What story are you trying to tell? Some thoughts on writing

It’s late on a Monday evening and I’m tired. I’ve got 2000 words of woolly, politicised bullshit in front of me and I have no idea how to make it better. And believe me, I know bullshit when I see it; after all, I wrote it.

It’s not an uncommon problem. I know the point that I’m trying to get across but somehow when I get it down on paper it feels disjointed, vague and a little melodramatic. I lack some background knowledge and I’m missing some critical references, so the ideas that seemed to strong and original few hours ago now seem like the lonely rants of a Yahoo comment troll. The last few hours has just been a waste of ink.

And yes, I still write with a biro. Sometimes. Because there’s something reassuring about scrawling several pages of illegible characters in a random notebook that will later get buried beneath my laptop, my kindle and my phone and probably not opened again for another few months.

I also find that writing with a pen in hand forces me to go forward and frees me from the tyranny of the backspace; the problem is, I don’t always like where I end up.

I read it back again and I’m no longer even sure what I’m trying to get across. What do I want to say? What’s my point? What is my central thesis here?

And then it hits me; the real problem with the piece. I’ve written it like an essay when I should really be trying to tell a story.

It’s a habit that dates back to university, when generally when I sat down to write I really was trying to produce an essay. My approach to writing them developed into a fairly consistent system; first, the background reading; then formulate the argument; then draft the argument, arrange the references and write a summary.

The summary becomes the introduction. The introduction becomes two paragraphs; in the first I say what I am going to argue and in the second I say how I am going to argue it. Most of the rest of the essay deals with the details in what is hopefully a logically structured and fluid manner, before finally resting upon a conclusion in which I basically restate all the things that I have already stated twice in the previous 2,500 odd words.

It served me pretty well during those three years in academia. It also helped me with the research pieces I ended up writing during a brief period moonlighting as a freelance writer in my mid-twenties. And having picked up the metaphorical pen again (I’m back on the word processor for this one), I am naturally drawn to the familiar approach as I start trying to write the kind of serious political and social commentary for which I am hopelessly unqualified.

The problem is, it’s no longer the write approach. This blogs is not a journal, an encyclopaedia, a textbook, a white paper or the answer to an exam question. It’s certainly not a collection of essays. What it is is a personal testimony, a perspective on the world I see and a window into the world in which I live. It’s a narrative, not a dissertation.

So now, as I read back the awkward, childish words of my failed commentary on the state of democracy and melodramatic proclamations regarding The End of All Things, I realise that the problem with my argument is that I am arguing at all. This is not a debate or a call to action. It’s just a perspective, a bit of information which I found interesting but otherwise have no real way of verifying, and an opinion or two. I’m not trying to change the world – I’m not even trying to change your mind – and really the only original thing I have to offer is my own personal micro-narrative that might divert you for a few minutes of your day. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a conversation about it one day. You might even leave a comment.

And that’s it. The internet is a graveyard of false information and fake news stories, bigots, trolls and snarling gremlins. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. So if you, like me, are an occasional writer, and as such an occasional writer you occasionally suffer such frustration and dissatisfaction of not quite being as smart as you think you are, sit back and take a pause. Close your eyes, clear your head and ask yourself:

What story are you trying to tell?

The Startup drug

It’s 4.24am on a Tuesday morning. I’m in that half-sleep state between sleeping and waking where I’m starting to realise that my dream about being a doughnut farmer may not represent reality to the fullest extent, but I’m struggling to tell which bits are real and which are imagined. I feel like my heart is beating a little too fast and I’m filled with a strong sense of anxiety that something is wrong. I can’t quite fit words around it though.

What’s happened? Did I break the build?

No, that can’t be it. I mean, I didn’t push any code today so I couldn’t have, right? Or did I? Oh, but there was something that I was going to do that might break it. I might need to rethink that because I’m not dealing with the dependencies properly, really I should be pulling that package from there so it shows up on our doughnut feed, or the social media guys won’t get…

Hang on, doughnuts? No, it can’t be doughnuts. We pushed all the donuts with the last version of the app. The doughnuts for this release haven’t finished hatching.

