What? There is no real way to know the answer to this question, but it is one that was posed to the group today. How do you handle uncertainty? How do well do you think on your feet? This is a typical interview question used by many high tech companies. At Luther we might ask prospective faculty, "how many cornstalks in the state of Iowa?"

This question definitely stumped a few people in the room, but others got the idea quickly. This question isn't about getting the right answer. There is a right answer, but nobody could tell you exactly what it is. There is definitely a wrong answer: "I don't know," or "Its not possible." are two examples of the wrong answer to this question.

So what do you do? You have to make some assumptions. What fraction of the state of Washington is forested, what is the density of trees in the forested area. If you use some reasonable numbers for those two items you can make a reasonable, and defensible estimate. That is something that startups have to do every day. Use the information they have available, and make their best guess. Check the assumptions, and be ready to refine the answer. This is not just true of startups, it is true for all businesses, projects, and life.

Here are a few more highlights and themes from today:

  • When you interview, have a story. I've been telling my students this for the last several years, but it is much more compelling when you hear it from someone who is actually making hiring decisions. The story should be based around something you have built or designed yourself.
  • You can have the best technology and still fail in many different ways.
  • What is the one core competency of your company? Starbucks was not coffee, it was training, so that customers had a consistent experience. McDonalds was not making burgers, but rather distribution.
  • Finally, it takes four kinds of people to make a successful startup:
    • The Visionary
    • The Builder
    • The Designer
    • The Closer

One person may take on multiple of these roles, but you have to have them all in order to be successful as a company. The Visionary is of course the person who is looking ahead five years and setting the direction. The Builder, owns the solution space. Builders are part of a spectrum. Architects -- Hackers. Architects want to have a good strong lasting implementation, and tend to plan the whole system out before coding. Hackers, tend to code as they think, and the best of them have an idea coded by the end of the meeting where it was first introduced. Where are you on that spectrum? The Designers interpret the vision to the builders, they own the problem space, and understand the user experience. In the best case, the builder and the designer are the same person. Finally, the Closer, usually a sales person, often also the CEO is the person who can close the deal.

  • The better a company is at serving their customers, the less likely the are to change. This of course goes against every lesson Steve Jobs and others like him taught us. You need to make yourself obsolete before someone else does. In an aside, I think this lesson right here is the achilles heel of higher education.


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