On a recent visit to Austin, Ryan Carson and I got into a rental car and set off to visit, for the first time, the venue where we were hosting a conference the next day. Ryan's event-planning company, Carsonified, had teamed up with my company, Fog Creek Software, to produce a series of daylong technical conferences for software developers. Austin was the second stop on our 10-city tour, and we were expecting 200 developers to show up.
Between the pouring rain and the difficulty we had in finding the venue -- which was, oddly, tucked into the back corner of a strip mall -- I should have anticipated trouble. The first problems revealed themselves when we met the venue manager, and he started off by saying, "She only sent it to me yesterday."
"She who? Sent you what?" I asked.
She, we soon learned, was a member of Ryan's staff. And it was our detailed list of audio-visual requirements. Indeed, we probably should have gotten the list to the venue weeks in advance. "We've brought in an AV company to help," the venue manager continued, "but some of that stuff on your list -- you just ain't gonna have that."
The things we weren't gonna have, it turned out, were pretty important. Internet access for the speakers onstage. Microphones and a sound guy who could get them to work. The ability to turn on and off the lights onstage and in the theater. And, crucially, the ability to project video from the speakers' laptops onto a screen, something that was so utterly obvious it never occurred to us that any venue wouldn't have that capacity.
We scrambled all that afternoon to buy the gear we needed. We picked up the last thing on our list -- a video cable that was long enough to run from the laptops to the projector in the back of the room -- at an office-supply superstore barely an hour before our show was due to begin.
By the time the attendees arrived, we were completely frazzled. I had two speeches to deliver, which, luckily, I had memorized, so I could do them on autopilot while my brain worried about the crappy video, the crappy audio, the buzzing from the stage-monitor speakers, the fan noise from the amplifiers oddly placed right next to the stage -- and, 10 minutes into my speech, the outrageously loud sound of a Weedwacker outside the auditorium. Despite the substandard AV equipment, everything went smoothly enough. Still, I was unhappy.
The next morning, I met with Ryan and his staff. His company had never had anything go wrong like this, and I'm sure Ryan won't be offended if I say that they were a little bit cocky, imagining the events business to be, I think, a tiny bit easier than it actually is.
So I wanted to go through the Five Whys exercise with Ryan and his staff. Five Whys is a problem-solving technique developed by Toyota after World War II to improve its manufacturing process. The idea is to ask "Why?" five times to get to the root of any failure, so you fix the core problem instead of the symptoms.
One problem in Austin was that we couldn't switch video fast enough. Why? Because we were using a cheap switch purchased at an office superstore. Why? Because we assumed the venue operators would provide a high-quality switch, which they didn't. Why? Because the venue didn't have our list of AV requirements. Why? Because we didn't get it there in time. Why? Because Carsonified didn't yet have a standard checklist of procedures for each conference: what to do one month before, one week before, one day before, etc. Solution: Better checklists, a suggestion Ryan says he'll follow up on.
Like most entrepreneurs, Ryan and I are still learning about how to manage people and teams. And we're both used to hiring very smart and dedicated people who will get things done to a high standard if you give them some general direction and set them free. But on this trip, we started to notice that this style of hands-off management, which works so well with our own staffs, just wasn't working when we had outside vendors involved.
Here's another example. At our tech conferences, attendees typically bring their laptops, and most have cell phones with Wi-Fi access. The minute they sit down, they open their laptops and start banging on the Internet. More often than not, the venue's Wi-Fi connection can't handle the load.
We know this is going to happen in advance, of course, and tell the venues that our audience is made up of really, really heavy Internet users. And they say, "No problem; we have A-Number-One excellent Internet! It's going to be great!"
Guess what? Usually the system is so overloaded, nobody can get on.
After the first event, in Boston, where the Internet was inadequate, Ryan apologized to me and said, "We're going to make this better!" And then he turned to one of his staff members, Greg, and said, "Make this better!" And Greg got on the phone and started trying to track down the person responsible for making it better.
But you know what? Getting good Wi-Fi in a room with hundreds of laptops is very, very difficult. Usually, it takes a couple of weeks of preparation, specialized equipment, and two or three dedicated technicians who have extensive experience in this exact problem. Almost nobody knows how to do it. And you can't just yell at people who don't know how to do something. (Well, you can, but it doesn't work.) So I'm yelling at Ryan and Ryan is yelling at Greg and Greg is yelling at some venue manager who vaguely knows how the Internet works, and the venue manager is calling the 800 line for the Internet service provider, and you know it's not going to get fixed that way. It's like pushing on string. You need some yanking ability, I think, with string.
In this case, to get what you want, you have to learn about access points, SSIDs, bandwidth, DHCP servers, IP address pools, and a hundred other technical details, and your vendor has to understand them, and you have to make sure your vendor understands them. This entails a level of micromanagement that I was taught is a bad thing. Isn't today's modern leader supposed to hire brilliant people, give them a little direction, and just let them go to work? Doesn't micromanagement turn smart people into robots?
Yes, maybe. But here's my new theory: At the top of every company, there's at least one person who really cares and really wants the product and the customer experience to be great. That's you, and me, and Ryan. Below that person, there are layers of people, many of whom are equally dedicated and equally talented.
But at some point as you work your way through an organization, you find pockets of people who don't care that much. For them, it's a job. They just want to get through the day and don't find it upsetting that the video switching is slow and the Wi-Fi went down and the geeks couldn't get to their Twitters.'ï¿½If you're lucky, none of those people are employed by your company. But the minute you begin to rely on outside vendors, you expose yourself to their people, some of whom inevitably just won't care enough or know enough or have the right skills to deliver the awesome experience you're trying to deliver.
I care. Ryan cares. Our staffs care. The venue manager might care but doesn't know enough. The AV people he hired? Sometimes, they officially Don't Care, Don't Know How to Do Their Job, and Really Just Want to Go on Break. And the minute you cross that line, from the people who care to the people who want to go home, that's when you have to micromanage. You have to check in on people and inspect their work and sign contracts in blood demanding that if the Wi-Fi isn't perfect, it'll be free.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'd rather never have uncaring people squatting anywhere in my org chart. But realistically I know that sometimes these people are going to find their way into my life. I won't hire them at my company, but as we expand into conferences and events, between the theaters and caterers and Internet providers we'll be using, some of the key personnel will be beyond my control. And now we're learning, I hope, how to manage these things a bit better, so that we never have to frantically buy an extension cord at 8 in the morning.
Joel Spolsky is the co-founder and CEO of Fog Creek Software and the host of the popular blog Joel on Software. For an archive of his columns, go to www.inc.com/keyword/spolsky.