Do doughnuts hatch? Aren’t they laid? Whatever. Actually, maybe we do have doughnuts in this version. I mean, the build is broken. Shit, I’m confused. Oh, and I need the bathroom…

It’s not until I’ve stumbled my out of the bedroom and stood blinking in the light of the living room for a few seconds that I realise that there are no doughnuts and there is no app and there is no build to break. At least not here, standing forlornly in my own home wearing nothing but a pair of pants and an odd sock.

So I head back to bed and get my head down again, but my mind is very much awake now and fifteen minutes later I’m still tossing and turning and mulling over some slightly more sensible design issues relating to a new chat messaging API that I’m supposed to be starting. I’ve been here before and it’s not long before I realise that sleep is hopeless and I’m now fully awake and that’s not likely to change. So to avoid waking up Clarissa (again) I decide that maybe it’s best if I just get up.

This has become a fairly regular occurrence. It also feels different from other bouts of insomnia I’ve had. Previously when I’ve been through patches of bad sleep the trouble has always been getting to sleep in the first place and the problem has generally been rooted in disillusionment with work or ‘poor lifestyle choices’ (one usually resulting from the other).

This time round though I have no problem drifting off to sleep but I’m becoming fast friends with 4.30am. Stress has certainly been a factor but a better way of describing it I think is ‘overstimulation’. It feels a bit like a drug.

Startup life

This all started about 4 months ago, when I moved from a relatively comfortable agency job to a new position at a startup – Movebubble. As a developer, previous jobs have been largely about producing quality code, but at Movebubble I would say that a bigger part of my job is decision-making.

Adapting to this new reality has been a frenetic but fun experience. For context, we’re at the bit of the company’s story which, if this were a Hollywood film, would probably be made into a montage. The basic foundations have been laid, the early hurdles overcome, and now we see lots of cut away scenes of haggard-looking workers engaged in late-night discussions, occasional shouting arguments and plenty of moody, soul-searching glares over hipster coffee cups, before they suddenly start to look healthy and happy and then Bam! They’re all millionaires.

Now, while that montage might well be the four most forgettable minutes of the film, in reality this journey is 90% of the success of any startup. A good idea and a solid foundation is important, but it still takes a skilled execution and that means engaging in continuous, structured learning exercises and reacting effectively to feedback. There is a roadmap of sorts, but it’s liable to change week on week and it is often hard to predict what we’ll be working on even a fortnight from now.

Making that work is a team effort. It’s not about individual brilliance or long hours – the office is largely empty by 6.30pm. Product meetings are discussions rather than dictations and product design ideas, while led by product designers, are collaboratively sourced from across the company. We’re constantly looking for ways that we can improve, too, with regular meetings where we can get together and discuss ways that we can improve the manner in which we work.

What all this means is that there is a lot for a feeble human mind to process – often too much to process in a single day. There have been afternoons where I felt like I was drowning in the sheer volume of concerns being thrown my way, many of which I have volunteered myself to handle.

In December, I started using a time tracker to try and get on top of this and come to some conclusions about my working behaviour. out what I was spending my time on and by the end of the first week I had 42 different line items across 6 different projects, not including breaks. Around a third of the line items were repetitions – there were two larger tasks which took 2-3 days to which I repeatedly kept coming back to – but many others were just 15 minute ‘can you fix this please’ or ‘do you have 10 minutes to talk about this’. On average, I switched from one task to another just over once an hour.

This may not seem like a lot, but when you’re engaged in project work the mental overhead of switching contexts is pretty massive. It can cause you to miss details or go over the same ground multiple times, or completely miss requirements as your mind skips over items on your mental checklist. It requires a lot of extra effort to keep yourself organised and people often underestimate just how much that effort costs them – and how much it can impact the quality of what they do. There have been days when I have gone home having tried to address 8 or 9 different things and barely resolved more than a couple. This can be, and has been, overwhelming at times.

Yet crucially, I don’t go home looking forward to a break; I go home regretting the fact that I’m too tired to do any more.

