Group, fear, distance, and innovations.

In a recent interview, Google’s CEO, Larry Page, said “Most businesses fail because they miss the future.”

I can’t agree more.

However, I don’t think it is a failure to envision the future.  The problem, I think, is that often times there are invisible inertia which prevent companies from doing radically new things.  Incremental improvements are praised and encouraged.  But forward-leaping initiatives just don’t happen as often.

Why is that?

To examine it further, we have to look at how a group of people makes decisions.  In social science, the ideas of conformity, social norm, and groupthink have long been studied.  These powerful forces come into play during the decision making process, whether we know it or not.  Essentially, these forces boil down to fear.

Fear of being wrong.  Fear of sounding stupid.  Fear of push-backs.  Fear of rocking the boat.  Fear of sticking our neck out.

On the other hand, the distanced relationship between an individual and the decision outcome is usually not apparent.  It is hard for anyone to relate a group decision to their personal well-being.  After all, who thinks that agreeing with colleagues at work will have any significant impact on their lives?

When these two powerful forces: fear we all share and distanced responsibility, are combined, it only makes sense for any sane person not to risk themselves pushing for something different.  The inertia for change creates a barrier for leaping innovations.  Lack of true innovation ultimately brings demise to a business.

How do we fix that?

To address the fear problem, we need to create a safe environment where people feel comfortable voicing out their thoughts.  This means not passing judgement too early when an idea is still brewing.  This means encouraging people to speak up whenever they have concerns.  This means separating the individuals from the issues itself. (“It is not about you or me, it’s about the issue at hand”).

For the distance problem, communication and transparency is the key.  By communicating the impact of a decision and be totally transparent about its outcome – no matter success or failure, people can better relate the decision to its outcome.  By nature, no one wants their company to fail.  Once we realize the significance we have on the decisions we help making, we feel responsible for its success and failure.

By conquering our fear to conform and feeling responsible for the decisions outcome, we can bring about real innovations to the world – innovations that shape the future we all live in.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”   – Mark Zuckerberg

In a recent interview, Google’s CEO, Larry Page, said “Most businesses fail because they miss the future.” I can’t agree more. However, I don’t think it is a failure to envision the future.  The problem, I think, is that often… Continue reading ‘Group, fear, distance, and innovations.’

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Why Startups Need to Send Employees to Conferences

This article originally appeared on Techvibes

Many startup employees want to attend conferences, but get denied.

“But it’s expensive,” they’re told. “The videos are posted online afterwards, or there are free tutorials on the internet. And with this release coming up, we’ve got to hustle right now. Conferences can come later.”

But that hustling is exactly why the do-it-later approach won’t work. How often do you and your colleagues invest large blocks of time into learning for the future? Unless you force yourself to, you’re not going to be able to lift your head from the day-to-day to invest in serious study and reflection. That’s why Bill Gates had his “Think Weeks”: a week spent in a cottage alone with books and research papers. It’s also why company leaders go to off-site retreats for strategic thinking.

Conferences are the same. A week spent that way gives you a new level of energy, a new kind of energy, that you just won’t get in the office. If you’re not convinced, you probably haven’t tried it.

Here’s four specific reasons why startups should send their employees to conferences.

1. Don’t fall out of date

You can learn about things at a conference that will change the way you work. It’s quite likely that you’ll learn about some new technology that may dramatically simplify or improve what you’re working on, leading to months of effort saved. It’s also a long-term investment in the continuing effectiveness of your team.

2. Get pumped up

After a day of ideas and energy, you will have an incredible urge to apply all of it to your work. It’s hard to describe, but I’ve felt it first-hand. In the evenings after conferences, we’ve come up with solutions to important architectural decisions, tough design problems, and major new feature ideas. This is particularly powerful if you go with a small group of colleagues. A small group of motivated people can change the world, but one excited person’s ideas are more likely to fall on deaf ears.

3. See great, be great

Conference speakers are often among the most accomplished people in the world within your industry. Having the chance to listen to them, to see what they’ve done, and to have a chat after a session or in the halls can be inspiring. This is a good thing. Your colleague’s aspiring to greatness will show in your product and in how quickly they learn.

4. Keeping people happy

Effective people want to be learning and improving continuously, and conferences are one of the best ways to help them do this. It’s an important perk that will reduce employee turnover, and you can even advertise it when hiring to help attract the best candidates.

At Archon Systems, we offer all-expense-paid conferences. Keeping people happy and well-trained is an integral part of our company, and it’s worked wonders in attracting and retaining a stellar team.

This article originally appeared on Techvibes Many startup employees want to attend conferences, but get denied. “But it’s expensive,” they’re told. “The videos are posted online afterwards, or there are free tutorials on the internet. And with this release coming… Continue reading ‘Why Startups Need to Send Employees to Conferences’

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Like food? So do we.

We have lunch together every day when we’re in the office, but one of our most popular traditions is a company-sponsored lunch out once a month.  We’re lucky to have a few foodies on our team and to be based in gastro-friendly Leslieville, but we often explore other offerings in Toronto as well.

Here’s a map with some of the restaurants we’re regulars at:


And some of the highlights:

  • Sukhothai – The original Thai restaurant behind Khao San Road
  • Santouka Ramen – Possibly the best Japanese noodles available in North America
  • The Burger’s Priest – Many people think this is the best burger place in town
  • Danforth Dragon – Hakka food; like a blend between Chinese and Indian food
  • Lady Marmalade – A popular brunch place within walking distance
  • Hanoi 3 Seasons – Voted Best Vietnamese Food in Toronto in Now Magazine. Yeah, it’s good.

Where do you like to eat? Want to join us?

We have lunch together every day when we’re in the office, but one of our most popular traditions is a company-sponsored lunch out once a month.  We’re lucky to have a few foodies on our team and to be based… Continue reading ‘Like food? So do we.’

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Open Offices? Private Offices? Here’s a third option.

There’s been a lot of debate recently about open vs. private offices. There was a study that showed that open-plan offices tend to have more dissatisfied workers. Developers like Joel Spolsky have argued that private offices make developers more productive, citing research evidence. Among others, Hubspot defended their open plan office as essential for communication and interaction, while suggesting that headphones are good for reducing distractions.

Who’s right? Both, and neither.

At Archon Systems, we have everybody work in the office two days a week (usually Monday and Wednesday), and other days, people work from home. I haven’t seen any other company that does it, but it works fantastically well for us.

We can add to the evidence that people are more productive in private spaces — our developers are about 15% more productive on work-from-home days. We also agree with those who say that open-office interaction is essential. There have been countless times when an important creative breakthrough has happened spontaneously based on overhearing a conversation — I suspect many of these simply would not have occurred if people were in private offices. Most of our meetings and design sessions happen on office days, and home days are perfect for getting in the zone and cranking out that code uninterrupted.

Flexible

We’ve found that two days a week generally works well for us as a startup (currently 10 employee) software company. It’s a good balance between more interaction and more uninterrupted development. But of course, the balance can fluctuate. If a group needs more time for discussion, those people will tend to go into the office on the other days. It’s much better than requiring 100% office-time, or employees feeling guilty when they want to work uninterrupted from home. Of course, we also communicate on work-from-home days by Google Hangouts, Yammer, and various other tools.

Employee Satisfaction

Based on day-to-day conversation and anonymous surveys, employees love this hybrid office arrangement. We have about the right mixture of social and creative interaction with personal focused time. Developers love having a couple consecutive days to code, knowing that there will be minimal distractions. The grind of a daily commute is reduced dramatically. But we also avoid the loneliness and ennui of permanently working remotely; we have lunch together and enjoy having some variety. There’s also more freedom. One of our employees moved to a city about an hour and a half away to live with his significant other; if he had to make that commute every day, that choice might’ve been a lot harder, or he might’ve looked for a new job.

Beautiful Office

Just because we aren’t forced to be in the office, that doesn’t mean we should skimp on it. Our last office was featured in an interior design blog desire to inspire, and we recently moved into a new office that’s much bigger and better, but we’ll show that off later!

On a related note, I suspect that worker dissatisfaction being correlated with open-plan offices is related to companies skimping on costs and just cramming people in wherever they can. But that doesn’t mean that a well-designed open-plan office can’t be better than private offices, so long as there’s a good option for focused individual work.

The Right People and Trust

We’re often asked, how do you know people are actually working when they work from home half the time? It comes down to having the right people and trusting them. There are certainly people that can work well under constant peer pressure but can’t self-motivate. Those people don’t perform well in our environment. A probation period for new hires is essential. However, this actually helps us separate the right self-motivated people from the fakers. And when you have a team of all the right people and can prove that you trust them, good things happen.

Remote Workers

There was a lot of debate when Yahoo stopped people from working remotely. We agree with the flexibility and productivity benefits of working away from the office, and also agree with the problem of being disconnected without seeing your co-workers regularly. If you’ve ever interacted with someone online for a while and then met them in person later, you can immedately and viscerally feel the deeper connection with them. For this reason, we insist that our employees live near beautiful Toronto, Canada. At the same time, we don’t need to see you every day; we trust you’ll get the work done. This hybrid approach gives us a pragmatic best-of-both-worlds approach.

