Under the Radar

283: Fifty Roles


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development. I'm Marco Arment.

00:00:06   And I'm David Smith. Under the Radar is usually not longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:10   So before we dive into our actual topic today, I just had a brief note that the last episode I made a mistake in the publishing process, and so it may have gotten buried in your podcast player.

00:00:21   So if you haven't heard us talk about the importance of following sort of system default behaviors in your visual designs and you missed that, it's there for you.

00:00:31   It should be in your podcast player now, but I just wanted to draw your attention to that.

00:00:36   So for the actual topic today, I thought it would be interesting to break down what it is to be an independent developer and specifically look at it from the perspective of the different roles that independent developers take on and manage.

00:00:55   And today, like, for me even personally, this was a useful exercise to illuminate how many roles there are and, you know, just working to serve flow of consciousness, writing down a list.

00:01:07   I ended up with something like 52 roles that I do as part of this job, which is kind of intimidating and overwhelming in some ways.

00:01:17   And I think just walking through them is probably a useful exercise, but then also towards the end, maybe we can talk a bit about the value in doing them all.

00:01:26   It's like there are some aspects that I think I've grown and developed positively by doing so many different roles, and then the areas where it is perhaps holding me back or problematic or something that I should seek to avoid or change in the future.

00:01:41   Yeah, this is interesting because, like, I mean, as indies, we have to do so much. Like, you don't realize, like, if you have a job somewhere, working for someone else, you never realize how much they do for you until you have to do it yourself.

00:01:55   And you realize, oh, no, there is so much here. And a lot of the stuff that I have to do as an indie, it really pulls me down. Like, it is stuff I don't like or that I'm not good at or oftentimes both, and I put it off for a while if I can help it because I don't really want to do it.

00:02:14   You know, stuff like administrative work and taxes, stuff like that. I really don't want to deal with this. Some of it you can outsource to some degree. Some of it it's difficult to outsource or it might be too expensive to outsource for an indie.

00:02:27   And so what I ultimately want to be doing, it's funny, like, I was listening, you know, there's been some tumult recently with the Castro podcast app, and I listened back yesterday to the episode where Padraig and O'Sheen talked about selling it originally from, like, 2018.

00:02:45   And they were talking about selling to a company, and one of the things that Padraig said towards the end was, like, he just wanted to be focused on working on the product, and he hadn't opened Xcode in days. And I thought, this is most of my life.

00:02:58   I will go days at a time without opening Xcode, oftentimes longer. Sometimes it will be a whole week before, like, where I don't use Xcode once in the entire week because I'm just dealing with other stuff. And it's hard, you know, because the days I am happiest are the days that I am spent building, like, making, which is almost always happening in Xcode.

00:03:20   And those are the days where, like, I feel the most satisfied at the end of the day. I feel like it moves the product forward in important ways. You know, I just feel good. I feel accomplished. And when I do a lot of the other stuff that's required of indie businesses, I don't feel that good. I just feel like I'm, like, you know, cleaning up messes that just keep recurring.

00:03:40   And it's just -- that's the reality that's complicated because we got into this because we like some of the roles, and we like the freedom that being in control of all of the roles gives you, but it definitely comes at a cost. And it's tricky. But I guess maybe the probably useful thing is just outline, spend a little bit walking through what some of these roles are that we're talking about.

00:04:02   So in my list, I have things like -- so the most obvious one, the one that I think we both got into this business to do, development, right? So, like, number one of these roles is, like, programming, actually opening Xcode, typing in the codes, and, you know, doing that work. So we have a feature we want to build, building it out. Like, that is just one role.

00:04:23   Then we have the aspect of what I would call integration, which is taking that new work that we're -- you know, the new programming that we're doing and seamlessly integrating it into the existing product, making sure that it works as part of the whole rather than just adding on the new stuff to it.

