Posts by Joel Spolsky

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

Announcing Trello

Around the time of Fog Creek Software’s ten year anniversary, I started thinking that if we want to keep our employees excited and motivated for another ten years, we were going to need some new things to work on. It occurred to me that we could easily afford to make four little two-person teams to launch four new products. That would give our developers more chances to move around from product to product when they got bored, which would make Fog Creek Software an even better place to work.

Each team, we decided, would be guided by the spirit of lean startups. They would ship early and often. They would listen to real-world customers instead of building things in an ivory tower. And they wouldn’t be afraid to pivot endlessly until they made something that people wanted.

Next, we needed some business ideas. After ten years in management I still never knew what anyone was supposed to be working on. Once in a while I would walk around asking everyone what they were doing, and half the time, my reaction was “why the hell are you working on THAT?” So one of the teams started working on finding better ways to keep track of who was working on what. It had to be super simple and friction-free so that everyone would use it, but it had to be powerful, too.

We had an early idea called FIVE THINGS. Everybody would have a list of exactly five things that they were allowed to work on. The top two were things they were actively doing right now. The other three were things that they would do as soon as they finished the first two. But nobody was ever allowed to have SIX things assigned to them. If you have too many things on your to-do list, your motivation tends to sag.

Five Things wasn’t the right idea, but it led us to the idea that became Trello. Pretty soon we had four programmers and two summer interns working on it. We started dogfooding the product when it was only 700 lines of code, and even in that super-simple form, we found it incredibly useful. By the end of the summer we realized we had a hit on our hands: an incredibly simple, easy-to-understand way for teams to collaborate online.

Trello Screenshot

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to Fog Creek’s newest product: Trello.

Stack Overflow DevDays is Back!

[UPDATE – September 6th – Regrettably, DevDays had to be cancelled. See the announcement on the Stack Exchange Blog for details.]

Stack Overflow DevDays, the universe’s best conference series for coders, is back, and it’s bigger than ever!

Here’s the idea behind DevDays. You’re a developer. You’d love to learn all the latest hot new technologies. Things like DVCS, HTML 5, Node.js, CSS3, Hadoop, etc. The stuff the cool kids are all talking about on the playground while you’re stuck in the basement somewhere grinding away on Java Enterprise Visual Basic.

The idea behind DevDays is a fast, high-bandwidth, fire hose tutorial on at least ten interesting concepts. We’ll assume that you’re a developer, you know what a loop is, but each tutorial starts at the ground level and gives you a whirlwind tour through a technology by showing you actual code. Every presenter launches an editor and writes code from scratch and shows you what it does. There are almost no prepared PowerPoint slides with ten bullet items each containing 10 words explaining the ROI benefits of some new technology. There are not even any PowerPoint slides with cats and pandas doing hilarious things, such as this one:

Yes, DevDays contains precisely NO funny pictures of cats. We might have Jon Skeet with a sock puppet, though:

(That was Jon Skeet and Tony the Pony from London DevDays 2009.)

What we have instead is some great presenters from the community who will write code and compile code and explain it all while you watch, and you’ll come away knowing enough about each new technology to know what it’s good for, what it’s not so good at, how to do the basics, and how to learn more. Bottom line: it’s the best possible way to spend two days and learn as much as you would learn in two years of reading Twitter.

We have FOUR, yes FOUR different DevDays conferences coming up this fall. Each one is its own production, and they’re all going to be spectacular. If you came to DevDays last time, prepare to get blown away. This time everything is DOUBLE. Two days instead of one. Better food and coffee. Better locations. Bigger screens to make it easier to follow along. Sydney DevDays 2011Lots of social activities. And, for the first time ever, we’ll be visiting one city in Australia (shown at right), for an antipodean increase of infinity percent.

Anyway, registration is now open. The schedule is:

There are two! special! bonuses! you should know about before you choose a city:

  1. In San Francisco, the day after the conference (October 14), Server Fault is holding a one-day High Scalability conference. You may want to go to both for a full three days of amazing amazingness… if you think your heart can handle the excitement.
  2. In Washington, the day before the conference (December 14), we’re have a big open source hackathon. The entire Stack Exchange dev team will be on hand and it’ll be a lot of fun.

So, go, sign up now. You can save $100 using discount code JOELONSOFTWARE.

Modern community building

The Stack Exchange network is already up to 51 sites on diverse topics, from math to cooking to science fiction. Each site is a community on its own, and each community has its own needs and values. Pouring a big fat algorithm in equal measures on top of 51 different groups of people does not always work the way you might hope it would work. Maybe that’s why the super-algorithm companies (like Google) tend to suck when they try to build social applications.

Our goal as a company is to incubate each of these 51 communities—to get them to critical mass. Critical mass is that magic moment when the community has enough activity that it grows by itself.

Building communities on the Internet is a new kind of profession. There are an awful lot of technology companies, founded by programmers, who think they are building communities on the Internet, but they’re really just building software and wondering why the community doesn’t magically show up.

Stack Exchange is trying really hard not to suck at building communities. I would say we’re earning a solid B so far, but we’re working really hard at learning… doing little experiments and getting early results. And one thing we noticed is that the pure, algorithmic approach can’t possibly work for different communities: you need a political/social approach. That is, you need smart human beings to use smart human judgment and cultivate each community individually.

Or, to use a metaphor that has been on my mind, you can’t use a robot to train a puppy. Every puppy is different.

With 51 communities and a new one opening almost every week, our small team of four community managers are doing a great job but they just don’t have the bandwidth to help cultivate every site. So we depend on the most active, enthusiastic users to promote their own communities and help them flourish. But these users are usually domain experts, not community organization experts.