Maker-Time

Probably one of the main reasons that most companies haven’t considered an arrangement like ours is that generally, these decisions are made by managers, and managers want to physically see their employees so they can supervise and interrupt them at any time. Paul Graham argues that programmers and other creative people operate on a maker’s schedule, where they hate meetings and interruptions that prevent them from getting in the zone. We’ve been able to avoid this trap because of evidence that people are more productive at home, and because our founders are themselves active developers. There are no pure-managers.

You Can Too

There are strong advocates of open offices, private offices, remote workers, and co-located teams. None of these advocates are stupid; they all have their points. I encourage you to consider this third option that combines the best wisdom from all sides. It’s worked great for us. Or join us and see for yourself!

There’s been a lot of debate recently about open vs. private offices. There was a study that showed that open-plan offices tend to have more dissatisfied workers. Developers like Joel Spolsky have argued that private offices make developers more productive,… Continue reading ‘Open Offices? Private Offices? Here’s a third option.’

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6 Strategies for Black-Box Software Testing

Have you ever wondered how some people can be super-effective at finding bugs? Here are some of the strategies used by the best testers.

Consistency testing

When you see something in one part of the system, ask yourself, “where else should it work like this?” For example, in inFlow, there are 6 types of documents that have a lot in common: sales orders, purchase orders, stock adjustments, and so on. Often, you’ll find inconsistencies. Sometimes there are good reasons for this, but usually, the developer updated it in one place and forgot to update it in some of the others. You may also find false consistencies — when things are the same but they really should be different!

Example bugs:

  • Sticky notes interface is different for Purchase Orders
  • Custom fields do not save or print in Stock Adjustment

Combination testing

You can divide up a system in two ways:

  1. Vertically: the different sections or screens of a system (e.g. sales orders, purchase orders)
  2. Horizontally: functions and concepts that go across sections of a system (e.g. saving, printing, searching, serial number handling)

Then, take combinations of these two or three at a time, and ask if it works as you would expect.

Example bugs:

  • Serial numbers are not printed on work orders (Work Order + Serial Number Handling + Printing)
  • Prices in different currencies only show the default currency sign (Product + Multiple Currencies)

Scenario testing

Imagine you’re a typical user of the system. Pretend to be somebody you know if possible, or get really into it: make up a name and hobbies for your new alter ego. Then go through some tasks you would need to handle in the system. When you make a change, what would you expect to see? What else might you want to do after that?

When you’re scenario testing, you’ll find standard bugs, and you’ll also find opportunities to make a customer’s life easier. Sometimes it’s hard to define what’s a bug and what’s a feature request, but it doesn’t matter — raise your concern anyway!

Example bugs:

  • Balance shown on Apply Credit form is not calculating properly
  • Copying a sales order to a purchase order should also copy the location

Exploration testing

Be the intrepid adventurer braving the untamed jungles of the system. Do unusual things (use parts of the system that are less commonly used, or use it in an unexpected way) and pay close attention to what you see. Do things ever break or get inconsistent? Does the interface still make sense?

Example bugs:

  • System crashes when entering 600,000 serial numbers
  • Currency symbol doesn’t refresh properly for Sales Order Return Fee.

Cross-reference testing

A system often has parts that are linked to each other. For example, if you add a new order, are the reports, customer balance, and listing updated properly? Can you search for it?

When you make a change, where else should it affect things in the system? Look for mistakes there.

Example bugs:

  • Cancelled orders should reflect that in the Order History.
  • Product listing does not properly show the default price.

Error testing

Error handling is one of the most important, complex, and easily overlooked parts of a system.

What shouldn’t be allowed? Can you receive a negative quantity of an item? Can you have two customers with the same name? Can you have a product with no name? Try it. Does the system handle the error properly? Is there a reasonable error message?

Example bugs:

  • Transferring stock to an unspecified destination should have a more clear error message
  • Error is not shown when saving a sales order with insufficient stock of serialized products.

With these strategies, you’re bound to become a more effective tester!  Don’t get stuck on one strategy, refer to this list so you can flip between strategies for maximum benefit.

Have you ever wondered how some people can be super-effective at finding bugs? Here are some of the strategies used by the best testers. Consistency testing When you see something in one part of the system, ask yourself, “where else… Continue reading ‘6 Strategies for Black-Box Software Testing’

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