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Beware the low-hanging fruit: On this week’s episode of Track Changes, Paul and Rich share some industry warning signs. We chat about why you should be wary of long research phases and of people who have total faith in the product funnel. We also share some tips on how you can tell if your deadline is slipping and chat about the importance of long term product thinking. In this week’s Hello Postlight segment we meet Stephen Koch, a lead engineer who joins us to talk about his transition from marine biologist to musician to computer engineer. 

Transcript

Paul Ford Trends; trends are coming. Postlight’s gettin’ up in trends.

Rich Ziade Acronyms are comin’!

PF I’m workin’ on like a 20 trends thing, ya know?

RZ Not you’re not—

PF Yeah!

RZ There’s always 20 trends.

PF You gotta get in there with those trends [music plays alone for 16 seconds, ramps down]. Alright, Richard.

RZ Yes, Paul.

PF You know something we should talk about more often are . . . warning signs.

RZ That’s a very broad statement.

PF It’s hard to narrow it down and a lot of it’s instinct [mm] . . . but I thought it’d be a good show because [music fades out] there are times when you’re just going along, doing things, having meetings, talking to people, being friendly. And then it’s like a spider lands on your neck.

RZ And oftentimes you don’t notice it.

PF Oh yeah. I mean like—I’ll throw one out at random. Six month research phase.

RZ That’s a warning sign?

PF What happens in those six months? Now, granted, this is not about curing cancer, this is about building an app.

RZ “Oh, we’re gonna go out there and talk to users.”

PF “We hired—insert giant consulting firm here—”

RZ “And they’re gonna go out—”

PF They’re gonna talk to our customers. That’s a big one. It’s not even users at that point, they’re gonna go to the factory.

RZ Ok.

[1:16]

PF They’re gonna map out everything and how it all works [ok]. And they’re gonna come back with the requirements.

RZ Is that bad?

PF It’s great. How long is that gonna take? . . .

RZ Nine months.

PF Exactly. What if I told you, Rich, that you could start building something after like a month or two? And that might be the actual best way to do a research phase.

RZ Meaning build something, go back out, show it to people, get like a feedback loop? Or just—

PF That’s what I’m talking about.

RZ You don’t need six months.

PF Not Powerpoints, not giant Visio charts.

RZ Ok, alright. Often, the buyer is askin’ for six months of research.

PF Isn’t that wild? That’s cuz they’ve been trained on giant consulting firms over the course of their entire career.

RZ Yeah, well also, can you really be wrong if you did all that research? I think there’s that too.

PF Well, and you’re gonna get this big Powerpoint at the end that you show to your boss, right? And you haven’t actually ma—

RZ With quotes, pull quotes.

PF The world is set up to avoid building software.

RZ Well, yeah! I mean it’s new.

PF It’s new and it’s gonna change the way people work. Like, this is what I think: people in tech a lot of times were like, “Ah, you know? Everyone is just dragging behind, won’t take this seriously, needs to realize and get on the train.” But it’s like, “We’re here to ruin your life.”

RZ [Chuckling] This is not a good pitch for Postlight.

[2:25]

PF Well, no, it’s a terrible pitch but it’s like, “We’re gonna take away a whole layer of ways that people get stuff done, and we’re gonna tell you that like doing it with an app and with a platform and on the web is better.”

RZ Disruption, really.

PF Yeah! Exactly! Right? And so, you know, I’d rather have six months to make sure I don’t over-disrupt anything.

RZ Right.

PF Doesn’t work that way though.

RZ No, it doesn’t.

PF No, you gotta actually make a thing and then see what people do with it.

RZ Ok, so warning signs is the theme of today’s podcast.

PF Yeah.

RZ Alright, so one of them is the long, protracted research phase.

PF Yeah.

RZ Not a lot of room to innovate if you’re doing that much research I guess.

PF No, I mean that’s—it’s always like we hired the firm. You might’ve hired Frog and they’ll come up with product ideas for you; you might’ve hired McKinsey and they’ll tell you how you’re gonna staff [right] —things like that. What about—you have a very good set of reflexes for schedule slip.

RZ Yeah [sighs] um.

PF How do you know? Before you—a lot of times I’ve watched you talk to people and you’ll be

like, “Wait, what’s happening there?” And they haven’t realized the schedule slipping.

RZ I think that’s how you know. I think it’s this relaxed posture that kicks in. Schedules are weird, right? [Mm] Schedules are . . . a) kind of artificial; b) very often some clients have—usually you need some sort of external factor that puts enormous pressure. I’ll give you an example. “It has to be ready for CES.”

PF “Ok, we’re goin’ to Vegas!”

