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programming and human factors

Overnight Success: It Takes Years

Paul Buchheit, the original lead developer of GMail, notes that the success of GMail was a long time in coming:

We starting working on Gmail in August 2001. For a long time, almost everyone disliked it. Some people used it anyway because of the search, but they had endless complaints. Quite a few people thought that we should kill the project, or perhaps "reboot" it as an enterprise product with native client software, not this crazy Javascript stuff. Even when we got to the point of launching it on April 1, 2004 -- two and a half years after starting work on it -- many people inside of Google were predicting doom. The product was too weird, and nobody wants to change email services. I was told that we would never get a million users.

Once we launched, the response was surprisingly positive, except from the people who hated it for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it was frequently described as "niche", and "not used by real people outside of silicon valley".

Now, almost 7 1/2 years after we started working on Gmail, I see [an article describing how Gmail grew 40% last year, compared to 2% for Yahoo and -7% for Hotmail].

Paul has since left Google and now works at his own startup, FriendFeed. Many industry insiders have not been kind to FriendFeed. Stowe Boyd even went so far as to call FriendFeed a failure. Paul takes this criticism in stride:

Creating an important new product generally takes time. FriendFeed needs to continue changing and improving, just as Gmail did six years ago. FriendFeed shows a lot of promise, but it's still a "work in progress".

My expectation is that big success takes years, and there aren't many counter-examples (other than YouTube, and they didn't actually get to the point of making piles of money just yet). Facebook grew very fast, but it's almost 5 years old at this point. Larry and Sergey started working on Google in 1996 -- when I started there in 1999, few people had heard of it yet.

This notion of overnight success is very misleading, and rather harmful. If you're starting something new, expect a long journey. That's no excuse to move slow though. To the contrary, you must move very fast, otherwise you will never arrive, because it's a long journey! This is also why it's important to be frugal -- you don't want to starve to death halfway up the mountain.

Stowe Boyd illustrated his point about FriendFeed with a graph comparing Twitter and FriendFeed traffic. Allow me to update Mr. Boyd's graph with another data point of my own.

twitter vs. friendfeed vs. stackoverflow web traffic

I find Paul's attitude refreshing, because I take the same attitude toward our startup, Stack Overflow. I have zero expectation or even desire for overnight success. What I am planning is several years of grinding through constant, steady improvement.

This business plan isn't much different from my career development plan: success takes years. And when I say years, I really mean it! Not as some cliched regurgitation of "work smarter, not harder." I'm talking actual calendar years. You know, of the 12 months, 365 days variety. You will literally have to spend multiple years of your life grinding away at this stuff, waking up every day and doing it over and over, practicing and gathering feedback each day to continually get better. It might be unpleasant at times and even downright un-fun occasionally, but it's necessary.

This is hardly unique or interesting advice. Peter Norvig's classic Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years already covered this topic far better than I.

Researchers have shown it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas, including chess playing, music composition, telegraph operation, painting, piano playing, swimming, tennis, and research in neuropsychology and topology. The key is deliberative practice: not just doing it again and again, but challenging yourself with a task that is just beyond your current ability, trying it, analyzing your performance while and after doing it, and correcting any mistakes. Then repeat. And repeat again.

There appear to be no real shortcuts: even Mozart, who was a musical prodigy at age 4, took 13 more years before he began to produce world-class music. The Beatles seemed to burst onto the scene with a string of #1 hits and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. But they had been playing small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg since 1957, and while they had mass appeal early on, their first great critical success, Sgt. Peppers, was released in 1967.

Honestly, I look forward to waking up someday two or three years from now and doing the exact same thing I did today: working on the Stack Overflow code, eking out yet another tiny improvement or useful feature. Obviously we want to succeed. But on some level, success is irrelevant, because the process is inherently satisfying. Waking up every day and doing something you love -- even better, surrounded by a community who loves it too -- is its own reward. Despite being a metric ton of work.

The blog is no different. I often give aspiring bloggers this key piece of advice: if you're starting a blog, don't expect anyone to read it for six months. If you do, I can guarantee you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you can stick to a posting schedule and produce one or two quality posts every week for an entire calendar year... then, and only then, can you expect to see a trickle of readership. I started this blog in 2004, and it took a solid three years of writing 3 to 5 times per week before it achieved anything resembling popularity within the software development community.

I fully expect to be writing on this blog, in one form or another, for the rest of my life. It is a part of who I am. And with that bit of drama out of the way, I have no illusions: ultimately, I'm just the guy on the internet who writes that blog.

blog comic 255548 full

That's perfectly fine by me. I never said I was clever.

Whether you ultimately achieve readers, or pageviews, or whatever high score table it is we're measuring this week, try to remember it's worth doing because, well -- it's worth doing.

And if you keep doing it long enough, who knows? You might very well wake up one day and find out you're an overnight success.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror