Startups Fail, Airplanes Crash
We started work on an MVP for a new product with this direction from our CEO.
CEO: We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here. Don’t bring anything to me until you see what the competitors are doing. Do demos, get screen shots, document what they’re doing. We’re going to do it better! We want to have an MVP out the door by Q3.
Team (Obligation Statement): We’re at the end of Q1. That’s not enough time. We need to use these platforms as a blueprint and perform market research as well as user testing. If we just try to just copy another platform we’ll be playing catchup for a long time. We really don’t have any observability into their apps either to know how users are using these apps.
Now this is what we should have said. Fundamentally, the concept of not reinventing the wheel is a smart one and pretty universal. In software it rarely works to simply copy another product. We don’t have insight or observability into their systems. We don’t know what analytics or metrics they’re tracking on how users interact with their systems. What features are providing value? What features aren’t? What are their customer-focused KPIs? We don’t know what’s on the product roadmap for enhancements based on these data. At best we’re taking a snapshot of their software. We’re going into the market behind the curve.
The truth is that 90% of startups fail. 10% fail within the first year. 70% fail within 2–5 years. There is a funny saying in software when it comes to aggressively getting a product out the door. We say we’re building the plane while flying it. And like planes, we can go down in flames. The truth, though, like actual planes, is that crashes rarely occur from one mistake. Planes go down often as a result of an accumulation of many smaller mistakes, or through poor communication. A large percentage go down when Captains haven’t worked long with their copilots or the Captain is overly tired from long hours and prone to poor decision making. Here is what the team actually said.
Team (Query): Do you think that’s enough time?
4.79 per million loss rate
An interesting analysis into Cross Cultural Psychology was done by Malcom Gladwell in his book, Outliers. In that book he details over the course of a 10 year period the loss rate of Korean Air Lines. Between 1988 and 1998, United airlines had a loss rate of .27 per million. Korean Air Lines had a loss rate of 4.79 per million, about 17 times higher. This airline had become so dangerous that Delta Airlines, Air France and the United States military had suspended their partnerships. The planes themselves were in working order, but there was an underlying cultural issue that needed to be fixed. Just a year later in 1999 Korean Airlines shaped up and since then they’ve had an incredible record of safety. They even received an award for their turn-around. But what about communication again?
Cross Cultural Psychology is a branch of psychology that analyzes the influence of culture in human behavior. Culture is considered to be the characteristics of a group including attitudes, behavior and customs. Some might view culture as your programming and your character as a unique extension of that. An early pioneer of the field was the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, who worked for IBM’s human resources department. In his studies across 70 different countries he put together the first dimensions defining national culture.
Power Distance Index
Individualism vs Collectivism
Masculinity vs Femininity
Long Term Orientation
Indulgence vs Restraint
When Entitlement is a good thing
Power distance deals with attitudes toward authority. How much respect culturally is normal toward authority? Within a professional setting, how comfortable are employees when it comes to expressing different opinions with their managers? Do employees expect and accept that power is distributed unequally? What level of entitlement do they have? Entitlement isn’t always a bad thing, especially with regard to authority. For some it has been the difference between success and failure. The United States ranks high on this index. In certain situations we can be more likely to try to reduce our power distance and be more equal to authority. And this is actually valuable in many situations. In countries ranking lower in power distance like Korea, there is more of an acceptance of the difference in power and less entitlement. Many employees wouldn’t be comfortable with speaking up to their managers when necessary. While this inherently isn’t a bad thing, it can be when flying planes. When Korean Airlines turned around a year later, they went through extensive training teaching all of their employees when to be comfortable with closing that power distance and speaking up. There is a termed coined as Mitigated Speech for this exact thing.
Mitigated speech is an attempt to use, more tact or downplay the meaning of what we’re saying. If you were going to request a raise, you would likely mitigate rather than saying “You’ve seen the gas prices. I’m going to need a raise”. Employees of the airline were taught when and how to use different levels of mitigated speech. They were given a protocol to use it whenever a person in power may be making the wrong decisions. Within a short period of time they changed. They learned that culturally a high power distance can be okay, but sometimes it is fine to close that distance for the task at hand.
As professionals we wear many hats and it’s important to be dynamic and understand when to change for the situation. Ironically enough, more plane crashes in general have occurred when the captain flies rather than the first officer. Typically, flight duties are split pretty evenly. Planes where the first officer spent more time flying were more successful because captains weren’t afraid to speak up if the first officer was making poor decisions. In situations where the captain makes mistakes often times first officers were afraid to speak up until it was too late.
What I’m saying is that companies often benefit from hiring professionals that they trust to spear-head their vision with commands from leadership when necessary to direct the flight. I think it’s rare than any startup fails from one poor decision, but many over a period of time until the point of no return. While it is better when a company fosters a culture of open communication and relative humility from their leadership, it’s still our job as engineers to be honest when our Spidey sense is tingling. It may be difficult when it’s not our inclination, but it’s certainly possible.
I don’t know what to call it
Something that isn’t discussed or taught so much is “Soft Skills”. Honestly, I don’t know why it even has that name. What I do know is how valuable Soft Skills are in the field of technology, and any field really. The ability to work with people of different cultures, characters, levels of experience and styles of communication is very valuable. If you’ve been in many interviews, something you might have heard from time to time from hiring managers is, We’ll take a mid level person that works well with others over a rock star that doesn’t. And really, it’s self-explanatory. After a certain level of skill or knowledge there are diminishing returns and other skills such as communication and creativity become much more valuable.