00:04:42   Then you have kind of the more specialized aspects of development. So you have things like developing the accessibility features of your application, developing the localization aspects of it, if that's something you pursue.

00:04:54   The backend development of this, whether that be actual backend code, you know, you're actually writing a backend that you manage, or even if it is just integrating with third-party APIs or anything that, you know, you're downloading from a JSON blob from some endpoint, like, that is work that has to be managed and developed even beyond the actual -- you know, the client-side version of that.

00:05:17   You're still going to have to manage the backend side of it. And then there's the development that is what I call sort of like research and development, which is, you know, the development work you're doing that isn't ultimately going to end up in the product necessarily directly, but is, you know, you're doing prototyping, you're doing feature exploration.

00:05:35   This is the lot of stuff we do in the early summer when we're experimenting with, you know, new system features. And so that's like just research and development work that is a role that you have to do in order to do the other part of development well and successfully.

00:05:48   The next area, I'm just going to kind of -- maybe I should speed this up a little bit. We only have 30 minutes. But the -- like, so then you have product development, which is things like roadmap planning.

00:05:58   So deciding kind of what is your app going to look like into the future. You have shorter-term versions of that. So like feature planning. So if you're at a company where the product manager, you'd be doing this kind of work of saying, like, what are we going to put in version 5.3? What is going to go in 5.4? What features are we saving for version 6? Like, those kinds of questions.

00:06:19   Going into that, you probably have things like market analysis. So like what features even should we be building? What are our competitors doing? What are some other areas that are useful there? And then potentially sort of dovetailing into that, it's like, how are we going to make money from this? How is this going to be profitable and useful?

00:06:37   And those are huge. Like, these are all huge areas.

00:06:52   So like, you have design of your app, those kinds of things. You have user experience design, which is not the, like, what are the pixels looks like? It's like, how should we architect our application from a hierarchical perspective or things like that?

00:07:07   Like, design of marketing assets. Designing the customer experience more holistically. Like, rather than just how do they interact with the app, what is their experience from, you know, when they see the app in the app store versus through to the customer experience all the way to, like, customer support?

00:07:22   Like, what are a sense of continuity to that? Are you planning their whole experience thoughtfully? There's an element of design that is similar to the product market analysis, but like the market research aspect of it of, like, what are the current design trends? What are the things that we should be aware of in keeping our app, you know, sort of in sync with?

00:07:41   Or if there are other market trends that, you know, like in an app like Widgetsmith for me, if there are aesthetic trends that are popular, I should likely be aware of that so that I can, you know, design them into my app itself.

00:07:53   And then there's designing in-app copy and communication. So how do I, what, you know, what words do I appear in my screens, my onboarding? If I send emails or newsletters to my customers, what are the words in that? Like, someone has to design those words.

00:08:09   You have quality assurance, you know, say actual software testing of new features. So I make a new feature, do I know it works? Then you have regression testing for old features. So every time I make a change, I need to make sure that I didn't break something else that existed before that.

00:08:24   Every time iOS gets updated, I need platform testing. So this is, you know, a new device comes out, a new iOS version comes out. Does it break my application? Someone needs to test that. We have the recreating of user issues. So this is the, someone reports a bug.

00:08:39   Well, someone needs to test and see if they can recreate that in the app on its own. And then you have sort of like integration or field testing, where it's, you know, how does the app actually work holistically in reality?

00:08:51   I feel like a theme here, which I'll get to more as we go, is like, figuring out which of these areas as an indie, you can dramatically minimize or avoid completely. And these, and the problem is, like, you know, between, you know, development, product and design categories, you really can't get rid of almost any of these.

00:09:11   Like, the areas that you can, that you can start outsourcing or skipping are really what's coming up, you know, further down the list.

00:09:19   Yeah, it's like at this point, we have just talked about the actual, like, making of the software. Like, that is, those, all those roles, whatever that, those 20 things I just said, is just what the bare essentials you need to make the thing.

