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Notes: Week of 20 January 2023
LEGO, layoffs, and what's next for me.
I’m sending these out a day early because tomorrow is my last weekday of funemployment and I plan to not be on a computer very much. Read (or skip) to the end to find out what’s next for me.
I’ve been fascinated by LEGO since I was a kid, and the late 1980s/early 1990s space sets remain absolutely unrivaled. If you spend enough money at a LEGO store they give you free stuff, so we came home last weekend with the Blacktron Cruiser (40580) and I marveled as my son found as much joy in the retro styling as I did when it was thoroughly modern. LEGO plays a big part in his nine-year-old life: he can play LEGO Star Wars for hours if I let him, and uses 22-minute Ninjago episodes as a negotiated brain break. As we built the Jazz Club set (10312) together, he exclaimed every five minutes about some new detail, and thanked me (unprompted!) for buying it, over and over.
This week I read a fascinating (but unfortunately poorly written) case study about challenges that LEGO faced in 2000-2004. Its core point seems to be something like this:
A strategically doomed pursuit of multiple adjacencies at once, in the absence of any standard metrics to evaluate success or failure, led to years of uncertainty about the future of the LEGO brand. The brand started to recover when it returned to its core value and values.
I had no idea LEGO had gone through such a slump in the aughts: purchasing LEGO on my income at the time was much more obviously gratuitous, risky, and therefore wrong. But after just thousands of dollars of LEGO purchases over the last few years, if we’re being honest, I am struck by the success they’ve had, and how they achieved it by eliminating distractions and focusing on their core value to consumers: the intellectual and creative inspiration of joy through a system of interlocking bricks.
Speaking of Ninjago: One day, not that long ago, I realized that Ninjago is a franchise that is every bit as appealing as studio franchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars, and yet LEGO owns the franchise. The case study I linked above alludes to some of the challenges of working with a studio franchise: you don’t own the product, the quality, or the schedule. I would like very much to talk to the person who championed Ninjago, because I bet the story is fascinating. In 2013, LEGO cancelled the project, but quickly reversed its decision, which would suggest someone decided — and has continued to decide, 10 years later — that the math makes sense, actually.
This is really getting out of hand, and LinkedIn is having a moment. It’s got me thinking about how this will affect organized labor (Bloomberg has opinions that I don’t necessarily agree with). My heart is especially hurting for soon-to-be bootcamp grads — even some of the best are running into the brick wall that is a hiring freeze.
I also find myself fantasizing about what could be done with all of the talent now available, a Works Progress Administration effort to focus all of these technology savvy folks on real actual problems.
No, I don’t think this is naive of me, at least in the sense that there is an abundance of high-value work to do. Have you seen the interface you have to go through to buy an I-Bond? Neither have I because I gave right up. And actually that’s a terrible example because it’s a tool that you need a spare $10,000 to need, and at that point maybe you deserve to be trolled a little bit. But there is so much that is antiquated, broken, and patched together about the people-facing systems of the U.S. government at every level.
I do understand that this will never actually happen, and yes I know about the USDS but it’s orders of magnitude away from what I’m talking about.
In the absence of something so transformative, I’m super intrigued by what is going to happen when you instill in tens of thousands of tech workers the notion that their at-will employment is not at all secure, even at big tech, even after years. This is new information that the system still needs time to ingest.
What’s next for me
On Monday I’ll join Swarmia as their head of Engagement & Insights. I’ll help inform product strategy, sales, and marketing by connecting with the engineers and leaders who are practicing in this space today. I’ll get to share my learnings and experience with customers and the community at large, and raise awareness of the value unlocked by investing in happier and more productive engineers. I cannot wait to join Otto Hilska, Pinja Dodik, Andy Carlson, and the rest of the team.
I was particularly drawn to Swarmia based on their clear understanding that developer productivity is a fundamentally human challenge, and fundamental to success is the experience and sentiment of the developers under the productivity microscope. This post is a good overview of how they think about the problem.
It’s my job now to talk to people who are focused on improving developer productivity (I promise I won’t personally try to sell you anything), so if you’re one of those people and you’d like to chat about your challenges and experiences (and learn from mine), let me know!