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Stories about Software

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Two Flavors of Technical Opportunists: Missionaries and Mercenaries

“Missionaries and mercenaries” has a pretty intriguing ring to it, huh?  I wish I could claim credit for it, but I heard about it on this podcast with Ribbonfarm creator Venkat Rao.  Apparently, entrepreneurs use this pithy phrase to make a distinction among themselves.  I’ll explain in more detail shortly.

First, however, I’d like to do a bit of explanatory housekeeping.  In the coming months, I’m going to make some changes to my life.  Specifically, I plan to wind down the management consulting in favor of creating content (products) and offering productized-services.  This may sound a little crazy to you.  It would have sounded crazy (or naive) to me up until a few years ago.  Why trade a high profile consulting career for… an unknown?  So I want to explain myself before I lose sight of the fact that I might need to explain that to people.

On “Trading Hours for Dollars”

I’ll tell a quick story to clarify.  A few years back, I’d decided to leave a CIO position in favor of consulting as a free agent (which may also sound crazy, but it worked out).  As I looked to build my book of business, I was chatting with fellow Pluralsight author John Sonmez about the jump he had made away from full time employment.  He said something during that conversation that I’ll never forget, when I asked him about how he finds consulting work.

“To be honest, I’m trying to get away from trading hours for dollars.”

When you listen to the podcasts I listen to, read the books I read, and talk to the people I talk to, you’ll hear this a lot.  At the time, however, I had never heard anyone say that.  I probably replied with something noncommittal like, “oh, that’s awesome, man.”  Meanwhile, I recall thinking to myself, “I don’t even… wat?”

These days, I completely get it.  Back then, I didn’t.  And so I want to start bridging the gap before the curse of knowledge consumes me and I just assume that everyone shares my perspective on hourly work and the corporate condition.

Developer Hegemony launches on May 2nd, and people have been asking me what comes next.  Well, among other things, I plan to pursue a line of business wherein I help support people executing their plan to achieve developer hegemony.  But before I can do that, I have some mental groundwork to lay.  And that brings me back to missionaries and mercenaries.

Opportunist Escapees

If you’ve only recently come to read my blog, understand that I mean something deeper than the dictionary definition when I talk about “opportunists.”  I explain in depth in this post, but this graphic should suffice.

Most simply, opportunists are those who maneuver their way to the top of the pyramid-shaped corporations.  The C-suite consists exclusively of these folks, but you’ll also find them at all levels of the organization.  I think of those working their way up as “ascendant opportunists.”

But wherever you find them in the corporate hierarchy at the moment, you’ll find that all of them have ceded good faith with the organization.  In other words, opportunists ascend rapidly by coming to understand the essential bankruptcy of the corporate advancement narrative.  They arrive at their positions and status through the lonely recognition that the normal corporate rules are for the idealists and pragmatists around them.  They chuckle internally, behind a careful poker face, at the notion that companies can have such things as “missions” and “values.”

If you really want to dive deep into the psyche of the opportunist, my book talks about this archetype and the other players in detail.  For our purposes here, I want to talk about what happens to these players when they exit the game.  (And make no mistake, they’re the only ones who ever do this side of retirement.)  What fates await opportunists that exit pyramid-shaped corporate life?

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If You Build It, They Won’t Come

About a month ago, I made a post here announcing a kickstarter.  I created a character that has some popularity in the software development community and hypothesized that people might enjoy related merchandise.  My wife had some time and an interest in exploring entrepreneurial ventures, so she created the kickstarter.

We didn’t necessarily think we had a great shot at raising such an ambitious funding goal, but you never know until you try.  So, we tried.  And, unfortunately, we fell considerably short.

Before going further, I’d like to offer sincere thanks to those who backed the campaign and to those who participated in the giveaways.  We had some fun, learned a bit about crowdsourcing, and some readers got Expert Beginner swag.  While we won’t be stocked with a year of inventory and operating a shopify store, we did learn a good bit.

Product Launches by Those Who Don’t Launch Products

In the last year or so, I’ve learned a lot about business in various forms.  I listen to podcasts about freelancing, consulting, and entrepreneurship.  As I mentioned recently, I’m also participating in a mastermind group, wherein we discuss business ventures and operations.  I’m also exploring different business models and branching more into productized services.  Add that to the ongoing learning of running my business, and you wind up with a lot of inbound information.

