Google Fiber Network
If you live in Memphis and use the Web for anything, you're probably aware of Memphis's bid to win a Google Fiber Network. Because Coroutine spends most of its productive hours building applications for the Web, we're obviously enthusiastic supporters of the bid.
Part of the bid process is to talk about the applications and businesses that would benefit from the network. In our nomination, we talked about the Web being the platform of the future and the value of migrating software to it. That's important, of course, but it lacks a certain zing.
We were searching for a bigger idea.
Quick History Lesson
Memphis isn't the only Memphis. In ancient Egypt, there was another Memphis—the original Memphis, you might say. The area around this other Memphis, which lies a bit outside modern Cairo, contains some of the most impressive monuments from the ancient world, including the Pyramids of Giza.
Armed with this tiny amount of knowledge, our Memphis decided two decades ago to build a new arena in the form of a Pyramid. And they did. If you cross the Mississippi River on I-40, you get a big old eyeful of this bad boy.
But then something strange happened. The city built another arena in downtown Memphis (don't ask). The new FedEx Forum opened in 2004, taking all the local sports franchises and concerts with it. The Pyramid was obsolete after just thirteen years of moderate use.
A Crazy Idea
Our children go to school within sight of the Pyramid and we drive right by it on our way to lunch most days. It makes us sad to see it sitting there doing nothing.
Today as we drove by the Pyramid, gleaming in the bright sun of a grand spring day, I joked that the glass shell should be converted to solar panels. The least the thing could do is put power back on the grid.
But then Tim totally one-upped me.
The Pyramid is 360,000 square feet at its base and would accommodate several floors of decreasing square footage. If we won a Google Fiber Network, we'd have the capacity to move tremendous amounts of data.
Let's build the largest data center in the world!
A friend of mine told me an interesting story the other night.
My friend—I'll call him Tom—works for a local bioscience company. Tom started out in the lab. Because the service the company offers is customized to every client's exact need, the sales staff usually needs input from the technical staff to close a deal. In the company's infancy, Tom was the star of the lab; he became the go-to technician for sales consultations.
In recent years, the lab has grown. There are enough lab technicians that the company needs a full-time resource to assist the sales team, set up new accounts, and oversee lab operations. The choice was obvious. Tom was promoted.
What struck me about his story was how similar it is to the promotion narrative in the software industry. Tom's story has a happy ending. He's come to enjoy working with clients, and he discovered, a bit to his surprise, that he's good at managing other lab technicians. But things could have turned out differently.
In the software industry, they usually do.
Maybe I'm selling Tom's company short. Maybe they promoted him not just because he knew the lab work inside and out, but because the sales staff liked him and because he had exhibited leadership skills in the lab that portended his success as a manager. But that's not how software promotions usually happen.
In my experience, the normal course is for a company to select its best programmer, give him a raise and a new job title, thrust him into countless meetings, and saddle him with a bunch of newbies. The idea is that the programmer, who is so great at his job, will be able to help the newbies become just as great. The company sees its action as a short-term sacrifice designed to achieve a long-term gain. It appears logical from a certain angle.
And every now and then, the company gets the exact result it hoped for—indeed, this narrative is my narrative. But such outcomes are the exception.
The typical outcome is grim. First, the company loses its best programmer. The new manager's day is filled with interruptions—sales meetings, project meetings, questions from his staff, task assignment, etc. He no longer has a dedicated block of hours in which anything creative can be done. Second, the company acquires a terrible manager. Our programmer lacks the skills, training, and inclination to be good at his new job. He goes to extraordinary lengths to assign himself interesting coding problems, usually to the detriment of team's overall productivity. The manager works long hours to accommodate the new duties he despises as well as the old duties he can't part with; the newbies don't get the attention and mentoring they require; morale drops precipitously.
Despite its good intentions, the company deals itself two serious blows: it not only loses its best asset, but perversely, it converts that asset into its worst liability.