Clocking off

Now, your brain is a pretty powerful processor. It can do quite a lot of things all at the same time. And just because you’re physically doing one thing or in one places that doesn’t mean you’re not thinking about another. Equally, just because you’ve left the office for the day doesn’t mean that the problem you were dealing with earlier isn’t still ticking away in the back of your mind.

If you stack too many of these things on your subconscious problem-solving queue then it’s going to start demanding extra resources from you to cope with the load. You’re going to find yourself distracted by random thoughts and impeded from engaging in everyday activities, such as normal conversation with your wife that doesn’t revolve around the shortcomings of RavenDB.

Which is how I find myself heading to bed at a reasonable hour and passing out within about 10 minutes of my head hitting the pillow, only to find myself in a strange dreamland where technical and product questions from my day job get mixed up with surreal subconscious imagery in ways that simply don’t make sense, and before I know it it’s 4am and I’m convinced I just had a conversation with Judy Dench about sexing up our microservices.

Now, when you’re going through one of these periods it can be extremely damaging to your self-confidence; you feel that you’re cracking under the strain of something that you should be able to cope with. But when I started to open up about it I discovered that several of my colleagues were experiencing similar issues.

The trigger for this was when a colleague of mine messaged me to ask how a particular bug had managed to get into production and remain undetected for the best part of a month. It was code that had been checked in during my second month at the company when sleep deprivation had been at its worst.

My initial reaction on receiving the message was one of embarrassment and resentment (I was feeling especially weary that morning and fatigue breeds unkind thoughts) but after typing out a couple of more combative replies that I then deleted I simply went with: “how this happened: fatigue, carelessness and mental overload”.

This ultimately led to a very helpful coffee meeting that helped me to get some things off my chest. When I later talked to the product manager on our team, he described how he’d been going through broadly the same thing.

The even more striking thing was – neither of us had any regrets. We both agreed that the job was proving a lot harder than we had anticipated and we were really enjoying the challenge.

Which ultimately is why I liken the experience to a drug – a great feeling with potentially problematic side effects. It’s surely something that can be managed, but the standard advice – more exercise, less booze, find time to switch off – has all helped me to feel more energetic and less fatigued but hasn’t necessarily improved the quality of my sleep. I’ve tried reading, watching films, playing board games and even just meditating to music before bed in an effort to switch off, but there are nights when I find it impossible to let go of an idea.

At the very least, I’m starting to understand why so many silicon valley magnates become so obsessed with health and fitness, as the limitations of their own body start to affect their capacity to get things done. Perhaps I just haven’t taken the healthy living exercise far enough.

Or perhaps what I need is simply to start managing my concerns better. At the end of the day, it is ideas that are keeping me awake, and ideas are just unrealised potential.

Trying to ask the right questions

About 15 months ago, I started building an application. Or rather, I started building an application framework, before deciding that the framework was a vanity project and I should just focus on the application itself.

It wasn’t a particularly exciting proposition. I just wanted to build a simple accounting product as a personal development exercise. I wanted to learn more about the process of innovation and application design; while I had a lot of technical experience in building products, I had had relatively few chances to help direct them.

I chose an accounting application because it was something simple, practical and where I felt I could identify a feature that was missing from other products on the market. The feature in question was the ability for me, as a UK banking customer, to import and categorise transactions efficiently from my online bank statement. There were existing products with direct online banking integrations (e.g. Mint), but these only appeared to work with banks in the US. For British customers, the best I could find was the CSV upload feature in Toshl, which I found cumbersome to navigate. I wanted something more intelligent and which involved fewer clicks.

I initially made good progress, but as I approached a stable MVP (Minimum Viable Product), I encountered two problems:

  1. I had become uncertain that it really was an MVP – or, to put it another way, I began to wonder if I had built the wrong features.
  2. I had less and less time to work on it – halfway through the project I moved from a stable and relatively comfortable agency position to a fun but chaotic startup where I had real responsibility, and I found that my new job demanded a lot more of my time and mental energy.