00:09:33   Next, we're going to talk about the things that actually aren't related to the product itself in a more direct way, but are probably just as important or at least things that you have to take care of. So you have operational tasks. So straightforward ones like bookkeeping, you know, knowing what the company has spent and what the company has made and keeping that in some kind of accounting system so that you know where you are.

00:09:56   You have concepts of things like payroll, and that will vary depending on how you structure your business. But at some point, money needs to leave the business and enter your pocket. And the means by which you do that requires work and effort and you have to be aware of it.

00:10:12   You have things like tax compliance. So this can be like your yearly, you know, tax filings or even just being aware of things that you need to do or not do based on tax rules, you know,

00:10:21   Spoiler alert, you have to pay taxes.

00:10:26   Even more important than just knowing that is knowing which taxes you have to pay. Because there are definitely some times when I was when I was first getting set up where it's like, Oh, actually, I have to pay like a county tax that I wasn't aware of. And it's all these things that you have like compliance, both at the local, like the county level in the US, you have the state compliance, you have federal compliance, like there's multiple levels to this. And where you are and what which what rules apply to you is complicated, but it's something that you're going to have to learn.

00:10:54   See what else it's like, you also have to on our operational side, there's like banking, like you need to open a bank account, you need to manage that bank account. If you have a credit card, you need to make sure it is paid, you need to make sure that when it's being paid, there's enough money in the, you know, the checking account to cover that thing, you have to manage that cash flow of the actual business at a sort of at a actual dollars and cents level.

00:11:16   You have the sort of like facilities aspect of this, which is like, obviously, in a bigger company, it's like you have an office and you have a facilities manager so that if you know the light, the lights, you know, a light bulb goes out, someone's going to change it. But there's an element that those things are still part of potentially what you're doing. They just are a different way. Like if you have a home office, you still have to manage that environment and make sure that it is conducive and appropriate for the work that you're trying to do. So if the light bulb goes out in your office, well, someone's got to change it.

00:11:45   And that is a role that you are you are filling, you know, one way or the other. You have human resources roles. So things like, you know, benefits that you would typically have. So something like health insurance would be an element of this disability insurance, you may have, like, in variety of different business insurances, depending on exactly what you do. Like I remember when I was doing a lot of consulting, there were certain kind of liability insurances that I was I needed to carry in order to be able to do that.

00:12:14   Do you be able to do the consulting work? There was workers comp or similar policies that your state might require you to have. And then similarly, it's like managing sort of what I would call training, but it's that there's an element of improving your ability to do your job requires training and at a bigger company that might be there may be a person in human relations whose job it is to manage training and training budgets. And, you know, should I go to this conference? What are the conferences that are good for me to go to? And being aware of that is something that I think is really important.

00:12:43   So I think that is like a human resources role that you might need to do. There's also probably kind of more similar to human resources, you have things like it. So this is who's, you know, where are you hosting your company email? Where are you storing your files? Where are you managing documents? You know, all of those kind of back end systems that are just part of the running of the business, you know, what hardware are you running your business on? This can be like your physical, you know, the laptop that you're running in terms of for your development. Or it could also be things like managing your testing devices.

00:13:12   Or any of those types of things that are involved in the development of this office. Like, someone needs to manage that and maintain that and understand where they are, how they're set up, you know, every like one of the tasks I always have to do every summer is like going through my testing devices and working out, okay, which ones are running which versions, which ones can be updated, which ones can't do these all these devices still work if some of their batteries, you know, exploded, and they don't actually work anymore. So I need to replace them.

00:13:37   Hot tip label maker. Yeah, you definitely need to label label. I always I have a label on the back of all my test device that says what version I'm keeping them on what their you know what passcode they are and what you know what Apple ID or whatever they're assigned into.

