Sep 24, 2010

Whiny Programmers

This post is in response to this rant here. If you don't feel like reading it that's ok, it is about a programmer who is annoyed about the following scenario:
1) Business Guy (BG) has an idea (I say Guy here because I've only ever been approached by guys with business pitches, but you can easily replace the G with Girl if that's the case).
2) BG finds Programmer (P), offers no pay but 50% equity.
3) P does all the coding, late nights, etc.
4) BG makes all the decisions, takes all the glory, no mention of P in press releases, etc.
5) P gets annoyed.

This is a common scenario, and a lot of programmers have seen it (I was lucky, when I went along with this scenario I was actually getting paid, although the equity part was lower).

My problem with this type of rant is this: what is stopping P and BG from being the same person? Why can't programmers come up with business ideas, and do all the marketing/PR/etc. as this rant describes as "the easy part"? This guy seems to come to the false dichotomy of "programmer in startup" vs. "programmer in big company", when there are plenty of other options available.

Now of course the obvious answer is this: there is not enough time for P and BG to be the same person. It's time-consuming enough to do all the coding, you want to do all the marketing and product pitches and all that too? On top of that, BG often has this thing called "charisma" (known to geeks as CHA) which is a thing that geeks often neglect or marginalize but is quite important when it comes to making people want to give you money for stuff (whether it's VC funding or selling your product).

Not only that but there is all this other business stuff that needs to be done like:
Market research: does anybody actually want your product? How often do us geeks embark on an awesome project only to find out that nobody actually wants it? /me raises both hands and would raise more if had more hands
Sales: how do you make more demand for what you're selling? People might not care at the moment, but could be convinced to care. How do you do that?
Financing: how are you going to pay the bills before the company turns a profit? Unemployment benefits? Not likely. Often you might have to get a loan or sell some equity to a VC/angel so that you can eat while you get the ball rolling.
Etc.: there are a lot of other things that come into play here, but I won't bore you with all those details since I think the three above are enough to make the point.
In short, my point here is that business is not as easy as this guy makes it sound.

What do you do when a business guy comes to you with a pitch? You might as well hear his idea out, it might actually be worth something - although if you're young like me your sense of what is worth something might not be fully developed yet, so keep that in mind as well. Sign the NDA if you need to, but don't make any commitment until you know what you're getting into. However the most important thing is to set a precedent: be assertive at the beginning. Say that if you're getting 50% of the equity then you're actually getting 50% of the company which includes 50% of the decision making, 50% of the exposure, etc.

Keep in mind though that this requires 50% of the responsibility - if the business fails, it's 50% your fault. If the business guy is doing something obviously stupid, it is your responsibility to let him know and work with him to make a better decision (or realize that maybe what he is doing isn't so stupid). You can't expect to be treated like a partner if you don't act like a partner.

Anyway, the two points I have are:
1) When you're in that situation where you're the developer of a 2-guy startup, assert your position as a partner or you won't be treated like one.
2) Remember that there are more options than "work as programmer for startup" or "work for big co" - namely, the "start your own startup" is a viable option. I think a lot of people forget about this when thinking about finding jobs.

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