Chris Baus

Joel: What should we do when things don't go according to plan?

After the Business of Software conference, I was reading over my notes when I saw on Twitter that Jason Calcanis was hosting his TWiST show at the BoS venue and was going to interview Matt Mullenweg of WordPress along with Joel, so I tuned into the webcast.

After Joel took the stage with Jason and Matt they started joking about how Matt, at 25, had done more that day than the rest of us will do in our lifetime, and Joel said something rather unexpected. He stated that he was "wrong" about the direction of one if his early products, CityDesk, which was a desktop content publishing/blogging system which Joel used to publish his own blog (and apparently still does).

After reading Joel for years, and having been a former CityDesk user, I was a bit shocked to hear this as CityDesk has been quietly swept under the carpet. The last official "News" item about the product was an announcement about Vista support from 2006. About a year ago in his blog forum he basically admitted that CityDesk had been unofficially end-of-lifed, which lead to the following comment by Mark Major:

...I used to visit the Fog Creek site twice a week - for !a year! after the last CityDesk version in 2003. Thinks me: "Any day now, any day now." "It's cool already, it's gonna be *so* cool when they fix that little complication with my article loops."
Such a shame that CityDesk ate the CEO's children, causing massive abandonment of the project, subsidence of world peace, etc. Now all we CityDesk users can do is stare at the glamorous office pictures and wish one of the much revered 'twenty power outlets at each desk' programmers gets tasked with a revamp for us.

Inspired by Rands BoS talk on improv, or "talking shit" as he would say, as Jason started taking questions for Joel and Matt from Twitter, I fired off the following tweet which he read on the show:

Warhol's future has come and gone. On the internet everybody is famous not for 15 minutes, but 15 secs, and I just blew mine. It's all down hill from here.

If there is one writer I look up to as the standard bearer in the software industry its Joel (ok JWZ is pretty damn good too). He defined personal branding and what Dharmesh now calls inbound marketing while never talking about branding and talking very little about marketing. He just did it.

In a post from earlier this month Joel describes Kathy Sierra's brilliant concept that your job as a software developer is to help your users to become awesome. To take it one step further, the job of any company is to help their customers be awesome. Then the focus of Fog Creek is clear to Joel: "It's all about helping software developers be awesome at making software."

Joel, in a rare moment of self depreciation says the following:

"Our focus on helping developers explains why one of our early products, CityDesk, flopped: it had nothing to do with software developers."

But that doesn't tell the whole story. When CityDesk was developed Fog Creek didn't have a focus on developers. There was JoS sure, but there were no developer products. The focus came with the success of FogBugz. If CityDesk would have taken off, he'd be writing "Our focus on helping bloggers and content creators explains why one of early products, FogBugz flopped: it had nothing to do with content creators."

Joel, you are going to be eating your words in two years. Why? Because StackExchange is going blow the pants off of everything else you've ever done, and it is going to have nothing to do with developers, and everything to do with people on answering questions about their pet ferret.

After DevDays, I became convinced that Fog Creek is on the verge of hockey sticking. Fog Creek will become StackExchange (BTW, could I put a couple dollars on that?). The reason is that no matter how good you are at building developer tools like FogBugz, it is a tiny market compared to the main stream potential of StackExchange.

Imagine for a minute if Google would of come out with code search before their web search and declared themselves a "developer company." Then a year latter released their web search which immediately increased their market 1000x. That focus on developers would seem pretty irrelevant wouldn't it? That's what is about to happen at Fog Creek.

The reason why CityDesk wasn't a run away success wasn't because it was a bad product or that Joel couldn't market it or that it wasn't developer product. It just wasn't the right product at that time. CityDesk was content management system when the world was embracing blogging. It was a desktop app when web apps were just starting to come into favor.

If you don't mind Joel, let me offer you a bit of advice; I've been taking yours for years. You should write a entry titled: "City Desk: A postmortem. What to do when things don't go according to plan." In this article you should clarify the current status of City Desk, describe how you were "wrong" (your words, not mine) and how the experience made Fog Bugz a better product and Fog Creek a better company.

This is important because you, and others with whom you are associated (such as speakers at the Business of Software), have inspired people to change the way they do business. You are not just a product manager or software CEO. You are a community organizer with significant influence. Some of us will buy our developers two monitors. Others will make software less complicated, yet powerful. Some will make big bets on new products, and others will quit their jobs to pursue their dreams of being an indie software developer. And many of us are going to fall down and skin our knees, and it is going to hurt, and we are going to need your advice about what to do next. I believe the fear of failing or at least looking stupid is biggest hindrance to changing business processes or lifestyle, so there couldn't be a more important topic.

So Joel, If you are serious at helping developers become more awesome, you are going to have to address the difficult topic of failure, or what to do when things don't go according to plan, because they never do.