00:13:51   Yeah, no, exactly. And then like, those are the devices that are like in your hands, but like, then you also have back end devices. So like servers or server infrastructure, and those types of things. And depending on where you are in terms of managed services or not, that could be, you know, as low level as like you're logging in your SSH into, you know, Linux boxes, or it's you're managing your AWS account or, you know, anywhere in between, but like, that's a job that someone needs to do.

00:14:18   The next area is probably the customer facing aspect of this, where you could talk about marketing. And so this is, you know, not the actual making of the thing. This is how do you tell people about the thing that you're making. And so this could be managing any paid advertising you're doing. So like paid acquisition, this could be search ads or whatever.

00:14:37   You have platform relationship management, which is sort of what I think of as, like managing you in our case, managing our relationship with people at Apple or Apple itself, you know, having reaching out with, you know, apps or editorial when you do a big update and doing that kind of thing.

00:14:52   Or if you have a, you know, a developer relations rep at Apple, talking to them, keeping them up to date, working with them to develop and manage that relationship. You also have sort of customer relationship management. And this could be, depending on how detailed this is, is probably depends a lot on the kind of app you do.

00:15:08   But like, interact, all of your interactions with a customer are something that you need to be aware of and thoughtful about, like, how are you going to do that? You know, are you going to have a social media presence for your application? If you are, who's going to be managing that and putting content into it?

00:15:22   Do you have partnerships with other things? Like this could be both sort of the like influencer side of things or even just depending on your application, like, you know, there could be different places that you're trying to get your app put in. Like if one day you wanted to, you know, put Overcast into some car's infotainment system, like you'll be working with the, you know, a partnership management situation to deal with that.

00:15:45   I actually almost did that. I'm sure. Like, and it's a long story. Actually, very short story. I decided not to. Yeah. But if you know, it's like that, that is just being aware even of that kind of partnership or, you know, this is the, is there a place for you to work with another application that is a kind of mutually beneficial situation? Like that's a, could be a whole could be a full time job managing.

00:16:06   You have things like kind of content marketing. So are you making, you know, content about your application? Are you making videos? Are you doing a podcast? Are you writing blog posts on your website talking about the features that are in your application?

00:16:20   And then other marketing activities like screenshots and descriptions, as simple as that, like, how, how do you decide what, how you're presenting your application to potential customers, whether that be in the App Store, whether that be on a website, like that is just the more basic version of marketing, but it is for something that requires effort.

00:16:39   And then the other kind of like customer support aspect of marketing is like, do you have an email help desk? Are you making, you know, educational material for your application that can be the marketing these things I was just talking about, or it can be more like tactical, like, this is how you use this feature.

00:16:54   This is how you do this like more frequently asked questions kind of marketing. That is, you know, different has a different retreats rather than being the how do I acquire a new customer? This is the how do I keep a customer happy and help them to use my application.

00:17:10   So that's a lot. Yeah, I'm out of breath talking about it. So why don't we take a break and then we can talk about if this is useful for us to do.

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00:18:50   So I'm wondering, I mean, this is so much here. And you're right, this is all the different things we have to do as indies. And oftentimes, again, you don't really realize this going in or you don't quite think about it or you might not appreciate it.

00:19:04   Also, it changes over time. And like, you know, like sometimes you'll have like if you're in the middle of really, you know, a lot of development or like a major, you know, new version or the first version, you'll have some of these areas will be much bigger than others. You'll have things like, you know, the quality assurance testing, that'll be really big.

00:19:21   You know, after a big launch, the marketing will be probably bigger than usual. You know, as you're getting set up and started at first, the kind of operations bookkeeping taxes side will be bigger than usual, maybe. And, you know, and if you ever get if you're lucky enough to get a big influx of users, the customer support side will balloon up for a little while.

00:19:41   And there's so many different things. But I think as indies, the one of the best things you can do, and I alluded to this earlier, is figure out entire categories of these things that you can somehow take off your plate.

00:19:56   And sometimes it's going to take the form of hiring someone to do these things for you. It doesn't necessarily need to be an employee. It could be things like having an accountant manage your taxes for you.

