide’s parody of optimism. They have what they call “The Efficient Market Hypothesis” (EMH), which roughly states that all assets are valued fairly. This is built off the idea that asset values in an open market are fair because they include all available information, and all the actors in that market are behaving rationally in regard to both the asset and the available information.
This theory tends not to trigger the cynicism that Voltaire does. Intuitively, it sounds not just right, but defined as so. Isn’t an open market essentially a mechanism for finding the fair value of an asset? It’s not so simple. And when it goes wrong, it does so spectacularly.
Modern economists cannot be as destructive as the great thinkers of the 18th century, whose big ideas justified eugenics and many other horrors. Just because they cannot as easily be used to justify mass murder does not mean they should not be accountable for the downsides of their obviously incorrect theory.
“No”, I hear you say, “the EMH is not wrong; it’s correct by definition.”
Economists have convinced us of what Voltaire was protecting us from: We live in the best of all possible markets, where all information is public and all assets are fairly valued. If the market does not value something, that it must actually be worthless.
But of course, if that were true Warren Buffet would not have become a billionaire buying stocks that were worth more than the market was paying, the finance industry could not have been built on advising clients about public stocks, and you’d have no need for lemon laws or other regulations that fight information discrepancies. Nor would Kahneman and Tversky have won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating that actors in an economic system behave anything but rationally, puncturing the EMH for good. Thankfully, this has forced the field to begin to grapple with its flawed underpinnings, but many modern beliefs are implicitly built around these bankrupt theories.
You might be patting yourself on the back right now for not being silly enough to draw Voltaire’s ire, but it’s baked into the value system of the world around you, especially if you live in the US.
The market moves from irrationally ignoring new technologies like the blockchain to irrationally dumping money on them, without any fundamental change to justify the shift
We tend to claim that the rich earned their status through hard work, rather than recognizing the role of privilege, inheritance, and luck in their status
Of course, not everyone in the market operates with such optimism, but each of us is biased in this direction. It affects our thinking whether we want it to or not.
“Ok”, you say, “even if I accept some people make optimistic investment decisions, what does that have to do with software?”
Great question. If we live in the best of all possible markets, where all information is public and all assets are fairly valued, then we can trust the market’s assessment of what software should and should not exist. Lack of software to solve a problem is a sign that it’s not worth solving.
If, on the other hand, our world could be better, or if our market is imperfect at valuing assets, then we can’t trust intuitive conclusions about where value resides. This is most true when it comes to valuing unsolved problems. It might be that a given problem has no solutions because it is not worth solving, but mundane reasons are more likely to be at fault.
Most great companies exist because they provided something the market did not know it wanted. Their founders encountered a flaw, and managed to build something great in the opportunity created by it. Henry Ford claimed if he’d have given people what they wanted it would have been a faster horse. The market knew how to value them, but not cars. Before Apple, the market did not value personal computers. Before Google, the market valued directories but not search engines. Before the iPhone, the market valued expensive phones for professional use but not personal.
These value statements were market failures, and their resolution generated billions of dollars for the companies resolving them. Now, of course, the market sees great value in what these founders have created, but not because the market is so smart; it’s because it can no longer fool itself.
It’s easy to grow despondent in the face of such obvious market failures. If the wisdom of the crowds, the great invisible hand of the market, can be so wrong, what hope does a lonely entrepreneur have? I take a different way.
I luxuriate in these misses.
They surround us. We bathe in them. Yes, many great companies have grown into critical market gaps, but even with all these successes, there are untold problems whose solution should be valued but is not.
Only once you reject the market’s flawed opinions about what matters, you begin to see nearly limitless opportunity. There are so many more unmet needs than there are perfect solutions. These are your opportunities.
Of course, just because the market dismisses a space doesn’t mean there’s a great opportunity there. It’s your job to know the problem, your customer, your user, your buyer well enough to draw your own conclusions, to develop enough certainty that you don’t need someone else to tell you what to believe.
Because that’s the real point: Trust yourself, not a bunch of paternalistic optimists.
I did more writing in 2017 than I ever have before, probably more than I had done in my entire life. I stated at the outset my desire to write in order to learn, and publishing regularly has delivered. More importantly, it forced me to capture and share many of the results of my R&D. The writing topics were primarily venture capital, the software startup ecosystem, and founder optimization, but one of my weaknesses is a drive to the meta, spending time on the tools and systems rather than the work itself. Unsurprisingly, this ground is as fertile in prose as it is in code.
