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The Wealth of Joel Spolsky

[The following piece is a subjective, personal opinion, and all facts should be considered subject]

To get disclaimers out of the way, let me state that this is a malicious snipe at Joel. He chose to ungraciously evict, and worse to libel, people who contributed to his community, and the repercussion of that action is that he's built a bit of animosity among many. Maybe some punches that used to be pulled aren't any more, and some quiet detractors are a little more vocal.

Joel's enormously bloated ego had already earned him a lot of critics, but recent events make them much more comfortable talking and taking a few kicks.

Those are the breaks. You can't be loved by all.

Joel is, without question, a good writer. His style is easy to read and pedestrian, and he adds the right amount of humor to his compositions. He knows how to state the obvious and somehow present it like it's a great insight, allowing work avoiding quick-fix seekers everywhere to forward it to all of their peers and coworkers. He makes people feel that somehow it's made them a better developer reading some superficial feel-good piece about how developers are the gods of the universe and you just need to do $A, just like Papa Joel, to be a great developer.

Of course it hasn't made them better developers, but the myth of Joel pervades. Joel's works are widely linked and referenced. Joel can continue to push out contradictory or self-serving pieces and it largely gets unnoticed.

Yet there are countless good writers out there, so why is Joel given such attention? Why does every disposable, predictable post he makes get so much love, rushing to the top of sites like Reddit, Digg, and Slashdot?

Like the Anthony Robbins of the software development world, the myth of Joel is built upon the his "unquestionable" success. His words are gold because they purportedly come from someone who has achieved great things, and who knows what it takes to do great work. Joel has such wisdom gained from building his empire that we have to marvel at his capacity, and take everything he has done as a best practice. We have to marvel at Joel's clone-Philip-Greenspun techniques.

To quote from a recent JOS thread:

"Hes rich, your not. Now get over it."

This is a fairly typical phrase used by Joel's fanboyz in response to any doubt or question of Joel's advice, with variations such as "Hes successful, you're not" or "Hes loved, you're not", etc. Any doubt of the merit of Joel's writings invariably yields this sort of reply.

Yet how successful is Joel? Is Joel really rolling in the cash? How successful has Joel really been? What business experience does Joel really have, apart from having been a code monkey on the Microsoft Excel project (we've heard about that enough. Every Joel spewage gets validated as "from someone who invented everything at Microsoft")? How technically competent is Joel really?

From what I've seen, the widely perceived foundation largely isn't there, and much of it is myth. Instead, someone who basically got lucky during a relatively brief stint at Microsoft cashed in their bloated '90s lucre and opened a software company.

After consulting efforts were purportedly a dismal failure, he focused on software, making one terminally ill software product (CityDesk), and another trivial product that is quickly getting squeezed out of the market (FogBugz), and then a trivial adaptation of an open source VNC product with a trivial value-add.

Technically their domain is Visual Basic (!) and ASP. Not exactly cutting edge. In fact it's pretty much the easiest, most outsourceable software development going.

The real Joel is someone who's endlessly trying to pimp non-software products, whether it's books (his own, or others with money-grubbing Amazon affiliate links), DVDs, speaking engagements. How are finances doing at the mighty FogCreek given Joel's seeming desperation for alternative cash flow?

Joel's celebrity is waning. It's embarrassing now thinking back to the days of Joel Meetups. You too can sit shoulder to shoulder with the great mind Joel Spolsky!
Permalink PennyCounter 
January 26th, 2006 10:16am
From facts such as, he attended Yale, he lent the company $50k of his own money in the beginning, and his family owns a town house in NYC, I would suggest he was rich before he started Fog Creek.
Permalink Send private email Flasher T 
January 26th, 2006 10:23am
Pavlov's dogs.
Permalink Send private email KayJay 
January 26th, 2006 10:26am
Grrrr...
Permalink Send private email Flasher T 
January 26th, 2006 10:28am
You make some good points but good god is this post ponderous and tiresome to read.
Permalink Send private email Jesus on a Pogostick 
January 26th, 2006 10:29am
Like I said, most wealthy people I run across, even tangentially, have had a slight edge on the rest of us in terms of finance help from someone.

The only people I have ever known to make themselves wealthy via work ethic and minimal assistance, before retirement age range are salespeople.

...
Given that Joel's main product is a run-of-the-mill app, he has to create major hype and marketing drama to get it sold above and beyond the rest of those products.

Any one of us could write FogBugz, by ourselves, and have a pretty decent, featureful, sellable product.

The keys are charisma, personality, marketing savvy. Joel has plenty of those, and he had a chunk of cash to get started.

I don't take any kudos away from Joel. I respect his accomplishments.  But until Joel INNOVATES, I won't have the level of respect I have for others in this field.

So when is Joel going to build something interesting?  When is he going to challenge himself to make a long-term mark? Is his writing his challenge?  Inquiring minds want to know.
Permalink Send private email sharkfish 
January 26th, 2006 10:38am
It seems to me that the two benefits that a comfortable background gives you are confidence and initial capital.
Permalink Send private email a cynic writes... 
January 26th, 2006 10:44am
Huge benefits and advantages.