00:20:05   That I would strongly recommend. Accountants doing basic stuff like doing your taxes are not that expensive for an indie. And I strongly suggest, you know, have an accountant do your taxes.

00:20:17   That is like the first thing you should outsource because the stakes of getting it wrong are high. And it's not at all within your core skill set, probably. And the cost to get take it off your plate is fairly low. So do that for sure.

00:20:31   Also, you know, you can design your products and make decisions in such a way to have some of these things be easier. For instance, just using the App Store as your purchase method.

00:20:43   You know, obviously on iOS it's our only choice, but even if you're not on iOS, the App Store takes a lot of these things off your plate.

00:20:51   And yeah, you know, obviously we know it comes with its own little problems here and there. And you certainly pay for the privilege. But I gladly pay the App Store fees so that I don't have to deal with things like various regional taxation regulations and payment processing and stuff like that.

00:21:09   I am happy. I gladly choose that option for my in-app purchase because I don't have, as a one-person thing, I don't have the resources to have my own stuff like that set up all around the world and everything else.

00:21:22   And I can make that decision because, you know, 15% or whatever it is of my money, I can say, "All right, that's worth it."

00:21:30   If you're a big company, 15% or 30% of what you make is a much larger amount of absolute dollars, so you might have a different calculus there.

00:21:39   You might say, "You know what? We have a team that's set up to do this. We can save millions of dollars if we do this, so we'll do it."

00:21:46   But as an indie, you make different decisions. So for me, I choose App Store for payment processing. It just crosses a lot of these lines right off the list.

00:21:56   I also choose to not really offer almost any customer support. Because a part of this is hard-learned lessons from Instapaper.

00:22:05   I did it wrong then. I offered more customer support then. I buried myself and I disappointed people. I tried outsourcing it. It didn't work very well. It was bad for me.

00:22:14   Overcast, I've designed to not need customer support, really. And I set it up all on the app. I tell people, basically, I don't offer customer support.

00:22:22   Occasionally, I get an angry person, but it's pretty rare. Most people are like, "Okay." Because, again, I'm an indie. I don't have all these resources.

00:22:29   If I spent all day answering email, I wouldn't be making the product better. I feel like you have to make some of these decisions for yourself, sometimes fairly ruthlessly.

00:22:38   You have to give up some of the dreams you might have of, "I'm going to provide the best walk-through customer support of anybody."

00:22:45   It's like, "Well, are you? Are you going to spend all your time doing that? Or are you going to be able to just ruthlessly cut it and say, "You know what? As one person, this, this, and this, I can't do."?"

00:22:55   Yeah. And it's like those trade-offs are like, that's the job, more than a way that I think we sometimes think of our—like, I think of the job as the Xcode writing of code. That's not the job. The job that I do is, in some ways, deciding how to structure and run my business.

00:23:15   And one aspect of that is the thing that I'm making, the product that I sell, is the code. But all of the choices that go around that particular aspect are—that is intrinsic and inextricably linked to the experience that I'm making.

00:23:33   And like you said, you can decide, would it—and I think a lot of the ways—the way my thinking on a lot of these jobs has evolved is to have that critical thinking of, "Am I doing this thing because I think I should or because it is adding value to my business?"

00:23:49   Like, "Is this making my business better for me and the way that I want it to run?" And if having super high-touch customer experience, like customer support, is important to you, great. Go for it.

00:24:04   But understand that that has a consequence and a negative effect. Like when you said that a lot of this—the amount of time you have to give to these things is kind of seasonal, where sometimes you're doing a lot of one and not a lot of the other, which is true.

00:24:18   But also intrinsic, kind of like hidden in that, is if that is the way that you are working—and this is the way that I've realized more recently that I do a lot of my work—is when I'm doing the one, I'm neglecting the other.

