Ordinarily, in dev.life, we chat with developers about their passion for programming: how they got into it, what they like to work on and how. But this is creek.life – a dev.life special interview, introducing David Miller, our VP Product. David is now one of our new 4-person management team who leads Fog Creek.
Location: New York City, NY, US
Current Role: VP Product at Fog Creek Software
How did you end up at Fog Creek?
Vanity. When the WWW was young, I was a budding poet and photographer with a technical bent. I recognized that the Web was the world’s most effective vanity press, that made me curious enough to learn about how it worked. Publishing my poems and photos lead to web pages; collections of writing lead to websites; websites led to spec’ing and building simple network apps. I started managing the development of technical projects because I’d suffered through many badly organized projects that wasted time, talent and capital. My skill-set and disposition put me in a good place to help reduce those losses. I started at a small computer games company. Then engagements at big companies: AOL, Martha Stewart, The Associated Press, and NBC, which left me very ready to come back to a small company where my efforts could more immediately impact the products and the methods used to produce them.
At NBC, I met Liz Hall’s (VP People at Trello, previously at Fog Creek) husband, Chris, who told be about Fog Creek. At first it seemed too small a company, but then I started using the products and talking to the people. Those two experiences made me think there was real opportunity in being a Creeker, so – I spent a more time talking with Rich Armstrong (previously Fog Creek’s COO); then applied; interviewed and became excited about the prospect of working in a place where the highest accolades for any employee were – smart and gets things done.
Tell us a little about your roles at Fog Creek
I’ve been the product manager for FogBugz, then for Development Tools, and now VP of Product. The core activities of my roles at Fog Creek have remained constant – define the value proposition for the customer; defend the value proposition of each product by focusing the development teams on the features or product modifications that provide the greatest value for our customers; plan and manage the lifecycle of each product; forecast the profitability of new products; maintain the viability of our existing products in the market; shepherd the teams and the ideas for new software from inception through release of the minimum viable product, and beyond to fully featured, steadily growing software. The only difference has been the scope – moving from one product to everything that Fog Creek builds.
Helping development teams focus on the value proposition feels like “the good work” because it taps into Technology’s ability to enable beneficial extensions in human capabilities. That’s the best part of working on tech projects – good tools greatly impact the quality and productive capacity of manufacturers. From shoes to cellphone applications, the availability of high-quality, reach-extending tools impacts the way people live their lives.
Some of the best things I’ve worked on include the Iteration Planner. It’s a set of features that I conceived and pitched to the FogBugz team as a strong potential addition to the value FogBugz could provide to its customers. The entire process of working with customers and developers to produce a feature set that improves an established product like FogBugz was exciting for me and continues to be rewarding.
Also, when I first started at Fog Creek, I had an opportunity to propose a road map to the FogBugz team. In order to create that road map, I read many articles on the organizational knowledge and experience that generated many of Fog Creek’s product decisions. I read about features that were born and added to the product as well as the features that never made it out of the first round of specification. I talked to developers and customers about which problems FogBugz solved well, and where it might improve. It was interesting and informative to do this sort of study of a mature product and the organization that created it. It taught me as much about the strengths and weaknesses of Fog Creek as an organization as it did about the Fog Creek opinionated workflows for allowing developers to get on with the work of creating great software.
The challenges of the role fall into three major categories against which I’ve made progress, but I won’t claim to have completely overcome any one of them:
- First, there’s developing and nurturing better and cleaner forms of Fog Creek as an organization. That’s working to improve how we write specs, communicate with customers; test new products and features, and roll-out new functions in existing products.
- The second challenge is not worrying about the fact that, at Fog Creek, I can’t tell anyone what to do. The major adjustment wasn’t learning to live without tyrannical power. It was learning to trust that no one expected me to exercise that kind of power. And learning that I could pursue a more collaborative mode of making good arguments; building consensus, and executing tasks to realize company goals.
- The third is trying to help align and focus Fog Creek’s talented workforce so that the right things are done at the right time. Smart and Get’s things done is a great place to begin. Now we’re trying to advance the practice of getting the right things done at the right time, for both Fog Creek and our customers.
When are you at your happiest at Fog Creek?
