[FoRK] Where to start a company?

J. Andrew Rogers <andrew at ceruleansystems.com> on Sun Apr 22 16:42:01 PDT 2007

On Apr 22, 2007, at 3:21 PM, Albert S. wrote:
> Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary and Toronto are all not
> bad choices(in that order, in my opinion). However,
> Waterloo and Ottawa beat them for the criteria you
> gave.
> The University of Waterloo is the best Computer
> Science school in Canada by far. Ottawa has the
> biggest/deepest R&D IT workforce in Canada by far.

Good to know, thanks for the info.  I did know about University of  
Waterloo, but did not know how that translated into in terms of  
environment.  I have never spent time in that part of Canada, but I  
have seen places with good engineering schools that nonetheless  
lacked a really good high-tech business environment.  Western Canada  
is a much more familiar environment for me.

> My first 'real' job was at Nortel. I didn't stay long.
> I went to work for a string of startups over the
> years. The good people I worked with at Nortel mostly
> left to work elsewhere. They are some of the brightest
> most talented, hard working people I have ever met.
> You'd have to be more specific on what you mean by
> quaint. I wouldn't generalize in the same way as you.
> I think alot depends on the management of a company. I
> would suggest that younger people tend to be more
> naive and less risk averse and this can work to your
> advantage.(This is why they are cannon fodder in
> wars.)

I should qualify this.  I've spent many years in the  
telecommunications business, and we've hired all manner of people  
from every telecomm company you can think over that time.  Big  
telecomm companies are culturally very conservative, and they have a  
peculiar view of their place in the market that reflects a limited  
need to compete.  The engineers can be very good technically, but  
they often bring business cultural assumptions with them from the big  
telecomm companies that are not so easily displaced, and in some  
companies the engineer pool slowly self-selects for people who are  
well-adapted to that environment over time.  The executives are  
almost universally worthless (when the only tool  you have is "rent- 
seeking"...), but the engineers are often salvageable as a  
generalization (some don't need salvaging, others can't be salvaged).

Risk averseness itself has nothing to do with being young and naive.   
I have one (rather mature) tech startup where a core member of the  
team is a grandmother who is remarkably versatile, adaptive, and  
competent by the standards of any age.  When I talk about risk  
averseness, I am not talking about testosterone-driven gambling but  
with people who are unwilling or unable to even take a solid  
calculated risk, recalling the old aphorism that the harder one works  
the luckier they get.  In some places, even the young people fresh  
out of college are irritatingly averse to calculated risks of any  
type.  There are an awful lot of people that want to be nothing more  
than clock-punchers in the high-tech world, and while these people  
will always exist there are many cultures that foster and create this  

Few people that religiously adhere to the "no one was ever fired for  
buying IBM" heuristic ever do anything interesting.  And it often  
takes a few gambles before one gains the experience to properly  
evaluate a calculated risk.

> If devil may care risk taking is what you are after, I
> definately suggest you hire newbies right out of
> university.
> Seasoned people, that have seen huge chunks of
> investor capital blown away without results may have
> some insights in how to avoid this happening in the
> future.

I much prefer experienced/seasoned people, since they often know how  
to avoid many kinds of stupid mistakes that n00bs will happily repeat  
given leeway.  Cheaper, less experienced brain power rarely pays off  
in my experience.  The danger with "seasoned" folks is that a very  
significant percentage of them get stuck in the rut of only knowing/ 
doing things one way and a reluctance to change even when it makes  
sense.  I have seen both kinds of failures first-hand more than once.

Hell, as far as I am concerned experienced, versatile, adaptive, and  
mentally agile older engineers are the best kind.  The problem is  
that many have been doing exactly one thing for too long and/or  
simply refuse to expend the energy to learn something new.  Never  
mind having the endurance that a startup often requires, though if  
you have a bunch of experienced people there tend to be fewer bumps  
in the road that make unusual endurance necessary.  In practice,  
there are fewer of those people out there than I would like.

That is the real statistical tradeoff with age: extensive experience  
versus versatile adaptability and a willingness to learn.  People  
that straddle that set of properties are incredibly valuable.

> Nobody likes to lose money. Huge wads of cash were
> lost in the tech boom. Everybody everywhere is a
> little bit more risk averse when it comes to IT than
> they were before. Some learn from the lessons of the
> past and manage risk better the next time. Some make
> the same mistakes over again.

I am not arguing this aspect of it, but often it is not even really  
about money.  There are many people who would rather work the "safe",  
boring job in a cubicle at MegaCorp than work for similar income at a  
startup that requires them to do some creative thinking and actually  
pull their weight.  Most people are uncomfortable having their true  
value to an organization being quite so visible.

By "risk averse culture" I am not talking about those who avoid  
foolish gambles of dubious value, I'm talking about those that think  
a cushy union job is the ultimate career move, whether or not they've  
experienced a failure on the other side.  Some places are infested  
with clock-punchers, and that is not an environment conducive to  


J. Andrew Rogers

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