[A picture of private offices at Fog Creek Software]

Joel on Software

Figuring out what your company is all about

by Joel Spolsky
Sunday, November 01, 2009

What is your company about?

Recently I got inspired by Kathy Sierra, whose blog Creating Passionate Users and Head First series of books revolutionized developer education. She kept saying the same thing again and again: help your users be awesome.

Kathy taught me that if you can’t explain your mission in the form, “We help $TYPE_OF_PERSON be awesome at $THING,” you are not going to have passionate users. What’s your tagline? Can you fit it into that template?

It took us nine years, but we finally worked out what Fog Creek Software is all about, which I’ll tell you in a moment, but first, some backstory.

In the early days, we were all about making a great place to be a software developer in New York City.

Yep, that was all there was to it. Almost every software job in the city was terrible. You had a choice of which kind of terrible. Want to wear a suit and work long hours under crummy conditions? Take a job at a bank. Want to report to a manic-depressive creative who demands that you stretch HTML in ways that would have you put to death, in certain countries? Take a job at a media company. Want to work 24/7 in a basement with water pipes dripping on your head and get paid in worthless stock options? Take your pick of the revenue-free dotcom startups.

Why New York, then? There are lots of great product companies where software developers are treated very well in Redmond, Washington. But I was sick of trying to live in lesser cities. Sure, the Seattle area is beautiful, and green, and clean, and possesses great coffee, and I understand that there are even a couple of grocery stores open late now. But I’m staying in New York, because it’s the greatest city in the world.

I gave up the search, and decided to start a company with my buddy Michael Pryor. Making a nice place to work was our primary objective. We had private offices, flew first class, worked 40 hour weeks, and bought people lunch, Aeron chairs, and top of the line computers. We shared our ingenious formula with the world:

The tagline was “building the company where the best software developers want to work.” It was, to say the least, awkward. It didn’t make for a good elevator pitch. It didn’t really have the right format. “Abercrombie and Fitch: building the apparel store where the hottest teenagers will want to work.” Who cares? Not the hot teenagers, I’ll tell you that.

Anyway we accomplished that goal. Cross it off the list. What’s next? We needed a new mission statement.

And it has to be something of the form, “We help $TYPE_OF_PERSON be awesome at $THING.”

Bells went off. Everything we’ve done successfully has one thing in common: It’s all about helping software developers be awesome at making software.

That includes Joel on Software, Stack Overflow, all the books I’ve been writing, the conferences like DevDays and Business of Software, the Jobs Board and Stack Overflow Careers.

It includes our flagship product, FogBugz, which is all about giving developers tools that gently guide them from good to great. It’s the software implementation of the philosophy I’ve been writing about for a decade, lacking only one thing: the feature to replace exceptions with return values, while adding Hungarian prefixes to all variable names. THAT IS A JOKE, PEEPLE. Put DOWN the bazooka.

Helping you make more awesome software is why I write endlessly about what we’re doing at Fog Creek, despite the fact that people accuse me of shilling. I’m not writing to promote our products. You don’t have to buy our products to get the benefit of reading about my experience designing them and building them and selling them. I’m writing to share some of my experiences in case they can help you make better software.

Our focus on helping developers explains why one of our early products, CityDesk, flopped: it had nothing to do with software developers. And it explains why another of our products, Fog Creek Copilot, only found a market in the niche of software developers doing tech support.

So, here you go, the new tagline: “We help the world’s best developers make better software.”

Going through this exercise made it easy to figure out what belongs in future versions of FogBugz and what doesn’t. In particular, we’re adding source control and code review features to FogBugz, using Mercurial, the best open-source distributed version control system. Everything that helps developers make better software belongs in FogBugz: project planning, project management, bug tracking, and customer service.

It took almost ten years, but I think we finally got the mission for the next ten nailed.


Optional Advertainment: If you’ve got a moment, check out this 4½ minute trailer for Make Better Software, a new video training series we’ve been working on for more than a year. It’s the video edition of Joel on Software and fits perfectly with our agenda of helping developers make great software.


Have you been wondering about Distributed Version Control? It has been a huge productivity boon for us, so I wrote Hg Init, a Mercurial tutorial—check it out!

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I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and Fog Creek Software, and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.

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