I have done all of my writing on Ulysses, which has been a good tool. I do miss much of the power of Vim for managing text, but the usability trade-offs are usually worth it. Plus, Vim is not exactly strong on wrapped text. Ulysses’s most important capability for me is that it transparently syncs between my phone , both of my iPads, and all three of my computers (yes, I know). I can open any document on any device with no worries (given my iPads are on LTE, and thus can always download updates). Second to that is the ease of getting data out. I was able to text a 5k word document directly from Ulysses on my phone to two different people, because it converts anything to PDF and can send out via the share sheet. It publishes directly to most platforms, so I used it to post everything to Medium. I do wish its backend storage was more visible, so I could version control everything in git, but you can’t have everything.
The only time I ran into troubles was publishing my travel writing - I was copy/pasting photos from Apple’s Photos app into Ulysses, then publishing into Medium, and it turned out that no part of this process downscaled the photos, meaning each was about 20MB. This is fine when you’re on solid wifi, but not so good from a campground in Yellowstone. The primary reason I did not write during the second month of my trip is it was just too painful to publish. Ulysses really fell down here, because when it works, it works great, but when it fails it is miserable. I’d just sit and stare at my iPad for ages, with no visibility of failure or success until the very end, and it would often manage to upload the text but not the photos. The only fix for this was to delete the draft from Medium and try again. Not so great.1
Over the year I became concerned, though. I heard about Andrew Chen, who built a following on successive publishing platforms (e.g., Blogger), each popular and well-funded, only to have the companies disappear (because that’s what Silicon Valley does to most companies). He eventually realized that the only way to consistently reach those who were interested was via email; it’s never going away, subscriber lists are easily portable, and of course everyone knows how to use it. He had to move from letting a platform own his audience to taking control directly, and email was the only real way to do that.
I think Medium is pretty good, and at least for now it has no shortage of funding. Even last year, though, it made well-publicized efforts to retool its business, a clear sign that whatever it was doing before wasn’t working. It seems unwise to bet that a follower on Medium will have any meaning in a few years.
It just so happened that I ended the year with an experiment in their new business model. My series on Venture Capital, in partnership with NewCo, was published behind Medium’s paywall. While the experience was positive overall, and I got paid more for those pieces than I have for, um, all of my other writing ever, earning money isn’t my real goal in writing. Yet, paying writers is exactly what Medium has to figure out in order to attract the content and audience it wants. I appreciated the extra attention working within their paywall provided, but I came out thinking it’s unlikely to be the right path for me in the long term. My goal is to maximize the reach of my writing, and it’s more about the arc of all of it rather than a couple of heavy-hitting pieces getting the most attention, which means our respective goals are orthogonal at best, and in direct conflict at worst.
While I have not written about it, I spent a lot of last year fascinated by email, inboxes, and how we consume content. I’ve been a deep fan of RSS from the Bloglines days (Unread is my reader of choice these days), but RSS is mostly dead (thanks, Google!). The kinds of sites that produced great feeds back in the day grew too big for a hobby. They became either wildly profitable for a small team and thus got destroyed with ads and shitty content (hi Boing Boing!) or people had to back away because it was just too much. Mainstream publications like the NYTimes might still publish RSS feeds (I literally have no idea), but RSS is a poor fit for how much content they produce.
When I look around, it seems that the RSS feeds of ten years ago are now awesome newsletters. See how often your favorite sites talk about their newsletters vs their feeds. I’m pretty confident I’ve never heard a podcast ask me to sign up for a feed, but many casually mention their newsletters. (Well, to be fair, podcast feeds are just RSS, so in that sense it’s survived, but I think we can agree it’s a very different use case.) The market has moved.
This shift is not all peaches and cream. The superiority of email as a publishing mechanism has not brought with it a superior reading experience. Long form content from writers I follow does not belong in the same inbox as requests for coffee meetings, yet that’s where we are. (I asked the Feedly CEO if they would please please add newsletter subscriptions to their platform, and he could only say they were considering it. If you want to build the newsletter reading app, hopefully with an index of great letters to subscribe to, count me in as an early contributor.)
