As the clock ticked toward my Friday-morning keynote at FOWA London 2008 I was seriously tense, because late Thursday I’d torn up my nearly-cooked speech. What I gave instead was a dark-hued scary message entitled Getting Through the Tough Times. Because, you know, I’m scared.

You can watch the whole speech (damn quick production work, whoever got that on the air so fast) but I’m going to reproduce the message here as a series of posts over the next few days, which (if you care about this stuff) will probably be more efficient than watching a 35-minute video.

The first few parts are about the kinds of organizational behavior that are appropriate when things are lousy.

Next are a few suggestions of specific areas where tough times might generate interesting business opportunities.

Finally, some thoughts on how you, as an individual, can help yourself out in the context of tough times.

Back Story · What happened was, I’d sketched out most of a breezy light-hearted feel-good keynote along the lines of “Rails now, PHP arrgh, testing essential, marketing voice bad, human voice good, Flash doomed”; entertaining while not entirely vacant, I’d hoped. But then I spent Tuesday through Thursday in London talking to bankers, watching TV, and trying to understand the financial meltdown.

As a result, I got more and more convinced that we in the developed world are in for a pretty severely shitty period; short and deep or long and shallow; let me just say that I hope it’s one of those two. Then when I got to the show, it was jam-packed with starry-eyed young geeks high as a kite about how they were gonna build the next mega-viral social-networking stream-aggregating tag-driven microformat-rich video-focused Facebook-beating Kozmick Web Nexus, and I was thinking “Yeah, well actually some of you are gonna be looking for work pretty soon.” So, since these people are my tribe and I care about them, I just had to rewrite the talk.

It was a big room with big lights and I couldn’t actually see the crowd, so I really had no idea how it’d gone over. The Twitter buzz was mostly pretty positive, and so since I put quite a bit of work into this thang, I thought I should write it down and toss it into the global discussion pool.

Which I started doing on the ten-hour flight home. Trouble was, I realized at one point that I wasn’t nearly done but already had over two thousand words. So I think the practical thing is to turn it into a series.

Why I’m Scared · Through the miracle of credit, civilization actually gets to run on the illusion that there are several times more money available than we all actually have. This has worked mostly pretty well for several hundred years now. But as of this week, it’s all locked up, and even the good outcomes envisage a contraction of the credit universe and thus the necessity to get along on less money. I just don’t see any way it doesn’t cause some severe distortion and breakage in the economy. As of today, even IBM is having trouble getting the credit they need to run their business; God help the rest of us.

Right now it feels to me like the day after Katrina hit New Orleans. We’re all beat up and battered, but mostly still alive and starting to think about maybe rebuilding. But in the background, the waters are rising and the levee is failing.

But hey, I could be wrong. Maybe things will blow over in ten or twenty months, nothing more than a mild downturn. We’ll see. In the meantime, a conversation about getting by in tough times can’t be a bad thing.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Deirdré Straughan (Oct 11 2008, at 14:20)

No matter how bad it does or doesn't get (and I think it's going to get pretty damned bad), it wouldn't hurt those of us in the Western world, especially Americans, to learn to get by on less. We've been conned into the mass delusion that we can all live like Trump and that, somehow, we deserve to. Time to wake up. The rest of the world wants a piece of the pie, and there just ain't enough of that pie for everyone to have as much as Americans have been having for decades.


From: Giacomo (Oct 11 2008, at 15:01)

Deirdre, redistribution and sustainability are not the issues here. The issue is financial greed, and what Marx said about decoupling capital from production.


From: John Sellens (Oct 11 2008, at 15:30)

I've come to believe that the whole financial system, while claiming to be based on analysis and objective measures, is really just based on superstition and belief. Why is something that was worth a million dollars three weeks ago now worth half that (or less)? It's all just guess work and nonsense based on nothing! How to solve the current financial "crisis"? Start looking at it as perfect opportunity! Look at what you can buy for pennies on the dollar! Think of the opportunities! Act like you're young again, and believe that the world is full of wonder and challenge and that you can change the world!


From: John Cowan (Oct 11 2008, at 19:28)

Deirdré: Au contraire. What we've got now is the consequence of way too much new, developing-country money trying to chase way too few high-quality investments. When there were no more good mortgages to buy up, the desperate money managers grasped at the bad mortgages that the unscrupulous put on sale -- and here we are.


From: Grady Harris (Oct 11 2008, at 20:27)

Maybe a coincidence--the issue of Science that I checked in yesterday contained the article, "Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception." (3 October 2008:Vol. 322. no. 5898, pp. 115 - 117)

Even better, among the articles it includes in its bibliography is "Threat as a Factor in Authoritarianism: An Analysis of Archival Data."

Certainly, the first title accords well with John S.'s view; we've got a month to see if the second is borne out again.


From: Murray (Oct 12 2008, at 06:30)

Actually you might like to read a little further, the current economic system hasn't been running for anything like "several hundred years" it's been tweaked and messed with a lot over time and depending on how you measure it could be said to be as little as 37 years old- from when Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold. I haven't watched all the way through yet but "The Crash Course" seems like a good starting point.


From: Tim (but not THE Tim) (Oct 12 2008, at 12:49)

Please, for the edification of those of us without poli-sci or economic degrees, let us know "what Marx said about decoupling capital from production".