[3:45]

RZ “We’re goin’ to Vegas and I need the thing in the truck and I gotta show the 91 inch screen. No one has ever done it before.” Those are glorious because you—first off, you’ve got a scapegoat here. You’re not the jerk manager who’s turning the vice—it’s a thing! It’s a huge event and there’s gonna be two million attendees and—

PF Oh yeah! It’s wonderful to have an external monster!

RZ Yeah!

PF You’re like, “We have to get this done or the monster will break through the wall and eat us.”

RZ That’s right. Alright, so now it’s—you’ve got six weekends left and guess what? Your weekends are shot; you’re gonna hit this date—it’s a forcing function, right?

PF [Crosstalk] Here’s the magic blessing is that the monster is outside the building.

RZ It’s not manager guy being a jerk.

PF You’re just like, “Look, man, we gotta do this.”

RZ “What do you want me to do? It’s happening.”

PF “We have to put the sandbags against the wall or the monster will break through.”

RZ I think the number one thing to look for when you start to get a sense that slippage is happening is the posture of the team. Like a relaxed posture. And, God, I’m not trying to say everybody needs to be stressed out but there is something about the launch, right?

PF It’s in the air!

RZ Like that event, that thing that like, “We’re gonna do it. Right?”

PF Right, that’s nice. You got CES and Godzilla’s not gonna break down the door and eat everybody—

RZ It could be a game release, right?

[4:56]

PF What about a point release into the app store?

RZ I mean those are weird but they’re not events, right?

PF But what’s the radar? I’ve seen you go like, “Hey, what’s happening there?”

RZ I think it’s more driven by drag; just a sense of drag, and it’s not—I don’t wanna label this as laziness or people not working hard.

PF No, let’s be clear: this can happen when somebody could be goin’ home at four in the afternoon and getting everything done beautifully—often they are. And somebody could be grinding and it’s just not happening.

RZ And sometimes it’s the engineer deciding, “You know what? I can write this better. This is bad.”

PF “Lemme rip out this piece of code and put this one—” That’s a pure warning sign!

RZ Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF That is beautiful because when they go, “You know what would work better here though?” Ot it’s just like, “It doesn’t do the one thing we need it to do.”

RZ Yup. You know—you’ve seen this, I mean, you lived it.

PF Yeah.

RZ On regular cycles, right? The magazine’s goin’ out! A weekly magazine is a crazy thing, right? It’s like there’s the factory—it’s a factory that prints the paper? Is it . . . a printing press?

PF Yeah, it’s a printing—

RZ Do still call it a printing press?

PF The printer.

RZ The printer’s gonna run! That thing’s gonna run at two a.m. on whatever—Thursday night to run the Saturday magazine. It’s gonna run! There’s no way around it.

PF I think that’s the thing. When the monster’s outside, that’s the blessing.

[6:09]

RZ Do you keep a couple of articles that are sort of not time sensitive?

PF Always! Always—this is not—

RZ Just so you can fill ‘em in in case they don’t make it.

PF This is everyone in media: you try to have some kind of backlog rolling so—

RZ Ah!

PF It’s like everything, in every business—

RZ The history of the Slinky! You could always drop that in.

PF Everything comes down to options [Rich laughs]. You need those options!

RZ Of course!

PF And then sometimes you’ll go—I had a piece in The New York Times Magazine not too long ago. It’s about how I like bug reports. Literally, that’s what it is [mm hmm]. You know why they asked me to write that?

RZ Oh no.

PF It was like, “Hey Paul, I find my—”

RZ Because you’re Paul Ford?

PF No, no, it was like, “I find myself in urgent need of . . . something to go on that page.”

RZ Ok, so there was an empty box.

PF Somebody went on vacation.

RZ Is that true?

PF I didn’t ask—

RZ They gave you a time—

PF You never ask.

RZ Ok.

[6:54]

PF But it’s The New York Times Magazine, people wanna be in that box.

RZ Of course!

PF Right? I didn’t ask. They were just like, “Uh oh. I have an empty box and not a lot of time.”

RZ “And here is Paul’s email address.”

PF Well, and then—I deliver a consistent product of a certain quality. [Rich laughs boisterously] Right? Like it might not be the most—but you know you’re gonna get something ok.

RZ Yeah, yeah.

PF And so I sent—so my friend who works there who’s on that page [ok] who I used to work with . . . says, “Hey! You got any ideas? Again, I kinda find myself in need.” And I’m like, “I get that situation.” And I literally just hit reply from my phone and there’s no like performa—like uh bug reports; walkin’ around Brooklyn; interesting cemeteries. Like I’m just [Rich laughs] like—and so I throw like ten things his way and he goes [ok] —and he writes back a paragraph and the paragraph is like, “Here’s how the bug reports article could go.” [Rich laughs] And I’m like, “Great! We’re good!”

RZ Alright, that’s another warning sign. So a warning sign, people are getting a little too comfortable and it’s starting to drift.

