What's Your Professional Superpower?

I'm a VP of Product with a superpower. Sounds kinda impressive and kooky, doesn't it? It certainly did to me when Mike AbiEzzi, our amazing interim VP of Engineering at Simpler, told me that my ability to code is a superpower. After some reflection it started to make a lot of sense, and I started thinking about what superpowers others have.

Interested in an interim CTO/VP of Engineering? I hired Mike AbiEzzi to conduct an architectural code review and subsequently asked him to act as our interim VP of Engineering. I highly recommend him. You can get in touch with him here.

Many people in a VP of Product role don't have a strong technical foundation. Many don't need one - that's what a VP of Engineering is for. It's certainly handy to have, however.

The fact that I can jump in to lend a hand gives our engineering team extra flexibility. Need more horsepower leading up to a release? Need an extra set of eyes on a tough problem? I can put my developer hat on and pitch in for a while.

It's also helpful to Mike that technical debt isn't an abstract concept to me; I feel the burden first-hand because I'm contributing code regularly. He spends less time defending his decisions to maintain a healthy code base and more time getting it done.

Perhaps most importantly, I have an appreciation for what engineering entails in general. You won't find me saying "this feature seems pretty straightforward to build" very often. I understand that custom software is rarely as straightforward as it seems on a whiteboard.

Mike sees these as a reflection of my coding superpower; a superpower that makes me stand out among the product people he's worked with throughout his career.

While you probably haven't thought of yourself as a comic book hero, I'd recommend giving it a try. If you're a recent developer bootcamp graduate, for instance, you should be thinking about what makes you stand out among the rest of your class. Do you have a strong design background? Experience with data analytics and visualizations? What can you brag about a little?

What's your professional superpower?

Startup Job Security

This post was originally published on the Boomtown blog on May 27, 2015.

Is there such a thing as startup job security? Many startups have unproven business models and limited runway to figure it out, leaving job candidates wondering whether joining early stage companies amount to career suicide. For those who see this as a risky proposition, I submit that if you approach a startup career move as smartly as you should any other career move, job security isn't as elusive as you may think.

You need to get to know a company before making any career move, startup or otherwise. Evaluating an early stage company requires more due diligence than evaluating a Fortune 500, of course, but that's the price of entry. About a year ago I went through this process before making the leap to join Simpler, a startup with no customers, no revenue model, and no retirement fund. 

Simpler's founder, Alan Kane, had a track record of startup success and was being funded by investors that had backed him before. They were experienced as operators and investors in automotive software, the arena Simpler was getting ready to enter. They were in a position to make introductions to automotive manufacturers, dealerships, software vendors, and anybody else in the ecosystem.

I met with Alan. I talked to somebody else Alan was considering hiring to hear her perspective on the team and opportunity. I researched Alan's previous startup experiences. I met with one of the investors. I confirmed that there was enough funding to last a year. I called a CEO from one of the investors' other portfolio companies. While this took some effort, I was able to complete my due diligence in about 3 business days. By the time I wrapped up, my wife and I were confident that Simpler had a lot of ingredients for success.

After you've evaluated your chances of success at the startup you're considering joining, evaluate your chances of success with startups generally. If you're qualified enough to be hired by one startup, you're qualified enough to be hired by another. While traditional job security is about a stable career in a single company, startup job security can be about a dynamic career in several companies.

Prior to joining Simpler I had been Managing Director at Quick Left, which had grown in size and reputation in the time that I had been there. I had experience working with software developers and making technical sales. I had gotten to know a lot of people in the Colorado startup community, particularly by adopting a give before you get mentality. These are all reasons I was valuable to Simpler. My wife and I realized that others would find me valuable too.

Fast forward to today. I'm actively interviewing Ruby on Rails developers to join our growing team. Many candidates wonder whether Simpler will still exist in 6 months as I did a year ago. We've got paying customers, additional investors, and growing momentum. I like our chances. I tell candidates about the thought process I used to evaluate Simpler a year ago and ask them to do the same.

