November 2023

The trouble with advice

Our CEO went to a conference, and got very angry when a nice man from Google tried to give him good advice.
Giulio Michelon
Founder, Belka

At a recent conference I attended, a speaker from one of the world’s biggest companies was giving his audience advice. 

He thought we should all ditch estimates. 

He was adamant: “Estimates are a sign of poor trust towards your software engineers. Ditch estimates and you will be happier, the work will be better, everyone wins. Everyone should stop stressing software engineers with estimates.”

I was furious. 

How dared this speaker, coming from Google, a company making billions in profits every year, pontificate from his privileged world where money and time are abundant?

I could imagine the Product Managers in the crowd going back to their jobs telling everyone that they should ditch estimates. “I heard it from Google, it must be true!” 

And I could picture the response from management, who only want to deliver faster, faced with a digital product team that now thinks it’s a great idea to ditch estimates forever.

Then I snapped out of it. 

And with a calmer mind, I thought about why this made me so angry.

Giulio on stage, probably giving some advice.

I am the cat lady of the underdogs

I’ve worked with a lot of startups, and I root for all of them. Because I love underdogs — the people who want to change the status quo and shake the world against all odds. 

I can’t help myself. I even started a company working with tech companies in Italy. How can you be more of an underdog-lover than this?

What had made me angry about that piece of advice was thinking about the startups I work with who don’t have the luxury of time. They can’t afford to ship slower, or wait until “it feels right.” They have a big clock ticking: cash flow, burn rates, runways, and all the rest. And they desperately need to grow and be profitable.

If they don’t succeed, it’s game over.

I've seen a lot of startups die because they were too slow to release stuff, and none because they were too quick.

Paul Graham
Cofounder, Y Combinator

Then I remembered the recent layoffs. In 2023 Google fired 12,000 people. 

It’s not all fun and games, even at Google. When the tide retreats they need to cut their losses like everyone else.

Was I right to be angry at these people at Google, or any big company? No, I was barking up the wrong tree. 

Giants have problems too.

Advice without context is entertainment

The problem isn’t big companies versus small companies.

The problem is that I heard someone saying “ditch estimates!” as The Truth, but reality is not like that! Truth is complicated. It has layers, and even those layers are moving too.

So what was missing? Context. Advice needs context.

Go networking! Focus on your product! Do things that don't scale! Scale early to avoid technical debt! Talk to users! Steve Jobs never talked to users! Take capital from venture capitalists! Be an indie hacker! You can build a business alone! Delegate your work!

All this advice may be correct for you. Or it may not. You need context.

There’s a joke about professionals’ favorite phrase: “it depends.” 

People with deep domain-level expertise know that they need to understand the context before prescribing solutions. 

Getting to the heart of a problem is often the hardest part. Once you get there, you can work backwards to find ways to solve your problem.

It’s the same for talks at public events. 

Preaching solutions is not enough. Solutions in the void are entertainment, at best.

Without context, an audience won’t have an idea if what you’re preaching will be useful to their organization. It’s more like drawing a fantastic world in the head of the audience, made of whatever the speaker wants them to believe in. 

It’s wishful thinking at best or manipulation at worst.

Preaching one-fits-all solutions is easy – the hard part is finding solutions starting from pain points, needs, company structure, roadmaps, and desired outcomes. 

In short: To give advice, you need deep knowledge of a field, and to take advice, you need to understand the context in which it works.

Giulio talking about cats at the Product Heroes Conference.

Here’s my advice

Should you ditch estimates? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends! 

The point is that the next time someone gives you advice, ask yourself: Is this piece of advice valid for my particular situation?

A 50-person startup and a Big Company work very differently. Following the advice of someone from Apple or Google won’t automagically make your company the next Apple or Google. 

More often is the other way around: Challenger companies that grow faster are doing things differently from the top dogs.

The right solution for you might well be the complete opposite of what you’re being told to do.

∗ ∗ ∗

Giulio Michelon is the CEO and cofounder of Belka. He is also the self-described cat lady of underdogs, apparently. If you disagree (or agree) with his advice you can tell him about it on LinkedIn. You can also email him at at giulio@belkadigital.com.

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