The Lesser of Two Evils
The astute reader has probably already asked himself this question: If our programmer doesn't want to perform the duties of a manager, why does he accept the promotion in the first place?
I think two things are going on. First, we're supposed to want promotions, right? It's how we recognize success and value. Plus, it usually comes with a pay raise. What kind of lunatic turns down a promotion? Second, both the company and the programmer get seduced by poor nomenclature. The new position is normally given the title Technical Lead, which sounds like a programmer who has the side responsibility of coordinating the output of a team of developers. To a programmer, that extra responsibility is worth the raise, recognition, and cachet. But if the company called the position what it is—Technical Manager—only programmers willing to give up coding altogether would pursue it.
But the problem is even more insidious than this. Traditionally, programmers are offered two career paths. They can become managers (a CTO track) or senior programmers (an architect track). The problem is both tracks terminate in roles that many programmers don't want. One path leads to pure management, the other to systems design work. Where do programmers who actually want to program go?
Freelance programmers are predominantly of the programming programmer mold. When corporations fail to offer them attractive alternatives, many programmers quit, sign on with placement agencies, and go right back to work for their former employers for more money. I don't see these arrangements as particularly advantageous to the corporation, but amazingly, they seem to like them.
Programmers at small shops are also usually of this mold. Small shops can afford to implement flat organizational structures. Because all managerial positions are permanently filled by founders, programmers never have any expectation of traditional advancement. Instead, the companies offer lots of intellectual stimulation, fewer rules, and better pay.
As the owner of a small software company, I can't say I'm terribly upset about the current state of affairs. It certainly makes it easy for me to acquire talent. More than anything, I'm surprised. I don't understand why large employers accept such a serious and constant drain on their talent. It probably has something to do with all those miscast managers.
Getting Out of Our Comfort Zone
A few months ago, Coroutine turned two and a half years old. We had spent those years working tirelessly at client sites, predominantly as subcontractors. All that effort did wonders for our balance sheet, but it wasn't going to get us anywhere important. You can build a profitable business through subcontracting, but you can't build a brand.
This wasn't a surprise. Our five year plan called for two or three years of subcontracting followed by two or three years of selling, managing, and executing our own projects. We had taken subcontracting about as far as it could go—it was time to make the transition.
In May, our good friend Robert Taylor from Rasberry CRE showed us every non-traditional office space in Memphis. Unfortunately, that doesn't take very long in this city. Even still, we found two places we liked very much.
At the last minute, a friend recommended that we talk to Gwin Scott from EmergeMemphis. We, of course, knew of EmergeMemphis, and as young entrepreneurs, we were sympathetic to their goals. But we always thought EmergeMemphis was a incubator in the dotcom sense of the term. We weren't interested in sharing a stake in the company; we didn't need capital; and, we weren't up for lots of unsolicited advice from strangers.
Man, did we have it all wrong.
As it turns out, EmergeMemphis isn't an incubator at all but rather a home for early stage companies with high growth strategies. To our surprise, we were exactly the kind of company Gwin was looking to recruit. Coroutine had a strong business plan, a history of profits and good decisions, and that certain spark that gives a place like EmergeMemphis its defining character.
And what's more, EmergeMemphis is the rarest of entities—a truly, benevolent force. They don't take equity stakes in their member companies and they don't interfere where they're not wanted. Instead, they offer consistently great advice, some of the best commercial real estate in town, and a community of bright, energetic folks, all of whom want to see you succeed.
It was a no-brainer.
So, we're finally moved in. We've built a couple of gigantic whiteboards. Furniture has started to arrive. The network is coming together slowly but surely. We like the way things are shaping up.
Stop by and say hello.
A few months ago, we attracted enough attention to be featured in the Commercial Appeal. It was originally supposed to be a small blurb for a weekly column—we guess they liked what we had to say.
It's nice to be so well-regarded. We're trying to live up to the hype.