The Hard Thing about Hard Things

I pre-ordered the Kindle version of Ben Horowitz’s new book back in January, and it was duly released and appeared on my iPad Mini yesterday morning. Fantastic book, finished it in two sittings.

Ben is co-founder with Marc Andreessen (of Netscape fame) of Venture Capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, otherwise known in techie circles as A(16)Z. I recall the two companies he ran in his earlier years – Loudcloud and Opsware. At the time, the Divisional Manager of BT Ignite was more interested in a company called Jamcracker, principally because she liked their name. Meanwhile I was being sent in to do technical due diligence on a few potential acquisitions, just before the dot com crash.

While the VC’s feeding ideas were ex-colleagues of the then CEO (Peter Bonfield), the quality was generally shocking; promising scale to hundreds of thousands of users with software written in Visual Basic, or (with the help of Rothschilds) proposing sale of a domain name business back to BT for £70m before finding 2/3 of the customers were referred to them by… BT. That latter one eventually IPO’d for £12 million a couple of years later. Not to mention some hosting businesses, albeit they didn’t know i’d managed to size their server numbers and customer mix per Datacentre – routinely scuppering their slides when they deviated from an exact truth. One I looked at had 14 servers deployed in one very large building; others we monitored had frequent outages (and we knew which end customers were affected each time). But I digress.

Loudcloud and Opsware, unlike most of those companies I was asked to look at, were of the highest quality. Having said that, the impression reading the book is that being the CEO of both operations was quite a job. It sounded like someone running over a field chasing a tractor trailer with tons of cash accelerating away, but pursued at the same time relentlessly by a Combine Harvester. And then finding a lot of running track between the two was littered with tripwire and sinking sand. In both cases, Ben made it to the tractor trailer – just – despite enormous challenges. Very impressive.

I can relate to the story of folks visiting him where two co-founders wanted to share all the decision making in their proposed business. The one thing I learnt indelibly from my “Leadership and Followership” Management Training at Sandhurst was, that in any team setting, however ad-hoc, job #1 was picking one leader that everyone would defer to. So, while we were free to propose any action, the ultimate call was from that one person. And once they’d made that call, it was our job as a team to execute the decision made to the very best of our mutual ability.

There is a lot of truth in Business Books talking about “Peace Time” CEOs (which get written about all the time) and “War Time” CEOs (which rarely get mentioned). The first acknowledgement of the phenomenon i’ve seen outside the excellent writings of Simon Wardley (just wish his knowledge finally made it into book form). This will become key, as the world of Enterprise IT is going to descend into war type conditions for many vendors by this side of 2017.

The other thing that struck a cord was his coverage of hiring “older” folks to positions in a company. I went for 6 months trying to get interviews at the young age of 55, something that proved virtually impossible – this despite a long, successful track record of running large Software and Internet operations for Market Leading companies and always delivering my numbers. And of developing my employees, many of whom became regarded as “fast track talent”.

Ben reminds people that the chief advantage is “time”; while some tasks like engineering can be internally focussed, that there are several things that relationship networks and business building skills in an older candidate can deliver that truly make a difference between success and liquidation. So while HR and Management ageism is endemic (and it’s not controversial in any way to suggest that – it is a fact of life), it’s my job to point out areas where I can help any organisation. There are some excellent examples of techniques taught in Andy Bounds fantastic book The Jelly Effect: How to Make Your Communication Stick that should make a material effort to that effort.

In the meantime, Ben Horowitz has written a fantastic book. Very recommended.