The change this year explained

Last night conference has brought lot of friends to the same table. People still keep asking if I’ve left PHH or not (and if so, why) so I thought I’ll put my pen to it and since everyone reads the blog sooner or later, hopefully sooner then in the next three months, it will be clear as of what my motivations were since there’s been a lot of speculation in our narrow circles already.

In fact I’ve left PHH with the beginning of this year. I’ve closed the 1.5yr long stint with a just one long conversation with Łukasz, although those who follow my blog more regularly know I’ve been preparing for the exit for some time ahead of Jan the 1st.

Basically we’ve parted with two conclusions after a very long, two hour conversation we had at the very end:

– Mine: The thing is slipping. We’ve done nothing relevant since the initial launch. We also got few wrong hires on board, who were spending time on everything except valuable. I’ve listened all of the time because I wanted to understand frustrations better. After two hours of talking realised I haven’t heard anything about our very product for even a second. I realised we’ve ended up discussing a labour union situation. I reminded myself I was in this with a true politician who mostly cared about people’s paychecks arriving on time, food being served daily, and everyone drinking more beer they could hold — all at the same time.

– His: It was a long struggle for Łukasz and the team as he personally thought “it was unfair for us both to be put by the business in a position of running the company” (here in Szczecin). He felt like there was a competition between us from the day one. He feared that there was a plan for just one of us to be left, and the other to be ousted. In his opinion, this planted a friction between us. Friction that would be later decided on grounds of fear (or lack of in my case) of loosing out. Since his end goal was growing number of head count, and the kind of supportive atmosphere of constant growth of: resources and wages. This also resonated better with the team, which is the single thing I would agree with.

I never saw it as some sort of competition between us or those two lines of thinking. One has to be fair however — there were more differences between us. From a perspective of three months being outside the company things are becoming very clear, and the difference boils down to different point of views:

– Our predominant way of doing things was to take care of the team, often stating that the product will take care of itself as a result. Call it: focus on “how”.
– My way of thinking was reverse: that if anything to focus more on it would be the product and the team will take care of itself. Call it: focus on “what”.

Call me arrogant but look below at the facts: it clearly works better my way, which I will support with some hard facts in the final part of this post. Back last December I felt like since we’ve launched the first version of the website earlier (last March) we’re not bringing anything new to the table, except constant raft of irrelevant projects and irrelevant tasks. Products we were shipping were just mundane, brining obvious results, sometimes not working. Generally it was all stuff which brings no breakthrough, no innovation to the marketplace. This is no fun for someone who’s been to different shops before. Constant stream of new joiners, almost in all cases people with no experience or concept of work whatsoever, who spend days and weeks on academic discussions about how to do software and how not. People who joined the company criticised every dot in each other’s code from day one. This is just painful to watch, but this is nothing you could do about if you’re really pressed to hire. You can’t make anyone grow faster in terms of attitude and even if you could change something: changes take years, even if you pay a top dollar for every pair of hands.

Basically the whole “focus on team” changed our workplace into constant play: people playing guitars, drums, YouTube, even video games all day long, and (surprise!) in one case even hacking radio signals and server networking (what the hell?)… At any time of a day you could spot least half of the team playing video games (even playing against each other) and the rest was at least sharing screen estate with YouTube clips. Sometimes you could only be thankful they were wearing headphones, most of the days you could only request for a quiet office. Don’t take me wrong, this is a great company and great people but we didn’t really managed them because this wasn’t how it was meant to be. This was just an experiment. The experiment that leads into a clear conclusion that people really shouldn’t be doing any development if left completely un-managed. There has to be some structure that we’ve never put in place, experimenting a bit with leaving the team to self-organise, or trying to organise people who really needed to learn the basic concept of work in the first place. The experiment with people self-organising hasn’t worked and this was a mistake we’ve made both here in Poland and in England collectively. With different people it might have worked differently, maybe. One way or another my friends expected more of me, my family expected more of me… my ego expected even more.

Relaxing atmosphere and friendly approach is all fine but if you give something away, don’t expect it always come back like that. Something good will come back for any good thing you do, but this doesn’t mean good product, or any product at all. Giving no true management means receiving nothing in return. We did a little bit of management and got a little bit of product each time, however every time we’ve paid the full price — you do the maths. In fact even at a day people were publicly discussing our management on their Facebook walls: “what to do if you finished all your tasks in an hour” with an answer: “you’ve got another seven hours off, stupid!”. This could work for some, for most maybe — accepted, but would never work for me. This might be something about Poland — people are quite happy to sit by their desks and do nothing if seated. This happens specifically if no one understands what work is all about. It’s not about sitting. You would have to spend all day long to get anyone getting done like that and this was something incredible to me at the time. I was cought by surprise, really because I might have forgot how it works here. Most Poles understand you should turn up to work but don’t take anyone turning up with some product for granted. As a result the product has been stagnating for months, falling apart sometimes for weeks. Progress stalled for almost one year since the launch – with no significant changes, and really no shift in business model or even the conversion rates…