PF Well you hit on one that was really important actually with the last one. The lack of external driver. A lot of times people come to us to talk about projects. When it is an internal project, like something—

RZ Very hard to drive it.

PF It doesn’t have to go to the marketplace [yeah]; it’s link to revenue might be, you know, questionable.

RZ It could really drag.

PF Incredible danger zone. And what you find—it’s not that you get started and then they don’t know, it’s that it never gets started.

[8:17]

RZ Or you can’t tell it got started.

PF Yeah! [Laughing] That’s right.

RZ “Oh, no, no, no, no he’s built all the components, you just can’t see them yet. They’re invisible.

PF And then you gotta meet that one guy who’s not there [Rich chuckles]. And then they go like, “Well, how are we sure this is gonna work?”

RZ Oh, I’ve got another good one for you, Paul.

PF What’s that?

RZ “We’re a startup inside of a big company.”

PF This has been like a thing that tech says when you’re selling services for the last like 15 years.

RZ I get it. It’s romantic. They’re ordering in food and it’s late and it’s a startup and everyone’s laughing together.

PF That’s right. Let’s be clear, though, startups are terrible. [Rich laughs boisterously] Startups are weird—

RZ Oh, you’re an obnoxious twerp!

PF No, just like—it’s not just that. It’s, “I’m gonna give you this money, I’m a venture capital person. You’re like 14 years old and you don’t know any better but I think there is a one percent chance that you will make a hundred times what anyone would ever expect. And I’m gonna just go to Vegas, you know, on you cuz that’s fun. I’m gonna gamble on you but in order for that to work, I need you to give your entire life up and act as if this is always going to work and never believe otherwise.

RZ Yeah, I mean—

PF That’s an actual startup [yeah, yeah]. It is moist people in front of computers.

RZ Oh geez.

[9:31]

PF Kind of hating each other—

RZ This is not the image you want.

PF For a year, right?

RZ Yeah, yeah.

PF But then there’s the portrait of the startup which is like: “I have a skateboarding dog that comes with me to the office every day where we thinkivate.”

RZ Yeah.

PF That is what the companies want.

RZ Here’s the thing: I get it—here’s why I like it. I’m gonna now give the counter-argument [ok] to it. Big companies are big and there’s a maze of bureaucracy and there’s a lot of stuff. The thing about the startup is it’s free from all of that. It’s free from like the requisition sign off so I can at least get the license for the thing so I can try the thing.

PF That’s right, you can use the illustration program that you wanna use as a designer [yeah] without going through—“Well, we already have a license for, you know—”

RZ Also, recruitment. The idea that now you’re not borrowing a little bit of Jim’s time from Group X but rather this is a small group—usually it’s small. They love to tell you it’s small but it’s a dedicated team. It’s an insulated team is the thinking. You know the move? They get a couch.

PF The thing is is like throwing that as a startup [yeah] is ridiculous.

RZ It’s ridiculous.

PF Because that’s not a startup.

RZ No. You know what word that’s come up lately and you hear it more often is pod [both laugh].  

PF That’s also bad but fine. Look I mean what you’re basically saying is—

RZ “We’re gonna get seven product pods going simultaneously.”

PF “We’re gonna experiment with working in such a way that the focus is on the work.”

RZ Yeah!

[10:56]

PF That’s all you’re saying—

RZ No, no! “We’re also saying we’re gonna collaborate and throw ideas around—” There’s also this implication of youth—youthful, fresh thinking is coming to it.

PF [Crosstalk] You know what it is? You’re just saying, “We’re not gonna—the bureaucracy will not determine every decision and activity made.”

RZ Yes. What’s the warning sign?

PF Because they often end up anemic and it’s really hard to ship anything out of them because—

RZ They’re often a big company.

PF They’re just—yeah, you’re still in that big company.

RZ You’re still in that big company and they’re often—they get sucked back into big company.

PF Here’s the thing: you can build a great product inside of large companies. I do believe that.

RZ The big company’s gotta take it seriously and it’s gotta be willing to give it enough oxygen and very often it isn’t because it’s like, “What is this little playground?”

PF You know what’s tricky is I think R&D is expensive, right? Nobody wants to do an R&D lab because it’s tricky and it takes time and—

RZ It’s very scary.

PF It’s very scary. I feel that the startup is basically R&D light. Like the internal startup model [yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah] is like—it’s not really a startup, it is a pod of people who you’re saying, “I’m gonna release you from the bureaucracy cuz I think you’ll be able to—that’ll accelerate you, you’ll do some interesting work [you’re right] and hopefully—”

RZ I couldn’t name this breakout product that came out of like, you know, a bank.

PF No, a bank or—

RZ Is there something that’s come out?

[12:14]

PF I mean even big tech firms have this problem.

RZ Yeah. Yeah, yeah, exactly.

PF It’s everybody, right?