Even with its downsides, I’ve decided to move my writing to my own site via a newsletter-first publishing model. From now on, everything will be published first to that site and the newsletter (sign up now!). There will be exceptions, when publications offer enough exposure that I give them some period of exclusivity. I will also indefinitely duplicate each piece to Medium on a delay, to take advantage of the audience I already have there.
There are enough examples out there that I’m pretty confident this is the right long term answer, but it’s early enough that it feels like an unstable experiment. Like most, I love and hate email, and I am a bit bummed about the extra infrastructure involved in this system.
If you’re still an RSS person at heart, you can always just subscribe to the feed, and if Medium is your bag, at least for now you’ll be able to see everything there, too. Of course I can’t promise how this plays out in the long run - else it would not be much of an experiment - but you can bet I’ll work hard to find the right way to talk with the people most interested in what I have to say.
One note before I go: I could not have made this transition without the help of Mike Julian. He helped set up each of the services, mediated the hiring of a consultant to modify the site, and connected all of the services together. He’s got a great book on monitoring, and is available for consulting on monitoring and observability. I can’t recommend him enough.
Thanks for following on so far. I’m excited about another year of writing.
It’s worth noting that Apple’s iCloud Photo Library did wonderfully here; I could upload every photo to my iPad, and it would sync when it had good data, and sit quietly when it did not. I love asynchronous protocols. ↩
Modern capitalism raises the flag of the free market while pitting centrally planned organizations against each other
It’s quite a journey from being born on a commune to raising more than $87m in funding at a software company. This journey forced me to wrestle with existential questions about my true beliefs, and how they intersected my life as an entrepreneur. One’s work is rarely a pure reflection of ideology, but companies need a clear and authentic strategy, which requires a tight alignment between company operations and the founder’s philosophy. I have discovered more about those differences between what I believe and the best ways to grow a corporation while studying economics - that is, how money is made and exchanged - than any other area.
A worldwide conflict between communism and capitalism defined the latter half of the twentieth century. The United States’ ideological battle was the central drama of my childhood, and it was with a combination of glee, pride, and “told you so!” that my fellow Americans watched the wall fall in Berlin, and the USSR dissolve shortly thereafter. I expect few would deny that the US is the standard bearer for capitalism.
Yet, there’s a flaw at the heart of this claim. While the United States operates as a free market economy, the key agent within modern capitalism - the corporation - works more like an authoritarian state. Given how much of our world is built around corporations, this truth and its impacts are critical.
I grew up apart from America’s passion for capitalism. In the era of Reagan, I was living on a commune. My parents did not earn money for their labor, and we didn’t have personal property. My family left the Farm when I was 8, and as I matured, my ideological roots were in conflict with the US’s nonstop pro-capitalism message. As I joined the workforce and eventually started my own company, I found myself attached to neither the communal roots of my childhood nor the Wolf of Wall Street world I moved into. I grew slowly in convictions, as I encountered problems in the course of scaling a company.
The first real conflict came when it was time to hire managers. I founded a company primarily because I did not thrive as someone else’s employee, so what led me to think others would? More importantly, anyone who has ever operated at the front line is aware of the severe costs imposed by the separation between the people who do the work and the people who make the decisions in hierarchies. Hiring managers was just going to make the company do worse, not better, right? Right?
I expect three of you are gleefully shouting, “Yay, holacracy!” right now, while the rest are confused and either offended or think I’m an idiot. I did consider a manager-less world, but a little research provided only examples of disaster, because the only available options just replace an explicit power structure with an implicit one. In other words, it’s still hierarchical with the founder on top, but now decision making is opaque and the system is easy to exploit because of the lack of controls (which looks surprisingly like the cult/commune I grew up in).
Those who are confused or offended by the idea that managers make performance worse would be informed by a deep dip in economics. One of the core principles of the free market is that central planning committees can never be as efficient or as effective as the people doing the work. By definition a free market economy lacks a decision-making hierarchy; the ‘free’ means every agent (individual or corporation) can decide for themselves, without needing permission from a manager above.
While there are many aspects of modern American capitalism I reject, this one I wholeheartedly support1. The downsides of a strong central executive were taught to me early.