From: David Smith (Oct 12 2008, at 13:00)

Empathy is a wonderful human characteristic, but it seems to me that in reality very few of us who didn't live on the Gulf Coast were "beat up" by Katrina, unless we chose to react that way.

The current correction is going to be painful, unquestionably, but one of the benefits of surviving a few score years is you've seen "the end of the world as we know it" four or five times, and survived.

Don't cash in at the bottom, buy if you have the resources, be prudent (always good advice) and hope that governments allow the correction to occur and don't drag it out unnecessarily.

Then we can settle down to the important work of cleansing Washington/Ottawa/London/Bonn/Brussels of those "too clever by a half" geniuses who let this happen.

My experience only, your angst may vary.


From: Mark Bernstein (Oct 12 2008, at 14:02)

From "The NeoVictorian in tough times" (link above):

In the coming recession (or the second depression), even more programmers and designers will be told to work longer hours on worse projects and worse products, to cut more corners, to grind out more junk because that’s what the client wants — and if we lose this client, you (or all your coworkers) might be out there looking in. Even more scientists and scholars will be asked to share in the general privation along with the CEOs and investors. "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.


From: Roy Schestowitz (Oct 12 2008, at 14:24)

Bravo, Tim.

It's an excellent and engaging talk.


From: Tony Fisk (Oct 12 2008, at 17:57)

The start certainly promises an interesting read.

As it happens, I suggested the Agile manifesto as a useful skillset for an interesting (I think) experiment in semi-serious problem solving.

It is an online game called 'Superstruct', which seeks to come up with solutions to stave off the extinction of humanity. It plays for another five weeks, having launched last week at about the time those in the US were passing bail-out bills and just generally passing out (talk about life imitating art!!)

Some of you starry-eyed soon-to-be-out-of-work geeks might be interested in turning some of your spare time, idealism and agility that way.

(Oh, yes! It's free)


From: james hoskins (Oct 13 2008, at 02:13)

You say that we have been getting by on credit and that now we are going to experience a shortage. This was an idea that was discussed on Peter Day's excellent 'In Business' podcast last week:

One of the many interesting points made was that much of this credit has been coming from the far east, with the banks acting as middle men, and that these huge reserves of credit still exist. The current problem seems to be more to do with a sudden breakdown in the network that connects these credit reserves in the east to credit users in the west.


From: Anthony Williams (Oct 13 2008, at 08:14)

Hi Tim,

I actually thought your keynote was one of the best things about FOWA. I thought your comments on platform- and language-agnosticism were spot on and, despite the grim overtones of your talk, I actually felt a little better about our industry and the credit crisis (or crises?) that we're facing.

It's a little sad that it takes these times to come around for people to realise that knuckling down, producing real results and contributing to the wider community is what everyone should be trying to do, every day.

Once again, thanks for your inspiring words!


From: Kurt Cagle (Oct 13 2008, at 18:36)

I've found that its been difficult for me to write about the latest and greatest lately, watching (as I have been for about five years) as the biggest boom in history has finally begun the move to the biggest bust in history.

The markets skyrocketed on the news today (13 Oct 2008) that the US was basically guaranteeing the deposits of the entire world. What comes to mind is the image of a wino without a penny to his name coming into a crowded bar and yelling "Drinks are on me!"

The euphoria as everyone heads to the bar is obvious, but at the end of the day you'll end up with a bunch of pissed drunks with hangovers and stiff bar tabs, all in pursuit of that one wino - with the bartenders in the lead.


From: Kosso (Oct 14 2008, at 12:57)

Hi Tim.

I have to say: thank you so much! Your presentation was easily the best by far in this economic climate.

As you gave the advice, it felt good to sit there nodding my head in agreement.

I built the FOWA channel on a system I built called Phreadz. The video itself was naturally via the Carson team and hosted by Viddler.

As you can see from the 'phread' that the replies to the speech video (on Viddler) are your slides (on slideshare), an audio mp3 post from a podcast someone did using Utterli and also a copy of the recent Sequoia Capital slides that every was talking about.

Phreadz pulls it all together and opens it all up for further discussion.

If you'd to join in, please feel free to use the sign up link on the main page and add more replies/comments/additions as you think of them ;)

What really rang true for me in your slides was the 'build skills' and 'dont be an 'X' developer.

I find that being a Jack of all trades can feel like a curse sometimes. But as long as I master 'some' as well as the system they're all part of, then I'm good. ;)


From: Scott Johnson (Oct 27 2008, at 13:26)

Having read back through most of this series now, I'm really wishing I would have been at FOWA. This topic, while timely, would have been quite a shock. Excellent series, though. I have truly enjoyed reading these posts.


From: Farhan Thawar (Oct 27 2008, at 14:06)

Hey Tim.... your post while interesting was hard to read since I had to click back and forth... I'd suggest making it easier to read all the content...



From: Eddie (Nov 02 2008, at 18:48)


Regarding your change of heart in terms of your keynote presentation drastically changing content at the last minute at FOWA London 2008, allow for the possibility that your fear of what is taking place in the markets is augmented by your possibly being worried about the effects of the market on your employer, and so you might be overreacting a little bit (like Sequoia Capital did with their R.I.P. Good Times powerpoint) to the flux in the financial markets!


From: Bob Saunderson (Nov 09 2008, at 07:08)


Microsoft sure has a funny way of expressing their concern. What does Ballmer do but run around screaming like a nut job at their dev conference:

Pretty funny, check it out!


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