Ultimately, the project stalled completely for a few months, leaving me to answer the question – ‘what now’?

Asking the right questions

Despite my first few months at Movebubble being an exhausting experience, they have also been incredibly fun and rewarding. I’ve learned more about product delivery in that time than I did in over a year of working on my own initiative.

Being there has also pushed me to invest more time in reading and studying the theory, and that in turn has given me a new perspective on how to progress my own work. In particular, I’ve gained a different kind of understanding as to what really constitutes an MVP and what an MVP is really for. I feel I have a better handle on the kind of questions that I need to be asking if I am going to be making the product even slightly successful.

When I first started development, I focussed on building what I considered to be the smallest set of functionality required for people to want to sign up and regularly return to my application. But my process for deciding what those features were was arbitrary – it was based entirely on what I considered to be an MVP.

Yet I am not my customers. I understood this, but wrongly concluded that to understand those customers better I needed to deliver something relatively polished and mature in order to get useful information about what it was that they really wanted. I understood that an MVP should be the minimum amount of functionality required to get people to engage with and use my application.

But really, when you have constrained resources and a number of unanswered critical business questions, an MVP should be the minimum amount of function required for you to at least partially answer one of those questions.

If I had a large pot of time and/or money and I was close to 100% confident that people would buy my product once it was finished, then the most efficient use of those resources would probably be just to go ahead and build the product.

But as an individual developer working a few hours a week with relatively small amounts of cash available to invest – it would be pretty disheartening, if not a complete disaster (I still have a full time job, after all), to spend two further years building something only to discover that nobody wanted it.

So I should be approaching the problem from a different angle and thinking I can learn faster and smarter, reduce the amount of wasted work and increase my own confidence that what I’m doing is on the right track.

Time for a change of tack.

Initial hypotheses

My initial supposition – that there was a gap in the market for an accounting application with smoother integration for transaction import – might seem fairly clear at first glance, but in itself poses a couple of difficult questions.

Firstly, what do I mean by an ‘accounting application’? Why would people want to import details of their personal finances into a web app in the first place?

Some reasons I can think of:

  • To get a clearer picture of how much they are spending in different areas, in order to identify ways they could save.
  • To track spending against existing budgets, to improve their day to day decision making.
  • To help them work out how much they can afford to spend on a one-off purchase, perhaps a car or a wedding or a holiday.
  • To make financial decisions related to mortgages and investments base on projections of future long term income and expenditure.

Most of these really boil down to the same thing – visualising and cataloguing spending in order to help decision making. But what if there are others? And how do users want to interact with the information once it is there? These are questions I can’t answer by myself.

Secondly, what exactly is ‘smoother integration’? I’ve had a number of adhoc conversations about this over the last year and have encountered a number of different opinions. One person suggested that they would want direct integration with their account because they were too lazy to maintain it themselves if it needed more than a few clicks. But another said that she liked having to input transactions one by one on her phone because it enforced discipline. Other opinions varied along this spectrum.

While this seems to demonstrate that there is room on the market for a number of different approaches, it would also be wrong to assume that people always know what they want and blindly trust what they tell me. So how smooth does the integration need to be in order for people to want to use it?

Thirdly, for there to be space on the market for such an application requires that there is nothing else already out there that already does the things that I propose. Since it’s not yet clear what features I am proposing (or rather, while I think I have a pretty good idea, I have yet to confirm that these features are the right ones) it’s hard to answer that question conclusively. But as part of any approach to delivery I should have a good understanding of what else is already out there.

So when I break down my initial assumption, I come out with three questions I think need answering:

  1. What do consumers want out of an accounting application?
  2. Do users find the process of importing transactions to be painful in existing applications?
  3. What can be done to make this process less painful?

I may think of more, but for now this seems like a good start.

Getting the right answers

Note that none of these questions even begin to address technical or platform issues such as whether a web application (rather than e.g. a mobile app) is the right medium for this. At this point, I’m merely trying to identify what rather than how.

