It’s been one full month since I decided to leave the corporate world and attempt to make a living as an “individual proprietor”. Despite all of my initial worries, I am extremely happy I made the decision. I’ve learned so much about myself during the past month, which are distilled into a few key takeaways and anecdotes that will hopefully help you if you are considering the “road less traveled” as it were.
Laziness is your worst enemy
You would think that the prospect of waking up each morning and getting to work on your own projects would motivate me to work extremely hard, right? Since I no longer had to focus on meetings and compliance training modules, I expected to wake up early in the day and crank out thousands of lines of code before lunch. Sadly, this was not the case. My first week on the job, I woke up at 10:30 and walked the dog. Half an hour later, I would think about writing some code but instead found myself surfing my rotation of websites: facebook, hacker news, and the iphoneSDK forums. Around noon I would make another effort to dig down deep and get some work done, only to realize it was lunchtime. Since I rarely had time to enjoy a nice lunch during my corporate days, I would treat myself to someplace nice and stay for a couple of hours. After lunch, it suddenly hit me that I hadn’t accomplished anything yet and so I would do some work for a few hours, but get constantly distracted by an interesting Techcrunch article or a new episode of Jersey Shore. Suffice it to say, my first week’s performance was pretty poor. If I were a manager, I probably would have fired myself.
After a week of such shenanigans, I vowed to get my act together. I realized that my body was conditioned by fear to wake up in the morning. Specifically, fear that I would lose my job. This worked fairly well. In order to trick my subconscious into waking up again, I decided to vicariously experience this fear by sending my wife to work in the mornings. Since she hates driving, this worked out well for both of us. After dropping her off, I would find a cafe to work out of for the rest of the day. Even though this was better than trying to code while watching daytime TV, I found that coffee shops had their own distractions. First of all, there is an unwritten rule in coffee shops that you need to actually buy some coffee to work there. For whatever reason, my bladder does not get along with caffeine well at all. I found myself needing to hit the head every 20 minutes after finishing a venti coffee at Starbucks. To make matters worse, the bathroom was sometimes taken. This meant I had to leave my table and try to sneak in to the bathroom of nearby Korean restaurants. By the time I got back, my seat was usually occupied and I had to wait for another one to open up. To top it all off, the entire cafe appears to share a single dial up internet connection. Suffice it to say, I needed to find a more productive place to work.
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
After a few weeks of essentially being dead weight at my own company, I decided it was time for a change. I couldn’t fire myself, so I did what I know best: hack. I needed to debug my work subroutines, and in order to do that I needed to figure out which variables to optimize (apologies to the non-engineers). On the one hand, laziness is a good trait for engineers to have. It drives us to seek out inefficiencies and squash them. I’ll never forget the story my buddy Keith told me about his boss, an eccentric Russian scientist. He said (imagine a thick Russian accent, like that space station guy in Armageddon): “Americans spend hundreds of millions of dollars on pen that works in space. But we Russians, WE BRING PENCIL”. However, the same laziness that drives us to create algorithms that can search the entire web in milliseconds also cause us to gain weight and neglect our hygiene.
My observation from my corporate days is that there were two primary extrinsic motivators that worked well for us developers. One was deadlines. Having experienced both being managed as well as managing others, I knew firsthand that not having deadlines is the absolute best way to insure work will not get done. Engineers thrive as procrastinators, and imminent deadlines can increase our productivity by orders of magnitude. The other motivator was social pressure. I don’t mean social in the large sense, but rather in the sense of your immediate circle. I’ve found that seeing other people work hard around you motivates you to do the same. One of my most enjoyable and productive projects at work is a perfect illustration of these two extrinsic motivators. There was an important project at work that was due in an impossibly short amount of time, essentially a 3 month task compressed into 3 weeks. I worked on this project with two other engineers, both now good friends of mine. Being the only married one in the group, I always left early for dinner while the other two slaved away. However, the thought that my teammates were working hard and the fear of not pulling my weight motivated me to go back and work with them to finish the project on time. During the three weeks of development, I averaged 90 hour work weeks and wrote tens of thousands of lines of code. Social pressure was a powerful force that kept me in my cubicle even though I didn’t have to be there.
To address the first motivator, I set a strict deadline for my project, the iPad version of Fantasy Monster. I decided that I would ship the app by the end of February. The second motivator was a bit more difficult, since I am working alone. However, I remembered my friend Keith had been trying to invite me to this shared workspace called the Hacker Dojo. It is a place where primarily entrepreneurial engineers and designers got together and worked and shared ideas. After a few visits, I was hooked. Just being together with other like-minded individuals who are working hard on their own projects motivated me to do the same. Hearing the successes and failures of other smart people also pushed me to step up my own game. At the Hacker Dojo, I was able to enter “the zone” of productivity and finish my iPad app in less than one week, a full month ahead of schedule!
All in all, this past month has been a great learning experience for me. Even though this is primarily a travel blog, I’ll occasionally post my thoughts on running my own business, since that’s such an integral part of our ShenVenture. Thanks for reading.