I recognize that the type of opportunity that presented itself when I joined Simpler doesn't come along every day. It was atypical in that not all startups have the same ingredients for success. That said, I had been patient and chose Simpler precisely because it was atypical. If you're thinking about joining your first startup, I encourage you to find the right situation, do your homework, and have faith that the startup community will help you succeed, whether its at your first startup or the next. As it turns out, taking the startup leap doesn't have to be as scary as it looks.

A Fond Farewell to Quick Left

Earlier this morning my CEO Ingrid let the Quick Left team know that this week will be my last with the company. Next week I'll be joining Simpler, a new Boulder company that will launch a SaaS product for the automotive industry. While I'm incredibly excited to share more detail about Simpler I'll wait until next week; this week I'll be busy enjoying my last few days at Quick Left and giving thanks to the great people that I've worked with the last two and a half years.

I'm very proud to say that Quick Left and I have grown significantly since I originally signed on as an apprentice in the fall of 2011. In that time the Quick Left team has more than doubled in size, moved into a beautiful office, established an international presence, added Sprintly as a product, and expanded into Portland and San Francisco. It hasn't been rainbows and unicorns the entire way but we've managed to do a lot of things well together.

In the meantime I learned a ton about code, stepped up my volunteer efforts in the startup community, created a reality in which my wife is retired in her thirties, learned something new about leadership and management on a daily basis, and advanced from Apprentice to Managing Director in the span of less than eight months. I made a ton of mistakes along the way but always had the support of my work family, the greatest example of brainpower and give-a-shit that I've ever been around.

There's still plenty more room for the company and I to grow together. Ingrid continues to be the best boss I've ever worked for and the team only got stronger after our recent merger with Sprintly. Quick Left is just getting warmed up. If you think I'm crazy to be leaving, you may be right. Then again, people thought I was crazy when I signed on with Quick Left as an apprentice at the age of 35. It's fair to say that it worked out.

To my Quick Left family past and present: don't be a stranger. And thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Every Day Is a Tryout

During my senior year of high school I made the cut for the varsity basketball team having never played a single game of organized basketball. I didn't know it at the time but it would become the experience most influential in my approach to my career. Why? Every day is a tryout.

I ran track in high school because I loved the competition. I played basketball for fun with my friends, but never as an organized sport. One of my best friends convinced me to join him during informal basketball workouts to get in shape for the upcoming indoor track season.

I was a nerd. I was socially awkward. I didn't belong with the cool basketball players. 

During the fun stuff, full court games, I'd end up playing with the underclassman and the JV players because my basketball skills were terrible. During the hard stuff, drills to get in shape, I'd excel. Most of my peers who planned to try out for basketball weren't trying very hard because they didn't think that informal workouts mattered.

The basketball season had not yet begun so coaches were restricted from running organized practices, but unbeknownst to most of us, they were watching. On one of the last days Coach Farias interrupted an agility drill to ask me if I planned to try out. I told him no, I hadn't planned on it.

"Too bad," he lamented, "you may be a diamond in the rough. "

I ended up trying out and earning a spot on the team purely for my work ethic. I beat out a lot of better players because I outworked them when everybody thought the coaches weren't looking. Making an impression didn't begin with tryouts, it had been taking place long before that during informal workouts.

The 1991-92 LHS Minutemen, "Where Defense Began."

I've applied the lesson that every day is a tryout to how I approach my career. I don't wait until it's time to submit my resume to put my best foot forward. I don't wait until my boss announces a role I'd like to prove I can take on a little more responsibility. I try to make an impression every day. I know that people are evaluating me today for the promotion I 'm going to apply for tomorrow.

It's an approach that helped me advance from Apprentice to Managing Director at Quick Left in 8 months. It's also created opportunities for me to become a co-organizer for House of Genius Boulder and the co-moderator for Boulder Open Coffee Club and Denver Open Coffee Club, which have been key in connecting me with a ton of great people and great companies.

Ultimately my basketball career was unimpressive. I rarely played in games and scored a whopping 8 career points. That said, making the varsity basketball team that year changed my life. It expanded my social circle, boosted my confidence, and showed me that improbable things can happen when you create your own luck. Coach Farias, thank you, as this lesson has stuck with me. 

I haven't a clue what I'm trying out for these days, but I know I'm trying out for something.  You should too.