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The curse of the phantom hearts: A non-techie’s demons as a newbie tech startup founder

stocksnap.io Steinar La Engeland

The curse of the phantom hearts

How the fallibility of tech and the futility of fighting its phantoms undermines my confidence and makes me feel hopeless

It took my first design sprint just two short years ago to realise that tech is not infallible. Honestly. As a consumer rather than a builder of tech, it never occurred to me that products would be released with bugs. As someone who had no idea about what went into building such things, I had faith that I would purchase a piece of electronic equipment or use a software product and it would work. Every time.

If anything ever went awry I ‘knew’ immediately and resolutely that I had done something wrong.

It was only from that sprint experience as I was making my accidental first steps to being the non-techie founder of a tech startup that I began to understand that I was right- computers don’t make mistakes. They always do exactly what you tell them to. But as Matti the Patient Developer taught me through that sprint, people who programme them make plenty of mistakes. Some of those people are even quite happy to ship their products, bugs and all, to unsuspecting people like me.

This late-in-life realisation of the fallibility of tech and the futility of trying to fight the phantoms makes me feel hopeless and frustrated. It’s like being told you will never be able to trust what’s in front of your eyes.

These recent tales below about glitches in Medium and changes to Facebook algorithms and their effect on statistics also make me question if I will ever be savvy enough to feel truly confident with tech and its precarious importance in building my business.

Here are a few cases in point:

The case of the disappearing hearts, histories, and Larrys

I have been reading the posts and conversations on Medium about the odd occurrences here. This enlightening article by Stephen M. Tomic has started a whole conversation about green hearts going missing from stories, sudden inexplicable unfollows, and notifications that seem to lead nowhere. I thought it was just me being inept when these things happened. My first thought is always “what did I do wrong?”. The people who then commented on that article help me feel a bit vindicated.

The glitches have been crazy bad of late. My iPhone notifications will flash a Medium comment at me, and then I won’t be able to find it on either the iPhone or the laptop. Sometimes it won’t show up for half an hour, other times a few hours, other times — who knows?

and

I read “no personal history” and thought: “wait, didn’t I use that before? I’m sure there’s a reading history…” And then I spent 5 minutes searching for something I knew should be there and just *poof* vanished. Ended up questioning my memory and everything. Good to hear you saw it, too.

I also read this article where the author thought that someone with whom she regularly has challenging but respectful discourse had blocked her. Then she realised his account was gone. Larry had disappeared:

“If Larry simply had enough and bowed out, all is right with the world. But, if Larry was taken down, I want to know why. What led to the action?[…]I want know just how hair-trigger Medium has become,[…]”

She doesn’t know if Medium has barred him, or if he chose to go, or if this is the result of another bug- randomly deleted accounts. Like many of us, the first thing she thought was “Was it me? Did I offend, and therefore get blocked?”. How much time has she wasted trying to figure out where the glitch is in the system? I can relate painfully to the hours spent thrashing about for answers in a mysterious environment.

The case of the disappearing stories and stats

With all the recent kerfuffle about membership here on Medium, I have really depended on reading the discussions going on to try and understand the changes. I still don’t. But since it was introduced I have noticed a marked drop in my story statistics- views, reads, and hearts. Now, I fully realise this could absolutely be due to my own performance- poor quality writing, uninteresting topics, poor execution, bad timing. (Again, “is it me?”)

But my point here is I no longer trust the tech tools to tell me which it is. Am I in a punitive filter somewhere because I am not a paying member? Is there just a bug erasing hearts and stats as described by Stephen above? Have my stories just gotten worse?

If I can’t be sure about any of these things, how can I fix it?

I was feeling quite paranoid (as well as inept) until I read this article about how the Chicago Tribune has been doing some serious analytics and statistics trying to understand their sudden tanking on Facebook.

Even they started with the “Is it me?” premise. They thought about the quality and quantity of their posts, when and how they presented them, whether they had video or photos, and so on. Turns out of course the algorithm about what shows up in feeds had just been changed which had significant impact on where and whether they were showing up in subscribers’ feeds.

They had to put in many person-hours of digging and analysing and comparing in order to figure out that the knock to their reader stats had nothing to do with their work, the quality of it, or the soundness of their social media strategy. They were fighting a tech phantom which was having a significant effect on their visibility and therefore potentially their business. How do you take a swing at a ghost?

The case of the disappearing emails

And then there are bugs like these, with not even a ghost to tackle: I was thrilled to bits when one of my stories was seen by someone from Beek Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University and they requested to showcase it on their blog. I quickly responded to the email, saying how honoured I would be to be featured on their site.

I waited for a response from the contact- just something, anything- such as “great, I will run it from tomorrow” or, “here’s the link where you can find it”. I looked every day on the site to see if it had gone up. Nothing. The story I wrote was linked to a hot topic in the news, so as time wore on I began to wonder if she was going to share it after all. And if not, why not. A few weeks passed.

I sent another email, probably quite terse, asking if she would please let me know when she posted the story. She replied that she had never received my first email so hadn’t run the blog. Now it was too long since it was relevant to the news so she wouldn’t be running it.

I was devastated. It would have been valuable exposure, and just plain cool, to have been a part of the Georgetown site. It was a subject I felt particularly passionate about, too.

I asked her to please check if I had ended up in spam, or if the email had just never arrived. I hadn’t had a mail failure notification and it was very clearly in my sent box with the logical date and time stamp on it. If I had a phantom problem with my email I needed to know. Not in spam, she said. Nowhere to be found.

You might be thinking “Yeah, right. When I drop the ball on something I often blame faulty email too”. But this is not the first time this has happened to me. There is a definite problem with my email server. It is invisible and random. I have no way of knowing when it will happen, or when it has happened.

I have no idea where to start to look to fix it. It makes me feel powerless and stupid. And who knows what impact that exposure could have had on my business?

The case of the disappearing confidence

I share these stories because as a non-techie who has only recently entered the tech world, they epitomise all that spooks me about how little I understand about all that can go wrong with tech and how to troubleshoot it when it does.

It seems that arbitrary glitches can have a huge impact on my work. As someone new to tech, or maybe for everyone, it can be impossible sometimes to know whether to look internally or externally for the root of a problem when these sorts of “glitches” become evident. It scares me how much I rely on it though I have such a poor grasp of it, and how even when I think my grasp is good there will always be instances in which no amount of savviness will save me from an undermining, invisible bug.

As an over-40 person new to tech, one of the hardest parts of this journey is simply maintaining enough confidence to keep going. But I can’t just keep going- I must try new things, be brave and do them even if I don’t feel 100% confident that it’s ‘right’.

Ironically the more I learn the less reassured I feel.

Unpredictability is much worse than any fail. It makes me a little crazy. And I am only just learning of the potential impact of these things on the work that I do in trying to establish and grow my business.

Hearing from others in many ways makes it better. But it also makes it harder. Ignorance is bliss, and knowing that even the techies are struggling and perhaps even unable to tackle the underlying problem erodes the already precarious confidence that keeps me going.

I have written a book on my journey from public sector director to non-techie tech startup founder. I share key lessons learned about building, leading, and managing teams based on my twenty years of experience. I will be sharing the first chapter to everyone who signs up on my list in the next few weeks. You can sign up here https://tinyletter.com/eshassere to receive the first chapter as well as news of the launch.

I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here: https://medium.com/@eshassere If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share by clicking the heart. And let’s hope it stays clicked!