Or rather, the first how that I need to answer is not how do I build a product to solve these problems? but how to I go about answering these questions in order to identify the problems? 

That’s a harder question than it might first appear. It would be quite easy to assume that I could just ask people but, as already observed, people rarely know exactly what they want. Opinions and qualitative feedback are certainly valuable components of any research of this kind, but I also need a way of demonstrating and quantifying my conclusions.

For example, I could try advertising a given set of features and see how many people sign up to be notified of future developments. Or I could try advertising on different keywords and see what my click through rate is.

There are a lot of different ways in which I could approach this but the key limiting factor is going to be time. Given that I have a limited amount of personal time and money to invest, what approach is going to give me the most useful amount of information for relatively small investment of effort?

It’s not a question I’m ready to answer just yet; but it does feel like the right question to be asking.

Starting things I don’t

I am excellent at starting things.

This blog, for example. I’ve started it at least 5 times now. This post, at least that many. In my Dropbox folder I count nearly 20 other started articles and the vestiges of around 8 started novels. I did actually finish three of the novels, but then I un-finished the second one by completely rewriting it and then not bothering to add the last chapter, because I realised it was still a bit shit.

I started trying to design a board game earlier this year. Last year it was an accountancy program. The year before that? I think it was a poker calculator of some sort. I lose track – I have about 40 unfinished code repositories on Github.

I’ve started a climbing course, a kitesurfing course and a paragliding course. I’ve started running and swimming and cycling (not all at the same time). I’ve started trying to get fit and I’ve started trying to lose weight – twice, in fact, in the last 24 hours (damn it, Sunday lunch). On the flip side, I am pretty good at finishing my food.

I’ve hatched about a hundred different plans to Make The World A Better Place, but so far I think my cumulative score is a few Big Issues and some sponsored goats (who are, I am sure, very grateful for the sponsorship).

I’ve started learning salsa and tango and cha-cha-cha. I’ve started massage and yoga and meditation. I’ve started learning French and German and Spanish and I can express an opinion about a dog in Nepalese.

I even have a bad habit of starting sentences I

Finishing stuff is hard.

But then, part of the problem with finishing something is it’s not always clear why I started it in the first place. Sometimes it’s because I’m bored. Sometimes it’s because I want to impress somebody. Sometimes it’s because I believe I am far fitter and braver than I actually am and it kind of looks like fun from below.

The best reason to start something is because you want to. And the worst reasons not to start something are because you don’t think you’ll finish it or you don’t think you’ll be very good at it. Just try it. Keep at it for a bit. See where it takes you. And if where it takes you looks a lot like Milton Keynes, then stop.

Don’t feel under pressure to achieve beyond your means, either. There are a lot of books out there full of Life Hacks and ways to Get Things Done or Train Your Brain. As someone who wants to be a successful professional, I often feel pressure to read them in case there are tricks that I’m missing that would make me bigger, better, stronger than my mere mortal self, a sort of personal upgrade with a greater capacity to achieve: Mark mark II, perhaps.

But there is something undeniably therapeutic about having a great idea on Saturday morning, spending several hours scheming about how you might implement it, and then spending Sunday in a state of self-inflicted lethargy quite deliberately doing nothing about it before burying your notes at the bottom of a drawer you’re unlikely to open until the TV’s conked out and you can’t find the warranty.

Besides, finishing something is rarely the point. I learned this when I was trying to be a novelist. My goal, when setting out to write a new book, was not to reach the end so much as it was to reach a point where I knew whether it was a good idea or not – and, more importantly, whether it was an idea I wanted to start a relationship with. The answer was usually ‘no’.

I’ve learned it more recently in the world of start-up development. You don’t start building a product to fix a problem that you’ve already solved. You start building a product that helps you answer the question of how to solve it. You take small steps in the hope that at some point you’ll arrive at a destination that makes the world a tiny bit better and makes you a profit on the side.

That’s the value in starting things. It’s the first step to doing things. And it you never quite finish, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this ramble. In fact, I have no idea how to end this post. I may lost interest and never write another one. Maybe I’ll just