BIF-3 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, Rhode Island this morning. The BIF-3 event reminds me of the TED conference, in that it brings together great minds from across a multitude of disciplines to tell stories and have a converation about innovation. In fact, TED founder Richard Saul Wurman is here and will be speaking later today.I'm at the
The BIF-3 is structured so that in between blocks of short presentations by "storytellers," conference goers can get up and mingle and have a conversation about what they just heard. The first of the day's four sessions concluded with an interesting chat between 37Signals founder and CEO Jason Fried and Wall Street Journal technology columnist and blogger Walt Mossberg.
Mossberg began by saying they weren't going to be talking about technology, but it quickly became clear that he meant they weren't going to talk about technology from a technical standpoint. Instead, Mossberg focused on what Fried knows best: what makes technology good. Anyone who has read anything from 37Signals can guess Fried's answer: simplicity.
Fried introduced 37Signals as a company that makes software for small businesses, but quickly corrected himself, "We don't really think of it as software," he said, "we think of it as tools to get things done." 37Signals focuses on the simplest way to solve a problem and then "gets out of the way," said Fried. The problem with traditional software is that it often gets in the way. It gets complicated, bloated, and hard to use.
The reason, argued Jason, is that the software industry is structured to build crap (borrowing the term Mossberg used to describe Outlook). Software is designed to make money on new versions shipped every year or so, and in order to convince users to keep upgrading developers feel pressure to add new features. 37Signals, on the other hand, offers its software over the web as a service. When people are paying a monthly fee, the company can release updates on a continuous basis and focus on making things work as simply as possible, rather than adding more features.
Always the skeptic, Mossberg didn't buy it. How do you balance your mantra of simplicity with demands of self selected vocal customers who want more, he asked. How do you avoid feature creep?
Echoing a post he made on his company's blog this morning, Fried said that good software needs editors. The same way a museum needs a curator or a writer needs an editor, software development too demands a leader with a clear voice who is willing to say, "no." "You have to be a hard ass," said Fried. 37Signals is what Fried calls an "opinionated company." They believe in their way of doing things, and users who agree with those ideas will have a great time using their software. Another company built in this mold is Apple.
"But Steve Jobs is a dictator," said Mossberg of the comparison to Apple. "And I love that," said Fried. "I think it's unbelievably fantastic."
In their book Getting Real, 37Signals talks about making software for a core group of customers. "The customer is not always right," they write. "The truth is you have to sort out who's right and who's wrong for your app." The number one person who is right for you app is you, the developer. If you're not making software that you would use, and is built with your vision in mind, then the software will suffer because as a result. As Fried told the crowd here, "Fundamentally, people need to say no more."