So what I plan to do is build a team of super-evangelists here at Stack Exchange to serve as backup. Sort of like Lady Gaga’s backup dancers, but probably without as many muscles, they are not onstage to lead; they’re there to fill up the stage with more hotness than one person can provide.

This job will be sort of like being a community organizer at a non-profit. It combines elements of marketing, PR, and sales, but it’s really something different. I don’t expect that there are a lot of people out there who already kn0w how to do this well, so I’m going to train them, personally. Not that I know how to do this, but we’ll learn together. Every workday is going to start with a huddle at 9am and a plan for the day’s activities and an intensive six hours of work. Every workday is going to end with an hour of learning… reading Kawasaki and Godin and Ries and Trout, talking with invited experts, meeting with members of the community about what worked and what didn’t worked. Everyone who joins the program (and survives for a year) will come out with an almost supernatural ability to take a dead, lifeless site on the internet and make it into the hottest bar in town. That’s a skill worth learning for the 21st century.

If you or someone you know is enthusiastic, energetic, super-outgoing (a social connector), a great communicator (capable of sending 50 personal emails in an afternoon), with some training in psychology, political science, economics, philosophy, or the humanities in general, and you’re looking for an alternative to a dead-end mailroom job at a PR agency, this is a rare opportunity… please apply.

Help us organize the next Stack Overflow conference

We’re working on a series of two-day Stack Overflow conferences for the fall:

“What’s this conference about? The idea for the original DevDays was to have high-bandwidth, intensive introductions to a wide variety of new technologies… the kinds of technologies that everybody wants to learn but doesn’t necessarily need to use on a project right now. Last time, it was things like iPhone development, Python, jQuery, Google AppEngine, etc. This year, we’re asking you. So far, there’s a lot of interest in DVCS, HTML5, and Node.js.”

 

Lunch

What do you do for lunch every day? Where do you eat it? With whom?

I’ve been on teams that eat together every day, and it’s awesome. I’ve been on teams that don’t, and lunch every day is, at best, lonely.

A lot of big tech companies have cafeterias, either free (Google) or cheap (Microsoft). At these companies, some teams actually make an effort to eat together every day. But a lot of teams don’t. If you wander around these places at lunchtime, you’ll see some large groups, a lot of pairs of people who have scheduled a “lunch meeting,” but you’ll also see a distressing number of loners eating by themselves. Maybe they’re reading a book or checking their email while they eat so they don’t look sad. Maybe they took their lunch back to their desk so they wouldn’t have to sit in the cafeteria by themselves. Maybe they genuinely don’t like people and they’re happy to eat alone. Or maybe they’re just telling you that.

At Google and Microsoft, the cafeterias can get so crowded that the loners really have to sit with other groups because there isn’t enough room to sit at a table by themselves. Occasionally, the group they sit down with makes an effort to include the loner in their conversation. More often, the loner is obligated to pretend to be utterly engrossed in playing Farmbook on their smartphone, so as to provide a pretext to avoid having to make social contact. Excuse me, I’d love to introduce myself to you, but it’s very important that I update my cabbage.

Where and with whom we eat lunch is a much bigger deal than most people care to admit. Obviously, psychologists will tell us, obviously it goes back to childhood, and especially school, particularly Junior High, where who you eat with is of monumental importance. Being in any clique, even if it’s just the nerds, is vastly preferable than eating alone. For loners and geeks, finding people to eat with in the cafeteria at school can be a huge source of stress.

The importance of eating together with your co-workers is not negotiable, to me. It’s too important to be left to chance. That’s why we eat together at long tables, not a bunch of little round tables. That’s why when new people start work at the company, they’re not allowed to sit off by themselves in a corner. When we have visitors, they eat together with everyone else.

Even though Stack Exchange and Fog Creek are completely separate companies, we take advantage of the fact that our offices are in the same building to eat together every day. I’m glad that we have a chance to do this, even though a lot of people tend to clique-up and sit with the same people day after day.

There’s a lot of stuff that’s accidental about Fog Creek and Stack Exchange, but lunch is not one of them. Ten years ago Michael and I set out with the rather ambitious goal of making a great place to work. Eating together is a critical part of what it means to be human and what it means to have a humane workplace, and that’s been a part of our values from day one.

The podcast is back!

Jeff Atwood and I have resumed our weekly podcast, formerly known as the Stack Overflow Podcast, now known as the Stack Exchange Podcast!

Here are some ways to find us:

Special thanks to Special Agent Alex Miller, who is, in his spare time, the new producer of the podcast. We’ll be making lots of technical improvements to the podcast over the next couple of months, so stay tuned… it’ll be really fun.

Careers 2.0 (by Stack Overflow)

One day, you’ll be telling your grandchildren about getting a programming job, version 1.0. You would send a “resume” to a “recruiter.” It included all kinds of silly information required by the esoteric resume ritual (foreign languages spoken, whether or not you play ultimate Frisbee, Microsoft-veteran status). This so-called “information” was utterly useless at determining whether you could program or not, but if you spelled everything right and used suitable fonts, you could come in for a day of interviews at which you would be asked to perform mundane programming tasks on a whiteboard.

Careers 2.0 is here!

Does your employer own your side projects?

There’s a surprising amount of misinformation out there about whether software companies own the work that a programmer does in their spare time.

From my answer to the question on answers.onstartups.com:

Being an employee of a high tech company whose product is intellectual means that you have decided that you want to sell your intellectual output.

Read the whole thing here:

If I’m working at a company, do they have intellectual property rights to the stuff I do in my spare time?