I’m happiest when working with Creekers to realize advances that make our tools more valuable to our customers. That’s when great things happen – the release of Iteration Planner; removing Wasabi from our code base; the revival of lots of useful editorial content; and new projects. These are all examples of productive collaborations where Creekers were forced to confront problems and make something useful out of the confrontation. For me, that creative moment, when a person’s imagination and ingenuity converge in a solution to a problem worth solving, is beautiful and deeply rewarding.
What software tools do you use and couldn’t live without?
If good tech can be measured by how well it solves core problems then:
- Google Docs
- Biz Dev (our home-grown business metrics site)
- Google Hangouts
These all have changed the way I gather, track, plan and analyze data. At this point, abandoning any one of these would be a major disruption to the way that I interact with people and ideas which are two types interactions for which I try to optimize.
My Kindle allows me to have as many volumes in my backpack as a wealthy 19th-century American bibliophile would have in his entire library. Further, the ability to just pull books out of cyberspace from any place on earth with a cellphone signal is the sort of science fiction that a 1970’s fourth grader would have envied as he was getting his first tour of the card catalog at the local library.
FogBugz helps me organize, without any loss of detail, complex issues and contain them in the simple act of opening and closing cases. Evernote and Trello help me chunk and store ideas that used to get lost when I cleaned the napkins off my desk or out of my pockets. Google Docs has eliminated versioning issues. Also, it makes collaborating a real-time activity as opposed to a succession of sprints followed by periods of waiting in which every fear and doubt about the project catches up and re-attaches itself to my creative mind.
Biz Dev helps to keep numbers important to the success of Fog Creek ready to hand and foremost in my mind. While Appear.in and Google Hangouts are great for the screen sharing, and audio capabilities. I have yet to feel real benefit from the video apart from being able to look over someone’s shoulder at their screen.
What are a few of your favorite Fog Creek blog posts?
- File a case to save a maker interruption: It’s an important point that the rhythm of making – that process which creates value is different from queue work or planning. Within any company, making should be a protected activity, and yet organizations often try to apply the same rules to both making and request-driven operations.
- David’s Voice-controlled desk: This is just so much fun. I watch it as a cautionary tale of how essentially rational people can be taken in by their desire to be witnesses at the bleeding edge of technology.
- Rob Sobers talking about experiment-driven marketing: Rob is applying to marketing a lot of the basic principles that Steve Blank and the Lean Startup faction espouse as part of practicing customer-centric development. It strikes me as a viable approach that I hope we’ll use even more at Fog Creek.
What technologies are you currently trying out or want an excuse to try?
Cloud services combined with fast, light, mutable programs that nibble at large funds of data, adding, deleting, and transforming some collective knowledge of human experience. One of the early benefits of the easy communication enabled by the Web was easy collaboration with distant colleagues. I think that cloud services for storing large amounts of data, and software that runs in the cloud and can instantly enable or disable additional resources for crunching really large data sets will make scientific computing and collaboration easier and the infrastructure needed to support high-end cloud computing even more accessible to people working on hard problems with lots of data processing. I’d love to be involved in building tools to help solve those types of problems.
On the other end of the spectrum, small programs like Hubot and other chat robots, like our very own Chatterbug, come to mind. They aren’t very smart, but still manage to be very useful for reminding us of our plans, tracking tasks, and reporting out when there is a state change. This sort of service helps to maintain focus on complex problems.
Outside of Fog Creek, what do you like to do?
I read Fiction; History of ideas and inventions; books about the history and development of human exchange in both commercial economies and markets of ideas. I Climb cliffs all over the world, but mostly at my home crag – the Gunks; I write stories and poems, pieces other than emails or blog posts; And I take good photos during my travels both abroad and at large in NYC.
What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself starting out in your career?
Study more economics. Don’t repress your creativity. Embrace the strategy of using fast and light tests to determine which activities will produce the most of what you really want to see in the world.
When I started in tech there was a notion that the way to be great was to lock yourself in your parent’s garage until you emerged with a unicorn – the one perfect thing that the world really needed, but hadn’t yet realized was even a possibility. That worked for a few people but, by in large, money and talent were more often squandered than transformed by following this course. It took me a long time to come around to the notion that the method for developing life-altering tools might have at least as much science as art in it. To be sure, there is plenty of that ineffable stuff that makes art and innovation, in building great products, but the pure light of inspiration is no substitute for being methodical about your process and open to the reality depicted in your results.
Thanks to David for taking the time to speak with us. Have someone you’d like to be a guest? Let us know @FogCreek.
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