Developers Should Read The Lean Startup [Book Review]

On my holiday drive I decided to listen to a pair of new audio books.

the lean startupThe first book is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Eric draws from his experience as a startup founder and observational research of the Silicon Valley startup scene to create a formula for startup success. He draws several conclusions in the book, one being that we are all entrepreneurs, even in large enterprises.

I have long been saying everyone in a business should be considered an entrepreneur because you must keep the business innovating and solving customer problems well. Almost 20 years ago I took a marketing class and one thing the teacher emphasized is no matter where you are in an organization you are marketing. By this he meant everyone has a say in the way the company presents itself to customers and potential customers. It does not matter is the back of the house is running perfect if the user experience is poor or visa versa.

Eric's premise is similar in that everyone should always be innovating to keep the company moving forward. Enterprises in particular succumb to stagnation issues when they have a product or service that has worked in the past. But the world is in constant motion and what worked in the past will eventually no longer work. Maybe the product is no longer needed or maybe the service is no longer desired in that format. Without internal innovation a company cannot grow and eventually withers away on the vine.

We can look at Microsoft as an example. Much of the last 15 years or so can be considered a lost decade. Partially because of the anti-trust lawsuit, but partially because the leadership failed to innovate well. There were small innovations here and there and some very poorly executed ones, but by and large the general consumer thought of them as boring. They lost market share.

Today we are experiencing a new Microsoft that seems to be innovating. However they still show many signs of a large company, keeping them from taking small risks quickly and failing fast, etc. It is going to be interesting to see how much Microsoft changes over the next couple of years as the company does become more lean and agile.

We can also look at Apple, HP and other companies to see examples going in the opposite direction. For much of the time Microsoft was stagnating Apple was innovating and growing. Today Apple seems stuck, making very small, safe updates to existing product lines. Nothing innovative has come out since Steve Jobs passing.

Another aspect of The Lean Startup is the consistent references to manufacturing. For those of you who do not know my back story my college degrees are in polymer chemistry and textile engineering, but relied heavily on manufacturing processes. After college I worked in textiles and other manufacturing companies for 4 years, focusing on plant floor systems and automation.

Eric preaches lean startups should adopt many of the principles that make Toyota successful. This is very appealing to me because we were taught these same principles in college. I have long felt these principles applied to our software development process. As I observe successful web developers I see shades of this manufacturing process in play with pattern libraries, code style guides and applications of customer feedback loops. A consistent process and quality improvement loop.

Feedback looks are critical to any companies success. Eric rightfully points out that often companies focus on the wrong metrics to make decisions. He calls them vanity metrics. He explains int he books some of the common strategies companies, managers and leaders use to make themselves look good instead of embracing learning. Companies should embrace a learning accounting mentality. One where the financials are not considered, but valuing what you learned by trying small experiments to ensure you make the proper product. You can think of this as agile agile. Instead of the dreaded waterfall product development cycle or even 2-4 week agile sprints, perform a daily experiment and see what happens.

This of course appeals to my chemistry background where you perform small experiments based on a hypothesis. You observer what happens and design tomorrow's experiment until you get the right process. Once you have the process you implement and go the next area to improve.

Maybe it is my internal entrepreneurial spirit, but this book resonated with me. Just because your company is old and established does not mean it should not consider itself a startup. Companies of all sizes should encourage all employees to think as an entrepreneur and allow them experiment and learn from customers what problems they have and how to solve them the best.

I encourage you to read The Lean Startup and apply the principles to your company or even yourself. You do not need to quit your day job and seek funding. But change the way you and your company operate so you not only improve your processes but make the right products and keep your company moving forward.

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