RZ The innovation curve—I mean honestly Google had a run. Like Gmail was seven years in which was something, right? But it’s been awhile. I think—

PF It’s been awhile. Apple is—you know, I mean even the big ones have trouble. They’re basically adding features to their overall platform and capitalizing on—

RZ Lenses.

PF Yeah.

RZ They’re just the camera has more lenses on it. Like that’s not really a startup.

PF No.

RZ That’s not a startup.

PF Exactly and so like—

RZ Meanwhile, if you look at line, I mean you can look it up. Like Apple’s spend on R&D is unbelievable. It’s in the billions of dollars like you would think—Alright, so that’s a warning. That’s a good one because I get it because I’m so anti-big company but it’s also usually bullshit.

PF It’s also just when somebody comes in and says, “We’re gonna do the internal startup,” you gotta be mindful! It’s a warning sign.

RZ Alright, I’m gonna read another one to you: “Total faith in funnel.”

PF The real warning sign for the people who—when we’re talking to people and they’re telling us what they want, is a belief in one system or one solution that will solve everything. People come in and they’re convinced that if they just add this data layer to everything, it’ll all work fine.

[13:22]

RZ So is it faith in funnel? Or faith in data?

PF Maybe faith in data—both. Right? It’s this faith in like, “If I just plug everybody in, I actually don’t even need a product.”

RZ Ah, I see, just run ‘em through this machine—

PF [Chuckles] That’s right.

RZ—and money comes out of the other side.

PF Oh there’s the meatgrinder approach.

RZ To find the funnel in one sense.

PF Well, it literally looks like a funnel and the idea is that you have lots—you talk to lots and lots of people at the top of the funnel and they move through the funnel, they fall through the funnel—

RZ And people fall off.

PF Yeah you talk to a million people and a thousand of them say, “I actually want your product.”  

RZ At the very bottom of the funnel—

PF There’s one or two who are like, “Lemme buy that.”

RZ “I’ll buy it.”

PF That’s right, so like McDonalds funnel is, “I’m gonna advertise to you all the time on TV and then [eventually somebody] you’re gonna drive by a McDonalds and you’re gonna go, ‘God, I like I french fries.’”

RZ Right and they know full well that 80% don’t eat McDonalds [that’s right]. So they fall off, even though they see the ad. And they got 20% left and then out of the 20%, 10% can’t afford it. And so they’re just trying to get it down to like 2%. Is that success? 2% engagement off of a funnel is often—depending on the funnel—is success for a lot of people, cuz you’re jamming so many people through it.

PF “I work for a giant consulting firm, I go to a conference, there’s 5000 people at the conference. I talk to—”

RZ What’s wrong with?

[14:37]

PF Nothing’s wrong with the funnel.

RZ I wanna have faith in that funnel.

PF Yeah, you know what I find is that increasingly I just feel people don’t care about the product anymore. They’re [ahh] just sort of like, “We’re gonna get enough data.”

RZ Just jam more in.

PF Mm hmm.

RZ Get more data and forget the product. Interesting.

PF You know and you see this in weird ways to show up in our world where people are like, “Let’s do lean product development and in fact don’t build anything, just market it, and then see who clicks on the website.”

RZ That’s depressing.

PF I mean it’s a way to find out what people want. I will say with that one why the hell not? People click on everything all the time. If you gotta measure market demand, as long as it’s honest and you get to a page and the page says, “We’re gauging interest in this right now and we’re building a product like this, let us know if you’d like to know more.”

RZ Ok. So here’s the thing: forget that. You know? I can get more out of my product that’s a little dated if I just focus on the funnel.

PF Hell yeah!

RZ And then there are all these plugins, right? All these ways to sort of [oh yeah] sniff out—I mean Amazon is known for it, it’s ability to kind of vet you and kind of understand where you’re going. I mean I could say something is campy on Facebook and next thing you know, tents are being pitched to me from Amazon [laughs]. Amazon—I mean there is an aggressiveness there. It gets a little messy but you know I don’t think they care. I think they know. They know 10% of it is ridiculous.

PF I remember reading some humorist when I was like 11 years old—

RZ So, wait, is this gross? Lemme ask you that question.

[16:00]

PF There are good ways to do everything, it’s default is pretty gross.

RZ Ok.

PF Like out of the box there’s a gross experience with a lot of like ad tech and funnel and CRM tech.

RZ There’s a lot of ad tech out there that’s trying to understand and push you through.

PF You know mean time to ethically uncomfortable is relatively low.

RZ Ok. So.

PF Right? Whereas like if you’re setting up a WordPress blog without any plugins? Mean time to ethically uncomfortable is extremely high because all you’re doing is publishing stuff and letting people find it. Let’s actually name it, right?

RZ So bad for the consumer? Bad for the user?

PF Now you’re into the question of like is advertising and promotion and branding and marketing bad for the consumer? Opting in and out is the hard part here.