Let’s be honest on that point. By that time I’ve learned all I could about the holiday rental business from the past company. From that point it would have to be either fast forward or eject button for me — meaning everything as usual in my career. I get lot done and with success mostly because of being impatient with “no, can’t do” attitude, impatient with criticising others, impatient with people procrastinating, prolonging day worth of work into weeks, if not months in some cases just to make it comfortable for themselves. Looking back I always get really frustrated with lack of progress and I just can’t watch people spending more than half of their days on wasting time. This gets even more exacerbated if I feel responsible for the show and vast amounts of money we were spending. I’m basically a product person, not people’s person. I don’t spray with bs about it all being for the well-being of a team or other people’s profit. It’s all about the product because it’s all about me. Therefore the only way forward is never just forward — but really has to be fast-forward. This is something personal, maybe egoistic even. I often think that I can collect paychecks anywhere, even if clearly I need a job and those paychecks too. However to get me happy is by inventing new stuff and by being engaged. Not all of the stuff I was doing are outright successful but those which are happen because of the clear focus and engagement, not because of pretending, or even complacency.

As you all know I didn’t come back to Poland to sit on my hands, no matter how comfortable that activity happens to be. We had it more than comfortable back in London and that’s no good (my ex-wife would dissagree). We could carry on with tapping on each other’s backs all day here in Poland as well. We could do that every day, even until this date, if I really wanted but then I needed to remind myself why we came back in the first place taking the professional aspects. If only my focus was directed on building a team, not the product we could carry on just holding our hands forever, teaching people how to work, code, ship – basically pretending that we could change stuff by doing academic manouvers and calling them one thing or another… But it wasn’t about that… My focus was still on the product, and since it was falling behind what the market was doing, you could only imagine my growing frustration. With the wide gap between the great potential of the team and a relative lack of product delivered this couldn’t last long. I needed to change my landscape or I needed a change of my landscape. I got frustrated with doing nothing new all day long, every day but also I got fed up with people blaming other for this state of affairs. Blaming our collegues in the UK, oureselves in Poland or even some of our collegues in the Netherlands. The blame culture was predominant back then in the previous team and I never subscribed to that and made it very clear at every step of the way, like it or not.

I might have alienated few people by insisting on change but in the last months I was really coming to the office thinking first: we came back to Poland to do be doing remarkable things. Maybe not great, but at least remarkable. I also reminded myself how expensive the change was and how much did we have to sacrifice to enjoy doing something new, even if coming to Poland had also some personal aspects we were already enjoying. I know how it feels right when it is right and it didn’t felt like that professionally most of the days. On the other hand we were still building TaskBeat. With TaskBeat we’ve brought one innovation every week. With each iteration we have been opening a new way of doing things. We had back then new a new market opportunity opening and still are doing that. We’ve kept the bar high and keep most of that momentum today. This momentum was behind TaskBeat most of the time, even if the team was a quarter the size of what we had at PHH at the same time. Having to observe both I can tell you that the TaskBeat team has been outperforming PHH at every level: features per person, price of a square meter of office, hiring and firing resources was quicker. Even the price of every server’s tick was cheaper. Roughly every aspect was getting done both sooner and at less than 50% cheaper that what we’ve paid by using someone else’s money. You can’t really compare the two businesses at their efficiency level because at TaskBeat we have been the owners or the owners were right there – with the people on the shop floor every day. As a result there’s would be no clear factor to apply: anything happening was happening between three to five times faster or cheaper, sometimes even both at the same time. The momentum behind TaskBeat was crazy and some people couldn’t take the pressure but I was envy for Magda and Pawel to push it that far. I really wanted to bring values of efficiency and value, building true innovation also to my team at PHH.

Never just accept blame

Come December was our last attempt to change the culture dramatically because doing it step by step was felt like standing still if not rgressing. I felt like it was like that much sooner, with some of you watching my wall and my blog to certify. With this last attempt we had kicked off a completely different type of project: Booking Widget, as we have called it back in the day with the previous team. With this project I wanted to get things moving again as fast as when the previous project manager was running the PHH 1.0 launch back in March. I’ve been attempting to get back on this fast track of things with a much reduced concept of a standalone product that could bring completely new business opportunities to the company. We wanted to move conversion rates more than just a notch up or down, but to shift it upwards a whole level North direction. I wanted the project to move faster than other things within the development team as we’ve failed some other projects with absolute zero delivery after months of development. My personal ambition behind this new Booking Widget project was really reaching further than the original spec. This project remains ambitious, at least in my head. This however couldn’t work with PHH and the project was cancelled at one week to go, call it 90% done. We couldn’t finish this project because of the “no, can’t do” approach expressed by the team, and “let’s keep it (looking) the old way” by the management. As a result the project was cancelled just one week before the planned go live date. Back then even I was accepting some, if not most of the blame but this was assumed blame, not type of blame you’ve checked and confirmed. To check and confirm how much of the blame is on one’s side, one would have to start a similar project in a similar constraints but a different: lest’s say a different team and a different management.