Let's not forget connections.  That usually comes with a good background, too.
Permalink Send private email Aaron F Stanton 
January 26th, 2006 10:45am
Yah yah yah yah yah....

Again - for the 18th fucking time:

Joel is doing what ALL consultants who want to develop a practice do. He is publicizing, astroturfing, and gaining mind-share.

Read some books by Bob Bly, freelance writer/consultant/marketing guru. Joel's work in building buzz and publicity for himself conforms closely to Bob Bly's teachings.

Yes - don't look at the man behind the curtain, indeed. Pedestrian skills, mongrel background like many of us. All agreed. What helps Joel the most is the vast amount of street cred he has built up. At this point, he is heard and listened to because he is already heard.

He built his persona and mythos block by block, like a house.

I agree with everything you say, but my point is that this wall of "invincibility" is his deliberate creation and it has less to do, as you said, with technical chops or marketing genius than with persistence and targeting a certain image: "Mr. Expert do-right in the field of software."
Permalink Send private email Bored Bystander 
January 26th, 2006 11:12am
PS: this is why I've been relatively immune to the mass indignation provoked by some of Joel's essays.

Pissing off the natives - THAT'S THE POINT.
Permalink Send private email Bored Bystander 
January 26th, 2006 11:15am
Bored,

You make a good point, but I think you underestimate how much of Joel's cred is built on the presumption that he's really good at software development. Everyone is listening because Joel, people come to believe, has conquered the market. Joel now can lecture about usability, giving pointers on products that probably had TEAMS of design and usability consultants.
Permalink Blah 
January 26th, 2006 11:17am
Where did he trash us? Could I get a link to that posting?
Permalink Send private email Dana 
January 26th, 2006 11:43am
Oh he wasn't trashing YOU Dana, you're not really part of the gang.

;-)
Permalink Send private email Jesus on a Pogostick 
January 26th, 2006 11:45am
Apart from the whole psychopath thing, Joel's article on community some time back was very contemptuous of "regulars".
Permalink Blah 
January 26th, 2006 11:49am
>> You make a good point, but I think you underestimate how much of Joel's cred is built on the presumption that he's really good at software development. Everyone is listening because Joel, people come to believe, has conquered the market. Joel now can lecture about usability, giving pointers on products that probably had TEAMS of design and usability consultants.

That's the shits, isn't it? :) He now has more credibility to many executives and managers than people that have worked for them for 10+ years.

Familiarity breeds contempt. And what you say is his PR engine at work, which is built on exactly that - PR.

>> Apart from the whole psychopath thing, Joel's article on community some time back was very contemptuous of "regulars".

I've been on other message boards where the host became extremely contemptuous and dismissive of "board regulars". I think that's a common pattern.

I think this is because owners of many boards equate success with growth, and when a set of regulars dominate the board, then newcomers don't feel quite as free to participate. IE: the same 10 or 20 people don't help Joel. A steady influx of new people who spread the Gospel of St. Joel help him much more.
Permalink Send private email Bored Bystander 
January 26th, 2006 11:55am
"IE: the same 10 or 20 people don't help Joel. A steady influx of new people who spread the Gospel of St. Joel help him much more."

Not sure I agree with this statement. Countless discussion groups exist across the land, most of them gathering photon dust sitting completely unused. Occasionally something causes a burst of activity (for instance Joel posting an article), but then it quiets down and dies. Why would people bother congregating there?

Yet if you hit the magic number, and get some people to hang around and build community, soon enough you have a core of almost helpers: How many times have people wandered into ?joel, having been forwarded to it, asking technical questions that have nothing to do with Joel or his articles? They do it because they see a core of talent that they can leverage. If there weren't regulars, that wouldn't exist.

Of course regulars change. Looking at ?joel today (outside of the flyby "On/off red/green" shit) you will spot a bunch of regulars, but they largely aren't the same regulars that filled the board a year ago.
Permalink Blah 
January 26th, 2006 12:02pm
I think we pretty much agree, actually. The board regulars create vitality, but to a host who is basing part of his marketing strategy on that board, they MUST NOT become the "main attraction". The guests must not overshadow the host.

The last thing I want to be is a "helping hand" volunteer to someone who really doesn't need the help and should by all rights be paying for the help. I went through that once before. At this time in my life, I bat for myself.

Joel is no more important than any of us allow him to be. To me, he's just this guy who has taught me valuable lessons about pimping the appearance of expertise.
Permalink Send private email Bored Bystander 
January 26th, 2006 12:08pm
And now you've all hit on the real reason for ?off in the first place, as well as the real reason it was scrapped.
Permalink Send private email Jesus on a Pogostick 
January 26th, 2006 12:11pm
Well, yeah.
Permalink Send private email Bored Bystander 
January 26th, 2006 12:13pm
>>> as well as the real reason it was scrapped.

All the more reason to fuck around with ?Joel
Permalink Send private email Ward Bush 
January 26th, 2006 12:30pm
I'm reminded of "The Apprentice". Who goes. Who stays.
Permalink trollop 
January 26th, 2006 5:57pm

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