Startup tales: How to completely screw up your prototype by not hiring penguins.
Dark secrets time: Accordium began life as another company entirely, with an unpronouncrbl and unspellrbl (but oh so trendy) name. We also outsourced our prototype development to a team of Indian freelancers. But that was before we hired some penguins.
Before the metamorphosis of CrossDottr into Accordium, we were a team of three displaced Copenhagen hopefuls running a self-funded wannabe startup from an apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
One year ago we lost our venture capital virginity, and grew like a butterfly out of that first ugly chrysalis.
As the newly-minted Chief Product Officer, I slept on a single foam mattress on my friend’s living room floor — in front of our Scrum board, no less. I would wake up in the middle of the night with our Agile stories staring back at me. Remember the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey? It was like that. Just… there. Looking at me.
Seriously, here’s a photo:
We’d got all the Epics figured out (or at least we thought so back then) but with only one developer working in his spare time, and no money, things weren’t going anywhere fast.
And so we embarked on that most cherished of startup cliches: “I’ve got an idea. I just need some someone to build it”
Hiring talented engineers locally in Kuala Lumpur with no money and no reputation proved impossible. So through a few recommendations we partnered with an outsourcing team in India who would build our prototype for us.
Without doubt they were talented, hardworking and diligent — but despite their qualities, the administrative realities of remote engineering quickly proved difficult.
Here’s how we screwed up (and then fixed) our remote software development:
When you outsource your prototype, you’re effectively hiring mercenaries.
External software companies still take an intense pride in their craft, but there is little sense of familial ownership. Like the marksmanship of a soldier of fortune, the skills and precision may be there, but little thought is commonly given to the place left behind at the end of the tour.
Additionally, while these hired guns still need to be on-boarded and ramped-up like anyone else, the transient nature of these developers mean that when the money tap switches off, that specific knowledge is lost forever. You pay the full handshake penalty, with none of the enduring benefits.
Once we’d bootstrapped a minimum viable prototype to secure our VC funding, we quickly used that money to bring our engineering in-house.
It was critical to create a team that was as much a part of Accordium as we were. Although our headquarters would later return to Copenhagen, our development would remain in Kuala Lumpur due to cost. But it was important that we knew this was offshoring, not outsourcing.
Consequently, the talented gentlemen we hired are proudly full-time Accordium employees, complete with a stake in the company. They are part of the family, part of the furniture, and integral to our personality.
For reasons that are not entirely clear (and hopefully never will be) our four-man engineering team spontaneously began self-identifying as characters from the Dreamworks movie Madagascar.
They each had a name and stuck to it religiously: Skipper, Rico, Private, and Kowalski!
Their github repository is called Madagascar. Our user admin system is CPZ: Central Park Zoo. Dig a few layers deeper and it only gets weirder.
We suspect they had real names once, but this gentle humour is a constant reminder of the affection we all share for each other as members of a cohesive family.
Whatever budget you have, outsourcing will never provide penguin software engineers.
The time difference between Europe and Asia dislocates you, meaning that simple things can take a long time to get resolved.
From Copenhagen, Kuala Lumpur is 9,675 kilometers distant, and in winter seven hours ahead. There’s no way around it.
This kind of temporal disparity challenges even the most determined teams, and was quickly raised by our investors.
Solution: Breed night [owls] penguins.
To reduce the penalty of this distance, our penguins work from approximately lunchtime until 8pm, and often later. This isn’t something I prescribed as a manager — it arrived happily and naturally as a result of their preference as night owls.
Instead of an seven hour difference with no working overlap, we claw back enough hours through time-shifting to give us a continuous half-day shared window. Often they work into the night, so we regularly get a full day’s collaboration on important projects.
We understand that this might not scale as we grow, since not everyone enjoys burning the midnight oil, but our collaborative output is given a serious kick in the pants by moving the working day forward.
Unreliable video-conferencing make a mockery of your release meetings and code reviews.
Even in 2018 video calls can still be useless. Especially when we outsourced to India, the connection was barely fit for dial-up.