Like many other communes, the one I grew up on routinely failed to feed its people - my parents speak with horror of the ‘wheat berry winter’, when we lived on little else. While his people were short on food, the founder of the Farm was off touring Europe as the 3rd drummer in a band, “bringing our message to the world”.
Thankfully none of us starved to death, but the failing was similar to what most communist countries experienced: The central organization could not feed everyone. For years, I assumed this was just incompetence, whether at the scale of the Farm or China. The truth was far more structural. Millions starved during the Great Leap Forward because the central organization was trying something impossible: Managing the productive output of an entire country. The Planet Money podcast tells a great story of how this central planning was walked back in China, but the general point here is that these communist countries did not just nationalize the means of production, they tried to centrally control all of it from within a small group.2
When people talk about communist countries not being a free market, this is what they mean: They tell the farms what crops to produce and in what quantity, rather than letting them decide for themselves. China even went so far as to dictate what hours a farmer should start and stop working, and then directed managers to ring a bell for transition times to control every little group of farmers. Anyone who’s ever had to punch a clock into a rigid, dysfunctional hierarchy is likely getting painful flashbacks about now.
It should be immediately obvious why this fails miserably: The distance between the central planning committee and the farmer is so great that good decisions are nearly impossible. It’s nearly impossible for critical feedback to make it from the edge, where the farmers are working, to the central planning committee in time to affect decisions, and then for those decisions to make it back to the edge in time to be useful. The podcast linked above also points out how unmotivated the farmers were under this regime, cutting productivity even further. Those who have studied lean manufacturing, agile development, and DevOps are likely seeing parallels here.
The result was catastrophe. When a corporation is painfully inefficient it loses money and might have to do layoffs, but when a country fails at growing food, its people starve to death. I don’t mean to imply that central planning was the only cause of famine under communist rule - there were political operations that led to mass starvation, just like in the West - but learning more about these helped crystallize what I do truly prefer about capitalist models. It also converted the phrase ’the free market’ from a catchy slogan into something meaningful to me.3
The most important feature of free market economies is that each person within them is able to make independent decisions in their own best interests4. If you’re a farmer, you can decide what to grow, how much to grow, and when to work to develop your crop. Heck, you can even choose not to be a farmer any more. Success is merely dependent on your finding a buyer for your work at a price you can tolerate. Any given year might not be perfect, but your decision making gets better over time as you learn to respond to customer demand.
This pattern is easy to understand in any system where the people doing the work make the decisions. If you’re a jeweler, you can decide what to make, how much to sell it for, and what to spend your time on. Same if you run a small restaurant, lead local tours, or are a one-person shop doing house remodeling. It’s a free market, where you can charge what the market will bear, and you can quickly and efficiently respond to its whims, ensuring that you are getting the best use of your time.
This was a powerful organizing principle for a long time. The history of human commerce developed largely this way: One person, or as many people as could fit in one shop, would turn labor into a product, then find a buyer for it. Most large-scale efforts were organized by the state of the time: Monarchs and the landed gentry, who were the only ones capable of marshaling enough resources to build palaces, roads, and other large construction projects.
This began to change in the 17th century when corporations like the Dutch East India Company were able to deliver massive windfalls to investors by pooling money and using it to extract resources from colonies. There was a step change in the 19th century, as corporations went from generating wealth to building and owning infrastructure. It’s one thing to outfit a single ship for a year-long voyage, yet another to maintain railroad schedules across the United Kingdom, or run a telegraph network around the whole US. These aren’t just short-term money-making exercises, they’re long-term commitments with big capital outlays and large returns over years and years.
We still live in a free market economy, but it’s not one Adam Smith would recognize. Instead of individual or small operators, ours is composed almost entirely of corporations. Really big corporations. And these companies, they use the same kind of central planning that we so despise in communist systems. I know. I’ve done it.
By the time my company got near 500 people, we had a multi-week planning process, where the leadership (i.e., me and my lieutenants) set out top-level goals, built a top-down plan to accomplish them, then drew information from the front line to see where it needed change. We called this a bottom-up plan, but it was only bottom-up from the perspective of numbers - how much money we’d have, what our costs were, etc. - rather than from the bottom of the organization. We could see no way to have a system where the people doing the work built a plan for the organization. Even thinking about it now, my reaction is, “How would they know what my goals are?”
