What couldn't you ship?
Great excerpt from Jason Hong's article in this month's Communications of the ACM:
The most impressive story I have ever heard about owning your research is from Ron Azuma's retrospective "So Long, and Thanks for the Ph.D." Azuma tells the story of how one graduate student needed a piece of equipment for his research, but the shipment was delayed due to a strike. The graduate student flew out to where the hardware was, rented a truck, and drove it back, just to get his work done.
Stories like that pluck at my heart strings. Best part of Back to Work, Episode 1 was this, when around 19 minutes in Merlin Mann said:
I was drinking, which I don't usually do, but I was with a guy who likes to drink, who is a friend of mine, and actually happens to be a client. And, we were talking about what we're both really interested in and fascinated by, which is culture. What is it that makes some environments such a petri dish for great stuff, and what is it about that makes people wanna run away from the petri dish stealing office supplies and peeing in someone's desk? What is it, what makes that difference, and can you change it?
In time, I found myself moving more towards this position — as we had more drinks — that it kind of doesn't really matter what people do, given that ultimately you're the one who's gotta be the animus. You're the one who's actually going to have to go ship, right?
And, my sense was — great guy — he kept moving further toward, "Yeah, but...". "This person does this", and "that person does that", and "I need this to do that". And I found myself saying, "Well, okay, but what?" What are you gonna do as a result of that? Do you just give up? Do you spend all of your time trying to fix these things that these other people are doing wrong?
And, to get to the nut of the nut; apparently — I'm told by the security guards who removed me from the room — that it ended with me basically yelling over and over, "What couldn't you ship?!" "What couldn't you ship?!" "What couldn't you ship?!"
... If we really, really are honest with ourselves, there's really not that much stuff we can't ship because of other people...
... When are you ever gonna get enough change in other people to satisfy you? When are you ever gonna get enough of exactly how you need it to be to make one thing?
Well, you know, that is always gonna be there. You're always gonna find some reason to not run today. You're always gonna find some reason to eat crap from a machine today. You're always gonna find a reason for everything.
To quote that wonderful Renoir film, Rules of the Game, something along the lines of, "The trouble in life is that every man has his reasons." Everybody's got their reasons. And the thing that separates the people who make cool stuff from the people who don't make cool stuff is not whether they live in San Francisco. And it's not whether they have a cool system. It's whether they made it. That's it, end of story. Did you make it or didn't you make it?
The way I see it, you should never stop asking yourself:
What's really going to be different about tomorrow that you couldn't go make happen today? Why isn't past inaction indicative of what's going to happen today, or tomorrow?
What reason do you have to believe that appropriate steps to deliver on your vision are in flight, and what would it take for you to go drive them harder.
What losses might you have to cut in order to get some thing done, rather than a theoretically more perfect no thing. For some outcomes, it really does take a village. I wouldn't expect anybody to single-handedly ship the Great Pyramid.
Of course, sunk costs are powerful siren, so you have to be very careful to evaluate whether compromises still allow you to hit the marks you care about as true goals. But, at the end of the day, all those trade-offs roll up into one subtly simple question:
What couldn't you ship?