Never give up on delivery

You could only imagine my disappointment when the project got cancelled and how I felt accepting some of the blame… You should expect however that I would check if the blame was mine. To check this I would have to start all over again and prove it’s either me not being able to deliver or something else that only needed to be changed. You should also expect me never to give up on a great idea, leaving it right there with the previous team, and with me to sit back and watch. Even if most of it the 1.0 of the project was just one week away from the previous team, the full idea was still living just in my head. Back in January I still wanted this project to be a success. I also had a clear plan, and – believe or not – that’s half of the success already. There will be much more to follow after publishing this post but you should fear not: the project has been re-worked from the ground up, is safe, up and running, albeit in hands of a different company. Re-working it meant we had to start from scratch and finish it off before the previous team will finish project’s past incarnation. After all, they only had one week to go… If the new incarnation of the project were to make sense it would have to be delivered quicker and more importantly we would have to implement way better, way more innovative way than what we’ve implemented already with the previous team. Therefore this was the plan and this was the action of the last three months. The last three months were a true a race against anything that the previous team could have published any day on the first weeks of this year. I knew that handing control over the previous incarnation of my project to others will inevitably push some sort of new energy into the previous team, as each change always does. That small bit would be enough to get the project through remaining one week of work, and over the finish line.

I also knew that the previous team had years and years to resolve even part of the problems that affected its performance and it will be few more years still to for them even to realise that they won’t avoid much more structural changes, otherwise bringing the whole company to dissarray. I knew that to get the project restarted and for it to be truly innovative, impressive and profitable I can’t make any mistakes of the past. Three months into this year and with a completely different, much smaller and much more focused team and we all know where we are with a brand new product taking first orders and generating new market that never existed before. Today we’ve gone semi-public with my project, now open to test and try for anyone signing up for a beta… and you can’t really imagine how happy I am with this being the outcome of the change.

We’ve left troubles behind with the previous team, and the previous incarnation of the project well was left well in the woods. The fact that we’ve made it by re-working it with a different team proves my point. The decision was right: the problems were the past team, not the project, or its driver. Whichever way my colleagues from the previous company wanted to pursue the project they will arrive at different set of “problems” with getting stuff done. After I’ve left the academic discussion of who and how projects should be ran the previous team was set out free to pursue this particular project whichever way they wanted. The fact they still haven’t delivered anything, despite business wanting it so badly, proves the point that wrong people were doing it incorrectly, not wrong project was driven incorrectly by any one person.

In the new world of things, the new team put a lot of effort and truly believed in the project, delivering it ahead of time in the planned three month delivery window. Therefore we can now look back as the final effect screams with market shifting features and a business model that no one has ever pushed that far. This also proves lots of points on good practice of software delivery, team management and all the other things I was frustrated with at the previous place. Make no mistakes: behind the success of the new team is we still had professional execution and team collaboration. Those two remain at the hart of every success and just cannot be replicated without putting years and years of experience first. The years I simply didn’t want to waste at the previous place educating people whereas other shop can just do it quicker.

Therefore my new shop and my new team delivered a brand new implementation of the original idea that was planted months back at the previous place. We’ve pushed this idea way, way much further with a much smaller development group, iterating many times faster. The group might be smaller but it experience sums-up to a much more than we could have achieved with dozens of dozens of pairs of hands idling. The new team has no personal or political (imagine that!) connotations, represents a completely different work ethics and just that translated into much more product much sooner. The success also remains in line with my product-first, team-second mentality. Frankly it also remains in line with (hate me or love me) with my personal ego, which never allowed for any project to fail completely, instead re-creating it stronger the moment someone brings it to a stop.

Cut the crap and look at naked facts: we’ve done it, again!

I know few people might not get pleased with me posting so openly. Same people definitely wouldn’t expect me to move on, re-work and deliver somewhat similar product under the logo of a new company that quickly. This long post is a full explanation for all of you who might have thought this was some kind of betrayal of the previous team on my part. As you can see from the full explanation above, it wasn’t all that simple. If the above explanation wouldn’t suffice I can honestly always fall back on saying the final decision wasn’t mine anyway. I know that some people didn’t expect that we would ever make it with this product, let alone that we will deliver it sooner with the new team than we already have done with the previous team. I can agree that this is madness, but it’s also one of the biggest success stories on my timeline. As you have seen for many years “it’s impossible until it’s done” is the title of this blog, hence I gave you all the answers here. The names or acronyms are coincidental. You can deny the opinions stated. You can’t deny the facts out there. Facts are there for you to touch.