That’s the kind of question you can only ask in an authoritarian state, not in a free market economy. My goals became my company’s goals, and the only real way to ensure people worked toward them was providing a plan. You might argue that a corporation should focus on shareholder value, but that doesn’t help make decisions about what the company should actually do.
Great leaders find a way to listen to everyone in the company, but in the end, leadership is about making decisions. That’s essentially the definition of the word. And we all know leaders who did not bother to listen, or just did not need to in order to be great; today’s most vaunted tech leader, Steve Jobs, was famously disrespectful of the opinions of others, yet made a lot of world-changing decisions (not all for the better).
This is exactly why working in a big corporation is so stifling. If you’re in a small company, the executives are close enough to the front line that it’s more like working in a tribe, but in a big company, the leadership is so removed from whose who do the work that executive teams operate like the politburo we so decry in communist countries. Certainly the bureaucracies are no more enjoyable or forgiving.
I find it both ironic and painful that my inability to work for someone else resulted in my creating a company that involved a lot of smart, capable people working for someone else.
I wish I had a solution. If this were an easy problem, its solution would already be pervasive, because the benefits are massive. Just in terms of efficiency, we’ve seen how much better the free market is than planned economies, but it also has a hugely positive impact on quality of life. People are happier when they’re in control.
I know the solution is not more freelancing and contract work, which America’s corporations are addicted to. That’s the worst of both worlds: The exploitative nature of capitalism with the inefficient bureaucracies of communism. Transactions on the free market work because they’re good for both sides, but most people only accept part-time contract relationships today when they have no other real choices.
Holacracy certainly isn’t the answer. It’s fundamentally flawed because of its implicit power structure - Tony Hsieh still runs Zappos, even if he does not use a central planning committee to do it - but the biggest problem is it makes no mention of economics. Without a clear system for scoring the transactions (i.e., money) it’s impossible to build a free market.
This problem of how to handle economics within a non-hierarchical company might lead some to think of using blockchain tokens as an internal currency. This is impossible today, beyond the fact that the world of blockchain is mostly about fraud and black market sales. The biggest problem is that we have no idea how to value most of the work people do. I mean, we might know that what a developer should get paid for a year’s work, but how much is that work worth? The majority of the work done in modern corporations is incredibly hard to value, which is partially why companies are so inefficient and make so many bad decisions.
That brings up an even bigger problem - companies today hire workers to make money from their labor. In other words, they generate profit because they pay their employees less than they’re worth. If everyone could trade their labor for exactly the amount of money it was worth, the corporations that employ them would have a much harder time making money. Instead, in modern corporations the shareholders and the executive team - again, the central planning committee we so despise - make the majority of the money, while the front line does all the work and makes very little. This is true even at the big tech firms; software developers might be well paid relative to hotel workers, but they’re paid a pittance compared to the founders and executives. This might speak to why we have no solution yet - free market corporations would tend to reduce concentrations of wealth, which would be terribly disruptive to the current system.
Like I said, I don’t have a solution. But at least now I know what makes the current system so painful, and it gives me some hope that we actually can come up with a better answer. I know I’ll be working harder in the future to manage the downsides of what we have today.
Although I might stress the “well regulated” part more than most modern economists. ↩
I have been a passionate advocate of Trello almost since the day it came out. Visualizing the work is incredibly powerful, and its use of priority by ordering is so obviously better I could not imagine using anything else. I have brought Trello into companies, and caused hundreds of people to use it. Recently, though, I stopped using it in key functions, moving my personal tasks into Things and other work into the applications that own it. It started as an experiment, but quickly snowballed into a full transition as I realized how much better it would be for my core use cases.
I am a productivity junkie, from GTD to Deep Work, and while I know the tools aren’t the work, they’re one of the fastest and easiest ways to change a system, bringing new perspective and abilities.
I initially adopted Trello for managing my personal tasks. From there, it slowly spread to group and company use cases, and by the time I left Puppet in 2016 it was baked into our core business operations.
I had considered switching away from it for my personal tasks a few times, because it’s been obvious for years that it was not a fit for how I managed and processed my life’s flow of work. Where I had always taken great pride in my productivity system, I could no longer muster the discipline it required, which meant it was extraneous process and I was also failing to do my job. I sank so low that I began sending person to-do items to my inbox. shudder However, my life as CEO was busy, yet not really built around task execution, so it was never worth the cost of the tooling change. Or so it seemed.