RZ Ok.

PF People don’t know what they’re opted in to.

RZ Bad for the business or should we focus on that product?

PF Ultimately terrible for the business. But it doesn’t matter, people make their money and then they go home after five years and then someone else inherits that disaster. You know? This is— 

RZ I think ultimately the product’s gotta be good. I think that is the reality.

PF For something to last. You know the problem is we live in such a giant economy—or not the problem—So like, “Oops, we drove it into the ground. It was something people loved but then we squeezed it too hard. You know? There are no more golden eggs inside the goose.” And then somebody comes along and says, “Fine, I’ll buy it. [Yeah] I’ll buy your, you know, 30 person ad tech startup and we’ll roll it in over here. There is no comeuppance it’s just that eventually the fish gets kinda tired swimming along, getting everybody’s personal data, and then a bigger fish

comes along and is like, “Oh, you’re swimming a little slow.” [Rich laughs] Right? But it’s not—you don’t get to watch the fish die and feel like, “Haha, fish!”

RZ No, but I like this warning sign which is focus on the quality of the product rather than just optimizing the funnel.

[17:41]

PF This is about time frame, right? If you told me, “Hey Paul, I have a year and a half with this media company and we’re gonna go under . . . I gotta get some money tomorrow and I think I found this thing and yeah, ok, a clown shoots out of your screen and licks your face, and that’s gonna be awkward for people but I can get a dollar per lick. And if I don’t do this, I got this in front of me, and I have absolutely nothing else in front of me.” Ok? That’s the corner people find themselves in. You could say, “Wow, how’d you get yourself in that position? Cuz not everybody’s in that position. You cleary made some choices along the way.”

RZ Right.

PF But regardless when somebody’s in that position, they feel that there’s no other way. And so they engage with clownlicker.com and clownlicker.com you put the little widget in, and sure everybody gets their face licked but you get to live another day. And so, look, people get into that corner and they feel the time pressure and they can’t escape and they do things like that and then they kind of assume—and everyone’s like, “Ok, we’re gonna make a compromise just this one time.”

RZ Yeah.

PF Right. And the product thinking—and we don’t talk about this very often cuz it’s not—it makes it a little harder to sell the services, frankly, but it’s more like a five year time horizon.

RZ It’s harder.

PF “Now, we’ll get you the—”

RZ It’s tempting to go to the funnel and optimize it because it’s cheaper.

PF We tell everyone over and over, “Like three to four months, you’re gonna have your MVP.” But we don’t talk about the five years. Most of our clients walk in the door knowing it’s five years.

RZ Yeah.

PF Knowing that like—not even them five years but like you’re gonna get a thing—like we used

to talk about the day two problem. It’s the day forever challenge. [Yeah] You’re never gonna get to put this thing back in the box.

RZ Right. Right, right, right.

[19:16]

PF This is actually—a lot of cultural orgs ask me for advice and increasingly I’m like, “You need to find a platform you can be on top of. Don’t build your own software.” [Yeah] Like unless you’re really big, it’s a risk cuz you—

RZ You shouldn’t.

PF No, cuz you’re gonna be supporting this thing for ten years.

RZ Yeah, that’s right.

PF That’s just what adults have to do.

RZ Ok, so I like this point a lot. It is a warning sign because it means your eye’s off the ball. You’re trying to think about how to get more hands on your product rather improving through acquisition rather than the quality of the product and word of mouth and improving it. Like I’m always fascinated by stories like Dropbox. You know it started on Hacker News and it was just done so well [yeah]. Like this was not a marketing thinking person, I think it was just—the way it was executed was so good and there were so many folders synching apps out there. And I was like, “Wow, this just—somebody just did it right for once.” And it was like—

PF I was talking with a friend, all the nerds in the world were like, “Well, why would you really need this? You can set up your own FTP server?” You know? Just all that other stuff—

RZ Yeah, and then the business people were like, “Well there’s box.net,” or whatever it was called.

PF Yeah, but Dropbox it’s like you get that two gigs and you can send the pictures to your grandparents of the kids.

RZ And just the way it synched was so elegant. And it just was—everything happened automatically and there was very little thinking going on. And it was just good execution, right? And you see that time and time again with quality product, right? Sketch is another example.

PF Yeah.

RZ That’s a very product quality driven—you get on the train and there’s ads for some software  

[mm hmm]. Like Sketch did it by essentially focusing on the quality of the product and the community around it and just stayed on that, right?

[20:52]

PF They care about their user. It’s actual.

RZ Now I don’t know their budget for marketing Sketch but it’s probably near zero.

PF Oh it’s not as big as Adobe’s is for like one billboard of a woman’s face being disassembled into five million pieces while a shark jumps out nearby [both laugh].

RZ That’s not fair! To compare it to Adobe but the point is they had ten dollars and they said, “You know what? Put nine on product and one on marketing.”

