INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
For PostSharp’s CEO, Critical Reasoning is More Important Than Ever in Pandemic Times
Gael Fraiteur of PostSharp tells us about how they eliminate repetitive code from your C# projects so that users can get back to the bright side of programming.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Gael Fraiteur: We are going well and have not been affected by COVID-19 itself. However, we’ve been impacted by government restrictions. I consider my teenage children lost one year of their youth – remote schooling is a complete parody, and all other activities have been suspended. My grandfather died in a nursing home, which in itself was fully predictable given his age and disabilities – but he died without dignity, in social isolation, forbidden from seeing his 5 children and 15 grandchildren. This is an absolute shame for our society – if this can still be called a society – and I consider our loss of humanity does not compensate for the mortality we supposedly (and only supposedly) avoided by locking down people’s homes.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded PostSharp.
Gael Fraiteur: I have been programming since the age of 12 and then studied mathematical engineering in Belgium. Just after graduating, I did a bad marriage decision and moved to Prague in Czechia. Not knowing the Czech language and culture and without any social network, I soon felt stuck in my role as a programmer in a Telecom company. To get more opportunities, I founded an open-source project named PostSharp and spent most of my evenings working on it. That was in 2004.
After 2 years of work, my open-source project became successful. I could afford to quit my job (I even managed to get fired with compensation) and started working as a freelancer. At that time, I was still working half-time on the open-source project. The project became more and more successful, and a half time was not enough.
In 2008, I decided to found a company to continue the development of the project. And it proved to be tremendously more difficult to make money on a software product than to develop it! From being a hardcore developer, I had to learn to market products, to work with people – to hire them and, even more difficult, to fire them. Things you are not taught as an engineer.
How does PostSharp innovate?
Gael Fraiteur: Innovation is something that you receive like a gift or a curse. It is not something that you can create. Most people are not innovative, or if they are, only in a limited way. I mean – what is innovation? It’s something more than just searching for a solution within a given frame. Innovating means questioning the frame. It means disrupting what already works, breaking what is proved. Innovation is not necessarily good for you, for your company, or society. If a product is really innovative, the market will not be ready for it, and you won’t find customers unless you invest literally millions of dollars into marketing. So, innovation is dangerous. The Silicon Valley ideology promotes innovation because the associated risks are dissolved into large investment portfolios – mature capitalist organizations like Big VC can carry a 90% risk of failure. Remember: a startup is something that fails. After it has succeeded, you no longer call that a startup.
If you’re a CEO or an engineer in a VC-funded company, then you can believe in the innovation religion, and it is not going to cost your livelihood (perhaps your health and stock options, but you won’t care until you are 35). But if you’re the 100% owner of your company, as I am, and if your company is your only asset, as it is for me, then you can’t just be a believer. You need to be critical. As with any ideology, you can either be a critic of it or be a victim of it.
Back to your question. My company generally innovates because I come back from a conference or vacation with some crazy idea. Think: falling in love with an idea. You need to be a bit irrational to innovate. While I’m still in love, I prototype the idea, and if it works decently, my team finishes the work, and we integrate it into our product offering – which is then like marriage, commitment to customers. I estimate 70% of my ideas fail – and we’re still in business today.
If you want the gift or curse of innovation to happen, you need two things: getting out of the business-as-usual (vacation, conference – always involves some traveling) and have an environment that allows for failure (no punishment for failure, sufficient cash reserves, and high profitability). These are my two cents, but I don’t consider myself a good innovation manager – just a mad inventor.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Gael Fraiteur: The pandemic is a multi-facet problem, so let’s look at a few of them.
Frankly, we don’t know how we are being affected from the point of view of revenue. We deployed a new version of our software and a brand new website in April 2020, just at the same time as the epidemic started in Europe. We have seen both positive and negative effects happening after this deployment. We don’t know how it would be without the pandemic. Some friend companies have seen a sharp decrease, and we have rather seen a slight increase.
Looking at the work organization and work-from-home, I have to acknowledge that we participated in the panic movement in the Spring and closed the office. Like most IT companies, we tried to reorganize the processes around the home office. However, after a couple of months, a few things became clear.
First, mental health was not going well. We realized we actually needed to see each other in person. For many team members, colleagues were the only people they would be allowed to see, and we were missing each other.