While I abhor tooling changes for their own sake, sometimes you just have to experiment, and when I had a run of open space I decided it was time. Even if other places were worse, I was better off spending time elsewhere to get out of my funk than I was continuing to stare at this board that just wasn’t working for me.
As I looked to move away from Trello, I wanted to switch to OmniFocus, but the timing is wrong. I recently downloaded the current version, but it reminded me why I stopped using it years ago: It asks too much of me1. The biggest disconnects were the need for contexts, and the inability to set priority by dragging items around. It looks like the impending next version will be a great compromise for me, but I can’t use it until it arrives.
As I began moving tasks into Things, I was slowly reminded what it was like to have my task app be, well, an app. Before Trello I used Asana, at a time when its mobile experience was just a badly packaged web page. It’s been years since I had the pleasure of working with someone who bothered to build for the platforms I used. What a difference it makes.
Processing this small but meaningful change took over my brain for the rest of the day. I could not let go of the transition, but I also could not stop thinking about its consequences. “Thinking” is being too generous. I had not seriously looked outside of Trello for years; all of my habits and instincts are built within its constraints, its physics model. That meant wide open opportunity to construct whatever world I wanted, but also the need to do so, and embarrassing mechanisms for getting in and out. Creating a quick task in Trello is most easily accomplished by sending myself an email, which tells you how seamless the core experience really is. Telling Trello of work to be done in another application usually required custom applescripts to connect the two (e.g., creating message:// urls).
The keyboard’s change in utility keeps hitting me. I did not realize how rarely I used Trello shortcuts for their sheer disagreement with my hands. Well, partially, they were insane - ‘c’ archives cards, where I kept thinking it would create them, and repeating mistake kept my hands off the keyboard - but also, they were just different. I keep visualizing myself sitting at Things, fingers poised over the keyboard, in a world that makes sense to me. It’s pleasant.
I have a lot of work in Trello. Basically everything I’ve recorded in the last 4 years about what I could or should do is there, and it’s been the platform for organization all of that information. I’ve always been pragmatic, so even when I built it I would not have said it was the “best” answer, just that it worked at that time for my use cases.
Now I am questioning everything I’ve done recently - not to ask if I’ve made a mistake, just wondering what the world would look like if I had done that work differently. Are there projects languishing from sheer friction, that would suddenly become easier if migrated?
The answer in at least one other case is ‘yes’. I had a Trello board for managing all of my writing ideas, and I had a standard right-to-left workflow from idea to writing to done. I just never really used it. Instead, I did all of the management of writing in the same place I did my actual writing: Ulysses. I built a workflow from folders2 instead of lists3, and eventually I realized that the Trello board was hurting, not helping. The ideas I put in there languished, and Ulysses is just as good at capturing a sentence or two about a post as it is for writing the entire thing. The board is now closed, and my writing is in the same place as all of the work needed to manage it.
Tools do not make the difference, but tools can make a difference. A thing can go from undoable to tractable with a small change in tools, just as a math problem can go from impossible to trivial if you flip the equation around a bit.
I know Things won’t work for many of the use cases I have in Trello, partially because it’s so obviously a single-person tool, and much of my work does not have a home I can move the organizational work into. E.g., I have a list of lists in Trello of all of the day trips I could consider taking around Portland, and I can’t think of where I’d move that. I don’t know where those other problems get solved now. Maybe they don’t change.
But I know my standards have been reset. I know I made a mistake letting myself sit in one tool for years, unhappy but unwilling to invest in the change. It’s a wonderful feeling to be looking at the world through new eyes again.
To be fair, I also stopped using it in the days when it took 45 seconds to open the app on an iPhone, because that’s how slow the data synchronization was. ↩
The arrival of the smartphone has convinced the world of the value of great software design, but it’s not all good news
The smartphone has reached more people and delivered more value faster than any technology ever seen. Much of the world has had to adapt to this arrival, but software design suffered the greatest reckoning. As the smartphone ascended, developers finally adopted reasonable design principles, realizing that they could not pack every feature ever seen into the smartphone experience. This recognition of the value of design - and especially, minimal design - is a good thing. Mostly.