Among all of this information comes a good bit about product launches.  If you view the world the way I’ve spent most of my life viewing it, you probably think that this means tying a bow on it, shipping it, kicking back, and waiting to profit.  For instance, you might spend a few months building a killer app for Android and/or iPhone.  When finished, you ship it to the app store, slap a price on it, and wait for users to discover it and put money in your pocket.

Sure, you’d do a bit more than that.  You’d tell you friends and family, resulting in your mom buying one to show other members of your family how proud she was of her little entrepreneur.  You’d tweet about it once or twice, probably resulting in no sales.  And then you’d surrender yourself to the mercy of the app store.

Product Launches Done Right

Most of my life, that was how I imagined product launches would go.  I even daydreamed this narrative from time to time.  Someday, I’d write a book or build a piece of software that would magically go viral, and I’d find myself on easy street.  (After all, what fun are daydreams involving the messy business of self promotion?)

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Ship Something for Yourself, Even if you Only Earn A Dollar

On the heels of the product kata post, I’m going to double down on the “ship something for money” advice.

There’s no time to lose. Valuable, profitable seconds of your life are ticking by, and you’re missing out. Surely you’re aware of the concept of compound interest? In case you’re not, suffice it to say that long-term investment depends a lot more on when you invest than how much. The same is true with you using the Internet to earn yourself some money.

AnnoyingFireAlarm

Okay, at this point I probably sound a bit like a huckster. I get that. The sense of urgency might have been just a wee bit for dramatic effect, but I think the underlying message is nevertheless valid. You really ought to acquire for yourself the experience of making money via the Internet. I’m not trying to convince you to quit your job and earn your living this way, and I’m not even trying to convince you to attempt to make serious money. All I’m trying to do is encouraging you to make something.

What should you make? You could go any number of routes. You could start a blog and put advertising on it or use affiliate links. Writing a book or making videos for youtube would count. You could hook up with a content creation outfit, like Pluralsight, and do it that way. Building apps and selling them either standalone or through an app store is probably an option that appeals uniquely to software developers. Or you could always build a web-based product or start a company, if you really want to go all in.

If I’m not peddling a get rich quick scheme and I’m not even suggesting that you try to get rich, it’s certainly fair to wonder what my angle is. Why am I so eager to offer this advice? My reasoning is multi-faceted.

Opens Up New Possibilities

The most likely outcome to you starting a blog and advertising or building a little mobile app and selling it is that you’ll put in a lot of time and effort and get a little bit of profit back out. Hey, if you thought I was a huckster at first, hopefully I’m bringing it back from the ledge a little here by telling you that you’re pretty unlikely to get rich quick. The reality is that you’re almost certainly not going to retire from your first foray into entrepreneurship.

This type of bootstrapping is modest in aim and scope, for the most part. But it is an opportunity. And, it’s one with virtually no barriers to entry and not much limit to the possibilities if it takes off. Look at Life Hacker.

You probably won’t be Life Hacker, but maybe your blog/site/app/channel will become a fun hobby for you – a hobby that brings in a few hundred or maybe even a thousand dollars per month. And, over the long haul, it will also help you get your name and information out there to pry open the door to some networking and consulting opportunities as well. You’d be surprised at how many things come up when you just put yourself out there: job offers, consulting opportunities, speaking invitations, and more.

Introduces a New Earning Model

Most white collar workers spend an entire career working 40 (okay, who are we kidding, 45+) hours per week in exchanged for a fixed number of dollars. Wage labor is clearly the dominant model for income in our society, since traditional entrepreneurship tends to be a high risk venture. It’s all well and good for hungry kids just starting out on their career path, but a harder sell for folks with families and mortgages.

Building something small in your spare time with the aim of earning a little money, however, is not high risk. It’s the kind of thing you can do instead of watching a few TV shows. And, while the stakes may be small, the lessons learned aren’t. You’ll develop a sense of what it’s like to earn in a model where income is decoupled from time, which can be a valuable skill that you may use in your day job or, at some point, to start your own venture.

And There’s More

I originally wrote this post for the Infragistics blog.  Here it is on their site.  To read the second part of the post, check it out on their site here.