Paternity leave and perspective

Probably the greatest thing about being self-employed (or being a director of one’s own company, no matter how big it is) is the flexibility to take time off when it suits you, as opposed to the rules put in place by your organisation. So, I’ve taken the whole of January off as paternity leave. It’s great. I feel greatly sorry for my friends who are also becoming Dads, and have had to go back to work after just two weeks. It can’t be good for them, or their kids, or probably their work either – I know how sleepy I’d be if I had to stick to 9-5 hours.

Anyway, this month off is also the longest period I’ve had away from my Macrobug work – ever. Unsurprisingly, that gives a good sense of perspective about the endeavour.

When I started off, I actually had a fairly solid game-plan. It was more detailed than I ever wrote in this blog, and ultimately would have led to Macrobug being the domain specialist for a particular type of tool, across all platforms on all types of devices. Starting on Symbian OS was a good stepping-stone because the tool in question was more easily possible on Symbian OS, and in fact would have been most useful on Symbian OS compared to other platforms.

However, problems reared their ugly heads. Serious commercial development on Symbian OS is expensive, ultimately. It involves paying Symbian heaps of money to get a version of Symbian OS with source code (or, in my case, spending equivalent heaps of time trying to negotiate a free version with various conditions attached), as well as paying a lot of money for the compiler etc.

It would be nice to think that with Nokia’s purchase of Symbian, and the resulting spirit of openness, many of these problems would disappear. I do believe they will. But this has been accompanied by a marked reduction in my customer base. Previously I was aiming at Symbian, UIQ, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and ultimately I hoped to market to Nokia once I’d had experience. Of that list, only Nokia and Sony Ericsson are left (and most of the bits of Sony Ericsson I know have disappeared too). I have no suitable contacts in the other Symbian OS licensees which are sure to pop up. Symbian’s merge with Nokia has also changed parts of their tools roadmap on which I was relying.

The other thing that became clear about my original tools plans was that their benefits are not easy to quantify financially. I can’t definitively say “this tool will save you £100,000 per year”. That’s a serious problem, because even though the tools are really useful and would save heaps of time (and money) for their purchasers, it’s hard to prove that.

So developing the tools that I had originally in mind on Symbian OS looks tricky. In the mean time, then, I’ve been doing other things. I’ve developed a completely different series of tools. They’re very Symbian-specific, which is a shame. But the benefits they produce are financially quantifiable, and I have successfully sold them. In addition, of course, I’ve been doing lots of tools-related contracts and trying to establish Macrobug as a place to come if you have a need for a Symbian-related tool. This has been moderately successful, and actually very enjoyable. (That’s why I’m only now getting this sense of perspective when I take time off). But as everyone knows, doing endless contracts does not equal a career.

The perspective I’ve gained from my month off, then, suggests that I’m at a crossroads. Do I:

  1. Continue doing contracts a lot of the time.
  2. Develop tools which are Symbian-specific but whose benefits are financially quantifiable. Successfully sell those tools – maybe.
  3. Develop tools which correspond to my original plan, and could enable Macrobug to grow to be a cross-platform vendor, dominant in its own small field.
  4. Give up and do something else, probably a full-time job.

I don’t know the answer. I fear that I might have to go for the third option if I have any ambition!

But having kids when self-employed also has another impact: it makes it very appealing to go for the financially safer options – which are any of the others!

4 Responses to “Paternity leave and perspective”

  1. John says:

    Is there a reason to limit your software-business options to tools?

  2. No, there’s not. I quite like tools because I think the work is intrinsically varied: inevitably you have to know about the system which you’re targetting with tools, as well as the system with which you’re writing the tools. These are typically quite different. Also, I tend to think tools is an area where there are lots of interesting problems – for example writing a compiler is an order of magnitude harder than writing assembler code; writing a debugger is an order of magnitude harder than solving a bug.

    And, of course, tools are what I know about commercially.

    So, I like tools, but I am not wedded to it. What were you thinking of?

  3. Steve says:

    Well if I find myself in a spot of bother, I might be able to suggest bringing another tool to the party….

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