I could not be happier that the industry finally accepts that there are principles of design, and there is a practice and discipline behind building great software. It’s great that we’re seeing more focused software that does little, but does it very well, rather than the previous age of the GUI when software attempted to own large parts of our lives by doing anything and everything. For a long time, Microsoft Word was used by nearly everyone who had a computer, and their strategy was to ensure no one ever had a reason to choose something else by building every feature anyone might ever need; their toolbar was the canonical example of never saying no.
The smartphone changed all that. Those rows of icons would fill the screen on a phone and leave no room for typing, and of course, no one would use them anyway because of how different the usage patterns are. As people realized they could no longer just throw in the kitchen sink, they began hiring (and listening to!) actual designers, and those designers have been steeped in the culture of Dieter Rams and the minimalism of the Bauhaus movement, which is awesome. Mostly.
Unfortunately, the phone caused everyone to focus on the final design principle of Dieter Rams (“Good design is as little design as possible”), without apparently remembering the nine that came before it, or why they were earlier in his list. I get it; the design constraints in a phone are intense, and it might not be a good idea to minimize everything, but it sure is easy.
The consequence of this mobile brutalism is a new movement building simpleton tools: Software that anyone can use, but no one can become an expert in.
Trello is a great example. I adore Trello. I think it’s great software, and it’s clearly a success by any measure. However, for all that I’ve relied on Trello daily for years, I feel no more an expert than I did just after starting to use it. It’s not because I haven’t tried; it’s because there’s no depth. You can pretty much plumb the product in a couple of days.
That’s fantastic for getting new users up to speed quickly, but deeply frustrating after a couple of weeks. Or months. Or years. Compare that with Vim, which I still use for all of my code editing, yet it’s so complicated that most people don’t even know how to quit it, much less use it. I’m not going to claim its lack of user friendliness is a feature, but I will defend to the death that its complexity is.
Apple’s Notes is the ultimate expression of this trend in text editor form. It’s a fine text editor. I know some people have written huge, impressive programs in similarly simplistic editors like Notepad on Windows. But I personally could not imagine giving up keyboard navigation, selection, text munging, and everything else I do. The fact that complicated work can be done on simplistic tools speaks to the value of having them, but in no way invalidates the need for alternatives. Yet, on the current trends, no one will even be trying to build this software I love because they couldn’t imagine two billion people using it on a smartphone.
I think it’s fair to say that that’s an unfair standard, and even a damaging one.
I miss the rogue-esque exploration that tool mastery entails. It’s not that I want tools to be hard; I want them to be deep. I want to never run out of ways to invest in my tools. I don’t want to have to swap software to get upgrades, I want to upgrade my understanding instead.
But I look around my computer, and everything on it was designed for the “average” user. I was not average as a CEO with 40+ hours of meetings a week while receiving more than 200 emails a day, nor am I average now as someone who spends more time writing than in meetings. There’s no such thing as an average user, so attempting to build for one just makes software that works equally poorly for everyone.
It is a rookie mistake to conflate the basic user who will never plumb the depths of their tools with the expert user who will learn every nook and cranny of your software. It is a mistake to treat the person who sometimes has to solve a problem the same as a person who spends 80% of their time working on that problem.
I don’t want to be an expert in all of my tools - for all that I take thousands of photos a year, I don’t think I’m up for switching to Adobe Lightroom - but for those tools that I spend the most time in, that most differentiate me, I want the opportunity for true expertise. And I’d happily pay for it.
Back in the days when computer screens were tiny, there were plenty of stats that showed that paying for an extra screen would often give people a 10% or more boost in productivity. I know it did that for me. As a business owner, it was trivial to justify that expense. Monitors cost a lot less than 10% of a person’s salary, and don’t need to be replaced every year. Heck, the whole point of the automation company I built was to allow people to focus their efforts on the most valuable work they could do.
Yet, when it comes to software being built and purchased today, to the tools we use on a daily basis, somehow our software ecosystem is failing us. There is no calendar I can buy that makes me 10% better, no email client available that I can spend five years getting better at.
It’s great that people are finally making software that everyone can use, but that’s no excuse to stop making software for specialists, for experts, for people who could get the most advantage from that extra 10%.