Then, a rational analysis of factual data showed that there was no epidemic at all in the Spring in Czechia – there was no “first wave,” the epidemic threshold was only crossed in Autumn.
Third, I realized we were not working well. Routine work could be done remotely quite efficiently, but creative work and coordination were suffering.
And fourth, I developed a complete “Zoom burn-out”: starting from July, I could no longer do any online video meeting.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Gael Fraiteur: So, taking the actions of the failure of the 100% work-from-home policy, I told my employees that all creative and coordination meetings would be done in person in the office, therefore that their presence would be required once or twice a week, irrespective of government “recommendations” unless it has the force of law. Online meetings would be allowed for routine meetings only.
One employee, who had serious problems with anxiety management, left the company because of that. I think this was unavoidable, and I think it’s okay – even if it’s a pity because he was very creative. Most of the Western societies are now in a psychotic state because of the psycho-pandemic. I don’t claim there is no virus or no excess mortality, but the psychological and political aspects of the pandemic have far more impact than the virus itself. But companies, and any human society, must define the norms based on mentally healthy individuals. You cannot define normality based on the fears of a psychotic individual – even if the psychosis is completely explainable because of the action of the media and the governments. Health is not the absence of virus, not even the absence of death. It is the enjoyment and growth of life. Therefore as a company’s president, I’m optimizing for the employees’ health and the one of the company, not for compliance with psychotic ideologies.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Gael Fraiteur: This has always been an important question for me, long before COVID19. I have spent 7 years in psychotherapy, so mental health is a domain where I feel pretty comfortable.
I think the key attitude to stress and anxiety (and mental health in general) is ownership. It is my stress, my anxiety. Yes, there are external inputs (like my news feed). Still, I am the one who reacts to it, and my reactions depend on my “chemical” balance (sensitivity to neurotransmitters and hormones), my fatigue, my system of believes, and so on. If mental health is mine, then I the one who is in control. Not the journalists, not the colleagues, not the influencers.
So how do I cope with stress and anxiety? I unsubscribe. I don’t drink coffee or tea because it raises my anxiety. I don’t consume news feeds that capitalize on anxiety.
Anxiety is something that can be mined – just like coal or gold – by profit-centric organizations to create a revenue stream. All media – Facebook, TV, Twitter –feed on our anxiety and our emotional disbalance. Anxiety makes you addict, always wanting to consume more news, which in turn gives you more anxiety. So, whenever I feel that any newsfeed makes me anxious, I just unsubscribe. I consume information feeds from people who respect my intellect, control their own emotions, and don’t predate on mines.
Finally, I remind myself that if I don’t like anxiety, I shouldn’t be the owner of a high-tech company. And that it is my role to shield employees from anxiety.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Gael Fraiteur: More unfortunately than not, we don’t have direct competitors because we’re innovative, have a low marketing budget, and the market niche that we manage to create is too for competitors to survive. We also designed our freemium product to create a big barrier of entry to any potential competitor before making the first dollar.
However, we are caught between two players.
On the top, we have Microsoft, the lord of our market. As many “independent software vendors,” we feed on the niches that they deem are too little to deserve attention (which for Microsoft is any niche worth less than $100M a year). So Microsoft defines our market, and we don’t have much influence on that. To stay in the game, we have to follow them. However, Microsoft’s innovations are not more successful than anyone else’s. We have spent a lot of energy porting our product to new Microsoft platforms that eventually failed (like Windows Phone). It’s hard to know when to follow and when not.
At the bottom, we have open-source projects. They offer, for free, a subset of what we are offering for the money. This is hard to compete with, and the reason is often misunderstood. Software development follows the Pareto rule: it takes 20% of the effort to implement 80% of the features and 80% effort to implement the last 20%. And this law works recursively. The same works with quality – it takes 20% of the effort to reach 80% of quality, but if you have thousands of users, you need 99.9% quality. Therefore, one or two guys working in the evening can easily take 80% of your market, and you have to make money with the remaining 20%. It’s just how the software development tools market works. And by the way, I started the business with an open-source project.
Your final thoughts?
Gael Fraiteur: In pandemic times, critical reasoning is more important than ever. Question all ideologies – including innovation and work-from-home – but don’t reject them. Just be critical, or risk being a victim of it.
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