PF Like they just actually cared about that user in a way—and here’s the other thing, too, is unlike Adobe whose user now includes every single person who does anything visual on earth [yeah], Sketch said, “You know the modern designer doing specific kinds of things is who we’re gonna optimize for.”

RZ This is my favorite warning sign out of your warning signs, which is it’s tempting to just go and find the lower hanging fruit and just go and try to find that angel so that your funnel is more effective but the quality of the product long term, it’s a longer bet, it’s more expensive.

PF This is what sucks about the web in general, like where things have gone is that about 80% of it is how do we commoditize and get more value out of the low hanging fruit? My dream is somebody comes to Postlight and they look you or me in the eye and they say, “We’re getting a five year plan together—”

RZ Wow, that is the loveliest thing isn’t it?

PF “And we’re gonna see how this is gonna go.” This is pure fantasy at this point. “But, you know, I heard you on your podcast, and you said three to four months you can get an MVP, let’s do that. Let’s not do like a whole lot of discussion across the company. Let’s just build this one thing.”

RZ “And we wanna get it right.”

PF “Let’s get it right and then we’re gonna start iterating steadily, you can start working with our team.” And—here’s where I wanna be: “I’m the CEO of Company X or I’m the Chief Digital Officer, I got a five year mandate and I gotta get us here. Now I also have a lot of short term revenue stuff and a lot of stuff I gotta do but there’s one thing here which I think is gonna be pretty critical and we’re gonna not only get this thing launched in three years but we’re gonna

probably blow it up a couple of times along the way and there’s gonna be other vendors and other stuff involved. Get ready, Postlight! It’s not all about you!”

[22:53]

RZ What’s hard about that is the business cycle.

PF It’s not five years.

RZ Rarely, rarely will you get that kind of leeway.

PF There are a thousand companies in America that think in a five year cycle max.

RZ Or give somebody and trust them enough to give them that three year cycle, people think, “Oh they design a new iPhone every year.” Like the iPhone that came out this year was probably being worked on three years ago—

PF Five is actually unrealistic too and it almost is meaningless.

RZ Yeah.

PF Like our own company is five years old. I don’t even know what Postlight—

RZ No! But even two years, dude. That’s incredible.

PF Three I feel is like the magic point. Two—

RZ It is lovely.

PF You know that—

RZ We are available to provide services to anyone who’s looking for a three year timeline across there [laughs].

PF No, for real though, some of our relationships are going that long and you can start to see—

RZ Yeah, and they’re the best ones really.

PF And you start to see how meaningful it is.

RZ Yeah, it’s true.

PF Cuz you’re in their world and you’re helping them and they’re—

RZ You’re a partner.

[23:42]

PF Yeah and they understand us like we’re able to sort of figure out—I’ll just be really vague about it but we just restructured one of our longest relationships to make it both grow and like everybody’s getting a good deal out of this, right? And it’s because we can look them in the eye and be like, “Well here’s what would be good for us,” and they’re like, “Well, that’s ok, we’d like it if it looked like this cuz that’d be better for us.” And we’re like, “Ok, let’s go. Let’s figure out.” And that is where I wanna be eventually. I like the short term stuff, it feels really good but boy is it—the non warning sign is someone who can think past that quarter.

RZ Well they know how hard it is. It’s always hard.

PF It’s really hard and it requires a lot of power and a real willingness for risk.

RZ Yes.

PF So, if you’re one of those people, we will talk to you.


RZ Why would we talk to you, Paul?

PF Because we’re a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City and boy, do we build those good digital products.

RZ Yes, we are the ultimate product partner. We have engineers, designers, product leads that ship and maintain and maintain and update product, digital products, apps, web platforms. Reach out! hello@postlight.com. Reach out anyway.

PF That’s right!

RZ Ask us a question. We like questions. We got a great one, Paul. I made a joke about non-alcoholic beer.

PF You’re not a fan.

RZ No, I think if you want lemonade, just drink lemonade. Like—

PF Like you don’t bad like wheat flavored lemonade.

RZ Yeah, it’s like saying, “Would you like some non-chicken soup chicken soup?”

PF Mm hmm.

RZ But then someone sent us a note and they were pretty upset and they said, “Well you haven’t had the right non-alcoholic beer!”

PF Ok.

[25:14]

RZ And the right one to have apparently is Athletic Brewery from Connecticut.

PF Athletic Brewery from Connecticut.

RZ Yes they have an IPA and golden ale versions plus other seasonals which have won awards against alcoholic beers. They’re an entirely non-alcoholic brewery and each can is only 50 to 70 calories.

PF Well that is a hell of a commercial for a non-sponsor! [Music plays for six seconds, fades out] Rich.

RZ Yes?

PF This is the best part of the podcast, you know why?