More often than not you’d blast through the scheduled meeting time by half an hour just wrestling with Skype or some other desperate Plan-B. And even when it worked, the on-call communication could be hard with language barriers squeezed down a 56k copper wire.
Email was thorough, but too slow, and the time difference often sank even that idea.
Solution: Become a Slacker
Happily between Copenhagen and the more robust infrastructure of Kuala Lumpur, Skype still works acceptably 80% of the time — but the company Slack is the backbone of our organization.
As integral team members, all of our engineers have access to our entire range of Slack channels and chat history — this always-on shared environment speeds up our day-to-day collaboration and leaves a repository of knowledge that external developers wouldn’t necessarily have access to.
In the same way that Facebook became most people’s ‘front page’ of the social web, so Slack became the common nexus of everything we do together as a remote team.
It works so well that we’re often surprised how easily ideas flow, often to the point of distraction. (Look out for my future post: “How to completely ruin your company productivity with Slack!”)
Being far away limits personal relationships and makes it hard to connect as people.
When you’re spread across the world trying to work and grow, it can be hard to get to know one another. You want to connect with your colleagues on a personal level and feel together as a unit. Culture is the critical seed of any startup, after all.
Without being close to each other, in person and often, interpersonal relationships deteriorate and break down. This significantly impedes progress and clogs effective communication.
With outsourced third-parties especially, there is little impetus to be on-site to develop close relationships because of their transactional and mercenary nature.
But with in-house engineering we knew that we had to take a much more hands-on approach to our cultural integrity.
Solution: Take a ‘nomadic founder’ approach.
I spend about one-third of my time in Kuala Lumpur with the penguins. The rest of the team visit often too. It keeps us together beautifully, and prevents a cultural rift.
These golden times are the thread that holds together the commercial-product-engineering interface, and how we build our relationship as a company. Collaboration velocity goes through the roof, ideation is free and easy, and we achieve great strides in a short time.
Just being able to have dinner together cures so much separation anxiety.
I borrow a concept from Intel, where we might imagine our product development divided into Ticks and Tocks:
When we ‘tick’ we’re together for a month working intensively on planning and scoping in great detail — followed by preliminary work. Then after we leave there is a ‘tock’ period of concerted sprinting to deliver much of what was discussed, and do bug-fixing — of course with regular reviews along the way. It keeps us moving, and Agile, with plenty of checkpoints.
This kind of travel might seem prohibitively costly, but let’s do the numbers: Even if I fly back and forth from Copenhagen to Kuala Lumpur every month, and stay in AirBnB at the company’s expense, that number is dwarfed (by a factor of four) by the cost to maintain an engineering division in Copenhagen.
All things considered, we retain a 75% cost advantage remaining offshored with frequent executive attendance, compared to centralizing in Denmark. As people on LinkedIn like to say, it’s a ‘no-brainer’.
We might be a cloud technology company, but the best work is still done in-person at the whiteboard with markers — or as we call it: “Ink while you think”. That kind of collaboration is priceless.
Summary: The healing powers of technology, travel and timekeeping.
Initially we were beset by the traditional problems of time, distance and disconnectedness that appear typical of companies who outsource or otherwise fracture their teams.
After closing our first VC funding we built a genuine in-house engineering function in Kuala Lumpur, and were blessed with the penguins who became part of the family with a real ownership mindset, rewarded by a stake in the company.
Through the right applications of technology, travel and timekeeping we were able to cure these problems and emerge structured and unified as a company.
In my experience, technologies are the bridges that span the gulf of time and distance.
Whether they’re communication conduits such as Slack that enable real-time collaboration, the apartment-sharing platform of AirBnB that lets us live inexpensively around the world, or even the modern aeroplanes that traverse the distance — when used correctly, all of them negate so much of the trouble often experienced by international companies.
In this way, we can truly work together with all the agility we need, and at a cost-base that makes us competitive beyond compare.
But most of all: hire Penguins.
Barrington Russell is Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Accordium — helping sales teams close deals faster through contract automation, digital negotiations and e-signatures.