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Real Artists (Plan to) Ship

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Ed. note: This post is appropriate because we’re “shipping” our son to the world in just a few hours.  Wish us luck!  Posting may be slow for a little while as we adjust to a bigger family, but if you’re signed up for email updates, Twitter, or RSS, you may not even notice!

Click for photoIf you work in the tech industry, you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase, “Real artists ship”.  It’s a quote attributed to Steve Jobs, the founder and current CEO of Apple, as a motivator for the development team of the original Macintosh computer.

In this context, shipping means getting your product out the door and into the hands of the world.  But it could mean submitting your term paper, completing a big sale, or finishing a year-long boat renovation.  Life is full of projects like these that could go on indefinitely, but ultimately have to ship in order to make a difference. 

If these projects don’t ship, they’re just hobbies.  If they don’t ship, they were just fun ideas – and ideas are a dime a dozen… everyone has good ideas.  But shipping… that’s hard.  And the rewards of shipping are reserved for the few that are able to do it, not the people who first thought of the idea.

The “problem” with starting a project with the expectation that it’ll ship is that it imposes all sorts of constraints.  The technology isn’t where you need it to be, you don’t have the time you need to do everything you want to do, or you don’t have the people or money.  In order to truly think “outside the box” you need a team that’s twice as big with twice as much money and faster computers!  Of course that’s all bogus.

Constraints are why things ship.

If you didn’t have a deadline to submit your term paper, you could tweak it forever.  If you didn’t have customers waiting for the next version of your software or competitors breathing down your neck, you could add every feature you’ve ever thought of.  You need constraints to really think about how to best solve a problem.  Constraints are good.

The most important creations in the world are the ones that have shipped.  Creating without constraint isn’t creating… it’s just messing around.  Michelangelo didn’t mope around in Italian coffee shops instead of painting the Sistine Chapel because the ceiling was too big or he didn’t have enough time.  He shipped it.

Seth Godin has a great quote in his (highly recommended book) Linchpin where he discusses shipping:

Artists don’t think outside the box, because outside the box there’s a vacuum. Outside of the box there are no rules, there is no reality. You have nothing to interact with, nothing to work against. If you set out to do something way outside the box (designing a time machine, or using liquid nitrogen to freeze Niagara Falls), then you’ll never be able to do the real work of art. You can’t ship if you’re far outside the box… Artists think along the edges of the box, because that’s where things get done.

I love that.

I’ve shipped a lot of things in my life, as I’m sure you have too.  And not a single one went out the door, including every post on this site, without me thinking, “Is it really ready?  Did I do everything I could have done?  Yikes, it’s not ready.  I need more time to get it right!”  The times when I pushed through the fear were because I had a plan.  When I had to come up with a plan ahead of starting, I’d already felt this fear once before, so I knew how to deal with it.

This is why it’s important to plan from the start to ship.  To be clear that come hell or high water, shipping something is non-negotiable.  Planning to ship is the difference between you and 99.9% of the world that never ships anything.

It’s critical that your plan to ship is comprehensive.  If your plan isn’t trusted, what’s the point?  You need a plan that you believe in through and through.  Even if the world changes around you, you’ll at least have a framework to deal with it.

A plan proves to your scared self that you’ve already done the research and you’re ready to go. This way, you feel that the path to shipping has been predetermined.  It’s much harder to second-guess yourself or your team when your plan is written down and sitting right in front of you.  The person (or group of people) who wrote that plan were confident – they were sure – that the plan would succeed.  Trust those instincts even if you don’t feel them right now.  Because shipping matters.

Most importantly, planning gets all the arguments (or “thrashing” as it’s often called) out of the way before they matter.  You debate (and ultimately decide) during planning, either with yourself or with others, so you’re not debating in the end game when it’s too expensive to discuss.  With any project, changes are always 10x costlier at the end than the beginning. 

You can always spot a well-run project by how little thrashing there is at the end.  The disaster projects are the ones that look great / on-track until the last 10%, and then they become thrash-fests.

That’s not to say the end is ever easy.  It isn’t.  It’s always hard.  But at the end of the project, you need to be focusing on the little things because the big things were already discussed, debated, and decided long ago.  If you’re still debating the big things near the end of the project, you’re done for.

The two biggest reasons for failed projects: 1) Complete lack of planning, and 2) Poor planning.  Projects with good planning become well executed projects that ship.  Projects that aren’t planned, or are planned poorly, become poorly executed projects that don’t ship – or ship late.

No one will remember the projects that didn’t ship 100 years from now.  You only have a shot at getting them to remember those that did.

We have a phrase we use at Microsoft all the time when a decision is made.  Ship it!  It’s the geek equivalent of saying, “We’ve reached consensus, we don’t need to discuss again, now the most important thing to do is to get it out there.”  It’s also more fun than saying “Yup, I agree” 🙂

Ultimately, shipping is what matters!

Written by Mike Torres

March 29th, 2010 at 7:50 am

  • Always start with the end in mind.

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  • Billy T

    I understand the sentiment here and it rings true with software projects. However, what this neglects (and is rather insulting) is to creative artists that create art for the sake of creating art. You could mince words and say that a “real” artists “ships” something at the end, but as many artists know, there are always works in progress, and those works often fuel creativity that comes later.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the blog post. I just hate the over-use of Steve Jobs' quote of “real artists ship”, when really he meant “Dear Macintosh team, you better ship something or we're all f*cked”.

    • Thanks Billy. Didn't mean to insult necessarily.

      Though you could argue that artists who don't ship something eventually (even if through a trial-and-error process) are like a tree falling in the forest. Is it *really* art if it's not meaningful / important in some way? I don't know. But it's important to know the answer & how it pertains to you if “art for the sake of art” justifies not shipping (and it often does).

      It reminds me of an old argument amongst martial artists who claim they're doing “art” even when their techniques couldn't possibly work against a resisting opponent. They look great doing fancy kicks and forms, but can't make their stuff actually work.

      To me, the “art” is being able to pull it off.

  • Billy T

    I understand the sentiment here and it rings true with software projects. However, what this neglects (and is rather insulting) is to creative artists that create art for the sake of creating art. You could mince words and say that a “real” artists “ships” something at the end, but as many artists know, there are always works in progress, and those works often fuel creativity that comes later.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the blog post. I just hate the over-use of Steve Jobs' quote of “real artists ship”, when really he meant “Dear Macintosh team, you better ship something or we're all f*cked”.

  • Thanks Billy. Didn't mean to insult necessarily.

    Though you could argue that artists who don't ship something eventually (even if through a trial-and-error process) are like a tree falling in the forest. Is it *really* art if it's not meaningful / important in some way? I don't know. But it's important to know the answer & how it pertains to you if “art for the sake of art” justifies not shipping (and it often does).

    It reminds me of an old argument amongst martial artists who claim they're doing “art” even when their techniques couldn't possibly work against a resisting opponent. They look great doing fancy kicks and forms, but can't make their stuff actually work.

    To me, the “art” is being able to pull it off.

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