00:24:30   And that can be fine, but I'm increasingly not sure how wise that is. Like, it can work that I stop doing development when I start doing testing, and I stop doing testing when I start to do customer support, or I start, "Oh, it's tax time, so I'm just going to put everything on hold for a week and be on calls with my accountant and be generating the books," or whatever that looks like.

00:24:56   It'll work, but it's whether it's working as well as it could be. There's an inefficiency inherent in that that is just interesting.

00:25:08   I think about the concept of, like, this is very basic business in the sense of if you had 100 people and you're trying to make cars, if you give each person all the parts to a car and you have them build that car, you will not get nearly as many as if you make an assembly line, and each person specializes into a particular role.

00:25:28   Not that I think I need to hire 52 people to do the 52 roles that are associated with what I do, but I think I've become increasingly aware of that inefficiency and aware that I think sometimes I wore the "I'm an indie, I do it all myself" as a badge of honor.

00:25:47   That was a good thing. It meant that I had the whole picture. I understood everything. If a customer asks, "How does something work?" I know. I don't need to go ask someone. I built the whole thing. It's all in my head.

00:26:01   And I think that perspective is misguided, at least for myself, that I was being proud of something that I'm not sure is actually beneficial to my mental health or to my customer's experience, and if I can instead take a step back and say, "Ultimately, fundamentally, I want to make a business that makes amazing, awesome software."

00:26:24   That is the part that is why I got into what I do. I love that. I love making awesome things. I love building features that help people express themselves or do things that they couldn't otherwise. That's the exciting part.

00:26:36   I don't want to get so wrapped around that I need to be integral to every aspect of it and lose sight of what I'm actually trying to do. Something that I'm definitely starting to look at is which of these roles can I outsource and being a bit more ruthless about that and understand that I think it's easy for me to look at a lot of these things as if I outsource something, it's a cost.

00:26:59   And that perspective, I think, is naïve because it neglects the sense of the alternative also has a cost. That if I hire someone and I pay them $1,000 to do a job, there's a part of me that kind of starting from the scrapping, trying to be a scrappy indie, just really trying to make it happen, which is very difficult, especially at the start.

00:27:21   The thought of spending money was very intimidating, scary. I got out of the habit of doing it versus saying, "Well, if I can spend $1,000 and get $1,000 plus $100 in value from it, I should do that."

00:27:36   That return may come in the effect of more time that I spend in Xcode, which is probably more valuable in terms of more valuable use of my time than me spending a week with an accountant sorting stuff out. That is not an area that I'm an expert in, I have expertise in, I'm not efficient in.

00:27:54   In the automobile assembly line analogy, it's like maybe I'm not so great at putting on tires. And if I hire a tire guy, he'll be able to put on tires way faster than I can.

00:28:05   And no one's going to give you a medal for doing it yourself.

00:28:07   Yeah, exactly. There is no medal for that. It is not better in any absolute way. All I'm doing is making my life harder if I take too strong of a line on being indie in the sense of independent rather than indie as in someone who has creative control over what they do.

00:28:28   Yeah, that's a really healthy way to look at it. I mean, I got to start doing some of this stuff myself because as time has gone on, as the app store has matured, there's more devices, there's more marketing opportunities, there's more things that need screenshots and artwork and designs.

00:28:44   I've often felt like this is getting difficult for one person to do. I'm feeling overwhelmed. The more I bounce between different things, as you mentioned, it's almost like who am I going to disappoint today? What am I going to neglect today?

00:29:00   Which 45 things am I neglecting to do this one thing I happen to be doing today? And I think a large part of growing up as an indie is trying to figure out how to neglect fewer things and how to make a better balance here, which is hard, but it's probably possible.

00:29:18   Yeah, intentional neglect is not efficiency. Efficiency is getting the right work done at the right time.

00:29:24   Yeah. Thanks for listening, everybody. And we'll talk to you in two weeks.

00:29:28   Bye.

00:29:29   Bye.