RZ I’m enjoying this cuz I get to talk to you a little bit less.

PF Yeah that’s the thing: it’s less you and me.

RZ Yes.

PF Just jabber jabbin’.

RZ We keep tellin’ people that Postlight’s great and it’s all these talented people and we need to let everyone know that we’re not full of shit.

PF We do need to let them know that.

RZ And so we have a segment.

PF “Hello at Postlight”. It’s just like the email but without the dot com.

RZ Yes.

PF And today we have a very special guest.

RZ Yes.

[26:14]

PF A Lead Engineer, Stephen Koch. Stephen welcome.

Stephen Koch Good to be here.

PF We’re glad you’re here. Stephen, what’s a Lead Engineer do?

SK Well a typical day looks like coming in the morning and either being at home or being here.

PF So coming in on Slack or coming in here and then getting on Slack.

SK Correct, correct. Currently I’m talking a lot with Lebanon which is interesting. Getting to know some of the engineers out there. So.

PF That’s right, we should tell people: we have a Beirut team.

RZ Correct. In Lebanon, that’s right.

PF And people go like, “Why Beirut?!?” And we go, “Well, because Rich is Lebanese.”

RZ Correct.

PF But also because they’re really good engineers and they—

RZ They’re really good.

PF Very much part of the firm. Ok, so you come in, you get on Slack, it’s seven hours ahead.

SK Right, so I get a lot of download from the team out there and we figure out what the tasks are that I need to do on the frontend side because it’s a lot of backend work that they’re doing. So, I get some tasks; I also fill them in on what I’ve done the day before; and then it’s off to the races.  

PF Interesting. Alright, so what’s most of your programming like these days?

SK Currently, GraphQL and really working on a Hasura integration with Auth0.

RZ Woah. Zoom out!

[27:24]

PF Now, does this stack even have a name at this point?

SK Not that I know of.

PF Yeah, we’re in the future here. But this stuff is cool as hell.

RZ One sentence answers. What is GraphQL?

SK GraphQL is a, let’s see, Paul, you wanna answer that in a thumbnail? [Paul laughs] Cuz for me it’s really just an interface for me to grab data from a database, yeah.

RZ It’s life now for you.

PF You know how you go to a webpage and there’s like a page if you look inside it’s like HTML and paragraphs and stuff like that?

SK Uh huh.

PF It’s kinda structured. There’s actually a hierarchy in there and that describes the document. Now what if you wanted to describe lots of things like people or dogs or books that people wanna—

RZ Data.

PF Data. There’s a way you can format that and you do it kind of in a language that looks a little bit like Javascript, the language of the web, but basically all you’re doing is you’re saying, “Hey, give me the list of all the books and give them to me in a certain format.” The nice thing about GraphQL—we’ve been through a lot of different phases and a lot of different ways to exchange data, when you get a bundle of GraphQL and you request it, you can kinda say, “This is all I need. Don’t give me anymore.” And it comes over and it’s kinda all you need. It’s got all the—if the books need to have authors and the authors need names, and you need the picture of the author to be there too, it’s gonna have all that stuff all ready for you. You don’t have to go back to the server and say, “Ah I need those pictures.” That was the one sentence description of [Stephen laughs] GraphQL.

RZ Yeah, that was one sentence.

PF What did I miss, Steve? What did I miss?

RZ Well, I also wanna learn about Stephen. Like background. Were you always a programmer? Comp Sci major?

[28:50]

SK No, no, I went to school for Marine Biology.

PF Dun dun duh!

RZ Woah.


PF That’s a pretty good one. You usually architect or English major. We got lawyer with Rich. Marine Biology!

SK Yeah, I wanted to be a scuba diver when I was younger. Did a lot of scuba diving.

PF You still dive?

SK I haven’t in a while but I do enjoy it.

PF You live in Jersey, it feels like your close to the beach—

RZ There’s nothing off the coast of Jersey, dude.

SK Back to Jersey guy.

PF Where should people scuba dive?

SK Like go to the Carribean.

PF That’s it.

RZ The equator.

SK Go where it’s warm. See some beautiful fish.

PF Yeah.

RZ Ok. So did you get a Marine Biologist job out of college?

SK No, no, I gave up the Marine Biology for music. I moved to New York for music.

RZ Really?

SK So this was early nineties came here and decided to give it a go and that was like five or six  

years of sort of just tooling around Lower East Side and playing bars and that was awesome times.

RZ This is out of college?

[29:47]

SK This was out of college, yeah.

RZ So your parents are just shaking their heads.

SK They were not cool with it.

RZ [Laughing] This is all going down.

PF Let’s not worry about that. What about—what was the name of the band?

SK The one in New York that stuck was Sway.

PF Sway. Ok, good name. What was the sound?

SK It was shoegazy.

PF Oh! That’s good.

RZ Ah I love that stuff.

