We did a panel titled The Age of the Entrepreneurial Engineer at Appnation yesterday. We never have enough time to cover all of the topics worth covering on any panel, that’s just how things go. And I think I’ve probably been spending a disproportionately large amount of time thinking about the set of factors here. What I’m working on at Churn Labs is meant to be directly in support of entrepreneurial engineers. So I wanted to summarize some of the bits we didn’t quite get to while we were up on stage.
There’s a whole lot of current thinking and discussion that points in the direction of engineering driven businesses being at least an acceptable idea. Be it the details of the distinction between causal and effectual reasoning laid out in What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial?, or the Lean Startup principles that Eric Ries has been putting together, or the insights from Little Bets pulling together both current practice and examples of some great successes from the past. There are lots of folks driving the idea that the greatest risk to any startup isn’t the way you’re doing things, but that you’re doing the wrong things. So by extension, the best thing you can do to increase the chance of your business succeeding in the early stages is to structure for learning instead of optimizing for what you’re currently doing. Shouldn’t be a huge revelation to engineers, we all know that premature optimization is the root of all evil, right? :-)
You don’t need to be an engineer to be able to practice the principles these folks are talking about, but in lots of cases there are advantages to being the person doing the implementation as well as the person learning from the experiments. It also helps out when initial efforts uncover unexpected discoveries. Being the person in the code, poking around in the logs, putting together the metrics – I feel like those discoveries come about more naturally.
These practices aren’t really new. They’re just starting to get documented, given terms, and ultimately legitimized. Now we think of someone “pivoting” as a good thing. They learned that some assumption was wrong and have found a new direction that builds on their previous learning. Before there wasn’t a word for it, and we had to describe a change of direction in a way that everyone viewed as negative. So people would actually prevent doing what was good for their business because they were afraid to have to admit to peers and investors that they had made a mistake. Witness the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis at work, now that we have better words we have a better world. How awesome is that?
It also means that we’re seeing some new forms come around. The Gentleman Hacker lays out the model at the larger end of the spectrum. “Getting together smart folks to just hack on stuff” is nothing new. The subtle but extremely important difference is that we’re not just hacking to solve technical problems. We’re hacking to try to explore and validate hypothesis. We are hacking with a direction. We just expect that if we’re hacking correctly that direction is going to change.
But the process scales down as well. Entrepreneurs I talk too are increasingly spending time actually getting working versions out into market, iterating a few times and learning, and then looking for funding for what they’re doing. I think this model of figuring out a new business is infinitely more effective than drawing up a business plan and doing some market research. I think the popularity of the process is the main driver for the rising average valuation of companies getting funding, and an indication that the market agrees that this new model is the way to go. And of course if you’re an engineer who can get something out to market as well as one of the founders you’ve solved that major issue of how to get from idea to first prototype.
All this stuff is fantastic news for us. It doesn’t mean that you can completely ignore everything like learning about market sizing, or term sheets, or how to put together a corporation. But it shifts the emphasis back to a set of things that we’re more well prepared to deal with coming out of the gate.