PF What was the best place to play?

SK We did CBGBs once.

PF Ah! That’s nice.

RZ That’s a legendary place.

PF That’s not a great place to play, it’s just awesome.

RZ Alright, so wait, let’s fast forward. You’re five years in, you’re getting tired of eating Ray’s pizza every night.

SK Yup.

RZ What happens next in your life?

[30:20]

SK I met a girl while I was doing music who was French and we had an opportunity, we got married here, and we had an opportunity to move to Paris and it was like why the hell not? Like let’s go over there and take advantage of being overseas for awhile.

RZ What are you doing there?

SK Uh something called hydrogommage which is cleaning of the buildings. So basically you get up there and you just shoooooooo. And you’re cleaning those buildings, right?

RZ Before you translated, I was like, “That sounds delicious.”

PF Oh no, I’m like, “This is grating made cheese.”

RZ Ok. So how long did that—

SK That was only about six or eight months. So then I moved over to—I was teaching English. Worked for Berlitz for a little while and that’s where I started to do the programming stuff.

PF How’d that line up?

SK I met someone there that had introduced me into that world, basically HTML. Started at the ground and from there—

RZ Kept diggin’.

SK—I had my schedule was very open in the morning or open in the evenings. So, every day, just every single day I wanted to do this and I was—

RZ You’re hooked.

SK This is where I’m gonna go. And that—

PF Oh you got into it!

SK That was when Flash was king so I started to learn ActionScript, ActionScript 1.0 and I just went up from there. It was really just going from ActionScript and learning programming languages and it was a compiled language, so it was very different than what we’re doing today but the language, Javascript, ActionScript—

PF I don’t think we give Flash enough credit for basically taking a lot of nerdy people and turning  

them into programmers cuz they started to hack around in Flash and then the only way to make stuff go is to learn ActionScript which is essentially Javascript. Like it’s close enough.

[31:50]

RZ Oh it’s ECMAscript compliant. Like you didn’t know it at the time but you were getting formally trained in the basic principles around programming.

PF But you can get from Flash and ActionScript to the web really relatively easily.

SK Very easily.

PF Yeah, so thanks Adobe! We give Adobe a lot of heat but that was one decision they made that actually helped us all.

RZ So you kept going!

SK Kept going. Moved back after being in Paris for four—a little bit over four years. Came back to New York, started doing some freelance work and found myself at Big Spaceship and—

RZ This is an agency here in New York City.

SK An agency over in Dumbo and they were doing a lot of Flash work at the time so it was very Flash central. We did a lot of like fun stuff, like doing isometric gaming, that was really fun.

RZ There are a lot of people out there who think about that leap. Your story actually is—you just went for it, I mean a few different times.

SK It fell into my lap and it was just one of those things that I had always wanted to do and found the opportunity so it was literally me everyday going on the forums and learning and talking to people. I had the opportunity to be in Amsterdam for a conference while I was in Paris and it changed the way I thought about what I was doing in that I was there on behalf of an organization. So being there, I was able to raise my hand and ask questions in a room full of people.

RZ Mm hmm.

SK And it made a difference. And it made me think [sure], “I am meeting my peers that are in this business and they’re doing really well in what they do,” and when I had the opportunity to be there, to question these people that I admired, it was amazing and I left that conference thinking, “Wow! I can actually do this!” [Music fades in] And it opened my eyes into like, “All I need to do is just put myself out there.”

[33:29]

RZ People are often intimidated about this leap. Like, “I can’t ask the stupid question—”

PF I remember—

RZ It’s kind of a known thing.

PF You feel like a fraud for years.

RZ You feel like a fraud and you’re like, “I can’t—I gotta go figure it out.”

SK Does that ever leave though?

PF Yeah because I think there’s a point where you realize like you’re gonna make a choice, “I’m gonna go this way or that way and I’m gonna get really good at this one thing or I’m not.” Like, “Maybe I’m gonna go do this thing instead, right?”

SK But the thing with what we do is our industry changes so much.

PF Every four to five minutes.

SK You know you ask about advice, it’s just learning new technologies.

RZ Yeah.

PF Yeah.

SK Like keeping on top of these things, surrounding yourself by like-minded folks that can actually give you that information.

PF Is there any Spotify evidence of your career?

SK Mmm, not really.

PF Ok. Did Sway do an album?

SK Yeah, we do. I actually have a cassette at home [laughs].

PF A cassette.

RZ Pshoo!

SK Which I don’t know how I would get that digitally made.

PF For our younger listeners, a cassette was a spool of an oxidized plastic—[Rich scoffs, Stephen laughs] —

RZ God, here we go. Stephen, thank you so much for doing this. This was great.

SK Thank you.

PF Time to get back to work.

RZ Alright, have a great week everyone.

PF Bye [music ramps up, plays alone for five seconds, fades out to end].